Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Great Cook, Bad Housekeeper

I enjoy cooking. I love chopping, combining, seeing the finished product and smelling the scents of success, tasting the bounty that comes forth from time spent. It is an art that I enjoy. I love taking a recipe and if baking, following it (almost) exactly to see how it comes out. If it is cooking, tweaking it to how I want it to be. It comes to me with little effort and is fun.

I do not enjoy housekeeping. I do not enjoy scrubbing, cleaning. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy seeing the house clean, I just don’t like the process of getting it clean. It is work for me. Laundry I don’t mind so much, especially in the summer when I can get outside to hang clothes.

So explains the neglect of the housekeeping chores in my house. I have meals prepared and stocked in the freezer while the spiders set up mansions in the corners of my house. I have vegetables picked and packed away for winter while the dust bunnies continue to grow along the baseboards and under furniture.

After vacation, I decided that I had until the end of the month to get the house clean from top to bottom. It was time to exterminate the dust bunnies and bring in tools of demolition to take out the spider-webs. Last week, I started the Top to Bottom Cleaning List. Today I finished it with a couple exceptions. (My candle workroom is still in progress and waiting for some cabinets as well as the office area where my desk is but I have until the end of the week to meet my deadline.)

Countertops are clear, floors are tidy, things are put away and the dog fur is no longer breeding in the corners. My house is clean and it feels great – now that it’s done. So to celebrate I gave into a craving that’s been hanging around for a few days – chocolate mousse :D.

I’m going to work harder to keep my house clean little by little so I don’t have to spend a whole week cleaning next time!


Saturday, August 23, 2008

Tomato Tragedy

Experiments are done in order to test hypotheses. That is to say, we want to see if something is true--for instance, "Tomatoes can grow upside-down from hanging buckets and be productive." We might then conduct an experiment. If the tomatoes grew productively, then we would say the experiment was a success. The hypothesis was proven true. If the tomatoes did not grow productively, we would also say the experiment was a success. But we would have discovered that the hypothesis was proven false. (Or at least under these conditions; it's hard to truly prove something false.)

Our upside-down tomato experiment is, in many ways, a true experiment. I was therefore prepared for the tomato plants to grow bushy and grand, but produce no tomatoes. If you've been reading this blog, you know that we have had tomatoes already turning orange. However, I was not prepared for a failure in another realm of the experiment: structural integrity.

This afternoon I walked out into the garden and found this:

The handle on one of the buckets had failed: pulled out of the plastic that attached it to the side of the bucket. That bucket fell, which loosed the counter-balancing weight from the opposite bucket. The effect of the second bucket pulling on the unbalanced spar tore the wooden arm apart. Since it was the lower arm, the arm running across it was also dislodged from the post, and down came the remaining two buckets.

Sad day.

What have we learned from this, class? Do not use cheap buckets to hang your tomatoes. Use the free ones that your friend gives you after she's used all the laundry detergent out of them. (Thanks, Margery. You rock.)

Until next year, when I can work out a more sound structure for hanging tomatoes all summer, the four we could salvage (one fell from another post earlier) have been set up thusly:

Now they're Sawhorse Tomatoes. We'll see how they recover from the shock of bungee-jumping without a rope.

It's all about constant improvement. Create, adjust, improve.

~ emrys

The Strawberries' New Home

Our strawberry plants currently inhabit a circular bed ringed by a shallow layer of rocks. And over the past two summers we have noticed that birds and rabbits wreak havoc on our strawberries before we have a chance to pick them. So I decided to extend one of our garden beds to include a section for strawberries, that can be covered with chicken wire when the time comes.

To complete this project, I conscripted a few young men from our congregation, who braved the summer heat to help me out.

The posts have to be straight, and the correct height, else it will be harder to construct the sides and hinged top that I have planned. Here's Jordan checking the lines on our last post.

Here's Jordan and Matt attaching the sidewall for the raised bed.
And here's Matt and Jordan working assiduously to place the last sidewall of the future bed, while Sean does . . . something . . . is that "Peace out"?
When we get our topsoil and fertilizer, we'll be all ready to transplant those strawberries.
Thanks, guys!
~ emrys

Floyd, VA

There is a place where mountain men and musicians mingle on a picturesque city street. There is a place where hippies and hillbillies inhabit the same space in a cultural melange that defies stereotypes. There is a place where both your incense and your overalls are welcome.

