Friday, March 07, 2014

When The Man Lets You Down

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“Hello, I’m Johnny Cash.”


For a man who introduced himself so many times, I expected to know him better. Robert Hilburn’s deep dive into “The Life” of my biggest hero left me reeling with an unwelcome enlightenment.  I’d heard the beloved Man in Black was, at the very least, a terrible driver but that’s the least of it.
Author Robert Hilburn and the cover of, "Johnny Cash: The Life." (Christopher Morris; Little, Brown and Company)
That the book - all 638 pages of it - landed mysteriously on my doorstep sans note or sender ID seemed fitting.  I knew the book contained unsavory details and looked forward to the experience like a dog facing a bath. Eventually, the surprise gift was traced to my old buddy, Pete, my musical mentor since 1991. “I can’t believe you even had to ask!” he huffed.

If you haven’t read the book and plan to, please don’t read any further - there will likely be spoilers and I mean that in the truest sense.

Johnny Cash was, for myself and millions, a man of truth, integrity and love. Fiercely independent, he cut his own path in the American music world where country, folk, rock, blues and gospel each took turns, claiming him as their own. Throughout his wildly prolific career (roughly 1954-2003), Johnny Cash issued 96 albums, toured the world constantly, performing for millions, and collected numerous awards, including seven Grammys and the National Medal of Arts.

A dedicated student of the Bible, Cash’s spiritual life was carefully cultivated and celebrated musically; he was a devout Christian who took great joy in discussing gospel. Johnny Cash was also a family man, father to five children and a loving husband to his wife, June Carter.  He saw the good in people and often spoke up the silent – the Native Americans, the drug addicts and, of course, prison inmates. Cash was dearly loved and revered by millions and to this day, remains a beloved American icon.


He was also kind of an asshole.

It pains me to type this but the evidence is overwhelming. Knowing now in great detail the MANY times he disappointed and hurt those he loved, I can only come to this thorny conclusion. Certainly, much of his bad behavior and thoughtless transgressions could be traced directly to his pill problem, which consumed his life like a ravenous wildfire.

And speaking of fire, there was that time (June 1965) when Cash – high as a kite - carelessly burned 508 acres of the Los Padres National Forest, driving off 49 endangered California condors from their refuge. “I don’t care about your damn yellow buzzards,” he snarled in court. The government sued him and he eventually had to pay $82,000.

Later, his mother, Carrie, asked about the incident, and Cash blamed his nephew, Damon, for leaving him to die. In reality, Damon not only saved Cash’s life but was forced to hit him with a tree branch to do so, raving maniac that he was. Years later, Cash sent a limo for Damon to see him in concert. Damon sent the chauffeur back with a message for his famous uncle: “FUCK YOU.”

John R. Cash was imperfect and nobody knew this more than the man himself. The speed triggered so many awful scenarios but the twin-headed monster was his immense grief over his brother Jack’s death and the crushing weight of being Johnny Cash whom the world looked up to and admired.

I do not blame Mr. Hilburn for delivering these revelations. As a longtime reader of the Los Angeles Times, his work is both familiar and widely respected. That he worked so closely with the Cash family and received their blessing to write a warts-and-all final word on the Man in Black reveals that this was not a mission he took lightly. His exhaustive interest in Cash obviously drove him toward the truth, as the Man himself would have it.

These terrible insights also come to me just as key male figures in my own life have fallen from pedestals. It is confounding and painful, one of those bitter-tasting adulthood realities. Historical facts have come to light, new behaviors developed and an overall awareness that my youthful perceptions must be updated whether I like it or not.

As with so many basic life lessons, I’ve arrived late to their obviousness. Hold on, people we look up to sometimes let us down?  Get outta here! Emotionally, I’m a late bloomer.

(This means, of course, that I too must come up short in the eyes of others. What? No! YES. Love is knowing someone and loving them anyway - a policy I would certainly like employed in my direction, please.)

And so, such facts as they are, have no affect on my admiration for Cash. I checked with my heart and all that gooey love is still there, levels normal. In fact, this one-sided feeling of ‘closeness' has only intensified. Though I've already thought of him as my favorite uncle for years, occasionally forgetting he was actually famous, this icon is quite real to me now - less legend, more man. Not a bad position.

Truth, is, vice-less people give me the heebies. Food, sex, drugs, shopping, booze or adrenalin – everybody turns to something, healthy or not. It was society’s supreme stroke of luck that Cash turned his darkness inside out in moving songs for the world to embrace.

For this son of Arkansas, it was always the music that saved him, along with God and love, and it's his music that continues to save us in return.

