Monday, August 31, 2009

Depends on which five minutes.

This is my contribution to TFE's monday global poetry zeitgeist experience
Wherein, at 19:00 on Monday we're supposed to write a poem and post it by 19:05. I like it. I like having to write a poem in exactly those five minutes right there. Only, I did it a little teeny half hour early.
here we go:

This very last five minutes I’ll tell you
cause i’ve been stuck in the grammar mines and there’s dirt all over me and bits of wrong phrases in my hair and bad conjugations smeared across my cheeks.
And I really truly hate the grammar mines I am ready to throw this book chapter into the screaming scorching fire

five minutes four hours ago i’d have told you
gee, i’m really sorry, i should have noticed that before
and i would have had shoulders slumped and eyes looking down at the table

five minutes a day ago and i’d have exclaimed
!!! what a glorious day
sky full of sunshine and parasailers
garden full of cats -!!a new mouser!!
Jam cooking on the stove

Five minutes in an hour i’ll be sighing
Life is nice
Kicked back in the armchair, cold glass of kir, a good book

Saturday, August 29, 2009

I can't believe I'm not even halfway through

arrrrrrr. still in the grammar mines. working my way slowly toward the midpoint.
I'm going to let off some steam here, just to stay sane.
this is a textbook chapter where we have something to say, supported by the data in the medical literature.
But. Question of style. My colleague writes Smith et al did a study, gives a sentence about the study design, gives a sentence covering the major results. Goes to the next paper, same thing. Some sections are more of an annotated bibliography than a synthesis with something global to say. It takes some rearranging, but I can smooth that out. Conjugating verbs and choosing prepositions is the easy part.
And then, what keeps me flipping over to facebook or Free Cell or Blogspot instead of staying the course, there's the bias. My friend is an enthousiast. He wants hypnosis to work. He thinks it does work; it just hasn't been studied well enough to prove it. Usually, he's a good enough author to keep most of his personal perspective out of it, and just tell us what's known, what worked, what didn't, where the grey zones are. But not always. And since I don't share his belief but am rather waiting to be convinced by the evidence, this drives me nuts.
to wit:
'Somehow, a recent study of Classen et al (2008) attempting to determine ..... ' found no effect.
Alright, using 'somehow', which conjures an image of shaking one's head and wondering how on earth they came up with this, it must surely be wrong, might just be a language thing.
A little further on, there's a study that found a small and not statistically significant decrease in measures of depression in patients undergoing therapy using hypnosis. It was a 5 to 8% difference, and only one study, but the next sentence waves that aside and hails the therapy as a 'strong alternative to conventional psychotherapy'. Let's slide a may be in there, and cut the strong.
I will get through it, and we will meet in the middle and get a good, balanced, chapter out of it. But it's slow going, frustrating, and I'm very, very glad this is not my real job.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Friday Photo Shoot Out: Incongruous

I had some trouble with today's Shoot Out. I dutifully identified my favorite local incongruity, went over there and photographed it in many different ways (and it was a perfect day for parasailing - I had some great shots of the brightly colored sails just below me in the air, or swarming above), picked some blueberries, hiked all the way home, and discovered this morning that the memory card wasn't in the camera.
Too late! But never mind. I'll just make you suffer through archival material.

This is not strictly speaking in my town, but you can see it from there. And you can go hiking up there, and biking and horseback riding among the green fields and hills.

It's a wonderful area for enjoying nature, a patchwork of open meadows and paths tunneling through the dense hazel and oak woods.

One moment you can't see the forest for the trees, the next you're out squinting in the hard sun, overlooking a volcano.

Then it's back under the canopy.

Sometimes there are odd things in there, but happily there is not much trash. People are fairly respectful, and there isn't much littering except for toilet paper and random farming & ranching relics.

This is the exploding tree. It's like a firework of wood. Sorry about the darkness, but it's a hardier Sunday hiker than me that drags their tripod everywhere. Gotta get one of those monopod-walking stick ones.

Then suddenly again you're in the open, and you can see what all the baaa-ing and tinkling of bells was about.

You turn around and admire the vista of blue-green hills.

