Category Archives: Uncategorized

Thirsty for history? Pore over this book

If you don’t like history or minutiae, there’s nothing to see here. Move along.

But if you like sweeping analysis, interesting historical detail right down to flavors, and a clever look at where culture, politics and technology intersect, then you ought to pick up A History of the World in 6 Glasses and peruse it while quaffing a beer, sipping a whiskey cocktail or lingering over a nice cup of tea.

Author Tom Standage tells the story of agriculture, civilization and globalization through the lens of what we humans were drinking in six eras:

  • Beer in Mesopotamia and Egypt
  • Wine in Greece and Rome
  • Spirits in the Colonial Period
  • Coffee in the Age of Reason
  • Tea and the British Empire
  • Coca-Cola and the Rise of America

I picked up this book at the behest of my aunt, who chose it for our family book club discussion. Though some of my relatives found it was too detailed and would be better as a television documentary, I enjoyed it.

This is not a book about fine wine or how to make the perfect cup of coffee. Instead, Standage persuades readers that each of the six beverages literally changed the world by bringing people together—as wine did in Roman households or Coca-Cola did in globalization—or driving them apart—as in the role tea played in the Boston Tea Party and the American Revolution. “Everyone has to drink,” Standage writes, “Each drink tells us about the priorities of the people who drank them: who drank what, and where they got it from, tells you a lot about the structure of society.”

I knew Ancients drank beer because potable water was sometimes difficult to get, but I learned that’s true also of wine, whiskey and even coffee and tea (to make coffee and tea, the water has to be boiled, which improves germy water immensely).

I also learned the role rum played in the slave trade. Enjoying a fruity rum drink now feels vaguely wrong to me. The chapter on European coffeehouses in the seventeenth century functioning as the internet by offering news, gossip, networking and lively discussions was also fascinating.

A History of the World in 6 Glasses, isn’t exactly a beach read, but it is an easy read considering all the ground it covers (where else could you find the history of the world in 265 pages?). It is a good choice for a book club (at least, if members are amenable to reading history) because everyone can chat about their takeaways over their favorite drink. Cheers!

Travel Tuesday: Modest canyon northwest of Austin beckons birds, hikers

Sometimes, the best sightseeing is right in your back yard.

If not literally, practically in the back yard.

My Beloved and I discovered a hidden gem only six miles away from our Texas condo. It took us more than a year to spend some time there, and really, it is too bad, especially considering it’s an outdoor venue that is particularly alluring in a pandemic.

The gem is the Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge, about 45 minutes northwest of Austin and Lake Travis. Imagine the Grand Canyon on a much smaller scale. The comparison is apt because at one time, some version of the Colorado River probably ran through it. In practice, it means you can enjoy the place without all the crowds. And admission is free.

The promotional literature brags up this place for birders. The rugged terrain has spared old Ashe juniper and oak woodlands from logging and shelters some of the best golden-cheeked warbler habitat. Elsewhere in the 27,500-acre park, the open country supports another songbird, the black-capped vireo. Both songbirds are endangered, and the refuge is critical in preserving and restoring their homes. Because of its importance to the birds, this refuge has been officially designated a Globally Important Bird Area.

But I didn’t even notice the birds—it’s a great place to take a quiet walk. Mostly flat, it’s fairly easy to traverse, but there is enough elevation changes to make things interesting. At high points, one can see all the way to Lake Travis and beyond.

Layers of limestone, up to 1,000 feet thick in some places, underlie the refuge. In Spanish, “balcones” mean balconies and is a reference to the limestone terraces clearly visible in many part of the refuge. In some places, huge boulders litter the terrain.

Indian paintbrush flowers, also known as prairie fire, lend drama to the scene.

We hiked through the refuge in spring. As elsewhere this time of year, wildflowers can be found here, too.

