The Pastor's Kids

The Pastor's Kids

Monday, September 8, 2014


Buffy St. Marie
The great writing of my generation does not always appear in novels or poems. It’s mostly been spent on songs, which, in performance or recorded, had a lot more audience. The great opening out of American culture in the 1960’s and 1970’s absorbed amazing lyricists. Especially if you count the Canadians among them! It is hard to write about the music of this time in a short blog post, but also impossible not to mention how much we lived, and learned, from the messages in songs.

Civil rights marches and the protests against the Vietnam war were powered by song. I’ve read how the Brown Chapel in Selma, Alabama, starting point for all of the civil rights marches out of Selma, reverberated with songs and spirituals. All of the marches I was on began and ended with speakers and singers. A friend of mine was in love with Phil Ochs, whose songs were very much to the point at the time.

I bought a cheap record player to be able to buy and listen to albums. Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell albums were the first two, and after playing them over and over, I knew the songs by heart. This became a pattern. I didn’t listen to the radio or buy pop singles. I bought the albums of songwriters for whom the lyrics were as important as the music. That doesn’t mean I didn’t love a good rocking beat. I remember how we danced! But the albums I knew best were about the words.

Bob Dylan and John Lennon were perhaps the most influential songwriters. We had The White Album and George Harrison’s triple album All Things Must Pass.  We waited for Dylan’s albums: Nashville Skyline and Blood on the Tracks. I loved Kris Kristofferson, for both his writing and his acting. He wrote some of the anthems of our lives, such as “Me and Bobby McGee.” I knew all of the songs on Music for Big Pink, many written by Robbie Robertson. The title of my current book, Pulled Into Nazareth, comes from one of his songs.

Kris Kristofferson
Buffy St. Marie’s voice and her lyrics as well were mesmerizing. They are still wonderful. Joni Mitchell’s lyrics grew tiresome pretty early for me, and Carole King was way too poppy. Carly Simon was everywhere, and therefore uninteresting, though I got to love some of her work later. We all hoped for a lot from Phoebe Snow, but we only got one album. Linda Ronstadt covered Kate and Anna McGarrigle’s wonderful songs, though I didn’t know them until later either.

I resonated to the words of John Prine and John David Souther, as sung by Linda Ronstadt. Sad songs like “Angel from Montgomery” and “Silver Blue.” But also I loved Boz Scaggs, who was from our town (San Francisco) and wrote his own unique music. I had Moments and Silk Degrees, his best selling albums. I cut photos of him dancing out of The Rolling Stone and taped them to the walls of my office! I also loved Ray Charles, who was a little older, but actively writing and performing during this period.

By this time I wasn’t in much control of the stereo. These were the days that, unless you put on headphones and shut everyone else out, everyone in the house (and maybe the apartments above and below you!) listened to the same music. I loved Bob Marley, but only got to know him thoroughly later. Same with Randy Newman and Jackson Browne, whose work I find amazing. These are only a few of the many wonderful songwriters whose lyrics and music soared through our lives.

Recently, Neil McCormick wrote of a 2010 performance by Kris Kristofferson at Cadogan Hall: “At 74, standing tall and straight at the centre of an otherwise empty stage, he held a London audience completely spellbound by the magical power of an open spirit and truly great songs … Now that Cash, his first public champion, has passed away, Kristofferson provides a rare link to an old idea of a mythic, honourable America. His English audience responded with generosity and respect.”

My character Paul is a reasonably good folk guitarist. He is often made welcome because of it and the number of songs that he knows. I can’t help but quote some of these songs in the stories I am writing, and I hope that the songwriters will be happy with my declaration of “fair use” as commentary and criticism, as noted in copyright law. Their great work united us and expressed what we were thinking. Literature may have been the poorer, but public life was enriched.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Molly Hootch Ruling

Public education in Alaska took a radical turn in the mid 1970’s. Previous to this time, kids who wanted a high school education, and even some younger kids, could only get it at large boarding schools. High school was not available in the villages strung out across Alaska. Kids were sent far from home to schools run by the Board of Indian Affairs or to schools in the larger cities. Kids from different native Indian, Eskimo and Aleut cultures were mixed together and speaking their native languages was forbidden.

My aunt Helen Frost established a Lutheran Center for native students attending the Mt. Edgecumbe School, a boarding school run by the BIA in 1955. She especially worked with the students who came from the towns where she had been a missionary: Igloo, Teller, Shishmaref and Nome. “They were far from their home villages and enjoyed having someone they knew to visit and worship with on Sundays,” she writes in Frost Among the Eskimos, a memoir of her time in Alaska from 1926 to 1961. This boarding school still exists and is known for its science programs.

