Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Patriot


I AM A PATRIOT.

I was born on the Fourth of July. Truly. When I was a child, did I ever think those fireworks were for me? Never. Every year, I watched my dad carefully hang our flag in its post on the front porch, heard him tell the neighbors what a great country we live in, watched him place his hand lovingly over his heart at the VFW hall to say the Pledge of Allegiance or sing the National Anthem. I knew why we celebrated the Fourth.

I AM A PATRIOT.

Both of my parents enlisted in the army during WWII. My mother was one of the strongest women I have ever known. She survived the Great Depression, the divorce of her parents, a family split apart by public scandal, an abusive first husband, and all the oppression of women that was rampant before we burned our bras in the 1960's. She was always so proud of the fact that her country recognized her as capable of helping in the war effort. She worked in transportation, servicing vehicles by changing the oil and other formally testosterone-associated tasks, providing critical maintenance to personnel carriers, jeeps and other vehicles. She never liked to talk about her past--unless you got her talking about her years serving her country.

I AM A PATRIOT.

I have voted in every presidential election since 1972.

I AM A PATRIOT.

When we were kids, my brother played trumpet in a drum and bugle corp. Watching him march in parades, the drums beating, the music crisp and sharp, and oh my goodness, the stars and stripes being carried in front of all those young people in uniform, I wanted to be a part of it all. So I joined the color guard so I could march along with them.

I AM A PATRIOT.

As a child I had an epiphany, realizing all on my own that I had won the birth lottery by being born in this country, where "It's a free country!" was a slogan we used as kids to mouth off to people who told us to settle down or straighten up or be quiet. But it's true; I knew from a young age, from listening to my dad, that men and women had sacrificed a great deal so that we could live in freedom. My dad was the great-grandson of immigrants who, like many Irish, came from a land that could offer them nothing to a land that would offer them an opportunity to grow and thrive. My dad's family was just scraping by when he left for the war. When he returned, he became a cab driver, then a cop. Before he died at the age of 43, he studied law and passed the bar exam. He would have been an attorney in California. Talk about the land of opportunity....

I AM A PATRIOT.

I have sung the National Anthem at pep rallies, basketball games, and oh my goodness, at a minor league baseball game with 2,000 people in attendance--and that was one of the proudest, happiest moments of my life.

I AM A PATRIOT.

By liberal friends believe that I align with them, that I am wholly left leaning. My Republican friends believe that as well, though some acquaintances think I am as far to the right as they are. The truth is, I am somewhere in between. And what I love about this country is that I can have friends on both sides. I can engage in conversation with conservatives and progressives, but I'm not required to choose one side or align myself with one particular way of thinking.

Beyond that, I can have conversations with many, many other people who are not like me--Jews and Muslims and atheists and yes, even Baptists and Episcopalians and Mormons. And these people can be my friends, folks whom I love and embrace and cherish. Black folks and brown, Asian and Indian. We are all in this together, and none of us will get out alive. I am blessed each day in this fleeting life that this country--this big, magnificent, beautiful country--gives me the freedom to go where I please when I please with whom I please. To know that right now, if I chose to, I could marry a Black Muslim woman and all my friends--ALL MY FRIENDS--would joyously attend my wedding is something that makes me proud of my country every single day.

I AM A PATRIOT.

Do not dare to think that because you adhere to one particular ideology, you alone get to assume the role of "patriot" and others do not. I am a flag-waving, parade-marching, Star-Spangled-Banner-singing, whole-hearted lover of this country, no matter who is posturing in the role of leader.

This land is MY land.

(Bless you, Woody Guthrie.)

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Summer


I rode my bike tonight. I went out at 8:10, thinking I'd just ride around the block as the evening breeze began to cool everything down, be gone maybe ten or fifteen minutes. But I stayed out until full dark, until the streetlights came on, and I smiled to think of the summer nights when I was kid, when we stayed out as long as we could, reluctant to return to the stuffy house and bedtime and trying to sleep in the stifling air with mosquitoes buzzing everywhere.

If we were on her good side, Mom would let us eat a giant bowl of ice cream before we went to bed.

This night, as I pedaled around the park, I recalled those nights long ago of riding my bike or skating or playing hide and seek with the neighbor kids and my brother and sister.

It was a night much like this one when my brother found Lucky. We were sitting on the front porch, doing not much of anything and loving the activity, and suddenly Kevin said, "Hey. What's that in the street?" He went to investigate, my sister and I tagging along behind. Curled in a ball in the middle of our street was a young black cat. He picked her up, cuddled her, then marched into the house to place her squarely in our mother's lap. Mom was sitting on the couch talking on the phone, and I still remember giggling as he handed her the cat and we fled outside. Remember, back then our phones were anchored to the wall. He called back to her something about keeping her safe, and when we went back outside he told us just to wait. We did.

