Monday, April 22, 2013

Camping vs. Fame vs. Housewifery vs. More Public Domain Audiobooks

Kevin Callan, in his lark of a sequel to the fantastic camping book The Happy Camper, has a great story about risk. On a paddling trip with his friend Audrey, he takes a running jump into a lake and breaks his ankle on a rock. Audrey says, “Aren't you glad you weren't solo camping when you broke your ankle?” Kevin says, “If I was solo camping, I never would have jumped into a lake like that.”

I've been squirrelly to go hiking all winter, and I've been reading some camping books, but I need the right kind of camping book. I have yet to choose a camping book where people are willfully stoopid. Part of me wants to read Jon Krakauer's Into the Wild or Aron Ralston's 127 Hours/Between a Rock and a Hard Place, but I don't know if I could read a book where people's blatant mistakes get them into ridiculous situations and they suffer from them. Well, yes, a person who goes camping badly won't necessarily come to harm, but you shouldn't go waltzing with bears like Timothy Treadwell and expect to come out of it safely. Aron Ralston, for all that he's James Franco, made the cardinal mistake of not telling anyone where he was going before he went climbing for the weekend. After he was missed at work on Monday, his rescue was further delayed by the search teams' needing to comb an entire mountain range to find him, since no one had an idea of his approximate location. If a person can't call their parents and say, “I'm going hiking in this area and if I'm not back Sunday night then I'm probably injured or dead so you should alert the authorities,” then why should I read their book? (Kevin Callan has another great story about a canoeist who failed to notify his emergency contact when he got back from his trip, and the massive search and rescue that was undertaken on his behalf while he unpacked his gear and went to bed.)

I don't want to read camping books about daft people, so what have I been reading? Kevin Callan's Wilderness Pleasures (which I leant to Sara because it's pro-kayak), Mugged by a Moose, and Up: A Mother and Daughter's Peakbagging Adventure. I actually read Wilderness Pleasures back in January, but if one were to read the same genre all the time, one would go mad with boredom, even if all the stories were as hilarious as the one in Mugged by a Moose where the guy almost gets eaten by a polar bear. Unfortunately, not all the stories in Mugged by a Moose are all that hilarious, but I've only ever found one travel anthology where all the stories were good (Going Alone: Women's Adventures in the Wild) and those stories aren't funny, just swashbuckling. Mugged by a Moose was maybe half funny and half meh, but that's pretty good for a travel anthology. I snagged a Best Lesbian Travel Adventures out of the recycling bin at work last year, and that book didn't even open with a good story.

