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We interrupt our regularly scheduled blogging to bring you this special commentary related to the coronavirus:

 

The coronavirus isn’t the first pandemic. It just feels that way, due in part to the 24/7 news cycle and social media.

 

So what are we to do with this, in this? Another perspective:

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Kimber here. Coming to you from my Purrell-slathered secret bunker. Laying atop my small mountain of T.P. Waiting for the world to end.

NOT!

But I am ready for winter to end!

I’m also waiting for another thing to be gone.

It seems like a lot of humans are freaking out over a virus thing-y. Maybe it’s the face masks?

Mom says be pro-active. Be responsible. But keep a level head. Don’t let fear and panic run your life.

I’m not.

In the meantime, if you’re stuck at home waiting for spring to show up, you might check out these titles (some of my favorites. Not that I’m biased or anything.)

1. Lassie Come Home, by Eric Knight

“First published in 1940, Lassie Come-Home has become a cultural phenomenon and one of the best-loved dog stories in the world, inspiring several movies and TV shows.”

2. Marley and Me, by John Grogan

The heartwarming international best seller about the world’s most loveable “worst” dog.

3. Big Red, by Jim Kjelgaard

Danny, a trapper’s son, knows more about the woods, trapping, and hunting than he does about the big city or dog shows, but when Red’s owner sees seventeen-year-old Danny’s love for the dog, he entrusts the boy with training the champion Irish Setter. A much-loved classic.”

4. Old Yeller, by Fred Gipson

Don’t make me explain this.

5. Kavick the Wolf Dog, by Walt Morey

When Andy Evans stumbles upon the snow-covered wreckage of a small plane, he’s shocked to find a survivor. Should he put the gravely injured dog out of his misery? The look in the animal’s eyes says he’s not ready to die. It turns out that Kävik’s a champion sled dog, and soon he makes a full recovery. When his rightful owner finds out Kävik is alive, he wants the dog back. But Kävik has other ideas.

6. Where The Red Fern Grows, Wilson Rawls

The beloved classic that captures the powerful bond between a boy and his best friends.

7. The Incredible Journey, Sheila Burnford

Two dogs and a cat and their journey home.

8. Because of Winn Dixie, Kate DiCamillo

Ten year old Opal goes to the supermarket – and comes home with a dog. But Winn-Dixie is no ordinary dog. It’s because of Winn-Dixie that Opal begins to make friends. And it’s because of Winn-Dixie that she finally dares to ask her father about her mother, who left when Opal was three. In fact, just about everything that happens that summer is because of Winn-Dixie.

9. Shiloh, Phyllis Naylor

Marty will do anything to save his new friend, Shiloh, in this Newberry Award-winning novel.

Wait. Do I smell spring?

What’s your favorite dog story?

Writing an annual Christmas letter is as seasonal as eggnog and mistletoe. Some Christmas letters have flair and panache. Others are like watching paint peel. How can you write a Christmas letter that’ll knock the socks of your family Saint Nick and make Rudolph’s nose dim?

Here are 12 tips for writing a killer Christmas letter:

1. Keep it short.

I’m talking one page. Preferrably just the front. The more loquacious you are, the less likely people are to read the whole thing.

People are busy, especially during the holidays. No one has time to read a Christmas epistle that’s a War and Peace wannabe. So keep it short and sweet.

2. Be yourself.

This may seem obvious. But it’s amazing how many people try to copy someone else’s style or voice. Don’t. People want to hear from you, not a clone.

3. If you include a photo, make sure you tie it in with the text of the letter. And caption it with the place, date, who’s featured and what they’re doing.

4. Mix it up.

If you used a first person narrative last year, try writing from another point of view. The kids? The dog? A neighbor?

5. Include humor.

Not everyone has an active funny bone. But most people like to laugh and enjoy some levity. Include some.

6. Choose a font that’s easy on the eyes.

I can’t tell you the number of times I gave up trying to read through fancy calligraphy or curliqued letters on steroids. It may look pretty. But if your type font is hard to read, few will.

Choose a standard font like Times Roman or Arial.

7. Handwrite the salutation and conclusion.

If you’re writing your letter on the computer and tucking it into an envelope, be sure to start it with, “Hello Bill and Marilyn” (or whatever). In handwriting.

Also hand write your conclusion and signature: “Merry Christmas from Jim and Eileen, Chad, Chloe, and Joey.”

It takes longer. But it’s more personal.

If you’re using an email delivery platform like Mail Chimp, you can customize the “To” field and do likewise.

8. Keep a list. Check it twice.

Staring at a blank piece of paper or screen and waiting for writing inspiration to strike can be intimidating. It’s helpful to keep a running list of key dates and events through the year.

If possible, jot them down real time. It’s a lot easier to just grab your list or review your calendar than it is trying to remember the last 11.5 months off the top of your head, without prompts.

