Running the River: Art & Literature in the Delta


This photo from 1900 shows European-Americans boarding rowboats on the banks of the San Joaquin River in California. Using archives records like maps and photographs, scientists are trying to revive the delta. Photo courtesy Bank of Stockton

Given its isolation from major Northern California urban centers, the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta has resisted development and remains suspended in time, but not for much longer. It’s a place of wonder—1.1 million square-miles of rivers, creeks, marshes, sloughs, levees, 500,000 acres of farmland, and it is the font of about 7.5 million acre-feet of water that’s distributed to cities and farms throughout California—it’s a playground for recreation, an agricultural hub and there are those who say, without blushing, it’s a paradise fraught with political maneuvering and environmental threats.

Few will say, however, that the largest river delta on the Pacific Ocean side of the Americas is a hotbed of literature and art. But those working to protect and restore the delta say that is wrong. Various groups, including writers, poets, artists, academics and community advocates are busy collecting the cultural artifacts that help mark the delta as a unique place in the world, one with a rich and diverse creative history.


Because I’m currently working on a novel set in the delta, I attended a discussion this week sponsored by the grassroots organization Restore the Delta about the past, present, and future of Delta Literature. Although literary luminaries from Jack London to Joan Didion have written about life in the delta, and their stories speak to significant topics in American history, scholars say the full range of narratives about this vital region awaits systematic collection, presentation and interpretation. There’s a lot of work to do.

During his overview of Delta Literature, Robert Benedetti, University of the Pacific professor emeritus of political science, commented that the “subtle beauty of the delta and a quiet appreciation by poets is needed,” if the delta’s rich cultural history and natural resources are to be saved from further neglect and degradation.

He also pointed to research into the literature of the delta by Gregg Camfield, professor of literature at the University of California, Merced. Canfield noted in his research that narratives shape human action and “we try to make sense of the past by telling its story; in the process, we shape our present and our future.” His survey of delta literature is online at:

Paula Sheil, founder and executive director of Tuleburg Press & THE WRITE PLACE in Stockton, as well as a poet and accomplished sailor, read “Out the Gate,” her poem captures the delta breeze blowing gently past farms and levees, picking up speed and spilling out to the bay, meeting the gush of ocean “like big dreams in a torrent.” She refers to the delta as the “anti-San Francisco,” suggesting the delta is the flip side of hip, slick and cool, a counter weight or cultural anchor to the excesses of its famous neighbor.

The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta is a land of stunning open spaces fed by five major rivers. A maze of creeks and sloughs spreading finger-like through some of California’s most important habitat, especially for Chinook salmon and Greater Sandhill Cranes. It’s a bird watcher’s feast for the eyes and a fisherman’s delight. It’s also home to immigrants and dreamers who prefer the delta’s cloistered backwaters to brash and garish city life.


Photo Courtesy: Friends of the River

In reality, Sheil said, “It’s the people who make the delta.” Adding that she tells her students that through the delta they’re connected to world, meaning by following the waterway to the ocean they have access to every distant land. But, she said, “Stockton youth don’t have access to the water. Some children who live in Stockton have never seen the delta.”

The City of Stockton is located on the San Joaquin River on the eastern edge of the delta, but freeways, development, train tracks, barriers of all types prevent exploration. “We live on the San Joaquin River and there isn’t even a place to put a kayak in the water.” Sheil said.

Tama Brisbane, Stockton poet laureate and executive director of Stockton’s “With Our Words,” a national movement to combat illiteracy, isolation, alienation, and silence by bringing new voices from the margins to the core of society through literary and performing arts. She noted that young Stockton poets who’ve traveled to poetry and performance art festivals around the country often have trouble explaining where they come from, have a gap in their understanding of place, of the delta that makes the territory from which they come unique.

“Stockton is a city that doesn’t own itself,” Brisbane said. “Stockton needs to hustle to get its identity back.”

Stories matter. They make us who we are. Camfield said in his survey of delta literature that “human beings selectively interpret their lives by way of narrative arcs, by how these narratives shape human action. We try to make sense of the past by telling its story; in the process, we shape our present and our future.”

With a delta novel in progress, the discussion about the literary past and future of the region was creatively stimulating and encouraging. But, a newcomer to Stockton, I also saw how quickly the city is transforming, wiping out the connection to the past.

In downtown Stockton old buildings with ornate architectural details are rotting, while next door new structures of steel and glass are under construction. Preserving what’s beautiful and meaningful from the past, while nurturing a proud new generation, is a task delta artists, poets and writers are embracing. It’s an exciting time in the delta and I look forward to contributing to the effort with a few good words of my own.

About these photos – Before the panel discussion, I had time to wander in downtown Stockton for a few photo grabs. I’m planning some mosaic projects and was delighted to stumble on some interesting examples in the lobby of Stockton’s old Elk’s Lodge on Sutter Street.


Pioneer Days in Sacramento

When Great Uncle George died, my Great Aunt Eva, a ponderous woman with a sweet, cinnamon roll personality, took the loss like a flying trapeze artist working without a catcher. The thud of her heart hitting the ground could be heard all the way from the ranch in Montana to my grandmother’s house in San Francisco. Something  would have to be done, my grandmother said, explaining that her oldest sister – 25 years older – could not stay on the ranch alone, a three day ride to town. Aunt Eva had no surviving children.

Of course this story is more complicated than the death of an in-law and his bereaved widow needing care. But, in short, Aunt Eva’s household was packed and shipped to a wheat and pear ranch the family arranged for her to buy near Clearlake in California. The ranch adjoined the one owned by her sister Emma and her husband, Art.

Then a wildfire swept across Eva’s new ranch. We lived there at the time, in the 1950s, while my father was serving in the U.S. Air Force in Korea. With no men to fight the fire, my mother saved the house, but everything else was lost—barns, sheds, fences, water system, some orchards. We survived the fire, my brother Richard and me, by climbing into the cement water cistern with Aunt Eva. Through a crack in the lid, we watched my mother, later joined by local ranchers, beat back the fire advancing through the grasses toward the house with wet pear-packing gunny sacks.


