Michaeline: Fourth of July

Older ladies sitting in the shade with their shoes off while others wade in the lake.

This is one of my favorite pictures of the Fourth of July — being with good friends in the summer heat, and just kicking off your shoes and relaxing in the shade. (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

For Americans in the reading audience, Happy Fourth of July (fraught with meaning)! For non-Americans, Happy Fourth of July (random day, so why not be happy?).

I love the Fourth of July. It’s the day that the Continental Congress declared they were no longer subject to George III, and it’s smack in the middle of the long summer holidays from school that in my case lasted from the end of May to the end of August. My family had picnics, and sometimes family reunions, and always, always, always fireworks. There’s a streak of pyromania that runs in both sides of the family DNA, and we enjoyed setting off the mild fireworks that Nebraska allowed, then going to see the big fireworks down by the pond.

Things are different here in Japan. Fireworks are on sale, but aren’t really a big deal until mid-August in Hokkaido. The first of the summer fireworks shows start at the end of July. At any rate, much as I love fireworks, the dogs and the cows hate them, and they outvote me on this. We might do a smoke bomb or two or some wee sparklers, but that’s it at home.

Menu ideas for the fourth of July with an explanation of what the Fourth of July is. There is no "Republican," no "Democrat," on the Fourth of July -- all are Americans.

Here’s what an ideal Fourth of July looked like long ago — fried chicken for breakfast! And, “(t)here is no “Republican,” no “Democrat,” on the Fourth of July — all are Americans.” (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

Back in Nebraska, being in the middle of summer vacations, Fourth of July wasn’t what you’d call an intellectual celebration. Oh, you learned stuff, that was sure. Fireworks are full of science and physics, and also about responsibility for your actions and consequences. Very educational, that. And of course, the mayonnaise-based salads could provide a health lesson, but my mom was very much in favor of lecture mode vs. the school of hard knocks (major concentration in food poisoning), and we never suffered from that.

This year might mean the smartest thing to do is stay home. My hometown had plenty of parking, and a lot of room on a wide, grassy hill, so maybe they’ll have a safe, socially distanced fireworks display. People could probably park at the old drive-in theater (if it’s still undeveloped) and enjoy the whole show from their cars and never leave the bubble.

But not every town has that sort of space (or small population). It’ll be interesting to see what kind of new traditions evolve to celebrate the Fourth of July.

Originally, I was going to write a whole blog post full of suggestions for a fun and educational Fourth. Watch a movie! Read some books! Play History Charades! Enjoy a traditional meal from your family’s heritage – because they were the people who helped build America. Enjoy a traditional side-dish from someone else’s heritage, because they made America the country it is today. Set an alert on your calendar for the next business day to make sure you are registered to vote, and to apply for an absentee ballot if you need one (you might really need one this year).

But then, I thought, who am I kidding? It’s the middle of summer. I’m going to arrange some flowers, have hot dogs for supper, set the alert on my calendar, and call it good. That’s probably good enough.

Michaeline: Writing Where the Grass is Greener

Tish, Aggie and Lizzie putting out a fire while a young heroine looks on.

Letitia Carberry (known as Tish), and her henchwomen, Aggie and Lizzie, save yet another young couple in love while putting out fires and being their unabashed spinster selves. (Image via digital.library.upenn)

Two things collided and lit up my intellectual sky this morning. First was that tweet by the guy who said being childless is a privilege*. A lot of Twitter people piled on – one of his arguments basically boiled down to “you can euthanize your pets, but you can’t euthanize your children, so stop comparing pet ownership to parenthood. Pet-owning childless people, you have no idea, so your arguments along that line are invalid.”

I tweeted that not having kids is a privilege, and having kids is a privilege – just very, very different privileges that carry their own burdens and responsibilities. I added that the grass seems particularly greener on the other side when we are fed up and anxious about things.

And goodness knows, the pandemic has increased the number of bored, anxious, fed-up-to-the-gills feelings.

So this idea of childlessness being a privilege (with caveats) ran into the reading I’ve been doing recently. Problematic early 20th century writer Mary Roberts Rinehart is racist and classist – but it’s a closely observed racism and classism that make her characters live and breathe. And in addition, she’s good at plotting, and turning rather ordinary situations into screwball comedy.

Her casual sideswipes at great swathes of humanity make me deeply uncomfortable, but she’s got good ideas that would work well in this time period or even the near future.

