Sunday, August 20, 2017

More Garden (and Wildlife) Notes



A week in the life of a back yard gardener:

Monday:
Every night a possum sneaks into my tiny back yard and eats exactly one half of one peach. How do I know? Because I pick up the fallen peaches every day. And every morning there is always one fallen peach--one big, beautiful peach--lying on the ground on the far side of the tree, so carefully incised down to the pit that it looks as if someone with opposable thumbs cut in half with a knife. I have never seen Ms. O. Possum. (I had to do a Google search of "What does possum poop look like?" in order to differentiate between skunk poop and opossum.) I did, however, see one of her young 'uns very early one morning in late spring when I went looking for Purrl. Both were in the planter area. Purrl was sitting sedately on the retaining wall, watching the little critter with wonder and amazement. ("Mom--is that a weird looking cat?") The little joey (yep, that's what they're called) was backed up against the neighbor's fence, growling fiercely.

By the way, "possum" has now become an accepted spelling of "opossum," so you folks my age can stop spelling it like this: 'possum. (Further note: According to the Oxford Dictionary, we are still using the apostrophe for young 'un--because it is a contraction of 'young one'--although most spell check software will then redline the "un." Less stuffy wordsmiths simply use "youngun" as the spelling--though they claim only old folks like myself use that slang term. Hmph.)

Tuesday:
Around midday Monday I noticed a small mantis on the hummingbird feeder outside my kitchen window. I saw it periodically throughout the day, and again first thing Tuesday, hanging out to wish me a good morning. Can you see it?



I wasn't sure how to proceed, as the feeder needed refilling, but I didn't want to disturb whatever she was up to. Apparently the little diva hates paparazzi, though; as soon as I'd taken her photo (with my iPhone, no flash), she exited.

A couple of days later, when I went to fill the feeder again, there were two very tiny--mantises? manti?--hanging out on the plastic "flowers." When I very carefully the feeder, they climbed capably onto the Mexican Bush Sage and proceeded to blend in nicely.

Wednesday:



This actually happened on Tuesday evening. I left Purrl sitting happily on the patio at dusk and walked across the street to ask a neighbor if she needed help loading something into her car. We talked. When I realized it had gotten dark, I hurried back across the street, looking for Purrl in the back yard. No Purrl. I walked into the house through the open patio door to find her hunched over the recently deceased Mr. Rat. Yes, I know, it's another life form that should be honored because-- okay, no, no, no, there are rats living under the house and they're using it for a toilet down there and just, NO. They need to vacate or die. I'm sorry I can't be more Zen about this. Good girl, Purrl-Jam!

But this made me rethink who was eating the fallen peaches. Now I wonder if it wasn't both Ms. Possum and Mr. Rat. Which, during my morning meditation after yoga practice, elicited this imaginary conversation:

Ms. Possum and Mr. Rat are two feet apart in the tall grass under the peach tree at midnight.

Ms. P: This lady is very nice. She leaves these peaches out for us. Also, she didn't let her nasty gray cat eat my Joey a few weeks ago.

(In my mind, the possum sounds very kind and feminine, like a hippie earth-mother or the type of mid-western woman who bakes pies for people in her church.)

Mr. Rat: Oh gawd I've smelled that cat. That thing needs to choke on a chicken bone and die.

(In my mind, the rat sounds like the governor of New Jersey. Don't ask me why.)

Ms. P: Oh dear. That's harsh to say about any living creature. Well, except perhaps for slugs and snakes. But they are delicious! And a girl's gotta eat! Ha ha ha ha!

Mr. Rat: Ha ha ha ha ha! Yeah, lady, I get yer point. Eat all the yard snakes ya want. I don't want 'em comin' down to my resort. We got it all to ourselves down there.

Later that morning, I went out to water and checked beneath the peach tree. For the first time in three weeks, there is no half peach gnawed down to the pit. Such is the circle of life....

After watering, I went out to walk Thomas and heard Mr. and Mrs. Raven calling repeatedly. They're raising two teenagers right now. I feel for them. Although their chicks are almost as big as they are, they still look babyish with their unruly feathers and gangly body parts. The patient couple continues to help them hunt and eat. One day last week, when the temperature was 102, I heard one of the ravens calling repeatedly over the course of twenty minutes or so. I was trying to write, but the loud "SQUAWK!" repeated every ten to fifteen seconds finally drew me away from my desk and outside.

"Raven! What do you want?!?" I called to the rooftops. (By now, I'm not concerned about what my neighbors think of me. I believe I've sufficiently established the odd-reclusive-writer persona.) In answer, one of them (Mr.? Mrs.?) flew down to the street and stood by the gutter, looking my way. Oh. Of course. Water. At that moment, someone's automatic sprinklers clicked on, and run-off began to trickle into the gutter. Suddenly all four Raven family members were in the street, guzzling water.

