Category Archives: Books

Dark Arts, Part Three: Return to the Dark Side

I can still feel the thrill that went through me the first time I laid eyes on a horror comic at the tender age of nine. A skeletonized hand reached from a grave toward a beautiful woman, her eyes and mouth wide in terror, as a rotting zombie looked on. There was a visceral tug of war in my soul at that moment: feverish desire to know what the story was about, battling with fear of the fright that would accompany the story and inevitably linger on to haunt many bedtimes to come. Later, writers like Poe, Bradbury and King entertained and tormented me into losing sleep, jumping at things half-seen from the corner of my eyes, and racing up the stairs in the darkness while the breath of some imagined demon whispered at my heels.

In Glinda of Oz, Baum tells a story of two young girls who go off alone to stop a war between two communities, the Flatheads and the Skeezers (no, I am not kidding.) They journey through alien territories and are imprisoned no less than three times, including once by a giant despotic arachnid. Sure, Ozma is a powerful and wise fairy, and Dorothy has a few protective items, but they are not invincible. For instance, Baum writes that although Dorothy could not be killed or suffer any great bodily pain as long as she lived in Oz, “[she] was a mortal, nevertheless, and might possibly be destroyed, or hidden where none of her friends could ever find her. She could, for instance, be cut into pieces, and the pieces, while still alive and free from pain, could be widely scattered; or she might be buried deep underground, or “destroyed’ in other ways by evil magicians. were she not properly protected.” Yikes. So Glinda gives Dorothy a ring she can use to summon her in utmost peril, presumably if Dorothy can use it before her hand is severed from her body. Remember, this is the last of the Oz books (completely written by Baum,) you can’t assume they all emerge unscathed. What would we do without wicked witches, enslaved winged monkeys, zombies and silver-eyed clowns? Just remember that in Oz as in our world, a freakish and unlovely exterior might house the heart of a hero, and the loveliest person might be gripping a knife behind her back. So stay on your toes.

wpid-collage.jpg

 

HAPPY HALLOWEEN FROM OZ!

Dark Arts, Part 2-The Pretty Side

In my last post, I introduced some of the Oz characters brought to life by the penstrokes of John R. Neill, illustrator. Most of the inhabitants of Oz are strange and many of them appear downright sinister–some of them could DEFINE sinister. But Neill has drawn some beautiful characters as well. Glinda, the good witch, is the lovely mom of Oz, taking care of business and solving problems. She has an unfortunate preference for hats that resemble the old cup-and-ball toys, but other than that seems sensible. Here she is:

Glinda of Oz copyright page

I have to wonder what she is thinking at this moment. She has a meaningful look on her face, and that gesture seems to imply something…

 

Here Glinda is intent upon calibrating a device to save the day. That's the Wizard of Oz, leering in the background.

Here Glinda is intent upon calibrating a device to save the day. That’s the Wizard of Oz, leering in the background.

Then there is Dorothy Gale, honorary princess, and Ozma, young fairy Queen of Oz.

Here, Dorothy and Ozma appeal to Mist Maidens to help them cross a ravine, which they do.

Here, Dorothy and Ozma appeal to Mist Maidens to carry them across a ravine, which they do. Perhaps I have seen too many horror movies, but I imagine them getting to middle, then being pulled down to the bottom and eaten.

 

One of my favorite pictures, even if Ozma is looking quite a bit more mature than her character in the book.

Ozma, re-imagined as a 1920’s starlet.

And, finally, the three together…

Glinda of Oz The End

Am I imagining it or is there an interesting tension in their expressions? What are they looking at? In Oz, it could be anything.

 So here we have the whimsical, not the frightening. But because scary is often fun, I will return to some of the more nightmarish images in the next post.

Dark Arts, Part One

Here is a first world problem: I got a new smartphone and all the apps are insisting on syncing my contacts and location and searches and tethering me invisibly, irrevocably to the cybersphere. I feel like the apps are whispering about me behind my back. Hungry whispers. I would like to go back to pencil and paper, now, please. Not really. But it is possible to yearn for some privacy even as one reaches out through the world wide web.

So, because I am in a darkish mood, and because I wanted to bring you a gift after my long hiatus, I would like to share with you some exquisitely creepy illustrations by John R. Neill that recently caught my eye and breath. The illustrations are from Glinda of Oz by Frank L. Baum, and the ones I am sharing today are from the pastedown inside the front cover. The image as a whole is stunning:

 

Glinda of Oz inside cover 1

But here are a few of my favorites pulled out:

 

Oh, sad rabbit, I feel for you, surrounded by fiends and lunatics.

Oh, sad rabbit, I feel for you, surrounded by fiends and lunatics.

