History

Remembering an Old Friend

I strolled back to the couch after dinner tonight, intent on my scoopful of racial justice ice cream. If Ben & Jerry's thinks that One Sweet World, a caramel-coffee base with ribbons of salted caramel and marshmallow, and a hefty mix of chocolate chunks, somehow improves race relations, I will happily do my part for the cause. (Yes, that's said very spoon-in-cheek. While I celebrate the effort at raising awareness, race unity requires more friendships and, possibly, fewer slogans.)

As I was saying ... I'd just gotten dessert and was making my way back to the living room. I had in mind the idea of downloading Duolingo so that I can, in my spare time, try to reclaim at least part of the vocabulary I gained from studying Spanish for eight or 10 years straight. Now, some 20 years or so after I last sat in a classroom, I've realized that I can only speak in the present and, when the grammar gods are friendly, past tenses. This is a problem when I'm rather focused on the future. It seems that a refresher is in order. Claro que sí. 

In any case, that's what I thought I would be doing. Instead, the last segment of the evening news caught my ear. There was Dolly Parton, at the Library of Congress, reading her Coat of Many Colors, book number 100 million contributed to that institution. And singing her song that preceded the book by many, many years.

Which, of course, immediately had tears welling up in my eyes, as it always does. Because, you see, the year my parents and I ate squirrel, and quail, and venison, and blackberries picked alongside the road, and the basics that food stamps provided ... that year, my mom made my doll clothes and some of my clothes, too.

The best thing she made that year, though, was my very first backpack, for my very first day of kindergarten. And I think of it every time I hear this song. It has an artful seam down the middle of it. Exactly the same seam that ran down the outside of my Grandpa Mel's olive green polyester/denim work pants. And on the flap, with its super-strong snap that is still hard for me to close, my initials are spelled out in scraps of fabric, decoratively whip-stitched around the edges in bright thread. 

On my first day of school, and for a couple of years after that, my backpack was the prettiest one in the room. No matter what anyone else was carrying.

I knew we didn't have money at the time. But I never thought we were poor. And for that, I thank my parents ... and my pants-leg backpack that served me so well. 

"...  one is only poor,
Only if they choose to be.
Now I know we had no money,
But I was rich as I could be
In my coat of many colors
My momma made for me ..."

Cowboys Ain't Easy to Love

Right now, my laptop wallpaper displays the silhouetted backs of four horsemen riding into what I can fairly safely assume is the sunset. It's an image from the documentary Unbranded, which I helped fund through Kickstarter a couple of years ago and have not yet settled down to watch since it came out this fall. 

Despite that, I have a solid vision of the play of muscles beneath the tanned skin of the men's forearms as they handle the reins and the loose roll of their hips and shoulders as they adjust to the horses' steps. Saddle leather creaks and dances with the low drawl of comment-based conversation. The damp reek of warm horseflesh fills my nose and fading sunlight mixes with dust in the air. 

In what seems like nearly a different lifetime, all of that was familiar. My grandfather had me riding at age 3 and bought me a stubborn and somewhat ornery pony named Little Bit when I was 4. Riding the fence line, cheering from the top row at the rodeo while balancing a fry bread taco on my lap, learning about the difference between ranchers and cowboys, admiring sagebrush and golden grass, and watching out for rattlesnakes. That was the real deal for me, and I miss it all: the places, the people, and the time.

Now, although I have a pair of Justin lacers in my closet and a straw cowboy hat hanging on the wall, I also have Al Jazeera queued up and three offices of the United Nations bookmarked on my computer. I'm as likely to wind up in Europe as in California. This year's marginal tan is fading as I go cross-eyed on books and articles about Serious And Important Things. And I'm occupied with marketing plans and technology companies on a daily basis. All of which fit just as well as my boots.

When it comes right down to it, though, I'm still that little girl in the golden west. I can sing you the Nevada state song and every verse of Waylon and Willie's "Mamas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys" (old faded Levis, children, puppies and all). There's something to be said for the values and the approach all that brings to a life. But maybe you just had to be there.

Research Isn't Always Pretty

"You should blog your misadventures in writing." I'd pinged my friend Abby with my latest foray into the wilds of Google, in which I strung together words I'd never felt the faintest urge to assemble. This was her reply. It's good to have friends who know gallows humor is a thing.

