Sunday, July 15, 2012

Stormin' Norman Attacks - How a common rooster inspired a tale of rambunctiousness


In 2009, I published my first children's book, Coyotes in the Kitchen.  A delightful tale of a child's late night adventures in her mother's kitchen.  Shortly after writing that story, I was inspired to write another.  

The next story, Norman Attacks is based on actual real life events.  The cover is clearly a teaser, a sampling if you will, of the roustabout tale that lies within its pages. 


I find it quite intriguing when a story is claimed to have been based on "true events".  I wonder what events in the story are actually true. 

In the case of Norman Attacks, the outrageous and somewhat comical events that led up to the creation of this book, did in fact take place.

First, a little history.  I live in a rural community in southeastern Colorado.  Each day when I step outside I am greeted with the beauty of the majestic Rocky Mountains, the rustling of the aspen leaves, a crisp blue sky and the crow of our rooster.
  
It is idyllic, mostly.  Although from time to time some of the Shangri-La feeling is slightly shattered by the unending escapades of our rooster, Norman. 

While he is quite adept at keeping our hens safe, heralding in the morning hour (24/7) and strutting his stuff like a runway model.  Norman is also quite rambunctious. 

Webster defines rambunctious thus: unruly, noisy, very active, and hard to control, usually as a result of excitement or youthful energy.  A perfect description of our Norman.

Our Norman wasn't always this way, chasing everything and everyone in sight. He grew into it over time.

You see, Norman came to us as most chickens do, in a box with dozens of other three-day old baby chicks.  Small and active little balls of yellow fluff on two legs, Norman was just a little chicken.

He did as the others did, ate voraciously, chirped incessantly and ran for the warmth of the huddle.

We never paid him any mind, really.  He grew along with the other chickens, ran through the yard and perched in the juniper tree.

Then one day, it happened.  The unmistakable cock-a-doodle-doo which signals that the rooster has arrived.

And arrive he did. Once Norman found his voice, he also found his destiny.  He was no longer just another hen in the yard, he was the KING.

This reality came easily to him. Norman liked being the king.  He was now the overseer of the hens, first to examine the food and the cheerleader for his little team of egg layers.

It all seemed like country living perfection.  

But wait...

It was never our intent to have a rooster!  We thought, chickens. Cool! Fresh eggs.

It was all very Currier and Ives, Americana, Rockwellian kind of stuff.  When you add the reality of a rooster to the mix, the entire story changes and this, dear readers is where our story begins.

Norman grew quickly. He foraged the yard, consuming bugs, grasses and feed.  He became a fine example of his breed.  At maturity, Norman stood from ground to the tip of his comb, a full 18 inches and he was a sturdy fellow.

Strong and heavy, he would have been a welcomed addition to any dinner table.  Norman also grew into a handsome bird.

Being a well-fed and freely ranged Rhode Island Red, Norman sported iridescent plumage to rival a peacock, a 4-H kids dream.  He became a remarkable character.  Idyllic, idolic, or, not so much.

You see, Norman took his position in life very seriously.  He guarded the hens, to the fight.  It is the fight part that took some getting used to.

When you step outside each morning to take in the beauty of your mountain home, the last thing you expect is to be charged by a psychotic rooster.

But, it happens.  And you shriek, run in the house and question your sanity at the notion that for one second you had the slightest clue as to what it takes to raise livestock.

The classic "what was I thinking" thought thunders through your mind as you stare out the window at a seven pound creature and wonder if you will ever be able to enjoy your yard again.

We did go outside again, each day, but is was with much trepidation.

Let me add another detail to the story.  Norman was not the only adolescent in our household.  Our three children were 9, 11 and 13 years of age.  They enjoyed the Colorado mountain outdoors, enjoyed playing in the yard, climbing trees and relaxing with our dog, Andy.

Each morning, bright and early, the children would head out the kitchen door, walk down the sidewalk and through the front gate to catch the bus for school.  A classic image in the mind of the average American.

If only that would have been the scenario for us.  For you see, the image and recorded memory in the neural banks of our children was something else.  Something quite Hitchcockian.

Norman had established his territory. And like any great explorer, stepping onto a vast and seemingly unending new land to claim it as his own, Norman had declared our entire yard to be HIS eminent domain.

