Eva Saulitis: Into Great Silence

Originally published on Blogger’s World, January 17, 2017.


Image taken from greenandgold.uaa.alaska.edu

It was a wonderful holiday break–two weeks of relaxed days, of visits and calls and family time. I spent long evenings reading in front of the fireplace in the living room, my sock feet aimed at the fireplace, the snapping warmth of the flames toasting my soles. I had a small stack of books I’d been longing to read, and I charged right through them, savoring, enjoying. I worked my way down to a couple of copies of The Sun, a favorite magazine, and one that requires care and attention in the reading.

I opened The Sun, started the first article about a woman who talked to whales, and I met Eva Saulitis.

Eva Saulitis was a marine biologist and a creative writer. She started tracking orcas in 1988, the year before the Exxon Valdez spilled its load of oil into the Alaska seas; she started tracking a certain pod of transient whales in pristine waters and in environments brimming with wildlife. By the time she returned the following year, wildlife populations were devastated, coated with oil, unable to survive, and many of those that did, unable to propagate. Saulitis’s work became not the study of a thriving orca group, but the chronicling of their demise. Saulitis and her partner, Craig Matkin, watched the transient whales for thirty-five years. They watched them dwindle, they watched them die; they knew they were audience to a species becoming extinct.

And Saulitis, in her forties, learned that she had breast cancer. “I came to believe,” she writes in Into Great Silence, “that the place and the whales played a part in rescuing me. Not in some mystical sense, but simply by existing, with or without me. They saved me, though I can’t save them.”

She fought through that bout of cancer, but the disease lay in wait, and it returned with a vengeance. Last year, that cancer ended Saulitis’s life. She was 52 years old.

Reading The Sun, I discovered that Eva Saulitis grew up in a village six miles from mine. She was born in 1963, when I was eight years old, and it is quite possible that we played on the same beaches and ate ice cream cones from the same soft-serve stands. The Sun included an essay by Saulitis; I learned that she picked grapes as a child, earning what seemed like riches for each crate filled.  And breathing in, she noted, whatever kind of noxious spray was considered the best for de-bugging fruit back in that day.

I picked grapes in those fields, too, eating them right off the vines, filling the plastic crates and toting them to the end of the row for the flirtatious boys to pick up on their way to the barn. Those were days of innocence and champagne air and crisp autumnal potential. Saulitis, a scientist at heart, speculates about the seeds of her cancer being sown in those halcyon times.

She went to the same undergrad school as I did before she transferred to Syracuse, and then, when she graduated, she headed to Alaska with her biology degree. She found work in a fish hatchery, and she found a home and a calling.

Saulitis would go on to earn a Master of Science degree from the University of Alaska at Fairbanks; she would realize, as she came to know the orca troop she documented, that she could not be just an objective observer. She began to write about her feelings as well as her findings. She went back to the University and earned a second master’s, an MFA.

She and Craig settled in Homer, Alaska, and she became a teacher of composition and creative writing as well as a watcher of whales.

And she wrote. She chronicled her days by writing creative non-fiction and she dealt with her illness head-on in her poetry. Her words are crisp and bright and spare; they earned her the Alaska Governors’s Award in Humanities for Arts and Letters.

In her obituary, Saulitis is remembered as an outstanding person, a dedicated scientist…and as a woman who made everything she did, every place she visited, fun.

I needed to hear the voice of a woman who grew up so near to my own childhood place, who shared many of the experiences of being a part of that land, and who then chose an intrepid and unique path. I found a Barnes and Noble gift card nestled in the toe of my stocking; I found a 20 per cent off coupon in my email, and I got online and ordered Into Great Silence.

The book is a wonderful read, the story of a girl becoming a woman, the story of an environment being poisoned, the story of a person finding a voice. It is a story filled with sadness and joy and beauty and personal loss.  And it is achingly well-told.

Thank goodness for those moments in time that let us discover new voices. I will track down Saulitis’s more recent memoir, Becoming Earth, when I finish Into Great Silence. I will collect her poetry. I will savor hearing the clear, true voice of a hero, an adventurer, a pioneer, and a prophet. Her words are music, and they are warning. She tells us a story; she shows us our misuse of this earth.

Her years were too few; thank goodness she left us the gift of her words.


Reading a Witness to History: Adela Rogers St. John


Janelle’s emails were siren songs:

There are remaindered books in the back room at the library. Today’s books are American literature. Please come and help yourself.

I won’t go, I vowed. I do not need any more books. I swear I am not going to go…

…Wait. I am across campus with an empty canvas bag swinging from my arm.

Well. In that case: maybe I’ll just look.

I slinked into the library, waved sheepishly to my peeps, and plunged into the back room. There were treasures there too precious to ignore and too wonderful to leave behind.


I just read The Honeycomb, plunder from that day, an autobiography by Adela Rogers St. John. Her name was familiar, but I had never read her work; when I picked up the volume, stroked the spine, opened the cover to look at  the pages of pictures, I was hooked. This was a groundbreaking woman: a journalist when few women wore that mantle, and a witness and a chronicler of some of the most fascinating history of the first half of the twentieth century.

