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Turning on the dark

Moonset, 13th Lake, North River NY. Archive Photo of the Day: Woody Widlund.

Moonset, 13th Lake, North River NY. Archive Photo of the Day: Woody Widlund.

It was around midnight last night, as it often is when I finally put down my book, turn off the light and roll over to sleep. After getting home from work in the gathering dusk I spent the evening darkness (some seven hours worth) doing a few holiday duties, cooking and eating, watching a TV show, then a movie; I checked mail and the website one last time then picked up my book and went to bed to read for an hour or so. Pretty sedentary.

I have been known to say that we are descended from bears rather than from apes, and are meant to hibernate through the winter months. But we are more likely descended from beavers these days–busy, busy, beavers. More vigorous types than I spend the long evenings in more cardio-intensive pursuits, improving the human condition and/or staying late at the office.

But it doesn’t matter the time of year, as long as the lights are on, everybody is doing something. The amount of light in the sky has become irrelevant to our lives. I never give a thought to how recently in our history this way of living has been a possibility. So it was quite a dope-slap to rise this morning and find in my NY Times newsletter an op-ed by writer Clark Strand titled “Bring on the dark: Why we need the winter solstice.”

I love it when a short bit of thinking shines a new light on my somewhat shopworn notions of how the world works. And a nice bit of writing, too:

In the modern world, petroleum may drive our engines but our consciousness is driven by light. And what it drives us to is excess, in every imaginable form…

…Darkness was the only power that has ever put the human agenda on hold…

…The night was the natural corrective to that most persistent of all illusions: that human progress is the reason for the world…

… In times past people took to their beds at nightfall, but not merely to sleep. They touched one another, told stories and, with so much night to work with, woke in the middle of it to a darkness so luxurious it teased visions from the mind and divine visitations that helped to guide their course through life… It was once the hour of God.

Wow.  So many moments come back to me: awakening during a cross-country drive to watch the stars out the rear window while the dim dashboard lights outlined my parents in the front seat, a moment sitting in the silent zendo after lights out with moonlight flooding the windows, sitting in a darkened pew while a friend practiced Bach on the pipe organ, a long conversation punctuated by silence beside a campfire outside an Adirondack lean-to, spending a summer night on the porch swing and waking up to northern lights and fireflies. Awe. Sweetness. Warmth.

Turn on the dark. It’s too precious to waste.

Celebrate “The Shortest Day” with free films

This weekend in cities across Canada.

This weekend in cities across Canada.

I don’t know about you, but I am very, very happy when the winter solstice rolls around.

Winter’s great and  I love snow. But it bothers me to lose the sun so early in the day. It’s a big relief when our part of the globe heads back toward more light.

This Earth and Sky info page has much more about the December solstice — including the fact the winter solstice for the northern hemisphere is also the summer solstice for the other half of the planet.

Various beliefs or customs have been attached to the solstice across many cultures and eras.

To which we can add an entirely modern event: free films being shown in many Canadian Cities. This is the second such event, called “The Shortest Day“.

From the website:

The Shortest Day is a three-day celebration of short films offering free screenings across the country. Started by the Centre national du cinéma et de l’image animée (CNC) in France in 2011, the event has now spread to some 50 other countries.

From Newfoundland and Labrador to Yukon, more than 60 participating venues—movie theatres, cultural centres, associations, festivals and libraries—will join the celebration and hold free screenings of one or several of the three thematic programs: KidsFamily and Comedy. A wonderful opportunity for audiences to discover talented Canadian filmmakers who have been honoured here and abroad on the festival circuit.

The Shortest Day: an entertaining way of welcoming the winter solstice from December 19-21!

Here’s the whole slew of locations across Canada, including Ottawa and Montréal. It sounds like a fun way to get through the darkest weekend of the year.



Pining for that real evergreen smell

Radio Bob and Guy Berard getting ready to bring home  their real Christmas trees. Photo: Jackie Sauter

Radio Bob and Guy Berard are two of the 11 million Americans who bring home real Christmas trees. Photo: Jackie Sauter

Of all the memorable aromas of the holiday season, nothing evokes its spirit quite like the smell of fresh-cut evergreen. Although over 80% of American households where Christmas is observed use artificial trees, about eleven million families still bring home a real tree.

Every species of conifer has its own mixture of sweet-smelling terpenols and esters that account for that “piney woods” perfume. While all natural Christmas trees share many of the same aromatic compounds, some people prefer the smell of a certain type of tree, possibly one they remember from childhood. No chemistry lab can make a polyvinylchloride tree smell like fresh pine, fir or spruce. A natural Christmas tree is, among other things, a giant holiday potpourri.

The origins of the Christmas tree are unclear, but according to the Encyclopedia Britannica, “The use of evergreen trees, wreaths, and garlands to symbolize eternal life was a custom of the ancient Egyptians, Chinese, and Hebrews. Tree worship was common among the pagan Europeans and survived their conversion to Christianity in the Scandinavian customs of decorating the house and barn with evergreens at the New Year to scare away the devil and of setting up a tree for the birds during Christmas.”

In Eastern Europe in the fifteenth century, decorated Christmas trees were set up inside guild halls. Then in sixteenth-century Germany, Martin Luther apparently helped kindle (so to speak) the custom of the indoor home Christmas tree by bringing an evergreen tree into his house and decorating it with candles. For centuries, Christmas trees were brought into homes on December 24th and were not removed until after the Christian feast of Epiphany on January 6th.

In terms of New York State favorites, the firs—Douglas, balsam, and Fraser—are very popular, being very aromatic evergreens. Grand and Concolor fir smell great too. When kept in water, firs all have excellent needle retention.

Scots and white pine also keep their needles well. While our native white pine is more fragrant than Scots, the latter far outsells the former, possibly because the sturdy Scots can bear quite a load of decorations without its branches drooping.

Not only do spruces have strong branches, they have a strongly pyramidal shape. None of the spruces is as fragrant as firs or pines, though. Many field guides indicate white spruce buds smell like cat urine, but based on robust white spruce sales, plenty of folks don’t think so.

Do yourself (and the local economy) a favor by purchasing your natural tree from a local vendor, who can help you select the best kind of tree for your preferences, and also let you know how fresh they are. Some trees at large retail outlets were cut several weeks before they show up at stores. Of course, cutting your own tree from a Christmas tree grower ensures freshness and can be a memorable family experience. Usually it’s a positive one.

