Confession of a Bookaholic: Tales of Explorers and Adventurers

I love me a good adventure story, I love the discovery and thrill of wandering among the new, forging paths unknown, and the grit and glory required for surviving under less-than-stellar circumstances in harsh conditions around the globe. Now, I am keenly aware that European explorers were not the first people to wander among most places on the planet; I know that the history I am most aware of has a serious twist towards the Euro-centric version. I loathe (white, male) explorers who claim they are the first discoverer of a location, while simultaneously making notes on the native people who live there, or local trackers who have helped their exploration party navigate rivers or mountains or dense jungles. Uh, they were there first, Sir. You didn’t “discover” anything that wasn’t already well-known by those populations.

This latest batch of books about explorers and discoverers was kind of a mixed bag; I loved two, and the rest were pretty marginal. I have listed a few recommendations at the end, however, that should tickle your fancy if you have any hankering for learning about some of the more remote or undisturbed places in the world.

In the Heart of the Sea, by Nathaniel Philbrick (5 stars). I *loved* Moby Dick, it somehow combined two loves–Darwinian natural history and 19th century exploration stories. This is the true story of the events Moby Dick was based on, but instead of chapters and chapters describing the brain, skeletal structure, and habits of spermacetti whales, Philbrick follows the crew of the sunk Essex as they make for land and safety in tiny little whale boats with skant provisions. Yep, loved that too. Just like I loved reading about Shackelton’s adventures across Antarctica and the frozen ocean to safety, and just like I loved reading about Fawcett’s adventures in the Amazon. Love, love, love.

Carry On, Mr. Bowditch, by Jean Lee Latham (5 stars). I read and loved this Newberry book when I was a kid, re-reading it made me realize how much this book affected my way of thinking. Nat Bowditch is a brilliant mathematician in 18th century Salem, Mass, who was indentured at age 12 as a bookkeeper instead of going to Harvard to study. He continues to study everything he can get his hands on, keeping notebooks of facts and numbers and sums, teaching himself Latin, algebra, astronomy, French, and navigation. In his early twenties he finally is released from his indenture and is finally free to do what he likes. He signs on as a clerk for a voyage and is on his way. Bowditch is unconventional, but he also teaches every crew he works with how to navigate using math and charts and numbers, how to take solar and lunar readings, and how to calculate latitude and longitude, in a time when most ships in the high seas do not have a single person who can do such calculations, let alone an entire crew. Bowditch also teaches himself languages for the ports he will be visiting and continues to learn everything he can, about people, history, business, everything. It was so fantastic to read this again!

Memoir of Nathaniel Bowditch, by Nathaniel Bowditch (2 stars). I really love Nat Bowditch as a human, intellectual, adventurer, and one of my childhood role models. However, this is not a book of his memoirs, he didn’t even write the vast majority of this book. This is the transcript of an extended eulogy that Bowditch’s son delivered one week after his father’s death. There is very little nuance, it is a collection of memories with a very nostalgic light, Nat Bowditch was an all around stand-up citizen of Salem, Mass., however he was not perfect, and these “memoirs” only paint him in the most flattering light. Which, given the timing of said speech, makes total sense. There are a few bits from Nat Bowditch’s journals and notebooks, a few favorite stories that were told over and over and part of family lore. Because this was originally published in the mid-1800’s I’m not going to harp too much on the memoirs-or-not point, but if you want more info on the father of modern navigation, read “Carry On, Mr. Bowditch” instead.

Lost City of the Incas, by Hiram Bingham (2 stars). Travelogue for Hiram Bingham who visited Machu Picchu in 1911 and spread information about the ruin’s existence to the Western world (note: I do not say he “discovered” it because, in fact, local native people were WELL AWARE of it’s existence when he arrived). This is interesting for being a travelogue for an white American well-to-do explorer in the early 1900’s complete with almost all of the assumptions and sentimental superiority that comes with it. Honestly, it was exasperating for me to read, yet again, how Bingham was “discovering” the ancient city of the Inca’s and projecting his own assumptions and prejudices on the ancient Inca and the modern descendants who lived among those ruins. Sigh. A better option is Turn Right at Machu Picchu, or Lost City of Z (the latter is not about Machu Picchu, but about South American exploration).

Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad (2 stars). I really wanted to like this, to appreciate it, to find literary value. But mostly I was just annoyed and bored and ready for the colonial imperialism to be done with; the oft-repeated concept of white Europeans venturing into a native “savage” population and making all sorts of judgements is just…it drives me nuts. I understand that for their time, and blah blah blah. Did not enjoy.

