Author Archives: lynn



The only Bible story I cared for as a kid was the Nativity. Before there was grown-up Jesus, there was Baby Jesus and that baby, lying in a lowly manger, got some amazing presents. They weren’t the kind of things I’d have chosen for a kid. (By the way, what happened to those gifts? Obviously, a little baby can’t use what the Three Wise Men brought him. Did Mary and Joseph use the gold to buy a home in Nazareth? Did they re-gift the frankincense and myrhh?)

The Christmas story impressed me deeply, especially the part about the gifts. The ritual of adults giving presents to kids was a replay of giving homage to the miracle of birth. As a child, I never worried about my parents’ frantic shopping anxieties over the holidays. I had steadfast faith that they would deliver the goods, because that’s what adults were supposed to do.

One Christmas, I wanted a Betsy Wetsy doll and a toy oven. And lo, both of them appeared.

Betsy Wetsy’s charm was her ability to pee. She came with a tiny bottle, which you filled with water and stuck in her mouth. The water dribbled through her plastic innards and came out through a discreet hole in the doll’s labia-free genital area. Then you got the thrill of changing her teensy diapers. I didn’t understand Betsy Wetsy’s appeal until recently, when my 6-year-old niece entertained me with YouTube video cartoons of babies peeing in their bathwater. She laughed out loud at each video, and she must’ve shown me a dozen. Maybe, just as little boys are fixated on poop and farts, little girls have a subliminal fascination with pee.

The other toy I wanted and got was a miniature pink oven that came with wee boxes of cake mix and frosting. I woke up early the morning after Christmas and, while my parents slept, tore open all the tiny boxes of cake mix, made up the batter and stuck it in the toy oven. Since it’s sole source of heat was a light bulb, the glob didn’t cook well, or long enough, and the result was a half-baked mess. So I mixed up all the frosting and ate that from the bowl. When all the boxes of mix and frosting had been opened, I lost interest in the oven. The wanting trumped the having, as far as the oven was concerned. I’m sure it got banged up, scraped, streaked with crayons or whatever other substances we kids got hold of. The five of us were merciless with our toys. A dainty Victorian doll, meant to perch serenely on a shelf in a little girl’s room, wouldn’t stand a chance in our house. The Betsy Wetsy eventually lost her hair and head to several science experiments.

The golden years for getting toys are between the ages of four and eleven. That gives a kid eight full seasons of anticipation and excitement after each Thanksgiving. Eight years of perusing Sears and Monkey Ward catalogs. Eight years of raptly watching toy commercials on Saturday cartoon shows. Eight years of progressively more complex toys: baby dolls, fancy dolls, toy appliances, tricycles, games, puzzles, tinker toys, Lincoln logs, Legos and Erector sets, crafts, hula hoops, roller skates and the grand prize, a bike. Oh sure, you got sensible gifts from adults who don’t live with you day to day and hear your incessant clamoring for toys. Those adults, your grandparents and aunts, don’t know what you want and they don’t have the obvious common sense to ask your parents. Those adults give you sweaters and slippers and nightgowns. But in your golden years of gift-getting, those adults are the exception, not the rule.

Until one Christmas, when you cross the invisible line into an uneasy territory called No-Toy-Land. Suddenly it becomes unseemly of you to ask Santa for toys. Your parents give you that gentle “oh really?” frown. They spout platitudes about how it’s better to give than receive. From then on, ALL you get for Christmas is sweaters, slippers, nightgowns, and later, dresses and bath sets.

No-Toy-Land was the worst of two worlds: no more toys, but no real grown-up freedom, either. Instead, you’re still using your training wheels for adulthood.

Today, when I shop for Christmas presents for my young grandsons, nieces and nephews, I remember those golden years of living in ToyLand, and I get a vicarious joy from trying to get them what I think they want (Thanks, Amazon wish list!).

“The final form of love is forgiveness”

“As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison,” – Nelson Mandela, proof that the final form of love is forgiveness.

