The Gypsy Wagon

The Gypsy Wagon

Etching by artist Larry David Dunn

Etching by artist Larry David Dunn

Thirty seven years ago my friend, artist Larry David Dunn, gave me an etching he made for my 35th birthday. It’s called Gypsy Wagon. When he handed it to me, he said, “It’s a portrait of you. You travel with your own light.” The wagon is small, wooden, and sturdy, with a slightly sloped roof. It has a window with four panes, wooden wheels, and wooden spreader bars for hitching my horse. The ground around the wagon is bathed in a warm light that comes from the full moon above. It is one of my most precious possessions.

When LD gave me the picture, I was recovering from very tough times. Instead of light, I felt troubled and afraid. I couldn’t imagine that I was emitting much light. I certainly didn’t see how I could be traveling very far given I was recently divorced, and what little money I had went to pay the bills. I pondered how he saw me as a small, sturdy, wooden wagon surrounded by a warm glow.

Nevertheless, I bonded with the piece, as if its light could lead me out of the darkness I felt, and as if I was self-contained and sturdy enough to shine. A few years after LD gifted Gypsy Wagon to me, I sold the house that had represented the American Dream, but now consumed my energy and money, and moved my family across the country to an apartment in San Francisco. There, I became a stand-up comedian. Standing on the tiny stage at a place called The Holy City Zoo, I got my light back.

Three decades, other houses and apartments, the death of my son, and the births of grandchildren have gone by. I’ve traveled to 30 countries: some to teach and live for awhile, and some just to hang out in order to get to know my global neighbors-to connect my light with the universe, if I’m lucky maybe I can make them laugh.

Each time I unpack, Gypsy Wagon is hung on a prominent wall where I can see it. In my current home, a charming cabin on a mountainside in Lake Isabella, CA, in the lovely Kern River Valley, it hangs in my bedroom next to a world map.

The map and the Gypsy Wagon are the first things I see in the morning, and the last things I see at night. This morning I took it off the wall to pack it, because I am leaving again. Next month I’m flying to Europe to connect with former students and friends I’ve met traveling. My goal is to head north through Italy to Prague, Czech Republic, where I plan to teach for a few months.

I thank LD for Gypsy Wagon, for seeing my light when I couldn’t. I’m impressed with his prescience. I will do my best to spread as much light as one sturdy wagon possibly can.

The Iron Beds

Iron bed with Morrocan pillow

Iron bed with Morrocan pillow

A thing has to have meaning for me to keep it these days-to haul it in and out of storage every time I decide to travel. But, if it does have a place, say in my heart, or reminds me of good things and loves past, I’ll keep it even if it’s heavy and unwieldy, or takes the lions share of rented space.

Back, way back, in the obscure recesses of my memory, there was an iron bed. It figured prominently in a nightmare I had for three decades, but I never actually saw it until I was in my 30s. My mom used to tell my sitters, “If she wakes up screaming just turn on the light and hold her for a few minutes, she’ll go back to sleep.” Frequently, an earache triggered the nightmare. As I got older and life became more complicated, the catalyst was, more often than not, emotional distress.

2nd Iron bed

2nd Iron bed

In the dream, I am suspended in total darkness, alone and weightless. Suddenly, a high-pitched trill, like a bird in distress far-away seems to surround me. The sound begins faintly and becomes progressively louder and louder until I wake, shaking, sometimes sweaty, my heart pounding. Similar to falling dreams where one never hits the bottom, the source of the tormenting, other worldly noise never reveals itself.

In the mid-70s, when I was living in Chicago, the nightmare came so frequently I was afraid to go to sleep. My friend, Ginny, suggested I visit a past life regression hypnotist that she knew. I had nothing to lose.

The hypnotist turned on a tape recorder to tape the session: for his safety, and for me to review later. Within minutes, he had me in a trance. My first death occurred when I, as an old man, was on a dappled gray horse, being chased by rogue solders- Romans, we believed, by my description of their uniforms. They over took me, and dragged me hanging from a stirrup to my death.

