The world is neither as good nor as just as I would like it to be.

This week, I decided that I could not finish the excellent nonfiction book Zeitoun by Dave Eggers because it was too depressing.  Warning: spoilers ahead, though that feels like a wrong term for nonfiction.

This book described a Muslim man and his family's experience with Hurricane Katrina, and while I don't like to insulate myself from the world, everyone has their limits.  At some point Zeitoun is imprisoned because he was still in New Orleans after the mandatory evacuation.  There is sickening injustice in how he is treated, and nobody is held accountable.

I can often stomach terrible stories if I know the ending in advance--it's the suspense that grates on me, but this book has no real resolution.  The book "ends" with the family together and healing, but midway through reading, I searched for a summary of the history (in order to get through the terrible prison moments), and I discovered that the couple are divorced and she accused him of attacking her.  It's real life and there will be no true end until everyone involved is dead.

Again, I don't like to keep myself in a bubble, but some things are too much for me to manage.  The narrative format of the book makes empathy very natural, to the point of my feeling a nauseating distrust of the government when I read it.  And I just can't handle it.  I need and want to trust the government in order to function as a citizen. Every institution will make mistakes and will even be fundamentally broken in some ways.  Every individual will also make mistakes, either acting on their own or on behalf on an institution.

But there's a powerlessness that I felt when reading this book.  In disastrous situations, it seems as though the government agencies have unlimited discretionary power and then proceed to make substantially flawed decisions.  In the end, the only real lesson I learned was to obey mandatory evacuations.  Keep your head down and follow the rules.

The other thing that was hard is that the emotional strength of the story comes from the family love and unity; this unravelled when I learned about the couple's sad history beyond the book.  It makes me hope that all victims of disasters of this magnitude are getting the support they need.  It's a little ridiculous to talk about how I had a hard time reading a story, when so many people are forced to live similar stories and worse.


cranberry sauce

My family's favorite version of the Thanksgiving classic.  I'll usually can a batch or two around the holiday and use it throughout the year, especially in chicken and turkey lunch sandwiches.

Makes 7 to 8 cups.

1 orange
2 apples that cook well (I use Gala)
6 cups fresh cranberries
2 1/2 cups sugar
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp. ground cloves

Squeeze the juice from the orange and set the juice aside. Remove the orange zest with a flat peeler (some white peel is fine) and then dice finely. Quarter the apples and remove the core; slice the remainder finely, and then chop slices into wedges. Sort the cranberries, discarding any soft ones.

Add everything into a saucepan: orange juice, diced orange zest, apple pieces, cranberries, sugar and spices.  Bring to a boil over high heat, then lower heat and simmer gently, stirring occasionally, until the sauce thickens, the apple is tender and the cranberries have burst, about 15 minutes. Cover while simmering or stir in a few teaspoons of water or orange juice if it dries out.

Adapted from the Williams-Sonoma Kitchen Library Series, Thanksgiving & Christmas, by Chuck Williams (Time-Life Books, 1993).


on zombies (or, why pop-culturalization of folklore sucks)

The undead have a long and glorious history in folklore and mythology, but zombies in particular come from Haitian folklore. In general, they are dead who have been revived and are under control of the person who revived them. [1] That in itself is a creepy concept.

Zombies in modern popular culture, however, have the added wow-factor of cannibalism, and often associated with apocalypse just to round things out. How did this jump happen?  Mostly, it was the 1968 film Night of the Living Dead.

So what's my beef?  I find the triple combination cannibalism, apocalypse, and being mindless or controlled post-death to be totally absurd.  Each are creepy in a potentially realistic kind of way, but together they form a trinity of absurdity that respects neither folklore nor science.

Consider: one could conceivably be poisoned into a deathlike state and be brought back to life on a hallucinogenic drug and kept in a listless state as a slave.  It could physically happen, and it seems to have actually occurred; that's a little terrifying. Cannibalism also happens. People get hungry with no other options. This is repulsive and scary to a normal, well-fed human.

Pop-culture zombies, by contrast, are both listless, mindless drones and also lethal, cannibalistic monsters. Frankly, the two just don't add up, since I'd imagine it's very hard to kill anyone when you're in a sluggish state. The hallucinogenic drugs could hypothetically give cannibalistic inclinations, but the victims wouldn't be able to do anything about it that would pose a real threat.  So that's the first absurdity...but wait, there's more!

