Monday, August 31, 2009

Book Review: In the Heart of the Sea, by Nathaniel Philbrick

In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex
I'm already wondering how I'm going to explain myself in my yearly book review post (2007, 2008). It's only the end of August and I've already read three books that involve, to varying degrees, well, cannibalism. Two of them were different books about the same event (Miracle in the Andes and Alive; both tell the story of the Uruguayan rugby team that was stranded in the Andes for more than two months).

The third is In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex, by Nathaniel Philbrick.

The first thing you should know about this book is that it is the story of an early 19th-century whaling ship that was destroyed by a massive, vicious sperm whale in the middle of the ocean. The ship broke in two and sunk in a matter of minutes, leaving the 21 members of the crew scrabbling for a place in one of three small, ramshackle whaleboats.

You'd think those events, by themselves, would make a pretty good story and an interesting enough book. But the second thing you should know about this book is that that's not even the best part. The sinking of the whaleship Essex by a deranged sea creature is just the beginning of what In the Heart of the Sea is about.

Because the crew survived the initial sinking of their ship, and found themselves adrift in the middle of a vast, hostile ocean. Then the real fun begins. Should they rig up some sails? Yes, but where should they seek refuge? That's where things start to fall apart. There are some islands near enough, true, but they are inhabited by cannibals, or so popular knowledge of the time went. There's the familiar western coast of South America, but it is thousands of miles away and inconvenient to the prevailing winds the sailors must rely on. The food and water supplies they have will only last so long. What to do?

As with most books of this kind, the less you know about the particulars of the story going into reading it, the better. So I'll just say this: having to resort to cannibalism is bad enough, but you know what's worse? Drawing lots to see who has to die so that others can live. And you know what's worse than that? Drawing more lots to see who has to kill that person so that others can live. Yeah.

In the Heart of the Sea is tight, compelling, and doesn't put you off, even with its unsavory subject matter - and I'm not just talking about the cannibalism. The nineteenth-century whaling business was dirty, yucky stuff, even without being shipwrecked. I loved how the author was able to flesh out the sparser areas of the story (mostly due to spotty sources) using details and records from earlier voyages of the same boat, or concurrent voyages of different boats. He also delves into the science of starvation and survival, explaining the body's defenses and in what order they are broken down, one by one, when you're stranded in a tiny whaleboat open to the elements in the middle of the ocean for months at a time.

I recommend reading this book away from the comforts of home for an extra measure of intensity. I read the bulk of it by flashlight while we were camping in the woods off Lake Seneca, huddled in my sleeping bag. It gave me the shivers, it was such good reading. And that's how you know it's a book worth reading.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Flashback Friday: Flashback Friday

No, the title is not a typo. It was on this day one year ago that I instituted Flashback Friday on My Adventures in Tucson (later Ithaca). At the time, I said I wasn't sure that I would be able to post a story every Friday, but I went back and checked and it turns out I had a story for every single week. I never missed a Friday. Some stories were better than others - either inherently by their subject matter, or in the way I wrote them - but each week, something from my past was featured here as its own special post.
So today, for Flashback Friday, I'd like to take a look back at all the Flashback Fridays of the past. Here they are, in all their glory, separated by category (but not in any particular order otherwise).

Childhood

Fartsy Barbie
Shut the Door!
The Giant Soccer Ball
In Which I Model for Nike
Happy New Year!
Three Coincidences
You're Fired! (almost)
My First Makeup Memory
Shoeless Bridget Walker
Learning to Write
Sent to the Principal's Office
College
When Bridget Met Jeremy (4-part saga, with bonus Das Ist Nicht OK video installation)

The Middle East
Russia

Japan

In honor of the anniversary of Flashback Friday, I would love to hear your favorite(s). As for myself, I have to say, I had such a great time telling the story of how Jeremy and I met, especially over multiple installments, including as much of the real-life suspense as possible. Taking the time to write that story - and all the others - was a great excuse for a long, pleasant trip down memory lane. Thanks for walking it with me.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Fortunately, unfortunately

Fortunately, yesterday morning was storytime at the Ithaca Children's Garden, and the girls and I were all set to go, on time.

Unfortunately, we got outside and saw that the car had a flat tire.

Fortunately, Jeremy hadn't left for school/work/campus (I still don't know what to call it), and he was able to put on the spare tire so we could drive to get it fixed.

Unfortunately, doing this caused him to miss his bus.

Fortunately, we were able to give him a ride.

Unfortunately, we missed storytime.

