Category Archives: Reading Reviews

A Swimming Chicken, a Filing Ferret, & a Knight Seeking Work


Yup, these would be OUR chickens. (cartoon courtesy of

Our chickens won’t be winning any intellectual awards.  Ku’okoa (aptly named with the Hawai’ian word for “freedom“) is brighter than the rest—she spends a fair bit of time outside the chicken-yard, but she always returns when she’s done adventuring. The other girls, though… Maybe I’m too much “Mother Hen” with them, but I just don’t trust their capacity to figure out where they’re meant to be.

Their general lack of imagination is evident in how INfrequently they get out, not to mention their behavior when they do. Last time one of the Stupid Chickens blundered out of the chicken-yard, she tried to return by running through the fence. Repeatedly. Like some kind of wind-up chicken-brained battering ram.

At left: Ku'okoa, the Least-Stupid of our chickens...

At left: Ku’okoa, the Least-Stupid of our chickens…

They remind me of nothing so much as a sleepy toddler who falls out of bed, too groggy to navigate back to the starting point. So when one of the Dumb Clucks “fell out” of the chicken-yard yesterday, I felt compelled once again to round her up and tuck her back in.

She sped away from me, dashing along a narrow stretch between our fence and the pond behind the house. I ambled along after her, confident that I would scoop her up where the fence and water converged to cut short her runway.

This is where she proved me wrong in my assumption about lack of imagination. Instead of the dithering disorientation I expected, she took to the air!

Clearly she can achieve enough lift-off to hop the short fence around the chicken-house, but I really didn’t think she had enough flight-power to make it across the water… And this time I was right. She managed half the distance, ran out of juice, and splash-crashed right into the drink. It was unkind of me, but I couldn’t stop laughing while this poor soaked, bedraggled, panicking chicken thrashed her way to shore. Ducks make it look so easy!

I looked up “swimming chickens” on the internet when I got back inside (the waterlogged and baffled bird returned safely to her enclosure) and found quite a few videos of serenely swimming chickens. So they CAN swim—but apparently someone needs to explain that to OUR chickens. Maybe I’ll show them the video…

In other animal antics… I’ve been in a fever of anti-packrat cleaning-up this week. Cleaning junk out of drawers, cleaning old documents off the computer, uploading photos into our online album (I learned that lesson when a laptop died and took a load of family photos with it!), filing the stacks of paper that have been accumulating on the kitchen counter where I drop the mail…

ferret in the files

we need a new filing system…

And I’ve had “help!” Our ferret Niele (aptly named with the Hawai’ian word for “nosy“) was particularly useful when she climbed into my accordion folder. Evidently we need a new filing system: “Kids’ school.” “Medical.” “Utilities.” “Insurance.” “Ferret.”

Filed in the category of “new knowledge”… Our son Christian has me reading the “Ranger’s Apprentice” series of books—great read, by the way!—and he brought home #4 and #5 from his school library for me this weekend. What an “aha!” moment I had when I got to this passage, about a knight riding through a snowstorm:

“His surcoat was white and his shield was marked with a blue fist, the symbol of a free lance–a knight looking for employment wherever he could find it.”

freelance writing... with more "help"

freelance writing… with more “help”

This freelance writer had never wondered about the etymology of the word that describes what I do! I exclaimed aloud at my discovery, and earned a look from my son—the kind of look that pre-teens have perfected. Half affection and half disdain, the kind of look that says “Duh” without a word spoken. “Seriously, Mom? You didn’t realize that? It’s kinda obvious.”

Well don’t I just feel like a Stupid Chicken!  :)

From Noah’s Ark to Yellow Submarine

busted pipes

an unwelcome sight beneath our home at two in the morning

I jinxed myself, no doubt about it. When I wrote last week about our growing tribe of pets and animals, I ended by saying I hoped we wouldn’t be floating away like Noah’s Ark. Just a couple nights later–Saturday night, to be specific, or rather, the “wee hours” of Sunday morning–Keoni woke me to say there was a distinct sound of gushing water beneath us. Oh, that can’t be good.

Bundled up in bathrobes and sweatshirts, we emerged from our back door with a flashlight, stepped over the rivulets of water streaming out from underneath the trailer, and pulled the skirting off the side beneath our bathroom. Sure enough, the main water line was in free-flow.


the remains of our “lake,” Sunday afternoon

Our favorite neighbor, Bill, is also the maintenance guy for our trailer park, so Keoni was knocking on his door as early as we deemed decent. (The sun wasn’t quite up, but the sky was light… All three of us realized afterward that the nation’s clocks had been set back during the night, so we really woke him at an earlier hour than we’d intended…)

Bill answered the door in his pajamas; Keoni greeted him brightly with the observation that it was Sunday at our house, and he just wanted to see if it were Sunday at Bill’s house too. Oh, and by the way… Our trailer was now sitting in a veritable lake, and could Bill come take a look?

