Book Review: The Box of Tricks by Alistair Potter

The Box of TricksThe Box of Tricks by Alistair Potter

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was a fun read and I think it would make a good movie. The conceit at the bottom of it all, the reason the planet Earth appears to be going to Helena Handbasket, was a nice touch, and something I hadn’t seen before. Similarly, several of the SF/fantasy elements around time, such as unaging, crop enhancement, collecting, etc. are unexpectedly and wittily rendered. Comparisons to Douglas Adams are well deserved.  Continue reading Book Review: The Box of Tricks by Alistair Potter

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WATWB: The Life of Marjory Stoneman Douglas

We are the World Logo

The last Friday of the month brings the February installment of the “We are the World Blogfest.” WATWB seeks to promote positive news. There are many an oasis of love and light out there, stories that show compassion and the resilience of the human spirit. Sharing these stories increases our awareness of hope in our increasingly dark world. For more information, visit:  http://www.damyantiwrites.com/we-are-the-world-blogfest/ 

Continue reading WATWB: The Life of Marjory Stoneman Douglas

Thursday Doors: Xintiandi, Shanghai

Last summer I took my first trip to Asia with my family. Our itinerary was as follows: South Korea (Seoul), China (Beijing, Xi’an, Hong Kong, Shanghai), and finally Japan (Tokyo). I find travel blogging to be challenging without some guiding or organizing principle to follow, so I have been blogging about this trip periodically and showing pictures from it in my weekly photo challenge blogs, especially Thursday Doors. I don’t have any new doors this week, so I’m continuing with the trip. Continue reading Thursday Doors: Xintiandi, Shanghai

From the Heart

A Cyrenian coin from the 6th century B.C., with a silphium seed imprinted in it. KURT BATY/FAIR USEThis past week brought us Valentine’s Day, Ash Wednesday, Lunar New Year, and . . . Heart-Lung Day! I’m teaching at a new elementary school with Science from Scientists, an educational non-profit that brings hands-on science education to schools for grades 3-8. This was only my second time at this school and I was working with a new teaching partner. The school teachers wanted us to do two heart-related activities with the students, “Heart Health,” a lesson with blood pressure cuffs and stethoscopes, and “Heart Dissection,” which is what it sounds like: dissecting a preserved sheep heart. I’m a biologist, so people might reasonably think that I enjoy dissections. They can be an excellent way to learn anatomy. And yet . . .

In high school Biology class, dissection was traumatic for me. The smell made me sick to my stomach, and I was squeamish about the visuals and the texture. I watched as my lab partner struggled with the bulk of the work, and tried to participate by writing our names on the specimen’s identifying tag. A “friend” told me later that my lab partner had been annoyed and complained during the next class period about how little I had done and how I’d written my own name first, and larger, on the tag, even though she’d done all the work.

I was ashamed of my behavior but couldn’t do anything about it. The teacher, whom I otherwise loved and admired, made light of it and laughed. At that time in my life, many things felt out of control. I was ambushed by waves of performance anxiety about things that other people seemed to be able to do just fine. There were some narrow avenues of things that I was good at and that didn’t make me feel this way, and I concentrated on those and let others go. I let a lot of things go due to anxiety and shame, including public speaking and solo violin performance.

Because she’s new I gave my co-teacher a choice of which lesson she wanted to lead. She admitted to being squeamish herself and picked the Heart Health lesson, leaving me with the dissection. In this job, I had assisted with it once before and it went okay, so maybe leading this dissection was another chance for me to conquer some old demons. I didn’t view it that way at first–at first I was dreading it, procrastinating preparing because my old companion, the anxiety, was rearing its ugly head. My logical brain reminded me that procrastination would just make everything worse, but even that knowledge wasn’t enough to get me going.

