Good Things to do to Stay Fit After 50

At least for me, it’s hard to eat right, exercise enough, and feel good about myself if my feelings aren’t in the right place. I had an unpleasant experience recently. Years ago, events like these would have set me back for months, and maybe even years. I can still remember bad things that happened to me when I was young. These seem laughably trivial in hindsight. For example, my grandparents liked to go to Solvang, a small Danish tourist town north of Santa Barbara. There’s lots of pictures of four- or five-year-old me riding in the front of the “Danish Days” parade wearing an elaborate Danish outfit and sitting between two white-bearded elders. So, there’s not a Danish bone in my body but as a little blonde, blue-eyed girl dressed perfectly, they apparently thought I was the right kid to put in the front of the parade. Mostly I remember the beautiful horses.

That’s a good memory. But when I was about 12, I wore Danish clogs from Solvang to school and I got teased on the bus for the way my feet looked. Apparently the problem was the pale skin on the arches of my feet, and maybe their bony look or veins. Still not sure. But it made me want to wear thick socks and sneakers or boots for years. No – not socks and sandals – but it made me horribly self-conscious about my feet. I’ve got chigger bite scars persisting on my right instep right now … I was teased about my fat rear … didn’t wear a certain kind of pants for years … I was called “Blueberry” for wearing a loose dress with a belt that rode up over my stomach when I was 6 months pregnant with my daughter …

As we grow older, I think this type of incident — and we all have plenty of them to draw upon — gets less bothersome. But a couple of weeks ago, Bruce and I were on Venice Beach (FL) and he was playing his guitar. I started singing with him and this older guy sitting a few yards away gets up and moves his beach chair closer.

“Play louder,” he tells Bruce. I immediately stopped singing.

Then he says, pointing at a young family farther down the beach, “Ha ha, you know what they say, nobody’s interested in women once they get past 30.”

I turned around and looked at this joker. “Yes, I’ve heard that many times,” I said. “It’s total bullshit. My experience is the exact opposite.”

I would never use foul language under ordinary circumstances. This guy barely missed a beat. He continued with offensive comments about the young mom and started yammering at Bruce.

I know I shouldn’t let this type of thing bother me, but I was not at all patient with this situation. Afterward, I thought, why does this verbal violence continue? What would persuade a man to come up and issue a nonstop stream of verbal abuse to total strangers? Bruce told me that after I left, he began yelling at another couple, demanding they carry his cooler to his AMG Mercedes.

I estimate this unpleasant, abusive man was in his early 60s. Though he bragged about weighing himself every day at Publix, he seemed average weight, height, and fitness for his age. He was not only not a “prize,” he had no call to be commenting on anyone else’s appearance.

Didn’t stop him for a moment. And he’s far from alone — we can look at Incel message boards and see how horribly these young men who desperately want a date speak about women and other men. Despite all the body positivity out there, people continue to verbally abuse celebrities, usually women, for any and all aspects of their appearance. Lizzo makes workout videos and is immediately attacked.

From individuals we might encounter, to family members (not mine!), to what we hear in media to this day, there are a lot of mixed messages. We’re told we can continue to be active and enjoy our lives into retirement. We see messages that women can continue to be fit, active, and attractive at any age.

We see messages that wealthy and powerful older men select extremely young women as partners. Less often, we see the alternative, wealthy and powerful older women selecting younger men as partners. Or, a similar dynamic with same-sex couples. Growing older, we’re told, should be perfect, easy, and natural, with just a little help from aesthetics, cosmetic surgery, medispas, and other anti-aging treatments.

So early in 2019, I wrote about what a great thing my Fitbit was for health. Then just a few months later …

That’s right: a 10 BPM increase in my resting heart rate over 8-9 months. I was working 10-12 hour days and we were struggling to make ends meet and have a decent life in South Orange County. After 20 years of teaching at Saddleback College, it was my last semester. I was also driving down to Palomar College to teach in a supportive and positive environment, but that job was also not going to continue. Both schools were impacted by declining enrollments and state laws that were supposedly intended to help students — but in reality were cutting down available classes and reducing their opportunities for higher education. Although I’d built my writing income up a lot, it still wasn’t all I wanted it to be. And, I lacked the time to work out the way I really wanted to.

All I needed was for my hair to fall out and my spare tire to get bigger, right? Nose to the grindstone, keep going, well you didn’t really need to look and feel good, did you? Just get through to retirement and then you’ll have a blast out on that shuffleboard court.

What the heck is shuffleboard, anyway?

In December, I had an awful upper respiratory illness I contracted at school — an illness that it’s politically incorrect to indicate could potentially have been COVID-19 — but recovered.

In January, we went to Sanibel Island, and our lives changed. We decided to move to Southwest Florida. At the end of March, we did move. Six months later, everything is completely different. As has been exhaustively documented, COVID has changed everything about not just our lives, but everyone’s lives. No matter what our situation was before, it isn’t the same now. My heart goes out to those who are out of work or whose businesses are struggling, as well as to the essential workers who’ve been on the front lines during the pandemic.

I’d already learned a lot about the U.S. healthcare system, insurance system, and pharma businesses before we moved. I knew that toxic corporate food was making us fat, sick, and nearly dead. I knew that the U.S. used 80% of the opioids produced in the world as pain relief because of how easily they developed physical dependence, requiring ever-higher doses to achieve the same or even less-effective relief. What better business model for profits than selling something people have to take to get by, in ever increasing doses? What worse model for people’s health could be imagined?

So what’s the takeaway? For me? I no longer trust advertisements of any type, and I know that traditional medicine’s approach to health and weight management doesn’t work for the majority of people. People go to their checkup, the doctor tells them to lose weight, and hands them a printed diet sheet. “Don’t eat too much fat. Avoid red meat. Eat the Mediterranean diet.” On and on it goes …

And the older we get, the harder it is to stay fit, stay healthy, and stay active.

So for me, the biggest two factors in my health and lifestyle improvement have been my Fitbit (“Fitty”) and moving to Florida. Because I work at home 100% of the time and no longer teach, I can focus completely on my business consulting and writing. I can arrange my schedule to fit an hour of workouts in most days. Fruits and vegetables here are super sweet and delicious, making healthy dishes easy. There’s so much seafood that it’s also easy to eat fish often.

I’m a survivor of an eating disorder — it runs in my family. My dad told me my mom had anorexia — growing up with Nana there’s no wonder why. My grandmother’s critical nature hurt my self-esteem, but she also gave me a lifelong foundation of nutritional knowledge. It’s not hard for me to follow healthy eating habits because they were enforced on me growing up. And eating a good diet and being active while growing up also helped me build a lifelong foundation of good health and a strong interest in diet, nutrition, and food as medicine.

So, no matter where you’re starting out, if you’re 50 or over, you can totally get in shape and stay in shape. Will it be as quick or easy for you to lose weight as when you were younger? Will it be easy to build or keep muscle mass? No, it won’t. But it is possible and the alternative is not appealing. Not only does excess weight and loss of muscle as we age look unattractive, aging joints and bones don’t like it, either. The less mobile we are as we grow older, the less our potential for improving health and getting mobile again.

So, what have I been doing that has helped me out health-wise?

Since we moved to Florida, we’ve been eating almost 100% fresh, local fruits, vegetables, and protein (chicken, fish, shellfish, beef). I’ve found that if I cut out an entire food group (at one point I was dairy free, wheat free, and additive free) I can control portions and calories much better. I also do intermittent fasting and I realized that — I’ve done it my whole life. I never wanted to eat three square meals a day and most of my life, I’ve eaten only one meal a day: late lunch or dinner. I’m okay with eating breakfast only, too. I don’t drink carbonated drinks (seldom have — with the rare exception of endlessly searching for the “sweetest Coke in Redlands” when I was pregnant with Meredith) and drink only black coffee, unsweetened iced tea, and water.

Even if you’re not trying to lose weight, I recommend that everybody stop eating processed foods and consider which of the “problem” foods they most have trouble digesting or which add the least nutritional value to their meals. For me, that’s wheat-based products. I don’t eat bread or anything wheat-based. That cuts out cakes, pies, rolls, cookies, crackers, and wheat tortillas. I do eat corn tortillas but no more than once a week. I don’t use them as a bread substitute. I eat rice maybe once a week. A lot of the diets, like Paleo and Keto, eliminate processed grains and that’s a good thing. The key to having a good diet is finding a mix of whole, basic foods that works for you and planning your meals around them. Diet is about nutrition, maintaining healthy energy, and keeping your immune system strong.

Ever since the COVID crisis struck, I’ve been doing my best to keep up my immune system, so I also take supplements. Right now we are taking Vitamin A, C, D, and zinc. I also take biotin, Vitamin B, and digestive enzymes and probiotics. I have had IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) for a long time and eating the way I just described and the probiotics helps to ward off any IBS problems. An IBS attack can be extremely painful and last for several days, so it’s a good idea to develop an anti-IBS attack plan.

Getting enough sleep is also crucial to maintain health, energy levels, and to lose weight or maintain a healthy weight. And finally, it’s imperative to get sufficient cardio exercise and strength training in.

Where does Fitbit come in? OK, I’m not the fastest learner, but I think I’ve learned a lot about Fitbit and how it can benefit health. I know there’s a dizzying array of weight loss, fitness, and diet apps, along with unlimited options for exercise at home or, when they’re open, gyms and fitness centers. As an outdoor enthusiast, I’ll always choose the outdoor option if I can.

You never know who you’ll see while you’re out and about.

So, Fitbit is continuously improving its app and the information it provides. I always advise people when they start using it to focus on one thing first. So, if you’re not getting enough sleep, focus on that. Start by going to sleep at a regular time, and do as much as you can to get a quality night’s sleep. Fitbit will show you if there are any problems with your sleep. After a few nights doing your best with regular sleep and wake times, and avoiding caffeine late in the day, you can move on to another goal. In my case, I decided I’d go for the recommended “10,000 steps a day” for good health. Even though I was somewhat active back in Laguna Woods, I found 10,000 steps to be a significant goal. I felt badly when I lagged behind and fell back down to 7,000 or even 6,000 steps a day — the level I’d started with when I got my first Fitbit in December 2018.

And guess what? I started to notice that the fewer steps I had, the lower quality my sleep was. These two were interlinked. If I wanted to improve my sleep quality and restoration, I’d have to move more. After my 26,000 step day — our moving day in March — I realized it wasn’t that hard to get over 10,000 steps. I just had to devote sufficient time to it.

Sometimes my work makes it difficult for me to get up and move — I could be on the phone with a client, then need to finish written work, so I will sit in place over a whole hour when the ideal is to get up and move every hour throughout the day (at least 250 steps an hour). But no matter what, I need to get those 10,000+ steps in every day. The low step day was a day I had a dental infection treated.

I’ve been watching viral running videos and running along when I can’t get outside due to extreme weather or work requirements. There’s this guy from New Zealand who posts constant, endlessly updated videos of running through the most amazing scenery imaginable. Now I want to go to New Zealand so badly. I’ve seen so many places up close by using these virtual city or trail running videos, from Venice, Italy to Sicily, Paris, London, Angkor Wat — you name it!

You can also do online video workouts. Some of them only require a small space to move in, and give you a good 20 to 30 minute or longer workout. I realized that “Zumba” is merely the jazz dance class I used to teach years and years ago. None of it is terribly difficult and all of it is good for you. If you find a movement difficult just substitute an alternate, easier or modified version and keep going. Don’t torture yourself trying to be as perfect as the instructors. Your goal is to start moving and keep moving.

If music helps you, invest in a pair of ear buds and link to your favorite music. Start out a little more slowly, but over time you’ll want to get up to 170 or more beats per minute for running or workouts. Invest in good shoes for outside running, and in comfortable, dri-weave, loose-fitting exercise clothing. Nobody wears clothing here in SW Florida (just kidding). But it’s a much more carefree, cool, easy lifestyle and clothing than even in California.

As things begin to ease with the COVID crisis, get out and see things and do things. Staying inside for months is awful for our physical and mental health. I just took Gambit to the Farmer’s Market here in Punta Gorda and bought a new pair of earrings from a glass artist. It turns out she’s from Englewood where we’re moving, and she learned how to make her beautiful glass objects in Oregon and Hawaii before moving here.

