Friday Favorites 6

This town:

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There is a town in Maryland named Chevy Chase.

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Not after this man, although that’s what I thought at first.

This Chevy Chase’s real name is Cornelius.  According to Wikipedia (only the most reliable sources for you, dear reader),

“Chase was named for his adoptive grandfather Cornelius, while the nickname Chevy was bestowed by his grandmother, derived from the medieval English The Ballad of Chevy Chase. As a descendant of the Scottish Clan Douglas, the name “Chevy” seemed appropriate to her.”

And according to the town of Chevy Chase’s website,

“The name … can be traced to the larger tract of land called “Cheivy Chace” that was patented to Colonel Joseph Belt from Lord Baltimore on July 10, 1725. It has historic associations to a 1388 battle between Lord Percy of England and Earl Douglas of Scotland. At issue in this “chevauchee” (a Scottish word describing a border raid) were hunting grounds or a “chace” in the Cheviot Hills of Northumberland and Otterburn.”

Further research into The Ballad of Chevy Chase reveals that actually, it refers to the same battle (mentioned in the previous passage) between Lord Percy and Earl Douglas, a “chevauchee.”

So, both comedian and small Maryland town are named after the same 1388 border dispute in the Cheviot Hills of Scotland.

This is why I love history.

This TV ad:

Now, I’m not saying that I don’t think it’s a good idea to create a flu vaccine that can be sprayed instead of injected.  I’m just saying that I first saw this commercial while SNL was on, and until the very end, I was convinced that it was a skit.  I thought, something this odd can’t possibly be a real flu vaccine commercial.

Boy, was I wrong.  It’s real.

Second 22-25 is my favorite part, but the scene in which the whole family struts down the street wearing those nose superhero masks is pretty great as well.

These memes:

I’ve been a meme fiend this week.  I literally spent a good amount of time googling “Henry VII memes,” “Mad Men memes,” and “Teddy Roosevelt memes.”  Pathetic?  Yes.  Fruitful? Yes.

Here are some of the best I dug up:

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And now, a series entitled “Mean Mad Men:” Scenes from Mad Men captioned with Mean Girls quotes.  I can’t believe it, either.

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I should mention that I am currently working on a full post about Mad Men.  Because if any show deserves a full post (well, aside from Dawson’s Creek), it’s Mad Men.

This angry celebrity:

Given, he’s not very specific about the contents of his “revolution.”  But Russell Brand has some interesting things to say.  And he’s more eloquent than you might think.

This book:

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After a summer-long hiatus following my Honors Capstone Project, I am once again reading Virginia Woolf.  This is my first time through The Years, and I have to say, it’s strange to read Woolf knowing I won’t be back in Woolf Lit on Monday to discuss the latest.  I’ve been doing all right muddling through on my own, although I worry that I’m missing some richness that could only be uncovered in an academic setting. Reading with a pen helps.  Here are some of the beauties I’ve underlined so far:

“Is this death? Delia asked herself.  For a moment there seemed to be something there.  A wall of water seemed to gape apart; the two walls held themselves apart” (44, Harcourt edition pictured above).

“One after another the bells of Oxford began pushing their slow chimes through the air.  They tolled ponderously, unequally, as if they had to roll the air out of their way and the air was heavy” (47).

“Well, since it was impossible to read and impossible to sleep, she would let herself be thought.  It was easier to act things out than to think them … She stretched herself out.  Where did thought begin” (125)?

“For it was October, the birth of the year” (86).

Happy weekend, friends.

First Snow

First snow today.  Or so I am told.  Facebook friends told me, either by way of whining post or exalting post.  The mobile Weather Channel told me, with a background like cotton balls falling behind a pane of glass.  It still looked like sleet to me, but we ran out just in case.

Ruby wasn’t sure why I had pulled her into the cold and wet; she turned in circles upon the grass before stopping to cock her head at me.

I looked to the arms of my jacket, now spotted with dark beads.  Each one shone and hung heavily for a moment before disappearing against the fabric, as if I were stuck all over with melting candy buttons.

The grass and the trees were merely dripping; no dusting of white betrayed snow.  Even the roof, surely cold enough to hold flakes, was merely a soggy brown.

We went inside, Ruby running ahead so that she could turn in the living room to look back at me wryly.  Is all the fuss over, then?  She asked, before moving to make sure her stuffed skunk was just where she had left it.

