Join my mailing list to be sent the latest news, and the latest installments of my weekly column.

Weekly Column

9/01/19: Dear Readers 

Dear readers, 

Joe, Bryn and I are hosting another week-long gathering of family from various parts of this great country. As I am deeply involved in the lives of Bryn, toddlers, a 3-day family wedding, horses, hikes, bike trips, my secret garden, my next book, music, big, creative meals seasoned with lots of laughter, I find myself too spent to pen coherent columns, or even republish older ones (which take nearly as long to prepare as an original).  

So, I’m going to stop writing for a while.  

It’s my first total pen pause in nearly 15 years.   

I hope you’ll keep me on your list: one Sunday down the road I’ll pop up again to offer another adventure starring fascinating animals and their delightful people. 

You are so appreciated! 



8/26/19: An Iron Stunner 

Many people touring Sunnybank’s secret garden this year have commented on the decorative cast iron fence that frames the front garden and house, so I thought I’d relate again how it came to be here. 

A crisp autumn day over a quarter-century ago found me driving to a farmhouse estate sale in the mid-Michigan’s Saginaw Valley area. I’m a scrounger; most of the architectural decorations I cherish were salvaged from various yard and estate sales, or rescued from junk piles in the U.S. and in England, an adventure that has spanned 50 years.) 
What an extraordinary place it was!  The entire farmhouse leaned evenly, as though all its. support beams had given up on the same day. Sun and wind 
had scoured off every scrap of exterior paint years ago, but I thought it retained a certain glum dignity. 
The sale was in the weedy, parched back yard, which changed to untilled fields. After a quick inspection of the farm’s big, tired equipment and the house’s dusty interior, I realized I’d traveled a long way for nothing. The meager furniture was long past exhaustion; dishes and vases were faded and chipped...There was no point in staying for the auctioneer’s patter.  
Reluctant to face the long drive home just yet, though, I decided to explore the rest of the property.  
There were two decrepit outbuildings. Peering through each one’s dirty windows I saw that both structures had been emptied. Despondent, I wandered toward the farm’s small forest.  
Hmmm... Something long and skinny was chained to the thick trunk of an ancient oak tree.  A closer inspection revealed it to be multiple disconnected sections of a cast iron fence, boasting elegant iron fancywork! It dated from the mid-Victorian era, and had probably been chained to this tree for far longer than I had lived. In another year or two the oak and fence would be one. Copious iron rust had attacked the thick chain and was patiently eating away parts of the fence’s intricate design. Nevertheless, I felt the thrill of discovery! Here was a nineteenth century work of art, forgotten by everyone for several lifetimes.  I was determined to own it, and so camped out on that parched meadow with grasshoppers and ants the whole afternoon, watching overalled farmers bid for bits of this and that. 
It was nerve-wracking: some curious soul might wander into that forest and discover my treasure... 
Finally, the last scavenger departed. As two strong men tossed rejected machine remains into the back of an old Chevy truck bed I approached a grizzled, suspendered fellow who looked to be in charge.  He was surprised to learn of the fence, and I kept my voice carefully casual as I asked if he’d sell…  
Rubbing his hairy chin he walked with me into the forest’s cool shade to look it over. He found a bolt cutter and, with some struggling, freed the rusting iron sections. I itched to see the whole thing properly so we laid each length of fence on the ground: it measured 75.5 feet. I muttered something about confining my old dog, cheap, and he nodded, snapping his fat suspenders, but there was a gleam in his eye that told me this man wasn’t born yesterday.  However, I was the only potential buyer left, and a bird in hand... 
After doing the time-honored haggle dance we agreed on a modest price, and he cheerfully loaded each rusted, flaking piece into my long-suffering old GMC van. 
After making sure no iron scrap had been overlooked I trundled off, my grin threatening to displace my ears.  I took that fence to Wheelock Welding on Long Lake, near Traverse City. They sandblasted every inch, re-attached broken parts, and then powder-painted it a lovely forest green.  
My research revealed that this graceful beauty was around 150 years old. It frames venerable Sunnybank House to perfection, hosting climbing red roses and bright red and gold daylilies that weave through its fine design. Lovely fans, instead of sharp points, set off the tops of each rod, and ‘G clefs’ serve as repeated motifs that connect the long length of each panel. And best of all, three magnificent matching gates now open into and out of the secret garden.  
Its art looks wonderful in all seasons, but especially when blanketed in winter’s white mantle.  
I’m still gleeful these many decades later that I have given this ‘Iron Span’ a new life.

8/18/19: Weeding Amid Fun Memories 

I’m on a nearly constant weed hunt in the secret garden, which necessitates crawling around under shrubs and large flower groups. Sometimes silly, funny memories pop up. Savoring them, it’s easy to forget my irritation... 

One November day a few years ago I poured a fresh cup of coffee and plopped down on the front porch stairs after brooming away the night’s skimpy snowfall. Just then, a black squirrel bounced onto the snow-dusted lawn carrying a wrapped candy bar.  Making pleased squirrelly noises he settled down nearby to enjoy his treasure. My laughter didn’t bother him one bit. Efficiently nibbling a scissor-straight cut along the sealed top edge he eased out pieces and crunched away on big Brazil nuts immersed in a caramel glaze. That squirrel had encountered candy bars before, probably on Halloween night: he knew how to tackle this find.  
The crumpled wrap was discarded. Tsk!  
After licking his paws, he bounced off. It was, I thought, a Disney moment!  

