A Salute to Vienna

Having suffered through a few early morning wake ups in a row, all I wanted to do after work today was lounge on the couch and wait for SNL.  So be it.  I’ve brought pillows and blankets from my bed.  I have technology–laptop, phone, remote control–within arm’s reach.  I have Old Dutch pretzels.  I have a water bottle for the inevitable moment when I start to shrivel from the saltiness of the pretzels.  Ruby is at my feet chewing the squeaker out of her stuffed skunk (that’s an odd sentence).

On TV is, of all things, A Salute to Vienna.  It is “a music and dance gala concert showcasing the musical heritage of Vienna.”  And I’m enjoying it immensely, even though I’ve already forgotten enough German that I can only listen dumbly.

Photo credit: salutetovienna.com

Photo credit: salutetovienna.com

Every so often, as they tend to do, the PBS folks break in and ask me to donate sixty dollars so that programs like this might remain on television.  Their cause is a noble one, but I have to say that they should consider changing tactics.  Instead of politely, humbly asking for our money, perhaps they should try threats.  Like, “if you don’t call in RIGHT NOW the principal soprano will appear in your living room and blast a high C until you produce your wallet.”  Or, “Remember your little three-week Keeping up with the Kardashians marathon last summer?  Gee, I would hate to let slip about that to your friends and relatives…”

Beyond inspiring brilliant fundraising strategies, A Salute to Vienna is making me remember when I was in Vienna myself a few years ago.  Particularly, when friends and I stood in line for hours in order to get 4 Euro parterre seats for the Magic Flute at the Vienna State Opera.  Despite parterre translating to “standing room in which you may fight over velvet-topped railings to lean on.  Tough luck, Holly.  You should have worn more comfortable shoes.”, it was a beautiful night in a beautiful city.

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Heck, maybe I’ll cough up that sixty dollars.

Friday Favorites 5

I think I cheated a little this week.  The posts consist of Friday Favorites, a video about breastfeeding, and Friday Favorites again.  I don’t mean for Friday Favorites to make up the entirety of the blog, but if I can’t think of any one topic that merits its own post, it’s certainly nice to have a place to circle the blurb wagons at the end of the week …

I was just this close to writing an extended Oregon Trail metaphor.  Consider yourselves happily spared.

Here are a few things that made my life better this week:

This poem:

It is possible that things will not get better
than they are now, or have been known to be.
It is possible that we are past the middle now.
It is possible that we have crossed the great water
without knowing it, and stand now on the other side.
Yes: I think that we have crossed it. Now
we are being given tickets, and they are not
tickets to the show we had been thinking of,
but to a different show, clearly inferior.

Check again: it is our own name on the envelope.
The tickets are to that other show.

It is possible that we will walk out of the darkened hall
without waiting for the last act: people do.
Some people do. But it is probable
that we will stay seated in our narrow seats
all through the tedious denouement
to the unsurprising end- riveted, as it were;
spellbound by our own imperfect lives
because they are lives,
and because they are ours.

“Riveted” by Robyn Sarah, from A Day’s Grace. © The Porcupine’s Quill.

Writer’s Almanac.  I’m telling you, kids.

This dish:

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Photo credit: fakeginger.com

A few weeks ago a friend and I had dinner in Uptown Minneapolis.  We chose–fairly randomly, I assure you–a little Thai restaurant on the edge of the nightlife where we could sit outside and not be tripped over by cool cats stumbling in high heels.  As we ate our Pad Thai with tofu, fire alarms began to go off inside a building across the way.  Then a fire truck arrived.  Then a few police cars arrived.  Then a larger fire truck arrived.  The fuss was over rather quickly; perhaps it was a false alarm or merely burned popcorn.  Since no one was hurt, we considered it dinner theatre.

The Pad Thai, though.  We agreed, once we had pushed our plates away and leaned back, full, that it was delicious, but that the flavors were so heavy and distinct that we wouldn’t crave them again for at least a year.

Fat chance.

