Sunday, July 26, 2015

St Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin Ireland

St. Patrick's Cathedral

It felt like the second day but it was only still morning.  Morning can be very long when it starts at midnight your time.

After Trinity College we toured the Dublin Museum of art.  Got to see some Vermeers (yay!).  I hope to see all 34 paintings attributed to Vermeer before I die so now I'm a little closer.

After that we walked to St. Patrick's Cathedral.  On the way there we stopped at a store where I bought a hoodie (it's cold in Ireland in July!) and then walked over to a Thai restaurant run by a friendly Irishman who knew the double art of engaging his patrons with delightful conversation while serving them scrumptious Thai food.  Very, very, nice experience.

From there we walked several blocks to St. Patrick's Cathedral.  I must admit that after seeing the Italian duomos, Notre Dame in Paris and Gaudi's Art Deco Cathedral in Barcelona last summer, St. Patrick's isn't the most impressive church in the world.  But it was nice as far as big stone structures go and I was glad to see the grave of Johnathon Swift.

And I do love Celtic Art.  I think it would be an awesome experience to go to church in a Cathedral each week.  Those were the days when every minute detail of design was calculated to bring the worshiper closer to a sense of the presence of God and to instill a respect for their  worship environment.

So much intricate detail surrounded by so much space.  It gives one a sense of intimacy and spaciousness at the same time.

Johnathon Swift's grave.  Yes, he's buried in the wall.  And he wrote his own epitaph in Latin.  Here it is below in English

Jonathan Swift

'Here is laid the body of
Jonathan Swift, Doctor of Divinity,
Dean of this cathedral Church,
Where fierce indignation can no longer
Rend his heart.
Go, traveller, and imitate if you can
This earnest and dedicated
Champion of Liberty'

Sunday, July 19, 2015

The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee

Mukherjee is a cancer physician and interlaces his own experiences with patients with the history of cancer.  He does a thorough job tracing back its earliest diagnosis and follows doctors through the ages as they learn to identify and name this Emperor of All Maladies.  His descriptions of the different cases and attempts at doctors to save people from cancer read like a suspense novel.

One becomes drawn into the lives that these doctors try to save.  Some interesting facts emerge:  at first physicians did not understand that there could be environmental reasons for cancer and that cancers come from the development of lesions in the body.  

Doctors started to understand this in the 19th century when young boys hired as chimney sweeps in England began developing lesions on their bodies, particularly their scrotal sacks after they hit puberty.  The parts of the body infected were the parts that developed sores from the constant rubbing from traveling up and down chimneys and then became infected with soot.

It took a particularly long time for people to connect smoking with lung cancer.  This seems common sense to us today, but  back then they hardly knew what cancer was and practically everyone smoked, but not everyone developed cancer, so the cause and effect was not immediately obvious.

Mukherjee devotes a large portion of his book giving us the history of the battle between tobacco companies and victims of lung cancer.  It seems the big bad company against the little person is a safe target to vilify.  Too bad he wasn't as forthright about the connection between Sexually Transmitted Diseases and cervical cancer or that HPV is closely associated with anal cancer.  He gives those facts barely a nod while not even including the growing evidence suggesting that abortion increases risk of breast cancer.  I guess we need to make sure we only attack the people it's fashionable to attack rather than informing the populace about  unpopular preventative health measures.  He is, after all, trying to sell a book.

What was most informative was how cancer develops in the body.  The body is amazingly resilient to foreign bodies and even has a back up system when a lesion develops.  He gives an example of someone who inhaled asbestos in their youth.  This would cause a lesion in the lung, but not cancer because the immune system with its back up would only lose one "fighter"against the lesion.  (there's a medical term but I'll say fighter for convenience) 

But say the person also smoked for many years.  This would produce another lesion and attack the back up defense.  Now the body is out of fighters, hence the development of rapidly growing radicals because there is now nothing to stop it.

Mukherjee takes us along with the doctors who, through hit and miss, and countless trials finally came up with the idea of chemical warfare against free radicals as well as radiation.  He describes how these various procedures work.  This is a huge improvement from the radical surgery that doctors employed at the turn of the last century.  Surgeons would cut away almost half a person's body in order to eradicate the cancer.

What they found out was that surgery actually caused the cancer to spread by creating more lesions.

The entire book, while being non fiction, is written in a highly engaging style and is a fascinating look at a malady that has surely affected every one of us at one time or another.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

2nd Day in Ireland: The Giant's Causeway

This is a continuation of a photo diary of Josh's and my honeymoon last summer.

The Giant's Causeway is a mysterious collection of probably millions of narrow, cylindrical stone structures that span across the Irish Sea between Ireland and Scotland.  

The causeway was created when the Irish giant, Finn McCool, threw the rocks into the sea to create a bridge to Scotland because he wanted to fight a Scottish giant, Benandonner.

