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.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Rescuing Dogs: Part Three

Corgi and Basset Hound? I see a bit of German Shepherd in there, too. But those ears!

If you haven't yet read Part One and Two, you can find them by scrolling down past this post or clicking on the title or date (April 30, May 1) in the left sidebar.

The Living Free Animal Sanctuary in Idyllwild, California was founded in 1980 by Emily Jo Beard who "created a sanctuary where animals would be safely housed without being caged." The mission of the shelter is to "rescue, rehabilitate and find permanent homes for healthy cats and dogs that were scheduled for shelter euthanasia." For my Cali readers, if you haven't driven up to that beautiful mountain setting to visit Living Free, I strongly recommend doing so—even if you're the sort of sensitive person who becomes upset and/or saddened by visiting traditional animal shelters. Trust me, you'll find nothing of the sort at Living Free, just happy dogs in the kennels and happy cats in the cattery.

In my quest to find a companion who would fit well with me, Thomas, Purrl and Sugar Plum (see previous post), I scrolled through the profiles of the dogs currently available at Living Free and came upon the photo above of "Impala." (I have my suspicions about the name choice; I'll keep them to myself.) This is what his profile said:

Impala is a sweet, loving, happy dog that makes you feel good just to look at him. His soft brown eyes sparkle with intelligence and humor and he is always smiling. He loves people, wants to please and would be a wonderful family dog. He is very agile and can jump up on a chair despite the fact that his legs are very short.

Well, who doesn't want a dog who is "loving, happy" and "is always smiling"? And on my part, ever since little Harper (a Corgi/Sheltie mix) blessed my life (you will recognize her name if you've read The Dogs Who Saved Me), I've wondered if I might be blessed again with a Corgi mix. Add Basset Hound, and that's double blessings. I shot off an email to Edgar, the kennel manager, asking if Impala might still be available and received a response within a day confirming that he was and inviting me to come up the mountain and meet him.

The sanctuary opens daily (except Wednesdays) at 11:00. I was there the next day by 11:20—and by the time I signed in and got up to the kennels, another family had already spent time with Impala. "But they haven't filled out an application yet!" said the enthusiastic volunteer who brought Impala out to meet me, explaining that it was already his second introduction of the day. And did this dog match the description posted about him online? Oh yes, and then some. He was a happy, tail-wagging bundle of dog joy who loved being petted and meeting new people. "He's definitely a favorite," the volunteer told me as he scratched behind the little dog's ears and talked baby talk to him. I loved him at first sight. (The dog, not the volunteer, though he was very nice as well.)

When I asked if I could take Impala for a short walk, however, I was told that there was "some issue with his spine." The volunteer went on to explain that Impala was a "return." He'd been adopted previously at an adoption event, and though the family had kept him for several months, they were now returning him—injured. They couldn't afford his medical care, it seems. The online description of Impala was the one they'd used prior to his first adoption; he could no longer jump up on a chair, and he seemed to be in a considerable amount of pain.

"But the vet is coming on Wednesday and will give him a thorough examination at that time," the volunteer said. "We're giving him pain medication in the meantime, and it seems to be helping."

I decided not to bring Impala home, to wait and see what the vet said. It's not that I was unwilling to take on a dog with medical issues; I just didn't want to make an emotional decision ("But I love him! So it will all be okay!") that wouldn't work with my pack and our lifestyle. Any new dog would need to be able to walk with Thomas in the morning and the evening. I needed confirmation from the vet that this would be possible for this little dog who was short on legs and long on personality.

I did go home and immediately fill out and submit an application online. Then I had to wait three long agonizing days until Wednesday. I thought of him every day, looked at his picture, and hoped. On Wednesday afternoon, I called the direct number they'd given me for the kennel—and Edgar was busy. He returned my call a couple of hours later, but by then I was out walking Thomas. We finally connected the next day, and after a long, detailed conversation during which Edgar listened patiently to my concerns and explained with absolute honesty all of Impala's limitations, I decided not to adopt him. Edgar thanked me for weighing all the factors before making my decision—then told me there was another family who'd just been waiting for me to decline so that they could adopt him. Perfect.