A week later I woke up craving Pad Thai.  I mentioned making the dish to my parents.  Mom was game, but Dad poorly hid his apprehension.  So I didn’t make it.  Another week went by, and I am now dreaming–day and night–about Pad Thai.  Especially the tofu soaked in sauce and a little crunchy on the outside.

I’ll stop now, because I don’t want to drown Mac in my saliva, but I will likely be making Pad Thai at home (even if just for myself to enjoy) very, very soon.  I will likely use this recipe.

This homecoming game:

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My beloved alma mater is celebrating homecoming this weekend, and I’m not going.  I don’t have a great reason, really, except that I am still jobless and living at home, and I think it would hurt my pride to return to Morris before I’m triumphant and successful.  It’s not that I would be judged there.  It’s just a standard I’m holding for myself.

But I’m cheering for the Cougars from afar, hoping we can overcome last year’s disappointment.

This movie:

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I have a deep, abiding love for The Outsiders.  It began in eighth grade, when we first read the book in Language Arts and our conversations–even outside of class–were peppered with words like “heater,” “rumble,” and “Greasers.”  We even had a day when we were allowed to forgo our uniforms (Catholic school, remember?) and dress as either a Soc or a Greaser.  Which one you chose said a lot about you.  “Typical, typical,” we twittered when so-and-so showed up in a sweater set and angel-white tennis shoes.

Then we discovered the movie.  I can’t remember if we watched it in class or if a select few of us watched it at a sleepover.  But that was it.  It’s impossible to watch Ponyboy recite Robert Frost against a golden sunset, or Dally yell with surprising emotion, “We’ll do it for Johnny, man!  We’ll do it for Johnny!” without being hooked.  Plus, the cast!  The beautiful ensemble cast! Matt Dillon, Tom Cruise, Diane Lane, Emilio Estevez, Rob Lowe, Patrick Swayze, Ralph Macchio, C. Thomas Howell, etc.  Before they were movie stars, they were outsiders.

This book:

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I never expect Margaret Atwood’s books to be as good as they are.  Why is that?  Perhaps it’s because I have this strange desire to shout to the heavens that I DO NOT LIKE SCIENCE FICTION.  When really, I do.  At least a little.  When its sparkling innovation is backed up by human-like frankness and clumsiness and poignancy, as Margaret’s is.

This is the second novel of hers I’ve read (the first was The Handmaid’s Tale), and the second novel of hers that has utterly swept me away.

Maybe someday I’ll learn.

“Embarrassed”

About a year ago on this blog, I wrote,

” … In which I decide that breastfeeding in public is gross.  I was taking the minutes at a division meeting, grumbling to myself over the sad fact that professors simply think themselves to be above Robert’s Rules, when suddenly the professor at the next table, who had been holding her five-month-old on her lap for the past half hour, stooped to grab a large scarf from her bag.  Before I could avert my still-scarred-from-too-much-TLC-in-high-school eyes, she draped the scarf around her shoulders and over the baby, and began the feeding as if there weren’t fifty other people in the room.  Gross.  I realize that it’s not fair that you should have to be a pariah just because you have an infant, but still.  Gross.”

I’m ashamed now that I held such an opinion.  And I’m even more ashamed when I think that because of misunderstanding people like me, perhaps that breastfeeding mother was made to feel embarrassed, as if she were doing something wrong.  She wasn’t.

This explains it best:

Poet (and mother) Hollie McNish performing her spoken word poem “Embarrassed.”

Friday Favorites 4

This Milk-Bone marketing fail:

IMG_1591I discovered this beaut in Target today.

For the Fido who is watching his waistline.  Bring him home the low-cal treat he really craves.

And if the caloric statement isn’t enough to make you pause and raise your eyebrows into your hairline (it was for me), the grammatical error surely is.  Because unless that happy Beagle’s name is Mini and she is the owner or creator of the portion controlled Milk-Bones, there should be no possessive involved.