One of the perennial calls from readers is for books that have mature heroines. Most of Roberts Rinehart’s books do feature narrators out of their first blush of youth, and in particular, her series of stories about Letitia Carberry, a “spinster” who has a taste for adventure (motorcars, boats, that sort of thing) and her two friends. Tish Carberry buys an island where her friends go to hang out in the summer, and they rescue young couples who are crossed in love. (The young men in the stories are often appalling stalker-boys, and the girls often don’t know their own minds before realizing that they luuuurve those awful wretched boys. You have been warned!)

Older woman swimming in an inner tube calling to an older woman washing a white sheet on the shore.

“Get the canoe and follow. I’m heading for Island Eleven.” Actual caption to the original, and I can’t add much more. Tish calls to the narrator, Lizzie. (Image via digital.libary.upenn)

But if you boil the muck down and distill the essence, this is a great idea! Three happy spinsters, merrily following their own interests and pursuits. They go camping! Tish enters a car race and blows away the competitors while her friends cheer her on (and fear for her life!). The women have time, they have money, and they have a certain amount of respect as “elderly” women (they are in their 50s, IIRC), and can also totally Karen their way out of a situation by pretending to be weak and fragile. (And sometimes it’s funny that their fragility is real, but they don’t want to admit it.)

I think it’s very much a “grass is greener” situation. Roberts Rinehart married a doctor after graduating from nursing school. The Tish books were written from 1911 to 1937, so she would have been about 35 when she published the first Tish book. According to Wikipedia, her sons would have been about 14, 11 and 9 in 1911. Since her first book, The Circular Staircase, was published in 1908, she would have had at least three years of writing while juggling her job as wife and mother.

I can easily imagine that the Tish books were a mental vacation from those responsibilities. Just think: what fun it would be to buy an island away from everything, provide homes for your best friends, rent a few cabins to make ends meet and then indulge in camping, fishing, crafts, motorcars and whatever else struck your fancy – without having to justify it to a husband or feel like you were stealing the college education from your children!

Her kids were a success, and her writing paid for extensive renovations to a house in town that she bought, as well as a rural retreat. Letting her imagination stray to a place where the grass was greener certainly seemed to pay off for her! A room of her own? Let’s aim for an island of our own!

*Privilege confers certain advantages, and I don’t see privilege as a zero sum game in every case. Childfull/childless is one of these cases. Renting/owning is another case where both sides have pros and cons. In race and gender discussions, privilege is more fraught and puts the burdens and deprivation people have in stark contrast. Imbalanced privilege that we can fix is definitely worth doing something about. 

Michaeline: Mystery Architecture

A man either sinking or rising in a stage trap door with a woman being frightened. "Then let it be the kiss of death" reads the caption.

See? Trapdoors are not as cool as a bookcase that swings open at the push of a button or hidden lever. They are frightening, and not always reliable. I really do wonder what is going on in this play, though. Whiteley’s ORIGINAL Hidden Hand — do not be misled by false pretenders who come after. Or it WILL BE THE KISS OF DEATH! (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

I’ve been thinking about homes lately. If you followed the Friday Sprint Adventures of Porky Pie the Wonder Dog (summer of 2019; particularly episode five and six), you’ll remember the secret passage that leads from summer breakfast room to the gazebo by the creek. I just love a good secret passage! Built-in features like safes behind paintings, or a vault hidden in the floorboards really thrill me as a reader, and I like to incorporate them into my writing.

Two early influences were The Adventures of Scooby Doo, which often seemed to involve hidden passages or secret doors, and the Nancy Drew mysteries. There were little secret compartments in several of the books, if I remember correctly.

Attics were also great places for hidden treasure, or mysterious diaries, or even the odd prisoner of the house. To my great regret, I’ve never lived in a house with a proper attic. When I was a child living in Panama, I remember we were forbidden the attic because of the snakes, bats and other wildlife that might be up there. And, dear readers, I was NEVER tempted to explore.

The basement is usually where you’ll find the secret tunnels – it just makes sense to have them handy to the ground. You could hide the staircase and all, which will make your tunnel even more secret – people may not even suspect you have an underground component! But it’ll run you some money. Best to hide the tunnel behind the wine rack or cleverly disguise it with rutabagas.

I’m not a huge fan of the trapdoor. There’s just too much fiddly business – thrust aside the carpet, lift up the whole heavy thing, and then inelegantly scramble or crouch through the thing. Then after you’ve closed the door, you need an accomplice to put the rug back on properly.

But a dumbwaiter? Oh, I like those! You get in your dumbwaiter (which doesn’t necessarily have to be hidden, but could be), and slowly descend or ascend dramatically out of sight without ruffling your petticoats. Pop out into the third-floor ballroom, then make your way across the rooftops to freedom!

I may have been inside a little too much these days.

