Friday, February 27, 2009

Friday Five: Fork in the Road

Over at RevGalBlogPals, Singing Owl writes:
"I am at a life-changing juncture. I do not know which way I will go, but I have been thinking about the times, people and events that changed my life (for good or ill) in significant ways. For today's Friday Five, share with us five "fork-in-the-road" events, or persons, or choices. And how did life change after these forks in the road?"
Above right, a lovely scrapbook page someone did with Robert Frost's poem The Road Not Taken. "Two roads diverged in a yellow wood...." Unlike the poet, I think many of my fork-in-the-road moments have been either out of my control or that I've made quick decisions with long-lasting consequences. So here goes:

1. Here's one I didn't even know about at the time, probably. My father's National Guard unit had been called up in 1950 at the beginning of the Korean War, Late in 1951, he (I'm sure with input from my mother) decided to switch into the Regular Army, where he then made his career through most of my childhood, retiring in 1965. I can't begin to count the ways this decision changed my life, but I will say to anyone who is contemplating a life that includes moving one's family about the country or even the world, the benefits were many and I think my life has been better for that long-ago decision.

2. For several years in the 50s and 60s, my father ended up working with the National Guard again, in Connecticut. The first four years we lived in a rented duplex in Then-Modest Town on Long Island Sound. Around the beginning of my eighth-grade year, my father was offered quarters on a housing area that had been built for a Nike missile site that never came to pass, in Much Less Modest Town a few miles closer to New York. An extra bedroom, a stand-alone house, and a better school system made the decision. Because of that decision, I had some wonderful teachers and also made some lifelong friends, the same ones I've been getting together with at the beach the past few years.

3. When I was in high school my grandmother gave me a subscription to the Saturday Review of Literature -- ah, what a great magazine, I miss it still. One week there was an article about a college, illustrated with photographs showing Lorraine Hansberry and Eleanor Roosevelt chatting with students. That college, known here as A Host at Last University, became my first choice and I did end up going there. I could have gone to Barnard and explored New York City; among other schools I considered but didn't apply to was the college Onkel Hankie Pants attended, and I've always wondered whether we would have found each other if we'd been in the same place a little earlier in our lives. I'm still not sure I made the "right" choice, but I did graduate. I should have known that, introvert that I am, I was not likely to approach a famous person strolling about campus. But I did get to hear Langston Hughes and Elie Wiesel and learned a lot both in and out of class.

4. After college graduation I wasn't quite sure what to do. Graduate school didn't seem to be an option, and the Boston area was full of recent graduates with better grades and more connections. I worked as an office temp for a few months; the ending of that assignment coincided with the news that our landlord had sold the triple-decker we lived in to a REIT which was raising the rent drastically. I decided to let The Accountant (who wasn't one then) and our other friend find a two-bedroom apartment and go home to Maine to figure out my next move. A couple of months later my sister, who is four years younger and was in a similar situation, asked me to call the Army recruiter to set up an appointment. When he arrived I enquired about OCS, but learned that there wouldn't be an opening for 6 months. However, when I asked about the language school I'd heard of, he said he could get me in for an 11 month Russian course in Monterey, California. So my sister and I enlisted and went through basic training together, and then she went to San Antonio to become a medic and I to Monterey. One thing this gave me was the chance to live in California as a young person with a support system and few responsibilities. Great fun! And more....

5. Having finished the Russian class with flying colors (I even got the Pushkin Award!), one might think an assignment would have been waiting. However, I was the first woman in the school since the Korean War (several had joined me since I arrived, but most were either officers or already assigned to the Army Security Agency). What to do with me? The initial reaction was to send me across the bay to Fort Ord (known as Fort Orc to many at the time) for on-the-job training as a clerk-typist. I think I told this story more fully in June 2007, so let's just say this was where I met Onkel Hankie Pants and then, as I was on my way to a real assignment in Berlin, we decided to marry. That has changed and enriched my life in ways I couldn't even have imagined back then.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

A Different Kind of List

Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. Many of us are contemplating beginning a Lenten discipline of some kind. Celeste has a long list -- she's at home with a baby, making art, and has already learned that without intentionality, the days fly by too fast. Diane has resolved -- well, her post is so good you should read it yourselves, especially the knitters! Cathy is Loving Life, Loving Lent, and Kathryn is learning to let herself be taken care of -- her post on RevGalBlogPals (scroll back to Tuesday) has much wisdom for all of us. All these plans have something in common -- being intentional about making a change. Without mindful intention, it's too easy to go on doing what we've always done, and not doing what we've always not done, and then wondering why nothing changes.

