Please enjoy these blogposts, written between 2011 and 2015. Another blog is on the way.

Saturday, December 31, 2011

Stepping into 2012

Our new kitten, Arthur
I've been gone, obviously. Teaching is hard; writing while teaching is harder; but not writing is hardest of all, and I vow to give it up. In 2012, I'm going to write while I teach, no matter how complicated my life becomes, how tired I get, how behind on laundry, no matter if both the teaching and writing go downhill as a result.

Obama signed the National Defense Authorization Act today, meaning that American citizens accused of domestic terrorism can be detained, interrogated, and tried by military as well as civilian officials.  The tricky thing will be how how broadly domestic terrorism is defined.  (A scary example is the prosecution as terrorists of Earth Liberation Front activists, for property damage alone. Watch If a Tree Falls, now streaming on Netflix.) What has looked like a popular uprising in Syria turns out to be some kind of proxy war against Iran, with our fingerprints all over it.  Los Angeles is on fire, and it isn't even fire season. My children struggle to make ends meet, and we struggle to help them.

Yet whether it's 1984 or 2012, on whatever morning in whatever year we wake up, we get in the shower, get dressed, and do the things we can't help doing.  Not writing is harder on my health than fatigue will ever be.  I hope that whatever it is you can't help doing, your most important occupation, thrives next year, and you along with it.

P. S. I plan to post a book review now and then on this blog since I'm not reviewing for Trachodon's Cheek Teeth site anymore...and I never stop reading.  

Tuesday, October 25, 2011


I've been sick--a little sick, then more sick--and now I'm well again.  Two rounds of oral antibiotics didn't faze my infection, so I had to show up at the infusion room of St. Joseph's in Bellingham for an intravenous antibiotic.

"Considering how common illness is,"writes Virginia Woolf in On Being Ill, "how tremendous the spiritual change that it brings, how astonishing, when the lights of health go down, the undiscovered countries that are then disclosed, what wastes and deserts of the soul a slight attack of influence brings to view . . . how we go down into the pit of death and feel the waters of annihilation close above our heads . . . it becomes strange indeed that illness has not taken its place with love and battle and jealousy among the prime themes of literature."

Woolf's husband and doctors put her to bed when she was ill. While she was recuperating, they sent her out on long country walks and made her drink gallons of milk. They didn't let her write, believing that writing disturbed her mind and stressed her body. Not writing, I've always suspected, made her sicker. But maybe not.

I have a hard time staying in bed.  I spent the days before my evening treatments grading fifty essays. I could have postponed this task, I guess, but I knew I would panic if I got behind in grading, if this set of essays was still unfinished when the next set rolled in.  My IV port was in my left hand, so I was able to write in margins all day long. My husband and son walked the dog and washed the dishes and bought the groceries, all jobs I couldn't have done. Friends took care of the dog one day while my husband attended a meeting. I carried on with the one thing that I could do.

Woolf had household servants. Do I need to repeat this?  Her family did not have to wait on her all day long. The idea that the very people I used to take care of are taking care of me may be what keeps me up and down the stairs, in and out of the house, or sitting up in my office moving my pen. I never quite commit to being the patient.

The infusion room at St. Joe's is quiet in the evening.  My IV antibiotic was called Gentamicin, a friendly name for a substance that didn't make me sicker while it was making me well--unlike the pills I'd been swallowing. The nurses could not have been kinder, even when, after multiple sticks, they couldn't get through my thick skin to a vein. A"pick nurse," Janine, came to the rescue, inserting a pediatric-size needle near my wrist bone.  Janine rolls her equipment around in front of her in a cart as tall as an IV pole, with stacks of baskets for her needles and tubes and a shoebox-sized ultrasound machine for spotting the tiny veins of children.  Like anyone with a very specific skill she has utterly mastered and does not underestimate, she took her time, spoke softly, and succeeded on the first try.

The infusion room is not far from the chemo room, and I think this is what Woolf meant when she wrote that the "waters of annihilation close above our heads" in illness.  You can't help, if you are 58 and sick, thinking ahead to future illnesses, to final ones.  Maybe this, and not the discomfort of being waited on, is the real reason I don't lie down and let myself get well.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Sex as Deal Breaker in The Ides of March **Spoiler Alert**

I went to see The Ides of March Saturday night with my husband and son, and I should have stayed home. A. O. Scott of The New York Times warned me that although the film has “lofty” ambitions—to wrestle with “the nature of honor, the price of loyalty, the ways that a man’s actions are a measure of his character”--in the end it simply points out instances of male politicians treating women like paper napkins, of lying in politics generally, and of reporters getting things wrong.  None of this is news, Scott says.  Right.  I’d go a little further: the fine acting in this film is utterly wasted.

Married Democratic governor Mike Morris, played by George Clooney, is a guy with a conscience except when it comes to sex.  His media manager, Stephen Myers, played by Ryan Gosling, puts Morris’s sexual errors into context this way:

Don’t you know, [says Myers to the governor] that you can start a war [and here my memory of the actual movie dialogue gets faulty, so I’ll make up a few things], you can throw innocent people into prison, you can wreck a thriving economy, you can burn the country to the ground, but [what comes next I can quote with some confidence] “the one thing you cannot do is FUCK AN INTERN!”

The intern in question, said to be 20 years old, is played by Evan Rachel Wood and is the daughter of the chairman of the DNC.  It doesn’t matter much who she is, except that her connection makes Morris seem even more hubristic than we already believe him to be and renders Myers, who sleeps with her, too, reckless, at the very least. 

