Very long story short, I’m immersed in editing my new memoir, Learning to Triangulate: A Romance, an Adoption, and a Baby Barred Owl for Lyons Press, to be released in Fall 2014. It’s about how (and why) I learned to train owls at our local raptor rehabilitation center while waiting 2 1/2 years to adopt my daughter.
GLEN ELLEN, Calif. — I didn’t relish the idea of a 12-hour road trip to Sonoma for a family wedding — my husband and I drink little and the existence of our 6-year-old, Maia, prohibited us from attending most of the weekend’s festivities.
However, after we pulled off Interstate 5 at the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge, and a potty break turned into a two-mile hike and we discovered owl pellets and jackrabbits, a terrific little museum and a couple of 4-foot gopher snakes fornicating in a field, I allowed that perhaps our trip would be rewarding, after all.
Sonoma is known as wine country, of course; vineyards speckle its bucolic roads and hillsides. Elegant downtown shops offer even more opportunity for swirling and spitting. But tasting rooms held little interest for my husband’s parents as well, so while the rest of the guests embarked upon a bus tour of wineries, we searched for a daylong destination that would appeal to three generations.
We found it 20 minutes north in Jack London State Historic Park, part of the author’s beloved 1,400-acre Beauty Ranch that he lived on from 1905 until his death in 1916.
“Jack London, who wrote ‘The Call of the Wild’?” my husband asked.
A magnificent estate
“I’ve got the best job in the world,” said a beaming middle-aged park ranger, who greeted us from a kiosk surrounded by oaks and eucalyptus. “A corner office in the great outdoors.”
She handed us a map with a network of trails, including the new 10-mile, round-trip Sonoma Ridge Trail and an eight-miler leading to the park’s summit.
Not into hiking on this particular trip? We could also stroll around London’s old farm buildings, see the cottage he shared with his wife and tour the ruins of their stone mansion that burned in a bizarre fire just weeks before they were to move in.
“You can even hike up to his gravesite,” the ranger said, as she waved us toward a parking area near picnic tables under sprawling oaks. “Have a great day!”
My in-laws are in their 80s, but it had been a while since they’d read “The Call of the Wild,” a novel about Alaskan sled dogs inspired by the months London spent in the Yukon. “What can you tell us about him?” they asked me.
I hesitated, not sure where to begin. Ninety-seven years after his death, London has a complex reputation. He’s been called a womanizer, an alcoholic, a racist. Park signage downplays most of this, choosing to focus on his career as a writer (he wrote more than 50 fiction and nonfiction books) and his passion for sustainable farming that culminated in the purchase and cultivation of Beauty Ranch.
Dismayed by the depleted soil left behind by California’s pioneer families, London set about amending it with manure and cover crops, and worked the land using terracing and crop rotation.
“I am getting results,” he wrote, “which the Chinese have demonstrated for 40 centuries.”
It’s easy to see why he adored the landscape. A tranquil forest path lined with red-barked manzanita gives way to rolling golden hills. Multicolored stone barns stand near the distillery building, which still holds tools and horse-drawn farm equipment. Vultures swirl over vineyards beyond the picturesque ruins of a winery.
That morning, some of us strolled past the historic structures and read the didactic placards, while others of us — invigorated by the warm, eucalyptus-scented breeze and wide fields — did cartwheels on the way to Pig Palace.
London designed his impressive stone piggery, nicknamed the “Palace” by a journalist horrified by its hefty price tag, so that 17 pens surrounded a tall, round feed house for maximum efficiency and sanitation.
Initially, he purchased 1,000 acres as an experimental farm but soon felt a lust for more land. “I write for no other purpose than to add to the beauty that now belongs to me,” he wrote. “I write a book for no other reason than to add three or four hundred acres to my magnificent estate.”
of good intentions
London and his wife, Charmian, shared a cottage — restored in 2006 — that visitors can walk through for a small fee.
The money’s well worth it; upon our entrance into the Londons’ living room, a gramophone launched into an Italian bella canzone and we found ourselves transported, thanks to period furniture and clothing, art and books, into the Roaring ’20s as inhabited by a glamorous couple of international explorers who referred to each other as “Mate Man” and “Mate Woman.”
My husband trailed Maia on a whirlwind tour of the cottage before stopping at a koi pond outside. I lingered to look at a makeshift clock in London’s bedroom that indicated — to my personal chagrin — his habit of waking up at dawn to write.
I found my in-laws in a big kitchen off the main house, talking with a volunteer who began visiting the park decades before with her young daughter; she decided to help out as an interpreter after the state cut funding in April. She’s one of a cadre of volunteers devoted to keeping the park viable. “London called this the ranch of good intentions,” she told us. “That just gives me goose bumps.”
Several public events entice people to the region now, including outdoor concerts, movie nights, moonlight tours of Wolf House and Plowing Play Day during which families can watch plowing demonstrations and take horse-drawn wagon rides.
Visitors can take a guided tour on foot, on horseback or by golf cart. There’s even a 5K run and walk called “Jack’s Chocolate Run” in September, featuring a fondue station for all participants.
The volunteer directed us to the House of Happy Walls Museum, built after London’s death by Charmian and his stepsister. Some of us spent a good half-hour downstairs looking at artifacts and old newspaper clippings documenting the Londons’ adventures. Some of us perused the small bookstore stocked with his novels and nonfiction works.
Maia, intrigued by piano music, rocketed upstairs to where Cynthia Heinrichs, clad in a pink baseball cap, sat playing a classical piece on Charmian London’s 1901 Steinway, separated by a railing from onlookers.
Mesmerized, my child walked up and stared. At a pause in the music, she raised her hand.
“Excuse me,” she said to Heinrichs. “Are you real?”
People around us chuckled knowingly. It’s easy to drift into an otherworldly sensibility at Beauty Ranch. The elegant blend of period pieces, video clips, restored buildings and fascinating signage provides a vivid sense of the era in which Beauty Ranch and the Londons thrived before disaster struck.
Outside the House of Happy Walls, we paused to talk with two men at the water fountain who made us promise to hike a short trail to the Wolf House. “It’s spectacular,” they told us. “You aren’t going to believe it.”
It’s a heart-breaking story, if also a tale of privilege and wealth. In 1911, London began work on his dream house — a vast structure surrounded by hills and trees. “All I wanted,” he wrote, “was a quiet place in the country to write and loaf in and get out of nature that something which we all need, only the most of us don’t know it.”
But two weeks before the Londons were to move into Wolf House, oil-soaked rags spontaneously combusted, and the mansion burned down.
Stories and pictures of the place didn’t prepare us for the actual grandeur of the stone foundation rising into the redwoods. We climbed flights of steps to gaze down at what would have been the Londons’ pool, their library, numerous rooms and balconies and fireplaces. A volunteer stood near the structure with photos and sketches of what the house would have looked like.
In one black-and-white photo, London sits on the railing of his new magnificent front porch in a broad-brimmed hat, architectural plans spread out on his lap. He, like the mansion, appears indestructible.
We looked at all the photos and walked around and around, the adults intrigued by the architecture, and the child fascinated by the castle-like appearance of the ruins.
Finally, we gathered under an oak to regroup and agreed to hike further on to see London’s gravesite.
