Monday, November 23, 2020

Big News

November is always a long month for me, what with the short days, downed leaves, and impending work season. This year it has been especially long, thanks to the agonizing wait for the election and the agonizing wait for the vote count and the ongoing agonizing wait for some grownup somewhere to step in and do something about the Keystone Kop Koup attempt. And now the holiday season is approaching, and it's hard to know what to do about it during a pandemic, when every holiday since the beginning of time has revolved around meeting other people's expectations.

If it were up to me, I'd spend Thanksgiving on the couch, watching movies and eating macaroni and cheese. It's not my favorite holiday: I don't care for the food, I don't care for obligatory gratitude, and I don't care for the whitewashed version of our genocidal relationship with the indigenous peoples of this land. However, C and the boys want turkey and all the trimmings (these being the same boys who for the first half dozen or so years of their lives ate nothing from the Thanksgiving table except cranberry sauce), so we'll have turkey and all the trimmings. At least I won't have to clean the house.

And this year, despite the pandemic and the political uncertainty (will we or won't we trade in democracy for a fumbling and inept authoritarian state?), I have much to be grateful for: my and my family's health, my oldest son close to home at a college that takes the pandemic seriously (and can afford to do something about it), and (drum roll, please) now the very real possibility that the book I've spent the last four years writing and rewriting will see the light of day! I'm very happy to share with you that yesterday I signed a contract with Bison Books, the trade imprint of the University of Nebraska Press, for publication of Uphill Both Ways: Hiking Toward Happiness on the Colorado Trail.

It will still be a couple of years before you can hold the book in your hands (start planning your 2022 holiday shopping now), and between now and then there will be many rounds of editing and I'll no doubt take a few turns through the emotional blender. But for now I'm elated! Not even November can dampen my spirits. And hopefully by the time it's published, it will again be safe to breathe each other's aerosolized spit particles and we can celebrate in person at the biggest book release party you've ever seen!

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Friday, November 20, 2020

Dollhouse Renovation ~ Part I

My friend Jenna has an instagram account called @townandcountrymousehouse, where she turns the shelves inside a cabinet into perfect little mouse house rooms. I was scrolling through her photos Friday night and got inspired to dig out my old dollhouse and give it a refresh. After much searching through barn and basement, I finally unearthed it. It was in rough shape, like Grey Gardens after a tornado. 

Like you do when you buy a pre-owned house, I ripped out the carpets and gave it a good cleaning. The budget even extended to a fresh coat of paint on the ceilings and the exterior, although the roof will have to wait until until the home equity loan comes in, or until I get to the craft store to buy aqua paint, whichever comes first.

My grandpa built the house for me when I was about three years old (I thought I had a picture of me unwrapping it at Christmas, but it turns out I have a picture of me right before I unwrapped it). I assume my grandma decorated it, with felt carpeting and shelf paper on the walls. I'm guessing they worked together on the handmade wooden furniture. I passed the house on to my younger sisters for some years and then repossessed it when M was little. He and E and Z got a few good years of playing out of it before it was ignominiously put away to gather dust and wool moths.

I'm going to renovate one room at a time, maintaining the original '70s aesthetic for the most part and using handmade and found objects for furnishings, like the original, mostly. If you know me at all, you know I started with the kitchen. Here's how it looked pre-remodel: 

First of all, it needed some color, what with white walls and floor, so I decided to paint the cabinets. The originals were unfinished pine with doors drawn on in pencil by one of my grandparents.


I painted them turquoise with a white countertop. I felt bad about covering up the lines my grandparents drew, so I tried to recreate them with a white chalk pencil. It turns out I'm not very good at measuring or drawing straight lines. But the teeny-tiny dishtowel obscures the wonkiness. The cookie jar is a small wooden spool with a bead glued to the top, painted red.

Next came the appliances. These were originally what I thought was a beige-ish color, but after I started paining, I noticed a metallic gleam, and realized they were meant to be copper, like my grandma's stove and fridge were back in the '70s. I might repaint them copper later, but for now I like the white. And of course I had to knit the world's tiniest potholder to go with the stove.

The original table and chairs are long gone, and I don't remember what they looked like, so I had to start from scratch. C cut a small rectangle of wood for me and I glued it to a large wooden spool and painted the whole thing red. This is a nod to my grandma's kitchen, which had a pedestal table. Though hers was of gleaming oak, the chairs were cushioned in red vinyl before her early '80s upgrade. 