In the past few days, I’ve met two former California natives here, after weeks and months of meeting nobody from back home. I think it’s basically, generally, healthier here in SW Florida. The food is better quality (fruits, vegetables, seafood, meats) and the environment is cleaner and healthier. It isn’t so crowded and the pace of life is much more liveable. People are also nicer. All of those things add up to a great place to get healthy and stay healthy. I think our environment and homes and neighborhoods are the biggest contribution to our health of all.

Can you get fit and stay fit after 50? 92 year old Harriette Thompson was the oldest woman to finish a marathon back in 2015, and in 2013, Fauja Singh completed the Hong Kong marathon at age 101.

Maybe I’ll write more about the benefits of Florida humidity on skin and (well if you don’t mind curly hair — hair) another time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

dog talking on phone

The Future is Now

dog talking on phone What does a cute dog on the phone have to do with service stations of the future? Bear with me: I hope you’ll like the journey and its destination.     

I barely remember the service stations of old. I can pull up small, distant memories of 33 cent gasoline, the Sinclair dinosaur, Phillips 66 signs, and service station attendants who washed the windows, filled the tank, and helped in emergencies. I remember driving to Palm Springs with my grandmother and a sandstorm that pitted our windshield and forced us to stop at one such station in Whitewater. I recall a trim, neat guy in a white short-sleeved shirt and sharply-creased navy blue trousers helping us. His name was embroidered on the chest as I recall. Maybe it was “Joe” or “Frank.”

The gas station attendant in my memory was probably a TV guy and the real guy was grizzled and sweaty, with a pre-pop-top beer can in his hand. As a child, I was instinctively fearful of big sweaty men who reeked of beer. My grandfather Bampy was always neat and clean-shaven and kindly-eyed.

Was I wrong to think that way? Don’t judge me.

And that’s the first thing I see for the future. The judgy among us will themselves be judged. It will be for many, a sweet reckoning, like a cold, refreshing dish of berry sorbet after a long, forced, tasteless meal of their least-favorite foods.

I was half-inclined to judge the uninspiring and sad list of female futurists I just reviewed, but their slavish adherence to 20th century norms like branding and marketing is their problem: not mine or yours.

So, about this futurism game. What is it? Is it predicting the future? Is it forecasting? Or is it driving today’s trends? Is it just all about money — or is control and power the game?

I think all of us with common sense know that to achieve an ultimate or long-term goal, vision, planning and strategy are essential. And there’s no accident the image on this post is a dog talking on an old-fashioned phone. Again — don’t judge me! It’s not like there are thousands of license-able images of dogs talking. There aren’t.

But there will be. Someday. That’s the vision. Dogs can talk and humans will have acquired the amazing superpower of listening.

So, about this future thing. Many of us have been in abusive relationships, and we’ve also endured trauma. Often, these trends occur on the job, every day. May I have a show of hands for how many of us have spent years working in jobs we hate to support our families?

OMG thank you so much! I know how you feel.

Are we the work we do, or are we who we are? What I’m talking about is the intersection between aspiration and life, and someone else’s aspirations, needs, and life. I estimate it took me about a decade to understand the true meaning of Mike Rowe’s message about the value of “dirty jobs.”

Mike says, “People who do ‘dirty jobs’ are the happiest people I’ve ever met.” Road-kill picker-uppers whistle while they work, he adds.

Many people don’t mind doing hard, dangerous, difficult jobs as long as they can have the life they want for themselves and their families. It can be rewarding to do a job where you’re not actively abused, as long as your paycheck covers what it needs to cover and you have your off-the-job time for yourself and your family and friends.

So, what’s the problem?

Paycheck doesn’t cover what it needs to cover. You don’t just have to clean other people’s feces off toilet seats, you have to run away from a sex pest boss. You don’t just have to pick up road kill, you have to avoid a psycho supervisor whose life is dedicated to creating the most miserable workplace in history.

And some jobs exist and some people do them, and do them very well, but we’d all rather that someday, they didn’t have to exist: like counselors for abused children and homicide detectives.

I woke this morning and thought about an article I recently read by this futurist guy who I don’t think has to scrub other people’s feces — and who I think gets featured by the genius mid-century smarties at Medium because he is so, so smart —

Rich People are Leaving the Cities and Isolating

So the gist of this article was that the richies are escaping crowded cities full of COVID by moving to safe places like isolated forest retreats in Switzerland or France. Or, I thought, they are constructing self-contained, gate-guarded enclaves in beautiful and unspoiled farmland like Maha in Guenoc Valley. Among this development’s many charms, it promises, “With its development, Lotusland is honoring the area’s lushness and history while infusing it with luxury.” Maha is a 22,000 acre property, located on a massive ranch formerly owned by the 19th century actress Lillie Langtry — which I suspect is a story in and of itself — approximately the same size as Disney World in Florida. Maha: Disney World for the cultured! And don’t miss its multi-million-dollar mansions, with their own power, own water and — if the plan comes to fruition — own organic, sustainably-grown food.

Yes, the wealthiest will retreat and already are retreating from the diseased, violent, rioting cities to their own special paradise, living out the lives of their dreams. They already brag of this! There are countless well-off people shaming others for leaving their homes during COVID … to bring them their specially-prepared meals of grass-fed organic beef and organic baby veggies and fruit.

And as I lay there thinking about Douglas Rushkoff’s articles and about the images and thoughts I’ve had in my head over the past year or so — images I barely have words to describe —

Bam!

Science fiction and futurism is about “What if?”

And it’s happening: right now!

It’s literally a dream come true, but we’ve all been living in a nightmare so powerful that …

OK, so picture yourself — you are in an awful job working for a boss you hate or you’re in a relationship with an abusive partner who makes you feel like crap every day — just picture this for yourself, and I’m going to tell a story because I love this idea so much and I want so much for it to come true, and once you hear, I think you will, too …

When Your Prayers are Answered

Years ago I had this friend named Pat Furfari. Pat was a retired USAF master sergeant and he was my counterpart at the United Way in San Bernardino. I was the campaign and communications person at the United Way in Redlands. I was just a girl in my early 20s. Pat was old enough, obviously, to be my dad. And at first we hated each other because our United Ways were supposed to be “enemies.” And, it was mostly about money because most of the money came from Norton AFB. At the time, it was still an active base, so the CFC (Combined Federal Campaign) was big stuff. Millions of dollars.

Pat was one of the hardest-working guys I ever knew. And over time, as I got to know him, I came to respect him and started to like him, and I think he probably also liked me. Pat  was honest, moral, and loyal, but his boss wasn’t. His boss, I’ll call him “Don,” was constantly stabbing Pat in the back at every opportunity. He also didn’t pay him well, and didn’t ever thank, recognize, or reward him. He actively took credit in public for work that Pat had done. Over and over again.

Oh! Did I tell you Pat was a Sicilian and a devout Catholic?

So one of the most shocking moments of my life occurred one day when Pat confided that he had prayed every day that about his bad boss “Don.”

“Every morning I light a candle,” Pat said, “and I pray that he’ll suffer a heart attack.”

His black eyes were absolutely opaque, and his voice had dropped to a low, raspy whisper. It was a moment straight out of The Godfather or Goodfellas.

Pat and I had this chat on a Thursday or Friday. When I got into my office the following Monday, my very good, wonderful boss (who had also been oppressed by “Don”) called me into his office and told me we had some campaign events to do we hadn’t planned on, because … wait for it …

“Don” was in intensive care — he had suffered a massive heart attack. His condition was “grave.”

My next conversation with Pat was something, that’s all I’ll say. And we remained friends for many years. I never wanted to do anything to offend Pat.

Can you guess the implications of this small human drama to our present circumstances and future? Whether old “Don” had a heart attack because Pat had had enough and was praying for it, or he had it because he was so old, mean, nasty, narcissistic and so much of an asshole that his coronary arteries finally clogged up with pure meanness, bile and cholesterol, will never be known, and doesn’t matter.

“Don” was out of the picture, allowing normal, decent people to go on with their lives.

Let’s Party Hearty!

To my leftist friends: why go to all the trouble and bother of guillotines if the problem people are going to self-isolate and remove themselves from society?

What if — you were in an abusive relationship or horrible job — and your abuser had a heart attack, like old “Don”? Wouldn’t that be a dream come true?

It is coming true. The rich and privileged are self-isolating and want to establish their own communities, or they want to live in isolation.

Good for them: let them go to it.

Robots Will Take Our Jobs: Awesome!

How many times have you heard, “Robots will take our jobs.” It’s like a prayer. So if this prayer comes true, so what? You mean that people actually WANT to physically clean feces off toilet seats just so they can eat and pay their bills?

Hardly. Although I do think the “Dons” of the world should do some of that for a while, like maybe six months, so they understand what it is to do a dirty job and have the opportunity to improve themselves and maybe, realize what happiness is — and that it’s not bullying or oppressing others 24-7.

Make Your Own Future

Here’s the great part about our “bad boss” problem solving itself as rich, white elites self-separate from the rest of society.

Now, this allows the rest of us to do things better. My distant memory of working with Pat Furfari was that our two fundraising organizations, instead of competing for donor dollars, started to be able to work together, since old “Don” wasn’t backstabbing and encouraging enmity. The results were not only smoother, better workdays for all of us, they included a lot more money for both of our communities.

This will happen in every field, but let’s hope that charitable fundraising will not be needed in the future, because people will have their basic needs met and lack of basics will no longer be leverage to force people to do as abusers demand.

Heretofore, we have had science done largely by people who’ve never confronted a genuinely serious personal problem in their lives. We’ve had managers directing huge staffs who were raised to bully their less-favored or female siblings and who had every conceivable thing provided to them by indulgent parents and who received top grades in school for “C” level work. We’ve had business concepts created by people whose motives are solely to acquire money and power for themselves, personally.

The learning of the future, the evolution of the future, is going to be about what people will do and how they will do it once the bad boss leaves the building.

They’re leaving right now, so what is your future dream?

Service Stations, Again, Really?

I am now about 25 businesses into my second edition of business planning and consulting. That’s not very many. But — I have not talked to a single person whose business model is “I want to make as much money for myself as possible! To h**l with everyone else!”

Everyone is concerned about sustainability for themselves, their business, their relationships with others, and about the environment and human rights. Everyone, and unlike a lot of “futurists” and “experts,” I worked before with businesses all over the world and continue to do so. I work and worked with male and female founders, and with people from many parts of the world.

Not one of them is going, “My CEO model is Jeff Bezos!” or “I want to model after Elon Musk”. I decline to work with people who want to “brand” themselves. I can’t stand marketers who think they can create a message first, then shove it down everyone’s throat.

So, why was I writing about service stations?

Well, that may be a story for another day. In rural areas, the service station is not dead.

Look – there’s even a Garden Shop!

Now I think we all know that gasoline-powered cars won’t be on the roads forever, nor will diesel-powered trucks. I’m thinking that in the future where dogs may be answering something like a phone and uttering the thoughts out loud that those of us with eyes, ears and hearts can so clearly perceive in their eyes and bodies, there will be “service stations” and there will be people who do help travelers, just like that friendly guy did many years ago, when my grandmother and I were on the way to Palm Springs. But not fill up the tank with petrol (love you, UK). Maybe a power-up, a rest, and then on your way again.

Maybe the helper at the station won’t even be a person. Maybe this will be a service station in the stars. And what sort of Garden Shop would it have?

It’s up to a future entrepreneur to decide. And let’s hope he or she is more like Pat, me, or you, than he is like old “Don” or Jeff Bezos.

There are many thousands of entrepreneurs like that right now and the bad guys’ and abuser’s time is coming to an end. They are self-separating from society and may Grace be with them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gifts From The Sea

Talking with a new friend the other day, I mentioned how much I enjoyed the Florida lifestyle and how amazing it was to be able to live outside most of the time. The air is so clean, even though many of the cars here are “super-sized” – from full-sized 4WD Ram trucks to Cadillac Escalades and Range Rovers. The incredible amount of plant life here must help to clean the air. I’m not so sure about our canals and the rivers and bays, but over time, I expect I’ll find out. There was a manatee in our canal this morning.