Fortunately, we went to the Children's Garden anyway and played in the dirt and on the giant turtle.

Unfortunately, this meant that by the time I got to Sears to see about getting the tire fixed, the girls were tired, hungry, and exhausted.

Fortunately, the Sears people said they could fix it right then.

Unfortunately, while I was negotiating with the Sears people, Magdalena destroyed the pricing display in front of the tire section.

Fortunately, they said it was no problem, and the girls and I settled in to eat a sandwich while we waited.

Hanging out in the Sears Auto Center waiting room, reading some Vogue.

Unfortunately, an hour later when we had long finished lunch, they still weren't done with the car. Magdalena was going crazy and wreaking havoc wherever she could.

Fortunately, the news about the status of the tire, when it finally came, was good: there was no leak that they could find, so I wouldn't have to pay anything to have it fixed. They had just filled it back up with air and put it back on the car.

And here comes the big Unfortunately: According to them, this means that the cause of our flat tire was most likely someone letting the air out of the tire, on purpose. Every time I think of the studied, mean destruction involved in a person walking up to a tire (in a car with two carseats in it! Will no one think of the children?!?), removing the cap, pressing down on the needle to release the air, holding down the needle until all the air in the tire is gone, and then replacing the cap - well, my head just about explodes.

Doesn't yours?

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Six reasons why I love GEICO

1. It's like GEICO was made for me. They prefer to transact all of our car insurance business via email instead of over the phone. I just love that a company is willing to write emails back and forth with me like I'm a real person, at my convenience, instead of keeping me on hold for 30 minutes at their convenience.

2. Speaking of real people, GEICO employs them. When a GEICO person responds to my emails, they write things that real people write. Their greetings are always a little over-exuberant so that might be a script, but otherwise, I can tell that they have actually read my email, considered what it had to say, and composed a thoughtful, relevant reply. This is not always the case when dealing with companies over the internet. These days, more often than not, it seems like customer service reps scan your email for a few key words and then copy and paste a stock reply that is usually completely unhelpful. Not so with GEICO.

3. With our living-in-Tucson-but-fleeing-to-the-Middle-East-every-summer gig, we didn't have the most "normal" auto insurance usage pattern around. But GEICO always was willing to work with us to make sure we were never paying for insurance we weren't using. This meant sending us refund checks every year and starting up and pausing the policy at weird intervals. They never batted an eye.

4. During the aforementioned temporary moves, GEICO held us by the hand and told us exactly what we needed to do to make sure that Arizona didn't invalidate our car registration in the meantime. I just loved that.

5. When we were at the DMV last week getting our car registered in New York, we realized that the proof of insurance card we had did not list my name. We got up to the window and the DMV employee told us that GEICO would have to fax a corrected one over for us to be able to complete our business. I'll admit that despite all my positive experiences with GEICO, I was not confident that we would be walking out of the DMV with our registration any time soon, let alone that same day. Still, I called GEICO right there and then. To my surprise, not only was my call answered promptly by a real live person, but the lady was super helpful and faxed over the required information immediately. It was in the DMV not five minutes later. Who are these people?!?

6. For my last item, let me share an example of how GEICO deals with their customers. When we moved, we had to transfer our car insurance policy from Arizona to New York. GEICO emailed me asking for a few pieces of information needed to update the policy, such as new coverage levels and also the average number of miles we drove annually.

I am not exaggerating when I say that my actual responses to them on those two points were: first, can you just kind of jimmy the numbers so that the coverage level is comparable to our Arizona policy, but adheres to New York's guidelines? And second, I am too lazy to walk down two flights of stairs and a hill to my car to get the mileage records out of the glove box. Can you look up what I told you last year and just plug in the same number?

To this totally lazy, totally casual response, they said "sure, no problem."

And that is why I love GEICO.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Stuff I haven't gotten used to yet in Ithaca

Asians. Lots of them. I had honestly forgotten there were minorities other than Mexicans (and I'm not sure that Mexicans WERE a minority in Tucson).

New York License Plates. Even though our own car has one now. I keep seeing them around town and thinking, "cool, a car from New York! How exci--oh wait, yeah."

Mosquitoes. All that cool, damp greenery comes with a price.

Yards Without Fences. Heck, how about just yards? I love the no-fence thing - it is so easy on the eyes. Just wide expanses of impeccably mowed grass stretching from one house to another. Mmmmm, summery.

Gardens. The land here is able to sustain life.

