Monthly Archives: January 2012

Working Girl, Laura Ingalls Wilder

When I was sixteen, I scored one of the best jobs of my life. I became a tour guide for the Laura Ingalls Wilder Society. My hometown of De Smet, SD is famous for its connection to the writer, author of the Little House series of books that chronicle pioneer life in Minnesota and South Dakota in the 1800’s. For several years, Laura lived in De Smet with Ma, Pa, and her sisters Mary, Carrie and Grace. She became a schoolteacher and met and married Almanzo Wilder there. Her stories of life in De Smet carry readers through several of her later books: By the Shores of Silver Lake, Little Town on the Prairie, The Long Winter, These Happy Golden Years, and The First Four Years. Wilder’s first books, Little House in the Big Woods, Little House on the Prairie, and On the Banks of Plum Creek featured other locations. In De Smet, we prided ourselves on being the setting of most of Laura’s stories, and having: two homes the Ingalls actually lived in (one of which Pa built,) the graves of Pa, Ma, Mary, Carrie and Grace, and an open air portrayal of some of her stories. “The Pageant,” as it was known by us locals, was performed by volunteer townspeople out on the prairie near the homestead location. Hundreds of people flocked to De Smet each night on the last weekend in June and the first two weekends in July to see amateurs in costume act out parts of the books, or in later years (due to copyright restrictions) original works that were written to reflect the life and times of the Ingalls family. Every summer thousands of people toured the Surveyor’s House (the original, from the Silver Lake book) and the Ingalls Home (built by Pa when the time came to move into town some time after Laura married Almanzo.)

To be a tour guide you had to be reasonably presentable, comfortable with  public speaking, and knowledgeable. We had to know the entire series of books backwards and forwards (no problem as I was a true fan,) but we also had to know the behind-the-scenes facts: the dates of births and deaths, the later lives of the siblings, and the untold year that occurred between Plum Creek (set in Walnut Grove, MN) and Silver Lake; when the family lived in Ames, IA where a baby brother was born and died, and Mary got scarlet fever and went blind. We had two tours to learn, one for each house. We learned ticket and gift shop sales and crowd management. On busy days, guides would give back-to-back tours to roomfuls of people, while the next group waited impatiently in their cars or out on the front lawn. We had to keep people from climbing the forbidden stairs in both houses. I’ll grant you, they were enticing, but they were also moderately dangerous and only led up to stifling unrestored rooms where we kept brochures and merchandise. Usually accompanying bus tours was a job that fell to the matriarchs of the guides but sometimes we younger girls were permitted to do this, guiding the driver from house to house to cemetery to homestead site, with views of the big slough, and Lakes Henry and Thompson where Laura and Almanzo took buggy rides.

We sold these "Charlotte" dolls. They were made by an old lady who remembered when Mary Ingalls used to sit out on the front step of their house. My friends and I bought dolls and were probably a little weird about them. The dress on the left is for parties.

The Pageant: me, as Laura, with a member of the visiting film crew. Maybe the director? I like to imagine that in 1984 I was some kind of equivalent to a rock star in Japan.

It was my job to confuse small children and reduce adults to disappointed tears by telling them that the stories of Laura Ingalls as portrayed on the television show, “Little House on the Prairie,” starring Michael Landon and Melissa Gilbert are, to a large extent, fictional. No one who loves that show wants to hear that Albert was a made-up character, or that little Laura never climbed to the top of a mountain to offer God her life in exchange for the baby’s (there are no mountains within hundreds of miles of De Smet.) Look on the bright side! we urged. Mr. Edwards and Nellie Olson were real and featured in several stories in multiple books! Real life on the prairie was difficult, charming, and just as cool (if not as action-packed and dramatic,) as it was on TV! Really! At the height of the season the crowds were unrelenting. During the day I’d repeat the memorized script so many times that I’d wake myself in the middle of the night, sweeping my arm to the right and saying out loud, “…and here is an actual dresser built by Charles Ingalls, who, as you might recall from the books, was a skilled carpenter.” We wore long dresses in keeping with the period, though no corsets, and as little else as possible because it was hot in those houses, especially when they were crammed with tourists. It was hard work, but I loved all the curious people who wanted to know something that I could tell them. Laura fans tend to be wonderful folk. I loved the old houses and the history and the challenging  questions and how there was no mud or manure involved (see related posts: The Pig Years.) There was even some fame to be had. The year I turned eighteen, the only year I participated in The Pageant, I was given the role of Laura. That same year, some Japanese filmmakers visited De Smet for part of a documentary they were making on Laura’s life (she is HUGE in Japan–I mean, we had tourists from all over the world, but evidently Japan LOVES her.) The LIW Society made a special exception and allowed them to photograph and film parts of the houses, and the crew also recorded at least part of The Pageant. We understood each other not at all, but everyone was very nice and so enthusiastic. I had a mullet that year, as was fashionable, and so my braids were stumpy and French, but no one seemed to mind.

