Sunday, November 30, 2014

Remembering Mark Strand

Pulitzer Prize winning poet laureate Mark Strand died yesterday.

When I was a deeply depressed graduate student, I composed a pastiche of Strand's poem, "Courtship." I did not do so because I was a fan of Strand's esoteric work. I dashed it off while meeting with some fellow students. We were supposed to assemble a presentation of "a Twentieth Century poet." In the midst of a bitter, anyone-can-write-like-this-guy moment, I switched the point of view in the poem from male to female and celebrated both the difference and the opposition. A year or so after graduation, I was going through my poems one day and found it. On a whim, I tracked down where Strand was teaching (Utah, of all places) and sent him a copy.

Some weeks later, I received a handwritten reply which begins "Dear S. Kay Murphy! You have written an absolutely stunning pastiche." I was at once delighted and humbled. His letter went on to ask about my plans for the future and whether I would eventually pursue poetry writing or teaching. Classy. With all his accolades, he took the time to respond to a quirky stranger.

And he did so again when I wrote to him a second time, asking permission to pursue publication of the pastiche along with his original (since he seemed to enjoy mine so much). His reply, again handwritten, began "Thanks for writing back. Of course you have my permission...." What a sweetheart.

I had addressed him in the letters as "Dr. Strand," assuming that he'd earned (or been given) the PhD long ago. At the end of his second letter, he closed with this: "Dept. of Clarification: I'm not a doctor. No PhD. Wouldn't think of having one." Somehow, it made me like him all the more.

Strand lived to be 80. He was named the United States poet laureate in 1990, and in 1999 he won the Pulitzer for his poetry collection, Blizzard of One.  Our hope, as writers, is that our work will continue to live on after us, offering us a type of immortality. I have no doubt that Strand's work will continue to be included in anthologies for years to come. Somewhere out there is a young grad student in a 20th C poetry class struggling to make sense of the moderns, the confessionals, et al. May she land upon a poem of Strand's that hits her right between the intellectual eyes.

Note: "Courtship," by Mark Strand, can be found easily with an internet search.  "Courtship: A Pastiche," by S. Kay Murphy, cannot, as mine (thankfully) never made it into print.

My sincerest condolences to Strand's son and daughter, Thomas and Jessica. Your dad was a pretty cool guy.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

About my failure to be gracious at the post office

One of my ex-husbands—the sweet, forgiving one—used to tell people (in my defense, mind you) that I had been "raised by wolves." He offered this as an explanation whenever I committed a social faux pas of some kind. He understood that I never intended to be rude, but there were certain lessons in grace and good manners I hadn't learned as a child or young adult, partly because I had to raise myself and partly due to my introversion. Social interaction has always made me feel uncomfortable and inadequate, and these feelings are reinforced every time I fail at responding correctly in social situations.

Friday at the post office was a great example.  After work, I rushed home to pick up my granddaughter's birthday present which needed to be shipped that day in order to get to her before her birthday. That same day, I had received an email from a school in Missouri ordering twenty copies of Tainted Legacy. Since I had to get to the post office anyway, I decided to ship the books as well.

Which is why I ended up staggering into the post office carrying one package containing twenty paperback books and another on top of it containing a Hello Kitty backpack ("Hello Kitty sleeping bag inside!!"). My biceps were fatigued by the time I had negotiated the parking lot and two doors to get to the line, and as I stepped up to what I thought was the end, a petite older woman looked at me and said, "Español?" I didn't hear her the first time, so I leaned closer, said, "Pardon?" and she repeated her question: "Español?" Finally I understood.

"No, I'm sorry," I said, stepping around her and into a line of six people. The sixth person in line was an older man wearing wool slacks and a sweater—on a ninety degree day. He had watched our exchange, and he stepped slightly to the side and faced the others in line.

"Does anyone here speak Spanish?" he asked the group. A voluptuous woman in a tight-fitting dress and sexy shoes stepped out of line.

"I do!" she proclaimed, and the man motioned her over to the woman who needed help. The two women chatted away in Spanish, the older woman asking frequent questions while the sexy woman answered quickly and, seemingly, authoritatively.

The gentleman had saved the day by simply speaking up for the woman who didn't speak English. Why didn't I do that? Why did it not even occur to me?
            And as Sir Galahad was stepping back into his place in line, holding a single envelope in his hand, he noticed my burden of boxes. He stepped to the side again and made a sweeping gesture with the envelope hand.

"You can go ahead of me," he said.

But I declined. "That's okay," I told him, "they aren't that heavy." The truth is, they were heavy, and my arms were already aching, and I still had five people ahead of me. So why couldn't I just graciously accept his offer and allow myself to be the other damsel who gets rescued? I don't know. I just don't know. Part of it is believing on some level that I don't deserve such kind treatment from strangers. Part of it is that accepting help of that nature undermines my badass tomboy persona.

The bottom line, though, is that these were missed opportunities. I could have been the one to find help for the non-English speaker, and I could have accepted the man's kind offer to cut ahead of him in line. In either case, I would have had to be a bit more mindful of the others around me instead of being, as usual, completely absorbed in what I was doing.

This is, I think, the key to being gracious. It's about being mindful always of the others around you, whether they are known to you or whether they are strangers. It's about seeing them and what they need, which requires focusing outward instead of inward. Be patient with me; I'm still learning.

Saturday, November 1, 2014


It wasn't cancer this time. This time, I didn't see the look of panic-held-in-check concern on my doctor's face. I did not feel the stomach flop because the word "malignant" wasn't spoken. Nor did I have that dizzy whirlwind of a moment when I demand of myself the answers to a thousand questions, the first of which is "Who will raise my children?"

This time, in a fifteen-minute consult with a dermatologist, I learned about Seborrheic Keratoses (and also about how most women don't talk about it as these are spots which come with aging, and they seem to cluster around women's breasts). Up until I heard the doc say, "Actually, what you're seeing is not even a mole, it's something even more benign..." I'd been taking shallow breaths but trying to remind myself to breathe deeply, walking tall but experiencing brief flashbacks to the cancer scare twenty years ago when I became paralyzed on the couch for days, waiting for surgery, then test results.

This time, I was free. Free to go home, no follow-up appointment to wait for, no hasty plans to spend the day as a surgical out-patient. Free to hand out candy to trick or treaters and smile at the pretty, pretty princesses and the awesome teenage mutant ninja turtles without having, behind my eyes, the specter of my mortality. This time I could rise the next morning and take my dog on a long walk without having to wonder who would take on this blessed activity (admittedly a chore to some folks) if I were no longer around to do it.

I usually don't talk about my brief but scary bout with skin cancer twenty years ago because, well, when I do, I feel more than a bit of survivor's guilt. The original misdiagnosis of malignant melanoma sent me into a tailspin from which I was still trying to recover when it was determined that, no, this cancer wasn't going to threaten my life; it would hardly even inconvenience me. Since then I have lost a brother to the real kind of cancer, the kind that knocks you down for a while until you fight your way back up, demanding to live life on your own terms, not those dictated by the disease. I have a friend now who has just finished his last round of last-ditch-effort chemo. He, like my brother, 'should have,' 'would have' died many years ago. But Jerry, like my brother, has not been willing to go. They humble me with their courage.