The second time I died,, I was a young shepherd boy. I was tending goats on a verdant, grassy hillside overlooking the sea, but I felt very sick. I went home to a long, low, white washed building. Inside, small children were sitting on benches at a large table. It was warm. My mother gave me a bowl of soup, which I slurped slowly by the fire. As I was describing my second death to the therapist, the dream arrived, cutting my description of death short. I shouted, “No! No!” The hypnotist calmed my fear. “You are not alone. Let the demons come. I won’t let them hurt you,” he assured me.

Through tears, I began drifting in the dark. The therapist kept talking. “Don’t let it go. What do you see?” It was as if I was watching a photograph take shape in the dark room. The black void that had terrified me all my life, took the shape of nun’s habits, bunched together in a fluid galaxy, in a dim, sparse room. The screaming came from me. I was a baby, maybe a year old, just able to stand. I was standing in an iron bed, hanging on to the bars, screaming because my head was hurting. No one seemed to hear me-or care. The hypnotist assured me I was not alone; but I was sobbing now, because then I had been. And, I had never forgotten that aloneness, I’d been carrying it around in my psyche my entire life. After that session, the dream left, and hasn’t been back.

During the mid 80s I owned some land with a musician friend outside of Clear Lake, CA. One afternoon, we visited friends of his. We entered the house through the back door off the kitchen. Straight ahead, through the kitchen, in an alcove a foot or so above the floor, was a simple black iron bed. I shivered. My friend asked if I was OK? “Yes, but something is strange,” I told him. I felt a uncanny attachment to their bed. Just minutes after I met his friend, I told her, “ It’s crazy, but that bed is mine. When you no longer want it, let me know and I’ll come and get it. Having imbibed in psychedelic mushrooms, and a habitual pot smoker, she didn’t think it was strange at all. “OK. Will do,” she assured me.

A few months later, she called me to say they were moving and had left the bed in a storage bin in Clear Lake. They gave me the code to the combination lock. I had two weeks to pick it up. I moved my precious bed to San Francisco. It was squeaky and a bit unsteady. At one point during a raucous bout of love fun, the bed broke. Marty, my lover, bound it together with electrical wire. When I left the Bay area, the bed moved to Sonoma with me.

Several years later, I went on the road to do stand-up. I put the bed into storage in Sonoma. When I moved to Los Angeles in l990, I loaded the bed in the U Haul cart I towed behind my l977 turquoise and white Buick Skylark. I barely got out of San Francisco, when the car began to huff and puff up even the slightest hill. She ran hot. She just couldn’t haul the weight. I drove to my friend, Carol’s, in Alameda. We unloaded books, and other heavy stuff. I left the bed in. She said, “You need to get rid of the bed, too. Leave it here. I’ll call Goodwill to come pick it up.” “Oh no!” Crying, I called my daughter, Alice. “Mom, why are you crying about that old bed?”
“It has such wonderful memories,” I answered.“Memories are just burdens if you have to haul them around,” she wisely countered. It sounded like a country song.

The old bed was too heavy to haul up another hill, memories leaned against the garage wall, destined for Goodwill. I called my daughter for comfort, but her logic was sound, memories are only burdens if you have to haul them around.

Sometime in the late 90’s a childhood friend of mine and I bought a century old house in the forest close to the small Western Pennsylvania towns we grew up in. In the house were three iron beds, complete with heavy metal springs. Aside from a waterbed, I’d never slept on anything so comfortable.

When we sold the house a few years later, I hauled two of the beds and the heavy springs to California. Since then, they have spent more time in storage than out. A year ago, I moved to Lake Isabella. The friend who moved me into the cabin was about to set up the beds when he realized there were no rails. They had apparently had been left in LA –three years before.

It’s time the beds join the dream, as memories, not burdens.

Murder is Scary

Yesterday, in my free lance job as a reporter for our local weekly paper, I found myself sitting in courtroom 13 at Kern County Superior Court in downtown Bakersfield, Ca.

I was covering the preliminary trial of a first-degree murder case that took place just a few weeks ago in an Alta Sierra resort a few miles from where I live. The supervisor of a crew of 5 had shot his employee in the head. One shot. Boom. A life lost- several changed forever. Two other employees were also being tried as his accessories, as if they were scarves or belts-items that were expendable. As I listened to the prosecutor for almost two hours, I grew to question their involvement.

I sat in the front row so I could take photos, and so my small recorder could pick up what was being said. The bailiff told me I wasn’t allowed to move around, that I had to take them from my seat.

