Book report: A kindness to those you leave behind

518O8BPzqEL._SY346_“A loved one wishes to inherit nice things from you. Not all things from you.”

This is a dear little book that has been making the rounds among my friends and acquaintances of a certain vintage. Many of us have begun downsizing, distributing, and divesting. My husband and I did so when we moved to a smaller house three years ago. Margareta Magnusson gives gentle tips for making the process easier and more pleasant. Her reasons are simple.

“I have death cleaned so many times for others, I’ll be damned if someone else has to death clean after me.”

“Do not ever imagine that anyone will wish—or be able—to schedule time off to take care of what you didn’t bother to take care of yourself. No matter how much they love you, don’t leave this burden to them.”

She recommends not starting with photographs or papers. Start with furniture and clothing. And invest in a shredder.

“In general, when death cleaning, size really matters. Start with large items in your home and finish with the small.”

“Now that I am the oldest person in my family, if I don’t know the names of the people in the photos, nobody else in the family is likely to. More work for the shredder.”

The best bit of advice is to ask yourself, “Will anyone I know be happier if I save this? If after a moment of reflection I can honestly answer no, then it goes into the hungry shredder, always waiting for paper to chew.”

This is not a sad book. Much of what Magnusson suggests reminds me of the common sense and generosity my family–including my half-Swedish mother–practiced. Share what you have with those who need it. Let your old things start new lives and form new memories with a new family.  It is a gentle, sometimes humorous reminder that someone will have to deal with all our stuff one day. If we love them, we should make it as easy as possible. Recommend.

 

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Book Report: On the trail of those little shoes

41Bwc+dgsyL._SY346_First, let me just say that having Reno author Pamela Everett, an attorney with the Innocence Project and a UNR professor of criminal justice, meet with our book club was a wonderful privilege. She told us about the very personal journey that ended with the publication of Little Shoes.

In 1937–long before most of us were born–in Inglewood, California three little girls were raped and murdered. Albert Dyer, a mentally challenged crossing guard, was arrested and confessed. He was quickly tried and executed. End of story.

Years later, teenaged Everett learns of her family’s connection to the story. Two of the three victims were her father’s younger sisters. Her aunts.

“Maybe that’s why he was so terribly strict. Maybe he saw his parents assume the best about people and he would spend his life assuming the worst, never for a minute risking his children to dangers, hidden or otherwise.”

“Thinking of their forgotten lives, something changed for me, something in my relationship to these girls who were my aunts, my dad’s little sisters. It was just so tragic, to have died as they did and then to be buried away—literally—as if they never lived at all. They’d been alone so long.”

Those little girls stayed with Everett and she began asking questions of surviving relatives and former neighbors of her grandparents. As if nudged by something unseen, she dug into court records, newspaper accounts, state archives. With each little piece of information, something kept pricking her conscience. Could they have gotten the wrong man?

We learn that reporters in 1937 were just as invasive and aggressive as today’s tabloid and cable reporters. The horror of the killer crossing guard soon became front-page news across the country. And although eyewitnesses were plentiful, they were and are quite unreliable.

“Eyewitness misidentifications have led to 75 percent of the wrongful convictions overturned by DNA evidence in our country, and many of those mistakes happen early in the process when police are desperately seeking a suspect…”

These were the days before Miranda rights and police interrogated Dyer for ten hours—without an attorney present. Dyer alternately confessed and denied his guilt. His confessions—while inconsistent– weighed more heavily and the police stopped pursuing any other suspects, even as witnesses came forward to say that Dyer was not who they saw with the girls.

During Albert Dyer’s incarceration it was determined he had an IQ of 60. He was essentially a nine-year-old boy, which goes a long way to explain why his confession might not really have been a confession.

“Confessions are the most powerful evidence in any courtroom, and jurors—indeed, most of us—cannot comprehend how someone can confess to something they didn’t do… In some cases, confessions will overcome overwhelming evidence of innocence such as eyewitness identification and forensic evidence, even DNA… Yet more than a quarter of the documented wrongful convictions overturned by DNA evidence in the United States have involved false confessions…”

In this case, the transcripts of the session reveal the interrogator telling the story of what happened and Dyer merely agreeing, “Yes, sir.” And with a riotous mob outside the jail and the pressure on police to bring a killer to justice, it wouldn’t be hard for police to convince their mentally challenged suspect that he was going to die—sooner or later.

