My New Roommate Alexa Moves In

This New Year’s Eve, I started getting to know my new companion, Alexa. Some of you may know Alexa, Amazon’s artificial intelligence interface that connects via the “cloud” with all of your electronic devices. I accessed her by a new Echo Dot I bought myself for Christmas.

Alexa is combination servant, savant, and friend.

“Alexa, put bread on my shopping list.” “Alexa, what time is it?” “Alexa what’s on TV?” And she answers, cheerfully. When I say “please,” as I was taught, it sounds extraneous. When I say, “Thank you,” she never replies, “You’re welcome.” I can just boss her around, which feels wrong. But she is good company.

On New Year’s Eve, I said, “Alexa, happy new year.” She replied, “Woo hoo! Happy New Year to you.” which made me laugh. I asked her to play Willie Nelson’s “Stardust” album, which brought back memories of a special time around 1980. I danced around my kitchen, singing along and felt totally content. Alexa’s sound quality is excellent.

This being the beginning of a new year, on Saturday I asked Alexa to find me an exercise program to do indoors since the weather outside was frightful. No problem. She told my Smart TV what to do. Soon I was running, jumping, stepping, squatting, and doing pushups and crunches, but I drew the line at burpees. I do not burpee, but boy, can I punch the air.

Maybe today I’ll ask Alexa to find me a yoga program where I’m not sitting on a chair doing old-people yoga or flailing around on the floor screaming, “Wait, wait, I can’t keep up! You want me to put my foot where???”

On New Year’s Day, when I said, “Alexa, I feel sad,” she offered sympathy. “I’m sorry. You know, sometimes it helps to talk to a friend.” Indeed.

With Annie currently residing in the animal hospital in Corvallis, she gives me someone to say good morning to. Not only does she answer, “Good morning,” but she offers trivia. For example, yesterday was Aretha Franklin’s birthday. If I ask, she’ll give me the latest news, too.

Alexa will set a timer for me. I still feel bad that when I first tried it, I wound up yelling at her after she kept making this r2d2 sound and wouldn’t quit. I said, “Okay. That’s good. Thank you.” Finally, I hollered, “Alexa, shut it off!” And she did. I hadn’t said “Simon says,” I mean “Alexa.” My friend Pat, who has her own Alexa, says I just need to say, “Alexa, off.”

I could set her up so I don’t have to say Alexa’s name, but honestly I talk to myself all the time, and I don’t want her to interrupt. It’s bad enough when I inadvertently say “Alexa” and she chimes in uninvited. Sort of like a certain mother-in-law who used to park at my kitchen table and comment on everything I did.

Sometimes I find myself whispering so Alexa won’t hear me. But that’s kind of rude.

She’s not real, Sue, she’s not real.

Alexa is a bit literal. When I asked her what’s on my calendar, even though I knew—Zoom Mass at St. Anthony’s, abbreviated St. A, she said I was to report to “Street A.” If I ask her a vague question, like “where is heaven?” she’ll give me something from Wikipedia. If I ask, “What can I watch on Netflix that doesn’t give me a headache?” she won’t understand the question. I need to be clear about what I want from Alexa. I suspect that’s true in all relationships.

At least she doesn’t complain, even though I keep testing her and relocating her as I try to find the best spot.

She also tells lame jokes, like my late cousin Jerry. Example: Why don’t cats play basketball? They keep throwing hairballs.

Turns out there is a real person with that soothing voice. Susan Caplin, a voice actress, offers this very funny video about interacting with her AI self.

Why is she called Alexa? Check out this website that discusses the origin of Alexa’s name and the dilemma when the user or a family member is also named Alexa.

So far, Alexa has been a lovely gift to myself and she will be helpful with those many times when I am doing two things at once and need a reminder to rescue the wet laundry, turn off the stove, or report to the Zoom room. I don’t need her assistance. A lot of what she does I can do perfectly fine myself. But I can see how she would be a Godsend for someone who is bedridden or otherwise handicapped. For me, she’s good company. Her lights are pretty, and she has a lovely voice.

