Friday, September 21, 2018

Juliet Brier: The Reluctant Heroine of the Death Valley 49ers

Last year for my birthday, my feisty friend and neighbor gave me a first edition of Women's Diaries of the Westward Journey, edited by Lillian Schleissel. It's a fascinating read that deftly treads the line between scholarly writing and narrative non-fiction.

One of the prevailing truths of the book is that the vast majority of women who traveled West in the mid-19th century did so unwillingly. The ones who signed up to make the trip on their own accord were rarer than easy river crossings.

It didn't matter whether they were healthy, pregnant, nursing, or tending toddlers. They left behind their friends, family, and familiarity because their husbands decided they needed to go West. When the man of the house decided they were going to go, they spent all of their time and resources amassing the equipment for the trip. Then, as soon as spring arrived, they hit the trail, in order to make it to their western destination before winter made the way impassable.
Mrs. Juliet Brier

Intrigued by the book, I did some more reading on the westward pioneers, and ran across the story of
the amazing Mrs. Juliet Brier, by most accounts the first non-native woman to survive traversing Death Valley. Though most records say she was born Sept 26, 1813, her tombstone puts her birthday as April 8, 1814.

Married to the sickly, self-centered Rev. John Wells Brier, Juliet was tiny: she stood no more than 5' tall and weighed less than 100 lbs. The Brier's and their 3 children -- all under 8 years old -- took the Santa Fe Trail toward the gold in CA in 1849.

When they set out from Utah, their company had 100 wagons, 250 people, and a thousand head of horses  and oxen.

Soon, though, the men started arguing over the best route, which quickly split them into smaller parties.

Reverend Briar, who was notoriously judgmental, verbose, lazy, and self-absorbed, was especially struck with gold fever. Their party met up with the "Jayhawkers" of Illinois, a small train of about 20 wagons. When they learned that the Jayhawkers were following a sketchy new route that veered south, Juliet's husband and a handful of others insisted on joining them.

It was November. Snow clouds were common. Juliet advised against striking off into the unknown. But she was overrulled.

So, their little band of about 27 wagons turned off the fairly well-traveled and well-marked Santa Fe Trail...

...into a desert they would soon name "Death Valley".

Almost immediately, they became hopelessly lost. The "map" they had was incorrect. Several in their party turned back to rejoin the Santa Fe Trail. Not the insufferably stubborn Rev. Briar, though. So, of course, his family had little choice but to continue on with him.

Within days, they ran low on water. Rev. Brier and the other men went ahead to look for water, leaving Juliet behind with the kids, the wagon, and the cattle.

Hours went by.

Brier did not return. Nor did any of the other men.

Darkness fell; the complete, utter darkness of the desert. The oxen picked up the scent of a watering hole and hurried on ahead.

Still, Brier did not return.

Juliet Brier and her boys.
So Juliet parked her 4 year old boy on her back, then crawled on the ground, relying on starlight to help her look for tracks from the oxen. Around three in the morning, she discovered her husband and the rest of the men camped by a spring.

The men of camp decreed Juliette was too small and weak. They told her and the kids to stay behind and wait for the men to send for them once they found a way out. She delivered a sermon of her own, full of enough brimstone to nix any idea of them leaving her behind.

Accounts of surviving Jayhawkers unanimously agree that tiny Juliet was the one who kept the family alive. She yoked and cared for the oxen. She attended to her husband, who became quite ill as time went on. And the mothered her three little boys, keeping them alive and safe in dire circumstances.

Not one mention is ever made of her complaining. In fact, the only incident of her raising her voice involves an ox that got caught in muddy quicksand and sank chest deep. Juliet jumped in beside it and began shoveling the muck away with her hands. She essentially shamed the men into helping her get the creature to safety.

Provisions ran out, and still the desert stretched before them. Their Christmas "dinner" -- and most other meals -- consisted of bones boiled in blood. Juliet's husband lost over 100 pounds. Juliet herself was reduced to 75 pounds.

At what is now a Historical Landmark, they burned their wagons for fuel, cooked their animals & made jerky. Four people in their party died during the journey. But Juliet was relentless in her determination to survive.

Several eyewitness accounts speak of little Juliet walking over 100 miles through the Mojave desert with a child on her back, another under an arm, holding the hand of the third, and helping her ailing husband.

Thanks to Juliet, the entire Brier family survived. She and the self-absorbed Reverend had three more children (all girls). Juliet outlived all but one of her children.

She died a few months shy of her 100th birthday. She often hosted Jayhawker reunions, but loathed the taste of jerky and refused to eat or serve it after the Death Valley experience.



