Friday, June 24, 2011

"Why are all the other drivers honking and waving their hands at me?"

"Why are all the other drivers honking and waving their hands at me right now? Why are they tailgating me and flashing their lights? There's a guy driving close to my bumper now, and he's mouthing out something but I can't understand what he's saying.

Why is he so upset?

People keep swerving out of my way. What am I doing wrong?

Geez. I guess I'd better stop typing this and put my hands back on the steering wheel."

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

French Cactus Eaters

Thanks to Mr. Victor White for contributing this theme-appropriate photo, taken during a visit to Paris.

(this is part of reruns, series five. Working on a new post about Amy Stewart and the new Wicked Plants exhibit, but it's taking me a long, long time. don't rush me.)

Monday, June 20, 2011

Graduate student takes 40 years to earn his Ph.D.

Sometimes I hear people complain about taking seven or eight years out of their lives to go to graduate school.

And then there's this guy.
When he started working toward his Ph.D., Nixon was still in office, the Beatles had only just broken up, Jim Morrison was still alive, and "All in the Family" was the number-one TV program. I think it's good to remember, in this era of instant gratification, that worthwhile goals can take a long (long!) time... I was so surprised by his story that I decided to write something about it. Here's my recent posting:

Earning an advanced degree can seem to take forever.

In the case of one recent UCSC graduate, it almost did.

History of Consciousness Program grad Peter Miller received his Ph.D. last week at the Graduate Division commencement ceremony. It took him 40 years.

"I'm probably the person who has the record of how long it took to complete a doctoral degree (at UCSC)," said Miller, 66, who lined up with a crowd of students, some of them as much as four decades younger than him, last week at the Graduate Division commencement ceremony on the East Field.

Technically speaking, he's been pursuing his UCSC advanced degree in political theory and community technology since 1971. Back in 1975, he wrote his qualifying essay and passed his oral examination. All that remained was to write his dissertation.

Why did it take so long? Read the rest of the story here:

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Coming soon: The New York Times 36 Hours: 150 Weekends in the USA & Canada

This just in. Someone just sent me the Amazon link to the upcoming The New York Times 36 Hours book, published by Taschen and containing updated and expanded versions of two of my travel columns. I'm really excited about this, although it seems (from the Amazon thread) that it won't be hitting the shelves of your local store until early October or so.

Rose Harden's Life-Sized Mouse Trap

I just found out about this. Remember that game, Mousetrap, involving a highly complex, Rube Goldberg-esque contraption? Rose has undertaken an enormous, human-sized version of this game. I've never seen anything quite like this. The accordions are a great touch, too.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Read this next, anonymous: David Bezmogis, The Free World

A group of Jewish emigrants from Latvia passes some time in Rome while waiting for the next way station in their lives. America, perhaps, or maybe Canada. Doesn't this sound like the recipe for a truly shmaltzy novel?In lesser hands, it would be, but this work of diaspora fiction is field-stripped of sentimentality. You will wait, patiently, for the stodgy old patriarch, Samuil, to reveal the tenderness within. You keep thinking he's going to redeem himself with an adorable gesture, or some unsolicited act of generosity. It never happens. You keep waiting for nostalgia, and the novel's romantic setting, to overwhelm the story. It never does. This must be the least sentimental story about the immigrant experience that I've ever read. You get the overwhelming impression that life, for these people, was a real struggle. Every day they face moral compromises. Rome is an in-between place for them in more ways than one. The characters must deal with challenges to their various loyalties: spouses, countries, political groups, parents. There is nothing cute or sweet about this extended family. The story is spare and unsparing.

But unsentimental does not mean devoid of feeling. In this debut novel, there is a palpable sense of yearning for a better time that never really existed.

I admired these characters just for getting by.