On Wednesday morning, when I heard Mr. or Mrs. calling, I looked up to see what was amiss this time. Nothing. Mom and Dad were just calling Junior and Junior to breakfast. What was on the menu? A rat, much like the one Purrl caught. When Thomas and I walked up the hill to the corner, I could see the roof of the neighbor's house, the proud parents standing by as one of the juniors tore into the flesh of the lifeless rodent. Again, the circle of life....

Thursday:

One of the recurring themes in Herman Melville's work is the underlying rot, decay and erosion under all things beautiful. (Thus, if you look closely at a rose bush, you'll see the aphids and leaf fungus beneath the blooms.) I see this constantly in the garden. Just look at my beautiful squash plants:




If you look closely at the photo above, you can see a tiny crookneck squash that has formed and now just needs to grow bigger before I can eat it for lunch in a week or so. The squash plants in the photo above the crookneck are zucchini, and while there is a tiny zucchini on one of them, alas, I will probably never get to eat it. All those big broad beautiful leaves are covered with tiny black insects on their undersides which are sucking the life out the plants. Sigh. I worked so hard! I dug out my bottle of Spinosad (a natural insecticide that kills insects in a very fascinating way without harming the other creatures in the garden or the creatures who eat those creatures) and sprayed everything--the zucchini, the crookneck, the tomatoes, the kale and radishes. Arrrgh. Being an organic farmer is hard.

Friday:
I had to call my friend Harry, who has grown practically everything you can grow in his eighty-six years on this planet, to ask him when I will know when the corn is ready to eat.

"Well, when the tassels are brown and dying and it looks like a fat ear of corn," he said.

Oh. Well. Okay.

Saturday:
My son is visiting from San Francisco. If we'd taken a selfie together this time, I would post it here so you could see my giant smile. But we didn't. So here's a photo of Harry (mentioned above) talking to other writers (about writing--but just imagine him telling you everything you ever wanted to know about gardening):



I'm only growing radishes because my son requested them, so I pulled up a big juicy fat spicy one for him and watched him eat it. "It's good" was his less-than-lavish praise of the thing. "Good" was pronounced in a short, clipped manner, the entire sentence pronounced in less than a second without him making any eye contact. Which led me to thinking about how the pronunciation of that word--as he did, with a shrug in his voice, or in this fashion: "It's gooooood!"--can vastly alter the communication of a thought. I think these things because I'm a writer. I truly cannot help myself. I really did spend some time pondering that one word. Good. So that was good.

Sunday:
I had to pull up the zucchini plants and dump them in the green waste barrel today as they were so very full of the little black aphids I wanted to scream and light the plants on fire.

To comfort myself, I harvested two ears of corn and took them into the house immediately to boil and eat. It was tender, sweet, delicious, and worth all the work I put into it. Yum.

The crookneck squash, so far, is surviving. Fingers crossed. The tomatoes look beautiful.

And there is a pair of Roadrunners--the real kind, not the cartoon kind--hanging out in my neighborhood, which makes me very happy.
PLEASE NOTE: Real roadrunners are about the size of a chicken. They are not the size of Wile E. Coyote.



Note: This post was originally scheduled to go up on Sunday, August 13th, 2017, but in the two days before, all hell broke loose in Charlottesville, Virginia, and subsequently my heart spilled out onto the page in the piece that follows this one.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

What Scout said


"Well, Dill, after all he's just a negro." –Scout Finch

During the trial of Tom Robinson, a Black man falsely accused of raping the White woman who tried to take advantage of him in Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, Scout's best friend Dill begins to cry uncontrollably. As he struggles to collect himself outside, he tries to explain to Scout that what upset him was the treatment of Tom Robinson by the prosecuting attorney who was "talking so hateful to him" during his cross examination.

"The way that man called him 'boy' all the time and sneered at him," Dill tells her, prompting Scout's short retort above.

"He's just a negro."

I read this novel with my students in twenty-five of the twenty-seven years I taught high school. When we reached this point, which is roughly three-quarters of the way through the book, I'd have them write to this prompt: Is Scout a racist?

Year after year, from 1990 to 2017, I asked the same question. Of course, they were required to explain to me why they believed what they concluded about her. Among individual students, the answers would vary.

"Yes!"
"No!"
"IDK." (Translation: I Don't Know.)
"She can't be racist because she's black." (Some students assumed that because Jem, Scout and Dill spoke with Southern accents, they were Black.)
"She's racist because she lives in the South and all White people in the South were racists back then."
"She's not racist because racists hate Black people and she doesn't hate Black people."

True, Scout does not hate Black people.

But yes, she is a racist.

This scene, this conversation between Scout and Dill, this is the crux of the matter. Tom Robinson is fighting for his very life before their eyes, and Scout attempts to comfort her friend by suggesting he not get too upset since this man is "just a negro."

To Scout, his life matters less than hers because he is Black.

Yes, she is a child, and yes, this is a novel and she's the protagonist, so by the time Scout has had time to process the trial and listen to further discussion by her father and brother, she is already drawing new conclusions about her racist third grade teacher, and by the end of the novel she has come to fully understand why it is "a sin to kill a mockingbird."

