I write the Wisteria Tearoom Mysteries under a pen name, Patrice Greenwood. Like the heroine of that series, Ellen Rosings, I’m an Anglophile. I love British customs, and one that I especially enjoy is Elevenses.
Summer is here and we’re in what I like to call ‘silly season.’ Other people dignify it with more worthy names, but other people have already had Thanksgiving. Australia doesn’t do Thanksgiving, and we’re already a bit daft so… “silly season.” I’m not the only one to call December and early January by this name. I am, however, one of the most consistent.
I’m sending out short stories (three of us have joined together in this) to Australian addresses this Friday. Three writers sending out short stories to interested readers is a good thing to do in a fraught year. Also, me, I have Chanukah, so extra treats might creep into some envelopes.
Chanukah starts very soon, so I had to sort out what I was going to do this year rather early. I’m sending a very few envelopes overseas for it. Instead of doing a public call-out, I decided to surprise a few people. Those envelopes are gone. They contain nothing useful and nothing valuable. They are, however, fun.
I’ll be going to the post office again on Thursday. I’m not supposed to do messages. No-one can get blood samples for me (their blood is not my blood), however, so I’ll do the post office/library/bank/chicken run after I’ve done the bloodwork. That will take a half day and it will solve many problems.
I will wear a mask at critical times. I have very pretty masks and need to show them off (thanks, Pati!).
This means that I can send three more envelopes to less unsuspecting parties anywhere in the world. The first three people to get me their addresses (no later than Wednesday morning your time) will receive something small to remind you there’s a world out there and that you deserve time out. And stickers. This year we all deserve stickers.
For local friends, I have bowls filled with goodies. Local friends get the best of the daft presents, because they have to come and pick them up. The bowls will lurk on my letterbox, for as short a time as possible because it is warm. By ‘warm’, I mean, of course, ‘quite uncomfortable and this weather is intolerable and why is it doing this to us?’
Summer is here. We have our first bushfires to prove it. One of my friends can smell the smoke from Fraser Island. Another put up the special shutters and promptly lost electricity to the first fire of the season in the Blue Mountains. This is normal… but normal doesn’t mean nice in any way.
The return of bushfire season coincided with the US Black Friday sales. Some really-not-very-bright Australian retailers have announced ‘Black Friday’ as a sale here, too. ‘Black Friday’ in Australia normally refers to the 1939 fires and reminds us of the 2019/20 fires and a lot of Australians are annoyed at quite a few retailers. The sales are nearly done and they’ve put a blight into the shopping of those whose silly season includes 25 December.
Me, I already have all kinds of presents for all kinds of people for all kinds of seasons. The moment I earned enough money to live on, I bought books for me and presents for everyone else. I’m all shopped out. This means I can spend the next few weeks doing relaxed things while others panic, doesn’t it?
Not quite. I’m several weeks into my PhD and have a structure for it and have met all my early milestones. This means I have forty books and over two hundred articles to read before 6 January. My silly season is splendidly different to most others’, and this year I plan to enjoy the heck out of it.
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.
[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”…
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.
Every few months there are five Mondays in a month. Also, I posted last week because … magpies. This means you hear from me three Mondays running, and this is only Monday #2. Brace yourself…
I broke iso on Saturday. There was a medicine I urgently needed and I didn’t want to ask a friend when I also had to post a letter and get some money form the bank. I walked under falling blossom and realised that I’d chosen to go outdoors the first day of the new season. The actual change of season isn’t until 1 September, but Spring arrived on Saturday. The only shop I actually went into was the chemist. There, I could see why I am not supposed to go near people. For every nine people using common sense, there was one who wanted to make the queue move faster by creeping up behind me.
I break iso once every six weeks, on average.
Just sitting in the sunshine reminded me that the outside world is not defined by the internet and Netflix. This got me wondering why I don’t feel the need to break out more often. All kinds of other people cannot stay in their homes even if they have gardens. They have to buy milk or bread every day. I only reach that level of stir crazy every six weeks, despite living in an apartment.
I suspect it’s partly because I’ve worked mostly from home for years. I don’t have to go out at all now, though, and so I have more time to catch up on silly films I missed.
I shall not list the films, for they are all ones I would not have gone to the cinema to see, except Hamilton. Hamilton is not a silly film, even though I ran an inner argument with it the whole time.
That inner argument is the other thing. I’m watching movies with Italian subtitles or Spanish subtitles where I can, for my insufficient knowledge of both languages makes me restless. A few minutes ago I started telling my TV screen that I had not fully considered the effects that the choice of ‘guard’ and ‘watch’ and equivalent words had over the way we think about possessions and people. Then I moved onto ‘save’. Look them up in Spanish and Italian if you don’t already know them. Take your time. Tangents for thought are perfectly allowable when one looks up words.
I was watching the live action Aladdin and had to pause it to do work, for otherwise a whole new plot would have accompanied the film.
Not that I object to whole new plots accompanying films. Earlier today I was thinking that three of the Star Wars films would be massively improved with a dubbed version that turned them into comedy.