The great writer’s death remains fraught with controversy and rumor; some say he expired from uremic poisoning, while others speculate that he intentionally overdosed on morphine. Regardless, he made a specific request that Charmian bury his ashes on a knoll near the graves of two pioneer children who’d died long before he purchased the property.
Maia, never squeamish, examined two tiny wooden grave markers thoroughly, then took her grandfather’s hand and headed back down the trail for one last look at Pig Palace. My husband and I followed at a distance, thrilled to have discovered a rewarding multigenerational adventure with something for all of us in the middle of wine country.
Travel writing takes time–a long time. When I first started working in the genre, I imagined it would be glamorous . . . me lounging on a Maui beach with my laptop and a Mai Tai, whipping out articles in between surfing lessons. Twelve years later, I know better.
Travel writing means struggling to hold onto the rope attached to a giant multicolored balloon while the pilot, filling it for an hour-long trip, blasts hot air toward your face. Travel writing means huddling in a tent on the Obsidian Trail as snow begins to fall on top of the half-raw pizza you and your husband are attempting to bake over a single-burner stove. Travel writing means freezing on a dock, hands covered in raw chicken slime, as you haul in crabs too small to eat while your six-year old threatens to plunge headfirst over the railing like she did last summer at Waldo Lake.
Travel writing is hours and hours of research and interviews and writing and revision and searching for just the right source, just the right word, just the right publication.
Travel writing is also great fun. Here’s my latest piece. Enjoy!
BANDON — Shivering on the dock, the target of bemused observation by several savvy fishermen, I clutch the loop of my 6-year-old’s life preserver as she hurls a crab ring into the frigid green waters of the Coquille River estuary. Never mind that the netted wire hoop sinks 2 feet from us, yards from the spot where the state Department of Fish and Wildlife volunteer assures us we’ll have better luck. We regard the yellow nylon line my husband has tied to the dock with elated smiles: “We’re crabbing!”
Photo by Jonathan B. Smith
We have driven from Eugene to walk the beaches and get to know this small coastal town with its seagull-decorated archway that reads, “We hope you are enjoying Bandon.” We don’t expect to spend hours on the crabbing dock, waiting for Dungeness crab to discover a hunk of raw chicken lashed to our ring … but then, we don’t expect to meet Jay Chojnacki.
“Here’s how to tell the difference between a male and a female crab,” says Chojnacki, a retired firefighter who now works as an angling education instructor for Fish and Wildlife and who walks down to the dock several hours a day, four or five days a week, teaching vacationers how to catch crabs.
“I was a fishing guide for many years,” he says. “I’ve been on many vacations where you couldn’t find information, nowhere no how. The (Fish and Wildlife) instructors absolutely love the outdoors, and they just want to help people and kids learn.”
Attracted by his friendly enthusiasm and his prodigious mustache, children gather around him on the dock. My daughter, Maia, joins the group, standing at his elbow and ogling the crab upside-down in his hand.
“See how the end of this one is pointed, and this one’s more rounded?” Chojnacki says. He holds out the crabs for the kids to investigate. “That’s a male, and this is a female.”
Chojnacki grew up in Northern California with a mother whose cooking ran mostly to steak and potatoes. When he re-located up north, a couple of native Oregonians taught him about clamming and crabbing.
“Golly jeepers,” he says, “once I started getting it off the land fresh, it was pretty darned good.”
Now, he catches and cans enough fish to give surplus to friends at Christmas. “You can eat seven fish dinners a week here,” he says.
Some people on the crabbing dock on this March day don’t need Chojnacki’s assistance; a bachelor party of stocky men in Carhartt overalls hauls in rings and expertly measures its crabs. A Roseburg mother over with her husband and kids for the weekend clues me in about crabbing.
“To keep a crab, it’s got to be male and at least 5¾ inches across,” she explains. “We haven’t caught any yet today, but we usually do. We bottle up some sea water for the pot and cook them in our hotel room’s kitchenette.”
She says this casually, and I revere her. Such self-reliance seems to me almost unfathomable.
I’ve read Seattle author Langon Cook’s “Fat of the Land: Adventures of a 21st Century Forager,” and the more recent foraging memoir, “Closer to the Ground,” by Dylan Tomine of Bainbridge Island, Wash. The idea of pulling my dinner from the ocean intrigues me, but we are a family of hikers — not crabbers.
“You should try it.”
Photo by Jonathan B. Smith
Our first morning in Bandon, we hike the bluffs on Coquille Point overlooking the offshore rocks of the Oregon Islands National Wildlife Refuge, then climb down the long flight of stairs to the beach and explore for hours.
Hungry at 11 a.m., we find our way to the cheery, blue-painted Bandon Fish Market. As we wait for chowder and cod and chips at a high table overlooking the boardwalk, locals come in to buy fresh fish and compare notes about who’s caught what this morning.
Impressed, Maia chats up the woman who brings her a corn dog and fries. “Have you ever caught a crab?” Maia asks.
The woman nods. “Of course, honey. You should try it.” She points out the window at Tony’s Crab Shack down the street. “You can rent a ring right there. Tony’ll even cook them up for you.”
My husband, Jonathan, and I raise our eyebrows. Once a year, we splurge and buy crab to eat at home with butter sauce, choosing modest-sized shellfish on ice at Eugene’s Fisherman’s Market. Though we both fished as kids, we know nothing about crabbing.
“Another time,” I tell Maia. “It’s low tide; let’s go back to the beach.”
One of the features we love best about our coast is the way each stretch varies geographically. In Florence and Yachats, we can hike miles of unbroken sandy beach. Huge vertical rocks called sea stacks dominate Bandon’s beaches.
Early season crabbing
On this afternoon, we visit Face Rock with its haunting Native American legend about the ocean spirit, Seatka, who is said to have discovered Chief Siskiyou’s daughter swimming alone and turned her to stone along with the girl’s luckless felines.
“There’s her face,” I say. I point out the sea stack remarkably similar to a woman’s profile upturned, and to the imploring gray skies.
My daughter’s brow furrows with concern. “I always wear my life vest when I’m at the ocean,” she assures us, and turns north to study Cat and Kittens Rocks as the sun slides from behind the clouds.
Bandon’s weather, in spring, can change by the minute. For a while on the beach, we shed jackets, hats, shoes and socks, reveling in the sun’s warmth. Then, temperatures drop and talk turns from examining sea stars and anemones near Face Rock to foraging for hot chocolate and cappuccino.
Maia suggests hot drinks to go and another trip to the crabbing dock. On the way down, we grab a child-size life preserver from a kiosk with the sign, “Kids Don’t Float!” and head to the water.
Members of the bachelor party bear-hug the guest of honor — he has to catch a plane back to Boston — and return to their lawn chairs. The family from Roseburg hauls in its ring, examines the tiny crabs inside, and tosses them back in the water.
“It’s pretty early in the season,” says Chojnacki, as he appears at our side, a couple of Fish and Wildlife family fishing brochures under one arm. He explains that during the rainy season, fresh water comes down the river and chases crabs into the ocean.
“When the fresh water subsides, and at high tides when salt water starts coming in, they start filtering back to the estuary,” he says. “June to the end of September is the window, and then it depends on whether we get rain.”
A young woman near us interrupts the lesson with a shriek. We whip around, sure she’s fallen in. Instead, she holds up a crab and a plastic ruler. “Six inches!” she says. The two women with her applaud and take pictures as we all look on with envy.
