Friday, December 28, 2018


Do you know the tree that is sometimes called Duck Foot?  
This week's post by Sharol Nelson-Embry tells the story of the ginkgo tree, 
an ancient tree first found in Asia.

photo by Sharol Nelson-Embry

"I love this time of year with festive yard decorations around town and ginkgo trees putting on their bright-golden, leafy finery. Walking the quiet streets of my island-city town in San Francisco Bay, to exercise the dog and stretch my legs, I admire the leathery triangular leaves waving from branches like little banners or the drifts of them on the sidewalks and streets. When my children were young, we took every opportunity to explore and play in their bounty, throwing armfuls of them up in the air to rain down over us. My children are grown and flown now, but the trees remind me of the fun of those winter days.

Ginkgo trees are amazing for more than their colorful leaves. They exist largely unchanged since the Jurassic period, when they were widespread and dinosaurs roamed the earth. The trees are termed "living fossils" and are part of the conifer family. They nearly went extinct. Their salvation can be credited to Buddhist monks who found a few surviving trees and began cultivating and spreading them throughout China, Korea and Japan. Some of the oldest specimen are found adjacent to ancient Buddhist temple sites.

photo by Sharol Nelson-Embry

Their edible nuts are considered a seasonal delicacy, though you have to put up with the noxious smell of the pulpy fruit that surrounds the ripe nut. The nuts are probably the main thing the monks were trying to perpetuate. Ginkgo trees are diecious, with separate male and female trees. Our street trees are primarily males as folks are averse to the stinky mess of the fruit borne by female trees, though I've come across a few females that somehow managing to avoid the saw.

The trees are very hardy, resistant to insects, disease, and poor air quality, part of their secret to longevity and popularity as city trees throughout the world. In Japan there are some trees that even survived the nucleur bomb in Hiroshima. It was predicted that nothing would be able to live in the bomb site for at least 75 years. The sturdy trees, though, survived and are still standing in what is now "Peace Park."

photo by Sharol Nelson-Embry

The Ginkgo is actually a mispronunciation of the Chinese word "ginyo," which means "silver apricot." German physician and botanist, Englebert Kaempfer, traveled in Japan in the 1690s and brought ginkgos to Europe. Other names for the tree include "duck foot" and maidenhair tree. Duck foot is clearly related to the shape of the leaves. Maidenhairs seems to refer to a Japanese superstition that if a young girl brushes her hair under a full moon beneath the branches of a ginkgo and thinks of her love, they will marry.

When a tree species has been around for such a long time, it's bound to gather many stories, names and superstitions. As recently as the 1970s people believed that substances in the leaves help improve memory and prevent memory loss, probably since the leaf shape resembles a cross-section of the brain. No scientific research has proven the efficacy of this belief.

John Muir said, "Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul." Nature instructs, heals, and inspires me. I hope you find your own connection with our beautiful natural world through the doorway of my blog:

Large Ginkgo leaf from Tokyo's Arisagawa Park      photo by Martha Slavin
Sharol Nelson-Embry is a retired naturalist in the East Bay who continues to write, explore, and also loves chocolate!

If you'd like to read more about this beautiful tree species, you can find more information here:

"Autumn Crown of Gold: Three Ancient Japanese Ginkgo Trees" by Takahashi Hiroshi

"The Symbolic Meaning of the Ginkgo Tree" by Karyn Maier

"Life Story of the Oldest Tree on Earth" by Peter Crane

Friday, December 21, 2018


courstesy of Danville Patch
At this time of year I like to take the time to sit before a warm fire, contemplate going to the movies, read a good book, draw and paint, look through old photo albums, bake something. It is also time for me to remember moments of wonder.

I started a list of times in my life when I marveled at something that was beautiful and fleeting. 

