Monday, May 21, 2018

Three Teenagers

Another successful (or at least survived) Birthday Season having come to a close, we now have a house full of teenagers. That's right: E and Z turned 13 on Thursday and M turned 17 Sunday.

Now I'll be the last person to tell any new parent (or any parent) that "It gets easier." Because, while you do spend less time bathed in your child's bodily fluids, the "it" becomes a bit more existential. However, I recently spent some time rereading early blog posts and let's just say, whatever teenagers have in store for me over the next seven years, I'm pretty glad they're not toddlers any more. Let's just take a stroll down memory lane, shall we?

But now? Now they all sleep through the night. They get themselves dressed. They haven't puked in my bed in years. They even clean the house (with much reminding/coaxing/cajoling).

And at least one of them cleans up pretty good.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

March 2018 Reads

A roundup of books I read over the last month.

February 2018 Reads
January 2018 Reads

So the bad news is I didn't finish writing my book before April 1, but the good news is I read lots of other people's books. I mean lots of them. Holy cow, it was a read-ey month. Look at that stack. Think I was trying to avoid something else I should have been doing (like writing my book)? Well, maybe, though some of the books were read in service of my book, and really, you can't lie in bed writing a book at ten o'clock at night, but you can lie in bed reading a book, especially a rollicking good fun one. So let's get started.

I was able to maintain my habit of reading a craft or inspirational book (it's what I read during breakfast) last month, with Beth Kephart's Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir. And it was so good. Kephart is such a kindred soul. I love every word I've read of hers. On many mornings, I had to jump up from my reading and go work on my book—add in details or weather or landscape or dialogue or something Beth (can I call her Beth?) reminded me my writing needs.

My nonfiction reading took me a little bit west of my writing topic to the Colorado Plateau. I started with Run, River, Run by Ann Zwinger, which I bought last summer at Dinosaur National Monument, on the Green River. Zwinger's books have everything I want mine to have—beautiful detail, scientific and historic information, humor, gorgeous drawings. She was an artist and art historian by training and this comes through in the way she sees and describes the landscape. By the way, if you love National Park book shops and National Park passport stamps as much as I do, you can marry the two by stamping inside the front cover of books you buy, to commemorate the date and place of purchase. Book shopping really doesn't get much more awesome than that.

I then read another National Park purchase (Black Canyon of the Gunnison, July 12, 2015), Beyond the Hundredth Meridian, by Wallace Stegner. While the story of John Wesley Powell does not pertain in any specific way to what I'm writing about in Colorado, this is one of those seminal books about the West, which I should have read by now anyway and figured it would in a general way shed light on Westward Expansion, which very much pertains to my book. It's really a good book—Powell was a fascinating figure, and Stegner is so insightful and his writing so vivid that I was gripped. But, I don't know if everyone would agree. I was reading it in the hot tub at the spa one day and a woman asked if the book was anything like A Walk in the Woods. "Not exactly," I said. "It's more like a history and a biography." She shuddered and made a face like I suggested she take a big gulp of hot tup water. Chacun à son goût. But it's important to read history, don't you think, for what it can tell you about your own time. Stegner, writing at the approach to the pinnacle of scientific advancement in this country, looks back with quaint puzzlement at the anti-scientific forces Powell had to contend against as chief of the Geologic Survey. He had no idea that fifty years later the anti-science forces would rise again.

Since I was already in canyon country (and because a friend recommended one of the essays and I already had the book on my to-read shelf), I read The Anthropology of Turquoise, by Ellen Melloy, a collection of essays meditating on, among other things, deserts, oceans, and, of course, turquoise. Melee's writing is both lovely and humorous and reading it made me really, really want to hop in my car and drive southwest, away from winter with all due speed.

My mom has been sending me Barbara Michaels/Elizabeth Peters books as she runs into them in used book stores and I added to the collection when I found myself in a couple of used bookstores over the last weeks. This month's volumes: Greygallows (Michaels), a gothic novel with Brontean overtones (the brooding husband, the big gloomy castle, the housekeeper with divided loyalties). Witch (Michaels) a modern gothic tale set in an old cottage in the woods, with a handsome neighbor, god-fearing townspeople, and a ghost. This is one of the few Peters/Michaels books in which the protagonist is a mom (Amelia Peabody and Jacqueline Kirby are the only other two I'm aware of), so that was fun and I liked the idea of running away to a cozy cottage when my kids get old enough to take care of themselves. Night of Four Hundred Rabbits (Peters), a suspense novel set in Mexico City, with all kinds of corny '70s lingo and a classic Peters-esque take on current social issues (in this case drugs). Summer of the Dragon (Peters), another suspense novel, this one takes place in Arizona.  I've read all these books before and even if I don't remember the plot exactly, I know that the character you least suspect will turn out to be the bad guy (he's usually stunningly handsome, too) and the fusty older dude who acts a little weird ends up being the hero (although in the case of Dragon, he's hot, too). But they're still suspenseful and fun to read. Finally, Naked Once More (Peters), one of a short series starring librarian-turned-romance-novelist/detective Jacqueline Kirby. Jacqueline is middle aged, a mom (maybe even a grandma), but still smart and sexy and up to the task of finding whoever it is who wants to murder her. Barbara Mertz (who is behind the noms de plume of Michaels and Peters) never wrote a writing memoir (that I know of), but I think Naked comes close. For instance:
"How's the book coming, Mrs. Kirby?"
"There is no sensible answer to that question," Jacqueline said irritably. "Nor to 'how far along are you?'"
I wish I'd highlighted all the good quips about writing as I read. Just have to read it again, I guess.

