Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Carnivore by the Fire

Through the years, my dog at the time seems to find its way into my writing.  Of course the phrase, 'my dog at the time', barely touches on the relationship I have had with my dogs, as most dog people will immediately understand.

Our current dog is a nine-month-old Golden Retriever called Bodie.  He is from the same line as our great, late Ollie, who was the model for Forty, the dog described in the excerpt below from my yet to be published novel, Summerland.

We'd lived with  mature dogs for many years so the rearing of a puppy has been, well, sometimes challenging for us.  Isn't challenged the appropriate word for being half-crazed by something?  It's getting better as we remind each other every day.  The words, 'where is he?' and 'No!' are no longer uttered at ten minute intervals, although we still have the challenges of anyone with a teen aged male in the house.

He moves just like John Travolta did in Staying Alive, all snake hips, swagger and attitude. He approaches his toys with a slinky, wolf-like walk that always startles me.  Ten minutes later he can be happily snoring in my lap, but I can't quite shake the fact that this enormous and beautiful pup is also a carnivore who is related, albeit very distantly, to the wolf.

Current thinking is that early man first saw the animal that would become the dog lurking beyond the campsite, scavenging for whatever it was early man didn't deem suitable for his own consumption.  I can only imagine it too moved like John Travolta in Staying Alive, but that animal's intentions were far deadlier than grabbing a tennis ball off the rug.  It probably weighed around fifty pounds, maybe half of that early man and it had huge teeth and jaws that could exert a thousand pounds of pressure.

It most likely took years, maybe generations of eyeballing each other before someone reached out a hand and said, 'hi boy'.  (Okay, maybe they said something else or maybe they found some pups and reared them, but I'm writing this so it's my call.)  Right now, Bodie is asleep on the rug, snoring softly, his fur still damp from our morning hike in the freezing rain.  It's just like our own version of the Peaceable Kingdom, and I'm glad that one of our ancestors from the dim past was brave enough to invite the carnivore to the fire.

Summerland -Excerpt
Even if somebody didn’t like dogs, they fell in love with Forty, that was what her father said and he said it so often that it was accepted as the truth. Jonas said there was something in Forty’s face that made people see what it was to be really happy.  The dog had that black-rimmed smile of all the Goldens, but in Forty’s smile a person could see all the sunny days, snowy mornings and squirrel chasing and beside-the-fireplace sleeping that accounted for that black-rimmed smile. Her father said that just looking at Forty was enough to make you feel that it was the best right now that ever was. Sometimes when he said that, she couldn’t help but wonder if he was talking about Karen because it was said with such wonder in his voice.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Somewhere We Can't Find

As a species, we are always looking for reasons and explanations that help us understand the world and events. Even during the unfortunately named Dark Ages, tremendous advancements were being made in science, architecture, art, and philosophy.  We are by our very nature seekers who are satisfied for only a very short time before we want to know more, but sometimes we have to come to grips with the fact that we will never know.

A plane veered off-course and was lost with two-hundred and thirty-six people.  A horrible thing to happen and of course we would like to know what caused this.  We would like to know if there was some flaw in the design of the craft, we would like to know if this is some wretched new form of terrorism, and some would like to know whether or not this was a black hole.  (That last was actually a point of discussion on a television news show that features people who are supposedly journalists.)

Sadly, it was clear within the first twelve hours that plane was gone and the people were dead.  Heart breaking for their families, we can be sure of that, but why has it captivated us to the degree that it has?  Is it because these are people who climb into planes and fly to other countries?  Can we relate to them because that means they were people with resources and influence, people like us?

Vast amounts of money and uncounted hours of manpower have been spent trying to find the plane, to explain what happened, and no doubt the search, and the questions, will go on for months, if not years, and the answers most likely will never be found.  During this time, displaced people are  and will be suffering horribly in refugee camps. Why doesn't the picture of a Syrian woman holding the corpse of a baby result in the same outpouring of time and treasure?  Why aren't the images of naked and malnourished children from Sudan being shown on the twenty-four hour news programs?

We do know that Malaysian airport security left something to be desired and let's hope they and other countries work to fix those issues, even though they may have nothing to do with the the disappearance of the plane.  We can't make that plane fly out of the clouds and land in Beijing, but there are more than two-hundred and thirty-six lives we can start saving.  Let's start looking at them and let's start saving them today.

