bookmark: walking the nile

Walking the Nile – Levison Wood

Some people are driven to monumental accomplishments, or perhaps failures. But the small and mundane are not their bailiwick, such as it is mine. Walking the length of the Nile River certainly falls into the category of a monumental effort, and clearly the author of this book is driven to such extremes. Yet even he failed to accomplish all that he wished, due to civil war in South Sudan and restrictions regarding travel around a certain dam on the Nile. Still, he covered the greatest part of the length of the river, which is something that I would never even contemplate doing, let alone be able to do. Kudos to him.

This book is the story of his journey, the dangers of which, if anything, are understated. He was fortunate to have some good traveling companions along the way and also benefited greatly from sponsors. Indeed, he probably would not have been able to walk the section of the Nile through Egypt without some large last minute contributions. Africa may be a place of beauty, but it is also a place of tribal, political, and religious conflict, and that takes extra effort (and money) to work through.

Scattered through the pages are bits and pieces of history, which make the book more than just a slog along the Nile. Mr. Wood also touches upon current ecological and cultural conditions, raising important questions about both. Everyone outside of Africa thinks that it should be kept as some pristine, fence free, protected nature preserve, while the native population needs to clear land and protect it in order to progress into the modern (relatively speaking) world. You can’t have your cake and eat it, too, and some of the situations in this book point this out rather well.

Gratefully, I can leave major expeditions such as this to people like the author, and read about it from the comfort of my living room. Long distance learning works for me, and this book taught me several new things.

Finished 12/30/16

bookmark: lab girl

Lab Girl – Hope Jahren

This is an interesting, well-written book about a somewhat, um, quirky, scientist. A woman scientist, as I am sure she would want me to mention. On one hand this book is an autobiography of an everyday person, on the other hand it is an exploration of the life of a person who has had to face her own personality disorders. In other words, it is a book that most of us could write about ourselves, if we were as capable of doing so as this author.

There have been times in my life that I wished I had a driving interest in something, anything, that would blossom into a career. Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately), my life has been a revolving series of hobby interests which, while fulfilling, have not yielded even a hint of a career. Instead, my “career” has been jobs for which I have an innate ability, but little interest. In contrast, Ms. Jarhren seems to be one driven by the need to do what she does. It seems to have been a path she could not have avoided walking even if she had tried. Indeed, for her there is no division between a work life and a personal life; they are one and the same.

An integral part of her life, her lab mate, Bill, plays a major role in the book. If she were on drugs, I think that he would be called an “enabler.” He seems to have no more of a life outside the laboratory than the author does, or at least until she got married. I guess it’s great to find someone else you can share your passion with, and yet odd that she didn’t fall in love with anyone until she found someone who was not intimately involved with her everyday lab work. Other reviews I have read of this book consider Bill as interesting as the author, and I guess that is not far from the mark.

Included in the stories of the author’s life are bits and pieces about soils, plants and trees, the author’s life work. As a person who appreciates science, I found these bits as interesting as the rest. I could easily have been a scientist (indeed, I did work as a lab assistant in college and worked for a short time in a pulp and paper lab) and can relate to this information and to Ms. Jahren’s fascination with it.

Perhaps the subject matter would not alone have been enough to drive the popularity of this book, but the author’s writing is really very good. It is obvious that she is just as capable writing as she is in the lab. As the author relates, her mother involved the author in her English studies and thus seems to have inspired a love of language in her daughter. It shows, and makes the book eminently readable.

Finished 12/22/16

free to choose

You know what? I’m tired of being a fat man. I don’t want to be a fat man. I’m not going to be a fat man any more.

No one is making me be a fat man. Sure, I have no choice about the getting old part, but I do have some say in the being fat part, and I say it’s time for a change. All I have to do, really, is eat less calories – and the right calories – than I burn every day. I’ve done it before, so it’s not like I don’t know that it can be done.

I’m just tired of my body hurting, my knees and hips in particular. Yeah, I’m going to need some replacements, but my body would move so much easier and with less pain if I weighed less and I wasn’t eating crap that caused inflammation.

So I’m going to stop eating crap and get my body into the best shape that it can be, even if it is nowhere near where I wish it could be. That’s it. No further discussion. Just do it.

The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper – Phaedra Patrick

As I get older I tend to appreciate books which portray life in our later years in an optimistic light, and this is one of those books. Through the the mystery of a found charm bracelet, the main character eventually works through his grief over the loss of his wife and sees that there is still more enjoyment in life to be found.

I wonder how the author could write about bereavement so accurately. I suppose there is plenty of literature about it and it wouldn’t be hard to research, but it sounds like she has seen it first hand. Certainly I was able to relate to her writing all too well. That kind of grief is something that rips you into little pieces, leaving you to try to reassemble yourself bit by tiny bit. In the end, you do it, but somehow there is always a piece missing, a piece that cannot be replaced.