And this is how dog adoption should go. In my mind, the process should be one of matchmaking. The specific personality and behaviors—both good and bad—of the dog should be matched carefully with the needs and lifestyle of the adopter so that when a dog finally does get placed, that home remains his or hers forever. Matching dogs to compatible humans can only be done with patience, communication and understanding. This is how Sgt. Thomas Tibbs came to bless my household, because of the terrific volunteers at Upland Shelter, and I have to applaud Edgar and all the staff and volunteers at Living Free for being equally dedicated to the well-being of each and every dog and cat they rescue and place for adoption.

So: No short-legged Corgi/Hound for me. But hang on... this story isn't over yet....

Monday, May 1, 2017

Rescuing Dogs: Part Two

If you haven't yet read Part One, you can find it by scrolling down past this post or clicking on the title or April 30 in the left sidebar.

Then this happened:

Twice in the past three years, I've tried adopting a second dog so that Sgt. Thomas Tibbs could observe and learn from an older, calmer, more experienced dog. Both bitches I tried this with bided their time until the perfect moment to strike and then went after Purrl. (No, they weren't "just playing chase," and yes, I grabbed them in time to save Purrl from any harm other than the trauma. And no worries; both dogs are living the good life in forever homes. Just not mine.)

But lately I've felt brave enough to try again, so not long after the Irish Wolfhound experience (see below), I visited another local shelter to look at the dogs available there. I looped around all the kennels three times and was eventually drawn to a medium sized (maybe 30 pounds) female they were calling a "terrier" mix. (She was really a hound-pit bull mix, but she was the perfect size and who cares?) She (Dog A) was in a cage with another dog (Dog C). Both were black and white and similarly marked, as if they'd come from the same litter, except that one (Dog C) was considerably taller. Dog A was more calm, and had made curious but respectful eye contact with me. When I inquired about her, the employee at the reception desk called a kennel assistant who came to help me. As we walked back to fetch the dog to take her outside to a play yard, the assistant—we'll call her Bea—asked me which kennel. When I told her, she said, "Oh, she's the feisty one! When you get her out in the yard, she's very protective of the other dog. Yeah, she can be really feisty." Hmm. That was not the behavior I'd seen.

Then I understood why she'd said that. When she approached the kennel, she immediately bent over double and began talking in a high-pitched voice to both dogs, pulling down a leash from the door and waving it around. The excitement level of Dog C went from zero to ten in about half a second. She began yelping and jumping up on the assistant (which wasn't discouraged) as the woman tried to manage getting a leash on Dog A (who remained calmly and quietly at the back of the kennel) while Dog C barked and dodged and spun beside her. It took several long minutes to extract Dog A, and by then she was panting heavily, unsure and anxious.

As we left the building and made the trek to the play yard, long-legged Bea strode along quickly, pulling Dog A with her, oblivious to the fact that the dog, obviously house-broken, kept trying to pause at every tiny patch of grass because she desperately needed to poop. Alas, the poor dog was literally dragged in a half-squat through the gates of the play yard where she was immediately able to finish her business.

On our walk to the yard, Bea had kept up a steady stream of information about the dog—she was fearful, she said, wary of people, and she repeated that she was "feisty" around the other dog. But when Dog A finally relieved herself, she approached me right away, wagging her tail and lowering her head. I patted her and told her to sit. She did.

"Huh," said Bea. "Well, I tried to play with her yesterday out here, but she had no idea what to do with the ball."

I picked up a tennis ball, showed it to the dog, and rolled it. She bounded after it, picking it up and returning with it in her mouth. It only took five or six repetitions to teach her the command "Drop." She was extremely smart and very athletic, leaping into the air to catch the ball on a high bounce.

During this time, Bea kept up a steady stream of chatter. Each time I tried to explain my particular concerns about introducing this dog to Thomas, she cut me off in mid-sentence—not to respond to me but to talk to Dog A. It went something like this:

"Since Thomas has severe anxiety issues—"

"Oh! Who's a good girl! You like that ball, don't you?!?"

"Sometimes he'll shut down completely if—"

"Oh, look at you! Look at you! Good girl!"

"So it's important that—"

"Go get it! Go get it! Drop it! Drop it! Good girl!"

I finally gave up, told Bea I'd have to think about it, and left, again anxious to get home and just cuddle up with Thomas and the cats.

While the experience was somewhat frustrating, I felt consoled to know that at the very least, Bea gained more accurate information about what Dog A had to offer, and I have no doubt that young, sweet, tail-wagging dog went to a home with kids who would throw that ball over and over for her.

