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Tuesday, December 11, 2018

ROBIN HOOD and OTHER OUTSIDERS


One year ago as the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize dinner in NYC approached, I was asked, along with the other six finalists for the prize, to write in response to this question: what was the first book you fell in love with? I thought immediately of this one. The article was published initially at LitHub, Dec. 2 2017. 

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"Robin shooteth his last shaft"
None of the books I read as a child have survived to the present day. Late in her life my dear mother developed dementia and became a hoarder; everything I once possessed in the house where I grew up was carted to a toxic-waste dump by the county haz-mat crew. I suspect it would have been difficult to pick a favorite even if the books had survived: my sisters and I were voracious readers and were kept amply supplied by our Aunt Helene, a book editor at the San Francisco Chronicle. Every Christmas she shipped us -- her poor relations -- a box of reviewer's copies of fiction and non-fiction titles, sometimes appropriate for children and sometimes less so. I recall a biography of mad King Ludwig II of Bavaria, a collection of Arthur Rackham's illustrations of wood sprites, and a how-to guide for making macramé clothing, with which I entertained a mild obsession. (Is there anyone left who knows what "macramé" is?...)

I don't know if The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood was a gift from our aunt or if it had once been Daddy's own, but I suspect the latter. That's because we were not allowed to treat it with anything less than careful, clean-handed reverence. Our father was an artist: a creative misfit and traumatic brain injury survivor.  All his life he maintained that his elder brother lured him on to the roof of Horace Mann Elementary School to fly a kite with the express intention of killing him, which was nearly the result.  He treasured his Scribner's edition with Howard Pyle's intricate engravings; mostly what I remember from that book was the final illustration of a weakened Robin propped up on a pillow, drawing his bow in order to "shooteth his last shaft" through the open window. I pored over that picture, marveling at its tragic implications. That was my introduction to metaphor.

My father, while not comfortable in a traditional parenting role, nevertheless took pleasure in outfitting our childhoods with sublime props. He built a Sioux-style teepee large enough to accommodate us and our sleeping bags in the backyard on starlit nights, and during our Robin Hood period, crafted four beautiful bows and arrows by hand out of ash-wood, our names tooled on the grips. I would give anything to hold my bow in my hands today and "shooteth a shaft," but the bows went to the dump along with the books, the teepee and the macramé vests. 
 
The story of Robin's merry band of men robbing the rich and giving to the poor is well-known; however, what I absorbed in powerfully affirming terms from this tale was not so much the noble aims of the band and its leader as much as their existence as outsiders, living in the woods far from the long arm of Nottingham's authority and its conventions. This was a state I could relate to, as did my sisters, and we clung to Robin Hood's alternate reality in order that, by identifying with outsiders, we felt less like outcasts. We were strange children, isolated by the circumstances of our parents' complicated relationships with their own families, their bizarre ideologies, and their decision to settle on a former cattle ranch in a house my father designed, where coyotes howled outside our windows at night and rattlesnakes occasionally curled up beneath our baseboard heaters. And then, regrettably, I wore those macramé creations to school, along with the lederhosen I acquired during my Heidi craze. Even without the lederhosen, classmates who heard me speak aloud asked me "what country do you come from?"  Not surprisingly, my best friend in high school was the librarian, a wild Alabamian who once put a loaded Colt revolver in my hands and taught me to shoot the shit out of a Jeffrey pine. In her own way, I believe, she was teaching me that being strange might one day prove to be my salvation.

Growing up as an outsider has its advantages. When my husband and I decided to move to North Carolina from San Francisco two decades ago, everyone we knew told us we were crazy. (Years before, some of the same people told us we were crazy to marry each other.) But if you are not bound by convention, you are more willing to take risks. In my novel The Second Mrs. Hockaday, the protagonist Placidia Hockaday is asked to explain why she married Major Hockaday after knowing him for only two days, taking on the care of his child and his farm while the Civil War raged, stepping blithely into the abyss of the unknown. She replies to her cousin: "life is all about the leaps."

So it has been for me: an outsider still, but ready to leap, not knowing where I'll land.

