20 September 2012

Libraries: Woods Between Worlds

I'm back in the land of my favorite libraries--the land where, at the age of three, I was made a library card holder, plenipotentiary.  My business was the borrowing and consumption of books.  I would pile them into the minivan regularly requisitioned for such a purpose--the next picture books and chapter books which would transport us to other worlds.

Although we read ourselves, we also had the immense pleasure of being read to.  Both of my parents were excellent readers, transporting us en masse to other worlds.

I had the privilege of studying in Oxford, England for a semester--a city where the population of books far exceeds the population of readers.  It seemed a city, and perhaps a country, of librarians.  And many of my professors were like libraries themselves, so vast was their knowledge.  Having a conversation with a library is a particular kind of heaven.  They have card catalog brains and ready encyclopedic summaries on just about anything.  C.S. Lewis was a professor at Oxford for some time, and while there, enjoyed meeting with his literary friends, including J.R.R. Tolkien, in a group known collectively as the Inklings, at a pub called the Eagle and Child.  Much world-creating went on in this pub.

Oxford also boasts the Bodleian Library, which is the second-largest library in the world, after the Library of Congress.  Until recently, the majority of the Bodleian's holdings were underground, and had to be retrieved by trolley, which reminds me of the vaults in Gringott's.

Love of books seems to be rather pervasive in British culture.  The honoring of Britain's long literary history, and especially its rich children's literature tradition, in the London 2012 Opening Ceremony is evidence of this.

In David Copperfield, Charles Dickens describes the title character as suffering under his strict new stepfather's harsh regime, yet finding solace in his late father's library, through the introduction to "a glorious host [of characters], to keep me company.  They kept alive my fancy, and my hope of something beyond that place and time...."*  Books allow us to travel and to meet with places, ideas, and characters.  William Nicholson, in his 1993 screenplay for Shadowlands, about C.S. Lewis's later life, has the character Peter Whistler quote his father as saying"  "We read to know we are not alone."  We read to connect with ideas and events, hypothetical or real.

This weekend I had the opportunity to visit a couple of favorite bookstores, together with my favorite fellow intrepid world-explorer:  my brother.  I found a lovely edition of The Wind In The Willows, with beautiful illustrations, and a capacious edition of Robert Burns's poetry, some of which I enjoy singing.  My brother found a role-playing game by the makers of Dungeons and Dragons, set in space, with some great illustrations.  It appears that someday everyone will wear sleeping masks in space, although my brother informs me these are solar goggles.

Home libraries are also an important part of the book-verse.  I feel that by collecting books, I am collecting portals to other places, portals through which I visit other characters, as David Copperfield did.  And portals through which I contemplate ideas, and hopefully in discovering kindred minds, feel less alone.  Books give us thousands upon thousands of occasions to venture out and to come home.

And this summer I've come home to my favorite of libraries... nestled in the river valley, with holdings reaching to the far corners of the physical and metaphysical universes.

In Lewis's The Magician's Nephew, he sends the first pair of intrepid explorers, Polly and Digory, from our world to Narnia, where they find themselves in the Wood between the Worlds, in which are many small ponds, which if entered will send one to another specific world.  In time, other means of travelling to new worlds evolve, such as through wardrobes.  The Wood between the Worlds is like a library to me.  Each book is like a world, waiting to be explored.

17 July 2012

Light Bright Who

After my last exam, I headed to the store in search of an end-of-the-semester treat--nothing big, just a new accessory to mark the occasion.  Once in the accessories area, I became aware of being watched, by row upon row of sunglasses.  I looked back at them.  And I liked what I saw.

I am very nearsighted.  If I don't leave my glasses within reach when I go to sleep, then when I wake up, I may spend hours in the morning, feeling up a fuzzy planet in search of them.  I couldn't remain in the accessories department to try on sunglasses either, so close would I have to get to the mirror, I might be mistaken for Narcissus.  So it was off to the dressing room!  And on my way, I picked up a few complimentary fashions such as one might want to go with some stylish shades:  undercover sleuth, gonzo journalist, hipster librarian, chair of the extraterrestrial meet-and-greet, etc.

I grabbed some big, black plastics, the kind that might say "I'm a celebrity in disguise," mostly because they fit over my glasses and go with everything.  (I generally eschew those itchy disks, except for swimming and rabble scrap situations.)  I found some heart-shaped frames.  They were my go-tos as a little girl.  You can't go wrong with love frames!  I then found some faux dulce de leche Ray Bans.  The color was too sweet to pass up.  Plus, I love, love, love their "Never Hide" ad campaign!   

We are the only species that wears sunglasses, unless you're Bernie the Dog, a recurring star in my Dad's bedtime stores.  Apparently, we've been wearing sunglasses since the Middle Ages.  It's too bad they didn't make it into more tapestries and illuminated texts.  I can imagine Richard the Lionheart flipping down his Raeye Bayunnes and galloping off into the sunset.

Our sun is a star.  Our earth is a ball of stardust that we ride around our star.  Our sun is one of many stars which makes up the Milky Way Galaxy, a giant pinwheel of stars and stardust.  Our sun is part of one of the arms, and we ride it, as it swirls through space, like a giant teacup ride.
I suppose I think of us as lights:  some are fireflies, decorating the night sky.  Some are stars, which light many planets.  Some are streetlights and porch lights, making the world safer for others.  Some are hearth fires, making the world cozier for others.  And some are lighthouse beams, emanating from the waves' edge, singing in the the lifeboats, as Voltaire says--from wherever, whoever, whyever they be--to a safe shore.  What sort of light are you?

