Idaho Weeds #2

Idaho Weeds 2 (Personal Essay)

Despite our current president’s abiding affection for Russia, Dave, an old farmer I once knew, said Russia was our biggest threat: “They seeded the jet stream with weeds. That’s how they plan to take America down. Russian Thistle and Kochia weed.”

“But what about their nukes?” I asked him. An hour later I was still listening to Dave’s ideas on Armageddon, the Apocalypse, and the Sign of the Beast (which according to him, was possibly our social security numbers.)

I think old Dave had a point. Not about Russia or Armageddon, but that weeds could be weaponized. Once we saw a man stop at a gas station in an SUV covered with fine green Kochia pollen. He must have done some off-road Baha-ing. As soon as he emerged from the driver’s side, he bent over coughing and sneezing, barely able to hold the gas nozzle in the gas tank. I thought he might have an easier time dusted with bear spray.

The strange thing is, Kochia weed is actually a Russian (Eurasian) import. A hundred years ago there was no Kochia in Idaho. Now the roads and highways are lined with it. I actually found an old seed packet of Kochia, from the 1930’s, in an antique store. I was amazed. Why would anyone want to plant the stuff? Later Wikipedia told me Kochia was an “escaped ornamental.” What an understatement.

I have to admit though, when I first came to Idaho I knew nothing of the 67 plant species classified as noxious weeds, so I mistakenly cultivated a Kochia weed in my flower bed. I remember watering it faithfully, and spading around it a little to give the roots room to breathe.

One morning I opened my front door, glanced in the flower bed, and was shocked to see the bushy Kochia plant gone. I’d become a victim of a terrorist attack. My husband, the terrorist, had apparently pulled the weed as he walked by it. He, like old Dave, was ready to fight any kind of Russian invasion.

How to Change Your Mind Book Review

How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelic Drugs Teaches Us (Nonfiction)
By Michael Pollen

Have you ever felt trapped in your mind, repeating the same depressing thoughts and longing for fresh eyes and a new perspective? This is one good reason people like to travel.  In How to Change Your Mind, author Michael Pollen (The Omnivore’s Dilemma) suggests a different kind of “trip” using psychedelics drugs to refresh your spirit and expand your mind.

As a child of the 60’s I’d heard all the horror stories about hallucinatory drugs: bad acid trips, ugly flashbacks, and Art Linkletter’s daughter jumping out of a window because she’d taken LSD (toxicology reports found no evidence of drugs in her system). Pollen says due to the vilification of psychedelics and their association with other addictive and dangerous drugs, for over 40 years the medical community lost sight of their astonishing therapeutic value. That changed in 2006 when a landmark clinical study demonstrated how these drugs have the potential to positively affect our life experience.

Some fascinating chapters in the book are devoted to Pollen’s own first-time experience with hallucinatory drugs at the age of 60. His plan was to be a part of the drug trials undertaken at John Hopkins University and NYU (but first he had to check with his cardiologist to make sure his heart would tolerate the “trips”). A self-described non-religious journalist, Pollen testified that he experienced altered states of consciousness and a type of spiritual awakening under psychedelics. More importantly, the drugs enabled him to disengage from his ego, allowing a remarkable feeling of well-being. As cliched as it sounds, Pollen says he felt and understood in new, profound ways the significance of love.

I liked the last third of the book best, the chemistry and analysis of why and how these drugs might help people dealing with addictions, depression, and imminent death. I had no idea that “Bill W,” the founder of AA, took a hallucinogenic, Belladonna, to help him with his alcoholism. Nor did I know that the research in the 1950’s and 60’s on psychedelics lead to the development of SSRI antidepressants. Pollen also reveals that in the NYU and Hopkins trials, “ . . . 80% of cancer patients showed clinically significant reductions in standard measures of anxiety and depression, an effect that endured for at least six months after their psilocybin (magic mushroom) session.”

Pollen’s book is exhaustively researched and full of the colorful characters that people the history of psychedelics, including well-known figures like William James, Aldous Huxley, and Timothy Leary, as well as lesser known scientists and researchers like the Swiss discoverer of LSD, Albert Hofmann, and one of the country’s leading experts on the genus Psilocybe (hallucinatory mushrooms) Paul Stamets.

Though I currently have no addictions, no cancer diagnosis, and am not depressed, Pollen’s book made me curious how hallucinatory drugs might help us. I’d never considered how psychologically tyrannical and destructive our ego can be, how instrumental the ego is in the repression of joy. Portions of Pollen’s book is too detailed and ponderous for my taste.  But other parts are not only fascinating, but wise and thoughtful.  He’s an excellent writer.  This book is well worth the read.

Idaho Weeds

Idaho Weeds

I’m sitting in the front room looking through the blinds at the plant beds in the yard, filled with all kinds of bushes that tolerate Idaho’s alkaline soil: rosy Barberry, dwarf Blue Spruce, and variegated Euonymus. Seeing all this green in a desert climate is wonderful, and I feel like I’m living in an oasis paradise until I spot all these scraggly weeds evilly wending their way up and around my other plants.

