Monday, September 24, 2012

The Power of Perseverance, The Beauty of Hope

This was a really difficult summer. It was very hot, with many days over 100 degrees, and very dry, with few rain showers from April to August. To add to the misery of drought, we had a succession of pests that ravaged our garden - grasshoppers, blister beetles, tomato horn worms, hungry deer who finally braved coming into the yard and jumping over the garden fence.

All that seems to have come to an end in August. The temperatures cooled significantly, and hurricane Isaac gave us about two inches of nice, slow, soaking rain. There have also been some other rainy days since then.

Although it was a hard garden year, we did have a few decent crops early on (sweet corn and tomatoes), thanks to my husband's extravagant watering (before the ban on outdoor water use). By the time the purple hull peas would have been producing a crop, the grasshoppers were eating the pea pods as fast as the plants could produce them, and we could no longer water the garden. We gave up on the peas, as well as the young sweet potato slips I had been nurturing along with the water left over from canning tomatoes, the okra we planted one day when the sky teased us with what looked like rain clouds, and the collard greens with their bare stems and sad-looking leaves. We didn't plow them under; we just ignored them.

That was the right thing to do! Because with the return of the rain, all of those plants have put on new growth.

By picking the few peas that were ready, shelling them and keeping them in the refrigerator until there were enough for a meal, we got to have fresh southern peas for supper one night, along with a mighty tasty batch of sauteed collard greens. The sweet potatoes are beginning to cover the ground, just as sweet potatoes should. There's bound to be something under the plants. And the okra is finally knee-high and has a few blooms. Maybe we'll get enough to fry some one evening -- even if everyone gets only a mouthful.

I'm truly grateful for every small thing we get from this second-chance garden, and it serves as a very clear lesson in the value of hanging in there.

I was so inspired by these sturdy plants that I decided to put out a few cool-weather crops. So I've planted broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage, kale, and lettuce. I also planted a few green peas along the one fence panel we left in the garden to support the cucumber (which died pretty quickly). The peas came up well, and they are about 8-10 inches tall now.

Will they have time to produce any peas before the frost comes? I don't know. But just the sight of those fresh, tender green plants fills me with hope (especially the little cabbages, for some reason - I don't particularly like cabbage, but these are really kind of cute). What I've learned from the collard greens and the okra is, don't give up. All these crops are supposed to be able to stand some cool weather and even some frost. So maybe I will have a nice bowl full of green peas to put on the table at Thanksgiving!

Saturday, September 15, 2012

People Who Read Are Happier....

At least that's what I heard on the radio news the other day. When I decided to search for more information on the study, all I found were references to one that appears to have been done in 2008, but I thought the story on the news made it sound like the research was more recent than that. Anyway, the point was that there is a stronger correlation between being happy and reading than between watching TV and being happy. Apparently, this is true even if the book one is reading is a sad story. The radio story speculated that one reason might be that when a person is reading, he/she forms interpersonal relationships with the characters.

I don't know if that's true; after all, there have been some TV shows I watched faithfully in the past simply because I liked the characters so much. If there is any truth to this reading = happiness idea (as I tell students in Research Methods class, correlation is NOT causation), I think it is more likely to be because our brains are more deeply involved when we are reading. The effort involved is probably what makes us feel good, sort of like the feeling of well-being that comes along with the physical fatigue of working out.

So maybe the conclusion of this study is true and maybe it's not. But I would encourage everyone to test it on your own. Turn off Honey Boo Boo and pick up a novel. Keep that up for six months, and then tell me - are you happy?

Friday, September 7, 2012

An Image That's Going to Stick in My Brain

I finished Odd Thomas this morning, which is the main reason I was very nearly late for my first class.  Yesterday I had to take the car in for some service, and I took the book along with me to read while I waited. (Ah, the luxury of being able to just sit and read! I love the third week of class, when there are no papers to grade yet, and students are doing their first, ungraded speech, which means there are no lessons to prepare.) Anyway, I got far enough into the story during that wait that it caught hold of me and I just HAD to finish it. For a while last night, I considered staying up and reading until I was done. I haven't done that since I read Of Human Bondage back when I was single and it didn't matter how long the light was on. But I'm older now and don't operate as well on little sleep. So I finished this morning.

I'm not sure what I think about it. On the one hand, the plot was obviously exciting enough to suck me in and hold me. Odd himself was an interesting, compelling, and sympathetic character. On the other hand, the book, like Little Ozzie, was about 100 pages overweight. Honestly, when Odd started talking about his aunt Cymry, I thought, "what does this have to do with anything?" Sure enough, the answer is "nothing." (I assume maybe since Koontz wrote a series about Odd that Cymry may show up in a later book.) That's one thing that I've noticed about regular, "adult" books since I've been reading so many young adult novels - adult books tend to meander around with a bunch of irrelevant stuff in them; young adult books tend to stick to the point.

While Odd was a fully-developed character, many of the other characters, especially secondary characters, were stereotypes, in my opinion. The blind, black DJ...the Asian college professor...the "heart of gold" prostitute...the sassy card shark of a grandmother...I think I've seen them somewhere before. Other things didn't pass the "reality" test for me, either. [SPOILER!] Could two guys with the type of past the villains had actually pass the vetting process to get on a police force? Even if they were very discreet about their satanic beliefs, I would think something would show up on the radar.