A long time later Mom ended her conversation and we heard her call "Kevin" through the screen door, stretching out the syllables in a tone that was both ominous and amused. We shuffled warily back inside. The little cat was now curled in Mom's lap, purring away as our mother stroked her fur and glared at her second-born son.

"We don't need a cat," she told him.

"I know," he said, "but she's lucky."

And that became her name. She was the first black cat in our family. And she was extraordinarily patient with my brother, who at times told our dog to chase her just for the fun of it, and once he tried to make the tip of her tail white by dipping it in bleach. (He succeeded in reducing the black luster to a dull orange. Don't get the wrong idea; my brother wasn't a bad kid, just bored. In those days, we had to find things to do. The things we found weren't always good things.)

This was the memory that flooded back to me tonight as I pedaled my bike up and down the streets of my little community. I have always loved going out on a summer night to ride my bike. It is a calming, contemplative venture these days, but it does still immediately make me feel like a kid again. Hard to believe I'll be 64 in two weeks.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Driving


I may have mentioned in an earlier post (or if I didn't, and we're friends, you've heard me whine about it) that for the past five months I've been driving The Youngest Granddaughter, Reese, to school every day and picking her up in the afternoon, a total distance of 120 miles per day, most of it on the freeway--10, 210, 215. (Please note that I did not use the definite article to modify those freeway numbers--because I'm told that "only in California" do we say "the 10 freeway.")

What a pain! Except... I've had the pleasure of getting to know Reese on a deeper level. She's a "step" granddaughter (oh how I hate that term! "Step" what? Step away? Step down? Ugh!), so I haven't been afforded the same opportunities to hang out with and bond with her as I have with Ben and Ellie. For that reason, driving times have been special to me because they've given us time to talk about the important things in life, including gun control, the devastation of the current administration, bad teachers, good teachers, the behavior of boys in high school, and What was that on the side of the road?!?

In reference to the latter, there is a whole list of junk we saw on the side of the road. Couch cushions seem to be a popular castoff, as are ropes, chains, ladders and gardening tools. By far the one that most interested us was the chicken.

We were westbound on the--oops, I mean--210 one morning at about 6:15 when my eye caught movement on the center median. I blinked, focused, and yes, my eyes did not deceive me; there was a tall red rooster pacing back and forth in the dirt, his toes--wait--talons?--stopping just short of the emergency strip. He clearly wanted to cross the road (okay, I had to go there), but feared the traffic, so he just walked nervously back and forth. Of course, I processed all that in a matter of seconds. Then I said:

"Was that a chicken?" to a teenager who seemed to be dozing.

"It was!" she immediately responded. "How did a chicken get there?"

And for the rest of the drive to school, that's all we talked about. How he came to be on this raised section of freeway out on the middle divider. Logistically, it seemed impossible that he'd gotten there on his own, so we wondered if perhaps someone had grown tired of hearing him cock-a-doodle-doo before dawn and had brought him out presumably to his doom.

Then I dropped Reese off and we forgot about him.

Until we saw him in the exact same spot the next morning, still alive, still pacing.

"WHAT THE...????"

"OH MY GOD!"

I don't remember which of us said which, but we both exclaimed simultaneously. He was still there because he couldn't really go anywhere else, but how had he survived without getting hit? And by now the poor guy must be really hungry and thirsty, we thought. Had there been more room, I would have pulled in and tried to catch him, but that scenario seemed precarious at best. What if I frightened him into traffic and caused an accident?

But what to do?

I dropped Reese off, went home and called the California Highway Patrol.

"California Highway Patrol. How can I help you?"

"I'm sorry, this is your weird phone call for the day. There's a live rooster on the westbound 210 about a mile east of Waterman. He's been there for at least 24 hours without food or water."

Long pause.

"He's alive?"

"Yes ma'am."

"Well, I guess that chicken just needs to get across the road."

Yep, she went there, too, and then we were both just laughing but also expressing sympathy for the poor guy.

"Okay," she promised, "I'll call animal control and we'll get someone out there right away."

And then we had to wait 24 hours to learn the fate of Mr. Red Rooster. Driving to school the next morning, we were all eyes, intently staring out over the dashboard before we ever came in view of the spot where he'd been. Finally we came up on it, two sets of eyes searching frantically for any sight of him. All we saw were two orange cones. No rooster. No feathers. No blood (which would have been awful).

"Yayyyyy!!!" We both broke into cheers. Red had been saved!

