Monday, December 24, 2012

Sleep in heavenly peace....

      Can it be that I have not posted here since the end of October?  So much has happened since then….  And I have been responding to all of it… on auto-pilot, to some degree.
      My close friends know that I do not do well in large crowds.  People… scare me.  So when I feel the press of humanity, I tend to retreat, shut down, introvert.  The same is true when a plethora of woes fall upon me; the creative aspect of my nature flees to the subconscious level, happily writing novels in there somewhere, while my conscious self deals with putting out fires.
      Fire #1:  Turns out the medical issue I was having was not an illness of the heart, but of the lungs.  Finally, in November, I was diagnosed with (no doubt congenital) bronchiectasis.  For most or all of my life, I have not had healthy lungs.  Several factors in August caused them to go into overdrive trying to get enough oxygen, which made my heart pound.  The symptoms, for the most part, are alleviated now, though the issue with my lungs is “permanent and irreversible,” as my pulmonary doctor so tersely described for me.  In that moment, his diagnosis seemed like a death sentence.  Now, a month down the road, it is something I can live with… because, well, I’ve been living with it all my life.  I just didn’t know.
      Fire #2:  Exactly 24 hours after my diagnosis, I made an offer on a new home.  This was made possible because
      Fire #3:  a very interesting (ß-------polite way of describing rude, selfish, boor) and affluent man made an offer on my cabin.
      So basically since mid-November I have been (1) following doctor’s orders by walking the loop every day—rain, shine, snow, wind, darkness (at times)—and using medication; (2) filling out escrow papers; (3) FAXing escrow papers, loan documents, copies of any and all things to do with my income; (4) reading daily emails from my real estate agent about new demands from my buyer and about how no one else in this process seems to be as efficient or timely in their manner of completing tasks.  ARRRRGGGGHHHH!  Oh, and (5) singing.  When I get really stressed, I sing, mostly as a means of calming myself, but also as an outlet… because if I didn’t sing, I would just sit down and cry out of frustration.  We’ve been trying to explain to my buyer for six weeks that we must get escrow closed before winter because winter means snow and snow on the road means no moving trucks….
      Forecast for today and Thursday?  More snow.
      But enough about me.  It’s Christmas Eve!!!
      May all the joy of the season surround you!  (Can you hear me?  I’m singing “Silent Night.”)

Monday, October 29, 2012

"Turn on... your heart light...."

On Friday I did my second treadmill test, this time after being injected with a radioactive isotope.  Once the tech put me in the machine that would take the pictures of my heart (after I walked uphill for ten minutes on the treadmill), he adjusted a monitor over my head so that I could see a scan of my body.  The image was an amazing, shadowy form made up of bright dots… which made me feel as if my body were a constellation of stars.  “We are stardust, we are golden….”
I went back this morning to be injected again for more pictures of my heart, this time without the treadmill part. I had to lie as still as possible for 17 minutes, but the tech put on some Norah Jones, so all I had to do was relax and enjoy the music.  Afterward I was congratulated for doing a “good job” of not moving and told the results of the test would be ready in “three to five days.”  Sigh.  The results are there, ready to be interpreted by a cardiologist, but that’s why I have to wait—until some doctor has the time to pick up the chart of a stranger and come to a conclusion about her health based on some pretty pictures.
For all of my adult life, I have been fascinated by medical technology; I can only appreciate it all the more now that it’s being applied to me.  At every doctor’s appointment I’ve had in the past two months, I’ve been complimented on my great blood pressure.  I will say again—Is anyone listening?—that I have not felt stressed through all of this.  I know that eventually the docs will find the problem and fix it.  If this were happening to one of my kids, that would be stressful.  But as it is, my biggest challenge currently is this prolonged inactivity.  I long to walk out the door and up to the waterfall, but caution dictates that I wait until some answers emerge from the test results.
So here I am, filling my time with a lot of reading, very little writing and watching far too much television (which for me generally means the news, although I did catch Pride and Prejudice last night on one of the chick channels, watching it for the tenth time or so).  For those of you who have been sending prayers/energy/good thoughts: Thank you.  I can feel it.  Please don’t stop.  I’m convinced that’s why I’ve been able to be so calm through all of this; I definitely know that I’m loved.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Frontal lobe as treasure chest

At the end of the day, the ER doc told me, “You do not look like a sick person.”  And if I had a dollar for every person who has told me either “It’s probably nothing serious” or “It’s probably just stress,” I’d be able to pay myself back for all the co-pays I’ve incurred in recent weeks.
The truth is, there’s something wrong with my heart.  I tried to tell one of the techs who was administering yet another diagnostic test (on the kind of machine seen in episodes of House) that my heart was broken long ago and never quite got itself fixed correctly, but he just looked at me with a patronizing smile and patted the table in a slide-on-over manner.
At this point, no one seems to be clear on what’s wrong with my heart (apart from the accumulated pain of every loss in my life, starting with my dad in 1963).  However, I did receive some welcome validation on Friday; the treadmill test I took a week before had “a positive result.”  Which means now I get to take another one—this time with radiation.  Um… yay.
A few people have said, “This must be so stressful” (and oh, by the way, I also have a buyer for my cabin and I need to pack up and be off the mountain in 30 days and oh, yeah, that includes finding another place to live), but it really isn’t.  That my little, problematic body is undergoing another breakdown of some kind doesn’t really worry me; we’ll figure it out and fix it.  I’m going with the ER doc’s evaluation.
But it has preoccupied my mind lately.  (‘Could it be this? What about that? Will I need surgery? How will I manage that?’)  Then my dear friend Ginger (who is my favorite medium; yes, she communicates with dead people) reminded me that I am “surrounded by some powerful forces,” and that it’s okay to let them take the reins for a while.  Thinking about this on the drive down to work one morning, I let go of all the what-ifs, took some deep breaths, and focused on the moment, the beauty of the morning, the fresh air of the mountain, and all the good stuff in my life.  And in the next moment, a song stepped out from the recesses of my brain, one I hadn’t thought of in many years.  I started to sing it… and found that I remembered every word of it.
Our memories are stored in our frontal lobe, scientists tell us, along with abilities in speech and language.  When we become… preoccupied… with other things—worry, anxiety, sadness—our brains switch over to fight or flight preparation and our frontal lobe hangs out a “Closed due to family emergency” sign.  But we can switch things around, if we so choose, opting for calm and serenity in the face of adversity.  And when we do, our senses are heightened, our memories return.  And singing, I will always advocate, heals a thousand wounds.  I’m not saying it’s going to heal my heart.  But the melodies of life will definitely keep me grounded as I stroll through this little valley. 

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Why this author is giving away free books

The first time I noticed an author doing a "giveaway" on Goodreads, I have to confess, I was kind of resentful.  As it turned out, I had just finished reading that same novel--a book I'd spent a few dollars of my exiguous fortune on--and now here was the author just giving it away for free.  "Hey, I'm a teacher living on a single, limited income that keeps shrinking!  Give me that book!" is what I thought at the time.  But then... I looked into what the giveaways are all about, and I finally understood.  For Indie and DIY authors, offering a book or two for free in a giveaway provides an opportunity to let a whole lot more folks know about the book.

In my case, with The Dogs Who Saved Me, I was reluctant to do a giveaway, because 100% of the profits from this book are being donated to animal rescue groups, and I didn't want to take one penny away from that.  However... after a conversation with Indie marketing guru Martin Lastrapes (who just happens to be my favorite Indie author), I realized that by offering a couple of copies of Dogs for free, I could generate more interest in the book, which would generate more revenue for a local rescue group (HOPE rescue in Upland, CA), so I jumped on board.

I am pleased to say that there are currently 500+ readers who have entered the giveaway.  Even more exciting is the fact that 72 readers on Goodreads have added the book to their "to read" lists, and several have sent me messages to say that if they don't 'win' the book, they will buy it right away as they find the premise intriguing.  Yes!  Success!  And think about it--if those 72 readers like the book and recommend it to friends, the snowball will continue to grow (hopefully), garnering new readers and more support for the rescue groups that do so much by sheer power of animal love and enthusiasm.  Bless them!

So--if you haven't yet read The Dogs Who Saved Me and would like to enter the giveaway, there's still time!!  (At this writing, 6 hours and 30 minutes--so get on it!)  Click on the link below and enter.  There are no strings attached!!  You will not be asked to write a review or give a speech or compose a lively verse about the book, nor will I or the great folks at Goodreads save your info and try to strongarm you into buying books... or ocean view property in Missouri....  If you don't have a Goodreads account, consider establishing one, as there are many, many good books available through the giveaways for free, plus great conversations taking place all the time with intelligent readers.