He exercised his rule over his land by charging anyone entering or attempting to leave what had been commonly known as "our yard". The scenario went something like this; kiss mom & dad and wish them a nice day, grab your coat & backpack, step out the kitchen door and run screaming down the sidewalk until you reach the front gate and the safety of the driveway outside the fence.

Did I mention the screaming?  That was a crucial part of what had now become our morning ritual.  This went on for many days, weeks even.

Variations to the run and scream ritual were added.  One being that of throwing empty cardboard boxes over your shoulder while running to the gate.  Quite comical in a twisted sort of way.

Our otherwise Rockwellian life was turning into a Hitchcokian chamber of horrors.

It was during one of these morning rituals that Norman actually got his name.  Our youngest child seemed most intimidated by Norman's attacks.

On one particular morning she headed out, alone, unescorted by her older siblings and unarmed with cardboard boxes to throw and divert the beast. 

As she began her trek to the front gate, Norman approached at a runners gait.  She reacted, running and screaming.

It was the screaming that caught everyones attention.  For it could be likened to the scream of Lila Crane as she fights off her attacker, eventually falling to her death in the 1960's horror film, Psycho. 

Those of us who had remained in the house that morning heard only the scream, immediately made the movie reference and Norman was thusly named.

Based on these "true events" and because of our fondness for the truly remarkable creature that Norman had become, the story Norman Attacks was born.

As with any arch rival, there is always an equalizing counterpart and Norman definitely found his.  But to tell you that would be a spoiler.

So, I encourage you to read Norman Attacks  when it arrives in bookstores and online this fall.  

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Maurice Sendak – RAW…

…& slightly cut (like salad with Stephen Colbert on the side)


As an homage to the man who entertained so many, a re-post.  Thank you dear sweet Maurice for the charming and thought provoking tales you told that stirred the child in all of us.  We miss you already.

I recently watched a two part interview with author, illustrator, artist and all around fun guy, Maurice Sendak.  After decades of admiring his books, his illustrations and his quirky humor as evidenced by his masterful work, I must confess that I was delightfully surprised.  

The man is a treasure and I have been forever changed by the simple experience of watching him interact with Stephen Colbert (also a sort of national treasure but with a silent “t”).


Now, I will assume that you are familiar with Sendak’s works knowing full well that assuming is dangerous, but what the heck let’s get crazy.
 
My first introduction to Maurice came by way of the tale about a less than cooperative youngster named Max who adamantly decided against going to bed.  He fought off sleep, got no supper and embarked on a wonderful adventure.  You can find the details in Where theWild Things Are, a true children’s classic.


My passion for this story is so great,I often suggest to it to parents seeking titles to add to their home library (It was the very first book I purchased when I was expecting with my first child).  I have also used this book and its wonderful illustrations in my preschool classroom and when giving presentations to adults about reading to children.

I presented tips on reading to and with children to a group of soon to be released minimum security prison inmates.  During my presentation, I discussed ways to engage children, especially young children while reading a story.  Beyond just reading the words, I have found that using different voices and exaggerated facial expressions are great for holding kids attention.  

Note: when you make that kind of general statement to a group with a sense of humor commonly referred to as a bunch of wise guys, be prepared for one of them to rise to his feet and beg the question, “So what do you mean by using different voices and faces?  Can you give us an example?”

Yep, I walked right into that one.  Well, to say I’m a good sport is an understatement.  I was an easy mark with this group and promptly responded, “Well, would you like me to demonstrate?”  As you can well imagine, given my audience, the answer was a resounding “YES!”

And life just keeps getting better.  Thanks Maurice!  Without this book I would not now be making a total fool of myself in front of a lot of adults.

So, I quickly scan the books I’d brought for my presentation and wouldn’t you know that the first title to come to into sight was Where the Wild Things Are.  In the back of my spinning brain I’m naively thinking, ‘okay this is a book everyone is familiar with’.  I held up the book for all to see and asked how many of them were familiar with this title.

They raised their hands and my heart sank.  Of the 65 men in the room only about half a dozen were familiar with this book.  These people who were looking for a way to better connect with their children had never experienced this classic piece of kiddie lit.  I decided to give them my best most energetic presentation, ever.

I’ve been reading aloud to children since I was in the 8th grade and am totally comfortable with this performance venue.  Hold the book so the illustrations can be seen, make sure to pan the book back and forth so everyone sees it and most importantly use funny voices and faces to keep kids interested while telling the story. 