Another memory: Just for fun I’d received a silly present from my sister’s husband one late summer day: a chicken.   
Not an ordinary one, mind you, but a weirdly sticky chicky, a smaller, more pliable version of the quintessentially American rubber ducky. Kath’s husband knew it would be the perfect prezzie. They owned a full-sized, plucked, head-still-on rubber chicken that hung discreetly by its feet behind their kitchen door. When squeezed, it emitted a lengthy squawk-sigh. I loved it. So naturally, when he came upon this find, I came to mind.   

Directions were included.  

*INDOOR water-filled toy 
*Toss onto any CLEAN, FLAT surface 
*Don’t toss onto concrete  
*Don’t throw too hard.  (Toss flat out, no spin) 
*Don’t pull it up from its hard, smooth landing place too fast: wait until it’s reformed 
*If necessary, wash chicken with soap and water 

Intrigued, I hurled the little pullet onto my sister’s kitchen tile floor. SPLAT! It mimicked that 60 mph runner, an alien fake cop in ‘The Terminator,’ who’d morphed to mercury-jiggleblobs when shotgun-blasted by another alien, Schwarzenegger, during an LA car-cop chase. Anyway, it quivered for a few poisonous seconds in jellied indecision on the highway before each blob joined up again to reform the same implacable cop.  
This chick was almost as slick!  

With practice, my skill grew. It was fascinating to watch those marble-bright, black eyes re-sorting themselves. I’ve never seen anything quite like it.  

Later on, just for fun, I plunked on my purple-and-white striped Cat-In-The-Hat hat and meandered down our shady September street. (Occasionally I’d bump into children who recognized that hat, and we’d chat about favorite Dr. Seuss books.)  Hmmm…Impulsively, just before I closed the front door, I popped Chicken Little into my jeans pocket. 
You never know...   

A guy cruising by on a big Harley motorcycle pointed at my Seuss-topped noggin and yelled, “Nice headgear!” Laughing, he pulled over to the curb to lift his heavy helmet’s visor. “Now there’s a hat that’d be a lot more fun to wear. Wanna trade?”  
Grinning, I declined but offered to splat a chicken onto his helmet, which would be a nice change from the bugs his protective headgear must constantly put up with.  

He stared at me, and said, nervously, “Ahhh, what?” 
“Trust me,” I replied.  “Gimme the helmet.”   

Baffled, he did. I set it safely down on the grass, then whipped out Chicken Little and flung him onto its dome.  


Confused, the puddle-y rubber reassembled itself with some difficulty, unaccustomed to the helmet’s curve.    

Amazed, the guy stared at the transformation, then began laughing so hard he practically fell off his bike. Naturally, he had to try it. 

Solemnly I whipped out the pullet’s little piece of paper and read him the directions. Thus educated, he aimed for his helmet: Splat! The chicken went egg-flat but reformed more quickly the second time. (Had it adapted to the smoothly alien helmet’s terrain?)  

Pullet-splatting is addictive.  

Chatting, we took turns flinging it. Eventually, he motored off, laughing and saluting. I sauntered home, hung up the Cat’s hat and patted the pullet in my pocket, grinning.  

What a ridiculous, fun afternoon!  

Two cheerful things of note:  

-My weeding had become painless,  

-and- I remembered  that that chick’s wandering black eyes had captivated him, too...)

8/11/19: New Bodies For Old Swingers  

Doors, like the gazillion phone and electric wires that lace the space over our heads, have become invisible. But they can elicit admiration. 
People who tour my secret garden always exclaim over the five big, curved ancient-looking doors that introduce various areas. Doors inside our Queen Anne Victorian home are truly different, too. 
Here are some suggestions, if you’d like to create your own. 

Most doors are bores. But with imagination and time any door can be transformed, from just a room separator, to a unique expression of the room it announces. 

Count them. It’s amazing how many we own. Why not tweak one? Antique shops and builders’ stores are crammed with fascinating stuff to lure you into making mischief. You don’t need big bucks, just big ideas. 

Start with the basement bore. Do you ever really look at it?  See how easy it is to make it ‘reappear’ again. If you mess it up, no one will notice, but doing it up in a charming way will boost your creative confidence and tickle your imagination- and maybe even charm visitors.  Soon, other bare doors will make your fingers itch. 

So, indulge me here. 
Design intriguing old-world ‘hinges’ on a big roll of newsprint. Computer sites featuring wonderful ‘Old World’ cottages, churches and libraries portray doors that boast wonderful little iron windows or/and world-class ironwork. But who can afford that sort of extravagant decoration? 
Here’s how. Transfer the newsprint design to plywood, and cut it out with a jigsaw( stationary) or sabre saw (handheld). Sand away snags, round the edges with sandpaper (to age it), paint your ‘iron’ a flat black, and apply right next to the existing, regular hinges. They’ll look exactly like iron. 
I put an ancient Victorian heat register into my workshop’s alley-facing door; it’s splendid as a window! Les fitted the inside with Plexiglas to keep the room decently warm. 