You turn again and there it is. The mountain. A fabulous work of nature, complete with military installation and gigantic white weather spike & communications tower. But do continue to the top: on the other shoulder there's a bar serving ice cold beer.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Deep in the Grammar Mines

In fixing English, the hardest part is a text which is only slightly wrong.
Combine that with a significant and growing familiarity with certain kinds of mistakes, and the mistakes start looking not so wrong. Nobody will really misunderstand the sentence, but still, it's just not right. It's not the way a real anglophone would write.
OMG, does that mean I'm not a real anglophone any more?
A study on...
A study of...
It's like taking a wrong turn to go someplace, then the next time taking the same wrong turn, and on further trips the wrong way looks so familiar you keep taking it!
Then of course the content is not exactly my usual domain. It's all fuzzy, and slippery. (fuzzy and slippery at the same time?? that's permitted; that would be algae growing underwater.) It's appropriate in a way that a discussion of relaxation techniques would resort to massaging the data. In one place we're going to group together similar studies in order to get a more meaningful result: we've got two papers on hypnosis that set up a model, which is used by 'a whole set' of other studies, and we permit ourselves to add studies -plural- that use guided imagery. Add that up and it somes to a minimum of six papers, perhaps many more. Mmm. A minimum of five, since technically one is a set even if it would be strange here to mean it that way. But whatever. The actual total is four.
It's hard to build a field of study with just four bricks.
And they're kind of squishy bricks.
I do exaggerate. It's fun to exaggerate in blogland. Or is it nitpicking? Yes, nitpicking. Four is not an exaggeration; it's four.
Besides, the point is to show that there is in fact a crying dearth of data, that more work needs to be done. I guess. And from that angle, well, four is good for the cause.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

That's some 64lb goldfish you got there

Alas, poor Benson, I knew you not at all.

It must have been a tranquil life, swimming lazily 'round the pond, hoovering up whatever came your way. When things got slow and you needed a little excitement, you allowed yourself to be caught, posing for photos, taking a look around topside, before being released again to the murky depths.

I was up Peterborough way some years ago. If I'd known of the queen carp of Kingfisher Lake, I'd certainly have stopped by to say hello.


Friday, August 21, 2009

Yes, I admit, another rant.

Being a co-author on a book chapter is not supposed to make one cringe.


A colleague has given me this chapter to correct the english before sending it in, and it's quite a job. I'm accustomed to all sorts of levels of mastery of the Bard's tongue, and I've seen far worse.

(I think the very worst was a case where a student wrote their paper in french with no idea of how to write a paper; she just tossed out a long disorganized mishmash of speculation, irrelevant details, hollow generalizations and unsupported conclusions, then used a cheapo computer program to translate. The computer picked words out of a dictionary based on their frequency of use, with no account of context. It couldn't tell a noun from a verb sometimes. The result was a treat, I assure you. I didn't wail and moan at the student - it's perfectly normal for a student's first manuscript to be utterly naive in the ways of writing science, but this had been passed to me by her boss, who apparently had not read it but considered it ready for submission.)

Grammar is grammar; you just fix it. Don't you? Let me think about that comma. Scientific texts are clear. Nuanced, yes, but english is a very precise language and we get where we're going. There's a reason English has far more words than other languages. With two or three or four duplicates, you can really split some hairs.

Normally, the content is not my business. The author wants to say what? No skin off my nose. I just try to make the saying of it correct and readable. This time I have to care about content. It would help to have some context, too. Is the whole book about hypnotism? cancer? alternative medicine in general? Who will be reading it?

This text is all about the role of hypnosis in cancer patient care and the application of 'hard science' statistical techniques and measured parameters with nice solid numbers attached to 'psychosocial interventions', and it's requiring a fair amount of belief in the truth of what's being said. Things that don't belong in a scientific paper usually litter the floor when I'm done with a text, and here I'm having such trouble swallowing the legitimacy of what's being said that it's difficult to resist and not write rebuttals every third line or turn the thing into a paper snowflake.

I'm trying. I'm sticking with it. It is, after all, something I'm definitely in favor of, this application of rigorous methods to a traditionally fuzzy subject. And I'm truly interested in the results, too. If you can help somebody live longer and more comfortably by teaching relaxation techniques, by all means! Hypnotism can get your sleep schedule back on track, thus boosting your immune system and making you less crabby to boot? Go for it! Just keep the snake-oil salespeople outside. Well, unless believing in snake oil is what floats your boat, er, boosts your endorphins.

