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!

Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Book Stack ~ August 2020

A monthly list of books read. Previous months here: JanuaryFebruaryMarchAprilMayJune, July.

I don't know what was going on with August, but apparently it involved reading...a lot.

I've been reading a lot of essay collections, gathering material for a project I'm working on. Here are August's selections (from the bottom of the stack):

Maxine Hong Kingston, Hawai'i One Summer. These short essays were written, I believe, as a column for the New York Times in the late 70s. I haven't read Kingston's fiction, but there's something wonderful that happens when a novelist writes from real life. These brief meditations on everyday things, like buying a house, washing dishes, watching her son surf, are wry and full of heart with not a word wasted.

Camille Dungy, Guidebook to Relative Strangers: Journeys into Race, Motherhood, and History. Do you ever read an author's work and wish she was your best friend? Or at least that you could sit down over tea and talk about all the things? That's how I felt while reading Dungy's smart, sprawling, insightful essays. I especially appreciated one that takes place on a visit to Maine, in which Dungy recounts this state's outsized role in the Civil War--Harriet Beecher Stowe lived in Brunswick when she penned Uncle Tom's Cabin, Joshua Chamberlain, also of Brunswick, accepted the the Confederate Army's surrender in 1865, Maine sent more soldiers to the war, on a per-capita basis, than any other state in the Union, and Hannibal Hamlin, Lincoln's first VP, came from Maine. This makes the dumbasses who fly Confederate (traitor) flags around here not only ignorant of geography, but also of history. No surprise.

Annick Smith, Homestead. A lovely collection that covers the years Smith and her husband homesteaded in Montana with their four sons, her husband's early death, the history of ranchers, mountain men, and other Montana characters, fly fishing, and conservation.

Janisse Ray, Wild Card Quilt. A memoir-in-essays about the author moving back to her family home in southern Georgia as an adult and trying to build community there. I find where I live (1/3 old hippies, 1/3 new hippies, 1/3 rednecks) stiflingly conservative, so I can't imagine trying to navigate life in the Deep South, but Ray manages to do it, digging deep to find like-minded people and building coalitions to save the local school, clean up the local river, and preserve a parcel of old growth long-leaf pine. Even when her son moves away to be with his dad in Vermont (where there are "fewer rules" compared to this place where there's "not enough imagination," according to the  insightful nine-year-old), Ray stays and struggles to reclaim her family property and grandmother's home from decay and find people who share her values. 

Jill Sisson Quinn, Deranged: Finding a Sense of Place in the Landscape and in the Lifespan. In the essays in this collection, Quinn braids together the threads of her childhood in rural Maryland, her current home in Wisconsin, and different aspects of the natural world or family history, always questing to find her bearings in her new home's landscape of glacial-flattened plains when her internal compass is calibrated to stream-carved valleys of her childhood.

I received a big load of mysteries in the mail at the beginning of the month and pretty much devoured them.

Jenn McKinlay, Better Late than Never. I did not like this book. I know writing a book is hard and I should only say nice things, but this author has published more than 20 books and is a NYT bestseller, so I think she can take it. She spends a lot of time moving her characters around the page (she picked up her purse, she walked across the room, she turned the doorknob, she opened the door, she left the room). Speaking of characters, there were way too many to keep track of. And, I suppose this is a pitfall of series, there was a lot of ink spilled in service of building the main character's relationships with other characters and moving forward various peoples' life stories irrespective of the plot. Also, the inciting incident was not interesting and the characters' reactions to it disproportionate. I didn't like it. Or rather, it was not to my taste.

Julia Buckley, A Dark and Stormy Murder. This one was much better--still frivolous, but more entertaining. There was an actual dead body at the start, which helps. And though it was a set-up for a series, it didn't feel clunky in that regard. The premise is totally unbelievable, but I was willing to let that slide and go along for the ride. Also, the author hat-tips Mary Stewart, which automatically endeared her to me.