Speaking of chairs, I'm not sure what I'll do about those--maybe benches or spool stools. Right now it doesn't matter, because I don't know who (or what) is going to live in my house and what kind of chair might fit their anatomy--mice? pipe cleaner people? peg people? hedgehogs? I never really had suitable dolls for my dollhouse, so playing with it was mostly a matter of arranging and rearranging furniture, which suits me just fine. To finish off the kitchen, I added a plate rail to the back of the cabinets. The buttons were meant to be placeholders until real dishes arrived, but I liked them so much, I decided to let them stay. I gave the table a cloth and covered the gap in wallpaper with some complementary washi tape.

Finally, the dishes. I know I said I was going to furnish the place with handmade or found items, but technically, I bought these before I made that decision, as the result of late-night Etsy scrolling (very dangerous). But, oh! So cute. Four fruit plates, a bowl, and four pitchers or creamers (they're from France, but the yellow creamer and sage green pitcher have a very Fiesta aesthetic, n'est pas?). 

That sounds like a lot of pitchers, considering there aren't even any glasses or silverware. But compared to my kitchen, were there are about 35 pitchers or creamers visible (not counting the five in the living room or the ones behind closed doors because they're purely utilitarian or there's not room to show them off), the hypothetical people (or mice or hedgehogs) living in my dollhouse are very restrained.
Note two more tiny touches: the folk art coffee pot stamp (5 cents) wall art
over the stove and the teeny toaster, which was a gift from a friend.

Playing with a dollhouse is a very solitary, antisocial activity (and not just when you're forty-ahem years old; I don't remember ever playing dollhouse with my friends or sisters), which is just what the doctor ordered for month 10 of the pandemic and a welcome distraction from the Keystone Kop Koup attempt.

Wednesday, November 4, 2020

Book Stack ~ October 2020

A monthly list of books read. Previous months here: JanuaryFebruaryMarchAprilMayJuneJulyAugust, September.

While we're all chewing off our nails waiting to find out whether we'll be saved from full-on fascism by a tiny thread, I thought I'd lighten the mood, or at least change the subject, with a rundown of last month's reads.

October for me involved an inordinate amount of adulting. There was the sending for, filling out, returning, and making sure it arrived-ing of my absentee ballot. There was used-car-shopping and convincing C that we really do need to get another car, not only to make his 65-mile-a-day commute more gas efficient but also to save me from having to drive the hugest, most gas-hogging, impractical truck in the world. There was FAFSA-filling-out. There was a contract to decipher and negotiate. (A good contract, one I hope to tell you about very soon, but a contract no less.) So my reading list consisted mainly of escapism. I also continued to watch way too much TV, finishing up New Girl and starting in on The Gilmore Girls (apparently all the shows I watch have to have "girl" in the title--a side-effect of living in a house of men). Expect that bingeing trend to continue at least through the vote-counting.

Anyhoo, on to the books. I'd been watching Z devour volume after volume of a series he loves and has read at least once or twice before and I felt a little envious. Other than Amelia Peabody, I haven't gotten into that many book series, but that urge to plow that finish one book and dive into the next experience looked really appealing. Then I remembered the Flavia de Luce books by Alan Bradley that I'd started in April and stopped mid-series in May, and went to the bookstore to pick up the next three: The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches, Thrice the Brindled Cat Hath Mew'd, and As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust. True, they get a teensy bit off the rails with the introduction of a spy element, but still I find Flavia a complete delight and the books endlessly entertaining. I've got the next two in my stack for November. If you like a good mystery, if you like a smart and spunky narrator, if you like a bit of English countryside, you'll love this series.

My mom sent me Whispers of Warning, the second in the Change of Fortune series by Jessica Estevao, the first of which I'd picked up at a conference last summer. Another mystery, this series is about a young woman in the early 1900s who has escaped a checkered past and been welcomed into the fold of her mother's sister, who runs a hotel in Old Orchard Beach, Maine, that caters to spiritualist interests. The narrator, Ruby, reads cards and hears a voice that warns and guides her, and she uses this psychic ability to help solve a murder and avoid being exposed. If you like historical fiction, especially with a bent on women's history, a hint of the supernatural, and strong women characters, you'll enjoy this series.

In the nonfiction department, I read White Feathers by Bernd Heinrich, about the nesting behavior of tree swallows. This is pretty much straight up natural history, with a little hint at the author's life and his humor thrown in. We have swallows that nest in boxes near our house, so it was fascinating to learn more about their behavior. If you're interested in birds and the scientific process, this one's for you.

Finally, I read Hamilton: The Revolution by Lin Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter. You already know about my Hamilton obsession, and you can read my mini review of the book here. So all I'll say here is, get yourself a subscription to Disney+ and watch the show if you haven't already, and then watch it again and read this book. It's your civics assignment now that the other important civic duty of this month is done.

What have you been reading?

