Sara Orne Jewett was a turn-of-the-century novelist, poet, and short fiction writer, known especially for emphasizing nature and descriptions of coastal Maine in her work. Two pieces she is most well known for are:
In The County of Pointed Firs, Jewett inserts throughout a dueling yet complementary sense of loss and perseverance. The rural town setting of coastal Maine drives the piece, and the environment is as harsh and unforgiving as it is beautiful. Most of the residents are old, and the unnamed narrator relays their stories of lost love, spouses lost at sea, or simply the loss of life. Yet, to have survived as long as they have, especially in the challenging environment in which they live, represents a fortitude and strength that defines not only each resident, but also the town itself. The narrator observes much from the school house which she rented, like the funeral procession for Mrs. Begg, who had survived three husbands, each of them seamen. Yet, even on a day of such sad observance, the narrator remarks on how life, joy, and rebirth continue. “The song sparrows sang and sang, as if with joyous knowledge of immortality, and contempt for those who could so pettily concern themselves with death.”
The resident whose portrait is most intimately drawn is that of Mrs. Todd, who never married but who was once in love. She explained why she could never be with him: “he come of a high family, an' my lot was plain an' hard-workin'. I ain't seen him for some years; he's forgot our youthful feelin's, I expect, but a woman's heart is different.” Instead, Mrs. Todd grows her herb garden, whose appearance seems strange at first, unkept, but is actually life-affirming. “It seemed sometimes as if love and hate and jealousy and adverse winds at sea might also find their proper remedies among the curious wild-looking plants in Mrs. Todd's garden.” The healing garden is both a symbol of loss and perseverance, and a literal representation of it. “There were some strange and pungent odors that roused a dim sense and remembrance of something in the forgotten past.”
There are other paradoxical themes at play, all of which have to do with the setting. The harsh environment heals yet destroys. The town is secluded and the residents isolated, yet people lived too close together for Mrs. Begg’s liking, and Mrs. Todd’s house was not secluded enough. The school house has the most beautiful view in town, yet it stands empty, at least during the summer, with no young people to appreciate or even see what is offered. However, there is the promise of the kid’s eventual return, and also the promise that no matter what is lost, the town’s journey will continue.
In both County of Pointed Firs and "A White Heron" Jewett’s use of setting is stunning. It doesn’t just provide flavor to the story, she uses it to impact both character and theme. Mrs. Todd, with her knowledge of the town, her herb garden, and the natural powers she is able to harness to impact her community and her surroundings, could not exist in any other setting. Sylvia, the protagonist of "A White Heron," hated the city, but "There ain't a foot o' ground she don't know her way over, and the wild creaturs counts her one o' themselves,” couldn’t exist anywhere else but in the woods she calls home. Both Sylvia and Mrs. Todd are artfully drawn characters, and I expect they were rare at the time they were written. Heck, they’re rare right now. Late middle-aged women characters are usually classified as bitter and villainous, unless they’re an appendage as someone’s wife or mother. Young girls are often either frivolous and forgettable, or bad-seed mean girl types. Yet, neither Sylvia nor Mrs. Todd falls into those character traps, and a big reason for that is their interaction with their surroundings, and their love and reverence for nature. I’ve read that for a character to be multi-dimensional, she needs to have deep connections or concerns for something other than herself. In both Sylvia and Mrs. Todd’s cases, that connection is with their setting, making the setting instrumental, no vital, when it comes to characterization. The same is true when it comes to theme. I wonder if the white heron perhaps symbolized Sylvia, and I also wonder if the herb garden symbolized Mrs. Todd. If so, the setting impacted theme in making the stories not just about character’s interaction with nature, but about self-empowerment and integrity.
There's nothing more natural than making a homemade/home-grown pasta sauce on a steamy August afternoon. Do you disagree? Well, consider the bounty of our backyard garden, and maybe you'll understand. We had many, many tomatoes, and an embarrassment of basil and blue sage.
