Monday, April 14, 2014

The Writing Process Tour

My friend Rachael Conlin Levy asked me if I would participate in an online blog meme called My Writing Process, and I couldn't say no because I admire her and appreciate her so very much. Rachael is a journalist, a beautiful writer, a wonderful cook, a creative homemaker, a talented knitter, and a sensitive photographer. You can enjoy her words and images on her blog, The Slow-Cooked Sentence
What am I working on?

As a writer for hire: assorted nonfiction books. In my (precious few) spare hours: a middle-grade novel and a few picture books.
How does my work differ from others of its genre?
I must retreat beneath a bushel basket from this question. Although I can put forth my credentials for writing a particular project and believe in my ability to do the job well, it makes me extremely uncomfortable to answer this! 
Why do I write what I do?
Because I love to research and to write. I love animals, science, and natural history and feel very fortunate to be writing about the topics that have interested me since I was a little kid.
How does my writing process work?
Most of my work is nonfiction, so my writing process usually begins with mountains of reading. I take out dozens of books from libraries and visit oodles of websites. If necessary I contact experts. I am delighted to have an excuse to buy a few new or used books, too. Then I create a rough outline for the book and go from there. 

If I'm working on a picture book of my own, then I write with a black Uni-ball Signo pen on looseleaf in a binder or a spiral notebook. I doodle a lot in the margins. Usually horses or googly-eyed dogs. Or stupid-looking birds and dragons. I write my blog on my blog site instead of cutting and pasting it, because cutting and pasting it from a document usually means Messed-Up Formatting.
Who’s next on My Writing Process blog tour?
Nancy Schatz Alton, who is a freelance writer, editor, and writing coach. She is the co-author of two holistic healthcare guides: The Healthy Back Book and The Healthy Knees Book. She is a regular contributor to ParentMap, where she writes articles and essays about parenting here. Nancy also writes about parenting, learning disabilities, family life, books, writing, cooking, and more on her blog, Within the Words. She is currently working on a memoir. Nancy lives in Seattle with her husband and two daughters. She's a Ballard denizen and thus is a member of the Ballard Writers Collective, where you can read an interview with her. Nancy's entry for the My Writing Process meme will appear on April 21.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Of Scratches and Bad Patches

After the upheaval of the past few weeks, the calendar posted on the side of our refrigerator, all neatly demarcated boxes and penned-in times and places, looks like a quaint artifact, something out of Martha Stewart magazine ("March 17: Trace Irish roots to 10th century...March 20: Check the asparagus beds and rotate silk sock collection...").

What conceit, to write down all these plans and expect everything to fall neatly into place!

I'm not referring to the dreadful mudslide in Oso, Washington, which wiped out families and homes, dramatizing in terrible scale how the best-laid plans of mice and men often go astray. Our avalanche was one involving family members, hospitals, and future decisions, the sort of landslide that sweeps through every family from time to time.

Because these events kept us busy darting here and there in the car and making and keeping new appointments, there was little time for us all to attend to the ordinary, everyday chores and pleasures on the home front. This meant the dog wasn't walked, the cats weren't stroked, the house wasn't cleaned, and the horse wasn't visited.

Fortunately, the dog is patient, the cats forgiving, and the house can wait. The horse, however, needs care, and of course he was tended to, first in his current home and then the one he was moved to halfway through the crisis period.

But according to everybody tending to him, he certainly missed the Resident Teen, behaving in a generally  mopey way and not even biting people with his usual enthusiasm.

Before the schedule went haywire, the Resident Teen was dutifully attending to Avi's feet, which were suffering some of the maladies that Washington State horses are particularly prone to suffering during our long, wet, muddy winters: thrush and scratches.

"Thrush and Scratches" sounds like it would make a great name for a band, or perhaps a pair of guinea pigs. They are actually really annoying infections. Thrush is a bacterial or fungal infection of the frog of a horse's hoof that causes a foul-smelling discharge and rotting of tissue. Scratches (also called grease heel, cracked heel, dew poisoning, and mud fever) is a fungal infection of the horse's lower leg, with the fungus often being assisted in its evil encrustation of the skin by bacteria and mites.

Treatment for these maladies involves a lot of diligence, antiseptics, gauze, scab-picking, hoof-cleaning, and maintenance of dry conditions.

It's the Resident Teen (and, in our absence, her friends) who crouches on the floor to medicate Avi's soles, scrape off scabs, and pack his thrush-afflicted hoof with gauze pledgets, then wrap it in duct tape.

