Saturday, May 28, 2011

Autobiographical: Miss You, Dad

Not much of my writing is actually autobiographical; I use snippets from here and there in my past life and in the lives of others. But in my book Dreamer, there was one bit that was written from life:

'One January Sunday, after a long thaw had melted the snow, and a hard freeze followed, he took me for a long walk with him along the north side of a mountain. (I was about eleven at the time, I think, and Jesse was still too little for a long hike.) The oak leaves, where they collected in little ravines and stream beds, were thick and brown and crunchy, and we avoided stepping into them. We tried to keep to rocky ground to minimize our noise, hoping to come upon a herd of does, or maybe even a buck who had lasted through the hunting season. Mountain laurel bushes made little canopies over flat places on the side of the ridge, where the ground had been scraped bare and worn smooth by the sleeping bodies of the deer. Beside the game trails grew mosses in a mosaic of greens, some moss deep and feathery, a dark green with tiny brown tendrils raised above it, some the palest minty green with a short, tough feel, and every green color in between. Tall oaks rose above the laurel, still holding onto this year's brown leaves. The beeches were not so tall, and the few leaves that clung to them rattled and scraped with the breeze that now and then moved the chill air. We stopped and caught our breath every fifty yards or so, listening for the scuffle-scuffle sound that would betray a deer's approach, and turning our heads to try to track the gray squirrels that scritched through the trees to keep an eye on us. The clouds of our breath gave us grey haloes around our orange furry hunter's hats.

'If I had been by myself, I would have crept under the sloping branches of the evergreen hemlocks and curled up on their deep, soft carpet of needles to dream of living in the forest. I loved the hemlocks with their dark, flat, shiny needle-leaves in tiny rows along the twigs. Unlike the spruces and pines, the hemlock was gentle and soft, not resinous and prickly. The hemlocks grew apart from the laurels, in their own communities where the ground dipped into bowls and you could frequently find little mountain springs.

'We paused for a breather in a cluster of young white pines. They have long needles with characteristic white stripe (I peered at them to see the mark of their breed, amazed as always that any natural stripe could be that thin and fine) giving them a hazy, relaxed look. The wind obligingly picked up a little so that we could savor the sound of the pines swishing, like the sound of the surf before you get over the top of the dunes at the beach. Then Dad led on, downwards now, to a wondrous sight in a scooped out section on the side of the mountain, a little dell, the floor of which was almost level.

'The gray rocks that we'd used as step stones were still scattered on the hillside, and the moss and the laurel and the oaks, but added to the landscape were boulders higher than our heads. They were like planets, like monuments, and we walked between them, Dad admiring them, I in utter wonder. So still and cold. So inanimate, and yet ... there was something about them that spoke of a deep, long life beside which our little lives seemed like the quick hum of a mosquito, there and gone in an instant, while these monoliths watched and listened through the centuries. I pulled off a glove and laid my hand against the stone, to try to feel that deeper life, and snatched my hand back, so cold it felt burned. On the north side of a ridge, not much sunlight would warm these rocks in the winter. Their inner life would be one of cold and darkness and silence. "These are the bones of the earth, Sully," my father said, his voice barely above a whisper. And we moved slowly on, down through this hollow, between the great boulders, looking up to see their profiles against the pewter winter sky, gray upon gray, until we reached the lower shoulder of the mountain, where the trees grew thicker, and the laurel was replaced by bramble. We turned away west again, and as the afternoon grew late, we struck our original path and headed for the car.

'As a teen I was too busy to try to pester Dad to take us back there (Jesse never did get to go), and then we moved to California. I asked Dad once or twice when I visited him and Mom where that place with the huge boulders was. He gave the name of some remote valley or other, but it was no name that I could recognize. He hedged a bit, saying that they were always changing the names of those valleys depending on who you talked to, anyway. And now he was gone, and the secret place might as well have disappeared with him. But I remember him best gliding silently in long steps amid the oaks and laurel, standing quietly at peace beside the bones of the earth, like they were old friends.'

There really was such a place. Wednesday was my dad's birthday, May 25th, and I've been thinking about him a lot the last couple days. He was a big man, six foot two, but not bulky. He could slink along in the woods like a ghost, making almost no sound at all, in contrast to his laughter, which exploded in eldritch cackles, sometimes making his dentures slide loose.

One of the things that made him laugh helplessly over and over again was reading Thorne Smith's book Turnabout. Dad loved the turns of phrase and stretches of language in it. I loved them, too, still do, and have been re-reading the novel the last few days since I found it online.

The river picture? That's the Juniata River in central Pennsylvania. My dad swam in it, waded in it, fished in it -- it was a part of his life when he was young, not as a sportsman, but as a youth for whom the river was part of the medium of life.