On Wednesday night, just in time to add to my list, we watched a mysterious cloud in the sky after dusk when the other clouds had lost their sunset glow. The so-called cloud made a spiraling descent and then grew larger as it came nearer. Or it could have been the other way around. A rocket? A meteor? Santa Claus? We couldn't tell. We turned on the radio to hear that Vandenburg Air Force Base had scheduled a classified rocket launch at about that time, but the launch had been canceled. Next morning the American Meteor Society declared the cloud to be a meteor. Question: if the classified rocket was launched and Vandenburg didn't want anyone to know, wouldn't a meteor be a good answer? Just asking. The Geminid meteor shower is active in the sky right now so a meteor is the most likely reason for the display. Whatever the bright cloud is, it was a moment of wonder in our world.

Here are some of the other Moments of Wonder I've experienced:

Skiing in Utah while ice crystals, sparkling like tiny stars in the sun, floated around us.

Driving along California's Highway 1 where the sky and the ocean turned silver -- all of one breath-taking piece.

Turning a corner on a narrow mountain road north of Tahoe to find a vast alpine meadow, seemingly untouched and natural, which opened up the vista to my eyes and my heart.

Standing in the eerie (man-made) light at a rest stop in the middle of one of Norway's long mountain tunnels (as long as 15 miles).

Turningmy head to find a butterfly landing on my shoulder and silently flapping its wings.

Standing still while a hummingbird, caught inside our garage, batted itself against a window -- so exhausted that it dropped to the sill, allowed me to pick it up in my hand and to take it outside where it rested awhile, then flew away with a burst of energy.

Standing in the light radiating through Chartres Cathedral's stained glass rose window while an organist filled the space with booming Bach chords.

Sitting in the restaurant at the bottom of Mt. Takeo in Japan, where in July they turn off the lights and the fireflies cover the entire place with their light.

What moments of wonder have you experienced? I hope during this season you too will find some sightings of light for your soul.

Hand-carved angel and molding in an old Norwegian church

Don't forget to send me your list of favorite books for 2018.

Friday, December 14, 2018


A windy, wet day. Leaves and bark strewn across the slick sidewalk. 

I looked down to see darker images of leaves imprinted on the wet pavement. Rust-colored smears, like patches of blood, have leached from tree bark. The marks remind me of ghost prints in printmaking. I wondered if these natural impressions inspired the first printmakers.

When I make prints from an etching plate, I can run the plate through the press a second time to get a ghost print of the image. Sometimes the ghost image is more interesting, sometimes not. To experiment pushes me look at my pre-conceived ideas in different ways.

my original design to convey movement

the final print with a ghost print under the inked-plate print.
The image now dances across the page.

Gelli plate printing, an easier printing technique than etching, can also produce ghost prints with great details. The original gelatin or hectographic plates, developed in the 1860s, were made from sheets of gelatin placed in a sheet pan. The plates were used to print ads, small quantities of newspapers, and by teachers to make copies for students. Though no longer used commercially, the gelli plate has become a great artist's tool.

Gelli Arts is one company that make gel printing plates

 It's every person's printing plate and easy to use. All you have to do is spread a small amount of acrylic paint across the plate with a brayer, scratch some designs or lay stencils on top, and then press a sheet of paper down, and pull the paper when you are done. After the first sheet is pulled, you can lay another piece of paper on the plate and pull a ghost print. Once your printed sheets are dry, you can continue to layer designs and create unique pieces.

Original print on the left with the feather acting as a stencil.
After lifting off the feather from the plate, I made the ghost print on the right.
Look at the fine detail of the feather, almost like a photograph, that is picked up by the ghost print.

While the leaf impressions on the sidewalk disappear after the pavement dries, the prints I make are a permanent record of experimentation. Ghost prints give me the chance to create something beyond my original idea.

The original print is on the bottom. The ghost print is on top.

I made a series of prints using the feather and circles as design elements. I didn't really like any of them by themselves, but when I combined them together, they became a much more interesting design using repeat patterns and colors to express construction and destruction.

YouTube has some good examples of hectograph printing. Once you go to this site you will see many other options.

Check out the library at University of Iowa, good resource for hectography:

Friday, December 7, 2018


What is a holiday without special food?