I like music, though, and needed to listen to it rather than let my mind play with historical linguistics. I often dance to musicals, mildly, for it hurts. Every time I do this, the next day is less difficult so it is worthy pain. My dancing feet remind me that they are musicals and that I really shouldn’t drift too much.
My time sense has warped beyond all logic since the bushfires and COVID-19, but my mind takes me into some wonderful explorations. I was bored for an hour earlier this year and I tweeted it. It astonished me, that, in over twelve months of things being so seriously challenging, I should only have been bored that one hour.
I rather suspect I made a decision in my childhood that no matter how alone I was, I was not going to be lonely. I know I worked hard in my teens to develop this skill. I’m still working on some elements of it. I wasn’t expecting this work to give me the pandemic experience some of my friends crave. I hope there are classes on this for people who had lives that didn’t push them to develop this skill. I can’t imagine how awful COVID-19 in an apartment would be without my arguments with the TV screen or my dreams while I wash dishes. (I hate washing dishes.)
I am not alone in this drift of time and the richness it embraces. Quite a few writers I know are experiencing something similar. What I wonder is the possible relationship between problematic childhoods, a determination to not be defeated by them and us becoming writers.
My sentences are growing complicated and I’ve been sitting down for too long. Time for more Aladdin.
I was trying to explain to a friend today, that my life is so rollercoaster that I couldn’t catch him up on the last three weeks. I’d just caught him up on maybe a third of it, with much hand gesturing and discussion. He didn’t think my life was playing rollercoaster games with me. It’s normal, he said.
If it’s normal, I worry about the world. One day recently, eight nasty little things happened to me before breakfast and spellcheck offered me ‘tetchy’ instead of an entirely different word. I wanted to accept ‘tetchy’ then. That same day, I received one of those phone calls that ends with, “Don’t tell anyone. This is under embargo.” The embargo is over and I can tell you: I’ve been given a government grant to write. And I’d just told the world I was tetchy. I had eight reasons for being tetchy and now I have one reason for having a sigh of relief. Income is a magic thing.
The next bit of rollercoaster was entirely exhaustion with being inside. The place I live in may be short on COVID, but I am vulnerable and my various doctors tell me I will be in iso for a long time to come. Sometimes I become rebellious. This time I found an historical drama (the ‘an’ is to remind you of my accent) that is 50 one hour episodes long and that depicts a part of the Middle Ages I’m little-acquainted with. Six Flying Dragons and the Korean fourteenth century. I can still pick some holes in it and there is so much to learn about how Korea likes to tell its own stories and so it’s relaxing.
K-drama was performing its magic and I was thinking, “I, too, can have an even keel of a life.” Unless my friend is wrong and other people have placid days from time to time. For it seems I can’t. The minute I thought I could I had to give up seven phials of blood to medical diagnosis. I went into a shop on the way home. The shop with no-one else except one salesperson, and we stayed clear of each other, so I can tell my doctor next week “I didn’t betray you, truly – I wore a mask and didn’t come within 2 metres of anyone.
My unexpected trip outside the flat taught me that Australia is getting very few shipments from SE Asia. I have lots of ginger tea and not a scrap of the spices I went in for.
I also have moon cakes. Normally the moon cakes come from Hong Kong or from Singapore. These might have been from Hong Kong, but they are labelled ‘China’ and are standard white lotus ones with much eggyolk. These will be my special treat for the next month, then the tin ends up storing food in my pantry. Moon cake tins stack and they have good seals, and each year I get just one. I was thinking that flour would be good to store in this one, but it’s too pretty.
I couldn’t get my Javanese coffee. Kopi Jawa is a particular roast and a particular brand from Indonesia. I was taught to make it in a way that works like instant coffee but with a much better flavour, and it’s great for when I’m lazy, or tired or sick or all three. There was a void on the shelf where it belonged.
It’s odd to find what’s around and what isn’t. It’s stranger walking through a shop with shelves that look as if they belong to the seventies than it is to shop online.
I ought to explain the seventies thing. Australia in the seventies had strikes. We imported a lot of things – we still do – and the strikes meant unpredictably empty shelves. This means I have techniques for dealing when my favourite Japanese spice mix is missing, but I’d rather have the spices.
When I came home I found the best and nicest email in my in-box.
I’m on panels at NASFiC. So many conference organisers are learning (in a great hurry) how to create magic online events. This one is free (though donations help) and it starts on Friday and half of it is in the middle of my night. I would normally attend the Australian equivalent, but the Australian equivalent is nothing like NASFiC and I’m so much looking forward to it.
I’m not talking about nine-tenths of what happens. This erratic movement from amazing to mundane to terrible to brilliant is my everyday.
The funny side is iso in a flat. I see people through Zoom or other programs, and I speak a lot on the phone, and I shout at my television when the writing is bad, but otherwise, I am alone. So much alone. And so busy and so rollercoastery and running and hopping to keep up. Some days I suspect plants are fictional. Other days I’m pretty certain that the outside world is a figment of my imagination.
