The Pleasure of Finding: A Lost Joy

Dictionaries. Thesauri. Encyclopedias. Card Catalogues.

I used to have a large dictionary in my classroom, one that I inherited from the previous resident. The students disliked when, after they asked to use their “device” to look up a word, I’d hand them the dictionary, then teach them how to use it. That was work! It was so much easier to have $SEARCHENGINE$ do it. The dictionary vanished last year. I don’t know if one of the English faculty borrowed it and accidentally added it to her reference shelf, or if a student smuggled it out so that later generations might be spared the pain of looking up words in a heavy book.

I suppose link-hopping or WikiWandering are how the curious spend time, instead of reading what is around the desired dictionary word, or encyclopedia article. Both waste time, sort of, although learning isn’t always time-wasting. I suspect most of my readers grew up occasionally browsing dictionaries and encyclopedias and wandering through card catalogues out of curiosity. How much did we absorb as we drifted from the officially-sought topic to other intriguing (or useful “ooh, I can call someone this and he won’t have a clue that it’s an insult”) information. Grab a random volume off the shelf, or open the tome to a random page, and start browsing away. Yes, the information might be out-of-date. In a few cases, that’s the strength of older reference books. If you can get your hands on a pre-1920 set of the Encyclopedia of Islam, you have a goldmine of accurate information. After that? Well, there’s been some selective alteration and gilding, let us say. Likewise certain other encyclopedias and reference works. And people seem to retain what they read on page far more than what they read on screen.

I’ve written before about the advantages – for some things – of card catalogues. Those who had to maintain and update the files would disagree, as would most modern librarians. Especially in the early days of electronic library catalogues, the old system was far more forgiving of error and uncertainty than the hyper-precise systems. A keyword might not be enough – you had to know Boolean systems and terminology in order to enter what you hoped might lead to the book or journal that you sought. Some of us were not taught that, making finding things an exercise in unproductive frustration. Most modern library catalogues are better, or at least easier to start using, but it depends on how things are searched for and logged. One example: I was looking for books on Gypsies, or Roma. Using Roma led to romance novels, not the Library of Congress Subject. Romania? Also romance novels, or Roman history (and historical novels about Rome). I told the reference librarian, who sighed and added it to the list of complaints.

I don’t want to go back to the world of “we have to go to the library to find that,” not really, no matter how much I enthuse about things. And the electronic search systems are faster, and can lead to things not usually found in the older versions (like magazine and journal articles). There needs to be a balance, one I’m not sure we can easily find. The genii is out of the bottle, and making younger people go back to the paper versions of Dictionary DOT com could lead to rebellions. But I think some kids are missing a true pleasure, the thrill of discovery and exploration some of us get thumbing through reference books, never knowing what gems we might find.

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Stages of Schedule Disruption

  1. Denial – No, you can’t do this to me, I just got everything set up!
  2. Anger – How dare you mess up my carefully planned [whatever]. Who do you think you are?!?
  3. Depression – The day is a loss. The week is ruined. We’re doooooooomed.
  4. Resignation – Oh well. It’s out of my control. I can’t change it.
  5. Acceptance – It is what it is, so I’ll just rework everything else and go from there.

I am a creature of habit. I have my way of doing things, and once I get a pattern established, I like to stick with the pattern unless I choose to change. I do not respond well to being acted upon by an outside force/administrator/dispatcher/scheduler. Especially multiple redirections or deflections of schedule in a short period, all of which are caused by human action, not Forces of Nature. (Snowvid 21 was outside anyone’s control. “We’re moving the track meet to during the school day because parents want better light for photos,” is the sort of thing that harshes my mellow. [I exaggerate the reason, but I was still irked.])

The End User Should Have the Final Say

It is my opinion, and an increasingly vehement opinion it is indeed, that certain products should not be designed by males without final say by females, and vice versa. This vehemence is inspired by a product that I use on a regular basis. It was “improved and redesigned!”

As with most things, this phrase served as a warning. The warning was well merited.