***

For an insightful review - from the 'fellow junkie' perspective - of this book, please check out Fang's Forum

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

One Angry Organ

Worth it?
 We don't know our own bodies until large parts of it rebel.

Such was the case last Sunday. I was in Del Mar, just north of San Diego, running the inaugural UT-California 10/20 race - 10 miles, 20 bands. Weather-wise, it was a perfect day - heavy fog which slowly burned off to a cozy cloud cover, out of the direct sun. The track wound through the Del Mar Fairgrounds, past empty horse stables and along Pacific Coast Highway, through Solana Beach with a turnaround in Encinitas. As promised, we enjoyed a different live band at nearly every mile marker as we took in the quaint shops, the San Elijo Lagoon and the rolling waves of the Pacific Ocean. Lovely.

Visually, that is. Physically, it was tough. Though I'd recently run as far as 5 miles in my desert training, I was not prepared for double that distance. My running coach and friend, Jaime, (who has a foot injury) had come along for support with her sister, Lisa, (who drove) and Lisa's daughter, Andrea. My pick-up time in Long Beach was 4:45 a.m.; the race began at 7:30 a.m. My attitude was pure zen. "I'll just do my best," I said.

I am no athlete, my body is more writer-shaped. I have zero competitive drive on the physical front; my ego lies somewhere in the arts. Tell me I am slow and uncoordinated (the truth, as such), and I will shrug. Tell me that I lack wit or intelligence and I will eviscerate you with my sharp tongue. Hence, my simple goal was to beat the garbage sweeper and to not die. In that sense, I 'won' the race at 2:30 hrs.

I ran most of the distance, about 7 miles, before switching to a walk/run approach. I had begun my menstrual cycle the day before and thought nothing of its effect on my performance. Other than keeping giant horsepills of ibuprofen on my person (600 mg. each), I made no allowances. About Mile 8, my uterus began to complain, so I downed a pill, with one of the many cups of water and/or Gatorade offered by volunteers. Mile 9 brought no change, so I took another. I had now taken 2400 mg. of ibuprofen since waking at 4:15 a.m., which, based on previous experience, should have done the trick. Turns out, I had still had a few things to learn about body chemistry.

Crossing the Finish Line was joyous, except that I was now in significant pain. Reuniting with my crew, I took in their congratulations, weakly showed off my new medal ("1/3 of a pound!") and quickly found a porta-potty, where I began to moan aloud. I then found a wood palette and laid across that, while my friends stood over me, concerned. Next, I tried - unsuccessfully - to throw up, while my friends stood nearby, more concerned. We made our way over to the beer garden to watch the award ceremony where, instead, I laid in a garden bed, behind a sign. The abdominal pain intensified and I had to marvel at how violent just one organ can be - she was REALLY expressing herself. I then moved indoors, laid in the corner of a large conference room and tried to die in peace, like an old wounded she-bear.



Physical pain is a form of transport and the most evil of meditational states. When a body is in searing pain, nothing else matters - not how you look, not the argument you had last night, not your financial status, not your social standing - nothing. All that matters is that your body is very angry and, like all acts of Nature, has no regard for your petty human concerns. Pain is the power of Right Fucking N-OW.

The first thing to go is ego. Initially, I was terribly embarrassed that my friends were seeing me writhing around in public so soon after witnessing my so-called victory. Quickly, I nearly forgot they were there. The second thing to go is sight; when the pain is so bad, we tend to shut our eyes. I did this. Not happening, not happening, not happening.

Next to go is hearing. Though I faintly heard exclamations all around me, "Heather! Are you okay?", "Lady, what's wrong?" and "Someone call the paramedics!", I could barely respond. I have 36 years of menstrual cramp experience but this…this was like birthing an enraged demon. If a red-eyed baby gargoyle had popped out, I would have been relieved - at least there would be evidence.

Next thing I know, an army of cute paramedic dudes are asking me things like, "What is your name?" and "Where are you?" and "What year is it?"  And the big one: "On a scale of 1 to 10, ma'am, what pain level are you experiencing?"

"9!" I barked.

"Is there any chance you could be pregnant?"

Oh god. I did the math. "Yes!" I heard a gasp, likely my own. Please Lordy of all Lords, don't let me have a miscarriage. Not like this. Not ever, in fact.

Of course, the "Where do you live?" question throws me even when I am fully cognizant and pain-free so I'm not sure I ever answered that one.

At this point, my moaning fills the cavernous room and I was vaguely aware of a crowd forming. They moved me to a chair though I was unable to fully sit up, the pain kept curling up my body like a pill bug. My face dropped down on to the arm of a paramedic. "That's….a….very….fancy….watch," I observed, between lava bursts of searing pain. It was too, some big silver Omega number with a burnt orange face.