Michaeline: Saturday Morning Cartoons

Bugs Bunny star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame

Bugs Bunny’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

In my childhood, Saturday morning meant cartoons. No sleeping in for me! I was glued to the screen watching even crappy cartoons from six or seven a.m. until lunch. One of my favorites were the Looney Tunes cartoon hour. I enjoyed the tales of the Singing Frog from 1892 (One Froggy Evening, 1955), Marvin the Martian, and Speedy Gonzales, but my favorite stories were about Bugs Bunny.

I’m not sure how they got these cartoons on the air in the late 70s and early 80s. Parents were already wary of gratuitous violence – Wile E. Coyote and his plans to permanently rid his life of the cheerful Roadrunner, Elmer Fudd wandering around woods, forests and opera houses with his hunting rifle, Marvin the Martian ready to eradicate the earth and any loose Earthlings.

And then there’s the sensibility – many of these cartoons were first made in the 1950s, a whole generation before X. A lot of their humor was rooted in even earlier times – 1930s gangster movies, slapstick comedy and snappy banter. I didn’t know who Liberace was, or what a teen idol Frank Sinatra was, or a single thing about Sally Rand and her amazing fans . . . but it didn’t matter. The jokes worked anyway for pre-teen me.

Looking back, it does make sense. Violence was very much a part of our world back then – we worried about the Soviet Union nuking us, and gun violence was in the news daily. Also, those re-runs had to have been a lot cheaper than making new cartoons. What I liked best about them, though, is that even though they were accessible to an eight-year-old, they weren’t meant for an eight-year-old. I felt they gave me a peephole into a sophisticated universe. (Note, as an eight-year-old, many of my notions of sophistication were actually shaped by Warner Brothers. It was a cycle that fed itself.)

One powerful lesson that the Looney Tunes taught was the power of the underdog – a quick-talking rabbit who was clever could Continue reading

Michaeline: Plague Books for Fun and Education

Medieval painting of people enjoying the country scene of The Decameron

Seven ladies and three gentlemen escape the plague-filled city to have some fun and tell some stories in The Decameron. (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

Pandemic. All the stuff stemming from the pandemic including death, illness, poverty and hardship. Murder hornets (remember murder hornets?). Asteroid misses. Earthquakes. Locusts. Oh yeah, tornadoes. I’m sure I’m missing a few.

I won’t count protest. It needed to happen. It still needs to happen, and unfortunately, it will continue to need to happen, I’m afraid. I could wish that everyone had gotten totally frustrated, fed up and ready to change the system for good when Trayvon Martin was murdered in 2012 (or any of the other times a black death at police hands sparked protest and outrage). However, I see why it is happening now, instead of last August. What with unemployment and staying at home, people have time to protest, maybe for the first time in their lives. And the pandemic’s side effects have certainly intensified everyone’s anger and outrage. Maybe this time, we’ll see a long-lasting change for the better.

But, back to the Corona. Oddly enough, most of the books I read in May ( 3 and 1/2 books . . . when will I be able to read again?) had something to do with The Plague. The Decameron (J.M. Rigg translation) was a bunch of really rich people who said, “Let’s escape all this crap, and sing and dance and eat good food in the good country air, and tell stories every night.” Two weeks later: “OK, bored now. Or going to get bored soon. Let’s go back to the plague-y town.” It took me a month and a half to read through two weeks of tales (with four days off for hairwashing and piety – on the characters’ part).

The Ozark tales sometimes borrow from The Decameron. (Image via Open Library)

It’s worthwhile to read this once in your life, I think. However, if you need something lighter, I would read Pissing in the Snow and Other Ozark Tales, collected by Vance Randolph. The best of the dirty jokes of The Decameron, but with down-home people. (Caveat: I last read this book in my 20s; it stuck with me, so it’s good. But there’s probably A LOT of problematic material in a dirty joke book that just didn’t register on my young radar. So, you have been warned.)

The new Penric story by Bujold, The Physicians of Vilnoc, was so good. Doctors working to solve the mystery of the plague, using cooperation and understanding and compassion and BRAINS. (The people of the Decameron did not apply their brains toward solving the problem at all. They applied their brains towards distraction, which is a good strategy, as far as it goes.)

I’ve been meaning to write a review of this, and it deserves one. Aside from the story of the plague (which is an engrossing mystery with higher stakes than any country house whodunit), it also provides justification for Penric’s

Penric and his demon, Desdemona, race to prevent a pandemic in The Physicians of Vilnoc. (Image via Goodreads)

path – he trained as a healer in his 20s, but suffered from a breakdown and almost committed suicide. In this story, he has to deal with his fears of burnout, and a reckoning of abandoning a healing path. He discovers that many of the doctors he runs into have heard of his translations of medical books. As a healer, he could have directly saved hundreds of people. But through his translation work, he indirectly saves millions over his lifetime and the future. This is a sideplot, if you can even call it a plot, but it’s an extremely satisfying aside.