Signing autographs before The Pageant. Note the braids. I find myself wondering what the kid in the blue jacket is thinking about.

Related Post: Working Girl, Prologue

Related Post: Working Girl, The Pig Years

When Time Stops, The Night Sky

One of my bests from childhood was sky-watching. We lived on the flat, open prairie, with few houses or buildings to significantly block the horizon in any direction. On our deck in the company of family or friends, I watched thunderstorms build from miles away and approach with lightning  and thunder rocking the sky and earth, only driving us in when wind and rain reached us under the rooftop overhang. The Northern Lights danced the skies in silence more rarely, silencing us in its beauty. On clear nights in all seasons I’d lie down in the front yard, far enough from everything that all I could see was the sky. Without trees or buildings in your peripheral vision to anchor you, you perceive that you are truly on a sphere in space. That up is no different from down and instead of securely looking up at the sky, you are suspended above the deepest abyss of indigo, midnight and black, set with blazing and muted planets, stars and galaxies, with our own galaxy, indeed, a faded milky streak across the panorama, so impossibly distant it is hard to believe it is home.

The infinite is all around us, all the time. We and everything around us are made up of unimaginably small particles that are buzzing around furiously, as we are suspended in an incomprehensibly large universe full of uncounted objects that are also in constant motion. Quantum and cosmic meet inside our minds where we ponder these great unfolding mysteries. This comforts me on days when little things insist they are a big deal.

Working Girl, The Pig Years

The single-digit or subzero cold spells are the times I remember best. Trudging out to the back field, through the arcing windbreak of leafless trees, there was no sound except the crunch of snow beneath my heavy boots. Soft tissue inside my nose and throat cringed as the icy air assaulted wherever it could reach.  I opened the front of the little shed where the feed was stored and filled white five-gallon buckets with pulverized grain. Repeated trips carrying the buckets six steps up to the platform, lifting, and emptying gave me the shoulders of an Amazon. By the time all was ready, my face, hands and feet would be freezing, but my core would be sweating under my puffy insulated coveralls Then, I opened the door.

To farrow means to give birth. The farrowing house was a maternity ward of a sort. The tropically steamy atmosphere inside frosted and fogged my glasses, blinding me, as the walloping stench took away my breath. A farrowing house is built over a pit, a cesspool for swine. Adding to the pungent reek of excrement and urine was the very specific pig smell impregnated into the dander, which floats invisibly in the air and settles on every surface including my skin, clothing and every strand of hair. I was resigned to the fact that I would smell like this place when I was done. The sows were confined in two rows of crates, seven on each side facing a center aisle with a food bin and water dispenser by their heads. Heating mats on the slatted floor and hot air forced noisily out of the blower kept everyone toasty, regardless of the outdoor clime. Bars inside the crate kept the mothers from turning around, reducing but not eliminating the chance that they would lie down on their young, who milled around the perimeter of the crate, and smother them. If I found a poor dead piglet, I had to reach in and remove it ASAP. (DON’T READ THIS, YOU OF DELICATE SENSIBILITY!) Sows often chew on their own dead piglets, I don’t KNOW why, (psychosis, hiding the evidence?) but I will tell you that picking up a dead piglet is much less traumatic than picking up half a dead piglet. And on a hot summer day, having a feed bag containing a dozen whole and partial dead piglets break open at the bottom and spill out over your shoes will mark you for life. Life. (DELICATE FOLKS, YOU CAN BEGIN READING AGAIN!)

