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.

Are We Living Through the Death of Money, Future Human?

What would you do if you woke up one morning and went to the shower but the water didn’t turn on? If you checked your phone and it was dead and black? If the lights were off, refrigerator dark and warm, and your car wouldn’t start?

Where would you turn and what would you do?

That is what would happen — and much more — in case of an EMP attack. Thinking of disaster can focus the mind on what’s genuinely important and valuable.

I’ve been somewhat depressed lately because I’ve been writing about the enclaves of the wealthy.

This isn’t a shot from a videogame, it’s “Billionaire,” the reduced-price $188-million spec house built by “developer” Bruce Makowsky in Bel Air. It had been listed with no takers for $250 million in January 2017, with a $69 million price cut in April 2018. Still no takers.

“Billionaire” comes with everything you see pictured, inside and out, including its own theater, “candy wall,” a garage with cars and motorcycles and — the helicopter featured in “Airwolf.” That is what a “spec house” is. Fully-furnished and ready-made.

Here’s the “candy wall.”

This house has been on the market since Jan 2017 which means that candy is pretty stale. You always wanted unlimited glass Foosball tables, didn’t you?

“Developer” Makowsky may be somewhat excused for his effort in creating the “experience” that is “Billionaire.” His previous spec mansion launched a bidding war between Jay-Z, Beyonce, and other luminaries, eventually selling to Minecraft creator Markus Persson for $70 million. “Billionaire” is just bigger than its predecessor — it basically has the same crap inside and out except “more of the above.” Apparently the original spec mansion came with cases of Dom Perignon.

So if you owned “Billionaire” and the Russians launched an EMP attack, you could eat all that candy and drink the champagne until it ran out.

No worries! Perfect!

I think Makowsky missed the mark with those wood-based foosball tables. This one looks much more suitable, although it is a limited edition of 50. 46 others *might* also have the ability to purchase this $24,500 table which likely rules out its use in an elite spec house for only the world’s most discerning mega-billionaires.

The instinct of some, well-trained and addicted from 40+ years of nonstop promotion of gross consumption, vice, and plutocracy, is to think

If I had that mansion I’d be set in case of an apocalyptic disaster!

You’d have all the entertainment you wanted! Surely dozens of ‘babes’ would be hanging out ready to cavort nude with you all over the glass-fronted structure. You’d have weeks worth of massage oil, plenty of water stored in your 800 gold plated toilet bowls, and of course — candy to eat and champagne to drink after you barbecued the last of the filet mignon, pheasant, and bioengineered woolly mammoth steaks.

Gas grill no fire with no power. Got a match? It’s a mighty hump down the hill to Bel Air Foods for charcoal briquets and even worse going back up.

JEEVES!

Where did Jeeves go? Look at all those little people running around down below. Where’s my GUNS?

I’m sure it will be very effective to hide behind your “babes” when the looters arrive, proud owner of “Billionaire.” They’ll be super impressed when you tell them how rich and important you are.

Maybe you could fly away in your “Airwolf” helicopter.

[it’s non-operable, for ‘show’ only — not to mention — EMP]

I’m sure your neighbor Petra Stunt (Bernie Ecclestone’s daughter) will help! Or maybe Jay-Z and Beyonce! They all have mad outdoor skills like knowing how to skin and dress game [the great human Anthony Bourdain knew] and purify water.

So you don’t die from dysentery ya know —

So once again as is the case in our diseased age, I have spent my time talking about the thin, lifeless, laughable obsessions of soulless brutes.

So photographer and filmmaker Lauren Greenfield has made a multimedia project called Generation Wealth.

“I notice no matter how much people have, they still want more.”

Not all people, Lauren. Only the ones you’ve been photographing, filming, and hanging out with. Mega-rich people are soul-diseased addicts. They’re not going to help anybody else any more than a diehard opioid addict in the final stages of their disease is going to make life better for their family or themselves.

They talk about the 1% but the reality is that 85 people own as much wealth as the bottom half of the world’s population: 3.5 billion people. The math on that is horrifying if all you care about is money.

I am a science fiction writer and a good one.

It doesn’t matter who owns or buys “Billionaire.” It doesn’t matter that the world’s so-called “wealthiest man,” Jeff Bezos, purports to want to spend his insanely huge amount of wealth to benefit others “any day now.”

The people that program the algorithms that run Medium are so conditioned by wealth addiction and the preoccupations of individuals like Bezos, Elon Musk, Larry Ellison, or older billionaires like Carlos Slim Helu that they cannot see what is evident in front of all of our faces.

Rich people don’t matter.