This meme:

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I cannot explain why Nigel Thornberry’s head placed on any body never ceases to be hilarious.  It is simply so.

This daily dose of literary magic:

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Every single day of the year, The Writer’s Almanac website posts a poem and a series of “this day in history” stories (mostly related to writers).  I’ve been an email subscriber for a few years now, and so my daily literary comfort arrives in my inbox at precisely 12:45 a.m.  If you choose, you can listen to the recording (on the W.A. website or via iTunes podcast) instead of reading the page yourself.

Garrison Keillor, lord of radio, narrates.

This book:

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I’ve read a great deal of literature concerning Nicholas and Alexandra and their family.  I’ve been fascinated with them since a young age, and have consciously tried to learn everything I can about their story.  That being said, it took me longer than it should have to get around to reading Massie’s take, especially since his biography is one of the most frequently cited.

I’ve included Nicholas and Alexandra in my favorites because it is such an exhaustive account of N&A’s childhoods, their reign, the Russian Revolution, their abdication, and their deaths.  Massie has a talent for writing about immensely complex events and people using plain, approachable style.  I like that in a biographer.

There were some things I didn’t like so much, however.  Firstly, Massie’s determination to dramatically point out every bit of irony, coincidence, and “if only.”  Secondly, the lack of attention given to the grand duchesses Olga, Tatiana, Anastasia, and Maria.  I realize that since they weren’t able to inherit the throne, they were considered less important than their brother, but that’s exactly what has always made the grand duchesses fascinating to me: four beautiful, intelligent, über sheltered young women, murdered for no reason other than that they were the daughters of the former emperor and empress of Russia.  It’s the worst part of the tragedy.

This movie:

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I had not read the book.  I was unprepared for Anna Karenina’s sudden and violent end.  I shrieked aloud and immediately felt that the English major gods were ashamed of me for not having known what was coming.

Joe Wright (Pride and Prejudice, Atonement) is one of my favorite directors, but I was happy to see him take greater risks with this film than I’ve seen him take before.  At the end of the film you will feel (A.O. Scott (NY Times review) says it best):

“Dazzled, touched and a bit tired. But, really, you should feel as if you had been hit by a train.”

History Worth Shouting About

I tend to think of history as one of those long ropes we were forced to hold on to during kindergarten field trips.  When one kid tripped or veered sharply in one direction, we were all tugged after her.  In short, no one could move without impacting the rest of the group.

holding-the-rope-1

While “rope theory” speaks more to the general ebb and flow of history rather than to the “what a small world” coincidences I’m about to describe, I believe the two are related nonetheless.  After all, we’ve all got hold of the same rope.  Of course we’re going to bump into each other every now and again.

I recently read a biography in which the author insisted on loudly pointing out every historical coincidence.  “How ironic!” he would shout from the pages, “This guy lived and this guy died!  Just imagine if this guy had died and this guy had lived!  How different everything would have been!”  If we ignore the fact that this author would do well to check a dictionary definition of “irony,” his shouting is still obnoxious, because if everyone shouted about every historical coincidence, we would all be shouting.  All of the time.

But it’s fun to shout, especially when the children in front of you and behind you on the rope join in and you wail on and on until your teacher agrees to pass out graham crackers earlier than usual.

So here’s my most recent shout-worthy discovery:

Last night, into the wee hours, I was reading Heather Williams’s Farmer Boy Goes West.  It’s a recently published Little House on the Prairie spinoff, picking up where Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Farmer Boy left off.  I take it upon myself to read all attempts to carry on Laura’s work and to criticize them mercilessly.  This one, however, was well done.  Williams clearly did her research, not only regarding the Wilder family, but also regarding matching her writing style to Laura’s.  This book, I daresay, actually fits in with the rest of the beloved series.

