The Unexpected Universe

The Unexpected UniverseThe Unexpected Universe
Loren Eiseley
Library of America, 254 pages
originally published in 1969
Kindle edition $8.99, Amazon paperback 11.59
Purchased during an Early Bird Books sale for $0.99

Back in my Claremont cockroach days, the era that began after I graduated from Pitzer College but stayed in Claremont and ended when I headed off to Laredo, Texas to open a B. Dalton Bookseller store, I was a big fan of Loren Eiseley. I loved his writing on nature, natural history, and the happenings of everyday life. I was delighted to discover, then, that much of his work is back in print. I learned this when I saw his book The Unexpected Universe in an Early Bird Books email. I bought it immediately.

Eisley is a skilled essayist. In the opening piece he interweaves Odysseus and Darwin as he discusses their respective journeys, one fictional, one real. In another essay he describes a man on a beach in Mexico throwing starfish which had washed up on shore back into the ocean to give them another chance at life.

He writes beautifully about humankind’s connection to nature:

quoteI saw the drifting cells of the early seas from which all life, including our own, has arisen. The salt of those ancient seas is in our blood, its lime is in our bones. Every time we walk along a beach some ancient urge disturbs us so that we find ourselves shedding shoes and garments, or scavenging among seaweed and whitened timbers like the homesick refugees of a long war.

Eiseley is not unaware of the destruction caused by humans: “We have become planet changers and the decimators of life, including our own.” And this in 1969. Nonetheless, there is so much beauty, wonder, and awe in Eiseley’s writing that reading his work makes for a most enjoyable diversion in these turbulent times.

router woes and recovery

Stuff sometimes happens even when you’re minding your own business. Yesterday before I went grocery shopping I checked my email. All was well. When I got home I had no internet access. My router was non-functional. There were no lights lit up on it. None. Completely dark. He’s dead, Jim. It’s a dead parrot.

routerI called Spectrum and the automated voice support was no help, so I enunciated very clearly rep-RE-sen-TATIVE. After twenty minutes on hold I got a real person who was very friendly, but finally agreed with me that I had a dead parrot, er, router.

While I was on hold I used my Spectrum iPhone app to make an appointment at the Spectrum store to swap out my router, but the first available appointment was the next day. The real person at Spectrum told me that I didn’t need an appointment; I could just head over to the store, which I did.

I had to wait a bit for my turn, but once someone came over to help me the equipment swap was very quick. I brought the new router home, connected everything, and waited. No internet access. Another call to that automated lady, a complete power cycle on both the modem and the router, then voilà, internet access!

I did a speed test and saw that I was getting almost twice the internet speed I had before, which is what Spectrum had been telling me for some months that I should be getting.

It’s a cliche, certainly, but it’s also true: all’s well that ends well.


At the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic Terry and I agreed, out of an abundance of caution, to discontinue our housekeeping service. Fortunately Pat, the last time Terry spoke with her, had sufficient work to not feel stressed.

Of course not having a housekeeper means we have to do the housekeeping ourselves. That has been manageable, but vacuuming is an issue. Given her bad knee, which will be replaced like the other one after the pandemic is past us, Terry can’t vacuum without pain. I will vacuum when asked, but I really don’t enjoy it.

JimmyTerry, having been laid off like so many others, has plenty of time on her hands and was using some of it, unbeknownst to me, to research robotic vacuums. She decided that the Shark was the best option and announced to me one day that she was going to the Best Buy about a half hour away from us to pick one up. I was dubious, but after twenty-six years of marriage I have learned that when Terry makes a decision there is no point in arguing.

She brought the device home and set it up to charge before sending it off on its first mission. The Shark is controlled by a smartphone app, and you need to give it a name. Terry decided on Jimmy. Personally, I might have preferred HAL, but parrot heads will recognize the reference to a certain Jimmy Buffett song.

One thing you learn from the online Shark forums is that it takes several forays for Jimmy to get to know your house. I had my doubts, but on his third or fourth reconnaissance mission Jimmy found the master bedroom. And with that, as the Monkees sang, “Now I’m a believer.”

Tasha regards Jimmy with a certain level of disdain, but for me, not needing to vacuum? I’m good with that.

New York in the ’50s

New York in the 50s coverNew York in the ’50s
Dan Wakefield
Open Road Media (February 9, 2016), 355 pages
Originally published in 1992
Kindle edition $9.99, Amazon paperback $16.24
Purchased during an Early Bird Books sale for $2.99

I had never read any Dan Wakefield. I was only familiar with him as a novelist from his place on the paperback fiction shelf during my days at B. Dalton Bookseller. In this case, however, the title was intriguing and the price was right.

While the title might suggest history or sociology, New York in the ‘50s is in fact autobiography. Wakefield describes his desire to leave his native Indiana and his arrival at Columbia University. He talks about his college years and his decision like many of his fellow and sister students to stay on in New York City after graduation.