I decided I couldn't let it all go to waste, and after pursuing various pasta recipes on the web, I came up with my own way to combine the ingredients. I think it turned out pretty well, because both (husband) Rich and (son) Eli gave me rave reviews, and insisted that I make it again. So that I won't forget how I did it, I'm chronicling the whole process here.
I like to watch 80's movies while I'm experimenting in the kitchen, and the natural choice for my pasta sauce project was the old chestnut, Mystic Pizza. While Lili Taylor implored her boss Leona to reveal exactly what she put in the sauce that makes it SO GOOD, I came up with my own sauce. Also, I found that Mystic Pizza aged really well. It's sentimental and cheesy, sure, but at its core it has a feminist message and the theme is about female friendship rather than romantic love.
Anyway, I'll give more thoughts about Mystic Pizza in a few. Right now I'll describe how I made my sauce. I can't give exact measurements for the tomatoes and herbs (basil & sage) I used, but here is pic of what I picked from the garden:
Before using the tomatoes and herbs, I chopped a small onion and sliced an entire package of turkey bacon. I sautéed it all with a tablespoon of olive oil until the onions looked sort of caramelized and the bacon seemed semi-crisp. Then I put it aside in a bowl.
Then, it was time to roughly chop the tomatoes and thinly slice a few cloves of garlic. I love garlic, so I'm never light with my use of it. You can of course adjust how much you use to personal taste.
I put the tomatoes and garlic in the same pan I'd used for the bacon & onions, and I let it all simmer on medium heat for a while. I stirred and mashed the tomatoes as they softened. I threw in some salt & pepper. I poured in about half a glass of red wine. Then, when a lot of the liquid had evaporated, I added in two tablespoons of butter and the herbs. (I used my herb scissors to cut them up. If you don't have a pair of herb scissors I strongly recommend buying a pair!)
This all took around thirty minutes. Then, I put the bacon & onion concoction back in with the tomato sauce, and let it simmer on low while I boiled some gnocchi. After it was soft, I mixed it all together along with some fresh mozzarella.
Finally, I served it in a bowl with some grated parmesan on top.
Making this took less than an hour and 48 minutes, which is the running time of Mystic Pizza. I didn't even get to see the part where Charlie takes Julia Roberts to dinner with his family and his brother is a young Matt Damon. That's okay. I've seen the film many times, and I remember how it ends.
I also remember the first time I saw it, in a movie theater on the night before I was to take the SAT. I went with my BFF, Shauna, and yesterday when I watched it, was her 50th birthday, so that seemed a good way to honor both her and female friendship. Mystic Pizza passes the Bechdel test, as two or more named women talk about something other than a man. Yes, Annabeth Gish, Julia Roberts, and Lili Taylor mostly talk about men, but that's mostly in connection to their hopes and dreams for the future. And they also talk about college plans, conflicts with parents, and what might be in Leona's fabulous pizza sauce.
At one point, Lili Taylor declares it's the '80s, so she doesn't have to marry an asshole. This was one of many moments when a female character naturally asserts her own power over her male partner, while staying sympathetic and likeable to the audience. That's the genius of Mystic Pizza and why it stands the test of time.
I think you could even say the movie was ahead of its time. But whatever your thoughts are on either the film or my pasta sauce, I can solidly say that watching it while cooking pasta on a steamy August afternoon was satisfying, nostalgic, and tasty!
I'm big into box subscriptions, but as I do not profess to be a lifestyle blogger and instead blog about anything that has to do with reading or writing, I thought I'd take a different angle with my box subscription. I'm not going to give you a review of the products that came in Allure's May beauty box; instead I'm giving you a rundown of how these products are written about by Allure's writers, contributors, and editors.
In addition to the products in each month's box, there is a tiny little magazine with a tiny little column about each product. I almost love these written pieces as much as the products themselves. The metaphors and imagery they use is super cool.