Part Three in this series will post on Wednesday (if I can find time to finish it in between dog walks and naps).

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Rescuing Dogs: Part One

Once upon a time, Sgt. Thomas Tibbs looked like this.

So this happened:

Not long after I moved in August—to this place with cleaner air, bluer skies, fluffier clouds and a thousand dog walking trails—I started exploring my neighborhood and looking for dog rescues and shelters with a mind to eventually (after I finish my current book project and I finally unpack that last box) doing volunteer work.

One nearby shelter I found has a website that gives basic information about events and donations but redirects to to list dogs that are available for adoption. I scrolled through the profiles and stopped when I saw an Irish Wolfhound mix. The Grandson has been wanting an Irish Wolfhound since he was... I don't know, ten? Now he's twenty-two and finally living in a house with a yard, ready for his first very own dog. Huh, I thought. Maybe it's serendipity.... (It wasn't, as you'll see.)

So on a very cold (low 40's) December day with wind gusts dropping the temperature even more, I stopped in at the shelter to see what it was like and also take a look at the Wolfhound. I met a nice volunteer who spent some time answering my questions about who manages the shelter and how they get funding (entirely from donations, without help from municipalities, which may explain why adoption fees there range from $200-$400). Then I asked about seeing the dogs. She told me that they were "probably all inside" as it was so cold, and that I might want to come back another day. I made a small donation then left, somewhat confused.

A week later, when I returned, I understood what she meant. The dogs are kept in kennels that have dual access, inside and out, which is great for them. But it's difficult for potential adopters because we can only see them from the outside. And direct access to the kennel is prohibited. Visitors have to view the dogs from behind a low chain link fence that sits five feet or so away from the kennel. I asked a young woman who was volunteering to "show me the Irish Wolfhound," so she walked to his kennel (with me on the far side of the low fence, herself on the inside) and pointed into his cage. The dog remained sitting toward the back of his kennel, watching us. He wasn't timid or wary; he just wasn't very interested in either of us.

Then it was just... awkward. She didn't offer to bring the dog out, nor did she come to the fence where I was standing, but I had questions, so we engaged in a conversation that had to be shouted above the barking of the dogs in other kennels.

I mentioned I'd seen the Wolfhound online and that it seemed he'd been with them a long time. She shrugged, said, "Not really," and explained that he'd been adopted and was gone for awhile but had just been returned. I had to ask why he'd been returned, and she allowed as how he "went after" the smaller dog in the family. To my question regarding whether he'd actually harmed the other dog or just growled, she shrugged again and said, "I don't know. He gets along well with other big dogs here. Maybe he just doesn't like little dogs." She gazed off into the distance.

Pulling out my phone, I asked if she would bring him out long enough for me to take his picture. She leaned against the door to the kennel—next to the leash that was hanging there—and told me there was a picture of him on their website. (That's the one I'd seen—a glamour shot of him in a bow tie, taken from a distance, which didn't offer a close-up of his face or any perspective on how tall he was.)

I offered to post a photo on my Facebook page that might help him find a forever home, since I have a lot of dog-loving friends.

She replied defensively that he was "well taken care of" there at the shelter, that he received "good food" and got to "run in the yard" every day.

Then she said I wouldn't be allowed to photograph him unless I spoke to someone in the main office and signed a "media release" form. She excused herself to go help someone else "for a minute" and never returned, leaving me standing there, trying to get a sense of the big dog who still sat quietly ten feet away.

I considered going to the main office, asking if another volunteer could help me, but by then all the sense of fun and adventure had gone out of the experience, and I just wanted to go home and hug Sgt. ThomasTibbs. So I did.

If you're wondering, it does appear at this time as if the Irish Wolfhound has been adopted. Best wishes to him and his new family.


Not long after I posted this, a story appeared in the local newspaper about this very dog (now named Sherlock). And I quote: "Sherlock is now the newest member of the San Bernardino Police Department's community affairs team. Sherlock has quickly stepped up in his new role and served as a source of comfort to North Park Elementary students after a recent on-campus shooting." Lt. Vicki Cervantes had gone to the shelter in search of a dog and met the (alleged) Irish Wolfhound/Lab mix. When she took Sherlock to her office, he was so well-mannered and such a gentleman that he became a member of her team. She said they never expected to use him so quickly after adopting him, but the need arose with the shooting, so she took him to comfort the kids, later telling a reporter, "His demeanor was just so amazing with these kids during this tragic event. They all just fell in love with him and he put smiles on all their faces."

