Having just returned from La Nouvelle France, I’m still relishing the contradictions in that term. Because while the great province of Québec is indeed planted in the sweeping landscape of open plains, rugged ranges and the immense and powerful rivers, particularly the St. Lawrence, that characterize the New World, one of its great attractions is its antiquity. First, there is the underlying presence of its Indigenous People, and then its cultivated preservation of the Old World. That would be France of course.

Montréal, its megacity, is also multicultural, with neighborhoods, customs, great food, a passion for jazz, and languages representing corners of the earth as far-flung as Asia, Eastern Europe, Ireland and Italy. But, when communicating with each other, its residents do so under a framework that is French in a country that is Anglophone. Call it bilingual. But its French heart still beats strong in Vieux Montréal.

There in the oldest part of the city, which spreads out from the port, it is easy to follow any of the cobblestone streets and imagine you are in old Europe. See the signs for streets named Saint-Paul, Saint-Pierre, Saint-Maurice, Sainte-Catherine, Notre Dame, and you know this must be French-speaking Catholic Europe. Follow the blocks of pedestrian-friendly rue Saint-Paul, find a charming corner café, order an espresso, sit under the umbrella blocking the sun and watch the parade of passers-by, and you know you are in an outpost of France.

Within a stone’s throw, the touchstones are all there: fine restaurants, boutiques, a museum showcasing exposed archeological digs, bakeries, wine bars, and two major churches.  The famous Basilique Notre-Dame de Montréal sits with its imposing dome, ornate gothic arches and statuary on rue Notre Dame. Notre-Dame de Bon-Secours, with its slender gothic tower and famous bronze statue of Notre-Dame adorning the outside, became the mariners’ church. A beautiful interior plus an interesting museum are a great draw to visitors. On a more modern note, it is said that the statue, “our lady of the harbor,” found its way into native son Leonard Cohen’s iconic song, “Suzanne.”

In a word, there’s an esthetic in the city that seems persuasively French: attractively laid out parks and streets lined with flower boxes; reconstructed buildings that preserve their old and charming façades; neighborhoods friendly to walkers and browsers. Oh, and did I mention, it’s hard to find a bad meal no matter what district you are exploring?

And if all that holds for Montréal, double it for Québec City. A small gem about three hours north, it is not a jazzy, multicultural metropolis, but a delight airlifted from ancient France and dropped in place on the mighty Saint Lawrence. If Montréal is old world, Québec City is ancien régime.

That’s no exaggeration. On Place Royale, in the heart of the ancient walled city, a presiding statue is dedicated to its royal benefactor and patron, King Louis XIV. And while the old stone buildings, alluring store fronts, and winding cobbled streets more resemble a 17th c. French village than Louis’ digs at Versailles, you don’t have to look far to get that down-home château feeling. Perched on a sheer cliff rising above the village at water’s edge, and connected by a funicular, is world-famous Château Frontenac. Though the building was constructed in late 19th c. with fortunes made from railroads, it looks as if it was airlifted from the banks of the Loire, circa 1550—and remade on a colossal scale. The most famous events to take place there were the 1943 and 1944 meetings between American President Franklin Roosevelt, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and Canadian Prime Minister William Lyon MacKenzie King to strategize about World War II. The luxurious Château is a hotel and open to the public.

While the Québecois will speak to a visitor in English if required, in this city, signs and communications are in French without apology nor translation (albeit the regional vernacular is often so far from the original French root, that translation is sometimes required). And whereas Montréal is justifiably proud of its bagels, Québec will treat you to prime-time baguettes—to say nothing of croissants.

Québec, too, is the foundational city as well as the capital of the province. Within walking distance of the Château are the Plains of Abraham, with grassy fields, blazing fall colors in season, sweeping views of the river, and maps and placards to guide visitors through its history. For it was here, in 1759, after many turns of the territory going back and forth between England and France that British General James Wolfe led his troops to successfully scale the cliffs from the river. Here he routed the French led by their commander, the hapless General Louis-Joseph de Montcalm. Thus North America was definitively claimed for England, and the deal was sealed by the Treaty of Paris in 1763, ending the Seven Years’ War.

But as Québec proudly manifests, never mind the outcome of the war:  La Nouvelle France carved out its own very French identity and never let it go.