Editorial assistant Talia Gutierrez calls Augustinus Bader The Rich Cream "the Heather's of the beauty world - an instant cult hit." This product is very intriguing, because it costs $265 for 50 milliliters. The sample size sent is only 7 milliliters, but still, that means this sample is worth roughly 37 dollars! Apparently one small pump goes a long way, soothes dry skin, and makes skin gleam without leaving behind a white cast. Is it worth the price? I doubt it, but I look forward to using the sample.
I received a full-sized Wander Beauty Sight C-ER Vitamin C Concentrate, and senior beauty editor Dianna Mazzone calls it "the model/actor/singer/songwriter of the beauty world," meaning that is highly versatile and functional. She says that if it had an Instagram bio, it would mention achievements like being able to hydrate, brighten, and protect skin and reduce wrinkles! I love the personification she used and it's made me excited about the product. As soon as I'm done with the vitamin C powder that I received in an Allure beauty box a few months ago (another full-sized product), I plan to crack this baby open and find out if it's too good to be true.
The Josephine Cosmetics Liquid Lipstick in Tiphaine is also full-sized. I don't get why they call it "tiphaine" - which, as far as I can tell, is simply a female first name. The color of this product is red. With my fair complexion, red lipstick looks clownish on me and I know I won't be able to carry it off. I probably won't use this, but I appreciate how staff editor Jihan Forbes writes about how she's missed wearing lipstick during the pandemic (not much use for lipstick underneath a face mask) and "with lipstick, I feel pulled together and ready to attack the workday." Maybe her writing will inspire me to wear another lipstick better suited for my pale, pinkish skin tone.
The Belif Moisturizing Eye Bomb is referred to by senior commerce writer Sarah Hahn as "a refreshing drink for my under eyes." One of the main ingredients is tiger grass, which is also a big ingredient in Dr. Jart's color correcting cream, which I'll admit to ordering after using the sample sent to me in another month's Allure beauty box. So, I look forward to trying this but I also dread it, because it's $48 for .84 ounces, so there's a danger in liking this one too much.
The Pulisse Matcha Green Tea Antioxidant Sheet Mask will most likely be thrown in with the rest of my beauty mask collection. I've been slowly working my way through them, but if I use one, it's at night, and this one has caffeine in it, so I'll have to make a conscious decision to use it in the morning, when I'm often rushed and not in a good place to use a face mask. But assistant beauty editor Angela Trakoshis says this mask makes her skin dewy, and gives "a dose of hydration that makes her makeup go on more seamlessly." So, maybe I'll use it when I have a slow morning but a big day ahead of me? Can't think of when that would be, but who knows?
All in all, I enjoyed reading the little magazine and opening up these products from Allure. It's not just a box of beauty samples but a box of possibilities, and how these products are written about how everything to do with that.
Lately, I've been looking for a sign that I should my job of 21 years, complete my MFA in creative writing, and have time to develop and promote my novels and my blog. To some, this may seem like a no-brainer. If I can afford to do it (which I can) I should go for it, because life is short and opportunities to follow our dreams are limited.
But my job isn't just a "job", nobody's is when they're a teacher. The school where I teach, the community it is in, the students & staff - they're all a part of me. I would be a different person than I am today, had I not taught there. And faced with the prospect of cleaning out my classroom, packing up my books and lesson plans, and saying goodbye - well, it hurts. There's no escaping that pain, not if I intend to leave.
Of course, I wouldn't quit all together. I'd apply for a leave of absence, but the minimum leave is three years. I will ask for part-time, but it seems doubtful they'll accommodate that request. I can come back and sub, but that might be more a more attractive option in theory than in reality.
Here's the truth: there is no way to take a jump without sacrificing this emotional safety net. So much of my life, my routine, and my identity is wrapped up in being a teacher. Yet, perhaps that's part of the reason I should go. If I stopped teaching today, I could be proud of what I've accomplished, what I've taught and what I've learned, and I could look back on my career with pride. I would have no major regrets.