I moved down the center aisle, pouring feed into the bins, so the sows could in turn nurse their offspring, the reason this was all in place.  I have never heard a pig “oink.” Our pigs either grunted or more frequently barked with a toss of the head, baptizing me with saliva and snot. It could be argued they were joyously greeting me, the bringer of food, but I think not. To reach into the crate, I had to face down their intimidating teeth and beady, glaring eyes. It was a contrast to the sight of a pile of newborn piglets piled in a warm and content heap, sleeping and occasionally flapping a delicate pink ear or tail. After feeding was cleanup when I used a scraper to break up the piles of manure, (which I called shit loudly and repeatedly inside my head,) pushing it between the floorboards into the fragrant pit below. “It’s just dirt,” as my dad said, often, in exasperation or amusement.

When the piglets were big enough, they graduated to the next room in the building, dedicated to feeder pigs. Liberated from the constraining and threatening bulk of their mothers, the young pigs scampered in pens with their friends, eating, sleeping, urinating, defecating and socializing until they were big enough to sell.  With thunderous little hooves stampeding in tight circles and excited squealing in unison, the sound was deafening. Much more filling and emptying of heavy buckets, but the excrement was more manageable. All done, the door shut behind me, I breathed in deeply the silence and the pure arctic air. This was my first paid job. Every day I tended the pigs, I drew a tally mark on the blackboard in the house. Every so often I’d call Dad to account. I wish I remembered how much one hour, give or take, in the pig house was worth. I learned a lot about dirt and unpleasantness and doing the job anyway. I learned about being responsible. I learned about showering so thoroughly that no one would ever guess how I spent my after school time. This is what I do, I assured myself, not who I am. But of course it is both. “It’s good for you! It builds character,” Dad used to say, and no matter how many showers you take, character never completely washes away.

Friday Night

Crushed red pepper dances on my lips and tongue. Pizza has been delivered and eaten (deluxe for us and cheese for the kids.) My husband and I argue over whether I have taken the lion’s share of the 2007 Silverado cabernet.

(So tasty, what if I did ?)

Highlights of another wild Republican debate await analysis and potential mockery.

It must be Friday night. There is always a lot to think about and recover from when the week’s end arrives. Situations immediate, local, national and global prompt consideration and discussion, but not too much. The wine softens the edges, a much-needed deceleration of intensity. The news tells us danger impends from every direction. Fine, whatevs. I can only be so freaked out for so long. Cynicism threatens.

What has changed? Nothing. Politicians have threatened us with Armageddon for being fooled into buying their opposition’s line. Ships have run aground. The younger generation has raised the standard of attention-seeking misbehavior. Nations have raised the specter of war against their neighbors and ideological opponents. This has been going on forever. At what point does our civilization’s impending destruction become blasé? At the point where it becomes a marketable form of entertainment and advertising revenue. So, forever.

Seriously, we have plenty to worry about. But what use is it to worry or complain when there are things we can do to help? We can raise a voice of reason, give a hand, donate time or money or lend an ear. We can give up our self-gratification for a few minutes to put someone else’s needs first. We can take a breath. Let’s start now.