Okay, I'm done yakking.  Here's the link:
Goodreads giveaway of The Dogs Who Saved Me

Friday, August 24, 2012

Why going back is so hard....

On Friday, I will return to work after ten weeks of long walks in the forest, afternoon glasses of cinnamon iced tea with cookies, hours spent watching the birds at the birdfeeder, opportunities to make memories with my kids and grandkids and the blessed luxury of reading a book without watching the clock.  Thus, I will return to work with heavy, dragging footsteps.  Oh yes, I love my job; the kids are funny and warm and refreshingly honest and idealistic, and they teach me new things every day.  But…
This is what teachers do:  In April and May, when others are digging out of the winter doldrums and doing spring cleaning or home improvement projects, we who spend at-home time grading and planning lessons tell ourselves, “That project can wait until summer break.”  But when school lets out, do we dive right in and start completing all those tasks we set aside for summer?  No.  For the first two weeks we revel in not having to live our lives according to a bell schedule.  We sleep in till oh, say, 7:00a.m.  Eventually, the true meaning of “vacation” sets in, and we begin to relax… and read… and have long, luxurious lunches with friends and dinners with family that have been postponed for weeks, sometimes months.
On some days, we actually make lists of those projects that need to be completed.  In fact, I feel productive just for making the list.  But let’s face it, if I am faced with a choice between spackling a mouse hole or taking my granddaughter to the beach, I’m going to opt for the latter every time.
This insouciant behavior does, however, eventually lead to sudden anxiety and a sense of panic when we realize—oh expletive! I have only one more week to spackle and paint and I wanted to get to the beach one more time and see one more movie in the theater and is there any money left for new clothes? (no) and I never did get to the Huntington Library this summer.  Sigh.
I am especially guilty of the ‘not getting around to stuff,’ even though I tell myself every summer that I will go off the mountain to have adventures at least several times a week (Safari Park in San Diego to see the giraffes, the Sawdust Festival in Laguna to traipse for hours through the booths and chat with the artists).  But more often than not, what I look forward to most is simply staying home, having lunch on the back deck with the cats and the bluejays, sitting in the front porch swing later and reading for hours as the sun filters through the oak tree canopy and the red-shafted flicker complains to the acorn woodpeckers. 
I try to feel guilty about not spending more time on home improvement projects, but I just can’t.  Because when the school year gets into its full, exhausting swing, I won’t be longing for the days of spackling and painting. I’ll be longing for those long, quiet days of uninterrupted time to read… and write.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

The bird in the basement....

           Five years have past; five summers, with the length
Of five long winters! and again I hear
These waters, rolling from their mountain-springs
With a soft inland murmur.--Once again
Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs,
That on a wild secluded scene impress
Thoughts of more deep seclusion; and connect
The landscape with the quiet of the sky.
             ~ William Wordsworth, "Lines (composed a few miles above Tintern Abbey...)"

As I rolled slowly around the last switchback turn, a young deer suddenly leapt out onto the highway from the brush at the side of the road.  I hit my brakes hard—not out of concern that I would hit him, but because I’ve been taught by Bob Walker, my favorite old timer on the mountain, that “there’s never just one.”  I slowed to a crawl, scanning each side of the road for the mother as the little one bounded ahead of me on legs seemingly made of rubber.  Eventually he had the good sense to veer off into the forest again, and I resumed my short journey to the post office.
That was yesterday.  This morning at 5:00a.m. I shared a banana with a polite but hungry raccoon who had grown frantic scavenging because she had three small kits to feed.  A few hours later, on another trip to the post office and in the exact same spot where I saw the deer, I watched a mama mountain quail scurry across the road.  And I stopped again and watched as her chicks turned tail at the sound of the truck and scuttled into the bushes.  I knew they would wait until it was absolutely quiet again before attempting to cross over, and their mother, by clucking, would be the one to signal the all-clear.
And this afternoon I watched in dismay as Luna Cat slunk into the cabin and down to the basement, a dark-eyed junco hanging from her jaws.  I followed her down, scolded her, and she dropped the bird at my feet.  Immediately it flew up, beating its wings frantically against the basement window.  As I approached slowly, the bird stopped fluttering and became still, turning its head to watch me with one tiny onyx dot of an eye.  I cupped my hands around its body, leaving its head exposed, and slowly walked up the stairs, out the door and into the forest (leaving poor Lu still downstairs, prowling and puzzled, searching for her bird).  I stood for a long minute, the bird now nestled on one open palm, talking softly and stroking him with a finger to pull away the pin feathers he’d lost in his brush with death.  When he was ready, wits about him now, he simply flew away.
I had this experience with a hummingbird once.  I had removed all the screens to rinse the dust off after washing windows on a brilliant summer day, and the hummingbird just flew right in.  The scenario played out in the same way; the bird, with wings whirring, pushed its body forward against the clear glass, confused, becoming still as I moved toward it.  I cupped it in my bare hands, walked outside and for an instant marveled at the miracle of holding this creature—until it dashed off without so much as a buzz by of thanks.
Two weeks ago, as I was showing the cabin to some prospective buyers, a bluejay hopped into the cabin through one of the French doors left open.  I reached down to shoo him out, but the motion startled him and he flew up to a kitchen window.  Wrapping my hands gently around his folded wings, I carried him back to the yard and set him down.  After a moment, he flew to the safety of a low tree branch.  The potential buyers were amazed.
“Yes,” I laughed, “I’m the bird whisperer.”
I’ve held a baby ‘possum in my hands as well, though I had the presence of mind to pull on my thick leather work gloves before I scooped it up.  The mother ‘possum, heavily laden with five other joeys on her back, hadn’t managed to make it back to my neighbor’s shed under cover of darkness.  The sun had risen and people were about—including some excited children—when Junior toppled off, and she was frantic, unwilling to subject the clinging babies to the danger of the humans and equally unwilling to leave the wayward child behind (a situation that, sadly, I’ve had some experience with myself).  I picked up her pink-nosed, beady-eyed child and followed her as she trundled toward their home, setting him down just outside the shed and then backing away to watch her turn and gather him in.
It’s been hot in recent days, even up here on the mountain, and after over-doing it yesterday, I chose a quiet day today, mostly reading and writing.  During a peaceful interlude of dividing my attention between the huge thunderheads rolling by and the acorn woodpeckers pecking at the hanging feeder, I wondered again what I will do to find these miracles when I no longer live on the mountain.  I have been witness to amazing things here—bears on my back porch, a baby bobcat chasing a lizard nearly at my feet, a small fox lunging through three-foot snowdrifts on a full moon night to sniff hungrily at my French doors, bighorn sheep standing proudly at dawn to face the rising sun, the gorgeous buck who simply walked out of the forest and into my backyard in search of water (which is always left out for anyone who needs a drink), the mama raccoons who’ve brought their babies at dusk so that I can see and remark upon their cuteness, countless shooting stars, a lunar eclipse…. 
And yet, as I continued to reflect, the stories of the stranded baby ‘possum and the hummingbird came to mind.  Those experiences did not occur here on the mountain.  I rescued the hummer when we lived in Chino, the ‘possum after we’d moved to a housing track in Rancho Cucamonga.
And so I guess… miracles are everywhere.  Of course, it’s easier to see these things here on the mountain where Nature still retains the luxury of being wild and unfettered, so it might be that I will have to look a little closer, be a bit more attentive to the world around me once I settle in the valley again.  But I’m sure I will have adventures there as well.  Thank goodness Nature is immutable, that we can go away for years at a time, as Wordsworth pointed out, and still return to the same “steep and lofty cliffs” to find them virtually unchanged.  There’s a certain comfort in that, as if it were possible to place a bookmark in time, and by returning to the physical place, return to some point in our past.  It sounds like magic, I know, but that’s why the mountain is so alluring… because the magic is so strong here.  

Friday, August 3, 2012

Leaving before it's time to go....