Giant's Causeway

Geologists, however, who are an unimaginative lot, insist that the basalt structures are from the remains of volcano.  

Personally I'm sticking to the Finn McCool story.  I don't see how the rocks could look so man (or giant) made but be naturally constructed.

The Pipe Organ

The Boot of Finn McCool's Grandmother who rescued him from drowning.  (His father threw Finn into the moat for being "too puny" for a giant.)

These cylindrical rocks continue into the water and reach all the way to the shore of Scotland.

Duncastle, near the Giant's Causeway.  Duncastle is thought to be the inspiration for C.S. Lewis' Cair Paravel in his Narnia Chronicles

This is only part of the second day.  Next post will be about our time in Belfast.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

A Maigret Trio by Georges Simenon (Maigret's Failure; Maigret in Society; and Maigret and the Lazy Burglar)

Hello from the Hill Country, south of Austin Texas.  Josh and I are enjoying our first anniversary returning to near where we spent our honeymoon.  This time we're staying in an Airstream Trailer.  It's cute and cozy.  I told Josh I think it would be fun to live here.  I would only need an outside room because even though I could squeeze my active library in the trailer I would need another room to house the rest of my books and also the occasional guest.

Josh said, yeah and that outside room would need to have four rooms inside of it and a full bath and high ceilings then he wouldn't mind living in an Airstream, either.  

Well, it was a romantic thought.

While here I finished the last of three novels by Georges Simenon.  Simenon was a Belgian writer best known for his prolific amount of murder mysteries centered around a Parisian detective, Inspector Jules Maigret.

Maigret is a cynical slow moving character that is incapable of drawing conclusions as to the moral compass murderers and thieves live by.  He seems to solves these problems because they are his job and they seem to ningle him like some mathematical problem that gives him no peace until he finds the solution.

None of his stories are formulaic.  In the three murders in this collection the people are murdered for very different reasons.  The first man is an extremely unpleasant man and everyone connected to him, including his family, had good reason to want him dead.  This of course leaves the reader clueless as to the actual perpetrator because everyone else had equally good motives and when we do find out who did it, it leaves one shrugging and thinking, "Oh. That one did it."  

The next one,  everyone involved in the victim's life is suspected, especially one unpleasant and uncooperative caregiver to the dead man but the ending is as unexpected as it is different from the first story.  Not all things or people are as they seem.

Finally, the last story is about a petty thief who is brutally murdered.  Maigret had dealings with the man before and had grown to have a sort of, not affection, but perhaps a compassion, for him.  Maigret himself doesn't know how to describe it.  He simply cannot dislike the man, even though in my opinion, he was a creep.  Apparently this murder victim, Honore Cuendet is some sort of adrenaline junkie.  He carefully cased his houses, only of the very rich, and only robbed them while they were at home.

Because a parallel storyline about a gang of bank robbers travels abreast with the murder mystery, one assumes there's a connection but it turns out to be a red herring (sorry for the spoiler).  And the actual murderers are people who one could not have suspected because they were barely in the story.  Yet the conclusion is entirely logical.

I don't know if everyone would enjoy Simenon's stories.  He writes as though everyone were clinically depressed.  No one shows emotion over anything.  I know it is a characteristic, even a stereotype, of French culture but everyone, I mean  everyone, has mistresses or are mistresses.  There is really no moral compass to anyone's life.

When Maigret interviews a girlfriend of Cuendet, he asks why the victim never married her.  The woman shrugs and replies that she assumes he probably already had a wife.  As if it were of no importance.

And yet, Maigret does not have a mistress.  His wife is there in the background, calm, loving and supportive.  When he is woken at 2am for an investigation, she is immediately in the kitchen making him coffee.  She is waiting for him when he returns at the end of a harrowing day.

Strangely there is no emotion revealed between the two of them but the actions show a genuine love: her's through support and his through his implied fidelity.

While I find none of the characters sympathetic or particularly likeable, I still enjoyed romping through the Parisian streets with this laconic inspector and encountering the different character types that he must confront in order to solve his murders.

Whether Simenon is giving the reader a realistic taste of Parisian life and culture, who knows?  As Oscar Wilde says, perhaps our image of a thing is more enjoyable than the actual thing itself.
Georges Simenon (1903-1989)

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Trip to Europe Day 1 Dublin, Ireland

One year ago today, Josh and I got married.  This week we are going to vacation in the Texas Hill Country where we spent the first part of out honeymoon.  For that post you can go here.  The rest of our honeymoon was spent in Europe.  Here is the first post of a series that will be descriptions and photos of the places that we traveled a year ago. 
For the second part of our honeymoon,  Josh and I flew to Dublin, Ireland, for a couple of days. We arrived at midnight our time, six in the morning Dublin time.  Our hostel room wasn't available until 2pm.  That gave us quite a bit of time to tour the city before checking in.  Luckily, the hostel let us store our baggage in one of their closets so we didn't have to drag it everywhere. 

