Thanksgiving is Looking Different This Year

My brother Mike and I at Thanksgiving 2010. A lot has changed since then.

Thanksgiving is THIS WEEK. I made a mad dash to the J.C. Market yesterday for Thanksgiving cooking needs because I had just realized how close the holiday was. Now my turkey is in the refrigerator starting its long defrost. Bread pieces for stuffing wait on the counter. I’ve got potatoes, celery, apples, a bottle of chardonnay . . . my friend is bringing a pumpkin cake, cranberry sauce, corn casserole . . . it sounds like a regular Thanksgiving. But it won’t be.

Pat and I, both widows, are doing the day together. Our families are far away. Her son’s family is in Connecticut. Her daughter and son-in-law in California have COVID-19. My family is in California, too. In past years, I would drive to San Jose, spend a couple days with my father, then drive him to my brother’s place in Cathey’s Valley near Yosemite. That big house would fill with brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles and cousins. Babies, toddlers and older kids would be running around, along with several dogs. Football on TV. Cheese and crackers on the counter. Big tables laden with turkey, stuffing, ham, two kinds of potatoes, and more side dishes than I can name, plus three kinds of desserts. “Pass the gravy,” we’d hear. “Oh, this is so good.” “How’s it going up in Oregon?”

We would remember those who had passed on, drink a toast to them, hope they were having a good time in heaven.

After dinner, we’d stretch out in the living room, talk, watch TV, maybe go for a walk or a scenic drive. Later, there’d be turkey sandwiches and leftovers packed up for those who had to leave. We’d fall asleep full, not just with food, but love and family and gratitude.

When we were kids, my parents hosted most of the holidays. Somewhere I have pictures of all the grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins sitting around that big table, eating, joking, talking over each other. Somewhere are home movies of those times, taken by my dad as we sat blinded by the light. When asked to say grace, my mother’s father would say, “Grace! Let’s eat.”

In later years, my mother did say a real grace, and then we passed the food in both directions at once while people knocked bowls against each other. Someone might toss a roll to someone across the table. We were so sophisticated.

Holidays were never totally idyllic. Arguments broke out. People’s feelings got hurt. One year, my sister-in-law’s garbage disposal overflowed, and the men took turns on the floor trying to fix it. One year my mother’s oven didn’t work and the turkey was raw. In his later years, Grandpa hallucinated with dementia. Later, when my husband had Alzheimer’s, he was lost and confused all day. Toward the end of his life, my father sat silent, unable to hear much of what people said. But I also remember him smiling at his baby great-granddaughter, making faces at her.

Shoot, I’m going to cry. My father passed away last year. So many are gone. The youngest baby is walking and talking, and I haven’t seen her since before she could crawl.

Stupid COVID. Most years I worry about the weather driving to and from California in the winter. If it’s snowing at Siskiyou Pass, then I have to take the coast route, driving through wind, rain and mudslides. Not fun either way. But I haven’t made that drive since last Thanksgiving. After years of going back and forth, it’s strange. I haven’t left the Oregon coast since March.

I debated about going south for Thanksgiving, but ultimately decided I would stay home this year. When I called my brother to tell him, he already knew. The governors of both states had just locked everything down because of the latest surge in COVID cases.

Newscasters, government officials and doctors are all saying the same thing. Do not gather in a large group for Thanksgiving. Stay home. Keep it small. Don’t risk spreading COVID. I fear a lot of people will ignore that advice and spread the virus even more.

This is Pat’s first Thanksgiving without her husband, who died in July. It will be hard. Every first holiday is hard. My husband died the day before Easter. I went to Easter dinner at a friend’s house where I felt like an outsider with her family. They were all sorry my husband had passed, but they quickly went on to other subjects. I don’t blame them. No matter where you go, you feel like you’re from another planet when a loved one has just died.

Anyway, Pat and I, who have claimed each other as the sisters we never had, are planning a huge meal, to be followed by a movie. Maybe, if the weather cooperates, we’ll soak in the hot tub. Maybe we’ll Zoom call our families. Maybe we’ll cry a little. And we’ll eat leftovers for a week.

What are your plans, dear friends? How are they different this year?

And Then Came the Demolition Crew

In my dream, everything was different in the old neighborhood. The house was gone. Where the road used to continue, now there was swath of green grass. After crossing it, Annie the dog and I found ourselves on a freeway overpass with nowhere to go except to jump off. Annie went first, landing in a pile of broken bones. I followed, knowing I would be badly hurt, too, but I had no choice . . .

I seemed to land unscathed, but I knew I must be injured. I went to get help, but no one seemed to care . . .

This morning, Annie is fine, but my body feels as if I did jump off a bridge and fracture every bone. Welcome to winter plus arthritis and a couple other itis-es.