Dan is in my thoughts today on this eve of All Soul's Day, as are others I have lost. As for me, Death was nowhere to be seen outside my door last night. Only trick or treaters.

Sunday, October 26, 2014


I want to share the events of Wednesday because I don't believe in coincidences. I know that when a certain flawless timing is clearly evident, it is not a random, coincidental occurrence, but rather a reassurance that the Universe is watching over me. Or guardian angels or spirit guides or gods or goddesses or The Almighty, whatever makes you comfortable within the context of your particular faith. I do not promote mine over yours. But I am grateful for the daily guidance offered me by those who have passed over.

So here's what happened:
A week ago—through, again, a chain of events that could only have been orchestrated by powers greater than my own—I discovered a mole—well, actually three new moles, several inches apart, hiding underneath my left breast. I had to stop and think a moment about how long it has been, but oh my gosh, twenty years have come and gone since a chunk of my leg was removed because I was misdiagnosed with malignant melanoma. Turns out it was just squamous cell carcinoma. No big deal, easily treated (May I have some of my leg back, please?), and, within a few years, mostly forgotten. Life changing, though, of course. When your generally affable doctor sits next to you and takes your hand in his before saying, "We think it's melanoma," your life does indeed flash before your eyes. First you see the faces of your children. Then, if you're a writer, you think of all the plot lines you have yet to flesh out.

So when I found these little suckers, I immediately (well, as "immediately" as Kaiser would allow) made an appointment with my primary care physician. I knew that my doc would be as flummoxed as I was about whether these strange gray-ish marks were anything to worry about, but that she'd refer me to a dermatologist and we would go from there. Couldn't wait.

On Tuesday, I arranged a sub with my co-worker, the lovely and no-nonsense Lisa Brandt, whose job it is to find suitable teachers for my classroom. The week prior, however, when I'd been absent to attend the funeral of an old friend, things hadn't gone well in my classroom, so I decided I would leave the house at the usual time, head over to school, make sure the sub had everything she or he needed, then stop by Coco's for a cup of coffee before traveling on to the dreaded but necessary doc appointment.

In reality, here's what actually transpired: When I walked out at 7:00a.m. to go to work, Cloud's battery was dead. (Cloud being my 2003 Ford Ranger. I love her... but... she is getting up there in age.) I popped the hood, tapped on the battery terminals like we used to do with Mom's Oldsmobile (even though I could see that there was no corrosion), and when that remedy didn't work, I went back inside and called the auto club. While I waited, I called Lisa, who had my sub call me, whom I spoke with briefly to make sure everything was good, and just after that call Pedro showed up for the rescue.

"It's the battery or the alternator," he said. "Let it run for 45 minutes to give it a charge, but I would strongly recommend you have it looked at today so you aren't inconvenienced again." Good man. I obeyed, letting it run while I wrote out checks, then I drove around doing errands until it was time for my appointment, which went exactly as I'd expected. Thirty minutes later I was walking back out to the parking lot with an appointment slip in my hand: 3:15pm, Halloween Day. Can't wait.

Here's the cool part: I drove home, changed my clothes, threw the Trek in the back of the truck, drove to Big O (the one in Rancho Cucamonga on Archibald just north of Eighth, where Jim and John manage to keep my wheels rolling in the nicest fashion without ever ripping me off), dropped off the truck and rode home on the bike. As I hefted the bike in through the front door, my phone rang. Antonio at Big O was calling to let me know it was just the battery, they'd dropped in a new one, and Cloud was ready to come home. I took a long drink of water, rolled back out the door, and went to pick up my truck.

There were two things I wanted most to do on that stressful doctor day to re-focus, re-center myself. One was take a long bike ride (mission accomplished!), and the other was to take Sgt. Thomas Tibbs on a long walk. I did that as well.

See, if the battery had gone dead on a day I had to be at work, it would have caused all manner of inconvenience for me (because I'm never, ever late for work), for Lisa, who would have had to scramble around to find someone to sit with my first period class until I arrived, and for my students, who would probably have had to just sit with nothing to do as they waited for me to arrive. But... timing is everything. Thank you again, my guardian angels, my guides. Oh, you know who you are.  

Monday, September 1, 2014


Dan with Black Bart/photo courtesy of Carl Botefuhr

In 1966, my brother Dan stole a police car. He was nineteen at the time. He wasn't a thug or a criminal, and he wasn't fleeing a crime scene. When the officers parked at the curb of a residence where a party was getting a bit loud, my brother, a guest at that party, spotted them through the window and quickly retreated out the back door, high-tailing it over the back fence and walking around the block to see what would happen to his friends still inside the house. Dan had intended to stroll by nonchalantly, hands in pockets, but when he noticed that the cops had left the keys in their squad car and the engine running, he couldn't resist. Keeping his hands in his pockets (to avoid leaving fingerprints), he opened the door, slipped into the driver's seat, and drove away. Two blocks later he drove the car into a field, surrounded it with tumbleweeds, and walked away, keeping the keys. He was never caught.

This story was legend in our family and was often repeated on holidays such as Thanksgiving when we all got together. Years later I would share it with my high school students—with the strict admonition that they never, ever try anything so foolhardy.

When I mentioned to Dan once that I shared his story with my students, he chuckled and asked, "Do you also tell them about how I stole a big yellow school bus?" On a walk with his girlfriend and her young son one fine day, they happened upon a bus yard, where row upon row of bright yellow buses sat waiting for the next school day. The boy mentioned that he'd always wanted to ride in one. Since the large chain link gate to the yard was rolled pen, Dan saw no harm in taking the boy inside and climbing into the nearest bus (his girlfriend all the while repeating, "Dan, I don't think this is a good idea"). Lo and behold, Dan found a set of keys above the visor, and to the child's great wonder and thrill, fired up the big bus and drove it right out of the yard as a maintenance man ran along behind shouting at them to "Bring back that bus!" As Dan looped around the big city block and headed back toward the yard, he formulated a complicated plan for escape. "You run that way," he told his girlfriend, "and I'll run the opposite way. He can't follow in both directions." It worked. Again, he was never caught.

My zany, devil-may-care brother had countless adventures in his life. As an adolescent, he was a chubby, nerdy kid with glasses who spent far too much time lying on his bed, eating and reading science fiction novels. But in high school he had to walk two miles to school and two miles home, so he quickly lost the excess weight. Then contact lenses replaced his thick glasses, and suddenly my brother resembled James Dean. With his exceptionally high I.Q., he was smart, confident, attractive and far too ready and willing to embrace what kids would refer to now as the YOLO lifestyle: You only live once.

And what a life he lived. My brother taught me many things: Dogs are family members. Repressed anger can kill you (or at least make you very ill). Bullies are, more often than not, very frightened people, which is why they take pleasure in frightening others. And funerals are for those left behind.

We fought a lot when we were kids, then reconciled as young adults, then fought a lot in middle age (as I found myself still saying, "You're not the boss of me!"), then reconciled again. In Dan's last weeks of life, we spoke often on the phone. We said "I love you" a lot.

Today marks five years since he passed. I still tell him often that I love him, and I still miss him trying to tell me what to do.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Last weekend I drove 34 miles to the Laemmle Theater in Pasadena because that was the closest theater showing the documentary Alive Inside. I'd heard about the film on NPR, and I knew from the clips and blurbs I saw and read online that I would love it. I did.

