Monday, August 03, 2015

More on Wendover

They had a great display of pin-up plane art

Wendover airfield, a major WWII base in Utah, is now a historic site. The museum is well worth visiting, and the spirit of the place is hard to describe. You can almost hear the buzz and machinery of the past, whereas I literally didn't see another person there other than my own family.

Model of the base in its heyday
Apparently Paul Tibbets, pilot of the Enola Gay, was given three bases to choose from, and he selected Wendover because of its remote location. It truly is far from anything, with horizon for miles, and much of it the Great Salt Desert (more on that in another post. It's very close to the Bonneville Salt Flats, now in the news because they can't hold their races there for the second year in a row, possibly because salt mining is depleting the resource and making the flats too slushy).

The 1942 control tower
If these structures and empty hangars could talk, what tales they would tell....

More on Wendover in another post (and also see below). Stay tuned.

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Sunday, July 26, 2015

Historic Wendover Airfield

"Little Boy" replica: the bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima

Five states in four days...that was our drive from California, through Nevada, Utah and Wyoming, to arrive in Colorado. We had an amazing road trip and I have lots of historical stuff to share. I'll start first with the Wendover Airfield in Utah and its role in the launch of the atomic bomb (and I'll post again about the base in general, so stay tuned).

This airfield was an important WWII base nestled in the Great Salt Desert. Today, where men once teemed to ready their planes, the base is desolate, the hangars empty. There is a veritable atmosphere to the place.

Inside the very nicely-put-together museum, you can see a replica of "Little Boy," the bomb dropped on Hiroshima by the Enola Gay. It is astonishing to see how very small a device it is, to have wrought so much destruction. The replica shows signatures from the flight crew, including Col. Paul Tibbets, who was the pilot.

The museum features an audio of the Enola Gay being loaded on that fatal day, Aug. 6, 1945. You press a button and hear the busy airfield readying itself for the flight, the bomb being loaded, men talking, calling out to each other. I got a distinct chill listening to it, and listened to the brief clip several times. At the end, there's a little burst of jazz music and a woman singing--did someone turn on a radio? I was trying to imagine that day and how the men felt. Apparently, the true mission of the Enola Gay  was kept quiet to all but Col. Tibbets until the plane was actually underway, but you have to wonder...

"Press here for audio playback of the loading of the Enola Gay"

Here's a scale model of the plane itself.

The day before the bomb dropped, Tibbets named the plane for his mother.

And a photograph of Col. Tibbets:

At Tinian Island, near Japan, where the crew went after the bomb drop

Tibbets died in 2007, and his cremated remains were scattered over the English Channel. He had feared a funeral or tombstone would provide a gathering place for those who objected to the use of the atomic bomb.

On Sept. 26, 2015, you can attend Wendover's 2015 Warbirds & Wheels WWII Commemoration celebrating the 70th year since the end of WWII. 

Wendover's website is

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Saturday, July 04, 2015

Interviewing Pixar's Inside Out creators

Last month, I had the intense pleasure of a phone interview for Oakland Magazine with Pete Docter and Jonas Rivera, the director and producer of Pixar's Inside Out (they both have Oakland/Piedmont ties). I found the movie to be an extraordinary, moving film far deeper than what children might be able to garner from it. Its target audience basically is parents, a thesis which Docter and Rivera agreed to. Yet don't let that stop you from bringing your kids; there's enough there to entertain and amuse as young as five years old.

Due to the article wordcount I wasn't able to include all the great things they told me. I'll add one here. Jonas Rivera said that his favorite part of the movie is a short scene where Joy doesn't want Riley to go to sleep and they put on their favorite song and "she skates along with her. It's an impossible relationship; it's the only time they're on screen together." Riley doesn't even know Joy's a poignant thought that the single most important aspect of her young personality is unknown to her.

I watched a special media showing before the official release date with friend and fellow historical novelist Erin McCabe, and boy, were we both sniffling, as was the entire audience. Friends who cry together stay together, right? I watched again later with my family, and noticed more the second time. For instance, I had noted that Joy has blue hair, but it didn't really register until the second viewing. Joy must always be tinged with sadness, because the remembrance of joy is the remembrance of something we once experienced and can't ever again in the same way. Which reminds me, I really need to read Proust sometime.