What transpired many centuries ago is still a burning issue to many on both sides of the Atlantic. One French friend recently expressed outrage at that idiot King Louis XV for agreeing to a treaty with such a humiliating loss for France. Another friend, a French journalist who was posted to Québec City for three years, said there was a love-hate relationship between the French and the Québecois—stemming perhaps from the Québecois sense of being cut loose by the French, and grating under a perceived sense of French cultural superiority. But then there was Marc, the proprietor of the building where I stayed, and a proud Québecois whose lineage goes back over three hundred years. Chatting over a glass of wine, I asked him how he fared during last year’s pandemic shutdown, especially during the formidable winter.

“Oh fine,” he said. “I sat on those cushions in the window seat atop those old cannons and read the entire works of Proust.”  


As world leaders, including President Biden, finished their G-7 meeting in Cornwall yesterday, I was reminded of another leave-taking from the same place. In the unseasonably warm October of 2014, Wanderland Writers left their residences and the gardens and grounds of Tregenna Castle after a wonderful workshop in Cornwall. I was the last to leave St. Ives and made one return trip to the castle, and felt acutely the magic of that “Riviera” of England, with its palm trees and surfers, as well as the mystery and grit of that land of ancient standing stones. I also felt the melancholy of leave-taking when perhaps one’s business is unfinished and wrote this poem. I wonder if those world leaders experienced any of the same emotions.


                                        Last Climb Up Tregenna Hill

                                      Out of synch, out of season, summer sun

                                          on the summer sea. October and I am

                                          running up

                                          for one forgotten thing

                                          I still cannot remember.

                                          Was it my words?

                                          Fern paths, palm trees, golf grass green

                                          as winter in a greedy land,

                                          I pause, wanting breath,

                                          wanting what I have come

                                          for up this stony path. 

                                          But my companions are not here.

                                          Gone as ghosts, the writers,

                                          the breeze wiped clean of their

                                          laughter, their stories, their laments.

                                          Gone Linda beneath the faded lamplight

                                          In the cottage of the weeping stone.

                                          Gone myself.

                                          Inside the stone-walled castle

                                          wedding revelers dance,

                                          but I am not invited.

                                          Now a stranger here,

                                          I look only for what is lost.

                                          The wind strikes noon;

                                          my blood turns.


                                         in this moment

                                         I freeze in the sun

                                         and fear


                                         on the great mossy green,


                                         what I have come for,

                                          I will become

                                          the last stone standing.

                                              –Joanna Biggar–

                          From: Wandering in Cornwall: Mystery, Mirth and Transformation in the Land of Ancient Celts, Wanderland Writers, Oakland, CA, 2015;  image by hospitality interiors               


 With a salute to the king of the road-trip genre, William Least Heat Moon, I offer a glimpse not so much of a trip as a drive-by. Doug and I were on a mission to deliver a car in a few short days from Las Vegas to Tampa. We did linger a bit in the dazzling red rock territory of N. Arizona and longed to explore the surreal landscapes and sites of New Mexico.

But mostly we clung to that universal, monotonous, and generic space, the highway, to skate across as quickly as possible, and occasionally to get off to peek into the “real world.” Also to try to find real food and possibly a real place to stay. These exits were like a series of vignettes giving us tantalizing hints at the country we were crossing.

The gorgeous rock formations and dramatic skies of the Southwest gave way to a different terrain in the Texas Panhandle and Western Oklahoma, and not one I was expecting nor remembered from my travels through there decades earlier. Instead of the dry, endless scrub (that would come later)

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is flatlandsscrub.jpg

the land looked fertile, green, cultivated and full of wind farms. But Texas gave off an air of prosperity that Oklahoma did not.

In one of our off-highway excursions we went in search of a non-fast-food meal. We scoured three Oklahoma towns with promising signs, found places full of farm equipment and boarded up businesses, and even McDonald’s that were closed—or open only for drive-through. We both agreed we preferred hunger. In one town, we actually found local café with comfy chairs and a promise of a bakery. When we got out of the car, a woman came out to tell us they, too, had closed and to look down the street for an open restaurant. There was none. An open McDonald’s became our new gold standard.

When we could see it, we loved watching the changing architecture, too. From the grace of pueblo-influenced Spanish and Mexican style buildings and squares in the Southwest

to the crab-shack style along the rivers and bayous of Louisiana and Mississippi, to, of course, the ubiquitous plantation-style all through the South these buildings seemed vignettes in themselves. In the tour books (including AAA!) I have been reading, none has mentioned slavery.

As this trip was inevitably seen through the lens of others decades in the past, it is perhaps worth mentioning what we did not see: “coloreds-only” signs for restaurants, drinking fountains, motels and campgrounds. We did not see Confederate statues, flags, symbols or iconography. Nor did we fear getting run out of town for being outside agitators, as Bob Biggar and I had been from Philadelphia, Miss., by the infamous Sheriff Rainey in 1965; nor were there signs about the dangerous Communist leader Martin Luther King as a greeting to Mobile, Alabama.