Cool, huh? Three cheers for dogs with jobs! Especially this sweet guy!

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Remembering Bob Fiedler

Missouri has lost a true treasure of a native son, and I have lost another piece of my heart.

Bob Fiedler passed away on March 18th.

I don't even know how to begin to describe what this man meant to me.

In 2003, in order to continue my research on Bertha Gifford, I took a trip to Missouri—by myself. Nine years before, I'd gone there with my mother. Together, we had discovered all the old newspaper clippings that would later become the basis for the chapters in Tainted Legacy about Bertha's trial. We had also snooped around and found out that the farmhouse on Bend Road (where Bertha lived and where Ed Brinley died and oh, so much more) was owned by Robert A. and Claire Fiedler. At that time, I thought I'd procured their address. Turns out I had the city wrong. All my letters were returned.

So in '03, when I returned, I simply picked up the phone and dialed the number in the phone book. Mind you, this was extremely difficult for me—as an introvert, as a very private person who was being intentionally intrusive, and for the obvious reason: How does one begin the awkward conversation which must include this fact—"So, my great-grandmother lived in your house... and allegedly killed a few people while there..."?

And yet, when I got Bob on the phone (after I convinced him I was not a telemarketer—this conversation occurring just one month after the National Do Not Call Registry had opened), he was so kind and personable that we sailed right through the awkwardness and began navigating a friendship that would last for years. As soon as I identified myself as Bertha's great-granddaughter, he invited me to come to the farmhouse.

And I did. I spent five hours at the farmhouse the next day with Bob, his wife Rosella (Claire having passed away some years before, I was sad to learn), and Tim, Bob's son. I did not then nor do I now understand why Bob was so gracious to me, a stranger (from California, no less, so immediately suspect in the eyes of most Missourians), but he was, sitting down to openly share family history, offering me a tour of the house, the barn, the property where my mother spent "the happiest days of her life." And he offered me something more that day. He handed me a copy of St. Louis magazine from 1981—a magazine he had kept carefully preserved for twenty-two years. In it was the most comprehensive article (to that date) about Bertha Gifford. "Darkness 'Round the Bend," by Joe Popper, contained several pertinent facts regarding what happened to Bertha leading up to her trial. It also included where Bertha had been buried. So on that same trip, I was finally able to visit her grave, then call my mom to let her know.

Bob was so trusting (of this strange woman from California he'd just met), he allowed me to take his magazine so that I could have Joe Popper's long article photocopied before I left Missouri. I returned it two days later, which gave me another chance to hang out with him for awhile.

By then, he was already in his late 70's, but I would have guessed his age at ten years younger. He was vibrant and amiable, with a great sense of humor and an open heart that really was unusual for a mid-Westerner of his generation. (Read that to mean, he was nothing like my mother.) I loved him from the first day I met him.

As the years went by, I visited Missouri as often as I could, especially after Tainted Legacy was published. Always, if I let the Fiedlers know I was coming, they'd make time to meet me at the farmhouse. Tim still continues to do so. After Bob was diagnosed with dementia a few years ago (and the crack in my heart began), it became difficult for him to be included in our annual reunions.

Bob lived to be 93. And what a life. He raised a wonderful son and daughter who are as kind and gracious as he was and who will continue to maintain the farm. And when I reached out to him, he reached right back, gathering me into the circle of his family. I will never, ever forget him.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

When lilacs....

Yesterday the crows brought a dead rat into the back yard, dropped it on a planter, then spent the day snacking on it. I didn't begrudge them the treat—lately they've been living mostly on a diet of earthworms because the streets and yards are littered with them after it rains, and boy, has it been raining. But the planter they were using as their dining table is going to be where I plant some vegetables in another month, so I didn't want the remnants of that rat to linger. At night, the coyotes and the bobcats often use our street as a wide safe highway between the arroyo and the upper marsh-like area (which is a full on pond right now), so after dark I relocated the rat from my back yard to the street in front of my house. When it was still there this morning, I decided Thomas and I would go for a short walk and relocate him to the rugged area around that "pond." So if any of my neighbors happened to glance outside this morning at 5:45, they would have seen me walking cheerfully along, dog leash in my left hand, dead rat hanging from the right. All in a day's work.