For the most fragrance and the least mess (and fire hazard), cut a one- to two-inch “cookie” off the trunk before placing it in water, and top off the reservoir every two days. Research indicates products that claim to improve needle retention don’t work, so save your money. You’ll also save with LED tree lights which use much less power than conventional ones. Plus, they don’t dry out the tree as much. Fire-safety experts say you should keep trees away from heat sources, including electronics, and turn off tree lights when you leave the room, even if only for a minute.

Whatever your traditions, may your family, friends, and evergreens all be well-hydrated, sweet-scented and a source of good cheer this holiday season.

Paul Hetzler is Horticulture & Natural Resources Educator for Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County

Need a good book?

A ripping romp by Carlos Ruiz Zafón. What have you read that's worth sharing? Tell us!

A ripping romp by Carlos Ruiz Zafón. What have you read that’s worth sharing? Tell us!

This is a first-world problem, but here goes.

Moving to Ottawa put me a good distance away from my parents.

I try to visit them at least once a year. Depending on the stop-overs, that involves spending between 14-18 hours in airports and planes.

For my taste, that’s a excellent opportunity to polish off a good book. But first you have to find the right one(s) to bring along.

Of course, the modern traveler has this problem solved by way of an e-reader loaded to the gills. Someday that may be me. But I’m still old-school, and cheap. My modus operandi is to buy something off some “Friends of the Library” shelf.

Coming from frugal stock with environmentalist leanings, that’s my idea of win-win-win. An existing book is re-cycled. The money goes to the library. And when I’m done, I have no qualms about passing the book along to someone else (1st choice) or even tossing it out if a new home cannot be found.

I bought three trade paperbacks for my most recent trip. How’d that go? Well, I’d rate them as one stinker, one “meh” and a winner. The stinker stunk. It was some medieval who-dunnit that started out well enough to get put in my backpack. (I do skim them first!) But it petered out pretty quickly. I gave up and read the in-flight magazine. Then I went back and finished the sucker, because book #2 was out-of reach and #3 was in my checked bag. Note to self: pick better next time.

I dug out book #2 in time for the next leg of the journey: The Secret Life of Bees, by Sue Monk Kidd. It’s been around, seemed to be well-regarded and was even made into a movie (2008). Obviously it holds appeal to some, but I spent the whole book (yes, the whole book) wondering when it was going to get good. The writing is OK, which is why I give it a “meh”. But I just never cared about the characters or found the cliché-laden plot all that compelling.

When I got to my destination I offered that book to my Mom. She said she’d already read it — and had not liked it. (Yes! Validated!) That one was sent off to my Mom’s local Friends of the Library shelf.

And what of book three? A winner! My return journey was broken into two stages so I had less time to consume it. In fact, I’m only half-done. I can’t wait to finish my weekend posts so I can see what happens next.

This would be The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón. This Spanish novel was first published in 2001 and became a translated best-seller in many countries. (More details here, but know that the article contains spoilers.)

It’s both beautifully-written and a page-turner, often described as gothic in plot and setting. Gothic has connotations that may be off-putting, but this book is plain old fun.

Here’s a blurb by no less than Stephen King:

If you thought the true gothic novel died with the nineteenth century, this will change your mind. [The Shadow of the Wind] is the real deal, a novel full of cheesy splendor and creaking trapdoors, a novel where even the subplots have subplots…This is one gorgeous read.

This Amazon.com reviewer also waxes rhapsodic:

The enthusiastic praise and adulation which critics have accorded the english publication of Carlo Ruiz Zafon’s first novel, “The Shadow of the Wind”, may trouble the reader who begins the book, worried that little might match his expectations. After all, reviewers who compare a writer’s work to a combination of Umberto Eco, or Jorge Luis Borges, or Gabriel Garcia Marquez, or other literary giants, compel the reader to expect to be transported when they open the book.
Not to worry.
Once started, the single downside for the reader will be knowing that the experience must end. The plot is quite complex, the jacket cover’s synopsis will give the reader all he needs to know. The important thing is to read it slowly and carefully.
A mystery story, a fairy tale, a love story (actually several love stories), a passion for literature, a treatise on politics, a bawdy tale, with love, hate, courage, intrigue, loss of innocence, humor, cowardice, villainy, cruelty, compassion, regret, murder, incest, redemption, and more. Add to this delicious mixture characters who come alive, and whose thoughts and feelings you will feel deeply.
What a great pleasure to discover; an extraordinary first work, one which towers over the endless and repetative volumes which inhabit today’s “Best Seller” lists. Read it, and become hypnotized.
Edward Jawer
Wyncote, Pa.

I only batted about .333 on my last plane trip. But I like the home run by Zafón.

If you want pointers for more winning reads, check out the suggestions already being complied for this coming Wednesday’s Winter Reading Book List call in. That’s happening live, Dec 17, 10-noon, with Ellen Rocco, John Ernst and Chris Robinson.

NCPR’s gang of usual suspects talk about what’s worth reading and why, with listeners sharing their own best suggestions. It’s a fun time that goes by fast. Don’t miss it if you can tune in.

Doing the math in winter

Everyone knows you have to be smarter and tougher than average to survive the North Country winter. It’s Darwin, pure and simple. The folks who walk on the thin ice, who drive on the bald tires, who go out to make snow angels after drinking tequila, they are likely to get bred out of the line.

It’s a tough time. Not only are the days too short, everything takes more time. You have to struggle into the Frankenstein boots, the fat gloves, the moon-suit and the stupid hat with the pom-pom. You have to drive slower–after you brush off the snow and scrape the windows. Half your calories go to just keeping your core temperature warmer than, say, a corpse.

Math fail. Photo: Greg Gjerdingen, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

Math fail. Photo: Greg Gjerdingen, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

It’s a pain in the butt, so you learn to do the math. There is an optimum speed at which to drive in any road conditions that will keep your car between the snowbanks and still get you there in time for dinner. Those who can’t manage the calculations in their head keep the tow truck operator’s children in college funds.

There is a minimum amount of snow shoveling that will allow your car to blast through the end of your driveway and make it onto the road. If you miscalculate by 10% you find yourself a foot short of the road with all four tires off the ground. And of course if you shovel too much too fast, there’s the heart attack.

And travel on foot requires its own set of delicate calculations. If you can’t balance watching where you put your feet with watching what’s coming down the road, you’ll either break a hip or be lost beneath a beer truck. They call it situational awareness, I believe, in the military.

So study up on the odds and we’ll all make it safely through to spring. And cultivate good relations with your neighbors. The odds are good that when you get caught out doing something stupid, they’ll be around to help you out.  They may shake their heads and laugh, but they’ll help you out.