So what's my Lenten discipline going to be? I am doing one traditional "giving up" -- no computer solitaire! "Just one more game" too often turns into a late night, a book unread, a blog unblogged. There are better ways to spend my time.

More importantly, and far more difficult, I am going to be intentional about intercessory prayer, and do some thinking about how to do it.

Reading a blog, an email, a letter, or even the newspaper, it's easy to say "I'll keep you in my prayers." Too often in my case, those prayers are limited to the few seconds of silent prayer at church on Sunday. Even then, I tend to bring forward the two or three people who are uppermost in my mind and realize later that I've left out several more. Another time I pray is before falling asleep at night; in the quiet, it's easier to recall the people, but sleep too often cuts short the prayer time.

My plan in brief: to keep a written prayer list; to pray each day; to try using the prayer beads I made a few years ago; and to learn more about intercessory prayer.

Here are the prayer beads:
This part has symbols of several faiths, so be sure I can pray for you whether you are a Christian or not!

About the last part of the plan: I always have a feeling that it may be a little selfish just to be praying for specific people I know, when so many people I don't know may be in need of prayer for the same trouble. So quite often I will pray for "X and all others struggling with addiction," "Y and all others dealing with mental illness," and so on. I invite your thoughts on whether this is a useful practice.

May all who keep it have a blessed and fruitful Lent.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Ten Top Crime Novels

I'm continuing my list for Sisterfilms (and anyone else who wants a list) with ten crime novels.
Before anyone asks why I didn't include Baby Shark, may I remind you that my ten books had to be selected from among the books in the Crime category of the Guardian's 1000 Novels Everyone Must Read. Some of these books are firmly in the mystery and detective genre, others are considered "serious literature," but all have a crime at the heart of the plot. Once again I'll list them in chronological order by publication date.

1. Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment.
Raskolnikov is one of the great characters in Russian, or any other literature. The punishment he suffers is his own remorse at his actions. There's no "whodunnit" in this book, and Raskolnikov makes a rather refreshing contrast to the soulless perpetrator who is common in today's crime novels.

2. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, A Study in Scarlet.
Far-fetched the plot may be, but it's hard for me to imagine anyone who could read this book and not be drawn in to the world of 221B Baker Street, in the London of pea-soup fogs and street urchins. Mormons might not like it much, though.

3. Agatha Christie, The Mysterious Affair at Styles.
The first appearance of M. Hercule Poirot and his "little grey cells," his egg-shaped head, his moustaches, his tisanes....An excellent example of the English country-house murder mystery.

4. Dorothy L. Sayers, Murder Must Advertise.
Lord Peter Wimsey goes undercover as an advertising copywriter to solve the mysterious death of a young man. Although the book was published in 1933, it has a bit more of a 20s feel to me, especially in the scenes involving the Bright Young Thing Dian de Momerie. This is my favorite of the Wimsey novels, showing Wimsey's ability to move in circles not his own -- I very much enjoy the bits where he comes up with advertising slogans.

5. John Steinbeck, Of Mice and Men.
Heartbreaking Depression-era tragedy of two men for whom things just aren't ever going to turn out right

6. Josephine Tey, The Daughter of Time.
Tey wrote only eight mystery novels, but they are all excellent. Five of the novels have the same sleuth, Inspector Alan Grant of Scotland Yard. In this book, Grant is in hospital for a lengthy period and is going slowly bonkers until he decides to research whether Richard III really did kill the Princes in the Tower. Since he can't get out of bed, he has his friends research under his direction, and comes to a surprising but well-reasoned solution.

7. Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird.
It's hard to believe that there can be a living person who hasn't read this book or at least seen the movie, given that it was a best-seller on publication, a frequent school assignment, and most recently has been the "Community Read" for a number of towns and cities. It's a portrait of a time not so long ago when life for African-Americans was very different; that time should not be forgotten.

8. John Le Carre, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.
I had actually not read this myself until just last year, when it came up as part of my project to read all the Best Novel winners in the Edgar Awards. Of course, the Berlin setting was of interest to me, but the writing, the deviousness of the characters, and the characterization made it one of the best books I read all year.

9. Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo, The Laughing Policeman.
Getting toward the end of the list, a lot of tough choices had to be made. I chose this book partly because it was neither British nor American in origin (if you hadn't guessed, it's set in Stockholm). It's a good example of a police procedural, one of my favorite kinds of detective novel. It was also an Edgar winner for Best Novel. If you have seen the movie with Walter Matthau, this book has almost nothing in common with it except a couple of plot points; I didn't care for the film at all even though I usually like Matthau.

10. Mario Puzo, The Godfather.
Sure, you've seen the movie(s) many times, but you really should read the book too. I suppose there were novels about the Mafia before, but nothing like this.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Friday Five: Taking a Break

At RevGalBlogPals, Songbird, who lives about 35 miles from me, says:
"Where we live, it's February School Vacation

Yes, that's an odd thing, a vacation extending President's Day. But it's part of our lives here. Some people go South or go skiing, but we always stay home and find more humble amusements.

In that spirit, I offer this Taking a Break Friday Five. Tell us how you would spend:

1. a 15 minute break
2. an afternoon off
3. an unexpected free day
4. a week's vacation
5. a sabbatical"

First off, I have to admit -- right now it's all a break for me, in many ways. That might change before long, but since I don't have a job or children at home, my schedule is my own. So in answering these questions I'll be looking ahead, or back, or into some kind of fantasy world.

1. A 15-minute break: coffee and a book. That's what I did when I had jobs that offered breaks, and that's what I do now if I'm taking a break from some lengthy chore.

2. An afternoon off: wander downtown, exploring shops and coffee places I haven't been into, but surely ending up at the bookstore. Or if I were broke: go to the library and look at the new books, magazines, and any exhibits that are up.

3. An unexpected free day: to me right now, this means a day where we would have no dog responsibilities. I'd like to go to City by the Sea and check out the historical society library, and if I were tired of that, visit the art museum and have lunch at a place we've never been to.

4. A week's vacation: right now, a week at the beach in South Carolina sounds really good. If I get to go this year, it will be in May, and it will still be good then.

5. A sabbatical: no piddly three-months sabbaticals for us! Nosir. We (Onkel Hankie Pants and I) want a whole year, and although there might be many things we could choose, I think we could agree on a literary/genealogical tour of the British Isles. There's enough there to keep him busy and happy taking pictures while I poke around ancestor-hunting, and we would both enjoy seeing the Lake District, the Cotswolds, the Fen Country, London, Scotland, and so on and so on. We would also require a ten-pound box of money and someone to care for the dog and cat; or if we could arrange a home exchange, perhaps only a five-pound box of money.
All the photos, except for the beach one which is mine, are from wonderful photographers at The Maine St. photo has my hairdresser's salon, which I should visit soon, afternoon off or not!

Thursday, February 19, 2009

A Little List of Love Stories

Sisterfilms requested a shorter list of ten novels per genre so that she could begin without feeling overwhelmed by the prospect of 1000 novels ahead. She also requested that they be drawn from a larger list, so I am using the Guardian's 1000 Novels. I'm only recommending books I've read myself, your results may differ. All but one (as far as I know) of these novels have been filmed at least once, but remember, seeing the movie is not the same as reading the book. The first category the Guardian has is Love, so here are 10 books dealing more or less with love. I'm listing them in chronological order by publication date.

1. Jane Austen, PRIDE AND PREJUDICE. Really, any of Austen's books would be fine, but this is my sentimental favorite because it's the first one I read. Sisterfilms and I are partial to the older BBC version with Colin Firth.

2. Charlotte Bronte, JANE EYRE. Quite different from Austen, much more melodramatic, but I think the story will grip you. Personally, I would not care to reread this periodically as I do Jane Austen, but I know there are many people who do. The book brings up many issues to think about.