What we did find, and is one of our favorite off-road experiences, was the Crab Shack in Dixie Inn, in the general region of Minden La., beyond Shreveport. 

A true Cajun haven, we were served by a blue-eyed young woman who spoke in cadences of Zydeco; the cook was black, some of the customers white, but most either black or mixed-race Native Americans, and one woman distinctly Vietnamese. Everywhere the plates were huge: platters of boiled crayfish, steamed crabs, shrimp of every variety, to say nothing of blackened catfish, fries, hush puppies, po-boys of all descriptions, and underpinning it all, andouille, rice and beans. Doug with his Southern roots was in heaven. We finally stumbled out, having to hit the road again, but visited a convenience store first. It was run by a Sheikh; they seem to be numerous in the region.

The hundreds of miles east across Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama featured long corridors of often empty roads (parallel to the highways which the GPS advised us to ditch) lush with frequent rain (a shock to our drought-fearing sensibilities) and lined with mixed forests of pine and magnolia.

Modest houses, often mobile homes, were tucked beneath the overhanging trees. And even these back roads were in such good condition that the pot holes of Oakland stood out in sorry contrast.

Still in off-road mode, Doug booked us into a cottage, The Cottage, behind a house in Brandon, Miss., just beyond Jackson. It was very well-appointed and decorated with ubiquitous American flags. The couple who owned it—she a city council member, he a member of the National Guard who often deployed overseas—spoke in that inimitable Southernese with its soft vowels and “Yes Ma’am, and No Sirs.” The lady of the house recommended we not visit Jackson. Too dangerous, she said. Doug also found the sign to the turnoff for the town’s Confederate statue, but we declined the visit. The thing that still rattles me, however, was the tribute everywhere to the late Ross Barnett (a notorious racist leader back in the day) and the signage pointing out the reservoir named to honor him.

What to make of all this as we skate into Florida, another country entirely? On the surface, which is all we saw, the territory we traversed seems a better, more equitable and prosperous place than it did years and decades ago. On the other hand, we are all still shocked and imprinted with the images of Jan. 6th, its Confederate flags, its Proud Boys, and our Security reports that tell us the main threat to our country now is that of white supremacy. I rode over those highways with the words of Heather Cox Richardson’s book, How the South Won the Civil War, looping through my mind. In all its beauty and complexity, with its enormous claims on our past and our future, it deserves a closer and more thoroughly Blue Highways look.

Visions of the future for Wanderland travelers!

(Note: in the wake of the death last week of iconic San Francisco poet, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and fixture of its North Beach neighborhood, I am reprinting an interview I did with him in 1992 and published with Maturity News Service. His takes on revolution, poetry, racism and feminism are still very much in the news today. Joanna Biggar)

No one has ever accused Lawrence Ferlinghetti of being a moderate man.

 “I like books that subvert the dominant paradigm, declares the 72-year-old poet/publisher/revolutionary.”

   Speaking by telephone from his office at the famed City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco’s North Beach, which he co-founded in 1953, Ferlinghetti makes it clear that the flames of fervor don’t go out with age; they may just shift a little.

     The other “subversives” he allies himself with include Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, French writers Blaise Cendrars and Jacques Prevert, and his fellow Beat Generation poet, Allen Ginsberg. These writers not only share revolutionary vision, says Ferlinghetti, but they have made a difference.

     His own volume, A Coney Island of the Mind, for example, first published in 1958, has sold nearly a million copies, an extraordinary figure for a contemporary American poet.

In it, his affinity with Twain is clarified:

“and I am waiting
for God to look out from
Lookout Mountain.
and see the ‘Ode to the Confederate Dead’
as a real farce
and I am waiting retribution
for what America did
to Tom Sawyer
and I am perpetually awaiting
the rebirth of wonder.”

(From “I Am Waiting.”)

     It was back in the heyday of the ’50s that City Lights published Ginsberg’s Howl, a landmark book that has sold about 700,000 copies. In it, Ginsberg defined what would be the credo for the Beats, those “angel-headed hipsters … looking for an angry fix.”

      Now, Ferlinghetti declares, the sad truth is that “poetry is very much in the state it was before Howl was published, back in ’55, ’56. It’s gotten very academic. Lots of poetry about poetry, language about language.