St. John was born in 1894; her father was a renowned defense attorney. Her mother was absentee. Adela, known as Nora as a child, grew up in a world created and defined by her father. Her familiars included detectives and madams, boxers and reporters.

It’s interesting that she frames her life story in the context of Pilgrim’s Progress.  She flails through controversy, painstakingly records history, courts scandal and notoriety, and ends her life as an ordained minister.


St. John was one of the first well-known women journalists. She declined to go to college; her father told her she’d better have a trade then, and he connected her with William Randolph Hearst. Hearst was an innovator and a prophet; he took a chance on a female writer, and he benefited from her unique way of expressing herself. From her first job with the San Francisco Examiner, readers loved her voice and style.

St. John would bound back and forth between kinds of writing during her career. As, even when married, the main support of her family, she found ways to bring home the bacon even when she couldn’t work a 9 to 5 job. So she wrote in-depth features, and she did interviews with Hollywood stars that earned her the title of Mother Confessor. She wrote movie scripts–pretty well-known ones, well-acclaimed ones, like the script for A Star is Born. She wrote short stories to pay the rent; she notes that her Hollywood features were sanitized, but, in the stories, she could disguise and present the truth. She wrote books of fiction and she wrote the story of her father’s life and of her own.

And along the way, she was witness and chronicler of some of the most amazing history of the first half of the twentieth century. St. John did a stint as a sports feature writer–Hearst wanted someone who didn’t understand the games to write for an audience that, unlike today’s, was often unfamiliar with football or basketball or boxing. So she covered the Dempsey-Tunney long count fight.

She went undercover as a poor women and wrote about the real life plight of single, unemployed women during the Depression.

She had a front row seat at the trial of Bruno Hauptmann, the alleged killer-kidnapper of the Lindbergh baby. She befriended Huey Long; she was in Washington when he was assassinated. She covered the long, sad story of Edward the VII’s abdication to marry twice-divorced Wallis Simpson. She was there at the Democratic National Convention of 1940, when FDR was tapped to run for a fourth term.


She befriended Marion Davies, WR Hearst’s long-time lady love, but she gave fair footage to Hearst’s wife, as well. She was rumored to have borne Clark Gable’s baby. She traveled in exotic circles, dropping names like Mabel Normand and  Louis Bromfield and Rudee Vallee and Rudolph Valentino. She became a subject of controversy when she went to court for custody of her children, and when she went to court to commit her aging, ailing father to a home.

St. John married and divorced three times; she adopted a child as a single woman, after her last divorce. She lived on the east coast and on the west coast. She came out of retirement in 1976 to cover Patty Hearst’s bank robbery, trial, and conviction–reporting on the granddaughter of the man she revered, and who launched and supported her career. And, in her latter years, although she doesn’t discuss this in the book, she found religion and became a minister. A fitting ending, though, to a pilgrim’s progress.

She claims to have known dark secrets. She was honest about the people she met, admitting that she didn’t much care for Wallis Simpson, and that Huey Long was a careening, unsteady man. She respected strong women, like Anne Morrow Lindbergh and Eleanor Roosevelt. She lost a son and a baby brother in World War II.


I finished her book with questions and doubts, but I am glad to have read it, and I look forward to reading Final Verdict, St. John’s story of her father’s life as the top defense lawyer in the United States…and his battles with his own demons.

She is funny and thoughtful and cagey and open in her writing, is Adela Rogers St. John. The Honeycomb was thoroughly engrossing. And reading her book is a reminder that there are amazing authors out there to be discovered, that rich and rewarding books remain hidden, waiting to be found.

My eyes are open; I’m scanning the horizon. I wonder who I’ll meet next.


(All photos from open-source internet sites.)

A Cozy Bit of Time Travel with Katharine Neville

It was a holiday season that seemed perfect for a little time travel. The weather was sloppy; real travel was limited. We searched for classic Christmas movies, and I found a treasure–a copy of The Gathering (circa 1977) on DVD. I’d watched The Gathering on television 40 years ago–loved the adaptation of the classic Scrooge tale: a grumbling, repentant Ed Asner. A wounded but lovingly loyal Maureen Stapleton. The reluctant but inevitable return, one by one, of their adult children, for a final family Christmas.

This time, I watched the film with a new ping of recognition–the town where The Gathering was filmed, Chagrin Falls, is an Ohio town, home to a favorite indie bookstore. Chagrin Falls was not a place I knew when first I watched the movie. And the clothes and the politics and the runaway draft-dodger son–all that took me back to the 1970’s.  With this comfortable 40-year perspective, the time travel was fun.

So I decided to open a book my friend Elinor, a wise and far-reaching reader, had recommended. It was The Eight, by Katharine Neville. Published in 1988, the book was set in 1972…and in the 1790’s. Elinor had recommended it, saying there was a sudden resurgence of interest. I had a scrap left on an Amazon gift card, and that shard was enough to bring me a nicely used hardcover copy.