So it all comes down to sex.  That’s recent, though, isn’t it?  Didn’t FDR have a long-lived affair with Lucy Mercer?  Didn’t most of the Kennedy family get it on with Marilyn Monroe?  Bill Clinton may have been the turning point.  He was just a little too relaxed about his infidelities.

After the movie, I had an argument with my son:

Me: I don’t understand this puritanical attitude toward sex.  The George Clooney character has sex with a young woman and suddenly he’s not fit to be president? 

Son: He’s married, Mom.  Are you saying that it shouldn’t matter if he screws around on the side?

Me  I’m saying that once it wouldn’t have mattered. 

Son: Would you have voted for Barack if it came out that he was doing an intern?

Me:  I voted for Clinton when it was already pretty clear that he couldn’t keep it in his pants.

Son: But, see, that’s the difference. He never pretended he was a good guy that way.

Me: So it’s the hypocrisy you object to?

Son:  Well yes, the lying, but also the sex.

Me: It wasn’t that way when we were young.  You could sleep with anybody you wanted to.  The birth control pill was a wonderful thing.   

Husband: AIDS. That’s what changed everything. 

[My son and I ignore him. This happens far too often.]

Son: But don’t you think it’s better this way, Mom, better now than then?

Me: I do not think so. [At this point I reassure both husband and son that I myself do not practice infidelity.]  . . .  All I’m saying is why does it matter so much?  When did we start to hold up marital fidelity as THE indicator of character?  George W and his father before him were faithful in office, so we believe, but how many deaths were they responsible for?

My son and I did not agree to disagree.  We just disagreed. I’ve been thinking a lot about the conversation since.

I know what the seventh commandment is, but what about all the others?

My husband has always maintained that Democrats get elected to office so they can have illicit sex, and Republicans so they can make illicit money.  (He means men, of course.)  What bothers me is that the Republicans have set the agenda for what can ruin a public official.  They can dole out enormous contracts to Diebold and Halliburton, torture prisoners and render them to countries who torture them worse, collect money hand over fist from lobbyists who (to put it mildly) do not have our best interests at heart, and . . . you know the list.  But most of them manage either to stay faithful to their wives or give up sex altogether.  (The third possibility is that they hire hit squads to take out any and all people who know different.) My theory is they think sex is way more trouble than it’s worth. It doesn’t affect the bottom line, for one thing. Yet we’re supposed to think they’re fine, upstanding, moral men, apart from the occasional anomalies--you know, sex in bathroom stalls or while your wife is dying of cancer.

(Okay, I realize that most Democrats are not on my side, either. They can’t get there.  Their health insurance packages are so big they bar the way.)

The saddest footage of The Ides of March is Evan Rachel Wood’s character waiting alone in the lobby of an abortion clinic for her procedure and in a restaurant afterward, again alone, for Myers to pick her up.  He never shows. 

Does the intern herself ever matter one bit in these scenarios?  The film takes her story one step further, and that irritated me, too, because the only result of her suicide (besides ending her life) is to make Myers a meaner, smarter political player than before.

Did you or didn’t you?  And how can we make you pay?  What an arid, loveless world we live in.  

Sunday, October 2, 2011

A Little Magazine

The third issue of Trachodon: lit, art & artisan culture was mailed to subscribers this week, and once again, I’m pretty dang impressed by the efforts of John Carr Walker and Katey Schultz, friends from my MFA program at Pacific University, to publish something that feels new and old at the same time. The new issue is 60 pages of fresh and professional writing and images that taste as homemade as the salsa I canned with friends last week.

Issue #3 includes a new story by Pete Fromm called “God’s TV.”  It would be hard to overestimate Pete’s influence on fiction writers at Pacific. He was my own faculty advisor for two semesters, and in arguing with him over just about everything that had to do with craft, I began to intuit what kind of writer I am. Four-time winner of the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association’s “Book of the Year” award, Pete, in his novels and stories—I hope he doesn’t read this—persuaded me to cut men a little more slack, even and especially self-consciously manly men, whose hearts are pounded to pulp by love, lost or found, just like everyone else’s.  His female characters are as sharp and real, and often as funny, as Larry McMurtry’s.  The film version of his novel As Cool as I Am, about teenager Lucy Diamond and her young mother, both of them relentlessly pursuing love, opens in 2012, starring Claire Danes, James Marsden, and Sarah Bolger.  “God’s TV” will not disappoint you. 

Pete’s story is one of three in this issue, and I can recommend the other two as well: “Bacillus Anthracis” by Heather Clitheroe, about isolation in marriage caused by one partner's germophobia, and “The Littlest Goat,” by Daniel Pinkerton, about more general isolation caused by fear of bridges and a bunch of other things. Since "God's TV" follows a man resisting the lifestyle changes that fatherhood will bring . . . I guess I'm seeing a pattern here, a collective theme. Also in this issue: art by Marianne Dages, a nonfiction piece about printing by Ray Scanlon, and reflections on writing by John and Katey. Trachodon 3 is, in Raymond Carver’s words, a small, good thing. Subscribe or buy single issues at*

I got involved with Trachodon when they published one of my stories, “Shoebox,” in Issue #1.  (You can read the first issue online for free now, at Let me know what you think of my story.) I began contributing book reviews soon after to Cheek Teeth, the blog associated with the magazine. Cheek Teeth has attracted a stunning variety of guest blogs and bloggers. Check it out, too:

*You can use my discount! For a 99-cent ebook of Issue 3, use promo code SZ52T and follow this link. (Regular price is $4.99) (In case the link fails:  For 25% off the print edition, use promo code QVHHQGHT and follow this link. (Regular price is $10) (In case the link fails:

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Facing Forward

Victor, my sweet son, now Chelsea's husband. 
I started teaching again this week, two sections of English 101 at the main campus of Skagit Valley College in Mount Vernon, WA. I got up at 5:15, drove the 25 miles over the hill from Bellingham and walked into class by 7:30.  I listened to music on the way, something that I rarely get around to doing at home. After thirty minutes of Sweet Honey in the Rock or Bonnie Raitt or Rosemary Clooney, I felt a little too awake, and had to remind myself to keep my voice down so as to not scare any students away. By Thursday morning, however, no lyric or chord or shot of espresso could have filled my tank. I taught comatose, trusting my lesson plan to get me through.  I think that it did, in one of my sections anyway.

