Monday, December 21, 2009

Waiting for the Light

When the December stratus clouds hover above the mountain, I love going out to walk just before dawn. By the time I get up to the waterfall, the “rosy fingers of dawn” are beginning to streak the sky with their miraculous paint. The clouds change color from light gray to the faintest pink, a huge mess of cotton candy across the morning sky. That same pink tints the snow as well, and for several moments the mountain is a quiet fantasy land. I half expect the fairies to emerge from under the huge oaks and dance until the stars twinkle out.

This morning the light show was particularly meaningful, as today is the first day of winter. The solstice! The days will grow colder, certainly, but at least they will grow a bit lighter every day. It’s the light that sustains me through the winter months. I have walked in temperatures below freezing, but if the sun is shining and there’s snow on the ground, it’s fun, especially if I walk past the campground and kids are playing. I remember those days… coming up to Mt Baldy with my next-door-neighbor, Suzy. Her dad would drive us up every Christmas Eve and we would play in the snow until our sneakers were soaked and our hands were numb. Now I wear high-tech gloves and heavy snow boots. It’s a lot more fun….

Besides the longer days (slowly but surely), I have other reasons to celebrate. Three years ago I adopted a small black cat with a chopped off tail and brought her home during Christmas break. As I write this, she sits just feet from my chair, front paws tucked neatly beneath her, watching the raccoons who have come to the French doors to beg for cookies. Sugar Plum has blessed my life in ways I don’t need to explain to those of you who love animals. She has her own Facebook page now….

And one year ago Tainted Legacy was released. Two days before Christmas, I drove up to Apple Valley to visit my mom. I spent the afternoon with her, then just before I left, I pulled a copy of the book out of my bag and put it in her hands. The look on her face was priceless indeed. She stayed up half the night reading it. In the year since the book was released, I’ve had amazing adventures with book signings, speaking engagements, and traveling back to Missouri to wander through graveyards (again) and reconnect with friends. This, too, has been a blessing in my life, and I am thankful every day that the story—as much of it as we know—has finally been told.

There’s a fire crackling in the fireplace. We’re supposed to get snow tonight. I have plenty of firewood, a warm blanket to wrap up in, and a cat who will find a spot beside me to snuggle into. Bring on the winter. I’m ready.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Tis the season

I was supposed to head off to a Christmas party on Friday night—the December meeting of my writers group becomes an opportunity to exchange gifts, desserts, and great stories. Alas, the instability of the weather required that I simply come on up the mountain after work. In anticipation of the party, I’d ordered a huge tray of Christmas cookies from the catering class at the high school, so I ended up bringing it home. Nothing to do but eat them up—oh, and share them with my neighbors, of course.

After dinner on Friday night, I pulled some of the plastic wrap off the cookie tray and wiggled my fingers inside to retrieve one of those small round cookies covered with powdered sugar. When we were kids, we called them butter balls. (If you put rum in them, they’re butter rum balls.) The first bite took me back fifty years.

When I was a kid, Grandma would catch the train in Los Angeles and ride out to Lakewood where we lived on a beautiful suburban tree-lined street. Dad would pick her up at the train station, and she always bustled in carrying bags filled with coloring books, crayons, and cinnamon raisin bread. She and Mom would spend days getting ready for Christmas, baking mincemeat pies, pumpkin pies, apple pies (all from scratch), cooking yams for candied yams, making cranberry sauce (from scratch as well). Grandma made a special Christmas treat by stuffing dates with half a walnut and rolling them in powdered sugar. Such a simple thing… yet I was reminded of how much I loved them when my daughter made something similar—but far more fancy—for Thanksgiving.

We had a real tree every year, and every year Dad would send one of the boys up the ladder in the garage to the rafters to bring down the large box of ornaments, decorations and our nativity. The only thing we bought new each year were several boxes of tinsel to cover the tree with. Oh, and glass wax. Most folks in our neighborhood would use multi-colored glass wax and a sponge to decorate their picture windows, much as the retail stores do now, with snowy scenes and holly berries. Of course, we had a long string of outdoor lights that Dad would dutifully hang around the eaves of the house every year.

Both my parents were veterans of WWII, and Dad was involved in his local VFW. One year, a few days before Christmas, we loaded up the station wagon and headed off to the VFW hall for an opportunity to meet Santa and be given a gift. I was pretty nervous about this, and truth be known would have preferred to forego the gift just so I could avoid sitting on a stranger’s knee. I was painfully shy and having to be asked by someone I didn’t know what I wanted for Christmas was torture for me. As the time approached for Santa’s arrival, I started looking around for my dad in order to seek out his protective arms. He was nowhere to be found. I finally asked Mom, who said first that Dad had gone to the bathroom, and a long time later, when I bugged her again, that I should stop asking so many questions. As soon as she said that, I knew. It was Mom’s catch phrase: “Stop being so nosy.” It always meant she was trying to hide something, and I knew right away what that meant in this case. Ha! My dad was Santa! A moment later he walked through the door and at his first “Ho Ho Ho!” I recognized his voice. When my turn came, I readily climbed into his lap and looked him straight in the eye, smiling. I didn’t give away his secret, and I never told my parents that I knew, but I was really proud that it was my dad who had the honor to be chosen for such an important job.

Yesterday when I was chatting with Mom, she mentioned that my brother had played Santa on Friday. I called him today.
“Yep,” he said, “a hundred and twenty kindergarteners.” His wife is their teacher. What a grand tradition.
“Hey Kev,” I asked, “Did you know Dad played Santa when we went to the VFW hall?”
“Was that Dad?” he replied. He never knew. Guess the secret’s out of Santa’s bag now. Sorry, Dad. But you did a great job with all those kids. Bet my brother did, too.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Snow: Day Two - The Aftermath

When I parked my truck across the highway from the inn last night, I made sure I backed it off the road by eight feet or so--far from the work of the snowplows. I woke to no new snow and a dazzling view of the twinkling lights of the valley below under clear skies. Perfect. I wouldn't have to do much shoveling to get the truck back on the road headed toward work--but just in case, I planned to leave the cabin at 5:30.

Having a routine is important; packing is critical. I have to remember to bring shoes to change into at work, dry socks, extra gloves, and so forth (and my lunch--and my keys). Finally, at 5:45, I was ready: I was wearing jeans tucked into tall rubber boots, with waterproof pants over the jeans, plus a sweater, a jacket, and another waterproof jacket with hood, my ear muffs, gloves and my headlamp. (What would I do without it??) The experience of walking through the snow with the headlamp is amazing and hard to describe. You've seen those scenes in stadiums--the Olympics is a good example--where thousands of cameras are flashing in the dark; that's what it's like. As you walk, the light hits the crystals in the snow, creating a dazzling show like light refracting in a million tiny diamonds. It's gorgeous.

The beauty took my mind off my frozen hand. I had to carry a shovel down, plus the squeegee to clear snow and ice from the windshield. I put both in one hand and stuck the other hand in my pocket, so at least only one hand was freezing at a time. It's not far, about a ten-minute walk, so it was fine, really. And when I reached the highway, I could see Sparkle, my trusty little Tacoma, looking just about ready for our slow ride down the mountain. Then I walked around to the far side of the truck. Just for fun, I'm sure, the snowplow boys had veered way off the highway, piling a nice huge berm against the tires on that side. Did I mention that temps were far below freezing last night? The chunks of snow were huge blocks of ice that I would have to break apart, then move aside in order to dig out the wheels. Ever see the movie Rainman? Remember when Tom Cruise is walking around the field kicking things, screaming SON OF A BITCH? Yeah, that was me. But only in my head; I didn't want to wake the neighbors.

There was a thick crust of ice on the windshield, so I wanted to start the truck and slowly warm it up in the cab so the ice would melt. But first, I had to get the door open, because it was frozen shut. It took me a few attempts, but I was finally able to pry it open and start the truck. I put my backpack inside on the seat, and I took off the headlamp. The sun hadn't risen, but the moon on the snow provided enough light for me to see where I was jamming the shovel.

After half an hour of shoveling, the ice on the windshield was still hard as rock--and I could no longer feel my fingers or toes. I sat in the warm cab for a few minutes, cursing the snowploy boys and laughing. After another fifteen minutes, I had the truck free of ice, and the windshield was warm enough to scrape a spot clear. Time to head out. Sparkle bucked and tossed a bit, but she finally broke free of the ice and clambored up out of her spot, rolling onto the highway. I put my flashers on while I drove at 10mph, pumping the brakes and making sure all machinery was functioning properly. Then, in low gear, I began to slowly roll down the mountain.

Along the switchbacks, I saw a young man in an F250 with emergency flashers on, so I pulled up to him and stopped, opening my door (since the window was still frozen) to ask if he was OK.

"Yeah," he shrugged. "I'm just waiting for my friends. They got stuck down the road so they're walking up." Nice guy. His friends were a quarter mile down the road, walking gingerly over the frozen pavement, slipping and sliding. I'm sure they were on their way to ski. I can smell those guys a mile away--always impatient, in a hurry, unprepared for the cold or the conditions. Hope they had a great day.

Finally to work, I walked up to my classroom still in snow gear, then did my quick-change routine as the heater began to warm up the room. (It was 46 degrees in there--not really welcoming.) After a good day with the kids, it was back up the hill--this time I parked about 30 feet up our little road, plunging through a foot of snow as I pulled into an open spot. Tomorrow morning, I'll walk down early but simply drive out--no digging.