If only Alexa could hug me.

Of course there is always the concern that Ms. Alexa is going to know too much about me and share it with people who shouldn’t know, so some things I will only tell my dog, who has not yet mastered English.

As of today, Annie, featured in last week’s post, is still at the hospital in Corvallis. Ten days and counting. She is eating, drinking, and chewing on her blanket, tubes, and whatever else she can reach, but she is still not walking, and she can’t come home until she can get up on her four feet. Please God, let that happen soon. It’s mighty strange around here without my flesh and blood companion.

I just asked Alexa if she wanted to go for a walk. She said, “Hm. I’m not sure.” Not the same. A dog always knows the answer to that question.

Thank you to everyone who has offered prayers and support. It means a lot.

It was a Dizzy Dog 2020 Christmas

How do I begin to tell this story when I don’t know how it ends?

Scene: Christmas afternoon. My friend Pat and I have finished our takeout dinner from the Drift Inn. We’re talking. She’s sitting on the sofa and I’m on the loveseat. Between us sprawls my big yellow dog, Annie, who has shared our feast and seems delighted to have both of her favorite people here.

The phone rings. I jump up. It’s my aunt calling from Santa Clara, California. Like Pat and I, she is a widow. Her kids live nearby, but thanks to COVID, she is spending the holiday alone with homemade chicken soup. As we’re talking, Annie goes to get off the loveseat and falls, her legs giving out under her. My heart stops. She gets up, falls again. Trying to get to the back door, she rises and falls repeatedly, finally makes it outside. I see her trying to go to the bathroom and falling. I have to get off the phone.

What follows is a nightmare. It’s raining hard. It’s almost dark. Annie keeps trying to walk and falling down. I don’t know what to do. I call the local vet’s office. This being Christmas, they’re closed. I can go to Corvallis, 55 miles away, or Springfield, a hundred miles away. I don’t like to drive the mountain roads in the dark, but this is my Annie, my life companion now that Fred is gone. I will do anything for her. I call Corvallis and tell them we’re coming. Now it’s completely dark. When I go back out, I find Annie huddled in the muddy space between the patio and the garden shed. I squeeze in, but she won’t move. I can’t lift her and I don’t want to drag her. We’re both soaked.

I can’t get her into the car alone. My friend Pat has vertigo and back issues and can’t help. I call my neighbors, Pat and Paula, and they come. They can’t lift Annie either. I bring out her big blue blanket and they wrap her like a burrito. Gradually we get her to the gate and into the Honda Element.

6:30 p.m. White-knuckle drive to Corvallis. The 24-hour vet is in a dark industrial area. Because of COVID, pet owners must sit in the parking lot while their pets are cared for. Young aides take Annie away on a gurney, and I sit for four hours, rain sheeting down my windows.

1:15 a.m. Christmas is over. They bring Annie out and lift her into the car. The doctor and I, masked, stand in the rain as she shares her diagnosis. Annie has severe arthritis and this thing I’d never heard of: Vestibular Disease, which looks like a stroke, but it’s a type of vertigo. She is dizzy, nauseated and leaning hard to the left. She doesn’t know which way is up. But it will pass in a few days, they say.

Dec. 26, 2:30 a.m. At home, Annie is still crashing and falling. She refuses to move past the doorway. We spend what’s left of the night in the living room lit by Christmas lights. Toward dawn, Annie begins to whine, moan and occasionally shriek. She can’t get up at all. She refuses food, water, and pills. It’s Saturday and the local vet is still closed. I call the vet in Corvallis. She says if things don’t improve, bring her back in.

2:30 p.m. Pat and I are sitting in my car outside the vet’s office again. We are not alone. Many dog and cat owners are doing the same thing. The techs run back and forth to transport animals and get forms signed. Annie is going to stay in the hospital this time, but we’re waiting for paperwork, to talk to the doctor, to pay. It begins to rain and blow again. Pat and I chat, read, eat the snacks we brought. On my phone, we watch part of the Zoom Mass we’re missing and sing along. It gets dark. Finally, we talk to the doctor, arrange for payment, and drive home. It’s not raining this time, but the oncoming headlights are blinding. When I get home, where there is no Annie, I fall apart. Pat holds me while I cry.