The family member of a close friend killed himself last week.  His funeral is today.
It’s been a long time since I wrote about suicide.  Most of my bi-polar and depressive friends have been doing just fine on their meds or using the strategies they’ve learned in therapy so that they can quickly arrest a descent into the ominous dark spiral.  I’m grateful for that.  I love all of them and would be devastated if any one of them chose to take the shortcut-of-no-return, as J did.
This was a young man who had been troubled for a long, long time, though he was not without love and support and encouragement from patient, sincere, understanding family members.  But… in spite of their best efforts, he began to feel helpless in the face of the events which comprised his life… and one night when that feeling overwhelmed him, he opted for permanent relief from the pain….
And so my friends, this is just the gentlest of reminders:
We can never control the circumstances of our lives.  We can only control our response to those circumstances.  This is true for all of us, whether we’re happy and well-adjusted or have been bashed around by the harsh, capricious nature of life in this world.
As I wrote in The Dogs WhoSaved Me, forty+ years ago I was a clinically depressed teen who had lost all reason to live.  Well… save one: Rufus, the dog who taught me what loyalty and unconditional love are all about kept me from leaving before it was really time to go.  Back then, if someone had told me, “Just hang on, K; in a few short years you’re going to have four incredible kids and even more grandkids and you’ll go to college and earn a master’s degree in literature and become a published author,” I would have told them they were nuts.  And yet here I am with a thousand blessings to be thankful for every single day.
We cannot know, day by day, which way the path of life will turn or what obstacles will appear before us.  But from this side of life I can see that there is balance in all things.  For every rotten tomato life throws at us, a golden apple will fall from a tree nearby and roll onto the path at our feet.  We just have to keep our eyes open, keep looking for the beauty (because believe me, it’s there, even when the dark clouds above us shut out the light for a bit and we can’t quite see it) and above all, keep making forward progress—even if it is measured in inches—so we don’t miss the good stuff.  And trust me, there’s a whole lot of good stuff along the way.  Sometimes we just have to hunker down in the bottom of the boat and wait until the storm passes.  (Hug yourself and rock if it helps.  Don’t laugh; Dr. Temple Grandin would agree with me.  I did this in a figurative sense when I would sit on my bedroom floor and listen to music for hours.  Better yet, hug a fur person.)  Just… don’t give up and jump overboard.  Your feelings are real, and I would never discount them.  I’ve had them myself.  I know how much it hurts.  But when the pain seems unbearable, gather around you those things that you love and hang on; clear skies and a gorgeous sunrise are just a few moments away….

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Books, Dogs and HOPE

Forgive me for being absent from posting for a while.  I’ve had my writer’s hat on, certainly, but my time has been spent, in recent days, working more on the business side of the craft than on the creative side.

I’ve got some great news flashes I’ve been wanting to share with you, Dear Reader, but first let me describe where I am—because I really can’t write a blog post without talking about the mountain.  I know you understand….

At the beginning of the summer, I bought an inexpensive HP laptop so that I could do this:  I’m sitting in the swing on the front deck.  It’s about 3:00 in the afternoon.  A light breeze is blowing through the oak tree canopy surrounding the cabin, cooling my skin and mimicking the sound of water rushing over rocks in a faraway stream.  Punctuating that sound is the chatter and call of some  bluejays, chickadees, wrens, woodpeckers, dark-eyed juncos, a titmouse or two, and something that sounds like a guinea pig making its “week-week-week” sound.  Sugie hears them, too.  She’s sprawled out in the dappled shade a few feet from the swing pretending to relax, but she is ever-vigilant.  Beware, my feathered friends; do not land too close.

So.  Part of what has kept me busy in recent weeks has been writing book reviews.  Some writer friends have had books released (hurray!), and summer gives me (too much?) insouciant time to sit as I am now, enjoying the outdoors while turning pages.  (It’s okay to be envious; that will all change in winter when it’s snowing and the swing is packed away in the garage.  Of course, then I’ll be sitting in front of the fire….)

Libby Grandy, a long time blogger and Chicken Soup author, has seen the release of her first novel, Desert Soliloquy.  I was privileged to read it in manuscript form, but the book had been so diligently edited I really didn’t have much of a critique to make.  I love a good mystery, and this one is tightly woven.  She does not go over the top with red herrings (hate that), but keeps the suspense taut—not only with the mystery of the attempted murder but also with the deeper, perhaps more mysterious question of who the protagonist will choose to spend her life with.  Loved it—and hate the fact that Libby has a second novel nearly ready for publication but feels inclined to wait until next summer for its release.  But I want to read it nowwwww.

Paula Priamos, also a blogger and a professor of all things literary, just saw the release of her memoir, The Shyster’s Daughter.  I’ve been waiting for this book for nearly two years, ever since Paula’s husband, author James Brown (The Los Angeles Diaries), bragged about it at a writers conference.  I have to warn you, if you read memoirs because you enjoy reading light-hearted tales told by upbeat people who managed to keep smiling through hard times, better buckle your seatbelt for this one.  Priamos’ writing is stark and tight and gripping.  And geez, does she ever have a story to tell about growing up in SoCal with her high-profile attorney father, an inappropriate uncle, and other characters guaranteed to ensure a kid’s quick loss of innocence.  I had kind of a weird, schizophrenic response to the book as I read it; I’d read a few pages, mutter “oh my god” out loud, put the book down because it reminded me far too much of my own childhood, then pick it up and start reading again.  It’s the most compelling memoir I’ve read in years.

Since I’m talking books, please indulge me for a moment.  The Kindle version of MartinLastrapes’ book, Inside the Outside, made it all the way to Number One on Amazon’s Horror list a few weeks back.  As you may know (because I seem to mention it often), Martin was a student of mine way back when I taught English 1A for Chaffey College.  All I said was, “Martin, you could be a writer,” and look what the kid did.  Geez….

Finally (and can I have a drum roll here, please?), my memoir, The Dogs Who Saved Me, came out this month.  I want to shout “Hurray!” in jubilant celebration… but I think I’m still recovering from writing this book.  I was so cavalier two summers ago when I began work on this project.  “I’ll just write about my dogs!” I thought.  “Easy peasy!”  No.  This was the most challenging writing task I’ve ever assigned myself.  Little did I know how tough it would be to recall those dark adolescent days and other points in my life in which I needed the unconditional love of a dog to sustain me.  Now, though, I’m glad I kept trudging through it (with frequent breaks, I kid you not, to simply walk away from the keyboard, out into the forest, to let the tears fall until I could breathe normally again).  My intent with this book is to honor the dogs who quite literally saved my life.  I think telling their stories does that.  But… to honor them further, I’ll be donating all the royalties from this book to animal rescue.  The first royalty check will go to HOPE rescue in Upland, California.  HOPE is comprised of a tiny crew of amazing and selfless people who work tirelessly to rescue dogs and cats slated for euthanasia or that have been found on the streets.  My little Sug was just such a cat, taken in by HOPE, placed in foster care where she was loved and spayed and brought to good health, then made available for adoption.  Had she gone to a public shelter, she would never have made it out alive.  And what would I do without her?  Recently the good folks at HOPE rescued a beautiful Beagle mix puppy from a high-kill shelter and a volunteer is now fostering her.  I love these peeps, so every time someone buys a copy of Dogs, I get all happy, because I know that the royalty from that sale will enable HOPE to do just a bit more of the heroic work they do.

So you can see why I’m busy trying to promote this book.  I’ve set up some readings/signings, which I’ll be announcing here.  I always love doing these events (what author doesn’t?), but they’re especially fun when I know that the end result will enable me to contribute to the fur community.  Win!  Win!  Win!  

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Losing track

They call them “God’s candles,” the yuccas that bloom seemingly overnight all over the mountain in the spring.  As one who trudges reluctantly to bed while it is still light in order to wake again in darktime, I don’t think of them as candles to illumine the night, but rather as natural glow sticks (given the way in which they nearly hum with light when the unfiltered sun crests the ridge and finds them in the morning) to guide the robins and tanagers and black-headed grosbeaks back to the high slopes after spending an easier winter in the foothills.

And I know, when I drive to work each morning and see those tall, lustrous blooms beside the road, that in a very short time—a few blinks of the eye, a few tea bags expended—that it will be summer again.

Summer, when I can spend long hours writing again.

Summer, when I can spend long hours reading again.

Summer, when I can wander off, as I did today, after a morning of cleaning windows and answering email, to walk in the forest and find new trails by just pulling over where I haven’t pulled over before and following the stream, rock-hopping in the shade of towering trees as the breeze blows the scent of pine and sage across my face and the falling water reminds me once again that Nature has her own song.

Summer, when there is time and opportunity to wander in the late evening, to watch for bats or the little fox that lives by the waterfall or the rise of the moon over the eastern ridge.

Summer, when there are no bells, buzzers or alarms to regulate my choices, where spontaneity allows for long visits with friends or journal entries that go on for pages or a song session with the guitar that lasts for hours.