Here's the basic premise of the film: Provide era-specific music to dementia patients, then sit back and enjoy the miraculous result.

More specifically: Social worker Dan Cohen (upon whom I now have a pretty serious fan-girl crush), in doing volunteer work with the elderly and Alzheimer's patients, wanted to find a way to connect with those who seemed lost inside themselves. He recognized music as a powerful, evocative force which is universal in its appeal. So he filled up some iPods with music from specific decades, purchased a few sets of headphones, then invited a filmmaker to come along and document his attempt to reacquaint patients with the music of their childhood.

To say the resulting footage is profoundly moving would be an understatement. I knew this film would make me cry; the soundtrack of my own life includes all the pieces I have sung in church, in weddings, in funerals, at sporting events, in the shower, on horseback, on my bike, on a mountaintop, in my classroom and a thousand other places. My mama was a singer as was my sister, and my last good memories of my father before he died center around him singing—even as his life ebbed slowly away. But oh my lord, I first began to tear up just seconds into the movie. One minute past that, tears were streaming down my cheeks. Click here to see the story of Henry.

Dan Cohen's foundation, Music & Memory, is dedicated to bringing music to individuals with Alzheimer's and other dementias. What Cohen and others have found is that music stimulates memory in a positive and healthy way, and that it is far more effectual than medications and other traditional therapies for reaching dementia patients who have previously been unresponsive to treatment. Cohen devotes his time and energy to raising funds through Music & Memory in order to offer iPods and headphones to nursing homes across the country.

Alive Inside is an intensely personal film which depicts human kindness and tenderness in its most raw and authentic form. I came away changed, determined to spend a bit more time with my guitar—and also determined to try to help Cohen's vision reach fruition.

Find this movie and go watch it—even if it means a bit of a drive to get there. Then go hug your grandma (if she's still around). Then go to Music & Memory and make a donation. Then—and only then—sit down with your family and sing a few of your favorite songs. Because you still can.

Here's a link to a beautifully done trailer for the film. It's two minutes long but you may need multiple tissues to get through it:  Alive Inside trailer

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Letter to Myself as a First Year Teacher

There is a video online of teachers reading letters they've written to themselves as first year teachers. I found their words touching, amusing, inspirational and powerful. So I decided to try to write my own. It has taken me all summer long to finish, but here it is:

Dear thirty-five-year-old Kay,
On this first day, you're thinking you might be too old to begin teaching. I'm looking at you from this vantage point of sixty, and I'm laughing.
I also see that you are proud and thrilled to be teaching in this brand new classroom with white boards which you are thinking are so cool and high tech, but girl, just wait. Somebody out there is working on this thing called a Smart Board. You ain't seen nothin' yet.
You should know that your carefully crafted yet coded lecture on this first day of school about not allowing "hate speech" in your classroom will become far more bold as time goes on and far less necessary. The time will come—yes, within your lifetime—when your LGBT students will be safely out and no longer in need of your protection.
You do not know this yet, but the kids who are about to swagger through the door, looking at you sideways and pretending disinterest, are actually watching every move you make, hearing every word you utter and weighing it, making judgments from the first seconds in your room as to whether you are trustworthy and kind or someone to be feared. Yes, they will seem puffed up, but they are really just frightened little bear cubs, standing on their hind legs, trying to appear large and intimidating. Inside they fear being called out and embarrassed by you or their classmates. Your first duty always is to help them feel safe. But don't be afraid to look them in the eye; for good or for bad, there is power in every word you say to them.
This year, you will make friends with the school librarian who will later be the best teacher-bud you will ever have. Hold onto this friendship as if it were the holy grail. Donna will keep you sane through all the craziness, anger, laughter and tears that is heading your way like a speeding locomotive.
At the end of the school year, take a picture of each class and keep those photos in an album in your room. You'll want to pull them out and reminisce over them when your former students stop by. And they will stop by.
Warning: Next year you'll have a student named Tabitha J. You will ask Miss J. no less than fifty times in 180 days to "Please step outside" so you can reiterate a lecture you're sick of giving and she's sick of hearing about how to behave appropriately in a classroom. She will be the bane of your work time existence for the entire year. Just wait. Eight years later, on a quiet afternoon, the phone will ring in your classroom, and it will be Miss J., calling to let you know she is now a college student working toward the goal of being a teacher "just like you" and to thank you for never giving up on her, thus beginning a legacy of naughty kids who will return, year after year, to thank you for caring about them as individuals despite their dismal grades in your class.
Your experience with Miss J. will also introduce you to one of the few aspects of your job you genuinely dislike, which is dealing with self-absorbed, unreasonable, ignorant parents. You should know now that throughout the whole of your career, you will be cussed out and threatened far more by parents than you will be by kids. When that happens, just let it go. Head for the gym or go for a run or walk the dogs, and as the sun goes down, let the conversation disappear into the wind.
Oh, and that advice your university professor gave you about never hugging the kids? Throw that out the window. When they need a hug, hug them. But be prepared; they will break your heart with stories of family tragedy. There will be a boy whose father shot his mother and then shot himself—in front of the boy. Don't worry about teaching him anything. Just love him. Seven years later you will hear your name called in a parking lot and there he will be, this boy who battled all the demons a boy can face in high school, smiling and hugging you and telling you that he is in his third year of college now, looking forward to finishing his degree.
So don't worry. Your heart will be broken often and just as often it will be mended by the daily laughter and love that will fill your classroom from top to bottom, more so with every year that you teach. Because with every year, you will love them more. In fact, there will come a day—September 11, 2001, to be precise—when you will begin to tell all your students every day that you love them.
Be ready to learn. Because yes, going into this gig, you've already raised four kids of your own, and you've got heaps of fancy book smarts. But your students will teach you volumes every year in every subject from fairness to fashion, including which music you "should" listen to. And they'll be right.
Despite your best efforts, you're going to make mistakes, just as you did with your own kids. When you do, forgive yourself quickly. Self-evaluation is great. Self-criticism is toxic. Be a role model; apologize when necessary, then move on.
Don't forget what your mentor, Dr. Hubert, told you about teaching: Learn to pat yourself on the back, because administration will have no idea what a great job you're doing in your classroom. But don't worry; the kids know, and they will always make you feel appreciated.
Most important of all, never get swept up in the current tide of educational trend. Rather be guided in your teaching by the beacon of warmest light, which is the love in your heart.
Oh—remember what you're mama said, too: Stand up straight. And lose those girlie shoes with heels; you'll be walking miles every day just around your own classroom.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Fisher King

In 1991, I was one year into a separation from the man I used to introduce as "the most wonderful man in the world," working slowly toward an amicable but irreparably wounding divorce. I've rarely felt so alone in the world.

Somehow I saw a trailer for a movie with Robin Williams called The Fisher King. Williams had won my heart years before with his brilliant stand-up routines and as the goofhead alien in Mork & Mindy, then in his more dramatic roles in Good Morning Vietnam, Dead Poets Society and Awakenings. Especially in the latter film, it was possible to see a depth of pain in Williams that was well-masked by his comedy, and that shared human condition resonated with my soul.