Our classic movie fest over, we opened up the fireplace and cranked up the gas fire on a holiday break evening.  The dog eased herself over in front of the fire, and I pulled the old round ottoman close to my reading chair. I sank into the chair, and I sank in to the book. Snow fell outside; the firelight flickered and soothed. The dog snored. And I time-traveled once again.

Cat, Neville’s protagonist, is an early days computer expert. Her work took me back to days of registering for classes by gathering punch cards from tables–here was the English table, and, hallelujah, there was still a card left for the 10:00 section of Novels and Tales. A women’s history course at 11, right next door. The necessary though dreaded section of math. Some of the classes I wanted yielded empty boxes, and then I had to go searching for a suitable substitute–a needed but interesting class, with a reportedly tolerable professor. When I was done, I would take my  stack of four or five class cards to the table by the door, and fill in the pertinent info–name and major, address and phone. A student worker would sort through the cards and insure I hadn’t created any time conflicts for myself, and then she’d put them in a long, long box with thousands of other students’ punch cards. A staff member from the bursar’s office would take my check, and I would walk out into the sunlight of the quad.

A week or so later, my schedule for the next semester would arrive in the mail at my parents’ house. And I would marvel at the quickness of the process–a process that took a month in my freshman year because all was done by hand.

Those computers, we said; those are wonderful things.

That was the kind of work Cat was doing in The Eight–programming room-sized computers, navigating piles of punch cards to get her programs to work.

Here is another wonderful thing: realizing just how far we have come in what is not really a big chunk of time.

The Eight is anchored in chess, a game I have never been able to wrap my head around. Neville presents the play and the pursuit so alluringly, though, that I think perhaps I’ll get a book and read at least enough to understand the goals and the strategies.

But The Eight is as much about a particular chess set as it is about the game’s play. This chess set was a gift to Charlemagne, and its precious, finely crafted pieces carry an infamous, seductive curse.  The Eight winds back and forth between the emergence of the set from hiding in the late 1700’s–stowed in a nunnery in the mountains of France, endangered by the licentious anti-religious zealotry of the French Revolution, and then appearing again in modern times to embroil Cat in an international game of cat and mouse, a romance, and a mystery.

It’s a satisfying fireside read, The Eight is. The story is good, and the book explores relations between the United States and the USSR, and between the Middle East and the whole world. It’s a reminder that the struggles of today have deep, deep roots. The book is hefty at 550 pages, but it zips along.

I went to a newer, faster computer to find out more about Katharine Neville, and I discovered she maintains a webpage at http://www.katharineneville.com. She has four fat books in print; The Fire (2008) is the sequel to The Eight, and features the children of The Eight’s main characters as protagonists. I write that down in my note book, add it to my “Find These Books” list.

The other books are The Magic Circle (1998) and A Calculated Risk (1992).

Neville says quest is the theme of all her writing. “Whether our quest is an adventure of the mind or spirit, or a voyage by sea, air or land–it’s often the journey itself that changes us in surprising and alchemical ways,” she writes. Certainly, The Eight has a journey theme, with treacherous mountain hikes, and ships bounced about about stormy seas, airplane travel into dangerous lands…and travel from youth into maturity, from girl into deeply loving, boldly daring, woman.

I find, on the website, that Neville’s work was called, by Publishers’ Weekly, “a feminist answer to Indiana Jones.” I find, too, that the book is becoming a film, due out, I think, this spring–no doubt the reason for the resurgence of interest Elinor noted.

I’ll go see the film. I’ll track down The Fire. I may dabble in the play of chess and see if, forty years later, my mind has stretched to encompass the kind of thinking necessary to embark on that journey.

And I’ll shelve The Eight. It’s the kind of book to share with a friend, the kind of book that makes a good re-read a few years hence, when the wind howls and there is, again, a fire in the grate.

It’s been nice, this winter, to revisit the time of my youth, and to travel to exotic places I’ve never seen. I shelf The Eight and I turn to a little weightier reading, some history and some memoir; refreshed by adventure, I’m ready now to return to the present, and to read myself a challenge.

Drowning in the Moonlight (Mourning Carrie Fisher)

Now I think that this would make for a fantastic obit–so I tell my younger friends that no matter how I go, I want it reported that I drowned in moonlight, strangled by my own bra.
Carrie Fisher, Wishful Drinking


We were driving to the library, James and I, when both of our phones pinged.  It was Jim’s dad, my husband Mark, texting. He was letting us know that Carrie Fisher had just died.

“No way!” said Jim. “No way!”

Carrie Fisher had recently been a presence in our minds, and not just because of that last shimmering scene in Rogue One. (I thought that was CGI, but one of my young techie colleagues informed me that, no, that was a real actor, a Norwegian artist named Ingvild Deila. There was a little CGI involved, I guess–hence the shimmer,–but mostly it was amazing resemblance, great make-up, and good acting.)