Other Recommended Titles, In No Particular Order:

The Lost City of Z, by David Grann. Percy Fawcett, a British explorer obsessed with the Amazon, went missing in the 1920’s searching for his mythical City of Z; the rumors and stories around his adventures and time with Amazonian tribes persist, decades after his presumed death. A modern writer tries to retrace the trail and find some answers.

South: The Story of Shackelton’s Last Expedition, by Ernest Shackelton. A detailed first-person account of Shackleton’s attempt to cross Antarctica with teams of people and sled dogs. Fascinating. Also, lots of ice.

1421: The Year China Discovered America, by Gavin Menzies. Fascinating history of world navigation from a non-Euro perspective; a massive Chinese fleet set out to sail and map the world in the early 1400’s, this is their story. (Menzies, a bit of an eccentric, claims that one of those maps was brought to Italy across the Silk Road by Marco Polo, and eventually made it’s way to the Spanish court of Isabella and Ferdinand, the new patrons of Columbus).

 

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On cactus, and living in the Valley of the Surface of the Sun

Purple Cactus flower_feistyharriet_April 2016

In my short time as a resident of the American Southwest I have come to appreciate some of it’s thornier and more beautiful parts: the desert plants that thrive under the harshest of conditions. In the early spring I loved taking my camera with me on walks through my neighborhood to photograph some of the spikier and thornier specimens in people’s yards. Then, you know, temperatures soared and I retreated back to the air conditioning, where I have stayed.

Agave teeth_feistyharriet_San Antonio Botanical Gardens

I see my northern neighbors celebrating cooler temperatures, the coming of fall fashions, pumpkin spice everything, and exhaling that the heat of summer has passed. Meanwhile, it’s still 100+ every day here and my cabin fever continues to rage. Locals keep telling me that Arizona’s fall is coming, and looking at the weather patterns I only partially believe them. It will be in the 90’s through October before finally cooling off to temperatures where I can breathe, but for me, 70 degrees is a perfect summer day, not appropriate for November and December. I truly don’t know if I will ever fully adapt to life in the low desert; the high desert where there is frost and snow and plummeting temperatures at night? That I can do. But without the elevation of those ancient plateaus, Phoenix and the surrounding suburbs just bake, and bake, and bake, for MONTHS on end.

Red spike cactus_feistyharriet_April 2016

The soul-sucking heat, the neverending blistering sun, the subsequent cabin fever…it makes me anxious and irritable and, in general, makes everything worse. I somehow feel that a few days of truly cold temperatures would solve a fair number of my internal turmoil, the cool temperatures calm me and help me think more clearly. I am sharper and more logical, more productive and happier when my body is not fighting itself and my surface-of-the-sun environment.

Hairy Agave_feistyharriet_April 2016

I have had to negotiate a lot of adjustments since I moved to Arizona: new work routine (which just changed again), new dynamics with Mr. Blue Eyes and his kids, new dynamics with my own family and friendships to accommodate the distance, and new relationships with friends and colleagues here. Those are the pieces that keep my going, the beautiful desert bloom, the cactus flowers…but the damn heat is the always present spikes and cactus spines, the constant that must be negotiated multiple times per day. When walking to the mailbox has the potential to give you heat stroke, the weather doesn’t just disappear into the background. Perhaps it does for those who are used to the fire-breathing sky, and perhaps in time I will adapt. If my love of Charles Darwin has taught me anything, it is that species will always adapt to their surroundings (or they will die out, but let’s not focus on that option, mmmkay?)

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Everything is on fire

I like to think that, most of the time, I can handle the immediate responsibilities of a crisis without a) losing my shit; b) having a meltdown; or c) running away. Car accident? I know what to do, I’m calm and collected, even while in pain. 13-year-old drops a moving chainsaw on his thigh? Yep, I’ve got that covered too (with obvious appropriate steps taken to get said kid to a doctor ASAP). A work colleague suddenly cannot meet a deadline? I can prioritize and put in extra hours to reduce the possible emergency to an inconvenience. And if, heaven forbid, there is some kind of natural disaster and people need water or shelter or whatever I can deal with the immediate steps to make that happen. I am able to absorb shock and stop it, instead of allow those shock waves to be amplified by my own freak outs and then reverberate along and freaking other people out too.