 

 

I gots a present for you, child. Just reach out your hand...

I gots a present for you, child. Just reach out your hand…

 

 

Oh! Startled chicken!

Oh! Startled chicken!

 

 

The card bird: charming, bizarre, the whole package, really.

The card bird: charming and bizarre, the whole package, really. I also like the face by his left foot because that is how I look in most of my photos.

 

If you have never read the books, you should do so. Oz is a vast world better viewed through words, line sketches and the reader’s imagination than on a screen. I would be interested to hear what catches your eye in the illustration. If you like this post, let me know and I will share a few more images.

Literary Therapy

John Updike wrote in Hugging the Shore: Essays and Criticism, “I want to write books that unlock the traffic jam in everybody’s head.” Me too. But until that day, as I battle the gridlock in my brain and either pound, snub or tentatively caress my laptop with conciliatory keystrokes, I continue to read fiction for entertainment and inspiration. As we do. And once in awhile, a phrase or sentence reaches out of the book and plucks a string in my core. Truth, figured in inked black symbols on a flat white page, unlocks light and sound somewhere inside me (my brain? my gut? my soul?) It is a miracle every time it happens, and it is why I write.

I had such a moment recently. I have been going through a particularly grim love/hate, approach/avoidance conflict with my writing for some time now.  No matter how many helpful people I discuss this with, or how many instructive articles and books I read, there is still a poisonous little voice in my head that hisses they don’t get it, you are SCREWED UP. Then I read a book recommended by hot-off-the-wire on Goodreads: The Lacuna, by Barbara Kingsolver. In this novel, the main character, Harrison Shepherd, is the quiet center of a whirling storm of mercurial characters and events. For him, writing isn’t a problem; it is an outlet, his therapy, his way of reinventing the world to make it a more bearable place. A traumatic event results in him withdrawing from the world until he has the greatest difficulty even imagining leaving the small town where he has settled. When he feels conflicted over an invitation to visit a friend he confides in his clear thinking and plainspoken assistant, Mrs. Brown. He describes the exchange in his diary:

“We discussed it again this afternoon, or rather I talked. Justifying my absurd fear of travel and exposure, despising it all the while. My face must have been the Picture of Dorian Gray. At the end, when he goes to pieces.

She used the quiet voice she seems to draw up from a different time, the childhood in mountain hells, I suppose.

“What do ye fear will happen?”

There was no sound but the clock in the hall: tick, tick.

“Mr. Shepherd, ye cannot stop a bad thought from coming into your head. But ye need not pull up a chair and bide it sit down.””

Those last two sentences stopped me in my tracks. Resonance. Truth.

When those self-defeating and crazy-making thoughts come…I don’t have to make them a nest? I don’t have to cajole or argue or submit evidence to their contrary? I don’t have to analyze them exhaustively? I imagine rolling my eyes, saying, “Oh, you again,” and firmly shutting the door. Peace. Let the jackals wait outside. That’s where they belong. No doubt someone has suggested this to me before, but in that quiet room with Mrs. Brown, Harrison and his agony, the message made it through the bottleneck in my head. Did it fix me? Sadly, no, it did not, but perhaps that is unrealistic. I suspect this is a road I’ll never get off entirely, and that traffic jams will come and go, but for now the cars have shifted and I am back at my keyboard.

What passage or author has unlocked a traffic jam or stopped the world for you?

Three Random Things

My work adventure this past week became a family affair. Our newest client had a big event which will occur in Brooklyn, NY on Tuesday and they needed 850 drawstring backpacks to be stuffed with a summer skills workbook, ruler and pencil. These backpacks had to be counted and sorted by grade level (as the workbooks varied,) and there were two sets of thirty backpacks that needed slightly different contents. Nearly everything needed to assemble the backpacks arrived on Friday. I did the setting up and called in my teenage boys to do most of the stuffing, which took them four and a half hours (with my support.) Then, because we finished too late to ship that night, they and Mr. Wortabulous took an hour of their Saturday morning to help me get nineteen boxes to the post office. Seventeen of those boxes weighed between 50-55 pounds each. The other two were a little lighter. We express shipped them all to arrive in Brooklyn on Monday. This impresses me so much. 900 pounds of stuff leaves a Minnesota post office on noon on Saturday and arrives intact at a Brooklyn school on Monday. Hopefully. Really, really hoping. Trying to let go.

Friday’s staging for the Great Backpack Stuff-a-palooza.