So, I did.  I rolled my eyes, I gnarled my teeth, and I acted out as much as I could to bring the story to life.  My thespianic delivery paid off.  My listeners hung on every word.  

I was about half way through the story and for some unknown reason I stopped reading and closed the book.  I commented that for demonstration purposes reading to kids can look like what I just did. 

They all gasped, loudly.  Not for fear of being unable to deliver what I had just done.  No, they protested at my seeming unfairness in not reading the story until the end.  

“What happens to Max?” they shouted.  “Oh”, I replied, “you wanted me to read the whole thing?”   “Well, yes!  We want to know what happens.”

It’s impossible to say no to that genuine and innocent response.  So, I finished reading the story and they were relieved at how it all ended. 

I walked away from that reading believing that these men were forever changed, for they had experienced the joy of being read a book by someone who truly cares that they have a meaningful experience.  I hope having known that for themselves that they would take that back to their children.

I hope that everyone can do that with their children and the young people in their lives.

Together that day, we experienced a genuine interaction and reciprocity that comes from sharing a book with enthusiasm and a true desire to create a hunger for the written word.  

That afternoon is forever etched in my heart and all because I took a chance with Where the Wild Things Are.  Again gratitude to Maurice.

Back to the interview.   After five decades Maurice Sendak continues to inspire.   He has shaped children’s literature, without really trying to.

In his afore mentioned interview with Stephen Colbert, Sendak comments that he doesn’t set out to write a “children’s” book.  He just writes the story and someone else decides who the audience is.  How fitting that is for my reading anecdote?

Along with writing and illustrating stories, Mr. Sendak has also contributed to other writer’s works as well as creating set designs for theatre productions.  Oh yeah!!! 

The Sendakian style is very distinct.  The exaggerated features of the characters are both mildly repulsive and delightfully engaging.  They beg you to look once and then look once or twice more.  And then, quite frankly, you are hooked.  In a good way.

Check out the Nutcracker set design from the Pacific Northwest Ballet’s production.  It is a true delight loaded with stark images, bulgy eyed faces and the vividly muted tones & colors that we have come to recognize as truly Sendakian art.

His book, In the Night Kitchen (which I highly recommend and more so if you are fond of banned books) has the main character Mikey falling out of his pajamas and into a late night kitchen of bakers preparing to make a morning cake.  It’s the falling out of his jammies that got the book banned-hilarious!!  (see how StephenColbert handles that one – it starts at the 5:38 time marker).

That aside, the book is visually pleasing and the story is what you would expect of a dream.  Sendak’s take on the nudity is “he’s a boy and he’s dreaming.”  Very practical.

A fun and diminutive addition to any home would be the Nutshell Library.  In this collection Sendak explores the alphabet, the seasons, counting and the apathetic attitude of a young boy.  It is a great collection about the size of a box of tea.  Simple stories with simple illustrations.  Delightful!

His latest release, Bumble-Ardy is on my check out from the library and read list along with many other titles.  Either way Maurice Sendak continues to be an inspiration through his work, his humor and his playful nature.  For that treasure, I am eternally grateful.

Until we read again…

                                           …keep tripping on books!

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Spiders – Literary Webmasters



Yep!  March 14th is National Save a Spider Day!  How amazing is that?  And then I began to wonder, why would you need to save a spider?   How often do spiders need saving?  More importantly, why?



I noticed a spider walking across my ceiling.  How incredible, walking on the ceiling.  So I captured her and put her in a jar and set her on my windowsill…

A word to the wise: think twice before you squash one of these amazing creatures.

From Anansi (the trickster) to Ungoliant (the gloomweaver) spiders have visited us throughout time, throughout literature.  From ancient Egypt to the present day the spider has been associated with weaving, spinning and net making.  These attributes are most obvious to anyone watching a spider as she spins.  Spinning is such a delicate and beautiful dance with nature. 

Conversely, the spider has been associated with malice, dispensing venom to disable and kill its prey.  Hence the aforementioned squash factor.  


So, where can you find spiders in literature?  Well, practically everywhere.  


Way, way back many centuries ago, in the Bible, Job 8:14; the fragility of being without God is likened to that of a single spiders web thread.   An interesting analogy.  For the single shimmery thread of spider silk appears fragile, yet is monstrously sticky and amazingly strong.  Try brushing away the web of an orb weaver.   You will be faced with the forces of a natural adhesive that rivals any industrial solvent.  You will come to understand, however,  the strength and beauty of the natural world.

