Friday, December 2, 2016

Tis the season...

I didn't write a blog post in November. In fact, I didn't write a single thing (except a one-page journal entry) for the entire month. Although I had several writing projects going, and I'd said that I was going to do NaNoWriMo, I didn't, and I pretty much abandoned everything regarding writing. Or singing. I didn't sing, either, which is pretty unusual for me.

While everyone else was weeping over or celebrating the results of the national election, I was learning that a close family friend had taken his own life. So yeah, as time periods go, November really blew. In most years, November is a good month for me (despite the dreaded time change and the ever-expanding darkness). Our family celebrates a big Thanksgiving at my brother's house, and I see people I don't see the rest of the year. But this year my brother had the stomach flu... and certain family members were unhappy with other family members.... You know, typical family stuff (though in other years, we've been great at setting all that aside).

So Thanksgiving was canceled, essentially. And John opted out of a life that was fraught with pain and loneliness. And my son, who had originally planned to stay a week with me, ended up staying for two. When I returned from driving him to San Diego where he will hop a flight back to Ohio, I told myself this: "You may now return to living inside your head."

Because that's what it takes for me to produce anything on the page. I have to ponder, contemplate, muse and reflect. I have to be still in the silence and listen to what my heart is singing about. Whatever the song turns out to be is what I am feeling. All that is left, then, is to determine why I am feeling what I am feeling.

My son has been gone nearly twenty-four hours and mostly what I have heard is silence. I did not hear the owl calling last night nor did I hear the coyotes howling. The churning of the washer and the hum of the refrigerator are all that are breaking through.

I don't know what to think or feel or say about John's death. Of all my friends who struggle with the darkness, he was the least likely on my list to finally say, "I'm done." I'm trying not to feel guilty. (If I'd called more often... made more of an effort to go see him....) Intellectually, that's wasted energy; it wasn't my fault, was not my decision, and it certainly won't change things for John. I think I'm also trying not to feel relieved or at least admit to those feelings. John was a big, hard man and he lived a big, hard life (to riff off of Eddie Vedder's song). Once his body began to break down from all its years of hard living, his pain was monumental. And he wanted to be loved. He desperately wanted to find exquisite, transcendental, romantic love (as we all do, really, if the truth were told), but that had proven to be an elusive dream... and he was nearing seventy. I'm sure he felt his time had come and gone, and there was little left to live for. The last several times we'd talked or spent time together, he'd cried. He wanted to go off-roading in his 4x4 truck and take long motorcycle rides on his Harley, and he wanted to do all that without feeling stiff and tired and achy the next day. And he wanted to fall head over heels in love. In short, he wanted to be young again. I wish on all that is sacred to me I could have helped him do that. But I couldn't.

I guess I'm glad Thanksgiving was canceled. It would not have been the same without John's booming laughter (followed by his horrendous chronic smoker's cough) at the table. It's almost like the Universe felt my pain and said, "You know what, let's just skip this one. Next year will be better."

Next year will. Time will give me opportunity to muse and reflect. And hey, back there a couple of paragraphs ago, I think I started to hear a song.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

For my 20th birthday, my husband (oh my gosh, that was so, so long ago… when I had a husband) gave me, among other things, a huge wooden desk, circa the 1940’s, that he’d purchased at a used furniture store. My other gifts—purchased thoughtfully to celebrate and support the launch of my career as a writer—were a four-door file cabinet, a brass stamp holder (because back then, all my submissions went through postal mail; we didn’t have internet yet), a stapler and a box of staples. All of these items except the stamp holder, which was stolen when our house was fumigated, I still have—including the original box of staples (missing a hundred or so).

The desk, back then, was already old and worn, with multiple scratches and coffee rings marring the finish on the top. But it was big and solid and vintage, and I filled it with file folders, manila envelopes, pens, pencils and notepads. Oh, and plain white paper for my IBM Selectric typewriter. And then I started writing.

Just a few short years later, when I was 23, we needed a photo for the back cover of my first book, so my husband took this one:

There’s my typewriter and the stamp holder. A thick, kidney-shaped sheet of glass came with the desk to protect the top, and you can see it reflecting the light from the desk lamp. You can also see my leather-bound, Thompson Chain Reference Bible in the background. I wrote my first book at that desk, typing away between 4:00 and 6:00 in the morning, stopping when my son, who was an infant, woke. He’s 39 now.