Everett found holes in the prosecution’s case. She “couldn’t find testimony about the physical evidence that should have been admitted in this case… There was nothing? …no testimony whatsoever about the fingerprints or blood from Dyer’s clothing, nothing connecting Dyer to the knife or the ropes the prosecution introduced.” Furthermore, what forensic evidence was available was contaminated almost from the beginning. “…one of the more unbelievable case photos shows several investigators handling barehanded the tiny nooses and the girls’ clothes, with one of them even smoking a cigar over the pile of evidence.”

Everett manages to balance the horrific nature of the crime, the investigation by police, and the trial of Albert Dyer with the long-lasting impact it had on her family. So yes, there is some really bad stuff here, but just enough. And for someone like me, who never reads True Crime, I appreciated not spending any more time on the brutality than necessary. I was also grateful that the photos of the girls were ones while they were alive.

Certainly, suspects have more rights today and police procedures have improved. While Everett continues to question wrongful convictions, she recognizes the dangers.

“… we open old wounds, forcing victims and families to relive everything, and in many cases to fear the release of someone they believe is guilty… No matter how painful, we should share these histories so victims are not lost and so future generations can know all that came before them and what molded their parents, grandparents and others.”

Little Shoes offers much to contemplate the next time a crime is sensationalized in the headlines and we all jump to judgment. Recommend.

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Reno author, Pamela Everett

Book Report: Another political wife who stood by her man

51tPdMoM89L._AC_US218_My Dear Hamilton: A Novel of Eliza Schuyler Hamilton

Stephanie Dray & Laura Kamoie

For months the Hamilton soundtrack quickened my step on long walks in the neighborhood. Then there were the months I slowly slogged through Ron Chernow’s tome. Still, I was left wanting to know more about Alexander Hamilton’s wife, Elizabeth. Living until she was ninety-seven years old, she made it her life’s mission not only to ensure that her husband’s many contributions to the United States be remembered, but also to provide for the care of hundreds of orphans. After all, Alexander Hamilton had been one.

“I was struck by the powerful conviction that God put us here to make a better world. And it is a conviction that has informed the rest of my life.”

hamilton_elizabeth-wife-feature.jpg__400x412_q85_crop_subsampling-2_upscaleThe Eliza we encounter in this well-researched historical fiction, is a reminiscent one. This mature Eliza (called Betsy by her family) already knows the betrayal and tragedy that is to come, as do most readers. But the authors work some sort of magic that both informs and compels us. Eliza’s loyalties and her longstanding mistrust or both Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr are perfectly clear, as is her intellect and diplomacy. Early on she adopted a “policy for the dinners that took place at my table: no man’s politics should be held against him, and all were welcome.”

 “Silence is often the only weapon available to ladies. And I wield mine expertly.”

The Revolution

My Dear Hamilton provides insight into the monumental struggles of the Revolutionary War. Eliza and other officers’ wives, including Martha Washington, aided the troops by knitting socks and serving as nurses. After all, their lives were at risk as well.

“Inside the church, officers lay upon church pews, but the rank and file rested on naught but piles of straw. Nurses moved amongst the groaning mass of patients, combing hair for lice, and dousing everything with vinegar as a purifier.”

“Win, and nothing would ever be the same. Lose and, well, my husband, my father, my family, my friends—we stood to lose everything.”

The battles continued

Even winning the war didn’t bring peace. Yes, there were battles over the writing of the Constitution, but imagine rubbing elbows and doing business with those who had been on the other side.

“No royalists should not be suffered to live amongst patriots…. how easily any man could lay claim to the title Son of Liberty now that the war, and the danger of being hanged for it, had passed.”

“…angry, unpaid soldiers seized the city arsenals and held my husband, Jemmy Madison, and the rest of Congress at bayonet point in a standoff. After that Congress became a runaway government, fleeing to Pennsylvania, to New Jersey, then Annapolis.”

And then there were the personal battles

A woman whose husband is unfaithful is often judged more harshly than the man himself. Eliza and her contemporaries expected a wife to make her husband happy and to give him children. She knew  “…how society looked upon a wife who wasn’t enough to satisfy her husband. Not enough. Not enough. Not enough.”