"Thanks! I got it for my birthday." My friends laughed at this exchange.

As the pain escalated, I began to hyper-ventilate. Omega Man tells me they are going to set up an IV and I freak out further. He searches for a suitable vein but fails so he enlists the help of his co-worker. "Hey buddy, can you try her other arm?"

Welcome to my personal nightmare. After 25+ facial surgeries growing up, I have a deep fear of needles, hence, no tattoos or heroin habits for me, thanks. There were some unfortunate blood-drawing incidents in my youth and young adulthood that left me crying or passed out and at least one nurse so traumatized, she left the profession. Even the words "Blood Drive" cause me to feel faint. So now, I'm writhing in pain on the floor after running 10 miles and I have two big men wrestling and slapping my twitching, rubber-tied arms trying to open my veins and my head is rolling side to side in protest. Evidently, (I was told later), I yelled, "Noooooo! Stop it!!! STOP IT!!" but it was all in…er, vain. This exact scenario was as close to sheer torture as I ever hope to get.

After a hideous amount of time (5 minutes? 15? No idea.), somebody found a vein and the IV was in place. They brought a gurney and I must have protested because I recall the paramedic saying, "Trust me, lady. I've been doing this 20 years. You NEED a gurney." I handed my phone, sunglasses and the precious medal I'd earned all of 20 minutes ago over to Jaime.

Loading me onto the ambulance, I made a warbly, weepy deal with Omega Man. "Okay, but NO LIGHTS. I'm not gonna die or anything." Even then, I knew I would live to screw up another day.

"Okay. No lights."

Once in the ambulance, the pain worsened and my breathing became more shallow. My hands and feet were numb and I was shivering so hard, my teeth were chattering. My cute paramedic (aren't they all?) was a dark-haired hero named Tirq, pronounced "Turk." Even as he fussed over me with tubes and machines, he asked my name again and again. I didn't know if he had a bad memory or if was trying to keep me in the moment.

"So, here's what I think happened," he said. "Your body is dehydrated, low on electrolytes, which induces muscle cramping. Since you were already having menstrual cramps, it just escalated. Now the pain has a hold on you, it's put you into shock. One bad thing triggering another bad thing."

"MMMMMMM-HMMMMMM," I moaned.

Tirq then put me on oxygen and hooked me up to another fancy machine.

"Okay, Heather, you are now breathing 37 times a minute. We need to cut that in half. That's why you are so cold and feeling numb."

"Ohhhhh-kkkkkkk-aaaaaay," I chattered.

"Take in a small breath and hold it for 20 seconds…..That's good, keep doing that," he said.

After a long, painful ride, we arrived at Scripps Hospital in La Jolla, where my nephew, Robbie was born 10 years earlier. I was wheeled in and the sight of a rolling fluorescent hospital ceiling brought instant flashbacks. I was still in a netherworld of pain and could hear professionals discussing my factual person. I was no longer fun-loving Heather, I was a 48-year-old female of a certain height and weight who was experiencing severe cramping, dehydration and a mild state of shock. Pain or no pain, part of me felt sheepish that my diagnosis didn't sound more life threatening but holy shit, did it hurt.

Initially, I was fussed over by doctors and nurses, all men, which normally would not be an issue but I was hoping for at least one woman who could sympathize. Eventually, a nurse named Elizabeth showed up with heated blankets and an even warmer smile. She also put some painkillers in my IV bag until eventually, the fog of pain lifted and I started to feel human. Lying there, wrapped up in those blankets, watching the emergency room staff run around, talking and laughing with one another, just going about their day jobs, I got that all-too-familiar recovery room feeling; there but not there. I thought about my mother and how I wished she were there like when I was a child and then I sobbed like a baby, while everyone bustled around me. I may have crossed a finish line but at that moment, I felt deeply, deeply beat.

Eventually, my crew was allowed to visit me bedside and I cracked some weak jokes. I looked straight at Jaime and Lisa and commended them on their birthing of four children. "If the pain of childbirth was anything like that, I am deeply impressed," I said. They smiled and Lisa shrugged, "Eh. You forget about it."

After an hour or so, I was allowed to leave. "See ya next year!" I said to the staff. Someone handed me my race bib and only then did I notice, it now featured a smear of my own blood, from a blood sugar test the paramedics had given me. I had to admit, it looked pretty bad ass. You hear the phrase "blood, sweat and tears" now and again but I know now the full depth and breadth of that term.


