Tag Archives: society

Book Review:  Confessions of a Prairie B*tch by Alison Arngrim (Audiobook)

Where do I begin?  First, if you are or were a fan of The Little House on the Prairie TV show in the 70s and 80s, I can’t recommend this book enough.  Be aware:  This isn’t saccharine.  Far from it.  If you are easily offended, this probably isn’t for you.  However, if you loved to hate Nellie as a little girl and wished each week for Laura to give Nellie exactly what she deserved – in spades – this book is for you.  If you ever thought that playing the most outrageous villain possible on TV would be fun, once again, this book is for you.  Last but not least, if you count Nellie Oleson and her overbearing mother Harriet among the favorite TV characters from your childhood, you need to read this book.

Frankly, both The Little House on the Prairie TV show and the children’s book series were a huge part of my childhood.  I can’t imagine growing up without either.  I do know that by 2nd grade, I was hooked.  Mrs. Butz reading Little House in the Big Woods to our 2nd grade class saw to that.  In early elementary school, I would fly off the bus to make sure I didn’t miss the start of Little House on the Prairie at 4 PM, in much the same way I made sure I was home at 4 PM during my high school years to watch Oprah.  It was simply what I did, and I loved every minute of it.

I know that there are still a lot of adult fans of the show out there – millions of them, in fact – but I’m not really one of them.  As an adult, I couldn’t get over the increasingly bizarre storylines that strayed further and further from the books – Albert’s opium addiction, anyone?  Then there was the issue of no mountains in Minnesota, where the show was supposedly set, and the fact that the Ingalls family spent a big part of Laura’s childhood in DeSmet, South Dakota.  In reality, the Ingalls family didn’t live in Walnut Grove for long.  Still, there was something special about the show.  It might be a little too sweet for my taste now, but back then, it was the best.

Nellie and Harriet made the show, of course.  The Ingalls were so wholesome and down to earth that they needed Nellie and Harriet as foils.  Personally, I think the show would not have worked without their over-the-top antics.  They had to be just that outrageous. In the book, Alison talks lovingly about her TV parents.  Supposedly, in real life, they were similar to their TV characters, although Katherine MacGregor (Harriet) was much nicer, even if just as bold.  Alison’s descriptions of Katherine alone make the book worthwhile.  As fun as Harriet was to watch, the best scenes were the ones in which Nellie and Laura actually fight.

About Laura and Nellie … in real life, Alison Arngrim (Nellie) and Melissa Gilbert (Laura) were best friends.  They spent a lot of time together on and off set and at each other’s homes.  One of their favorite pastimes happened to be simply appearing in public together.  People freaked out.  I can only imagine how much fun they had playing up their “rivalry.”

Alison’s antics with Melissa Gilbert are a great part of the book, but there is so much to unpack here.  First, there is that voice.  I chose to listen to the audiobook version as soon as I learned that she read her own book.  As soon as I started listening, I knew I had made the right choice.  Regardless, the book would have hit me with a huge wave of nostalgia, but Alison reading her book in a voice that I have always associated with childhood evil personified:  priceless.

In all fairness to Alison, she comes across as extremely down to earth in her book to the point that I’d actually love to meet her.  She spends quite some time discussing the perils and perks of playing one of TV’s greatest child villains.  Can you imagine growing up playing a character people loved to hate?  Once, during a publicity event at a private school, an event that she attended with Katherine MacGregor (Harriet Oleson), both in full costume, some of the students shoved her so hard that she laid face down on the pavement for a while until her father realized what had happened to her.  He ended up taking her home immediately.  It was the last time she attended a publicity event in costume.  How do you deal with that all before adolescence?

Alison Arngrim as Nellie Oleson with her TV mother, Katherine MacGregor as Harriet Oleson.

In the book, Alison uses the trauma she experienced as a child as a way to frame her memoir.  No, her trauma isn’t exactly what comes to mind with young stars and Hollywood, but sadly, it seems all the more common – and of course, very real.  I’m not going to discuss it here for many reasons; the main one being that, in a way, it is the point of her memoir.  I don’t want to spoil it for those who haven’t read it.  She has used that trauma to try and help prevent others from experiencing the same thing.  In essence, she uses her “inner b*tch” to create real legislative change in an effort to protect kids – all kids.

