Monday, April 27, 2020

Life on the Lock Down

What it is like to be locked down? This not my first rodeo because in my youth lockdowns were more common.  I was quarantined when I had chicken pox and the mumps and the measles. None of those were controllable by vaccines in those days. Then there was scarlet fever. I had that and was in the house for six whole weeks. And neither can I forget those days in the fifties when noone knew where polio was coming from or how to stop it other than massive closing of places that attracted crowds like swimming pools and the Wisconsin State Fair. None of those quarantines really impacted the adults in my family. My dad continued going to work and my mother was a stay at home housewife at those times.

What I do remember of those days was that I didn't quite understand what was going on other than lots of kids were getting sick though most of us did survive. Yet with polio it was not quite that easy. Some people, children and even adults, were paralyzed  for life or died. One clear memory is that our family doctor was a woman and she contracted and died of polio. My mother must have known her quite well because she was heart broken as well as scared.

The many other short term disruptions of my life were often painful at the time but never did impact us in any way like the current Covid pandemic. I remember the record snow of 1947 in Milwaukee as more of an adventure. We crawled out of our houses and clambered around for a few days on the huge drifts and waited for the plows to free the #79  bus that had stalled on our street not too far from the house. I also remember the gas strike when we were living in London in the 1970's, That  created some weeks of difficult cooking issues, but our flat had electric heaters so we did not suffer too much from the chill.  Another London memory was the Chernobyl disaster in the 80's when I was running the ACM London program for the second time. That created a lot of fear and anxiety from parents of the students in the program as the media reported apparent clouds of nuclear waste headed across the north pole and down toward Scotland.  I suspect Monmouth College authorities were receiving the same kind of worrisome phone calls in the last few months  as I received in my office in London during that crisis.  One father, I remember clearly, ordered his daughter to return home immediately and I had to accompany her on the tube out to Heathrow to put her on an airplane and then call the distraught parent when that had been accomplished.  She sobbed all the way to the gate.

This one is of course different and far more long term.  We have been holed up in our little two bedroom apartment in Tucson for well over a month now. We see few people on our daily walks around our small gated community and have our groceries delivered by an outfit called insta-cart.  We pick up prescriptions at the Walgreens Drive Thru.  As members of the elder class we are more than conscious of the fact that if we contract this virus it could be more than a nasty came of the flu. 

So we shall continue our social distancing and wear our masks when we do go out and once again wait for better days. 

Saturday, April 25, 2020

What We're Seeing from our Condo

Looking out our living room window is always a pleasure.
Sitting on our little patio is even more pleasant because you can both watch and hear the remarkable variety of birds. 
The most comment birds are quail and mourning doves. The doves seem to make a lot of noise all day from sunup to sundown.
The quail have calls too, but are not as loud as the doves. The lady next door has a small birdbath and puts out feed each morning so we have pretty much a continuous parade of quail all day long. Generally they come in pairs from out of the wash behind our unit though the one below was alone.
Goldfinches are quite common too.

                                              Or the ubiquitous sparrows.  We think this is a white crowned one.


This a black crowned one.  

The cardinals are the great loud songsters but so flighty they are hard to catch.  Here's Mrs. Cardinal.

And here is Mr. Cardinal in a shot that I think may be the best one I've taken this year.  

A mini-second later he took off and I was able to snap this one.

For nervous activity the cardinals are certainly exceeded by the hummingbirds who seem never to rest. I have a number of hummingbird pictures taken in confined areas like the Tucson Botanical Garden, but this is the best I could do from our patio this year.


Last week we did catch sight of a lovely little quail family marching up toward our neighbor's bird bath.


The chicks were treated to a drink and seemed to enjoy being around the water. We have seen them a time or two since I took these shots, but I have not been quick enough to get them again.  They seem to be growing fast.

We also see some hawks on occasion cruising over the wash. They are pretty much in the distance and my long lens is not really big enough to catch them any larger than a speck.

We'll close with some nice tinted clouds from last week.   So much for birds caught from our patio.