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The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood, adapted and illustrated by Howard Pyle, can be ordered online from a variety of sources.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

ANY PORCH IN A STORM


Porches have always been appealing to me, architecturally, but until moving to Traveler's Joy*, I'd never lived in a house with a front porch. Our place is known to old-timers as the Tompkins* House, after the railroad worker who built it for his family around 1915, and in our first summer here we quickly discovered that for southern homes built before air conditioning was invented, a porch was an essential -- not a decorative -- asset. (For more about the house, see the introductory post from 1/2/13, Traveler's Joy: Where the Catbird Sings.) Our front door faces west, and as anyone who has lived through a southern summer knows, one must have some way to prevent the searing rays of the afternoon sun from pouring in through one's west-facing windows, heating the house to oven-like extremes. Our porch roof serves that purpose admirably.
A storm viewed safely from the porch.
Southern heat often generates raucous thunderstorms, and this afternoon when the temperature was 96 and the humidity made us feel like we were wearing coveralls constructed of warm gelatin, a rainstorm blew up out of clear skies. My husband and I moved to the porch, sitting where we guessed to be out of the reach of stray lightning bolts. For fifteen minutes we reveled in the sound, the smell, and the blissfully cooling effect of a hard rain pounding the garden that surrounds us.

The last two Tompkinses who lived here were spinster sisters, and I have heard some remarkable stories about them and their vast garden from neighbors who grew up in town. They informed us that the elder sister decided at some point to enclose the porch, building it out in wood with glass jalousies fitted between the columns. Unfortunately, our house sits at the low end of Kent Street*, with the road rising to Cedar Street* at a fairly steep angle. One of the sisters' uphill neighbors was the local milkman, who got in the habit of parking his milk truck outside his house. One morning his parking brake proved insufficient for the fully loaded truck, and the vehicle rolled backwards, gaining speed, until it crashed to a stop in the center of the Tompkins' porch-room. That was the end of the truck and the room, jalousies and all.
SR with Clementine in the porch swing, everyone's favorite spot

I do sometimes understand the Tompkins' impulse to make the porch a bit less inviting and a lot more private. Over the years, we've had a considerable number of panhandlers, proselytizers and purveyors stepping into its shelter and banging away with our knocker. (See the post of 7/11/13, Knock, Knock. Who's There? for more on this.) An elderly wanderer who said he was crossing the country on a bicycle parked at our stoop one autumn day and knocked on the door, saying he'd rake all the leaves in our yard if I'd let him do his laundry in our house. Instead, I gave him $20 and directions to the laundromat a block away. Besides, I love raking leaves. Another time when my husband and I returned from shopping we were greeted by a strange woman sitting in our porch swing, writing at the table. Her suitcase was parked beside her. She claimed to be looking for a friend who lived in the neighborhood, but she declined to name him, and I had a good suspicion that she wouldn't have said 'no' if I'd invited her to live on the porch.
After coffee, our daughter takes a porch-nap with Clark, her rescue-hound.
 
That's something of a neighborhood tradition. For several months, the family across Lemon Tree Road* hosted three men and their meager belongings on the back deck of their house. The men hung a blue tarp overhead on 4 x 4 posts and huddled beneath it on rainy days, their cigarette smoke curling into the damp air. We called them the "People of the Tarp," and marveled that they and their noisy hounds lasted there into the winter. Compared to life under a tarp, our porch must have looked palatial.

Miss Billie, when she was alive, guarded the vegetable garden.
I'm not prepared to host strange hominids on my deck or my porch; however, all four of the animals we've opened our home to in the last nine years found their way into our hearts through the former. First came Miss Billie, our one-eyed feline protector (see the post of 5/4/15, Requiem for a One-Eyed Cat), then Tiny Alice, the traumatized red hound delivered on our porch by a neighbor in the midst of a pre-Christmas thunderstorm.
Tiny Alice

Some time in 2016 I noticed a white chihuahua-mutt running loose in the neighborhood, barking at schoolkids and charging the mail carrier. It was clear she'd been abandoned, and even clearer why: she was the ugliest dog I'd ever laid eyes on, sporting a dirty white coat with faint spots that looked like splashes of mud, a pig-like snout, and eyes distorted by prolapsed lids. (I tried washing her ears with a cloth and that's when I realized it wasn't dirt, but lousy genetics. Ditto for the eyelids.)
Zombie was named by our daughter. It suits her.