Finally, and since this is a ridiculously long post already, I'll just mention that E and Z are still loving the Amelia Peabody books, even though Ramses is grown up and not nearly so precociously loquacious. Their favorite characters, in addition to Ramses, are Abdullah, Daoud, Cyrus Vandergelt, Kevin O'Connell, and, of course, the Master Criminal, even though we haven't seen much of him in the last few volumes (E thinks he's disguised as Nefret). Last month we read Seeing a Large Cat.

Well, that's about it. Enough, anyway. Happy reading this month!

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Winter Roundup

The calendar says spring, but outside my window now, snowflakes are sifting gently but steadily down from the sky.

It's been a strange winter, with March making up for the almost snow-free February with interest.

C put the skis and snowshoes away in the barn loft a month ago, and at least two feet of the white stuff has fallen since then.

Spring in Maine may be a state of mind and not an actual season, but the birds have gotten into the spirit—woodpeckers drumming, chickadees whistling "hey sweetie," and the little tufted titmouse tweeting "chiva-chiva."

Meanwhile, I've been sequestered indoors, doggedly working toward my self-imposed deadline of completing my book by April 1.

I don't think I'll make it, but I'll be close. Closer if I could just learn to say "no" to all kinds of things that sound a lot more fun than reading tomes on environmental law and geology.

While I have avoided most other writing projects—including this blog—I haven't only been writing the book.

There's been skiing and snowshoeing and hiking and walking up and down the muddy driveway, depending on the weather.

And twice I've gone "up north" on birding expeditions to see crossbills, which are pretty much like coming across parrots in the wilds of Maine. So beautiful (and they like to hang out on the road shoulders, nibbling gravel).

The boys have had A LOT of snow days, like double-digits snow days.

Sometimes I'm fun snow day mom, who plays games and watches movies and makes treats like snow ice cream or German apple pan cake.

Sometimes I'm "go outside and then read quietly in your room while I get some work done. No Minecraft" mom.

It is, no doubt, premature to call this a winter "roundup" while snow drifts around outside my window—kind of like C putting away the winter gear in mid-February. Stay tuned for "winter addendum."

Thursday, March 8, 2018

February 2018 Reads

A roundup of books I read over the last month.

January 2018 Reads

I was nose-to-the-grindstone all February—no blog posts, no newsletter, no nothin' but writing a book. Okay, maybe that's not entirely true. I have actually been knitting and quilting quite a bit, which I'll share about here soon, and getting outside, whatever the weather (and the weather was mostly icy), but all my writing energy is directed to one goal—and it's paying off. I don't know if I'll meet my goal of finishing by the end of this month, but I'll be close. In the reading department, I had so much reading to do for research, I tried to forbid myself from reading anything for fun, but that didn't work out so well, as you'll see below.

I try to keep one book on the craft of writing or some otherwise motivational topic, although I had fallen out of that habit over the prior few months. I got back on track in January and February (sometimes it takes me more than one month to finish a book) with The Obstacle is the Way by Ryan Holiday. This is not the kind of book I would be likely to pick up on my own—it's very guy, if you know what I mean, with lots of references to athletes and army generals. But my brother-out-law gave it to me for Christmas the year before, so I figured I'd try it. His recommendation had been to dip into it when I was feeling stuck, and while I'd done that over the last year, I wasn't getting very far and decided to dive in and read it straight through. I found a lot of helpful advice in it, like don't waste energy on things outside of your control (geez, someone could have told me that about ten years ago), instead put that energy into reaching your goal. Okay, yes I can do that. And much more, too, of course, it just so happened that those two bits of advice were very timely and useful when I red them.