What spurred this dream? Partially the book I just finished, Raven Stole the Moon by Garth Stein, in which the characters are being chased by shape-shifting spirits, but mostly the email I received Halloween night from a man who lives in my parents’ old neighborhood. He sent me the picture above and a description of what he’d seen. Click here for the Google Earth view of what it used to look like.

The old house where I grew up is gone, torn down except for the frame of the bedrooms. I had to look hard to recognize the site. It appears the old fences and patio are also gone. The fruit trees in the back might be there; it’s hard to tell. A dumpster sits in the driveway, and next to it, so forlorn, sits the old piano, the 1890s cabinet grand passed down to us from Grandpa’s house before it was torn down in the 1960s. An old blanket partially covers the piano, but even in warmer, drier San Jose, that’s not much protection.

I cried. It’s just a house. It was falling apart. It needed new plumbing, wiring, roof, floors, heating, and windows. It had giant cracks from the Loma Prieta earthquake. Once Dad passed away a little over a year ago, our story in that house was done. I know that. In my head. But in my heart, it was still home.

It’s not a surprise. This is what people are doing in the old San Jose neighborhoods. They buy the old houses for a million dollars then tear them down and build new mini-mansions on the property. They want the land, not the house or someone else’s memories. Will the new owners live there or will they “flip it” for millions of dollars? I don’t know.

Why did they bother keeping the bedroom frame? I have heard that people do that so it’s called a “remodel” and not construction of a whole new house. Something about fees and taxes.

So sad. Also such a waste. Before the sale, the realtor arranged for the house to be repainted in and out. New carpet and linoleum and bathroom fixtures were installed. I barely recognized the place when I walked in to pick up a few last boxes last November. And now it’s all gone. Poor people with bare floors could use that creamy new carpet, but into the dumpster it went, along with the wood from the patio and the brick from the barbecue that my father and grandfather built by hand . . .

Why couldn’t the house be sold as affordable housing to a family that does not have a few million dollars in the bank? But that’s not what’s happening in that neighborhood.

As far as I know, not a single Fagalde remains in San Jose. All the descendants of Great-Grandpa Joe and Grandma Louise have either died or moved away to where it’s less crowded and less expensive and where they can find that sense of community that seems to be lost in Santa Clara/Silicon Valley. Just like Fred and I did when we moved to Oregon.

I am so grateful to Dad’s neighbor for letting me and my brother know about the house so we didn’t have to drive there one day without knowing what we would see. Because of COVID, neither of us has gone to San Jose since March. Now we don’t need to.

Although you know I will. I’m too curious to not look. And I will weep some more. Then I will leap off the metaphorical bridge into my own life here in Oregon with my own home that I love, and I will go on with Annie, who is just fine. She has eaten her kibble and gone back to sleep because hey, it’s still dark out, and that’s what dogs do.

In movies and books, people are always returning to homes that have been in the family for generations. Even in Stein’s spooky book, Jenna revisits her grandmother’s house in Alaska. It’s empty except for rodents and ghosts, but it’s still there.

How about you? Is the home where you grew up still standing? Does anyone you know live in it? I’d love to hear your stories.

Remembering Singer-Songwriter Sue

I came face to face with my younger self when a cleaning frenzy unearthed this photo from a poster advertising a performance from years ago. The photo, fading and streaked, was mounted on black cardboard that had been chewed by what appears to be a rat. But you can still read most of the white lettering: Friday, Oct. 15 (1982?) Sue Barnard, folk singer-guitarist. (Barnard, pronounced bar-NARD, was my first husband’s surname).

I remember that gig. San Francisco Press Club. I was so nervous I had diarrhea and a sore throat. I mean, the last singer they had was from Broadway. There I was in my homemade clothes singing “Today while the blossoms . . .” and strumming a nylon-stringed guitar. The performance itself is a blur. I do remember how relieved I felt when it was over.

I was about 30 years old, working as a reporter at the Pacifica Tribune. I stare at the photo. I was pretty. No glasses, minimal makeup, longish hair parted on the side. Hands forming a C chord. I did not own a steel string guitar, couldn’t afford it. Sometimes I borrowed a friend’s guitar. I recorded my songs on a shoebox-sized cassette recorder.

I was so earnest back then, my songs so . . . well, I wrote about love, birds, rainbows, my dog. I had suffered through mild poverty and a divorce, but I didn’t know anything yet. So much more was to come. So much.

I miss that young woman. Not just the way I looked but the innocence, the lack of that constant underlying sadness I feel these days.

There was stuff. My stomach issues began in that era. The newspaper deadlines were so intense I often felt like weeping as I counted out headlines by hand and typed as fast as I could on that manual Royal typewriter. I had no money. My car never worked. In foggy Pacifica, we didn’t see the sun for months at a time. I was dating a guy who repeatedly broke my heart.