Monday, June 13, 2011

The Atherton Book Club: Packing For Mars and much more

Last year I was proud to be the inaugural author featured in the brand-new Atherton Book Club, otherwise known as Reading In Good Company. Now the book club continues with a whole new lineup of great events. Book Club leader Annie Pena tells me that Mary will be participating via Skype during the June 14 meeting about Roach's latest book, Packing For Mars.Even if you don't live on the Peninsula, this is worth the drive. (Mothra/Godzilla photo from Toho Archives.)

Sunday, June 12, 2011

"I'll just try to eat around it" --- (never eat an apricot with a hole in it)

Just got back from a Santa Cruz-area farmer's market, where I paid $5 a pound for fancy apricots. One of them looked so good that I started eating it in spite of the obvious hole in it. "I'll just eat around it," I said to myself.

So there I was, chomping away, but when I got to the pit, there was a fat, juicy, disgusting earwig sitting in the middle of that apricot, clacking its mandibles, wiggling its antenna, with a "what the &%$@ are you looking at?" expression on its face.

The weird thing is, the bug was so much bigger than the hole it must have crawled into to go inside the apricot in the first place. I guess he hung out there for a while, eating the inside of the apricot and getting so fat that he couldn't get out again, like the squirrel protagonist in Timmy Tiptoes. Next time I'll stick with the nectarines.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Rise of the Slug: the once-subversive banana slug mascot turns 25 at UCSC

At the bottom of this blog entry, you will find a link to my brief cultural history of the UCSC Banana Slug, published on UCSC's news page. Just so you know, the slug mascot turns 25 this year. As I mention in my story, the slug is popular now but it used to be a counter-cultural upstart, caught in a rivalry with another animal that wanted to represent UCSC. To find out which animal I'm talking about, you'll just have to click on that link and read the whole thing.

As part of my due diligence for this story, I asked for (and received) permission from Hank Card of the Austin Lounge Lizards to use their unofficial UCSC banana slug fight song in the story. You can hear it in both video clips. By the way, Hank Card was kind enough to give me a bit of background about the song.

"As far as the origins of the song go, you're right that we've got a connection to Santa Cruz and have played at the Kuumbwa (concert venue) many times. We always thought the banana slugs mascot was really funny and even got slimed at the Strawberry Festival."

"I'm from Oklahoma, where football is big, so the college fight song is part of my culture. I just got curious to see if there was a UCSC fight song. Since there wasn't, my wife Kristen and I wrote one just for fun. The S-U-L-G-S spelling in the middle was a mistake we made at practice, but we thought it was funny so we left it in."

And here is the story. The video is by Mara Waldhorn.

Thursday, June 09, 2011

Things you should never do in the backcountry. Selected Cactuseaters re-runs, part 17

OK, this post is older than the hills, but a couple of people mentioned it to me so here it is a second time. It's a list of things you should never, ever do during any outdoor excursion.

The Cactuseaters List of Backcountry "Don'ts'' (the unexpurgated version!)

NEVER bring a fondue maker into the woods with you. The bread crumbs, fruit wedges, gas and molten cheese will form a white magma that will spew all over you, leaving fourth-degree burns all over your entire body.

NEVER cook a meal while sitting inside your tent, even when it’s raining outside. (Trust me. Your tent will explode.)

NEVER forget that “freeze-dried’’ and “chili’’ is a very bad combination. (Trust me. You will explode.)

NEVER try to reason with anyone riding an All-Terrain Vehicle --- especially if he or she is drunk and holding a 12-gauge Mossberg hunting rifle and wearing a knit cap that says "I Like Big Jugs.''

NEVER try to make your girlfriend, or boyfriend, hike faster by calling out a military cadence in a fake Southern accent. ("Sound off, sound off, one, two, three, foe!")

NEVER attempt to brush your teeth in total darkness. Preparation H does not fight gum recession. And it tastes fishy.

NEVER bring artisan-quality cheddar cheese into the Mojave Desert with you in mid-June. A horrid white pus will extrude from the cheese, and you will vomit.

NEVER set up your tent in the middle of a mule trail in the North Cascades. Brighty, Big Snort and Old Thunder will trample you to death in your sleep.