Yesterday was a good day. It has been—finally—a bit warm in the past few days, so just after sunrise (when all danger of large scale predators had passed), I opened the back slider wide to let the cats sit on the patio and dream of flying up to snatch the little bluebirds out of the bird bath. Then I sat down to do some writing. It was a bit breezy, and wafting in on the draft through the house was the sweet scent of peach blossoms from my tree. Oh man... that was a heady scent.

An hour or so later, Thomas and I took a long walk down one of our many country roads (as I like to think of them; they're actually fire roads and access roads Edison uses to maintain the power lines). Fifty yards off the trail, I saw it—a lilac bush in full bloom. A flood of memories rushed back of a kind poet decades ago gathering a fistful of lilac blooms in a canning jar to set beside the bed where I lay in very troubled sleep. I woke to their perfume, and it changed everything. It was that same poet who convinced me that studying literature in college could be a way out of my seemingly dire circumstances. Had he not encouraged me to do so, I would never have discovered Whitman's "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd." So of course, I had to bring some home. My kitchen is filled with their scent this morning.

For the past few days, I've been reading another stellar novel by Catherine Ryan Hyde. This one, Say Goodbye for Now, is about two young boys who become united through first a kind act and then a brutal one. The setting is 1959 and one of the issues addressed is the reality of race relations at the time. This book has touched me in deep ways. As I sat on the patio swing in late morning, after the dog walk, reading with the music of my neighbor's back yard fountain as soundtrack, I found myself crying again and again as the struggles of these sweet boys bumped up against the struggles in my own life. Finally I put the book down and dozed in the warm air, my first nap on the swing in over a year.

The great thing about life is that it keeps moving forward. While we welcome winter with its relief from the relentless heat after weeks of cold and darkness, it is always good to feel the warmth of the sun again, to smell the flowers, to see what Nature has been up to while we hibernated. Because growth occurs in the dark times, too, even if we're not aware of it.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Where my heart wants to go

I suppose I've been a singer longer than I've been a writer. I started writing in the fourth grade, but I was singing from the time I was very small and very much under the influence of my older brother's albums by The Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul and Mary. We were a musical family. My father's Irish tenor voice was clear and beautiful when he sang "Irish Eyes" or "Too Ra Loo Ra Loo Ral." My mother had sung with a band here and there in her younger days, and I remember her singing show tunes—loudly—as she ironed our clothes or waxed the kitchen floor. My sister was really "the singer" in the family, taking on that role early and singing "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" in the elementary school talent show when she was in the fifth grade. Which is about the time I started writing. As the youngest of four children, I was the "shy" child (shouted down, more like), and writing allowed me to have some form of self-expression that was private and safe from my family's often brutal criticism and ridicule.

Music, though, shaped my identity. My friends in junior high and high school never knew about the stories I wrote, the journals I kept. But they knew I loved music in just about every genre from the Beatles to Motown to Johnny Cash and everything in between. I knew the lyrics to hundreds of songs.

So at fifteen, under my sister's tutelage, I learned to play the guitar. We went to the swap meet, and for $30 I bought a nice little folk guitar (which I kept until I gave it to my daughter on the occasion of the birth of her first child). I learned to play on that and was later given a "real" guitar, a steel-string higher-end Ibanez that I still play today.

When I play. Which is the problem. I don't play often enough to keep those calluses on my fingertips.

Back then, at fifteen, I played every day, singing folk songs and "Christian" songs my sister would teach me. (At that time, she was writing her own songs and would later go on to record an album with a Christian singing group.) When I was seventeen, someone tipped off a deacon in my church, and he asked me to sing a song before Bible study one night. I never did find out how he knew I could sing; I never sang in front of anyone. Ever. But I couldn't say no. Somehow it seemed like I'd be denying my gift if I did. So I said yes—and felt that heart-hammering-against-my-chest feeling for the first time in the moments before I began. There were several hundred people in the church that evening. I never really saw them. Once I began, I felt that transcendent power music has to take us to another place.