Robin Page, Death at Daisy's Folly. This is another by the author(s) I've written about before herehere and here, which include the Beatrix Potter mysteries (though Potter does not appear in this one). Like the others, it's a cozy who-done-it of the old style, taking place around the turn of the 20th century and involving a few real-life characters of the time (including the king, before he was king, and the eponymous Daisy). The suspense is mild, the thrill minimal, but the writing is good and the story compelling, and the main character charming, so it was a pleasant book to escape into.

Mary Stewart, Wildfire at Midnight. The classic Mary Stewart setup: an exotic location, a heroine who is not a complete ingenue but who is at loose ends, a couple of potential love interests a dark, foreboding mystery, and a plethora of suspects. This one involves a lot more dead bodies than the usual Mary Stewart, and is more of the locked-room type setup than usual. It takes place at a remote hotel in the Scottish Highlands (having recently read The Living Mountain, I felt like I'd been there before myself), and is filled with Stewart's usual flair for the descriptive details of a landscape. My only complaint, which applies  to at least two of my literary heroes (this is going to be a spoiler, but since the book is ~65 years old, I don't feel bad), is the trope of the surly, almost mean, verging on abusive, character turning out to be the hero. Barbara Michaels/Elizabeth Peters uses this trope a LOT. Let's just say it hasn't aged well. 

What have you been reading?

Friday, September 4, 2020

The Most Fragrant Flowers

I've been working on two writing projects this summer—both of which involve deep dives into research, one in my own personal records, journals, and photographs, the other into two centuries of other women's writing. It's hard to feel productive while doing research, at least in that dogged American protestant work ethic way we're stuck with, when all you have to show at the end of the day is a few scribbled notes or pages marked with sticky notes. Still, it's usually engrossing work and I might not come up for air at all if it weren't for the wants and needs of my family. Apparently I'm still required to cook dinner.

Other things keeping me from turning into a dusty book mite are a couple of more community-minded projects I'm involved in. One of these is co-coordinating the 2020 training course for the Maine Master Naturalist Program, which has, like everything, gone online. This weekend we'll have our first in-person field day since February—in small groups, properly distanced, masked, and sanitized—and everyone's thrilled to finally be teaching and learning in real life. Perhaps that's the lesson of this trying year—appreciate the small things, like a walk with fellow naturalists at the arboretum, or breathing.

Another of my ongoing volunteer activities is editing at the online journal Literary Mama, where a couple of weeks ago we launched our brand-new, beautiful website. I had the honor of writing the editor's letter for the issue and of working with writer Nadia Colburn on the issue's Literary Reflections essay.

And nature, of course, continues to pull me outsdoors and outside of my researching/ writing/ editing/ zooming cocoon. Since my butterfly class ended, and most of the butterflies drifted away in the midsummer lull, I've rekindled an interest in dragonflies that I'd let wane over the last few years. The best part about them—other than their colors, variety, acrobatics, big eyes, and insect predation—is that I can watch them from my kayak.

One morning, while paddling slowly along the edge of a lake in search of dragons, I came across a flotilla of fuchsia water lilies. I immediately assumed they were invasive (a symptom of our "we can't have anything nice" society), but my field guide insists that native fragrant water-lily can sometimes come in pink. And fragrant they are, like the smell Johnson's Baby Powder aspires to be: soft, delicate, ephemeral. If you paddle through a dense enough cluster of them, the perfume will drift up at you as your boat glides over their petals.

C and I were paddling through just such a garden earlier this summer, along the edge of a bog, the sweet smell of the flowers competing with the stink of the bog mud our paddles dug up in the shallow water. My friend B tells me there's a metaphor in there—the most fragrant flowers growing from the stinkingest mud. I think I'll wait until 2020 is done having its way with us before I weigh in on whether it's true.

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Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Book Stack ~ July 2020

For a while my laptop has been losing its ability to talk to certain websites and apps. Losing zoom was a real problem in the covid days, and then blogger went too. So it was time for a new one, which arrived almost exactly ten years after the old one did. I'll always feel nostalgic about that old laptop, the very first computer I owned that was all mine (except for the two or three years that M used it for his school work and music and the times E and Z used it to write reports), that produced many issues of my zine, several hundred blog posts, countless essays and short stories. It's the laptop that went to graduate school, and Ireland, with me. It was a good workhorse and writing partner, chugging along even after I cracked the screen a few years ago (oops). 