I find myself on these short, overcast days thinking of cookies and remembering the days of baking with my family in the kitchen as we mixed flour, butter, sugar, vanilla extract and eggs together, making balls of dough or rolling the dough flat to cut out cookie cutter shapes. Cardamom, a spice from India and Indonesia, added a Scandinavian flavor to the cookies. How did cardamom wind up in many Scandinavian recipes? The Vikings sailed, traded, pillaged and participated in slave trading all the way to the Far East. They returned home with many items such as spices that influenced changes in their own culture. Cardamom was one of them.

My mom made Sandbakelse, a shortbread cookie with cardamom added, every year. When my mother stopped baking Sandbakelse, no one else in our family took over the all-day task of pressing a small ball of cookie dough into 3-inch fluted tin pans, baking them in the oven until the edges turned brown, and letting them cool before carefully tapping them into her hand. Though we always savored Sandbakelse plain, other people fill the flutes with lingonberry jam or almond fillings.

My sisters and I made pepperkaker (a ginger cookie), rosettes, and krumkaker (another cardamom-flavored cookie). I include my dad in the group of holiday treat makers, not because he made cookies, but because he supervised making lefse, a Norwegian potato pancake. He heated crepe-like circles of dough on a griddle and flipped the thin pancake when brown spots appeared. He knew just when the lefse was ready. Once off the griddle, we spread a few of the lefse with either butter and jam or butter and sugar. We rolled the lefse into tight rolls, closed our eyes, opened our mouths, and tasted the first holiday treat of the year.

I don't bake often, but the holiday season creates the desire to inhale the aromas of baking cookies, to savor the warm, butter-filled lefse, and to crunch into a powdered sugar-coated rosette, which then covers my lips and tips of my fingers with fine powder to be licked off with pleasure. What a holiday treat!

Sandbakelse before baking  Photo courtesy of Fisken Fjorden

Here are two Heimdahl cookie recipes to try:

Sandbakelse, as written by my mom

Pre-heat oven to 375 degrees. Warm the fluted tin pans.

Mix together:
1/2 cup butter
1/2  cup oleo
1 cup sugar
3 cups flour
1 egg
2 yolks
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp cardamom
1/s almond extract

Roll into a 1-inch ball. Spread the dough inside the fluted pans, pushing the dough up the sides.
Bake for 6 1/2 minutes. Let cool before removing from pans.


Pre-heat oven to 375 degrees.

Mix together in the following order:
3/4 cup butter
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 Tbsp dark strap molasses
2 tsp baking soda
1 egg
3 1/4 cup flour
2 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp cloves
1/2 tsp ginger
2-3 Tbsp water, if needed

Chill dough and roll out thin. Cut in diamond shapes.
Bake for 10 minutes.

Do you have a favorite holiday treat?

Friday, November 30, 2018


I'm right in the middle of reading Grand Alone by Kristine Hannah. It's the type of book I usually don't read before I go to sleep: full of tension, good characters, and riveting events. The type of book that keeps you reading way past bedtime and into the night. I'm halfway finished and wondering what will happen to the people who live in the northern part of Alaska and who need to keep vigilant constantly to survive harsh winters and predators. Not a good bedtime story.

I think of the books I usually read before I go to sleep. I purposely pick them because they aren't full of suspense, they don't grip my imagination so that I'm wide awake wondering what is going to happen next, and they allow me to begin to relax into sleep. They are all non-fiction and full of interesting information and often lyrical writing at its best. Here are my favorite bedtime readings:

The Wild Places by Robert McFarlane
     McFarlane wanders in the wildest places. He writes of a walk through the British Isles: "Rooks haggled in the air above the trees. The sky was a bright cold blue, fading to milk at its edges. From a quarter mile away, I could hear the noise of the wood in the wind: a marine roar...."