Hunt computer sites featuring European architecture. Wonderful ancient doors can inspire your creative side. Or, simply design something woodily wacky or whimsical. 
 Troll antique shops for interesting doorknobs.  Keeping their patina, install them, substituting your own imaginative wooden back plate. Where is it written that these must be plastic, tiny, and rectangular? A Florida man who loved snakes used his sabre saw to cut out a startling, two-foot-wide snake-y back plate from an old piece of plywood to announce a live, writhing collection of brightly colored snakes in a special room on the other side; it was a big hit. 
A friend applied a medium-sized black chalkboard. People write all manner of stuff on it. Erase when messages or drawings get old... 

Or, just re-face the whole door! I’ve dubbed this woody retread ‘cladding’. My formerly boring bathroom door, for example, features my mother’s hand-painted flowers-on-wood, set against a slim, warm oak sheet screwed to the existing door and framed out. It’s a really attractive façade. 

Or, Find realistic wallpaper that pictures shelves full of variously sized classical books. After snipping out each ‘book spine,’ re-arrange and glue them onto the newly dressed door. (Discarded real book-spines would work, too.) Create ‘shelves’ from ready-cut doweling. Wow! That door will develop depth! Stain, or paint. What an interesting way to announce libraries and dens!  No one could mistake it for a bathroom or kitchen door. 

I inherited my mother’s designed and crewel-embroidered bedspread. T.J. Maxx offered a large resin panel for ten dollars, featuring eerily similar birds and flowers. (Intriguing goodies of every sort are displayed on this store’s back shelves). Now our ‘clad’ bedroom door announces Mom’s art. 

Or, what the heck- PARTIALLY clad it. Then, paint something onto just that part. 
The point is, anything goes. 

A garden door could host an old mirror, with wood panes added, to reflect what’s growing. Your garden will appear larger, as well as intriguing. 
When constructing outside doors, poke through lumberyards for exhausted, warped wood that’s experienced every kind of weather. Or visit architectural salvage shops to hunt for old planks, which add thickness, age and character to a door. Rummage sale bunk bed slats, bolted together, form the garden door leading into my garage.  It’s heavy, and curved at the top, with a homemade latch and Old World hinges. Visitors marvel at the expense of “getting it to the U.S. from Europe.” (I always smile.) Australian Timber Oil, obtained from any paint store, turned the wood a rich, deep brown... 
A bit weather-beaten now, it still radiates character. 

I bolted the alley door together with tired lumberyard wood, curved it, and then painted butterflies on a vine. A big, gleaming spiderweb emanated from a knothole, because I used silver car bumper paint. (Alas, it finally died of old age after a quarter-century of faithful service. Never mind: We created another one!) 
We curved all of my garden (and basement) doors. It’s easy. Simply re-attach the corner pieces that were cut away when altering a rectangular door, to that door’s frame. Presto! An arched doorway appears. 
Cost? Some time. One saw. A few nails. Patience. 

If you’re tired of tea and TV, or winter-weary, plunk down two sawhorses, one plain Jane door, and give your old, practically invisible swinger a new body!

8/04/19: The Lesson 

 After Bryn’s surgery to remove a cancerous neck tumor I was given meds to administer for potential infection and to control her pain. She mended well, and quickly these drugs became unnecessary. But they’d taken their toll. Her carefully managed internal flora and fauna had been disrupted. Now she was having trouble keeping food down. Her stomach was in active rebellion. We stopped the antibiotic, which was a prophylactic anyway, and that kept her from tumbling into bowel collapse. But she still had regurgitation troubles, and was rapidly losing weight and energy. 

After Dr. Jossens removed the stitches she prescribed tablets that would act as a stomach coating. I was to emulsify one fat pink oval tablet into a syringe of water, shake for about ten minutes to entirely dissolve it, then administer the liquid orally each evening.  

But Bryn interpreted this oral syringe as another needle, and she’d clearly had enough of those. So she fought me. It was quite a struggle to get the meds into her mouth. I was as scared as Bryn about this reaction. She was emotionally and physically worn out. 

ENOUGH, Boss. No More of all this! 

It was awful to see her- to see us- so unraveled. Bryn is always so calm, and accepting, and gentle.  So am I.  

HOW could I fix us? How could I get this stuff into her without both of us panicking? 

Then, as I was vacuuming, I ‘saw the Light.’ MY fault! I hadn’t done anything right. I hadn’t thought it out, hadn’t realized she’d resist with such fear-borne strength!  I‘d blundered on, forcing it down!  

She had to have this stomach soother. It had made a big difference the day before.  

So, how could I get it into her without more trauma?  

I’d been very tired and emotionally spent, but that was no excuse for such a dumb approach. 

knew better. 

I remembered how she’d fearful exited the room whenever the vacuum was brought out to clean it.  

That wouldn’t do, thought I. Fear is a good thing if I, her Alpha, declare that a thing or person should be feared.  

Vacuums and other noisy machines are to be ignored. 

So, that day I’d placed her in her living room bed and looked right at her. 


I held her gaze. 

The order would be obeyed, but cause extreme anxiety. So I’d vacuumed around her with my back toward her as I massaged the carpet with the scary thing.  

Here’s the hard part of the ‘cure.’ 

I vacuumed the same places over and over until my peripheral vision confirmed that her body had begun to relax.  

