What I’m writing . . .

A Winter’s Tale, essay

I’ve taken several road trips through the West since airplane travel is not my favorite form of terror. The upside of a flying phobia is that on road trips you get to experience every mile you travel. That’s the downside too. Road-tripping can make you very travel weary. So, absent campers, motel accommodations are important. I watched an old I Love Lucy episode on cable not long ago, where Lucy and her friends took a road trip across 1950’s America. One night they found themselves looking for a motel, hoping for a juicy steak and a nice, soft bed. They ended up instead, in a little cabin somewhere near Donner Pass (not a good sign) eating cheese sandwiches and sleeping on lumpy mattresses.

Like Lucy, we were dreaming of good food and shelter when we drove down the exit ramp to Milford, Utah. Milford is not a destination town. That needs to be said right away. However, it is on the freeway heading toward St. George, and if that doesn’t rock you, Las Vegas some miles further. This was a winter trip, so the landscape as we drove into Milford was bleak with blizzard and snow. I thought of that lovely poem by Robert Frost, Desert Places, googled it, and began to recite it aloud to my husband: “Snow falling fast, oh fast . . .” After six hours on the road I thought Robert Frost was a better choice than twenty-nine bottles of beer on the wall.

I’d located our accommodations on a TripAdviser app. They gave the Best Western Paradise motel of Milford, Utah several stars. I knew about Best Western motels. We’re talking about quality here. In another life I changed sheets and emptied waste baskets at a Best Western motel in Chambers, Arizona. Mrs. Young, the proprietor of the Chieftain motel filled me in on the Best Western brand: “That’s why they call it ‘best.’ If your Best Western, you’re the best—so get down on your knees and scrub around those toilets!”

As we drove into Milford, I thought about other winter wanderers, stumbling into an inn looking for rest.  A certain Joseph and Mary came to mind. I wasn’t riding a donkey, but I looked like I’d been “on something,” when I walked into the motel lobby. The back of my hair stood straight up from leaning against the headrest all day. I glanced around and when I saw the lobby furniture was a little old and worn, I began to doubt TripAdvisor’s stars—and those two vaunted words: Best Western. Would we have to find another motel? Out the lobby windows the snow was swirling. We could get lost in a Great Basin blizzard (cue music for Dr. Zhivago) looking for another motel.

The motel clerk though, an older woman with pink lipstick, seemed genuinely friendly and made sure we knew the voucher tickets that came with our room, were good for a full, made-to-order, complimentary breakfast. And the price? This king bedroom was so cheap you could have sold it at Walmart. The price was so far under a hundred dollar bill, I steeled myself for bed bugs, cigarette smells, and a toilet with floaters. But this winter’s tale has a happy ending. When we opened our room door we were greeted by fresh smells and downy white bed sheets. And the best part was still to come: pancakes and eggs for breakfast—no cheese sandwiches here.

What I’m Writing

Wes is Dying

My father-in-law Wes, is 97 year old and dying. It’s time and maybe, past time. He was born in November of 1921, three years after WWI ended (when everyone was in the mood to celebrate), and two years after Prohibition began (when it became illegal to celebrate—at least with alcohol). But none of that mattered much to Wes and his family because they were abstainers, pacifist Mennonites, and farmers.

I wonder what Wes remembers about his early life now that he’s 97? I once read a short story, The Jilting of Granny Weatherall, about an old woman on her death bed floating in and out of consciousness, remembering events and people in her life, most notably George, who had jilted her at the wedding altar decades before. One of my earliest memories is holding my mother’s hand, walking across busy Lusher Avenue to the store to buy a Reese Cup and a bottle of Pepsi.  I was worried I might get run over by all the fast cars.  Will this be a significant memory at my death bed?

Listening to Wes talk recently, it’s clear he’s rapidly losing most of his memories. It seems like in an attempt to fill this void in his mind, his imagination has taken over and began creating all manner of fiction.  With the head of his mechanical hospital bed moved so he could sit up, he told me over and over again some wild tale about how his nurse had gone missing. She was supposed to come back and take care of him—but she didn’t. Wes thought she must have been in a car accident.

