Wednesday, November 12, 2008

America the Beautiful

Free At Last

All those years I marched for civil rights finally came to fruition in our new president, Barak Obama. I look past the color of his skin and see a man of principle, a man who has ethics and holds values similar to mine: a man who remained calm while the Republicans did their best to play their usual dirty tricks; a man who took a day off and flew 6,000 miles to visit the woman who raised him; a man who made sure his grandmother got to see her great grandchildren last summer. (surely the family must have known that she was terminal at that point) That, to me, said way more than any political stance he has taken—although I agree with most of those too.
A few weeks ago one of my ESL night students asked me who I was going to vote for and I replied that, as a teacher, I choose not to bring my political opinions in the classroom (I admit that my values come to the forefront at times, but if our current president, George W. What’s-His-Name does not uphold those values, then it is a blot on his name, not my value system) I told her, “I’ll tell you after class—out in the hall—as a private citizen, but not while I’m behind the desk in the roll of a teacher.” She understood, dropped it for the rest of class, and then cornered me as soon as I walked out the door. “I’ve already voted absentee,” I said. “For Obama.” She smiled and seemed satisfied.
I love the way I found out the results of the election. I was in the classroom that Tuesday night, as usual. It was around 9:00, Pacific Standard Time. Although I ask the students to turn off their cell phones, I allow the parents in my class to keep their phones on vibrate in case of a family emergency, so I didn’t think much about it when this same woman had her cell phone on her desk. It vibrated, she checked it, then stopped the class to announce, “Obama just won! He got 2,700 votes in that special thing.” I said, “Oh, he received 270 electoral college votes?” “Yeah, that’s it!” So, I found out the next President of the United States from a woman who may or may not be a legal immigrant of this country, she being a transplant to California from our neighbors to the south.
The next day I got a congratulatory note from a former student who has been home in Japan for over a year. She was an ESL student of mine at the University of Hawaii several years ago and went on to get her associates degree in business while her visa was valid. She said,
Congratulations, Marilyn ! I am very happy to hear that Mr. Obama
will become next President of United States. We saw the historical
moment , and you are the one of them who made this history. After
I hard that his wining, I felt the air is lighter. Japanese TV news
showed us the wining speech of Mr. Obama at Chicago a little bit.
I moved it. He is amazing! And I am glad that you did not dust off
your passport.

I just want to say thank you to you, Marilyn. Thank you for teaching
me English. I am so glad that I could understand his speech today.
Thank you for having me as your student of your American History
class in Hawaii. Because you taught me about the history of race
discrimination with open mind, I could share the delight with people
like you, today, even though, I grow up in Japan.

Between the two women, I really felt an international connection—like my daily rounds as a teacher carried farther than just jumping through the next academic hoop; that I had made a difference in some people’s lives other than passing the next test. The international connection came to fruition—that we all share this earth together, and what affects one affects us all.
For a couple of days after the election, I, like many of my friends, said they found themselves shedding tears—of joy, of relief, of feeling like the steam had been let off the top of the pressure cooker of this country. The night I heard of the election results in my classroom, I was able to hold in the tears for half an hour in front of the class, but on the way to the parking lot they rolled down my cheeks and I cried the whole 45-mile drive home. The next day I found myself thinking about the results of the election at odd moments during the day; upon arising the air felt lighter, the sun shone brighter, the clouds skittered lightly across the sky. When I got home from work on Wednesday I sat down to eat my lunch and turned on the TV and happened to catch a newscast of the election results. They showed the clip of Jesse Jackson with tears streaming down his face. Having marched with Jackson and Dick Gregory in the ‘60’s, the relief in his eyes and the tears streaming down his cheeks started me crying all over again.
The day after the election, my landlord put up the American flag out on the fence, next to her Obama/ Biden poster. She said she was finally not ashamed to put up the American flag anymore—that she was proud of her country again. Sad state of affairs, isn’t it? That Americans had become so jaded and ashamed of their country that they would not hang out the national symbol. I knew exactly how she felt. I still cannot sing the Star Spangled Banner—too much violence in it, but America, the Beautiful takes on a whole new meaning again.
As I was driving on the back road to Santa Paula to work the day after the election, I saw a piece of plywood painted red nailed to the fence. I had my eyes on the road, so only caught the last word of the short message, which had been stenciled in big white letters: Socialist. I thought, “Uh oh. Not everyone was thrilled with the results of the election. I won’t jump to conclusions, but will drive slower and look for the sign when I go to work on Tuesday. Unfortunately, it was near the gardens of the best Italian restaurant in town. Oh well. I know how to cook spaghetti sauce…

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Goddess' Avenue of Trees

Shawna, Queen of the Tree Tops

It seems, once again in my life, a black cat has adopted me. When I moved into Live Oak Cottage, the landlady told me I might expect a visitor. “Her name is Shawna, Queen of the Tree Tops,” she said. “She doesn’t come down to the ground much—she mostly lives in the trees. She is feral, but friendly. She won’t come in the house, and you’ll probably never be able to pet her, but she’ll come around outside.”