There are three trailheads in the park: Doeskin Ranch, Warbler Vista and Headquarters. My Beloved and I traipsed around Warbler Vista, intending to walk a trail for 45 minutes or so. We took a few wrong turns (more our fault than poor signage) and finished our walk two hours after beginning. Oh, well. The detour was pleasant, through mostly shaded forest. The most dramatic part of our hike was through Quarry Canyon. This was like walking around a Grand Canyon in miniature. It’s not shaded though; prepare accordingly if you’re taking on this hike during a Texas summer. The refuge recommends you wear comfortable walking shoes or hiking boots, bring water and carry along protection from the heat or cold (the refuge is open 365 days a year sunrise to sunset). Birders should bring binoculars, and dogs are not permitted.

A Fire Sparkling tells sweeping tale of love and family secrets

Well-researched and descriptive details bring to life a love story in A Fire Sparkling by Julianne MacLean.

Actually, the story showcases more than one love story, but that’s part of the magic of the plot. MacLean weaves together historical fiction, romance and mystery in A Fire Sparkling, and it’s successful.

I picked up MacLean’s book only because it was a book club pick. As I began reading, I noticed most of her other titles were romance novels, and I was instantly skeptical. I didn’t expect to like A Fire Sparkling as much as I did, but MacLean is so successful in writing about a small piece of World War II that it felt a bit like reading memoir, my favorite genre.

The story opens with modern-day Gillian Gibbons fleeing to her family home after a lover’s betrayal. There, she and her father find an incriminating photo of her grandmother, and the multigenerational story shifts to Grandma’s devastating, harrowing and exciting experiences in England before and during World War II.

The title comes from William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet: “Love is a smoke rais’d with the fume of sighs; being purg’d, a fire sparkling in lovers’ eyes …,” and after reading descriptions of the Blitz by Germany in the United Kingdom in 1940 and 1941, you understand the references to smoke and fire.

My only quibble with the story is that Grandma appears more than once to be a damsel in distress, rescued by a handsome, courageous man with whom she falls in love. This is a romance novel trope, in my opinion, but other members of the book club pointed out the situations were an accurate reflection of the times.

The story is satisfying, easy to read and a page-turner. If you appreciate books about that era, you might enjoy this one. There’s death, of course, and mayhem, and Adolf Hitler lurks on the edges, as in all World War II novels, but MacLean focuses on the characters and emotions wrought by war in a palatable way.

Sweet book on angels offers spiritual guidance

Among other resolutions this year, I resolved to pray every day.

Prayer isn’t everyone’s jam, but it’s mine. Even if you’re not particularly religious, prayer helps. You won’t always get the answers you want or expect, but the very act of assigning control of chaos to Someone (or Something) else improves your perspective. Scientific studies have proven the power of prayer.

Some folks can be extemporaneous, but I’m not good at free-form prayer. I’m a rule follower, and I like a little guidance. Google comes in handy. Search “prayer for [fill in the blank]” and you’ll find something. In the past four months, I’ve googled prayers for morning, afternoon, evening, healing, the grieving and gratitude. I even prayed a nice prayer for the full moon.

I’ve also looked to YouTube for guidance. My most popular search there has been “2 minute prayer” (I resolved to pray every day, not all day).

But my favorite prayers this year have come from Anne Neilson. I found her book Angels: Devotions and Art to Encourage, Refresh, and Inspire at a gift shop in Galveston when we visited in February. I was drawn to the cover, an image of angel sculpted by Neilson in oil paint. Even in a two-dimensional book, her paintings feel fully developed.

Throughout Angels, Neilson invites readers reflect on one of her paintings and individual words such as create and foundation. She offers a definition of the word, a Bible verse and a prayer with each of forty devotions. “I decided to do a devotional on words because words are so powerful,” she writes in the introduction. “Our thoughts are brought to life through language—the ways we think and act—each word deeply impacting how we live and breathe and view the world.”

Here’s a bit she wrote in her meditation on “purpose”:

As we wear the carpets of our lives threadbare with constant pacing, we may miss out on the miracle appointed for that day. Sometimes God has appointed us to be the ones calling others back. He is constantly arranging His people into positions to be used for His higher purpose.

Neilson’s devotions are personal and homey, reflecting on motherhood, family and creativity. Especially nice are her prayers, which don’t simply repeat the devotion’s message but expand on it. Here’s an especially meaningful one:

Dear God, thank You for exhaling Your divine breath so that I might have lungs full of oxygen. Thank You for choosing for me to have another day on this earth so that I can continue to walk in the purpose You created for me. Show me how to embrace this life fully today so I can be a walking testimony to the goodness You have woven throughout my life.

