I was raised to be an Anglophile. As a child, my mother spent two memorable years in England, while her father was stationed there, and the experience affected the rest of her life and the education of her daughters. We were probably the first family in our small Kansas town to make Masterpiece Theatre “must watch” TV. My sister and I learned the ranks of aristocracy by memorizing the mnemonic “Do Men Ever Visit Boston”(Duke, Marquis, Earl, Viscount, Baron) and how to love a good cup of hot tea, even if it was Lipton. Even if she disagreed with some of Parliament’s policies and decisions, England remained Mother’s spiritual “home-away-from-home,” a dampish Shangri-La.
That’s why I’m sorry she never found Bill Bryson’s book, Notes from a Small Island; she would have enjoyed it so much. Like Peter Mayle’s travelogue of the English expatriate living in France, Bryson gives an educated outsider’s view of life in a foreign country. In this case, it’s the perspective of an American living in England.
Bryson is one of those impetuous, imaginative Americans grown-ups admire until their children try to follow his example. He was backpacking around Europe, on a summer break from college, when he impulsively decided to leave school and start living and working in England. Two years later, Bryson returned to America, married and ready to finish his studies. Diploma in hand, he bolted back to the U. K. for a journalism career. He and his family have lived in one country or another ever since so he’s developed an understanding of both cultures and how they differ.
To begin, there’s the problem of everyday words. Shaw said what we’ve all guessed for ages: that the United States and Great Britain are two countries separated by a common language. Common words are spelled different ways and mean different things to British and American citizens, and there was no English/American dictionary or Google available when Mr. Bryson first stepped on British soil.Then, he was at a complete loss when a hotel owner instructed him to “remove his counterpane” at night. Poor man. I could have told him the landlady was talking about his bedspread, but then Mom raised me on A Child’s Garden of Verses. Sure, the poet was Scottish, but that’s still closer to England than Iowa.
Mr. Bryson (from his FB page)
Then, there’s the culture. Bryson believes the famous British reserve has created a nation of people who prefer small, modest pleasures and cheerful attitudes during unpleasant circumstances. I can see how an unending mindset of “You could do worse” and “Keep Calm and Carry On” could wear but, after spending a day experiencing blaring car horns and rude hand gestures from fellow traffic jam sufferers, that well-mannered optimism sounds like manna from Heaven.
So, until or unless a miracle happens, and I find my own way to England, I’ll be thrilled to read Mr. Bryson’s tales. Not only do they soothe the heart of an ardent Anglophile; they remind me of my Mum.
Now, I only have one sibling, but I’ve seen what it’s like to grow up in a gaggle of sisters. Donna, Peggy, Paige, June, and baby Karen Frasier (I changed their names here) lived down the street from us in Garden City, Kansas. Five girls, two parents and a couple of pets in a four bedroom house. I was between Donna and Peggy in school, and I hung out with Paige but what amazed me was how their sister-group worked. When the Frasier girls went out, they moved like a coordinated squadron even (on at least one occasion) dressing alike. At home, they were five completely independent personalities that could still function together, even when there were fights in the ranks. By contrast, I had just one sister, a toddler back then, and we spent our days after each others’ blood. At the time, I thought the Frasier sisters were too good to be true. These days, I ‘d say they were as Penderwick girls.
The Penderwick sisters are the stars of Jeanne Birdsall’s best-selling, award-winning series about a realistic (if slightly eccentric) family of sisters. The first book called (what else?) The Penderwicks: a Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits, and a Very Interesting Boy, introduces us to the cast. Rosalind may be the eldest, most responsible Penderwick, but she still believes everything her best friend says; Skye, is the rebel, explorer, and athlete in the clan; starry-eyed Jane, is so immersed in the romance of words that she can’t talk without adding narrative phrases; and Batty (Elizabeth) is the one with a special connection to animals, especially the family dog, Hound. These four girls, as dear and individual as Louisa Mae Alcott’s March sisters, have conflicting interests and talents but an unswerving devotion to the Penderwick Family Honor that keeps them together in moments of stress. And stress happens, even when sisters are on vacation and trying to stay out of trouble. Trouble seems to come looking for them.