We assumed she'd been taken in by the family hosting the tarp people, however, as winter came on, it was clear that they weren't letting her sleep in their house. She started seeking refuge on our porch, attracted by the relative warmth of our loveseat's pad. I was feeding her by then, so when the nighttime temps dropped to single digits it was not a great leap for me to buy her a heating pad and a dog bed, the only problem being that she chased anyone who came within twenty feet of our property line. Our daughter visited us around that time; upon catching sight of our porch-dweller, she shouted: "where did you get that ZOMBIE dog??" It was true -- the chihuahua was even more hideously undead by then, as she'd had a run-in with some creature who'd left her with a hole in the middle of her forehead. At this point, my husband was finally convinced to bring her into the fold, officially. "Zombie" joined Alice in our utility room and in the fenced backyard and I was finally free to dismantle the improvised dog kennel on the porch. (Until such time as the next orphaned soul washes up.)

Zombie and Alice both arrived on our porch as strays.
Occasionally we have the sort of visitor who makes the porch seem less like a magnet for strays and more like a blessing, as when our neighbor stopped by at dusk recently to introduce her five-year old granddaughter. Luckily, the raspberries were in season, so we were able to offer our small guest the kind of interactive entertainment that Disney videos can't provide. 
'Dortmund' raspberries ripening in the garden.
And the UPS man was elevated to the status of a demi-god on the day he dropped off a cardboard box on the porch, containing the first hardcover copies of my novel, fresh off the press. It's impossible to describe what I felt as I held that book in my hands, so I won't attempt it. But it was fitting to discover this treasure on the porch, as I'd written much of the novel on the bench in the corner, with one or more animals curled beside me.
Holding it! At last!
The porch is also clearly an attribute on those rare days we have houseguests staying with us, mostly old friends or family members willing to make the drive from more sophisticated urban realms to our hamlet-that-time-forgot. They nearly always gravitate to the porch swing or the wicker couch in search of a solitary smoke, a glass of bourbon, a private conversation with other smokers and imbibers, or, when the maple tree beside the house is in its gilded October glory, a few moments to bask in the orange light that bathes the house. 

So the porch is a refuge, a retreat, a launching pad for adventure, a writing studio, a coffeehouse, a pub, and also a prime observation pavilion for the spectacles of fireflies (see the post of 6/5/18, Light in the Forest), stars, sunsets, lightning, leaf color and street theater. My husband FK experienced a vivid example of the latter when he was reading on the porch one morning  as a rattle-trap car screeched around the corner from Lemon Tree, plunged through our front yard, and came to a stop on the narrow patch of lawn between the house's southern wall and the vegetable garden. The young man driving it leapt out to confront the police cruiser that pulled up behind him. The Traveler's Joy officer who jumped out of the cruiser yelled, "I saw you in that car! I know you were driving it when you went through the stop sign! Why didn't you pull up when I put on my siren?"
"Got a suspended license," the driver told him. "Didn't want to deal with the hassle."
Ignoring my husband on the porch, the pair began arguing about what was to be done next, with the offending driver telling the officer that the car was borrowed from a friend and he didn't want to involve her, and the policeman insisting the kid call his friend to come over and collect the car, as he would not be permitted to drive it away. 
FK grades papers in the company of Blackie, a local tomcat.
In a couple of minutes a broken-down pick-up truck wheezed its way up to our house and a woman who had seen better times got out of the passenger seat. Before she could say a word to the driver or the policeman, the enormous man driving the truck leaned out his window and launched into a tirade against the officer, apparently believing that the borrowed car was about to be impounded. The cop, getting irritated, shouted at the man to be quiet and keep out of the affair, saying "This doesn't concern you!" while asking the woman if she was willing to drive her own car out of our front yard. At first, the woman demurred; my husband told me later that she appeared to be high, and may not have wanted to invite scrutiny by driving. The man in the pick-up finally drove off, shouting at the cop in parting: "You'll see that this f***ing DOES concern me!"
Meanwhile, the kid who drove the car through a stop sign, evaded police and careened off the street on to our lawn, attempting to hide the junker from law enforcement while missing the corner of our house by inches, was running out of patience. "I have to be somewhere," he complained to the policeman. "Can I drive out of here now?"
"No!" shouted the exasperated cop. "I've told you, you don't have a license!"
The cop began interrogating the woman about the belligerent pickup-driver. "Where does he live?" he asked repeatedly. "I'm just the man to teach that guy a lesson!" Perhaps to distract the officer, she reluctantly agreed to drive herself and the speeding scofflaw home in her car, and proceeded to back the sedan haltingly out of our garden.
Only after the car had pulled away, leaving the officer alone with my husband who had been standing unacknowledged on the porch this whole time, did the man look up at FK.  He shrugged and said, "What can you do?" before driving away.
Well, my husband was thinking. How about arresting the kid in the car? How about giving the woman a breathalyzer test? How about instructing them all to pay for the ruts plowed in the lawn? But, no. That's not how things work in Traveler's Joy. What lands, crashes, burns, blows up, topples, or crawls on to your patch of land is your own concern, and no one else's. It's the effect of fate, gravity, weather, or human nature. No one can change these things, so why try?
Rainy day.