Wes’s doctors tell us his dementia is a many-faceted phenomenon that can cause certain unintended consequences, like losing the ability to track your thirst. In fact, Wes could die of dehydration. Which seems so curable in comparison to all the life-threatening cancers floating around us. It could be that when you’re as old as Wes and have fought as hard as he has to survive, your immune system is well girded for the big diseases. It’s the small, innocuous thieves, like a lack of thirst, which can steal your life away.

Wes has asked to come home to the farm to die. It’s important to him. Farming may be the only occupation I know that attaches itself so deeply to the psyche that you can’t live or die without being in some fashion immersed in it. Accountants don’t want to go to the office to die, nor truck drivers to their trucks. Farming though is more than work, it’s a way of life, and for Wes, also a way of death.

This talk about where Wes wants to die has caused me to consider where I’d like to die. I’ve always loved the rich, sensual experience of being outdoors, feeling the sun on my face or smelling the rain. I imagine myself near death, laying in a bed that’s been wheeled onto my back patio.  Looking up at the deep, blue skies above me, I breathe my last breath into the atmosphere. Such a fanciful, romantic notion. Much of the time, people aren’t very clear-headed at the time of their death. They’re either too sick or too drugged to care about the best location to slip these earthly bonds.

Our greatest hope is that Wes can die peacefully, without anxiety. It’s an event that by its very nature is momentous—yet ironically pedestrian also. I hope death comes for Wes easily, as if that long-lost nurse he thought was in a car accident, finally shows up. She’s kind and soothing, like nurses can be. Then she helps him climb out of his hospital bed and gently leads him out of his room—and out of his life.

What I’m reading . . .

Holiday Books by Favorite Authors to Gift (or not)

                                                                                                 

All three of these authors are great genre, mystery writers and of course, during the holidays publishers pay big to have them produce a yearly offering of suspense for their waiting readers. I’m one of those readers and was happy to buy their latest tales of intrigue this Christmas season. Sadly though, I only thoroughly read and enjoyed one of them. The other two books I either skimmed through portions of, or in the case of one, I completely stopped reading it somewhere in the middle. How could such solid writers go so wrong?

First let’s talk about The Witch Elm. I fully confess that I’m a Tana French groupie. I’ve read every one of her books. In The Witch Elm French introduces us to Toby, a man with a family and a past. Toby comes home from a night of drinking and is mugged in his apartment for unclear reasons. His wounds are slow to heal so he decides to go live with his Uncle Hugo who’s dying of cancer. Then a human skull is found in the trunk of an old elm tree on Uncle Hugo’s property, the Ivy House. The authorities are called and the suspense builds—except it doesn’t really. And that’s a problem.

French, as usual, is viscerally descriptive in The Witch Elm, dressing down a scene or a character like no other: “ . . . stark and runic as black twigs on snow . . .long, buttery streaks of light on dark wood . . . A girl in a floppy red velvet hat . . . Eastern European accent, wrists bending like a dancer’s.” Sometimes with authors like French it’s just a joy to read the way they put words together. But at 528 pages those words need to go somewhere. They have to do something—something big. This was my first French book to put aside without finishing it. I hope it’s my last.

The Reckoning by John Grisham has a fascinating premise. It’s the 1940’s in Clanton, Mississippi when Pete Banning, cotton farmer and war hero, decides he has to kill someone. There’s no way around it. He makes sure his institutionalized wife and his two grown children are well taken of as he fully expects to either die in the electric chair or be sent to prison for life. At first we don’t know who he’ll kill, and when we find out it’s the popular, local Methodist minister that Pete murders, we don’t know why.