The rest of us do.

A hundred years from now, it is likely that no one living will know anything about Jeff Bezos other than his name if even that.

Today, no one knows much about Marcus Licinius Crassus — no relation to rich King Croesus. He was ancient Rome’s version of Jeff Bezos.

Crassus: the Roman mega-billionaire who took over a year to take down Spartacus and destroyed the Roman Republic along with Julius Caesar.
How many of these names do you know?

Do you see even massively-exploitive Thomas Edison on this list? Nikola Tesla? Any of the Roosevelts? The man who invented stainless steel is not on this list. Neither is Alexander Fleming, who discovered penicillin. Nor is Marie Curie, the first female Nobel Prize winning physicist. On this list are no novelists, no filmmakers, no fashion designers, no teachers. Maria Montessori isn’t on this list. Neither is Gandhi, nor Tolstoy.

I truly believe that the problem today, the cultural and moral rot, is that the wealthy have sold their excuses for addiction to too many for too long. They force their tastes and interests on others. Their shallow materialism has chipped away at the real things which give our brief lives meaning and value. The scales have tipped too far in the direction of tissue-thin amoral greed and vice.

I don’t care if that Minecraft guy spends every single day hiring prostitutes to dance the Macarena, gobbling Raisinets, and speeding around Bel Air on the tricked-out Harley that came with his spec mansion.

It’s no more my business than it is his business what I do.

I, like billions of others, choose a healthier way. Healthier for myself personally, healthier for our planet, and healthier for our children and future.

For weeks, I have been writing sometimes sickening, soul-killing profiles of wealthy enclaves, from developments near me along the coast where mini-mansions go for $10 million and up to gated Malibu estates on “Billionaire’s Beach.” There are many Billionaire beaches, rows, and streets in the world.

It all crystallized this morning when I wrote a profile of a very different place.

North Evergreen Street in of all places, “Beautiful Downtown Burbank.”

The homes on this street are slightly above Southern California’s insanely inflated home prices but they are really down-to-earth, “normal” single-family residences. It isn’t the homes that make this neighborhood extraordinary.

It’s the people.

No amount of money can buy the reason North Evergreen Street was chosen by Reader’s Digest as one of the ten “Nicest Places to Live” in America.

North Evergreen Street is so neighborly that neighbors made a list of 20 “safe” houses so a little girl with food allergies who had never trick-or-treated could enjoy the fun along with other kids for the very first time.

My classrooms are not filled with mean-spirited Game of Thrones fans whose dreams consist of throat-cutting weddings or rapes of 10-year-olds. They aren’t filled with young people who aspire to live like “The Queen of Versailles” or her husband, timeshare ‘billionaire’ David Siegel.

Over the past ten years, I have seen the number of students who say they want to be “rich” or “famous” decline to less than one out of ten.

When class ended this past semester, a gorgeous young woman and her boyfriend came up. She was shy, insisting I wouldn’t be interested. He held her phone up to me.

“She didn’t think she could write a poem but she was inspired by our class this semester.”

And the poem was magnificent.

No one knows the name of the richest person in France 14,000 years ago, nor do they know the name of the sculptor of these two bison found in Le Tuc d’Audoubert cave.

I don’t think it’s a yearning for past days, nor is the solution to be found in the past except in an understanding and reckoning of all that is good that has come before.

The solution is in our DNA, in our bodies themselves, which is why I feel somewhat at peace despite the unrest, misery, and unhappiness the great majority of us endure.

We do not have 7.6 billions so all can work to make places like “Billionaire” or fuel lifestyles like that pursued by Jeff Bezos.

We have 7.6 billion because there is so much more ahead of humanity.

I think we are living in and among not the death of humankind but the death of money. It is among, if not the greatest of destructive addictions.

Money can’t buy what they have in that wonderful neighborhood in Burbank. Money can’t buy love, it can only buy someone’s time. Money is just a lie.

Maybe this is the time travel we truly need. We need to take back our time from the billionaires. And even more, we can’t let them take our immortal souls.

I didn’t think of this first: Tolstoy did.

We are 7.6 billion. We are the many. They are the few.

We should all know the words of Spock by now. And for the record, Spock wasn’t referring to desires for non-essentials like money or power. He was referring to giving up his life for others because he cared more about them than he did himself.

The richness of our lives lies in human connection and the moments we live. Not money.

Please: enjoy your candy wall. Play some foosball. Watch TV with your boughten friends over the edge of your infinity pool. Have sex in your glass walled house. You have really made it billionaire. You’re on top of the world.

