Sunday, December 2, 2012

Bra Rage

OK, so I know the internet is overflowing with women ranting about incorrect bra sizing recommendations and how they've all been properly measured and are really a 30F instead of the 34B they've been wearing their entire lives and lamenting the difficulties of finding bras in their proper sizes and actually being able to afford such things and it really doesn't need another.

But seriously, y'all, bra measurement today is ridiculous.  Everyone is just going around reprinting the same sizing instructions that they've always encountered everywhere else without even stopping to envision what that would mean.  They're certainly not manufacturing bras that fit their own measurement guidelines.

Oft-cited "oh, it's as easy as 1, 2, 3" bra measurement advice:  measure around your ribcage at or just below where your bra band sits.  Add five inches to that (and then also round up if you get an odd number) to get your band size.  Measure around your bust at the fullest point.  Subtract your band size from your bust measurement, and if it's a one-inch difference, you're an A; two, a B; three, a C; and so forth.  (No difference or a very small difference would be a AA.)

Except how does this work in real life?  Unless you have more than a five-inch difference between your ribcage measurement and your bust measurement, you should be wearing...a negative cup size?  And even then, if you have seven inches of difference, you're a mere B cup?

Huh, anyone think this could possibly have anything at all to do with the oft-touted "studies" (read:  likely entirely mythical, like the eight glasses of water a day thing) that inform us that 50/70/80/85% of women are wearing the wrong size bra?!  (How insulting can you get?  Women!  You can't even follow a simple three-step measuring process (that leaves you with nonsensical results and has nothing in common with the bras actually sold in the real world)!)  The only actual study I ran across was this, which I'm not going to pay $31.50 to read, but whose abstract claims that 100% of the women (admittedly a biased sample since it was women seeking breast-reduction surgery) were wearing the incorrect bra size "when compared with manufacturers' fitting guidelines."

Oh, manufacturers' fitting guidelines?  How funny you should mention...

My adventure started out on the Champion website (this whole thing was sparked by my merely needing a real sports bra that doesn't come from Old Navy).  "Fit matters," their sizing guide advises.  (Just not enough for us to put accurate information on our website...)  Sure enough, "Measure snugly and evenly around or just below your existing band.  Add 5 to that measurement and round up to the next even number.  This measurement is your band size.  To double-check your band size, measure around your torso below your armpits.  If this measurement is close to the band measurement, then your measurements are accurate.  Measure loosely around the fullest part of your bust, keeping the tape even.  Subtract the band size from the bust size.  The difference between the two measurements is your cup size.  (See chart.)  Test fit with your athletic motion.  Imitate the intended activity to check fit and support."  (The chart in fact shows the normal 1"=A, 2"=B progression -- the one thing the entire internet can agree on, apparently.)

OK, my rib cage measures 30.5".  My bust, 34.5".  Over my bust, 33".

So let's see, 30.5 + 5 = 35.5, and then round up to an even 36
34.5 - 36 = -1.5  (depending on how one is supposed to round the bust size, that's a -1 to -2)
So, a 36 negative A to negative B.  Awesome, because that's totally a real size.  (How nice of them to tell me to compare it to my over-bust measurement for accuracy.  Well, no, it's not close so is probably inaccurate.  Except, you know, that's my actual measurements, so what are you going to do?)

Well, let's try Victoria's Secret.  Their "how to measure" guide recommends measuring above your bust to get your band number and ignoring your rib cage entirely:  "Hold the tape measure around your back at band level.  Then bring it to the front, just above your bust.  The resulting number is your band size.
Hint:  If the number is odd, round down to the closest even number."  (Ooh, rounding down.  This shows promise.)  If your bust measurement is a half-inch, they advise rounding that up.

So for VS:
34.5 rounds up to 35
35 - 33 = B

Gap, where I actually purchase my basic bras (in size 34C, though I actually do think it's quite likely that's the wrong size, but they at least fit on my body and contain my breasts), gives you the option of going up or down, which I appreciate:  "Because standard band sizes are even numbers only, if you have an odd-numbered band size, you may need to go up or down a size depending on how you like your bra to fit."  They stick with the +5 band size and also advise you can "double check your band size by measuring loosely around your back, even with your bra line, bringing the tape to the front just above your bra line" (but with, again, no recommendation on what to do if this is vastly different...which, you know, it is, except for people who happen to fall exactly in the range of having a volume of breast that bumps that measurement to exactly five inches more than the rib measurement).

So again, 36 negative A-B.  Or if I go with the over-bust measurement, 32B-C or 34AA-A, depending on which way I round each measurement.  (It occurs to me that regardless of how one has to round to get to a band size that's sold, one should probably compare the actual measurements of the one with the actual measurements of the other when determining cup size.  Not that anyone recommends that.  So, let's see, a 1" difference between overbust and bust, so a 32 or 34A?  Never mind.  Or using the ribcage measurements, that's a difference of four inches, which would be a D.  But certainly not a 36D, right?)

