Monday, July 16, 2018

The Sparrow's Song

I have a new essay up today at The Sunlight Press, called "The Sparrow's Song."

It's about babies and birds and the relentless march of time, because of course.

This is one of those essays with a long, long gestation period—my first draft is dated October 2013, and I was thinking about it for years before I started writing. The piece went through many iterations over that time, starting out in the standard first-person and one point measuring 2500 words long, evolving to the second-person with field-guide-style interruptions and slimming down to the current 1000 words. Along the way, it took more than a few failed test flights to various journals. The final piece is a testament to persistence, flexibility, and the all-important delete key.

If you get a chance to read it, here, please let me know what you think!

Friday, July 13, 2018

Kitchen Refresh

When we built our house, I wanted my kitchen painted a nice, bright, primary yellow. To that end, I chose a paint called "rain slicker."

While I loved the bright, cheery color, I had some doubts from the start about whether it was the right choice. For one thing, the color did not quite match the more mustardy hue of our tile. For another, it was only available in a matte finish, which is not idea for either a kitchen or a house with kids, because it does not wash so easily.

I was happy enough with the color to live with it for a good 15 1/2 years, but this summer I decided it was finally time for a refresh—still yellow, but a shade a little more toward the golden end of the spectrum.

C and I spent two Sundays moving furniture, washing dishes, and sanding, washing, and painting walls, which is pretty remarkable considering how much durn stuff was in the way. (That turquoise cabinet up there? It weighs somewhere around a metric ton—and it's never once been moved, as evidenced by the dust and M's drawings from that time, before we had the cabinet, when I left him alone with a pencil and a stack of newsprint when he was one.) Not to mention the sheer volume of dishes that had to be moved, and in many cases washed (it gets dusty up on those shelves).

The color I chose to replace rain slicker is called "butter cream" but I prefer to call it "National Geographic" because it is the exact color of the yellow border around a National Geographic magazine.

It could also be called black-eyed Susan or goldenrod or any of a number of bright, summery flowers that are just now coming into bloom and have that rich, golden, buttery yellow hue.

It's also the exact color of the original Fiestaware yellow (not a coincidence). So I made a special display of most of my vintage yellow Fiesta (plus one modern cake plate because I'm running out of room for standing up my big plates and platters) to celebrate.

Certain people in this house don't see much difference between the old paint and the new, but that's because they lack a sensitive appreciation of that sort of thing (certain other people claim to hate yellow, which is blasphemy). I think it's bright and cheery, not to mention new and clean and eggshell finish, therefore washable. So I'm pleased.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

(Long) Weekend Things ~ Fourth of July

We usually stick close to home for the Fourth of July, but this year C's step-siblings were in town, so we headed up to camp for a few days.

But first, of course, we hit our town's parade, which was somewhat diminished due to new safety rules (no uninsured floats; no throwing candy from moving vehicles).

The rules didn't stop the fire truck brigade.

Nor the annual walking social justice float.

The fourth was hot and sticky, as I think it was all over the world, so afterward we found our way to a new swimming hole (which was an improvement over our original plan of running through the sprinklers). Afterward, we had a low-key cookout in the back yard.

I had thought this would be the year we finally made it to a firework show, but my brother-in-law showed up with a load of backyard fireworks just in time to save our children from a) having to leave the house and b) having to share space with strangers. Somewhere between the swimming hole and the cookout, the auto focus on my regular camera lens quit working, so no photos of the fireworks.

The next day, we headed up to camp, where the weather was perfect for soaking in the lake, canoeing, cooking out, and just general relaxicating.

We arrived home on Saturday, just in time for C and I to head out to a gala and performance of Pride@Prejudice (yes, the @ is intentional, and no, I did not even notice it when I bought the tickets; it refers to a device—literal and figurative, as in the actors made use of cell phones, laptops, etc.--the playwrite used for clever asides that explained some ambiguities to the audience and summarized bits of the narrative to scrunch the story into play length).

I was so excited about the gala (period costume optional), that I made a semi-regency dress to wear. I say semi because I bought a period-style pattern, but, taking one look at it realized it was way more complicated than I wanted to deal with so instead adapted the design of a blouse I have with an empire waist and raglan sleeves.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Beach Day

This is the first summer in four years that we don't have a big vacation planned. No three week road trip. No five-hundred mile hiking trip. And I've been feeling kinda sorry for myself. Whenever anyone asks what we're doing this summer, I sigh and say, "Nothing."

We do have a camping trip with friends planned, and a few days at in-laws' camp, but nothing epic, and I'd pretty much resigned myself to a summer spent puttering around the house, tackling some projects we've been thinking about for a long time. One of those, is painting the kitchen, and I would have spent all of the last two weekends doing that, except I was persuaded (with little difficulty) to attend a bird club trip the first of the two Saturdays and we were invited to E and Z's best friend's birthday party—at the beach—this past Saturday.