3. Lev Tolstoy, ANNA KARENINA. Now we're getting to the bad girls. Non-Russian speakers may need to make a little chart to keep the characters straight, but it will be worth it.

4. Willa Cather, MY ANTONIA. A very American story set in Nebraska. Antonia is one of my favorite characters.

5. F. Scott Fitzgerald, THE GREAT GATSBY. Like all the books here really, this isn't just about love; love is always taking place in the context of society.

6. Ernest Hemingway, A FAREWELL TO ARMS. A love story as well as a World War I story. Interesting to contrast the writing styles of Hemingway and Fitzgerald.

7. Daphne DuMaurier, REBECCA. This could equally well have been put in the Crime section, perhaps; although some might not class it with the foregoing "great works of literature," it's a story well told.

8. Boris Pasternak, DR. ZHIVAGO. A story of love and the Russian Revolution told by a poet. The love story ties it all together, but you will learn quite a bit of history by the way.

9. Kazuo Ishiguro, THE REMAINS OF THE DAY. I wouldn't actually have classed this with the love stories, but I can see why it's there, and it's an excellent book.

10. Ahdaf Soueif, THE MAP OF LOVE. This is the one book listed here that has not been filmed, and I can't imagine why not unless it is the Egyptian setting. One of the best books I've read in the last 10 years. It might be a good one to start with, especially for Sisterfilms, who's read a bunch of other books about Middle Eastern women.

More anon! Feel free to argue with or add to my recommendations in comments.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Can't Resist a List, Part Three: List Resistance -- Or Not

     Why can't I resist a list, and why are some people so militantly resistant to them?
     Lists or "reading plans" seemed to be quite popular from at least 1909 until around the mid-1950s.  One of the first was the Harvard Classics (1909). Charles Eliot, President of Harvard, opined that a good education could be had in this "Five-Foot Shelf" of books. Five feet of shelf space, made into a three-shelf bookcase, doesn't take up much room. I know this because, when my parents bought the Harvard Classics, the bookshelf was included.  Probably someone in the family has it to this day; I have the books, complete with two volumes on how to use them. One is a normal-size book with a plan for reading the whole set (50 volumes) in some sort of logical order; the other, a slim volume, appealed to me as a 10-year-old because it directed you to a brief reading for each day of the year. Sadly, I never got very far into January before other things (or other books, most likely) drew me away. Thus we see how list-lust and list-loathing can coexist in one person.  I did very much enjoy the poetry volumes as well as the Journals of Ambroise Pare (an early surgeon); the Classics cover various disciplines, so if I ever want to read Harvey on the circulation of the blood I know where to find it. One of the charming idiosyncrasies of the Classics is that, while Donne, Tennyson, Wordsworth, the Brownings, Whitman, Longfellow et al. are jumbled together in a three-volume anthology of poetry in English, Robert Burns gets a volume all to himself. The only other poet so honored is John Milton. Scotland for aye!

     The Five-Foot Shelf could fit easily into the studio apartments that striving young people could afford. Its later competitor, the Great Books of the Western World (Mortimer Adler and Robert Hutchins were among its compilers) always seemed to take up a bit more space when I saw it in other people's homes or in libraries. And indeed it has more and larger volumes. There is quite a bit of overlap with the Harvard Classics, but Adler and Co. were completists -- rather than choosing, say, a couple of plays by Euripides, they included all they could find. The Great Books have been revised at least once, removing a few items and adding others; they have formed the basis for "Great Books" curricula at several colleges and universities, and there is still a Great Books Foundation which encourages the formation of reading and discussion groups.

     Somewhat later came Clifton Fadiman's The Lifetime Reading Plan.  I was afraid even to look at that one for fear my remaining lifetime would not be long enough, but, at least in its most recent (1997) version, it wins a lot of points for diversity, beginning with The Epic of Gilgamesh (hey! I've read that!) and ending with Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart (and that too!) and including a great deal more literature from around the world than either of the previous lists. Fadiman and his collaborator John Major (not, as far as I know, ever Prime Minister of Great Britain) were only trying to sell one book, the Plan itself, and the ambitious reader could acquire the books however s/he might.