Wild Comfort: The Solace of Nature by Kathleen D. Moore
      Moore discovered the healing power of nature after the deaths of people close to her: "...All I had to do was look out the window. Young eagles struggled to land in the trees but missed their branches and tumbled down, catching themselves on frantic wings. The morning light was brown, like an old bruise...."

The Wild Muir, a selection essays by John Muir
    Essays written by one of America's great wanderers who put his adventures down on paper so that we could all experience the California wilderness through his writings.  

Prague Pictures by John Banville
    A must-read if you plan to go to Prague. Banville says of Prague: "...I am not sure that beauty is the right word to apply to this mysterious, jumbled, fantastical, absurd city...There is loveliness here, of course, but a loveliness that is excitedly tainted...."

Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? by Frans de Waal
    As a scientist, de Waal wondered if humans were really superior to other animals as we claim to be. In his research, he followed and created studies that debunk every distinction we try to assert about being human, from using language to planning for the future, in order to separate ourselves from the other creatures on earth. The book is full of evidence to show how close we are to other beings and how much we share with them.

American Buffalo: In Search of a Lost Icon by Steven Rinella
    Rinella shares little-known information about the American buffalo as he roams through the rugged Alaskan wilderness hunting a buffalo. I have a hard time understanding hunting as a sport, but this is an intimate book about one man's trek through a primeval world.

Any one of these books would be good to pick up, wrap yourself in a blanket and spend some moments reading by a fire. Good winter or bedtime reads.

What are you reading right now?

Send me a list so that I can add to the Book Lists on this blog. You can either place your list in the Comments at the bottom of this post or email me at

Friday, November 23, 2018


by Bill Slavin

The difference between yesterday and today.

At last.
Rain splashes on the sidewalk.
Rain opens windows.
Rain-damp air brings
a deep breath
to clear smoke from a body stiff
from avoiding the murky, low-hanging sky.

by Bill Slavin

At least.
The rain is soft.
Not the gully-washer
that could bring mud slides
down on fire-scorched earth.

At least.
The rain sinks into the parched soil,
and reaches for starved roots.
Giving hope.

by Bill Slavin

At last.
The fires cease.
Full autumn arrives
with brilliant leaves drifting from trees,
curling in gutters and across lawns,
bringing chilly shade in the morning.

The difference between yesterday and today.

Friday, November 16, 2018


What is your favorite holiday?

Thanksgiving is definitely mine. I've always loved autumn for its light and shadows, for leaves turning color and falling in swirls to the ground, and for the expectation of winter around the corner. But Thanksgiving adds one more note to the day:  Gratitude for the year behind us.

Even after a tumultuous time for our country and for the world as well, I can still list acts by people who put others ahead of themselves. I begin my list with a quirky event that confirms that small actions can make a difference.

Thank you 

To the Tilden Park rangers who closed a road in the park during the annual newt migration.

California Newt by Martha Slavin

To the scientists who have discovered that life can develop even two miles below the surface of the earth. Worms the size of a human hair exist deep in the soil without sun, sustained by water and minerals in the earth.

To wildlife conservationists for their work to increase the number of  whooping cranes, whose numbers were as low as 14 and now number in the 700s. For their efforts to save bald eagles, bisons, wolves and other less glamorous species such as snakes, snails, and mussels, who are repopulating in areas where previously we have tried to wipe them out.

Crane by Martha Slavin

To the people who rescue animals during fire storms or hurricanes and then work to find their owners, sometimes long after the event.

To all the helpers, our first responders, fire fighters, police officers, and military personnel, no matter what the weather or terrifying conditions, who put themselves in danger to help others. 

We all owe you more than gratitude.

Feather by Martha Slavin

To read more about life below the earth's surface:
To read more about endangered species:

Friday, November 9, 2018


Mt. Fuji, Japan

Are you sitting inside watching the snowflakes come down? Is is 25 degrees outside? Or are you in California where it is still 75 and wondering whether winter will ever arrive?