I moved in about a month ago--on a Saturday. The next morning as I was making coffee in the kitchen, I looked out the window and saw a black cat on the landlady’s roof. Figuring that must be the famed Shawna, I went to the door, stood on the front stoop and presented myself. She halted and watched me intently. I spoke softly—she wouldn’t have been able to hear from that distance, but I figured her spirit would understand—“I’m the new person who moved into the cottage. You may come to visit any time you like.” I let her take a good look at me and then went back in the house, watching her from the kitchen window. She ambled along the roof-line, sniffing at cedar shakes as she went. Just as I was pouring myself a cup of coffee and doctoring it with milk, I heard a tapping at the door. Figuring it must be the landlady, I went to the door and looked out the screen. No one. I looked down and there was Shawna. She had put her paw on the door and pressed the door against the jam—her way of politely knocking. I opened the screen. She hesitated for a moment and then came in. Since I had the milk out (and nothing else to offer a guest), I poured a little milk in a bowl and set it on the rug in front of the sink. She accepted my humble offering graciously, as is her way. After she lapped up the milk, she took a tour of the house, sniffing around the piles of boxes. I was busy and kind of ignored her, figuring she’d complete her tour and let herself out the open French doors in the bedroom. Instead, when she was satisfied she’d inspected the premises, she meowed and stood by the screen at the front door. Before I let her out, I picked her up and held her, thanked her for coming and invited her to come back again.

I went back to the business of unpacking and forgot about her. Twenty minutes later I heard the unmistakable gravely “meow” of a tomcat and peeked out the screen. There sat Shawna. She meowed once, my introduction to her gray and white sidekick, Phil. I opened the door and they both came in, Shawna leading Phil to the sink area. Phil meowed and the meaning was clear, “I’ve come for my milk.” I poured him a splash of milk, which he devoured while Shawna sat quietly in the middle of the kitchen floor. After he finished his treat, she took him on a tour of the boxes. I stopped what I was doing and followed them around the cottage, almost able to hear their conversation. “…And this is the couch—it goes here, and the chair… in here is the bedroom, Phil.” Again, I thought they would just march out the bedroom doors when they were done, but no. Shawna has a strong sense of manners and decorum. She brought Phil to the screen door again and asked to be let out. They were guests and they would leave the way they came, thank you very much.

Since then, Shawna has been a regular visitor at the cottage; Phil less so, but then Phil is old and feeble. The landlady, Barbara, said he was very ill last year and barely made it. He used to be the tom of the neighborhood, taking on all comers. Now he is an old man, skinny, frail, and a little on the grumpy side. Phil comes over when he feels like it, but won’t come in the house anymore. He prefers his treats on the porch—a few crunchies with his milk.

The other cat that claimed Live Oak Cottage as part of his territory was the neighbor’s orange tom. I would see him come through on his morning rounds when I would be sitting at my desk writing in the morning before work. Last Saturday, as I slept in, a coyote made a visit to the estate, boldly trotting up the lane and nabbing the orange tom right off Barbara’s porch. She had just come downstairs and was in the kitchen when she heard the tom yelp. She ran out, waving her housecoat to scare the coyote. Tiny Barbara must have stirred up quite a ruckus because the coyote dropped the cat and trotted away. She scooped up the terrified cat up, coyote drool dripping from its neck, wrapped it in a towel, and marched down the lane to take him to his owner. As she got to Foothills Road, the coyote was sitting across the street, waiting. She stared it down, hoping that she wouldn’t be attacked as she turned her back on it to go up the road to the neighbor’s driveway. She delivered the cat and came back down Foothills, then turned and headed down the lane. She felt, rather than heard, something behind her and looked over her shoulder. There was the coyote, following her up the driveway.

As I sit here this morning, Shawna rests on the braided rug at my feet after having had her morning crunchies and splash of milk. She slept in the house for the second night last night, gracing the overstuffed chair that Barbara left. Knowing how incredibly "street smart" she is, I figure that she's decided domesticity trumps feral, live trumps coyote lunch, and she's made herself at home.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Author's Mask

Volunteering at the Writer's Conference

I show up early the morning I am to volunteer for Agents and Editors day at the writer's conference. This is the way it works: people pay $35 a pop in order to pitch their story to an agent for 10 minutes.
Tables for two are set up in the back half of a cavernous room at the hotel--five rows with four agents per row. (the other half of the room still has rows of chairs set up for the evening lecture--sorta funky, right--a less than professional setting when you consider the cost of a hard-back book). Is it noisy in there? You bet. Are people nervous? Is the Pope… Do bears…

I must digress and say that I do understand the nervousness of the writers--I really do. At my first writer's conference I studied the agents carefully, picked two that I thought were just right for me, forked over my hard-earned money, and stood in line. However, one of the agents I had signed up for was unable to attend at the last minute due to a family emergency. A well-meaning volunteer (with strict orders not to refund money) placed me with another agent. I sat down across the table from the agent du jour, smiled, made eye contact and held it--precisely as I had been taught--and began my well-rehearsed pitch.
The agent listen briefly, then narrowed her eyes and squinted at me in a manner that suggested she thought I'd just landed my space ship on the lawn, bolted up the stairs, and plopped down at her table.
Her attitude was disconcerting, to say the least, but I continued on.
Finally she had the wherewithal to stop me and ask, "Are you pitching a novel?"
I nodded. I must be doing something right, I thought, for she had perceived the nature of my efforts.
"I don't handle novels. My company sells craft books. Do you knit?"
So I must confess that experience toughed my tender writer's skin. In hindsight, I can laugh--the Writing Gods gave me a quick lesson in not taking this writer/ agent thing too seriously. I learned not to stake my life behind the pen on success at the agent's table.

