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LETTERS FROM WAKE ROBIN FARM

Random Thoughts in Random Pandemic Times

Early in the summer I received an email from a frantic woman in Texas.  She was halfway through reading my memoir about prescription med withdrawal-- Accidental Addict--and had to know, DEMANDED to know: Was I well?  Honestly well?  She needed me to answer her immediately or she just couldn't go on.

 

Of course I was happy and grateful to be able to deliver the prompt reassurance that yes, despite the desperate depths of my illness in those years, I am now fully healed, and she will be too, given time. In our subsequent exchanges, I asked about the state of the pandemic in her area. She thought the whole thing had been exaggerated, and she was out the door to meet a friend for lunch at a restaurant.  I asked if she didn't find it pretty convincing  that  60,000 people had died, the tragic number at that point.  She didn't answer this directly, but in a later letter referred to my "fear of the Covid."

 

I wasn't afraid of Covid. I just believed it was real. And I've been determined from the start that I wasn't going to get it. I bring this up because it made me realize this was my first and only personal contact with a person outside the lovely bubble that is my own very blue Benton County, Oregon.

 

I'm proud to say we still have one of the lowest infection rates in the country.  Why?  Because we're a highly education and solidly Democratic population and nobody believed President Trump for one minute when he said we had nothing to worry about.  We hunkered down immediately and when masks were shown to be helpful, everybody started wearing them. That's it.  We are blessedly free of yahoos in jacked-up trucks, flying flags and Trump banners, mocking  masks and calling people chicken for trying to keep themselves and others safe.  In fact, my friends and I have noticed the handful of Trump lawn signs actually coming down in recent days.

 

As the lockdowns began in the spring, prescriptions for Xanax and other anti-anxiety medications soared, and I shuddered for those people who started desperately swallowing the poison.   Of course Xanax helps immeasurably right this minute, and who hasn't been freaked-out over everything this  crazy year has delivered? But I'm so hoping those folks stopped these meds after the recommended limit of two weeks and found other ways to cope; otherwise there is going to be hell to pay as a sizeable portion of our population who may have eluded  or survived Covid now go into benzodiazepine withdrawal.  Watch: It won't be long before people are posting reports that their benzo withdrawal is way worse than anything Covid anxiety or even Covid itself delivered.

 

A haunting parallel to the sufferings of benzo withdrawal  are stories from the so-called Covid "long-haulers" who can't seem to fully recover.  Neurological damage seems to be involved.  The chronic fatigue and brain fog they report sound eerily familiar to benzo survivors  and so much like what I went through after stopping Xanax.  These victims of Covid are appalled to still be sick after three or four months.  I was sick like this for several years.  Not interested in a repeat.

 

Damage to my precious brain is nothing I care to mess with, and as much as I miss restaurant lunches with friends, it's simply not worth the risk to me. The silver lining here is that my "long-haul" recovery from Xanax served as training for this pandemic lockdown.  I was actually more isolated in those times, being sick on my own, than I am now when everybody's going through this together, if separately.  My self-care plan of yoga first thing every single day without fail etc. was already firmly in place when all this hit, and "working my program" while I feel perfectly fine as opposed to  doing it while sick is a great contrast and serving me well.

 

The first order of business for our poor country  is to get rid of a President  who has made this whole thing drag on so much longer and be worse for so many people by insisting we pretend Covid isn't out there.  If ever the expression "blood on his hands" applied, it's here.

 

My heart breaks for the elderly who are locked in solitude and dying of isolation so that Donald Trump can keep up the fiction of his thriving economy.

 

Special place in Hell for him, I think.

 

Or jail.  

 

In the meantime, let's hunker down, wear masks, and get this over with.

    

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Lock Him Up

You probably don't need me to point out that President Donald Trump has come completely unhinged. He's always been a raging, narcissistic psychopath, but now he's a psychopath on steroids.  God help us!

 

When he started raging around about busting out of Walter Reed and claiming he felt better than he had in twenty years, I thought, Whoa, I know that feeling, and then on CNN, Dr. Sanjay Gupta remarked that people all over the country who've been on steroids are now nodding in understanding.

 

Yep.

 

I was in the middle of writing a rough draft of my memoir Wedding in Yangshuo when my doctor put me on a course of prednisone, a steroid, for a suspected ear infection. She warned me I might feel extra energetic.

 

Ha! I went completely manic. Instead of an eked-out thousand words a day, I wrote THREE thousand.  I didn't sleep.  The best part was that I knew I was brilliant. I was writing the greatest book ever written. It would be a lot like Eat, Pray, Love, I figured, and people would travel to my daughter-in-law's hometown in China and make her mother's charming little hotel famous!  But why stop there? It would probably improve the economy of all of Yangshuo!!! And oh, look, what a beautiful silk dress on the Johnny Was internet site!!!  I should buy it! !! It would be perfect for when  I walked the red carpet when my book was made into a movie!!!!! A movie that would probably win an Academy Award!!!!!!!!!!

 

Unlike Donald Trump, though, I was—even under the influence of these drugs—self-aware enough to suspect what was going on. I did not actually buy that dress. After one phone chat with my mother, I stopped calling people. I could hear myself sounding crazed. I didn't leave the house. I just rode that crazy bucking bronco around my office until the pre-arranged tapering doses ran out and I came back down. 