Me and my beloved Great Aunt Eva on the ranch near Clearlake CA.

Aunt Eva sold what was left of the Clearlake Ranch and moved into my grandmother’s house in Noe Valley, every last steamer trunk and hat box went into the back bedroom where she lived as an invalid until she died in the 1960s. Eventually Aunt Eva’s things were handed down to me. She was accomplished at needlecraft, making lace, embroidery and astonishingly beautiful quilts. When Great Uncle George died there were many completed quilt tops awaiting backing.  The quilts were never finished.

I tell you this as a way to say goodbye, my friends, at least for a month or so. You see, I inherited those quilt tops and have been storing them under my bed for more than 40 dusty years. Yesterday my son helped me move the quilt boxes to my garage, where we will be sleeping tonight and for many nights to come.

Years, I’ve been packing and counting the years, across decades and millennia. I have lived in my Sacramento house 17 years. Finally, I have the time and money to tear it apart and paint the whole house – entrance to exit – and get new flooring. Every single thing must be out by the end of today. Yes, I have considered dynamite and matches.


Packing, packing, still more to pack today.

Clearing out means those dusty quilt tops, broken lamps and bed frames, underwear drawers, my adult children’s kindergarten art and the curated collection of their baby teeth, the dusty blue hat with the big bow in the back – price tag still attached (what was I thinking?) – the lapel pin that missed being stowed in my jewelry box, Aunt Eva’s pear coring tool, the suet grinder and food mill for putting up applesauce in the summer kitchen, the photo slides and obsolete diskettes, flimsy particle board book cases, boxes of tear sheets from my days as a journalist, a half-full bottle of blackstrap molasses, stacks of business cards that stretch back to the beginning of my 40-year professional career, the ashes of my former husband, who died seven years ago, his remains still awaiting dignified disposition. The unexpectedly, this ————


Found this photo of me at a costume fitting  in 1970 for my chorus role in Santa Rosa Community Theater’s revival of the musical “Little Mary Sunshine.” I was surprised to find this reminder of the long-forgotten, playful girl I once was.

Trappist monk and poet Thomas Merton said “as we grow in wisdom, we realize that everything belongs and everything can be received. We see that life and death are not opposites . . .  We don’t have to deny, dismiss, defy, or ignore reality anymore.” At the bottom of all reality is deep goodness, Merton said, calling it the “hidden wholeness.”

So, I’m shutting down, going dark for more than a month  – no electronic chit chat, no messaging, no phone, no Internet, no TV, no connection to the outside world. I will be sleeping with the past in a garage colder than a Montana winter and hoping to find a hidden wholeness, a spiritual reintegration, in the hot mess I’ve made out of my garage.

Back inside the house, there will be renovation going on: new paint, flooring, tile, appliances, light fixtures, window coverings, fences. A total upgrade to usher in a new life, a new creativity, a fresh approach to honoring the past and who I am becoming. This work isn’t easy. It’s physically and emotionally taxing. I’m not sure who I’ll be when I reach the other side. I hope you’ll be there waiting for me.

The Art of Shaping Nature’s Narrative

The semi cascade bonsai style Han-kengai  mimics nature as found on cliffs and on the banks of rivers and lakes. The trunk grows upright for a small distance and then bends downwards/sidewards.

My semi-cascade juniper in need of training. The Han-kengai bonsai style mimics nature as found on cliffs and on the banks of rivers and lakes. The trunk grows upright for a small distance and then bends downwards/sidewards.

Loving bonsai is about loving your great grandchildren—a love that can, if the art is carefully practiced, endure for generations. In part, it’s this idea of a trans-generational love narrative that attracts me to bonsai and sent me on a quest to find a practicing bonsai master in California.

I found many masters. I realized, after settling in with one to learn the basics of this horticultural art form, that part of the art is about understanding and accepting my own aesthetic values. To start out, I would have to listen and think about my bonsai–for a long time.

While the art of bonsai is often associated with Japan, horticultural historians say it actually originated first in China, and then spread eastward to Korea before reaching Japan. The practice of shaping tiny trees to mimic or stylize nature was spread by Buddhist monks who wanted to bring the “outdoors” inside their temples.

From ancient paintings and manuscripts, Asia scholars found “artistic” container trees were being cultivated by the Chinese around 600 AD, but many scholars think bonsai, or at least potted trees, were being grown in China as far back as 500 to 1,000 BC. Bonsai first appeared in Japan during the 12th century.

This 390-Year-Old white pine tree survived the bombing of Hiroshima. It was donated to the U.S. Arboretum bonsai collection in Washington, D.C. by Yamaki in 1976.  Read more:

This 390-Year-Old white pine tree survived the bombing of Hiroshima. It was donated to the U.S. Arboretum bonsai collection in Washington, D.C., by master Masaru Yamaki in 1976.
Read more:

Holistic health practitioners say benefits of growing bonsai include:

  • Careful pruning, wiring and shaping helps relieve stress.
  • Constantly caring for a plant can help develop mindfulness.
  • Working with nature, including bonsai trees, creates peaceful feelings.
  • Successfully growing and caring for a bonsai tree can create a sense of accomplishment.

Improbably, I appeared at the gates of a bonsai nursery in the San Fernando Valley a couple of years ago prepared to listen and learn about bonsai from a master. I was willing to consider accepting a tree into my care. Killing the plant out of ignorance wasn’t part of my plan so I’d given taking on the responsibility some thought.

That day I learned bonsai literally means “tree in a tray.” The tree and container must form a single entity, work together in a design sense. The most desired containers for the finest Japanese bonsai are often exquisite antiques. I also learned bonsai is not a house plant. The miniature trees, like their full-grown counterparts in nature, are meant to grow outdoors.

The master said he knew immediately when people brought yellow or graying bonsai into the nursery for his advice on how to improve the plant’s heath that it had been growing indoors. He said bonsai are miniature versions of species that grow naturally in nature and should be treated as such.

I also learned would-be bonsai artists should have more than one tree to work on. The reason for multiple trees, my master told me, is so the artist doesn’t overwork just one tree; multiple trees keep the artist engaged in bonsai and help avoid frustration.