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English Majors Unite

I finished The White Forest tonight, tried simultaneously to go slowly and savor the words and to speed through to the ending.  And then I sat for a few minutes and missed the concept of English classes.  Of walking daily into an hour and twenty minutes of literary discussion.  I want a professor to deliver some compact lecture on the Victorian obsession with the occult.  I want to “throw some themes on the board,” as we used to say.  There was a love triangle in novel, there was a question of humanness, of otherness.  There was sisterhood and the familiar notion of a terrible, beautiful female goddess. (here we’ll veer into feminist topics, boldly and on purpose)  There was nature, pristine and set in deliberate contrast to industrial London.

I would like to sit in a circle with some bona fide English majors and pare this novel into delicate shreds until we’re all laughing and no longer know when we crossed the wavering line that is over-analyzing.

I suppose what it means to graduate is not that you’ve learned all you’ll need to succeed in the world, but that you’ve learned how to learn on your own.

But honestly, where’s the fun in that?

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Between Books

I apologize for the quiet week posting-wise.  I blame it on being between books; I began one, discarded it, began another, discarded it.  I knew I wanted to read something, but couldn’t figure out what.  I spent a great deal of time staring at my bookshelves, and the rest of the time watching mindless YouTube videos and scrolling through Pinterest.  I was generally listless and uninspired and only wanted lukewarm broth with noodles when lunchtime rolled around.  You know the feeling.

Last night I finally settled on one: The White Forest, by Adam McOmber.  It’s ethereal and mysterious and Victorian (three of my favorite qualities in a novel) and it’s just exactly what I’ve been craving.

Today, thank goodness, my productivity levels are up again.  I woke up at a respectable 10:00, put on some flannel, cleaned my room while listening to This American Life, and went out into the 53-degree world with blissful purpose.  I mailed a care package to Amy, who is homesick over there in cheesehead land.  Mom and I visited Ojiketa Regional Park to check out Art Blitz.  Then we went to Sunrise River Farm for apples and apple bread and apple butter.  And I tried to scratch a donkey’s nose.  He tossed his head away, disgruntled that I hadn’t brought a food offering for him.  I guess I see his point.

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O, What a Luxury

We all know that I have a terrible inferiority complex when it comes to meeting celebrities (even local ones).  “Will they like me?” I think.  “Can I trust myself to say something witty and endearing?” I think, sweating profusely.  “What if I’m not dressed nicely enough to impress them?” I think, from a dead faint on the floor.

It’s silly, and it doesn’t make much sense.  We’re all people, after all.  We’re all plodding through this wonderful, cruel maze that is The Human Condition.  Celebrities just happen to have a marketable talent.  Or are lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time.  Or are really, really ridiculously good-looking.  Or are hard workers.  Or some combination of all four.

The fact is, I can’t seem to remember any of this wisdom when faced with a real, live celebrity.  And thus I’m always surprised when they turn out to be nice, regular people.  (Of course, some celebrities are as appraising and arrogant as I fear, and those I choose to smirk about later: “It goes to their heads. It always, always goes to their heads. Heh heh heh.  I was right all along.”  But then again, plenty of people who don’t have their own TV shows are appraising and arrogant.)

So when Wednesday night found me sitting in the sixth row at a Garrison Keillor poetry reading, I knew I was in for it.  Here was a man whose voice I had literally been hearing through the radio for my entire life.  My parents own a boat on Lake Superior, and some of my earliest memories are of hurtling through the northern woods on Sunday afternoons, listening to Guy Noir or News From Lake Wobegon and laughing whenever my parents laughed.  Sometimes, uncomfortably full with the Happy Meals we had begged for for miles and miles (and which were somehow disappointing once actually opened and consumed), my sister and I would fall asleep in the backseat of the minivan to the sound of Mr. Keillor’s voice, and wake up at home.

Garrison Keillor is perhaps the most important public figure of all, in the Minnesotan mind.  He brought us–our church basement suppers, our bars and hot dishes, our passive aggression, our experience of being up at the lake or down on the farm or “in town,” our grandparents and parents and cousins–to the world.  And sure, we’re not always so neurotic as A Prairie Home Companion portrays us to be.  Nor always so poignant nor so musical.  But the spirit of the show is right.

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All of the sudden the poetry reading was over.  The wide sheets of paper Mr. Keillor had read from were scattered on the floor.  And Mr. Keillor himself was strolling down the stage steps, down the aisle, and out into the lobby, where, as he said, he would be happy to sign copies of O, What a Luxury and to chat.  Mom and I joined the growing line, squashed in between an older woman who exclaimed that she was “just wild for E.E. Cummings” and a young couple tossing computer jargon–discs and codes and bytes–back and forth like a softball.

