Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The Lives of Harry Potter

Spoiler Alert!!!! If you haven't read the book, and plan on reading the book, and care whether you know juicy details ahead of time, read no further. This means you, Esme! Come back and read this when you're done.

Last night I finished reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. I would like, first of all, to say that I enjoyed the book very much and a big thank you to J.K. Rowling and all the working stiffs at Scholastic Publishing and bookstores everywhere for giving me many hours of pleasure over the years. Books have meant a great deal to me throughout my life, and the Harry Potter series struck deeply, extracting what I love best about reading and making me feel like I did when I was growing up, losing myself completely in stories and the ongoing adventures of worlds upon worlds. This stuff mattered, and still matters, thank god. Rowling expresses it exactly, and succinctly, towards the end of the book, as Harry has a final interlude in some sort of dream or half-life with Dumbledore, and he asks "Is this real? Or has this been happening inside my head?" and Dumbledore, always the wise one, replies "Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?" Our thoughts are real, and the way we think about things and what we choose to think about are the first and most basic creative acts we do.

Now that I've gotten my thanks and appreciation out of the way, I can move on to telling you what I really think; you know, all the silly over-analysis and pointless criticism with some 'I loved it when...' 's thrown in for good measure.

I was very pleased to find that Rowling was a good sport and kept all the core younger characters alive - Harry, Ron and Hermione especially, as well as Neville, Ginny and Luna (who has quickly become amongst my favorite characters, along with Snape). I respect this kind of literature as much as anything, really, but I'm not reading it for learning about the bitter truths, disappointments and failures we all must face eventually. We've lived with these characters for a while now and to see them gone and/or unhappy at the end would have been a blow.

I was also pleased to find that Snape was, more or less, a good guy at the end of it all, and not just because I predicted it all along to many doubters (Dad). I personally found it a useful foil to have at least the one main character who was not an obvious hero, who had dark thoughts and wasn't pretty or likeable, who struggled with himself and those around him, yet still found a meaningful moral compass and was somebody we (and Harry) could respect and have compassion for.

I'm still going to say that the third book, Prisoner of Azkaban, is her best in my opinion, although the fourth is right behind. This book suffered from some of the same problems of the fifth and sixth, with episodic plot devices that move somewhat ploddingly. Here, the second quarter of the book was especially slow, with our three heroes (and then two, as Ron takes off in a huff) spending weeks camping in the woods and spending most of their time trying to figure out what to do, often unsuccessfully. Not all of you will get this analogy, though I know my sister Meghan will, but it reminded me a bit of playing the computer text adventures when I was a kid, and I'd kind of hit a block where I couldn't figure out what to do next, trying all sorts of equally useless commands until I hit on the right one, or more rarely had a genuine moment of inspiration, like "Lift Rock. Get Key. Enter castle". But the payoff was always there, then and now. The book really started to get rolling once Ron rejoined them and they saw the Doe patronus and got the sword, and by the time they were rallying the troops at Hogwarts I was as riveted and as excited as I could be.

And then the momentum slowed again, first with an enjoyable and necessary (but maybe misplaced) look back on Snape's younger years and his friendship with Lily Potter, and then with a convoluted conversation with Dumbledore offering a little too much complicated explication, trying to tidy everything up, explain exactly why Harry wasn't already dead and who had whose parts of their souls tucked into their own souls and how that meant this person couldn't die...I think I bought it in the end but I really just wanted to get to the final standoff, which was excellent and as exciting as I could hope for (though maybe it's just a bit of a copout to have Voldemort technically kill himself when his own killing curse ricochets in his face. I think Rowling could have had Harry kill Voldemort at that point, and possibly have a stronger book from it).

I've got a lot more I could say, but I'm going to bed. I hope nobody minds too much that I'm talking about this revered book like this; I enjoy thinking about this kind of stuff and figuring out what works and what doesn't in stories and novels, even ones that I love. Of course, if anybody starts in like this with The Lord of the Rings, I'm liable to punch them.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Swim, Bike, Run