I had been reading reviews of Fisher’s new book, The Princess Diarist, a lot, lately, too. The reviews were all positive–positive about her writing, admiring of her honesty. This new book is where Fisher talks about her affair, during Star Wars, with Harrison Ford. And I realized, for the first time–I’d never considered her age before–that she was only 19 when she burst into fame as Leia. (She was, in fact, less than a year younger than I am.)

And of course, the news that Fisher’d had a heart attack brought us up short, too, but we were glad to read reports, originating with Debbie Reynolds, that she was resting comfortably and on the mend.

So we were shocked, of course–everyone must have been,–by the news that Carrie Fisher was dead. We pulled up to the library, Jim and me, and we just sat for a bit, and then we opened the car doors, stepped out, went inside. I looked ‘Carrie Fisher’ up in the card catalog, and I found two of her books. I found them, and I brought them home. One is a novel, The Best Awful. I set that aside and opened the memoir, Wishful Drinking (copyright 2008).

Wishful Drinking is slim and wry and infinitely readable. The Carrie Fisher I meet there is someone worth getting to know. She has had a tough life; she has had a privileged life. She’s aware of both the challenges and the privilege. She approaches both with a self-deprecating humor that never once shirks responsibility.

I learn about her childhood, daughter of America’s sweethearts–she compares Eddie and Debbie to Brad and Jennifer; Liz-the-home-wrecker, to Angelina. That was how upset folks were, she says. And of course, the split and the absence of her father (who, she says, smokes four joints a day. She calls Eddie Fisher ‘Puff Daddy’) was a painful part of growing up.

She is dancing in a chorus for one of Debbie’s shows by the time she is thirteen. She is drinking and smoking pot by then, too.

She is in rehab, in a twelve step program, by the time she’s thirty. (One of the realities of the disease that is addiction, says a colleague of mine who runs residential facilities for addicts in recovery, is relapse. Celebrate the sober times, and deal with the relapse times, he recommends. Fisher notes that she, true to the course of the disease, has had her victories and her relapses.)

“You know,” she quips, “how they say that religion is the opiate of the masses? Well, I took masses of opiates religiously.”

I learn about Fisher’s mental illness, an illness her drug and alcohol dependencies masked until she’d gotten those under control. Fisher was bipolar; she talks about her highs and her lows. She writes that what made life bearable for her was electroshock therapy.

“…ECT,” she writes, “has forced me to rediscover what amounts to the sum total of my life. I find that a lot of it fills me with a kind of giddy gratitude.” She finds, too, that the treatment that restored her to function also stole many of her memories.

It is, she thinks, a worthwhile, trade.

Be careful, she writes, mocking common wisdom: be careful, because mental illness might be catchy. “So what do I do, because I’m a good hostess (except for the Greg thing)–I provide my guests with bibs. So they don’t get my crazy juice all over their nice clothes.”

(I bet visiting her was fun. She is, in her writing, an honest, bitterly funny, advocate for the mentally ill.)

I learn about her marriages, to Paul Simon, and to Bryan Lourd, who later realized he was gay. But, in the interim of their marriage, they created a beloved daughter, Billie.

I am six months older than Carrie Fisher; you know I think she was way too young to go. And Billie, who must be in her twenties now, is much too young to lose her mother.

Fisher was close to her own mother, Debbie Reynolds; in fact, Reynolds bought a house next door to her daughter, and they were woven into each other’s daily lives. One can hope that Reynolds and Billie are tremendous comforts to each other. Between the lines of her writing, I read clearly that Fisher adored them both, was vastly proud of them both.

And of course, she writes about Star Wars. Star Wars, which informed the childhood of both of our boys, 14 years apart in this blended family. We saw the originals in the theater; we splurged on the boxed set of VHS tapes when we finally got a VCR. We watched those many, many times. We graduate to DVD’s, and then to the digitally re-mastered DVD’s.

We argued about the worth of episodes 1,2, and 3. We agreed on episode seven–all of us loved it. As we did Rogue One, and that shimmery appearance of Leia at the end.

Nineteen, Fisher was when Star Wars started. I think she tells more of that story in her new book, which I am determined now to track down. She mentions here, in Wishful Drinking, that Harrison Ford brought her the pot that made her quit smoking pot…it dragged her into dark and troubled places, and she began a search for her new drug of choice. And she writes about the experience of working with Ford and Mark Hamill.

Remember the trash compacter scene? She tells a wonderful story about doing takes knee deep in clean water floating with garbage rendered in rubber. The monster that swarms up to suffocate Luke is a Dianoga, although I don’t know that its name is ever mentioned in the film.

Between takes, she writes, Hamill was playing with a piece of rubber garbage when inspiration struck. He proffered it toward George Lucas, singing, “Pardon me, George! Is this a Dianoga poo-poo?”

They all, she said, collapsed in laughter. But she acknowledges that you might have needed to be there to see all of the riveting humor.

There’s more, of course; this slim and compelling book is packed with encounters and bon mots and Fisher’s wicked, self-deprecating humor.  Some of that humor is black; she writes, more than once, of her own death.