Said “improvements” reduced the comfort and usefulness of said product, moving it from “useful and about as comfortable as possible given the usage” to “uncomfortable, borderline impossible to use, and prone to self-destruction during removal from wrapper.” Happily, I was able to find a supply of the old version, and used up the last of “new and improved” with a feeling of delight at having rid myself of the odious item.

I have a strong suspicion that it was designed by an anatomical male, perhaps with the assistance of a female who did not think that other women might, perchance, wear underpinnings of a design that varied from her own. Delicacy and a certain respect for the feelings of my male readers forbids me to go into further detail. Suffice it to say that “one design works for all” failed in this case, as in so many.

Likewise, women should not design certain products used only by anatomically male individuals without having said item tested by a variety of men.

In fact, there are a number of things that obviously never, ever passed into the hands of an end user on the path between design and sale. Overly gee-whiz cars with computer displays that reduce safety by having more warnings and alerts than does an airliner, with less logic in the presentation. Certain types of packaging that require a dedicated tool to open, or the strength of Superman, or a very sharp knife that tends to slide on the plastic. Sofas and easy chairs that swallow anyone shorter than 5’8″ tall. Which also applies to movie theater seats. Overly-sensitive side airbags on pickups designed to be used in places where brush might brush against the door while the truck is in motion. Foomp! That led to the addition of a deactivation switch in the next year model and subsequent.

The statistically perfect person does not exist. Would that designers of all types remembered this.

And leave my preferred product alone unless you ask women of all sorts, who wear all different types of clothing, to test it and provide feed-back!

Waiting for the First Drops

It takes rain to make rain. The most frustrating part of living in a drought may well be the nightly weather forecast, when the weather dude (or dudette) says, “All the ingredients for a good rain are here, but until we get some moisture, the system has nothing to work with.” And so you open the morning paper to see that the area a hundred miles east of you got pounded with flooding rain, ping-pong-ball-hail, and farmers are griping because it’s too wet to harvest the winter wheat. Meanwhile dust is dancing on the morning wind and the cracks in the ground of your yard are so deep that you’re pretty sure if you look carefully, you can see a group of people in a park practicing tai chi.

Without moisture in the ground, there’s nothing to evaporate and fuel the storms that bring more rain. All the air does is bake, sucking more water out of the plants and soil. It takes rain to make rain. Only after something pumps starter moisture into the area, be it the remains of a hurricane in the Gulf or the Pacific, or something sucking southeasterly winds up into the Plains with dew points in the 50s F, can the rainmaking weather systems produce rain.

Writing and culture seem to be a lot like waiting for rain. It takes someone saying “Hey, I’m tired of elegantly written, beautiful books without plots. I want characters that stand up and defend what they believe in. I’m tired of reading 400 pages of ‘brilliant prose’ about a woman having existential angst about her midlife crises over the course of a day of shopping.” And someone else chimes in, “Yeah. Me too. I want some big damn heroes.” And a writer ventures out into the waters, publishing a little electronic book and saying, “Hi. You might like this.” Or “Dear Big Publisher, sod off. I’m writing what I want to read and if other people buy it, great.”

One story becomes two, becomes three, becomes the first faint gust of moist wind. Other proto-authors see the new books, or encounter a reprinted swashbuckling classic, and say, “Hey! I’ve got one of those in my drawer.” Or they decide to venture out into the publishing waters with their own tale of adventure. (Captain Blood in space, anyone?) The damp gust becomes a stronger wind, bringing inspiration and ideas and motivation with it. And then the rain begins, or a wave. Let’s call it “human wave,” a storm of books about people of all colors and flavors, human and otherwise, fighting for truth, beauty, justice, and the right to be left alone. Or to win the hand of their true love. Or to defeat the evil wizard. Or just to survive on a hostile planet.  And so the rain falls, bringing more rain, and refreshing readers thirsty for well-told tales and pretty-much happy endings.

You don’t need a hurricane to bring rain, just a steady, water rich wind.

 

 

 

Random Musings and Observations

If you are going to drive on a regular basis like a flying mammal fleeing an infernal region, putting 1) your child’s name and school, 2) your place of worship, 3) your political affiliation, or 4) your employer on your vehicle is not a really great idea.

If you are approaching a small town, and notice everyone else on the highway is starting to slow down well before the first change speed sign, this might be A Clue.

