Don't Shake the Flask

Because you don't know if it'll explode

Month: September, 2009

And the Calves Eye the Rope, Resigned

“When you’re young,” said the married-with-children lab tech in a recent conversation, “you should take advantage of the opportunity to travel.”

I nodded and added, “I also like traveling alone because I don’t have to worry about what the other person wants to do.”

“I’d rather travel with somebody else,” another grad student disagreed. But then again, he’s a bit of a blabbermouth homeboy. He must have someone to talk to–to the point of following other annoyed grad students to the bathroom. And he’s deathly afraid of anything un-Idahoian, like Mississippi and hibachi grills.

Hills outside of Colfax, WashingtonA few days earlier, I overheard some undergrads on a walkway talking about a Palouse fair. Intrigued, I did a bit of Googling and found the Palouse Empire Fair. “Come and enjoy a fair-e-tail” the website proclaims. At first glance, I think most people would peg me as more of a suburban/city type person. Me and agriculture? It’s sort of like pickles and peanut butter. But heck, I’m here, and because the juxtaposition is so weird, it’s exactly why I wanted to go. I’ve been to a fair before, but this one had a rodeo and a sheep grooming contest scheduled. I am not used to the smell of livestock or country living, but unlike that grad student who shies away from anything outside of his comfort zone, anything new and different makes me want to jump in.

The fair itself was a couple miles east of Colfax, Washington, located in a dusty tract of rolling yellow hills, out in the middle of nowhere. It’s dry and hot with a cloudless sky. I parked near the back entrance to the fair on straw and mud. I’m reminded of the Three Little Pigs. Perhaps a wolf came by and blew their house down so that cars and RVs and trailers could park on the straw foundation. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see pigs or wolves–the swine barn had closed early and a kid with a white t-shirt that had a red X over a picture of a wolf made it abundantly clear what the people around those parts thought about that fairy tale.

PumpkinsI walked about looking at different vendors. I meandered about in the horticulture barn–skirting enormous pumpkins and wilting sunflower stalks, pondering the inscrutability of first prize zucchini and overripe tomatoes. A few old ladies nearby discussed in serious tones lagomorphian diarrhea as one of the rabbits I looked at ran across his cage and stood up on his hind legs to be photographed. In the poultry barn, I came across a black pigeon, beak buried in his chest feathers. His owner hand-wrote a note on a green index card and strung it up on his wire cage. It read: “Sad and Lonely: Last week a hawk took my mate of 6 years.”

Feisty rabbitAfter looking at some sleepy sheep and some cows (was that seething resentment I saw in their black, black eyes as the flash went off on my camera?), I bought a hot dog and ate it as a woman in a red shirt standing on the steps of a gazebo gave out prizes. Beside her sat three girls in blue dresses, fair princesses, smiling beatifically into the crowd. Beatifically because they didn’t have to recite some long speech about agriculture from memory like the other girl in a cowboy hat who had been called up on stage. They just had to wave to get any applause.

There were other buildings housing handicrafts. There were quilts and clothes and flowers and hand-made muffins, of course. But there were also strange things. Like Lego sculptures that were probably made by fifth graders and a gigantic mosaic made entirely of lentils. I also noticed that quite a few quilts, paintings, and even a stained glass wall hanging were made by the same woman. Prolific artist or merely someone who just emptied her house to maximize her chances at getting that blue ribbon?

Cinnamon and sugar funnel cakeI bought a funnel cake and munched it as I watched the sheep grooming contest on some shaded bleachers. The teams had one hour to beautify the recalcitrant animals (far more feisty than last year, claimed one woman) before judging. The contestants whipped out carding combs and shears, but toothbrushes and cotton swabs were also used. I saw a grooming instrument that suspiciously resembled a toilet cleaning brush make brief appearances. A husband-wife-daughter team went about the task in a methodical manner, churning out the ovine-equivalent of Audrey Hepburn. The team next to them fluffed their sheep out into a gigantic puff ball. Some kids had to frantically clean their platform in panic when their animal pooped a couple of minutes before the end in defiance. One of the sheep wore sunglasses–cool and slicked up. Another one had to have its head swathed in a towel because it was thrashing around like a victim of the Spanish Inquisition.

