25 February 2011

Am I who I seem?

A couple of days back, Tara tagged me on this "Tag Your Friends" image form TagMyPals.Com. Since Facebook was playing up (as usual), I couldn't see where she had placed the tag and spent many minutes trying to guess. Some I ruled out immediately- since I have no intention of going through I a gender switch, I could not be 'the ladies man', and though my kids may think I am one, in the present company, I definitely would not qualify as 'the gentle giant'. I don't 'love ponies', and nor am I 'the muscle man'. While I could not be 'the president', would my current fondness for the colour pink would make me qualify to be 'the princess'? Leanne is 'the vegetarian' and most of us qualify to be 'the sweet tooth', 'the mess' and 'the rebel'.
"Cant' get the tags to work", I wrote. "Which one am I?" I guessed the tag would be on 'the short kid', though I knew that 'the mystery' and 'the (righteous) anger' would qualify too.
Pat came the reply. "The Athlete."
"The Athlete"? Me? How is that even possible? There are dozens of labels I've placed on myself, but 'the athlete' has never been one of them. So why on earth am I being called 'the athlete', instead of any of the others that came close?
"Of course you were the athlete", informed Tara. "(you are) Miss MARATHON LADY."
Sure I completed a marathon, but that still doesn't make me an athlete. I am the most fundamentally un-coordinated person I know, and the most accident prone. How could anyone ever even dream of calling me an athlete?
Then I thought about it. And thought about it some more. A majority of my recent status updates on Facebook have been about my running. My current profile picture is one of me running, as was the one before the one before that. And while I may only spend a few hours a week actually running, I do think about running much longer than that. While 'athlete' may not be the most accurate description of me, 'runner' certainly was one of the more accurate ones.

What could be the other words that describe me, I wondered. Labels tumbled out as clothes often do from my overstuffed cupboards. Mother. Co-worker. Daughter. Boss. Wife. Subordinate. Photographer. Daughter. Mentor. Friend. Fundraiser. Neighbour. Writer.... (well, the last maybe not)......and........ Runner.
All those roles give me different levels of satisfaction. Some of those roles have been thrust on me. A few I wish demanded less from me than they do. Some I would want to not have to live up to. All those labels describe me. And yet, strictly speaking none of them really describe me.

What then is the label that IS me? When is the time I am most in touch with myself? When is the time I am free from labels and expectations? When is the time I can be me, and not have to live up to sanyone's perception of what I should be like? Is there such a time? Is there such a role?

There is- Running.

Running is my meditation. It is the time when I am in touch with my elemental self. A time when all the layers are stripped away, and I am answerable to no one except me. A time when I am thinking of nobody except me. A time when I am free to think any thoughts I want, or not think any thoughts at all.

If there is a time when I am most ME, it is when I am Running. Which does make me a Runner. I am definitely not a good Runner, nor ever will be. But I am a Runner. And if you don't believe it, here's a picture that will convince you- I am sweaty and tired, but I have just run up a hill I never thought I would be able to conquer, and the sheer joy on my face says all that there is to be said.

I am definitely a Runner. I can let that label define me.

Whether or not, being a Runner makes me an Athlete is quite another thing. And I will keep that for the next time I have a post to write, and nothing to say!

24 February 2011

Delusional Me

Oi oi clarts! Tara yer, bringin you this week's deeloosional blog post. The fing iz, I iz 'aving alirrlebi ov trubble comin up wiv a deeloosional topic like. I mean, I've covvahed alot ov strange stuff in my blog posts in the past like, so I iz a lirrlebi stumped today. Nevah mind, coz I'll just do wot I normally doez, and keep typin and 'oping for the best, like innit? Youknowzitmakezsense!

I could ramble about the wevvah, I suppose, coz that's like wot peeps doez when they iz stumped for small talk, innit? The wevvah yer in the Kair of Diff is well stuffed up. I mean, one minit itz raining cats and bluddy dogs, the next itz freatening snow, and the next itz almost bluddy warm, like! Itz enuff to make you dizzy when yer tryin to work out wot coat to wear (oh, that reminds me ov a saying we as yer in The Diff - "Hooze coat's that jacket, hangin up on the floor?").

Anywayz, apart from the ducked up wevvah, itz also been a mad, mad week for this yer Kairdiff Slag. *nods* Itz that stoopid alf term break fingy, itdoezmyheadin! I got both me sproggies ome and we've been lumbered wiv the stoopid wevvah! I mean, wot iz you s'pozed to do wiv two energetic kidz, crappy wevvah and ardly any coinage, eh? Bluddy beats me.

And I waz a stoopid slag and forgot it waz alf term this week, and I put me name down fer overtime at work too. Sumtimes I av to wunder if I got a brain inside me 'ead, or a ball ov strin. Probbly a ball ov strin, to be 'onest, coz sumfin is sure unraveling.

But on the good side, I only has two more shifts, and then I iz avin leven dayz off. Bangin! Therez a slite possibility that I'll be able to write a propa blog post next week then, innit?

Then again, I iz a Kairdiff Slag day in, day out, so most probbly my next post will be deeloosional drivel, whether itz for Deeloosional Fursday or not. Issallgood though, innit?

Later clarts!

Image iz borrowed from that Wikipedia Commons page fingy, like innit.

23 February 2011

The Core Art

Why write? Really...why do we write? Does the world need another story - another mystery, sci fi epic, literary blockbuster? I don't think so. I'm a maniac reader and I know that if no one wrote another book and I lived to be a thousand I'd still have books that I just didn't have time for. Books that I wanted to read but didn't have time in my thousand year life to read.
We write because we need to tell stories to make sense of the world. Writing is how we work with narrative but the neat thing is that we don't need to write to tell stories. I think that is what writers and readers are forgetting when they get all het up over e-books and the decline of publishing.
I was at a dinner party the other night. There were eight of us there and when I brought up e-books you'd think I'd mentioned eating children as appetizers.
One guy (who I adore) said that he had just read some old book that was kept together with an elastic because it had been read and leant out so much.  And how could that be ever replaced by e-books? And how could we lend them to each other etc...and the rest of the gang carried on - the smell of books, the feel of books, authors not getting their due and on and on. I'm not going to digress too far into this topic - just read Helen over at Straight from Hel - she's always got the best debates going on about the publishing world.
When I was thinking about the kerfuffle later I had a vision. In my vision troubadours, story tellers, minstrels, bards, gathered around a fire and raised their voices in shock and dismay. Who would wait for them to come to the castle, the town square, the marketplace when these new fangled printed stories came out? They would be out of work, out of their art. And the new form wouldn't be good because it would be so static - no influence from the audience causing the teller, the performer, the musician, to change the story slightly to favour the crowd. How could that be good?
Writing isn't the core art. No, telling stories is the core art. We don't need typewriters, computers, not even paper and ink. We need nothing but our words. The ones that live in our minds.
I like to take photographs - why here's one now!!!

To have this photo show up here I need less gear than I used to - just a digital camera and a wire to connect it to the computer...oh and a program that I use to work with my photos and storage. Taking photos isn't too gear dependent even though folks would have you believe it is. Drawing is less - a pencil like one of those in my Chap mug will do - turn over my manuscript and you have some paper. Paper is a technological wonder though and gee so are pencils when you look into it. And to be good at drawing or taking photos takes a fair bit of practice - some diligence and possibly guidance. To paint with oils - more stuff, more guidance, more practice. Telling stories needs all the guidance and all the practice BUT it doesn't need gear. Zip. None. It is the meta-art, the core art, the mother art.
Don't forget to give it its due and don't worry about the technology so much. Just keep practising and connecting with other story tellers. Stories will get told. Trust me.
Jan Morrison, story teller

22 February 2011

Chocolate and Politics

In Japan, Valentine’s Day isn’t about love. It is all about the chocolate. Each year on February 14th, Japanese girls and women buy chocolate for their, boyfriends, husbands, male friends and coworkers. It might be an expression of love, but it is also considered a courtesy or social obligation (in fact, the Japanese language has a specific expression for “obligation chocolate” – giri choco). You might think the one-sidedness gravely unfair (especially if you’re a woman), but since the Japanese always reciprocate gifts, there is naturally an occasion for this as well. Hence, on March 14th – known as White Day in Japan – it’s the guys’ turn. Again it might seem slightly unfair – since only the guys that already got a gift feel obliged to return one – but for White Day not only chocolate but also more expensive gifts, like diamonds or lingerie, is common. So it is debatable who’s got the better deal.

