We were supposed to be gone on a Girl Scout camping weekend today, but there’s been dire warnings about some huge typhoon hitting the Seattle area this weekend, so all sorts of things have been cancelled around the region, including our camp. Which is OK, in that it’s been raining all day and there’s nothing more miserable than tromping around a campground in the rain. So our major outing today was to Home Depot and Value Village. That said, there hasn’t been that much wind here at all so far.
Things have quieted down a bit with Veeka back in school. Last weekend, I was at a conference of regional journalism professors in Tacoma. I’m pleased to say I’m about to sign a contract for my 6th book and am spending most of this month working full time finishing up the manuscript. (More on this later when the contract is signed.) I’ve been doing some emergency substituting in local elementary schools and it’s not been bad at all, although I am exhausted when I get home.
My father’s 92nd birthday was Sept. 26, so I brought a white rose by my mother’s place. A year ago, we had a quiet dinner together. He’s been gone more than 3 months now and it will be so odd having the holidays in another month without him.
Since the place I live in is so tiny, I’ve been going through lots of boxes and tossing things that have been around more than 45 years. These include my scrapbooks as a young girl. When I was 7, the first big news event of 1963 wasn’t the death of President Kennedy but, as noted in my scrapbook, the death of Pope John Paul XXIII on June 3, several months before. I still remember the former. I was walking home from school one fall day (everyone always walked at least a mile to school in those days) and some kid rode by on his bike to say the president was dead. I didn’t believe it until I got home and saw it on the TV.
My scrapbook from that year is filled with photos of brides and many drawings of birds. I loved going into the woods and drawing what was available in coastal Connecticut: towhees, blue jays, hummingbirds, goldfinches, scarlet tanagers, orioles, blue birds, pine warblers and red-winged blackbirds. Sadly, there are a lot fewer of these songbirds in the world today.
In the next scrapbook, from 1964, I found a small notebook of photos of students from my first-grade class. Amazingly, I could remember all of their first names and some of their last names. More than 50 years later, I remember names like Fay Steinhilber, Elizabeth Percy, Pam Van Ness, Melanie Carpenter, Roberta Samuels, Candy Simone, Robert Wallace, Debra Acara and Colleen Dougherty. Isn’t it odd how they stay with you? I still remember my teachers from Great Neck Elementary in Waterford: Mrs. Lyons (first grade); Mrs. Orsey (2nd), Mrs. Edgecomb (third) and then in Severna Park: Mrs. Fudjack (5th), Mr. Smith (6th) and Mrs. Taylor (7th). The name of my 4th grade teacher escapes me…
I saved tons of Valentines and birthday cards and it amazes me how all my aunts sent me cards and my maternal grandmother, Olive, would write me letters. And I was only 8! Everyone sent so many letters and cards back then. I even got a birthday card from Poodie, my grandfather’s dog. There are also letters from my first penpal (a girl in Sidney, Montana called Colleen Jensen). Those were the years when we first started using zip codes.
Every so often, I like to pinpoint some fascinating books I’ve run across and that I had time to read this summer: One is Putin Country: A Journey into the Real Russia,” a fascinating look into one of the world’s most polluted cities because of all the nuclear waste in the area’s rivers and air. The major city in the area is Chelyabinsk, a city not far from Kostanai, the Kazakh city where I spent 6 weeks adopting Veeka. Folks I met in Kostanai told me that Chelyabinsk was the largest city within a day’s drive and they would visit it ever so often. You may have heard of the city when a meteor fell near it in 2013. The reporter, who had been in and out of Chelyabinsk for 40 years, gives an amazing profile of a Russian region where media rarely visit. It used to be a “closed” area because of all the plutonium plants in the area. She writes a devastating portrayal of how Russians live and believe outside of the famous cities to the west. In Chelyabinsk, anyone in power is corrupt, all the officials are on the take and if you don’t toe the line, local Putin appointees will see you go bankrupt. Depressing, but a great read, as it shows how hopeless the residents feel over a situation that will not get better.
Another was The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery. I’m fascinated but repulsed by these creatures; it’s hard for me to even look at them. They’ve got the worst of all worlds: a loathsome-looking head attached to tentacles. But this author talks about how she got to know successive octopuses at the New England Aquarium in Boston and how these creatures get to know humans by touch. They can feel your emotions through your skin, so if an octopus wraps one arm/leg around you, it’s sensing the chemicals in your body, plus it can tell whether you are male or female. The writer talks about them having memory and dreams, how they can be lonely and desire human company and how she learned how to pet them and communicate love to them and how the octopus responded back. If you see Hank the Octopus in the new Finding Dory movie, you realize how they can change color in quite amazing ways to blend in with their surroundings.
I have also been reading “The Rope,” a recent book by Kanan Makiya, written from the viewpoint of a young Shi’ite revolutionary from 2003 to the death of Saddam Hussein in 2006. He lays the blame for the ruin of present-day Iraq not at the feet of the Americans – who despite their faults gave Iraq its best shot ever at establishing a democracy – but at the feet of the majority Shi’ites who could not see beyond their partisan politics to want to build a united Iraq. He points out the lying and betrayal is the local currency in Iraq and that absolutely no one is to be trusted, not even your own kin, as the hero discovers at the end of the book. Thus, a Jean-Jacques Rousseau-style social contract was rejected and replaced by a social where there is no trust in anything; where you never know if the person next to you is a suicide bomber intent on blowing you up. And you can’t have a functioning society without some trust.
The book is an easy read and I found the author’s unveiling of the nature of the Arab tribal mindset fascinating. So much of this inborn resistance goes back to Ishmael and the enmity between him and Isaac that never got resolved. I visited Iraq, albeit the Kurdish part of it, in 2004, so have been fascinated by it ever since. That said, it’s a most desolate piece of real estate I’ve ever seen. BTW, the speech Saddam gives at the end of the book is amazing.
I’ve also been reading “American Wife,” by Curtis Sittenfeld, a fictionalized account of the life of Laura Bush. The author tries to get inside the head (and thoughts) of a First Lady and does a good job at guessing what it must be like to be a public figure. What I found fascinating was the character’s interior monologues about fame and power and whether being the wife of the President makes her complicit in his good – and bad – decisions. Is she responsible, she wonders, for the deaths of many Americans and even more Iraqis in the war in Iraq? When people beg her to try to change her husband’s mind on certain topics, she reasons that hers is not a Hillary-and-Bill-Clinton marriage where one got two for the price of one. So, she doesn’t try to influence her husband. Various reviewers found fault with the book but I liked it enough to continue to the end.
During my Canada trip, I also read Sittenfeld’s latest, which is “Eligible,” It’s a take-off on Jane Austen and what “Pride and Prejudice” would look like if moved to the 21st century. It’s pretty funny and very easy reading. This book was about five unmarried daughters and how four of them ended up with spouses within a year. The end wrapped up a bit too quickly to be real but there were so really profound parts as well and it’s definitely the thing to take along for easy reading.