The premise of The Fisher King is this: The sanity of Williams' character, "Parry," has become unmoored after the senseless shooting of his beloved wife by a madman. Once "normal," he now lives in a homeless encampment, struggling daily against the dark force that threatens constantly to overtake him while simultaneously he extends charity, warmth and kindness to others.

I don't know how I found time and opportunity to sneak off to sit in a theater alone and watch The Fisher King. I only remember coming away from it changed. Not healed, exactly, certainly not led from the darkness of the time into a lighter place, but having been handed a sword with which to do battle. In the film, Parry's madness is made manifest in the form of a fierce and fiery figure on horseback which appears whenever something triggers a memory of his wife. Each time, his fear overwhelms him—until he finally discovers what he needs to confront the ominous form.

Wandering, lost, through this very dark time, I had lost all my power, had allowed the heart wound to bring me to my knees. Watching this film and the powerful performances of both Robin Williams and Michael Jeter, I began to find my legs again.

The screenplay, written by Richard LaGravenese, reiterates the theme that there is a very, very fine line—a gossamer thread—between sanity and madness, one step from sunlight to shadow. In watching the film, I heard a voice calling, saw a light shining—albeit far off—which led me back toward the light. Twenty-three years later, I still stand, sword drawn in readiness to ward off the darkness that I know could come for me at any time.

Tragically, we have lost Robin Williams to that same shadow, that dark sadness which menaces anyone with a tender, open heart. Like his character in The Fisher King, he spent his life reaching out to others, even as his own demons taunted him. May he step now into eternal light and peace, and may we always remember his gift.

To watch a short clip of the movie which includes both Robin Williams and Michael Jeter, click here.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Treasure hunt

It's trash day. I am awakened at 4:00a.m. by the piercing screech of metal grinding on metal. I don't need to look out the window. I know that the sound emanates from the rickety metal cart used by the wizened old man who roams the cul-de-sacs of my neighborhood every Monday night, gleaning treasure from the trash of others. Black trash bags, stuffed to capacity, hang off the sides of his cart like tumors on a skinny dog.

I rise, let my own well-fed dog out into the backyard, feed the cats, then wander out front to turn on the sprinkler. By now the little man, who does not quite reach five feet in stature, has made it around the cul-de-sac, and I wave to him as he crab walks past, dragging the heavy cart behind him. I never put my trash cans out at the curb until he is gone. It's not that I begrudge him my recyclables. I have witnessed him on many occasions tear open the kitchen trash bags in my neighbors' garbage cans, sifting through god-knows-what in search of an aluminum can, a plastic bottle, any small thing with re-sale value. I am not willing to share that level of intimacy with him.

And anyway, I save my plastic one-liter Evian bottles separately. (Yes, I spend the money for Evian. No, it doesn't taste the same as filtered tap water and no, water is not water. Ask a hydro-geologist. Don't get me started.) When I moved in a year and a half ago, Grumpy Bob next door asked me to save my plastic bottles for him after I caught him rifling through my trash cans. I told him I certainly would. And I have.

But this morning, I give them away. There is another scavenger who comes through the neighborhood on trash day. This one is a woman, as small and wrinkled as the old man. I want to say that she is old but when I see her up close, I realize we are probably about the same age. I am a vibrant, athletic sixty-year-old who will later walk her pampered dog around these cul-de-sacs at a brisk pace. Although the physical maladies are starting to pile up, I am confident that I will live another twenty or thirty years quite comfortably, thanks to the good health care provided by my good job which I obtained with my good education.

I wonder at the longevity of this woman, though, as I see her, like the little old man, tear open trash bags with her bare hands, scrounging through toxic waste to eke out a living. Some would find her labor disgusting. I find it humbling.

As I note the full apron she wears which covers the front of her shirt and her pants down to the knees, its floral pattern edged with old fashioned rick-rack, I am reminded of my grandmother whose first job upon coming to Los Angeles was as a dishwasher in a bar. Holding my Trader Joe's stamped paper bag filled with empty plastic bottles, I shuffle quickly across the street in the gray dawn light. I tell her good morning, offering the bag and asking, "Are you looking for bottles?" though I well know the answer.

"Sì," she says in Spanish, taking the bag. "Thank you!" in English, and her entire face glows with the brightness of her straight, white teeth. Her voice is warm with gratitude, and it resonates with me as I walk back across the street to enjoy another cup of tea before heading out to walk the dog.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Security unit

I always feel like I should follow my posts about Thomas with a post about The Girls. This one will be brief, but it serves to remind us that we should never underestimate the intelligence, love and devotion of our feline friends—even if they are far less demonstrative than our canine friends.

Last week I decided the time had finally come to bathe Thomas. Although we have jogged through a fair share of sprinklers on our walks at 5:30a.m., he has never been officially bathed in the six months that I've had him. I understood his fear of hoses and of being confined, so I have put off that chore. But oh my Buddha how dirty this dog was, and he actually resembled the Peanuts character, Pigpen, as he walked through the house with dirt and hair swirling around him.

The Plan was to wait until The Girls were in the bedroom deep in sleep for their afternoon nap, then bring Thomas in and put him in the guest bathroom tub (a tiny, still pink 1950's job). I put a few inches of lukewarm water in first, then brought Thomas in, lifted him into the tub, stepped in with him and slid the shower doors closed. I soaked a soft rag with water and began wiping him down. He didn't like it, but at least he stood there compliantly.

All went well until he decided to turn around, at which point he slipped and slid down sideways, after which he panicked and started to claw his way out any way he could. Several seconds of complete bedlam ensued, with Thom slipping and splashing and me repeating his name over and over, trying to get him to stop thrashing and hold still. Finally he did, giving up and allowing his body to slide down into the water. Perfect. He lay curled at the end of the tub while I rinsed him all over. (No soap this time. I'm not crazy.)

With the completion of the task, all I had to do was roll back the shower door. He hopped out onto the mat, I dried him off, and all we had to do was get him back outside before he shook water everywhere. Yes! I opened the bathroom door to facilitate our escape, but we were met with the most intimidating security squad I've ever faced—two small cats puffed up like Halloween kitties, backs arched, ears back, mouths open with spits, hisses, growls and snarls like I've never heard (well, at least from Purrl; Sug exhibits this behavior on a regular basis). Oh no! I slammed the door closed again, looked at Thom and burst out laughing. Having heard the commotion and convinced I was finally being torn limb from limb by that huge red wolf-like creature I'd insisted on bringing into our home, The Girls had come to my rescue. (Oh, and if you don't think felines are capable of protecting their humans, you've got to read the amazing memoir Homer's Odyssey by Gwen Cooper—especially if you're a cat lover!)

Somehow through the closed door I managed to convince The Girls that I was fine, and they eventually backed away, waiting in the hallway but allowing us enough space to exit the bathroom and get outside where Thomas, of course, ran and rolled in the grass and unfurled his beautiful flag of a tail and shook to his heart's content.

I gotta say, if anyone ever tries to come at me, I'm pretty sure it will be my cats and not my dog coming to the rescue. They are quite the formidable pair!

The Girls in a much calmer state

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

How is Sgt, Thomas Tibbs, you ask?

Stay tuned after today's blog post for a brief commercial message.