But I miss that singer-songwriter with the other name (I don’t miss that name) with her crocheted vest sitting on a rock overlooking the beach while her reporter friend Sandy Noack took her picture. I probably processed the film and developed the photo in the Tribune darkroom. I can still smell the chemicals. Using the quick and dirty method we employed for pictures that needed to last only until the paper came out, I didn’t think about “archival processing.” So the photo is fading.

I loved that job at the Tribune. I loved Jim, the hard-drinking photo guy, Tom the jaded police reporter, Mr. Drake the publisher with his bow tie and tweed blazer, Peggy the feature writer, Shirley the office manager who gave me advances on my paycheck, Cynthia the office cat. . . The building reeked of cigarette and cigar smoke and rotting paper. I’ll bet there were rats there, too. Cynthia spent most of her time curled on my lap as I wrote my stories.

I wrote a lot of songs back then. At least once, a song grabbed me during my lunch break and I was late getting back to work. I brought my guitar and played my new song for Paula, the editor. “This is why I was late,” I said. She probably just shook her head, muttering, “Barnard . . .”

I quit that job to sing with the Billy Vogue Country Singers, a Grand Ole Opry knockoff, Ryman set and all, that promised money and fame. We were supposed to spend a year touring the United States, but we went bust before we got out of California. Back to the newspaper biz. Do I regret leaving a job I loved to go sing? No. I had to try it. For as long as it lasted, the show was magical. We were good. I wish I had a video or audio recording, but it was 1983. I have a program, sheet music, and memories.

If I hadn’t gone off to sing and wound up unemployed and living at my parents’ house, I wouldn’t have met my late husband Fred, so it was clearly meant to be.

Fast forward 38 years. I don’t have that last name anymore, but I do have that guitar—and a lot more instruments. The old Fender guitar sounds better with age, and I play better, too.

Ah, time. Where did it go?

More to the point, is the rat that nibbled the poster the same rat I murdered last Christmas or is there another rat living in my house?

Thanks for sharing this trip down memory lane.  

The Most Important Meal of the Day

My mother was a saint. Not only did she rise in the wee hours to make breakfast for my father before he went off to work as an electrician, but she had to deal with my brother and me, rousting us out of bed, getting us into the one bathroom between dad’s trips, making our lunches, getting us dressed and out the door in time for school. Dad would eat, she’d kiss him goodbye—I remember the smack of their lips coming together—and then she’d turn around and feed us, loading the washing machine while we ate. All before she had her morning coffee—which she didn’t like anyway.

Mom couldn’t just pass out Pop Tarts or boxes of dry cereal for breakfast. Dad, who grew up on a ranch, needed bacon or sausage, eggs and waffles, pancakes or hash browns—a real breakfast—or what I now think of as a cholesterol fest. I still remember the taste of fried linguiça and eggs and how it sat heavy in my stomach.

With meals like these, we were not skinny people, but my parents, God bless them, always told me I was “just right.”

I started counting calories as a high school senior when I overheard the popular girls talking about how much they weighed. I weighed 30 pounds more than that! Was I fat? I looked down at my thighs. I was! Poor mom. I’d bring my calorie book to the table and tally the numbers. I can’t eat that! Too fattening. Nope. That’s xxx calories.

At first I cut back to just toast in the morning, but then I started eating Campbell’s soup for breakfast–only the flavors with under 100 calories per serving: chicken noodle, tomato, cream of mushroom cooked with water. I lost that 30 pounds between high school graduation and the middle of my first year of college. No “freshman 15” for me. I was still living at home, eating only soup, orange juice bars, yogurt, meat and vegetables.

Too good for her own good, my mother prepared my weird meals at weird times to accommodate my classes and part-time retail jobs at the mall while also cooking big meat-and-potatoes meals for Dad and my brother. If I were my mom, I’d have told me to cook my own damned diet dinners.

Although I abandoned the usual starch-and-cholesterol breakfast, I have always eaten something in the morning. With tea. Nobody else in the family drank tea. We didn’t have a kettle. I hovered over a Revere Ware pot, watching the water heat from tiny pinpricks to big floppy bubbles while Mom worked around me, trying to prepare my brother’s breakfast, a smaller version of Dad’s.

I took my “weird” breakfasts into adulthood. For a while between marriages, my breakfast consisted of Entenmanns’ chocolate donuts. But I was exercising like a madwoman, and I couldn’t afford to go to restaurants, so I stayed thin.

Ah, where did that self-discipline go? I got hungry. I got old. I got tired. I learned to bake.