One of my students asked me today, "If it's such a hassle, why do you live up there?" As I've said so many times, it's nearly impossible to describe the overwhelming beauty. This morning, as the sky began to lighten, I would look up from my shoveling from time to time to the summit of Mt Baldy. It was covered in snow tinted pink by the rising sun. This evening, as I locked the truck at 4:30 and began my walk up the road to the cabin, the sun had gone down over the western ridge, and the slopes on the opposite side of the canyon were aglow with the last honey-golden light before dusk. Tomorrow morning I will watch for diamonds in the snow, breathe in the clear, cold air, and feel blessed once again.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Snow: Day One

When you go to bed knowing that you could awake to the world being blanketed in white, it's kind of like going to sleep on Christmas Eve.... I slept on the couch last night in front of the fire, wrapped in a warm blanket, Sug curled behind my knees. I woke at 4:00 and immediately looked outside. The first thing I saw was raccoon faces peering back at me through the glass of the French doors. Then I saw a dusting of snow, maybe a half inch. The little 'coonies were brushing it away as they scampered from one door to the next, begging for a hand-out. I breathed a sigh of relief--I wouldn't have to dig out the truck before leaving for work. I made some nice Irish breakfast tea, settling in at the computer to check email and, of course, my Facebook page. A half hour later I went to the kitchen for more tea and some breakfast, and I noticed there was a bit more snow on the ground. See, that's the funny thing about snow; you can't hear it. Looking closer, I could see that the 'coonies tracks had already been completely covered. About an inch had fallen in 30 minutes. Yikes. Time to skedaddle.

By 5:30, I was dressed and ready to go. I brushed the snow off the windshield, climbed in, and started down my steep treacherous road--in 4WD low. The new tires are great, and I had no problem getting down. Out on the main highway, I realized the snowplows hadn't started clearing, so I was driving along on a couple of inches of snow. Again, no problem. I kept the truck in low and simply rolled slowly down the switchbacks while the wind blew snow out of the darkness and directly into the windshield. I didn't turn the radio on. I just eased my way along in the quiet. Finally, somewhere far below the Village, the snow turned to rain. Eventually, I switched out of 4WD. I got to work at 6:30--plenty of time to change out of snow gear before my students began arriving.

After looking at (which predicted severe weather in the afternoon), I requested a sub for the last period of the day so I could start my slow trek back up the mountain. (Bless all teachers who agree to sub during their conference periods. I'm way too selfish; you can't pay me enough to give up that hour of quiet.) When the sub arrived, I took attendance, said sarcastic things to my Journalism kids (whom I love), put my snow boots back on, and headed out. It was raining steadily.

Signs were posted at Shinn Road where it intersects with Baldy Road--chains required. Uh-oh. I didn't don my chains once last winter; the only time I need them is to appease some CHP officer who's out of sorts for pulling Mt Baldy duty. (They have to sit in their unit until a vehicle comes along, then get out--in freezing rain or snow or sleet or hail--and say, "You can't get up without chains....") If you've ever put chains on... in freezing temperatures... crawling around on the icy ground... your fingers frozen and stiff because you really can't operate the fasteners with gloves on... while snow piles up on the back of your neck... you know why I'm not eager to use them.

But I was lucky--no officers on duty. As I approached the Village, I could see snow everywhere, just like a winter wonderland. I didn't stop at the post office for my mail, just kept rolling along through the rain. The snowplows had been through, and now the rain was washing away the snow in the lower elevations. Perfect. I started up the switchbacks (this is the section of road that gains two thousand feet of elevation in under three miles and has several hairpin turns), and the road was pretty clear.

Then the rain turned to snow... and I could see that the first runs by the plows had left huge chunks of packed, crusty snow in the road. I avoided them as much as I could, just climbing ever so slowly, ever so carefully. With the radio off again, I listened to the sound of the wiper blades periodically brushing the snow from the windshield.

Finally, I came around the last corner and topped out at the 'flats.' A foot of snow covered everything. As I passed Snowcrest Inn, I recognized all my neighbors' vehicles--no one went to work today except me. Their trucks were parked along the road in front of the inn, now all nearly blocked from view by a huge berm created by the plows. They'll have fun digging out tomorrow.... It took awhile, but I finally found a spot along the road where the snow berm wasn't too high, and I tucked the truck in. Then I got out and started walking.

As is usually the case in Baldy, two of my neighbors showed up at that moment. Rob was driving around with TJ-the-big-red-dog, looking for a place to park his truck. Brad was about to attempt to drive up our road in his Bronco. I love his truck--I used to have one--but I knew he wouldn't make it. I declined his invitation to "hop in." He gunned it, then disappeared up the road. In less than a minute, he was slowly making his way back down. "I got as far as the first turn," he said, "and the truck did a 360." I'm pretty sure he meant a 180, since he was headed back down. I was just glad I hadn't taken that ride. So I walked home in a foot of snow, up, up, the steep road as the snow fell. I'd left my snow shovel beside the back door, and I shoveled out the steps before going inside. A few minutes later I was sitting on the floor, taking off wet boots and socks and jeans while I called Mom to let her know I'd made it home OK. "Well," she said, "can you just sit and relax and watch TV tonight? There's a Christmas special on...." Shit. Yes, I do have Direct TV up here--but when heavy snow falls, it covers the dish. Sure enough, I had no reception. I pulled on the wet, clammy jeans, the damp socks and soggy boots and tramped outside, climbed the slope, and swept the dish clean. Then, as long as I was out there, I shoveled out a path to the wood pile.

Back inside, I made a fire, ate some great vegetable enchiladas, then took a hot bath. A few minutes ago, I heard voices outside. I opened the front door and saw Eric and Jimmy, my neighbors, wandering around, enjoying the snow. Each was holding a bottle of wine. The air was clear and quiet, and as we talked, they both said, "I can't believe you went to work today." Neither can I. And I'll probably do it again tomorrow.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Before I sleep

Robert Frost wrote a poem much beloved of Nature-philes and English teachers: “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” You may recall it from your school days—“Whose woods these are, I think I know….” The narrator sits in a sleigh far from home, watching his neighbor’s woods fill up with snow. The little horse pulling the sleigh “gives his harness bells a shake to ask if there is some mistake,” and we can almost hear the solitary jingle of those sleigh bells in the silent night. “The only other sound’s the sweep of easy wind and downy flake.”

Many a time I’ve stood in the forest on a dark snowy night, listening to nothing else but the whispered soughing of the wind in the trees and the slight padding, just below our conscious hearing, of snowflakes piling up. The experience, to the uninitiated, might seem fraught with loneliness. But… “the woods are lovely, dark and deep….”

Frost was not happy in his life of tending a farm to survive financially when all he really wanted to do was read literature and write great poems. I understand. Another season, another potato crop.... Eventually, though, the poet came to balance his time spent in subsistence and creativity and in fact to incorporate his passion for Nature and the outdoors with the workings of the pen.

What thought was in his mind on that night, “the darkest evening of the year,” as he sat watching the snow fall? Was he tossing around the beginnings of a new poem as he watched the trees become top heavy with snow, contemplating the image of birches, and how, when loaded with ice, they bend, “like girls … that throw their hair before them over their heads to dry in the sun”? Or did he muse upon the idea that “promises” kept him from what he would really like to do if unfettered? Or did he simply celebrate, finally, the passing of the solstice, as I will in 22 days, knowing that more light each day means more time outdoors?

“The woods are lovely….” Thankfully, in these days of disappearing sunlight, the trees retain their statuesque beauty. Indeed, that beauty is only enhanced when draped with the diamonds of ice crystals or robed in a soft pelt of powder snow. I, too, have promises to keep, and will attend to them… after a walk in the woods. If only I had the horse and sleigh….

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Ben, pre-flight

My grandson, Ben, turned fifteen last month. god. I know. How did that happen? Last year, it seems, he was ten, and we were riding bikes together and learning how to skip rocks. The year before that, he was five and graduating from kindergarten. I remember everything about that bright, spring day, Ben and all his friends in their brightly colored caps and gowns….

Now he’s a sophomore in high school, on the wrestling team. And exactly a month ago, the day before his birthday, I taught him how to drive my truck. Like the memory of us skipping flat rocks across the surface of the slowly rolling Santa Ana River, I will remember the experience forever.

I didn’t tell him in advance. We’d joked about it from time to time, about who would be brave enough to teach him how to drive. And it was really more on a whim than anything else, but we had a half hour before I had to return him to his mom’s, so I pulled into the parking lot of a church (“Close by,” I told him, “in case we find ourselves in need of any prayers for the dead or dying”), stopped but left the engine idling, then got out and told him to move over to my seat. He was at first confused (pretty standard for Ben), then thrilled. And he was a tremendously adept pupil. At first, we drove agonizingly slowly, just letting the truck roll and making sweeping turns around the oval lot which was empty save for one burgundy Camry. We wondered aloud how the owner would respond if Ben hit it, whether railing or forgiving. Eventually, I made him use the gas pedal to accelerate up to 20 miles per hour, then stop. We practice stopping over and over, so that he could feel how long it took to make something so huge come to a complete stop. Never once did he hit the brakes too hard. Never once did he jerk the truck forward as he took off again. A natural. Of course, we’ve yet to drive on the road. That will come.

As we switched seats again and hurried off to meet Mom (since our half hour had—oops—doubled), he watched everything I did, how I handled the truck in traffic, what I did as I came to stop lights, how I seemed so at ease driving 45. He chattered incessantly. I hadn’t seen him so alive in a long, long time. “Ha,” I said, “you think this is empowering? Wait until a year from now, when you get your license, and that first day comes when your mom tells you to go pick up your sister at someone’s house, and you’re out there, solo. Your uncle would drive for hours, just to see where the road would take him.” As any young person will who needs to escape. I did, as well. As we drove, I told Ben about how I dreamed of turning sixteen and getting my license just to get away from my wicked step-father. And the day I took ownership of my first car? Few things top it.