Thomas is doing just fine these days. It's hard to believe that I last posted about him in February. He has made amazing progress since then, most notably now wagging his tail for me (which took four months) and taking a treat from my hand (which took five). Of course, he's still the world's most quirky dog, but that's okay. I love him just as he is, and I don't mind making a few accommodations for him. Well, maybe more than a few. But still okay. Below is a brief update on his progress (and if you haven't read the previous posts about Thom, you might want to click here):

What I mean by quirky:
He's still nocturnal, and I'm not referring to sleeping patterns; he's happy and awake and alive if it's dark outside. As the light comes on, he becomes more and more wary and afraid and shut down. His ears literally begin to droop as dawn turns into day. Thus, I find myself running around the back yard at 4:30 in the morning doing dog bows with him as he huffs and jumps happily, using a stage whisper (so as not to wake the neighbors or their barky dog) to tell him, "Good boy! Good job!" if he runs to retrieve his chew bone. While he will now wag his tail at 4:30 in the afternoon when I feed him (yes! progress!), he will not play at that hour. At least, not until the sun goes down.

Anything out of place makes him anxious. He is learning to come in the house by himself (without being led in on the leash), which, again, is great progress. But if he sees anything out of place—a pillow on the floor, a chair moved to a different spot—he will turn around at the door and trot back to the safety of the side yard, at which point I have to go get him and guide him in to show him nothing will hurt him.

He will sit calmly in the family room while I vacuum the house, will stand in the doorway of the garage while I start the truck, slowly wagging his tail to ask if he can go. Neither the dishwasher nor the garbage disposal scares him. But if he hears a motorcycle start up—even if it's blocks away—he bolts for the side yard in terror. If he sees a motorcycle parked at the curb while we are out walking, he has to be coaxed around it.

His favorite spot to sleep is now the extra cab of my Ford Ranger. When I first began taking him places in the truck, he would become anxious and often get car sick. But he has slowly learned to love sitting in that protected back area between the seats and the wall of the cab, his face turned toward the wind blowing in from the open passenger side window. The loud explosions around the Fourth of July (which are still being heard in my neighborhood) were terrifying for him. One night recently when we came home from a long, leisurely walk in Mt. Baldy, a very loud boom resounded just as he was getting out of the truck in the garage (which is also something he does by himself now). He turned around and dove back in and didn't come out for over an hour. No problem. He's still sleeping part of the night indoors and part outside, so I leave the doors of the truck open in case he wants to duck for cover.

He steals things. Specifically, my gardening gloves. The first time he did this, I didn't realize what had happened (Now where did I leave those gloves...?) until the next day when I found a pile of dog vomit in the back yard and, as I cleaned it up, found both gloves. He had taken them off the patio table, ingested them, then (thank heavens) regurgitated them. Now, there were several other items on that table: His leash. His brush. His Nyla bone still smelling of peanut butter. His Kong toy that is hollow inside so that I can put treats in it (which he loves to play with to extract the treats, even though he still doesn't know how to play with toys). But he ignored all those goodies and took my gloves. So I have been very, very careful since then to always leave my gloves up on the workbench in the garage where he can't reach them. Until today. Today while we were working in the back yard—me heartily pulling weeds, Thom contentedly curled in a corner—the phone rang. I ran to get it, pulling off my gloves and setting them, yes, on that same table with his Kong toy, etc. while I went to answer it. Ten minutes later I returned to find one glove missing. Thomas was still in his corner. I looked everywhere in the yard for the glove, thinking I might have dropped it. I even made him get up to see if he had taken it to chew on and then curled back up on it. It was nowhere to be found. In the hour it took me to mow the lawn, I considered my options: I could wait for him to puke it up. I could make him throw up. I could call my vet to get his opinion. I was still mulling these things over as I went to check on Thom, and as I stood talking to him, I kicked some loose dirt with the toe of my shoe. A finger emerged. Well, not an actual finger, but the index finger of the glove. When he'd seen me set the gloves down, he'd gotten up, trotted over, taken one and trotted back to his corner to hide it for later. Son of a gun. There are just certain things—my gloves, BunnyTibbs—that he feels are rightfully his, and he will reclaim them if he gets the chance.

He still refuses to come when I call him. (I say "refuses" because I'm pretty sure he knows what I want, he just doesn't see any good reason to comply.) But he has gotten better and better on the leash. When we first began walking together, he would bolt through doorways or gateways and around corners or up onto curbs. We worked on it constantly, and I finally began teaching him the command, "Walk slow, Thom." Doing so was serendipitous. Just as he began to become proficient in responding to it, I tore a tendon in my ankle. At first I was devastated because I assumed we'd be unable to take walks for a while. But a day later we were limping around the culdesac, Thom on "walk slow" and me hobbling beside him at a snail's pace. Yes, it probably took much longer for the tendon to heal, but I just wasn't willing to give up our daily walk. Now when I tell him "Walk slow," he immediately slows his usual trotting pace to that of an old arthritic woman, which is basically what I am these days. I use this command to take care of my ankle when we are ascending or descending steep trails. He will continue the slow stroll until I tell him, "Ok, thank you, Thom," at which point he resumes his standard trot.

He still has a long way to go in terms of recovery. I know there are memories that still haunt him. Sometimes in his sleep, he barks or emits a low, ominous growl. But he has never uttered a sound while awake—even when all the dogs in the neighborhood are barking, even if that pesky little black cat is taking a swipe at him again. If people pass us while we're walking, he still cowers and tries to move to the side, tucking his tail so far between his legs it touches his belly. When friends stop by, he runs outside, remaining in his safe corner until he's certain there are no strangers present. But he has slowly warmed to my son and my friend Doug, so I see a time in the future when he will begin to trust other humans more readily.

My favorite time of day with him is early in the morning, just after he's had his breakfast, when it is still dark and he is feeling as happy and goofy as a much-loved dog can feel, trotting around the yard with his tail and head held high. My second favorite time is in the afternoon when he lies sprawled beside my desk as I write (as he is right now, matter of fact), softly sighing in his sleep. Just his presence here makes my life better.

And now for that brief commercial message: If you have enjoyed reading about Sgt. Thomas Tibbs, you might also enjoy the memoir I wrote entitled The Dogs Who Saved Me. All of the royalties for that book are donated to animal rescue groups who do the hard work of rehabilitating dogs like Thom. There is a link to the Amazon page for that book right here in the column on the left. And thank you!

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Birthday Gift

Back in the late 1970's when I was a young wife and mother with very little money, someone in our church began selling Avon products as a way to supplement her family's income. I sympathized with her plight, and so I found one thing to buy when she made her obligatory pitch over tea one afternoon. The "Dear Friends" cologne decanter (pictured above) with its lovely girl holding a cat reminded me of my then three-year-old daughter and her tenderness with a tiny orange kitten she named "Sweetheart" (because that was what I called her). The scent, "Roses, Roses," seemed like such an extravagance, but it really did smell just like roses, and I really did want to help out the young woman whose young family was struggling like my own.

So I bought the little decanter, and I kept it on my dresser, and every time I dressed for church or to go to dinner with my husband, I dabbed on a few drops of the sweet scented water. It took years to empty the bottle. Once the cologne was gone, I kept the bottle on my dresser because I loved the figurine, and the scent of the roses lingered in it. Now my granddaughter has it. She's sixteen.

