Saturday, July 30, 2011

little soaps

While poking around a bookstore in London on my recent trip abroad, I came across a book about the environmental impact of tourism.  As you can probably predict, the book did not have all that many positive things to say about the environmental impact of tourism.  Maybe this will be surprising, but I had never actually given all that much thought to this issue, other than when warned that cruise ships were destroying our planet's oceans by dumping laundry detergent, human waste, and all manner of other horribleness into the water as people floated around eating all they can and playing shuffleboard or whatever else you do on a cruise.

I didn't need to read the book to realize that flying around in a jet-fuel burning jet, or staying in a hotel where they launder my sheets each day and I use a brand-spanking-new mini-soap every morning might not have the best environmental impact.  Not to mention the other dire statistics I'm sure were included about the impact on developing nations of safaris and other fun trips. 

Here is the thing.  We recycle.  We have a compost bin.  I put my green peppers right into the shopping cart rather than into the extra plastic bag provided in the produce section.  I buy the hand soap in the huge jug and refill all the soap dispensers in our bathrooms, then recycle the big jug once it's empty.  It's not like I don't care about the environment.  But.  I freaking LOVE going to a hotel and unwrapping those little soaps to wash my face each day.  LOVE IT.  Which brings me right to the cornerstone of my views on activism: Do what is easy first.

hotel soap shampoo toiletries photo
(picture of soap from a Seattle hotel from here,
which also poses an interesting solution to the mini-soap problem)

Friday, July 29, 2011

London - my top tourist picks

(see number 3)

I've only been the two times to London, but since I glossed over or omitted some of my favorite tourist sites in my more detailed posts, I thought I would provide a condensed list of my recommendations should you find yourself in this amazing city.  I am sure there is much more to do that I haven't experienced, but here are my personal top picks, if you're interested.  There are 9, and although I wish there were 10, I have been highly selective about this list.

london, ten years later - Part 2 (or, Old and New)

Because of Kathy's work requirements, our hotel in London was in the City, which I might not necessarily recommend for a tourist, but which I quite enjoyed.  Staying in the City reminded me of one of my favorite things about London: the way it combines a rich sense of history with the unarguably and unapologetically contemporary.  It creates this sense of walking the same street as Queen Elizabeth, while simultaneously running smack into the 21st century.  These two pictures from my wanderings in the City will show you what I mean.  In the first, the building known as the Gherkin rises up from behind a row of buildings that are at least a couple hundred years old, on one of the City's twisty streets.  In the second, the Lloyd's building, built in 1986, is indisputably contemporary in architecture -- but look at the guard in the lower right corner, frowning at people in his long red coat.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

london, ten years later - Part 1 (or, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?)

Earlier this month, I tagged along on Kathy's business trip to London and Munich.  When I was an undergraduate, waaaaay back ten years ago, I studied English Lit in London for a summer (which yes, was a strange option for a Math major, but it was my way of reconciling what I was good at (math) with what I loved (Virginia Woolf and Shakespeare)).  Because she was there on business, I had a lot of time to bop around on my own.  The first day, I slowly made my way from the City of London to Bloomsbury.  When I studied, this is the area of town where I lived.  I knew where my dorm was, but this was not actually the target of this trip.  Instead, I was trying to find Virginia Woolf's house in Bloomsbury.

When I went to London to study, I met a group of women, at least one of whom has remained a lifelong friend.  One of my most vivid memories of that trip was sitting in her dorm room one afternoon talking about why we came.  All of us had chosen, rather than getting a summer job or banging around East Lansing, to pack ourselves up, spend a bunch of money, and go to London for the summer with a bunch of strangers.  The love of literature alone is generally not enough to send someone on that type of journey, and we were no exception.  The question posed, then, was whether we were running away from something or running to something.  For me, it was a bit of both.  I felt a little lost, as I have felt for much of my life.  I wanted a break from my family, my rather intense group of friends, and I wanted the chance to push myself out of my comfort zone a bit and live with anonymity and autonomy.  I wanted, in a way that only a 20 year-old with a certain disposition can, to find myself.  (Of course, in an environment where someone made me breakfast and dinner 5 days a week and planned fun outings to Vita Sackville-West's gardens and The Globe.)

And so, ten years ago, I was jogging in a park in Bloomsbury at noon on a Sunday.  As my sweet, sheltered, midwestern self was rounding a corner, I saw something I had never seen before (or since, for that matter). I saw a guy tying off his arm and shooting something into his vein with a needle.  In the middle of a park.  In broad daylight.  On Sunday.  I tried to act like I hadn't seen anything, but when I reached the next exit, my legs carried me right on out of that park.  One block later, I was face-to-face with Virginia Woolf's house.  Since I was, at the time, reading Mrs. Dalloway and living in London, this seemed rather serendipitous to me.  I don't know why, but I had a sense of being in the right place at the right time.  I felt found.  The moment was not exactly life-changing -- I was still me.  But it did create some subtle shift, or opening, which allowed me to recognize things about myself that I had previously ignored.  It was like someone said to me, remember why you're here.