Let’s call my typical breakfast “continental.” Sounds classy. I have orange juice, herb tea, half a grapefruit, and something baked—muffin, coffeecake, banana bread, bagel–with a butter substitute made with yogurt. I get cranky when I have to eat something else. If there is no pastry to look forward to, what’s the point of getting up?

“That’s not breakfast,” my father would say. Until he died last year, I would bring my own juice, tea, fruit and bagels when I visited him in San Jose. I left a tea kettle and a grapefruit spoon in the drawer in my old bedroom.

After Mom died, Dad ate oatmeal every day. He sliced a banana into the bowl, poured oatmeal over it, and topped it with sugar and milk. He ate one slice of white toast topped with I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter and drank one cup of coffee. He would shake his head at my weird breakfast as I dipped my serrated grapefruit spoon into the tart red fruit. Oatmeal is good for you, he’d say. I know. Everybody says that, but it tastes like cardboard.

When I’m asked out to breakfast, I tell my friends, “I don’t do breakfast. How about lunch?” Not only do I eat different foods from the usual breakfast menu, but I’m not ready for other people first thing in the morning. If Mom were still around, she’d advise you to avoid me till the caffeine and sugar kick in.

This morning around 7:30, I ate half a ruby grapefruit and a homemade blackberry muffin slathered with my yogurt spread. Delicious. My Red Zinger tea cut the sweetness nicely. How many calories? I have no idea, although I’m sure it’s less than I’d get with the Costco muffins I binged on back in San Jose before I learned just how fattening they were. By making my own, I can use healthier ingredients with no mysterious chemicals.

Dietitians would have a fit about what I eat. Someday the family diabetes curse may catch up with me. Meanwhile I’ll keep doing breakfast my way. It makes me happy.

What makes you happy for breakfast? Or do you skip breakfast? How does your breakfast now compare to what you ate as a child? Let’s chat about the first meal of the day.

Additional reading:

“I Broke Breakfast” by Amanda Mull, The Atlantic, May 14, 2019

“Most Popular North American Breakfasts,” TasteAtlas, Oct. 15, 2020

“American Breakfast,” Tasteessence

As a Writer, Who are My People?

Novelist Ayad Akhtar, interviewed in the September/October issue of Poets & Writers, was asked about being expected, as a Pakistani writer, to speak for “his people.” He replied that for him, it’s a mixed bag of all his experiences, including being Pakistani.

I think it has to be that way for all of us. We are not just any one thing. Any one box would leave a lot out.

I think of myself as representing the working class, people who come from families of construction workers, janitors, retail employees, etc., people who didn’t go to college, or if they did, it was community college or a state university. Princeton? Yale? Not in our wildest dreams. Fraternities? Too busy working. Trips to Europe? I didn’t even go to Girl Scout camp.

Our family didn’t fly to Hawaii; we went trailer camping at Seacliff or Donner Lake. We didn’t go to the opera or the ballet; we went to CB “coffee breaks” with barbecue, country music, and raffles of CB radio gear. My dad only wore a suit to weddings and funerals. He drank beer, not martinis. But he was a VIP to me.

Suddenly I remember a song, “Working Class Blues,” that I wrote when I was editor of the Saratoga News back in California and found myself hanging out with a whole different class of people, people who owned million-dollar houses when a million dollars meant something. I remember thinking none of my shoes were good enough.

The chorus: “We’re working class, just ordinary folks./We’ll never be rich, but we’re not exactly broke./We’re salt of the earth, and if nothing else is true,/look out snobs ‘cause there’s more of us than you.”

Simply put, if I lived at Downton Abbey, I’d be downstairs with the workers, not upstairs with the lords and ladies. And I’m cool with that.

I also represent people of a certain age with certain memories and experiences: The Beatles, Vietnam, wearing pantyhose and mini-skirts to high school, typewriters, phones attached to the wall, TV antennas on the roof. My first car was a blue VW bug, for which I paid $500, earned tutoring and giving guitar lessons. My parents did not give me a car for graduation; they gave me a sewing machine because girls were expected to be housewives and do lots of needlework.

Then there’s the ethnic part. I’m half Portuguese, on my mother’s side. On the other side, I’ve got some Spanish, Mexican, Basque, German, and a smidge of Scottish. A recent article in the Portuguese-American Journal cited a New York Times article that referred to Portuguese Americans as non-white. Really? That’s a surprise to me. I always thought we were Caucasian.

When writing my book Stories Never Told: Portuguese Women in California, many of my interviewees told of being harassed for being black or brown when they knew they were as white as any of their harassers. Were they wrong? Does it matter? If you add my Portuguese and Latin influences, can I accurately call myself a “person of color?” That’s fine, but what about the rest of me? Am I “mixed-ish” like on the TV show? Does it matter? If you go back far enough in history, we’re all a mixture.