“Speaking of graves,” she says, “I tell my young friends that one day they’ll be at a bar playing pool and they’ll look up at the television and there will be a picture of Princess Leia with two dates underneath, and they’ll say, ‘awww–she said that would happen.’ And then they’ll go back to playing pool.”

And she’s right in a way, and she’s wrong in a way. She’s right that life goes on–that most insulting truth of death is that the waters close in almost instantaneously, so it’s hard to find the space where that vibrant presence had been just a precious moment ago.

But she’s wrong in thinking people won’t be changed. Her words and her images, her forthright honesty, and her unflinching self-disclosures, have all made an impact. Princess Leia lives on, iconic, reaching out to meet a new generation. And Carrie Fisher, the actor and the woman who created Leia, lives on, too.

Both of them were leaders, in my view. Both of them fought successful battles. And both of them are heroes.


All quotes in this review are from Wishful Drinking. Wishful Drinking image taken from fustians.blogspot.com

Against All Odds, Change Can Happen



It was a stunning community event. Sam Quinones, the author of Dreamland, (which focuses, largely, on the devastation the opioid epidemic had on Portsmouth, Ohio, a community not so far from here) was speaking at the city’s auditorium. He had spent a day talking–talking to doctors and parents and residential care workers, to case workers and students, to everyone and anyone connected with the seeping stain that black tar heroin is spreading in southern and central Ohio.

Now he addressed a crowd that almost filled an auditorium which seats, without irony, 1,776. His talk was moving and compelling, but then a panel of people whose lives were directly and irrevocably tied to opioids followed him. Theirs were the stories that hushed the crowd, that brought tears, and that pulled out anguished questions.

There was a mother on the panel who knows her son is safe now: he’s in prison. There was a pastor who has made fighting addiction and poverty his twin missions. There was a man who runs residential homes for recovering addicts. And there were four addicts in recovery who stood and told their stories:

Didn’t ever intend to get hooked, but couldn’t help it. Had to have it.

Bad company.

Started stealing–from stores and  public places, then from friends, and then finally, from family.

Relationships cracked and shattered; the kids, taken away. The legal system. Jail time.

Rehab and relapse. Trying again and again.

The loss of trust. It was a theme each of them spoke to. Some, further away from the addiction’s hold, were loudly encouraging.

“It’s hard! But it can be done! Don’t give up hope!”

Others, still fragile, talked about the future.

“I love my parents. I hope they can trust me again one day.”

“In a year, I’ll still be clean, and I hope to get my children back.”

Their messages were like prayers written on scraps of prayer and flung into the wind: Let this be true. Let this be true.

In the aftermath of this event, in a community where the problem races, I went looking for things to read and found David Sheff’s beautiful boy (2008, Houghton Mifflin.)

Sheff writes about his son, Nicolas, the child of his first marriage. Nic is a bright, creative spirit. Nic, without his father’s knowledge, gets drunk for the first time at age 11–on a family vacation, a wholesome outdoorsy family time, with a friend they’d brought along so the boy wouldn’t be bored. He slides into other experimentation, and winds up firmly and defiantly addicted to methamphetamine and heroin.

Sheff details what addiction does to a family, and to a parent. He dissects all of his failings–his immaturity during his first marriage. The fighting. The times he brought strange women home when Nic was a tiny child, women the boy would never see again.

Sheff remarried, to a a woman who cared deeply about Nic; the new union produced a boy and a girl, little people whom Nic, the book tells us, adores. He told his little siblings stories–they had a whole imaginary world that they explored. He took them to playgrounds; he was a protector and a confidante.

And he stole eight dollars from his little brother’s piggy bank when he was desperate to score.

Sheff’s is a story of hope and anguish: the rehab program that promises a way out. The call that his boy has checked out, disappeared, given up. Nic’s resurfacing, in a dingy apartment, with a girlfriend who uses, too. Sheff writes about going to see a son who can barely rouse himself to answer the door. He writes about standing in the doorway of the apartment and not entering. The floor, he writes, was covered in some kind of brown liquid.

Another rehab, a surge of hope, a year of sobriety. A relapse, and despair. The cycle repeats often enough that Sheff’s family gives up, and Sheff finds himself on the brink of that tough love decision: You’re on your own. I just can’t do this anymore.

But he and Nic’s mother decide to try one more intervention. They get Nic into a different program in a different place. This one seems to work. The book ends with Nic’s recovery.

I look Nic up to see if he is still okay, and I find that he himself has written two books about his addiction, and that he and his dad are on the lecture circuit, talking about the addiction, what it does to people, what it does to families. It’s a relief to see he’s doing well.

Because a man I know, a social worker who works with recovering addicts, says that relapse is part of this illness. And addiction IS an illness, he stresses. Maybe, yes, the addict did make that first choice–chose to smoke it or pop it or shoot it into a vein–for whatever reason: loneliness, desperation, acceptance, daring. But after that, says this man, biology kicks in. This was not the person to experiment: this person had an addict’s genes.

Addiction is no respecter of class or economic status. We all know people who have succumbed.

