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Weekly Column

12/11/11: Bug-eyed and Baffled 

It was 4 a.m. on a rainy, cool November morning. Yawning, I put the kettle on. A cup of delicious freshly ground coffee would soon follow.

I yawned again, then paused. Hmmm. My face felt weird. Trotting into the bathroom I looked in the mirror — and reeled back, horrified. My left eyelid was massively swollen! The eye underneath had vanished. Sleep-mussed hair poked in every direction, adding to the awful picture.

What on earth had happened?!

I paced the floor, hyperventilating, and nearly witless with worry. That left lid looked as though a jokester had inserted a steroid-pumped purple grape into it. My heart pounded. I felt panicky. Was Urgent Care open at this hour? Joe was in Saginaw, so I was alone… Whoa! I was skittering into ‘the sky is falling’ mode. I forced myself to stop flapping around and think about what I did know. Assemble facts, then build solutions.

1. Only the left eyelid was distorted. It was a vivid purple-red, and getting bigger by the minute.

2. Was this a tumor? They can grow fast, but this would make the record books! Gulp! How far could the lid stretch before it split?

3. I’d been hit by a three-quarter-ton pickup truck nine years ago. The optic nerve fried from the heat of subsequent swelling, leaving my left eye blind. Bugs always sniff out my injured side, even years after the incident. (One good thing: this horror didn’t hurt, because that part of me is partially numb.)

4. Wait! Go back to number 2. No tumor could grow this fast, dummy. I relaxed slightly.

5. Review number 3 - the part about bugs. Something similar had happened before, about seven years ago. But it was my tear duct that a no-see-um or mosquito had attacked. The left side of my face ballooned into an enormous, slit-eyed Miss Piggy countenance: that awful, asymmetrical nightmare had had to be endured for over two weeks. (Even my doctor had recoiled. I wore a bag over my head that time.)

6. A closer examination now revealed two puncture wounds. Conclusion: a spider had speared me while I’d slept. She must have dumped her whole poison sac in there. (This is one disadvantage to living in a venerable old house.)

7. The rest of me was OK. I wasn’t dying, except for a cup of coffee. (More good news: though poked, I’d joked.)

And so, having sorted the situation, I settled down to wait it out.

The first day passed. I applied hot compresses and OTC cortisone cream to the balloon, and stayed indoors.

Three more days passed. The best news: the massive swelling stayed put. The rest of me remained normal. I had to laugh: it looked as though Rudolf’s red nose had taken up residence in/on my eyelid. I looked ridiculous.

A week trundled by. Wearing a pair of enormous extra-dark sunglasses I managed to shop for groceries, but slipped up: I took them off to write the check. The clerk’s horrified reaction required a lengthy explanation. I didn’t forget again.

It’s much improved after nearly three weeks. Only a fat, pea-sized red ball remains. I wouldn’t frighten anyone now. Much. Another week should do it.

Some final thoughts:

- That eyelid, when in full bloom, eerily resembled spider orbs.
- Why did she inject herself into my life? Why there?
- Wayward spiders are always escorted outside, but, clearly, those countless rescues hadn’t earned me points. Spidey had attacked me anyway.

It won’t happen again. I’ve thoroughly sprayed my bedroom with spider-killer, not forgetting the vents.

Even bug-eyed, I can bite back!

12/4/11: Upside Down an' Out 

Thirty three years ago my husband and I bought a two-story 1870s brick farmhouse on three acres of land near Saginaw Valley State University, and raised our two children there. For part of each week Joe still stays on to manage his thriving Saginaw cardiology practice.

Deer sometimes graze just outside the front door. Opossums and raccoons wander by the generously sized music room windows. It’s always been a peaceful place.

But recently the house had developed an interesting quirk. Just before falling sleep, Joe would hear faint rustling noises in the bedroom walls. Birds, probably. Occasionally he’d discover a frantic, sooty sparrow whizzing around the library, so that conclusion seemed reasonable. Screens installed over the two chimney tops solved the problem.

In late July, just after twilight, as he read in the library, a faint flapping sound ruffled the air in the adjacent darkened music room. Another bird had gotten in! It was always an exasperating experience to shoo them out. Confused, they often turn away from the open door, and freedom, at the last second.
But wait! It was late! Decent birds would have roosted by now, surely. So, what…?