Nelson Mandela

(About the New Yorker cover: The cover is entitled, “Madiba,” Mandela’s tribal name, and is the artwork of author and artist Kadir Nelson. Nelson, who has illustrated a children’s book on Mandela, told the New Yorker that he drew this cover to reflect a young Mandela “during the time that he was on trial with over a hundred of his comrades.”

“I wanted to make a simple and bold statement about Mandela and his life as a freedom fighter,” he said. “The raised fist and the simple, stark palette reminded me of posters and anti-apartheid imagery of the nineteen-eighties. This painting is a tribute to the struggle for freedom from all forms of discrimination, and Nelson’s very prominent role as a leader in the anti-apartheid movement.” — Thanks to the Huffington Post)

November 22, 1963

I was 14, in my last year at Court Junior High in Las Cruces, New Mexico. For one period of the day, I was an “office girl,” a dubious privilege which entailed running errands for the Principal’s secretary. The assignment got me out of P.E. (hooray!), and I enjoyed roaming the halls of Court Junior High when everyone else was in class. I snatched the pink attendance slips from the clips outside each classroom door and delivered them to the Principal’s secretary, who tallied student absentees. But aside from the freedom to roam, an office girl’s one-hour shift was boring.

Until Friday, November 22nd. It was sometime after 11:00 a.m. I don’t remember my principal, but I do remember phones ringing and his radio suddenly coming on. The secretary told me, “the President’s been shot.”

The President. Our handsome, wisecracking, good-guy President. My parents admired Kennedy and I was so excited when he was elected. At last, I thought, we’ll have somebody cool in the White House. How could a kid relate to bald, old Eisenhower? JFK had a beautiful wife that reminded me of my mom. His little kids were cute like my little sister and brothers.

I’m ashamed to admit that when I heard he was shot, the part of me that’s hungry for new experience wondered what would happen if he died. Instead of saying a little prayer for him to survive the shooting, I wondered what it would be like to experience a President’s funeral. I remembered reading about Abraham Lincoln’s funeral cortege. I also wondered, selfishly, if school would be cancelled, hopefully for, like, a month?

Despite the horrible news about JFK, the principal’s secretary sent me on my rounds to collect attendance slips. I went to the gym where a group of girls clustered on bleachers. This was the P.E. class that I’d gotten out by virtue of being an office girl. The class was a mix of Anglos and Mexicans. Some of them were pretty intimidating. One Anglo girl in particular. I’ll just call her ‘Z.’

Z had big boobs, and big hair ratted into a brunette bubble above her head. She hung out with an equally sarcastic pal and the two of them would make rude commentary on anyone and everyone. I’m sure she thought of me as a nervous nerd, and I steered clear so I wouldn’t be the butt of her cruel jokes.

I ran into the auditorium, breathless with the news about President Kennedy. I told them, though maybe they already knew – I’m foggy on the details. What I do remember vividly is how Z laughed out loud when she heard the President was shot. I was shocked, and I walked out of that gym feeling shaken. In my naivete, I thought everyone loved the President.

JFK died minutes later. That afternoon, I had a dentist appointment that my mother wouldn’t let me cancel. The dentist was the father of my sister’s good friend. I was sitting in his fancy chair, waiting for him to come in and work on my teeth, when I overheard him tell someone, “I’m glad the sonofabitch is dead.” I was sure he meant Kennedy. I’d never had to think about my dentist’s politics before. He came in and while he examined my mouth for cavities, I was scared he’d find out I was a Democrat and he’d use one of those sharp, ugly picks to poke at my tender gums. Or drill needlessly into a perfectly healthy tooth. After the ordeal, I hurried home and told my mom about him. We never let him look at our teeth again!

I felt guilty that my “what if” question was answered – I got to experience a President’s funeral. I wanted him back immediately. I wanted to rewind that day, change his itinerary, keep him away from Dallas. My family huddled around the T.V. with its grainy, black-and-white coverage of his death. He was our loss and the T.V. let us share that loss with countless others who felt the same way. The weekend was an unfolding origami of grimness, one unbelievable event followed by another. JFK gone; Oswald gone; plump Jack Ruby in jail; and jowly LBJ (a Texan!) sworn in.