Setting DNA aside, I’m a typical California blend of the various nationalities that settled there. I have black hair, brown eyes, and olive skin. So what? That’s just genetics. Sure, we tossed around some Portuguese and Spanish words at my house, but I never attended a Portuguese event until I decided to write my book about Portuguese women. Three generations in, my experiences were vastly different from those of recent immigrants.

So who are my people? Working class, part Hispanic, baby boomer women who never had children or grandchildren; widows; people who live alone; left-handed, ice tea-drinking, Honda-driving, guitar-playing, dog-loving, poem-writing, left-leaning, Netflix-watching Oregonians who came from California.

What one person can speak for all that? We are all mixed bags of histories, ethnicities, experiences, and feelings. I’m going to just write, and if it speaks for “my people,” whoever they are, I’m glad. I suppose if I get famous enough, the critics will decide who “my people” are. And they’ll probably get it wrong.

What do you think? Who are “your people?” Do you worry about representing them in whatever you do?

Beware the Killer Folding Chair

When you live alone, you can think of all kinds of bad things that might happen to you. A few years ago, my father fell and broke his hip. He spent hours crawling through the backyard and the garage to the driveway, where lay waving his hat until a neighbor saw him. I don’t know what would have happened if the big garage door had not been open.

So you think of that, falling and breaking a hip. Having a heart attack, stroke or seizure. Choking on a fish bone. Fainting. Falling and not being able to get up. Or being robbed, beat up, killed or raped.

Out here in the woods, where the houses are far apart, I’m not sure anyone would hear me calling for help. Unlike in the TV shows where friends are always dropping in, I can go a month without another person coming through my door. The gardeners only come every few weeks.

Knowing things could happen, I am super careful. But I never expected what happened yesterday when I sat down on my foldup canvas chair and the seat tore. Once it started tearing, it went all the way before I could get up. Suddenly I was trapped in the frame, wondering how the hell I was going to get out of it. It was one of those cheap chairs with the drink holder, the kind you take to parades or the beach. Was it Oregon-weathered just enough, do I weigh more than it could handle, or was it just that I flopped down in the unladylike way my mother always told me not to do?

Whatever, there I was with my butt on my newly painted deck, my arms caught on the arms of the chair, laughing but also wondering: How am I going to get out of this? I’m 68 years old. I have bum knees and arthritis. I wasn’t really injured, thank God, although my arms and my right shoulder hurt and my back was a little tweaked, but I was sure stuck. My cell phone was in the house. I had only planned to sit long enough to put on my shoes so I could take Annie for a walk.

I pushed. Nothing. I had chair frame on all sides of me. Was there some way to collapse it? No, my body was in the way. Could I tip myself over to the side and crawl out? It wouldn’t tip easily and I was afraid I’d get hurt if the chair and I fell hard. Damn. What I really needed at that point was another person to pull me up. It wouldn’t take much, just a little more power than I had, and then we’d laugh about it. But I was on my own. I had to get myself out of this fix.

I sat there for a minute, considering my options. “Okay,” I told myself. “Be strong!” I pushed with everything I had and managed to stand enough to grab the top of the nearby hot tub and haul myself out of that chair. Then I stared at it. I had just been sitting in it reading a couple hours earlier. Now the seat was completely ripped out. I picked it up and threw it on the growing pile of things that have to go the dump. Then I pulled it out to take a picture because, you know, I have to share everything with you.

We went for our walk, but my legs were shaking. I came home, opened a beer, and went back to watching videos—Netflix, “In the Dark,” gripping series about a blind woman and her friends caught in a web of crime.

Friends, beware of those canvas chairs. This one was Glacier’s Edge brand from Fred Meyer. The label says it’s not safe around fire and only holds one person at a time, up to 225 pounds. Well, I weigh considerably less than that. Do not stand on the chair or sit on the arms, it says. Keep your fingers out of the hinged areas. Well, sure, but what if the seat rips out from under you?

I really need some new deck furniture.

And a roommate with opposable thumbs. I’m rethinking this whole living-alone business. And yes, I know, always carry my phone or get a Life Alert button.

Ever had a run-in with a cheap canvas chair?

Oh My Gosh, It’s a Human!

It happened again yesterday. We were walking our usual woodsy jaunt down 98th Street when my dog Annie suddenly froze. Now, if she were a normal dog, she would have seen another dog, a squirrel, a skunk, a deer, or maybe, God help us, a bear or a cougar. But no. It was a rare human sighting. She dragged me toward the human, a man I know from his mailbox and personalized license plates is named Ed and lives with Di. They do something with rocks. They’ve got them piled everywhere, and sometimes I hear the polisher going in the garage. They have a dog named Shasta, but Annie didn’t care about that.