And the rodeo–the audience, sometimes, was as fascinating to watch. The seats were made of bleached gray wood underpinned with wire. It was at this point that the sun seemed most intense, rapidly melting the shaved ice pineapple-coconut concoction in my hands. The rodeo queen walked about the audience in her blinding shirt with magenta sequins and gigantic silver buckle. The sheriff took a seat on the bench in front of mine, glaring at some other person from behind his shades. “Are you making trouble?” he demanded. There was some embarrassed murmuring.

Sheep Grooming ContestCowboys on horses on the dimpled dirt of the arena. In the afternoon, I felt like I was looking through a photograph, blurry, faded. It wasn’t even like television or a movie–it seemed a bit surreal because I was swaddled in constant noise: of the people around me, the hawking of an old man trying to sell ice water, and Bob the announcer with his clown sidekick Ike. Bob and Ike constantly made fun of an absent, hairy-legged cowboy named Stan. “A candidate for Jenny Craig!” Bob exclaimed.

Palouse Empire Fair RodeoBob and Ike also made fun of the champion and runner-up buckaroos. The champion clung on his angry horse like a peacock in his bright blue chaps long after the eight seconds were up. His hat fell onto the ground at one point, and his hair rippled like a flag in an angry breeze as the horse kicked up his heels. “He needs a haircut,” Bob exclaimed. “But,” he added as a reluctant afterthought, “he’s single, ladies.” Behind me, the champion’s fangirls let out piercing screams. The runner-up, unfortunately, was compared to a law firm. And he barely clung onto his saddle as his mount went as crazy as a demon-possessed bumper car, slamming his hindquarters with all he was worth onto the fence that separated him and the audience sitting in the front row bleachers. People screamed then, too.

However, I left the rodeo puzzled. The winner of the women’s roping event was a young pre-adolescent boy. While it’s cool that the kid won with a time under 2.5 seconds, I’m not quite sure why the organizers thought it was a good idea to lump the boys with the women. What’s the point of having a women’s division if only the boys are winning?

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A Few Snippets from a Wedding Observer

Despite differences in details, most weddings seem to be pretty much the same. The one I attended earlier today was interesting in that the priest (it was a Catholic wedding) did the service in both English and Spanish. And afterwards, during the reception, there was a bit of Polish chanting of which I understood not at all. So here’s some amusing observations with all the boring stuff cut out:

* * *
The priest during the wedding ceremony: “Nowadays, young people like to light a unity candle…”

As the priest rambled on, the deacon looked very confused.

“So now, if the bride and groom and come up and light the candle…”

The deacon held up a folder and said something to the priest that was inaudible to the audience.

The priest replied: “Oh, I’m getting ahead of myself! They haven’t even said their vows yet. We should probably do that.”

* * *
During the reception, one of the undergrads decided to play a small prank.

“Hey,” he told another grad student. “Your advisor just called. He wants to know why you aren’t in lab.”

Her jaw dropped open in stressed-out horror before everyone at the table burst into laughter. (Her advisor is known to be pretty exacting.)

* * *
I was forced to stand with the rest of the women guests for the toss of the bridal bouquet. However, I chose a spot on the edge as quite a few young ladies, eager to catch it, were jostling each other and practicing their wide-receiver poses like mad bargain hunters at a Macy’s 50% off sale. The result was fairly mundane–the bride tossed the bouquet and someone caught it.

The tossing of the garter was a different story. The first time the groom threw it, it landed on the floor and no one reached out to take it. The second time the groom threw it, it went far enough to land in the crowd, but everyone ran out of the way to avoid the garter. The third time the groom threw it…

Well, he didn’t throw it. One particularly skittish bachelor simply took off running out of the reception hall (probably thinking that the groom did toss it). The groom and his groomsmen took off after him and dragged him bodily back into the reception hall. He was squirming unhappily as they restrained him. The garter was strapped to the hapless guy’s head like a frilly headband as people laughed at his futile efforts at escape and took pictures.