Every year as winter approached in Southern California, my parents would take us to see the latest Warren Miller movie. Miller who died last January, was the first well-known director of ski movies. In his early days, he would narrate his movies from the stage at the San Gabriel Mission Playhouse. His camera would follow expert skiers, such as Olympian Stein Eriksen of Norway, down from the tops of the Alps with plumes of powder snow billowing behind them. He would stand at the bottom of beginner hills and make us laugh at the Laurel and Hardy-type antics of people learning to ski. In his movies, the sun was always shining, the skiers were always smiling. My family was enchanted. We all wanted to learn to ski.

My dad from Minnesota, had learned cross country skiing as a child. After watching Miller movies, he decided he wanted to give alpine skiing a try. He had visions of doing S-turns down mountain slopes just like his role model, Stein Eriksen.

My dad on cross country skis

My family ventured to the local ski shop to purchase the equipment we all needed. Back then, the skis were wooden and heavy. I stood at attention while the shop clerk asked me to raise my hand straight above my head. He placed one of the skis so the tip touched the tip of my extended fingers. The poles, lightweight at least, were made of bamboo with leather straps tying the baskets in place. The boots were lace-up leather and needed stuffing with socks to fit. I only learned how cold my toes could get when we trudged through the snow. All of our clothing was heavy wool: wool pants, wool caps, wool sweaters with Scandinavian designs woven in them, and woolen socks, all itchy and uncomfortable. We trundled out of the shop with our ungainly purchases.

Wooden skis and bamboo poles    Courtesy of Ski the World

On a blustery weekend, my dad parked on the road leading to Wrightwood ski resort in the San Gabriel Mountains. He handed me my equipment and I tried to pick up the skis and sling them over my shoulder while carrying my poles as I had seen in the Miller movies. I was almost 10 years old, just 5 feet tall, and weighed less than 80 pounds. The ground was slippery with ice. I couldn't cope with carrying all the equipment, let alone the snowflakes creeping down my neck and my toes turning to cold bricks. I hated skiing right then and there. The rest of the family, older and stronger, lasted the day and learned to be proficient on the snow, while I stood and complained until my mother dragged me inside the resort lodge. At least the hot chocolate tasted good.

After a few more outings to Wrightwood and Mammouth, my parents put away the skis. The cold, the expense, and driving in blizzards had curbed their enthusiasm, but they continued to watch Warren Miller movies. I didn't venture to the snow until my twenties and married Bill, who learned to ski in college and now skied like the Stein Eriksen of yester year making smooth S-curves down the ski slopes.

I still had the wool sweater with the Scandinavian designs, but I traded my old skis for some lightweight K2 skis that didn't even reach my head in length. I took lessons and found I could follow an instructor down difficult terrain. Bill and I became fanatics, skiing almost every weekend at Squaw Valley at Lake Tahoe. My toes still hurt, but finally I was able to master most of the slopes of that resort. Bill continued carving S-curves with other expert skiers.

We skied almost every weekend for 20 years, but then the drive back and forth to Tahoe became too long. It wasn't until we moved to Japan, that we skied again. Theo, our son, who was 9 at the time, attended a school in Tokyo that offered a week of ski lessons at Nagano. To get there, we traveled by train with just a small suitcase each, carried no ski equipment with us, and stepped off the train right at the resort with the sun brightly shining, a reminder of the old Miller movies. Though Squaw Valley and Nagano had been Olympic venues, most of the Nagano slopes provided a good run, but not the "nail-biting - stand in my tracks - I'm not going to move because I'm going to die" fun that I often experienced at Squaw.

The sun was still shining as we walked into the lodge to rent equipment that was brand new. By the time we got to the slopes though, the sun had disappeared, and a storm swept through the resort. Theo spent the week in lessons, with wind whipping his face and snow sneaking down his neck. He came away disliking skiing almost as much as I had when I first learned. It wasn't till we took a trip with friends to Fujiten ski resort on Mt Fuji that I saw him having fun. As we skied down the slope, he used the fallen snowboarders on the hill as slalom markers to make quick turns down the mountain side, just like the slalom skiers in the Warren Miller movies.