     All these sets and plans** were most popular at a time when relatively few people had the opportunity to go to college or even, in some cases, to finish high school. In my generation, most people who wanted to could graduate from high school, and more people than ever before could go on to college. Thus we were familiar early on with Required Reading, Summer Reading Lists, Core Curricula and General Education classes. At my own alma mater, it was entirely possible for a luckless student to spend the first two years, plus one more course, just fulfilling the General Education requirements. Add to this our generally rebellious nature, and it's easy to understand the numerous comments along the lines of "Who are you to tell me what to read?" that all such lists of "Best Books" seem to inspire whenever they are published or posted.

**For a much more complete list of lists, go here.

     And yet, I think many of us, confronted by the amazing proliferation of books and other reading matter, want some guidance on what to read, as well as a chance to discuss what we've read, and to urge our favorites on our friends and acquaintances.  The continuing popularity of book groups, now on television and the Internet as well as in homes and libraries, owes much to these needs. And although it is always certain that literary critics love to make lists of the best or most important books, it is also certain that editors wouldn't publish such lists if they didn't think readers were interested.

     So if anybody's reading this, what do you think about literary lists?  Love them or loathe them? Do you check off the titles you've read, and complain about what's been left off? Do you make a vague mental note that you might like to sample some of the books? Or do you pass them by without a second thought? Let me know in comments, and elaborate if you choose.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Can't Resist a List, Part Two: Can I Do It?

     The Guardian, Britain's left-leaning newspaper (terrific on-line arts sections, by the way), recently came up with a list of 1000 Novels Everyone Must Read.   What makes this list more interesting than some others is that, first, it is divided into categories: Love, Comedy, Family and Self, Crime, State of the Nation, Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Travel and War.  Second, the selections are annotated, and most of the annotations give one a reason for reading the book. (The ones on Thomas Hardy's books, however, are duds. Nothing but spoilers.) Third, although the list includes many unfamiliar British writers, it also has at least a few books from countries we don't normally hear much from unless we're on the Nobel Prize selection committee.

     But -- a thousand books! That's a lot! And, when I copied the list, I counted individual titles of multi-volume works and came up with at least 1070.  After all, it doesn't seem fair to give Alan Bennett's An Uncommon Reader, delightful as it is, equal weight with the twelve volumes of Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time.  (Even though I've read the former, and not the latter.)  Then when I counted the books I had read from this list, I came up with a pitiful 205 (and that included Little Women, Ballet Shoes, and several Agatha Christie mysteries, so don't go feeling all inferior here.)

     Maybe it's the annotations, maybe it's the variety, but I feel much more inclined to tackle this list than I did the much shorter one from TIME.  So, do I have time to read the remaining 865 books?

     In the last three years I've averaged 194 books read per year. To read 865 books in 25 years, would take only 34.6 books per year, leaving me plenty of time to read mysteries, non-fiction, poetry, the Bible and Shakespeare.  Moreover, there are quite a few books on the list I was intending to read anyway, including Terry Pratchett's Discworld series. In fact, right now I'm reading his The Colour of Magic as well as E.C. Bentley's Trent's Last Case -- both on the list.  Also, because Onkel Hankie Pants was an English major, and because I've often been guilty of buying books and then not reading them, we actually already own about 30 of the books on the list that I haven't read.  So I guess I'm going to give it a try. I reserve the right to give up on a book if, somewhere between 50 and 100 pages in, I just can't stand it. After all, as my grandmother used to say, "Life is too short." I might substitute something from one of the more specialized lists I found, which I'll report on another time.

     I'm making a "shelf" on Goodreads for "Guardian-1000-Novels" and will track and review my reading there. As time permits, I'll also try to add the 205 books I've read in the past, but don't expect any very trenchant comments on books I read 40 years ago! I may also post some updates on the blog now and again.