Like mental illness, with which it often cohabits, addiction is a disease with unsavory and odd behaviors attached, and so, instead of sympathy and help, society often offers judgement and condemnation. It’s hard not to react bitterly when someone you trust steals from you. Or when someone threatens–and sometimes follows through–to hurt you.

I think of all the programs Sheff tried, of his reluctant acquiescence to therapy for himself and his wife.  I think of the people on the stage after Quinones spoke. And I think this is an illness, a problem, an epidemic, that people cannot handle themselves. Addicts cannot tough it out to personal recovery, and families cannot hide their woe. It is no solitary quest.

It’s takes a village: that’s Quinones’ message. If I had to boil Sheff’s down, I would say it’s this, Don’t give up hope, but get help, get help, get help.

Savoring These Dog Days

Lily and the Octopus, by Steven Rowley


(Image from Barnes and Noble.com)

The little dog, Greta, sits restlessly beside me as I tap on my IPad. She is throat breathing urgently at me. She wants me to get up and get her a coin of chilly hot dog from the freezer. That’s her preferred treat for performing nobly her outdoor duties. She is being a pain in the neck, but I’m kind of glad to see it. Two weeks ago, I had her at the vet.

Then, I was worried. She had a lump on her shoulder. She’d developed a redness on her lower back, which meant she was itching furiously all night long. When she finally slept, she would murmur and yip.

Something is wrong with my dog, I thought.

And it occurred to me that Greta is elderly. We got her from the pound, a rescue dog who’d been dumped, ten years ago. One vet thought she was ten months then; another pegged her at two years. An eye-blink, and my rascally pup is a ‘senior dog.’ Another flicker, and she’s downright elderly.

But the vet trip was relieving. The lump is benign, and all the other symptoms are treatable. We came home, we dispensed medication, and then I wrote a blog post about realizing my ‘puppy’ was entering the twilight days. (https://pamkirstblog.wordpress.com/2016/10/15/dont-lets-go-to-the-vets-tonight/)

My niece Meg commented on the post. Have you read Lily and the Octopus? she asked.

I hadn’t, but I had read a review–a very positive one. So when I took Jim to the library and saw Lily sitting unclaimed on the ‘Large Print–New’ shelf, I snarfed it up.


Lily and the Octopus is the story of Ted, a gay man in his early forties, and Lily, his 12-year-old dachshund. One day Ted looks at Lily, and he sees the octopus sitting smugly on her noggin, tentacles extended around her cranium. Ted goes into full fight mode. The book is the story of his battle with the octopus. Time, that eternal referee, gets to decide the outcome.

Rowley has a website: http://www.stevenrowley.com. His bare-bones biography tells me that, like his protagonist Ted, Rowley is from the east coast and now lives in LA. He has worked as a screenwriter and as a freelancer.

I want there to be a blurb that tells us that Lily is based on Rowley’s own dog, and the tale on his own experience. I do a quick browse, and I don’t immediately find that.

I remember wrangles in English classes–does knowing the author’s history inform the reading or does that knowledge change–maybe even corrupt–the reading? Should the work be considered in the context of an author’s life, and of the times and culture, or should the work stand whole and pristine without an exploration of outside influences? The work’s the thing, said my prof. I always voted for researching the author.

Whatever: Lily and the Octopus is a compelling read.

I liked it because it’s an unapologetically gay, down-to-earth, male point of view. At the beginning of the book, the narrator and the dog are talking about hot male actors. So I, of course, assume the narrator is female. It’s not until the narrative voice mentions its shoe size–I believe it was a 13–that I think, Oh. Wait.

Privilege, perhaps, made me assume the voice I heard was female. Making the switch made me realize how much I had in common with that voice. It made me note the differences offered, too.

I remember a prof from my undergrad years saying you could mark a civil rights movement’s maturity and success by the vitriol in its literature. The literature of an emerging movement is harsh, violent, full of invective and obscenity.  As the literature grows into acceptance, the voice becomes matter-of-fact: of course, I am reading the intimate thoughts of a Black activist, a Native American woman, a gay man. Of course I am, because that voice belongs to my neighbor. To one of us.

Apart from the rich and compelling story, Lily and the Octopus shows me that.

But the story IS the thing, here; it’s Ted’s love story with Lily, who has been with him from his late twenties to his early forties. Talk about a time of maturing. Ted has gone past a relationship that didn’t nurture. He’s defined friendships and family ties and career aspirations. He has created a life, a grown-up’s way of being.

Lily is firmly at the center of that life, and Lily is patently dying.

Ted’s battle springs mythic; he fights the octopus with medicine and with cunning. He fights it on the rug at his apartment and he fights it on the vast open sea of his imagination. He fights it through Lily’s seizures and her blindness and her pain. He fights until fighting any more would be cruel and wrong.

Lily and the Octopus is heart-breaking and hope inducing. Like another lovely dog book recommended to me by a special young woman, A Dog’s Purpose (my granddaughter Alyssa recommended that one), Lily suggests that our beloved dogs don’t leave us when we die. Instead, they find a way to herd us to where we need to be.

