Sunday, December 24, 2017


Sgt. Thomas Tibbs hates Christmas. I'm sorry. He does. That is not my snowman in that photo, but that is definitely Thomas attempting to, once again, slink away while I'm trying to take a photo. This is one of the downsides (really there are so few! Maybe a handful at best! Okay, honestly, the list is long, but who cares?) of deciding that a feral dog is your best buddy. First of all, he's never learned "sit." Telling him that and doing that age-old motion of pulling up on the leash while pushing down on the dog's hindquarters scares him enough to put him in That's-it-I-mistrust-you-again mode. He knows "wait" as a command when I drop the leash, but... yeah, he's only going to hold that wait as long as I'm close enough to step on the leash if he starts walking. That cute snowman is on my next-door-neighbors' front lawn. Their house looks beautiful, so I positioned said feral dog first near the sleigh... but no, he wasn't having it... then by the snowman... again, he was quite insecure about it. So every time I tried to back up into the street and take the iconic "Look! It's Christmas! Here's my cute dog!" photo, he would slowly start idling toward our front porch next door. I don't blame him. I understand. He fears the snowman. He fears all the bright shiny tinkling twinkling moving singing Christmas decorations.

And that's so sad. Because I love them. So, full disclosure here, I've been tormenting my best buddy every night by making him take long walks around my neighborhood so I (selfishly) can look at the lights and tell him (quietly) "Thomas, that's so cute, though! Why you scared o' him?" Poor guy.

The girls, on the other hand (Princess Purrl and Sugar Plum), are in love with Christmas every year. Mostly because of the wrapping. Also because of the ribbons. Definitely because of the fuzzy feathered catnip toys their Big Sister Nic brings them:

This is Purrl's favorite position in the morning, by the way: Bottom to heater. We've been waking to temps in the 30's, so I don't blame her. In this photo, she is jealously guarding this toy so Sug can't get it. Naughty....

On the upside for Thomas, though, I do have to say this has been a great year for him. Since I no longer leave the house to work, we've bonded even more, and we often take long walks out in the country where he feels much more comfortable than walking where there are terrifying things such as people and flags and Christmas decorations and ducks and other dogs and lawn ornaments.

What he likes most, though, is to ride in the extra cab of the truck, looking at everything from the place where he feels safest in the world. So yes, I'm still driving him around every afternoon when we go to fetch the mail. "Thomas, ride?" is all I have to say. He trots down the hall, out to the garage and jumps in the truck--if the door is open. If it's not, he dances, shifting his weight from one front foot to the other while shaking his head in delirious joy. Riiiiiiide!

And now he plays. He has created a game that he adores. I'm not sure how it started, but he will often run for the bedroom when he sees me getting the leash. (Yes, I know; he's the opposite of most dog-buddies.) It makes me laugh, and some weeks ago I told him, "I'm going to get you!" which made him laugh and wag his tail--and run away faster. So now it's a game. I pick up the leash and he gallops down the hall to the bedroom, spins around in a circle and does a dog bow. I follow, then I turn and run back down the hall and he chases me. I stop when I get to the kitchen, turn and say, "I'm going to get you!" and he tears down the hallway again, wagging his tail furiously. It's hilarious. And man, does it ever make me happy to see him happy.

Oh--there is that other game he plays. Possum. You know how most dogs get excited in the morning when their human gets up? It's time to go outside! Yes! Pee time! Hooray! Major sniffs and leg hiking and all that! Not Thomas. He waits for me to come and sit beside his bed and rub his back and scratch his ears and massage his head until he finally rolls over on his back and laughs and says, "I have the best life in the world!" as he wraps his front paws around my arm.

Yes, yes he does. The new year marks the end of his fourth year with me. He was living as a wild dog for at least five before he was rescued. So I tell him often: "You've gotta have at least five good ones, buddy, to make up for the five awful ones." We're working on it.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

When Children Lose Hope

Our little city of Calimesa made the news last week, and not for anything good. Thirteen-year-old Rosalie Avila, a student at Mesa View Middle School, hanged herself in her bedroom. She was found by her parents.

This is a tragic story.
This is a familiar story.

This is a photo of Rosalie:

Kids at school told her she was ugly. Her parents had arranged counseling for her months before her suicide because they discovered she'd been cutting herself. They did everything right in their attempt to save their daughter. Sadly, forces greater than themselves intervened.

In August,  the Huffington Post ran a story on teen suicide rates--because they have hit an all-time high and continue to rise. Nowadays, more young girls kill themselves than ever before.

This is a gut punch to me.

I want to blame social media. I want to blame a society that reveres youth and beauty above all gifts, talents, abilities or strengths.

I want to blame the parents of the bullies, but I know that those parents love their kids and think they're terrific. Of course they do. It has been my experience that the parents of bullies are the last people to discover that their 'good' kids are going off to school and taunting, tormenting, and humiliating other kids.

I want to blame the bullies, of course. I want to pull them aside, sit them down, get in their faces with my harshest teacher voice and ask, "Do you understand exactly what you did here?" But... they're kids. They did what kids have done for countless generations. I was told horrible things in middle school, too. "Your teeth are crooked." "You walk funny." "You're ugly." "You're dumb." And I was depressed, though not suicidal. That depth would come later, in high school, when I was fifteen.... All those voices echoing in my psyche contributed, though, I have no doubt.