Bill and Theo at Fuji-ten Ski Resort

When I read that Warren Miller died in his 90s last January, I couldn't help reflect about what an influence he had had on my life. He was the first one to challenge my family to try an athletic endeavor. Watching the skiers in his movies made us all dream big and imagine ourselves in their places. Without his movies, I would not have been able to visualize how to carve an S-curve in the snow. Without his movies, I would not have persevered through blinding snowstorms to reach the top of the mountain or to jump off into powder to float through puffs of snow. Warren Miller's movies taught me to give hard things a try.

Ski lift at Nagano, Japan
If you are a skier and look forward to the snow-covered slopes of winter, you have a chance to be inspired by a new movie, Faces of Winter, a tribute to Warren Miller and his impact on generations of skiers.  Check out the schedule for a showing near you.

Wonder what to do with old skis?  Check out Warren Miller's article:

Friday, November 2, 2018


A group of men wandered around the stage at Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley as we walked to our seats. The curtains were open and the men bantered and jostled each other. I wasn't sure if they were part of the crew or the actors. Then, they High-fived each other, broke into dance, and pretended to cut each other's hair. A few came out into the audience to invite someone to come on stage with them. The audience member would sit down in a barber chair, the actor would throw a covering over them and proceed to "trim" their hair. Some of the audience members got right into the action by holding hair towards the barber as if giving instructions while others hunkered down and glanced quickly back and forth across the stage. They all took cellphone photos with their barbers when their hair was "trimmed." Slowly as the auditorium filled, the audience members on stage disappeared, leaving a group of actors from England in a center spotlight.

Barbershop Chronicles was about to begin.

Courtesy of Leeds Playhouse, UK

An unusual way to start a play? Yes, but what a intriguing tactic to draw the audience in. The play revolves around barbershops in England and Africa and shows both the effects of the African diaspora, and how important a barbershop can be in any community as a place for men to meet, seek advice, and develop friendships.

We love going to plays. We have seen Shakespeare's Tempest in an outdoor theater. Just as the play's pretend-tempest swirled across the stage, real fog and mist dropped down around the actors and the audience.

At the end of Fairview, a play about a middle-class family, the actors turned the tables on the audience and invited us on stage.  They moved into the aisles and faced us. As we stood under the bright lights, they reminded us, still in character,  to let them be themselves, not to judge them, to release our opinions and prejudices that we often develop when we encounter the Other.

Courtesy of Berkeley Rep Theater

We noticed in the last few years how well the theater productions reflect the world around us and continue to have important messages. We've seen Ibsen's Enemy of the People, written in the 1880s, about a doctor in a small town whose income depends on the tourists who visit the town spa. The doctor discovers that the spa water is polluted. His dilemma: to tell the truth about the water and ruin the town's financial livelihood or to keep silent as he is pressured by the town officials to do. The characters in the play display their humanness by showing the audience both their sympathetic side as well as the side we often want to deny. The play also reminds us of the Flint, Michigan waters. Put in the same spot as the play's characters, would you do the same?

Courstesy of Triangle Arts

Plays give us a chance to see the world through another's eyes. We have a chance to consider major themes, such as understanding our relationships with family and friends, finding ourselves, understanding betrayal and love, and the complexity in each of us. As Hamlet said, "the play's the thing wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king."

I hope you will join us for a play that can lift your spirit, make you stop and think, and allow you to see how related we all are to each other.

Courtesy of Cal Shakes, CA

Other plays we've seen in the last couple of years:

Sinclair Lewis' It Can't Happen Here, a play written in 1935, is a good reminder how easily democracy can slip from our grasp.

Black Odyssey by Marcus Gardley, a retelling of Homer's epic using events in American history such as Hurricane Katrina, Fruitvale BART Station, and the assassinations of civil rights leaders. The main character wanders through these events trying to get back home, but we realize that on the way he is trying to find himself.