     Now back to Trent's Last Case, which I'm reading for the DorothyL Book Discussion Group (we read and discuss "classic," pre-1970 mystery novels) and which is proving very enjoyable.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Can't Resist a List (Part one of an occasional series)

     Not long ago, two well-known publications came out with Best Novel lists and some bloggers counted up how many of the listed books they had read. Time Magazine had a list of the All-Time 100 Novels, and The Guardian newspaper in Britain went all-out with a multi-part, annotated series on The 1000 Novels Everyone Must Read (chosen by book section staff and other literary critics). 
     I can't resist measuring myself against lists like these, so for even more fun (I can hear my kids saying, "Mommy, you're such a dork!") I searched out some other book lists both general and specific. I'll be reporting my scores and thoughts from time to time, starting today. If you know of some lists I don't mention, let me know about them. I'm especially interested in finding lists of regional books; I located Western lists of fiction and non-fiction from the San Francisco Chronicle, and a fine list of Southern books from Agee Films, but I haven't found a Midwestern, Great Plains, New England or Texas list yet.  At some point I may discuss mystery and detective fiction lists, but since I own a whole book full of these and read a lot of this genre, that may be a bit too much.
     TIME's All-Time 100 Novels were selected by their critics, Lev Grossman and Richard Lacayo. Right away the designation "All-Time" becomes suspect when the subhead makes clear that the 100 are selected from English-language books published since 1923 (the year TIME made its debut).  Some, though by no means all, of the books were reviewed in TIME when they were published, and links to the reviews are helpfully provided.
     I've read only 30 out of the 100 books. (By the way, I think it's really more like 113 books, since Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy and Anthony Powell's 12-volume A Dance to the Music of Time are counted as one book each - that would up my score to 32).  I found this list somewhat idiosyncratic, as one might expect given the small number of selectors. The seven authors represented by more than one book (two each) are Saul Bellow, William Faulkner, Vladimir Nabokov, George Orwell, V.S. Pynchon, Philip Roth, Evelyn Waugh and Virginia Woolf. Wondering what these authors had in common, I came up with: except for Orwell and Waugh, they are authors I've read relatively little of and have not much interest in pursuing.  I don't know what that says about me or the list.
     There were several authors with whom I was not familiar, who appear to be science fiction or graphic novelists. There are two books written for children in the list. I wouldn't quibble with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, but really -- are they saying that Judy Blume's Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret is a better novel than E. B. White's Charlotte's Web or Laura Ingalls Wilder's The Long Winter?
          I figure that with luck and the availability of audio books in case my eyesight goes, I have about 25 more years of reading time left to me. There are several books on the TIME list that I would certainly consider spending some of that time on, and quite a few others that I don't even care to dip into, especially the ones which are depressing or extremely experimental in literary form. If I count up authors rather than specific books, my score goes up to 42, and I doubt that it will ever top 50 from this list.  However, if I were younger and had more time, I will say that one would get a fairly good picture of 20th (and a bit of 21st) century fiction and life in the U.S. and Britain by reading all these books, even though some are set in the past and some in the future. I was surprised, though, by the apparent dearth of books dealing with the Second World War. As best I could tell from the titles with which I was familiar, Catch-22, Atonement, Slaughterhouse-Five, The Painted Bird, and perhaps The Sheltering Sky were the only ones that dealt with those very important years.
     A note on how I count books I've read: I have to have finished the book, not just started reading it and put it aside. I have to recall clearly that I've read the book (for example, I'm not counting Nathanael West's The Day of the Locust because I can't recall for certain that I've read it and not just read about it). And seeing the movie or a television production or play doesn't count! Unfortunately, I only started really keeping track of the books I read a couple of years ago, so before that I have to rely on memory.
      Next time, you can read my thoughts and "score" on the Guardian's 1000 Novels Everyone Must Read. Or must they? I hope readers will check out the lists and let me know their thoughts, scores and disagreements.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Friday Five: Pets

Sophia at RevGalBlogPals tells us: "My son's tiny beloved lizard, Elf, is looking and acting strange this week. His skin/scales are quite dark, and he is lethargic. We are adding vitamin drops to his lettuce and spinach and hoping and praying that he is just getting ready to shed his skin--but it's too soon to tell. Others in the ring have also been worried about beloved pets this week. And, in the saddest news of all, Songbird has had to bid farewell to her precious Molly, the amazing dog who is well known to readers of her blog as a constant sacrament of God's unconditional love.

