Friday, March 17, 2017

Wandering through winter with Edwin and Nellie Teale

Wandering Through Winter
An Adventurous 20,000 Journey Through the North American Winter
New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1965
(Read in January 2017)

Author Edwin Way Teale won the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction in 1965 with Wandering Through Winter: An Adventurous 20,000 Mile Journey Through the North American Winter.  This book is the last in a four volume natural history series by Teale, each of which describe a trip he and his wife make, crossing the United States as they follow a different season for each book.  Teale made the first trip with his wife Nellie in 1947 as a way to deal with grief over the death of their only child, David, who was killed in World War II. 

They begin the series with spring, move to fall on the next trip, follow up with summer, and complete the series with winter.  The Teale’s route is different in each book.  For winter they travel from southwestern most point of the US where California joins Mexico to the northeastern most point of the US, somewhere on the coast north of Caribou, Maine.  Their routes are never direct, but are convoluted as they double back to visit a specific place.  The front of this book has a map that shows each season’s route. 

The “adventure” alluded to in the subtitle is very low on the excitement scale. Teale’s writing style initially struck me as stilted and old-fashioned but I got used to it quickly.  Other readers never grow to appreciate it.  One reader described the book as “the most boring book I ever read.”  Teale writes for a more erudite reader than exists today in the general population.

For some reason, I grew to love this book. This isn’t a book about the cold or snow, which one might expect with this title.  The perspective is idiosyncratic.  Teale quotes from Alice in Wonderland when the White Queen said to Alice—“Why, sometimes, I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”  Teale, too, likes to believe and observe the impossible or unusual things as he and his wife wander across the United States.  Fortunately, he then shares them with us, his readers.

Teale spends one of the first nights of the trip in Southern California in the Colorado Desert with a friend and expert on the Chuckwalla Mountain region, Dr. Edmund C. Jaeger who points out that “the desert landscape is monotonous only to the uninformed.” Teale discovers firsthand that on and above the surface of dry land, rapid fluctuations of temperature produce violently shifting air currents.  He and his companions are buffeted by winds gusting to 50 mph that night.  Teale fears he will be swept away, helplessly tucked into his sleeping bag, blown along like a giant tumbleweed.  Teale notices how insects and plants have adapted to the winds.  He watches a small butterfly hook three of its legs around a pebble and then allows the wind to blow it parallel to the ground, a position that offers the least resistance.

Who knew that a bird hibernates for the winter!  Jaeger was the first scientist to observe a hibernating bird, a Nuttal’s Poorwill, and realize what he was seeing.  He banded the hibernating bird and discovered the same bird returned to its small rock crevice for four years running, 1946-1950. 
Teale also writes about:

·         The largest albino squirrel population identified in the United States.
·         Eagle sightings and their comeback from great endangerment, e.g., people in Alaska killed 115,000 eagles from 1917-1952. 
·         Whale watching off the Pacific Coast.
·         Palo Duro Canyon in Texas, a beautiful place that I’ve visited myself.
·         Prairie dog villages.
·         Diamond Crater in Arkansas.
·         A domestic cat sanctuary housing 79 cats.
·         Loner and photographer Wilson Alwyn Bentley, whose life’s work was the study and photographing of snowflakes that are preserved and displayed at his home, now a museum.
Snow crystal

·        Long-tailed salamanders in the Shenandoah Valley that breed in the basement of a cabin that contains an artesian well.

Each chapter title in the table of contents is followed by a list of topics covered in the chapter.  The book also has a detailed index, both of which helped me to go back and find parts of the book that I found interesting. 
Edwin Way Teale
Teale was a self-educated naturalist and a staff writer for Popular Science magazine for 13 years, before he quit to pursue his freelance writing career.  Teale died in 1980, while Nellie lived until the age of 92, passing away in 1993.  Their home, Trailwood, is preserved and managed today by the Connecticut Audubon Society.  