I came to look forward every morning to reading another devotion from Neilson and praying a prayer, and I was sad when I came to the end. This is a high compliment for a reader to pay to any author. Her ponderings enriched my days.

If you’re a Christian looking for a meaningful devotional, I can’t recommend this one highly enough and I pray you benefit as much as I did.

Pandemic problems

Oh, Change, what a cruel taskmaster you are!

Advice columnist Carolyn Hax fielded a question today from a reader feeling anxiety about returning to life as it was.

This COVID-19 pandemic is the gift that keeps on giving. First, we’re anxious about the world shutting down. Now we’re anxious about the world opening back up.

Change is hard. As usual, Carolyn Hax offered a nuanced answer. One of her suggestions was that “this year may have taught you a way to live that suits you better, and if so, that’s great. Preserve as much of that as you can.”

That thought reminded me of the year I resolved to eschew retail shopping. For a whole year about a decade ago, I stayed out of all retail stores except supermarkets, drugstores and pet supply warehouses. I avoided bricks-and-mortar retail outlets and purchased as much as I could online; in caveman terms, I was hunting and killing rather than wandering and gathering.

I proved my theory that the more I shopped, the more I wanted (and therefore, bought). Except for trying on shoes and browsing bookstores, I discovered I didn’t miss in-person shopping all that much. When the year was over, I went shopping a lot less often and I was therefore less tempted to buy things I didn’t need. I learned a way to live that suited me better, and I preserved it.

This year, I even knocked back grocery shopping. With online ordering and curbside delivery, I managed to stay out of even supermarkets.

Back to the anxious reader. Her missive got me thinking about my pandemic experience. I’m firmly on the side of longing for “back to normal” though for me, “normal” means working from home and actively avoiding stranger’s hugs, so not much changed there. Still, I long to enjoy a church service or a baseball game or a musical performance in a crowd of like-minded fans. I really hate how my mask fogs up my glasses, and I’m sick of take-out and socially distanced restaurants. In those arenas, I could use some normal.

Still, the world has changed and “back” to normal may never come. People died, vaccines have become the stuff of social currency and never again will we be able to say, “oh, society couldn’t possibly shut down in a day.” Oh, yes, it could.

When change is hard, I remind myself change is constant.

This honeycombed hunk of limestone was created by thousands (millions?) of years of water dripping on it. Is this change wrought by simply water and time beautiful or hideous? It’s all in your perspective.

Though a bit dark,The Guest List has readers turning pages

Coincidentally, I’ve read two books in a row about destination weddings involving social media influencers. Extravagance and mayhem ensued.

Makes my wedding to my Beloved to which twenty guests were invited to my home and we served a Dairy Queen cake look cute and basic.

But at least no one died!

The same can’t be said about hoity-toity affair created by Lucy Foley in The Guest List: You’d Kill to Be On It.

This absorbing mystery novel is about the wedding of magazine publisher Jules Keegan and reality TV star Will Slater on a remote island off the coast of Ireland. Foley tells most of the story through the wedding-weekend experiences of five characters: the bride, the plus-one, the best man, the wedding planner and the bridesmaid. One of these characters is the murderer (I’m not spoiling anything here—the back cover reveals this).

What’s interesting about the mystery is we don’t know who the murder victim is until the end of the book. These two entwined mysteries—who is murdered and who is the murderer—will keep you turning pages, maybe until late into the night. And that’s all you can ask from a good mystery novel.

The book gets better after a lot of vague talk about secrets in the beginning. At first, I didn’t like a couple of the main characters, but their irritating behavior is explained as the book progresses, and I found the ending to be surprising and satisfying. Foley does a good job of moving the story along and tying the various storylines together, though she leaves a few plot holes and minor loose ends if you look too closely. Still, the plot holds water, and it’s fiction, so I didn’t get too worked up about it.

I read this for our family bookclub, which includes my aunt, uncle and cousins. The consensus was that Foley created good characters, but the story on the whole was a bit dark.