There will be lectures from me, the next time we drive, about speeding, grandstanding, risking the lives of others and so forth. And, to Ben’s mind, his next birthday probably seems like a lifetime away. To me it is no more than twelve turns of the moon, one Tour de France and a World Series away… the blink of an eye. I wonder if I’ll lose him then… if he will simply drive away one day—to college, or on a road trip with his friends—and when he returns from his journey he will have crossed the threshold into manhood, no longer in need of his Nana to teach and guide him.

On his twelfth birthday, I took Ben out to dinner and told him how sad I was that I had only 365 days left with him, that he would turn thirteen in a year and, as a teenager, would no longer want to hang around with me or—God forbid—hug me in public. He promised quite solemnly that, as a teen, he would continue to hug me and “of course” want to hang around with me. So far, he’s been true to his word. Time, which moves with strong wings when it comes to the changing of a child, will tell. For now, I still hold the keys.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Breaking the silence... with a sledgehammer

I went through a divorce when my kids were little. The pain of it—hurting them, uprooting them, depriving them—became a weight that only got heavier over time, a thick blanket of sadness and unrealized dreams and guilt that I couldn’t throw off. My then-friend Lana Buckley told me one day, “Don’t worry. Someday you’ll feel safe again, and you will be able to write again.” Funny. I don’t know how she knew I wasn’t writing. I’d been working on a book on Downs Syndrome kids. I had photos and interviews, and it was a project for which I felt great love, pride and satisfaction. But it was one of many things I was forced to abandon when I left my husband, a loss I could not fully account for until years later, when I finally had to simply let it go, accepting that I would never get back to it.

Lana was right. It took years, but I finally did begin to write again. And so I recall her wisdom now. I spent this past summer writing, posting to this blog, working on some projects I’d wanted to get to during the school year. But all that creativity came to a screeching halt when my brother passed away on Labor Day. Yes, we knew it was coming. I’m here to tell you, you can never ‘be prepared’ for the finality of a loved one’s death. Ever. Knowing we’d lose him soon didn’t diminish the sadness at his loss. For awhile, that sadness was my constant companion, shadowing me as I ‘chopped wood, carried water,’ carrying out the daily routine that enables me to make forward progress even in the emotionally dark times.

I can’t say I’m ‘over it’ now, that I’ve come to terms with his death. Close friends have offered honest comfort in saying that this kind of loss isn’t something from which one recovers; one simply accepts that the wound will never fully heal. This seems right, given my experience with the death of my father and a few close friends.

But I have at least come to the place where, after over two months, I was able, last Wednesday, to write again. Some of you know that I journal frequently. When I finally did put pen to paper, I had a lot of catching up to do. I sat in the waiting area of Big O Tires in Rancho Cucamonga for two hours while they put tires on the Tacoma and changed the oil, and I wrote page after page after page.

In the coming weeks, I will try to be more faithful about posting here. Several of you have sent emails of gentle inquiry, missing my writing. You can’t know how much I appreciate that; writers do what they do in solitude, as I have noted in the past. The process is at times a horrifically lonely ordeal. Knowing that the words are finally read and appreciated gives one courage to go forward.

And go forward we must. Life is all about making forward progress, is it not? If we halt in our journey we most likely are not learning or growing or giving. It is my intention to continue doing all three of those things while breath remains, so—onward!

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Bear as token

For several weeks now, trails on the mountain have been closed by the Forest Service as fires continue to burn in Riverside, San Bernardino and Los Angeles Counties—most notably, the Station fire, which is now the largest fire to ever sweep through the mountains above L.A. The folks who ‘manage’ the forest worry that if a fire breaks out here, resources will already be critically depleted, so the trails are closed in order to reduce the odds of yet another fire being started up here.

No one is allowed on the trails, and big signs have been erected at the trailheads, in pull-outs up and down the mountain: STOP. NO ENTRY. EXTREME FIRE DANGER. This results in a quietness and serenity on the mountain that is indescribable. For a time, I will hear no loud hikers at 5:00a.m. passing by on the road to the falls above my cabin, stopping to pitch rocks over the side into what they think is a deep canyon, talking loudly of all manner of things, from hating their bosses to their sexual exploits—all of which is heard by myself and whatever neighbors are up at that hour.

With the peace and quiet, the animals come out in record numbers, as do the mountain residents. We sneak onto the trails when we know the rangers won’t catch us. We see bighorn sheep nearly ever day who use the nearly abandoned trails themselves. Turning a corner in the trail, we’re no longer surprised when we see a few ewes, sometimes with a baby or two.

Last Sunday, I heard a commotion outside at 5:30a.m. shortly after I’d gone out to refill a water dish I leave out for birds, squirrels and raccoons. I approached the French doors leading to my deck to try to peer out into the darkness to see what was up—and realized by the sheer bulk of the shadow on the opposite side of the doors that I was staring at the form of a bear. When I switched on the outside light, I saw a beautiful, cinnamon-colored bear strolling around on the deck, sniffing the air around the doorframes. It’s hard to appreciate the size of a bear’s paw and claws until you see him standing on your back porch. Without shouting, I asked him to leave, and he did so.

I celebrated the bear’s visit by walking up to the Sierra Club ski hut later that morning, a journey that takes me a bit over two hours, walking slowly up a gain of 2,000 feet in elevation along a single track trail at the edge of the canyon that feeds the waterfall. I didn’t pass a single soul that day. I sat for a half hour at the hut, eating some hummus and flatbread, tossing tiny crumbs to the jays, breathing in the silence and the scent of sun-warmed pine. Clouds danced overhead.

I walked early this morning, before dawn, so I could stand up near the falls and watch the sky turn pink behind the eastern ridge.

I am grateful that my cabin hasn’t sold, that I am here on the mountain during this time of grieving. I will think of these things today at my brother’s memorial service. The silence of the canyon will come back to me in the midst of my sadness, the soft brush of the mountain breeze against my skin.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Ain't gonna let nobody turn me 'round

On my way home from work today I stopped to pick up my mail at the Baldy post office. Along with my Newsweek and another opportunity to donate to the L.A. AIDS Project, there was a large manila envelope with my address inscribed by my own hand—a rejection. The ‘snake story’ was declined by The Sun. Thanks to those of you who read it and raved about it; your words give me the courage to send it out again. I’ll keep you posted.

I wasn’t about to let anyone take my jubilee today, though. The marine layer has been creating quite the spectacular show as I drive to work in the mornings. (See photo at right.) And--I received an email today from Belinda Nantz, a woman who has lived in Catawissa all her life. (Catawissa is where Bertha Gifford lived… in the so-called House of Mystery.) Belinda wrote to tell me that she’d just finished reading Tainted Legacy, that she’d heard stories of Bertha all her life, and that mostly folks said she was the kind of person who just really wanted to help members of her community. She said, basically, that the older people in the community—the “seniors”—had nothing but good things to say about Bertha. I’ve suspected for some time that the further we get from Bertha’s trial in 1928, the more sensationalized the events of those times will become. A few decades back, folks thought she was eccentric. Now there are “ghost hunters” trying to find her spirit roaming around in Morse Mill and postings all over the web about her being a serial killer. What if Bertha never really poisoned anyone? What if it really was all about arsenic in the drinking water?

At any rate, it was comforting to receive Belinda’s note. I thought about it as I walked to the waterfall this evening, the wind soughing high in the pines and the squirrels chattering about where the best acorns are. As I noted in a previous post, it’s been pretty quiet up here with the trails closed. A neighbor, returning from the waterfall as I was headed up, mentioned casually that she’d just seen a baby bear on the trail. We haven’t had bears around for two years. It made me wonder what’s coming next—mountain lions, maybe? Kind of like the snake story—What’s next? Maybe I’ll send it off to ZYZZYVA. Maybe Howard Junker will like it. Wouldn’t that be a kick?

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Eternally grateful

Last weekend Grandson Ben came up to spend the three-day weekend with me. In the evening, we walked up to the waterfall to stand in the cool twilight and watch the bats fly over our heads. The mountain has been serene and quiet since the Forest Service closed the trails to hikers. Those of us who are residents are especially blessed during these times, as the threat of fire diminishes and the local wildlife quickly takes over the space the campers and hikers had occupied. On Sunday evening, Ben and I stood and watched a young fox down by the falls, then saw a baby king snake on our way home. And more bats, of course.

All of this was a comfort to me. My brother Dan had gone into hospice on Thursday. His cancer had spread to so much of his body that he was in constant pain. In hospice, he could be on IV drugs. Our last conversation had taken place some days before. I’d called in the evening just to check on him. He was tired and, as we talked, he climbed into bed with his cat, Wilson. “Yeah, move over, cat,” he said gruffly, but I knew he was scratching Wilson’s head or stroking his fur as he said it. From his boyhood days, Dan has always adored animals, and we once had a conversation about how dogs were just people wearing other ‘suits.’

When Dan entered hospice care, I sent emails and Facebook postings out to as many people as I could, asking them to pray for him or chant for him or send positive energy or simply think loving thoughts for him, so that his passing would be easy. That was my prayer. That his passing would be peaceful. I told my cousin I just wanted Dan to “float off on our love.”