My article begins, "Pixar’s magic: making the events on the big screen somehow related to our small, foible-filled lives. And this year’s offering Inside Out proves that enchanted formula works again, but this time to a degree that leaves audience members in tears of reflection." Read the full text at Oakland Magazine's website.

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P.S. I previously interviewed Brave's filmmakers and got to visit the much-vaunted Pixar campus in Emeryville, California. Read that post here.

P.P.S. One more tidbit. I felt the film may revolutionize how people think about thinking. For instance, if we have concrete ways of thinking about emotions, it might be easier to say, "I'll let Joy take the helm and push Anger aside." I asked Docter and Rivera if they intended that, as a bit of self-help for viewers, and they pshawed me. "No, we're just trying to entertain." Sure.:)

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Big Day of Giving

Today is the Big Day of Giving, where we focus on charities and make donations. I'm going to donate to 916 Ink, a group that helps Sacramento-area teens become published writers. But there's another nonprofit I donate to each month on the 12th, in memory of Jennifer L. Kranz, a six-year-old who died on the 12th (of February 2014). Would you be willing to donate $12 each month on the 12th to fund pediatric cancer research? Visit the GiveUs12 link.

I have two things to share in this post. One is an op-ed I wrote after having an epiphany about cancer: that it's not forever, not incurable, not the monster that will forever rule our fears. A cure is coming, so long as we can fund innovation.

Speaking of innovation, I'm delighted to share a video by the Kranz family, explaining about their nonprofit Unravel, founded in memory of their daughter to keep other families from going through that incredible tragedy. Let's watch that first.

There is progress coming; there is. Here is my piece that originally ran at the wonderful, big-hearted blog Sweatpants & Coffee.

Handing Cancer its Termination Notice

by Erika Mailman

Cancer's never going away, is it? It's the Grim Reaper large as Godzilla, with not one but two scythes, and really sharp incisors inside that skeletal jaw.

For many years—since I watched a friend in her early forties twist and moan in the pain of cervical cancer until it won—I’d considered cancer the beast that was omnipotent, and all we could do was bow our heads and hope it passed by those we cared about.

But recently I’ve been buoyed up by optimism. I foresee an end to cancer. I’m taking a lesson from history and am officially and ironically handing cancer its termination notice.

What spurs this confidence? Let me backtrack.

I teach English at a community college in Sacramento. In a chapter of our textbook titled "Homonyms and Commonly Confused Words," I learned the difference between sympathy and empathy. Basically, as my students and I understood it, sympathy involves a mild feeling of distress, while empathy entails actually crying.

I spent a lot of time being empathetic in 2014. I capped off each night by looking at the blog written by Libby Kranz about her daughter's breathtakingly-quick—less than four months—decline and death from a tumor in her brainstem. Jennifer Kranz was six; the one-year anniversary of her death is next week, Feb. 12.

She and my daughter were in the same playgroup of a mom's group in Gilroy, California, and thus the news hit home in a way nothing else ever has. I sank to my knees night after night, not just crying, but sobbing, hyperventilating, in rockgut despair for my friend's loss.

Each morning I showered away the ravages of the previous evening’s grief, and met my students with a smile. Along with the grammar text, I assigned them a novel, Year of Wonders by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Geraldine Brooks. This book is about the Bubonic Plague and is set in medieval Eyam, England, a village remarkable for the fact its residents quarantined themselves to avoid spreading the plague. They were sympathetic (if not empathetic) to the imagined plight of neighboring villages should they bring the "plague seeds" with them as they fled.

The Black Death, as the Bubonic Plague was called, swept over Europe, Asia and the Middle East, a pandemic that lasted for hundreds of years (mainly 1300s-1600s). Statistics vary, but it is said that a full third of the Middle East and Europe's population died from the plague.

Brooks's novel describes the buboes (dark, swollen lymph nodes from which "bubonic" derives) that would appear in people's groins, armpits, necks: the first sign of a fast ride to death that would involve high fever, vomiting of blood, and coagulating blood in fingers and toes, leaving them gothically, repugnantly blackened as if by fire. Deaths were so rampant that soon mass burials took place so corpses could be speedily dispatched; periodically, modern-day construction crews come across these pits.