One of the more interesting tidbits I learned in the book is the history behind why the TV show deviated so much from the books.  Michael Landon supposedly exclaimed at one time:  “My God!  Have you actually read the books?  There are descriptions of churning butter!”  In other words, they had to up the action.  I get it, I do.  What makes a great book doesn’t necessarily make great television.

I suppose that’s what has always bothered me about the TV show.  As an aspiring writer, it sickened me to think what happened to Laura Ingalls Wilder’s original work.  Now, older and wiser, I can see the value of the TV show too.  I am sure it inspired millions of kids to pick up the original books.  All publicity is good publicity, right? For people who grew up with the TV show, I can’t recommend Confessions of a Prairie B*tch enough.  There are so many great aspects to Alison Arngrim’s memoir.  It is a wonderful combination of nostalgia, good story, and humor.  By the way, Alison’s voice impression of Melissa Gilbert is hilarious.  Several other memoirs have been written by the child stars of Little House on the Prairie.  In fact, I plan on reading both of Melissa Gilbert’s books.  I will be surprised if Confessions of a Prairie B*tch doesn’t remain my favorite.

Don McLean – American Pie (1971)

Don McLean – American Pie (1971) (Video) (Lyrics)

(Written February 6, 2023)

This Day in History – The Day The Music Died

The Day The Music Died  (Earlier Blog Post – Documentary)

What can I say about Don McLean’s American Pie that hasn’t already been said?  Not much, actually.  Yet, that song is so ingrained in my love of music, my childhood, and more.  It can safely be called Americana at this point – a modern American folk song in the best sense of the term.

I couldn’t tell you the first time I heard the song, but I have always loved it and could deeply visualize the lyrics.  For whatever reason, I imagined the high school gym as the same high school gym where I’d watched my dad play old man basketball countless times as a preschooler – his alma mater – Arenac Eastern High School in Twining, MI.  I think it has something to do with how rural the setting appears to be in the song.  Sadly, Arenac Eastern High School no longer exists.  The building, now a community center, still sits among acres of farm land and a tiny village.  When I think of the quintessential rural American high school, Arenac Eastern immediately comes to mind.  It has always felt like stepping back in time and into my family history.

Whatever the case may be, I do know that I had the lyrics practically memorized by 4th grade.  Mrs. Currie, my 4th grade teacher and my first teacher at Standish Elementary, used the lyrics to teach us the terms “levee” and “dirge.”  In fact, at this point, I can’t listen to the song without thinking about 4th grade and Mrs. Currie.  None of the kids were getting it.  She then began to sing the song, basically saying “Come on!  You know the song.”  Except, they didn’t.  As I remember it, I was the only kid who knew the song and lyrics – at least well enough for the purposes of her vocabulary lesson.  It was funny, irrelevant, and frankly, kind of summed up that school year.

Years later, as a substitute teacher, I had the opportunity, with a bit of caution and specific directions from the regular classroom teacher, to show high school Spanish students the movie La Bamba.  After the movie, I had just enough time to explain the term “the day the music died” and the lyrics to American Pie.  They left singing Oh Donna, moved by the true story, which completely took me by surprise.  It also happened to cement it in my memory.

February 3rd, 1959 – “The day the music died” – (L to R) Buddy Holly, JP Richardson (the Big Bopper), and Ritchie Valens died in an airplane accident, traveling over Iowa as part of the Winter Dance Party Tour.

I’m glad that I had the opportunity to explain the lyrics to American Pie and help them make the connection.  I may have known the song longer than I care to remember, but it wasn’t all that long ago that I learned that the lyrics referenced a true tragedy, much less the death of Buddy Holly, JP Richardson (the Big Bopper), and Ritchie Valens.  I suppose that is the true tragedy of American PieWhat if they had lived?

The musical legacy of Buddy Holly, of course, is staggering.  Modern pop and rock music would not have evolved in quite the same way without him and the Crickets.  He inspired the Beatles to write their own music, among countless others.  In fact, it could be said that Buddy Holly was one of the main influences of what became known as the British invasion.  JP Richardson (the Big Bopper) and Ritchie Valens were just getting started.  Again, what if?

If nothing else, American Pie taught me that lyrics can indeed be a form of poetry.

Lou Diamond Phillips (Ritchie Valens) and Danielle von Zerneck (Donna Ludwig) in a car in a scene from the film ‘La Bamba’, 1987.
(Photo by Columbia Pictures/Getty Images)

Thank You

Here’s to a great 2022!

