March and April Books

In March, I read one YA book on the way to Australia, and one on the way home, and then have been slowing going through a biography, which I'm about to finish.  Sad progress for two months, but I've been busy with lots of work, and then gardening in the spare snippets of day.

Newt's Emerald ★★
Garth Nix's Abhorsen trilogy is some of my favorite YA reading, and so when I discovered that this story was part of the Kindle lending library, I downloaded it for my Australia trip.  (I found this fitting because Nix is Australian.)  It was a light, enjoyable read with lots of adventure, subtle magic, and romance with a feisty female main character.  Perfect for a vacation.

Graceling ★★
Another YA novel for airplane reading.  Features a literally strong female lead character and an interesting magic paradigm, much like a fantastic X-Men.

Dearest Friend ★★
I'm still finishing this one up, but I'm close enough to be able to return and report.  Abigail Adams was an amazing woman, and this book does an equally amazing job of showing her true character, for better or worse.  I feel like I understand her faults and strengths, and am certainly more well-versed in American revolutionary history and early politics. I've never been particular towards history, but Withey weaves a wonderful narrative that relies heavily on direct quotations from Abigail's abundance of letters.


strange waters

Organic water?  Smoked water?

Smoked water is essentially flavored water, so it's not quite as bizarre as organic water, which N saw marketed first-hand in Australia.  Water is, by definition inorganic, and this new terminology just flaunts the new meaning of organic: not tainted by man-made chemicals.

I'd prefer it if we had a new word for this so that organic retains its original meaning.  It'd need to be more marketable than organic, so as to actually catch on.  Any ideas?


self portrait

This is how I see myself every day: in the monitor at my office desk.


this is a small thing

Today I handed back assignments for the class I'm TAing.  And, as expected, some people asked about their grades, whether it just be for points back or so they could do better next time.  I've been through getting a bad grade before, and I remember it feeling like a ton of bricks.  Heck, I remember when getting below 90% on anything felt like I had just been run over by the semi-truck of inadequacy. Growing up, our most distinctive family motto was never settle for mediocrity when perfection is available.  I know.

But having gone through it doesn't mean it's easy to watch.  There were no perfect scores, which meant that none of the 170-ish brilliant Ivy-league perfectionists were perfectly happy.  And I was the one responsible; I was the one assigning points on somewhat arbitrary metrics like creativity, difficulty, and clarity.  I did my best, but it's possible that the assignments I graded while eating lemon cream sorbet did better than the others.

I just wanted to tell them that the numbers don't matter.  This is a small thing.  Don't take it personally.  It's okay not to be perfect.  It's okay to do badly.  It's okay to fail.  Failure teaches us things that success can't.  And being able to bounce back from bad performance is a skill.  Employers like it when people can say I didn't do a good job, that was my fault, or here's what I did wrong.  They like it when you can say here's what I can do better and then what's next?  Everyone makes mistakes.  You didn't lose a limb or a loved one; you were given yet another opportunity to learn.


learning to tie a bow tie

This morning NWC felt like wearing a bow tie to church, but neither of us knew how to tie one.  I had wistfully purchased a bow tie for him maybe a year ago; when I originally bought it, we both tried briefly before giving up and it has remained unused since. Tonight I finally settled down and learned from this Wikipedia image, first on my knee while sitting cross-legged and then on my good ol' teddy bear Brownie.  I think he looks rather dapper. Now when NWC has the hankering for a bow tie, I'll be ready.


Garden Day!

You know the little clean-up song that goes something like this:

Clean up! Clean up!
Everybody, everywhere.
Clean up! Clean up!
Everybody do your share.

Well, change each clean up to garden day, and you have the anthem of my garden starting season.  (I believe thanks to NWC.)  It's one of the rare days where I wake up early, jump out of bed, and don't feel any sluggishness.  (I like most days pretty well, but my bed is just mighty comfy.)

Like last year, I'm the garden coordinator at our apartment complex's community garden. The university has tilled the soil and delivered mounds of mulch and wood chips.  I've laid out the main pathways with twine; we still have to carve them out, but other than that, we're pretty much good to go.

Today, I also spotted a mysterious large egg by the mulch.  I presume it's a Canada goose egg.  I would have taken it in, but it was too cool to still be alive.  Plus, I know NWC would not have been happy about my hatching a wild goose in our apartment.

Anyway, tomorrow is garden day!  The start of the season!  The grand opening!  Ladies and Gentlemen, start your engines!


Disney cartoons

It feels like I've always doodled and drawn cartoons.  I have a vague memory of a cartooning class or section in art class or something, and then of course I worked for Pixar.  For me, it comes down to familiarity and practice.  For that reason, I can do a half decent sketch of most Pixar characters.

A long while ago, I obsessed over getting the Sword-in-stone squirrels right, and now recently I've decided to start working on Disney characters again.  Why?  I think drawing is an important skill for communication, and like with writing and speaking, you have to practice it; cartoons are a facet of that.  Why Disney?  Disney is well-known and easily recognized.  The characters are simple and well-crafted, and so it's a good learning tool. Plus, I've fantasized about doing a webcomic.

My first attempts were heinous, but tonight I did a somewhat passable Belle.  With time...*sigh*... I feel like I'm a teenager again.

My old Disney squirrel studies:

Doodles from that same notebook:


East Coast Australia

Nathaniel needed to travel to Sydney for a collaboration, so we took the opportunity to take our vacation in Australia this year, road tripping up and down the eastern coast.

