Thankful Thursday XXIX – Children’s Authors

Yesterday, while waiting for my stepson to get done with his medical appointment, I decided to spend a bit of time in a used book store nearby. Bookstores are always something I’m thankful for, by the way. Browsing through the many aisles of only semi-sorted novels, bios, texts and more, I noticed a little kids bird book on a clearance table for 50 cents. It was the same one I had when I was little – maybe eight or nine, the first one I had about birds. I put out the two quarters happily for nostalgia’s sake. Sure, the book is tiny and only about 100 pages, and has perhaps only one-fifth of the species of birds in the country listed and illustrated, and sure I have three full-detailed, upto date, proper field guides listing the 700 or more types of birds one might see, or hope to see, in North America already. But this brought back memories of when I was a kid and we put out a bird feeder in the garden and I’d see some colorful little bird at it. I’d stare lovingly, then go to the book to see if I could identify it. Often I could, sometimes it remained a mystery. But it piqued my interest. I’d look through thinking, “yeah, I’d like to see a Bobolink” or “where could I find one of these Pileated woodpeckers?” . It helped spur on a lifetime hobby and source of relaxation for me.

As well, of late, I’ve been reading the biography of Theodor Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss. A polarizing figure in today’s world to be sure, but the creator of so many of the books that I, and many others my age, learned to read with : Green Eggs and Ham. The Cat In The Hat. The Grinch. They were books that made me laugh, and made me think (about the Grinch’s selfishness and how he turned it around at the end, for instance, a lesson in good and bad that anyone can get). I loved having them read to me and were simple enough for me to begin to figure out the words as I followed along. Soon I could read them myself. Precisely what the Doctor had set out to do. He wanted kids to read, and he figured out that the “Dick & Jane” readers that were so prevalent in the pre-WWII era tended to bore kids and drive them away from books. He set out to make books that spoke to children as equals and made them want to turn pages and look forward to their next one. Whether you like his socio-political views or not, you’d have to agree he succeeded on that.

So this Thankful Thursday, I’m thankful for children’s authors. As a writer myself, I know how difficult it is to write a story that’s compelling and interests adults. Doing the same for small children is that much harder. The vocabulary is more limited, some of the morals or storylines have to be much simplified, the characters more memorable and the work has to keep going without slowing down lest they throw the book away and wander off to stick a waffle in the DVD player or whatever little kids do. Yet with the world becoming so complex, and so very much media to consume, our whole future relies on today’s children learning to read…and wanting to do so.

So a tip of the hat, on the back a pat, a full salute, from the horn a toot… here’s to you, children’s writer – you are making today’s tomorrows so much brighter!

Thankful “Thursday” XXVIII – Allie Dog

This Thankful Thursday… err, Saturday in reality – I’m thankful for Allie Dog. Long gone, sadly, but remembered fondly as the only dog I’ve ever had. A bit of backstory.

I love animals, but have allergies. We never had pets when I was a kid, save for a fishtank for a bit. This saddened me a bit, but was just a fact of life. I particularly like cats, and most of them seem to take readily to me, so if not for allergies, it’s likely I’d have been surrounded by kitties over the years. As my dad grew older, he turned into a Cat Person, taking in a couple of tiny black kittens and putting food out for neighborhood strays.

Dogs however, were a bit of a different story. Not only do they seem a bit messy, they can be frightening. While I’ve always been OK with little dogs, big ones tend to scare me. I’ve had too many run-ins with boxers, German shepherds and other similar ones running loose to take fondly to them. And as luck would have it, despite being chased through a city street by a doberman (which had gotten loose from an auto shop) once, the only time I actually ever got bitten was by a Black lab, of all dogs. Supposedly the friendliest of pups, I seemed to come leg to face with the one and only mean-spirited representative of his kind. I was a teen and hiking through an urban woodlot when one rushed me, took a chomp out of my thigh and barked ferociously. Besides ruining a good pair of new jeans, it also necessitated a trip to the ER, a tetanus shot, and a call to police, who found the dog, just as aggressive as advertised, and took it in. Luckily it wasn’t rabid. Since then, I was particularly disinclined to like big black dogs.

Of course, God or fate or karma, whichever you prefer, has its sense of humor. Fast forward about thirty years, and my sweetie (also with fur allergies) are living a nice domestic life in happy, dog-free house when one of her distant relatives had to move and couldn’t find anyone to look after his dog while he got settled in to his new digs. She volunteered to look after the dog while he did that. A week, two tops, we figured. I was not amused and the dog and I seemed to view each other with suspicion when it came. She was set up with a food dish and water and an old doghouse in the backyard and seemed dejected when her owner took off, leaving her behind.

You can probably guess the rest. The one or two weeks became well over a year. The dog, Allie, seemed glum the first few days in a new home without her familiar person. We had a leash; eventually I apprehensively put it on her and tried to see if she’d walk. She did. It didn’t take long for her to decide I was the best human around, and me to notice Allie was the best dog in the world. She was a quiet dog, a definite plus to me. Her bark would scare off the most hardened burglar, I’m sure, but it would almost take someone trying to break in to coax her to show that. I’d spend time with her out in the backyard, and rain or shine, we’d go for a walk to the park down the road every day. Although by “walk”, I tend to mean “jog”…Allie was always energetic and ready to examine the next smell along the way. It was a daily highlight for us both.

