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Checking the stove, checking it twice

Posted in Psychology, Stories by Alex L. on June 26, 2011

Image of wood-fired oven courtesy of Vinny Burgoo on WikipediaNo matter how late I’m running for an appointment or how urgently I need to put my shoes on and exit the house now, I always have time before I leave to check the stove… twice.

No, there’s nothing wrong with the appliance. The stove/oven range sits snuggly embedded inside of a curving pathway of granite countertop and contends favorably with the dishwasher for the title of swankiest object in the kitchen. It has no known malfunctions.

What I’m interested in is making sure that, before I leave the house, I haven’t left the stove “on”. It just takes two (on rare occasions, three) separate trips within the span of about two minutes for me to be really convinced of the stove’s neutrality.

I’ve grown used to this habit, but the irrationality of repeating this rite at least once a day has its own consequences. The Stove has acquired powers of awful proportions. One burner left carelessly open during the course of a workday, and the entire house – my laptop, my Kindle, my papers, my books, my musical instruments, my pets, my paperwork – will be licked away by property-destroying flames (or so I think). The stove represents a solitary seed of chaos-potential in the otherwise predictable routine of life.

So it must be monitored with the care that one reserves for an errant child with a bent toward pyromania. And if one has to swing through the kitchen an extra time because one wasn’t convinced that one sufficiently scrutinized the status of every burner knob (including the slow-cooker’s) the first time, then it’s a necessary evil. (more…)

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Symbolic reactions

Posted in Middle Eastern, Psychology, Reading, Travel by Alex L. on June 19, 2011

Hanging Gardens of Babylon engravingIn the deserts of the Middle East, goatskin seems to have been the material of choice for transporting water. This seemed strange to me when I first read about it in Wilfred Thesiger’s account of his travels in the sands of the Arabian Peninsula with the Bedouins. The way he described it, it seemed these goatskins had a tendency to sweat in the blistering sun and tear and leak their irreplaceable cargo as the nomads traveled from well to well.

Thesiger’s narrative formed images in my mind: the goatskin containers bulging with water and bouncing on a camel’s back; moisture congealing on the skins and falling in small droplets to sizzle on the sand; the Bedouins (and Thesiger with them) drinking gladly the animal-scented liquid at the end of a long day’s ride. Soon these water-bearing goatskins became for me part of a larger symbolism that I had affixed to the Bedouin lifestyle.

The nomadic Arabs were a complex people in Thesiger’s account. Ready to drive a knife through the chest of a child from a competing tribe if the customs of a blood-feud demanded it, the same Bedouin man would literally give the last shirt off his back or the last swigs of camel’s milk to a stranger who happened upon his camp. To me, reading and re-reading Thesiger’s book, Bedouins came to represent a love of freedom, a fraternal devotion to clan, and a proud contentedness with simple living.

But I have never met any real Bedouins (I’m not counting the hospitable entertainers of Bedouin descent who served coffee and rice for our Birthright Israel group before returning to their mansion in the desert for the night). Bedouins, along with their goatskin water bottles that I have never actually seen, exist only in my mind as symbol and metaphor. (more…)

History off the press (June ’11 edition)

Posted in Academia, American, Books, European by Alex L. on June 13, 2011

The Greater Journey coverThere are perhaps hundreds, if not thousands, of books about historical subjects published every month. This is counting neither the books in foreign languages nor the voluminous scholarly and journalistic articles about history. Trying to follow almost any trend in our well-connected world is a laborious process, and keeping track of newly-published history books is no exception.

What helps me is keeping in mind that history books are not published in a cultural vaccuum. Behind almost every good history publication, there is a continuation going on of a fragmented communal dialogue about the subject. That is, the author is responding to some ideas and stories that previous authors had written about the same historical topic. Sometimes the author may present an argument that contradicts most of what other authors had written before him. At other times, history books are written more in an expository rather than a persuasive style. But all too many history publications are dreadfully boring because the communal discussion about a topic – especially in the community of professional historians – has taken a turn for the “who cares?”

Personally, there are two main qualities that I really prize in a book of history. These are when an author:

  1. Chooses in writing his book to respond to a historical discussion that is intriguing and insightful, and
  2. Writes in a style that makes a skillful and effective use of narrative.

In this post, I will feature some history books published in May and early June of 2011 that seem like good reads. I came up with this list by browsing the Web for new releases and then evaluating their quality based on the books’ description and reader reviews. I found samples from new books rarely available online, so admittedly some of these authors’ writing styles may actually turn out to be terrible. Needless to say this list is subjective and not comprehensive, but my goal is to add some kinds of grains of context to new first-editions of history. Let’s begin with books about a topic I’ve written about recently: travel and exploration. (more…)

Reed-Turner Woodland

Posted in Culture, Stories by Alex L. on June 4, 2011

Close-up of nature photo courtesy of Dustin M. Ramsey (accessed: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Morton_Arboretum_woodland.jpg)I have been watching reruns of Man vs. Wild lately. So when I saw the crumbling heap of a burned-down tree, my first reaction was to squirrel away some bits of its charcoal in my pockets. In a survival situation, these would be a valuable source of tinder to make a fire. But being twenty paces from my Ford Escort (and five minutes’ drive from the nearest Starbucks), I decided that I was not in a predicament to start hoarding the essentials.

Rather, I was in Reed-Turner Woodland, a small nature preserve in Long Grove, Illinois. It was early morning, and by whim I had turned into the woodland off of Old McHenry Road on my way to work. I parked my car in the empty gravel lot and decided to look around before resuming my commute.

Most of the forest preserves in this part of Illinois are bleak and dull. They usually occupy small plots. One gets the impression that there were no natural forests here before European settlement, or at least none worth saving. The trees leaf sparsely, and the new vegetation on the ground seems to struggle every spring and summer to overcome the decaying matter of the previous fall. If the municipal caretakers did not regularly remove dead trunks and carve channels into the riverbanks, then one can’t help but imagine that the streams would dry up and the forest itself would wither until the entire crumbling mass would finally be swept away in a prairie fire.

But Reed-Turner seemed different somehow. It was my first time there, and I decided that I had half an hour to explore the forest trails before continuing on my way to work. The trail started at the parking lot and sauntered along the edge of the woods. I hiked past the burnt-down tree – most likely culled by the village authorities because it grew too close to the road, I thought. Heading deeper into the small preserve, I heard occasional shuffling noises coming from left and right. This made me uneasy. The last time I hiked more than a day in real wilderness was five years ago. I was out of the habit and my mind feared the worst. Was that branch breaking a sure sign of a prowling coyote? Skunks and raccoons, too, would be unpleasant characters to encounter. (more…)