Restarting my conversation with all of you here has been on my mind for quite some time.  As with so much in my life, things became bogged down during the pandemic.  It is telling that my last posts described my feelings at the beginning of the shutdown – my experience as a new teacher suddenly thrown into the great unknown and then a two-part series on the pandemic and the canoe livery.  The survival of that constant in my life weighed so heavily on my mind during the darkest days of the shutdown.  It was almost unspeakable.

And now … Well, I feel as though I just witnessed the end of an era on Friday with the death of Betty White.  I watched The Golden Girls during its original run.  Yes, I am that old.  Even though I was a child and tween during that time, there always seemed to be something timeless about that show and the principal actresses as well.  I spent many Saturday evenings watching with my grandparents.  Grandpa Owen adored Sophia, and of course, we all loved the humor.  Out of the remaining three actresses, Betty White’s Rose reminded me the most of Grandma Reid.  However, there is one huge catch:  Grandma was never, ever even close to being that naïve (or dumb)!  Yet, Rose’s willingness to help anyone and everyone fit the bill and her constant positivity reflected my experiences with both of my grandmothers.  I think it is that kindness, reflected in both Betty White’s character Rose Nylund and anecdotes of Betty White’s generosity towards her colleagues and fans, that I am sensing is gone.  It is also a longing for a simpler time.

If I am honest, the feeling that it is the end of an era started before Friday.  This past fall, one of my Grandma Reid’s last remaining friends passed away (although there may be a few left).  It hit particularly hard because Ginny was such a positive person.  I have fond childhood memories of visiting her home during Halloween, at which time she would show me her vast porcelain doll collection and shared stories about working for my grandfather.  As an adult, I saw her often as she volunteered at the Skilled Nursing Facility where Grandma Reid lived out the last few years of her life.  I can only hope that I will be around to volunteer in my 80s and 90s! I remember her as so full of life. Again, the world could use more positivity at this point.

In fact, I am done.  There are so many times I’ve wanted to write that simple sentence, and I now know how to explain it a bit better.  I am done listening to the negative, which, let’s be honest, is everywhere now.  I’m also done spending any time or energy on people who only focus on what could go wrong.  It is time to finally move forward after the last nearly two years of hiding in the shadows and not living to the fullest.  Yes, I truly believe that there have always been ways to do so safely.

We can get back to ourselves, but we might find that we have discover ourselves once again.  As I work on decluttering my life, I will hopefully make even more room for what is truly important.  I still have important to decisions to make, but I am finally once again headed in the right direction.  There is hope for me yet (see article below).

So, thank you. Thank you for staying with me through all the craziness that is my life. Thank you for still reading even if I am nothing but inconsistent. Thank you for letting me share a tiny piece of my life.

It’s Never Too Late:  On Becoming a Writer at 50

Changes

Dear Students, We Didn’t Even Get to Say Goodbye – Her View from Home

To Those Saying “Lucky Teachers,” This Isn’t a Break for Us, It’s Heartbreak

Through all of this, seniors – the class of 2020 – has been on my mind.  I hope that when this is all over, we will have the opportunity to properly celebrate all their accomplishments.  I think we are all grieving all the celebrations, events, you name it that have been cancelled at this point.  While I know some people have expressed anger at people getting upset over cancellations, it is only human that we grieve all the experiences we’ve lost.  Does that mean we shouldn’t take precautions or help those in need because we are bummed that our events were cancelled?  No.  It just means that we are grieving a valid loss – at this point, we all are.

I don’t know what these next few weeks or months will bring, but I do know that we will work through this together.  One of the silver linings of all of this is the time to work on projects that have been put on hold indefinitely.  For example, I’ve toyed with the idea of playing around with podcasting for some time, and tonight, I think I will finally start.  We will see where it goes!  I am also planning to play around with sharing podcasts with my students too.  Much more to come!

Miss Russell

PS – Check out the new page I created to share middle school online resources – Miss Russell’s Middle School Resources

Happy Father’s Day, Dad!

Carpe Diem

In the past, I’ve written Father’s Day pieces for and about Dad. In fact, I shared one of those old pieces with Mid-Michigan Writers at our last meeting. Through that process, I realized that I have a series of stories about my father, not a simple post of memories. That post contains kernels of several stories. In fact, as I read the piece Monday evening, other stories came to mind. It is now a piece I need to dissect, rework, and reorganize – among many other things. It might make a nice companion piece to Dad’s hunting stories when I finally get around to writing them.