It was very difficult for young kids to leave home, but also for the villages to say goodbye to their children during the school year. Debby Dahl Edwardson chronicles the experiences of her husband in boarding school in My Name Is Not Easy. One of her husband’s siblings was sent to school in Oklahoma without the knowledge of their parents. One was killed when, desperately homesick, he left for home in bad weather and was lost in a small plane crash. The kids learned to stick together during their difficulties, and, according to Edwardson, became the generation which created the Alaskan Federation of Natives. This organization, still a powerful force in Alaskan politics, originally worked on negotiation and implementation of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, passed in 1971.

In 1974, a class-action suit, charging discriminatory practice on the part of the state, was filed on behalf of rural secondary-aged students, for not providing local high school facilities for predominantly native communities when it did for same-size, predominantly non-native, communities. The suit became known by the name of Molly Hootch, a Yup’ik Eskimo student from Emmonak whose family was among those filing. Molly was no longer in school by the time the suit was settled out of court in 1976, with the Tobeluk Consent Decree. It declared the state would establish a high school in every community where there was an elementary school, unless the community declined the program.

The settlement fell at a time when social, political and economic factors were favorable to the success of the program. Alaskan native peoples were becoming more involved in political and social aspects of their lives and Alaska was suddenly wealthy due to pipeline revenues from the oil discovered at Prudhoe Bay. Schools built in small villages across the state quickly became community centers.

As Nick Jans describes in The Last Light Breaking, a record of his years teaching in Ambler, these schools faced enormous challenges. One unexpected result was the prevalence of basketball! Ambler residents “specified that a gym was first on the list, and they got what they asked for: a basketball floor with cramped classrooms tacked on as an apparent afterthought.” Cultural renaissance also came about, with locally-controlled school districts mandating that local language and culture be taught to every child.

Paul sees all of these changes. When he begins teaching at Lathrop High School in Fairbanks, he is especially sensitive to the Eskimo and Indian kids who are boarders, sometimes treated like servants in the houses where they live. During pipeline construction, double shifts are instituted to accommodate all the students. Paul assists in building local schools during the summers after the Molly Hootch agreement is put into effect. In 1976, he moves to the burgeoning West Valley High School out near the university when it opens, behind schedule and with 250 more students than it was built for. Fairbanks is the city Paul hoped for, diverse, complex, but at the edge of a natural wilderness.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

On the Move

The 1970’s was the decade in which airline travel became normal for us. Aisf Siddiqi confirms this here, describing how advances in jet engine construction led to new social habits for the middle class: “students were now traveling to Europe for summers, and families were now vacationing in far-off places for a single weekend. By the 1970s, the convenience of jet travel made vast international cultural exchanges a norm.”

The United States is a very large place. Line, Marty and Paul, take up residence far from their parents in California and Alaska. Mother and Dad still have young children at home and do all of their vacationing at their cabin on a northern Minnesota lake. They hardly travel at all. But affordable airline travel allows Line, Marty and Paul to travel to Minnesota to visit every once in a while.

Travel set off all kinds of innovation in luggage and gear to make it possible. Researching questions such as “when did roller bags come into use?” or “when were baby backpacks first used?” reminded me that many of the things we now take for granted were new, or didn’t exist at the time I am writing about.

Ann Moore with her daughter
You could find the first Snugli in the 1970’s. It was patented by Ann Moore in 1969. She had noticed how peaceful babies carried on their mother’s backs were, in Togo where she was a Peace Corps volunteer. With her mother’s help, she crafted a backpack so she could “wear” her daughter and have her hands free. There was no advertisement. People just kept asking Ann, “where can I get one of those?” Ann sent the orders back to her mother in Ohio, who sewed them with the help of her friends. It was then featured in the Whole Earth Catalog, and became a cottage industry for the little town in Ohio where Ann grew up.

About the same time, Owen Maclaren, an aeronautical engineer, heard his daughter complaining about the difficulties of traveling with a baby carriage. Maclaren came up with the idea of a lightweight, safe stroller that could be folded up like an umbrella, getting a US patent for it in 1968. With a strong, aluminum frame the stroller weighed six pounds and took up very little space. Maclaren products, manufactured near Rugby, England, and exported everywhere, led the innovation in strollers that continued throughout the 1970s and 1980s.

