Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Boo to You, Too

Jack o' lantern from 2010 .
Very behind on Halloween this year.

Scrambled to assemble small bowl of candy for the lone trick-or-treater who might show up.

Pumpkins are sitting on the front steps, uncarved.

No time to make barmbrack, the traditional Irish yeasted raisin-studded bread that's also stippled with fortune-telling treats such as a silver coin and a ring.

No time to make the Halloween costume I'd thought up this time last year but did nothing about for the next 364 days.

No decorations. Not like in past years, when even the cats got into the spirit of things.

We did manage to stop at a pumpkin farm, though instead of scouring vast fields for Just the Right Pumpkin, indulging in hot apple cider, and then paying a buck to stuff a small pumpkin into a Pumpkin Cannon and send it flying hundreds of yards across a field and into a marsh, we spent just 10 minutes looking among a selection near the parking lot.

We used to pour a lot more energy into Halloween: there was all the excitement of helping our daughter put together a costume and showing up at the elementary school Halloween parade (I am astonished, but delighted, that the school was able to continue this tradition, as a hurricane of objections with winds blowing from vastly different ideological directions have caused it to be abolished in many places).

And twice we turned the basement into a haunted house, complete with a maze of paths, flickering lights, spooky noises, a bubbling cauldron, dry ice fog, and once, a computerized brain that answered kids' questions (the brain behind the creepy image being my brother's creative mind).

Oh well. My daughter has at least gotten into the Halloween spirit and went to school dressed as a cowgirl, wearing a white hat bordered with silver sequins. And Mother Nature has not stinted on seasonal decor.

A Halloween display of gourds at local supermarket
Local crows
Eerie moonlight
Big fat autumn garden spiders

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Golden Years with Golden Books

I used to love studying the endpapers of Golden Books!
Just about every American alive nowadays must be familiar with Little Golden Books, either because they grew up reading them or bought them for their own kids, grandchildren,  nieces, and nephews. The heck with Proust's madeleines; these nearly-square, sturdy books can, at a glance, take me back not just to some misty notion of my childhood but directly to the exact spot where I sat (or lay on my back, or hung upside-down off the edge of the sofa) while paging through them.

I hadn't given Golden Books a lot of thought in recent years, not since sharing some of them with my daughter. Our motley collection has spent the past decade squashed into a bookshelf with other picture books. But a few weeks ago I attended a wonderful presentation about Golden Books by the series' current editor, Diane Muldrow, and was inspired to pull out our books.

Little Golden Books first rolled off the presses in 1942. I encountered them in the 1960s. All my copies from  that time ended up at the Long Acres Elementary School white-elephant sale sometime in the 1970s, but I was able to snag a few of my favorite old titles when scouring yard sales and thrift shops for used copies.

One of my all-time favorites was We Like Kindergarten, by Clara Cassidy and illustrated by Eloise Wilkin.

I have a very vivid memory of being about two years old and weeping in the hallway of Long Acres because my older brother was starting kindergarten, and there was a batch of big toy animals in that magical room that I could see from the door and longed to play with. I remember a very tall, red-headed teacher crouching down and comforting me, saying, "In just a few years you'll be in kindergarten!" (She was not only correct in this prediction, but also would turn out to be my kindergarten teacher.)  

We Like Kindergarten was my consolation prize that day. I used to like the page with the girl on the swing because I had a gray  earwarmer-hat that tied under the chin just like hers, knitted by my Aunt Leona, and so I thought somehow we were related.

Another favorite was The Three Bears, illustrated by Feodor Rojankovsky. This artist's animals are a lesson in how to combine actual animal anatomy with the whimsy and action of a story. Even when they're wearing clothes, his animals are scarcely civilized (this talent is on vivid display in the fairy-tale and nursery-rhyme books he illustrated). He was incredibly skilled at giving texture to his pictures; you just want to sink your fingers deeply into the fur of the bears.

