I’m Going Back to the Plough

(Which is better: city life or country life?  Why do people move?  How big is Boise, Idaho?)

I’m moving out of the city and going back to live, full-time, on the farm.  According to Allied Van Lines moving is not that unusual since in a lifetime most people change homes about 11 times (my mother moved nine times within a five-year period).  The majority of moves people make are local, from an apartment to a house in the same city, for example.

But people in my age group, the baby boomers, are the least likely of any demographic to make a big move. 

Generally, older adults have finally paid the mortgage off and are unwilling to take on any new debt, especially house loans.  And if they do change homes, they want to live closer to town, not further away.  They want to be nearer their family, goods and services, and especially medical facilities as they age.

None of those issues mattered to me though, when I decided to move back to the farm.  I simply wanted to find more peace and quiet and less rush and riot. I saw Elton John’s biopic, Rocketman, this past summer, and while I was packing boxes for my big move I found myself singing along with Elton’s “Yellow Brick Road”:  “So goodbye yellow brick road, where the dogs of society howl, you can’t plant me in your penthouse, I’m going back to my plough…”

The farm does have plows, which means work, so the lifestyle has not always been my panacea.  The first twenty years of my married life I plied, if not plowed, our farm.  I remember walking field roads dreaming of city streets and city lights.  I’d become a hay seed, but I longed to make hay in the big city.  I couldn’t shake wonderful memories of being a young college girl in downtown Philadelphia.  I loved the beautiful fountain at Logan’s Circle with the sculptured winged gods spouting water.  Down the boulevard from Logan’s Circle was the magnificent Philadelphia Art Museum.

I finally got the chance to leave the farm once my children were raised, and after I’d made a career change.

I moved to the biggest city around: Boise, Idaho, population 226,570.  It wasn’t the Big Apple but it was a fairly Large Potato.  When I made that move a farm girlfriend of mine asked me, “What does the city have that the country doesn’t–besides shopping?”

I thought (but didn’t say): you plebian!  A country girl could never understand the excitement, the energy, of so many people working and thinking and creating, in one big, buzzing place.  Even Michelangelo said, “I have never found salvation in nature.  I love cities above all.”

But I came to discover my plebian friend had a point.  Though cultural centers, cities are shopping meccas for most people.  In terms of daily living, this is their biggest draw.  It took some time, but eventually I found the gridlock and traffic jams a poor trade for the peace allotted to those who live among the wheat fields.

Another friend, Donna, said, “Won’t you be bored living out on the farm again?”

Maybe.  But I’m beginning to understand the upside of boredom, how it motivates you to engage with all the little things you missed before, like the litter of kittens out by the barn.  Besides, every day’s not meant to be a bell-ringer.  If you can’t stand the lethargy of time, you’ll die young—or at least sooner from rushing about so much.

So, it could be I’m moving back to the farm to save my life—or savor it. 

Really it doesn’t matter. If I’m honest, it’s how you live, not where you live that matters.  Early this morning in the dark, I opened up the back patio door on the Snake River rushing past.  When I looked up, a spray of stars twinkled in the sky.  I took a big breath, and smelled the freshly cut hay in the field next to our house.  Mornings on the farm are the best.

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Image Credit: packing boxes        Image Credit:  Rocketman        Image Credit:  old barn photo by Diana Hooley

 

 

The Job of My Dreams

I was offered a job teaching kindergarten two mornings a week in the little village of Hammett, Idaho.  I considered taking the job even though I’ve spent my career teaching older students, adults and teens.  It was a thrill.  It was a challenge.  It was a nightmare.  No, not a nightmare—it was a dream.  My head nestled deep in a pillow, I’d dreamt about the Hammett job offer.  It wasn’t real.  I know some people still dream about their jobs, their careers, long past retirement:  waiting on tables, writing reports in an office, dealing with co-workers.  My farmer-husband woke up one morning this past summer and when I asked him over coffee how he’d slept, he said, “I worked all night.”

“No you didn’t,” I took a sip of my hot coffee.  “You snored all night.”

“That wasn’t a snore.  That was me grunting, trying to keep up with the farm (bailing hay, moving irrigation pipe, fixing the tractor).  There was too much pressure.  I had to wake up just to get some rest.”