I loved that life. My oldest daughter is a poet and a teacher now, with a son who is the same age I was when I began writing that first book. But back then, she was an adorable four-year-old with an incredible imagination and a mind that never slumbered. I would spend the first hours of the morning writing, then stop when my son woke, fixing breakfast for the kids and my irascible husband who would criticize the way I stirred his coffee or buttered his toast (made with the bread I baked myself every week). But then the hubby would shuffle off to work, and the kids and I would be left to have adventures and read books and sing and dance until lunch, after which they would nap and I would return to working on my book.

Happy, happy times. I wanted to live my life that way. Or, almost. While my husband had initially been supportive of everything I did, his criticism and disapproval eventually became toxic. Two more children would join our family before I finally decided I could no longer live with his negative energy or the verbal sparring that had become the daily norm for us. I left him, went back to college full time, then began teaching high school, then returned to college to get my master’s degree, then began more teaching as an adjunct professor at night. I still found time to write, but I had to fit it in the tiny cracks of space I found between child-rearing and working and taking care of the house and the yard and doing the shopping and so many other things. But I longed to return to the long slow days in which I immersed myself in my two greatest joys—my kids and my writing.

In June I retired after 27 years of teaching. In August, I bought a little house I want to live in for a long time, with lots of natural light and quiet mornings, much like I had when my kids were little. I decided to make the den my writing cave, so I put in a new floor and painted the walls a pale green, then set up all the comfortable, familiar writing tools—my good old desk, my file cabinet alongside it. The typewriter has been replaced by a laptop, and on the desktop now is a huge copy of Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary and atop that, the Cambridge edition of the Complete Works of William Shakespeare.

Two nights ago, I came into this room and sat down at this good old desk to spend an hour writing the previous blog post. Before I began, I stopped for a moment to thank the Universe that I have finally come full circle, with long days in which to write and care for my babies, although the “babies” now are two spoiled cats and one very quirky dog. When I looked up from my acknowledgement of blessings, my eyes fell upon that old picture of me sitting at this desk. I’d found it in a box during the move. Now it sits upon the desk, a reminder of how fleeting time truly is, how every moment we spend with our children is an investment in their future, no matter how small or idle the activity we’re engaged in. And it reminds me as well that yes, I can do this; I’m a writer. It’s time to get to it.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

What men know versus what women know regarding sexual assault

It’s time I wrote about this. Women, though, tend to keep quiet when such incidences happen to them. That’s one of the things men know.

First, a clarification: I will be speaking in terms of men assaulting women, but I am fully aware that men assault men, women assault women, and yes, it’s possible for a woman to sexually assault a man.

Second, a definition: In tort and criminal law both, an assault is the threat of bodily harm coupled with an apparent, present ability to cause the harm. (So if you were thinking that in order for it to “really” be sexual assault, the guy has to put his hands on the woman, rough her up or hurt her a bit or go further than just groping her, nope. He’s culpable if he as much as breathes down the back of her neck and tells her he wants to ____ her; if she feels the threat of bodily harm and believes he has the ability to carry it out, that constitutes an assault.

This is something most men don’t know. (Yes, they should, but where and how would they learn it? I am only aware of it because of my stint in law school—and that was at the age of thirty-six. Certainly we don’t teach our boys this in public school, but yes, somehow, we should.) Of course, a man can make a play for a woman, flirt with her, talk sexy to her—if she is amenable. But we all should agree that uninvited sexual attention that is not reciprocated is wholly inappropriate—to say nothing of what Donald Trump said it was okay to do.

In fairness to Mr. Trump, if you listen very carefully to the audio of his casual and very unfortunate conversation with Billy Bush, you’ll hear him say these words: “They let you.” If you’re a star, his point was, they let you. Not the amorphous “they” we sometimes speak of. Women. He meant women. Women will let you “grab their pussies” (as Trump so crudely put it) if you’re “a star.”