I can't say that about writing. For almost as long as I've been teaching, I have been writing novels, but I have always had to divide writing my time with work obligations, and I'm left wondering what I could achieve if I had the opportunity to focus solely on being a writer.
It looks as if I might find out. I've had some conversations at work and people are supportive, as are other important people in my life. Still, I've been wavering. Then, the other day I found my "sign" that I'm doing the "write" thing by taking this chance.
It was an article about Brooke Baldwin, from CNN. She's leaving the network with no real prospects or new opportunity to move on to, other than recently publishing a book. She hasn't given a reason for leaving, other than she'd gotten "too comfortable." Reading that made it okay to tell myself it's okay to give up comfort. I can embrace feeling scared of unstructured time and days spent not talking to anyone. I can live with not knowing what will happen - if I will publish, or find a job teaching college level writing, or if I will return to old my old teaching job.
It's time to embrace the unknown and make the leap. It's the "write" time!
A short while back, I was watching Tell Me All Your Secrets on Amazon Prime, which is a really good show that I recommend. Here’s the premise: a youngish woman (played by Lily Rabe) gets out of jail on the witness protection program. Her ex-boyfriend is a convicted serial killer and there are still several missing girls the authorities believe he might have been murdered, so Lily Rabe’s job is to help with that and tell them whatever she can. Meanwhile, the mother (played by Amy Brenneman) of a missing girl is desperate to find her daughter, and she’s set on finding Lily Rabe, who she believes is complicit in her daughter’s disappearance.
Of course, there’s more to both characters than what’s immediately obvious, but it seemed to me that the viewer is made to think that Lily Rabe is the villain and Amy Brenneman is sympathetic, but slowly our perception shifts until it becomes clear who we’re supposed to be rooting for. And at first, I’m like, “Oh, that’s clever, making this grieving mom sort of diabolical,” but then I thought better of it.
Because I asked myself to name one drama, either a film or on TV, where a lead female character is sympathetic, over fifty, and whose primary function is something other than being someone’s wife or mother.
I came up blank.
I asked Twitter, and got a few responses, like Prime Suspect and Murder She Wrote. I just finished watching The Undoing on HBO, which starred Nicole Kidman, and I think that show fits into my criteria as Kidman’s character drives the plot and she’s very sympathetic, but even though I’m sure she was over 50 when it was filmed, I believe her character is supposed to be in her 40s. Nicole Kidman can totally pull that off. She’s still ingenue-like, though just barely.
Anyway, then I started thinking about how, in movies and TV, there's this pervasive pattern of mean, older women tormenting innocent younger women. Just look at Disney: Cinderella & Snow White and their evil stepmothers, Ariel and the Sea Witch, Sleeping Beauty and Maleficent. Even the Disney films about animals, like Lady and the Tramp and 101 Dalmatians, feature a young wife/mother as the pet owner and an older, evil single woman, like Cruella Devil, who gets off on puppy abuse.
Now, I’m sure I’m missing many examples of films with fully-formed, sympathetic characters played by a lead actress who’s in her fifties or older (and if you can think of any, please list them in the comments below.) However, the list of films with fully-formed male sympathetic characters would be vastly longer, and of that, I am supremely confident.
What bothers me about this isn’t so much about the disparity between genders, instead, it’s more what it says about relationships between females. Like, a mature woman can’t be supportive of a younger woman without being jealous of said young woman’s youth and desirability, and that the mature woman's jealousy will automatically turn her into a duplicitous bitch. Or, that any woman “of a certain age” who does not primarily nurture a husband or kids must be aggressive and emotionally bereft. Any woman who is no longer seen as young and beautiful is bitter and withered, both on the outside and in her soul.
Thus, I’ve decided to create a character for my next work-in-progress who is female, sympathetic, and though she’ll be in her fifties, she will still be on a path of discovery. People commented on my story, “We All Own the Sky”, that they think it should continue, so I’ve been sketching out ideas, and I aim to create a 50ish female security guard who wishes she'd become a detective, so now she’s like Nancy Drew, only she's in late middle-age. And though she’ll be at odds with the young woman who’s also at the center of the story, neither of them will be villains.