 “For I was a wife who’d failed to inspire fidelity. And yet, my fidelity to him was now also to be counted against my virtue. I could neither leave my husband nor love him without offending someone.”

Modern, political, and very public infidelities remind us that not much has changed.  For the most part it seems, Eliza followed her father’s advice when she discovered Hamilton’s affair.

“And, as you will find is so often the case in life, …the only prudent thing to do was frown, make them humble, and forgive.”

imagesEliza Schuyler Hamilton’s intelligence and contributions to her husband’s career–as well as her pain and prejudices–come alive brilliantly in this retelling. It also serves as a reminder of just how brutal American politics has always been, even at its inception. The founding fathers and mothers were all too human.

 

 

Book report: The “good old days” weren’t all that great for women

51Ja3naWT8L._SY346_Frequently we hear folks of a certain age bemoaning progress and the passage of time. They wish for bygone days when life was simpler. Not me. Especially after reading  Call the Midwife: A Memoir of Birth, Joy, and Hard Times  by Jennifer Worth.

The author first gives us a little history of maternal healthcare before 1948 and the advent of Britain’s National Health Service.

“It is hard to imagine today that until the last century no woman had any specialist obstetric care during pregnancy. The first time a woman would see a doctor or midwife was when she went into labour. Therefore, death and disaster, either for mother or child, or both, were commonplace. Such tragedies were looked upon as the will of God, whereas, in fact, they were the inevitable result of neglect and ignorance.”

“In the mid-nineteenth century, maternal mortality amongst the poorest classes was around 35-40 percent, and infant mortality was around 60 percent. Anything like eclampsia, hemorrhage, or mal-presentation, would mean the inevitable death of the mother.”

Worth graphically describes— in sometimes intimate and cringe-worthy detail—the conditions and very real life and death struggles of the residents of the London Docklands just after WWII.

“Children were everywhere, and the streets were their playgrounds. In the 1950s there were no cars in the back streets, because no one had a car.”

Many of those children were born into two-room tenements without a toilet–or even running water–where four or more other children were already present. Some lived in ruined buildings left standing after the Blitz. Domestic violence and mental illness were common and mostly untreated. A girl “in trouble” was ostracized and–after surrendering her child for adoption–was many times forced into a life of prostitution. And while races bumped into one another frequently and companionably in the streets and at work, a mixed-race baby was unthinkable.

Those were the “good old days.”

What difference did reliable birth control make?

“The Pill was introduced in the early 1960s and modern woman was born. Women were no longer to be tied to the cycle of endless babies… Women could, for the first time in history, be like men, and enjoy sex for its own sake. In the late 1950s, we had eighty to a hundred deliveries a month on our books. In 1963 the number had dropped to four or five a month. Now that is some social change!”

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Fans of the television series, Call the Midwife, will enjoy becoming acquainted with the real-life Jenny, Trixie, Chummy, and Cynthia, as well as Sisters Julienne, Monica Joan, Evangelina, Bernadette. Dr. Turner and Fred are here as well.

But mostly this book is a reminder that things have gotten better. We know that access to affordable healthcare—especially birth control—matters. And to the most vulnerable women and children among us–the poor and the sick–it is a matter of survival.

De-cluttering my calendar

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Retiring certainly freed up my calendar but still, prioritizing my time and energy didn’t happen overnight. For a decade or more before I quit working, I tried to stop being the Girl Who Can’t Say No.” I whittled away at commitments—both personal and professional. It took practice. I learned to say, “Let me get back to you” rather than giving an automatic yes. I handed off leading roles on committees and politely begged off a few social engagements.

However, the first year after I retired, I still found myself over-committed to political and social causes close to my bleeding-heart. And I continued to write Opinion pieces for our local paper, The Nevada Appeal. I joined clubs and attended meetings, but I soon discovered that meetings were rarely productive. For many attendees these were simply social events that accomplished little. After a career in education, I’d attended enough meetings. And with a large circle of friends I’d cultivated over decades in the same small town, I didn’t need to socialize with strangers. Heck, on a trip to the local farmers market I could easily run into a dozen acquaintances.