An ADD Moment…

And before anyone gets excited, I am not making light of ADD or ADHD. I was diagnosed and treated for ADD for years when I was a kid. Evidently, in first grade, I did a lot of getting up in class and wandering around and often had no idea what was going on. More so than the rest of the kids. Back then, (so, so long ago,) the diagnostic criteria for ADD was this: give the kid Ritalin and see if it helps. If it does, the kid has ADD. So I started taking Ritalin in second grade. The funny thing was that our school had a very aggressive anti-drug campaign and I remember being scared to DEATH that I was going to become a child drug addict because Ritalin is an amphetamine, also known as SPEED. I was afraid that someday, when they took the drugs away, I would start robbing gas stations or hold the pharmacist at gunpoint to feed my addiction. My mom assured me that wouldn’t happen and bought me a little pill-carrier in the form of a jeweled golden treasure chest pendant, in which I stored one and a half tabs to be taken (rather self-consciously) at lunch. I guess it helped, because I stopped wandering around, but I remember still sitting in the classroom wondering why everyone else seemed to know what we were supposed to be doing but I didn’t. In fifth grade we discovered I was so near-sighted I could barely read the E on the eyechart, and eyeglasses helped a lot. (Oh, so that’s the blackboard you people keep talking about.) Back then, once you hit puberty, you were pronounced cured and they took the drugs away. There were no withdrawal-fueled rampages; I barely noticed. Nowadays I have caffeine and a great big kit of marginal coping skills that help get me through the day. But sometimes I still get so DISTRACTED by THINGS. Which is why you are reading this instead of the next Working Girl post, which is in development.

Distracting Thing 1

My Capresso hot water kettle, which I love because it looks and works so great, and which I hate because the lid broke off  ten days after the warranty expired, tells me there are eight liquid ounces in a cup. The measuring cups (silicone and pyrex) in my cupboard confirm that this is true. When I make tea I boil two cups, or sixteen ounces, of water in my kettle and this fills my favorite Pier One mug abundantly. When I make coffee in my new (Merry Christmas to me) Calphalon coffeepot, using their numbered lines, I have discovered that I have to pour in three and half cups of water to make three cups of coffee, which when poured into my favorite Pier One mug, leaves plenty of room for milk and Truvia and can still be stirred and walked with safely. As pictured. I already have to do tea to coffee conversions in my head to optimize my caffeine dosage, and now there are portion issues as well. If there are shiny or busy things happening around me this can all be difficult which I find unnecessary and irksome.  Also, you tell me, but I think maybe three cups of coffee at one go might be a little too much for me?

 

Distracting Thing 2

It got cold in Minnesota, which we all knew was going to happen, but never thought it would take this long. I woke up to find it was -10°, with a wind chill of -27°. As such, many of us now have ice indoors. As pictured. To clarify, dirty window on top, condensation, ridge of ice on the INSIDE of the window, and at bottom the wooden sill preparing to harbor mildew when said ice melts. On the upside, the temp has risen to -3°, and I usually take the interior frost to mean that the humidity levels inside are okay. Just thought I’d share that for those of you who don’t get to enjoy the full splendor of winter. If we ever get snow, maybe I’ll share that too, but since nearly every place in the nation EXCEPT us has gotten whacked with a snowstorm this year, maybe not.

 

 

 

Distracting Thing  3

Older son got his driver’s license yesterday. I waver between punctuating that with an exclamation point and a teardrop. Yes, very good that he is achieving milestones (landmines? I wonder why that word wants to slip in there?) Very good that he can help out with running errands and stretch his wings and prepare for life as an adult. Very sad that he and his younger brother continue to slip out of my arms and into the world. Very scary that they are increasingly exposed to important and dangerous situations with insufficiently developed brains and decision-making skills. Some people handle this time of parenting with grace. It is taking everything I’ve got to maintain my balance, and it isn’t pretty. Sometimes as a parent, I still feel like the kid in the classroom, wondering what I missed. Caffeine only helps so much, and it is cold out here. I guess the trick is to remember I am not in this alone, and to keep looking forward while I balance the best I can, because this ride isn’t over yet. Thank you for hanging in there with me.