 

Reporting to my doctor later, she was alarmed. "Why didn't you tell me?" Well, I would have, if she'd phoned and asked, because I can't lie to save my soul. But she didn't. And, honestly?  I was having too much fun to complain. I felt a little sad when she said she was putting on my chart that I must never be given this stuff again. When I mourned that I had been so productive in my writing, she said, "Yeah, but was what you wrote any good? Because we had one guy on this stuff who wrote a lot and then he never quite came back."

 

They say a writer is somebody on whom nothing is lost, and I tried to pay attention to how all this was working as I lived it. Prednisone didn't give me any better words to use. It didn't provide a more interesting story to tell. What it did was allow me to get out of my own way.  I did not waste the time I—and many  writers, I suspect—usually do on beating  myself up with negativity. No way! With chemical permission to feel brilliantly confident, I just barreled on through and nailed down those words at three times the pace I normally would.

 

But Donald Trump. The guy is already crazed with his own grandiosity. He cannot hear the horror of the things he says.  Maybe he needed these drugs to save his life, but a mind like his, under the influence of drugs like this, has no business calling the shots from the oval office. It's dangerous. It's scary. Isn't there anybody back there who can stand up to him? Apparently not.

 

We should lock him up. And then VOTE HIM OUT. He talked about draining the swamp. Instead, with everybody around him dropping from Covid-19, they'll have to fumigate the White House.

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Fire on the Wind, Again

When I was young and we were just starting out the grand adventure of renovating Wake Robin Farm, I was constantly hurrying to finish projects.  I operated on a foolish notion of fixing things up "once and for all."  Life would start, I thought, when things were nice. Ha!

 

Now I know better.  It's the journey, not the destination, as they say. In recent years I've been reading a lot of Pema Chodron and the principles of Buddhism.  It all makes a lot of sense to me, relaxing into the inevitability of change, approaching each day in a spirit of curiosity rather than with a fixed To-Do list in hand, the day's score dropping to the extent it veers out of my control.

 

I love the idea of restoration, so when we built the little cabin I wrote about in Accidental Addict, I used salvaged porch posts from Aurora Mill Architectural Salvage. They look great, but sitting out there on that western facing ridge, the weather quickly takes a toll. Some weird fungus was even growing out of one of them.

 

Well, we've been trying to make lemonade during the pandemic, taking care of various  maintenance projects, so a few weeks back we went out to the cabin armed with tools and supplies and I got to work.  One post was just falling apart, with deep cracks.  A startled spider crawled out the top when I started scraping.  I used a lot of wood putty before even priming it.

 

"You know," I said to my husband,  "this thing is in such bad shape, I'm really just doing a stalling action."

 

But then I remembered: everything's a stalling action. Everything's growing, dying, building up, falling apart. So what? My assignment for the day was to be doing this job in pleasant weather with a beautiful view every time I looked up.  Nothing to gripe about. Moments to enjoy.

 

The trip to put the final green paint on the post was last Monday, September 7th, the day the historically unprecedented winds were predicted to blow into the Willamette Valley.  On the way home, my husband said maybe it would turn out like so many other weather predictions…not the big deal they were saying.  We got into a silly spat about how best to direct our energies the next day.  Should we go back to the forest property for more work the very next day?  It was one of those inane conversations which included a lot of lines such as "Well, I thought you said you wanted to blah blah blah," and "No, that's not what I said and don't we have the right to change our minds etc. etc." We were soon laughing it off, conscious of the ridiculousness of this debate, knowing we were just  needing  to blow off some  steam thanks to the stresses of the pandemic.

 

At 5:25 our daughter Mary texted from Portland:  You guys getting this smoke down there???? Super smoky and windy. Visibiltiy super low too.  Happened pretty quick.

 

Just about an hour later the smoke started pouring in here too, and that's the last we've seen of the blue sky.  Good thing we didn't spend any more time arguing about what to do the next day!  The universe had delivered our assignment, loud and clear: Stay in the house. So my husband's been canning his amazing produce and I've been working on my forthcoming novel, Family Trees.

 

We are now on our fifth day of living under a cloud of the very worst air on planet earth.  It's totally claustrophobic and reconfirms  for us how good we've had it during the pandemic up until now: even if we can't  be around other people, Herb and I could always go out to the garden or forests where we're happiest anyway. Now we're seeing first hand what apartment dwellers who have declined to be hoodwinked into complacentcy by the President have been experiencing for months.

 

Fresh air is a big deal to me.  I've never smoked a puff of anything in my life.  I'm thinking I probably wasn't the nicest daughter-in-law when we visited my husband's parents in LA. I couldn't get over standing on the beach and not being guaranteed a westerly blast of fresh, cool air.  I was appalled. Worse, for house guest manners, I probably said so. But I'm a fourth-generation Oregonian!  Land of the rose and sunshine, land of the summer breeze….

 

As I write, our pollution index in Corvallis is at 450, well into the hazardous zone.  I really can't stand this. It's making me crazy, thinking about all the people evacuating for their lives ahead of the flames, as well as the millions of people with their own personal stories of what they're trying to deal with in the choking smoke and the fear of Covid.  Children who can't go to school.  Old people who can't understand why they don't have visitors.  People of color faced with the choice of working in hazardous conditions or going without money for food. All of us cursed with the malevolent power and control of that sociopath, Donald J. Trump. 