Then we were at the front, and I silently handed my book to Mr. Keillor, deciding in a split second that perhaps I should just be quietly friendly and not attempt any conversation.  He looked up, though, and jokingly commented on my mom’s hair, and then turned to me with an “what do you have to say for yourself, young lady?” expression.

So I told him that I’m a recent graduate from the University of Minnesota.

“And what did they do for you there?”

“They gave me an English degree, but I’m still figuring out how to use it.  I’m trying to get a job writing or editing.”

“Are you a good writer and editor?”

“Yes.”  (Then, because that seemed too vain) “I mean, I like to think I am.”

“Send your resume to Prairie Home Companion, then.”

I’m going to end the conversation here, but note that there was some additional stuttering on my part before the exchange was over.  Perhaps also some gushing to my patient mother during the drive home: “I can’t believe Garrison Keillor told me to send in my resume!  I mean, it wasn’t exactly a promise of a job, but still.  I’m going to have to write a cover letter right away.  I think I’ll say something about listening to APHC as a kid, but I don’t want to ramble, you know, so I’ll have to be concise…”  You get the idea.

To conclude this saga, I think there’s a lesson to be learned: if we ever happen to develop a marketable talent; or are in the right place at the right time; or become really, really ridiculously good-looking; or increase our work ethic…in other words, if we become celebrities, let’s remember to be kind to stuttering recent graduates who ask for our autographs.  Because it will mean a lot to them.

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.

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.

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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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Writing “Rules”

Admittedly, upon waking this morning and reading the Weather Channel’s description of the cool temperature and slight breeze, I bolted outside in my pajamas to confirm for myself.  I appreciate every change of season as it comes, but there’s something about fall.  Perhaps it’s the (lifelong, I suspect) association with a new school year, but summer to fall feels like the greatest shift of all.  It feels like a shift that permeates not only the temperature and the leaf color, but people’s lives.  Big things are afoot, my friends, for you and for me.  Even if we don’t know what these big things are yet.

What I have for you today, far from the promised materialism of Friday Favorites, are my writing “rules.”  I typed these out last night instead of working on a short story.  That’s right: I wrote rules for writing instead of actually applying the rules and writing.  Though writing the rules was writing …  just not the kind of writing I was thinking of when I wrote them.

Right.  Or write, if you’d prefer.

Needless to say, I don’t actually believe that my writing rules should be your rules, or even that my rules apply to my writing all of the time (thus the obnoxious quotations around “rules”).  But it was a surprisingly good time to think about how I write and how I’d like to write and how I live so that I might write.

Holly’s Written “Rules” For Writing

1. Never show a first draft.  No matter how encouraging your reader is, the brilliancy of your fragile baby draft will shrink in your eyes once you let another’s eyes judge it.  Wait until a draft is as good as you can make it before you let people tell you how far it has yet to go.

"The first draft of anything is shit." -Ernest Hemingway

“The first draft of anything is shit.”  -Ernest Hemingway

2. When stumped, start over.  And by start over, I mean start a new word document, entirely separate from the stump-inducing one.  Retype the parts you liked on the old document, but do so without looking.  This is how you find a new angle: via blank slate.

3. Find your writing power song and don’t be too proud to use it.  Mine is “Briony” from the Atonement film score.  Because of the typewriter sounds.  Note: your power song does not need to be subtle.

4. Read your work out loud, even when you don’t want to, or are in public.  You will always catch typos and icky-sounding syntax that you couldn’t possibly have otherwise.

5. Write down an idea, name, image, conversation the minute it strikes you.  You will have forgotten it by the following morning otherwise.  See “Marble Memo” post for my portable solution.

6. The power of mulling is highly underestimated.  Not everything to do with writing has to do with the act of putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard.  Sometimes the solution to a plot tangle is to write until you get it right.  Other times, you simply have to puzzle it out to yourself while circling the local roundabout intersection in your Subaru.

7. Even if you can’t take criticism well, learn to take it and then cry later.  Because you need criticism.

8.  Do things.  Meet people.  Be out in the world.  Be afraid and uncomfortable and awkward and curious.  Let it all filter into your writing.  Emily Dickinson has dibs on the secluded attic writer, and goodness knows we couldn’t do it as well as her anyway.

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9. Tell people you’re a writer.  The title “writer” has nothing to do with publishing status or age or degree.  If you love writing and do it often–whether for hobby or for career–then you’re a writer.  Revel in the raised eyebrows that will often follow your proclamation.  Don’t forget to adopt the Hemingway swagger as you walk away.

