A little surprise of a visitor

It’s November and I’m working away on my nanowrimo novel, but of course other matters abound and distract. I’ve been involved with political and local issues, digging up and manuring the rows I want to plant lima beans and peas in, starting the cauliflower and broccoli seedlings, transplanting baby leeks… and what turns up? A tiny wonderful bird. I’ve never seen a ruby-crowned kinglet so unmistakably clear before, the brilliant tiny splotch of red like an extravagant punctuation on the back of his elegant head. A fast sketch later and now I need to go out and soak those lima beans for planting.

ruby-crowned kinglet btr


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Nanowrimo is here!

What?‘ you say– ‘how is that pronounced and is it something really really small… and give me a definition, please.

No, this nano doesn’t mean something tiny. Quite the opposite. It’s national novel writing month, during which people who sign on, aspire to produce anything over 50,000 words of a narrative between a minute after midnight on November 1 and midnight of November 30th. That comes out to approximately 1,667 words a day.

Now you notice I wrote “a narrative”. That can be complicated. I started on the novel I thought I’d write on the first day and made about 980 words. Guess what? Wrong novel. That wasn’t the one I was ready to write. So on day two, I erased my word count and began again, hitting something over 3,000 words on that second day. It’s a good sign I could start running like that, but as all nanowrimo folk know, it’s no guarantee. Yesterday I had other things to do, but still managed over 3,000 words in the roughly four hours I had for writing. Today it’s 10:50AM and I’ve only created 228 words. Aaargh!

Wish me luck, please. My working title is Living with the Enemy and here’s the synopsis and my patch cover.

What does a twelve year old girl in So Cal want? To belong to the right group, have a safe home, feel accepted. Wynn has one of these taken from her when her parents split, and the other two threatened when she’s farmed out part-time to the wrong people. Staying week-nights at Juniper’s house isn’t on her list of reasonable choices. That family eats weird food, reads too many books, plus, they don’t have cable.

 You have to avoid differences in sixth grade, you need to have the right sandwich bread in your lunch, the correct brand of sneakers, watch the popular shows. Wynn knows that, even if Juniper’s parents don’t. Then the TV screen at school on a Tuesday morning shows smoke pluming from two towers in New York on September eleventh. The United States of America has been invaded, our tolerance for differences will never be the same.

Behind the warm cookies and fat black cat at Juniper’s house lie secrets. Hidden visitors move in the hallway, doors and windows open and close to conceal something… or someone? Why does Juniper’s mother work late on a computer whose screen displays elaborate non-American words– and why does she change that screen every time Wynn happens to come in? Is Wynn living with terrorists planning the next attack? For the kids at school there are sides to choose and dramas to feed, with consequences they cannot even imagine. For the girl who can’t go home, there’s no way out of this dark puzzle, except through. One step at a time.

our gate 893



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Emergency Response and CERT


Here’s my graduating class in CERT.

With the fires raging in Northern California and the other recent natural disasters that have affected and afflicted countless people , I hear the questioning rising. Why wasn’t there more help given faster? Why didn’t notifications work better? Whose responsibility are these matters and what do we have a government for, if it has no role in on-the-ground protection of the citizens?

There’s an old tradition lodged in the minds of many Americans, that somehow the organized governmental agencies and their hierarchical structures are somehow less valid and less effective than the Minuteman approach. I think I still hear echoes of this. We certainly hear heart-warning stories mixed in among the tragedies, about untrained souls who rise to the challenge of disaster and save not only themselves but neighbors, or strangers. Wonderful stories to lift us a little in the midst of destruction, suffering and loss.

But what we come back to is that the structures do have a place, the organized, governmental agencies are life-saving. The firefighters who had to spend their time assisting evacuees instead of fighting the fires are to be praised, even if we can also wonder, why wasn’t there another group, more professionals whose job it might be to evacuate while the fire fighters fight flames. We can go in to the economic issues at the heart of this balance, or imbalance, but that’s not where I mean to go right now.

Clearly the systems of notification and spreading the alarm at need aren’t fast enough, or clear enough. Would that we had better tie-ins to satellite imagery so that evacuees don’t get mistaken directions about how to flee. A lot of us have signed up for the local alarms to be sent to our phones, which is a great first step. But what about, as in this case for so much of Santa Rosa, it’s night time and our phones are silenced into sleep mode, or actually turned off? What if we have taken a sleep aid to gain some restful sleep, a dose that will leave us slumbering? Then we depend upon our neighbors, and the night owl who had insomnia and checked her or his phone and read the first outburst of warnings.

