Sunday, April 13, 2014

What I miss

I miss the mountain. I miss the mountain more than I can say. I miss watching for the first robin to return, now that it is spring, and for the song of the Black-headed Grosbeaks trilling from high in the oak trees before dawn. I miss the "Who-who, whoooo" of the big owl as I'm falling asleep at night, his call floating into the darkness of the loft as the breeze blows through the open window.

People ask me often if I miss the mountain, and I don't know what to say. The short answer is yes. I should just say, "Yes, I do," nodding slowly, looking wistful and let that be enough. But asking the question is like opening a small gate in a large dam; there's too much pressure behind the words and they sometimes come spraying out too fast.

I miss the Bighorn sheep and the sound of the creek running at the bottom of the canyon. I miss the startling spontaneous eruption of yucca blooms—God's candles—lighting up the mountain. I miss the clear cold light of a radiant moon unfiltered by the haze of particulate matter. I miss the deepest, most abiding quiet I have ever experienced when the birds have finally shushed for the night and there is no wind to stir the trees.

I miss long, lonely hikes up a single-track trail to the ski hut to find no one there but a King snake sprawled across a rock in the sun.

I miss the long, slow drive to work on spring mornings when I play the game of trying to guess how far up the foothills the marine layer has advanced.  19th Street?  22nd?  25th?  Past the dam? At times, the thick sea-born mist would fill the deep canyon next to me as I drove the highway, but the road itself would be clear, and I would pull over just to watch it roil and churn.

I miss seeing a deer leap along the road and over the side into the canyon, or a coyote or a fox or a bobcat. I miss watching for Golden Eagles.

I miss sitting on my front porch, playing my guitar and singing at the top of my lungs when the neighbors weren't home because I knew each one of my small handful of neighbors, and it only took a moment to account for everyone, and singing with absolutely no one to hear offers a freedom every singer should experience.

I miss Rob and Eric and Brenda and Tammy and spontaneous oh-my-gosh-it's-nice-out-here gatherings on my porch or Eric's porch and conversations about the mountain and the weather and all the other characters who live there.

I miss the long, slow drive home, rolling the windows down to catch the scent of warm pine or Scotch broom, the fresh air reviving, restoring me with the most natural aroma therapy available without a prescription.

I miss the mountain every day, partly because I am writing about it every day, about the critters and the characters and all the catastrophes, fires and floods included. Sometimes when I'm tired and overwhelmed with stress from my day job and wondering why I'm investing the time, doubtful if anyone will ever read this next book, this memoir about my nobody life, I think of stopping. But if no one else ever reads this little narrative about living in a cabin in the wilderness, at least, someday, I will, when my memories of all the adventures have begun to wane.  It's worth the time and effort for that alone, I should think.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

E Ticket Ride

Bunny Tibbs--before her bath

In the first 20 years or so after Disneyland opened in Anaheim, park guests purchased a ticket book if they intended to go on any of the rides. Attractions were rated A-E, with the A venues being of a milder sort, such as visiting with Mr. Lincoln, while the E tickets were reserved for the wildest of rides, such as the bobsleds (also known as the Matterhorn).

I have been riding, in this past week, that well known roller coaster of emotions, ranging anywhere from pure joy to very intense anger, and everything in between. Thanks to a couple of truly great friends who have listened carefully while I vented about the anger parts and validated those feelings ("It sounds like you were really angry..."), I've moved past all that.  So, on to the highlights!

1.  I finished reading Brian Doyle's soon to be released novel, The Plover, this week. I spent two weeks savoring his words and the love with which he imbues them. It is a novel about the sea as much as Moby Dick is about a whale, and that is to say that, while he sets his protagonist squarely on a boat in the ocean, the tale is as much about the human condition as it is anything else. It is beautifully rendered. For those of you who love literary novels and stories of people who are broken yet still able to love and love lavishly, buy it. Well, pre-order it if you're reading this prior to April 8, 2014. Just click on the highlighted title in this paragraph.

