Thursday, December 05, 2019

"Creative And Connected"



Dr. Joni Samples, former Superintendent of Education for Glenn County and past columnist for this newspaper, asks an important question: "I have become concerned about the huge upsurge of adult opiate use. ... How does living with a parent having some issues, whatever they might be, affect a child’s brain development?" 

Together with Early Childhood Specialist Leigh Shannon the two have published a detailed fourteen-lesson curriculum "specifically for at-risk preschool children." "Creative And Connected" ($19.95 in paperback from Engage Press, creativeandconnectedchildren.com; purchase includes a password for teaching materials access) is designed for preschool facilitators, but its insights can be helpful for anyone caring for children. (A faith-based version is also available.)

Lessons address four domains: Feeling (identifying emotions and responding responsibly); cognition ("how to think first in resolving conflict"); psycho-motor (bodily expression); and what the authors call "mindfulness" ("learning a sense of self and the beauty within, sense of others, sense of beauty in nature, classical music, and sense of love and peace").

Because "some at-risk children ... have difficulty dealing with emotional pain," each lesson emphasizes "building self-confidence and exploring and mastering connectedness" all within an environment of encouragement (which, the authors add, "does not alter consequences"). "When these children begin responding ... the teacher will be quick to say, 'Lisa, you did it! You did it! You didn't hit! You didn't kick! You yelled, "I'm mad!" You are learning!!'"

The authors lay out the purpose of each lesson and offer "brain connections." For example, "Children who are at-risk and lack self-trust are coming from stress and fear much more often than other children. Their amygdala is activated much more often from fear. Improvisation allows them a safe place to be spontaneous and to feel joy."

Three lessons cover "sexual abuse, violence, and addiction" and note that facilitators need permission from parents or guardians before bringing children into the discussion. 

"Some children," the authors write, "have been taught not to trust. Three dysfunctional rules 'taught' in substance-abuse homes are: We don't feel, we don't trust, and we don't talk about real issues." But "through movement, the children's natural language, and through music that reaches his heart, the child begins his/her journey toward self-trust."


Thursday, November 28, 2019

"Burnt Offerings"



Paradise illustrator Steve Ferchaud (steveferchaud.com) lost his home, including his studio, in the Camp Fire. But thanks to many "angels" his pen is active again. 

In 2017 and 2018 he had taken up the "INKTOBER" challenge for artists to post a drawing each day in October in response to the word for that day. After the fire he decided to compile all 62 sketches into a book, the proceeds of which would go to helping Camp Fire survivors. His original drawings were destroyed, so he redrew each one and included a short commentary. 

"Burnt Offerings" ($9.95 in paperback, self-published with the help of MC2 Design Group) is available on Amazon and locally at ABC Books in Chico. It also contains a short narrative of Ferchaud's escape, and the aftermath, and nine drawings of "special Paradise landmarks," including the Gold Nugget Museum and the Honey Run Covered Bridge. Be prepared for a rush of feelings.

Though his drawings are whimsical Ferchaud focuses on adult concerns; there are a couple of raised middle fingers, a swear word, and plenty of monsters: greedy televangelists, politicians on the take, war profiteers. Wry humor abounds.

Take October 3, 2018; the word is "roasted." "Thanksgiving Day: We say our thanks, and then eat like there is no tomorrow. Maybe we should just eat, be thankful every day, because the odds are pretty good that there will be a tomorrow, even though it is always uncertain what tomorrow may bring." 

The drawing shows snarky pigs around the dinner table as they pass the serving platter with a plump little man roasted to perfection. Ferchaud adds: "My vegan and vegetarian friends loved this cartoon. Friends that lived in Vegas said it ruined buffets for them for the rest of their lives."

There are sweet moments, too, as Ferchaud responds to "precious." Yes, there's a Gollum-like creature in the drawing. "And speaking of rings, one of the things I found after the fire amongst the ashes was my Grandfather's ring. I found it after I stopped looking for it. Before the fire, I only wore it on special occasions. Now I wear it every day. A reminder that every day is a precious occasion."


Thursday, November 21, 2019

"Out Of The Ashes: One Survivor's Journey In The Aftermath Of Two Historic Wild Fires"



On September 6, 2016, the Saddle Fire, six miles southeast of Paradise, burned hundreds of acres. Antoinette Peppler and her husband lost everything but decided to rebuild.

They "moved in & celebrated being home again in 2018. Then the Camp Fire hit. We struggled to leave our home once again after just moving in. We were evacuated for 2 weeks. We came home again on Thanksgiving Day." Fire had spared them this time, but "we lost our town, our community, family & friends."

Peppler, a poet and professional cake decorator, created a blog to "encourage & inspire others"; those entries, reflections on paintings and photographs by friends and family members, have become "Out Of The Ashes: One Survivor's Journey In The Aftermath Of Two Historic Wild Fires" (self-published paperback; send a money order or cashier's check for $25.00, which includes $5 shipping, to Antoinette Peppler, PO Box 1646, Paradise, CA 95967).

The paragraphs Peppler writes never minimize the hurt--she's been there. In "17 Treasures More" she writes: "A treasure box of remnants & charred burnt jewelry. ... Oh my heart... deep down, my soul just ached, as I felt the sorrow drop me to my knees." "Sometimes," she writes, "I’m just so emotionally & mentally exhausted. Like I have been physically running, almost sprinting, in a long-distance race. ..."

The cleanup overwhelms: "The multiple choices that add to our list, are too many decisions to make or to fix. Want to scream but no time, need to cry but no tears, have to work but can’t move, just don’t know what to do!" 