This year both Valentine’s and White Day fell on a weekday, and thus Japanese producers and importers are happy. It means increased revenues since more people will buy candy for their coworkers. These are good news for the industry, as Japan’s chocolate consumption soars in the months of February and March due to the peculiar holidays. Good news is of course always welcome, but at the moment the chocolate industry might need them more than usually.

Cocoa – the key ingredient in chocolate – is becoming pricey, and political.

This trend has been going on for years, as the demand for chocolate worldwide (particularly in China, where the market is growing) has risen rapidly. The cacao tree is native to the Americas, but today cocoa beans grow in a narrow strip (approximately 20 degrees north and south of the Equator), from South America through Africa to Malaysia. It takes about five years for a tree to mature, which means that producers cannot just plant another tree to respond to increasing demand.

More importantly as of recent, however, is the fact that the world’s largest producer suddenly closed the tap.

The West-African country Côte d’Ivoire (whose proper name is in the country’s official language, French, though it is commonly known as the Ivory Coast in the English speaking world) has been troubled for decades. Following independence from France in 1960, Côte d’Ivoire has like many other African countries experienced civil war, a coup d’état and political unrest. A peace treaty between the government and the former rebels was signed in 2007, and an election was supposed to take place afterward. The election was, however, postponed a number of times. When it finally was held, in 2010, there was hope that this might lead to stability. Instead, it led to further tension.

The president, Laurent Gbagbo, had a large support base in the south of the country; while the opposition candidate, Alassane Outtara, chiefly was supported by the population in the north of the country. The election was characterized by certain acts of violence, but still it was considered fair by election observers. However, as the polls closed, both candidates declared themselves as winners of the election, and both took the presidential oath of office. Independent observers say that Outtara is the winner, and he is also supported by the international community. However, this helps little when Gbagbo is still in power, a power he recently tried to use to expel all UN peacekeepers.

Côte d’Ivoire produces about one third of the world’s total production of cocoa, and it accounts for about 20 percent of the country’s total earnings. Thus, it was in an attempt of cutting off the funding for his opponent Outtara recently declared that all export of cocoa (and coffee – Côte d’Ivoire is also one of the world’s largest producers of coffee) will be halted for a month.

Half a world away, in Japan as well as Europe and America, producers of chocolate are worrying. For Valentine’s Day, the export ban was not a problem, since purchases are made months in advance. For the Japanese White Day, however, and for the other upcoming chocolate-covered holiday, Easter, it is a problem. As a result of the export ban, and the general unrest in Côte d’Ivoire, the price for cocoa has sky rocketed.

Now, if this had been oil, it would have meant that the price of gas would also rise. Chocolate, however, is a very different commodity than is oil (as developing countries have experienced in the past, when attempting to “pull an OPEC” by reducing the supply of the raw materials to increase prices).

First of all, despite the popular belief, we can live without chocolate. We can also live without oil, but it is much harder to substitute, and it affects much more substantial parts of our lives if we don’t have oil (transport and energy supplies) than if we don’t have chocolate (cranky).

Secondly, while we’re used to price changes in the oil market according to market rules, the price of chocolate is much less volatile. It normally changes with the overall inflation in the society (meaning that if other prices increase – including wages – so will that of chocolate); and it is sort of seasonal – much cheaper on February 15th, for instance (which is one of the few times supply and demand regulate chocolate prices). But normally the price of the product chocolate is not overly dependent on the price of the cocoa.

Since we are not used to chocolate prices fluctuating, consumers most likely will not respond well to it. Hence, it is no solution for producers to increase the price now (as a result of increased costs), since this most likely only will lead to reduced sales (and thus further reduced income), since most consumers would react to the rapid price change and instead buy something else.

It is an interesting situation. Producers are despairing. Consumers are largely ignorant. I have tried to dig out whether the export ban has been observed, and whether it has had any effect. So far I have not found an answer, though media reports that mediators are on their way to the country.

As for the population of Côte d’Ivoire? Hundreds are killed. Banks are shutting down and the ATMs are empty. The political instability continues. Some 25-50,000 Ivorians are refugees, or “internally displaced” as they are called as long as they remain within their country’s borders. The last thing on their mind, probably, is whether they’ll have chocolate for Easter.

21 February 2011

I Want To Read a BOOK!!!

It's reading Monday and I have a very sad confession... I have not read a single published book this year... *tosses water on Leanne*

I agree, it's a very sorry state of things... I've read HALF a book... But I am in my fourth run of editing my OWN books... and to EDIT them, I have to READ them (usually twice per edit round) to see what works, and reading them takes... you know... my reading time! I've ALSO (in addition to reading my own books some 7 or 8 times) critiqued... I think 3 books...It's what one DOES when one asks people to read THEIR stuff over and over again (which I do)...

So instead of talking about what I've READ, I thought I'd share a little of what I'd really LIKE to read! Some of these are recently out, some are coming soon.

CassaStar by Alex Cavanaugh

I want to read this as the descriptions and reviews show that in spite of the Sci-fi label, this is a character driven story... a talented guy having to win over a superior holding power over him, but more than that, get over HIMSELF as he's his own worst enemy. That sounds like the kind of character growth that I really love to see in a novel. Here is the official blurb:

To pilot the fleet’s finest ship…

Labeled a problem youth with a poor attitude, few options exist for Byron. His only chance for success resides in an opportunity to train as a Cosbolt fighter pilot. Enlisting in the fleet, he sets off for the moon base of Guaard to begin a new life and prove his worth.

To his chagrin, Byron catches the eye of Bassa, the toughest instructor in the fleet. Troubled by the memory of a fallen pilot, Bassa at first sees only a talented but insolent young man in need of an attitude adjustment. When a secret talent is revealed during training, Bassa feels compelled to help Byron achieve his full potential.

However, time is running short. War brews on the edge of space and Byron will require a talented navigator to survive. The shadows of the past loom large and Bassa must make a decision that could well decide the fate of both men. Does he feel strongly enough to follow the young man on a mission that may stretch their abilities to the limit?

The Hating Game by Talli Roland

This is off genre for me... romantic comedy, what? But this is a definite twist... the WOMAN is the one with a past as a PLAYA and her past is coming back to haunt her. And I love that Talli is setting her books in the MIDDLE of modern media reality... this one? The characters are on a reality TV show... What really won me over though, was a review on character voice I read just recently at East for Green Eyes that talked about how distinct and true Talli was with her different PoVs, which sounds like a good writer's book. Here is the official blurb:

When man-eater Mattie Johns agrees to star on a dating game show to save her ailing recruitment business, she's confident she'll sail through to the end without letting down the perma-guard she's perfected from years of her love 'em and leave 'em dating strategy.

After all, what can go wrong with dating a few losers and hanging out long enough to pick up a juicy £200,000 prize? Plenty, Mattie discovers, when it's revealed that the contestants are four of her very unhappy exes.

Can Mattie confront her past to get the prize money she so desperately needs, or will her exes finally wreak their long-awaited revenge? And what about the ambitious TV producer whose career depends on stopping her from making it to the end.