You did not see many suitcases on wheels in the 1970s, much less the colorful little roller bags kids all have now. Bernard Sadow had trouble selling the idea when he first had it in 1970. Mr. Sadow was frequently told that men would not accept suitcases with wheels. “It was a very macho thing,” he said. He did begin to sell them, but big suitcases tipped and wobbled, pulled on a strap on their little wheels. In 1987 Robert Plath, a Northwest Airlines pilot, put two wheels and a long handle on his bag, calling it the Rollaboard. He sold it to his fellow crew members. When travelers in airports saw flight attendants striding briskly through airports with their Rollaboards in tow, everyone wanted one.

I’ve taken airline travel pretty much for granted ever since I took an Icelandic flight from New York to London in 1966. The most hair-raising flight for me was on an ancient airplane upholstered with ruffled green cushions from Chengdu to Chongqing, China, in October, 1990. I didn’t find out what the vintage of the propeller-driven airplane was. It clanked and bumped down the runway, but it did have cabin pressure and cheerful uniformed stewardesses. My heart was in my mouth, as they say, but I reasoned with myself that all of the other perhaps 100 passengers expected to arrive safely, and indeed we did!

I’ve never been in an airline emergency, or even lost a suitcase in all these years. I suspect my experience of the airlines is common, though I travel a lot less these days. One’s suitcase, as it comes bumping out of the baggage handlers and around the moving belt, will always be a welcome sight! And, like the character in Love Actually, I find the meetings of friends and relations in airports forever thrilling.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Half Way Mark

This year’s book in the series about the Mikkelsons, Pulled Into Nazareth, was slow getting started. I was doing more research for the book, as some of it is set in places I’ve never been. And also, things just seemed to get in the way of writing. In May I started worrying. The previous year I had been much further ahead. Would I finish half the book by the end of June? I began to put writing first, and yesterday I uploaded chapter 14 to the location where my first readers can find it, reaching the half way mark.

As I walked through San Rafael yesterday I noticed that the majestic old jacaranda which grows in a street park near the reconstructed Mission was blooming. The mysterious, spicey scent of the blue trumpet-flowers opened up in the hot, sunny afternoon, but the thick branches made a heavy shade and under the tree fallen blue flowers carpeted the grass.

I haven’t lived with many jacarandas, so each has been special. The first was in North Oakland, in a residential neighborhood which I passed through each day on my way to work. I struggled with the name jacaranda, which was pronounced with the ‘j’ sounding more like an ‘h.’ Its origins are lost in time, but is believed to be from a Guarani (an indigenous language of South America) word meaning ‘fragrant’. I especially enjoyed the few weeks in early summer when it bloomed.

Toward the end of those years, I talked to the owner of the tree. She threatened to cut it down as its roots were upending the concrete sidewalk. She was older and had no money to pay for insurance claims. So sad, I thought. Then I worked in Los Angeles for a few weeks in spring and found little ornamental forests of jacarandas on the plaza levels above the downtown streets.

Place is so important to all of us. Jacarandas don’t grow everywhere. Here the coastal morning fog cools us each night and clear, bright days are leaving us a very dry summer. But we are listening to the predictions of an El Niño which scientists perceive developing off the Pacific coast and hopeful that winter rains will alleviate our drought. I have long felt much more related to the rim of the Pacific than to Europe. Does this affect my writing, I ask myself.

When a Japanese-born friend tells me she is reading a lot of the Shishōsetsu, or I-novels written in Japanese, I research these and find that they are a particular genre in which writers used the events of their own lives for their subjects. Beginning in the early 20th century, the writers wished to portray a realistic view of the world involving real experiences, often showing the darker side of society. Except for the realism involved, this did not sound like my work.

But then I found that Gish Jen, a contemporary American-born Chinese writer, has written a book entitled Tiger Writing, about the “profound difference in self-narration that underlies the gap often perceived between East and West.” She believes that the novel is essentially a Western form that values originality, authenticity and the truth of individual experience, while Eastern narrative emphasizes morality, cultural continuity, the everyday, the recurrent.

I’ve had trouble thinking of the stories about the Mikkelson kids as a series of novels, though by some definitions, the novel is such a big envelope it can contain almost any kind of fiction. My work is certainly about “cultural continuity, the everyday, the recurrent.” It’s about family and how our personal and public lives interact, with emphasis on the private aspects. In the end, of course, I am not the one to say what the books become. I must just write them and hope that they eventually find their audience.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Alan Chadwick

Alan Chadwick
The University of California at Santa Cruz opened in 1965. It had a number of experimental ideas, including pass/fail grades, residential colleges, and the innovative cross-disciplinary history of consciousness program. For Paul Lee, however, the university’s first few years, before it hardened into a research institution, were crystallized by the presence of Alan Chadwick and the gardens he made there. Lee taught philosophy and religious studies at Crown College until he was denied tenure. Lee had the idea that a student garden on the beautiful, open campus would be a good addition to interdisciplinary study. Within weeks of a walk Lee organized to look for a possible garden site, Alan Chadwick turned up.

