Salamanders and Podcasts :: Some Favorite Things

Here are a few of my favorite things from this week.

Raised by TV. A very funny podcast where Lauren Lapkus and Jon Gabrus talk about television they watched as kids. It’s like being in a conversation with my favorite friends, which is fantastic, though it’s hard when you’re trying to surreptitiously listen to a podcast at work, and Lauren Lapkus saying “One time the computer turned on by itself at school and I thought it was a leprechaun” makes you choke-laugh.

Axolotls. I already knew about this animal, but I processed a children’s book on these little Mexican salamander things this week and I was reminded how adorable they are.

Image result for axolotls

My writing group. I was just mentioning offhand a problem I was having with a story, and they managed to convince me to keep trying, and got me excited to start working on it again. Proof that it’s always, always good to get a group of writers in your corner.

My Cape Cod Fox

A couple days ago my husband and I took our dog on a morning walk through a neighborhood on Cape Cod. Most of my attention was focused on keeping our sniffy dog from pausing in the road, so my husband’s hand signaling me to halt startled me. “Look,” he said. “Right there.”

I looked. Across the street stood a red fox, his fur a pale, shining burnt orange, right in someone’s yard, in the open. he knew we were there. And he stared straight back.

Not our guy — he seems to know right when you mean to record him — but a particularly similar stare.

I’ve been reading a few books (see, I can bring it back to books) specifically on crows and other corvids, but aside from those birds one thing the authors commonly bring up is the way wild life almost inevitably intersects with human life. On this short visit to the Cape I’ve seen it several times, with the rabbits calmly munching grass while a party goes on over a fence, the sea gulls weaving between beach chairs and umbrellas searching out potato chips, a trio of crows perching on a wire outside the window, their close calls cutting through TV noise. And a fox, standing in a yard, watching you.

I’m relatively certain I’ve seen him before on other trips to this spot, slinking between fences as we drove the car at night, somehow dog-like and cat-like all at once, and again from a yard down the street, watching me, assessing minutes before I noticed him there. (The dog, meanwhile–thankfully–oblivious, scratching through pine needles.)

Each time I see him I’m shocked — but why should I be? This was once a forest and parts of it still is. There are rabbits, squirrels, so many chattering songbirds, there’s plenty to attract him. But I”m always surprised to see he’s decided to stick around, and also that no one has decided to chase him away. Or worse.

When I see that fox, head low beside the trees, I’m awed. Just like I am whenever something wild appears in a time or place unexpected.

Do you ever see wild life in a place you think of as decidedly not wild? What do you think? What do you do?



Reading, Writing, Tea, and Dogs

I sit on the couch with my legs pull up. I hold the book on crows I’m reading for novel research, propping it against my knees. I’m sitting with the side table to my left, so I hold my tea in my right hand.

But, since this is for research, sometimes I must take notes, so I precariously wedge my mug between my thighs and my bit of stomach to scribble something on a Post-it.

…Yet my dog is next to me, also, and she wants attention. Too sleepy to jump on my lap, she sits, leaning against the couch, one paw raised like a member of royalty, silently commanding me with infinitely sad dark eyes to scratch her chest, or rub that bit of skin right next to her tail, or maybe scritch off that spot of eye gook stuck on her snout.

So I do all these things — write, read, drink, pet — somehow simultaneously, somehow without spilling my tea or dropping my book or irreversibly offending my dog. I’m glad I have this weird kind of multitasking under my belt, but boy, wouldn’t four hands be nice.

Children’s Books: Me…Jane by Patrick McDonnel

One of the seminars I’ll be taking at the MFA residency focuses on writing non-fiction for young people. The professor wants to read and bring in a non-fiction book, and gave us a nice list of readings we could pick from, if we chose. As much as I trust her judgment in books, I decided to take this chance to read Me . . . Jane, a biography of Jane Goodall by Patrick McDonnell. I think I made the right choice.

Me…Jane focuses on Goodall’s early years, starting with the day she was given a toy chimp: “Jane had a stuffed toy chimpanzee named Jubilee.” We are then shown how much Jane loves to be outside and watch the animals. She even likes to study them, drawing pictures and taking notes (we’re given an interesting two-page spread of these, showing how passionate and meticulous the young Goodall was). She hides in a chicken coop to see where eggs come from, “and observed the miracle.” Small Jane climbed a tree to read about Tarzan, and dreamed of going to Africa. She imagines giraffes and elephants, and that she is swinging through a jungle. At the end she falls asleep, and then awakes an adult, “to her dream come true.” The last image is the only photograph, as she reaches and touches fingers with a baby chimpanzee.

The story is simply told, with one or two short sentences, or even just phrases, opposite the main art. The simplicity reminds you that this is the story of a child, but it also makes the emotion more poignant:

Jane often climbed her favorite tree,
which she named Beech.

She would lay her cheek against its trunk
and seem to feel the sap
flowing beneath the bark.

Jane could feel her own heart

The art is very cute, drawn by the same person who created the newspaper comic Mutts. While I’m not a regular reader, I’ve always found that comic charming and heartwarming. That charm is visible here as Jane smiles at every animal, and Jubilee could be real as Jane holds his hand. The art is also still simple enough that any little girl could imagine herself as Jane, dreaming her big dream and watching it become real. That’s also why I like the photograph at the end of the book; going to Africa is no longer some fantasy, but something that actually happened, because she wanted it so badly.

Jane Goodall has done a lot of good in her adult life, as the more direct biography at the end of the book explains. But it’s so much easier to feel close to and happy for a person when you see her as a child, and McDonnell does a fine job of creating that empathy. There’s no large drama in this book to make it exciting, but Me…Jane is an uplifting, and empowering, story.

Finding Ideas

What makes the best story? I’ve been trying to remember the things I did when I was a kid, the moments that were special or exciting or sad. Because if it was important to me as a child, it must in some way be important to another child today. I hope.

Ideas I have right now:

  • First day of Kindergarten (been done, I know)
  • Shoes on a powerline
  • Seeing fire flowers in the chimney soot
  • Our cat’s disdain of the new puppy
  • A sheep being born

The last one is a little important to me. We used to own sheep, you see, so I saw some being born. One in particular was important to me. But, we don’t have them anymore. It was always really amazing to see.

–Angela Eastman