It’s easy, in summer, to lose track of time, immersing myself in the moment at hand with all its sights and scents and songs, and in doing so, lose track—if just for that moment—of all the tiny turbulences that disrupt the peaceful flow of life.  And it’s easy, in those long, reflective, contemplative and tranquil moments, to believe—whether truth or fantasy—that I can return home and write words that have as much beauty as they have meaning.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Death of an Icon

Losing Ray Bradbury from this world is like being told that hot fudge sundaes have ceased to exist and I will never have the experience of eating one again in my life. Losing his creative and imaginative writing, his brilliant and adoring words, is tantamount to losing something that is both tangible and visceral. Great writers die and their works live on, but Bradbury’s presence and persona imbued him with a god-like aura, I think because wherever he went, he simply oozed joy and love and enthusiasm.
During the science fiction phase of my young adulthood, I read and loved The Illustrated Man and The Martian Chronicles. In college, first one professor then another told me Bradbury stories. This man who loved the idea of dinosaurs and time machines and rocket ships refused to drive cars or fly in planes. He was a hopeless romantic. He loved everyone. He swore like a sailor. A prof at UCR had us read a short story by Bradbury in which he reverses history (with the deployment of a time machine) and Ernest Hemingway does not blow his brains out with a shotgun. My hero.  (For time travel enthusiasts who ascribe to the "butterfly effect," please note that the term was coined from Bradbury's short story, "A Sound of Thunder.")

Though he traveled the world (and especially adored Paris), Bradbury loved living in Southern California and agreed to countless speaking engagements here. When he came to speak at nearby Chaffey College, my friend Lana and I went to see him. We arrived an hour early and sat in the front row. Though mesmerized by his often shouted remarks (“I love America! I love the freedom of our democracy! If you don’t like the sons-a-bitches, you can vote them out and vote the bastards in! And if you decide you don’t like the bastards, you can vote them out and vote the sons-a-bitches back in! It’s wonderful!”), I did have the presence of mind to notice him take one sip from a tall glass kitchen tumbler that had been placed on his lectern. Afterward, as the auditorium cleared, I told Lana I wanted to take it, but I’d never stolen anything before, so I was deeply conflicted. Just then a stagehand appeared to clean up, and I asked him if I could have the glass if I promised to replace it. He handed it to me. It sat on the highest shelf of my kitchen cabinet for a year—until Lana’s daughter dragged it down to get a drink of water, dropping it in the sink, where it shattered. Nothing lives forever….

In the fall of 2010, I saw Bradbury speak at the Duarte Authors Festival. Wheelchair bound, he was frail and attended by several handlers. But he had lost none of his enthusiasm. He told story after story of living life as a writer, admonishing the crowd repeatedly to “love each other, love everyone.” That was how he lived his life.

Geez, Ray, a light has gone out down here. But… I’m curious. What are you doing now? Smoking cigars with Hemingway? Buzzing around from planet to planet? Riding on the backs of dinosaurs? Enjoy yourself. It’s going to take me the rest of my short time here to read what I haven’t yet read of your life’s work. May I be so prolific, so imaginative, so original in my own writing. Farewell for now, my friend.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

A lot of good, a little bad, and one ugly moment: Amgen TOC Stage 7 Mt. Baldy

Photo by S. Kay Murphy.  Yes, the sky really is that blue up here.

If you've ever watched a marathon on television, you've witnessed the excitement as runners head toward the finish line, friends, fans and family cheering, sometimes running alongside to offer encouragement and support.  That's a little bit like what a mountain stage of a bike tour is like--only with a lot of insanity thrown in for entertainment value.

Yesterday by 8:30a.m. most of the parking turnouts along the switchbacks in Mt. Baldy were filled in with vehicles and small tents by folks who had driven up the mountain in the early hours of the morning to get a spot to watch the riders struggle up Baldy Rd. later in the day.  The weather was clear, bright and warm, and there was a great spirit of comaraderie among the fans.  I could feel it as I walked down to my buddy Vince's house to watch the race at 2:00.  By then, people were riding up the mountain in huge packs, creating a long, slow moving river of cyclists in the northbound lane (and only a few bombing the downhill in the southbound lane).  What I found endearing and a whole lot of fun was the enthusiasm of the fans for the courageous riders who had struggled their way up from the valley below.  The ascent of Baldy is absolutely grueling, and the switchbacks comprise the steepest, most difficult section.  So as folks came up around those hairpins sweating and rocking on their bike seats, fans would cheer and shake their cowbells and shout out words of encouragement:
"You got this!"
"Don't slow down!"
"Good job, kid!"
"Allez!  Allez!"

Occasionally, an individual would garner a particularly strong response from the crowd, such as the male rider wearing an American flag body suit chanting "T-O-C!" as he came around the corner, or the pretty young female rider sporting lovely butterfly wings affixed to her torso.  Yeah, she got a lot of cheers....

A great deal of cheering was being done by some young men from a cycling group who had taken up residence against some rocks by Vince's house.  They were nice enough young fellows--except for the trash they had spread on the ground, which included six empty beer bottles.  I asked them twice to pick them up before they left... but by then they had opened a bottle of champagne and were passing it around, so both times they blew me off.  For as much as they'd had to drink, it was truly amazing how lively they were, especially when the race finally made its way up to our spot.

TOC fans know by now how the drama played out:
Chris Horner, last year's winner of the TOC and my favorite to get it again this year, went out in an early breakaway and hung tough for all the miles up Baldy Rd., across Glendora Ridge to Azusa, around Sierra Madre Blvd. and back out Glenora Ridge to Baldy, then through the village of Mt. Baldy to start up the switchbacks with only one rider from the Colombian team, Jhon Atapuma, alongside.  From time to time in races, Horner will step up and become a machine.  He did so yesterday, a look of sheer willpower on his face, his legs pumping like pistons.  Dave Zabriskie, who, in winning the time trial on Thursday had taken the overall lead, fought to catch up, to maintain his overall lead with thoughts of winning this year's TOC.

But Robert Gesink, who survived a year from hell, losing his father and breaking his leg in a bad crash, decided today was his day.  And having ridden most of the day in the midst of the peloton, he still had some gas in the tank when he got to the switchbacks.  When he made his decision to go, there was no holding him back.  He pedaled away from the main group and began reeling in poor Chris Horner who was moving forward on nothing but courage.  By that time, the rider from Colombia had sped ahead of Horner, hoping to win the stage, but Gesink had other plans.  He caught and dropped Horner, then sped ahead with only a few meters to spare, finally sprinting (where do these guys find the strength?!?) to overtake Atapuma and roll across the finish line first, giving him the win of the stage plus allowing him to take the yellow jersey from Zabriskie.

And I would have been a tad disappointed at that last bit, had it not been for an ugly incident that occurred before the race was over.  Last year, after the stage ended, we were thrilled to see, a short time later, all the Big Boys riding back down Baldy Rd., flying down the descent for the sheer joy of it.  The Amgen folks provide shuttle buses should the riders want a lift down the mountain, but most of them came down the way they went up--that is to say, by the same route, only this time all they had to do was hold on for dear life.  Many of the pleasure cyclists accompanied them, so you had this great migration which came in waves as hundreds of cyclists flowed down the mountain in the southbound lane of Baldy Rd.  What happened yesterday was that a few pleasure cyclists, having watched the leaders finish, wanted to head down early, while many of the pros were still racing to the top.  Mike Sullivan, the personable Amgen volunteer stationed at our corner to keep the riders safe, kept having to ask riders not in the race to stop and wait until the remainder of the pros had gone around the corner toward the finish.  When he stopped one rider and asked him to wait, the rider responded with a four-letter expletive.  At that moment, we all recognized Dave Zabriskie.  (Yes, it was him; several people in the crowd confirmed it, and there was his race tag, #18, still clipped to his bike.  And yes, he said, "Fuck," either "Fuck off" or "Fuck that."  We all heard him loud and clear.)  Over the years, I've written about Zabriskie, followed him in the Tour de France and on Twitter.  I know he was frustrated, exhausted, dehydrated, whatever.  In my book, that still doesn't excuse him for disrespecting someone who volunteers his time to keep riders safe during a dangerous event like the TOC.  After his nasty response, he just kept riding downhill.  Oof.  It made me sad.  My heroes are nice guys, not sore losers, so Zabriskie has lost my respect... unless, of course, he'd like to offer an apology to Mr. Sullivan, in which case I might be able to forgive him.  Eventually.

At any rate, cheers to Robert Gesink!  And a hearty bravo! to all those folks who rode up Mt. Baldy yesterday to watch the race and cheer on their favorites.  We've still one more stage to go today, so I'm going to be cheering (from a comfortable spot on my sofa, Phil Liggett) for Gesink.  The Universe has a way of reimbursing us; there is no gain without some loss, but there is no loss without a gain of some kind.  Ride like the wind, Robert.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Vive la breakaway!