     “Very rarified,” he sighs. “Yeah, it’s time for another poet like Ginsberg to come along and kick the sides out of things. So when it happens we’ll all say, “Gosh, that was just waiting to be said.”

     Noting the academic insularity of the who influences whom game—and its misogyny—he adds: “The tradition is still going on—but with a twist. Today, City Lights publishing list is about two-thirds women, many of them prose writers.”

     Ferlinghetti explains his own subverted paradigm like this: “Generally I think that whitey—the white writer—doesn’t have a revolution of his own. So what’s happened in the last 30 or 40 years is that the white writer has latched onto various third-world revolutions.

     “It’s typical of many left intellectuals … with the exception of black writers, and women writers. They have their own revolution still to accomplish. Consequently, there’s all kinds of fascinating writing coming out of feminist circles.”    

     The old, academic tradition is still going on, too — but with a twist. Today, City Lights’ publishing list is about two-thirds women, many of them prose writers.

     Ever in the avant-garde since it began publishing in 1955, City Lights’ latest list includes such feminist titles as Veils, the story of Iranian immigrant Nahid Rachlin; Terrible Girls, Rebecca Brown ‘s lesbian stories of erotic love first published in England; and poet Karen Finley’s Shock Treatment.

     Finley received a certain notoriety when her grant from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) was revoked two years ago.

     That’s because, Ferlinghetti explains, “She’s a performance artist who performed on stage with her body smeared with chocolate. So her grant was withdrawn, and there was a big hullabaloo in the papers.”

     Then he hastens to say that City Lights never gets funding from the NEA, nor does he believe it should.

    FerryBuildingDuring our pandemic year, among the many things to close down has been the opportunity to travel. Yet, against the odds, Bay Area travel writers keep coming up with stories to transport you and they keep publishing them. Here is a sampling from those I’ve received during Christmas Season 2020. Some are anthologies (including a new one in the Wandering In…series which I edit with Linda Watanabe McFerrin) and two have single authors. Sample and enjoy.

         Travel Stories of Wonder and Change, by members of Bay Area Travel Writers. Open the irresistible door on the cover and be swept away to a truck ride in the Philippines, a rug market in Istanbul, a rain forest in Vancouver, a New Year’s Eve in Luxor, or…just keep going. In particular, go on to the end of the volume and enjoy two local luminaries, the inimitable Don George who pays tribute to his most esteemed mentor and for decades the Northern California Doyenne of travel writers, Georgia Hess. Three of her biggest hits are reprinted in this volume. Listen to her as she clambers off a plane onto the North Pole and asks herself, “what does one do at the North Pole?” After trying to find a “bathroom” behind a pressure ridge, she notes: “We did something neither Peary nor Cook accomplished…Raising the candy-striped pole we had brought along, we popped open bottles of Mumm’s Cordon Rouge and downed it before it could turn to ice.”

          The Best Women’s Travel Writing, vol. 12, an imprint of Travelers’ Tales, edited by Lavinia Spalding. Whatever dreams of women traveling in whatever guise you may have—alone, with friends, with husbands or lovers, with family, or even in the company of Our Ravaged Lady, Notre Dame Cathedral—you will find them here. Join their parties as they return to Bahía Honda in rural Cuba, pursue stolen tickets in Indonesia, follow the hidden meaning of spirituals in Maryland, dodge donkeys and drones in Petra, take a child to Auschwitz, or parse the changes in a mother in “A Daughter’s Guide to Florence.” And by all means, take that breathless and terrifying climb with Anne Sigmon in “Good Enough.” to the top of Kilimanjaro “The terrain shifted again. We left the scree and stepped onto a steep rock face. No more rhythmic swaying, just fierce pushing up with the legs. Climb, push up, climb. Jagged boulders emerged, hideous, from the black night.

“My legs quivered. I gasped for breath and felt the parka clawing at my face. Another gasp. No air. I grabbed blindly at the fabric, ripping it back from my mouth, and sucked in half a breath. I stared at the moon perched on the ridge just above my head. So close now, so close. ‘Try, try,’ I whispered to myself.”

             One Hundred Years of Exile: A Romanov’s Search for Her Father’s Russia, by Tania Romanov, Traveler’s Tales. This is a fascinating tale of one woman’s search for her paternal roots. A consummate writer, Romanov (who also writes under the name Amochaev, and about her mother’s Serbian side of the family) is a consummate storyteller. This is memoir, history and galloping adventure rolled up in one tale, which reads like a novel with as many characters as Tolstoys.’ There are chance meetings, surprise connections and a glimpse into a long-forgotten group, the White Russians, who celebrate their Cossack roots and long for the return of the Tsar—not just in remote Russia, but in living rooms in San Francisco, where as a child, Romanov wanted to flee what she considered an oppressive upbringing. But reconnecting with her family’s past is also an act of reconciliation.