He recommended sitting and contemplating the trees, listening for their stories, before taking action to shape those stories with wire and clippers into the narrative the trees want to tell.

After a long walk in his small nursery where bonsai starter plants are cultivated, the master determined my artistic leaning was toward the “Han Kengai” form an ancient cascade style symbolizing the “overflowing potential for growth.” The style is characterized by trees grown in the way the tree or shrub’s trunk and branches stretch below the pot. The branches flow down and out, attracting the observer’s attention.


Han-kengai bonsai at the Lake Merritt Bonsai Garden in Oakland, considered one of the best collections on the West Coast.

I’ve lived with and studied the juniper given to me by the master for more than two years. It put out tiny berries this winter, to my delight. Over time I’ve considered its form and its ability to express my thoughts into the future. I spend a few moments every day contemplating this plant and have decided it’s time to take some creative action.

April 9 to 10, the American Bonsai Association of Sacramento will hold its spring show, which includes demonstrations, classes, exhibits and sales of bonsai supplies. The annual event will take place at Shepard Garden and Arts Center in McKinley Park in Sacramento. I plan to pick up a few more trees and get some supplies.

And I hope to take a workshop from Peter Tea, who has studied with masters Boon Manakitivipart and Junichiro Tanaka at Aichi-en Bonsai Nursery in Nagoya Japan. Tea is in the process of building his own bonsai nursery and studio in Auburn, CA.

Show hours are Saturday, April 9, 10:00 AM till 5:00 PM, and Sunday, April 10, 10:00 AM till 4:00 PM. Demonstrations are Saturday and Sunday at 1:30 PM. Demonstration trees are included in daily raffles. I hope to learn how to better shape my tree’s narrative in the decades to come for those I love.

Here’s a link to my Jan 2014 feature story on the art of bonsai that appeared in California Bountiful magazine

And here’s a link to a story that suggests stressed out high-tech hipsters in San Francisco are turning to bonsai for relaxation: http://www.7×


Saving the World — One Rose Bush at a Time

IMG_7596Stuff happens – and stuff happens in the garden. But, these things can’t be talked about with neighbors who notice my mail box tilts drunkenly or who remark that the new people across the street should mow their lawn more frequently, especially now that it’s getting warmer. Walking alone in my garden with coffee cup in hand, the night dew still slickening the leaves, I pause at a new plant at another struggling to survive. I notice fungus on my rose bushes and fret about the future of mankind.

It’s the weekend. I can think about whatever I want. Right?

OK. So I’m told that, not tomorrow or the next day, but in the future, say 65 million years from now, we may not be here. I peer at the roses, the fungus exhaling millions of spores as I stand mute in my ignorance and bathrobe, and wonder if this is the beginning of the end, wonder if this is proof that we’re all doomed. The world is ending, not in a cataclysm, but in the stealthy creep of must and mildew, pathogens will rule the world.

Silly? I’m not alone in this concern, as dramatic as it sounds. Writer Elizabeth Kolbert has written The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, an epic, riveting story of our species that reads like a scientific thriller–only scarier because it talks about now and and what may happen in the future.

What I got from the article she published in The New Yorker is that pathogens, specifically, fungi are attacking various life forms and killing them – frogs, bats and California oak trees.

Of the numerous species that have ever existed on earth, scientists say more than 99 percent have disappeared. But, extinction, which is seen as bad and preventable, causes a lot of argument and finger pointing, not to mention investment of tax dollars to prevent it.

I worry these attempts are futile, even silly. Are we homo sapiens merely putting our fingers in the evolutionary dike and pretending we can make a difference in the history of the universe? Is global warming the single cause of our demise? Are we all doomed? I study my roses for the answer.

Throughout the 18th century, the prevailing view was that species were fixed they exist and always will if human will just stop annihilating them. Charles Darwin believed extinction happened slowly, but he was wrong. In Kolbert’s article, she noted that researchers have found that during the past half billion years, there have been at least 20 mass extinctions. Five of these—the so-called Big Five—were so devastating that they’re usually put in their own category. Keep in mind, I’m talking Earth time, which spans about 4.5 billion years.

Kilbert notes the fifth extinction, the end-Cretaceous event, occurred a mere 65 million years ago. The event exterminated not just the dinosaurs, but 75 percent of all species on earth. Once a mass extinction occurs, it takes millions of years for life to recover, and when it does it’s generally with a new cast of characters.

In this way, mass extinctions have played a big role in evolution’s course. It’s hard to say when the current extinction event—sometimes called the sixth extinction— began, but we’re in it. Scientists speculate that its opening phase started about fifty thousand years ago, when the first humans migrated across Australia and America.

If current trends continue, by the end of this century as many as half of earth’s species will be gone. For example, researchers first noticed something odd was happening to amphibians. The main culprit in the wavelike series of amphibian population crashes it turns out is a chytrid fungus, known as Bd. At this point, Bd appears to be unstoppable and its killing effect is spreading.

In 2007, biologist Al Hicks, of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, and the National Wildlife Health Center, started looking at mysterious bat deaths in the U.S. Many of the dead bats were discovered with a white substance on their nose, which was cultured and found to be an unidentified fungus. In California, millions of native oak trees have died from the fungus-like Phytophthora ramorum, a photo of how destructive it can be is show here.


P ramorum sonoma-mortality

Sonoma County California tree deaths from P. ramorum infection. Photo courtesy:


Just in the last century, carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere have changed by as much as they normally do in a hundred-thousand-year glacial cycle. In the end, the most deadly aspect of human activity may simply be the pace of change itself, moving too fast for life as we know it to catch up.

One of the maddening puzzles of mass extinction is why, at certain junctures, the resourcefulness of life seems to falter. If we’re getting ahead of ourselves, pathogens jump into the breach. Today Fungi account for about 30 percent of emerging plant diseases. These microscopic maladies are the bane of gardeners and farmers who watch in dismay as plants wilt and succumb to these microscopic killers. Fungal diseases radically alter natural ecosystems, as well as food and our environment.