After years of taking care of the Resident Teen's head--cradling it when she was a newborn with a floppy neck, putting bonnets on it on sunny days, providing it with bicycle helmets and riding helmets--I don't think I will ever completely feel at ease seeing it lowered in the vicinity of a horse's hooves.

But she's got the practical experience I never had the chance to obtain, because she's been working with horses since she was about six years old, and with that experience comes confidence. I stick to observation and fascination.

And research...while the Resident Teen gets on with the useful task of clearing up the thrush and scratches, I putter about in old horse books so I can pester her with trivia.

An 1887 guide to horse care, for example, has a great deal to say about scratches. The author suggests poultices of linseed meal applied to the afflicted areas for several days, combined with purgative and diuretic medicines. Dressings sound like alchemists' dreams: they include ingredients such as acetate of lead, sulphate of zinc, and sulphate of iron. Pulverized gentian root, beeswax, scrapings of sweet elder, skunk oil, and lard figure into the recipes, too. One of the remedies is credited to "a drunken horse doctor" who cured the author's favorite horse, "old Turco."

A 1947 tome, The Book of the Horse, offers stern advice on stable management from the point of view of a long-ago Master of Fox Hounds, D. W. E. Brock. Brock does not mince words (for example, "One water-brush should last you three lifetimes," he admonishes, noting soon after that "The average groom is incapable of drying the heels thoroughly").

He doesn't offer specific advice on treating thrush or scratches, but he doesn't advocate mucking about trying to cure things that are better left to the veterinarian. Not just any vet, however: "Every vet may have the technical knowledge necessary to deal with a horse, but quite a number of them are more at home with poms in drawing rooms than with cantankerous thoroughbred horses in stables."

No need for a vet, in Avi's case--his feet are in good hands. So is the rest of his body--he moved to a new stable in the midst of all the turmoil, or actually back to the first one, where we met him, a calm, clean, and light-filled stable where he feels very much at home.

I'll never forget the look on his face when we and the Resident Teen walked up to the stable for the first time together after his move. He had his head and neck out the window of his stall and was chomping on hay. When he spied us--and his very own girl, in particular--he froze, ears pricked, like a horse in a storybook. He even stopped chewing and let the hay hang down like a Santa Claus beard.

Though the pesky fungi, bacteria, and mites took full advantage of the briefly opened window of opportunity that chaos provided, they are being routed thanks to the administrations of the Resident Teen and her friends. Other challenges will take more than scrapings of elder and sulphate of zinc to conquer, but will likewise be confronted and overcome with the help of others.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Eating Like a Horse

Our horse, Avi, gets advice from his vet that I never, ever am given by my own doctor: Eat! Eat more! You need to gain some weight!


Avi eats like a horse, to be sure (nearly all the time, the consequence of being a creature constructed to consume many small meals over the course of a day; a cow has a big ol' multi-chambered stomach for fermenting a massive meal, which allows it to loll around chewing the cud for hours--a horse doesn't have that option).

But he's not what you call an "easy keeper" (a "good doer," in the UK)--a horse who maintains his weight effortlessly even on relatively little food. If he were to get it into his head that he should be a Proud Wild Horse and take off to run with a band of mustangs, he'd be a walking skeleton in no time.

And that is why he can easily polish off 12 flakes of hay a day (that's about 60 pounds). Hay varies in its digestibility based on what kind of hay it is and how old it is, but being plant matter there's always some amount that is basically roughage and helps keep horse girls busy mucking stalls.

All the barn's horses are alert when feed time rolls around.
Like most working horses, he also gets grain. Don't ask me just how much--it's the Resident Teen who fills zip-lock bags with pellets of compressed grain with a dash of supplements and ulcer-prevention formula tossed in, along with some grocery-store gelatin (for strong joints and hooves).

For a while, His Majesty was also presented with pans of beet pulp to help bulk him up, but he would have none of it. Not even when the Resident Teen spent half an hour smashing peppermint drops to slivers with a meat mallet to sprinkle on top. He tried to snuffle up the peppermint bits without consuming any of the pulp but finally gave up, emitting a weary sigh at all the troubles in his life.

Now, to add that extra 4,000 or so calories to his diet, the Resident Teen's grain of choice is Ultium (for "world-class equine athletes," so if Avi can read he may feel inspired--though I hope he doesn't learn to read or else he'll find out that one of the secret ingredients in Ultium is beet pulp). It's mixed with a substance that Avi would gladly chug by the bottleful, an elixir that is, in his book, a fine Riesling: corn oil.

Yes, while many people are seeking ways to exclude corn oil and other corn by-products from their diet, Avi is guzzling the stuff.