          Upon returning to San Francisco and her father’s grave, she writes: “I have been making peace with my father for some years, and I sense he has forgiven me. But now I feel a new, deeper connection with him. Through my travels in Russia I have gained an understanding of the country of his birth and the complex relationship he and my grandparents shared with it. I relax into this feeling.”

           My Mediterranean Gardens: Practical Personal Essays, by Barbara J. Euser, Writers’ Workshops International.  One of the magical things about travel writing is that it brings together and makes sense of disparate worlds. Though Euser’s book is about gardening, it also does just that. Hear what she has to say about the far-flung world of Mediterranean gardens. Having grown up in Colorado, she observes: “When I moved to California, everything I knew about the seasons in Colorado became irrelevant. The Mediterranean climate of the San Francisco Bay area is almost the opposite of Colorado’s. In Colorado, one plants after May 31 to make sure plants will not freeze in late snowfall. In Marin County, one plants in the fall, so new plants can benefit from the rainy season.” From knowing nothing she went on to become a Master Gardener and to know a great deal. Then, several years later, she started spending a lot of time in the Peloponnese in Southern Greece. There she bought a small olive farm and planted raised beds on terraces around her property for herbs and flowers and planted a rose garden which is visible beneath her bedroom balcony. And doing so, found a whole new dimension in Mediterranean gardening.

          Her book abounds with easy-to-understand information about plants, soil, watering, design and medicinal plants. To me, a Bay Area resident, I’ve found chapters on redwoods, cultivating edible olives everyday herbs– such as rosemary, French tarragon, sage, sorrel and chamomile– most fascinating. Then of course, there’s lots to grow into, like entries on growing grapes and cultivating Jujube dates.

          Wandering in Greece: Athens, Islands and Antiquities, edited by Linda Watanabe McFerrin and Joanna Biggar, Wanderland Writers. In this, the seventh anthology of the Wandering In…series, it is particularly gratifying to note that writers from all the other books mentioned above are among our Wanderland Writers traveling community. Many of them also have stories in this new book.

          Crisscrossing Greece together in June 2018, our writers found endless, fascinating adventures to experience, legends to research, poems to illuminate and stories to tell, or often retell with a modern twist. Here you will find ancient gods and legends, from myths of the Minotaur to the prophesies of Delphi to the exploits of Alexander the Great. You will discover the wizardry of ancient Greek technology (even including wine-serving robots), the magic of an undersea sunken city, the wisdom of the elders of Ikaria. You may dine (or not) on octopus, dabble in soap making, garden, or dance with Zorba. You may encounter soldiers in skirts, refugees, the words of a great contemporary poet, or follow hatchling turtles on their hazardous march to the sea.

          Or you may, as iconic travel writer Phil Cousineau, says in his Foreward to this book, find “an insight into the infinite moment, what Henry Miller describes as ‘the stillness of the world,’ and Dame Rose Macaulay called ‘the broken beauty’ of the ancient ruins of Bassae and Ephesus.

          “For me, this is where the hope of the avid traveler and the aspiration of the ardent reader are aligned. Both are longing for a glimpse of the deeply real, the underglimmer of truth that lies below the spuriousness of commercial travel.

          “This marvelous new anthology scratches both existential itches. The very title, Wandering in Greece, evokes a Greek aphorism, ‘to philosophize is to wander’… Again and again, what illuminates these stories is what Albert Camus remarked in his essay on Helen of Troy, ‘The Greeks died for beauty.’”

Poems for our Times

Two poems have come to me in as many days, both with inspiration from abroad, and both shining light on troubling places in this aching world. The illustrations highlight the people the poems evoke.


The first, by Bertalicia Peralta, illuminates the power of love in a powerful woman.


La única mujer

–by Panamanian writer Bertalicia Peralta; translated by William O’Daly

La única mujer que puede ser
es la que sabe que el sol para su vida empieza ahora

la que no derrama lágrimas sino dardos para
sembrar la alambrada de su territorio

la que no comete ruegos
la que opina y levanta su cabeza y agita su cuerpo
y es tierna sin vergüenza y dura sin odios

la que desaprende el alfabeto de la sumisión
y camina erguida

la que no le teme a la soledad porque siempre ha estado sola
la que deja pasar los alaridos grotescos de la violencia

y la ejecuta con gracia
la que se libera en el amor pleno
la que ama

la única mujer que puede ser la única
es la que dolorida y limpia decide por sí misma
salir de su prehistoria.