What are the Penderwicks to do about Jeffery, the Interesting Boy Next Door? Can they rescue him from the terrors of military school and his snobbish, terrible mother? Can Rosalind remember to watch out for her sisters when she’s face to face with the attractive gardener, Cagney? Will Jane’s latest Sabrina Starr adventure story get into print or will Skye’s accidents alienate their new acquaintance, the publisher? Will Batty learn the difference between a horse and a bull? In every chapter, the girls share an interesting, believable life which makes this book a delightful change. After years of stories about wizards, angels, ghosts and demi-gods, it’s nice to find a kid’s book filled with ordinary-ish people.
If you’re looking for a nice kid’s story unburdened by fantasy and morals, open up a copy of The Penderwicks. You’ll find out “ordinary” girls aren’t ordinary at all and it’s good to be surrounded by sisters.
I’ve never been an athlete. I was raised in a family that sat whenever they could. Sitting was our clan’s favorite pastime, and our endurance in couch-potatery would have qualified us on the Olympic s if they could have turned it into a competitive sport. The fact that many of us were overweight was no surprise. The surprise was my sister, who ran for fun, and competed in track as a girl. Although she could sit, my sis could also move, and she was unafraid of competition. I was proud of her drive and talents, and she knew that. But neither believed I’d follow her example.
The Infamous Fitbit
All of which made my sister’s offer to buy me a Fitbit last May a bit of an awkward phone call. To her credit, Sis knew I was trying to lose weight, and she’s never pressed me to get active. Her suggested gift would help me lose weight. But that doesn’t mean I wanted to take it.
The few times I had tried exercise before, I’d ended up with sore joints and a lousy attitude. But it’s hard to turn my sister down, especially when her thought is well-meant. So, I said yes, thinking once I accepted the gift, that would be the end of the story. “Great, then we’ll both have one!” she said. “When you get your Fitbit account set up online, we can keep up with each other!”
Days later, I strapped on Sis’s gift, feeling like I’d stepped into a bear trap. The program had suggested goals, like 10K steps a day and 250 for each daylight hour. I doubted if I’d reach any of them, but I had to keep trying, at least until I saw my sis at an upcoming family visit. So, I started walking. I walked to the mailbox a dozen times a day, I stepped on the porch when it rained. I learned to read books and watch TV with my eyes on a computer screen and my legs pumping, up and down, in place. Yes, my sister frequently out-walked me but there were times when I triumphed as well, and the weight-loss plateau I was expecting didn’t appear. And each new day, the Fitbit zeroed itself out, and I began again which made activity a rule of life instead of the exception. And I found I could compete.
Every group of Fitbit friends can create challenges to outwalk each other during specified period. Once I joined a challenge or two, I found I didn’t like to lose. If someone posted a total of 12K steps before work, I didn’t give up, nor did I believe them. I just started stepping, determined to go further by the end of the day. According to Fitbit, I won 13 trophies last summer because I didn’t want to be out-stepped. And I continued to lose weight.
Fitbit even came to my rescue this month when my weight loss finally stalled. Fitbit’s records showed while my walking was adequate, my heart rate wasn’t rising enough to prompt weight-loss any longer. This led to new exercise choices that raised my heart rate and broke the plateau. And because each new day began at zero, I didn’t realize how far I’d walked.
Then came the email with this graphic of how far I walked with my unwanted present. With Fitbit, I walked off 60 pounds in half a year and covered the distance from my Alabama residence to my hometown in Kansas! I’ve changed from a “Sedentarian” to short-distance Forrest Gump because of my sister and Fitbit!
So, yes, I love my Fitbit. It only comes off for recharging or when I’m going to get wet. It keeps me coming back and reminds me what I need to do. And Sis, as far as I’m concerned, this is one of your best presents EVER.
This almost covers the distance I walked in 2016 – Imagine how far I’ll get this year!
When I was 10, I was afraid of the kids that moved in next door. The children in the house across the alley were younger and smaller than me, but they were a noisy bunch and they always seemed to be spoiling for a fight. Whenever I went outdoors, they were there, in their yard, calling me fatty, and offering me a knuckle sandwich. One day, my mother entered the fray, screamed back at the kids and hauled me into the house. “Keep away from those kids,” she said, even though this was a needless directive. I wasn’t going near any kid that picked on my size. “I don’t want you playing with them, they are nothing but P.W.T.” PWT meant Poor White Trash, the group of people my mother hated most.