Another soft flutter. He switched off the lamp and let his eyes adjust to the darkness. One minute later, a curtain stirred. There! A tiny bat lighted briefly, then frantically flew from one side of the room to the other, almost soundlessly.
When the creature lighted again, he dropped a small wastebasket over it, slid an old-fashioned record album over the opening, and released the terrified animal outside. Hmmm. That accounted for those nighttime wall noises! Now, some computer-assisted research would be fun.

His uninvited guest was a little brown bat, Myotis lucifigus: Michigan hosts a huge population. This youngster hadn’t learned yet where to exit; instead, he’d stumbled through a seam somewhere, and ended up in our home.

Joe learned that mother bats have one baby in spring, and that a single animal eats nearly its weight in insects every night. The mosquito population did seem down this year!

These furry mammals, weighing only about 6-10 grams, can, through echolocation, distinguish a moth on tree bark in pitch darkness. Only about 5% may have rabies, and they never get tangled in human hair. So many myths were dispelled!

The next four nights more panicked youngsters were rescued. Finally, weary of snaring and releasing them, he decided to bring a chair outside at dusk and simply wait. It would be easy to determine just where the colony was living. Sure enough, right on time, a respectable cloud of bats rose from the highest part of our two-story home. He dashed around the back to pinpoint where they were emerging.
The next morning the Yellow Pages yielded Batman, who was delighted by the call. “I’m rarely contacted; people just ring their exterminator! I’ll be right out!”

The sixty-something guy clearly loved his job. He scrambled happily up his extra-high extension ladder, found the bricky-breach, and deftly installed a special exit-only door. The bats were snoozing just inside, he called down, but every one would fly away at twilight. When they returned, re-entry wouldn’t be possible. The odd youngster might still appear inside the house, but only once. This slick, inexpensive gadget had prevented many deaths.

Lastly, he installed three bat houses high in our trees to encourage the little creatures to remain. Then this cheerful man, cracking bat jokes, drove off. (A month later he quietly returned, removed his one-way door, and sealed the hole. No bats have entered since.)

A funny thing: Joe reminded him twice to send a bill, but Batman, having saved hundreds of innocents, declined. It seems his clever rescue was reward enough.

11/27/11: Expansion Woes 

The holiday season is always a dangerous time for yours truly.

I love dining on succulent turkey, cranberry sauce, and pie. And it’s such fun to try new cookie recipes concocted by friends and relatives. There are yummy temptations displayed on countertops, or lurking in refrigerators...

Truth is, I find it too easy to abandon caution during winter holidays and happily pig out on wonderful food.

But soon my jeans won’t slide on easily: blouse buttons will strain. I’ll ring in the New Year looking as puffy as the pastries I’ve pounced on.

It ‘s so incredibly frustrating. (Those annoying folks who can eat anything and never gain an ounce drive me nuts.)

My ever-vigilant fat cells are consummate experts at snaring and efficiently storing every stray calorie or carbohydrate I consume. My body is incredibly good at this. So, as I age, I require much less food to maintain my normal weight. Finally, some years ago, I realized that just one meal a day suited me fine. It’s obvious that I’m not wasting away. Once on a roll, I have no trouble keeping to this regimen.

When I was a teen, three hearty meals daily were important as I dashed around the vast University of Michigan campus. I could eat anything and remain slim. Today, decades later, I’ve cut my intake to a small fraction of what it normally was. Everything is snicker-snack- until the holiday season, when my personal battle of the bulge begins. By Christmas my clothes shrink alarmingly.

Uh-huh.

So every November I renew my resolve. I won’t fight depression in January because I’ve evolved into a blimp. When one is vertically challenged, aging, and not nearly as active, eating three meals a day (and snacks) is a recipe for disaster. A veterinarian friend pointed out that dogs fed more than once daily get fat. Hip joints, especially, are compromised. They’re much more prone to other ailments, too. And so it is with humans. Dragging around fifty-pound ‘sacks of potatoes’ 24/7 wreaks backs and knees, not to mention the heart and pancreas. Diabetes is rampant, due to obesity.

In 1996, overweight, uncomfortable, and needing reasonable guidelines, I had a revelation. A person’s waist measurement should not exceed his or her inseam length. It’s the only reference I use, and it works beautifully.