And after my book is written, published, becomes a huge bestseller and then made into a TV series (which, DUH! Of course it will...) I’ll have to choose who will be the star: Nicole Kidman or Amy Brenneman? Decisions, decisions...
It started at birth. Morgan, my fraternal twin, got the 1980s-soap-opera-star name. I got “Maud”, named after a fictional old-lady-serial-killer. After that, God seemed determined to keep the imbalance going. Morgan ran faster than any boy in our class and she always made the goal or caught the ball. I was asthmatic, always last to be picked for a team in gym class. Morgan’s springy blond curls were her crown, unexpected and exceptional, marking her as royalty and ascending her to class president every year since sixth grade. My brunette hair was always pulled back into a ponytail, and the only time I stood out was at band class, when I played the piano, my fingers gliding over the keys. Music was the one thing Morgan wasn’t good at. She could never carry a tune; she can’t even clap to a rhythm.
For my birthday, I was given a subscription to Master Class, which is great, because I am the sort of person who reads course catalogs for fun. When I first logged on to Master Class, I was asked to click on the courses I was interested in, and, well… if Master Class was a dating site, I’d be that gal who right swipes for anyone who has a pulse & doesn’t appear to be a serial killer.
First, a disclaimer: I realize using the word “girl” in regards to turning 50 is both inaccurate and a bit diminishing. I am a woman and I should be proud of my wisdom, sophistication, and life experience. I am proud. However, using “girl” in regards to my 50th birthday slaps a bit of youthfulness onto the occasion, and if I can’t be young anymore, I can at least feel youthful.
So, how do I celebrate turning 50? I’ll be honest; I’d really rather not. I get that I don’t have a choice, at least not about the “turning 50” part, but I’m not clear on how to celebrate this milestone. Because here’s the thing: even if I live to be 100 (which I plan to do) I’m still, at the very least, entering the second half of my life. And as more time goes by, it only speeds up, so really, perception-wise, more than half my life is over. It’s tempting to think all the adventurous parts are, anyway.
Except, I have it pretty dang good. I am a teacher. I am happily married and we have two healthy, strong individuals as children (but my son will fly in the nest soon and that makes me sad.) I write novels, though not with the same drive that I used to. But everyday, I look for new ways to explore the possibilities, to learn or change for the better, even in this time of Covid 19. The possibilities are still there, but they’ve changed, become more quiet, more settled, and more predictable. Just like me.
So, how do I celebrate? I Googled “benefits of turning 50” and what came up was some pretty exciting stuff, especially the part about free colonoscopies. I mean, sign me up! (But seriously, I know it’s time to get a colonoscopy and I promise to make an appointment once the pandemic is over. On a lighter note, that National Park Pass sounds pretty good…)
As long as I’m laying it all out there, I’ll mention another hindrance I have about celebrating 50. Many older women say that they started to feel invisible when they reached a certain age. Because, once a lady is no longer attractive and/or able to bear children, people don’t see or hear her anymore. I know that’s extreme and it doesn’t have to happen. Look at Michelle Obama, Kamala Harris & Elizabeth Warren, or at actresses/entertainers like Nicole Kidman, Jennifer Aniston, and Jennifer Lopez. None of them are invisible. However, I can’t aspire to be them because I’m not a celebrity with a team of stylists or handlers, and honestly, being any one of them sounds like way too much work.
So, perhaps I won’t celebrate being 50, but I will still, obviously, turn 50. Thus, I’ve decided that instead of celebrating and putting pressure on myself to be happy, I will allow the bittersweet, nostalgic sentiments to seep in. I will allow myself a bit of sadness on this day. And, I will also accept myself and who I am and try my best to rock turning 50 and to be okay with it, even if I’m not over the moon.