9. Inclufe your contact info.

Make it easy for people to respond by including your address, email, phone, etc. In The Letter. You can do this in the footer of a Mail Chimp or in a regular email or hard copy letter.

10. Use white space generously

Resist the temptation to jam in as much copy as you can on a sheet of paper by cramming every available millimeter with type. It’s hard to read!

Instead, keep your paragraphs short. Indent for new paragraphs. Or better yet, double space between paragraphs.

Make sure margins are adequate. Choose Justify rather than ragged right for your right margin. It looks cleaner and more polished.

11. Put yourself in the recipient’s shoes.

What do you want to know? What will be of interest? Do I really care about your second cousin’s bunion surgery or the egg substitute you just discovered?

We all find ourselves fascinating. But try to write yiur update with an eye toward news that will resonate with and be interesting to your recipient(s). Think: What will my friends want to know about and what can they best relate to?

12. Draw the reader in.

This is key. It’s also rare, as most Christmas letters tend to be one-sided. Even self-centric.

Engage your reader by “pencilling in” a question specifically for them. How was vacation? The new job? Is Norbert coming home for Christmas?

You might also close with something like, “Please let us know what’s going on with you, too” or drawing attention to your contact contact info. so they can easily respond. (See above.)

If your budget allows, print up your letter on some Christmas-y stationery.

Well, that’s it. Now get those creative juices going and make this year’s Christmas letter the best ever!

The Winter Pony is a terribly sad story. It’s also a touching tribute to an unsung hero of the race for the South Pole in the early 1910s.

If you’re familiar with the epic race between the triumphant Norwegian, Roald Amundsen, and the bumbling dunderhead, Englishman Robert Falcon Scott, you know how the story ends. Lawrence adds a new twist. He tells the story of Scott’s ill-planned, ill-prepared and ill-fated polar expedition through the eyes of one of 19 ponies brought along on the expedition, a “plucky little animal” named James Pigg.

James Pigg (Pinterest). Was this plucky pony the REAL hero of the Scott expedition?

Pigg’s early life is a product of the author’s imagination. But many of the subsequent facts Pigg narrates regarding the Terra Nova’s voyage to the South Pole and the expedition itself are true.

 

It is likewise true that Scott was lauded as some kind of national demi-god for some 60 years after his arrogance and incompetence likely got himself, his men, and the ponies killed on the unforgiving ice. Meanwhile, Amundsen was seen as a scoundrel who had the bad manners to snatch the prize of First to the Pole from the more deserving, long-suffering British.

 

What hogwash.

 

That load of horse hooey was largely put to rest by Roland Huntford’s thoroughly documented, meticulously researched, The Last Place on Earth.

Lawrence alludes to Huntford’s work on page 242 of The Winter Pony. But he doesn’t name it. He doesn’t have to. I recognized it. I’ve read it.

 

In the same section, Lawrence makes the case that “Scott was nothing if not kind to his ponies.” The author believes that Scott’s “kindness” and his “reluctance to push the animals too hard in the first year of his expedition” wound up killing Scott (p 242).

 

Perhaps. A better argument would be that if Scott had Clue One and truly cared about the ponies, he wouldn’t have brought them to that God-forsaken icy wilderness in the first place.

 

Clearly, the South Place is no place for ponies. Not even for one as “plucky” or as big-hearted and sweet-tempered as old James Pigg.

 

The Winter Pony is a fresh look at an old tragedy from a unique point of view. It’s beautifully written. Compelling and engaging. At times it’s reminiscent of Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty. I read it cover-to-cover in half a day.

 

As sad as this story is, it’s good to know that the celestial points of navigation above Antarctica were recently named in honor of the ponies and dogs who served and died in man’s quest for the South Pole. It’s a fitting tribute to the animals who worked so hard and gave so much in the race to the last place on earth.

The Winter Pony is a sturdy story. Definitely a worthy read. You may want to bring tissue. And an extra blanket.

“Where in the world is Anaconda, Montana?” Mom asks me, peering over her reading glasses.

Do I look like an oracle?

“Wait…” She starts tapping away on the hand-held shiny thingy. Mumbles something about “Googling.”

“Looks like it’s in southwest Montana. Kind of near Butte.”

I have no clue what that means. Do you? Well, Mom’s smiling. She must be pleased with herself. So I’m pleased, too. Can you see my tail wagging?

“What’s up with Anaconda and Montana?” you ask. Well, ya, see, Mom just finished a book she’s been looking to re-read for a long, long time. Not a single library in our entire state carried it. She had to order it through Inter-Library Loan.  I don’t what that means. Sounds like a hassle.

