Comfort reading

The other day, we were chatting, in the usual Treeehouse way, about one of our favourite topics. The question we asked each other was not “Which books do you like?” but “Why do you like this book in particular?” We were talking about elements of a book where the author had put the finger on something so precisely that that author and that trait give us pleasure, even years after we first read it. We decided that when one of us remembers something about a favourite book, we might write about it here. We all need comfort right now, after all, and comfort reading is right up there with chocolate as something worth sharing. I’ve eaten some excellent chocolate today and I have a cup of tea at my right hand.

The book I want to share is one that’s really not very well known these days. I’m not sure it was even published outside Australia. It’s by Ray Harris The Adventures of Turkey. Boy of the Australian Plains. I have the 1960 edition, but didn’t read it until some years later. My school library had an earlier edition. I learned about space travel in that library and dreamed of becoming a science fiction writer. I learned about history in that library and dreamed of having history as part of my life. I watched the moon landing in that library, in 1969, when I was eight, and I read The Adventures of Turkey in that library.

Turkey was a schoolboy who lived outback, in an Australia I thought I visited on holidays. When I was a teenager, I was on a school exchange programme and discovered that almost everything in the novel either never existed or was in the past. Mostly in the past. I spent a lot of my early history quests trying to find out about Turkey and his life.

What is it in this book that still grips me? It’s a perfectly created world. It’s what most fantasy novels dream of being, but it chronicles the apparent everyday of school children from way out Woop Woop or from back of Burke. This is an Australian fantasy place, where the climate is tough and the people tougher, and where snakes are dealt with calmly and the real hero is a lanky boy who looks like a bush turkey.

The conversation us Treehousers (I’m now stuck in Australian English, sorry) had, was about writing techniques.

What writing techniques did Harris use that makes me dream about this non-existent Australia every time I read the book? (Do not ask how often I’ve read the book: I’ve owned this copy for about 45 years. We are talking about ultimate comfort reading.) This is not about what the book gets wrong. It’s about what it gets right.

One of my favourite openings of novels is in Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising. In the first paragraph we learn so much about a family that everything that happens to Will Stanton happens in that family context. The events are more startling because we know his family, intimately, from Will’s reaction to them in that first paragraph.

Ray Harris uses a similar technique.

“Turkey, me toe’s sore!”

Without speaking, the lanky fourteen year-old slid his school bag in front of him and took his small stepsister pick-a-back. He carried her easily enough. She put her perspiring cheek against his not neck, pushing his hat on one side. He made no protest.

 

It’s at once very Australian and very simple.

Everything in the novel is Australian and simple. We were just getting used to the idea that we could use our own dialect for protagonists in the 1950s and 1960s, so Harris used a voice even in that opening paragraph and that voice is what comforts me.

It’s my father’s voice.

Dad was brought up in country towns. I’m very much a big city person and I’ve never spoken the way Turkey does. I use a bit of dialect (‘Strine’ is its official name) now and again, to tease people, but I actually had to learn it from others as a child. The Adventures of Turkey was one of those others. It helped me to understand my father’s jokes. It helped me to see that there was an Australia outside my suburb and that I wanted to find out more about that Australia. It did all this by presenting the often-humorous life of Turkey, one day at a time.

While as a school story Turkey was new to me, the humour wasn’t. My father’s jokes are in it, and the entire novel lovingly embraces the narrative style of CJ Dennis (The Sentimental Bloke is another story I visit and revisit when I need comfort – it’s an Australian retelling of Romeo and Juliet) with hints (mere hints) of the adventures of Bunyip Bluegum (Norman Lindsay’s The Magic Pudding) and the short stories of Steele Rudd about Dad and Dave.

If you find the common elements in all of these, you will see what gives me comfort in The Adventures of Turkey. Whimsy walks alongside stern practicality. There’s an acceptance that even simple prose can be used to share the reality that ordinary life is tough but still worthwhile.

All of this was communicated through a writing style that supported resigned humour. The comfort comes from Strine itself, in a way. When I first discovered it, I was reading British school stories and dance books and horse books and I was reading about Anne Shirley and Laura Ingalls Wilder. I was reading science fiction and fantasy and anything that contained history. None of them gave the firm foundation that Turkey did.