After that, I sang often. Eventually, I began to sing at weddings and funerals and odd celebrations. When I found myself married to the pastor of a church (see previous blog post), I sang at least once a week.

And then not at all for years.

When my husband and I separated, I lost every friend I had. My life became filled with raising our four children as a single parent while attending college full time. Occasionally I would get out my guitar and sing a song or two, but mostly I was doing homework or housework or child care, and the pleasure of sitting down to sing was a luxury I couldn't afford.

Once I started teaching, though, I had more time. And my kids were older. So once and a while I'd go out with Friend Laura to have a girls' night out and do some karaoke. Just so I wouldn't lose my ability to get up in front of people and sing. On one of those nights, I confessed to her my secret dream—to sing the National Anthem at a sporting event. Some months later, she called me, excited: Auditions were being held to sing the National Anthem at a Rancho Cucamonga Quakes baseball game. This required getting up on a temporary stage in the middle of the Montclair Plaza as people strolled by doing their shopping and belting out the song a cappella. Easy peasy. (Well, after a month of belting it out daily in the shower.) And with that, I was chosen.

The experience—for someone like me who has never taking singing lessons, never sung with a choir but is a patriot who absolutely loves flag and country—is humbling, to say the least. You stand behind home plate, your name is announced to the crowd (on the night I sang, two thousand people were in attendance), and someone hands you a microphone. And then you're on your own.

Yep, that's me!

I'm pretty sure I didn't embarrass the friends and family members who had come to hear me sing. I know for certain it was one of the proudest moments of my life.

Which led to me singing the anthem a couple more times (at pep rallies and a basketball game or two, since I taught high school), which then led to me singing in a few more weddings.

Mostly, now, I am focused on my writing, marketing what's already out there, working on new projects, big and small. And I don't think to get my old girl out of her case and just sit down and "let my music take me where my heart wants to go," as Cat Stevens put it. But I need to. My voice is my instrument, really (the guitar is just a prop), and my instrument has fallen out of tune, become weaker and less pure with lack of use. But music has always been my greatest comfort, and I need to keep it close.

So recently I volunteered to sing a couple of songs for a Valentine's Day luncheon. The performance was far from perfect. But it was a start.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Today Senator Elizabeth Warren was silenced by the GOP because she began to read words that would impugn the character of our about-to-be Attorney General, Jeff Sessions. (They weren't her words, by the way, they were the words of Civil Rights icon, Coretta Scott King.) That reminds me of the time I got divorced. What do the two experiences have in common? I, too, was silenced by a group of men so that I could not impugn the character of another man--my husband. Did I mention that he happened to be the pastor of my church?

When I left him, I had no intention of retribution or burning bridges. I was so hurt by his years of rejection, I just wanted to crawl away somewhere and recover so that I could be a better mother to our four children. For years, I had considered a separation, had begged for us to go to marriage counseling. But as the pastor of a fundamental church, he was more concerned about "what it would look like" if his congregation knew his marriage was in trouble. And let's face it, he had told me on more than one occasion that the most important thing in his life was "his church." His church?

When his daily criticisms and sneering disdain had hammered me down to the point of being clinically depressed, a family friend took me aside and said this: "Honey, I know you pray for him. But you've been praying a long time. What if you pray for the next ten years and after all that time, he's still the same guy?" OK, Dean used a stronger word than "guy."

And he was right. 35 years later, my ex is still the same "guy." But I haven't been married to him for the past 34.

When I left, he wrote up a "position paper" on what to do about me. Yep. It's true. I read it. He had a conversation with the elders in the church and decided they all had to protect their wives from my "influence." (Because they thought, if the wives knew the truth, they'd all start packing their bags?) On a Sunday morning, he stood in front of his congregation and read his pseudo-official document which decreed that no woman in the church should speak to me--not in person, not by telephone, and if they saw me in the street they were to turn and walk away (which, by the way, some of the women did when I happened to see them while doing business in the same city).

Weeks later, after I'd moved fifty miles away, he issued another statement from his pulpit: That I'd had a "breakdown." That I'd "gone away" to try to "recover." That he was "working on his marriage." (Little did the people in "his church" know he'd already started dating one of the nice single ladies in the congregation, who called to ask me if I intended to come back--because, she said, his statement had confused her regarding their relationship.)