So, from a health and beauty perspective, it’s really easy to take care of skin here as long as you stay away from noseeums and mosquitos. The humidity may make my hair curl but I don’t care. You have to use sunscreen because the sun is so strong here, but again – it’s easy to do and worth spending what you can to get good mineral sunscreen. (Note: don’t use the cheap stuff for a lot of reasons – the chemicals are associated with cancer, they seep through your skin, and if you go in the water at all, they are toxic to fish and coral and other living creatures).

 

You get up and you’re sweating … you get out of the shower and you’re sweating …

LOL no! I just got in from a run.

Which brings me to clothes and makeup. You know, all sci-fi writers have abiding interests in clothing and makeup.

Welp – you don’t need many clothes here in SW Florida and there’s little point in makeup. You will sweat it off. If you put anything on that’s going to stay on, it will be so harsh and garish that it will look awful. The less, the better. Now that I have my hair back again, I am so happy. I didn’t cut my hair for a long time because, when I started, I was actually trying to save money. Then over time it became “How long can I grow it?” Of course it’s not my style. Glad to be “me” again.

So enough about me. On to the coyotes of Sanibel Island. And a story about a book I’ve looked in many times, but never read. The reason we are in Florida is that I had complained several times to Bruce how sad and depressed I was that there seemed to be no shell left on any California beach. I think it had been at least five years since I’d found any notable shell on any beach, anywhere up and down the state. Maybe in July or August of last year, we even went to Silver Strand State Beach which is south of Mission Bay and noted for shells (supposedly), and I was able to find only one sand dollar in a 3.5 mile walk. You still cannot find anyone openly discussing the lack of shells on beaches in Southern California (and Central Coast and northern beaches). It’s clearly a result of climate change. When we went fishing from Dana Point shortly before we left, the guys on the boat talked openly about how dirty the water was. Before we left, we started to see commercial fishing offshore, which hadn’t been seen close to California beaches for years. And the smog had been creeping in, stunning to see after years of cleaner air and so much effort. Environmental badness all-round.

So, in January, we flew to Sanibel Island and stayed for a week. Not only did I mail two big boxes of shells home, I left these shells with our neighbor Elizabeth when we moved. There are more than enough shells here that they seem to be an endlessly-renewable resource. Judging by spring and summer here, winter seems to be a little better shell season than these times, but I’ve picked up a few treasures. Bruce and I even got two “grandpappy” shells while touring the Everglades in January – a massive lightning whelk and a fighting conch – both at least 8-10 inches in length.

Not long after we returned to Southern California, we were looking at places to move to along the southwest Florida coast. And we left – nearly the last day that we could, I think, during the first part of the COVID-19 crisis. We drove cross-country March 26-March 30.

Sanibel and Captiva Islands are a little south of where we are now in Punta Gorda. They are world-renowned for the beauty of their shells and their preservation of unspoiled nature for wildlife. A large part of Sanibel is the J.N. “Ding” Darling Nature Preserve. Both islands have not allowed high-rise development, and there’s ample open space as well as, on Sanibel, the extensive “Ding” preserve and wildlife area. It is a haven for birds, fish, dolphin, you name it. If you have ever wanted to see a roseate spoonbill, “Ding” is one of the places to go. If you love seabirds, you will see every type you can imagine at “Ding.” Also, wear bug spray.

So, when I was growing up, my grandmother, the renowned and feared “Nana,” had a few favorite things, one of which was a slender, beautiful volume, Gift From the Sea, by Anne Morrow Lindbergh.

Growing up, I often looked in this small book, and I suppose I read a little of it, but what I mostly did was gaze at the delicate drawings of shells which were its illustrations. I thought it was about the ocean; little did I know that now I was re-acquainted with it by a lady on Sanibel — it was about this lovely woman’s ideas of where a woman should go, and each chapter, inspired by a shell that she had found while staying on, not Sanibel, but the smaller, more northerly companion island, Captiva. Captiva is today, the demesne of rich people’s mansions, a couple of resorts, and the awesome, retro, down-to-earth Jensen’s Marina. Oh – and the beach at the end of the road is very nice – but there’s no such thing as “not a nice beach” in Southwest Florida.

Yes, I found where I should be by haphazardly visiting the island where a woman my grandmother deeply admired, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, had written a beloved book about women finding their way in life. Through shells.

We are so out of touch with nature, I think, that such things seem novel — strange — unusual. A shell seems to us to be a magical thing, but perhaps ever it was so.

So we took Gambit to one of the beaches on Sanibel last week (Algiers Beach, I think).

I think this is Stump Pass Beach but … hey … that’s the Gulf of Mexico.

Driving back, we weren’t far from the “Ding” Darling Preserve when Bruce said, “What’s that in the road? A deer?”

“It’s deer-colored,” I said. But as soon as the fairly tall, rangy animal moved, we could tell it was no deer.

Hm. What is it?? It was almost fox-like in coloring, but far too tall to be a fox.

Probably too hard to see from this sad attempt at blowing up the picture, but it was a very dark and sleek looking, tall, rangy coyote. He ran in front of our car, glancing back over his shoulder at us, then disappeared into someone’s property on the other side of the road. As soon as he looked back, I knew from his yellow-green eyes he was a coyote.

Yes, there are coyotes on Sanibel Island, between 25 and 30 of them. They have only been there since 2012, or so “reports” say.

Before we left Laguna Woods, our much smaller, sandy-colored So Cal coyotes were boldly trotting in twos and threes throughout the neighborhood, looking for stray 3 pound Yorkies or elderly cats to gobble.

With eyes and ears open here, there are so many animals to see and so many beautiful plants. Just — bug spray.

I now have a book that I need to read that I should have read years ago — it is among the hundreds I left behind or gave away before we moved. Did you know that at one point, I had 5,000 books? No? Oh, well — they are all gone to good or bad or no homes now.

Now I pick up shells on the beach, but seldom keep them. I have a tiny collection of orange and red scallops. I keep them in a tiny porcelain dish with a miniature sea turtle in it that I bought for Bruce this past Christmas. Small and light, I saw nothing wrong with taking this dish with us to Florida.

Every day it seems, comes a new revelation, a change of feeling, a different insight.

Jogging with Gambit earlier, we saw Big Boy, the massive Muscovy duck who must surely outweigh Gambit’s 11 pounds, heaving his bulk across Marion Ave. near the teenage alligator’s pond. Big Boy has improbably grown even fatter in this heat and seems to do little except shuffle between the two ponds throughout the day. He held up a number of cars on his journey, and was so lazy that as we passed, the best he could do as he lay in the damp grass under an elderly oak was mouth vague warnings through his gray/white/red mottled bill.

The evening is soft now and the westerly sun is casting its long rays through the lanai shutters. The sun stays strong here even in the late afternoon, right into sundown.

I think of the beautiful, fine-boned Mrs. Lindbergh walking along Captiva’s shores. Hurricane Charley came in 2004, one of the strongest ever to hit the U.S. So she may well have walked between Captiva and North Captiva — the hurricane cut a channel between the two islands, and North Captiva can now be reached only by boat, like a lot of places here.

I see her bend to pick up a shell; I could never associate the awkward “Sanibel Stoop” with such a lovely woman. I think of the quiet lives of the imagination these women must have lived, for I feel her in my mind as I see my grandmother, and as I see Eleanor Roosevelt. Their lives ever so much freer than so many womens’ yet still, so very unfree. From their clothing to their hair to what they could say, they held their innermost thoughts to themselves. But then shell by shell, Anne Morrow Lindbergh wrote her Gift from the Sea.

So many things, our culture has taken from us, from our ability to be kind to each other and accept our differences, to our ability to notice the tiny things: a shell, a dragonfly (for there are so many now, and they are as big as hummingbirds!), the tiniest flicker in the water which is a fish, the flashing ripple of a tarpon’s fin, the way the sun on the water looks like ever so many diamonds.

We are part of life, we are part of nature, and yet so many have forgotten even these, the smallest things.

I think when I am able to read Gift from the Sea, so many veils will be lifted.

Stump Pass State Park, Manasota Key, FL

How soft the Gulf is — how blue and warm and gentle.

Until there comes a storm. And so — there is. Tonight, though they say, not a bad one.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Marine Life Thrives at Mote Aquarium in Sarasota, FL

Everyone who knows me knows how I feel about wildlife and nature. I don’t support old-fashioned zoos that keep animals in cages, but I do support wildlife conservation efforts and study. I completely support organizations like the Mote Aquarium in Sarasota. The Mote says,

We are guardians of the sea and all living things that depend upon it

It’s a wonderful place, and they’ve put good procedures in place to ensure that visitors, staff, and resident sealife can continue safely during the COVID-19 pandemic. Visitors are allowed as long as they wear masks and follow safety procedures. Many “hands on” experiences are not possible at this time, but as Dr. Oliver Sacks pointed out to his friend Shane Fistell in one of the videos we used to watch in class, “We see with the eyes, but sometimes we see with the hands.” Right now for everyone’s safety, it’s important to keep “seeing with the eyes,” especially when we’re near living creatures who might get sick if we touch them.

Just like people, animals have personalities, and the personalities at Mote Aquarium are remarkable. One of the first animals I met while visiting there was a sprightly small turtle.

Very calm and interested, he swam for a bit, then settled back on a rock to watch the interesting, strange creatures peering into his home.

Here’s a link to the Manatee Cam so you can see what a great environment the Mote provides.

I’ve seen several manatee since we moved to Florida, but the Mote manatee, Hugh and Buffett, are “movie stars” compared to wild manatee. Their skin and tails are spotless and perfect. In the wild, manatee are covered by all manner of sea creatures and usually as well as sadly, many scars. Despite laws to protect them and lots of education, they are still injured by boating mishaps. They still suffer because of boating destruction of the sea grass they eat.

This is my best manatee picture from the aquarium – is it Hugh or Buffett – I don’t know!

I also had an interesting visit with one of the sea turtles that lives at the aquarium. They care for several sea turtles, all of which are rescues and which have different injuries or other circumstances that mean they won’t be able to safely return to the wild. Again, as everyone who knows me knows, sea turtles are among my favorite living creatures. One of the high points of my life was swimming alongside of one while snorkeling in Kauai.

So, here are two of the sea turtles at the Mote Aquarium, and the one on the right took an interest in me. Shortly after I took this picture, she took a swim around the tank, fixed me in her gaze, and swam swiftly back in my direction, at the last moment slapping the water with her right fin. Not only did she achieve a mighty splash, getting me and my phone wet, I’m certain she was laughing heartily in her turtle way at her excellent trick.

I understand that some people won’t like this picture, but I also have some friends who will love it. These are three Southern toads, who should be distinguished from the cane toad, which is an invasive species in South Florida. These three pals were just hanging out taking it easy when we walked by.

Have you ever seen such a large hermit crab? I haven’t, either, but a note – I’ve seen “adopt a hermit crab” displays in tourist areas recently and a word – just don’t. Leave them on the beach or in a facility like Mote Aquarium. Don’t try to take animals like this home and force them to live in painted shells.

This is a really nice, curious, and friendly cuttlefish. Not only does he share his ability to change his skin color and patterns instantly, he seems as curious about human onlookers as we are about him.

The Mote has a number of active, friendly pufferfish, so here’s a tip. YES, they can be poisonous. Do not touch them if you see them washed up on the beach. I’ve seen several and fortunately, what little common sense I have told me “Don’t touch it,” because they do contain toxins. Pufferfish can be blown ashore during storms and this just a sad fact of life.

So, of course they also have axolotls at the Mote Aquarium. And this delightful snapping turtle, ready to catch me with the lure inside his mouth.

As I was warned as a child, don’t play around with these snapping turtles: they can take your finger off.

I was talking to a native Floridian the other day and told her how sad it was the environment in California had deteriorated so much, even with so many environmental efforts and so much education. She said that Florida had also experienced severe environmental degradation, and that in recent years, things had been improving because people recognized the problems and made changes on their own. So, the beautiful environment that we enjoy so much today is the product of immense efforts on the part of many people. I think institutions like the Mote Aquarium are vital. The Aquarium educates everyone who goes, and they haven’t stopped with the COVID pandemic. They’ve added many virtual programs for all ages. They also have eco tours on the “Mote Boat.”

