Apple fritters and life

Apple fritters approach an obsession for me. They vary enormously from one bakery to the next. The chain doughnut shop whose apple fritter is an ordinary, filled doughnut with apple inside is lying to you. A proper apple fritter has chunks of real apple mixed into the dough. In the right amount, each bite of sweet, yeasty dough is punctuated by the sweet-tart-moist impact of a chunk or two of apple. The perfect fritter has the right amount of cinnamon mixed in, and has been covered with the right amount of glaze. The apple fritter, thick in its center, should have thinner edges, ideally with gaps between segments, perfectly crisped during cooking

You can get a good sense of the quality of the apple fritter from its appearance in the display case. The red-brown color tells you about the cinnamon. You can judge the apple content by the chunks visible at the surface. The glaze will be nearly transparent, with opaque spots where it’s thicker in the crannies that formed during the frying. The edges reveal how crisp the first bites will be.

I should mention apple fritters are best when they are fresh. That’s part of why they’re glazed, to slow the process of drying out and aging.

Driving out in farm country on a chilly, winter afternoon, we stopped for gas. The gas station offered quite a complete cafe, we took out cups of coffee and apple fritters. Taking our first bites after we were driving on the country highway again, we both exclaimed at how good they were.

We debated going back to buy out the remaining four we’d seen in the case, our conversation punctuated by hands gesturing with the fritters they would not put down. The debate turned quite philosophical. Would the time lost on the trip back to the gas station be worth the enjoyment of a more fritters, tomorrow and the day after? These were clearly at their freshest, would they be nearly as good the following day?

We concluded we should enjoy these two apple fritters as ephemeral treats. We might never experience something this good again, even if we rushed back to buy their sister fritters. Reluctantly, I agreed that was okay. Live in the present, and don’t strain to reproduce it.

Completing our fritters and our discussion on the topic, we agreed on two conclusions. If we ever came past that gas station and cafe again, we’d stop for another apple fritter. We also agreed we weren’t sure where it was, now that it was ten miles and three turns behind us, so we have no guarantee we’ll ever find it again.

Life is so fleeting.

Market research: Dragon Pearl by Yoon Ha Lee

In some ways Dragon Pearl is a pretty standard space opera. In some ways it is unique. In some ways it is a nice YA book, perhaps even an introduction to science fiction. Any adult who needs no introduction to science fiction will also enjoy it.

Lee’s principal strength in this book is the world-building. Told in the first person, there is just enough explaining for us to catch on, but a great deal of the nature of the world – actually, the worlds – is filled in as part of the natural course of the narrative.

Part of the appeal of this world-building is Lee taking familiar, traditional Asian framing and applying it to a far-future cluster of planets. There are shape-shifters, there are different kids of supernaturals with different skills and forms. The preferred form is still human, simply because supernaturals – dragons, goblins, tigers, or foxes – are not always accepted by the humans. So there’s that pressure to fit into the mainstream.

There is more than one world involved. The vast expanse of space is crossed, believably, without spending too much exposition on it. As you would expect for the adolescent protagonist, the world keeps getting bigger, from the small town, to the big city, to another planet.

The story is thoroughly Asian in the underlying traditions, the names, but that isn’t a barrier to anyone’s reading pleasure.

Lee’s characters are also a strength. The story is told in the first person by the protagonist, Min, a girl in her early teens. She is engaging and completely real. She makes mistakes, she makes choices, she guesses, and the story proceeds. She is frank with us about her thoughts, honest and very believable. A fox, Min’s magic skills are necessary to accomplish her quest.  This isn’t just about magic, her experience with keeping farm equipment running is also needed.  This blend is what makes the story unique.

The characters are a mix of the living and the dead. Two ghosts play significant roles, a few others are there for important scenes and many others are there in the background. It’s worth noting the climactic scene takes place on a haunted planet. Like the supernaturals, the ghosts are part of the Asian traditions informing the world-building.

The characters are also a mix of genders. Non-binary himself, Lee includes theys in Min’s world(s) in addition to the hes and shes. As told by Min, these non-binary identifications are simply part of the culture in which she was born and raised.

The only negative thing I have to say about Dragon Pearl is the story arc, the plot. Min’s story is a quest, finding her missing brother.  It appears he’d set out to find a missing artifact that lots of people want, the Dragon Pearl.  The Pearl is a source of power, normally used for the good of mankind.  Like most power, it is usable for less pleasant purposes as well.  From the beginning to well past half-way, the story feels unique. The ending came together a bit too neatly, I thought. After all Min’s struggles to reach that place, I found the sudden shift to less struggle a bit surprising.

