The Ardent Anglophile

I was raised to be an Anglophile.  As a child, my mother spent two memorable years in England, while her father was stationed there, and the experience affected the rest of her life and the education of her daughters.  We were probably the first family in our small Kansas town to make Masterpiece Theatre “must watch” TV.  My sister and I learned the ranks of aristocracy by memorizing the mnemonic “Do Men Ever Visit Boston”(Duke, Marquis, Earl, Viscount, Baron) and how to love a good cup of hot tea, even if it was Lipton. Even if she disagreed with some of Parliament’s policies and decisions, England remained Mother’s spiritual “home-away-from-home,” a dampish Shangri-La.
That’s why I’m sorry she never found Bill Bryson’s book, Notes from a Small Island; she would have enjoyed it so much.  Like Peter Mayle’s travelogue of the English expatriate living in France, Bryson gives an educated outsider’s view of life in a foreign country. In this case, it’s the perspective of an American living in England.

Bryson is one of those impetuous, imaginative Americans grown-ups admire until their children try to follow his example.  He was backpacking around Europe, on a summer break from college, when he impulsively decided to leave school and start living and working in England. Two years later, Bryson returned to America, married and ready to finish his studies.  Diploma in hand, he bolted back to the U. K. for a journalism career.  He and his family have lived in one country or another ever since so he’s developed an understanding of both cultures and how they differ.

To begin, there’s the problem of everyday words.  Shaw said what we’ve all guessed for ages: that the United States and Great Britain are two countries separated by a common language.  Common words are spelled different ways and mean different things to British and American citizens, and there was no English/American dictionary or Google available when Mr. Bryson first stepped on British soil.Then, he was at a complete loss when a hotel owner instructed him to “remove his counterpane” at night.  Poor man. I could have told him the landlady was talking about his bedspread, but then Mom raised me on A Child’s Garden of Verses. Sure, the poet was Scottish, but that’s still closer to England than Iowa.

Mr. Bryson (from his FB page)

Then, there’s the culture.  Bryson believes the famous British reserve has created a nation of people who prefer small, modest pleasures and cheerful attitudes during unpleasant circumstances.  I can see how an unending mindset of “You could do worse” and “Keep Calm and Carry On” could wear but, after spending a day experiencing blaring car horns and rude hand gestures from fellow traffic jam sufferers, that well-mannered optimism sounds like manna from Heaven.

So, until or unless a miracle happens, and I find my own way to England, I’ll be thrilled to read Mr. Bryson’s tales.  Not only do they soothe the heart of an ardent Anglophile; they remind me of my Mum.

Forever Surrounded by Sisters

Now, I only have one sibling, but I’ve seen what it’s like to grow up in a gaggle of sisters. Donna, Peggy, Paige, June, and baby Karen Frasier (I changed their names here) lived down the street from us in Garden City, Kansas. Five girls, two parents and a couple of pets in a four bedroom house. I was between Donna and Peggy in school, and I hung out with Paige but what amazed me was how their sister-group worked. When the Frasier girls went out, they moved like a coordinated squadron even (on at least one occasion) dressing alike. At home, they were five completely independent personalities that could still function together, even when there were fights in the ranks.  By contrast, I had just one sister, a toddler back then, and we spent our days after each others’ blood. At the time, I thought the Frasier sisters were too good to be true. These days, I  ‘d say they were as Penderwick girls.
The Penderwick sisters are the stars of Jeanne Birdsall’s best-selling, award-winning series about a realistic (if slightly eccentric) family of sisters.  The first book called (what else?) The Penderwicks: a Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits, and a Very Interesting Boy, introduces us to the cast.  Rosalind may be the eldest, most responsible Penderwick, but she still believes everything her best friend says; Skye, is the rebel, explorer, and athlete in the clan; starry-eyed Jane, is so immersed in the romance of words that she can’t talk without adding narrative phrases; and Batty (Elizabeth) is the one with a special connection to animals, especially the family dog, Hound.  These four girls, as dear and individual as Louisa Mae Alcott’s March sisters, have conflicting interests and talents but an unswerving devotion to the Penderwick Family Honor that keeps them together in moments of stress.  And stress happens, even when sisters are on vacation and trying to stay out of trouble.  Trouble seems to come looking for them.
What are the Penderwicks to do about Jeffery, the Interesting Boy Next Door? Can they rescue him from the terrors of military school and  his snobbish, terrible mother? Can Rosalind remember to watch out for her sisters when she’s face to face with the attractive gardener, Cagney?  Will Jane’s latest Sabrina Starr adventure story get into print or will Skye’s accidents alienate their new acquaintance, the publisher?  Will Batty learn the difference between a horse and a bull?  In every chapter, the girls share an interesting, believable life which makes this book a delightful change.  After years of stories about wizards, angels, ghosts and demi-gods, it’s nice to find a kid’s book filled with ordinary-ish people.
If you’re looking for a nice kid’s story unburdened by fantasy and morals, open up a copy of The Penderwicks.  You’ll find out “ordinary” girls aren’t ordinary at all and it’s good to be surrounded by sisters.