But her faith is strong: "Though we were protected this time from the flames, it has left a scar upon our hearts & souls. We feel it, but this we know, we are alive because God’s grace still abounds. He is our shelter & I am trusting in Him!"

"We can’t change the past, though that’s what we want most, but we can paint today with a vision of hope. A plan to set forth a new life for ourselves, begins with a start to finish the race."


Thursday, November 14, 2019

"Fire On The Ridge: A Collection Of Poems"



"I am neither a writer nor a poet," Bill Hartley says. But in the wake of the Camp Fire, which destroyed Joy Lyn's Candies, the business he owned, he became both.

"Writing about the disaster is a release of the sorrow. It is also an acceptance that I am facing a new chapter of life, and it is up to me if I want to be happy or sad. I choose to move on; I choose happiness."

Hartley describes himself as "a chocolatier helping my son and daughter-in-law who now own Joy Lyn's." But he's an author now, too, with "Fire On The Ridge: A Collection Of Poems" ($18.50 in paperback from Gold Dust Press; available at the Gold Nugget/Depot Museum, 5570 Black Olive Drive, Paradise, and Treasures From Paradise, 969 Bille Road, with profits going to the museum.)

Each of the almost four dozen poems features a photograph by Doug Keister, and there are paintings by Pam Hartley (one of which graces the cover). Collected into five chapters, the first two, "The Fire" and "Grief," give way to "Acceptance," "Moving Forward," and "Resilience."

"My world was turned upside down," the poet writes early on. "All I saw was black and gray;/ My friends are scattered all around,/ I'm a lost soul in Paradise." 

In "Paradise Lost," memories are carried away: "As the trucks rumble and crumble the roads,/ They carry remembrances of young and old;/ The towering trees are scorched and the red earth torched black;/ We dream it didn't happen, we want our old life back."

But there's no going back: "The toll of his disaster weighs heavily on me,/ And insurance forms are all I see./ Now I just sit and muse--/ I'm suffering from the paperwork blues."

Yet later, in "Soul of Paradise," "You discover an inner strength you did not know,/ it came from hope that ebbs and flows,/ it's the love of our fellowman that shows." 

Bottom line? "So, believe in Paradise, you can't go wrong;/ The sense of community is vibrant and strong./ Although the road to recovery has many a twist,/ I'll be back in Paradise, the town I miss."


Thursday, November 07, 2019

"The Camp Fire: Dreams, Nightmares, Hopes"



"In an instant," writes J.R. Henson, "the Camp Fire wiped out the community I lived in." He traces his emotional journey through poems and essays until "I reach a more settled location with the feeling of still being displaced from my home town."

"The Camp Fire: Dreams, Nightmares, Hopes" ($10 in paperback from Valley View Press) starts months before the fire; life is good, especially with "Gabie, the small curly-haired poodle." 

Yet during this time, Henson writes, "I kept seeing everything in my house through a cracked lens." The haunting vision subsides, not to return. 

Later, after the fire, Henson sees a picture of his house, and it's hard to believe. "I focus and enlarge the picture on the single object in the backyard. Now I can see the object to be a concrete birdbath with a concrete squirrel sitting at the top. That's when I know the burned down house is mine."

His escape on the day of the fire is more harrowing because his truck is low on gas. "I climb halfway up the last hill before reaching the main artery out of town. The feeling is like being stuck at the top of a Ferris wheel. All I want to do is get off this amusement park ride." 

He imagines Nature "intent on scorching every last home and big building.... Weeks later, Nature's rage slips away. Cleanup crews chop down healthy and unhealthy trees.... Finally, after many years, Nature wakes up just to see that nothing has changed for the better, and many of the human beings are just as inhospitable as they have been in the past." 

"God takes away the stewardship from human hands for being incompetent," the poet writes; "White hot flames cleanse the Paradise because of the promise that has been broken."

"It's hard for me to imagine hope's return," Henson writes. But it does, and with it the prospect of love. Maybe humans have been given another chance.

The author will be presenting his book at the Chico Library Meeting Room on Monday, November 11 from 7:00-8:00 p.m. and Saturday, December 7 from 4:30-6:00 p.m. Meetings are free and open to the public.


Thursday, October 31, 2019

"The Camp Fire 2018: Living On The Ridge"



Paula Link writes that she was "born, raised and lived in Rio Linda, CA most of my life. Upon retiring from my job of 26 years and much thought I decided on a change of environment. With mixed emotions I pulled up my roots and moved to Magalia...."

That was in 2013. In some ways it was a difficult adjustment for Link and her husband Frank, but they soon settled into their upper Magalia home. They are surrounded by wildlife, part of the charm of the place, and also provided a home to a gaggle of animals, including big dogs Ziva and Zoe, little dog Daisy, Bella Bunny, house cat Oreo, birds, and seven feral kitties. When they had to evacuate on November 8, 2018, it proved quite a challenge. 

She writes about that experience in "The Camp Fire 2018: Living On The Ridge" ($21.95 in paperback, self-published; also for Amazon Kindle). "The smoky sky and air was threatening and to think that if we had taken the Paradise roads out we may not have survived. There were many others with the same idea, as there were a good number of vehicles ahead and behind us on that dirt logging road called Doe Mill Road but when we reached Highway 32 over an hour later the line of vehices coming from the Butte Meadows route with those who took the high road was just as packed and the line of headlights in the rearview mirror seemed endless."

But they survived, and so did their home. The book is less about a traumatizing ordeal (it was that, of course) but about the loss of a community, especially Paradise. Link summarizes some of the harrowing accounts of escape found on YouTube and there are dozens of full-color photographs by Frank and her son Justin Mohorich and daughter Alison Mohorich (Alison Ann Photography).