An apocalypse is also a scary, vaguely realistic thing.  It's entirely possible (though not probable in the short-term) that through mismanaging natural resources, natural disaster, a devastating virus, or nuclear stupidity, civilization could be degraded to a more primitive form.  It's a little silly, but I do worry about personally having the skills necessary to survive in such a situation, even if it was localized and relatively short lived.

But...zombies?  Apocalypse causing cannibalism I could understand, but apocalypse being caused by cannibalism?  Or better yet, being caused by a horde of sluggish, mindless people?  Either (let alone both) would be completely bizarre.

So modern zombies irk me a little; they trivialize real and potential tragedies. They fabricate a fictitious facade over folklore and fact.  These pop-culture figures can be humorous or scary, but regardless, they just don't suspend my disbelief the way other science fiction and fantasy characters do.

A world of zombies has no compelling motivations that could not exist with more resonance without them. These more profound worlds are harder to write, and so zombies provide an easy gimmick. Zombie enthusiasts, I'm sorry, but they just don't do it for me.  Please forgive me.

[1] See Wikipedia and Outside Magazine.  Neither are particularly compelling sources, but were you really expecting a Nature citation?


the guy at the gate: a confession

A week ago, I was driving and took a wrong turn and ended up heading toward the university gates after hours.  I figured it would be easier to go through campus than turn around, and so I showed the guy at the gate my id, and he asked me where I was going.  For some reason, I just lied on the spot and told him I was picking up a friend at the "athletic center."  He gave me a funny look, and was like, the gym?  I told him again that I was a student and rattled off some stuff that only a student would know. Then he says, more or less, Well, that can all be true, but it doesn't seem like you know where you're going.  At that point, I'm mad about being caught in a lie and I turn around.

I'm not the kind of person who lies about stupid stuff like this. I try not to be the kind of person who lies at all. I felt and still feel terrible abut the whole thing. It's hanging with me much longer than I ever thought it would.

What baffles me is that for a while I was mad at the guard for not letting me in.  If I were actually picking up a friend at the gym, I might very well have done the exact same thing because I often forget the proper names of things and turn to descriptions of them instead.  Pass me the writing thingummie. Where did you put the scooper for soup?  If I were actually caught in a situation where they weren't letting me in and I had a reason to be there, I don't know what I would have done differently.  Maybe provide the details of what the friend was doing?

The truth is I made a mistake and instead of dealing with the mistake, I chose to complicate the situation by fabricating a story.  I could have just told the guard that I made a mistake.  The thing is, I know they don't allow through traffic after hours, and there are places to turn around far before the guard house, so I should have just turned around as soon as possible and corrected myself.  This could be a metaphor for life, but I'll leave it up to you to iron out the details.

In an odd way, I'm glad it happened.  It's making me thing about bigger things like honesty, taking responsibility, thinking things through, and correcting mistakes.  I couldn't have asked for a kinder situation for a wake-up call.


there's a reason we do science in this houeshold

I just finished a painting that took forever-epic-long.  At first, I hated it, since it's a little cartoony. Then, it grew on me a little, but it still isn't my favorite.  N doesn't understand why I like to leave so much sky.  The reason is that I like painting skies and I really like how landscapes look with huge skies.

I have no idea what I'll do with it now, but it's safe from N throwing it away at least until it dries. He's been trying to get rid of this particular slab of masonite for probably a year, and I've continually thwarted him by painting it a bit every time he gets almost to the point of action.  See in the upper right the note he left me: You have until Nov 15th to do something me (finish or move).  After that date I will go into the trash.  Sincerely, Unfinished Painting  Ah, complete sentences.  But I guess we shouldn't expect that much from a painting, eh?


Nepal and India

This post is waaaaaaay overdue.  We came back in June; it's now November.  Forgive me if some details are fuzzy, though I did use a journal sporadically on the trip and wrote half this post soon after returning.  I'm currently suffering from hiccups as punishment.

Before I left for India, my labmate told me that India was an assault on all your senses, and the experience was true to his words.