Finally, by chance, I picked up an old novel (1909) called When a Man Marries. I picked it up mostly because one of the cover shots I saw was an omnibus with an unfortunate design, so it looked like the book was, “WHEN A MAN MARRIES THE MAN IN LOWER TEN” which sounds like a thrilling, ahead-of-its-time sort of book.

The author, Mary Roberts Rinehart, writes very well and has great characterizations, but also slaps the reader constantly across the face with the fan of casual, middle-class white racism. In this particular book, she writes crappy comments about a Japanese butler, South American native women, and the Irish. Her characters very obviously build their lives on the backs of lower class people, and so I feel I must include this as a trigger warning before I go into the pandemic part. She was definitely part of the problem.

That said, I was very surprised when this screwball comedy (and it IS very funny when it sticks to observations about its own class) centered on a smallpox quarantine. Jimmy Wilson is depressed because it’s the second anniversary of his divorce (in 1909). Kit, our narrator and Continue reading

Michaeline: Too much world on my mind this week.

The muse Melpomene is standing on a tilted pedestal in this fresco. She holds a frowning mask in one hand, and a big stick resting on the ground with her other hand.

The muse Melpomene found in Pompeii. Her world was on fire, too. (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

A Song for 2020

The fucking world is on fucking fire, tra-la-la-la-la.
Between the plague and the fucking pyre, tra-la-la-la-la,
So many coffins on the bier, tra-la-la-la-la.
We’re paralyzed with doubt and fear, tra-la-la-la-la.

Someone else is saving the world, tra-la-la-la-la.
Filmed on an iPhone, click on this URL, tra-la-la-la-la.
Listen, be silent, speak up, support, tra-la-la-la-la.
Can’t trust the government, police or the court, tra-la-la-la-la.

What can be done, what can be done?
Wring our hands and stare at the sun?
Wash the dishes until day be done?
Ignore it all for escapist fun?

The poets would sing our troubles away, tra-la-la-la-la.
Pack up, for an hour, our cares away, tra-la-la-la-la.
See something, say something, do what we can, tra-la-la-la-la.
It’s not perfect, but it’s a plan. Tra-la-la-la-la.

Tra-la-la-la-la.
Tra-la-la-la-la.
Tra.
La-la.
La-la.
Lah.

— Michaeline Duskova

Michaeline: Nothing to Say

Baby lemon balm plants with about six leaves each, peeking through the mulch

So, here’s a bonus nothing: I am a terrible gardener. Lemon balm, which is viewed by most as a pernicious weed, is something I need to baby with frequent mulching, and every year, I worry if it will come up again. I’m safe this year!! Hoorah! Unless we get a sudden frost, I think I’ll have enough for tea and insect repellent. Also, in further nothing news, I was afraid that my husband had killed my bee balm (Oswego tea) last year with a good application of herbicide. But, no . . . that stuff apparently LOVES herbicide! While mowing, my first hint was that lovely smell of crushed bee balm . . . and when I looked down, I saw clump after clump of beautiful, healthy, 15 cm tall bee balm! It’s taken over almost a third of the back yard, which is wonderful news for me, because then I won’t have to mow it — just around the lovely little clumps. Unless my husband applies another dose of herbicide . . . but if it’s mowed, he won’t be tempted. Good lord, give me the ankles to keep this mowing up and save my beautiful bee balm! (E.M Duskova)

I haven’t got anything to say this week, so I thought I’d spin a little bit of nothing out into a few paragraphs. Frequent readers of the blog may know that I left my job at the end of March. I wallowed most of April, and in May, I started to get stuff done – but all the wrong stuff.

I’ve decided I like gardening again, and I want to have flowers and a relatively kempt lawn this summer – there are several ceremonies attending my father-in-law’s death this year, and the next one coming up is the 100th Day on July 5, and the first Obon in August. (I’ve written about ghosts and Obon before. But more of the nitty gritty about dead relatives returning during the Obon season can be found on Wikipedia.) Coronavirus concerns will mean we have fewer guests than we might have had, but I’m sure we’ll still have guests.

And they have appreciated the flowers I’ve bought and arranged for the first 49 days of weekly ceremonies. To tell the truth, it’s been a comfort for me, too. My father-in-law was a man of few words, but he showed his love for his family and his community through doing things, and doing them right. I could sit in front of the family altar and tell him how much I appreciated him, but it just seems right to let the flowers do the talking. I hope he would have liked them.