*  For those interested in more details: Here's a fascinating narrative non-fiction longread about the Jayhawkers.

Friday, August 03, 2018

Women and Economics: from "Redlined" to "Screwnomics," the Impact of Economic Policy on Gender and Race

On Tuesday, I had the honor of being the emcee for "Women & Economics: Impact of Economic Policy on Gender & Race" at the Box Factory for the Arts in St. Joseph, MI.

This event, organized and produced by my dear friend and #Write2TheEnd co-founder, Kim Jorgensen Gane, featured authors Rickey Gard Diamond and Linda Gartz.

Gartz is an Emmy award-winning video producer whose documentaries and TV productions have been featured on ABC, NBC, CBS, PBS, and syndicated nationwide. She kicked off the evening with her new book Redlined.

Gartz' family lived in Chicago West Side at a time when racist lending rules allowed banks to refuse loans or mortgages to anyone in areas with even one black resident.

Set against the backdrop of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960's, Redlined tells the story of Gartz’s parents, Fred and Lil, who choose to stay in their integrating neighborhood, overcoming prejudices even as their community sinks into increasing poverty and their own relationship decays.

Diamond spoke next. She is a Berrien County native who lived in Benton Harbor, St. Joseph, and Coloma during her formative years. Now she hails from Vermont, where she was the founding editor of Vermont Woman and taught at Vermont College of Norwich University.

In 2014, she received a Hedgebrook fellowship to create a readable, relatable book on economics. And thus, Screwnomics was born.

Screwnomics introduces readers to EconoMan (not every man, thank heaven) and encourages those who have traditionally been encouraged to work for less -- or for nothing -- to think about their own economic memoir and confront our economic system’s hyper-masculine identity. Lest you fear it's full of man-bashing: it's not. However, some of its truths about the systematic erasure of women from economic discussion are rather uncomfortable. For instance, Diamond says:
"Around the world, women and their children remain the poorest of the poor, the most vulnerable, and the least noteworthy to most economists. For example, Thomas Piketty's recent and much celebrated 700-plus-page work, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, which so expertly describes growing inequality has exactly seven index listings for women or females."
Using humor, personal anecdotes, and history, Diamond's book is the most readable one on the subject of economics I have ever encountered.

After the author presentations, local attorney Elizabeth McCree joined us for a panel discussion on the realities of gender, race, poverty, and ways to combat the inequalities we see.

What can we do? Some suggestions from the evening:

1.) Educate yourself. Read. Familiarize yourself with the policies and practices that affect you.

2.) Recognize inequality when you see it. Even if you are not on the receiving end of the inequality, be prepared to identify it and -- most importantly -- to insist on equitable change.

3.) Vote. Seriously. Do this thing. Laws exist to serve the people and benefit society. Make your voice heard and make your vote count.

4.) Speak up. Many people told their personal stories on Tuesday evening. Our shared experiences pave the way toward greater empathy, in-depth dialogue, and a more informed community.

Monday, July 23, 2018

Handling the Hurricane: Dealing with the Words of the Well-Intentioned

Everybody is going through something.

Sometimes our crises are private. At other times -- such as when a loved one is fighting a losing battle with death -- others are well aware of our storms.

When WunderGuy was in hospice care, dying by degrees, one of the truths I discovered was: Most People Don't Have a Clue What to Say to Someone in Crisis.

Which led to the next truth: If My Life is Falling Apart, I Need Not Suffer Fools.

I hope you don't need the information in this post now. But you might want to bookmark it for future reference. I pray you'll never need it. But in case you do, here are some thoughts on handling those awkward conversations:

When tragedy strikes, people often say things they haven't run through a brain-to-mouth filter. Usually it's because they feel they should say something but they don't know what.

In case you need to hear this, I am giving you permission to tell these people to stop talking. When they start saying things like, "I can't imagine what you're going through" (which, of course, means "sucks to be you; you're living my worst nightmare"), you are perfectly entitled to shut them off and tell them, "no one's asking you to."

So many clichés fall into this category of Phrases People Speak Without Thinking:

"That which doesn't kill us makes us stronger." No. It bloody well doesn't.

"Everything happens for a reason." Who are you, Thomas freaking Paine?

and my personal favorite, "God won't give us more than we can handle." My fist is aching to cauliflower your nose. Let's see how you handle it...

People will blurt out the most brain-dead things. "Aren't you glad he's finally dead?" "Now you can  get on with your life." "You've grieved long enough."