My time is precious. I mean, who knows how much I have left? Obviously, some organizations and calendar items didn’t make the cut.

Nonetheless, I did become a Weight Watcher leader. My rationale was that since I needed meetings to maintain my weight, I might as well get paid to go. I led meetings for eight years until we moved 45 minutes away. When leading meetings felt too much like a job, I stopped. I also bagged food for needy kids and played in a monthly charity bunco game. The money went to a variety of causes worthy of my time and energy–animal welfare, sexual assault, domestic violence, hungry kids. Bunco was fun and included dessert. A win-win. However, when we moved away those items slipped off my calendar too, along with contributing my columns to the paper.

Now ten years into retirement, I’m just as busy as I ever was, but even choosier about what goes on the calendar. Today it’s yoga classes, writers’ groups, my book club, bus stop duty with my granddaughter a few times a week, and volunteering in her classroom. Writing (and re-writing that beast of a novel), reading, and putting my feet up every afternoon have become priorities.

As I said before, time is precious and finite. I’m trying to spend mine wisely.

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The purge continues

446f46a234421c92e49b6c1ab9ed8106The recycling bin was especially heavy this week after I went searching for space in a file cabinet in which to file a few hard-copies of drafts and other pieces related to my current writing project. How-tos on scene building, character development, querying, and the like were tumbling off my shelf in our office. What I discovered was an entire file drawer filled with outlines, overheads, and handouts for presentations I’d done as a literacy coordinator and teacher consultant for the Northern Nevada Writing Project. All neatly tabbed, sorted, and archived.  Mind you, I’ve been retired for over ten years and in that time, NO ONE has asked me to present. No one.

Yes, I had spent hours developing this pile of stuff. And it was all good. Really. But it has nothing to do with my life now. And no, burdening some young teacher with my old stuff would only add to their work. And it didn’t contain the current buzz words—Common Core or Standards-Based—which would be necessary for inclusion in today’s classroom. So yes. It all went.

De-cluttering has become a habit.c3f2140c603c60236b1430916c26a455

Two and a half years ago, when we moved from our BIG house (basement, attic), to a medium house (no basement, no attic) we tossed or donated about half of our worldly goods. The purge continues. These days, I keep a bag in the sewing/model train room to collect small items as I continue to edit my collection of kitchen utensils, bras, shoes, picture frames, baking tins. jewelry, scarves, doodads, and what-nots. When the bag is full–at least once a month–I drop it off at the nearby donation center. This week my donation will include two large wooden, thirty-year-old dollhouses and tub of furnishings. My granddaughter–the reason I saved them in the first place–says she’s outgrown them.

Nonetheless, some things—like my grandmother’s 1910 Queen Anne sofa with its down cushions—are pretty and useful and comfortable. But I recognize that there will likely come a time and place when having that and her cute old Singer sewing machine (in its cabinet!) are simply too much. And the jam-packed curio cabinet and Hoosier with my collection of Depression glass and vintage snack trays? That will have to go too. But not yet. They still make me happy, although less so as time goes on.0c452eb429c85b90523f85f798b5ee00

You see, I don’t want to burden my children with too many of these “treasures.” What 30/40-ish person wants three cut glass relish dishes? Certainly no one I’m related to. So, I keep whittling away at my material wealth. Perhaps by the time I am ready to move into assisted living (or am taken to the big garage sale in the sky) there won’t be much left. My daughters won’t have to worry about what to do with all my crap. I won’t be cluttering up their homes. And I hereby absolve them from any guilt about what they must give away.2f87e90f263b08ca9bcafc7ac53f2b4e

Serendipitously, many of the meditations in my yoga classes lately have been about de-cluttering our lives and our minds to reveal what is essential, to find focus. I’m finding that particularly apt these days, not only in my physical environment, but in other aspects of my life. I’ll be focusing my posts on that for a while. Have you tried de-cluttering as a habit? What have you discovered?

 

 

Book report: What mental illness looks like from the inside

61a2pUIojSL._SY346_If you or someone you love is living with depression, anxiety, or any other mental illness, Furiously Happy: A Funny Book about Horrible Things is a must read. Jenny Lawson (aka The Bloggess) is seriously funny and honest about her struggles with mental illness. But rather than wallowing alone, she invites others in.