After finding a small cafe for breakfast we trucked the ten blocks or so to Trinity College.

The  Library at Trinity College is where the Book of Kells is kept.  I have a facsimile copy at home and was excited about seeing the original.  You only get to see four pages of the original because they keep the books intact underneath glass, but I'm glad I got to see what I did.  The library alone was worth the ticket, even though I think the library itself is free to tour.  The ticket was only to see the Kells.

For those who don't know, the Book of Kells is an illuminated manuscript containing the four Gospels of the Bible.  I don't know if it's intricate Celtic art can be surpassed.  I'll include some photos.

The book was found buried in Kells, Ireland and dates back to 800 AD.

 The library was just incredible.  I can't describe it.  The photos speak for themselves. This post is the first of a thirteen day tour of Ireland and Germany.  The Kells only took up the first couple of hours of our morning.  The next post will describe our visit to the National Museum of Art and St. Patrick's Cathedral.

I believe I could happily live in a library like this.  Maybe I should look into summer jobs there.  This summer I will be alternatively posting reviews and photos of Europe.  I hope you enjoy them.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

The Hobbit by J.R. Tolkien

What can I say about The Hobbit that has not been said by wiser or more insightful people than I ?

Only my own individualized, fresh and sparkling take on a wonderful tale. 

Ha, ha.  I jest, yet it's true that this post contains my own thoughts on why The Hobbit resonates with me.  I can't presume why other people like it.  That in itself is an interesting topic for discussion:  why do very different people love the same book?  Is it for the same reasons or not?  Does a cerebral software engineer enjoy the Hobbit in the same way a right-brained musician enjoys it?

Being a right-brained musician married to a cerebral software engineer, I can only say that as much as we both love the same story, we like it for very different reasons.

Having said that, I am going to focus on why I like The Hobbit, even though I am not a fan of fantasy.

I like The Hobbit because I am a hobbit.  I like my little hobbit hole, filled with books and tea and coffee.  I like my old comfortable furniture for visiting with friends, reading, or watching old "Columbo" episodes with my cerebral computer wonk.

I don't like evil.  I don't like thinking about evil and I certainly would hate to leave the comforts of my hobbit hole to fight evil.

But sometimes that is exactly what we are called upon to do.  Sometimes the evil doesn't take an obvious form like a troll or Orc.  

Sometimes it's a really mean person who makes life hard at work.  Sometimes it's your mother being diagnosed with stage three lung cancer.  Or being afflicted with our own chronic illness.    Or terrorism, or war or rumors of war.
We wish these things didn't happen to us.

  I wish it need not have happened in my time, said Frodo.

So do I," said Gandalf, "and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.


That quote is from Lord of the Rings and not The Hobbit and, while Frodo had his adventure thrust on him, Bilbo's was  voluntary, even if he was reluctant at first.

It's hard to leave our comfortable existence and venture out into the unknown on an adventure. 

But on the other hand, what were we made for?  Simply to exist and be comfortable?

Bilbo finds out that the Tookish part of him says, "No!"  This ultimately decides him.  So off he goes with Gandalf and a troop of dwarves whom he has never met and doesn't particularly like (the feeling is mutual on the dwarves' part) and goes off on an adventure with no guarantees of ever returning alive.

Why did he do it?  For his share of the treasure?  I doubt it.  The camaraderie?  Certainly not. Bilbo did not find the dwarves to be pleasant people and they had serious doubts about his usefulness.

The idea belonged to Gandalf the Wizard.  Why did he persuade the dwarves they needed Bilbo and why did he persuade Bilbo that he needed to accompany the dwarves?  For what purpose really?  For some Treasure? Understandably, Thorin was determined to gain the rightful property and possessions of his family, but how were they going to fight a dragon for it?

I believe that Tolkien tapped into a universal truth that there are greater powers at work in our lives than we see.  Because Bilbo or the dwarves could not have known it, but their adventure set off a chain of events that led ultimately to the defeat of a great and insidious evil.

As a Christian, that makes perfect sense to me.  I can only see threads not the entire tapestry, yet I know the tapestry is there and an unspeakably beautiful picture is being woven. 

That is why I love The Hobbit.  It's a marvelous demonstration of the juxtaposition of small and large.  We as individuals with our tiny lives are nevertheless working towards something truly great.

As great as learning to love unloveable people.  Because Bilbo learned to love those hard-headed dwarves.  And they came to love him as well.  When Thorin finally repents and gives up his life for the greater good, Bilbo weeps like a child.  Every time I read that section, I find it hard not to cry myself.

And it's a journey that requires hardship, even suffering.  One day my cozy hobbit hole may be taken away from me.  It's happened to better men than I.  

I love Bilbo because as a Hobbit he so effectively exposes human nature.  Placed in a fantasy setting we can more clearly see our own reality. 

If there are any Hobbit lovers out there.  I would love to hear your own musings about the story.

J.R. Tolkien