Over-eating will always be a difficult addiction for me to conquer. Each meal is named to make it important. Everyone I know looks shocked that I skip breakfast (vital for a healthy start, trumpet the ads) and don’t eat dinner. The pressure is constant. But if I give in, I get fat. Simple as that.

I won’t look pregnant when I’m not. I don’t want my cardiac pump and arterial lines to fail too soon. A few seconds of pleasure for my delighted taste buds, repeated too often, is simply not worth the consequences. Fact is, it’s just too easy to grow roots on my soles and exercise just my feeding arm and jaw muscles. I’ve also noticed with dismay that extra weight has become harder to shed with every passing year. Thankfully, the garden, and the work it entails, motivates me to Keep To The Plan.

This year I have no excuse. There’s no snow, and it’s not too cold. So I rake, walk, and generally maintain a distant friendship with kitchens. I do look forward to preparing and eating my one meal- anything I want, guilt-free. And, yeah, I confess to lapses; Lisa’s gluten-free cornbread topped with honey, and her custards, are so special. Sometimes, by golly, one dessert just isn’t enough.

Mainly, though, I’m in control.

Until the next temptation….

11/20/11: High Noon in a High Place 

My daughter and I were chatting in our newly renovated 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 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 corner.

Just above him, gazing down from the pillar’s narrow, flat shelf, Cat sat.
Not a whisker moved. His long, fluffy tail hung down, but did not twitch. He was stone.
The oblivious chipmunk was 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 autumn’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 one was dining right next to his door. One chipmunk-sized stride away from it would mean 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 knew 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 move away from the overhang and onto the broad 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 animal’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 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 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 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…


11/13/11: An ‘Egad!’ Sort of Weekend 


I drove to Saginaw last weekend to visit our younger daughter, Lisa, who’s living in the cozy brick 1870s farmhouse where Joe and I raised her sister and her.

An innovative cook, she was planning a lunch for my two dear friends and me. She’d spent Friday evening baking bread and creating delicious custard.

In mid-morning on Saturday, she opened the refrigerator and gasped. “Mom, it’s huffing warm air!” What?? I rushed into the kitchen. It was! I opened the freezer compartment. Drip. Drip.
Hastily we boxed all perishables and set them outside the front door in the forty-degree weather. Rats! Now what?

Fifteen years ago the previous refrigerator had failed, so I’d purchased this reconditioned one for $150. It had performed flawlessly until now.

Desperate, but inspired, I rang the same shop. They had no reconditioned models today, the salesman said, but - there was one new white scratch-and-dent Frigidaire that opened in the right direction. The marks on its side would be invisible. The price was perfect. Alas, it couldn’t be delivered until Monday: he had to mind the store. I was mute with disappointment. But then, after a little silence, he said, slowly, “I might be able to find someone to cover for an hour…I’ll call you back.”

Ten minutes later the phone rang: He’d found help!
Within forty-five minutes the new refrigerator was delivered, and the old one hauled away. Furthermore, the guy remembered our house, which I found remarkable.

Back in Traverse City a day later, I wearily surveyed the plaster dust, paint cans and piled up chairs. The kitchen redo was into its third week, and the bleak weather - it was sleeting - didn’t help my mood.

Suddenly sunlight shot through the clouds, highlighting golden leaves piled high in spots. Patches of grass sparkled with slivers of sleet. The huge plumed orange, red and brown miscanthus grasses swayed sensuously. And, a rainbow was developing! Staring, I lowered the dripping brush, leaving a streak of Victorian Lace on my overalls. The light was lovely out there, and I’d almost missed it!

I ran outside to stand on the front sidewalk. The rainbow framed the rich reddish-purple leaves of the Fairy Garden’s dogwood tree, and the freshly painted iron fence set off the weeping birch’s shimmering golden cascade. Rain made everything shine —
I came to earth with a bump. Hey! A squirrel was tugging at a porch roof shingle! He worked a little piece loose and flitted down the lilac tree, holding it in his mouth. Egad! My elderly roof was becoming nest lining!

Uh-oh! Binoculars revealed other missing or crooked shingles dislodged by that recent two-day windstorm. I’d been too busy inside to appreciate the damage it had sustained.