My kids are some kind of mutants who, whenever I say, "Let's go the beach," say "No! I don't want to. I hate the beach." But when a friend is involved, they change their tune. So we piled in the car and trundled off the to beach on what promised to be a hot, sunny, beachy kind of day, and hit the waves.

Sitting here, writing in 90 degree heat, 900 percent humidity, I feel cool just looking at this photo.
And it was pretty spectacular. It doesn't mean I won't have to coax and cajole them next time I want to go to the beach, but at least they admitted to having had fun.

In other coastal news, my essay "The World in their Hands," which takes place in part at the beach, and which appeared in The Maine Review last year, has been republished on Nature Writing for your reading pleasure.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

May 2018 Reads

A roundup of books I read over the last month.

April 2018 Reads
March 2018 Reads
February 2018 Reads
January 2018 Reads

I really did have good intentions of posting May's reads closer to the beginning of June, but since we're not yet halfway through the month, I'm still going to call this a win.

For my Naturalists' Book Club last month, I read Henry Beston's The Outermost House, about the author's year on Cape Cod, which is considered a classic of nature writing. I admit that at first I was like, "Huh," with regard to its classic-ness, but as I read on I became more engaged with Beston's quiet style, observations, and musings and by the end I'd folded over the corners of multiple pages that held bits of writing I wanted to come back to. Here's one of my favorites: "A second notion, too, came into my head as I saw the turnstones fly away—that no one really knows a bird until he has seen it in flight. Since my year upon the dunes, spent in a world of magnificent fliers, I have been tempted to believe that the relation o f the living bird with its wings folded to the living bird inflight is almost that of the living bird to the same bird stuffed. In certain cases, the difference between the bird on the wing and the bird at rest is so great that one might be watching two different creatures. Not only do colours and new arrangements of colours appear in flight, there is also a revelation of personality. Study your birds on the ground as you will, but once you have thus observed them nd studied their loveliness, do not be afraid to clap your hands and send them off into the air. They will take no real alarm and will soon forgive you. Watch birds flying." I also found it so refreshing to ready nature writing by a man from he early 20th century that has nothing to do with hunting or fishing!

As I was doing one last revision to The Book, before sending it off to my first reader, I wanted to read another long-distance hiking book as, I don't know, a crutch, an example, a beacon of hope. But all of the books of that sort that I own I've already read two or three times each and am bored with them, so I gave A Blistered Kind of Love by Angela and Duffy Ballard, about a young couple's hike of the Pacific Crest Trail. I also picked up, on the recommendation of a friend, Grandma Gatewood's Walk, by Ben Montgomery, a biography of the first woman to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail. I'd heard of Gatewood, who hiked the AT three times wearing sneakers and carrying a denim duffel on her shoulder, but I had no idea about her full story or how tough-as-nails she was. It's a fascinating read.

I brought A Gift from the Sea, by Anne Morrow Lindbergh, with me on our island camping trip, thinking it was a book about the sea. Instead it is a series of philosophical musings using seashells as starting points and metaphors. I have mixed feelings about it. While I found that I was in agreement with most of the ideas, especially those about a woman and mother's need for solitude and creativity, I thought they were couched in rather vague language when I would prefer real life stories and examples. I think it's a book I will return to in the future, however.

I picked up a copy of Death Comes to Pemberly, by P.D. James, which is a Jane Austen pastiche that imagines a murder taking place on the Pemberly ground and good old Wickham implicated as the number one suspect. I'd already seen the BBC dramatization, so the resolution of the crime did not come as a surprise, but I was curious to see how James pulled off Austen's voice (very well, as it turns out). It's more of a courtroom drama and commentary on the inadequacies of the early 19th century judicial system than a classic who-done-it, but I found it enjoyable, even if there was, to me, an excessive amount of rehashing the events of Pride and Prejudice for the benefit of readers who had not delved into that book recently or (perish the thought) not at all.

I am still on my vintage Barbara Michaels kick and the book I read in May, Here I Stay, was the first of hers where I just did not like the main character. She was neurotic, codependent, angry, and grouchy with no good reason (well, other than having lost her parents at an early age and having been responsible for raising her brother, who is in a terrible accident at the beginning of the book). I don't buy into the idea that fictional characters have to be "likable," but it is nice when they have some redeeming qualities, or some claim to empathy, but I did not find that with the protagonist of this book (whose name, funnily enough, is Andrea).

