Desert Oracle

Desert Oracle coverDesert Oracle: Strange True Tales from the American Southwest
Ken Layne
MCD (December 8, 2020), 263 pages
Kindle edition $11.99, Amazon paperback $17.99

There is something about the desert that draws people to it. That was certainly the case at one time in my life. When I was in first grade we moved to Barstow in the San Bernardino County high desert for my dad’s job. We were only there for three years, but the desert’s beauty and mystery stayed with me. When I was in college and thinking that maybe I’d have to take a year’s leave of absence to earn some money, I thought about living in Barstow. I even drove up there one day just to visit the place.

So all these many decades later, an article in the Sunday newspaper about Ken Layne caught my attention. He is himself a desert rat and produces both a periodical and a local radio program called Desert Oracle. That prompted the publication of this book.

Layne writes about the desert and all its weirdness. He reminds us it’s easy to lose your life just a short distance from the parking lot at a national monument, but taking a few basic precautions can help ensure your survival. He tells us about the odd and strange people of the desert. He writes about the supernatural: unexplainable occurrences, a strange civilization of giants supposedly living beneath Death Valley, and, of course about UFOs. He has a thing about UFOs. But Layne also writes about the natural world of the desert and its wildlife.

The author offers some insight into the life of Edward Abbey, who, Layne tells us, drove a bus for Death Valley High School for a short time in 1966. He describes how Abbey worked on his writing in a corner of a saloon next to a legal brothel in Ash Meadows, just on the other side of the Nevada state line. Layne points out that Abbey’s now famous book, Desert Solitaire did not become popular until the paperback edition came out when “it was quickly embraced by hordes of long-haired backpackers filling the national parks of the Southwest.”

Layne writes in a lively and engaging manner and knows how to turn a phrase. In talking about the bird called the poorwill (not to be confused with the whippoorwill) he writes, “They migrate, unless they don’t, while the migration of some common poorwills consists of heading up from the valleys to the mountains in summer, like mule deer or the seasonal staff at Furnace Creek.” (Furnace Creek being the location of the headquarters of Death Valley National Park.)

Layne concludes the book by writing:

quoteThere are many good and noble reasons to protect the wilderness that remains, to be wise stewards of the only planet we’ve got at the moment. Keeping a wild, open landscape available for our encounters with the mysterious and the divine is as good a reason as the rest and maybe the best one of all.

If you have ever come under the enchantment of the desert this book will not disappoint you.

the haircut saga continues

I thought I had a new hair stylist after a series of unfortunate events, as I wrote about a while back, but the success was short-lived. Sandra had her own way of doing things. She never got my name and never took my phone number. She recorded the date and time of my next appoint along with the services I required (a haircut—pretty straightforward), but nothing more. At the time of my most recent appointment last week her shop was locked, closed, and dark. It was a cold, breezy, uncomfortable day, but I knocked on the door a few times before giving up.

new haircutI needed a haircut. I was past due. The stylist at Ulta that Terry used, Liz, had moved to Houston. I saw Liz a couple of times, but was not happy with the result, hence my visits to Sandra in her small shop. Terry started seeing a stylist named Toni at Ulta and really liked her, so I made an appointment with Toni.

I guess Toni doesn’t like doing men’s hair. She was pleasant and accommodating enough, but didn’t offer to schedule a follow-up appointment and didn’t give me any sort of discount off of the exorbitant $50 Ulta men’s haircut list price. (At least with Liz she plugged in discounts that reduced my bill to $35 before tip.) To make an annoying visit even more so, I had to wait forever for Toni to bring me the invoice to take to the cash register. Seems the Hemet Ulta store is having problems with its computer system. And then there was a line for the register that wrapped around to the side wall. (Add to that the chicken burrito which I ordered with my Chipotle app that had an unacceptable amount of gristle.)

So the quest continues. There’s a comparatively new stylist in the salon here at Four Seasons. I think I’ll give her a try next time. I would love for some stability and continuity on the haircut front.

Collected Essays by Joan Didion

Collected Essays coverCollected Essays: Slouching Towards Bethlehem, The White Album, and After Henry
Joan Didion
Open Road Media (March 6, 2018), 665 pages
Kindle edition $15.99
purchased on sale for$4.99

This book is not collected essays in the formal sense of the term. Joan Didion published other essay collections that are not included here. The three volumes do, however, represent a solid body of Didion’s work from the sixties, seventies, and the eighties.