Harlan Ellison was My Friend and Guiding Light

When I was in kindergarten I was forbidden a special treat other kids took for granted: Dubble Bubble.

I wanted bubble gum so badly but there wasn’t any in my house and I wasn’t likely to get any by begging at the store the way I saw other kids do..

So shopping with my grandmother, I spotted a small basket filled with bright yellow wrapped balls of sugary pink chewy goodness.

Mmmm doesn’t that look good? Mmmmm ….

Part of me knew they weren’t “free” but I was five and I had hope. Out snuck my small hand. Into my pocket went the gum.

My grandmother with her all-seeing eyes spotted it immediately.

“What’s in your pocket?”

“Nuh-nuthing.” Great — just add lying to stealing — said my conscience.

“Show me.” She put her hand out and gestured. Gimme the contraband.

“I — I — uh… I…”

My conscience spoke. Just give her the gum you big dummy. So I handed it to her.

“You took that gum,” my grandmother said in her iciest voice.

“It was in the basket,” I peeped.

“Come with me,” she said, grasping my small chubby wrist firmly. Her watch band pressed uncomfortably against my palm as she strode purposefully toward the back of the store. I wasn’t sure where we were headed but I knew it was nowhere good. Her heels clacked on the cold and grimy linoleum floor.

We were headed for the manager’s office.

When we got there, the manager knew his part well.

“Young lady, I’m afraid I’m going to have to call the police,” he said. “Stealing is a crime.”

I think I repeated my pathetic excuse that the gum was in the basket and I thought it was free.

“They will take you to jail,” my grandmother hissed. She was at least a billion times scarier than the chubby manager with his pink nose and shiny bald pate.

My grandmother took the gum out of her purse and put it into my unwilling sweaty little hand.

“What do you say to him?” she commanded.

“I — I’m sorry,” I said timidly. I put the gum on his paper-filled desk. “I’m sorry I took the gum. It was wrong.”

I knew if I started to cry it would be a hundred times worse so I bit my lip and looked at the manager. His eyes were kindly. I think they were hazel or light brown.

“Young lady, that is the right thing to do,” he said.

My grandmother’s hand came down on my shoulder and squeezed like a vice.

“You can call the police now,” I said. “I confess.”

He burst out laughing.

I can’t even remember all the chores I had to do and the penance I had to make for that piece of penny bubble gum.

I don’t think I needed lots of additional lessons in “Don’t steal” but if one was needed, I’m just like the guy who learned everything he needed to know in kindergarten. I loved my kindergarten teacher Mrs. Geiger. Of course my grandmother reminded me on the daily that Mrs. Geiger would be so disappointed to hear that I had stolen a piece of bubble gum.

I didn’t stop hearing about the Great Bubble Gum Caper for years. My grandmother even mentioned it way up in her 80s. She loved to tell the story to strangers.

I learned not only this basic lesson which appears in The Bible, the Qu’ran, the Torah, Buddhism, and traditional African religions, but also “always tell the truth,” and “always consider others first” and “Don’t get a big head — no matter how good you think you are, there’s always someone better.”

These silly little lessons I was raised with. So silly. Smart people don’t believe in them.

If you count “smart” “people” as neoliberals, neoconservatives, billionaires and those who aspire to be just like them …

This has not been a good week for the neoliberal centrist Democrats. Many progressive candidates, from Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez to Emily Sirota to Ben Jealous, won their primary races.

Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy announced his retirement yesterday. One of our favorite elite neoliberal authors (a real quality commenter) tweeted:

Twenty years ago, I had had enough hearing people screech how Ronald Reagan wanted to take away my right to control my own body so therefore vote for whomever the person who was yelling at me ordered me to vote for.

Oh by the way, somebody we all love just got busted along with almost 700 others protesting the incarceration of immigrant families on Capitol Hill.

[Susan Sarandon]

As I was writing this, my phone told me that a man I have loved since I got to know him many years ago has died. A real progressive— Harlan Ellison. My heart is heavy and aching. Harlan did have a life well-lived. The world is by far a better place because Harlan was in it and I think — I think it will go the right way. If you do not know who I am talking about this is who it is. I just heard from friends that he had been writing a much-loved (and vilified of course — it was Harlan) column for Variety (which I don’t often read — wonder why not?).