One detail perplexed me, though: at one point in Farmer Boy Goes West, Almanzo Wilder (Laura’s future husband) is reunited with his older brother, whom he hasn’t seen in a few years.  Immediately, his brother remarks on how tall he is.  “That can’t be right,” I said to myself, “Almanzo was a shorty.”  Sure enough, a Google search told me that Almanzo’s adult height was 5 feet 4 inches.  Another Google search told me that average male height in the 1870s (Almanzo’s growing-up time) was around 5 feet 6 inches.  So not such a shorty in those days.  My 5 feet 10.5 inches would have made me the town giant.  For an explanation of why people were shorter in the 19th century, read this fascinating article (scroll down to “Heights” section).

Laura Ingalls and Almanzo Wilder, 4 feet 11 inches and 5 feet four inches, respectively.  (Photo circa 1940)

Almanzo Wilder and Laura Ingalls Wilder, 5 feet 4 inches and 4 feet 11 inches, respectively. (Photo circa 1940)

This was interesting, but not a shout-worthy coincidence.  Here’s the star of the show:

The same website that told me how tall Almanzo Wilder was told me something else: The Ingalls’s and the Bloody Benders’ paths may have crossed in Kansas Territory (setting for Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie).

If you don’t know about the Benders, or the Bloody Benders, read here.  It’s a gruesome story, and I don’t want to scare you with it without your consent.  There’s also a Stuff You Missed in History Class podcast about them.  Essentially, they were a family of serial killers who ran an inn and a general store in Kansas in the 1870s and who used these businesses to lure travelers whom they would then brutally murder.

From a speech Laura gave in 1937 regarding the truthfulness of her novels (warning: gruesome):

There was the story of the Bender family that belonged in the third volume, Little House on the Prairie. The Benders lived halfway between it and Independence, Kansas. We stopped there, on our way in to the Little House, while Pa watered the horses and brought us all a drink from the well near the door of the house. I saw Kate Bender standing in the doorway. We did not go in because we could not afford to stop at a tavern.

On his trip to Independence to sell his furs, Pa stopped again for water, but did not go in for the same reason as before.

There were Kate Bender and two men, her brothers, in the family and their tavern was the only place for travelers to stop on the road south from Independence. People disappeared on that road. Leaving Independence and going south they were never heard of again. It was thought they were killed by Indians but no bodies were ever found.

Then it was noticed that the Benders’ garden was always freshly plowed but never planted. People wondered. And then a man came from the east looking for his brother, who was missing.

He made up a party in Independence and they followed the road south, but when they came to the Bender place there was no one there. There were signs of hurried departure and they searched the place.

The front room was divided by a calico curtain against which the dining table stood. On the curtain back of the table were stains about as high as the head of a man when seated. Behind the curtain was a trap door in the floor and beside it lay a heavy hammer.

In the cellar underneath was the body of a man whose head had been crushed by the hammer. It appeared that he had been seated at the table back to the curtain and had been struck from behind it. A grave was partly dug in the garden with a shovel close by. The posse searched the garden and dug up human bones and bodies. One body was that of a little girl who had been buried alive with her murdered parents. The garden was truly a grave-yard kept plowed so it would show no signs. The night of the day the bodies were found a neighbor rode up to our house and talked earnestly with Pa. Pa took his rifle down from its place over the door and said to Ma, “The vigilantes are called out.” Then he saddled a horse and rode away with the neighbor. It was late the next day when he came back and he never told us where he had been. For several years there was more or less a hunt for the Benders and reports that they had been seen here or there. At such times Pa always said in a strange tone of finality, “They will never be found.” They were never found and later I formed my own conclusions why.

According to Deb Houdek Rule’s website, which quotes Laura’s unpublished memoirs (warning: gruesome):

Laura, in her memoirs, says, “…he had had some thoughts of stopping at the Benders’ for the night… Kate Bender came out and asked him to have supper there and put up for the night… Mary and I had those names in our minds, Independence, Kansas and Benders… I heard Pa say ‘dead… Already twenty or more, in the cellar… Benders–where I stopped for a drink. She asked me to come in… They found a girl, no bigger than Laura. They’d thrown her in on top of her father and mother and tramped the ground down on them, while the little girl was still alive…’ Laura then describes Pa riding off, returning to say, ‘Yes, Caroline. Kate Bender with the rest. She deserved it just as much as they did.’