I don’t always have enough time for my imagination. The day NASFiC ends, for instance, I have to edit a book I wrote with another government grant early this year. The grants are not very big but, to be honest, when it’s just me and my computer and my living room and the kitchen (far too close, because I like cooking and cooking likes my waist) the grants don’t have to be big.
My rollercoaster has some very deep dips in it, which you (honestly, trust me on this) don’t need to know about. The nuggets of gold and nodules of gem take me to the heights, and it’s much easier to deal with bad things when one has occasional views of a bigger world and when there are whole months at a time when bills can be paid. This year, the lows are giant hollows cut into a mountain and when I’m there I feel as if there is no outside world and no hope. The highs, however, are exceptional.
I still want to know if my friend is right about everyone having eight nasty things to handle before breakfast and one gloriously brilliant thing after breakfast and if the transformation from tetch to thinking there will be a future is very sudden and possibly uncomfortable. I’d like to know that. Mind you, I’d also like to know ten more languages and have forty hours extra each day and good eyes so that I can read ALL the wonderful stories in them. I’d like lots of things. Not this week yet. This week is busy.
So, what happens when you take a 5th generation southern California native and uproot her 2600 miles away to the semi-tropical southwest Florida gulf coast?
Well … these are the “selected” shells. I limit myself to one handful per trip, only ones I’ve never gotten before. I now know the names of many of these. The orange ones are scallops. Like the little ones we eat.
So I really like Florida. It reminds me of when I was a kid in California. It’s not crowded like L.A. and Orange County have become. There’s still plenty of room for enthusiasm and exuberant displays of individualism.
This here is Gatorz in Port Charlotte. A homey, down to earth kind of place.
This here below is a “gator” as in 6-foot alligator I saw crossing a divided 4 lane highway in Englewood. We have a small one that lives in one of our nearby ponds.
So I was driving down the highway on the way to walk around downtown Venice, FL and this car is stopped in front of me. Why is he stopped? What’s going on … Continue reading “How Many Alligators Are There in Florida? 1.25 Million!”…
About 15 years ago most of my jewelry was stolen. None of it was very valuable, although there were some pearls and jade and a little amber, and a lovely pair of moonstone in gold stud earrings that had some monetary value. But, as is the way of things, each piece had a story that was part of my life. That was their real value, and hence the deepest loss. I’d had some of them since my childhood, and some had been gifts from loved ones who’ve since died. Some of it was my mother’s.
I went through the expected rage and frenzy, scouring local flea markets in the forlorn hope that I might spot a piece or two. Of course, I did not. When that stage had run its course, the police report filed (and, doubtless, immediately tossed), anger turned to grief, and grief to acceptance, and acceptance to looking in a new way at what I’d lost.
I wrote in my journal that although the thieves had taken bits of minerals, crystals, shells, fossilized tree sap, they could not steal:
the stories in my mind
the books I’ve written
their kindness and generosity to me
my capacity for joy…
Slowly, over the years, I have acquired a new collection. It’s smaller and more suited to who I am now. I discovered a few things from my mother, tucked away in an old cigar box with some broken bits and things I didn’t wear. Friends and family surprised me with simple, beautiful pieces: a strand of black pearls, an amber pendant, a necklace of silver and garnet dangles, tiny, amazingly delicate garnet earrings. I went through a period of needing “replacements,” and then letting them go. My daughters and I have swapped a number of pairs of earrings. It’s such a delight to pass them on. And to realize I don’t truly need any of this.
What I need are the people I love, and who love me. What I need is to write the stories in my heart. What I need is to work for a better world for everyone. In light of the covid-19 pandemic and the #BlackLivesMatter protest movement, my priorities have sharpened.
I look at what I have, what I have lost, what cannot be taken from me, what I have gained. Yes, I enjoy beautiful things. How much more dear to me are the memories that come with them. And how much more precious are the lives of those who are oppressed and terrified and suffering today.
I never thought I’d see a crewed rocket blast into space at Cape Canaveral, yet — here I am. I also never thought I’d live in Florida, and likely would never even visit the state, yet — here I am.
I do remember Apollo 11 landing on the moon and I remember Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin planting the flag. I recall sitting on the living room floor in our house in the orange grove cross-legged, eating an Oreo and drinking a 6-oz glass of milk. The living room walls in the grove house were cedar panels. I remember Rebel sitting next to me, his big head and floppy ears resting on his big old paws. Rebel was a phlegmatic Basset hound with deep brown, mournful eyes. I had learned to walk by clinging to his ears and toddling.
It seemed very easy for these two guys to hop out of the Lunar module and caper around the moon. At age seven, I thought the big rocket was just like the small rockets one of our teachers had launched at school. In my mind, flying to the moon was maybe a little farther than flying to Paris. My child’s mind told me that the astronauts were just like The Little Prince only instead of a nice costume and scarf, they wore puffy, funny suits.
This is in my child’s mind. All through school, we drew peace symbols, stuck “ecology” stickers on our notebooks, and learned about the Apollo astronauts. I was certain that by the time we were all grown up, the world would be a beautiful, green, peaceful place, and astronauts would be flying all over the universe.
Just like Star Trek.