NEVER underestimate the amount of toilet paper you will use in the backcountry. Sticks and stones won't break your bones but they will leave nicks and abrasions on your derriere.)

NEVER camp at a suspiciously beautiful, yet strangely empty, lakeside campsite. It is probably empty for very good reasons (think “flood plain,’’ “poisoned water’’ and “spaniel-sized mosquitoes.’’)

NEVER eat the freeze-dried stroganoff. It has been mummified and sealed away for good reason.

NEVER cut the handles off the toothbrush “to save pack weight.’’ Toothbrushes weigh less than an ounce – and if you try to brush your teeth with the head of a toothbrush, it will fall down your throat and lodge in your trachea, and you will die.

That's all for now. Stay tuned for my comprehensive history of the banana slug mascot, and for my report on the Wicked Bugs reading. But I can't be rushed. I've got brain freeze and it might take me a while to upload all this stuff.

Sunday, June 05, 2011

My neighbor is moving.

I see a Mayflower truck out there right now.


I mean, "Bon voyage"!

Thursday, June 02, 2011

Violent gardeners and Amy Stewart's Wicked Bugs

There is a violent gardener in my neighborhood.

Call him Mister Green Fist.

He put a defeatist sign up in front of his victory garden. The sign (which faces a busy thoroughfare) warns that he'll "beat the crap" out of anyone who messes with his flowers.

Will upload a photo of that sign when I work up the courage to take a snapshot.

Speaking of wickedness and extreme gardening, I am eager to go see Amy Stewart, bestselling author of Wicked Plants, when she arrives in Capitola to read from her new book, Wicked Bugs, on Wednesday June 8 at the Book Cafe. The talk begins at 7:30 p.m. I didn't realize that Ms. Stewart is a former Santa Cruzan. For the sake of this book, she tracked down 100 of our most horrifying bug enemies, from disease-vector flies to bugs that can turn entire libraries into mulch. Stewart's books are witty and informative, but she also deserves props for the design, layout, and artistry.

I found out about Stewart from the incomparable Mary Harden, my botanical illustration teacher up in Golden Gate Park up until last year, when I relocated to Santa Cruz.

Hope to see you all there.

Cactuseaters Book Club part four: Read this one next: My Korean Deli

I've read so many memoirs that skirt around issues like race, class, family dynamics and the "prestige track," the rut that can trap aspiring editors and authors into low-paying but impressive and privileged positions. Ben Ryder Howe's My Korean Deli jumps into these issues right from the beginning.

Here's what happens when an author and editor refuses to get off the prestige track altogether (he refuses to abdicate his low-paying position at the Paris Review) even while taking an extreme step toward possible financial independence (he and various in-laws pool their resources to buy a delicatessen in Brooklyn.) As the book progresses, you can see the author struggling to maintain his footholds in the store and at the magazine -- an increasingly difficult task, as you'll see.

I did not know that an author could extract so much narrative juice from store ownership. If you think it looks like a static enterprise, think again.

I've been to so many New York delis, and I had no idea what it took to run them, even though I've spent years of my life as a bag boy at places like Von's and Safeway. If you buy one of these places, beware. 1. You have to deal with tobacco enforcement raids. First offense: a thousand bucks. 2. You have to deal with the intimidations and strange behaviors of packaged snack cake suppliers. 3. You may find yourself inheriting pistol-wielding employees who are not afraid to take extreme measures if someone tries to rob the place.

Another thing about this book: It really captured (for me) the best as well as the most horrible aspects of living in NYC for several years. While reading it, I remembered the heights of my experience (martinis at the Temple of Dendur, hearing a talk by Joan Didion, staggering home from an all-night gathering somewhere in Brooklyn, etc.) and the staggering lows (having a rat jump over my foot, having my car break down in frozen weather in the middle of Broadway at 1 in the morning, eating horrible falafel in Williamsburg. The chef thought to put pickles in the falafel. I was drinking Maalox for three days straight.)

A good book club choice.