The 2014 Winter Reading and Holiday Giving Booklist

Photo: Gerald Streiter, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

Photo: Gerald Streiter, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

Readers & Writers hosts Ellen Rocco and Chris Robinson, book maven John Ernst, NCPR staff and friends, and listeners share their picks for the best books to read by the fireside or to give to friends and family this holiday season.

Here’s our book list–for winter reading and holiday gift giving.

Please add titles in the comment section or email them to me: ellen@ncpr.org.

 

From co-host John Ernst

NORA WEBSTER – Colm Toibin (2014)
Also: The Master, Brooklyn
Many readers will remember Colm Toibin as the author of The Master and of Brooklyn. Here he was written a novel that is quiet on the surface but packs an immensely powerful emotional punch. It may be his best book yet.
Nora Webster is widowed in her forties in the prime of her life, losing a husband who was her best friend and who balanced her perfectly. She is left with four children, two houses, no job, no savings and few prospects. She fiercely resists the sympathy of neighbors and family, and struggles to re-define her life. She feels as though she is, “alone in a sea of people.” The time is the late 1960s in Wexford, Ireland with battles breaking out in Northern Ireland and men walking on the moon.
The striking thing about the novel is the sheer dailiness that Toibin instills with such charged interest. Nora makes painful decisions. She sells a beach house without consulting her stunned children. She reclaims a job she left 25 years before, only to confront a supervisor with a bitter grudge against her. She battles on behalf of her oldest son, who has developed a stutter after his father’s death and is struggling in school. Most important, she finds a new outlet through music that lets her grow and develop. Toibin’s diction is unadorned and direct, but he has used it masterfully to create a character whom we may be discussing for years to come. Nora Webster is indelible.

A MISPLACED MASSACRE: Struggling Over the Memory of Sand Creek – -Ari Kelman (2013)

The 150th anniversary of the Sand Creek massacre, which took place on November 29, 1864, is just days past. It marks the date on which the 1st and 3rd Colorado volunteer regiments, commanded by Colonel John Chivington, attacked hundreds of peaceful Cheyenne and Arapaho people camped in southeastern Colorado under a white flag and an American flag, having been promised protection by the U. S. Army. Over 150 of them, mainly women, children and the elderly were callously slaughtered, their bodies hideously mutilated.

This book by Ari Kelman, an Assistant Professor of history at the University of California, is not mainly about the massacre but about its effect on Native people and on Coloradans. It goes to the heart of local history and of the Civil War, which has been used by some to excuse the unprovoked  attack. The story here is of the painful struggle to organize a memorial at a National Historic Site in 2007.

Nothing about the project was simple. Even the exact site of the event was in dispute. Native leaders, descendants of survivors, historians, politicians, ranchers, and Park Service employees argued and negotiated. Sometimes the atmosphere was explosive. What happened and how it happened make compelling reading with a narrative drive like a novel. The knowledge achieved here was bought in blood.

LET ME BE FRANK WITH YOU – Richard Ford (2014)
Also: Sportswriter, Independence Day (Pulitzer) The Lay of the Land

In these four linked stories, Richard Ford revives his most famous and beloved character, Frank Bascombe, whose life readers have followed from Sportswriter, through Independence Day (a Pulitzer Prize winner) to The Lay of the Land. Here is an older, crustier Frank. He is 68 and has returned to the New Jersey town of Haddam. The time is shortly after Hurricane Sandy’s devastation.  In the first story, Frank reluctantly visits the site of his former beach-front house, now destroyed, at the invitation of the man to whom he sold it, feeling undeserved guilt and some trepidation. These days Frank speaks of his “default self,” a kinder, more generous person than the cynical, death-haunted, cancer-survivor that he really is. In each of these stories he attempts to perform a humane act. He brings a special pillow to his ex-wife, Ann, who is suffering from an incurable disease in a toney extended care facility. Frank must undergo a humiliating security probe and endure his beneficiary’s cool sarcasm. In another story, he responds to an urgent call to make a death-bed visit to an old acquaintance who wants to tell him that he slept with Ann years before. In another, he accepts an unannounced visit by a black woman who needs to re-live a terrible event that happened 20 years before in Frank’s house. As in the novels, the stories are set in a holiday season, in this case Christmas, which lends a subtext to the action. Like Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom and Roth’s Zuckerman, Frank is an old friend, as decent and non-politically-correct as ever. We forgive him because he’s a guy we wouldn’t mind having a beer with. Before or after Christmas.

OFF THE SIDELINES: Raise Your Voice, Change the World
Kirsten Gillibrand with Elizabeth Weil. Foreword by Hillary Rodham Clinton (2014)
Kirsten Gillibrand comes from an old Albany political family and ran for Congress in the 20th district, a race she won against a long-time incumbent (John Sweeney). If that is not enough reason to talk about this book, let me say that it is a powerful and sincere call for women to make themselves heard in the political arena — on their local school boards, in town politics, and on the national level — in other words, to get off the sidelines. Gillibrand outlines her route from corporate law to working for Andrew Cuomo at HUD in Washington, winning the congressional race in the 20th, being appointed to Hillary Clinton’s vacant Senate seat and then winning two tough races in four years, ending with 70% of the vote. The issues on which Gillibrand has led in the Senate — don’t ask, don’t tell; medical care for 9/11 first responders; sexual assault in the military — are important ones and reflect her vital concerns. But the book also gives one a sense of a real person, making mistakes and recovering, struggling to mesh her career with a marriage and two young boys, even dealing with weight gain on a very public stage. This is not a plastic campaign bio. Gillibrand is a voice for those who have no other champion

LILA – Marilynne Robinson (2014)
Also: Housekeeping, Gilead, Home
Lila is Marilynne Robinson’s third novel set in the small, tired Iowa town that gave its name to her luminous Pulitzer-winning novel, Gilead. Lila picks up the story of the hard-bitten drifter who enters a church to get out of the rain and catches the eye of the minister, John Ames, a widower thirty years her senior.
The novel is a kind of contemplation – it looks back at Lila’s beginnings as a neglected infant stolen away by a rootless woman called Doll and growing up among a company of migrants, weaving that story through the contemporary events of Lila’s meeting and marrying Ames, having a child, struggling with an understanding of the Bible under the gentle instruction of her husband, learning gradually to trust and to accept a tentative happiness she never expected.
Robinson’s biblically ornate language is as powerful as ever, but as others have pointed out, telling this story in the third person distances the reader from Lila and makes her harshness and continual suspicion hard to accept. In the end it seems as though the first novel, Gilead, is the brilliant centerpiece of a triptych in which the other pieces, Home and Lila, are peripheral. To switch metaphors they are mildly interesting glosses on a masterful original text.