 

The news reports and stories of the fires remind me so much of all the research I did for my book about the Tillamook Burn of 1933, Fire on the Wind. Both historic fires, the old and the current, were fanned by dry east winds. Those winds have stopped now and there's currently not a breath of breeze. I keep staring out the windows for movement in the leaves. We're just waiting--longing--for the winds to shift and come again from the West with blessed moisture. I keep thinking of a scrap of a medieval poem I used in Fire on the Wind:

 

O Western Wind, when wilt thou blow?

That the small rain down can fall

Christ! That my love were in my arms

And I in my bed again.

 

Yeah.  That.

Hang in there, everybody.

And be sure to vote Democratic.

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Death and Life in the Time of the Pandemic

Every family has its stories these days, the ways in which the Pandemic has become the dark and overwhelming backdrop against which life's major events must be played.  This is mine.

 

My 93-year-old mother passed away in May.  No, she did not die of Covid-19, but as with so many others in assisted living communities, the forced isolation clearly accelerated her mental and physical decline.  Introverts such as myself seem to be having an easier  time of staying home, but my mother, Marolyn Schumacher Welch Tarrant, was at the complete opposite end of the spectrum for needing to have others surrounding her, and isolation for her was basically a death sentence.  The longer  the need for social distancing continues, the more I'm glad she escaped early on.

 

Mom was famous for her love of throwing parties.  We're not talking fancy charity bashes to make the society pages; she just enjoyed getting people together.  Her annual neighborhood potlucks were legendary, and when she finally wrapped up decades of this hostessing gig, the local paper carried a big write-up.  I knew this about her, but it wasn't until I was sorting through old photo albums after her death that the theme of her lifelong love of parties really hit me.  Most striking was a group shot of a First Anniversary party she threw with a dozen friends in attendance.  Who does that for a wedding anniversary?  Well, my mother, of course—a  person for whom anything and everything was always an  excuse for a party.  I wonder how my father felt about this.  I sincerely hope he got his private party later!   

 

With a lifetime of successful party production behind her, it's no surprise mom wanted her memorial service to be party-like.  Upbeat, she said, with a Dixieland jazz band.  Well, as everyone who's lost a loved one in the past six months knows, the pandemic has changed everything.  For everybody.  Any kind of a service is tough to manage, a festive reception even harder.

 

I think my mother would have understood this, though.  One of her favorite sayings, which she stamped on the envelope of every card she mailed, was this:  We cannot change the course of the winds, but we can adjust our sails. Her other favorite advice was to try to make things fun.  Lemons?  Make lemonade. The fact that her parents always promised an ice cream cone following a trip to the doctor's for a shot made a big impression on her. She repeated that story to me many times, and never stopped priding herself on finding the potential ice cream cone in any less-than-wonderful situation.

 

She was only 19 when she married my father in 1946, the year half the young men in America came home from World War II to start the Baby Boom.  My parents had courted against the backdrop of war, with my mother planning the Corvallis High School dances, all carefully scheduled, she always told me, to coincide with my father's leaves.  Thanks to all manufacturing production going to the war effort and the sudden demand for wedding dresses that year, pickings were slim, and my mother always said she hated the one she had to settle for, claiming it was literally the only one available.

 

That poor, loathed dress had been in my cedar trunk for decades, and one day in the early months of our Pandemic lockdown, I was hit with an inspiration.  The pale blue Elsa dress I had made for my two-year-old granddaughter  out of her mother's  one prom gown had apparently been a hit, judging from the snips of video which were all I had to go by, given the limits of visiting during the lockdown.  Why not try the same with the wedding dress ?

 

I soon made the thrilling discovery that while the blue dress was the iconic gown for little girls wanting to belt out "Let It Go!" from Frozen, the sequel featured Elsa  wearing a dazzling white transformational dress  as she sings "Show Yourself!" So the "Spirit Dress" was actually a thing!  Mothers  were sewing these.  Companies were producing various versions. If you were rich but lacking imagination or creative ability, somebody on Etsy would  gladly sew one for your granddaughter for only  $400!

 

Well, count me in. I got busy. Send for the sequins, call in the Swarovski crystals, the silver piping, the glue-on jewels.  Make it a fun Pandemic Challenge Game by paying $8 for a 75 cent zipper just to stay home  from the fabric store.  The long net train on my mother's gown was perfect for Elsa's "sleeves," which is what they were calling the divided cape affair so crucial to this ensemble.  I painstakingly took my mother's wedding gown apart, handwashed each piece, recut Size 3 pieces from a vintage flower-girl dress pattern.  Then, day after day,  I sat and sewed on tiny beads, including a few from my husband's great-grandmother's handed-down collection, embellishments carefully snipped and saved from the fanciest dresses and now, after a hundred years, soon to once more sparkle in the light of day.

 

Hearing of my project, a friend commented she would not have the patience for this.  But patience had nothing to do with it!  This was fun. This was therapy.  I loved the personal nature of the transactions on Etsy and the idea these little businesses were out there shipping product to America's crafters.  Shout-out to SilverMoonMontana!  I felt a kinship with women around the country were quietly endeavoring to keep their sanity by sewing, quilting, knitting, beading, whatever came to hand. There was also, I must admit, however, a manic edge to my pursuit, as if I thought in adding bead after bead I could somehow solve the overwhelming problems of the world itself if only I could pull off this one small project to perfection.