“Maybe we should try crabbing,” I say. I think of the succulent sweet meat dripping melted butter. “It’s only mid-afternoon.”
Jonathan — skeptical of any food that takes longer to de-shell than to eat — nevertheless walks up to Tony’s while Maia and I talk with Chojnacki. He describes the twice-a-week angling classes he teaches at the glass-walled picnic building on the boardwalk and explains that if we get a group of families or a scouting group together, we can contact the agency in Salem and they’ll put out a call for a volunteer instructor to teach whatever we want to learn.
He’s teaching a basic five-hour fishing class for children in July.
“It’s how to tie knots and how to put a life preserver on, and then we get into identifying fish and tying hooks and identifying lures and all sorts of stuff,” Chojnacki says. “The last hour, I take the kids out fishing.”
Jonathan appears with a bucket and a netted ring on a long nylon rope. Inside the ring, Tony has speared on a hunk of chicken. “Never thought I’d see a man take a power drill to poultry,” my husband says. “But the thing was frozen solid.”
“Cast the ring way out,” Chojnacki instructs us. “There’s a good spot right off the end of the dock.”
We let Maia hurl the ring and pull it up again long before Chojnacki’s suggested half hour. Three tiny orange and white crabs scuttle around our shoes. We pick them up and drop them back into the water, then toss out our ring again. We are, in a word, hooked.
The process of crabbing offers surprising opportunities to bond with fellow foragers. Though the members of the bachelor party pack their chairs and buckets, they linger to look at the crabs we’ve hauled in and teach Maia how to pick one up without getting pinched. Chojnacki stays close by to answer our questions, and greets another family who appears at the dock with a crab ring, their faces full of the same bewilderment and excitement we’d felt an hour before.
Eventually, cold to the bone, we pull in our net and leave without any crabs. We return to our room at the Table Rock Motel, rent a family friendly film for $1 and fall asleep, lulled by the ocean’s whisper.
“We’ll take our places”
The next morning, we return to Bandon Coffee Cafe for lattes and berry scones, then stroll over to the well-stocked Winter River Books.
Back outside, we stand a long time marveling at the giant plastic sculptures of a fish and seal — both comprised of trash that washed up on the beach. Washed Ashore, a nonprofit dedicated to “ocean awareness through art,” created the sculptures and offers community art workshops every Thursday and Saturday at Art 101.
Maia needs to run before our three-hour drive home, so we find the sprawling Bandon playground. I study the local teens who’ve congregated at the basketball court.
What must it feel like to grow up on the ocean, at ease with crabbing and clamming and fishing? I want my family to be that comfortable on the water.
“When we get back to Eugene,” I tell my husband, “I’m going to call Jay. Let’s get a group of friends together and see if he’ll do a workshop on crabbing.”
There’s a reason people’s eyes glow when they speak of Bandon. Chojnacki is a perfect example of the warm-hearted, helpful residents here. It’s a beautiful little town, full of fun outdoor opportunities for both families and child-free couples.
We end our visit at the Bandon Historical Society Museum. It consists of several small rooms packed with historical photos and objects ranging from military uniforms and an old-school desk to newspaper clippings about the 1936 fire that started in a patch of gorse and incinerated most of the town.
I study a photo of fishermen clad in yellow slickers and resolve to return to Bandon. We might be merely visitors, but come summer, we’ll take our places on the crabbing dock with the locals.
Photo by Jonathan B. Smith
Where to sleep: Table Rock Motel offers clean, comfortable rooms 50 yards from beaches and a spectacular viewing area for the Oregon Islands National Wildlife Refuge. If weather turns blustery, rent a DVD from the lobby for $1. Rooms from $50. 840 Beach Loop Drive; 800-457-9141; tablerockmotel.com
Bandon Beach Motel sits on the bluffs overlooking Coquille Point, also steps away from the paved paths overlooking the Oregon Islands National Wildlife Refuge. Some rooms offer balconies or patios and fireplaces. Rooms from $75. 1090 Portland Ave S.W.; 866-945-0133; bandonbeachmotel.com.
Where to eat: Enjoy fish and chips, clam chowder in a sourdough bread bowl and Dungeness crab or bay shrimp salads at the Bandon Fish Market, on the boardwalk located beside the boat basin. 294 First Street S.E.; 541-347-4282; bandonfishmarket.com.
Just down the boardwalk, Tony’s Crab Shack and Seafood Grill serves up seafood pasta dishes, sandwiches, salads and “World’s Greatest Fish Tacos.” 155 First Street S.E.; 541-347-2875; tonyscrabshack.com.
Where to rent crab rings: Tony’s Crab Shack rents crab rings and sells shellfish licenses ($7; mandatory for people over 14). For $8 rent a ring and bucket for 24 hours. You can also rent fishing poles, clam shovels and boats. Owner Tony Roszkowski offers friendly advice on crabbing both in person and on his website and Facebook page. 155 First Street S.E.; 541-347-2875; tonyscrabshack.com.
Where to explore: Wander the paved paths overlooking Oregon Islands National Wildlife Refuge on Coquille Point and stop to read signage telling about the area’s natural and cultural history. Arrive in early morning or late afternoon to see puffins, murres and seals that gather on the giant offshore rocks. Staircases lead to the beach. Begin at 11th Street S.W. For more information, http://www.fws.gov/oregoncoast/oregonislands.
At Face Rock State Park, part of Bandon State Natural Area, you’ll find boulders festooned with anemones and sea stars, as well as a sign bearing the Native American legend of Face Rock and Cat and Kittens rocks. Take Beach Loop Road just south of town. 800-551-6949; oregonstateparks.org.
Bandon Historical Society Museum is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday; $2 adults, kids free. 270 Fillmore Ave. S.E.; 541-347-2164; bandonhistoricalmuseum.org.
Classes: To arrange a free class on angling, crabbing or clamming, contact the state Department of Fish and Wildlife in Salem at 800-720-6339.
Mother’s Day always gets me thinking about what it takes to be a “real” mom. Having adopted my daughter, who has lovely brown skin a few shades darker than my own, I face unexpected comments about our family quite often. One of the latest came from my kid’s peer; I’d been volunteering in their classroom, and my daughter returned home that day, despondent. “Devon says you’re not my real mom,” she reported.
My heart ached–even more so when she added, “He says you’re my grandma.”
The Heat Miser-my grandma was prettier . . .
First of all, let me say that I’ve been using anti-wrinkle cream religiously, and I bear no resemblance to anyone’s grandmother–especially my own, who looked remarkably like the Heat Miser from Year Without a Santa Claus. Second, who’s to say that even though I’m Anglo and my child is half-Latina, I didn’t jet down south for a rendezvous with some handsome South American man? Okay, I didn’t, but this is certainly what another mother at gymnastics assumed when she commented last week that my daughter and I have the same eye-shape, the same facial expressions.
There are just so many ways to be someone’s real mother, beyond giving birth. My husband and I knew we wanted to adopt when we were both teens. We adopted through the Department of Human Services, after spotting a Heart Gallery display sponsored by A Family for Every Child. This is a wonderful way to “grow” a family. Ours feels very natural . . . and very real.
Mother’s Day: What does it take to be a ‘real’ mom?
I attribute my role as Mom to events that have nothing to do with pregnancy or an official seal on my adopted daughter’s birth certificate.