We don’t know why Pete decided to kill the minister until the last few chapters. Which is okay. As a reader, I’m willing to enjoy Grisham’s breezy prose and skillful story telling as long as he sticks to one tale. But apparently in an attempt to fully explore the character of Banning and his motives, Grisham digresses mightily from his main story line. For almost a third of the book we find ourselves in the Philippine islands with Banning suffering through the infamous Bataan Death March. I like military history some, but not placed in the middle of a southern Gothic mystery with only a thin thread linking the two. So, I began to skim read. At least I finished the book and found the ending interesting. Why didn’t Grisham use some of his Philippine pages to flesh out his ending more? It would have been such a better read.

I did finish Michael Connelly’s latest book, Dark Sacred Night. Connelly is another wildly popular author of police procedurals, of which I’ve read nearly every one. What usually hooks me on Connelly’s writing is how methodical he is, detailing the crime, the suspects, the scene, and the investigation as performed by his crusty protagonist, Harry Bosch. In this latest novel, Bosch, along with a new Connelly detective, part-time surfer girl Renee Ballard, are attempting to find the murderer in a cold, unsolved case involving a young prostitute who was killed several years ago. Complicating the investigation is that Bosch houses the murder victim’s mother, a drug addict, in order to help her stay clean. Both Bosch and Ballard operate near the fringe of appropriate conduct for police professionals. It’s a slow boiling mystery, but I eventually found myself turning pages faster and faster to see how it all ends. That’s the sign of an enjoyable read.

What I’m writing . . .

The Cost of Messin’ with Texas

My left eye’s twitching because I’m looking at the bright screen of my cell phone too much. Massaging that eyelid with my thumb helps a little, but then the fluttering returns. I just can’t stop checking my iphone. Its election week and I’ve been tracking the news like a baby tracks its mommy. Some mother—the news cycle. President Trump calls it a “mother f—!” Election news has hooked me like Diet Coke, and all I have to show for my interest, besides emotional instability, is dry, jittery eyes.

This morning I woke to the sad news that Beto O’Rourke lost his senate race to Ted Cruz in Texas. I rapidly scrolled down my iphone screen.  Too bad. He’s such a nice-looking, Robert Kennedy kind of guy. And so much youth and charisma. Like most Americans though, I don’t know much about his politics. When the bumper sticker said: “Don’t Mess With Texas,” I happily obliged. I’ve got my hands full messin’ with Idaho.

The good news on Mr. O’Rourke is that now he’s free to consider a presidential bid. I saw that on my Politico news feed. I had to pause in my reading when my nervous eye became so agitated I thought of stabbing it with a pencil. Instead, I stood up, stretched, and walked over to the window to watch a murder of crows circling in the air. Google said to give eyes a rest by looking away from digital screens every twenty minutes or so. Google also suggested blinking your eyes ten times—all of which I did. This attention to my errant eye helped enough that I felt completely justified in sitting back down in my chair and checking my Washington Post news feed on my phone.

OMG. In a matter of just a few minutes my world was collapsing again. The royal RGB, Ruth Bader Ginsburg was hospitalized. The supreme Supreme. Were her wounds mortal, I wondered? I needed more info so I swept my index finger across the screen of my phone to get the scoop from NBC news. A source claimed RGB had broken ribs from a fall. I’m so sorry, and at 85-years-old she’s certainly allowed to take a spill—but Ruth Bader! Please heal! Rest and wrap yourself. Start praying like I am for your ribs to mend (closing my eyes feels so refreshing).

Sometime during my prayer it occurred to me that Ruth Bader’s health was not the only one being jeopardized. I really needed to take a break from digital news feeds. There were dishes to wash and leaves to sweep, all manner of physical activity to be done. The world would not stop if I quit monitoring it. And, I needed to charge my iphone anyways.

With a lot of determination, I walked over to the charger sitting on my desk and plugged my phone in. Looking up out the window, I saw the crows had quit circling and finally settled in some trees. My eyes were already feeling more relaxed. Then I wandered over to the couch, hit the remote, and settled in for some televised news. Maybe RGB had miraculously recovered.

What I’m writing . . .

images frozenHow Will We Stay Warm this Winter?

