Saturday, October 12, 2013

Field work

Yesterday was a foundational bird-watching experience. I travelled to the Volkswagen campus near Chattanooga to find a White-faced Ibis.

Source: Alan Vernon,
This is an image of the bird in its summer plumage, when the white is visible on its face. In winter, it's identical to the Glossy Ibis except for its red eye, usually only discernible with a scope or excellent camera.

Four potential White-faced Ibises had been spotted and photographed, most in juvenile plumage. The red eye was visible in the photos. I did manage to see all four birds, but I would not have been able to positively ID them if I hadn't already known what to look for. I only saw them in flight.

Bird-watching takes me to some unusual places, and this time was no exception. The birds had been sighted near a pond on Discovery Dr, a road too new for my GPS. The city was constructing a new water main next door, so to get to the pond I had to walk over fill dirt and bracken and past the worker busy flattening the new dirt with his bobcat.

I approached the pond slowly, nervous about scaring the birds away. I stopped each time I had a glimpse of the pond, then peered around the edge of the line of bushes. Nothing but killdeer. I found a place to sit where I could see most of the pond and be shielded by the tall grasses, and there I sat for two hours.

That was the foundational part. Just sitting and waiting. It's hard to slow down and just observe. I found I kept checking my iPhone or my bird book. I had to force myself to enjoy the temperate October weather and the pleasant sound of bird song.

Patience was harder because I saw the birds early in the sit. About 10 minutes in, one ibis flushed from a grassy field (I also detected a Great Blue Heron hanging out in the tall grasses). About 30 minutes in, I saw 3 ibises fly overhead. So, task accomplished but greater view desired. Hence, the wait. They never came back, but I did see an additional 16 species, including a Gray Catbird and a Belted Kingfisher, two species I find fascinating.

This was a life-bird for me and an unusual bird to find in Tennessee at any time, so it was worth the 90-mile drive. I regret not having a better view, which I would have gotten if I had stayed an hour longer. Overall, this experience's greatest value was that it forced me to slow down and focus on something fun.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

How to Be Good Company

As an introvert who was always more comfortable with books than people, I've had to learn the hard way how to be good company. I don't always succeed, but I have learned some general guidelines.

1. A good conversation is never about one person. 
If I'm talking too much about me, just interject and draw the conversation back to you. And expect me to do likewise. If I notice myself (or someone else) dominating the conversation, I'll pause and ask someone else a question.

2. Never interrupt someone else's story. 
(Unless they violate rule 1.) If you only have a few minutes and there's something you're dying to tell, go ahead--but that isn't really a conversation. It's more of a confession. In a conversation, you're probably spending several minutes, maybe an hour, with the same set of people. Expect give and take. There will be time to bring the conversation back around to your story.

3. Avoid starting or ending with something serious. 
Conversations have a natural rhythm and flow. The first bit gets the conversants comfortable before the real work can begin in the middle. But don't wait too long for that moment! There's a point when people want to withdraw, and then it's too late. If people are yawning or talking about plans for the morning, those are signals that they want to withdraw. Also check to see if they are looking around for other people to talk to. No matter how much people like you, there's a limit to how long they want to converse.

4. Bring something to the conversation. 
Sometimes it's difficult to know what to say, especially to someone you've just met or someone you see all the time. That's when you draw on your prepared topics. What have you done recently? Have you eaten at a good restaurant? Heard an interesting new song on the radio? Started a new gym class? Saw something funny on the internet?

4a. Elaborate and help out.
I offer this classic interchange from L.A. Story:

Trudi: Sheila has been studying the art of conversation.
Harris: Oh, you're taking a course in conversation?
Sheila: Yes.
[long pause]

Sheila should have said something about the class, even if it's "but it's nothing." Then maybe Harris would've asked a follow-up. Similarly, if someone says they've heard an interesting song, ask something about it, even if it's just what station.

What other advice would you offer?