I've taught before, last spring at a satellite campus of SVC, and in one venue or another for about eight years in California. I like teaching.  Grading papers is not a whole lot of fun, but it's part of teaching, so I try to do it well.  In California, when my kids were teenagers, teaching was a way to relocate my voice to a place where it might do some good.  At home my kids weren't listening, and every time I opened my mouth, their deafness deepened.  So I stayed out of their way two afternoons and nights a week and the rest of the time was often too busy planning and grading to wander through the house checking up on what they were or weren't doing.

Teaching was an avocation, in other words, as writing also was.  My vocation, from the minute I laid eyes on Alex, my first child, was my kids.  But, as you see below in the photos from Victor's July wedding, my vocation has slipped away.  I think of it as an empty park.  I can walk through it, sit down, and enjoy the breeze, but I'm alone there. The people I used to hang out with return only for quick visits--to careen down the slide, or run to the restroom.

This emptiness has started, maybe, finally, to look like space. Maybe I'm beginning to remember how it felt to live just one life, my own.  It's possible that I'll wake up tomorrow morning and ask myself what the day will bring me.  I don't know what's finally shifting me in that direction.  The kids have done everything they compassionately could to tell me it's time to move on. Maybe it was the wedding followed by the new job.  I feel different.

Mom and Dad with the newlyweds Victor and Chelsea.

Plus Mary and Alex.  All of us.

Alex and Mary dancing. (Okay, I made them.) Our dear friends, my kids' other parents, Kevin and Barbara Susco.

Plus my big brother, Ed, standing at right, my nephew, Paul, seated left, and my sister-in-law, Marrianne, seated right.  

Barb and Kevin

Plus Laurie Miller, Warren's sister, and his mom, Mary Miller.

Victor in front, his groomsmen Alex, Warren, and Matt.

My park buddies, Alex, Victor, and Mary.

Friday, September 9, 2011

My Father Shakes Hands with the Stars

My dad in his 30s, circa 1937.

My dad's silent old age put so much distance between us that when he died, he seemed merely to slip over the horizon.  I visit his grave occasionally to remind myself that I knew him a little when I was a child.  He and my mother are buried in Sacramento, California, not far from where I grew up, at Sunset Lawn Chapel of the Chimes, across the street from a single strip of tract houses with front yards piled deep in rusting appliances and next to a defunct drive-in theater.  For a while the marker on his grave, one of the few written records I have of his life, confused me.  It reads Herman Heydron, Master Sergeant, U.S. Army, January 11, 1901-July 2, 1983, Army/Air Corps.   Was he a master sergeant in the Army or the Air Force?  I did some reading to discover what is doubtless well known by many, that it was only in 1947, the year my dad retired from military service, that the Air Force split off from the Army and became an independent branch of the armed forces.  I found that part of my father's history in a book, but it was a book in which his name was never mentioned.

There is no one to tell me the story that is only his.  My father himself stuttered from birth.  When I was old enough to wonder about his story, he had already contracted Parkinson's disease, a condition that made his hands tremble violently, grabbed hold of words he had once uttered with difficulty and shook them to pieces.   My mother, fifteen years younger than he was, barely had time to see his marker laid in place before she died, too.  In any case, she was never very forthcoming about the past.  My brother and sister seem to know as little about my parents' history as I do.

Dear Mary, my dad wrote to my mom from Hollywood in January, 1944,  How are you and Butch.  Tell Janelle that I seen a lot of stars and shook hands with them.  I wish you where  (sic) here with me now I sure would enjoy it more.  I love you very much  [here a word or two is covered by a dab of glue].  Love, Herman.    They had been married seven years.  "Butch" was their firstborn, my brother Ed, a baby then, and Janelle was my mother's niece and neighbor in San Antonio, Texas.   The message is on the back of a postcard from "The Masquers Club" whose members, as explained on the card, were "motion picture stars, directors, and producers."  A further line of information is kindly provided for the sender: "I am having dinner here tonight as a guest of The Masquers Servicemen's Morale Corps."  

Which stars, besides Eddie and Red Bracken (I'm not sure who Red is), did my father shake hands with?  Did the morale corps invite him the evening of January 10 because the following day was his birthday?  Or had he just come off the minesweeper he once mentioned having served on in the Atlantic?  Was he often this tender, this open, with my mother, or was he afraid that she would be angry because he was in Hollywood without her? 

Stories, especially stories loaded with detail, are the way I prefer to make sense of things, so it is hard to be in the dark about the very outline of my dad's life, to fill in the figures with only inference and imagination.  And what I have known on some level all my life but have only recently become fully aware of is that without knowing his story, it is difficult to believe in my own.