I’m poor at describing the deep emotion that washes over me when I’m in nature or around a large number of animals that are – for lack of a better word – happy. I know it’s not particularly sophisticated, but I have a measure to judge if a place like Mote Aquarium is “good” or “not so good.”

A couple of years ago when I visited the Monterey Bay Aquarium, they have an exhibit which includes hundreds of sardines swimming in a tank that encircles the viewer at eye level. The environment isn’t constructed to force the fish to confront human visitors, it’s shaped in a way that allows you to stand amid the fish in their normal behavior without disturbing them. Anyway, these hundreds of fish were doing their thing and as I stood there, I felt this overwhelming joy emanating from the hundreds and hundreds of silver, flashing, slender sardines.

I felt similar feelings from nearly all the animals at the Mote Aquarium. The Mote, and a place I’ll write about soon, Theater of the Sea in Islamorada, primarily have animals that cannot survive in the wild. They are teaching, conservation, and education institutions. They do not engage in capturing animals in the wild to force them to perform for paying customers like a sea park I won’t name. They take injured animals, rescued animals, abandoned animals, or orphaned animals and care for them. So, the animals are happy because they are cared for by people who care about them, and because they are living their lives — if not for the Mote, they would probably not survive. They also live in environments that are made as healthy as possible for them, and human visitors are constantly cautioned not to harass, bother, and certainly not harm them.

I was feeling “the feeling” of well-being at the Mote long before I met the saucy, mischievous sea turtle. When she splashed me, I knew she was living in a safe place where she could, as much as possible, be herself. There are many more special turtles that I met at Theater of the Sea — I’ll write more about them soon.

How Many Alligators Are There in Florida? 1.25 Million!

So, what happens when you take a 5th generation southern California native and uproot her 2600 miles away to the semi-tropical southwest Florida gulf coast?

Well … these are the “selected” shells. I limit myself to one handful per trip, only ones I’ve never gotten before. I now know the names of many of these. The orange ones are scallops. Like the little ones we eat.

So I really like Florida. It reminds me of when I was a kid in California. It’s not crowded like L.A. and Orange County have become. There’s still plenty of room for enthusiasm and exuberant displays of individualism.

This here is Gatorz in Port Charlotte. A homey, down to earth kind of place. This here below is a “gator” as in 6-foot alligator I saw crossing a divided 4 lane highway in Englewood. We have a small one that lives in one of our nearby ponds.

So I was driving down the highway on the way to walk around downtown Venice, FL and this car is stopped in front of me. Why is he stopped? What’s going on …

Ohhhhhhhhh. This massive gator was just completing his stroll across the busy, divided highway. I managed to get my camera out to capture him just as he hunched his massive body and started to insert his snout into the bushes by the side of this big housing development. This guy was just owning the entire road. I had only seen big gators sunning themselves before and this guy’s massive, catlike muscular movements amazed me.

So, not being an expert or anything, what I have to say is that these animals are in no way awkward, lumbering, or “slow.” No way could a person outrun a determined gator. So let ’em be. I am in awe and I learned – there are 1.25 million alligators in Florida. They are no longer endangered.

So, I see sea turtle nests on all of our beaches. Everyone who knows me knows my feelings about any type of turtle or tortoise, but I especially love sea turtles. On our honeymoon in Kauai, I got to snorkel around the island and I was able to swim right alongside a sea turtle for at least 2 minutes. They are so graceful and gentle and powerful.

So you can’t really see in this longer-distance picture, but there are sea turtle nests all along the green strip of vegetation on the beach. This is Don Pedro Island, one of the state parks you can get to only by boat.

I’m anything but an expert but one of the things that decided me about leaving California for Florida (among the many, many things) was that my impression after only a week’s visit to SW Florida was that the environment in Florida was a lot healthier than California. For someone who’s spend her whole life outside in California and seen the degradation of the 60s and 70s and the renewal of conservation and clean air efforts – whatever battle this was, is one I think that has been at least temporarily, lost. Not only is there what I glumly called “the diaper zone” in all hiking areas (a 1-2 mile radius around any parking area where you’ll find discarded diapers, beer cans, bottles, etc.), we went to Sanibel and Captiva in January because I’d finally gotten fed up with searching for the least, tiniest sea shell up and down every beach in the state at all hours of the day and night.

If people don’t think there’s something “wrong” with the fact that there are no sea shells on California’s shores – I could find no “official” information about this, and while younger people at conservation organizations would readily say they agreed with me – the shells are GONE – this isn’t something that I can currently find any information about. But trust me. Seashells were never as numerous on California beaches as they are on Florida’s Gulf Coast, but they were there. Now?

Nothing.

I wanted to come to Florida not just for the shells but everything else. The clean, soft white sand beaches, the kindly (at least when there’s no storm) Gulf waters, the sun (sure – it’s Skin Cancer central – what do I care?) and the incredible variety of wildlife. Not just the 1.25 million gators but the birds, the fish, the rays, the dolphins, the manatee. The little dark bunnies and the petite dark squirrels. The gopher tortoises and sea turtles.

This is the Tiki Hut white bird (great egret). There’s another one just like him who hangs out at Pinchers in Fort Myers Beach – that guy’s named Henry. This right here is Henry, waiting for his oyster. He likes shrimp and oysters — who wouldn’t?

There is an additional group of fellow residents here in Punta Gorda with whom we share the community. I haven’t gotten a good shot of the young dolphins that fish in the early morning or evening in our canal. But I have gotten some pictures of the birds. We’ve got Big Boy the massive Muscovy duck and his girlfriends (there’s another younger male whom they prefer, but Big Boy, a distinguished older gentleman, occasionally gets them back — as captured here on camera).

Big Boy was living under my Jeep for a while … but he’s moved back to a larger pond nearby.

So if you are out on the water you’ll see a lot of water birds, like this cormorant. They like to sit on the channel markers and dry their wings.

The waters are literally full of fish—all kinds of fish—all ages, all sizes, all types, from snook to snapper and grouper.

It is really hard to take a good picture of a moving animal in the surf but I was glad I got this picture of a young brown ray. I saw these guys “playing” in the surf in January and thought “they’re so active!” No doubt – these were males chasing females to catch them and mate.

Having petted any number of rays, they don’t feel anything like what you’d think. They’re warm and their skin feels like skin. You can feel how strong their muscles are. They are obviously intelligent and have very distinctive personalities.

Which brings us to — this is my best picture of a manatee. There is a large group that gathers at Jensen’s Marina on Captiva.

Manatees are exactly what people say: “the cows of the sea.” There’s obviously a strong bond between mother and calf. These animals spend most of their day grazing and they are — let’s see, how to say it politely —  not the most active creatures in the world. They basically float in shallow water and eat sea grass. The rules for all the canals, marinas, docks, and intercoastal waterway anywhere around here are meant to protect the manatee from harm and preserve the sea grass they depend on. So many fish live in this seagrass, too.

In addition to these animals, we have chickens (white Ibis) which flock exactly like chickens but are Egyptian-appearing birds, and an unbelievable array of sea and shorebirds, from sanderlings to sandhill cranes.

I was walking on the beach on Manasota Key and came across a sandhill crane observing a boy of about 10 who was fishing. The crane was gauging his angle of attack if the boy had managed to catch a fish. I didn’t have my phone or I would have taken a picture of this amazing scene.

And we have many pelicans, both white and brown.

The one at the bottom left of the frame had sidled near to Bruce on the beach and was looking at him with a profoundly loving expression. He seemed like a young, naive and affectionate pelican. I hadn’t realized until I came across this friendly group on Sanibel Island how pretty pelican faces really are. They have a light covering of fur-like feathers and really gentle-looking, soft eyes.

Which brings me to dolphins. I can’t say I have any one favorite type of animal over another. To me, all animals are wonderful and I’ve even managed to overcome my instinctive dislike of horseshoe crabs. I keep telling myself, “maybe they are really nice despite the way they look.” But I really love dolphins. Those we had plenty of in So Cal. The dolphins here on the Gulf are supposedly the same common dolphin, but they seem smaller and livelier. This is my best dolphin picture, from the Everglades.

Yeah yeah I know. Well at least my thumb isn’t in the picture.

So as I noted, we have a couple of juvenile dolphin who fish in our canal in the early mornings and at dusk.

So, I have only been living in SW Florida for a little over two months and visited for a week in January and I have already got a huge number of pictures of animals and birds.

There are so many state, local, and city parks and beaches here. And they’re all free or very low cost to visit. When I first went to Sanibel, I was stunned.

“You can pick up the shells on the beach?” I asked.

“Yes,” said the ranger at the “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge (worth a post on its own — I’ll get ’round to it). She explained anyone was welcome to collect any empty shell, but leave living animals on the beach. Having been “fooled” by at least three massive lightning whelks burrowing into the sand, it’s very possible to pick up a perfect-looking shell that looks perfect because it contains a living animal.

So every day there are hundreds of thousands of new shells on the beach. People pave with shells here. The very land of Florida is made from sea creatures (coral and shells). The mangroves and the shells make new land. That is the Everglades 10,000 Islands (where the dolphin picture was taken).

People fish here, heck they fish all day and night long and guess what? There’s fish being born and growing all the time. There are thousands of tiny sprats hiding under the docks outside our small place and this is just one dock among thousands within a mile of here.

So, you know how they talk about Florida in California and on the news. Florida is full of stupid rednecks, right? It’s full of flesh-eating bath salt maniacs and people who get DUIs on riding lawnmowers.

Well. I moved from a place that was rapidly becoming totally hostile to natural life and human life — my native born home, California.

And I don’t see any of those things here. I have yet to meet a stupid, ignorant person here in Florida and I have met a lot of intelligent, knowledgeable, and caring ones. I see nature and animals thriving here. I feel the life here.

I can’t describe this feeling adequately, but maybe you’ve felt it. I’ve felt it several times here, from the “Ding” Darling refuge on Sanibel Island to Don Pedro Island and the Everglades. I’ve felt it driving along country highways on the way to unspoiled, uncrowded beaches. It’s a feeling of wordless, overwhelming joy in life. It’s the feeling where you know there is something more, something vastly bigger than your own small self, and that there is a force of life and nature that’s all-encompassing and so, so powerful.

I’ve felt it on Kauai too. But it had been many years since I felt it in California.

And that makes me sad. Because my former home was once one of the most beautiful and life-filled places on the planet.

 

 

 

 

Space X Launches 2 crew into space May 27 2020

Now I Can Cross Watching Astronauts Blast Into Space Off My Bucket List

I never thought I’d see a crewed rocket blast into space at Cape Canaveral, yet — here I am. I also never thought I’d live in Florida, and likely would never even visit the state, yet — here I am.

I do remember Apollo 11 landing on the moon and I remember Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin planting the flag. I recall sitting on the living room floor in our house in the orange grove cross-legged, eating an Oreo and drinking a 6-oz glass of milk. The living room walls in the grove house were cedar panels. I remember Rebel sitting next to me, his big head and floppy ears resting on his big old paws. Rebel was a phlegmatic Basset hound with deep brown, mournful eyes. I had learned to walk by clinging to his ears and toddling.

It seemed very easy for these two guys to hop out of the Lunar module and caper around the moon. At age seven, I thought the big rocket was just like the small rockets one of our teachers had launched at school. In my mind, flying to the moon was maybe a little farther than flying to Paris. My child’s mind told me that the astronauts were just like The Little Prince only instead of a nice costume and scarf, they wore puffy, funny suits.

The Little Prince by Antoine St. Exupery

This is in my child’s mind. All through school, we drew peace symbols, stuck “ecology” stickers on our notebooks, and learned about the Apollo astronauts. I was certain that by the time we were all grown up, the world would be a beautiful, green, peaceful place, and astronauts would be flying all over the universe.

Just like Star Trek.

I was too young to be allowed to stay up and watch Star Trek. But by the time I was in third or fourth grade, it was on every day after school. Most days now, I can’t remember everything I’m supposed to do, but nearly every Star Trek episode is burned into my brain. Within 10 seconds of the show’s first scene, I can tell which episode it’s going to be, from the idiotic ones like “Space Hippies” or “Landru” to profound ones like Harlan’s episode.