QUIET: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking –
Susan Cain (2012)
Susan Cain left a career as a corporate lawyer to research and write this book, a sensitive and wide-ranging look at the 30 to 50% of the population who fall somewhere along the spectrum of introversion. Cain investigates the qualities that make one an introvert and explores how introverts react in society, how they change, how they develop. She outlines the life strategies that make the best use of the positive qualities of introverts in a country like the U.S. that particularly values the qualities of an extrovert.
Cain tackles the subject of how parents, teachers and employers can evoke the best qualities of people who are put off by intense stimulus, who work best alone, who can be socially adept but require down-time to re-charge their batteries. They are scholars, thinkers, writers, artists. They are leaders like Rosa Parks – quiet and dignified. They are corporate lawyers, like the author, who– facing a high-powered Wall Street team in a tense negotiation– avoids a battle and finds middle ground – and is later offered a job by the opposing firm.
This is a book full of anecdote and lively research. It is a much-needed hymn to the quiet, reflective life in a noisy and self-aggrandizing society.

ADIRONDACK LIFE AND WILDLIFE IN THE WILD, WILD EAST –
Edward Kanze (2014)
Also: The World of John Burroughs
Edward Kanze, a writer, guide and naturalist has written a book that is part family history, part guide to the North Country, and part natural inventory of the 18 acres where he lives, acres on which sits a house that has all the challenges of Mr. Blandings’ dream house of the 1950s book and film.
Not to put too fine a point on it, the house is a wreck. He is advised by contractors to tear it down, but he decides to rebuild. The descriptions of its horrors, such as hundreds of dead mouse skeletons behind walls, and of the heroic exertions required to make it semi-habitable, as well as the challenges it poses to his new marriage are very entertaining.
Kanze also writes of his deep family roots in the town that became known as Bloomingdale, going back through 4 greats of grandfather, about he and his wife Debbie’s struggles to have children late in life, and about the financial pressures of his chosen life style. And he writes of finding the overgrown camp he remembers being taken to as a child by his beloved grandfather.
But most of all, Kanze conveys his pleasure in documenting the plants and animals and insects among which he lives and his pride in a Park where people have lived for generations.

The Children Act - Ian McEwan

The Passage to Power, Vol. 4 of the Years of Lyndon Johnson – Robert M. Caro

Far from the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity – Andrew Solomon

The Patriarch – David Nasaw

Chris Robinson

The windows are closed and outdoor sounds are muffled by snow.  This quiet of winter leaves me feeling ambitious. I can take on more challenging reading assignments.  It is time for Proust, or fat Russian novels and multi-volume Nordic memoirs. The slowness and solitude of a North Country winter feels like a great gift.  But there is danger lurking too.  The other morning, I watched a panel on Book TV composed of Ann Patchett, Francine Prose, Nicholson Baker and Walter Moseley. These are all formidable voices of and for literature. We’ve interviewed Patchett and Prose on Readers and Writers. They were asked a simple question: Why do you like to read?

I’m fairly certain I’ve never been asked this question. It has not been a question I have posed to myself. Immediately, I fell in love with its simplicity and elegance. I waited anxiously for the answer offered by these authors.  Moseley loved reading because his parents loved it. For Nicholson Baker and Francine Prose, they began their love of reading because of the relief it offered from childhood fears and boredom.  Ann Patchett’s response was less direct and exposed the danger of winter reading.  Indeed, she slipped the whole question of why she loves to read to admit that she loved reading above all else. She now resents invitations to parties or other social engagements because they   interfere with her reading time.

I found something of myself in each of the responses from the panelists. I know I read for information and to stimulate my own thinking. I read to write. I read for both comfort and for discomfort. The only thing better than picking up a beloved author, is picking up someone who I disagree with and even hate.  The works of those I conceive to be enemies demand a written response. They spur me to think for myself.  So leave me to it.

Here’s what I’ve been reading lately:

Fiction

  • Amy Bloom, Lucky Us.  I interviewed Ms. Bloom this past September, and you can find it archived at the Readers and Writers page.  Amy Bloom is a brilliant writer on the theme of love.  Lucky Us is a deep and moving exploration of how love works in a human life. It brings strangers together for lifelong commitments. It is a source of joy and subversion. It can lead to betrayal and the experience of loss so deep that you never recover.  Bloom is a major talent with a gift for recreating time periods. When you finish this book, turn directly to her earlier novel, Away and her story collection, Where the God of Love Hangs Out.
  • Lars Iyer, Wittgenstein Jr,, A Novel. Iyer is a professor of Philosophy who has written two books on Maurice Blanchot.  Several years ago he turned to fiction, first with a blog, and then with a trilogy of comic novels that recall Samuel Beckett and Grouch Marx. Wittgenstein Jr is a different sort of novel. Yes, it is funny, in spots. But it is mainly an arresting character study of a philosophy professor who comes to be called “Wittgenstein Jr” by his students.  I was surprised by how moving this novel is. Iyer is capable of writing on the most central of emotions in human life with perspicacity and empathy. I loved this book.
  • Jonathan Lethem, Dissident Gardens. I read everything that Jonathan Lethem writes.  I look forward to his novels like I used to look forward to Woody Allen movies, and with the same expectation that I would be enlightened in some way. Dissident Gardens is Lethem’s most ambitious book to date. You start with Rose Zimmer, loyal Communist in the forties and fifties, only to be corrupted by the civil rights movement in the sixties. Then you turn to Rose’s daughter Miriam, hippy and activist who married an Irish folksinger. Finally you skip to the contemporary era, the War on Terror, and experience the traumas of the past and the loss of liberty in the present through Miriam’s son, Sergius, and Rose’s stepson (it’s more complicated than this) Cicero Lookins.  What a fantastic world this book is.
  • Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping to Gilead.  Last year, I interviewed the great essayist and memoirist, Richard Rodriguez.  We talked a lot about the literature of spirituality from St. Augustine to St. Theresa Avila, and from Tolstoy to Thomas Merton.  We could have included the writings of Marilynne Robinson in this list.  Robinson’s novels are works of great beauty in language. This quality serves her subject well.  It is nothing less than the uncanny sacredness of ordinary life. While reading her novels I kept thinking of Socrates’ great line about being kind to everyone you meet because they are fighting unimaginable battles within. These spiritual struggles are made visible in deceivingly simple and clear ways in Robinson’s work.
  • Stuart Neville, The Ghosts of Belfast.  The path to contemporary sciences – robotics, virtual reality, quantum physics, and so on – were paved by science fiction writers from Asimov to Phillip K. Dick. In the same vein, contemporary examinations of justice in a world of genocide, torture, pre-emptive wars, terrorism and Apartheid have been paved by crime novels.  Neville’s novel is a thriller set in Dublin and Belfast.  It is a profound study of humanity, psychic trauma and legal systems in times of war.