I want to blame somebody, anybody, because I'm just angry. I'm furious that another girl thought she wasn't pretty enough... thought that happiness would only be held out to the beautiful people in life. I'm sure she watched enough TV and saw enough online and heard enough at school to believe that this is so.

And so she simply lost hope. She was embarrassed by her crooked teeth. Her parents got her the orthodontia she needed, but then she was teased about wearing braces. She couldn't win. So she gave up.

We lost her. And I am so sad for that.

I went for a walk this morning around Mesa View Middle School. I took Thomas with me (because one should always take a beloved companion along when one chooses to immerse oneself in sadness). We walked the perimeter of the school, then found ourselves walking the athletic track, then discovered Rosalie's name scraped out in the dirt in letters as long as my shadow. I stepped back in order not to walk on someone's memorial and saw that a third of the track had been covered in messages:

Rosie, we miss you!
Rosie, we love you!
Rosalie (signed by Aubrianna)

And the last one pictured below. To that one, I say, Amen.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Why writers go to Starbucks to work

Because it was windy and cold this morning at 5:30a.m., I decided to write for an hour--or at least try to--and then walk Thomas. That's when the trouble began.

See, animals are creatures of habit and routine. And like grumpy old men, they become anxious if you switch things up on them. Our usual routine goes something like this: I roll out of bed already promising to take them outside/get their food/fetch fresh water as soon as I brush my teeth, etc. When all their needs are taken care of, I enjoy one cup of tea while checking my email before setting out to walk Thom for a half hour or so.

When Thomas gets anxious, he shakes his head and flops his ears. As the time approaches for us to walk, his ear-flopping becomes like a snooze alarm. He's in the back bedroom, and I'm in the dining room, but I'll hear him get up and then FLOP FLOP FLOP FLOP, the ears go back and forth. I hear it, dismiss it, and go back to answering email. Ten minutes later I'll hear it again, then five minutes later he flops again. If I'm not up and putting my shoes on by then, he trots down the hallway, then into the kitchen, around the island, back down the hall to the bedroom and FLOP FLOP FLOP FLOP.

Mind you, Thomas still does not enjoy walking. After four years, we still begin each walk with resistance, me gently pulling him up the street as he intermittently turns back for home or simply sits his butt down in the middle of the road--

"Mom, wait, there's a monster."

"No, Thom, that's just a trash can. Let's go."

"Mom, wait, no, there's another monster!"

"Thomas, no, that's a raven on top of a streetlight. He won't hurt you. C'mon."


"Thomas. That's a flag. It's windy. You're okay, buddy, let's go."

Every. single. morning.

Still.... He knows what the routine is, and if I switch it up, I'm in for ear flapping and the sound of his toenails dancing across the laminate flooring every ten minutes.

And that's just the dog....

Purrl waits for us to walk because she knows that when we return, the sun will be up, the neighbors' dogs all trotting around outside sniffing, peeing and barking, so it's safe enough for her to be allowed into the back yard (like the other dogs... even though she's a cat) to sniff around and settle back on her haunches below the bird feeder and wait... and wish... and twitch her whiskers.... (No, she can't really see the birds up there, since she's mostly blind, but she still hears and smells them.)

But this morning we didn't go. There I was, thinking I would just finish that 44th chapter of the first book in my middle grade urban fantasy novel, and I was really into it, my protagonist dealing with conflict on all sides, when suddenly--

"Meow." Tap tap tap.

"MeOW." Tap tap tap tap tap.

"MEOW!!" Tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap.

The tapping sound was Purrl, her front feet up on the door to the garage, scratching at it repeatedly so that I would let her out.

"Not yet, Purrl Jam," I said the first time, sweetly.

"No, Purrl," I said, slightly annoyed, the second time.

"Seriously, I'm trying to work here!" I said the third time as I rose from my chair and let her out. "It's cold and you won't like it and you'll be right back in the house in five minutes!" Which she was, of course. Which is about the time I gave up and put my shoes on--because I had returned to the computer only to find Sugar Plum curled in my chair. And since Thomas was making his fifth circuit around the kitchen island, I decided I simply had to cave to their demands. 

Sigh. I really do understand why some writers have to leave the house to get anything done.

"Ready go Mom?"

Tuesday, November 21, 2017


Last night I woke in the middle of the night. I felt the warmth and pressure of a cat curled against the back of my knees. I reached down in the dark and stroked Sugar Plum's head, resulting in a vociferous vibration. Another cat lay stretched against my thighs on the other side. I knew better, but like an older sibling who just can't leave well enough alone, I reached down slowly to touch her--and felt her teeth in my hand. She didn't bite down, and I chuckled. Purrl will always remind me that she doesn't appreciate being disturbed when she's sleeping.

The sheets were clean and cool, the pillow soft beneath my head. I lay in the dark, waiting, barely breathing, until I heard the sound that has been the source of comfort many, many times throughout my life in similar midnight wakings--that gentle susurration of a dog's contented sigh. Thomas has his choice most nights of where he wants to sleep. The door to the garage is always open; he has a bed there (where he sleeps when the house is too warm), a bed in the living room (where he sleeps if I have the bedroom window open--because it startles him every time the neighbor snores or coughs or... whatever... in the night) and a bed next to my bed (where he comes to be close when he feels safe). He is never with us when we fall asleep, but he is often there when I wake in the night, and though I cannot see him in the pitch-dark room, I hear the long sigh he emits when I laugh at Purrl or whisper to the cats to move over.