An attic inspection revealed a seven-inch crack right at the roof’s edge; water had been slowly drip-dripping onto the attic floor. Les immediately sealed it, but I knew the twenty-five-year-old roof wouldn’t last the winter. Now, well into November, was it too late to re-roof?

Fortunately, we found a competent firm who will begin Monday to roof over the one I have. It’ll be a race to finish before snow stops everything.

During all this I shut my finger in the front door (and howled), spilled paint, tried to fix a dripping furnace humidifier, and worked out why the alarm kept indicating trouble where nothing seemed amiss. Lately, my life consists of ‘plug here, patch there…’

There’s a Chinese proverb that goes something like this: One cannot manage too many affairs: like pumpkins in water, one pops up while you’re trying to hold down the other.

Oh, yeah.

11/6/11: Learning Little Things About Those We Love 

To explore the mind of another is to walk on holy ground.

- Anon.


Emma, the rescued dog who has found a happy new life with my friends, always provides fodder for my pen.
(Click here for parts
one and two of her story.)

Every day her family learns something new about her. They’re intrigued by how Emma manages mistakes, or approaches novel situations. She, in turn, is discovering what they enjoy or dislike. Whatever they consider important becomes important to her, too.

The property’s boundaries were taught as soon as she moved in. Emma absorbed everything. She won’t stray onto someone else’s acreage, or approach the road. But last week when Les came outside, he noticed her sitting just slightly over that invisible line, staring down a squirrel taunting her from the other side. Spotting him, Emma suddenly realized where she was. Head down, tail slowly wagging, she moved toward him, her posture the picture of apology and guilt. Sorry, boss. I got carried away there, but I stopped in time, didn’t I? Sorry, sorry.

Les rebuked her firmly, and once again they reviewed that vital boundary. (Three beloved pets had died out there.) Emma accepted the scolding meekly. She’d just have to ignore ribbings from rodents.

Family members are learning more about her former, brutal life.
Sarah always sets out delightful seasonal decorations, which involve the packing and unpacking of large boxes. This is traumatic for Emma-dog, who vividly remembers her first family packing up and abandoning her to die. Was it happening again? Sarah tried to reassure her, but has learned that boxes and suitcases will never be easy for Emma to accept. For days after Halloween decorations were set out she looked haunted, and pressed so close to Les and Sarah they had trouble moving.

Her grasp of English is impressive. Sarah, discussing Halloween, saw the pleased reaction the words ‘giving out treats’ provoked. Emma had isolated those three from a complicated verbal stream during an animated three-person conversation. Now everyone spells when necessary, to avoid raised hopes.

Emma loves to sample interesting food, but only when invited. Instinctively well mannered, she’ll never beg at mealtimes. But afterward, any proffered morsel, especially meat, is either happily inspected and scarfed down, or politely refused, after careful taste tests.
The evaluation can be really funny to watch.

One pleasant October afternoon Les was outside enjoying a decent-sized chunk of Cheddar cheese. Emma lay some distance away, sunbathing, with one of her cherished tennis balls nestled between her paws. When he bit into the cheese, her nose twitched. She watched intently. Les noticed, and obligingly broke off a square to share.

Emma trotted over and took a deep, interested sniff of this new thing. Looking up at Les she pondered, cocked her head, then delicately accepted it, lips drawn well back, teeth showing. Thoughtfully she mouthed it, like a connoisseur of fine cuisine, and meditated, eyelids heavy.

Then, floof! She spit it out and pushed it around with her nose, thinking – thinking – before scooping it up again to repeat the test.
Hmmm.

Decision made. With a sigh, she made her way to a large leaf pile and pawed a little hole in the middle of it. Floof! The still-intact cheese was ejected into the damp nest, and carefully covered over with her nose.

She strolled back to Les, tail wagging and tongue darting in and out, as though to rid her taste buds of residue molecules. Thanks, boss, but – no thanks. No hard feelings, eh?

Amused, Les ruffled her thick coat, and they ambled inside, each, once again, a little wiser about the other.

10/30/11: Briing! Blast! Blush... 

It’s the sort of day when even the house seems grumpy. Joists creak and pop as the old dowager accommodates blustery October winds. The kitchen fire’s warmth whooshes up the back stairs with every woody inhalation. Time to re-hang that stairwell curtain, Dee.