 

My husband and I were in the tightest possible quarantine at this time, trying to keep Wake Robin Farm a safe haven for this granddaughter during the time her sister was being born in Portland. We couldn't wait to have this little girl here with us, and I was hoping the dress would provide a great distraction for any first-child-gets-set-aside angst.

 

But I was also working hard at tempering my expectations.  I knew the making of the dress was my therapy and it wasn't fair trying to dictate my granddaughter's reaction to it.  I believe most of us mothers goodheartedly set out to be the mothers to our daughters that we wanted, so I knew I was actually making this dress for the little girl I used to be, the child who still remembers the stabbing envy I felt when five-year-old Susie Cornell showed up at a costume party in a bride dress her grandmother made for her. Why wasn't anybody making a bride dress for me?

 

So imagine my delight when my granddaughter, incredibly talkative (Can't imagine where she got that!), started bonding to this dress while we were still driving her home to Wake Robin Farm on I-5. "You made a dress for me, Grammie?  And it's hanging right there for me when we get to the farm? Can I put it on before I do anything else?"

 

Yes! Absolutely! And that's what she did. Put it on and ever after had to be persuaded out of it. Danced and twirled, fascinated by the way the crystals caught the light and threw off bouncing reflections on the walls. I couldn't believe the huge emotional payoff as I watched her run barefoot across the sun-dappled backyard lawn, repeatedly imitating Elsa's two-footed stick-landing jump into the center of the spirit medallion to the powerful voice of Idina Menzel pouring out those lyrics.  Are you the one I've been waiting for all of my life……?   

 

Um, actually, yes!  Since you put it that way, yes, it sure looks like you are!

 

I am still watching the videos  I made, still stunned by  the privilege of having this adorable child here, running around our house and yard as if a beautiful doll had come to radiant life. After all these weeks of not being able to touch other human beings, to have this child curled in my arms as we watched the thrilling but non-scary parts of the Frozen movies was absolutely delicious. And so healing.  I could feel the flow of the cuddling hormone, oxcytocin, as she nestled close.

 

Now she's back home, learning to be a big sister, reportedly wearing the dress out for walks along the suburban streets of Portland which, no, is not a city entirely on fire or filled with tear gas as news clips might make you think.  

 

My mother had blue eyes and curly blond hair, just like her great-granddaughter.  I think she'd have gotten a big kick out of this child sashaying along in the spiffed-up wedding gown she herself had never liked, eliciting smiles from folks who look up from their frontyard gardens at this little person passing in her spangly finery, trailing her gown, singing her own song.

 

I hope so, Mom, because in the Time of the Pandemic, this seemed like the best I could do. And I promise, just like you would have wanted, we had fun.

 

 

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Mary Trump Speaks Up

Apparently many people are finding solace in reading books during the pandemic, and I certainly expected to.  When Oregon locked down in March, we bought a stack of hardbacks at our local independent, Grassroots Books, and while my husband has been through a dozen, I have been embarrassed that I just recently finished my first. I felt better when a dear friend, gobbling a book a day in a small room in San Francisco, pointed out that, here at Wake Robin Farm, I have no need to escape. And she's right.  Rather than seeking distraction, this beautiful time of the year here makes it easy to try for the living-in-the-moment thing.

 

While America's on fire with the virus and violence, and all around people are suffering, I'm feeling oddly optimistic. Surely we will be rid of Donald Trump shortly and can begin to build the better world we all want. I've read Fear, by Bob Woodward and one of the other more forgettable Trump titles, and when I heard Mary Trump was publishing her story, I was thinking I shouldn't waste another minute of my precious time letting this odious man occupy my brain space.

 

But then I saw the picture of Mary. Brown-haired—not blond or orange. Steely blue eyes. Serious looking. And hey, her name's Mary, the favorite name I gave my daughter.  And her mother—another persona non grata with the Trumps—is Linda.  And she has a PhD. in Psychology. I decided to read the book to honor her. If someone is bravely willing to speak up, I will listen. Exciting, knowing that as the book was downloading onto my Kindle in the wee hours of the July 14th publication day, it was doing the same in tens of thousands of other Kindles across the country.

 

Of course nobody has to read any of these books to hear the most salacious details. The press will help out with that. Everybody's heard by now, for example, that Trump paid somebody else to take his SATs. Big surprise.  But what Mary's book does that none of these other accomplish is to explain why this man is the way he is, how all his worst traits are so deeply embedded in him by birth and upbringing. For over three years now we've had to hear the talking heads repeatedly pleading for Trump to express more empathy, not be so tone deaf, just be honest about the pandemic and tell people to wear masks etc. It wouldn't take that much, they'd argue, for him to rise to his position as president. For myself, I've never been able to understand how anybody could hold out the slightest hope he would change. He can't say the right thing because he doesn't think the right thing.  He doesn't feel the right thing.  Mary Trump explains the hopelessness of imagining he will ever be any different.  She lays him bare, and calls out all the enablers who have helped make this reign of terror possible.