When I was growing up, we had a toy called Lite Brite.  There was a panel of light, which we would cover with black construction paper, and then punch different colored, translucent pieces through the paper to make a picture.  The question is oftentimes as simple as whether or not to punch through the darkness.  It is a question of something or nothing.  Do bright somethings!  Be a bright something!  You're not a what, not a where, not a how, not a why, but a who.  You're Light Bright You!

06 May 2012

Third Soup: Peas Be Lentil

Legumes can take a long time to cook.  I like to be home while they're cooking so I can check on them periodically--to make sure they're at a nice, cozy simmer--not bubbling over, not sticking to the pot.  While legumes do require supervision, they reward you generously with flavor.

The important thing to understand about putting lentils and peas in water, especially at boiling temperature, but really at any temperature (you can soak them, say overnight, to jump start the process) is that the interior of the lentil or pea is more concentrated than the surrounding water.  The water and the inside of the lentils and peas want to be at the same concentration.  So if you give them long enough, the insides of the peas and lentils will begin to leak into the water, making a thick, lentil and pea-flavored soup.  I also put sea salt, perhaps 1/2 teaspoon or so in the pot when I added the peas and lentils, approximately 1/2 cup each of dry, brown lentils, and dry, green split peas.

I let them simmer for 5 to 6 hours.  I think I used a 1 quart saucepan, about 4/5 full.  I didn't have to add any water after that.  The volume reduced roughly by half over the 5-to-6-hour period.  You can make as little or as much as you want.  I would go long, as this is an especially fine soup, and because you don't want to have to legume-sit for 5 to 6 hours very often.

Spices.  My method of choosing spices is pretty simple.  I take down all of the candidates, and go back and forth between the soup and the spice, smelling each of them, and deciding whether or not they would get along in the soup.  Paprika was very agreeable.  I wanted this soup to be all things warm, with a little bit of bright.  I probably added a couple teaspoons of paprika.  Cracked black pepper also went in.  It heats things up ever so slightly.  I used 1/4 teaspoon or so of pepper, freshly ground.  And garlic powder.  I know, it's not as good as fresh garlic, but it still added another dimension of warmth.  I didn't use a lot of this, maybe 1/4 teaspoon.  Then, because I like a little bit of bright in with the warm, I added about 1/3 lemon rind's worth of zest, along with a squirt of lemon juice.  I really like fresh lemon and fresh cracked pepper together.  It's a combination I discovered when working out an alternative, vegan version of bruschetta, with avocado, tomato, and olive oil.  Finally, since they also passed the test, I threw in a few fennel seeds--1/4 teaspoons few.  Fennel is something I used for the first time in a tomato soup recipe my brother gave me, and I really like it.  It's refreshing, with a complex flavor, and yet isn't as overpowering as, say mint or cilantro.

So that's my new soup.  Earthy legumes with warm paprika and pepper, sprinkled with the sunshine of lemon zest and the garden freshness of fennel.  This is soup for all seasons.  Lentils also come in other colors--yellow, orange, and green--to brighten your bowl, year-round.  For plants, lentils have a high protein content.  They're also a great source of iron (about 30% of your daily requirement), and fiber (about 60%).  Peas are also a source of protein, iron, and fiber.  And both legumes contain many additional vitamins and minerals.  Healthy and scrumptious, I recommend including legumes, and perhaps this soup, in your recipe box for a good life.

26 January 2012

Pretty Science

To me, biology is a relational field.  It is the story of organisms and cells.  The immune system is fascinating, like an action movie.  A sinister troupe of bacteria enter the body.  A guard sounds the alarm.  White blood cells rush to the site of the breach.  They battle long and hard and then one of them says "we're going to need more cells!!!"  Command dispatches more cells and the bacteria are  neutralized.  As you can see, the immune response can be quite exciting.

In my opinion, mathematics and nonorganic sciences make for less-interesting stories.  Atomic behavior is interesting—the interaction between nuclei, bonding.  The birth and death of stars is fascinating--a cosmic opera.  But stories about what happens in engines or about pressures in abstract containers, are far less interesting.

In high school, I found it helpful to find my own way of doing math, my own narrative.  Getting to know the characteristics of triangles was fun.  "Do these angles make me look obtuse?"  Algebra was a mystery story that never got old.  "x=3?!  I totally didn't see that coming!"

My first semester of college-level chemistry was difficult.  There was a little bit too much of getting to know engines and not enough about the dynamics of atomic attraction.  So I have to find a way of making my continued study of chemistry more relational.  I have to find a way of viewing chemistry as a story worth reading.  I’m starting with these pretty, color-coordinated notebooks my Mom got me from Target:  (leaves for biology, backwards “C” pattern for chemistry)

The periodic table is probably the most useful tool-on-paper I have ever seen.  From this chart, you can learn how many protons, neutrons and electrons each element has.  You can see trends in bonding character.  You can read the quantum numbers of any element right off the table.  I have to look at this chart a lot, so I wanted to make it pretty.  I took information from last semester and wrote it large:  on a giant, elegant, colorful periodic table.  The font makes the chemical formulas seem like the monograms of interesting people.  "C, darling!"  The naturalistic border gives the whole thing a Mediterranean, alfresco feel--probably what studying chemistry in Tuscany would feel like.

Don't allow things in your life to be boring.  If life hands you drudgery, like prerequisites for things you'd rather be studying, find a way to make them interesting.  Find the stories!  Find the adventure!  Make them pretty! Transforming the boring is one way I feel at home in the world!