Alan Chadwick had been a British naval officer and a Shakespearean actor but it was as a master gardener for the many gardens he began up and down the coast of California that he made his mark. He used a French intensive biodynamic gardening system which has its roots in Rudolf Steiner and Goethe. When Lee asked whether Chadwick would make a garden for the university, Chadwick went out, bought a spade and started digging without any discussion of contracts, salary or where it should be done!

Chadwick hated industrial farming and gardening, the tractors which had compacted the soil and the profit motive that set them in motion. He preached biological diversity instead of mono-cropping and used companion planting and other techniques to guard against pests. His theme was working with nature, learning its rhythms and mysteries. He was as Paul Lee writes, “the Pied Piper of the reaffirmation of the integrity of organic nature and its carefree abundance, and the lifestyle that went with it.”

Photo copyright by Gregory Haynes
As a person, Chadwick was flamboyant and imperious. Students who became his apprentices never forgot him. Beth Benjamin writes: “He had flaming temper tantrums, told tales, gave us dinner parties, fed us with his own bread and ham and cheese, threw dirt clods at us and laughed as he hid behind the compost piles. He taught us the joy of work, the discipline to persevere in order to make a dream come true, even when we were hot and tired, and the deliciousness of resting and drinking tea after such monumental labors.”

The high point of Chadwick’s residence at Santa Cruz was a series of lectures he gave which had the quality of a revivalist meeting. Chadwick called people back to their own nature and the nature around them, which, he pointed out, was under radical attack. But after about five years of working on the gardens, Chadwick was finished at the university. Paul Lee was told by a colleague, “do you know that [Chadwick’s] garden has done more to ruin the cause of science on this campus than anything else?” Chadwick packed his bags and went on to Saratoga and Green Gulch.

This story and much more is told in Paul Lee’s rambling book, There Is a Garden in the Mind. His insistence that the California organic movement began at UC Santa Cruz with Alan Chadwick is further described on his website. Peter Jorris and Greg Haynes have put together a rich website including many video memories of his dynamic personality and teaching at Alan Chadwick also appears in Wendy Johnson’s book Gardening at the Dragon’s Gate, in which she describes Chadwick’s contributions to the gardens at Green Gulch Zen Center just north of the Golden Gate. Chadwick died at Green Gulch in 1980.

For the purposes of my current novel, Pulled Into Nazareth, Chadwick impacts Line’s story when she and her husband move to Santa Cruz. Stephen is getting his doctorate in history and Line, though she has a small child in tow, works in the Chadwick garden before Chadwick leaves in 1972. Line is, of course, part of the choir. Alan has no need to preach to her! I first learned about Chadwick from my sister Solveig, a natural gardener who now does her gardening and birding in Yorkshire, England.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Birth Center

My character Line has been interested in the birth process since her earliest days in high school when a friend allows her to be present when his sow farrows. Even then, she is impressed with the transcendent atmosphere in the barn where her friend has spent the night with the newborn pigs and their mother.

Women in the 1970’s were exploring all kinds of ways to take back power they felt they had abdicated. By this time Line has moved to Santa Cruz where her husband is getting a doctorate in history at the University of California. Of course, when she is pregnant, she finds the Santa Cruz Birth Center that Raven Lang and other courageous women began.

Raven Lang's Birth Book, 1972
Raven Lang was unhappy with birth as she experienced it at Stanford Hospital. In Raven’s case, the delivery room was “urgently needed,” so her doctor enlarged the episiotomy he had already done and in his haste cut through her anal sphincter. When she left the hospital she could not straighten up to walk or carry her own baby. She knew something had gone terribly wrong, though no one would tell her what. She questioned all hospital practices related to pregnancy, labor and delivery.

Raven began to provide classes in natural childbirth and attend local home births. Public health nurses pressured Raven to find out whether she was certified to teach as she did. She gathered together other women she knew who were teaching childbirth preparation and attending home births as midwives. They began to meet and share their education and experiences. They started the Birth Center which was entirely supported by the Santa Cruz community. They kept statistics on all of the births they monitored. Eventually they shared medical knowledge with others up and down the coast, becoming a kind of irregular school, and then the California Association of Midwives.