A recent report in Science Daily noted that fungus, including chestnut blight fungus, which eliminated nearly 100 percent of native chestnut trees throughout eastern American forests during the last century, and at the same time Phytophthora cinnamomi fungus is threatening native forests throughout Australia.

And, in human time, fungal pathogens have been around for a long time, sometimes changing the course of history. For example, potato blight was responsible for the epidemic leading to the Irish potato famine in the 1840s and the largest immigration event in U.S. history. More recently, stem rust disease of wheat, first identified in Uganda in 1998, is threatening crops in North Africa, the Middle East and Asia.

If more fungus is creeping across our landscapes, if it is occurring more frequently, what’s going on? Is it climate change or sun spots? Is it signs the Sixth Extinction is accelerating and the end of life as we know it is near? What’s going on? Should we worry?

“It’s the next annihilation of vast numbers of species and it is happening now, and we, the human race, are its cause,” explains Dr. Richard Leakey, the world’s most famous paleoanthropologist and co-author of the 1995 book The Sixth Extinction: Patterns of Life and the Future of Humankind. He says every year between 17,000 and 100,000 species vanish from our planet.

“For the sake of argument, let’s assume the number is 50,000 a year,” Leakey says. “Whatever way you look at it, we’re destroying the Earth at a rate comparable with the impact of a giant asteroid slamming into the planet, or even a shower of vast heavenly bodies.”

The statistics he has assembled are staggering. Fifty per cent of the Earth’s species will have vanished inside the next 100 years; mankind is using almost half the energy available to sustain life on the planet, and this figure will only grow as our population leaps from 5.7 billion to 10 billion inside the next half-century.

A dramatic and overwhelming mass extinction threatens the entire complex fabric of life on Earth, Leakey said, including the species responsible for it: Homo sapiens, that all life as we know it is destined to vanish.

Oh, boy. That’s a lot to worry about as I contemplate my garden. Do you think my neighbors want to hear one peep about the end of the world out of me? Like I said, I worry and wonder, study the underside of leaves in my garden and don’t care one way or another about how often my neighbors mow their lawns.

But, all this talk about the nature of pathogens is raising startling new questions in my peanut brain. I wonder about the role of fundamental scientific research and how the study of evolution plays into our understanding of emerging disease. I get another cup of coffee.

Then there’s this: Associated Press reported last year that coffee farmers and harvesters in Central and South America have been hit by Roya, or “coffee rust,” a fast-spreading fungus that infects the leaves of coffee plants. Roya has caused an estimated $1 billion in damage, and threatened the livelihoods of more than half a million farm families from Mexico to Peru.

This is a bad situation and an example of what worries me. In particular, I’m concerned about how specific new species occur when a subset of a fungal population shifts to a new host. Another example? Fungus is now attacking frogs and bats. All of this is just too much to contemplate. When a neighbor passing by my garden asks how I’m doing, I say “fine” and hope they don’t notice the mildew on my roses.

ST LYNN'S Coffee for Roses Cover

Great website for gardeners:


Boiling piss on St. Patrick’s Day

Went to the grocery store to pick up corned beef for St. Patrick’s Day. A gaggle of old folks gathered around the meat cooler, turning over the shrink-wrapped beef, picking and choosing, taking their bloody time. What were they looking for? It’s all the same, right? Why are all the purchasers of this traditional Irish entree just old folks (me included)? Good questions. I’ll get to them later.

In the meantime, here’s another question: Everybody celebrates St. Patrick’s Day, right? Green beer, green rivers in Chicago, green lights on the opera house in Sidney, green parades in Canada, green pubs in Buenos Aries where not a single person of Irish decent shows up. There are jokes on the Internet about drunks in yoga positions. “Kiss me I’m drunk or Irish or whatever” T shirts. On March 17 the whole world is Irish and few people know why.


Never mind. I’ll cook corned beef today in honor of the part of me that’s Irish, wear orange on St. Patrick’s day for the part of me that’s not. No one will give a rip about what I wear and I’ll wipe my hands on the seat of my pants while cooking – in my Irish way. People don’t know the history of what they’re celebrating, don’t care. They just want somebody to pass them another Guinness stout.

But, you see, it matters to me. Just like every Hispanic is not Mexican, every Jew is not Polish, every Swede is not blonde, everyone of Irish decent is not Catholic. I’m Presbyterian, which has been an issue in England, Ireland and Scotland since before the 1600s

My ancestor Archibald Campbell, a leader of the Church of Scotland, which became the Presbyterian Church, was beheaded on the ‘Maiden’ in 1661 for his religious beliefs and political views. People in Great Britain have been killing each other for religious, economic and political reasons for more than 500 years. This conflict helped launch the founding of America.

The_Maiden,_National_Museum_of_ScotlandThe Maiden. Courtesy: National Museum of Scotland

“I love Highlanders, and I love Lowlanders, but when I come to that branch of our race that has been grafted on to the Ulster stem I take off my hat in veneration and awe.” Lord Rosebery, 5th Earl of Rosebery, 1st Earl of Midlothian, British Prime Minister 1894.

Until 2010 in America, I was part of this stem, this distinct ethnic group of immigrants identified since the founding of the nation through the U.S. Census as Scots-Irish. In 2010, Scots-Irish citizens comprised 1.05 percent of the U.S. population. The government no longer recognizes this minority even though more than a third of all U.S. presidents had substantial ancestral origins in Ulster, the northern province of Ireland.

President Bill Clinton spoke proudly of this fact, and his own ancestral links with the province, during his two visits to Ulster. Richard Nixon was Scots-Irish. Scots-Irish Presbyterians founded what is now Princeton University in the U.S. as a seminary for its ministers. Mark Twain and Elvis Presley were Scots-Irish, for heaven’s sake.

If this marginalizing of a minority had happened to Puerto Ricans, 1.52 percent of the U.S. population; Chinese, 1.12 percent; or Sub-Saharan Africans, 0.9 percent; there’d be a huge outcry from Americans. For the Scots-Irish—not a peep.”

Here’s a Wiki list of famous Scots-Irish Americans – that may be a surprise.