2.  Bunny Tibbs reappeared. (To find out who Bunny Tibbs is, read the blog post which precedes this one.) I came home from work to find Bunny lying face down on Thom's comforter in the garage. Apparently he'd been doing a lot of excavating that day. Or maybe he missed her and needed to spend time with her. I have to confess, that after promising him I would no longer touch his toys, I did pick her filthy self up off the blanket and toss her in with a load of rags. She was spotless and ready for bed that night, and he seemed surprised to see her in her beautified condition. Twenty-four hours later, she'd been buried again, but this time somewhat half-heartedly, as one ear remained above ground. Since then he's brought her out of his own accord, and she hasn't gone underground again. Waiting to see how much my dog now trusts me.

3.  Thomas went for his first real hike in the mountains today. In the first weeks after he came home, he wasn't able to travel far due to getting car sick, a result of his extreme anxiety. (Cleaning huge gobs of dog barf from the floor of the extra cab made me glad I opted to buy the Ranger Edge--with rubber floor mats.  Easy-peesy!) I've been taking him on car rides a couple times a week since then, going just a little farther each time. Last weekend we went to the far side of Upland. Today we went to the foot of Mt. Baldy. And oh, what a great time we had. For him, being able to hike along a forest path without cars whizzing by or particularly boisterous bully breeds barking at him from behind fences gave him the opportunity to act like a dog, sniffing the air and the ground and peeing on stuff. Atta boy, Thomas!

Bonus points to #3: Thom went everywhere with me on the lead--over rocks, under tree trunks that were fallen across the trail and, most importantly, into the stream, actually placing his dainty 'My toes shouldn't touch moisture' feet in the water.  Good boy!

And: On the way back, we encountered two lovely young women who had brought their three dogs out to enjoy the gorgeous spring-like conditions. One of the girls was a former student of mine, and the other is a volunteer at the Upland shelter, so as we approached and I called out, "Hi ladies! Are your dogs friendly?" I heard in stereo, "Is that Ms. Murphy?!?" "Is that Sgt. Tibbs?!?" (My dog is no doubt a greater celebrity than I am.) While I reminisced with my former student, she walked right up to Thomas to pet him and, amazingly, he didn't pull away, just stood calmly as she held out her hand, then patted his head. He's never let any stranger approach him like that before. Guess the hike was good for him. In addition, their dogs surrounded him and invited him to be part of their pack in a wonderfully diplomatic way. Thom stood his ground; like me, he's not much of a joiner. But again, he didn't pull away, just let them sniff and wag to their hearts content.

4. Finally, on Friday I read Yeats' poem, "The StolenChild," to my freshman Honors classes, and I showed them this video. These are the moments in teaching that I love the most. Taking them, hand in hand, into the land of the imagination, is like Thomas into the forest. They could go their entire lives without it, as could he, but how much more their lives are enriched by these experiences.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

The Mysterious Disappearance of Bunny Tibbs

Bunny Tibbs--the clean version

When Sgt. Thomas Tibbs came home to be my forever buddy, he was a sorry mess.  He'd had surgery that same day, he was still a bit drugged up, and he was coming into a strange new place.  These circumstances would stress any dog, but since Thom was so shut down already, I knew he might really have a tough time feeling safe. So on his first night home, I gifted him with Bunny, a soft brown Easter bunny my son had given me some years ago.  That night, I showed Thomas his bed, patting it gently as I led him to it, and I introduced him to Bunny.

"Bunny will stay with you, Thomas," I told him, and I laid Bunny on his bed as well.

I should mention here that for these first weeks, Thomas has been sleeping in my warm, well-insulated garage, with access to the back yard.  He is in the house more and more now, and eventually he will be sleeping inside, but we are still working through a few issues, one of which is his inclination to come alive at night.  During the day, he is still very shut down, but when darkness falls he becomes much more animated, investigating his yard and sometimes getting into a bit of mischief.  I attribute this to his extended stay at the shelter; to him, his environment was only quiet and therefore only felt safe at night.

For the first few days, while he was still recovering from surgery, I would wake Thom early in the morning, feed him and spend some time with him before heading off to work.  After a week or so, I came out one morning to find he was up and about, and he'd been exploring the yard.  A few days later, he spent the night chewing up an old dog bed, and I awoke to find bits of white stuffing spread all over the back yard.  No worries; it was the old bed, not the brand new one I'd just bought for him.  A few days later I awoke to a huge mess on the back patio; Thom had grabbed two bags of bird seed that had been sitting out there and dragged them across the yard, spilling seed everywhere.  I cleaned up what I could, but for days afterward my sparrows, finches and doves had a smorgasbord upon which to feast.