In a sense, he’s right. This is what men know. Men know that most women don’t tell. Oh, they may go home and call a best friend and vent about the creeper or perv or lech who came onto them or was all over them and how they had to make an excuse to use the bathroom or go call the babysitter in order to get away. But most of the time in those awkward situations—at a party or at work—when a man like Trump shoves a girl against a wall and tries to kiss her, most women will just let it go. And men know this. Most men know—or to be precise, men who engage in this type of behavior—that probably the worst that will happen is a rebuff. No slap in the face, no push back, no going to the press (or the man’s wife). Women, most of the time, don’t.


Because this is what we know (and what men like Trump know): A man in Trump’s position holds the power. Say, for example, a female journalist is subjected to this behavior and she immediately writes a story and it’s printed the next day. Who will be harmed by her action? A man like Trump? Of course not. All he has to say is that she’s lying, that he would never think of doing such a thing. She has no proof, so he simply has to deny the claim. But what happens to the woman who brought it? She’s called a liar, a whore, someone out to exploit a celebrity for her own gain, someone with an axe to grind. Look at all those women assaulted by another popular celebrity who has been in the news lately. None of them came forward when it happened. Why? Because they knew. Not only would no one believe them, but their own careers could be placed in jeopardy if they said anything.

Men who engage in this behavior know this.

And women know that, most times, it’s pointless to try to do anything about it.

Three times during the years I was teaching men came at me in a manner that was highly inappropriate. Each time it began with the innocent pretense of a hug but immediately became something else. I was a single woman. All three men were married. Two of the three were popular teachers and coaches. I could have reported them. I could have gone to an administrator and documented what happened, placing their marriages and careers in jeopardy. But I didn’t. Because I knew. People—especially women—already looked askance at me for being an independent single woman, a tomboy who preferred the company of men (not for sexual reasons) over women. I knew that nothing would come of my complaint, that the perpetrators would simply deny anything ever happened, that I would be the person pointing my finger at someone—like Donald Trump—who was popular and well-liked and yes, I’m choking on the word, but yes, respected.

Interestingly (though not surprisingly), one of those men was on Facebook just tonight, I noticed, making a harsh comment about Hillary Clinton. Oh, I’m not friends with him on Facebook. But one of my highly respected teacher friends is. And I’m sure she has no idea what kind of man he really is. Or maybe she does….

As we’ve seen, when one woman comes forward, not much—or nothing at all—is done. But when many women come forward, it is sometimes powerful enough to turn the tide of opinion. Sometimes.

And there are times, I must confess, like tonight when I saw that man’s name on my friend’s Facebook page, and I read his snarky comment about Hillary, that I think how easy it would be to write a comment back in reply, there on Facebook where many, many people would see it, a comment that would out him in some way. “Yeah, ____, like that time you grabbed me in the hallway outside my classroom and….” But I don’t. He’d just deny it. I know this. And men like him? They know they’re safe. That’s why the culture of “they let you do anything” continues.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

The DNA is in! (Part 2)

If you haven't read my previous post (The DNA is in Part 1), you can scroll down if you'd like to read that one before you read this one. To recap: When I adopted Sgt. Thomas Tibbs, my quirky but much beloved pound puppy, I was told by the folks at Upland Animal Services that he was German Shepherd and Golden Retriever. You can see that Golden Retriever influence in his fluffy red coat, right? Wrong! He has no Golden in him whatsoever! What?!?

In a casual conversation with a friend one day, she mentioned that her dog-that-looks-exactly-like-a-black-lab was not a lab at all. He was, in fact, pit bull, bulldog and terrier. How did she know? She got him from a man who had done a DNA test on him. That conversation got me thinking. I know what we all assumed Thomas was, but maybe he wasn't those two breeds at all. Sometimes, because of his tendency to be extremely stubborn with a high anxiety level, I have wondered if he didn't have perhaps a bit of Border Collie in his ancestry. So I researched the cost and accuracy of the DNA test kits for dogs. Turns out the Mars Wisdom Panel for mixed breed dogs is around $80 (the same amount I paid to have my own DNA tested), and you can order it through Amazon with the 1-Click feature. Done!