Please note blood smear across the '9'
Texting later with my buddy, Laurianna, an EMT in Albuquerque, I learned an interesting fact. "Actually, you were dehydrated the day before the race. On your period, you need to drink twice as much for race-prep because you are losing fluids." How can I be this old and not know this? How is this possible? Why is this information not in Runner's World magazine?

My next race is a 10K on March 8th, menses and other vexed organs notwithstanding.

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

A Dirty Angelena Reflects

I awoke early at Susie's house in Central Los Angeles and strapped on my ravaged hiking boots. She generously handed me a huge glass of purple strength, a blackberry-banana-flax seed smoothie made that morning. I headed across town, just six miles to Crenshaw High School, to honor a man of peace, Martin Luther King, Jr.


On that day, January 20, I joined volunteers with LA Green Grounds, among other groups, to help the school clean up their garden and prep it for the 2014 growing season. The offering of my day seemed like the purest way to participate in the National Day of Service on MLK's birthday.

But not all my intentions were pure, in fact, they were downright filthy. Over winter, I become restless and antsy for acts of gardening; not unlike a cell phone, directly plugging in to the earth is how I recharge. At long last, I was going to get dirt under my nails!

The dig was informal and joyous. Several of us rehabilitated raised beds - we moved soil around, laid down mulch, soaked the layers, and pulled out any weed roots we found. 'Twas highly satisfying to get these beauties full and ready for seeds. I noted a group of young men water the hell out of one bed and I tried, in vain, to cease the soak. "That's way too wet, " I told them. "Soil should be like a wrung-out sponge, not mud." They ignored me. 


Soon after, a mini-powerhouse woman showed up, full of spirit and knowledge, and was more persuasive. "Woah! What are you doing? No! Stop adding water! It's too wet!" They stopped immediately. Guess I need to work on my Persuasive Voice. (She explained later that she was a teacher for many years and had cultivated an effective voice of authority. "I get a lot done that way," she said.)

This delightful woman turned out to be Florence Nishida, a Master Gardner who co-founded LA Green Grounds with my personal hero (and her former student), Ron Finley. She later taught some of us how to properly prune a fruit tree for a maximum quality fruit crop. She was a research fellow at the LA's Natural History Museum and now leads veggie garden workshops there on Sunday afternoons. So, now I have another hero.

Florence, sharing her pruning wisdom.
Crenshaw High's garden sits on the school's corner lot, at 50th and 8th streets in Los Angeles. Long metal bars fence in the property though it is easy to see from the street. The surrounding neighborhood boasts small, tidy Craftsman-style homes circa 1950s and impossibly tall palm trees, lined up with military precision, that have become LA's landscape trademark. As I shoveled a pile of leaves and branches into a wheelbarrow, I saw two young boys ride by, sharing a bicycle. One hops off the handlebars, walks over and puts his face between the fence bars, taking in the whole garden scene. I shouted to him: "You guys want to come pick up a shovel and help us?"

To my astonishment and delight, he shouted back an emphatic, "Yes!" Both boys, maybe aged 9 or 10, immediately rode in to the garden and when I left hours later, they were still there, planting. I couldn't help but think of Ron Finley's simple epiphany during his famous TED talk: "When kids grow kale, kids eat kale." Could the solution to our health and nutritional challenges - especially for kids - really be as simple as getting kids to garden? Yes. Yes, it can.


Finley, a self-described "guerrilla gardener", grew tired of seeing his friends and neighbors ravaged by heart disease and diabetes, so he took action in the form of plants. Worried about "drive-bys and drive-thrus", he realized that urban food deserts were killing his people with poor nutritional choices, especially the children. His tireless efforts have resulted in a local movement to transform wasteful lawns, abandoned lots and (famously) curb strips into vibrant gardens where community involvement is the protest and fresh vegetables and better health are the rewards. No corporate sponsorship or government hand-out required, thanks very much.

My fellow volunteers included a former teacher at Crenshaw High (business) and a former student at the school. The alumna's name was Courtney and she is now a student at UC Santa Barbara, majoring in Political Science and minoring in Black Studies. While talking to this delightful young woman, I thought, 'She needs to meet that young man over there, Trustin, who is running this dig. They would make the cutest couple." And then I asked Courtney how she found out about the dig.

Ah, young garden love!
"Oh, my boyfriend over there is running it…" Yup. She was way ahead of me. How cute are they? (At left.) Trustin was teasing her during the photo, "This is my wife!" and she giggled and protested, "Oh my god, no! No! Girlfriend!" They were all smiles and love, the kind of people that instantly made me feel better about the future.