Link's reflections end on a mixed note. She is thankful for many friends who helped but writes that wildfire devastation "is just too much for someone to be ready for, especially when you have all the animals that we do. ... I hope and pray it never happens again."


Thursday, October 24, 2019

"Spectral Pegasus / Dark Movements"



The Welsh tradition of Mari Lwyd (sounds like "mary loyd") hearkens back to ancient Roman and Celtic veneration of horses. 

According to Sarah Parvin, a Jungian-trained psychologist who blogs at The Curious One, "the cult of Mari centres round a mare's skull bedecked in sheet and ribbons, which is carried from door to door to mark the passing of the longest nights of midwinter. The Mari is accompanied by a band of mummers, in the guise of the dead, who ... seek admission into the houses of the living. Upon gaining entry, food and drink are enjoyed by all and blessings bestowed for the coming year."

Welsh artist Clive Hicks-Jenkins recalls his father being incredibly scared as a child when the Mari Lwyd came around; a series of paintings Hicks-Jenkins subsequently created serve, Parvin says, as a "personal meditation on the death of his father and an elegy to the friends and colleagues he had lost during his theatre career to the AIDS epidemic." 

Now, American poet Jeffery Beam (jefferybeam.com), who lives in Hillsborough, North Carolina with his husband, has collaborated with the artist to produce a book of mesmerizing poems about, as the writer told me in email correspondence, "the transformation of masculine and horse energy into ... something else." Both writer and artist take American dancer Jordan Morley as their muse.

"Spectral Pegasus / Dark Movements" ($21.95 in paperback from Kin Press, kinpress.org) includes fifteen poems, one song, three essays (including the one by Parvin), and nearly two dozen paintings.

In one sense the Mari Lwyd is Halloween-frightening. "I am Pegasus Spectral/ Pegasus Reversed" the poet writes; "I am your nightmare-longing toward dust/ Be not afraid. // Stop shaking/ Every funeral prophesies resurrection...."

In "Drift," "Mari Mari Lwyd having never spoken your name/ your name becalms me/ Right hand to heart left hand gloved closed holding a secret/ Void's origin waiting to be opened/ for you as you are for me my stalwart."

A secret? Two, actually. In "Pegasus," the words have a particular resonance: "Liberty and Love the two Great Secrets/ Making the Divine Mind smile/ Making Death forget himself and sing/ Paradise regained/ Without contraries is no progression."


Thursday, October 17, 2019

"I Escaped The California Camp Fire"



Scott Peters designed hundreds of museum installations but in recent times has turned to writing for Middle Grade readers, teaming with S.D. Brown of Northern California to publish a gripping novel set in the midst of the Camp Fire.

"I Escaped The California Camp Fire" ($7.99 in paperback from Best Day Books For Young Readers; also for Amazon Kindle) is the second in the "I Escaped" series about "brave kids who face real world challenges and find ways to escape."

The story is a fictionalized account of the fire which draws on published reports. The hero is fourteen-year-old Troy Benson who lives with his parents and kid sister Emma in Paradise along with Rascal, their German Shepherd, and Midnight the cat. When his dad and mom leave him in charge to attend a dinner in Redding and stay overnight, Troy dreams of all the junk food he plans to eat.

Frankly, Troy is bored. Real civilization (read "San Francisco") is hours away. "Instead of people, Paradise had trees. Instead of streets, there was one road in and one road out. Instead of high-rise buildings, there were trailer courts tucked between small planned and unplanned neighborhoods."

The next morning, November 8, 2018, everything would change. When he woke at 9:15 "something was off. Suddenly he was wide-awake; his eyes darted left and right. He couldn't see anything. It was black." The power is out, but when Rascal starts barking Troy heads outside. "It was pitch black. There wasn't even starlight. The wind ripped at his clothes like it was being chased by fire-breathing dragons. And smelled that way, too--smoky and warm."

Eventually he knew they had to escape. The neighbor lady refuses to evacuate, so Troy has to drive his dad's SUV Bronco. In piles Emma and Rascal, with Midnight in her backpack. What comes next, the heart of the story, is travel down the Skyway with fire everywhere, running for their lives when the vehicle is caught in the flames, Rascal's key role in directing them to a stream over the hill, and Troy's quick thinking as they head for Chico. 

"Maybe," Troy tells Emma later, "there is a God."


Thursday, October 10, 2019

"Burn Scar: A Contemporary Disaster Thriller"



T. J. Tao is the pen name of Michael J. Orr (wordsmithmojo.com). Now based in southern Idaho, he and his family survived the Camp Fire, and though he wanted to publish a factual account, "the truth was that our story had no ending, yet." Conspiracy theories hung in the air.

So he "settled on fiction, weaving the story with more than twenty very real survivor stories (including my own) and some of the conspiracy theory storylines: gold, corruption, government land grabs, etc."

Then he "found a ridge in west-central Idaho that had much the same shape and many of the same features as the ridge that Paradise sits on." The novel's focus is on the town of Genna (Maltese, he says, for "Paradise") with a fire that started in Bear County near Bonneville Road and so was dubbed the Bonn Fire."

The result is a riveting story of a corrupt town manager, a scheme to secure mineral rights along the eastern ridge by any means necessary, murderous henchmen, a dedicated sheriff, and the heroism of first responders and local citizens in the midst of the worst fire in Idaho's history. 