So okay with the subject matter. I'm just going to wail and moan and tear my hair out over diction and syntax and that french way of dancing around the point so long the author just skips it and goes on (the point? it's that hole there in the middle of the paragraph...) for the next week or so. And while I'm at it, since I am an author and not just a correcter, I'll be putting my centimes in two by two and keeping us to the discernable facts.

It's a shame Strunk and White never caught on in France.


Thursday, August 20, 2009

Friday Shoot Out: Signs

This week's My Town Shoot Out : Interesting or Amusing Signs.



Well, um, my town seems to have pretty dull signage.

So I've decided to cheat! These signs are from my recent trip to La Tour du Pin. That's still in France, which is kind of a town if you compare it to the whole universe. I liked the fish for fishing in a nearby lake, especially since it turns in the wind.

Then this was an interesting juxtaposition. With the lettering and colors being so similar you could take the Veterinary office and the restaurant as one thing, leading twisted minds to wonder if the one would profit from the unfortunate outcomes of the other. No, I didn't eat there. Nor, fortunately, did my rabbit fall ill. And the rat, well, rats can take it, they don't go to the vet; the restaurant, though, it took some effort to keep him out of there. (I was walking to school one day in Minneapolis and saw a rat running for it's life away from Arby's... Having eaten at Arby's once, I can understand that.)And lastly this one, borrowed from the post at Pink Rabbit Abroad. Half an hour's hike to the Pissoire, guys, hope you can hold it!

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

A transformative moment

I've just discovered Steven's blog, and the suggested meme for today. It's just the kick I needed to get this idea down on paper (screen!) and out there.

A transformative moment.
It was the spring of 8th grade, at church, in the classes preparing us for Confirmation.
Catholicism for me up to that point had always and exclusively been a Sunday thing. Well, plus the occasional get-out-of-school for a morning for the odd holy day of obligation (I would rather have stayed in class than go to Mass, but Mom would take us).
I never especially liked church. Dressing nicely is not my thing. Catechism held little interest (a nice fairy story, but do they have to tell it over and over and over; are there no other stories on the shelf?). I didn’t have any friends there. And Mass itself was just so boring. Sometimes I’d get dizzy from all the standing and sitting at attention I’d get nauseous and by the time the Sign of Peace came around I was ready to throw up in the aisle. Which I did on more than one occasion - remember that time in the cathedral, Mom?
That brings me to one of the build-up moments. We were at evening mass downtown, during the homily, when a man on the other side of the aisle held up his hand to ask a question. The priest ignored him. The man insisted with his raised arm, respectfully, but persistent. The priest went right on as if he didn’t see anything at all.
And I thought, what is this? What's he doing? Can you really ask questions in church? Nobody ever told me I could ask a question.
And I thought, well that’s not very nice of the Father. The man has his hand up, waiting patiently to be called on. Why doesn’t Father let the man ask the question? I want to know what it is. I want to know what the priest will say when he’s not reading from a script.
I went away that night thinking of the man who kept his arm up for a good many minutes, and the priest who kept on giving us our weekly lesson, whatever it was, all the while shooting annoyed looks at the question man.
Why can’t you ask a question in church?
Of course I know that there are many other occasions for asking your questions, and interrupting evening Mass at the cathedral in San Diego is not the most discreet.
But why can’t you ask a question in church? And aren’t the thoughts behind those killer glances from the pulpit sins, of a sort, and there’s the priest right now, in the middle of mass, thinking bad thoughts? I was a kid. I went off on these tangents.
Then confirmation class. It was the first time I’d really examined my faith. As long as I didn’t examine my faith, I could pretend to have some, maybe just a little, back there on the floor of the braincloset with the rest of the things I don’t ever really think about. But now it became clear. All those bible stories, all the Jesus Loves You, the entire eternal life business, I just didn’t buy it. I’d examine it, and it didn’t hold up. I didn’t believe in miracles. I didn’t believe I was being watched over by angels. I didn’t believe I was loved by some person who lived long ago and far away and who furthermore had been killed.
I would have liked to believe. A lot of people apparently took a lot of comfort from it, and there did seem to be an advantage in going to heaven as opposed to hell if indeed such places existed. I really wanted to belong to the club. But belief is a matter for the heart, and my heart wasn’t in it. So I started to feel guilty about not believing, and it was a sin to lie and pretend I did (though if the whole thing is just a story then “sinning” is part of the story and from there you can go in circles until you figure out that morality is independent of religion), and a terrible sin to receive communion in this state of apostasy but how could I refuse to step up for communion with my parents right there?
And then there were all the things that God was supposed to want us to do, or not do. A whole lot of people seem to know what God wants, and their messages are sometimes in conflict. It’s a lot for a kid to figure out. Some kids just take it all in, being Catholic to their marrow from the day they were baptized. Not me.
Then in class we got to a certain thing that God wanted us to do. He wanted us to use our gifts to the fullest. And what is God’s greatest gift to mankind but our capacity to think? We can reflect, and question, and build theories, and discover. God wants me to think. My thinking leads me to see there is no particularly good reason for me to believe in the existence of God. For me to deny this doubt would be putting my brain under a bushel and therefore a sin against the god I was trying to believe in. Was it the philosopher Blaise Pascal who decided it was better to believe, because if there is no god it doesn’t matter, but if there is it’s better to be on the right side. Well, one day it all boiled down to a conclusion: I’m not an atheist for whom God cannot exist, but I am one of those doubters, an agnostic.
I doubt God. But it’s okay; He told me to.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Right under your nose