Non-Fiction

  • Danielle Allen, Our Declaration.  Allen is a political theorist who writes on both ancient and modern political themes.  Her book on civil rights and equality, Talking to Strangers, is an extraordinary study of race in America and deserves to be considered a modern classic. Her new book, Our Declaration, is a close reading of the Declaration of Independence. When was the last time you read this document?  Allen offers you a thoughtful, scholarly and provocative reading of this founding document.
  • Charles D’Ambrosio, Loitering, New and Collected Essays.  Prior to picking up this volume, I had read only one D’Ambrosio essay, and it was on “Hell House,” a Halloween treat constructed from the horrifying fantasies of punishment of fundamentalist Christians. This essay is included here. D’Ambrosio thinks of the essay in much the same way as Montaigne: it is a space for reflection and uncertainty to be explored. It is experimental ground for writing and thinking. D’Ambrosio is no cupcake.  He is a perfect representative of Seattle culture. He’s dark and rainy, wet and uncomfortable, but innovative and passionate too.  You can overdose on his world, so be careful.
  • Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything. I can’t think of a more incisive and important social commentator working today than Naomi Klein. No Logo and The Shock Doctrine were stunning inquiries into marketing and economic theory.  Her new work is a study of climate change.  Klein takes on climate science deniers in the book, but her real target are mainstream environmentalists and environmental groups that express agreement with climate science, but fail to grasp and articulate the political and ecological consequences of that science.  If I could, I would put this book in the hands of every college first year student.  The study of global climate change should be central to their education.
  • Cornel West, Black Prophetic Fire. This book is a series of conversations between West and German scholar Christa Buchendorf on Frederick Douglass, WEB DuBois, MLK Jr., Malcolm X, Ella Baker and Ida B. Wells.  It is a fine primer on these thinkers and activists.  I was ashamed to say that I knew very little about Ida B. Wells.  Her works in opposition to lynching are sadly timely today.
  • Simon Wiesenthal, The Sunflower. This is a work that blurs the line between fiction and non-fiction. It is a fascinating project.  The book opens with a story told by Wiesenthal.  While in a concentration camp, Wiesenthal is called to the bed of a dying SS officer.  The Nazi asks the Jew for forgiveness for his participation in an atrocity.  Should the Jewish prisoner forgive the Nazi?  This question is then answered by a sizable list of contemporary thinkers, scholars and religious figures.
  • Atul Gawande, Being Human. Medical science and technology have altered the line between life and death. Generally, this is a good thing. But the alteration of these categories has profound ethical consequences for doctors and patients alike. Moreover, it demands contemporary reflection on what it means to be human, today, and without resort to answers from past ages. Gawande is an especially thoughtful writer on that region where medicine, politics and philosophy intersect.
  • Barron H. Lerner, The Good Doctor: A Father, A Son, and the Evolution of Medical Ethics.  Okay, so I admit that I will be teaching Medical Ethics in the Spring and so I had to read through a fairly large pile of new books. The Gawande volume above was the best of these. But I liked Lerner’s book too.  What Lerner offers is a comparison of the practice of medicine from his father’s practice to his own.
  • Lisa Bloom, Suspicion Nation: The Inside Story of the Trayvon Martin Injustice and Why We Continue to Repeat It.  The issue of mass incarceration reveals an American criminal justice system infected by racism. Bloom studies the Trayvon Martin case closely, and then uses it as a window onto the distortions of justice that have engendered a growing protest movement.
  • Michael Nieto Garcia, Autobiography in Black and Brown.  Garcia has produced a fascinating reading of the role of ethnic identity – being black or being brown — in the works of Richard Wright and Richard Rodriguez. Sometimes, odd combinations of writers produce profound insights, and this is the case in this book.  What lies behind the form of autobiography and ethnic identity in the hands of literary masters is a liberated and experimental inquiry into the self that uses strictures to incite the imagination.  Thanks to Garcia’s study, I will be re-reading Wright and Rodriguez in the very near future.

Ellen Rocco

Short fiction–new and classic; some Man Booker finalists; and some western U.S.-based fiction I’ve revisited.

David Means, The Secret Goldfish stories (2005); Assorted Fire Events (2012)

Michael Coffey, The Business of Naming Things

Flannery O’Connor, The Complete Stories

Anton Chekhov, The Lady with the Dog and Other Stories, or Delphi Complete Works of Anton Chekhov ($2 on Kindle)

Francis King, The Man on the Rock (set in modern Greece, protagonist a consummate manipulator and opportunist), Man Booker finalist

Neel Mukherjee, The Lives of Others (how Islamic extremism takes hold inside a moderate Calcutta family), Man Booker finalist

David Mitchell – The Bone Clocks (a life and a mystery, lived in England and Ireland), Man Booker finalist

Rabih Alameddine – An Unnecessary Woman (a Beirut spinster translates books into Arabic that no one ever reads), National Book Award finalist

Philipp Meyer, The Son, Texas settlement and conflict, Pulitzer finalist

Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian, and The Border Trilogy

Zach Hirsch (NCPR Plattsburgh/Champlain Bureau reporter)

In the winter, I find myself getting into old classics. I just zipped through Demian by Herman Hesse. It’s a quick, dark, bizarre Bildungsroman. Probably not most people’s cup of tea – but I found it to be a perfect little read for the end of autumn. I’ve always felt there’s a peculiar, lonesome feeling to the start of winter, and this book captures that nicely. Here’s a passage I liked:

“It was the beginning of November. I had become used to taking short meditative walks during all kinds of weather, walks on which I often enjoyed a kind of rapture tinged with melancholy… Thus I roamed in the foggy dusk one evening through the town. The broad avenue of a public park stood deserted, beckoning me to enter; the path lay thickly carpeted with fallen leaves which I stirred angrily with my feet. There was a damp, bitter smell, and distant trees, shadowy as ghosts, loomed huge out of the midst.”

Now I’m reading some Kurt Vonnegut. It’s like candy.