"Burn Scar: A Contemporary Disaster Thriller" ($16.99 in paperback from WordsmithMojo Publishing; also for Amazon Kindle), by T.J. Tao, also fictionally imports the "firenado" (from the Carr Fire) to plague Genna's Rite Aid.

Three weeks before the fire, "Mayor Joana Moody was in the midst of an unexpectedly difficult bid for re-election to the Town Council of Genna. ... In most towns and cities, the Town Manager worked for and at the pleasure of the Council. Not in Genna, here Jillian Dupree ran the show. ... She needed Mayor Moody" pretty much as a pawn as Jillian maneuvered the idea of bolting a sewer system onto the eastern cliffside into a fortune for herself.

The novelist is not pleased with Council doings or with "Idaho Electric Power." (Locations and identities of some key players are thinly veiled.) Despite some editing infelicities the story is a page turner in its own right, with a satisfying conclusion. 

There's comeuppance that lends an air of finality to something that never really will be finished.


Thursday, October 03, 2019

"Love Revolution: Rediscovering The Lost Command Of Jesus (Revised Edition)"



In 2001, with almost three decades in the pastorate, Chicoan Gaylord Enns experienced debilitating burnout. Months later he faced cancer surgery. Granted time away from his congregation to regain his strength, he began studying the Bible and, on May 1, 2002, found the answer to a simple question that profoundly changed his life.

The story is told in "Love Revolution: Rediscovering The Lost Command Of Jesus (Revised Edition)" ($15.99 in paperback from Love Revolution Press, loverevolutionnow.org; also for Amazon Kindle). 

In Matthew 28:18-20 Jesus tells his followers to make disciples, "baptizing them ... and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you." For Enns, baptism referred to faith in Jesus Christ--but what exactly had Jesus commanded?

Enns writes that Jesus taught many things, but only commanded one thing, as in John 15:12: "Love each other as I have loved you." As Enns observes, "I had started ... with a question: What all did Jesus command His disciples to obey? ... It was the New Commandment--His Command."

This contrasts with the Old Covenant commands, the first, to "love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength" and the second, to "love your neighbor as yourself." How can one ever fulfill the first? Doesn't the second interfere with it? As Enns writes, "I struggled with a nagging sense that I wasn't really living up to what God expected of me. My responsibilities as a husband, father, son, friend and pastor kept me from being as devoted to God as I felt I should be."

Jesus' command broke through all this. "Rather than shouting 'I love You, God!' into the sky for hours, I began to realize that maybe I should give just a couple of shouts and then go back into the kitchen and help my wife clean up the pots and pans after dinner. ... In the New Covenant, loving God and loving our neighbor are expressed as we put our faith in Jesus Christ and love one another."

Enns is a winsome writer and a gentle guide. Readers will find much food for thought.


Thursday, September 26, 2019

"People, Places & Pieces Of Paradise: The Inferno, Aftermath & Recovery From The Most Destructive Wildfire In California History"



Chico writer-photographer Doug Keister showed up for his morning softball game on November 8, 2018, knowing something was amiss but not knowing the extent of the conflagration that was to come. Several of the players would lose their homes in the Camp Fire.

"In the weeks and months that followed," he writes in an extraordinary new book, "I journeyed to the fire zone of Paradise and nearby smaller communities of Concow and Magalia several times each week, doing my best to document the effects of the fire, on the land and on the people. I also made note of the residents of Butte County who had escaped the ravages of the fire. The generosity they gave--and continue to give--to the community and survivors, still inspires."

Keister has created stunning images that capture the soul of Paradise, from the burning to the aftermath, with stories of survivors telling of the human cost but also of the indomitable spirt of hope that is, indeed, part of the soul of the town. 

"People, Places & Pieces Of Paradise: The Inferno, Aftermath & Recovery From The Most Destructive Wildfire In California History" ($29.95 in hardcover, self-published, from paradisebook.org; also available locally at Made in Chico and the Gold Nugget Depot Museum) contains almost 200 color images and 20,000 words. 

Sections include "Ignition," "Aftermath," "Recovery," "The Murals" (a comprehensive guide to Shane Grammer's Paradise art), "Portraits From Paradise" (three dozen stories of individuals and families who survived), with a closing memorial dedicated to those who did not.

In the book, Keister writes about the power of the image. "Imagine returning after the fire, turning onto the street where your home once was and seeing…nothing. You feel your heart sinking and your eyes welling with tears. You are struck by the utter silence. No birds chirping. No chattering squirrels. No dogs barking. No squeals of children playing. Nothing is anywhere close to normal. Photographs will tell these stories, if you let them."

Those images are deeply moving (my first school, Paradise Elementary, has disappeared into memory). 

The book itself is a treasure.


Thursday, September 19, 2019

"As Many Nows As I Can Get"



Imagine a little Colorado town named Graceville ("Western slope, two hours out of Denver"). It's the last summer fling for graduating high school seniors Scarlett Oliveira, best friend Hannah, Cody Martinez (Scarlett's first love), and David Warren (her second love). 

"Scar," a physics major, turns down an offer from MIT and instead will head to Colwyn College in Watertown, Maine. David will head to Stanford. They are Graceville's finest. All the planets seem aligned.

But in physics, gravitational and other forces can set things to wobbling, a perfect metaphor for how Scarlett's orderly life is upended when she jumps with David off the Mine Gulf Bridge into the waters below. "I want to feel everything," David says. "What it's like to be that heron, or those clouds, and to jump off that bridge." After Scar's impulsive choice she and David are in each other's orbit--but orbits decay.

What follows is Scar's account of lives upended by love and death, an emotionally resonant debut YA novel by Paradise native Shana Youngdahl. Now living in Maine, she teaches writing at the University of Maine at Farmington.