The other book in this category, which perhaps does not belong here, or in this post at all, since I didn't actually finish reading it, is This is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett. Have you ever noticed that the titles of essay collections and short story collections rarely fit the whole book, because they often come from the title of one piece? This is one such collection, and I would never have thought to pick it up (who wants to read about a happy marriage, anyway?) if someone hadn't suggested it to me and if I hadn't happened to have found it at a used book store. The intro and one of the first essays are about writing and the writing life, and really, what writer wouldn't prefer to read about writing than actually write? Am I right? The one about how Patchett subsidized her novel-writing by freelancing was especially interesting to me, since I've just started freelancing myself. Not that I have any illusions about it paying the bills (or of ever working for Gourmet or GQ), but I liked how she described the way skills developed in freelancing translated to novel writing. The rest of the book, I just gold-mined, reading what sounded interesting (an appearance at a college in the south where a few parents were up in arms about the book Patchett wrote, the opening of her bookstore), skipping what didn't (anything about dogs or marriage).

February's nonfiction reading was all in service to The Book. I was working on a chapter (for most of the month, believe it or not) about an area of our hike heavy in history (including my family's history) and I finally got around to reading three books that have been on my shelves for years: The Last Ridge by McKay Jenkins, about the 10th Mountain Division (WWII soldiers training in skiing and mountaineering, who fought on the Italian peninsula), Leadville, by Gillian Klucas, about the absolutely maddening effort to clean up mining waste in the eponymous town (any of my friends who work in Superfund and find their projects frustrating, read this book and you will think you're on a cake walk by comparison), and The Two Lives of Baby Doe, by Gordon Langley Hall, about one of Colorado's most famous/notorious historical figures and her rags-to-riches-to-rags story.

Like I said, I wasn't going to read anything for fun in February, but then I thought, just one book read only at bedtime wouldn't hurt, so I picked up Death at Glamis Castle, by Robin Page, a very mildly gothic murder mystery set around the turn of the century (I've read two others in this series, all wildly out of order, but still entertaining). And then I pulled The Crying Child by Barbara Michaels off the shelf. I though I'd finished all my Mertz/Michaels/Peters books, but this one appeared out of nowhere. Also a gothic tale, this one with actual ghosts, set on a Maine island of all places (it is funny to see how Mainers are portrayed by people "from away"). And then I figured I might as well labor on with The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte. I bought it last winter after PBS had a show about the Bronte sisters and I became interested in the lesser known two. I started a few months ago, but it was slow going at first, as most Victorian novels are. Once it got going, though, it was a real page-turner. As in I barely put it down over one whole day (luckily I was wearing these socks).

Finally, E and Z continued our Amelia Peabody adventures with The Hippopotamus Pool (by Elizabeth Peters, of course). I was retelling the story I wrote about last month, and E corrected me, saying it was actually Z who didn't get that they were mysteries, and that it's Z who doesn't know what's going on half the time, but that E follows along just fine. So I stand corrected. Hippopotamus is the last book in which Ramses appears as a child (if you count 16 as no longer a child; I know my 16-year-old does) and I thought they wouldn't want to stick with it, but we've carried on. Besides Ramses, they like Kevin O'Connell and Cyrus Vandergeld, and they are waiting with baited breath to see if the Mater Criminal is alive or dead. Z is either very confused (or just pretending to be very confused) that some characters are real people (Wallace Budge, Howard Carter, Lord Cromer) while others are not (O'Connell, the Emerson-Peabodys, Cyrus). Anyway, I'm enjoying reading the series all over again as much as they're enjoying listening to them, so expect many more installments!

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

January 2018 Reads

A roundup of books I read over the last month.

The key words for last month's nonfiction reading were "knitting" and "almanac."

I read Aldo Leopold's classic A Sand County Almanac for my naturalist's writing group. I'm embarrassed to say I hadn't read the whole book before (there was a bookmark to show I'd read part of it at least). It's every bit as good as its reputation and really makes one think about what ecology means on the land, and how important every link in the web is…down to the grains of earth we wash away so carelessly. Love it and will be referring to it again and again.

My mom sent me Elizabeth Zimmerman's Knitter's Almanac for Christmas. Another book I *should* have read long ago and which I loved every page of. Even if I never knit any of the projects—which, let's face it, are a bit dated, I have already learned so much from Zimmerman's wisdom and good humor (always knit a gauge and just drape your yarn over the needle when you start to cast on—no slip knot needed! Brilliant!). Among the just delightful writing all through the book was this gem: "The products of science and technology may be new, and some of them are quite horrid, but knitting? In knitting there are ancient possibilities; the earth is enriched with the dust of the millions of knitters who have held wool and needles since the beginning of sheep."

I also read Knitting Pearls, a collection of essays on knitting by famous writers, edited by Ann Hood, a kind of follow-up to Knitting Yarns, and every bit as good. It left me thinking—and writing—about my mother and grandmothers and all of the knitted and crocheted items that passed from one loving set of hands to a child or grandchild.