For me “Idaho weed” is not a psychedelic experience, but a psychotic one. Idaho weeds can be crazy-making if you’re a gardener. My mother-in-law told me once you have to be tough to live in Idaho’s desert. At first I thought she was trying to discourage me from marrying her son. But now I think she was being genuine about how harsh the desert is: the drought, the wildfires, and all these horrific weeds that are not bothered in the slightest by our dry climate.

The big tip-off on weeds in Idaho should have come at that memorable Thanksgiving dinner I had with my husband’s family after I first moved here. There was a problem at dinner, but it wasn’t the typical family gathering snafus: an aunt farting at the table or a cousin telling a naughty joke over the mashed potatoes. The problem was grandpa, who as a farmer, found an objection to the table centerpiece. He started yelling and throwing his arms, pointing accusingly at the center of the table like the devil was standing there with a pitch fork. Aunt Maxine, creative muse that she was, had gathered all these interesting stalks of Indian tobacco, dried Kochia, and Russian thistle weeds to make an attractive holiday centerpiece.

“Get those weeds out of here! I spent all summer long out in the fields fighting them. I’m not thankful for them at all!” shouted Grandpa.

The Death of Mrs. Westaway Book Review

The Death of Mrs. Westaway (Genre: Gothic Mystery)
by Ruth Ware

How about a good Gothic mystery to take to the beach (or in my case, the back patio looking out over the Snake River)? Harriet or “Hal” is a psychic/Tarot card reader on a pier at Brighton Beach, England. She’s poor and in debt, but suddenly gets a letter telling her a grandmother has died, and she is due to inherit some of her considerable wealth. The problem is, Hal has no grandmother. They’re deceased.  But Hal is desperate and the Tarot cards seem to be telling her to go, go find a fortune even if she may be committing fraud in doing so.

Author Ruth Ware (from The Lying Game and The Woman in Cabin 10) is a solid mystery writer and knows how to keep the plot twisting and turning. Good mysteries usually have a surprise at the end, and this one does too. I loved all the little supernatural elements of the story—even though this was not a ghost tale. I wouldn’t call The Death of Mrs. Westaway a challenging or thought-provoking read, but still, I enjoyed the book and was entertained.  A nice thing to happen in the lazy, hot days of summer.

Bustin’ Makes Him Feel Good

Bustin’ Makes Him Feel Good (Political Commentary)

I was at a holiday dinner party a couple of Decembers ago right after Donald Trump was elected president, where I met a lady who voted for him.

“You realize Trump likes to grab women’s you-know-what, you-know-where, don’t you?” I asked her. I couldn’t bring myself to say the “P” word while guests around the table discussed the true meaning of Christmas.

“Sure, I heard that, but come on! Boys will be boys. I’m more interested in seeing whether or not Trump can shake up Washington. Break free from the mindset.”

What mindset is that I wondered? Respect for human rights? Thoughtful diplomatic moves? A stable economy without give-away tax breaks to the rich? Support for our environmental problems?

Now two years later I’ve decided that lady got her wish. Trump, much like the proverbial bull in the China closet, has broken and shaken and destroyed a lot more than mindsets. His policies, derived largely from the collective wisdom of Fox and Friends, standard bearers for the OWW (old white and wealthy contingency) have defied not only expectations, but any explanation. We’re edging back toward the 1950’s when coal was king and clothes hangers were instruments of death. Where every school classroom began with a Christian prayer. This, despite the fact that today fully 30% of Americans are non-Christian.

Let’s really look at what Trump has done as the new sheriff in town, ghost-buster of stale Washington mindsets:
1) In an attempt to “secure” our borders from terrorists, rapists, and murderers, he’s broken up families and left our immigration policy in disarray.
2) His diplomatic triumph with North Korea (has anyone bought the Commemorative Coin in celebration of this astonishing breakthrough?) appears to be an episode of Celebrity Apprentice whereby Kim Jong-Un tried to “sell” Donald Trump a line about denuclearizing—and Trump bought it!
3) His replacement for Obama Care medical insurance for the poor, is to slowly decommission it.  A good move for the breaker and buster that he is.
4) His tax breaks for Middle America largely went to rich and corporate America. And those folks, ignoring Ronald Reagan’s “trickle-down economics,” took the money and reinvested in their own corporate stock offerings. Unbelievably, they didn’t share their windfall with the rest of the economy. Trump’s tax breaks must have been research for his new TV reality show: Money Hoarders.
5) Other areas Trump has busted entrenched Washington mindsets? Two words: Trade War
6) Three words: War on Women
7) Two words and an acronym: War on LGTBQ

Yes, Trump has broken plenty of mindsets. He’s also fractured a lot of treaties we held with our international friends. He’s pulled out of, or threatened to leave: the Iran Deal, the Paris Climate Accord, UNESCO, Trans-Pacific Trade deal, NAFTA (North Atlantic Free Trade Treaty with Mexico and Canada), and now he’s saber-rattling at the NATO alliance. With friends like Donald Trump, who needs enemies?