I'd been buying various Nyla bones and rawhide chews for Thom all along, as I knew he was anxious and needed an outlet, and due to his surgery, we wouldn't be going on any long walks right away. But he had seemed more interested in chewing other things such as his brand new brush.

Then he started excavating.  Every night he would dig one new hole in the yard.  Again, I recognize this behavior as one that emerges from his anxiety, and I know over time that anxiety will diminish, so it doesn't really bother me.  By the time I have the garden planted in late spring, he'll be staying in the house at night, so for now, he can turn over all the soil he wants.

Through all of his chewing and somewhat destructive behavior, he had never touched Bunny, and I sometimes wondered why, given what he was finding to chew on in the yard and the fact that he'd reduced a large dog bed to piles of fluff.

Then one morning I woke to find Bunny lying in the middle of the backyard.  I picked her up, turning her over and over, but could not find a tear or mark on her.  Huh, I thought, carrying her in and dropping her on Thom's bed.

That afternoon when I returned home from work, Bunny was missing.  I searched the yard, walking every inch of the perimeter.  She was nowhere to be found.  Thomas, of course, did not reply when I asked him repeatedly where she'd gone.  Finally, after my third thorough search of the yard, I noticed that the soil in one of the compost boxes looked uneven.  I ran a hoe through the rich earth--and a soggy ear flopped into the light.  I pulled it--and unearthed a very filthy Bunny.  I laughed as I carried her to the garage and threw her into the washing machine.  That night as I tucked Thomas in bed, I handed him his warm, soft Bunny right out of the dryer.

Of course she was missing when I woke up in the morning.  This time, she was nowhere to be found.

I called my son (whose favorite programs are true crime documentaries) and my best friend Donna, whose advice in helping Thomas recover has been invaluable.  Both were suspicious of Lady Boxer, the dog who lives behind us and sometimes jumps over the fence to "visit" (as in, eating Thom's food and drinking his water when her idiot owners leave her all alone for a weekend).  I wasn't so sure, but after a week went by with no sign of Bunny, I drove around the block and knocked on the door.  I was prepared to appear foolish ("Um, would you mind checking your back yard for my dog's stuffed rabbit?") in order to retrieve Thom's toy.  Yes, I love him that much.  Fortunately, they weren't home.

The next morning, there was Bunny, lying on the lawn as if she'd never left, covered with dirt but still wholly intact, not a scratch on her.

Of course, I stupidly, foolishly, picked her up and threw her in the washing machine again.  And of course, she immediately went missing the next day.

Poor Thomas.  He's having a tough time teaching his human to leave his toys alone.

I may not be as quick to learn as Thom, but I do eventually figure things out. He buries Bunny during the day so she will be safe from clean-freak humans, obnoxious cats who think they own the yard and pushy Boxer bi-- er, females who come over uninvited.  At night, when he's anxious, he digs Bunny up and chews on her--nicely.  There is a freshly dug hole in the yard, I'm sure, for every rawhide chew I've given him, as I quickly stopped seeing any evidence that he ever chewed them.

OK, Thom-boy, I get it now.  I promise I will never take your Bunny again.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Sgt. Thomas Tibbs: Update

Two days in....

Friends have asked how Thomas is doing, so here is a short post just to document his progress.  Note: If you haven't read the previous post here, you might want to scroll down to that one first before reading on.

Two weeks ago when I brought him home (directly from the animal hospital after his neuter surgery) he was loopy, still under the influence of drugs and definitely not happy.  (Getting a forty-pound dog into the extra cab of a truck on my own without hurting his sore bottom was quite a feat.  I think some angels in the form of the dog-loving spirits of my dad and brother were there to help out.)

Needless to say, he was uncomfortable for the first few days.  More critical, though, was his fear of everything.  Just putting his collar on traumatized him.  He would turn his head as far away from me as he could, his tail tucked so far between his legs it simply disappeared.

During the day, he wanted to stay in the yard, and so I let him.  He would go to the far side yard and huddle into the corner between the house and the block wall, remaining there until I came to get him with the leash to lead him to food and water and a chance to pee, which he would do quickly, always seeking to get back to his safe spot.

