Wednesday, September 9, 2015

The French House by Don Wallace ~ my review

You would not have to be a Francophile or rehabber or surfer to enjoy Don Wallace’s story of his and wife Mindy’s French fixer-upper on an island with whopper waves. This book’s stories revolve around a ruin purchased off Brittany’s coast and slowly restored in starts and stops over decades, but The French House is mainly about family and friendships, dreams and disappointments.

Youthful Don and Mindy became enchanted with the wild, natural, simple ambiance of Belle Île living, and influenced by a former professor and mentor of Mindy’s, bought an ancient disaster of a house near the professor’s own cottage there. As the young couple builds writing careers in New York City, they scrimp and save to pay for enough repairs to make their Belle Île dream house livable. On repeated visits, they get to know the villagers and the island’s unique history and culture. After being made to feel like outsiders, their antennae sharpen to perceive the politics of survival and friendships there. They become acutely sensitive to people’s motives, even to the point of questioning Mindy’s mentor’s motives for luring them there.

The French House consists of 25 themed chapters. That chapters are not chronological is not problematic, at least for me, because they tell interesting human interest stories. I did not feel the need for step-by-step house renovation stories. I enjoyed the descriptions, humor, and charm of the vignettes in this memoir. Besides simply enjoyment, I suppose I ended up with a takeaway, too: Dreams are not realized overnight or in a straight line.

Here are four excerpts to give you a flavor of The French House:

To our right, the valley’s opposite slope hangs over the meadow like a dark wave, broken in places by white limestone crags poking through the gorse. Beneath each crag is a cave, like a blind eye socket, turned toward the sea. P. 129

At times memories were not enough, and we succumbed to doubt and despair. Did we make a mistake? Would we ever get back there? Perhaps most alarming was how sometimes, when we shook the imaginary paperweight [snow globe] to reawake our memories, nothing happened. To fail to summon the spirit of Belle Île was desolating. P. 132

There were days when I felt myself becoming just another faceless cheap-suiter wearing out his shoes on the Gotham sidewalks, but each night … I emigrated upstairs to a vacant apartment and wrote. I wasn’t going to let that dream get snuffed out. P. 133

[After a funny language-foibled conversation while picnicking on a Belle Île beach with villagers as they await the incoming tide’s signal to begin surfing] Everyone cackles, trading double entendres, and an hour passes in beach blanket Babylon: French people trying to speak English, French teenagers practicing American rapper slang with the American boys, and the lone American adult addressing men as women and women as men and referring to himself as both. P. 31

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Monterey Bay Aquarium: Mermaid purses and pulsing jellies

The sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever.
~ Jacques Cousteau

No need for Cousteau’s Calypso ship, just meander on foot through Monterey Bay Aquarium to experience the sea’s net of wonder. A recent visit there was truly awe-inspiring ~ a colorful eye candied, curiosity-tickling, fascinating-fact packed undersea adventure. Oh, and just plain fun. I could have stood all day watching sea otters frolic ~ torpedoing on their backs, rolling like logs, gleefully chomping raw fish chunks, and clenching tiny claws around bright blue balls as a child might hold his favorite toy. Playful seems to be their mantra.

I’m always delighted to find skate on a restaurant menu, and I knew skates look like and are related to sting rays. But through one aquarium exhibit I learned how young skates enter their watery world. A skate lays eggs in an egg case, sometimes called a mermaid’s purse, because that’s what it looks like, a small sac with curved “handles,” which are shaped like hooks. The handles’ function is to catch on seaweed or some object that would anchor the egg case to the sea floor until the embryo develops. Another amazing design in this process is that the sac is waterproof until the embryo develops gills at three weeks old. Then holes form, admitting water, and the baby skate first learns to swim in its protective case. Big bang creation theory? … primordial soup? … I’m sorry, can’t buy it. Someone thought this through.

In all my years beachcombing, I think I have found only one or two whole sand dollar skeletons. I never thought about what life is like for a living sand dollar. At the aquarium I learned they are flat sea urchins whose spines move them along the seabed. The exhibit we saw showed groups of furry sand dollars burrowed upright at an angle advantageous for food flowing in the water to pass their mouths.

Beware jellyfish at the beach! I have seen swarms of white, long-tentacled jellyfish in the ocean right in the swimming area. I have tiptoed around little clear, breathing balloons on the beach and then finally donned shoes again so as not to accidentally get stung. When I’ve seen hundreds of Portuguese Man O’ Wars’ huge, pink-puffed, inky-blue stingers dotting the tide line, I keep shoes on at all times. When jellies swim in safety behind aquarium glass, however, I can better appreciate their translucent, delicate beauty. In fact, though their pulsations look like swimming, jellyfish only drift with the current. I had on some level known this, thanks to Phil Vischer’s explanation of why he named his new company Jellyfish Labs ~ he wanted God to be the current directing his company. But I liked seeing how jellies keep a beat and go with the flow. Sometimes their rhythms seem like dancing. Sometimes their tentacles flutter like flames. Bioluminescent jellies sparkle like stardust. I forget the tentacles are stingers when they look like crystal beaded-bracelets. My favorite jelly looked like white vintage lace.