Even though leaving our work identities behind after retirement can be both freeing and frightening, our careers, our work leaves marks on our psyche as deep and wide as Big Foot’s tracks on the forest floor.

This is why retirement for many people is such a dramatic sea change. It’s not just changing our behaviors, it’s changing how we think.  In light of such a big transition, some of us choose to hang on to our jobs. I hiked with a friend in the foothills north of Boise, Idaho the other day, and she told me her brother, at 76, plans to keep his career as a communications professor at Portland State University, as long as he can.  Sitting on a restaurant patio last week, I ran into another old friend, Fred, who’s been a practicing mental health therapist for at least thirty years.  Fred told me he’d probably work until the day he dies.  And like the great therapist he is, Fred didn’t want to talk about himself, he wanted to talk about me.

“So Diana,” he said, “I hear you’re doing a lot of writing these days…”

My husband and I have another friend, Bob, who has a decidedly different take on retirement.  Bob said, “It takes guts to retire.”  He went on to talk about the courage it took for him to sit with feelings of boredom and aimlessness—a perspective I found interesting.  Some people say they’re busier than ever in retirement.

Still, Bob had a point.  Retirement is often a process:  binge-watching Netflix shows until you feel ready to move on to something else.

Ironically now, I remember what a drag having a job was when I was a teenager in the 60’s and 70’s.  Maynard G. Krebs, the deadbeat beatnik on The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis show expressed the sentiment of me and my peers on the topic of work.  Whenever Maynard heard the word, “work,” he repeated it with a shout, like he had Tourettes and work was a dirty word.  Then there’s the Civil War era poet, Walt Whitman, for whom having a job was—a distraction.  Whitman’s family lamented his “laziness,” but Whitman didn’t want regular employment with its “usual rewards.”  He preferred instead, to wander the beaches of Long Island and create great masterpieces of poetry like his collection, Leaves of Grass.

For many years, my job meant a lot to me.  I liked the routine, the money, and the title: Dr. Hooley. 

But when I retired, the veneer of self-importance fell away, and I was left with just me.  Not the professor, or coach, or director, or committee member.  Just me.  And for most of us, that’s not such a bad thing.  Retirement means we finally have the time to consider what we want to do, instead of what we have to do.  And honestly, being a kindergarten teacher in Hammett, Idaho was never high on my list.

 

 

Image Credit:  Hammett sign    Image Credit: The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis        Image Credit:  Walt Whitman

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Harsh Reality of Life on the Farm

Life gets real on the farm—meaning sometimes cruel.  Those of us who live more urbanely, shopping for hermetically sealed dairy, meat, and produce in the supermarket can easily forget this fact.  But your grandparents or great-grandparents, and if not them, your pioneer forebears knew all about the farm’s morbid facts of life.

Having lived on a farm myself for nearly a lifetime, I’ve been largely desensitized to the prey-predator drama enacted on many farms every day.  For example, I often tap the fence around our livestock pen with a stick when I walk by to roust Shirley, our pig.  She’s a curious creature, always ready to shove her wet snout through the fence slats to get a sniff of my pants.  I smile until I remember Shirley, at nearly 300 pounds, is almost butcher weight.  Honestly, if I thought about this much, I would turn vegan—or Muslim—but sadly, one of these options in America today might predispose me to being the one butchered (at least metaphorically-speaking).

This past summer I watched a charming movie, The Biggest Little Farm, about a city couple, a husband and wife from Los Angeles, who loved animals and wanted to try their hand at sustainable farming in California’s Central Valley.  It’s always fun to watch city people “do” farm life.  I think of that silly early 2000’s reality show, The Simple Life, about a spoiled heiress, Paris Hilton, and her manicured best friend, Nicole Ritchie, slogging through cow dung in waders.

But John and Molly of The Biggest Little Farm were much more serious about going “full hayseed.”  They wanted to be a model, an example, that food, both plants and animals, could be produced in humane and sustainable ways. 