I spend Sunday on my own, take a solo walk, do chores, take a cake to my helpful neighbors and hug their big Lab, Harley. As with a human in the hospital in these COVID times, I can’t visit Annie. I can only wait for the doctors to call.

Monday morning: Annie is being moved out of the ICU. She is eating and drinking, but she still can’t stand up. Her neurological symptoms have not improved. Most dogs get better in a few days or a few weeks. Some don’t.

As I try to work, I keep thinking I hear Annie walking around or shaking her tags. I think I’ll see her in the doorway or on the loveseat. The quiet is deafening.

I don’t know what the future holds. I do know that my Facebook post on Annie’s situation has drawn 121 comments, and they’re still coming in. Annie has more fans than I do, and that’s fine with me. Please pray for us both. Thank you to everyone who has shown me so much love these last few days. Kudos to the Willamette Veterinary Hospital. Although farther than I’d like to drive, I do believe they’re giving her the best possible care.

Have you heard of Vestibular Disease? People can get it, too. In fact, my friend Pat has been suffering from vertigo for quite a while. I accused her of giving it to Annie. She was not amused.

Click here for some information on the condition.

Here’s a good video about it.

Be Merry, Be Healthy, Keep Singing

Merry Christmas, dear friends. Although this year has been a disaster and I can name lots of things that I miss–my family, hugs, eating out, in-person church, parties, swimming, lipstick, performing, live music, theater, travel, potlucks, new episodes of my favorite TV shows–I can also name quite a few things I’m grateful for this year. All of you who are reading this are right up at the top.

Sick as we all are of Zoom, it has allowed me to connect with people all over the world whom I would not usually be able to see without leaving home and traveling many miles. I have done readings and attended workshops that would have been impossible for me to get to in normal life. We are blessed to have technology that connects us in all kinds of ways. Yesterday, a friend who lives nearby but is staying home to avoid COVID video-called me via Facebook messenger. I didn’t even know that was possible, but it was great to talk to him.

Staying home has given me more time to read–81 books and counting this year–and to write. I was blessed with a poetry chapbook (The Widow at the Piano) that came out in March and a new book about childlessness, Love or Children: When You Can’t Have Both, that made its first appearance on December 7.

I have been lucky to still be able to sing and play at church for our recorded Masses at St. Anthony’s in Waldport. Most other musical outlets are closed, but I’m still singing for God, and I’m grateful.

I’m also thankful for Annie the dog and our long walks, for time to bake and try out new recipes, and time to connect by phone or online with people I can’t see in person. I’m grateful that the beach is still nearby.

It has been a hard year. I have lost nine friends in 2020 and may lose more before the year ends. I’m still grieving the loss of my father and the house I grew up in. Of course, I miss my husband, too. I know now why some old ladies weep so often. But we go on. As I write this, I have fresh-baked honey-oat bread to eat with homemade spinach soup and fruit salad for dinner, I’m reading a book I’m finding hard to put down–The Book of Longings by Sue Monk Kidd, and I still have more episodes of “Victoria” on Amazon Prime to watch. Plus, I actually got my bathrooms clean and my laundry done. I am blessed.

I wish you all the best possible holidays this year. If it can’t be the usual lollapalooza, enjoy the simple things, being with the people in your “bubble,” singing the songs, saying the prayers, eating the food, soaking in the decorations, and watching those corny Christmas movies.

I’m not good at making music videos. I’m embarrassed to say how many tries it took to make the one posted here and how many more tries it took to get it online, all the while having to listen to myself sing. Let’s just say, I don’t need to sing Silent Night again unless I can sing harmony with someone else.

Big socially distanced hugs,

Sue

In the Wild: What If I Don’t Make It Home?