Twisty-Turney Streets. We've been here almost a month and I am still all turned around any time I go out. In Tucson, the streets are laid out in a rough square-based grid, though the street names tend to change every few miles. Here, the roads wind around the hills, cross one-lane bridges and I don't know what else. I wonder how long it will take me to be able to get around town without Nigel the GPS.

Weird Grocery Stores. It's never taken me this long to determine my grocery store loyalty before. We've got a Wegman's, an Aldi, a Topps, and a P&C. Wegman's is brilliant and classy and has the most reliably cheap prices on things like milk and bananas. But other items tend to be pricey. Aldi is a mystery to me and I have yet to go inside, but its external appearance somehow brings to mind both Atari and also Soviet Russia (and "Aldi" means "s/he bought" in Turkish. WEIRD). Topps disgusts me on many levels but they have a discount gas station. I went to the P&C for the first time yesterday and it's like they want to be Macey's but they don't care enough to do the job right.

Something in common with all the grocery stores out here is that they don't get as excited about sales as the stores out west do. And that makes me sad. I know sales can be a gimmick to get us to buy things that are still not necessarily a good price, but I always appreciated a juicy loss leader. In Ithaca, it seems to me that each store has just shrugged its shoulders and said, "meh, you won't find it more than ten cents cheaper anywhere else, so just give up already." I hope to solve this mystery soon. Maybe sales just work differently here.

I think that's about all the things that are shocking me at this point in time. I'll keep you posted on any further developments.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Why so bored in Palmyra?

For those of you unfamiliar with Mormon history, let me share with you a few basics.

Outside of Utah, there are three places we consider Big Ones. They are Palmyra (New York), Kirtland (Ohio), and Nauvoo (Illinois). Important things happened elsewhere but the historic events of the early church were concentrated in these places.

One of the perks of moving to Upstate New York as a Mormon is all of a sudden living about 90 minutes away from Palmyra. As far as the three Big Ones go, Palmyra is relatively low on the sheer number of sites to see. There's not much there - not as much as there is in Kirtland or certainly Nauvoo - but what there is, is historically huge. You've got the Smith farm and frame house where Joseph Smith spent his formative years. Then there's the Sacred Grove where he had the First Vision. Besides that, there's the Hill Cumorah (where the record later translated into the Book of Mormon was buried), the press shop where the first Book of Mormon was published, and lesser peripherals like the Martin Harris farm and the graveyard where Alvin Smith is buried. Thirty minutes away is the Whitmer farm where the Church was organized in 1830.

We spent Saturday in Palmyra visiting the historic sites and one thing that has changed since I visited there 11 years ago is that the church runs a tighter ship now. You can't just hop out of the car and explore the sites for yourself as I remember doing when I was a teenager. At all the sites we visited, we were funnelled through a Visitors Center and usually given a tour by a missionary or two.

Here we are in front of the Whitmer cabin, where according to most sources, the first meeting of the church took place on April 6, 1830. Don't you think that's neat, or can you at least understand how it would be neat to visit such a place for a believing Mormon? Too bad, then, that the overwhelming impression we got from the sister missionaries who gave us a tour there was: "WE ARE BORED."

Don't get me wrong - they went through all the motions, showed us all the right places and said all the right things. But there was something missing. I think it was, oh I don't know, any shred of enthusiasm for the absolutely fantastic events that took place at this very spot some 180 years ago. They stood in front of us and with calm eyes and soft voices told us about how the room had 40-50 people in it, and these were the names of the people on the church's charter document, and here was where some of the translation of the Book of Mormon took place, blah blah blah.

Meanwhile, I couldn't help but think: Lucy Mack and Joseph Smith, Sr. were in this room?!? and the church we know today started right here?!? and the work of translation went on right upstairs?!? If considering the fact that a young, unlearned day laborer farm boy wrested a religion - part culture, part revelation, part revival, a religion that has since become the largest home-grown American faith - from the rough farmland of upstate New York with his own bare hands does not excite you, as a Mormon, well, what does?

Anyway, as we drove away, I realized that being a site missionary (a missionary assigned not to knocking doors but giving tours at Mormon historical sites) must be a tough job, especially in a place as remote as Waterloo, NY, where the Whitmer farm is. There is nothing for miles and miles around except Amish farms and I can imagine the isolation and daily repetition could numb your mind a little. I hope for their sakes that they get rotated out to the more vibrant sites like the Hill Cumorah every once in a while.

Speaking of which, here is the Hill Cumorah. This place runs an outdoor play every year that is apparently America's largest. Has anyone ever been? Should we make an effort to go now that we live so close?