My father loved movies--I know that much--from the day the Army lent him to the production of the 1927 film Wings, first winner of the Academy Award for best picture.  He drove a truck in it, but I have never been able to spot him.  His favorite actresses were Wings  star Clara Bow, Claudette Colbert, and the lesser known Juliette Prowse.  I see now that what these women had in common was a knowing gleam in their eyes.  One wonders what exactly they knew.  My dad himself was blue-eyed and red-haired, thick-lipped, large-eared.  In face and build he looked remarkably like the handless veteran Harold Russell, winner of an Oscar for his supporting role in The Best Years of Our Lives.   But my father came out of the war with no visible handicaps.   He was famous in our neighborhood for what he could do with a ball, any kind of ball, either filling in at shortstop during my brother's Little League practices, past 50 by then, his pipe clenched in his teeth, or tapping my mother's croquet ball far from the wicket she was about to attempt.  

But I am getting ahead of myself, rushing past the little I know.

Herman (I didn't name either of my sons after him) and his many siblings emigrated from Germany to Michigan in 1909.  He was eight.  Where in Germany did he come from?  To where in Michigan did he go?  Once he named Saginaw as his destination, but he didn't seem sure.  He didn't know his mother's first name, when or how she died, but her death occurred early in his life, maybe before he left Germany. His father was killed in a coal-mine collapse long before Herman was grown.  At sixteen, he and his twin brother enlisted in the Army, lying about their age.   The two of them were at loose ends for some time before that, under the care of people who didn’t have the resources to care much.  Herman, at least, stopped attending school when he was in the fourth grade.

Except for his brief career in film, the next twenty years of my dad's life are dark indeed.   He is supposed to have had at least one sweetheart before my mother, a teacher in one of the towns in South Texas populated by German immigrants.  I have one photo of him from these years.  He is sitting against the dark floral wallpaper of what looks like a hotel lobby with a cocky look on his face.  As a child, I only saw that look when he was winning a game.  From 1937, there are more pictures, beginning with a few of my parents' wedding, held in a public park on a bright day, toilet paper strung from the trees as decoration.

Forty years old and recently married when the United States entered World War II, he left the service not long after it ended and took up the civilian half of his life in California.  I have a picture of the car he and my mother drove out in the spring of 1947, a dark-colored sedan from the thirties with tiny windows.  My sister Vicki, one and a half, sits on the hood wearing a plaid sweater.  My dad had to shove a broomstick under the handle of the passenger door to hold it shut, and my mother shimmied across the hot seat every time they stopped, which with two little children must have been frequently, across the Texas Panhandle, through New Mexico, Arizona and Southern California.  "It didn't bother us," my mother told me about the trip in general and the broom in particular.  "We were young." 

Vicki. Can't see the broomstick.

But I am 58 now, and I am guessing that my father, at 46, with a horrific childhood behind him, would not have felt very young.   In Sacramento, he worked steadily and made a living wage as a civilian mechanic at McClellan Air Force Base.  By 1953, when I was born, my family owned a small house in what was then a new suburb, a car, later two cars, a television set.  We ate very well, thanks to my mother's skill as a money manager and backyard gardener, and although her taste was peculiar, we were well clothed.  In 1963, my father retired permanently, sick with stomach cancer but, as no one predicted then, with 20 years left to live.  My mother, believing his retirement wouldn't support a family with one daughter ready for college and another still young--my brother was in the army by then--went to work downtown as a civil servant, first as a switchboard operator and then as a clerk.  My parents were, in sum, the kind of family-centered, working-class people whose existence is lauded by candidates for public office but no longer, I think, entirely believed in.  Working hard may have kept their "crimes confined," their "sober wishes" from "straying," as it did for the farmers in Gray's “Elegy"--or it may have been the memory of hunger that kept them honest. 

My father regretted his lack of schooling so much that his watchword, one phrase he never hesitated over, was get an education.   It wasn't unusual advice, and I followed it; I still read like the world is about to run out of books and sit through multi-part PBS documentaries waiting for that key piece of information about the cosmos or the Civil War or the human brain that will explain . . . everything.  My father, though, all but gave up his struggle with literacy.   Besides the postcard from Hollywood, I have an album of snapshots he put together in Panama during the forties with a few captions scrawled on the pages, and a tiny notebook in which, much later, he figured the mileage of his car.  That is all.  Reading must have been difficult for him as well since I never saw him read anything but the Giants' statistics and the program listings in the TV Guide.   Of course there is a third way in which we use language, the traditional one in which the unschooled pass on culture, but my father's stutter, later aggravated by illness, prevented him from talking much.  Now called a speech disfluency, stuttering is believed to be congenital but is aggravated by trauma and long-term stress.   I wonder, though, had my father been fluent, how much he would have said.

I have also wondered if he simply wasn't very smart, but the workings of my own mind, recognizably like his in many ways, and the intelligence of my siblings and all my father's grandchildren, lead me to believe that unlikely.   Even as an adolescent I also realized, although the vocabulary for it didn't exist then, that my dad had a fine emotional intelligence.  He seemed to know that my mom was getting mad even before she did, and he headed for the garage.   At night, in my infancy, he walked back and forth with me across our tiny living room until I nodded off.   Later, when as a sick child I didn't make it to the bathroom, he cleaned up the mess without waking my mother.  Until I was grown and gone, he woke me from bad dreams. 

No, low intelligence is not the only, surely not even the major, cause of illiteracy.  Words awaken memories.