These three amuse me, comfort me, give me a reason to rise every morning early (because how can I not when Sug is poking her foot in my arm wanting food?) and guard me against profound loneliness. I am thankful for them.

Last night, when Thom sighed, I did, too--a long inhalation and exhalation, and I smiled. No wheezing! Nothing rattling around in my lungs. I didn't use my inhaler before I went to bed, but my breathing was clear and easy. I am thankful for that, and I am thankful for my pulmonary doctor who diagnosed my bronchiectasis five years ago and did it cheerfully. ("But you don't have cancer! This is great news!") He is bright and vibrant and funny, and I enjoy our annual talks, which have now become "How's your family?" conversations, because my lungs are behaving despite their disease. And I am thankful for that.

And while I know we live in stressful times with new political turmoil every day, I am thankful for what we have achieved as a society. I am thankful that my gay son can be who he is every day, openly, wherever he is. I am thankful that my transgender friends can be who they were born to be. I am so, so thankful for all the women who've had the courage in recent weeks to come forward and say, 'This happened to me, and it is not okay.' I will always feel proud to have participated in the March for Women this year, to have shown up and participated, even though it's outside my comfort zone to do so, as I know it was for many of the women and men who showed up and marched. Good job, my friends.

I am most thankful that right now, at this moment, all of my children are safe and well. That might not be the case tomorrow, I know; we are given no guarantees in this life. But last night as I lay awake in the middle of the night and did my motherly head count, I smiled to know that all four were safe and well at our last communication. May that trend continue....

I woke this morning (before dawn, of course, thanks to Sug) to brilliant stars overhead, and I took a few minutes outside (while Thomas trotted around, wagging his tail, sniffing out a possum trail) to identify the constellations I know, to allow the magnitude of the Universe to sink in just for a moment (before its enormity overwhelmed me, as it has since my childhood). Then I went back inside to make breakfast for all of us--and aren't we abundantly blessed there as well? The animals chowing down on all the good stuff that comes to them from Petco, and me with my day-greeting Irish breakfast tea and the steel cut oatmeal with raisins and walnuts that bolsters me for those long dog walks once the sun rises.

Oh, and just the walking--that is enough in and of itself to be thankful for. The Sesamoiditis I had a year ago is mostly gone--or relieved enough for me to walk as far as I want with Thom and not even think of it. The torn ligament in my left foot is healed. The SIJD in my right hip has not been an issue of late, so my level of chronic pain is way, way down.

As I write this, it's almost bedtime. The front door is open, and a cool breeze is wafting in. It's time for Thom's Last Chance Outside opportunity. Then he gets his Greenie (his favorite part of the day) and retreats to his garage bed to chew it up and, I hope, contemplate what a good boy he is. The girls have already wandered off to the bedroom; I'll have to relocate someone (gently, if it's Purrl) in order to get in bed with a good book. When I switch off the light, I will resist thinking about what happened in the news today, and I will begin to count again the many blessings in my life. Really, though, they are countless.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Wherein I applaud my new hero, Cady Mansell

This is my sister, Peg, on the day of her First Holy Communion at St. Maria Goretti Catholic Church in Long Beach, California, circa 1960. (I spent a couple of hours looking for a photo of me in a similar dress--or probably this same one, as I often wore her hand-me-downs--but couldn't find one. There is also no photo of my baptism--but don't get me started on all that because it would make for an entirely separate and very long blog post.)

And this is my new hero, Cady Mansell, wearing the outfit she planned to wear on the day of her First Holy Communion at St. John the Evangelist church. Isn't it stunning? Isn't she amazing? Are you not crying tears of joy for her that she was raised by a mom who clearly said, "Sure! Wear what you want! Be who you want to be!"? I am. Cady is me. I am Cady. Well, yes, 55 or so years ago, but still.... Oh, how I would have loved to take my First Holy Communion wearing something as stylish and non-gender-conforming as that incredible pantsuit Cady is wearing. Anything but the itchy, uncomfortable, so-not-me, Why-does-this-look-like-a-bridal-gown? dress I had to wear. My legs were always cold. My legs are still cold!

Sadly, Cady missed out on that special day--because she was not allowed to take her First Communion--because she wasn't wearing a dress. (You can read that full story here.)

For the love of Mary and all the saints that are holy, are you kidding me, parish priest? You denied her communion?!? Because her legs were encased in fabric instead of being barely covered by a dress? Come on! Give me the scriptural proof text for that outrageous mandate! But you can't, can you? There isn't one.

It is not my intention here... at this time, anyway... to attack the Catholic Church. It's not about a church or a religion. It's about a man who purports to be a holy man, connected to a higher authority, but uses that position to dictate what is and is not "feminine" (his word, not mine). Feminine? You think you know what God intended "feminine" to be, Father Clueless? You think that word only encompasses women who wear dresses? How very, very sad.

But let's not focus on the negative. Let's look again at the positive example of Cady and her mom, who are part of a new generation, a generation of individuals who have the courage to be who they are (Yes! Go, Cady girl!) and to express themselves in the style that fits their own personal identity--without conforming to some idea of a societal norm.

I am sixty-three years old. But let me tell you, Cady is an inspiration to me, and I have no doubt she is an inspiration to girls (and boys) across the country to simply be the person they were born to be. Period. Without applying labels of any kind. What a rock star she is! And a smartly dressed one, at that! 