Then, in the middle of it all, the mayor of Los Angeles, Eric Garcetti, showed up. In crisp black dress pants and a pristine white button-down shirt, he was not dressed for the task. I couldn't resist ribbing him about it.

"Nice of you to drop by, Mayor, but next time, bring some gloves and an old t-shirt or something so you can help out."

His sheepish response seemed genuine. "I know! I just came from the MLK parade so this is what I was wearing. I would love to help. Really! My wife and I had a garden but we couldn't keep one during the campaign. I really loved it. My family always had a garden growing up. We grew tomatoes, lettuce, beans, peas, corn, peppers…."

Hizzoner kept listing vegetables until someone (likely a PR person) tugged at his crisp, white sleeve, and pointed to their watch. Then, Garcetti gave me an impressively firm handshake and thanked me for my time at the school. All the dirty volunteers were then carefully arranged for a group photo (see below) with the very clean civic leader and, after a few goodbye hugs, he was off to the next event.

I'm in the back row, second from left. (Image credit: Jake Camarena, LA GreenGrounds.)
Since I don't live in Los Angeles full time, I didn't know much about Garcetti, other than his slight, handsome face greeting me upon arrival at LAX. After asking around, I discovered that the man was well liked. His last name is familiar to anyone who grew up here. (His father, Gil, was a former LA County DA, frequently quoted in the news.) Amazingly, Garcetti is also the city's first elected Jewish mayor and, at age 42, the youngest in more than a century. I liked him.

But the afternoon hours brought us the real celebrity. I was carrying plants when I overheard a woman exclaim, "You're the reason I'm here!" and I recognized Ron Finley immediately. A few of us girls gathered around him, gushing, and he seemed overwhelmed by the attention. I asked if I could take his picture and said, "As long as you don't say Ron Finley from LA Green Grounds." He explained that though the effort was something he'd helped start, he was heading up the Ron Finley Project and that's what he wanted to be linked to. "I hear a lot from people who say, 'I went to a Green Grounds dig but you weren't there. Why not?'" He can't make it to all the digs and didn't appreciate obligations put upon him. He worried aloud that people kept making the connection anyway and he wasn't sure why.
Ron "Plant some shit!" Finley with his gardening groupies.
"Well, you know your wildly successful TED talk that a gazillion people have seen?," I explained. "It's got the link to Green Grounds next to your bio. That's how I found out about it and yes, it's why I'm here. But I didn't really expect you to be here. No offense, but it's not why I came." He laughed.


Post-dig, I returned to Susie's, enjoyed yet another excellent Oscar screener ("Nebraska", which made me homesick for the Midwest) and then chatted with Susie's friend and temporary roommate, Roseanne, a successful costume director for the film industry. Evidently, she'd just wrapped up production on a fresh batch of Capital One commercials with Alec Baldwin. In professional gratitude, Baldwin sent Roseanne one of those famously decadent foodie gift baskets and we three spent the evening drinking wine, discussing men and feasting on truffle cheese, dried fruits, salted almonds, dark chocolates, olives and the most amazing caramel I have ever put into my mouth. It all tasted like celebrity money - heavenly.

I then drove back to Long Beach - 5 South, 10 West, 605 South - and luxuriated in zero traffic, just 29.2 miles of pure uninterrupted neon bliss under a glowing white bellied-moon. Fondly, I recalled my nights as a limousine chauffeur, back in college, when I ruled these freeways like Captain Cadillac over the high seas. Once rid of the night's batch of drunks, I cherished that drive back to the limo lot, usually around 2:30 or 3 a.m., when the bars closed. At that time, Los Angeles was velvet dark, fast and lovely and almost entirely mine. Certainly, it's when I love her best, when the commuters are sleeping or watching a screen at home.

In no time at all, I was back in Long Beach, my hometown. As the nightly helicopters chopped up the sky, I fell into bed, exhausted, and smiled - it was the most perfect LA day.

Sunday, June 09, 2013

Protect, Serve...and Build

Some 'good cop' stories should be shared.

Recently, my old friend, Kim, brought out two photos, circa 1985, that sparked memories of a story worth retelling, what with the photo evidence and all.

During that year, I was sharing an apartment - my first - with Sharon and Jenny. Though we were all 19 years old, they fancied themselves grown-up ladies who required things like wall decor, napkin rings and furniture. Frequently, I was informed that I did not, stylistically speaking, pull my weight around the house and I'd failed to contribute my fair share of bric-a-brac.

My apathy toward potted plants and scented candles infuriated them but they nagged consistently enough that I finally relented, "Just tell me what you want, fer chrissakes!"