Ed was out there minding his rock business when he heard me urging my dog to “come on” to no avail. Everything she learned in puppy school goes out the window when she sights a human. Half Lab, she actually points. And then she starts pulling me toward the human. Her 75 pounds triples in force when coupled with determination. Depending on the human, I may let her have her way, but sometimes I can tell they are not in the mood for a close encounter of the canine kind. I have tried to explain this to Annie, but she can’t believe that a human exists who will not love her.

To my knowledge, no human has ever mistreated her, so she has complete trust in humankind and is certain every person will love her. Lord, if only we humans felt that way.

I had never actually been in Ed’s yard, and I could tell he was busy, but Annie would not be deterred. Several neighbors have teased that my dog takes me for walks. They may be right. Soon we were up close to Ed, who kindly pet my dog’s white snout and asked what everyone asks these days: how old is she? 12 ½. Going on 2. He pet her, I eyeballed his polished rocks, which were beautiful, and then we went on.

On Cedar Street, we encountered the neighborhood kids. “Can we pet your dog?” Sure. Try getting out of it. Annie is not sure what kids are, but she likes them.

To be fair, I always want to pet their dog, a corgi named Winnie. She comes waddling over when I call. Annie ignores her completely. Then again, most of the humans who want to pet Annie ignore me completely.

One of those is Mr. Johnson, a neighbor in his 90s who takes a daily walk. He carries a cane but doesn’t use it. He wears nice slacks and a button-down shirt. He reminds me so much of my dad that it hurts. He misses his old dog, Blackjack, so he calls Annie over. Calls her “boy”. Tells her he loves her. Tells her she’s a good boy. She does not correct him.

Our neighborhood is loaded with dogs. Annie doesn’t care about them. I know all their names. Getting a chance to pet them lights up my day. But Annie is starved for human company. Maybe she gets tired of just me. Even before COVID, it was just me and Annie. The rare people who come into our house usually come to fix things, and I have to haul Annie out of their way because if she’s not sniffing their bottoms when they bend over, she’s stealing their tools.

If I take her out in the world, it’s with me alone, unless she’s going to the vet, which she loves because there are other people and they have cookies.

She craves human company. All day and night, she stays near me. I call her the dogstacle because I’m constantly having to step over her. Maybe I’m not enough for her. I am pretty boring, spending hours staring at computer screens. But think about it. All day long, she stares at one human. In her world, there is just one. Then we go out, and holy moly, there’s another one.

It’s like seeing another sun.

As for other creatures, she may notice. She may even chase, but it’s not the same as sighting a human. Although she does freeze at the sight of garden gnomes and inflatable Santa Claus balloons. They scare the bejesus out of her.

Do you have a people-crazed dog or is mine the only one? Feel free to share your dog stories in the comments.

Evacuate Now? What Would You Take?

Disaster piles on disaster. Pandemic, riots, hurricanes, fires. Stay home, we have been told for the last six months. Wear your mask. Avoid crowds. Except for quick runs to the grocery store and the doctor’s office, we have been “sheltering in place.” We miss our friends and family, we miss going out, we ache to travel, but we’re okay

Last week our shelter was threatened. Wildfires, fueled by lightning, low humidity, and temperatures over 100 degrees, raged all over the West, right where COVID has been having a field day. California, Oregon and Washington get fires every year, but not right here on the coast. Until this year.

We woke up on Tuesday, Sept. 8 to orange sky, hot wind, and the taste of ash on our tongues. The sun was bright red, and it was dark in the middle of the day. The light reminded us of the 2017 solar eclipse, except it didn’t go back to normal. A freak hot windstorm caused fires not only inland but up and down the coast, the worst just north of Lincoln City, 25 miles up the road from here. The winds had knocked down trees and power lines, adding to the trouble. Our cell phones didn’t work, we had no Internet access, and the TV offered nothing but “snow.” Here in South Beach, we had electricity, but the lights were flickering.

As the day went on, the fire up north spread into Lincoln City, population 7,000. Everyone from SW 12th Street north was ordered to evacuate. That includes thousands of homes, the outlet stores, Lakeview Senior Living, and the hospital.

The evacuees were bused to Newport, four miles north of me, because we were still okay.

But we were nervous. On a Facebook video interview, an older man sheltering at the rec center told a frightening story. His dog woke him in the wee hours. He opened the door and saw flames 20 feet away. His car wouldn’t start. He and the dog fled on foot through the forest in the dark, stumbling over logs and debris, somehow finding their way to Highway 18, where they were picked up by firefighters and taken to a shelter. “I have nothing,” he said. “I don’t even have my wallet or my phone. But I’m alive.”

Dear God. A friend whose home a little south was not in danger, packed her bags just in case. Other friends had already been told to leave, not knowing what will be left of their homes when they return. I didn’t pack, but I started making a list.

