5 April 13
8,403 Miles by Train - and 211 Sketches
We got in after midnight, the train that had carried my mother and me from Chicago and lost both engines limping off toward Emeryville in the dark. This last leg was the longest of my trip — two nights by train, even without the nine-hour delay. The ground felt oddly solid beneath my feet.
I set out on this journey for many reasons, some of which I’m still discovering, but mainly to clear my head from the past few months leading toward a layoff. It’s hard to know what to do when you are older but seem to have moved on from your chosen career path; it’s disorienting and holds the potential for huge anxiety and depression. My body is at a transition time also, and the anticipation of major change was almost too hard to take at times. When it came, though, and the final date was set, it was a huge relief — and felt like cause for celebration. I discovered what I’d do next, almost by chance (but actually because I was ready to; I’ll be talking more about it later). I needed a big, long break.
A continent-long break, it turns out. Davis – Los Angeles – Albuquerque – Chicago – Tyrone, PA – Philadelphia – Boston – Brunswick, Maine – Boston – Chicago – Davis. In the middle there I took a fantastic side trip by car to see some dear friends in Montreal, managed a little time with my cousin in Maine and my uncle in Boston. Managed to catch up, too, with Lorianne and Leslee in Cambridge, a merging of many conversations.
As I’ve said elsewhere, the most unexpected delight, serially, was all the fantastically interesting people I met (pretty much everyone). People who take long train journeys area almost uniformly interesting. (The people who felt as though they’d been duped into taking theirs were the very rare exceptions.)
I brought too much to do, hoping to stave off boredom, but nothing was boring. I did very little knitting and almost no reading. What I did was lots and lots of sketching, dozens of tiny pen-and-wash drawings with a purple Pilot G-Tec-C4 and a set of Schmincke watercolors—having spent some time with these I can say I love the saturation but need to tweak, in a major way, the reds. The blues are good though I’d perhaps add cerulean to the mix; I need to find a good color to use for flesh tones of winter Caucasian midwesterners, because what was in my box certainly didn’t provide that.
I brought along my good (read heavy) binoculars and was glad of them for the day spent looking in vain for the fieldfare in Carlisle, Massachusetts, but more especially for the two life rosy-finches in the Sandia Mountains above Albuquerque. They proved almost useless on the train if it was moving—I should have brought a much lighter pair. I will compile a bird list, separating out birds seen from the train and not (a real treat was the woodcock near my sister’s in Maine that was flushed by her dog, especially since the one I’d hoped to see at Dave’s in Plummer’s Hollow was taking a break during a big snowfall). I don’t know what it means other than that I’m still, deep down, a lister, even if not a very serious one.
The return leg of the trip was taken with my mother. We’re going to go and see my brother in Juneau and she was up for the train ride across the country. We worked out some surreptitious signals in order to avoid killing each other, but actually didn’t need to avail ourselves of them; we are good travel companions, even through nine-hour delays in the Utah desert (it might have been better if there had been a bird — any bird — but we still had a good time; after five hours of looking at the same five acres of sagebrush I did pick up the knitting, it must be said). A sense of humor goes a long, long way in mishaps beyond your control.
29 March 13
We had the day off today so I took the opportunity to play tourist in my own backyard, and headed to the Aerospace Museum of California, which is in the north Sacramento area next to the former McClellan Air Force Base airfield. I had never been there before. Their collection is strong in U.S. AIr Force planes but they have some other noteworthy planes as well. I sketched three of the planes and one pair of rocket engines. The plane at left is a MiG-17: according to the plaque how the Air Force acquired this particular plane is still classified. At lower right is the pair of rocket engines from the first stage of the Titan IV rocket. This rocket was used mainly to launch large military satellites into orbit but was also used to launch the Cassini space probe which is still orbiting Saturn collecting data.
27 March 13
Feathers of Hope Turns Ten
in 2003, not long after we had started out on Feathers of Hope, I came across a blog by an interesting woman in Vermont. Beth of the Cassandra Pages quickly became one of my go-to places, and through her, I discovered lots of other like-minded bloggers. We started the Ecotone Wiki for bloggers about place, which sadly succumbed to hackers and is no more. But I have kept in close touch with a lot of blogging friends from those days.
On this incredible train journey across the continent, I’ve even seen some of them. I type this in an Arabic restaurant above the rue Sainte-Catherine in Montreal, across from Beth. Ten years after we first met in Vermont. I’ve spent time in Plummer’s Hollow with Dave of Via Negativa, I’ve seen Leslee of 3rd House Journal Lorianne of Hoarded Ordinaries, partners on this journey.
Our posting on the blog has slowed way down. Sometimes I wonder whether its time is over. But the blog serves a different function than every other type of social media I can think of. I think a blog is an ideal venue for sketches, for instance.
Thank you to Numenius for joining me on this journey. Wish you were here. Thanks for holding down the fort while I peregrinate.
