Monthly Archives: February 2008

Landscape: Monster America

“…gradually I write one page and then another. One day’s work is all I can permit myself to contemplate, and I eliminate the possibility of ever finishing. So it was now as I looked at the bright-colored projection of monster America.” –John Steinbeck, in Travels with Charley: In Search of America

Monster AmericaA roadmap of the United States hangs on my wall, much like the midsection of an arm or a leg spread out two-dimensionally in an anatomy textbook. Eggshell blue bodies of water lap up against the white skin of the land, splotched green and orange and brown. Vein-like roads tangle in the East, crisscrossing north and south. By the time they hit the Mississippi, they’re widening, opening up to the West. Nevada’s only got a few lifelines. Montana, North Dakota, and New Mexico are showing a lot of skin. Red and blue bundles circle the cities: pulse points. This map reads like life-sized invitation to get back out on the road. A constant temptation. I’m trying to settle down.

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Literature: The Invention of Everything Else

“Lightning first, then the thunder. And in between the two I’m reminded of a secret.” -opening lines of The Invention of Everything Else

Down and Out on Invention of Everything ElseIf you’re at all fascinated by science, you’ll be interested to know that a fictional book about real-life inventor Nikola Tesla’s last days was published earlier this month (Houghton Mifflin). Samantha Hunt’s The Invention of Everything Else brings to life a story of the talented (but often overlooked) inventor of radio by telling about his fictional meeting with a young hotel chambermaid named Louisa. Besides radio, Nikola Tesla (1856-1943) invented radar, remote control, fluorescent lighting, the x-ray, the AC motor, the Tesla coil, and much more. But despite his brilliance, most Americans don’t learn about Tesla in school, and while he was alive, the inventor was not particularly well known. Instead of capitalizing on his work, he gave away his patents, believing that his inventions belonged to the whole world. In The Invention of Everything Else, chambermaid Louisa encounters the destitute and virtually forgotten inventor in 1943, as he is living in one of Hotel New Yorker’s rooms on the 33rd floor, and they strike up a friendship based on their shared love of pigeons. This book’s chapters alternate between Tesla and Louisa, whose stories develop within a narrative that also includes several other eccentric characters: Arthur (a brainy young man who remembers details from Louisa’s past), Azor (a man who has spent the past two years building a time machine in Far Rockaway, Queens), and Louisa’s father (a man who aspires to fly away with Azor in said time machine). While reading this book, be prepared to let your imagination run away with the story. Hunt toys with time and voice, and she succeeds in resurrecting one of the world’s greatest inventors who may have otherwise been left forgotten.

Click here to read my feature-length review of this book, which ran in Denver’s Rocky Mountain News on Friday, October 22, 2008. Thanks! And enjoy…       

Life: The New Backyard

YAY for Vail.It’s official. I have signed a lease on an apartment here in Vail, Colorado. My little one-bedroom feels huge, maybe because it’s the first time in over five years that I’ve had my own place, complete with a permanent mailing address. Is this the end of the road? Could be. Even though I’m sure I’ll start getting restless at some point, I currently have no complaints about the new backyard: Vail Mountain, ski heaven. During the seven days surrounding my arrival, it snowed 42 inches. I’m not lying. Long-time locals are saying that this is the best season in a decade. Naturally, friends from other places (like Cathy, pictured above right) are excited that I’m living here, and I welcome them to come visit—even though I’m still eating off of my camping cookware, and my couch isn’t big enough to sleep on. The walls are bare, and I don’t have anything as luxurious as a spatula or a vacuum cleaner or a TV. But, hey. Who wants to be inside anyway, when right outside the door stuff like this (below) awaits?

Gore Range from Vail Mountain

Lately, it has seemed to be sunny during the day and snowy at night. In the mornings, fresh powder is dusting the slopes, and trees are sagging under the weight of the snow:

In the Trees

I did move here to work, so for four days a week, I’m sitting inside wondering what the conditions are like. But on those other three days, it’s nice to hop on a shuttle into town to find out.