But before that... Scout is a product of her family, her history and her community and yes, she is a racist.

If folks grow up seeing and hearing a distinction made between races--between who gets the highest regard, the best jobs, the most convenient seat on the bus--and they emulate that behavior, they are tacitly complicit in the preservation of this learned behavior we call racism.

Time and again in my life, I have had racists tell me, "I don't hate Black people...." And it's very possible that they don't associate what they feel with hatred. But if they hold themselves in higher regard because they are not Black, they are racists.

Because Black lives matter as much as any lives.

This idea that others are less valuable because of their race or ethnicity or geographic origin or socio-economic level is, well, in Dill's words, "It ain't right.... Hasn't anybody got any business talkin' like that--it just makes me sick."

The events in Virgina over the past two days have made me sick indeed, and I know that many of my friends feel the same way. We are sickened by the rage and hate and violence, but we are also sickened by the disparity we continue to experience, even among those who say, "I don't hate anyone." Racism isn't always this blatant. Most often, it is subtle and insidious, which is why it is still so pervasive.


Sunday, August 6, 2017

The Trouble with Gardening

Down the street and around the corner from me lives a woman who keeps her front yard in immaculate shape, weeding and trimming and cultivating incessantly, it seems. Not to sound pervy, but if pressed, I could pick her out of a line-up of neighbors based on her backside alone--because that's essentially the view I have of her every time I drive by--bent over, pulling weeds, clipping roses.... I've seen her out there after dark, wearing a headlamp, going after--what? Weeds? Snails? I applaud her. The thing is, I could be her.

That's one of the problems with gardening; once you really invest yourself in it, once you begin to see how things spring up from seeds and then grow and change and mature, once you've pulled a radish out of the ground or a green bean or tomato from the vine and eaten it, you're hooked. Truth be known, my love of eating the things I grow is so intense, I could spend all day every day just working on my garden.

I know what you're thinking: "You're retired now, Kay! If you want to spend all day gardening, you can do that!" It's okay to think that. Just don't say it aloud; you're just enabling me.

Because just as video games are for the teen (or young adult... or old adult) who doesn't want to face the world outside, so is gardening for me. I retreat into it. The trouble is, I have this other job, the one I should be spending four or five... okay, maybe two or three... hours a day engaged in. Which job? This job.

Still....

In the spring, I pulled all the dead sticks out of the slanted planter at the back of my yard and tossed some bags of Miracle Gro onto the hard red clay. (Quick side note on that: I bought six large bags of Miracle Gro Garden Soil from Home Depot. As I opened each one and spread the soil, I discovered empty taco sauce packets, the kind they give you at fast food places, one in each of the six bags. I took a picture and emailed it to Miracle Gro. I did not find the company representative to be as fascinated by this practice as I was.)

Eventually, too late in the season, really, I threw some organic, non-GMO seeds in the ground. Since this year's garden is entirely experimental (because I'm in a new place), I decided to use the "three sisters" template for planting: four corn plants in a square, green beans outside the corn (to vine up the stalks) and squash outside the green beans. I've never done it this way before. And I'll never do it this way again, but hey, it has been fun watching the result.

The corn came up easily (and my neighbors finally became fascinated with what I was doing, climbing around up in the planter every day). After a few weeks, it looked like this:


Then one night we had a windstorm unlike any I have experienced here before. In the morning, the corn looked like this:


Oh no! I'd worked so hard! I called my buddy Harvey (who keeps a much nicer garden in his tiny back yard), and he came to the rescue, helping me pull the stalks back up and support them with stakes and twine. Whew. They kept growing.

Only a few of the many green bean seeds I planted emerged from the soil, and as soon as they did, they were eaten by snails. Sigh....

Meanwhile, the giant sunflowers I'd planted along the back fence (so my sweet neighbor, Jackie, the one with the five Pomeranians, could see them, and so the birds could have the seeds) jumped up out of their seeds and started heading for the sky. Sunflowers don't close up at night, so if I look out my window in the evening or take Thomas out in the middle of the night to pee, these guys are smiling back at me:



They grew taller than the corn. And they are, indeed, "giant."


Finally, the corn began to form ears. But then I noticed something unusual about the silk; it turned purple not long after sprouting:


So of course, I did a Google search of "Why is the corn silk purple?" and discovered that purple corn silk means my soil is sadly lacking in phosphate. Ah well. This was an experiment, after all. Still... I worked so hard! So, added to my gardening notes for next year: Add phosphate to soil along with Miracle Gro. Also check for more taco sauce packets.

The other problem with puttering about the back yard is that it becomes a major distraction for me. As I write this, I am sitting on my patio. I have moved the table so that I have a view of the garden, including the hummingbird and seed feeders. Right now there are six or eight birds on the feeder or below it on the ground--house finches, goldfinches, sparrows. For the past hour, three hummingbirds have been engaged in epic skirmishes, chasing each other from the feeder again and again--and also performing mock strafing missions over the head of Sugar Plum, my tiny tailless black cat who stalks the yard until one of the Pomeranians sees her and barks excitedly, sending her scurrying back to the sanctuary of the house. I could watch these antics play out all day... plus the Phoebes and other insects plucking bugs from the corn stalks and eating them... and the doves who show up to eat the sunflower seeds the other birds knock to the ground... and the mated pair of ravens who stop by to drink from the bird bath about midday. See? It's all too entertaining. If you'll excuse me, I'm going to go lock myself in a closet so I can get some writing done.