Monday, March 24, 2014


On Christmas my daughter gave me a copy of Stoner by John Williams.  She told me that it had been published years ago, but was undergoing a renaissance of sorts.  I put it on my reading pile, but since it was an actual book and I had a brand new Kindle Fire, it was pushed to the back of the pile and almost forgotten about it until she asked me if I had it read yet.  I put the Kindle aside, picked up Stoner and couldn't put it down.

Published in 1965, it tells the story of a rather ordinary young man who, around 1915, leaves his childhood home, a subsistence farm in Missouri, and attends university to study agriculture. While there, he is seduced by literature and eventually earns his doctorate and becomes a professor at the same school. He teaches, he marries, he becomes a father and he dies. Rather an ordinary life, but a perfect novel about an imperfect life.

William Stoner falls in love and marries a rather shy and withdrawn woman by the name of Edith.  They are an unlikely and very unhappy match, but her parents wanted her married off while the bloom was still on the rose.  I realized at this point that Edith could have been my own maternal grandmother.

My grandmother, Ethel Enlow Young, was the daughter of a doctor, very pretty with black curls and and a petite form, but at twenty-seven she was an old maid by the standards of her time and place. She met and married a young railroad engineer-the son of a failed silver miner-who had recently arrived in town.

She had a baby daughter with almost indecent speed.  Like her mother, this child was blessed with black curly hair, dimples and a general air of daintiness. Four years later, Ethel birthed another baby, a twelve pound blonde baby who was a disappointment in terms of gender and coloring.  That baby would grow up to be among other things, my mother.

The railroad engineer fell in love with a woman who ran a cafe in Winslow Arizona, a nasty backwater at the time, where he'd moved his family.  Ethel's marriage ended and she returned to her parents home where she spiraled into mental illness and alcoholism.

I was around four when I realized that I had a second grandmother. My mother didn't drive when I was small, so every few weeks my parents would pile their daughters and themselves into the Ford and my father drive us over to the next town where he would  park in front of a big white house My mother would disappear for something less than an hour, then come out looking grim.  My father would pat her on the hand and then we would go back home.

After one of these visits to the big white house, I heard something about an illness and my thoughts and questions immediately went to my arthritic grandmother, my Swedish grandmother, who was famous for her roses and oversaw a pantry that smelled of sugar and cardamon.  I was assured that Victoria, my Swedish grandmother, was fine, but it was the other one who was too sick to leave the white house.  Of course I wanted to meet this woman since by this time, I had decided that grandmothers were fine people.  Either my father or my mother explained that this grandmother was too sick to ever see us.

Around Christmas that year, I walked into my parents bedroom to find my mother in plaid pajamas and holding what I would later learn was a telegram.  The white house was only a few miles from our home, but she had been sent a telegram to notify her of her mother's death.

When I was grown I was finally told the whole sad story.  My mother could finally talk about her mother, but the grief and regret for a beloved mother never left her.  She was never able to stop imagining what her mother could have been in a different time, a time when she would have had options and a voice.

I urge you to read Stoner, but try to be open-minded about Edith. She didn't have many options either.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Fifteen After Seven

I'm not sure when I became a person of such regular habits, but at fifteen after seven this morning, a snowy Saturday morning, I was pulling out of the garage. With the dog whining in my ear, no doubt in hopes that I would speed up, I waved to my neighbor who I knew would be pulling out of his drive to follow me to the hill.

I've been doing this for years now, this getting out in every kind of weather to hike or snow shoe on a Nature Conservancy property a quick drive from our house, but my neighbor only joined me about a year and a half ago.  He's a consulting geologist who works out of his house and I of course, sit in my little office upstairs in hopes that books result from all this sitting. My family was delighted when he joined me, given my history with this property and my well-deserved reputation for a miserable sense of direction. (As a bonus he has two dogs who have graciously volunteered to teach our nine-month-old golden retriever the basics of dog etiquette while we're on the trail.

Barr Hill is the place we go every morning with the aforementioned pack of dogs.  The land was donated by Alfred Barr,a long time summer resident of Greensboro Vermont, and the founder of MOMA in New York. Barr Hill also plays a part in Wallace Stegner's wonderful novel Crossing to Safety.