Sunday, February 5, 2017

The First Book Review of 2017: The Memory of Running

My goal each year is to average reading at least a book a week over the course of twelve months. Last year I only wrote down 44 books, but I didn't log a couple Youth Adult novels that I read before placing them in the Little Free Library (LFL).

My favorite genre was mysteries with 28 books read, no surprise there. Other genre included: 5 biographical; 3 historic fiction; 1 self-help; 1 nonfiction essays; 2 fantasy; 2 chick lit; 1 mainstream fiction; and 1 (or more) children’s literature.

So far this year I’ve completed four books, almost finished two more, and I’m about a fourth of the way through the massive John Adams, by David McCullough.

Our LFL continues to tempt me with titles, such as this book, my first review of 2017.

 Viking Press, 1999; Penguin paperback, 2004

Character actor and playwright Ron McLarty's first novel, The Memory of Running, is about love, loss, and redemption—a modern day Hero’s Quest.  While McLarty wrote this book years ago, but I’m just now reading it, having discovered it in our Little Free Library. 

Smithson “Smithy” Ide is an overweight, alcoholic, but dutiful son and brother. He is blindsided when his parents are in a horrific automobile accident. His only sibling, the beautiful Bethany, suffered from debilitating mental illness her entire life and disappeared years before. The family never stopped loving or searching for Bethany, and Smithy is determined to bring her home. 

One evening Smithy hops on his beloved, childhood Raleigh bicycle and starts pedaling. He initially has no plan. He’s drunk as usual and what seemed like a good idea at the time eventually becomes something greater. After a few days on the road, Smithy thinks to call his family’s next-door-neighbor, Norma, to tell her he is making a trip by bicycle across the country. He asks her to notify his employer. Years before, the younger Norma was the pesky kid who followed Smithy around and loved hanging out with the Ide family. After Norma was hit by a car and paralyzed, Smithy rarely saw her anymore except through the window of her home. 

Norma tells Smithy she has been frantic since he disappeared, and the police are searching for him. Smithy assures her he is fine, and she makes him promise to keep calling her so she will know he is alive.  Soon their phone calls become a lifeline while he pedals across the country. It's Norma who tells Smithy that he is on an important quest.

Smithy alternately is the most unlucky man on earth, or the luckiest one, as adventures and mishaps follow him.  He somehow survives relatively unscathed.  This novel is both outrageous and heartwarming.  By the end of his journey, Smithy is looking more like a hero than a fool.

When McLarty wrote this book, he couldn’t find a publisher.  Since McLarty was also a voice actor, he published it himself as a book on tape.  Author Stephen King heard it and described it in Entertainment Today as “the best book you can’t read.” He helped McLarty connect with Viking Press, and The Memory of Running  was published to critical acclaim. In 2014 Melissa McCarthy and Ben Falcone acquired the rights to The Memory of Running for a possible movie.

McLarty has written three more books, continues his acting career, and records audio books for various authors, including David Baldacci and former President George W. Bush.  

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Nesting for the Holidays

My holiday season in 2016 was dominated with preparations for a second knee joint replacement surgery.  My preparations are peculiar to my personality.  First, I’m a real “nester.”  I want my surroundings to be fun and upbeat.  For me, fall means decorating for specific holidays!  This was going to be more difficult this year because I wanted all Christmas decorations to be completed before my November 30 surgery, but I didn’t want to ignore Thanksgiving.  My turkey collection makes me smile.

Dining Room Table ready for Thanksgiving

I also had cooking I wanted to do before my surgery.  We had homegrown produce I wanted to use.  Our Meyer lemon tree, still potted in a half barrel container, yielded about a dozen lemons, and my friend gave me more from her huge lemon tree.  I wanted to use my lemons, so I opted  to make lemon blueberry muffins.  I was able freeze muffins to eat for breakfast after my surgery.  

Lemon Blueberry Muffin
We had an abundance of bell peppers late in the season.  I was determined to use them, too.  I made several  dishes of stuffed peppers, some vegetarian and some stuffed with ground turkey.  I froze small casseroles of stuffed peppers for post-surgery meals, then cut up the rest of the peppers to freeze and use for gumbo.