The weather matches my glum mood. The sun’s begun a six-month Bahamas vacation, abandoning us northerners to semi-darkness, thick clouds, and trees sparsely dressed in raggedy leaves that shiver in the cold rain.

My kitchen, always a work in progress, is enduring a facelift. The new design is delightful. The mess, and the waiting, is not.

I am the soul of impatience.
I can’t think properly amid the piles of pots, pans, cans, jars, ancient cookbooks and utensils that blanket the floor because the pantry’s stripped to the walls, and the old peninsula, with its inadequate storage, is gone. My dear friend Les, a superb carpenter, has built a beautiful island, and is shaping period-faithful shelves and cabinet doors for me at his home. I’m pestering him with calls at around ten o’clock every morning, when I just can’t stand it any longer. I need contact. (Some might accuse me of micro-managing…Nah.)

I’ll blather on about the bin pulls I found, yadayada. Then, after a fractional pause I’ll say, ever so casually, “So…what’s happening?” (Translation: Areyoudoneareyoudone?) Les cheerfully updates, never pointing out that my constant interruptions slow him down. He’ll patiently narrate his progress since my last call, and I’ll hang up marginally happier. For some weeks, now, I’ve been an irritating daily nuisance, sometimes ringing twice in one morning.
Honestly, he deserves a commendation.

Today, while I sat, sorting, the phone rang. Carefully I tiptoed through the chaos to answer.
“Hello?”

A slight pause. A click. Rats! It was ‘Rachel!’

“Hello,” squawked the phone. “My name is Rachel and I’m calling with an urgent message regarding your credit, which is just fine, but…”

She/it would always manage to recite this much before I hung up.
That computer-babe’s dial-a-dummy hour is around one o’clock. She/it, undaunted by my dismissals, has phone-plagued me every single day for weeks, determined to make a sale. I’ve tried letting the answering machine trigger, reasoning that if retail diarrhea could be dumped, my phone-y intruder would give up.

But clever ‘Sheit’ knows the difference. Only live bodies matter. Computer-pests are programmed to sniff out favorite targets – old ladies languishing at home around midday. Phone-jockey research notes that victims sometimes succumb to widget buying just to shut them up. But that’s a mistake. Once wallets open a crack, other pseudo-ladies will worm their way inside, because I suspect they’ve learned to exchange successful ‘hits’ – the phone numbers of folks pestered into purchases – with other computers.

Hmmm. A counter-attack was, ah, called for. Surely I was smarter than Sheit.

The next day the phone rang, on schedule. Grinning, I wound through the rubble of my kitchen, picked it up and said, on cue, “Hello?”

A brief silence. A click. Another fractional pause. Then, “Hello, My name…” Taking a deep breath, I blew my British police whistle into the phone. I blew it loud, and long. I hope I blew Sheit’s micronic mind.

When I picked up the phone again, there was only shocked silence. Maybe I’d RAMmed its memory, or been perceived as a virus mis-programmed to tweet/twitter too loudly.
Tomorrow would tell the tale.

Chuckling, I removed my earplugs and fixed lunch. But, unbidden, an inconvenient truth crept into my forebrain, making me squirm.
I. am intimately acquainted with someone nearly as annoying as the wretched Sheit.
Jeez.

At least I possess the micro-circuitry to blush.

10/22/11: High Adventure Recalled 

The bench in the secret garden looked inviting, so I lay along its length and idly watched an inbound jet slowly descend toward Traverse City’s Cherry Capital Airport. A passing single engine plane droned along high above it. I closed my eyes, enjoying the faint scent of autumn roses…

Bang! A terrifying 35-year old memory resurfaced.

February, 1976. Joe and I were new parents living in Santa Barbara, California. As a new physician he covered our expenses by working in an LA emergency room three nights a week. On free days we enjoyed our beautiful daughter together. I loved being mom to three-month-old Jenny, but Joe diagnosed a mild case of restlessness. “Take an occasional morning off and learn something new, Dee.”

I thought about it. Maybe he was right.

Ha! I’d learn to fly! Always wanted to. The airport was close, and lessons were affordable. Gas was really cheap then, and instructors were eager to teach aviation skills to anything that walked and talked sensibly. Joe thought it a splendid idea. Setting aside one morning a week I enrolled in ground school, studied hard, and passed the written tests. Neil, my no-nonsense instructor, taught me the art of flying in the school’s lumbering Cessna 150s, which were very forgiving of students’ awkwardness.