Lily makes Ted a promise. After her death, she keeps it.

I like me that kind of book.

I stretch my leg under the dining room table and my foot nudges Greta’s rump. She huffs at me, and I massage the side she’s presented to me gently. She is not an icon, this little dog; she is neurotic and anti-social and needy. But she is part of the fabric of our lives. These dogs: their stays with us are integral, and too, too short-lived.

Lily and the Octopus helps me appreciate that. I’ll take the current veterinary reprieve; we’ll administer the arthritis medication and we’ll shampoo for the itch. And I’ll try, every day, to celebrate these healthy, rich, annoying, loving days.

Lily and the Octopus reminds me: dog days don’t last forever.

A Future Spins From an Uncertain Past

    In a Different Key: The Story of Autism (John Donvan and Caren Zucker)


What IS autism anyway???


It never once occurred to me that Jim’s autism might have been caused by a vaccine.

He was a healthy, smiling, beautiful baby. His differences were noticeable as he grew into toddlerhood and beyond. He had all-consuming interests that did not include socializing with his peers. He slept poorly. He had digestion issues. He was extremely particular about his food. He wanted to watch the same videos over and over and over again. He read early, and then he wanted to read the same book ALL the time.

Jim wasn’t diagnosed with Asperger’s (which, failing as a diagnosis, then became PDD-NOS) until he was 16, but in the years leading up to that he struggled with school and with routine and with obsessive behaviors. The diagnosis was in many ways a relief; it gave his struggles a name and a rationale. It gave him–and us– a way forward, through working with some very good docs and counselors, through reading as much as we could find on the subject, through learning to reach out.

And through a great deal of trial and error.

In all that reading, of course I read about the vaccine theory. I could see both its logical and its rational appeal.  The happy smiling baby grew into a distressed uncommunicative child. The change and the shot were pretty closely timed.

We’re parents; we’re protectors. We look around and we want to know why. We want to know who’s responsible–what dragon did this to my child? Then we want to gather up our swords and shields and go out and slay that damned dragon.

But the vaccine wasn’t our dragon, clearly, because I looked around my family and saw glimmers and echoes of autism. Oh, maybe not full-blown, but that peculiar ability to concentrate on one thing for unending periods of time, to the exclusion of everything else–that was all over the place.

And I was always fascinated by other kids’ mothers, who went out to lunch, got their hair done regularly, or enjoyed shopping with “the girls.” My mother seemed to have little need for friends. She stayed home with her books. She plunged into interests—upholstery, cake decorating, knitting—passionately. After a while, one interest would run its course. There would be a lull, and then a new passion would come along to fill its place.

But she was happy, for the most part; my parents were devoted to each other, and one’s gifts augmented the other’s needs. So my mom was quirky and prickly and different. So what?

The same food sensitivities and sleep issues and brilliance that couldn’t translate into academic success twined through the lives of many of my kin. In Jim, these issues and challenges seem to settle and entrench. Where there were fragments and hints in others, Jim’s characteristics were loud and present and often interfered with his ability to cope.

So, even when he was young and undiagnosed and struggling, I knew where his challenges ‘came from.’ When he got older, and his differences acquired a name, we began the slow and sometimes frustrating challenge of helping him cope with those differences, with that diagnosis, in a world that didn’t often make sense to him.

We had a name for the condition; we had professionals who could offer help. We had services. Jim qualified for help through the local mental health agencies; autism IS in the DSM. But he also qualified for some services through the local development disabilities board. Autism falls under that classification, too.

I realized, really, how little I knew about autism, beyond the impact it has on Jim’s life. I decided it was time to start reading. I read a lot of memoir and biography–Tim Page and John Elder Robison and Born on a Blue Day. I read Oliver Sacks and Temple Grandin and thought what it would be like to feel like an alien in your birthplace. The theme, if there was a theme, in these books was, “Find your niche.” And Jim, with his passion for movies and his affinity for computers and video games and his love of words and bewilderment about numbers, tried hard to do just that; these successful folks with the same sort of mindset were beacons for him and for us.

But we still had questions about the nature of the beast.  And then two fat books appeared on shelves in the last year: Neurotribes by Steve Silberman and In a Different Key by John Donvan and Caren Zucker. I read Neurotribes last spring, and then, on a rainy day at Barnes and Noble,  I found the other book.


I just finished In a Different Key, which starts and ends with Donald Triplett. In the first chapter, the authors call him “Autism’s first child.” Donald was an odd little boy who defined the people he knew in terms of colors. He was born in 1933 in Forest, Mississippi, and he was one of the first United States children to be diagnosed, by Dr. Leo Kanner, with autism.

A Different Key uses Donald Triplett’s birth as a leaping off point for a thorough and readable and fast-paced exploration of autism. It starts with a scientific community waking to the phenomenon; it travels through a time, when parents, especially mothers, were blamed for inflicting the condition on their children. Donvan and Zucker expose poseurs and greedy practitioners and cruelty and competitiveness. They document the drive and love of families determined to find answers and make a difference. They take us through the furor caused by the vaccine theory–a theory many smart and savvy people adhere to today.