I made a mental note to call Animal Services in San Bernardino as soon as I got home to ask if they had him. ("I'm sorry, this is your weird call for the day, but did you happen to impound a rooster off the freeway yesterday?") We wanted to know the rest of the story. Was Red okay? Would he be placed for adoption?

Alas, things got busy when I got home and I never did make that call. Perhaps it's for the best. In our minds, Red is safe, well fed and hydrated now, waiting for his forever home.

Last week Reese graduated high school. Our driving adventures--at least on the roads to school and back--have ended. She will head off to Cal Poly University in August to study Engineering. I hope she always looks back fondly on those hours we spent driving, talking, bonding, and making the world a safer place for at least one rooster.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Bobby


"My thanks to all of you, now it's on to Chicago and let's win there."

I still can't recall the words without tearing up.

On June 5th, 1968, I stayed up late to watch the primary election results. I was only 14--certainly not old enough to vote yet. But there were two strong influences in my life at the time--no, three--that motivated me to watch the news, to follow the campaign of the young and charismatic senator. The first was a passionate history teacher. The second was the Civil Rights Movement. And the third was the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. just two months before. The world, it seemed to my young eyes, was a cruel one. (Keep in mind, we were daily seeing images of the war and devastation in Vietnam.) I desperately needed hope. Bobby Kennedy represented that hope of change for me.

It was after midnight when he gave a brief speech in the ballroom of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, ending with those words I've quoted above. I remember being tired and thrilled as I got up to turn off the TV and go to bed. This man who ran on a platform of racial justice and social change might just have a chance, might really have a good chance, of becoming President. I went to bed happy.

I woke to the radio alarm at 5:00a.m. The newscaster's words invaded my sleep at first, so I thought I'd been having a nightmare. But no. As my brain came fully awake, the reality of the report sunk in--like a searing iron branding my heart: He'd been shot in the night. All the thoughts and prayers in the country could not save him; he died twenty-six hours after being shot.

Has it really been fifty years since that day? The older I get, the more I see how the events of those days directed my life.

My appreciation for journalism began that day when I retrieved a copy of the L.A. Times from our front porch and realized it was filled with far more information than I was getting on the radio about what happened. I pored over every story, trying to make sense of it all, hoping to find hope in the details. Sadly, there was none.

And I was angry. Or, I should say, angrier. The assassination of Dr. King had rocked my world pretty hard. But then, people thought (and some even whispered) it was only a matter of time. As a strong, brave Black man standing up to the White establishment of the time, he made himself a marked man, and he knew it. Still... I was already seething at the injustice and cowardice of shooting a man down in cold blood because he stands for fairness and equality.

Then Bobby... No one saw that coming. For a long time, I couldn't watch the news any more, didn't care what happened in the world. I was coming down with mononucleosis at the time, so I spent that summer sick in bed, depressed, isolated and absolutely despairing. I hated the world I'd been brought into.

There are times now when glimpses of that despair flash across my memory. We live today in equally perilous times. Occasionally, still, I need to turn away from the headlines and wander off into Nature to reflect, to appreciate, to heal.

What I know now is that stopping a single person--JFK, RFK, Dr. King--does not stop a movement. Progress goes forward in spite of tragedy. Others take up the sword and run headlong toward the battle. We should all be so brave as those men.

Monday, June 4, 2018

No News?



As if I didn't have enough grief in my life in the past few weeks, here was a scene that elicited more tears: As I sat at a Carrow's restaurant in Upland waiting for my truck to be serviced, I sipped a cup of coffee and watched these guys take down two newspaper boxes and haul them away. I took these photos through the window--and through actual tears.

If you're thinking right now, "I get my news online anyway," please know that you should never say those words aloud to me unless you want to be subjected to a line of loaded Socratic questioning that begins with "What's the difference between a news story offered online and one offered in a print newspaper?" Do your homework first. Be prepared to answer.

If you'd like a hint, here's one: Space.

The average online story has a word count in the hundreds--a couple paragraphs, maybe. The average word count in a print newspaper runs into the thousands. Why is that important? Because you get the whole story, including all the salient details, not just a brief summary of what happened.

Here's another hint: Sources

Exactly how are those news stories coming to us online? When you click on a "trending" story, where does that take you? To a reputable news source that you trust? Or to a page with multiple graphics and pop-ups so you can read two paragraphs about a possible Yeti sighting while being barraged with advertisements? So is the point of that story to inform the public? Or to sell anti-wrinkle cream?

And speaking of graphics: I've had folks tell me they like to read their news online so they can "see pictures and video." Oh lord help us, really? I'm pretty sure I can read an article about the need for further gun control legislation without having to watch terrified teenagers running from classrooms yet again.

