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! 

Friday, February 08, 2013


Image credit: skunks
Every night, there are helicopters, swirling overhead nervously seeking, watching, hovering.

Meanwhile, all yesterday and today, an intense manhunt is afoot. A violent man, bitter about his firing from the LAPD several years ago, is on a murderous rampage, already killing three people, including a cop and a young engaged couple, all in the name of revenge. Last I heard, they were chasing him through the mountains.

Here in Southern California, I hear about killings every single day; I'd forgotten about the region's pervasive homicide. Part of our lore, I suppose. I can't help but compare it to the quiet life in North Dakota and really, it comes down to math.

Turns out, murder rates in California and North Dakota are actually quite similar, thanks to massive population growth in North Dakota's oil fields on the western side.  Per 100,000 people, just .5 people were murdered in NoDak in 2008; in 2011, it was 3.5. In California in 2011, it was 4.8 - a vast improvement from 1996, where the murder rate was 9.1.

All day long, the LA media screams, "Murder! Murder! Murder!" because there are 38 million+ people living in the Golden State, compared to 700,000 in NoDak. More people means more beings that kill and die, simple as that.

And being Los Angeles, the media is constantly pining and frothing for new gore and the monster must be fed. The button-downed culture of the Midwest keeps a check on sensationalism. Here in LA, there are no buttons, all the shirts are wide open - off, even.

There's also an inherent wildness about the place - all these races and cultures swirling together in one hot soup, plus all the traffic. All the desperate people who have come here to live out a dream and find reality instead. People live - and die - here in big sweeping gestures. It's grand, and sad.

Meanwhile, life goes on. Should I run today? Oh, look it's raining. I need to get some money from the ATM for Debbie's birthday party at the Gaslamp bar this evening. It's 80s Night, so there may some foul neon-colored shots that must be consumed as Flock of Seagulls or Tears For Fears plays in the background. Do I have any hairspray?

The real question is, would I rather have a sky full of buzzy, ominous helicopters or low-flying crop dusters raining pesticides?

How about kites? Anyone fly those anymore?


After posting this, I went downstairs for lunch and found this in the newspaper's op-ed section: "Helicopters Buzzing LA County Must Be Regulated", about a proposal written by Dianne Feinstein, Barbara Boxer and Adam Schiff.

Monday, February 04, 2013

My Second Race

"OMG, I'm so happy it's over."
With all that goes on in my life and in my head, I have no idea why running is the only topic that's covered here lately. Though I am only just beginning to refer to myself as a "runner", it has come to signify so many things for me, not the least of which is a big, fat metaphor = running from aging.

Me with Jaime
ANYWAY, I completed the Surf City Half-Marathon yesterday in Huntington Beach, California, along with my pal and running coach, Jaime. They shut down a big chunk of Pacific Coast Highway and about 20,000 of us gave it our best shot. The day was gorgeous, although because there were so many of us, they released us in waves so nobody would get trampled. As a result, we didn't get running until at least 8:30 a.m. so we ran in some heat, which I hate.

Nevertheless, the scenery was - as the surfer bros might say - EPIC. Crashing waves on the left, snow-capped mountains on the right, along with palms trees and a wetlands preserve with heaps of beautiful birds. While there weren't as many cheering roadside volunteers on this race, there were plenty of school kids handing out water and running in to the crowd to distribute much-needed high fives.

Here's the thing, in the Mississippi race, I hit a wall at 9 miles but kept going, never once stopping to walk. On this race, I hit a wall at 11 miles but stopped briefly to drink some water. After that, I slid into a run/walk/run situation that slowed me down considerably. My hips were complaining, my feet were whining and it felt like I was turning the key on a motor that would rev but never catch. Rrrr-rrr-rrr-rrrrr...

I completed the Mississsippi race in 3:02 and this one in 3:07, just 5 minutes slower. I'm blaming the heat, the later start and maybe - just maybe! - I wasn't prepared as much mentally for this one; complacency is thine enemy. Still, I'm proud to say that I am still without injury or so much as a blister, so there's that.

With Jaime in HB after picking up bibs.
Still, this one was close to home and running the race with someone more experienced, whom I have known and liked for many years, made it extra special. After the run, we peeled off our shoes and hobbled across the sand (Aaaaaaaah! A sand massage!) and stuck those hot puppies in the Pacific Ocean - glorious.

Truth be told, this race kicked my ass. Methinks I'll stick to some 'maintenance running' and break from training mode for awhile. That is, until I get the itch to race again, which I just know will come again...

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

My First Race

Post-race, I am wobbly but standing.
Unbelievable. I'm 47 and still learning things about myself. Likely, the day one becomes predictable to themselves is the day they become OLD.