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Transform Margins

I've been thinking about plate tectonics lately, in part because I've sat in on several geology lectures over the past month and in part because of Hamilton,the musical. I'll explain that last part in a minute, but first a refresher for those of you for whom it's been a hot minute since you last took an Earth science class.

As you are no doubt aware, the earth's crust is divided into nine major plates, and, due to convection in the mantle, these plates shift around. Along the margins where plates come in contact, they may diverge, pulling apart from each other, converge, either through collision of two plates of continental crust or subduction of denser oceanic crust beneath more buoyant continental crust, or slide past each other in opposite directions along transform margins.

Now back to Hamilton. We're obsessed in our house. We've watched the musical twice since it became available on streaming, we listen to the cast album excessively, C is now reading the doorstop-sized Ron Chernow biography on which the show was based, and I just finished reading Hamilton: The Revolution, which includes the lyrics of show, annotated by Lin Manuel Miranda, and bios of the cast members and stories of how the show came to be by Jeremy McCarter (you can read my mini review of it here).

And the thing I haven't been able to wrap my head around every time I watch the show or listen to the album or read bits of the book is how did this show, which gives a steely eyed but sympathetic appraisal of our Founding Fathers in all their faults, which is a triumph of imagination and creative genius, which shatters all previous paradigms about who is allowed to portray these dusty old gods of our nation, which celebrates America as it is in all of its beautiful diversity, how did this show come out in 2015 and Donald Trump get elected president in 2106?

This is where I come back to geology, specifically transform margins. I think of the great mass of our nation as a continental crust moving forward, in the direction of progress, equity, and justice fueled by kindness, generosity, imagination, and a willingness to change. Moving in the opposite direction is the smaller but still substantial (40+ percent? C'mon people) plate, regressing toward white supremacy, patriarchy, oppression, and division, fueled by fear, hate, insecurity, intransigence, and lack of imagination.

The meeting points of tectonic plates can be violent places, if "violence" can be applied to morally neutral geological phenomena. They can certainly be destructive--resulting in earthquakes and volcanoes in the short term and complete transformation of the face of the earth in the long term. And so, as the plate of progress shifts forward--our first Black president, an earth- and norm-shattering Broadway show--the vibrations are felt along the opposing plate and erupt in shootings in schools, churches, and synagogues, attacks on peaceful protesters, plots to kidnap and murder elected officials. 

Plate boundaries can be destructive places. But they can also be creative, giving rise to mountain ranges. That is our goal--to rise up, not only move mountains but build them. So what can any one of us do today to keep the plate moving forward? Examine our biases, be kind, do good works, and VOTE.

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Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Book Stack ~ September 2020

A monthly list of books read. Previous months here: JanuaryFebruaryMarchAprilMayJuneJulyAugust.

September felt like al low reading month. It was, in fact, a high TV-watching month. I was exercising my coping mechanism of staying up half the night watching New Girl. But still I somehow managed to finish a respectable number of books. 

In the fiction department, I read the latest installment in the Kopp Sisters series by Amy Stewart: Kopp Sisters on the March. These just keep getting better and better, with more interesting (and dispiriting) historical details about what life was like for women in the US just over 100 years ago.

I also read a book by a new-to-me author: Dangerous to Know by Renee Patrick (the pen name of a husband and wife team). This was a murder mystery set in Hollywood in the 1930s. I know very little about cinema of the time; I recognized the names of major actors who made an appearance--Errol Flynn, Marlene Dietrich--but I wouldn't be able to pick them out of a lineup. Still, it was a delight to read, with clever, almost Wodhousian, narration and dialogue, and I would not be opposed to picking up more books in this series.

In the nonfiction department, I'm continuing on two related projects of reading the important works of nature writing by women historically and reading memoirs or collections contemporary women's essays that have both motherhood and nature themes. 

In the important works of nature writing by women historically department, I finally read Land of Little Rain by Mary Austin. I don't know why it took me so long to get around to reading such a short book. It was well worth the wait. Austin takes readers on a tour of the landscapes, people, and plants of Southern California of the late 1800s, early 1900s in vivid and often humorous detail. 

I also read Fallen Forests: Emotion, Embodiment, and Ethics in American Women's Environmental Writing 1781-1924. This may sound dry and dusty and academic--and it was, a little--but it was also incredibly interesting and eye-opening in the way it expands what environmental writing is from the point of view of women, including Native Americans, slaves, and servants, who themselves were treated as "natural resources" by the patriarchal society. It also gave me a long list of books to add to my pile of to-be-reads.