An interesting note here: Thomas hates to be messed with. Just clipping the tangles out of his hair is an ordeal. (I have to do yoga first and meditate and channel Cesar Millan just to make sure I am completely calm while working with him.) But when I took a swab to the inside of his cheek and started twirling it around? Yeah, he was super chill. It was just before bedtime; he was happy and relaxed and sprawled in his bed, and I'd just been giving him head rubbies and ear scratches, so he was really in a great mood. So... Done!

The kit was easy to use and mail back. Waiting three weeks to get the result was the only hard part. And then, two weeks and five days after I mailed it, an email appeared in my inbox. "The DNA results for Thomas are in!" Yes!

Any last guesses before we learn the truth?
Golden Retriever? No, not a bit.
Border Collie? No, not a bit.
Irish setter? No.
Irish Wolfhound? Well....

Half of Thom's DNA is categorized as "mixed." In other words, there is such a hodge-podge of breeds there, it's impossible to isolate one specific breed. However, his mixture does seem to be made up of the "sighthound" breeds, which includes Afghans, Greyhounds and yes, the Irish Wolfhound. This will make my grandson Ben very happy. He is a devoted fan both of Irish Wolfhounds and Sgt. Thomas Tibbs.

But the other half?

Yes, definitely German Shepherd. I mean, look at his face. In fact, he is 25% GS.

And what else?

As soon as you read Australian Cattle Dog, I think (if you're a dog lover and know the breed) a little bell will go off in your brain. Here's a picture of one:

(This is Sugar-N-Spice's Turbo Diesel, also known as "Cummins." The photo was taken for the breeder, Rochelle Gribler, by Steve Ball.)

Check out that red color. That's Thomas alright. He is 12.5% ACD. Now I understand why he's always trying to herd me away from his perception of danger. I also understand his suspicious nature; he is wary of any new human who enters our environment, and he becomes unsettled when things are out of place (furniture moved, the truck missing from the garage, new potted plants appearing on the patio). The accompanying literature from the Mars panel explains traits of each breed, and "suspicion" is listed. Rochelle (the owner/breeder of Cummins above) also confirmed this trait as we chatted about the characteristics of Australian Cattle Dogs. ("Ohhh, no wonder!" I kept thinking as she was listing them off.)

And what comprises the final 12.5% of Thom's DNA? American Bulldog. Oh good grief!! No wonder this dog is so stubborn! Here's an example: Although Thomas loves to ride in the extra cab of the truck, he balks if I try to take him out in a place he's never been before. (See the explanation for that trait in the previous paragraph.) With the recent move, I have begun picking up my mail at the common mail delivery area, and Thom always rides down with me to get it in the evening. The other night I decided to get him out of the truck down there so we could take a nice stroll up to the lake and watch the snowy egret catch frogs. But we hadn't done before, and as soon as I opened the truck door and clipped on Thom's leash, he gave me "the look." (Someday, with time and patience and maybe an extra hand, I'll capture that look in a photo.) When he's wary, his ears go down, his eyes narrow, and he turns his head to the side--much like a human would do when suspicious of what another human might be up to. And then he dug his heels in. When he doesn't want to come forward, he will sit down on his bottom like a stubborn jackass--or, I know now, like an American Bulldog. (I did finally get him out of the truck that night, with much patience and after assuring another resident that everything was fine with us, we were just having a disagreement.)

So that's my boy in a nutshell, and that really explains so much about why he is the way he is. No, there is no sweet Golden Retriever personality in there that will emerge one day when Thom fully recovers from his previous life. But now I know how he survived through neglect and abandonment. Australian Cattle Dogs are descended from Dingoes, the wild dogs of that continent. I believe the traits of his ancestors--his wariness and fierce independence--are what made him strong enough to live through an ordeal that took the lives of other dogs around him. And now that I know what I'm up against, I can not only appreciate his strengths but also focus his training more acutely to manage those characteristics that negatively affect his behavior.

I'm so glad I spent the $80 to have the test done! For the insight it has given me, it was worth every penny.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

The DNA is in! (Part 1)

This is my boy. My beautiful, beautiful boy (yes, I sing it to him, thank you, John Lennon), Sgt. Thomas Tibbs. Look at those brown eyes! And his gorgeous mane! Oh to have pretty hair like he does!