A cat’s interest in your lap is directly proportional to your interest in using a laptop computer or notepad.

Don’t bother planning a trip to Central Texas in mid-summer if you aren’t resigned to heat and humidity. And no, down there it’s not a “dry heat.”

One of the nicest things about being in a foreign country is the lack of US political news. And US celebrity news, and US sports news, and . . .

You always find the perfect book for the trip on the leg home, or after you return.

There’s nothing like finding an e-mail message from your boss when you get back from any trip to remind you that vacations are finite but work expands to fill all available space and time.

Nothing likes the July heat except cacti and tomatoes, and even tomatoes like a little bit more water.

But They Matched at Home: Musician World Problems

Spotlights are wonderful things if you are an audience member. They are dreadful if you are a performer. They are hot. They blind you. And perhaps worse, they reveal that your black jacket and black slacks do not match. Or your black blouse and skirt. Awkward!

It’s a bit of a joke—OK more than a bit—among the goth and related communities that you need to make certain that your blacks all match. Anyone who has tried to pair up green and green, or green and a few other colors, know that not all shades play well together. Green seems to be infamous for that, although I have seen shades of red that clashed in unpleasant ways. But black should be black, and so what if one has a little more blue and the other is a tad bit greener? In a dark club, at night, no one will notice. Right? Glamor goths seem a bit more concerned about this than are others, but you can be unpleasantly surprised that some combinations collide.

For classical musicians, and others under spotlights or sunlight, clashing blacks become very evident. For several years, I noted that a certain gentleman in a local orchestra had a bluish-black tailcoat but greenish-black slacks. The stage lights made it obvious, and brought out the clashing secondary hues. Last year he got new slacks, and the problem went away. I suspect that the coat was made of wool, and the trousers of cotton or wool-blend, leading to the problem. Different materials plus different dyes causes different shades of the same dominant color.

When everyone else’s blacks match, you don’t want to stand out. For that reason, I am very careful to make certain that my black blouses and black skirts match before chorus concerts, or are close enough that no one notices any difference. All are cotton. The skirts are twill, the blouses are a plain weave, and both are slightly bluer than “pure black.” It works. For performances with the symphony, I have a dress. It is all cotton and all the same material, so I do not have to worry about the painfully bright stage lighting making me look odd.

Black and green seem the hardest to match, or to get to blend well. For years, my wardrobe was black, khaki, blue, and one pair of green-brown slacks. A friend teased me about being Mennonite, because my colors were so plain and my style so modest. But everything worked together, and as long as I didn’t wear a blue shirt with the green-brown pants. I had no problems. Other than matching my blacks. My plumage has grown a bit more colorful since then (white dresses for summer church, a few true purple or cool purple-rose turtlenecks), but 90% of it is interchangeable. Yes, I do get dressed in the dark, fairly often. I don’t like sartorial surprises.

However, last week, I got out my black “I’m faculty” long-sleeve, official issue tee shirt and tried matching it with black corduroy pants. Not happening. The shirt had too much green in it for the black pants. The combination was unattractive. However, very, very dark hunter green with a black undertone? Perfect!

Yep, goth/musician-world problems. The struggle is real! 😉

Red Lights, Rules, and the Running Of

So, I have gotten used to people running red lights in the early and late hours of the day, when traffic isn’t as heavy as at other times, and the law-enforcement presence is muted. In fact, on my route to Day Job, there’s one county road intersection (with stop lights and turn arrows) that I just assume will be run, often flagrantly. Indeed, on a daily basis, people race through north-bound, not even on a “stale green.” Sometimes the left turn light has been green for a while and they still blast through. Thus far no one has been hurt or killed *taps wood*, because those of us who travel the path anticipate the running of the light. But some day . . .

In other aspects of life and driving, I’m seeing similar disregard for the law. Rolling stops when people used to halt fully. More aggressive driving, less patience, more cutting off of other drivers. Less patience in the grocery store, or on the phone. Fewer people smile at strangers, or check to se if anyone is nearby before moving and thus causing a minor collision or thump. On a larger scale, civic organizations and places of worship are seeing less participation, at least in the larger towns. Fortunately, the recent spate of small disasters (only four houses lost, only hundreds of miles of fence burned, only a few tons of hay and forage burned to ashes, only two firefighters badly hurt. Only . . .) has generated the usual wave of assistance and kindness. There but for the grace of a wind-shift, and so on.