That place is Floyd, Virginia.

While on our four-day rest last week in the Blue Ridge mountains of western Virginia, we accepted the advice of the guidebook in our cottage and drove half an hour to the wee village of Floyd. There, we were told, is where the nearest coffee shop that also hosted wireless internet service. (When your days of rest include the composition of blog entries, you can't abstain totally from the internet!) Floyd is a gorgeous hamlet of pioneer-style storefronts surrounded by rural hills and forest. And every Friday night in this nestled corner of Appalachia, the main street hosts a jamboree. Everybody brings his or her banjo, guitar, dulcimer, and voice to share with the neighbours in a street-long bluegrass jam.

So we decided to check out the Friday night scene. After the requisite web work and a satisfying supper of Mexican food (real Mexican, served by people speaking Spanish, as it was meant to be), we walked through the renovated 19th-century building at the end of downtown Floyd and onto the street. Passing the storefront next to the Mexican restaurant, we got a good dose of patchouli in the nose. Inside the store hung the bright colours of flowery skirts, beads, and tie-dyed tops.

We walked down the sidewalk and took a seat on a newly-fashioned concrete bench--part of the effort to renovate and gentrify the whole of Floyd. Just after we sat down, a gentleman pulled up his beat-up red pickup truck to park in front of us. The bed had a couple of garbage bags and a muddy house fan reclining in it. The driver got out of the truck and revealed himself to be a large, rotund man wearing grungy overalls, long yellowish hair and a long white beard.

Now, I'm not a really seasoned veteran of Appalachia, but I know a hillbilly when I see one. And he walked past us to the storefront from which we had just emerged. Perhaps he went to buy a lava-lamp or those stones that tell you what your mood is?

A glorious place, Floyd: If the hillbillies and the hippies can live together, perhaps there is hope for the human race. You too can find it, tucked back in the woods of western Virginia.

~ emrys

As in a Mirror

At last I've recorded the whole of my (first) novel, As in a Mirror, to MP3 files. That means it's now available as an audio book.

If you would like one, let me know!

~ emrys

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Photos from VA/NC Trip

Here are a few pictures from our recent trip to Virginia & North Carolina. We had 4 days of wonderful laziness and 2 days of running around Durham with friends from Fuller. It was great and I'm sure there will be more words to go with the pictures coming.
P.S. Click on the photos for captions

Friday, August 15, 2008

Readers Beware!

We've been on vacation for the past few days, which has given me occasion to catch up on some blog entries I've wanted to write. I put up four or five today--don't neglect to scroll down for more new entries!

~ emrys

Book(s) Review: "Percy Jackson and the Olympians"

It’s rare to find a children’s book in which the characters curse in ancient Greek.

But Rick Riordan has written it. In the (first?) three books of his Percy Jackson and the Olympians series, we discover a cool juxtaposition of Greek mythology (all that stuff you learned in 10th grade English class, remember?) and 21st century American culture. What’s more, it’s adolescent culture: our hero, Percy Jackson, is struggling with all the things that come the way of a middle-school boy, even while he struggles with the Greek gods. They’re both action-adventure and wily coming-of-age commentaries.

Over the span of these three books (The Lightning Thief, The Sea of Monsters, and The Titan’s Curse), we discover that Percy Jackson is a half-blood: he is half mortal, half immortal. This makes him, in the Classical Greek sense, a hero. He is heir to all the power, responsibility, challenge, and joy of someone who straddles two worlds. But he’s a hero in today’s world, with Maseratis, capture-the-flag, and cell phones.

As someone who belongs to a faith that believes God has chosen to dwell with and in us, I find great joy in reading Riordan’s rendering of a contemporary Greek mythological worldview. Not to worry: he dodges the great metaphysical questions that might challenge present-day religiosity. Instead, he is focused on telling the mythological stories in the same way the Greeks did: with gods as reflections of humanity, only more powerful. They act more as commentators on the human condition than on true divinity. It’s all about the struggle of humankind. And his eon-bridging synergy makes for great conflict and character development.

If you’re looking for great books on metaphysics and syncretistic philosophy, then these are not the books to read. If you’re looking for something (for you or your middle-school child) that struggles with the problems of responsibility, friendship, bravery, and good and evil on the level of today’s youth, look no further. Riordan’s novellas offer a fast-paced, intriguing, and at times laugh-out-loud symphony of the ancient, the modern, and the timeless.