It's hard to believe it's been almost three years since I adopted him. But what a mess he was.... This is what he looked like when he was first rounded up in Apple Valley, along with 130 other dogs:

That's not "fluffy from a bath" as my grandson thought when he saw this photo posted on Facebook. That's "missing half his hair" due to mange. This picture is hard for me to look at. Let's look at him two months later:

By the time he was transferred to Upland Animal Shelter two months later, he was already beginning to recover from the mange. He had not, however, begun to recover from all the bad things that had happened to him, and he was very frightened. The great folks at Upland, though, began to work with him, and slowly over time, they taught him how to walk on a leash and how to trust enough to accept a treat from the hand of a kind human. They spruced him up, took his glamour shot, and crossed their fingers that someone would fall in love with him.

Someone did. This is how he looked, still at Upland Shelter, in December of 2013. I didn't see this photo until after I'd adopted him a month later. One of the volunteers sent it to me. Isn't he darling?  And this is my boy now:

His coat is soft and healthy, his eyes are clear, and those ears are as floppy as a good dog's ears get, especially when we're walking in the morning.

So, the question is, what breed is he? When he was originally impounded, San Bernardino Animal Control labeled him "German Shepherd and Golden Retriever." There's that GS face... and his golden hair looks like that of a retriever. But in fact, he is not a Golden. Not at all. Nope. No Golden Retriever in this boy whatsoever, I discovered after recently doing a doggie DNA test on him. I was shocked and amazed. But then I read the accompanying information on what breeds he did represent, and several things about his personality and behavior came clear to me. I will explain those traits in Part 2 of this post. For now, if you'd like to try guessing for yourself (and perhaps win a copy of my memoir, The Dogs Who Saved Me), click here to go to the Facebook page for Dogs and give it your best shot!

Sunday, September 11, 2016

The Fifteenth Anniversary

So that we never forget....

That day I altered my routine. Always, always on the way to work, I started the day by listening to the news. In addition to English classes, I taught Journalism, so I felt compelled to always be aware of what was going on in the world. And really, I was a bit of a news junkie anyway.

But that day... A few weeks before, I had agreed to marry the man I'd been dating, but I was having second thoughts, and I needed some time to think things through, so I turned on some music for most of the half hour drive to work. Two miles from Jurupa Valley High School, where I worked at the time, I switched over to KFWB (which was still all news and talk at the time). I could be mistaken, but I believe anchor Jack Popejoy had the grim task of reporting what was going on in New York and Washington that morning.

Like everyone else across the country, from the moment I began to piece together what was going on, I was simply in a state of shock, unable to focus on anything else. I don't remember driving or parking or unlocking my room. I remember the faces of my colleagues... and I remember how quiet it was on campus. Students were shocked, too, but they were also very frightened. Rumors had already begun that Los Angeles would be targeted, or March Air Reserve Base just a few miles away.

Some teachers made the decision to focus away from the attacks, to distract their students with busy work, but in my mind, they deserved to know as much accurate information as could be obtained, so we sat with the radio on in my classes while I tried to reassure my fourteen-year-old freshmen that they were safe. I fielded questions that began, "But what would we do if...?" and I tried to discourage the xenophobia that had already begun to raise its ugly head.

For my Journalism class, I called the office and got permission to take my students into the teachers' lounge because there was a television in that room. I told the kids to be quiet and respectful, but I didn't need to; when they filed into the lounge and saw teachers sitting in front of the TV wiping tears from their faces, they realized the gravity of the situation. We sat for forty-five minutes, just watching. The room was silent except for the news coverage and the sound of weeping. When the bell rang, the kids stood and filed out to go to their next class. No one spoke.

I don't remember driving home. I remember spending hours in front of the TV late into the evening, two of my adult children and two of my grandchildren huddled close by in our family room. One of my most vivid memories was asking my son and daughter to come talk to me after I got in bed. My grief by then was so profound, I didn't think I would ever be able to fall asleep, and I wanted theirs to be the last voices I heard as I drifted off, I suppose to replace the nightmarish sounds I'd been hearing all day.