Sigh. Journalism as it is presented online is not the same as Journalism which is crafted for long-established and reputable print media outlets, and any journalist worth her salt will tell you the same. Ask one... if you can find one. Most local newspapers have narrowed their staffs from hundreds to handfuls, and those few over-worked individuals have little patience to discuss the merits of brief news versus complete news.

Yeah, it's clear; I feel pretty strongly about this. In my file cabinet I have copies of front page news stories--from the day Barack Obama was elected President... from September 11, 2001... from that day in 1968 when Robert Kennedy was assassinated. I was only 14. But I knew that story was important. So I kept the newspaper from that day. Sometimes I imagine my grandchildren telling their kids, long after I am dead, about a time when the news was actually printed out on papers, and everyone bought one so they would know exactly what was going on in the world... for real.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Sug


In the summer of 2006, my little black hellion Calpurnia died, leaving me with just Boo, the little flea-and-worm-infested kitten who'd grown into a gorgeous panther after I'd brought him home from work at the request of a student because kids were trying to stone him to death. (You can read Boo's story here.) Boo and Cal were never what you'd call close, but after a few months I wanted to make sure he had another cat around, so I walked into my local Petsmart, went to the cat condos, and saw a small black cat I assumed was a kitten or at least a juvenile. I called the number for the rescue (H.O.P.E. or Helping Out Pets Everyday [sic]), and the conversation went (I kid you not) like this:

ME: Hi, yeah, I'm looking for a female black cat. I see you have one here--

HOPE: She's actually the only black cat we have, but she's missing half her tail, she's stunted, and she was living on the street when we brought her in with two kittens, so she's semi-feral.

ME: I'll take her.

HOPE: Well, we'd like you to meet her first....

A meeting was set up, but honestly, I'd heard enough ("We think it was a human who chopped off her tail, since she won't let anyone touch it") to know I'd be bringing her home. When they let her out of her plexiglass prison cell, she strolled over to me and hopped up on the bench next to me, then settled down in bread loaf position and began to purr. "Wow," the volunteer said, "we've never seen her do that with anyone before." Well, of course not. She wasn't anyone else's cat.

She settled in just as quickly at home (after hiding behind the dryer for a couple of hours). From the first night, she jumped on the bed and slept by my feet, just as if she'd always enjoyed the comfort of human companionship. She and Boo had a conversation about who slept where, but it didn't last long, and there was plenty of room for all of us.




A few short months later, it was time for the three of us to move to a cabin high in the wilderness in Mt. Baldy, and that's when our adventures began.



For six months, I kept the cats inside so they would learn that, first, this is our new home and second, this is a dangerous place.

We'd only lived there a few weeks when we saw our first bear. It wandered up onto my back deck at just after dawn one morning, and as I leaned on the kitchen counter to stare out the window at it, I became aware of a puffy little body beside me--Sug sat beside me for twenty minutes, growling and twitching her tail at the beast as it plundered the wild bird seed I'd put out. Some years later, I would receive a call from a neighbor as I was dressing for work, warning me that a bear was in the vicinity. I descended the loft stairs moments later to see Sug standing at the French doors which led to the back deck, her body puffed up to twice her size as she faced off with the three-hundred-pound black bear on the other side of the doors. Oh, for a photo of that encounter!

The cats saw enough of bears, raccoons and coyotes through the windows to make them realize they had to be on alert always when I gave them brief time outdoors (only when it was broad daylight and I knew we were safe from visitations). Sug was always the leader in the slow sneak out the door.

And that was a problem at times; I had to watch the door constantly or she would dart out behind my back. Her curiosity often got the best of her, even at night... in the snow.




Sadly, our Boo passed away in the second year we lived in Baldy, and I am ever so thankful little Sug was there with me. Boo was a fine gentleman of a cat whose habit had always been to climb onto my chest at night just before I fell asleep and kiss my face with his purry wet kisses for a quarter of an hour before he finally climbed down beside me and went to sleep. The first night without him, I cried myself to sleep. On the second night, Sug came up to curl into my armpit. That would be her sleeping spot for the next decade....



She loved flowers. Often on special occasions, my son would visit with a bouquet, announcing as he entered the cabin, "I brought your cat some flowers."

And she loved to hear me sing. There is a short piece in a Chicken Soup for the Soul book about how, when we moved to Baldy and she was frightened at first, I sang to her and it calmed her. She loved "Sugar Pie Honey Bunch" by The Four Tops, and she would roll onto her back every time I sang it to her. Every time. Click here to see that phenomenon.