Some will say America’s doing better than ever under Trump. After all, he’s finally went after that thief China for stealing all our tech secrets, and he’s at least trying to help the displaced manufacturing workers and miners in Ohio and PA. Ok, a few steps in the right direction. Too bad he’s leaving a trail of destruction everywhere else. But that’s what ball-busters and mind-set breakers do. Without much of a strategy, they always hurt more than they help.

Breast Lumps and Food

Comfort Food (Essay Finis)

One morning I woke up, brushed my hand over my chest, and felt a lump on my breast. It was a shock. Where did this come from? Could you grow lumps overnight? Maybe it would vanish as quickly as it came. But it was a persistent lump and after several fretful days, I decided I needed to check it out.

At the time I was living by myself during the week in a tiny apartment in the back corner of a rickety old house. It was the price I paid to go to school and get that final college degree. I loved learning, but I hated being lonely. Every night I called my husband.

“I don’t know. The lump fairy left it on my chest instead of under my pillow,” I told him. “I’ll call the doctor tomorrow. I’ll probably need a mammogram too.”

Of course the doctor was booked up for the entire week and I didn’t think I should schedule a diagnostic mammogram without her go-ahead. So I was stuck waiting—waiting and wondering and worrying. I checked my lump several times a day, testing to see if it had grown and if so, how much. I tucked a wooden ruler under my chin and tried to measure my lump. I was becoming attached to it. I even thought of a nickname: Bubby. I had a Bubby on one of my boobies.

Google had all the information I needed to know and some things I didn’t, about breast cancer and breast cancer treatment. During the day I’d convinced myself it was merely a cyst, nothing to worry about. But at 3 a.m. in the morning, my new wake-up time, I planned my funeral. I needed to find someone eloquent to read the poem Thanatopsis by William Cullen Bryant: “When thoughts of that last bitter hour come like a blight . . .”

Finally, I found myself sitting in a blue-flowered hospital gown on the edge of the examining table waiting for the radiologist’s verdict.

“It’s a spider bite,” she pronounced.

“What?” At first I wasn’t sure I heard right. “A spider bite?”

“Yes, or some other mildly venomous insect. You’ve had a reaction.”

My breast lump was a spider bite. I almost felt cheated. Then I thought about the old house I was living in while I went to school, the spider webs I saw in a couple of corners of the high ceiling. I’d chose to ignore them, fancifully believing if I couldn’t reach those spiders, they couldn’t reach me.

Walking down the tree-shaded street to my car after my doctor’s appointment, I felt so light and free—and thankful. I was one of the lucky ones. I whispered a prayer for all those battling breast cancer who weren’t so fortunate. I realized I was hungry, ravenous even.  It felt so good to feel hungry again. There was a new restaurant in town I’d heard about, gourmet dining, called Doughty’s Bistro. I needed to reward myself, comfort myself after all this needless suffering. What would I order? I’d begin with a chicken satay appetizer and then for dessert, maybe a chocolate torte. I was already looking forward to licking the icing off the spoon.

The Cruel Prince Book Review

The Cruel Prince (Genre: Teen Fantasy)
by Holly Black

The wonderful thing about young adult literature is that it doesn’t beat around the bush with a lot of wasted words. Good YAL has potent stories and great wisdom–all bound in a 50,000-60,000 word package. The Cruel Prince, though not particularly wise, has a fantastic story that had me reading until my eyes were dry and gluey.

Black’s book is a fantasy about faeries, but anyone that knows the medieval origins of faerie myths will tell you faeries are a dangerous lot, nothing like Peter Pan’s Tinker Bell. And indeed, in The Cruel Prince we have a pair of mortal sisters growing up in Faerie Land and subjected to all manner of cruelty. Added to their misery is betrayal and confusion. Some faeries who would appear to be adversaries are friends and vice-versa. One of the sisters manages to outfox her faerie masters and in the process stumbles upon true love. It’s actually an old tale, well told by author Holly Black.


They Both Die at the End (Genre: Young Adult Sci-Fi)
by Adam Silvera

Where was this book when I was teaching high school reading to “reluctant readers,” particularly boys? Most young men would enjoy reading They Both Die at the End–even some older ladies. The author really draws us in with this futuristic story of two young men who get a call from “Death Caste,” an agency that lets people know when they have a day left to live.

The death call courtesy is suppose to allow people to say their final goodbyes and arrange their own funerals. It’s an intriguing hook, particularly when you consider Marcus and Rufus are both around 17-years-old. How these young men respond to their own life tragedy, and how they deal with mourning from their loved ones, is heart-rending.

There’s lots of lessons here about living all the way to your life’s end and learning how to say a good, goodbye. Though the book is a touching tale, it’s brutal and risque at times. Marcus and Rufus are inner-city youth. Strong language is used including an occasional “F” bomb, and one of the protagonists is bisexual. In this, it is a modern story of young people today. Still, I’m not sure They Both Die at the End will find a place on all school library shelves—which is unfortunate.