I know from anecdotes gleaned from some of our past local fires, that what we expect of government agencies, police, firefighters, and such is often not what they are capable of doing. They cannot reach into every home simultaneously and snatch us to safety. A lot of our alerting system functions by luck.

Could this be addressed? Are there places where a siren should be mounted for such extreme alarms to be sounded? Perhaps. This may be a question for neighborhoods and townships, especially as our global climate shifts and displays a brutal temper.

But there are some ways to be prepared, there’s information to be gained and employed, that can at least train you how to be a part of the response, not the problem. What we sometimes forget in our Minuteman zeal is that when professionals are present, part of our best action is to stay out of the way. Too passive a reaction? Then may I suggest CERT training?

About a year ago I heard of an opportunity to take the free CERT course at the nearby University. I signed up and showed up and spent the next few days being informed, learning how to work as a team with strangers, and learning a good deal of humility.

Let’s be honest, I consider myself quick to think, adept at adapting, fairly bossy and pre-apted for command. (Yes, immodest too.) But the lessons put me in a different frame of mind, and made me, I hope, a far better team player, willing to shift my ground to fit what the larger need demands, and what my associates request.

Plus, I had a great time. This class with all of its lessons was fun. The other students had such different backgrounds and strengths. I had to change and think and learn, and we all made mistakes. Some of our mistakes killed imaginary people. Just like a war game, or a computer game– remember the companion cube? Anyway. let me recommend this exercise and the CERT experience. At the end of the day, you will have a better sense of what others can do for you and what you can do for them, and when you are the civilian running for help, you’ll have a far better concept of what help you can hope for, and how to ask in the most clear and speedy fashion. Plus you will also know what kinds of things you may have to fix yourself, so you waste no time waiting for a helping hand.

Even if you have some disability, or like me, are entering the ranks of senior citizens, knowledge is a weapon, a language, a map for your road.

At the end of a bad day, maybe we all need to be ready to be Minutemen.

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a scrap of paper

I’m supposed to be prepping for our next department party scheduled for this coming Saturday, so of course, every distraction is a delight. Isn’t it so often true that as soon as an ‘assignment’ looms, other things rise in interest and significance?

I picked up a scrap of paper, my handwriting. Worn, slightly discolored by time around the edges. Part of a map of Isla Vista on it, and a note. This is what the writing says:

“Oh she’s a murderer, all right. Do you fancy I don’t know my own flesh and blood? She killed him, I know it as though I saw it all. Because to see the beginning is to see the end.

What was I imagining when I scribbled that? Probably an entire novel. Problem is, it sounds too familiar, as though I’ve read such a novel already, where the protagonist/observer makes lots of such comments as the tale unfolds. The voice makes me think of Leslie Ford, who has such a friendly knowing tone and invitation to engage. So I think I probably have looked at this note before and thought– no, don’t go there. It’s a cliche, it’s been done. You don’t want to shadow another writer.

Then, because today is full of the prompts that only procrastination fuels so well, I start speculating. What if we use this voice, this friendly slightly irreverent knowing voice, and put it into a science fiction novel about a murder that is prompted by the genetic programming of a particular lineage in some alien species? Use the notion but give it new legs? Maybe about twenty legs and compound eyes? What are the instinctive prompts that would not be common knowledge in a mixed culture of various species from different worlds, but could be interpreted and understood by an individual sharing a common blood? And what if the entire opening speech here is a deception on the part of the narrator, to protect the real culprit, an assassin who might even be itself/herself/himself/theirselves?

Procrastination is such fun. Back to the kitchen and the crusts of ten pies….

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Every Time I see Your Face

Every time I see your face… I heard Ringo Starr singing this yesterday in the grocery store (all right, it was a recording on the speaker; he wasn’t really there singing in the aisle to the whole-grain spaghetti….) I woke with it in my head, and I keep hearing it.

Beyond an easy tune, with a set of memories triggered, as so often happens with the soundtracks of our lives, I find myself wondering. He and George Harrison wrote the lyrics one way, and it seems clear Ringo sang about a lost love. But there are so many lost loves in all our lives. Is it telling that now in my sixties, I find myself yearning over this with thoughts of my parents? Thinking of walks in the late summer woods of New Hampshire on almost forgotten paths my father recalled from his father’s footsteps, with the maidens hair fern and the old brown ghosts of past lady slipper leaves, barely visible if you know what to look for? In my mind I find myself walking on warm night roads with my mother, daring the amazing depth of an African moonless dark, with only the shimmering glory of stars for light. You can tell me that we shouldn’t have done that, given the danger of snakes, but we did, and it was magic and I’m here to tell you about it.