Lesson: Although running away might sound like a good idea, it will only make things worse for you.

Book Review: Deanna Raybourn – Silent in the Grave

On a blog post, now forgotten, someone asked about memorable first lines of novels. Several commenters mentioned Deanna Raybourn‘s Silent in the Grave as it starts with: “To say that I met Nicholas Brisbane over my husband’s dead body is not entirely accurate. Edward, it should be noted, was still twitching upon the floor.” It’s catchy, but then a lot of novels have catchy first lines. Take Moby Dick, for instance. But I’ve never had much inclination to read that tome–the blame, unfortunately, lies with a certain economics professor who spent most of class time ranting about the financial feasibility of whaling. Anyway, I had mostly forgotten about that blog post until this week when I came across Raybourn’s book. And I thought, “Ah, this sounds vaguely familiar.”

I usually pay attention to the book summaries and blurbs first. And then perhaps read other reviews to see whether or not I’d like the book. This time, I started reading the first chapter and promptly forgot about putting it down until I realized it was 1:00 AM and that I needed to get some sleep if I wanted to get to lab the next morning in some sort of coherent state.

When Julia Grey’s husband Edward expires during a dinner party, it appears on the surface that the Greys’ hereditary heart ailment has struck again. But the private inquiry agent that he has hired, the enigmatic Nicholas Brisbane, claims that Edward may have been murdered. Still unsettled by her newly widowed state, she denies such a thing could be possible and sends Brisbane away. It is only until one year after mourning, while cleaning out her deceased husband’s desk, that she finds a threatening note indicating that Brisbane might have been right after all. She brings the note to Brisbane to enlist his help on finding her husband’s murder. However, the more they delve into the mystery, the more Julia learns how little she knew about her husband and the people around her.

There are several thematic threads running through the novel that I think Raybourn did very well. One was Julia’s personal growth. In the beginning, she is a rather timid character, allowing herself to be buffeted by circumstance and the stronger personalities of others. Even her sister Portia accuses her of being a mouse. But as she realizes her independence, she grows in her confidence to the point that she stands as an intellectual equal to the tempestuous Brisbane. The relationship between Julia and Nicholas was complex as it was interesting. The pairing reminded me vaguely of Amelia Peabody and Radcliffe Emerson in Elizabeth Peters’ Crocodile on the Sandbank. But while Crocodile‘s main characters ended up in a rather straightforward happy ending, the characters in this novel were not so simple. Their interactions with each other are volatile, almost antagonistic, fraught with an attraction that neither could act upon. Despite her personal growth, Julia still retains insecurities and doubts about Brisbane’s motives–as his actions and demeanor mark him as dangerous.

The mystery portion of the novel was rather–expected. While I enjoyed journeying with the main characters in gathering the clues and putting the puzzle pieces together, I had already guessed at the murderer and the motive. Whether I’m good at deducing mysteries or that I was just lucky, it doesn’t matter much in this case. Perhaps this might have been a glaring flaw in a purely mystery novel with no subplots going on. But in this novel, the mystery was secondary at times–as it helped, rather, to spur on character development. Speaking of characters, I enjoyed the secondaries, particularly Julia’s eccentric family. And Brisbane was quite mysterious and brooding–a cross between a Bronte hero and Sherlock Holmes with a liberal dose of Frederick Pope. My biggest disappointment was that the illness he was suffering from wasn’t malaria, rather something else that would fit perfectly in a Gothic romance.

Will I remember the first line of this novel like so many other people who have read it? Due to my terrible memory for literary quotes (although one should rest assured that my memory for science-y things are much better), probably not. However, I will remember that it was fun and engrossing–the first book I managed to finish after two months of exasperation with other novels. While witty repartee may be the only thing a reader gets from your average novelist, Raybourn ably includes enough detail and style to immerse one into her version of Victorian England that is an intriguing mix of gentility and pretense, unconventionality and action. Now, if only the local bookstores got their acts together and stocked Silent in the Sanctuary….