Saturday, December 31, 2011

News Flash

Sugar Plum... and Boo

I don’t want to disappoint anyone, but….

The world is not going to end in 2012.

Tell ya how I know:

First off, I just got news from the nice Chicken Soup folks that my piece on Sugar Plum will be included in the upcoming Chicken Soup for the Soul: I Can’t Believe My Cat Did That! The book doesn’t come out until late in the year, and I know Sug would be particularly disappointed if her book doesn’t get as much attention as Boo's book did.

Next off, I will be finishing the long-awaited dog book in the next couple of months, to be released some time this coming summer. I’ve promised the spirits of Sandy, Rufus, Sapo, Niki, Alex, Ellie, Ian, and Osa that this book will honor them as the good dogs they were (and still are, always, alive in my memory).

In addition, I will (finally) publish Ghost Grandma, the YA novel I wrote for NaNoWriMo six years ago. Yay! I love that book!

Then there’s that presidential election thing going on. We gotta see how it turns out, right? Enough said; I don’t want to alienate any readers with my intense political rantings. Mouth closed. Tongue quiet….

Best of all, some strange and wonderful things have been happening with Tainted Legacy. From what I can tell from TL's Facebook page and my Amazon stats, the book seems to have taken off in other parts of the country besides Missouri. I don’t know how, I don’t know why, but I am grateful to the Universe that the story of Bertha Gifford continues to be told (even though she doesn’t like it when people talk about her—yes, Great-Grandma, I knooooow).

And my grandson will graduate high school… and start college. Wow….

And anyway, we’re not getting out of this as easy as all that. We’ve created a lot of problems for Mother Earth with our greed and consumerism and self-centeredness. Just like when we were kids and made a mess and Mom came along to tell us, “You’re not going anywhere until this mess is cleaned up!” so the Universe will hold us accountable. We have many lessons yet to be learned. I’m still trying to remember to stand up straight and not slouch. (OK, Mom, OK!)

Osa, my dog, my soulmate, will be featured in the upcoming Lessons I Learned from the Dogs that Saved Me.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

The Things We Hold Dear Part 2

(Christmas Bear)

In September of 1977, my oldest son was born. For a year prior to his birth, we had fought with Doris, our narrow-minded, power-hungry bigot of a caseworker from Children’s Home Society. My husband and I had told her that we would adopt a child of any race. She had responded by asking, “Any race?” We knew what she meant. “I can’t think of any race I would exclude,” my husband tossed back at her. She was not pleased. For a year we looked at available children. We wanted a girl close in age to our daughter, and there were several ready to be adopted. But each time we found one, Doris thwarted our inquiry with some excuse. “She’s too far away” (San Francisco) or “Her caseworker thinks she should be an only child.” Really? We knew what all the stalling was about.

In August, after we’d been approved to adopt for a year, I confronted her on the phone one day and let her know I was prepared to request another caseworker if she didn’t open her mind to interracial adoption. In that conversation, she told me about a woman who was pregnant at that time. The baby’s father was a different race. “I have you folks in mind for that baby,” she said. I honestly thought she’d made it all up—until she called me a month later and told me that child had been born. “He’s the color of coffee beans,” she told me on the phone. “We don’t care what color he is,” I told her defiantly. But wouldn’t you know, his nickname—at first as a joke, but you know how these things go—became Beanie Man.

For Christmas that year, a dear friend, Janet Lockett, made us a Christmas Angel for the top of our tree… a Christmas Angel with brown “skin” and black, curly hair. It was perfect. And for the next three decades, it topped our tree every year. That little angel outlived my marriage and was still at the top of our tree in 1994 for my grandson’s first Christmas.

But after I moved to the mountain in 2007, I didn’t feel the need to put up a tree (since I’m literally surrounded by them). So the little angel stayed in a box in the basement that year… and the next… and the next.

Last year, I was feeling pretty blue, it being the first Christmas without my mom, the second without my brother Dan. On an afternoon of reminiscing about Christmases past (as the Spirit of Christmas Past would have us do from time to time), I decided to go looking for all the decorations that had meaning for me. Up from the basement came all the boxes, and several hours later, the cabin was blinking and twinkling with tiny white lights and candles and various other decorations. Several years before I had moved to the mountain, Dan had given me a special bubble light as a gift after I’d told him that those had been my favorite as a child. I found that light and plugged it in every night in the weeks before Christmas, remembering my crazy brother with great fondness each time. There was no tree for Christmas Angel, so I sat him on a table where I could see him… and remember the Christmases that had been special for my kids (the first one after the divorce, when we were so poor we had nothing… but each other… and my grandson’s first Christmas, when the tree, hastily erected on Christmas Eve, fell on Nana).

This year as I discovered that the mice had gotten into the boxes of Christmas decorations (destroying nearly everything with fabric, including Christmas Bear, pictured above), I held my breath looking for that Christmas Angel. I didn’t know how I would tell my kids if it had to be discarded. I believe my daughter is pretty confident that she will one day take possession of Christmas Angel, and if I had to tell her that Christmas Angel had met his demise at the hands of indiscriminate rodents, I know she would have taken it hard. Me, too.

But there it was, safe and intact. Whew.

It’s not just the Christmas memories that it conjures with its magic; it’s a reminder that, way back then, we made a decision to let our family be defined by love, not by race or color or origin.

Our little family is bigger today (with more colors!), and love is still our common denominator. Our little Christmas Angel will always remind us of that.

Friday, December 23, 2011

The Things We Hold Dear Part I

When Mom and Dad moved to Southern California in 1954, just before I was born, they did so partly because my maternal grandmother, Lila, lived in Los Angeles. In that year, homes were being built in the biggest housing tract undertaking of its time in a suburb oddly named “Lakewood.” (No woods, no lake—just cow pastures and the Santa Ana River.) With lots of open space and a reasonable distance from downtown L.A., it was a great place to raise kids. Mom and Dad bought a brand new three bedroom bungalow—probably about 1,000 square feet—and they settled into the neighborhood just before I was born.

Frequently on the weekends, Grandma would ride in on the train and Dad would pick her up. She and Mom would be in the kitchen for hours on a Sunday, cooking dinner and talking woman talk. For Christmas, the hours were extended. Mom and Grandma would sit at the kitchen table and make cookies and fudge and dates stuffed with walnuts and rolled in sugar. When the treats were ready, they’d be placed on our large dining room table—which was covered by Mom’s holiday table cloth.

When I was a child, there were certain items that were pulled from the rafters of the garage—or out of the back of the linen cabinet—every year in the run-up to Christmas Eve. We had our favorite ornaments and decorations, including the little copper angels that hung from a mobile and spun slowly with the heat from candle flames below. And of course, our nativity.

I never thought much about the table cloth… until a few years ago when I was going through some of Mom’s things, and there it was. The unfolded cloth lying in my hands became a screen upon which a thousand memories materialized… my dad—before we knew he was dying—bringing in the boxes of Christmas decorations from the garage, then putting up the tree… my sister and I making holiday scenes on our windows with glass wax. (My loves, you would have to be over 50 to know what that is!) And, more vivid than any of the others, Mom and Grandma working tirelessly for days to make food and treats and wrap gifts and (clandestinely) fill stockings so that Christmas Eve and Christmas Day would be special. Oh, the memories that table cloth has seen…. I put it away carefully, and last Christmas, with friends coming over, I spread it out on my humble little table, fresh and clean from the dryer and still showing a gravy stain from fifty years ago.

This year, when I went to the basement to retrieve my Christmas decorations (packed carefully and stored in a closed cabinet), I discovered mice had gotten into the boxes. In years past, Sug (and Boo, when he was still with me) has taken care of the mouse problem quite efficiently. But the whole of Mt. Baldy was plagued by rodents this past summer, and my little Sugar Plum just could not keep all of them away.

Opening one of the boxes, I carefully extracted Mom’s table cloth—and immediately saw holes chewed through the cotton material. Oh no. Oh my god, no. Was it ruined? Would I have to discard it? The cream-colored fabric bordered in snowflakes and pine boughs represented a gossamer connection to some of the few sweet memories of my childhood. Why hadn’t I stored it in a more secure place?

