Monday, September 27, 2010

You know what they say....

....sometimes you actually should meet your heroes.

This past weekend, at the tenth annual National Book Festival (pretty much the only good thing to come out of the Bush presidency), my favorite author of the moment, Suzanne Collins, put in an appearance. For those of you who aren't familiar with her, she is the author of the book trilogy, The Hunger Games. These books have been blowing my mind for the last three years, and I was not about to pass up the chance to see her in the flesh.

This was actually the first time I had ever been to the festival; it first landed on my radar about 5 years ago when I returned to the DC area from school. And ever since then, I have been out of town every year during the last weekend of September. Every. Single. Year.

But this year would be a different story (see what I did there?). I was going to be in town, and I had plans to go into the office. Which worked out perfectly, since the book festival was taking place on the Mall, just a quick walk from work. Suzanne Collins was the second speaker in the Teen tent, so I figured I could get into work early, pop down there and here her speak, get a book signed, and then get back to the office. And while my plan ended up working out, I kind of underestimated the distance between my office and the spot on the Mall where the festival was being held. So basically it was 2 miles rather than 1 mile. It only took me about 20 minutes to get down there, but since it was so hot that day, let's just say I was a little....damp.

The good news is, I was able to snag a standing spot directly behind the last row of chairs, straight back from the stage, and only about 40 feet from the podium. The tent was packed with kids, teenagers, and adults all eager to hear what The Hunger Games author had to say. She started out with a 15 minute prepared presentation where she spoke about her background as a military brat and how she was raised in an environment where military strategy and history were basically dinner table talk. She spoke about being a kid when her father went to Vietnam and how she didn't really understand what that meant until she saw news footage depicting the graphic horror of the war. Her father came home and from her description, it seems pretty clear that he had some post-traumatic stress disorder going on.

From speaking about her childhood, Ms. Collins then moved on to describing how her first series, The Underland Chronicles, was meant to introduce young adults to all the different facets of war and its meaning and toll. With The Hunger Games, which was born of a night of channel surfing between reality television and Iraq war coverage, she stumbled upon the perfect vehicle to fuse her interest in war, media, Roman culture, and Greek mythology. She pointed out the many parallels between her stories and Greek myths (especially Theseus and the Minotaur) and how the worst punishment the Greeks could dole out was to kill your children. By killing your children, they were doing worse than killing you, they were killing your future.

After the fascinating talk/lecture, Ms. Collins took questions from the audience. From little kids to some elderly folk, everyone had a question. And the audience wasn't afraid to weigh in; there was a spoiler-free policy on the questions as not everyone had read Mockingjay, and when one tween tried to ask a question about the end of the book, she got heavily booed from the crowd (as not everyone had read it). Ms. Collins told her to come up to the stage afterwards and whisper the question. in her ear People asked about where the characters for The Hunger Games came from (Katniss just popped into her head, fully realized), the geography of Panem (she didn't reveal anymore than what's in the books), where her character names originated (Capitol names are Roman influenced, Katniss and Prim from edible flowers, and other characters name echo their Districts) and where the idea of 13 Districts came from (the 13 original American colonies). And of course, there was a question about Team Peta and Team Gale. Ms. Collins smoothly answers that she didn't like one over the other, in her mind, a love triangle is only successful if it presents an impossibly hard choice, a Casablanca style choice. To her both Peta and Gale were strong and worthy enough of Katniss, but life, as they say, can change a person.

By the end of the session, it was already 11 in the morning and the signing wasn't scheduled to start for another half hour. So I decided to skip it and head back to the office. After spending 20 minutes wandering around looking for the entrance to the L'Enfant Plaza metro (seriously, could it be harder to find??) it was back to the work grindstone. But at least I had come just a little close to greatness and been near one of the most brilliant modern literary minds.

Monday, September 13, 2010

In Jane Austen Country

We were talking about some kind of England trip, weren't we? So, previously on the blog: Maggie, Kristin, and Rachel arrived in London and immediately start sight-seeing. We packed in as much as possible in that one day (which is huge and rife with history). The next day we still spent the day wandering around, but this time it was wandering around the country-side, as we traveled to Steventon and the surrounding area, the home of Jane Austen.

We took the train about an hour west from London and met up with our friendly tour-guide, Phil. Yep, that's right, we decided to book a private tour with Phil who offers tours of Steventon for Jane Austen-philes like us. We felt super posh as Phil met us at the train station and drove us around in his nifty van. And I think he was super impressed by Kristin's encyclopedic Jane Austen knowledge. In fact, we had a great mix of knowledge: Kristin knew everything, I knew some stuff, and Rachel was a complete newbie. So Phil had his work cut out for him, but at the end of the day he assured us he couldn't remember the last time he had so much fun giving a tour.

Our first stop was Steventon Church, where Jane Austen's father was the rector and where she attended church. It's tucked down a narrow country lane and isn't distinguished by any great architecture or signs, which somehow makes it even more special.

Steventon Church

Here's the three of us outside the church:

To the right of the church's door is a huge yew tree which, according to Phil, is more than 1,000 years old. I'm not sure the pictures accurately portray the size of the thing, but it looks like something out of a fantasy book, Middle Earth, or something like that. Apparently, there is a registry for yew trees like this throughout all of England, and people go on tours just to visit them. Dorks. *said the girl on a Jane Austen tour*

After the church, we continued our tour of the area. What's so great about Steventon is how unspoiled it is. Not just in terms of tourism, but also with development. Sure there are modern houses, but right next to them are thatch-roofed cottages and buildings that were visited by Jane Austen herself. For example, the traveler's stop where she would walk to pick up her post is still there (the original building) and it's still kind of a rest stop: it's a restaurant and pub located off the main road.

