The Wedge of the San Rafael

The Wedge of the San Rafael
Someone has to live here, in the middle of desert beauty. Might as well be the Kellys.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Envelope Please

I'm in a motel in Evanston, Wyoming, on my way to Wisconsin, for a particular visit with my daughter, Liz. I just finished watching the Oscars by myself. Usually I'm with family members, but this is a trip I'm making by myself, and that's OK, too. I think the most fun I ever had at the Oscars was the night my daughter, Mary Ruth and I were in San Antonio at a motel, visiting my son/her brother Jeremy, who was going to UT-San Antonio. As I recall, we had Chinese takeout from HEB (oh, yes) and mostly enjoyed each other's company. I don't remember who won anything that year, but I'll remember this one, because Colin Firth won for playing King George VI, and he stuttered.

So do I. I always have. My stammer was more pronounced when I was younger, but I've never grown out of it. I've learned to breathe better and can accommodate it better, but the stammer is still there. I could totally and completely identify with Colin Firth's role in The King's Speech. I know the feeling of dread and desperation of having to speak, that Firth interpreted so well.

My dad was in the Navy (so was George VI), and we moved around every three years or so. This meant new schools and new opportunities to show off my stammer. Or so it seemed to me.  Given my own habits, I'd happily have stayed in the same place and never have to re-introduced myself every few years to new critics.  I remember the pain of having to read out loud in turn, because my stammer was always there. And sure enough, that first time would usually be followed by a visit to the school district's speech therapist. Nothing really made a difference. Visits to psychologists didn't make a difference, because stammers don't necessarily have psychological overtones. Now the consensus seems to be that stammers are caused by some synapse that doesn't click in the brain. Oh, well, whatever. It never affected my intellect and native cheery temperament.

But because we moved around, I always had to meet people. There would be laughs sometimes, but I'm a charming person and a good student, and I always had friends. I was never shunned or avoided because of my stammer, and I'm thankful for that, but it was always a black crow sitting on my shoulder, that only I could see, I suppose.

When I first heard about The King's Speech, I knew I would have to see it, no matter how far I had to go from my little rural home. I have always liked Colin Firth's performances, even when he played that thoroughly nasty royal in Shakespeare in Love. But it was my huge respect for King George VI that was always the main reason for seeing the movie, because I do what he did. I have to think that most of the world's stutterers feel the same way. It's nice to see one of our own get his due.

And what a king he was, even though he was a Navy officer, as he would have preferred to remain. King by default, he rose to soaring heights to lead his nation through the dark, dark years of World War II from 1939-1941, when England stood alone. He and his queen - they were best friends and lovers - reached out to their people. Those newsreels of the pair of them, strolling through blitzed out sections of London, were not done as cynical photo ops, but as a couple of Brits reaching out to other Brits. George and his queen remain stalwart role models of grace under extreme pressure - living examples of unflinching character in the face of the evils of Nazism.

What a man. What a king. A few years ago, my father, also a naval officer but in a diferent navy, gave me a coin from the Fiji Islands that he wore as a good luck charm in the South Pacific during his own war. It's a shilling, with 1942 and a turtle and Fiji Islands on the side, and King George VI on the other. I think I'll wear it more often now. My dad has always been my hero, and George VI is, too.

About my stammer. I've been slowly realizing in the last few years that as onerous as it was when I was younger, and even now occasionally, I don't think I would have changed a thing. Not one thing. What my stammer seems to have done for me is force me to listen more in silence, to learn how people act and speak, to listen to their stories, and build up an amazing vocabulary. All stammerers do that, I think, because we need lots of words. Some words are easier to say than others, so we learn a lot of words and their many meanings. And words are important to me and my characters.

I think The King's Speech is going to be my favorite motion picture for a long time. It almost feels like a personal victory. It gave a lot of us our own voice.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

I hate my coat

Spring may or may not be coming, so it's time to recycle a column I wrote when I worked for the Times-Record in Valley City, North Dakota. I've updated it a little, and doubt many of you have read it, unless you live in Valley City. I wrote four years-worth of columns, which probably ought to be published in one collection someday.