What’s more, Riordan is the master of chapter titles. If you don’t immediately want to read a chapter called, “The Vice-Principal Gets a Missile Launcher,” then you need to check for your pulse.

Let me recommend to you Percy Jackson and the Olympians, by Rick Riordan. I’m tearing through The Titan’s Curse right now. (Don’t worry: he translates that ancient Greek for you.)


Neerg Tomatoes

In case you were wondering (the guys at the local building supply store certainly are), the upside-down hanging tomato project goes well. Only one of the sixteen plants died of rot, and the other fifteen have produced green tomatoes. They will soon be red, I have no doubt. Romas and Juliettes ahoy!

~ emrys

Book Review: "Among the Righteous"

Book Review: Among the Righteous

We still live in the legacy of the formation of the State of Israel in 1948, which action took its inspiration from the guilt of the Jewish Holocaust under the Third Reich, Vichy France, and Fascist Italy. American news headlines are replete with references to Israel, especially as a state that experiences such friction and horrors in its dealings with Middle Eastern neighbours. The understanding I take from the American media environment is that Israel is a state like any other—like Russia, like France, like China, like the United States.

Yet there are some who do not believe it is so. There is a widespread Arab culture that does not believe that the State of Israel ought to exist. And perhaps part of this refusal to recognize the State of Israel comes with a refusal to engage the widespread understanding in the West of the horrors of the Jewish Holocaust.

Some call it “Holocaust denial”; some have less clinical names for it. But whatever it is, the author Robert Satloff has chosen it for a nemesis in his book, Among the Righteous: Lost Stories from the Holocaust’s Long Reach into Arab Lands (2006, Public Affairs, a division of Perseus Books).

Satloff goes on the hunt for stories of Arabs who, during World War II, saved Jews from the labour and death camps that Axis powers had established in North Africa.

What? There were concentration camps in North Africa? This is exactly the question Satloff wants you asking from the beginning: what nefarious work for the holocaust was done in countries they don’t teach us about in high school? He lays out a full spread of evidence for the extension—by German, French, and Italian forces—of Jewish internment and torture in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya. However, aside from using it as a barb to keep us reading, Satloff does not wish to focus on this part of the holocaust.

What Satloff searches for—and, to some degree, finds—is evidence of Arabs who defied the stereotype of Jew-hating co-conspirators in “the final solution.” In the interest of providing a seed for discussion between present-day Jews and Arabs, Satloff digs deep to uncover narratives from World War II of Arab individuals and families who resisted Axis powers and their plan of destruction. His thesis question is: Were there Arabs who saved Jews from the holocaust? If he can do so, then he hopes these stories will give the Arab community the impetus to breach the cultural barrier of holocaust denial. Instead of being a categorically guilty party, perhaps the Arabs can be seen—and see themselves—as human, thereby transcending the Jewish-Arab antipathy that dominates Middle Eastern affairs.

Well, as for this reader, I can’t speak to how much of an effect Satloff’s book will have on Mid-East politics. But I did find it an eye-opening history lesson: I did not know that the Holocaust effort had crossed the Mediterranean. The stories he finds are intriguing, putting cracks in my stereotypes borne from news footage of Palestinian Arabs throwing rocks and grenades at Israelis. He does succeed in highlighting a human dimension to North African Arabs of World War II.

And, as if to provide the keystone for years of reading and thought, Satloff’s words dawned on me for the first time: “If the Holocaust were something unique, in which the world’s most advanced society [Western Europe/Germany] nearly succeeded in wiping out one of the world’s oldest peoples, then it stands to reason that the victims deserve special remedy. . . . Providing special protection for these victims by helping them realize their goal of creating a state of their own, where the eternally homeless would never again live at the whim of the local despot, is a reasonable solution” (p164). Somehow it had never sunk through my thick skull that the formation of the State of Israel was victims’ compensation for the crimes against Jews by the Axis powers.

Now I have the tough work of deciding if I agree with this solution to the guilt of the holocaust. But that may take some more reading.

~ emrys

Better Late

There are some things that may be called “better late than never.” The arrival of a hot supper, for instance, or a loved one coming home from work or war. There are some things not better late than never, like the application of an epi-pen. And there are some things we might debate, such as an apology or a thank you.