I never believed Oswald acted alone, though I’m not much for conspiracy theories. I can understand how such theories give comfort to those who want to organize chaos. But conspiracy theories require a suspension of disbelief for explanations that are as unbelievable as those crazy events on the weekend of November 22nd, 1963.

Of course Oswald didn’t act alone, but to me it no longer matters to find out who specifically funded his sniper attack. Whether directed by others or acting solo, Oswald rose up from an inchoate groundswell of rage against democracy. He was the jerky trigger finger of a powerful hatred. “They” lost the election and got even the only way “they” knew how. Whether “they” were anti-Castro, anti-Civil Rights, or pro-Mafia, “they” have been around forever, in all ages, all countries. They’re with us now. “They” mutate into different organizations, causes, and methods for extinguishing the enemy. But their fundamental rage and intolerance is the same.

I’ve been reading excerpts from The Kennedy Half-Century: The Presidency, Assassination, and Lasting Legacy of John F. Kennedy by political scientist and analyst Larry Sabato. He details the different forces behind Kennedy’s powerful enemies. Sabato believes it was “almost unlikely” that JFK would make it out of his presidency alive. The political climate was toxic to his life; Kennedy himself had a “false sense of invulnerability;” and the security forces protecting him were undermanned, by today’s standards.

Back on that November Friday, 1963, I was naïve about all of this. And maybe most of us were, regardless of our age.

“We have Art so we may not perish from the truth”

The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius

I’ve been telling anyone who loves books to read Donna Tartt’s latest novel, one that took her eleven years to write, “The Goldfinch.” I’m going to give it to my mom for Christmas because she’s an artist and loves beautiful things. I couldn’t stop listening to the story because of its twists and turns, its vivid use of language, and most of all, its narrator, Theo. As a reader and a writer, I found this book deeply satisfying and moving. At 771 pages, it’s a big boy. But the story flew by for me. I didn’t want it to end.

Tartt deals with a theme that has always fascinated me, and one that I explore in my own work: why do some of us stay stuck in grief over the loss of love?

Here’s what the writer in me appreciated: Tartt’s brilliant use all five senses in her descriptions. The way she builds layer upon layer of shrewd detail. Her deft scene setting, from Manhattan to Las Vegas to Amsterdam. Her keen depiction of characters with different economic class and backgrounds, from doormen to drug dealers, from Upper East Side matrons to failed actors. Her totally believable creation of two teenage boys on their own in a literal and metaphysical desert.

As a reader, I was caught up in the characters and willing to suspend my usual disbelief (though there are a couple of ‘really?’ moments). I love stories where the characters are sometimes acting stupidly and you find yourself saying, “No! Don’t do that!” But I was so invested in Theo Decker, that I couldn’t give up on him.

Thirteen-year-old Theo, in trouble at school, is scheduled to visit the headmaster with his mother (his father has abandoned them). His mother loves art and since they’re early for the school appointment, she and Theo duck into the Metropolitan Museum of Art to view an exhibit of Flemish masters. In one shattering blast, Theo loses the only person who loved him unconditionally. Dazed and disoriented, Theo obeys the ravings of an old man dying in the bomb’s wreckage and steals a small masterpiece. The painting is of a tiny bird tethered to a perch by a delicate gold chain.

That Theo possesses (or rather, thinks he possesses) “The Goldfinch” for so many years, hiding it so well that he won’t let himself admire it, is the mystery at the heart of this immensely entertaining and moving meditation on the power of art and beauty over grief and guilt.

“The Goldfinch” is a modernist take on Dickens, with orphans, scoundrels, cruel and selfish fathers, kindly substitute father figures, rich families, greedy villains – even an innocent and unavailable heroine. But Tartt has updated Dickens by stripping her tale of any sentimentality.

