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Saturday, January 21, 2012

What Is It About Books?

What Is it About Books?

It was a dark and stormy night. Wind gusted wildly and lashed the house and roof with rain that sounded like pea gravel shot from a cannon. Small branches and limbs broke from the fir and oak trees around the house and littered the deck and yard with dark, half-seen lumps that could have been bodies or clumps of animated primeval sludge. OK, that’s going a bit far. But it was very dark, very stormy, very wet, and Gary was out of town.

I had planned to do some work in the studio while he was away, but the weather and atmosphere made me seek refuge. What better way to spend such an evening than in a room full of books, nestled into my recliner in a circle of light, cat on my lap and hot drink at my elbow?

Utterly evocative, but full of the pain
of lost libraries and disappeared books .
Even better, the book I was reading was Alberto Manguel’s The Library at Night, with a cover illustration of a dark woods and a man in a chair reading a book by lamplight.

But the question in my mind is, what is it about books that is so comforting to some of us? I’m not talking so much about reading – one can read in many types of media. As Manguel reveals in another title - A History of Reading - the methods, entitlements, and habits of reading have changed greatly over the course of written history. The outcry about the “loss of books” to electronic media is misplaced. Electronic media provide reading: printed ink-on-paper books provide a mystique in their sheer physical presence that is not transmitted to cold plastic.

How to explain the feeling you get in a bookshop or a library - public or private - where you are surrounded by printed volumes, of there being something special there for you and you alone? Something waiting for you to find it, or to find you by serendipity. The feeling that makes you say “ahhhhh” when you step into the presence of a room filled with books.
A wonderful book, full of surprises. 

To be sure, there are those who don’t experience this; even those who appear to despise books. I have seen many decorating and interior design books, television shows, and even magazine articles where interior designers can’t bear the thought of colorful spines and dust jackets cluttering up their theme or color scheme. Some go to ridiculous lengths to disguise books, if they must remain in the room. They’ll cover them with plain white wrappers (or worse, paint them!), or place them on the shelves by color and size, or remove the dust jackets to display more uniformly plain spines, or – worst of all – display the books fore-edge out . Lacking the chance to do any of that, they’ll imprison the books behind doors.  It’s an aesthetic, but to booklovers a very wrong-headed and egotistical one.

The people who put themselves into the hands of these designers claim that they want a “warm and inviting” atmosphere. Laying claim to a room in which a gigantic flat-screen television becomes a focal point, they seem happy with the result. One (who loves books) can only wonder how this is possible.

To those of us for whom books are among life’s greatest pleasures, those many-hued dust jacket spines on our own shelves are like the faces of old familiar friends. One glance at such a book and one is reminded of previous pleasures, or taken back to a moment in time fondly remembered, or convinced that there is something more to be learned between those covers. The emotions of previous encounters enter one again, even without touching the book.

Bookshelves in a home speak volumes (literally) about the owner. Entering a home with books for the first time, one gravitates automatically to the shelves, scanning the spines for titles unfamiliar and familiar, deducing mutual or unexpected interests from them.  A home without books seems shallow and cold, lacking somehow in personality.

Those of us with books under our skin cannot imagine a time when electronic versions will suffice. They offer cold comfort at best. The image of sitting alone on a stormy night with the glow of an electronic screen for companionship simply does not convey the sense of safety and warmth as does the alternative picture I painted in my initial paragraphs. Will there be a time when it is enough? Not for me.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

How To Clean the Kitchen: A Soap Opera in Three Acts

ACT 1: The Slippery Slope
I stepped up to the kitchen sink one morning a couple of weeks ago and my foot came down on something gooey and slippery. I looked down and saw a white-ish gelatinous mass right at the hinge corner of the under-sink cupboard door.

Puzzled, I thought perhaps my spouse had been pouring something into the grease can and missed – but when I grabbed a dampened paper towel and started to wipe at it, it foamed.

“Did we spill some liquid dish soap down here?” I asked (diplomatically, I might add. Notice the “we.”)

“Not that I know of,” he said from the table where he was munching his breakfast bagel. “Why?”

I opened the door to throw the soggy paper towel into the trash, and spotted an equally gooey pile of the stuff next to the trash bin. Taking a step off the foot mat, I found myself sliding across the floor.

“We have a problem,” I reported. I took off my house shoe and limped to the bathroom, where I washed it in the sink and set it aside to dry.

We had just put a new gallon-sized bottle of liquid soap under the sink. It had sat on the garage pantry shelf for some time, and had not exhibited any leaks. However, Gary pulled it out and we put it on a tray, and sure enough it drooled some soap. We found a very small split in the bottom. Somehow it had been set on something that poked a hole in it.

I had been saying for weeks that we needed to clean out under the sink again – the liner was getting wrinkled and soiled and we hadn’t cleaned to the back of the cupboard for some time. So Gary took everything out – which included unscrewing and removing the slide-out trash bin and drawer, and it got a thorough cleaning.