Sunday, July 30, 2017

Sadness Can Kill Us





I love my friends who are close enough and kind enough and who understand me enough to warn me away from potential sadnesses. ("Avoid this book/movie/person/situation.") I do work hard these days to pursue warmth and light, but occasionally I take a foray into a dark zone to honor a friend or someone I respect, or just to continue the work of soul healing that seems endless and often requires comparison for the purposes of reflection.

For the past week I've been listening to the audio version of Sherman Alexie's recently released memoir, You Don't Have to Say You Love Me. Damn. This book is hard. It's sad and brilliant and tragic and evocative and I just want to hug him, or more truthfully, I just want to hug the child that I was, the child who was so often ignored and belittled.

I always say—blithely, to people who don't know me well—"I forgive my dad" or "I forgive my mom," but the real truth is, I'm still working on that. It still hurts. My father's ridicule of me at times was epic, and I'm not talking about the playful teasing of a father who loves his child. I'm talking about the blatant you-disgust-me level of resentment and rebuff that comes from a man who is unaware that even mediocre parents work hard to disguise their disappointment in a child who is not what they wanted, not what they expected.

In 1994, when I was diagnosed with skin cancer, my brother called to tell me that I was angry and that was why I got cancer. "You're angry about your childhood and our dad, and you're holding it all in, and you need to just let it go now or you're going to keep getting cancer because this anger and sadness can kill you." Hours later in the same conversation he admitted that he was still so angry and so hurt over things our father had said and done to him that he couldn't allow himself to cry in order to heal "because once I start crying," he said, "I'm afraid I will never stop." He later got cancer... and a decade later, it killed him. True story.

By the time I matured into a true adult, I had one question regarding my father: Why? Why were you loving and kind and playful with my sister, but cruel and derisive toward me? I'll never be able to ask him. Or at least, not for a very long time. My father died when he was 43. I was 8. He died of a very rare disease, one in which the body turns on itself... kind of like cancer, but not cancer.

Was he sad? Profoundly so. He married my mother because she was pregnant and he was doing "the right thing," but this was in spite of the reservations he and his family had about this woman who was not Irish, not Catholic, and not easy to get along with. And then, after they'd had three of their four children, and she had alienated many of his family members in Illinois, she decided she needed to separate him from the brothers and fellow law enforcement officers he drank with and confided in. So she packed up and moved to California, in essence telling him, "You can come along or not."

Of course he went. And he tried to make a good life here, be a good man, a good neighbor, a good father, taking his three beautiful, blonde-haired, blue-eyed children camping and to mass on Sundays.

But then I was born. And things took a turn. I was... different... from my siblings. Oh so different. Decades later, after my second divorce, my mother would finally tell me, "That wasn't right, the way your father treated you. I knew it wasn't right, but I couldn't say anything because I was his wife and wives weren't supposed to contradict their husbands back then." These are interesting words from a woman who always boasted that she was the one who "made" my father move to California; Dad had no say in the matter.

Was my father sad? I think so. I think he was deeply sad, separated from his brothers and sisters and friends with whom he had been very, very close, now having to create a new life, new friends, in this new place, working security instead of law enforcement as he did back east, asking for the graveyard shift so he could take classes in law during the day. He finished, too, and took the bar exam and passed it. And immediately after, he was diagnosed with this illness that would kill him. "You have time," they told him, "a year or two, maybe. But this disease is terminal. There is no cure."

Did he take his sadness out on me? I think so. No, I know he did. I know he needed a scapegoat. To be honest, I would have been really pissed off, too, if I were in his shoes, having moved far from his loved ones in the days when a "long distance" phone call could take a large chunk out of a man's weekly paycheck. And then to have the wife be shrewish to live with? And on top of all that, to get sick? To be dying so far from all that is loving and familiar? Yeah, I'd be really, really pissed, too.

Anger causes cancer, my brother said. Sadness, if it is deep enough, can kill us.

Unlike my brother, I do cry. I started crying on my nineteenth birthday, the same day my first child was born. Before that day, I had not cried since I was a very little girl. ("Stop crying or I'll give you something to cry about" was the threat I grew up with.) But in some ways, I became child-like again with the birth of my daughter. And in some ways, I have been crying ever since. I wish I could have told my brother that. I did tell him, "Dan, trust me, I cry every single day." But I wish I would have said to him, "Dan, it's okay to start crying and not be able to stop. That pain is gonna hurt for a long time, so it's okay to keep crying and keep crying and keep crying. Because eventually there will be more things to not cry about than there are things to cry about."

I wish I could say that to so many people....