By Melissa Hart / May 7, 2010 at 10:00 am EDT
I noticed the Hawaiian woman at the local playground right away – admired her gleaming black braids and her orange-plaid rubber boots that she had paired with a blue wool skirt. I admired the three little girls who cavorted in her wake with the same braids and high cheekbones. My own beautiful 3-year-old daughter attracted the other mom’s attention.
She walked over to me as I pushed my child on the swing. “Where is her mother?” she asked.
My husband and I adopted Maia from the foster-care system two years ago, and I’ve grown used to people looking from our daughter to me and then to him as they attempt to figure out how two obvious WASPs managed to produce a gorgeous little Latina.
“I’m her mother,” I told the woman.
She frowned in confusion. “I mean her real mother.”
By “real,” I knew she meant the woman who had given birth to Maia and – unable to care for her – had relinquished her at birth. In the one photo we have of Maia’s biological mom, originally from Central America, I recognize my daughter’s high forehead, her snub nose, and adorable buckteeth.
In a maternal lineup, anyone could tell who shared my daughter’s genes and who was about as far from a Latina as a British-German mutt could get. Still, I narrowed my eyes at the woman on the playground.
“I’m her real mother,” I said.
She walked away smiling an apology, but the question continued to bother me. Every night, Maia and I crowd into our green easy chair to read her favorite book, P.D. Eastman’s “Are You My Mother?” The plot’s simple – a mother bird flies off in search of an earthworm for her not-yet-hatched baby. When the youngster breaks out of his shell, he finds himself alone. He leaps out of the nest and walks off to search for his materfamilias.
“Are you my mother?”
Our feathered protagonist walks up to a hen who answers indignantly in the negative.
The baby propositions a cat, a dog, a cow, and a jumbo jet before a bulldozer scoops him up and returns him to the nest. Suddenly, an adult bird flies up; she’s identical to him, only larger and sporting a red kerchief.
“You are my mother!” the baby bird cries, and she puts her wing around him.
Previous to bringing Maia home, I’d sat in the adoption agency and sympathized with these young people who felt denied of their racial heritage by well-meaning but obtuse white parents. Now, I feel otherwise. My husband and I are committed to honoring Maia’s South American culture, and we’re planning a trip there next year. I’m teaching her Spanish. But parenting a child means more than sharing DNA or teaching her to fry plantains.
To be somebody’s mother means to perform every day a variety of small tasks – some maddening, some terrifying, and some just plain weird –in the service of a child. While my daughter’s final birth certificate does list my name, I attribute my role as Mom to events that have nothing to do with pregnancy or an official seal.
I’m thinking of the time Maia squirmed out of my husband’s arms and hit her head on the hardwood floor. Sick with fear, we rushed her to the emergency room, where she proceeded to high-five all the doctors and nurses until they told us to go home and chill out.
I’m thinking of the numerous potty-training debacles during camping and hiking trips last year – most notably those involving a luckless tide pool and, separately, a sand dune.
I’m thinking of the time Maia choked on a piece of tofu and turned a faint shade of blue until her daddy hung her upside down and the food flew out. Afterward, I clutched her to my chest, sobbing. Then I knew that this little girl was truly my daughter.
But did she see me as her mother, or did she – like the woman at the park – find our physical differences confusing?
We left the mother pushing her three little girls on the merry-go-round and walked home. I made Maia her favorite macaroni and cheese, then read Eastman’s book to her again in the green chair.
“Why is that big bird the little bird’s mother?” I asked my daughter after the final page.
Maia scrunched her eyes in thought. “She bring him a worm,” she concluded.
“And who is your mother?” I pressed on.
She snorted at my ignorance. “Who’s my mother?” she scoffed and pointed an indignant finger at my chest. “You are.”
I kissed her good night, secure in our bond. But I wondered about public perception. If other strangers questioned our relationship as openly as the woman at the park, how might that affect Maia? I had to concede that outside forces were mostly beyond my control – all I could do was commit over and over to my child.
The next week, I took her to the doctor’s office for a checkup and an elderly couple in the waiting room admired her.
“You’re a cutie,” the man said. “Where do you get that curly hair?”
He nudged his wife and smiled. “Oh, I see,” he said. “From your mommy.”
I glowed with happiness. Not because the man assumed or didn’t assume a genetic connection between Maia and me. No, I beamed because the man had referred to me as Mommy.
I’ve been teaching at writing conferences and workshops for 11 years. Once again this summer, I’ve got numerous presentations scheduled on topics ranging from how to write book-length memoir and how to pen travel pieces for newspapers to how to practice “literary citizenship” by helping your colleagues promote their work. (For my complete list of conference and workshop appearances, click here.) My favorite experience at a writing conference had nothing to do with writing; rather, I’d been teaching at the South Coast Writers’ Conference in Gold Beach, Oregon and found myself in hysterics (the good kind) with several attendees at a local fish fry. I’d never been to a fish fry; Gold Beach locals hosted it and invited conference participants to attend, so that the lunchroom resonated with laughter and discussion from writers and residents mingling over cod and coleslaw and pie . . . lots of pie.
Still, as a workshop leader, I try to remain professional regardless of venue (hard to do when you’ve dropped coleslaw down your dress and find yourself shamelessly begging for another piece of pie), and so I love to sign up for conferences as a participant whenever possible. Two weekends ago, I attended a two-day workshop taught by Buddhist teacher/psychologist Jack Kornfield. Titled “The Psychology of the Awakened Heart,” it gathered approximately 200 people to listen to dharma talks and practice various forms of meditation, including one that I’m dying to work into my own classes–a 20-minute walk outside during which Jack invited us to look and listen deeply to our surroundings. I enjoyed a fine communion with a golden ground squirrel and contemplated some pretty stunning cedars and maples on the Memorial Tree Walk at Lewis & Clark College.
You never know whom you’ll meet at a conference. Stay awake and keep an open mind and heart; you may find yourself with a lifelong friend. That first evening after Jack’s talk, I shared a fine Costa Rican meal with a friend I’d met at a weekend writing workshop eight or so years ago. That same day, I found myself meditating beside a woman who–during a few stolen minutes of discussion–told me she was my age, a therapist and a humorous memoirist with a child a year younger than mine. We shared lunch and memoir titles and the sort of deep conversation inspired by our similar interests . . . I found our meal well worth the cost of conference admission, and I’m thrilled to have discovered a new friend.
What’s your favorite conference? What experiences have you had that make the investment of time and money completely worthwhile? Feel free to comment below.
Two weekends ago, I sat at a coffeehouse table with a 59-year old writer who’d traveled far to meet me . . . not for my editing services, or to consult about literary publication, but because she grew up with two mothers. For hours, we compared notes on what our life was like as part of a marginalized, politically-fraught demographic–and how, for years as young women moving through our separate eras, we didn’t even know we had a demographic. I lingered over the family photos she’d brought, so much like my own–smiling siblings embraced by two women. I thought about how her moms, like mine, didn’t dare hug or hold hands in public, and then I told her how I’d walked across the University of Oregon campus last week behind a couple of young men strolling past the daffodils and flowering cherry trees hand-in-hand. No one gave them a second glance.
This week, big changes may befall same-sex couples. On Tuesday, lawyers challenge California’s ban on same-sex marriage and argue that gay couples across the country should be allowed legally to wed. On Wednesday, lawyers challenge a section of the Defense of Marriage act that prevents legally married same-sex couples from receiving benefits which heterosexual married couples regularly receive. I’m chewing off all my fingernails in anticipation of which message the children of these couples will receive about their parents.