Nowhere is it written that you are required to listen to them.

Some well-meaning souls will look earnestly at you and ask, "How ARE you doing?" As if you are going to suddenly open up your deepest, darkest fears to them and include them in your private anguish.

You do not need to do this. It's okay to lie and tell them you are fine. They are not entitled to your pain.

And then there are those who will feel compelled to tell you their horrible story, as if it will somehow make what you are going through okay.

I believe this is their way of trying to let you know they sympathize with you; telling you that they, too, have Been There.  But the stories never help. They only indulge the teller and rarely enrich the hearer. (I found this especially true when the Storyteller was a member of the clergy. One visited, unannounced, a few months ago, shortly after my mother's passing. She talked endlessly about her mother, and how devastated she was when her mother died. Then she brought up my WunderGuy and began to pontificate on how she didn't know what she would do without her husband. Forgive me, Father: I showed her the door.)

It is okay to say that you do not want to hear the story a person is telling.

You probably already know this, but I'm going to say it anyway: when in crisis, you do not need to be anyone's Entertainer, anyone's Confidante, anyone's Sounding Board, or anyone's Confessor.

Perhaps your upbringing makes you feel constrained from saying the words you really feel like slinging. News flash -- It's okay to say them. Whatever God you believe in has heard them all and can handle them.

Don't feel that you need to be a beacon of strength.

Lean on those you love. Find strength and support in friends and family.

And trust the truth of this one cliché:

This, too, shall pass.

Sunday, March 04, 2018

Five Thoughtful Ways to Honor a Lifelong Reader

My mother passed away in December. She was a professor at Penn State University, an active member of American Association of University Women (AAUW), involved in several book clubs, and a lifelong scholar. One of her favorite sayings -- one I find myself repeating often because of its incontrovertible truth -- is "no education is ever wasted."

Several people who knew and loved Mom chose to honor her life in ways that supported her love of reading. All of them touched my heart far more than cards or flowers could have. If someone you love loves to read, here are some suggestions for passing that love on to others in their name:

1.) Make a donation in the Reader's name to First Book.

Every year, First Book provides books and educational resources to over 3 million kids who need them most. This non-profit organization is a leading voice in the quest for educational equality. In a little over 25 years, First Book has distributed over 170 million books and resources in 30 countries.


2.) Volunteer to teach someone else to read.
Contact your local library or school resource office to inquire about how you can get involved in local literacy programs. Yes, it's hands on. Yes, it will take some time. But you could literally save someone's life...

The link between illiteracy and incarceration is incontrovertible. In 2010, 85 percent of all juveniles caught up in the juvenile court system were functionally illiterate, as were 60 percent of all prison inmates. Inmates have a 16 percent chance of returning to prison if they receive literacy help. Those who receive no help have a 70 percent rate of recidivism.

Imagine the difference you could make if, in honor of the Dear Reader in your life, you gave someone the lifelong gift of literacy.

[Not up to the one-on-one interaction of teaching literacy? A donation to RIF, the United States' largest children's literacy non-profit, may be more up your alley.] 


3.) Donate a book to your local library. Or to the library closest to your Beloved Reader.
Everyone who knew Mom knew she believed in libraries. So it's fitting that her local library now has new books donated in Mom's name.

(Note, if you're involved with a local library and you're short on funding, consider holding an In Memoriam Book Drive. Books: the gift that keeps on giving.)

4.) Give beloved titles to hospitals. Or nursing homes. Or senior centers. Or Safe Shelters. Or homeless shelters...
Books love to be read. If you have to clear out a Beloved Reader's bookshelves, consider taking the titles to places where they will be able to gain a whole new audience.

5.) Start a book club in your Dear Reader's name. 
Make the Dear Reader's favorite book the first title you read and discuss.

What is your favorite way to keep the flame of literacy burning?

Monday, January 29, 2018

Start an Email Newsletter in 5 Easy Steps

I started a newsletter this year. It's nothing fancy: short updates on life here at Hendrickson House and cool stuff I think other people might find interesting.

Probably apocryphal. By about 100 years...
Like, for instance, the fact that Betsy Ross (born on New Year's Day) likely didn't make the first American flag, but she made plenty of other flags, started her own religion, outlived three husbands, and ran her own business till she died at the ripe old age of 84.

And how Jill Fredstone (another New Year's baby) has singlehandedly rowed over 25,000 miles -- more than the circumference of the planet -- exploring various Arctic coasts in several countries.

