I am a neuroscientist, educator, geocacher, Unitarian-Universalist, amateur violinist, and parent. I have always been fascinated by how people's brains learn, and especially why this process is easier and more fun for some brains than others. This led me to get a PhD in Neuroscience, work in biotech, and then become a science educator and writer.
Driving around the North Bay near Suisun City, we came upon a geocache called (ironically, as it turned out) “Beautiful Downtown Denverton.” According to the geocache page description, “in 1878 the town [of Denverton] had a store and a blacksmith shop, a wheelwright, a meat market, a hotel, a school-house, and a Good Templars Hall.”
This is what’s there today.
There was also a foundation, now overgrown with weeds.
Or was it a farmhouse? A homestead where someone hoped to build a life for themselves?
This book begins with an interesting set-up. I was especially taken with the author’s stated goal in writing the Infinite Games series: to show what happens to a society when its environment is degraded. Her blog, linked here, says that Infinite Games is the story of the Marshlanders’ struggle to create communities in harmony with nature.
I was engaged immediately with Bethany, an 11-year-old girl who I thought was going to be the main character. She was relatable and the circumstances of her headstrong behavior and rescue were well portrayed. I found the idea of riding the wind to be really fascinating and worth exploring more. The author has a good eye for detail and a strong voice. The matter-of-fact attitude displayed by the characters towards sex and other bodily functions is refreshing and, I think, appropriate to YA readers. Overall the book has an unsentimental, down-to-earth tone which makes the imagined world real to all the senses and helps the reader identify with the setting and the ecological theme.
But about 2/3 of the way through, the book lost focus, new characters arrived, and I became confused about what was happening. Bethany went offstage for long stretches. There is some excellent material here; perhaps it needs a more editing and shaping. Or perhaps one just needs to start with the first book in the series. I received this book as part of a giveaway and it whetted my appetite for more, but I wish it stood better on its own.
Like The Secret King: Lethao, which I reviewed last year, The Road to Beaver Mill is another tip of an iceberg. The more you delve into the accompanying materials, the more you will get out of the experience of reading.
I’m in a writers’ critique group that meets roughly once a month, and a couple of months ago I had a story to read from one of the members who writes thrillers. The draft of his book had a scene that took place in Buck’s. One of the killers, posing as an insurance investigator, is talking to a witness for information, and he decides to meet the witness at the restaurant. From this introduction to the place I had a somewhat sinister impression, but that was dispelled by our visit.
A few weeks ago we went out to see the California wildflower “superbloom”. While we had a nice hike, I think we must have missed the bloom by a week or two. Afterwards we first thought we would visit Alice’s Restaurant, another venerable California institution not far from the wildflower preserve, where “you can get anything you want.” It had a long wait, so we drove up the road to Buck’s instead.
Buck’s, the third in my series of Silicon Valley’s geekiest hotspots, is cluttered and overstuffed with all kinds of weird and wonderful knick knacks . And it’s a door bonanza. From the restroom doors:
The Men’s room
The Women’s room
. . . on to the back:
. . . there’s always another door around the corner. It’s hard to stand back far enough to get the whole thing with your phone camera.
And the food is good too!
Thursday Doors is a weekly feature created by Norm 2.0 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!
Although I’ve been playing the viola for quite a while, and have previously blogged about it, there are stages to becoming a violist. I picked up the instrument as an adult after a long break from music, thinking that I might have an smoother re-entry into the stringed-instrument-playing world as a violist than a violinist.
Well, for my first ~9 years, that wasn’t quite true. And maybe more to the point, my subconscious was telling me something: I wasn’t ready to give up being a violinist yet. I learned some solo pieces on the viola, and even a concerto movement. But when I first tried to play the viola in an orchestra, I lasted for one rehearsal before I went scurrying back to the violin section. And chamber music? Nope. I played violin there too.
Another couple of years and a move to California later, though, things have changed. And I think that finally, I have come into my own as a violist. I have many people to thank for this: private teachers past and present, conductors who believed in me, and friends who were willing to let me play the viola in their chamber groups. But in order not to embarrass anyone, I will distill it down to two musicians who are both well known and both dead: Richard Strauss and Franz Schubert.
Last December I joined the Nova Vista Symphony for their Holiday Magic concert, which I thoroughly enjoyed. I had been missing holiday music as an essential part of the season. And after the concert as we were standing around at the reception eating peppermint bark, the Music Director asked me, “are you going to play the next concert? We’re going to play Till.”
“What’s Till?” I asked.
“Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks. It’s a tone poem by Richard Strauss.”