We’re talking a lot of history here. For example, during the American Revolution, Scots-Irish troops fought successfully to prevent the British from taking control of the Hudson River Valley during the Saratoga Campaign. George Washington said of the American troops who fought those fierce battles that, if the war was lost everywhere else, he would take a last stand among the Scots-Irish of his native Virginia.

Saratoga Surrender

The Surrender of General Burgoyne at Saratoga by John Trumbull. The painting was completed in 1821, and hangs in the rotunda of the United States Capitol in Washington, D. C.

Washington saw the Highlanders’ heart, knew the Lowlanders’ tenacity. After the Scots-Irish successes in battle, Congress declared December 18, 1777, a national day “for solemn Thanksgiving and praise;” the nation’s first official observance of a holiday with that name.

So, keep in mind that Saint Patrick’s Day is a holy day of obligation for Roman Catholics in Ireland. It’s also a feast day in the Church of Ireland. The church calendar avoids the observance of saints’ feasts during certain solemnities, moving the saint’s day to a time outside those periods. St Patrick’s Day is occasionally affected by this requirement, when March 17 falls during Holy Week.

So, not everyone of Irish descent is obligated to go to church or get drunk or even celebrate St. Patrick’s Day on St. Patrick’s Day. Not everyone wants to wear green. Not everyone wants to kiss leprechauns or idiots who have no idea what the holy day of remembrance is about.

I guess it’s the loss of history, culture and tradition that bothers me most. People assume I’m Irish, which is true, but I’m also Scottish, which they don’t seem to get. I’m a two-for-one American with history that literally stretches back to the late 5th Century and some say the Campbell’s are descended from the Briton “Arthur the Hero King,” the one in the Knights of the Round Table myths.

I’m miffed because these days being Scots-Irish doesn’t mean much because most people don’t know what it is. St. Patrick’s Day is like Cinco De Mayo, Mexican Independence Day, except it’s not really Mexican Independence Day. I get what’s going on, get how we’re a nation melting into one big gooey pot, but only pinch me for not wearing green on St. Patrick’s Day if you’re looking for an argument. Let’s talk about Bobby Sands and Ian Paisley, about the Loyal Orange Society and the IRA, and skip the shamrocks, lucky charms and boiler makers.

Spotty Scotty

Under every Scottish kilt are Irish genes.

Now, about that corned beef. Here’s the deal. The old people at the grocery store know best. They take their time looking for a firm, rounded cut of brisket with no sign of gristle and a good balance of fat for tenderness. They will, as my mother used to say, take the beef home and “boil the piss out of it,” throw onions, carrots, potatoes and cabbage in the pot.

The meat will be succulent and sweet, make great sandwiches on rye bread the next day, and remind me and my family we are Scots-Irish, enjoying the leftovers.


Post a comment, I’d love to hear from you. Éirinn go Brách Ireland Forever!

Why Childhood Memories Matter


Sunnydale housing project, 1941

A child went running from the playground at Sunnydale Projects in the early summer of 1955, beating on doors, breathlessly telling grownups that I’d fallen from the monkey bars and couldn’t get up. When she finally found my mother behind one of the uniformly plain front doors, she explained and my mother came running. Trying to learn how to circle the bar and come upright like the older kids, I misplaced my hands on the bar and crashed to the ground, dislocating my kneecap.

I spent most of that summer hobbling from my bedroom to the couch. The doctor said my leg had to be immobilized and my mother made sure his orders were followed. There was no TV in most San Francisco homes in those days. Commercial TV broadcasts didn’t extend to the West Coast until 1951. Instead I colored, played with paper dolls, listened to the radio with my mother, and meditated on the swirls and flourishes in our burgundy oriental carpet. I went from cast to elastic bandages, my mother wrapping my knee tightly several times a day. Eventually I was allowed to walk, then permitted to go outside.

That’s how I met her. After walking dutifully for days around the projects, I went to a building beyond the view of our unit’s windows, and ran as fast as I could up and down the narrow sidewalks, testing my knee. A woman came out and asked my name and where I lived. I was only about six and answered truthfully. I went on running. When I got home, my mother said a nice lady had stopped by. My knee stiffened and I sat down, waiting for the wrath because I’d been running. The lady asked, my mother said, if I could come and play with her daughter, who couldn’t go outside because she had polio and couldn’t walk. I knew very well how that felt and agreed to visit.

This fuzzy, black and white, memory comes back now because of a recent conversation with my niece. She lives in Orange County, where a major measles outbreak is under way, and just had a baby. She’s leaning toward not vaccinating her infant daughter. She asked me what I thought about that decision. Trying to remain supportive of her parental prerogatives and not freak out, I said it was her decision, but the memory of the day I met my playmate kept coming up.

My mother dressed me in nice school clothes the first time I visited and walked me down the hill. We were welcomed, I went inside. In the living room was a large metal cylinder, horizontal sunlight through Venetian blinds striped the gray tube. Only my new friend’s head extended beyond the coffin-like enclosure, a mirror positioned above her so she could watch the room. The girl’s mother sat me down at a children’s table. She brought me crayons and a stack of coloring books, children’s playing cards, board games. I listened in shocked silence as she explained her daughter, Eunice, couldn’t walk or sit up, that she had to stay in her iron lung, but she could watch and she wanted to see me play. I caught Eunice’s eye in the mirror, sensed her wariness as it slipped into indifference.

Eunice’s mother fluttered about, brought me red Kool-Aid as I colored. She adjusted me in the child’s chair so I could be seen through the mirror. I don’t recall Eunice speaking. She just made animal sounds that signaled her mother when she needed attention. The polio vaccine had not yet been invented.

 Iron lung 3
Members of Rotary International volunteered their time and personal resources to help immunize more than 2 billion children in 122 countries during national immunization campaigns.

The vaccine became available when I was about 10. We all got it, everyone, including my parents and grandmother. About 1962, people lined up around the block to receive the vaccine on sugar cubes in the Alvarado Elementary School auditorium in San Francisco’s Noe Valley. There were long tables of nurses passing out the doses to grateful families, every member chewing the sweet protection.