I didn’t know what any of the defendants looked like, nor had I read anything about them, until the hearing began. When I walked into the room there were 14 prisoners sitting to the front and right of me, separated by a 4’ high wooden barrier with a swinging gate. 11 men and 3 women were wearing shackles that fastened around their waists, between their thighs and down to their ankles.. All but two of the men were dark skinned. Ages ranged from the early 20s to middle age. They were all dressed in brown jumpers and white shirts, except for a burly brown man with a bald head, more square than round, a close cropped beard, mustache and longish sideburns. He was wearing a bright turquoise jumpsuit. As it turns out, he was the man I was there to cover.

I looked at the women. One of them appeared to be about 15 or 16. She could have been the girl next door in a middle class white neighborhood. Brown braids hung down on her shoulders framing a heart shaped face with a flawless complexion and a cute turned up nose. The other two, a thin, pensive blonde, and an agitated, or animated, it was difficult to tell, woman of about 30.

I pondered what felony they had committed to end up here in superior court. As it turned out, the blonde was one of the alleged accomplices in my case. She was 35.While I was waiting for the trial to begin, I watched two other brief ones. The first was represented by a 20 something Asian female lawyer who wrote copious notes while she listened to the prosecutor examine her client’s witness. Rarely looking up, she would object to something the prosecutor said. It was sustained. Every time. The broad smile her client wore out of the room, was proof that she had done her job well.

When the next case was called, the bailiff fetched him from the waiting area and led him to the table where his lawyer was sitting. He sat down, and burst into tears. The bailiff unlocked his right hand and gave him a tissue. He picked up a pen, ready to write down discrepancies in the prosecutors questions. .

Shortly afterwards, the bailiff informed me that man I was there to cover had been moved next door to room 14. I gathered my stuff, and left the room. Approximately 20 other folks preceded me into the hall. As it turns out, they were the friends and family of the defendants and the victim. Entering the court room, I saw the man in the turquoise jumpsuit. He was seated in a chair at the table. The man I had stood next to in the hallway joined him. His alleged accomplices were sitting on a bench behind their lawyers, to my left facing the man who had gotten them into the mess they were in.

The prosecutor’s questions included generalities and understatements.  The young man is said to have seen the murderer shoot the victim. The woman heard the shot from inside the building. Sometime later she admitted to lifting his pant legs, to help the murderer drag the victim to the shallow grave he had dug with a front hoe.

Apparently, the three of them barbecued steaks that evening and agreed to keep the murder quiet. I can’t imagine the accessories enjoyed the meal, their last for awhile. Another person was apparently involved peripherally, but he didn’t stay for dinner. He called the police the following day. I’m guessing he spent most of the night wrestling with his conscience.

Yes, the accessories were adults, and technically had free will. But, the murderer was a formidable presence. He was also their boss. They were used to doing his bidding. In the court room they sat about 5 feet apart on the beach, facing the man who had ruined their lives. Although they didn’t have an opportunity to talk, they listened to every word the prosecutor said. They did not agree with everything. At one point, they both looked at each other; she shook her head. Whatever had been said was wrong.

The woman had said she had assisted the murderer by moving the victim- because she was scared. This word ‘scared’ was passed over as if it was a benign, minor state of being; like she was tired, or confused.

I submit that she and her boyfriend, who was the witness to the shooting, were terrified. Neither of them had prior records. They were not criminals. They had just seen their boss shoot a man in cold blood, unprovoked. One shot to the head, then he dug a hole and buried him-as if it was all in a days work. They were not scared, they were in shock. How could they not have been afraid for their own lives?  I would have been. If he did this to one man, why not two, or three. It happens all the time. A guy feels like killing someone, he has a gun, the limits are set by the amount of ammo he has, or until his passion is spent.

To be in shock is to disturb ones sense of propriety. We do things when we are in shock that we would never do when we are thinking logically. While we’re in state of shock, we don’t make sound decisions. We don’t think. We revert to our animistic self-preservation mode. We say, “Whatever you say sir. Whatever you say.” We want to stay alive.

And finally, I ask myself how many people in this world wake up to a normal day, go to work or school, shopping or a movie… only to find themselves doing something they had no intention of doing, or being somewhere they had no intention of being. Life is fragile.

