Enjoy life now... it has an expiration date.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Newspaper Column for October 2009

You Can't Go Back to Your Childhood, but...

… sometimes - even now - things we missed during our passage to adulthood can still be had.

Somehow I'd made it to the point where I’m old enough to be a grandmother but had never read a certain series of books; iconic, award-winning books loved by millions the world over. Though these books fall in the category of “children’s literature,” I decided it was time I found out what they were about, time to patch one of the holes in my reading list.

As you’d expect with children’s literature, the books are written simply, in a style that’s refreshingly uncluttered but conveys a rich sense of people, time and place. It’s easy to slip into the writer’s world, to become part of it and absorb what the author wants us to see, feel and hear.

These books are largely autobiographical, and the fascinating accounts of everyday life at the time (latter half of the 1800's) stand as accurate and colorful historical references. The people of the era were skilled at making the most of everything. Such ingenuity, hardiness and resourcefulness! While reading, we are delightfully drawn into their lives, and the telling of their tales provides fascinating little history lessons gently woven into a thoroughly enjoyable read. Consider the following tidbits from the first three books:

- A tall tree stump, dead and hollow, is converted to a smokehouse. A lid on the stump top kept the smoke inside, and pegs were fixed high on the inside of the trunk to keep the smoking meat out of reach of uninvited diners.

- Since natural butter is usually very pale - more white than yellow - carrot juice was added to give it a pleasing yellow hue.

- Provisions for winter, including dried and smoked meats, dried herbs, fruits and vegetables were stored in the upstairs loft of the one room cabin… the children’s bedroom area.

- A pig’s bladder was inflated and tied with a string to make a balloon for the children on the annual hog killing day.

- Severe winters meant lots of time indoors - especially at night time. This time was put to good use. After supper the family gathered around the fireplace, and father whittled or made bullets for pantry-stocking hunts by pouring melted lead into bullet forms; mother knitted, quilted or sewed to make warm clothing and blankets for the family, while the children quietly read, or the girls might sew while the boys whittled.

- The building of a log cabin was related, including how to chink cracks between the logs.

- Wonderful line drawings illustrate equipment and tools that look strange to our modern eyes… tools such as a homemade plane to smooth and shave ax-split sheets of oak into roof shingles.

- The school teacher, having no home of his own, stayed with the pupil’s families, rotating and spending two weeks in each home.

- Butternut hulls and other natural substances were used to dye wool and thread to make colored clothing.

- Melted tallow was regularly rubbed into moccasins (worn by young boys) and boots (worn by older boys) to keep the leather supple and waterproof.

No doubt some of you have guessed by now that the books I’m referring to are the series of books written by Laura Ingalls Wilder, the same books that inspired the popular TV show “Little House on the Prairie.” I’m currently on my third book in the series, although I’ve read a couple of other books in between, one being “The Letters of a Pioneer Woman” by Elinor Pruitt Stewart, which is just as fascinating, educational and absorbing as the Little House books.

It’s easy to idealize their time period, a time perceived as simpler, slower paced, more family oriented and lacking the stresses of modern life. And, in some ways it was easier, but in other ways, more difficult. Still, there is a pleasantly nostalgic element to the books. Depending on your age, some of the incidents related may stir up similar memories of your own childhood. In “Farmer Boy” Laura describes the childhood of her future husband, Almanzo, who lived in upstate New York. Laura tells of one cold night - forty below zero - when a cozy evening spent around the fireside with Mother knitting, Father scraping a new ax handle and the children reading, came to an end when the clock struck nine - bedtime. Leaving the warm room and a stove full of glowing embers, the eight year old Almanzo

“ran clattering upstairs. The bedroom was so cold that he could hardly unbutton his clothes and put on his long woolen nightshirt and nightcap. He should have knelt to say his prayers, but he didn’t. His nose ached with the cold and his teeth were chattering. He dived into the soft goose- feather bed, between the blankets, and pulled the covers over his nose.”

As I read the text I thought of my Grandad’s house. Long gone, it was a typical city home of the time: two stories, the front door opened onto the sidewalk, the bathroom was outside, and it had a creepy coal cellar in the basement. If you’re not familiar with coal, it’s heavy, messy to handle, and makes black soot as it burns. At the time using coal to warm homes was very common, so most houses had a coal cellar. When visiting my Grandad, I was less than enthusiastic about getting a bucket of coal for the fire. The coal cellar was in the basement and to reach it you went down a dimly lit slanted little hallway with a low roof. The coal was in a pile around the corner - where it was even darker and creepier - and you shoveled it into the coal bucket. The eerie, damp atmosphere of the cellar was made even more uninviting by the fact that there was a black skull and crossbones painted on the ceiling. My Dad, evidently harboring notions of villainous pirates, swashbuckling adventure and feats of derring do, had painted the foreboding pirate insignia on the ceiling as a youth. Gee, thanks Dad.

Of course, these coal heated homes had no central heat, which meant that the only warm room in the house was the room with the fireplace; little heat reached other areas of the house. As I read the account of Almanzo’s cold bedroom, I recalled a day long past, at my Grandad’s house, when I awoke one freezing morning to delicate patterns of ice sparkling on the inside of the windows. "Jack Frost has been during the night," my Mother said. Brrrr! I shivered as I read and remembered!