So that's why, when I arrived in London, I set out to find Virginia Woolf's house.  I figured that if her ghost (or at least her house) gave me a nudge then, she could give me a nudge in the right direction now.    After about 45 minutes of aimless wandering, just when I was about to give up, I came across this:

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

promises, promises

I really should stop promising things, like daily blog posts, publicly.  I should just promise them to myself, so you all don't know how terrible I have been doing at living up to such promises.  I have actually been having all-around motivation problems lately.  Yesterday, I did nothing much but lie in bed, finish my novel, and read the introduction to Beowulf in the Norton Anthology.  How productive.  I could blame my lack of motivation on the recent heat wave, but I think actually it's more the internal desert that is resulting in my failure to follow-through, given that it was (thank god) in the 70s yesterday.

So that leaves me here.  In my last, but not-so-recent post, I mentioned that I haven't been doing well at growing anything but gourds.  The one volunteer tomato plant that I couldn't bear to rip out, and instead moved to a pot on the deck, has actually begun to produce several hard green balls which will eventually be tomatoes that we can actually eat.  The rest of the garden, not so much.  For those of you keeping track at home, that means that my only two successful vegetables were a gourd I did not plant and do not necessarily want, and a tomato plant which I did not plant, but do want.  Everything I have intentionally tried to grow has been floundering under the onslaught of slugs, heat, lack of proper soil, and squirrels.

I realize I have gotten into the rather annoying habit of seeing my garden as a metaphor for the rest of my life, but I'm going to indulge this habit once more.  In case you were paying attention, I took the GRE a few weeks ago, shortly before my trip abroad.  I did.... fine.  I guess.  I did well, if you look at the raw numbers.  I did not do as well as I wanted to, or as well as I thought I would based on the practice tests.  Everyone who I actually tell my score to has been very nice and reassuring that it's a good score, but that does not seem to help me much.  The score has created room for all manner of self-doubt.  Should I go to graduate school, really?  Do I still want to go to graduate school?  What if I don't get in anywhere, then what?

I look at the people around me who have those life-long dreams, and am so envious I can barely stand it.  We have a friend who owns the sandwich shop in town.  She said to me that when she was in sixth grade, she had to write one of those "what I want to be when I grow up" essays.  You know what she said she wanted to do?  Own a sandwich shop.  When I attempted a similar exercise in sixth grade, you know what I said?  Nothing.  I sat there wringing my hands until it was time for math class, and had to take the assignment home.  I stayed up half the night worrying about what I was going to be when I grew up, and finally wrote "actress" or something, for lack of a better idea.  And so, for the two of us, not much has changed.  We are both living our dream, such as it is.  She is running her sandwich shop, and I am wringing my hands.

I am also, however, cultivating my volunteer tomatoes with care.  I told you I was, annoyingly, going to look at the garden as a metaphor for life, yet again, and here it is:  All of the things I have tried so hard on, are floundering.  And yet, still little miracles have popped up while my back has been turned.  I have Kathy, I have a place on the beach for the summer.  I have horseback riding lessons, which bring me joy.  I have useless but funny-looking gourds, and tomatoes volunteering to fill in where the intentionally planted ones are failing.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

it's a jungle out there

Yesterday, we got back from Europe.  It was fun, but that is a topic for another post.  First, and non-chronologically, I am going to write about coming home.  I am sure that if you read this blog regularly, you'll note that the last time I posted was July 6, which is some time ago.  Before that, I had been struggling to write.  I kept feeling like I have nothing to say.  But sometimes, that's when you really SHOULD be writing.  At any rate, I'm first going to tell you about our pumpkin, and then we'll come back to this.

Anyway, before we left, we had this vine thing growing near our compost.  I know you're not supposed to grow "volunteer" plants out of your compost, because they are prone to disease, etc.  But I thought the vine was a pumpkin, and kind of couldn't resist the thought of growing our own Halloween pumpkin.  For free. The vine kept getting larger and larger.  I would occasionally run it over with the lawn mower to keep the pathway clear and de-tangle it from other plants it seemed to be trying to choke.  Then we went to Europe. I came home to this:


In case you're failing to appreciate what we have going on here, this is what our deck is starting to look like:

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

hey, California

I started making this list four years ago, with Kathy, when we both lived in the sunshine state.  For those of you who aren't familiar with the Bay Area, there is no summer there, and we both missed it desperately.  There's something about the ephemeral nature of summer that makes things sweeter then they would be if you could have them year-round.  That's why, although I remain a California girl at heart, at this time of year I never fail to appreciate certain things about an East Coast (or Michigan) summer.  Here are the top 10:

10.  Seasonal fruits and vegetables, especially tomatoes ...

9.  ... and all the things you can do with them.