How will we stay warm this winter? Two hundred years ago that was a real concern, even a hundred years ago. Most of us are not like Elsa, the Disney character in the movie Frozen, who famously sang, “The cold never bothered me anyway.”

Before central heating, families had large oil stoves in the center of their home. Or, there might be wood stoves in the living room and coal furnaces in the basement. Beds were warmed like Grandma Doris did, with a thick, heated Sears and Roebuck catalog tucked at the foot between the sheets. All of our methods for staying warm in the past emitted lots of carbon and almost all, regrettably, still do. But in this age of climate change and climate peril, there are alternatives and I’ve been thinking a lot about finding a way to go toward the greener side of a white winter.

Maybe we could use the naturally occurring, geothermal groundwater in our desert valley to heat our home this winter? Several artesian wells dot the valley, and at least one family in the past had geothermal water piped into their house to help heat it. When my brother and sister-in-law moved here and rented an old house on the other end of the valley, they piped in geothermal water. I remember they used to bath in a claw-foot tub sitting out in the open on the back porch. Loey explained the way they took a bath was to first fill the tub up with artesian well water to heat the tub itself, and then drain it and refill it again to bath in. That was their recipe for a low-carbon, low-cost, hot bath.

No doubt water is a good insulator and has a higher capacity than air, to absorb heat. Remember radiators? You can still sometimes find them in old buildings. Last month I stayed in a tiny room in an historic hotel in Quebec that had a radiator under the window. But, I first discovered how well water absorbs and transfers heat when I was a student living with a family in eastern France during a particularly brutal winter.

My French family didn’t heat their bedrooms, so I often found myself studying and reading my textbooks, huddled under the bed clothes, wearing my coat, ear muffs, and mittens. Then I had this brilliant idea. I could warm up by taking a bath. In order to do this, every evening I had to walk across the hallway to the bathroom, in plain view of my French family. They were always sitting in the living room watching TV. I remember them tracking me with their eyes as I made my nightly trek across the hall to the bath.

One night I heard Freddie the father say, “Que fait-elle?” (What is she doing?)

Simone, the mother, replied, “Je ne sais pas? Les Americains sont fanatique pour prendre au bains.” (I don’t know. Americans are fanatical about taking baths.)

Another watery idea I’ve had to heat our home this winter is installing solar panels to charge a water-heat pump. However, Google tells me air-heat pumps are more efficient. My husband and I’ve also talked about generally increasing our home’s heat efficiency by sealing off the second floor of our house with a door. There’s a lot we can do to stay warm without using our carbon-spewing, diesel furnace. But all these changes take an investment of time—and money. Everything costs, one way or another. We either pay upfront—or we all pay in the future, when fossil fuels have our climate in a choke-hold. Then my biggest worry won’t be staying warm in the winter, but cool in a blazing, hot summer.

What I’m reading . . .

Where the Crawdads Sing (novel)
By Delia Owens

A young girl grows up alone in the coastal marshlands of North Carolina, having been abandoned by her family. She can neither read nor write so the sea gulls, shore birds, and swamp creatures become her friends. In order to survive, she learns how to fish and to hunt on the shoreline for mussels, which she sells to the local bait and tackle store. In her desperate loneliness she meets and befriends two boys, Tate, the son of a local shrimper, and Chase, the popular and handsome townie. Then, someone is killed and the local sheriff launches an investigation.

This first novel by Delia Owens is both a soulful romance and intriguing murder mystery. Owens creates a wonderful character in Kya, the swamp girl. Though I love a good romance, I found myself more fascinated by Owen’s convincing description of Kya’s survival, once her drunken and abusive father finally left, in the Carolinian swamps at the age of seven. Ever since reading The Boxcar Children and The Secret Garden (when I wasn’t much older than seven) I’ve enjoyed stories of children discovering and building places for themselves in wilderness areas. Owens obviously knows the North Carolina coastline and the animals that live there.  Her prose is rich and descriptive.

This is definitely a book club pick, a novel with both merit and high entertainment value.