Photo from official Amgen Tour of California website: Sylvain Georges finishing Stage 6 ahead of the pack

It is not unusual in a stage race to see, shortly after the start of a stage, a single rider or small group take off in a breakaway and try to maintain their momentum until the end of the day.  Rarely are these riders successful, as the power of the peloton is simply too strong.  (Many riders pedaling in a group, taking turns in the front so that others can ride in the slipstream, can ride faster overall than a single rider or small group.)  But every once in a great while, a breakaway will get far enough away fast enough so as to make the gap between them and the peloton too long to close before the finish line is reached.

Such was the case today with French rider Sylvain Georges.  He rode out early on a breakaway that began as seven riders, then became six, then five, then three, then one.  Georges refused to fold, pushing himself to the absolute limit of his strength.  Keep in mind, today's stage was 150 miles long.  Sylvain Georges et al broke away from the pack after the first mile.  So for 149 miles, Georges rode as if the devil was nipping at his heels.  This, after riding over one hundred miles a day for the five days previous.  Strength?  Courage?  The words seem inadequate to describe such a performance.

Within the last 3/4 of a mile, Georges could see the peloton's advance behind him like a locomotive bearing down on him.  His support crew in the AG2R team car drove along beside him, shouting to him over and over in French to ride faster.  His pace never faltered until he rolled across the line.  At that point, he looked ready to collapse.  But he'd pulled off an amazing upset, out-riding some of the best climbers in the world to take the stage win in Big Bear.

Yes, Phil Liggett, I did stand and cheer in my living room and applaud for him.

What will happen tomorrow when all these same riders undertake the grueling climb up the mountain where I live?  I don't know.  But I'll be watching from my buddy Vince's house, right there on the final hairpin turn of the switchbacks.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

And just like that...

Photo from official Amgen Tour of California website

Dave Zabriskie is now the overall leader in the Amgen Tour of California.

Just as our circumstances in life can turn on a dime--we forget to clean the lint filter in the dryer a time or two and next thing you know, the house is on fire... or on a whim we pick up a single lotto ticket and the next thing you know, we're picking out a new Tesla Roadster--so go these stage races in cycling.  By tomorrow afternoon, people will have forgotten how much they talked about Peter Sagan in the past five days, and those fortunate enough to have gotten his autograph will be wishing they would have gotten Zabriskie's while there was still an opportunity to catch him away from the press.

Dave is a great cyclist with a lot of heart and courage, and I have enjoyed watching him battle it out in the Tour de France on quite a few occasions.  He'll be wearing the leader's jersey tomorrow... but Zabriskie is not the best mountain climber; time trialing is really his forte, as we saw today when he raced across the line with the fastest overall time.  I was hoping for more from Levi Leipheimer today, but it appears that he is indeed hampered by his still-knitting broken fibula, so I don't think we'll see him in the front of the pack on the climbs tomorrow and Saturday.  But who knows?  At this point, it's still anybody's race--though the pros will tell you that the spoils in this war will go to the man who is the best climber.

Tomorrow the guys will ride from Palmdale to Big Bear.  Good heavenly day--it's just one long, drawn out charge up a very steep hill, as it will be on Saturday when they come to Baldy.  Both days will offer some pretty dramatic scenarios.  Hang tough, DZ!

Cycle. Sprint. Repeat.

I'm not one to say "I told you so," so I won't.  But...

Peter Sagan has gone on to win the 3rd and 4th stages of the Amgen Tour of California, in addition to his wins in the first two stages.  Impressive.  But...  You have to understand how professional cycling works, if you're new to this game.  It's not like all 140 guys roll out in the morning and the first one across the line 120 miles later is the winner.  Well, I mean, that's true, but it's not every man for himself.  Individual cyclists ride as members of teams, and it is the young and strong team members of Liqui-Gas Cannondale who are setting the pace in the peloton (the group of cyclists as a whole), protecting Sagan as he moves his way to the front, then catapulting him forward (by way of having a strong rider in front of him so that he can ride in the slipstream until the last seconds) so that he can be first across the line.  Liqui-Gas has always fielded an impressive team, but this year for the ATOC, they're stronger than anything else out there, at least for now.

These first days of the tour are similar to the first week of the Tour de France, in that they are characterized by consecutive stages of long rides (115-120 miles), with maybe some hills or small mountains thrown in, then a sprint finish.  Over time, the cyclists will tire, which will change up the overall standings.

And something else that will change the overall standings:  A time trial.  Today's stage in Bakersfield will not be a road race, but rather an individual time trial, in which riders will compete exclusively against the clock.  The man with the fastest time today wins the stage.  In the past, this is an event that has brought Levi Leipheimer to the top of the overall standings.  But with his still healing broken leg, it will be interesting to see how the day turns out.  No one is expecting Peter Sagan to win today.  But this young man is fired up, so we'll just have to see what happens.

I am thoroughly enjoying the coverage of the race on NBCSports with much beloved Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen commentating.  Good job, lads!  Keep up the good work!

Monday, May 14, 2012

Amgen ToC: Keep your eye on Peter Sagan

Photo from the official Amgen Tour of California website

Young Peter Sagan has won the first two stages of the Amgen Tour of California, but not without his share of trials and tribulations.  A stage winner in last year's ToC, Sagan rode smart yesterday in the first stage, sticking toward the front of the peloton as much as he could, waiting for his chance to sprint for the final win.  In the last miles of the race, he drew toward the front.  Then disaster struck six miles from the finish line:  A flat tire forced him to the side of the road, and someone from a team car jumped out and switched out his tire in under 20 seconds--which was just enough time for the entire peloton and all the team cars to roll past him.  Frantically he pedaled, jumping in and out of the spaces between cars until, just moments before they all reached the line, he joined the peloton, somehow wove himself through all the traffic and sprinted across the line in first.  Dang.  Give that boy a beer--and you can, because he's over the legal drinking age--but at 22, just barely.

In today's stage, Sagan used yesterday's tactic of staying safe in the peloton.  But in a bike race of this magnitude, no one is safe, and as Phil Liggett will say, you never know what you're going to find when you roll around a corner.  Today, what Peter Sagan found was a pile up.  A number of riders went down, and he found himself on the pavement, a bit shaken and appearing to favor his left arm.  He sat on the ground for precious seconds, checking his collar bones for fractures and stretching out his arms and back.  Finally, he was up and back on the bike.  Credit his valiant team members from Liquigas Cannondale for keeping him rolling through the remainder of the race, then setting the pace so high in the last miles that no one could break away to sprint for the finish.  They brought Peter home nicely, and he won Stage 2.

On another note:  I cannot express how thrilled I was to hear Phil Liggett say today that George Hincapie is set to ride in the Tour de France in July.  If all goes well, Hincapie will set a record as the first man to ride in 17 Tours de France.  Oh my Buddha, George, that's awesome.  Couldn't happen to a nicer guy.  Just don't crash out in the ToC.  Oh no, now I've jinxed you!

Last year's ToC winner, Chris Horner, is looking strong and confident.  He is biding his time, of course, not trying to win stages right now, just keeping his overall time with that of the peloton.  Soon, very soon, I think we'll see some action from Horner.  Can't wait!

Sunday, May 13, 2012

It begins

A few of my friends believe that, for some unknown reason (at least to me), I became enamored of Lance Armstrong some years ago and began to watch professional cycling as a result. The truth is, I began watching cycling in the early 1980’s. At that time, there was an arrogant young punk named Greg Lemond who gifted the United States with some long-denied respect in the cycling world. When Lance came onto the scene a decade or so later, he was an arrogant young punk, too. But I liked his style, and it was fun, in those first years, to watch him battle it out with the Europeans in the Tour de France.

His fierce courage and bull-headed determination—especially after the cancer years—made the sport more interesting, for certain. But seeing those qualities plus an indomitable spirit in all my cycling favorites over the years is the lure that brings me eagerly back every year to planning 21 days in July around the Tour de France. Add to that, of course, the drama and intellectual stimulation of cycling’s particular chess game.

At least once a year someone mentions to me that they find cycling “boring,” or they don’t see what all the excitement could be about regarding ‘a bunch of guys in spandex riding bicycles.’ Which actually just reveals they’ve never watched a race. If you can’t appreciate the elite level of athleticism in these ‘guys in spandex,’ try riding 115 miles at an average speed of 30mph. Throw in some steep uphill climbs and maybe some sections of the road paved with cobblestones from the Sixteenth Century. If you’re still alive afterward, let me know how your ride went.

With the debut of Amgen’s Tour of California seven years ago, I now have a mini-drama right here in my own backyard in gorgeous sun-drenched California to look forward to every May. And that race begins today.