So at the same time I was eating the Oreo, drinking my small glass of milk, and wondering at the stars, it was the height of the Vietnam War. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy had been in their graves one short year.

I didn’t know what war was. When Bobby Kennedy was shot, I was only a few blocks away in the waiting room of a doctor who was planning hip surgery on my beloved Bampy (my grandfather). I heard them say Bobby Kennedy had been shot on the small white radio in the waiting room, and I heard the nurses crying.

“Can’t the doctors fix him?” I asked.

No — the doctors couldn’t fix him.

How could I imagine I’d grow up to write a book about Buzz Aldrin or accomplish the few goals I had as a female science fiction writer?

And so I never imagined I’d see two men go into space on a big rocket. But so I did.

Space X crewed launch May 27 2020

Nothing about Cape Canaveral or Merritt Island was like what I thought it would be. One way to see the launch is to take a boat on the Banana River as close as you can get. You motor out as fast as you can and wait. The countdown you hear on TV  is delayed from the real launch. So by the time those at home see the launch, the rocket has already reached the clouds.

It is not as loud as I’d imagined. The rocket looks like a small glowing needle rising through the sky.

It’s beautiful.

It’s also small and frail and very human. It’s as frail as the Wright Flyer I saw over my head, and the Apollo space suit — thin white canvas — that I saw at the Air & Space Museum in 1993. Also on that trip I experienced this.

It was difficult for me to write this because there are so many feelings of hope and pride and disillusionment and grief mixed together when I think about space.

I just searched my name on Amazon to link one of my books and despite the fact I have published 40 books, it was suggesting another person’s name. I had to work very hard to find my own book.

Small and frail and like specks of dust are we all.

As we rode out (twice — the first launch was scrubbed due to late spring storms) in the boat, there were so many others on their way. This flotilla leaving Cocoa Beach was mostly small yachts, a few sailboats, several jetskis, little skiffs, and a scattering of speedboats. There were people up from Miami in the group, but most were local, aside from Bruce and me and a couple of others from Florida’s west coast. A few had also flown in from other parts of the country.

Every soul I saw save three were … hard to say it … whiter than me.

And this wonderful launch I saw had two worthy astronaut heirs to the Apollo 11 crew, Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley. Do people even know their names like Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin? Do people know any of the Space X astronaut names?

A lot of people know the name of the man behind this current launch: Elon Musk.

As we just moved from California, I would estimate at least 10-15% of the cars on the road back home were his vehicles. And I do give Mr. Musk credit for resurrecting the name and ideas of a once-nearly-forgotten man: Nikola Tesla.

But I bet I haven’t seen more than four Teslas on the road — including on the Space X launch days — in the 75 days I’ve been living in Florida. Dodge Boys and Carroll Shelby rule here.

Don’t get me wrong. I love Florida. I love the beauty of the sea here, the rich nature, and the incredible feeling of just being here. We are in a small town in SW Florida, Punta Gorda, and it’s very much like the small town in Southern California where I grew up in the orange grove and had my cookie and milk and watched the astronauts walk on the moon on that long-ago day. I keep wanting to take pictures for my friend Merry Mary and my friend Cathy because the City Hall is so nice here, and the houses are so much like Redlands, but tropical.

Gambit loves it here.

You see amazing things every day here.

If I can remember back to that long-ago day, over 50 years ago, I was a little girl eating a cookie, drinking cold milk, and dreaming of the stars like Saint-Exupery’s Little Prince, and at the same time, there was a terrible war no one wanted or understood, there were people protesting in the streets for the most basic of rights, and my mother had died of pancreatic cancer leaving a 3 month-old baby (me) and a ten-year old son (my brother Sammy) and her husband, my father, behind.

And I think it has been so hard for me to write this because in so many ways, not because things have gotten worse, but because things have gotten easier for so many people. But in the way of the world, when the basics of our lives ease, it grows so difficult to understand the important things.

We lose track of what’s important. We trade values for money.

I see and hear the same statements today as I heard not long before that moon landing day while playing outside in the driveway as my Bampy sat on the porch with his friend from the Sheriff’s office drinking a “highball.” I never heard my Bampy’s voice raised in anger before, but I heard it this day, and stopped riding my tricycle. He stood and said loudly, “Get off my porch ___________ if you’re going to use that word. You get out and don’t come back.”

And this was the first time I had heard that word. I’m sure you can guess what that word was. The “N” word.

Maybe they were talking about Martin Luther King, Jr. Maybe they were talking about somebody else. But I do know that ______________, who had served with my grandfather in the Sheriff’s office in Redlands when he was Constable during World War II, got up and left and never came back to our house again.

My grandfather was specific in his lessons to me. He wasn’t a man of many words, but he’d often tell a brief story or two while we drove around the grove in his Rambler. I was small and couldn’t do much but felt very proud to help him open the flumes or sometimes, even lift the gates so he could light the smudge pots. That was in the days when they still smudged.

The feel of the damp sandy loam, the smell of the earth, the dark dust on the orange tree trunks and limbs, and the shiny dark green leaves and the smell of orange blossoms. I’ll never forget.

It was the same then as it is now.

When I saw the Mercury capsule that had carried John Glenn into space and back at the Air & Space Museum in 1993, I was struck speechless by how small it was. I could encompass its battered and blackened heat shield with my arms. It was barely large enough to hold his folded, strapped-in body.

They say at times the atmosphere dips so low that the peak of Everest is above it.

And sitting with my little cookie and my glass of milk, I didn’t know the difference between the air and space. I didn’t what Everest’s death zone was, nor know what it took to launch a person into space. I never wanted to be an astronaut nor thought it possible for me, but I didn’t understand the rules of society that made the Space X crew pretty much the exact same type of crew as Armstrong and Aldrin back then. I know those rules backward and forward now.

Did I know then that Gene Cernan would be the last man on the moon — to this day? Not at all. Who could have imagined what would have happened after that hopeful day of pride and achievement, July 20, 1969.

So, I think, it’s about what we imagine and wish will happen next. In this, I can’t fault Elon Musk and do not want to fault Space X as much as I dis-admire the racism and colonialism that has provided him and his company with the funds to pursue space ventures. As much as I disapprove of our government’s appalling corruption which has denied the space program the funds it needs, so that a “private business” can pursue space business and our government can declare we have a Space Force like Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. It stands to reason there are other life forms out there — and we are building things and approaching it as colonizing, violent ripoff artists.

Space should be for every person, not just a select few. And there are many things we need to leave behind in general, from racism and gender bias to the drive on the part of some to endlessly rob, cheat, steal, destroy and kill.

I watched every Star Trek show over and over as I grew up. Star Trek obviously didn’t include money and the “money” and greed-oriented characters (as well as gender biased) were personified by Harcourt Fenton Mudd. A dreadful man, as I recall.

It doesn’t seem like there’s much opportunity for the average person to have anything to say about the way things are going these days. All the same, to those who are continuing to treat others badly and who are so egotistical and value-impoverished, I want to stand up like my Bampy did and say “Get the hell off my porch and never come back!”

Keep going into space, by all means. But the right way, for the right reasons.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Listening At The Breathing Place: Tomo-Kahni State Park

What does an ancient Native American community say about public and private places, the environment, and our culture?

A couple of weeks ago, I took a rare day off for a rare opportunity: a hiking trip to California’s Tomo-Kahni State Park sponsored by the California Rock Art Foundation.

Despite being a 5th-generation Californian who’s hiked many of the state’s trails, I’d not only never heard of the park before, I hadn’t heard of the Kawaiisu people, some of whom lived at Tomo-Kahni until the 1930s. All I knew was I was traveling west from the 14 out of Mojave on what was to me, “that back road from Barstow to Bakersfield.”

© 2019 Amy Sterling Casil — State park commemorative plaque — hidden from the road due to risk of defacement and vandalism of Native American artifacts

A couple of Google reviews for Tomo-Kahni say “there’s nothing there.” This is a good thing because there’s no real security at the park. Anyone could drive out there, circumvent the gate, and wander around doing anything they liked.

© 2019 Amy Sterling Casil — the only petroglyph at Tomo-Kahni SHP

Tomo-Kahni means “winter home” in the language of the Kawaiisu people who lived there for thousands of years. The only petroglyph on site lasted one week after the park was dedicated in 1993. Perhaps by way of celebration, someone busted in and put their own version of a “Thunderbird” on the right side of the rock face. The damage had to be removed, obscuring some of the real rock art. The petroglyphs now visible show a bighorn sheep and a dog. Meredith saw three men with bows and arrows.

Walking quietly, I began to feel the way the Kawaiisu people lived before Europeans came and set up businesses as diverse as cattle and cement and pastimes like lynchings and massacres. I listened in wonder as our guides explained that the hills, now sparsely dotted with juniper and sagebrush, had once been covered in native oaks. The oaks had been felled for wood use by European settlers; somehow they’d survived thousands of years of occupation by the Kawaiisu and even more ancient Native American people.

© 2019 Amy Sterling Casil — chameleon rock that I’m not going to place very specifically — you can see the junipers and scrub — the Kawaiisu said spirits emerged from the earth and were captured in these rocks — there are many more.

Listening to our guides from the Tehachapi Museum and the California Rock Art Foundation, pictures formed in my mind. I felt hearts beating and the breath of lives that had gone on before. An entirely different way of life from the one I knew had gone on at Tomo-Kahni for hundreds — even thousands — of years.

© 2019 Rock shelf along an entire hillside used by Kawaiisu families for grinding and preparing acorns (each area used by a specific family)

Nearly at the top of one overlooking hill was one of the few remaining oaks and a cave which was a healing place. Another cave slightly to the north was a refuge for women during their monthly menstrual cycles. In the canyon leading up, a place of grieving, where Kawaiisu mothers fled a massacre with their babies. The mothers hid in rock crevices. Our guides said the mothers grieved because the babies suffocated while their mothers were hiding. I think, but am not sure, that the mothers were fleeing the Keysville Massacre in 1863, in which Native American men were killed by U.S. Federal troops from Fort Tejon.

We came to the rock shelter and cave paintings after a steep and winding climb. As we rounded the last trail switchback, a shadow flashed over us. The hair stood up on the back of my neck and I looked up to see the round cream-colored face and broad wings of a barn owl.

© 2019 Amy Sterling Casil — Owl nest above Tomo-Kahni rock shelter with cave paintings

The shelter is not large, but it overlooks a broad valley dotted with dramatic rock formations and junipers. There is no way to know how old the paintings are, or how many people made them.

© 2019 Amy Sterling Casil Tomo-Kahni cave paintings — ancient and spiritual

I saw many animals while on this hike. As we hiked out beside Tomo-Kahni’s now-nearly-dry stream, at least 20 quail took flight. Some of the pictures in the rock shelter may be of the rock baby and perhaps not drawn directly by people. I felt they might be so; stories of the Kawaiisu speak of it.

© 2019 Amy Sterling Casil — this portion of the shelter had many pictures and a nearly-invisible line traveling from the white area outlined in black on the upper left all around the lower rock.

According to some official records, the Kawaiisu people don’t even exist. They’re not a federally-recognized tribe. I hadn’t known until this hike that in the 1920s and 30s, the U.S. government worked hard to convince indigenous people they didn’t need to be federally-recognized. Apparently word went out that it was bad to be federally-recognized. So, among many others, the Kawaiisu people declined the recognition, which includes both good and bad: yes to aid, yes to reservations, no to many other opportunities.

I know our guides said that the Kawaiisu descendants in Tehachapi helped to raise money so the state could purchase the land where Tomo-Kahni sits. I can’t find documentation of this but have no doubt it’s true. The land is not that far as the crow flies from Tejon Ranch, one of the largest privately-owned ranches not only in California, but the entire nation. The massacre of Kawaiisu men and the mothers hiding with their babies is intertwined with the story of Tejon Ranch — which ought to make any of us Californians blanch — but nobody seems to care and they still make PBS documentaries and Huell Howser videos about how awesome the ranch is. The Tejon people are federally recognized but my understanding is that some native people who live on or near the Tejon Ranch aren’t. If you want to know what type of people the white Tejon ranchers are you can watch the movie Chinatown and compare to the bad guy Noah Cross portrayed by John Huston.