Wednesday, April 22, 2020


Made in America  by Bill Bryson is a bit behind the curve of the events of the last twenty five years as it was originally published in 1994, but it is has enough pleasant moments to make it worth a look.  It is also hard to figure out whether he was more interested in  linguistics or the fascinating ways Americans managed economic and personal change over the first two hundred years of the Republic.
What saves the day is Bryson’s breezy style and cleverness with stories even if some of them go on a bit too long and make the book more of a slog than a lot of his other efforts.  Each chapter also contains so many examples that I soon began to feel overwhelmed rather than elucidated. This maybe why I now find that I don’t remember many of them either.

What do I remember?  It was nice to learn that the typewriter was invented in Milwaukee (my home town) and that a lot of inventors really didn’t invent the thing they are famous for.  The stories about the rise of the media, chain stores, food, cars, and commercial advertising went down easily but soon merged into a kind of blur. Maybe I should have taken notes. The item I remember most is that Ray Kroc didn’t really invent the McDonald’s hamburger. He bought it and then became the most successful franchiser in the world.  
I did perk up in the final chapter when Bryson made his case that the American experiment and the American way of life had been primarily fueled by the drive and talents of immigrants. The irony just plain exploded here because finishing this chapter (and the book)  coincided with our dear dummy of a president deciding that for the good of the country we needed to halt all immigration.  

In sum still a good read that might have gone better if pruned.  Sorry for the mixed metaphor. 


Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Book Review Dread Journey by Dorothy Hughes

Dread Journey by Dorothy Hughes

This is a detective throwaway I picked up just before the Pima County libraries closed down.  It is a reprint of a novel published just after the end of WW II and does seem to ride the coattails of Agatha Christie's  Murder on the Orient Express.

In this one a cadre of Hollywood folks board the Super Chief in California for a ride to the Big Apple. We have a big name producer, a big name star, a couple of writers, a band leader, and the porter.  There is lots of angst from all as they seque from the club car, to the dining car, to their compartments.  Lots of smoking and alcohol flows like water. Finally the murder and the surprise ending just before the train arrives in Chicago. The style seems pretty strained to me and the portents of dread a bit over the top.

Shows its age.  Not recommended.

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

To Ruin a Queen Book Review

Elizabethan mysteries hold a pleasant place in my heart  and this one is no exception. Ursula Blanchard is an adventuresome young woman in the service of Queen Elizabeth I and Sir William Cecil. She is generally assigned to do undercover work when there is suspicion that someone or some group is threatening the sovereign's rule.  

In this episode of the series she is manipulated into coming back from her home in France to retrieve her young daughter Meg and take her back to France. Once in England, however,  she is convinced to take an assignment to find out whether a Welch Lord, Sir Robert Mortimer, is plotting against the Queen.  It turns out there is more than one unsavory plot going on in Mortimer's Vetch Castle and Ursula and her companions find themselves ensnared in most of them.   We have musical ghosts, accusations of witchcraft,  a nasty murder, dark abandoned towers, and dangerous goings on high in the Welch mountains to keep things moving along.  The main problem I see is the plot has many threads and takes an awfully long time to resolve. I give it a 3 1/2 out of 5. 

Sunday, April 12, 2020

Book review Ellis Peters The Devil's Novice

Peters, Ellis The Devil’s Novice (The Chronicles of Brother Cadfael)  Again a Kindle read so no cover picture.
With the medieval mysteries of Ellis Peters featuring Brother Cadfael we return from the ridiculousness of Howard of Warrick and Brother Hermintage to, if not the sublime, at least the more straight forward vicissitudes of the medieval world.  Cadfael is a Benedictine monk who resides at Shrewsbury Abbey, in western England, in the first half of the 12th century. The stories are set in the 1130’s and 1140’s during  the reign of King Stephen.

What I like about Brother Cadfael is that he is a true and empathetic human being. Peters gives him a  compelling life background that sees him in middle age  committing to the rigors of monastic life. With his sincere piety and worldly experience he manages to be liked and respected by everyone he contacts no matter if they are within or without the abbey.  His work within the community is to raise and prepare the herbs and elixirs that are used to treat the ills of the brothers and the townspeople.  Symbolically this makes him a healer of bodies and souls and seems to also tie in with his function as investigator of criminal behavior. Since he is portrayed as a thorough and intelligent man, it is no surprise that he  works his way through difficulties in a logical manner. I have now read a number of books in the series and they all offer real clues, lots of suspects, twists and turns, and finally solutions. Philosophically they also seem always to return to the comforting world of the contemplative life after the crisis has been dealt with.  

