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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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.”

On My Own: Minnesota Orchestra Musicians Edition

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In my teens (particularly in high school), I never would have gone to something like this by myself.  I would have wanted to be with my family or with a group of friends.  Not because I feared crowds or for my general safety in public, but rather because I would have wanted to look like I belonged, somehow.  Like I was the kind of successful person who had back up, who had peeps, who had voluntary companions.

In my twenties, I’ve discarded this particular security blanket.  I have studying abroad to thank for that, and a certain icy roommate who seemed to either think that I was a swamp monster or entirely nonexistent.  That sort of treatment, rather than crushing my spirit–cue Oprah monologue–forced me to be independent, self-confident, and to chuckle to myself at the horrendous awkwardness of the situation.

An example of my claimed immense self-growth: a few evenings ago I went to a concert by myself.  I drove to Minneapolis (though I’ve always liked driving); ran up on a curb while attempting to park on a smart, residential street; and walked along Lake Harriet until I reached the band shell where the Minnesota Orchestra Musicians would be performing.

I then stood for an hour and a half at the back of the band shell’s lawn listening and periodically patting the head of my standing neighbor’s small black dog.  I enjoyed the music, and the general splendor of being near a great mass of water and seeing the occasional bright-sailed sailboat race across it.

Photo credit: Jana Freiband

Photo credit: Jana Freiband

The only discomfort involved in the outing–aside from when I jumped the curb with witnesses–was that when it comes to classical music, I hardly know what I’m hearing.  There a movement has ended, there the sound is building … that’s about the extent of my knowledge.  I greatly admired the young woman near me who had her eyes closed the entire time and was softly swaying her body as if in a great, music-induced trance.  I would have done the same, hoping for epiphany, but bad things tend to happen when I close my eyes.

You can see me in this photo!  It's tough, but if you look straight back from the man sitting center in the green shirt and Twins baseball cap, I'm the girl turned sideways with an orange-ish scarf on and a bun in my hair.  It's a little embarrassing that I'm not even watching the concert in this photo.  But hey--maybe I'm petting the dog?

You can see me in this photo! It’s tough, but if you look straight back from the man sitting center in the green shirt and Twins baseball cap, I’m the girl turned sideways with an orange-ish scarf on and a bun in my hair. It’s a little embarrassing that I’m not even watching the concert in this photo. But hey–maybe I’m petting the dog? Photo credit: Jennifer Simonson

Truthfully, until I arrived at Lake Harriet, I didn’t know exactly what I was getting myself into.  I knew it was a Minnesota Orchestra concert, and that it was free.  But I didn’t realize that these were the Minnesota Orchestra musicians who have been locked out of the Minnesota Orchestral Association since October 2012, following a labor dispute.

Good for them for continuing to perform, despite the lack of steady salary.  Good for them for refusing to let their orchestra become anything less than the world-class group it’s always been.

After the concert was over, I pushed my way to the front of the band shell where buttons and t-shirts were being sold.  I grinned hugely as I bought my button and pinned it on, so much so that the woman at the table asked if I was a musician myself.  No, ma’am.  It just felt good to support a cause again.  Not good as in, my word, I’m such a Good Samaritan, but good as in, my word, even though I’m by myself, I’m part of this large group of happy people who love music and come to listen to it and buy buttons to support it.  What was left of my trembling high school self shrank three sizes that day.

If you’d like to learn more about the Minnesota Orchestra Musicians, their cause, and their upcoming concerts, here‘s the link to their website. The Star Tribune write-up of the Lake Harriet concert and the current lockout situation can be found here.

Birthday: 23

I awoke on this, my day of birth, to darkness and quiet.  It was five-thirty in the morning, a time I prefer to sleep through unless I’m doing something particularly important such as going to the airport or being born.  I was born twenty-three years ago around five-thirty in the morning.  I was ten days late, which is a little more characteristic.  I suspect that I wished to avoid the great spectacle of emerging into the world for as long as possible, and then perhaps decided all at once to get it over with.  Perhaps it was getting uncomfortable in there.  Perhaps my lower back was twingy even in utero.

It was just too magical that I randomly woke up twenty-three years later so close to the time when I was actually born, so of course I wasn’t going to go back to sleep.  I tugged a blanket off my bed and wrapped it around my shoulders as I staggered to the living room couch.  Ruby was there, dozing on the rug.  She summoned some enthusiasm to greet me, and then settled back down.

The sun began to rise.  A thick orange stripe appeared from behind the tree line, padded above with grey sky and below with grey lake.  The bright globe at the middle of the stripe seemed to burst before my eyes, coloring the leaves of our backyard ash tree.  The stripe lightened to peach and then to pale yellow.  Orange flecks fell onto the lake, tracing a path from my window to the sun.  And then it was over, or at least I stopped watching because Ruby whimpered to be let outside.