So yeah, sadness can definitely kill us in the most complete and permanent way. But it can also deaden us while we are still living... each time we fail to return a smile or see the humor in a joke, each time we walk past something or someone beautiful and fail to acknowledge it or them, each time we are so preoccupied with what hurts us we cannot hear or see or feel the pain of others.

That's what I worry about. I'm not in the least afraid to die. I'm afraid I will go back to being dead while I am still alive. That's why I need to remind myself, day by day, that there is light and beauty out there... if I choose to seek it out.



Sunday, July 23, 2017

Return to Morro Bay


There's this quaint little fishing village on the Central Coast of California called Morro Bay. At the mouth of the bay is a giant rock (pictured above) called Morro Rock. You can't climb it (anymore), but you can drive right up to it and park. The side that faces the bay and the town is lovely, with gulls wheeling in and out and otters splashing just feet from shore in the bay. The majestic backside of the rock faces an angry ocean that, day in and day out, minute by minute, slams into it, demanding to be let in. The rock just sits benignly, never wavering.

Many years ago, when my children were little, the man I unfortunately married took me to Morro Bay. Fortunately, I didn't let our mutual disdain for each other keep me from returning. I used to go often, especially when my daughter became a young adult and could watch the house while I traveled. Then all the kids were grown and gone, and I had to find housesitters every time I went somewhere (which was particularly difficult when I lived in a cabin in the wilderness).

This past week, I left Thomas, Purrl, and Sugar Plum in the care of The Grandson, and I headed off to Morro Bay for the first time in several years.

Most women my age don't travel alone. I get that. I don't worry about my safety as much as I worry about getting a decent table at a restaurant. (Many's the time I've been seated in crappy little cubbies by the kitchen, by the bathroom.) But in Morro Bay, I know where to go. The Great American Fish Company, on the Embarcadero, has a tiny table in a corner at the far end of the restaurant, and they try to save it for singles. The south side of the place is all windows that face the ocean, so this was my view when I first sat down:


This is what I ordered (baked potato, sauteed mushrooms and a dinner salad):


While I ate, I watched a sea lion swim past. Far out in the bay, I could see otters wrapping themselves in seaweed. (They anchor themselves before drifting off to sleep, floating on the water.) A couple of young Great Blue Herons roosted temporarily on the rail outside the window, but when they looked in and saw people, they flew off. (I can relate.) After I finished my meal, I walked outside to one of the docks and took this photo of Morro Rock:


Mostly when I think of visiting Morro Bay, I daydream about visiting this magical place, Montana de Oro state beach in Los Osos, just south of Morro Bay:


There's a trail that winds along the bluffs for two miles, and it is one of the most wonderful places I've ever hiked. I've seen whales there. I've seen two otters making... baby otters. (Sea otters mate face to face, unlike most other animals.) This time, I saw a female sea lion. The photo I took of her is from too far away to post here; she was looking a bit stressed, so I didn't want to get any closer than standing on the cliff above her. I often see rattlesnakes along that trail, and I did this time as well. Mostly what you see as you walk there are sea caves:



They're amazing and mysterious and alluring--and probably deadly if you get caught in one and the tide comes in. I just look and take pictures. I don't explore.

After my four-mile hike, I was pretty hungry, so I stopped at the Hof Brau (another favorite spot in MB) for some clam chowder in a bread bowl. I've been ordering that same delightfully simple and delicious dish at that establishment for a couple of decades. It's always as wonderful as I remembered it. While I ate (looking out at Morro Rock), I noticed this woman sitting on a bench with her labradoodle:


I asked if I could take her photo, and she agreed--then asked me to take a picture for her, since, she told me, "I'm a photographer and I'm always the one taking the pictures." She handed me her phone--yes, she handed her phone to a perfect stranger--and I walked away with it, back into the restaurant to take one for me and one for her. When I returned, I took several of her and Ruby, her dog, from a side profile, looking out to the ocean. She thanked me, and wouldn't you know as we talked I learned she's a teacher (second grade) and has a Master of Fine Arts degree. She writes books. Ha. Funny how I was drawn to her. She also has a great story about Ruby (of course). Years ago, she was mauled by a German Shepherd. After that, she feared dogs until a friend talked her into a desensitization experience of sorts with the friend's Great Dane. She agreed, fell in love with the dog, and decided to get one for herself. Ruby is the sweet, mellow companion who now goes with her everywhere. In the twenty minutes we sat talking, she never stopped stroking Ruby's head and ears, occasionally stopping to tell her what a great dog she is. This brief interaction with the woman and her dog was one of the highlights of my trip.

In the summer, Morro Bay is often foggy in the morning. Sometimes the rock is hidden:



But by late afternoon or evening, the fog clears out.


The photo above was taken just before sunset. I'd gone down to the beach to sit and write, and I watched as the shoreline became flooded with people, lovers flocking in to walk on the beach, hand in hand, and witness the day's end.