A couple of years ago for my birthday, my daughter bought me some rose water, telling me, "This reminds me of you because you always smelled like this when I was growing up." It swept me back across decades in an instant. Until that moment, I'd had no idea she associated that scent with her childhood.  I used the rose water she gave me, though it didn't smell quite as sweet as the original cologne, and of course it was lacking the nostalgia of that lovely Avon bottle.

Then yesterday, for our birthday—because my daughter was born on my nineteenth birthday, still the best birthday I've ever had—she handed me a small gift bag. In it, wrapped ever so carefully, was a very familiar figure. Somehow, she and my granddaughter had found (online, of course) a woman selling the Avon products her mother had collected for years. As I opened the package, tears in my eyes, my granddaughter reminded me that she still had that old "Dear Friends" bottle because, she said, it reminds her of her childhood. My son, sitting beside me, didn't remember the bottle at all, but when he smelled the cologne inside, his eyes widened. "I remember this!" he said. Of course. When scent is connected to memory it can snap us back to places and experiences from long, long ago.

And what a gift it is when someone can give us something so simple yet so powerful! I love this gift because it will remind me, every time I splash it on, of those long ago but much beloved days... and how far we've come as a family. And now, having seen my granddaughter, as beautiful as her mother, gently cradle a kitten in her arms, this simple glass and plastic container takes on an even deeper value.

So here's a birthday toast to nostalgia, to vintage memories and to making new memories as our family grows in ever widening circles of love.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Our New Normal (wherein I anthropomorphize to my heart's content)

Summer is here. As I write this, Sugie is beside me, curled into a fold of the softly worn green blanket that has covered this swing for eight summers now. During the school year, when things get so crazy with early hours, papers to grade, parents to call and impossible time schedules, this is what I daydream about. This is what keeps me putting one foot in front of the other, shuffling one more graded essay to the bottom of the stack, these long blissful moments of swing-sitting with this little chunk of a cat… and writing slowly, leisurely, thinking through my word choices as the ice cubes twirl slowly in my glass of sweet tea.

This is heaven for both of us. For me it’s the writing. For Sug it’s having her mom home so she can spend hours outside on the patio if she so desires (as long as I am out here with her).

This summer, of course, our routine is just a wee bit altered. Sug now shares me with annoying little sister Purrrl and the world’s most quirky dog, Sgt. Thomas Tibbs. So far, things are working out just fine.

In previous summers, when I’ve done my annual pilgrimage to Missouri, Sug has been left with various housesitters. I have always returned to find her somewhat emotionally shut down, always clingy and anxious for many days after my return. (And if you think I’m simply projecting or anthropomorphizing here, take a moment to read this piece in today’s Los Angeles Times by Amy Hubbard.) Even those closest to me have never fully understood that my deep anxiety in leaving her stems not from worry about her physical well-being but about how her psyche will fare while I’m gone. I am the center of her daily routine, her source not only of food but of safety and security. My absence means subjecting her to her own ‘worries,’ primal as they may be. Keep in mind, this is a sentient being I have cared for and loved for eight years. I know the difference in her response when I’ve been gone for an hour compared with an absence of twelve hours. It’s not about the food; she does truly ‘miss’me.

To help Sug feel slightly less alone when I travel—or when I’m gone from the house for a grueling early-morning-to-work-plus-parent-meeting-plus-grocery-shopping day—I brought little Purrrl into our lives last fall. And this year, when I returned from Missouri, Sug had not shut down. Well at least, not to the extent she usually does. Yes, I’m sure there were some moments of anxiety—my housesitter, with whom Sug is acquainted, invited people over a few times, so the house was noisy and there were strangers. But when the girls get anxious, they dive under the bed and huddle up together. They don’t cuddle, but I have no doubt that being near each other during a potentially scary experience helps them both to cope and offers them the comfort of familiarity.

All of that is preamble to say that, where my late summer mornings used to consist of yawning, stretching, and strolling outside to the patio with Sug, there is a bit more to it now. Now when I wake I have to move cautiously around a sleepy gray kitten who hogs the middle of the bed (Sug and I relegated to the left side, always) and who will lash out with cranky claws if her beauty sleep is disturbed. But ten minutes later, I will hear the girls chasing each other through the house. Because apparently cats do not need one or two cups of tea before they can officially begin to wake up; they seem to be able to go from I’m-still-sleeping-Mom! to I-got-you!/I-got-you-back! in about thirty seconds.

And after everyone is fed—except for me, though I am allowed one cup of tea to drink while I dispense fresh water, pick up rawhide chew remnants from the floor, start the sprinklers and put my shoes on—there follows a long, luxurious walk with my boy, Thomas, who is quite the happy dog these days. (Update on the good boy in an upcoming post.) Later in the morning, Sug will let me know it’s time to stop cleaning or folding laundry or goofing off on Facebook, and we will wander outside together to this very spot. This routine is what keeps me sane, and I am grateful to the Universe that the sanity it brings will last me for ten months when school starts again.

Today’s blog post is dedicated to my dear friend and faithful reader Barbara Tinsley, who gave me just the nudge I needed at just the right time.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Why I'm worried about that little horse running in the Belmont tomorrow

Photo courtesy of

You may have been so wrapped up in the Donald Sterling scandal or the NBA playoffs or the NHL playoffs or all of them combined that you haven't had a moment in recent weeks to read the remainder of the sports page. So let me update you quickly on something important that happened in horse racing. Last month, a little horse from California won the Kentucky Derby. Then he won the Preakness. The horse's name is California Chrome.

These are big races, and the reason this is important is that, in horse racing, if a horse wins the Derby, the Preakness and then Belmont Stakes, it's known as the Triple Crown, and winning the TC turns a horse into a rock star (in the horse world) overnight. Winning the Derby is like finally getting that long awaited invitation to Madison Square Garden to perform, if you're a real rock star. Winning the Triple Crown is like being invited to perform at the Garden plus having an album go platinum plus being asked to perform on the Grammys. So, if you don't follow horse racing, you should now have some idea how important winning the TC is. You should also know that no horse has been able to achieve this feat since 1978.

One reason, of course, is that the Belmont track, at a mile and a half, is longer than Churchill Downs (where the Derby is run) or Pimlico (where the Preakness is run). Another glaring reason is that after the first two races, many horses are simply too broken to win the Belmont.

Now, I don't want to go all PETA here (though the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals do have accurate and substantial information on their website about horse racing), and I certainly don't want to jinx our brave little stallion from California, but I have to confess that it has become difficult to get excited about watching horses try for the TC when we've seen such equine tragedy in recent years.

You may remember hearing of a horse called Barbaro, a truly valiant steed who won the Derby in 2006, then lost the Preakness—because he fractured three bones in his right hind leg, probably at the start of the race (but of course he galloped around the track with the rest of the herd as horses will do). When he pulled up at the finish, he was holding that hind leg high, barely able to stand. Emergency surgery was performed the next day, and for months his owners tried everything to fix him, to no avail. He was eventually euthanized.

Then there was that little filly I fell so in love with named Eight Belles. In 2008, she finished second to the now famous Big Brown (the last horse to win both the Derby and the Preakness) in the Kentucky Derby—and immediately after crossing the finish line, she collapsed. Both front legs had sustained fractures as she ran, and she was so broken they couldn't even remove her from the track. She was euthanized while all those ladies in their pretty Derby hats looked on in horror. I would have needed to immediately down four or five mint juleps had I been present that day. As it was, I was watching the race on television and dissolved in tears when I realized what had happened. She, too, was a valiant steed. But there was a lot of pressure on her jockey to get her across that finish line ahead of Big Brown, and her jockey had whipped her repeatedly down the stretch because she wasn't running at her usual speed—no doubt because her legs were breaking.