Old Navy has the same info as Gap but in a different format, while Athleta has the same except specifies to round down for the band and up for the bust.  So a 30D?

Maidenform has this to say:  "Most women measure their ribcage under their breasts to get their band measurement. [notice their complete lack of ownership of your results; "most women" also wear the wrong size bra...]  Double check this measurement by wrapping a tape measure snugly around your back, under your arms and across the top of your chest above your breasts. Because your ribcage expands and contracts as you breathe, taking both measurements will help you find your most comfortable fit." As this is under the heading "Band Measurement" and there is no follow-up, dare I assume we're not adding anything to anything?  This shows promise.  Except there's also no hints on rounding, and 30.5 either rounds down to 30 or up to 32, which isn't quite even...  So, let's see, a 30D-DD if I round the rib measurement down, a 32 B-C if I round up (or 32D if I determine my cup size before doing any rounding), or a 32B-C or 34A-B going from the above-bust measurement.  Well, that's basically every size possible, now, isn't it?  But then there's also a sizing conversion chart included that lists under-bust measurements of 30-31 inches corresponding to above-bust measurements of 36-41 inches, which correspond respectively to 36AA to 36DD.  I assume this is just pasted in from elsewhere and doesn't actually reflect their bra sizing philosophy (it seems to align more or less with the +5 measurement style).

Calvin Klein, another retailer from which I have personally worn multiple bras (though again, likely ill-fitting ones, as they simultaneously ride up in the back and bulge breast tissue over the cups in the armpit area, but if I sized down the band and up the cup like I've heard most of us should do (and would agree with), that would leave me wearing a 32 D or DD, the former of which still leaves breast tissue in my armpits and the latter of which doesn't exist, because heaven knows nobody is allowed to be a DD unless they have the large band size to match (40DD, say) or are a porn star (who apparently deserve not to have well-fitting bras either, the hussies; that'll teach them)) starts to sound vaguely like how I would recommend measuring for a bra, based on what size bras have historically fit me.  "Wrap a measuring tape closely around the rib cage, just below the breasts.  If this calculation results in an odd number, round up to the next even number. this number is the band size."  So a 32C-D.

Playtex has a video about fit, presumably as an attempt to attract younger women, but this younger woman is a text-and-chart kind of gal, so we're not off to a terribly good start.  (Also, the woman does a lot of shimmying and looking terribly proud about everything.  And says "the girls" in the most incredibly ridiculous wink-wink kind of way.  I'm sorry, I am not in possession of girls; I have breasts.  That you are supposed to be teaching me how to fit appropriately.)  They hedge a whole lot, with the text preceding the video warning, "Most women wear the wrong size. Are you one of them? It's always best to get a professional fitting, but here's a guide to measure yourself. We know how important the right fit is and that it’s specific to every woman, so remember that this video is just one way to measure yourself and get started."  Then Ms. Shimmy-Shimmy in the actual video recommends that you schedule an annual bra-fitting appointment just like you would a doctor's visit, but then says, "It's always tougher to measure yourself, but if you want to try at home, here are some tips to help you."  I'm pretty sure the measuring oneself is not what is the tough part of this whole process, as I imagine we've all come to see by now...

At any rate, rib plus 5 (and then round up if necessary to get an even number) unless 38 or more, in which case add 3.  Double-check by measuring above (round up to even, but no adding).  This puts me again at the tiresome 36 negative something-or-other cup size.  It's also amusing that there's a sharp line at 38, which leaves a 35.5" ribcage and a 38" ribcage wearing the same 42 band size.

A variety of oh-so-helpful online bra calculators churn out the following sizes (respectively):  36A, 34D, 34B, or 34D ("Note: many bra manufacturers, especially in the US, will add four, five, or even six inches to the band size."  No they won't, they'll just tell you they are and then look at you like you're insane when you could shove an extra person into your bra band with you.).

Then there are the bra calculators from people who appear to be aware of all these crazy problems (by which I mean linked to by or embedded in blog posts by the aforementioned enraged internet denizens)  and do something akin to measuring your ribcage, measuring your bust, calculating your cup size from the difference, and then finding a band that seems appropriate (this is actually much easier and much more in line with actual bras; why do women's magazines and manufacturers cling to their varied and silly ways?), which would put me at (respectively) 30DD, 30DD-E (if I want a "very snugly"-fitting band) or 32D ("moderately snugly"), 30C ("Please note that we do not use the plus 4 method, so this calculator may not be suitable for women up to a C cup."  Funny, I thought this adding-extra-inches-everywhere method (though five everywhere I actually saw, it's frequently referred to as "plus-four") was least likely to work for people up to a C cup...), or anywhere from 32C to 32B to 34AA to 34A depending on how I round each half-inch.