 

For people like me who are more interested in family dynamics than politics, Too Much and Never Enough makes a fascinating read. Sure, people will always be quick to say Trump's niece just wanted to make money writing a book. As if  anyone can write a book. (Trump can't. Never wrote any of his own.) Donald-like, they'll call her a little ingrate who already got plenty of money from being a Trump. But it's clear to me it's not about the money. It's  about being  a member of a patriarchal family where women are told to sit down and shut up and finally deciding you won't. I find her act of defiance in publishing this book thrilling. And Trump is already living up to his billing as a bully, dishing out the childish taunts: "She wasn't a family favorite. She was a mess. Our parents couldn't stand her etc."  In other words, get busy cowering because we will continue to shun you.

 

I loved Mary Trump's interview retort, that since Trump also called Nancy Pelosi a mess, she figured she's in good company. You are, Mary. So thanks for speaking up. Thanks for putting the good of the country over some sick notion of family loyalty.  Thanks for doing the right thing.

 

Which reminds me of words of comfort I've recently encountered from an unexpected source. Like most little girls in the country, my granddaughter is smitten with all things Frozen, and I've been listening to the soundtrack in order to be up to speed when she visits soon. These lines by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez were written pre-pandemic, but seem hauntingly appropriate to one of the current prevailing moods in the country:

 

I won't look too far ahead
It's too much for me to take
But break it down to this next breath, this next step
This next choice is one that I can make
So I'll walk through this night
Stumbling blindly toward the light
And do the next right thing


And, with it done, what comes then?
When it's clear that everything will never be the same again
Then I'll make the choice to hear that voice
And do the next right thing

 

I wonder if any Republicans have little girls or granddaughters playing this music. If so, pay attention! Read Mary Trump's book. Believe her honest words. Face that you have shackled yourself to a fake sort of human being and forced us to bear the weight of his presidency. Nothing can be done to change Donald Trump, but is there any hope for you?  Just stop enabling Donald Trump--maybe the biggest mistake of your life--and do the next right thing. 

 

Of course, at this point, having passed up the chance to vote for his impeachment or ever stand up to this big baby of a tyrant in any way, all that may be left to you as the next right thing is to make a flying rat-leap off this sinking ship. 

 

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A Heart for Any Fate in the Time of the Coronavirus

 

Only three weeks since my last blog post and the whole world has changed. Newspaper and on-line articles are full of advice on how to weather your lockdown at home.  I don't need them. I put in so much time as the Queen of the Kingdom of Isolation while struggling to recover from physician prescribed opioids and benzos that I already know how to do this.  My calming, healing, daily yoga practice and forest walks have been in place for years.

 

But I also don't want to be the one telling everyone else how to handle this, making up suggested lists of projects and all that. This is the time for each person, each family, to marshal their own resources and figure it out for themselves.

 

People are quick to suggest what a perfect time this is for writers, citing stories of Shakespeare writing Lear while he was holed up from the plague. Well, for any fellow writers ambitiously working away, I say, more power to you. But I only write books when I have something to say, and right now I don't.

 

What I do have to offer is a book I already wrote: A Heart for Any Fate: Westward to Oregon, 1845. Twenty years ago I lovingly nailed down my own version of a story that thrilled me as a child, one book after another: the Oregon Trail.  In following the Kings who settled what came to be Kings Valley in Benton County, Oregon, I wrote of families marshalling their resources for this epic journey, banding together with other families for safety and support, experiencing the conflicts of the trail—hoarding, illness, despair.  It's also a love story. It won the Oregon Book Award, the Willa Literary Award (named for Willa Cather) and was short-listed for the Silver Spur, awarded by the Western Writers of America. 

 

If reading aloud with your kids, especially your restless young teenage daughters, is on your list for making the most of this self-enforced family time, I would suggest that escaping to a story of a  time when American families had to step up and show their true grit might make for a memorable experience.  If you're diligently trying to home school kids more formally, I can send you a great list of study questions put together by a local teacher.

 

I am always faithful in answering letters from readers, so if you want to suggest your kids write me with questions or comments, you needn't fear them being disappointed.  (LJC1@earthlink.net) I promise to answer.

 

Now is the time for each of us to show our best selves. This, too, shall pass, and we will come through it together, the better for having made the journey. Stay home, stay safe, stay well.  And love each other. 

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Love & Angst in the Time of the Coronavirus

I closed my last blog post with the promise of a report on my reaction to American Dirt, but the plot points in the Story on Planet Earth have moved forward so quickly, it's not what's been on my mind.  I'll bet the same is true for others, too, although I hear they're going to beat up the author, Jeanine Cummins, on Oprah pretty soon.

 

Before I started reading, I set aside the various reviews. I already understood the basic controversy, but I thought I should make make up my own mind.  My husband read the reviews and articles and wrote what he predicted my opinion would be on the back of an old envelope, folded and taped it shut.

 

I started reading and found the writing gripping.  After two chapters, though, I put it down and went for a walk.  Then it hit me: I didn't want to read any more of it.  Which seems to me like a good reason to quit. I didn't want to be gripped in this way.  So I ripped open my husband's prediction and here's what he had scrawled: I predict you will quit American Dirt early on.  Too violent.  A bloody chase story won't appeal.

 

Ha!  I loved this, that I'm married to a guy who knows me this well. So I will spare you my thoughts on so-called "cultural appropriation" and the intensity of envy among writers.