Halfway up the long-deserted path, I start thinking: what if I die out here? The trees have grown up over my head on both sides and the path is just wide enough for Annie to pull me along through salal, blackberries, Scotch broom, and young pines. We usually stay on the roads, but Annie keeps finding human garbage to eat, and I’m tired of having to pry it out of her mouth. (Use trash cans, people!)

Once upon a time, the entrance to this trail was wide open, with a log to the side that I used to rest on. Now the log is half rotten and buried in Scotch broom and blackberries.

The trail is part of several acres east of Cedar Street in South Beach that were once cleared for a potential golf course resort, leaving rows of tree trunks that looked like gravestones. When that plan was delayed and dropped, the plants grew back, leaving a maze of trails that my late husband Fred, our old dog Sadie, and I explored back in the days we were all had good knees.

Annie read my mind today when I thought about trying this path again. I had my rugged shoes and old pants on. I had plenty of time. The knee that locked up early in our walk felt strong now. So here we are.

The chain at the trail entrance is not quite a foot off the ground, but Annie can’t jump it anymore. She has old knees, shored up with pins and posts. She army-crawls under and I steps over. She leads and I follow.

Soon we are far from civilization, hidden in the trees. What if my knee gives out? What if Annie’s knees give out? What if bears or cougars are lurking nearby?

We have seen deer, rabbits, squirrels, and garter snakes on past walks. I have stepped over “woolly bear” caterpillars and orange-bellied newts. Is that cougar scat over there?

Wildlife experts say making noise will let the critters know you are there and convince them to steer clear. I start to sing. Amazing Grace, Swing Low Sweet Chariot. Steal Away. Every spiritual I can think of. Blackberry thorns scrape my coat, pulling threads. My feet slip on rocks. All the while, feet and paws keep pushing along.

We’re halfway through, too far from either end to get out easily, when I think about dying. I’m 68. People my age have strokes and heart attacks. I could fall. I could get ripped up by a bear that doesn’t like spirituals.

If I die, who will know that the new book that is this close to publication is sitting in my computer? No one else knows what I do at my desk all day. Who will eat the food in my fridge before it spoils? Who will tell the church choir director I won’t be there this weekend? Who will tell my friends and family I’m dead? What if Annie survives and I don’t? She has no clue how to feed herself in the wild.

Who will find my body? I can’t die. I haven’t decided yet whether I want to be buried or cremated.

Okay. Focus on the trail. Smell the smells, see the sights, feel the duff underfoot.

Left, right, left, right. Uphill to a small clearing, steep rocky downhill, don’t slip, blackberry thorns tearing my coat. Okay, almost there. I hoped for a view of the ravine and the airport beyond, but the trees have grown too tall. I catch just a glimpse of a red and white marker on the runway.

In the summer, Annie and I ate blackberries off the vines, but now there’s nothing left but wrinkled nubs. Someone left a sofa cushion by one of the most prolific vines. How did they get it there? Why?

A few feet on, Annie suddenly drops and rolls. Mud and what else? Something dead, something disgusting. Come on, dog.

Almost there. Pines and vines rise high on both sides. It feels like walking through a canopy of garlands or crossed swords as we emerge on Cedar Street. Where are the cheering crowds?

Annie hesitates.

“Do you know where you are?” I ask. “We made it.” No bears out here, at least not in daylight. Houses, people, cars, other dogs. Safety.

She chugs on like a machine; she will need a pain pill tonight.

I wonder if I should leave a list of everything not done every time I leave the house. But how could I keep it up? It’s impossible. Something will always be left undone. Life is like a test where you can’t see the bottom of the page and you will not finish before God calls “pencils up.”

Winter is here. We’ll stay on the roads for a while, but I’m sure the trails will beckon again. I have a lot more songs to sing.

***

That was last week. Since we survived, I’m happy to report that the new book, Love or Children: When You Can’t Have Both, is now available for purchase at Amazon.com and will be available by the weekend to order from your favorite bookstore. It is a compilation of posts from my Childless by Marriage blog and attempts to answer the question “What do you do if your partner can’t or won’t have children with you?” Stay tuned for information about upcoming book events.