Bereft, I carried the cloth still folded to the washer and dropped it in, setting the machine for a long wash on hot. Later, I tossed it in the dryer without looking at it. I wasn’t yet prepared emotionally to uncover the extent of the damage.

This morning, I finally had the courage to pull out the table cloth and examine it. Except for those few small holes I saw initially in one corner of the border, the piece is still in good shape. The table cloth will once again grace my holiday table… and, for the days it is displayed, remind me of those brief years when the fabric of my family was still intact.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

In My Father's Eyes

My father, who was first a soldier, then a taxi cab driver, then a cop, then a security guard after he and Mom moved to California in 1954, was a stern man. He worked the swing shift because he had gone back to school, law school, and so would attend classes during the day, then leave for work about the time I got home from Kindergarten every day. I feared him, in his imposing uniform, which included the classic Sam Brown belt and side arm, and Mom and Dad never ceased to get a kick out of my intimidation.

As busy as he was with work and school and home improvements on the weekends, Dad made time to visit our local chapter of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. Dad, at forty, was a youngster compared to most of the men who stopped in there for a beer or two with a fellow comrade-in-arms. How strange and unfair that all those old men would outlive him, as my father would die three years later.

It was around that time, when I was five, that Mom, Dad, my three older siblings and I, one chilly December day, headed out to the VFW hall. Rumor had it Santa Claus would be making an appearance.

I have to confess here that I never believed in Santa, even as a very small child. I was too logical, too analytical, even back then… and too prone to hiding behind Dad’s big chair—the invisible child whom no one saw even when I was in plain sight—eavesdropping on my parents’ conversations when they thought I’d gone to bed. And yes, even at five, I was the same withdrawn, wary-of-people creature that I am today, so I had nothing but reticence and trepidation about sitting on Santa’s lap. Telling my parents I would rather not participate was not an option, unless I wanted to subject myself to their scorn and a lecture about how ridiculous it was to be shy. I kept my mouth shut, pulled my tiny cardigan around my hunched shoulders, and soldiered on.

I can’t remember whether they served us dinner at the hall that day, but I know Mom and Dad had a few beers while they chatted with people they knew, and the large group of children in attendance tried to guess what was contained within the many packages stacked beside a Christmas tree in the corner of the room. At some point, I grew concerned as I realized I hadn’t seen my parents in awhile. (They had once walked off with the other kids and left me in a strange place, and I still suffered post-traumatic-stress moments because of it.) I tugged on my big brother’s shirt and asked him where they were, but he shrugged me off as someone made the big announcement: “I hear jingle bells!”

A man in a Santa suit entered the room with a few requisite ho ho ho’s and proceeded to take a seat near the stack of presents by the Christmas tree. My sibs grabbed me and dragged me up to stand in line with them, and I stood there watching this man talk to each kid in turn, eventually handing him or her a wrapped present. Even the promise of a surprise gift couldn’t entice me; I had no desire to sit on the lap of a stranger. I couldn’t even communicate well with the people who were familiar to me.

When it was my turn, I trudged forward, and the man’s hands lifted me to sit on his thigh, one arm stretching around my back to hold me snugly. He asked me what Santa could bring me for Christmas. I didn’t answer. I couldn’t answer. There was no correct, appropriate answer. If I said a doll or a tea set, I would have been lying, something I’d learned from my strict Catholic upbringing was a terrible sin. I couldn’t tell him what I really wanted—a Tonka toy truck—as Mom and Dad had already told me that girls cannot ask Santa for a “boy’s” gift. So I just sat helplessly staring down at the floor, wishing the ordeal could be over with.

The man asked me a second time what I wanted from Santa. This time his voice was less affected, more gentle. And somewhat familiar. I found the courage to look up at his face. Thinking back on it now, I can still see his eyes through the fluffs of cotton batting glued over his eyebrows and onto his sideburns. They are the same eyes that look back at me every day when I look into the mirror… my father’s eyes.

I want to believe that something changed for him when he looked into the sad face of his little daughter, her eyes beseeching him to simply let her be the person she was meant to be.

I know that something changed for me. My father, this strict, uncompromising man who enforced God’s laws as if he were the good Lord’s cop incarnate, was capable of playing Santa, of bouncing children on his knee and asking them to share their dreams.

Oh, to have that moment back, to look into his eyes again, and this time, say exactly what I should have said.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Moments when you know you can die happy

My kid, chatting casually with one of her poet-heroes, Billy Collins

Last night I left my mountain and drove an hour and fifteen minutes to my daughter’s place in Lake Arrowhead. The occasion was a poetry reading she had arranged at a local coffee shop for her peers in the Master of Fine Arts program at Cal State University in San Bernardino. Whenn I arrived at the pre-reading snack-fest, her house was filled with professorial and college student types (and husbands and cats and kids).

I can’t begin to express how happy this makes me.

We never do anything in a conventional way in my family. As hard as I tried to impress upon my children the importance of going straight to college, each one chose his or her own way, and all were working immediately after graduating high school. Shali, too, and then she was married and a mom and divorced and married again and a mom again. Somewhere in there she found time to work and go to school. While she was at Pitzer, the word got around to her professors that she was a poet—a really fine poet in her own right, not just because her mom says so (though you should believe me if I do; I have a fancy degree, too—just not as fancy as hers). Her teachers encouraged her to apply to an MFA program back then. Again, she went her own way, choosing something more practical. She headed to Claremont Graduate University for a teaching credential and master’s degree, and she’s been teaching school for some years now. This year it’s first grade.

But now at night she dons her Super-Woman attire and heads down the mountain to Cal State, where she is studying with well known and respected writers and poets. Yay! Finally! I’ve been thrilled ever since she was accepted into the program… because I’m her mom, of course, but also because, through all these years, I’ve just wanted people to hear her, to be exposed to her amazing work. It is a gift that came out of nowhere. It didn’t come from me. It’s as if I said to her one day when she was a teen, ‘Wow, isn’t turquoise jewelry amazing?’ and a dozen years later she came to me with an intricately crafted necklace and said, ‘Oh hey, Mom, I made this,’ and it was perfect.

Last night’s event was fun and marked by sincere camaraderie among the students reading. And it was attended by Jim Brown, author of The Los Angeles Diaries and This River. If you’ve heard me speak of him, you’ve heard me say that he sets the bar for memoir writing. He is achingly honest in the stark depictions of his life, and his nonfiction is more compelling than any I know.  After the readings, he came over to me.
“Your daughter has real talent,” he said.
“Thank you,” I replied, trying not to sound like the sappy, proud mom that I am.
“She was my favorite tonight,” he said quietly.

That was the moment.

If my kids are all safe, happy and well provided for, I will die happy. If they are recognized for the incredibly unique people they are, well, that might just cause me to dance my way into heaven.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Here it comes

November 18, 2011, taken on my way home from work

With the time change, comes the darkness. No, not the deepening gloom of winter. I refer to the deepening gloom that envelops my soul as the days shorten and I lose time to hike and time at the keyboard. (Because the cabin is so cold in winter, I can only sit here for short periods. After ten or fifteen minutes, my hands are so cold they become too stiff to type.) Thus, as we inch toward the solstice, I find myself unable to do two of those activities which keep me (relatively) sane. Oof.

I’m hoping things will be a bit different this year. A few months back, I bought a custom-made, solid oak drafting table and set it up (with the help of The Grandson) about ten feet away from the furnace. Last weekend, when we had snow, I put it to the test—working on the dog book for some time, writing out page after page in longhand, which I don’t mind doing. My writer-friend Lola DeMaci tells me that this is the better method, anyway. I’m a fast typist; I’ll do the transcribing when I finish the section (which, by the way, is the final section of the book).

That still doesn’t solve my problem of having to curtail long walks in the forest. By the time I get home, it’s 4:00 or past, and it’s dark here now by 4:30, so unless I walk all the way ‘round with a flashlight, I won’t be able to walk The Loop except on weekends… which means I might just pack back on that six pounds I shed this summer.