"As Many Nows As I Can Get" ($17.99 in hardcover from Dial Books; also for Amazon Kindle) flits in short chapters from Scar's present (a road trip with her Colwyn College roommate Mina) to moments in the previous two years when David's magnetism was irresistible, when Cody moved on to someone else, when the past was a "now." 

"The past is not gone," Scarlett writes, "it's just not being witnessed. One flip and I'm headed out on the road with David ten months ago, another flip and I'm in this car with Mina today, another, it's eight months ago, and I'm sweating through college orientation. All these nows happening at once. And if all our nows happen at once, then death--it's just a scavenger hunt through time."

Brilliant student Scar makes life-changing mistakes, David makes a fatal one, and the story, with its electric repartee among friends and spot-on grasp of the lives of these teens, presents Scarlett with the question: Who am I in this now? The answer is not to be missed.


Thursday, September 12, 2019

"The Sound Of The Snow Geese: A True Story Of Surviving California's Deadliest Wildfire"



Dax Meredith, the pen name of a Chico State and Butte College instructor, was caught in the Camp Fire as she and one of her young sons fled towarrd Paradise from Magalia. Her harrowing story, including the aftermath with its own trauma, is told in "The Sound Of The Snow Geese: A True Story Of Surviving California's Deadliest Wildfire" ($15.99 in paperback, self-published; also for Amazon Kindle).

"I’m relatively young," she writes, "to have survived the things I’ve made it through so far. To date, these include near death from a virus and secondary infections, extensive nerve damage, long term illness, near death by wildfire, loss of home to fire, relocation, and the post fire list goes on and on." She's also a single mom, bringing up two boys called in the narrative Andy (age eleven) and Tommy (who's nine). 

On that fire morning, the author is home with a feverish Andy; Tommy is driven to school in Chico by his grandmother. A little after 8:30 her mom calls, the phone voice crackling. "Huge plume of smoke. Ugly. Maybe plan to evacuate."

Meredith walks outside. "I know immediately that something is different, something is wrong. The skies are an unnatural glow of greens and oranges, and ash is collecting like deathly snowfall on the deck, on the cars, like an ominous dusting of the destruction that has begun."

With Andy and their puppy Harley, she begins driving toward Paradise. Then traffic stops at the turnoff to Pentz.

Soon, "sparks, ash, debris, and huge demonic flames are right there behind us. They don't dance or flicker. They eat everything. ... I can't wrap my brain around it." There will come sheltering in place near the Optimo, then eventual escape. 

She is filled with emotion and yet also a confidence in God. Hardships continue afterward, but there are new starts.

Trained as a counselor, the author discusses coping techniques in the last chapter, including identifying triggers, prayer, visualization, music, and more. 

The book is a superb and heart-stopping account of the unimaginable, full of honest faith and true grit. When you are ready--read it.


Thursday, September 05, 2019

"In Search Of The Canary Tree: The Story Of A Scientist, A Cypress, And A Changing World"



"Some people call it the Alaska cedar," writes Lauren E. Oakes, who teaches Earth System Science at Stanford. "Others call it the yellow cypress. ... Alaskans use the name yellow-cedar." In remote parts of Alaska groves of yellow-cedar are on the decline. Just what is going on had not been documented until Oakes, in 2010, began a years-long research project for her doctorate. 

The book that emerged is a nuanced and poignant exploration of the impact of the dying trees. "What I didn't know then," she writes, "was that these dead trees would eventually ... give me a sense of conviction about our ability to cope with climate change. They'd motivate me to do my part. They'd move me from pessimism about the outlook of our world to optimism about all we still can do."

"In Search Of The Canary Tree: The Story Of A Scientist, A Cypress, And A Changing World" ($27 in hardcover from Basic Books; also for Amazon Kindle) has been chosen as the 2019-2020 "Book In Common" for Chico State University (csuchico.edu/bic), Butte College (butte.edu/bic), and the larger community. (Oakes is scheduled to speak at Chico State in April.)

In addition to teaching, Oakes works for the Wildlife Conservation Society. Her book presents the scientific questions she set out to answer in Alaska, such as how to distinguish the normal growth and decay cycles of a healthy forest from the threat to the yellow-cedar species itself. 

On some Alaskan archipelagos there is significant yellow-cedar dieback, but that has made room for spruce to flourish. There is grief at the loss, especially among the native Tlingit community, but that leads to questions of how the relationship with the forests will change. 

Oakes comes to realize, through dozens of interviews, that the many perspectives she finds (economic, ecological, spiritual) present a complex pattern of how those affected face the loss.

The yellow-cedar is the canary, the early warning that profound change is upon us. The species teaches "that there's simply no imaginable tomorrow ... that could ever possibly nullify the need for unwavering care and thoughtful action today."


Thursday, August 29, 2019

"Stutterer Interrupted: The Comedian Who Almost Didn't Happen"



The author's name is "Nina G.," her moniker in the Bay Area comedy circuit. Recently she presented her story to Butte College faculty and staff during the new semester convocation. Nina and husband Ethan live in Oakland; she works at a community college as a counselor for students with disabilities but is also part of a comedy troupe called The Comedians with Disabilities Act.

Though her talk at Butte College was rated PG, the story she tells in her new book is far edgier (she is no stranger to F-bombs). But it's also a poignant journey of a childhood that "took all the negative social cues and internalized them, like a box of baking soda absorbing every rotten odor in the fridge."