After five days, we did a short walk around the neighborhood.  Again, Thomas was terrified of every person, bike, vehicle or sound we encountered.  He panted anxiously, and as soon as we turned for home, he began pulling on the leash to get back to safety again.

Each night from the first I would end my day by sitting beside him, talking or singing to him, brushing his coat and slowly massaging his back.  Eventually he began to relax, and he stopped flinching every time I touched him.  But he never wagged his tail, would not even try to take a treat from my hand, no matter how tempting.

Last weekend I met some of my neighbors while we were walking.  Linda and Pete have a Shih tzu named Gizmo, and I asked if they would mind if Thomas got to know him.  They were patient and supportive when I described the life Thomas once lived, and we talked about dog rescue for a while.  As we did, Thomas stopped trying to pull away and simply stood beside me, leaning into my leg.  "Looks like he's starting to trust you," Pete remarked.  I smiled.

I've been coming home for lunch every day to check on Thomas and bring him out of his corner for water and treats.  On Wednesday, he heard me calling his name and trotted out on his own.  I nearly cried.  Evidence in the yard showed that he had finally made himself comfortable.

Several nights ago when we returned from our walk, instead of running for his corner when I unclipped the leash, he trotted over to the spot where I brush him.  (It's also near the cupboard where his treats are stored.)  I grabbed the brush (and a highly expensive organic all natural peanut butter treat--but he's worth it), and we spent some time together relaxing.

Two mornings ago, after eating his breakfast, instead of retreating to his safe corner, he ran around the backyard just as happy dogs do.  That time, I did cry.

I have yet to see him wag his tail.  He still won't take a treat from my hand, will not even walk forward to get it.  But he no longer turns his head away from me, watching me expectantly when I'm in the yard with him.  Today we drove to a park and took a long walk around in the grass, meeting other people with dogs and sniffing all the trees.

And yes, the cats are learning to accept him.  Fearless Purrl is leading the way, just as I knew she would, sometimes coming out to creep around on the patio while I am brushing Thomas.  While Sugie is not happy about sharing her home and yard with a smelly dog, she has not once fled to hide under the bed.  In fact this morning, knowing Thomas was in the yard (though in his corner), she crept out into the backyard and enjoyed a nice, relaxed roll in the grass--nothing short of a miracle to me.  Looks like those angels are still hanging around, helping out.

Two weeks in....

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Saving Sgt. Tibbs

In June of 2013, animal control officers in San Bernardino County, California, evacuated 130 dogs from a dubiously named "sanctuary" in Apple Valley.  The owners of the property had left, abandoning the dogs.  You can read that story here, but it's a sad one, and I don't recommend it.

Initially, the dogs were taken to Devore shelter, which is notoriously a high-kill, low-compassion facility.  But dog rescue groups rallied around, pulling out adoptable dogs and those needing special foster care.  And, to their credit, administrators at Devore contacted other local shelters in an attempt to find housing for all the dogs.

Which is how three of the 130 ended up at Upland Animal Shelter.  At first, the dogs were so under-socialized that shelter staff members and volunteers couldn't touch them, much less handle or walk them.  But eventually, with time and patience and a lot of volunteer love, the dogs were taught to walk on a leash.  They also learned that humans can be kind.  Over time, two of the three made enough progress to be adopted.  That left Sgt. Tibbs.

In July, I happened to stroll through Upland shelter, looking at the adoptable dogs, and I came across Sgt. Tibbs.  When I first saw him, I wondered why such a beautiful young dog had not been snatched up by some family.  But when I approached his kennel, I could see why; he tucked his tail and ran to the corner, huddling there.  As an introvert myself, I happen to know that people don't flock to be your friend if you can't show yourself friendly in turn.   The dogs who get adopted first are tail waggers and hand lickers, those whose faces say, "I'm so glad you stopped by! Now please take me home!"  Sgt. Tibbs' face said, "Please don't hurt me.  Just leave me alone."  And I walked on.

During Christmas week, though, I went back to the shelter.  I couldn't believe Sgt. Tibbs was still there.  As I stood outside his kennel, one of the volunteers came by to tell me his story.