Falling in Love with Fitbit

I’ve never been an athlete.  I was raised in a family that sat whenever they could. Sitting was our clan’s favorite pastime, and our endurance in couch-potatery would have qualified us on the Olympic s if they could have turned it into a competitive sport. The fact that many of us were overweight was no surprise.  The surprise was my sister, who ran for fun, and competed in track as a girl.  Although she could sit, my sis could also move, and she was unafraid of competition.  I was proud of her drive and talents, and she knew that.  But neither believed I’d follow her example.

The Infamous Fitbit

All of which made my sister’s offer to buy me a Fitbit last May a bit of an awkward phone call. To her credit, Sis knew I was trying to lose weight, and she’s never pressed me to get active.  Her suggested gift would help me lose weight.  But that doesn’t mean I wanted to take it.

The few times I had tried exercise before, I’d ended up with sore joints and a lousy attitude.  But it’s hard to turn my sister down, especially when her thought is well-meant.  So, I said yes, thinking once I accepted the gift, that would be the end of the story. “Great, then we’ll both have one!” she said.  “When you get your Fitbit account set up online, we can keep up with each other!”

Days later, I strapped on Sis’s gift, feeling like I’d stepped into a bear trap. The program had suggested goals, like 10K steps a day and 250 for each daylight hour. I doubted if I’d reach any of them, but I had to keep trying, at least until I saw my sis at an upcoming family visit.  So, I started walking. I walked to the mailbox a dozen times a day, I stepped on the porch when it rained.  I learned to read books and watch TV with my eyes on a computer screen and my legs pumping, up and down, in place.  Yes, my sister frequently out-walked me but there were times when I triumphed as well, and the weight-loss plateau I was expecting didn’t appear.  And each new day, the Fitbit zeroed itself out, and I began again which made activity a rule of life instead of the exception.  And I found I could compete.

Every group of Fitbit friends can create challenges to outwalk each other during specified period.  Once I joined a challenge or two, I found I didn’t like to lose.  If someone posted a total of 12K steps before work, I didn’t give up, nor did I believe them.  I just started stepping, determined to go further by the end of the day.  According to Fitbit, I won 13 trophies last summer because I didn’t want to be out-stepped.  And I continued to lose weight.

Fitbit even came to my rescue this month when my weight loss finally stalled.  Fitbit’s records showed while my walking was adequate, my heart rate wasn’t rising enough to prompt weight-loss any longer.  This led to new exercise choices that raised my heart rate and broke the plateau.  And because each new day began at zero, I didn’t realize how far I’d walked.

Then came the email with this graphic of how far I walked with my unwanted present.  With Fitbit, I walked off 60 pounds in half a year and covered the distance from my Alabama residence to my hometown in Kansas!  I’ve changed from a “Sedentarian” to short-distance Forrest Gump because of my sister and Fitbit!

So, yes, I love my Fitbit.  It only comes off for recharging or when I’m going to get wet.  It keeps me coming back and reminds me what I need to do.  And Sis, as far as I’m concerned, this is one of your best presents EVER.

This almost covers the distance I walked in 2016 – Imagine how far I’ll get this year!