Those readers who know my family’s story will understand why this week means so much to young and older kids of same-sex parents. My biological mother came out in the late 1970s; my father sued for custody and won. I’ve chronicled this experience in my memoir,Gringa: A Contradictory Girlhood(Seal, 2009). Sadly, ours wasn’t the only case of this nature. Hundreds of women who came out during this era lost their children. One film, Mom’s Apple Pie: The Heart of the Lesbian Mothers’ Custody Movement, provides a look at the history of lesbian parenting, and the homophobia that regularly ripped apart families like mine.
The voices of the kids of same-sex couples seem particularly effective in these political debates. Check out YouTube for clips showing how children and young adults have taken the stand in courtrooms across the country to explain that they’re happy, well-adjusted, and eager to see their same-sex parents offered the same rights as those afforded to heterosexual couples. Put a face on an issue, and it becomes real for people who may never otherwise consider how this week’s legislation might affect a son or daughter . . . regardless of age.
THROUGHOUT my adolescence, I assumed that my siblings and I were the only children of gay, lesbian, or bisexual (GLB) parents. In 1979, we were removed by court order from my mother’s house and allowed to visit her only two weekends a month. She and her partner weren’t politically active. Their lesbian friends had no kids, and coming out about my mother to my classmates didn’t feel safe, so I missed the opportunity to meet others like me. Still, they were out there, growing up in the 1970’s and 80’s, coming of age in the 1990’s, and entering the 21st century determined to gain respect for themselves and their families.
Gay and lesbian offspring defy ready classification. Abigail Garner, 33, was five years old when her father came out as gay and her parents divorced in Minneapolis. She deliberately befriended homophobic classmates in an effort to educate them about her father and his partner. Noel Black’s gay father and lesbian mother attempted unsuccessfully to live as a married couple the year after he was born in Colorado. His father later died of AIDS. Last year, 34-year old Juliana (by request, not her real name) witnessed her father’s coming out and his consequent divorce from her mother with anger and resentment. A homophobic judicial system took Tammy and Sandra away from their lesbian mother in the early 1980’s. Now in their late twenties, the girls were forbidden to see their mother and sneaked to their grandmother’s house to phone her on the sly.
The most recent studies show that approximately ten million children in the U.S. have one or more lesbian, gay, or bisexual parent. The media present us alternately as either blissfully well-adjusted or angrily screwed up—or ignore us altogether. “I think we’ve been invisible on both sides of the fence for way too long, and both sides want to use us as poster children for their opposing political causes,” notes 33-year old Noel Black.
Much research on children with GLB parents has been motivated by family law for use in custody cases that seek to determine whether a child’s welfare is impacted by the sexual orientation of his or her parents. A 2004 study conducted by the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health found that adolescents with same-sex parents are as well-adjusted as their peers in terms of psychosocial well-being, school performance, and romantic relationships. Studies have also indicated that if children experience any negative repercussions from growing up with gay parents, they’re largely the result of homophobic attacks from peers.
Increased media interest has resulted in new and provocative terms to describe our demographic category. We’ve become “alternative families,” “queer families,” “families of choice,” and “gaybies.” Several years ago, a politically savvy group of young adults with an edgy sense of humor decided to adopt their own label: “queerspawn.” It’s a word that amuses some and repels others. I first came across it on alternative radio. For me, it captured the campy, ironic humor I grew up with in my mother’s house, cheerfully subverting the negative connotations surrounding the word “queer.” “My vision for this word is that it speaks to a population—not a political demographic,” says Garner, author of Families Like Mine: Children of Gay Parents Tell It Like It Is (2004). “We need to keep the word as broad as possible—it’s not a term that anyone should own.”
“We’re the children of queer parents, but also of the queer community,” explains Beth Teper, Executive Director of colage (Children of Lesbians and Gays Everywhere). “Historically, we’ve been ignored, without a language to describe our experience. In calling ourselves queerspawn, we’re creating our own language.”
But some same-sex parents and their children find the term insulting. “They see it as vulgar and in-your-face,” explains Garner. “The queer family’s traditional attempt at equality seeks to demonstrate that we’re just like everyone else, with warm and cuddly portrayals of loving parents and children. When these families see kids who are not warm and cuddly, but in fact are pimply and angry in their “queerspawn” T-shirts, they’re afraid these kids will undermine their cause.”
Homosexuals raising children is nothing new. In 1972, Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon included a chapter on lesbian mothers in their book, Lesbian/Women. A year later, Ms., The New York Times, Newsweek all ran articles on lesbian mothers. Numerous married men came out during this era, as well, facing nationwide discrimination as they sought to keep custody of their children. “Dozens of gay fathers’ support groups sprang up in major cities,” says Teper. “By 1979, they’d created the Gay Fathers’ Coalition, now called The Family Pride Coalition.”
As a child, Garner wasn’t allowed to attend Pride events in Minneapolis. “My father felt it wasn’t necessary to celebrate just one day of pride if we were truly proud of who we were,” she says. “His crowd was white and professional. They weren’t flamboyant, weren’t ‘those guys in the parade.’ Everyone thinks my parents shaped me into an activist, but I’m an activist because of their complacency.”
Garner and I were both born a decade before the “lesbian baby boom” of the 1980’s. We and our queerspawn peers grew up appreciative of, or humiliated by, our parents’ sexuality, depending on the political climate of our community. Meema Spadola, 35, witnessed her parents’ separation and subsequent divorce when she was ten. Although her mother didn’t come out to her initially, Spadola knew she was a lesbian. “We lived in a small town in Maine and I was paranoid about people finding out. The homophobic jokes were non-stop in junior and senior high school, and I just tried to blend in.”
Black was eleven when his mother came out about both herself and his father. “It freaked me out,” he says. “I was mortified by the fact that both my parents were gay. There was an unspoken understanding that if other families in the neighborhood found out, I’d either get beat up, taken away, or ridiculed. It made me secretive and distrustful of anyone who got too close.”
This is a far cry from the children I see on my city streets now, happily holding hands with their same-sex mothers or fathers. “There are two types of queerspawn,” claims Teper, who was born in the early 70’s, “those whose parents came out before we were born, and those who came out afterward. Our attitude about this depends on our environment and whether divorce and blended families were factors. We have a huge range of experience.”
These days, GLB parents can take their children on cruises hosted by Rosie O’Donnell and to weeklong celebrations comprised of queer families across the U.S. Young queerspawn find community in high school gay-straight alliance clubs. I gave a talk to one such group last year, made up of several gay and lesbian students, a transgendered student, a handful of kids who identified as heterosexual, and two girls with same-sex mothers. “Some kids still use ‘fag’ and ‘gay’ as insults,” one student told me, “so we’re here to help educate them about how hurtful that is.”
Scattered across the country with no real community, queerspawn who grew up in the 1970’s and 80’s had no group like colage to support them. We internalized the sense of the injustice that our parents experienced. However, unwilling to come out about our families, we often channeled our societal discomfort into other causes. Garner protested nuclear weapons. I grew a garden and wrote about environmental concerns. Black fixated on issues surrounding sexuality and gender. “Looking back, I wish I’d been able to recognize that my family was part of a rich culture I could have been proud of and part of,” he says. “Instead, I put all my mental efforts into passing, trying to fit into straight culture, and wishing my parents were straight.”