Doll's House, Part 2 by Lucas Hnath. This comtemporary play describes what happened to Nora after she leaves her husband and children in Ibsen's Doll House.

If you are Northern California, check the schedules at

Cal Shakes:

ACT Theater:

Berkeley Rep Theater:

Cal Performances:

Friday, October 26, 2018


Watercolor cut and assembled as a mixed media piece

Can you draw? So many people I know tell me they can't draw. I know that is not true. Like learning how to do math problems or how to build a bridge, drawing is a skill that is developed over time. If you look at my early artwork, you would wonder why I persisted. They were no better than yours. I had one advantage. Everyone knew I came from an artistic family. They expected me to be an artist. My family encouraged me to develop my creative and artistic skills as well.

Early painting with an attempt at calligraphy

I have to remind myself of my belief in everyone's ability to draw when I get stuck at a level in any artistic technique including watercolor or writing poetry. I persist, which has taken me a long time to learn. When I was young, I knew I was an artist (hadn't everyone told me so?) and thought everything artistic would come easily for me. When something turned out to be harder than I expected (ceramics comes to mind), I put the learning aside. As an adult, I find learning takes me longer, but I'm more forgiving of myself.

Right now I am at a point in my watercolor pursuit where parts of my paintings work well. They have the fresh appeal that you expect from watercolor, not the muddiness that often happens when I overwork an area. I look to Winslow Homer or Andres Zorn for masterful watercolors. Sometimes I can rescue a practice piece (all my paintings are practice pieces) or sometimes I cut them up into little squares and mix them up on another piece of paper.

Cabins and trees are a frequent theme of mine. This painting is resting right now.

A myth about watercolors:  they can't be fixed. Yes, they can. I learned to use original Viva paper towels, a drafting eraser shield, and the original Mr. Clean sponge to help me lift off paint from the paper. I wet either the towel or sponge and dab through the shield over an area I want to lift up. It works except with heavily staining colors such as alizarin crimson and Winsor Violet. Try it!

Friday, October 19, 2018


The leaves may be turning, pumpkins may gather on porches, and early sunsets may come, but Autumn doesn't arrive for me until I am back in a classroom. Long ago I walked through the halls as a student, then as a teacher and now, I am back as a WriterCoach Connection volunteer. Today I am at Longfellow Middle School in Berkeley. The building was dedicated in 1923 and hasn't changed much since then. The stale smells of cafeteria food mingle with the odors of sweaty teenagers. The wood doors have transoms over them, the plaster walls show scuffs and dings from one door to the next, and the linoleum floors squeak when someone in athletic shoes strides by. It's a warm day and the fans in each classroom counter the beating sun.

I sit across from one of the four students I will mentor this year. They all study using the Common Core guidelines. The two 8th graders are reading Harrison Bergeron, a short story by Kurt Vonnegut, and the two 7th graders have written paragraphs based on Anne LaMott's book, Bird by Bird. The assignments are harder than I remember from my student or teaching days. Most of all they encourage critical thinking. The students often need to talk through their ideas, which helps them to put their thoughts on paper.

The Vonnegut story is science fiction about a world where everyone is the same or is made the same by various external devices such as wearing ear buds that emit screechy noises when someone starts to think. The two 8th graders understand the ideas expressed by Vonnegut. They grasp the difference between being the same and being equal. They also relate the story to some present-day experiences such as using social media and other technology.

The seventh graders are new to the program. They don't know what to expect so I explain that I am there to assist them where they think they need help with their writing. In years past, I have had 7th graders who had a hard time getting anything on paper. Sometimes they were timid in front of a strange adult, other times they needed help discovering a personal event they could write about. This time both students bring me short memoir pieces full of detail and good transitions from one event to another.

I ask all four of them what they need with their essays. One asks for advice on each sentence, one wants to know how to end a humorous experience, another shows me two paragraphs that are his reaction to what he read in class. The last student fidgets, wants to get a drink of water, doesn't answer questions but finally begins to discuss what the difference between equal and the same are. He gets it. I write down his conclusions so he will have notes to use to begin his essay. He pops up, grabs his computer and backpack, and bolts out the door.