A wall unit, for the living room, to hold the TVs, books, candles and such, they said. "We've already got one picked out at Builders Emporium. All you have to do is buy it." (Builders Emporium was the pre-cursor to Home Depot, for you young uns.)

"FINE," I said.

So, off we went to buy the damn thing. It came in a box, much to my surprise. "Assembly required" and all that. Sharon, having been on her own since age 15, laughed at my ignorance. "I have a screwdriver," she said, confidently, "and maybe even a hammer. We can do this."

We got that sumbitch home and despite our best efforts, found the assemblage beyond our teenage girl-comprehension. At various times, two of us would try, while the third would watch. At some point, we noticed a cop car out in front of the building, no doubt responding to the ongoing domestic disputes in the unit below us.

Sharon, a marvel of resourcefulness, announced: "We're going to get the cops to build this thing. Their job is to serve, right?"

"Mostly protect, I think," I said, "I'm pretty sure that building furniture isn't part of the job...." Still, I didn't want to totally shut down the idea since we weren't getting anywhere with this piece of junk wall unit that I paid $65 for and never wanted in the first place. Before I could think the ludicrous idea through any farther, Sharon was out the front door with Jenny in tow.

In about five minutes, the girls returned with Jerry and Russ, two of Long Beach's finest. Before the cops knew what was happening, Sharon and Jenny - talking rapidly at the same time with exaggerated exasperation - pointed to the disassembled wall unit on the floor while strategically placing a screwdriver in Jerry's hand and a hammer in Russ's. In all fairness, the men - honorable to a fault - really had little choice to help these pathetic damsels in their home decor-distress.

I be damned if those cops didn't put that crappy-to-begin-with piece of furniture together in 10 minutes flat. Naturally, we had to pose for photos, though Facebook was still decades away. We wanted to send them to Kim, our pal in the Air Force, stationed in Germany. (We'd send her letters detailing our adventures, which is why she still had the photos. )

Russ, Sharon, Jenny and Jerry - in front of the finished wall unit.
Following this adventure, Russ and Jerry would occasionally stop by to check on us - our neighborhood was part of their patrol. Once they even dropped by while we were watching "Hill Street Blues" so we made them cocoa.

During this time, my brother, Rob, lived on the Peninsula down in Belmont Shore. He and his roommates would have the most outrageous parties and me, Jenny and Sharon were usually there too. During one party for my brother's birthday, the celebration became large enough that the cops showed up. We heard mumblings, "Oh man, it's over....Bummer, such a great party...Cops are here, shit..." and so on. We began to leave and then recognized Jerry and Russ in the squad car.

"Oh my god! Figures you guys would be here!" said Jerry. Naturally, we had an idea and amazingly, they agreed to it. As my brother remembers it, he's in the living room of his upstairs apartment, bemoaning the party's end when he suddenly hears three young woman singing, "Happy Birthday dear Rooooooob...!" over the squad car's loud speaker.

"It was one of the best birthday moments of my life," Rob says today. (Jerry and Russ did NOT shut the party down, though we toned it down out of gratitude.)

Many years later, I was waiting tables at The Pizza Place when I recognized Russ, having lunch in uniform with three other LB cops. I said, "Do you remember me? There were three of us and we made you build our wall unit...."

Russ, Jen (in boxers), Jerry and me.
His eyes went big and he jumped up from the table, "OF COURSE! I tell everyone that story and no one ever believes me!" Then, he turned to his co-officers and said, "Guys! This is one of those crazy girls I was telling you about! Now do you believe me?!?" 

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Hitting a Wall at High Speed


This week's epiphany: I have serious wanderlust issues.

The entire month of April, thus far, has been spent ambling up the coast and down spine of California, staying in 8 different households. Much as I love to hit the road, see my wonderful friends and catch up with my birth state, I have reached my limit. I am no longer the freewheeling hobo I once was. These days, the weight of my suitcase carries more than just dirty clothes, it carries a heavy question: Where is home?

Yesterday, my spirit cracked wide open as I pleaded with my mom to cancel our trip to the desert house. Mind you, 29 Palms/Joshua Tree is my favorite place on Earth and yet, the very idea of packing up one more time and driving Elsewhere just made me sob. I was tired like I'd never been before - tired in my bones, tired in my corneas, tired in my brain stem.

This is why people put roots down, so they can develop a sense of community, foster relationships and just Be whoever they are in that place. Country songs are full of broken, wandering types who never find this peace and this cannot be my fate; I won't have it.