When We Treat People like they’re Garbage

When I was 10, I was afraid of the kids that moved in next door.  The children in the house across the alley were younger and smaller than me, but they were a noisy bunch and they always seemed to be spoiling for a fight.  Whenever I went outdoors, they were there, in their yard, calling me fatty, and offering me a knuckle sandwich.  One day, my mother entered the fray, screamed back at the kids and hauled me into the house.  “Keep away from those kids,” she said, even though this was a needless directive.  I wasn’t going near any kid that picked on my size.  “I don’t want you playing with them, they are nothing but P.W.T.”  PWT meant Poor White Trash, the group of people my mother hated most.
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I thought a lot about those kids while I was reading Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash: The 400 Year Untold History of Class in America.  Ms. Isenberg’s central argument of the story is, despite statements to the contrary, America never has been a classless system.  Instead, we segregate ourselves into cliques characterized by income, education, address and antecedents and, where I grew up, the condition of one’s lawn. Where I lived, the homes of the influential and affluent were recognizable by the lush, verdant landscapes that surrounded their houses, perfectly trimmed to crew-cut height.  The working class didn’t have the resources to maintain this plush, even cover but we managed to minimize the bald spots on our lawns and mow the crab-grass regularly.  The renters, whose yards contained only dirt and discards, were considered “trash.”
When did we start classifying people as garbage?  Ms. Isenberg traces this idea to European businessmen/philosophers who saw undeveloped land as a wasted resource and impoverished people as refuse. Colonization, to these leaders, was a way to make money by solving two problems. Send the poorest people away to develop this useless land and then profit from the goods they produce.  These “wretched refuse” (to quote Emma Lazarus) became Britain’s debt slaves for generations, paying off their cost of transportation through lifetimes of labor producing goods for their European debt-owners.  These businessmen didn’t foresee the colonists’ resentment and isolation would eventually result in a revolution.  Nor did they predict their attitudes on class discrimination would transfer along with the colonists.  But they did.
Nancy Isenberg
As America grew, so grew the group of poverty-stricken, rural, whites and the resentment-filled class war where, as one Southern lady described it to me, one bunch is always looking down on or mad at another.  Yes, American mythology has tales of poor, enterprising youths creating fortunes and a few scions of the moneyed and powerful families behaving shamefully but both stories carry the unspoken element of class distinction.  A desire to climb the social ladder underscores the poor boy’s drive to succeed, and the wealthy child’s sense of entitlement created the self-belief he/she can avoid the penalty of criminal action.  And, despite their individual acts, each character is also judged by his/her background.  And most folks resent being judged.
The rural poor, also known as clay-eaters, crackers, hillbillies, rednecks and trash remain a recognizable group today.  At times, they’ve even become fashionable.  Like every other community in this country, they’ve produced bad and good people, geniuses and criminals.  And like everyone else with a long history of being disparaged and exploited, this community has developed a hard-won sense of identity and pride.  They’re a political force to be counted and used. And each time they are mocked or underestimated by someone else, the resentments and class divisions grow.
So, will the class war ever end? Not as long as individuals are exploited and minimized because of factors beyond their control. In other words, as long as one group of people treats another like “trash,” they’ll have trouble taking out all the garbage.

The Rules According to Bud

There are rules on how to get through life and Bud knows them all.  Let me show you what I mean:

RULE 8
Whenever an Adult Tells You to Listen Carefully and Talks in a Real Calm Voice,
don’t listen, run as fast as you can because something Real Terrible 
is Just Around the Corner

and

RULE 83

If an Adult Tells You Not to Worry, and You Weren’t Worried Before, 
You better Hurry Up and Start ‘Cause You’re Already Running Late

These rules may seem like nonsense to you, but to Bud, they’re lessons on how an abandoned child survives during the Depression.  Bud knows the Public Library is a good, warm, place and late-comers to the Mission don’t get fed.  He also knows the world hasn’t been a safe place since his Mom died four years ago. All she left him was a love of reading, the knowledge that his name is Bud, (not Buddy), some posters and painted rocks.  Based on wishful thinking and the posters she kept, Bud believes his father is a musician named Herman Calloway.  When the orphanage and foster home system fail at keeping him safe, Bud decides it’s time to hit the road and find his father.
Bud, Not Buddy is historical fiction, but the history is recent, and the story doesn’t stray far from the truth.  Christopher Paul Curtis incorporated the stories of his grandfathers’ talents and drive into the book: one, a redcap and baseball player who pitched against the great Satchel Paige, and the other, a classically trained violinist turned band leader who used ingenuity to succeed in business, despite the Depression and discriminatory statutes in effect.  Bud’s quest for a home is a hero’s journey, although he doesn’t see himself that way, and the story contains one of the best descriptions of jazz I’ve ever read.  If you missed this award winner when it first came out (like I did), do yourself a favor and meet a good kid named Bud.  You can never go wrong by meeting nice folks.  And that’s a rule of mine.