During the 1970s, the last decade of my dad's life, when I was in my twenties, I sometimes asked my mother to tell me more of their stories.  By then my father had multiple and crushing health problems, and my mother was busy taking care of him, but she tried to oblige.  On the subject of their childhoods, though, I learned not to ask many questions or appear too interested.  When I did, she closed her eyes and changed the subject.  Although the outline of my mother's life had always been clearer to me than that of my father's, there were events in her past--anything to which she couldn't attach a happy outcome or put some kind of positive spin on--that she wouldn't touch.  Maybe she thought I couldn't handle the truth.  I am certain that she was also ashamed of it.   More important, she and my father spent their adult lives trying to forget where they came from.   Carolyn Forche has written that "the world in which we [postwar American children] were born was wounded, and particularly in America, the suture of choice for the closing of this wound, was silence."  Why should my mother relive past miseries to satisfy my curiosity when, by dint of her own hard work, I had been spared them?

 Some years back a therapist found it necessary to remind me that although my grandparents died decades before I was born, I could rely on the fact that I did indeed have two grandmothers and two grandfathers, that they had been born and come together and died, that they had existed.   But without records to refer to, without letters or diaries or pictures or even stories told around the dinner table, I have to invent them out of whole cloth, to guess at what they were like and what happened to them, then test my guesses against what I know of myself, the little I know of my parents, what I have learned about history and human nature.  It is a process full of missteps, embarrassment, withdrawl, the regaining of nerve, more missteps.  When I share my thinking and imagining, I often go too far, say too much to friends and acquaintances, more than they want to know.  I cannot seem to find the right tone in which to speak or write of these things.  I become frustrated, more convinced than ever that if I could only find out another detail or two, I wouldn't have such an alarming tendency to exaggerate, except on the days when I suspect that the truth would be worse than anything I've imagined, that in my version I've soft-pedaled everything, that I'm scared.   I am often certain that everyone around me knows I am only pretending to be real, that my true nature is spectral, like that of the grandparents who I can only assume existed.  In a family where hard times taught the middle generation, my parents', the one born between utter silence and telling, to push feelings down and away, emotion itself feels wrong, deviant, an act of disloyalty to the people whose story is also my own.  Or worse, at least for me, emotion feels fake.

More than anything else, of course, my parents wanted their children to escape the past.  If I have postponed the onset of desperation about being storyless until rather late in life, it is because I have been trying to raise my own three, now grown children.  I wonder, though, if instead of having spent so much time taking my kids to see mountains and oceans and churches and museums, reading them books, and showing them old movies, it would have been better to let them witness my struggle to make myself whole by reimagining my family's story. 

Last summer I noticed several crows--or were they ravens?--standing wide-eyed but with apparent nonchalance among the more recent graves at Sunset Lawn.  I wondered if perhaps the standards of the place were slipping and considered chasing the birds away.  In the end I got back in my car and drove past them.  The birds scared me that time, but they won't again. 

A red-haired boy stands alone on the rear deck of a ship on a cold night, avoiding the family scene below in which one of his sisters is very ill.  He is just tall enough to peek over the railing, but cannot look down over it at the wake of the ship, illuminated by a lantern, which one of his brothers has told him is mesmerizing.  He settles for listening to the rumble of the ship's engine and gazing at the stars.  The life he left behind wasn't much fun, he reflects, and the place he is going may be better.  It's the front of the ship that ought to interest him.  He heads in that direction.

My dad teaches a dog to swim.

Thursday, September 1, 2011


I’ve never worried much about privacy.  Most people who want to know something about me can elicit my whole life story, including my biggest mistakes, in about fifteen minutes.  I trust easily—that’s one thing.  And I would rather not have to filter my response to people through a screen of what is or isn’t their business.  This may be one way in which I am not an introvert. 

When I follow debates over government and market surveillance, I have to goad myself toward outrage.

That hand-held gismo that McGee uses on NCIS to identify a body by fingerprint--Tana Ganeva of Alternet says in an online article today that machines like this can now also scan retinas and do facial recognition. But what does all that have to do with me? Will I show up dead and unrecognizable in some alley? Am I likely to be taken for a terrorist? The possibility of my getting into serious trouble is remote. Not even Derrick Jensen is blowing up dams or taking out cell towers yet.  I don’t feel any incipient property damage bubbling up, never mind any violence. 

Just because (even) Alternet flashes an ad for a dress I just looked at on a retail site, does that mean I have to buy it? 

Should I worry that Facebook’s facial recognition software can now find me in photos others may have taken without my knowledge?  Or that bars are streaming customers’ antics live online?

This stuff just doesn’t prey on my mind.  In some ways I wish it did.  I wish I had more secrets. 

We let them get by us, all these new ways to track us down, to trap us, because we figure they won’t turn up anything actionable, not about us. Only the guilty or (in the case of marketing shakedowns, the stupid) need worry. Or the presumed guilty, like non-white young men.

This is my default setting.  I’m not proud of it.  Even the following, attributed to German pastor Martin Niemoller, only moves me sometimes. 

First they came for the communists,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a Jew.
Then they came for me
and there was no one left to speak out for me.

I hope your conscience is working better than mine.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Separating the Sheep from the Goats

This is a goat (pretty good for a girl from the burbs, eh?), one of the many I met last week at the Northwest Washington Fair, held in Lynden--about ten miles north of Bellingham, my hometown.  Really cute, mostly Scandinavian-American 4-H kids show up yearly to this fair with their equally cute horses, ponies, rabbits, guinea pigs, sheep, poultry, cats, dogs, cows, llamas (and alpacas), “swine,” and goats.  The llamas, sheep and goats share a hall—my favorite exhibit.

Many of the goats had given birth in the previous two or three weeks. There were babies galore. The cute kids held the cute babies so we other children could pet them.  The (goat) kids have wiry hair that lies flat (this will be important later, so pay attention), soft ears and sleepy but open eyes. They seemed utterly calm.