I vacuumed until she folded into a nesting-for-sleep position.  

I continued to vacuum until her vigilant body went into ‘ignore’ and her eyes shut. 

THEN I’d turned it off, patted it and said, “Good vacuum. Thank you.” She watched this performance with keen interest. I wound up and secured the cord, and rolled the machine to its storage area. I knew she was watching, but didn’t look directly at her.  But when finished I glanced down at her and smiled proudly. “GOOD dog!”   

Happy to have done well, she collapsed into sleep.  

Half an hour later, though, I brought the thing out again, and vacuumed much closer, all the while ignoring Bryn and humming quietly.  

She didn’t move.  

She didn’t tense up.  

She simply ignored it. 

I’d left no doubt in her mind: Vacuums are noisy, but harmless servants.  

She has never worried about it again. Not even a little.  

Here, then, was the key. I would address her fright directly- TALK to her. Bryn is a bright dog, having the comprehension of a three-year-old.  

Evening came. I prepared the medicine, and with the syringe in plain view, went to her bed and sat on the rug in front of her. She sat stiffly, prepared to resist.  

She was scared.   

Stroking her I spoke softly, calmly, slowly.  

“Bryn, you need this medicine. I’m so sorry I frightened you before. Will you allow me to do this? It won’t hurt. I promise. Sniff it.”  

She did, very thoroughly. And looked at me, still rigid.  

I spoke again quietly, gently, apologetically. 

“This is a good thing. It will help you. Will you please trust me?”   

Now came the Wonderful part. I’ll try to convey it exactly.   

She held my gaze for a long, long time. I had the good sense to keep quiet and wait. She looked, and looked--- and then, her whole body went limp and soft. That ‘letting go’ of fear and mistrust just blew me away.  

I nodded and smiled. She closed her eyes and waited. I raised her lip a little, inserted the fat syringe into her cheek pouch and pushed the injector. She sat there, eyes still shut, taking in the medicine, swallowing it, licking her lips rapidly. 

Hmmm...It actually didn’t taste too bad. 

She found my eyes again when the vial was empty. The tip of her tail twitched.    

OK, Boss. We done, here?   

Stunned, and not a little awed by what had just happened- and not happened- I warmly thanked her, told her she was a very good dog, and left the room to recover my poise. She settled into her bed, pleased. 

It’s been easy ever since that night. 

We’re ‘good’ again as a team. 

May I NEVER underestimate my best friend again.

7/28/19: The Only Constant is Change...  

This has been a difficult 14 days for Joe and me. In the past few months I’d begun to notice too many micro-signals that something was ‘off’ with Bryn- the set of her tail, her walk, a slight energy decline...signs not obvious to anyone else were, for me, potential red flags. Maybe that little ‘thing’ on her neck needed more careful scrutiny, too. 

On Monday, July 15, Dr. Jossens, a surgeon at Grand Traverse Veterinary Hospital, examined a nickel-sized, minimally inflated pink ‘balloon’ on her neck, about to go flat and become tricky to find again. (The little oddity had been shown to another doc in a Saginaw clinic some months ago, but he’d decided it was probably an injury from rough play at the dog park...And I’d agreed.) 

Dr. Jossens was suspicious, though, and immediately did a biopsy; twenty minutes later she told me Bryn has Mast Cell tumor, a blood cancer. We scheduled its surgical removal for early the next morning.  
She excised a large area – a long incision showed the extent of her work- and also removed deeper dermal layers in the area around and under the tumor. Sleepy Bryn came home that evening to begin her recovery, and the big specimen was immediately sent off to a canine pathology lab for micro-examination.  My husband, a physician, reviewed the pathology report a few days later; it showed a low-grade tumor with a good prognosis (Kiupel system) and indicates we can hope for a normal lifespan. In addition, the far edges of the tissue excision showed only healthy tissue.  

Bryn’s not in pain now, and is managing her wound intelligently.  Put simply, I told her that touching/scratching that long surgical scar was forbidden: She was never to scratch it. She looked at me, cocked her head, thought it out, and never has.  
Not once since the surgery.  
There is no bandage, no cone, due to the location and length of the wound.  
Fresh air is a great healer.  
That long stitch line has remained infection-free. Which means the hidden, dissolvable stitch line layers underneath the skin are mending well, too. I clean the visible one four times a day.   

Two days ago Joe and Dr. Jossens chatted by phone about Bryn’s situation in greater depth, and he subsequently explained, in great detail, the printed out lab results he’d received from her. I’m able to absorb data more fully, now that the first terrible shock has worn off. I can think again, and take a deep breath. 

Bryn has coping skills. She uses her left paw to scratch the left side of her neck, which seems to relieve stitch-itch on the right side. She looks at me as she does this, letting me know that she knows what she’s doing. At night, though, I put one of my socks on her right hind paw to cover her claws there, in case she wakes and sleepily tries to scratch the wound.  
But she never has. (I’d know immediately, just by looking at it.) 
Some might think this sort of communication represents a fantasy on my part. I can only say this: she understands what is necessary to protect the wound. Bryn has a huge vocabulary. I watch how she copes; those intelligent eyes, which meet mine directly, reassure me.   

No problem, Boss. I’ve got this. 