What finally did was realizing that it was “just” anxiety, and I’d seen it before. Sure, anxiety can be pretty debilitating, but it is also something that I’ve been able to cope with in other situations by taking small concrete steps to support myself. I’ve learned, for example, to keep my hands warm during anxious violin playing situations by wearing fingerless gloves. That makes a tangible difference in how I feel, and how I sound, which leads to a virtuous feedback loop: I feel better, and then I play better.

Anxiety is also something that can be supported and worked through if other people are understanding about it. The education field has come a long way since my Biology teacher laughed and graded students on participation. Now we encourage participation but we explicitly allow students to sit back and observe if they are squeamish. We tell them that the sheep hearts come from animals that are being slaughtered anyway, for food, so we are using specimens that would go to waste otherwise. We let students leave the room if they don’t feel well. And we don’t grade them or judge them on the dissection; it’s a learning experience. What if I’d had that kind of support? Would my attitude towards dissection have been different?

So I made a list of all the things that made me anxious about this experience. The smell came to mind first. I read on the internet that Carolina Biological Supply now has something to preserve specimens called “Carolina’s Perfect Solution®,” which is supposed to be non-toxic and not require excessive ventilation. And I’ve used it before, last year: sure, it still smells a little funky, but it doesn’t bring to mind the maw of hell. I know I can handle it.Screen Shot 2018-02-17 at 11.51.46 AM

Another anxiety provoker was diagrams like this one, which make my eyes glaze over. Despite the fact that I’ve seen any number of blue and red diagrams with lots of labels at various levels of detail, I still can’t remember which vessel is the aorta, which one is the pulmonary trunk, and which one is the superior vena cava.

I went online and looked for some other diagrams. My favorite was this poster, available from Etsy, by artist Rachel Ignotofsky. It reminded me of another resource I saw in school and loved: the movie Hemo the Magnificent, directed by Frank Capra. Beethoven’s Eroica opens that 1957 movie, and Hemo, representing blood, talks and has a face. Smiling faces and all, the poster still has too much information for my class, but this is background information, the point being to make myself feel less anxious about the material, and it accomplished that.

Lub Dub goes the Heart by Rachel Ignotofsky https://www.etsy.com/listing/177478811/lub-dub-goes-the-heart-anatomy-poster
Lub Dub goes the Heart by Rachel Ignotofsky https://www.etsy.com/listing/177478811/lub-dub-goes-the-heart-anatomy-poster

Finally, I read the lesson plan slowly and just sat with it, and my feelings, for a while. I put on some relaxing music and listened while I was reading and sitting. As I listened, read, and sat, I told myself it was okay to be anxious. Wouldn’t that be normal for leading a complicated lesson for the first time at a new school? Wouldn’t that be expected, given my history with dissection? Wouldn’t that help me be more empathetic with any students who had misgivings?

I can do this.

The class didn’t go perfectly. Some kids were indeed bothered by the smell and put their sweatshirts over their noses and mouths to block it out. Most of them also didn’t remember the difference between the aorta, the pulmonary trunk, and the superior vena cava. At least one student said “this is awesome,” though. And a parent I saw as I was leaving called out to me, “my daughter loved that heart thing you guys did today!” I even had fun myself; I watched and observed all the different approaches the students brought to the activity, I marveled that you could stick your finger all the way through the aorta into the left ventricle and feel its elasticity and see its thick muscular wall. I felt my own heart steadily beating.

IMG_2540On the way home I drove a little ways to find my geocache for the day in a birdhouse. I had the Telemann viola concerto playing on the car’s sound system, as I do every day now. The day was warm, sunny, even though the winter sun was low in the sky, and I was struck again by how beautiful and joyful the piece is in its simplicity.

I’m still in that phase where I’m trying to get it all together technically. I’m memorizing it, I’m cleaning up the intonation, I’m using the metronome, I’m getting used to the Baroque bow, I’m fiddling with the bowings. I’m recording it every day and posting these recordings to the 100 Day practice challenge on Facebook. I’m trying to keep the weird faces and swaying to a minimum. The time will come, though, when all this will be a prelude to the main event. The time will come when I will have to play from the heart.