It ain't heavy; it's just ugly

I hate my coat. This is problem, because it's only February, and with this winter, it's possible that spring won't arrive for another six months.

I knew this was coming. I hated the same coat by the end of winter last year, but the darned thing refuses to wear out. I can't afford a new one. Even if I could, such wild extravagance would send all my Scots relatives spinning in their narrow, frugal graves.

I bought the thing in December of 2000, because I was heading to Washington, D.C., for research, courtesy of the State Historical Society of North Dakota, and wanted a lighter coat for the warmer weather. I somehow thought denim would be lighter. It wasn't. In Washington, the denim coat didn't allow me to blend in with the natives, all of whom were wearing black in 2000. You'd have thought the District was a Johnny Cash convention with lobbyists. The other project researcher was a professor from North Dakota State University, and he wore his parka. We probably looked like Jean and Jerry Lundegaard from the movie, Fargo. You betcha.

If necessity had required that I wear the coat all year round, I would have worn it out sooner and replaced it. I've thought about leaving my coat somewhere, but it would probably come home like a cat, slinking up the driveway and flopping down on the porch.

Maybe I should name my coat. That simple act might have increased my affection. Years ago, my husband bought a used Buick, green and huge. We had five children at home then. In a pinch, I think we could all have lived in the trunk. Maybe even installed a hot tub.

Jeremy, in high school at the time, started calling that green machine "The Nimitz," after the aircraft carrier. We still remember The Nimitz with fondness, but what do you name a coat? Lester? Kiki?

To my relief (and probably everyone else's, who has to look at it), my coat is starting to wear out. I lost a button, which I haven't replaced yet. The cuffs are starting to fray, and it's getting shiny in the seat.

Still, there might be months and months to go until spring. Maybe I'll start a support group. Surely I'm not the only woman in the greater metropolitan Price/Wellington area who hates her coat. I'd offer to trade my dog of a coat to someone, but I'm too nice even to suggest that.

Something has to happen between now and summer, though, because I'm really starting to envy the German army of World War II. No irate, knee-jerk letters, please; hear me out. I know the Nazis were dirtbags. We historians - unless we work for Fox News - tend to look for the Big Picture. The Wehrmacht - the German army - was a bit different from the Nazis. The army had some remarkable commanders; the Nazis, not so much.

So here comes my guiltiest secret of all: I've long been an admirer of those sexy, ankle-length overcoats that German army officers wore. No army looked better than the German Army in wintertime, with those overcoats and shiny boots. It was Wehrmacht haute couture: warm coats, well-cut coats, grey double-breasted, kick ass coats with shiny buttons.

A few years ago, I taught a university course in modern European history. We spent some class time watching World War II newsreels, and I did a lot of reading. I invariably ended up at Stalingrad, a frightful slugfest on the Volga River that may have been the turning point of the war in Europe. Other historians point to the tank battle the following summer at Kursk, but it all is intertwined.

Of his namesake city, Stalin declared the Germans would not move beyond it. On the other side, Hitler said the German Army would never retreat. Between August 1942 and February 1943, two huge armies struggled by that bend in the Volga River, literally fighting room to room in the massive factories. (For a look at this, watch the 2001 movie, Enemy at the Gates, or the even better 1993 German film, Stalingrad.) The Soviets and citizens of Stalingrad gave new meaning to the word stubborn.

When it ended, the Wehrmacht's entire Sixth Army, bled white and starving, surrendered to victorious Soviets, who marched the 91,000 survivors to prison camp. Years passed. Fewer than 5,000 of those Germans ever returned to their homeland.

There is a terrible newsreel of a German POW walking by himself to internment and probable death. His beautiful grey overcoat is in shreds and he is wearing boxes on his bare feet because he has no fancy boots.

Suddenly, that coat I hate so well doesn't look too bad.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Water, water everywhere

I was looking at computer news last night, and there was the big article I'd been dreading but knew was coming: It looks like another bad flood year for the northern plains.

