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Thursday, June 24, 2010

Happy Solstice

We've been having a cold, rainy June here in Seattle, with a nice sunny day thrown in now and again.  A couple of days of fair weather happened in the middle of this week, so Sean and I headed to the foothills of the Cascades, an hour away, where we have a special camping spot on private land.  This is one of the benefits of an Internet business--we can go away on an overnight trip at our whim and Pistil Books still carries on 24 hours a day by itself.  The huckleberries and salmon berries were ripe, the birds were noisy, the bears were leaving droppings full of cherry pits, a waxing moon, and it was lovely.

We also recently experienced one of the pitfalls of an Internet business recently:  database failure (We use Homebase, Abebooks' book inventory program, built on Access.)  After making a mistake while re-pricing all of our inventory, I thought "No problem, I'll just recover using my backup file (which we are very conscientious about making at least once every day)." So I "recovered" the file, only to find the data stopped at April 5, more than two months behind.  Internet bookstore nightmare!  It was a Thursday night, after Abebooks' closing time, so I waited until 8 a.m. the next day to talk to tech support.  Of course we really wanted to get our database back up and working ASAP, so we we would have it over the weekend.  But due to some bad (or absent) communication on Abebooks' part (they gave us the wrong email address to send the backup file to, for instance), we ended up being without a working Homebase for five full days.  This meant we couldn't list new titles, update our online inventory, or create invoices.  Even so, we were still selling books during this time.   And we were inspired to contact a techie friend about possibly creating our own custom data base.

Reading Notes

Last week I saw Spencer Wells lecture and read from his book, Pandora's Seed:  The Unforeseen Cost of Civilization, at Town Hall.  Spencer Wells is a geneticist, anthropologist and host of National Geographic television shows.  The gist of talk was that humans were actually healthier back when we were hunter-gatherers, the proof for this being fossil evidence which shows less tooth decay, bigger pelvic girth, and longer lives in the time before agriculture.  Hunter-gatherers also lived in groups of less than 140 people, which meant closer relationships and self-rule, though he didn't use the term "anarchy."  Wells ended his talk with an admonition that our current way of life with its dependence on fossil fuels is not sustainable and that we must change our ways, but he was hopeful that we could do so, since humans are "innovators" which has given us our evolutionary edge.

In The Omnivore's Dilemma Michael Pollan eats four very different meals:  A McDonald's meal consumed in the car (conventional industrial food, based on corn); a meal made from organic food purchased at Whole Foods (industrial, not local); a meal made from food grown at a small intensively managed farm (not certified organic, but definitely local and using minimal inputs, based on grass); and a meal that Pollan foraged (mushrooms) and hunted (wild pig) himself.  He traces each meal back to its origins in an entertaining and thoughtful manner.  Interestingly enough, given Spencer Wells' talk, the meal Pollan found most satisfying was the hunter/gatherer dinner.

I also finished Kazuo Ishiguro's The Unconsoled, a 500 page novel from 1995.  The narrator, Mr. Ryder, is a famous pianist visiting a small central European city for a big musical event.  The novel reads like a very long nightmare; not so much scary as endlessly frustrating, surreal, and nonsensical.  Ryder is constantly being led astray from one task or event to the next, never quite knowing what is going on, but trying to act like he does.  I can't say I actually "enjoyed" this book, but for some reason I felt compelled to get to the end.

I've also been reading essays from The Best American Science Writing 2009, and making my way through the New Yorker's summer fiction issue, with stories by writers under 40.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Snake Eyes

During the week before Memorial Day, Sean and I took five days off to go on a cheap bookseller vacation:  camping.  This was car camping, so we had all the accoutrements, including the necessities of tent, stove, two coolers, and a pile of books.  Our plan was to camp first at Cooper Lake, only about two hours away, just the other side of the Cascade Mountains.  This was the lake where on a previous camping trip, Sean was almost scooped out of the water by a fire-fighting helicopter's big dipping bucket (really!).  This time it was too cold for swimming, with snow still on the ground in places, and the first trilliums peeping out.  The campground, in fact, was officially closed, which meant it was free, as the national forest payment drop boxes were covered with plastic and taped shut.  We weren't the only campers, though.  As I was unloading the car, a young couple carrying a wine bottle asked if I had a phone.  I didn't.  They were the owners of the spray-painted pick-up truck parked nearby and said that their brakes had gone out.  Later in the evening, Sean went over to their campsite to see if they needed anything.  He returned saying they seemed pretty well set up:  they had an axe, a roaring campfire (ours was small and smoldering, having been built from scavenging what leftover damp wood we could find at other sites), and they offered to give him some great one-inch thick steaks.  Sean declined politely, without mentioning we were vegetarian.  Then the guy came over to our camp to chat, which disconcerted me a bit because he had a hunting knife strapped to his leg.  Okay, I'm from the city.   Next day they apparently made it out okay, as their truck was gone by mid-afternoon.  Some new neighbors had arrived, however, one of them being a guy with a boom box playing classic rock.  Ah, nature.  He declined to turn it off when asked, but did say he'd turn it down.  A couple of his buddies arrived later and instead of hearing owls and frogs, we went to sleep to the tune of a thumping bass.  The next day we decided to move on.  We went to Sun Lakes State Park in central Washington.  This is a giant 200 space campground  next to lakes carved out by ice age floods.  The places to set up your tent were in gravel right next to the parking spaces in a vast parking lot/campground.  Normally, we wouldn't camp in such a developed spot, but this time of year it was almost empty and the scenery was quite dramatic. Plus, there were showers!  Here we came across a couple of large bull snakes, many yellow-bellied marmots scurrying across the road, a very aggressive raccoon who clambered all over the car determined to get into the cracked windows and thus the coolers, and lots of birds, including seemingly out-of-place seagulls.  On our third morning out, we woke to rain.  We decided to continue east and went all the way to Spokane, where the rain just got heavier.  We went to the visitor information center and used their computer to Priceline a three-star hotel for $70.  The check-in process involved giving us warm chocolate chip cookies and the elevators were full of advertisements for thick steaks (was this a theme?).  Spokane was the site of the 1974 World's Fair.  I remember seeing "Expo" stamps by Peter Max as a child.  The Spokane Riverfront Park, left over from this event, is quite lovely with lots of public art, bridges, and walkways.  There's also a brand new food co-op (Spokane's first), The Main Market, and a big independent bookstore, Auntie's Bookstore.  The next day was even rainier, so we cut our trip short and returned home.

Reading Notes
Around the campfire and in our tent, we read stories aloud from T. C. Boyle:  Stories.   This is a fat book of stories, 704 pages, and the stories are organized by theme: Love, Death, and Everything In Between.  A particularly creepy story (appropriate for campfire reading)  was "Bloodfall" about a group of rich young people (maybe they're in a band?) trapped in a house as blood and gore rains from the sky, flooding the basement, and spraying from the shower-- particularly apt as oil now rains from the sky in Florida.