Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Poetry Wednesday: Strange Fruit

Strange Fruit

Southern trees bear strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

Pastoral scene of the gallant south,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh,
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.

Here is fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.

By Billie Holiday and Abel Meeropol 


Tuesday, January 3, 2017

7 Favorite Books of 2016: The Year in Review

I love books. I adore cheap books. Free books make me giddy.

This summarizes my 2016 buying frenzy. With more than a little help from online vendors, I found dozens of inexpensive e-books and low-cost audiobooks to load on my Kindle. I subscribed to three different email services advertising cheap e-books. (Maybe four. Possibly five.) Book Bub and I are close friends. I haunt Amazon's Kindle e-book Web pages. Goodreads and I correspond regularly.

My Kindle is so full, I don't know where to begin. (I'd tell you how many books are on there, but I don't want to count that high, then subtract expired library books. Lazy? Nah, man: survival.)

So, without further ado, let me say: Hi, my name is Chris and I am a book hoarder.

Don't get me wrong: I am thrilled, for the most part, by the e-books I have purchased. Some of them duplicate print books in my library. A few free ones may not be my exact cuppa, but don't mind a (cheap or free) gamble: how else would I have discovered my surprising attraction of murder-mysteries? I also have lots of books to share with friends, as Kindle permits.

However, I have a literal library (a 10x12 bookshelf-lined room of print books), and now my Kindle is equally loaded. Some days, the weight of these unread books is too heavy to carry.

So I have made a decision: I am stemming the flow of purchased books into the house for the next three months.

I have done this before with great success. After a book purchase fast, I have emerged reinvigorated and focused on choosing the right book, rather than a book.

I have been testing the waters for the past month, reserving at my library the books I want to read. I can spend hours perusing Overdrive's e-book and audiobook inventory. I can "shop" my brick and mortar library, and even stop by various nearby branches for additional options. Books purchased for a buck or two at a "friends of the library" sale are easy to hand over to the next reader, stranger or friend.

Earlier this week, before I clicked "purchase" on a writing "prompt" book, I paused. I reviewed the table of contents and didn't get as excited as I thought I would — so I made a decision: rather than pay to play, I opened my public library's catalogue. There it was, the exact same book, this time in print. I promptly reserved the book and closed the Amazon browser tab.

Oh, Amazon has nothing to worry about: I also signed up for Kindle Daily Deals email. One would think that might be dangerous, but I assure you: receiving the list of sale books allows me to consider purchasing a finite number of books, rather than tempting me with suggestions, recommendations, and access to my wish list. I did this with Audible, and my impulse purchases have decreased to a trickle.

I will continue to use Amazon, Audible, Goodreads, Book Riot, Book Bub, and other resources to discover what's on the shelves, and to find out what my fellow readers are consuming. Fewer choices can make me a better consumer.

How do you control your purchases? Anything you can recommend? Do tell!

Coda: No sooner did I publish my pledge than I purchased a new book. In my defense, the library would not have had it in time to read for my book club, and it was on sale at the bookstore. Plus, I had to go get a weekly calendar booklet anyway. (How's that for rationalization?)

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

How to Deal With What (or Who) You Don't Endorse

For the second time this century, and for the fifth time in U.S. history, the person who captured the requisite number of Electoral College votes did not also garner the majority of the popular vote. This is legal, according to the U.S. Constitution — and yet some Americans have declared the President-Elect and Vice President-Elect are "Not My President."

Not true. The President-Elect and Vice President-Elect absolutely are yours, my dissenting comrades. Unless there is irrefutable evidence that actual ballots cast or the election results were fraudulent, this person absolutely is your president. And mine.

Elections are contests with winners and losers. No voter has to be happy about the outcome of an election. Frankly, you do not have to like anything your government does on your behalf. You do, however, have to know how this 240-year-old democratic republic works, and know what you plan to do about it.

  • Fact: Your vote guides the Electoral College. 
  • Fact: You do not individually elect the U.S. President and Vice-President.
    • Decision: You accept the process established by the U.S. Constitution and accept the vote of the Electoral College.

  • Fact: You choose the people who decide how to spend your tax dollars. 
  • Fact: You do not choose which budget line items you support with your tax dollars.
    • Decision: You communicate with your representatives to make a decision that is based, in part, on your preferences.

Want to take a step further? Create change.

If you think the Electoral College did not elect "your" president, what will you do to fix the system? Will you rework the current system, or will you advocate to change the U.S. Constitution? If you choose the latter, know it won't be easy: the Equal Rights Amendment was first introduced to Congress in 1923, and took half a century to gain any momentum (and, still, ultimately lose).