Anyway, her long-looked-for book finally showed up. From one of those book places in Anaconda, Montana. I still don’t know what that means. But Mom finished all 247 pages of that book in one day. So it must’ve been good.

What was it? Oh. You mean the title? Spencer’s Mountain. Published in 1961. By Earl Hamner, Jr. You know, The Waltons guy. Only in this book, it’s not Walton’s Mountain. It’s Spencer’s Mountain. The family patriarch is Clay Spencer. His oldest son is Clay-Boy. Not John. And not John Boy.

But Mom really loves this story about a large family growing up poor in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. They made a movie out of it in 1963. With somebody called Henry Fonda as Clay Spencer. And another someone called Maureen O’Hara as Olivia Spencer, the mom. Some guy name “James MacArthur” plays Clay Boy.

“The movie closely parallels the book,” observes Mom. Even including the Rockfish River, Hickory Creek, and Charlottesville. Of course, the names of all the children are different than in the TV Waltons. But that’s another story.

Speaking of stories, have you ordered your copy of Mom’s latest book? It’s a little bit like this Spencer thing: The Small Things: What ‘The Waltons’ Taught Me About Writing & More.

Find out more at Shushes, Small Things & Plain Vanilla.

Arf! Arf!

Reposting from 2018 in honor of Derby Day and the 145th Run for the Roses!

***

“Inevitable.” Isn’t that a great word? Learned it from Mom the other day. As in, the 144st annual Run for the Roses is coming up on May 5. So debates about who was the Greatest Thoroughbred of All Time are… inevitable.

Or so I’m told.

A few other things I learned:

The “Run for the Roses” is also known as The Kentucky Derby. The Derby is always run on the first Saturday in May. It’s the first jewel in the Triple Crown of Thoroughbred horse racing.

Why do I care about Thoroughbred racing? Well, I don’t. Not really. But Mom does!

She’s been reading a Walter Farley book about one of the greatest champions to ever set hooves on a race track: Man O’War. Along with legendary Triple Crown winner Secretariat, Man O’War is a top contender for Greatest Thoroughbred of All Time honors.

Back to the Farley book.

Man O’War’s remarkable life unfolds through the eyes of fictional stable boy Danny Ryan. Mom says the story is nearly as powerful and compelling as the great Thoroughbred himself. I’m not sure what the means. But it sounds good.

Here’s Mom’s review of Farley’s Man O’ War.

So when Kentucky Derby time rolls around each May, the comparisons between Man O’ War and another great champion, Triple Crown Winner (1973) Secretariat, are inevitable. At least according to Mom. Which horse gets the nod for Horse of the Century? Depends on who you ask. And what day it is.

Both possessed blinding speed. Both ran challengers off their feet. Both broke records. Both have great stories.

So whether your vote for The Greatest goes to Secretariat or Man O-War, a few things are for sure:

1) May is the perfect month for awesome horse stories!

2) Any story by Walter Farley is a great story. Inevitably.

3) Churchill Downs promises another great Run for the Roses this Saturday. (“Run for the noses”? I always kinda thought that was when Mom calls me in for dinner. But I may be wrong about that.)

4) One of the finest athletes to ever set hooves on a race track, Man O’War remains a Champion for the Ages. Just like Walter Farley.

Is it dinner time yet?

Update – May 5: Congratulations to the 2018 Kentucky Derby winner, Justify!

Shhhh!

I’ve heard this a lot lately. Mom’s been working on a project. She calls it The Story. She’s spent like a million years at her keyboard working on it. Or maybe it’s only been 20 minutes?

Anyway, The Story is finally finished. Here it is! (Can I bark now? Like, real loud? Cuz this is like a big bark-worthy thing here, ya know?!)

Find out more at: The Small Things: What ‘The Waltons’ Taught Me About Writing & More.

Here’s one of my favorite parts. Near the end:

High above the river a bald eagle soars in slow circles. Dropping like a stone, the majestic raptor glides low over the water, talons out, and spears a fish. Great wings beating, he climbs to the nearest conifer to tear and eat. Northwest clouds cough out a cold chorus as sable night seeps over the Olympic Mountains.

Night rings down the curtain on day. Ideas roll around in my head like lost pennies. Small things like eucalyptus trees. A Michigan dairy farm. Guitar lessons. A first love. Girl’s chorus and my first creative writing teacher. Lunches and lagoons. Summer adventures and sheer stupidity. Time is like a penny. Life stories that don’t always go the way we planned. Clark Park, to which I’ve never returned….

… Peering out the window at a rising moon, I give thanks for family, friends, and a roof over my head. I recall A.J. Covington’s advice to a fledgling Walton writer and pad back to my keyboard. I can’t help but smile. You were right, Doc. You were right, indeed.

Mom says, “Sometimes even ‘plain vanilla’ has flavor.”

You’ll get that if you get The Story. Woof!

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