The Pull of Gravity by Gae Pollisner (releases in May 2011)

I am a more reliable lover of YA, anyway, but this story promises adventure and heartstrings. It is from the PoV of a boy whose best friend was born with a condition that now (at 17) is finally killing him, and he wants (as a last wish) to get a signed copy of 'Of Mice and Men' to his absentee dad who left because he couldn't handle the whole child with a fatal illness thing. BFF and a spunky girl (whose idea this was) decide to make this last wish come true... do you SEE all the angles here? Horrible hard family stuff. Deep abiding friendship. Classic road trip antics (and potential for romance)... but this has a LITERARY twist—like I seriously think this may one day be on high school reading lists... because it not only includes “Of Mice and Men” outwardly, but also parallels the story in a number of ways... Cool, eh? Here is the official blurb:

While Nick Gardner’s family is falling apart, his best friend, Scooter, is dying from a freak disease. The Scoot’s final wish is that Nick and their quirky classmate, Jaycee Amato, deliver a prized first-edition copy of Of Mice and Men to the Scoot’s father. There’s just one problem: the Scoot’s father walked out years ago and hasn’t been heard from since. So, guided by Steinbeck’s life lessons, and with only the vaguest of plans, Nick and Jaycee set off to find him.
Characters you’ll want to become friends with and a narrative voice that sparkles with wit make this a truly original coming-of-age story.

Finger Lickin' Dead by Riley Adams (aka: Elizabeth Spann Craig) (releases June 2011)

Elizabeth is fabulous at the zany-character, wild ride cozy and I was excited that this one would go deeper into one of the 'Graces', so I am definitely looking forward to reading!

When an anonymous food critic blasts several local restaurants- including Aunt Pat's-Lulu Taylor and her customers are biting mad, especially when they learn that Eppie Currian is the pen name of their friend Evelyn's cheating boyfriend. When "Eppie" gets his own fatal review, the list of suspects is longer than the list of specials at the best BBQ place in Memphis.

Very Bad Men by Harry Dolan (release July 2011)

I loved Harry's debut, Bad Things Happen--in fact it was probably in my top 3 of the 40 or so books I read last year, and have heard this one gets into more depth with Elizabeth Waishkey, who I really liked as an MC. I also love that Harry's books (and Harry) share my hometown—it's fun to have a familiar setting... nothing like adding a new place to get creeped out in my my daily routine. And the darned blurb is hard to come by... Here is the blurb (sent to me by Harry himself, because he's cool that way): 

Anthony Lark has drawn up a list of names—Terry Dawtrey, Sutton Bell, Henry Kormoran. To his eyes, the names glow red on the page. They move. They breathe. Dawtrey is in prison; Bell has a wife and daughter and a good job; Kormoran lives alone. They have little in common except that seventeen years ago they were involved in a notorious crime: the attempted robbery of the Great Lakes Bank. And now Anthony Lark is hunting them down, and he won’t stop until every one of them is dead.

David Loogan, editor of the mystery magazine Gray Streets, is living a quiet life in Ann Arbor with Detective Elizabeth Waishkey and her daughter, Sarah. But soon both David and Elizabeth are drawn into Lark’s violent world. As Elizabeth works to find Lark and uncover his motives, David befriends Lucy Navarro, a tabloid reporter whose theories about the case threaten to implicate some very powerful people. And when Lucy disappears without a trace, David vows to find her, whatever it takes.

So there we have it... I REALLY want to read the fabulous books of the people have met or am getting to know, but I need TIME! If anyone finds a time turner, it is a very short list of what I wouldn't do in trade...

18 February 2011

Who am I? Good question...

You know what? I'm not at all sure who I am anymore. It's been one of those weeks, y'know? So I thought I'd take a few flights of fancy and describe myself from the points of view of various people in my life... or at least how I imagine they see me.

Durwen: Mum's pretty cool. She feeds me and pets me and lets me slobber on her face, plus she gives me catnip which makes me feel craaaaaaaaazy. Not as fond of the claw-clipping part, and she's lousy at the on-the-bed-off-the-bed-on-the-bed-off-the-bed game, but on the whole, could be worse - I mean, her sister used to go curling with me down the hallway, after all. 'Scuse me, I have to go chase that red dot over there...

A student: She's really strange for a grown-up - I mean, she acts kinda like a kid still and gets all excited about the weirdest things, like new books and symphony concerts. Definitely not boring, and it's nice to have a teacher who doesn't treat you like an idiot just because you're 10 years old. Won't let you get away with anything though...

A coworker: Definitely an oddball, but I swear she knows freakin' everything. Hardly ever has to look anything up, it's a bit scary honestly. Usually good for a joke though, and anybody who brings in fresh-baked éclairs should probably be encouraged to stick around. Utterly useless before she's had her coffee, however...

A roommate: Well, there are books and dustbunnies everywhere, which is a little annoying. The trash always gets taken out eventually, and the dishes get put away, but the laundry, sheesh, sometimes that sits around for a week. Good about respecting boundaries though, and splitting take-out bills and sharing stuff. Erm, but don't even try to use her Harry Potter mug...

A friend: Everybody needs one friend they know they can call at 3 AM if they really have to, and she's it. Partly because she's an insomniac, but also because she always answers if it's a friend calling. Never forgets a birthday, which can get a little embarrassing when I forget...

A Knitter: No idea how her brain works, but it coughs up some pretty interesting tricks! Maybe she's not the best designer in the world, but considering she has no real training she comes up with some awfully innovative stuff. Now if she could just write it down so someone else could follow the instructions...

A Burrower: Punctuation Police and Grammar Nazi, that's for sure. Mostly rubbish on plot, but the dragons are all right. Not so good on actually-finishing-the-damn-book, either. Still and all, usually manages to contribute something...

So, if you fall into any of the above categories... how'd I do? ;-)

17 February 2011

The Graveyard Beer

As fun as my new job can be, it is also quite stressful. Thus when I discovered that last Friday was a Japanese holiday and therefore a day off from work, I had mixed feelings. I wasn’t sure if I should be happy to have my weekend start one day early, or if I should be annoyed for not having enough time to do all the important, interesting, workish stuff I was supposed to have done that Friday.

Regardless of my sentiments in the matter – a day off it was, and I couldn’t go to work even if I’d wanted to. Instead, I ended up going out of town (this being a silly term when the “town” in question is Tokyo, and the “out” of it is Yokohama, Tokyo’s conjoined twin city); I ended up freezing my Norwegian ass off (well, not off – it’s still there, but I was certain I was about to lose a finger or two); and there is beer involved as well.

Delusional, huh? Yeah, I thought so. But I am getting ahead of myself. I should start with the start.

Back in 1864, a young man arrived in Japan, a country that had been closed for foreigners for more than two centuries, but had recently been reopened, much thanks to Matthew Perry (not the actor). The young man (again, not the actor, nor Matthew Perry at all. My narrative is distracting, I know….), named William Copeland (actually, his name was Johan Martinius Thoresen, but he had – for reasons unknown to the internet – changed his name upon arrival in the US a few years earlier), came from the small, Norwegian town Arendal, and he was a brewer by profession.

Copeland must have been quite the entrepreneur, as he started several small businesses before finally deciding to return to his original career. Around 1870 he opened the Spring Valley Brewery in Yokohama, and soon his beer became popular among the Japanese as it was less bitter than the other beers on the market. Unfortunately, Copeland’s luck ran out, and he faced bankruptcy. He left Japan, and when he returned a few years later, he died not long after. He was buried at the “foreigner’s cemetery” in Yokohama. This could have been the end of Copeland’s story.

But it is not.

Even if Copeland never managed to bring the brewery back to its initial success, others did. The Spring Valley Brewery was bought, it continued to produce the popular beer, and eventually it was renamed. If you’ve ever been to Japan (and maybe even if you haven’t), there are a few brand names you will have encountered. Meji chocolate. Toyota cars. Sony, Fujifilm, Nintendo. And Kirin Beer. William Copeland’s company grew into Japan’s largest beer producer, and eventually also a massive soft drink producer.

As a way of expressing gratitude to Copeland’s legacy and contribution to the company, today’s Kirin Brewery Company, Ltd. still tends to his grave, and every day on his death day, his gravesite is visited by representatives for the company. If the Wikipedia page about Copeland is anything to go by, his gravesite is also visited by others who pay their respect by putting empty Kirin beer cans on his grave.

I came across this story while doing some research on Norway-Japan relations. As coincidences would have it, however, I was reading this just a few days before my day off on Friday. And even more coincidental – Copeland’s death day, the day of the beer can covered grave, was that very Friday. It seemed like it was meant to be. Thus, my coworker and I decided that we should go to Yokohama and pay William Copeland’s grave a visit.