But we were talking about character. And that was the basis for my relationship with Harlan. He only hurt me one time and I’m certain he didn’t mean to. He demanded I go get somebody for him like I was his servant. And that somebody he wanted me to bring to him is someone I don’t like or respect. I didn’t want to ‘get into it’ with him so I never said a thing. I think I have let it go because the things I didn’t like about that person were basically the neoliberal hypocritical package. Status-oriented, domineering, no faithfulness to work, loving of praise, big swelled head, only caring about externals, enjoyed being fawned-over …

None ways I consciously choose to live or things I value any longer. Back then I just knew I didn’t care for those things and didn’t like that person because of how I had observed them acting. I didn’t associate this with a huge problem that needed to be reduced in our world while other, better things came to the fore.

But there is no writer more emblematic and visionary of these issues and the progressive mind than Harlan Ellison. Some in the sci-fi community may recall a controversy that arose after Harlan was accused of sexually harassing other award-winning author Connie Willis while both were serving as emcees at a Hugo Awards ceremony at the World Science Fiction Convention.

My memory said this was the 2006 Denver WorldCon and sure enough Dr. Google tells me I was right: it was. Neither of these folks involved in the incident were exactly “young” at the time and as to me? I was sleeping through the event having been up ‘partying’ the night before. So I didn’t witness the horror that was Harlan grabbing Connie’s breast and sexually harassing her.

Harlan said that he was telling a joke, acting like a baby, and miming being an infant for purposes of humor. It was probably a dumb joke — as I said — I was present at the overall event but slept through the award ceremony where the incident occurred.

I defended Harlan against the extreme outrage that ensued via online forums because I knew something 99.9% of those screaming about his vile harassment didn’t know.

Harlan was not only not a sexual harasser or rapist so far as I knew, to me he was head and shoulders above the majority of men I’d known. He did something very few other men had ever done: he treated me like an equal. He treated me like an equal as a writer. He didn’t talk to my boobs, nor did he grab them. He talked to me like I was a person.

Most who know me now know that I have publically disclosed how I was raped by Brian Stonehill, named chair of literature at Pomona “Harvard of the West” College when I was 21 years old. Mr. Stonehill is now deceased but I did file a police report at the time and I did go to my Dean and the Dean at Pomona College as well, before dropping charges because I earned about $700 a month and had no way of paying for a lawyer. I knew from the cops that the rapist was going to say I wanted “rough sex” such as being burned with cigarettes, choked, and bitten. At the time I didn’t have the guts to go through that in court.

After, when I declined admission to literary graduate programs (Iowa, Irvine) and lost my opportunities for a Rhodes Scholarship and Watson Fellowship because of the rape, I instead chose to go to the Clarion Science Fiction Writers’ workshop at MSU in 1984 on a scholarship. I saw sci fi writing, the stories I loved, as something pure and innocent. Not like “literature” and “the Academy” which I now saw as something evil. I remembered Ray Bradbury speaking at our local library. His goodness. Sweetness. I had never sought help or even processed what happened to me.

Harlan spent time with me. He talked with me. Desperate, in tears, I asked him a question no young writer should ever ask an older writer or mentor. “Do I have what it takes to make it?” I asked.

I was tied in a million knots. I hated him. I loved him. I reviled him. I worshipped him. Someday I wished, I wanted to write like him — so free — anything he liked. But most of me didn’t care. I didn’t feel quite here, quite human. I saw myself as worthless. Harlan was such an important man, such a great writer (and I felt that — such a fine writer).

His large dark eyes flickered when I asked that. He was a kind man. A kind, good man.

“Damnit,” he said. “Yes. Of course. Yes.”

I burst into tears.

But he knew there was something else wrong. He kept picking at me.

Finally I told him why I was so on edge, why I did all the things he had already lectured me were bad for me (drinking, smoking). He had yelled at me for being married to “Gorgo” (Mike Casil) at such a young age — he felt I didn’t know what I was doing.

So I trusted him. I told him what had happened to me. After that long ago time (14–15 months?) I had only told Mike.

“You have to go for help,” he said. He explained that he meant counseling and professional support. He said every single thing that is appropriate to say to a rape survivor after the trauma.

He said, “I am ordering you to go to a rape crisis center the minute you get home.”

I did. To this day, I credit him with saving my life.

He talked to me about the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). About so many other things he so strongly believed in. He talked about marching in the Civil Rights era. He talked about getting beaten up, about the people who wanted to hurt a Jewish guy for standing up for another race.

Harlan Ellison no more sexually harassed Connie Willis than Bernard Sanders raped any of the online neolib trolls who wanted to accuse Bernie to sweep him into the #MeToo bin of creepy guys who are history. Harlan Ellison Sexual Harasser is like Bernie Sanders Has a $600 Coat!!!

Exactly like that.

He was fearless. He had the gift.

I used to think sitting quietly sometimes, “Well you have big guns, Amy. Big guns. Like Harlan. You can write like rolling thunder. No limits. Take no prisoners.”