I think I can drop the pretense that I'm still working toward My 2020 book challenge—to read 50 books from the stack by my bed (and other unread volumes already in the house). By my count I've read 15 books that were already in the house and unread by me (I guess 20 if the Flavia de Luce novels I borrowed from M count). Meanwhile, new (mostly used) books keep making their way into the house and onto my nightstand at an alarming rate. 

Previous months here: JanuaryFebruaryMarchAprilMay, June.

The one book stack book I read in July was Mariposa Road by Robert Micahel Pyle, about the first butterfly "big year," i.e., his attempt to see as many butterfly species in one calendar year as possible (his goal was 500 and he fell just short of it). I admit that at first I thought it was going to be boring, but I have a soft spot for cutely cantankerous old men (as long as they are cantankerous in the service of good--such as butterfly conservation--and not bad--such as ranting about anything they saw on Fox News), and the book and its author grew on me. I read the book at the same time I was learning butterflies, and it was fun to hear about species in other parts of the country (I really need to get to the Rio Grande Valley). It was also nice to know that a butterfly expert can still sometimes miss netting the butterfly or the species.

I had fallen out of the habit of reading poetry in the morning when I went back to work in the fall. Once bird-watching season ended for the most part this summer, I picked the habit back up and read Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry edited by Camille Dungy. The poems in this collection are so good. I don't know enough about poetry to tell you why (if it sounds good it is good), but at least some of the appeal is in the huge range that includes rhyme, meter, form, free verse. The way it expands the definition of nature writing is part of it too--when bodies have been colonized and abused as badly as the land, when nature is both a place of escape and a source of terror, when a writer's relationship to the natural world is through toil, when the natural world includes rats and cockroaches in substandard housing, then it makes for a much more vast understanding of the genre. 

Still going with escapist in the fiction realm, reading another Mary Stewart suspense, Rose Cottage (more on Mary Stewart here, here, and here), which was, as always, delightful. I'd read the first Kopp Sisters novel back in April, but because I'd accidentally bought #s 3 and 4, but not 2, I had to wait to continue, meanwhile getting distracted by other books. I finally resumed in July, and each volume gets better than the last. The fourth in the series, Miss Kopp Just Won't Quit, is particularly timely, featuring a candidate for office who lies, intimidates, and plays on people's fears as his entire campaign strategy. I won't give anything away, but I do hope real life turns out better. 

What are you reading these days?

Thursday, July 30, 2020

Exquisite Litle Gems

This summer I've been taking an online field course in butterfly identification and ecology. Online and field may seem like contradicting terms, but, as with most things in the world of 2020, even nature has moved onto the internet. This format, of video chats and lectures interspersed with self-directed field work, is ideal for me this summer, when leaving home is both difficult (we are down to two vehicles for the three adults in the house, and the two of them with real jobs get dibs) and terrifying (I'm not sure which is scarier, the deadly virus or the lawn signs and flags championing the two people responsible for making the United States so virulent). When I need a break from writing or editing or housework or the inside of my own head, I grab my net, my binoculars, and my field guide and walk up the driveway to where our wild, raggedy field meets our neighbors' manicured lawn. Here on the edge, where milkweed blooms, is where I find most of my butterflies.

And find butterflies I do! Almost every day that I go out, as long as the sun is shining, I discover new-to-me species. In the six weeks of the class so far, I've identified more than 40 species of butterfly, about three-quarters of which I've never seen before, and even more of which I've never seen here on our property. How can I have missed all these exquisite little gems of creatures that have been here, sipping nectar and dancing over the flowers, for the last twenty years? It's as if my dresser drawers are full of emeralds and sapphires and rubies that I never notice because all I do is reach in and pull out socks and underwear.

I can draw two conclusions from this oversight: 1) I'm a rubbish naturalist; or 2) we don't truly see what we don't look for. There are a lot of terrible things going on in the world today—illness, death, vicious people intentionally trying to make others less safe, other people doing the same out of ignorance. I go looking for these stories every day when I read the news. But there must be other stories out there, too, the exquisite gems of courage, kindness, and generosity, if only we knew how to look.