This year at the writer's conference there seemed to be agreement among the heads of the committees that everything be done at the last possible second, thereby adding even more stress to an already stressful situation.. The first order of business that day was to get the agents placards on the tables in alphabetical order. The head of the committee grabbed said placards and ran up and down the aisles, placing the signs thus:
Our job, then, was to inform the "boss" that she was thinking too far outside the box--that this was not a matter that required creative thinking, but one of logical order. Hoping that she was remotely familiar with the alphabet, I suggested the tables be arranged thusly:
Someone shoved a pile of papers in my hand and said, "Put these on the agent's tables."
"OK," I said and began my assigned task.
In the meantime, the agents (having flown in from New York on the red eye) arrived, One agent, her luggage trailing behind her like a comet, asked for the most direct route to the bathroom so she could freshen up. Others buzzed to the coffee pot. Only after their physical needs were met were they willing to look at their sign-up lists, scanning down the list to see what time they could cut out early for a round of golf or shopping on State Street.
Because I have done this sort of work before, I made sure that the piece of paper I was putting down matched the name on the placard. I was going along fine--until I got to "S." Thank God it was in the last row that the alphabet disintegrated. Every file clerk knows S-A comes before S-I. The S-A agent (the one with the luggage) had parked it beside her table and was in the john. Thinking I was helping out, I wheeled her luggage to her new table at the head of her row, instead of the middle. The poor agent, usually quite on top of things, came back to "her" table and threw a fit because she thought her luggage had been swiped. I got her settled down at her new table and pointed out that she was no longer at the mercy of the airlines, assuring her we were there to assist her in any way possible.
Oh yes, one other glitch in the system: two glitches actually. Six popular agents had cancelled before the conference, thereby disappointing those who had signed up on-line. Who knows why they elected not to show: previous commitments, not worth the increased airfare? There was never any explanation that passed my ears, but at least we knew they would not be present and the sign up sheet had been adjusted accordingly a couple of days earlier. What we didn't know until the last minute was that one agent was not coming. She represented literary fiction, and therefore her docket was full. Her husband, an attorney, had arrived, however.
"I told you I wasn't going to Santa Barbara," I heard as he held the cell phone away from his ear when he grabbed a cup of coffee. I mulled over the apparent lack of communication in that marriage… What was the poor guy to do? By default, he was forced to agree to see the people that had signed up to pitch to his wife. He leaned his golf clubs against a chair, thereby throwing away a perfectly beautiful afternoon on the links and setting him up for a day in which, I'm sure, his first thought to an aspiring writer was going to be "No."

The drill is this: I am stationed in the hallway outside--at the beginning of the slaughter ramp, so to speak. My job is to call out "9:00! 9:00! 9:00" announcing the time for the people who have their appointments. Then, "9:10, 9:10, 9:10." I keep this ten-minute interval announcement up all day, joking that I'm practicing for my interview as the Amtrak station master. My clear speech and diction are an important part of the job since I am afforded neither a microphone nor cattle prod.
After the writers have checked in with me, they are allowed to pass an invisible line to the next holding area. There they mill around until Volunteer Cheryl gives them the next set of instructions: "This is your big chance to talk to an agent. When we open the door, you will stand behind the table for two more minutes. When we release you, you will go to your table. You have eight minutes to pitch to your agent. When you hear the first whistle, that is the eight-minute mark. It's time to wrap up your pitch. Another whistle will sound at the ten-minute mark and a trap door will automatically open up below your chair if you have not vacated the table." Unfortunately some writers actually believe the line about the trap door, and the look around nervously, wondering what the hell they have gotten themselves into. These writers are the smart ones--at least they are listening. Most people are so nervous that the instructions float over them like a leaf floating down the babbling brook.
Finally the double doors open and the writers are prodded into the next holding area behind a row of tables. Really, the agents are just people with a job to do, but due to their exalted status and the pedestals they are given to perch upon, one could do no better strolling in the gardens of Versailles. The air in room is stifling and you could cut the adrenaline with a knife, but this is a rarified environment and the time clock is ticking away at the steady beat of a little less than $5 a minute. The writers' nervousness increases with the proximity to the agent. In this last and final holding area, they are given further instructions which sails over their heads. They are assured that if they have made it this far and not fainted, they will be allowed to see "their" agent.
The eight minute whistle is blown by Jim, the timekeeper, who is sports an aloha shirt designed with cream-colored skulls instead of the standard hibiscus flowers, giving everyone a taste of his wicked sense of humor. He stands on the far side of the tables, holding a stopwatch and a silver Army whistle. He brings the whistle to his lips with a flourish and blows at the eight minute mark thus signaling the agents to stand, shake the writer's hand and say, "Nice to meet you," thereby clearing the table for the next sacrificial lambs…er, authors.

Presumably the writers have dressed in a business-like manner, have arrived sufficiently early, have availed themselves of the bathroom to my right (nervous bladder syndrome strikes men and women in equal proportion), have their appointment sheet in hand, know the name of the agent they've paid to speak with, and have practiced their presentation. There is potential for disaster in so many steps of the process…

The sheaf of papers I hold is arranged by agent's, not author's, name. Seems simple enough to me, but no--the writers don't think like that at all. They are so nervous that they invariably blurt out their name first and assume that we consider them as important as they have pumped themselves up in their minds to be (in order to subject themselves to this process in the first place). They are insulted when I don't automatically recognize them (for the important "wanna-be" they are). They shove their name badges under my nose and adopt the stance of "I'm so important I can't imagine why you haven't recognized me--however I will do you the service of stating my name."
I ignore the name badge and flip through my papers. I ask, "Who are you seeing?" Their minds go absolutely blank. Thus begins the mad scramble in their notebooks or briefcases for the sheet with their agents name on it. Many have signed up for more than one agent--can you see the masochistic tendency among writers--and they haven't a clue which agent their seeing or when. The paperclip goes flying in one direction, the precious manuscript in another. A man comes out of the bathroom and innocently steps on page 1...  The anguished shriek of the author echoes down the hallway. They stumble over to a chair, plop down and dissolve into tears.
I stare straight ahead and say, "Next?"