You see, over the last eight weeks, I've been reading books on subjects similar to my own work, books that use literary techniques I should add to my toolbox, and news of current and past events that form the backdrop for my project. It's been ... enlightening.

Youngsters, turn away now.

Frankly speaking: I've spent the last two months reading nonstop, graphic descriptions of physical and psychological torture, execution, and death. It's grueling stuff. My first reaction was horror, as anyone's likely would be. But then, as it often does when something is emotionally overwhelming, my brain switched to autopilot and I absorbed all of the information as practical, rational data. My memory tends toward the eidetic, so almost everything is logged in precise detail and available for recall later. 

When I reach back into the shelving unit that is my brain, though, rational thought and emotion collide. Poor Abby had just received my explanation that I was writing my report on Maziar Bahari's Rosewater when I found myself Googling "term for anal rape with a foreign object" to be sure I clinically and correctly identified one of the forms of torture used against a group of protesters. Thankfully, Abby is one of my posse of friends-like-family. She understood that my inappropriate giggling was not triggered by the phrase I'd typed, but by the absurdity of having to type it at all. "Who," I was thinking, "does things like that?" (And by the way, "rape" covers all the details. Good to know.)

That brings us to the great challenge of research. The goal is to learn things we don't know. The conundrum is that we're likely to learn things we'd rather not have to know. Or in many instances, things that we'd rather no one experience, ever. The specifics of torture and rape have that effect. Sebastian Junger takes us to the brink in The Perfect Storm, with a victim's perspective on the clinical events involved in death by drowning and a scientific detailing of what happens to a rescue diver's body when he hits a rough ocean from 70 feet up.

It's hard to read. Numbing, even. The kind of thing that most of us will never, in our lifetimes, experience firsthand. The fact is, though, someone did experience it. And if people don't read and absorb, then how does anything change?

That's a lesson I learned years ago. For a couple weeks straight, on 12-hour shifts, starting at noon on 9/11, one of my bandmates at the time led a rescue and recovery team at Ground Zero. When he finally rejoined us for an event, he pulled us all in at the end of the day and told us what he and his team had seen, because he needed to know that people far away from the pile would spread the word. He didn't hold anything back. Not about the condition of the bodies, the heat of the fires, the contents of the dust his team breathed in. And not about the small kindnesses of strangers that made their job bearable, either.

So, no, research isn't always pretty. But it's necessary. Because unless someone goes looking for the information, how will anyone else know it exists? 

What It Means to Be "From" Somewhere

I've been watching wildfires consume my childhood the last few days, as they do every few years. It breaks my heart every time. And it brings memories rushing back from a much simpler time in my life. I can feel the sway, riding Candy, Repeater Pete or Little Bit from the school bus stop to my grandfather's mobile home. See Red Man tobacco pouches and Crystal Gayle cassette cases tucked into the beat-up truck seat. Smell manzanita bushes and woodsmoke in cool mountain air.

That's been a long time gone, though. In fact, I spent some time in Nova Scotia earlier this summer, and my lack of any discernible accent at all attracted attention. Typical pleasantries led to questions of provenance, and saying I was from New York triggered a few looks of confusion and one baldly stated, "You don't have that accent."

It's true. I have the lack of accent that news presenters try to learn from vocal coaches. Which brings me to the issue of what it means to be "from" somewhere. I am from New York, in that I've lived or been based in the state since I was about 10. Nowhere near NYC. My identity was formed well before that, though, in western Nevada. And I'm from northern California by birth, not far from those wildfires. 

The accent may go back farther, though. Half of my mom's California family began among the earliest Europeans in Massachusetts (we owned Maine, before it was a state); the other half were among the earliest Europeans in New Jersey, and then farmed in Iowa for generations. My dad's family are pure Connecticut Yankees, who stepped off boats from Ireland and Sweden a little more than a hundred years ago. So perhaps I'm "from" Grass Valley, Ipswich, Letts, Monmouth, Hartford, Ferbane and Laholm. 

All of this comes to mind because of the research I'm doing right now. The subject of my work is from Iran. His family is from Iran. As far as I know, they go back so far in the country that no one may recall when they weren't from Iran. That is an idea as foreign to me as the culture. How different his idea of being "from" a place must be.