All brought to you by an eight legged wonder known as the arachnid.  And what of that name?

Arachnid – the word is rooted in Greek – Arachne, from the myth about a young girl who was turned into a spider for challenging Athena to a weaving contest.   Talk about a goddess complex.

In both the Islamic and Jewish traditions, spiders construct a web over a cave to protect those who sought refuge from evil pursuers.   In these tales, spiders earned respect for their ability and desires to assist the lowly human.  Thus proving that spiders have a consciousness as well as mad weaving skills. 

Saint Conrad of Constance is depicted holding a chalice onto which is perched a spider.  The story goes that Saint Conrad was saying mass and a spider fell into his chalice.  Spiders were considered deadly poisonous but Saint Conrad drank the wine, spider and all as a sign of his faith (I seriously searched for calorie intake on this one but to no avail).

King David the Bruce
In Scottish lore, King David the Bruce, felt defeated and sought hermitage in, yep a cave.   During his self-imposed exile, the story goes; the Bruce watched the persistent efforts of a spider.  The spider continually climbed and slid down its singularly slick strand of silk (much like the Itsy Bitsy Spider in traditional children’s rhyme).  The spider eventually succeeded and climbed the delicate thread.  The Bruce took this as a sign of hope, left the cave and won Scotland’s independence.  Proving that spiders inspire, making them mascot material, possibly in the sport of boxing.

Anansi, from African folklore, is a mischievous rogue of a character who delivers stories with a moral.  He does so by way of being a trickster.  In one story he prophetically names his children who later save Anansi from certain demise.  His sons, true to the names he had given them, set out to save their father.  Anansi is saved by the wit and ingenuity of his offspring.  After the triumphant rescue, which entailed being imprisoned within the entrails of a bird, Anansi stumbled upon the moon lying in the grass.  The moon was bright and beautiful and Anansi could not decide which of his sons was most deserving of this prize.  He pondered and thought and finally called on Nyame, God of all things (folkloric version of phone a friend).   Anansi shared his dilemma with Nyame and delivered the moon to Him.  The wise Nyame placed the bright, shiny moon in the sky for all to see.  

In Aesop’s, fabulous fables of life’s lessons told through the humanized interactions of animals, the silkworm and spider rival to see who is faster, who has more staying power.  The boastful spider says ‘look how quick’.  The meticulous silkworm retorts that the spider's web will be swept away in contempt, while the silk produced by the silkworm’s efforts will be highly prized and revered.  Thus the moral; 'not how much, rather how well'.  Snarky little spider. 

So, why the bad wrap or warp if we’re talking creatures that weave?  Well, there is the venomy part and the fangs.  Spiders are often compared to vampires, bloodsucking, fang-toting creatures that lure and capture their prey.  And of course urban legends prevail of deadly poison delivered by microscopic fangs and black widows living in a beehive up-do.  Great stuff!

Here is the real truth; we started young with our building of fear, with our construction of arachnophobia.

Take a look at Little Miss Muffet.  You know the children's story, a footstool perched girl who ate  cottage cheese and was then visited by a spider.  Muffet, who as some historians tell it, was the daughter of an entomologist, reacted by running in fear from the spider.  Given her background in science, she should have known better.  What’s worse, her trepidation was turned into a nursery rhyme that has been shared for oh, about 400 years. 

Making a spider larger than life also sets the stage for arachnixiety.  Really something about the size of a pea even loaded with venom is less intimidating than say; oh I don’t know the same creature whose size is equivalent to that of a small piece of earth moving equipment, toting fangs the size of a garden hose spray nozzle, a surefire recipe for panic.

Shelob in the Tolkien novels was a she-spider who predates history itself.  She is predominantly evil and acts beyond the influence of Sauron.  Wicked thing.  She was self-serving, gluttonous; a weaver of darkness.   Anything living was on the menu, although she would occasionally feed her offspring – which gets her mother of the year in some circles - she often left them to fend for themselves.   And if that wasn’t enough her silk could be spun into either rope or web form, unceasingly capturing unknowing passers-by.  Yep, she’s a pure terror-fest.

In James and the Giant Peach, Miss Spider is an anthropomorphized spider with a friendly and rather decent manner.  She weaves her silk with that of a silkworm to make hammocks for the insects to sleep in.  Later in the story she uses her webs to tie up a flock of seagulls, thus flying everyone to safety.  This Miss Spider is a gentler interpretation of some earlier mythical renditions.  Appropriate too, since she is in a children’s book.  I like the Parisian flair too.