In recent weeks, the spring classics in Europe have been going full tilt, and fortunately for me, NBC Sports has been providing great coverage. I’ve watched big Tom Boonen win the Tour of Flanders and then, a week later, Paris Roubaix (his fourth win in the latter, tying a record). He will be here this week with the new team, Omega Pharma Quick-Step, and I’m excited to see how he negotiates the tough terrain of Mt. Baldy next Saturday.

Levi Leipheimer, a favorite of mine for years, will also be riding in the Amgen ToC this week. Levi survived a wicked crash in the second to last stage of the Paris – Nice race some weeks ago, only to be hit by a car during a training ride last month which result in a fractured fibula. Levi has won the ToC before, though he is saying at this point he doesn’t expect to be a contender in the overall standings. His leg is still on the mend, so props to him for coming out and competing anyway. How could he not? The ToC begins in Santa Rosa, where he currently resides.

Here’s hoping all my favorite guys ride safe, ride fair and sans performance enhancers for the next week. As I did last year, I will no doubt post quick daily updates on the race—if I’m not too busy watching.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Against the dying of the light

I have a friend, Willma (yes, that’s how it’s spelled), who lives in Sedona, Arizona. Of the writers I know personally, she is the most prolific. Some years ago, as I prepared to introduce her as guest speaker to my writers group, I asked her to remind me where she’d been published. She handed me a list with over thirty national publications on it—including Popular Mechanics.

“Wow!” I said. “How does a woman with a background in literature sell a piece to Popular Mechanics?”

“Well,” she replied, “you can sell a piece anywhere if you have the right slant.”

Thus her role as my mentor began. That same year I sent her something I’d written about The Grandson. She sent it right back, telling me, “Drop the last paragraph. You don’t need it. Make the second to last paragraph your first paragraph. Then send it to the Home Forum section of the Christian Science Monitor.” I did. And earned $185 for a piece that took me an hour to write.

A year ago, Willma published a memoir, Iron Grip. If you’re married, consider how you would respond if your spouse lost both of his hands in an explosion. Imagine if it happened in the first weeks of your marriage…. As I read through Willma’s book, I had to keep reminding myself that this was a true story, that the energetic, caustically funny, positive and productive woman I knew had endured a depth of heartache I had never known.

In recent weeks, Willma released a novel, Braving House Calls. The word is out that it’s funny, which doesn’t surprise me; her previous two memoirs, Just Pencil Me In and Something's Leaking Upstairs, reflect her wry sense of humor at life’s unpredictability. I’ll be grabbing the new book for my Kindle next time I’m down the mountain.

I sent Willma an email yesterday to let her know I was looking forward to coming out to AZ for her birthday party next month. Her reply said in part:

I still lead four writer workshops, each meeting twice a month. This is my “social” life—as much meet and greet as I want or need. And I have moved to the apartment next door to the one where you visited me. While I was able to move all the light stuff in boxes, my son Alan and another friend moved all the big stuff in two hours.

She also said she’s looking forward to that birthday party in June. Because, you know, you only turn 90 once.

Do not go gentle into that good night
Rage, rage against the dying of the light

~ Dylan Thomas

Sunday, April 29, 2012

What the Amgen has to do with my pizza

Yesterday, to celebrate getting down to… a certain weight… I stopped on the way back up the mountain from my writers group meeting to order a pizza at Giuseppe’s. Giuseppe's is at the top of Euclid, just north of the Y split on the west side of the street. The restaurant serves Mediterranean and Italian food, so you can order a killer veggie kabob or a humus plate or lasagna or Persian ice cream, all of it scrumptious. You can also get pizza to go, so I thought I was being smart by calling ahead and ordering a pizza for pick up. My plan was to get up the mountain as fast as possible, then hang out on the back deck eating pizza and basking in the sunshine.

But yesterday the Amgen Tour of California (ToC) amateur stage was held in Mt. Baldy. It has a fancy name—L’Etape du California—whatever. Locals just call it the “Amateur Amgen.” For a substantial fee (some of which goes to cancer research), bike riders can attempt the route that the pros will ride in this year’s 7th stage of the ToC. Starting in Ontario, the route winds slowly up through the foothills, then partway up the mountain, then heads west for a good long time along the scenic but challenging Glendora Ridge Road, then comes back to Baldy Road and takes a vicious turn north, heading up the grueling switchbacks to finish at around 6500ft. elevation in the ski lift parking lot. Who’d wanna ride that? Crazy people, I’m tellin’ ya.

So I get my pizza and I start driving and my first thought is, “Oh my Buddha, that smells heavenly,” and I’m really, really hungry so I open the box at the last stop sign at Shinn Rd., thinking I might snag a piece to eat while I drive. But it’s too hot and too drippy, what with all that great sauce and melted cheese, so I close the box and think, “I’ll just hurry on home—I’m 20 minutes away!” What a goofhead….

Because there are all these cyclists on the road going up the mountain. And being a cyclist myself, I know what it’s like to try to ride on a narrow road with little or no room to move over when cars come roaring indignantly up from behind. So I put on my emergency flashers to warn the cars behind me and those that threaten to hit me head on, and I start passing small groups of cyclists huffing and puffing their way up the mountain. When I say “passing,” I mean pulling over into the southbound lane to give the riders a wide enough berth so they’re not having to think, “Is that truck going to plow into me?” while they’re nearly totally oxygen deprived.

So instead of 20 minutes, it takes me 40 to get home. And by then my pizza with the bubbly cheese and golden crispy crust is nearly cold. But I happen to have an oven…. So while I’m re-heating my amazing lunch/dinner, I get my backyard chair ready, my iced tea on the table, and I contemplate how exciting it’s going to be when my heroes get here on May 19th to ride our version of the Alpe d’Huez right here in Mt. Baldy. I. Can’t. Wait.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Sun and Snow

A week ago we had a snowstorm that left behind nearly a foot of soft powder. I spent the first day of the storm in front of a warm fire, reading and writing and watching the cats play. The next morning I walked the loop under lingering clouds, coming down from the falls to see only one other set of prints in the soft snow—those of T.J., the big red dog who is my neighbor. By the time I reached the cabin, it had begun to snow again, small flakes drifting down outside the window as I brewed a cup of tea. But by then I had used up the last of my firewood, so while the day was cold (30 degrees), and the snow continued, we had only the wall furnace to keep us warm. The cats and I huddled near it, happy for an abundance of spare blankets. I checked the weather report and reassured them: “Don’t worry, ladies. We’ll be warm by Wednesday.” Sure enough, the sun came out on Sunday, then gradually, with each passing day, the temperatures warmed.
Now it is Sunday again. Yesterday, wearing a short sleeved t-shirt and flip-flops, I cleaned up the detritus left behind by the storm. Afterward, I sat on the back deck reading a book, little Sugar Plum nearby basking in a warm sun spot. Today I opened half of the many windows in the cabin, knocked down cobwebs and turned on the ceiling fan to air out the dust. Now the cabin smells like the mountain, that fresh mix of pine and oak and spring wildflowers. With the windows open, I can hear the stream gushing along in the canyon just below us. Again this afternoon I sat outside and indulged in the luxury of reading for pleasure, the melody of a grosbeak’s mating song echoing from the canyon walls, Sugie wandering about the deck sniffing everything she hadn’t smelled since October. We are heady with the joy of it.

Oh, I know that our cold days are not yet behind us. Rain is predicted for Wednesday night and Thursday. But just this brief respite from the cold days, a hint and promise of the long delicious days of summer on the mountain, is enough to remind me of how quickly the circumstances of life can turn around.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

An invitation....

Ellie Mae Murphy, smiling

On Monday, if I am brave, I will click the button that sends my manuscript, The Dogs Who Saved Me, off to the publisher. In July, if all goes well, I will hold the printed book in my hands.

Recent days have been filled with searching, searching, searching for typos; listening carefully to suggestions by my first readers; trying to find words to frame the perfect dedication (impossible)… and crying.

I think you’ll understand all the tears with this book once you read it. It’s amazing how we can be dropped to our knees by heartache but somehow, later, find the courage to get up and continue our trudge forward on the journey, telling ourselves we’re “over it”—until something happens to make us remember. In writing this book, I have had to recall some difficult times in my life. But I’ve also spent time remembering the dogs who saved me, and they’ve been on my mind a lot lately.

I remember Ruf, whose favorite toy was always a rock he’d find and bring to me to throw for him. I once threw a rock into a pond that was three feet deep just to see what he’d do. Yeah, he dove down to the bottom and retrieved it.

Ellie became my dog after my brother moved to Seattle and couldn’t take her with him. Two years later, he came down for a visit, and she had what can only be described as a transcendent ecstatic experience when she was reunited with him.