However, the thing that I have a really hard time with is feeling like things are okay, things are progressing and moving forward, only to discover that my legs have been chopped out from under me. To feel like you’ve been climbing up this staircase, careful and trusting, and then realize that the staircase is melting; someone has accidentally (or on purpose) set it on fire. At that point, you only have a few options: jump ship and hope the fall doesn’t kill you; or you take a breath, grit your teeth, and run down through the smoke and flames, knowing that once you’re on solid ground you’ll probably never be quite the same. I know the file won’t kill me, but the burns are going to leave a sizable mark.

I’m on fire. Everything is on fire. I can’t see through the smoke and my chest aches and I can’t breathe. I literally wake up at night coughing and gasping for air, covered in sweat, trying to stave off the eruption of a full blown panic attack. I’m trying to get clear of all the smoke and fear, but my legs don’t work they way they are supposed to and I feel like I’m running but not moving anywhere. I curl up, cradle my head in my arms, and wait.

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Financial Detox: August Wrap Up and Report

At the beginning of August I set out to go an entire month without any additional spending, hoping to reset my spending habits and kick start a financial detox. Now, I tried this in January as well with pretty mixed results (free tip: don’t try this kind of budget experiment two weeks after moving into a new house), I was hoping for a better grade this time around. I still bought groceries, including lots of fresh produce, and I still bought gas for my car and paid my bills, I wanted to reduce frivolous impulse buys and curb unnecessary, spontaneous spending. Here’s the somewhat ambitious plan I committed to:

For the month of August I will not buy new, unnecessary incidentals. I won’t buy any house things, no matter how perfect that side stool or storage bin would be for that one little spot. It will wait. I won’t buy nail polish, heaven knows I have more than I could use in half my lifetime. I won’t buy any books and I won’t do any online shopping. No clothes, no shoes, no office supplies, nothing.

Ok, so, how did I do? Well, overall, I think pretty well.

I started a new job mid-August and that necessitated some very minor office supply purchases, specifically, a little desk fan because my new office just does not have very good air circulation and I was battling major claustrophobia without the relief of a little cross-breeze (turns out, circulating air is essential for my sanity). Even with the major transition from working from home to working in an office, I still did not take myself out to lunch; I brought lunch every day my first two weeks…and that was sometimes a lot more difficult task than I really wanted to think about at 7:00 in the morning trying to get out the door. HOWEVER! I did it.

I did not buy any books, I actually have been utilizing the library more in the last month than I have in, probably, the rest of my life combined. Now, most of that utilization has been for audiobooks which I listen to on my commute, but I feel it very important to point out that before this little financial detox I was *buying* audiobooks via iTunes, not borrowing them for free from the library or using (and LOVING!) Overdrive. Definitely a big step in the right direction for me.

I didn’t buy clothes or shoes or new running socks or nail polish or replace slightly dried up makeup or used up perfume or anything! In the spirit of full disclosure, I did buy a tiny silver mountain-y necklace….and I know I should feel some sense of, I don’t know, remorse? guilt? failing student-itis? because a delicate mountain silhouette to hang around my neck was NOT part of my financial detox plan; but I’ve worn it every day since it arrived and it reminds me so much of the mountains that hold my heart. Saying goodbye to my Salt Lake-based job and that direct and consistent link to my Utah roots necessitated a mountain charm to wear next to my heart. Zero regrets. Zero apologies.

Also, in the spirit of full disclosure…I bought a rug. A big one. One that I have been looking at and lusting after for months and months and months. Now, pay attention because this is very important: it was suddenly on sale for 90% off. NINETY PERCENT OFF! It’s huge, a 9 x 11 footer, and made of 100% wool, and NINETY PERCENT OFF!! They were practically GIVING it away! I had the money for a rug set aside for months, waiting to find one in the right price range that I loved, this one was a perfect pattern/color/size, but I’d only ever seen it 30% off, and I couldn’t afford it at that price. But, at NINETY PERCENT OFF! I pounced on that thing and plunked down my debit card (ok, my Paypal password) before even thinking that “oh, hey, no giant rugs this month! Hope it’s still on sale in 3.5 weeks!” (It’s not; it’s sold out completely.) I couldn’t NOT buy that rug. It is huge and soft and covers up so much of the not-my-favorite beige-y tile in the dining room. And, again, NINETY PERCENT OFF!!! With free shipping! Yes, that rug was practically free. And practically free is mostly in-line with a month of no spending…right? Right. Ahem.

Ok, so let’s recap: one tiny office fan (aqua! so cute!); one sentimental-but-inexpensive necklace; one practically free rug. I’d give myself a solid A- grade, all things considered.