An additional pleasure in the novels is that they offer realistic pictures of medieval life.  The geography is accurate and there is a clear love expressed for the natural world. Peter’s prose pays sensitive homage to the birds, the animals, the  forests, the weather, the time of day, and passing of the seasons. She also gives us the details of garments worn,  meals eaten, and customs kept.  It is easy to see why the series was chosen some years ago to be televised. The characters are interesting, the plots engaging, and the settings lush and colorful.   

In The Devil’s Novice Cadfael’s abbey accepts a young man who seems strangely troubled and not totally amenable to the rigors of monastic life. When a traveling priest visits the new recruit’s family home and then disappears, Cadfael and his fellow monks begin to see some possible connections between the young man’s strange behavior and the disappearance. The priest is later found murdered and it becomes even clearer that the young recruit knows more than he is letting on.  Resolving the murder and dealing with this “devil’s novice” takes us right through to the end of the book.  If you try one of the Brother Cadfael novels I am convinced you will want to read more of them.

Friday, April 10, 2020

From the Sublime to the Ridiculous

The Case of the Clerical Cadaver  On kindle and sorry but no cover photo

Do you need a little bit of downright silliness to take your mind off of the Corona world? I have just the therapeutic cure for you.  Try any one of Howard of Warrick's series about the Chronicles of Brother Hermitage who wanders around  medieval  England solving mysteries and crimes for the King. The Brother has a couple of sidekicks. One is a weaver who has made a bundle peddling pornographic tapestries and the other is an apprentice weaver who turns out to be a girl with a very 21st century set of attitudes and a sassy mouth. 

In this caper the trio is requested to look into the murder of a monk who has been impaled on a sun dial in the courtyard of a mysterious monastery.  There are secrets inside of secrets to unravel and plenty of hidden passages to explore.  Everything is enveloped in dialogue that is funny, acerbic,  and let's face it corny.  You will be forgiven if you actually laugh out loud.  There is a kind of Laurel and Hardy looniness about everything from the characters to the plots.

Wednesday, April 01, 2020

Book Review The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

Atwood, Margaret The Testaments

I did not see the TV adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and do not recall ever reading the original book. But I was intrigued enough by the success of the television show to pick up a copy of the the first novel and read it.  I found it a bit opaque and not all that powerful. Perhaps because it left a lot of questions unanswered.

Now, some thirty years later, comes the continuation that does answer a number of the questions left hanging in the first book. So if you haven’t read the original book in a while or have not seen the TV series, I might recommend a little brush up before tackling The Testaments.

I found the book compelling. There is intrigue, suspense, violence, a bit of humor at the absurdity of some of the rules and regulations enacted by the Gileadian rulers, and plenty of real action—especially in the final chapters. The villains are not always one dimensional and the heroines are also deeply conflicted and fascinating.

The narrative jumps around a bit in both time and place and takes some getting used to.  What is revealed to us in pieces are the stories of three main individuals one of whom has written a diary and two other women who have recorded their stories at some point after the fact. First there is the diarist--Aunt Lydia, a high official in the Gilead hierarchy, and then there are the two women (Daisey/Nicole and Agnes/Victoria who discover they are half sisters.  They all have other names too and it is one of the things that works to keep women from having any kind of identity in the society.

It is easy today to attach a lot of the plot to the world of Trumpism. Although Gilead seems to have originated as some kind of religiously conservative democracy it has developed into more of a cult than a democracy. Women remain for the most part uneducated, subservient, and valued primarily as sexual slaves.  Meanwhile the country carries on perpetual wars and is manipulated by a group of male Commanders who lie, cheat, and murder at will while claiming they are doing God’s work.  The only positive side of this coin is that autocratic nationalistic systems don’t last forever. When they falter it is often from within rather than without. Interior rot ultimately cracks the shell and revolution can then manage to make some headway. To continue the Trumpian analogy a lot of us were depending on the so called “adults in the room” to keep Trump in check.  But as several other recent books have said, the adults have been purged and we have been left with a group of often incompetent sycophants surrounding an incompetent and narcissist ruler  who brooks no criticism.  

I must also admit that with the encroaching pandemic spooking a lot of voters, a wished for course correction in November’s election is far from a certainty. 

Read it.