"We've worked with him a lot," she told me.  "Now he walks on a leash.  But he doesn't make eye contact, and he's still very shut down, very afraid."  (More on the work of these great volunteers can be found here, and there's a photo of Sgt. Tibbs there as well.  He's the one on the left.)

Every day for a week (with the exception of New Year's Day, when the shelter was closed), I spent part of each afternoon with Sgt. Tibbs, just standing outside his kennel.  By the third day, he stopped running to the back when I approached.  On the fifth day, he made eye contact, just briefly, then looked away.  On the seventh day, another volunteer approached, and we discussed his personality again.  I told her I was concerned about how he would be with me cats.

"Let's cat test him!" she said, and moments later she had a leash on him.  We headed to the front, where he was taken into the office to meet the resident tabby there.  He did not alert.  He simply sniffed the cat, his tail tucked firmly between his legs, then walked away.

So the next day, which was yesterday, I returned to the shelter to adopt him.

I asked the volunteers (who've been calling him "Tibbs") how he got his name, and one volunteer confessed she had named him after the dog in 101 Dalmatians who looks like this:

(Most of the images I found for him online show him with a cat, so maybe that's a promising sign from the Universe.)

I don't think the real Sgt. Tibbs looks quite like that, and I don't know that "Tibbs" will work for me as I have no emotional investment in it.  But I want to honor the volunteers who spent so much time with this dog to bring about a happy outcome for him, so I'm not going to change it.  I'll just augment it a bit.  I have two beloved friends named "Tom," so his name henceforward will be Sgt. Thomas Tibbs.  Eventually, I'll call him Tom or Tommy.

As I write this, Sgt. Thomas Tibbs is at a nearby veterinary hospital having that minor surgery that he should have had years ago.  (He's six.)  This afternoon, I'll bring him home.  He still has a long way to go in terms of hanging out with me and the cats while I write books or grade papers, but we'll start (when he's recovered from the surgery) with daily walks and getting brushed.  I'll keep you posted on our progress.  Wish me luck!

And to all of you out there who do the very difficult work of volunteering to go into shelters every day and walk dogs or brush them or socialize them in other ways, may the Universe rain down blessings on you and those you love.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

The first 455

January 1: I have begun.  The hardest part is starting.  The second hardest part is continuing.  At least I have the starting part completed, and, as some friends suggested, I jumped into the middle of a story. More precisely, this is an account of my first experience with trying to find my way home in blizzard conditions, and I've left out the beginning (which will be added later for the book, though not here).  My first 300 (455, actually) words:

The cold was relentless and inescapable.  Down in the village, I had been pelted with freezing rain while we struggled to get the cables on the truck. (The experience, if you've never had the pleasure, is like having slush sprayed on you from a fire hose.) Even though my heavy rain jacket had warded off most of the moisture, my jeans were damp, and there was no insulation between the freezing denim and my legs.  Ordinarily, the situation would have been uncomfortable but bearable.  Now, with the winds blowing thirty miles per hour, the chill pushed deep into my bones, and ice crystals stung my eyes and face.
At least I'd had the presence of mind to ask Catherine for a hat.  The beanie she'd given me was warm and big enough to cover my ears.  By pure luck and an attempt at fashion, I wore a long, thick scarf that had been crocheted lovingly for me by a friend.  I wrapped it around my face, slid my backpack onto my shoulders, locked the truck and began the half mile walk up to the cabin.
I had never experienced such absolute silence.  The soft blanket of snow that covered the road kept me from hearing even my own footfalls.  There was no soughing of wind through the soggy and heavily laden branches.  No bird call punctuated the air, not a single sound of life anywhere.
With the sun already gone behind the western ridge, the deepening dusk pushed me to walk as quickly as I could.  Some lights were shining at Snow Crest Inn, but as I turned up our private road, the lights were lost in the thick foliage.  I focused my attention on my feet so I wouldn't slip on the steep road.  One quarter mile uphill and I'd be home.  The folds of yard covering my face were covered in ice and snow.  I kept my head down and trudged on.

A light came into view, and I thought I must have reached the Walker's cabin.  I looked up to get my bearings so that I'd be sure to follow the sweep of the road to the left.  My heart began to pound as I realized the cabin up ahead was not the Walker's.  It wasn't familiar at all.  Somehow, in watching my feet and not checking for landmarks, I had wandered off the road.  In that moment, I was completely disoriented.  I had no idea where I was, and it was getting darker by the moment.  The fear-induced adrenaline coursing through my veins made my pulse race, and I gasped for breath in the thin air as I fought down instinctive panic and slowly began to retrace my footsteps.