Also, her protagonist is the antithesis of Dickens’ David Copperfield. Theo is the Hero as Self-Medicated Male. In the aftermath of the museum bombing, he resists offers of therapeutic help offered by well-meaning adults. He doesn’t want to “deal with” his grief – it keeps him connected to his dead mother. As he grows older, Theo consumes vast amounts of alcohol and opiates to deal with his never-ending post-traumatic stresses. Deep into the novel, we suddenly realize that Theo is an unreliable narrator. He has the same realization: the drugs he took as a teenager have erased a crucial moment from his memory, with terrible repercussions in his adult life.

“The Goldfinch” is a story of the illusions of memory and art. Theo makes a powerful case for the love and pursuit of beautiful things. A masterpiece can be reproduced in cheap prints and loved by many people through the ages. And Love can be kept alive in the face of Death. Theo concludes that “…as we rise from the organic and sink back ignominiously into the organic, it is a glory and a privilege to love what Death doesn’t touch.” He could be talking about the canvas-and-paint illusion of a fragile yellow prisoner chained to its perch. He could also be talking about his love for his mother. “The Goldfinch” was her favorite painting.

The small masterpiece actually exists, one of the few works to survive an explosion in the 1600s that killed the 32-year-old artist, Carel Fabritius. Theo’s guilt for the theft of this masterpiece is as strong as his guilt and grief for his mother. Yet possessing such a beautiful work of art is the secret joy that lets him to keep his mother’s memory alive. As Tartt quotes from Nietzsche, “we have art so that we may not perish by the truth.”

On the Pleasures and Perils of

Last year, I started listening to books on my smartphone via I spend so much daily time looking at a computer screen that my eyes are tired at night, making it hard to read. And listening to books gives me greater flexibility. I can be absorbed in Ruth Ozaki’s For the Time Being while I’m housecleaning, walking the dog, or working out at the gym. But there are other, deeper pleasures.

For one thing, as a writer, I learn my craft by listening to another writer’s cadence – the way a sentence strikes my ear, the nifty turn of phrase or dialogue, the artful (or clumsy) unspooling of the narrative.

On another level, listening to stories is an exercise in childlike nostalgia – I remember how soothing and nurturing it was to have my mother read to me.

When the human race was at a more child-like level, stories were told aloud. Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey were structured so they could be memorized and recited in rhythmic incantations. In my mind’s eyes, I see those ancient audiences, sated by wine, warmed by fire, listening in trance-like pleasure as the poet recounted tales of their mythical gods and heroes.

Nowadays, my metaphorical campfire is digital (plugged into earbuds and smartphone), but the powerful spell of a well-told story is the same.

However: there are cons to listening versus reading. For instance, I live in the Seattle area on a traffic-heavy street and it’s suicidal to run while listening, AND running with a dog.

Also, listening means the narrative is in your head, not written on a page. So if I want to go back and reexamine a certain part in the story, it takes much longer to find that place. Audible has “bookmarks,” but that feature doesn’t allow for a reader’s “backward reflection.” I can’t always tell at the moment of hearing that I want to bookmark something. It’s tedious to replay a digital download, especially since Audible’s breakdown of chapters is so ridiculously different from the written book’s delineation. Much quicker to leaf through a book to find that special scene or bit of beautiful writing.

So far, I can’t determine if I remember audible books differently than real books. Maybe there’s a special neural pathway connection between our eyes, our brain, and the written word that can’t be duplicated with aural words. If anyone knows of research done in this area, let me know.

Regardless of whether I “hear” or “read” a book, what sticks in my memory about a book is character. The narrator Ruth in Ozaki’s For the Time Being. Eli the patriarch in Philipp Meyer’s The Son. Thomas Cromwell in Hilary Mantel’s historic novels. Gatsby and Nick Carraway.

What do you remember from books? Character? The plot? Theme?

If You Buy the Candy, They Will Come


We live on a street that used to be called Cat’s Whisker Road, the oldest street in Kenmore. Maples line both sides of our area and form a canopy of leaves that turn flame-colored in the fall. Our sidewalks are buckled and poorly maintained. The residences are a mixture of apartment houses, homes built in the 70s, a few McMansions and a sprinkling of old cabins that date back from the 1930s.