Probably the most popular spider in children’s literature is Charlotte.  In the pages of E.B. White’s classic 1952 children’s book Charlotte’s Web, a barn dwelling orb weaver befriends and saves a young pig named Wilbur.  Charlotte is a gentle motherly type of spider who communicates by writing messages in her web.  She becomes an endearing figure, to the end.

Throughout children’s literature, spiders have been spinning tales.  They are portrayed as industrious and perseverant.   Illustrators have captured them in many fashions; whimsical, colorful, playful and truly friendly creatures.  And I personally thank the respective authors and illustrators for such a fine literary contribution.  (It's not nice to scare the children.)

An interesting note: most spider characters are portrayed as feminine, with at least one exception, that of Aragog.  In the Harry Potter series, the acromantula was a giant spider capable of speech.   Aragog was raised from an egg by Hagrid who cared for him within the halls of Hogwarts until he was discovered.  Aragog was feared by some to be evil and was banished to the forest.  The protection offered to Aragog by Hagrid was repaid by Aragog sparing his life from that of his ravenous arachnid children.  True friendship.

Ted Andrews brilliantly wrote of the many creatures that grace our lovely planet.   He talks of the spiritual aspects of earthly creatures, as well their physical attributes and cultural symbolisms.  Of spider he recounts the obvious associations with weaving and with creativity.  He talks about our connection through the spider totem between worlds- past and future, heaven and earth, physical and spiritual and of male and female energies.  Spider reminds us to maintain balance in these sacred places. 

Andrews continues on to talk about the physical design of spider.  It has two body parts with eight legs; both symbols of infinity, the body resembling the number 8.  Spiders weave a web that resembles a spiral which is a representation of creative geometry.   The geometric designs are believed by some to be the first true alphabet, making spider the teacher of language and the power of writing.  For those that weave magic through the written word, spider is most likely a totem animal.  Ted Andrews offered fascinating insight, all of which can be found in Animal Speaks and Animal Wise.

A quick search of the web will reveal a multitude of tales in which the spider, either real or analogized, is the central character.  Here are just a tiny few.

The Summer of Black Widows by Sherman Alexie.
Kiss of the Spider Woman by Manuel Puig.
Black Widow by Ronald Bass, starring Debra Winger & Theresa Russell. 
The Very Busy Spider by Eric Carle.
Miss Spider’s Tea Party by David Kirk.
Along Came A Spider by James Patterson.
Disembodied Spider Meat by Mark Wheaton.

Of course I would be totally remiss for not adding Spiderman by Stan Lee; quite possibly the most profitable arachnid of all time. 

Knowledge is a powerful thing.  While negatively portrayed, the spider is hardly a demon creature.  


Consider these interesting facts: 
Spiders eat more insects than birds and bats, combined!
Hummingbirds use the silk from spider webs to weave together the sticks that form their nests!
It is estimated that up to 1 million spiders live in one acre of land, in the tropics.
Studies have shown that jumping spiders can solve simple 3-D puzzles.
Spiders learn the behavior patterns of other spiders in order to capture them.
Some spiders can live 3 to 4 years, and certain tarantulas are known to live for 25 years or longer.
Male spiders are almost always smaller than the females and are often much more colorful.

Karma being what it is, I'd think twice about squashing a spider if I were you. 

…and so, in honor of Save a Spider Day, I am releasing my catch from the ceiling.  I am setting her free.


An additional note, today is also Einstein's birthday.  Happy Birthday Al.


Until next we meet, keep tripping on books.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Dr. Suess Celebrates 108

You may know him as Le Sieg or Rosetta Stone.
His imaginative landscapes look often moss grown.

He was born in New England in 1904.
A writer, cartoonist and animator.

The child of a brewer from German descent.
When schooling time started to Dartmouth he went.

His passion for writing within him did burn,
as chief editor of the Jack-O-Lantern.

A fraternity prank caused the Dean to be-fume,
eventually creating his unique nom de plume.

From Dartmouth to Lincoln in Oxford he went.
Met Helen and married, no degree by consent.

His humor in writing and drawing had flair,
submitting to LIFE and Vanity Fair.

The July ’27 Saturday Evening Post,
first Published his name that we know the most.