Our first day, we took to the road and quickly adapted to driving on the left, which was easier than anticipated. We drove through the hairpin of Ku-ing-Gai Chase National Park, and then headed north to The Entrance, making it to the sand dunes of Birubi Beach before staying in Cessnock. On the way to our hotel, a wallaby jumped a gross the road, and we slowed to see several of them on the side, just staring at us. We saw another wallaby jump across the second day at dusk too, but most of out wallaby sightings were roadkill. Deer:EasternUSA::Wallabies:EasternAustralia.

We decided that the second day we would head directly up to the Whitsundays region, and make it there on the third day; that way, we’d get the chance to see a areas off the coast, get the bulk of the driving done early, and shave some drive time altogether.

Two things from the drive up will be forever locked away in my heart. One was racing alongside a train in the perfect road trip moment, a stream of uncountable rust-colored coal cars floating above a bed of grass; I felt the sort of freedom you feel when you know that you can do whatever you want, for a while at least. The second moment was watching a small flock of cranes slowly land on a weeping willow tree that stood at the edge of a pond. They perched there, looking like a perfect picture, but we were gone before I could have thought about my camera. I actually enjoy that about driving; it forces you to just enjoy the moment and lock things away in memory rather than with a camera. I like cameras too, but it’s nice to be restricted from using them sometimes.

We stayed at Isla Gorge National park, and woke up impatiently to slow sunrise, for which we did not wait. We drove through the sugarcane fields; I was sorely tempted to pull along the side of the road and run through them, but Nathaniel was against trespassing. We made it to the popular Arlie beach, where we stayed two nights, filling the day between with snorkeling out on the Great Barrier reef. For the snorkeling, we took a boat out to a permanent platform area, which had an underwater observatory from which we spotted “Chunky” the turtle who frequents the platform.

After Arlie beach, we took a slower journey back south to Sydney. Over the next three days, we walked in a rainforest where NWC swam in an isolated waterfall pond, visited the Etna caves, and rented bikes in the coastal town of Hervey Bay, where we accidentally witnessed some older white ladies performing some hybrid between belly-dancing and aboriginal dancing at a street fair. We ended that last day camping in the Rainbow beach area, where NWC tried his hand at fishing for the first time, and I sculpted the dense sand. When NWC was finishing up for the night, he was flanked by two huge pelicans (I'm talking chest-tall), anxious to eat his remaining squid.

In the morning, we did the same (fishing and sand drawing) and NWC caught a half-foot puffer fish with his las bit of bait. It was adorable and we threw it back, but not without some angst as to how to remove the hook. We also ran along the beach, since there had been a bit too much of sitting in a car. We spent the second half of the day in Brisbane, where we walked through the beautiful river park and visited the Queensland Museum. While wandering around, we noticed that ibis had near replaced pigeons as the common city bird, but pigeons were still to be found occasionally. In the evening, we saw a spectacular preview performance of Macbeth. On our way back to the hostel, we witnessed some giant bats perch in the trees; I’m guessing they were flying foxes.

From Brisbane, we drove through the Gold Coast, visited the 1899 lighthouse in Byron Bay, and explored the hinterlands a little. The town of Bangalow was beautiful, and we ate at the fabulous Utopia; we had a piece of macadamia nut cake with lemon icing that I’m hoping to reproduce. We browsed the shops before moving on to Belligen for the night. When enquiring at the local YHA, the receptionist might well have been high; an older hostel resident had to furiously ring the bell to bring him out, and when he arrived, he had to tap his wrists before saying left or right (I’ve done that too, just not several times in a row). My favorite moment was when we asked if there was wifi, and he just gave us the hang-loose gesture as a response. When pressed, he confirmed verbally, Of course, man. To which we recounted that another YHA on this trip had wifi so slow that we couldn’t even check email. That may or may not have to do with the bloke we saw playing WoW consuming all the bandwidth. Anyway, now I want to start a trend with the hang-loose sign meaning wifi.

We ended up camping in Belligen (only for financial reasons...the hostel was very appealing), and we saw a massive colony of giant bats emerging for the night a we set up the tent.  The next day, we did more rainforest walks in the stunning Dorrigo National Park, and drove along Waterfall Way. That night, we camped near Singleton, close to where we spent our first night, and we drove to Lilianfels the next day, where we showered and bathed to our heart's delight in the mist, had high tea, rode everything in Scenic World (the railroad was our favorite), and climbed the 900-ish stairs up the Three Sisters.

The next morning, the clouds cleared and we rushed out to see the Three Sisters, but my camera's memory card had a hardware failure at the end of that adventure.  I bought a new one for the final day, but I haven't yet been able to recover the photos on the old one--that's a whole other story.  Anyway, after savoring the relaxation of the hotel once again, we headed to Sydney.

There, we walked through the Royal Botanical gardens, visited the Art Gallery of NSW, and ended the day with an outdoor performance of Madama Butterfly, with the opera house in the background.  It was lovely.

All through the trip, we were amazed at the similarities between the USA and Australia, both historically and culturally. At other times, we were stuck by how British it was, but those moments were surprisingly rare. NWC’s favorite was the sign that said “Queued Traffic,” meaning that traffic jams frequently there. (My favorite sign was a Koala crossing graffitied to look like a monster.)

It's a huge and beautiful country, and I'm glad we got to see so much of it, even without much photo documentation.

02042014 update: This was picked up for an Australian travel and souvenir blog by a bloke I met at the airport on the way home.

European mutt

In an effort to not indulge in watching TV shows or playing games, I've occupied some of my time this evening mapping out my cultural heritage.  It turns out that I'm way more English that I thought, and much less German--I had previously thought that both were closer to a quarter, but it turns out that I have quite a bit of pre-American revolution English emigrant ancestors, mostly from my paternal grandfather and maternal grandmother.  Most of these ancestors lived in Massachusetts and Connecticut.

I used to dig around for these numbers.