Well, I don't have any news that can really compare to my sister Franny's - she and her husband Nick just had their second child, a little girl who has just been named Sonja Frances Toombs. You can see pictures of her at her sister Gabriella's blog, and you can hear a song her father wrote and recorded for her at his blog (or mog?) It's a cool piece. Well done on both counts, Nick.
I completed my first triathlon yesterday, something I wouldn't have expected to ever really participate in, as I often tend to shun organized activities. But I guess that as we grow older we change, and I have a group of friends who were doing it, so I signed up and told myself that at the very least it would be good incentive to keep exercising. And as it turned out, it was fun, though the running leg was definitely something of a slog.
It was what is known as a sprint triathlon, which has no consistent length like a marathon does or the ironman triathlon does, but tends to be something close to what this one was: 1/3 mile swim, 9 mile bike ride, 5k run (3.1 miles). So just to be clear, this is nothing close to any sort of truly long-distance endurance event, nothing like a marathon or a hundred-plus mile bike ride (like they do on the legs of the tour de france). I finished it in one hour, twelve minutes and seven seconds, which was enough to place me 352nd in a field of 600 or so participants. I was very pleased; my only conscious goal was to try and complete all three legs without stopping and taking a break. If I had a will of steel, I believe I could certainly have pushed myself a little harder, but as I said before, I was definitely feeling it during the run portion.
The location was perfect, as was the weather. It took place on Cape Cod, in Falmouth. (For those interested the event was put on by Time Out Productions, and you can learn more about them and the results of their events at The swim portion was in the ocean, looking straight out towards Martha's Vineyard. A lovely stretch of water, clear and lush with eelgrass, and a very comfortable swimming temperature. I would love to head back down there with my mask and snorkle and see what I can see murking about through the beds of eelgrass. During the competition, things are a bit hectic for sightseeing, it's all you can do to get your head up to get your bearings from the giant orange buoys as you find yourself in the middle of a bunch of flailing competitors. I chose to stick to the outside of my group just to keep the collisions down to a minimum.
The swim was over very quickly, having got a nice boost from the current during the middle stretch, and then we were onto our bikes for a very nice ride along the shore for a few miles then through some twisty residential roads of Falmouth. I would easily have gone four times the distance on my bike, especially if that meant avoiding the run.
Have I been uneccessarily negative about the run portion? Sorry. Though I make myself do it with some regularity, as it is the most efficient way (time, cost, space) I know of to get in a good cardiovascular workout, I don't really enjoy running. Occasionally I find myself on a great day on a great path really feeling my legs and arms pumping in easy syncronicity and I feel I could someday become a real runner, but most days I just want it over with. It's hard work. And after a short but hard swim and a similar bike ride, I would prefer not to jog 3 miles. But I did, and as I passed the half-way point I realized that the only reason I would stop would be out of sheer laziness and I pushed myself up another small fraction of a notch for the last mile.
After crossing the finish line I took a celebratory swim through the eelgrass and met up with my friends - Anne, Michelle and Karen - to compare notes. I think everyone was pleased, though Michelle had some difficulties with her calf muscles (but still managed a better time than me) and Karen had shin splints. All during the run portion, of course.
I felt great, though when I arrived home in Newton a few hours later I pretty much collapsed for a long nap, from which I awoke feeling disoriented enough to dissipate some of my store of well-being from the race. I am happy to report I have recovered enough that I even considered going for a run today, but I quickly squelched that idea in favor enjoying the local breeze with a good book followed by a nice meal of grilled bluefish.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

My herb garden and some culinary doings

I'm very pleased to announce the arrival of my herb garden, such as it is. Nothing in the ground, everything planted in a few smallish containers, thus far. I've gotten a book called The Bountiful Container, and with its help hope to plan for an expansion next Spring, with some bigger containers, some seed purchasing and a more thoughtful approach to placement and soil preparation. In the meantime, I've started using little bits and corners of my herbs. I've got a pot with basil, lemon basil and sage. Another pot with parsley, chives, and struggling dill and cilantro. Another pot with sorrell and rocket, my spicy salad greens. And two pots on my indoor kitchen windowsill, one of rosemary (creeping) and one of tarragon, which seems to be taking its time getting started.
I've only dared to use these herbs once or twice, preferring to let them get settled before I make any heavy demands on them, but I have added sorrell and rocket to a couple of salads and I made a 'pasta with handfuls of fresh herbs' from the gourmet cookbook the other night and I used a little tiny bit from several of my budding plants (basil, lemon basil, chives, parsley and sorrell). For future reference: use only one or two herbs - I think the flavors will be clearer and stronger, and skip the toasted breadcrumbs - they just make the dish too heavy and mask the delicacy of the herbs. In fact, though they are found commonly in many Italian pasta recipes, I don't believe that I am a big fan of the use of breadcrumbs in general, finding them at best unecessary and at worst gritty and unappetizing. Please let me know if you find them an important asset in some dish or another and I'll file the advice away. I've enjoyed them on baked macaroni and cheese before, but even there I'm not sure they've really added much. A browned and bubbly cheesy top seems more than adequate.
I've been trying to do more 'instinctive' improvising in the kitchen lately, largely from reading the Chez Panisse Vegetables cookbook and a new book about Alice Waters and Chez Panisse. I've always done most of my cooking out of cookbooks, except for meals of convenience or dishes I've made many, many times - basic red sauce, pesto, regular salads and vinagrettes, fried egg sandwiches, pasta with garlic and oil, trout amandine, etc. And I enjoy using cookbooks, but I'd like to see what my more creative juices are capable of, out of curiousity and to give myself more flexibility when exploring the contents of my larder or running across good-looking produce at the market, and also out of inspiration from the great creative cooks out there.
Last night I went for it. I was at the market and decided I wanted some seafood, that had some decent looking Florida shrimp in the shell that was priced well, so I got half a pound and decided to do something spicy. I got some jalapenos and a poblano pepper. When I got home I broiled the peppers until they were black and made a salsa of them with some roasted garlic, and marinated the shrimp in lime juice and salt before cooking them on my black iron. Then I made a salad of quartered radishes with shallots, sorrell, lime juice and cayenne pepper. My starch came in the form of a few homemade corn tortillas. If I was writing the menu for Chez Panisse it would look something like this:
Radish Salad with Lime, Sorrell and Cayenne
Griddle-Seared Gulf Coast Shrimp with Relish of Roasted Poblanos, Jalapenos and Garlic
Homemade Corn Tortillas
Store-Bought Chocolate-Chip Cookies
What do you think? As it turned out, the shrimp was very flavorful and I was surprised to find that my poblano and jalapeno relish didn't really stand up to it very well - a traditional salsa with cilantro and tomato would have been better, and serve the poblanos on the side. I enjoyed the radish salad a lot, and I always love fresh tortillas. I'm getting better at them, and can really make a few of them happen pretty quickly without much fuss.
Adios, amoebas! (have I used that before? It's from an old Gary Larson cartoon that still cracks me up).