I haven’t wanted to admit my age for a long time. Being youthful has always been a part of who I am. Yet, who I am is changing, and there is no shame in turning 50. I can still be myself at this age, I can still be heard and seen, and I can own this milestone, even if I don’t celebrate it. So this is me, announcing to the world, I AM 50. WANNA MAKE SOMETHING OF IT?
Also, just to be clear - no matter what I age I turn, I will always celebrate my birthday, even if I don’t celebrate my age. I love cake and presents, so bring em’ on! And ten years from now, I’ll look back and realize how good I had it, to be turning 50 years young.
lLet’s talk about “Karen”. Karen is a white woman who takes her privilege for granted and she uses her power by diminishing or degrading others in the process. Conservatives think Karens are women who consider themselves woke, and that Karens go around telling others that they’re not anti-racist enough. To them, Nancy Pelosi is the ultimate Karen, because she is a woman who uses her gavel, rips up Trump’s speech, and claps at Trump slowly and maliciously. Meanwhile, liberals feel that the ultimate Karen is the woman who demands to “speak to your manager” and refuses to wear a mask because her freedoms are being infringed upon, and she degrades anyone who isn’t white. To them, the ultimate Karen is the woman who was walking her dog this summer and called the cops on a black man who was merely bird watching.
I know which side I’m on. There is no way Nancy Pelosi is a Karen. She has fought hard for her power. It doesn’t come through privilege. It comes through determination, scrappiness, and political savvy. And if she uses that gavel or stares down Trump, well, good. He deserves everything she has thrown his way. In addition, I don’t agree that any liberal woman could be a Karen, because a liberal woman wouldn’t be trying to rob others of their power, she would be fighting to give others more power, even if she might be accidentally misguided in how she goes about it.
Yet, even if we can all agree that a true Karen is the abusive, “let me talk to your manager” type, I still take issue with some aspects of the Karen stereotype. First, there’s the haircut. What’s so wrong with an inverted bob? I’ve worn a subtle version of one for years. I don’t do the bangs or poof it out, but there’s not much I can do with my sorry, thin, white-woman limp hair, and the inverted bob has been my go-to style for decades. There’s not much I can change about my hair, and I don’t like being judged for it.
I also don’t like people telling Karen to “calm down.” It plays into the whole hysterical female trope. Now, to be clear, I don’t condone entitled women who toss around their privilege in an abusive way. However, I do have trouble with the term “Karen”, just in general. Putting aside the unfair persecution of an innocuous name, no matter how you see it, a “Karen” has to be female and she has to be in a position of power, and how dare a woman have power?
I’m not saying it’s okay for anyone to degrade someone else, or to take advantage of their privilege at the expense of other people. But there’s no equivalent term to Karen for white men. White men use and abuse their power and privilege all the time. Let’s face it; that’s ALL a lot of white men do. It’s expected. But nobody thinks twice about it so of course we’re not going to invent a way to mock them for it, or turn them into a meme or a stereotype.
But we should.
I once said as much to my husband, and he said that the male equivalent to Karen is Ken. I did a Google search and he’s right; though “Terry” and “Gregg” are other possibilities. But none have caught on in the way that “Karen” has. Call someone a “Ken” and maybe it stings a little, but only if they know what you’re talking about, which they probably won’t. And, while I hate to imply that having feminine qualities is somehow undesirable, the best way to insult a privileged, abusive white man is to attribute feminine qualities to him. Yeah. Call him a “Karen.” He’ll hate it.
So, which high profile white men are most deserving of being called a “Karen”? They’re the ones who get off on diminishing women. Here is an incomplete list:
Calling someone a Karen is an effective way of belittling a person who seeks to belittle others. Confining this sling to merely women has been the point all along, but it’s time to open things up and be equal opportunity. Guys can be Karens too.
I'm a high school English teacher and novelist. I love boots, chocolate cake, cooking spicy food, running, and BOOKS! I live in Minneapolis with my husband Rich, son Eli, daughter Pauline, our kittens, and guinea pigs. This blog is about life, love, and all things literary. Please follow me on Facebook and Twitter!