As the writer of rhymes he was so amply fit,
coining the catchphrase “Quick, Henry, the Flit!”

During the depression when folks were in toil,
he found work with GE, NBC, Standard Oil.

When Uncle Sam’s World War II bugle did blast,
editorial art and enlistment came fast.

Training and reporting through film did permit,
the first ever Army Motion Picture Unit.

Post war to the west coast his family did journey.
Writing children’s books became his repartee.

He offered his insights if he ran the zoo.
Telling us of dear Horton and how he heard a who.

At dinner we dined on green eggs and ham.
Served up by an excitable Sam, I am.

When challenged to make children's books less of a bore,
a hat wearing feline he could not ignore.

He then gave us one fish, a red fish a blue,
then told us that Mr. Brown could moo too.

His writing for children he just could not stop,
he gave us the Lorax and Hop on Pop.

It didn’t end there, he had many tricks,
of children’s books he did write forty six.

When production assistance was needed in a pinch,
he called Jones and Karloff who screenplayed the Grinch.

On his family tree he sprouted no stem,
instead he responded, “I’ll entertain ‘em”.

His creative expression was not limited to words
he drew sneetches and turtles and marvelous birds!

His best selling books have sold in the millions
no doubt entertaining a hundred quadzillions.

He passed from this world at aged 87,
quite certainly landing in bibliophile heaven.

Celebrating his birthday seems quite bittersweet.
And to think that he started near Mulberry Street.




Until next we meet for literary looks
enjoy what you read by tripping on books!

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Jewel of the Nile

How the ancient Egyptians revolutionized information exchange or at least made it easier to carry your ideas around, hard copy style.

As a species we are compelled to tell our stories. 

Pre historically we painted on cave walls by firelight.  We shared tales of big hunts and great nomadic adventures.  For tens of thousands of years, this was how we captured the tales of our daily lives.  However strikingly beautiful and permanent these paintings have been, they are a less than portable way of sharing information.  
  
What is it about a book?  

After all, it’s just paper and glue.  Sometimes linen and leather with a little gilt thrown in for good measure (not to be confused with the kind that mothers can throw at you).  And yet, the very thought of a book, stirs the emotions of the bibliophile dwelling in us all.  

No matter how many information rich downloadable e-devices you employ or how often you read your favorite stories online, few things on our fair planet compare to the feeling of holding a book in your hands. 

I think part of the allure is the paper.

The word paper is a derivation of ,“papyrus” which is the name of the plant used by the ancient Egyptians starting around 2400 b.c.e., give or take.  By way of a stripping, layering, pressurizing and polishing process, ancient Egyptian artisans created a lightweight substance that made it possible to record and trade information.  A pharoahnic data capture system, if you will.  The information of those days was everything from agricultural inventories, stories of great hunts and of course the more famous, Egyptian Book of the Dead.
 
Prior to the paper we use today with its infinite textures, colors and designs, few choices were to be had.  You did however have choices limited though they were.

As they grew and changed our ancient ancestors discovered additional ways to capture their stories.  Through the use of earth borne materials they created a new medium for telling their stories.  They discovered a most remarkable substance that could be shaped and molded into vessels, tools and tablets.  

Clay.

They also developed characters that represented ideas and thoughts.  Through this collective consciousness they created a system of writing - cuneiform and preserved their ideas into clay tablets.  These delightful little tablets gave us retention and portability.   

Cuneiform tablets were all the rage starting somewhere around 3500 b.c.e. – cute yet cumbersome (average size about that of a credit card with the thickness of a deck of cards) and using 1000 to 400 unique cuneiform characters (the number of characters actually decreased over time), not that the characters added to the weight but consider the volume of volumes to capture a message.  Today's dictionary would have weighed a ton.

Enter the ancient Egyptians.  

An incredible civilization spanning five and one half millenia, the Egyptians of old brought technology and art to a new level of sophistication and practicality.  So much so, that their art and artifacts survive today.  From 5000 b.c.e., when the first evidence of people settling along the Nile until 650 A.D. when the last temple was built, the Egyptians were forefront in creating and refining techniques in all manner of life.  

The Egyptians were masters in most all they touched; architecture, agriculture, archivery, writing, textiles and paper.  Yes, the ancient Egyptians gave us the precursor to modern paper. 

Taken almost for granted today, papyrus was truly the Jewel of the Nile.  