Bizarre? Yes. Is it unusual for men to attempt to silence women who speak out against them? Oh, absolutely not. Right now I'm thinking of the couple who used to live next door to me. The wife called the police on her husband one day because "he had his hands around my throat and he just kept squeezing." His side of the story (which he later told to me) was: "I wasn't trying to hurt her. I just wanted her to stop talking."

If you're still wondering why women poured out into the streets on the day of the March for Women across this country, those are a few more good reasons.

The Republican dominated senate--the male dominated senate--made Senator Warren stop talking today because they couldn't stand to hear her read the words of truth in Coretta Scott King's letter. Warren's response was: "They can shut me up, but they can't change the truth." Amen. In spirit, I'm holding your hand, sister, and I'm holding it high. The more we are silenced, the louder our voice becomes.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

A Blueprint for Successful Storytelling

In the eight years I've been posting to this, my beloved blog space, I have never had a guest writer. There's a first time for everything, right? I am so excited about the brilliance of this newly released book on story, I've asked author M. L. Welker to say a few words about how the book came to be. Here is his response--and may his words, both here and within the pages of his book, be an inspiration to you:
I’ve always been fascinated with stories. When I was a little kid, I fell in love with the fictional worlds of Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and Jurassic Park. This led me to start writing my own stories and making my own homemade movies as a hobby. But despite how fun that was, destiny seemed to have other plans for me. At least at the time. I went off to college to pursue a “safe” degree and a “normal” job. But the entire time I never lost my obsession with stories. I kept writing on the side and learning more and more about the craft and the magic of storytelling.
That we humans find stories so transfixing is fascinating to me. When a movie starts, when we read the first few lines of a novel, or when somebody starts to tell us about “This one time . . .” it’s like our brains switch into story-receiving mode and we’re locked in. From there, we are transported into story worlds in a way that makes us feel almost like we are actually there, experiencing it all right alongside the characters in the story. Well, at least if it’s a good story.
Which was what intrigued me most of all. Why were some stories really good and able to hijack our brains, sucking us into their worlds, while other stories weren’t and were kind of just boring? And why were some stories so good that even repeat readings and viewings didn’t diminish their appeal? They are still engaging and fun even though we already know everything that happens. Why?
This began a lifelong obsession for me: What makes stories tick and why are the great ones so great? How do they do it?
It was really exciting when I found out there have been books written about this very thing. It turns out many other folks have had an interest like me and analyzed stories to find something of a secret formula. I pounced on these books. Some of them were paradigm-shifting for me (like Save the Cat!). But not all of them clicked. And some of them just made me wrinkle my nose. I felt like they just weren’t quite talking specifically enough about what I was interested in. Or at the very least they weren’t convincing me with their analyses. And all of them (even Save the Cat!) were woefully deficient when it came to helping me write my own stories.
It soon became clear that to get the answers I was looking for, I was going to have to go find them on my own.
Thus began the journey that culminated in the creation of my own book on the craft of storytelling: Blockbuster Blueprint.
I didn’t start out wanting to write a book. At first I was just frustrated with the existing material and decided to do my own investigation and write down my findings. I’d use these personal notes to help myself with my own stories and that would be that.
But as I poured over stories and analyzed them, my notes grew and grew. Eventually I had enough notes that folks started asking to see them and suggesting I turn them into a book.
And this struck a chord. This made perfect sense. These notes were, after all, my own personal answer to the missing material I was after. So if I wasn’t thrilled with the other books about story out there, it stood to reason there would probably be other writers who felt the same way. In the end, it seemed rather selfish to keep my findings and writings all to myself. So, I spent four years working on transforming those notes into a book.
And now the real fun begins. With Blockbuster Blueprint now published, I can start using the lessons it teaches to write even better stories than ever before. And the best part is, so can anybody else who reads it. Which is great because if it helps other writers make their stories better, all the readers, movie-watchers, and all-around story lovers out there benefit. Myself included. And the world could always use more good stories.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Recipe for a Sunday morning

When Robert Frost began his poem "Directive" with this line, "Back out of all this now too much for us," he did so as preface to asking his readers to separate themselves from a world that Yeats would have characterized as being "full of weeping." As I've discussed previously on this site, Frost's "Directive" is a journey, in a sense, toward peace, gotten at by employing a childlike imagination.