If you don't like the way your government spends your money, how will you change that practice? Will you join forces with the current elected officials, or will you choose to elect yourself or others to put in their places to support programs you want funded?

May I suggest you start local? Your city, town, parish, county, village, or borough thrives when its residents participate. It is a great opportunity to make a tangible differences while learning how government entities work together, how laws are established, and how money is spent.

Long story short, he is your President-Elect. If you are glad of that fact, use your energy for that person, rather than against an idea you do not favor. If you don't like that fact, then do something — create the change you want to see, and act in favor of your change.

Monday, December 26, 2016

Make Your Own Ranch Dressing Mix

Finding a great Ranch dressing mix is one thing.

Knowing how to assemble it is another.

I found a great dry mix for Ranch dressing, a staple ingredient in my household. However, as I mixed the ingredients together, I discovered what other, more experienced cooks already knew: not all ingredients handle the same.

First, I poured everything into a gradual, then poured that into a funnel for the bottles. Well, that was a mess.

Then I decided to funnel ingredients directly into their containers. Better, but not perfect: for example, some ingredients stuck to the funnel because parsley flakes weigh next to nothing and have a higher static level than dried chopped onions. (Don't even ask about the garlic powder. Just think, "Poof.")

An ingredient list probably is composed by master chefs for a particular reason, but it made no sense to me.

That's when I came up with the radical idea: begin with lighter ingredients, then add the heavier ingredients, then light to heavy spices. That would not only allow some ingredients to scrub others off the side of the funnel, but also make the mass easier to mix inside the cute little bottle.

I am sure there's a "right" way to list ingredients, but on my label, I am going to list them in the order I recommend they be added to the container.

I may not have been the first person to think of this, but I sure thought it clever, and I figured at least one other person would appreciate the suggestion.


P.S. Jon and Suze's onion soup mix also rocks.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Protest *For* Something to Get the Job Done

Plenty of people are getting geared up for protests around the 2017 Inauguration Day for the President and Vice President of the United States. While this isn't new, the volume of protests and protesters may exceed numbers from past years.

If you join the protests, will you be fighting for something, or against something?

This is not a trick question. State what you want, not just what you don't want.

Know what you want in relation to what you think is the reality of today. For example, if you support maintaining or increasing the number of refugees into the United States, do you know the current statistics? Can you address the objections from the other side? Do you even know what the objections are?

Presumably, many of the protests planned for 2017 Inauguration Day could be in relation to the President-Elect's (and Vice President-Elect's) assumption of office. If you are participating, what are your objections?

"I don't want [fill in the blank]" doesn't help identify issues that need to be addressed, nor does it offer solutions. Not wanting something, being contrary, isn't enough.

Be part of the solution: protest for a solution. Know what you want to happen if your protests are successful. Be part of the positive change in your community.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Polar Book Club, the 2017 Edition: Get the Book and Start Reading!

Temperatures are dropping in the Northern Hemisphere as Old Man Winter tries to settle in for a nice, long visit. (Okay, maybe it's not that long, but it feels like it.) 

You know what that means, right?

It's time to announce the selection of the 2017 Polar Book Club! 

Make sure you have enough hot beverage and snacks, nab the warmest blanket, carve out the best spot with excellent lighting, charge your e-reader, grab this year's tome and settle in for a long winter's read. 

Uber-Reader Karen has chosen the book for the 2017 Polar Book Club: The Bookman's Tale.  It sounds like a doozie!

Hay-on-Wye, 1995. Peter Byerly isn’t sure what drew him into this particular bookshop. Nine months earlier, the death of his beloved wife, Amanda, had left him shattered. The young antiquarian bookseller relocated from North Carolina to the English countryside, hoping to rediscover the joy he once took in collecting and restoring rare books. 
But upon opening an eighteenth-century study of Shakespeare forgeries, Peter is shocked when a portrait of Amanda tumbles out of its pages. Of course, it isn’t really her. The watercolor is clearly Victorian. Yet the resemblance is uncanny, and Peter becomes obsessed with learning the picture’s origins.
As he follows the trail back first to the Victorian era and then to Shakespeare’s time, Peter communes with Amanda’s spirit, learns the truth about his own past, and discovers a book that might definitively prove Shakespeare was, indeed, the author of all his plays.

If you want to join the club, there's only one thing you need to do: get the book and start reading! 

Okay, two things: get the book (from the library, bookstore, thrift store with a book section — or share with a friend) and email me so we can coordinate our discussion.

Let's aim to finish the book by March 5, 2017, so the conversation can begin.