“I respect your decisions about what’s best for Adriana and support you in whatever you decide,” I told my niece, but told her I had my sons immunized because I’m old enough to remember when immunizations were not available, perhaps with the exception of small pox vaccine, which my mother received in the 1930s as a girl. It left a distinctive scar that I often saw on people’s arms when I was a child.

Today, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control says about 30 percent of measles cases develop one or more complications, including pneumonia, which is the complication that is most often the cause of death in young children. Ear infections occur in about 1 in 10 measles cases and permanent loss of hearing can result. These complications are more common among children under five  years of age and adults over 20 years old. As a child, I knew children who were deaf from the effects of measles, the twisted beige wires of their hearing aids draped across their chests as they worked at their desks in school. There was no licensed measles vaccine in the U.S. until 1963.

“Your father had the most horrendous case of mumps I’ve ever seen in my entire life,” I told my niece, hauling up another memory. “His head was literally the size of a basketball. He was very, very sick for weeks, literally. Joyce, Steve (my other siblings) and I also got mumps. There was no vaccine at the time for that virus either. Joyce and Steve were very sick. My case was mild and only put me in bed for a few of days.”

Chicken Pox: Because there was no vaccine, we all had it, I said. My own sons had it, in the 1980s, too.

Whooping Cough: There was no vaccine available and fortunately none of us kids got it.

“If you’ve ever heard the sound of whooping cough, you’ll know it. It’s a horrifying sound,” I told my niece the other day.

In the fall of 1955, I attended first grade at Sunnydale School. My mother was president of the PTA. Eunice and I would have been classmates. She died that winter and her family moved away. My parents bought a house thanks to money they saved living in the projects and we moved away too. But the memory of Eunice, her translucent face and wispy hair spread out on a pillow, her inquiring eyes reflected from the mirror above her head stay with me and flood back whenever someone talks about the dangers of vaccinating children.

I tell you about this conversation with my niece because I survived a time when common vaccines were not available and hundreds of thousands of children were damaged or died. I got my children immunized because in my view the risk to their health and very lives was too great to ignore. I tell you this in memory of Eunice and because it matters.

How Anti-Vaxxers Ruined Disneyland For Themselves (And Everyone Else)

Characters in front of Sleeping Beauty Castle

7 True Things About Kate

When I was a kid, I wanted to be a hobo. I spent hours making camps out of rocks and sticks—fire pit, spit, water bucket, spots for bed rolls—arranging everything perfectly to welcome the vagabonds I was sure would arrive. I couldn’t wait to hear the stories I was sure they’d tell. Many people have asked me to tell them who I am, which is awkward. Where to start, which stories to tell, what is true, what is fancy footwork? Well, here’s the truth about me, as best as I can muster.