14 December 12
A Mathematical Dabbling Duck
This has been a good week for me in terms of learning a bit of math. At work I’ve been posed with a question that turns out to be an instance of the set covering problem, and this has taken me on a whirlwind tour through a bit of graph theory, computational complexity, and integer linear programming. (Of the latter, for months now we’ve traveled past a sign on campus announcing a workshop on mixed integer programming, not knowing that it would be my fate to learn enough of the stuff to contemplate setting up the formulation of such problems on a computer.)
I’m not great at math, but I do enjoy mathematical thinking. I do a lot better when I am able to see a problem in visual terms, and tend to stumble when faced with an onslaught of lots of notation. It is nice that we’re in an era where there are lots of excellent books at all levels about math being written that are aimed at non-mathematicians. Right now I’m slowly reading through Cristopher Moore and Stephen Mertens’ massive but highly-touted tome The Nature of Computation. The study of computational complexity is profound and deep stuff, and even if I don’t follow most of the details there’s a lot I can get out of the book.
7 December 12
Twitter After Two Days
Last Saturday there was a thread on MetaFilter comparing Twitter and Facebook, linking back to among other things a piece by MetaFilter founder Matt Haughey on why he loves Twitter but barely tolerates Facebook. I am not now on and am not likely to sign up for Facebook in the foreseeable future, but the arguments in the piece for why Twitter can be a lot of fun made sense, so I’ve decided to give it a whirl. Several observations after a couple of days:
- The Internet is in the constant habit of repackaging old wine in new bottles. The Wikipedia page for microblogging under “related concepts” says that “in the Finger protocol, the .project and .plan files are sometimes usedmaking for status updates similar to microblogging.” Change the verb there to were used and you might have something there — that particular protocol was used in a far more innocent age of internetworking. Much more recently, we have RSS. A lot of the niche Twitter fills (rapid aggregation of news) is also carried out by RSS, but Twitter seems to have displaced RSS for a lot of users.
- If everybody and their grandmother literally is on Facebook, the proportion of active Twitter users still seems pretty low. Many organizations that one would expect to have a Twitter feed have yet to adopt the platform.
- That said, at least in my fields of interest, enough experts are actively posting links to new content via Twitter that it is clear that the platform is quite valuable in keeping track of professional developments.
- I really like the fact it’s not much effort for me to play too. I see a blog post I like, I tweet it, and make a pithy comment.
- It may be rare to find, but 140 characters or less of text can express the sublime.
15 July 12
This Week, Not on Facebook
1) I went to the Delta, twice, to sample ducks for avian flu. The second time we saw a mink run across the path and I strained my left large toe trying to extricate my foot in a wader from some black mephitic ooze.
2) I wore some lipstick, for the second time in about five years, to a retirement party. It lasted through half a glass of lemonade, so I feel it doesn’t really count.
3) I started rereading Ulysses.
4) I got stung by two bees in the sunflower field while looking for the runaway Charlie in 104° heat (Charlie’s escapades did appear on Facebook, thanks for the mojo everyone). The second bee sting left a big red welt under my right eye which has still not really gone away.
5) Our hot water heater was leaking gas and had to be replaced. This is very bad if you’ve been sloshing around in, and then fallen into, mephitic ooze (see 1 above) and need to get ready for a retirement party with lipstick (see 2 above). Showers trump lipstick in this case. (Actually showers trump lipstick in all cases.) (Lipstick also does nothing to distract from large red bee sting welts, either.)
6) The pocket gophers have eaten three eggplants, two chile plants, one green pepper, three tomato plants, and are working on what’s left in that patch. They seem to be avoiding the basil, which is something of a consolation.
7) Charlie is never going out again without a leash if I can help it, so he will not be available for gopher control. This patch may be a lost cause.
8) I have spun yards and yards of merino silk but the bobbin seems never to grow. I am strongly reminded of Penelope.
9) During yesterday’s Sketchcrawl, which WAS on Facebook and is pictured above, I felt all smug when I actually knew what Pete was talking about when he invoked the famous Uruguay World Cup team of 1930 in Paris. I’m still not sure Spain’s light blue alternate kit is a homage to that team (why would it be?), but it’s fun to think about.
30 January 12
I spent the weekend with my Farm Club friends in San Francisco. We stayed at the home of the Native Daughters of the American West, a house on Fulton and Baker you’d almost miss if you didn’t notice the modest plaque and the flags five floors above the street (US and California).
I have mixed feelings about these organizations. On one hand they’re harmless groups of people doing good works like the Shriners and Rotary, involving arcane and zany initiation rites. On the other they are exclusive by gender, race, birth, status, and no doubt other secret criteria.
Fun: We knit and spun and wove in our jammies in a Julia Morgan parlor and ate buttermilk lemon pie for breakfast (I was skeptical, but am a convert). We shared the floors with the Girl Scouts of America scrapbooking club. We explored the basement and the roof, the rooms decorated by individual chapters (also called Parlors, up and down California). We looked at the museum (tiny boots for six-month-olds, fans for grand San Francisco or Pasadena ladies in improbably sized corsets). We looked in the archive room where lists of all pioneer families who made it to California (and some that didn’t) are listed.