And I do feel somewhat better today, helped by a vigorous Chinese massage followed by some In-n-Out with mom. I'll have to travel again next week, just up to the SoCal mountains, but for the time being, I seek peace in an empty calendar and a silenced vehicle. I knew I'd reached my limit when I started to have thoughts like, 'I wonder what those silent meditation retreats are like? I should try one.' 


My tendency to constantly move is a very sheer form of avoidance. Real Life will be dealt with when I'm home but when you have no home and are on the move like some fake wannabe rock star, Real Issues never get dealt with.

And this is where I find myself - nose scraping up against a rough, cold wall with no more room to budge.  I need to stand still for awhile and say very little.


I need to catch up with myself.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Strangers, My Favorite People

Last week, I was whisked away to Costa Rica on a work-related trip to visit farmers; it was heavenly. I learned a ton about sustainable farming, economic incentives and Costa Rican birds, bugs, food and culture, but I re-learned something else very valuable:

Strangers are my favorite people.

Me and Scarlet with our Pina Coladas. Our friendship is 48 hrs. old here.
Don't get me wrong. I love my family deeply and my friends are treasured and unique but there is something magical about meeting a stranger and realizing, within seconds, that you know them and that within minutes, your relationship - though embryonic - will grow to full term.

There are those who fear people they have not met and loathe talking to someone new. 'These strangers, the nameless others, who are they? More importantly, who do they think they are? What makes them think they can enter my personal space with all their anonymous doings? I wish they would go away so I would not have to risk a conversation with a total stranger.' 

A father and his two sons we met in a bar one time in Denver. It was the oldest son's (far left) 21st birthday so Kirk and I gave him plenty of life advice. They were awesome.
As a constant traveler and (now) perpetual houseguest, I find this outlook sad and ridiculous. I have lived in three states, visited 29 countries, held numerous jobs and generally cross paths with gobs of nameless folks and the success rate for them being quite nice and interesting is incredibly high, around 98%. Occasionally, my life intersects with a boring human or a rude asshole but very rarely, and when it does I simply walk away, cross the street or change seats, if possible.

"Steve" in New Mexico - so smart and interesting.
Travel only intensifies this philosophy due to how quickly informalities melt away. Last week's group (6 journalists, 3 Rainforest Alliance staff, 2 drivers) quickly became family-esque. There's something comfy about sharing your life report with a person who has no pre-conceived ideas or expectations about your role in the world. Since most of us were writers, articulation was constant. (I'm certain the drivers, Alonso and Mauricio, were relieved they did not speak English.)

By week's end, we were giving romantic advice (especially to the one male writer in the group), career counseling and echoing back what we'd heard. ("You keep mentioning how much you miss exercise, sounds like you need to make it a life priority.") Someone even birthed the idea of us branding ourselves as one group so we could be taken on other media trips. ("We're already broken in!")

During the week, I confessed feelings I have been struggling to say aloud for years. After all, how would they know the difference? It's why I have no qualms about divulging my darkest secret to whomever may be seated next to me on an airplane. Because when the plane lands, they will head off into that swirl of humanity, never to be seen again. This is why fame looks so unappealing to me, because anonymity equals bliss.

While in New York getting a pedicure, I had so much fun with these two. I was the only customer and we spent hours talking about culture differences, food and music. I introduced the young man to Johnny Cash and he was captivated. Success!

I have realized this truth time and time again and am teased about my strong belief. Once, I whined to my friend, Rachel, about moving to Colorado and how I would not have any friends there, she offered no sympathy:

"Yeah. Those first 15 minutes are going to be pretty rough for ya..." she said, rolling her eyes.

Every person I meet is a potential friend with a very high success rate. Perhaps the friendship only lasts while airborne or bumping along on a bus or train but it is real, nonetheless. The spark of a connection is spontaneous, an organic miracle in human relations and it comes from halting amidst your own reality and truly seeing another person and recognizing their existence in this harried, fragmented world.

This is Warren. I slept in his house and he gave me a tour of Pierre, SD. We met via couchsurfing.
One day, I found myself in Portland's airport, waiting at the gate. As per my usual, I was reaching for my gum. (I'm about to board a giant metal tube of humans, fresh breathe is a courtesy to my fellow passengers.) I found one last stick of Big Red - it was old and the foil was glued to the gum. With embarrassing precision and focus, I proceeded to painstakingly peel off the foil with my too-short fingernails. After all, I did have time to kill.

After several minutes of this, an older African-American man in the row across from me finally shook his head said, "Man, you sure do want that stick of gum! Mmm-mmm-mmm. Lordy, lordy." I turned red, he laughed and then handed me a fresh piece. We laughed again, he teased me further and we giggled again whenever we made eye contact after that.