Why? Because horses with long, slender pasterns (that space between the fetlock or ankle and the hoof) win races, so in the last twenty years or so of racing, thoroughbred owners have followed bloodlines with that particular trait, breeding horses with thinner and thinner pasterns. It makes the horse more flexible as a runner, but also compromises the horse's leg strength, for obvious reasons.

And then there's the doping that goes on in the business of horse racing at a rate that would make Lance Armstrong look like a novice at bait and switch and concealment. Horses are given pain killers so that, if they are injured or just not feeling well, they'll still run hell bent for leather, as we say in the horsie world. Just as Eight Belles did. (I make no accusation in regard to whether she'd been given pain killers. I simply note that she ran her heart out despite her pain, as did Barbaro.)

Because of Eight Belles, I could not bring myself to watch another Derby, though I had watched the race every year since I was twelve or thirteen. But last month, having done some reading on California Chrome and his owners, I settled myself on the couch, took deep breaths and watched him win the Derby. (I did not see the Preakness as I could not arrange to be at home.)

This amazing little horse might win the Belmont Stakes tomorrow. If he does, he will be immediately retired from racing and made comfortable on a stud farm where he will live out his days trotting around in a large pasture (when he isn't busy getting it on with every pretty filly who can afford his stud fee). The perfect life, I'd say, for a stallion. That is, if his legs hold out. I'll be praying as I watch the race.  

Sunday, May 25, 2014

I know who I am (Part 2)

To say that my father's death when I was eight years old had an impact on my life would be an understatement. It was in that exact moment that the forward momentum in my life began to make a slow, steady turn in a different direction.

I was in the third grade when he died. In the fourth grade, Mrs. Walton told me that I could be a writer, and, as I noted in my previous post, I believed her. In the fifth grade, two things happened. First, my sister won a pony in a contest. She'd been entering the same tell-us-in-fifty-words-or-less-why-you-want-a-pony contest for years, my dad encouraging her to do so, promising her that someday he would get her a horse. After he died, her fifty words were heart wrenching. She won, and our lives became centered around a little dappled Shetland pony mare named Silver.

The second thing that happened that year was that I was I.Q. tested and found to be gifted. In the early 1960's, all fifth graders in California were I.Q. tested so that they could be "appropriately placed" in the academic programs that would best serve them in public school. (Don't get me started on tracking; that is a subject for another day.) I can't tell you what my I.Q. was because my mother wouldn't tell me. I do know that the school psychologist called her to give her this information and to let her know that I would be offered the opportunity to attend a special program for gifted children in the sixth grade. I would be bussed, along with four of my gifted peers, to another school every day to attend a class made up solely of gifted children.

So there I was every day that remained of the fifth grade, hanging out with my mutually smart friends, Cathy Dodd and Melinda Lively and Steve McCutcheon, planning for the next year, speculating on all the fun we would have, reveling in our newfound pride as smart kids, considering what our futures would bring. Cathy was my best friend and lived a block away. Her dad was a professor at UCLA, and way off in the distance I could see us attending college together there.

Oh—something else happened when I was in the fifth grade, or rather right after school ended for the summer. We moved. Mom said it was too expensive to pay the stable rental on Silver, so we moved a few miles away, from Lakewood to Cypress, to a house zoned for horses with a barn and a corral right there in the back yard. Heaven. For my sister, anyway.

The new elementary school had no program for gifted children. So that little part of my identity was no longer important or significant. I made new friends. Horsie friends. Turns out my sister's pony was pregnant, so we soon had another pony, then a horse, then the pony was given to me and I spent my time after school not doing homework but riding, cleaning, brushing, feeding, watering and preparing for the many horseshows I would enter.

I won a lot of trophies. And I'm proud to say that by the time I was sixteen I could train a horse "from the ground up," as they say in the horse world. But by then we were living in a new place because my mother had married my wicked step-father, and I was a clinically depressed, suicidal teen trying to navigate through deep emotional pain.

I didn't get good grades any more. I hadn't done homework since the seventh grade. No teacher ever told me I had the potential to do something with my life.

I did manage to finish high school. And then I got married, at age seventeen, for lack of any better options. And also because, in my senior year, I came home from school one day to find a Volkswagon "bug" in the driveway, the keys to which my mother handed over, telling me, "Let's face it, you're not going to college, so I took the money out of your savings account (which were funds from a death benefit paid out after Dad died) and bought you a car. You can stop borrowing mine now."

I still had a goal: I would train horses and write. I did begin writing. One of my first published pieces appeared in a horse magazine. But I became pregnant at eighteen, had my daughter on my nineteenth birthday, and in the years that followed, we adopted several children and eventually came to the realization that we could either feed our kids or feed our horses, so the horses had to go (all except my beloved pony, Silver, who lived to be twenty-three and was the first horse my daughter ever rode).

This story has a happy ending, it really does. When my marriage ended in divorce, I finally went to college. The snooty lady in the admissions office at UC Riverside looked at my high school transcript and explained that "for some people" community college is the best option, and so I went to Chaffey for two years, earned straight A's, applied to UCR again, was admitted with a full scholarship and graduated cum laude two years later (this, while raising four children as a single parent). In my senior year, one of my English papers was accepted into Ideas of Order, the prestigious "journal of letters" for UCR's English department.

Before I'd ever begun college, though, I'd been freelance writing for a decade, and I'd had a book published by a national publishing house, so really, writing was my first career. I began teaching after college so that I'd be able to support my kids, since I never received a dime in child support from my husband. Oh, and while I taught high school full time and continued to raise my own rowdy teens, I entered a graduate program, earning a master's degree in literature.

Yeah, I rock. (Little pat on the back there.)

Of course, I still had a colleague approach me one day as I stood in a processional line with nineteen other teachers, proudly wearing my cap and gown in UCR blue and gold colors, about to walk out onto the football field with our graduating students. She said, "Kay, you're wearing the wrong colors."
"No...." was my confused response.
"Yes, you are. Those aren't Cal State colors." (Only other academics, I think, will appreciate the bias in the distinction here. At least I hope so.)
"I'm a UC grad," I told her.
"What? No you're not!"

Really? Upon what did she base her judgment? That same old far-too-pensive expression? My tendency, still, to wear boots and cowboy shirts and drop "ain't" into a conversation just to shock my fellow academics? Here was Miss Madden all over again.

I have continued to encounter other Miss Maddens in my life, a few in particular in very recent days because I chose to teach Honors level classes this year, after twenty-four years of saying "Give me the sweathogs!" because those were the kids I could relate to. Some... people with whom I teach feel I am not qualified to teach in the Honors program. Things have been said, intimations have been made.

But I'm no longer the quiet little girl who sadly returned her green dot book to the shelf. So beware, Miss Maddens of the world. Stop trying to bring down my success at the end of the rainbow with your self-righteous superiority. That ain't gonna fly anymore. Because I know who I am. See?