This was an enjoyable book, well written and with lessons for both us old farts who face these kinds of situations and for our families who cannot yet really understand what we are going through. By the way, if you’re not familiar with British words or phrases, the typical American might be thrown off occasionally, but to me it just added to the charm of the book (pun intended).

Finished 12/5/16

bookmark: beyond belief

Beyond Belief: My Secret Life Inside Scientology and My Harrowing Escape – Jenna Miscavige Hill

One of the strongest desires of humans is the desire to “belong.” This is evidenced in many ways; identifying by race, joining clubs to share common interests, supporting political movements, belonging to fraternities and sororities, cheering on the local sports team, to mention just a few. One of the most common of these is religion.

It can be difficult to define religion. Generally speaking, I define it as a system of belief in something that cannot be confirmed by science and that must be taken as truth by faith. Usually this relies on belief in some supernatural entity, but it is not required. What is required is an unquestioning acceptance of the tenets of the religion.

I have been aware of Scientology through the popular media, but have never looked at it more closely. I thought that this book, written by someone who had been literally raised in Scientology, would give me an insight into that “religion.” It did, and left me with déjà vu wonder at what people will believe and accept in the name of religion.

The author is the niece of David Miscavige, who is the current head of the Church of Scientology. This book does not act as a history or analysis of the Church of Scientology, but rather as the personal story of a child reared in the church, up through the time she left the church. As I was reading it, I found myself thinking that this sounded like a child being raised in a third-world country where child labor is a normal part of everyday life.

As the author obviously has a vested interest in the story, I tried to maintain some skepticism while reading it. I found myself wondering about parts of her story, but I had to remind myself that I have never been in the kind of situation she was in. She goes back and forth, at points being supportive of the things she was going through and then rebelling in the next breath. In the end, this story could be that of many children raised within a restrictive religion, with religious teachings enforced through many different psychological and physical means. I’m grateful that I was never put into this kind of situation and would never, have never, considered putting a child of mine in such circumstances.

While this book is not necessarily riveting reading, the insight into the treatment of people within the Church of Scientology is revealing. Is it worse than other religions? Well, at least they are not out blowing people up. Still, that doesn’t mean I’ll be signing up any time soon, and I’m sorry to see that a child could be put into such circumstances as the author was.

Finished 11/21/16

bookmark: driving mr. einstein

Driving Mr. Einstein: A Trip Across America with Einstein’s Brain – Michael Paterniti

This book fed my penchant for road trip stories. The essence of this true story is that the author drives the pathologist who did the autopsy on Albert Einstein across the country to visit old friends and former haunts. The hook in the story is that the pathologist has Einstein’s brain with him, which he had acquired when he did the autopsy many years ago.

With a setup like that – a somewhat odd, old man with Einstein’s brain, traveling across country with a driver who has his own personal relationship problems – it seemed like there could be some interesting metaphysical insights. While I enjoyed the book well enough, it just didn’t seem to go much of anywhere.

I had expected more about the old pathologist, and while we got some information about him, he remains a stranger. Considering his attitude towards the author as merely his chauffeur, I suppose this shouldn’t be surprising. He seemed loath to give up much personal information.

The book was largely about the author assessing his relationship with his girlfriend, who he had left at home, writing a book herself. At first he questioned whether the relationship was dying or dead, but as the trip went on, he realized that he missed her and started to understand the nature of their relationship. This is more the theme of the book than anything else.

It was a bit disappointing when they finally hit the end of their trip from the east coast to the west. I had assumed that the purpose of the trip was going to be to make a final disposition of Einstein’s brain, but such was not the case. In what is essentially an epilogue, we do find the resolution to both the author’s relationship situation and the disposition of the brain, but by that time it’s more about wrapping things up than gaining any great insights.

So, while I don’t consider reading the book a waste of my time, it wasn’t as satisfying as I had hoped it would be.

Finished 11/11/16

disowning the party

Thank goodness this election will be over after tomorrow. Well, I’m not sure how “over” it will be, but at least we will be past all the political ads. I’ve noticed a very interesting tactic this election. Almost every political ad I see on television, or hear on the radio, and all the candidate yard signs I see, fail to mention the party the candidate belongs to. Somehow I don’t think this is just an oversight.

It seems that identifying as either a Democrat or Republican is considered risky, as though you are making yourself the personal representative of either Hillary or Trump. In fact, the only political ads which identify a party are those which attempt to paint a local candidate as a supporter of Trump or Hillary, something which supposedly should disqualify you from winning. Even if you have announced that you do not support either of the main candidates, the other party still puts out ads smearing you with the party standard bearers.