Peakbagging is not a sex act (Missie says it sounds like one), it is climbing to the tops of all the mountains in a certain place and then feeling good about it. New Hampshire has 48 mountains over 4,000 feet and when you climb all of them you get a T-shirt. Up: A Mother and Daughter's Peakbagging Adventure is the story of Patricia Ellis Herr and her daughter Alex and their attempt to bag every peak in New Hampshire. Fortunately, Trish doesn't describe every peak they bag. Amazingly, she keeps the story rolling. She talks about highlights, judgement, risk management, planning, her daughter's moods, research, the challenges of hiking with children, and occasionally she describes a view. It's great. I know firsthand how plodding your mental place can be while you're hiking. If I wrote a book about my solo hike last summer, I would tell you about the half hour I spent thinking about my co-worker's vacation. “I bet they're going to the beach.” “I wonder if they're eating seafood?” Sometimes I hike and relive entire episodes of television shows. And the landscape. “Here's some more trees. Their leaves are green.” Trish knows not to deliver a blow by blow of every hike; she keeps up the drama. She starts out with a gut-wrenching story about a day when she did everything right. She and her daughters, Alex (five) and Sasha (three), checked the weather forecast before they left home. Trish had all their emergency supplies in a pack, they were hydrated and aware, and a lighting storm formed above their heads, formed! (according to Bill Bryson, in the White Mountains storms do that) and in five minutes they went from sunshine and puffy clouds to pounding rain and lightning. Trish had two little children above the tree line. She made the best decision she could, dropped her pack, picked up Sasha and they ran for it. She stowed the kids in lightning position in a hollow. They needed to descend, but Trish didn't feel safe without her pack. What if she snapped her ankle on the way down? What if conditions worsened and they had to spend the night on the mountain? If Trish left the girls and ran for the pack, Sasha might bolt from fear, and then she would have a lost three-year-old on a mountain in a storm. Firm instructions to stay where they huddled, and Trish ran up and came back down to two sobbing little girls, Alex hanging onto Sasha's raincoat and saying, “She wanted to run and look for you.” Those were the risks that Patricia Herr took when her five-year-old daughter decided she wanted to climb all the mountains. After she figured out how to limit risks. Trish tells the story of her daughters' first, abortive, attempt to summit, when she made all the mistakes. The family waited until April, when the snow in their front yard was melted, then Trish threw some water and snacks in her backpack and they started hiking. They hit snow not very far up the mountain. Trish was in shorts. The girls kept sinking up to their waists. An old man came down the mountain in snowshoes and gave them some funny looks. Trish turned her daughters back around, did two months of research, dropped a thousand dollars on equipment and she and Alex did their first 4,000er in June. Trish was constantly surprised by Alex's tenacity. She earned her peakbagging t-shirt at the age of seven, at the end of the book, and according to their website, they're climbing about in other states now. Patricia Ellis Herr's husband is a professor at Harvard, hence the time and resources, but the book was still a fantastic, outdoorsy read.

And then I got curious about Kristin Hannah. Her books have pastel covers and titles like Home Front and Angel Falls and they sell like hot cakes. I should have chosen a thinner Kristin Hannah, but I was downstairs at work deciding which backstocked audiobook to check out, and Firefly Lane jumped out at me. I was hoping it would be a gripping fluff of unputdownableness, but it wasn't. I did finish it, however, which makes it better than Twilight. Kate and Tully are best friends forever and ever until 2005 when Kate dies of cancer. It works; I was wondering Kristin Hannah was going to wrap things up since every historic event and fashion style since 1976 was chronicled, and the book needed to end solidly. Kristin Hannah couldn't just let the future go in an ambiguous direction with no skinny jeans, she had to rip Kate and Tully apart with death. If I had a friend dying of cancer, I would probably feel differently about this book.

Before Kate dies, she's a housewife. She is, actually, the kind of woman who reads Kristin Hannah novels, except that her husband makes enough money that things like dying of cancer and putting money in the kids' college fund aren't mutually exclusive. Tully is a famous news broadcaster/ talk show host. She majored in journalism but her obsession is getting herself famous on TV. Tully and Kate's husband Johnny are both journalists with an alarming disregarding for the whole “news” thing. None of the characters are deep, except the men who look into Tully's eyes and say, “You need to love even if it hurts,” and it's hard to cram thirty years into three hundred pages, so Kristin Hannah doesn't let her characters have relationships outside of Kate, Tully, Johnny,Tully's two occasional boyfriends, Kate's parents and her daughter. You wonder: Why don't these people make other friends? How are these two women who've never had anything in common still friends? Why is Kate's funeral packed when she only knows eight people? The entire premise, that Kate and Tully become friends in junior high and then Tully moves away and they stay in touch and remain best friends forever, seemed unlikely. Eighth graders are bad at staying in touch, and Kate and Tully continue to have nothing in common for the next thirty years, except Johnny. He's in love with Tully, Kate's in love with him, he and Tully boink, Kate stays in love with him, he gets Kate pregnant and remains devoted to her until, on her death bed, she awkwardly tells him that he and Tully should get back together.

