Monthly Archives: January 2013

Stop and smell the goose poop

Or, finding appreciation in unexpected places

Sometimes it’s time to stop and step in the goose poop.

That’s what I did a couple of days ago.

Canadian geese on a meadow

“Geese” CC image courtesy of Martin Weller on Flickr. Noncommercial license.

I needed to get out of the house. There comes a point every day where I go stir crazy. Not mildly stir crazy. Not something that five minutes’ stroll around the block will cure. But mountain-climbing-sweating-like-a-buffalo-running-5K-with-no-warmup crazy.

By that point in the day — and it seems to arrive about the same time every day — I’ve been working on the computer for hours. It might be for a client or it might be my own writing… or I might’ve procrastinated all day on social media, compulsively following one interesting link to the next.

The onset is usually sudden. One moment, I’m hunched over the table, nose inches from the computer monitor — atrocious posture is a good sign that things need to change — the next, I’m literally pacing my apartment, fantasizing about sprinting through the city streets.

Then it dawns on me that I could solve everything if I just Got Outside.

Thus it is I found myself Outside at Sloan Lake in Northwest Denver last week. Like most Denver city parks I’ve seen, Sloan Lake has been appropriated by hordes of Canadian geese. And they’ve left many mementos of their presence.

Many Canadian geese in winter park

“Geese” CC image courtesy of Overduebook on Flickr. Attribution license.

The last time I remember seeing this many geese in one place was at the county park in New Jersey where my high school track team trained. A paved path made up the outside perimeter of the park, shaped like a sloppy figure eight. Inside each loop was a large grassy area. The inside of the south loop was essentially one big meadow, but the north loop featured a number of sports fields: the de facto soccer pitches, a baseball diamond and field, the throwing cage and field for discus and javelin, the 400 meter track. The geese came in large numbers in the winter, and then they seemed never to leave. Long before experts decided to reclassify the Canadian goose as a non-migratory bird, those of us on the track team were well aware of their sedentary ways.

So it is at Sloan Lake.

The circuit around the lake is a paved walkway. On either side of the walkway, winter-deadened grass an indeterminate color somewhere between yellow, beige, and brown spans the grounds of the park. It is the perfect color for goose poop camouflage.

Generally, I prefer running on unpaved surfaces because it’s nicer on the joints. However, the advantage to the walkway at Sloan Lake is that it’s possible to ascertain where the goose poop is, and whether or not you are stepping in it. Usually you are… the walkway is a veritable minefield. But it’s where I started, in a vain effort to keep the bottoms of my shoes poop-free.

The area around the lake affords park visitors a clear view to the Rocky Mountains. In between dodging little green-brown-yellow minefields, I noticed that clouds were spreading in a bank above the peaks, although the rest of the sky was cloudless. The sun was low, first behind the clouds and then dipping behind the mountains, which became mere silhouettes. I kept losing my pace because I had to turn my head and look. The light was transparent and yet gold at the same time, and the frozen lake was very blue. Some geese had settled on an open stretch of water to the west, and they looked serene, even appropriate.

As I completed my circuit on the eastern shore, I looked back across the snowy landscape to the dusk coming down from the mountains. The clouds separated two identical color sequences above the tops of the highest peaks: mountains, gold, pink, blue; clouds, gold, pink, blue.

A cacophony of honking and the squeak of wings behind me heralded a flyover. I turned and ducked, afraid that at least one of them would go potty as they passed overhead. Instead, they flew past me without incident and curved out over the lake, in a long line from north to south, easily more than 50 birds together. They became a dark band against the bluing western sky as they went, an eyebrow between the lake and the clouds. The honking and creaking faded, and I was left with a feeling of joy in their passing, their being there at that moment, the way they graced the sky — truly in their element.

That was worth stepping in some goose poop.

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Do you ever feel a sudden need to change your surroundings?  What unexpected beautiful things did you discover as you went?

The problem of judging a book by its cover

What happens when there isn't one?

Happy 2013!

After my long holiday break, I have a few thoughts about books to share — partly because of the awesome number of them gifted to me and weighing down my suitcase after the holidays.

library stacks

Word goodness! Image courtesy of geekphilosopher.com

The wave of digital readers and e-books that is swirling into publishing-dom, tsunami-style, consistently creates existential ripples among traditionalists (yours truly included) and those affiliated with the traditional order, along the lines of, “What is a book?”

This isn’t one of those existential ripples.

It’s a different ripple. What’s going to happen to the community of reading as the phenomenon of book covers dwindles and vanishes?

The NY Times Travel section published an article in mid-December 2012 about literary haunts in Manhattan. The author, while visiting a “literary” bar recommended to him by friends, observes:

“Most of the women looked like extras from an episode of Lena Dunham’s HBO series, ‘Girls.’ I would report to you the books they were carrying, but the only readers in the bunch were grasping Kindles.”

The author is sad because he can’t hit on the ladies based on what they might be reading, but I’m sad because not glimpsing what they are reading takes a lot of the community out of reading!

The best way to find new books: as gifts

I’ve always thought that books make the best gifts.