The Only Woman

The only woman that she can be
is the one who knows the sun of her life begins now

the one who sheds not tears but darts
to sow the barbed wire of her territory

the one who begs for nothing
who speaks her mind, holds her head up and shakes her body
who is tender without shame and hard without hatred

the one who unlearns the alphabet of submission
who walks tall and true

the one who does not fear solitude because she’s always been alone
who lets the grotesque howls of violence pass her by

and she does it with grace
the one who frees herself through the fullness of love
the one who loves

the only woman, the only one that she can be
is the one who, aching and clean, decides for herself
to leave her prehistory behind.


The Second, by A.E. Stallings reminds us of the harrowing plight of millions of refugees and their forced marches from home.


After a Greek Proverb

By A.E. Stallings

Ουδέν μονιμότερον του προσωρινού



We’re here for the time being, I answer to the query—

Just for a couple of years, we said, a dozen years back.

Nothing is more permanent than the temporary.


We dine sitting on folding chairs—they were cheap but cheery.

We’ve taped the broken window pane. tv’s still out of whack.

We’re here for the time being, I answer to the query.


When we crossed the water, we only brought what we could carry,

But there are always boxes that you never do unpack.

Nothing is more permanent than the temporary.


Sometimes when I’m feeling weepy, you propose a theory:

Nostalgia and tear gas have the same acrid smack.

We’re here for the time being, I answer to the query—


We stash bones in the closet when we don’t have time to bury,

Stuff receipts in envelopes, file papers in a stack.

Nothing is more permanent than the temporary.


Twelve years now and we’re still eating off the ordinary:

We left our wedding china behind, afraid that it might crack.

We’re here for the time being, we answer to the query,

But nothing is more permanent than the temporary.




What Would J.J. Do?


Recently the inestimable James J. Patterson paid me the honor of reading selections from my newest novel, Melanie’s Song, during his weekly Facebook Live talk from the Alan Squire Publishing Reading Room. Among the selections he chose was one in which the narrator, J.J., meets her best friend and former room-mate, Jocelyn, at a favorite old restaurant in Hollywood. The subject of their conversation was so painfully current, that it prompted me to ask in an email to James, “What would J.J.–what would Jocelyn–do now?”

The pair had been two of five young coeds to travel to Paris and attend the Sorbonne together in the heady early ‘60’s, the “Kennedy years.” The world has convulsed and turned on its head so many times since then—in their personal lives as well as society at large. Jocelyn has done what many expected she would do, become a movie star, while J.J. is a journalist working for a local paper. In that capacity, and as anxious friend, J.J. is on a quest to find out what happened to another of their band, Melanie, who is rumored to have perished in the fire of a hippie commune on the North Coast. Part of the process is to interview all who knew her, including Jocelyn, who remembered seeing her last at a big “support the troops” rally on the mall in Washington, D.C., where she was performing.

Their conversation goes like this:


So the last time I saw her was at that big July 4th thing in 1970. ‘Honor America Day’ sponsored by Bob Hope. He asked me personally because I’d done a couple of shows with him earlier to entertain the troops. Did you know?” Jocelyn looked up.

          J.J. saw her friend’s eyes change color, green to gold, as they always had. A tiger, she thought. “Yes, I knew. How’d you get into that, anyway?”

         “My people, well mostly Harding, my main publicity guy, thought it would be good for my image.”

         “Yeah?” J.J. controlled her impulse to interrogate.

         “Yeah, well,” Jocelyn looked back at the glass. “I mean there was a niche there to fill, the hot Hollywood babe who wasn’t a dissenter.”

          “You mean like the un-Fonda?”

          “Exactly. I mean we were filming A Walk on the Woman Side and he thought, you know, we could reach a larger audience of women, housewives and all, if I had a more mainstream image. So I did the USO shows and that went well, and then Bob Hope called…and I went to Washington.”

          …“And you saw Melie at that event?”

         …“Yes, I saw her. She came because I was there…She was right there in front holding a sign. It said in big letters, Pourquoi me tuez-vous? And all around the edges were images from the war, some drawings, some photos. Huts being burned, children bombed and bleeding…”

         “Why do you kill me?” J.J. translated. “Words of Christ?”