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Learning to Love Venice

Santa Maria della Salute
"It is a great pleasure to write the word; but I am not sure there is not a certain impudence in pretending to add anything to it. Venice has been painted and described many thousands of times, and of all the cities of the world is the easiest to visit without going there. Open the first book and you will find a rhapsody about it; step into the first picture-dealer's and you will find three or four high-coloured "views" of it. There is notoriously nothing more to be said on the subject. Every one has been there, and every one has brought back a collection of photographs. There is as little mystery about the Grand Canal as about our local thoroughfare, and the name of St. Mark is as familiar as the postman's ring. It is not forbidden, however, to speak of familiar things, and I hold that for the true Venice-lover Venice is always in order. There is nothing new to be said about her certainly, but the old is better than any novelty. It would be a sad day indeed when there should be something new to say. I write these lines with the full consciousness of having no information whatever to offer. I do not pretend to enlighten the reader; I pretend only to give a fillip to his memory; and I hold any writer sufficiently justified who is himself in love with his theme." --Henry James, Italian Hours
Inside the Doge's Palace

It's fair to say that I knew next to nothing about Venice before this year. Somehow, the centuries that La Serenissima ruled the Mediterranean were skipped over in my Western Civilization course (perhaps not "Western" enough?). I didn't know of its artistic heritage. I had a vague sense of its importance in the Grand Tour and a suspicion of some nineteeenth-century fighting with Austria. Of course I knew of the canals and gondolas, but I didn't even know that Venice was a grouping of islands. 

My experience was, then, the exact opposite of Henry James'. When I read the above opening paragraph to Italian Hours, I felt out of the loop. This feeling persisted in my other readings about Venice, especially the prose of the Ruskins. I decided that my goal in Venice would be to discover why people love it so. 

I didn't succeed. Love isn't something rational that you can set out an argument for. Love creeps in on you, unawares. I arrived at Venice skeptical of its charms and seeing exactly what I had been prepared to see. I was unimpressed and distant. But leaving Venice was hard, and even though I'm back home, part of my spirit is still there. How did this happen? 

Maybe it's all the water. Water is an incredible force, and Venice has managed to accommodate the demands of the sea. The gentle rocking of the boats, necessary for getting around town, also has a lulling effect on the psyche. 
The Grand Canal
Maybe it's the clarity of the light. In summer, Venice has 5 or 6 days a month of precipitation. I arrived on one of the overcast days; once the sky cleared, the spell began. 

The Grand Canal, early morning.
Zoom in to see the art on the side of the building.
Maybe it's ancient architecture. There's an amazing wonder to standing exactly where someone 500 or 1000 years ago stood, and seeing essentially the same buildings. And I love the pointed arches of the Byzantine Gothic. 
Inside La Salute Church

The Doge's Palace

Maybe it's that there's art everywhere. Even on the outside of buildings, where the elements gradually destroy everything. And yet no place better exemplifies the saying, Ars longa, vita brevis
Detail outside the Basilica
Inside the Basilica. Isn't that amazing?
Part of the altar inside the Basilica
I don't think it's that I conceive of Venice as being in the past, as a museum. Reading Donna Leon's excellent mysteries, set in the present and concerned with permanent residents, deepened my affection for the city. 
Accademia Bridge and traffic on the Grand Canal

The chemistry of this love is complex. All I really know is that I would like to go back, and this time bring my husband. Because Venice is a city of love. 

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The Local and the Global: Venice 2013

"State of the Field" panel
My excuse for being in Venice was a Victorianist conference coordinated by three excellent organizations: the North American Victorian Studies Association, the British Association of Victorian Studies, and the Australasian Victorian Studies Association. The conference theme was "The Local and the Global." Paper topics included cosmopolitanism, tourism, attitudes in Britain towards Italy, transportation, historicism, Dickens, Ruskin, and the Brownings. Attendees ranged from the top scholars in the field to promising graduate students, some of whom (like Kat Powell, whose thoughts on Venice can be found here) were fortunate enough to participate in a professionalization workshop the week before.

Victorianists in line for dinner
The conference was held on the beautiful island of San Servolo. This walled island was once the location of a monastery and an infamous insane asylum, but now it houses Venice International University, which is a consortium for Study Abroad programs. It's incredibly beautiful, which at times can be distracting, but overall it's an excellent venue for a conference. The meals I ate at the conference, both catered and at the cafeteria, were the best I had in Venice.

I had meant to write a blog entry on a single panel, but looking at my notes I found a problem: I seemed utterly unable to stay awake for every paper in a panel. I would be really engaged at the start but then drift off and have no notes. I blame jet lag. I should have excused myself for a moment after the first two papers to get some fresh air so that I could be ready for the third. Nothing else seemed to work.

I was able to hear some excellent papers at the beginnings of panels, anyway.

  • Chris Ferguson showed us early photographic experiments in which London was flooded and buildings were separated by canals, making London into Venice. 
  • Richard Pearson, of the Victorian Plays Project, discussed Kiralfy's "Venice in London," an 1891 spectacle in which a lagoon was built inside the Olympia Theatre and gondola rides could be had for 6d
  • In the "Writing Italy" panel, Emily Allen shared her experiences teaching a Study Abroad class in Venice, in which her greatest success was treating scholarly articles about tourism as primary texts and having students reflect on their own experiences as a tourist. 
  • Claire Horrocks analyzed travel writing as a genre in Dickens' Pictures from Italy and in a maid's memoirs. She suggested that in addition to James Buzard's categories of "traveller" and "tourist" (The Beaten Track, 1993) that we add "sight-seer" for those travelling with another purpose (like a conference).
  • Mary Armstrong also discussed Pictures from Italy from a rhetorical perspective, especially the role of quotidian elements and the treatment of reality.  (I'm afraid I started to become less focused here, and was semi-conscious by the start of the final paper.)
And these were just on the first day!

The "Writing Italy" panel is the one that most moved me to blog because it made me reflect on my own role as an anti-tourist and on my perceptions of Venice. For Dickens and Ruskin and James, Venice was a place of mourning for something always already lost. But for Effie Ruskin, Venice was a place of plenitude and freedom. John would work on his projects and she would socialize. She loved people, and she loved learning the language and the city. Reflecting on Henry James, it occurred to me that his experience of Venice was also highly social. In Italian Hours, he writes, "If you are happy you will find yourself, after a June day in Venice (about ten o'clock), on a balcony that overhangs the Grand Canal, with your elbows on the broad ledge, a cigarette in your teeth and a little good company beside you." That "good company" is often an overlooked element. I reflected that perhaps a "genuine" experience of a place is necessarily a social one. To consume the present and not the past of Venice, one must meet people. Even if those people are other tourists.

This attitude made me much more patient with all the tourists in Venice. They are part of the nature of the place. Without tourists,  there.  is.  no.  Venice.  And yet, there is also a Venice that transcends the daily steps of transients. The museums, the city's routine, the people's daily life, even the weather, they are essential to Venice as well.

I think it is safe to say that, as resistant as I initially was to Venice's charms, it continues to haunt me.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Communicating in Italian

One of my favorite things about being in Venice was the experience of being in a place where I didn't speak the language. I found that I was quieter and self-conscious, and it occurred to me that this is how many people feel when they come to America. I could be quite voluble when I ran into a conference-goer, but otherwise I spoke very few words.

People in St. Mark's Plaza
I learned some basic Italian to smooth the way. I took a 4-week night class, studied a phrase book, and listened to a CD. I typed out some phrases I might need. Things like, "Dov'e la toilette?" and "Vorrei un bichierre du vino" and "il conto, per favore." I could say I'm lost, I don't understand, and ask for my room key. I also knew my basic numbers.

Everyone says that you don't need to know the language when you go to Europe, that "everyone" speaks English. That just seems rude to me. I saw this as an opportunity to expand my knowledge, and I'm glad I did it. Not everyone in Venice speaks English, and many that do have limited vocabularies. My hotel staff were pretty fluent, for instance, but they didn't know "Advil" (if I had said "ibuprofen," they would have gotten it, since the Italian is "ibuprofene"). The merchant in a paper shop in Dorsoduro didn't speak English. Even those that spoke English well were amused by my attempts to speak and tried to encourage me. I learned from the hotel staff to say "Vado fuori" when I was leaving and that I had to put the "cento" into my room number, "due cento settante sette."

Ultimately, Italian is a beautiful language that was a pleasure to speak. I wish I had another month there so that I could become more comfortable with it.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Food in Venice

Going overseas always changes my eating habits in some way when I return. After visiting England, I started eating toast. After Scotland, I added tomato to some of my breakfasts. It isn’t just that I’m trying to hang on to the experience, though that's part of it. It’s also that the food I eat there seems more satisfying than my regular, American food. The effect so far that Italy is having on me is wanting more fruits and vegetables.

Yes, those are fries on the pizza
 Almost every meal I ate in Italy had several courses. The exceptions were when I grabbed something quick at a bar or ate at a pizzeria. My first Italian “meal” was a brioche and latte—I was sight-seeing and couldn’t decide on a place to eat, so I got a snack at the Correr Museum café. On the second day, my dinner came from a bar: a Panini that I ate as I window-shopped, followed by gelato after a tour of the Basilica. My favorite meals were on San Servolo for the conference. Lunch at the cafeteria (fixed price) was pasta salad, quiche, vegetables, fruit, bread, and drink. The catered lunch was similar but also included dessert and wine. The best dinner I had was Monday night at the conference. The appetizer was thin slices of ham. The first course was an incredible cheese crepe. The second course was turkey medallions with sautéed vegetables. The dessert was a lemon cake with fruit. And let’s not forget the bread and wine!

2nd course

But perhaps what really made those meals great was the company. I had a tasty 2-course plus tiramisu dinner at a restaurant on my last night, and it was just an  okay experience. By contrast, the mediocre meal I had in good company in Dorsoduro I enjoyed much more.

My best food advice for Italy is that if you’re eating alone, just grab something from a bar. If you’re eating with friends, choose a fixed-price menu at a restaurant and linger.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Blue Ridge, Georgia

My husband Judson and I just returned from a honeymooniversary in a cabin in Blue Ridge. We stayed there for our honeymoon 6 years ago, so this was like another honeymoon. We didn't stay in the same cabin as before. We loved that cabin, Tranquility Ridge, but we were afraid things would have changed, that it would be a disappointment, that we were merely trying to recreate the past. Also, the price had gone up. :) So, we stayed in Running Bear Lodge instead.

I was pleased with our choice. It's a smaller cabin than Tranquility Ridge, but it had still plenty of space. I enjoyed writing at the rustic dining room table. And it had an awesome gas fireplace,  which we made use of the very first night, when we arrived amid a rain storm. Luckily the weather got better, and by the 3rd day it was toasty warm out. The hot tub was in a better location than Tranquility Ridge's--slightly less privacy, being right next to the road, but with a great view of the stars. We were able to float in our bubbly warm bath and watch the shooting stars without being disturbed by anyone.

Our hot tub and fire pit
The cabin is remote. Technically, it's in Cherry Log rather than Blue Ridge. Very few cars come by on the road. It was incredibly quiet, not within shooting distance of any civilization. From our deck, all we could see was mountains. The view was not quite as good as Tranquility Ridge, but that was only because sunset over the mountains was partially blocked by trees.

Our 'bad' view
The birds were excellent. I would wake in the morning to the Wood Thrush's song. I also heard Hooded Warblers, Black-throated Green Warblers, Red-eyed Vireos, Black-and-white Warblers, Ovenbirds, and oh so many Indigo Buntings. Judson was able to get some good shots of these:
Indigo Bunting
We also saw many Scarlet Tanagers, but these were less obliging. All of these birds I had already seen this year on Sharp's Ridge, but it's always nice to see them again. The only new year bird was a Wild Turkey, which we saw on the road up to the cabin.

This trip was also a writing retreat for me. I spent a fair bit of time sleeping, hanging out on the deck or in front of the fire, or soaking in the hot tub, but I also wrote for perhaps 12 hours while Judson read and watched a couple of TV shows. We also went into Blue Ridge for meals twice. I had one of the best meals I had in months at the Blue Ridge Brewery. We shopped a bit; I bought a rug and Judson bought a metal peacock at Rose's. We also bought the requisite fudge, without which no trip to Blue Ridge is complete.

The last time we were in Blue Ridge, we didn't make it out to Lake Blue Ridge. We corrected the mistake this time, and I was really glad we did. Morganton Point is gorgeous. Just sitting there, listening to the lake water lapping against the shore, watching the windfall light, and wondering at the stunning Red-headed Woodpeckers and Brown-headed Nuthatches right out in the open, well, it doesn't get much better.

The next time we go, I think we'll try another new cabin, just for variety. And we'll rent a boat at Lake Blue Ridge.

Red-headed Woodpecker

Thursday, March 21, 2013

The Chick-Fil-A Boycott

I've gathered this information as a resource for myself and others who talk to people unaware of the 2012 boycott. I've drawn most of the information from Snopes, supplemented by articles from The Advocate,, and

In 2010, Chick-Fil-A (through WinShape Foundation, established by Mr. & Mrs. Cathy) donated $1.9 million to groups with anti-gay agendas like the Family Research Council (FRC), the Marriage and Family Foundation, and Exodus International (a promoter of conversion therapy). Peter Sprigg, of the FRC, is in favor of criminalizing sexual acts between consenting adults of the same sex in the U.S.In 2010, the FRC spent $25,000 lobbying congress against H.R. 1064, a resolution condemning Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill, which includes a death penalty for homosexuality. Why would anyone be opposed to condemning a law that says gay people should die?

In Fall 2012, after a summer of publicity and boycotts and being denied permits to open new stores in Chicago and Boston, rumors spread that Chick-Fil-A was changing its policies. WinShape stopped or decreased donations to some of the more contentious organizations, and Chick-Fil-A issued an internal memo that employees should “treat every person with honor, dignity and respect — regardless of their beliefs, race, creed, sexual orientation and gender.” However, WinShape continues to hold fundraisers for anti-gay groups, and Chick-Fil-A still has no corporate anti-discrimination policy.

So, should you boycott Chick-Fil-A? Perhaps the amount of money is small, comparatively. Maybe this isn't enough to get into a twist over. But every time I think longingly of Chick-Fil-A, I realize that if I succumbed, I couldn't respect myself as much afterwards. I believe in what Martin Luther King, Jr., said, that the United States has a network of mutuality, in which injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere. Boycotting Chick-Fil-A is my own small stand against injustice. 

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Feminist burlesque

A couple of weeks ago, I went to my first burlesque show. Two of my good friends took a burlesque class, and this was their graduation performance. The closest I had come in the past to burlesque was when I saw a production of Cabaret.

It wasn't what I expected. It was playful and fun, not very erotic at all. Yes, the ladies disrobed as they danced, but I wouldn't call it stripping. Most impressive of all to me was the attitude the ladies showed to their bodies.

I don't often get to see women's naked (or mostly naked) bodies. When I'm at the gym, I politely turn away from other women who are changing. I watch women's clothed bodies, or more accurately how they look in their clothes--really, I'm looking at the clothes. But this was very different.

These bodies were all imperfect. They had squishy stomachs and breasts that weren't perky, but they were beautiful. Why? Because they owned their bodies. They took pleasure in flaunting them, in cavorting and teasing. It was an affirming, feminist act. In the end, I felt better about my own body and about the prospect of aging with style.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Aqua Zumba

I've decided that I need some variety in my exercise, and I'm still searching for exercise I can commit to. This week I tried Aqua Zumba.

It's a lot like regular Zumba, which I tried a couple of months ago, except that the movements are in the water and they're more limited. There are still vibrant music and an excited instructor doing all the movements with you. Cindy's directions for changing the motion were clear in almost every instance. Sometimes if we were facing away she would clap to let us know something was going to switch. I had to concentrate hard and I had to modify some of the movements, but I was able to keep up.

One disappointment is that it wasn't as cardio intense as I had hoped. It definitely was for Cindy--she was really sweating. My heart rate didn't get as high as I hoped and I was a little cold throughout. This would have been different, I'm sure, if I had been able to do as many of the jumps and put as much intensity into the movements.

My ankles are the real trouble here. They're too weak, and I keep injuring them. Yesterday I went to physical therapy and was put through quite a workout on my balance, ankle strength, and quads. I have hopes for improvement. It would be fun to feel strong at Aqua Zumba and really jump around.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Goodness and Virtue

I'm reading a literary study concerned with heroines in Victorian novels who, among other difficulties, are confused about the nature of goodness or virtue. This thesis made me stop to think: what is goodness? I think I am a good person, but what does it mean to be good?
Angelic Me

After thinking about it for a while, I decided it means to be kind. Not to tread on people or belittle them. To help them when I can.

And then I realized that my hypothetical people are those I consider equals or inferiors to myself. This type of kindness I don't consider when dealing with superiors. Kindness might be interpreted as weakness. Plus I reject authority. So what does virtue look like when I am interacting with my superiors, either at work or in culture? Something to think about.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Weight gain

Yesterday I filled out a wellness check-list for my health insurance, and I claimed that this year I plan to lose weight and exercise more.

My next thought was, how will I do this? By following Weight Watchers, of course. Weight Watchers is tried and true. It works. But can I commit to it?

In the midst of this thought, I realized that I know a LOT about weight loss and health. I have some relevant experience in that area, too. But I know little about weight gain, even though more of my experience has been in that area. Of course, I know that people gain weight when they consume more than they expend, but I don't know the little details of how those calories add up. I don't know how I gain weight. I suppose it's because, when I'm gaining, I'm not paying attention. I don't track when I'm gaining. This leads to some confusion on my part about how it happens.

Logically, the first step in my better health is to track. But this is exactly what I am resisting about Weight Watchers right now. I may have to try the Simply Filling (core) method--but that is difficult when I don't cook.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge

Me at Wheeler Dam. Photo by Vickie Henderson.
This past weekend, I went on a birdwatching trip with 18 members of the Knoxville branch of the Tennessee Ornithological Society down to Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge, just south of Huntsville, Alabama. It was a good weekend, despite the rainy weather. It had been quite a while since I had gone on an overnight birding trip, and I was reminded of the wonderful camaraderie and also the exhausting pleasure of birding from dawn until dusk.

The rain wasn't nearly bad as predicted, which I was grateful for. The weather was unseasonably warm, setting record highs. The trouble with unseasonable weather is that the birds behave unpredictably. In this case, many of the ordinary waterfowl just weren't there, or weren't present in the numbers we had been promised. I had expected to see thousands of ducks in one place. Still, I can't complain too much-- I saw 86 species total and got 5 lifebirds: Greater White-fronted Goose, Lesser Scaup, American White Pelican, Lapland Longspur, and Rusty Blackbird.

One of my favorite sightings was at the lower level of Wheeler Dam, when two Great Scaup and one Lesser Scaup came in close enough for us to study the distinctions between these two very similar species. The lesser has a narrower bill with a smaller nail, and its head comes to more of a point. I improved my duck identification skills in general, especially since most of the birds were at a distance. I saw American Wigeon, American Black Duck, Northern Shoveler, Northern Pintail, Redhead, about a thousand Ring-necked Ducks, Bufflead, Common Goldeneye, and Ruddy Duck, among others.

I only had my iPhone with me, so I didn't get any good pictures of the birds. I did get a shot of a gravel path we traveled between two lanes of I-65:
Under I-65, north of TN River
I greatly enjoyed the novelty of being in a such a place. Plus, there were ducks in the wetland on either side.