So, I just completed the first lawn mow of the season yesterday. It took four days and a lot of ice on my ankles and muscle recovery meditations, but I survived it. Barely. I hope that now it’s done, it’ll be my daily 30 minutes of exercise and also thinking time for my writing. But if we get several days of rain . . . I’ll be back to mowing knee-high grass for hours and hours again.

I can’t remember which book I read where a man talked about how physical labor drove all the dreams and imagination out of his head. I want to say Thoreau, but that doesn’t sound like a Thoreau sort of thing to say. Quite the reverse, if I remember my Thoreau. (It’s entirely possible that I’ve made up a False Thoreau in my head, based on a few facts like his mom did his laundry while he was playing survivalist on Walden Pond.)

I’ve forgotten how to Continue reading

Michaeline: For the Love of Barbara Allen

Pretty young lady with a check or plaid dress.

An autumn version of Barbara Allen/Barbara Allan. (via Wikimedia Commons)

There are a lot of different variations of the old Scottish/English/Appalachian song about Barbara Allen, but I was first exposed to the lyrics through a Bugs Bunny cartoon. (0:14) Porky Pig was dressed Friar Tuck, and strolled around singing about the merry month of May.

It was a great tune, and memorable lyrics. “A young man on his deathbed lay, for love of Barbara Allen.” (“Robin Hood Daffy,” 1958.) 

Later in high school or college, we sang a different version in choir. The lyrics could be sung to Porky’s melody, though, so I’d switch between the two in the shower, depending on if I wanted to be light and lovely, or dark and mournful. Continue reading

Michaeline: New Penric Novella by Lois McMaster Bujold

a plague doctor in a long beaked mask with a robe, gloves and hood

The doctor is in, and I think I’ve found the cure for my reading blahs! (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

All right, book fans, I have been out of action for 42 days. No writing, and as for reading, I only did about four days of the 10-day-long Decameron. It’s been a rough quarantine for story for me — I haven’t even watched any TV stories or movies aside from a special Quarantine tribute to Lil Sebastian by the Parks & Recreation cast. (2:44)

And this week is not going to be any less busy. My father-in-law’s 49-day death anniversary is coming up this week, and the crops have to be in the fields, and my daughter is starting online Quarantine College classes . . . .

But it looks like I could bust right out of this horrible, boring rut I’m in. I write this on Friday evening my time; by the time it posts tomorrow at 5 a.m. GMT, there could be a new Penric novella by Lois McMaster Bujold out! Details about The Physicians of Vilnoc are in her Goodreads blog here. You can read the first section on Patreon here. (I’ve been seeing Tweets about The Decameron Project for days, and it sounds like a wonderful way to sample a lot of the people writing fantasy and science fiction today. 

I have, and the first 100 words had me squealing in delight. Oh, this is going to be a great book, and perfect for the times we live in. I’m hoping it’ll prove inspirational as well. I don’t know if I can write a physician in a time of plague, but I bet I could find a journalist character who reports on a plague during an era of magic and upheaval. Steampunk? Contemporary urban/rural fantasy? Or maybe something set on a space station?

At any rate, I’ll put The Decameron aside for a few more days, and dive into a wonderful read after I’ve done my duty and my chores on Saturday. Fingers crossed!

(I’ll update with Amazon info as soon as I have it!)

Michaeline: Reading Rainbow May

 

Lady reading in a midsummer meadow of roses and bell flowers

I’d love to spend some of these early summer days reading in the backyard with roses and fairy bells. (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

Well, April is done and over, and I had a terrible month for reading. I don’t think I finished a single book – only a few chapters of the Decameron, and I put off any other books because I like to read one book at a time.

In the past, I have had an upstairs book, a downstairs book and a bathroom book going at the same time, but I’m just not up to multi-tasking these days. Perhaps it’s because online reading has taken over so much of my life. I wake up and check Twitter and one online newspaper, then go to the bathroom and scan the headlines of a couple of wire services. This takes a half an hour to 45 minutes, and uses some of the same multi-tasking skills that I used to use for multiple fiction books. I’m following two or three big news stories, and maybe another two or three Twitter narratives.

There are pros and cons to everything. The online reading brings constant surprises, and sometimes I can use those things in real life (I’ve been interested in sourdough bread for years, but only in the past six months have I seen THAT story online; I may actually do make a sourdough starter this summer if I keep reading). But the coincidences! The really too-stupid-to-live characters who would never pass a gate-keeping publisher’s crack editorial team! The lack of happy endings, or even endings at all. A lot of times, stories online just trail off into obscurity to be replaced with the next story-of-the-day. If we’re lucky, Continue reading