Unfortunately, the weather was not on our side. Some people claim that just because I am Norwegian, I am water-, snow- and low temperature proof. This is not true. Even Norwegians will get used to a warmer climate if they spend too much time abroad, and thus I was not prepared for snow on Friday. I was also not prepared for how much colder snow and low temperatures are by the coast. Yokohama is basically one big port, and the cemetery was right by the ocean side.

I have rarely been so frozen in my life. The entire day was spent outside, as it took some searching for the grave in the surprisingly large graveyard. We actually had to take breaks every half hour to warm up in cafés to survive the journey… Also, there might have been some climbing over a fence at some point. And when we finally did find the grave – what did we discover? It was covered with lovely flowers (and snow), but no – not even a single one – beer cans…

We had, as good visitors, come prepared. In the first convenience store we saw in Yokohama my coworker and I bought each our can of Kirin beer (and I bought a woolen cap – you’d think I wasn’t even Norwegian for venturing out without being properly dressed!), and this (the beer, not the cap) we meant to drink, toasting Mr. Copeland and respectfully leaving the cans on the grave.

As it turned out, we didn’t feel like drinking the beer. Partly because it felt wrong, considering it was a graveyard, and no one else was doing it (no one else was there. It was closed. Ahem. Hence the fence climbing…). Partly because it was so freezing cold that I am pretty sure I definitely would have lost a few fingers if I had attempted to spend more time outside than absolutely necessary. And we had absolutely no desire to leave the cans – full or empty – as we already had committed enough sins that day (did I mention I trespassed on a cemetery?!)

In the end, we placed the (full) cans on the grave, took a few pictures, and then brought the cans back home with us. No one will ever know that William Copeland’s grave was visited by two icicle Norwegians with the intention of littering. Well, no one but you guys, of course, but I’m sure you won’t tell anyone. The question, then, is whether the beer can story was just a story; or if the grave had just not been visited that year, either because of the weather or because of the fact that the cemetery was indeed closed. I have no idea. I may have to return next year to find out?

(And if you thought all of this was the result of the delusional mind of a storyteller, I bring forth picture evidence below…)

I think it was called the "Ocean View Park", but I wonder if "Foggy View" wouldn't have been more appropriate...

Apparently, foreigners do die in Japan. By the bunch. And those white specs making the picture blurry? Yeah. Snow. 

Snow. Fog. It was sort of a theme. 

At last we found Mr. Copeland. Beautiful (though cold) flowers. No beer. Hm... 

Fortunately, we were able to add beer. Some day I'll even drink it, and think of William. Indeed I will. 

16 February 2011

Writer's Brain

See... what happens when you immerse yourself into editing so deeply that you forget life, is you start to snuff it up...

We (the Burrow) talked about having a guest writer for the week of Valentine's day and my name was listed... Since I was coordinating the guest writer, I figured that was WHY. In REALITY, I was supposed to post about writing last week and TODAY was the guest romance writer... which never crossed my mind, because you know... once Valentine's Day is OVER, I am onto discount chocolate and WAY OVER romance.

So today, I suppose it is down to me to talk about something writerly {sheesh, when Leanne asked me, I totally still thought it was Tuesday!  THAT is how clueless I was.}, but I am flying by the seat of my pantslessness, so work with me...

A Writerly Resource

First, I want to share with you a new writer's resource.  Imagine going to Google and searching for 'writing contract'... you get a whole bunch of stuff about WRITING A CONTRACT and very few of them have a darned thing to do with a contract between a writer and a publisher. What a hassle, yeah?  And there are probably TONS of good articles and blogs on the topic, but finding them through the morass is nearly impossible.

Well this groovy guy named Mike Fleming, was watching some writers on Twitter and he SAW all these fabulous resources that had a page life of about 45 seconds and thought... :a shame, that." (okay, so maybe I'm putting words in his mouth)... but he saw that Elizabeth the fabulous (you know Elizabeth, yeah?) was collecting these... so the two got to talking... see MIKE is an IT guy... he knows how to create... A SEARCH ENGINE!!! (you heard me... just for writers)

So if you want a little history, here is Elizabeth's version and here is Mike's version.  But then go look for cool stuff!

And since I'm being Helpful and all (to hide the fact that I am apparently flighty), here are a couple other FABULOUS blogs that have helped me with this or that point...

HERE is a thorough list of publishing and writing resources from YA author Nicola Morgan.

HERE is the poop on the HOOK (the bane of our existence, yes?) from Shannon Whitney.

HERE is a fabulous post on synopsis writing from Raquel Byrnes.

HERE are a bunch of query resources (from Elizabeth again--she really is handy for one-stop shopping if you are lazy like I can be...)

And finally, if you HAVE a book, HERE is how to plan a BLOGTOUR from L. Diane Wolfe.

So there... late... chaotic... but hopefully helpful. (I'm going to go eat some crow now)

15 February 2011

Topical Tuesday- the Curious Case of the Red Rash Epidemic

As those of you who have been following this blog know, Tuesday is the day when we blog about something "Topical". And in mid-February, what can be more topical than Valentine's Day? You start seeing the first signs of it towards the end of January, when shops start developing a bright red rash on their windows. It starts out small, but pretty soon assumes epidemic proportions. Till recently stores selling plumbing supplies were immune, but they are also starting to lose their immunity- who are the people who buy tiles with patterns of interlocked hearts for their bathrooms?

But what is Valentine's Day? This is what Wikipedia, my one stop shop for pop-information has to say-
Saint Valentine's Day, commonly shortened to Valentine's Day, is an annual commemoration held on February 14 celebrating love and affection between intimate companions. The day is named after one or more early Christianmartyrs, Saint Valentine, and was established by Pope Gelasius I in 496 AD......It is traditionally a day on which lovers express their love for each other by presenting flowers, offering confectionery, and sending greeting cards (known as "valentines").

No matter how hard I try, I can't seem to find any well documented, authentic link (except the name) between the early Christian martyrs and "affection between intimate companions". Even though I have a healty imagination, I am just not able to picture one of those early martyrs complete with pained expressions and arrows sticking out their back declaring their eternal love for an "intimate companion" while waiting to be beheaded. Let's just assume the usage of the name, Valentine, is purely coincidential and unintended. Which makes Valentine's Day probably the only truely non-religious, global holiday.

Since all it calls for is an "intimate companion" and "love and affection" to declare towards the said "intimate companion", the holiday transcends religion, gender, age and geography. Anybody can celebrate Valentine's Day. Everybody does.
Everybody, that is, who is young, in the grips of nascent love, and dreaming of converting those covert glances into something more.

And nowhere is the festival celebrated with greater enthusiasm than in India. A country which is still in the process of emerging from the prudishness imposed on it by the prissy Empress Victoria. A country where even two decades back it was considered almost scandalous for a couple to know each other before marriage. A country where "convincing your parents" that you wanted to marry someone was much tougher than actually finding the person you wanted to marry.

That same India has now embraced Valentine's Day (and Rose Day, and Friendship Day, and A-Dozen-Other-Such Days) and made it it's own.
Valentine's Day is when you send a musical card to that cute guy you have been looking at for nine months, to get him to spend the rest of his life looking at you.
Valentine's Day is when you gift a heart shaped cushion to the girl you have been going out with for two years, before telling her that you would like to take her home to meet "Mother".
Valentine's Day is when you send red roses to your "intended", so the recipient knows that she/ he is indeed still loved [sometimes I wonder if a guy will even know it if his girlfriend replces the tag and sends the same bunch of flowers back to him- or does that defeat the purpose of romantic love?]

Clearly, all of that is grossly immoral and contrary to the grand modern traditions of Indian prudishness. So instead of digging wells, construting schools and building roads, what do the political parties do? They denounce Valentine's Day as the Secret Weapon that "the West" is using to undermine Indian culture and break the nation apart. Stores are preventing from stocking Valentine cards, florists are forced to down their shutters and couple who dare [gulp] hold hands in public are tarred and stoned.