Why would anyone want to share what crazy feels like? Because by sharing her own struggles with mental illness Jenny has saved countless others who thought they were alone. Imagine how reassuring it is to read about pain that mirrors your own. “You too? I thought I was the only one.”

Jenny has chosen to be Furiously Happy.

 “We all get our share of tragedy or insanity or drama, but what we do with that horror is what makes all the difference.”

“I can’t think of another type of illness where the sufferer is made to feel guilty and question their self-care when their medications need to be changed.”

“’No one ever died from being sad.’ Except that they do. And when we see celebrities who fall victim to depression’s lies we think to ourselves, ‘How in the world could they have killed themselves? They had everything.’ But they didn’t. They didn’t have a cure for an illness that convinced them they were better off dead.”

“I remind myself that depression lies and that I can’t trust my own critical thinking when I’m sick.”

“I wish someone had told me this simple confusing truth: Even when everything’s going your way, you can still be sad. Or anxious. Or uncomfortably numb. Because you can’t always control your brain or your emotions even when things are perfect.”

Jenny mentions Christine Miserandino’s useful “Spoon Theory” as a way of explaining that dealing with chronic pain or illness—even though a person might not look sick—limits what a person can do. Each of us has only so many metaphorical spoons to spend on a given day. Dealing with pain or anxiety uses up a lot of your spoons. If you are ill you may not have enough spoons for a PTA meeting or even getting out of bed.  You try to save your spoons for what has to get done. You have to prioritize.

For those of us lucky enough not be be seeing crazy from the inside, this book helps us be a bit more compassionate to those who who are. And if you are on the inside, know this: you are not alone. Recommend.

Jenny Lawson“Jenny Lawson is a very strange girl who has friends in spite of herself. She is perpetually one cat away from being a crazy cat lady.”

 

 

 

 

Book report: If you could talk with the animals

9781250007810_p0_v3_s550x406The Elephant Whisperer

When South African conservationist Lawrence Anthony was asked to accept a small herd of traumatized elephants onto his private game reserve at Thula Thula in Zululand, his experience and common sense told him to refuse.  After all, a rogue elephant is a fearsome and dangerous creature. But Anthony possessed a gift that few of us have, a sort of sixth sense about what these distressed and distrustful animals needed and quickly went to work preparing to take them in.

Anthony’s goal was not to tame these rogue elephants. He wanted them to once again be wild and free, to live as they were intended. Not to trust humans—certainly not. They’d been betrayed by hunters and poachers—but to trust him. Only him.

He started slowly, very slowly, by merely observing them from a distance.

 “Previously traumatized wild elephants appeared to regain a degree of faith in new humans once the matriarch has established trust with just one new human. But it must be the matriarch.”

He cites evidence of the elephants’ profound intelligence. Early on they outsmarted the electrified fence by testing it and then downing trees to disable it. They also showed an uncanny ability to communicate over long distances–even with Anthony himself–by sensing when he would arrive home from a trip to greet him.

“Elephants transmit infra-sound vibrations through unique stomach rumblings that can be received over vast distances. These ultra-low frequencies, which cannot be detected by human ear, oscillate at similar wavelengths to those transmitted by whales; vibrations that some believe quaver across the globe.

Evolution is ruthless; anything not essential to survival withers on the gene-pool vine. Thus, it is only reasonable to postulate that elephants are using these advanced long-distance frequencies for a specific purpose—to communicate coherently, one to another and herd to herd.”

Anthony’s patience and passion saved these elephants from certain death and taught him lessons that would benefit us all.

 “They taught me that all life forms are important to each other in our common quest for happiness and survival. That there is more to life than just yourself, your own family, or your own kind.”

 “From Nana, the glorious matriarch, I learned how much family means. I learned just how much wise leadership, selfless discipline and tough unconditional love is at the core of the family unit. I learned how important one’s own flesh and blood actually is when the dice are loaded against you. [and]…that there are no walls between humans and the elephants except those we put up ourselves, and that until we allow not only elephants, but all living creatures their place in the sun, we can never be whole ourselves.

This book will give you not only a profound appreciation for elephants, but also for how all living things are connected in ways we’ve never thought of. Recommend.

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