Monday, December 30, 2013

How Purrl made it work

2013 turned out to be a transitional year for me, and frankly, I'm so glad it's over.

At the end of 2012 I was diagnosed with "damaged" lungs.  To my way of thinking, this is a misnomer, given the fact that I was probably born with holes in my lungs.  So I came into 2013 trying to adjust to the truth (no cure, and it's progressive) and limits (uphill climbs beat me like a stick) of my "disease."  (Can't we call it a "condition"?  "Disease" sounds icky.)

In January, I left my cabin in the wilderness and became a flatlander once again, buying a three-bedroom home built in 1957 (one of my favorite years) with an insurmountable (at least for a six-pound cat with stubby legs) block wall around the back yard.  How am I adjusting?  I'm saving money toward retirement.  But I can't see the stars at night (well, your night, my morning--4:00a.m.).  I have a garden growing, and my tomatoes last summer were amazing.  But I am without the quiet and serenity of the mountain, and heading out my door for a walk no longer means sighting wildlife or standing underneath a waterfall.  Now it means following the sidewalk to the next housing tract... and the next.  But I'm eight minutes from work, so I'm no longer spending several hundred dollars a month in gas.  "No place is perfect," a friend told me recently.  So true.

With my new home and yard came the prospect of getting a dog, which I did last spring.  If you follow the blog, you will have read about Suede renamed Seamus, the chocolate lab that was abandoned at my local shelter.  Seamus was (almost) the perfect dog and would have been my constant companion... if he just had not been encouraged at some point in his life to chase kitties.  I adored him, and we walked every day, and having him beside me filled a void that had been there since 2006.  But alas... his presence in our home was terrifying for Sugar Plum.  Sugie tried several times to creep out and face her fear, but every time she did he would alert to her and try to chase her.  Sug shut down, refusing to come out from under the bed.  She wasn't eating or drinking.  She ended up very sick, and I ended up on the floor in fetal position, worried for her and heartbroken to know that Seamus would have to adjust to a new home all over again.

But as it turned out, the Universe had special plans for Shay.  With the help of my dog-loving friends (thank you forever, Donna Staub!), I found a couple who had recently lost their beloved chocolate lab.  They opened their loving arms to Shay and made him a family member overnight, and their yellow lab loved him as she had her previous companion.  Through much grief came a happy ending and the best forever home a dog could ever dream of.

After some weeks, Sug recovered.  And then I brought Purrl home.

Since losing my beloved Boo, I have made several attempts to bring a new cat into our home, so that Sug could also have a companion.  It never worked out because eventually the other cats tried to dominate Sug (and I would awake to the ferocious fury of cats brawling, teeth and claws maiming everything in sight, including me).  After three tries, I knew my only hope of making it work was if Sug could still feel like the queen of the house and another cat would defer to her.

And that's how Purrl made it work.  She was a tiny kitten, abandoned in a Target parking lot and rescued by the sister of a very sweet friend.  Purrl (Purrlie/Purrl-O/Purrl Jam) was probably about ten weeks old when I brought her home, mewling and crying in a carrier.  Instead of diving under the bed, Sug ran up to see what all the fuss was about, then hissed at the baby... but didn't fear her or reject her.  Within days, Purrl was pouncing on Sug's stump of a tail, and Sug was patiently allowing it.  Now both girls meet me at the door when I come home, and both sleep on the bed with me at night.  Of course, Purrl snores.  But then, how do I know I don't?

Oh, and one more good thing happened in 2013:  GhostGrandma, my YA novel, released on October 31.  I'm happy now for all the hours of this past summer I spent re-writing and editing it.  I've gotten some nice reviews, and teens seem to like it.

On January 1, I will begin writing a new book, a memoir about my experiences living in on the mountain.  At this point, I'm thinking (as I naively did with The Dogs Who Saved Me) that it will be an effortless expression of my passionate love of the wild.  My goal is to write three hundred words a day every day in 2014.  Check back with me; I'll keep you posted.