 

So now, here on the farm, we're watching the story of the Coronavirus unfolding.  I'm always struck by what this means when you've been married to the same person for almost 46 years.  We've watched history together.  The winter before we were married in 1974 there were lines at the gas station.  We were trying to fill our tanks to get up to the Cascades and go cross country skiing with my parents, something which, in retrospect, I realize was way more important to them than it was to us. At the time, I remember only thinking that if the gas ran out completely and we couldn't go anywhere, I just wanted to be in the same place with Herb, preferably at Wake Robin Farm, the property he had just bought.

 

Well, here we still are.  We bought a TV to watch the Watergate hearings the summer after we were married.  The twins were in kindergarten and we were putting in a new lawn in the backyard during the Clarence Thomas hearings.  My rage over the treatment of Anita Hill was white hot, and I will never forget or forgive Joe Biden's role in all that.  We drove the twins to high school on the morning of 9/11, then came home and stood in that same backyard, marveling at the quiet of the skies with all planes grounded. And what about our older son in China?  What would all this mean for our family?

 

And that same son was in Hong Kong at the epicenter of the SARS epidemic in 2003.  Seventeen years later, here in Corvallis with his Chinese wife's family still in Yanghsuo, skyping their anxiety, maybe he understands a little better how terrifying this was for us. 

 

We can go further back in our history and retell the story of how my husband's great-grandfather died of the Spanish Flu of 1918.  Because of his death, Herb's grandfather, enlisted and ready to be shipped to WWI's European front, was, as an only child, kept home instead.  A true example of the good luck/bad luck Chinese story of the Lost Horse. Without that Spanish flu death, Herb's entire line might not have existed, around 23 descendants now living by my count.

 

I was completely calm about the Coronavirus at first.  Staying home is what we like to do and we had no travel plans to cancel.  But it started to seem more anxiety provoking when somebody tested positive in Lake Oswego, Oregon, the town where our pregnant daughter-in-law works as a veterinarian.  Other links started cropping up—the elderly aunt just a stone's throw from the nursing home in Kirkland, Washington.

 

So, just hanging on tight here, staying calm, and then my heart gets stomped by Elizabeth Warren having to drop out of the Presidential race.  I can't stand it!  I hate the language describing her "poor performance in recent elections." Her performances, to my mind, were always brilliant.  The poor performances were by the people who ran, lemming-like, in fear of Trump over the cliff of Joe Biden.  Yeah, like a lot of women, I take this personally.  It's such a slap in the face to all the girls who were the smartest in their class and always got told to shut up and sit down.  It's like they're saying IT DOES NOT MATTER HOW SMART YOU ARE OR HOW HARD YOU TRY, WE WILL NEVER VOTE FOR A WOMAN! YOU CAN NEVER WIN!

 

I so wanted to watch her kick Trump's butt on the debate stage.  Now we're stuck with these two old farts.  I will vote for either of them over the despicable Trump, of course. As folks have said, they'd vote for Mickey Mouse over Trump.  They'd vote for a paper bag.  I just hope both Sanders and Biden have the wit to beg Elizabeth to be their running mate, because I believe she could set this ship straight as VP to either one of them.

 

Sigh.  Well, nothing to do but hold on and take comfort in the fact that I have been married for 46 years to a darling man who has said all along that Elizabeth Warren is obviously the smartest and best candidate in the Presidential race. 

 

So hang in there.  I wish you healing if you're ill, continued good health if you're not.  If you're quarantined, I hope you're with somebody you love.  Most of all, I wish us all freedom from the depressing, soul-crushing tyranny of the liar, liar pants-on-fire Presidency of Donald J. Trump.

 

 

 

 

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Deep River by Karl Marlantes

About a month ago I walked into my local independent bookstore, Grass Roots, with a singular mission:   I needed a book printed on actual paper.  I had been reading too many on my Kindle and one actually pointed out that reading on screens right before bed is not conducive to good sleep.

 

On the new book shelf I immediately spotted just the ticket: Deep River by Karl Marlantes. I'd read his earlier book, Matterhorn, and was impressed.  Here was his new, big fat hardback for thirty bucks. I liked the idea of the serious commitment buying this would represent, for I have noticed how easily a book on Kindle may be left unfinished, unseen. If this guy sat there and did the work to produce a seven hundred page book on a subject of interest to me, attention should be paid, and I would read it.

 

Also, the cover itself called to me.  I had probably looked at that very photo—a turn-of-the-century logger standing behind downed sections of a huge old growth fir—when I was doing research for my own novel featuring historic logging, Fire on the Wind. This was territory I had been over myself, and I would definitely be interested to see how Marlantes would handle it.

 

Well, the answer is, he handled it thoroughly, in great detail.  Excessive detail.  In his acknowledgments he thanks no less than five Grove Atlantic editors, a lot for any book, all of them female, and I had to wonder—had they given up, one after the other? How many manuscript pages had Marlantes originally turned in?  Do female editors lack the nerve to pass along to a male author a rule I thought we all understood, that it's not necessary to include every last detail of information discovered in research? I can hear Marlantes arguing he actually uncovered much more and I'm sure he did, but the point remains—you want to be finding the right amount of detail to tell the story without overwhelming it.