See? It’s depressing. To say nothing of Christmas coming on and no one to share it with. Well, except my own little Sugar Plum.

OK, I promise my next post will be a bit more uplifting. We’re only 24 days from the solstice… and then the light will slowly return….

Sunday, November 20, 2011


I waited all day for the rain to turn to snow. I love walking in snowstorms… because the activity is more than faintly reminiscent of our journey through life.

I can see, when there is snow on the ground, the tracks of others who have come before me (even though I might have felt very much alone), and it reminds me that we all have our own individual path; we leave our own unique mark as we go.

Sometimes along the way I make mistakes, errors in judgment, as I did today when I stopped to brush the snow from my jacket. I really didn’t need to; the waterproof shell was doing its job, but I was concerned about getting damp. In my over-reaction, I hadn’t realized how slushy the snow was, and when I’d finished brushing it away, I discovered my gloves were wet—bad news when it’s 30 degrees outside. There was nothing to do but keep walking, keep putting one foot in front of the other, telling myself, ‘Well, you’re going to have cold hands from here on out, the consequences of not thinking things through.’

While I am not always mindful of it, my very efficient Transitions lenses do darken up a bit, even in a snowstorm, if it’s daylight. Realizing this, as I take them off to wipe the snow away, I become aware once again that I often perceive the world as being a bit darker than it truly is.

Walking in 30 degree weather in driving snow is not much different, actually, than a summer-time walk around the loop if one is privileged to be able to afford the proper gear. Today as I stopped near the falls to consider this—in my heavy Lands End squall jacket, waterproof pants and sturdy snow boots, I felt grateful. I have not always been this well suited up for life’s challenges. In the past, I knew what it was to be cold and hungry and to be powerless to change those circumstances. Sometimes now I forget what that felt like, and how far I’ve come. Remembering, even when it is painful, is crucial to keeping an attitude of gratitude.

Finally, part of the appeal of walking in a storm is the promise of what I will return to upon arriving home. At the end of this day that is a life, I hope there will be warm fires and my loved ones to greet me. Today, it will be a hot cup of tea, my little cat Sugar Plum dozing by the fire, and the soft music I left playing as I went out into the world.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

High school reunion, Part II

(Photo by Col. William Pine, USAF.  Thanks for your patience, Colonel!)

I dragged my feet, I stalled, I changed clothes a couple of times and finally settled for looking like someone’s grandmother at a funeral—with legs, since I foolishly selected my dormant black skirt which kept riding up my thighs all night while I sat for hours, alternately tugging at my skirt and picking at my vegetarian lasagna.

I did see Preston and Janice Smith, neither looking any older than they had at our 30th, and Diana and Bill Pine were there to offer me a seat at their table, thank heavens. Diana reminded me that she had attended Catholic school up until high school, so she hadn’t known many people, either. Yet she did manage to find, throughout the evening, a number of people who remembered her. Not so, me. No one ever approached me and the one person I did try to connect with made it clear he had no memory of sitting in Mr. Campbell’s U.S. History class for 180 school days, talking nonstop to me about whatever caught his fancy. He sat behind me. I was an ear to him; my name and face were meaningless.

Maybe high school reunions aren’t for everyone. Maybe high school reunions are for those folks who felt connected to the—I began to say “institution,” but let’s just say “organization”—of high school… the athletes, the band and theater kids, the ones who participated in student government… those who were invested in school beyond academics. My experience was nothing like this. My daily plan back then was to get home as soon as possible after school, before one more boy made one more crude remark on the bus or one more snotty chick asked me why Dennis and I were still together or the neighbor girl offered to sell me drugs one more time and I had to stammer out “No thank you” again.

I want to say that I felt safe at home, but only when my Wicked Step-father wasn’t there.

I went to school because I had to, but I was never comfortable there. I was a sojourner in a place where I didn’t belong.

When this epiphany came to me last night, I was deeply entranced, juggling a thousand thoughts, as writers will do, and I suddenly awoke to realize I’d been placing forkful after forkful of the sickeningly sweet dessert in my mouth. At that point, I knew it was time to head home, back to the mountain, where I do, at long last, feel safe.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

High School Reunion, Part I

Tonight I will don irresponsible shoes and drive all the way to the Marriott in Riverside to attend my 40th high school reunion… from Rubidoux High School. Why am I going? I’m not sure.

I was not a memorable person for any reason when I was in high school. And when I began at Rubidoux in my sophomore year, my classmates, who had been attending school together since elementary school, had pretty much established their surrogate families on campus. I was the red-headed step-child, in more ways than one, an interloper from a foreign land. Add to that the dazed (read “closed”) look on my face brought on by culture shock; we had left Orange County, the haven of preppy white kids, and journeyed to West Riverside, the racially diverse, just-above-poverty-level home of my Wicked Step-father. Add to all of that my melancholy, tortured-poet-in-training persona, and you have an easily assembled loner chick.

I had five friends in high school: Pam, Molly, Mahala, my boyfriend Dennis and his sister Anita. After Dennis and I broke up, I did have a huge crush on Leo Wilson, football player and popular man on campus, but he was deeply in love with the woman who is, I’m pretty sure—and sincerely hope—still his wife.

I have not been in touch with Pam, but I’m certain she will not attend the reunion. Molly and Mahala have let me know they won’t be there. Perhaps Anita or Dennis or their older brother Preston who married Janice, from my year, will be there. 

I know that Diana, a person I wish I'd known in high school but met later in my professional life, will be there; she and her husband Bill were both kind friends to me when I taught at Jurupa Valley High School and it was Diana who let me know about the reunion.  I look forward to seeing them.
At my 20th high school reunion, no one remembered me. By my 30th, the people I’d met at the 20th had forgotten me.

So...  I've paid $75 to eat a vegetarian meal tonight in the Grand Ballroom of the Marriott because….

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Observations on the first snowy weekend of the season

It’s cold.

Breathing in icy, pine-scented air cleans your lungs of all the particulates left behind by dirty air. Or at least it feels like it.

It’s easier to walk the loop in low-top sneakers in dry conditions than it is to walk it in high-top snow boots through slush and snow.

No matter how long you put off going outside to bring in firewood, it will always—always—start snowing harder once you finally put your boots on and go outside. And the minute you finish the chore, the snow will let up.

Walking through the forest when it is enshrouded in cloud still reminds me, after all these years, of the book I read as a child, in which a young girl is visited by magic ponies that appear—in colors of pale blue and green and lavender—only when there is heavy fog. I still look for them just beyond the trees.

Apparently my body is made of rubber. Yesterday I took one step down my front stone steps and slipped on the ice, falling onto my back against the steps. My first thought was, ‘I wonder if my back is broken.’ I sat on the steps until I could take an inventory of all my parts, then got up. My neck is a bit stiff today, and my left hip hurts. But I think I’m fine. Amazing, given how hard I fell. Maybe it’s that (almost) daily yoga that keeps me flexible enough to bounce. Does that mean if I keep doing it I’ll still be flexible in twenty years, when I’m almost 80?

The secret reason—and please don’t tell anyone—the secret reason I love walking in a snowfall is that it makes me feel like I live in a snow globe. It’s quiet and peaceful and safe, immured inside the bubble, with only the tiny flakes falling. In that state of being, I can pretend I live in a world where banks don’t steal houses, psychopaths don’t rise to power and commit genocide, people don’t steal children, and there are no earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes or wildfires. Just peace.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

True story

Yesterday morning I dropped the truck off to get her winter boots on. My son picked me up and we headed out to Oak Glen to have breakfast at Apple Annie’s, walk off our potatoes and apple pie along the nature trails at Los Rios Rancho, and pick up some Honey Crisp apples and apple cider. As he drove, I told him how well I’d slept the night before, a conversation which progressed into the not-fond memories of waking up to shots being fired in our old Rancho Cucamonga neighborhood. Such things were a regular occurrence back then. Since I’ve lived here on the mountain, I’ve never experienced that sort of rude awakening. Friday night was no different; I read until I was sleepy, then pulled the covers up, cat snuggled lovingly along my side, and fell into a deliciously deep sleep.