Charles Haverty (a writer, and reporter Natasha Haverty’s dad), had this to share with us on Facebook:

The Splendid Things We Planned, Blake Bailey’s “darkly funny account of growing up in the shadow of an erratic and increasingly dangerous brother, an exhilarating and sometimes harrowing story that culminates in one unforgettable Christmas.” Also: So We Read On, Maureen Corrigan’s terrific book all about The Great Gatsby; Updike by Adam Begley; and The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion by Meghan Daum.  Two other recent reads (novels) that fall into the “Where Have You Been All My Life?” category: The Beginning of Spring by Penelope Fitzgerald and The Mountain Lion by Jean Stafford.

Sam Donato posted this to Facebook:

I  love the book Endurance which is the account of Sir Ernest Shackleton and his crew trying to cross Antarctica in the early 1900′s. If you think this is cold, this will make the North Country seem warm! A great survival story.

Plus, all of these suggestions from our Facebook friends:

Frederick Kaselow — Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle

Ellen Beberman — Let Me Be Frank With You, by Richard Ford. And if you haven’t read Independence Day, read that one next.

Virginia Burnett — I am re-reading Tiffany Aching books by Terry Pratchett: The Wee Free Men, A Hat Full of Sky , The Wintersmith, and I Shall Wear Midnight. Not only are they excellent fun, they also contain some insightful social commentary that is particularly pertinent right now.

Sue Novak — I’m sure you don’t want to know about Communication and the Law, so how about Wild by Cheryl Strayed, and Allie Brosh’s Hyperbole and a Half for some grins?

Bake This Cake — Searching for historic cake recipes in a lovely old recipe book, American Economical Housekeeper, 1845, (second edition) by Mrs. E. A Howland. Just delightful and so fun to read!

Rita Grinbergs — The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje (audio download from the library).

Diane LeifheitThe Night Circus by Eren Morgenstern. Magical, memorable, sparkly writing.

Amy DiStefano — Loved Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent . Also, Alexander McCall Smith’s The Number 1 Ladies a Detective Agency series is great.

Stephen Trinder Urban Mass Transportation: A Dozen Years of Federal Policy by George M. Smerk.

Mary Sullivan SagerThe Goldfinch by Donna Tartt.

C.J. RudyThree Soldiers by John Dos Passos.

Ben Hamelin Tibetan Peach Pie , Tom Robbins’ “True Account of an Imaginative Life.”

Rob SprogellGone Girl by Gillian Flynn.

Linda Garrett The Unexpected Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce.

Louisa Burnham Charity and Sylvia: A Same Sex Marriage in Early America by Rachel Hope Cleves.

Tom KinslowMy Losing Season by Pat Conroy.

Marcia Clifton RobbinsThe Firebird by Susanna Kearsley.

Colleen Pelletier Blood Red by Mercedes Lackey. Excellent read. She takes fairy tales and gives them a whole new story and twist. This one is about Little Red Riding Hood.

Jennifer Chasalow VanBenschotenLight on Life by Ivengar.

Les Tuttle — Currently, One Basket by Edna Ferber; before that, Home Country by Ernie Pyle (which I loved). Got ‘em both in the Salvation Army thrift store.

William Bruce Matthews — I am re-reading Promises to Keep by north country author Jamie Sheffield. Other titles by him: Here Be Monsters, Caretakers, The Weaving.

Elaine L. LemieuxThe Wisdom of Jesus and the Yoga Siddhas by Marshall Govindan.

Nancy Linge Currier — Absolute favorite holiday book: A Christmas Memory by Truman Capote. Read it every year.

Di Fineout  — An Open Heart by the Dalai Lama.

Deirdre O’CallaghanThe Hare with  Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal

Jim TracySycamore Row by John Grisham.

Jule BeileinA Good Marriage by Stephen King.

Wendy Purcell Saving Simon by Jon Katz; The Wild Truth by Carine McCandless; and Off the Leash by Matthew Gilbert.

Love ResilienceThe Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street by Susan Jane Gilman. As a recent transplant from NYC, I really enjoyed blowing through this book. I highly recommend it.

Deanna Suciu Heermann — I just started The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer. Loved Calling Me Home by Julie Kibler, and thought Factory Man by Beth Macy was a good read as well.

Paula Di BernardoWalkable Westchester by Jane and Walt Daniels, and in the evenings, Catching Fire (book 2 in the Hunger Games Trilogy).

Laura Cordts — Currently reading Cooked by Michael Pollan. Recently zoomed through The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin.

Vera LaRoeThe Stone Wife by Peter Lovesey. Chaucer and mystery.

Susan Washburn — Just finished Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline. Favorites of this year: And The Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini,  and The City of Falling Angels by John Berendt.

Kristin Rehder — Best book of essays I have read in a long time: Catherine Reid’s Falling into Place.

Arpad Gerster The World We Create by Frances Beinecke, President of NRDC and a Long Laker. Also, The 100 Foot Journey by Richard C. Morais.

Peter RowleyLila by Marilynne Robinson and All the Light You Cannot See by Anthony Doerr.

Diane Blakey MinutilliStation Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, National Book Award nominee.

Dick Donovan — For political junkies: On His Own Terms-A Life of Nelson Rockefeller. Richard Norton Smith has written a richly researched bio that is a great story about an energetic life. Most interesting to me is Rockefeller’s determination to work around his dyslexia. Rocky was a flawed and fascinating guy.

Wendy GordonMansfield Park, for Austen completists.

Debbie Shonio MarshallThe Red Tent by Anita Diamant, before the miniseries begins.

Bob Maswick — My pick for non-fiction is Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder by Richard Louv. Fiction? It’s been a long time since I found a really good book but Tod Goldberg’s Gangsterland gets my vote.

Susan Therio — I just told someone the other night to make sure they read The Dirty Life by Kristan Kimball. I love the story……. It’s not a new one, but it’s a GREAT one.

Danielle EdwardsAngora Alibi by Sally Goldenbaum . I love those knitting mysteries!

Barbara Strowger — Currently, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.

Bill ShortThe Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown. Non-fiction.

Shari Barnhart City of Bones by Cassandra Clarke. First in a long series.

Ellen BrownHeaven, Your Real Home by Joni Eareckson Tada.

Valerie Summer — My favorite book of the year: The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert. A great read heavy on nature and botany, strong female protagonist. The Orphan Train was wonderful, especially read aloud on the DVD.