So, today, I am not going to share stories about Dad. No. Instead, I am going to share the greatest lesson he ever taught me. My entire life, he taught me that life is short and that you must go after whatever it is you seek. He always did exactly what he wanted to do. It is time for me to do the same. I am not quite there yet, but I am on my way. Happy Father’s Day Dad!

 

Father's Day Canoe

Creativity

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I am a firm believer that everyone should have a creative outlet.  It may take some time to find what works for you, but it is so worth it in the end.  I discovered writing as my creative outlet at an early age, but then life got in the way, as it always does.  I hope this time I can make time for what matters.

As I have spent the last several weeks as a substitute teacher in a 4th grade classroom, I’ve enjoyed seeing just how passionate kids are about their hobbies.  I have budding writers, musicians, artists, and athletes in the classroom, not to mention scientists.  We had the best discussions about the US space shuttle program, astronauts, and basic animal genetics.  They are not afraid to ask great questions.  After a science lesson on the effects of long-term exposure to zero gravity on astronauts, one student asked me why we never returned to the moon after the 1969 moon landing.  A quick Google search later, we had our answers, which included the facts that politics largely got in the way and that NASA recently announced possible commercialization of space travel, including a possible return to the moon.  See article here.

I am left with just one question:  What do we do as educators between 4th grade and senior year of high school to suck the creativity out of students?  I like to believe things are changing for the better, but I still see way too much “busy,” mindless work being assigned, especially in middle school.  STEM programs are on the right track, but I do believe they need to include art, or STEAM, as well.  Still, that doesn’t cut it for everyone.  What about students who have no idea how to stick with something long enough to enjoy it?  How do we recognize and deal with the fact that many students are resistant to the idea that failure can help us learn and grow?  We inadvertently teach students that failure is to be avoided at all cost.  For better or worse, it is ingrained in our culture.  High stakes standardized testing anyone?  We need to teach students how to fail effectively:  how to move on and learn from our mistakes.  They need to know on a gut level that failure is inevitable.  We are meant to learn from it.

I am deeply grateful that I found a creative outlet that works for me.  I adored art classes as a child, but I have no ability to draw animals or people.  I am no painter either.  One of my greatest wishes is to have some musical ability.  Sadly, as much as I love music, I have none.  In searching for my creative outlet, I overlooked the obvious:  I am meant to be a writer.  Unfortunately, as a child, I always wanted to be more instead of embracing what I love and can reasonably do without embarrassing myself.  In fact, that is one of my greatest wishes for any of my students past, present, or future:  Find a creative outlet that makes you happy through good times and bad.

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Book Club

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Read It Forward – 13 Reasons Why Book Clubs Are Saving the World

What is it about a book club that makes it so irresistible? Personally, I believe it is the structured discussion of a set topic. It is nice, neat, orderly; we all know exactly what to expect. And yet, we don’t. Book club discussions often lead to interesting places. I’ve formally been a member of a book for the last five years. During that time, I’ve read books I never would have picked up otherwise and had discussions I never dreamed I would have all thanks to book club.

The Standish-Sterling Book Club, however, is not my first. I like to think that Grandma Buttrick and I had our own little book club of two for a few years. Every time I visited, usually weekly, she never failed to ask me what I was reading. I loved sitting with her in the den, cold drinks in hand, talking books. I clearly remember both of us reading Malcolm Gladwell’s books and discussing them at length. Even when poor eyesight and memory issues made reading difficult for her, she still loved to talk books. I wouldn’t leave until I told her about the latest book I read.

When Grandma passed away in 2014, I saw it as no coincidence that I soon discovered the Standish-Sterling Book Club. The fact that they were discussing The Fault in Our Stars at the time captured my imagination. I’d read it as well, and due to the loss of an old childhood friend, that book will stay with me for the rest of my life. I wrote about the connection here and even quoted part of the book. On some level, I like to think that Grandma knows all about book club and that our family still shares books.

Regardless, book club will always be a part of my life, even if one day I must start one myself. I get too much out of it – as a reader, a writer, and a human being. This article nails it when it comes to the importance of book clubs and their resurgence. I hope the trend continues. I don’t see myself giving up book club any time soon. I enjoy it far too much.