Kate is boring in a plausible, housewifely way. Tully is boring in a famous way. You see, fame is hard and no one ever loved Tully so she feels lonely in her forties and wishes she had a family like her harried best friend has. It's the kind of fame that non-famous people imagine famous people have so that they can feel good that the rich cry too. I only know one famous person, and she's an author, not a talk show host, but the highlight of her week is playing Scrabble with my mom on Fridays. I would posit that real famous people, especially people who are famous for being skilled at their careers, are not as empty inside as Tully is. They also have bailout options. If Oprah (and Kristin Hannah says Tully is half as famous as Oprah) wanted to commit herself to nonprofit work or retire to a horse farm, she could probably manage it. Kristin Hannah creates a weird TV star/housewife dichotomy, and tells us that love is the most important thing, which means that housewifery trumps famousness. But if housewives die, and TV stars end up with their dead best friend's husband, then isn't it better to be famous?

Other things I've been reading: From Plotzk to Boston, a contemporary account, by a sixteen-year-old girl, of what it takes to get from the pale of Russia to Boston by cart, train, and steamer. Sweethearts by Sara Zarr, which was a book club book for a book club meeting that I failed to attend, and When Patty Went to College, where Patty has fewer hijinks than in Just Patty.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

A Campground Bathroom is Like Public Space in America

Last summer I hiked one hundred miles on the Ice Age Trail from the edge of Lincoln County, WI to the Veterans Memorial Campground in the Langlade County Forest and back. The forest was emerald green. I filtered water from clear streams. I literally heard wolves howling at night. I hiked fifty miles in four days, and I had one conversation with another human during those four days. I was walking a road segment and an older gentleman pulled up in his truck and politely asked what I was up to. I explained that I was hiking the Ice Age Trail. He'd never heard of it, even though he lived on it, but he asked if I needed anything, and when I said I was fine he drove off and into his driveway a few hundred yards up the road. Unfortunately, his lawn d├ęcor was a fake grave labelled “trespasser” and a sign about exercising his second amendment rights. That was on Wednesday. On Thursday, around 5:00pm, I hiked my tired knees into the Veterans' Memorial Campground, where every campsite has RV electrical and water hook-ups, and there costs $20 a night. I was excited to see people. I was also excited about toilets. I had run across two of them on the trail. One was at an ATV shelter, the other one was at a picnic ground. They were both as clean and well-stocked as pit toilets can be, but there's something about using the bathroom and washing your hands afterward that you can't duplicate in the wilderness.

I used the first toilet I came across, down by the lake. It was unplumbed and out of hand sanitizer, and it was kind of a let down. I was looking forward to using the restroom building with electric lights located in the main campground. Wandering around, I was definitely the only tent in the campground. Everyone else had an RV, and they were all big. No pop-ups. I found a campsite next to a dad and ten-year-old daughter because, as the Her Side of the Mountain blog says, “Choose a campsite next to a family. They'll be too busy watching their kids to attack you.” I set up my tent, and hung my food in a tree. It feels primitive, I tell you, to be hauling a dry-bag of food into the most promising tree you can find while your neighbors are packing their suppers into coolers and storing them in their camper kitchens. It was dark by the next time I had to go to the bathroom. I brought all my toiletries, such as they were, and spent a long time brushing and flossing and staring at my five-days-unwashed hair in the mirror. I'd expected to see people in the bathroom around going-to-bed time, and a few people came and went into the stalls while I was dithering about, but no one did toothbrushing or said more than “Hi.” The next morning, I woke up and used the bathroom again. The novelty was mostly worn off, but I still had to use it. I was up early and I had a lovely stroll around looking at peoples' lawn signs. If you buy an RV and you want to go camping in Wisconsin, you need a painted wooden sign that says “The Johannsens” or “Mike and Judy's Place.” Bonus points if it's in the shape of a paddle or it has a duck on it. Also, bring at least four lawn chairs, an outdoor rug, and some tiki torches.
The bathroom was fun. I brushed my teeth. One of the toilets was clogged. After breakfast, I hiked around the area and looked at the arboretum, read some Name of the Wind, admired the lurid veterans' mural and called my parents in the ranger station. I used the bathroom several times but never saw anyone in there, but I did find a few clogged toilets.