We left Valley City, North Dakota, in July of 2009, after Martin retired from teaching at the university there. We moved to Wellington, Utah, which is pretty much in the desert. We bought a little house that had a basement, but one which showed no signs of water damage. We'd been living in a lovely town in Nodak that turned into Flood Trauma Central, after a long, long snowy winter. It was a winter/spring where no one had seen Sheyenne River flood predictions that high since the 1880s, and no one was alive who remembered it. We didn't want to go through that again.

The Sheyenne River, normally beautiful and peaceful, winds through Valley City, turning it into what is known as "The City of Bridges." That spring of 2009 it was a monster. We had a smart and savvy mayor, Mary Lee Nielson, who started hauling dirt early. For a solid month, from early morning to late at night, big trucks rumbled through town, building makeshift dikes along the river. Almost everyone lives near the river in Valley City, and we were no exception.

Valley City State University is right on the river. Dikes went up, as well as dikes inside of dikes. The same thing was going on, on a larger scale, in Fargo, and in other towns. Most of the rivers in the area dump into the Red River of the North, which flows through Fargo and north into Canada. The rivers all rise at different times, and do their damage. Fargo went first, and we followed, as did Jamestown to the east of us, on the James River.

Soon all the bridges in Valley City were blocked off with dirt, except one, so people could still get in and - more important - out, if the need came. It used to be such a treat to drop down off the gently rolling prairie and into our little valley. Now our little valley was filling up with sandbags, dirt dikes, and that ever-growing Sheyenne River.

The university was finally shut down about a month before graduation, because it was just too dangerous to expose students living along the river to potential hazard. VCSU is the first university in the nation to go entirely wired and laptop, so kids were able to finish their classes online at a distance. It was my husband's last semester of teaching, and his final play of his career was cancelled two days before it opened, because the university closed. Sigh.

The public school system closed, too, mainly because as the water kept rising, the sewer collapsed. Mary Lee told everyone to evacuate, and many of us did. Our grandson, Noah, was living with us that year and going to junior high. We called friends in Fargo (their flood was receding) and asked if we could refugee to their house. They said sure, so we did. Gov. John Hoeven send out a statewide APB for us and towns like ours that were in trouble to send kids to school anywhere in the state. The state would pick up the book and lunch tab. Noah - um, what an appropriate name for the time - went to school in neighboring Maple Valley.

After about a week of this, we returned home. Our mayor had arranged for Porta Potties to be hauled into Valley City. The deal was, we could use all the water we wanted, but none of it could go down those drains. Hence, the portable johns. We met our neighbors in new and different ways for a few weeks, until an over-the-street pipe was jury-rigged to take sewage. In our house, we plugged the bathtub and took extremely brief showers, where the water fell into a bucket, which we dumped outside the front door. The rest of the water was drained by a shop vac and then dumped outside.

So it went for awhile. People in the northern plans are highly resourceful, and we managed. It makes my heart ache to think they're going to have to go through all that again. Valley City was mostly spared that year, and again in 2010. I say mostly, because many outlying homes along the river went under. I know they are worrying about this spring, which threatens to be as bad as 2009, if not worse. And I worry, too, because I love Valley City and the wonderful folks who live there.

Water is a funny thing - we need it, we like it, but it can turn on us. Right about when we think we can master it, water has a way of reminding us that we aren't in charge and never will be.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Whose life is this anyway?

On the way to water aerobics, Vondell and I pass a white house with a Utah Highway Patrol car on the curb. Sometimes he's there, suggesting that he works nights, and sometimes he's  not, suggesting shift changes. It interests me, because my son is in law enforcement and happens to be pulling a month of night duty right now. I am also in the habit of "creating" people's lives. It's the curse or blessing of the novelist.

Vondell and I have created our own fiction about the highway patrolman. A few weeks ago, when the black pickup was gone, and the cop car was in the driveway, we decided that maybe she had left in a huff and taken the kids with her. There was his lonely car, parked where the pickup usually was. Maybe he was inside on the telephone, pleading with her to come home.  A week later, when we saw the pickup back, and the patrol car, too, we figured they had made up. It's hard to be a law enforcement wife; maybe she needed a break.

