Fire, no rain

Hundred twelve, no rain to speak of in a month. Lead plant (Amphora) roots go nine feet down in clay soil, switch grass seven. How low is the water now? The grass breaks under our feet, we set out sprinklers more out of pity for the birds than for salvage. The small garden outside my study draws them to my window.  For this gift they allow us to sit, faces pressed to dirty glass and watch – Mockingbird, Cardinal, Orchard Oriole, Titmouse, wren. Even the hummingbirds perch in the spray. Chickadees and house finches on the sill, singing loud enough to be heard two rooms away.

We were fooled this year into believing this brutality wouldn’t come. Now, I tell myself, it is too late to shave the Sheltie. I cool him with a wet wash cloth laid like a saddle blanket across his back. Walks are rare and short. My walking shoes get chewed. Wastebaskets are emptied. Yes, I get the message. Training exercises, inside, are a welcome distraction though the older dog tries to hijack the class. Succeeds.

We knew it was a matter of time and today the fires came. My husband asked to drive out “that way” because “that way” was where he once lived with his first wife. Where he raised his son. As usual, I didn’t have my camera. No wide angle lens to capture the smoke and flames if I did have my camera. I told my husband this is why I need a wide angle lens. He finally “got it.” The farmers let the horses loose to out run the fires. These grass fires come every year. Trees burn. This time several large structures but no houses. An electrical power station and the fairgrounds threatened but saved. We have been under a burn ban for several weeks, which will continue for several more weeks as will the fires.




A few years ago my secretary got a call at the office that her brother-in-law, a police officer, was missing. He was  found in a park, in his pickup truck, dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. My first thought – thank God, he didn’t take anyone with him. But, of course, suicides always do. In 2005, my older brother’s former brother-in-law, also a police officer and investigator for the Riverside, California, D.A., made the national news because he and five family members were found dead of gunshot wounds. At the time, it was ruled a multiple murder-suicide.

I guess, in light of the recent shootings in Aurora Colorado, my mind would turn to David McGowan and his family. As a psychologist, who sometimes works with police officers, I have watched the Monday morning quarterbacking – the protect my gun rights crowd but don’t let the mentally ill have guns, or people should take an MMPI before they can have a gun or an I.Q. test or well, it was obvious that this guy was a psychopath and what is obvious to me, is that nothing is obvious. But wouldn’t we all feel safer and better about ourselves if it were? I watch with interest every time something bad happens and all the pundits and armchair “experts” point out the “obvious” signs. Truth is, if we deprived everyone who showed these “signs” of guns, an awful lot of our police force and military would be unarmed.  And a lot more geeks would be in therapy. Now, that might be good for my practice, but I’m not sure it would be very productive.

An interesting note. The other night, I Googled the David McGowan case. A couple things came up. In the immediate aftermath, there was an awful lot of “obvious” signs of domestic violence talked about. Then in 2008 the case was re-opened and was being investigated by the FBI as an execution, implicating the D.A.s office that McGowan worked for.

There is a great temptation to simplify horrible events because we dislike uncertainty, we dislike change and we, as Americans, hold to a belief that we are entitled to certain “rights” without recognizing the complex consequences and responsibilities that accompany those rights. Like everyone else, I would like evil to walk down the street with an armband so we knew when it was coming and what it looked like and, above all else, whoever I am or whatever I do, IT has nothing to do with me.


Once, I told my daughters if we planted jellybeans they’d grow into lollipops. We planted three in early Spring, red, yellow and green. First, they were only sticks poking out of bare dirt, then small lollipops, you might say they were buds. Just in time for Easter they were in full bloom, huge sugar pinwheels!

My younger daughter was born with both asthma and a severe form of eczema. There were times her fingers would swell, crack and bleed. Stress made it worse.Twice she got septicemia. The lines would run up her leg.  The first time was because I was away from her for two weeks. The second was after the Oklahoma City bombing. I worked in Oklahoma City then and was gone until late that evening. I never thought that anyone would worry about me until I got a call from my Minnesota family. On TV my daughter had been watching the little girl being carried out of the Murrah building over and over. By the next day I was calling the doctor. For many years it was one doctor after another. There was a trip to Houston at the M.D. Anderson complex. There were bleach baths and UV lights. There were twice daily layers of medications and creams. There was wrapping her like a caterpillar in a cocoon every night. She once told me that her childhood felt like a science experiment. I felt like a mad scientist. We were told that half of children outgrow this by age four and half that don’t by age nine, half that don’t by age nine by puberty. My daughter never did, but each marker meant improvement.

I planted rue outside her bedroom window.  We would watch the Black Swallowtail butterflies lay their eggs like small jelly beans, one at a time. The caterpillars started as small squiggles, ate, split their skin, ate, split their skin and ate. Sometimes we would take one with a branch of rue and put it in a jar to watch it grow. At full size it attached to the woody part of a branch, hung down, a quotation mark, and that was when we knew it would be a chrysalis the next day. Week and a half later came the last split and we had a butterfly, plump with crumpled wings. It took time and work pumping the fluid from body to wings before it could fly. This was always a time of danger. The butterflies were highly visible and helpless then.