Then, in 1990, a few dozen adolescents with same-sex parents attended a conference hosted by the Family Pride Coalition. Parents attempted to organize workshops for young people, with little success. Recognizing the need for peer-run seminars, a few queerspawn formed a steering committee to oversee their part of the conference the following year. This coalition became “Just for Us” and developed a newsletter for queerspawn, who were beginning to emerge across the country. In 1993, members assumed the acronym colage. Two years later, they opened a national office in San Francisco to support queerspawn worldwide. Currently, there are some 44 chapters in the U.S., Canada, and Europe. Their mission is to “engage, connect, and empower people to make the world a better place for children of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender parents.”
In 1992, researchers found that people with GLB parents show the same incidence of homosexuality as the general population. Colage maintains a resource sheet, an online discussion list, and a FAQ section on their website to address the needs and interests of these “Second Gen-ners.” Still, many adult queerspawn are reluctant to identify publicly as gay, straight, bisexual, or transgendered for a variety of reasons. Garner believes heterosexual children of same-sex parents are prized in a society that breathes a collective sigh of relief on learning that they came out “normal” despite their upbringing.
Stefan Lynch was the first director of colage. As a teen, he coined the term he felt best described him as the heterosexual son of a gay father and lesbian mother. “Culturally queer, erotically straight” remains a defining catchphrase among queerspawn. However, GLB society has not always been receptive to the idea that straight people can be devoted fans of drag shows, pride parades, and marriage equality.
At 22, Garner came out about her family and began to speak publicly about her experiences growing up amid same-sex political and moral debates. She created FamiliesLikeMine.com, offering advice and community to queerspawn around the world. Her book, published in 2004, was the result of interviews with more than fifty children of GLB parents. A frequent speaker at events across the country, she’s concerned that once youths hit eighteen, they’re unwelcome in the queer community. “When I’m at [GLB] events, I get asked ‘what are you still doing here?’ as if this is no longer my community,” she says. “The more I’m asked, the more I stick around. We have to get to a point in which queerspawn aren’t asked these questions. We have a right to be part of the community that raised and informed us.”
With support groups firmly in place and a solid sense of their own history and identity, queerspawn are emerging as activists both for the GLB population and for themselves. Meema Spadola makes TV documentaries shown on HBO, PBS, Cinemax, Sundance Channel, and others. She made Our House: A Very Real Documentary About Kids of Gay and Lesbian Parents, which premiered on PBS in 2000; the film continues to air abroad and on Sundance Channel. Garner’s Families Like Mine earned her endorsements from such luminaries as Melissa Etheridge and former NFL star linebacker Esera Tualo. Candace Gingrich, manager of the Human Rights Campaign’s National Coming Out Project, notes that the book “establishes GLB families as vital, vibrant parts of our society.”
While many queerspawn fight for same-sex marriage and adoption laws, some question their adolescent experiences. Juliana, whose father came out last year, believes her family lived a lie for decades. Ryan Enschede, 34, was an adult when his parents divorced and his father came out as gay. “I think growing up I missed a male heterosexual role model, and I think I missed the role models of parents in a good relationship,” he says. “I think my growing-up experience has contributed to my adult feeling of being an outsider in our American culture.” Still, Enschede enjoys the vibe of being around gay men and maintains optimism about the power of queerspawn to transform the world. “We’re a large enough group to have some clout,” he says. “Our mere existence as a visible active group could force social/political change within the gay world which supports gay families, as well as the religious Right world which condemns it.”
Teper agrees. “Frankly, we’re in a time of war,” she says. “Elements of our patriarchal society cling to a form of family that supports that society. The [religious] Right is trying to protect kids, but we are the authorities of our own experience in having GLB parents. We’re at a pivotal moment in history in which our unique perspective helps to shape a broader, more fluid definition of family. We’ve learned to be who we are and to love who we love.”
This week, I’ve been reading an advance copy of a most marvelous new book–Vivid and Continuous: Essays and Exercises for Writing Fiction(University of Iowa Press, March 2013), by John McNally. In the midst of witty anecdotes and inspiring meditations on craft, the author discusses the writing process from a variety of perspectives. He himself likes to write early in the morning, before the bills need paying and the dog needs walking. In my dreams, I wake up at 5 AM and trot blithely out through the mud to my bohemian guest studio under the cherry trees. In reality, chronic insomnia keeps me awake until the wee hours, and so I write after I pay the bills and feed my cats. (Oh yeah, and feed my six-year old daughter and dance around to Sesame Street songs before biking her to kindergarten.)
Yesterday, at a party for Eugene-area women writers and artists, an editing client of mine found me beside the dessert counter where I could have died happily among the brownies and lemon bars, and we talked about the process of writing literary nonfiction. “I have a good idea for an essay,” she said, “but I don’t know how to go about writing it. Help!”
I suppose it’s a little like training for a marathon, especially if work and/or parenting and/or pets offer finite time each day. When you’re a runner prepping for 26.2 miles, you break up the training and commit to a certain mileage weekly. One day, you might go out and run six miles. Serious runners don’t run two, then take a break to pet the neighbor’s Siamese, run another two, stop to answer their mother’s phone call, then finish up with the two final miles–they barrel straight through (can you tell I’m not a serious runner?).
However, I am a serious writer (albeit, a serious writer who thinks this “Herding Cats” video is about the funniest thing in the entire world). When I have a good idea for an essay, I grab a pen and notebook and commit to writing the whole thing at once. If time and income allow, I take myself out for a vanilla latte and a piece of banana bread. Like Natalie Goldberg of Writing Down the Bones fame, I don’t get up from the coffeehouse table until I’ve finished a draft of my essay. I do a quick circle graph, a scribbled outline, and then I dive in and barrel straight through.
This is how I wrote the essay below, just published in the Spring 2013 issue of Oregon Quarterly, shortly after I accidentally infiltrated the Eugene Marathon last year. Enjoy!
A horde of spectators, up at dawn to cheer for Eugene Marathon runners, hung over the bike-bridge railing and pointed down at me. Me, with my sloppy ponytails, my ancient Asics, my nine-minute-mile pace.
Up ahead, the two front-runners pounded up the steps to the bridge and vanished across it in a flash of tiny shorts and stunning calf muscles. A cameraman hung over the railing. “First woman!” He aimed his lens at me. I turned and fled.
I hadn’t meant to infiltrate the marathon, but the course along the Willamette River path ran right in front of a townhouse I’d rented temporarily with my family. That Sunday morning, I just wanted to jog a leisurely six miles. “Is it okay to run on the path?”
The raincoated volunteer stationed at the purple 17-mile flag shrugged at me. “If you stay to the far right.”
I did, carefully sidestepping the messages of encouragement looped in pink and blue chalk across the pavement. Way to go, Shannon! Almost there, Dave! Near the bridge, I stopped and bent to rescue a snail attempting to cross the path. Nevertheless, onlookers amped from cheering the front-running men caught sight of my ponytails and went wild.
Once upon a time, I ran marathons. I qualified for Boston up in Portland, jacked up on Gu packets and live music on every corner. I ran the McKenzie River ultramarathon, bounding over cantaloupe-sized chunks of lava, so euphoric over Oregon’s beauty that I barely felt the yellow jackets plunging their stingers into my ankles.