This, on the other hand, is a sheep.  Sheep were fewer in number at the fair, and there weren't many lambs, no doubt for sound agricultural or commercial reasons.  This sheep looks an awful lot like a goat, doesn't it (she? he?)?  Or maybe the goats look a lot like this sheep?  Both have eyes on the sides of their hard, bumpy heads.  Some sheep and goats like petting, while others (like the members of one's family) do not. With variations according to breed, they are of a size, and both groups include species domestic and wild. (Think of mountain goats and long-horned sheep.)  For you lovers of collective nouns, both sheep and goats gather in trips, droves, and, of course,  herds.  

Separating the sheep from the goats, shorthand for dividing people into two opposing camps, comes from the Gospel according to Matthew. See the NRSV version below.  The sheep are the good guys, the goats the bad.  If it were easy to make this call (sheep, proceed to the right hand of God; you, goats, other way!), if just any old person, and not the risen Christ, could do it, the metaphor would not work.

I hate this passage, by the way, for its baffling combination of generosity and brutality.  Well, maybe I don't still hate it.  I have to hope these resentments are healing in a way I don't yet sense.

According to the possibly accurate website, Scienceray (, not even body hair helps us tell sheep from goats: "Not all sheep have wool, and not all goats have short smooth hair." Yikes!

Some reliable differences do exist, thank whomever. A few are behavioral: male goats "rear up on their hind legs and come down" before they butt heads (really, really cute when the goats in question are only a few weeks old); whereas young male sheep just back up and run at each other.  Goats are browsers like deer while sheep like to eat grass off the ground. Mother goats (nannies) wander away from their kids to feed; mother sheep (ewes) keep their lambs close.  Here's what seems to be the most reliable trait: "goats have solid upper lips; in sheep the upper lip is divided."

The sheep at the fair were okay.  I liked them fine.  What's to object to in sheep?  But the goats, wow!  I loved the goats.  What does that say about me?

Oops, this is Alice, our dog.  All photos by Warren Miller.

The Judgment of the Nations (Matthew 25: 31-46)

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?”Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011


We drove south to Portland, Oregon last week to hug our daughter and check out her new employer, Sunshine Tavern, at 3111 SE Division.  Mary, almost finished with her program at the Oregon Culinary Institute in Goose Hollow, is wildly happy to have a paid internship at chef Jenn Louis’s new restaurant.  We’re happy that she’s happy, and that the school-to-job progression, so easy when her dad and I were 23 and so unlikely now, happened for her.  Read about the restaurant at The food is great! If you drop in, wave at Mary.  Here she is at school:

Something else we're happy about--that we have a reason to go to Portland.  We lived in Palo Alto for 30 years, where the old gets eradicated so fast that whole blocks become unrecognizable in the space of a year. We live now in Bellingham, WA, the City of Subdued Excitement, where appearances mean little.  Portland isn't about upscale accumulation like Palo Alto, or earnestness like Bellingham. In Portland--Mary's southeast corner of it, anyway--how you look definitely counts, as does how your place looks, but shiny new goods, especially if they are mass-produced, are shunned like the work of the devil.  The idea is to know where, when, and how everything you wear and use was made, or to make it yourself.  Vintage clothing stores are everywhere. Slim young women drift into coffee houses in sixties flowered shifts with pieces of lace tied around their chignons.  Neighbors paint sunflowers across the intersections of their residential streets.  People gather to play "ironic" games like kickball.  Every square inch of southeast Portland is in one way or another beautiful or formerly-beautiful-now-unaccountably-elegant or weirdly interesting.

Hippo Hardware on Burnside, carrying the salvaged kitchen drawer hardware of your dreams, announces itself this way:

Gnome Chomsky figures adorn the Laughing Horse bookstore, just off Burnside:

Also on Burnside, near the Imago Dei community, art serves the people:

My husband tells me that Portland, built on timber and shipping, is still livable partly because money comes into the city from outside, from parents of the lacy young.  Mary insists that she hasn't been "Portlandified," a process depicted in the IFC TV series "Portlandia," but has found that Portland is a good fit for her, a hard-working food artist.  She won't need our help much longer.

If you're interested in cultural trends, Willamette Week's Aug. 10 cover story, "Brooklyn Wants to be Portland: Should We Be Proud--or Embarrassed?"is funny and informative (

Tuesday, August 2, 2011


Alex, our oldest, Jo Ann, and Warren, father and family protector
The professional wedding photos are still being reviewed by the newly wedded, Victor and Chelsea, who (I suspect) are enjoying life way too much to prioritize this task. But snapshots are trickling in. This one, of my husband and son and me, was taken by my brother an hour or so before the ceremony.

I stumbled on an old book of Alex's the other day--The Usborne Spy's Guidebook. This little paperback provides illustrated instructions on stalking, tracking and shadowing, setting up drop spots, using and detecting disguises, scrambling and decoding messages.  I'm particularly interested in the code ring, made of fuse wire (whatever that is) and four paper beads.  The message you send, maybe with your arm nonchalantly draped over the back of a park bench so your contact can see it clearly as he or she approaches, depends on which bead is turned up and which finger you're wearing the ring on.  The red bead up on your first finger, for example, might mean, "Danger! Don't make contact. Someone's watching!"

Alex at nine and ten used to carry a trench coat and fedora to school every morning in a brown paper bag, so he could wear them after school to traverse the block and a half home, darting from bush to bush. The coat, the only one his dad could find that would fit him, was a ladies' size four, which buttoned on the wrong side for him, a secret he never uncovered despite the excellent training provided by The Usborne Guide.  He had more important business.