It’s interesting how easy it is to not really see the things around you.
I spent a weekend with friends in the countryside last February, and after driving past the same sign for a waterfall four or five times, I said, hey, what’s the deal with the waterfall - should we take a look? And my friend J had never been there. My friend W, who’d lived around there for ages, knew it, thought it was nothing special, and just never went there. So they never went there together. Why should you, just to be disappointed that the local ‘sight’ is some sad dribble over a few rocks?
But I’m the kind who has to see how lame something is so I can write a blog post saying - WOW, that thing there is so overrated! So naturally we had to stop and see it. And it was a nice little stop. Nothing to drive a hundred miles out of the way for, unless you’re into driving a hundred miles for no particular reason (which I am...), but a nice little stop. I took pictures. I took pictures with my rabbit. I slipped on the ice and broke the screen on my new camera.
Our local mountain, Puy de Dome, is part of the landscape, so to speak, looming over the town every single day such that you either forget its there it’s so familiar, or you do notice and think ‘yeah, yeah; been there.’ Been there! There are always beautiful things to see, new and revisited. If I’ve seen one pine tree, have I seen them all? If I’ve seen this pine tree, should I never look at it again? Should I not appreciate it in its dark summer coat and its snowy mantle, as a sapling and mature? Go ahead, appreciate the things that are right under your nose.
So this past week I’ve been up Puy de Dome, several times. Last Saturday for blueberries, berries with J after work Wednesday, berries again this Saturday. And every time, I said to myself, damn, should have brought the camera! Alright, one more trip up there, on Sunday.
The clouds a week ago made life down in Clermont rather dreary, but up high it made for a magical landscape. My favorite berryfield is in the middle heights, and the clouds were like celestial sheep, moseying over one foothill, getting trapped in a valley, then creeping on over the next. Weather you just want to sit back and watch. So I did.
Then the next two trips up there, the sky was an unblemished blue, and there were a dozen or more parasailers out swarming in the air around the summit. They swooped around in a colorful ballet, just swirling in the sky, not having to come down until sunset. No matter how many times I’ve been up here over the years, there’s always something beautiful to see. Seen it before? So what - see it again!
On the last trip up I decided no berry-picking, just lunch and photos. I took the bus up to one of the drop-off points, hiking through some lovely woods and across high meadows. It had been a year since I was last on that particular trail, and in just a year, the meadows had changed. The edge of the woods moves. This corner was filled in with young birches and another with pine saplings, while in other spots the thickets of hazel were thinning out. In many places the trail makes a tunnel through the vegetation. Next trip, I promise, I’ll haul the tripod with me. Even digital has difficulty capturing the serene understory of these woods, with their subtle grey-browns and thick green canopy. No colorful sails in the sky, alas: too much wind.

Monday, August 17, 2009

A cat for August: Shadow!