Then I became a mother, and my mileage dwindled from 50 a week to 15 . . . if that. Other mom friends kept running, logging three-hour workouts with their baby joggers. “You should do a half-marathon with us,” they told me. “Want to train for Big Sur?”
I pleaded overwork. Two teaching jobs and a writing career left me few hours to spend with my daughter as it was. How could I waste three hours on a Saturday morning running, even if my kid might prefer pancakes and cartoons to our weekly hike? How could I leave my husband for an hour of speed work on a Monday night, even if he longed to read the paper undisturbed with a glass of Merlot? I couldn’t fathom leaving my family to commit to a training schedule, even for an event that took place, literally, in my own front yard.
Marathoning in Eugene once took a long hiatus as well. Nike had sponsored one in the 1970s and ’80s, but there had not been an official Eugene marathon for many years until the current race debuted in 2007. Initially, naysayers doubted many people would come from out of town to compete on the mostly flat, fast course, even though legendary runners Steve Prefontaine, Alberto Salazar, and Mary Decker Slaney once trained on these paths. But now, hotels book up months in advance. Friends and family and runners with no desire to beat their knees into pulp line the route to cheer.
Perhaps another, wittier runner would have embraced the kudos coming at her from the bike bridge now—after all, there’s no shame in a six-mile jog—but I turned tail like an imposter.
My shoes, soaked from the flight across wet grass, led me toward the Delta Ponds at the north end of town. An elderly couple stood by the entrance, photographing stalks of white and purple lupines. The man looked at me with a bemused expression. “Sweetheart?” He pointed toward the river path where we could just see an undulating line of runners in bright shorts and jerseys. “The race is over there.”
I stumbled over a stump. “I’m not in good enough shape.”
His smile felt like benediction. “You’re doing great.”
I was, I decided, as I ran along the gravel path around the ponds. New goslings paddled with their parents past logs dotted with congregations of western pond turtles. Lupines and poppies and bright yellow mustard waved in a gentle breeze that rustled the maple leaves overhead. An osprey shrieked, fish in talons, sailing toward its nest of waiting babies. Not racing, I had time to notice these things. Idyllic, yes?
But at mile five, I felt the familiar, welcome ache of tired calf muscles and recalled long runs with friends, followed by coffee and cinnamon rolls at a local breakfast joint. I remembered exhausting hill workouts, the thrill of mile repeats on the high school track. I missed being a marathoner, devoting hours each week to seeing the world on foot, to demanding strength and speed from my body, to joining the race.
Suddenly, I wanted my daughter to see me out there honoring my passion, tending to body and soul, so that she’d learn to do the same.
I picked up my pace and ran home, blew past my husband and child on the couch, and hurried out to the balcony to stretch. Across the grass, the mid-pack athletes made their way along the river path—my people, the nine-minute milers. Some of them toted a few extra pounds. Some held their sides, obviously cramp-stricken. Some walked. No matter—the majority would cross the finish line, wrapped in silver space blankets and clutching their post-race bananas with weary, giddy smiles.
I’ll never be “First Woman.” I’m too slow for that. But next year, I’ll be somewhere behind her, enjoying the run.
For several years now, I’ve written the Literary Spotlight column for The Writer Magazine, profiling one literary journal each month. I love this gig–I get to talk with dedicated editors impassioned by showcasing exciting new short stories, poems, and non-fiction pieces in print and online publications. On a trip to the library last November, I turned on NPR and happened to catch an interview with retired Colonel Ron Capps about the Veterans’ Writing Project and their new magazine, O-Dark-Thirty, which features writing by veterans and family members.
Cover of O-Dark-Thirty
Though my great-grandfather and grandfather served in the Armed Forces, and I found myself captivated by Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carriedin a college literature course, I’d never given much thought to the particular stories veterans can tell until I worked with journalist Cali Bagby. Right out of college, she traveled to Iraq and Afghanistan as an embedded reporter and produced numerous multimedia clips and articles. My favorite is one that I show often to my feature writing students at the University of Oregon, titled “Marines in Afghanistan Explain their Tattoos.” I love her unexpected subject matter and what tattoos reveals about the soldiers.
Photo by Cali Bagby
The editors at O-Dark-Thirty do equally compelling work. Interested in writing for them, or passing along information to friends? Here’s my profile from The Writer.
A Story About O-Dark-Thirty from The Writer Magazine
LITERARY SPOTLIGHT: O-Dark-Thirty
A literary project features the stories of veterans, their families and friends. BY MELISSA HART
Author Beth Garland had heard of the Veterans Writing Project – a nonprofit offering no-cost writing seminars for veterans and family members – so when she saw that VWP planned to launch a literary journal, she sent in her short story Reintegration. “I wanted very much to convey the incredible dignity and bravery that real soldiers and their spouses who are coping with PTSD or severe injuries demonstrate every day,” she says, “while at the same time revealing how human they are.”
Garland is married to a member of 20th Special Forces Group. She believes American pop culture has romanticized the concept of a soldier’s homecoming. As her narrator in Reintegration observes, “You imagined that after he’d grabbed you up in his arms like Richard Gere did Debra Winger in the end scene of An Officer and a Gentleman, you two would speed to the closest motel and rip each other’s clothes off.”
Readers responded to her story, which appeared in the inaugural issue of the journal O-Dark-Thirty, with gratitude. They were “moved by the fact that reunions aren’t always those lovely images of soldiers hugging their families that we often see in the last twenty seconds of the evening news,” Garland says, “that there’s a lot more to it than that, especially for soldiers who are physically and/or emotionally wounded.”
Editor Ron Capps – a soldier for 25 years – launched O-Dark-Thirty on Veteran’s Day 2012. “I think it’s critically important to both integrate the writing by our veterans and their family members into the broader stream of American literature,” Capps says, “and to highlight that it is somewhat separate in that it has influences that other works simply don’t.”
Tone, editorial content
Readers will find humor in the pages of O-Dark-Thirty, along with sorrow and pain, trauma and rage. “There is work in our journal that was written by service members who are recovering from posttraumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain Injury and pretty grievous physical injuries, too,” Capps says. “We also have some work from their caregivers, and you can only imagine what they feel.”
The writers in O-Dark-Thirty range from World War II veterans to soldiers on active duty and to support communities around them. One served in Iraq as an Army Scout medic and now works as an actor in Los Angeles. Another, a clinical therapist, is the daughter of a World War II Army veteran.
“We’ve had a few pieces come over the transom that sort of rang all the bells,” Capps says. He offers Jason Davis’s raw and courageous essay, Brian and Me, as an example. “Our nonfiction editor is a former Marine who fought in Fallujah,” Capps says, “and he wrote on Jason’s piece, ‘Please, please, please publish this.’”
He also points to Grady Smith’s short story Al Gomez. “Grady’s story is so subtle and disarming,” Capps says, “you don’t notice what’s happening until you’re thigh deep in it and past the point of no return. It’s masterful.”
Advice for newcomers
Capps seeks submissions that have nothing to do with the military experience. “The broader the range of topics we can present,” he says, “the better.”
He’d also like to see more writing from family members: “If you’re a military family member – spouse, partner, sister, brother, daughter, son, mother, father, grammy, grampa, grandchild – send us your stuff.”