But you wouldn't dare. Look at those eyes! As a kid I marveled at those beady little eyes, nothing more than white circles around small black dots. It was important that the dots were fully encircled by white; if they'd touched the eyes' edges, they'd immediately give the animal a more cheerful or human look.

And this angry bear was anything but cheerful or human. Don't ever mess with a grizzly's porridge, kids.

An equally fuzzy but less menacing bear romped through the pages of The Large and Growly Bear by Gertrude Crampton, illustrated by John P.  Miller. Miller used the same white-circle/black-dot technique for his bear's eyes, but only when he needed the bear to affect a blank, scared, or wondering expression. Just by making the pupils wider, or by moving them to shift the bear's gaze, he instantly made his boastful bruin a more friendly and hapless creature. I remember this fascinating me as a kid, that just this little tweak could change the whole look of a character and its story.

Like "Rojan," the artist Tenggren (who illustrated many Golden titles), depicted his predators with small pupils to give them an intense look. At right is his wonderful lion from The Saggy Baggy Elephant. For some reason I disliked the elephants in this book and sort of wanted the lion to be able to eat Sooki, the elephant baby. Poor lion, he looked so hungry, and Sooki was so plump.

 I certainly didn't want the lion to eat any of the canines features in Dogs, illustrated by Tibor Gergely, so it was a good thing that title was devoid of ravenous large feline predators. Which made sense, as this was a nonfiction book.

The Little Golden Books line included a lot of  nonfiction content, often presented within a storybook context but sometimes as straight nonfiction (there were books about postal workers, firefighting, cars, trains, dinosaurs, and animal migration, for example).  

Dogs was told in verse. When I opened up the book prior to writing this blog entry, one illustration in particular tugged me straight back to the kitchen in the house I grew up in. I remember standing there, book in hand, asking my mom why this dog had such a funny tail, and her explaining that the lady in the picture was just knitting with yarn that was the same color as the dog.

Flipping through the Golden Books we have on hand inspired me to take out from the library some of the nonfiction books suggested by Ms. Muldrow, such as a history of children's book publishing in America (Minders of Make-Believe by Leonard Marcus) and a history of Golden Books in particular (Golden Legacy, also by Marcus).

Though the little 25-cent Golden books were viewed with disdain by booksellers and librarians back in the 1940s and 1950s, they were eagerly snapped up by cost-conscious parents and just as eagerly embraced by children.

And some of children's literature's most esteemed authors and illustrators have worked on this series over the decades. Little Golden Book creators include such luminaries as Margaret Wise Brown, Charlotte Zolotow, Richard Scarry, James Marshall, Alice and Martin Provensen, Trina Schart Hyman,  Joan Walsh Anglund, and Garth Williams. Williams is renowned for illustrating such books as Charlotte's Web, Stuart Little, the "Little House" books, The Rabbits' Wedding, Bedtime for Francis, and The Cricket in Times Square, among many others. His Little Golden Book My First Counting Book entranced me when I was little--I wanted to cuddle the kittens, and I wanted to taste those candy-colored orbs with numbers on them.

The more I researched Little Golden Books, the more I discovered that other books I'd loved as a child were published by Western Publishing/Golden Press. They published big nonfiction books (I still have and cherish my Golden Book of Dinosaurs), small, chunky "big little books" (my favorites were the Little Tiger books and The Adventures of Henry Rabbit), and collections such as The Golden Treasury of Poetry. The latter is one of the most beloved books on my shelves--I pored over it as a kid, plus my mom gave it to me and inscribed my  name on the flyleaf. It's where I first encountered the beautiful writing of Elizabeth Bishop and her poem The Fish, which later became the basis of the first paper I wrote in college as an English major. (No, you will not have heard of that illustrious paper.)

I love "It's a Small World Connections" (and boy, does Little Golden Books have one: the effervescent Mary Blair, who illustrated Ruth Krauss's I Can Fly, went on to design the "It's a Small World" ride at the 1964 World's Fair in New York, a ride I recall vividly because I sat stone-still in the little boat, terrified that it would tip over).