In the contemporary women's nature and motherhood themed writing arena, I read The Art of Waiting by Belle Boggs, about the author's challenges with fertility and her pursuit of ART (assisted reproductive technology) in order to have a child. This was an interesting book to read at this point in my life--when I'm almost done raising my kids--and as a person who did not have to face the challenges of infertility. It made me think a lot about what I would have done if I hadn't been able to have children, what lengths would I have gone to? I have no answer to that question. Motherhood has been the central pillar of my identity for 20 years. There is no "me" that is not a mother. But I can easily imagine a life unencumbered by offspring. Would I spend tens of thousands of dollars to disrupt that life? 

Finally, I read one last just-for-fun book, Dress Your Family in Corduroy in Denim by David Sedaris, which didn't make it in the initial lineup photo. I really needed some escapist, comfort reading, and I remembered I picked this book up at M's college bookstore clearance shelf as an emergency backup Christmas present (am I cheap? yes I am).  I'm not sure if I'd read it before. On the one hand, many of the stories were familiar, but that may be because they've appeared on This American Life or one of the live readings I've been to. On the other hand, it wasn't already on my bookshelves, and I'm a notorious book hoarder. Either way, it was just what the doctor ordered for mid-pandemic stress disorder.

What have you been reading?

Thursday, October 1, 2020

The Sun Rose Red

Yesterday the sun rose red in a smudgy sky, a result of the wildfires burning 2,500 miles away. The meteorology nerd inside of me is fascinated by the workings of the jetstream, but the former air quality regulator in me is distressed about the health of those experiencing the brunt of the smoke. And the naturalist in me is in agony over the effects on wild places--rare and endangered plants and animals, invertebrates, like butterflies, that spend a part of their lifecycle immobile in eggs or pupae that cannot escape or survive fire. Fire is a natural part of the ecosystems of western North America, but the fires burning now are anything but natural, the results of a century of forest mismanagement and an even longer period of fossil fuel abuse.

As the West burns, hurricanes launch themselves at the Gulf Coast and, of course, the pandemic looms as dangerous as ever, despite the magical thinking that is our national policy. All these problems result from humanity's irresponsible use of natural resources and the continued disregard for human life on the part of those who benefit with profit or power from that disregard. It's almost too depressing to get out of bed every day.

Later in the day, as I was walking up my road, I saw a dragonfly fall out of the sky and land on its back. I went over and held my finger to its upturned legs. It grabbed on, letting me pick it up.

I walked on, new friend perched on my fingertip, facing forward as I walked. I wondered what it was thinking as it traveled through the air without moving its wings. I know that dragonflies don't have consciousness in the way we do, but it's hard to not think of them as sentient beings with their big eyes and oddly anthropomorphic faces. They surely have some way of processing stimuli, and it was interesting to put myself inside its tiny brain as it tried to comprehend this new experience.

There were no obvious signs of injury on either its body or wings, but it clung to my finger for most of a mile, occasionally shivering its thorax. When we reached the beaver pond, I held it (or, more properly, her; she had a ovipositor) so she could see out over the water, hoping the sight would inspire in her a will to live. And it did. She lifted off my finger, but instead of darting out over the pond, she rose up high, high above the trees until I could see her now longer.

My dragonfly friend--a Canada darner--reminded me of the resilience of life. Her ancestors, big as kites, flew around the swamps of the Carboniferous period 300 or so million years ago. The earth has seen many changes, some of them catastrophic, many more remarkable. We happen to be in a stage of catastrophe. That doesn't mean the remarkable can't also happen. 

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Wednesday, September 23, 2020

New Story Published ~ The Quilt

    The explosion shook Isa’s house, a rough, rattling shake, unlike the sensuous belly-dancer’s shimmy brought on by the earthquakes. Those had come more frequently that year, like the chiming of an erratic and energetic clock. But this shaking was different—violent, jarring. When the dishes stopped clattering on their shelves, Isa stepped out onto the back porch and looked out over the fields of sun-scorched wheat. She had lived her whole life in this white frame house, had run down the rows of her father’s fields, listened to the meadowlark sing from its perch on a weathered fence post. Back then, she could look out any window of the house and see a clean, sharp horizon line in every direction. Somewhere, off to the west, beyond the bend of the earth there were mountains, but here there was nothing but brown earth and bleached-blue sky. Now, however, on the edge of the eastern horizon, shrouding the mechanical heads of pumpjacks bowing up and down, a band of dust hung, a permanent haze from the big trucks running over the dirt road day and night. It made for beautiful sunrises—all tangerine and magenta—but now, at midday, it was just a dirty smudge on the hem of the sky. 

So begins my short story "The Quilt," which appears in the journal Willows Wept Review this month. It's about fracking, climate change, and the enduring nature of love. There's also a smidge of magical realism and ancient mythological influence (bonus points if you can ascertain what mythological story it's inspired by). You can read it online or order a hard copy here. Let me know what you think!
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