  1. I was raised in San Francisco at a time when ladies wore white gloves when they went shopping downtown.
  2. I have my B.A. in Journalism, a major I chose because I thought it would help me put bread on the table and allow me to develop my writing craft. I’m still deciding if the plan worked.
  3. My parent’s first car was a 1948 Hudson Hornet.
  4. My father was a cowboy.
  5. When referring to me, my mother usually started by saying, “Kate’s biggest problem is . .
  6. Adrift in the Sound, my mainstream debut novel, started out as a creative writing exercise about something I didn’t understand. It was supposed to be a simple story about a piano, but instead of finger exercises, it turned into a symphony.
           Seven things not enough?
99 Random, Irrelevant Things About Kate
  1. I’ve been married three times (twice to the same man), my sister never, which proves the law of averages and that misses only count in horseshoes.
  2. My first car was a yellow VW beetle stick shift with no radio, which is why I like to sing while I drive. Mostly Aretha.
  3. I learned to drive on the hills of San Francisco in a Toyota HiLux pickup truck, with stick shift. It took a while and a few mishaps, but eventually I mastered the art of going from a dead stop to moving forward on a very steep hill.
  4. I can’t resist chocolate, a common affliction.
  5. My first “real” job was making cotton candy at Playland-at-the-Beach in San Francisco, the city’s first amusement park. I was assigned a short, tight uniform and stood in a glass booth in the middle of the midway where I had to bend over to lift large bags of sugar.
  6. I like pot roast with pan seared and parsleyed potatoes, hate tomato soup.
  7. I often spend an entire afternoon shopping at a local thrift store and maintain a rigid $20 spree limit. Retail therapy in tough economic times.
  8. I have a recurring dream that I’m in a tight dark place and then move into a coarse, rippley place and wake up scared and panting. I think I continually relive my own birth trauma. How creepy is that?
  9. I hate when people shove past me and don’t apologize for the rudeness, especially when getting in an elevator or on a bus because then I have to stand passively beside them in the stink of rude and act like I don’t notice.
  10. The fastest way to make me angry is to criticize my family. Sure, they’re all a little odd, but only I get to say that.
  11.  I always think couscous is going to taste better than it does, think the opposite about hummus and find it delicious, but then garlic fixes everything.
  12. If I stop and think, words, the perfect words, evaporate and I find myself stammering while I try to catch up with them.
  13. Favorite flower – Jonquil, it was the badge for our Girl Scout troop.
  14. In the movie “Out of Africa,” when the two lions go to rest on Denys’ grave, I burst into tears. The first time I saw it my 9 year-old son had to help me from the theater I was sobbing so hard. One of the saddest scenes ever.
  15. I secretly think people who say I’m hard to buy for lack imagination.
  16. Believe it or not, my first published work was Between the Sheets: An Intimate Exchange on Writing, Editing, and Publishing, a book about editing the novel before it was published. What kind of sense does that make?
  17.  Wrote my first short story when I was 9 about a Bunyanesque tugboat captain on San Francisco Bay, who rescued ships and eventually the city. The teacher showed it to the principal, Mr. McGinnis, and he took me around to all the classrooms at Alvarado Elementary School and had me read it the other kids. He also brought Claudia, a girl from another class who wrote a story about racing on the rings of Saturn. It was a better story. I knew that since my story wasn’t the only one selected, it probably wasn’t that good, sort of second best, if best at all. This kind of insecurity has plagued me all my life.
  18. I’m a cakeaholic. I’d rather eat cake or a cookie and keep going that bother with the rigmarole of sitting down and eating something good for me. As a result, I have a righteous muffin top.
  19. I love the color red but, but since my husband died about five years ago, I always end up wearing black, like freaking Queen Victoria. I swear, I’m going to start wearing sea foam green and powder blue.
  20. Every time it rains, I want to stay home and watch. It’s a miracle here in the West.
  21. I once worked as a bet taker (para mutual clerk) at Golden Gate fields because I wanted to be closer to the horses. Quit after a guy with a losing bet threw beer all over me and a fight broke out and the guy got escorted off the track. The sport’s too rough for me.
  22.  When I’m alone, I dance and pluck my eyebrows, not at the same time, however.
  23. Favorite candy? Chocolate in all its guises. OK, let’s get honest here. MandM peanuts. How boring is that?
  24.  I get bored.
  25. My Great-aunt Eva spent her last years making tatted lace for pillow cases and petticoats and telling us kids tall tales.
  26. I met my best friend when our sons were in preschool and we all grew up together.
  27. I frequently forget what day it is. Hell, I forget to close the garage door, turn off the boiling tea water on the stove, leave the doors unlocked and can’t find my keys.  Sometimes the specific day seems inconsequential.
  28. I was obsessed with swimming before I was obsessed with writing. I love practice more than races. Still chant kick rhythms in my head.
  29.  I still occasionally wear my grandmother’s screw-back earrings with the green rhinestones.  40s Tre Chic!
  30. I thought John Travolta was fantastically sexy in “Pulp Fiction.” Oh, come on. Admit it. He was. Bopping in the restaurant, the anxiety dripping from the screen. Forget “Saturday Night Fever.”John-Travolta-Pulp-Fiction-1994-600x337
  31.  I’ve been known to speak with great formality to officious store clerks because I hate giving up dollars without a fight and I hate being spoken to like I’m a street person.
  32.  I eat asparagus naked. I like it undressed.
  33. Semi-popped kernels at the bottom of the popcorn bowl are my favorite and will go on the attack if anyone tries to get to them before I do.
  34. I’ve been writing and editing for nearly 40 years. It took four years to write my first novel after 36 years of wanting to.
  35. When I was in journalism school at San Francisco State, my brothers mockingly called me the “reporter for the people.” I’ve thought of myself that way ever since.
  36. I have the driest cuticles ever. Do you think it’s a vitamin E deficiency?
  37. I love Mexican folkloric dancing because I want one of those skirts.
  38. Downward Facing Dog is my favorite yoga position.
  39. My step dad had a scuba diving company. I was scuba certified when I was 11 and spent a lot, I mean a lot, of time in the Pacific Ocean.
  40. I’m easily overwhelmed by bookstores because I want everything and can’t decide.
  41. I’m also easily overwhelmed by shoe stores for the same reason and always impulsively buy shoes that hurt.
  42. Misplaced commas in my writing are deeply embarrassing. It feels like smiling with lipstick on my teeth. I don’t see it, but everyone else does and politely acts like they don’t notice.
  43. My favorite quote is by novelist John Steinbeck, who worked as a journalist for a while at the Salinas Californian, where I also worked for a while as a freelancer. “If they wanted someone who could spell, they should’ve hired a school marm.” I love the guy!
  44. I’ve always thought my sister Joyce got the better name. It sounds happy, while everybody and their dog is named Kate.
  45. I don’t drink but, mysteriously, I have dozens of wine glasses gathering dust.
  46. I act like I know what I’m doing, but most of the time I’m a mess.
  47. My former husband loved Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s 100 Years of Solitude, but for me, it was Love in the Time of Cholera. Truthfully, I can’t get over the book’s feeling of longing. Marquez was a journalist first and 20 years later wrote 100 Years of Solitude (1967), which gives me hope as a writer, however, slender the thread of my talent.
  48. My alarm clock is set for 5:30 a.m., but I’m usually up about 3 a.m. to write.
  49. I hate my 2nd grade photo, (see above) missing front teeth and oddly curled hair, a homemade dress I never liked. Who sends a kid to school looking like that?
  50. Alcohol addiction is rampant in my family, which is why I got clean and sober 30 years ago. Scares me to death.
  51. My signature scent is “Rain,” which is a body oil I used to buy at a little shop on Haight Street before it got taken over by Yuppies, Nerdsters and Techsters and the neighborhood went gentrified.
  52. Sometimes I forget to turn off the automatic sprinklers and water the garden in the rain. I’m always afraid the water police are going to show up and bust me.
  53. My house is named NutTree Cottage, but my sister calls it the “Nut House.”
  54. I have accidentally broken my plumbing at 3 a.m. while trying to clear an inconsequential drain problem. What some people do to put off writing. The drain still isn’t fixed, but a bucket works fine.
  55. I feel compelled to eat everything on my plate, even when I feel full after half of it. Childhood conditioning always kicks in. I remain president of the “Clean-Plater Club.”
  56. I used to write (mercifully never published) plays about the foibles of friends.
  57.  I once worked as a typist for a famous Hollywood screenwriter. I’d go to his house and start typing, he’d come into the room complaining about shoulder pain and ask me to rub Absorbine Junior on his joint. I quit after a couple of weeks. Hated the smell on my hands.
  58. Half-asleep in the house I rented in Pasadena, I felt a ghost-like presence move like a silken scarf over my body. I would have thought this an odd take on prickly heat, but the sensation occurred many times in that house and never again after I moved back home to San Francisco or sense then in Sacramento.
  59. Irrationally, I fear I’ll be bitten by a rattlesnake. Well, maybe not so irrational, given the remote places I go on assignment. I don’t wear sandals or heels when I’m working, also, tube tops and chandelier earrings are out.
  60. I am the person who can’t decide on paper or plastic when you’re in a hurry at the grocery store and behind me in the check-out line. Thankfully, they’re banning the plastic option. So much easier for me than having to figure it out.
  61. I pair mashed potatoes with yogurt. Keeping the whites together just makes sense with food and laundry.
  62. I have always had a crush on Paul Volcker. What’s not to love about the craggy former Federal Reserve chairman? I used to think he was Superman, not I just think of him as a hero with a towel tied around his neck.
  63. I lived with my grandmother when I was young and wish I still did. She was smart, talented and fearless, about 4′ 8″ tall, but stronger than a mountain.
  64. I wore white saddle shoes to school until high school. Just when they got comfortable, the school year ended. Then I used them to walk in creeks.
  65. Many years of morning workouts means I’m a good swimmer. It also means I hate the smell of chlorine in the morning.
  66. For some odd reason, I grind my teeth at night.
  67. I am an excellent procrastinator.
  68. I always look for parking spaces on the street. I hate handing my car keys to complete strangers who claim to be parking valets, worse yet, I’m never sure how much to tip them, which is embarrassing.
  69. I once unknowingly had the back of my dress unzipped on a very crowded Muni bus. After I got off at my stop, I walked a half block wondering about the odd breeze I felt on my back.
  70. I have worn out my Leonard Cohen CDs and need to replace them.
  71. I have ugly feet. Plain and simple.
  72. I love the Lauren Bacall preppy look, but I’ve always been too short waisted to pull off the shirt tucked into pleated front trousers style.
  73. I have the same birthday as Tiberius, Roman Emperor, (42 BC) and actress Maggie Gyllenhaal. Neither has ever sent me a birthday card.
  74. I was the Smart One. My sister was the Pretty One. My sister would argue it was the other way around.
  75. Make room and watch in awe: When I dance it’s like Tina Turner on some good stuff.
  76. When I was a child, I wanted to be a figure skater, despite the fact that I’ve never owned a pair of ice skates. Must have been something about sequins.
  77. I’ve always wanted to be blonde, but I’m allergic to the chemicals in hair dye.
  78. I’ve read every issue of Life magazine from 1958-1988. I blame Life for my desire to see everything in black and white.
  79. My college directed-study thesis was on the complete correspondence between R. Cunningham Graham and Joseph Conrad and how the exchange evoked literary creativity. I’ve never met another person who knew about R. Cunningham or considered the project particularly interesting.
  80. This isn’t very nice, but I hate when people knock on my  front door. It seems ominous.
  81. I am, essentially, a loner. I join in and make nice, but I’m aware that’s what I’m doing and secretly resent having to do it.
  82. And, yet, I adore parties.
  83. I’m Scots-Irish, and, according to my father, half hillbilly.
  84. I consider a bike ride of less than 50 miles a waste of time.
  85. I went kayaking a few weeks ago and now I want one, bad.
  86. I love to be there, hate the journey, which is why I’m not an experienced traveler. And, I don’t want to go to Paris to see the Eiffel Tower. I want a better reason then the desire to stand around, looking up, saying, “Golly. Would ya look at that? Take my picture.”
  87. I had an imaginary friend when I was small, Mr. Duggie. He went everywhere with me. Concerned about my fantasy life, my mother decided to have my brother, which I consider an inadequate response to my creative expression.
  88. I am superstitious and try not to adopt the superstitions of others. I have way too many of my own.
  89. I changed my name to Kate when I became a swimmer. Before that it was Kathy. No one, except close friends and family, even knows my name is Katherine.
  90. I love the smell of fresh-cut hay on a hot summer night.
  91. I once joined Jacque Cousteau (and my step-father) in testing a two-man, personal submarine in San Francisco Bay. Afterwards we had lunch at the Italian consulate in Pacific Heights. The manufacturer was Italian and we were promoting the Sports and Boat show at the Cow Palace. Message: So easy a child could operate the thing – even a girl. Buy It. Loved the consulate’s dining room chandelier.
  92. Flan, caramel sauce, warm. I swoon.
  93. Tree roses and Christmas tinsel (not necessarily together) remind me of my mother.
  94. I cried for three hours after my son went to kindergarten. I’ve never gotten over it. When a mother says their child is going to start school, I pass the tissue.
  95. I drove a two-toned yellow and black Rambler in high school. The trunk could fit 3 bass drums, a tuba and one drunk cheerleader.
  96. I was on the debating team in high school. At my class reunion, the program had the letters NFL next to my name. I’m thinking football, the organizers are thinking National Forensics League lifetime member. Who knew?
  97. People told me the 7 True Things About Kate on my website needed to be fleshed out. Bet they wish now I’d cinched my belt.
  98. When people ask me what I’d do if I wasn’t a writer, I hate to tell them the truth. I’d be a hobo, unless there was an position opening for a wood nymph.
  99. Oh, last one. I’ve always secretly wanted to be Judith, Queen of France.