Understanding the Elephant

Does anyone remember the story of the blind men and the elephant?  Six blind scholars all try to discover what an elephant looks like by touching one part of the animal.  Because an elephant is composed of many shapes (trunk, ears, legs, tail, etc.,) running your hands over one part of it doesn’t give you an accurate picture of the animal, but it does show what a limited perception can discover.  And, when it comes to some episodes of history, we’re all blind folks trying to survey an elephant.
Val McDermid tackles this idea in her mystery novel, The Grave Tattoo.  On the surface, it’s a modern day story about the discovery of a body near the Lake District of England.  Although the corpse has been underground for awhile, it’s easy to see this is neither a recent death nor the discovery of an ancient caveman.  What’s interesting are the number of complicated tattoos still discernable on the decedent’s skin.  And therein hangs the link to a historical debate and the mysterious elephant in the room.

The debate is who was at fault for the mutiny on the H.M.S. Bounty, Fletcher Christian or Captain Bligh?  The popular opinion has switched back and forth, from Bligh’s exoneration to Nordhoff and Hall’s pro-Fletcher Christian novel, (that served as the basis for at least three Hollywood movies) and back to Bligh with Caroline Anderson’s history of the Bounty that I wrote about last year.  The mystery is the ultimate fate of Fletcher Christian: did he die on Pitcairn Island or did he find his back to England?

Wordsworth – Poet and
Christian’s Defender?

There are rumors that not only did Christian return to England but that he looked up an old grade school chum while he was there: the poet, William Wordsworth. And it’s rumored Wordsworth turned Christian’s account of what happened into an epic poem to be published after both of them were dead. But Wordsworth’s work and the sailor both disappeared.

Enter into this historical/literary mystery, one Jane Gresham, a Wordsworth Scholar who waits tables and teaches part-time while trying to break into an academic career. Because she grew up in the area where Wordsworth and Christian once lived, she knows the rumors and starts hunting for clues, but she isn’t the only one. Wordsworth’s manuscript, if it exists, is worth millions and not everyone is as honest as Jane. Pretty soon twenty-first-century corpses are turning up to keep company with the tattooed man in the pathologist’s waiting room. Pretty soon Jane is racing known and unknown enemies to save a piece of literary history and the lives of innocent people.

We may never really know who was the “bad guy” on the HMS Bounty or what happened to Fletcher Christian.  Val McDermid has given us a guess with The Grave Tattoo along with a  satisfying thriller. As guesses go, her book’s more fun than trying to figure out what an elephant looks like by touch.

The Best of People, the Worst of Times: Number the Stars

Nobody likes to think about kids being in the middle of war. Kids are a vulnerable population in the cross-fire of that adult insanity, and when they get wounded or killed, innocent lives have been taken. So, those of us lucky enough to live in peaceful countries try to raise our kids in a cotton-wool world where everyone is kind, and children are never in danger. Still, it’s good for kids to know about those who have been brave, even in the worst of times. That’s one reason to read and share Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars.

Number the Stars documents the Danish Resistance’s effort to save the Jewish citizens of Denmark after Nazi Germany invaded their country.  Officially, Denmark’s ruling government agreed to collaborate with the Nazi invaders; this allowed them to stay (nominally) in control so they could protect the citizens as much as possible.  Unofficially, Danish citizens all over the country developed resistance cells to spy on and sabotage the invaders.  After three years of fending off Resistance attacks, the Nazis decided to crack down Denmark.  First, they took over Denmark’s government and policing authority; then they issued orders to deport all of Denmark’s Jews.