"Which agent are you going to see?"
"Fred?" I inquire, for we had no one named Fred, neither first name or last name, on our lists.
"Fred," the author insists.
"Are you certain?"
"Fred!" he shouts.
"Would you mind looking at your paper please?"
Then began the aforementioned search. Finally he found his paper crumpled at the bottom of his briefcase and thrusts it at me. "Fred!"
I look at the paper. "Paul," I correct, unable to say the last name (we had two Pauls) before he snatches the paper from my hand.
"Paul," he mutters and backs away.

It amazed me the outfits people managed to throw together for what was, basically, a job interview. One young man wore a t-shirt that exclaimed "F-CK YO-" (since he was panting as he came down the hallway, my guess was that he had slipped on his shirt in a hurry and had run all the way from the car, banking on the "U's" to catch up with him). I wasn't sure that fashion statement was going to get him an agent...
Nor was I so sure about the woman who threw together a delightful ensemble consisting of multi-colored yarn woven into her uncombed hair, a neon green flounced underskirt (think of the half slips under 1950's poodle skirts), blue striped tights and turquoise patent leather boots. She may have been wearing some sort of top--I failed to notice--but quite honestly, maybe not.

The authors I had the most sympathy for were the elders of the group. Their eyesight dimmed by years of reading and writing, their hearing impaired, their gait faltering, they clutched their memoirs to their breasts. Asking them to hurry or follow instructions was out of the question, and so we afforded them the dignity they deserved. However, not everyone was so considerate, as the young are prone to be, thinking the world revolves around them and there is not going to be enough. An agent gained a thousand points in my favor as he, no spring chicken himself, watched a young author dash down the aisle, bowling over an elder. Above the din of the room I heard the agent say, "A memoir at twenty? Honey, you haven't lived long enough."

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Bareback Under a Fullish Moon

The other night I sat bareback on my friend's quarter horse, Peyote, and gazed at the night sky. Peyote stood perfectly still as I draped my legs over him and settled behind his withers. I let my legs hang down his broad back and then relaxed into him until I felt a blending of sorts--horse and rider melding into one. From that point on, neither could move without responding to the other.
The moon was still a few nights from full, but bright enough to cast slight shadows in the arena. As it rose over Sulphur Mountain I felt an old yearning to throw my head back and howl. "Yip, yip, yip, aaaahhhhoooooo!" It is hard to tell directions in the San Antonio Creek valley where the horse ranch is because of the steep sides of the valley and the abundance of live oaks and pepper trees, but I could get my bearings by the moon rising on my left. Therefore, I reasoned, Peyote and I were facing due south, the Big Dipper was slightly to the northwest. When I lean back and rested against Peyote's quarters, I could follow the line from the end of the Dipper to the Pole Star directly overhead. I had my reckoning then and I swiveled around, looking for the "w" shape of the constellation Cassiopeia.
I let the hackamore reins go slack, signaling to let Peyote remain still. I spoke to him in a low, soft voice. He twitched his ears and listened to my voice as I patted him on the neck, in the same place, with the same speed and pressure. It wasn't long before the rhythm of the pats and my gentle voice hypnotized him. He hung his head and dozed off, every once in a while waking up enough to swish his tail.
A couple of times when he woke up he turned his head to look at me as if to say, "Are you still there? Let me know if you want to do go anywhere--otherwise, I'm going back to sleep." When I did not move, then he dropped his head again and rested.
I was hoping I would see the bright eyes of a raccoon at the neighbor's artificial waterfall--since I could hear the pump humming and the water gently cascading down the boulders-- but it must have been too early in the evening for the little bandits. It was just me, the horse, and the vast universe.