"Stutterer Interrupted: The Comedian Who Almost Didn't Happen" ($16.95 in paperback from She Writes Press; also for Amazon Kindle) is half autobiography, half reflection about embracing the person she is, stuttering included. But for supportive parents and counselors, Nina may have remained that "weird kid."

At sixteen she volunteered for the National Stuttering Project in San Francisco. "I was surrounded by well-adjusted adults who could speak without fluency and still lead normal lives." She resolved not to "hide behind the 'weird kid' persona. I spoke in my natural voice and started making peace with my repetitions and blocks."

Later she earned her doctorate in psychology and became "a frustrated dyslexic-stuttering academic" who found real joy in venues like the bar in San Bruno "where a fight breaks out and I have to resort to my dirtiest jokes to distract from the screaming man being dragged out in handcuffs. What other job lets you have all those experiences? To be a comedian, you have to love what you do. And I do love what I do."

There are practical chapters on how well-meaning folks who hear a report on NPR suddenly become experts on stuttering. How Howard Stern helped her find self-acceptance. How she "stopped denying myself a voice out of fear of inconveniencing others. I became upfront about my dysfluency...."

Her dream? To make "the world a more stutter-friendly and loving place." One life at a time.


Thursday, August 22, 2019

"A Gentleman In Moscow"



June 21, 1922. Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, born in St. Petersburg in 1889, a man of leisure living in the Hotel Metropol in Moscow, is deemed a subversive by the Emergency Committee of the People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs. 

He is sentenced to spend the rest of his days in the Metropol; "make no mistake," he is told, "should you ever set foot outside of the Metropol again, you will be shot."

What unfolds is the story of the Count's confinement over three decades in a novel so piquant and mesmerizing one doesn't want it to end. "A Gentleman In Moscow" ($17 in paperback from Penguin) is by Stanford-educated, Manhattan-based Amor Towles (amortowles.com). 

In the Metropol (an actual grand hotel near the Kremlin) the Count witnesses the development (and devolution) of Party ideals and finds he must take up residence not in his spacious suite but in an attic. And there is Nina.

"But for the virtuous who have lost their way, the Fates often provide a guide. On the island of Crete, Theseus had his Ariadne and her magical ball of thread to lead him safely from the lair of the Minotaur. Through those caverns where ghostly shadows dwell, Odysseus had his Tiresias just as Dante had his Virgil. And in the Metropol Hotel, Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov had a nine-year-old girl by the name of Nina Kulikova."

Years later Nina returns to the Metropol, a married woman with a daughter, Sofia. She asks the Count to look after her as she leaves to try to find her husband, who has been arrested. Nina never returns, and the childless Count becomes an adoptive father.

The story is poignant, wry, and wise. The Count's life has ushered him into the "Confederacy of the Humbled," "a close-knit brotherhood whose members travel with no outward markings, but who know each other at a glance. For having fallen suddenly from grace, those in the Confederacy share a certain perspective. Knowing beauty, influence, fame, and privilege to be borrowed rather than bestowed, they are not easily impressed."

Does the Count escape? Suffice it to say the reader will be up at night turning pages to find out.


Thursday, August 15, 2019

"A Fire Story"



n simple drawings, artist Brian Fies (brianfies.blogspot.com) tries to make sense of the "mind-numbing disaster" he and his wife faced not so long ago. "Karen and I evacuated our home north of Santa Rosa ... at around 1:30 a.m. on Monday, October 9, 2017. Based on when our neighbors began getting text messages from their home security systems, we think our neighborhood burned around 2:30 a.m."

The couple was taken in by their twin daughters, and the next day, using "a pad of low-quality pulp paper, one permanent marker, a fine-point felt-tip pen, and four colored highlighters," he began telling the tale in word and image. Soon KQED aired a short animated version of Fies' work, and recently the PBS News Hour reported on what has now been published as a full-length "graphic memoir."

"A Fire Story" ($24.99 in hardcover from Harry N. Abrams; also for Amazon Kindle) is not just about escaping the flames, but what happened afterward, from disorientation to the eventual decision to rebuild. Readers who survived the Camp Fire may find an uncanny emotional resonance with Fies' narrative (the scope is different, of course, but the similarities are stunning), so much so that they may be moved to tears. At least, a certain book columnist I know had that reaction.

Fies intersperses stories of his neighbors and friends. Neighbor Mari and her husband lost everything, including two cats. "I feel like someone forced me into the witness protection program," she tells Brian. "I have no history." 

"Well-meaning people say 'It's just stuff,'" Brian writes. "But it was ourstuff. Stuff we created. Stuff we treasured. Stuff from our ancestors we wanted our descendants to have. Stuff is a marker of time and memory. It's roots. I am uprooted."

Then, "a day in the new life." Karen is reading the newspaper, and Brian says, "I think I'll make a pitcher of iced tea." "Sounds good," she says. Pause. Pause. "No pitcher," he says. "Put it on the list," she says.

Finally, "within a few weeks of the fire, green reappeared amid the black and gray. ... Flowers and trees can come back, changed and scarred but still beautiful. So can we."


Thursday, August 08, 2019

"The Fabric Of Character: A Wise Giver's Guide To Supporting Social And Moral Renewal"



D.C.-based writer Anne Snyder (annesnyder.org), the new editor of Comment Magazine (dedicated to "public theology for the common good"), attended a meeting recently of the Chico Triad discussion group which focused on altruism. Her interest is in how strategic giving can foster community renewal through character formation; she spent a week in Butte County interviewing those who are leading the restoration projects in Paradise and surrounding areas.