Carpe diem.

Random Act of Kindness or Folly

mamacita & babiesI honestly don’t remember when I first fed the skinny, malnourished, stripped cat that regularly passed through my back yard a few weeks ago. I know her plaintive cry touched my heart.

She’d see me reading in the hammock, and make a wide arch around me as if I would hurt her. Her cry was a long, low keening  that sounded desperate and sad. She was a young cat, not more than a teenager.

At first, I probably shared some leftovers, maybe some fried rice, or a bit of chicken. I don’t eat much meat, so she didn’t return for a juicy t-bone or tri-tip. She returned because she had a chance of getting something-however small, to eat, and she was hungry.

Within a few days, a black cat, same size and age I’m guessing, was with her. Unlike her, it would not come close to the porch if I was near. It didn’t take long for it to realize that if it wanted to eat, it needed to be braver.

I caved and bought a small sack of cat food. Then I saw a flyer posted asking for help counting and trapping feral cats. I needed help. I called and left a message. I needed to have the ones I’d befriended spayed and given shots. My neighbor, Sherry, agreed to feed them when I was out of town. A few days later I was gone for four days.

The morning after I got back, I was having coffee on the porch when the striped cat emerged from underneath the house, along with three kittens: two striped, one black. She’s a nursing mama-always hungry.

The following day, two more teenagers showed up: one black, one calico. It was ridiculous. I met with the kind women who are trying to lessen the population of feral cats in our community, got vouchers and borrowed a trap..

A day later, I was again on the porch, trying to tame the babies so they can find homes, when another neighbor came by. “I’m missing two cats. Have you seen any?”  ” I’m sure I have them, I answered gleefully.”

As it turns out she had gone off for a few days, and had not been feeding them. What was she thinking? I told her about  the feral cat issue, and the vouchers available to help the situation. She listened and agreed, but wasn’t necessarily concerned.

And so it is. Cats are just cats, perceived as independent animals that appear to get along just fine on their own. A small percentage of them are treasured pets, even members of the family. They are the lucky ones. The rest, the majority of cats especially in rural areas, become food for coyotes, owls, mountain lions and other wild animals. While they are alive, they subsist on birds, lizards and small rodents.

The people here who are trying to help, have counted over 500 feral cats in this small community. 500! Some folks have over 100 cats! That happened because they did what I did. They fed them, but they didn’t have them neutered or spayed. Their hearts were in the right place, but they didn’t go far enough to affect change in the cat population. Before they knew it, the situation was out-of-hand. Big time.

Perhaps trying to make a difference is akin to putting your finger in the dyke to stop the dam from breaking. I believe that as stewards of the earth, and the critters on it, we need to take responsibility for that which we have domesticated. Every year, millions of dogs, horses, cats, and other animals are discarded and die, or are killed by overburdened shelters.  It’s mostly because we see animals as insignificant, as novelties, as dispensable.

We give them for presents to people who don’t want them, or kids who don’t feed them. We get them for companionship, or work, as in the despicable cases of canine unit dogs abandoned by the Armed Forces when our troops go elsewhere.

If it takes a village to raise a child to be a  morally responsible person, it is the same for our animal community. Those of us who are responsible must be stewards of the animals entrusted to those people who are not.  It’s not enough to feed your own pet. We all need to reach out, to do what we can for to make the communities we live in safe for all creatures.





Silent Mornings

imageI  usually wake up when the sun streams through the spaces in my bedroom curtains. I lie in bed, grateful for another day, and listen to the silence. As soon as I get up, I go into the kitchen to boil water for coffee. I watch the water- watched pots do boil, by the way. The movement of the water lets me know its ready to pour over the coffee I’ve put into the French press. Most days I go out on the porch, so I can savor it while I watch the antics of the scrub jays as they squabble over water rights to the bird bath.

I see ravens overhead. If I throw fruit scraps into the compost pile, they swoop down as if it were Christmas morning, and I had given them presents. They, like the jays, will argue over just about anything. I laugh at their posturing and bravado, but I don’t hear their squawking.

Bedroom in cabin.

Bedroom in cabin.

A few days ago I befriended a young feral cat. This morning she was waiting when I opened the back door. I saw her mouth move, and knew what she wanted, but I didn’t hear her loud, demanding cry for sustenance.