Oh, that cleared up everything.  I can wear a 30C-E, 32B-D, 34AA-D, or 36 from negative cup sizes through an A.  (It's especially worth pointing out that nowhere (at least not these manufacturers!) actually carries 30" bands in cup sizes over B, 32 in over a C, 34 in less than an A, or 36 in less than a B.)

It's especially interesting that most of these manufacturers or sites explain how to determine poor fit -- the band shouldn't ride up (too big), breast tissue shouldn't spill over (cup too small) or gape (cup too big), straps shouldn't fall down (cup too large) or cut into your shoulders (cup too small, I assume).  Combining any manufacturer's sizing guidelines with their fitting guidelines leaves one entirely throwing one or the other out the window.  As I said before, CK and Gap bras more or less fit at 34 C but their bands ride up (especially when they stretch) and there's tissue spillage.  So I should go down to a 32" band and up to a D to find the proper "sister size" (a 34C and 32D and 36B theoretically all permit the same volume of breast tissue; since cup size is dependent on band size it's not an absolute measure of anything on its own).  Then, assuming the 32D does actually fit my breasts themselves the same as the 34C, I should go up another size to eliminate the spillage issue.  This puts me at a 32DD, which neither manufacturer carries.  A 32D doesn't fit in either (pushes half my breast out my armpit), nor does a 34D (simultaneously leaves me with armpit boob and front cup gapping).

The internet community of women who care about these things loudly encourages everyone to get a professional bra fitting (not at a department store, where it will be more of this +5 nonsense and/or advising you they don't carry your size) and then special order bras (by the truckload--preferably from England--since every manufacturer differs).  Which is absolutely insane, given that I'm actually perfectly normal and average body and chest size.  I should not need to special order undergarments unless they are actually building them bespoke.  Bra companies are simultaneously completely failing to provide bras for large women (which we all knew, I think, given that I have never in my life seen a bra in a store with a cup size larger than DD, and I'm not sure I've seen any band sizes over 42), small women, medium women, and anyone else.  What with sister sizing, there is a terribly narrow range of actual breast proportions that are acceptable.  (If 32D = 34C = 36B = 38A, you can really only have about one cup size's worth of variation before you run out of appropriate band sizes on either end even if you're a smallish to mediumish band size to start.)

So yeah.  I feel like I should spend today trying on every single bra the Victoria's Secret in my mall has and then yell at them about how their sizing chart doesn't reflect reality (even though that gets closer to a bra size I would actually wear, I know from experience the bra sizes they recommend for me aren't the size of their brand of bras that actually fits me) and then dissolving into tears while throwing bras across the store.  Or taking fitting-room pictures of me wearing the size bras manufacturers recommend and sending them to them with "???!!!!" captions.  Or going up to hapless sales clerks and asking them whether they think I'm a 36 negative-A or 36 negative-B, because I'm between sizes, you see, and don't know which way to go.

Instead I'm likely going to just keep wearing my crappy Old Navy sports bras (size:  medium) and stretched-to-hell ill-fitting underwires.  So keep the sanctimonious moralizing to yourself, cheery women's magazines citing astonishing "studies" of huge percentages of women who don't know how to even fit themselves for a bra. Those who do know how to fit themselves can't find bras to wear, and those who don't have a good freaking reason.  (Isn't capitalism supposed to solve these problems?!)

Or, you know, I'll actually turn into a bra burning feminist.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Little House part 3: Almanzo

I don't remember especially noticing this or thinking about how it might have affected their married life previously, but what struck me the most in Farmer Boy was how much more money, and especially food, Almanzo's family had than Laura's. A lot of the Little House books include the Ingallses stretching food, worrying about the lack of animals to be hunted, having bad crops, etc. After the grasshoppers, Pa has to walk East for days on boots that hardly still had any structural integrity at all. There's near-constant sacrifice and saving and frequent disaster. But Almanzo doesn't have these worries. His father is repeatedly referred to as one of the most important men in town, someone whom everyone respects and a leader in the community. The list of their livestock is quite lengthy. And the food Almanzo eats! One unremarkable dinner:
Almanzo ate the sweet, mellow baked beans. He ate the bit of salt pork that melted like cream in his mouth. He ate mealy boiled potatoes, with brown ham-gravy. He ate the ham. he bit deep into velvety bread spread with sleek butter, and he ate the crisp golden crust. He demolished a tall heap of pale mashed turnips, and a hill of stewed yellow pumpkin. Then he sighed, and tucked his napkin deeper into the neckband of his red waist. And he ate plum preserves, and strawberry jam, and grape jelly, and spiced watermelon-rind pickles. He felt very comfortable inside. Slowly he hate a large piece of pumpkin pie.
And then after dinner the family makes popcorn and he eats that with apple cider! Then at breakfast the next morning:
There was oatmeal with plenty of thick cream and maple sugar. There were fried potatoes, and the golden buckwheat cakes, as many as Almanzo wanted to eat, with sausages and gravy or with butter and maple syrup. There were preserves and jams and jellies and doughnuts. But best of all Almanzo liked the spicy apple pie, with its thick, rich juice, and its crumbly crust. He ate two big wedges of the pie.
One afternoon when he's out sledding he comes in "several times" for apples, doughnuts, and cookies. There is just so much food and so much eating, and nobody seems to mind if he eats constantly, without asking, or whether it's mealtime or not. (Incidentally, I like this paragraph about the doughnuts his mother made: "They rolled over, Mother said, because they were twisted. Some women made a new-fangled shape, round, with a hole in the middle. But round doughnuts wouldn't turn themselves over. Mother didn't have time to waste turning doughnuts; it was quicker to twist them." When I was eight, this blew my mind!)