Here's one more photo of Cady... on a different day... in a different style... because, again, it's all about being who we really are... on any given day:

Friday, October 27, 2017

Where Predators Lurk

"And will Thomas protect you?" my sweet friend Ann asked when I told her Thom and I had walked the perimeter of the cemetery next door at dawn. I laughed--not at her concern, certainly, but at the thought of Thomas getting all dog-tough and growly up in some cretin's face. Ann's concern was very real; she has a dear friend who was out alone and was assaulted.

I'm pretty sure Thomas would never be protective in an aggressive way, but I'm always conscious of where I am and my surroundings. Except for the dead, no one's much in the cemetery at 6:30a.m. And if someone were, I'd see him long before he had a chance to get close to us.

The truth is, though, in those moments walking with Thomas in the cemetery or in the quiet of the country, a mile from the road, I am the least on my guard. I've never felt the presence of danger in those times. Because I've only ever been assaulted or harassed in broad daylight in public places.

SeaWorld, for example. On a glorious summer day that had been nothing but fun for me and my children, I stood, both hands holding a kid's hand, in one of those underground tunnels that make you feel like you're inside an aquarium. We were completely focused on watching the beautiful sea creatures. Out of the darkness, a man's figure loomed, pushed past me--and groped my chest. I never saw his face or any features, not even his clothes. If I had, I would have chased him down. But he disappeared into the crowd of people behind me. His attack was strategically planned and perfectly executed. I was powerless to respond. I didn't even report it. My kids never knew it happened.

Then there was the time I'd gone to the emergency room of a county hospital with a severe bladder infection. I was five months pregnant. The doctor--or intern--hell, he could've been the janitor for all I know--who came into the room pulled the hospital gown from my shoulders, leaving me uncovered down to my waist. He proceeded to simply sit and gaze at my chest, finally running his hand along my breasts for no apparent reason, all the while talking matter-of-factly about prenatal care. I reminded him that I was there for a bladder infection. He tossed me a eerily smug smile that I'll never forget and left the room. I was eighteen, an inexperienced, naive teenager who was simply baffled by his behavior. It took a few years for me to realize exactly what had been going on.

Years later, when I'd been diagnosed with malignant melanoma, I sat in an exam room with two doctors and a close male friend. As the "specialist" described the surgery he might have to perform on my leg to fully excise the cancer, he reached over and slid his palm under my hip, cheerfully fondling my right buttock as he explained the procedure. Later my friend would tell me how uncomfortable it had made him. "Oh," I replied, "me, too," and then I slipped back into the trance I'd been in since I'd been told days earlier I might have a life-threatening illness. To my great relief, a second biopsy ruled out melanoma. When I could think clearly, I considered all the things I could have/should have said to the pervy doctor. But by then it was too late.

And let me tell you, arrogant, privileged men in positions of power or authority do this kind of shit all the time. And what do women do? Usually nothing. I have said this before on this blog, and will say it again here: For those who are thinking, "You should have said something," you've clearly never had a similar experience. Those who have know that our initial reaction is usually shock and disbelief. Then we question. ('Wait--did he just run his hand across my chest for no reason?') Honestly, by the time we make sense of it, the moment has passed. Predators know this. They are extremely subtle in what they do. (Consider the accusations against Bill Cosby. Or not so subtle--Consider the accusations against Harvey Weinstein.) That's how they continue to get away with it. And if women complain? It becomes "a misunderstanding." And you only need to hear the droning tone of a law enforcement officer remark, "Well, it's he said/she said" to know that no one is going to pursue the perpetrator.

And don't even get me started on the sexual harassment that occurs in public....

There was the new principal who, when I introduced myself, put his arm around my shoulders and told the student I was with he intended to "fire" me as the school newspaper advisor. When I called him on it in private, his response was, "I didn't grope you, did I?"

Twice I had male colleagues offer "hugs" in the hallway outside my classroom, only to lean in and whisper in my ear about being willing to "help" with any "needs" I might have since I'd been single for so long. Both men were married and, to my knowledge, still are, to the same women. I'd always thought the "I know you have needs" line was a creepy joke until I'd been single awhile. And it didn't take long....

A few months after my divorce, a "brother" from my former church called to encourage me to come back to church, to "stop screwing around" (because my husband had announced that we had separated due to infidelity on my part, which, I assured him, was not true), and that, by the way, if I had "unfulfilled needs" I should seek him out and he would "take care of" me. "I think you know what I mean," he said. My daughter used to babysit for this man and his wife. They're still married, and they're still attending church together.

All in all, I've been lucky. I've never been assaulted or harassed by one of my favorite teachers, as several of my friends have. I've never been injured by a man's assault as other friends--and family members--have been.

My friend Bob has told me that I "maintain an aura of 'Get away from me.'" This may be true; I do feel nowadays as if I'm constantly on my guard. But only when I'm in large crowds or around strangers. When I walk alone out in the hills, I have little fear. Wild creatures are far more predictable than humans.

But Ann, I do promise I will always be careful, and I will always have my wits about me, and I may or may not carry a switchblade in the pocket of my cargo pants.

Monday, October 16, 2017

When Men Behave Badly

Quick background: I live in a mobile home park. (No, not like that--a really nice one with plenty of green space, two swimming pools, a fitness room, a library and a dog park.) A mobile home park is like a small town--a really tiny small town. Fewer than a thousand people live here. If I sneeze in the morning, my neighbor a half mile away will call in the evening and ask if I've been sick. You get the idea.