I could even do a few things Harlan couldn’t. Write in meter and rhyme on command. Wrote dozens of nonfiction books. Wrote novels.

A sore topic, one not brought up. The last time I talked to him was about Borges.

He was a short fiction writer and one of the greatest ever. Maybe he was an American Chekov.

I can see him smile.

But above all, Harlan was a progressive. He was a poor boy, not a rich one. He always suspected rich people. A poor boy from Ohio with dreams the size of the universe.

And nightmares.

He dreamed this algorithm that is strangling us all. AM is real. AM is here. AM’s the one who silences progressive voices. AM busted Susan Sarandon in DC today. AM angered the Annapolis shooter.

AM makes people think blue checks are important.

AM ruins our dinners.

AM sends messages to our phones. AM told me Harlan had died.

If you don’t know what I am talking about, AM is the massive supercomputer that has destroyed the world and is holding a tiny group of postapocalyptic survivors captive in his hellish cyberbowels to torture them in “I Have No Mouth But I Must Scream.” This is a link to a free copy of the story online and Harlan would kill me for doing that.

But I am in a different place to him. I understand that we must not connect our writing to money purposely in any way because of how money harms the work. There was no other, fiercer advocate for writers earning a living wage than Harlan Ellison.

He is gone now so it is more important that his words live than money.

I just read that Harlan sued James Cameron for intellectual theft (unsuccessfully). Harlan received a settlement from AOL for the service’s facilitation of online literary piracy. I cannot even begin to describe the fierceness with which Harlan fought in court and with his weapons (words) for money for writers. That’s what all these legal battles were: he saw online services and real people as thieves. He knew his ideas had value and that others wanted it. He did this because he knew Poe died face down in the gutter. He knew Oscar Wilde died branded as a gay man, humiliated, estranged from his family, and penniless. He knew that Faulkner’s novels were out of print for a decade before he was awarded the Nobel Prize. He knew that even though Dickens died a rich man, Emily Dickinson was paid a grand total of $10 during her lifetime for her work.

So like John Graziano said a while back: we all work for a murderous neoliberal billionaire capitalist.

No matter how much the megabillionaire capitalist thinks his all-powerful algorithms enrich him by $250 million each and every day, he in fact: works for AM.

The massive capitalist thinks he’s an important individual and AM works for him but he is really Nimdok.

“I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream” is to this day one of the only works of fine short fiction I have ever read with a strong African-American female protagonist. Ellen. I can’t get that published today. Harlan got that published in 1967. Harlan didn’t speak ill of Ellen in that story. Ted, the narrator, did. It’s Ted’s twisted voice revealing the deep misogyny that persists today.

When I got in so much trouble for stealing that piece of Dubble Bubble, Harlan wrote and published “I Have No Mouth But I Must Scream”.

1967.

I realize by seeing Harlan’s birth date that my friend misled me regarding his age all these years though I knew how he hated getting older, how badly it made him feel.

Harlan could not stand losing his mojo. And he had it. The first time I saw him he was wearing a black moto jacket with the Flying Tigers logo embroidered on the back. “Over the Hump to Burma!” it declared. The tiger head looked like the Tiger Balm Tiger. Mike Casil had the mellow tiger on his arm.

Like shards of a broken mirror piece by piece our lives are

a series of moments

which we may piece together and perhaps

make a coherent whole.

AM the giant sentient supercomputer AM created from a combination of Yank, Chinese, and Russian supercomputers fighting WW3, is consumed by hatred, torturing the tiny band of surviving humans living in his bowels for hundreds of years.

It’s like the Matrix but it was written 50 years ago. And it’s as fresh today as it was then.

Ted, the narrator, manages to kill Ellen and the other three hapless human victims. But AM keeps Ted alive. And what AM does to Ted is the source of the story’s title: Ted has no mouth but he must scream.

So we’re all like Ted right about now and this hellscape Harlan just escaped from is just like the Belly of AM.

There’s only one way out and it’s not Ted’s way (murder) or Ellen’s way (mercy killing).

We dream ourselves out just the way Harlan dreamt us in.

Harlan told me I was like Dickens’ Agnes Wickfield, “a bright star, ever pointing upward.”

I don’t know. Alls I know is I can dream other-wise. And so can you.


Don’t take it from me. Take it from another star-crossed dreamer.

We are all of us in the gutter. But some of us are looking at the stars.

We got to keep our selves out of AM’s belly. We got to keep believing and dreaming what is good and true and real. When we stop: that way lies madness and death.

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