All of our lives were changed by the events of September 11, 2001. We've had to come to grips with the truth that the unthinkable can happen on a bright, clear beautiful September morning... that thousands of innocent people can be snuffed out in a moment by the machinations of hate. I lament the fact that we have to live every day with that truth. But we do.

As a counterbalance to that truth, however, we also witnessed, on September 11 and in the days after, powerful and miraculous acts of courage, heroism, self-sacrifice and human kindness. When called upon, we can all extend a hand of rescue, strength, grace and goodness. That is the truth I strive to keep in the forefront of my memory.

Monday, September 5, 2016

The Cherry Valley Story

In 1983, after struggling for years to fix my broken marriage, I left my husband. Thus began a year of ugly confrontations that were emotionally wounding and psychologically damaging. Depressed and confused, I vented to a friend one evening on the phone about how brutal everything had become.

"You need to come to Cherry Valley," he said. "You need to come walk along the creek with me. I have an extra room. Just leave it all behind and come here."

This man, "G.K.," was a fellow writer and poet. He wasn't asking with romantic intentions. He was offering me sanctuary at a time when I desperately needed it. I took him up on his offer. I lived in Chino at the time, and I had no idea where Cherry Valley was. I thought it would take me half a day to get there. Turns out it was an hour away. Pulling off the freeway onto Cherry Valley Boulevard—as I do now to come home—I was amazed to find an immediate change in landscape. Acres and acres of green rolled out before me, under a cerulean blue sky dotted with white fluff. In the distance, I saw horses, cows, goats and ponies. A gradual increase in elevation brought me to the foot of a mountainous area covered in oak and pine and chaparral.

G.K. lived in a small house behind someone else's house, but that tiny house had a tiny spare room. I was so exhausted when I got there, I laid down on the bed and slept for hours in that sun-filled room. It was early spring. When I woke, the scent of something lovely greeted my senses before I even opened my eyes; G.K. had placed a jar of wild lilacs beside the bed while I slept. Years later, reading Walt Whitman's poem "When Lilacs Last in theDooryard Bloom'd" immediately took me back to those precious hours in Cherry Valley. It is a poem I would not have discovered had it not been for G.K.

That evening as he made us something for dinner, I perused his bookshelf and discovered Loren Eiseley. He couldn't believe I'd never been exposed to this man's love of nature, his unique writer's voice full of wonder. "I've led a very sheltered life," I kept reminding him. "But you're so smart, you'd do so well in college," was his rebuttal every time I said it. This exchange became the initial foundation for a plan I would implement much later.

The next day we both rose early, and after cups of tea and a hearty breakfast, we made our way along a dusty, single-track trail under a canopy of ancient oak trees to a small stream. We walked for hours, talking about humans who are kind and humans who are cruel and what motivates people to choose either response to the world. "You would learn a lot about that if you took psychology classes," he said. "But you would learn the same if you studied literature." That night he read me poems by Whitman and Wordsworth, plus some of his own, at my request.

I slept with the words of giants nestling down into my brain.

When I left Cherry Valley two days later, I was a changed person. Not perceptibly; no one who knew me would have seen any difference. At least, not at first. But by summer I had made a plan. I would go to college and study literature and become a teacher, giving me summers off to be with my kids. It was a life decision of profound magnitude, and it began with a few short hours spent immersed in the beauty of Nature and the wonder of words.

Before I went to college, long before my divorce, I was an author and freelance writer. It would be a long time before I could pursue that life again, what with raising my four kids as a single mom while attending college full time and, eventually, working. But what better place to return to now in my retirement? G.K. left long ago for Arizona. We haven't seen each other in many years, though he has followed the progress of my education and career, and he knows how much his gentle prodding back then has meant to my life. There are other friends here now, other writers. And this place has changed very little in three decades. I can still find the stream, when it is running, and the ancient oaks continue to hold their shady limbs over any weary, despairing pilgrims who happen along. They are there for joyous travelers as well, I have found, those of us whose sojourn has brought them full circle to return, with gratitude.

I love this place. I want to walk for hours under those oaks, and I want to write up a storm, to use all those words that took root in my brain decades ago, and use them well, to inspire and encourage and comfort. This is the place for it, don't you think?