Character, she writes, "is a set of dispositions to be and do good, engraved on a person in multiple ways," including by the cultivation of habits of self-control; "by religious instruction on honest, courageous, and compassionate living; through institutions that establish standards for good conduct," by mentors and "through experiences of struggle, positions of responsibility, and the blessings and demands of enduring commitments."

Such qualities strengthen a community over the long haul. Snyder wants to provide philanthropists not only encouragement to support "initiatives that attempt to form character and transform lives," but guidelines for evaluating them. "The Fabric Of Character: A Wise Giver's Guide To Supporting Social And Moral Renewal ($15 in paperback from The Philanthropy Roundtable) provides moving examples of how organizations across the country are building character.

That includes The Other Side Movers out of Salt Lake City, Utah, a number-one-rated moving company with members from The Other Side Academy, "a life-training school for people with long criminal or addiction histories." There's Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina (with an "emphasis on cultivating the whole person") and The Positivity Project, giving grade schoolers "new ways of understanding their emotions."

Snyder identifies 16 "interwoven" aspects of an organization that help it succeed in building character, in its own members and in those it serves. These include Telos (a sense of purpose); Liturgies and Rituals ("communal rhythms, routines"); Struggle and Growth (are struggles "given meaning and direction?"); Joy and Transformation (is the whole person changing?); and Generativity (do those who leave carry on the ideals?).

Snyder's clear and engaging writing shows the significance of character formation in community renewal, even as she now explores what it means for Paradise nine months after the horrendous fire.


Thursday, August 01, 2019

"Tales Of The Paradise Ridge"



"January 1960 saw the beginning of a new adult night class in Butte County History, taught by Ruby Swartzlow." As Sherrie Gobin Rosen writes, "It did not take long before this large class decided there was a lot of history in and around Paradise, but not much of it was written down anywhere. The group decided they really needed to remedy that, thus the first issue of Tales of the Paradise Ridge was born in June 1960." Sherrie's dad, Ted Gobin, was deeply involved in exploring local history. He was also my bus driver during my grade school days in Paradise.

So it is with a sense of sheer delight that key articles from Tales, selected from its entire run through 2018, have been published by the Association for Northern California Historical Research (ANCHR) in cooperation with the Paradise Gold Nugget Museum (temporarily located at the Depot Museum, 5570 Black Olive Drive). 

"Tales Of The Paradise Ridge" ($19.95 in paperback from ANCHR.org, available at ABC Books in Chico and a host of other locations listed on the ANCHR website) brings together three dozen articles, including images, exactly as they appeared in the original issues of Tales.

Though the Gold Nugget Museum burned in the Camp Fire, Don Criswell, Board President, writes that "the beauty of Paradise is in its people, people of good will who are connected with each other and with this place. We will rebuild Paradise and the Gold Nugget Museum." 

To that end, ANCHR Publications Editor Josie Reifschneider-Smith has compiled this volume specifically focused on the Paradise area, and the place of the Museum in Ridge life, as a Museum fundraiser.

There are nuggets aplenty in the book. Swartzlow writes about the development of the Skyway (which opened July 1950); Lois McDonald on the Paradise census of 1880 (spoiler alert: 301 persons "on the Ridge"); Connie Rogers on the Depot Museum; Rosen on Paradise in the Thirties, Forties and Fifties; Criswell on Yellowstone Kelly (and the Heritage Trail); Tonya Dale on the Paradise sign.

There's also a picture of the front of Barnett's Market in the midst of the 1964 Gold Nugget Parade. My dad would have been proud.


Thursday, July 25, 2019

"The 51st Directive"



FBI agent Erica Brewer is a wise-cracking, drop dead gorgeous 31-year-old blue-eyed brunette divorcee who uncovers a plot to take over the U.S. Government--from within. The tale that unfolds is a deftly crafted political techno-thriller that will have readers turning pages late into the night.

"The 51st Directive" ($9.99 in paperback, self-published; also for Amazon Kindle), by Chico writer (and photographer) Michael Agliolo, takes its title from an actual document. As Agliolo notes, it's a "Presidential Directive which claims power to execute procedures for the continuity of the federal government in the event of a 'catastrophic emergency.'"

In the novel, the unnamed President of the U.S., along with his associate, four-star general Raymond Wallace, hatch a brazen scheme to get rid of Congressional liberals, never mind the cost. "The writing was on the wall. The left was gaining momentum. The nation was reversing course, turning away from the ultra-conservative direction the President had imposed the previous year."

Readers know the plan early on. Release deadly gas during a joint session of Congress. Frame Iran. Declare war. And then "the President would enact Presidential Directive 51 and take complete control of the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of the government." 

But wait. There are Erica Brewer and D.C. Detective Sam Marco to contend with. Together with some key players (including Brewer's boss, Washington FBI Bureau Chief David Gilliam; computer specialist Shreya Aswini; and Colonel Steven Mitchell, Commander of the Marine Corps base at Camp Pendleton), the good guys try to foil the insane machination. It means hacking the Dark Web, getting help from the General's addict son, planting electronic recording devices to gather evidence.

Erica and Sam have to hide. "We were being hunted, we just didn't know by whom. On the bright side," Brewer cracks, "there are worse things in the world than being stuck in a room with someone you're falling in love with, a king size bed and a mini bar."

What if they fail? And what will happen to the rule of law if they do fail? If the President is exposed as the real perpetrator, who could arrest him?

It's a roller-coaster ride. Agliolo is a writer to watch.