My "It's a Small World" connection today occurred while paging through the Little Golden Book Horses when I noticed it was written by one Blanche Chenery Perrin.

Chenery? Any relation to Penny Chenery, famous as the owner of super-racehorse Secretariat and his stablemate Riva Ridge?

Oh, we do love the Internet. A few minutes' Googling revealed that Ms. Perrin's brother was Christopher Chenery, owner of Meadow Stable, which bred Secretariat. Perrin also wrote non-Golden books about horses and horse racing. Some of which were illustrated by famous equine artist Sam Savitt. Whom I spoke to on the phone once when I was a lowly editorial assistant at Dodd, Mead back in the day.

Little books, small world!

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Condition: Stable

I will never be the rider I once (nearly four decades ago) thought I would someday be.

Watching my daughter ride every week, in fact, underscores the truth that even if I'd kept up with riding, I would never have become the rider I wanted to be.

I know that at some point in my teens, I was capable of posting a trot without stirrups, of getting back on a horse after falling off, and even of sticking on a horse over a three-foot jump...but that took every bit of gumption I possessed.

Whereas my daughter gets back on horses after they've actually thrown her. And can't wait to jump five-foot rails. And rides bareback by choice in addition to posting without stirrups.

At this point, I'd be happy to take lessons just to be able to ride with some confidence as well as skill. And whereas my dream horse once looked something like this--

BLM photo

nowadays it looks more like this:

Ah well. At least, in indulging my daughter's passion for horses, I get to be a hanger-on and enjoy existing in horsy settings, even if I don't get to do anything except sit, drink coffee, eavesdrop, watch, and pony up at the end of the lesson.

Dutch Warmblood "Simon." For sale. Don't tempt me.
Autumn rain and mud = dirty horses needing grooming.

Message on stall door re: occupant.
Tack needs cleaning, too.

And stalls, of course.

What every horse-girl craves: a horse saying hello with a friendly nicker.

Friday, October 12, 2012

In Which the Naughty Cat Decorates for Autumn

We gathered on the last day of summer, the lovely women in my monthly craft group and I, for a morning of knitting, felting, stitching, and chatting. Tea and coffee flowed along with the conversation. There were pastries. And chocolate.

Autumn would start the next day, though that was just a chronological fact; summer lingered, lolling in a beach chair, putting on its shades to block out the sight of any turning leaves. (Indeed, summer only just packed its bags and left town three days ago.)

All too soon, needles were safely stowed in a pincushion, skeins carefully tucked into bags, and cups and dishes stacked on the counter.

The dog pranced around, begging for a walk, as soon as my friends left. I put on her leash and off we went, after I remembered to weigh down the stack of orange paper napkins left on the table beneath a heavy book.

But my precaution was useless because when we returned, this is what we found:

The culprit wasn't hard to figure out. Or find.

Not only did he have no regrets, he also bragged about his work.

Django tried to convince me that he hadn't chewed up the napkins and strewn them about the floor merely to be naughty. No, this was just another one of his art installations, one in which he was celebrating autumn and was going to call "A Scattering of Leaves." But I found a big wad of napkins stuffed into the dog's water bowl, as usual, so I suspect he's just trying to veil his addiction to immersing paper in water.

(The age-old excuse "the dog ate my homework" will never be true for my daughter, because the dog is good as gold, but "the cat drowned my homework" would be 100 percent fact. The same blue geometry worksheet, for example, ended up in the drink not once but three times the other day.)

Of course, after all this hard work and creativity, he had to rest for another 23 1/2 hours.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

A Fish Hawk's Visit

London's Tate Modern has its resident peregrine falcons. New York's got red-tailed hawks nesting on 927 Fifth Avenue. Not to be outdone, little Ballard's home to a pair of ospreys that raise their young near an old train trestle close to the Ballard Locks.

(Never mind that Seattle boasts not only red-tails and peregrine falcons but also Cooper's hawks, sharp-shinned hawks, and even bald eagles and merlins among its breeding birds. But today I'll stick to Ballard, the city within a city that is still disgruntled about being annexed to Seattle in 1907.)