It is into this third category that I think anniversary gifts fall. I am particularly interested in moving it to the first category, “better late than never,” because of the gift I had planned for Sara on the occasion of our sixth wedding anniversary (22 December 2007).

I have been following a list of materials to be used for anniversary gifts that I found in a day-planner some years back, closer to when we were married. The first year, for instance, is paper. So I made Sara a framed photo collage. The fourth year is leather: I made Sara a pair of braided leather trivets. The fifth year is cotton; I made Sara a Christmas-season table runner. From just these three examples you may have gleaned that it is my intent to make myself the gift, from whatever material is prescribed.

This plan presents no real problem until I come to materials like the one given for the sixth year: iron.

Now, give me a forge, a hammer, and tongs, and I’m ready to make something out of iron. However, in the selection of our new house we overlooked the presence of a forge. (We have a fireplace, but now it’s occupied by a pellet stove. Sigh.) Thus for the sixth-year anniversary gift I had to fudge a little bit. I decided on making a coffee table and pair of bedside tables; I would make the table tops, and I’d commission the legs to be made out of iron.

There’s a guy, his name is Jake, who still does wrought iron work and lives just a ways down the road from us. So I commissioned him to make three sets of table legs according to my design. He did a beautiful job: they were just to my specs. All I needed to finish them was to put a few layers of clear protective finish on them, and the tops could go on. Here are the legs themselves:

Though I had planned on using cherry for the tops, offered by another local guy who does his own cutting and milling, the wood has not come as swiftly as I’d hoped. So when I found myself in possession of some excess MDF (medium density fibreboard), I cut the table tops and painted them. They’re not as vintage-sexy as the cherry will be, but at least I’ve delivered my December 2007 anniversary gift to Sara at last.

Here's the coffee tabletop, all painted up:

I've got to hunt down the photos of the finished coffee table in the living room. More anon!

~ emrys

Vignettes from a Day Off: Part III

A pizza parlour might be the last place you’d expect to get a history lesson. Books, yes. The History Channel, yes. A cedar chest stored away in your great-grandmother’s closet, yes.

A pizza joint in Owego, NY—no.

We had just bought a new (used) car, and I was riding the high of a successful haggle. We had ordered a large pie at the counter. Sara had gone to the washroom—an event that takes on greater frequency with each week of pregnancy. Nay, I’m not complaining: if she had not gone to the ladies’ room, who knows if what happened next would ever have come to pass.

Still twitching from my hard-bargain driving, I surveyed the walls of Original Pizza, a classic red-vinyl and checkered tablecloth joint on Lake Street in Owego. There on the wall was a map of Tioga County. The paper had that grayish old colour, and the ink was all black. The swishing lines under the name of the surveying company told me the map had to be printed before 1940.

I love maps. Especially old ones. So I walked over to it and craned my neck to survey its markings.

In 1855 they still made maps with class. Buildings were represented as little black squares, with the first initial and family names printed neatly next to each structure. They included demographic tables with numbers of births and deaths over the past few years. And it wasn’t folded up like a thousand times like the highway map that’s scrunched under the seat of your car. This kind of map you framed in heavy oak and hung in your library. Or pizza parlour.

I would have only given this map a passing glance of appreciation for its overall quality, except that Tioga county includes the little hamlet of Candor, NY. And Candor, I know from conversations with my dad and uncle, is where my dad and his four siblings spent their early childhood. Since those conversations began, I have been slowly—slowly, mind you—growing into the role of family historian for my generation of Tylers. It’s a happy process, but takes time and more effort than you might think.

Except for this day.

I scan the names of homeowners on this 1855 map of Tioga county, paying special attention to the Candor and South Candor communities. I think it to much to hope that the property colloquially known as “Three Horse Chestnut” where my family lived will be labeled as such. But I pore over the names, sliding my eyes down each road and highway. No Tylers or any name I recognize.

But Sara’s not out yet, so I turn my idle attention to the town of Owego. There, jumping out more because of the pattern of letters than because I actually read it, is my name: “Tyler.” What’s more, the little black parallelogram that represents a house is labeled with “J Tyler,”--straight above the "E" in OWEGO--and I happen to know that a succession of John Tylers runs back through my family tree.

