Sunday, April 26, 2015

The straight poop


Chicoan Jan Condon is a semi-retired occupational therapist. Teaming with illustrator Chris Ficken, a designer at Chico State University, Condon turned her interest in wellness into an engaging children’s book that makes the mechanics of digestion easy to swallow.

“Stella’s Adventures In The Incredible BioTerrain” ($12 in paperback, self-published; available from Made In Chico, Rusty Wagon in Orland, Patrick’s Ranch in Durham, and begins with young Stella telling her mother she feels “kind of funny in the stomach,” maybe the result of anxiety over not yet having a school science project. Then she falls asleep, and that’s when the fun begins.

Stella dreams that “she just climbed into her mouth--and swallowed herself,” eventually landing in her stomach, only to be greeted by Emily Enzyme. “My job,” she tells Stella, “is to change food in your mouth to be more digestible.” There’s even a little song: “I’m a Fast Movin’ Mama and I get my kicks / Breaking food into Nutrients quicker than quick.”

On into the small intestine to meet Abby Acidophilus. “There are billions of us,” Abby says, “all sticking to the waving villa that are the little hills inside the intestinal wall.” Or, putting it another way: “I’m Abby Acidophilus digesting your food / We hula in the villi to make things good; / The more we are, the better for you and us, / We hula food down to Benny Bifidus.”

Benny, Abby says, “lives in the large intestine, or colon--that’s the last stop for your digested food before, well, before it hits the toilet. That’s why we call him The King of Poo.” (Cue Stella to put on rubber boots.)

Benny the bacteria and his “marvelous crew” wheelbarrow out the stinky stuff. Off to the side is Stanley the Stem Cell, on patrol. “Is anything wrong?? (I hope, I hope!)” “Gosh no, Stanley,” says Emily, “Stella swallowed herself to come down here to see what happens to the food she eats. We’re giving her the Grand Tour.”

When Stella wakes, she realizes her body “is a miraculous world. ... What a perfect science report for my class project.” And that’s the straight poop.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

WordSpring conference at Butte College


The fourth annual WordSpring creative writing conference ( will be held Saturday, April 25 at Butte College, featuring workshops in fiction writing, poetry and more throughout the day. Admission at the door is $40 for students, $70 general; there’s a reception at 7:30 p.m. April 24 at 1078 Gallery in Chico with Pam Houston reading from her fiction ($2 suggested donation).

One of the workshop leaders is Butte College English instructor Finn Kraemer, who, he writes in the third person, “is a citizen of both the United States and Ireland, and has lived in the African bush, an Irish coastal village, small town America, the Saudi desert, and downtown Los Angeles. All the wisdom Finn has gained in his life can be summed up in five two-word phrases which he will not share here.”

Kraemer plays with silences, with things not said, in his new collection of fifteen short stories, six of which were previously published in literary journals. “Wounds, And Their Making” ($15 in paperback from at situates the reader in mostly everyday worlds, the outlines of which are only lightly drawn. The inner life of his characters is what captures the writer’s imagination.

Stories in the first half of the book seem to demand explanations, names, words that are never quite provided.

In “Joseph Paul Thane,” a ten-year-old boy with that name meets a dying man named Joseph Paul Thane. In “Sarah,” Sarah Mae Rifton in ICU had smiled but “she wasn’t smiling at me. What had she seen that would make her smile like that?” “In My Father’s Silence” “the cabin held an old quietness, three makeshift rooms pieced together with rusty nails, rawhide, and dirt. ... The wind came in cold whistles through the gaps in the walls and the floorboards creaked as if tortured. ...”

Later stories are more hopeful, many structured by Biblical texts. “Regarding Michael,” “Father Donovan smiled down at Sean, and touched his head. ‘Aye, Sean,’ he said. ‘Your Da spoke well. It’s a right proper miracle.”

All in all, a good word with which to break the silence.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Chicoan’s memoir focuses on politics


Robert M. (Bob) Jackson has made Chico his home for over four decades. Retired as a Professor of Political Science, he served as Dean of the School of Graduate, International and Sponsored Programs at Chico State University. Now, he’s turned his life story into a series of reflections on war and peace, poverty, privilege, polio, and political science (he calls it “Polly Sigh”), and the mystery of life.

“Wherever I Go...: A War Baby’s Tales” ($9.95 in paperback from CreateSpace; also for Amazon Kindle) begins with Jackson’s birth on November 6, 1944 “in the midst of the deadliest war in history.”

“Rather than cheating or fighting, for which I’ve never had any talent,” Jackson writes, “it was my mouth that got me in trouble.” The chapters of his book, which include family photographs, provide the reader with the sometimes salty observations on Jackson’s travels around the globe and his exploration of the inner life.

In 1952 his two brothers were struck with polio as was his father, who was later also plagued by a series of heart attacks. Recent generations know little of the polio scares back then. “I learned early in life that fear of the unknown can cause individuals and even neighborhoods to behave in selfish and even cruel ways.” Others reached out to help. “This generosity of spirit ... transcends the color of one’s skin.”

He worked at a steel mill in the mid-60s and got a taste of the civil rights movement and later worked for the election of Eugene McCarthy on an anti-war platform. “This war baby concluded that if humanity’s self-destruction is to be avoided, it is not new institutions that are needed. Rather, it is a profound shift in human consciousness.”

“So,” he asks at one point, “what is it that I know? ... I understand and accept that along with Divine Spirit, I am the co-creator of my life experience, for I am responsible for my attitude and actions. There is nothing outside that I need to have in order to ‘fix’ me.”

Controversial and outspoken, this is Bob Jackson. Wherever he went--there he was.

Sunday, April 05, 2015

Good news


Imagine ancient Rome more than two millennia ago during civil war, and the word that came to Octavian’s followers. “‘Good news! Octavian Caesar has won a great victory!’ This is good news about something that has just happened.”

Rome “was poised between the news about something that had happened--his decisive victory--and the expectation of something that would soon happen, namely his return in triumph. That is what news does: it creates a new period of time. ... And your life, right now, would be different as a result. Something has happened; something therefore will happen. And the way things are right now is different as a result.”

For Biblical scholar N.T. Wright, the gospel, the Easter story, is, infinitely more powerfully, “Simply Good News” ($24.99 in hardcover from HarperOne; also for Amazon Kindle). Subtitled “Why The Gospel Is News And What Makes It Good,” the book notes that “The good news that Jesus announced, like the good news that his first followers announced about him, was not a piece of advice, however good. It was about something that had happened, about something that would happen as a result, and about the new moment between those two, the moment in which people were in fact living, whether they realized it or not.”

What is this news? “That the one true God has now taken charge of the world, in and through Jesus and his death and resurrection. The ancient hopes have indeed been fulfilled, but in a way nobody imagined. ... Life has come to life and is pouring out like a mighty river into the world, in the form of a new power, the power of love. ... One day it will happen, completely and utterly, to all creation; and we humans, every single one of us, whoever we are, can be caught up in that transformation here and now. This is the Christian gospel.”

Though Wright deals with the distortions of the Easter message grown up over the centuries, outside the church and within, ultimately his insightful and compelling account is a humbling story about the God who humbled himself to give us all the best news possible.