Serves a dual purpose. The obvious one is that attention is deflected from the fact that real problems are not being solved, to the fact that Indians are daring to express their love in public. But the other objective though less overt is the real one. India has a rich tradition of sensuality (and sexuality). Centruries before the birth of the Watery Tart, ancient Hindu Goddesses had declared war on Clothes. If temple sculptures are to be believed, they wore little more than a flimsy piece of loosely cloth draped around the waist. What they did adorn themselves with, however, was jewellary.

And that's what the Modern Indian Woman is now demanding from her husband. That he gift her Diamonds on Valentine's Day to prove that his love is indeed true. Obviously, the diamond lobby is much stronger than the paper heart one.

Random aside- why is a so called "heart" shaped the way it is, when a real heart looks nothing like it? And what does the heart have to do with love anyway- isn't it all hormones?

I am not too sure if any of the Burrowers celebrated Valentine's Day (Chary may well be the only exception), but that doesn't mean you would not enjoy the Valentine Feature at the Burrow. A drabble (or more) a day, everyday on the many facets of Love.

14 February 2011

Fondness for Fluff

Happy Valentine's Day one and all! In honour of the occasion, this post is dedicated to the romance genre, and I'm quite happy (for once!) to be doing a 'Reading Monday' post. I've been reading 'fluff' (as I like to call it, which is in no way a derogatory term by the way, far from it) for almost twenty years, so obviously I'm a fan. Of course, I'll read - and enjoy - just about anything (as long as it isn't anything to do with maths or science), so calling myself a 'fan' is maybe a bit of a stretch, but I have to admit there are certain times when only fluff will do. It's usually light reading, and as a general rule tends to have a happy ending, so it's an excellent form of escapism.

Romance is usually termed as 'Chick-lit', and probably rightly so. Most men either don't 'get' romance (rather like I don't 'get' maths and science *snort*), or will never admit to enjoying it simply because the words 'enjoy', 'romance', and 'men' in one sentence are liable to cause most of the male population to come out in hives. In all fairness, a lot of women are wary about admitting a fondness for fluff too; it just isn't considered a 'cool' thing. This, I personally think, is completely stupid. *nods firmly* The romance genre is one of the most marketable genres out there, so it's not like you'd be admitting to being a freak if you decided to declare your liking for it. There are plenty of fans out there, closet or not.

I admit, my reading range is fairly wide, so romance isn't the only thing I enjoy, and usually whatever book I am reading tends to reflect my current mood, so I could go months of reading anything but fluff before I get back to it. But although I've been reading fluff off and on for a long time, it was only really two years ago that I started reading it fairly regularly again. I had major computer problems back in 2009 and consequently found myself with large chunks of time to fill in place of my usual evenings on the internet. My local library is fairly small, so as I worked my way through it I inevitably arrived at the romance section, and soon discovered the delights of Julia Quinn.

Julia Quinn writes historical romance, which apart from my annual reading of Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice, was pretty much uncharted territory for me. I selected a couple of titles randomly from the shelf - mostly because the covers appealed to me - and took them home with a bunch of others. I think, if I remember rightly, I read the other selections before I got around to them, as I wasn't really expecting to enjoy them.

But I was in for a surprise, because I really did enjoy them. Despite the Regency references, and the more formal turn of phrase, these books could almost be set in modern times. There was none of the stuffiness that I'd expected (I don't really know why I'd expected stuffiness, I just did) and the humour running throughout was enough to make me snort a fair number of times. Quinn tends to write some spicy scenes too - another thing that I'd somehow never expected from a Regency novel (oh how innocent I was *smirk*) - but it is never overly done, and it somehow ends up being sweet as well as spicy, which is definitely more to my taste than out and out smut.

Yes, I know. You would think that as someone who sees smut in pretty much everything, I would enjoy reading it, but despite my love of all things innuendo, I can be somewhat prudish when it comes to my reading material.

Anyway, back to Quinn. The majority of her novels - although they can be enjoyed independently - are either half of a duo, or form part of the eight book Bridgerton series. I don't really think I can pick a favourite because they all have elements that I have enjoyed, but at a pinch I would most recommend the Bridgerton series. The series follows the relationships of the widowed Lady Bridgerton's eight children, and they are full of fun, sparkle, and memorable characters. As well as the main characters, Quinn has created her own little Regency World, and she has a fabulous cast of supporting characters that usually find themselves popping up at the inevitable social gatherings that were so central to upper class Regency life.

I think this is why I enjoy these books so much; not specifically for the romance itself, but because I love the array of characters that Quinn has created. I think the books are definitely more character than plot driven, and my own personal preference has always been for character driven novels. Quinn's characters are fun, funny, and fabulous to be around. And the fact that a familiar character is usually in the background in all of Quinn's novels makes them very comfortable reading. Just the ticket for those days when you are not feeling yourself.

And you know what? I actually spotted a man - yes! A male of our species! - picking a few Quinn titles up from the local library not too long ago. Okay, he was probably picking them up for his wife, but I choose to believe otherwise. *nods*

Anyway, for those of you would rather have your teeth pulled without anaesthesia than read a romance, grab one of Quinn's novels and have a go. You never know, you might like it.

11 February 2011

Who Am I?

Good question.
As of last Friday night I am an orphan.
I stand with my brother and my sister on the front-line of our family.
My father, my dear father, died on Friday, February 4th, and as I am writing this post early - I am going to Ontario to gather with my family - asking who am I is fundamentally a great question.
There are so many layers to this. As we move through life we take on different roles - we are process not project and that is normal.
So I'm a third-grade girl with red hair, I'm a skinny teenager who wishes love would jolt her into another life, I'm a pregnant teenager - love having jolted me into another life, I'm a sister,I'm a mother, I'm a step-mother, I'm an aunt, whoosh....I'm a grand-mother.
Or maybe who I am is not my relationships but what I do? I'm a student, a writer, a psychotherapist, a logger, a poet, a clown, a philosopher-gypsy-queen.
But as of last Friday night I am no longer a daughter which is the very FIRST label of who I was that I ever got. ' Born - Janice Anne Morrison, a daughter to Lloyd (Mo) and Beatrice (Bea) Morrison.
First label I suppose after 'oh it's a girl' then quickly or concurrently 'you have a daughter'.
Well, my dears, that is one thing I am no longer.
Perhaps who I am or who am I is not important. Perhaps who I love is the more important question. Now please remember that I am blasted with grief and extreme fatigue so I can't speak riddles as well as on another day. I spent four hours meditating and reading Rumi in the dark centre of the night. Oh right, I'm a Rumi scholar.
And who is my dad? Oh, no. I can't say 'who was my dad'. Not yet. We Buddhists think he is definitely still around for four days following death and usually quite a bit longer. He is in the bardo perhaps.

he's the youngest and the last to leave this sweet world...

Or he's walking across a grassy verge to my mother who stands on the other side wearing one of those cotton wrappers of the fifties with her hands on her hips calling out to him, "what took you so long?" He is young and old all at once,  his hair a wild pompadour on his head, his blue eyes seeing clearly - nothing obstructing his vision but her beauty - wearing those neat baggy pants that men wore then and a singlet - he calls out to her in happiness. He's all long legs and casual grace. That's a view of who he is that I can hold.

But wait. He stops for a minute, his heart tugged by something he's forgotten. He turns. There's another group of women and men on the other side of the river. One is a small Scottish woman, his second wife. She's already missing him terribly but glad to see him in his youth. And his daughters lean forward wishing with all their hearts that he might wave goodbye.  His son stands still and thinks of the sweet times they've had. And he sees the others too, his grand-children and his step-children, his nieces and nephews, his comrades and friends. He can't quite see any of them now on the far side, a river fog has come up so he turns back towards mum. Behind her is a bunch of others - his three brothers and four sisters - and they are all laughing and talking at once to see their baby brother at last. His own mum is standing quietly by under a willow - she is hanging clothes, always busy, but she stops to look his way, her hand coming up to shade her eyes. She exhales her relief that all of them are here together. His dad doesn't seem too worried about where his youngest has been - he trusts his brood will check out what he's up to as he pokes about  under this old jalopy.
Now they're all home.

That's where who am I has taken me today.