I thought a lot about those kids while I was reading Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash: The 400 Year Untold History of Class in America. Ms. Isenberg’s central argument of the story is, despite statements to the contrary, America never has been a classless system. Instead, we segregate ourselves into cliques characterized by income, education, address and antecedents and, where I grew up, the condition of one’s lawn. Where I lived, the homes of the influential and affluent were recognizable by the lush, verdant landscapes that surrounded their houses, perfectly trimmed to crew-cut height. The working class didn’t have the resources to maintain this plush, even cover but we managed to minimize the bald spots on our lawns and mow the crab-grass regularly. The renters, whose yards contained only dirt and discards, were considered “trash.”
When did we start classifying people as garbage? Ms. Isenberg traces this idea to European businessmen/philosophers who saw undeveloped land as a wasted resource and impoverished people as refuse. Colonization, to these leaders, was a way to make money by solving two problems. Send the poorest people away to develop this useless land and then profit from the goods they produce. These “wretched refuse” (to quote Emma Lazarus) became Britain’s debt slaves for generations, paying off their cost of transportation through lifetimes of labor producing goods for their European debt-owners. These businessmen didn’t foresee the colonists’ resentment and isolation would eventually result in a revolution. Nor did they predict their attitudes on class discrimination would transfer along with the colonists. But they did.
As America grew, so grew the group of poverty-stricken, rural, whites and the resentment-filled class war where, as one Southern lady described it to me, one bunch is always looking down on or mad at another. Yes, American mythology has tales of poor, enterprising youths creating fortunes and a few scions of the moneyed and powerful families behaving shamefully but both stories carry the unspoken element of class distinction. A desire to climb the social ladder underscores the poor boy’s drive to succeed, and the wealthy child’s sense of entitlement created the self-belief he/she can avoid the penalty of criminal action. And, despite their individual acts, each character is also judged by his/her background. And most folks resent being judged.
The rural poor, also known as clay-eaters, crackers, hillbillies, rednecks and trash remain a recognizable group today. At times, they’ve even become fashionable. Like every other community in this country, they’ve produced bad and good people, geniuses and criminals. And like everyone else with a long history of being disparaged and exploited, this community has developed a hard-won sense of identity and pride. They’re a political force to be counted and used. And each time they are mocked or underestimated by someone else, the resentments and class divisions grow.
So, will the class war ever end? Not as long as individuals are exploited and minimized because of factors beyond their control. In other words, as long as one group of people treats another like “trash,” they’ll have trouble taking out all the garbage.
There are rules on how to get through life and Bud knows them all. Let me show you what I mean:
Whenever an Adult Tells You to Listen Carefully and Talks in a Real Calm Voice,
don’t listen, run as fast as you can because something Real Terrible
is Just Around the Corner
If an Adult Tells You Not to Worry, and You Weren’t Worried Before,
You better Hurry Up and Start ‘Cause You’re Already Running Late
These rules may seem like nonsense to you, but to Bud, they’re lessons on how an abandoned child survives during the Depression. Bud knows the Public Library is a good, warm, place and late-comers to the Mission don’t get fed. He also knows the world hasn’t been a safe place since his Mom died four years ago. All she left him was a love of reading, the knowledge that his name is Bud, (not Buddy), some posters and painted rocks. Based on wishful thinking and the posters she kept, Bud believes his father is a musician named Herman Calloway. When the orphanage and foster home system fail at keeping him safe, Bud decides it’s time to hit the road and find his father.
Bud, Not Buddy is historical fiction, but the history is recent, and the story doesn’t stray far from the truth. Christopher Paul Curtis incorporated the stories of his grandfathers’ talents and drive into the book: one, a redcap and baseball player who pitched against the great Satchel Paige, and the other, a classically trained violinist turned band leader who used ingenuity to succeed in business, despite the Depression and discriminatory statutes in effect. Bud’s quest for a home is a hero’s journey, although he doesn’t see himself that way, and the story contains one of the best descriptions of jazz I’ve ever read. If you missed this award winner when it first came out (like I did), do yourself a favor and meet a good kid named Bud. You can never go wrong by meeting nice folks. And that’s a rule of mine.