We meet the people who brought autism to public awareness. we meet people who used the diagnosis as a springboard for their own agenda’s launch.

The authors bring us to today, when neurodiversity is a new movement, when high-functioning and gifted people with autism diagnoses are demanding recognition. These folks see autism as difference, not defect. They are offended by those who continue to insist that it’s caused by a vaccine, a fever, or a chemical. They don’t want a ‘cure.’ They want acceptance of people whose brains just work differently than the majority’s.

So what IS autism? Is it an illness? It certainly seems to drag mental illness along with it. Many, if not most, people with autism battle major depressive order. Many are obsessive compulsive.

I wonder, though, if those ancillary illnesses are biological or environmental– if they’re not the result of individuals living in societies that seem strange and incomprehensible. If I had to live that way, I’d probably be depressed, too, and I’d probably rely on repeated routines to cope.

And certainly, many people with autism also struggle with developmental issues. Those that are mute clearly need to learn ways of communication. Some concepts seem particularly tough to grasp; the abstract quality of numbers is an insurmountable wall for Jim, whose vast vocabulary surely exceeds my own.

There’s a huge part of me that just wants someone–some expert–to tell me just exactly what it is we’re dealing with here. Give it to me straight, the good and the bad, and don’t make us reinvent the wheel at every stage of my son’s challenging, interesting life.

Jim is 26 now. He finished high school on schedule, with no learning accommodations, but in a welcoming atmosphere where he could eat his lunch in a quiet room and leave the choir concert when he was overcome by panic. And then he struggled, through courses at two community colleges and job placements and career coaches and government agencies that didn’t quite have the right answers. There is not a clear road map, once high school is done, for autistic adults.

So many are struggling at home, unemployed, with few friends or connections, playing video games, surfing the Net. Some are depressed and lonely.

But there are flares of hope, too–programs like Bittersweet Farms in Ohio that provide day services, employment, and housing for the autistic adults they serve. Colleges begin to offer programs specific to the diagnosis. A day will come when autism isn’t lumped with developmental delays (unless appropriate) or with recovery services (unless appropriate.) Perhaps the gift of being here, now, is that we–adult people with autism, and those that love and care for them–can have a real hand in shaping a future that contains dignity, meaning, and hope.

Jim has recently launched a small business. He calls it ‘Transcribing History.’ He couldn’t find a job that allowed him to use his excellent verbal and computer skills, so he created one. He takes the recipes that people have accumulated in shoe boxes and folders, things ripped out of magazines or written in a great aunt’s shivery hand, and he scans them into his computer. Then he types them up. He organizes them and puts them on a flash drive. He creates cookbooks with tables of contents and categorized indexes. His work is organized, precise, and complete.

Jim’s quest to develop this enterprise has led him to supportive job coaches through the local DD board and this county’s Small Business and Development Bureau. He’s clarified his preferred communication style (email), and he is learning the ins and outs of customer service. His days have a purpose and a routine.  It was a long time coming, but his path, though pitted, has always been forward.

And it is good to know how we got to where we are today. If you are on the spectrum, or if you love and care for someone who is, In a Different Key is a compelling book that you might want to read. It gave me background; it deepened my incomplete understanding.

It didn’t necessarily, however, provide a path for the future, but we–this generation of autistic adults and the people who love them–are, maybe, challenged to begin to do that for the next. We have the frightening freedom to create possibilities. We’ll probably try things that don’t work. We’ll probably struggle and sometimes fail. But I believe there’s hope and growth and new understanding brewing. I believe that people like Jim will pave some walkways that others, in years to come, may turn into bustling roads.

It’s an uncertain time for adults with high-functioning autism,  uncertain, uncharted, and a little bit scary. But it’s exciting, too, to think that they are limited only by their own creativity and vast, deep skills, and the intensity of help they get from their supporters. That’s a heady, portentous brew.

Donald Triplett, by the way, grew into a very successful adulthood, although not one that a neurotypical person might have chosen. He went to college and he came home to a job in the family bank, where he, in an endearing, quirky way, often referred to his customers by their account numbers instead of their names. He developed a passion for golf, which he played in an odd way and with a unique form. He played, always, by himself.

He lived by himself, too, after his parents’ deaths, lived in the old family home. Neighbors and coworkers took him in hand. They made sure he had new clothes when the clothes he wore grew old and ratty. They checked on him and made sure he was all right. The bank manager told his staff that Donald, even after he retired, was always welcome to come and perch.

When Donald turned 80, the entire town turned out for his celebration. The first kid with autism had developed a strange and unique life, one in which he was true to his own passions and ways of being. But it was quite, definitely, a way of life that worked.
With no real history or information about his condition, Don and his family had found their way, creating a future for their quirky but lovable boy.

Creating the future. And we, because of people like the Tripletts and books like Donvan and Zucker’s, have the chance to be informed by the past. Reading In a Different Key is a very worthwhile part of the process.