Pesticides, chemicals, and fertilizers were a no-go.  They wanted to prove that a bio-diverse environment, with a variety of plants, animals, and other creatures, would find a rhythm and harmony that was not only natural, but profitable.  I was cheering for them every step of the way in my movie theater seat.  If they could do it, maybe bigger farms like the one my husband and I operate, could too.

To their credit, John and Molly created a relatively honest film.  Which means—the way they controlled pests like aphids, snails, gophers, and coyotes—was by letting nature take its course.  It other words, allowing animals to eat each other, i.e. prey-predator cycle.  Of course, there was savagery in this, and not all of it was planned.

Oopsies happened, like when the coyotes broke through the fence and ripped the throats of baby lambs.  One of the trusted guard dogs even ravaged the beloved pet rooster, Greasy, Greasy’s entrails scattered across the barn yard.

As animal-lovers themselves, the way life and death played out on the farm became an unavoidable nightmare for John and Molly.  Yet, they were determined.  They acclimated.  They watched stoically as the sweet, little piglets they helped birth, were hauled off to sale and slaughter.

By the end of the movie the before/after pictures of John and Molly’s farm were not quite as dramatic as a 600-pound woman post stomach stapling surgery, but it was impressive. Where once the southern California dust skittered over alkaline patches, fruit trees bloomed and herds of sheep roamed through grass meadows.  John and Molly though, looked older, more haggard, and less enthusiastic.

It took seven years to realize their sustainable farm—and it came at a cost.  The price appeared to be their idealism.

And did they make a profit?  That was less clear.  Something my businessman-husband picked up on immediately.  For despite the Garden of Eden John and Molly had managed to nurture in the California desert, my husband’s one comment at the film’s end was:  “I want to see their spreadsheet.”

 

Image credits:  The Biggest Little Farm        Image credit:  The Simple Life        Image credit:   Diana Hooley, Hooley’s commercial, desert farm

The Trip to Sun Valley

 

There’s a book I read years ago about the American West, a work of fiction by the author Wallace Stegner: Angle of Repose.  Stegner’s book has a long and colorful history, including a Pulitzer Prize, but what I want to talk about is its title.  I’ve always been fascinated by the title.  Angle of repose is a geological term meaning the place where rocks tumbling down a hill finally come to rest.  The title is a metaphor for the story: a young pioneering couple from the east, move west, and go through both physical and emotional upheaval before they finally find together, an angle of repose.

Maybe my fondness for this book’s title has to do with the fact that I once was an easterner.  Like many transplants, I lived other places, experiencing different landscapes and cultures before I settled in the West.

I thought about this the past weekend when I took my elderly mother and two of her friends for a little get-away to Idaho’s beautiful Sun Valley resort.  Mom said she always wanted to see Switzerland (who doesn’t?), and I thought, since international travel isn’t viable for her anymore, Sun Valley might be the next best thing.

On the trip, I told the ladies packed in the backseat of the Subaru that I first heard about Sun Valley years ago, when I was in high school back east.  I think I must have been rifling through a magazine at the school library, likely having skipped lunch, when I came upon a glitzy advertisement for the resort. The ad read: “Winter playground of the rich and famous!”  I remember the picture of people happily skiing down snow-covered mountain peaks and thinking, “Wow.  Isn’t that pretty.  Too bad I’ll never go there.”  I couldn’t imagine visiting a place like Sun Valley because, a) my family was too poor for resorts; we scrapped by on my dad’s trucker salary, and b) Sun Valley, Idaho was about 2,000 miles and several feet of elevation away from the Indiana plain where I lived.

Now that I think of it, neither my mother nor I would visit Sun Valley until we’d found our angle of repose.  We both had journeys to take, alternately exciting and challenging, before we could reach a stopping place in the inter-mountain West.

Mom had to travel to the Philippines where she worked several years as a missionary nurse.  Then, when she came back to the States, nostalgic for old friends and old places, she moved to where she’d grown up, near Bluefield, West Virginia.  She finally landed in the West when she turned eighty.