Usually, the pattern seems to be that we'll see his patrol car on the curb and the black pickup in the driveway when we head to water aerobics. When we drive by an hour later, the patrol car is usually still there, and the pickup is gone, suggesting to our nosey minds that she is at work somewhere, and he gets to sleep in peace and quiet, after a night spent keeping Highway 6 relatively crime-free.

But today is Valentine's Day. We noticed on our return drive-by that his patrol care was still there, and so was the black pickup, suggesting, well, you know what it was suggesting. We both laughed and hoped the lovebirds had a good Valentine's Day. Even cops need love.

Vondell and I think we should find some subterfuge to knock on the door and see who actually lives there. We're too old to be selling Girl Scout cookies, so that won't work, and neither of us looks much like a meter reader. Maybe we need to rein in our imaginations. I just hope that we don't drive by some morning and see the patrol car gone and another car there, along with the black pickup. I'd hate to have to bang on the door and stage an intervention...

Or maybe we should drive down a different street and leave the poor cop alone.

Friday, February 11, 2011

How do I love museums

First, thank you, Amazon, for removing the crazy review. Nuff said.

Last May, for my birthday, my husband asked me what I wanted to do, and I said, "Go to the Mining and Railroad Museum in Helper." (Helper's a small town at the mouth of Price Canyon, about 14 miles from where I live.) I am a cheap date.

We went to the museum, and I started volunteering about a month later. What a cool place. It's a museum housed one of the old hotels (1914, I think), with a new annex. This winter, I've been doing research for the museum on an exhibit we're building called "The Shady Side of Helper."

Helper was a mining and railroad hub, with an active life between 1900 and 1950. And I do mean active. Miners came from all over the world to work the mines in Carbon County. Helper even had a Japanese boarding house, and Kabuki Theatre was performed when traveling troopes went through. Kabuki in Helper: hard to imagine.  There were Poles, Slovenians, Italians, Cypriots, Welsh of course, Greeks (many) - a whole United Nations of miners in Helper and Price, and the numerous coal camps.

Helper was a hard-living town, with brothels and bordellos catering to the male population, many of them single men far from home. The main street was lined with hotels, many of which had brothels on the second floor. In fact, the last brothel in Helper was shut down in 1976.  Saloons there were aplenty. I've been researching the prohibition era, and the law of the land doesn't seem to have made much of an impact on Helper.

In the interest of research and the museum, the director, Stephanie Fitzsimons (neat, neat lady), and I went to that former brothel (second floor, of course) and took photos. The building now belongs to the E Clampus Vitus Society - not sure what they do, but there seems to be alcohol involved and considerable conviviality - and the owner kindly let us see the second floor. Some of the rooms have been restored, with vivid wallpaper. Others still sport their original, rather garish paint of the Pepto-Bismal variety, or a flamboyant green that made me wince. I think there were some ten rooms on that second floor. The last madam's name was Babe, and she was a respected businesswoman in Helper.

A wicked past dies hard in conservative Utah. In 1965, when I was a freshman at Brigham Young University in Provo, the tame side of the state, we were advised not to cross the mountains to Carbon County and Price or Helper, because of the "evils" there. Oh, well. I really like living in Carbon County. There air is crisp and clear here, and I like summer's desert climate. Of course, humidity is so low that alligators have soft skin, compared to mine.

Helper was such a lively little town in former days. There are still plenty of mines in the area, but the ones closest to Helper have closed and been reclaimed. Now Helper is trying to reinvent itself as an artists' colony, and doing rather well. There is an annual artists' event in the summer that attracts those who paint and sculpt and those of us who buy, or wish we could (this would be moi).

I'm writing the copy and labels for the Shady Side of Helper exhibit. Last week was prohibition, and this week will be the "sporting ladies." Then it's on to saloons and gambling.  Gee, I guess Carbon County is corrupting me, after all. I volunteer once a week at the museum, and call it good.