One of the places we went after the church was the site of the rectory, the Austen's home and where Jane grew up. While the house is gone, and it's just a field (with a bunch of cows) now, the lime tree planted by Jane's brother, George, is still there. It too is rather large. But you would be too if you had been planted almost 200 years ago.

After some more ramblings (I kind of have a tendency to take off in whatever direction I am pointed in when visiting the country), we stopped by The Vyne, a 16th century estate built for King Henry VIII's Lord Chamberlain that you can now walk around and eat at the restaurant, etc. The rooms were, of course, impressive and the Austens were guests there when the family held balls. Think of the Bingley's in Pride and Prejudice having everyone over to dance. Before touring the house, we wandered around the grounds during a break in the clouds, and of course it started pouring rain about 2 minutes later. Welcome to England! Another interesting thing at the house was a special art exhibition: in each room one or two extremely modern furniture pieces or accessories were mixed in with the traditional furnishings. It made for a fascinating juxtaposition, and sometimes you couldn't even tell the difference!

The Vyne

Our last stop of the day was also the most emotional. We went to the small cottage in Chawton where Jane, her sister, and her mother moved after the death of her father. Jane was not happy to leave her childhood home, and after some time in Bath, the family ended up in Chawton. Their home was modest, but it was her actual house. She walked across those floors, looked out the same windows, and sat in the garden. On display in the house was some of her original hand-written piano music, letters she had written her family, and even a lock of her hair given as a gift to a family-member.

But I think the coolest thing we saw was a quilt that Jane, her sister, and mother had sewed for brother while he served in the Navy. Again, what gets me are the tangible items that Jane touched and created, things that prove that she was a real breathing person and not just a name printed on the spine of a book.

As a special treat, the Chawton house had one of those historical actor people posing as a nineteenth century apothecary. Apparently, he and Phil were friends, and Phil called me over to meet him since he performed a lot in Williamsburg (and Phil knew I had attended William and Mary). The actor guy was really English, but he lived in Williamsburg part of the year as he did so much work there. Small world, huh?

Thus endeth my adventures in Jane Austen land. It wasn't really something we could have done on our own, since you've got to have a car to get around to all those sights. I also don't think there's any way we could have found half the houses since the roads there aren't exactly well-labeled. So getting our own private tour guide ended up being more than just a treat, it was a necessity. But we seriously had a great time, and just like Phil said, we laughed the entire day!

Thursday, September 09, 2010

This ain't no country club, this is LA.

We interrupt your regularly scheduled England post-trip coverage to bring you a report on my recent travel to Los Angeles. My brother and sister-in-law unexpectedly and suddenly packed up and moved from Detroit to Los Angeles only a month ago when he got a sweet offer from a rocket engineering firm called SpaceX. Yeah, you read that right. ROCKET ENGINEERING. My brother: he is pretty badass. Also, at his job they get free soda, coffee, and frozen yogurt. Free fro-yo, people!

Since the move was so sudden, my sister-in-law didn't have a job lined up so while she looks for ministering opportunities, Mom and I decided to take advantage of the long weekend and spend some time in sunny LA. I was there about 15 years ago (yikes) when I was a sophomore in high school. On that visit I stayed with a friend who lived in the downtown area and mostly what I remembered was it being brown and very very hot. Lucky for me, Bill and Amanda settled in the Redondo Beach area, only a few miles from the beach. This meant high temperatures of around 75, sunny skies, and lovely morning fog known as the marine layer.

Not one to sit around on my ass (HAHA! Sarcasm, you dig?), Amanda and I hiked every morning with and without the puggle, Newton. We even convinced my brother to come with us one morning, as we hiked along the bluffs in Ranchos Palos Verdes. It was too foggy to see all the way to Catalina, but there's nothing like standing on a cliff, the Pacific ocean spreading out before you, with a cool breeze on your brow.

One of my favorite things that we did was visit the La Brea tar pits. Despite my Dad's assistance that we stop by the volcano that's nearby (he has trouble separating movies from reality sometimes), the pits were just as advertised. Big pools full of bubbling tar. I'm definitely spoiled by the Smithsonian, but the museum was actually really cool. A lot of people, including me, assume that the tar pits trapped dinosaurs, but the truth is the animals recovered from its depths are from the ice age only 25,000 years ago. Think saber tooth cats and dire wolves. Also, mammoths! And did you know that LA was once home to lions?? I didn't , but there you go. An educational vacation. Oh, also? Saber tooth cats are fucking SCARY, dude. Those teeth are big.

But my most favoritest thing of all was spending time with my family and friends, be it sitting on the couch watching movies, cooking s'mores over the firepit in the backyard, sitting down to one of Amanda's amazing home-cooked meals, or hitting the Redondo pier with my LA-based friends, Patrick and Rosa. Coming on the heels of my constantly on the move England trip, it was kind of nice to take things a bit slower. I spent hours just sitting in the sun in the backyard reading, a dog at my feet. It don't get much better than that, folks.

Now I'm back home, back at work, and thinking ahead to the next trip: Las Vegas over Columbus Day weekend. But there's a touch of fall in the air and if I stand on the balcony and close my eyes, it's almost like being back on that California cliff. Oh, and I could definitely get used to the idea of a California casual wardrobe.