I looked around my house. What would I take? I love everything in this house. So many memories, so much work. While sheltering here, I have been fixing it up. Just last week, I painted the shed out back. I was about to paint my deck. I planned to renovate the laundry room.

I can gather medicines, toiletries, clothes, my guitar, laptop, and a few binders of music and writing. That’s no different from packing for a trip. I can pack the dog’s things in the car. She’d be overjoyed to be going for a ride. But what about my pictures, Fred’s shot glass collection, my antique glass, the Bibles and prayer books passed down over 100 years, the writing stored on my desktop computer, the binders and notebooks, a lifetime of work? What about my clothes, shoes, hats—so many hats? Could I leave my houseplants, some of them with me for more than 40 years? My piano? Dear God. There’s a history in every item.

I know. It’s just stuff. I have insurance. I can replace things—the things that are just things. But the things that are not just things cannot be replaced. When you’re alone like me, sometimes I feel like all I have is this house and what’s in it. My house is safe this time, but my heart breaks for all of those people who have lost everything to the fires. We can try to put a positive spin on it. At least they’re alive. They can rebuild. It’s a fresh start. But it will never be the same.

On Thursday, the weather turned cooler and wetter, making it easier to control the flames around Lincoln City. The air here is still smoky, but it’s less orange now, mixed with ordinary fog. In other parts of Oregon, the fires continue to grow. Small towns have been wiped out. Thousands of people can’t go home. What did they take with them? What will they miss the most? What will they wish they had taken? Will they ever feel okay again?

And what about COVID-19? Suddenly people have been forced out of their houses, people who have diligently avoided seeing even their own children. Now they’ve been thrown together in shelters with people who may have been quarantining, who may have been ill. Will cases of COVID spike in the next few weeks?

Black soot clings to the spider webs on the side of my house. White ash covers my deck and hot tub. The neighbors and I make jokes about Armageddon, but we are not laughing. Our properties are surrounded by trees and brush. We know how easily everything can burn and that we are not immune.

Friends from far away message me on Facebook. They have been watching the news. Are you all right? I’m okay, I tell them. Sick of the smoke, but I’m okay.

But not as okay as when I thought trouble couldn’t reach me.

Please pray for everyone dealing with the fires. Pray for a hard Oregon rain to put the fires out and wash away the smoke. Let the rain reach all the way into California and everywhere else that’s burning. Help wherever you can.

I welcome your thoughts and fire stories in the comments.

Little House in the Back Yard

The shed as it looked when it snowed in Feb. 2019

It was just an old shed made of scrap wood. It had holes in the front and gaps between the shingled roof and the tops of the walls. Squirrels, rats, and spiders hid among the garden tools, cracked pots and bits of wood. The old door that wouldn’t stay closed looked as if something had chewed the bottom, and rain poured in with every storm. And yet I liked it.

The shed reminds me of the playhouse in my childhood friend Sherri’s back yard. Same raw walls, concrete floor, pitched roof. That shed had a couple windows. We hung pictures on the walls, set knickknacks on the two-by-fours, and spied on the boys next door through a hole we could reach by standing on a box. We played dress-up, held tea parties, and enacted scenes with our dolls in that playhouse. As teens, we sipped Cokes and had long talks about important things like white Beatle we loved best. I don’t know now if Sherri’s dad built that shack as a playhouse or for some other purpose, but it was our hangout. Maybe that’s why 40 years later, I’m so fond of the shed in my backyard.

I mostly use it to store garden tools, but at one point when my late husband was still around, I tried using the shed as a writing hideout, setting my laptop on a TV tray near the door. The shed had no electricity and was too cold most of the year. Still, it remains an option.

I recently exchanged the blinds in my bedroom for curtains. Now, when I look out, I have a clear view of the shed. Day after day, I saw that beat-up door and those pitted gray walls. I’m always looking for a project. What if I got a new door and painted the shed?

So I did. John the handyman found and installed a new white door with a real knob. It shuts with a satisfying click. I got in line with the construction guys at the paint store to buy primer and a blue-gray exterior paint, and then I set to work. I am not a neat painter. I soon had it all over my tee shirt and sweats, my hands and my hat. When I rollered the part I couldn’t reach with a brush, it splattered on my face and even got on my teeth when I screamed. But as they say in the commercials, I “got ‘er done.”

I fussed over every spot that didn’t get its share of color. It’s just an old shed, a friend said. Yes, I know. And the truth is, it doesn’t look that much different, just a little brighter, a little neater. The wood on the west and south sides is still pocked by wind, rain and hail. The roof edges still look like they were nibbled by raccoons. But it was one of the most satisfying things I have done in ages. I was out in the sun, getting lots of exercise. The repetitive motions–dip the brush into the paint, slap it on the wood, over and over–allowed my mind to wander and work things out at the same time as I was making something ugly and stained bright and new.