But all I’ve got is a photograph...and what photograph can ever tell anything? Like a song it’s just a fragment of the riches of our lives, a trigger for the tenderness of our pasts.

A friend wrote to me the other day: The truth is, most of us receive much more attention, encouragement and love than we merit, or even notice. It’s with maturity that that realization comes, if it comes at all. So many of our contemporaries seem to be on a treadmill of earning money to educate children to maintain social status, etc., that they cannot even stop to admire a rainbow, or ask news of a friend in the same town, or spend an hour or two with an elderly person whose kindness enhanced their lives at some point.

 Years ago, Barbara Bush declared at a commencement address at Barnard College: “You’re bright, well-educated, ambitious, and you’re determined to succeed in your careers. Just don’t forget that at the end of your lives, what will count for you, is those you have loved.” — Those words created a scandal, and many rued having invited a housewife, be she a First Lady, to speak at such an occasion. They make sense to me, however, as does the first tenet of Jewish faith (according to one of our classmates, to whom I admitted my Presbyterian ignorance of Judaism): leave the world a better place.

In a wonderful way my friend’s letter is an invitation to live, and live well. I take it personally, I needed that. It is so easy to become trammeled about with anxieties and worries that in the long run fade, or were never one’s personal business to be offended by or fraught over. I’m not arguing for indifference, for political passivity, but I am thinking that cultivating your own garden is necessary before you can offer vegetables to your neighbors.(You should see the basket of eggplant I just harvested!)

Sept gathering smaller

How does this go with walks by night or in the New Hampshire woods? The point is this– all these generosities made us. Time spent, often quietly– shared time. The point is gifts given freely to allow us to live. These are messages from the dead to the living, from experience to youth. Pick up your bent photograph with its tattered edge, and remember, and in remembering make it real. Step out, go, give, share, even the silence.

I have often thought that our job is not to listen for God’s words, but for his silences. Walking together, we live forever under this holy sky.


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Of Blood Pressure Reduction and the Opposite

So we want life. Long life. The cardiologist says low blood pressure is the key to life, life ongoing, possibly everlasting Man, you can’t get enough of the stuff. More is better. So you take the drugs that will lower your blood pressure and you do all the things, You decrease the high and low points of your existence, you temper everything, you lose weight, and you go in obediently to the end of the year to your doctor, and hope that your drugs and exercise and diet have lowered all the excesses of your genetics and your vibrant sins so that maybe… you might live forever with no stroke, no heart attack… with lower blood pressure.

And tell me what does it serve a man that he gain the world and lose his soul?

Think what happens when you attain an orgasm. Do you fancy this is a freebie?…


Think what happens in that magic of moment when you are lecturing and you see the spark light in student’s eyes and you know you have infected them with that wonder, that joy of knowledge shared. Think of that instant when the brush in your hand makes the perfect movement and lays down a line of living paint that will vibrate in human brains forever. Consider striking the key on a piano that sounds a timing and an emphasis beyond planning– that alchemy of performance that can never be bettered. Turn upon the stage and speak words in evocative inflection, knowing in that instant that no one ever shall do it just so again. Spring from your computer in the recognition of an equation completed that has never been completed before.

And die.

Because all of these attainments break the placid expectation of what is “good” for us. They give us high blood pressure, and we love it. It kicks our asses. This is a drug beyond regulation or reasoned application.

This may kill us, but it’s why we live.


Filed under family history, health, medicine, science

Moments of Time Travel


This summer the air has hung heavy, in a way I’ve rarely sensed in Southern California. Humid, so the scent of sawdust and mown grass, of horse manure and last night’s skunk children playing about under my walk lights, all meet me in the morning.

These let the past slip into my perception, so that for minutes at a time, I’m not here at all. Time travel, spatial travel, all feel as though they really happen even though I stand here in my front yard by orange trees.

I can see back to New Hampshire, 1972, the morning light on stray horses in our back garden, long grass verges drooping with dew and the occasional sparkle as a drop catches the early summer sun warming into gold. A breath later and I’m in 1974, walking a forest path with the dusty fugg of wild mushrooms rising from the paper bag in my hand. Stop, kneel in the oak duff and dust back the leaves to expose the solemn pink of a hydnum with its little hedgehog spines instead of gills under the cap.

I’ve hear it said that time travel is best invoked by smell. Could be. But perhaps it has to do with having a moment to pause, without the dog barking alarms, without our cats calling for food or the chickens squawking disarray and destruction, maybe it’s the right sound that performs an incantation. Marvelous brains that can give us such gifts, or curse us with them.


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