The first two weeks in August, I’ll travel west to Salt Lake City and Los Angeles to visit friends and family. I dislike flying and try to ease the discomfort by using frequent flyer miles to pay for business class tickets. But no upgrade can save me from airport security. I first posted this story six years ago and nothing has changed since then. 

Coming home from Los Angeles in August of 2010, I experienced the TSA’s new enhanced pat-down procedures. I’m unsure when the change went into effect—the TSA didn’t exactly trumpet them with a publicity campaign—but I might have been among the first airline passengers to get groped.

The journey did not begin auspiciously.

I had an abraded cornea. The night before my flight, the pain and blurred vision reached the point that I called the advisory nurse for my HMO. She ordered me to get to an ER at once. My friend Carol, with whom I was staying, offered to drive me, but I imagined spending hours waiting my turn behind drug ODs and gunshot wounds and heart attacks and a hundred other emergencies more life-threatening than an abraded cornea, then dragging back to Carol’s apartment just in time to pack. I imagined Carol going to work after a sleepless night spent holding my hand. Better to wait and see a doctor at home.

The next morning, I stood on the curb of Laurel Canyon Blvd., surrounded by my luggage, awaiting the car that would drive me to the airport. I entertained myself by staring at the building across the street out of my damaged right eye, trying to gauge whether the blurriness was worse and hoping I wouldn’t go blind by the time I got home.

The pickup time came and went. Still no car. Finally I phoned the limo service. The woman on the phone told me I was scheduled for pickup at eight that evening, not eight in the morning. But not to worry, she said. She would find a driver. Twenty minutes later the car pulled to the curb, and I made it to LAX in time for my flight.


Everything went smoothly until I reached security. I had a liter bottle of drinking water in my carry-on bag. The guy manning the x-ray machine flagged it, and suddenly I found myself confronted by Officer Jackson, a plug of a woman with a jutting lower lip and a gun. She ordered me to stand in a specific spot. “But my purse!” I protested. “My iPad!” They were still on the conveyor belt of the x-ray machine, and I was terrified they would be stolen.

Passengers going through airport security check

At this sign of potentially violent resistance, Officer Jackson scowled and said, “Let’s not have a tantrum now.” Well, she had the gun. And the power to decide whether I got on my plane. So I stood there, my eye throbbing, while she put her hands all over my body. The side of her hand brushed my crotch, but she didn’t actually grab it.

I made it onto the plane. As we taxied onto the runway, I composed an indignant letter of complaint on my iPad. “Perhaps I ought to accept that your security people are rude and seemingly feel entitled to treat passengers without respect,” I huffed. “But I refuse to accept it without comment.”

I never sent the letter, realizing it would have no impact whatsoever. By the time Joe picked me up in Champaign, all I wanted was to get to a doctor and have my cornea treated. Since it was nighttime, we went to the ER at Carle hospital. There were no drug ODs, no heart attack or gunshot victims.

I got right in.

Looking back, I suffered no damage from from my brush with airport security except a few ruffled feathers—unlike this poor woman.

Last year I got an awesome deal on a camera. I “saved” over $500 off the purchase price. (And no, I didn’t buy it off the back of a truck. It was last year’s model, on sale, and I had credit card points.) Of course I could have saved more by passing on the camera and continuing to take photos and videos with my phone like most people.

FlowerI justified the purchase in various ways. I was writing a novel, Darkroom, in which a photographer and her photographs play a central role. Hands-on experience with an actual camera was research. (The photographer in the novel is old school. She uses shoots with film and develops her prints in a darkroom. I wasn’t ready to go there, especially since darkroom equipment is hard to find.)

Instead of shelling out money on stock photos, I could use my own high-quality photos on my blog and in the process learn more about working in Photoshop. And I could make videos!

I could ask an onlooker to videotape some of my riding lessons so I could study and improve my form.

As webmaster of the local Scrabble club, I take pictures at the meetings. This particular camera has a setting called “Beauty Shot” (I’m not kidding) that processes images of faces and eliminates flaws. I could get better shots of the people who hate having their picture taken. They might stop threatening to kill me if I posted photos of them online.