When I got done with the shed, I still had paint in the bucket, so I decided to try painting the battered white table on my deck. I had tried unsuccessfully to get the stains off, but maybe I could paint over them. If the paint didn’t stick, it didn’t matter. I planned to buy new patio furniture next summer anyway. It worked! It looked good. I was tickled pink. Or blue.

I had moved all the furniture to the grass for John to stain the deck—some paint jobs are not that fun, and I really made a mess of it last year. [see previous post] Annie seemed to approve of the new arrangement as she took her place on the lounge on the grass. Once I had showered off the paint and  put on fresh clothes, I joined her on the other lounge. Together we enjoyed our new location and admired the fresh paint on the shed.

What should be our next project, I asked the dog? She rested her nose on her paws and sighed.  

Watching Old Movies and Sitting Still

Nathan Lane and Robin Williams in “The Birdcage”

Thanks to COVID-19, our network TV shows are gone, replaced by endless game shows, weird Zoom “best of” conglomerations, and reruns of shows I didn’t like in the first place. Since COVID hit, I have watched news and reruns of “The Big Bang Theory,” “Friends,” and “Sex and the City.” I did watch four seasons of the BBC series “Being Erica” via Amazon Prime, then turned around and watched some of it again, but I crave something new. The Democratic and Republican conventions, gag-inducing as they were, at least offered fresh content.

Now, I don’t watch TV all day. I work hard at my writing, read constantly, walk the dog every afternoon, and do my home and garden chores, but there comes a time when a person gets tired and just wants to be entertained.

The new TV season should be starting in September, but mostly it’s not. Production companies have gone on indefinite hiatus until it’s safe for people to get together again. As a musician with limited outlets these days, I feel for all those actors who have nowhere to act. At least I can still sing at church and in my living room.

This has been a weird season for me, not just because of COVID. I have restless leg syndrome, also known as Willis-Ekbom disease. The Restless Legs Syndrome Foundation describes it as a neurological syndrome that “causes an irresistible urge to move the legs or other parts of the body, often accompanied by unusual or unpleasant sensations that may be described as creeping, tugging or pulling.” It’s torture.

This is why you may see me getting up in the middle of a meeting, class or concert to stand in the back of the room or do yoga on the floor. I may be squirming in my chair, kicking off my shoes and massaging my feet, trying to stave off the inevitable need to get up. You cannot sit still, not for five minutes. At night, you can’t sleep because your legs keep wanting to move. Some people call us “Nightwalkers” because we’re up walking around at all hours, trying to get our legs to relax. Sometimes a hot bath helps. Sometimes nothing helps.

Experimenting with new medication in July led to the worst flare-up of my life. The side effects were bad, and it made my symptoms worse instead of better. Instead of mostly happening at night, it was 24/7. At its worst, I couldn’t sit, even to eat or play a song on the piano. My legs kicked involuntarily and threatened to give out when I was standing or walking.

That period led me to try CBD, aka a marijuana concoction which allegedly will not get you high but will make you feel better. I may be one of the few people my age who had never smoked pot, but there I was in the cannabis store choosing the raspberry gummies. The CBD didn’t stop my legs from acting up, but I felt a lot more mellow about it. Now I’m on a new drug that so far works great, but I can’t mix it with pot or alcohol. It’s a worthy sacrifice if it lets me be still.

Read more about restless legs syndrome at the RLS Foundation website, on the RLS Facebook group, or on my friend Judy Fleagle’s blog post on the subject. If you have this, too, I’m so sorry. Let’s stand in the back of the room together and dance.

Now that I can sit still again, praise God, I got the urge to watch something on my TV. But what? Old movies and older movies. I caught part of a 1957 movie with Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift. So corny. I watched a rerun of “Knocked Up,” in which Kathryn Heigl as a budding TV news personality who gets pregnant after a one-night stand. It’s dumb, but amusing. However, two of my favorites were on this weekend, “Fried Green Tomatoes” and “The Birdcage.” Such great acting, love, music, drama. It felt so good to just plotz on the couch and go back to favorite places with favorite people. Annie the dog, who follows me everywhere, was delighted that I stopped moving for a while.

There are real consequences of the pandemic—people dying, jobs lost, fear and loneliness. When I think about people dying in hospitals and nursing homes alone because their loved ones are not allowed in, it breaks my heart. But we all crave entertainment, and that has suffered, too. Oh, to sit in a darkened theater and watch the magic happen again.

God bless you all. I hope you’re well and at peace in this time of tremendous unrest and uncertainty. We’ll get through this. How are you entertaining yourselves? What movies can you watch again and again and never get tired of them?