Morro Bay is a magical place for me, still. What makes it a memorable experience each time is the solitude. In 48 hours, I watched no TV (which, for me, means no morning or nightly news coverage). With the exception of the woman and her dog, I spoke to no one except restaurant servers and store proprietors. Alone with my thoughts and with no distractions, I tend to write up a storm, filling pages in my journal. Understand, I am lonely and homesick every moment of every day when I am traveling. I know in advance I will experience those feelings of wanting to be with Thomas and the girls, wanting to sleep in my own bed, wanting to be in my house and my kitchen to make a decent cup of tea. But always I return with a story. Thanks for sharing this one with me.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Sgt. Thomas Tibbs on steroids


So, here's the good news about Sgt. Thomas Tibbs:

After three and a half years with me, he is still making slow progress toward becoming, as I like to characterize it, "a real dog." He has settled in nicely to life in Calimesa. We both loved the fact that over the Fourth of July holiday it was relatively quiet around here, except for the occasional bottle rocket shot off by some miscreants on the nearby golf course, and of course, a half hour or so of muted booms from the fireworks display at the local high school (which we toughed out nicely by sitting in the truck in the garage, me reading, Thom panting).

Dog lovers know that living with a dog is like living with a secret agent; you're constantly followed by someone who seems to take notes of everything you do, everywhere you go. I never thought Thomas would ever get to this level of companionship, but since I've been retired, he's been very intent on scrutinizing my routine. He knows if I put on a certain pair of sneakers, we're going for a walk, and he will follow me down the hall without being called. On the now rare occasion that I put on slacks or a skirt, he stays on his bed—with very sad eyes. In that case, he knows I'm leaving without him and will be gone for a long time.

And he absolutely loves riding in the truck. Every afternoon at 4:00 (he reminds me if I'm caught up in writing something and forget the time), we go for a drive to get the mail and just get out of the house for awhile. Thomas is happy to sit in the back seat for as long as I want to chauffeur him around. Yes, this is the same dog whose anxiety would make him puke if he had to ride more than a mile or so. Now that's progress.

He's also gotten extremely good at playing 'possum. I'm still getting up pretty early, usually around 5:00. All the dogs I've ever companioned with (except for Osa, when she was very, very old) have begun their potty dance as soon as I swing my legs over the side of the bed. Thom remains where he is, absolutely still, until I come to his bed and rub his belly. When he first started this, I thought he wasn't feeling well. He'd lay in his bed, unmoving, until I came to sit by him and pet him. Slowly, he'd begin to "wake up." It took me awhile (humans are notoriously slow to catch on, as dogs know), but I finally realized he was staying in bed so I would come scratch his back and behind his ears. When he's felt sufficient love and adoration, he simply jumps up, shakes all over, wags his tail and trots for the back door. He's such a goofy, funny dog now compared to the depressed, traumatized and shut down dog he was three years ago.

But... here's the bad news about Sgt. Thomas Tibbs:

He was recently diagnosed with an autoimmune disease. It's called Pemphigus. When his nose began to look like this


I Googled "Why does my dog have spots on his nose?" and ended up on PetMD.com, reading about how dogs can get lupus. I picked up the phone and called the vet's office.

Our new vet, Dr. Thompson at Adobe Veterinary Clinic, was really great with Thom, understanding and empathizing with his fear of humans. (And Dr. Thompson appreciates the work of Temple Grandin, so that makes him even more wonderful.) Plus he has horses. And a sense of humor.

He explained that no, we don't know what causes Pemphigus, but yes, it usually does respond well to a certain steroid, and he is confident that Thom's quality of life will remain good. "He has a strong heart," he commented as he applied his stethoscope to Thom's ribcage. We left with medicine which Thomas is swallowing down with his treats (never suspecting). I think he'll be fine in a few weeks. I've already told him I need him around for a few more years. We've got a lot of walking—and driving—to do.




Monday, July 10, 2017

68 points



Here are the two salient points in today's post:
1. I've lost weight. (YAYYYYY!!!!!)
2. I've lowered my cholesterol—by 68 points. (In this case, "yay" in all caps with five exclamation points may not suffice to express my elation.)

If you read the blog on a regular basis, you may recall being vaguely annoyed by my post of January 3 wherein I discussed my weight gain over the holidays and my strategy for fitting more comfortably in my clothes again. So here's the update on that:

I stopped eating sweets. No homemade oatmeal cookies or lemon-lavender muffins through the winter. No more agave nectar (or half & half) in my morning tea. (Whew, that was hard. Like, really, really hard.) That's all. Well, I mean, I tried not to overeat or snack out of boredom or whatever but mostly, I curtailed sweets. I've lost eight pounds. Yep. Sloooooowly, a couple ounces at a time, the weight came off. I feel better. I move more fluidly. My clothes fit better. Yoga is... still hard but slightly less hard and worth every bit of the workout every time. Namaste.