On Sunday evening, my other brother, Kevin, flew to Washington to be with Dan. He said he felt compelled to do so. Monday morning dawned beautiful and clear on the mountain. Ben helped me and for hours we cleared brush and cut branches. Apparently my phone had been ringing, but I didn’t hear it.

That morning, a harpist came into the hospice room with Dan. She asked Kevin if she could play her harp for Dan, and of course Kevin agreed. A nurse was in the room as well, and when the harpist began to play, she reported that Dan’s heart rate and respirations were slowing down, calming. She said he must like music because he was responding positively, and he was “peaceful.” The nurse left the room. When she returned ten minutes later, Dan was gone.

Since Dan’s passing, I’ve been walking up to the waterfall every evening, just to sit and listen to the water rushing as it has for hundreds of years. Wordsworth told his sister that, in times of trouble, she should consider the immutability of Nature, how a forest glen or a meadow or a stream could remain the same through the turmoil of countless generations, through war or feast or famine. It was the unchangeable character of Nature that he held onto when the world itself seemed to tilt out of alignment. And thus it is with me.

Friday, August 14, 2009


Just wanted to add a quick note as an addendum to recent posts:
(Hate to sound like the doting mother, but seriously, doesn't Sugie look, well, just like Sugie in this photo? All ears sideways and wild-eyed, like she's about to attack something?? Glad it wasn't my hand... this time....)
So I stopped by Upland Animal Shelter (cat hell) yesterday. Two serendipitous events occurred. The first:
When I entered the smaller cat room, I was surprised to find it crowded with women. 'Wow,' I thought, 'lots of folks looking at cats today.' But then I realized these weren't potential adopters, they were volunteers. Three of the women had Down's Syndrome. The fourth looked up from a cage and smiled.
"Are you all volunteers?" I asked.
"Yes," she told me. "We come here every Thursday, just to interact with the cats." Is that cool or what?? More angels!! I thanked them all and four kind faces lit up. I watched for awhile as they carefully brushed and stroked the cats, then put each one gently back in its cage. Wow. What a blessing.
Then I headed off to the big cat room. There was a black kitten curled in a ball whose gender I could not determine, so I went to the front desk.
"Can I help you?" asked Mr. Jackass. I ignored him as if he were invisible. A woman swiveled around in her chair. I hadn't seen her before.
"Can I help you?" she asked.
"Yes," I replied pleasantly, and asked if she could check the gender of a kitten for me.
"Of course!" she replied, just as pleasantly, and off we went to the cat room. Little Miss Thing turned out to be a girl, and as I held her, the nice officer and I got to talking about black cats. She confirmed what others had said, that black cats are very difficult to place, and often 'grow up' in the shelter.
"I have one at home right now that I'm fostering," she told me. She went on to explain that a batch of kittens had been brought to the shelter in such bad shape she didn't think one of them would make it through the night. They were dehydrated, anemic from the fleas that covered them, full of worms, and starving. She took the worst one home--he had an infected eye filled with pus (shades of Homer Cooper!!)--and started caring for him, picking the fleas off, giving him fluids, treating his eye... and loving him.
"You should see him now!" she boasted. "But I'll have to bring him back, and he'll probably just sit here, because he's black...." Hmmm....
Anyway, this lady was great, and she clearly cared for the cats, so we'll have to conclude that she is an angel who has volunteered to work in hell. Now that's impressive!!
Of course, at the end of the day I ended up back in cat heaven, spending a luxurious half hour in the sunny yard with "Elmore," "Chesterfield," and several other furry children whose names I didn't know. (Angel was busy inside, sweeping out each and every cat apartment, so I couldn't ask him.)
I still haven't made a decision about who's coming home with me, but I appreciate all the response I've had to the blog and your comments. Love you, animal lovers!!

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Finding cat heaven

You would think that after Sunday’s heartbreak, the last place I’d want to go for awhile would be another animal shelter. But the Universe sometimes pulls me in certain directions, and I dare not resist….

I finally got around to buying a new washing machine on Monday. (I highly recommend the Sears Outlet on Vineyard in Ontario—I got a $849 Whirlpool for $400; it had a nearly imperceptible ding on one corner.) I had to go to the credit union, so I headed there first, then turned the little Tacoma in the direction of Vineyard, meandering along side streets, looking at houses. (It’s a weird addiction, I know.) I ended up east-bound on Mission Blvd. A long forgotten memory surfaced… and I started looking along the south side of the street. There it was: West End (as in the west end of Ontario) Animal Shelter. Just out of curiosity (or because I am really into self-punishment), I pulled in.

At one time, Ontario was a fine city, equal in status to its close neighbor, Chino, but larger, and boasting its own library (not a branch in the San Bernardino County system), among other points of city pride. But something happened over the years, and the city fell into decline for awhile—to the point that one would have to step around all the homeless people in order to do research in the library. In the years since, it has sort of been the red-headed step child to neighboring Upland and Claremont. I took some deep breaths before entering this shelter, expecting the worst.

As I walked through the door into the lobby, I woke the young man who was dozing behind the counter.
“I’m looking for cats,” I said quietly.
“Oh,” he said, pointing and yawning, “through that door, outside, follow the path, it’s a long white building.”
I found the building, and a door, but when I opened it, it led into something like an anteroom. There was a beautifully decorated bathroom adjacent, and I thought at first I must have inadvertently walked into an ‘employees only’ area. But then I saw two double doors ahead, with a sign reading, “Cats are like chips; you can’t have just one.” I opened it and stepped inside.

My first impression was of severe pain in my left big toe. I looked down to see a small white cat biting me.
“Hey!” I told him laughing, “no toes!”
“I’m sorry,” a voice said. I looked up to see a young man in shorts, t-shirt and baseball cap approaching. “That’s Cameron. Cameron, no,” he said, turning to the kitten and gently picking him up. “This one’s got a motor on him!” And he placed the little cat in my arms. I was immediately nuzzled, cuddled and licked. “Let me know if you have any questions,” the young man said.

I was standing at the end of a long corridor. At first glance, all I could see were cats everywhere. Cats and cat toys and scratching posts and tall, carpeted towers. Cats strolling, cats skittering, cats curled in baskets, cats grooming happily.

“Yes,” I said, “I do have a question. How do you do this?”
The young man, a serious expression crossing his face, replied, “Well, we know that many of these cats may not get adopted for a very long time, if ever, so we try to make them as comfortable and happy as we can.”

Yes, dear readers, I knew then that I had just found cat heaven. On either side of the corridor, there were “cages” (a misnomer, as these spacious studio apartments each contained a cat tower, large covered litter box, baskets filled with blankets—and a window to the outside world) with one or two cats inside. Another 30 or so roamed the corridor. I still hadn’t taken more than a couple of steps inside. Another white cat greeted me. She was sitting on a cat pedestal, but reached a delicate paw toward me. I petted her head, and she began to purr immediately.
“That’s Laverne,” the young man said. “Her sister is Shirley. Looks just like her.”
“Um… I’m kind of looking for a black cat,” I said, which caused the young man to turn quickly and assess me. “My black male recently died….” I explained.
“Oh,” he said, looking relieved. “We’re careful about who we adopt black cats to.” Yes, and for good reason, I thought. Good for you.
“Well, we have several black cats,” he said. “This is Dean,” he pointed to another cat pedestal which was topped with a gorgeous black cat. “We have Drew and Pepper. They both look a lot like Dean, but they’re smaller. Drew had a broken hip, and he’s still recovering, so he’s a little shy. But he’s doing fine.”

As we walked down the corridor, more cats trotted up to greet us. As they did, the young man would introduce me.
“That’s Vivica. She’s really sweet. That’s Chesterfield. He’s my favorite because he’s really playful. Oh,” he added, “some of the cats are outside.” At the end of the corridor, a door stood open to the outside. Puzzled, I walked down and looked out. A play yard for the kitties had been created by fencing in a grassy area with soft chicken wire. The fence was curved along the top so that no one could climb out. The landscape was dotted with more toys, towers, pedestals, scratchers and hideouts. A dozen or so cats were sitting or sprawled or curled in the morning sun.

I asked the young man his name.
“Angel,” he replied.
I told you I found cat heaven.

Angel has been working at the West End shelter for nearly a year. He is “the cat guy” (‘cat whisperer!’ I thought, as he said this). His sole job is to care for the 150 cats (mas o menos), clean their apartments, feed and water them, and offer them affection. From what I could tell, Angel is doing a tremendous job at all three duties.
“Some people don’t like doing the 9-5,” he told me. “Me, I love getting up in the morning to come to work because I love my job.”
And I love you, Angel, I thought.

After sitting on the floor for a half hour, playing with a half dozen different cats and getting covered with cat hair and kisses, I remembered I had to go get a washer. I told Angel I’d be back the next day, and I did return, dragging my good buddy Doug along with me. He, too, lost his beautiful black male, “Scout,” a year before I lost Boo, and we’d grieved together. Doug had the same trepidation I’d had in entering the shelter, but after awhile, he had to agree that we’d found cat heaven, and we spent an hour there, playing with Drew and James and Chesterfield, who seemed to really like Doug a lot. Finally, it was near closing.
“How do you think Angel gets these cats to go inside their apartments?” I asked Doug as we sat outside in the sun with various kitties around us.
“I think he just calls them and they know where to go,” Doug answered. Of course. As we walked back inside the building, Angel was moving down the hallway, opening cage doors and calling cats.
“Come on,” he’d say quietly, and a cat would quickly slip inside. Amazing.