I’m not sure if this is a good or a bad strategy. If people don’t know what party you belong to, how are they going to be able to find the candidate on the ballot? If a voter prefers to vote by party, this can be an issue. On the other hand, by not identifying themselves as either Democrat or Republican, it could force the voter to actually do some research to find out what that candidate actually believes and to vote intelligently. Yeah, I know – like that is going to happen. People are still going to go to the poll and go through the ballot only voting for those in their preferred party.

Still, not identifying with a party is a novel change in electioneering. It will be interesting to see if it happens again in the next election cycle, or if this is only symptomatic of this particular election with these two particularly reprehensible candidates. All I can say is that I am grateful that they are not the only choices in this election.

As for me, I happily declare that I am a Libertarian, though I’m not running for office. If I were, I would be proud to advertise that fact.

bookmark: a moment of war

A Moment of War – Laurie Lee

A Moment of War is the third book of the memoir trilogy written by the English author Laurie Lee. It has a decidedly different tone than the earlier two books, which is understandable considering that it all takes place in Spain during the Spanish Civil War.

Sitting in my place, at this point in time, I cannot understand why anyone would have gone to Spain to fight in that war as, essentially, a mercenary, though it is obvious that you did not do it for the financial rewards. Instead, as evidenced in this book, most of the people who left their homelands to fight in Spain were idealists who thought they were fighting for the Communist cause, or were people who had nothing to lose and were escaping what they left behind, or were people looking for some grand, romantic adventure that they thought they would find in Spain. From the tale in this book, I think that they all would have been greatly disappointed.

There are some who question Lee’s veracity in this book, suggesting that it may be more a work of fiction than of factual reporting, but even if that is so, the mood of the times comes through loud and clear. Personally, I cannot understand, first, why anyone would put themselves into this kind of situation in the first place, and secondly, why they would not try like hell to get out of it as soon as they found out what they were in for.

But, that’s me, an old fart sitting at the comfort of his desk in the middle of America in 2016. It is hard to understand the circumstances of different eras if you have not lived in them. You can only judge based on the history you read and how you think you would have reacted. And I think I would have been really glad to just stay home.

You can read the facts of history, but it is the personal stories of the people involved in that history that help us really understand that history. I may not totally understand the motivations of all involved, but this book has helped me to see this history in a personal way.

I think that my inclination upon meeting the author during this time would have been to slap him upside the head and say, “Get over yourself, and go home.” Eventually , he figured that out for himself. He’s just lucky that he lived to tell the tale. The other two books in this trilogy, Cider with Rosie, and As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, are much lighter reading, but all three give an interesting, personal perspective of the times.

Finished 11/4/16

CUBS WIN!

Want to know why I don’t watch sports? Well, mostly because I’m just not a big sports fan, but the other reason is games like the one last night. I don’t like stress, and if you are a Cubs fan and that game didn’t stress you out, then either you have ice water running in your veins or you are dead. Then again, I’m not even sure about dead. I bet my dear departed mother-in-law, a die-hard Cubs fan, was somewhere agonizing over the game, too.

I think that all Cubs fans were watching the season in a bit of disbelief, as they did last year. So close last year, but they were swept in the National League Championship Series by the Mets. While we all hoped the Cubs would win it and go on to the World Series, when they didn’t make it we fell back on the old “maybe next year” that we fallen back on for decades.

This year, with the best record in Major League Baseball, we had reasonably high hopes that they would make it to the World Series. They beat the Giants in the National League Divisional Series rather handily and advanced to the National League Championship Series, where they took six games to beat the Dodgers and move on to the World Series. And that’s when we really started biting our nails.

Beginning the World Series with a 0-6 loss was not a good omen. Hints of “maybe next year” started creeping into my thoughts. I mean, come on – 0-6? Ouch! OK, so game two is better, with a 5-1 win. Whew, we are back into this thing. But game three with a 1-0 loss and game four with a 7-2 loss meant that Cleveland only had to win one more game to win the Series. Sigh. Time to accept the fact that we were going to have to wait for next year for another shot at winning (or even getting into) the World Series.

On Sunday I couldn’t watch the game, and by “couldn’t” I mean that I didn’t want to watch the Cubs lose. Instead, I followed the scores on my computer while I did other stuff. Whoa! A 2-3 win! Not the kind of winning margin I would like to see in a score, but a win is a win. Still, they need two more wins to take the whole thing. What are the odds of that? Better than I thought, apparently.

Surely the next game they would lose the whole thing, so I didn’t even bother keeping up with the score. Some Cubs fan, eh? What can I say? It’s just my usual glass-half-full approach to life. But holy crap – they win 9-3. Now that’s the kind of score I like. Suddenly we are at game seven with winner take all.