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10. Let yourself be intimidated by the greats.  Let yourself revel in their genius, regardless of who the greats are for you.  For me, they’re primarily Scott Fitzgerald and Virginia Woolf.  And they scare me and sometimes make me feel like I will never amount to anything because I don’t write like Scott Fitzgerald and Virginia Woolf.  But they also make me proud to be part of this rowdy clan of crazy genius writers.

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11.  Write your own writing rules.  Or know them, at least.  Make some standards for yourself and stick to them.  This is how we prove to those eyebrow raisers (and to ourselves) that what we do is as important and as “real” of a job as, say, accounting.

If you do write your own writing rules, share them with me.  Comment with the link.  I’d love to read them.

Little House on the Prairie, Explained

When I was eight, I asked for a Little House on the Prairie book for Christmas.  I already owned one, and thought I’d like the next book in the series.  On Christmas Eve, in the midst of the annual party, I was given a large gift bag filled with the gingham-bordered books.  All nine of them, including the one I already owned.  The party, needless to say, was lost to me after that.  I plucked out Little Town on the Prairie, because the girls looked the prettiest on the cover.  That was important to me then.  I read as adults flitted about with wine in hand and I ignored Amy when she tugged at my arm, begging me to help her chase our particular favorite adult, deemed “Tim the Alien.”

Ironically, I forgot Little Town on the Prairie at my aunt and uncle’s house that night, and didn’t get it back until I had read through the rest of the series.  I started it first and finished it last.

Once I had read the books at least five times each, had sufficiently cracked the spines and dotted the page corners with peanut butter, I began to make up my own versions of the prairie stories.  Specifically, I liked to make them up alone in my room, using my American Girl Dolls as my daughters.  I had the role of omnipresent mother, and would lecture the dolls as I tugged a tiny plastic brush through their hair.  Things like, “I know you don’t like school, but it’s very important that you have an education,” and “Felicity, you look beautiful.  Any boy in town would be lucky to dance with you” were oft-used phrases.  In fact, I don’t believe I ever did anything with the poor dolls but boss and brush.

When I was twelve or so, mom heard about a pioneer school held in a nearby town for a few days in the summer.  The classroom was a circa 1852 schoolhouse.  Pupils were encouraged to dress as early pioneers.  It was a dream.

I don’t remember much about the lessons, nor about the field trips we took to local historic sites, but I do remember the teacher.  She seemed to me very old and wise, and was almost a cartoon in her elderly perfection.  The throat of her dress was clasped with a large brooch, her hair was an airy puff of white, and one day she drew some of us older children to her.  Her “big girls,” she said, deserved a treat.  In her open hand were three small stones.  They were all alike, save for the varying patterns of gold stripes upon the brown fields.  Tiger’s Eyes, she whispered, as if sharing a great secret.  We took our stones solemnly and pocketed them so that the other pupils wouldn’t see and be jealous.  I showed mine to Amy anyway.  Tiger’s Eye, I told her.  Maybe when you’re older you’ll understand, I said.

Later, the big girls sat on the steps together to eat lunch.  We hadn’t spoken to each other yet, but the stones in our pockets had bonded us somehow.  It wouldn’t take much for us to be friends, but it was difficult to begin.  Amy had been picked up by mom for an orthodontist appointment, so I was without my usual freckled buffer.  I had her can of root beer, though, a great treat.  I offered it to one of the girls.  They offered me a cookie in return.  That was all it took.

The other big girls were sisters.  Laurissa, Katherine, and Emily, I think their names were.  The cookie they gave me was good; it was oatmeal chocolate chip.  I politely said so–we were old enough to wade into friendship slowly–and the girls offered to get the recipe from their mother.

Over a decade later, I still have the recipe.  Laurissa copied it out on two neon orange index cards.  The handwriting is painstakingly neat, and the very last step, punctuated with a period, reads: eat.  I made those cookies tonight, wanting the rustic, pioneer-ish task of stirring together butter and sugar, of patting down cupfuls of flour with my fingers.

I haven’t seen those girls since the last day of pioneer school when they trotted off down the sidewalk in the opposite direction.  The American Girl Dolls are packed snuggly in a large box in my closet.  I still peek in now and then to scold Molly for letting her bangs get so tangled.  My Little House books, still the ones from that long-ago Christmas gift–the new color editions are lovely, but I just can’t bring myself to upgrade–have a place of honor on my bookshelf.  I can’t say for sure how many times I’ve read them, but I suspect at least twenty times each.  I still have my Tiger’s Eye.  Its great significance hasn’t yet been  revealed to me, but I don’t worry about that.  Maybe when you’re older you’ll understand, I tell myself.