Exactly. That is exactly how I felt this morning. I needed to separate myself for a time from news reports, from social media... and I needed to seek quiet and beauty. When I start out, and I encounter a place that looks like this:

my childlike imagination is awakened. Where do those roads go? What will we find? What will we see? And suddenly I feel myself begin to breathe deeply, to think about possibilities that are less negative, more ripe with beauty.

For today, my recipe was a simple one: Start with one good dog. Add a pack of water, snacks, emergency kit (just in case--always) and binoculars. Use a sturdy pair of hiking boots to begin a slow, methodical blending of yourself with the scenery. That's it.

Having Thomas with me today was essential because he often alerts me to things I can't hear or see. When we'd made the five-minute drive down the road to where the dirt roads pictured above are accessible, I got out and began my preparations--cap, sunglasses, pack--and immediately saw a small hawk, a kestrel. I did not take this picture, but this is what one looks like:

If I'd been in possession of my Pentax camera with the telephoto lens, I'm sure I could've gotten a shot just like this. Kidding, but I was able to get pretty close watching him through the binoculars, and my guy looked like this guy--only much fatter. When he became annoyed with my creeping ever closer (and who wouldn't), he coasted away with a couple of wing flaps. I then returned to the business of getting Thomas out of the truck, and as soon as he hit the ground, he saw a bird. Far off in the pasture we'd parked next to, he'd seen movement, and he watched. I, of course, said, "What the heck are you lookin' at? I don't see anything," as I usually do, but swung the binocs up to have a gaze--and immediately spotted a roadrunner. No, not the cartoon guy, this guy:

Well, not exactly this guy, but his cousin who looks exactly like him. There is something about roadrunners that is absolutely comical. They're very large birds; this guy was bigger than the kestrel by far. But, I mean, look at his tiny wings and his way-too-long tail feathers and his goofy, adolescent boy hairstyle (or, er, featherstyle). They run. Stop. Run. Stop. Run. Stop. as they alternately look for lizards and check for predators. I watched my goofy guy until Thomas pressed against my leg, reminding me that we were about to wander off into the countryside.

We didn't walk far before we came upon a puddle still left over from last weekend's rainstorms. It was cold last night, and the ice on this one was still melting, glinting beautifully in the morning sun. In the mud next to the large puddle we saw some tracks:

To give you some perspective on size, here's my size 6 boot next to one:

I was not surprised, then when we rounded a bend in the road and saw, three hundred yards or so in the distance, the biggest damn coyote I think I've ever seen. Seriously. This guy was the size of a Mexican gray wolf. And as he began to slowly slink off to the west, he did that characteristic coyote look back over his shoulder like a thug who's been caught loitering before committing a crime, and he looks back as if to say, "Fine, I'll leave, but I'll be back when you're not around, pal." He was beautiful, though.

So was the huge old redtail hawk we saw next. The old man was sitting in the top of a dead oak tree, basking in the rising sun. I got a good look with the binoculars before he swooped away. That's how I could tell his age. Old hawks are like old cars--a bit faded and banged up, with a few dents and scratches here and there. But his wings were still strong and steady, so he's got a couple more years of vermin hunting ahead of him.

It's been crazy-windy here lately, and at one point the road was completely blocked by tumbleweeds, so I took a minute to clear a path through. I only mention this brief pause in our adventure to applaud the behavior of this good dog, who knows that when his leash is dropped he is on "Wait" until I pick it up again, so he sat himself down and enjoyed the warmth of the sun while I worked (and got stickered up a bit, but that's ok; it'll make the going easier for the next guy).

I have always loved Frost's sense of taking his reader with him--on a journey of the imagination or just out "to clean the pasture spring." And you should know, Dear reader, that when I'm out walking on a day like today with my trusty bird-spotter and best friend, I am always taking you with me, wishing you were along for the walk with us. We might not even speak other than to exchange a few words about direction, or to point out to the other some interesting sight off in the distance. I am always mindful of you there, in my heart. So let me leave you with a tiny gift brought to mind by today's journey:

The Pasture
by Robert Frost

I'm going out to clean the pasture spring;
I'll only stop to rake the leaves away
(And wait to watch the water clear, I may):
I shan't be gone long.--You come too.

I'm going out to fetch the little calf
That's standing by the mother. It's so young
It totters when she licks it with her tongue.
I shan't be gone long.--You come too.