Since the medieval world was awash in fleas (puce--French for "flea"--was a favorite clothing color at Versailles, to provide camouflage for the ubiquitous pest) and fleas carried the plague from rodent to human with their bites, the disease spread with alarming rapidity. Fleas famously can leap over a foot away and can continue living in bedding and clothing (in Brooks's novel, a tailor's shipment of cloth from London is to blame for the plague reaching Eyam), so short of completely contaminating a home, there would be no way to stop the miniature agents of disease--even if it had been known they were responsible.

The Black Death inspired terror for hundreds of years--now imagine telling someone in the 1300s that a simple vaccine would make mention of the plague shrug-worthy. And that even once contracted, the disease could be stopped by antibiotics if caught early on. They might not have been able to believe it. Plague had been too terrible, too sweeping, too much part of their lives.

And that's how we think about cancer.

We've spent decades feeling helpless about cancer's wretched march through the cells of those we love. Words like "metastasized" and "stage four" bring dread to our stomachs; these are words we have no armor for. When we hear about "the cure," there's a certain incredulity that there ever will be one. Cancer is so powerful. But I'm heartened by the analogy that we can eradicate cancer like we did the plague.

There will be a breakthrough. Today, for the most part, only third world countries suffer plague outbreaks, like Madagascar very recently. I'm honestly not concerned about buboes; they don't come up on my maternal radar too much, although 600 years ago my English ancestors probably worried about them constantly, with good reason.

I’m picturing the near future, a day when people marvel that cancer ran so long unchecked…when they pity us for our “Dark Ages” disease. That day is coming. Cancer researchers make strides daily, like Dr. Olson, who has developed “tumor paint” to make it easier for surgeons to excise diseased tissue while leaving good tissue intact, as well as working on anti-cancer compounds, optides. These optides improve the wretched process of chemotherapy which targets healthy and cancerous cells alike—the optides only attack the bad cells.

Jennifer Kranz’s parents have squeezed metaphoric lemons in desperation and grief to pummel them into pulp and lemonade. Their nonprofit organization Unravel promises to “unravel” pediatric cancer through fundraising to support researchers who are eager and innovative and only lack funding. Unravel monies recently permitted Dr. Olsen to hire not one but two interns. Being part of such a tangible step forward towards a cure makes me sleep better at night, although my eyes still burn with empathetic tears when I think about Jennifer, forever lost.

To read Libby's blog or to contribute to Unravel, her pediatric cancer awareness and fundraising nonprofit, visit

Thursday, March 26, 2015

4th annual Chin Up for Writers Day

See that chin? It's elevated

I'm appalled to realize the fourth observance of National Chin Up for Writers Day somehow passed by me with proper parading, bannering, badging, and T-shirting. Yes, March 19 eluded notice, but I will still make my annual post.

I know why I was distracted; a month ago I had another novel come out under a pen name. I was caught up in events and social media for the launch.

And I have two things to say about that:

1. The Chin Up posts were as much for me as they were for anyone reading this blog. Although I had had two novels published, a desert of years had opened up in which I focused on offspring of the literal, rather than literary, kind. My Chin Up posts were me kicking the sand in that desert, reassuring myself and my chin that another publication day would arise. I don't regret those years; I think my husband and I have "authored" some pretty amazing people, but I needed a little bit of self-affirmation that my writer self still existed.

2. The book that just came out is a total poster child for keeping your chin up. The file is in storage that reveals the horrible truth of how very, very long ago I wrote this book (the file has the original handwritten pages I scribbled after the nightmare that engendered the book)--I don't remember the year offhand but let me say that it predated kids, predated my published novels and predated Richard the Third's original burial.

This rock is totally keeping its chin up

Books can thrive with undaunting cheerleaders (the writer!), fearless revisors (also, the writer!), and stalwart queriers (still the writer!). I didn't let my chin sink with this novel, nor did I stop trying to improve it, and the outcome has been wonderful: a book out in the marketplace that I'm proud of.

Chin up, writers: what you wish for can be accomplished.

If you'd like to read the previous years' posts on Keep Your Chin Up Day:
First year
Second year
Third year

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Sunday, March 08, 2015

Donner Party Later On...

NOT the Breens

The latest issue of the East Bay Monthly (out of Berkeley) contains my article about J. Ross Browne, a famous-but-lost-to-time author who dined with members of the Breen family after their rescue from what is now called Donner Lake. His imagination got the best of him and he imagined his hosts as blood-thirsty cannibals, which is actually very sad when we consider that they were not ghouls but people pushed to the outer limits of hunger.

