The Life of Johnston


29 May 2017

Dear Max,

On Sunday Teresa dropped me and Enzo off at Gibson Ranch. We baited up with small hooks and our own home-grown red wigglers, which are almost too thin to thread even onto the finest hook, but we managed it. Then we waited, bobbers bobbing on the small ripples.

Enzo’s bobber went under. “Fish on!” He landed the little beauty—a baby bluegill—and released him into our bucket for later observation. “First fish of the day!” There were three other fishing parties around the lake, all dads with small kids, and I think Enzo wanted them to hear.

More fishing. Some turtles swam by and checked us out. I saw a Kingfisher. Enzo baited up with a Welch’s Fruit Snack doused in Bass Dynasty Extra Sticky Formula Night Crawler Slime. He got some nibbles but didn’t catch anything with it. Back to worms. He caught another bluegill. “Second fish of the day!”

After a while we packed up our stuff and poured our bucket back into the lake. The two little fish flashed away into the murk. Then we walked across the sports fields toward the creek. Enzo thought it was called Cherry Creek. I thought it was called something else, but I couldn’t  remember what—something dangerous. (I just looked it up. It’s called Dry Creek. I think my mistake came from the fact that, when I first learned the name Dry Creek, the water was brown and rushing almost up the bridge, and I thought it should have been called Flood Creek.)

As we walked toward the creek across green mowed fields, we passed a gathering that was hard to identify. A wedding? A school band setting up for an outdoor concert? Then we made our way down the steep bank to the creek, the water clear now, yellow-brown pebbles along the bottom, oaks almost meeting overhead in places, blackberry brambles, little scrubby pink roses, and a tree that I don’t know the name of with big thin leaves and bunches of white flowers. There’s something bewitching about a stream bed. You want to follow it, see what’s around the next bend. We waded slowly upstream through the clear water.

Then it started—the band we had passed struck up and played songs I didn’t know, full and rich and resonant, lots of brass. A chorus began (or possibly a choir)—mostly men’s voices. The assembly, whatever it was, must have been a couple of hundred yards from the creek, but the sound was fully present, like a private concert or a movie soundtrack.

After a while the music stopped and a man started preaching. The language wasn’t English, and I couldn’t tell what it was, not even what kind of language it was. But still, you know a preacher-man when you hear one. The ups and downs and pauses reminded me of a black preacher, but the gathering wasn’t of black people.

Enzo was walking ahead of me, trailing a fishing lure that looked like a little fish at the end of his pole. The lure’s movement, flashing through the water, was wonderfully realistic. I let him get far ahead. I wished he could come to places like this by himself.

Then Enzo saw them: Bass!

They were small, maybe four to six inches long, nearly invisible, suspended in the clear water, heads pointed upstream. We scrambled onto the bank, baited up again, one rod with a red wiggler, the other with plastic worm, crazy-rig.

(It’s occurring to me this moment—what if that was illegal? Of course I know you can’t keep a baby fish like that, but maybe you’re not even supposed to catch-and-release them. And maybe this diary could be used as evidence against us. It wouldn’t be the first time, for me.)

The baby bass seemed most interested in the plastic worm. They kept sort of nosing up to it, bumping it curiously, but the fake worm was almost as long as they were, and there was no way they could really bite it. There were four bass, I think, maybe five. We tried a flashing lure with a red feather that Enzo probably knows the name of. They were right there, so close. But we couldn’t catch them.

Teresa arrived to pick us up, and she came down the bank and fished with Enzo while I walked upstream. I could hear him saying to her, “I’m bumping them on the head with my bait!”

And then, “Fish on! Fish on!” Enzo reeled in the biggest of the little bass and netted him and held the net under the water while Teresa filled our five gallon bucket with cool creek water. We released the fish into the bucket and put it in the creek in the shade. The fish was brown and delicate-looking, about six inches long.

I just now asked Enzo what kind of bass it was. He said large-mouth or spotted, probably spotted. Anyway, it looked very pretty in the bottom of the bucket, this being from another world. We left soon after that, releasing the fish and promising to come back and catch him again when he gets bigger.