 

Deep River is a historical family saga spanning decades over the turn of the previous century, the story of Finnish immigrants to the Southwest region of Washington State and Astoria across the Columbia River.  I loved learning about this and thoroughly trusted the accuracy of his information, but never have I read a book I so wanted to edit. Places I think of as "false steps" in my editing of my own writing just kept jumping out at me.

 

A blatant example—a scene where Matti runs out into the night to chase down his sister, who's taken off from their cabin into the night, terribly upset:

 

"I'm going after her."  He tossed the glowing cigarette to the ground and took off running.

He ran past the old snag.  Such a waste, he thought.  Must be fifty thousand board feet in it, mostly vertical grain.  Just past Ullakko's farm, where the Tapiloa road became a trail, heading for Snappton and Reder's Camp cutoff, he caught a slight movement……

 

What can I say but No!  No, no, no! He can't be stopping to calculate board feet while his sister is in peril.  Even if this were the author's hamhanded attempt at making a commentary on the way Finnish men see the world, it still doesn't work.

 

Toward the end of the book, during the Depression, a hungry man approaches the main character, a woman named Aino. 

 

"I haven't eaten in two days, except some apples.  Those watery Yellow Transparents they grow around here.  Salmonberries, you know."

"I hear St. Mary on Grand helps out with food.  Also, the Finish and Norwegian Lutherans."

 

This breaks a rule I always apply to my own work, that people must never say things just to impart information.  That's the stuff of soap opera, and I'll bet no hungry man has ever in history stood around complaining about apple varieties.

How about this:

 

"I haven't eaten in two days, except some apples."

"Have you tried the churches?"

 

How much shorter this book could have been!

 

Another rule: Don't let your research show.

 

Marlantes breaks this on every page. I felt I could see the very newspaper clippings he'd collected.  Once a character was actually waving one. I could too easily picture his office wall plastered with the master calendar of his book. Why else would we be given so many specific dates for events that did not need dating?  We do not need to know that the solstice fell on a Tuesday a certain year so they had the party on Saturday.  Just have the damned party!  I think of so many comments my Random House editor Wendy Lamb used to write on my manuscripts: "We already know this" or "We don't need to know this." Maybe this is why people secretly enjoy YA novels—they are thoroughly, lovingly edited.

 

I absolutely do not mean to trash this book. There is so much here that is of great value.  But in the end, what it added up to for me was a book that, thanks to the author's wonderful descriptions, I could see like a movie, but could not feel.  Because he is mainly convincing when he's outside the characters, not when he's inside looking out. Yes, I could see the women, forever making the coffee, forever waiting to see if the men had come to harm at whatever misadventure they'd set out on; I could see the men doing their frightfully hard and dangerous work;  the children with their chores, living close to the land. But I was never moved, never choked up once, not even when a precious little girl is buried with flowers.  It struck me over and over: I would see what he was trying to do in a given scene, but it just wasn't quite working. Not for me.

 

Maybe he felt in trying to depict a strong, independent woman he was giving female readers a nod, but Aino never seemed like a real person.  Her interior life and thought processes didn't ring true, and she was for the most part quite unsympathetic in the decisions she made.

 

Marlantes—a veteran of the war in Vietnam—seems so much more at home in describing men drinking, smoking, and fighting, whether with fists, knives or guns, than he is in trying to plumb the depths of a woman's heart. I think men will be the best appreciators of Marlante's work in Deep River and I'm passing this book to my husband, who I think will enjoy the vivid background on logging and fishing and life in general during these early years in the Pacific Northwest.

 

I, meanwhile, will now turn to  American Dirt.  I want to see what all the fuss is about, plus, right now a book billed as an emotional page-turner sounds appealing, no matter what the controversy.   

 

 

 

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Little Women

Looks like everybody's weighing in on Greta Gerwig's Little Women and what the novel by Louisa May Alcott meant to them as girls growing up; turns out I'm apparently the only living female writer who doesn't swear to have fervently identified with Jo March.  She wanted to be a writer!  She had blazing ambitions! She didn't want to get married!

 

Sorry, I did want to get married and never had writerly ambitions as a child. To be honest I have to count myself among the legions of young readers who just couldn't see why Jo wouldn't marry Laurie. The stuffy old professor? Get out of here!  I still believed the princess should wind up with the prince. I actually identified with spoiled Amy.  At least she had the smarts to have golden curls and covet beautiful clothes. I wanted to wear those long dresses too, and felt pretty ripped off that I wasn't born in the 19th Century.

 

But never mind. The real impact of Little Women for me was Beth dying. Because I missed it! I was so proud of myself, reading this big fat book when I was only in the third grade. But here's the deal: I may have known all the words, but I didn't understand euphemism. So, forever burned in my brain is the memory of my nine-year-old self sitting up in bed, a couple of chapters past "The Valley of the Shadow" when something clued me in that Beth wasn't actually around anymore.  "Mom?" I hollered out to my mother, starting to cry.  "Moooooom?"

 

I didn't know a book was allowed to be like this.  I didn't know an author could make you love a character and then let her die. I've now taken out the lovely illustrated copy of Little Women once owned by my mother-in-law—the mysterious, iconic woman who died years before her son and I ever met—to see what words, what description of death had gone right past me. These must be the lines:

 

A bird sang blithely on a budding bough, close by, the snowdrops blossomed freshly at the window, and the spring sunshine streamed in like a benediction over the placid face upon the pillow—a face so full of painless peace, that those who loved it best smiled through their tears, and thanked God that Beth was well at last.