As a child I was an avid reader. I still am. My opinion that a good book is one of life’s greatest pleasures has not changed over the years. When I finish the Little House series I’ll be casting around to see what other classics I’ve missed, because a classic that has stood the test of time is always worth reading- regardless of when you read it.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

A Blog Award from Jo!

Jo Castillo has kindly bestowed an award upon my blog. Thank you bunches, Jo! Do visit Jo's blog here - she's a wonderful artist working mostly in pastel and has some stunning western scenery paintings .... and be sure to check out the "boots" posted on 10/22 ... love that painting!

With the award comes a request to tell 7 things about myself. So, here goes....

1. I love to paint
2. I love to read
3. I love to knit
4. I love to walk on the beach when it's pretty much deserted. The rhythm of the waves and tide is so soothing.... just washes away all the cares of the day. Plus, you can collect pretty shells!
5. Winter is my favorite season. I love a crisp cold wintry day and all things associated with it: hot Irish Coffee, watching a good movie while snuggled up in a cozy blanket, chunky sweaters, quilts, hearty soups and stews, baking, that exhilarating feeling when you step outside on a winter's morning and the cold air zings your lungs!
6. I despise avocados/guacamole, cottage cheese, caviar, oysters, crabs and lobster (my hubby is quite happy that I'm a cheap date at a restaurant ;-)
7. I love chocolate, a fruity light wine, traveling, walking down quiet paths and having some time alone to think and be creative.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Using Photoshop as a composition tool

This is a commission piece.

The original photo (bottom photo) is landscape orientation and has a busy background which detracts from the subjects. This commission is to match a cp sketch I did some time ago (the original featured the same child (the boy) as a one and a half year old) so the client wants this piece done in the same style, size and orientation.

I started by simply cropping an 8 x 10 out of the original which gave me the image shown in the second from the bottom photo. Rather bland.

So, using Photoshop, I started experimenting. Photoshop's layers feature gives me complete design freedom- I can add, subtract and move elements around to my heart's content. Anything I do is reversible so I can try any idea that pops into my head.

I used the Rubber Stamp tool to add elements to the composition. In the 8x 10 crop, the image just kind of sits there. I did some cloning to add some interest to the layout: the sky from another photo to give a pleasant but uncluttered background and mums and bales of hay from the left side of the original photo to balance the composition. I did not take the time to refine the composite image - you can see a blue outline around the boy's head - because this is only to suggest a layout.

The final composition is the top photo, and this layout was accepted by the customer.

Photoshop is an invaluable timesaving tool that allows you to experiment with all kinds of changes to the composition, lighting, degree of saturation, and other aspects of your design. It's also great for quickly converting a color photo to black and white to easily see values, and for "posterizing" a photo- which reduces an image to simple bands of color and helps you see subtle color changes (the photo second from the top is posterized). Notice the distinctive bands of color around the bottom of the large pumpkin.

Photoshop is mostly used by professionals in the design and photography industries, and it has a significant learning curve if you wish to take full advantage of all of its features. It is also a fairly expensive program - retails for $586.49 on Amazon. However, there are alternatives: Photoshop Elements (which has about 75% of the features of Photoshop for about 25% of the price), and there are also several free programs similar to Photoshop - they don't have all the bells and whistles - but are quite capable. Two such programs are ArtWeaver and Gimp. Google "free alternates to Photoshop" if you're interested and you'll get a dozen matches. As always, before downloading software make sure it's spyware and virus free. I like to get my downloads from cnet. com - they often have staff and consumer software reviews and their downloads are certified spyware free.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Yay, Ouch and Wow!

I've got.....

a) a new computer (the "yay")

b) a pulled muscle in my right shoulder (the "ouch")

c) gorgeous flowers in my garden (the "wow")

I've spent the last week curtailing my normal activities to allow my arm to rest, eating Ibuprofen, and trying to stay off the new computer while itching to get properly acquainted with it. Shoulder is much better now (pulled it on Monday) but not yet back to normal so this will be a short post.

I did want to share with you a few photos I took recently. Fall is well on the way here in the Carolinas and we've had some beautiful weather. It's the time of year when the cosmos (the pink/red/lavendar flowers) and the fall yellow flowers (as I call them for lack of the correct name. Some type of daisy? Anyone know the real name?) are putting on a colorful show, the native Scuppernong grapes are sweetly ripe, and the leaves are just beginning to turn and tumble in the light breeze. Forecast is for an overnight low of 49 degrees in just a few days... Yay!! Cold weather is almost here. Sure hope we get some snow this year.

About the photos:
- The grapes are in a neighbor's yard, as is the pond in the bottom pics. Grapes are shared with the neighbors (lucky us!) and we sometimes help feed the catfish at the pond.
- Cosmos and "fall yellow flowers" in my garden
- Corn that was left behind in this year's harvest. This is not sweet corn for the supper table, it's feed corn that will be used for animal feed. It's allowed to dry out before harvesting. Another sure sign of fall around here is when the corn is picked.
- Check out the hungry catfish in the last photo! You can see the fish food floating on the water. The reason the water looks so gray and murky here is that catfish stir up the silt on the bottom of the pond while feeding. Their mouths actually come out of the water when they're reaching for the food.

Have a good weekend.... and if it's Fall in your corner of the world... enjoy this colorful season!
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