Which is why, I suppose, I never heard the shouting or the commotion or the fire engine siren right outside my cabin.

When I returned yesterday, Neighbor Eric came out to apologize if I’d been disturbed the night before.
“No, no,” I assured him. “I had the best sleep—“
“We had a chimney fire,” he said. “Baldy Fire was here, lights and sirens. They parked between our cabins. You really didn’t hear anything?”

I really didn’t hear anything.

Maybe it has to do with the double-paned windows in the loft. More likely, it has to do with how safe I feel, tucked away in this canyon, away from all the predators in the flatland.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Ben at 17

On the day of my grandson’s twelfth birthday, I picked him up at his dad’s to take him to dinner.

“How are you, Nana?” he asked politely as he climbed into my truck.
“I’m a little sad, Ben,” I told him with a sigh.
“Sad? Why? You should be happy. It’s my birthday!” His voice held all the innocent concern of a pre-teen boy before the voice change.
I explained to him my sadness came from knowing I had only one year left before he would turn into an ass, that as a teenager he probably wouldn’t want to hike with me any more nor would he deign to hug me in public. He was thoughtful for only a moment before replying.
“If you promise not to be sad, I promise I’ll try”—here he stressed the operative verb try—“not to be an ass when I turn into a teenager, and I promise I’ll still hike with you and hug you. I’ll always hug you. You’re my Nana.”

Within days of this writing, he will turn seventeen. And I am here to say that he has kept his promise—he has no qualms about hugging me in public, and he really has tried not to be an ass as a teenager. (His mother might see things differently, but then, she has to live with him. I don’t.) Actually, he has turned out to be an extraordinary young man, one who loves animals (in particular, wolves), is articulate, polite and personable when meeting new people, and is not reticent to be outspoken on a number of issues, including and especially gay rights. No, he’s not gay; he has been in love with a girl (who was too needy for his free spirit), out of love, and back in again, and he’s comfortable in his own skin. Just don’t say anything anti-gay around him, or you will glimpse a bit o’ the Irish blood passed down to the boy from his great-grandfather.

As for hiking, it is what we do nearly every time we’re together, and while I hike often alone, these hikes with Ben have been my most memorable. Recently he walked the loop with me and we admired the brilliant yellow leaves of the elms as they turn now for autumn. Then as dusk came on we watched for bats and were rewarded by counting more than we’ve ever seen before.

In spite of being a physical kid—he was on his high school wrestling team for awhile and he does Parkour—he is also cerebral, reading every YA book I pass on to him (from Harry Potter to Eragon in his younger days to now the Gone series and I Am Number Four) in a matter of days. He understands literature in a way most of my students do not, and he can converse intelligently about plot, character motivation and other elements of fiction. But I attribute that to his mother’s influence….

When I moved to the mountain, Ben’s chores when he was here with me were minimal:
Help me bring in wood.
Hold the ladder.
Stand on that branch while I cut it.

Four short years later, he is my equal as I tell him:
Bring in some firewood and start a fire.
Use the saw and cut up those branches.
Climb up on the roof and take down the spark arrestor.
Back the truck up over here.

He is a very good driver.

Some weeks ago, he and his mom were going through some things she had kept for him, and he came upon a copy of the Christian Science Monitor. When he asked her why this had been saved as a keepsake, she pointed out the essay I’d written about him for the Home Forum page: “Boy, Uninterrupted.” I wrote it when he was ten, on the day I had taught him how to skip rocks—a skill he has perfected and still engages in. It was my first piece for the Monitor, and it established a great writer-editor relationship for me. Of course, he had never read it, so upon discovering it, he called me to talk about it. And it brought back all the memories of that day… standing on the banks of the Santa Ana River under a shady tree, rejoicing in the blessing of some quality time with this magical boy. I worried, when he was twelve, that he would lose his magic, that the power of his pure, untainted heart would be diminished by the harsh lessons of adolescence. The truth is, he grows ever more magical with every year that passes, ever more comfortable in his skin and his perspective on the world, ever more skillful at skipping rocks… just for the sheer joy of it.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Remembering 9-11

On the morning of September 11, 2001, I rose at 4:00a.m., walked the dogs, read the local paper while I had a cup of tea, and then got ready for work. What was unusual for me that day was that I didn’t turn on the radio while getting dressed after my shower. Something—whatever it was—had me deep in thought that day. I have no idea what it was.

Finally, as I rolled out of the driveway and headed to work, I tuned in to an L.A.-based AM news station, KFWB. ‘We are getting initial reports that planes have hit #1 and #2 towers of the World Trade Center….’ What? Wait. What? I found myself leaning forward, turning up the volume. I tried to imagine the scenario; a military training mission gone horribly wrong? Did he say “planes”? Both towers? The standard program formatting of news-weather-traffic-sports had been suspended. The station managers in Los Angeles were trying desperately to connect with eyewitnesses across the country, trying to verify wire service reports that seemed impossible to believe.

I was halfway to work when they went live with a reporter on the ground in New York City. His first report: One of the Twin Towers had collapsed.

“What?” This time I said it aloud. I was certain what he’d heard was in error, that people were overreacting to some big explosion, that the news anchors would update the story soon to assure everyone that the building was still standing.

And then came the report that the second tower had collapsed. I’d been driving at a snail’s pace, trying to hear as much as I could before I got to work. Now my foot hit the accelerator and I sped to Jurupa Valley High School, where I taught at the time. Immediately upon arriving, I headed for the teacher’s lounge to validate what I was hearing. Someone had brought in a cart with a TV. Teachers were gathered around it, watching in horror. Some were crying. No one spoke. We watched until the bell dispersed us.

On the way to class, I stopped by the principal’s office to ask if I could bring students to the lounge during the third period of the day—my Journalism class. Yes, I was told, as long as they were respectful.

Several students were absent in my first period class. I suspended my planned lesson.

“Are you alright?” I asked my freshmen. “You aren’t scared, are you?”

Yes, they told me candidly. They were frightened and worried and rumors had already spread across campus that the L.A. area would be targeted next. I spent the hour reassuring them, told them what I’d heard already of flights across the country being canceled, airports and train stations shut down. While I spoke calmly to them my heart was racing. My son worked in the L.A. area. I hadn’t heard from him.

“We’re going to be alright here,” I told them, hoping that what I told them was the truth. We had a similar discussion in Period 2. At some point in the first hours, my daughter called my classroom, and she told me she’d been watching the scenes on television. I remember needing to hang up, to get back to my class, but not wanting to sever the connection between us. We weren’t really saying anything other than how horrible it all was, but as long as I could hear her voice, I knew that she was safe.

When my Journalism students arrived, I explained that we’d been given special permission to sit in the lounge for the class period and watch the news coverage, assuring them that they weren’t required to stay if what they saw was too disturbing. I warned them to be respectful of the teachers who would be seeking sanctuary in their grief.

We filed in without saying a word, found seats and sat glued to the horrific images for nearly an hour. Behind me, I could hear the heavy door open and close behind me as others came in to watch, but not a single word was spoken during the hour. Someone at the back of the room was crying. It was the only sound we heard apart from the stunned voices of the reporters. When the bell rang, my students picked up their backpacks and walked out silently.

Somehow, we all kept putting one foot in front of the other to make it through that day. My teacher-heroes set aside their mathematics and literature and science lessons for the day and simply talked to their students about history and war and the meaning of terrorism.

At home finally, I gathered with my own children around the television and we continued watching for hours. By now, stories of heroism and tragedy were being documented. And the news clips of relatives looking for loved ones were being broadcast. We watched… and cried… and watched… and I told them they might have to sleep on the living room floor with me, as I didn’t think I could bear to let them out of my sight. Finally, though, I went to my room because as a writer, I felt I needed to document what had happened and my response to it. I sat with pen in hand, staring at a blank page until I fell asleep from exhaustion.

I didn’t write about the attack until four days later. I couldn’t. Sometimes the sadness simply goes too deep to be gotten at with words. I spent the first days playing my guitar, singing songs of grief… and hope… and trying to process the insanity of it.

Of course, the event changed me, as it changed most of us.