Autumn is definitely here.

To read the full text of Harrison Bergeron, click here:

To learn  more about WriterCoach Connection, click here:

Friday, October 12, 2018


Since October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, I think it's also a good month to champion women, to look for heroes among us and to examine how those heroes have influenced our lives.  Who are your female heroes and where did you first learn about them?

Growing up, did you read the funny papers? I did.

Dale Messick, the creator of Brenda Starr, Star Reporter                     Chicago Tribune photo

Brenda Starr may have been my first role model. She was the main comic strip character of "Brenda Starr, Star Reporter." She was a woman journalist, who was assertive and adventurous, and the creation of Dalia Messick.

My first hero really should have been Dalia Messick, but I didn't know her story back then. Messick started her career drawing greeting cards (one of my ambitions). In her spare time, she created several comic strip ideas; but to get them published, she needed to change her name to Dale Messick. She submitted her work to her boss, Joseph Medill Patterson, the Chicago Tribune editor in 1940, who agreed reluctantly to print her strip. It didn't appear in the comic pages, but was relegated to a special advertising section. The strip became so popular anyway that it eventually was syndicated nationally.

Messick named Brenda Starr after a debutante,  styled her to look like Rita Hayward, and patterned  her after real-life Nelly Bly. Starr became the role model for many women who aspired to be journalists, but she also was a product of her time, mainly mid-twentieth century.

In the strip, she ventured out to exotic locations, used her feminine wiles to attract handsome millionaires who either came to her aid or entrapped her, and returned with a fantastic story to print.  Like Nancy Drew, she was a hero to young girls, but needed a man to rescue her in difficult situations. At least Starr got a byline.

According to Suzi Parker, a current journalist, Brenda is "Perpetually torn between the demands of her career and her romantic proclivities. Her life has proved a long litany of frustrations. Romance, usually doomed, has dogged Brenda's footsteps throughout her long career."

I liked Brenda Starr's adventurous spirit and her confidence in getting her stories published. My young self incorporated some of her spirit into my own. After I stopped reading the funny pages, Brenda Starr continued with a very modern day version of life. She married, had children, divorced, and became an editor at her paper. Dalia Messick continued to draw the strip into the 1980s when it was taken over by different female teams of writers and illustrators.

Looking back on the comic strip now, I know that Dalia Messick was the true hero She stood up to people who thought that women artists didn't belong on the funny pages and laid the path for many others to follow.

To read more about Dalia Messick:

Friday, October 5, 2018


Bill handed me a piece of paper at breakfast yesterday. I decided to share his words with you.

Jellica passed away quietly last Monday night.
She stopped eating on the weekend and slept in her favorite chair
 until she was too weak to move.

 She had a rough start in life.
When our son Theo picked her out of the crowd at the Dublin shelter, 
she was already street-smart, independent and determined not to be threatened by anyone anymore.
She was also a doting mother and we did not believe in separating children from their mom. 
We still don't.

  We brought her daughter home with us too.

Theo named the mother Jellica and the baby Tangier.
They took up residence here and Jellica methodically examined
 and explored every nook and cranny.
She was naturally curious,
 but she had also learned to plan possible exits in case of emergency.

Though she was playful and loved to be scratched,
it took another ten years before Jellie purred.

She was a constant presence in Martha's studio;
helpfully kibitzing on (or in) every project.

She accepted our love and maintained her dignity right to her quiet end.
Her absence has left a sad void.
She is now at rest outside the family room, next to the fountain and under 
a camillia bush.

Rest in peace, Jellica

From this short essay,  I think you can see what a kind heart Bill has. He reminds me that not all men are bullies or braggarts or unable to see how their actions can affect other people.  In an article in YES! magazine, Chris Winter proposed "Men, We Can Do Better." 
I know you know men who are like my husband. 
They are better than what we see on TV.

All photos by Bill Slavin

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