So this happened:

Last week my neighbor--Man A--allowed me to park my truck in front of his home for a day while my street was being repaved. That evening, he called to tell me his buddy--Man B--had stopped by to tell him this:

'You must be feeling pretty good--ha ha ha--since you spent the morning getting laid--ha ha ha--I saw Kay's truck in front of your house all day.'

Man A found this humorous and laughed as he shared it with me--until I told him "That's not funny" in a tone so flinty you could've started a fire with it. We went on to have a brief discussion on why it's not appropriate for a man who has never met me to talk about me as if I'm a whore.

See, we all know that this is--What did the President call it?--"Guy talk" or "Locker room talk." Giving it a testosterone-spiced name does not give it credence or respectability, and it does not excuse it.

In cases like this, women face the same universal dilemma that they always do when dealing with sexual inappropriateness or harassment: If we speak out against the source, we suddenly become "a bitch" or "psycho" or "the psycho bitch from hell."

But hey, I don't care what Man B thinks of me. He's already demonstrated that he's not a nice man. I've got nothing to lose in confronting him, right?

So I waited.

And tonight, I saw him sitting in his golf cart with his cute little Pomeranian in his lap, talking to another neighbor. So I parked my truck across the street and strolled over. The conversation went like this:

Me: Hi. We've never been formally introduced. I'm [Man A's] friend, Kay Murphy.

Man B: Oh, yeah, I know who you are. I see your truck around....

Me: Mm hmm. I just wanted to let you know that I'm a pretty nice person--

Man B: Oh, yeah, [Man A] says you're a real nice lady--

Me: So I don't really appreciate being talked about as if I'm a whore.

At this point, for a moment or two, the conversation got very loud. Man B used a technique that people sometimes use when they don't want to hear or accept or take responsibility for something you're confronting them with: THEY BEGIN TO TALK VERY LOUDLY. Which is what he did, raising the volume each time I tried to speak until I quite firmly but calmly said, "Please let me finish talking." And with a wave of the hand, he shut up.

Which gave me the opportunity, in a few sentences, to explain that, while he may have been joking with his pal, he had no right to speak about me in such a disrespectful way, especially since he'd never even met me. And that, yes, I realize he might think of it as "guy talk," in the same way our President does, but that doesn't make it any more appropriate.

And that is the point at which he finally said, "Geez, [Man A] and me was just talkin' but now I feel bad about what I said." I took that as an apology--or as close to one as I would get. I stepped forward, reached out my hand to shake his, thanked him, and told him that now when I see him I can wave and say hello "as if we're friends" (which we are certainly not and never ever will be, but still--we live in this tiny community...).

If you're a woman, you're probably cringing and nodding as you read this, because you've had similar experiences. If you're a man--and you haven't had a wife or a mom or a sister describe similar experiences and how men can make us feel like we're pox-ridden alley whores for their own amusement--let me just say that you need to stop and think about the impact of what you're mouthing off about.

As for me, I drove away feeling proud of myself, and definitely stronger as a woman.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Wherein my childhood dream is--almost--realized

That's my Cub Scout handbook. Not because I once was in the Cub Scouts (oh, how I wish!), but because I saw it at a yard sale and bought it.

This week the Boy Scouts of America announced that girls would be allowed to join. In reading some of the news and editorial pieces about this proclamation, I learned that some Boy Scout troops have been allowing girls to join for years--for decades, some of them.


I am so, so happy for all the like-identifying young girls who are eager to go on those camp-outs and attend those rallies and, most important, get started on that prestigious Eagle Scout status.

And I am so sad and bitter that it has taken this long.

Seriously, what is the deal with all this gender isolation agenda?

And by the way, yes, yes, I know many modern-day Girl Scout troops do many of the wonderful things Cub Scout and Boy Scout troops do, such as hiking and camping, but they certainly did not in the 1960's when I wanted to join. And can I just be totally honest here? As a young girl, I didn't want to hang out with other girls. At all. Ever. I never played with dolls--I found it creepy. (It's a dead baby, after all, isn't it?) Playing "dress up" was like trying on really ugly clown costumes. (No. Just... no.) I didn't have the patience to sit and color in a book for hours (though I could sit somewhere quietly for long stretches putting words on a page, but that's an entirely different activity, isn't it?). I never understood the concept of "playing house," because the entire reason I wanted to play outside (with my male friends) all day every day was to get away from the chores and dust and drudgery of all that.

Plus I wanted to climb trees and dig in the dirt and plant things and play Cowboys and Indians and play with any toy with wheels made by Tonka--bonus points if the thing had winches or pulleys or sirens or a backhoe. 

Mind you, I was not what would be characterized as a healthy, outdoorsy kind of kid. I was a tiny, underweight thing with poor vision, malformed lungs, no muscles, and a constantly sniffling nose. But that didn't stop me from wanting desperately to go on fishing trips (never the hunting trips) with my dad, or to go camping or exploring. (Kind of like the kinds of things I like to do now--but no still no fishing.)

Alas, I was not allowed to go. "You're a girl. Girls don't do that sort of thing" still rings in my ears.