Papyrus was the inspiration for paper although it is not technically paper, as it is made from a woody reedy stalk rather than pulp.  Not exactly origami material either, but you could roll it and scroll it.  Papyrus was lightweight, compared to cuneiform tablets and quite durable.  

Many exquisite ancient examples remain in museum collections today.  Beautiful panoramas depicting grand hunting parties, ceremonies of worship, dancers in celebration and of course the final rites of passage found in the Book of the Dead.  

Over time, the Egyptian culture progressed in its use of papyrus and in so doing created an entire labor force, the scribe.  The scribe was an honored and royal position, being a standard of the ancient Egyptian courts accompanied with palette, ink, water and reeds with which to make their marks.  They were associated with the ibis headed god Thoth (still trying to figure out that connection- how does a bird hold a writing implement?  Maybe they wrote with their curvy beaks).

Revered for their ability to write down the news of the day, scribes were most often male, spent years in training and usually came from within the same family.  Very few scribes came from families of other professions.  Oddly enough there are accounts of women being scribes however, they were also doctors and were taught to read and write (which is basically what a scribe did) so they could read medical texts.

What the Egyptians created allowed for the portability of an idea.  And while the paper we know today is millennia removed from papyrus, it was nevertheless the inspiration.  It was truly a gem carved from the reeds that grew along the banks of the Nile, itself a sacred part of this ancient culture.

Following papyrus, the use of parchment first began around the 5th century b.c.e. and was made from lime treated animal skins.   Somewhat Gein-esque (not linking you to that but you can look him up if you have a strong stomach for macabre murderers ((oxymoronic, I know)).  But parchment had its shortcomings – incredibly sensitive to humidity which will happen with dead animal skin.  However it was a fair substitute during a time when papyrus was in short supply due to some type of ancient embargo.

Around 100 A.D. the Chinese of the Han dynasty perfected the early process that is the paper we’ve come to know and love. More on that later. 

So the next time you hold a lovely little package of leaves and boards, think back to the breezy balmy banks of the Nile river and the ancient people whose ingenuity inspired those lovely pages.

Until next time...

                                      ...keep tripping on books!!

Friday, February 10, 2012

Norman Attacks - a cautionary tale

I find it quite intriguing when a story is claimed to have been based on "true events".  I wonder what events in the story are actually true. 

Years ago I watched and became a great fan of the movie Fargo.  This twisted tale of deception is set against the backdrop of the desolate winter wasteland on the North Dakota and Minnesota prairie lands was billed as having been "based on a true story".  Somehow that makes a story more intriguing, don't you think - like something you have to watch as much as you want to look away from it.

Many years later I watched an interview with the Cohen brothers.  Much to my shock, horror and surprise they revealed that the story was a total work of fiction.  WHAT!!!!  They'd used the tagline "based on a true story" to get butts in the seats. Nice strategy :s)

That being the case, I now I approach based on a "true story" or "actual events" with the greatest amount of sarcasm usually followed by some snarky comment.  Either way, it's entertainment.

In 1998 I began working on a series of children's books about the adventures of a little girl and her dog.  The curly headed bunny slipper wearing heroine and her vertically challenged canine companion have come to be known as Almarinda and Andy.  They embark on many wild adventures.  One of them being the story of a rather rambunctious rooster and his efforts to protect the chicken yard.  This tale is told in the upcoming book, Norman Attacks.


In the case of Norman Attacks, the outrageous and somewhat comical "true" events leading up to the creation of this story did in fact take place.

First, a little background.  I live in a rural community in southeastern Colorado.  Each day when I step outside I am greeted by the absolutely breathtaking beauty of the majestic Rocky Mountains, the rustling of the aspen leaves, a crisp blue sky and the crow of our rooster.
  
It is idyllic, mostly.  Some of the Shangri-La feeling is, at times, slightly shattered by the unending escapades of our rooster, Norman. 

While he is quite adept at keeping our hens safe, heralding in the morning hour (24/7) and strutting his stuff like a runway model.  Norman is also quite rambunctious. 

Webster's defines rambunctious thus: unruly, noisy, very active, and hard to control, usually as a result of excitement or youthful energy.  A perfect description of our Norman.

He wasn't always this way, chasing everything and everyone in sight. He grew into it over time.

You see, Norman came to us as most chickens do, in a box with dozens of other three-day old baby chicks.  Small and active little balls of yellow fluff on two legs, Norman was just a little chicken.