When I grab a sofa pillow and lie next to her for an afternoon nap she’ll rest her paw on my arm for comfort as we snooze together.  
I sleep on the couch every night; she is inches away. We are each other’s support. If she needs anything she’ll nudge me gently and explain with her eyes.   

We have hopes now that she can enjoy a good quality of life. My expectations are not high, or low. I expect nothing. We three are together now. We live for and in the moment, loving our walks, our quiet hours in favorite beauty spots during this splendid summer. She quietly asks for what she needs, and loves us overtly. We are so lucky.  

Grooming Bryn has always been part of her daily life. She stands, sits or lies quietly, as per my requests. This familiar routine makes it easy for me to hunt for new lethal ‘bubbles’.  

The doctor may decide to biopsy some lymph nodes down the road, to more deeply check the lie of the land... 

Some additional info: 

- Should you encounter us in the garden, please don’t touch Bryn. She is polite, but her body is sensitive these days.  

- We slowly walk the shady parts of our neighborhood, as well as Grand Traverse Bay, with an adapted leash arrangement: her expanded collar is belted around her hips. The attached lead is never pulled. Rather, I guide with my voice (“Turn right, straight ahead, turn left, slow down, wait...”). The collar-leash set-up serves only as a safety line. 

It looks a bit peculiar, though.  

- At her favorite beach yesterday she chased her rubber bone a few times, tiring quickly, but looking relaxed and happy. 

We’ve won this first battle, but I won’t relax until we’ve won the war.

7/21/19: Santa Barbara Stars, Fleas, and Laughter 

These last ten days have been truly challenging, and to cope better I’ve pulled up some stored memories to relish. This one dates back to 2011, when Joe, Lisa, our younger daughter, and I visited California for a wedding. 

We’d lived in Santa Barbara from 1975-77, and it didn’t rain once during our stay of nearly two-and-a-half years. If you needed a bathroom anywhere in most of California, you had to buy something. Glasses of water and cloth napkins vanished from restaurant tables. Lawn police heavily fined desperate homeowners who’d sneak out to water their expensive landscapes in deep night. 
Finally, anything green died: lawns became stone. Literally. 
That awesome drought lasted more than four long years. There were rarely clouds: just perfect blue sky, day after month after year. 

It was a town where I’d shop for groceries alongside Cary Grant, or Fess Parker, of Davy Crocket TV fame; where fish, barely out of the ocean, were delivered to the shop around the corner from my sister’s home; where I could pick avocados right off the tree in her garden; and where I’d perambulated our infant daughter, Jenny, to Cliff Drive Park next to the wharf, there to watch the occasional large shark idly eyeing people strolling the long boardwalk. 
I’ve never cared to swim in that ocean. No sir. In there be monsters. 
(Recently, we read that a surfer had been eaten north of town.) 

I have mixed feelings about Santa Barbara. The karma there was never- quite right. Two examples: 
- Our dog Fred was ticketed fifteen minutes after we hit town. Though licensed and at heel in my sister’s front yard, he wasn’t leashed. Money was scarce; every dollar counted, and the fine was steep. I was so angry! 

-After living with Kath for a while we’d finally managed to rent a tiny, inexpensive cinderblock home on Cliff Drive (100 feet away from the famous 1000 Steps, which descend to one of the world’s most spectacular beaches). That place was not only a long-time garbage receptacle but also infested with fleas. The guy and his frowsy wife owned three large, bug-ridden dogs and two Siamese cats. After we signed a year’s lease they’d moved out the next day, leaving us with a colossal mess.  

As we walked into our home my white jeans were quickly covered with moving black specks.  

We’d faced some filthy rental houses over the years (during his four years of medical school and then his residency, we’d moved twelve times in eleven years to different states, and even to London, England for a three-month surgical stint at St. Mary’s hospital.) Most of our rentals were in pretty sad condition. This tiny house, though, took First Prize for filth. For three awful weeks we released potent flea bombs, vacuumed and scrubbed everything from the ceiling down (the stove had to be tossed; it was too far gone) till our hands ached, and applied gallons of paint to grubby, fly-specked walls. 
Then came the test. Wearing those same white jeans, I lay on the carpet and waited. Five anxious minutes later, not. one. flea.  

We moved in and made it shabby chic-charming. I was seven months pregnant. 

Now, thirty-six years later we were back again. Lisa, our younger daughter, could see where her parents and baby Jen had once lived.  

One pretty afternoon we parked in front of the same boxy, one-story cinderblock residence we’d occupied for over two years, which still has no yard, garage or ocean view, because one other teeny house stands between it and the cliffs.  

Nevertheless, it was up for sale for well over one million dollars! 

We trekked down the 1000 Steps to that wide, glorious, empty beach, and walked for a long time on golden sand beneath towering cliffs. I collected seashells for my Traverse City garden fountain, and we recalled nine-month-old Jenny, our older daughter, holding Joe’s forefinger as she navigated the damp sand, taking multiple steps to her daddy’s one… 
It was a marvelous, reminiscent hour. 

Then, a fun, weird thing happened. Climbing up to the street again, huffing and puffing, we three were greeted by – odd, musical chuckles. 

There were no people about, and few cars. So, who…? The sounds were strangely infectious: we found ourselves chuckling, too. 