Laura says, “For a long time, even for years, after that, I dreamed about a little girl thrown on top of her father and mother and buried alive. Sometimes I was the little girl.”

She says she was grown before she ever asked Pa about the Benders. The information she records in her memoirs is correct, and the dates and location are correct for her Pa to have passed by the Benders’ house. But the date the Benders were found out doesn’t fit having Charles Ingalls being part of the group who went after them. That took place in 1873, a couple years after the Ingalls had left Kansas–they were back living in Wisconsin at that time. It is somewhat possible Pa made the trip to Kansas, or was there on some business or exploration trip, however.

Asking Pa about it, Laura recounts, “Wasn’t he one of the Vigilantes who went after the Benders, and didn’t the catch them? He only said, ‘We thought you were too little to understand.’ As for what became of the Benders, he would not answer. He said, ‘Don’t worry. They’ll never find Kate Bender anywhere.'”

Mind. Blown.  One of pioneer America’s most beloved, wholesome families neighbors with one of its most notorious.

Of course, the Charles Ingalls/Benders encounters are somewhat shadowy.  The vigilante action dates, as Houdek points out, don’t exactly match up.  And Laura was, after all, a very little girl (four years old or so) when her family lived in Kansas territory.  Too young to have detailed memories, not to mention too young to be told outright by Pa and Ma what was going on.

Maggie Koerth-Baker suggests in an article that perhaps what Laura thought she remembered wasn’t entirely true:

To me, the body of research on false memories suggests that Laura Ingalls Wilder might not have been lying when she told a story about her family crossing paths with the Bloody Benders. If you think about it, it would be pretty simple. A young Laura might simply have heard her parents talking about the Benders, misconstrued the situation, and created memories that fit her understanding. In the course of telling the story to friends and family, her parents might have changed it themselves — a simple “and it turned out they lived right down the road from us!” story became, over time, a story of participating in the downfall of the serial killers. 

I think it likely that the events Laura described did happen, that perhaps she didn’t remember them herself, but was filled in later by her father.  In her memoirs she records only a short, cryptic conversation with him, but that could have been for dramatic effect.  We’ve all done it.  And even if Laura’s family didn’t actually encounter the Benders, they were in the same area at the same time.  Still mind blowing.

The Ingalls’ and the Benders: a pairing only history could dream up.

Hold the rope tightly, kids. The world is only getting smaller.

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Lap Swim Musings

Thoughts I have while swimming laps:

1. Remember when I used to be afraid that there was a Great White shark in the pool and that one day it would emerge from the shadowy corner where it’s been lurking for the past two decades and get me?

2. But that can’t happen.  Right?  Right?

3. “Hey Ho” is playing.  I will now hold the kickboard so I can keep my head above water and listen.

4. How many times has my mom lapped me now?  Five?  Does the lifeguard know she’s a triathlete?  Maybe I should tell him so he won’t judge me so harshly for my comparative slowness.

5. I should probably get a serious swimsuit.  The red with blue polka dots was funny the first day, but now I think people half expect me to head for the kiddie pool instead of the deep end.

6. My word I’m tired.  My word I’m going to grip the side and rest while pretending to watch the clock as if I’m taking a scheduled rest.  But really I’m going to rest until I stop panting like a winded rhino.

7. My word I thought I was in shape.  Why is this so hard?

8. I think I’ll have some chocolate when I get home.

9. A small piece of dark, though, because that’s Dr. Oz approved.

10. When did Dr. Oz start running my life?  Oh, when he said that the lotion I was already using was the best kind of lotion.  That was when I decided we must be on the same wavelength.

11.  Maybe two pieces of dark chocolate.

12. I wish I could do a flip turn.  The polka dots must be holding me back.

How I imagine I look while swimming

How I imagine I look while swimming.

How I actually look.

How I actually look.