Pepper Preparation
My most time-consuming and important task was insuring that my downstairs recovery space was to my liking.  We don’t have a downstairs bedroom in our old house, so again we made up the sofa bed in the music/living room, complete with memory foam mattress.  

Treble quickly embraced the idea of nesting in the living room bed.  We watched a lot of football during the first month of my recovery (when I wasn't doing my physical therapy exercises).


 My husband, my personal nurse since his retirement, even served me Continental breakfast in bed.

Friends and neighbors were incredibly generous in providing meals.  One neighbor delivered a beautiful gift bag full of food--four individual casseroles of homemade shepherd's pie, makings for a fresh fruit salad, homemade cookies, and the December issue of Good Housekeeping magazine.

Another friend and his wife prepared a Louisiana favorite of fried shrimp, fries, garlic bread and salad.  And these were the meals I remembered to document with photos.  For two weeks, Ricky and I didn't lift a finger in the kitchen.

I was able to enjoy my recuperation during the holidays because I surrounded myself with a few-- okay, a lot, of my favorite things.  On the music room mantle, I displayed four Wood World Santas made in a cottage industry during the 1970's and 1980's in my hometown of Marion, Virginia, along with many other Santa Claus figures I've collected over the years.

I hung copies of vintage postcards on an inexpensive tree, added red ornaments and some hand crocheted snow flakes from my hometown.  This provided me with a lovely recovery room Christmas tree.

My friend Elizabeth in New Orleans decided I needed a big singing Santa and a dog like Treble, so one day these arrived in the mail and were added to the fireplace scene.

After the music/living room was complete, I moved on to decorate the foyer, dining room, and my library because these would be the other downstairs spaces I would inhabit during the early weeks of my recovery.  And when I say decorate, I mean I created my own Christmas world.  

Every year I question my sanity but each year my inner child takes over and tells the adult to hush and just go with it.  So I do.  

Thursday, October 13, 2016

One Weekend--Many Events

This past weekend found us back at the Red River Revel on Saturday to hear some Arkansas musicians, the four time Grammy-nominated Trout Fishing in America, followed by Dana Louise and the Glorious Birds. Dana Louise is the daughter of one of the Trout Fishing musicians, and both the guys play in her band.  Follow the links to hear some of  the music of Trout Fishing and Dana Louise.
Keith and Ezra, Trout Fishing in America, at Red River Revel 2016
In addition to music, there was more eating--etouffee for Ricky and Zwolle tamales for me.  Okay, I confess, we also ate ice cream but only to provide the energy needed to browse through the other half of the artist tents that we hadn't seen before.

We then went home to watch another Tennessee football game.  The pixie dust was blowing hither and yon, but Tennessee lost to Texas A & M in the second overtime. Note to the Vols: You can’t turn over the ball 7 times in a game and hope to win. 

On Sunday after a brunch of pancakes with strawberries and whipped cream at one of our popular neighborhood diners, Ricky and I headed out to the Highland Open Studio Tour Sunday (HOSTS) event, admiring the art at four studios. I bought a gorgeous silk shawl embedded with felted leaves from Fibre to Felt Wearable Art.  I’m looking forward to wearing it this fall.

Silk shawl with felted leaves
After HOSTS, we headed home to chill (literally and figuratively) before attending the Shreveport House Concert in our neighborhood.  Sunday night’s concert featured Grammy-nominated Hawaiian slack-key guitarist, singer, songwriter Stephen Inglis.  At the concert, we learned that slack-key is a specific way of tuning and playing a guitar.  Inglis featured many of songs he wrote, but he also covered other artists.  Inglis was born and raised in Hawaii and speaks Hawaiian so he also sings traditional Hawaiian songs as part of his repertoire.  Stephen's latest CD is Learning You By Heart.