Sunday, May 18, 2014

I Know Who I Am (Part I)

Recently I mentioned something on Facebook that celebrated my role as high school English teacher. Eighty of my friends and acquaintances 'liked' it. A few days later, I posted a reminder about an event I would be attending in my role as writer.  Eleven people liked it. A day or so later, I posted an update on the success of that event. Seventeen people liked it.

I want to say I've gotten used to this, the discrepancy between how I see myself (writer) and how others see me (teacher), but the truth is, it takes me up short every time. I've been thinking about it a lot (or, more precisely, while mowing and edging the front lawn today, then weeding until it was too hot to continue). So I hope, dear reader, you will indulge me as I ruminate publicly about it in the next few blog posts. And I hope you will forgive me if, as I knead down to the deep tissue of this subject, a tiny bit of discomfort is experienced. I am not trying to call anyone out. I'm just trying to, well, be true to the above posted motto regarding "being simply true."

Because I do understand the dynamic of it. Since teaching is my career choice (oh, if you only knew how I came to choose it!), my identity, to most folks, is that of teacher. In fact, most of the teachers and educational staff I work with now have no idea that, in a past life, I was an established professional writer—before I became a teacher. My first book—published by a national publishing company and a bestseller for that company, netting me thousands of dollars in royalties—was written (dare I say it?) before I'd even attended college.

Since most folks (not all) see me as a teacher, this writing gig creates a tiny bit of cognitive dissonance because it doesn't ring true with how they perceive me. The Kay Murphy they know is the far-too-casual, far-too-sarcastic, somewhat cynical, always-resistant-to-change teacher who never contributes to any conversation in English department meetings. For some of them, this idea that I have published a few books is somewhat of a sideline hobby, a sweet notion I had about my dogs or my beloved great-grandmum that I decided to 'get published.' Of course, this is hardly the true picture. But how do I disabuse them of this mythology? After all, I've been misread, misidentified and misinterpreted all my life, and when I reflect upon it, I'm downright amazed at some of the things people have said to me.

The first in this long, tragic series of you-don't-belong-here episodes occurred with our elementary school librarian, Miss Madden. (I could be remembering her name wrong; after all, it's been fifty years or so. But I'm pretty sure it's Miss Madden.) In those blissful, post-WWII days after Johnny had marched home from the war and before anyone began to pay attention to the Civil Rights Movement or the USA's involvement with the politics of a small country called Vietnam, grown-ups were putting a renewed emphasis on the education of their children. Several innovative approaches to education had arisen, and teachers were beginning to implement such tools as standardized testing, I.Q. testing and tracking.

So there I was one day in the library of Grover Cleveland Elementary School along with all my peers in Mrs. Walton's fourth grade class. We went to the library regularly as a class so that we each had the opportunity to check out whatever books we wanted to read on our own. Well, that was the basic idea, anyway. And that suited me just fine. Libraries were magic castles packed with treasure, as far as I was concerned. I loved to lose myself in reading a good story. But in those days, we didn't have a Barnes & Noble at the local shopping center. Mom and Dad had a big bookcase in their bedroom which contained: A set of Encyclopedia Britannica (good job, Mom & Dad!), some Reader's Digest "condensed" books, and my father's law books. (No, he wasn't an attorney. He was a cop, then a night watchman, and he hacked his way through law school working the graveyard shift so he could attend law classes during the day. Then he contracted a terminal illness and died.) We never had money to buy books. The fact that libraries let you borrow them for free still thrills me.

Back in those days, one of those new-fangled teaching methods involved identifying the ability level of students and teaching to that level. To guide and direct us in our reading, our helpful librarian had labeled all the books in our requisite section with colored dots. (For some of you, this will begin to sound familiar. In fact, a color-coded system is still used in today's Accelerated Reader program.) Red dots indicated an easy-to-read book. Blue dots meant the reading level would be a bit higher. More difficult reads with advanced vocabulary were designated with a green dot.

By the fourth grade, I was proud of my ability to read and spell, and as I said, I loved getting lost in a book, so I looked for those that were longer, and I had no trouble reading them; I'd been dipping into our Reader's Digest Condensed Books at home for lack of anything better to read.

On the day in question, I advanced to the check-out counter, green dot book in hand. I wish to heavens I could remember what it was I had. No chance of that now. I never did get to read it. The librarian made me return it to the shelf with the terse, "That's a green dot book. It's above your level. Pick something else."

Wait. What? Did a librarian tell me I wasn't capable of reading green dot books? Why? The only interactions I ever had with Miss Madden in the past had involved bringing a book to the counter and presenting the check-out card. Why did she think I couldn't read this one? Upon what did she base her judgment? My slack-jawed, already-far-too-pensive expression? My clothing? My perpetually snotty nose? My scuffed up saddle shoes? What?

I never learned. Burning with humiliation (especially as I passed some of my peers who were heading for the check-out counter, their own green dot selections in hand) I returned my treasure and chose a blue dot book of lesser value, though I never believed Miss Madden's mystical assessment of my reading level.

Later that same year, Mrs. Walton would tell me, after reading a short story I wrote, "You could be a writer," and I would believe her, choosing, at age nine, my future career.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Regarding Donald Sterling

I am relieved and encouraged that NBA commissioner AdamSilver handed Donald Sterling a lifetime ban from the league. How that ban plays out and whether Sterling will be forced to sell the Clippers and whether the NBA will ever see any of the quarter of a million dollars Sterling has been fined are all issues for another time, another discussion.

For now, I just want to comment on racism in America.

I hate to say it, but Mr. Sterling has done me a solid. For decades, I have had to listen to white people tell me, "Thank God we're past all that." For decades I have responded, "Racism hasn't stopped; it's just gone underground." Sterling's despicable remarks to his mistress have validated the point I have tried to make to my well-intentioned but very naive white friends. Putting on the mask of acceptance and tolerance is not the same thing—definitely NOT the same thing—as embracing diversity.

As the white mother of children who identify themselves as black, I could tell you stories of racism and discrimination that would make you feel the burn of shame, from the Bank of America employee who lied to my son to keep him from opening a checking account to the smog inspector who asked him if he stole his car to his boss (at his high paying white collar job in Los Angeles) who suggested he 'stick to dating within his race' to the countless cops who pulled him over for DWB. These aren't incidents that occurred in the 1950s or the 1960s. These experiences have all happened in the last twenty years. Racist remarks by his boss are on-going and as recent as last week.

Of course, I have my own stories. White people who are close to my age feel safe making bigoted comments for two reasons. Either they assume I am going to be in agreement with them, or (and this is the more insidious of the two) they assume that if I disagree, I will keep quiet about it.

Because this is what we do. We hear someone say something and we may cringe, but in keeping with this facade that has us all 'going along to get along,' we don't confront the person. We don't make a scene, we don't accuse. We may keep our heads high and walk away but we fail to point the finger and call a racist a racist. We stop short of embarrassing people. We stop short of shaming them. And what a shame that is.

Thank you, Adam Silver, for not sweeping this under the rug, for not using evasive language about this being a personnel matter or one the league would deal with privately. Thank you for pointing the finger at the exposed racist and saying with such great determination and fortitude, 'You, sir, are a racist.' Perhaps we can all learn a lesson from your example.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

What I miss

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, March 9, 2014

E Ticket Ride

Bunny Tibbs--before her bath

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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