Also known as Boots.
It doesn’t take many people to have conflict as to what to call a cat. There were two votes for Shadow, a neato-cool name for a mostly black cat, one for Boots in the tradition of naming cats for their different-colored paws, and two parental abstentions. The first time this type of conflict came around, there were sufficient kittens to take up both Brand X and Mitten as names. This time there was only one kitten.
We’re not a middle-name sort of family.
Only one name per mammal, please.
And there was only one. What it was depended on who was talking. I don’t think the cat ever cared.
And thus, Cat of the Month comes to the end of the San Diego Cats. Next month there will be a change of everything. A move from the sunny California coast to the frozen flatlands of Minnesota. Not a cat was left, every one having disappeared forever into the chaparral or succombed to illness. A new start, new schools, new friends, new pets are on the horizon.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Friday Photo Shoot Out: Relaxation


I'm not really a relaxation person. I like to be doing stuff, and although some of my staff think I'm crazy for this, working at the lab, doing routine benchwork of the likes the techs do all week long, is something I find relaxing. I do. Pipetting hundreds of samples and transferring them from one machine to another is a mental vacation for me. The hands work, the mind wanders. It's a welcome change from my usual work, which involves sitting in my office reading papers and checking data and writing reports.

I do relax at home in the evenings. Usually I knit or work sudokus while watching an hour or two of tv. Very photogenic. Sometimes I spend time in the garden, my oft-photographed garden, watering the veg and the flowers, pulling weeds (yes, really, there are just so many it's hard to appreciate that there are fewer than there might be), picking what's ripe, chasing the cats, and a new activity: mowing the lawn.

And, every once in a while near the end of a weekend afternoon, I pour a glass of cold Chardonnay and take a good book out to the garden.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009


It's a quiet time at work, with half the staff on vacation on any given day, and colleagues out of town. The phone is quiet, and my in-box is calm. It's my favorite time of the year to catch up on all the things I should have done already, but the calm also promotes reflection, and I've been reflecting some on blogging.

I started this blog as a creative outlet, as a way of shouting my two bits to the world. I was hoping of course for people to listen, just a handful. It's nice to know you're heard, that your voice isn't simply echoing around the emptiness of the universe annoying the neighbors.

The content of the blog would be just what I want. My opinions, lame or not. My stories, boring or not. My pictures, focussed or not.

I wasn't going to write 'for' my audience. How could I anyway? If the audience is made of random people stopping by? I should say what I have to say, and not try to be funny when I'm not, or politically correct, or anything I'm not just to woo people into staying.

And then, certain people started stopping by regularly. They became followers, I became theirs, not always reciprocally. Some blogfellows I got to know a little better, and started thinking of them as my friends. I'm not terribly good at making friends, and this was fabulous.

Then I joined the Friday My Town shootout. This has been a joy. It's made me think of subjects that I wouldn't have thought of otherwise. It's brought me into contact with other bloggers around the world. But it can also be invasive. I didn't usually blog more than once or twice a week, and so a weekly theme post immediately took up nearly half my blogging life. Some weeks, in hunting out pictures for Friday, I didn't do anything else.

And then I noticed I was beginning to write what I thought my readers would like to hear. I noticed that pictures and light pieces drew more comments than more difficult subjects. Naturally I took the comments as the equivalent of interest. Which they aren't really; they're only the visible sign of interest. So I did more of what got noticed.

The Shootouts distorted things, as well. When club members make the rounds on Friday, or the weekend, they often leave a line, more to say hello! than to converse, making the weekly photo collection by far more 'interesting' than the other posts, by simple virtue that most of the club members don't read my blog the rest of the time. And I do it too; I only follow some of the others regularly (I would spend my entire day reading blogs, otherwise! There's just not time to do everything!), and I like to say hello and I really liked that shot of the kids on the beach, but I usually don't say much else.

And some blogs I followed I got tired of and stopped following. I'd had my fill, or they gave up blogging (especially travel blogs that covered a long trip somewhere and then stopped when the writer arrived back home), or things just evolved and I saw I wasn't visiting any more.

If I've let other people's blogs go, it shouldn't be such a surprise when one of my own fans lets me go.

But wow.