My daughter is grown now. I have heard, that when she was in France, she stepped out on a ledge of a window at the top of the Notre Dame on a dare, seen a photo of her lying on the edge (long red hair cascading over) of a crumbling wall high above the sea, she talks of rock climbing and bungee jumping.

In the Fall it has always been the flight of the Monarchs. I have been teased during their migration, by my daughter, that I brake for butterflies. Yes, darling, I always will.


I have been telling my daughters for years they don’t need so much junk. My younger daughter just moved out. I have been cleaning up behind her, the trash, the gunk stuck to the floor, the mold on the bathroom ceiling and tile and, yes, the junk she left behind. Half the junk was stuff I gave her. I have reached the life stage where my daughters say things like “I can’t believe I said that. I sound just like Mom.” I can’t believe they said THAT. I can’t believe the evidence shows I am a pack rat just like my parents, just like my kids.

What does it prove? It proves I am like my Mom. She complained that Dad wouldn’t throw anything away, flat surfaces existed to pile stuff on. Mainly papers and books, though that didn’t exempt keys, billfolds, clothes, tools, food, cameras, binoculars. She said he loved modern architecture, white furniture, towels, walls, stainless steel, open spaces. Of course. How better to show case *stuff*? And who could dispute that his stuff stood out. She said if he died first she would hire a bulldozer. Well, she missed her chance and died first. Eleven years ago and he and his stuff are still here.

When he asked for help cleaning her stuff out, I thought, how hard could it be? I learned how long elastic lasts before it breaks – dozens of panty hose in every size (you never know), learned you never can have too much travel size Kleenex or costume jewelry and both my parents were sentimental about saving papers. When it came to the medicine cabinet I found a bottle of Milk of Magnesia expired in 1972.  Dad, the chemist, tried to stop me from tossing it, saying Magnesium Hydroxide is inert. I said pathogens, aren’t, winning that round. I took the Kleenex. Still have two packs.

My older brother IS my Dad. If it passes the sniff test and is inert, it must be edible. They aren’t dead yet probably because they grow undiscovered strains of antibiotics in their refrigerators. They are wonders of science. Their studies, on the other hand, are safety hazards.

My strategy of collection is to rotate hobbies. My husband once counted fifteen hobbies since we have been married, which is roughly one new hobby a year. Actually, it is more, but I didn’t tell him. For every hobby, more stuff, which requires a certain amount of accommodation. Antiques and dogs are relatively permanent acquisitions, for example, whereas, parrots, thank God, didn’t go beyond a few books, which were sold at a garage sale.  Sewing and knitting had to agree to share a closet and required downsizing. The garage was converted to a hot house when gardening was in full swing. Fortunately, plants die. Grown daughters are useful and I must either be a coward or have a cruel streak or maybe I’m just inconsistent because whenever I need to divest of “stuff,” I know it never need go far. Although, if I’m cruel, the joke is on me, because when it is time for a daughter to move, the stuff comes home to roost. One bedroom and the garage is filled with stuff I thought I had seen the back end of. Three months ago, I threatened to sell it all at garage sale if it didn’t disappear and it is still sitting there. There is a message in this for someone and I am thinking it just might be me.

The Pop-up Book of Phobias

One of the best gifts I received as an adult is the Pop-up Book of Phobias. I keep it in my office, it has something for almost everyone, in all dimensions, in Latin terminology. Ophidiophobia, fear of snakes. A cobra rears its head off the page. Claustrophobia, fear of enclosed spaces. The page won’t open fully. They even have a phobia to do with clowns. I never knew people could be afraid of clowns. I guess you can be afraid of anything.

My stepson has mysophobia. He washes his hands if they come in contact with the germ-air over trash cans.

My house is filled with arachnophobes. One of my daughters killed a spider with a shoe. From across the room. Fear improves aim. I once looked in the mirror to the sight of a Brown Recluse on my forehead. My husband was amazed by my calm. He couldn’t tell the difference between calm and paralysis.

If a phobia doesn’t have a Latin tag does it actually exist? My husband had a patient who had a fear of driving over dead bodies. My husband worries that he will leave our house with the garage door open. Every morning this is the scene: We reach the first curve in the road. Bob: Did I close the garage door? Me: Yes. Bob: Are are you sure? Me: Yes. Bob: You know, once I forgot and came home and the garage door was up all day. Me: I know. You’ve told me that story a bajillion times. Bob: Well, it could happen again. I’m going back to check. He really needs to fear leaving the house without his pants. Because he did that once, too, and that has real consequences.

One of my daughters won’t get into a wet shower. Think about that for a minute. She is also grossed out about “unattached” hair – drain hair, hairbrush hair, clothes hair, pillow hair. Think about THAT for a minute.