In honor of Father’s Day I would like to thank Mr. Wordtabulous for being a great dad and husband. He discovered a small rabbit lurking in our strawberry bed today and called out our older son (who loves animals devotedly and had told us he had seen a bunny in the yard earlier; since he rarely speaks in sentences, at least to us, this was notable.) Older son came out and the two of them captured the rabbit. Before the little fuzzball managed to scramble away, there was a bit of bonding going on in the garden.

 

 

 

 

Finally, I was in the car listening to Minnesota Public Radio on Tuesday when I heard that Ray Bradbury died. I read my favorite of his, Something Wicked This Way Comes, for the third time recently so in honor of the man I read my friend Kelly’s fave, The Illustrated Man. In the introduction, Bradbury writes: What I am trying to say is that the creative process is much like the old-fashioned way of taking photos with a huge camera and you horsing around under a black  cloth seeking pictures in the dark. The subjects might not have stood still. There might have been too much light. Or not enough. One can only fumble, but fumble quickly, hoping for a developed snap…My tunes and numbers are here. They have filled my years, the years when I refused to die. And in order to do that I wrote, I wrote, I wrote, at noon or 3:00 a.m. So as not to be dead. Here’s to you Ray Bradbury, and your legacy which will endure.

To Err is Human, to Post is Feline.

In 2002, when I read the writing on the wall, I knew one of two things was going to happen. Either I was going to drive my growing sons crazy chasing after them and wailing, “Hug me! Why won’t you cuddle anymore?” or I was going to get a kitten and transfer all my neediness onto it. No-brainer. Mr. Wordtabulous has always been miffed that he was not consulted, only informed of the cat acquisition, but to my memory I have only brought three major things into our home without discussing it with him: garage sale dining room table (epic win,) garage sale loveseat/hide-a-bed (epic fail) and Catabulous (epic win, with allowances for noise, midnight bed stomping and litterbox maintenance.)

Having neglected my blog lately, I was racking my brain for a topic to post on (yes, preposition, I know) and all I could think of was how adorable my cat is. One of my simple but guilty pleasures is looking at pictures and videos of cats online. They are funny, and often beautiful, and sweet. I like how people caption the photos. I am amused when people dress their cats, although that is going a bit far. The thing is, people LOVE cat pics and they get a LOT of hits. So “Cynical me” posed a question to “Deer-In-The-Headlights me” (she is my default–the one who is wandering around taking everything in and hoping to make sense of it all before the screeching crash.)

Cynical: Would you ever write a cat blog?

DITH: What do you mean, like a single post, or a whole, like, themed blog?

Cynical: Don’t play coy with me. Would you ever start a blog strictly around cat images, cat care, and cat love? Just to get the hits?

DITH: Let me think. I do really love my cat. If I did start such a blog, it wouldn’t be just for the hits.

Cynical: Oh, please.

DITH: Stop it. I don’t think I have enough material.

Cynical: That isn’t an answer. And seriously? About a fourth of your posts have something to do with a cat anyway. You aren’t far off from being a cat blog. As for material, what did you just buy?

DITH: A leash. For my cat.

Cynical: And if we looked in your photo gallery on your phone, what would we find?

DITH: Cat photos…lots of them. But he’s very photogenic! And everyone else I take pictures of look like they’re in pain!

Cynical: So you have the material, you have the obsessive interest, and you have the attention-seeking personality that would dangle tags like “cat,” “cute,” “funny,” and “playful,” with the objective of luring people in just to raise your stats. Why don’t you start taking pictures of your cat next to photos of movie stars, or of him watching trailers of new release movies so you can work those into your tags, too?

DITH: I don’t like your tone. And I don’t think people who write cat blogs are only interested in hits, they are sharing the joy of cats.

Cynical: Now you are just pandering to the cat bloggers.

DITH: Wow, you’re mean. Look, the answer is no. I wouldn’t write a cat blog just for the hits. Also, I don’t have the attention span for a single topic and I lack commitment. That is why my blog is the whack-a-doodle mishmash that it is. I write what I want to (yes, yes, PREPOSITION.) Besides, if I were really cynical, I’d write about Walk Off the Earth T-shirts and local news anchors because according to my stats THAT is where the action is.

That being said, here is a funny picture of my cat sitting on top of the novel A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin. If only he was wearing my WOTE t-shirt and sitting on Leah McLean’s (from KSTP) lap.

Speaking of Poe,

Okay, we weren’t speaking of Poe, but after my last post and my rather self-conscious reference to “the feather light caress of mortality’s scythe,” I have been thinking about him. Like a lot of people, I hit a patch in my tween and teen years when I read a lot of Edgar Allen Poe and other authors who made the macabre an art form. I would probably have been at least a little bit goth, had there been such a thing in those days. I have never fully emerged from that patch; part of me loves the dark side, though I’d rather read it than watch it and prefer suspense to blood and gore. (Side Note: my friend Darlington tells me that in his culture–Rwanda, but in other areas in Africa as well–people love Hollywood movies but cannot comprehend our love of the horror genre. I suspect that if we faced real possibilities of genocide, murderous insurgency, and death by famine and epidemic we would enjoy horror flicks less also.)