Times like this, we’re glad that our home is propped up on cement blocks ABOVE the ground. We’re also glad we’re on a well, and not paying for all the water that was suddenly surrounding us. (Not even feeling guilty; it’s headed straight back to the water table it came from.)

Neighbor Bill, prepared to swim beneath our trailer

Keoni whipped up some French Toast for all of us while Bill crawled underneath to wrestle with our pipes (and modeled his sense of humor along with the life-jacket I jokingly fetched for him)… Before noon we had running water IN the house again, and our moat gradually began to recede.

I’ve had the Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine” song stuck in my head ever since. That’s absurd, of course, since our home was mercifully NOT “beneath the waves”–but somehow that song is sticking with me anyway. I think it’s not even about the flooding.

I have (at long last!) begun writing a book. A book of my own—which is a topic we’ve talked about every time I’ve been commissioned to ghost-write an e-book for someone else. Hell (we keep saying), if I can knock out a book on astrology or vitamins or the Foreign Exchange system (topics in which I really have no interest or background—just solid research skills), why am I not writing the book I want to write? So now I am. Working title: “Your Backyard Homestead: Sustainable Living, Wherever You Live.”

And still humming “Yellow Submarine”…

“…and we live a life of ease; every one of us has all we need…” I’ve always associated the phrase “life of ease” with affluence, but that’s not necessarily so. After all, I’m paying the bills by doing the one thing that comes most easily to me: wrangling words. And I get to spend my days in this home I love (moat or no), with my husband and our kids (and the cat and the ferret and the chickens and the mice)… I love my life. I am happy. No, more than that. I am joyful. The official U.S. “poverty line” is still a target way above our heads, but we have all we need. And right there we have the heart and the core of my book!

“…and our friends are all onboard; many more of them live next door…” I’ve been reading Eric Weiner’s book, The Geography of Bliss. It’s a humorous and insightful look at the nature of happiness, and the things that actually make people happy. He observes, among other things, that people often say “money doesn’t buy happiness,” but then proceed to behave as if it did. Social science studies show that money does affect happiness–but only up to a point. And that point, he explains, is a lowly fifteen thousand dollars a year. With the basics of security (and, interestingly, dignity) taken care of, additional funds don’t translate into additional levels of happiness. This idea, too, fits in with the premise of the book I’m writing.

Weiner also illustrates that many factors that do add to people’s happiness are tied to social interactions. Trust. Family ties. Cultural connections. Community identity. Neighborliness. He observes at one point that when we get money, we tend to use it to buy walls. Richer people are likely to have taller fences, essentially–and poorer people may have known neighbors instead. Which of those things make us happier? Why, the people-connections! When I shared that bit with Keoni, he pointed out that the thought was exactly in line with a blog-post I write a while back, on the Dying(?) Art of Knowing Your Neighbors.  As I think about it, our neighbor-relations have also contributed substantially to our “homesteading” lifestyle—everything from our ability to scrounge and barter to our collaborative efforts last summer in Bill’s vegetable garden.

the rock Keoni painted for Elena Grace, whose favorite song is Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”

The “Yellow Submarine” song, after all, isn’t about getting overwhelmed or swept away by flood. It’s about living joyfully among other people in a state of satisfaction. Small wonder if that’s been playing in my head all week.

Come to think of it, even Noah’s Ark (the original “swept away by water” story) ended with a Rainbow of Promise.

Marginalia & Time-Travel

Harry Potter cut-outI’ve been re-reading (actually, it’s more like re-re-re-re-re-…  well, you get the idea) the Harry Potter series this week, occasionally swapping volumes with one of my kids when our progression through the books overlapped…  This is the first time through the books for Elena Grace, who (at age eight) is well acquainted with the film versions–but as Readers know, the books (particularly as you get further on in the series) contain a great deal more than the film-makers could have hoped to encompass, so she’s coming across numerous discoveries in her reading.

owleryAnd at the same time (not unlike Harry and Hermione when they use the time-turner and end up watching themselves-of-two-hours ago from the shadows) I’m running across myself-from-other-years in the pages of these books. Though I was properly brought up never to mark a book’s page, or even to turn down a page-corner or place a hardbound volume open-and-facedown to mark my place, I admit that I am now a hopelessly addicted marginalia-ist. (No, I don’t think that’s in the dictionary, but in my case it would mean a person who is unable to read without a pen—or, in the case of iPad-reading, a stylus-–in hand, ready to underline, highlight, and scribble up and down the sides of any page that gets me thinking.) So here I am, this week, engaging in a little time-travel by interacting with versions of my former self in the margins of these books.