I’m talking as the recipient (although I do enjoy giving them, too). I’ve gotten a lot of good ones over the years, for birthdays and Christmases, and other big life events, such as when I left for my two-year sojourn in New Zealand. It’s how I found some of my favorite books of all time: Anne of Green Gables, the original Earthsea trilogy from Ursula LeGuin, Jane Eyre, Mary Higgins Clark’s thrillers, Juliet Marillier’s Light Isles and Sevenwaters books, Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter books (I swear I read male authors too), German young adult mystery and fantasy novels, thick with detail and glorious language…

The tradition was kept up this year, when I received Stephen King’s On Writing, possibly one of the best books, on, er, writing, that I’ve ever seen (and also on my All-Time Favorites list. A male author. There). As well as a few other tomes.

I’ve killed my favorite books with love. The hard covers have stood up well, but the paperbacks are falling apart. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve read them — I used to read the Earthsea books and Anne of Green Gables about once a year. If I ever wanted to offload them on the Amazon used-book marketplace, they would near-universally have to be rated as in poor condition. The corners are dog eared and frayed; the cover art cracked and barely recognizable to an unknowing eye; the bindings are pulp; the front covers are coming off and so are some of the opening pages; other pages are yellowed with age and exude an old-book smell. The only kind of used-book defacement missing is writing on the pages — I never ever wanted to scribble in my books! Even after they succumb to the ravages of love, they’re kind of sacred.

Now, I flag my books with crazy-colored sticky notes. I still can’t bring myself to create messy marginalia.

Over time, I’ve received fewer titles that I haven’t requested by title or author name in advance. Instead of books, I tend to get recommendations.

The next best way: educated guesswork

In my case, book recommendations — a form of educated guesswork by the recommender — translate into trips to the library (I’d be eating Ramen noodles every day, assuming I wasn’t buried by a collapsing pile of books in my hoarder-style apartment, had I actually purchased a copy of everything I ever wanted to read). One author or style leads to another: I quickly amassed a “to read” list that outstripped my power to ever complete.

red book on a shelf

Standing out from the crowd
image courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

My primary strategy for adding to the list consisted of browsing the “new fiction” shelves at our local branch, looking over the spines of all the shiny new volumes — a form of less-educated guesswork (this time by me). Unless it was clear from that superficial view that the book was not my cup of tea, I’d read the dust jacket… and if that was promising, the first few lines or paragraphs of the book itself. I knew I had a winner when I got to the third page, standing in front of the shelves, and I was still reading.

We’ve all heard the saying, “don’t judge a book by its cover.” But it’s hard. I picked up Stef Penney’s The Tenderness of Wolves based solely on the title, for example. Smilla’s Sense of Snow (Peter Høeg) caught me with the eye on the cover, enigmatic, as well as the taste of winter suggested by the white background.

I agree a book cover shouldn’t be everything, but it’s a logical place to start. Especially if we don’t know the author or have never of the book.

Unsurprisingly, the modern book marketing machine revolves around the cover. The cover is the cornerstone of the book’s “branding.” This holds true even when the visual is virtual: online book stores use cover images as icons to flag books for would-be purchasers, and author websites feature an image of the book for sale.

But there really isn’t any cover on an e-book.

After we’ve purchased the digital copy or borrowed it (depending on the current state of wrangling between libraries and publishers), it resides solely on our flickering little screen. Once we start reading, the cover, visible only to us in the first place, effectively vanishes.

And the reading community goes with it.

Because books aren’t only just for us to read

worn blue journal

the gift of a story
image courtesy of freedigitialphotos.net

Sure, we think we’re engaged in a solitary activity when we’re reading… it’s hard to have a conversation with someone else at the same time and actually remember a word of what we read… but although I’m not a betting woman, I’m willing to bet cold hard cash that I’m not the only one who’s relied on the recommendations and book suggestions of family, friends, and strangers. And let’s not forget the literary community at Goodreads, more than 13 million users strong. It’s a community built up explicitly around books! And interestingly, the fulcrum of this social media hub, digital and virtual though it is, involves seeing what other people have on their “shelves” (welcome back, cover icons) …and what their comments on these books are.

We lose the human connection when there is no way to tell what someone is reading — or to show anyone else what we are reading. Users of electronic devices could just as well be checking their email, or surfing Facebook, as reading any kind of book.

In an example of classic book interaction, the lady next to me on the plane last month struck up a conversation about the book that I was reading — because she had just caught a glimpse of its cover. Not to browbeat the Kindle, but this conversation would surely not have taken place if I had been holding a computerized version of the book. I then saw she was holding a book of crossword puzzles, and so we went from food (my book was Consider the Fork) to writing to families — one of my grandmothers was a prodigious crossworder in her day.

There we were, two strangers, discovering a common bond by virtue of our book [covers]. As I said, the cover is a good place to start. Not just for marketers, but for the rest of us, too.


Have you stumbled across any good new books recently? How did you find them?

How likely are you to ask somebody reading a Kindle or a tablet whether it’s “any good?”