Mother’s Day

14 May 2017

Dear Max,

What if I forget how to write in my diary? No, no my dear diary, you shall not be forgotten.

I’ve been working instead (oh so slowly) on that long story about me as a hilarious, borderline incompetent criminal defense attorney and my friend Karol as a disbarred but brilliant lawyer who works as my investigator. My favorite parts are the courtroom scenes. There’s something appealing about the very narrow cast of characters and the limitations on what they can do and say. People have to be in their roles. They literally have to stay in their places, and it narrows the possibilities in a way that I find helpful. Another way to put it is that, writing other scenes, I feel like, “Fuck, I have to make the whole world?” But in courtroom scenes, the world is already there. (I see how hopeless all this sounds.)

But that other book isn’t what’s ruining my diary. It’s my poor stupid head. Do you know what I was thinking about just now? I stopped typing and words were going through my mind, vehement words, fresh, energetic and almost articulate. (All they needed was to be written down.) Good news, surely, for writing.

But you know what I was thinking about? Health Care Consumer Protection Act Written Directives section 90-042. I’m on a committee at work that has to take that and other sections like it, and use it as raw material for our boilerplate legal pleadings. But we can’t figure out what section 90-042 says. It’s a problem. I never used to think about work when I wasn’t there. Now I do, and it’s distracting.


For Mother’s Day we all walked to Pancake Circus (Enzo scootered) and between the three of us we ate twelve sausages. (I had five.) Then we went to Lake Natomas and paddled a canoe past the dam, then along the North shore, through a short tunnel and into a swampy area, very bijoux feeling with fallen logs in the murky water, scrubby oaks shading the shore, Spanish Moss hanging from their branches. Some parts of the water were clear and some were thick with floating algae that streamed down into the water. Yellow water irises stood together in patches. A great blue heron had to fly away from its concentrated hunt because we couldn’t steer the canoe well enough to avoid it.

And fish were jumping. Big ones, a flash of silvery, watery light and then a great fat splash. Enzo was sure he saw a salmon and kept wondering aloud how a salmon could get here, past Nimbus dam. But he was sure of the shape and the hooked jaw. Later he saw a small bass approach his glittery plastic worm (crazy rig) and try to bite it. He started to reel in a little, to sort of bounce the worm and make it interesting, but the handle of his reel fell off and into the water and sank instantly.

This was a about twenty minutes after my whole reel fell off the pole and into the water. I got the reel back because it was still attached to the line. But I had to unspool all the line from the reel in order to pull it up.

We ended up ditching the reels and tying about five feet of line to the end of each pole and trolling along that way, while Teresa paddled. We didn’t catch anything. But the fish were right there. We’re going back soon, probably next weekend.

On the way home, we stopped at Bass Pro and upgraded our equipment.

All the Kings of Europe

13 March 2017

Dear Max,

Yesterday was a great day for Enzo, a historical one. He caught two sturgeon, one baby and one keeper, and—to make it more delicious—he was the only one on the boat to catch any sturgeon, so he won the glory and the jackpot—eighty-five dollars. He would want me to include the statistics: 45 inches from nose to tail fork (Fish & Game measures that way) and 52 inches to the end of the tail (we measure that way) so it was almost as long as he is tall, and such a distinguished fish. We killed it, nevertheless, and tonight we’ll start eating it.

It was a warm, clear, nearly windless day. Green hills all around San Pablo Bay. But I don’t want to write about the fishing or the boat. It’s my diary, and I still don’t care about fish, so there. Besides, Enzo has been writing away like sixty in his red notebook that says Fishing Quest on the cover. It’s his subject.

My feeling was not so much victory as relief. When I booked the trip, the captain warned me that this might not be a very good trip for a kid. Sturgeon fishing is slow. You often don’t catch anything. But Enzo has been obsessed with sturgeon for years. Long before he started to read himself, he had us reading to him about all fish, but especially sturgeon, all the different kinds, the giants of the Columbia River, the record-catch for each species. (He’s bothered by the fact that the records coming out of the former Soviet Union probably aren’t reliable.) And now that he reads himself, he’s the same, obsessive, but in a good way. (Most obsessions are good, I think.)