How can any of us predict how we would act in the same circumstances? The urge to live is strong, and the Donner Party people lived under the hope that rescue was imminent if they could just hold out one more day. All accounts show how desperate and shamed the people were who had to partake in human flesh. Definitely not their first choice!

The article can be found here.

One unexpected bonus of this article is that I was contacted via email by a descendant of the Breens. She very graciously and diplomatically pointed out that the photo that ran with the article, identifying Patrick and Margret Breen, was not in fact of a photo of them. I thanked her profusedly, offered to collect an oral history, and let her know that I would pass the information along to the magazine. The magazine will be running a correction. In the meantime....I'm so excited to have had email contact with someone with a true connection to the Donners. She is my version of a celebrity!

J. Ross Browne's lithograph of a sperm whale hunt

The photographs and illustrations that ran with the story (including a great lithograph of a sperm whale surfacing, about to be harpooned: J. Ross Browne's harrowing stories of whale hunting inspired no less than Herman Melville, author of Moby Dick)  were under the magazine's art direction, and it'd be hard to fault them for using that photograph. That photograph is circulated everywhere with the misidentification of the couple depicted; it reminds me of another situation, in which a portrait has been repeatedly shared on the web as depicting Mary Bliss Parsons. It's not. There are no known portraits of Mary Bliss Parsons, my ancestor accused of witchcraft on at least two occasions. Here's my blog post about that particular situation. 

Anyway, I think it's important to remember that some people's lives continued after the disaster in the Sierra. Marysville, California, for instance, is named for Mary Murphy, another Donner Party survivor, and many went on to become important town leaders wherever they settled. Louis Keseberg: another matter.

Speaking of other matters, my friend Lynn Carthage's book Haunted: The Arnaud Legacy launched last week, and I've been watching her progress with interest. The book is a young adult neo-Gothic thriller (a fancy way of saying "haunted mansion story") and I highly recommend it.

Members of local Historical Novels Society help Lynn Carthage launch her novel. From left,
Erin McCabe (I Shall Be Near to You), Susan Spann (Blade of the Samurai),
Jennifer Laam (Secret Daughter of the Tsar), and Lynn Carthage.
Three other HNS folks were at the reading but unfortunately departed before
photo time: Mark Weideranders, Kathy Boyd Fellure, and Pam Munn.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Haunted bookstore dates and win a free ARC!

Some of you know that I'm now writing young adult fiction under a pen name, Lynn Carthage. My rule is going to be that I'll promote from Erika to Lynn, but not vice-versa. As an author with a historical novel featuring an unapologetic prostitute narrator (Woman of Ill Fame), I don't want young readers to google me and read that too. Of course, nothing on the internetz is secret, and I noted in the Advanced Reader Copy (ARC) that the title page just outright lists me as the author, but it's my attempt to keep the innocent sort of innocent.

I have two readings arranged to launch the first book in the series: Haunted: The Arnaud Legacy. The book launches Feb. 24, 2015, and I'll read in El Dorado Hills and Oakland. I'm also arranging an event in Morgan Hill and possibly one in San Francisco (all of these in Northern California). Haunted is a neo-Gothic thriller about a teen who moves to England with her family into the ancestral mansion that isn't...exactly...abandoned. Danielle Paige and Michelle Gagnon gave me great cover blurbs for the book. So the two events are:
  • 6:30 p.m., Friday, March 6 at Face In A Book bookstore, 4359 Town Center Boulevard, El Dorado Hills, CA, (916) 941-9401.
  • 7 p.m., Saturday, March 14 at A Great Good Place for Books, 6120 LaSalle Ave., Oakland, CA, (510) 339-8210.

And now about the ARCs. These are copies created in advance of the book's actual printing, to send along to book reviewers and newspapers and bloggers. My publisher Kensington is giving away 25 free ARCs now. You can visit the Goodreads page for Haunted to enter to win one. While you're there, please friend me and mark the book as "want to read" if in fact you want to read it!

After several years off from the publishing world to raise some offspring and oh, move, a couple dozen times, I'm thrilled beyond belief to have another book hit the world! I hope you will enjoy it.

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