Monday, September 27, 2010

Book Review: Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

Jamie Ford’s Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet (Ballantine Books) is a remarkable story of family dynamics, cultural clashes and bittersweet love that spans all chasms.

Toggling between the war years of mid-1940s and mid-1980s, Ford chronicles the life of Henry Lee, a Chinese American. In the mid-40s, at a time when many Americans were suspicious of all Japanese as the result of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Henry is torn between his loyalty to a school friend, Keiko Okabe, a Japanese American, and his father who has an ancestral hatred of the Japanese.

In the mid-80's, Henry, now widowed, is drawn to the Hotel Panama, an old boarded-up building where, it has recently been discovered, Japanese war-time household effects were stored. Old memories surface, memories that haven’t really been buried that deep.

Ford handles the cultural differences between Chinese and Japanese with honesty and skill. Old World Chinese prejudices leave no room for even a casual friendship with the Japanese, not even with an innocent girl whose family loses their home, their livelihood, their community status, during the Internment years.

Another special friend who ties many of the strings of this novel together is Sheldon, an African American, a saxophone jazz player who brings down-to-earth observations and genuine friendship over the 40-year span of the book.

War is ugly with its gruesome battle scenes, death and destruction, but, as Ford depicts in the story, the devastation goes deeper than that with cruel attitudes and inhumane treatment of innocent individuals caught up in the hatred of a few.

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is a satisfying story, told with historic detail and realism. It’s a book that lingers in the mind and heart.

Monday, September 20, 2010

The Loneliest Road in America

Fort Churchhill’s remaining buildings are in ruins, the adobe walls remaining in a state of arrested decay.

Highway 50, dubbed in 1986 by Life Magazine as “The Loneliest Road in America,” may be lonely but the sights are many.

On a sunny June day, with our truck and camper, we travel west on Highway 50 through north central Nevada, from California to the Utah border.

Carson City, the first major stop along Highway 50, is a wonderful introduction to what is yet to come. Crammed with history, Carson City, Nevada’s capital, was founded in 1858 and was indirectly named after the famed scout and frontiersman, Kit Carson.

We stop at the Nevada State Museum in the old U.S. Mint building to pick up brochures and walking tour information. From there we stroll down tree-lined streets and view beautifully preserved homes and churches, many with plaques describing their place in history. Colorful, quaint flower beds decorate the yards of these historic homes.

In Carson City we learn the story of the famous Pony Express riders. From April, 1860 to October, 1861, dozens of hardy young men braved the 1,800 miles between Sacramento, California and St. Joseph, Missouri. They faced extreme elements, Indians, desperadoes and sheer exhaustion to deliver their mail pouches in a mere 10 days time. Stopping at Pony Express stations along the way-–some still visible today--a rider could quickly dismount, grab a canteen of water and a fresh horse to resume his dangerous ride.

Even back then, this colorful chapter in Old West history fell victim to technology, when, just four days after the completion of the first transcontinental telegraph, the Pony Express was out of business, closing a short, but never to be forgotten chapter in the history of the Old West.

Fort Churchill State Historic Park offers a historical glimpse of Nevada’s first military post. The Visitor Center shows the story of Fort Churchill through interpretive boards, pictures and displays.

The desert environment appears to be devoid of life, but one of the exhibits at Fort Churchill demonstrates how many species of plants and desert wildlife flourish in that area alone, each dependent on certain conditions of moisture and soil.

Beginning at Silver Springs, the highway now takes us through Carson Desert and into the heartland of the Great Basin, the great interior sink of the western United States.

The city of Fallon, a community surrounded by farms and ranches, is also known for Naval Air Station Fallon, one of the premier training bases in the country and home to the famous Navy Fighter Weapons School, “Topgun.”

Back on the highway, we visit Grimes Point, one of the largest and most accessible petroglyph sites in northern Nevada. The petroglyphs cover 150 or so basalt boulders and date from between 5000 BC and 1500 AD.

Whoa! What’s that? As we round a bend in the highway, a 600-foot tall, 2.5-mile long, glistening sand dune looms, beckoning us to stop, look and listen. Sand Mountain changes its shape every day as the prevailing southwest winds deposit new sand while pushing and pulling the old. Did I say “listen?” Yes! This strange and wonderful mountain sings! The dry, polished sand particles produce low, booming sounds as they shift. It’s dry and hot at this wayside–we’re thankful to have a good water supply in our rig.

At Sand Springs we stop to look at a Pony Express station and walk the interpretive loop trail. This station was rediscovered by archaeologists in 1976, and subsequently excavated and stabilized. We walk through the station and its various rooms separated by thick stone walls.

Near Middlegate we see a silly sight–a large cottonwood tree draped with hundreds of pairs of shoes. Apparently a fight between lovers resulted in her shoes ending up in the tree and a tradition was born. We move on, our own shoes intact.