The Ballard ospreys started nesting on an old telegraph pole belonging to a railway in 2009. In 2011, the pole was removed as a hazard, depriving the birds of a future nesting site--but was replaced early in 2012 by a platform tower built just for them. The ospreys quickly moved in (even birds know that the three most important real-estate considerations are "location, location, location") and raised a new brood.

I had never seen an osprey before moving to Washington State in 1989; the first one I spotted was flying over Lake Easton carrying a massive fish headfirst, osprey-style, in its talons. Since then they've turned up on nearly every trip we've taken: nesting atop a snag on the Oregon coast, plunging into a lake in Yellowstone National Park, tearing apart fish while perched on a pole in an apple orchard near Lake Chelan.

The most recent osprey soared into view as I sat with my mother on a porch swing on Bainbridge Island. There we were, sipping lemonade, winning front-row seats to wildlife drama without exerting a speck of effort.This bird lugged its heavy load to the tipped-over top of a nearby conifer. Its sharp beak ripped into the fish. It tossed fins and scales aside as it fed; they sparkled as they tumbled to the ground. In between bolting fish, the osprey turned to fix us with its golden glare.

After a while, it paused, still clutching the fish's backbone, the head and tail flopped over on either side of the branch. Then the bird most dramatically displayed the behavior beloved of professional bird photographers--namely, a perching bird's tendency to release waste before taking off, thereby giving the photographer a signal to get ready for the beautiful soaring scene.

Well. It's one thing when you're talking about a little wren letting loose before flying. When it's a big, hefty raptor expelling its cargo against a deep-blue sky--to a distance of six or so feet behind the bird--let's just say you would be very glad not to be within striking range.

(A long time ago I heard someone at a reading share a poem that called bird poop "the white apotheosis of the cloaca." We used this term for a very long time, as in "You might want to wash that white apotheosis of the cloaca off the picnic table before we set it" and "Ick, there's white apotheosis of the cloaca on the windshield." I can only think the poet had a defecating osprey in mind when he penned this line.)

Ospreys are found worldwide and always near water--the best place for these fish hawks to catch fish, after all. Their toes, with undersides covered in rough, spiky scales, are adapted for the task of grappling slippery, wiggling fish. They can also move one of the outer toes so that they have either one or two of their four toes pointing backward, which further aids them in gaining a grip on a struggling fish.

It seems remarkable that a bird circling 50 to 100 feet above the water can pinpoint a fish visually, compensate for the way water bends light, then suddenly drop and smack down on the surface to seize its prey. Yet they manage to succeed in this task nine out of ten times when they dive. Then off they flap, usually carrying the fish pointing forward to minimize air resistance.

In his epic work Birds of America, John James Audubon rhapsodizes about the courtship and shared incubation of ospreys in a manner most wonderfully anthropomorphic:

"[During the breeding season]....The males are seen playing through the air amongst themselves, chasing each other in sport, or sailing by the side or after the female which they have selected, uttering cries of joy and exultation, alighting on the branches of the tree on which their last year's nest is yet seen remaining, and doubtless congratulating each other on finding their home again.....The male assists in incubation, during the continuance of which the one bird supplies the other with food, although each in turn goes in quest of some for itself. At such times the male bird is now and then observed rising to an immense height in the air, over the spot where his mate is seated....

When the Fish Hawk has attained its utmost elevation, which is sometimes such that the eye can no longer perceive him, he utters a loud shriek, and dives smoothly on half-extended wings towards his nest. But before he reaches it, he is seen to expand his wings and tail, and in this manner he glides towards his beloved female, in a beautifully curved line. The female partially raises herself from her eggs, emits a low cry, resumes her former posture, and her delighted partner flies off to the sea, to seek a favourite fish for her whom he loves."

I think the Ballard birds are an old married couple by  now; they'd probably just order in fish-and-chips from the local Red Mill if they  had cell phones instead of engaging in volatile public displays of affection. Either way, I'm looking forward to their return in the spring.