 

Hey, great!  Beth's well at last, right? Whew. Close one.

 

(You can bet, though, that I never got tricked like that again.)

 

Well, people are writing reams about the new movie so I'll be lazy and brief.  I loved every beautiful frame.  It was like a series of paintings, genteel poverty beautifully lit, the whole thing an amazing work of art.  For those of us who already know the story, the time shifts kept it intriguing. Each moment had me wondering just how Gerwig was going to pull it off. Yes, she took liberties with the historical record: Alcott actually scorned all the novels she wrote for young readers, including Little Women. But this screenplay works, and brilliantly. Gerwig has boldly fictionalized the writing of a piece of fiction which was itself based on real life. In choosing to not get into Alcott's actual, complicated opinions of her own books, Gerwig succeeds in showcasing a larger truth about women and their struggle to not have their creative ambitions stifled.

 

Apparently too much gorgeous and amazing female creative energy was involved in this film to allow it to warrant the attention of the patriarchal powers who bestow awards nominations.  Nuts to the folks in charge of the Golden Globe snub.  Thumbs up to Greta Gerwig and her entire cast and crew.

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In Thanks for the Life of Margaret Bartlett, PT

I was absolutely blindsided  that Sunday in September to see in the local paper's death notices the name of Margaret Bartlett, our town's beloved physical therapist, known to some as the Good Witch of Benton County.  No cause of death, just bafflingly gone, at the far too young age of 64, slender, always healthy-looking Margaret.

 

Clearly I cannot claim to have been her friend, or someone would have let me know she'd contracted, last spring, a fast-acting, inoperable stomach cancer.  Clueless as I was, I had just put her name on my To-Do list for making appointments for my husband and myself, hoping to bring our current minor complaints to her for the benefit of her wisdom.

 

Her passing is such a loss to so many in our community.  Another local writer, Wendy Madar, published a tribute in the Corvallis Gazette-Times, explaining how Margaret had actually healed her brain after a car accident.  It sounds far-fetched, but I completely believe her.  Margaret had learned certain techniques with which she was, quite simply, able to fix people.  You weren't to go to her for ongoing massages; she took pride in her record of straightening people around in three sessions or less.  As Wendy pointed out, so many people around here have their own Margaret Bartlett story.

 

I don't remember how I initially heard about Margaret, but I ended up in her office after a seven-year stretch of visiting a string of different doctors, all male, for my hip pain. After my primary care gatekeepers, I went to a surgeon, an acupuncturist, a sports medicine specialist, and did a round of physical therapy.  One doc said I had one leg longer than the other,  and I ended up at the shoe repair shop, having a half inch of  heel added to one of each pair of all my shoes. Argh! Nothing helped, and sometimes it seemed like all these men--including the shoemaker--just wanted to point out that the other men involved here didn't know what they were talking about.  I remember coming home in frustration, complaining to my husband that I just wished all these guys could get in a room together and discuss my case instead of badmouthing each other individually to me.

 

Then Margaret put her hands on me.  No, she said, I did not have one leg longer than the other.  My pelvis was merely torqued, maybe because of my weak, knee-capless knee, which might have made it look as if one leg were longer in a straight-on x-ray.  She cranked me around, got me straightened out, gave me a set of exercises to  do and that was that.  I was fixed.  For her modest one-time fee of $75, I was freed of pain.

 

After all those doctors?  After  years of appointments and bills? You can bet I was a believer. 

 

Margaret then helped me and my husband with other issues over the years.  When I was struggling with the damage done to my brain by physician prescribed Xanax, she put her hands on the back of my head and said she could feel something amiss with my amygdale.  Huh? How could she actually feel my brain through my skull? Whatever, I let her poke  around at the back of my neck.  In the end, how could I argue with the fact that I had arrived in a fog and walked out feeling clear-headed?  I remember thinking I just wished I could have her do that for me first thing every day until I fully healed. 

 

I was always recommending Margaret to anyone around town with a physical gripe, and I was so impressed with her practice that I used her as a model for one of the main characters in a novel I've been working on called Family Trees.  She was quite helpful in giving me materials explaining her techniques, and shared details of her medical training.  The resulting character, Bridget Garland, is not a faithful depiction of Margaret's personality, nor is it intended to be, but I am indebted to her for her inspiration in being that rarest of people, a true healer, and hopefully I got the details of her technique right.

 

When an email notice arrived the other day announcing the closing of her therapy office–apparently many people hadn't heard about her death and were still calling for appointments—it was accompanied by a picture of a young Margaret that completely choked me up.  I had forgotten  that  I had written for my character a dream of having an orchard and making cider.  Here was Margaret in hers, looking for all the world like my Bridget Garland.

 

I think of Margaret every morning as I faithfully do her prescribed back exercises, and I know I am just one of so many who is already missing her terribly.  Thank you, Margaret, for the life you lived and the gifts you gave.

 

 

Life is short and we have but little time to gladden the hearts of those who travel the way with us.  Oh, be swift to love.  Make haste to be kind.    Henri-Frederick Amiel.

 

 

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