“Oh cool!” I said, naievely. I mean, I like Strauss. Beautiful Blue Danube Strauss and Also Sprach Zarathustra Strauss. But who or what is Till Eulenspeigel?
Till Eulenspiegel is a prankster character from German folklore. He has been around in different guises since the Middle Ages, always upsetting the apple cart in one picaresque way or another. According to our conductor, this piece is the first to set laughter to music. There is a 7-note phrase that begins sounding like “ha-ha-ha” and this phrase is repeated throughout the work in different contexts by every section of the orchestra. Read these excellent program notes by Paul Thomason to learn more.
But like the eponymous stories, this piece is not just a fluffy musical joke. It has a dark side, and in the case of me and my viola, the dark side was the fiendish technical difficulty of the piece. Wandering in and out of treble clef, with unconventional harmonies, accidentals, and rhythm and tempo changes galore, this was the most difficult thing I had ever played on the viola. The horn solo at the beginning is much more famous, and famously challenging, than anything in the viola part. Every section had its share, and we were struggling. It wasn’t clear to me, especially at the beginning of the rehearsal cycle, just who was being pranked here. The orchestra? Or maybe the audience who was going to have to listen to us play this?
Community orchestras have a long rehearsal cycle for a reason, and I’ve been in enough of them now to know that usually, towards the end of that cycle, a minor miracle can occur, and things start to fall into place. That happened. I figured out how to finger the most difficult section. The conductor chose a good tempo and I stopped worrying about it going too fast. I watched this recording with the synchronized score multiple times to figure out where my part fit in with the rest of the notes I was hearing.
At the same time I was also playing Schubert with another orchestra and doing some chamber music reading on weekends with friends. And here I was sitting principal viola. Freaking out was not an option.
In fact, the controlled chaos and jarring harmonizations of “Till” were given a stark counterpoint in the second movement of Schubert’s cello quintet, which I performed a week later. I had performed the first movement in the fall with the South Bay Philharmonic’s chamber group, and for the next concert we moved on to the next movement. Both elegiac and peaceful, this movement has been called “a hymn which floats above the mortal sphere.” With no conductor to complain to (or about), it was solely the responsibility of the five of us for how it came out. And with a successful performance of the first movement under our belts, we approached this movement with more confidence and less rehearsal time. Gene Huang, the first violinist, also played the Mendelssohn violin concerto on the same program, a feat that I’m still a little in awe of.
I’m writing this blog a couple of months after the fact, with a different Schubert chamber piece in my head and under my fingers, anticipating another concert this evening. And as I write, I’m listening to our recording of the quintet. While I would not trade my violin experiences for anything, I couldn’t be happier that I learned to play the viola, because it gave me the opportunity to play this music.
This weekend my husband and I participated in a “Georally,” which is a unique kind of geocaching event. It was a lot like a scavenger hunt. We were given a route to drive and questions to answer about things we saw.
Most of the questions were unexpected, and many were puns, like “What is something to Ponder?” with the answer being “Environmental Services.”
The weather was beautiful and we spent the whole day driving around the North Bay, an area we haven’t been to before that includes the cities of Benicia, Fairfield, and Martinez.
Part of the route took us along this pipeline pictured here, bright yellow against the blue sky and framed by our car’s windshield:
With all the pipelines in the news lately, I realized, as I passed under this one, that I had never actually seen an oil pipeline this closeup before.
There are several oil refineries in the area, which serve most of the northern part of the state of California. Alarmingly, they sit near or on top of the Concord Fault. According to the San Jose Mercury News, a large seismic event could “leave the entire northern half of the state without easy access to fuel, disrupting transportation and the transmission of electricity and water.”
Back in the 1990s when I was a graduate student at Stanford, Mountain View meant one of two things to me: good international restaurants on Castro St, and Hangar One on the NASA/Ames Research Center Campus on Moffett Field. Continue reading Thursday Doors: NASA Ames→
This past weekend was Earth Day in the United States. There were marches in support of science in San Francisco and Silicon Valley, which I agreed with and supported, but didn’t end up going to. I am an introvert and don’t like crowds. Continue reading Mundane Monday: CITO Events→
I play chamber music with a couple of different groups. One of them, whom I met through my daughter’s viola teacher last year, meets in one or the other of two nice historic houses in Palo Alto (either the violist’s or the cellist’s place). Google Maps informed me that this area of Palo Alto is also known as “Professorville,” and indeed both of them and/or their spouses have some connection to Stanford. Continue reading Thursday Doors: HP Garage→