I didn’t hear her, because I couldn’t. I hadn’t yet put in my hearing aids.

Born with either blocked eustachian tubes, or without them, I’m not sure, I began life with horrendous earaches. With each one, scar tissue built up around my eardrums, blocking the air coming through the ear canal, and eventually putting the hammer and anvil out of commission. For me it was a gradual process. I could hear well enough to make people think I could hear well. But I couldn’t. I was constantly being told to pay attention, that I talked too much, that I didn’t listen.

Wildflowers in the front yard

Wildflowers in the front yard

Listening and hearing are not the same. I learned to compensate. I made others laugh, and laughed at myself. I positioned myself in front of whatever I wanted to hear, paid close attention to my surroundings, and watched the expressions on others’ faces.

In high school, college and at events, I sat close in the front row, or as close as I could get. I was fifty before I considered getting hearing aids. Now, I wonder why I waited so long.

male heron

male heron

I apparently passed the faulty tube gene to my daughter, Alice, and a couple of my grand kids. Luckily for them, modern medicine has made it easy to implant tubes. In the past couple of decades, it’s become an office procedure. Alice had them put in twice. The first time she was five. After the surgery, we were walking from the garage to the house. She stopped me. “Mommy, I can hear the birds sing, she laughed.”

There is a certain beauty in silence, but hearing the birds sing gives us a level of wonderfulness that must be experienced for us to truly understand how lucky we are to hear them.

The Victim is Sorry

Sausages & laundry. Chongqing, China

Sausages & laundry. Chongqing, China

Most of us dread doing the laundry. Even if we have a washer and dryer, laundry is not our favorite thing to do. So we put it off and the pile gets higher and higher; our dread grows commensurate with the breadth and girth of the pile. At the cabin, I don’t have a washer and dryer. I use the local laundromat.

I have a pact with myself. I go when my plastic Mexican bag that holds one loose load is full. My routine is easy. I set the temperature buttons, put the soap in, layer the fabric, push seven quarters into the coin tray and leave. Maybe I’ll run an errand, or poke around the thrift store down the street. I come back in 30 minutes, put my clothes back in the bag, take them home and hang them up on the line. It’s an easy, dread-free, efficient system. It works every time. Until last Thursday.

Thursday my laundry consisted of a set of white sheets, several light colored hand towels and wash cloths, a large light green bath towel, a small rug, and my favorite night shirt. Everything was well-worn, soft 100% cotton.

When I started pulling my laundry out of the tub, I though I’d made a mistake, that I was in the wrong washer. Nothing I’d put into the washer looked like the large ugly thing in my hand. It was dirty gray and had dark camouflage type splotches all over it. I felt a little sick, looking at what used to be a white sheet. I kept pulling. Everything in the washer was splotched, camouflage patterned, meant for some third world military, some unfashionable, rag tag outfit that didn’t have a designer.

I called Mary at the ICE number posted on the window.
“ Hi, Mary. My name is Ruby and I am at the laundromat. My clothes have been ruined. I think it’s grease. I see the ring around the top of the tub. Maybe it’s coming out of the motor.”
“Did you look in the tub before you put your laundry in?”
She thinks I’m an idiot.
“Of course, I had to look at it to load it. It was empty and appeared clean. I didn’t do a white glove test, but I looked.”
“I was on my way home from the grocery store, but I’ll drop by.”
Within minutes a white truck pulled up, and a short, round, sort of crooked woman climbed out and came through the door.
” I hate this! I did this job for seven years until it got to be too much! People don’t respect things! Because it’s a public facility they think they don’t have to care.”
She glances at my nasty stuff.
“I have cerebral palsy on this side, and (something else) on this one. She nods her head at her arms, one of them is held against her torso, first one side and then the other. The new guy apparently doesn’t know how to clean a washer, It’s ridiculous that I have to do this. This is a public facility. You have to understand that you have to pay attention, because, trust me, others do not. Obviously someone put oily work clothes in there. You need to check before you use the washers.”
“I’m sorry. I mean I’m sorry for your cerebral palsy. My son had cerebral palsy.”
“It’s no cakewalk.”
“No, I know it isn’t. If you can walk at all that is. Which obviously you can, so that’s good.”
“Right. Let me get you some more quarters. She puts the quarters in and the machine starts filling. I add detergent. The owner who came in a few minutes before hands me two boxes of detergent with bleach.
“I already put soap in.”
“Ah, too bad,” he smiles.
“It’s all too bad. My sheets are ruined,”
“ Be lucky it wasn’t your shirts,” Mary says.
“ Yes. That’s a good point.” I should be feeling lucky it wasn’t shirts. Exactly.”
I threw the load into the garbage bin.