The Guest List reminded me a little of Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. Both Foley and Flynn worked out a lot of plot complexities before weaving things together, and I appreciate thinkers like that.

If you’re planning or invited to an exclusive destination wedding this summer, I recommend choosing something else to read on the plane (like a romance novel maybe).

Travel Tuesday: Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center

Springtime in central Texas means bluebonnets in bloom literally everywhere. Not simply gardens or boulevards but ditches and cracks in the sidewalks, too.

The bluebonnet is the state flower of Texas. Back in the ’70s, Lady Bird Johnson encouraged the planting of native plants along Texas highways in a highway beautification effort. Like cherry blossoms in Washington, D.C., or tulips in southern Wisconsin, bluebonnet blooms are a common sight in the springtime.

Though they can be seen everywhere, one of the best places to take in bluebonnets is at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center just south of Austin, Texas. My Beloved and I enjoyed an outing with my parents there two weeks ago.

My Beloved and I, in a field of flowers.

In a pandemic, the center is a great way to enjoy the outdoors and some natural beauty. Displays, gardens, playgrounds, water features, walking paths and picnic areas fill the center’s nearly 300 acres. There’s a well-stocked gift shop, too. We spent nearly two hours there and could have lingered longer.

Dad and I in a full-color pose.

Photo opportunities abound. Because entrance is limited, it’s easy to get pictures without a bunch of strangers in the background.

The center offers miles of walking paths.

Bluebonnet is a name given to any number of purple-flowered species of the genus Lupinus predominantly found in the southwestern United States. The name is derived from the shape of the petals on the flower resembling a pioneer woman’s bonnet. My father, who has planted an active wildflower garden in his yard in central Minnesota, said the Texas flowers looked like smaller versions of lupine flowers.

The center was founded in 1982 when founders Lady Bird Johnson, a former first lady, and actress Helen Hayes established the National Wildflower Research Center. The University of Texas at Austin uses native plants to restore and create sustainable, beautiful landscapes. Bluebonnets and Indian paintbrush flowers were in bloom when we were there. I imagine other varieties of wildflowers are in bloom throughout the season.

Lovebirds can be observed, too.

The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center is at 4801 La Crosse Ave., Austin. In the COVID-19 era, reservations are required in order to limit attendance and prevent crowds. Tickets are $12 for adults, $10 for seniors 65+, $10 for military and $6 for youth ages 5-17.

Big Summer tries to please all the people all the time but flounders

As a beach read, Jennifer Weiner’s Big Summer is all that. An entertaining and oftentimes insightful distraction filled with interesting characters leading interesting and sometimes strange lives.

Weiner is a skilled storyteller, and even if the literary world relegates her to chick-lit, she’s good at getting inside a chick’s head and showing you how she feels. But alas, Big Summer feels like it was written by committee. Even the title and upscale cover feels designed to get readers to tuck the book inside a beach bag. It’s not about a big summer. It’s about a “big” girl and a long June weekend.

Are all of Weiner’s protagonists fat? I don’t know. I’ve read only two pieces of Weiner’s fiction, her first book Good in Bed and Big Summer, her most recent (her newest novel, That Summer, comes out in May).

Of Good in Bed, I wrote, “Her memoir [Hungry Heart] led me to read that first novel, Good in Bed. Though a fictional story, the main character, Cannie, is a plus-sized newspaper reporter with a small dog and a messy breakup, all characteristics shared by Weiner at that time in her life. It is fascinating how she modeled the character on herself, and then created a wholly fictional, fresh ending. I found the plot twists to be surprising yet plausible.”

Big Summer’s plot twists are still surprising (wow!) but not plausible. The book begins as one thing, the story of a plus-sized Instagram influencer looking for love, and jolts abruptly into another thing. I don’t want to ruin your experience with spoilers; I’ll only say the book introduces a plot twist which might shelve it in another section of the bookstore.

I can’t say I didn’t like the plot twist. I did! It kept me reading so it was compelling. But the ending is a little too, um, unbelievable.

