Little happy lists, redux

November 20, 2018 @ 8:05 pm | Filed under:

Howdy. I’m finally climbing out from under a crushingly busy autumn workload, and the first place I wanted to come—blinking like a mole emerging into the light—was here. I’ve missed this space, and I’ve missed you.

I’m sitting on a pile of unfinished draft posts that I don’t know if I’ll ever finish. But I’m keen on fresh starts, and Thanksgiving week is a good time for one.

I’m rusty, though! What did I use to write about? 😉

While I’m rediscovering my bearings here, I’ll keep it simple: a list of three happy things from the past couple of days.

• Spotted a downy woodpecker on our suet feeder, and later that day Scott and I saw two nuthatches during a walk down Klickitat Street.

• Just being able to say I took a walk down Klickitat Street makes me pretty darn happy. Several years back, I heard that the chocolate-colored house from the Betsy-Tacy books was for sale. A move to Mankato, Minnesota wasn’t in the cards, but can you imagine? We could have lived in Tib’s house!! Well, I think living a block from Klickitat Street thrills me even more.

• Jane is home for Thanksgiving—for almost a whole week!

There. It’s a start. Glad to be back.

True story

October 2, 2018 @ 12:53 pm | Filed under:

I’ve reached the stage of writing in which I hate writing, I wonder why I ever thought writing was a good idea, I don’t ever want to write anything again, and I have an overwhelming urge to write about it.

What I look like while writing, according to Rilla some time back. Not sure I’m buying it. 😉

Getting hot in here

September 28, 2018 @ 1:08 pm | Filed under:

Some of you have heard me talk about the “tipping the cup” metaphor my family finds useful. Have you ever watched a toddler with a full cup of juice with no sippy lid? I have witnessed this many times: the cup tips a little, juice sloshes out, and instead of halting the spill by straightening the cup, the child tips it all the way, dumping the entire cup of juice. It’s like toddlers see the total spill as inevitable, once the first drops hit the floor.

In my house we have often applied this metaphor to emotions—how if you feel yourself about to lose your temper, you don’t *have* to tip the cup all the way over. But it applies in other contexts as well, and this one here is one of the scariest examples I’ve ever seen.

Last month, deep in a 500-page environmental impact statement, the Trump administration made a startling assumption: On its current course, the planet will warm a disastrous 7 degrees by the end of this century.

A rise of 7 degrees Fahrenheit, or about 4 degrees Celsius, compared with preindustrial levels would be catastrophic, according to scientists. Many coral reefs would dissolve in increasingly acidic oceans. Parts of Manhattan and Miami would be underwater without costly coastal defenses. Extreme heat waves would routinely smother large parts of the globe.

But the administration did not offer this dire forecast as part of an argument to combat climate change. Just the opposite: The analysis assumes the planet’s fate is already sealed.

The draft statement, issued by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), was written to justify President Trump’s decision to freeze federal fuel efficiency standards for cars and light trucks built after 2020. While the proposal would increase greenhouse gas emissions, the impact statement says, that policy would add just a very small drop to a very big, hot bucket.

So….we’re just gonna tip a big ole cup of fire on the planet, I guess.

Source: Trump administration sees a 7-degree rise in global temperatures by 2100

Booknotes: Prairie Fires by Caroline Fraser

September 20, 2018 @ 8:34 am | Filed under:

I’m reading Prairie Fires, Caroline Fraser’s A+++ book about Laura Ingalls Wilder and Rose Wilder Lane, and I quipped on Facebook that so far a chief takeaway for me is: One should never achieve a level of fame that inspires historians to go through one’s personal correspondence. 😉

That post has generated a good discussion of Fraser’s book, and in answering some friends’ questions I wound up writing a whole tome, which I thought I might as well share here.

S. mentioned, “I didn’t realize there was so much new material in it!”

I replied: re new material, you might be thinking of Pioneer Girl, which is Laura’s original memoir, a manuscript written long before the Little House books. I was given a copy back in the 90s when Harper commissioned me to write the Martha books. It was published for the first time last year in a wonderful edition annotated by Pamela Smith Hill. It’s a much bleaker narrative, telling many chapters of the story that Laura left out of the children’s series (death of her brother Freddy, the awful Burr Oak Iowa years, etc). I haven’t reread it in many years but at the time I loved getting a peek behind the curtain to the more raw, adult memoir and learning what happened in some of the gaps in the series, and what kinds of changes she made to the narrative thread when she reworked the material into children’s novels.