Hawaiian Slack Key Guitarist Stephen Inglis
Ricky and I feel our dance cards are plenty full in Shreveport.  I know we are baby boomers, which designates our age bracket, but it seems to us that Shreveport in the fall is a happening place.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

The Louisiana Film Prize Festival had something for everyone

Friday morning before 10:00 am Ricky and I stood in line with dozens of other people at the Robinson Film Center waiting to see the films that were finalists for the Louisiana Film Prize.  Film makers come from across the country to make their films and compete in the competition.  The films have to shot in the Shreveport-Bossier metropolitan area and can’t be longer than 15 minutes. The 21 finalists are selected by the film festival judges, but the big winner is decided by viewer votes.  You have to see all the films, shown in venues spread across downtown Shreveport (or one location in Bossier City across the Red River from Shreveport) on Friday or Saturday in order to vote. 

Ricky and I decided the venues wouldn’t be as crowded on Friday.  Before we retired, we had to see all the films on Saturday, and one venue would fill up, then we had to scurry around to find another viewing site.  This year we watched the eleven films on the orange slate in a comfortable viewing room at the Robinson Film Center downtown, ate a quick  lunch at Abby Singer’s Bistro in the film center, then walked a block to the Capri Theater, an old theater where we could see the ten films on the teal slate.  The Capri had the added advantage of having a bar in the theater, so I sipped a glass of white wine while we watched the second slate of movies. 

The quality of the films has improved every year, so it was extremely difficult this year when it came time to vote for our top three films.  We eventually made our film selections, plus the best actor and actress choices.  The voting process is taken seriously and monitored closely. 

Films we liked included “The Verses” about escaped slaves trying to evade the bounty hunters and dogs on their trail, and the abolitionist family who helps the slaves; “TheStand” based on a true story of a busload of Christians and Muslims in Kenya uniting to stay alive while Muslim extremists seek to separate and kill all non-Muslims; Ya Abi (My Heart) about a Muslim immigrant to the US and her unlikely friendship with an American woman; “He Could Have Gone Pro” features a troubled family dealing with death; and “The Importance of Sex Education,” a coming of age comedy. 

The grand winner was “The Man from Mars.” A cynical podcast host travels the country in his beat-up RV interviewing unusual people who come to his attention.  He travels to rural Louisiana because there is a woman there who thinks she is the second coming of Christ.  The cynical host has a hard time making fun of this woman people call “Mother.”

Saturday our film prize tickets got us free entry into the Red River Revel, where we browsed a large variety of food and drink vendors.  We opted for Hawaiian food and beer that we ate while we listened to an hour and a half sound check for Polyphonic Spree, the Dallas band on tap for later that night.  We also did some serious people watching, but we never heard the scheduled band that was over an hour late getting on stage. 

We browsed through half the arts and crafts vendors, then decided to go home to watch the Tennessee-Georgia football game.  I attended graduate school at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville and became an “orange neck”—translation, Volunteer fan.  If you saw this game, you will remember the wild finish, which included a successful Hail Mary pass by Tennessee’s quarterback into the end zone in the last 4 seconds to win the game.    Talk about Coach Butch Jones’ Pixie Dust! 

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Fall Weekends in Shreveport

We live in Shreveport, Louisiana, one of those mid-sized Deep South cities, that isn’t considered trendy.  People often complain that there’s nothing to do and yearn to move to Oregon, Colorado, or California, or at least across the border to one of the large Texas cities. There’s nothing wrong with these locales, don’t get me wrong.  This isn’t about bashing other cities or states.  It is about blooming where you are planted, enjoying the area where you live.

Fall Leaf detail
(photo by Ricky Edgerton)
Autumn brings special events to this northwest corner of Louisiana.  Shreveport is home to the annual Louisiana Film Prize, featuring a $50,000 cash award, one of the largest cash payouts in the country for a short film.  The film festival is held the first weekend in October in conjunction with Shreveport’s large fall arts, food and music festival, The Red River Revel. 