Chris Bigelow — Too many books, so little time! These are some of the books I enjoyed this year:
Frog Music by Emma Donoghue, very different from Room, The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd, TransAtlantic by Colum McCann, The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud, Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi, The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin, and Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown. This is nonfiction and a true story of determination, trials, and endurance. I have not started Nora Webster by Colm Toibin. I have heard great thing about this book. Thanks again for having this program each year. I love to know what your listeners are reading.

Valerie Moody

Here are my recommendations from this year:

Women with Altitude by Carol Stone White (stories of women winter 46ers)

Close Range, Wyoming Stories by Annie Proulx (one of my favorite collections to return to)

The Third Life of Grange Copeland by Alice Walker

Spirit of Steamboat by Craig Johnson (a feel-good Longmire holiday story)

* And for the horse friends we know:

The Eighty-Dollar Champion by Elizabeth Letts (great read, great gift!)

Barbara Phillip-Farley

Best new book: Gutenberg’s Apprentice, by Alix Christie

Next-best new book: One Summer: America, 1927, by Bill Bryson

Most disappointing newer book: The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt

Best old book: Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy  (trans. Magarshack)

Fine biography:  Jack London: An American Life, by Earle Labor

Barrie GilbertIn the Shadow of the Sabertooth: Global Warming, the Origins of the First Americans, and the Terrible Beasts of the Pleistocene, by Doug Peacock (Counterpunch) 2015

Kristin RehderFalling into Place by Catherine Reid; For All of Us, One Today: An Inaugural Poet’s Journey by Richard Blanco. An old favorite of mine is a book of photographs by Mary Randlett called Landscapes.

Paul DuffeeThe Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan (Winner of the Man Booker Prize).

Bridget –By far, the most thought provoking, well written book I read in 2014 was We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler. Also, The Homesmen by Glendon Swarthout – now a movie starring Hilary Swank and Tommy Lee Jones. Both are books that stay with you.

From the Kaczka family

  1. A Guide to the Birds of East Africa by Nicholas Drayson.   You don’t have to be a birder to enjoy this little gem penned by an Australian naturalist.
  2. The 100 year Old Man who Climbed out the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson.  Oh the adventures he has as he is pursued by police and criminals and the people he meets.  The journey reveals the colorful life he has led meeting some of the 20th century’s global leaders as  his explosive skills take him to significant events.  It is a delicious smorgasbord of satire and wit that will tickle your funny bone.
  3. The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce.  A disgruntled pensioner receives a note that prompts a written response.  The walk to post the letter extends to a longer ramble that brings notoriety and revelatory turns in Harold and the reader.  Take this gentle journey with this Englishman and share in the joy of discovery and renewal.
  4. A Sudden Country: A Novel by Karen Fisher.  For a journey of another kind, read this fact based novel describing events on an 1840 wagon train emigration to Oregon.  It is not a shoot’em up  western tale but the story of a Midwestern family uprooted from their home to pursue a dream.  Love, loss, hardship, harsh beauty and untimely deaths marks the days of the naïve travelers as the make their way west.  It is well written hard to put down as you wonder how they endured.
  5. Snow Child: A Novel by Eowyn Ivey.  Travelling further west and north and nearer in time, this novel describes the life of a childless couple who immigrate to Alaska in the 1920.  What begins as a tale of a couple struggling to survive to the harsh realities on their frontier homestead as winter is approaching, takes a fairy tale like turn.  A snow child they build in a moment of leads to some unanticipated developments.  The writing beautifully captures the austerity of of the Alaskan environment and the enchantment of the tale.
  6. Garden of the Evening Mists and The Gift of Rain by Tan Twan Eng.  I re commend both of these books by this Malaysian author because once most people read one, they want to read the other.   The Garden is set in the aftermath of World War II, a woman scarred by the war tries to full fill a wish of her dead sister develops a relationship with an exiled Japanese gardener.  The beautifully written story evolves with many twists and turns.  The Gift, Eng’s debut novel begins in pre WWII Penang with the Hutton family, but the focus evolves to Hutton’s Chinese-English son and a Japanese diplomat aikido master.  When the Japanese invade Maylaysia loyalties and friendships evolve and are tested.  A lot historical and socio cultural information is wrapped around this compelling novel.
  7. The Light Between the Oceans by M.L.Stedman.  Returning home after four years of WWI an Australian veteran seeks a position a lighthouse keeper on a lonely island a half day journey from the coast of Western Australia.   He brings a young wife to the island and after two failed pregnancies a rowboat washes ashore with a young infant.  A gift from God marks a joyous turn and eventual tragedy as morality and values are tested.  There is much to find is this fine complex novel.
  8. The Orchardist, The Language of Flowers and Beyond the Beautiful Forevers are also good reads.

Steve Comstock 

1. Ava’s Man by Rick Bragg – phenomenal story about a working class southern roofer with a big heart and even bigger helping of mischevious spirit.

2. Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt – A young girl coming of age through the loss of her uncle to aids. Beautifully written.

3. Hello Everybody!: The Dawn of American Radio by Anthony Rudel – A truly engaging work dealing with the characters and stories that dominated the wild-westlike frontier of American Radio in infancy.

Holiday forecast: fare to partly portly

Photo: Brian Immel, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

Photo: Brian Immel, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

I can always tell when the holidays are approaching by looking in the mirror. My cheeks get a little fuller, my pants get a little tighter, and my normally clear complexion begins to show the stigmata of over-indulgence. I think of them as chocolate and gravy bumps. There is one on my forehead between my eyes this morning–a last Thanksgiving leftover–sort of the opposite of a mystical “third eye.”

But enough of my body dysmorphia. It’s not like I have an exercise plan or a New Year’s resolution to do anything about the situation. I’m a happy eater; none of your holiday fare is safe in my presence. I love it all, the cookies, the pies, the candy, the nuts, the steaming roasts and  the gravy.

Some of my very favorites have been worked out over the years to become family traditions. For years Christmas Eve dinner called for breaded chicken cutlets, “Straw and Hay”–that’s a mix of green and white fettuccine tossed with butter, olive oil and toasted garlic. (I could eat a mangerfull.) A token amount of steamed broccoli on the side. Maybe a scoop of candy cane ice cream for dessert.

Breakfast on Christmas morning: French toast made using eggnog. Three–no four–strips of bacon (plus the one I sneaked during cooking). Coffee made with a curl of cinnamon bark crumbled into the grind.