After high school, I left Indiana, spending time first in the big city of Philadelphia, and then on an Indian reservation, before going to college in the bucolic Shenandoah Valley of Virginia.  I managed to make my way west when I met an Idaho farmer.  I’d never been to Idaho before, and the only thing I really knew about the state (like most non-Idahoans) was that they grew potatoes.  It wasn’t until I found myself teaching school and trying to raise four children that someone suggested I needed to take a few days away, all by myself.  I should go to a mountain resort just a few hours north of our farm.  Sun Valley is glorious, they said, alpine meadows and fine dining.  Lots of history.  Ernest Hemingway lived there.

I told mom and her girlfriends how over the years I’ve come to Sun Valley dozens of times, drawn mostly by its natural beauty, the sagebrush hills with the rugged Pioneer and Boulder Mountains rising behind them.

Sometimes I think about my eastern-living days:  the humidity, the always unseeable sky—blocked by either trees or buildings.

There were no mountains to scale or climb down from in northern Indiana.  No place to stop on the trail, to sit awhile, or just shut my eyes, peaceful in my repose.

 

 

Image Credit: Angle of Repose   Image Credit: Diana Hooley   Image Credit: Sun Valley poster

Feeling the Affects of Chernobyl in Idaho

Watching HBO’s miniseries about the nuclear reactor accident at Chernobyl, Ukraine, I thought of my grandmother Verna.  She died of uterine cancer in 1961 at the age of 52.  I remember overhearing my grandfather and uncles discussing the radioactivity involved in the cobalt therapy used to treat her cancer.  How could such a poisonous substance heal Grandma, I wondered?  In the end cobalt therapy didn’t help Grandma and may have hurt her.  Thus began my fear of radioactive poisoning.  Not that my imagination needed any help on that score.  I grew up in the Atomic Age.  Maybe every generation has a dystopian fear.  Today we worry about surviving climate change, but during the Cold War the possibility of nuclear holocaust seemed just as imminently threatening, if not more so.

Many times as a young girl I passed by the bank building in my hometown of Elkhart, Indiana, and saw the distinctive black and yellow “fan” posted on the outside of the bank indicating a fallout shelter in the bank basement. I saw this same sign not too far from where I now live, in the Idaho desert north of Shoshone.  At one time Mammoth Cave, a large lava tube, served as a fallout shelter for Idahoans.  I eventually learned that though a shelter might help, radioactive fallout is a vaporous ghost that haunts long after the initial flash of a bomb.

Late in the 1970’s, the nation seemed gripped by different nuclear fears, this time having to do with faulty nuclear reactors.  In 1979 a movie called The China Syndrome was released and with it, a new term joined the vernacular.   It was said that a reactor core could overheat and melt down so far into the earth, it melted clear to China.  Eerily, not three weeks after the movie came out, life seemed to imitate art when one of three reactors at the Three Mile Island nuclear facility in Pennsylvania went into partial meltdown. It was the most significant accident in U.S. nuclear power plant history, ranking a 5 out of 7 points on the International Nuclear Event Scale.

The core reactor fire at Chernobyl in 1986 ranked a full 7 on the INE scale.  My husband and I watched the evening news, stunned that day after day emergency crews in the Ukraine were unable to contain the fire and with it, the plumes of radioactive gasses and other material sent skyward.  No one ventured a guess as to the actual number of people affected by Chernobyl’s fallout.  I thought of Grandma Verna.  Sometimes the damage from radioactive poisoning revealed itself only much later with untreatable cancers.

One evening during the Chernobyl disaster, television news anchors reported that traces of radioactivity had been found in milk and dairy products as far away from Ukraine as Western Europe.  Even more frightening, they said Chernobyl fallout had penetrated the jet stream, and radioactivity had been detected in Hawaii, with the expectation that it would soon reach the western edge of the U.S.

I tried to dismiss this ominous news, thinking what were the chances that a nuclear accident in Russia would ever affect me and my family thousands of miles away in Idaho?  A day or so later I walked out to my garden in a light drizzle to cut some spinach for supper.  Then, per usual, my husband and I sat down to watch the evening news.  The newscaster announced the Chernobyl fallout had officially landed in America.  The area of heaviest radioactive concentration (though nothing to worry about, he assured his audience) was somewhere northwest of Salt Lake City, Utah.  The light rain this area was experiencing seemed to be bringing traces of fallout with it from the upper atmosphere.