In November, my new-really-horrible-doctor had me do blood work and my cholesterol level was 278. She sent me an email saying she'd enrolled me in Kaiser's here's-how-to-eat-better class—even though I'd already told her I do eat healthy and I've been a vegetable vegetarian for fifteen years. I didn't attend the class. I did ask Kaiser nicely for another new doctor. I was then assigned my new-really-wonderful-doctor (Dr. Vendiola in the Redlands facility, and she's awesome). She asked me to do blood work. I said, "Of course. I came in fasting for that very purpose." Three days later I got the result: My cholesterol level is now at 208.

Seriously?!? This is good news. I haven't had a number below 240 in twenty years.

How did I do it? I retired.

You're laughing. I'm serious. That's all I've done differently. I'm not exercising any more than I did before. I'm not eating differently (other than these past couple of months without cupcakes—sob).

I was so fascinated by this number, I spent a bit of time researching the correlation between stress and high cholesterol, and then it made sense. Want me to explain it? You can read a fascinating abstract by clicking here, but this is the bottom line of the study:

Stress produces elevations in serum cholesterol concentrations.

Know what else does? Standing. In the same study, the cholesterol concentrations in test subjects rose when they were tested while standing. Yeah. What did I do all day long five days a week for twenty-seven years? I engaged in a highly stressful activity (teaching teenagers in a public school setting—damned bell to damned bell) while standing. No wonder my cholesterol kept going up and up and up no matter what I did. When the stress ended, my cholesterol level plummeted. Just. like. that. Booyah.

So once again, I highly recommend retirement (unless you can sit while performing the very relaxing tasks required for your job). Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going out to work in the garden. Then maybe I'll play my guitar for awhile.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Come to think of it, the whole thing started with a guitar



When I was fifteen, my sister taught me to play guitar. I've always said my instrument is my voice, but I needed some accompaniment if I was going to sit around in a circle with my hippie friends and sing "Blowin' in the Wind," so guitar was the best (coolest) option. We went to the swap meet, picked up a nice little folk guitar for 30 bucks (my birthday money), and so it began.

It only takes three chords to play "Blowin' in the Wind," although if you play it in C you have to play an F, and that chord gave me fits until I finally conquered it. Of course, a hundred more songs followed. But, one year later, it was that song, "Blowin' in the Wind," that I was singing the day my eventual husband walked up onto my lawn where I was sitting placidly, playing, singing. We'd never met. He lived in the neighborhood. I'd seen him around. But that day he heard me singing and simply walked up and sat down, listening quietly until I finished.

Six months later, for Christmas, he bought me a guitar. He had told me repeatedly that I needed "a good guitar," a steel string acoustic. Although I had told him I was perfectly content with the guitar I had, as an axe-wielding teenager, I would've loved to have had a Martin (sort of the equivalent, as guitars go, of buying a Landrover). Realistically, given my socio-economic level, I could only dream about owning such a fine instrument. (By the way, "axe" is a euphemism for guitar. The etymology of the term is fascinating, so Google "Why is a guitar called an axe?" sometime just for fun.)

However, on that Christmas Day in 1971, I opened a large cardboard box the size of a small refrigerator to discover a guitar case, and inside that case, a very beautiful guitar. Not a Martin. An Ibanez. Ever heard of it? Neither had I. Now, don't get me wrong. Ibanez makes some really fine guitars, and this one was no exception. But... this was definitely not my dream guitar.

[Quick side note here: Inside that guitar case, in the pick box, was a small jeweler's box. And inside that box was a ring. A thin gold band. "It's a wedding ring!" the man said—in front of my entire family. "Put it on!" That was his proposal. I should have seen monumentally huge red flags unfurling so rapidly they blotted out the gorgeous December-in-Southern-California sun. But I didn't.]

My response to the guitar, I think, was, "Um... ... .... It's nice." I just didn't know what to say. It was huge, a "D" size (no, ladies, guitars don't come in bra cup sizes, though that might've helped), and far too big for me. And it was a "dreadnought" shape (see photos above and below). And it was a light wood, spruce. None of these are characteristics I would have chosen for myself.

And I couldn't play it. At least not yet. No "set-up" had been done on the guitar (sorry for the jargon), so the strings were too high, and they were steel (as opposed to the more forgiving nylon strings I'd learned on), so pushing my fingers down to make chords felt like jamming on razor blades.

"The neck is solid rosewood!" my now-fiancé beamed. He loved that guitar. And what I came to realize is that he bought the guitar that he wanted. No consideration had been given to what I might have wanted (which, no surprise, ended up being a theme in our doomed marriage).

But it was a nice guitar with a beautiful sound, and he had it worked on so that it would be more forgiving on my fingers. So I played it. And played it and played it.

(I'm the one in the middle.)

For forty-five years—at church, in countless weddings, for several funerals, someone's baby shower, several luncheons—I have played that big, loud, sweet-sounding guitar. What a trove of memories we've shared... both good and bad. The good ones involve happy weddings and informal gatherings like my brother's birthday a few years back when he, my sister and I all played our guitars and sang the songs of our youth. Perfect day.