Sometimes I find bottles of store-brand corn oil on the 50%-off rack at the back of the store. At that price, I end up loading 10 bottles of corn oil on the conveyor belt, drawing sidelong glances from customers and cashiers alike. I need a button to pin to my coat that says, "Our horse drinks half a bottle of this stuff every day!"

Carrots and apples are also cheerfully accepted, but the fastest way to Avi's heart is a snack not typically associated with horses: He adores Lay's barbecue-flavored potato chips.

Despite his gargantuan appetite, however, and unlike many human consumers of chips, Avi knows when to stop. After a few chips, he says, "No, thanks"--leaving plenty for the hardworking horse girls to consume.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Australia on My Mind

I have always wanted to go to Australia. Any country that has animals with names like bandicoot, numbat, wallaroo, tasmanian devil, hairy-nosed wombat, and squelching froglet clearly must be seen to be believed. (Seeing pictures on Facebook of relatives frolicking on sunny shores Down Under is a bit of an inspiration, too.)

Taking a Qantas leap to Australia is not, however, in the budgetary cards anytime soon, so I'll have to content myself with reading about the place, which for some reason has been happening all winter as one book has inspired the reading of another in domino fashion.

It started when I was nosing around online to see if I could get a DVD of the movie Phar Lap for the Resident Teen. Phar Lap was a magnificent Australian racehorse who raced during the early years of the Depression and died under mysterious circumstances after coming to the United States.

This research caused me to disappear down the rabbit hole of Google to find out more about Phar Lap when I was supposed to be doing other things.

I started getting giddy notions of purchasing various and sundry books but sternly reminded myself that I was already guilty of tracking down books online, receiving them with glee, then stockpiling them for future reading, and that perhaps I should read some of those books first before taking up with other titles.

The Christmas season seemed a perfect time to curl up with some fiction. (Why do we curl up with books and nothing else, I wonder?) So I pulled down the stack of books by Australian author Elyne Mitchell that I'd ordered for the Resident Teen back when she was the Resident Horse-Crazy Girl.

wp516349a5_0f.jpgElyne Mitchell's best-known works are her stories about Australia's wild horses, called brumbies. The movie The Silver Stallion, starring a young Russell Crowe, is based on her beloved series about Thowra, the Silver Brumby. The series kicks off with this horse's birth in The Silver Brumby, continues with four more books featuring this horse, his mares, and his offspring's adventures, and canters off into the sunset through a number of follow-up titles about the horses in his range.

Mitchell wrote the stories from the horses' point of view, complete with dialogue--not an easy style to pull off when you're trying to make your animals believable as animals even as they give voice to their thoughts.

But she does it very well. The animals are all far more clever and deep-thinking than their real-life counterparts ever could be, which can make a jaded adult reader raise an eyebrow, but if you are still a horse-crazy girl inside, and if you can suspend disbelief enough to read them as twentieth-century legends (with the whole "horse kingdom" aspect of the Australian mountain ranges being something like an equine Olympus in these books), they're a lot of fun to read. (And I would venture to say they're the only books I'll ever read that contain the phrase "Venerable Wombat.")

The movie (called The Silver Brumby in Australia) blends the first book in the series with bits of the author's life. Mitchell created the stories for her own children's entertainment and education. She stocked them not only with horses and adventure but also lush depictions of the flora, fauna, and geography of Australia. In the film, the horse's story unfolds as an ongoing narrative being created by the author for her daughter.

It's kind of funny to see the original video-box cover for the film, which features the horse front and center and also gives prime seating to the actresses portraying the author and her girl--

and compare it to the one that came after Russell Crowe rocketed to stardom:

Crowe was still a gangly youth when Australian author Miles Franklin's book My Brilliant Career became a film in 1979. Franklin wrote the book as a teenager, and it was published in 1901. The movie popped out of my memory after I'd finished up the brumby books and had the words "Australian" and "icon" etched in my mind.

My Brilliant Career was based on Franklin's life and is often referred to as "semi-autobiographical." It became wildly popular across Australia when it was published and remains a source of pride today. Franklin herself was a determined, strong person and an ardent feminist. The girl in her story rebels and fulminates against the repression of women and their role in Australian society.

Franklin followed up by writing My Career Goes Bung (published in the U.S. as "End of My Career"), in which the semi-autobiographical character endures post-publication trials involving having published My Brilliant Career. (My head spun a bit as it tried to keep this all straight: "OK, so the first book features a girl named Sybylla and tells her story, but the second  book is about Sybylla and none of what happened in the first book really happened to Sybylla, it was just a story that Sybylla made up and published and in this book she's dealing with the fallout.")