Wakefield describes his attempts, generally successful, to survive as a freelance writer and reporter in the city. He recounts his covering Dorothy Day and her hospitality house along with the struggles of drug addicts and those who worked to help them. He writes about life in Greenwich Village and hanging out at the literary watering hole, a bar called the White Horse.

The author is honest about the newness and initial awkwardness of sex and relationships. He is candid about his struggles with depression and alcohol and about his dependence on analysis, something he did five days a week and which ate up a good share of his income.

Ultimately Wakefield found New York stifling and a journalism fellowship allowed him to go to Boston. It was only after leaving the city that he published hist first novel, Going All the Way. But his time in New York makes for entertaining and at times enlightening reading.

a fun new toy

I lost my hearing aid in the parking lot at Kaiser Riverside during the so-called storm of the decade a few years ago when I was taking Terry home from one of those routine but unpleasant procedures that we older folks must endure every five to ten years. When I went to replace it I asked for a hearing aid that would connect directly to my iPhone without an intermediate device. The clinic’s ReSound line did just that. I love it.

Sometimes, though, I want to use earbuds. The sound quality is better, and when I am doing yard work or exercising I worry that the sweat could damage my hearing aid. The wired earbuds that came with my iPhone 8 have good sound quality, but the frigging things don’t stay in my ear. Not only that, but if I’m doing yard work the cord gets in my way.

Letsfit earbudsI have avoided wireless earbuds because of the price, but our morning news tech guy on KTLA channel 5, Rich DeMuro, reviewed a product from Letsfit that sold for only $26.99 on Amazon. I thought it was worth a try, and with the rewards points on my Amazon VISA credit card the earbuds cost me six dollars and change with tax. (The price, by the way, was $19.95 at last check on Amazon.)

They are really cool. There are four sizes of ear tips and the sound quality is excellent. When the weather allows me to do yard work I can listen to audiobooks without fighting with the cords or worrying that my hearing aid might be damaged by my sweat. The earbuds are advertised as waterproof and they seem to be. The left one fell into my leftover black beans from El Pollo Loco with no apparent damage. (The only time the seem to fall out is when I am using them while eating, which I probably shouldn’t do anyway.)

Practical, fun, and inexpensive. What more can you ask?

The Year 1000

The Year 1000 coverThe Year 1000: When Explorers Connected the World – and Globalization Began
Valerie Hansen
Narrated by Cynthia Farrell
Simon & Schuster Audio, April 14, 2020
$13.22 for Audible members, more for non-members
purchased with an Audible credit

In The Year 1000 Valerie Hansen makes the case that humans first began exploring outside their own local regions around that year. She of course discusses the discovery of North America by the Scandinavians and notes that while they didn’t stay on this continent they explored other regions where they did stay. She makes an interesting case that the Scandinavians may have made it as far south as Mexico. While this is argument may be controversial, most of the rest of the book is pretty much standard history.

In addition to the Scandinavians Hansen discusses central and eastern Europeans, Africans, Chinese, and Arabs. One of the more depressing aspects of the book is how prevalent slavery was. The Scandinavian Vikings engaged in it, Africans were complicit in enslaving other Africans, and the Arabs traded in slaves as well. She points out that the Arabs, in spite of their many cruelties, did believe in freeing slaves under certain circumstances. She tells us that because of their large population the Chinese did not need slaves, and were therefore also slow to adopt powered technology in their manufacturing processes.

By necessity Hansen discusses events before and after 1000, but her thesis that globalization began throughout the world around this time is well supported by her narrative.

The book is adequately and listenably read by Cynthia Farrell, though at times her narration is a bit stiff, and she can sound like Siri at moments. Still, listening to The Year 1000 was time well spent.


Semicolon coverSemicolon: The Past, Present, and Future of a Misunderstood Mark
Cecelia Watson
Ecco (July 30, 2019), 221 pages
Kindle edition $12.99, Amazon hardcover $13.29
Kindle edition purchased on sale for $1.99

I downloaded a sample of this book as soon as I saw the review last summer. I’m not sure why I’m just now getting around to reading it, but the advantage of waiting is that I got a darn good price on the Kindle edition.

Watson reassures us that if we have ever felt any confusion about the use of the semicolon we are very much in the mainstream. She makes clear that while the “first professional grammarians sought clarity through rules, they ended up creating confusion, and the semicolon was collateral damage.” She tells us that before professional grammarians showed up, “the marks of punctuation were analogous to the rests in a piece of music, and were to be applied as individual circumstances and preferences dictated.”

It is interesting to read that Herman Melville had a passion for the semicolon in Moby-Dick, and that Raymond Chandler never touched a semicolon in his mystery novels but used them extensively in his literary essays.

Personally, I prefer to adhere to the standard American English rule for use of a semicolon: it is to be used “either when the items in a list are lengthy and have their own internal punctuation, or when separating two independent or coordinating clauses.”