10 February 2011

Guest: Rita B. Skeeter

Y'all may have noticed that we Burrowers have an inside track to some of the characters in the Potterverse... well for this Valentine’s Week, for our Delusional Thursday, we asked Rita Skeeter if she might do a little bit of... a gossip column... now some of you might not think much of Rita, but you really are being unfair. She DOES have her fingers on the pulse of what's out there... I'm sure you'll agree. Welcome Rita!


Tis I Rita B Skeeter reporting live from some dark damp place that has affectionately been called home for the past few years. I have been asked to come out of retirement for pure entertainment purposes and a load of galleons.

About a week ago I was having biscuits and tea with a dear friend of mine. The subject of Valentine’s Day approached the table and I tried vehemently to sway the conversation to something more appealing. Like the cockroach that crawled across her china plate. Of course Valentine’s Day is something she looks forward to with her hunky man candy waiting to dote all over her. I quickly informed her that St. Valentine was the Devil and the Day was merely a reminder to single people that they are still single. This is the point in our conversation that she warmed my tea with a sweet lemon liquor. Soon after that we were acting like silly school girls. Although we weren’t really paying attention, a tall drink of water came over to our table to say hello. It was none other than Lucius Malfoy. Of course he was alone, he hasn’t been seen with his wife for years, but rumor has it that he does indeed still have one. We exchanged niceties and he went on about his way. In the moment that his silky hair swung around his shoulder, I could see myself attached to his arm. How different things would be if things were mixed up a bit differently.

(Now just for blathering sake, everyone that we know to be dead is alive and any undead may remain true to character.) Onward!

My matchmaking skills were quickly in high gear, but why stop here in London. There’s that lovely coven of vampires and pack of wolves that live in the States. Those wolves are just chomping at the bit to sink their teeth into those hard steel bodies.

My first mismatch would have to be Hermione Granger and Edward Cullen. She is clearly a know it all, so studying the ways of the undead should be no match for her. She is one muggle born that deserves a blood sucker. Especially one like Edward Cullen, does he even have a backbone? Who lets their significant other snog with a dog and keep her around to tell about it? Not to mention he plans on keeping her forever, yet another undead running amuck. I think Granger and her dirty blood would be just deserts for Mr. Cullen, no matter how sparkly he is when he steps out in the sun.

Bellatrix Lestrange, I just love her hair and her style has left her filthy rich –posthumously of course… So tragic. Bellatrix should no doubt be with that pesky wolf Jacob Black. Dare I say I would pay good money to watch a trisk in that den. I’m not sure who would be the giver of rabies but rest assured it would happen. Look on the brighter side with that hair and his eyes; they would have a cute poodle mix for offspring.

As for our boy wonder, Harry Potter, his best match would be Alice Cullen. Certified nutter she would be perfect for him. Her visions of the future could have set the pace and direction of things to come much differently. Therefore leaving me with more interesting things to write about, near death encounters and betrayal are much more my cup of tea. (With that warm liquor please)

Last but not least, I would pair Ron Weasley up with Bella Swan. Now there’s a pair I could sink my teeth into. Miss Swan for being a complete idiot, one for begging to die, or two, treating her invitation to death like pond scum. Take your pick. Weasley is so clueless about everything he will barely notice when she starts to snog his brothers while hunting garden gnomes.

I do hope you have enjoyed this short take on relationships. Obviously I’m not one to take after, but make no mistake, St. Valentine or not, I will be with someone on that special day, party willing or not.

Stay tuned for next time when we introduce Mr. Darcy to Katniss Everdeen. Now there’s one bow and arrow even Cupid can’t handle.

Happy Valentine’s Day,
Rita B. Skeeter

Rita B. Skeeter is a character created by J.K. Rowling, Channeled here by our friend Cheri Higgins.
The image of Miranda Richardson belongs to Warner Brothers, undoubtedly...

09 February 2011

Spreading the Love

So for Valentine's Day we (the Burrow) thought a week of features related to love might be a nice touch... and guess who got assigned the WRITING day...

I've got a confession. I am a MAJOR cynic. I don't happen to believe two become one, or that another person completes ANYBODY (certainly not ME!)... so addressing this... LOVE thang was something I just wasn't quite up to.

Don't get me wrong. I have something akin to love in all my books... people fall for each other... it is part of life. But for ME, it is always a side story (and typically it is either within an already existing relationship, or catches people busy with OTHER stuff as a sweet surprise...)

But you know... this is for VALENTINE'S DAY, so what is a Tart to do? I can't disappoint you!

So I scratched my head and said, “SAY... I know a romance writer!” (in actuality, I know several, but being me, I thought I wanted a SPICY romance writer). In fact this romance writer has just been contracted for her first novella! (which I've read and it is FABULOUS, even if it DOES center around a love story... in fact... THAT is part of the trick... Stacy Gail is sassy and feisty and mixes a little snark, a little heat, and a lot of torture... THAT is my kind of romance!)  So I asked Stacy to write a guest post on Romance for all of YOU.

Margaret Mitchell Had It Right

When Tami asked me to do a guest blog on how to write a romance novel, I was really stumped. All I could think was, “Well, you have a sexy dreamboat and a woman everyone can relate to, throw in some animal magnetism, sparkling repartee, a steamy grope scene or two, and boom – there ya go.” Easy, right?

Oh, if only it were that simple.

To get to the heart of what makes a romance really WORK, you have to dig for what makes a love story unforgettable. For me, despite the fact that I’m the world’s biggest sucker for a tale where love triumphs over all, the best work in romantic fiction is one of my all-time favorites –“Gone With The Wind.”

But I have to admit, it’s a bit of a love/hate relationship.

Margaret Mitchell had every ingredient known to the romance genre in “Wind.” A beautiful heroine? Check. A roguish bad boy? Boy howdy, CHECK. Unrequited love, as well as a love triangle and all the internal conflict this brings? Check. External conflict (a.k.a. the Civil War)? Definitely check.
Yet, despite all these pure-win elements, there’s a tiny part of me that hates old Margaret for the story she told. Why? It boils down to one thing. I didn’t get my HEA – my happily-ever-after. According to the guidelines of all the publishing houses currently cranking out commercial romances, the HEA is mandatory. If you don’t have one, it gets chucked right back at you like a boomerang.

So… was Margaret Mitchell wrong?

Thirty million sold copies say no.

There’s a reason why “Wind” is considered to be one of the best romances ever written, despite the fact that it doesn’t follow the current romance genre’s formula of delivering the HEA. Margaret Mitchell was a master at ripping into the darkest, most painful core of emotions and gushing it out on paper for everyone to experience. She showcased the emotion known as Love in all its myriad facets – pure, selfless, selfish, all-consuming, lustful, indomitable. Just thinking about the agony of writing something like that still makes me shake my head. The woman must have been in tears the entire time she was writing her masterpiece.

Which leads me back to Tami’s question on how to write a romance novel. I’m sure it’s different for every romance writer, but for me it’s all about getting to the heart of the story, and for a romance that heart is LOVE. When I hurt for my MCs or find myself instinctively shying away from the emotional time-bomb that’s about to explode all over them, I know I’m on the right track. To have two people who are willing to put themselves through the agonies of internal and external conflicts just to be together is a beautiful, even noble, thing. In the end, it’s not about the uber-hotness of the guy, or the lush backdrop of their surroundings; it’s about two people struggling to find where they truly belong.
But, if you’re like Scarlett and Rhett and that belonging just isn’t found, I’ve come to discover that this is okay, too. The struggle to find the person who is your other half will continue, and another story is just waiting to be told. After all, tomorrow is another day.

Tart's Post-partum

So it isn't a car accident with a lot of groping? [sorry... inside joke there]

Oh MAN... I LOVE Gone with the Wind! And it IS a romance, isn't it!? I think you've got what normally bugs me! I don't buy into Happily Ever After (maybe because I know after the wedding it is just work work work *shifty*) Stace—thank you so much for so much better a job than I could have made of this!!!

Image of Stacy Gail (the Margarita-skating penguin) drawn by Marissa Montano
Movie poster image from Publicfotki.com

08 February 2011

#$%^&(*&^% SNOW!!!