In the fifth grade, I tried joining the Girl Scouts. I barely survived a single meeting with my dignity intact. For that abysmal, torturous hour, we sat in the elementary school cafeteria with bars of Dove soap, pink netting and sequins spread on the table before us, our goal being to somehow transform all that girly stuff into a lovely gift for our moms. Dear Jesus, get me through this hour somehow and I promise I will never, ever be unfaithful to my true identity ever again, amen, I prayed.

So I hounded my mom for a year or two to let me join the Boy Scouts, to no avail. (By then, my dad had passed, but he would have said no, too.)

And so, yeah, if you know me well (or follow this blog on a regular basis), you know that I spend just about every spare hour of my life making it up to myself by roaming in the woods, hiking, going exploring and having similar adventures.

Label me as you will--tomboy, androgynous, gender fluid--this is who I am. No shame--I had enough of that as a child, so don't even bring it now. I'll cut you (not with my really cool Boy Scout pocket knife with the letters BSA right there on the handle, but with my words).

We are fifty years gone from my childhood, and still there is (shockingly) push back on the BSA allowing those-identifying-as-female to join--even from the GSA (of all people!). FOX News ran a story three days ago entitled "Eagle Scout: RIP Boy Scouts of America. You were great for 100 years." Because apparently folks still believe that once girls join a club, they ruin everything.

Please, America, I implore you on behalf of all the little Kays out there, whether identifying as "male" or "female" or somewhere in between (You know "Kay" is both a "boy's" and a "girl's" name, right?), to cast aside this ridiculous gender separation agenda and simply let kids choose. Girls and boys who want to play dress up and rock the (dead) baby will do so. Girls and boys who want to learn how to build a campfire and catch a lizard and operate the manual transmission on a Hemi-powered dually will do so. Trust me. Dear god, please trust me--you don't have to tell them which gender to choose. They already know what they are.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Let it burn

Bear Canyon fire, Mt. Baldy, 2008

NOTE: I am not a pyromaniac, and I am certainly not an arsonist. Although I no longer live in the mountains (see photo directly above), fires still scare me--wherever and whenever they start. But I have to say this:

Forest fires and wildland fires are not bad.
In fact, they are good. And we should let them burn.

As I write this, a wildfire (dubbed the Canyon Fire 2) is burning out of control in nearby Orange County. So far, it has burned 5,000 acres and is 0% contained. It began this morning, driven by high winds and fueled by dry brush that has not burned in decades. Thus the explosive, quick-moving nature of it.

These same circumstances--and a couple of kids lighting firecrackers--sparked the Palmer fire that burned within three miles of my neighborhood a month ago. I've been a flatlander for four years now. After I left the mountain, I never expected to once again be watching a fire burn a few miles from my home, wondering if the wind would shift, and I would be running for my life.

I love where I live (just as I loved living in the wilderness in Mt Baldy). I chose this place because it was rural, nestled into the rolling hills at the foot of Mt. San Jacinto and Mt. San Gorgonio, with lots of open space and trails through the canyons so I could walk for miles. But just like everyone else who has chosen to live in similar settings in California, in making this choice, I have consciously chosen to live where there is danger of fire. Really, really dangerous fire.

And to say I am conflicted about this is an understatement.

I can't live in the city. For the sake of my mental health, I need the relative quiet of rural life and the opportunity for long, meditative walks in Nature with my dog. This place--a "senior" community comprised of mobile and modular homes--was developed on the outskirts of town, literally right on top of a long, deep arroyo that is used as a wildlife corridor for coyotes, bobcats, skunks and possums. Perfect. I love them all. But... the park is surrounded by hills covered in tall grass and dotted with oak trees, wild lilac and old stands of eucalyptus. Or, to characterize it in another way, firewood.

The aftermath of the Palmer fire, just a couple miles from my home.

And now, because we live here, every time there is a fire, that fire must be contained and controlled as soon as possible in order to protect human life and avoid property damage--all at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars in equipment, manpower, aircraft fuel, operational costs, Phos Chek (fire retardant), etc., etc., etc.

The Palmer fire, like the Canyon Fire 2 in Orange County, was pushed on by high winds. It raced up and over the hills to Live Oak Canyon, where it came within feet of these homes.

The truth is, if we truly love Nature, we would simply allow fires to burn instead of going to all that expense of putting them out.

Because without interference, Nature does a fine job of housekeeping. Lightning strikes spark fires in the wilderness or the forest every few years, the fires burn off the layers of duff and debris--and thin the trees, which makes the stronger, older trees healthier (which is especially important now that those trees have less water due to drought, climate change and human encroachment).

But in the last hundred years, as we've sprawled out into the wildlands to build homes, we've mustered together great firefighting armies of hotshots, pilots, bulldozers and trucks to knock down wildland fires as soon as they start--and in doing so, we've simply been stacking all that unburned fuel up to create unholy conflagrations every time one gets out of hand, as the Canyon Fire 2 has done in just hours.

When fires don't burn through an area for decades, once they do they burn so hot that everything in their path is reduced to ashes.

Of course, at this point, it would be impossible to undo what's been done. We can't expect all those people with those beautiful homes and ranches in the hills and canyons of Southern California to give them up and leave them. Hell, I wouldn't. Still, we have to find a way to let fire do what it should do without endangering property or homeowners--or the firefighters who endure excessive heat, smoke inhalation, danger from falling trees and limbs and other hazards while battling these fires.