In cause you're wondering, Helper was named after the helper engines: additional engines put onto a train - front, back and in the middle - to help the coal trains get over Soldier Summit, altitude 7,400 feet. Even today, it's quite a sight to see four engines in the front, six or more in the middle, and another two on the end of a coal train, all engines revved up and schlepping coal from one side of the state to the other.

If you're around and visit the museum, be sure to ask for your gift: a lump of coal. We have them neatly bagged with a little history about the area. I think some folks collect them for stockings, right before Christmas.

Actually, Carbon County is one of Utah's well-kept secrets. I like it here.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Scary time

Ooh, boy, the nuts are out. I thought I was prepared for reader angst that I'm not writing Regency Rmances anymore, and have decided to focus more on LDS-themed novels. I was wrong. There are only four reviews up on Amazon right now, and three are decidedly unhappy. That's OK; it's my choice to do what I'm doing.

But there is one that crossed the line, from Susan M. Choyce. She titled her review, Goodbye, Ms. Kelly! She freely expressed her disappointment and obvious dislike of Mormons, and that's her choice and privilege in a free society. She concluded by comparing my Regencies to Georgette Heyer's, which is high praise, indeed.

Trouble is, she ended this way: " you are both dead and gone. Farewell."

Frankly, that creeped me out, and sounded more than a bit unbalanced. Attacking my book is one thing, but wishing me dead and gone is quite another. I e-mailed Amazon immediately, explained the situation, and asked that they remove that review. I don't know if they can or will, but it scared me. So it goes.

On a much, much lighter note, Vondell (my water aerobics friend) and I went upstate to Orem today. She had a doctor's appointment at 11 a.m.  We are power shoppers and we had an hour to spend wisely before the appointment. We dropped in at the Distribution Center to buy a little white dress for her granddaughter. Since Vondell is raising her granddaughter and has adopted her, she is going to be sealed to her soon in the Manti Temple.

Next we powered over to Michael's, where I got a basket for my office and she tried to find gourds (no luck; wrong season). We made it to her appointment with 15 minutes to spare, and then we powered over to the Cinemark and saw the noon showing of The King's Speech. What a movie. Yes, there's some bad language, but it's integral to the plot. Not a wrong note anywhere in cast, script, direction, costumes.

I left the theatre with a renewed appreciation for Colin Firth (all right, girls: we know we loved him in Pride and Prejudice), and King George VI, a monarch with a stammer who became the symbol of the stalwart British nation during World War II. I've seen pictures of the king and his queen walking through bombed out rubble and chatting with their subjects, after a long night of air raids and destruction. What panache; what a king. It's a superb movie.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Torches and pitchforks

I'm afraid some of my long-time readers are breaking out the torches and pitchforks, because I seem to be abandoning the Regency. If it's any comfort to them, I have another Regency coming out sometime this year, called Choosing Rob Inman (at least until the publisher decides to call it something else). I'm finishing a three-story Christmas anthology that follows a family from the Regency era, to the Crimean War, to the Indian Wars in the U.S. Then my last novel for Harlequin on my current three-book contract is a novel set at Fort Laramie during the Great Sioux War, 1876-1877. (This should be fun. My personal favorite book is Here's to the Ladies: Stories of the Frontier Army, which contains many of my Fort Laramie stories. I worked there for several years as a park ranger, and it's a spot dear to my heart.)

And then it's on to two books for Cedar Fort, the first due in November, and the next one due in August, 2012, I think. It'll be a busy year.

I can assure you it's a little scary to be branching out into something besides Regencies, but it's also a pleasant change for me. I feel that if I keep writing Regencies, I'm going to get stale. There is only so much I want to say about that interesting era.

Since we moved to Utah in 2009, I've found myself fascinated all over again by my own kind, the LDS kind. There are plenty of competent LDS writers, and I think I'll have a good time in a new arena. I'll be 64 in May, but I have lots to write yet.  Readers are welcome to join me, and I hope some will. Readers are certainly free to choose what they want to read, and I suspect writers like that same freedom to write what they want to write.