Aside from the abundance of food, there's the two-story house with the fancy parlor (white and gold wallpaper, marble table, haircloth sofa, fine china, fancy knick-knacks), and a much bigger percentage of what the Wilders have and wear is store-bought. They get $200 (apparently fairly regularly) for selling a team of horses, and at the end Father even gives nine-year-old Almanzo his prize colt to train and then sell and keep the money! (Of course, this is basically a bribe to keep him interested in being a farmer instead of a merchant like his brother plans to. But still, hundreds of dollars to a nine-year-old in the nineteenth century?!)

The next time Almanzo appears is once Laura and her family are living in De Smet. He and his brother have claims and a store in town. Laura only seems to know who he is because of his beautiful horses, and they probably never would have gotten married without her desire to ride behind them as the catalyst. What I really don't understand is why Laura Ingalls Wilder felt the need to make him younger in the books. In reality, they were ten years apart, and the way she relates to him up until well into their courting seems to fit with this; she always sees him as a friend of Pa's, as a grown man, as "Mr. Wilder," while Cap, who is "actually" the same age as Almanzo, is a school friend in her own class (though apparently still four or five years older; as I mentioned before, education was a little off). Especially since closing the gap involves requiring Almanzo to lie about his age ("You can put me down as 21"), to explain how he had a claim of his own when he was "really" only 18.

During the Long Winter (seven months of blizzards during which most of the town nearly starved and/or froze to death), Almanzo and Cap were the ones who ventured out south of town to chase down the rumored farmer and his stockpiled seed wheat to live off until the trains can come through in the spring. This was widely seen as heroic, but it rubs me a little wrong. Early on in the winter, Almanzo, who has seed wheat of his own, builds a false wall in the living area behind the his brother's store and pours his wheat in so nobody will know he has it and try to buy it. (Since the trains aren't coming through, he won't be able to buy seed wheat before after he'll need to have planted it and will miss a whole year getting his claim established.) At some point he calculates that even if he were to be generous and sell it all off as food, everyone would likely still starve before spring, which is I guess supposed to make you feel like he's not being a totally selfish jerk (he and Royal still have plenty of food, apparently; they're constantly eating bacon and pancakes even once everyone else is down to nearly nothing), but I'm not sure I buy it. During the negotiations with the farmer south of town when they find him (who is reluctant to sell his wheat for the exact same reasons as Almanzo), he strongarms him with the same arguments Royal and Mr. Ingalls have been using on him: "A man can always buy seed. Most folks out here are going to. You're throwing away a clear profit of eighteen cents a bushel above market price, Mr. Anderson." I think I'd feel better if Almanzo had been more willing to sell a portion of his wheat and thus not push the entire burden onto Mr. Anderson.

Laura and Almanzo's courtship is kind of strange. He starts out giving her rides back home from the country school she's teaching at, but when a friend teases her that he's "beauing" her, Laura says (and apparently actually thinks) "Oh, no! He isn't![...] He came for me as a favor to Pa." She even tells him at some point that he mustn't think he's getting anything out of it because she's only riding with him to get home (but then after she's home for good and everyone else is having such a grand time sleigh riding and he stops by to see if she wants to go, she forgets and says yes). But it really does seem almost throughout their whole courtship that the horses are the driving force. Almanzo basically isn't a character at all; he's just a man. Even once they're going on regular buggy rides every Sunday and then to singing school, their time together is focused on breaking his colts. Once they're engaged Ma says as much: "Sometimes I think it's the horses you care for, more than their master." (But "Laura knew they understood what she was too shy to say." Which is nice and all, but the reader doesn't really see that.) Later Mary asks if she really has to get married and leave "to marry that Wilder boy," and Laura's a little more open: "He isn't that Wilder boy anymore, Mary. he is Almanzo[....]I guess it's just because we seem to belong together." (But why? She doesn't want to live the hard life of a farmer and his wife and they have to drive a bargain that she'll give him three years (later another's tacked on) to make a decent life or he has to move on and do something else.)