There! A chocolate lab hung out a barely moving truck’s window. His dark eyes were glued to the 1000 Steps’ entrance.  
No…it couldn’t be that dog! 

Could it? 

Yes. Anticipating the Steps and beach, he was- chuckling!  These sounds were indescribable. Unique in all the world. 
But then, when the driver picked up speed again and they left, his ethereal chuckles changed to an anguished “Oo,o,eeo,o,aho…”  

Our hair rose. We stood there, staring down the empty street, open-mouthed. 
“This whole thing is unreal!” Lisa exclaimed.  

Exactly so. 

The truck shrank with distance and finally disappeared around a corner...We continued to stare. 

Thirty seconds later the same vehicle popped into view again! They were coming back! His uncannily beautiful libretto had switched from despair to tonal joy! The dog (maybe as talented as the world-famous opera singer, Pavarotti) had convinced his master to reconsider!  

The thirty-something guy parked and issued a soft “heel” command. He was smiling to himself and shaking his head as he passed us to approach the Steps; the delighted animal practically bounced on his toenails next to him. ‘Chuckles’ shot us one triumphant glance before the two of them began the long descent down to the ocean, that haunting laughter echoing down the stone stairs before finally fading, incorporated into the Pacific’s rhythmic, beach-lapping sighs. 

Never, even all these years later, have we (and, I suspect, his owner) heard anything remotely like this dog’s vocal prowess, or witnessed a happier, more demonstrative canine.  

Santa Barbara’s irritating memories are more palatable too, when filtered through this surreal experience.

7/14/19: A Battle of Wits      

My daughter and I were chatting in my kitchen when my friend Les, who was working outside, climbed the porch stairs, opened the screen door and said, quietly, “We’ve got a serious situation developing.” He glanced toward the North Gate’s eight-foot-high fence. We rushed to the window. There, sitting under the three-inch overhang on the twelve-foot-long plank that ran between each fence pillar, a chipmunk was munching a pumpkin seed in the warm sun. His snug home and its larder were just inside a gnawed opening in that high fence corner.    

Just above him, gazing down from the pillar’s narrow, flat shelf, barely out of sight, Cat sat.  
Not a whisker moved. His long, fluffy tail hung down, but did not twitch. He was stone. 
The oblivious chipmunk was just six inches lower than Death.    

It was stunning to watch the little guy happily nipping away the edges of his seed while savoring the last of the day’s warmth. He was so close, so close to perpetual winter.   

“What should we do?” I gasped. Lisa rocked and watched, then said, quietly, “Oh, nothing, I think. My money’s on the chippie, Mom.”    

I stared at the tableau. Chipmunks are incredibly quick. They always have a Plan. This little one was dining right next to his door. One chipmunk-sized stride away from it would bring oblivion.  
He finished, wiped his whiskers, fluffed his fur, and closed his eyes. And somehow, perhaps from delicate shifts in the air, Cat’s ears and nose transmitted precisely what was happening.   

Chippie sighed, savoring the seed’s lingering taste. He sunbathed for perhaps three awful minutes. Cat sat, yellow eyes locked onto where he knew the chipmunk was- so near, so incredibly near.  
Nobody breathed.    

Teeny brown eyes popped open. Thoughtfully, Chippie looked around. Something- something didn’t feel quite right… (“Look UP!” I whispered.)    

Hmmm. Should he shift away from the overhang and onto the fence’s high, wide boardwalk for even more warmth? It might be nice. His eyes searched for danger. His fur prickled slightly… 
A careful survey…Nothing.  
He closed his eyes again.  

We tensed as Cat inched forward one millimeter. This was an astounding demonstration of the feline’s ability to ‘read’ his prey, without actually seeing him.  
It was a curiously intimate moment.  

Chippie’s eyes opened. Zip! He vanished into his house. Cat, still unable to actually see this, knew instantly. He rose slightly, but waited…waited… Pop! Out came the chipmunk again. Under his porch roof, in precisely the same place, he sunbathed while holding a seed in his cheek pouch to soften it.    

Cat moved not one muscle. His control and concentration were absolute. 
One minute later Chippie leisurely brought the softened seed forward toward his tiny incisors, trimmed the edges, and ate it. 
Death’s laser-eyes bored into the wood, measuring. The Pounce had to be precise. One misstep and he’d probably forfeit the last of his nine lives. 

Suddenly, Chippie skipped away from his sheltered porch. We gasped! But in that millisecond, his well-placed eyes saw the monster, and- too quickly for us to register- he reversed course and skittered into his home.    

Cat sagged. Rats! He’d been made! On the faint chance he might be wrong he remained immobile a bit longer, hoping, but eventually conceded. Blinking eyes and twitching tail betrayed his immense frustration and disappointment. The exultant chip-chip of the triumphant, ‘munk,’ who’d exited his home from a ground-level door, mocked him.  

Humiliated, Cat slowly turned his head to glare down at the laughing rodent in the Fairy Garden before carefully descending, his old body trembling with rage.  
Next time, munk-dung. Next time. 

We mopped our brows and cheered!  
No showdown today…

7/7/19: Chella’s Story 

Chella, a gorgeous 21-year-old black Friesian gelding now living at Casalae Farms’ superb stable, has a story that is at once awful and hopeful. 
Here’s how I came to know him, and his very nice, deeply caring owner, Laurie. 