We pass a sign “Toiyabe National Forest” but there’s not a tree in sight, just big sagebrush and ricegrass. Our rig climbs to the 7,484-foot Austin summit. Almost the entire state of Nevada is in the Great Basin which also includes sections of California, Oregon and Utah. Although to me the word “basin” suggests lowlands, much of it is higher than 6,000 feet, even in the valleys. Daytime temperatures are high; nights are refreshingly cool.

Tonight we’ll camp at a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) camp, Hickison Petroglyph Recreation Area. Armed with an interpretive brochure, we view petroglyph panels along a cliff face. At an overlook we gaze at the Toquima Mountain Range to the left, the Big Smokey Valley straight ahead, and the Toiyabe Mountain Range to the right.

We pass through Eureka, one of the oldest mining towns in the state. This town has made a supreme effort to restore its buildings and, in fact, has won a prestigious award from the National Trust for Historic Preservation for renewal of the Eureka Opera House.

Next comes Ely, another historic mining town with many interesting restored buildings and museums. Five miles east of town, the Ruth open pit copper mines show mounds where waste rock was removed to uncover ore. These mines produced nearly $1 billion in copper, gold and silver during the first half of the 20th century.

Great Basin National Park, created in 1986, is Nevada’s newest treasure and the last stop on Highway 50. Of the five campgrounds in the park, we choose Upper Lehman – it’s cool and comfortable in a forest of shimmering quaking aspen. While there we visit Lehman Caves. The Caves, at the base of 13,063-foot Wheeler Peak, are chilly and we’re glad we brought light coats. From our guide we learn about the fantastic display of geologic decorations, including an array of stalactite and stalagmites developed over hundreds of years.

True to its name, “The Loneliest Road in America” has very little traffic–at times we’ve traveled hours without encountering another vehicle. We’ve loved this leg of our Nevada journey. What an adventure!

Monday, September 13, 2010


Image by Bruce Trimble: OK Quarter Circle Barn, Built in 1933

America’s barns provide a nostalgic link to yesteryear. Before the advent of gasoline powered tractors, when teams of horses provided the necessary energy to produce our country’s food, the barn was the hub of American farms.

It was in the barn where the farmer sheltered horses, stored hay and grain, fed livestock, milked cows, stored and mended harnesses and other tack. The barn provided warmth and protection needed for birthing farm animals. Our agricultural ancestors conducted much of their daily business in the family barn–it often provided space for dances, weddings, church services, community meetings and a spacious, exciting play arena for farm children.

In Eastern Oregon’s Wallowa Valley, a tour of America’s past is offered in the form of a self-guided barn tour. Following an excellent guide book, The Wallowa Valley Barn Tour II (see details at the end of this blog) visitors are given driving directions to several area barns.

The nostalgic barn tour involves barns of all sizes and shapes, many of which are being used today though rarely for the purpose for which they were originally built. The snow-capped peaks of the Wallowa Mountains tower over rolling fields of hay, peas, wheat and other crops, accenting the area’s spectacular variety of barns.

The flavors of country are bountiful here. In the early summer, fields of brilliant wildflowers--purple, yellow, white and orange--provide excellent photographic opportunities. Meadowlarks, barn swallows, magpies and owls are in generous supply and the air is filled with their melodious songs. Deer graze with little fear, as long as visitors keep their distance. Stock–horses, cattle and sheep–view newcomers with curiosity and it’s not unusual for horses to crane their necks over the fence to get a better look.

You can drive for miles before encountering another vehicle, and then it’s inevitably the locals’ vehicle of choice, a diesel, 4-wheel drive, flat-bed pick-up, sporting one or two border collies (the obvious dog of choice) scrambling to balance themselves on a tool box in the back. These are working dogs, by the way, not your fluffy city pooch. These no-nonsense dogs have real work to do in gathering, cutting, and generally keeping stock in line. Many of the dogs looked as though they would neither appreciate nor tolerate a pat on the head by a stranger.

Especially in the early days, many farm families lived in sub-standard housing while investing their money and labor in erecting a sturdy barn. The barn was the core of their existence, a necessary element from which their livelihood stemmed.

Barns often reflected builders’ ancestry with design characteristics of German, English and Scandinavian influences. Later, barn designs of New England, Pennsylvania and Kansas were transplanted and adapted to America’s West and built with materials at hand. Roof slopes, barn construction, the shape of windows, rain hoods, ventilating cupolas, lightning balls and weathervanes often indicate a barn’s cultural history. The sides of Pennsylvania Dutch barns often sport colorful geometric decorations known as hex signs, occasionally seen in western barns today.

Connected farm buildings, called rambling barns, evolved so that the farmer could avoid trips outdoors in harsh weather. At the same time, the configuration of a rambling barn blocks winter winds, providing a protected barnyard for the animals.

The color red is a common color for a barn and is traditionally the result of old-time farmers preserving their weatherboards with a mixture of materials at hand–red oxide from their soil, linseed oil from their flax crop and casein from cows’ milk. Or, to cut expenses, a farmer could sometimes get a free paint job by allowing a company to paint an advertisement on his barn.