It’s the sense that the everyday can be story, I think. Even if it’s an everyday that is so unlike my own that it felt ultra-real.

That opening says it all. Susan Cooper’s opening said that the everyday can be turned upside down and inside out. Harris said that the everyday didn’t have to be turned upside down and inside out to make good story. This is the comfort.

Tool Love

My Driver’s Ed teacher, Paul Menin, insisted that every girl in his class had to be able to change a tire, check the oil, and diagram the basic workings of an internal combustion engine*. I have had occasion more than once to bless Mr. Menin’s curriculum: at the time I was in High School this was unusual, and empowering, information for a woman.

My father wasn’t much of a car guy. He could check the oil or change a tire, but his idea of car care was to find a decent mechanic. I’m not sure he observed a maintenance schedule: you waited until there was A Noise or a light came on, then went to the garage.   This is in contrast to my husband, whose father taught him from boyhood all about cars. Danny’s the kind of guy who wants to know how his tools work and how to take care of them. The scheduled maintenance visits are religiously observed. When our daughter got her car, Danny gave her a book about car maintenance (and he agonizes over the fact that four years later she still has not read it).

I’m afraid–my ability to change a tire notwithstanding–that I tend more toward my father’s attitude than my husband’s. Continue reading “Tool Love”

Car Culture

Lincoln Continental Convertible[I wrote this a few years back and published it on another blog. It’s still relevant.]

When I was sixteen, I developed a passion for a yellow Lincoln Continental convertible with a black leather interior. Not a Corvette, which was the hot car of my youth (why, yes, I did watch Route 66), or one of the adorable tiny English sports cars of the ’60s. A Lincoln Continental, the ultimate land yacht.

In my dreams, I would have this car by my mid-20s, when I’d be living in Kemah, Texas (on Galveston Bay), and working at some job or another (the details of employment were not part of this fantasy, though it must have been well-paid). I would also have a shrimp boat, though I wouldn’t be a working shrimper.

Why a shrimp boat, you may ask? Possibly because I really, really liked (and like) to eat shrimp. But also because it wasn’t the sort of boat the wealthy acquired. That is, I wanted a rich person’s car, but a working person’s boat.

It should go without saying that I never achieved this dream. In my mid-20s I was finishing law school and pretty much broke. The car I did have – a Plymouth Valiant – had bit the dust and I was commuting around Austin by bicycle.

Even if I’d had the money, I didn’t want that car or that lifestyle by that time. Kemah was no longer a sleepy bay town but a bustling suburb and I had developed my life-long allergy to commuting. And I had other dreams, few of which involved cars. Continue reading “Car Culture”

Wildfire Journey Part II

Once we’d gotten settled with the cats and the hotel routine, daily life became a matter of watching the progress of the fire containment and waiting for news about water and power, and when the evacuation order might change to a warning, allowing us to go back. The CalFire damage inspection teams went through the neighborhood, and we cheered when we saw our house on the map, marked green — no fire damage! Our little neck of the woods had the misfortune to lose the tank that supplied us entirely, so a new temporary tank would have to be installed, with temporary piping, on rugged terrain, with smoldering hot spots…and our electricity came through an area that had been badly burned. Water was restored to other areas (to be truthful, just about every other area) first, although at first it wasn’t clear how badly contaminated it might be. About 5 miles of aboveground HDPE pipe melted, creating the possibility of backflow due to depressurization of water contaminated by the products of heated plastic (VOCs). Later testing revealed most if not all of that water was safe, so the Do Not Drink/Do Not Boil orders were eventually lifted, although not for our block. It seemed to be one lumbering, unfolding disaster, with visions of returning home to water safe only for flushing toilets, no power, trees apt to fall over at any time. Looters. Lost pets. Dying wildlife. 