Early games are a little easier to take, assuming that a loss can be made up later (which they were), but this was crunch-time. I know the Cubs are really good this year, but can they do this? OK, first inning – Bam! First run of the game, and Cubs are in the lead. Good, let’s hold Cleveland to no runs and increase our number of runs for safety’s sake. But then in the third inning Cleveland gets a run and it is tied up. No, I can’t watch. My stress levels are going through the roof. I had to leave the room, assuming the worst.

A little while later I had to at least check the score to see how badly the Cubs were doing. Wait a minute. The Cubs are ahead 3-1. Yay! Now let’s keep that lead, for cryin’ out loud. I watch for a bit and the Cubs score two more runs, but the Indians come back with two more of their own. I can’t watch. Gone again, but I can’t stay gone. Checking again, the score is 6-3 – Cubs are going to win this! I decide to watch again. Oh man, a mistake. Maybe it’s my watching that is causing problems for the Cubbies, because now the score is tied at the bottom of the eighth. Son of a bitch! Time for bed. I cannot handle the stress of extra innings, if they make it that far, and I need my sleep. Good night, all.

So I’m peacefully dozing when my wife takes a break from her tv watching to hit the head and stops by to ask me if I was watching the game. I say “no” and she says the Cubs won. What!?! Holy Cow! This is almost unbelievable, but I turn on the tv and sure enough, the Cubs are celebrating. I have to admit – and I guess I wasn’t alone last night – I shed a few actual tears of joy. I have never shed tears over a sporting event, ever. But last night, there they were. Yeah, it’s only a game, and you feel bad for Cleveland, but the idea that the Cubs have won the World Series for the first time in 108 years is overwhelming.

But there was a more personal reason for those tears. As I mentioned before, my mother-in-law was a true-blue Cubs fan. So much so that at her funeral six years ago, they sang “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” That choked me up so much I couldn’t even come close to singing. The Cubs win last night was vindication for her faith in her team for so many years of her life. It was so sad that she hadn’t lived to see her team finally win it all. My tears of joy also encompassed that sadness.

They say that the Cubs are a relatively young team and that we haven’t heard the last of them. There should be more great years to come. I hope so, but to tell the truth, I am able to say that I saw the Cubs win the World Series and I’m happy with that. There are a lot of people who have never had the chance. Even if the Cubs were to tank next year (um, how do I prevent that from becoming a curse? knock on wood?), I still could face the year happy.

Now, if only the Bears could get their shit together.

worst . . . election . . . ever . . .

This has been a humdinger of an election cycle. Everybody wants it to be over with, period. I think a lot of people don’t even care who wins, since it appears to be a lose-lose proposition – they just want it all to go away. Personally, I can understand that, though I cannot bring myself to say that I do not care who wins. I do. And if I were in charge, the winner would be Gary Johnson.

Who is Gary Johnson? If you’re asking, you are one of the many, many people who are not aware that there are alternatives to Trump and Hillary on the presidential ballot. Johnson is the Libertarian Party candidate and the candidate that most closely matches my politics. While he is no pure theory libertarian, he’s close enough, and miles and miles better than either of the Democrat or Republican candidates.

If you’ve heard of him at all, it’s because he appeared to be caught flat-footed by a couple of questions put to him. The media has made a big deal over it, and Democrats and Republicans have derided him for it. For me, it’s all silly. Those couple of questions, which also would have tripped me up the way they were asked (though admittedly I’m not a candidate for president), are nothing, and I mean NOTHING compared with the near criminal (actually, probably very criminal) activities of Hillary Clinton and the ridiculously simple-minded, reactionary rants of Donald Trump.

But it has been ever so. The two main parties have always fought to defend their turf, and that turf is politics. They have no intention of allowing a third party candidate an equal run in the race. And the truth is, the media only views the minor parties as a sideshow.

If Johnson had been allowed into the debates (which he would have been, using previously established guidelines which were changed to keep him out), he would have wiped the ideological floor with Trump and Hillary. God forbid that there be any real discussion of substance of the actual issues. Instead we were subjected to invective and glittering generalities from Trump and to promises from Hillary that she has absolutely no path to provide. She felt she had to one-up Bernie Sanders, an actual socialist (like Hillary isn’t?) and Trump is most inclined to appeal to the paranoia and panic of the working class.

It has not been pretty, and I don’t think that the results of the election, whichever way they go, are going to improve the situation. Even if Johnson were to win (be still my heart), he would still have to deal with congress. I’m starting to feel that there is just no good way forward. As long as one side wants to steal from Peter to give things to Paul for free, and as long as the other side thinks that building walls is going to solve all the country’s problems, there will be no happy future.

Sometimes I despair over the fate of this country, and this election just seems to offer up proof after proof of why this is so.