SOPA thoughts

Hey Wordtabulous readers! I have friends who are very correct to have concerns about copyright infringement on their artistic works, and I feel their pain. I pay for my downloads, preferably directly to the artist. However, I believe that generally, more freedom is better than less, and that very good intentions can and frequently are corrupted to benefit wealthy, powerful interests to the detriment of “the little guy.” This has been worrying me for some time, and I thank WordPress for giving us the opportunity to do something about it. Read on for more from WordPress:

Many websites are blacked out today to protest proposed U.S. legislation that threatens internet freedom: the Stop Internet Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA). From personal blogs to giants like WordPress and Wikipedia, sites all over the web — including this one — are asking you to help stop this dangerous legislation from being passed. Please watch the video below to learn how this legislation will affect internet freedom, then scroll down to take action.

http://fightforthefuture.org/pipa

For some reason (conspiracy? bad coding?) the real blackout page you are supposed to be seeing isn’t working. I have sort of  patched together my own version to get the gist across. Thank you for hanging in there with me, and Peace!

Working Girl, Guest Post

I spoke to my younger sister, Michele, about the chore girl days, trying to refresh and confirm my memories of our splendid training for the world of work, and she shared this story that I had completely forgotten. Sometimes the two of us did the chores together, sometimes we took turns, heartlessly sacrificing our sibling to the dark so we could enjoy the comfort of a peaceful and well-lit evening indoors. I told her to write the story herself and she did:

Dog and cat chores – the last duty of the day before bed. Sounds simple enough looking back — mosey on out to the clinic and shed behind the house, make sure the two dogs and multitude of cats have food and water, pull all the doors closed and make sure all the animals are locked in. Did I HAVE to wait until after dark to do these duties? No, probably not. I’m not sure that doing them earlier occurred to me often, if ever. Summer was extra treacherous, between unwitting toads waiting on the well-worn path and junebugs springing from the lights we flipped on to say goodnight to the animals. Winter time was easier, and I remember pulling on my dad’s snowboots by the back door if the snow was deep, or sometimes borrowing his slippers (with the mashed-down heels — he never put them on all the way) for chores if there wasn’t snow at all… How far was it from the back door of our house to the lean-to? Waaay too far… Especially after a scary movie…

Apparently, on Jan. 27, 1978 (if the horror movie blog I just found can be trusted), when I would have been all of 8 years old, it was my turn to do chores that night. I couldn’t yank myself away from the tv because we were watching a scary, made-for-tv movie called “Bermuda Depths.” I don’t remember anything about it other than what must have been close to the last scene, the body of a man being dragged into the ocean by a giant sea turtle… But our animals must be fed, movie or no movie. Duty-bound, that image still haunting me, I went out into the cold dark to lock up the animals.

Now, just so there is no confusion — there is no sea anywhere close to where we lived. The largest body of water nearby was the watering tank for the horses, and in a South Dakota January, there was definitely no danger of a giant sea turtle dragging me to my death… These arguments didn’t matter at all to my freaked-out eight-year-old brain. There was definitely something in the dark that was going to come out and get me — maybe the ghost of that drowned person in the movie. So, tip-toeing through the dark, bright light at my back, my own, elongated shadow leading the way across the gigantic back yard to the shed, I was telling myself “it was only a movie” while the rest of my brain was certain I was going to die.

I made it to the corrugated steel shed with a bit of relief — so close to a light switch. I flipped back the metal hook from the eye to unlock the big sliding door, grabbed the smooth, cold handle and heaved it back. As the wall of grey steel slid past and the shed yawned open, I leaned in to flip on the light and a large translucent blue hand floated out of the dark to meet me, reaching for my face.

“Gaah!!!!” a strangled gasp escaped my lips as the hand ballooned out of the darkness. I was a goner. The hand slowly wafted down again in the yellow light from the stark incandescent bulb I’d managed to turn on. Drenched in adrenaline-induced sweat, I realized that what I was looking at was an O.B. sleeve — basically an arm-length clear plastic glove that our veterinarian father would use when examining female cattle. This one, (apparently unused) had the open end tied around the top of a CO2 cylinder for welding, leaving the hand-shaped end floating in the dark, reaching out for a short, unsuspecting victim who would free it with the movement of the door.

Giddy with relief and the afterburn of terror, I finished up the chores and returned to the house in record time, just glad to be alive.

Yep. Terrifying in many ways. Image from http://www.vetprovisions.com.