So. No, I haven’t chosen a kitty yet to be Sugie’s new brother. I found myself partial to Drew, one of the black cats, but it’s hard to tell how playful he will be once his hip is fully healed, and she needs someone she can tear around the cabin with when I’m not here. Beyond that, I have a pretty intense moral dilemma. My daughter, in her profound wisdom, has already told me that I “have to” adopt from the Upland shelter, because I know, now, what hell those cats live in. She has a point. But it’s infinitely more difficult to assess personality in those cats, precisely because they’re living in those conditions. If I adopt from Upland shelter, though, I will be truly ‘rescuing’ a cat in the fullest sense of the word.

What to do!?! I’m still thinking it over. For now, though, it is enough to have found what a shelter can do when the humans in charge truly care for the animals they’re sheltering. This began some serious healing in my heart. While I decide which kitty, from where, I will be writing a letter of commendation for Angel, our cat whisperer. Bless him forever and all the other folks involved with West End shelter who decided long ago that the cats’ needs should come first. Amen to that.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Covington Two

(This is the second part of yesterday’s blog. Today's photo is of Sugar Plum.)

After deciding on Thursday that the beautiful black boy who was desperate for affection would be Sugie’s new brother, I knew I had to continue bonding with him even though I couldn’t think about taking him home until Sunday. I had a book signing scheduled for Friday, so I drove down the mountain early and headed for the shelter. I signed in and went straight for the ‘annexed’ cat room. There was my boy, lying on his side, paws protruding through the bars. Poor little criminal. What had he done to find himself here? His eyes were closed, so I put my hand under his nose and waited. Suddenly he stood up, eyes wide, looking through the bars at me.
“Yes,” I told him, “I’m here to rub under your chin for you!” He began to purr immediately and we repeated yesterday’s time together, him doing happy cat postures, me just petting and scratching and quietly talking.

Before I left, I stopped by the larger cat room to wash my hands. One cage was empty. Apparently Mr. B&W had persuaded someone to take him home. Perfect.

That evening I told Sugie to expect a new brother soon. I’d been sorting through names that might fit him. I’d never changed Sugie’s name when I brought her home because, well, “Sugar Plum” just seems to fit her. But this cat, this very cool cat, had no name. Hmmm. ‘Which of my male friends is a very cool cat?’ I wondered. And I had the answer in an instant. Bob. I mean, Robert Louis Covington, beloved friend and poet. Covington would be the perfect name. Now that he was named, he definitely felt like my cat, and I couldn’t wait to bring him home.

The next day was Saturday, and I had a long-planned reunion with a cousin that had already been re-scheduled once, so I didn’t want to change it, but I thought I’d just get things started on Covington’s adoption. Again, I headed down the mountain early, but Saturday is a busy day up here; this summer we’ve seen people in record numbers coming up to hike. By the time I’d negotiated traffic (and spent a few minutes talking to a neighbor at the post office), I’d used up half the time I’d wanted to spend with Covington. ‘No worries,’ I thought. I’d be bringing him home soon enough.

Instead of going straight to his cage when I arrived at the shelter, I stopped in at the office. The young man behind the counter was in his mid-twenties.
“Can I help you?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said smiling, “Do you have an adoption application I can take home and fill out?”
“Nooooooooo,” he said, dragging out the vowel and smirking as if I were asking him if he had a steak smothered with onions. “Do you know which animal you want to adopt?”
“Let me show you,” I told him, turning away and heading toward the dog/cat room. With each step I took a deep breath. I hate when people are condescending toward me.
I led the young man to Covington and his first words were, “You want this cat?” Yes. This nondescript full grown black cat. Yes. But I said aloud:
“Yes, I know he’s been here a long time—“
“He’s been here a really long time,” he cut me off to say.
“Do you know how old he is? Was he a kitten when he came in?”
“No, he wasn’t a kitten. Let me see how old he is….” Naively, I thought he was going to go look up the cat’s file, but he stepped in front of me and threw the cage door open, causing the cat to jump to the back of the small cage, frightened. The man reached his hand in and I watched as Covington’s eyes grew huge in terror as the man grabbed his head, then lifted his lip to look at his teeth. “He’s a year or two, I’d say.”
Thanks, genius, I thought. I can see that from looking at him. I took more deep breaths as he closed the cage door and turned to me accusingly.
“Why can’t you adopt him today?”
“I have somewhere I need to be in about ten minutes,” I told him. “Can I just fill out the paperwork—“
He cut me off again, shaking his head. “I can put a hold on him—“
“Oh, great,” I replied, “so I can get him tomorrow—“
“No. I can only hold him for an hour. And you can’t take him until he’s neutered, and the vet’s office won’t do that on the weekend anyway, so the soonest you could have him would be Monday. But you could come in tomorrow and do the adoption, then he’d go to the vet’s overnight and have the surgery first thing the next morning. Will that work for your schedule?”
“Perfectly,” I replied, leaving out the “you jackass” ending. My time with Covington was limited to five minutes of serious neck rubbing before I took off to meet my sister and head for Pasadena.

So Sunday morning finally arrives. The shelter is only open for three and a half hours on Sundays, but I am there at noon when they unlock the door and allow the public in. The day before, Mr. Jackass’s last words to me, in reply to my “I’ll be back tomorrow to adopt him,” were, “Just bring me the card off his cage tomorrow.” So I scurry back to Covington’s cage—only to find a gray cat looking up at me through the cage door. I search all the other cages in the room, my heart pounding. No Covington. I run to the larger cat room. Two small dogs are now in cages in the other cat room, but no Covington. He is nowhere to be found. I rush to the front desk.
“Can I help you?” a young woman asks. My words tumble out haphazardly as I try to explain that I’ve come to adopt the cat who is known as “Impound #25,” and that I’ve been there four days in a row bonding with him, but now he’s not there, and, I add, “now I’m frantic.”
She goes to the chair at her desk and as she swivels away from me and toward the computer she says, “Well, he must’ve gotten adopted, then, because I haven’t put anybody to sleep today.”
At first I think this is a horrifically bad joke, but then I realize she is not kidding. I’m suddenly aware that my stomach muscles are clenched, my face tight. If this were a movie, if I were Erin Brockovich, I would be saying something in reply like, “I’ll bet that’s one of the aspects of your job you take particular pleasure in, ma’am.” But I stand quietly at the counter, listening to the blood pulsing in my ears.
“Oh yes,” she finally says, after scrolling through countless files, “He was adopted by someone yesterday.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” I say, “he’s been here since—“
Just then Mr. Jackass walks by. When he looks up, I ask if he remembers me coming in yesterday, asking about that certain black cat in the back.
“Oh yeah!” he says, enthusiastically. “Some people came in yesterday after you were here and they adopted him. He’s already gone off to the vet’s. But hey,” he adds in a patronizing tone, “we’ve got plenty of cats available for adoption.”
I make it to the parking lot before I start crying. I drive a block, then pull over, because the lenses of my glasses are fogged with tears, and I need to blow my nose.

What are the chances? The boy sat there in that cage all those months, and no one wanted him. I come along, fall in love with him, and someone snatches him out from under my nose. In my bitterness, my first thought (after ‘God hates me’) is that Murphy’s Law has once again come into play. But then I have to take some deep breaths and consider the absurdity of the ‘coincidence.’ And since I don’t believe in coincidences…. Maybe my daily visits were enough to give Covington hope, to bring him out of his despondency enough so that, when the next group of people strolled through, he was up and looking like a sweet, affectionate boy at the front of his cage. So someone got a really cool cat, and I want to believe that he ended up in a really loving home. Please, Universe, let that be so. And—when I can stop crying—I will find a companion for Sugie. But the experience has really made me think. We know that animals become despondent if they are left alone, without attention, over a long period of time (even a short period of time—some cats become depressed after only 72 hours alone). If my time spent with Covington perked him up enough for others to notice him, I wonder if just volunteering to spend time with some of the other cats could have the same result. Of course, if I go back to the Upland shelter, I’ll have to put up with Mr. Jackass. Maybe this can be a learning experience for him, too, I think. That’s me; ever the teacher, ever the optimist.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Covington One

On Wednesday afternoon, I finished reading Homer’s Odyssey, a soon-to-be-released memoir about author Gwen Cooper’s “wonder cat,” Homer. As a tiny kitten, Homer’s eyes were so badly infected that they had to be removed. Gwen’s vet asked her to adopt the little cat, and thus began an amazing relationship that has lasted over a decade. The book was a completely absorbing read, both for Cooper’s skilled writing and for the stories of Homer’s amazing courage in the face of a challenge he apparently still hasn’t realized he has.

Having recently lost my own domestic shorthair cat (black, like Homer), reading the book took me on quite an emotional journey. I miss my Boo every morning when I wake up and realize it is only Sugie on the bed with me. Oh, I don’t know what I’d do without her—my own courageous little black cat who suffered horribly at the hands of some less-than-human cretin before finding her way into my heart. But we have felt the loss of our beautiful boy cat for some months now. Mostly for me this happens at bedtime, when Boo is not there to push my journal away and climb into my lap. For Sugie, it is in the long hours she spends alone when I am at work. Yes, there are birds to watch from the windows, mice to stalk in the basement, and warm sun spots beneath the skylights in which to curl up and nap. But I know from the way she clings to me constantly after being alone all day that she needs someone to be here with her always. She and Boo were never the best of buddies; by the time Sug came to us, Boo had entered the winter of his life and was no longer interested in racing through the house, playing hide ‘n’ seek. But let there be danger, and the two cats would quickly find each other and huddle up, usually under the bed. And it was Sugie who watched over Boo in my absence as he became sicker and sicker, crawling under the bed to check on him and soothe his fretfulness by kissing his head.