But the bad ones... well, they're pretty bad. Because I mostly sang in church. And I suppose I should mention here that the man I married, the one who bought me that guitar, became the pastor of a church (despite being an atheist when we married). As the pastor's wife, certain things were expected of me. I didn't mind singing; I loved it. But, after eleven years, I just couldn't remain married to... him anymore. (For a list of all the adjectives I just deleted in reference to him, you'll have to private message me.) I separated from him, and when I did, I was asked to leave that church. I went anyway (when he wasn't there), and when I showed up, I was escorted out by deacons and told not to come back. In the years following, while my children and I lived at the poverty level (because their father refused to pay one dime of child support, and he never did), there wasn't much time for singing or song writing or guitar playing while I hustled and struggled to raise four kids on my own, make ends meet, attend college classes, and try to make sense of what had happened. And frankly, I was so grief-stricken over my failed marriage and the treatment I received by the people I thought were my friends, I didn't much feel like singing anyway.

Eventually I began again, picking up the guitar every once in awhile, singing for special events on occasion. But every time I pulled that guitar out of the case, I drew out a swath of bad memories a mile wide along with it.

What to do?

You know, I'm here to tell ya, life is tough. We often wish we had a reset button to enable a do-over, but really, when you knock over hurdles in the race, you don't get to go back, set them back up, and try again. You just have to keep moving forward as best you can.

Having said that, though, I will say this: I accept that I cannot fulfill all my life's longings. I'm resigned to the fact (now, finally) that I'll probably never marry Robert Redford. Sigh.... I won't get that interview with Oprah about my great-grandmother. But damn it, I'm not ready to stop singing. In fact, now that I've retired from teaching, I find myself singing quite a bit.

Which is why I bought a new guitar last week (at The Fret House in Covina). It's a Martin 00-15 mahogany beauty with tones so deep and resonant it nearly makes me cry when I play it. I spent weeks researching what I wanted, and with the help of a few old friends and some really cool new ones (thank you, Doug, Tom, Rick and Jorge!), I bought the guitar I've wanted all these years. (See photos below.) And oh Lordy, am I ever ready to make some new memories.



Thursday, June 8, 2017

In Memoriam: Brian Doyle






A star has quietly blinked out in the heavens.

A surging river has reached the end of its tumultuous journey and transitioned into the eternity of the sea.

A voice as clear and pure as a crystal bell has rung out its last metaphor and repetition, leaving behind a resounding silence.

One of "the Good People," in the purest Irish sense of the word, has left us.

The first poem I read by Brian Doyle left me weeping and asking aloud, "Who is this man?" One of the finest writers of our time, it turns out. A man of love and life and laughter and more love and more laughter. A dreamy poet and even dreamier novelist who crafted words with the same playfulness as Yeats, the same passion as Dylan Thomas, but with a style so unique it could only have been a gift to us from the Universe.

And oh, how I will miss him. How we all will, his wife, his family, his friends, and all the thousands of us who read his work and reeled from its beauty.

I miss him already. As I write this, I'm halfway through his novel, Mink River (a novel I put off reading for too long, it turns out), and I don't want it to end, so I'm dragging my feet, reading a couple of pages a day, savoring the words, the poetry, the longing, the deep love, the impossibly long lists of flora and fauna, the archetypes, the archaic languages—Gaelic, Latin, "American"—the innocence of the children, the mystic wisdom of the non-human characters. What a book.

What a writer. What a voice. What a short life for someone so filled with it, so willing to offer it.

I am bereft. We are bereft. There are no words for this loss. Here, then, are some of Brian's:


Last Prayer 
by Brian Doyle
Dear Coherent Mercy: thanks. Best life ever. Personally I never thought a cool woman would come close to understanding me, let alone understanding me but liking me anyway, but that happened! And You and I both remember that doctor in Boston saying polite but businesslike that we would not have children but then came three children fast and furious! And no man ever had better friends, and no man ever had a happier childhood and wilder brothers and a sweeter sister, and I was that rare guy who not only loved but liked his parents and loved sitting and drinking tea and listening to them! And You let me write some books that weren't half bad, and I got to have a career that actually no kidding helped some kids wake up to their best selves, and no one ever laughed more at the ocean of hilarious things in this world, or gaped more in astonishment at the wealth of miracles everywhere every moment. I could complain a little right here about the long years of back pain and the occasional awful heartbreak, but Lord, those things were infinitesimal against the slather of gifts You gave mere me, a muddle of a man, so often selfish and small. But no man was ever more grateful for Your profligate generosity, and here at the very end, here in my last lines, I close my eyes and weep with joy that I was alive, and blessed beyond measure, and might well be headed back home to the incomprehensible Love from which I came, mewling, many years ago. But hey, listen, can I ask one last favor? If I am sent back for another life, can I meet my lovely bride again? In whatever form? Could we be hawks, or otters maybe? And can we have the same kids again if possible? And if I get one friend again, can I have my buddy Pete? He was a huge guy in this life—make him the biggest otter ever and I'll know him right away, okay? Thanks, Boss. Thanks from the bottom of my heart. See You soon. Remember—otters. Otters rule. And so: amen.