Relax, this is not a book report or a school assignment. It's all about the book and reading, and sharing your ideas with your fellow readers. 

Here are a few things that may stimulate your thinking:

Consider why you liked (or didn't like) the book, and think about how you can express that to other readers to spur discussion. Did you like the characters? Was the story plausible — and if not, was it the right kind of fantastic? What would you do in the same situation? 

Remember, if you liked the book, telling others why may not be as easy as if you didn't like it, so think about specific things you liked: passages, tone, characters or points in the story.

So, are you in? Let me know!

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

When Social Media Stopped Being Social

I left Facebook on November 10, 2016, and I am at peace.

I haven't been a fan of Facebook for a while. I joined to stay in touch with my family, and it's true: I could tell where everyone was and what they were doing by their posts. As the family crier (at least for my husband David), I found it helpful. When the grandchildren came along, I reveled in those photos and updates.

However, I never trusted Facebook's algorithms: millions of posts are created and distributed every moment, but I saw only a limited number of individuals' posts in my feed. In return, many of my posts were displayed to fewer than a dozen of my 100+ friends. Why?

You have to be shared to be shared on Facebook.

Yes, I wrote that correctly: if your friends and family don't "like" or "share" your posts, they see fewer of them, until your posts are not even a faint memory in their feeds.

I realized I saw only a fraction of what I had signed up to see, and it narrowed precipitously every time I used the site. I occasionally scoured my "likes" to reset my feed. I created lists of family, close friends and local folks — and promptly saw only a fraction of them on each list.

Facebook also deleted "likes" by the hundreds on non-individual accounts in 2015. (Facebook claims to be looking into this phenomenon, but no word to its customers.) Facebook users who "liked" Oreos and the New York tourism office may have lost that connection.

Facebook evolved from "the biggest time-suck of the century disguised as leisure activity" to unpaid labor to get what I wanted. It remained, however, a huge moneymaker for the owner.

The aggression by Facebook users against Facebook users was the sprinkles on the sundae. Last year, I witnessed an increase in users looking to start arguments, or at least telling the other user s/he is terribly, terribly wrong. I posted a video and was scolded because the video offended a "friend." And it didn't stop there. As a result, I have deleted posts and comments, and hid or unfriended more than one Facebook compatriot trying to save me from my wicked ways.

I am sure I was not blameless. I debunked a lot of fake news before it became a thing (and continued to do so). However, once I realized that arguing on social media is a very aggressive act, I stopped. Instead, I ignored or hid posts. I may have asked my Facebook buddies a question from time to time, but even that stopped. Of course, plenty of people still tried to straighten me out, but at least I attempted to not add to the problem.

In response, I started posting only cat pictures and sharing jokes or photos of friends and family. Even that wasn't safe: I was (gently) scolded for sharing a photo with a caption that was "too personal" to share. Never mind that users set the audience, that the post was shared with hundreds of people aside from me — and that my shares, likes and posts were seen by fewer than a dozen individuals.

Along comes Facebook Messenger, a special app for communicating via Facebook. The work of Facebook increased, and grew more perilous. My brother mistook Facebook for Messenger and— well, let's just say it revived one of my greatest nightmares about electronic communication. Let's not mention the amount of data gleaned by Facebook from those "private" messages. Everything is for sale on the Internet, and nothing is free.

Then came the main event of the Facebook Fight: the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election. Never did people fling animosity at each other with more gusto than during the nearly two years of that campaign cycle.

The din was unimaginable. I would scroll for a few minutes, see lots of people screaming the same thing, and pass by more than my share of stories about tortured animals. (That was Facebook's analysis of my use, I kid you not.). It became impossible to find photos of cute cats and children. I "unfriended" a few people who wouldn't stop trying to change my mind, and began checking in less often. I use Twitter, I read the news, I have Weather Kitty on my phone; I didn't need Facebook.

Days after the election, I left.

In the ensuing weeks, I have found myself shocked and pleased at the amount of time I have to spend on everything else. I miss the photos, but I view Instagram, which is where most of them originate. My husband shows me videos and images that amuse him, which is fun.  I miss the chit-chat, but I do not miss the animosity.

I haven't decided if I will return. If I do, I will purge the heck out of my "friends" and "liked" list (if Facebook hasn't already done that for me). I will not be the robust user of yore, spending much less time feeding the business that is Facebook (and its dependents).

I've learned my lesson: Facebook is not the coffee klatch it presented itself to be in the early days. Now, using Facebook is like wearing a t-shirt on which people feel entitled to write graffiti. And you know what? I like my t-shirt just the way it is.