I can do this.

Violin Hearts, sculpture by Karissa Bishop https://fineartamerica.com/featured/violin-hearts-karissa-bishop.html
Violin Hearts, sculpture by Karissa Bishop https://fineartamerica.com/featured/violin-hearts-karissa-bishop.html

Thursday Doors: El Camino Real, Mountain View

El Camino Real is 600 miles long, linking cities up and down California. Sometimes known as the “Royal Road” or the “King’s Highway,” it has a storied history: between 1683 and 1834, Jesuit and Franciscan missionaries established a series of missions from today’s Baja California and Baja California Sur into what is now the state of California. Today’s El Camino links those 21 missions.

hb3x0nb5d7-fid5

In present-day Mountain View, however, El Camino a busy road with a lot of cars. I’ve done some Thursday doors posts about Mountain View before, highlighting it’s history as the geeky ground zero of Silicon Valley: Self-driving car, NASA Ames, HP Garage, Steve Jobs’ house, Stanford Medical Center. This post shows another side of the city.

Last weekend when I was at a friend’s house to play some string quartets, I drove my car into a curb. The tire didn’t go flat, but the rubber was damaged and it looked like there was a bite taken out of it. I could see some nylon. Another friend recommended a tire place on El Camino, and I took my car there this morning to find out that yes, the tire needed to be replaced. It would take about an hour and a half, during which I wanted to meet a group of geocachers for lunch at Panera Bread, a little over a mile away. I left my car there and walked.

“Caminar” is the Spanish verb for “to walk,” and as I walked down this camino I had a very different view of what I passed than I did when I drive every day.

First I passed this motel. Not sure I would want to stay there, but I probably would if the price was right.

01BudgetHotel
Budget Motel

This looked like someone’s house. The door was set back from the street and protected by bars and a gate.

02PrivateHome
Private Home

One of several medical offices and dialysis centers.

03MedicalOffice
Medical Office

An old-fashioned hardware store where you can find a lot of good stuff.

04TrueValue
True Value Hardware

Supposedly a personal trainer works here, but the building and parking lot are empty.

05PersonalTrainer
Abandoned Personal Trainer office

Never been in here, or seen this before:

06Vape
Vaping
07Vape
More Vaping

A restaurant that delivers

08Restaurant
Restaurant

Buy a new vacuum cleaner or get your old one fixed!

09VacuumCleaner
Vacuum cleaner purchase and repair

Sit on that weird bench while waiting for your car to be done?

10ForeignAuto
Foreign Car Service

Upscale apartment complex

11Apartment
Guest Parking Only

Even more upscale. We lived in a place similar to this one the first month we were in CA while we waited for our furniture. The balconies are either mind-numbingly or comfortingly similar.

12Balconies
Balcony Doors

The pool is visible from the street but no one is swimming today. Probably it’s too cold.

13Pool
Pool: Keep Closed

Painting a teddy bear blue makes me think of getting my hair cut, how about you?

14KidsHaircuts
Kids Hair Cuts!

Thursday Doors is a weekly feature allowing door lovers to come together to admire and share their favorite door photos from around the world. Feel free to join in on the fun by adding your post to the link over at Norm 2.0’s blog!

Mundane Wednesday: Remote Control

I’m a little late getting to this week’s Mundane Monday challenge for various reasons. Watching TV might be one of them, as the Olympics are on right now. This week’s theme is “remote controller.”

ThreeRemotes

I’m not a fan. I’m old enough that I can still remember getting up off my rear to change the channel, and I don’t think that was a bad thing. Channel surfing, much like scrolling through Facebook, is addictive and kind of a waste of time. Both activities–watching TV and interacting on social media–can be valuable if you do them intentionally, but the scrolling, surfing behavior works against that kind of media consumption.

And we accumulate way too many remotes. One for the TV, one for the old DVD Player, one for the Blu-Ray . . . we used to have a VCR too and associated remote, but at least we got rid of that one before we moved.