Owl PostAt the end of every novel there’s a scribbled date with my initials—or in the case of these particular books, now, an entire column of dates—accompanied sometimes by the location where I was reading, if I were away from home. At the end of number five, the first read-through (June of 2003) I noted “Boise National Forest,” and I remember now my relief when my pre-ordered book arrived on the morning we were departing to go camping–I’d so hoped I wouldn’t have to wait another two days for the long-awaited next installment. My handwriting hasn’t changed much over the years, though my initials have. I read this particular book five times as J.V.–during a different marriage and while I still went by my first name…

Hogwarts SignThe when-I-read lists at the end of the books, however, are far less interesting to me than the how-I-read notations in the rest of its pages–and it will be interesting in future (when Elena Grace is able to read the handwritten script as well as the printed story) to see what additional questions I might end up fielding from her.

Muggle errorIn the ink that matches the reading-sign-offs from 2005, my attention was captured to references of Hermione (who comes from a Muggle, or non-wizarding family) trying to explain her world to her mystified parents. “Maybe not unlike a school for the deaf…” I wrote in one margin. Elena Grace was born deaf, and I had been overwhelmed by the prospect of learning an entirely new language to communicate with my own child. (And—having just taught her three-year-old brother to read—was entirely mystified about how I’d be able to go about that process with someone for whom the words on the page had no connections to the physical language of Sign, which we expected she would be using.)  I’ve written previously about how that story turned out for us (“Amazing Grace, How Sweet the SOUNDS“), but coming across my own notes from the time transports me back with a jolt.

Harry Potter LegosThere are bemused notes about parenting among these pages, and about teenagers (I was teaching teens during many of these readings, but didn’t anticipate at the time that I’d soon be catapulted into parenthood-of-teens via stepmotherhood) and classroom dynamics, about some of the perplexing metaphysical questions raised by the uses, abuses, and limitations of magic as it is presented in this series, and a whole slew of comparisons between the Ministry of Magic’s responses to rising danger and the Bush-II administration and Patriot Act, Hitler’s Regime, and the U.S.’s shameful internment of Japanese citizens during World War II… A note in the sixth book reminds me that (the week the book came out, and I knew my class of Physics students had been just as engrossed in reading it as I) my extra-credit question for the week was to answer Mr. Weasley’s dearest wish and explain how Muggles make airplanes stay up! (Answer: Bernoulli’s Principle…)  

The Harry Potter books (stacked in order with the first on top)–each yellow tab marks a character’s death. Quite the visual…

And there’s commentary here, too, on the deepening seriousness as the series progresses, from the almost-silly first story to a death-strewn finale in number seven, nearly worthy of a Shakespearean tragedy… (Our eleven-year-old son, Christian, just saw Hamlet performed, and compared its ending to the aptly named Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. “This book is definitely NOT happy-happy-cupcake-unicorn,” is his precise characterization of HP & the DH… Which–having just finished it yet again–I believe to be its strongest charm.)

Since I started out writing here about my own marginalia in the books, I can’t help but be bemused by the role which marginalia-in-books plays within the stories themselves… The entire sixth book (HP & the Half-Blood Prince) centers on Harry Potter’s relationship-through-marginalia with a previous student who left behind a Potions textbook filled with hand-written notes. And the finale itself, in the seventh book, is unraveled thanks to a clue left behind in the form of marginalia in another book, this one filled with the Wizarding World’s fairy tales.  (Christian just recently introduced me to the related series of books by Rowling–she has gone ahead and written some of the Hogwarts textbooks and storybooks referred to in the main novels. And fittingly, the fairy tales of Beedle the Bard are reproduced with the annotations and Marginalia of Professor Dumbledore’s copy–including that clue… Fun extra read!)

Some critics turn up their noses at these books, point to them as a mere pop-culture fad with sub-standard writing…  I can’t say I agree–I’ve always thoroughly enjoyed the writing, myself, so they must be applying different standards than mine.

But more to the point, whatever a person’s opinions about the writing, I dare anyone to debate J.K. Rowling’s genius for capturing people. Wizard or Muggle, she deftly portrays the nuances and challenges and humor of human nature–up to and including the fact that the character we most fiercely loathe throughout our reading (well, with the possible exception of Dolores Umbridge) is, in fact, one of the noblest and bravest and best people of all–though he remains loathsome right up to his death. Tucked somewhere in the depths of the fourth or fifth book (though featured somewhat more prominently in the film) is one of the truest observations of all time: “The world isn’t divided into good people and Death Eaters.”  Nothing is that simple–in life, or in Rowling’s writing.

Elena Grace… Already re-reading #1…

Purists may also turn up their noses at the films, which necessarily omit a great deal of the detail, but I’ll say that–with the unforgivable (according to Christian) exception of an entirely omitted battle at the end of number six–they’ve done a pretty good job of encapsulating the themes, the characters, the messages… and don’t forget the fun!  Still, there IS a great deal more to be enjoyed in the books–so if you’re one of the few remaining Muggles who hasn’t yet picked up the first Harry Potter book, I’d urge you on.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,750 other followers