Min completes her quest, but not entirely in circumstances to her liking. Maybe I’m under-stating the struggle she dealt with at the end.

Don’t let my criticism put you off! Dragon Pearl is an enjoyable book of science fiction. An adult will enjoy it, but it’s also a good read for a teen.

How to regain momentum: just do it

Good lord, has it been that long since I’ve posted something? In the past months I’ve been productive, writing new or heavily revising about 60,000 words. I have been writing nonfiction, frankly not all that interesting. My optimistic projection is 30-50 readers. I had a big part in writing, rewriting or completing several, long documents for my day job. My primary project got to its end-point. I was writing – or in meetings about the writing – 50 to 60 hours per week, July through September. I worked (at home) four hours on the Fourth of July, I worked about twelve hours over the Labor Day weekend. That’s now done.

It turns out, my next project as a writer on my own time will be non-fiction. I’m working on memoir. Looking back of my wife’s cancer therapy, I thought there was both a story worth telling, and useful lessons for both cancer patients and the professionals delivering care. I floated the idea to my wife, figuring I couldn’t write about her without her participation. She quickly agreed. She’s very interested in helping to make the experience different for patients after her.

We’ve gotten encouragement from some of our professionals. Our oncologist, for example, said she’d dealt with every symptom we dealt with, just not all of them in one patient. She thought our experience and insights would be pretty comprehensive.

I made an outline in late June, based on the appointment calendar book we kept solely for her therapy. In addition to treatment dates it also held short notes about symptoms. Then my job interfered and I did just about zero work on the project.

Which brings me to a point about writing: regaining momentum. It wasn’t enough to have an outline showing what to write. It wasn’t enough that the manuscript left off, early in Chapter 2, with a perfectly obvious next paragraph to be written. It wasn’t enough to have the time to write again. I didn’t have my head back in the game. I didn’t have momentum.

I caught myself finding something else to do instead of trying to start. I believe that’s called procrastination. At first I told myself this little effort to tidy the outline, collecting the calendar contents since I first did the outline, catching up on the blogs I follow, were all about helping me recover my writing pattern. It was also enabling not writing.

I decided to blog about having no momentum. That made me stop to reconsider. What’s the point in writing about how I’m not able to resume writing? The old procrastinator had a ready answer: but I haven’t posted in so long! I flung a challenge back at myself. I decide not to write my next post until I’d completed the second chapter. A few more days wouldn’t make a difference in my delinquent blogging activities.

I sat there, reviewing the outline. I edited the content already there – a trick I’d picked up pretty early. With just the first few pages written, the review didn’t take long. I caught myself wanting to go online and research a technical detail instead of writing more content. Oh, come on, the next sentence was perfectly obvious. Instead of agonizing over just the right wording, I wrote the next sentence. Then another. It wasn’t fast and smooth as I’ve felt before, it was pretty hesitant, but I was stacking up letters to build the darned manuscript. The first night was slow, plodding, a lot of going back and rewording. (One of the things I do is keep on thinking about a particular sentence as I continue writing. Two paragraphs later I just have to go back and try again. I’m waiting to see if it proves to be useful or effective.)

The second night I just sat down and resumed. By the end of the second night I could feel I had a flow going.

It turns out, the way to get momentum back is to build it up by pushing. I think I learned that in Physics 101.

Art in Wausau

My wife and I went to Wausau, Wisconsin last weekend.  A class reunion took us there, one of those less formal get-togethers between the big anniversary years ending in zero.  But the reunion wasn’t the only thing to do; the city was hopping with events.

On the “400 Block,” the square-block park in the middle of downtown Wausau, Chalkfest was underway. Artists with skills ranging from amateur to expert each had their square of the concrete and were drawing away.  Some of the artists looked like they were working freehand, others had brought sketches of what they planned to put down.  I even saw some had brought what I guess I would call friskets, stencils cut from paper or cardboard to help them construct their image.

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There were portraits, cartoons and landscapes.  Some were more abstract.  That’s the great thing about art, especially now.  In the old days, every image had to have great drafting, deliver an image invoking the real world, to be respected.  Now, many art images aren’t intended to portray the real world.  I learned in Dan Brown’s 2017 novel, Origins, that modern art tends to favor the artist who has the idea, over the artist with excellent execution.  (Where else would you learn something new about art than in a recent novel?)