Okay, so remember back in early December when I was grumping about how we hadn't had any snow yet? Errrrrm. Yeah. We are now in the too-much-of-a-good-thing category. Holy hexagons, it just DOESN'T STOP. Now, I went to college in Rochester, NY - two degrees' worth, so 6 years. I'm thoroughly familiar with blizzards, lake-effect snow, 8-foot-high snow drifts, and all that fun stuff (not being sarcastic, generally speaking it WAS fun, especially when we sneaked {oh, sorry Tami - snuck} trays out of the dining center and went sledding on them). But the thing is, on the whole, Rochester is far better equipped to deal with massive quantities of the white stuff than good ol' Boston.

Of course, that's part of the problem - OLD Boston. With narrow winding streets and mazes of one-ways, there are roads that the plows just can't fit down, especially when snowbanks from previous storms have narrowed them even further (and there are cars parked on both sides...). Oh, and then there's the fact that we've been getting walloped every 4 or 5 days since the end of December. There's just no place to put the stuff, especially when it doesn't want to melt. Then again, even when it does melt, the grates are iced over...

Speaking of ice, that's been building up in gutters and on roofs, leading to a record number of building collapses and structural failures throughout the region (like this one). As if snow days weren't disruptive enough to schools, how about being closed for days or even weeks because the snow caved in your roof? And there are some sidewalks you do NOT want to walk on, since the possibility of being impaled by a falling icicle is higher than anyone is comfortable with. Check out this set of frozen stalactites, snapped by my roommate as they grew on our house:

They got even bigger before finally launching groundward in Sunday's thaw - I must admit, it was rather amusing to be awakened by the thunderous crashes of icicles into the yard. Surprisingly loud, divebombing icicles...

I'm tired of digging out parking spaces, too. There's a longstanding tradition in Boston that for 48 hours after the lifting of a snow emergency, the rule is "you shovel it, you own it", and you'll find everything from folding chairs and traffic cones to garden gnomes and piles of buckets sitting in cleared spots. The annoying thing in my neighborhood is that we're one block in from a main road that people need to vacate during a snow emergency... and so they come in and park on my street (which means I usually end up parking two blocks away...) and then they don't bother to shovel out their spots properly afterward, just gun it out of there and leave the slushy icy mess to refreeze, meaning no one else can park there without doing some major icebreaking (or just getting stuck, as the case may be... go on, ask me how I know that...).

Now, lest anyone get the wrong idea - I do still love snow. What I don't love is trying to drive in it alongside idiots who don't know how; having to go to work at a silly retail job in highly dangerous conditions (remind me to tell you about my duct-taped windshield wipers sometime); and how it looks after it's been rained on and plowed up and peed on (lotta dogs 'round here). But as I type this on Monday night, guess what's in the forecast for tomorrow? Only about an inch this time, supposedly - enough to make it pretty again, I hope, without any of the problems we've seen lately. I'll let you know.

07 February 2011

Reading Monday: Haruki Murakami

In my native Norway, the only Japanese author most people are likely to know the name of is Haruki Murakami. Then again, Murakami is quite famous. Last summer, the distinguished author visited Norway for five weeks, culminating in a festival in his honour at the “Litteraturhuset” (House of Literature) in Oslo. The festival had a lot of visitors and Murakami was treated as a literary superstar in Norway. His own comment – “This is the coolest summer I have ever had in my life” – indicates that he appreciated the event, though one might speculate whether the wordsmith didn’t also hint at Norway’s climate; rather chilly if you’re used to Tokyo’s suffocating summers.

Since he has made such a name for himself in not only Norway, but throughout the world, it only was appropriate for me – Japan-lover as I’ve become over the years – to read the work of Japan’s most famous contemporary author. I haven’t yet covered everything he’s written (and I’m not sure I ever will – there are certain of his books I prefer over others, and some that don’t seem to fall into my sphere of interest at all) – in fact there is a brand new (though old) book of his at my night stand as we speak (or, as I type…) – I have read the books considered his most significant. Since it is Reading Monday I intend to share my experience of them with you.

Norwegian Wood

This was Murakami’s big break, and for obvious reasons also the book that made Norwegian readers interested. Even though the book has nothing to do with Norway, it flatters a country when it’s mentioned in a popular book title. So much, in fact, that Norway had a considerable effort in the recent promotion of the adapted version. I haven’t yet seen Norwegian Wood the movie, but I’m looking forward to it!

But the book, back to the book. I loved the story, loved the characters, but at one point was so convinced I knew where the story was going that I was disappointed when I was wrong. The danger of being fond of plotting, I guess...

Anyway – aside from the small plot disappointment, I really liked Norwegian Wood. Of the Murakami-books I’ve read, it’s the most “normal” one, in the sense that very few fantastical elements happens (I will get back to this). The story is one of nostalgia, sexual awakening and identity, and it underscores how people’s actions affect close ones, or not-so-close ones. Also, as the main story takes places in Tokyo, it offers an interesting addition to an (at least to me) otherwise chiefly Western rendition of student life in the 1960s.

A small warning, though. You will find the Beatles song stuck in your head, so you might as well just start listen to it right away… 

Kafka on the Shore

This is probably one of the most complex books I’ve ever read. It’s got two main plots – both of whom are quite challenging to follow. Yet, it can be read as a simple story about searching, for someone or something. The two main characters (Satoru and Kafka – not the author, but named after him) both leave their homes for very different reasons, their stories entwined in several ways, but they don’t actually fuse together. The characters are endearing, confusing, interesting, challenging, but never boring. The descriptions of music, of moods, of the places visited, make you feel that you’re listening, sensing, seeing, in that particular way only Murakami can. 

What often throws me off in Murakami’s books is his flirtation with magical realism. It’s something I don’t particularly care for. Often I find myself wondering why he includes this, and I usually end up feeling that there is something written between the lines that I am not capable of grasping. In Kafka on the Shore it is mostly Satoru’s story (visited by such celebrities as Johnny Walker and Colonel Sanders) that made me feel this way, and several times I found myself wishing that I could only read the other half of the book. But then these two stories are part of a larger whole, without which the book would not have been the same. Plus I was deeply fascinated by Satoru’s ability to talk to cats (a reference to The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles, by the way).

In the end, the mysticism is what makes the book, and I found myself trying to make my own explanations to the many enigmas. Definitely a book that makes you think!

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles

Of the Murakami-books I’ve read, this is my definite favourite. And yet I can’t actually explain why. I read it four years ago, when I last lived in Japan, and I seem to remember that it was anything but an easy read. I think I spent almost three months reading it (I know, actually, since I had to keep renewing my library loan). I never put it down because it was boring, but it had so many elements to process that it took a while for me to absorb them all. Trying to recall them all for this review I fail – completely – and trying to do a little online research in an attempt to remember the actual plot, I fail again.

So far I probably haven’t convinced you…

What I do remember, is how well crafted this book was. As a writer, I found it truly joyous to read. Each description – even the seemingly boring ones – were beautifully made. I remember most distinctly reading a passage about a woman getting dressed, described in such detail that any other author would have had to cut it from the book because it was completely irrelevant and dull. But not Murakami – not only did it not feel irrelevant (it felt like character description), it also did not feel dull. How he does it I cannot say, but it certainly was beautifully done.

In addition, I remember that the back story – one of the many subplot stories weaved into the main plot, captured me. As a historian I was fascinated with the fact that Murakami dared to address Japan’s controversial history. As a human being I was touched by the relationships described in such tender detail. As a philosopher (if I may…) I was intrigued by the fact that this book made me want to climb down a well and spend some time down there.

Common for all of Murakami’s (fiction) books is that they heavily reference popular culture, they (more or less) include elements of magical realism, and often they are both humoristic and confusing (which isn’t mutually excluding features, I guess…). Since I don’t speak Japanese I have always been forced to read Murakami’s books in translation, but I find that at least the English translation reads surprisingly smoothly  (I’m not as fond of the Norwegian translations, though). 

If you’re wondering what book to pick up next, I can definitely recommend a Murakami! 