The First Four Years really confuses me. It doesn't seem to fit in with the rest of the series in the slightest; in fact, it wasn't written until a decade or so after the other books were published, and it wasn't published until 1971, after her death, when it was found among her papers. But it seems incomplete. It's very short, and while the structure is all there (though rather awkwardly: "It was the twenty-fifth of August. And the winter and the summer were the first year."), there are very few anecdotes filling in. The house Manly (as he's now called) built is described in detail, and their getting settled, and a bit is mentioned about her pregnancies and the birth of Rose (and the son who died almost immediately) and some about their dog, the rides they go on, and her helping Manly in the fields sometimes, but it's very skimpy. (Speaking of the pregnancy, this struck me as rather odd this time through: she had very bad nausea throughout her pregnancy, so "As she went so miserably about her work she would smile wryly now and then as she remembered a saying of her mother's: 'They that dance must pay the fiddler.' Well, she was paying." Oblique, yes, but I still find that a rather risque thing to say, especially since she was so incredibly circumspect about their entire relationship through the courtship.

But most of all, this book is just depressing. Manly is in debt on the house, he goes into debt to buy a pair of horses and a new stove and various new-fangled farm implements, continually asserting that "just one crop" will make everything right and they'll pay for themselves. But crop after crop fails (a dry year, then a horrible hailstorm right before harvest time), and then the house burns down. And that's basically where the book ends! From what I've read of her life, the rest of their time together wasn't so bad, but this book is just so tiring. Basically half of it is Laura doing the calculations in her head of the payments and the interest and how much they owe and what price they'll need to get to be in a good place going into the next year. And then it doesn't even work out.

But going back to the beginning, I wonder if the difference in their stations growing up had anything to do with this. Throughout the whole series it seems everyone is entirely averse to debt (well, except that one time Pa does basically the same thing with building the house before the crop comes in and then the grasshoppers destroy it so it never does) and that the whole ethic is working hard and being self-sufficient and beholden to no one. But maybe because Manly had never lived through rough times (at least, not that we're privy to; even during the Long Winter he and Royal are flush) and his family always had quite the cushion, he was a little cocky and never considered that things could not work out well for him even if he worked hard and did everything right.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Little House part 2

It's weird how my conception of this series is always just the first couple of books, and then I apparently forget that the last five books are all set in the same place, no pioneering really involved, settled down with/in a town, and suddenly shifting largely to buying things and less to making them.

After the break in Laura's childhood to tell a brief segment of her future husband's story in Farmer Boy, On the Banks of Plum Creek picks up rather seamlessly, which is why the abruptness at the beginning of On the Shores of Silver Lake is so disorienting. For no real reason the story skips several years (Laura goes from eight to "nearly thirteen"), picking up with the last few days on Plum Creek and spending a mere seven pages briefly mentioning everything major that had happened (surprise, everything's awful now, there's no food, everyone had scarlet fever, Mary's blind now, Laura's brother was stillborn, though that's not mentioned, and oh, here's another sister) as the sudden decision to take off for the Dakota Territories is made. (Even Jack the brindle bulldog's death gets nearly the next full chapter!)

It's a little strange to me how suddenly the Laura-and-Mary duo gives way to the Laura-and-Carrie one. Carrie's suddenly old enough to be a "real sister," as Laura puts it, and Mary's blindness means she won't be out and about, going to school and such with Laura.

The treatment of Mary's blindness has always made me feel uncomfortable. It may be exactly like it happened in real life (obviously being blind on the nineteenth-century prairie and in twenty-first century cities is very different), but it's still just weird. Mary is of course "patient and brave" and then repeatedly "gentle" and nearly quits being a character for a while. The incessant repetition that Laura "must be eyes for Mary" gets old, and it seems like literary cheating to suddenly replace normal narrator's description with Laura's "see[ing] out loud" of the scenery and the people. (It's particularly strange since both narrators are the same person, so the shift in voice seems rather affected and not significantly different except for added interjections: "and, oh, Mary! the brightest red velvet hat...") It's also a little smug-seeming foreshadowing that Laura chafes at Mary's insistence that her poetic descriptions aren't literally accurate. See, adult Laura seems to say, I was always meant to be an author! (Although she pooh-poohed the idea later on when Mary suggests Laura might fulfill that dream of Mary's as well.) Then there are several occasions where Mary is terribly satisfied with herself that she can sew just as well as Laura despite not being able to see and that she doesn't need the lamp to see to sew by at night like Laura does.

I really wonder if there were truly so many serendipitous re-meetings with old friends and family (and enemies) in Laura's life or if some of those were forced by her rejiggering her life story at the beginning to reduce the number of moves. It seems incredible that Mr. Edwards would reappear so many times (especially that once to fight off a man who wanted the same claim Pa was filing for), Cousin Alice would pop in, Reverend Alden pops by, the Boasts would conveniently appear out of nowhere for Christmas, Aunt Docia arrives to encourage them to make the move to the Dakotas with her, Uncle Tom appears, and Nellie Oleson would show up at school in DeSmet after being left behind at Plum Creek. I'm sure I'm missing a few. I suppose many of those, at least the family ones, could have been precipitated through a series of letters, so at least it was known where they were (though the parents still seem as surprised as Laura), but it seems almost ridiculous, like in Forrest Gump (the book) where every time he turns around he's running into one of the same like three characters from his earlier days.