He did as the others did, ate voraciously, chirped incessantly and ran for the warmth of the huddle.  We never paid him any mind, really.  He grew as the others did, ran through the yard and perched in the juniper tree.

Then one day, it happened.  The unmistakeable cock-a-doodle-doo which signaled that the rooster had arrived.

And arrive he did. Once Norman found his voice, he also found his destiny.  He was no longer just another hen in the yard, he was the KING.

This reality came easily to him. Norman liked being the king.  He became overseer of the hens, was the first to examine the food and eventually became the head cheerleader for his little team of egg layers.

It all seemed like country living perfection.  

But wait...

It was never our intent to have a rooster!  We thought, chickens. Cool! Fresh eggs.

It was all very Currier and Ives, Americana, Rockwellian kind of stuff.  When you add the reality of a rooster to the mix, the entire story changes and this, dear readers is where our story begins.

Norman grew quickly. He foraged the yard, consumed bugs, grasses and feed.  He became a fine example of his breed.  At maturity, Norman stood from claw to comb, a full 18 inches and he was a sturdy fellow.

Strong and heavy, he would have been a welcomed addition to any dinner table.  Norman also grew into a handsome bird.  Being a well-fed and freely ranged Rhode Island Red, Norman sported iridescent plumage to rival a peacock, a 4-H kids dream.  He became a remarkable character.  Idyllic, idolic, or, not so much.

You see, Norman took his position in life very seriously.  He guarded the hens, to the fight.  It was the fight part that took some getting used to.

When you step outside each morning to take in the beauty of your mountain home, the last thing you expect is to be charged by a psychotic rooster.

But, it happens. And you shriek, run inside the house and question your sanity at the notion that for one second you have the slightest clue as to what it takes to raise livestock.

The classic "what was I thinking" thought thunders through your mind as you stare out the window gazing in horror at a seven pound creature and wonder if you will ever be able to enjoy your yard again.

We did go outside again, each day, but is was with much trepidation.

Let me add another detail to the story.  Norman was not the only adolescent in our household.  Our three children were 9, 11 and 13 years of age.  They reveled in the outdoor activities that one experiences living in the Colorado mountains. They enjoyed playing in the yard, climbing the trees and relaxing with our dog, Andy.

Each morning, bright and early, the children would head out the kitchen door, walk down the sidewalk and through the front gate to catch the bus for school.  A classic image in the mind of the average American.

If only that would have been the scenario for us.  For you see, the image and indelible memory in the neural banks of our children was something else.  Something quite Hitchcockian.

Norman had established his territory. And like any great explorer, who has stepped onto a vast and seemingly endless new land to claim it as his own, Norman had declared our entire yard as HIS eminent domain.

He exercised his rule over his land as he charged anyone who entered or attempted to leave what had been commonly known as "our yard". The scenario went something like this; kiss mom & dad and wish them a nice day, grab your coat & backpack, step out the kitchen door and run screaming down the sidewalk until you reach the front gate and the safety of the driveway outside the fence.

Did I mention the screaming?  That was a crucial part of what had now become our morning ritual.  This went on for many days, weeks even.

Variations to the run and scream ritual were added.  One being, the wild throwing of empty cardboard boxes over your shoulder as you ran to the gate.  Quite comical in a twisted sort of way.

Our otherwise Rockwellian life was turning into a Hitchcokian chamber of horrors.

It was during one of these morning rituals that Norman actually got his name. Our youngest child seemed to be the most intimidated by Norman's attacks.

On one particular morning she headed out, alone, unescorted by her older siblings and unarmed with cardboard boxes to throw and otherwise divert the beast. 

As she began her trek to the front gate, Norman approached at a runners gait.  She reacted, ran and screamed hysterically.

It was the screaming that caught everyone's attention.  For it could be likened to the scream of Lila Crane as she fights off her attacker, eventually falling to her death in the 1960's horror film, Psycho. 

Those of us who had remained in the house that morning heard only the scream, immediately made the movie reference and Norman was thusly named.

Based on these "true events" and because of our fondness for the truly remarkable creature that Norman had become, the story Norman Attacks was born.

As with any arch rival, there is always an equalizing counterpart and Norman definitely found his.  But to tell you that would be a spoiler.

So, I encourage you to read Norman Attacks  when it arrives later this year.

Until next time...