I was lonely. Five days is a lot not to talk to anybody, and I had three days back to my car. In my long car camping experience, starting when I was a toddler, the bathroom building was always the place to see people and chat. Conversations while brushing your teeth, wondering why that person brought a hair dryer on a camping trip, hearing about the chipmunk that got into someone's cooler, complaining about the loud teenagers in the campsite by the lake. These are all camping conversations that happen in the bathroom, and they're the way that campground information gets passed around. But people were missing from this bathroom, and when they did come in they gave a furtive “Hi” and headed for the stalls. Why weren't they brushing and chatting and blow drying and wandering around in old bathrobes? I didn't expect to find my new best friend in the campground bathroom, but it had been days since I'd had a conversation and I wanted a chat with somebody.

And then I figured it out. They were all pooping. All the women in the campground were peeing, toothbrushing, hair styling and bathrobe wandering-around-in in their RVs. But for pooping, they were heading up to the far toilets to keep from stinking up their little homes away from home and saving the sensitive RV plumbing from potential embarrassing and icky cloggings. And that was why I hadn't made any friends in the public restroom. (That was also why the toilets kept stopping up.) All the functions of the old public bathroom but one had been devolved into a more convenient private space, and all the social possibilities had gone with it. So no one chatted, no information was exchanged, and the campground was a little bit sadder for it. Unless all the other vacationers were meeting up somewhere else to talk about the smelly girl in the tent who hung her food in a tree.

If the RV campground was America, and the bathroom was a neighborhood gathering space, then The Great Good Place by Ray Oldenburg, would be a camping story like Up: A Mother and Daughter's Peakbagging Adventure (more on that later), but, unfortunately, the problems I had making friends in a campground bathroom are are exactly analogous to the problems of finding community in America, problems created by suburban development and urban renewal. Mr. Oldenburg argues, correctly, than places where Americans used to gather: pubs, taverns, post offices, parks, pedestrian streets, and soda fountains, have been destroyed, omitted, or changed beyond recognition. One example of many is the neighborhood bar. In the earlier part of the last century, says Mr. Oldenburg, you used to see comics with the funny drunk stumbling into lampposts on the way home from the neighborhood bar. Starting in the 1980's, the comics were replaced by impassioned pleas not to drink and drive. But drinking and driving is, in a sense, mandated, because the bar is no longer in the neighborhood. Suburban planning set the bar in a commercial zone several sidewalk-less miles away from your house. Meanwhile, because the bar is located in an area serving multiple bedroom communities, the people inside that bar are not neighbors but strangers, giving the place a bleak, anonymous feel that discourages any mutual recognition of common interests. So many distressing examples of urban planning and suburban development, like teenagers in the original Levittown quickly developing a culture of drinking at basement parties or in what available woods there were because teenager-centered hang-outs like soda fountains and convenience stores were moved to the edge of the housing zones, putting them miles away from anyone without a car. American children can no longer run errands, if for example, it's supper time and mom suddenly finds that she's out of milk. The store is several miles away, there are no sidewalks, no other pedestrians, lots of dangerous cars, and the news has filled mom's mind with kidnappers. A kid can only be productive outside the home (and move independently around the neighborhood's commercial districts) once she has her driver's license.

The Great Good Place drags whe Mr. Oldenburg describes the English pub, the French cafe, the American main street, the Austrian coffee house, and other traditional gathering places, but they do reinforce his point. This book is partly responsible for the proliferation of coffee shops in the '90s and has a mention in You've Got Mail. Check out the wiki: for a more concise summary of the requirements and rewards of a third place. In having a third place, we would give up some privacy and the convenience of not being chatted with by neighbors while walking around outside (for those of us who have sidewalks), but the a wider range of friends and acquaintances, and a more functional exchange of ideas in this our democracy would be the reward.
The Great Good Place is almost too depressing to read, when you think about the experiences of community that are currently dead and gone for most Americans. Yes, you can drink, watch movies, eat, talk, and sit in your own home, but you're missing out on lots of people who might be fun to talk to, as well as a smorgasbord of local news (the kind that's not covered on TV). Neighborhood bars, grocery stores, and campground bathrooms: all less rich for having their unquantifiable social functions diminished.