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Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Book Stack ~ June 2020

My 2020 book challenge—to read 50 books from the stack by my bed (and other unread volumes already in the house). Previous months here: JanuaryFebruaryMarchApril, May.

June's reading stack was a good mix of escapist and serious, and though the stack is tall, only two of them count for my goal of reading 50 books already in my house (ordering used books online is just too darn easy).

In the escapist category, I ready three novels in one of my favorite sub-genres—vintage romantic suspense—My Brother Michael and Airs Above the Ground, both by Mary Stewart, and Black is the Color of My True Love's Heart by Ellis Peters, the latter being the one contribution in this category from my book stack (a library book sale find). These were all a delight. I've waxed rhapsodic about Mary Steward before, here and here, so I won't repeat myself. As for Ellis Peters, I'd only read her Brother Cadfael books a long time ago, so it was fun to read a contemporary (as in 50 year old) book by her.

In a more serious vein, I've been continuing to try to get myself caught up on nature writing. Writing the Western Landscape, edited by Ann Zwinger (the other book from the stack), includes selections from Mary Austin and John Muir. I'd never read Austin before but have always meant to, so it was nice to have this introduciton. I've got two of her books waiting in the wings and I'm looking forward to reading more. The Muir selections were interesting—one about the Grand Canyon that was clearly written for a popular audience and one about Alaska from his journals. I had started this book months ago and put it aside in the midst of the Grand Canyon piece, which is over the top purple prose. But I made myself pick it back up and the Alaska writing is so beautifully wrought, so subltly humorous, so truly lovely. It's fascinating how an audience—real or perceived—can influence a writer's style so much (also I'm sure the passage of time and development of skill plays a role). I hope to pick up Muir's Alaska journals someday soon.

I also read The Nature Fix: How Nature Makes us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative. I don't often pick up straight nonnarrative nonfiction, but I'm interested in this topic of course, and under the current circumstances, which are indeed stressful, I'm even more interested in how nature can help keep us healthy and sane. It's a fascinating read and should be in the hands of every teacher, doctor, and policy maker.

Finally, I read The Inland Island, by Josephine Johnson, who is a new discovery for me. This book, written about the plot of undeveloped land in the midst of encroaching suburbs where the author lived for most of her life, is magical. Her descriptions of the natural world are lovely, and her brief commentaries on war (Vietnam was happening at the time of her writing) are powerful.

What have you been reading?

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Book Stack ~ May 2020

My 2020 book challenge—to read 50 books from the stack* by my bed (and other unread volumes already in the house). Previous months here: JanuaryFebruaryMarch, April.

It's almost time to share this month's book stack and I'm just getting around to last month's. Where has the time gone? I don't know…I guess I've been in more of a contemplative, burrowing kind of place than a sharing kind of place, what with one thing and another. I should probably share C's book stack instead of mine—he spent the spring reading books about the civil rights movement (even before it was the it thing to do), while I've been pretty much in full-on escapism mode. I did order a few books of nature writing by Black authors because I realized that was a big gap in my huge pile of nature writing to read (and a big gap in the genre in general). So stay tuned for that. In the meantime, here's what I read in May:

Crocodile on the Sandbank, by Elizabeth Peters. When everyone got sent home for the pandemic, I started reading a P.G. Wodehouse book to the boys, but E quickly lost interest and then M went to work and wasn't around most of the read-aloud time (afternoons for me), so Z got me to read him the first in the Amelia Peabody series to him (we'd skipped this one when we started the series, because I thought they'd prefer to hear about young Ramses's adventures). We've since started the second book (which we listened to on audio during our long road trip three years ago), but once school ended and he didn't need me reading to him as a way of getting out of doing school work, our progress slowed down quite a bit.

Speaking from Among the Bones and I Am Half Sick of Shadows by Alan Bradley. These are the last two on the Flavia de Luce books that we own. I thought I might have had my fill after I finished these, but a big bombshell was dropped at the end of the last one, so I'm sure I'll pick up the next couple soon.