I suspect part of the problem comes from the past two years. Governments and well-meaning other organizations encouraged isolation, shifting to on-line presence, and discouraged participation in civic life. Or perhaps I should say “civil life,” because the little rubbing against each other that trains us into civility and politeness was suspended. Add to that the appearance of “rules for you but not for us” or “rules for you but not for them,” and a feeling seems to have seeped into life that, “if it won’t hurt anyone, why follow the law?” So lights are run, stop-signs ignored, polite greetings brushed off, doors not held, eye contact and handshakes not made.

Those are relatively minor (or will be until someone hits someone else at 55 MPH at 0630 AM). The greater sense of “rules can be ignored because those people get to ignore them” is poison. The US is based on the idea of the Rule of Law, that all are equal under the law, and that red lights apply to the mayor as well as to the school bus and the family car. When the Authorities ignore the rules, or apply them selectively, then everyone else looks at “pointless” and “petty” rules and ignores them as well. Or when rules are created that cannot, and will not, be obeyed, other more important statutes get flouted. Even Newton’s Laws, which, alas, often leads to fatal results for more than just the initial offender.

The decline in civility and civil (in all senses of the word) discourse happened so fast. Two years, and things have changed. I suspect that the change was in progress, but concealed, at least around here. The pattern of decay was not so obvious. Two years of abnormality, and of increasingly flagrant disregard for the concept that “all men are created equal” in the eyes of both G-d and the Law brought the pattern into the open.

Or perhaps it just seems like a pattern. One of my talents is finding patterns and seeing how pieces of the past fit together. I could be seeing patterns that only exist in my own mind, or even just in my own region.

I Think It Needs a Transfusion . . .

because it’s bleeding all over the place!

How to stage a murder scene in your bathroom or laundry room. Take one red, floral print cotton blouse, acquired on clearance. Add warm water and anti-allergy soap. Stir vigorously in the bathroom sink, using hands to squeeze warm water and soap into blouse. Stare at water as Moses and Aaron stage a reenactment of messing with the Nile. Brilliant crimson soapy water now fills the sink. Surprise!

Interestingly enough the Red family has had a problem with crimson clothing going back several decades. Sib had a shirt that never, ever stopped shedding color in the wash, even after a score of washes on cold. It always went in with the blue jeans and other really dark colors, and woe betide any sock or pair of pale underwear that somehow slipped into the load. It emerged pink. I tend to assume that red colored garments will shed dye until proven otherwise. Although . . . the “winner” is still a green dress.

Back in the late 1990s-early 2000s, rayon skirts and dresses from Asia became trendy. The skirts replaced broomstick skirts (which I had loved) with a lighter version that didn’t need re-pleating after each wash. The skirts had a few flaws, flammability being one major flaw. The other was that the dyes used weren’t always colorfast. So, I bought a very dark green rayon dress at a local western store in Flat State. Since it was rayon and imported, and because I’ve had raw green fabric bleed a little dye in the past, I opted to wash it with cold water in the bathtub.

To make an interesting half hour short, when I finished, I had a white-grey rayon dress. Whoever had dyed the material had used no fixative at all. None. Nada. All the dye went down the drain. No, I couldn’t get my money back, either. And the “call with questions” line led to someone with a strong Hindi accent who was less than helpful. I’m not sure he understood the problem, or why it was a problem.

The pink and red blouse, after one wash and three rinses with warm, stopped bleeding. It looks quite nice. I’m just glad it didn’t go into the washing machine with MomRed’s pastel blouses and slacks, though!

Why Are You Fussing?

My knee, the bad one, started fussing at me last week.

Me: What’s your problem?

Joint: Don’t you remember?

Me: I mean besides what happened [redacted] years ago. You haven’t ached like this for a couple of years.

Joint: [loud pop, then sigh] Remember what happened three weeks ago? The car door?