It's has a quiet, gentle beauty that changes daily, and never fails to remind me that this is why we live here. This is farm country and in the summer a young farmer summers his herd down at the bottom of the hill and farther up the hill, almost at the top, you can see a fallen stone wall, a testament to the loss of a nineteenth century farmer's dream. One can only marvel at the audacity of that farmer, thinking that he could tame that forested section of this beautiful hill and turn it into a farm.  The audacity or perhaps the desperation.

Several years ago, long before my neighbor began to join me, something happened that still makes me think that this hill has a mind of its own and that it has rules that must be honored.  It was late fall, an inch or two of snow was on the ground, and I was hiking with my dog up at the top in the most forested area, knowing that any day a good snow was going to make that section impassable until Spring. I was hiking along when I suddenly realized that I was no longer on the trail. Not only could I not find the trail, I couldn't recognize any tree, couldn't see a blaze or identify any outcropping of rocks.  I looked down at the dog, hoping that he would simply keep going and lead me out, but he looked as confused as I did. I told him to go on, but he simply kept sniffing the ground as he circled me.

I rarely wear a watch so I don't know how long I was up there, but it was long enough to get me to edge of scared. I had walked this trail hundreds, maybe thousands of times, but didn't see a thing that was familiar. I went back and forth, up and down and finally had to admit to myself that I was well and truly lost. Finally in absolute desperation, and relieved that no one was able to hear me, I said aloud, "If you let me leave I won't come back until the snow is gone".  I looked up again and saw a white blaze painted on a tree. I slowly walked a little further and saw a second blaze, and I knew I was back on the trail and we were safe

Barr Hill is a beautiful place, but there are rules that have to be honored. I learned that and I suspect that nineteenth century farmer did too.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Forrest's Flowers

It's about the time of year when our neighbor Forrest would call me over to look at the first crocus bloom coming up through the snow. He heated with wood and the bulbs on the outside of his chimney were always the first on the street to bloom. His house, built around 1800, wasn't well insulated, but I was too polite to mention that. I wasn't however too polite to not accuse him of being an old fraud who put out plastic flowers in order to dupe his gullible neighbors. It was the same conversation every year, but we both enjoyed it.

Forrest died last summer of lung cancer and I still can't look across the way and see his house without a feeling of gratitude that I got to know him in his last years.

Forrest was well named. He was a native Vermonter and a true son of the soil.  His mother died when he was a baby, a father was never mentioned, and he was raised a couple of miles away by his grandparents in a state of poverty that wasn't unusual in those days. He left for a few years during the Korean War and was stationed in Germany, but he came right back. When he came back, he married Marjorie, they bought the old house with a little bit of acreage, and that's where they stayed.

Forrest would turn most of his front yard into a remarkable kitchen garden every summer. Marjorie would can up the produce, whatever Forrest hadn't already given away at least. He'd been trained in the service in refrigeration so he started a one man business and was kept busy with the dairies around here. He was known to respond to calls from farmers anytime, even on Christmas morning. (Forrest's contention was that the cows didn't know or care if it was Christmas and that milk needed to stay cold.) Forrest and Marjorie had one child who was the center of their quiet lives.

Forrest didn't spend a dime he didn't have to, unless it was on something with an internal combustion engine. He'd lost close to fifty pounds before we met him, but to the end of his days he wore the same pants, taken in, but still the same pants. The towels in his bathroom were threadbare, but there was a new Kubota tractor in the barn. He was such a guy.

It all sounds so unremarkable, doesn't it? In my not yet published book, Summerland, the passing of one of the characters is bemoaned by her best friend who knows that her friend, who led a good and quiet life, will disappear from this world's short memory. I wrote this before Forrest died, but I cried while I was editing that section because I don't want him to disappear from memory either.

His beloved Marjorie had been diagnosed with Parkinson's a few years before we met them. He cared for her well and lovingly until he needed to be cared for himself. Every eight hours another nice person from the agency would show up and although he grumbled about it, he accepted their help with something akin to good grace. As he grew sicker, his biggest concern was for her because he'd always told her that he would be there for her, and it was becoming clear that was one promise he couldn't keep much longer.