I've never really enjoyed how much of especially the later books is filled with the songs Pa plays on his fiddle or that they sing in church or elsewhere. I've always found that when only the text of the songs is included and the reader doesn't know the tune, it's just boring filler. I'm sure some of Laura's happiest memories are Pa's playing the fiddle at night, but I think I would be better able to feel that if she didn't feel the need to write in the specific songs. It seems she tries particularly to put in songs where their lyrics further the story (though maybe that's a reflection of Pa; Almanzo later tells Laura, "Your songs are like your father's! They always fit!"), but for me at least, that only works when I too know the song.

Similarly, the later books have rather a few more moments where Laura's political or religious beliefs impinge. (Incidentally, did you know her daughter Rose was instrumental in the formation of the libertarian party?) I've always preferred to skim over the annoying preachy bits of, say, The Chronicles of Narnia and felt especially impatient with them in those terrible Janette Oke books I used to read, finding that they disrupted the actual story. (Sure, the author probably feels that they are the actual story, but they need to do a better job with the integration of it and not just hit pause and preach for a few paragraphs.) One Fourth of July, Laura has the realization, "God is America's king." (Blech.) "The laws of Nature and of Nature's God endow you with a right to life and liberty. Then you have to keep the laws of God, for God's law is the only thing that gives you a right to be free." If you say so. Laura and Mary also have a little chat on one of their walks before Mary goes off to college, which in one way I love because Mary admits that when they were younger and Laura hated how good she was, that she wasn't really being good: "I wasn't really wanting to be good. I was showing off to myself, what a good little girl I was, and being vain and proud, and I deserved to be slapped for it." ("Laura was shocked. Then suddenly she felt that she had known that, all the time"!). But then somehow Mary is "sure [that God is good] in some special way" (because of her blindness, of course). Oh, Barbara Ehrenreich would have something to say about that! (Read Brightsided.)

The politics of everyone are rather more visible in these books since they're largely centered on everyone's claims. I need to do some more thorough research about the Homestead Act, I suppose, since pretty much everything I know comes from these books, and that's unacceptable. And then in The First Four Years, Laura and Manly buy half a flock of sheep from a neighbor who, as a staunch Republican, "was sure the country would be ruined" if the Democrats won as expected, meaning, apparently, homegrown wool would lose its advantage if the tariff were removed; this apparently didn't happen, though, as the Wilders turned a profit later. (This is confusing me, since it would have to be the 1988 election (three years after their marriage), but a Democrat (Cleveland) was already in office!) I'm generally uncomfortable with everyone's attitudes towards their claims (Pa's view of it as a bet against Uncle Sam seems most spot-on). But earlier, Pa had made a case for taking a claim to make up for the one the government kicked them off in Oklahoma. Um, not so much. Similarly, Uncle Tom told a story of being laid siege to by a bunch of Indians while off prospecting for gold, and escaping into the arms of what they thought would be rescuing soldiers but in fact turned out to be arresting soldiers. Because, you see, that was still Indian territory ("strictly speaking"). But they all seemed put out that the government would dare prevent intrepid fortune-seeking young men from seeking their fortune on land that wasn't even theirs. (Pa: "I'll be durned if I could have taken it. Not without some kind of scrap.")

One thing I think as an adult that I never thought about as a child was that I really don't think Laura liked her mother much at all. Ma is barely a character through the first half of the series at least (potentially the whole way through), and it's evident Laura prefers Pa. Part of this is just that she would rather be outside than in, rather helping with the haying than with the housework, and that, I assume, she sees Ma as a civilizing force to be resisted, always making her modulate her voice ("'Her voice was ever soft, gentle, and low, an excellent thing in woman.'") or behave in more ladylike fashion (Constant reprimanding her to put on her sunbonnet, which inhibited her view, or she'd be "brown as an Indian.") and sew neverending small, smooth stitches (luckily Mary regained her sewing ability after a time). Ma hates Indians, resists moving west, wants to remain in settled lands, while Laura, like Pa, wants to wander further and see more. I think Laura probably started feeling better about Ma about the time Mary left for college: "Laura had never before known that Ma hated sewing. Her gentle face did not show it now, and her voice was never exasperated. But her patience was so tight around her mouth that Laura knew she hated sewing as much as Laura did." And Ma starts actually saying things and being a character, though still a rather dull one. (She did put her foot down once, though, and tell Pa he absolutely was not permitted to be the one to go out in search of the rumored wheat south of town and risk getting caught in a blizzard, surprising everyone with her fieriness.) Laura seems to actually care what Ma thinks by this point, sometimes citing Ma's sayings to herself as rationalization for something. ("Least said, soonest mended," "There's no great loss without some small gain.") And after coming home from her first teaching job, which left her boarding in a terrible situation with a sullen, unhappy family (the woman of which seemed certifiably crazy), Laura is so happy to be at home with her own family that I think she finally appreciates Ma, having until then taken her largely for granted as a permanent, featureless background presence.