I smiled to see a tank full of little, beige, flat fish that swam flat, undulating like so many flying carpets, as if to say, “Hop on for a tour of my watery wonderland.” Aquariums are sure to amuse and brighten one’s day.

Friday, August 14, 2015

You know you’re not in France …

Vegetable gardening here in Illinois and visiting France have taught me to love marchés, or farmers markets. In both the U.S. and in France, fresh, local, heirloom, and artisanal flavors awaken the taste buds. And in France, farmers’ arrangements are an art form—a feast for the eyes. Less artistic, practical U.S. farmers generally just put little bins and pint and quart boxes on a table to display their produce. As I sling Provençal cabas, or market basket, over my shoulder and stride toward a new market, I’m eager for both freshness and artistry. Standing in the midway of the market, I glance up and down both lines of booths for the French signature: beauty. Here in the States, I’m often disappointed, as in our recent stop at a Michigan market.

Promising signs were pretty flower displays and a quiche vendor …

… and a chef creating both savory and sweet crêpes.

But then, you know you’re not in France when the market sells Yooper pasties and Amish cheese, especially with a tacky plastic cheese wedge on a car.

Some booths straddled the France/U.S. line, in my opinion. On one hand, sea salt caramels are ubiquitous along the Atlantic coast of France. On the other hand, chocolate covered bacon sounds right out of a Homer Simpson cartoon. And free copies of the New Testament? I have never seen this in France, though I’m sure it happens.

Regarding market baskets, well, again practicality reigns in this country, where most everyone nowadays brings reusable cloth bags to farmers markets. Compare the Michigan market’s single pole of baskets for sale with a French marché’s vibrant, tumbling sea of basket beauty.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Idol Worship?

Warning: This post is a pet peeve rant.

Is this idol worship? Or is it how “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know” plays out in our society? Or are theater reviews written only by extroverted high-influencer personality types? I don’t know, but star power over substance, fame over news-you-can-use sure bugs me. Here are some examples of this pet peeve:

  • ·         The musical Pippin has been reimagined and is opening soon in Chicago. I’m interested in reading a summary of the story in the review to see if I’d like to see it. Not once did the newspaper reviewer mention anything but who was in the production and what they all were best known for. And yes, I’ve heard of some of those actors. But I wouldn’t shell out $46 to see any of them—or any actor, for that matter, even my favorites. I might spend the money for a poignant story and beautiful music. But apparently, stars trump story.
  • ·         Sometimes when I ask someone, “How about seeing this movie?” the response is, “Who’s in it?” I read the actors’ names and then ask the person if s/he’d like to know what the movie is about. “No.” Again, stars trump story
  • ·         I hear a radio announcer invite people to a marriage conference given by famous psychologist Dr. Mucketeemuck. No indication of what the conference focus would be. Conflict resolution? Date night 101? Talking about money? Rebuilding after an affair? No information helpful for deciding whether to invest a day at this conference. Just ooh, come hear Dr. Mucketeemuck. Star over substance.
  • ·         I’m excited to see the agenda for an upcoming writers workshop facilitated by award-winning writer Professor Clucketeecluck. If I signed up, would I learn about writing effective essays? Fiction dialogue? Fiction story arc? Fiction fact research? Devotionals? How-to books? Effective structure of critique groups? No clue. The invitation and agenda just say to come hear Professor Clucketeecluck. Star over substance.
Sometimes if I’m on the fence about a play, movie, or conference, knowing the players’ reputations helps me decide. But only after I know the story or substance interests me.

My pet peeve may be related to my marketing communications training: To sell the sizzle, tell benefits first, then features. If you first tell me this new sooper-dooper-doodad has 25 phalangees (thank you for that great word, Phoebe Buffay), I’ve dozed off by the time you get to the benefit of saving me time. If you first tell me sooper-dooper-doodad will save me time, I’m awake and impressed by the number of phalangees. First I want to know what I’ll learn at a conference or how much I might enjoy a play or movie’s story. That’s the benefit for me. The actors are secondary.

My gut sense is that society’s frequently placing higher priority on the Who’s Who than the What’s What runs deeper than backward marketing strategy. Maybe even to our desire to feel important by connecting with famous people in tiny, tenuous ways. We’re often blind to splendor in the ordinary, discontent with God’s and loved ones’ love, and worried we won’t make a difference unless we’re connected to someone we perceive is important.

Getting back to the question: Is this idol worship? In some cases, probably. Only God knows the motives of our hearts. Ironically, televised talent contests like American Idol get story and substance right. Regardless of contestants’ idol-worship or non-idol-worship reasons for seeking fame, through the show’s process, their stories are enriched by the substance of strategic, constructive criticism and serious hard work.

In the meantime … Please, advertisers and reviewers, just give me the story and the substance. If I want to know who’s going to be there, I’ll ask.

Oh, BTW, I name-dropped Phoebe Buffay for you readers who crave reading famous names and don't recognize Dr. Mucketeemuck or Professor Clucketeecluck. LOL