I looked at Dale and knew we were both thinking the same thing:  we’d probably just eaten a radioactive spinach salad.  Of course, I thought miserably, Chernobyl fallout had to land here and not in some god-forsaken stretch of Nevada.  Maybe Grandma Verna’s long ago cobalt treatments were a foreshadowing.  Dale though, had a decidedly lighter view of the situation: “Let’s turn off the lamp and see if we light up in the dark.”  Not funny, I shook my head at him, not funny.

 

Image Credit:  Fallout Shelter  Image Credit:  Chernobyl

Game of Thrones

I’m the only one I know my age who’s a fan of Game of Thrones.  This isn’t really surprising since a recent survey of the show’s fan base revealed that 72% of people watching GoT were 18-29 years-old and almost 82% were male.  While I fit neither of these demographics, my husband, being male, fits one.  But he has the same summation for both Game of Thrones and the Lord of the Rings trilogy:  “Just a bunch medieval-looking people running around chasing each other with swords (bah humbug).”

For a devotee of any work of art, disparaging comments like this are enough to trigger my defenses.  I could say of his love for plants, birds, and all things science:  “It’s the same thing every day, growing, tweeting, and photosynthesizing (boring)”—but I don’t.  I take the high road instead and tell him his old, shriveled-up mind can no longer comprehend all the wonderful nuggets of insight embedded in fantasies like those created by George R. R. Martin, the author of Game of Thrones.  Speaking of George R. R. Martin, to understand just what a creative wizard he really is, even though his books and the TV series have a strong appeal for younger adults and take place in a Middle-Age, British-like empire, Martin himself is a 70-year-old New Jersey native (pronounced “New Joi-zy” if you happen to hail from that state).

Some might question these nuggets of insight I’m talking about considering GoT is a fantasy-based work.  Since the story line is all about various kingdoms and their kings and queens warring over the right to be supreme ruler and sit on the Iron Throne, you’d think the theme of GoT would be power and power structures—and it is.  But to my mind this is a very superficial understanding of Game of Thrones.

The genius of Martin’s work is how he blows stereotypes to smithereens and in doing so, gives us again and again, a much more intriguing and broad understanding of the potential human beings have for doing both good and evil.

Women are often the ruthless rulers in Game of Thrones—not the men.  Queen Cersei, always watchful of potential usurpers to her throne, is threatened by her future daughter-in-law, Princess Sansa.  Cersei serves Sansa and all her family notice of her power by beheading the King of the North, Sansa’s father–as Sansa watches from a castle window.  There are many shocking, yet interesting plot twists in GoT, aided and abetted by these stereotype-blowing characters previously mentioned.  The most intelligent and thoughtful person in Game of Thrones is the least physically powerful:  Prince Tyrion, a dwarf.  Diminutive Lady Arya is a dangerous assassin, and the big, lummox Samwell Tarly plays against type as a perceptive librarian.  Jon Snow is an illegitimate bastard and cast out of his home, ordered to command a wall of ice in a frozen outpost.  The wall is intended to keep heathens called the Wildings away from the other civilized kingdoms.  Yet Jon Snow, unbeknownst to himself or anyone else, is the true hero and the key to the mystery behind Game of Thrones.

For me, Game of Thrones ask some serious questions and poses a certain conundrum which I think is applicable to our world today.  GoT asks whether or not all these kingdoms can lay down their swords, their need for control and power, and work together against a greater evil, death personified in the White Walkers.  The White Walkers are frozen, bloodless zombies that have the potential to wipe out humanity.

Repeatedly, the kings and queens are warned:  stop fighting among yourselves.  Winter is coming.

It’s not too much of a stretch for me to see the analogy in our real world and our current political landscape: we need to stop the sniping over lesser issues and address the zombie in our own living room.  The climate is changing and the atmosphere is heating up.  Species, including our own, are at risk. Be forewarned:  summer is coming–and it may be a long and a hot one if we don’t act before it’s too late.