Remember that phase we all went through when McDonald toys and Beanie Babies and virtually everything was collectible and was, eventually, supposed to be worth lots of money? I wonder how many people became hoarders because of that? Imagine the effect that had on a kid (like my older daughter) who already tended that way. Everything that went into her room never came out. Just in case. You never knew. The product. The box it came in. The paper it was wrapped in. The ribbon. If it came with food. Yeah, that, too, you never know. Cleaning her room was an adventure. A sense of smell was not an advantage. I once pulled out a Joe’s cup with rubberized milk at the bottom. Usually the food was amorphous when I got to it. I think this was at the time that toast was getting sold on e-bay for thousands because it bore a resemblance to Jesus and Mac-n-cheese to Paul McCartney.

What do I fear? Well, I won’t go up in a hot air balloon because I’m afraid I’ll get an overwhelming urge to jump out, same with any high places (acrophobia) and I avoid cops because I have an insane urge to grab their guns (stupidity).

The intersection of food, truth, and facts

Spend enough time around a person talking about childhood memories, before long the talk turns to food. My husband (Bob) says he can only remember once that his mother broke a sweat to step out the back door and pull a few weeds but she could spend the whole day stirring a pot of beans, an hour on the phone ordering the week’s groceries, arguing with the grocery man, “That chicken you gave me last week was tough, it must have been old, I want a fresh Spring chicken.”  Bob spent his time playing Junior Audobon. On the premise that you should eat what you shoot, he would bring his birds down, sketch them, pluck them and bring them home to Mom who cooked them. He ate sparrow gumbo and learned the concrete meaning of “eating crow.”

My father talked about eating lard sandwiches during the Depression. He sounded nostalgic. My mother said that he wanted her to serve creamed corn, creamed peas, creamed everything like his mother did. The cream of his childhood notwithstanding, it seems like there was a lot of this and layers, also, in my childhood. Cream of mushroom, celery, potato, chicken soups layered in casseroles. Thanks to Good Housekeeping we were once served cream of mushroom soup, tuna fish, canned peas and potato chip casserole. Good Housekeeping should have lost its seal of approval. My younger brother was exempt, eating, as usual, his plate of bologna and Alphabet cereal. My sister, to my horrified admiration, threw up on her plate, exempting us from that dish in the future. A note about me and potato chips. Lays potato chips – Betcha can’t eat just one. Betcha I can’t even. There was also Mom’s foray into corn meal mush…

The best layers came in sevens – seven layer bars, seven layer salad. Both, seven layer cardiac disease. Still, even though no one particularly thought about “heart healthy,” low fat, low cal, omega fats, good or bad or indifferent cholesterol back then, we were thinner and fitter because we only ate at McDonald’s twice a year and nothing was super sized and just like our parents, we walked two miles one way to school every day, barefoot, uphill, both ways, in a blinding snowstorm, every single day. At least that’s what I tell my children. And I’m not backing down.

I predicted Kieli would be a vegetarian when she was six-months-old. She ate everything with gusto, except meat, which she refused, even then. By nine, she made the pronouncement and took her younger sister, who in restaurants, always ordered “same as Kieli”, along with her. I asked Kieli her memories of childhood food. She said all she remembers was that if it wasn’t pizza, it wasn’t good and I made bread with beer once and on principle she threw it on the floor and broke the plate. It wasn’t bread, it was Welsh rarebit. That wasn’t what she threw on the floor, she refused to eat cereal one morning and threw the bowl on the floor, it didn’t break. I’m not stupid enough to give my kids food in something they can break. Still, it shows the inconstancy of memories and how truth and facts aren’t always the same thing.

In Regards to Buttons

I don’t recall where all the buttons came from. The bowling pins were my maternal grandfather’s (Ralph Ward), the red half moons from a dress my mother wore as a girl, the five green ones from a coat of hers. Once people knew I liked buttons, they started giving me theirs, saved from the time when recycling was “making do” and not “cool.”  I have a whole jar of my former mother-in-law”s family’s buttons in the attic. I bought a bunch from junk shops until they started getting called “antique stores.” Some of them are fragile, now, the celluloid cracking, the crackled glass crumbling. Some I used, as the original owners intended, in new clothes. Not just old buttons, either. I have also used old table linens, handkerchiefs, laces, and ribbons.

When I married my husband I wore most of an old shirtwaist. I say “most” because I had to replace sections with new lace and fabric. I used entredeux, which are basically small strips of  fabric with holes, to join old to new. I like the idea of holes to join – like jumping gaps in history.

I keep the better buttons (onxy, carved glass, some metal and mother of pearl) in an indigo blue Depression glass bowl. Once, Aislinn made a stepping stone and I gave her some of my collected buttons, an Avon mouse pin my mother once gave me and some other things to press in the concrete. She left it behind with her childhood. It sits on my bookcase along with a clay sculpture Kieli made in Middle School –  Dr. Suess trees and a flattened cat that looks like Card VI on the Rorschach.