Education in these times/places is terribly confusing to me. Laura and Mary didn't start attending school until I think they were seven and eight (I keep getting confused because I think there's only one instance before Laura reaches age 15 that anyone's age is stated straight out; generally they're nearly thirteen or almost nine or something), and Ma and Pa apparently made a bargain that they would stay in civilized lands where they could continue their schooling, despite the fact Ma had been a schoolteacher and could well have taught them at home before this. She teaches them that winter when there's too much snow to go to school, and later on Laura and Carrie do lessons at home in DeSmet, both before there is a school and during bad blizzardy weather during the winters. Yet somehow, despite spotty school attendance and not a lot of years at that, Laura becomes a schoolteacher at age 15! (This description is from Wisconsin schools but seems to roughly fit with Laura's experience and explains a little bit of the difference between first-, second-, and third-grade certificates that were introduced without any context in the books.) Though legally one had to be 16 to teach, Laura was offered a position at a small nearby school ("'Now Laura,' Mr. Boast said to her earnestly, 'there is no need to tell your age unless someone asks you.'") teaching five pupils, three of whom were older than herself, for one term before returning to her own schooling back in town the next term! Then that summer she teaches three small children at another small country school and returns again to the town school again herself. She sits for the teacher examination (a real one this time rather than just the superintendent asking her questions in her sitting room) and gets a second-grade certificate to replace her third-grade one from before and goes off to teach once more before getting married. On the last day of her classes, when her teacher discovers she won't be returning, he says, "I'm sorry[...]Not sorry you are going to be married, but sorry I didn't graduate you this spring. I held you back because I...because I had a foolish pride; I wanted to graduate the whole class together, and some weren't ready. it was not fair to you. I'm sorry." (Laura doesn't care: "It doesn't matter[...]I am glad to know I could have graduated.") It's just weird how totally obsessed they are with schooling at some points and then how little they care at others. When the man is coming to test Laura for the first certificate, Carrie and Ma have the following exchange (which only seems relevant as related to Laura's certificate; at no other point does Ma correct anyone's grammar or does anyone but Pa or whoever the baby is currently speak less than properly):

It was only a moment before Carrie exclaimed, "That's him now"
"'This is he,'" Ma said almost sharply.
"That's he coming It don't sound right, Ma"
"'Doesn't sound right,'" said Ma.
"Right straight across from Fuller's Hardware!" cried Carrie.

Even though the requirements to teach school seem rather lax, the school exhibition (which actually prompted Laura's being offered the first teaching job by virtue of the amazing job she did in it) is entirely impressive. Pupils of every age recited poems and speeches, and Laura and her friend Ida gave a recitation of all of American history from Columbus to present (Rutherford B. Hayes) that, from the part reproduced, seemed rather detailed. In addition, they had to do long division (well, she calls it "short division," but I'm not sure what she considers long, then) in their heads (but aloud, which to me would be the hard part): "Divide 347,264 by 16. Sixteen into 34 goes twice, put down 2 and carry 2; sixteen into 27 goes seven times, put down 7 and carry naught; sixteen into 6 does not go, put down naught; sixteen into 64 goes 4 times, put down 4. Three hundred and forty-seven thousand, two hundred and sixty-four divided by sixteen equalstwenty-one thousand, seven hundred and four." They also had to "parse" sentences, which from her later examination seems rather insane (stupid to require someone to do but reflecting a deeper understanding of language and grammar than we certainly require, at least):

Scaling yonder peak, I saw an eagle
Wheeling near its brow.
"'I' is the personal pronoun, first person singular, here used as the subject of the verb 'saw,' past tense of the transitive verb 'to see.' 'Saw' takes as its object the common generic noun, 'eagle,' modified by the single article, 'an.' 'Scaling yonder peak' is a participial phrase, adjunct of the pronoun, 'I,' hence adjectival. 'Wheeling' is the present participle of the intransitive verb, 'to wheel,' here used as adjunct to the noun, 'eagle,' hence adjectival. 'Near its brown' is a prepositional phrase, adjunct of the present participle of the verb 'to wheel,' hence adverbial."
So Laura can do this at the same time Carrie is being corrected for saying "That don't sound right"? (Carrie is I think five years younger, but I still find this unbelievable.)

This is getting rather long, so I guess I'll save Almanzo for another time.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Little House part 1

I'm reading the Little House books (for like the twelfth time, but the first in probably a decade) for a rereading project I'm doing this year. It's vaguely unsettling.