Our road to the film festival began several weeks ago when my husband bought us Super Passes to the Film Prize at our neighborhood jazz and blues festival.  The Highland Jazz and Blues Festival is held each year at a park near our house.  I attended the festival this year but didn’t stay the whole time.  I was still a bit gimpy from my knee joint replacement, there were technical problems at the main stage, and the second stage was farther than I wanted to walk. While waiting for them to sort out the electrical problems, we ate food from one of the food vendors, visited with friends and neighbors, and perspired in the September sun.  Then I got into a fire ant bed.  If you aren’t familiar with fire ants, the best word to describe them is “Ouch!”

Poster art by Highland artist, Karen LaBeau
Deciding the fates were aligned against me, I walked home.  Ricky and a friend walked with me, we cooled off with beers, then they headed back to the festival while I stayed home.  Ricky visited all the festival vendors and came home with two Super Passes to the Louisiana Film Prize Fest, available for a discounted price that day. 

The Louisiana Film Prize event keeps growing, and for the last couple of years there has been a music component.  The film prize music festival includes the Music Prize: Emerging Artist Showcase competition. Our super passes meant we could attend the music prize competition, as well as the film festival.  The Thursday before the film festival found Ricky and me at a downtown bar, listening to five bands or solo musicians compete for the $5,000 emerging music award. 

Ricky and me at the Voodoo Cafe: an Art Bar for the music prize competition
There was music for every taste—two loud rock ‘n roll bands, one hip hop artist with a positive message, a soulful female singer/guitarist, and a local band, The Wall Chargers, my personal favorite.   The Wall Chargers defy easy classification.  We first heard three members of this band at a Shreveport House Concert.  Their music has been described as rhythm and blues and folk rock alternative.  They describe their music as “space western” and claim their sound was developed “between dive bars and church camps.”   Cuts from the latest Wall Charger CD, In Between Frames, can be heard here

The Wall Chargers at the Music Prize competition

We didn’t stay to hear which group won that night, because we were going to be back downtown the next morning for the Film Festival. 

Tomorrow's post describes our Film Prize experience.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Gertrude Bell: Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations

Georgina Howell was given a magazine assignment to write a feature on her hero, someone she always admired.  She knew immediately who her subject would be—Gertrude Bell. 

Bell was a linguist, a gardener, a mountain climber, a published poet, an explorer, an author, an archaeologist, a photographer, a cartographer, a skilled administrator, a British spy, and a major in the British Army.  Howell’s original article about Bell grew into this scholarly, yet highly readable, biography. 
Gertrude Bell: Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations
Georgina Howell
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2006
In the early twentieth century, Bell was one of the most powerful women in the British Empire and played an instrumental role in the establishment of Iraq, yet many people in the United States have never heard of her.  More people are familiar with her younger male contemporary, T. E. Lawrence of Arabia.  Upon meeting Lawrence, Bell described him as “an interesting boy, he will make a traveler.” 

Bell was born 1868 in Yorkshire, England, into a wealthy family, but polite society bored her.  Even as a child, Bell had a restless mind and couldn’t sit still.  Her mother died when she was a toddler, but her father remarried a woman who would raise his two children by his first wife and go on to have children of her own.  Bell’s family introduced her into society as a debutante, practically required for a young lady in her social class, but at the same time, her father encouraged Bell to be adventurous and supported her desire for an education.  She was the first woman to be awarded a First in Modern History at Oxford’s Queens College.

When Bell was 30, she discovered mountain climbing.  She was average in height at 5’5” but strong and athletic.  With the assistance of local guides, she went on to climb some of the highest peaks in the Alps.  She climbed a 13,068’ mountain in her underclothes, because there was no mountain gear for women.  When she reached her destination, she pulled out her skirt and put it on.  Later she acquired a pair of men’s trousers for climbing.  One mountain climbing expedition required that she and her guides cut steps in the ice for 3 ½ hours.  She found herself in many precarious situations in her life, but her friends described her as fearless. 

Bell spoke 6 languages fluently, including Persian and Arabic.  She wrote eight books, including a translation and biography of the lyric poet Hafiz, one of Persia’s most famous poets. 
Bell also became interested in “hardy gardening,” the precursor to the English gardens of today, rather than the hothouse gardening then popular in England.  She developed a rock garden and later a water garden at the family home, then wrote a book about it. 