In the middle of this political conflagration are two ten-year-old girls, Annemarie Johansen and Ellen Rosen. To Annemarie, Ellen is her neighbor and lifelong best friend; to the Nazis, Ellen’s one of the Jews.  Annemarie and her family decide to protect the Rosens and smuggle them into neutral/free Sweden.  That action puts the Johansens in danger as well as the Nazi search comes closer and closer.  Eventually, everyone over the age of 9 takes part in a desperate deception to spirit the Rosens to safety and Annemarie learns enough to understand there are times when even 10-year-old girls must be brave.

Kim Malthe-Brunn

Lest you think this novel is a complete fantasy, Lois Lowry appends an essay at the end about her research at the end of the story.  She discusses how the actions of ordinary people saved almost all of Denmark’s Jewish population and Kim Malthe-Brunn, one of the young Danish Resistance fighters executed by the Nazis. Taken together, her research shows that brave individuals don’t always prevail, but great things can happen when brave people band together.

If you have any lingering doubts, Number the Stars is a Newbery award-winning book, the American Library Association’s personal gold seal of approval.  Instead of being a book about “the best of times; the worst of times,” Number the Stars is about the worst of times and the best in people.

Getting Rid of an Ugly, Dead Tree

There’s an ugly, dead tree at the bottom of my yard and I want it gone.
One very ugly,
dead tree
Now, before you decide I’m some nut who wants to ruin the environment, let me admit the tree is dead. Also, I live in a place where Mother Nature needs editing more than encouragement. So, I’m not some terrible industrialist laying waste to the earth.  But I am someone who lost control of my world.  And I’m fighting to get it back.
Our house sits at the back of 4/3s of an acre on the crest of a low-lying hill. Because we live on a slope and my husband does not love lawn care, much of our yard belongs to the wild things.  Trees and brush grow at the corners of the lot where birds and small animals make their homes.  As long as the foliage didn’t obscure the view or road to our house, that’s fine.  But then the ugly tree came along.
It came up during one of our 48-hour springs that seem to launch straight into summer. In March, it was a straight little sapling that hugged the edge of the road.  By fall, it was too big for my loppers to cut down. Soon, insidious vines twisted around the tree, warping the trunk and obscuring the view of the house. Still, I never seemed to find the right moment to cut it back. Either I was dealing with some career or personal issue, or working on something for school, going to or recovering from my full-time job, taking care of the house, or writing.  All of that is hard to do, especially when you’re carrying an extra 130 pounds in weight. So, every year, I missed my chance to cut back the tree and its vines during the dormant season.  And every year, I gained more weight and my health got worse.
Why won’t this thing
fall down??
I finally realised the tree and my weight both belong to me: they are my problems, my responsibility. I started losing weight, not all the weight I need to lose, but enough to go after that ugly, dead tree.
And I can tell you ugly dead trees don’t give up without a fight. First off, the vines around it are still living and fibrous and it takes work just to get them away.  Also, the tree is surrounded by a ton of kudzu, stickle-briar and urushiol-bearing plants, all equipped with their own thorny defense systems.  And the tree itself is a particularly dense hardwood. Yes, this would have been easier if I had a chainsaw but powered tools aren’t good for klutzes like me.  Instead, I brought my small hatchet, a hand mitre saw and my inadequate 2″ loppers to the job, as well as a pair of gloves and 911 programmed into my cell phone. (I am very accident prone.) I hacked away with the hatchet until I quit making headway and then swapped to the saw and loppers, trying to slice through the trunk of that tree. Twenty-five minutes after starting, I was sweating, breathless, blistered and the ugly tree was still standing. (I’d also picked up a winter case of poison ivy but I didn’t know that at the time.) I was ready to quit. Then I realised the tree was more than a tree and I was working on two problems at once.
I’m not lying when I say my unhealthy weight is a problem that I’ve fought for decades. Decades. Like the vines on the sapling, it’s grown and tightened a grip on my life until I was almost as bad off as that tree.  Over the last nine months, I’ve whittled away a lot of pounds through exercise, healthier choices, and even surgery, but, like the tree, the rest of my extra weight hasn’t fallen yet. My unhealthy life patterns aren’t giving up without a fight.  And, if I turn my back on them now, those unhealthy vines will start creeping back.  So,  in spite of the cold, the rain and the poison ivy, I’m determined to keep hacking until the tree is down and the vines are ground up for mulch.  It’s become a symbol of something else I want gone from my life.

Yes, the tree isn’t giving up easily.  Then again, neither am I.