Here it is, on the wall in Original Pizza, a possible lead on where my family was before my grandfather’s generation in Candor. Sweet. It will take some more work to find out who this J Tyler really was and to whom he might be related (and if they include me). That will be work for another day. For today, the little serendipity is enough.

And we had the most fabulous pepperoni and onion pizza, to boot.

~ emrys

Monday, August 04, 2008

Vignettes from a Day Off: Part II

The Last Refuge of Haggling

"Aw, man! You're killin' me!"

This is something I thought only salesmen in the movies said. No real live human being says this as a tactic in negotiation, does he? Not even a used car salesman, certainly? Now I half expected him to tell me that his kids were going without shoes and they didn't have coats for the winter, even though it's only July.

But he said it indeed. "Aw, man! You're killin' me!"

Now, to be fair, I had offered him $6,200 for a car that was priced at $6,999. But I had done my research. Kelly Blue Book told me that a used car dealership could expect to pick up a Hyundai Elantra 2005 hatchback for $4,500. Put a thousand into repairs and sprucing, and that brings him to $5,500 invested. I could work him down from that sticker price.

Well, he didn't go the "kids in bare feet" route. Instead he made a personal appeal: he's a nice guy, easy to get along with. He's an honest guy, not out to gouge anybody. Well, I thought, this is good, because I'm not ready to be gouged.

"I can come down to $6,600." $399 off, just like that. Sweet.

I have only haggled one other time within my memory. I was in an open market in Portugal, June of 2000, trying to get my hands on a copper teapot for making mate (that's MAH-tay, the South American tea). In Mediterranean cultures, haggling is much more acceptable. In fact, I'm told, on the east end of the Mediterranean it's considered gauche not to haggle. It would be similar to saying, "You're beneath me, so I won't haggle with you." It's a sort of social game.

By the way, I only paid two-thirds the marked price for the teapot. Which means the seller only made a 500% profit. But I had haggled. Not very American of me. But kind of fun, nonetheless.

Now this guy says he can do $6,600.

Sara and I walked onto the lot knowing that we had $7,200 dollars to spend on a vehicle, and a 2005 Hyundai Elantra fit our needs for gas mileage (30+) and maintenance record (very good). If you take $7,200 and subtract New York State sales tax, you get about $6,600. Just what this guy offered.

But now I'm into the game. Sara's got a checkbook in her wallet, and we've got the money to spend on the spot. Those are two powerful negotiating tools. I also have the subtle knowledge that if this vehicle doesn't work out the way I want, I can walk off the lot and find another one next week. That's the best tool to have in the haggler's toolbox: the ability to walk away without anxiety. So I can try for a little more.

"I'll tell you what: I can write you a check right now for $6,550. That's as high as I can go." No excuses, no sob stories: just showing him the money.

I think he starts to sweat at this point, but the weather was a little hot that day. He waffled a bit, ruffling the seller's feathers. I let him do it. I felt no small exhiliration at the idea that I might successfully haggle him down below what we had budgeted for a car.

He paused for a long moment. "All right, I'll take it."

And then it was over, just like that. The game was finished. Who knows how much profit he had made on our transaction? I don't need to know. I had entered the last refuge of haggling in the United States--a land where the first line of decision on what to buy is the price tag--and I had gained $400. What fun!

"Wow," said Sara as we got in our car to drive home. "You drive a hard bargain."


Friday, August 01, 2008

Help out the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society

So this guy Nate, the writer of a blog that I read regularly has taken on the challenge to raise $3,000 for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society in one week. If he meets this goal he will be shaving his head live on the internet.

Nate & his family have an amazing story- his wife Trish has cystic fibrosis, they have a miracle baby (born super early but is doing great), Trish had a double lung transplant and now has a variety of lymphoma that came after the transplant, all in that order and all in the last 18 monts (except for the CF which she's had since childhood). And through their blog you see nothing but credit to the faithfulness of God and their love for each other and the importance of family. Anyway...at least check out their blog for the full story and great pictures, and check out this post for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society Fundraiser!

And for a stroll through the past, remember our "his/her baldy" picture from July 2005. Now I have so many curls I'm going to share - stay tuned later this fall as 11 inches of curls will be heading off to Locks of Love (I have to get through pony-tail/braid season first!)