Sitting in the Lap of God

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Sitting in the Lap of God
It's now been three days since I sat, naked, in the lap of God.
My friend Maggie took me to the back country outside Santa Barbara--somewhere between the Santa Ynez Mountains and the Sierra Madres, in Los Padres National Forest. Our destination was a sulfur hot spring. We packed our peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and headed out in her pickup on Tuesday morning. Santa Barbara is right on the Pacific coast with the Santa Ynez range behind, so our first climb was up through the neighbor-hoods, then around hairpin turns and switchbacks to the 2,000 foot ridgeline. From the top, the road, though paved, was one lane wide. On the right side I could look down and see the city, Stern's Wharf sticking out in the ocean, and the blue Pacific stretching before me; on the driver's side, the rolling mountains of the continental U.S. stretching as far as I could see: the San Rafaels and the Sierra Madres. (I still forget that there is a whole continent behind me, accustomed as I am to living on an island in the middle of the Pacific) Last summer the Zaca Lake fire burned through the Sierra Madres--we could see the scars of the burn about half way down the west side of the mountain range side--the gray rocks sticking up like a backbone, reminding me of the buried blue whale that is being uncovered by the surf down near Ventura (but that's another story…). We headed down, down, down into the valley between the mountains. After about forty-five minutes (impossible to tell distance--the windy road makes for slow going), the paved road ended and we continued on a dirt road. The ranger service had posted signs warning that the next day all the roads into the Dick Smith Wilderness would be closed, due to fire danger, no doubt. We felt very blessed to have chosen this day for our journey. The only sign of human life was a forest ranger driving to his encampment. He stopped us and asked if we were planning to camp, making sure we were aware that the area was going to be closed. We assured him we were there just for the day. He waved us on as we passed his house and headed for the hot spring.
Water is still running in the streams this time of year--the last of the flow. Soon the creek beds will be nothing but rounded stones showing where seasonal water flows. In the Northwest, we don't think of creeks and rivers drying up, and we build bridges over flowing water. Here, they pour slabs of concrete in the riverbed and we drive through the water (if there is any--in this case, now only about an inch deep). We passed a small lake and I saw sunken hoof prints in the mud and could imagine deer coming there in the evening to drink.
Maggie took a right fork off the main dirt road onto a little used dirt road--no fresh tracks. We had left the world long ago, but were now entering magic space--a place where no one had been for a long time.
"It's not far," she said as she pulled up under the shade of a lone pine and parked. We grabbed our lunches and towels and hiked a short way into the springs.
Some kind souls had hauled in some plastic pipe to divert the springs, then hauled in cement and gathered river rock to build two pools beside a sweet little creek in a quiet canyon.
Mid-June in the creek valley was hot, but I was anxious to take a dip in one of the rock-lined pools. I stripped off my clothes, ready to sink in the warm water up to my neck. I eased myself up on the edge of the pool. I tested the water with my toes, then put my foot in up to my ankle. The water was hot, but I thought I'd adjust once I got in. I slipped off the side of the pool and eased myself down. And quickly eased myself out in less than a minute. There was no way I was going to be able to stay in that tub. Between the warmth of the day, the sun shining on the pool, and the temperature of the springs, I would have been boiled to tender perfection in no time.
Instead, I tiptoed across the stepping-stones in the creek and found a flat stone between two large sandstone boulders a little ways downstream. The perfect spot! I made myself comfortable, leaning back against one of the boulders and let small waterfalls pour over each shoulder. For company I had a bluebird, a scrub jay, and the smallest hummingbird I've ever seen. Oh yes, and about a thousand flies. I was glad I'd brought along some white sage, and after I smudged the flies seemed to disappear. It was then that I began to melt into the surroundings, no longer smelling like an outside entity, washed clean of civilized ways. The water covered my outstretched legs, leaving my torso dry.
Taking a deep breath and letting worldly stress wash downstream, I sank lower on my rock. The water was the perfect temperature, being warmed from the overflow of the sulfur pools. I let it fall over my breasts. Then I sat up and leaned forward, splashing water over my shoulders, feeling the rivulets run down my spine, wishing I could bathe this way every day.
I sat on my rock, facing downstream, most of the afternoon. Every once in a while, a slight breeze rustled through the cottonwood trees near the creek bank. Then the sharp scent of nature's perfume would waft through the air, reminding me of the Lombardy poplars along the lane at the house on Miller Street. (It's funny, isn't it, how smells evoke other times and places?)
Totally at home--me, with my naked butt firmly planted on Mother Earth. I had removed my watch
when I tore off my clothes, preferring Earth time to man-made time. I had no place to go and nothing tugging at me to be done. I was nature's child now.
I witnessed the water skippers sliding across the creek, the occasional leaf floating by. The sunlight peeked through dappled shade to reveal colored pebbles in the creek bottom. The only sound, the babbling of the small waterfall flowing around the boulder I rested against. When I turned my head and looked back up the stream I saw a ribbed rock sticking up out of the ground, reminding me that we were on the edge of the San Andres fault line. Creamy blooms of the yucca dotted the steep sides at the head of the valley, the only accents in the dusty chaparral.
Maggie came to find me after the afternoon shadows had traveled across the surrounding hills. "It's time to go if we want to get out of here before dark."
Why is it that the trip back always seems shorter than the trip to? When she started the truck, I glanced at the clock to see how long it would take us to return to civilization. She drove an hour and fifty minutes. Later I tried to pinpoint the spot on my gazetteer. I was able to trace the first part of the journey--the marked road--on the map, but when the road went from a solid red line to small dots, I knew I might never find the springs again. All I carried out with me are memories.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Farewell to Obie