Prairie Fires is a stunningly thorough nonfiction book by Caroline Fraser which maps out the life stories of Laura, her parents, Almanzo, and Rose. It’s impeccably researched, drawing heavily on Rose and Laura’s personal correspondence, Rose’s diaries, their many published writings in various periodicals as well as their books, land records, local archives, etc. The depth of Fraser’s research is impressive and makes this historical fiction writer’s heart go pitty-pat.

In this account, Laura comes off better than Rose, but Fraser doesn’t shy away from discussing Laura’s flaws and quirks. Not a problem for me, since LIW was demystified and humanized for me a long time ago. As a look behind the curtain at writing process, Prairie Fires is fascinating and hugely valuable. I’ve loved watching the interplay between Laura and Rose (and occasionally Laura’s editors) that helped shape the Little House books. I think Fraser does a much better job of unpacking the complicated writing/editorial relationship between the two women than Holtz’s Ghost in the Little House.

I do wonder sometimes if Fraser’s educated guesses (and they are HIGHLY educated and thoroughly considered, don’t get me wrong) are a tiny bit presumptuous—she does make some assumptions about motivations and personal emotions. But she always makes it clear that those statements are suppositions. “Laura may have felt…” etc.

In response to J.’s question, “do I dare to read it?”: If Laura is on any kind of pedestal in your mind, this book probably knocks it out from under her. But for me it’s been marvelous–a look at the real Laura, the woman, the often struggling writer doubting her abilities and deferring to her daughter’s judgment–then bristling back and defending certain authorial choices, digging in when she felt strongly about a scene. As a writer of historical fiction I am just EATING UP the conversations about how to mold *truth* and *fact* into a compelling fiction narrative.

[Side note: I was really stunned to encounter a speech in which Laura talks about how she tells the truth ***but not the whole truth*** because that’s what I have said myself many times these past 13 years about my blog (everything I share is true, but I don’t share everything) and of course it served as a major theme in The Prairie Thief. “Not the Whole Truth” was in fact my working title for that book! (Nixed by my publisher as not kid-friendly/gripping enough. Prairie Thief was their title but it gave me serious angst since I wanted the book to stand apart from my Little House work.]

I had already been aware that Laura rearranged some of her family’s travels and left whole huge chapters out of the series. Fraser’s book delves into precisely why those changes occurred. Excellent insight for any student of fiction and memoir.

S., re how Laura’s books are doing these days…well, the past twenty years have been a time of growing awareness of the highly problematic areas of her books. Her family’s story goes hand in hand with the story of Native Americans being cruelly displaced from their lands. Fraser takes an unflinching look at that history, as well as the ways in which Laura’s pervasive message of rugged individualism breezes past the many times her family received government or community assistance of various kinds. (Not to mention the Ingalls family skipping town when Burr Oak debts mounted up.)

My understanding is that sales of Laura’s books have declined somewhat over the past fifteen years but they still remain staples. Personally, I think contemporary children are less engaged by the long, detailed *process* descriptions (making bullets, making a door, etc)–why read a step-by-step when you can watch it on Youtube, you know? (I’m not being disparaging–I freely admit I too would rather watch a video of a door being made than read a blow-by-blow narrative. But not sausage. I don’t want to watch a sausage-making video. Give me Laura’s narrative anytime.) And of course Harry Potter swept in a great wave of interest in children’s fantasy. Historicals were on the downswing for a bit but have bounded back up now with many brilliant own-voices works.

The reality is that Laura’s books require discussion. When my own kids came along I realized I was hesitant to just hand the books over–I felt like conversation and contextualizing was necessary because of the treatment of Indians, the minstrel show, etc. Today I would add: the climate disruptions also invite what Julie Bogart calls Big Juicy Questions. Not to mention the politics (for older readers)…

Laura’s work is certainly in no danger of being forgotten—she’ll always be a pivotal figure in children’s literature. But the field is rich and crowded now. The glorious explosion of kids’ graphic novels, the brilliant prose of contemporary authors—there’s an overwhelming abundance of books competing with Laura’s now. Not to mention all the visual media. Much of her prose is what would now be called “quiet”—I say this as a passionate lover of “quiet books” — in a market that prefers action and zip. All of which is to say that I think there are many reasons why contemporary kids aren’t embracing Little House with quite the fervor we did (and for our generation it’s probably impossible to gauge how much our zeal was spurred by the TV show—I honestly don’t remember which way I encountered Little House first! But I do know that Nellie Oleson always had Alison Arngrim’s face in my mind. I would guess I encountered book and show more or less concurrently).