I found myself inspired by the story of Homer’s inner strength (and that of his mom, the young Ms. Cooper who decided at one point in her life to move from South Beach, Florida to New York City—with all three of her cats, something I would never be able to summon the resolve to do). So, on Thursday, I headed down the mountain to run some errands, and I stopped by the Upland Animal Shelter.

When I adopted Sug, it was through a local rescue organization (HOPE), which contracts with Petsmart. The cats are kept in the store in small but clean quarters behind a large Plexiglas window. Some months after the death of Calpurnia, the little black spitfire my daughter had given me for my birthday sixteen years previously, I went looking for “a black cat” as a companion for Boo. I walked into Petsmart one Sunday afternoon, and there was "Sugar Plum"—the only black cat they had. “I want her,” I told the volunteer who was there to clean litter boxes and fill water bowls. All the other cats were beautiful feline specimens. Sug was short, overweight (not the case any longer), and missing half her tail. I had to undergo a grueling process to get her, including filling out a three-page application, submitting to a home inspection, and taking Boo to an unfamiliar vet for all manner of tests to make sure he wasn’t afflicted with any feline maladies (despite my offer to produce documentation of shots and annual check-ups from our regular vet). “Sugar Plum,” I asked her when I was finally allowed to bring her home, weeks after initially finding her, “are you worth it?” She was.

Someday soon, I hope, the City of Upland will follow the lead of neighboring Rancho Cucamonga and renovate its shelter facility. It seems hard to believe that it is the same stark place I visited in 1986 and again in 1987, adopting first our beautiful huskie/coyote mix, “Nikita,” and the next summer finding “Alex Haley,” the Rottweiler/Chow mix who was the best dog a girl could ever ask for. The Upland shelter is still far too small for the number of animals housed there, especially for the cats. According to the original design of the building, there was one room set aside for housing cats, with large cages along three of the four walls. But the shelter now houses so many cats that part of a laundry room has been used, with cages stacked one atop another against the wall that divides the laundry room from the dog kennels. Cats housed here are exposed to the constant barking of terrified, impounded dogs for hours on end.

When I first arrived at the shelter, I headed for the larger cat room after signing in. I was looking for a black cat, just as I had been when I went looking for Sug. It’s not that I have some affinity for black cats over others—I’m not prejudiced (though my kids will tell you otherwise). But I’ve learned from various shelter and rescue groups over the years that black cats (and black dogs, as well) are very hard to place. Yes, my bright, educated friends, there are still so many superstitious folks out there that black cats often languish in shelters for months if not years. No one wants them. HOPE took custody of Sugie when she was a year old, living on the street with three kittens. They’d had her for a year and a half when I came looking for her.
I assumed (silly me) that there might be a handful of black cats at the Upland shelter, and I could quickly narrow my search by finding a male. Ha. In the large cat room I discovered kittens, many, many little black kittens, mewling, tumbling, shoving their way to the front of the cage. For a moment, I was overwhelmed. How does one choose from a batch of identical black kittens, all with huge ears and wide eyes?
“Me.” I heard someone say.
I looked down. In a lower cage was a black and white kitten, somewhat older than the others, maybe twelve weeks to their eight.
“Hey, little guy,” I said.
“Me. Please. Me.” He put his front paws up on the cage door. I reached my finger in and scratched his neck. He mewed and purred, mewed and purred. Hmmm.
“I’ll be back,” I told him. I left the room and walked through the door marked “Cats and Dogs.”

Here were the cages where I’d found my beloved canines years ago. Off to the side, in the laundry room, small cat cages lined the walls. There were more black kittens here, a few gray ones, a gorgeous Siamese, a beautiful but sleepy orange tabby—and a young black male cat, lying on his side, one paw listlessly protruding through the bars of the cage. I stood in front of him, talking softly, stroking his paw. He wasn’t sleeping; his eyes were slits as he scrutinized me. Finally, I slid my fingers through the bars and stroked his forehead, then stopped. He stood up and pushed his face into the metal bars. Please pet me again. I did, reaching my whole hand through as far as I could to scratch his ears, his chin, his head as he rubbed his face against my fingers repeatedly, purring and occasionally mewing when I stopped.

It’s true what people say: When you find The One, you’ll just know. I knew. I looked at his card. “Available 1-10-09.” He’d been here, in this tiny metal cage, for seven months.
“I’ll be back,” I told him. I knew I couldn’t take him home on Thursday; I had a book signing to do on Friday, a reunion with a cousin on Saturday, but I would return home and start making preparations for him to join the family. Before I left, I stopped by the large cat room again to wash my hands. A young man and his lady were looking at kittens. The little black and white orphan stood with his paws on the cage door, talking to the girl.
“Hey babe,” the young man called from across the room, “look how pretty this one is!”
“I like this one,” she told him, never taking her eyes off Mr. B&W.
“Me. Please. Me,” the kitten said.
I left smiling, vowing to return the next day.

As I realize this post is rather long… and I also realize the value of a good cliffhanger… I will post Part II tomorrow….

Friday, July 31, 2009

The Serpent's Redemption

My faithful few followers, I have been unfaithful myself in updating my blog, but only because I have been working on another piece of writing (and spending delicious moments sitting in the swing on the front porch, reading Pat Conroy's soon-to-be-released South of Broad). So--this essay that has been rattling (oh ha ha--an interesting choice of words) around in my head for a year has finally been completed. I wanted to share the first three paragraphs with you (not the entire essay, as it is 5,000 words--14 pages double spaced). If you are truly interested in reading the essay in its entirety, I do need a couple of people to find the typos that I'm sure have eluded me, so email me at and let me know; I'll email you an attachment in MSWord. And do let me know what you think of this little bit....

It is ironic that one of the common names of Crotalus Oreganus Helleric, a type of rattlesnake found in the Southwest, is “diamondback,” since most of us, when diamonds are mentioned, imagine something rare and strikingly beautiful, not a creature we think of as diabolical, quick to strike and deadly in its intentions. The name refers to the pattern of color on the snake’s skin, though the Arizona baseball team which uses the diamondback as its name and mascot certainly hopes to conjure the same intimidation we feel toward the character of the snake, not its color.
Indeed, rattlesnakes are plentiful in Arizona, and one can never be too cautious.

A case in point would be that of Erec Toso, author of Zero at the Bone. Toso, a university professor, is seemingly a man of great humanity, who loves dogs and cats, his kids and his wife, and who tries to live peaceably with all creatures. He describes in his book, however, his experience in walking across his yard one evening at dusk, returning from a summer swim with his boys, his foot rendered all too vulnerable by the sandals he wore. Even in the torturous grip of pain, as doctors huddled around his hospital bed discussing whether or not to amputate his putrid leg, Toso forgave the snake.

I read Erec Toso’s book shortly after moving to a cabin in the San Gabriel mountains of California, where Southern Pacific rattlesnakes live among the rocks and boulders, and I found myself ruminating on this moral dilemma we find ourselves in when we seek solitude, a place outside the pale of hectic, everyday populations. I came to the mountains to escape the noise, litter and cruelty that comes with living too close to Los Angeles. But here in the mountains there are other threats, and if I am encroaching on the “wild” aspect of wilderness, shouldn’t I simply accept my role as the intruder and suffer the consequences? I did not know if, like Toso, I could be so forgiving, and I found myself obsessing on the threat of snakes… which is probably what saved me.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Where's Jeff Corwin When You Need Him?

This morning’s hike took me into Bear Canyon, probably the most beautiful canyon on the mountain. The single-track trail follows the creek for awhile, meandering deep into the canyon which is shaded by huge oak trees. Eventually as it winds up a few switchbacks, there is a short section where bright green ferns grow to the edge of the trail. This is just south of Bear Flat, a wide, beautiful open meadow, which is the habitat of many different kinds of birds.

On my way up, I kept my head down most of the way, my eyes scanning the trail back and forth, back and forth, making sure there were no rattlie-snakes enjoying the cool of the shadowy trail, so I almost missed seeing a Cooper’s hawk. It must’ve been munching on something on the ground—probably a snake—as I heard a sudden flutter of wings and looked up in time to watch the hawk swoop up into a tree nearby. I stopped to admire him, telling him aloud how beautiful he was, and then I saw a second one a few yards away. I stood there chatting for a few minutes, then finally turned to continue up the trail, which is when I saw the hiker and his brown and white, freckly faced dog coming down the trail.

“Didja see a bobcat or somethin’?” he asked.

“Oh no,” I replied, “just a couple of Cooper’s hawks,” and he looked at me as if I might have been in need of medical aid for heat stroke. Yeah, I get that a lot. Still, he allowed me to admire and pet his dog, and then he was off again.

When I reached Bear Flat, I sat for awhile, eating a granola bar and watching the mountain bluebirds (not to be confused with jays—these are little), wrens and nuthatches flitting in and out of the spring that bubbles up there. Then I headed back.

I’d only gone fifty yards or so when I heard a commotion; jays were squawking loudly and some bird whose distress call I didn’t recognize was screaming over and over. Whatever dire event was unfolding, it was happening far below me on another section of trail. I started to quicken my pace to try to get down there. But that’s when I saw the snake.

It was a handsome rattlesnake, all coiled nicely around himself on the side of the trail, his head raised just slightly. Oh dear. I had stopped within a foot of him. I backed up slowly, then stomped my feet to imitate some mastodon-sized creature coming down the trail. The snake turned his head to stare at me with his left eye, flicking his tongue out to taste the air.