In the weeks following, I wrote countless emails to close friends. I used the words “I love and appreciate you” over and over. I wanted my friends to know how much they meant to me… just in case.

And when I went to work each day, I told my students that I loved them. I have continued to do so since that time. Looking into their faces on September 11th, seeing the fear and anxiety there, hearing their stories of teachers who had hugged them or put an arm around them or told them they were safe here inspired me to work harder to let every student know; I will do my best to keep you safe in mind and spirit and body. It is a powerful responsibility we have been charged with as teachers, and I take it more seriously now than I ever have.

I invite you to comment here with your own remembrance of the day... lest we ever forget....

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Playing. Again.

What happens to me when I ride my bike is a miracle, an absolute miracle, I tell you. Nothing short of. It’s like getting in a time machine. The longer I ride, the younger I feel. Seriously. When was the last time you bombed a downhill? And splashed through water at the bottom? In shorts, so the water sprinkled over your hot dusty legs? And did it fast enough to pull yourself up the other side? And flew right past a rattlesnake while you did so?

OK, well, I confess that last bit about the snake was an embellishment, but still. There is a certain element of danger in mountain biking alone on a little-used trail. I kept looking over my shoulder for mountain lions.

I hope you haven’t forgotten the exhilaration of it, how you felt as a kid, whether you were a playing-cards-in-the-spokes kind of guy, or a sedate lady pedaling her powder blue Schwinn on a quiet Sunday afternoon.

I love it so much, you’d think I would ride more often. I own a Gary Fisher Rock Hopper with gnarly tires and front suspension. OK, now you’re thinking, ‘Why don’t you ride it more often?’ I’ve been telling The Grandson for a year I would take it in to the shop, get the back tire repaired, have it tuned up. And I finally did it this week. Booyah! Of course I had to give it a test run, so I took it out to Cow Canyon and rode it out to the Secret Waterfall. (Photo below.) Didn’t see a single person on the trail. Ah, solitude.

I have a Trek hybrid, too, that I love even more than the mountain bike. On a whim the other day, I put it in the truck and drove down to Yorba Linda Regional Park. The Santa Ana River bike trail begins east of the park, but you can park inside for a nominal fee and hit the trail from the park’s perimeter. It’s a fascinating experience. The trail runs along the Santa Ana River as it trundles along to the sea. (And you can ride the bike trail all the way to the ocean; it’s only about 20 miles from the park in Yorba Linda.) What’s amazing is what you see. In the distance, there’s the 91 freeway. Not interesting at all—though the morning of my ride, traffic was backed up for miles, moving at a snail’s pace, and I couldn’t stifle the urge to chuckle and gloat. Bad karma, I know, but having been in that spot so many times, I couldn’t suppress the joy of not being there on a cool, sunlit morning as I rolled along the asphalt trail above the river.

And on the river were seabirds. I saw snowy egrets first. “Wow,” I said aloud. “Snowy egrets!” Then I saw a heron. And a cormorant. “No way!” I said aloud. “A cormorant!” And a sandpiper. And a plover, hovering over the water, then diving in for something delectable. The grandest sight of all was the Great Blue Heron. They are huge, and so majestic, standing in the shallow water, beaks poised, ready to strike as soon as they see a crawdad or snake or anything else edible. I stopped when I saw the first one. And I stopped when I saw the second one about a mile further on. And then I stopped stopping and stopped counting and just got happier every time I saw another one. For a long time, the Great Blues were endangered, and were a rare sight in California, a very rare sight in SoCal. But they’ve decided to make a comeback. Yes, I know we dirty up the air and the water, and it’s so dang noisy what with the cars everywhere, but Southern California is still a nice place to live. So… thanks for staying, I want to tell them. Instead I just smile and pedal away.

Friday, July 29, 2011


Fifteen years or so ago I taught my first English 1A class at Chaffey Community College. In that class was a young man by the name of Martin Lastrapes. Martin was nearly fresh out of high school, unsure of what he wanted to do in life, a quiet, soft-spoken, dark-eyed young man who said little in class but made up for it in his essays.

My job was to teach them the fundamentals of writing, so that my students would go on to express themselves successfully for the duration of their college years and perhaps beyond. But I also wanted them to become engaged in the writing, to understand it as a vehicle of self-expression at least, an artistic creation at best. So I assigned such topics as “Describe the last time you cried” and “What is the most frightening experience you’ve ever had?”

I had 36 students in that first class. That’s a lot of essays to grade on a Sunday afternoon. And back then, I was a pretty slow grader. It’s a grueling process, working one’s way through a stack of papers that represent, for the most part, a half-hearted effort to complete an assignment which is seen as merely another hoop to jump through in the circus performance of getting a college degree. Marking the myriad of errors was tedious, to say the least.

Early on in the semester I learned to put Martin’s essays on the bottom of the pile—so that I would have something to look forward to as I slogged through the rest of the batch. He wrote with a quirky, personable style that I really enjoyed, part comedic, part earnest sincerity that was simply endearing. And I don’t think he was really trying to accomplish this; it was coming from his own innate artistic expression. To encourage him, I wrote small comments in the margins of his paper: “This made me laugh!” and “Love the way you express this!” and finally “You could be a writer, Martin.” It was the same thing my fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Walton, had told me, the one statement that sent me on my way to being the writer I am today.

The semester ended, and quiet Martin went on his way. Five years later I received an email from him. It said, in part:


There is an awfully good chance that you won’t remember me… I went into your class without much direction and you encouraged me to be a writer. Believe it or not, your encouragement was extremely influential. Nobody had ever isolated my writing as something worth exploring before you. Since then I graduated from Chaffey and recently got my B.A. in English. I’m going to start my journey toward a master’s in English Composition this Fall…. As far as writing goes, I worked as a fiction editor for the Pacific Review and I was invited to read one of my short stories at the Cal Poly Writers Conference in March of 2003. I write all of the time, and I cannot imagine a life without it.
All of this is preface to the announcement that Martin—my stellar student of fifteen years ago, that kid who sat quietly on one side of the classroom wondering where life would take him—has just published his first novel, Inside the Outside. “Proud of him” isn’t adequate to describe my feelings about this recent accomplishment. Martin has been teaching college for some years, but having read an advance copy of his new book, I can see that his future truly lies in written expression.

And of course, this is yet another reminder to me of what teachers must always remember: Even the most casual comment—whether positive or negative—can have a lasting effect on a student.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Ordinary miracles

My chariot awaits (to take me to dreamland)!
(Note trusty cat companion in left foreground.  Sugie loves the swing, too.)

I saw a fish yesterday. A speckled trout, to be precise. No, it wasn’t online or in a fish tank. He was a wild fish. Well, I guess I mean, he was swimming “in the wild.” He looked rather placid, a happy guy, if you want to know the truth, floating languidly at the bottom of a marshy pond, his tail fins slowly oscillating, much like my cat’s tail. To see him was to see a miracle.
There is no lake in Mt. Baldy where I live. The mountain is filled with aquifers, though, and during the winter, it stores up snow and ice, then spends the spring and summer leaking as all that frozen water melts. We have waterfalls and rivulets, tiny streams and larger creeks (nothing big enough to be called a river).

When I first moved to the mountain four years ago, we’d been plagued by years of drought in Southern California. The mountain streams were no more than trickles. There were no fish to speak of. But in the past several years we’ve had a few good winters, and now we have water aplenty. And fish! It’s a miracle!

Mr. Speckled Trout was just one of several miracles I’ve seen lately. I understand they may not be classified as “miracles” to everyone. Call them blessings, then.

Out for my morning walk several days ago, I saw two deer just down the road, camouflaged in a small oak grove near the firehouse. Word on the street is that they’ve been hanging around Bob and Jean Walker’s cabin. (I would, too; there’s a great wild-life-loving aura there.) We rarely get deer in this area, so it was nice to see them.