I'm thinking about secrets today because I wish I had a few. I recently went back to AA. I'd been out for four years following eleven years of sobriety, not drinking enough to damage my health, but noticing personality changes--more anger, some free-floating anxiety.

AA is all about honesty.  Tell it, whatever it is, and it loses its power.  But I feel a need for secrecy-- secret knowledge, secret friends, secret missions, code rings.  My kids are grown up, and I'm still young enough that Advil takes care of my aches and pains.  If not now, when?  I want to hide treasures in tree hollows, like Boo Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird, and watch while children carry them away.  Are secrets just for children?

Friday, July 15, 2011


Dancing at the wedding turned out to be no big deal. Warren and I did the sideways step and hold to everything.  My only real challenge was trying to follow my 6’4” older son, Alex, whose aunt taught him the box step when he was about nine.  I could not figure that out, and his steps were, well, giant.

My friend Barbara, who drove to Sacramento for the wedding with her husband, Kevin—both of them our neighbors and team parenting associates for 16 years in Palo Alto—sent me this message a couple of weeks ago: “Not to worry about your dance. The two of you standing and holding one another is simple and beautiful.”  It’s impossible to say how much that helped. We practiced, too, at Chelsea’s house the day before the wedding, alongside her parents, Paul and Dianne.

Photos are still on the way, but I expect them to show what I already feel, that my children are beautiful, handsome, kind, smart and funny. They are royalty. They shimmer. I fell in love with Chelsea, my new daughter-in-law, for good and always, and with Alex, groom Victor, and Mary all over again. 

I didn’t blog much in the run-up to the wedding, and I’ll have to creep up on writing about it now.  I am truly gobsmacked.*

*Verb courtesy of Pete Fromm

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

What Tin House Really Wants

I’m home from a postgrad conference at Pacific University’s low-residency MFA program, where I graduated in fiction in 2009.  Since graduation, I’ve missed the craft talks and readings so much that I’ve shown up uninvited in June and January, sneaking in the back and hiding among current students—and I’m not the only one.  The university apparently decided to turn stealth visits into a paying proposition and organized an official visit for us during the regular June residency. We didn’t have to pay much (at least this time) for three days of new information, fellowship, organized meals, and no homework.

It’s pretty great for an introvert to party with people she already knows but doesn’t see very often, most of whom are as weird as she is. I brought home a cold, though, and I’m writing this on cough medicine.

One of the craft talks that fell during our visit was given by Cheston Knapp, managing editor of Tin House magazine, and formerly director of the writers’ workshop held every summer on the campus of Reed College in Portland.  In trying to describe the collective aesthetic of the magazine (all the editors and interns meet once a week to champion and vote on submitted material, about 14,000 ms. per year), he referred to the following:

  • Marie Howe’s poem “The Meadow,” for what it has to say about how we enter pre-existing language. The concluding words of this poem: “Bedeviled/ human, your plight, in waking, is to choose from the words/ that even now sleep on your tongue, and to know that tangled/ among them and terribly new is the sentence that could change your life.”

  • Paul Valery’s essay “Man and the Seashell” for the connections it makes between form and content. I haven’t read the essay, but Knapp seemed to say that it speaks against thesis/explanation/bald statement of theme and for the centrality of tone and tenor.

  • Frank Bidart’s poem “Lament for the Makers”: “Many creatures must/ make, but only one must seek/ within itself what to make.” This hit home with me because only the day before I’d found myself asking novelist Bonnie Jo Campbell how she described to herself what kind of writer she is, what her subject matter is, and who her readers might be.  She said that telling me these things wouldn’t help, that each of us has to figure this out for herself, and it will take time.

  • William Gass on Borges’ creation of a verbal world.

  • Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story “The Birthmark”—in which the husband of a beautiful woman becomes obsessed with removing his wife’s one flaw, a hand-shaped birthmark on her face. In trying to make her perfect, he kills her.  “Stories that are wound too tight,” Knapp said, “never take their first breath.”

Knapp’s talk was both evocative—calling up many things that taken together suggest one thing—and declarative.  Tin House wants a writer’s vision—“a way of knowing more deeply . . . of uncovering things as they are”—that “restores to our world the very possibility of meaningfulness.”

Knapp pointed out that the book that is big news today will barely be remembered in a few years. We have to write for other reasons. 

I haven’t done what Knapp said justice.  It was a brilliant talk, which I hope will show up in Tin House or elsewhere in its entirety.  

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Summer Wedding

I’ve been grading research papers. I know a lot more about forest restoration than I used to, and lithium mining in Afghanistan, and the likelihood that one of the ebola viruses will become airborne. I’m current as well on coral reef destruction and plastic in the ocean.  

I know my students are relieved to be finished, and I’m glad not to drive to the southern tip of Whidbey Island twice a week, but I’ll miss them.  I’m saying goodbye to them one at a time in my head. 

Our son, Victor, gets married in three weeks in Sacramento, a few miles from where I grew up. He and Chelsea, his green-eyed, sweet, patient, pretty, and very smart fiancée, graduated from the nearby University of California at Davis.

They’re in Bellingham now, resting up for the big day. Two happy people.

Victor is our second child but the first of our kids to marry. All the hard labor of wedding planning has been done by Chelsea’s mother, Dianne, for which we are extremely grateful. We want to get the few things that are our responsibility right. My husband, Warren, is Victor’s best man, so he has a speech to write.  I have to try not to make the honking and snorting noises that accompany hard crying.  The rehearsal dinner is squared away, except for a few details. Alex and Mary, Victor’s siblings, have arranged for their wedding party duds. Warren and I have to dance, at least briefly, something neither of us remotely does. We checked out some DVDs from the library, but we haven’t played them yet.  I think we’re embarrassed even to dance in front of each other. This may be a problem.