Image Credit:  Game of Thrones

Sex and Power

Last night I watched The Favourite, a drama based on actual historical occurrences, and one of the movies nominated for best picture in the Oscar race this year.  It was, on the surface, a weird film. The weirdness had to do with: the fantastical costumes of the 17th century, (men in long, curly wigs with red beauty patches on their cheeks); the recreation of Lordly aristocrats (they seemed to enjoy pummeling a bewigged nude man with apples); and an instance of ballroom dancing (whereby a Lord twirled his partner around his waist aka Dancing with the Stars and then proceeded to crawdad-walk the length of the ballroom).  The fascination of the film though was its theme:  the limits of sex to gain power or to comfort.

Every advertiser knows the power of sex:  sex sells.  You may be reading this blog because you saw the word “sex” in the title.

Frankly, when I was a much younger woman, I, like many women, used my sex appeal to influence.

As a twenty-something living on an isolated desert farm, I dreamed of becoming a journalist and writing for a newspaper.  Without any experience or education in journalism, I wrote seven newspaper columns about a city girl’s life on the farm.  When I marched into the newsroom of our local newspaper with my columns in hand, I had on my prettiest dress and most charming smile. The city news desk editor took notice (I could tell).  He may have liked what I wrote, but I also think he was influenced by what he saw.  A week later I got a call telling me the newspaper was interested in publishing my work.

In the movie, The Favourite, Queen Anne of Great Britain is horribly depressed.  She’s lost her husband and endured 17 failed pregnancies. What is a queen’s value in the 1700’s if not to produce an heir (or even, in Great Britain today—consider how overjoyed everyone is that Prince William’s wife, Kate Middleton, has been reliably fertile).

Queen Anne is easy pickings for the machinations of her assistant, Lady Sarah, and her chamber maid, Abigail, who both vie for Anne’s favor in the hope of gaining power.  They coddle Anne and respond to her every whim, including providing sex.  Ironically, considering Anne’s barren condition, sex appears to be the most effective manipulation.

I was both fascinated and repulsed watching Queen Anne try to comfort herself by eating cake until she vomited into the vomit bucket, or quietly sob as she participated in yet another meaningless sexual experience.

It was like watching someone with an appendix attack try to staunch the pain by riding a roller coaster.  Thrills are not going to solve Anne’s problem.  Sadly, in the film Queen Anne never overcomes her depression, and the aristocratic women prostituting themselves for her end up trapped in that role.  Here’s a movie (or a piece of history) I would gladly rewrite.  In my ending Queen Anne would find something she obviously and desperately needed: a genuine friend.  This person would ask nothing of her—and give nothing to her—except real love.  I’d call it a fairy-tale ending.

Image credit:  The Favourite

DeGrazia, Tony Doerr, and J. R. Simplot

I stood in front of Ted DeGrazia’s painting of Navajo children dancing in a circle, the one that UNICEF picked for their annual Christmas card in 1960, and tried to “feel” the painting. I like art and sometimes art can move me, evoke emotion and stir some ancient memory. I have a reproduction of a watercolor my old boss, Bill Trueba painted that I find absolutely haunting. It’s a picture, a silhouette really, of a man walking city streets at night. Bill brushstrokes loneliness and despair across his canvas in orange, blues and black. For some reason, though DeGrazia is a famous southwest painter and his Navajo children painting-turned-Christmas card sold four million cards, I’ve little attraction for the painting.

Who can understand why some art touches us and not others, or vice-versa? The other evening at a supper party, talk turned to movies likely nominated for the Oscars this year. I said, “I loved watching Roma on Netflix. That’s a beautiful movie.”

Leslie about spit out the water she was drinking. “What? You liked Roma? How could anybody like that movie? What was it about anyways? Does anybody know? I didn’t get it. It just seemed like a lot of family scenes down in Mexico during the 70’s.”

I could have told Leslie that Rotten Tomatoes web site gave Roma a 99% certified “fresh” ranking—but that was too much like telling someone the reason I like banana splits is because everyone else says they’re great–so I said instead:

“Yeah, you’re right Leslie. There’s hardly any plot in Roma. For me it’s more about the setting, the character, the mood of the film. So melancholy: this poor indigenous woman, destined to live her life scrubbing the laundry and tending the children of some other Mexican family, an upper-class, European-looking one.”