That didn’t ruin the book for me, but overall, I felt like there was too much effort to please all the people all the time. The high stakes and the “fully realized characters of all races and ethnicities” (Weiner’s words, from the acknowledgments) do not feel organic. Good in Bed was written to please Weiner alone, and it shows. She had a unique point of view in her debut, and she showcased it. Big Summer felt more like she had a deadline, a page count and a compulsion to sell books. I get it! What author doesn’t want to sell books? If you’re getting published, sales mean people care about what you’re saying. But it just felt like she cared more about selling books than she cared about her story, at least at the end of it.

‘Piece of mind’ from an airport security officer does nothing to create peace of mind

When the opportunity to see “the craziest things seen and done by the TSA” was offered me, I jumped at it.

I ran across You Can’t Fly With That: Confessions of a Disgruntling Airport Security Officer on Freebooksy, and I downloaded immediately. (Not a subscriber to Freebooksy? You should be. The website broadcasts free books daily.)

Many (but not all) of Freebooksy’s offerings are self-published, and sometimes it shows in the works with scant editing and typos. This is true of You Can’t Fly With That, too, but I can’t say it interfered with my enjoyment of the book. At first glance, you might think the title has a typo. Doesn’t the author mean “disgruntled” instead of “disgruntling”? Maybe; he certainly is as much a fan of the TSA as I am. But he also makes a case for being a pain in the tush for passengers and his supervisors, so maybe he does mean he’s “disgruntling,” that is, to make ill-humored or discontented. He’s admits to enough goofing off and lying about his absences that he writes under the pseudonym of “Anonymous”; Big Brother is watching, you know.

The Transportation Security Administration is a waste of taxpayer money, as I opined here on number occasions (here, here and here). I maintain the TSA is all flash and no substance, a government program designed to help scared little housewives and infrequent air travelers sleep better at night. It’s a ridiculous and expensive show paid for by taxpayer money in airports across the country every day that does nothing whatsoever to prevent someone who is willing to die for his cause to blow up a plane. 

My evidence, other than being a frequent flyer for several years in the mid 2000s? I was once considered such a security risk, I shut down an airport once. Yup, dangerous little anarchistic me. Shortly after 9/11, the crack TSA team at the tiny Central Minnesota airport where I was attempting to board a—gasp!—international flight detected a “bomb-making substance” on my laptop. The bright bulbs at the airport let me—the presumed bomb maker—board the plane, and the plane jetted off. They then shut down the airport and called in the bomb squad only find my keyboard had been smeared with—gasp!—glycerin-based hand lotion.

Reading You Can’t Fly With That does nothing to disavow me of my, ahem, high esteem for the TSA. Anonymous Author has penned a vulgar screed describing all kinds of hijinks of passengers, co-workers and himself. Here are a few lines from Anonymous Author’s work as evidence:

  • “The countdown to my freedom has begun you pecker-heads,” I manically spat through evil laughter while hovering over my dejected phone elves. “Soon, I’ll be kicking terrorist in the dicks and buying discounted airport merchandise. Enjoy unscrewing phones, suckas.”
  • For the next thirty minutes, we stood at the metal detector chatting and sending geologically-tarded passengers back to remove metal. … I mean delayed, or slow, retarded as, so yes, it’s okay.

At least Anonymous Author is self-deprecating: “I am, I repeat, I am, a jackass. Just one who’s actually a nice guy. A lot of my jackassery is used for public service.”

This work not literary brilliance by any means and there is no discernable plot other than a number of loosely connected anecdotes of stupidity, but I kept reading because Anonymous is occasionally clever:

  • [I am a] Screening Officer; or, unofficially, ‘Taker of Water from the Elderly’
  • I wouldn’t hack it as one of Ashton’s less famous lackeys on ‘Punked’, I’d crack mid-prank and ruin it all, similar to what Ashton’s done with his career choices.
  • Like women at an abortion clinic, I wasn’t having it.

Just in case Anonymous Author haunts Minnesota Transplant, I will refrain from using “bomb” in association with his book since I would like to pass through security next time I’m at the airport without a gloved-hand screening. Like at the airport, proceed at your own risk.

Though the cacti may wilt

The lonely hummingbird feeder in the midst of the storm.

The mountains and hills may crumble,
but my love for you will never end;
I will keep forever my promise of peace,
So says the Lord who loves you.