I talk about the inspiration I find from Major, our most recently adopted dog, my attempts at "intentional neighborliness," some of my awesome clients, and what projects I'm currently working on.

Having a newsletter was always something I meant to do... someday... in the future... when I'd met some never-specified milestone I felt would warrant such a thing. But as the new year approached, one of my resolutions was to stay more in touch with the people in my life. The newsletter allows me to do that.

I was amazed at the level of connectivity that resulted. People who have been known to take weeks to respond to emails -- if they respond at all -- responded immediately to the newsletter. Several forwarded it to others. And I kicked myself for not starting one sooner.

So, if you are knocking around the idea of a regular News-From-You missive, these simple steps may help you start:

The target audience is an inexact science.
1.) Identify your target audience. If you are a writer, what is your main genre? Who are your ideal readers? Craft your newsletter to appeal to that audience. Similarly, if you are a teacher, a speaker, a researcher, or a scientist -- or if you are developing a newsletter for an organization -- know who you most want to connect with.

Though I write in several genres, complex female characters are my forte. My ideal readers respect and admire women. My newsletter recognizes and builds upon that respect.

2.) Determine your topics. Your target audience determines your content. While a newsletter is your opportunity to tell others about what you're up to, beware of devolving into banging the drum of shameless self-promotion. People are far more interested in what you are doing than what you are selling.

A good way to avoid falling into the "Me! Me! Me!" trap is to identify a few general topics you know you can consistently write about, much like the different sections of a newspaper or magazine. Each new edition of your newsletter, then, simply involves adding new content to each of your pre-determined topics.

For instance, my newsletter generally begins with an opening note about something that happened recently and how it impacted me. Then I share one or two things I've discovered in my recent research, or in my reading, that I found interesting. (These are almost always off the beaten path. I never pretended to be a Pop Culture Maven. I'm more comfortable as the Odd But Interesting Aunt.) A short update on Major, and the rest of our vast menagerie, follows. I wrap up with a sort of highlights reel of what I'll be working on in the month ahead.

3.) Remember to Provide Value. Honor your reader's time and attention. Make it worth their while to open your newsletter. If you recommend a book or a movie, make sure you really *liked* it. If you talk about your latest research, make certain your reader has a clear takeaway. Strive to ensure that your readers are more informed, more entertained, or more inspired after reading your newsletter.

4.) Start Small. You may not have a massive mailing list. That's ok. I started with just family, friends, and clients. Tell "your people" about you're newsletter ask their permission to include them in your trial run. Most will agree.

A side note: Even if your friends and family aren't your target audience, I strongly advice including them on your newsletter mailing list. They already know you and love you. They want to know what you're up to. As your mailing list grows, continue to write for your target audience. But never forget about the ones who "knew you when."

5.) Hit "Send." I use MailChimp. It's free and easy to understand -- both critically important criteria for any new undertaking on my part. Do your homework to discover which email marketing service (industry jargon for "the thing I do my newsletters on") is best for you. Then, take the plunge and check "Have a Regular Newsletter" off your list of Things to Do for 2018.

My MuseLetter goes out at the beginning of every month. How frequently will you send updates? That's up to you, but try to keep to a regular schedule. You know what your schedule can handle. Sending too frequently fills up in-boxes and runs the risk of annoying readers into unsubscribing. Sending too seldom makes it too easy for people to forget they gave you permission** to contact them.

** Remember, you must have someone's permission to email them. Permission is a person's specific, verifiable consent to receive communication. Sending emails without permission is a perilous pathway to being reported as spam. Spam is bad. You can start with a list of your current contacts. Then, use a simple sign-up form to let people ask to join your newsletter posse. (See Exhibit A on the top right of the web version of my blog. Feel free to sign up. I'd be honored.)

Sunday, January 07, 2018

A Major Milestone

Today is a special anniversary. One year ago today, I adopted Major.

My perfect, pudgy pillow.
Major is, as far as we can tell, part Chihuahua, part Corgi. Probably. He looks a lot like the love child between Yoda and a loaf of bread.

Was I looking to add to my pack o' dogs? No, I was not. As people informed me, I needed another dog like I needed a hole in my head. I had lost Robert only a few short weeks earlier. Christmas, New Year's, and Cassandra's birthday had passed in a grey blur. I already had a menagerie of dogs, cats, horses, chickens, and sundry other animals to care for. Plus, I'm not a fan of little dogs.

Correction.

I *was not* a fan of little dogs.

Major helped me see the error of my ways.