N and I left at the end of May, flying nonstop into Delhi to catch a night's sleep before continuing onto Kathmandu in Nepal.  There, we instructed a taxi driver to take us to the Suzuki dealership in a certain part of town, where we met up with another couple--good friends from our Berkeley days whom I will mysteriously call Petra and Mike. Magically, nothing went seriously wrong, and we found them waiting for us.  We stayed at Petra's extremely generous aunt's house and explored Katmandu before heading out to Pokhara to begin the Annapurna Sanctuary Trek the next day.

The trek itself was lovely, but the story is much like any traveller's experiences there in late May/early June: beautiful mountains playing hide-and-seek among the clouds, rainfall, prolific flora, and welcoming tea houses with hot food, decent beds, and the occasional hot shower.  I became obsessed with omelettes for whatever reason--my body probably craved the protein.  The really unique aspect to our trip was the adventure involved in obtaining and then ridding ourselves of a guide and porter.

In Pokhara, we hunted around for a guide and porter, mostly because we wanted to support the local economy (Petra and Mike were the enlightened ones in this respect). We were also looking forward to seeing some of the incredible feats of strength--I had heard stories of porters running up the mountains with packs, the strong-for-their-home-elevation tourists lagging behind with nothing on their backs.  N and I were won over by an older gentleman named Lale, who ran a shop and told us that he was a guide, and that his wife looks after the shop when he's trekking.  Petra and Mike didn't like him as much, but he was willing to agree to our demands, specifically that the guide carries a pack and that we could push the schedule.

Making group decisions is hard (especially in retrospect when things go badly), but I'll freely admit that I pushed to go with him.  We made a deposit for 7 days, him thinking that we would take 10, and us thinking that we might well take less.  I'm fairly certain that he agreed that we would get money back if we returned early, but it's hard to remember.

The next morning, we came to meet Lale, and he said that we were waiting for our guide and porter.  Aren't you our guide?  No, it would be his nephew.  Feeling a little deceived, we waited, and waited.  Eventually the guide arrived, and we caught a taxi then a bus, and we picked up our porter somewhere along the way--our guide's friend.  At some point, the bus broke down and we had to transfer to another one.  Given that the first bus was full, it was crazy crowded, so we sat on the top with the luggage and food being transported, which is illegal.  When we passed the police, they called up, and the guide and driver said we're tourists, and he waved us on.  Apparently tourists get to bend the rules.  Given that tourism is the nation's largest industry, this almost makes sense.  Regardless, the grumpiness from being lied to and the guide being late lifted, and we enjoyed ricocheting through the mountains, ducking under power lines and branches, and seeing the spectacular views of tiered farmland.

When we finally got started on the trek, we had to walk through a town.  The guide and porter started to carry our packs, and we walked leisurely.  N bought a hat, and we waited for the guide and porter, who took their time.  Perhaps they're just saving their strength.  They'll toast us on the uphill and in the higher altitudes.  We waited, walked ahead, waited, walked ahead, waited for directions, walked ahead.  The road turned into a trail, and got steeper.  Eventually it became clear to us that they're just slow.  Okay, still manageable.  The trail is clear, and we can just tell them where we'll stop for lunch and the night and they can go at their own pace and we'll meet them there.  We discussed plans with them, and they offered resistance, but eventually we got our way.

Fast forward, and everything came to a head that night.  I'm the least confrontational of the four of us, and so I opted out of the epic discussion that evening.  Apparently Mike offered progressively easier options, but still with a fast itinerary.  There were angry phone calls with Lale, and I could head voices from where I was trying to sleep.   The guide and porter simply claimed that it was too hard and that they had never carried packs before.  Again, I wasn't involved much in this, but by morning, we set out without them, intent on visiting Lale and asking for a partial refund of our deposit when we returned.

The rest of the hike was stunning from the tiny flowers to ginormous mountains.  We played cards wrapped in heavy blankets, read next to windows framing cloud-filled valleys, and I got to take steroids for altitude sickness.