~Isaiah 54:10 (GNT)

Evidence of the winter freeze last month in Texas still is apparent.

Our hummingbirds are gone.

Before the freeze, more than one dainty bird drank his fill from our hummingbird feeder hanging off the deck.

No birds came for a sip of sweet nectar for three weeks after the freeze. One hearty bird arrived Sunday; I suspect he was migrating north, and we were only a rest stop.

Pieces of this tree blocked the walking path for a while.

The trees in the cedar forest in which we live suffered lost limbs, broken by the weight of the ice, many of which still hang limply from their bodies. There simply hasn’t been enough time for the housing development’s maintenance workers to prune them all.

The palm trees, planted on fancy estates around Lake Travis, are definitely dead, and cacti all over may not be dead but they are much worse for wear.

Century plants appeared ready to reach out and grab passersby before the freeze.

I believe this is a Century plant, agave americana, a unique succulent plant native to Mexico. They received the name Century plant because it was believed that they flowered every hundred years. In fact, most plants bloom in 20 to 30 years.

Century plant cacti are used like shrubbery around here. Before the freeze, they reminded me of Audrey II, the man-eating plant from Little Shop of Horrors.

The Century plants after the freeze.

Now look at them. Theoretically, one can trim the dead leaves, but I think a lot of them are goners. They may never get their chance to bloom.

Elsewhere in the aftermath, I read news stories about the untenable state of Texas’ power grid, I hear news of armadillo infestations (only in Texas), and I see Facebook posts with smiling women wrapped in towels, grateful recipients of finally operational showers.

For most of us, life in Texas is back to normal. Temperatures now in March reach into the seventies and sometimes eighties, and it’s warm enough at dawn that I can do yoga on the deck.

But it was dicey there for a week in February.

It never got below zero in the Austin area.

A hearty Minnesota might scoff. If you’re from Minnesota, it’s not even winter until it gets below zero. Twenty above is practically spring like.

But 20 degrees with snow for a week in Austin is cataclysmic.

Homes are not built to retain heat. Pipes are not insulated for prolonged cold. Road crews do not invest in tons of salt they may never use. Drivers who have never experienced icy or snow-covered roads don’t know how to drive in it.

My Beloved and I holed up in our condo for that week. Fortunately, we had an abundance of groceries, and my quick-thinking husband had the presence of mind to fill the bathtub when we still had running water.

We endured intermittent power outages for four days and no running water for six. Wearing two spring jackets and socks for mittens, I ventured out to check the mail once only to discover that snow and gloom of night was preventing these couriers from their appointed rounds, too.

I flinched every time the power went out, worrying about whether the coffee maker had finished its work, and my greasy, unwashed hair was horrifying. The dirty dishes in the sink haunted me a little, but I reminded myself I was a tough Minnesota native. Who needs first-world luxuries?! I was proud of how I was surviving a Texas winter storm disaster!

But as I was vacuuming the morning we hoped to get water—doing whatever cleaning I could in anticipation of getting water to do more cleaning—I started weeping when I took a break to look at memes on Facebook and listen to Fun’s “Some Nights.”

Why would a 2012 pop song make me cry?

Well, “Some Nights” is about existential angst, so there’s that, but it was a matter of timing, not import. When I heard the song, I felt like I was on a ledge with nothing to hold on to. I was stressed out—about simple things, I fully admit, like laundry and no TV—and I had been denying my stress for days. “I’m tough, I’m OK, it could be worse.”

The tears were cathartic.

A few hours later, my Beloved and I had a big, stupid fight about who would shower first. Not that we each wanted to go first, but we fought to let the other one go first. How dumb. For me, the yelling was, again, further evidence that we hadn’t been processing what we were feeling.

Disaster requires coping. Denial is a powerful coping mechanism, and it’s the go-to tool in my self-protection toolbox.

Unfortunately for the hummingbirds and cedar trees and cacti, denying the truth of the cold weather didn’t save them.

Though the mountains may crumble (and my greasy hair may hang limp), a greater presence remained through it all offering gifts of peace and love.

And I was reminded, sometimes I am the mountain.