This is the Palmyra Temple, adjacent to the Smith farm. My Mormon heart almost weeps to think of the poor Smiths looking down today and seeing a beautiful temple built close to the land they worked so hard to improve but ultimately lost and left.


This is the original soapstone sink from when the house belonged to the Smiths. The elderly man who was our guide at the Joseph Smith sites in Palmyra was considerably more enthused about his duties than the ladies at the Whitmer farm. It's interesting, because he largely left his stated testimony of the Gospel of Jesus Christ out of the tour. And yet, through his happiness and enthusiasm for the service he was doing, I could tell that it was there, going strong. Even when he was telling us rambunctious stories like how a woman with a seer stone showed up at the Smiths' cooper shop late one night in 1827 and had some men tear it apart, looking for the "Gold Bible." All they found was an empty box buried beneath the floorboards (Joseph Smith had moved it beforehand).

See what I mean? Fascinating stuff. Don't let anyone convince you otherwise.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Flashback Friday: Das Ist Nicht OK

Remember when Bridget met Jeremy?

Here is the video that started it all (a loose script in English follows below).



Das Ist Nicht OK = That Is Not OK.
[The setting here is supposed to be a jail.]
-I haven't asked for much. When someone is married, they should be good. It began on a cold day in December.

-I'll be home tonight. Will you call me? Yeah, OK. I love you, bye.
-Who was that?
-My boss, why?
-What does she want?
-She wants to ask me about work.
-[indistinguishable]
-I'm tired. I'm going to bed.

-I drank too much coffee yesterday [this is an inside class joke - a stock phrase from the textbook, I think].
-[singing a German folk song we learned in class about a fox, a goose, and a hunter]

-Is this place free?
-Yeah, have a seat!
-Thanks! Hello Helga, how are you?
-Good! What have you done today?
-I have done so much.
-Tell me about it!
-OK, I met my boyfriend. He is married, but his wife doesn't know me.
-That is simply cool.

-[thinking] Who is knocking at my door?...Who are you? I don't know you.
-Do you work here? Is Jeff here?
-[aside] She is Jeff's girlfriend. Come in! Please.
-[singing & a class inside joke involving the accusative case]

-[German rhyme for learning the numbers]
-She's over there!
-[COPS "Bad Boys" theme in German - yes, really]
-[the witch theme from The Wizard of Oz - I think this was ad-libbed]

-I will take her out! Stop! Stop!

-[Back in prison] My mother told me, "In a marriage, always tell the truth." That is important, but first...you must change the toilet paper! Change the toilet paper! That is not OK, to not change the toilet paper.

The point being that I killed my husband not for his greater crimes but for not changing the toilet paper roll in the bathroom. Ha ha.

My thoughts on watching it again:
-I'm not sure what it was about me that Jeremy fell for. In fact, I'm more horrified than I remember at the level of embarrassment going on here.
-Also horrifying: the quality of the German in this video. In our defense, we were only at the 101 level, and our teacher set us loose for this project and didn't do any correcting or editing of our scripts. So it is pure, unmitigated amateurism.
-This was how ghetto homemade movies looked before the days of Final Cut, etc. It was like cut-and-paste with VHS.
-I loved my classmates in this video and I am sad that I am no longer in contact with any of them.
-Why did they make me be the murderess when the best actress in the group was obviously Anna (I'm sure you realize which one I'm talking about)? My memory is fuzzy on the details of how I was coerced into taking that role.

I hope you enjoyed this look at the video that mortified me in front of Jeremy but also set in motion the events that would make me his wife.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Disappointed

Would you mind if I complained about something really quick? Kat wanted me to hate something about Ithaca. I think hate is way too strong a word for this, but get ready for some strong feelings of annoyance:

The library here is only so-so.

I was very spoiled in Tucson (and Provo). Tucson/Pima County's libraries worked like multiple branches of the same tree. I could log on to the system, request a book, tell it which library to go to, and then waltz in at my convenience to pick it up. There were a few times when the library didn't have a book I wanted, so I got into the habit of submitting book requests for those times. And guess what? More often than not, they bought the book I wanted, and then told me they had done so, and then automatically put it on hold for me. Yes, it's true.

Let me tell you how it works in Ithaca, at least so far as I can figure out (and I would just love to find out that I'm misinformed on any of these points).

There are multiple branches of Tompkins County libraries, but only kind of, because they're not all in Tompkins County. But the system still searches all those far-away libraries and returns results for them in their online catalog.