And Christmas dinner? Cubano-style: pork tenderloin rubbed with garlic and oregano, wet-roasted and basted with red wine and Seville orange juice,  served with piles of black beans and rice. And a gravy boat full of mojo criollo generously applied to everything. Mojo–for those not in the know–is thinly sliced onion and a rude amount of garlic soaked in citrus juice and salt, then flash cooked in an insane amount of olive oil. Dessert can be more Americano, pumpkin pie with whipped cream, or apple pie with ice cream. It’s all good.

If I haven’t made you hungry, check your pulse. Or better yet, stimulate my salivary glands with your own traditional holiday fare in a comment below.

Giving makes the world go ’round

givingtuesday_logo

Tuesday, December 2 is Giving Tuesday

As Black Friday overshadows Thanksgiving and morphs into Cyber Monday, as the TV bombards you with holiday season advertising for an endless supply of stuff, it would be easy to think that market forces are what make the world go ’round.

But there is another side to every community that relies on giving rather than on buying and selling, a side that values our attention and our labor as much as our dollars.

Market forces don’t fill the food bank or serve on the soup kitchen line. They don’t provide the free clinic or house the homeless. The arts organizations provide no dividend to stockholders. The Humane Society will never be listed on the Big Board. The volunteer fire department and the rescue squad and the public library have no corporate HQ.

There are over 2000 small not-for-profits and charitable organizations throughout the NCPR listening area that provide the glue that helps all our places to remain fit places where people can live.

givingtuesday

Any way, any day. It’s all good.

While every day provides opportunities for giving–of time, of money, of care–the same can be said of buying and selling. But this time of year especially has become so commercialized in recent years that a little pause, a much-needed interruption in the flow of business as usual is called for.

That day is today–Giving Tuesday.

It’s a day to take stock, to take a deep breath, and to give back. Give a little, give a lot, give to one, give to many, give time, give goods, give whatever you can–but give.

That way you can add your own force to that of all the helpers who together make the world go ’round.

To all of our fellow non-profit organizations and the people who support them – Thank you!

It’s shovel time again

Sun going down on shovels at rest. Photo: Lucy Martin

Sun going down on shovels at rest. Photo: Lucy Martin

I think all of us are staggered at the photos of how much snow fell in parts of western New York. It definitely pus my own shoveling and roof concerns in a lighter perspective.

For some strange reason, I still like shoveling snow. I like being outside. Snow is mostly pretty. (Not all churned up in city slush. But out in nature, a snowy landscape is wonderful.) Plus, there’s something very satisfying about how tangible that task can be. To wit: the driveway was full. Now it is clear. I did that.

True, I’ve only been at it for 15 winters now, not a lifetime. In contrast, I’ve been mowing lawns since age 9 and I am so over that chore!

Of course, when the dump is wet & heavy, it’s a whole different story. I am also less happy when I have to rake the roof and somehow move the mountains of compressed/heavy snow that brings down. And I have never had to shovel anything like what Buffalo gets. Have mercy!

But across snow country, for some, the deep, heavy digging can bring on a heart attack.

Here’s a recent CBC article on why shoveling snow carries that risk. The article quotes experts who cite a combination of cold, sudden exertion while it’s cold and (for many) lack of general aerobic fitness.

The people most at risk are those who don’t exercise, and for whom “snow-shovelling may represent the most strenuous activity they do in the year,” says Dr. Neil Fam, a cardiologist in Toronto.

When a person starts vigorously shovelling snow, the blood flow to the heart becomes very fast. This may not cause problems for someone who is fit, but for someone who is unused to physical activity, the rush of blood can lead to chest pain, or angina, “because the heart muscle isn’t getting enough oxygen supply,” Dr. Fam says.

 Snow drifts turned many roads into one-lane traffic. This photo is from Feb. 7, 1977. Creative Commons

Snow drifts turned many roads into one-lane traffic. This photo is from Feb. 7, 1977. Creative Commons

Matthew Mayer, a senior specialist of research at the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada says we shouldn’t just jump into heavy shoveling:

He suggests something as simple as taking a short walk beforehand to get the blood flowing.

“I often think a really good saying is, ‘We should be getting fit to do these activities, not do these activities to get fit.’”

(Note: the advice above fails to realize that a leisurely warm-up walk is unavailable until the possible heart-attack victim successfully shovels their way out from under.)

The BBC had this explainer for Britons unused to dealing with heavy snow: “Why do so many people die shoveling snow?” Experts say it’s because the situation:

  • raises blood pressure and heart rate more than some other forms of exercise
  • cold air constricts blood vessels
  • cardiac risks are higher in early morning
  • rare exercise for sedentary over-55s

That article says Cardiologist Barry Franklin (“an expert in the hazardous effects of snow removal”) considers snow shoveling to be so dangerous that he advises anyone over the age of 55 not to do it.

I’m not sure that doctor’s note is very useful. There’s no one younger left in my house and there’s a shortage of fairies who come and do the shoveling for you.

Meanwhile, there’s the silver lining of all that snow, it’s skiing time again.

Thankful for the information

Like many folks at this time of year, I try to give some thought to the things for which I have cause to be grateful. And I can immediately tick off the usual: life, health, a modicum of comfort, a bit of sanity, a loving family, good friends, interesting work. Any man who had nearly as much should show a little gratitude.

But I have other needs and occasions for gratitude, too. I’m a bit of a propeller-head–a little nerdy, a little ovoid in the noggin, if you will. So I was pleased to spot this headline in my daily EarthSky e-newsletter: “Gravity and Higgs boson interacted to save the universe.”

Time line of the universe via NASA/WMAP Science Team

Time line of the universe via NASA/WMAP Science Team

Physicists had been scratching their heads since the Higgs boson was discovered in 2012. Their numbers said the Big Bang should have been a Big Bust—one second of expansion, then out like a cheap lighter. But gravity came riding to the rescue. Interaction with the curve of spacetime itself was enough to overcome the “Higgs instability.”

Whatever that is when it is at home I couldn’t say. As a lowly English major, my main source of cosmological data in my formative years was Firesign Theater:

“In the beginning there were hot lumps. Noiselessly they sang in the dense void.”

Anyway, thanks gravity. You’re a peach.

I also love me a good infographic, and the NASA one accompanying the article? Also a peach–13.7 billions years of history at a glance. According to it:

“In the beginning there was quantum fluctuation. Following faster-than-light inflation the afterglow lasted 380,000 years. Then 400 million years of darkness until the first stars appear.”

Wowsers, makes my head inflate at a ferocious rate. Pretty dramatic, too. So we should be grateful that we live in the era of  “Dark Energy Accelerated Expansion.” One season of winter will be darkness enough.

Thank you, dark energy. Thank you, NASA.