“I’m a huge predator!” I told him, to no avail. I knew he couldn’t hear me anyway. So I moved carefully back up the trail, looking for a very, very long stick. I probably could have gotten past him, but I didn’t want to leave him there for the next hikers coming up the trail to find. I found a stick, and walked toward him. Then the commotion below began anew and I glanced over the side as I heard something very big in the underbrush down there. I couldn’t see it through the trees, but I could tell by the sound that it was large. On the way up, I’d seen deer pellets, but it was more likely some predator, creeping in to take advantage of whatever nasty circumstance had befallen the screaming bird. It was while I was looking over the side that the snake uncoiled and began moving.

Thank goodness he was moving away from me, not toward me, because I had not been paying attention, and he’d gone a couple feet down the trail, and a couple of feet in my direction would have put him right at my shoes by the time I looked. He was about two feet long, with an inch-long rattle, I noted, just for those who will ask.

As he moved off the trail and into the dense fallen leaves, I skirted past (as he gave me one lethargic half-rattle) and headed home. A few hikers passed me on their way up, and I warned them of the snake, most thanking me, though one man laughed loudly as if I’d told him a joke. All in all, it was quite a lovely walk.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

How to Make a Sandwich in the Summertime

Bake your bread the day before. Since you’re making your own, you can add a bit of molasses for flavor and extra iron (yes, daughter, I hear you), and of course throw in at least a cupful of rolled oats. Make several small rounds so that you have extra to drop off with the neighbors; you never know when you’re going to need a favor, and if you’ve given them fresh baked bread, you’ll never hesitate to say, ‘Hey, I need a small favor….’

Before you start your sandwich, brew some tea and set it aside to cool. Fresh brewed iced tea in the summer. Ahhhhh….

Carve off two slices of bread and pop them in the toaster to warm up. This will also refresh the fresh-bread-out-of-the-oven aroma that permeated the house yesterday. While they heat, cut some slices of that lovely fresh mozzarella from Trader Joe’s, and slice up at least one quarter of a ripe avocado. Thin slices of tomato are critical as well, but the tomato must have come from a friend’s garden, or your own, or at least a roadside vendor—no hot house toms!! Spread some butter on the warm toast, add the cheese, tomato, avocado and some alfalfa sprouts or micro-greens or fresh spinach leaves or…? Dust with sea salt and close.

Pour your tea in a tall glass with lots of ice. Take your sandwich and tea outside to sit on the back deck. Take your cat with you. As you eat, watch the stellar jays gather in the trees overhead. The crust of your bread will be crispy from the toaster. Try to catch the pieces as they crumble off and toss them out into the yard for the jays. Watch the little cat’s bottom wiggle as the jays swoop down to snatch the bread. Listen as the jays’ squawks are echoed by family members far off in the canyon who fly in to get in on the action. Peer far up into the tall oaks and try to spot the Cooper’s hawk that keeps complaining about the disruption of his daily chipmunk hunt. Laugh at the goofy woodpeckers who’ve arrived dressed in formal attire—tuxedos and bright red party hats—only to find that there’s nothing here for them to eat. (Oh, I know how that feels!)

Save the last bit of bread crust to break into pieces and toss around the yard, just to watch the little kitty go crazy as the jays swoop and squawk and steal from each other. Stretch your legs into a warm sun spot and think about taking a nap, the most delicious dessert for a meal of this kind.

Monday, June 29, 2009

The Spooky Stuff

If you’ve read Tainted Legacy, you know that, during my previous stay in Missouri, I found the grave of my great-grandmother, Bertha Gifford. Well, at least, I found the approximate location of her grave; there was no headstone to mark her grave. Believe what you will about BG, I felt strongly—and I am sincere in the choice of that word, “strongly,” and cannot emphasize it enough—that, if for no other reason than historical purposes, Bertha’s grave should be marked. In fact, I made up my mind while there that if the book were ever published, I would use whatever advance I received to purchase a stone.

Last August I learned that Tainted Legacy would be published by Publish America. My advance? One dollar. Whatever. I emailed Marc Houseman in Missouri, the historian who has been a tremendous help in editing the final draft of the book and tracking down sources for me, to say nothing of his support for the book. I asked for his help in getting a headstone ordered, and that’s all it took: Some weeks later I received a bill in the mail with the promise that the stone would be ready sometime in the spring. And it was.

Our last stop on the Bertha Gifford Mystery Tour was the cemetery in Morse Mill where BG is buried. If you’ve read the previous blog, you are aware that certain strange events occurred as we drew ever nearer. But hours earlier when the tour began, Marc made a statement that started the wheels in my mind turning and made it nearly impossible for me to focus on the event at hand. He said something he’d never shared with me before: ‘Bertha’s family,’ he told our tour crew, ‘said when she died that her grave would go unmarked for fifty years.’ Fifty years. Later, I asked Marc the source, but he explained that this was part of the oral history passed down about Bertha, and he had no way of crediting a single individual with having said it.

Fifty years. When did she die? August 2o, 1951. It took me over an hour yesterday, searching back through my journals, to find the piece of a puzzle left unsolved in my brain since the tour. Finally, I found it: The day I decided to write the book about Bertha Gifford. Actually, it was an evening; Joyce Spizer, True Crime author, had come to speak to my writers group, and as she set up, I told her about Bertha. She was so intrigued, she urged me to write the book. The next day I called my mother to make sure she was comfortable with me doing so. “Yes,” she said, “you need to write it before I die.” That was in February, 2002—fifty years and six months after Bertha’s death. Joyce, by the way, was speaking to my group that night because she had a new book to promote—Cross Country Killer. It’s about a serial killer. The book had been released on September 21, 2001—exactly fifty years and one month after Bertha Gifford’s death.

One more note: On the first day of this last trip to Missouri, Marc took me to the Brush Creek Cemetery, where Ed Brinley is buried. (His death led to BG’s trial.) The last of Ed’s children, LaVerne, passed away just a few months ago. Her grave was there, the dirt still not covered over by grass. Close by, Marc and I noticed that a deceased son of Ed Brinley had a wife still living, Ilean Brinley. (Her birth date was engraved on a shared headstone with her husband, but there was no death date.) Marc made a mental note to try and contact her, to see if there were family stories about Bertha we hadn’t heard yet. Some days after I returned from Missouri, Marc emailed me with the news that Ilean had died on June 18th—the very day we had stood looking at her future headstone.

You may draw your own conclusions. I’m just the journalist reporting the facts as I discover them.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Bertha Gifford's Wrath

On Saturday, June 20, I climbed aboard a big shiny red touring bus with Marc Houseman, historian, and twenty or so people who are just quirky enough to appreciate the Bertha Gifford Mystery Tour (which, Marc would explain, really had no real element of mystery; we all knew who’d committed the crimes). Dan, our bus driver, headed out of Washington, Missouri, toward the small town of Pacific, and I noticed when we hit the highway (speed limit: 50mph, with cars zooming by at 60 & 65) that he was chugging along at 35mph. Oh dear. We had only so many hours to complete our tour, and at this rate, we’d never get to all the cemeteries. What made it worse was Dan’s seeming distracted attention—until I realized that he was taking his mind off his driving as he strained to hear what Marc was saying. I smiled. For some reason, everyone is fascinated by the story of Bertha Gifford.
As we tooled along then, at our snail’s pace, Marc explained where Bertha was born, how she came to live in Catawissa, Missouri—and how I fit into the picture. He also—shame on him, as it turned out later—told tales on her. How she used to (rumor has it—I’m just saying, Great-Grandma) hide inside her barn and peer out at the school children as they walked past each day, and how two sisters were offered candy by Bertha. One would die the next day, having taken the sweet. The other survived because she didn’t like candy.
Throughout the tour, we went from graveyard to graveyard, piling off the bus to view yet another headstone, another victim of Bertha’s. Marc would tell the tale of the individual, and he would include as much history about that person as he knew (which I believe honors the dead, no matter how they died).
Finally, at 2:30p.m., we headed for Morse Mill, our last stop on the tour, where we would see Bertha Gifford’s grave and the hotel that Bertha and her husband Gene once ran. We were right on schedule, and everything had gone smoothly. Until we were less than half a block from our destination. As we rolled around a corner on a narrow country road, tall trees bordering us on both sides, a man came running down the middle of the road toward us, waving his arms, indicating that he wanted Dan to stop. (What else could he do?) The man explained that there had just been an accident—a motorcycle had run head-on into a car. We could see the bike on its side in the road ahead.
“It just happened!” the man said breathlessly. “He just came out of our yard and headed down the road, and then we heard the crash! The troopers aren’t even here yet!”
So we waited. Mercifully, Dan left the A/C on, as it was in the 90’s outside. We waited while the state troopers arrived, while the ambulance came and the man—who was moving his limbs as they loaded him, thank heavens—was taken away, while the troopers slowly, lethargically, measured skid marks and proximities, while the tow truck finally came and removed the downed motorcycle. Finally, the road cleared, and off we went—by this time, quite late. We didn’t stop to look at the boardinghouse, as there wasn’t time. We simply rolled up the road to the cemetery, which is next to a busy highway, where Dan slowed… but couldn’t make the turn into the driveway. He continued down the highway, looking for a place to turn around. He found it, down a narrow side road, but just as he got the bus completely sidewise across the road, a small pick-up truck came barreling toward us from the opposite direction. It was going too fast to stop, we could all see that. We were all watching, helplessly, as the driver hit his brakes. I grabbed the partition in front of me, waiting for the impact, but still watching, wondering how the day would go once the truck collided with us. Then, at the last moment, the driver of the truck simply veered completely off the road, driving into a culvert and up across someone’s front lawn, where he came to a stop in the grass. Dan, unruffled, completed his turn as we began to breathe normally again, and headed back to the cemetery.
He still couldn’t make the narrow turn in, so he parked about a hundred yards away, in a parking lot. As we walked toward the graveyard, the sky darkened, the clouds thickening overhead. We gathered around Bertha’s grave, Marc began to speak, and I felt the first big drops. Marc spoke faster. Rain pattered on the broad leaves of the catalpa tree overhead. People scurried around, trying to snap photos of each other next to Bertha’s new headstone. And then it poured. There was no way not to get soaked as we walked (or ran) back to the bus. Drenched, looking like we’d all jumped in the pool with our clothes on, we climbed back onto the bus for our ride back to Washington.
“Hey,” someone pointed out, when we were a quarter mile down the road, “the pavement’s not even wet here.” Seems it only rained over the graveyard.
I’ll have a couple more posts about the trip over the next few days. I’m still trying to get caught up on laundry… and cuddle time with Sugs.