Hot Springs & Friends

I’ve been here, on the mountain side, in the high desert for a few months now and I am just settling in- making a house that I’ve filled with my stuff into my home. I’m getting to know the neighbors. One has died already, one is moving. One is in Alaska for six weeks. I’m watering

his plants, and  have my fillet knife sharpened and ready for when he returns with fish.

I’ve been ttaveling so long I’d forgotten what a wonderful thing it is when not only your heart, but your space is opened up to receive the love of friends; what a delightful thing it is to laugh your ass off, share ideas, secrets, fears, and libation..

I spend as much of my alone time as possible climbing  on the spectacular rocks that line the rushing Kern River, and evenings marveling  at the sky that puts on a show almost nighty, but, the hot springs have stolen my heart. Apparently they are everywhere. Some of them have been bought up and are off limits, and at least one has been destroyed by the forest service. No one seems to know why. But, a few miles from me, there is Remmington. Off a winding road, a  climb down a steep hill to the river where you will find concrete tubs full of hot water for basking.

The  hot, sulfuric water is healing, it’s a gift from the Great Spirit to cleanse the body and soul,  it releases tension, it’s  erotic.

A few weeks ago, Joy’s band, Blue Mustard was singing at the Father’s Day Blues Fest. Afterwards, she, my friend Phil, and I went to the springs.  A couple of days ago, Ginger came to visit. We went to to the springs. Come visit. I’ll take you there.



Black Bear Encounter

black bear

black bear

Black Bear Encounter

I grew up in Foxburg, a small town nestled in the confluence of the Allegheny and Clairon Rivers in the Allegheny Forest in Western Pennsylvania. It’s not uncommon to see black bears fishing in the rivers, especially in early spring when they have just woken up from their long winter’s nap.

Occasionally, one or two will wander into town during the evening to plunder garbage cans. When I was a child, I’d see them at the dump when my friend Artie, my grandpa’s handyman, took me with him. They always left when we drove up in his rickedly truck. I was taught to be respectful of them, but not afraid. My friends and I spent hours i

l-r Marilyn & Elaine

l-r Marilyn & Elaine

n the woods: building forts, climbing trees, picking wild berries. We were never afraid of the critters that lived there. We had no need to be. They respected us, too, and kept their distance.

side & back porches

side & back porches

During the 1980s, my childhood friend, Marilyn, and I bought a 100+ year-old house on 5 acres of forested land that was two and a half miles from town via a dirt road. The Allegheny River was a 3 acre walk from the house, through the forest. Trout streams on two sides flanked our property. Each spring the abundant water attracted fishermen and bears. I mean, who doesn’t like fresh rainbow trout?

When I opened up the house each March or April, I’d sweep the bugs from the screens, and doors, and make sure the basement, with its thick stone wall was free of critters. I posted our small acreage a NO HUNTING zone. Unfortunately, hunters had no respect for the designation. They ignored the signs, or tore them down completely. Each spring I’d replace them, and notify fish and game that the property was posted.

caves at top of hill

caves at top of hill

The bears made their presence known to me immediately. The second day I was there, I put some sunflower seeds out on a tall, sturdy wrought iron feeder for the birds. The following morning, it was lying on the ground, bent into the shape of a pretzel. Clearly it was not the work of birds. Within a few days I started to see signs of them in the woods occasionally: small sassafras trees with the leaves chewed off, broken bushes, and bear scat. Once my summer neighbor and I saw one watching us from the top of the hill. It was just standing there observing us. I imagine it was thinking, “There goes the neighborhood.”

And, they DID live there before anyone else. They wintered in the many caves throughout the forest, a few of which were above my house. As a kid we called them the Indian caves. It was only a matter of time before our paths crossed.