As a teacher, I wish I could impart my love of books on all students. I truly believe that everyone can learn to love reading. Those who supposedly hate reading just haven’t found the right books yet – or they equate reading with reading in school. In school, students often have little or no choice as to reading material – although that is changing for the better and one of many reasons why I love Donnalyn Miller’s work. You can find more information on her work here. She stresses how important it is for teachers to help students discover good books and learn how to make solid reading choices on their own. I hope one day book clubs – and more importantly, the love of reading – will become so pervasive that students will want to create their own. There is so much to be gained through reading and too many good books to allow a hatred of reading to grow.

The Fault in Our Stars

I’m a Fighter Not a Lover

Girl on Country Road

“I’m a fighter not a lover.” Well, that isn’t the case – I’m both, which I will get to in a minute – but there is a story behind this twisted saying that I wanted to share. It’s been on my mind lately. When Grandma Reid passed away in January 2017, an old childhood friend stopped by the funeral home to pay her respects. The two of us grew up together, and she worked with me and Grandma at the canoe livery for a summer or two. As we talked about Grandma, Melanie told me a story about her I’d never heard before. According to Mel, Grandma once said “I’m a fighter not a lover.” It struck Mel as so funny and out of character that she remembered it all those years later and thought to tell me. Knowing Grandma, a slip of the tongue became a memorable line.

What strikes me so funny and makes the entire thing so memorable is that I can easily see it going either way. It wouldn’t surprise me If Grandma intended to say she’s a fighter just to get a rise out of someone. She could tease mercilessly. Anyone who knew her knows she loved everyone. I am heavily biased, of course, but I cannot remember one instance in which she picked a fight. Instead, she loved on kids of all ages. Whether it putt-putt golf, a movie, or a trip to the mall arcade, she included everyone.

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But Grandma did fight too. She stuck up for herself when needed and forged her way as a business woman at a time when most women stayed at home. I consider that fighting. Some of her best advice included stick up for yourself. I think that is why this comes to mind now.

In fact, if I think about it for a minute, I can take it one step further: All of us – every one of us – needs to fight for the life we want to live. We need to fight for happiness and what we want out of life. I continue to struggle doing just that, but I am fighting. As much as I would love to give up, I won’t. I am made of sterner stuff – and I am far too stubborn.

Yellow Crocus

Columbine: Before and After

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Just over twenty years ago, school changed forever – April 20th, 1999 to be exact. Prior to that date, school shootings simply did not happen – or at least not with the frequency they do now. I am old enough to remember life before Columbine. In fact, the spring of 1999 marked the last semester of my senior year of high school. In that pre-Columbine world, we did not have active shooter or lockdown drills. School doors were not always locked. In fact, even during my early high school years at the rural Michigan high school I attended, boys and girls who loved to hunt and had their own vehicles could lock their rifles in their trucks during deer season. It is not an exaggeration to say that I grew up and attended school in a different world.

This became frighteningly clear to me when I began substitute teaching several years ago. In fact, one experience put it all in perspective. As a substitute teacher, I’ve experienced countless fire, tornado, and lockdown drills. One, however, left me speechless. Subbing for a middle school music teacher in a suburban school district, the lockdown drill itself proved uneventful. However, the conversation I overheard between two young female students as we resumed class left me gutted. The conversation itself appeared casual enough. They were recalling some funny incident that took place during a lockdown drill years ago in 1st grade and laughing about it all over again as only 6th grade girls can. That simple fact – that the students before me, now middle schoolers, never knew school life before lockdown drills – stays with me. They know nothing else.

When I was in 1st grade, my biggest worries were getting picked last in gym class and deciding what to play during recess. Books, learning to read well, drawing and writing, and play all made up my world in 1st grade. Lockdown drills and the thought that someone would want to harm me and my classmates at school never crossed my mind or the mind of anyone else for that matter. When did everything change so drastically? Personally, I believe things began to change April 20th, 1999.

Not all the changes are negative. I do think there is a heightened awareness of the effects bullying can have on anyone. I also believe students today have many more opportunities at all levels than they did twenty or thirty years ago – as it should be.

And then there is kindness. When I first started subbing at my alma mater, Standish-Sterling Central High School, I didn’t exactly know what to expect. I continue to be pleasantly surprised. Daily I witness a genuine kindness among students that I found largely lacking during my school years. There appears to be a greater awareness of personal differences of all types. Does that mean bullying doesn’t exist? No. In fact, social media adds a whole new factor into the equation – and it isn’t pretty. Despite that fact, I find students today more accepting and more willing to entertain new ideas. That may not be the case everywhere, but I see it enough in a variety of school settings that I have hope for this generation.

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