So in reflecting how Grandma Marian’s death affected me, I was struck by how my response to death has changed as I’ve aged. Experiencing the loss of my own grandparents as a child, death seemed harsh but unimaginably distant. When one of my schoolmates died of a hidden heart defect we all grieved, but it still seemed the greatest of improbabilities, a one-in-a-million long shot, a lightning strike. Later, I lost a friend to breast cancer and then more and more people, not that much older than me, seemed to be coming out of the woodwork with life-threatening diagnoses and fatal tragedies. I lost my father to a car accident, one friend to an aneurysm and another to a drunk driver, my best friend’s mom and my husband’s mom died of cancer, and my sister and my mom both got cancer. My sister and mother survived, but death, always a possibility on an intellectual level, was becoming undeniable even to my gut. When my husband’s grandmother died, even though she’d lived an abundant life into her nineties, death felt a whisker’s breadth closer. I heard the swoosh of a blade through the air and felt the barest touch of metal to my skin. The scythe, I thought at the time. Now I realize that Poe had it right; it is a pendulum, and it is nearing. My husband’s grandfather confided to him before he passed on some years ago, that he was ready to die. He’d had a good life, he said, and all his friends were already gone. With this most recent funeral, it struck home that perhaps every loss as you age cuts deeper.

Some cope with this reality by chasing sex, things, or inebriation; or by creating a legacy through child-bearing, corporate empire-building, or writing a book. Then there is God. Some would charge that religious faith is just the covers a child hides under, hoping they will shield him from the horrors in the dark. I believe it is more than that. My faith, imperfect as it is, doesn’t protect me from death or loss, or even worry and fear. It does shore me up when I start to crumple, and it does help me reach out past my own self interest in a loving way to others, especially those others I find hard to love. It gives me an assurance of a bigger plan that I don’t need to understand to play a part in. And all it asks is that I keep trying, even as that figurative pendulum swings ever closer. I can do that. Maybe I can build a legacy of sort, as well.

The life of Edgar Allen Poe had its share of horror, but his legacy of literature has excited the imagination for nearly two centuries. The movie The Raven, starring John Cusack (one of my favorite actors,) is released Friday (April 27th) and I am looking forward to it. Poe, played by Cusack, teams up with a detective to catch a serial killer, who stages his kills based upon Poe’s stories. I don’t expect the same level of entertainment from the movie that I derived from Poe’s stories and poems, but I hope it is well done. That is the least we can ask from a film that dares to invoke a master of the macabre.

What movies and books give you shivers and thrills? A few of my top listed books: Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury and It by Stephen King. Movies: “What Lies Beneath” and “Coraline.”

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

Reading II

It is textbook season again at State Services for the Blind. Today, I got to finish the college history text, Forced Founders: Indians, Debtors, Slaves & the Making of the American Revolution in Virginia, by Woody Holton. I got the last chapter and a half, and the Epilogue. Reading history silently tends to make me sleepy, but reading a good text out loud is, weirdly, one of my favorite things. I learn so much! Also I love reading about things from the Revolutionary War that have value today: for instance, be wary of fighting a war on unfamiliar terrain against a foe defending their homeland, and watch out for those grassroots movements during a recession. This was a very good book. Holton gives us a  bit of a cynical take on our founding fathers and how things shook down back in the pre-Revolutionary day, which was just what I was in the mood for. Except for the footnotes, which were a pain in the breeches, I enjoyed reading it for three and a half hours today. I had to make a lot of corrections to my work, because I found in this text, as in many academic works, the author will zig when I was expecting a zag, tripping me up. I’ll be reading along and then a sentence or two later there I will be in my little recording booth, saying out loud, “Oh. Ohhhh! That’s what you meant.” Erase. Re-record. There are a lot of ways to err, as a reader. You can mispronounce a word, stumble or stutter within a word, change the meaning with intonation, leave too long a pause as you try to figure out if the footnote is explanatory or a citation, determining whether it needs to be read…and the list goes on. Even when I am (totally not sarcastically) having a ball reading, I’ll hit a sentence now and then that will get me swearing and threatening physical harm to the author because although lovely, it was not written with audiotext in mind. For instance, consider the following footnote from page 203:

“Lee, in fact, lost two elections in April 1776. After his defeat in Richmond County, his supporters ran him in neighboring Lancaster, where he lost again. The April 1776 voting was something of an electoral massacre for the Carter family. In addition to Rober Wormely Carter and his cousin Carter Braxton, both of whom actively opposed Independence, two other Carters–Charles of Corotoman and Charles of Ludlow were also defeated. The Carters were among the wealthiest families in Virginia, and their unprecedented repudiation at the polls seemed to reflect the ascendancy of antielitism.” (emphasis mine)

That particular finishing sentence caught me on tape in the middle saying, “You have GOT to be kidding.” Erase. Re-record. There were several easier sentences that gave me even MORE trouble, because once I screw something up, I find chances are at least 50% of the time I will screw it up multiple times in the same or different ways. Holton made it all up to me with this next little passage from page 219:

“Between 1782 and 1806, Virginia allowed slaveowners to emancipate their slaves without legislative approval, and some did so. Between 1790 and 1810, the state’s free black population more than doubled, largely as a result of emancipation. George Washington provided in his will that his slaves be freed upon the death of his widow (after he died, Martha Washington, prudently deciding not to make the slaves’ freedom contingent upon her death, freed them immediately).”

So here, I am picturing the reading of the will, and a house slave in the corner thinking, “Upon her death, huh?” and Martha thinking, “That’s terrific, George. Thank you so much…” and out loud saying, “No worries, folks! Freedom for everyone! No waiting!” I had to re-record that one because I got the giggles. Makes you wonder how often Martha had to help George out with practical thinking during the presidency. We’ll never know.

So while it isn’t parasailing, or a night at the comedy club, this volunteer gig has its moments. Besides, where else would I get to use words like “sobriquet” AND hang out with the nicest state employees in Minnesota?

Related Post: Reading, or How This All Started.

The Matter of a Severed Finger

When I was a girl, about nine or ten years old, one of my favorite indoor activities was to rifle through the stash of books and other treasures tucked into a dresser and closet in our rec room. My younger sister and I spent hours sitting on the hard linoleum sifting through mom’s shelves of piano music, Reader’s Digest Condensed books, and tins, boxes and tubs of inherited and collected memorabilia. It was kind of like a cross between our own private flea market and an archaeological dig to a time before our memory. My older sister is eight years older than I, so all her outgrown stuff was fascinating to me, even if she was a little bit more into the horse stories than I was.

One afternoon I found an old paperback book of hers: “Clever Tricks to Play on Your Friends!” We lived in the country, about a mile from any friends I might have had, but my mom was upstairs and my little sister was around somewhere, probably out playing with the cats or talking to the horses. Following the book’s instructions, I found a small cardboard box with a lid and carved a hole the size of my finger in the bottom with a dull penknife. I poked my middle finger up through the hole, tucked some cotton balls around it and flexed it flat so the box nested in my palm. It really looked like a severed finger laying in the box, without the blood. Nice! I thought about finding a red magic marker to add to the illusion, but I had already been working on it five whole minutes already and had to show my mom this cool effect RIGHT AWAY. I covered the box, hustled up the stairs and found her in her bedroom.  I was bursting with excitement that my trick would really work, but at the same time that I was terrified she’d see through it. My face cramped with energetic smiling, I said “Mom! Look!” and she walked over to me, probably thinking, “What now?” Watching for her reaction, I lifted the lid off the box, and was honestly surprised to see her stare blankly at my lifeless finger, then look at me with an expression I’d never seen before. I would describe it as horror-struck. She looked like a crazy person. She grabbed me by the shoulders and screamed, “WHAT DID YOU DO TO YOUR SISTER!?!?”

??? I was disappointed and confused. What did my sister have to do with anything?  I looked at the box and then I realized, ohhh. If there was a part of a finger in a box, it had to have come from SOMEWHERE, thus the sister… I was exasperated; Mom was completely missing the point. I demonstrated that the finger was mine, and Mom turned an odd color and literally sagged. I guess when the crazy drains from your body that is what happens.

This is the kind of story that gets re-told at family gatherings, and I always thought it was pretty amusing, until about a year ago when, for some reason, I was able to imagine the scenario from my mom’s point of view for the first time and realized what a horrible, horrible thing I had done to her. I imagined looking from a dismembered body part to my own child’s maniacally grinning face. If one of my boys had pranked me with a severed finger, I am pretty sure my head would have exploded. There she was, out on the farm, with one daughter mutilated at best and the other a complete psychopath.  So sorry, Mom! Being absolutely unable to empathize with my mother’s experience then, or for the next thirty+ years could, I guess, define me as a minor-league psychopath. Is it bad to say that this makes it even funnier to me?