One spring morning I went into the woods after a rain to forage for mushrooms. I was hoping for morels or chanterelles, but figured I’d be happy with any thing eatable. I had read the Humane Society book on bear safety when I moved in. I knew not to run or turn my back on them. I had a push-button umbrella in the back pocket of my jeans so I could pop it and make myself look bigger than my petite 5ft 3in-height¸ 125 lb. weight. I carried a small wicker basket lined with a paper towel, a paring knife to cut the mushrooms out of the soil, and my mushroom identification book. I have never owned a gun, nor would I consider it.(Not that I think responsible people shouldn’t )

So there I was, crouching under an oak tree identifying a batch of fungi when I began to feel I was being watched. I stood up and slowly turned around. A large black bear was on the path, observing me. It was close, no more than 10 or 15 feet away. I could clearly see its face. Its dark amber eyes (similar to mine) were looking directly at me, and seemed to be eye level with mine. Fear seized me. I looked directly back at it. I forgot about the umbrella. I starting talking. Fast. think car salesman.

“ Hi,’ I’m here looking for mushrooms. See. I put them into this basket when I find them. I live down there in the red house. I bet you live in the caves. You’re probably going to the river. Well, go on ahead. I’ll just stay here. Here, have some mushrooms to go with your fish. Good luck fishing. I know you’re hungry.” I put the basket down in front of me. “ I can’t move until you leave. You have to go first. We’re neighbors. Are you the bear that wrecked my birdfeeder? It’s ok. Of course it is. How silly, of me. You can probably do anything you want. You’ll be happy to know that I have posted my property ‘No Hunting.” At some point in my monologue, the bear cocked his head, as if it was confused, or was trying to understand the words, or just pondering the crazy person it had encountered on the path. Then it turned toward the river and sauntered down the hill.

I began to tremble as if I had just had a near fatal car accident. I gave up mushroom hunting for the day. I walked home through the woods and poured myself a glass of wine, never mind it was still morning. This glass was medicinal. I sat on the back porch, sipping my wine, looking at the forest. I decided I had to continue to roam the forest, that I would go back the next day. I told myself that we, my burly neighbor and I, had reached an understanding.

front view of house

front view of house

And so I did. Although I spent part of most days in the forest, during the five years we owned the property, I never encountered another bear up close.

Currently I live in the high desert in California. The drought is forcing critters into town for food and water. One bear was in my neighbor’s yard a month or so ago. Although it didn’t harm anyone, and probably had no intention of doing so, fish and game killed it.

Many folks come to Sequoia National Park, and the areas surrounding Lake Isabella to camp. Bear awareness classes are taught, and a couple of weeks ago someone posted a bear aware list of things to do (or not) in the paper. Most of the advice made sense.

1. Don’t keep food in your tent.
2. Hang your food or put it into a bear-proof locker.
3. Keep fresh food out of your garbage can until trash day.
4. Don’t run if you encounter one.
5. Make yourself look big.
6. Be loud, wave your arms, and shout at it.

Then I got to the confusing part.

7. Don’t wear the same clothes to bed that you cooked dinner in. I assume this was directed at campers, but it wasn’t clear. I frequently cook supper in my jammies. I live alone, and eat whenever I want.
And then:

8. Lock your doors at night. What? Sometimes I don’t even shut mine.

I’m thinking the person who wrote the article had obviously taken The Three Bears too seriously. If a bear wants to enter your house, it’s unlikely it will use the doorknob. Even raccoons, with their nimble little fingers that could pick a lock with a paper clip if they wanted to, don’t use the door. They split the screens with their razor sharp nails. but, that’s another story.

Black bears do not want to hang out with you, or eat you. They might want to soak in the hot tub on your deck, or have the left over pizza you left in your trashcan for breakfast, or eat the sunflower seeds on your bird feeder. Mostly they want to feed themselves and their cubs, be respected and left alone. Try that. We can share the same neighborhood. Times are tough. Water is scarce, but we can still live in harmony.

Yoga is the Best Medicine.

Molgolian Steppes

Molgolian Steppes

I started doing yoga in the late l960s. I liked the way I felt after stretching my body. I liked the idea of saluting the sun, too. After all, it gives us light and warmth, not to mention we wouldn’t exist without it. I agreed with the Incas back then, and still do today, that the sun is the ultimate God.