After that, summer. Vegetables and writing and feet in rivers.  It gets dark in Bellingham about 10:00 now.  We have all the time in the world.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Coal is Us

Bill McKibben is coming to Bellingham on May 31. That would be pretty exciting if it weren’t for the reason he’s dropping by.  On March 28 President Obama opened up public land in Wyoming to coal mining. (This just a few days after he lit a candle at Oscar Romero’s tomb in San Salvador—see my April 1 post.  Who is this guy?)  Peabody Energy, the world’s largest private-sector coal company, will mine Wyoming’s Powder River basin, and has contracted with SSA Marine (partially owned by Goldman-Sachs) to build a terminal at Cherry Point in Ferndale, the next, smaller town up the road from us, enabling shipment of from 20 to 50 million metric tons of coal per year to Asia, mainly China. Wyoming to China via Whatcom County, Washington. Imagine our surprise. 

“There’s virtually no place on the continent that’s done a better job of showing us how to live locally,” McKibben said to the Cascadia Weekly (May 25). “Now, by quirk of geography, Bellingham is going to have to make some decisions about what kind of role it wants to play globally.”

About three hundred jobs are at stake for Ferndale, more while the terminal is built, and like every other area in the U.S., we could use them. But coal chugging along train tracks next to the waterfront in Bellingham will set back plans for developing what used to be the Georgia Pacific paper mill and surrounding lands, and that development represents more jobs still, although many will be service jobs.  Bellingham can look forward to more noise and diesel pollution if Gateway is built, but none of this is the point, not for McKibben.

Carbon emissions have already raised global temperatures one degree, and weather over the last year has illustrated what kinds of havoc climate change can wreak. Spring in Bellingham is wetter than it used to be and will get wetter still. Small and blighted tomato crops are one thing, but even kale needs sunshine. McKibben and others have spent their adult lives explaining in a thousand different ways that we have to live differently or we won’t live at all. Coal may be plentiful but it is the dirtiest of fossil fuels.  “If we burn coal at the rate envisioned by the owners of Powder River basin—here or in China,” McKibben says, “it’s very clear that will push us far, far deeper into serious global warming territory.  The highest use of our coal reserves is to keep them where God put them—underground where they can do no harm.” 

One thing this is not about is energy independence. The coal’s leaving, remember?  It might be about the money the U.S. owes China, and the pressure that debt exerts in the other Washington.  It’s very likely about Peabody Energy’s political clout. (Half the electricity in the U.S. is coal-generated.) And it is surely about raising the standard of living for 1.5 billion people in China—in the short run.

Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, by Bill McKibben, will keep you awake at night.  You’ll be in good company.  Wish us luck. 

Monday, May 23, 2011

The Tarot of Books

I spent the weekend going through books.  My culling strategy turned out to be simple: I picked each book up and decided whether to keep it.

Once upon a time I read Tarot cards. Before shuffling the deck, I picked a signifier, one card that suggested my current state, leafing through the deck until I saw an image that rang true.  Actually, that’s the only part of Tarot reading that did me any good, searching out the card that described how I felt in a particular moment—conditions prevailing, changes beginning to register, The Empress, The Magician, The Hanged Man.  If you are a conscientious shuffler, the rest of the cards, the ones you actually turn up, are selected—I know this is hard to hear—randomly.

I picked up Meridel de Seuer’s Salute to Spring and after a moment re-shelved it. I held a biography of Agnes Smedley in my hands, considered the beautiful face on the cover, then threw it a box.  John Updike’s Gertrude and Claudius stayed, but Harold Bloom’s Hamlet: Poem Unlimited went. I’ve read as much Harold Bloom, I decided, as I ever will.

Every book I looked at over the weekend felt like the signifier of a past self.  If I hadn’t read it, which was true of ten to twenty percent of my books, why not? Why had I chosen it in the first place? I recalled the state of mind I was in when I bought Don’t Be Nice, Be Real, but I worked through that iffy time sans self-help literature and hope never to return. Out.

What about Roberton Davies’ The Deptford Trilogy?  I got lost in it for a couple of blissful weeks in the early nineties, but if I want to re-inhabit a guilty community, I’d rather go home to Middlemarch. I kept all the old Penguins.  They don’t take up much space.

I hung on to everything I owned of Miriam Toews, Jim Crace, Barry Unsworth, James Lasdun, and Virginia Woolf, boxed up Anne Tyler and Margaret Drabble (all but The Needle’s Eye).

I moved all the poetry into my office but kept only the unread biographies.

I expected to get rid of the Christian theology--James Allison, John Dominic Crossan, Gustavo Gutierrez—but in the end I kept most of it.  I may never read those authors again, but they belong to a part of my life when I knew a few things for sure, and I don’t want to forget what that felt like.

The philosophy books went, except for Schopenhauer. Did I ever believe I was going to read Heidegger’s Being and Time?  

I hauled seven bags of books to Henderson’s in downtown Bellingham, and the buyer took only two bags. I asked for trade instead of cash--$120—but on the way home I wondered if that made sense.  I have maybe thirty boxes left to dispose of.  Do I want hundreds and hundreds of dollars in trade? What will I do with that except pile up more books?  I think I’ll sell as many as I can and donate the rest to the library. Maybe I’ll donate the money, too.