On New Year's Day, 2017, I went to the animal shelter with my neighbor. Her elderly cat had died and she wanted to try to fill the hole in the house he'd left behind. (I went, warning her that if she expected me to talk her out of adopting a furry creature, I was the wrong person for the job.) She came home with Bowser, an adorable tuxedo cat. And I, perusing the kennels, discovered Major.

My mom lived in an elder care facility owned and operated by one of my longest, dearest friends. Some time earlier, I'd broached the idea of having a companion dog at the facility. "Let me know if you ever find the right dog," she told me. Which is the equivalent of a divine quest, you understand.

When I got home, I called her and told her about the little dog I'd seen at the shelter. She consulted with the main nurse at the home. The nurse agreed that a little dog might be a good thing. So the next day, I went back to Animal Control and hung out with Major. He was perfect for a companion dog:

Self-assured without being snippy.

Small but solid.

Mature.

Dignified.

Quiet but alert.

Housebroken.

... All good things.

I sent my friend pictures from the pound, got the greenlight, and came home with the boy.

"You got a new dog!?" people said, doing little to hide their incredulity, because everyone knew acquiring a new mouth to feed was NOT one of my priorities.

"No, no, no," I assured them. "Just fostering him a little while. Going to take him to the vet. Make sure he's going to work out at Mom's elder care. Probably take a few weeks to get him completely introduced and assimilated. But we're not keeping him."

"mmm-hmmm," they said, unconvinced.

Couch potato.
I had the best of intentions. Really, I did. So when I took Major to Mom's home for the first time and he acted as if he'd lived there forever, I basked in the glow. Then the nurse saw him. And the glow faded.

"Ohhhh...," she said, backing away when Major went to say hello. "I didn't know he'd be so big."

...

Now, Ten-Pound Tiny Boy is many things. But "big" is not one of them. His ears are literally the biggest part of him.

This was when I discovered that the nurse in charge had not only never owned a dog before, but she was also legitimately terrified of them. And while this information would have been good to know before adoption, there was no way in the world I was taking Major back to the pound.

"I knew you'd never give him up!" friends crowed.

Meh. Let 'em crow.

Major is made of awesome. He literally made 2017 bearable. Plus, I love what happens when I look at the world from Major's point of view:

*  Every time I look at him, I laugh. Every time. He's so compact, so dignified, so utterly self-possessed. Yet he's got these novelty-store ears that crack me up whenever I see them. He is not trying to be funny. He's not particularly playful, and he's long past the puppy stage. But he is still freaking hilarious. Whenever I need a laugh, I can count on Major to make it happen.

*  He is a fraction of the size of my other dogs, who are between 50 and 60 pounds. Yet he doesn't shy away from hanging out with them.  He will wait till the girls are all asleep, then crawl on top of one of them for his nap. Through his filter, everything in the house exists for his comfort and convenience.

*  Major loves to be with people, but he isn't always thrilled about hands reaching out to pet him. He's especially not a fan of being picked up. When a someone reaches for him, he'll back away, the giant ears melt, and his entire body droops. I have no idea what happened in the little dog's past. He likes people -- on his own terms. His favorite thing to do (he's doing it now, in fact) is to curl up beside you on the couch so you can use him as an armrest. But he prefers to be the one to decide how the physical contact happens.

Watching the road for intruders.
*  He is small, but he is mighty. He has no idea how insignificant he is. When he's outside, he will stand up to anything. Doesn't matter if it's a tractor, or my Percheron gelding, or the UPS truck -- Major will stand his ground and bark to alert the world of the intruder's presence. While the other dogs are frivolously wasting their energy chasing squirrels into trees, Major is watching the road for trespassing vehicles. (His definition of a trespasser is anything he can see that moves and is big enough to crush him.)

*  Here's how to ruin Major's day: raise your voice and yell at him. Or sharply reprimand any of the other creatures in the house -- he'll take it personally. Then the whole-body-droop will be in evidence, and he will do his best "bread loaf" impression as he attempts to become invisible.

* Major celebrates every meal. Food of any kind is the highlight of his day. He will literally bounce off the walls. Then, in anticipation of eating, he will spin in circles. (Always counter clockwise... I don't know why. His tail hooks permanently to the left...) Sometimes the Dining Dance is accompanied by yips of sheer delight. The ears flap. The eyes sparkle. He derives such joy and such pleasure from a basic daily event.

Those are just some of the reasons why I'm celebrating the anniversary of having the little guy in my family. I cannot fathom the reason that made his former owners dump him at the pound. But I'm glad we found each other. I'm glad we had this year together. With any luck, I'm looking forward to many more.