Finally the mandatory evacuation order for our street was changed to a warning, and it happened the same day when we decided to go look at our place, regardless. There were road blocks, but further up the highway so we could get in. Each passing mile brought us into more familiar territory. Driving into our little town and seeing ordinary vehicles as well as emergency equipment was a highlight, but not as tear-inducing as pulling into our carport and seeing the gate, pretty much untouched. There were chunks of ash outside, but no burning or other fire damage. The mud room and adjacent office reeked of smoke, although the interior of the house wasn’t too bad. We walked around, seeing “home,” until I wrapped my arms around my daughter, sobbing, “It’s here, it’s okay…” Home is safe. 

We gathered up a few more things, then went into the garden. Despite our fears that everything would have died between the high heat, no water, and smoke, some parts were thriving. The squash plants seemed intent on taking over the county. Apples and grapefruits littered the ground. The green beans had mostly produced seed. The tomatoes looked fat and happy, now being inadvertently dry-farmed. The rhubarb was okay, and one unseasonal asparagus spear raised its solitary head. We gathered a basket of edible-sized zucchini, grapefruit, and apples, leaving a supply for the family of scrub jays that lives in our orchard. On the way out of town, we stopped at the volunteer fire department to thank them and offer grapefruit, but they couldn’t risk any ill health effects from the ash and soot, so declined with thanks.

Back at the hotel, we decided that in order to move back in, we needed water and power. There was no possibility of cleaning without these things, and between the smoke odor, the light fall of ash, the ordinary dust of several weeks, and the condition of a refrigerator without power for over two weeks, we couldn’t stay overnight without cleaning.

The next step was meeting with our smoke damage adjuster at the house. We did a walk-through, inspecting and discussing. One of the down sides of the online local community, I found, was a sort of mob effect that magnified the unwillingness of other adjusters to address issues such as toxic ash and environmental testing or additional living expenses and created an adversarial relationship. I found myself getting worked up in anticipation of having to fight for the coverage we had paid for. As it turned out, we and our adjuster achieved a surprising amount of cooperation. They explained their findings, we each asked questions and got clarification. In the end, we felt the settlement offer was fair and would allow us to pay for a professional cleaning if we could not do it ourselves.

Although we’d been prepared to pay for a few extra days at the hotel, power and nonpotable were restored in enough time for us to make several trips to do enough cleaning of the bedrooms and bathrooms that we felt optimistic about moving back on the last day of our paid housing. First came prep, aka cleaning! The bedrooms were by far the least affected by smoke but the places I wanted the cleanest first. I set to work, wiping down surfaces, dusting and vacuuming with our new HEPA filter vacuum cleaner, changing linens, washing floors. Moving from room to room. I was surprised at my sustained willingness to be meticulous and also my endurance. After two exhausting but satisfying sessions, we were ready to move back in.

We walked from room to room, speechless with appreciation for all our treasures that had survived. Much work lay before us — salvaging the refrigerator and freezer, going through the rest of the house, then hiring local professionals to do a deep cleaning that included walls, ceilings, and blinds (windows and the exterior would have to wait for the rains). We watched the cats explore their “new” surroundings, their joy in being in a familiar place. 

Since the beginning of the pandemic, it has been the custom in our valley to go outside at 8 pm and howl like wolves for five minutes. On our first night back, our daughter and I did this. We heard only a few, distant howls. We howled back, We’re here! And at every following night, more voices joined in. Another joyful event was hearing our neighbors’ voices on the street, going out to greet them (masked and socially distanced, of course) and celebrate that we all made it. Hey, let’s have a block barbecue on the street once we get clean water again!

Wildfire evacuation has been an ordeal, no question. With climate change, this will increasingly be the new normal. It was at times terrifying, saddening, and yet also exhilarating to see the community flourish using technology. I feel profoundly grateful for how fortunate we are. All people and cats are safe, and we have a home to come back to. We have experienced amazing kindness and have done our best to extend it to others.

Good Things to do to Stay Fit After 50

At least for me, it’s hard to eat right, exercise enough, and feel good about myself if my feelings aren’t in the right place. I had an unpleasant experience recently. Years ago, events like these would have set me back for months, and maybe even years. I can still remember bad things that happened to me when I was young. These seem laughably trivial in hindsight. For example, my grandparents liked to go to Solvang, a small Danish tourist town north of Santa Barbara. There’s lots of pictures of four- or five-year-old me riding in the front of the “Danish Days” parade wearing an elaborate Danish outfit and sitting between two white-bearded elders. So, there’s not a Danish bone in my body but as a little blonde, blue-eyed girl dressed perfectly, they apparently thought I was the right kid to put in the front of the parade. Mostly I remember the beautiful horses.