After he caught the baby sturgeon and a diaper striper, the men on the boat were shaking their heads, “Kid’s got the lucky pole.” And then the big one hit. I was inside the cabin when it happened. I heard shouts. The deck hand called to the the captain, “It’s gonna be a keeper,” and the captain got the big net from the front of the boat. Enzo reeled and reeled. The fish made a run, and line whizzed out, then it swam around the boat, and the men held their poles up high and Enzo ducked under their lines, following the fish and reeling and tipping back and reeling some more. The men clustered around shouting advice. One kept touching his pole, and I had to back him off.

And then the fish was by the boat, and the captain got it into the giant net and brought it aboard. It flopped around the deck and then lay still, gills straining. The deck hand measured it, just to be sure, then gave it three or four hard blows on the head with a little wooden club. The fish was still. Everyone was excited. The boat hummed with happy anticipation. Men clapped Enzo on the shoulder and high-fived him. The captain took this picture.


Next Day:

On Monday morning, I told Enzo not to boast too much at school. Then I went to work and boasted to every single person I saw and made them look at pictures on my phone. When I got home, I told Enzo and Teresa about my boasting and asked Enzo how he did in that department. He said, “First, I asked them what they did on the weekend, and after that, it wasn’t really even boasting at all.”

I cooked some of the sturgeon, breaded in crushed Saltines a la Grandma Maxine. It was fantastic, pure and white and clean. Enzo said, “All the Kings of Europe ate this fish.”

I said that it bothered me a little how the deck hand killed the fish. As he clubbed it, he said, “Bad! Bad! Fish!” One word per blow. I said it seemed disrespectful and that our attitude should be more thankful.

Thankful? It’s not like it wanted to die.”

So I folded up my fine feelings and put them in my pocket and passed the tartar sauce.



25 November 2016

Dear Max,

I couldn’t take Colin on my Thanksgiving picnic because it turned out to be a bike trip. (The buses don’t run on Thanksgiving, so Enzo and Teresa needed the car.) But other than no Colin, it was perfect: brilliantly sunny day, cold, fall color, new green grass coming up through brown leaves, and the river glinting here and there where the bike path gets close to it.

In this Diary of Record, I must include the food:

First course: grandma’s stuffed celery, Cambozola on a warm crusty end-piece of bread (I brought the whole loaf because it was still too hot to slice when I left the house), mango-flavored sparkling water, plus more cheese on those tiny chi-chi crackers from Trader Joe’s—pomegranate and pistachio crisps, I think they’re called.

Second course. Champagne (pink but not sweet), turkey sandwich (dark meat only, done in the slow cooker, much diminished by Pete’s counter-surfing predations), homemade cranberry sauce (indistinguishable from canned but still good), mayonnaise (natch) potato chips.

Dessert: Remove from picnic blanket to hammock, black coffee, macarons (apricot, salted caramel, coconut).

And the whole way through, Desolation Island from the sinking of the Waalkzaamheid all the way to the right true end, the escape of Louisa Wogan on the American whaler. When I closed the book, I felt like cheering.

Then it was time to go home, which now seemed very far away (in fact, about fifteen miles), and somehow all the stuff I’d brought had expanded, even though I’d eaten a lot of it. But I got it all packed up on the bike, and at least my route home was downstream this time, that is, a very slight down-hill grade most of the way.

A few times during the day, I tried to think thankful thoughts, but it didn’t take. I felt pious and affected. (Any time you decide what to think, aren’t you just being ridiculous?) My attempted-thankful thoughts always turned into something like: thank God I’m right about everything and here’s why, which was at least sincere.


19 November 2016

Dear Max,

Enzo and I went on an overnight school field trip. It wasn’t that bad this time—hardly hellish at all and often fun.

On the second day, the class went on a long walk and eventually got strung out over some distance, so the feeling of being in a big group went away, and I ended up walking mostly with Dahlia and Amelia.