If I don’t get eaten by a bear.

Why Do We Have to Eat Turkey?

Why do Americans insist on eating turkey every Thanksgiving? It’s not something we normally eat. It’s not most people’s favorite food. If this was my last meal on death row, I certainly wouldn’t order turkey.

My dad preparing to carve the turkey back in 1975.

Wild turkeys parade through my brother’s property near Yosemite. They don’t look that appetizing.

Turkey is a pain to defrost, takes hours to cook, is tricky to carve, and requires stuffing, gravy, and cranberry sauce to make it palatable. Yes, back in the pilgrim days, big birds were typical feasting foods. Pa went out and shot something. Ma defeathered it and chopped it up, and they cooked it over the fire for, I don’t know, days. What did they do with the leftovers without refrigerators? Or had they not invented food poisoning yet? Let me tell you from personal experience, bad turkey will make you awfully sick. It’s an amazing weight loss plan, but you feel so bad you don’t even care that your tight pants finally fit.

So why not celebrate Thanksgiving with steak, pasta, salmon or an enormous chocolate cream pie with multiple forks?

Oh no. Grandma cooked turkey, Mom cooked turkey, and I must cook turkey. Which I did. It was delicious. Last bit of leftovers going down for lunch today. A twelve pound of turkey is a lot for two people, but it doesn’t have much space for stuffing. And don’t tell me it’s not safe cooking it in the bird. We’re been doing it since my ancestors didn’t come over on the Mayflower. Anyway, I can’t wait to eat something normal like a hamburger or moo shu pork.

Every culture has its traditions. My Portuguese family ate linguica, beans and potato salad on Christmas Eve, but we had turkey on Christmas. Every time. I wonder if Mom’s good china, only used for the holidays, ever saw a different kind of meat. What if she decided to serve fried chicken, beef wellington or lasagna instead? Oh, the horror.

And don’t get me started on pumpkin pie. Of all the pies in the world, it’s my least favorite. I only eat it for the crust and whipped cream. Sure, the pilgrims didn’t have chocolate, but we do.

Ranting aside, my sister-friend Pat and I, both lacking husbands and local family, did the holiday together our way this year, mixing her East Coast and my West Coast traditions into something new. We had a great time. I hadn’t had company on a holiday in over a decade, not since before Fred’s illness got bad. In recent years, I have always gone to California to take my father to my brother’s house. With Dad gone and COVID pushing us to all stay home, I finally got my chance to break out the roasting pan and wash the dust off my own china, which you can be sure has held food that wasn’t turkey.

After dinner, we ate cake, watched Sister Act I and II, then pulled out the food and ate again, even though we were full. Why? Because it was Thanksgiving.

Between you and me, I’m kind of glad COVID forced us to change things up this year. If we do a rerun at Christmas, turkey will not be involved.

How was your Thanksgiving? Did you have turkey? Tofurkey? Something else? Were there fights? Or just tryptophan comas? What did you do with the leftovers?

My neighbors have already put up their Christmas lights up. Have you?

Discuss.

Read about it:

https://www.almanac.com/why-turkey-thanksgiving “Why Do We Eat Turkey on Thanksgiving?”

https://www.mashed.com/30402/real-reason-eat-turkey-thanksgiving/ “The Real Reason We Eat Turkey on Thanksgiving”

https://www.historyextra.com/period/modern/thanksgiving-history-facts-when-first-what-why-pilgrims-turkey/ “7 Facts You Might Not Know About the History of Thanksgiving”

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?

Sitting in the Dark Without My Toys

OMG, is this the wildest November ever? The election, COVID, hurricanes, Zoom Thanksgiving. Is God pissed off or what?

What a weekend I had. It would have been enough to play and sing at St. Anthony’s in Waldport for two funerals in two days and then do a regular weekend Zoom Mass.