That’s a good memory. But when I was about 12, I wore Danish clogs from Solvang to school and I got teased on the bus for the way my feet looked. Apparently the problem was the pale skin on the arches of my feet, and maybe their bony look or veins. Still not sure. But it made me want to wear thick socks and sneakers or boots for years. No – not socks and sandals – but it made me horribly self-conscious about my feet. I’ve got chigger bite scars persisting on my right instep right now … I was teased about my fat rear … didn’t wear a certain kind of pants for years … I was called “Blueberry” for wearing a loose dress with a belt that rode up over my stomach when I was 6 months pregnant with my daughter …

As we grow older, I think this type of incident — and we all have plenty of them to draw upon — gets less bothersome. But a couple of weeks ago, Bruce and I were on Venice Beach (FL) and he was playing his guitar. I started singing with him and this older guy sitting a few yards away gets up and moves his beach chair closer.

“Play louder,” he tells Bruce. I immediately stopped singing.

Then he says, pointing at a young family farther down the beach, “Ha ha, you know what they say, nobody’s interested in women once they get past 30.”

I turned around and looked at this joker. “Yes, I’ve heard that many times,” I said. “It’s total bullshit. My experience is the exact opposite.” Continue reading “Good Things to do to Stay Fit After 50”

Car, parked.

carOn March 13, I filled the car with gas because we were planning a trip to visit my sweetheart’s mother for her 90th birthday. But the next day we both woke up feeling a little under the weather, so we decided we shouldn’t go.

Four days later, the Bay Area set up a shelter-in-place to slow down the pandemic.

I haven’t put gas in the car since. According to the gauge, there’s about three-quarters of a tank available.

At a rough guess, I’ve driven the car about a hundred miles in the last six and a half months. To put that in perspective, I’ve walked about 850 miles in that same period.

Now it’s not unusual for me to walk more than I drive when I’m not traveling. I live in a very walkable neighborhood. And I’m even driving to run some errands right now; when you buy two weeks worth of groceries at once or are picking up a farm box instead of browsing the booths at the farmer’s market, a car is useful. Continue reading “Car, parked.”

Time to Make the Doughnuts

Remember the exciting first days of the Pandemic? When the world was new and it was possible to recast everything in the light of an adventure? (Okay, that’s my coping mechanism. It might not be yours.)

In March, I decided I was going to make masks for donation–first off to medical personnel who were dying (sometimes literally) for want of PPE, but then to others who needed them. It was great: as the masks of different sorts got sent off I felt a part of something bigger than I am, and I felt like I was making a contribution, and it felt great. Continue reading “Time to Make the Doughnuts”

Living Quickly

I’m a bit late today. I have had 3 meetings, read a book and worked and … I’m tired. I don’t have many words for you today, then, but my last few days got me thinking. I have so many things to think about right now that it’s hard to settle down to write about just one idea. What is helping sort me out is a letter I received from an editor. It was one of the most lucid analyses of a manuscript I’ve seen in a long time. It told me what my mind was doing. That letter also helped me see what other people’s minds are doing.

We’re all in a strange world and adjusting to it as difficult. This new world has too much quicksand. It’s easy to step onto something secure and discover the ground sucking us in.

COVID changes our everyday in ways we can’t predict. The emotional response to the pandemic and the quicksand changes our emotions in ways we cannot control. What this lucid letter taught me was that I had temporarily lost the capacity to take a step back and to see the world clearly.

In some ways we’re living very slowly right now, and we’re a bit divorced from the world because we can’t walk in it every day.

In other ways we’re living very intensely. In the late 1980s I clipped a cartoon and stuck it on a bookshelf, for it exactly summed up what the world looked like just then. Father Time was playing with a device. “Oops, I hit fast-forward,” he said.