They were so conversable—easy, good talk, funny, surprising. And we’re interested in the same things: writing, reading, food. We talked about day dreams and night dreams. I felt as if I could say anything in the world except a lie, and they’d understand it from top to bottom and all the feeling behind it.

I didn’t have any means of taking notes, and, as usual, I remember a lot of what I said and very little of what anybody else said.

I told them that the night before, when I couldn’t sleep, I’d had a long daydream (that is, a night time daydream) about Enzo, Pete and me coming back to Fort Ross to go camping, and at night we were attacked by a bad guy, and I told Enzo, “I am the mother. You must do as I say. Take Pete and run and get help. I will stay and fight.” And I fought the bad guy while Pete and Enzo stayed together, scrambling through brush and bushes in the dark. They made it to the road and got help, but it was too late, I was dead, and everyone was really sad and really impressed.

Amelia said, “I didn’t know grownups had day dreams like that.” I felt the glow of being understood and approved. She said she has daydreams about saving her little brothers, but she always lives and then she’s famous.

We talked about how daydreams and night dreams can be funny stories afterward, but they’re serious while you’re inside them. Like Amelia dreamed that some of the characters from Frozen were in her bathroom, and they were zombies, and even though it was ridiculous to describe, it was one of the scariest dreams she ever had. (Frozen, for those lucky few who’ve escaped this information, is the Disney animated movie that set in motion a tidal wave of princess power rah-rah insanity that is still breaking, years after the movie came out.)

We talked about writing. Amelia said that she can write a whole story in her head, but when she puts it down on paper it doesn’t come out right at all. We talked about different projects she’s working on. At one point she said, “I don’t know if you knew that I was a writer.”

“I think I’d heard that that was kind of your thing.”

“It isn’t kind of my thing. It is my thing.” (Those words I remember exactly.)


Reading this over, I see how partial and unsatisfactory it is. I can’t remember anything that Dahlia said, but she was fully part of everything we talked about. What Amelia said about the story in your head and how it comes out on paper—that’s true of non-fiction too.

I do remember Dahlia’s ideal sandwich: white bread, Brie, black figs.


I told Enzo I was writing in my diary about the field trip and asked if there were any details I should include. He thought for longer than I expected and then told me the number of canons, the direction each was aimed, the names of some of the buildings and his estimate of their dimensions.

Maybe the word details was a mistake.

Alone Together

20 November 2016

Dear Max,

We’re not going anywhere or seeing any family this Thanksgiving. That’s not unusual for us. But we’ve decided to take the concept one step further and not see each other either.

It all started with our three very different Ideal Thanksgivings.

Teresa: Watch football all day long without stopping. Eat great snacks.

Enzo: Go to Marie Calendars for turkey and ham and all the trimmings. Spend the rest of the day hanging out with the dogs and getting extra Minecraft time. (I took him to Marie Calendars for pie one day, and he picked up their Thanksgiving brochure, which he’s been studying.)

Me: Make the greatest picnic in history, bring a fresh New Yorker, Desolation Island, Frantumaglia and somehow get my hands on an L.A. Times. Go to Sailor’s Bar on the American River and read and eat for hours. No fishing.

So we’ve decided to do all three. Teresa and Enzo will have to combine their plans because we can’t just send him to Marie Calendars on his own. I’ll take Colin to the river.

I’m excited about it. I think I’ll be lonely, but happy.

I’m not sure what to put in my picnic, but I do know that there will be courses, there will be chips, and coffee at the end.

The Audience

15 November 2016

Dear Max,

The Saturday before the election, Karol and I were talking with someone we work with and like and admire. We’re lawyers, and she’s an investigator. The election came up, and our friend said, “But how can I vote for Hillary? Doesn’t she have people killed?”

Karol and I asked why she thought that. She laughed at herself—she did recognize the absurdity—and said one of her Facebook friends posted something about Hillary having people killed, and she didn’t want to seem like she didn’t know what was going on, so she just said nothing.