For months Neil had hammered home a lesson. “No matter what happens - bird hits, engine failure, smoke in the cockpit, any sudden emergency - fly the damn airplane. React emotionally to unexpected events ‘upstairs’ only when you’re safely on the ground.”
He’d cut the engine, stall the plane, begin a spin, or even turn me nearly upside down until I learned to stop unraveling and address each novel situation. I flew the airplane.

The FAA guy awarded me my license after I’d passed his rigorous flying test - (if he’d had to touch the controls even once, I’d have flunked) - and now I flew to interesting places one morning a week.

One day, after filing a VFR flight plan, I pre-flighted a rental Cessna, hopped in, taxied out per ground control’s orders, and was cleared for takeoff. The plane rose obediently while I dialed in relevant data crisply issued by Santa Barbara Control.
What a beautiful day!
About one minute into my ascent to 5000 feet, the radio transmitted an urgent new order. “Ah, Cessna 40690- this is Santa Barbara Control: immediately turn right 90 degrees while descending 500 feet!”

Wha…? This was a weird deviation from my previous clearance.

“Roger that,” I responded, changing course even as I repeated the order.

The radio crackled. Hearing a most unprofessional “God…” I looked out ahead, and gasped. A blue passenger jet had just materialized from a fluffy cloud slightly above my previous flight level: in a few seconds our noses would have merged. I heard a muffled cheer from the tower as it passed over me and continued its orderly descent. Leveling the wings I trimmed the plane and carried on with my newly assigned altitude and heading.

Turns out the guy, in training as an air traffic controller, had managed to miss the incoming passenger jet on his radar screen when assigning me my flight path. Fortunately his overseer had noticed.

Saucer-eyed but calm, I continued out to sea for another mile before a different controller cleared me to move back inland and resume my flight plan. He allowed himself two words: “Nice job.”

I flew on to Santa Cruz, landed slick as spit, parked the plane, and then – and only then – trembling on the tarmac, wet my pants.

Neil had taught me well.

10/16/11: Thoughts on Love and Loss 

While raking in the main secret garden, sounds of chipmunk rage suddenly filled the air. Such a ruckus! Glancing around I saw Cat (who belongs to a family nearby) walking proudly toward the open alley gate carrying a limp chipmunk by the scruff of its neck. The tiny body swung gently as the feline moved along. Two agitated chipmunks followed Cat’s path from the top of the eight-foot fence. Rapid ‘chip-chip’ sounds expressed their distress as they helplessly dashed back and forth.

I looked closer. The chipmunk was dead, for sure. I was truly surprised. Cat is pretty ancient: I haven’t seen him climb, or move fast, for a very long time. But here was proof that he was still a formidable predator. Unfazed by the noise, puss strolled down the middle of the alley and disappeared into some shrubbery. Sadly I resumed raking amid the cacophony, which lasted a very long time.
It was a wake of sorts.

Hours later there came another round of rapid-fire chippie chatter. I looked up to see (the same?) two trembling chipmunks on my fence top glaring down into the thicket of lush hydrangeas. Dropping to my knees I peered under the big bushes. Cat sat directly underneath them, awash in chipmunk rage. Those tiny animals knew that the devil was sated for the moment, so they fluffed their fur, rocked up and down, and directed unprintable insults at their friend’s killer.
Their dagger-eyed glares brought fresh perspective to a tattered adage: if looks could kill, Cat would be mummified.

***

You may remember Emma, the rescued dog I wrote about some months ago, who has learned to relax into the unconditional love extended by her new family. (Review her two-part story here and here.) Dexter, their beautiful apricot cat, languidly welcomed Emma, who learned to cherish him. “He was her pet,” Les commented.

One evening, just over a month ago, Dexter didn’t appear at the front door at bedtime. Emma’s surprise turned to worry. The two animals had established a routine. Emma wouldn’t settle until everyone, including Dexter, was home. If someone stayed out late, she’d quietly wait by the door until the latecomer returned. She’d escort the person to bed; then cat and dog would curl up together by the fire and snooze.

So with Dexter missing, family members began a methodical search of the countryside. They drove up and down the winding roads, and walked the big fields for many days, calling Dexter’s name. Emma began nightly vigils by the door, and spent every day searching the property.