And, finally, I read To the Bright Edge of the World, by Eowyn Ivey. It was meant to be an informal book club read with two friends, only one didn't read it and couldn't make it to our get-together, and the other friend and I didn't end up talking about the book a whole lot (is this how all book clubs are?). The book tells the story of an explorer, Colonel Forrester, as he leads a small expedition into Alaska's interior in the early 1900s, and his wife, Sophie, left back home at the Army barracks, pregnant, alone, and searching for a medium to express herself. It's written in epistolatory style, as if pieced together from journal entries, letters, newspaper clippings, book excerpts, and other paper ephemera, which I thought at first might be distracting, but was in fact very engaging and Ivey does a wonderful job capturing the voices of the various authors and correspondents. Like Ivey's first book, The Snow Child, there's a heavy dose of the mystical, or perhaps the mythical, with Native American legends coming to life in bizarre but believable ways. Elements of historical obstetrics, natural history, and early photography also make their way into the narrative, combining to make an altogether a fascinating read.

The twins are still adamant about my reading aloud from Elizabeth Peters's Amelia Peabody series every night, and we finished two volumes last month: A River in the Sky and The Falcon at the Portal. We did a lot of reading huddled around the campfire on our cold camping trip. I had hoped we'd quit the series before Falcon, even though it's one of my favorite books in the series, because it's the one in which two certain characters get together (if only briefly). I had remembered the scene as much more explicit than it was—which goes to show that a good writer can establish a mood or a feeling without going into graphic detail—and it means that it was not unduly awkward to read aloud. E has been so inspired by the books he chose to do his school project on Howard Carter and Amelia's vocabulary is rubbing off on them: the other day Z said of one of his teachers, "She's a lot more affable after school."

Monday, June 11, 2018

Become a Trail Naturalist

I have a piece in the latest issue of TrailGroove Magazine called "Becoming a Trail Naturalist," in which I give tips for hikers and backpackers to incorporate a study of natural history into their trips. Please check it out, and while you're there, explore the rest of the magazine and let the lovely, lush photography inspire you to hit the trail.

Friday, June 8, 2018

Weekend Things ~ Projects and Fuzzy Animals

I never know how involved I should get in my kids' take-home projects. How much help is actually helpful and how much is helicoptering? It's a conundrum I'll never know the answer to, judging by my anxiety over my firstborn child's ahem laid-back approach to researching college prospects. On the one hand, I had very little help when I was going through the same process. On the other hand, I did not exactly make the best choice and probably could have used some real guidance. The same goes for seventh-grad projects. I remember making a diorama for the book 1984, in which I used Fisher Price peg people. I put the blue peg woman with the yellow bun in a helicopter and suspended her from the top of the shoebox, hovering outside a window. I'd only read the first and last sentence of every paragraph of the book, so it's possible I didn't have a firm grasp of the storyline. It's also possible I might not have been able to pull off a more artistic diorama even if I had.

In any event, E and Z had big projects due this week and I deemed it necessary to dip in my oar, to at least encourage them to up their game over peg-people-in-a-shoebox. They had an assignment of a trifold poster and 3D model about a famous person from history (I think it was meant to be a famous American, but E stretched the boundaries a teensy bit).

E was very glad to have my assistance and I helped him recreate King Tut's coffin out of a papier-mached egg carton and wrap up a corncob in tea-dyed and epsom-salts-soaked muslin. He found lots of photos of his historic character and picked out a cool font, and I supplied colored sticky mounting paper. I think he was pleased with the results. And, because he had his project done a day early, he was able to help a friend work on his project during class, which I think is the most valuable lesson he gained from the whole process (at least on par with using colored mounting paper for effect).

Z, who has a recalcitrant streak, would disappear while I was "helping" him cut out his photos. He didn't want to use glue stick. He didn't want to fill in blank spots with more pictures. He definitely didn't want his picture taken. Fortunately his idea for a model involved woodworking, so C got to help him with that part and I got to take a break on Sunday, visiting, all by myself the Fiber Frolic.

The kids are finally old enough to not want to join me at the annual yarn-and-sheep fair, and that's okay with me.

In fact, walking past the stage where a puppet show was going on, I felt a great sense of relief that I no longer have to pretend to be interested in irritating kids' entertainment in order to trick my kids in being interested in irritating kids' entertainment.

I could just walk past, and go browse the yarn and wool and sheep.

There weren't many of the latter. The Frolic used to have tons of sheep, llamas, alpacas, goats, and rabbits. There were llama parades and drill teams and sheeps-shearing and bunny-brushing demonstrations, but now only a handful of farm animals show up, including this cute, pink-eyed bunny. I suppose it's a big pain for farmers to load their stock up and take them to an event where they probably don't expect to make many sales, but I still miss the supply side of the fiber, even without little kids who might want to pet the animals.

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