PlaygroundAnd the shiny new camera would give me a reason to detach my brain from my iPad and get my butt out of the house once in a while.

Once I started snapping pictures, I came to some unhappy realizations. All the fancy features were pointless until I knew how to use them, so I studied the manual enough to be minimally competent. More than that would take practice. A lot of practice.

SAMSUNG CSCAnd I soon realized were things that my camera couldn’t do. A few outdoor sessions showed me that even with the correct settings I couldn’t capture birds in flight. My husband, Joe, a sometimes photographer who gave me invaluable help in researching Darkroom, explained that I needed a lens with a longer focal length, which would cost almost as much as I’d spent for the camera.

HydrantMaybe someday . . .

It wasn’t only the camera that had limitations. I lacked the eye for photography. My gaze slipped past the unlikely objects that make good photos. I didn’t think in terms of frame or perspective or angle. Joe helped me. When I walked around town taking pictures, he came along and pointed out what I overlooked. He set tasks for me. One was to photograph the fire hydrants in our neighborhood. I came to think of the project as a travel guide for the dogs who might journey to Charleston, Illinois.

His tutoring helped. I learned to see more possibilities in places so familiar that I’d stopped  seeing them.


And I made a heartening discovery. Photography helps my writing. Not only do I see the world in a new way, but my photographs have become a kind of memory, capturing mundane images in more detail than I could ever remember.Shadow Box

But there are limitations here as well.

Memory is more than an visual image. It’s the smell of mud, the bark of a dog and the rumble of distant thunder, the flutter of the wind and the damp touch of the air. Above all it’s the convergence of thoughts and moods with the input from the senses—that complex thing called experience.

Broken Dishes

Taken March 2013 Charleston, Illinois

Time has not been kind to the once beautiful house.

Thirty years ago Joe and I lived in a beautiful house overlooking a lake. It was his second year of teaching at Eastern Illinois University. Uncertain whether we would settle permanently in Charleston, we leased the place from a professor on sabbatical.

The house had an unpaved driveway that wound steeply downward to a gravel road. Since trucks had to come up the driveway to deliver propane for the furnace, heavy snowstorms made us nervous. But the living room had a glass wall offering a view of a ravine. In early spring when the redbud bloomed, the ravine exploded with color.

The incident

I wrote fiction in an office in the walkout basement. One morning in the spring, I suddenly felt the need to take a walk. My writing was going well just then, so the urge made no sense. Leaving the basement, I descended the winding driveway and turned right on the gravel road. This direction led to a stone quarry about a mile away.

The embankment today

I wondered if I was going to the quarry. It felt strange not having a choice, but I wasn’t frightened. Shortly after passing the ravine, I turned and began to climb an embankment steep enough that I needed both hands and feet to clamber up. It was about fifteen feet high. At the top I found myself in a clearing with a few trees, weeds and sparse grass, and rocks embedded in the hard ground. I wandered the clearing and stopped in front of one particular rock. A voice in my head said, Here.

I knew then the rock marked a grave and I’d been brought there to see it. The possibility of a ghost occurred to me, but I didn’t take it seriously. I was, after all, an inventor of fiction with a lively imagination

Evidence accumulates

Abandoned and broken headstones

Summer came. Shortly before Joe and I moved out of the house, I took a last walk along the gravel road. I loved the place despite the difficulties of living there and was sorry we had to leave. Approaching the embankment, I saw the sign: Kelly Family Cemetery. I climbed up to the clearing and saw it had been cleaned up. The weeds had been pulled, and dirt swept from the rocks. They were old gravestones. I found the one where I’d been taken a few months ago. I tried to read the engraving now visible, but it was too eroded by time.

Look closely. You can almost read the name.

Someone named Kelly wanted me to know that she/he resided nearby.

Several  years  later I heard a story about the house. The professor went on unpaid leave and leased it to a man who moved out after a few months, claiming it was haunted. He sublet the house to a woman who decided she didn’t want to live there either. Before leaving, she tried to sell the furniture. Luckily, one piece was very distinctive—a massive, elaborately hand-carved table the professor’s wife had bought in Mexico. I remember that table well. Dusting it was a tedious job. Someone else remembered it too, and the woman was busted.