Alex Haley was the Rottweiler/Chow mix who was terrified of loud noises. (A car backfiring would send him diving into the closet, trembling in fear for half an hour.) And he was the dog who sat beside me—rock steady—while a drug-crazed man pounded on the doors and windows of my house, trying to break in.

These dogs are gone now… but not my memories of them.

I am saving a page in the front of my dog book to honor some of the dogs I know—and don’t know—who live on in the hearts of their human companions. If you’ve had a good dog (or two… or six), or you know of one, and you would like that dog to be remembered on that page, please leave the dog’s name in the comment section here. Or better yet, head over to the Facebook page for The Dogs Who Saved Me (<--just click on that blue writing) and leave a comment to my post. I’m gathering the names today (April 14, 2012) and tomorrow; they will be the last bits I add before clicking that ominous but important button on Monday morning.

Foreground: Nikita Fedrovna Baryshnikov Zhivago ("Niki")  Background:  Alex Haley

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Time for a change

Ten years ago, just before I left for a writers conference in Big Bear, I stopped by the post office and picked up a package I’d been anxiously awaiting from Lands End. I opened the box to find a pair of brown leather hiking boots. Know how some women get excited over a new pair of stylish heels? Yeah, that’s me with hiking boots. I put them on and wore them for the duration of the weekend, taking several long walks while at the conference. They fit perfectly. I loved them. They became my new best friends.

I wore them hiking in Azusa Canyon, climbing up the steep rock face to sit by my favorite secret waterfall.

I wore them hiking in Santa Anita Canyon, down the single track trail that leads along the stream to Hermit Falls, and I had them on that fateful Fourth of July when the ranger came by to say the gate at the bottom of the road would be closing early that night. I hurried down to find I’d been locked in… but I was rescued by a handsome stranger….

I wore them hiking in the red rock country of Sedona, Arizona, while on a visit to writer Willma Gore. I came back from that amble with red dust all over those boots… and I brought some home to Cali with me.

Of course, I wore them to hike in Mt. Baldy—up to Sunset Peak, up the trail to the Sierra Club hut, up to Bear Flats on the Bear Canyon trail, and of course, countless times on the Ice House Canyon Trail to Cedar Glen or the saddle. I had them on the day Patty Walker and I took a walk up that trail to Kelly’s Camp. We started—lazily—at 9:00a.m. on a weekday in late summer. When we arrived at the saddle, she asked me if I’d brought food.

“Of course,” I said, as I began pulling granola bars and grapes from my pack. She smirked and told me to put my food away, she’d brought enough for both of us. And then she began unpacking a feast—fresh mozzarella cheese floating in olive oil and bruschetta to slap it on, along with thick tomato slices. While I marveled at the miracle of the food reviving me, she fired up her camp stove and brewed some tea. When she pulled out the apricot tart, I asked her if I’d died on the trail and had arrived in heaven. We hiked on to Kelly’s Camp that day to lie in the meadow in the afternoon sun and listen to the sound of water trickling from the mountain. On the way back down, as evening came on, we watched a doe and her fawn grazing on a far slope. We were gone ten hours that day. It is a piece of my life I hope I never forget.

Those plain brown hiking boots shared a lot of memories with me. And I wore them out, wore down the soles to the nubs and kept wearing them until the lacing unraveled.

Last week on Spring Break, I bought a new pair of hiking boots. It took some serious inner dialogue, but I finally had the courage to toss the old worn out boots in the trash.

Spring is all about renewal and rebirth. Can’t wait to see what adventures these new boots take me on.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

That sound you hear

Photo by Kathryn Wilkens (Boy, did I need a haircut!)

That sound you may be hearing—the muffled scrape of boot leather across a hardwood floor—is me, dragging my feet.

On Thursday, I wrote the preface to the dog book. That was the last piece I needed to finish in order to complete the manuscript. Yeah. So now it’s really done. And printed (all 225 pages). And copied (all 225 pages 3 times—yikes). Now I have to wait while my first readers flip through those pages and pencil in their comments on the broad margins.

Oh dear. How do I wait? What do I do in the meantime?

I suppose I could start with all the activities and chores I have neglected in the past several months while I spent a good part of every weekend writing the book. Like vacuuming. I should vacuum. And cleaning the refrigerator. And reading the blogs I love. And getting that mid-year check of my cholesterol I promised my doctor. Ah well, that can wait.

I really can’t focus on writing anything or accomplishing anything of substance until I know what my first readers think of Dogs. Picture me, trying to sit still, but getting up to pace back and forth across the cabin, stopping occasionally to gaze outside at the weather (snowing today), my eyes taking on that far-away glaze as I ponder what the response of these so-called friends might be. (Didn’t you start reading it last night?? Shouldn’t you have called already to say, ‘Wow, I can’t put it down!’???)

Since I can’t currently attend to creative composition (my gosh; I didn’t mean for that to be alliterative), let me just give you a small sneak peek below into what the dog book contains. (After all, the first readers shouldn’t get all the fun.)

(The following excerpt is taken from the soon-to-be-released memoir by S. Kay Murphy, Lessons I Learned from the Dogs Who Saved Me.  As such it is fully copyrighted and cannot be reproduced or copied in any from without written permission from the author.)

One of the many transitions I found difficult in moving from Orange County to Mira Loma was adjusting to living in a rural setting. In Cypress, we had lived within bicycling distance of Disneyland, Knott’s Berry Farm, and the ocean. In Mira Loma, we had to drive ten miles just to get to a supermarket, which was five miles outside of the closest large city, Riverside. But with my license, I could be in Riverside in a matter of twenty minutes. Often in the evenings, especially on weekends, I would borrow Mom’s car and drive into the city, just to walk the long outdoor mall on the warm nights of Indian summer.

Of course, Rufus always went with me, and he was never on a leash. Back then, there was a series of fountains along the mall which had been created to resemble outdoor scenes, with grassy knolls and water running over rocks. Ruf and I would walk along the mall, looking in the windows of the shops that were closed for the day, stopping from time to time so Ruf could splash in the tumbling water.

There were no street lights in Mira Loma and no sidewalks. Walking alone along the streets at home would have been dangerous, I thought. Little did I know how vulnerable I was while walking in the lighted mall alone at night in Riverside.

Nowadays kids often walk with their heads down, texting on their phones or equally distracted by the music in their ears. For me, it was my contemplative nature that kept me looking always inward instead of noticing my surroundings. The young man’s arm was around my waist before I’d had time to realize someone was beside me.

“Hey baby,” he said quickly. “There’s a party at my place right now. Wanna come?”

I was wearing a midriff top with hip-hugger jeans, the prevalent ‘60’s style. I could feel his fingers pressing into the bare skin at my rib cage.

“No thanks,” I muttered, trying to fake a polite tone. “I need to get—“

“What’s your hurry?” he asked, with no pretense of politeness as he pulled my body toward him, his hand tightening as it slid up under my breast. I could feel the taut muscles in his arm hold fast as I tried to pull back. I was five feet, five inches tall and weighed just over a hundred pounds, a slip of a girl against a man who was nearly twice my weight and a head taller. My mind raced as I tried not to panic. Years before in a terrifying ordeal when a prowler had broken into a home where I was staying, I’d learned how our fight or flight response can shut down our cognitive abilities, paralyze our ability to speak… or scream.

Monday, February 13, 2012


Did you hear it, a little over an hour ago? Perhaps not. It was one word, and it’s not like I shouted. Sugar Plum (like me) is easily disturbed by loud noises. Still. I did say it out loud.


I have finished the dog book.

So thanks to all of you who put in your two cents’ worth a year and a half ago and said, ‘Yes, write that book.’ Although I’ll have you know it has been the most difficult writing I have ever done.

But it is… done. Oh my Buddha, it is finally done.

Now comes the fun part—editing, book design… and then release. I absolutely cannot wait.

One hundred percent of the net proceeds of this book will go to animal rescue.

Stay tuned; I’ll need your help with all of that.

But for now… Booyah.

I would have told you sooner, but after the final keystroke, I just had to take a walk with Dolly Parton, Evanescence, Yo Yo Ma, Ladysmith Black Mambazo and others to celebrate. Special thanks to John Mayer for reminding me that it’s OK to “say what you need to say.”

So yes, that was me, up by the waterfall in full rain gear… dancing.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

An update, gratitude and a request

Neighbor Rob called last night. He’d run into Pavel, our Baldy neighbor who took the black dog home. Rob thanked him again for doing so. Pavel’s response was “that dog loves us.” Of course she does. Pavel and his boys dote on her, and she has made herself comfortable with them. Happy, happy ending.