If you want to check out a book that the Ithaca library doesn't have (and chances are it doesn't have it, or if it does have it, it only has one copy), you can place a hold on it, and they will ship it in from the far away library. But as I found out the other day (you know, when I almost got a ticket), this service costs 50 cents per book.

When the librarian told me that picking up my library book from the hold desk would cost me 50 cents, I was taken aback. So I asked her what my alternative was. She said, "Alternative for what?" I said, "Alternative for getting a book I want that is not currently on the shelf in the Ithaca branch of the library." And do you know what she told me, after a moment of thought? "Well, I guess you could just check on its status online and wait for it to come in." "Magically of its own accord, with me using all my hours and hours of free time to sit in front of my computer screen and hit 'refresh'" was implied.

This made me sad. I thrive on a good library and I wither away without one.

Fortunately, we have access to Cornell''s library, and we can even get books shipped from other cooperative libraries (for free) straight to Jeremy's office. So I hope he has fun explaining to his colleagues why he is suddenly receiving books like Catching Fire (sequel to The Hunger Games, could not BE more excited)!

So there you have it. That's my damage. I'm disappointed in the library. Ithaca is not perfect. Are you happy now?

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Words pronounced incorrectly by Nigel the GPS

These make me smile every time I hear them.

Seneca: Should be SE-ne-ka. Nigel says: suh-NEE-ka.

Salem: Should be SAY-lem. Nigel says: SAL-em, with A as in Apple. This one we really like and I think we'll say it this way even though it's wrong, kind of like how we never got around to pronouncing Euclid or Alvernon in Tucson correctly (to the bitter end, we said "Oy-klid" and "Al-VER-non").

Cayuga: Should be ka-YOO-ga. Nigel says: KAY-u-ga.

Triphammer: Should be TRIP-hammer. Nigel says: TRIFF-ammer.

Cascadilla: Should be kas-kuh-DEE-ya. Nigel says: kas-kuh-DILL-uh. It reminds me of Napoleon Dynamite every time.

Tioga: Should be tee-OH-ga. It took us a while to figure out why Nigel says: SHA-ga. Can you figure it out?

Here's a bonus one from our time in Utah: St. George. Nigel says: Street George. Nice.

My only fear is that I'll start reproducing these odd pronunciations in my speech and really embarrass myself in front of some Ithaca old-timers.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

On not getting pulled over in Ithaca


I have never been pulled over by the police while driving, not once, not ever. And that is still true, technically, even after yesterday.

We spent the morning at Ithaca's astonishingly efficient DMV getting our drivers' licenses and car registration figured out. Did you know that in New York, they take multiple drivers' license photos and let you choose which one you want? And if you don't like any of them, you can have them take some more and choose from those? I know, it's like Glamour Shots, right there in the DMV!

Anyway, we thought we had to turn in our Arizona plate (Arizona only requires one, on the rear of the car, which always made me feel like a renegade driver) so Jeremy spent a good 30 minutes wrenching it off the car. Then the Ithaca DMV told us they didn't need it, which was too bad because not only had he mangled the plate, he stripped the screws used to attach it to the car.

So we drove away from the DMV with our New York plates inside the car, not attached on the front and rear as they should have been. I figured it wasn't a big deal and we'd get some screws later in the day.

But that wasn't good enough for the Ithaca police. I pulled into a curbside spot in front of the library downtown later that afternoon to pick up a book while Jeremy and the girls stayed in the car. When I came out, there was a cop by the car who wanted to talk to me. He said it was a ticketable offense to drive around, at all, without plates. Of course I explained that we'd only had the plates for literally a couple of hours and we would put them on at our first opportunity. He told me that basically, that first opportunity needed to be NOW.

Just before I got back in the car, he told me my parking job sucked. His exact words were that cars need to be no farther than 12 inches from the curb, but his real message was clear. And he was right. I had pulled alongside the curb, to the left, on a one-way street, which is not a skill you get to practice that often, so our unlicensed car was crooked and sticking out into the lane of traffic just a little.

Fortunately, before he had the satisfaction of seeing me cry at being called a bad driver, the police officer's attention was distracted by someone driving the wrong direction down a one-way street.

Kudos to the Ithaca police for being so attentive and upstanding. I really am impressed not only that he took the time to tell me how to get on the right side of the law, but that he took my word in good faith and didn't give me a ticket.

Discussion question: My sister drove around Utah and Idaho recently for a few months with no license plates on her car without anyone ever bothering her about it. I didn't even make it two hours in Ithaca. What is the deal with that?

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