There's one blog I connect with religiously (many, many I like and even love, but this is my favorite author and I was really hoping to meet him if I ever made it to his city), and when he signed up to mine, I was ecstatic. I felt amazed, as if, if this guy likes my writing, maybe I'm okay at it after all. Maybe I can fool you all into thinking there's a regular human behind this. When this author dropped me the other day, I discovered that losing a reader can be more intense than gaining one.

So I'm going to try to be true to myself again. I'll keep on with the Friday Shootouts, but I can't let it take over my week. I'll try to learn the art of posting just one picture and either just letting it stand, or saying something worthwhile about it, rather than taking every related picture I can. And if a topic doesn't grab me, I'll skip it. Take a break. Write something I want to write, instead.

Monday, August 10, 2009

La Tour du Pin, part 2

Sorry for the delay! Who'd have thought that Lazy August would be so darned busy!
To continue story of wandering around La Tour du Pin and Lake Aiguebelette in eastern France:

Bright and early I'm out the door and on my way to the station. I'm hoping to pass an open bakery, but no luck. Maybe the bar & restaurant at the station is open to serve coffee and croissants to commuters. No luck. There are a lot of commuters, too. Even in August, there are 20 people lined up for the 6:52 to Lyon, which is late, and 38 for the 7:06. Only six of us are going the other way, to Chambèry and points east.
At Lepin-le-Lac-la-Bauche I've got 13 minutes to change to a bus for Aiguebelette-le-Lac. First I wander into the little convenience store that's right across from the station, remembering that I left my bandaids at the hotel and I often need one for a long hike. No luck. Not a bakery to be seen, even walking up and down the road a ways. I'd love a big cup of café crème at the bar attached to the store, but if I miss the bus for it, that would not be a good deal. In Aiguebelette there's not even the hope of breakfast. It's a one-street village, not a shop in sight, and the lone hotel&restaurant is closed.
So fine. At the station I chance onto one of the trailheads that I came here for, though not the one that goes along the lakeside, and break out the cereal bars and water I packed (darn - left the peaches behind!). Breakfast of champions. It's all uphill, this trail. A good plan - do the hard part first. Up and up and up. The thing about walking in dense forest is that there's never a view. And it's dark. But I should get somewhere eventually. There are vertical cliffs above, quite impressive from a distance, and sooner or later this trail will come out on top of one.
Some day.
Some later day.
When I start going down again, around the far side of the long thin ridge of rock the separates Aiguebelette from Chambèry, I've been at it for a couple of hours. Hmm. This is not going up to a summit. Nor am I in the wilderness, but in a woods with logging roads and the sound of chainsaws in the middle-distance. Now and then I come across a house with a dog in the yard and a couple of cars. How about another cereal bar, and the rest of the water when I get back to the crest of the trail, and I find the trail around the lake after lunch.
I get back to the station at 11:45. Nearly a four hour hike. Pretty good, though my feet are not really used to the new shoes. No blisters, but I'll get some insoles to make them a little softer on pavement. I did get some views of the lake and the surrounding countryside. It isn't much to write home about.
Checking out the train schedules I see there's one at 12:23, the next at 14:25, and various trains later. I'm thinking of lunch (having consumed my lunch for breakfast), and of quitting Aiguebelette for an afternoon hike around La Tour de Pin, whose sign at the station showed a handful of castles in a hikable radius. Wandering around, I see ads for a restaurant serving the usual sandwiches pizza & crepes, down by the vacation/camping area lakeside. Only, I can't seem to find the road that actually goes down there. The village seems rather concerned with keeping its quiet village character in the face of the annual deluge of holiday visitors, and I don't blame them. These lakeside holiday camps tend to be wall-to-wall people doing their best to pack in as much merriment and carousing as they can before it all ends and it's back to the grind.
Whatever, I'll take the 12:23 back to Lepin le Lac, where there was an restaurant near the station (and if that's closed, a sandwich & beer at the bar will be fine). At the one-track station - you know you're in nowhereville when there are not even two tracks at the station! - at 12:22 the barriers come down and here comes a great big train.
And there it goes.
The station is too small for there to be anybody. The station building is now a private home with a waiting room attached for travellers. No doubt the residents are in charge of keeping the station in shape, but they're not there to talk to. No electronic signs. No ticket vending machine. There's a train company phone to use if you have a problem.