"Today's the day," my friend Lucy said as soon as I answered the phone. "If you want to come over, be here by 2:30. That's when the vet is supposed to show up."
"OK," I said. I didn't ask, "How are you doing?" The quiver in her voice was all I needed to hear. Instead, I assured her, "I'm on my way." I made a peanut butter sandwich, threw it in my lunch box, grabbed my boots and was out the door.
As I drove the twenty five miles to Ojai, I had time to think about Obie, Lucy's black Peruvian Paso. I first met Obie two years ago when I became acquainted with Lucy's horses. Obie was the senior member of the herd. At that time Lucy had the horses in separate stalls, giving Obie premium accommodations: the stall on the end and the comfort of a pile of straw to lie down on in the barn. He must have been a stunning horse in his day: a white star on his forehead extending to a stripe which ran the length of his nose, a white stocking on his left back leg, lusciously long, thick mane and tail, his long forelock hiding shiny ebony eyes. In his old age he was sway-backed, no longer with muscle mass in his back quarters. His back ergots sunk parallel with the ground because his tendons had separated. Arthritis had set in. His head hung low, his tongue a shocking pink against his dark coat when it darted out in reaction to the pain he felt every time he attempted to step up on the wooden riser to reach his feeder. Even in pain, he was a gentle gelding, ready to accept the handout of a carrot or an apple. He hadn't been ridden in years, but Lucy continued to speak of his flowing gait and tender mouth. "He's like driving a Mercedes," she bragged.
When I got to the ranch, the four geldings--Chester, Peyote, Shaw and Obie--and the mare, April, were finishing their morning hay in the arena. The caramel and white paint, Chester, came to the gate to greet me.
"Lucy's in there with Obie," Hank, Lucy's husband, said as he came down the
I pushed Chester back from the gate and entered the arena. Chester shadowed me across the ring to where the other horses were eating. Lucy was combing Obie's tail. "I'm going to cut it off when…" Her voice cracked and she couldn't finish the sentence. Her eyes filled with tears and she turned away.
There was nothing I could say. Not if… when. I knew she had been contemplating this day ever since I had become friendly with her and her horses. She had thought he wouldn't make it winter before last. Then Al, Chester's owner and horseman, suggested taking the horses out of the stalls and giving them free run in the arena, letting them be a herd without metal bars to separate them. The other horses took care of Obie and gave him the status of respected elder. When they were turned out "up top" on the hill, they hung together, taking their time going up, waiting for Obie to hobble behind them.
"Can you stay with them here in the arena with them for a while? I've got some things to do in the house, then we'll let them go up on the hill."
"Sure," I said. "I brought some apples. I'll go cut them up." I sat on a bale of hay, coring and paring the apples. When I looked up five heads poked over the fence. I admit it--I've spoiled the horses and they've grown to expect a treat when they see me. "OK, guys. Here I come."
Peyote is the only one who doesn't like apples--the rest gobble the bits from my hand. "Move Chester, you old piggy." I pushed Chester aside so that I could share the apples with Obie. April and Shaw jockeyed for their share, April tall enough to reach across Obie's back. After the bag of apples was gone, I got the brush and spent time with each horse. I was just finishing up with Shaw when Lucy came back to the arena.
"I just a call from Shane, the guy who owns the backhoe. He said he will be over around 3:00. And the vet checked in too. He won't be here until after 5:00. He's delayed in Simi Valley, so we're on hold. What time is it now?"
"1:00," I said looking at my watch.
"Come in to the studio and talk with me while I work on my glass pieces," Lucy said.
"Sure." We went to her studio and I made myself comfortable on the sofa while Lucy wrapped plastic around the bases of her glass sculptures--anything to take our minds off what was yet to come.
"Obie raised April," Lucy told me as she worked. "April came here as a three month old foal with her mother, Sunny, when we were running the horse rescue. It was the coolest thing: we let Sunny out--she was so sick she wasn't going to run away--and April trailed along behind her. Sunny went down the row of horses, starting at Obie's stall. She rubbed her nose against his, then went right down the row of horses--I had about eight then--and did the same thing to every horse. After she'd talked to every horse, she came back to Obie and they stood nose to nose for the longest time. It was like they were having their own private conversation. Then she whinnied and shook her head. He whinnied back. Then she went over by the fence and lay down. She never got up. The vet put her down right across from the barn, right across from Obie's stall. From then on, Obie raised April. That's the kind of guy Obie is."
We heard the rumble of the tractor as it came up the long driveway. Lucy put down the plastic wrapping and tape. She laid her hands on her hips and leaned back, stretching her back, then straightened up. She glanced down at me. "It's time."
"Yeah," I mumbled. I turned toward the driveway and saw a man get out of a pickup.
"Are you coming?" Lucy asked.
"I'll be along in a minute."
She nodded and then left the studio.
I heard her greet her neighbor, Shane, the owner of the backhoe, as the tractor entered the arena. I swallowed and forced the lump in my throat back down. Lucy had already told me that she didn't want any drama--"no crybabies" isn't what she said, but clearly what she meant. My job was to be a steady hand on the rudder, a witness for Lucy, to keep things on course while she processed her emotions. I didn't want to let her down--I didn't want her to see me cry--so I let the tears flow down my cheeks until they dissolved the lump in my throat. I took my time, hoping that I had let the grief out so I could be strong for my friend. I wiped my cheeks with my shirttail and blew my nose on a Kleenex I found in the pocket of the borrowed jacket.
The backhoe men were already hard at work. As I walked down the length of the arena, the backhoe driver shut the engine off.
"This is the hardest clay I've ever seen," he exclaimed to his partner on the far side of the hole. His partner pulled out the measuring tape and dangled it down in the hole. "Seven feet," he shouted over the idling motor. He rolled the tape back up and then handed one end to Hank and stepped back along the fence line to the other end of the hole. "Eleven feet. You think that's enough?" He directed his question to Al. "And rocky too--almost as bad as digging in the bottom of the creek."
I went around the far side of the fresh dirt pile and peeked in the hole.
"It looks good," Al said. "Maybe just a little more on this end. I'd hate to have the horse get hung up in there, you know."
I hoisted myself up on the top metal bar of the corral and watched the last of the dig. I kept glancing up to the top of the hill where I imagined the horses were, half expecting them to be peering down at us through the trees.
After the backhoe guys finished the hole, they introduced themselves and settled in to visit, as neighbors in the country tend to do.
"We're working for some Hollywood star," Jose said.
"Who is it?" Hank asked. He knows a lot of the Hollywood set because of his work behind the movie camera.
"L___ somebody. I don't know her last name."
"Can't be much of a star then," Al said as he hoisted his leg up on the step of the tractor. "Can't call 'em a star lessen you know their last name." He leaned his elbows on his knees and looked up. "If they're really a star, then they only got one name."