A Moment on the Edge, edited by Elizabeth George. I picked up a couple of writing craft books by Elizabeth George, whose mysteries I have enjoyed in the past (and whose book What Came before He Shot Her is one of the best books I've ever read), and I saw that she'd edited this book of short crime stories by women writers. Most of these were great, with a huge range of styles.

Upstream by Mary Oliver. Uncharacteristically this was my only nonfiction read for the month (told you I was all about escapism). I have a weird habit of starting to read a book when I first get it, then setting it aside (because I'm usually already in the middle of three other books) and not picking it up again for a long, long while. That happened with this one, but it turned out to be just the right book at the right time—Mary Oliver's quiet contemplations about writing, nature, and life, just when I needed them.

* The Mary Oliver is the only one of these that counts as a book stack book—the Elizabeth Peters I've already read before (many times), the Aland Bradleys belong to M, and the Elizabeth George I ordered to read.

What have you been reading?

Friday, May 8, 2020

Finish It Friday ~ Very Belated Christmas Vest

Last fall I got it in my head to make a Fair Isle vest for C for Christmas. I bought the yarn for the vest I had in mind—a self-striping green—and went in search of a pattern. Unfortunately, I couldn't find a pattern that met my mental image—knit in the round, with worsted weight yarn, with an abstract repeating pattern. So I took a pattern for a striped vest, added a fair isle pattern from a cowl (plus one stitch for the vest) and voila!

Or maybe not quite voila, but a lot of labor later…

This pattern required a lot of knitting techniques that were new to me, including kirchener stitching, tubular bind-offs, and a few short rows of working on the back of the patterned knitting, carrying the yarn across the front. I did not like that at all (which kind of made the next and most scary new tecnique a little easier to swallow, since it allowed me to knit most of the vest in the round. The scariest new thing I learned was a steek (actually three steeks), which, for the uninitiated, is a part of your knitting that you make with the intention of cutting it later. With scissors. The idea is you knit your whole project in a tube, then cut, in this case, the arm holes and neck V. It is a little magical, but also terrifying. When I first heard about steeks a long, long time ago when my local yarn store was offering a class in it, I thought it was barbaric. Now that I've done one myself, I still think it's barbaric. 

I chose to machine-sew the reinforcement stitches for my steeks. I didn't know enough when I knitted them to alternate colors, and just knitted right through with green, carrying the orange across the back. I figured machine stitching would be my best bet for anchoring those floating little bits of yarn. It worked pretty alright, though I did end up with a few loose threads I had to weave in afterward.

Then I did the cutting. Oh, my heart. I had a moment when I thought I'd cut through the shoulder stitches and almost had a stroke. I don't think I can handle this level of stress from my leisure activities.

But then, ta-da! your weird scrunched tube opens up like a flower into an actual knitted garment.

Needless to say, I didn't get it done in time for Christmas, just finishing it up this week. Every time I approached a new and challenging aspect of the pattern, I had to set the whole thing aside and let it marinate for a while before I could tackle it. Somehow C managed to stay in the dark—even when I was clearly adding ribbing to a vest and weaving in ends on the vest—until I layed it out to block it. He was pretty psyched by the whole thing, even if it was four and a half months late.

Notes about the yarn and pattern(s) on Ravelry.

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Book Stack ~ April 2020

My 2020 book challenge—to read 50 books from the stack by my bed (and other unread volumes already in the house). Previous months here: JanuaryFebruary, March.

One good thing about a stay-at-home order: it makes for lots of time to read. Still, I only checked two books off the stack (1 and 2), because I ordered books online (3 and 8), borrowed books from other members of the household (4-6), and reread a book I've read before (7).

1. Wesley the Owl: The Remarkable Love Story of an Owl and His Girl. This is one I picked up off a book swap table last year, about a barn owl raised by a young woman. It's a fascinating look into the psychology of this intelligent and charming bird.

2. My favorite guilty pleasure is 1960s romantic suspense novels, and Mary Stewart is the master. I acquired this tattered old copy of This Rough Magic some time ago at a library book sale, and it was the perfect diversion from reality—a spine-tingling romp through murder, smuggling, and romance in Corfu. There's also a heroic dolphin.