Um. My train didn't stop for me. It was very mean and just blew right on by, without even slowing down.
But I don't call. What's the point in calling? They're not going to back up for me. I sit for a minute to stew in my annoyance before making my way down toward the lake, determined to find this announced restaurant serving crappy, overpriced food to sunburned holiday makers.
About halfway back to the main street, I hear that familiar two-tone whistle, the ones trains make entering and leaving tunnels. ...leaving the tunnel from Chambèry! My train! As I turn, I hear the barriers coming down to block the road, and I run up the hill.
There have been years in my life when it was not possible for me to run up a hill, especially footsore and tired from a long walk. But I do it. I round the corner of the stationhouse just as the engine is pulling up to the start of the quay. The driver had slowed down just in case there was a passenger waiting, but seeing nobody, he'd started to speed up again, and now had to stop after all. When he finally did, the engine had crossed the road, and the first car was straddling it. An ugly stop, but I had my train.
Lunch is excellent. A salad, steak with pepper sauce and fries, chocolate cake; simple fare but well made (ok, the cake was lame. but the fries were perfect.) and just what I wanted.
On the ride back to La Tour, I think about the importance that we put on the task at hand, and how that fits into the larger picture of things. I just had to catch that train in Aiguebelette. I couldn't let it get away, having given up on it once, fooled by the big train going probably straight to Lyon. Missing it would have wrecked my day.
Yeah, you'd have been stuck in that town another 2 hours. Big deal.
Bigger opportunities have come and gone. Missed by chance, or by failure of will, or by some stupid error; there have been so many times in my life when I thought: if I don't get this, I'm cooked. If I don't get this grant. If I miss this plane. If I fail to get this paper accepted. Disaster looms.
Sometimes I squeaked by, like catching that train on the run. Sometimes I had that cold feeling envelop me, the one that comes around when you're searching for plan B, and plans are pretty thin on the ground. But no matter what I failed at, not one of those losses was big enough to keep me from getting to where I am now. Not one of them was fatal. At the time, they seemed like they would be. But not one of those missed opportunities kept me from having a home and a job and a vacation in the french countryside.
Sure, things could have been different. One coin flipped the other way and I could own a house instead of renting one. Another coin flip and I could be spending this vacation with a husband. But in the longer view of things, I'm happy, and all those short-term crises were just that: transient.
I've been reading some Flaubert on this trip. On my trip to Culoz it was Reading Lolita in Tehran, and at the end of that trip two things happened: In Lyon I ran across the used book section of the quayside market along the Saone and picked up five paperbacks for 5€, and my renewed friend Anne posted "100 books I've read the BBC thinks I haven't" on Facebook. I've read 57 of the 100, and I wouldn't be opposed to about half the remaining (including Lolita, ironically). What caught my interest was that all the French books on the list that I'd read, I'd read in French, and yet I haven't picked up a book in French in ages. Apart from the classics I read years ago while actively trying to learn the language, I've had terrible luck with French fiction.
Thus here I am with Flaubert and his slim 'Three Stories' volume. The first story, A Simple Heart, at first bores me. But then I realize I just have to go with it. The structure of 19th century French stories often isn't what you expect of 20th century American short stories. They're not always built around an event, they don't go - setting, conflict, action, resolution. A Simple Heart describes the life, and the being, of a servant in the north of France. Nothing in particular happens. In the first half of this portrait, I at times thought that Flaubert was mocking his subject, Félicité, in her simple manners and naive ways. But he wasn't; he was just showing her as she was, and how that was different, and disdained, by more educated people around her. In the end you feel you know her, there's a certain sympathy that develops for her as you find she's the one able to express her deep love for her mistress's children, she's the one who keeps everything together, she provides the human ties, appreciated or not, in her entourage. A very satisfying tale.

Till next time!

Friday, August 7, 2009

Friday Photo Shoot Out: Power

This week's theme is Power, so here are some examples of power that I've come across in my recent wanderings.
The power of the state. Government buildings in Europe tend to be very grandiose, an architectural expression of their importance.