Thursday, July 18, 2019

"The Book Of The Red King"



Former Paradise resident John Wilson (@jwilson1812), who edited Books and Culture for all of its 21 years, calls poet-novelist Marly Youmans "the best-kept secret among contemporary writers." Youmans (@marlyyoumans), who lives in upstate New York, has just published a stunning collection of poems that together constitute "The Book Of The Red King" ($15.95 in paperback from Phoenicia Publishing, phoeniciapublishing.com/book-of-the-red-king.html), illustrated by Clive Hicks-Jenkins.

Enigma haunts the Red King, his Fool, and the Fool's "Precious Wentletrap." (That's the common name for a seashell, housing a marine gastropod, "That jails so beautifully the sea/ Of pulse and whispered mystery.") The Fool is of the earth but in moments of doubt touches heavenly joys. The Red King is of the stars, yet in moments of joy touches earthly doubts--and transforms them.

In the poem which gives the book its title, we read that "The Fool has made the Red Bookfor the love/ Of the Red King, has taken and put on/ The handsome cap that the Red King gave him/ As a birthday present, and has lifted/ The feather in his hand to ink the words/ With the very blood of his veins: so much/ And that is all, that is all, that is all."

That birthday hat signals transformation of misspent youth. When the Fool "remembers alchemy of change/ That blazed his blackened self to silver-white/ And fed his mouth with unfamiliar words/ He laughs in joy and turns a somersault.// The Fool, punch-drunk with sleeplessness and wine,/ Goes whirling on his axis, shouts the news/ That there's a wisdom given to the fools/ Who in this mortal world of woe + woe/ Are those who blindly grasp at paradise."

And the Red King? To the "stricken man" he says: "I am the Red King. I give you the stars, / I give you angelfish beneath the sea,/ I give you the rose-fragrance and the rose..../ Out of the gusts and silences of air,/ Out of the crimson-feathered phoenix fire,/ I call to you, see you and know your name./ This world is my kingdom come. You are mine."

Get the book and read it through. And then again, more slowly.


Thursday, July 11, 2019

"Unseasonable"



J.R. Henson, a Paradise resident now living in Chico after the devastation of the Camp Fire, has written a series of deeply felt observations about the emotional upheavals of life. "Unseasonable" ($10 in paperback from Valley View Press) comes with an author's note that in the poetry, fiction and non-fiction in the book "readers are advised that there is no necessary connection between the author's life and the experiences represented here."

In more than fifty short pieces, "the writer" expressively responds to events in sections on happiness, sadness, death, anger, fright, and drama, in that order. "Lazy River" in the happiness section recalls tubing on the Sac with younger work acquaintances. Even then there is a feeling of estrangement which the river eventually overcomes. "I'm quietly enjoying the serenity of God's love" which seems most apparent in nature.

The world intervenes, including depression and an addiction to food that seem to undo him (comfort him?) at every turn. In "True Love Is Served On A Plate," his soul touches the soul of the woman he loves ("I release my life's luggage as if I have finally come home from a long trip") yet something goes wrong. Later, alone at home, "my addiction gives me a hug as I pull some pizza from the refrigerator and eat it cold" to "fill the holes in my heart and soul."

After the death of the writer's beloved cockapoodle, Smokey, detailed in Henson's first book, "Reflections And Dark Truths," a "young white poodle, Gabie," tries to fill the void, with only some success. There's another dog, Fazio, in "Goodbye To You," in which the narrator is homeless. There's mention of a slide presentation gone bad, a stay in a mental hospital, and a piece of paper that says "I want to be a better person."

The book provides acute observations about recovery, burning bridges, grief. 

Yet a passion emerges to change a wrongheaded view of nature expressed in "Hole In The Sky": "Instead of having the characteristics of a caretaker, many of us believe that the earth has been bestowed upon us to do as we see fit." 

Here is a fight, unseasonable at times, worthy of a man's energy.


Thursday, July 04, 2019

"Medicine Wheel: The Evolution Of Consciousness"



Chicoan Robert W. Hart was twelve years old when he experienced what he now calls "a spontaneous transcendent moment," a "moment of perfect vision" in Buddhist terms, that changed his life. 

"Medicine Wheel: The Evolution Of Consciousness" ($25 in paperback from BookBaby, available on Amazon.com; also for Apple Books) is about the meaning of that "unfiltered sensation" of the "reality of Oneness."

The book, based on Hart's website (rwhmedicinewheel.com), begins with an explanation of the Medicine Wheel, adapted in part from Native American spirituality, which acts as a kind of "map" for the inward journey of breaking through the illusion of separateness, toward the discovery that "no one's home" (that is, there is no "I"). 

South on the wheel indicates our current desires for material things, "consuming the planet and destroying ecosystems in this search for the next pleasurable moment." It all leads to suffering. To the West on the wheel, we ask who we are as humans as we search for "new perspectives." In the North we begin to "connect the dots." Finally, in the East, "separateness is still experienced because you are still in a body but there is no reality to it. ... This world no longer has any hold on you. ..." 

The second section is autobiographical, noting the author's use of LSD in college and, later, psilocybin mushrooms, which bring him something of the experience he had at twelve (others may not need "entheogens," psycho-active drugs, to achieve higher consciousness). 

His relationships with others, women especially, seem to flounder as he journeys inward, surrendering to this new consciousness, "a reality where all things are connected to and determined by all other things" so that "the idea of imperfect or mistaken or wrong has no meaning. Everything," he adds, "is simply unfolding in the only way it can unfold."

The book concludes with short pieces, including poems, reading recommendations, and reflections on spiders, witches, and more, in the service of being a "torch bearer" for others. Institutional Christianity is his bĂȘte noire ("male-dominated Christian culture" has created a "delusional world view") and the reader must decide whether this judgment is consistent with the reality the author describes.