Do these stones mark a grave?

Today I revisited the spot. The sign is gone, but I found remnants of the old cemetery in the clearing. Climbing the embankment, I got clawed by a vicious branch. (See photo above.) Maybe something wanted to keep me from going up there to take pictures. Or maybe today was muddier, and I’m not as young as I was then.

Are ghosts real?

I neither nor disbelieve in the paranormal. When a phenomenon seems to exist but cannot be verified empirically, I’m an agnostic. I feel no driving need to hunt down the truth one way or the other. It surprises me how few people can tolerate the uncertainty of agnosticism. They must either devoutly believe or strenuously disbelieve.

Readers of Talion know the novel has paranormal elements but leaves open the possibility that Lu, the girl who sees demons, might just be out of her mind. The novel’s ambiguity reflects my attitude toward the paranormal. It also puts off readers who can’t handle ambiguity.

The sequel to Talion leaves no doubt as to the existence of the demons. Some readers resist the notion of demons invading an otherwise realistic world, but these particular demons refuse to go away. Why should I ignore them any more than I ignored the ghost—or whatever it was that summoned me to a neglected grave?

Last month, I was immersed in the first draft of the sequel to Talion. The story flowed straight from my head onto the page. Sometimes I had no idea what would come next. It just came. Writers understand what I’m talking about, what a blessed state it is. The last thing I wanted was to stop. But a vacation was coming. A vacation I was looking forward to.

I handled the dilemma in the usual way – with self delusion. I resolved to keep writing during the trip. Nothing big, I told myself. An hour or two on the days I wasn’t travelling. Just to keep the novel alive in my head. I packed my iPad and bluetooth keyboard, a notebook and plenty of pens. I lugged this equipment from place to place for eleven days, but – surprise! – I got nothing written. Oh, I jotted down a few impressions, descriptions of place and the like.

But sustained sessions of writing? No way.

I’ve been fooling myself like this for years, forgetting how impractical it is to wedge an hour of writing into days crammed with activity. But more to the point, I forget that on my last dozen vacations I felt no urge whatsoever to write. Vacations are just too much fun – visiting family and friends, exploring places, and indulging in hedonistic pleasures like eating and shopping. Only when the trip ends and I come home do I feel disappointed in myself.

This time, unpacking my keyboard, I felt the usual guilt and dutifully beat myself up. I wasn’t a serious writer, not really dedicated to my craft, and if I never succeeded it was my own fault for not trying harder. Then I stopped. Why was I doing this? I had a great time. I stayed with my nephew and his family in Salt Lake. We celebrated Frontier Days in Cheyenne, went shopping in Denver, and hiked down a mountain in Deer Valley. I took dozens of photos. I went to the places that are the setting of my sequel. That’s research, right?

Maybe a journey demands commitment. Maybe it’s not something I can undertake while part of me stays home, settled into a writing routine. Or maybe I’m fishing for excuses. Anyway, the neglected first draft hasn’t expired during my absence. I touch the keyboard and it awakens like a lover, sleepy and expectant.


On a rainy afternoon Joe and I took a road trip to check out the Walldog event in the nearby town of Arcola. The Walldogs are a group of sign artists who have painted murals on the sides of buildings in towns and cities  all across America. The murals are designed to chronicle people and places of significance to the particular town, so they enhance the town’s character as well as adding artistic beauty.

Arcola Seed Corn Company

The painting was underway during our visit although the artists retreated indoors or under tents when the summer shower became a downpour. We braved the rain to take photos of the works in progress. (So okay, I snapped most of them from inside the car, but we did get wet. Well, damp anyway.) We plan to return once the murals are complete and photograph the completed murals. Meanwhile, here are some of the shots we got.

Every Town Needs at Least One Candy Kitchen

Some murals commemorated historical businesses like the two dedicated to Pfeifer Seed and Arcola Candy Kitchen. One honored Arcola native “Average Joe” Ernst. According to an article from WAND-TV news,

A decorated veteran, Joe is now 88 and watched work on a mural honoring his life.  In 1941, Joe was working in a local restaurant when a group of African Americans came in seeking service.  “Man’s hungry,  I don’t care what color he is, he’s hungry.”  It was in the days of segregation and black Americans could not be served in most eateries.  Joe served those customers and the next day he was fired.  “Oh yeah.  Next morning I came to work and the key wouldn’t fit the doors” Joe told WAND News.