We wandered around the neighborhood stumbling across a silkscreening workshop-in-progress (they also offer cheesemaking classes), two excellent restaurants, and not a single Starbucks.
I was born in California, so I technically qualify to join the NDAW. It provides a very cheap way to stay in San Francisco. But San Francisco is easily close enough for a day trip for us and I can’t handle the politics. I am technically qualified to join the Mayflower Society, the Daughters of the American Revolution, the Colonial Dames, and the United Empire Loyalists for the Tories among you. I don’t sound like I belong in any of them, but my accent would be seen by all of them as a plus, as opposed to my skin color or last name which can so easily be a minus, a fact which writes them off for me. I left all this behind when I left the UK, I thought, 23 years ago. But no. Exclusion comes in many forms and I am not an excluder.
18 October 11
The scandal that’s been brewing in Spain for some time — that over the course of 50 years the Catholic Church stole babies and sold them to couples wanting to adopt — has moved outside the country. The BBC is going to air a documentary on the subject. There’s a crazy figure of up to 300,000 stolen children being thrown around.
I suppose nothing should surprise me any more about the abuses carried out in the name of fear (that the children would grow up in subversive households) or greed (on couple paid 200,000 pesetas for a baby, which at the time was a fortune, it would have bought an apartment).
This one’s close to home, though. I know at least two people who might have been adopted under these circumstances. Tim, if you’re reading this, you’re not one of them, but you might have inspired Mari and Tito to adopt.
These photos are making me very, very quiet…
31 August 11
Driving back from the Sierra on Monday — into the sunset, as we had driven into the sunrise; at least our reward was the green flash — we passed a Bridal Veil Falls. There must be hundreds of waterfalls so named throughout North America.
We had walked in 3+ miles only to find out we had way overshot our trailhead, and had to double back. We found our party — a group trapping an alpine relative of rabbits named a pika — and proceeded to follow them around glacial boulder-falls trying to photograph them. Two colleagues, two students: this was the perfect setting for photos that were to illustrate “training,” something I’m called upon to do a lot in my work. (Good thing, because they didn’t catch any pika, though we did see one and heard several.)
At some point during the day, though, it hit me. In earlier centuries, I’d be “going blind.” I used to have better than 20/20 vision, could identify a hawk at enormous distances, read roadsigns that would leave fellow travelers incredulous. Now the white waterfall descends on my right eye and will follow on my left.
I don’t mind, much. Not as much as I thought I would. For one thing it’s an easy outpatient surgery these days, but this is part of what it is, growing older. I shouldn’t expect to have the eyes of a 16-year-old, where something I spotted could cause Francisca to exclaim “Hay la vista que tienes, Dios te la bendiga.” No: whatever surgery they perform will never return me to those times. At this point, according to my opthalmologist brother-in-law, it’s all about minimizing decline. Gone, gone, gone beyond: gone beyond beyond.
Waterfalls. I have a new appreciation.
29 April 11
The dress was lovely and all, but really today’s been all about the hats, about Victoria Beckham’s superglued-to-the-forehead hat to mimic her pregnant bump (she looks so sour ALL of the time and who can blame her with that double whammy) and the astonishing blue vulva hat and the revival of the Fascinator. But the prize goes to Princess Beatrice’s concoction which I’ve read of today as a reincarnation of Cthulhu, Mickey Mouse on acid and the Eye of Sauron, to mention just the tip of the iceberg.
My poor father would be rolling in his grave if he knew I was paying attention to any of this. From the north of England and of staunch anti-monarchical stock, he was of the opinion that all queens did was sit around and look beautiful, that they were sucking the coffers dry and a disgrace to democracy.
And yet… I had to wear a hat once. To Buckingham Palace. A dark green faux Russian faux fur hat, it was, something we picked up at Selfridges on the way, because you needed to wear a hat when your father was getting an OBE. (You didn’t, it turned out.) We arrived at the palace in a borrowed jag with Bob the borrowed chauffeur and emerged to lines of waiting and lines of recipients of the royal pleasure. I have no idea what went through my father’s head as he waited in morning dress in the antechamber before heading out to meet HM who referred to him in the document received as “our most beloved and loyal subject” but I did get an overwhelming sense of the number of people it must take to get this kind of thing to run smoothly on a daily basis, quite a bit more involved than just sitting around and looking beautiful, in the end.
These kinds of people were apparently absent when Beatrice was getting dressed this morning because her Cthulhu hat facebook page now has more than 50,000 fans. People are saying it’s Fergie’s way of flicking the vees/flipping the bird at the palace. Who knows. I wish I owned more hats than just baseball hats and straw gardening hats and chullos for birding in cold places, though, even if I never had anywhere to wear them. Maybe I need a Cthulhu hat after all.