In keeping with last week’s photo advice, I did manage to focus on one object in the foreground while blurring the background somewhat, even with an iphone camera. Progress!

RemoteCloseUp

For the Mundane Monday Challenge #147.  Mundane Monday Challenge encourages you to take more pictures by being aware of your surroundings. The philosophy of MMC is simple. You can create a beautiful picture even by focusing on a very common looking, dull or so-called Mundane subject!

108 Days of Telemann

I’m in a lot of online violin and viola groups. It all started for me back in 2006 with violinist.com, a website edited by violinist and journalist Laurie Niles, devoted to the idea that “you can’t say enough about the violin.” When I joined, it was already an ambitious project, but still relatively small. If you hung around on the site for a while you soon got to know most of the regular posters. I started blogging there in the fall of 2006 when I started playing the violin again after a long break and added the viola.

Since then the internet has exploded as a medium for meeting other musicians online. There has been a YouTube symphony orchestra. Violin lessons via Skype are commonplace, and Facebook groups abound, where players of all ages and skill levels share videos and support. I have found myself a member and sometime moderator of a number of these groups, and I have met great friends there. In fact, when I moved to the SF Bay Area a couple of years ago, I found out about all the groups I play with now IRL, online. I wouldn’t have imagined any of this back the first time I was playing the violin, as a child and teen.

In fact at this point I am in what would probably be described as an embarrassment of Facebook-group riches. I’m not sure I can even remember all their names. (I’m a moderator for one of them, so I remember that one, at least.) I see many of the same friends in multiple groups too: some are violin- or viola-centric, some are for adult starters and re-starters, one is focused on the Alexander Technique. Then I got added to the “100-Day Practice Challenge.” A little overwhelmed, I hid the notifications and was thinking about just signing out of the group. And then I went to orchestra rehearsal.

One of the orchestras I play with, the South Bay Philharmonic, is an all-volunteer group that I found out about when a friend from violinist.com, Gene Huang, let me know about it on my blog when I announced I was moving. I looked it up then and found that they rehearsed around the corner from my new house. It took several months before I became a regular member, but once I did I was hooked. The SBP evolved out of the Hewlett-Packard Orchestra, and there are still some H-P employees playing with the group, but it is now independent. Scientists and tech nerds are heavily represented among the musicians, so I fit in well!

KarenViola2017a
Playing in the SBP viola section

An aspect of the SBP that especially appeals to me is the “open mic” portion of the concerts, shorter pieces played by small chamber groups, and full chamber music concerts. I’ve played in several of these, most recently a performance of the Schubert Cello Quintet. Gene Huang, who is the concertmaster of the SBP, has performed the entire Mendelssohn violin concerto with the orchestra, and our principal cellist, Harris Karsch, performed the Popper Hungarian Rhapsody with orchestra last spring. The concert we are currently preparing features tubist John Whitecar playing the first movement of the Gregson tuba concerto, and there were rumors of a bassoon concerto on the spring concert.

Watching my friends perform solo repertoire with the SBP got me to thinking: could I do this too? I have never performed a concerto for anyone but a private teacher in the past. Several years ago I came close when I played the concertmaster solo of  Tchiakovksy’s “Mozartiana” suite with the Arlington Philharmonic. I’m a violist in the SBP, and there are fewer of these types of solos for viola, and fewer concertos. (Our conductor likes to joke about this fact). There is one, though, that is decently well known: the Telemann viola concerto in G. Here is one of my favorite recordings: Yuri Bashmet playing it on a modern instrument with modern tuning.

I have played it in various situations over the past several years as I was learning the viola. It’s quite charming to listen to and not that technically difficult, either for soloist or orchestra. I played it through once with an informal chamber group I read music with on weekends, and it went okay. So when the SBP’s outgoing music director asked for suggestions moving forward, I stepped up and volunteered. The process was made easier when I thought the actual performance would be a ways in the future: when we had exhausted the repertoire the director picked out before he retired and moved to Texas.