"So what's the job?" Hank asked.
"We're digging a 5,000 foot trench. Over there." He took a step toward me and looked through the steel bars on the fence. "I think you can see the place through the trees--over there on the next rise."
"5,000 feet? That's almost a mile," Al exclaimed. "That's a hell of a line to the cesspool. They're gonna have to put a pump or two on it."
"Get this," Luis said as he shook his head. "Her husband doesn't want to see the power poles when he drives down the driveway. We're digging the whole length of the driveway so that he doesn't have to know he has electricity. He can think it magically drops out of the sky or something."
"Sounds like just another person with too much money," I said.
Even Al laughed at that one.
"So, I show up to work one day," Jose said. "No one told me I couldn't go to work on Saturday. They were pushing us to get it done, so I figured I'd just get in another few hours, you know? I started up the tractor and started digging. Here comes the house mananger…"
"They all have house managers," Al said, warming up to the story.
"The guy's still in his bathrobe. He comes flapping up to the tractor and starts waving his arms at me, screaming. I think maybe there's some kind of emergency in the house or something--maybe he needs help--so I shut the engine down. He's yelling, 'Are you out of your mind? You can't work! It's Saturday. The people are here!'"
"'You don't have to yell,' I told him. 'I can hear you. Now you're making more noise than the tractor.' I swear, the poor guy looks like he's about ready to cry. I ask him what's wrong, and he said Linda the Movie Star--Whatever-her-name-is--and the husband showed up early and they are sleeping. They positively don't want anyone working when they are at home. In fact, he tells me, they never have any workmen around when they are in residence--only when they are at their other ranch."
"Other ranch? Waaaayyyyy too much money." Al shook his head in disgust.
Jose laughed as he agreed. He continued, "So the manager says, 'How did you get past the guard?" Rather than say, 'What guard?' and get them all fired, I just shrugged and pretended that I didn't speak English. I mumbled 'Lo siento.'"
Al picked up a rock and threw it over the fence, signaling that it was time to break up the gathering, send the backhoe guys on their way, and bring the horses down off the hill. Lucy climbed down off the fence and walked slowly across the arena, calling to her horses. "Let's go, Po. Let's go."
Peyote whinnied his reply from the top of the hill.
In the past, her call signals a stampede down the hill, every horse anxious to get their afternoon feed. But this time, aside from Peyote's whinny, there was no movement on the hill. The horses had been watching the invasion of the arena and were not interested in the mechanical intruder.
"Let's go, Po." Lucy opened the gate to the pasture the horses were in, then shut it behind her. "Chester, come on. Obie! April May! Shaw! Come on ponies. Let's go."
I followed her to the gate, leaned across the bars, and looked through the scrub oaks to the top of the hill.
"Get a couple of halters," Lucy said to me over her shoulder. "I'm going up top."
I grabbed a halter and came back to the gate. In the meantime Peyote had come down the hill, the scout for the herd. I handed Lucy the halter with the lead rope attached. Hank had come up behind me with another halter and lead rope. "I'll get Peyote and then you take him to the arena," she said to me. She took the halter from Hank. "I'm going up top."
Hank opened the gate for me and I led Peyote to the arena.
Lucy climbed the steep hill, calling her horses. "Let's go ponies. Let's go."
Peyote was on alert as he followed me through the gate. I let him stop and sniff the air and get a good look at the backhoe and the pile of dirt in the corner of the arena. "Come on Po. Let's go check it out," I said and patted his neck. I took a couple of steps and tugged on the rope. "It's OK, Po. It's not for your today," I reassured him. He hung his head low, ears twitching forward toward the silent machine, then sideways to Lucy on the hill. Then he lifted his head and turned toward me. "Come on Po," I said as I led him to the backhoe. I stopped and stood beside him, rubbing his neck as he sniffed the air. He looked at the machine, then glanced over at the pile of dirt. When he lost interest in the backhoe and looked up the hill for the other horses, I led him away from the corner and back toward the blue plastic feed barrels tied to the fence.
Peyote recognized the red wheelbarrow filled with hay that Al was pushing through the open gate and called to his herd.
"Come on ponies," I heard Lucy call again. I looked up the hill and saw her silhouette on the ridgeline. "Come on Chester. Let's go, Shaw."
Chester came down the hill, took one look at the backhoe and bolted back up the hill. Somehow Lucy managed to get a halter on Shaw and led him down the hill. Reluctantly Chester followed. I knew if she could get those two to come off the hill, Obie and April would follow. No horse wants to be separated from the herd.
A pickup came up the driveway and Lucy waved. "We're over here," she called to the driver.
A woman and a man got out of the pickup and came to the arena.
"I'm glad I'm not too late. I brought some carrots for Obie," the woman said.
Introductions were made as Lucy put a halter around Obie and led him to the gate. Liz made over him, and fed him three fat carrots.
"I had to have my horse put down a couple of autumns ago," Liz said as she pulled on Obie's forelock. "He fell. Nasty break. He was in a lot of pain. It was ugly." She scratched the base of Obie's ears as tears welled up in her eyes. "One of the hardest days of my life."
"Yes, and Obie got your horse's blanket. That sure helped keep his hips warm these last two winters."
Liz broke a carrot into three pieces and fed Obie the first chunk. "I haven't seen him for awhile." Liz ran her hand over his bony ribs. "He's really lost weight, hasn't he?"
"Thank you for saying that," Lucy said. "I question whether I'm doing the right thing, you know?"
Liz nodded. "I know. How old is he?"
"In his late twenties."
"I figured 31," Hank said. "He was about seventeen--maybe nineteen--when we got him--at least that is our best guess."
"He's such a good ole boy." Liz said as Obie munched the last piece of carrot. I couldn't let him go without a treat, but I can't stay to watch." She stroked his neck. "Good boy, Obie." She gave Lucy a hug, and then walked back to the truck.
The hole was dug, the horses fed their evening meal. Al, Hank. Lucy and I gathered outside the gate, each lost in our own thoughts as we waited for the vet.
"It's like waiting for the grim reaper," Hank said to break the spell.
Lucy nodded and shoveled loose dirt into a pile with her boot. Her cell phone rang and Al, seemingly the least concerned, startled like a colt. Lucy pulled the phone off her belt. "Yeah. Shane left the backhoe here. The hole is done. Whenever…" She hung up as she relayed the news. "That was the vet. He's just leaving Simi Valley. About forty five minutes."
I glanced at my watch and thought about the afternoon traffic on the 101. The vet would be lucky if he made it in forty-five minutes.
"No sense wasting the rocks the backhoe dug up. I'm going to get them for my stone wall," Hank said, grateful that he'd thought of something to do to pass the time. He opened the gate to the arena and began piling rocks to one side. Lucy disappeared into her painting studio. Al called his wife. I sat on the hay bale and pulled my journal and fountain pen out of my bag. Each of us sank into the things that gave us comfort.