The older I get, the more things I wish that I could talk about with him. I dream about him now and then, and I'm always madly happy to see him when I do.

No tears here ... just a big grin remembering him.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Hola, Coyote!

Yesterday I accompanied Kathy the Mad Horsewoman to her English riding lesson. I listen to her lesson, and the instructor's voice helps me to remember what I learned long ago, and have more or less forgotten over the years.

Dink and I mostly go out alone these days. No one else at the ranch rides when we do, and that's okay. He and I know what we're doing with each other; it's a kind of riding partnership. But after so many years, we're both so comfortable with ambling along in the orchards that both of us are out of shape.

Kathy the Mad's instructor was talking about physical condition, saying that no other exercise exercises all the muscle groups at the same time like riding does. Wow, I thought, she's right.

Lower legs, thighs, back, abdomen, shoulders, arms -- if you ride properly, all of them are engaged, and you can't just Zen out while doing it -- riding a 1000-pound animal whose brain is the size of a walnut and whose main survival skill is to buck and run, why,  you need to keep your wits about you.

My goal this morning was to ride properly, making use of all those muscle groups, instead of just sitting on the stinky Dink and floating along. We were only a about 50 yards out on the road when we met the first challenge that required that proper ride: three yapping little dogs from a neighboring ranch decided to give chase.

These dogs have been troubling one of the other riders out at the ranch, and you know, seeing other people afraid just makes me crazy. I turned Dink around and started walking back along the road, giving the dogs an added impetus to rush us. When the closest yapper was about to set foot on the road, I sat deep and forward (like if you were riding a crotch-rocket motorcycle) and sent Dink after the dog. He started forward in a lunge, and that damn dog ran back out into the field with his little tail between his legs.

We had to stop -- charging through a planted field is a big no-no.

Back to the ride. We turned off the usual route to see where the other rider had been exiting the orchard road, putting herself in those dogs' reach. In among the trees, I saw another canid shape -- coyote! Once again, I used good rider muscles to urge Dink forward at a faster pace. We caught up, and saw the coyote slink away into the trees. I found where Ms. Rider had made her passage: naughty, naughty, she has been cutting across the corner of the farmer's field.

Back to the ride again, and we spotted our coyote trotting a little ahead of us, to the right about three lanes into the orchard. We followed at a brisk walk.

Then the reward of the day: the coyote stopped and waited between the rows of trees to have a good look at us. I stopped Dink and turned him to face the coyote.

For a long minute, we looked at each other. "Hola, Coyote," I said, and admired his huge ears and richly bushy tail. A few seconds more, and then Coyote went on his way. We followed, and finished our ride.

Tonight, I can feel that I exercised all those muscle groups, and Kathy the Mad's instructor is right -- it is better than going to a gym.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Little Things

Just for the record, the folks at Google have new and improved Blogger past my comfort zone. I'm just a blogger, no big deal -- but I shouldn't have to go into and edit HTML every fucking time I save a blog draft.

At this time, I cannot make the photo appear at the upper left corner of the blog. That's just ridiculous, because I've done so for just about every picture that has ever appeared in this blog.

Ah, there, I did it, but only by adding a space after I'd typed a few paragraphs. It shouldn't have to be that difficult.

The picture is of a weed called "speedwell." Its blue and white flowers are no more than 3/8 of an inch across. Prolific and widespread, it can make a lovely little free-hanging plant in a planter, or it can take over your garden in a matter of days. I love it, and I also mercilessly remove it from the vegetable plantings.

Commas are little things, too. But unlike speedwell, it seems that some modern writers have forgotten that commas need to separate clauses in compound sentences; they have forgotten that the eye as well as the ear needs to take a break while assimilating information in a story. Most of what I edit in the Piker Press is addition of commas.

I just finished editing a manuscript for an aspiring writer. Almost on every page, I marked up where commas were needed in compound sentences. Bottom line: if you don't want to use commas, break up your long sentences into shorter ones. Think about what you want to say in a paragraph before you write it ... or go back and re-think it after you do. Use the damn comma key, it's not that hard to find with your fingers. Mutter your sentences aloud as you write, and wherever you need to stop and take a breath, or pause to see if your audience hears you, add punctuation.

Yes, some writers can get away with run-on sentences and lack of punctuation, I do agree to that. But most can't.

Here's another little thing: Lillian was at a party this afternoon. At some point, she went to the hostess and asked if she could help in setting out noshes and napkins and things for the guests. The hostess was stunned, and called the congregation of party-ers to note Lil's little offer to help.

Add your commas to your sentences, and teach your kids how to be polite.