We're slowly coming around to that way of thinking. Give us a few more summer nights on the porch with a good bourbon and a basket of raspberries at hand and we're bound to see things more clearly.

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*Reminder to readers: the names of my town, its streets, and my neighbors have been changed to protect their privacy.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

LIGHT IN THE FOREST


Yesterday I pulled all the solar-powered light fixtures from my garden and stored them in the shed. It's not that they didn't work, but that they worked too well: they were competing with an entirely miraculous light show provided by Mother Nature.

Fireflies in the Smoky Mountains, by Radim Schreiber
Every year around Memorial Day we are blessed with the nocturnal mating dances of thousands of fireflies, drawn to this particular block in Traveler's Joy by the absence of streetlights and backyard floodlights, and by the remnant of hardwood-succession woodland that extends for a scant acre on the eastern border of our property. Worldwide there are 2,000 species of firefly (aka Junebug or lightning bug), with our species in upstate South Carolina, Photuris frontalis, being one of only three synchronous firefly species in North America. Congaree National Park in Hopkins, SC, south of Columbia, hosts firefly-viewing evenings during their peak season from mid-May to June 1, and just announced the program's end; however, on our little mountain poised above the Broad River plain we peak later than the sweltering midlands, and are enjoying our showiest nights right now. It helps that our current period of clear, cooler weather was preceded by days of torrential rain, as Photuris favors marshy conditions, which apparently provide more food for larvae.

Yellow squiggle right corner? That's a firefly, dancing in the meadow at dusk
While the Congaree Park site advises visitors that the showiest synchronous lightstorms occur just after dusk, our mob of lightning bugs don't usually get the party started until eleven o'clock. Two nights ago my husband and I stepped outdoors close to midnight to catch a breath of air before retiring for the night and found ourselves transfixed. The eighty-foot pecan tree at the edge of our garden was twinkling with tiny lights throughout its length and breadth, while the adjacent woods sparkled with a continuous explosion of diamond-bright, blinking lights, imparting a greenish glow to the intervening meadow. Even our near-sighted cat was frozen in place, watching the lights.

Displays of glory put on by the natural world always cast me back in time to childhood, when I experienced with electrifying awe such wonders as the first snowfall, floodwaters sweeping past our house, or a lightning storm witnessed from the relative safety of an overturned wading pool I shared with an older sister. These were made more wondrous by the fact that I lacked the simplest scientific knowledge about how such phenomena occurred. I was free to invent my own stories of causation, and to marvel.

Our mating venue for Photuris frontalis: they hover in the shrub beds and sizzle in the pecan

There were no fireflies where I grew up, so seeing them on southern summer nights, even two decades-plus into this seasonal ritual, continues to feel extraordinary. That's true despite my knowing what causes the firefly's blinking (a chemical function of an organ in the abdomen called bioluminescence) and knowing why they gather in large groups to do their dances (the males' blinking lights signal to females that they are looking for love. The female firefly waits until she sees a blinking pattern she likes, and then signals to that particular male, telling him she's on board. Think of a freshman mixer at a hard-partying college campus.)

from The Firefly Experience, Radim Schrieber

Because fireflies require darkness to transmit and interpret their mating signals correctly, they are on the decline everywhere in the world. Even in a sparsely populated southern town such as our own, light pollution is rampant. We are lucky enough to have our house blocking one streetlight at the nearby intersection and to have the second light at the upper block only functioning partially, with no floodlights at neighboring houses. I'm thankful that on clear nights throughout the year we are able to indulge ourselves in star-gazing, and on a few dark evenings in May and June we are the chosen venue for Phonturis frontalis prom dances, no disco ball required.



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For information about firefly-viewing at Congaree National Park in Hopkins SC:
https://www.nps.gov/cong/fireflies.htm

To view spectacular photographs of fireflies, visit the Firefly Experience website of Radim Schreiber, a Czech-born photographer now based in Iowa: 
http://www.fireflyexperience.org/photos/index.php