I glanced at my watch when I saw Lucy come out of the studio. We all gathered as she reported, "The vet called again. He just turned on to the 33--he'll be here in about twenty minutes." Hank pulled weeds out of the flowerbed by the driveway, Al took out his handkerchief and polished the chrome on his Harley, Lucy raked hay in the shed, I petted the dog. And we waited.
Soon enough--too soon, it felt--the vet arrived. He surveyed the scene: horses feeding, hole dug in the corner of the arena, backhoe beside the hole. "This is never easy, is it?" he said as he looked into our long faces. He stepped around to the back of his truck and opened his traveling kit, filling three syringes as he spoke. "This actually goes pretty quick once I give the first shot. Here's what I'm going to do. This is a tranquilizer," he said as he laid the full syringe on the gate of his pickup. "I'll give it, then we'll have a couple minutes to lead him over to the hole." He glanced up at Lucy. "You do have a halter on him?"
She nodded, not lifting her head. She could not hold the tears back when she looked up.
"You know the drill Lucy."
She nodded. "But it's always been a rescue horse. Never one of my own."
"I know. We’ll make it easy on Obie," the vet said as he loaded the second syringe. "This is Valium. There can be a little fear right at the end before he goes down. We want to ease him down gently. Plus we went to keep everyone safe. We don't want him rearing up or jerking on the halter." He laid the second syringe beside the first, and then filled the last one. "This one is the one that will put him down. When I give this, he should drop in about thirty seconds. Then it will less than a minute before it's all over."
The vet clamped the three syringes, in order, between his teeth. We followed him into the arena. Lucy picked up Obie's lead rope and brought him to the middle of the arena. Hank stood on one side of his wife, Al on the other side. I stood back a few paces and fingered the scissors and rubber bands in my pockets.
The vet approached Obie slowly. He took the first syringe out of his mouth and poked it in Obie's neck. Obie startled and pulled back on his halter. "Whoa, big fella," Lucy said as she pulled down on the halter. Obie quieted from Lucy's reassurance, and the tranquilizer took effect. She led him away from the other horses, around the side of the backhoe and stopped at the edge of the hole.
The vet removed the syringes from his mouth and turned to us. "Now is the time to say your goodbyes. It won't be long."
I approached Obie. As I patted him I could feel the muscles relaxing. "Goodbye Obes," I said and backed away. Tears filled my eyes. I blinked them back and waited.
Al and Hank stood to either side of Lucy. She faced Obie and held his halter, whispering her goodbyes to him, telling him what a good horse he had been and thanking him for the lessons he had taught her as she pulled on his forelock. She was weeping but held back her sobs so she wouldn't frighten her old pal.
The vet's full attention was on Obie as he timed the next injection. He stepped forward. "The Valium takes away the fear," the vet assured us as he removed the next syringe from between his teeth. The vet waited a minute, and then administered the lethal injection. Ten seconds after the last shot, Obie's back legs gave out and he crumpled to the ground.
Lucy dropped down beside him and laid his head across her lap. "He's gone," she stammered. "I felt him take his last breath."
I was standing behind Obie and heard a loud fart as bowels relaxed.
"He's on his way to another pasture. He's kicking up his heels already," the vet said as he moved between the horse and his grave. He leaned over Obie's back, stethoscope in hand, to check for a heartbeat. He touched Obie's eyeball. No reaction. He waited fifteen seconds, then checked the heart and touched the eyeball again. He straightened up and confirmed, "He's gone."
For the first time, the dam of grief broke behind the tears Lucy had been holding back all day. She sobbed from deep in her gut and then threw back her head. Her howl echoed off the valley walls, as if by the force of her cry, she could clear a path to the spirit world for her horse. She held Obie's head and stoked his cheek as his bottom lip fell slack.
She glanced up at me and I knew that was the cue to step forward with the scissors I had in my jacket pocket. As she cut, I tied the rubber bands around the clump of forelock and the two clumps of tail hairs when she handed them to me. She cut one hunk of hair from Obie's long mane for Hank and one for me. Then she stood and said, "This is not my horse. My horse is gone and this is a cadaver." She walked the vet to his truck as she thanked him for Obie's painless demise.
It was hard to think that just a minute or two before the horse had been a breathing, warm animal with a personality. And now he was dead, rigor mortis rapidly setting in. There was nothing left to do but bury him.
Obie had fallen near the hole, but at a perpendicular angle to it. His legs were stretched out toward the tractor, so the job of getting his body to the hole took a little bit of figuring. Hank went to the barn and came back with some chains. Al jerry-rigged the chain around Obie's feet and attached it to the bucket of the tractor. I thought they were going to turn him over so they could pick him up with the bucket, but Al had managed to pick him up by the legs and maneuver the tractor around so that he went in the hole on his back. Hank bent way down in the hole and was able to get the chain off his front legs, but had to crawl down in the deep hole and step over a dead horse to unhook the chain from his back legs. The two men cut open three bags of lime and spread them over the horse's body. Al climbed back on the tractor for the last time and filled in the grave.
Lucy was right. Obie's soul left with the last breath. What remained was just a body. Her horse, the one she traveled with to the edge of the spirit world, was gone.