Mom and I went to church later in the morning, where we were prevented from leaving our pew at the end of the service by two elderly barricades who had knelt to pray for the next person to die in the parish.  We couldn’t interrupt, so we stood still and considered vaulting over the shorter of the two.

Then came the all-important Vikings football game.  I feel asleep briefly in the second quarter, but was roused at halftime to help Dad remove a dead mouse from its dusty mausoleum in an air duct.  Because sometimes, even when you’d like to prance around in a plastic tiara that reads “it’s my birthday, spoil me,” dirty jobs have to be done.  And decomposing mice have to be discarded.

Dinner and dessert, as per tradition, were at the birthday girl’s request.  I chose ribs (we’re entering those last few precious days of grill-conducive weather, after all) and this cake.  Amy went off to college a few weeks ago, the skunk, so poor Mom and Dad were left to harmonize a happy birthday by themselves.  Luckily, musical expectations are low in my family clan.  I opened presents, the contents of which I will likely detail in Friday Favorites, where I can be openly materialistic.

This year’s birthday was a little different from last year’s.  But as always, I felt the satisfying weight of another year’s worth of lessons and discoveries.  I’ll try to use them wisely.

Top Ten Favorite Pieces of Contemporary Literature (Part 1)

I was too late applying for a job today.  The posting was still on the company’s website, but the deadline at the bottom was August 12th.  I sent an email anyway, asking if the position had already been filled.  And if not, if I could send my application and begin dedicating various lucky charms toward the cause.  Sarah, who responded to my email, said in the friendliest way that the position had been filled, but that I should check back later.

I will certainly do so.

But what made me want the position badly enough to send that email in the first place was that applicants were asked to include–along with cover letter, resume, writing sample (the usual)–a list of their ten favorite pieces of contemporary literature.

Let me tell you.  I’ve applied for many a publishing job.  At larger and more prominent publishing houses.  But not one has asked me for such a list.

This is strange, because it seems to me that for one to work in publishing, one must be first and foremost a reader.  A crazed, midnight oil burning, Half Price Books residing, I can’t sleep until I know this character will be all right reader.  Able to recite the red wheelbarrow poem on demand.  Able to explain the origins of Samuel Clemens’ pseudonym without pause.  Unable to use the term “Harry Potter English Major,” because, Good Lord, all readers are wonderful and miraculous and welcome.  And we all have guilty secrets.

The entire Twilight Saga is on my bookshelf right now.  In hardback.  I am not ashamed.

But mostly, readers delight in such lists.  That’s why, if I might be so brash, I’d like to make my list now.  And to make it even thought August 12th is long past.

Don’t think of this as my desperate plea for that job that got away.  Think of it as the kind of opportunity I wait all year for.

Holly’s Ten Favorite Pieces of Contemporary Literature (in no particular order, because I couldn’t possibly):

1. Into the Wild.  This book served as my introduction to creative nonfiction.  It showed me that true stories could be told in literary prose.  Jon Krakauer told us about Chris McCandless without presuming to know him.  And more importantly, without presuming to criticize him.  I like an author humble enough to give you the facts, set the scene, and then back off.

2. The Story of Edgar Sawtelle.  Tell me how overdone Hamlet plots are and I’ll smirk and hand you this book.  I haven’t yet been able to describe the plot without making it sound silly (it’s not) and as if it’s for young people (it’s not).  The prose in Edgar Sawtelle is breathtaking.  The story is set in the Chequamegon National Forest in Northern Wisconsin (my childhood stomping grounds).  And I’ve never wanted to bring a character to life more than I’ve wanted Almondine to be real.  Almondine is a Sawtelle dog.  You’ll know what I mean when you read the book.

3. Never Let Me Go.  I am not a professional reviewer.  My adjective pool is somewhat shallow.  The word flawless comes to mind, however.  Heartbreaking.  Eerie.  Masterfully layered.  I read this book when I need a lesson on how to reveal a world slowly, subtly.

Expect the next three on my list in the next post.  You didn’t think I wouldn’t prolong this delight, did you?  Whew double negative.  I’ll just leave that there.

Ruby

Ruby

is my family’s dog.

She is a long-haired German Shepherd.

My mom and sister brought her home after dad distinctly said: do not bring home a long-haired.

I was a freshman in college at the time, and came home for Spring Break to a new puppy in the kitchen.

We stayed up late deciding on a name.

I came up with Ruby because it’s the name of one of Laura’s grown-up aunts in Little House in the Big Woods. 

I didn’t tell my family about that particular origin.

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Ruby didn’t actually bark until she was three years old.  Before then, she whined.

It was effective enough, I suppose.

Ruby will lick your hand, your face, your toes until they’re dripping with slobber.

If you’re napping on the couch and forget to turn your face toward the shelter of the pillow, she will come upon you as you sleep and swipe her tongue from your forehead to your chin.