         “No,” Jocelyn answered quietly, “Pascal. But echoing Christ. That was what she was getting at, that I had crossed over to the other side. That by supporting this ‘God Bless America’ kind of event, by supporting the troops, I was also contributing to the killing.”

          “Do you think she was right?”

          … “Yes. Of course she was right. That’s why I couldn’t acknowledge her. It was too…”

         “Why didn’t you ever tell me any of this?”

          “Dear God,” she replied, tears spilling down her cheeks, “I couldn’t. The image of her standing there silently with that sign has haunted me ever since, made me see what my life had become—a lie hiding inside a publicity poster. A fake woman hiding inside the persona of an invented one. She was saying to me with her presence, ‘Jocelyn, you’ve sold out. Where is the real you?’ How could I tell you? I was so ashamed.”


Hearing those words again prompted my question, but it also prompts me now to answer it, because I know both of those women rather well. They are, of course, old, gray at the roots, managing a few health problems as well as possible, and wild about their grandchildren.


Looking back over the decades since that pivotal march, Jocelyn can truthfully say she spent the rest of her life trying to be her real self, not a lie hiding inside a publicity poster. In the world of theater, she quickly embraced the cause of equality for women, and then turned to look around at her own neighbors in the Hollywood Hills, many of them Black and Latinx. She made common cause with them, and friends, and as a result, reflected the evils of society as she saw them in her increasingly radical theater. The acid smells of the fire in Watts that J.J. had forced her to face, always remained in her nostrils. She became, as she said, “stinking rich” and set up a foundation to give fortunes to causes that Jane Fonda supported along with her.


J.J., who had started as a firebrand, became “Red hot,” as one critic called her, trying to smear her with the epithet meaning Communist. She, too, found success in the theater along side Jocelyn, then ventured into other writing, returning to journalism throughout. A turning point came when she was in South Central L.A. reporting on the aftermath of the Rodney King shooting. The flames, which roared like the sounds of injustice and desperation pounded through her veins for years, and it would haunt her dark nights like the devastation of war had done decades before in Vietnam. And so would the sense of fear she felt as a white woman in a terrifying situation for which she was both held partially accountable and vilified for daring to enter, even, or especially, as a journalist. Still, she continued to march, protest, write what she knew and tried to understand the generally overwhelmed ways of peace.


She and Jocelyn talked often, marveling at the fact they found themselves old. But then, increasingly wondering in disbelief at the world they were living in. They had seen the passage of the Civil Rights bill, of the War on Poverty, of women’s right to choose, of affirmative action, and of discrimination falling away on every front. They had seen the election—twice—of the immensely popular and gifted Barack Obama as the first Black president of the United States. Then, as if out of a nightmare they found themselves in another world, with so many of the gains gone or eroded, and under the imprimatur of a deranged and narcissistic chief of state. Not only had he done his best to destroy all that seemed best in their country, and the hard-won progress of so many for so long, but his ineptitude had led to a deadly pandemic of Covid-19 galloping through America like a stampede.


So the two old friends talked, visiting the lamentations of age, feeling powerless, unable to see how at this point they could help turn the tide again, feeling sidelined by covid-19, and unable to join their fellow-citizens in the streets.

It was Jocelyn who broke the spell of despond. “Well, kiddo, we still have all our marbles and a lot of other assets as well. We’ve figured out since the 70s how to change when the times called for it. The times are calling for it again.”


And so they recognized the talents they still had: Jocelyn wasn’t working in the theater anymore, but she had influence there and a huge reputation. She was still stinking rich and had her foundation. Those could be repurposed. J.J. could still write, and in fact did write a lot. She could also pivot and help support artists of all stripes connect with activists and community leaders she knew. But even more than these fruits of their working lives, both women had the treasure of decades of experience.

As they watched on screens the faces of the marchers and the voices of the protesters, so many were young, as they had once been. It was thrilling. And they knew another mandate was to share those lessons of their own lives with the young. Especially with the grandchildren, their greatest gift.

Now several weeks into “sheltering in place” and other measures of uncommon isolation, I feel the kind of natural readjustment that comes with such a huge and sudden shift of what I had previously considered “normal life.” What normal will become at the end of this long, imposed “time-out” is anybody’s guess. In the best case, though, it gives us the opportunity to reset so much that collectively we humans have been doing to our own and the earth’s detriment. That is what I try to focus on and imagine in the long view.