A month or so ago I was cleaning a stall in early morning, a few stalls down from a formerly empty one, now occupied by a horse that had only just arrived here from Florida. I paused to watch as Laurie snapped on his lead rope and led the very large, tall animal down the long main aisle to just outside the big barn doors, where the veterinarian waited. In the stable’s dim morning light I glanced at his jet-black profile, very long, thick mane and tail, and arched neck as he slowly walked to the vet’s open van, lined with cabinets housing various instruments and medicines. There he stood, in profile, calmly awaiting events. He was so still! His beautiful tail hung almost to the ground. 
The vet began an extensive examination, so I got back to work. Soon I was ready for another stall. Why not do his? There was quite a mess in there, so I got right to it.   

Suddenly, his owner peered into the stall’s semi-darkness and asked if I could hand her one of his fresh poop balls. The doctor needed to check it for anomalies. I quickly obliged, and thought nothing more of it. Thirty minutes later, though, Chella was led back to his new home. He towered over me. I was still working; our two bodies and the big poop bucket gobbled up space, but he didn’t seem to mind. I had the strong sense that he appreciated my efforts. 

He began eagerly eating his hay. 
Just a few minutes after I left the dark stall, though, he very carefully lowered himself to the soft ground. Hearing him go down, I peeked in through his window, wanting a better view in the stronger morning light. 
Oh, My GOD. 
This beautiful creature was stick-thin! I hadn’t noticed before, as the light was feeble and I was usually bent over, working, and because Chella was so tall. Now, lying there, his hip and rib bones protruded obscenely. He looked dreadful.   

There he was, on his belly, hooves sticking straight out, neck still arched, the picture of utter exhaustion. I realized with a jolt that it had been a great effort to support his weight during the exam, as he was so emaciated. 
I stared, stunned and tearful, and he looked up at me, his soft eyes showing how tired and weak he was. 
They drooped. He slept, nose pointing at the ground. 
I cried, making no sound. 
HOW had this horror happened??   

Laurie joined me at the window and anxiously asked how long he’d been down. I assured her he’d managed to eat some hay, and had just begun to nap. 
“Good...That’s good.” She sighed and began carefully mixing powdered medicines into plastic baggies- antibiotics, vitamins, minerals and soothing meds- for his huge leg ulcers, now coated with special ointments, and for general malnutrition. These powders would be added to his grain bucket twice daily. She told me he had also been diagnosed with stomach and throat ulcers, which had developed due to extreme stress and anxiety.  
Medicine to keep him less anxious was also included. 
God only knew the extent of his stomach and esophageal ulcers...   

It was tricky to eat; his feet hurt; his teeth were wobbly from food deprivation, and bright light bothered his eyes, so he’d need to gain strength in this snug, gently dark stall for some time. Food would be available day and night. Fresh hay, stuffed into a very large, soft hanging hay bag, would force him to tease out small mouthfuls. (Eating too much too fast would cause considerable gastric distress.)   

This sort of criminal neglect occurs more than we like to think. 

Laurie told me they’d migrated to Florida to avoid Michigan’s winter. In early spring she’d found a boarding stable there with good recommendations, boarded Chella there and then drove to Traverse City to find a good stable, and settle into living here during northern Michigan’s six months of nice weather. She rang the Florida stable nearly every day to check on him, and was assured he was doing just fine. But when she asked for specifics regarding hay servings, different stable hands, every day, were evasive. Their reluctance to simply answer the question made her nervous... 
then suspicious... 
then alarmed! 
She drove back there with dread. And found that Chella was starving! Other boarded horses there were thin, too! (The owner’s animals were fine.) 
“How many flakes of hay per day has he been given?” she demanded, angrily. (Each flake constitutes a small portion of a bale. Normal rations are two to three flakes or so, depending on seasonal conditions.) 
The hired help looked away. Or walked away. 
One shrugged and ignored her. 
A second man muttered, “one.”   
But he wouldn’t look at her. 
A third man just sighed. “Look, Mam. We feed these horses what we are told to feed them- one flake daily,   sometimes. The Boss wants to save money. As you know, decent hay is scarce and very expensive; it has to be shipped down here from the north.” 
Horrified by the boarded horses’ appalling condition Laurie immediately phoned Casalae Farms, described what she’d discovered, and told them she was removing Chella immediately, and, after reporting the abuse to the Florida authorities, would drive straight to the Farm. Karen, Casalae Farms’ owner, assured her that Chella would have a stall, and that the vet would be waiting when she arrived.   

Finally, after three months of agony, he was safe. He found it hard to relax, though. Maybe today there wouldn’t be food. 
Chella was a bag of bones wrapped in a bundle of nerves.   

I stopped at his stall the next morning, and, after making sure it was okay to offer him a Red Delicious apple, I bit off a piece and offered it. Chella came out of the soft darkness and sniffed it, incredulous. I spoke softly and kept my hand extended. After a long time, he delicately scooped it off my palm and ate it with enormous pleasure. That poor horse groaned as he gulped it down. Copious saliva poured out of his mouth. Oh, it was so delicious!  
I bit off another nice chunk. He took it from me very gently, and ate it feverishly. More saliva poured out. He simply couldn’t devour it fast enough. Keeping each bite a reasonable size, I spoke to him. 
“Hey, slow down, boy. You’re safe here. There is an endless amount of food and water, and this apple is yours. Only yours.”  
He stopped chewing and stared at me. 
I couldn’t stop my tears. 
Chella understood. 
But honestly, though he tried not to eat at rocket speed, he just couldn’t help it. 