So in memory of Molly, and in honor of all the beloved animal companions who bless our lives: tell us about the five most memorable pets you have known. "

1. DINAH: The first pet I remember really well wasn't mine, but my grandfather's. Dinah was a border collie, as befitted a dairy farmer, although I'm not sure her life on the farm actually coincided with the time when cows lived there. When I met other border collies in the Midwest, later on, I was surprised that they didn't look like Dinah, who looked like Sheba (our neighbor's dog) and Flurry (my honorary uncle's dog) and other border collies in our part of Maine. Recently someone told me that serious border collie people in England occasionally breed in other types of dog to their border collie strains to keep them intelligent, which makes sense. Dinah always came barking out to greet anyone who came to the farm. She liked to sit in Grampie's lap and he liked to have her there, and in her younger days I would take her across to the pasture and throw things for her to catch (sticks and the rubber parts from the old milking machine). I suppose Dinah is the reason I prefer shaggy dogs to smooth dogs.

2. BUNTER. Bunter was the second cat of our marriage. The first one, Finn, had been hit by a motorcycle only a few days after we brought SonShineIn home from the hospital. Bunter, although named for Lord Peter Wimsey's "man," was a female cat, born in a corncrib in rural Minnesota. She was the first cat for each of our children, and lived to be 17. Here's a picture of Bunter, alert and on the job while I and Cordeliaknits are fast asleep.

3. PYEWACKET. Pyewacket was a Siamese gentleman, who was already several years old when we got him as a birthday present for Cordeliaknits, who was temporarily catless. She wanted a Siamese or some other interesting cat, and we made the rounds of the adoption places until we came to one being run by an organization called Last Hope. The cats and dogs were in shopping carts in one of those big pet-supply stores, and we could hear Pyewacket complaining loudly as soon as we walked in. This was the one. Pyewacket was obviously well-socialized by his former owner (I always imagined that that person had not given him up voluntarily, but perhaps had died or gone into housing that didn't allow cats). As soon as he got used to us and our house, he was the most loving cat imaginable. He liked to get under the covers if it was the least bit chilly, and often I would be awakened by a paw gently patting my shoulder so I'd lift up the blankets for him. The girls insisted that he always knew if anyone was feeling bad physically or emotionally and would come to give comfort. After four happy years, he was found to have inoperable cancer and we had to let him go. Here's the last photo we took of him, dignified to the end.

4. WINIFRED. Winifred is Sisterfilms' cat, and is already 14 years old. We got her from Pet Haven (another no-kill organization similar to Last Hope) as a one-year-old whose kitten was already bigger than she. She has never grown bigger than about an eight-month-old kitten but has remained an exceptionally healthy and active cat. For many years she was an indoor-outdoor cat who would occasionally bring us unwelcome presents such as mice, starlings, and decapitated rabbits. We forgave her because of her bravery in dispatching a mouse that showed up one winter morning in Sisterfilms' boot. When Sisterfilms moved to a second-floor apartment, Winifred became an indoor cat and has remained so, now living with Sisterfilms, SonShineIn and The Collector in a big old house (with occasional mice to catch). Since Pyewacket's death she has become more and more affectionate. She even has a blog of her own, although she is sadly remiss in updating it. She's a crafty cat too, as you can see from this photo.

5. RUSTY. Rusty, whom you have met before, is our first dog and will probably be our last. I have had people tell me that they had English Springer Spaniels live to be 19 and still be frisky. Rusty is three. I'm not sure how frisky we will be 16 years from now! We came in from our evening walk a little while ago and he immediately grabbed a plastic soda bottle and raced from one end of the house to the other with it several times. (Although there's a nickel deposit on each bottle, we feel this is a cheap and nearly indestructible toy for him). He also likes tennis balls and his stick, which he found for himself in the woodpile. Occasionally he eats Dove soap. Generally this has no ill effects on his digestion. That's enough about Rusty, but I'll try to find a photo that hasn't appeared yet.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Friday Five: My Favorite Things

Songbird at RevGalBlogPals has had a week of some uncertainty, and says: "In a week of wondering how various things in our family life will unfold, I found myself thinking of the way Maria comforted the Von Trapp children in one of my favorite movies. Frightened by a thunder storm, the children descend upon her, and she sings to them about her favorite things, taking their minds off the storm.