Miles Franklin photoIn real life, Franklin's second semi-autobiographical book was not well received by publishers, and so was not published until 1946. (She meets with one of the most damning rejection letters I've ever heard of: one editor who was an early champion of her work responds with a note that begins "You've made me jolly glad I didn't meet you...not even 200% would induce me to publish.")

I found Sybylla fascinating, but a bit tiresome at times, in the first book. I liked her quite a lot in the second one, though, in which she lets fly with some great insults, such as "You conceited lord of creation!" and "old frogabollow" and "feeble nauseating creepers" and "flap-eared weakling." (She tosses in a great word, too, that I haven't turned up anything on by googling: "There was no end to the annoyance caused by that feraboraceous book.")

Sybylla also recounts her wild experiences riding horses in this book. (My husband, in the first year of our relationship, accused me of planning vacations in such a way as to always include horses at every stop. But I cannot help it that horses somehow come to the fore in almost everything I pick up to read. The world truly does revolve around horses, you see.) Here is Sybylla/Miles on being an equestrienne:
"There was one great recreation open to me, even at Possum Gully, which was a sop to energy. I could ride. I could ride tremendously. I loved horses and seemed to become part of them. In the district were any number of good horses, most of them owned by bachelors. As one of these bachelors said, 'A lovely high-spirited girl is just the thing to top off a good horse.' All kinds of horses, from racing stallions to hunting mares, were brought to me with the owners included as escorts and the source of chocolates in wonderful boxes."
Franklin really did rampage on horseback as a girl in her actual life, not just her semi-autobiography. She grew up in a valley called Brindabella and started riding as an infant, recalling that "the rhythm of horses came to me earlier than walking." According to the introduction of one edition of My Brilliant Career, she was known throughout the valley as "a precociously fearless and accomplished rider."

She brought an equally fearless attitude to the rest of her life, going on to work as a nurse, travel and live in the United States, publish novels, speak out as a feminist, and endow a literary award that is still granted in Australia today.

I am pretty sure that, after reading the first five of the Silver Brumby books, I don't feel the need to devour the rest of that series, but I'm pretty eager to get my hands on Franklin's actual biography, a memoir of her first ten years called Childhood at Brindabella, as well as some of her other works. I wonder what snippet in them will then point the way to the next book or topic of interest, quite likely one that has absolutely nothing to do with Australia.

Friday, January 31, 2014

The Stupid Things That Scare Horses

The Resident Teen's horse, Avi, is a big, sturdy boy. About 1,100 pounds, 16.2 hands high (66 inches tall at the top of the shoulders), and plenty of muscle. He has big, brave steeds in his ancestry, such as Secretariat and Native Dancer. (This is not a brag. Look in any Thoroughbred's ancestry and you'll find famous racehorses in it. It's called inbreeding. But they're still big, brave steeds.)

He has galloped down the homestretch (once to win, once to lose) in front of loud, surging racetrack crowds.

But like just about any horse, he's wired to react first and think about it later. Which makes sense. If you're a prey animal, and you decide to stop and ponder, "Is that thing I see out of the corner of my eye a panther stalking me, or is it merely a Doritos bag skipping along in the breeze?" it might be the last thing you ever think, if indeed it is a lion. Bingo! You disappear from the gene pool.

Excellent instinct, certainly. Even the fear of a puddle (which might be a bottomless pit) or an expanse of shade (see: bottomless pit) makes sense in the context of survival. (And plenty of humans meet their doom because their sense of survival has been occluded by--take your pick--adolescent sense of immortality, delusions of grandeur, general recklessness, cluelessness, ignorance...fill in the blank. A horse would have good reason to marvel, regarding humans: "Seriously? You went and picked up that rattlesnake on a dare??")

Still. That doesn't mean the list of things that horses spook at isn't legion and absurd. A brief fossicking online yields personal stories of horses that have spooked at a plastic Santa, a mailbox, a butterfly, a baby rabbit, another horse lying down for a nap, a leaf on the ground (as if leaves aren't, like, everywhere), and a nun (OK, as a former Catholic schoolgirl, this I understand).

Which leads us back to Avi, whom the Resident Teen had to lead home one day because the sound of children on a playground gave him the vapors, forcing her to give up on a trail ride that day. A trail that, of course, contains other horrors just waiting to pounce on an unsuspecting horse and tear it to shreds, such as the following (info drawn from recent, actually accomplished trail rides; viewer discretion advised):

The Blue Chair (of doom)

The Small Sign (of death)

The Swingset of Terror (and carnage)


The Horrible Hen of Horror

There is truth to the oft-repeated reply to the question, "What do horses spook at?":

Everything that moves, and everything that doesn't.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Of Comfort, Cookies, and Casseroles

The most frightening phone calls tend to come in the dead of night, ripping you out of the cradle of sleep and dropping you on the floor.