Be careful what you wish for!

ACT 2: Melt-Down

I had also been saying that I needed to clean out the side-by-side freezer-refrigerator.  So last week we invited some friends about to depart the country for a few months for a bon-voyage supper. We started out with some wine and snacks, and then as I reached into the freezer for a final item in my supper preparation, I saw that the ice compartment was dripping. I poked a package of frozen veggies and discovered that it was getting soft. Uh-oh.
                                                      An image from an altered book.  

I didn’t want to upset the dinner party, so I maintained silence about the drips, but I found myself growing more and more anxious as the evening wore on. As soon as we had wished our guests bon voyage and shut the door, I said:

“We have a problem.”   

Investigation revealed that the freezer was not working and we rushed madly around to save the food. Of course I had been to the store that morning – the one where I can save a lot of money on certain things, but it’s at quite a distance from home so I go about every two months and stock up, putting a lot of things in the upright freezer out in the garage. So we crammed what we could in there. Fortunately, we had kept the fridge in the downstairs kitchen that was my mother’s before she passed away – it has become the “beer and backup” refrigerator so we filled the small top freezer in that.

We retired around midnight, hoping that the refrigerator side was still working.

Morning light, and I checked the refrigerator. Nope, the chill was departing from the fridge side, too. I stuck my head into the bedroom where Gary was still snoozing, and said:

“We have a problem.”

There was another rush to remove the beer and sodas from the downstairs fridge and load it with stuff from the kitchen. (Needless to say, I pitched things from both the freezer and the fridge as we unloaded our malfunctioning unit. Nothing had yet grown legs, but some of it was iffy.)

Gary made a call to Sears for a repairman, and obtained an appointment made for the following day. I had already been online checking out new refrigerators, and after some discussion we agreed that we should go check some out “just in case” we had to replace ours.

In fact, we found one that we liked on sale – a French-door bottom freezer unit that looked much more accommodating than the current one. After a good deal of discussion over lunch, reciting our previous appliance repair experiences in terms of both money and time, we decided to just buy the new one before the sale was over (the following day in fact) and let them haul away the dying monument to arctic failure.  

So OK – it was an expensive way to clean out the fridge. Be careful what you wish for.


I have been saying that I need to clean out the kitchen pantry. Nothing has happened yet, but I have a feeling I should get to it before it experiences spontaneous combustion or before something in there takes on a life of its own. Meanwhile, I’m holding my tongue, careful for what I wish for. 

Sunday, January 1, 2012

My Soulless Shoes

One of Life’s Little Moments (that we’d like to forget)       
With minor illustrations in Trade Cards   

Some women buy shoes right and left. They need huge walk-in closets to store their footware. This always amazes me – my array of shoes fits neatly on a small rack in the bottom corner of my closet. It’s not that I don’t like shoes, or need shoes – it’s just that I have never accepted the cost of good shoes. There are so many other things that one could spend that money on, like books. I have never hesitated over the cost of a book if I had the money for it. Between the need to find a pair of   shoes that are comfortable, attractive, and suitable support for a bad back, the cost just makes my head reel and my pocket book seal itself shut.

I have been saying that I need a new pair of casual dress shoes – my current pair is falling apart. We were headed downtown to visit some favorite art galleries that were open one evening so I put on some “go to town” clothes. In Eugene, Oregon, that translates to “good jeans” and a blouse instead of a tee-shirt. Unless it’s a very nice tee shirt.) Noting the condition of my decrepit shoes, I dug out some older flats that looked as though they still had some good wear in them, slipped them on, and headed down the hall to get my coat.

The shoes made a funny swunchy  on the hall floor. It wasn’t the usual squeak of rubber against wood. Squnch! Squnch! It was not like anything I had heard before, but since we had torn up the carpet and laid down new solid flooring recently, I figured it was normal for that kind of contact.

 As we walked around town, though, I noticed that the sole of my shoe seemed a bit loose, but I figured that it would last at least for the rest of the evening.

We stopped in at a favorite gallery, where I became absorbed in a display and I didn’t pay too much attention when the owner dove into the back room and dashed back out with a dustpan and whisk broom and brushed furiously at something on the floor. I figured that someone had probably dropped a cracker and stepped on it. But then she came along behind me and did it again….and then again, muttering, “What is this stuff? Mud or something?”

At which point I checked the bottoms of my shoes, only to discover that they were disintegrating. Apparently they were a composite that was decomposing (which reminds me of the joke about Mozart’s tomb, but you know that one) in big chunks and smaller crumbs. I apologized fervently, removed my shoes, and limped to the door.

I’d show you a picture but I threw them away the minute we got home. I still haven’t bought a new pair although I have looked around a bit. But I’m going to have to wait for the sticker shock to wear off.  Meanwhile, I wonder if I can dress up my Crocs to pass for evening wear?