He was so very hungry.   

I went in and cleaned his home, noting that he’d relieve himself in just one area so he could lie down. I cleaned everything and staff added lots of fresh sawdust while he watched. When I left he immediately lowered himself into the soft bedding and fell into a deep sleep. 

He was, I thought, on the way toward finding a small measure of peace. 

The next day he immediately came to the window when I called his name, and looked hopefully at me. A fat apple sat in my palm. He was joyful! 
Today I allowed him to bite off a chunk. He did this very carefully, and chewed it deliberately, and (I noticed happily,) a bit more slowly. Less saliva flowed. He savored every bite, and never once looked away from me.  
I told him again that he was safe in this place. There would always be good food, fresh water and clean bedding. 
I know this totally silent horse understood me.   

It was hard to look at his huge sores when I cleaned, but every day there was improvement. He ate every scrap of his grain mixed with warm mash, vitamins and anti-anxiety medicine. Laurie came in frequently to check on him. The farrier and vet monitored his feet and teeth, and small adjustments to his meds were made as needed. 

One gently warm, sunny June morning, Chella was led outside to a spacious paddock that housed a couple of flakes of hay and unlimited fresh water. 
Sunlight and fresh air would aid in healing; he was strong enough now to spend some time outside soaking it in. 
His hipbones and ribs still jutted out, but those horrid leg sores were healing fast. He walked slowly to me and bit into his apple with great pleasure and a deep sigh. 
The next day Bud, an elderly, beautiful Arabian gelding, was led into the same paddock and introduced as a possible companion. Instead of rejecting him with teeth and hoof as others had, Bud sniffed a nervous, shy Chella -and immediately accepted him. The two new friends soaked up the sun, ate hay and swatted flies together.   

I will always love Bud for that gesture. 

Tune in for next week’s update!

6/30/19: A Spring Unveiling 

Last Sunday two fine things happened.  

Connie, my first teacher, invited me to ride the Farm’s Arabian stud stallion, Menesson, outside in the big, grassy, white fenced paddock. I’d ridden only in their big indoor arena for the past year, where there is more complete control, and where weather isn’t a factor. (We’d tried to go outside two other times this spring, only to be thwarted by rain and thunderstorms.) 

Today was lovely. The sky, a robin’s egg blue, hosted a light, intermittent breeze that riffled the emerald leaves of newly greened trees, and gently nudged fluffy clouds across the endless ceiling above.  
There were few passing cars, now, in late morning. 

The second fine thing: Menesson’s long tail would be revealed at last. I’d never seen it unbound. Tails as long as his are expertly braided just below the dock (a horse’s tailbone), then covered with a special wrap, akin to an Ace bandage, and, finally, covered with a long pouch to keep the hair clean and dry and aid the horse in swatting flies. 
But there’s another reason: he wouldn’t step on it when backing up, or snag it on fences or trees, or have it trodden on by other horses’ hooves. Ouch!   

We saddled him and walked out to the big paddock. Chris, the man who knew all about this art, undid it and combed it out. I was agog! It had to be eight feet long! Chris smiled and commented that he’d trimmed at least a foot away just a week ago! 
I hopped aboard. Menesson was happy to stretch his legs, but he soon began to signal some apprehension. His ears perked as he stared toward a possible predator.  
I looked that way. Aha! Someone renting the home next door had hung a slim, bright red hammock between two large trees just a little way from the fence. The breeze caught it intermittently, billowing the light nylon, and a potential horse ‘monster’ was born. 
This sort of thing is why a rider always needs to be alert. A horse will react instantly to a perceived threat, as it is a prey animal.  

I reassured him, and felt a slight lessening of tension, but one good windy blow to fully inflate and swing that hammock could send me flying. Menesson is highly trained and was certainly showing discipline and trust in his rider, but still, it would be stupid to ride too near that thing. I hate flying unless I choose to. 
(Joe wryly commented that statistically, horseback riding is more dangerous than motorcycling, which we enjoy, too.) 
I kept to a large circle on the far side of the paddock, but his attention was still divided.    
Joe took some pictures so I could see how we looked together. Two more nervous shies from my horse, though, signaled the end of outside riding. (The next door resident would be asked to relocate the hammock, or let Farm staff slip it off its moorings while students practice outside.)  
I hopped off and led him back into the barn’s arena, where I would have much more control of the environment. 

Note the special vest I wear. Made especially for horseback riders, it has a CO2 air canister that, when the vest’s cord, attached to a saddle ring, is abruptly separated from it as the rider is flying off, triggering the canister to fire, instantaneously inflating the vest to protect the entire neck, spine and rib cage. It’s a wise precaution, often adopted by many professional event riders.  
The vest, by the way, is very light, indeed. And the sound it makes when activated is negligible. 
It is, by the way, the sensible policy of Casalae Farms that riders must don helmets.   
Joe and I visited more of the Farm’s horses afterward. 

I hope you get a kick out of the photos!