When we got back to Pokhara, Lale refused to refund us, and said that if anything we owed him more money. We got the tourist police involved; we told them we were happy to pay for the two days time that the guide and porter actually worked (one day up with us and one day to return by themselves). Then the tourist police laid the smack down (our guide was probably not licensed) and we got our money back.  I have no problem giving money to people, but A) if I'm going to donate money, I want it to be to a good cause and not because I'm being ripped off and B) it's not okay to allow the precedent that might hurt future travelers.  We think Lale tried to follow us afterward, but we savvily ditched him by getting in a cab.  It's sad because Pokhara was really beautiful, and I think we would have stayed there longer had we not been worried about Lale doing something stupid.

Petra taught me that everybody's got a water buffalo.

Superhero shot.

Baby goats!!  Oh, and, you know, gorgeous mountains.

After recovering from the trek, we had some more fun in Kathmandu, and then settled on doing a land crossing to India.  The bus ride was a little tedious, but I got a fair amount of reading done.  Our first real stop was Varanasi.  There, we indulged in food, showers, and air conditioning.  We found Lonely Planet's recommended Blue Lassi and Brown Bread Bakery, which were as good as the book described.

The next morning, we took a sunrise boat ride on the Ganges, where we saw the docks in full action, as well as a the body of a deceased holy man floating down the river.  After more eating and rest, N and I opted to head out to a tiger park while Petra and Mike stayed in Varanasi for another day before heading off on their own adventures.

Himalayas to Varanasi: opposite extremes in almost every way conceivable.

We didn't see any tigers at the park, but we got plenty of AC, decent food, showers, flushing toilets, and rest.  This was all especially important because both N and I were having stomach issues--this was probably my fault for going for some sketchy street food.  We were also burnt out from numerous scam attempts and logistic issues during the trip.  I won't detail them; it's just a hazard of travel.  We ended up resigned to just spend a significantly more money on drivers in the second half of the trip to make things easier--we wouldn't have been able to see the Taj Mahal otherwise.  We also splurged on a fancy hotel in Dehli that had mood lighting settings; we considered it and the tiger park to be our three-year wedding anniversary gift to ourselves.

People washing and playing in the Ganges (left).  N at the Red Fort in Delhi with the longest beard he's ever had (right).

Sunrise on the Ganges.


Kindle review

I've had my Kindle for almost six months, and I'm close to finishing my seventh book on it.  (Don't judge, my reading-junkie friends!)  I haven't written about it until now because my opinions on ebooks have been evolving for a while, and I wanted to have a somewhat settled perspective.

I started off by reading a few things on our iPad, but reading on a screen stressed my eyes in a way that reading from paper does not.  Eventually, I starting lusting after a proper e-reader, and several months after that, I finally made the purchase.

The version I have is the lowest tier without "special offers," or ads.  I like that it isn't lit because it makes it feel more like a book and less like a screen--I get enough of the latter already.  I also like that it isn't a touch screen because the delay between pressing buttons and the screen reacting is long enough that a touch screen would be a little silly.  I also like that I don't have to be careful about not touching the screen, since then I can handle it a bit more like a real book.

I've been going through one-time reads, and I like not cluttering the house with new books.  Libraries used to be my go-to for many (but not all) of my one-time reads, and so the Kindle is certainly enabling my being a lazy consumer.  At the same time, the library doesn't always have what I want and I'm happy to support the authors I enjoy.  I like the experience enough that I'm considering getting old favorites that I already own in electronic form, but Amazon is currently rolling out an program that gives you discounts for exactly this scenario--I might wait to see if some of those are adopted into that program first.

Once upon a time, I would carry a book in my purse, and this has certainly lightened the load.  It was great when we took our trip to India, since it lasted the whole three weeks (I might have charged it once in the middle at one of the strange charge-your-phone stations) and I read two different books that would have taken up a lot of space.  I also used my Kindle every day when I commuted to the city via train.

Technical books and papers (PDFs) aren't good to read on it, but I'll forgive it that.  Some novels even have slightly wonky formatting, but most of them are great.  Occasionally pages will be rendered differently (as in the page breaks at different places) if you turn it off then on again or move back and forth between pages, which is a little odd.  The thing that I thought would bother me the most was the whole screen flashing occasionally on a page change to clean up the residue from previous pages.  I don't even notice it anymore.

I think we'll still have paper books for a good long while, but there is a place for ebooks.  My favorite moment was when N read something for a while on my device, and when he finally passed it back, muttered sheepishly, I want a Kindle.