In the backyard a few days ago, getting a drink from the small dish of water I leave out for whoever wants it, I had a lazuli bunting. I’ve got a hanging feeder, so I get chickadees, nuthatches, black-headed grosbeaks (all dressed up for Halloween), acorn woodpeckers, one lone titmouse and our ever-present Stellar’s jays. But in four years, I’ve never had a lazuli bunting. If you click on the link, you will see a gorgeous photo by photographer Larry Thompson. These birds are a beautiful shade of blue, much like the lapis lazuli that is found in only two places in the U.S.—Colorado and here in Mt. Baldy. Another miracle! Mr. Bunting didn’t stay long, but he did come back the next day for a drink, so I’ve got my eye out for him.

My days lately have been spent alternately working on the dog book and watching the Tour de France before dawn, then taking long walks in the forest mid-morning, then coming home to my beloved porch swing, where I read, write or simply curl up and sleep, my face on one side nestled against the soft cotton blanket, on the other warmed by sunrays filtering through the branches overhead. Yesterday’s walk took me down into San Antonio Canyon, along a trail that follows old, washed out Mt. Baldy Road. It’s a great hike, with steep canyon walls to the east, the stream gushing along beside them, and an oak lined path… which eventually led to the marsh where I sat among the cattails watching the fish and the tiny rufous hummingbirds (which periodically employed strafing missions to try to get me to leave their nesting area). They are feisty and beautiful and yes, to my mind, miraculous.

All of this walking made me quite sleepy, of course, so upon my return, I had to spend some moments dozing on the swing. The only sound outside for hours was birdsong. As I drifted in and out of sleep, I found myself picking out the individual calls, matching song with bird, sheltered above by the green canopy of oak leaves, crystal blue sky beyond. As one bird call became more and more persistent, I slowly drifted back up to wakefulness, realizing it was the red-shafted flicker. Mr. Flicker is extremely reclusive. A type of woodpecker, he stays high in the treetops, dressed in his polka-dot pajamas, and I rarely get a glimpse of him. In fact, it took me two years to match call to bird when I first moved to the cabin. But yesterday I heard him clearly, shouting away for some reason. And when I did eventually wake fully and open my eyes, there he was, sitting in the branches directly above me. Call it what you will. I’m calling it a miracle.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Missing Mizzou

Photo by Ginger Collins-Justus

One week ago I landed in St. Louis at 4:30p.m. and by 8:00p.m. I was standing in a small family cemetery in Robertsville, watching lightning bugs dance just above the recently mown grass and listening to Marc Houseman tell me the tragic tale of the Finney family. People in California often chuckle when I tell them that I spend a great deal of my time while visiting Missouri just wandering around old graveyards. Mostly, they think I’m kidding. I understand why; most of our graveyards here are simply expansive acres of grass, with perhaps a tree planted here or there. We have little of the sense of place and history that folks in the mid-west, who’ve often lived their entire lives in the same town, do. I still remember my first visit to Missouri, driving down the highway with my mother in a small rental car and seeing a ‘real’ cemetery with above ground monuments. I pulled over, jumped out, and ran to look at headstones, snapping pictures right and left. There were birth and death dates in the 1800’s. Imagine that! Mom remained in the car, nonplussed at the diversion from our course. There was nothing novel there for her, having been raised on a farm in Missouri. But I could have spent hours just reading the names and epitaphs on the headstones, immersed in the imagined history of the deceased.

When I travel to cemeteries with Marc, I often don’t have to imagine the history; he is a walking directory of “Here lies…” information, and can often tell me what the person did for a living, what family members are still in the community, and other details which honor the life of the departed. On this trip, I also had the privilege of wandering through several cemeteries and a mausoleum with Ginger Justus, who is working on, among other projects, the restoration of the Oak Grove Mausoleum in St. Louis. Like Marc, Ginger is devoted to the preservation of the history and beauty connected to places of burial, and she, too, is a fount of information. It is her photo that graces the top of my blog today.

On this trip to MO, I also met Betty Green, a fan of Tainted Legacy and a woman with a contagiously youthful spirit and vigor. Betty lives in Catawissa, the small town where my great-grandmother lived, back in the country by the Meramec River, where cardinals and other birds exotic to California flit around her outdoor feeders. Betty was gracious enough to invite me for a visit, and I had a great time chatting with her and her husband, Jim, who is an actual veteran of the Battle of the Bulge (and co-author of a book about it).

And I met Cody Jones, a young man who has grown up not with privileges but with courage. His story was inspiring. (He told it to me, in a self-effacing way, as we enjoyed pizza together at the Pizza Hut in Pacific.) Cody and I share a similar connection in that we are both still hopeful that “the right one” will come along someday, and I asked permission to adopt Cody’s mantra of “I’d rather be alone than wish that I were.” Amen, my young friend, amen.

I also had lunch with Brenda Wiesehan and toured the Pacific Plaza Antique Mall where she works. She has arranged to carry copies of Tainted Legacy in the store, so there will be an outlet in Pacific for them on a regular basis.

On my last night in Missouri, I spoke about Bertha Gifford at the Scenic Regional Library in Union. A great and gracious crowd gathered. One gentleman was kind enough to mention that his grandfather had worked for the Giffords at one time and ate many a meal at their table—and lived a long and healthy life, apparently. Another woman spoke up to say proudly that her father had been on the grand jury which indicted my great-grandmother. Amazing….

In our frenetic lifestyles here in Cali, we tend to overlook the fact that there are stories everywhere. Returning to Missouri every year gives me the opportunity to slow down—way down—and simply listen to some of them… or imagine them from the spare lines on tombstones.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

First day of summer

School ended on the 9th of June, and last week was my first official week of summer vacation. While friends began to post on Facebook about taking their kids or grandkids to Disneyland or about having fun on shopping excursions, I looked forward to taking long walks in the woods. Here are a few highlights from last week:

Hike #1
On my first day of break, I indulged in a third cup of Irish Breakfast tea, spent some time attending to my email inbox, then headed down to the village to drop off trash, recycling and mail. Afterward, I headed up Glendora Ridge Road, rolling along slowly in the truck, looking for water bottles cast off in the recent Tour of California bike race (not because I’m a groupie, but to make sure they made it into the recycle bin). I saw a fire road tucked way back in the hills, so I parked the truck and started walking. The path was lined with patches of lupine and other flowers, so as I walked, I breathed in the wild scent and listened to chickadees, tanagers, jays, wrens and nuthatches. On the way back, I heard a commotion in the foliage next to the road, so I stopped and waited. A young buck emerged and seemed surprised to see me. When I said hello, he trotted down the trail in front of me, eventually going over the side and down into the canyon below. Driving back, I swerved to avoid a rock in the middle of the road that looked just like a bird. In my rearview mirror, I saw it move. I stopped, leaving the truck in the middle of the road with the emergency flashers on, and walked back. A baby bluebird was standing on the asphalt, looking very confused. When I put my hands down to him, he stepped onto my finger. Slowly and carefully, I walked to the side of the highway, found a shady place in the chaparral, and set him down. Moments later as I got back in the truck, a sports car came flying up the road from the opposite direction. The tiny bird would certainly have been killed if it had remained where it was. This was another magical opportunity for me, one I do not take lightly (thank you, Universe), and one that is afforded by having the time to move slowly and quietly.

Hike #2
The next day I invited my buddy Doug to join me on an evening hike to Sunset Peak. I knew the moon would be rising about sunset and that it would be nearly full. We met at the trailhead at 5:00p.m. and began a leisurely walk up the trail. “Maybe we’ll see a deer,” I told him. Two miles later we did. A doe stood on the path about fifty yards ahead of us. We watched her for a moment, then she dropped over the side into the canyon. Cool. A mile further on, we stopped to watch a family of mountain quail. After two hours, we reached the summit. From the top, we could see fifty miles to the south. To the west we could see the rest of the San Gabriels stretching toward L.A., with the day’s misty marine layer settled in between the purple peaks. As the sun dropped below the ridges in a gorgeous display of orange and red, the moon rose to the east, so we could watch one show for awhile, then simply turn 180 degrees and watch the other. When the light was nearly faded, we began our walk down. By the time we reached the highway, we no longer needed our headlamps; the moonlight was bright enough to light the way. I enjoyed the deepest of sleeps that night.