After Boo died and it was just the two of us in Baldy, I sang to her often when we were cold or worried. She would curl into my side as I sang her to sleep, setting her chin into the palm of my hand and purring along with whatever song I chose.

Eventually we left the mountain, and I bought a temporary home in Ontario. I'd been without a dog for the six years I lived in Baldy, and I couldn't wait to bring one home. But then a friend posted a photo of a scraggly gray kitten on Facebook, pleading with someone to take her. Gray? We don't do gray cats. But something about that little ball of feistiness spoke to me, and I brought her home. As soon as Sug heard her crying in the carrier, her maternal instincts kicked in. She watched out for Purrl and cared for her--until Purrl grew to twice Sugie's size, and then the two girls were like jealous sisters, swatting at each other daily but always huddling close to each other under the bed whenever they sensed danger.



A month ago, Sug experienced an episode of hyphema (hemorrhaging into her eye), and we sped off to an emergency veterinary clinic where the kind young vet and I slowly clicked off causes until we landed on "probably kidney failure." I brought Sug home and set about loving and spoiling her for the weeks she had left in this world. I took lots of pictures. I cried a lot. I recorded her purring.... Watching her decline was so, so hard, but even as she grew weaker and endured more episodes of hyphema, she maintained her loving sweetness toward me, still purring me to sleep at night, even when she must have felt awful.

She passed away yesterday. And for the first time in 28 years, there is not a black cat in my household. But there is a gray one... and a big red dog. Purrl and Thomas have been a comfort, as have all my dear, dear friends who have met Sug and know of our bond. Twelve years is a long time to companion with a cat, but not nearly long enough.

When I first met Sug at Petsmart, I noted that the rescue had named her Sugar Plum, and I thought, "That's the stupidest name for a cat in the history of cat rescue." But... no other name was forthcoming in my mind, even after she'd been with me for weeks, so Sugar Plum it stayed. Here's to my sweet little girl--Sug, Sugie, Sug-Sug, Sugar Plumpkin, Itty Bitty Kitty, Bitty, Bit, Bijou, Sugie Pie Honey Bunch. Go find Boo, my dear little girl. Play nice with him until I see you again.




Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Joy


Joy is ascendant. It is the other-worldly experience of the dove that appears suddenly, floats down to you and with its beak gently pulls away the bonds that tether you. You feel yourself rise and only then realize you’d been bound.

Joy is transcendent. Whatever else was happening on that day or at that moment falls away. You are transported. You are caught up in this thing, this event, this announcement, this realization, this sight for beleaguered eyes as you feel your heart wrapped in warmth, your face alight with the glow of it.

A colleague I worked with years ago used to say that life, to him, was mostly a series of mundane days filled with work, responsibility, and the cares and problems of the day-to-day routine, with occasional moments of great joy, such as the birth of a child. But these moments, he said, were extremely rare, so we should simply soldier on, getting through life as best we can, grateful for those rare opportunities in which to find happiness—though that happiness was fleeting indeed.

I found his cynicism dismaying in light of the fact that he often reminded his circle of friends that he was a man of God, an evangelical Christian who knew exactly what would happen to him when he died. Then, at that time, he would experience true joy.

Well. I guess he’s more patient than I am.

I’ll take my joy now, thank you very much, in this morning’s slow and steady sunrise that was accompanied by movie-trailer-perfect birdsong which rose to a steady crescendo as Thomas and I stood, looking down to the lake, a great blue heron just waking. The first rays of sun hit his wing feathers and lit the copper highlights there. He was so beautiful I nearly cried.

Last week, as Thomas and I hiked in Bogart Park at the same hour, just after sunrise, we took a left instead of a right on a trail we’ve often walked—and we discovered a new trail we hadn’t tried before, one that led up a ridge, then down into a canyon, then around a large meadow. Wildflowers—blue and yellow and red—dotted the sides of the trail as we walked together. I could have brought home an enormous bouquet… but I let them live, as I was living in that moment, able, still, to walk two miles with my dog at dawn, to breathe deeply, to sense the sun’s warmth on my back through my jacket. On our return, we came upon a small herd of deer. As we strolled silently around a shaded bend in the trail, there they all were, heads up, looking at us as we looked at them. No one moved. The air was still and quiet. Their enormous dark eyes showed only curiosity, not fear, so Thomas and I lingered (as he leaned into my leg, unsure of what these creatures were). Finally, we inched carefully away down the trail, and the deer dropped their heads and went back to grazing.

Thank you, Universe, for the sheer joy in that moment of tranquility.

It has been my experience that these moments of joy are not few and far between. They’re right out there, waiting. We simply have to make ourselves available.