Inevitably, over a year later, her original owner returned and took her back. It was a sad day in our household. However, the already aging pup (we figure she was about 12 at the time) lived a few more happy years and I got to see pictures of her frollicking in the Gulf of Mexico, quite enjoying it before she took off to the Happy Butt-sniffing Grounds of the doggie great beyond.

So here’s to pets. They add so much to our lives and ask so little in return for their friendship. And to the unexpected circumstances. Allie showed me again that life’s detours don’t always lead us into unwanted areas.

Thankful Thursday XXVII – Health

A few days ago, I threw my back out. I think a 12-pack of pop was the culprit. Of course, it’s not the weight, it was some tiny mistake I made in moving to pick it up, twisting in just the right way to make standing back up difficult and ouch-filled. By now, it’s just a dull ache as I sit here typing and sniffling a bit from allergies. If it sounds like I’m complaining, I don’t mean to be. Actually it just leads me to my topic – this Thankful Thursday I’m thankful for good health.

Literally. I mean, I count myself lucky. As someone now over half a century old, if occasional back pains and sneezing bouts are all I really have to be bothered by, I am entirely lucky. By now, I’m at the age where I’ve had friends I went to school with pass away from horrible ailments. I see people who look somewhere around my age hobbling through stores lugging oxygen tanks they need to breathe. Each week now, I’m driving an older brother-in-law to doctor’s appointments to try and remedy some weird illness that caused him to basically lose the ability to stand or walk for a year or more. (Now he can do both, but is needing a walker to go more than a few feet.) Some people in my household have diabetes; others, chronic knee pain. Not to mention my dear dad who passed away this year from a heart attack, months after his wife died from a myriad of problems tied to diabetes but best described as “old age.” And of course, the elephant in the room, this awful new disease inflicted upon the world last year that’s killed more people in this country than the entire population of Memphis or Miami. I’ll take an occasional feeling of a jolt of electricity when I pick up a package wrong or a bit of a runny nose until the allergy pill kicks in any day. With good grace.

I try to make a point to walk; I could still do more. I try to eat fairly healthy foods; I could eat more fruit and a sandwich or two less. But I never take being healthy for granted. Money, toys, respect… all fine things. But they don’t mean much at all if you don’t have your health. If you’re feeling good today, say ‘thank you’ to God, Mother Nature, karma or whomever you choose and keep a bounce in your step.

Thankful Thursday XXVI – Parks

This Thankful Thursday, I’m thankful for city parks.

I’ve often said that the single greatest thing about New York City isn’t the Empire State Building, Statue of Liberty, Broadway plays nor the shopping experiences. It’s Central Park. We should all give kudos to the city fathers who had the incredible foresight years ago to set aside 843 acres of parkland in the middle of the city for the residents to enjoy in so many ways. It’s probably the chief reason the downtown of a crowded city of over 8 million people is quite livable.

I grew up in a suburb of Toronto, in a house which backed onto a large park. It was great, even if in summer the powerful lights on the tennis courts (about 40 feet behind our fence) did make sleeping before 11PM a bit of a challenge at times. It had a wooden fort for us kids to play on, tennis courts for the adults (which were commandeered for ‘street hockey’ in winter) , swings, and acres of grassy field sloping down from a public school at the end of the street. Tobogganing in winter? Check? Soccer games in summer? Check. Flying a kite in windy weather? Check. Old Scotsman practicing bagpipes at sunset? Check, much to my (and some other nearby residents) chagrin. No matter what the season, the park was in use by people from blocks around. No wonder a study in Boulder, Colorado showed that house prices increase by over $4 per foot the closer they are to a park. Put another way, a house beside a city park is worth about $20 000 more than the identical one a mile away.

Parks provide actual physical benefits to the cities they’re in. They filter out rainwater and can reduce flooding. The grassy, or especially treed ones actually cool down summer heat. A large park can reduce the temperature by up to five degrees in summer compared to nearby areas. (Urban “heat islands” tend to cause cities to be much hotter than nearby rural areas because of the amount of pavement radiating heat back up from the ground.) They add oxygen, so, if extensive enough, they can reduce air pollution. And often times, they’re homes to wildlife. But even those things are really just side-effects. The real glory of parks is the psychological and social.

Parks offer residents places to congregate and to exercise safely. I would guess many of the joggers in Central Park would be much more sedentary if they were having to job between couriers and taxis down 42nd Street. Playing hockey on a snowy tennis court? Fine. Playing hockey on a busy city street? Not looked at as fondly by drivers or even police. They keep us in shape. But the real thing… they calm us down. They make us happy. A Finnish study showed even 10 minutes in a city park “tangibly reduces stress” in most people. Imagine what a “Saturday in the Park” would do for our mental state.

So here’s to parks…and the cities smart enough to maintain and promote them.