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.

Where the Crawdads Sing Book Review

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.