"Average Joe" Ernst, WWII Hero

The African American customers?  It turns out it was the “Queen of Jazz,” singer Ella Fitzgerald and her band.  Joe had no idea who his famous customer was.

The average Joe is a decent guy. So much for my dark and cynical view of the world.

Here are some other Walldog murals in various stages of completion.

Hard at Work

Brightening a Parking Lot

Tribute to the Railroad?

The final mural celebrates Arcola Lawn Rangers, the world-famous lawnmower precision drill team. These guys have marched in hundreds of parades all over the country, including President Obama’s inaugural parade. If you want to know more about this quintessentially American group, check out this video.

But really, their motto says it all.

Motto of the Arcola Lawn Rangers

A towheaded little kid came over to me in the waiting room of a doctor’s office. “You have an iPad!” he said, peering down at the screen. “Do you have any games?”

“Just Scrabble,” I said.

“You should have more games,” he said. “I could find one for you. Us kids know all about technology.”

He was so cute that I indulged him by going to the iTunes store to look for games. I had no intention of buying any, but then I noticed one game was free: Angry Birds.

“That’s pretty good,” the kid said.

So I downloaded Angry Birds right there in the waiting room. Before he could show me how to play, though, his mother noticed he was causing trouble and called him back to her.

Angry Birds - The Original

The Angry Bird Triumphs

Apparently Angry Birds is wildly popular, but I’d never heard of it before. Later I gave it a shot – literally, since the game consists of shooting birds at fortified targets with a slingshot. The goal is to break through the fortifications of wood and stone to destroy the green pigs within. If the player manages to eliminate all the pigs, the soundtrack erupts in raucous crows of triumph. If not, the remaining pigs gloat by snorting and grinning.

Angry Bird is an elegant game. Its design is perfect for the touch screen of the iPad, and winning requires logic as well as a steady hand and true aim. The fortifications must be hit in the right spot to bring them crashing down on the pigs.

Angry Birds is also dangerously addicting, as I discovered over the next few weeks. I had essays to read – dozens of essays – yet I wasted hours playing Angry Birds. “One game,” I told myself, knowing better. I could not quit after losing, and I could not quit if my winning score fell short of my best score. Since then I have moved on to Angry Bird Rio, in which the propelled birds bust through cages to free other birds captured by evil smugglers. I like Rio even better. Avian Liberation!

The game got me thinking about the ways I waste time and whether any of them can be justified. I play Scrabble on the iPad for hours, but at least it hones my mental skills. What do I gain from Angry Birds? Relaxation. A way to engage my conscious mind as my unconscious works out some problem that has been vexing me.

I waste time by shopping online. There’s no justification for that, except the pleasure it gives. I waste time rereading books that I’ve already read and watching movies and TV shows that I’ve already seen more than once. Maybe I gain a deeper understanding of the works by going back to them, but my motive isn’t so  high-minded. I’m really just having fun. Nothing wrong with that. Except everyone’s time on earth is limited. I have only so many days left to live. Who knows, maybe only today. Do I really want to spend my last precious hours gazing at pictures of shoes or shooting virtual birds at virtual targets?

Well, no. But I don’t want to spend them listening to a clock tick either. Everything I enjoy doing – from writing fiction to riding my horse to playing Angry Birds – has one thing in common. It makes me forget time. For a little while, anyway, those lost hours feel like forever.

I used to have a recurring dream about Soldier Summit, the dying town high in the mountains of Utah where my parents began their marriage and my brother and I first lived. Though it has been years, my memory of the dream remains vivid. I am hiking along a road with snowbanks on both sides and mountains rising in front of me. Then night falls and it begins to snow. Music plays, haunting music with bells. Brilliantly lit houses on the mountainside overlook the road, promising warmth and rest, but I can’t stop. I have to reach Soldier Summit before nightfall. Then the lights from the houses fade. Darkness closes around me.