Dexter, though, has simply vanished. Coyotes, who yip and howl many nights, may have snatched him.

Emma is gradually coming to terms with her loss, and draws much comfort from family members, who give her extra attention. She’s eating better now, and has resumed chasing her beloved tennis balls, but she still mourns.

Family members brought home a kitten, who wanted no part of Emma, and so was given to another loving family.

Clearly it’s too soon. I think that eventually she will find another feline friend to love. Meanwhile, she’s managed to handle this loss with grace.
When I visited a few days ago she greeted me with something akin to relief; not everyone disappears.
“When we feel sad about Dexter,” Sarah mused, “Emma always senses it, and offers wags and a wet nose. Today she invited me outside for a walk; I did feel much better. We’re helping each other to cope.”

The pain of Dexter's loss for her human family and her, will, I think, gently heal with touches, time, and love.

10/9/11: Hosta la Vista via the Slasher! 


What a successful day! It began at 8 o’clock in the morning, and ended in late afternoon. I sat back on my heels and surveyed the garden with satisfaction. Two truckloads of vegetation had been hauled away by my helper, and I wasn’t done, yet!

I had a ‘Eureka!’ moment today.
I’d dreaded the job of eliminating my giant hostas, because they’re still lovely and it’s really hard to part with them, and because cutting those million celery-thick stems to the ground is such a tiresome task!

“Oh, jeez, just get on with it,” I sighed, and lay on my belly to peer under one enormous plant by the arbor. Adjusting my ancient motorcycle goggles (to keep my eyes free from dust, allergens and flailing pruners) I pushed aside leaves, grabbed some stout stalks and began to snip one at a time.
Then, suddenly, while elbowing aside panicked worms, muttering about hand cramps and cussing the pruners, which had to be jerked apart because stringy bits kept jamming the blades— Ding! I had an idea!

Ohboy! I extracted myself and ran into the house and snatched up a big serrated kitchen knife. Crawling back under the 6 x 6-foot monster I put knife-to-stem, right at the dirt line. A little pressure--wow! That blade melted through those stalks. Whoosh! In thirty seconds the entire plant was gone! I’d forgotten how easy it could be.
Never again would I look at hostas in autumn, and groan.

Slash! Guillotined, twelve more huge beauties collapsed snicker-snack! Adam staggered off to the truck with their mountainous remains while I danced around, slicing the air, gleefully chanting, “Hosta la vista, baby!”
“Hmmm,” said I, thoughtfully. “This blade’s terminated the hostas, so why not use it to down my four huge goat’s beard bushes, the helenium daisies, those thick, ripened lily stalks, and all the ostrich fern fronds?” Again, no hay problema.
(As I worked, I was the picture of concentration. Digits can disappear from the hands of inattentive, dreamy operators.)

By the way, a similar tool, tailored for garden work, is offered at nurseries, but I was here, my car wasn’t, and I needed a solution, now. (I used to own a champion serrated garden scimitar years ago, but gremlins made off with it, and I keep forgetting to buy another.)

Next, dozens of daylily fronds and loads of lovely iris blades were given jaunty haircuts using garden scissors. Perhaps four inches remained.
Any non-blooming annual was removed, but I just couldn’t bear to yank most of the still-lovely geraniums. Maybe next week.
As the plump (annual) dusty millers often survive winter in the secret garden, they’ll stay.

Next, the coreopsis was trimmed to three inches high. Their ‘beard-stubble’ helps me remember where they are. In spring I’ll run my hands over the little brown sticks, which will fall away, revealing new life.

I’ll leave the spirea, and all the grasses, until spring. Snow does interesting things to these plants.
The Autumn Joy sedums lining both sides of the Folly’s brick path are a deep rose, now. Their ‘broccoli’ heads will continue to evolve to dark chocolate, and stand out in snow.

A little brown spider has woven an intricate web in one huge steel spider web trellis, now bare of the annual vine that had climbed it. Late afternoon sun-shadow has artfully projected their delicate, thread-thin artistry onto the blue fence.
Cat sits quietly in the sun, blinking.

Even now, with so much gone, the secret garden is still lovely.

Soon nature will have her way, sculpturing fresh, interesting contours, making the familiar somehow alien.

I love winter.