Friday, July 06, 2007

Kayaking the Great Marsh

I had the opportunity to go kayaking in northeastern Massachusetts' Great Marsh on the fourth of July. The Great Marsh is an extensive network of tidal inlets, rivers and tiny channels surrounded by wide open beds of marsh grass, and a kayak is truly the way to explore this incredible landscape. Slipping silently through the soupy gray-green water, brushing past clumps of sharp, fibrous rushes rising from the rich, living mud, watching snowy egrets stalking all manner of small fish and wriggling muddy beasts, pushing easily against the tide as you work your paddles back and forth... Don't get me wrong, I thoroughly enjoy tooling around with small motorboats but for really sinking into a place like this, there's nothing like a kayak. They are so light and maneuverable - there was almost no channel to narrow or shallow to explore, and when we hit a dead end, we just picked the kayaks up and marched over the grass to the nearest navigable waterway.

My friend Glen and I headed out toward an attractive and mysterious island named Hog Island. Hog Island is a drumlin, an island formed by glacial deposits. As we got close, we realized that there wasn't really a clear channel of water surrounding the island, just a confusing network of marsh, smelly landlocked pools and tiny tidal channels that often drifted away and ended in the grass, so we portaged around for a while until we found ourselves in a large inlet that led around the the back side of Crane's beach. Several Willets spooked up from their hiding spots in the grass as we paddled by them, calling their clownish greeting 'we will willet - we will willet - we will willet - we will willet'. Least terns, certainly amongst the most graceful and beautiful flyers that I've ever seen, flew elegantly through and against the stiff wind of the day, often holding steady in one spot, flapping, watching the water below and then suddenly dropping like a rocket, sharp beak first, plunging full into the water with a sudden splash and lifting immediately away with their prize. Swallows also skimmed the water in multitudes, and bullyish Herring and Great Black-backed gulls lorded over all and sundry.

I was hoping to see sharks - not jaws, but Glen's mother has seen the dorsal fins of small dogfish slowly swaying through the main tidal channels here. I would love to see that sight. I've snorkeled here before and seen striped bass, but the water doesn't have nearly the visibility that the open ocean does.

Oh, we saw turkeys, too, meandering through the grass. I'm sure there are lots of bugs and worms in the mud out there, but this was a first time seeing turkeys in salt marsh.

Anyway, I'm going to go now. Love to all,

Oh, and I want to recommend that everybody buy Dorothy Monnelly's wonderful book of photography entitled The Great Marsh. It is an exceedingly beautiful portrait of this unique landscape and ecosystem by this very talented artist and courageous advocate for open space and our natural heritage. You can get it from amongst many other places.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Ruminations on learning the Irish fiddle, plus pictures

For all those clamoring for more photos of my new apartment, here are two - an exterior shot of the house (my apartment is on the second floor and on the right side) and a rare shot of me standing in the doorway to my porch. Everything is going well; I am on the cusp of what I call stage three: stage 1 is moving everything in, stage 2 is emptying boxes and putting everything in some semblance of livable order, and stage three is the slow process of rearranging everything to the apartment's 'ideal' state of being.