Due to some strategic Phos Chek drops during the Palmer fire, this home was spared. I'm kinda thinking the homeowner would have just as soon seen it burn.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

This very special trip to Missouri

The Bend Bridge over the Meramec River

Good grief and hallelujah, it was so great to get back to Missouri after an absence of two years. Two years! How did I let the summer of 2016 slip past without a quick trip to see the folks I love? This trip was all the sweeter for the absence, but mostly because this guy came with me:

We are posed here in front of the infamous "big red barn" on Old Bend Road just a few yards from the farmhouse where my mother lived for a while with her grandmother, Bertha Gifford. Showing my son the farmhouse where his grandmother lived, where some of her ashes are scattered, was one of the highlights of this trip for me. He said later, as we were driving away, that he felt "serene." This did not surprise me; it is the same feeling I've always had after spending time at the farmhouse. Others see it as the "House of Mystery" and some have claimed to have seen apparitions here. I've never felt any presence other than light and peace. We were fortunate that Tim Fiedler, owner of the farm with his sister, Joyce, was gracious enough to walk us through the old farmhouse... and I could show my son where his grandmother, eighty years ago or so, took the mule upstairs to her bedroom....

In the foreground here is Ginger Collins Justus, one of the most amazing people on the planet, and next to her is Marc Houseman, historian extraordinaire and also one of the most amazing people in my life. Ginger took this photo while I was demonstrating some very complex karate moves. 

Marc and Ginger are trusted companions while I'm in Missouri, introducing me to countless interesting places, adventures and food items:

Marc is in his favorite pose here--resting in peace--at a beautiful old mausoleum that we wandered through. This was after we'd had lunch "on The Hill" in St. Louis, an Italian community so strong I wondered why my cousins hadn't moved down from Illinois to live here:

The day before, they also introduced me to deep fried pickle chips. Yes, Missouri, good job!

More than menu choices, though, I was deeply grateful for their help with the two speaking engagements I did, hosted by the libraries in Pacific and Sullivan. Marc answered questions and helped with book sales, Ginger did the same--and took photos:

Folks turned out in large numbers to hear more about Bertha Gifford. To me, the most treasured person present was David Gail Schamel. His older half brothers, Elmer and Lloyd Schamel, died while under the care of my great-grandmother. Mr. Schamel always shows up when I speak in Pacific, and he is always incredibly gracious, sharing photos of his brothers and this time, a photo of his beautiful great-granddaughter. I always look forward to these events as they give me the opportunity to meet readers face to face, some of them, like Mr. Schamel, direct descendants of people who were living in Catawissa or Pacific in those same decades Bertha lived there. The night I spoke at "The White Chapel" in Sullivan (photo directly above), I also met young Emma. She asked a question during the Q & A portion ("Does anyone still live in Bertha's house?"), and after the event came up to give me the portrait she drew of me while I was speaking:

It's a pretty true likeness, don't you think?

It's probably clear why some of these Missouri folks have become true friends over the years. Their warmth, grace and acceptance encourages and inspires me, and makes me yearn every year, as spring folds into summer, to see them once again.

Monday, September 18, 2017

What would you do?

Yesterday, while I was driving Thomas around the park where I live, a guy in a golf cart in front of me dropped a lit cigarette butt in the street.

These were my thoughts:

Whoa. Seriously? Is this an episode of "What Would You Do?"

Does he not realize how the toxins in that cigarette butt can harm the wildlife here?

Should I stop and pick that up?

Should I stop and pick that up and follow him and as soon as he stops hand it back to him? (Side note here: I have done this twice before with people I witnessed littering. "Excuse me," I said nicely, handing it back to them. "You dropped something." This produced a very satisfying feeling in myself both times, though I was cussed out twice, once in Spanish and once in English.)

Should I stop and pick it up and follow him to where he lives, then wait until dark and leave the butt in his mailbox or on his front porch or some other conspicuous place where he will be disgusted by it, as I am disgusted by seeing it there in the street?

I would not have said, "The world is not your ashtray, pal," but I would have thought it, and that thought would probably have been reflected on my face.

In the end, I did nothing. By the time I'd thought through all of these scenarios, I was a half mile away from the smoldering butt, and the man had since putted out of sight. But it bothered me all evening that I did nothing.

Would it have changed his behavior if I'd said something, done something? Probably only in this way: The next time he started to toss a butt away, he would have looked around to make sure no one was watching. But still....

I wasn't afraid to do or say something. I was simply indecisive. Because I didn't already have a rehearsed scenario for this. (If you're an extrovert, you may have trouble grasping this. All my introvert readers are nodding their heads knowingly. It's what we do; 'If they say this, I'll say that.' We have to know in advance what to say or do because the portion of our brain containing language shuts down and we go into fight or flight mode when faced with confrontation or any kind--even if it's, "Hi! How's your day going?")

Even when it feels uncomfortable, though, I need to respond. Because this community where I live (fifty-five and over, so this guy was certainly old enough to know better) is a microcosm of my town, of my state, of my country. And I love my town and my state and my country. So I should always be ready to assert myself if there's an opportunity to speak up, to say, "Hey, that's not appropriate here" in any situation.


Sunday, August 27, 2017

No Fur Kid Left Behind

Can you see her? Little Sugar Plum discovering snow for the first time.