Don’t get me wrong, I like realistic images too.  I’m partial to still lives for some reason.  But I also like many of the impressionists and have learned to appreciate Picasso and Mondrian.

Of course, many of the illustrators chose to portray the most important part of our world – the fictional world.

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A block of downtown shops near the 400 Block was festooned with umbrellas bearing the name of the city, another interesting art installation.

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I have a thing about photographing my wife taking photographs. She is generous in her tolerance of my quirks.

We noticed, with the mid-day sun overhead, the umbrellas also made interesting shadows.

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The same weekend, Wausau was also holding the Balloons and Barbeque Festival.  We didn’t go over to the airport to see the hot-air balloons, but we did see the morning rally from our hotel on Sunday morning, taking off from the airport at the south edge of the city and landing not far from where we stayed on the west side of town.

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20190714_071633__cropAnother beautiful sight, and like so much good art these days, it lasted a short while and was then gone.

Flights of fancy

Not too long ago, in Hawaii, a plane full of skydivers crashed, killing all on board.  It appears the aircraft had a prior history of issues, which doesn’t actually add much information about the crash.

It’s not the only event like this.

Float planes have had issues in Alaska, first one crashed upon landing, soon after two others collided.  The events led to discussion of whether more regulation is needed.  News articles have speculated if it is safe to “flight-see” in Alaska.

Helicopter crashes in places like New York, Hawaii, New York, Hawaii, Kenya has some wondering if those new air taxis being offered by Uber, among others, are really appropriate.

I’ve taken a helicopter tour, it was fun.  Flying close to the ground in a small aircraft brings you wonderful views. The maneuverability makes for an exciting ride.

It’s not surprising these crashes are at popular tourism spots.  Lots of demand can make light aircraft rides less safe. The ecosystem is being stressed:  pilots fly more, they have less opportunity for rest. More pilots are needed, the aircraft owners are searching farther afield to find enough.  Aircraft fly more, they need maintenance more often, but maintenance which could once be done during the day shift must be done overnight, when aircraft mechanics (and everybody else) are just a little less alert.

More people are traveling to experience new things, and more people are deciding to afford a pricey ride in an aircraft.

I think these small aircraft might actually be the canaries in this coal mine.  There are other places where tourism is stressing the broader ecosystem.

Overcrowding on Mount Everest isn’t just getting people killed from having to stand in line at high elevation, it is also putting literally tons of trash on the mountain every year, which the adventurers climbing to the top are not being required to remove.

The pristine Galapagos Islands are also overloaded with trash.  From the very beginning, visitors have brought all manner of invasive species, from rats to tiny parasites.

Tourism is even affecting the Antarctic.  At least, starting ten years ago, each cruise ship has a limit on its size and number of passengers.

There’s a trend toward collecting experiences instead of things.  I’m moving in that direction myself. I’m planning a week in Ireland, because I’ll value five evenings listening to music in Irish pubs more than a five-CD set of recorded Irish music.

Celebrity, minimalist organizer Marie Kondo tells us to keep only those items which “spark joy.”  Many things you want, but you should not keep – which implies you should have not acquired them.  Perhaps we should take the same approach to our travels.  Instead of a bucket list, the 1,000 places we must visit in our lifetimes, why not a bouquet list, the dozen beautiful things we will experience?  My wife and I take a more extensive, more expensive vacation, usually a destination outside the country, every four or five years.  At that rate, we’ll visit ten, perhaps twelve “bouquet list” places during our lives.

Where my father was on D-Day

On the morning of June 6, 1944, as the invasion of Normandy was beginning, my father was having breakfast in Naples, Italy.  The Army had just completed driving the Germans out of Rome.  My father, in the Navy, had been doing the mundane work of moving supplies off ships and onto northbound trucks as the Italian Campaign worked its way up the peninsula.  Before Italy, his unit did the same thing in the landings of the North African campaign.  It is likely he found out about D-Day about a week afterward.

June, 1944, was about the quietest time of his service in the Navy.  In Naples, it was routine work, unloading ships and getting forms filled in correctly, miles and miles away from the fighting.