So, let's encourage ourselves. Share with us five of your favorite things. Use words or pictures, whatever expresses it best."

1. Books. You knew that, right? Here's a picture of some of our living room bookshelves today. Books there include poetry, Bibles, reference books, history, and some of the numerous To Be Read books. Many other books are elsewhere in the house.

2. Sunshine.

I didn't do so well

photographing this,
but it's a sunny day here and that always makes me happy. I'm not one for lying outside in the sun, though.

3. Color. This photo of a photo that Cordeliaknits took in California is an example of how
color can lift the heart.

4. Family photos. Here's one of me and my
brother that he recently gave me. Apparently my parents had our picture taken professionally (possibly by my uncle Bud, who was working for one of those companies at the time) before my father went to Japan and Korea. I had only had the tattered copy he carried in his wallet there, and from which he had a painting made, until Brother #1 retrieved a bunch of things from storage and gave me this.

5. Stuff with memories attached. This is a charm bracelet that my oldest friends gave me when my family was about to move to Germany after sophomore year. I added to it later. There is a map of Connecticut, a pennant from our high school, a St. Christopher medal from our Catholic friend, a banjo to represent the folk music we were into, a lobster for Maine, the Berlin Bear and Wappen (shields bearing the city or country arms) from Germany, the cities I lived in there, and places I visited. Also a holly sprig for Christmas. The bracelet clasp is broken and the likelihood I'll wear a charm bracelet again is very slim. I'm thinking maybe Cordeliaknits could incorporate the charms into one of her bead or fabric art pieces for me.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Remembering a Saint

     One of those expected, but still dreaded, emails from my old church came on Monday. You know what they are before you even open them, because the subject line is just the person's name. This time it was Jean Cutler, one of the saints of the church. I use her real name because I know she had nothing to hide.

     Jean and her husband Bob were among the first to welcome us when we began attending the little Tudor church near the lake. Bob was a mainstay of the choir, and Jean was the Financial Secretary for about 40 years. Being Financial Secretary -- the person who counts, tracks, and deposits the offerings and other church income -- is a lot of work, and many people might consider their volunteer obligations met with that, but not Jean. She was active in Friendly Service- Sewing for Others, in the Women's Circles, and wherever she was needed. The day we joined the church, it was Jean's meatballs we ate at the luncheon after worship, and later, when for a few years we held Passover Seder meals, it was Jean who learned to cook a delicious brisket. 

When I was the church newsletter editor, I always tried to write a real obituary for each church member who died, rather than just having a listing of condolences. In the early years especially, I often didn't know the folks who had been homebound or living elsewhere. But I could always count on Jean to give me an idea of who someone had been and what they had meant to the church in their more active years.

Jean grew up around the corner from the church. She and her friend Betty were probably the longest-serving continuously active members, having been confirmed in the early 1930s. She experienced several pastorates and even more changes in church leadership, including the merger that led to the United Church of Christ. There were changes that led to some of her peers leaving the church. One story she told me herself, was that shortly after World War II the then minister left -- perhaps was asked to leave, in any case, she felt he had been ill-treated and didn't particularly care for his successor. Did she leave in a huff? No...she simply volunteered to teach Sunday school for several years, since it was at the same time as church and this way she could escape the sermons.  It tells a lot about her loyalty.

       Truly Jean was one of the saints of the church. I could go on telling stories of her many kindnesses, traditions she started and carried on, her volunteer work both in church and in the community. Most of us have been privileged to know such saints; I wish especially for my clergy friends to have people like her in their churches. Here's the really important thing about her that continues to inspire me: her loyalty to the church was not contingent on its staying the same or being exactly as she wanted it to be. It was a loyalty that looked forward, welcoming new people and their new ideas, accepting positive changes and dealing constructively with negative change, and never losing sight of the goal of sharing God's love.  May perpetual light shine upon her.