The traffic is ridiculous. Commuters use the two lane street to get to and from Seattle, and the 35-per-hour speed limit signs are a joke. A frail older gentleman lives a couple blocks down from us, and I shudder when I see him tottering along on the narrow sidewalk.

All this to say, if I was a kid, I wouldn’t want to trick-or-treat on this street. Just crossing the road is a challenge. Still, every year I buy a couple bags of candy, in case some brave souls come by. They don’t. Most of them head for the swankier neighborhood on the hill above us. We eat the candy instead. We are our own trick-or-treaters.

Leave the Trees Alone!

Leave the Trees Alone!

Leave the Trees Alone!

I saw this on a recent walk in the neighborhood. I doubt the trend of clothing trees is isolated to Seattle. Who are these busy-bee knitters who believe the trees need to be decorated? Please, use your skills elsewhere. Knit sweaters for the homeless,scarves for your friends, or outfits for your pets. Leave the trees alone! Have some respect for nature. Let them stand in splendid nakedness. Sweaters on trees just makes us humans look silly.

Quick Sketch of a 15-year-old

A Red State relative came to visit last week.

-Moon-shaped face; strong brows; growing her hair chin-length as a concession to Mom. She’d prefer to crop it. She wears a custom black do-rag. Custom shit-kicker suede lace-up boots. Cutoffs, two tanks showing about 2 inches of decolletage. She’s pulling off a ‘tude I call the Guiless Bad-Ass (strongly influenced by Anime and Hunger Games, I think).

-Speaks her own eccentric patois, a blend of baby talk and an upper-crust Brit educated in an outpost of Her Majesty’s far-flung empire. Sample syntax: “Father, what was the name of that wonderful gun you taught me to shoot?”

-Yes, she’s learning how to handle guns, and wants a permit to carry (allowed where she lives). She also wants a big-ass truck. She doesn’t like men (and women?) with weak handshakes. She parrots her mom’s lamentations on Obama, Biden and Nancy Pelosi.

-Home schooled by an adoring mom with strong anti-government opinions. Mom’s not only a helicopter mom, she’s a Hercules helicopter mom. However, I think the home-schooling has helped both mom and daughter. Mom’s learned tolerance and acceptance of her daughter’s gifts and eccentrities; daughter has been allowed to explore her unique personality.

-Despite her relative isolation, she keeps in with friends who seem to appreciate her.

-Because I’m a writer, she expected me to listen to her stories. I negotiated for three – she was really eager to tell them all. Each one was at least half-hour long. (When my kids were little and they saw a movie without me, they’d tell me the movie plot in meticulous detail. Just like her). I really made myself listen but it was kind of hard since they were summaries rather than narratives. I’m impressed with her interest in bigger philosophical issues and her attention to character motivation. Like me, she sometimes forgets the names of her minor characters. She wants to be published by Tor. More power to her!

-Favorite word during our visit: “predominately.” When I asked her how much of her third story she’d written down, she said, “It’s predominately unfinished.”

-My prayer for this girl: please stay strong, and sharp and brave. Keep reading, keep exploring, keep an open mind. Keep writing, no matter what distractions come your way (and they will!).

Written with affection–

Outlaw Mountain

Devil’s Gulch is a trail on Mission Ridge near Cashmere – on the sunny side of the Cascades. A while back, on a hot Saturday, Kirk tackled the trail on his mountain bike while I went to my first bluegrass festival at the Chelan County Fairgrounds. A flat grassy expanse with only a few skinny trees, the fairground was surprisingly empty. The real action was in the RV lot, where bluegrass lovers packed in with their RVs, trucks and camper. They rigged up little jam sessions under temporary awnings, and picked, strummed and sawed away.

I was in that last category. About a year ago, I picked up the fiddle again, after decades of not playing. Playing the fiddle had always been a difficult endeavor. On the one hand, I truly loved figuring out tunes. On the other, I listened to artists like Stephane Grappelli, Joe Venuti, Bill Monroe and Natalie MacMaster, and figured what’s the use? I’d never be as good as I want to be, so I quit.