Barns connect us to our past but the need for them has become functionally obsolete. Work horses once used for plowing, planting and harvesting have been largely replaced with high-powered machines. Today, specialty buildings have largely taken the place of the all-purpose barn.

Preserving barns is a noble endeavor which provides a link to our past. Caring for these structures is expensive and time-consuming. Even so, replacing or repairing a roof, painting, shoring up the side of a barn, buys communities time to cling to our country’s agricultural past, a chance to recognize and appreciate our heritage.

In some parts of the country efforts to preserve barns have gained popularity. While the individual family farm is slowly disappearing, there are still families whose livelihood depend on their land and what it can produce. Many of these families are investing time and money to preserve their barns. In some cases, community organizations have chipped in to save barns from their inevitable demise.

Touring Eastern Oregon’s Wallowa Valley barns, whether to photograph, sketch, paint or simply appreciate, is immensely rewarding. Viewing yesteryear’s barns gives us a rich appreciation of our rural heritage and of those people who today are preserving that heritage by lovingly caring for these relics of the past.

Acknowledgment: An excellent guide book, The Wallowa Valley Barn Tour II, provides pictures and historic information on the area’s barns. The book is available through The Bookloft, 107 East Main Street, Enterprise, OR 97828, or call (541) 426-3351.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

A Light at the End of the Unemployment Tunnel

Nineteen months is a long time to be unemployed, no matter how you look at it. My husband Bruce recently returned to the work force after 19 months of job searching. The company where he’d worked for 18 years moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma, not a viable option for us. Bruce thought it wouldn’t be difficult to get another position, but when the economy took a dive, so did job opportunities. We had our anxious moments, but we survived.

We’re thrifty by nature. We’ve been married 32 years and many of those years were lean ones. First, Bruce went to college while I worked. Later, I went to college while he worked. During our years together, there have been other times with no appreciative income, namely when we served with the Peace Corps and when we sailed the South Pacific. We’ve learned to manage with little or no income.

One of our hard and fast rules has always been to stay out of debt. Except for our house, we’ve never purchased an item on credit. Oh, we use a credit card, but pay it off each month so we’re never charged interest.

Bruce received unemployment benefits, which were a tremendous help. Other than originally going into the Employment Security office, most of the job search was conducted on-line. He was required to make personal visits to the job security office three times during the 19 months–they understandably need to see hard-evidence of job seeking.

Looking for employment is hard work. In today’s job market, making cold-calls for managerial positions is almost unheard of. In fact, it’s usually impossible. The State’s Employment Security Department has an active on-line job listing, and there are several other job search engines available.

What Bruce found, however, is that most of the jobs listed are often not real positions, or they are positions that will be filled from within the company. In these hard-economic times, companies are just not hiring new people. An obvious flaw to this, however, is that people are often promoted to levels beyond their capabilities, and companies are falling behind in production. When massive lay-offs occur, the remaining workers are over-worked, creating an unhealthy environment. Or, companies are letting important elements of their business slide, also a risky trend. Some companies have the unfortunate policy of not hiring anyone currently unemployed, but rather seek those who are and entice them away from their current position.

Bruce diligently filled out applications, kept his resume current, tweaking it to fit the job description, and wrote cover letters. Many of the applications were long; most questions required narrative responses. Many applications were confusing and he’d click where told and all his work would disappear. He formally responded to 270 job openings, most of which took hours to complete. Rarely did he get a response; occasionally an automated acknowledgment of application received. He did get a few personal interviews and some of them went very well, but the result was often that the company eventually hired from within, they’d changed the job description, etc. Many times employers didn’t call when they’d promised and Bruce would follow up only to be disappointed again.

During this time, to save his sanity, Bruce expanded his interest in growing native plants. A neighbor who sells produce from his farm asked Bruce to start some plants by seed and he happily grew vegetable starts to be sold at the produce stand, along with northwest specialty plants, such as salal, flowering current, red osier dogwood, etc.

Bruce also has a keen interest in photography and he researched the possibility of pursuing this interest commercially, including real estate photography. Unfortunately, the economic climate for real estate wasn’t much better than the job market. But it was a way to productively keep busy and feel as though he was accomplishing something. My third novel, Tenderfoot, was released this past year and Bruce designed the book cover, and was invaluable in helping me with promotional material such as postcard design, press releases, posters, etc.

I was amazed with Bruce’s positive attitude and dedication to whatever he was doing–job search, gardening, photography or promoting my work. Also, I was appreciative of his respect for my time–my work, with the release of my new book, went on as before.

After all those 270 job applications, it wasn’t any of those that resulted in a job. It was a former colleague who works for a company that could use Bruce’s skills. The position was an obvious fit and within 2 days of the interview he had a job. Not only that, he is again working in the marine industry, where he has spent his working career. Perhaps this is another example of “it’s not what you know, but who you know” that is key to finding work in today’s marketplace.

Long saga with a happy ending. Let’s hope that all the many others who are diligently seeking work will soon find a satisfying and productive position. Being out of work is no fun, but it still can be productive.