She didn’t tell us this, but I’ll bet you a million dollars she clicked Like, because that’s what you do, and, having Liked it, she started to believe it. Or at least not to disbelieve it. She entered into a state of mind where the presence of something swimming around in your head becomes dispositive.

This is an intelligent, lovable woman working in an evidence-based profession.


It’s Sunday, and I’ve been at work all day, feeling a little sorry for myself, but I also secretly like being alone in this huge empty building. A few hours ago I gave myself a lunch break and rode my bike to the park. It was a beautiful day: blue sky, clear warm air, fall color all over the place, gaudy as hell.

I was reading Elena Ferrante’s Frantumaglia, and I came across an essay that’s partly about Silvio Berlusconi and how he rode the TV that he controlled to ultimate power, reducing the citizenry to an audience. And I came across something that stated so perfectly what I’ve been trying to say all week (at least to myself) about Trump—that as an individual he’s unimportant, but what he showed us how to do is horribly important.

She says: “…the man will disappear…one way or another the political struggle will remove him from the scene, but his ascent as supreme leader within democratic institutions, the construction of his figure as a democratically elected economic-political-television duce, will remain a perfectible, repeatable model.” (Elena Ferrante, Frantumaglia, from the essay Suspension of Disbelief)

It reminds me of a remark my big sister made after the election: “Let’s make the reality TV screen bigger than ever. Let’s make it as big as the whole country.”


I’m so weary of opinions—my own and everybody else’s. My mind feels about as receptive and responsive as a hard little marble rattling around in a pinball machine. But I have just one more.

Teresa and Michele are going to Washington in January to protest at the inauguration. And I’ve heard the criticism that that’s just what Trump threatened to do, reject the results of the democratic process just because he lost.

Wrong. Protesting at the inauguration is as American as you can get. Trump won under the system that we have. He has to be President, and we have to endure it. But we don’t have to endure it silently.

Veteran’s Day 2016

Dear Max,

I’ve been writing about this horror show mostly in terms of, what will this do to the morale of girls? How do we explain this to the children?

Fuck the children. They’re fine. How do we explain this to ourselves? (It’s easy to get sanctimonious about kids. But they’re just people, only worse.)

I talked and emailed briefly about the election with two Trump voters, just to establish human contact. They’re both white women that I like—one is my paralegal and the other is one of my grandma’s pals. You can’t just divorce half the country, right? But it felt false. When they go low, you go fake. But it can’t be right to say that someone casting a ballot is going low. Voting is never going low, is it?

The falseness and brevity of those conversations felt a little bit like something that happened last Saturday, back when we only knew half the bad news. (We already knew that a very large proportion of the population was mild-to-severely racist, but we still thought that wasn’t enough to win an election.)

Anyway, last Saturday Enzo and I went to a fish pond on private land. You pay to fish there, and the old man who took our money told us, friendly as pie, about a troop of boy scouts who were planning to come to the pond. He explained how the boy scouts couldn’t go fishing at the river because of all those people who hang around down there. And I just smiled and gave him the money, and I didn’t even feel shitty and false about it until a few minutes later when I understood what he was saying.

Why is it so hard to say, “Those people? What people?” It’s that old habit of pleasing. I could have at least told him that Enzo and I have been fishing at the river almost every weekend this fall, with mostly black and brown people because we’re usually on the Rancho Cordova side, not the Fair Oaks side, and we didn’t find ourselves polluted by it. (Rivers separate neighborhoods by class, income and race even more effectively than freeways do.) But I never think of these things until it’s too late.


I want to say something that requires a whole different feeling. It can’t be said in the same breath as what came before. Today is Veteran’s Day. And Captain Humayun Khan is dead. That was their boy.

How dare we? How could we?


9 November 2016

Dear Max,

This morning Enzo’s first words in the dark were, “Did Hillary win?”

I went into his bedroom and got under the covers. “No. She didn’t win. But it’s going to be all right.”

“Trump won? That is amazing.” We snuggled together.

“Yes, it is amazing.”

We lay there quietly for a while. Then he said, “Well, I said I was going to say it, and I’ll say it. Fuck.”