First I had the sudden realization that Ma and Pa, who know the answers to everything and how to do everything and make everything, were probably the age in the first couple books that I am now. But I just now looked that up, and in fact they were 27 and 31 when Laura was born, so they were well into respectable-parent age by the time these books are set. Whew. (Good, nobody will expect me to be able to just up and dig a well or make a straw tick or butcher a hog for the next decade or so at least! Or tell poor little girls that "Children should be seen and not heard" or to put on their sunbonnets because they're turning as brown as little Indians and all that whooping and hollering isn't ladylike or to mind, mind, mind, obey, obey, obey.)

It's weird reading now what was probably my first exposure to conflict between pioneers and Indians as the United States grew. I'm not particularly thrilled. Though Pa doesn't agree with this sentiment, it's repeated multiple times by multiple characters that "the only good Indian is a dead Indian," and Ma is permanently scared of them no matter what they're doing. Even Pa, who is largely respectful and friendly to the Indians he encounters and who tries to keep away and give them their space (and later makes a big point of leaving, abandoning the house and barn he'd made and garden and fields he'd planted when it's decided that in fact Washington was not going to open up the area of Kansas where they had already settled, rather than wait to be dragged out by the Army), has some eyebrow-raising views from today's perspective:

"I'm going to sleep," Laura said. "But please tell me where the voice of Alfarata [from a song Pa had just played] went?"
"Oh, I suppose she went west," Ma answered. "That's what the Indians do."
"Why do they do that, Ma?" Laura asked. "Why do they go west?"
"They have to," Ma said.
"Why do they have to?"
"The government makes them, Laura," said Pa. "Now, go to sleep."
"Will the government make these Indians go west?"
"Yes," Pa said. "When white settlers come into a country, the Indians have to move on. The government is going to move those Indians farther west, any time now. That's why we're here, Laura. White people are going to settle all this country, and we get the best land because we get here first and take our pick. Now do you understand?"
"Yes, Pa," Laura said. "But Pa, I thought this was Indian Territory. Won't it make the Indians mad to have to"
"No more questions, Laura," Pa said, firmly. "Go to sleep."
I mean, as it turns out, he was wrong (in the short term, at least, though I guess right in the long term). But yikes. I guess you're supposed to kind of feel like Laura does, though, although it does feel awfully like they're just sitting around clucking their tongues over it while taking full advantage of it. After all, it's not like they're personally kicking Indians out of their homes, they're just operating under the assumption that some nice soldiers are going to and jumping in to beat the rush. Mm-hmm.

It's weird to read about all the stuff that they did and just knew how to do even though it's unlikely they'd ever encountered it before. Like Pa knowing to start a small fire to meet the big sweeping prairie fire so the house would be ringed with already-burned earth, despite never having lived on the prairie before. Or knowing that the Indians regularly burned off the prairie grasses and weren't actually (probably) trying to kill them all, like the neighbors thought. Or (if Laura is a trustworthy reporter, which obviously she's not) being able to build an entire log cabin and fit a door to it and (presumably) cut the windows exactly the right size for the glass panes he didn't buy until months later (at least she didn't mention any problems with the fitting) doing no more measuring than some pacing out the outer dimensions of the house. He just held up the door and it fit perfectly and snugly? He just chopped out the wall against the fireplace he'd just build perfectly, without making it too far one way or the other? A couple days after getting out of bed with "fever'n'ague" (malaria), he was weak and "wasn't able to work, so he could make a rocking-chair for Ma"? (Show-off.) I guess he did at least do a poor job of the chimney, seeing as it caught on fire later...

One really interesting thing that I of course didn't notice as a kid (apparently being an adult makes me think more about other kids reading this and how it's beneficial or harmful for them) is how many really detailed explanations there are for how things worked and fit together and everything. If there were no illustrations* it would take rather a lot of effort to puzzle out exactly what they're talking about. Today, reading about the latch Pa was making for the new door, I still couldn't really make out what was going on, even though I know how such things work.

I'm also not especially pleased with how basically the only thing Ma does is say "Oh, Charles!" with "shining eyes."

Of course, they are still largely exciting, and the little anecdotes (Ma slapping the bear, the sugar snow, Charley crying wolf) are quite vivid and amusing (I love where Laura and Mary each only eat half of their cookie and save the other half for Baby Carrie, realize each time that that's not fair because now she gets a whole cookie, but still can't quite figure out how to make it quite fair) and combine pretty well to give the idea of what it feels like to be a little girl living this adventurous life where you never know what's coming next pretty well. But obviously, decades of children (well, I'm guessing mostly girls) have loved these books, myself included, so what sticks out to me are the ways they're not quite living up... (That being said, I think I'm probably going to pack them off to my little cousin in a year or two when she's of the appropriate age.)

So far I've read two of the Little House books in two days. Not too shabby (at least considering I've been experiencing full days of work and cooking and such as well; I'm sure that's pretty much always been my pace with these books). Though I do feel pretty self-conscious reading them on the train when there are pictures on almost every page.

* It seems the illustrator is the same person who illustrated Stuart Little and The Trumpet of the Swan. Which are coming up soon in my rereading!