Hike #3
My cabin sits a hundred or so feet back from the edge of a canyon. At the apex of that canyon is a steep waterfall. One of my favorite hikes involves climbing down into the canyon and following the stream up to the falls. On Thursday, I did just that, for the first time since last fall. In December we had five days of continuous rainfall which gorged the streams and, in the case of our canyon, actually changed the course of the water’s flow since so much debris tumbled down so quickly. The rushing water also gouged out deeper pools along the streambed, so walking up meant either finding ways to climb around them or simply wading through them. The water percolates from melting ice and snow inside the mountain, so it’s pretty cold, but on a hot spring day, it’s delicious when a hand or foot or leg goes into the water. At one point, a rock dislodged as I stepped down on it, and I tumbled into one of the deeper pools, getting wet all the way up to my pockets. I wasn’t hurt, other than a bruise on my hip, and later my Facebook status read: “I don’t mind falling. It’s landing that tends to erase the thrill of the event.” Still, it was a great hike, and I did it again yesterday, this time managing to negotiate the stream all the way to the falls without once falling. Of course, once I reach the waterfall, I like to take off my cap, hold it under the falling water until it’s soaked, then put it back on.

In two days, I’ll be heading to Missouri to visit much-missed friends, meet new cousins, and speak at the library in Union about my great-grandmother (who is infamous in the area, thus affording me mini-rock star status while I’m there). My walks while there will consist of heading up the hill from the hotel to the graveyards beyond. But I’ll be looking forward to many more trail adventures when I return. In the meantime, I fall asleep now at dusk listening to western tanagers singing high overhead in the treetops, awake to the same music every morning.

Friday, June 10, 2011

A picture of Bertha Gifford

On Wednesday after work I did a slow and leisurely hike up Bear Canyon. We’ve been on minimum day schedule this week at school due to final exams, so I was able to hit the trail by 2:00p.m. I moseyed along, watching for snakes… and didn’t see one until a juvenile rattler lethargically slid off the trail just before I reached Bear Flat, my destination. In the pine-scented meadow, I sat on a large boulder in the warm sun, ate some grapes, strawberries and pumpernickel pretzels, and wrote in my journal.

The program, Ghost Hunters, will do a segment on the Morse Mill hotel this summer. If you are unfamiliar, some, er, paranormal investigators will walk through the hotel at night with electronic equipment and be filmed as they do so. At some point, someone in the group will exclaim, “DID YOU SEE THAT?” or “DID YOU HEAR THAT?” I know. I’ve watched the program many times. I have no issue with what they do (while I do question their methods—Really? Ghosts only appear in dark time? What are they afraid of, exactly?). But it does bother me on a personal level that this mythology of Bertha haunting the hotel persists. Of course, the mythology is perpetuated by the owner of the hotel—because now he’s charging fifty bucks a person for ‘paranormal tours’ every weekend, claiming that Bertha murdered many people there.

The truth is (in case anyone rational is listening), Bertha Gifford ran the hotel for awhile before she was Bertha Gifford, when she was married to Henry Graham… and long before she was ever accused of poisoning anyone. Bertha Gifford, in 1928, was charged with giving arsenic to two people. One charge was later dropped for lack of evidence, and she was tried for the murder of Ed Brinley. At her grand jury hearing, folks came forward and said she may have given arsenic to others. None of those claims were ever substantiated. And by then, Bertha had long since moved away from Morse Mill. So connecting her with hauntings at the hotel is ludicrous. Oh, I’m not saying there aren’t ghosts there. I’m sure there are, in one form or another…. But they have nothing to do with my great-grandmother.

In advance of shooting the show, the producers of Ghost Hunters or one of the cast will interview historian (and my close friend) Marc Houseman on Tuesday. Would love to be in MO for that. As it turns out, I’ll be there a week later. The producers had no interest in postponing the interview for a week so that they could speak with me. Of course not. I would just spoil everything, wouldn’t I?

In the meantime, apparently folks are still trying to find a picture of Bertha. This blog has seen dozens of hits in recent days from people who are finding it through a Google image search for Bertha Gifford. Thus my subject line. Fooled ya! Ha!

One of the many lessons I’ve learned from living on the mountain is that you always need to watch where you tread, as a snake may appear in your path unexpectedly….

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Back to the dog book

After spending last week reporting on the Tour of California, I am back to working on the dog book this week… which means I have gone from the highs of daily race coverage to the dark forest of some pretty intense emotion. Wordsworth said that poetry springs from a place of deep feeling recollected in tranquility. My time working on this next memoir can be characterized as anything but tranquil.

I talked about writing the book for over a year before I finally had the courage to begin. I have mentioned already that I was quite cavalier in my planning. What could be difficult? I’d be writing about some of the best dogs that have blessed my life. But in writing about Ruf, I had to recount some pretty awful times with my (now deceased) wicked step-father. And in writing about Sapo, I had to write about my first marriage. Oof.

Monday, while most of my neighbors were out enjoying the gorgeous sunshine on Memorial Day, I was inside at the keyboard, trying to finish a section of the dog book. Writing… and crying. This is how it’s been through most of the book. When I think about it, this is how it was while I was writing Tainted Legacy. I sat at the computer, allowed myself to channel, in a sense, the emotional suffering of all the players back when my great-grandmother was stirring up trouble in a small Missouri town, and I wrote… sometimes for hours… and cried.

This time the pain is deeper… closer… as I’m writing about my own life, my own wounds. To write this book well means to re-visit those times in my life when all I had to cling to was a tiny ray of hope and a great big dog.

The dog I wrote about on Monday was Mosie, a Doberman pinscher who came into my life for a short period during a very tumultuous time. Writing about what happened to her as a result of my former husband’s idiocy brought back all the anger from that time—and maybe cooked it up to a hotter degree, given what I know now about good animals and stupid humans.

One of the blessings of being here on this mountain is the ability to walk out my cabin door and up to the waterfall whenever I am so overcome with anger that I can’t function any more. I did that, finally, when The Universe was practically hollering in my ear, ‘Step away from the keyboard. Now. And get you to a tranquil place.’ I walked along the canyon rim, listened to the stream below, patted the trees as I passed them, and thought about all my good dogs.

When I came down the trail at the base of the falls, I looked up to see a big black dog—a Doberman pinscher—a young, beautiful female like Mosie had been—just standing there in the water. I’ve seen a lot of dogs up here—pitbulls, shepherds, labs, retrievers and every kind of mix you can think of, but this is the first time I’ve ever seen a purebred dobie. It crossed my mind to ask her person—seated comfortably on a large boulder above the stream—if I could pet her. But I didn’t. I just stood and watched her for awhile.

The experience was haunting, as if in writing about Mosie, I had conjured this apparition. And it was validating. This book has been difficult to write, and I have had to take up arms against my own self-doubt every time I sit down to write again. But it’s what I’m supposed to be doing. I knew that for certain as soon as I saw her.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Cheaters usually prosper....

Congratulations to Chris Horner on winning the 2011 Tour of California (because all he had to do in Sunday’s final stage was not let anyone get more than 38 seconds ahead of him—well done, Chris, Team RadioShack, and Matt Busche, who looked like a young Chris Horner as he gave 110% to get Chris and Levi where they needed to be in the race on Saturday and Sunday).

And my condolences to Horner as well. His glory will now be tarnished, the wind sucked from the sails of victory, by allegations of doping in professional cycling. Again. In all the years that Chris quietly worked to bring other teammates like Levi Leipheimer to the podium, no one questioned his lifestyle. Now that he’s a champion, people will murmur behind his back. The words sound something like this: “He’s probably doping like the rest of them.”

I have written in the past about Lance Armstrong (6 June 2010), about not being a starry-eyed fan as I followed his career. Last week, several days before Sunday’s “60 Minutes” interview with Tyler Hamilton about his federal grand jury testimony regarding the use of performance enhancing substances in professional cycling, Lance posted a message on Twitter. The gist of it was this: In 20 years of cycling and 500 drug tests, I never tested positive. “Enough said.” Hmm, I thought at the time. Not enough said. Saying you’ve never had a positive result is not the same as making the declaration, ‘I’m not concerned about these allegations because I’ve never used performance enhancing substances.’