Having never read Didion before, I did not realize that she belonged to the school of gonzo journalism (or new journalism) that Hunter S. Thompson originated and others like Tom Wolfe practiced. If one defines this school of reporting as the writer involving him or herself in the story he or she is writing, however, these three volumes certainly qualify. And if one stereotype of this approach is that the practitioners are known for their substance abuse, Didion seems to fit the mold. Regarding writing the essay from which the first book takes its title Didion writes, “I was in fact as sick as I have ever been when I was writing ‘Slouching Towards Bethlehem’; the pain kept me awake at night and so for twenty and twenty-one hours a day I drank gin-and-hot-water to blunt the pain and took Dexedrine to blunt the gin and wrote the piece.” That passage made me wonder how Didion lived to age 87. (She died on December 23, 2021.)

In The White Album Didion covers the waterfront, if you will forgive the cliché, of the sixties. She writes about John Wayne shooting a movie and has dinner with him and his wife. She visits the school for social thought Joan Baez set up in Carmel Valley. She writes about the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions in Santa Barbara, a sort of liberal think tank that had its heyday in the sixties. Didion’s ability to craft a sentence in her unique style shows up in this essay:

quoteI have long been interested in the Center’s rhetoric, which has about it the kind of ectoplasmic generality that always makes me sense I am on the track of the real soufflé, the genuine American kitsch.

The title essay, taken, of course, from the W.B. Yeats poem, involves her visit to some of the young runaways in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco. While some of us (and I include myself) are wont to look back with nostalgia on the hippie era, “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” portrays a bleak and sometimes depressing picture of the lives these young people lived.

The second volume, The White Album, is a rather different set of essays. Didion writes about her family and her origins in the rural country outside Sacramento. She writes about Santa Ana winds and California wildfires. She writes about the Manson murders and the subsequent trial. In true gonzo fashion Didion picks out the dress for one woman who was a witness at the trial. In a less grim setting, Didion attends the Jaycees’ 32nd Annual Congress of America’s Ten Outstanding Young Men, although she is not comfortable with the values of the organization. She writes that participating in that event “was a curious and troubling way to spend a few days in the opening weeks of 1970.” In her survey of shopping malls in their heyday she writes, tongue firmly in cheek, that she considered building such a mall as a way to support her fiction writing. She carefully describes the definitions of the three types of shopping centers: A, B, and C.

The title After Harry refers to an editor Didion and her husband shared, and in particular to his untimely death. (She always refers to her husband simply as “my husband,” even though he was, of course, the well-known writer John Gregory Dunne.) Didion writes about the 1988 presidential campaign, focusing in particular on Michael Dukakis. She discusses the last days of Tom Bradley’s mayoral tenure in Los Angeles and her time as a visiting professor at her alma mater, UC Berkeley, when she visited both Lawrence Livermore and Lawrence Berkeley labs. She offers a history of the Los Angeles Times and reports in detail about how many staffers and readers believed that the (then) new Orange County edition distracted the paper from its proper mission.

Since Didion is a native Californian I was rather surprised that she wrote California Highway 1 “runs from the Mexican border to the Oregon line.” In fact, Highway 1 ends at Dana Point on the south end and on the north ends at Highway 101 near Leggett, after having turned inland past Rockport. To be fair, her focus was that section of Highway 1 in Los Angeles and Orange Counties referred to at the Pacific Coast Highway or PCH. (Being an exiled Northern Californian, I would never use that term to refer to the stretch of Highway 1 from San Luis Obispo north.) And that is a small matter in a set of books full of informative and well-written essays.

As someone who had never previously read Joan Didion’s work I found Collected Essays interesting and entertaining.

The Big Bang and Beyond

The Big Bang and Beyond coverThe Big Bang and Beyond: Exploring the Early Universe
Gary Felder, PhD
Smith College
Watch for the sale price to recur at The Great Courses
or stream the course with a Wondrium subscription

The experience of watching this course was rather odd. First, it was taped when the COVID protocols at the Great Courses had the instructors sitting instead of standing, and always looking at one camera rather than turning from one camera to the other. Second, instructor Gary Felder has a rather odd demeanor. His quiet, measured tone projects the more of an image of Buddhist meditation instructor than a cosmologist.

But a cosmologist he is, and there is a lot of good material here. Felder goes through the basics of the big bang theory, describing the various phases of the process. The formation of the first stars, and after that the planets, solar systems, and galaxies, did not occur right away. That happened sometime between thirty million and two hundred million years after the big bang. And Felder tells us the big bang was not an explosion but simply the moment the universe started expanding. Cosmologists call this moment Planck Density, “the earliest moment we can describe with our currently known laws of physics.”