My mother told me how she waded through hip-deep snow to reach the Hillcrest Cafe where she waited tables and my father cooked. Before buying the cafe, my father worked as a dispatcher at the railroad station in Soldier Summit, but he wanted to be his own boss. Once Mom became pregnant with me, she stopped working at the Hillcrest. She had to be careful. She’d miscarried with her first pregnancy, an older brother or sister that Steve and I might have had.

After Steve was born, fourteen months after me, Dad’s mother came to help Mom take care of us. Nana soon claimed me as her darling, leaving Steve to Mom. Throughout our childhood, I thought Mom loved him more and forgave him things she would never have forgiven me.

I recall only moments of that time in Soldier Summit. I remember waking before dawn in the dim bedroom where Nana and I slept and watching her get dressed. She had on an old-fashioned girdle with garters and stockings but no underpants, and I saw the tuft of gray hair between her legs before she slipped into a dress. I asked where she was going. To Salt Lake, she said, just for the day. I asked if I could come. Not this time, she told me. Sometime later she took me on the train to Salt Lake. We shopped in a huge department store. Then we checked into a hotel so I could take my afternoon nap. This seems unlikely given how little money we had, yet the memory is vivid — the cool sheets and the precipitous view from the window.

Another memory: Steve as a toddler wearing a frilly pink dress, screaming, furious, his red face smeared with tears and snot. Years later I asked Nana about the incident. She told me I was imagining things, nothing of the kind had happened. So I never mentioned it to Steve. But a long time afterward, when both of them were dead, I asked Mom about the memory. Nana had put the dress on Steve, she said, as punishment for wetting the bed. When Dad came home and saw, he cussed Nana out and ordered her to get that dress off him. “It was my fault,” Mom said. “I should’ve stood up to her.”

Steve told me once I had no clue how hard it was being a man. High on speed and beer, he’d nearly fought some guys on the street because one of them said something. He got into vicious fights over matters of respect. I heard about the ones he won. He boasted of beating up a drunk who ruined his hat with a pocket knife.

Earlier this month I went back to Soldier Summit. Steve’s son Hayden, his wife Tonia, and their daughter Aspen came with me. The place I remembered was no longer there. Snow covered the foundations of the demolished houses where Steve and I once played. There were a few new buildings along the highway, but everything I remembered was gone except for one abandoned house and the railroad tracks.

In August I spent several days with my friend Carol in Studio City, California. Carol works in the movies as an art department coordinator. She was working then on a film called The Artist, so we partied in the evenings and I entertained myself during the day. I took my mini-cam and explored Ventura Boulevard. I trekked from Laurel Canyon Drive almost to Universal Studio, alongside a relentless stream of traffic. It seemed never to let up. My husband the eco-critic (yes really, he and Robin Murray write books on eco-criticism and the cinema) informed me later that Los Angeles has the most polluted air in America. It certainly seems that way when you breathe it.

Side streets with quaint names like Blue Canyon Road branched off Ventura and twisted up the steep hillsides, but the boulevard was mostly commercial. A sinister atmosphere emanated from the hustle and bustle and mixed with the pollution. Maybe it came from my assumption that so much commerce cannot exist without some corruption or from the bleak depictions of Los Angeles in novels by James Ellroy and Michael Connelly and films like Chinatown and Mulholland Drive. I imagined dark happenings in the seedy motels and massage parlors. I wondered what was cached in the windowless storage facilities. So many businesses exploited parents’ dreams of vicarious stardom: “Comedy Lessons for Kids,” “Children in Film.”

I passed a building of gleaming black glass with a large courtyard behind the tall bars of a fence. The sign on the building said only “Pure Beauty.” A spa, maybe? I must have passed 15 or 20 downscale spas in various strip malls. This could be an upscale spa. But a sign on the gate into the parking lot warned that the place was under “constant video surveillance.” What would happen if I took pictures? Would guys in suits and sunglasses come out and break my camera? Later I searched online and discovered it was just an ordinary spa. Maybe the patrons felt insecure or the facility needed protection from  feral gangs of starlets foraging for beauty products.