Let me interject a brief education here for my non-cycling-enthusiast friends. The term “performance enhancing drugs” is a misnomer. The substances named in the allegations are not “drugs” in the sense that we think of them but rather those chemicals which are already found naturally in the body, such as Human Growth Hormone, Testosterone, and a rider’s own blood (withdrawn pre-race and then secretly transfused back into the exhausted rider’s bloodstream, replacing the depleted blood with fresh and lively red blood cells). These practices are banned, of course, by the authorities who govern professional cycling. Tyler Hamilton mentioned that Lance Armstrong used these aids “in preparation” for the Tour de France, not during, but I think the poor bedeviled man was splitting hairs in order to find some way to not be the world’s most hated whistle-blower. Too late, my friend.

Regarding Tyler Hamilton: Someone, please, keep an eye on him. By his body language alone, it is clear that he is deeply distressed, so awash in emotional pain that he is hurting physically as well. I have no doubt that he is suffering monumental depression. Someone, please, watch over him and keep him safe. I would applaud him for his courage in coming forward… had he done so of his own volition. (He was subpoenaed by the court; he gave his testimony reluctantly and only after assurance of exclusion from prosecution.) Keep teaching those young guys how to ride, Tyler. You’ve a long way to go, but like anyone, you do have the opportunity to redeem yourself if you work hard enough.

Hamilton said that when he was offered performance enhancers, it was with the lure of being able to step up his game, ascend to the next level. He’d worked so hard for so many years to get to that point, and he could see it… just one step over a thin line. In his mind’s eye, he saw glory and adulation, and he reached out to grab it.

And it is my position that we should all be held accountable for his error in judgment. This is what occurs when we raise our children to believe that fame and fortune are the only goals of value in life. If you don’t agree that we teach them that every day, turn on your TV set. Nobody is anybody unless he or she is winning big or earning big.

Do Tyler’s revelations change the way I feel about professional cycling? No, not really. We weathered this storm with baseball, for the most part, and I still find the game fascinating and thrilling. I loved Mark McGwire, too, and despite his eventual admission of guilt (if you can call it that) regarding steroid use, I’m pretty sure we’ll never know the whole story there, either, just as we won’t with Lance Armstrong. Keep in mind, before there was steroid use, there was pine tar. My point is that, wherever athletes strive to be the “best,” you’re going to find those who are willing to cheat. This is no different than the day-to-day world we live in. People cheat every day—on the diets, their taxes, their significant others. I’m no longer horrified by those who make such choices. In fact, I feel a certain amount of compassion for them. As I said, for some folks, the pressure to ‘be somebody’ is overwhelming these days.

My guess is by now Chris Horner has been asked about a hundred times in the last two days what he thinks of the current doping scandal and whether he’s ever used banned substances. He will be asked these same questions again—a thousand or so times—when he competes in the Tour de France in July, and that’s unfortunate. Someone, please, just ask him how it feels to be one of the oldest guys out there still competing on this level… and maybe what he ate for breakfast.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Two Heroes: 2011 Amgen Tour of California Mt Baldy

Photo courtesy of the Amgen Tour of California website

My friend Matt Davis once told me that I was doomed to live single. His contention was that I would never find a man who would sit and watch the Tour de France with me but also go to poetry readings. So far, he’s been right….

Of course when Billy Collins deigned to make a rare California appearance, it had to be on the same date as the most exciting day of the year for me, the day a stage of the Tour of California came to Mt. Baldy. Of course. Murphy’s Law strikes again. When I declined the ticket my daughter bought for me, I felt as if I were choosing between two heroes—Billy Collins or Levi Leipheimer. And yes, I realize how unique that makes me in the world, and no, it does not console me.

I say all this as prelude to my description of sitting yesterday with a group of warm, funny, cheerful Mt. Baldy folk who knew nothing of bicycle stage racing before our adventurous afternoon began, but who tried excitedly to educate themselves as the hours wore on and we watched the race progress online (via live coverage on Radio Shack’s Race Tracker). From time to time during the day, as we shared communal chips, guacamole and apple pie and chatted about water rights on the mountain and how much snow was still up top, my mind would be distracted as I envisioned my daughter—who will begin a Master of Fine Arts program in the fall because she is a fine poet in her own right—standing and chatting with Billy Collins after that evening’s reading. At some point, I wished I’d thrown one of Billy’s books in my bag. Two years ago when the same group of people invited me to join them for a Leonard Cohen concert in L.A., Tamara had brought along a book of Cohen’s musings, reading them aloud to us on the car ride into the city. Yesterday, in quieter moments, I imagined myself reading to my neighbors “Shoveling Snow with Buddha.” These are the fantasies that swirl in the mind of a writer. We learn early in life to keep them to ourselves.

For months prior to yesterday’s stage, on my drives to and from work, I would scan the race route, trying to figure out where the Best Spot would be to watch Stage 7. I finally decided on my buddy Vince’s driveway, as it fronts the highway at nearly the top of The Dreaded Switchbacks, and also because I enjoy Vince’s company. (When I’d asked if I could watch the race from his place, he casually remarked that he’d probably be playing tennis that day, but he’d leave me a key to his cabin in case I needed anything. I had to convince him that this bike race might be kind of a big thing.)

So there we were at Vince’s, seated comfortably in lawn chairs, watching hundreds of spectators and recreational cyclists mill around. Our normally quiet and peaceful mountain was abuzz with commotion. It was a gorgeous spring day with warm sun and clean mountain air. When stage coverage began online, Vince brought out his laptop and began to give us updates. “They’re on Glendora Mountain Road!” There was a break-away of eight riders trying desperately to stay ahead of the peloton, but they only had two minutes on the rest of the pack, and eventually most of them would fall away.

When the riders were on the return route along Glendora Ridge Road, we began to get excited. By now Tamara was holding the laptop, and she gave us updates based on locations we knew. “They’re passing Cow Canyon Saddle!” Since our location was so strategic, we’d amassed a small group of cycling fans and professional photographers who were waiting to make noise or shoot pictures as the cyclists came into view. We kept them apprised of the riders’ progress and in turn they exchanged insider information with us. One of the photographers was on staff for Team HTC and used to ride with Chris Horner. And yes, he replied to my question, he really is as great a guy in “real life” as he seems to be when interviewed on TV.

The riders sailed through Mt. Baldy Village in a matter of seconds, and then we knew they were just minutes away. CHP vehicles rolled up the switchbacks in advance, lights flashing, loudspeakers squawking, warning fans to stay off the road, the riders were coming. I know I asked Tamara to the point of being annoying if she could see (in the glare of the computer screen) if a rider in yellow was near the front of the pack. I wanted to know that Chris Horner and Levi Leipheimer would be the first riders we’d see. They weren’t. They were third and fourth, so consequently, I snapped photos of the first two guys (hangers on from the break-away), and just started cheering along with everyone else when Chris and Levi rode by ten feet away. They were together, with Chris drafting off Levi, and they rode the final two miles of the grueling ascent that way, Levi leading his teammate and friend up the last steep incline. The minute they were past us, Tamara continued to call out updates as the crowd—bless their hearts—cheered for every single rider in the same way they’d cheered for the leaders.

By the time they reached the ski lift parking lot, Chris and Levi were alone on the road, the next rider many seconds behind. As they pulled up to the finish, Chris reached out and patted Levi on the back as a gesture of thanks. Levi reached back and they touched hands. This, in cycling, is a universal signal. It meant that Chris would “give” Levi the stage. He would allow him to roll ahead unchallenged to take the win and all the glory that came with it, because they’d ridden together all day, Levi helping Chris to keep his overall standing of race leader. It was a tremendous and heroic ending to an incredible day.

As it turns out, my kid did end up chatting with Billy Collins, just as I'd imagined it. Yep, that's her.  Wow...

Aah, says the Buddha, lifting his eyes
And leaning for a moment on his shovel
before he drives the thin blade again
deep into the glittering white snow.

From "Shoveling Snow with Buddha," by Billy Collins