Felder explains the original theory of the big bang was pretty much accepted once Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson discovered the cosmic microwave background radiation (CMB). Before that a few cosmologists, most notably Fred Hoyle, believed the universe was a fixed, stable entity, what Hoyle and colleagues called the steady state theory. But although most scientists believed the CMB was sufficient proof of the big bang, there were several phenomena that the theory failed to account for. This is where the theory of inflation arose. Inflation posits that distances in the universe increased by a huge amount, perhaps 101,000,000 (that’s ten to the one million) in a fraction of a second. This explains many of the inconsistencies found in the original theory. I won’t go into them here, but Felder describes them in detail.

There are some theories that say just because the big bang happened as it did in our observable universe, it did not necessarily happen that way in the whole universe. There might be multiverses these theories say. That’s where cosmologists draw from quantum mechanics.

An open question is whether the universe will expand forever or stop expanding and collapse back into itself. That depends on the critical density of the universe. It turns out that the universe is so close to that critical density that we don’t know. At least that was the case until the discovery of dark energy. With dark energy in place the universe will expand forever. Unless dark energy decays. Then maybe it won’t.

Confusing, yes. But Gary Felder helps make all of this clear in his twelve lecture series.

Wholehearted Faith

Wholehearted Faith coverWholehearted Faith
Rachel Held Evans with Jeff Chu
HarperOne (November 2, 2021), 229 pages
Kindle edition $13.99, Amazon hardcover $22.99

I was unsure whether I wanted to read Wholehearted Faith, Rachel Held Evans’s final book. Evans died in 2019 at the age of thirty-seven due to complications from a strange infection. She left a body of writing on her computer that she intended to develop into another book. Her husband gave her frequent collaborator, Jeff Chu, access to those writings and Chu formed them into the book that was published as Wholehearted Faith. After listening to Krista Tippett’s interview with Chu on her radio program and podcast On Being I knew I needed to read the book.

I knew of Rachel during her lifetime, but I regret that I never read any of her work while she was still alive. In December I listened to the audiobook version of Searching for Sunday, which she read herself. Although we come from very different backgrounds, in reading that book I shared with her the quest to discover what, exactly, my relationship is with the church. It is a complicated and nuanced question.

Evans grew up in an evangelical home. Her father was involved in Christian education and the family attended a conservative evangelical church. As a child she was passionate about her own beliefs and made herself into the best evangelical she could be. She won the Best Christian Attitude award in her parochial school four years running, a streak that was only broken when her family moved and put her in public school. At her baptism by immersion as a teenager her primary concern was that the white baptismal gown clinging to her maturing body might lead a boy in the congregation to have impure thoughts.

As an adult she began to be bothered by the prejudice and intolerance in her evangelical tradition. She was unhappy with the secondary role such churches gave to women and their condemnation of LGBTQ+ individuals and those with other alternative lifestyles. She came to believe that it was all right to doubt and to debate and discuss the Bible.

She starts the first chapter with a series of paragraphs that begin, “On the days when I believe…” For example, “On the days when I believe, I feel enfolded in a story so much greater than my own. It’s a story that knits together a thousand generations of saints.” After those positive and joyful paragraphs she writes, “And then there are the other days.” She goes on to write about how she copes with those other days. Rachel says that when she doesn’t have the words for her own prayers she can return to the ancient prayers in the Christian tradition.

Rachel writes, just as I have experienced, “Early on I sensed a profound disconnect between what I was supposed to believe and what I actually believed.” She admits, as do I that, “My so-called spiritual journey still continues to meander.”

Although she moved in her own direction as an adult she is not bitter or angry about her parents, her pastors, or her childhood churches. Rather, she states they allowed her to become the person she turned into as an adult. In the face of harsh criticism for the content of her blogs posts and her tweets she developed a mantra of “Thick skin, tender heart.” Rachel writes about people with other lifestyles and states, “I thought God wanted to use me to show queer people how to be straight. Instead, God empowered queer people to show me how to be a better Christian.”

Jeff Chu includes a passage in which Rachel writes about how she and her husband were building a new house. She says that like in her old house her study would be in the basement, but that, unlike the old house, the new study wouldn’t have 1970s wood paneling and would have windows out of which she could watch her children playing in the back yard. That she never got to experience that house and her new study brought a tear to my eye.

Near the end of the book Rachel riffs on John 3:16, “For God so loved the world…” She provides several iterations starting with that phrase including this one: “For God so loved the world that God empowered us to love even our enemies, even the worst person on Twitter, even those who seem incapable of love themselves.”