When I moved up to my cabin in Mt. Baldy in 2007, I did so in the company of Boo Radley and Sugar Plum, my two black cats. I still had to go to work down the mountain every day, so my two companions would spend each day while I was gone either down in the basement chasing mice out of the house or up in the loft, where they could watch birds at eye level.

We'd lived there one year when a man who was camping with his daughter accidentally started a forest fire in a canyon below us on a very cold, very windy night. When my neighbor called to alert me to the fire burning several miles south of us, I called in sick to work. My cabin was not in immediate danger, but I worried that if I drove down the mountain, I wouldn't be allowed back up, and there's no way I would have left my cats up there alone.

As the fire pushed its way up the canyon toward my neighborhood, the neighbors kept in close contact, working out exit strategies. There is only one road that leads up and down the mountain, but there is a dirt Forest Service road that goes up to the ski lift and over the mountain, down the far side. We would caravan in our trucks if need be, only leaving if we absolutely had to. We had been advised earlier by the Forest Service that if our cabins caught fire, they would be allowed to burn; no fire crews would be risked to try to save them. If my cabin caught fire, I would lose just about everything I owned except what I could fit in my Tacoma--and the cat carriers took up most of the space.

After several days, though, the Hot Shots and other crews contained and controlled the fire, though there were still some hot spots burning deep in a few side canyons. Before I returned to work, I made sure that if the fire flared up again and law enforcement closed the road, I could still get home. I'd have to walk, and it would take me four hours or so (as near as I could figure), but I devised a plan with a friend who would drop me at the base of the mountain where I could follow the creek trail to the village. Then I could simply walk the road the rest of the way up to my cabin. If I had to walk out carrying two cat carriers down the mountain, I would. No cats left behind....

I promised them that. Every time we had a big storm, friends down the mountain would offer guest rooms and couches so that I didn't have to drive to work or home in treacherous conditions. I would have happily taken them up on their offers had it not been for the two furry individuals who waited for my return every afternoon.

One winter a sudden and severe storm developed while I was at work. From outside my classroom door, I could look up to the mountain, and I knew it was bad. As soon as the last bell rang, I ran to the parking lot, jumped in the truck, and headed up the mountain. By the time I reached the switchbacks (the steep, winding road that led up to the ski lifts and my cabin), the California Highway Patrol had closed the road and officers were escorting drivers down. But I had to go up. My cats were up there. "Not without chains," the CHP officer told me. "We're in blizzard conditions." So I had to turn around and go back to the village to put on the cables I always carried in winter. When I stepped out of the truck in the post office parking lot, I was pelted with freezing rain. (It's a lot like having a Slurpee thrown at you... or a lot of Slurpees all at once... with no lovely sugary sweet flavor.) Still, with the help of a neighbor, we got the cables on quickly, and I headed back to attempt to get up the switchbacks. If I couldn't drive, I would have to walk the three miles, but by then the sun was beginning to set, so I'd be doing it in the dark if I didn't hurry.

The five minute drive took twenty-five that afternoon. Slowly but surely, I wound my way up that icy road. When I reached the top, the narrow road to my cabin was covered in a foot of snow and ice, so I found a safe place to tuck in the truck for the night, grabbed my backpack and started walking.

Snowfall is beautiful, and I love walking in it. But a blizzard includes high winds that whip the tiny ice crystals across your face and into your eyes (even if you're wearing glasses). I tried to trudge with my head down, but doing so caused me to take a wrong turn in the waning light, and I ended up disoriented at the end of a side road that led to another cabin. 'Take a breath and go back the way you came,' I told myself. I did, and it worked. I found the road again, and finally made it home just as total darkness fell. Both cats were waiting for me at the front door--and they nearly fled when they saw me. I was completely covered with ice and snow. But I was home. And we were safe.

"I told you," I said, as they huddled nearby, watching me shed several pounds of soaked clothing, "I will always come home. I will never leave you here."

The back side of my cabin after the blizzard of 2010.

I think what made me feel so strongly about never leaving them behind was watching the heartbreaking news coverage of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. My mom was living with me at the time, and we watched together as Coast Guard and law enforcement helicopters plucked survivors off porches and rooftops, often forcing them against their will to leave their pets behind.

Best Friends, the animal rescue group based in Kanab, Utah, were the ones that organized the biggest concerted effort to go into New Orleans and the surrounding areas just days after the storm ended to rescue dogs and cats that had been left behind. Hundreds and hundreds of dogs and cats. As days went by and the extent of the devastation from Katrina unfolded, I mentioned to Mom that I felt like I should send a donation to Best Friends. "I already wrote a check for a hundred bucks," she told me. "I just don't know where to send it." My mom, my hero. I went online, found the address, wrote out a check myself, and mailed both in the same envelope the next day.

Nowadays, of course, it's much easier to donate, just a couple of clicks.

And we've learned. As you watch the coverage of Hurricane Harvey and the rescue effort now taking place, you will see people being helped to safety--along with their dogs and cats. In all, 600,000 dogs died or were abandoned during Hurricane Katrina. That won't be the case this time, but there will still be a huge need for groups like Best Friends to rescue pets that were left when people were caught away from home when the hurricane hit. I have no doubt that a team from Best Friends is already preparing to gear up and meet that need as soon as they can possibly get to Houston.

If you'd like to help with that effort, it only takes a few clicks to donate. Click on the link below, and it will take you to the Best Friends site. In my opinion, you're a hero if you do!

Click here to donate to Best Friends.