Another reason (I told myself): I can’t write AND play music. God forbid I become a dilettante!

But music makes me happy in ways that writing doesn’t (vice-versa, of course). Music taps into a subconscious part of my brain. I don’t know how I remember tunes, or how those tunes make the leap from my brain to my fingers on the keyboard, but it feels so satisfying when I’m in the flow. I still play some stinky note; my bow still skips and screeches – but I’m getting better, and I hope, more musical. I’ve developed this theory that two arts can complement each other, sort of like cross-fit training.

For the past year, I’ve been going to Jack’s Thursday jam, practicing harmonies with my friend (and wonderful fiddler player) Teresa, and working up my nerve to play with others. Except for a few gnarly gnomes who shall be nameless, the bluegrass community is very open and welcome. I’m not sure if bluegrass is where I fit in, but there a whole lot of great stuff to learn and play there. I feel like a sponge, soaking in as much as I can.

I spent a hot sunny afternoon jamming with near strangers and then began to worry around 6pm when Kirk hadn’t returned from his bike ride. He’d been gone about 12 hours. I went to the festival’s night concert with friends and nervously checked my phone for his text. Finally, he texted and said he’d just finished. An hour or so later, he showed up, exhausted but happy.

He said the forest service signs had been shot at and blasted to smithereens and at one point he lost his way. Not only that, but he kept running into entire families or morel-hunters. The pricey little mushrooms thrive in areas of recent forest fires. Morels sell for $25-30 a pound. Our Wenatchee friends said there’d been some violence due to competing morel-hunters (though when I did a little research, I couldn’t find any news articles about it).

Kirk and I sat and listened to a terrific band called “Dirty Kitchen,” a progressive bluegrass group in the Alison Krauss tradition.

Outlaw Mountain – that’s my nickname for Mission Ridge. Why all the shot-out signs? Has the Forest Service retreated?

Maybe some bluegrass band will write a song – Outlaw Mountain.

Dirty Kitchen

Not the “What”, but the “Why”: a Pilgrimage on the Pacific Crest Trail

I just finished listening to Cheryl Strayed’s “Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail.”

Strayed was 26 when she decided to walk a good chunk of a hiker’s Holy Grail, the Pacific Crest Trail. Her hike ranged from the killing heat of Southern California to the Columbia River (though like most other hikers, she had to bypass much of the Sierras because 1995 was a record year for snowfall).

Strayed had never backpacked. She was in lousy shape. Right before she began her journey, she shot heroin with a junkie boyfriend. She was fresh off a divorce of her own choosing, and still in grief over the death of her mother four years earlier.

She artfully weaves these episodes into the story of her hike, lifting it beyond a mere travelogue into a pilgrimage that ends with her sense of wholeness and self-acceptance.

Her story is by turns hilarious and emotionally wrenching. She recounts her mother’s death and the breakup of her family with searing honesty.

She realizes that growing up poor taught her to get by on very little, and this minimalism is definitely an advantage as she slogs through the monontonous miles. Recording her journey at various log books along the trail other PCT hikers read her comments and by the time they meet up at occasional stops, they share a temporary comaraderie (she eventually gets the moniker, “Queen of the PCT”).

I don’t know how she endured the pain of boots one size too small (none of the helpful REI outfitters had hiked the PCT, either). I’m certainly not a long-distance hiker, but I could relate to her detailed fantasies of the meals she’d order when she gets the small amounts of cash in the resupply boxes her friend mails to various stops along the way.

I read on Wikipedia that Reese Witherspoon optioned Strayed’s book. I hope Ms. Witherspoon has the grace NOT to play the title role in the movie (Nick Hornby is supposed to be writing the screenplay). Kirk suggested Jennifer Lawrence would be the right actress for the part of this tough but vulnerable pilgrim and I agree with him.

(P.S. I’ve really taken to Listening to books teaches me to focus on the spoken word; it saves my eyes; it lets me walk the dog while absorbing a story.)