Damn. That’s hard. It’s true; I know it is. But I struggle with that more than nearly any other aspect of Christianity. I’m supposed to love the guy with the orange hair who incited the insurrection at the Capitol building? Really? But Rachel does not shirk from laying out the hard stuff for her readers.

It’s a huge loss that we no longer have Rachel Held Evans with us. I am grateful to Jeff Chu for giving us one last book from her.

exercising again

I am exercising again.

That is no small matter. I had been very lax about exercising throughout the course of the pandemic. I had no excuses; I simply failed to get off my rear and go do it.

Map My Tracks screen captureHow did I get back to it? We generally take our Christmas tree down on or close to New Year’s Day. As a practicing Episcopalian I really ought to leave it up until Epiphany, January 6, but for practical purposes New Year’s works better. This year was no exception. We took it down on Sunday, January 2nd. Now, once the Christmas tree is down you have to do something with it. In our case it means chopping it up so that it fits in the yard waste Toter. That was quite a bit of work, and on Monday I noticed that I felt pretty good.

Time to start exercising again, I told myself.

My normal way to exercise is to go out walking. Here in our Four Seasons gated community there are several pedestrian-friendly routes I can take. I track my progress with an iPhone app called Map My Tracks. I find it annoying that every single time I start it up it asks me if I want to upgrade to the paid version. I don’t. But I keep using it because it is the only exercise app I have found that gives me all of the following: distance, time, maximum speed, and average speed.

I have been walking. I feel better.

Kingdoms of Faith

Kingdoms of Faith coverKingdoms of Faith: A New History of Islamic Spain
Brian A. Catlos
Basic Books; 1st edition (May 1, 2018), 474 pages
Kindle edition $22.99, Amazon hardcover $33.89

There has been considerable interest in recent years in the kingdom of al-Andalus: medieval Spain when the Muslims ruled the Iberian Peninsula. Some of that interest was prompted by The Ornament of the World, a PBS documentary, and by a book of the same name published in 2009. The thesis was that there was a period when Christians, Jews, and Muslims all lived together in a Muslim-ruled state and that arts and culture flourished. This was countered by the 2016 book The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise.

In Kingdoms of Faith, Brian A. Catlos wants to take a more nuanced view and create a history of the medieval Iberian Peninsula “from the ground up.” The title of the book is a bit ironic, as Catlos states early on that much of what happened in that society was many cases more about finding riches and gaining power than about religion. He points out that Christians helped keep the Muslims in power in southern France until 736 because they feared the Merovingian Franks more than they feared the Muslims.

It is true that there was a period during the Umayyad dynasty when Christians and Jews lived peacefully in Spain under Muslim rule, and in some cases held positions in government. But throughout the period warfare, Catlos claims, was the dominant theme.

Catlos’s presentation is thorough and detailed. He is careful to point out where a story that has been passed down is more likely legend than fact. The author covers the periods both before and after the high point of Andalusian Muslim civilization. He even tells us that like the residents of the British Isles, the Vikings raided al-Andalus. He suggests the Muslims had rather more success in beating back the Vikings, however.

The period after the fall of the Umayyad dynasty is rather less interesting than earlier periods. It amounts to a series of conquests by a succession of warlords. I admit to skimming the last two hundred pages of the book.

Kingdoms of Faith is a well-written, comprehensive history of medieval Spain. If this area of history interests you, you’ll find the book worth your time.

a successful bread experiment

Some time back I wrote that sometimes it is better to follow a proven bread recipe than to go your own way (I love Fleetwood Mac). On the other hand, sometimes experiments with bread baking can be successful.

I had more sourdough starter than is optimal for maintaining a healthy batch, so I did something I rarely do. I made sourdough bread twice in a row. Wanting to do something different, I tried a sprouted wheat sourdough.

breadI used the following ingredients:

  • 2 cups bread flour
  • 1 cup First Clear flour
  • 1 cup sprouted wheat flour
  • 1/3 cup vital wheat gluten
  • 1 tablespoon of sugar
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 ¼ teaspoons yeast (my standard yeast measure)
  • 1 cup sourdough starter
  • Something over a cup of warm water (adding until the dough was the right consistency)

I did two risings and baked at 350 degrees convection for 45 minutes as I always do.

It turned out great. Terry loved it and I was quite happy with the result.

I was going to link to the sprouted wheat and First Clear flours on the King Arthur web site, but they both appear to have been discontinued. So I won’t be able to repeat this recipe once my existing supplies run out.

Oh, well. Experiments do sometimes pay off, and that was a good one.