Little things mean a lot.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Howie the Wowie

Yesterday the swelling on Howie's jaw was worse, so much so that we called the vet and asked if she wanted us to bring him in for an x-ray. The vet didn't get back to us until this morning, by which time the swelling had amazingly reduced, and Howie was able to almost get out a full yawn to say "Good morning." (He yawns and vocalizes, saying "Haaoww" -- almost certainly why the workers at Delta Humane Shelter named him "Howie.")

Today Bernie spoke with the vet (I was out exercising the horse) and they decided to have him in for an x-ray next Wednesday if the lump is still there. In the meantime, Howie is tolerating the anti-inflammatory pills and the antibiotics very well; indeed, he got the crazies and galloped all over the house, roaring and leaping like a maniac when we returned from an outing with friends this evening. We think that tomorrow, in all likelihood, we'll take him for a gentle run and let him blow off some of the nasties that being out of sorts brings.

The vet says that if he's still got the swelling, they'll do the x-ray, and if it is a tooth problem, they'll just go ahead and do it while he's knocked out. She doesn't think it is, though. We'll see. Howie let me run a gentle finger back to his last teeth on the other side of his mouth yesterday; I think a little bit of cheddar cheese training might convince him to allow me to feel the sore side of his mouth tomorrow afternoon. He was too ouchy to allow a full examination on Monday at the vet's.

Anita Zifer is a fantastic vet, btw. She has a confidence about her that envelops our dogs and puts them at ease. I was first impressed with her when she did an exam on Babe, our beloved German shepherd, handling him with care and delight, and referring to him as "my little man." She was firm and steady with him, and he knew that she respected him and meant him no harm. With Howie, who has a far more timid spirit, she was patient and nurturing and understanding. She even sat on the floor to do his exam, putting herself at his eye height. He growled at her a little when she looked in his ears and stuck a finger in his lips, but not so much. I was impressed at her bravery.

Currently Howie is pressed up against the bed, asleep, as Bernie is sprawled, asleep. Both of them look hugely comfortable, and so I think it is time for me to snug in as well.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011


 It was a dark and dreary day.

20 degrees below normal.

It rained yesterday.

It rained last night.

It's going to rain again this evening.

It was so chilly in the house that Sebastian wouldn't lie on the floor. He curled up in Bernie's chair and went back to bed.

And so did Howie.

PS. Howie let me examine his gums -- not a sign on swelling or tenderness. Who knows? I'm just glad he's okay.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Howie Update

Today I had to search to find the lump site on Howie's jaw, so that's pretty good news, I think.

He's back to yawning widely, as well as stealing Sebastian's favorite stick and tearing it to bits. He also gave Sebastian a sound beating today, able to grab Sebastian by the neck or elbow and pretend to bite him savagely.

His energy level is terrific. Yesterday we took the dogs for a walk by the orchards, and to everyone's delight, the orchards were getting water. The sound of gushing water coming up from the great valves made the dogs crazy, and they splashed and ran from one irrigation inlet to the next, grinning as happy dogs ought.

Seeing how well Howie was able to crunch on Sebastian's stick today leads me to believe he doesn't really need to be eating canned food twice a day. Tomorrow, if all is still well, I'll begin the transition back to his own food, though I'll probably soak it to make it easy on him for a while. I think I'll keep on feeding him the extra meal at midday, though. We're heading into swimming season and he'll need the extra calories.

Storm Chasing

There is a spot out the road where the sky is wide, and this is where we go to view weather.

Bernie woke me one night and dragged me here in the car to watch an amazing sight -- a dry lightning storm fracturing the darkness with bolt after bolt onto the distant Altamont Mountain Range. Today we were curious about what the sky would hold, as the early morning forecast was for showers, thundershowers, funnel clouds and possible tornadoes!

There was no doubt at all that the sky was unsettled; we could see isolated showers to the left and to the right. However, the only really freakish thing about the weather was that it was January weather in mid-May.

We went to Mass last night so that we could stay home and watch the craziness. I even declared today a junk food day so that we wouldn't have to be distracted from oohing and aahing at the dangerous clouds, the laundry room ready to shelter us if a tornado did decide to show up.

Well, we had some interesting clouds ... and one soaking rain shower JUST when I had decided to pick some alstromeria and clean up their stems outside, but other than that, we've had sun, and the forecasters are all looking sideways pretending not to have predicted a disaster.

The junk food was delicious -- homemade chicken wings, sliced summer sausage, Irish extra sharp cheddar cheese, cold shrimp, green olives, pizza, strawberries ...

And now the freak weather can take a hike. It's time for us to leave January behind and find California sunshine waiting for us every day until say, the end of October.

Monday, May 09, 2011

Waning Years

Yesterday when I crawled out of bed, Howie came to me for his morning smoochies.