As part of the research for The Book, I read Beloved the Sky, a collection of essays about clearcutting, edited by John Ellison. I didn't really find any useful information in this book, but it did help me focus my thinking on industrial forestry. I read several other books on clearcutting, all written in the bad old days of the 1980s and early 90s (not that clearcutting or industrial forestry has gone away, by any means, but they've either used up the old growth on the national forests and/or moved on to easier/cheaper tree supplies; I shudder to think of the developing world and what might be happening to their forests). Anyway, it was a disturbing course of study, and one I preferred living in cozy ignorance about (by ignorance, I'm focusing on the ignore  root of the word, because of course I knew, I just preferred not thinking about it).

To counteract the heavy reading, I needed a good dose of escapism and finished off the last two unread (or not-read-in-at-least-two-decades) Mertz/Michaels/Peters books on my shelf: Black Rainbow and The Wizard's Daughter, by Barbara Michaels. They're both historical fiction in the Gothic style, with a heavy dose of suspense, and both quite fun, witty reads, and wholesome escapes from reality. I also read Persuasion, which had been lost in the back of my bookshelf during my Jane Austen phase last winter. I had thought Persuasion was my favorite Austen book, but now that I've reread it, I don't think it stands up to Pride and Prejudice, but still an enjoyable weekend read.

I finished reading Elizabeth Peters's The Last Camel Died at Noon and read all of The Snake, the Crocodile, and the Dog to E and Z and still they want more "Ramses" books. I don't know why they love them so much—about half of it goes over their heads and we have to stop and explain the connections in the plot, remember who the characters are, and decipher Arabic phrases, Latin quotes, and lines of Romantic poetry. But love them they do. (As we started on the latest installment, which is the sixth book we've either read or listened to in the series, I said something about them being mysteries. E was shocked. "What? What do you mean they're mysteries?" "Well, there's usually a dead body or two, at least one gang of criminals, often the Master Criminal, and a puzzle to figure out who is the bad guy and who isn't." Still he was aghast. So really, I have no idea how much they get out of these books…or maybe he thought mysteries had to be like the Hardy Boys).

Thursday, February 1, 2018

In Other Quilting News

I got E's quilt back from the long-arm quilter and put on the binding last weekend. He picked out a circles-and-swirls quilting pattern that looks like bubbles and ripples of water; fitting for a frog quilt.

For the back, E and I chose a soft lime green flannel (he really wanted turquoise velour, but I talked him out of it…and after I made him a pillow from said fabric, I knew I made the right choice—it was horrible to work with and even just sewing a binding on it would have made me crazy).

Now all three kids are covered—literally.

I can turn my attention to myself. Here's a sneak peek at my next project. Usually when I make a quilt, I do all the planning at the beginning and from there it's all tedious cutting and piecing, but this one is planned square by square and I find it positively thrilling to come up with combinations of fabric and then see how they turn out once they're put together. I've almost exhausted my supply of red fabric, in terms of using each only once (they will get repeated later when I start making smaller blocks) and I'm waiting on a shipment of reinforcements from my mom.

I worry a lot about creative energy and whether expending it in one area (e.g., quilting, knitting, painting, etc.) drains the well so there's not enough left over for the main activity (i.e., writing). I don't know the answer to this, but I do know that while this project is distracting, it is also energizing and it makes for a beautiful kind of escapism that's preferable to a television or social media binge.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

A Farm Quilt

I've had the idea of making a farmyard quilt/play mat for a long time. Many babies of our acquaintance have been born and outgrown the play-on-the-floor-with-tractors stage during that time and I just hadn't pulled it off.

And then the sweet young couple who own the farm where M works had a baby in December and I knew it was exactly the right time to finally make the quilt. 

M and I used to pick strawberries at the farm and shop at the farm store when he was little. It was under different ownership then, and he named the farmer and little girl in his Playmobil tractor set after the farmer and his daughter.

As a tot who loved tractors ("tack-tah" was his second word), I think M would have dug driving all his toy farm vehicles around on a farm quilt, and hopefully the little guy who will be driving around toy (and probably real) tractors way sooner than his parents can possibly imagine, will dig it too.

 I modeled the barn after the one where M sits in the summer, handing out quart containers and ringing up pick-your-own strawberry purchases (though I accidentally tilted the asymmetrical roof the wrong way—oops). And I hid a little cowboy behind the openable barn door, for a fun surprise.

I don't know how to do the quilting part of quilting (I usually take mine to be done at the quilt store) and I lack a proper walking foot (though I learned later that for freehand quilting, the thing to do is use a darning foot and put your feed dogs down). So I just kind of winged it on this one. It ended up a little rumpled and puckered, but I figure the more imperfect it is, the easier it will be to throw it on the floor or grass and let the littlest farmer have at it.
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