The power of the state might be grand, but it doesn't, and can't, keep every last person happy clothed and fed, like this homeless man sleeping in the doorway of city hall in Lyon.
Power of the Church: buildings dominating towns, holidays on our supposedly secular calender, ideas for some. The church in La Tour du Pin, built on the hill in the middle of town, is the visual focal point of the town, though today it is no longer the focal point of life there.
The Lyon Cathedral is upstaged by the Basilica on top of the bluff overlooking the city.
In Culoz, too, the church is built on a prominent spot from which it surveys the village.
The power of water, giving us life, and joy, and making just about everything possible on earth.
Rivers often divide cities
- the Saône and Rhone dividing Old from New Lyon, like the Seine in Paris and its Rive Gauche,
The water in the Saône is deceptively calm. It's moving at quite a clip, and when it joins the Rhone in a few hundred meters, it'll be one of the strongest forces in this part of France.
Rivers also divide countries : our German neighbors are 'over the Rhine', the Jordan divides Jordan from Israel, the Danube divides Romania from Bulgaria, and many, many others.
and even continents (the Ural, dividing Europe from Asia).

The power that makes our lives go smoothly. Nuclear generators of electricity giving off steam in the distance. Train engines hauling passengers to their destinations and goods all around the continent.

Yep, I just had to get a train picture in!

I do apologize if this is a rather superficial treatment of "Power". It's a subject that merits more, but time and inclination don't always coincide with the weekly theme. I'll come back to this later for a more considered post.


La Tour du Pin, part 1

This week I'm really on vacation. How about another trip to the Rhone-Alps region, for some more hiking. Sounds good. Tuesday morning nice and early I herd all the cats indoors (they hate that. They know what's up - they saw my backpack and heard that huge bowl of catfood being poured!), and take the same bus I would usually take to work.
Once again, a train to Lyon. I'm getting to know this section of track pretty well. Why do I keep going back? In the spring I bought this discount card for trains going between the Rhone-Alp and Auvergne, and I'm determined to see everything.
Then on to Saint André du Gaz, arriving in the early afternoon. It's pretty plain territory around here. We're so close to the foothills of the Alps, but not in them yet. We're barely off the flat, boring plain with its sprawling industrial towns. St André is not my real destination: I want to go to Aiguebelette-le-Lac, which really is in the foothills, but it's such a tiny speck on the map, and on my train schedule it's in the tiniest of type, I'm not sure of there being anywhere to stay there. St André is written on my schedule with much bigger type, and seems to have plenty of trains, I figure it's got to have stuff.
There's your classic hotel-across-from-the-station. It isn't closed, like so many of these now, but it's pretty rundown, and it's getting toward that category of hotel that I promised myself I wouldn't do any more. The kind with bugs. So I walk into town, which isn't so small, just spread out. It's almost the size of Culoz. But there's no other hotel. There's not even a shop open to sell me a bottle of water. The only dinner option will be pizza.
Ten minutes back up the line was a very cute-looking town. A significant town with possibly three or four hotels. I'll go back to La Tour du Pin and make it my base.

There's time to kill waiting for the bus to La Tour, and I spend most of it looking at my train schedules. It's actually a good thing I'm going back one town. St André might be in large type, but not all the trains stop at all the towns. If I stay here, my choices for going on to Aiguebelette are 6:40 or 12:18. Before 7 am is way out, and noon just kills the hiking day. Happily, from La Tour I can catch a train (not without some serious grumbling, but it's possible) at 7:09, skip over St André, and start hiking at 7:58.
In La Tour the bus takes us through the center of town, where I start to wonder if maybe I was wrong about places to stay, but at last we pass the little Hotel de France. Perfect. Only, the door is locked and the sign says closed for vacation. Back August 10. Helpfully, it lists other hotels in the vicinity. Since the list is meant for people with cars, the Mercure 3 minutes away is my only reasonable choice. But 3 minutes in which direction?

By 4:30 I am checked into a rather nice room at the Mercure, with a view over the town and a bathtub. I didn't even have to ask, and I have a bathtub. I don't care if it's too expensive here; I can take a hot soak. And I will, later.
Right now I'm going to explore the town, and score tomorrow's lunch.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Old trains in new clothes

I'll round out my tour of Culoz with some close-ups of the graffiti on the old trains. Some of these are quite creative!

And that's all from Culoz. I hope to go back in the winter, just after a snowfall, and take all my junkyard pictures again.