I truly understand that tendency of readers to want what they're comfortable with. I do the same thing in my own reading. I really like crime fiction, and would be aghast if Michael Connelly, Robert Crais, Peter Robinson and James Lee Burke abandoned their tried and true characters. But having said that, Connelly did branch out a bit with Micky Haller, a defense lawyer, and Crais seems to be focusing more on Joe Pike. I'm fine with that.

So we shall see. I'm still pecking away at my computer, with a smile on my face.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Cowboys, gotta love them

Bidness first again: that Authorpalooza on Saturday at the Barnes and Noble in Sandy's South Towne Center, from 1-4. I have to chuckle about the event. I assured Emily Showgren at Cedar Fort that I would be at any and all events requested, but ONLY if it's not snowing at Soldier Summit. At 7,700 feet and with a little snow and wind action, it looks like Everest. When Emily e-mailed me yesterday, she mentioned that it looked like good weather at the Summit. Hope she's right, because I plan to be at the B&N as scheduled.

I'll probably drive over listening - and singing along - to cowboy music. I'm not a country/western fan - wait, I take that back. For some weird reason that I have never understood, I listened to Country Music Television during the year I was writing my thesis. I'd get home from class and work, turn on CMT, and start writing. For another weird reason, I wrote that sucker in long hand. Don't know why. Well, maybe I do. Taking time, slow page by slow page, meant a good thesis. I haven't listened to CMT since, though. (Want to know the world's greatest pick up line among historians? "Hey, I read your thesis." No joke. Someone told me that. He's still a friend.)

But I do like cowboy music. My favorite singers are Michael Martin Murphey and Ian Tyson. MMM came to my attention recently. Last fall, he did a benefit concert in Angel Fire, New Mexico, for a Catholic school, I believe. My son Sam owns the Sunset Grille at Angel Fire, and told me that MMM was going to have dinner at his restaurant. As it turns out, he didn't, but I had sent Sam a copy of Here's to the Ladies: Stories ofthe Frontier Army, for Mr. Murphey. A little while later, Sam told me that MMM's hostess started reading the book, and gave it to him reluctantly. MMM very kindly autographed a CD for me ("Lone Cowboy") and sent it to me via his hostess.

I was so pleased that I sent another copy of Here's to the Ladies, to the hostess, whose name I can't recall. Whereupon she sent me another MMM-autographed CD called "Cowboy Blues." (At least, I think that's the title. I'd go out to my van and take a look at the title, but it's about 19 degrees out right now and my house is warmer.)

I told my son to let me know when MMM is in Angel Fire again. I'll happily drive that 8 1/2 hours, just to hear him sing in person. I might make him some of my world-class Cowboy Cookies, which have a certain fame in National Park Service circles.

Lest you think I'm not sufficiently cultured, I also enjoy Puccini operas, Handel's stuff, and just about anything by Bela Bartok. But when I want to sing along, it's to Michael Martin Murphey and Ian Tyson, my favorite Canadian singin' stockman. The older folks among us - that would be moi - might remember him from his Ian and Sylvia, folksinging days.

I like Murphey's song, "Vanishing Breed." It has a closing line, something about: "We're not vanishing. We're just hard to see from the Interstate." That's what I like, too. I-70 is 60 miles to the south and east, while I-15 is some 60 miles north and west. Perfect.

Hope I'm not boring you with this, but I have another favorite cowboy, besides Mr. Paul Otto. I knew him as Mr. Kaiser. He was a cowboy in Cody, Wyoming, my dad's home town, and a friend of my grandparents. Mr. Kaiser and his wife had settled down on a small farm just outside of town. I remember many a summer day when he'd ride his beautiful black horse to my grandparent's house, and tap on Grandma's kitchen window. She'd open it, and he'd lean in and hand her a quart of cream.

The Christmas I was four, Dad was in Thailand during the Korean War, and we were living with the grandparents in Cody. One of my Christmas presents was a little farm. There was a cowboy figure about two inches high. I named him Mr. Kaiser, and kept him for years. Yep. I love my cowboys, starting with Mr. Kaiser.