Last Saturday, I completed my first race (the Mississippi Blues Half-Marathon) and again, it's not something I ever pictured myself doing. People who run and race for fun? 'Batshit crazy' was my previous opinion. In fact, it still is my opinion, I'm just proud to be one of the batshitters now. Makes me wonder...

Just how many more I-would-never-do-that things do I have in my future?

Shirley's volunteer garb
My stepmother, Shirley, graciously offered to drive me three hours north to Jackson ("hotter than a pepper sprout") to act as my one-woman cheerleading squad. Truly, it helps to have someone yelling your name at the finish line, no doubt about that. She also signed up to volunteer so she had actual responsibilities like helping people store their gear and handing out water. Pretty swell of her, really.

I am good at many things in this life but getting up early is not one of them. Yet, somehow, I was so pumped and excited that I awoke at 5 a.m. and jumped out of bed. Dressed and ready for breakfast in 3 minutes, I headed down to the hotel's breakfast room (which catered to race participants) expecting to be late. I was the only person there.

Down at the starting line, I was nervous and jabbering to anyone, "It's my first race!" It was early and cold - the exact opposite of a cozy warm bed. It all went down in front of the capitol building and I heard Jackson's mayor welcome everyone to the race. Then, somebody played the national anthem on electric guitar and we were off, with helicopters buzzing overhead. It was thrilling!

A fellow runner at the Expo, night before.
Running in a herd like that was amazing, it felt like a river of humanity, many parts of one. I resisted the urge to run faster than normal because I'd received so much advice about taking off too fast at the start and ruining one's pace. Certainly, it hurt my ego to let so many folks pass me but in the end, I'm glad I kept my own pace.

And the hills! Lordy, I didn't train for those. I heard a woman behind me huff: "I've lived in Jackson all my life and I've never noticed the hills until today." More than once, I thought about stopping, especially after the 10th mile, but I never did, not once. My time (3:02) was leisurely, I suppose, but still 30 minutes less than what I predicted. Often, I felt like a sack of potatoes drowning in molasses going backwards, but miraculously, I kept putting one foot in front of the other. 'Twas a miracle.

And I learned interesting things about my body in the process. Even though I got up early to eat breakfast to (ahem) move things along in the bathroom, there were several moments during the race that I became concerned. At one point, I thought, "Wow. I hope I don't crap my pants. That would be embarrassing." Then, I turn the corner, and a kid is holding a big sign that reads: "DON'T CRAP YOUR PANTS."

Then, about the 11th mile, the woman next to me whined, "All I can think about is the bathroom."

"Me too!" said I.

A man ran past us and said, "DON'T EVEN TALK ABOUT IT."

So, evidently, it is a common race problem faced by all runners, not just me. Whew!

Post-race entertainment
At several points along the race, there were blues bands, gospel singers, preachers and lone guitar pickers. This is, after all, Mississippi. My favorite was the blues band under the freeway overpass - it echoed for miles and felt like a carnival. I loved all the incredibly supportive volunteers and the hilarious signs too. My favorite: "RUN, YA'LL!"

The medal - a gee-tar!
More than once, I requested a high five from one of the many volunteers along the way. One guy - a tall handsome, black dude - said, "Gimme a double!", smacked both my hands and clapped me on the back, thus, giving me a boost of much needed energy. I'm telling you, those people were angels to me and everyone in that race. I wanted to take them all home. I especially loved all the folks who shamelessly lied about the hills, "This is the last one, ya'll! I swear!"

Once I'd crossed the finish line, my speaking abilities disappeared. I was not overcome with emotion, just intense fatigue. It's like my tongue was too big for my head and I'd had quaaludes for lunch. My body had been working so hard on going forward without tipping over that all other functions were put on hold. Fascinating stuff.

I'm in there somewhere.
Pre-race, I read a wonderful training guide, Marathon by Hal Higdon, which offered an exact training schedule for newbies like me. I also recruited my pal, Jaime, to be my running coach, whether she wanted the job or not. I also asked every person I'd ever met to offer advice and got lots of excellent tips, but in the end, it was my nephew, Robbie, who gave the best advice.

Minutes before Shirley picked me up for the drive to Jackson, Robbie and I were playing with the dogs, Phoenix and Scooter. Phoenix is a German Shorthaired Pointer who lives to run. "Just pretend you're Phoenix and think about much she can't wait to run every day!" Robbie said. More than once during the race, I envisioned Phoenix's joyful stride and her ecstasy in being free and the image pushed me forward, again and again, right on over that finish line.

Next race: Surf City Half-Marathon in Huntington Beach on February 3rd. Ocean view and even better, it's flat.