A lump had come up on his right lower jaw, and when he tried to say his trademark sound, "HOWwww" -- he couldn't. I tried to have a look down his throat, but he couldn't stand having his jaws opened.

Aside: I've taught all my dogs to allow me to open their jaws to a wide angle, so that I can check their throats or give them pills as necessary. At the cue of me grasping their muzzles, they would open wide, anticipating a treat after their cooperation.

The lump swelled for a few hours, then subsided at the end of the day; Howie ate his food comfortably, though he did have some reluctant effort with a crunchy bread crust that I gave him as a treat.

This morning there was edema under his jaw, so I took him to the vet.

Like most medical concerns I've had in my life, for myself and my animals, it was: Answer hazy, ask again later.

Howie is on antibiotics and an anti-inflammatory pain-killer (and such is the advance of veterinary medicine that there is no trauma in giving them to him) ... if that clears things up, great. If not, well, he'll need an X-ray to see what is happening in his jaw and a biopsy.

He's chowing down his food like a real dog, drinking well, and is spritely in his movement, so I guess I shouldn't be too worried. But of course I am, as he's the best dog I've ever had. He's my How. I don't want to say good-bye to him just yet.

I took his picture (above) with a usual photographer's glitch: he had just blinked.

Saturday, May 07, 2011

Ock, Ook, Why Wind?

The wind is back.

It was chilly enough today that when we went out to the store, I wore an undershirt beneath a flannel shirt, and long jeans.

The sky looks like trouble, and the sound of the wind in the trees is somehow chilling.

It's not that cold, but it sure doesn't feel like Spring.

Friday, May 06, 2011

Shadows Are Only There Because Light Was There First

Standing in the kitchen this morning, waiting for my rotini to finish cooking, I looked out the back door and saw Bernie sitting on the patio, his legs on one of the footstools I made this past year, his hands gracefully wrapped around his Bible, a blue scrub jay standing in his lap.

The morning was so sweetly quiet, without the thrash of horrid winds or the intrusive blare of lawn equipment. There were the sounds of birds, and of the click and bubble of macaroni salad being prepared for the afternoon meal.

My husband was near at hand, his face glowing with peace, communing with the Word of God and nature.

There is no amount of money that can buy the richness of joy that I felt watching him, knowing he would be here all day, knowing that he wasn't going to have to risk his life and our happiness in that damnable Mad Max melee of his former commute to the Bay Area.

We believe we have the monies available to live comfortably into our 80's without us having to take a crack at re-employment. Probably we have enough to live austerely into our 90's. Wow. Real retirement is really here.

I'm glad he's home for good. There was not a single day in 36 years that I wished he would get his ass off to work and get out of my hair. NOT ONE.

The only darkness that whispers evil in my ear is the voice that says, "What about health insurance? You can't afford much any more ... you are going to die if you don't have health insurance!"

An icy dagger stabs at me. I'm going to die if I don't have health insurance! This is when I realize that against my rational will, against my determination not to become a witless consumer led by the nose by advertising, I have indeed been indoctrinated by this media society to believe that Blue Cross, Health Net, Kaiser Permanente, whatever -- will make me immortal and I won't die.

It's not that I'm against health insurance intellectually; it was a great idea for two barely-twenty-somethings back in the day when health insurance was affordable. But now -- good Lord, the premiums are obscene! One month's health insurance = three months of groceries for the whole family.

In spite of the commercials and the hype, none of those health insurances mean that I won't drop dead in my tracks tonight, or tomorrow, or next week, or five years from now. It's a gambling game, not a guarantee. And if there's one thing that has been a tenet of my whole life, it is that I will never bet on anything but a sure thing.

Here's the sure thing: I am not immortal; I am going to die. I can bet on that.

What do I have to ante up to win that bet? Why, nothing at all.

If that is a darkness in my life, I have to remember the God Who illuminates each day, and Who promises that the life after this one will be even better. I have to remember that this life is practically an illusion of Life.

The shadows must remind me that the Light was there first, and that when all shadows are gone, the Light will still be endless.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Come Home, California!

Perfect, perfect, perfect.

That was today's blissful real California weather. After church, Bernie and I sat in the sun long enough to garner teeny sunburns, waded in the still-icy pool, sputtered when our backs touched the suddenly hot cushions of our patio chairs. Yes. That is how it should be ... well, mostly, as we should have been able to dunk briefly in the swimming pool to cool off.

Most of the icebergs have disappeared.

Also wonderful is that we're nearing the end of the citrus bloom, which will help my sinuses immensely. This lemon blossom caught my eye today, because of its star-like perfection.

Oh, I want these perfect days to run on until the end of October.

So nice to be warm again ...