If you choose to nap on the couch at our house, do not sleep with your mouth open.

Ruby is the only dog I’ve ever known who snorkels for rocks in the lake.

She will stick her entire face in the water, clamp her jaws around a particularly fine specimen, and tug until with a suction-like sound, she frees it from the sand.

She prefers to make as much noise as she can while she does this, in case you hadn’t already noticed what she was doing.

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Ruby likes to tear up divots of grass and earth in the front yard.

It is not uncommon to spot a clover or two drooping down from her molars.

Ruby wags her tail with delight when I hide behind a door to scare her.

Sometimes she also pees a little from fright.

Hence, we now take our hide and seek outside.

Ruby will not go into the basement.

I once carried all forty pounds of her terrified puppy girth downstairs during a tornado warning, and she hasn’t gone near the stairs since.

If you try to beckon her downstairs, she will pee a little from fright.

And hide under the kitchen table.

Ruby perks her ears during animal programs on TV.

She will catch pieces of popcorn on the fly should you toss some her way.

She has quietly and swiftly dismembered every toy we have given her thus far.

Ruby hasn’t the courage of Lassie, the brute strength of Beethoven, nor the sensitivity of Hachiko.

She doesn’t seem to mind, though, so neither do we.

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Friday Favorites 3

This song:

You know that song “Mirrors” by whats-his-name former *NSYNC lead?  The song that is played three times an hour on every radio station in the country, including those stations typically reserved for classical and/or talk?  That song has been stuck in my head for the past three days.  This afternoon I even invented an elaborate system which involved showering with the door partly open so that Mac could blast “Mirrors” without suffering steam damage.

Mystery critters:

Ruby–who has only just learned to whine when she has to use the outdoor facilities (before she simply followed one of us around with her ears perked)–and I discovered a mystery whilst patrolling the yard yesterday evening.  Sidenote: Ruby is a dog, not my human younger sister.  My real human younger sister only whines when I talk to her during Pretty Little Liars.  Anyway, some kind of animal was up in a tree clipping sizeable branches and letting them fall to the ground.  There was already a scattering of green-leaved sticks when Ruby and I arrived on site, and a few more fell as we peered up to catch a glimpse of the creature.  No luck.  The foliage was thick enough to hide it, and it quieted once it spotted us.  Was it a squirrel?  But I’ve never seen a squirrel prune branches like that, unless it’s beginning to build a nest for winter and planned to gather the clippings later?  Was it a bear?  I’ve seen a treed bear before.  For a split second I thought maybe a pet monkey had escaped from somewhere and was about to flash down at me, teeth bared.  But perhaps that’s not it either.  If any zoologists care to comment, particularly if you can support my monkey theory, I would be grateful.

This book:

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I would like to dispel any rumors involving the feature film Cheaper by the Dozen, starring Steve Martin and Bonnie Hunt.  The movie is, in fact, based on a real-life family, but only so far as both the real and the fictional family had twelve children.  The real-life family, the Gilbreths, were quite different than Steve and Bonnie’s in every other way.  The parents, Frank Bunker Gilbreth, Sr. and Lillian Moller Gilbreth, were pioneers in the field of motion study around the turn of the century.  And the book–written by two of the children–details the uniqueness of a large family governed by notions of efficiency.  Think French and German language records played in the bathrooms.  The book is heartwarming and very funny:

“Dad himself used to tell a story about one time when Mother went off to fill a lecture engagement and left him in charge at home. When Mother returned, she asked him if everything had run smoothly.
Didn’t have any trouble except with that one over there,’ he replied. ‘But a spanking brought him into line.’
Mother could handle any crisis without losing her composure.
That’s not one of ours, dear,’ she said. ‘He belongs next door.”

Weddings:

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I’m attending my first tomorrow.  I mean, I was a flower girl for my aunt and uncle’s wedding when I was five, but all I remember about that is enjoying the swish of my beautiful dress.  Tomorrow two of my friends from college marry.  I will be wearing lipstick. I will likely cry.  I will likely make a fool of myself on the dance floor.  But I’m so excited that I doubt I’ll sleep well tonight.

This blog reader:

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Okay, guys: this is cool and something you should look into if you, like me, keep tabs on about twelve different blogs.  To get set up, all you have to do is make a free account with Feedly, enter the URLs of the blogs you read, and then the day’s postings appear right on your Feedly.  No need to go to each individual website.  I use Feedly on Mac and as a mobile app, and both are user-friendly and frankly pretty slick.

This TV show:

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When I was in high school and everyone else in the nation was watching The Office, I wasn’t.  What was I watching instead?  Survivor, House Hunters, probably some Disney Channel.  The commentaries on the Chronicles of Narnia DVD.  I don’t know what was wrong with me, either.  I’m on the bandwagon now, however, and happy to be here.  Kevin and his squinty-eyed one liners are my favorites.