“She’s my sister! She’s my daughter! My sister! My daughter!”

“You see, Mister Gittes,” Cross says to Jack Nicholson’s detective Jake Gittes, “most men never have to face the fact that, at the right time, they’re capable of . . . anything.”

If you haven’t seen the film, it’s a Hollywood classic. While watching it again the other day, I realized that director Roman Polanski may well have been driven out of the U.S. for pedophilia with teens he was not related to by people whose illegal sins were far worse (incest is only one of the many sins of Cross in Chinatown).

We go from the red, evil city (Los Angeles) to the fresh air and now-oakless landscape where the Kawaiisu once raised their children, hunted and fished, and kept their lives from one generation to the next.

The ground where people once have lived darkens, said Christine Clarkson, a college instructor and CRAF Executive Director who came with her family and led the California Rock Art Foundation portion of the tour. All around where the Kawaiisu people had lived were stones which had once been in a circle and which had been moved into mysterious irregular shapes by the earth itself over the years. Dust, fire, soot, grease, footsteps of ages, ground into the earth itself.

They say that Picasso visited the caves of Lascaux in France and exited white-faced, muttering “We have invented nothing new.”

I realized how many times I had seen darkened soil while hiking. How many times I have seen the stones where mothers and daughters ground the acorns. Yet I hadn’t seen the quail flying so since I was a young girl, hunting with my grandfather. My heart lifted to hear and feel them.

My heart sinks to feel how much we have lost. Why couldn’t the Kawaiisu people keep living there? By the 1920s and 30s, their way of life had been swallowed up. Swallowed in part for the wicked red city, as the cement plant in the nearby “company town” of Monolith made materials for Mulholland’s Los Angeles Aqueduct.

People with the desire to hike into the wild and empty spaces may not have the desire to link threads or tell stories. They may see what remains today, but not be able to feel what once was there; I couldn’t feel the oaks that had been cut down, never to regrow, until I was told about them. After that, their spirits were at every turn.

What kind of soul-dead fool would scratch a false Thunderbird on hundreds- or thousands- of year old sacred art?

I want to say such fools are no longer with us, but that’s hardly the case. The marker for Tomo-Kahni Park faces inward, not outward, and is hidden from the eyes of eager vandals by junipers and rocks.

There are so many places where the people who came before lived. Today we live in pollution, in houses that will crumble to less than nothing if we are gone even 25 years, much less hundreds or thousands of years.

But perhaps the dark earth will remain, because as always, we track in our dirt, cook our food, and go about our lives. What will they say of us when they make their mark on our once-proud monuments?

Natural History (2014)

We drive over the mountains through manzanita and scrub brush. Soon the land turns to hard Mojave, with scattered cholla and endless sand and the painted badlands wrinkled like an old seaman’s weathered face. A few miles on a narrow, state-maintained road winding through red and brown shattered volcanic cliffs, and we enter the hamlet of Borrego Springs. In this desert town, everyone has an ample yard filled with small white stones, sand, cactuses, and for the extravagant, palm trees and a chain-link fence.

After more driving, we are finally at the state park at the foot of the mountains. These appear tall because they are so rugged, but in reality, they are not very tall. Indian Head peak is less than 4,000 feet in height though it towers above the low, sloping valley with the visitor center and the campground.

We park and are grateful for the water and shade of the buildings, though it is only March and nothing like the heat that comes to this place in high summer. The visitor center grounds have been manicured into a Disney desert with examples of desert plants carefully arranged. Smoke trees, tall ocotillo, and cactus. The small cactus that grows like crooked thumbs and fingers I had always thought were all the same, called cholla. There are many types of cholla marked by the gravel trail, including one with fatter fingers than usual called Teddy Bear cholla. A massive barrel cactus taller than a man stands near the entrance to the low-slung visitor center. It is proudly phallic, bending slightly to the left, the top ringed with reddish thorns.

This handsome building does not change. It is exactly as I remember it. The bronze doors have handles worked in the shape of bighorn sheep antlers, which are the namesakes of this place. In Spanish, borrego means bighorn sheep. They are beautiful animals but we will not see living ones today. They are wise to live in the mountains and do not come down on the flats.

I am excited to see the pupfish, which I remember as swimming happily in a small, reedy pool.

The pool is still there, but it has changed. Now it is brackish and filled with thick mats of ghostly gray algae and foamy yellow scum. Hordes of fat bees buzz about the fetid pool; where there are no bees, there are tadpoles and flies. The pupfish are invisible. They are either dead or hiding from the bees.

“Poor pupfish,” Bruce says. “I feel sorry for them. They have to hide or the bees will sting them.”

We sit for a time on a bench overlooking the valley. In the distance, some 30 miles, are the Laguna Mountains. It is so clear they appear much closer. Farther still are the much higher peaks of the Santa Rosa mountains near Palm Springs. This bench is sturdy and well-made. It has been donated to the center in memory of a handsome couple dressed in 40’s clothing, smiling out at the watchful camera.

Behind us, people from the Nature Center are laying out a desert feast. We are sheltered beneath a paloverde. Somewhere in the tree or ground below is a dove which cries and moans like a grieving woman – a mourning dove. I look for it, but cannot see it.

We kiss as the dove cries.

After a while, we go into the Nature Center and squeeze between narrow, lumpy concrete walls made to duplicate a box canyon in the badlands. After displays of fossils and geology and a massive plaster tortoise shell which strikes me as ideal to ride, though it’s clearly indicated as a “fossil,” we come to a display of stuffed desert animals. There’s a handsome, long-legged jackrabbit and a delicate little kit fox with a fluffy, ringed tail. A mother, father and baby bighorn sheep are the centers of the display.

A small, loud boy with a black walking stick taller than himself approaches, leaning on the rail that protects the display. His father stumbles behind him, arriving just in time for the boy to announce, “Are these extinct animals?”

The father mumbles something about them being real animals. Bruce’s eyes flash with humor.

The boy says, “Are these animals dead?” He is braying with stone-cold certainty that he knows all there is to know or ever will be.

The boy’s younger brother arrives with a similar large walking stick. He mimics his brother’s manner but clearly cannot compete in this sweepstakes for the depths of vacuity and ill manners. The father, dressed in vintage Sears Nerd, seems helpless as the two jostle madly back and forth for the best position overlooking the small display.

“See those sticks?” I say quietly to Bruce, looking toward the boys. “I’ll use them on them.” His eyes twinkle.

The center is closing and the elderly volunteer must release us with the handicapped button which opens the beautifully-cast bighorn sheep doors. We are outside only moments when the idiot boys and their father exit.

“Give me that fuckin’ stick,” Bruce says in his low Philly accent. “I’ll show you your animals.”

The boys do not hear; despite being about ten and seven years of age, it’s doubtful either has heard much besides television or video games for their entire lives.

But the father does hear. His eyes widen behind his thick-framed glasses.

“Haven’t you ever seen a fuckin’ stuffed animal?” Bruce continues. “It’s a fuckin’ stuffed animal.” His voice lowers still. “Are they alive or dead,” he adds in lazy contempt.

We know the father can hear, but he needs to hear. His children are monsters in training, soon to be extinct.

This is a stark, beautiful, hard country. We drive away to the village of the mad at the shores of the brackish Salton Sea, where nothing can live. It is not hot but the air presses down on us. We are traveling along the small of the world’s back, which feels as though it bears all of its weight, tired, ancient and brutal.

Yet even in this place, there is life, burrowing under the desert sand, nestled in a paloverde, driving in a Jeep. Like the blind, buzzing bees besetting the poor pupfish, these monstrous boys will rampage on.

If things were otherwise, I think, as we drive along the gray ribbon of desert road. If things were otherwise, I would have put a bit of the stick about and made them jump like kangaroo rats on hot rocks in August.

My Rescue Dog Rescued Me

One time I heard someone say that g-o-d was d-o-g spelled backward.

He was strong and silent. I loved him so. Maybe he wasn’t as tall as I would have liked, but he was fit and well-built. He had a big heart on his back and a much greater one inside of his body.

Mom. You gave Badger a Payday and he threw up. You let him eat gummy worms.

I thought I rescued a Jack Russell Terrier from a kill shelter as a pet for my daughter.

Mom. You fed Badger scrambled eggs and McDonalds hamburgers.

Badger rescued me.

Badger was his shelter name. He had many nicknames, including “pony” because he looked like a pinto pony when he ran, and “onie” (short for “pony”) and “stank” (I regret that one).

Badger was smarter than most people.

I hadn’t had a dog since I was in high school, so I was little-prepared for the challenge of raising any rescue dog, much less a high-energy, whipsmart Jack Russell Terrier.

Badger had already bombed in his first rescue house. An older lady who lived in a mobile home returned him saying he’d torn up everything in her place in only a couple of days. All the animal rescue lady wanted to know was “Do you have a big yard?”

Sure! We were living in this big house on San Pablo. Just me and Meredith.

“He may hide for several days once you bring him home,” she said. “He may take a while to warm up to you. Don’t be alarmed if he acts standoffish.”

As she spoke, Badger was reclining on the back seat of my car.

Meredith and I picked out his dishes, his first food, some treats, and several dog toys.

When we got home, Badger took a three-minute tour of the house sniffing each room while I put out his food and water. I opened the toys and put them in the back yard.

He ran outside, trotting around with his pony-like gait, grabbed every toy, played with it for a minute or two, then came back in, gobbled half his bowl of food and gulped his cool water. Then he leapt nimbly onto the onto the couch, put the pillows the way he liked, and closed his eyes.

Onie, dozing (by me)

I guess we passed muster.

The rescue lady said that Badger had been dumped in the animal shelter because he’d grown too tall to be a desirable Jack Russell. The breeder had docked his tail. He had been aggressive, so they neutered him. He was on his last day at the kill shelter when the rescue team picked him up.

Badger went through every single negative behavior of a rescue dog, one right after the other.

He hadn’t shown aggression toward little kids the way I’d been warned until a very small girl about 7 years old joined Meredith’s neighborhood friend group. Badger spotted this kid playing in our front yard and shot out of the front door, barking loudly and terrifying her.

Can’t be around children under age 5.

He took to barking and jumping on anyone who came in our house.

He started peeing in the house when we were gone.

One day before I went to school, I tied him to a 100-pound dog stake (Badger weighed 20 pounds) in our back yard. When I got home a few hours later, our neighbor Matt brought a shame-eyed Badger over along with the dirt-covered stake and broken collar.

He pulled up the stake and jumped the fence with it trailing behind him, nearly strangling himself before his collar broke.

One afternoon I was sitting on the sofa grading. Badger was at my feet. I could see the kitchen from this vantage point.

A small dark shape zipped across the kitchen floor, disappearing under the dishwasher.

Aw man. In the house? Really?

Badger jumped up, twice as fast as the scuttling shape. His head dipped and shook back and forth once. Bam! Bam!

He trotted calmly back from the kitchen and laid the still-warm rat at my feet.

Badger and I had a lot of silent conversations during which much was communicated and nothing said.

Every time we’d conquer one problem behavior, another would crop up. One Saturday, Meredith was playing with her friends in the front yard when a man pedaled by on a red beach cruiser. As he rode across the street, Badger spotted him and shot across the street at top speed.

I watched in horror as my dog harried this man like a hound with a fox, circling the bike and barking. The bike wobbled this way and that.

Losing control, the man toppled into our neighbor’s ivy bed just as I caught up and grabbed Badger’s collar.

“I’m so sorry!” I said. “I don’t know what — “

“It’s fine,” said a grumpy voice. The guy turned and —

It was Meredith’s vice principal.

We were already in hot water at that school because Mike and I had gotten divorced, I wore “racy” clothes, and Mike occasionally dropped her off on his Harley.

One day I got Meredith some fried chicken and she was allowed to eat it in her upstairs bedroom.

Badger liked to sit in the bay window halfway up our stairs overlooking our front door and the front yard. I had put a seat cushion in it, and Meredith had put out a sign to deter him from sitting on it that read:

No Bager No

The written warning didn’t have too much effect because just as Meredith started eating the fried chicken, Badger was in his window spot and suddenly ran downstairs, barking at the door like someone was there.

Meredith ran downstairs to answer, thinking her friends had come over.