Books are another art form I’ve found, that can draw strikingly different reactions depending on the reader. For example, is there an Idaho reader alive, who doesn’t revere Anthony Doerr (our native son) and dote on his Pulitzer Prize-winning best-seller, All the Light We Cannot See? I’m going to speak sacrilege here and confess: this Idahoan was not awed by Doerr’s book. Though I think Doerr writes artfully, his book to me was not a work of art. I’ve considered this could be a case of sour grapes. Why didn’t I write such a book? Probably because I don’t have his talent. But I thought, generally-speaking, All the Light We Cannot See was too calculated in its construction. It was like he wrote today’s formula for a literary best-seller: a blind, handicapped girl and something about the Nazis occupation of Europe during WWII. Why didn’t Tony, being from Idaho, write about . . . well . . . an Idaho potato farmer?

Speaking of Idaho potato farmers, I’ll end this little essay on artistic taste by saying that a couple of years ago I took a tour of a Boise home that once belonged to the potato magnate, J. R. Simplot. One piece of art he’d mounted on his walls struck me more than any of the other artwork I saw in his old home. It was a framed poster of sexy Marilyn Monroe wearing a burlap potato sack, circa 1951. I stood in front of the picture for some moments, much like I did DeGrazia’s painting, waiting and wondering. What I concluded was: though the picture didn’t speak to me, it certainly must have to Simplot. Here was a billboard advertising the values of J. R. Simplot, an agribusiness-man in his prime. Thus, I think art can be as they say, many things to many people. Beauty, and what’s not so beautiful, it’s all in the eye of the beholder.

Becoming by Michelle Obama

Becoming
by Michelle Obama

The title of Michelle Obama’s book is Becoming, so I was interested to find out how she became all that she became. Despite humble beginnings, Obama became a Harvard Law graduate, a corporate lawyer, a university administrator, and the wife of the president of the United States.

Incredibly, Michelle Obama and I started out in life in similar ways. We both grew up in the Chicagoland area. In fact, my husband and I drove into Chicago after we first married to honeymoon in a motel on Euclid Avenue, probably not far from where young Michelle was skipping Double Dutch on the sidewalk. We both had blue collar, working class parents. Her father was a water pump operator for the city of Chicago and my dad was a truck driver. She lived in a rented 900 square foot apartment, and my parents mortgaged their 900 square feet. I had the advantage of being born white in racist America, but maybe this wasn’t such an advantage. As Obama chronicles it, race and humble beginnings, along with the love and expectations of her parents, were part of the engine that motivated her many accomplishments. She says: “The idea was we (she and her brother Craig) were to transcend, to get ourselves further.”

Obama defines “becoming” as reaching continuously “for a better self,” which was certainly the case in her life. She worked hard, payed attention to detail and always arrived early. She marveled in her book how she could fall in love with such a “breezy,” laid-back kind-of guy as Barack Obama. But appearances can be deceptive, and she soon realized his relaxed manner belied a keen intellect and deep personal ethic. Michelle Obama’s love for her husband is everywhere evident in this autobiography. However, their marriage was not without challenges. She tells about struggles to become pregnant, going to marriage counseling during a rough patch, and the resistance she launched against Barack Obama’s political ambitions. Like any loving wife, she didn’t want to have to share her husband with the world—but I, for one, am so glad she did.

Obama writes her book well. It’s honest, yet optimistic, interesting and wise. And, like any good autobiography, Obama reveals several little known facts about her life. I was surprised to read she had to be schooled in how to speak publicly during her husband’s political campaigns. I’ve always enjoyed listening to her speak on television, but apparently when she first began to advocate for her husband at political rallies, her advisers told her she came across as too strident and harsh. She needed to sound more friendly and open. I also never realized during the 2016 campaign the personal impact of Donald Trump’s race-baiting on the Obama family. The number of death threats increased alarmingly, and Michelle worried for her husband and children’s safety.

Becoming has the distinction of being the best-selling book of the year, and I think I know why. It’s not just the fascinating story of a young woman’s rise, but the story of a better time in our country’s history, a time when we had a strong leader, someone guided by a true moral compass.

Holiday Books by Great Genre Authors

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.