Friday, June 19, 2009

The Jury List

While here in MO, I'm trying to keep my CA hours--which means, with the two-hour time difference, I'm going to bed at 10:00p.m. and getting up at 6:00a.m. Like real people. It's interesting.

I spent some time in the Pacific Coin Laundry this morning, writing in my journal while my unmentionables sloshed, then tumbled. It was good to get caught up on the writing. Then Marc picked me up and it was back to playtime again.

He took me out to two more cemeteries today and again told me stories of how the victims met their demise. "Oh!" he said at one point, stopping abruptly near a remote, rural driveway, "Do you want to meet the granddaughter of the woman who chased your great-grandmother off her property with a broom? If she's home, that is...." Turned out to be the wrong driveway--but there's a chance the woman will be going along with us tomorrow on the Bertha Gifford Mystery Tour.

Marc bought me lunch again today (darn these Midwestern men and their chivalrous values!), and as we ate, we went slowly through his huge file on Bertha. He wanted to make sure that I had copies of everything he'd collected. I had most of it--except for the documents found at the courthouse in Union. Now, I've been to that courthouse twice; the first time was 15 years ago, the second time was six years ago just before I wrote Tainted Legacy. Both times I made a nuisance of myself asking folks for any and all documents. The second time I spoke to Bill Miller, the gentleman who is responsible for, among other duties at the courthouse, keeping the files of the court. Six years ago he insisted--despite my persistence--that nothing was available on Bertha Gifford. But though he acted like he knew of her crimes, it was evident that he was confusing her with someone else. At any rate, by the time Marc began sniffing around a couple years back, Bill had come up with page after page from the days of the trial, including expenses incurred by Bertha during her incarceration (for meals, etc.), various subpoenas, and a list of citizens called for jury duty, with names lined through of those who didn't make the cut. Marc also had the original comic books and detective magazines containing stories on Bertha, which he showed me. Now that was one great lunch.

We also went out to the House of Mystery in Catawissa today. I'd gotten permission from the owner, Bob Fiedler, to visit the farm, so I assured Marc we could get out and look around, which we did, boldly peeking in the windows. He mentioned something about expecting to see ghosts--my same reaction when I'd first walked through the house six years ago. A sad note here: the gorgeous steel span bridge over the Meramec River into Catawissa may be demolished soon. The county is considering replacing it, as it was erected in 1906. Wish I could post a photo here--and I will post one when I return. The bridge is close currently due to high water levels on the Meramec, so we got out and walked halfway out. It's a great piece of engineering, and I felt completely safe on it. But what do I know?

Another stop on today's guided tour: The funeral home where Bertha's funeral took place--with only one person in attendance, her husband Eugene. We didn't go inside, but it was amazing just to see the little place, formerly someone's home, gleaming white in the summer sun, just like it must have in 1951 when Gene said his final good-byes to the love of his life.

Tomorrow I will meet Marc in Washington, MO at the historical society's museum. Marc, myself, and a large (I hope!) group of individuals will climb onto a Greyhound bus for the Bertha Gifford Mystery Tour. Can't wait!

Thursday, June 18, 2009

On the Road with the Mortician

If you've read Tainted Legacy, you know that Marc Houseman is the historian in Missouri with whom I connected last summer. Marc has been more than gracious in helping me with the book and also sending me copies of documents concerning Bertha Gifford--including color copies of the comic book about her. (No, I'm not kidding.) Today Marc and I met in person for the first time.

What a day! From the first moment we met, we were clowning around like two kids playing hooky. To understand our enthusiasm, however, you have to understand that we both love cemeteries. Every person has a story, we believe, and dead people still tell their tales... through the voices of those who remember them. Marc picked me up at the hotel, then drove me from cemetery to cemetery, telling me stories about some of Bertha's victims... and some of my ancestors. In between, he threw in some pretty fascinating stories from his days as a mortician. But I can't, um, recount those here....

The highlight of the day, by far (after the incredible veggie lunch at the Gourmet Cafe), was the trip to Morse Mill to visit Bertha's grave. As soon as Marc pulled in, I could see the new headstone we'd ordered. If you've read TL, you know that one of my concerns was that, although Bertha's husband, Gene, put a down payment on a tombstone for her, he died before he paid the balance, and her grave has remained unmarked for the past 57 years--until two months ago, when the new stone was installed. It is there now, just beneath the big catawba tree, next to Gene's grave... and just behind Henry Graham, her first husband. (Life moves at a different pace in the midwest... especially back then... when you could be laid to rest in close proximity to the husband you'd murdered....)

I had dinner tonight with the Fiedlers (owners, now, of the House of Mystery, where Bertha lived) at a restaurant in town. It was great to see them again, and they were very gracious in their encouragement about the book. Once again, we spent a long time immersed in conversation about Bertha and the impact her actions had on so many people, so many families. Tim Fiedler mentioned something that I had in fact brought up to Marc earlier in the day, and that is that as young folks, we're not much interested in our family histories, because we haven't created our own histories yet. Later, in our 40's and 50's, perhaps, we start to reflect on life, on its brevity, on our place in this world as a larger whole. And we start to look back instead of forward. And that's when we make profound discoveries. I believe our histories shape us--for better or for worse. The individuals we are today were formed, in part, by the decisions our ancestors made. It's inescapable. When we study the grandparents, we understand more fully our own identities. It's not always pretty what we find... but their lives, in one way or another, are an integral part of our own.

The rain predicted for today never came. Hopefully, the good weather will hold until Saturday; that's when the Bertha Gifford Mystery Tour will take place. Can't wait!!

Road Signs

Tuesday night, after driving, with few stops, for nearly twelve hours, I pulled off Hwy 40 at McLean, Texas and quickly found the Cactus Inn, a roadside motel I'd found on the internet. I'd made reservations the week before over the phone with Gordon, the 81-year-old proprietor. When I arrived on Tuesday evening, he and his wife Jane were sitting out on the patio in front of the office.
"Mind if I don't get up?" Gordon joked as I walked up.
"Not at all," I said, and took a seat with them. I was tired, and I just wanted a shower, but I've learned in the past decade that these moments with real people are where the real stories are. It only took a few minutes before we were trading stories, and they told me of Alfred Rowe, the Englishman who'd bought 10,000 acres "just over the hill" as the 1900's opened. He established a cattle ranch, then went back to England to return with his bride--who hated it there. Women. Sheesh. So they both returned to England. Once a year, Alfred would make the trip by boat, then train, then buckboard, back to McLean to check on his ranch.
"Sometimes," Gordon claimed, "he'd only stay one day. Then he'd turn around and head back to England."

When I left on Wednesday morning, I gave Jane and Gordon a copy of Tainted Legacy with my email address inside. I wonder what they'll think of that story....

You know you're in Oklahoma when you see a dead porcupine on the side of the road, pass an exit off the intersate for "Garth Brooks Blvd.", and, when you ask for provolone on your Subway veggie sandwich, the young man says, "We don't get provolone out here, Ma'am."

And you know you're in Missouri when you can actually see the moisture in the air ahead of you down a long stretch of road. When I arrived in Pacific last night, the humidity was 71%, and a tornado watch had just been issued. Rain is forecast for today. Just the kind of weather one needs for visiting cemeteries....

Monday, June 15, 2009

Day One is... ginkered....

I left CA a couple hours late yesterday--and was just enjoying the drive, listening to Riverhorse by William Least Heat Moon on tape. Once I entered Arizona on Hwy 40, I slowed down, my eyes searching for elk alongside the road. Bingo--two large elk, full racks and all, were grazing about fifty yards off the highway... as everyone barreled by at 80mph. It was all great... until I got lost in Sedona (has anyone seen the construction through the middle of town?!?) and called Willma Gore's number (I'm staying with her) repeatedly until some nice lady returned one of my messages and said, "Honey, you've been calling this number all day, and I'm not Willma." By the time I got the directions straightened out and found Willma's, I was hungry, tired and not a little stressed. But I had homemade vegetarian soup made my Willma's friend, Jean, then hit my cot to sleep for 8 hours.

This morning, Willma hosted a gathering of her writer friends, and I got to blab on and on about writing Tainted Legacy. I sold books, made friends, and heard great stories. To celebrate, I walked across the street and, in 20 minutes, augmented my poor writer's wardrobe at one of the outlet stores. (Ladies, you have no idea how much more affordable clothes are in AZ!) So it has been a good day... and I'm trying to look forward to a beautiful drive up Oak Creek Canyon at dawn tomorrow morning... instead of missing my cat, my 'coonie, and my kids (not necessarily in that order).