She opened the door looking right and left — but no one was there.

When she went back to her room, the chicken was gone.

A few days later I was preparing to enjoy a delicious “special burrito” from El Burrito. Badger started barking at the front door. I left my plate on the coffee table. When I got back from answering the door only to find no one there, the burrito looked normal enough.

I picked it up and it was strangely lightweight — almost like —

Badger had sucked out all the filling without disturbing the tortilla.

No Bager No!

We started hiking together. We did the Pacific Crest Trail. We did Bertha Peak. We did the Devil’s Chair. Badger came with us to Mammoth. He drank out of the Hot Creek.

He was so adventurous.

I started going on writing retreats to Ojai when Meredith was with her dad. I took Badger to Lake Casitas. He spotted these weird white birds (Chinese geese) on the shoreline and chased after them. They flapped their wings, took brief flight, and landed a few yards out in the water. Badger kept going. As soon as the water got deep, he just kept running which became swimming. I finally had to jump in after him. Now they say no one is allowed to even touch the water in that nearly-dry lake.

Times change.

I didn’t know much about the Ventura County backcountry (or the Santa Monica Mountains) before we moved to Woodland Hills, but Badger and I got to know them well.

On a cool, misty spring day we visited the Middle Lion Canyon campground and set out on the Lion Canyon trail in the Los Padres National Forest. The previous fall we had been to the same location when I realized … it was deer hunting season. That was when we saw the bear claw marks 9 feet up on the trees.

This trail runs along the Sespe River. About five miles out, I got the strangest feeling. The hair stood up on the back of my neck. I stopped and looked to my right across the river bed. Lines of aspens waved in the light breeze and mist.

I suddenly understood (and I seriously hadn’t before) why they called it “Lion Canyon.”

A mountain lion ambled along the other side of the stream, no more than 50 yards away. She looked coolly across the rocky streambed at me. The hackles on Badger’s neck stood up.

“No boy,” I said, kneeling close. “She’ll kill you.”

Yeah she could have killed me too, but instead, she went on her way.

Oh Badger. He ran away countless times. When we moved to Woodland Hills, Alan wanted to take his kids to the zoo. He didn’t want Badger in the house alone so I left him outside on the huge upstairs deck in his crate.

There was no way to know when he busted out but when we returned, Badger was gone.

Devastated, I drove endlessly up and down the byzantine winding streets in our neighborhood calling for him. Then it started to rain.

I lay on the couch in the living room — wasn’t exactly sure why — but at 3:00 a.m. I heard a scratch at the front door. I leapt up and threw the door wide open.

This time there was someone there.

Badger jumped into my arms. He was soaking wet and his legs, belly and chest were muddy and oily like he was a truck driving offroad in the rain.

Oftentimes he’d wake me to go outside in the middle of the night. He had a typical patrol route along the little alley-like street where we lived. He’d investigate the thick hillside covered with ivy, the tall pines, the plantings around our circular driveway.

One night we went out and I felt a strange feeling, very much like the pre-lion thrill of warning. It was a full moon and a shadow darkened the drive. I looked up just in time to see an enormous owl swooping overhead on its way to the tall pines. His wingspan made him seem larger than Badger. And he was absolutely silent.

Another night, I was surprised to see the hugest coyote I’d ever seen ambling down the drive. Still groggy, I couldn’t stop Badger. He rushed the coyote, twice his size or more, and began barking and harrying just the way he had with Meredith’s vice principal.

“Badger!” I cried. “He’ll kill you!”

The coyote just looked disdainfully ahead and continued ambling on his way. Badger finally answered my call. The last I saw of the coyote, his expression seemed to say, “Dumb Jack Russell …”

On the trail if there was any type of scat, especially coyote or lion, Badger would be sure to roll in it.

So Badger knew what he was doing when he’d escape. And — he knew his way home.

After Anthony died and Alan returned home from the hospital, I left Badger at the house in Woodland Hills because I couldn’t afford to board him much longer.

I was lying in bed in my lousy apartment in Redlands staring at the dingy popcorn ceiling when my cell phone rang.

“She came,” Alan said breathlessly. “Everything’s ruined. Badger’s gone.”

This was about midnight.

I drove 90 miles to Woodland Hills. When I walked into the kitchen from the garage, my feet immediately crunched glass. Someone (Alan’s ex) had trashed the kitchen. Every hanging pot was on the floor. I saw huge divots in the wall. The glass was from my kitchen pictures. I went out the front door where we had seen the owl and the coyote and called for Badger. Nothing.

Alan said that his ex had shown up screaming at him and rampaged through the house, throwing things. Mr. Moron, he said, never came inside, but instead stood at the front door yelling instructions.

He said when they showed up, Badger had run upstairs barking, then he heard him yelp loudly, and nothing else.

“He killed him,” I said. I drove down to the Van Nuys Sheriff’s station.

It was one of those moments where you think, “I could just go over to their shit apartment and kill him with a knife and cut off her hands” or “Maybe the Sheriffs will help. They know you and your dog. They know what happened with Lali.”

I went down and it turned out that Alan had called the cops during the attack.

“What will you do to him if he killed my dog?” I asked. One of the cops explained to me that Alan’s ex was the one who’d be charged since she had actually entered the house.

“That guy’s a creep,” one of the officers said. “He knows what’s what — he thinks he couldn’t be charged if he stood outside. It’s like Manson.”

They put out one of their bulletins. I drove home, showered, and went to work the next day. I was nearly dead from lack of sleep and part of me just wanted to lie down and die. My baby was dead, the law was telling me I couldn’t even speak to my daughter, and 95% of me thought Mr. Moron had killed my best friend Badger.

I asked if I could leave work early to go to the animal shelter and put out flyers for Badger. Receiving permission, I drove from downtown to Woodland Hills. Once I got in the house in the daytime, I saw the damage from the night before was even worse than I’d thought. I went around the corner from the kitchen to the living room and saw something unspeakable.

My hammer lay on the floor. On my grandmother’s dining table lay sheets of newsprint and what remained of Anthony’s Christmas houses. Completely shattered. Just shards of pottery and broken colored glass.

Alan’s ex had taken my own hammer and smashed the few things I had that were a memory of my baby who had died three weeks before.

I sat cross-legged on the floor in that huge living room and wept. Next to Lali dying, it was the worst moment of my life.


So then my cell phone rang.

“Hello, I’m calling about Badger Cass-eeel,” said a polite woman’s voice.

She lived by the golf course, she had rescued Jack Russells herself, and she had Badger.

I want to tell you that — and I understand there are a lot of people who don’t believe in God — that He is real. At least that’s how I call Him. Maybe Her. We don’t know. But just as there was unspeakable evil at play in this situation, so too, was there good.

I went over there and got Badger and wept like a baby in her living room. I didn’t burden her with too much of the horrible story. She was one of the nicest people I’ve ever met.

One of the reasons I stayed alive after that was so I could buy our house in Redlands with Cathy and bring Badger home.


He ran away there, too.

Badger loved to run down to the Sankey.

He busted out the back of the house one day and jumped the fence. Getting home and seeing the screen flapping in Cath’s room, I got in my Landrover (aka “The Banana Car” — it was a repo) and drove slowly by the Sankey. Along the stream were fields of tall, dry, uncut grass.

I had the window rolled halfway down and I called for him.

Something told me he was near.

A pair of rabbit-like ears rose from the waving grass.

“Onie!” I called.

He bounded through the grass and jumped into his seat. We drove home in the soft, fading light.

He was dirty and covered in weeds and burrs. That was my best friend. That was Badger.

I thought I was rescuing him but it was Badger who saved me.

Mom. You gave him a Payday and he threw it up.

I know Bal. I know. He loved me anyway.

My Baby Died in My Arms And I Was Accused of Killing Him

My Baby Died in My Arms And I Was Accused of Killing Him

My son Anthony Sterling Rodgers, who I called “Lali,” died in my arms on the night of January 11, 2005. He was exactly six months old.

In terms of his eyes, they were blue.

I have never felt such fierce love as I did for Lali. He was a pure spirit of love.

It was my second day of work at Beyond Shelter and I had stayed late to meet the board of directors. It was also one of the rainiest periods in Los Angeles history and I struggled to drive home in near-hurricane conditions.

Twenty minutes before I got home, I spoke to Lali’s father Alan on the phone. He had just fed Anthony, he said, and was putting him down to sleep. Earlier that day my daughter Meredith had gotten sick with the flu at school and Alan had packed Lali in the car, driven down the hill, and brought her home.

When I came in from the garage, Meredith was on the couch in the living room. She got up and was quicker than me to get to the bedroom.

Alan was downstairs in his office.

Why had Alan put the baby in —

I can see this in my mind but it’s very difficult to say.

Meredith found Lali. He was in her arms and she said, “Mom — “

Mom. I just had dinner with her. I love her so much.

He was unconscious and there was putty-colored milk all over his little face.

I can’t describe what it was, but I put him on the floor and started to breathe in his mouth.

CALL 9–11!

I tried so hard to clear his airway but I couldn’t. I pressed his little chest. I breathed in his mouth. Our neighbor ran in. She took over.

I heard the ambulance. The sirens stopped. Our front door was wide open and I could see the lights flashing in the hallway. Red white red white red white —

I screamed for them.

Nobody came.

They were on the wrong side of a jerry-rigged fence that divided the two halves of our short street in Woodland Hills. They had to drive all the way down winding streets and come back the other way.

I estimate it took about ten minutes.

At the hospital, they worked on Lali for over an hour.

One thing that took me many years to verbalize was that I felt Lali’s soul leave right after I saw the flashing lights.

I couldn’t accept that. It was why I cried out so.


— Where was Lali’s father, the horror writer and editor Alan Rodgers? —

When he realized what had happened, he had a cardiac “event” and was also taken to the hospital.


Lali was a late baby, an unexpected baby — I was 41 when I had him. I was independent. I was making good money teaching at 3 different colleges and earning several thousand dollars a month writing.

I was a late baby, an unexpected baby — my mother Sterling was 40 when she had me. She had been fighting pancreatic cancer for at least two years before becoming unexpectedly pregnant. She stopped chemotherapy and radiation upon learning she was pregnant with me. I was born three months prematurely and she died three months after I was born.

In 2003, I had put money down on a small house in Calabasas and was going to move there — leaving Alan —to start a new, happy life with my daughter.

I had withdrawn from a sexual or romantic relationship with Alan, whose life was in constant, unremitting, unspeakable turmoil due to his horrific, decade-plus divorce and custody battle over his three children. Alan was depressed (he regularly threatened to kill himself — and a lot of people would have, or murdered their ex) and he had already begun to suffer personality changes due to small strokes resulting from inherited small vessel disease, made much worse by his misuse of alcohol and tobacco. I didn’t know that then. I just knew things were bad, and I had a Down Syndrome baby and a 12 year-old daughter and that’s why I’d started working at Beyond Shelter.

I had already been looking for a house and had saved enough money to buy when Southern California was engulfed by fires very similar to those devastating Northern California today, fifteen years later.

Lali would be a big boy now, in high school.

Alan was terrified by the fires. The smoke poured across the valley and hellish red glare lit the hillsides day and night.

Alan said it was like one of his stories, for he had written a number of apocalyptic visions after moving to Los Angeles to follow his children who had been parentally kidnapped by their mother (his ex) and her new spouse — an individual who had previously indicated to Alan that he was his “best friend.”

The kids weren’t around and Alan seemed softer, almost like his old self.

As a 5th generation Southern Californian I wasn’t afraid the fires would make it all the way through miles of suburbia to our house.

We made love.

Two and a half months later, I was driving to class at Moorpark College and I felt nauseous.

I didn’t even really need to buy the home pregnancy test but I did need to go to the doctor.

I had a choice.

I chose to give Alan an opportunity to be a good father to this child and — even if I did end up moving out — I knew I would never do what his ex-wife had done to his children.

I knew that Alan had sacrificed everything, including a potential happy marriage with me and mini-celebrity-dom in the sick and twisted world of “publishing” and “horror writing” to be there for his children no matter what happened.