While Bell was accomplished in so many areas, she never had much success in love. The first young man she fancied had a gambling problem and died young.  The love of her life was already married.  He was later killed in WW I, but they were able to spend time together before he went to the front.  She later had an unrequited infatuation with a young male co-worker.

Even with all her previous accomplishments, it was Bell’s “love affair” with the vast area known as Arabia that brought her into her own. Bell described her first sight of the desert:

Oh the desert around Teheran!  Miles and miles of it with nothing, nothing growing; ringed in with bleak bare mountains snow crowned and furrowed with the deep courses of torrents.  I never knew what desert was till I came here; it is a very wonderful thing to see; and suddenly in the middle of it all, out of nothing, out of a little cold water, springs up a garden. Such a garden: Trees, fountains, tanks, roses and a house in it, the houses which we heard of in fairy tales when we were little: inlaid with tiny slabs of looking-glass in lovely patterns, blue tiled, carpeted, echoing with the sound of running water and fountains.

Bell made six extended trips to the Middle East and later in her life lived in Baghdad.   She visited cities we hear on the news—Jerusalem, Amman, Basra, Damascus, Palmyra, Haifa, Aleppo, Istanbul, Mosul, Samarra—then ventured into the vast uncharted miles of desert.  She apparently was as skilled riding a camel as a horse.

While the Ottoman Empire controlled or influenced the populated areas Bell visited, the wilderness was largely uncharted.  Bell wandered throughout the desert, befriended the Bedouin sheikhs who controlled the wilderness and made copious notes about tribal alliances as the Bedouin chiefs defended their trade routes, grazing grounds, and wells from their neighbors and rivals.  Many tribesmen were totally ruthless even to other family members, but Bell spoke their language, she understood the rules of hospitality in the desert, and she was insatiably curious.  Using her knowledge of cartography, she mapped previously unknown parts of this territory.   She entered dangerous places as if there were no question that she had a right to be there. 

Her vast knowledge of the Middle East would make her one of the people responsible for the establishment of nations, especially Iraq, after WW I.  She saw this as a way to promote Arab autonomy.  Having rebelled against the Ottoman Empire, the Arabs did not want to substitute Western control for that of the Turks.  However, the old tribal and religious animosities, plus the discovery of oil in the Middle East, have led to continued problems that have not been resolved to this day.

While Gertrude Bell loved Iraq, the weather and her heavy smoking eventually took its toll on her health.  She died in Baghdad in 1926 at the age of 58. 

Howell’s book contains a helpful chronology of Bell’s life and the events surrounding her life.  The back of the book contains notes linked to pages in the book, but there are no numbers in the text to interrupt one’s reading.  A lengthy bibliography is also provided.  In the front of the book are maps of Bell’s six desert journeys that show her destinations and routes.

In addition to shining a light on a fascinating and gifted woman, Howell’s book also helped me put into context current events in the Middle East.  A movie starring Nicole Kidman, titled Queen of the Desert, was released in 2015 but it didn’t fare well with critics or at the box office.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Baghdad Diaries: A Woman’s Chronicles of War and Exile

Nuha Al-Radi, a well-to-do Iraqi artist, kept a diary starting with Operation Desert Storm, the Allied operation against Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1991 and continued writing sporadically through 2002. 


Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, a former ally of the United States during the Iran-Iraq War, invaded Kuwait to gain access to the oil fields because his country needed money to rebuild after the war with Iran.  Moreover, the borders of Kuwait, established by the U.S., Great Britain and France after World War I had long been in dispute.   