In March, 1974, Linda Bennett and Jeanine Walker were requested to assist in a home birth. They were entrapped by undercover agents (one of them pregnant) who confiscated their kit of birth tools, arrested both women and drove them to jail. At the same time officials from the DA’s office, the sheriff’s office, the state police converged on the Birth Center. Raven and Kate Coleman inside the center alerted radio stations and newspapers. Instead of violating laws about practicing without licenses, the women at the Birth Center believed the real issue was one of human rights.

This story is told in Immaculate Deception, by Suzanne Arms. I got the 1975 version from the library, because I am working with a 1970’s point of view. In this first version of the book, Suzanne, who also had a bad birthing experience in a hospital, does not mince words! “I realized an entire system of medical procedures and interferences had been established to treat normal birth as a risky, dangerous, painful and abnormal process in which pregnant women have no choice other than to submit graciously.”

As a result of women questioning the over-technologized procedures of hospital births and obstetricians’ care, birth practices began to change. When my sister gave birth in the mid 1980’s, she chose one of two midwives practicing in San Francisco. They assisted her in the natural process in birthing rooms provided at Mount Zion Hospital in San Francisco. Her husband was in attendance and her new baby was not taken away from her.

Birthing is a cultural, as well as a deeply personal event and there is now a wide array of choices. But it does sound as if many women are again trusting birth to technology. In 2011 the national percentage of cesarean sections was 32.8%. Dr. Martin Blaser in Missing Microbes questions whether babies who don’t come down the birth canal are getting the immunities they need. I doubt I need to tell you where my character Line’s proclivities lie.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Scandia Bakery

Vivian and Marian Brown
Looking back at the 1970’s in San Francisco, the Scandia Bakery on Powell Street looms large for me. Crowded with small tables which threw its patrons into amenable groups, it served good coffee and an array of delectable pastries and cakes. Most weeks, if I went down town at all, I stopped in at the Scandia. My sisters and I used it as a meeting place, and on one magic occasion, I arrived to find my mother, who had not been in San Francisco in my memory, calmly sitting at one of the little tables.

A Swedish baker and his family owned the coffee shop. (Try as I might, I cannot find any reference to their name on the web.) While you sat drinking coffee, you might hear the pounding and rolling of dough on the balcony above you and smell the sweet and yeasty smells wafting out of the oven. The baker was grey-haired, older; his wife was behind the counter most of the time. Once I arrived to find their daughter, dark-haired and vivacious, holding court over a circle of admirers who filled up the tables in front. Dark-complected Eastern Europeans, they looked incredibly full of life to me.

I had a hard time choosing between my two favorite pastries, a cherry or a prune Danish, lightly glazed with sugar icing. The dough for Danish is similar to puff paste, rolled, folded and interleaved with butter. Making it is hard, heroic work. I didn’t try to make it myself more than once. I understand it comes from Austria, though it became wildly popular in Scandinavia. Wonderful Princess cakes of vanilla sponge, jam, and cream topped with a pale green marzipan frosting, and other cakes and puffs filled with pastry cream, as well as cookies were also served at Scandia.

The place was always full of exotic people. European tourists found it quickly. I loved listening to the many different languages at every crowded table. But there were also the regulars. I remember a well-dressed older woman, in hat and gloves, who I often saw there, or the concierge of a nearby hotel whom I talked to several times. I often saw Marian and Vivian Brown, the San Francisco twins, dressed to the nines and happily talking to people around them.

Tame as it sounds, I have a lot of wild associations with this bakery, partly because it was on Powell Street. The rows of sycamores at the base of the street cast light and shade on fair and foul alike, making it look like a European avenue. Those of us who lived in the city were not deceived, however! The street was just north of the Tenderloin, where many of the city’s most unfortunate lived. On Powell Street in the 1970’s you might walk past a derelict person lying face down in the street or see a wasted person who no longer cared that their rags barely covered them.

Because it is here that the cable car drivers push the cars onto a turntable, then turn them around and catch the cable under the street north, long lines of tourists waiting to go to Fishermans’ Wharf attract street musicians and entertainers. An indelible image for me was a thin, long-legged girl wearing woodsy material dancing in the center of a ruffian gypsy band. Tall dark men with long unkempt hair, brown faces and sinewy limbs, wearing ragged accretions of leather and cloth surrounded her. Wild, enchanted, gypsy fiddles made the music. The girl whirled as though possessed with a joy unequaled in the civilized city. They looked as though they had wandered out of a fairy tale.

Beside the bakery was a bookstore, a deep room infinitely filled with shelves and tables graced with books and stationery. I spent long hours there, sifting through the art books, hunting down new writers and decrying the fact that my favorites weren’t in print. The city changes constantly, but for my first years there a few blocks surrounding the Scandia Bakery was its cultural center.