At my age I knew there was also a big risk of the baby having problems. I didn’t go for early amniocentesis to “prove” Anthony had Down Syndrome or didn’t. I didn’t opt for anything except Level III ultrasounds. Anthony’s body was growing normally. There was nothing physical on the ultrasounds indicating a problem.

Before he was born, Lali was completely different to my daughter Meredith. He was calm. She pummeled my ribs 24–7 with her little heels.

Before she was born, I was sure Meredith was a boy. If I hadn’t had the ultrasounds and known Lali was a boy, before he was born, I would have sworn he was a girl.


When I was about six months pregnant I talked to a lady who was in charge of the Down Syndrome Association in Los Angeles. Her son was a gifted actor and a handsome young man. He had been in CSI and other popular shows.

I went to see him and his friends performing in a theater company. Down Syndrome young people were attending UCLA. My dad and brother were Bruins.

Even if Lali didn’t have Down Syndrome, I wanted to learn about it. It was nothing like what I thought. These kids were wonderful. I felt wonderful just watching them and talking to them.

They were gifted —

Their emotional IQ was off the charts.


One of the happiest memories I have of Lali is shopping at Christmas-time at the Target on Ventura Blvd. I had half a day off. I put him in his seat in the cart. The store had the cutest display of a toy train, cotton snow, and little lit Christmas houses.

He was only 5 months old but eagerly looking at the choo-choo, the little houses, and the little people, laughing every time the train tooted its horn.

He loved them so and I bought three and put them in the huge living room in this massive, insane house we lived in because Alan wanted to prove to his children he could “provide” for them.

I’m not writing about what Alan’s ex-wife and her spouse did and forced the children to do after Lali died.

But next to Lali’s death and being charged with responsibility for it — the baby who I would die for right now this minute if it would give him back his life — what that woman did to Lali’s Christmas houses was the lowest point of my life. Alan suffered gross domestic violence and so did I — and so did my completely innocent daughter who today, like me, has a diagnosis of PTSD.

She found Lali first.


The night Lali died, the ER nurse put him in my arms.

They let me sit with him and hold him as long as I wanted.

I held him for an hour.


I called Mike and told him what happened. He said he would come first thing in the morning to get Meredith.

When we got back to the house, Meredith and I stayed in the living room, where she had been on the couch. This would be the last night either of us spent in that house and the last time she was ever there.

First, my cell phone rang. It was the organ donation people. Would I give permission for my son’s organs to be used?

Of course, I said. Then she started asking questions.

Was he an IV drug user?
Did he smoke tobacco?
Did he use alcohol?

He was a six month-old baby with Down Syndrome.


I lay on the couch staring at the ceiling. There was very little “me” left. I wanted Meredith to go with Mike. That was it.

My breasts ached. I was in physical agony and my soul had shrunk to a tiny flicker.

Then I saw lights flashing outside the front door and a series of loud bangs.

It was a man and a woman backed by Sheriffs. I saw two of the same ones who had responded before when the ambulance finally made it the right way up the hill.

DCFS.

This was approximately 2:00 a.m. My daughter and I were questioned separately for five hours. The man and woman tag-teamed us, switched up, went backwards and forwards.

At 7:00 I watched the woman put my daughter in the back of a patrol car in our driveway.

They were taking her to Mike, so I guess it saved him a drive out to Woodland Hills.


The next time I saw my daughter it was at Ed Edelman’s Children’s Court in Monterey Park.

I was not allowed to spend time alone with Meredith for the next three months.


Public service message to women: if you are involved with a man who has an extreme custody battle and you have children of your own, you can’t be involved with him. You are putting your innocent child at intolerable risk. I didn’t “get” this then but I absolutely “get” it now. You would too if you’d walked in my shoes. And if you were white like me, you wouldn’t be lecturing people about how to live their lives because during my unhappy months sitting in that place of horror I saw countless children ripped out of the arms of their mothers. Forever.

For nothing.

The only differences between me and those moms was the color of my skin, the number of my friends in influential positions, and the balance in my bank account.

By the end of it, the balance in my bank account was pretty low, too.


Both Alan and I were charged with responsibility for Anthony’s death. Alan’s children too were called in to the court even though they had barely seen their little half-brother and knew nothing about anything and should have been shielded —

as my daughter was.

The first thing I said to the judge was “Please, let my daughter stay with her dad and grammy. She shouldn’t miss school because of this.”

The judge agreed.

I’m not going to over-dramatize what happened to me at the Ed Edelman Children’s Courthouse.

After the first three days, the judge herself realized why the officers had shown up the way they had, and why my daughter and I had been questioned the way we were.

Alan’s ex-wife had the same first name as me.

On my first courthouse appearance I was presented with a stack of paper about 10 inches high that consisted of over 200 reports made to DCFS about Alan Paul Rodgers abusing his children.

The DA was screaming at the judge and pointing her finger at me, her eyes as big as saucers —

– SHE left her baby with a father who left her children alone to play with electrical outlets!
– SHE left the baby with a man who let her children eat popcorn off the dirty floor!
– SHE left her baby alone with an alcoholic who beat the children!

I was still in shock, like the people in war who lose their loved ones, then are dragged to some insane mock trial.

Alan’s children were 16, 14, and 8.

SHE was his ex-wife and the first time I’d heard these allegations was right there being screamed at me.

I didn’t really have an attorney. There was some court-appointed woman who assumed I’d murdered Lali with a phone cord.

The judge herself looked at the paper and looked at what the DA had written.

“This defendant is not the mother of the children or the woman who made these allegations,” she said.


I stayed at my job — which I did eventually 6 years later quit — and I know I did a horrible job. But my boss did keep me on.

My friends at Saddleback stood by me.

My friends in Redlands stood by me.

Mike stood by me. Grammy stood by me.

I used the money I had saved to put down on the house in Calabasas (it was a mobile home) to pay the best attorney I had encountered that Alan had contacted during his custody case. He knew me and he knew how monstrous Alan’s ex and her husband were and how much abuse had gone on. He was able to quickly communicate that the child abuse reports were custody-battle motivated.

I did exactly what he said. Meredith never had to go to that place and she was able to get started in school in Redlands.

Three months later, the attorney told me they were going to close the case.

It was the same judge. She was a blonde, blue-eyed Jewish woman.

I went in my suit, I went before work.

Once again, waiting in that long line to enter the facility. I think they tried very hard to make it “decent.” I know all of them there thought they were doing the right thing.

Even on that day, even though I knew for me — the ordeal was almost over — and yes I had an Armenian case manager visit my crappy little apartment in Redlands with its minimal furniture and she did go through my drawers and closets to prove there was “no man” living there (Alan was forbidden contact with any children involved and he had much more to answer for than I did because he did leave Lali by himself with his bottle).

I looked around in that line, and this was indeed one of the moments that defined a new realization for me. Much as I wrote about my encounter with criminal CHP officer Craig Peyer, who eventually escalated from pulling young blonde women over to murder, I realized that for me, an ending was possible. And an opportunity for some type of recovery for my daughter.

No justice: just escape.

By the skin of my teeth.

As to the other grief-stricken women whose children had been taken away in patrol cars — brown-skinned, brown-haired, brown-eyed — I knew it wasn’t going to go so well for them.

I was already working at Beyond Shelter and I had worked at Family Service for ten years. I had been in those courtrooms and I had been a mandated child abuse reporter.

I had been caught in this maelstrom because my baby had been born with Down Syndrome and he died because his father put him on the end of the bed with his bottle. He drank the formula while lying down and choked. He aspirated the formula and struggled in his blanket. He was unconscious when Meredith found him and could not be revived.

And because Alan’s ex-wife and her husband had been calling in false reports against Alan for years and DCFS responded to her house — likely while I was sitting in the emergency room holding my dead baby in my arms.

She — a screamer herself — apparently screamed to them all the bad things Alan had done to “her babies” while they were young.

At 2:30 a.m. after I’d been asked if my baby was an IV drug user and smoker by someone who insisted “I have to ask the questions and you have to answer if you want his organs to be donated — “

Then the investigators showed up and questioned me and my daughter for 5 hours.

It’s a good thing our stories agreed.

When they put Meredith in the patrol car that morning, the woman — slightly better than the man whom I now know was certainly dirty and bad — said:

“Sometimes we have to take children from good mothers.”

I lost my son and my daughter on the same night.

I just had dinner with Meredith. I love her so much.


There was a man behind me in line at the courthouse that morning.

A middle-aged white man and I liked nothing about him.

He was garrulous, eager to show everyone around a thick white binder he had which consisted of court paperwork and a photo album.

In the album — and I can see the pictures to this day — were photos of three little girls. They were dark-skinned and dark-haired.

The youngest looked to be about five, and the oldest, about ten. They were standing stiffly, each dressed in elaborate dirndls and old-fashioned white cotton and lace shirts, buttoned tightly at their necks, with frilly, puffy sleeves. White frilly socks. Black patent Mary Janes.

These are my daughters! he said. Today they’re going to terminate the mother’s parental rights [he actually said “the mother”] and my wife and I will finalize our adoption.

My wife works for DCFS.

There’s nothing you can do, I told myself. You are here for you and Meredith.

For you, today, it’s going to be over.


At the end of the very brief proceedings, the blonde, blue-eyed Jewish judge rapped her gavel, stood, and walked around the bench.

I cannot say I had friendly feelings toward her or anyone anywhere in that place, but she held out her arms.

I let her embrace me.

“That’s it,” she said. “It’s over. You can go home and take care of your daughter.”

Then she said, “I’ve closed the case and ordered the records expunged.”

My attorney said he knew of only five cases expunged in the entire history of the children’s courthouse.


So, you might find a web page that accuses Alan Rodgers, me, and even my daughter, of murdering Lali. It’s probably still there. You might even see it referring to “court records.” You’ll see the man promises videos of Alan’s children talking about how he abused them and killed their little brother.

That’s the same guy that told Alan he was his “best friend,” that then broke up his marriage and kidnapped Alan’s kids, married Alan’s ex- (after she had 2 kids with him) and was responsible for the overwhelming majority of over 100 false child abuse reports made against Alan over the entirety of the custody battle.


So here is a postscript. Alan’s custody battle pre-dated me, and it post-dated me.

Alan is himself, now dead. He died in 2013 after suffering a series of devastating strokes.

That web page I mentioned appeared three years after the judge told me I could go free and be a mother to my daughter without fear.

Seeing that s**t is what pushed me over the edge into full-on PTSD.

The motive? Unbeknownst to me, Alan had hired a private investigator to find his children, who had been parentally kidnapped — yet again — after he too, was exonerated for responsibility in Anthony’s death.

We used to call the guy who did all this “Mr. Moron” and it’s much too kind a term. His behavior should be very familiar to everyone whose lives have ever been ruined by having contact with a narcissistic psychopath.


There is a lot more to the story. But the important part is: the truth did come out in my situation.

I remember shards and pieces. I remember sitting on the front steps in Woodland Hills about a week after Lali died, talking to a CSI.

She told me flat out “We didn’t find a mark on him. We know how he died.”

And she explained to me how it had happened.

The responsibility Alan truly had — and he had been accused of drinking at the time and had not been — was not accepting that Lali had Down Syndrome.

There were some miracles with Lali. About four days before he died, he was sitting in his high chair eating dinner with us and he looked up at me with his shining blue eyes, held up his arms, and said, “Mama.”

As clear as day. “Ma-ma.”

A Down Syndrome baby speaking his first words at six months old.

So yes, that was kind of a miracle and yes, I did get to see and hear that and I am so very grateful.

So here’s the thing. Down Syndrome babies can’t swallow very well and shouldn’t ever be put down with any kind of food or bottle. They must always be allowed to finish drinking or eating completely before lying down.

I didn’t know that — although I wouldn’t have put Lali in that location and when I was with him, I was breast-feeding him not using a bottle.

But that’s what the CSI woman told me that day sitting on the step. She let me hold the little doll they used to represent a child, to show where Lali had been found.

That was what had happened.

“My daughter found him first,” I said. “She gave him to me.”

In terms of his eyes, they were blue.

I could never understand why the Lord took him. But I know I prayed and still pray, “Lord, please let Lali’s life have meaning.

It did for the little boy who got his heart and for the little girl who got his corneas. And for the other organs and skin they were able to use.

He was Lali. A pure spirit of love.

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