Want to know something else that made this whole financial detox particularly difficult and the timing especially poignant? When I switched jobs I got paid out for all my unused vacation time from my Utah company…and it was a significant payout, I had more than two full weeks of unused vacation time accrued. Having all those extra dollars sitting in my bank account, mocking me and daring me to go on a little shopping spree…it was rough, yo. To be completely honest, had I not been in this self-imposed financial detox I absolutely would have splurged on a few fun things for myself. Or maybe more than a few fun things. Instead, I forced myself to hold off on any purchases and see this financial detox thing through, and I transferred those dollars in my savings account. I do have a few little things that I will most likely buy in the next week, things I’d been “saving” for the end of this detox (running socks, and I really want to replace my empty perfume bottle), but it’s a lot less of a list than what I would have spent had I not forced myself to hold off. And that little experience, all by itself, has been a really great lesson for me, a way to identify my “natural” spending habits vs what I’d like them to be. If I can wait two weeks I will either a) no longer be interested in x, y, or z item; or b) be absolutely positive that it will be a necessary and welcome addition to my life.

Have you ever done a month of no spending? How did it go? If you were to try it, what kind of rules or parameters would you set? Do you like your current budgeting style? Do you stick to it? Do you know where all your money goes, down to the pennies? Or is it all vaguely loosey-goosey?

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“Get off my lawn!” A story about technology

I love technology as much as the next person, but…

Actually, no. That’s probably not true. Let me start again. I appreciate and am simultaneously wary of technology, seemingly unlike the vast majority of the population.

Let me explain. It’s all about apps these days, right? An app for this, an app for that. You can order your groceries or your jeans through an app, save 5% here, rack up points there, play in a simulated world, talk to your friend on the other side of the world, keep notes that update across multiple devices, check your email, your instastorysnaptwitbook, and probably ten million other things that are made simple and easy with a magic little downloadable app for your phone. Brilliant! Right?

Probably.

But, see, I am SUPER skeptical of most apps. I get really skeezed out by all the permissions that most apps claim they need access to in my phone. I don’t need a restaurant to have access to my location; I don’t want a game to have access to my Gmail data; I don’t want a shopping platform to have access to my camera roll or a big box store to know what other apps are on my device. As such, I have very very few apps on my phone. I turn off my location and bluetooth settings 90% of the time, I sign out of every social media app every time I close out of it, I wear a tinfoil hat, and yell at the teenagers to get off my lawn gravel.

Am I an anomaly? Does anyone else get wary of what kind of data, exactly, all those downloaded algorithms are gleaning off your phone activity and what, exactly, the umbrella company will use that data for? I mean, the most obvious answer is “market research” and “targeted advertising” and not “to sell to the North Koreans” or “to round up the underlings to sacrifice to the extraterrestrial overlords.” But hey! What do I know! I can’t write or even truly understand that kind of coding, and how many of us truly take the time to read-with-the-intent-to-understand every privacy policy we agree to and all the terms and conditions we accept?

My favorite Mexican restaurant (ok, it’s Fresh Mex, not authentic Mexican food) had stamp/punch cards forever; for every 10 meals you buy, you get one free. I faithfully brought my card to be stamped, saved up full cards, and then volunteered to take Mr. Blue Eyes on a date…to my favorite restaurant where I paid with freebie cards. I’m so romantic. BUT! This restaurant is now high-tech; they don’t punch cards anymore, I’m sure they will stop accepting filled up cards soon (and I’ve got about 7 of them in my wallet…yes, really). They want everyone to use their handy-dandy app….only, I am really uncomfortable with the terms and privacy of said app; I don’t want it on my phone and it’s not worth the free meal (after spending upwards of $125 dollars in meals) to allow access. I won’t download it on principle, determined to stick to my own moral high ground.

I’m super fun at parties. Pinky-swear!

Ultimately, I love the information that I can access via technology, but I am super wary about what kind of information other entities can access about me. I suppose that is truly the issue when it comes right down to it. I want to know everything there is to know, but simultaneously I want to have very tight control over what people know about me. Does this aversion to certain types of technology make me a freak? Probably. It certainly puts me squarely outside of the Millenial generation (I truly fall somewhere between Gen X and Gen Y/Millenials, born in the early 1980’s in a community that was always just a little behind the times).

What about you? What kind of apps do you have on your phone? (See what I did there? Want to be all voyeuristic about YOUR phone, but have provided almost zero information about what, exactly, is allowed on MY phone…)

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