(On Monday Enzo asked Teresa, “If Trump wins, can I say the F-word?” And she said, “If Trump wins, we’ll all say the F-word.”)

“Fuck,” I said.

“I don’t understand how we can be the greatest military power in the world if over half the people in our country are so stupid.”

“They’re not stupid. They’re just wrong about this.”

Teresa came in, sleepy from bed, singing, “The sun’ll come out tomorrow. Bet your bottom dollar that tomorrow there’ll be sun.” Then she said, “Don’t worry, B. We’ve had terrible presidents before. We’ve all just gotten used to having Obama, and we forgot what it’s like.”

“But how can there be so many bad people in America?”

“They’re not bad people,” she said, “Just because people disagree with you doesn’t mean they’re bad.”

“But what about the wall?”

“He’s not going to build a wall. That was just a lot of talk to get people’s attention.”

Enzo’s playing Mine Craft now. Teresa took Colin for a walk. Pete and I are in the living room in the dark with a fire in the fireplace.

I hope, oh I hope, that Trump can just be a normal terrible President. But we haven’t been given much reason to hope that.


I’m at work but I’m on strike. (I’ll start working when the male attorneys get here, and I haven’t seen one yet.)

I called Beth, Danyelle, and Karen—my friends with daughters. Beth said that Lena is scared. Beth sent her off to school today for a field trip to the Hall of Justice—the most ironic field trip in history—and Lena was scared. Lena is what Donald Trump would call an anchor baby—born in the USA to an undocumented parent. Lena wouldn’t be a citizen if Trump had his way. And her straight arrow, tax-paying dad will probably get hunted down and deported.

Danyelle said that a few weeks ago, because of the crotch-grabber revelations, she talked to her daughter about sexual assault: she wanted to tell Marjane that if someone touches her without permission, she should tell them to go to hell. But she realized she couldn’t say that. Instead she told her that if someone touches her without permission, she should do whatever she has to do to make sure she’s safe. She had to tell her the truth—that standing up for herself might be dangerous. And the same for her son. Danyelle has had to tell him: If the cops mess with you because you’re black, you do what they say. Put your hands in the air and lie down on the ground. Don’t say, This is who I am. Just lie down. And it’s so demeaning. Teresa and I will never have to say those things to Enzo.

I felt a sort of glow of fellowship, talking to my pals, my dears. I felt miserable but all alive. We comforted each other.

(later, lunchtime)

This morning Teresa called a few times to check on me. She could tell I was in an unusual state of mind because I sent an email to Enzo’s entire class, calling out the dads for letting the women do all the work. So she called to see how I was, and I paced around my office telling her my plan never to be likable again. Fuck likable as the key criterion for female success. Isn’t that why Hillary lost? Because a man can be unlikable and succeed, it’s even an advantage. But a woman must find a way to be liked.)

Earlier, when I was riding my bike to work, plotting my future as a pissed-off feminist, I thought about Teresa. She never truckles. She doesn’t smile and accommodate and make sure everyone’s comfortable. I want to be like that. I’m going to surround myself with a forcefield of unused rage. I’m done pleasing.

Their World

This morning at our neighborhood polling place I saw a woman with her two elementary-school-age daughters. She took their picture in front of one of the Vote Here signs. It was going to be a good day for girls, a historic day.

What is that mom going to say to her daughters tomorrow morning? What will Hillary’s loss look like to them? I hope it just looks like old people who will be dead soon, so it doesn’t much matter. I hope girls don’t care, or even notice.

But I’ll tell you what it looks like to me. You can be the smartest girl in the class, the smartest kid, and the hardest worker, and be that your whole life, and you’ll still lose to a man. You do the work. They get the power. It’s their world. (You might get a little money and power if you’re likable enough.)

And what about my grandma, who might not live to see a woman president? The girls will get there. But what about the old ladies?

I don’t think Hillary lost because she’s a woman. It’s many thousand times more complicated than that. I’m just thinking about what the world looks like to girls, what their possibilities are.


I see haven’t even mentioned the really bad part of all this. We just elected an avowed racist as our president. And I feel shame.







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