Me: [looks at still-technicolor, still-tender bruise on side of leg, just below knee] Yes. But that shouldn’t be a problem.

Joint: It is now! He, he, he. [maniacal giggles]

At least all it does is ache constantly, thus far. *taps wood* It doesn’t seem weaker, just “tired” and sore, like when there’s a major temperature change and I’m tense and cold and fatigued all at the same time.

Oh well. As long as it is only the usual places hurting in the usual ways, I’m in decent shape, really.

Book Review: Garden Variety

Hoenig, John. Garden Variety: The American Tomato From Corporate to Heirloom. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2018) Hardcover.

We all know that there are only two things that money cannot buy, per country music. Those are true love and homegrown tomatoes. Most of us have probably grumbled about the visually perfect and rather bland super-‘mater that is found in grocery stores in January, and many of us have sighed and sweated over trying to raise our own tomatoes in pots, or in gardens. And then felt overwhelmed by the produce overload that is known as August-September (in much of the US). Tomatoes are argued over, debated, immortalized in song, have a folk history, and serve as a powerful symbol of the problems of mass-grown corporate agricultural produce. But what if that story is a lot more complicated that most activists think? Enter John Hoenig and his fun book, Garden Variety.

Hoenig starts about 200 years ago, looking at the slow rise in popularity of tomatoes, and the problem of preserving them. You can’t easily dry, smoke, salt, or otherwise store tomatoes. Potatoes, corn [maize], turnips, squash, cabbage, beans, all can be easily kept for the long duration of winter, but tomatoes were a seasonal luxury until canning came along. Ketchups of mushrooms, then tomatoes, and sauces came first because of the limits of technology. Those limits also led to the creation of lots of regional canneries, each using local produce and serving a limited area. In those places where immigrants and others introduced new diets, like the Italians in the late 1800s, tomatoes became a luxury, then a necessity. To have the first tomato of the season brought a lot of money to farmers, and so cold-frame-grown tomatoes appeared, or tomatoes shipped by rail. However, most tomatoes ended up in cans, either at home or through the local cannery.

WWI and especially the Great Depression and WWII led to the explosion of both canned tomato products and the super-cannery. Standardized foods, like canned diced tomatoes, tomato paste, Ro-Tel™ tomatoes-n-peppers, and canned meals grew in popularity. The wars absorbed almost all the tomato products that Heinz and others made, forcing gardeners to can at home. With the shift in the economy and changing leisure-time interests, home canning faded for a while. That shift also led to the end of the bracero and other farm-labor programs. This is where the “industrial tomato” arose, when labor shortages in the 1960s forced growers to finally take interest in a mechanical harvester. Said harvester needed sturdier tomatoes, leading to the modern industrial hybrids.

Most histories of food in the US turn here, following the rise in mass-consumption and the “blanding” of the American diet as corporations came to dominate agri-business. However, Hoenig takes a different track, and points out how a combination of “back-to-the-land,” “gourmet,” and “traditionalists,” led to the resurgence in farmers’ markets and heirloom local tomatoes. Yes, most packaged produce still comes from big farms and corporations. However, the local tomato didn’t wither on the vine, and in fact old-breed varieties grew in popularity, as did farmers’ markets and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). This complicates the story of “corporate food.”

The book is shorter than it seems, because of the extensive end-notes and bibliography. It is not academic, for all that it is written as an academic monograph. Hoenig aims the work at interested readers, people who might know a little about farm history, or gardening, or food history, and who want to learn more. There are no bad guys, no super-heroes, unlike some books about farming and agri-business in the US. The story never strays from the tomato. I got the sense that Hoenig is not entirely comfortable with the giant corporations that dominate supermarket shelves, and the environmental problems associated with monocrop farming. Those topics are not his focus, however, and he steers clear of the shoals of polemic. I suspect a lot of us share his concerns, and are interested in buying local and supporting more variety in ag when we can.

I highly recommend this book for readers interested in the history of food in the US, in farming and mechanization, and in quirky histories about produce.

FTC Notice: I purchased this book with my own funds, and received no remuneration or consideration from either the author or publisher for this review.