A Signalman Third Class, my father was assigned to the US Navy’s First Beach Battalion.  His role was, more often than not, as the Beachmaster’s signalman.  The Beachmaster isn’t the first ashore, but is usually on the beach before the first wave has fully landed.  The beachmaster is the traffic controller, whose job is to make sure the plan is carried out, and make adjustments when the plan isn’t working.

The Beachmaster’s signalman has a single job:  communicate with the ships offshore.  These were the days just before radios became portable. He used signal flags in the daytime, Morse code on a signal lamp at night.  In other words, his job was to stand on the beach, his back to the defenders, his arms waving around brightly-colored flags.  Despite this, he lived.

Not all of this work was so glamorous.  Everyone in the Beach Battalion did grunt work, organizing a bazillion things, from Sherman tanks to water tanks, putting it all on the many ships of the invasion force so they would come back out and land on the beach in the order in which they were going to be needed.  Then they would climb through the ships’ holds with clipboards, checking and rechecking.  There is a story that a ship was found loaded in the wrong order, and had to work around the clock to unload, then reload in the correct order before the invasion force sailed.

When man-portable radios started becoming available, my father had to give up his rucksack, bedroll and shelter half to carry a radio the same size as the backpack.  He waded ashore with the Beachmaster carrying the radio, a canteen, his mess kit and a roll of toilet paper.

When the time came, months in advance, to commit resources to the Normandy invasion, it wasn’t clear the First Beach Battalion would be free to stop doing the work of bringing resources ashore to support the fight up the Italian peninsula, so they weren’t in the plan.

Within months after D-Day, attention shifted from beachheads in Europe to the endless, island-hopping beachheads in the Pacific Theatre.  There wasn’t a defined Beach Battalion in the Pacific, the Beachmaster came from the staff of the invasion commander and the people to do the grunt work came from the crews of the ships. My father was a signalman on a troop transport. The day the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, effectively ending the war in the Pacific, he was in the harbor in Okinawa, loading ships for the invasion of the home islands.  Had he gone ashore with the Beachmaster on Kyuushuu or Honshu, I doubt he would have lived.

We still have my father’s canteen cup, the names of the beaches where he participated in landings scratched in by hand, a record in aluminum of his war experience.

Market Research: Dirty, by Megan Hart

Ella has some secrets. Ella isn’t her given name, she hates to talk with her mother. The boyfriend she thought was the one turned suddenly scornful. She hates roses. She doesn’t want to receive oral sex.

Ella counts things. The number of horizontal wires in the screen on the window helps her keep her mind off what bothers her. She counted the marbles in the vase holding one of those decorative, green bamboo shoots.

She’s counted the number of men with whom she’s had sex, well into the hundreds. Most of those men were a single event, one night. Some of them she didn’t even find out their first name. For a while there, sex helped get her mind off what bothers her.

The story opens in a very upscale candy shop, “the kind of place you went to buy expensive imported chocolate truffles for your boss’s wife because you felt guilty for having sex with him when you were both at a conference in Milwaukee.”

Hypothetically speaking, she adds.

In the shop she meets a man. He’s attracted to her. He doesn’t know her name, she doesn’t know his, but he invites her to sample the licorice, suddenly putting a piece in her mouth. They part as though it was just an encounter between strangers. She goes back to work and finds, in the days that follow, she can’t get him out of her mind.

In a book that otherwise fully frames the characters, there was no exploration of why this man caused such a strong response. It was a gap in the narrative that went unresolved.

Ella tells her own story in the first person. She proves to be an unreliable narrator, keeping secrets from her readers as well as from the characters with whom she interacts in the story. Perhaps the unresolved gap was intentional.

By chance, they meet again, he invites her to go immediately to dinner. Ella finds out his name is Dan. They talk over dinner, they find a mutual attraction, and they go to his place. In a role reversal, he considers sex as a signal they intend to continue a relationship, while she intends just the one night.

She has her reasons.

Dan figures out where she works and contacts her there. On the phone, he sounds entirely businesslike, she could have had him on speakerphone without worries. He invites her to lunch at an expensive restaurant to discuss a potential arrangement.

At the restaurant for lunch the two odd things about this story are visible together. Dan basically orders her to meet him in the women’s room for a quickie. Ella, without comment on what makes his spell so effective, simply complies. After putting candy in her mouth, this is the second time Dan has come across as dominant. But most of the time he doesn’t act that way, it just shows up once in a while. It was a relief the story didn’t enter into a dominant relationship, I’d have not been willing to finish it.