Forrest thought I was a remarkable cook, which I'm really not, I just overcook. I've never adjusted to the children being grown and gone, so there's always too much food in our kitchen and it was nothing to dish some up and take it a across to them. Even when he could barely eat I was taking meals over. He wasn't a person who would have invited hugs, but I wanted him to know that I treasured him.

He loved dogs and they loved him. His favorite dog, our golden retriever Ollie, was diagnosed with cancer about the same time that Forrest could no longer easily get off the porch. I'd take Ollie over and those two old gentlemen would sit in the sun on the porch together and warm their bones in quiet companionship. Everyone in our village knew that we wouldn't have those two much longer, so the visitors increased and the casseroles piled up uneaten in their kitchen. When I told Forrest that Ollie was gone, we sat and held hands for a while, neither of us able to say a word at first.

A few days later, I told him that when we moved in and got to know him, I felt as though I had a part of my father back. I told him that he reminded me so much of my father although they were very different men. I told him that I knew they would have liked each other, being as how they both loved a good tractor among other things. We both started crying and he told me he loved me and I told him the same.

As I was leaving, he asked me my father's name. I told him my father's name was Grant and Forrest promised to look him up 'when he got there'. His decline was rapid and this was pretty much our last lucid conversation. I was relieved to get the call three days later that he had died in the night and all his suffering was over. Marjorie was moved to their daughter's home in New Hampshire and the old house is sitting there, quiet and cold.

Forrest Dunbar was a man who deserved to be remembered, even though his flowers won't bloom early this year.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Mud Season

We have a fifth season up here in Vermont. Winter likes to hang on as long as possible, but eventually we see the signs of our fifth season; mud season. Mud season happens when the snow melts, which it sometimes does very quickly. It's as though Mother Nature just found the memo on her desk and decided to make melting her new priority. The dirt roads, of which we have so many, turn to something the consistency of a high fiber pudding. the mud coats your boots, splashes up your pants legs, gunks up the under carriage of the cars and trucks, turns all the dogs into brunettes, and a lot of that mud gets tracked the house, but it does remind us that our world is waking up again.

I love winter, I really, really love winter. I turn into a three-year-old when the first snowflakes start to fall, usually a week or two before before Halloween. I love the way the freezing air feels when the front door is opened, the pristine white of the world, the satisfying crunch under my feet on my daily snowshoe with the dog and I love to wake up in the morning to the half inch of ice on the inside of the windows. I love the soups and stews of winter and I love the way our bed looks with all the winter bedding.

And the clothes! The wonderful ski sweaters with the intricate designs, the hand knit wool socks, the shearling boots, the cozy mittens, the big scarves, the wooly leggings and I even love the insulated snow pants that make me look like an aged toddler. During the summer I sometimes go up to the off-season closet to visit my winter gear. Really. I go upstairs just to visit the soft fibers and the lovely patterns of winter, but this week I went upstairs to visit my chinos.

I checked on my chinos; they're fine by the way. I admired some pink linen pants and mentally paired them with the cute short jacket hanging down the rod a few inches. I thought about digging into the off-season dresser just to make sure that my bathing suits were where I could grab them. You know, in case the lake suddenly loses it's three feet of ice overnight, but that seemed extreme so instead I gave my sandal and flip flop collection a quick count instead.

I love winter so much, and a good thing too since it's going to get down to zero again tonight, but I can hardly wait to wear those pink linen pants again, even if I do get mud all over them.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Day One

I've always thought that one of the best things about being a writer is being more or less anonymous. No one recognizes you when you are a writer and that's always been fine me. Like most writers, I'd rather observe than be observed. Okay, that's a bit of a lie.

Swedish-American children of my generation were not reared to bring attention to themselves and here I am with a website and a blog. I know, I know. It's 2014, but I can hear the ghosts of those Swedish ancestors rumbling about this. I hope to keep their rumblings at bay by never mentioning how cute my granddaughters are or what I'm eating for dinner.

Oh well, they're dead and I'm not, so enough about them. Little, Brown UK is re-issuing new editions of Glory Days, A Twist of Light and Careful Mistakes on May 15th and I have two more completed novels ready to go, so I'm going to have a website and I'm going to blog.

There. I'm certain my next post will be better than this. It almost has to be, doesn't it?