I use the semicolon rarely; there are times, however, when inserting a semicolon makes sense.

February House

February House coverFebruary House: The Story of W. H. Auden, Carson McCullers, Jane and Paul Bowles, Benjamin Britten, and Gypsy Rose Lee, Under One Roof in Brooklyn
Sherill Tippins
Mariner Books (July 26, 2016), 336 pages
Originally published in 2005
Kindle edition $13.29, Amazon paperback $9.29
Borrowed for free with Prime Reading membership

I always enjoy reading about literary communities, so when I saw February House on sale for $2.99 in an Early Bird Books email I thought I would enjoy reading it. But wait, I realized as I pulled it up on Amazon, I have already read this book. I read it when it first came out in hardcover in 2005. I looked at the Amazon listing and I saw that it was a Prime Reading title, meaning that as a Prime member I could borrow the book and read it at no cost.

At that price I decided it was worth rereading. I was not disappointed.

George Davis was fired from his job as editor at Harper’s Bazaar magazine. To make ends meet he rented a house at 7 Miggdah Street in Brooklyn and invited writers and artists to move in and share in the expenses.

This was just at the start of World War II and there were enough creative types at loose ends to make the experiment work. The poet W.H. Auden moved in as did novelist Carson McCullers. The famous stripper Gypsy Rose Lee rented a suite, and composer Benjamin Britten with his lover Peter Pears lived there. Author and composer Paul Bowles and his wife Jane spent time in the house as well.

People came and went, but the house was a lively place of interaction, discussion, and conversation. Davis was an ineffective landlord and a poor manager of expenses, so he was happy when Auden stepped in to manage the accounts. He missed Auden when Auden spent a year away at Ann Arbor.

Things fell apart after Pearl Harbor, and the house was demolished in 1945 to make way for a thoroughfare. But for one brief shining moment 7 Miggdah Street was something of a literary lighthouse.

I can’t look at that long, cumbersome subtitle without thinking about the opening of “Seventy Six Trombones” in The Music Man where Robert Preston declaims, “And you’ll feel something akin to the electric thrill I once enjoyed when Gilmore, Liberatti, Pat Conway, The Great Creatore, W.C. Handy and John Phillip Sousa all came to town on the very same historic day.” But there is, in fact, something akin to the thrill of that fictional event in the quite real house on Miggdah Street and its residents, as this book so clearly describes. Anaïs Nin referred to the place as February House because several of the residents had birthdays in February, hence giving Tippins her title.

If you find this literary crowd interesting I suspect that you will discover February House hard to put down.

To the Island of Tides

To the Island of Tides coverTo the Island of Tides: A Journey to Lindisfarne
Alistair Moffat
Narrated by David Rintoul
Naxos AudioBooks, August 01, 2019
$14.21 for Audible members, more for non-members
purchased with an Audible credit

Alistair Moffat spent many years in the television business in the United Kingdom until he decided to take early retirement so he could live on his farm while researching and writing history.

Moffat was fascinated by the life of Saint Cuthbert, who lived in the early 600’s. Cuthbert was an aristocrat who chose to become a monk. He first lived in the region near Moffat’s farm in Southern Scotland at a place called Old Melrose. He then retreated to the Island of Lindisfarne, just off the coast, a place accessible via a causeway at low tide.

Moffat hikes both the Old Melrose countryside and Lindisfarne, trying to get a sense of who Cuthbert was and what the saint might have to say to him. He describes his hikes, reflects on his own life nearing age seventy, and offers ample biographical material on Cuthbert as well as plenty of historical context. All of this is woven together into an eminently readable (listenable) narrative.

The book is masterfully read by David Rintoul who, with his distinguished British accent, effectively channels Moffat’s thoughts and emotions. Moffat insists that he is an atheist and not a man of faith, but I for one found much in To the Island of Tides to be spiritually uplifting.

some days you have to follow the rules

As you may remember reading here, I was delighted when we got our new stove with a convection oven a little over a year ago. I immediately got back into bread baking. Once I was in the routine again I stopped following recipes and began to wing it. I knew the correct proportions, so the loaves I baked turned out anywhere from OK to really good.

Recently I had just gotten my King Arthur order, for which I had to wait an unusually long time due to our COVID-19 world. I had ordered two bags of artisanal bread flour and I wanted to do something a little special.

I pulled out my copy of Rustic European Bread from Your Bread Machine, which I believe was out of print for a while, but seems to be available again, and in fact now has a second edition. I have not used a bread machine since our Gilroy kitchen remodel in 2007, but I use the book’s ingredients and proportions and then make bread the traditional way with my KitchenAid stand mixer and convection oven. I selected the recipe for pain de mie, French street bread. I used (a bit less than) half King Arthur artisan bread flour and (a bit more than) half generic grocery store bread flour.

The loaf turned out well. Terry loved it.

Some days it works out well when you follow the rules.

Rustic Bread