In their next few encounters it becomes clear sex is a prominent part of the story, but incidental to a relationship developing for other reasons as well. Sex is part of Ella’s secret. She had deliberately avoided having sex, avoided those anonymous hookups, for three years before meeting Dan. (Ella, always counting, tells Dan the exact number of years, months and days.)

Dan proves to be persistent. She explains she isn’t willing to date men. That is, she wants no developing relationship. She prefers to keep it simple. He asks her out to dinner as a prelude to hooking up, she relents.

Dan sees Ella is sexually adventurous and brings her into new adventures. One evening in a restaurant, they talk over dinner about a three-way and Dan arranges for their waiter to be the third, that night. The scene is reasonably respectful of the woman in the three-way, focusing primarily on her pleasure and comfort – except the two men talk about her in the third person.

There is a side plot about Ella’s relationship with her teen-aged neighbor, Gavin. Gavin prefers Ella’s company, painting the rooms of the house, over the difficulties of living with his stressed, single mother. The mother, suspicious, orders them to stay apart. After a time, Gavin’s attempt at suicide shows just how stressed he has been. When Ella visits him at an inpatient treatment center, he explains he’d noticed the scar on her wrist, and a piece of the secret from her past becomes evident. She and Gavin have a bond, and she advises him from her own experience that he can move on to a complete life even after his suicide attempt.

Her father’s death, bringing together the family as it does, brings us that much closer to her secret being revealed. Ella elects to break up with Dan rather than let him learn more.

In a chapter which might be the denouement to the book, Ella’s old life returns in all its humdrum routine. But Dan reappears, and the first thing he says is he can’t get her out of his mind. They don’t make up, they fight. Ella tells him everything about her past, telling her secret in its entirety. She even tells Dan she lost the first guy who might be the one because she told him everything. She is telling everything to Dan to repulse him as well. The first guy didn’t respond well, but Dan does. Instead of pushing her away, he holds her close.

Ella’s description of the sex scenes seemed to report the same experience over again. The scenario changed each time, but her description of her responses were remarkably similar. It wasn’t clear to me if that was intentional. Perhaps even feeling passion with Dan she was only going through the motions. Perhaps Ella was reporting at some remove from the responses of her body. Perhaps she didn’t approve of the responses of her body.

The core of Ella’s story is how a chain of connected experiences can shape her relationship with practically everybody, and how two strong people can help each other deal with memories. It happens to have dirty parts.

Notre Dame de Paris

With tears in my eyes, I watched the television news Monday evening last week. It is always sad to see the loss of a church to fire. It is especially sad when the church is both historic and beautiful.

Here is a memory of Notre Dame. At the time of my visit, in the Eighties, the floor was being renovated. Based on the type of pipes stacked outside, it looked like they were putting in drainage, one section of the floor at a time. Stone slabs rested on boards beside where they had been lifted up. For a few stones, the lighting allowed you to see the faint evidence of letters carved on them. On top of one slab, there was a femur, the bone of the upper leg.

Many of the floor stones were memorials or grave markers. They were working among the graves under the floor of the cathedral to lay the pipe down.

I like to feel history when I visit places. Whenever I visit a town in Europe, I make a point of visiting the big church in the town center. In these churches you can walk where people have walked, look at the art and stained glass people have looked at for centuries. You never know what you will find, but you always find something of interest. These churches are all beautiful, each in their own way, both the structure and the decoration. Some of them are nearly art museums.

Notre Dame was beautiful on the outside as well as on the inside. The main facade, on the western end with the bell towers, is covered in statues of saints.The saints are within and between the arches as well as that prominent line above the arches. The gargoyles along the north and south walls are fascinating, no two alike. The structure, too, the flying buttresses, are as much works of art as they are works of engineering.

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Photo from Wikimedia commons


And now everything has changed.

It was thrilling to see how quickly a massive fund was pledged to rebuild. The time required to rebuild the upper walls, then the roof, will exceed our American attention span. Might it be used roofless? Well, its likely the roof went up over many years, and some people came to stand (yes, stand) in a roofless cathedral to hear the Bishop preach.

I had assumed I wouldn’t go back to visit Paris again. There are so many places in the world I haven’t visited. Perhaps, in ten years or so, perhaps I will spend a few days in Paris again to see how the cathedral has been remade.