The man was my friend, see? He stepped into my world, observed my life, teased me about my ridiculous ways and then, offered a better solution. This is what friends do, folks.

Met this little girl on a train to Chicago. I couldn't believe she was making potholders with a mini loom - EXACTLY what I used to do. So charming!

I'm excited about the new friends I made on this trip, whether I see them again or not, I care about their well beings, their lives and the success of their dreams. And again, I've learned that travel isn't always about the outer scenery changing, it's about opening up and letting in a previously undiscovered friend.

I know I am always the richer for it.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

The Gentle Barn

Buttercup and Susan
Occasionally, aspects of my life become way overdue. Case in point, getting together with my friend, Susan, who I had not seen in 10.5 years, and visiting The Gentle Barn, a sanctuary for abused farm animals and a healing place for at-risk kids. Recently, I knocked both of 'em out in 24 hours. 

The last time Susan and I had seen one another was at the wedding of a mutual friend (whom we both adore) and once we started talking, it became evident that large chunks of life can happen in a decade:  
"Wait, you lived in San Francisco? Really? How long?"

"You lived in Colorado? When?" 

"What do you mean you're a farmer? How does that work?" 

Luckily, Susan is the same beautiful, smart girl I remember and I'm so pleased she came along on my visit to GB, conveniently located just up Interstate 5 from her place in Eagle Rock.

Vegan the bull, relaxing in the sun. 

His horns were removed as a baby in a sloppy, cruel way so they've come back deformed. Luckily, the horns are hollow and flexible, not cutting in to his head. It would cause more problems to remove them now so they remain.

For all the richness of my life, it has big, gaping holes in it and many of them are animal-sized. It actually hurts my heart that I have no animal relationships right now, one of my lifestyle sacrifices, I suppose. 


So, spending an afternoon after so many loving and deserving animals, well, it did me a lot of good. From the Gentle Barn website: 
The over 160 farm animals that reside at The Gentle Barn have all been rescued from severe abuse, neglect, abandonment or worse. They have been rehabilitated with traditional and non-traditional medicine, top quality nutrition, and countless hours in the arms of our staff and volunteers. They have regained their trust in humankind by realizing that they are now loved, and their abuse is over. Because of their ongoing physical and psychological needs, they can't be adopted and are given sanctuary with us for the rest of their lives.
Madonna, with her wee fans
We are home to horses, donkeys, cows, pigs, sheep, goats, turkeys, chickens, llamas, dogs, and cats. We believe that everyone deserves a chance at life, regardless if they are blind, crippled, deformed, sick, wounded, or just old. 

Because the animals at The Gentle Barn have experienced abuse and severe neglect, their treatment and rehabilitation is extremely expensive and can take a long time. But it is worth it to see them smile again, to watch their eyes light up, to feel them cuddle in your lap, and to see them play with new life and new hope.

Once rehabilitated, the animals become ambassadors, teaching children about the magic and grace of these precious beings.
The founder, Ellie Laks, gives presentations every hour every Sunday about how the sanctuary got started, how it runs and how guests might make the most of their visit. As a child, she would rescue every needy animal she could find and her heartbreak when her parents would get rid of them, saying, "When you're grown up, you can have as many animals as you want."

 
There were llamas, goats, sheep, enormous pigs, chickens, roosters, turkeys, horses, cows, bulls and donkeys - the whole barnyard was there.


Then, there was this guy, - a teenage boy with the most tender way about him, it was striking. He sat on the cement, in the barnyard, for what seemed like hours, his entire attention focused on Claire, an abused turkey who had been rescued just three days before Thanksgiving. 


He kept telling her how beautiful she was and she buried her face in his chest, cooing. He did not seem to be a volunteer or a staff member, just a visitor like myself. 


As people strolled around them, checking out the pigs, chickens and other turkeys, they stayed focused on one another. 


Finally, I asked a volunteer about Claire's story and she shook her head. "Really, it's quite amazing - a big day for Claire. She's been here since November but this is the first time I've ever seen her 'accept' affection from anyone. It's a big breakthrough for her." 


I took a zillion photos of them because I couldn't get over how much I could FEEL the unconditional love that can pass between an animal and human, both of whom need so badly to give and receive affection. I get misty-eyed just looking at these and remembering how gentle he was and how pleased she was to be under his gaze.


Okay, I may have some issues but this is the most romantic thing I've ever seen, like what marketers want you to feel on Valentine's Day.


And then, just when I already couldn't believe it, an amazing thing happened..


She let him rub under her wings! Folks, it's official, we have a serious case of BOY-on-TURKEY love!