Probably more to come when I’ve finished the Fraser book. Closing in on the finish now…heart in my throat.

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Evening walk

September 5, 2018 @ 1:59 pm | Filed under:

I’ve had to change my evening schedule again to catch the light. All summer I reveled in the long, long days of the Pacific Northwest. I like to take my walk during golden hour whenever possible and in June and July I grew accustomed to slipping out around 8pm. But this week that put me walking home in the dark! I’m shifting back to an after-dinner walk. Dinner, a long walk, a bit more work before tv time with Scott. (We’re starting Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society soon. Y’all know I adore the book, so I’m both excited and nervous about the show!)

What’s your favorite time of day to take a walk?

Bonus: my current evening-walk playlist

Stuff we’re enjoying

August 30, 2018 @ 3:19 pm | Filed under: ,

Toothpick puzzles

Acrylic paints — today we made abstract paintings in bright colors to go on the living-room wall (pics later)

This crochet pattern — I’m using up a bunch of leftover yarn I found when I cleaned out the garage

The Rattlin’ Bog — a longtime favorite, recently dusted off for my younger set (this rendition at an Irish wedding reception is A+++)

Muse magazine — Huck and Rilla are enjoying our stash of back issues so much! Makes me glad I kept them in the great pre-move purge last summer.

 

Wednesday, late August

August 29, 2018 @ 3:54 pm | Filed under: ,

Ahhh. We got a good rain and the air has cleared up. Have been able to resume my long walks with no burning throat and streaming eyes. Felt like years since I’d made my favorite trek to the dog park and back, a meandering route that takes me past my favorite gardens in the neighborhood. (Note to self: plant zinnias next year. This cutting garden, about a mile from my house, took my breath away.)

Here at home: the tide came rushing in and carried my high-school freshman (!!) off to his new school this week. I dove straight into high-tide lessons with Huck and Rilla (Beanie gets another week). This is one of the ways I cope with long hours closeted away, writing furiously (or more likely, gnashing my teeth at the screen and clutching fistfuls of hair): filling our mornings with good, rich homeschooling adventures before I slink away behind the closed door.

(When I finish: autumn. It’s already ablaze in my head; it will be glorious. This time last year, I was in radiation treatment.)

A glimpse of our high-tide mornings (sans photos because I haven’t remembered to snap any pics):

—stretches & math facts (we recite times tables while doing planks: not easy for this spaghetti-armed mama)

—German (continuing with Felix & Franzi; this year we’re doubling with ASL, learning signs as we add new German vocab. Each one reinforces the other.)

—Shakespeare memorization (continuing with Twelfth Night)

—singing (currently Irish & Scottish folk songs and some German songs)

—nature walk

—readalouds: Farmer Boy; The Penderwicks on Gardam Street; The Lost Art of Reading Nature’s Signs; tales of Ancient Greece (various)

—study of ancient counting systems (an Earthschooling lesson block—we started this a while back and picked it back up this week. It’s Rilla’s favorite thing. She’s fascinated.)

—breadbaking and sourdough starter

—sewing beanbags (I found the sewing machine power cord!!!! after a year!!!)

—embroidery and cross-stitch projects

—composer study: this week Scott picked Debussy

—watercolor painting

Not all of that every day, of course!

Smoke, blooms, books

August 20, 2018 @ 6:05 pm | Filed under: , ,

(I wrote much of this last week, didn’t post it, and then the air quality improved. I went on an hour-long ramble yesterday evening and it felt marvelous. But today: hazy skies and burning throats again.)

The air quality is terrible here in Portland this week: fires in so many directions. We’re stuck indoors and there is a lot of bouncing off the walls going on. Quite literally, in Huck’s case. But all of us, really! I miss my walks. I’m an addict now, that’s become clear. Morning nature walk with the kids; long evening ramble on my own or with Scott or both. How many blossoms are opening and closing while I’m closeted in the cool house, breathing the filtered air?

It’s only been a few days. I’ll survive. 😉 The fires—far away from us but so fierce we’re inhaling them across the miles—the weeks of dry season still ahead. The warming planet, the denialism—the campaign against reality being waged with fearful success in certain quarters. These things are much more concerning than my missed nature walks.