While the conflict officially began in August 1990 as Operation Desert Shield, the combat phase of the war (Desert Storm) started in January 1991 and lasted about five weeks.  During this phase of the conflict, the Allied coalition flew over 100,000 sorties for forty-two consecutive days and nights, subjecting Iraq to the most intensive air bombardment in military history.
Baghdad Diaries, by Nuha Al-Radi
Vintage Books, 2003 ed
Al-Radi’s diary gives the reader a behind-the-scenes view of civilian life during the bombardment.  Al-Radi’s family was well-connected.  Her father was one of the first Iraqis to attend college in the U.S.  He studied agriculture at the University of Texas and later became the ambassador to Iran as well as ambassador to India where he served for nine years.  Al-Radi and her two siblings grew up in India and had an international and cosmopolitan upbringing.  They all studied abroad.  Al-Radi had an art degree in ceramics but later concentrated on painting and sculpture.   

This diary, which Al-Radi wrote in English, is divided into six sections: 

Prologue--She describes her family’s background to put her story into context.  The prologue was written for this 2003 edition. 

Funduq al-Saada or Hotel Paradiso (January 19, 1991-June 1991)--This part of the diary tells of the bombardment and its effect on their lives.   When the bombing begins in the middle of the night, Al-Radi gets up to stand on her balcony and watches the sky light up and listens to the barrage, while her dog Salvador Dali barks madly and runs in circles around the courtyard below.  Al-Radi lives in the northern section of Baghdad on land that includes an orchard of 161 orange trees and 66 palm trees.  Because her home is large and away from the bombing of all the bridges by the Allies, many friends and family members come to live with her, eat with her, or stay there at night during times of intense bombing.  She starts to call her home Hotel Paradiso. 

There is a party atmosphere at times.  Everyone shares their food because all food in freezers must be prepared and eaten quickly when the electricity is knocked out on the first night of bombing.  Gasoline becomes a precious commodity but sometimes they travel to other homes for social gatherings.  Mostly every night after the All Clear, they go to check on friends and family to see if they made it through the bombing.   

Access to water is sporadic in her area.  It isn’t long before Al-Radi reports that all her houseguests are using the bathroom in the orchard to save water and to fertilize the plants.  One of the older relatives refuses and goes home each day to use her toilet because her home still has water.   

As the destruction of infrastructure, factories, homes, and even a shelter for women and children continues, the death toll of civilians rises.  Al-Radi asks, “What did we do to you, George [H.W] Bush, that you hate us so?”  All Americans think of Iraqis as terrorists, oil sheikhs or women covered in black from head to toe, she writes.  Don’t they know there are ordinary Iraqis living here?   

Despite her Western connections, Al-Radi becomes bitter toward American Presidents who she feels lie to justify attacking Iraq as they seek to insure control over the oil fields.

Funduq al-Saada or Hotel Paradiso, is the most compelling section of the diary to me.  On Day 14 of the bombardment, her mother’s younger brother dies in his sleep, supposedly of a heart attack, but Al-Radi says he died of sorrow.  Her descriptions focus on the collateral damage of war:  Day 18: The birds have taken the worst beating of all.  They have sensitive souls which cannot take all this hideous noise and vibration.  All the caged love-birds have died from the shock of the blasts, while birds in the wild fly upside-down and do crazy somersaults. 

Embargo (November 3, 1994- June 1995)—The embargo is almost total, with strict regulation of food imports and medical supplies.   Al-Radi reports that poverty and hunger are on the rise among the populace.  There is a shortage of everything, burglary increases, and Baghdad is no longer a safe city.   

Exile (June 23, 1995- March 4, 1996)—Bribes must be paid to leave and return to Iraq.  She gets herself declared illiterate with just a thumbprint on her documentation because it’s cheaper to leave and return if the government thinks you are illiterate.  Everyone is getting sick from the effects of exposure to the burning oil wells and refineries, which caused pollution of air, water and soil.  People who can afford it go to Amman, Jordan for medical treatment.   Educated people who have the means leave the county.  She writes of a surgeon trying to become a butcher and an engineer a waiter. 

Identity (June 9, 1996-November 27, 2002)—Sporadic entries cover this timeframe as Al-Radi is all over the globe, from London and the U.S. to various countries in the Middle East.  She has continued to do her art, so some travel is in conjunction with art shows. 