Yesterday I attended an authors’ “Meet and Greet” at the Sun City Library. I took four copies of my book, Tainted Legacy with me—because that’s all I had, since my stupid publisher failed to ship my order (placed November 26)—and sold all four by noon. Of course, The Grandson gets the credit for that; he is great about talking up the book. Just between us, I think older women like to talk to him because he’s handsome and personable. Before you know it, they’re pulling money out of their wallets and handing it to him. He is my best promoter, my banker and my writer-roadie. Love that kid. While Ben was selling books, I was chatting it up with other folks, mostly other authors. Martin Lastrapes was also there, promoting his book, and he seemed to draw more interest than anyone else. Maybe that’s just my perception; Martin is a former student of mine (college, not high school). I’ve loved watching him progress as a writer, and I know that he will eventually out-shine me (if he hasn’t already), which pleases me no end. The kid could write before I ever met him. I just tried to encourage him to pursue it as a career.

Life is short, dear readers, and I am thankful every day for the great things in my life. I live in a beautiful place. Every day I go to work and teach kids who are smart, funny and charming, making my days fly by. My kids and grandkids are all healthy and well right now. And there is so much more….

All of that is to say this: Sometimes we get so busy having a good time, we forget to think of those who are in need. Last week, when I was looking for a safe place for the black dog, I contacted HOPE (Helping Out Pets Everyday), a rescue group in Upland. They’re a great group, staffed by volunteers who work hard for free and truly care about the animals they shelter. Margaret Coffman sent me back an email which opened my eyes to how much this group is currently struggling. We all know that with the downturn in economics, people haven’t been donating as much to charities. HOPE has experienced a lack of funds in recent days. In addition, families hit hard by the recession, unable to pay their bills, have had to give up their pets, over-burdening every shelter and rescue group in the country. HOPE is no exception.

About now you’re thinking about doing your taxes for 2011, wishing you’d made more charitable donations so you’d have more deductions. If part of your New Year’s resolution was to give more abundantly to those in need, please consider a donation to HOPE rescue. They are a small group but they’re giving of themselves in a huge way, providing food, shelter and stable foster homes for dogs and cats until they can be adopted. Making a cash donation is a click away using Paypal from the HOPE website, or you can send a check to: P.O. Box 2005, Upland, CA 91785. You can also find HOPE on Facebook—and when you do, you’ll see the photos of the seven puppies they’re currently fostering. Too cute!!

Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Black Dog, Part 2

Last Sunday, one week ago, was when I first touched the black dog. That night, she slept on some old bath mats I tossed out on the ground by the back door. On Sunday night, I had borrowed some dog food from Jimmy, a neighbor, and Monday morning, when I found her curled in a ball like a puppy, sleeping, I went outside to feed her. She whimpered and licked my hand—then saw the food bowl and immediately sat, waiting. Someone had taught her to wait for her food. As soon as I put the bowl down, she frantically consumed every piece while I went back inside to get ready for work.

I thought about her all the way down the mountain. She’s a beautiful dog. How anyone could just leave her, I could not fathom.

I came almost straight home for work, stopping only to pick up a bag of dog food. No dog. I tried tapping the food bowl on the stones of the back deck. Nothing. Did something happen to her? Did someone on the trail decide she was a nice dog, nice enough to take home? I hated not knowing.

Just in case, I left a bowl of food out on the deck for her.

In the morning, there she was, curled in a ball on her make-shift bed. When I walked outside, she jumped around and whined as if I’d gone on a long vacation and just arrived home. I fed her again, left for work again. This time when I came home, there she was, wandering in the woods just above the cabin. She loped down to me when I called her. I gave her time to eat some food, then came back outside with an old nylon dog collar I had… a small vestige of hope that someday another dog would lie on the floor by my bed at night.

I told her to sit. She sat immediately, looking at me expectantly. I reached around her neck and snapped on the collar. She still sat.

“Let’s go for a walk,” I told her. Without leashing her, I simply headed up the road toward the waterfall. She raced ahead of me. But like any good dog, she stopped thirty yards above me and looked back. I knew what she was thinking: “Why in heaven’s name are you so slow?” I stopped and called her, just to see if she would return to my whistle. She did. And on we went.

We walked all the way to the falls in that pattern, me stopping every hundred yards or so to call her back to me, then rewarding her with praise and pats when she returned. She was nervous at the waterfall with other people around; she whimpered and stayed close, the fear rising in her again. So we turned around and headed back. She knew the way, but, like a good dog, still stopped to look back for me every so often.

On Wednesday evening I posted an ad on craigslist, explaining her situation and offering her for adoption to someone with a yard who would take her into the house and treat her like family. The next morning, there were five emails in response, two from dog lovers outraged at her abandonment, three from people who said, “I’ll take her!” All three flaked out within twenty-four hours.

By Friday afternoon, I was stressed out and so anxious I was having nightmares about her at night. I couldn’t bring her in; she seemed to want to chase anything small, and my little Sugar Plum was having her own anxiety attacks, hiding behind and atop furniture, growling every time she saw the dog outside. Snow was predicted in less than 36 hours. What would I do if she were outside in a snowstorm? Already the temperature had dropped so much at night, I’d pulled the comforter from the extra bed and dragged it outside for her to curl into.

As I was standing on the deck with her, stroking her soft puppy ears and wondering what to do, Jimmy came up. He told me that Pavel, a man of local fame in Mt Baldy for being big, colorful and an ardent hiker, had recently lost a dog that had died at 17 after a good long life. That dog was a lab mix… and Pavel and his three sons had been looking for a new dog.

I wish I’d thought to take a photo yesterday when Pavel’s boys were on the back deck, getting to know the black dog. They were patient and empathetic. And they immediately loved her. Who wouldn’t? The best photo opportunity would have been when they left—the dog in the back seat of Pavel’s car, her ears up, the tip of her pink tongue showing, flanked by a young boy on either side, their arms around her in an embrace of affection and hope.

To those of you whose hearts were breaking along with mine: She’s safe now. And trust me, she’ll never want for affection or attention. It cost me fifty bucks for a big bag of kibble, a leash, some chew toys and a food bowl. That moment, watching her drive away with her new family… absolutely priceless.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

The Black Dog, Part I

Standing on the retaining wall behind my cabin, she looks like a black wolf. A skinny black wolf. Her coat is short and dry and it shows the shadows of her ribs, the haunches that are defined by starvation. Despite her condition, her brown eyes are clear. Her ears are always pricked, listening… trying to understand.

She appeared one afternoon some weeks ago, before Christmas, slinking between the cabins, sniffing the air, looking for food. All of us—Jimmy, Tammy, Eric, Brenda, Rob and myself—tried to ignore her. Jimmy has Lucky, a husky that someone brought to the mountain and left behind. Rob has TJ, the world’s sweetest and reddest golden retriever. Eric and Brenda have a small dog and a kitten. I have Sug, of course… and no place for a dog. We all hoped she belonged to someone on the mountain, some new cabin owner who was too ignorant to keep his dog at home.

But no. Weeks have gone by. She’s learned to make the rounds of the cabins, looking for food. I thought it was the little night hawk snatching up the dead mice I dumped out on the wall. I’m sure now it was the black dog. And though I haven’t seen her there, I’m sure she heads down to the campground every day (or more likely at night), scooping up the detritus of irresponsible visitors.

She’s lucky, really. Usually by this time of year we have a foot or two of snow on the ground. But it’s only a matter of time.

Yesterday, watching her trot around on my back deck, her tail tucked between her legs, I’d had enough. I put a bowl of dry cat food out for her. She ran to it, inhaled it and licked the ground around the bowl. I sat outside and talked to her for awhile, at a distance, of course, so she wouldn’t feel threatened.

This morning when she came round, I sat on the back step with another bowl of cat food, a handful of it in my hand. She stood for a long time watching me, then made a decision. She trotted forward to my outstretched hand and gobbled up the food I offered. I quickly gave her another handful, and she ate it greedily. Then I set the bowl down, and while she ate, I petted her head and neck. When I brought out a second bowl of food, I told her to sit and she did. I gave her the food, and when she finished, I removed the filthy leather collar that was so tight it made her cough when she drank water. She looked at me, wagged her tail, licked my hand, and held out her paw. We shook.

“Nice to meet you, girl,” I told her.

There is a mythology that a dog or cat will ‘survive on its own’ if left in the forest. It’s a belief perpetuated by ignorant people. These are the same people—and I use that term loosely—who are too ashamed or embarrassed or proud to take an animal they can no longer care for to a shelter or rescue group. So they bring it to the mountain, dump it out and drive away, leaving it behind like some discarded piece of trash. These are very lucky people… because I haven’t been around to see them do it. God and all her angels help them if I do.