For all that, though, there is something I'm going to take away from this book. Throughout the book, there are these shady creatures called bodachs that cluster around scenes of violence and real or potential death.  Odd and his fiancee Stormy disagree on what bodachs are. Stormy believes they are demons from hell. Odd says,
Perhaps the violence that sweeps our world daily into greater darkness has led to a future so brutal, so corrupt, that our twisted descendants return to watch us suffer, charmed by festivals of blood...the bodachs may be the shape of their deformed and diseased souls.
I'm going to take what Odd said and put a little Greta twist on it. These "deformed and diseased souls" wouldn't have to come from the future. Maybe there is something of that in us now. Here's one of Odd's descriptions of the bodachs during the climax of the story:
"...I saw hundreds upon hundreds of bodachs gathered along the balustrade above, peering down into the open atrium. Pressed one against the other, excited, eager, twitching and swaying, squirming like agitated spiders."
For some reason, that description brought to my mind the fascination with news reports of events like the shooting in Colorado this past summer, or even reality TV shows where one of the mainstays is conflict between contestants. Maybe we don't congregate at the actual site, squirming and swaying, but the fact that so many of us watch the coverage seems eerily similar to the behavior of the bodach. Sometimes we seem to be fascinated and feeding on the misery and quarreling the same way the bodachs fed on violence and anticipation of death.

In my last post about Odd Thomas, I called it science fiction, and that was wrong. I guess it's more of a paranormal thriller. Actually, I think the whole part about the black room could have been left out, especially since Koontz didn't really do anything else with it after that one section. I don't think it was necessary to try to show the bodachs coming from hell or a time travel. I think it would have been perfectly acceptable in the paranormal genre to have the bodachs be spirits that come from us - our worse natures, so to speak.

But...the story belongs to Koontz, not me. If he wants the bodachs to be twisted souls traveling from the future, I guess I can buy into it. Unfortunately, now that squirming mass of bodachs has joined the cocktail party in my head--and I'm sure it's there to stay.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

You Are What You....Read?

We have a new preacher at our church. He's from a different state, and not related to anyone in our congregation, so he's sort of an undiscovered country, so to speak. A couple of Sundays ago after services, several of us went out to eat, and I happened to end up sitting next to the  the new preacher. In the course of the conversation, I discovered that he used to have a book review blog (he talked about it in the past tense, so I think he may not be writing it anymore). So I asked about some of his favorite authors, and he mentioned Dean Koontz. I'm open to discovering authors whose work I've never read before, so I asked for a suggestion of a Koontz book I could start with. After some consideration, the preacher suggested Odd Thomas and even brought the book to me from his personal library a few days later.

I'm about a quarter of the way through Odd Thomas now. It's not really my type of book, but it's not the worst thing I've read, either. There are a number of things about the writing style that bug me, but I can live with it - no need to always be so critical, right? After last night's reading, however, I found myself wondering, what is it about this book that appealed to the new preacher?

Let me establish first that I'm not at all saying the preacher should be reading only "clean," uplifiting, religious literature. Let me also note that while there has been some innuendo thus far, that's not what caused me to ask that question. In the section I read last night, Odd had broken into the house of a man  he suspects of being about to perpetrate some great evil in town. In the course of looking around the house, he found a room that seems to be some kind of portal to a different dimension. The room is utterly dark and cold, and after he has stepped into the room, Odd sees himself silhouetted in the doorway. When he tries to go back, he's thrown out of the room, back in time to where he was before he discovered the room.

Since I don't read much science fiction, I don't really have a concept of what's going on in that room. But I do get a feeling there's going to be some kind of philosophical/psychological dimension to it, especially since one of the qualities that makes Odd odd is that he can communicate with dead people. And that brings me back to the preacher. What is it about the book that appeals to him? The action or suspense? There's going to be some, I can just tell. The quirkiness of Odd and his situation? Or is it something about this interplay between the "known" world and the "unknown" world of death and mystery?

I think the type of story a person prefers does say something about the person. For example, I know it's no accident that I like stories that are hopeful, in which things work out for the characters even if things don't work out. That's why I was disappointed in Suzanne Collins' Mockingjay; even though Katniss ends up living what looks like a good life on the surface, she feels emotionally numb and just seems to have no hope at the end of the story.

Is it that we seek out stories that confirm our way of looking at the world? Or do we impose our own mental lens on a story so that we see in it what we are looking for? I have a bit of a suspicion that as I go on reading Odd Thomas, my own worldview is going to shape what I see as I read.

Once I'm finished with the book, I hope to get to have a conversation about it with the preacher and to ask him what he saw in it. I suspect it will be an interesting conversation, judging by the level of thoughtfulness and study that are evident in his sermons so far.

One other thought: One thing that is detracting from my enjoyment as I read is my constant anticipation of the "something bad" that is going to happen in the book, ha ha. I was more than a bit upset with Odd for breaking into that house - doesn't he know it's dangerous to go into the lair of a being so obviously evil??!!