I  give yoga much of the credit for my good health. I don’t know exactly what’s happening in the Ruby interior,  but I know I don’t have arthritis,  knee or hip problems,  and that I’m

comfortable sitting in the Chinese wait-in-line-squat indefinitely.

In the early 1970s, I was overwhelmed with my life. I was depressed and lonely even though I was living what I had been told was

Our horseman & Rowdy

Our horseman & Rowdy

the American Dream in the upscale suburbs of Chicago. One day I happened upon Lillas, Yoga, and You on PBS. Lillas was a vision. She seemed to have a strength inside her that I needed. I began spending thirty minutes each morning with Lillas, doing yoga poses and breathing deeply. For  that 30 minutes,  I forgot my troubles and the ones in the world around me. I stretched and breathed, breathed and stretched. Little by little, my body became more supple, my mind clearer, my heart healthier.

Mostly the benefits of yoga sneak up on you, but two episodes happened to me  in the past few years that showed the obvious and immediate examples of yoga medicine.

The first one occurred when I was in a hotelimage in Madrid, Spain. I rolled out of bed one morning, and was so dizzy I could not stand erect. As the room spun around me, I pulled myself into the p

ose of the child, and took deep breaths. Within a few minutes, the spinning stopped. I got to my knees, then hanging onto the bed, I stood up. I pulled my body into the tree pose. One arm raised above me, I put one foot on my inner thigh, raised my head, and breathed deeply. I changed sides, still holding on to the bed. The vertigo abated. Within a few days of yoga poses for balance: tree, half-moon, and balancing butterfly, it had disappeared completely.

A few years ago, I was galloping across the steppes of Mongolia on a horse I affectionately called Rowdy Brown. Suddenly, I felt a searing pain in my back. I slumped forward onto Rowdy’s neck. Clammy sweat poured from me as I clung to him while breathing deep cleansing breaths.  I was in the middle of nowhere. Truly. The guide came up alongside me to see what the problem was. There were three others in my group, all good riders. We had all come a long way for this experience.They did not want to be slowed down by me.

I lay on Rowdy’s neck, walking far behind the others until lunch time. The hard part was to keep him from running. He didn’t need to  be the last horse, but he sure did not want to be last. When the lunch car finally arrived,  I dismounted. Someone gave me a couple of extra strength pain killers. I pulled myself into the pose of the child, my knees under me, my head on the ground, my arms along my sides. I declined the suggestion that I go to the hospital, but, when it was time for the lunch man to leave, I realized I had no choice but to ride  along with him. 

For three days I took pain killers, and rode in the car with the meal/camping man. Rowdy. ran along with the guide and his horse. Each night  I returned with him  to camp. After he pitched my tent,  I crawled into it and did yoga stretches. Each morning  my back pain had lessened. On the fourth day, I was back in the saddle.

The three people I started out with left to ride into the mountains. Four new folks showed up. None of them were experienced riders, so nobody was in a hurry. We mosied over the steppes, conversing and looking at the scenery. Every morning and evening I stretched my back: the cat, the pigeon, the sphinx, the hamstring stretch.

That was three years ago. I still have occasional back pain after sitting at my desk for too long. When that happens I get down on the floor. I breathe, stretch,  breathe stretch. Ahhh. Powerful yoga medicine.


A Sunday Morning on Venice Beach

imageWhile staying at the Maggart’s, my extended family in Venice, I took a Sunday morning walk on the beach. I was surprised by how early the beach was alive with activity. Since I moved away in 2000 some things have changed, but not too many. It’s still Venice. The homeless sleep under what ever material they find, towered over by tall palms, joggers sprint through tourists on the boardwalk, vendors roll up the metal doors to reveal rows and rows of sun glasses, tank tops, and tee shirts-3 for $10.00. Artists paint, and skaters, some as young as six or seven, zip through the concrete gullies of the skate course, launching themselves into the air as if they had wings.

I saw a fittness commercial being filmed. Twenty or so folks raced through the sand to the surf and back, did jumping jacks, and raced again. The instructor barked instructions, the camerawoman, hauling her heavy Nikon with a lens as long as my forearm, did her best to keep up.   Continue reading