Landscape: Dusk, Summit County

Summit County View from hikeI’ve been in the process of settling down. For about five years. Or forever. But for at least five years. During the last few weeks, as I’ve been transitioning to a more permanent residence, only a few things have seemed to calm me: shoveling snow (a repetitive, almost meditative motion), mountains, and the night. Recently, I got a good dose of all three while staying at an earthship in Silverthorne, Colorado. The adobe-style/enviro-friendly house is nestled into the side of the mountain, accessible only by trucks or plows. So I had to park my wimpy car at a trailhead and hike in to the place each evening, carrying food and water and clothes. Then, I’d eat dinner and shovel snowdrifts in the dark so that I wouldn’t have to shovel out so much in the morning. The wonders of living on the side of a mountain in Summit County, Colorado are many, but I didn’t quite see how I could sustain that living arrangement and also hold down another (paying) job. I didn’t stay for too long, but I stayed long enough to hear coyotes singing at night. To get my snow-shoveling biceps back. To watch the sky turn light purple, then inky blue, then black.

Dusk, Summit County Colorado

Literature: Pollan’s Defense of Food

“Eat Food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” –Michael Pollan

Down and Out on Pollan’s In Defense of FoodJust in case I don’t already read enough, I’ve started to read food labels. Mostly in response to reading Michael Pollan’s latest book, In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto (Penguin Press, 2008), I’ve been scanning packaging labels to make sure that the things I’m eating don’t contain loads of ingredients that I can’t pronounce or that high fructose corn syrup isn’t the first (or second, or third) item on the list. I don’t diet, and I’m not overly obsessive about what I eat, but after reading this book, I feel justified in being concerned about what I put in my mouth. Pollan’s manifesto, which reads like a few lengthy but related essays, has topped the New York Times bestseller list for the past few weeks in the hardcover nonfiction category, and it’s not hard to understand why. First of all, the book is easy to digest (pun intended). Pollan takes a slew of conflicting and confusing diet/nutrition/health advice out there and looks at what’s wrong with it in the first place. He also offers some very simple advice: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” The fact that we need be reminded to eat “food” is further evidence of how far the things stocked on our grocery stores’ shelves have strayed from meeting our nutritional needs. American cheese slices wrapped in plastic, Go-gurt, and Twinkies are just a few examples of things that our great-grandmothers would not even recognize as food and things that we could replace with more healthy alternatives. Pollan’s slim volume is an important one because it reminds us that we can make sustainable choices at any point in our lives and that those choices can benefit our health, the environment, and the health of those around us. To read my more formal-type review of this book published in last week’s Sacramento News and Review, click here.

Life: Vermont’s Mountaintop Adventures

The HuskiesThe Mountaintop Inn and Resort in Chittenden served as the location for a final two days of family adventures in Vermont. This place was only 11 miles from Killington, and it had its own Nordic center. Horse-drawn carriage rides, dogsledding, skate skiing, snowmobiling—these were only a few of the available activities. What to do? The Sister and I got excited about the idea of going dogsledding, as neither of us had been before. We showed up to find a young man and a woman tending to a pack of howling huskies by headlamp. They welcomed us to come pet them while they picked the team, and it was quickly evident that each dog had its own personality. One would want to cuddle up, and another would bark and back away.

Traci J. Macnamara and friends

The dogs yelped and howled, and once they were all harnessed and ready to run, The Sister and I tucked ourselves comfortably onto the sled. “Let’s go. GO!” The musher shouted, and we were off, sliding over the snow behind a dozen or so dogs.

Dogsledding

I wondered if it were unkind to the dogs to have them pull our weight around, and when I asked the musher, he seemed taken aback by my question. “These dogs were born to run,” he said. “Didn’t you hear how excited they were to get picked?” Oh. Yeah. I felt like a total touron, not having been around dogs like that before, but it seemed funny to think that they were enjoying pulling as much as we were enjoying just sitting there.

Traci J. Macnamara and The Sister

The ride turned out to be a beautiful new way to experience the outdoors, complete with a new set of sounds (crunching snow, a scraping sled), sights (a forest, lit by the musher’s LED headlamp, the wagging tails of happy dogs), and sensations (a smooth-moving sled, rolling around corners, up and down hills).