3. I'd been wanting to read Amy Stewart's Kopp Sisters novels for a while and finally ordered what I thought were the first three from an online used book purveyor. Unfortunately I missed the second volume and had to take a break after the first, Girl Waits with Gun, about three sisters living on their own on a farm in rural New Jersey who have a run-in with a local miscreant. It's full of interesting historical details, and the fascinating thing is that it's based on true events.

4, 5, and 6. When M was younger, my mom used to send him the Flavia de Luce mysteries by Allen Bradley. I'd been meaning to give them a try for a while, but only just last month got around to it and plowed through them, reading one every couple of days. Before reading these books, I would have told you I'm not a big fan of child narrators of adult novels, but I stand corrected. Eleven-year-old Flavia de Luce is a delight—smart, spunky, saucy. Her fascination with poisons and poisoning is endearing, although when she mixes up persistent toxic chemicals (like trichloroethylene to dry-clean a coat she got covered in graveyard dirt) in the chemistry lab next door to her bedroom, I get anxious for her health. I finished the last two we own (fourth and fifth volumes) in the first couple of days of May, and I thought I'd be saturated with the goings-on in Bishops-Lacey at that point, but a big bombshell drops at the end of the fifth book, so I might need to order the next five ASAP.

7. Over 2017, 2018, and into 2019, I read almost all of the Barbara Michaels/Elizabeth Peters oeuvre (70-odd books in all; oh to be one-tenth that prolific!), but there was one book I hadn't gotten to yet, Other Worlds, an unusual volume, in which some famous spritualists and skeptics from different times and places (including Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini, as well as, one suspects, the author herself) gather together to solve—or at least swap theories about—two famous historic ghost stories. A great reminder that the truth of a story often depends on the teller or listener's point of view.

8. Finally, I read an actually recent book, Desert Cabal, by Amy Irvine, in which she carries on a one-sided converstaion with the late Edward Abbey about the desert, wilderness protection, and some of Abbey's less savory qualities like sexism and xenephobia. Having been a big Abbey reader in my younger years, I found it engaging, refreshing, and a little depressing, considering the current state of public lands protection (or lack thereof) under the political craziness of our current time.

What books are you escaping into these days?

Thursday, April 30, 2020

Thinking of You

Despite the fact that I got snowed on while bird watching earlier this week and it's an as-warm-as-it-gets-in-April high 50s, it feels like summer here. The kind of summer no one has experienced since circa 1982, where days unspool one after the other with no real demarcation between one and the next. I can almost hear a housefly buzzing halfheartedly against the screen and taste Country Time Lemonade mixed with tapwater in a tall glass of translucent red plastic.

My job has ended for the season, as it would have without the pandemic, and my life's not that much different than it would have otherwise been, except my kids are home and I don't ever go anywhere. M works afternoons at the farm store, boxing up curbside pickup orders. In the morning he challenges his brothers to endless two-square tournaments. E has been pulling up the roots of weeds and small trees in the yard, expanding the lawn and making a duck-friendly copse of carefully thinned sumcac trees. Z is building a sailboat out of an old canoe. Both are energetically avoiding any acknowledgement that school is, indeed, still in session. They may have reached that "useful boredom" stage, the absense of which has been lamented by so many child phsychologists and educators. 

I, meanwhile, cycle between extreme anxiety and relaxed acceptance, while my two volunteer "jobs" help me keep a toehold in civilization via zoom meetings and reams of emails. It is, I know, outrageously unfair how unevenly the burden of this disease has been distributed, not only between those who are getting sick and dying and those who are merely bored at home, but also between those whose work load has been catapulted into the stratosphere—health care workers and teachers especially—and those toward whom endless articles about how to keep busy and stay sane while home with nothing to do are geared. Which adds another stage to my cycle—guilt, because I'm one of those, not bored, not in need of someone to tell me what to do, but not on the terrible front lines or trying to wranle 30 students from afar (having mostly failed to wrangle the two students who live with me, I know how hard their job is). 

So I seek a balance—don't lose sight of those who are facing extrememe hardships, but don't dwell on things outside your control. Stay home, wear a mask, try to make the best of it, and hold dear ones tight, even if it's from six feet, or six hundred miles, away.

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