The effect is only slightly less jarring when the phone call comes in early evening, because at least you're awake, but there is still the same sensation of life-as-you-know-it falling overboard.

Never mind that, in the end, everything turned out to be fine, and nobody is sick or in hospital, and life went on pretty much as before. For that moment, when you see an unfamiliar number on your phone and answer it and it's your husband and he starts by saying "I'm fine, there is nothing to worry about, but..." and reveals that he went into the emergency room a few hours earlier with chest pains and has to stay overnight for observation, your vision suddenly narrows to a pinpoint and sounds are muffled and the world seems to be contained within a bubble made of the thinnest glass, ready to shatter at the slightest motion.

Most likely the cause of this event was stress ("only" stress), of which there has been an abundance this year. Everybody gets a serving of this time and again in the feast of life.

And that's where the comfort, cookies, and casseroles come in, brought by friends and family who assemble like firefighters in an old movie with a big tarp stretched out between them, ready to catch you when you jump out of the top story of a blazing building.

When my family was gathered at the hospital for several days a few years ago, existing in that strange timeless place one inhabits when a loved one is in the ICU on the threshold of death, friends stepped in, unbidden, to relieve us of all responsibilities for everyday tasks. A friend with a key to our house made sure the dog got let out, walked, and fed. The child was picked up from school, fed, and cared for. The refrigerator seemed to fill up magically with food, with casseroles and other dishes that needed only to be reheated. Mail was collected and milk taken in.

Coming home after each exhausting marathon of anxiety and despair in that time was like starring in a production of "The Tailor of Gloucester," in which the desperately poor and worried tailor, sick and feverish, takes to his bed knowing that he will never be able to finish making a wedding coat for the mayor by morning and will therefore be ruined, only to wake up and find the coat exquisitely completed thanks to the hard work of an army of grateful mice who toiled all night, unseen.

Though this most recent event was short-lived (and hopefully just a wake-up call and not a general alarm), the firefighters that are friends and family immediately began to stir. Siblings called to let me know they were on hand for anything. Two friends appeared in the ER with homemade meals and treats to take home with us so we wouldn't have to worry about a thing. Other friends weighed in on social media and via email with advice, shared experiences, and concern.

The custom of showing up with a casserole may seem sort of quaint and funny to people who are still in the immortal stage of life, but when the going gets rough, it's immensely reassuring to have someone show up with one, even if it's just tuna wiggle. "Food has the power to heal, to comfort, and to convey care and affection," writes chef Joyce Goldstein in her introduction to the cookbook From Our House to Yours, which was published to benefit San Francisco's Meals on Wheels program.

I certainly don't mean to infer that the bringing of food is appreciated only in dark times. Having meals show up when you're taking care of a brand-new baby is a lifesaver, too. (And anybody who wants to bring me food when absolutely nothing of any importance is going on is quite welcome to do so.)

One of my favorite casserole scenes appears in  Lars and the Real Girl. Lars sits in the living room, tensely waiting for news about his beloved Bianca. Women show up with knitting and sewing projects to sit quietly with him. "We brought casseroles," says one. Lars thanks her and wonders aloud if he should be doing something. He's told, "No, dear. You eat." Another chimes in, "We came over to sit." A third woman adds, "That's what people do when tragedy strikes."

Tragedy, however, didn't get us this time, and we went on to have a perfectly lovely weekend, complete with a lazy morning cup of coffee and a sunny-afternoon walk on the Tolt Pipeline trail. With plenty of warm minestrone soup and garlic bread to come home too, and a pot of lentil sausage soup to look forward to (the chocolate chip cookies are already pretty much history).

We've done our share of providing comfort food, too, and life being what it is, will no doubt be on both the giving and receiving end of this tradition many times in the future. As Garrison Keillor says regarding living a good life, "do your part, and bring a hot dish when it's your turn."

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

This and That and Stuff

A lazy blog post featuring random signs spotted in the past few weeks.

You are not allowed to walk upside down
or defy gravity in this zone.
Quite right. There are, indeed, no children in this basket.
A right-neighborly sort of person
here in Cottage Lake.
I love how astonished even a faceless icon
can appear. A masterful job
on the part of the illustrator!
I might put this on my car even
though I don't have any  reptiles
People rinse their feet in the dog bowl? Why? Why?
(Not that my dog would care.)

Words to the wise.
Noobles are worth their weight in rubles.