In other news, I listened to De Virginibus (Concerning Virgins) by St. Ambrose, the fourth century bishop of Milan, on Librivox, and I don't think the Catholic church likes women very much. Yes, that's an understatement, but, my heavens! St. Ambrose wrote his series of letters to female virgins, who, before convents, were supposed to stay with their families and live a retired life of prayer and, maybe, study. St. Ambrose very much did not write letters to male virgins like, presumably, himself, who were supposed to be out running around converting pagans and directing the nascent church. Female virgins: stay inside, don't have friends over, no unnecessary talking, no complaining, no asking questions, and don't kill yourself to stay pure unless you have to, in which case you probably should.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Hay is Yummier than a Brontesaurus

"Oh my, is this new hay?"

"I accept this hay.  Nom."

Exciting blog news! Small Pet Select sent me one pound of hay for my rabbits to eat on the condition that I blog about said hay. So, even though this is a book blog, I signed up because I like free stuff. And what better free stuff is there than fine hay fresh from the field? I gave it to the bunnies in a clean litter box and they were very munched it up after they got over their initial reservations. “New? Why would we want something new? We have regular hay. This hay is different. Different is shocking.”
Then they ate it and found it very exciting. I believe the hay was a bit moister than our usual brand. It had a good, meadowy smell, and lots of long firms stalks with seedheads, which is what you look for if you're into eating hay. Thank you, Small Pet Select, for free hay! Also, thank you for your lovely newsletter on rabbit topics! And thank you for all the guinea pig pictures you keep posting on my Facebook wall! They stand out from all the bunny feeds I get. You almost make me want guinea pigs, but not really, because guinea pigs don't control their bowels.

I probably won't start buying Small Pet Select hay because they don't carry the fifty pound boxes, and with four rabbits, fifty pounds at a time is the only way to buy hay economically. But Small Pet Select is a business made up of kind people who love bunnies and promote rabbit health all over the internet, and that is very important to me, my bunnies, and my blog. If you need hay and don't need unreasonable amounts of it like I do, order some Small Pet Select hay. They have free shipping this month.

I'm bogged down in the middle of four books right now. They range somewhere between great and pretty good, but none of them are unputdownable, with the exception of The Polysyllabic Spree, which I read quickly last week. The Polysyllabic Spree is Nick Hornby's first collection of Believer magazine columns on what he has been reading lately.

Nick Hornby reads more fiction than I do, more biography as well. I can't stand biographies. (I might belie that statement later.) He gets a Salinger biography because the fellow who wrote it wrote a different biography of a poet who was recommended to him by someone with literary street cred. After reading that, he picks up Franny and Zooey, Raise High the Roofbeams Carpenters, and Seymour: An Introduction. And he says, fantasically, something like, “It's not often that you can knock off the ouevre of a major author in a week. And you may think I'm bragging, but I shouldn't I have read these ages ago?” And he's right. Even the Brontes, who made it easier for their fans by dying of consumption in their thirties, wrote such thick, thick books that reading them all is a daunting task and I, therefore, haven't done it yet.

I do need to read Wuthering Heights soon, and I own a copy. Really, I should have read Wuthering Heights before I read Withering Tights, but I absolutely had to read Withering Tights as soon as Kari lent it to me because it is by Louise Rennison, and anything she is so funny that her books absolutely needs to be read immediately as soon as you get them. To conclude, Wuthering Heights would provide needed background for its hilarious spin-off, and I would like to read it for that reason.

Someday, I will get through Dodger, Mugged by a Moose, The Great Good Place, and The Autobiography of Margaret Sanger.  Until then, I wish you well.

Monday, April 8, 2013

"Once you own a book, why bother reading it?"

Check out my co-worker Ethan's rumination on the used book biz: