World-building romp through summer, part I

I'm not one to take on summer reading projects. In fact, whenever I try to predetermine what I'll want to read weeks in advance, my brain seems to turn on whatever choice I make and lead me to do the exact opposite. However, when bookseller and author Josh Christie tweeted about Junot Diaz's MIT world-building class syllabus, I couldn't resist dedicating my summer to reading through his class book list.

What was so special about this particular syllabus? After reading The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao earlier this year, I developed mad respect and a bit of a writing crush on Diaz. Couple that with being in the thick of trying to create my own fictional world on paper, and it was game on...well, with a bit of trepidation. Science fiction/fantasy books aren't what I consider my traditional jam, so I wasn't entirely sure how much I would actually enjoy this project.

Spoiler Alert: My fears were unfounded! While, yes, I got a bit tired of alien worlds and yearned for a bit of the modern world I live in, I found the entire endeavor really expansive and energizing. While I'm still not done thinking through what I took away from these titles when considered as a unit, I've got plenty of interim thoughts I'm excited to share!

(Let's see if I can manage even a hint of succinctness here.)

Sunshine by Robin McKinley - Billed as "for people who love Buffy the Vampire Slayer", I thought I'd give this one a whirl first given that vampires are a fantasy world I've dabbled in. The book is set at some point in the future following the Voodoo Wars, a war where we battled Others (demons, weres, zombies, sorcerers) and Vampires. In the post-war town of New Arcadia, we meet our protagonist, Rae Seddon, aka Sunshine, who loves her simple life, getting up every morning at 4am to bake her famous cinnamon rolls and other wicked goodies at the family business, the hometown coffee shop. This bucolic scene lasts all of five minutes before it all goes to crap when she decides to hang out by their old cabin by the lake to clear her head.

Some of my favorite parts of this book were those where Sunshine was embracing the sun and light, channeling her magical power. I've got a thing for trees (no, not that kind of thing), and the tree imagery woven throughout the story was beautifully wrought.

"If my mom is the lightning bolt, I'm the tallest tree on the plain. That's the way it is." Not a perfect example, but one I can put my hands on. It makes it easier for me to forgive Sunshine's lack of confidence. I realize we need that kind of inner conflict to keep it interesting, but I'd have liked to see at least one more notch on the badass belt.

I adored the cast of side characters that populated this world. Though many aren't fully developed, they add a rich layer of community--just enough to remind me of Stars Hollow--and help flesh this world out, a world that (to me) felt incredibly small. Instead of taking us all around the country, McKinley chose to focus on New Arcadia, really developing Charlie's, Sunshine's apartment, lake house, even nowheresville and providing enough detail so that I could build movie sets in my head.

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller - This graphic novel really took me by surprise. After dipping my toe into the world of X-Men, I dreaded another traditional superhero and steeled myself for Batman. Seriously, the preconceived notions I brought with me required paying extra for baggage.

Some of my complaints about comics revolve around the fact that the written word tends to leave me unsatisfied, but the Dark Knight left me thoroughly sated. It turned out to be meaty and thought provoking. Let's move beyond how it read like a book and talk about how it turned many of my preconceived notions on the heads. Batman is old, tired and out of shape? I feel you, brother! Honestly, though, a 55-year old hero who wonders what the hell he's doing it for?! To me, that's an interesting story to follow. I liked it even more when I realized that Miller had written Robin as a girl (in 1986).

When thinking of how it was translated to the movies, I can see how Christian Bale tried to channel the pain and conflict of Wayne as depicted by Miller, and while I liked the movies, I now feel like there could have been some interesting casting choices made to play it a bit closer to the source material. Christian Bale doesn't convey tired and conflicted for me in the same way the Miller's Batman did.

A Princess of Mars by ER Burroughs - I'm not going to do this book justice, since I should have taken the time to jot down some notes once I finished it. However, I can tell you that I was surprised that I enjoyed this even a little. A book written in 1916 about a man who gets transported to Mars? Yeah, contrary to whatever you may be thinking, these things are not the kind of things that usually resonate with me. I also soon realized that this was the source text for Disney's tragic disaster known as John Carter.

Given the time period the book was written in, I started off strong, really keeping my eye out for racial stereotypes. I mean the white man does get transported to Mars and finds himself defending himself from a savage race of war-mongering, green martians and trying to teach and "save" them. Green warrior martians weren't the only inhabitants of Mars. The book also describes the more urban red martians who have created a more civilized society. Eventually, however, I ended up getting pulled in by the story and focused less on analyzing what the author was (or was not) trying to say. I'd really need to read it again for all that. The story arc, itself, felt pretty traditional--misunderstood stranger in a foreign land fighting to survive, falls in love with a local, catalytic event, goes home. Definitely not surprising to read, after the fact, that this book is considered a classic example of early 20th century pulp fiction.

Alright, turns out I can't be all that succinct. I'll be back with part II later!

Introducing my coffee map...

Over the years, I've written hundreds of words on how I feel about coffee and coffee shops. Some people might think I need a better hobby. Whatever. This is so one of those wormholes I plan on following to its brilliant end! 

Some of the tools in my travel toolbox (more on this in another post) are posts and reviews by fellow bloggers sharing reflections on their own cities or reviews of local establishments. I cull through these when planning road trips or heading to another part of the country for business and use these recommendations to build out my itinerary and give myself options.

What better way to kick off the new site than to fine-tune some of my own reviews and create a map of some of the coffee shops I've visited around the country! If you're planning a road trip and are wondering where you'll get your caffeine/wifi fix, this map is a good place to start. You can download each region as a KML file and upload it into your own map. Also, where feasible, I've linked to posts or included other information with brief thoughts on the establishment in question.

From one addict to another, I feel the need to tell you that I may have a hard time reigning myself in now that I've started mapping all the different coffee shops I've visited. Suddenly, I'm daydreaming of road trips for the sole purpose of adding another coffee shop to the map.

Tell me what coffee shops I need to try in your town!

Texas Traveling: Enchanted Rock

We traveled far and wide when I was growing up, but the only legitimate hike I can ever remember doing as a family was climbing up Enchanted Rock near Fredericksburg, Texas. Honestly, I have no idea what possessed us to stop. Perhaps it was a desperate attempt to tire two annoying kids. Whatever the reason, that majestic rock embedded itself in my conscious and became a bit of a mile marker in my life. I found myself revisiting it later in life, first, with my friend Audrey and later with my brother. Standing atop that pink granite rock felt powerful.

Enchanted Rock rises 1,825 feet above sea level which, according to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, is akin to a 30 to 40 story building. Not too shabby for Texas. Evidently, there are more than 40 different climbs you can do and a whole slew of information about what you can and cannot do when climbing. However, there is a fairly straightforward (though steep at times) trail up the front of the rock for those who aren't rock climbers (raises hand).

Look how young we look! I'm the one with the red hair near the top.

If you love a good story, the rock is shrouded in mystery and legend. Visitors talk of seeing spirit fires (flashes of light) at night and how groans and pops have been known to permeate the night. Don't worry, it's just the rock expanding and contracting with temperature changes. If you prefer something a bit more lively, just ask the park rangers about the legend of the young Native American maiden who is said to haunt the rock.

While Enchanted Rock pales in comparison to some of the west's more famous rock features, it's worth planning a day trip to Fredericksburg for those making the trek to Austin. Both Enchanted Rock and Fredericksburg are in an area of Texas that historically had a large German settlement. If you choose to spend some time in Fredericksburg proper (and you should), there are a ton of shops as you stroll downtown, wineries known for use of the famous Fredericksburg peach, and several German restaurants worth a try.

A word to the wise, consider a trip to the rock in the spring or fall to avoid the scorching Texas heat on this bald rock and arrive early to ensure you make it in (particularly important on weekends).

Creatures of Habitat: Adventures in Mapmaking


Awesometastic maps by Herb Lester Associates

I signed up for a fun new class a couple of weeks ago, Map Making: Learning to Communicate Places Beautifully. It's my first Skillshare class, and I'm thoroughly stoked! I'm a huge fan of maps and will admit to being one of those troglodytes who decried the spread of GPS and e-mapping. I don't like having a machine telling me each step to take. Have you ever had one of those things change its mind on you? Also, what if I want to see where I'm headed? Too complicated! Give me a paper map to plot my course on any day. Can you tell I have a frustrating experience with Google Maps on Friday? :-) The one nice benefit of having a map in my phone is that I suddenly look like less of a tourist when I'm trying to figure out where I'm going in a more urban environment (i.e., where I want to look cool and like I fit in).

This class isn't about turning you into a cartographer. It's more about exploring the beauty and creativity mapping can unleash. How does this fit in with this month's Girl Goes Green theme?

As part of the class, each student creates a project to develop as they move through the lessons. I'm a huge fan of the way maps allow us a creative outlet for communicating concepts (beyond the traditional "this is how you get from Point A to Point B), so I decided to work on creating a map of the various creatures (both human and aquatic) that have relied on the Patapsco River throughout history. Here's a brief write-up I created to kick off my project...

The Patapsco River Valley was first settled by the Piscataway tribe and home to what are crazy historical fish like American shad, alewife and blueback herring. As Europeans moved in, the valley became a hotbed of industrialization with textile and flour mills littering its banks and small mill villages popping up. While traces of much of this history is gone, the modern day valley still provides habitat for thousands of park visitors each year who float the river, picnic along its banks and cast a line for those historic fish. I want my map to illustrate the rich life this river brings to the region and the human and ecological communities it serves.

Plus, as you guys can probably guess, I'm totally making a coffee map of Northern Virginia if this first project doesn't wind up looking like a hot mess.

P.S. You should totally take the class with me!

My story as told by water, part IX

summer sun

I have always despised the burning, choking sensation of chlorinated pool water rushing in through the nostrils. Sadly, it took me years to master not breathing through my nose. Imagine being the girl with the flesh-colored nose clip through those formative, awkward* years. Luckily, this skill developed** shortly before I joined a swim club held at one of the local high schools while I was in grade school and attempted to swim competitively.

Just as I was not particularly outdoorsy, I was not especially sporty either. However, I'm fairly certain the attempt to ensure some type of athleticism is a prerequisite for being an American youth. Out of all the athletic activities of my youth, swimming was the thing I seemed to fail the least at.

I was never the best. I don't recall actually winning any races. I do remember not sucking--brimming with a bit of confidence for receiving a ribbon for placing in breast stroke. A contradiction even at that age, I strove to collapse in upon myself walking around the pool to hide my thick middle and, yet, had an internal confidence (nee cockiness) for even being part of the club and competing. In the water, I was free, unencumbered by clumsiness or extra weight.

Recently, the orthopedic surgeon advised me to leave the treadmill behind and once again take up swimming to avoid further damage to my knee. While I've certainly swam laps here and there in recent years, this will be the first time in decades where I've actually attempted to train. Thankfully, I've got a handy new app to get me swimming a mile in six weeks and the confidence that I can still do that fancy underwater flip and keep on going.

*One could argue that I'm still in my awkward years.

**There is the slight chance that my brain has switched things up in order to protect the innocent and that it wasn't until much later I gave up my nose clip. Ah, the joys of the aging brain. I suppose we'll never know. The horror, though, of a swim meet with a nose clip!