Then came the fateful orchestra rehearsal. The bassoonist who was going to perform this spring had a conflict with a paying gig with another orchestra. She wanted to postpone. Could I do the Telemann sooner? Um . . . sure?

I went home and counted the days until the concert (which will be on May 11 2018): it was 108. Suddenly the 100-day practice challenge took on a whole different meaning. That evening, I made my first post.

redxs

 

Book Review: 2047, Short Stories from Our Common Future, edited by Tanja Bisgaard

2047 Short stories from Our Common Future2047 Short stories from Our Common Future by Tanja Rohini Bisgaard

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This is only the second collection of short stories that I am reviewing on this blog (here’s the first), and again I am finding the process unexpectedly challenging. All the short stories I try to write myself turn into novels, and I prefer to read novels. So maybe short story collections just aren’t my thing.

With that warning, I’d still highly recommend this book. I found it in a Facebook group for Cli-Fi authors, where the book’s editor, author Tanja Rohini Bisgaard, posts. And I’m surprised there aren’t more story collections like this competing for reviewer eyes and space. The variety of stories is broad, and the opening story, Still Waters by Kimberly Christensen, about the beaching suicide of a pod of whales in Puget Sound, which mirrors the disintegration of the protagonists’ relationship and their very lives, packs a huge emotional punch. I was worn out after reading it and I wasn’t sure that any of the other stories in the collection could match it. I was right; none of them did.

Puget Sound, 2017
Puget Sound, 2017

The rest are of more uneven quality, and all the choices are slanted towards North America and Europe (Bisgaard currently lives in Denmark), but the stories cover a wide range of protagonist ages, genders, professions, and voices, and an even wider range of consequences in the worlds imagined. Bisgaard’s own story, The Outcast Gem, is a moving tale of two sisters, one consigned to a shadow life as the consequence of a European one-child policy. I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop in Oakridge Train by Alison Haldermaand, a story about a young woman meeting her boyfriend’s family for the first time, but it didn’t. The people in that story actually seemed happy, and their world on the mend.

Bottle Art by Allison McDonald at the Monterey Bay Aquarium
Bottle Art by Allison McDonald at the Monterey Bay Aquarium

Other stories that I particularly enjoyed included Driftplastic by John A Frochio, about an artist who works with plastic trash as his medium, and Dear Henry by David Zetland, told entirely as a series of letters from one Henry H Sisson to the next, starting back in 1880. The last story, Willoy’s Launch by LX Nishimoto, about the CEO of a company that created intelligent, potentially world-saving, service robots, was kind of confusing to me. I didn’t always understand what was happening during the action sequences, or how Willoy was saving the world by holding down a button at the end. It’s good to end the book on a positive note, though, and I could totally see it as a movie.

That was perhaps my favorite aspect of this collection, and why it worked so well despite its flaws: it wasn’t all grim dystopia, there was little-to-no gratuitous violence, and a significant number of the protagonists were women. This collection is a creative mix that invites the reader to step into the minds and worlds of the characters, not merely watch and be entertained.

View all my reviews

Thursday Doors: Fantastic Beasts Found in Redwood City

These doors aren’t the usual fare that you can open and walk through, but they are still doors.

I started teaching at a new school last week, in Redwood City. Afterwards I went to find a geocache in a park nearby, Stulsaft Park. On the map the cache looked close to the road, but it turned out I had to meander quite a lot through past a playground and through some back trails before I got to the cache zone. On the way, I found a few painted boxes. There were pretty nature scenes painted on their doors:

It turns out that these in the park were not the only painted box doors in this city. There’s also this little lady:

CreatureRWC

And the Dragon Theater, a community theater specializing in contemporary plays for adults.

DragonTheater
Exciting, courageous, and rare!

Thursday Doors is a weekly feature allowing door lovers to come together to admire and share their favorite door photos from around the world. Feel free to join in on the fun by adding your post to the link over at Norm 2.0’s blog!