Me on Ole Paint on the ranch
in Marin County 1950s
Me and my brother Steve on the American River about 1960
where our family was dredging for gold. I swam the tie-down lines
back and forth across the river to secure the dredges. Took off my
wet suit, but not my diving hood. I loved that thing.
Hiking the John Muir Trail, a leg of what is now the Pacific Crest Trail
Gold Country Rodeo summer 2011


Great Aunt Eva and me on her ranch
in Lake County, early 1950s
Suiting up for a dive off Van Damm State Beach
in Northern Calif. about 1970
Learning to kayak in Fresno Slough near Mendota
a couple of weeks ago
Although I’ve seen a number of new authors provide detailed background like this as an introduction to potential readers, I have mixed feelings about doing it. I’m not sure readers care that much and it seems like the writing should speak for itself. Then I think about all the successful writers who make a living writing about nothing but themselves.
I think about writers who’ve carefully crafted personas — Mark Twain, Hemingway and Fitzgerald come to mind — and wonder if readers ever really know a writer beyond their work. In some cases, like Lady Gaga, artists are their own performance pieces, Freda Kahlo come to mind.
But, I’m just a girl who grew up outside, became a writer, and I’m very glad to meet you. Thanks for visiting the Word Garden and thanks for checking out my new book, Adrift in the Sound. It’s available now on Amazon.
 Adrift in the Sound, a novel about sex, drugs and Seattle in 1973, from local booksellers or online at