That cartoon is even more appropriate now than it was then, for social distancing and iso and the world talking so quickly and passionately online while our local social networks are temporarily faded makes me think of the TV screen and watching events on it.

In the late 1980s Father Time was metaphorically hitting the switch that affected our lives. In 2020, we are ourselves in Father Time’s seat, seeing the whole world through screens.

Rip van Winkle versus the Spaceship

I’m dreaming of spaceships today. I want to write a story set in one.

I need to write a story. It’s only Tuesday here and my New Year is on Friday and I’m writing your post nearly a week early because of that festival. I was going to tell you all about Medieval Jewish foodways in western Europe and about modem Jewish foodways in Australia and I was going to make you cravingly hungry for honeycake. I’m derailing the whole conversation (one I haven’t yet begun) because of my dream of spaceships.

I won’t tell you the dream itself, for it’s going into a short story, later today. One short story set in a spaceship and I ought to be caught up on all my new fiction for Jewish New Year. What I want to talk about is the alternate path the dream did not take.

Before 2020, I assumed that if someone were inside for months on end, when they went outside, finally, I would have a Rip van Winkle experience. I would emerge to a strange place I did not recognise: the rest of the world would have moved on.

This is not at all what happened when I went to medical appointments last week. Sure, the streets look at bit different. I emerged to a financial recession, after all, where the strict COVID limits on who can do what. Overcrowding is rare and people are more scattered. There are crosses and lines to mark safety.

I knew about these changes, however, before I encountered them. Rip van Winkle emerged to a place he did not know and that he did not understand. While he was asleep, he was out of sync with the outside world.

It would take an active choice to be out of sync right now. Or a second terrible moment, like the wildfires in the US or riots or… a great deal of what’s happening in the world right now. Multiply the peril and one’s focus turns to keeping going. I suspect the US has many Rips right now.

Given my last twelve months, I assumed that this is what would happen to me. That I would emerge into a changed world and I would not belong to it at all. When I found that this wasn’t at all true, I needed another metaphor. Washington Irving failed me. It’s tragic that he did not fail the US.

I explained my situation a bit more clearly to a neighbour’s friend when I put my rubbish out (this was such a big accomplishment! Once this statement would have been sarcastic – right now it requires the exclamation mark.). My neighbour’s friend failed me in a different way when I emerged.

When we told each other what we did for a living and I said I was a writer, he took my earlier admission of disability to mean that I filled in my time writing. He was nice about me turning my disabled state to good use.

This was when I fell out of sync with the world. Had working for a living changed since I last spoke to a stranger? He moved off the ‘occupation for a person with disabilities’ and onto the ‘does this out of passion’ thing. If we meet a few more times, maybe he’ll see the professional side of writing, and understand that being disabled doesn’t actually mean having a lesser life. It’s a life with restrictions and much medical stuff, but it’s capable of being amazingly rich. Mine is that life. I commented to him that I was bored for a whole hour earlier this year and I looked at the boredom and examined it closely and exclaimed in wonder at it and that is when I discovered that I was no longer bored.

This is why I had the spaceship dream.

I was never Rip van Winkle. I’m in a small spaceship. I can talk to other people and am in touch with the whole world of I want to be, but I’m in a spaceship. No dinner parties. No long chats with friends around a pot of tea. No long walks in the spring sunshine. But I know what’s happening and can be a part of it. It’s only my physical presence in a place other than my spaceship that’s not a given.

Family Language

What do you call the remote for your TV/DVR/cable box etc.?

In my house, it is referred to as the cacker, as in “Can you hand me the DVD cacker?” My kids grew up with this word, and had to adjust to more standard terminology when their friends stared at them blankly. “The wha?” “The cacker. You know, the thing for changing the channel.” “You mean the remote? You’re weird.”

Well, of course. They’re my kids.

I’m not entirely sure how this word came to be in use in my family, but I know where it came from. When we were very small, my brother used to hammer at things with a piece of a broken wooden toy with, if memory serves, a nail sticking out of it. We will leave aside the question of why my parents didn’t immediately take this weapon from him. He called his tool a cacker, and when he hammered at things he was cacking. Don’t judge him–I think he was four years old.

But do all families do this?  Continue reading “Family Language”