“A journal of writing by veterans, service members and military family members. We seek quality, literary writing on any topic.” Quarterly, $30. Types of work accepted: Poetry, fiction, nonfiction. Reading period: Year-round. Submission format: Mail or submission manager on website. Contact: Ron Capps, Editor. Veterans Writing Project, 6508 Barnaby St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20015. email@example.com. http://o-dark-thirty.org/
Readers, here’s my short essay from The Los Angeles Timesearlier this week. What are your holiday traditions? Feel free to comment below!
O little joint in Ventura …
Once a year at a Chinese restaurant in Ventura, a family with divergent lifestyles and beliefs gathers to embrace the spirit of the holiday season.
By Melissa HartDecember 24, 2012
Two lesbians, a man with Down’s syndrome and a Jewish couple walk into a Chinese restaurant on Christmas Eve. Sounds like the setup to a joke, yes? Nope. This is my family, doing what we’ve done for a decade.
Separated by differing philosophies, as well as locations, we have no other tradition. I don’t know who got the idea to spend Dec. 24 eating egg rolls and mu shu pork at a Chinese restaurant in Ventura. Doesn’t matter. Regardless of what political and social arguments have ensued during the year, we all drive or fly in to go to the restaurant and the big round table by the fish tank.
This month, my husband sent me an e-card that read, “Let’s celebrate the birth of Jesus by going out for Chinese food.” Apparently, the tradition isn’t exclusive to us. I wonder about those other families who celebrate the night before Christmas around a rotating tray of chow mein and egg foo yong. Do they too understand the importance of breaking fortune cookies with kin who sometimes feel akin to aliens?
Over 10 years, our table has gotten complicated. My mothers and my disabled brother have always been there. My grandmothers too, until they passed away.
My husband and I adopted a Costa Rican girl. My sister converted to Judaism, married, had a child, then divorced. Two years ago, she had to work on Dec. 24.
“You’re coming to dinner, right?” I asked her ex-husband.
“Melissa,” he said, “I wouldn’t miss it.”
His answer surprised me. He’s a conservative Republican. Some of us are flaming liberals. Some are Jewish, some Buddhist, some atheist. At the table, we avoid politics and religion. Thankfully, after the kids arrived, we could talk about them, as well as the food. But I have wondered why we all keep showing up.
Some years I’ve sworn not to return — the evening my sister and I surreptitiously picked up the check and our moms got angry and bawled us out. Another night, a booth full of leather-clad bikers glared at my mothers holding hands, at my brother grinning into his beer. “Maybe we could find a more inclusive restaurant,” I suggested.
But then I remember the night we sang Christmas carols with the waiter, another night when both toddlers had wet pants and my sister and I, weary and clutching our mai tais, delegated diaper duty to the men who carted the kids to the parking lot and changed them side by side in a bizarre tailgating potty party.
It’s memories like these that keep our clan together. We replay them at the table, sweetly.
Still, I didn’t fully realize what the dinner meant to me until I missed one. Last year, my husband and daughter and I were living in Costa Rica. On Dec. 24, I thought of my family at the Chinese restaurant and wept. “It doesn’t feel like Christmas,” I wailed.
So, this holiday, we’ll be back in Ventura with our family around the big table. We’re all wildly dissimilar in our lifestyles and beliefs. No matter. Once a year, we set aside our agendas and embody the spirit of the season with its messages of love, peace and egg rolls.
Melissa Hart, author of the memoir “Gringa: A Contradictory Girlhood,” teaches at the University of Oregon’s school of journalism and communication.
Last week, my sister called and asked if our family should choose names out of a hat for Christmas this year. “That way, we’d buy just one present for one person.”
I admire the simplicity of this idea . . . really, I do. But I can not embrace it because I adore giving books for the holidays. What fun to browse Eugene’s Smith Family Bookstore–volumes stacked two feet high beneath the shelves–and the UO Duck Store which has the added benefit of bins of mini Toblerone bars for twenty-five cents apiece.
Here are a few books I’ve reviewed for various publications over the past year that you might want to consider giving:
Everyday Writing: Tips and prompts to fit your regularly scheduled life by Midge Raymond. Ashland Creek Press, 137 pages. Paperback, $14.50. Author and teacher Midge Raymond shows us how to incorporate a regular writing practice into just a few minutes a day. Stuck in a waiting room or traffic jam without a pen and paper or your laptop? She further empowers readers by reminding us of how to think like a writer. Read my review of Everyday Writing in the August 2012 issue of The Writer Magazine.
Tributary by Barbara K. Richardson. Torrey House Press, 300 pages. Paperback, $15.95. I stayed awake several nights in a row to devour this novel by Colorado author, Barbara K. Richardson. Set in nineteenth-century Brigham City in Utah Territory, the story follows the life of young Clair Martin, set apart both by a facial birthmark and by her rebellion against conformity. This compelling story takes readers to a disease-stricken New Orleans hospital and a desolate sheep ranch in the desert. This is a novel to get lost in, and to savor. Read my review of Tributary in High Country News.
The Case of D.B. Cooper’s Parachute by William L. Sullivan. Navillus Press, 411 pages. Paperback, $14.95. I love Oregon almost as much as my Eugene-based colleague, William L. Sullivan. Every time I ran across an Oregon landmark–The Grotto, Timberline Lodge, Portland’s Dragonboat Races–in his new novel, I gave a little internal shriek of delight. Sullivan is fearsomely smart, and he’s written a complex and colorful mystery novel which incorporates the Russian Old Believers, art theft, murder, recycling, and D.B. Cooper who parachuted down over the Cascade mountains in 1971 after demanding $200,000 from the FBI . Look for my review in High Country News very soon!
You Should Really Write a Book: How to Write, Sell, and Market Your Memoir by Regina Brooks and Brenda Lane Richardson. St. Martin’s Press, 240 pages. Paperback, $14.99. As the author of the memoir, Gringa: A Contradictory Girlhood (Seal, 2009) I teach memoir writing at conferences, and I’m delighted to be able to point attendees to this book by Brooks–a literary agent–and Richardson–a journalist and social worker. It’s full of good advice, from how to shape a memoir around a key event and/or era to marketing the published product. Read my review in the February 2012 issue of The Writer Magazine.
Catch ‘n Release: The Game by Susan Hart Hellman. Luminare Press. Paperback, $15.95. It’s very odd to find oneself engrossed in a vivid murder scene from a psychological thriller and then to surface with the unsettling realization: My mother wrote that. And indeed, she did. Shamelessly, I’m recommending my mom’s debut novel set in Southern California. Dr. Savanna Jamison, neuropsychologist and defense witness, finds herself–after the murder of a sorority girl –working unexpectedly as an underground sleuth. A complex and powerful thriller from an author who also makes a killer peach cobbler. Buy it here!
Got a favorite book that didn’t make the list? Feel free to comment here with title and author!
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Melissa Hart is the author of the memoir, Gringa: A Contradictory Girlhood (Seal, 2009). Her articles and essays have appeared in The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The Advocate, High Country News, Orion, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Adbusters, Hemispheres, Horizon Air Magazine, and numerous other publications. Web: http://www.melissahart.com.
She lives in Oregon with her daughter, five cats, and her husband–photographer Jonathan B. Smith. She teaches Travel and Feature Writing for the School of Journalism and Communication at the University of Oregon. Contact her at melissa(at)melissahart(dot)com.