In the short view, as my husband and I continue on our daily rounds in a newly adapted slow motion, instead of focusing on what and whom we are missing, I have found widening opportunities to appreciate what is directly in view. This includes, of course, the suddenly absent fumes, diminished traffic and ambient noise that is replaced now by clear skies, empty roads and birdsong. In the extra time I have to fill because I’m not going anywhere, I can spend longer contemplating the changing contours and colors of a newly clean San Francisco Bay from our back deck, and inhale the fragrance of the flowers all around me, many now laden with bees and bombarded by hummingbirds. Down the hill is a cherry tree in full dress, reminding me of others I have seen in Washington, D.C., or Provence.

And in those now occasional moments when I encounter other people, strangers, I make eye contact above my face mask to acknowledge the strangeness of our shared moment. Even more, I’ve given serious thought to the concept of heroism, and feel a gratitude I don’t know how to express to those people who are working to make surviving this time possible for the rest of us.

Yes, a salute to the health care workers who step into the line of fire every day and then return again, even after recovering from illness themselves. But also a salute to those who risk danger daily by coming to work to fill shelves and man checkouts in grocery stores and pharmacies; who work in restaurants to make carry-out available; who drive delivery vans or buses, trains or trash trucks; who still rush to emergencies, who still put out fires, who keep the lights on.

Thank you.

The first time I stepped foot in New Orleans’ iconic jazz club and restaurant, Snug Harbor, it was at the invitation of jazz master and legend Ellis Marsalis, who, at the end of a remarkable interview, said, “Why don’t you come on over to the club tonight and hear some music.” So I did, and so I have done on every visit since, including one a year ago. And every time I have been lucky enough to catch the master himself at the key board, always sharing the limelight with others, often his students.

Now I am grieved to learn that he has succumbed to the Covid-19 Coronavirus.

In 1993, when I met him, I had been on a reporting trip, crossing the country by train and writing stories along the way. In New Orleans, I hit the jackpot, with Ellis Marsalis agreeing to speak to me in the jazz department of the University of New Orleans. Even before we talked, as he sat in a casual T-shirt, expansive and welcoming in his windowless office, I sensed that the windows didn’t matter to him but the sounds of students practicing their drums did. I sensed that he was as masterful a teacher as he was a musician, composer and performer.

At the end of a couple of hours, I knew that to be true. I had been taught, not lectured to, and the insights he imparted are still with me. He said, for example, that “jazz is like democracy. Jazz was from its inception to make order out of chaos, which is what democracy does.” Then he added he wasn’t sure if either experiment has worked.

He talked to me of the history of jazz, evolving from its roots in plantation entertainment to minstrel shows to vaudeville “Music was an Africanized version of what the master was familiar with—like Irish jigs…When the slaves were playing for themselves, it was a different rhythmic component.”  And he explained that as we closed out the 20th century, it was important to follow carefully the changes that occurred from Scott Joplin through Ellington, Monk, Gillespie and Miles Davis, “in order to get a real sense of who we are as a people.”

He went on to say that 1964 was a pivotal year for two reasons: the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Beatles arriving in America. “Passage of Civil Rights opened up a Pandora’s box not only for black people but for women.” And the Beatles, he said, ended an era of “white males passing down (refined) jazz—Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Count Basie—to their children. For the first time white kids could get ‘black music’ through the Beatles, who acknowledged their debt to black music … by 1964 the lid was off.”

We talked of other things, too, including his amazing musical family, and the four of his six sons who became musicians: Wynton, the trumpet player; Branford, the saxophonist; Delfaeyo, the trombonist, composer and producer; and Jason, the drummer. Ellis shrugged off the suggestion that his family was anything special. “There are plenty of musical families in New Orleans,” he said. And if his family benefitted from any extraordinary genes, he said they surely came from his wife Dolores, who came from a stellar background of church music.

That first night I visited Shrug Harbor, Ellis did tell me that one of his sons, Jason, would be performing with him that evening, and he allowed as how Jason did seem to show a lot of promise. When I heard Jason at that performance, he was just sixteen, and he blew my socks off.

I left the club, and New Orleans, with my head exploding not only from what Ellis Marsalis had taught me, but from the several CDs I had in my bag with music from the remarkable Marsalis family.

My husband and I had intended to visit Snug Harbor again three weeks ago. We hoped, of course, to hear again the legend, by now a man of 83 who walked with a cane, hit the piano keys once more. This time we intended to take two young friends, college students with whom we wanted to share the genius of New Orleans, of jazz, of the Marsalis legend.

But then, the trip was canceled due to the Covid-19 coronavirus, and in the silence of this peculiar isolation, I learned the hard news of Ellis Marsalis’ death. The only consolation I can think of is music—his music. I hope to hunt down those old CDs.