04 February 2011

I can see for miles and miles

A remarkable story of discovery

How far can you see? The question is not so straightforward. Anyone can glance up at the night sky and see starlight that originated thousands of light years away, but our brains' default software truncates everything to the average horizon of some twenty miles. Consider that monkeys, birds, and insects can see those same stars-- do you think they are capable of seeing thousands of light years? If not, what is the alternative?

I contend that the origin of sensory input is not the decisive factor. When I look at the full moon, I see only reflected sunlight; am I therefore looking at the sun, some 93 million miles away, or am I seeing the moon, some 485000 miles away? Better yet, take a gander at this and tell me how far away you're seeing:

That's a NASA artist's rendition of an exoplanet, ergo, I think you'd agree that you're seeing something about two feet away (your monitor). Now imagine that this is a physical drawing and you're seeing it on someone's desk via NASA's live webcam-- what's your distance measure now? You might say that it's still a mere two feet, because the light that strikes your eyes came from your monitor. That's a boring answer, and not very consistent with common usage. Reference the previous paragraph about the sun and the moon. Look at your keyboard and tell me if you're looking at your keyboard (like I told you to do), or if you're looking at a distorted and darkened image of your light bulb (whence the photons originated).

In fact, every bit of light that reaches your eyes has been distorted, translated, and generally fuzzed up. And it achieves this without the benefit of technology. Photons get doppler-shifted, they interact with our atmosphere, and they do funky stuff that's remniscent of a hypothetical elastic collision between equal-mass billiard balls.

And when that happens, you can't tell whether one photon generated another identical photon or simply passed on unimpeded, and, if I understand my quantum mechanics, it is actually incorrect to say that there is a difference. What you see really depends on the information, however transmitted, and therefore depends on your knowledge.

Irritated yet? Okay, I'll get on with the story.

When I was a wee lad of about ten (and I was pretty wee, so I probably looked more like a lad of seven), I had learned enough to know that the stars and stuff were really, really far away. But I also knew there was no way I could see for trillions of miles. Sure enough, when I looked up at the night sky, I perceived twinkling lights some tens of miles away. And that was it. I wondered how those scientists did it. Many of you may still wonder. I figured it had something to do with telescopes, or maybe spaceships. Surely, when those guys flew to the moon, they had a better view of things and the distances were much more obvious.


So I asked for a telescope for Christmas. My parents obliged with the best that a non-millionaire could afford, which gave me something slightly better than ordinary binoculars. When I looked up at the stars and planets I was rather disappointed to learn that everything looked almost exactly the same.* I did have some fun looking at the moon, and distant landscapes, but I figured the telescope simply wasn't big enough. So I shifted my dreams to plan B, which involved becoming an astronaut and/or building my own spaceship.

Soon after that, I noticed girls, and couldn't think about anything else for a very long time.

My journey of discovery resumed in college, when I took a course in astronomy. But here's the remarkable thing: I was scarcely aware of it at the time, because I was following the same journey that had begun thousands of years ago with curious-minded folk the world over. What's more, it had nothing to do with spaceships, and far less to do with telescopes than I ever expected.

One such journeyman was Nicolaus Copernicus. He watched the stars go round and round in predictable fashion, as did the sun and moon, while a few oddballs among the group liked to stop and go backwards every now and then. Nick didn't like that one bit.

The mystics, we should note, were more than happy to attribute these oddities to supernatural intervention; just as mystics today are content to describe odd noises as ghosts and strange lights as alien visitors. Persistent anthropomorphisation of unknown phenomena is the hallmark of bad imagination.

Anyway, Nick was rigid and imaginative, and insisted that something else must be going on. Thus he came up with the heliocentric model, with Earth and the planets going in circles around the sun at various distances. Not only was this model simpler, but it paved the way for the first calulations of interplanetary distances. Shockingly, until then, mankind had absolutely no clue as to how far away the sun was. But why would they? You look at it (or near it, don't burn your eyes) and have a guess. But by knowing that Venus was between the sun and the Earth, and knowing they both moved in (roughly) circular orbits, a transit of Venus could now be used to measure the distance to the sun.

Thus armed with knowledge, we can now look at the sun (again, make it a cursory glance) and see something that's 93 million miles away. That's over 4 million times further than our most primitive ancestors could see. Wow. Let's stop and give a toast to dear Copernicus, and to Jeremiah Horrocks, who made the first good measurement in 1639. Well done!

But of course, we're not done. How 'bout them stars? They're reeeeeaaalllllly far away. But now that we know the distance to the sun, we can use a trick called parallax:

If that diagram confuses you, step outside and look at your neighbor's chimney against the distant horizon. Now walk sideways. See how the chimney moves relative to the hills? The closer your neighbor's house, the "faster" the apparent motion of the chimney. Likewise, but observing nearby stars at six-month intervals (when the Earth has moved "sideways" twice its distance to the sun), we can compare their position relative to more distant background stars. Friedrich Wilhelm Bessel first did this in 1838, measuring the distance to 61 Cygni at around three and half parsecs, or some 67 trillion miles. Earth-based parallax measurements are effective for stars up to about 100 parsecs away, or 1900 trillion miles. Now we can see 20 million times further than Jeremiah Horrocks. And the best is yet to come.

With a catalog of several thousand stars at measurable distances, astronomers can do all kinds of tricks with spectral analysis (looking at the color of starlight) and measures of luminosity (how bright the stars are). One good trick is to make a chart:

The height (y-axis to my fellow geeks) shows how much light each star puts out. They can figure that out by comparing the apparent magnitude (how bright it looks from here) and the known distance (taken from parallax). The bottom of the chart shows the spectral class, and further spectral analysis can take a star's temperature, which pretty well narrows down what type of star you're looking at.

See the trick that's coming? Armed with this information, you can look at a star of unknown distance, determine what type of star it is, and therefore how much light it puts out. By comparing that absolute magnitude to the apparent magnitude, you can calculate the distance. You probably feel drunk with power by now, so we'll do just one more step.

At much greater distances, outside our own galaxy, it's difficult (if not impossible) to observe individual stars. Unless they blow up, which can happen in one of several ways.

Regrettably, stars eventually die. When that happens, if they're more than three times the mass of our own sun, they can collapse into a neutron star or even a black hole. If they're less massive than our sun, they aren't dead yet (because they universe is only 14 billion years old, silly). Stars in between those sizes become white dwarfs, and after blowing off excess mass in their death throes they are all remarkably similar.

Now, many stars in our universe are part of a binary system. Ergo, many white dwarfs are paired with neighboring stars. As you probably guessed, then, the smaller white dwarf that isn't putting out any stellar wind is likely to accumulate matter if its companion is sufficiently nearby:

If the white dwarf accumulates enough mass, it triggers carbon fusion and explodes again. And the really cool part here is that "enough mass" is the same wherever you go. Any such white dwarf that blows up is going to do so with the same mass, no matter how long it takes to build up to it, and thus they produce nearly identical explosions. These are called a Type Ia Supernova. So: We've already measured the distance to a lot of stars within our own galaxy and nearby companions; and we've seen a few of them go up as Type Ia Supernovae, producing an exceptionally distinct light curve (spectral analysis again) and having the same "brightness" (absolute magnitude) every single time. Once again, we observe a more distant object (Type Ia Supernova in another galaxy) and compare that absolute magnitude with the apparent magnitude to determine the distance. We might need a telescope, but at this point we can see objects as far away as 1000 Megaparsecs; which is about 19 million trillion miles; which is ten million times further than we could see using parallax; which is roughly 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 (a sextillion, if you like) as far as can be seen with the naked brain.

Of course, all of that is a mere outline of some of the major techniques. Like all good science, astrometrics involves plenty of corroborating evidence. But at the least, I hope this shot of Supernova 2006dd in the galaxy NGC 1316, some 70 million light years away, looks like more than a haze of pixels to you now.

I can see for miles and miles and miles and miles and miiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiles....


* If you know someone with a low-powered telescope and astronomical curiosity, I recommend looking at Jupiter. Even with a pair of binoculars, it can be seen as a small disc surround by pinpoints of light which are the Galilean moons.