Meanwhile, there are other things going on in my life as well - the main thing being my newfound and ongoing appreciation of traditional irish music. Last weekend I spent a couple days on the cape attending a few events at the Cape Cod Celtic Festival. If I haven't said it before (and I think I have), Liz Carroll is my hero right now. I went to a workshop she taught, ostensibly "Intermediate Irish Fiddle', and learned a great deal, though the two hours went very quickly. Surprisingly, she taught our little group a reel of her own called 'Ralph's 2-3-5' (the 2-3-5 referring to the number of parts in each section of the tune). It can be found in fine form on her most recent recording with John Doyle called "In Play". It's a sly tune, and as we went over it Liz touched on a number of very helpful points regarding ornamentation, different styles of trebling, little tricks with bow direction, ideas for variation during repeats (especially double-stopping, which I love). Liz is very funny and chatty, very encouraging, and a wonder on the fiddle, even during a five-second demonstration of this point or that.

The other high point of the festival, for me, was the closing session at O'Shea's Inn on Sunday afternoon. It was especially nice as we went around the circle and everybody got a chance to introduce a tune or two, which at least assured me of knowing the tunes that I started. If I remember correctly, I believe I started 'The Banshee' and 'Bonaparte Crossing the Rhine', a particular favorite of mine that I learned from Pete Cooper's 'Complete Guide to Learning the Irish Fiddle'. 'Bonaparte Crossing the Rhine' has one of those particular little things that I love in Irish tunes, a brief phrase in the B section that quickly alternates between a C natural and C sharp that kind of pokes at your ears in an odd yet appealing way, and gives almost a distant, ancient flavor to the melody. This crops up over and over in a lot of tunes, and will probably seem less and less novel the more I learn, but in the meantime I love it.

I also attended a session at the Skellig in Waltham last Tuesday, a weekly session that is very welcoming to newcomers (though they don't necessarily go 'round the horn introducing tunes). A little session etiquette I've learned: if you're new, sit towards the outside of the circle, don't introduce tunes, if you don't know the tune just finger along silently, and don't pester anybody too much for the names of the tunes. Not that anybody will bite your head off, but if you want to build a place for yourself it's good to be polite. Unless your social skills are completely turned off you'll get a feel for when you can start to assert yourself a bit more, and the session leaders will begin to recognize you and give you a chance to start a tune now and then. I think. I've only been to three or four so far, all in the last couple of weeks.

Learning tunes at a session is very challenging. At this stage, I really only know about ten to fifteen tunes pretty well, and can follow along another ten or fifteen pretty well, but there are thousands out there, and most local communities of players will probably have a bag of a couple hundred that they might pull from. So, I really only recognize one tune in ten (or fewer), so I do a lot of silently fingering along, trying to catch the structure of the melody as the group whizzes through it at full speed. My brain gets pretty stretched after doing this for three tunes or so, and then I have to sit back and rest a bit. If you can catch the name of the tune you can try and look it up later, otherwise it'll probably come up again in a future session and you'll hopefully get a handle on it eventually.

If anybody is curious about what I've been listening to and what I really like here's a brief list:

Planxty - one of the first traditional groups of the early 70's resurgence in traditional music, these guys are incredible, mixing stunning, creative arrangements of traditional instrumentals with great songs. Andy Irvine's voice is wonderful. The first album is my favorite so far. Listen to 'Junior Crehan's Favorite' and 'Planxty Irwin'. No fiddles, but the amazing uillean pipes more than make up for it. I think one reason I really like these guys is they speak to me as a former member of a band. They really come across as a real band, not just a collection of great musicians, working together to create something that is more than the sum of its parts. The creativity they bring to their arrangements is virtually unparalleled (in my vast experience with traditional irish music). Wonderful harmonies, complex polyphonic instrumental parts, atmospheric development, stunning transitions.

Brian Conway - 'First Through the Gate' - I just got this album this week and it's a great collection of fiddle tunes in the County Sligo style from a New York-born fiddler. Very warm playing, with fast, elegant ornamentation and great choice of tunes. 'Blackberry Blossom' into 'The Silver Spire' has a stately, infectious joy about it and 'Jennie's Welcome to Charlie' is just an amazing four-part tune that throws me for a loop.

Danu - 'When All is Said and Done' - One of their more recent albums with new vocalist Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh, who has a wonderful, throaty alto voice (in contrast to the more typical bell-like soprano found in much Irish singing). Once again, a great band with stellar arrangements and great choice of tunes and songs. Plus, a surreal yet organic and beautiful cover of Dylan's 'Farewell, Angelina'. Oisín McAuley is a spirited and technically amazing player who lives near me in Brookline, MA. I've had the opportunity to hear him trying out fiddle bows in our showroom at work which was really neat, kind of a brief glance inside the mind of a great fiddler.

That's enough for now, it's a nice day and I've got further chores to do.