I think sometimes about our friend Tracy, the hospital social worker, telling me all those years ago when Jane was beginning chemo that some parents of patients are ‘monitors’ and some are ‘blockers.’ Monitors feel less anxious when they have lots of information. Blockers feel more anxious by information overload and prefer to leave the in-the-weeds details to the experts. (I was told I’m the most monitory monitor they ever met. This because I was begging—in those pre-Wifi days—medical textbooks so I could fully understand about pluripotent stem cells and what was happening in my baby’s bone marrow.) This distinction wasn’t a value judgment; it was meant to help terrified parents cope with the ordeal: a child with cancer. An awareness of what relieves or inflames your anxiety is powerful knowledge. But I’ve come to believe that being a blocker is only safe if you can utterly trust the experts in question. And the voices who turned climate change into a political issue—framing it as politics instead of a set of facts supported by abundant data—those voices are not trustworthy. We’ve all got to become monitors now.

Oof. Do you know I thought I was coming here to write about sourdough starter? That’s one of the ways we entertained ourselves indoors this morning: we got a starter going two weeks ago, and today* we tested it out on a batch of pancakes. (Too hot to bake bread.) The pancakes were delicious; the starter is strong. Rilla handles most of the care and feeding (and she keeps a log book with daily updates about status and hydration level), and Huck flipped all the pancakes. And Jane…got on a plane and went back to California to start her new job. (Sniffle. No, I’m excited for her, truly!)

*Last Wednesday, that was. From here on is new today, Monday.

Since I can’t spend much time in the garden, I’m obsessing over my houseplants, and they have rewarded me with surprising blooms.

Nearly a year after I bought it, my Aeschynanthus is blooming and I’m over the moon. I used to grow these beauties (commonly called lipstick flower) by the half dozen back in pre-baby days, along with Nematanthus and other gems. We left nearly all our plants behind when we moved to Portland last summer, but a few months after our arrival Scott and I were en route to buy a card table (for jigsaw puzzles) from a Craigslist seller and we passed a Very Large Sign emblazoned with one of the nicest phrases in the English language: PLANT SALE. Of course I had to pop in *just for a look*. It turned out to be the annual sale of the PDX chapter of the Gesneriad Society—an organization I belonged to myself, back in the day. (Some of you longtime readers may recall a post I wrote about that chapter of my life ages ago.) Anyway, I spent five dollars at that plant sale last summer and have been enjoying the trailing foliage of my Aeschynanthus and Nematanthus all year. That five bucks also bought me a Streptocarpus (Cape Primrose), whose pink blossoms made me giddy…while they lasted. I never could keep a Streptocarpus alive.

It was clear the Aeschynanthus was happy with its spot near the east-facing window of my studio—gorgeous, abundant foliage—but no blooms. Until HELLO, suddenly it’s a Revlon commercial in that corner. These flowers are bonkers. And it’s bursting with them. Talk about a makeover!

And then! And then! The very same day I lamented on Instagram that I missed my old goldfish flower (the aforementioned Nematanthus)—we met friends for a drink in the evening, and there was a small nursery next to the alehouse, and GUESS WHAT I FOUND. A bitty little $2.50 goldfish flower in full bloom. Of course I had to adopt it.

What I’m reading:

My Mary Stewart kick continues. Over the weekend I reread Thornyhold (far and away my favorite of her books so far) and Rose Cottage (second fave), and now I’m a couple of chapters into Thunder on the Right (bit of a slow start, but picking up). Many of her books can be had for $1.99 on Kindle at the moment, including Touch Not the Cat (I loved this one), The Ivy Tree (suspenseful, moody), and Madam, Will You Talk?

This Rough Magic is an extra dollar, but it’s Tempest-inspired! Probably #3 in my rankings so far, but I have several other novels to go. Including The Moon-Spinners—remember the Hayley Mills film?

  

Morning sun

August 11, 2018 @ 11:01 am | Filed under: , ,

This is the light that greets me when I slip out to the kitchen early in the morning to heat water for my cocoa. I open the back door and listen to the quiet. I drink in the cool air, the pale apricot sky. I’m always stalling a bit; in a moment I’ll have to sit down and start work. The hydrangeas are paler this year than the vivid sky-blue petals of last summer. In the big crumbling clay pots on the patio, the coneflowers and anise hyssop are in abundant bloom, all pinks and orange. The dahlias are thinking about getting around to flowering. A ripe blueberry here and there. Cosmos tall under the bird feeder. The neighbor’s rooster crows, the early train rumbles by in the distance: all these soft alarms telling me it’s time to get to work.