Postscript (March 3, 2003)—Al-Radi lives in Beirut in an apartment building next to the Saudi embassy.  From her window she can see a slice of sky and one palm tree that is planted at the embassy.  She contrasts this with her lost paradise of her Baghdad orchard.  Again Iraq’s citizens wait for the U.S. to attack them, so George W. and Dick Cheney can finish what George H. W. Bush started. 

She asks:  What is the difference between Iraq invading and occupying Kuwait in 1990 and America invading and occupying Iraq in 2003?  The most powerful nation in the world with the latest weapons of mass destruction is attacking a small country that has been pre-emptively stripped of its defences…In the name of peace and humanity, thousands have to be killed.  In the name of liberation, in the name of democracy, there will be a military occupation. 

Nuha Al-Radi died in 2004 at age 63 of leukemia.

This book provided me with a different perspective on the Iraqi conflicts.  She mentions Saddam Hussein matter-of-factly and barely touches on religion.  It's a simple book but I found it fascinating.  Combined with the other books I'm reading about this region of the country, it makes me sad to think how much has been destroyed in this cradle of civilization. 

Saturday, September 24, 2016

The Kitchen Window: A Throwback Post

I was reminded that I had written this essay when a friend mentioned wanting a window in her kitchen, but she added that all she would be looking at was her car in the garage.  Our kitchen window now looks out on our new cedar fence, a large thermometer Ricky mounted to the fence, a piece of Ricky’s original blacksmith art, a crape myrtle tree trunk, and part of a banana magnolia bush.  Before Ricky and I moved into our present home, we lived in a modest duplex a block from our current residence.   Our previous kitchen window view was more diverse.
Duplex door

I remember my mother talking about a newly constructed house she had just visited.  “Well, it’s very nice but I wouldn’t want it.  I wouldn’t have a house without a window over the kitchen sink.  I want to see outside while I work in the kitchen.”

I agree with my mother.  Even with today’s automatic dishwashers and microwave quick meals from the freezer, a kitchen window is still essential to a well-designed kitchen. 

The view from the kitchen window doesn’t have to be fancy.  A couple of bird feeders and a bird bath encircled by a rather disreputable-looking flower garden are in the foreground of my kitchen window scene.  Despite the neglect I heap upon my flowers, occasionally a large, purple iris, a hardy pink tulip, or lavender hyacinth blooms in the garden.  Each blossom is something to celebrate and ooh and ahh over. 
Tallow tree next to the ditch in autumn
Ditch with autumn leaves from tallow tree
I also have a tree outside my window—a tallow tree.  Tallow trees are considered trash trees.  They grow fast in the Deep South and are proliferate reproducers.   They don’t usually grow large, and they “self-prune” so they rain twigs in the yard.  Our tallow tree is big because of its location beside a four foot deep concrete drainage ditch that guarantees a good water supply.

A community of birds, squirrels, and cats live and play around the tallow tree.  Brilliant red cardinals, raucous blue jays, and red-throated finches have all been observed at the bird feeders that hang from the limbs of the tallow tree.  Woodpeckers and flickers eat insects up and down the trunk. 
One of the neighborhood cats beside the ditch
Behind the tallow tree is the concrete-lined drainage ditch that now has a weathered natural stone look.  A daily parade can be observed from the kitchen window as neighborhood children and an assortment of cats use the ditch as a thoroughfare.   At night the ditch is more sinister, its walls filled with large flying tree roaches.  Sometimes the ditch serves as an escape route for those trying to elude the police.  When it rains, the ditch is a roaring torrent of rushing water, scary to watch.
Flooding ditch  fills garage and garage apartment entrance during torrential rains
Elderberries, honeysuckle and wild morning glories grow along the old wooden fence that separates our neighbor’s yard from the ditch.  Each spring a dogwood with white blossoms peeks over the fence, and a royal star magnolia blooms bravely, almost lost in a jungle of vines.

The window connects me with my neighborhood…with life outside my home.  I wouldn’t have a house without a window over the kitchen sink.  You don’t have to either—hand me that sledge hammer.