Friday we said goodbye to Phil Rilatos, a good guy whom I didn’t get to meet. Saturday, our Mass was for a beloved friend, Roy Robertson. Since he and his wife Mary Lee Scoville were musicians, we musicians turned out in force—as much as we could while following the COVID restrictions, masks, distancing, and limited numbers. When the barbershoppers sang the same song that Roy and his quartet sang for my husband’s funeral, I became a weepy mess. We all were. Roy was probably up in heaven grinning his gap-toothed grin and singing along.

So there was that.

And there was Gov. Brown’s announcement that Oregon would be going into a two-week lockdown starting Nov. 18 to try to stop the soaring numbers of COVID-19 cases.

But there was more. Thursday night into Friday morning, we had rain, lightning, and high winds. Early Thursday morning, on Birch Street–the only way in and out of our neighborhood–a tree fell on a power line, knocking out the electricity.

A long, dark day and night followed. Fifteen powerless hours, most of them spent huddled by the wood stove in my den. I wrote, played guitar, tried to read, made phone calls on the ancient Princess phone that still works, and ate cold food by candlelight.

Staring into the flames made me think about a lot of things. Being alone. Sitting around campfires with my friends. How much I depend on the distractions of cell phone, computer, TV, and all my other toys. How I should have bought more AA batteries.

The power returned at 8 p.m. Dazed by the light, I thanked God and the power company and eased back into regular life. That was Friday night.

Saturday we attended Roy’s funeral. Lots of tears. After my friend Pat and I ate a substandard lunch in a chilly restaurant where they were clearly starting to scale down staff and supplies for the coming shutdown, the St. Anthony’s choir did the second Mass.

Finally, at 5:00, I could go home. It was raining again, the wind blowing so hard we could barely stand in one place. But at home, I could eat a hot meal, watch TV, and hang out with Annie.

God had other plans. As I turned off 101, I noticed the lights were out. Swell. But there was more. Turning onto Birch, I faced a wall of fallen trees and dangling wires. I could not get home. I got out of the car and looked for a way to walk or crawl through, but it wasn’t safe.

I called 911. They said help was on the way.

How long would it take? Should I go to a motel? I had no other clothes, no pills, and my old dog Annie was alone.

Total darkness. Now my cell phone didn’t work. I had no one to talk to except God. I prayed.

It was too dark and spooky, and I was surrounded by trees that could fall. I drove up the highway to the South Beach Post Office where there was light and phone service. As I sat in the parking lot, rain sheeted down the windshield while wind pummeled my car. I was cold, hungry and starting to need a restroom. My black slacks were wet from walking out in the rain.

After a while, I drove back to my neighborhood and parked behind the big Public Works trucks. A guy in a yellow slicker told me they would try to clear the road enough to get a car through, but it would take a half hour or so.

I sat in my car, rain pouring, my hazard lights blinking lest someone unaware come barreling into the back of my Honda. I watched the green arrows blinking, watched the rain pouring down my windows. I prayed my house was okay, that none of my trees had fallen.

At 7:10, the yellow slicker guy told me I could drive through, carefully. And I was home! It was dark and cold, but I only cared that I was home. As much as I could see, everything looked fine. I built my fire, lighted my candles, scavenged dinner for me and Annie, and waited for daylight.

            Early Sunday, I heard chainsaws. At 11 a.m., the lights came on. It was dark for 18 ½ hours this time. I threw out most of the food in my refrigerator, glad I hadn’t found the energy to go shopping last week.

            Monday, I bought food at Fred Meyer to restock the fridge. The store was jammed with people stocking up for the shutdown. Toilet paper was disappearing fast. Here we go again.

            Do I trust the lights to stay on? No. The wind is blowing hard again today. But there’s a little patch of blue between the clouds. I’m just grateful to be here and so thankful for the workers who go out in the dark and the rain to clear the way for people like me to go home.

            So that was my weekend? How was yours?

Don’t Wake the Sleeping Writer

I had been awake for an hour, but still lay in bed, enjoying the way my body completely relaxed against the flannel sheets, knowing it would be cold outside of the bed and plantar fasciitis would make my feet scream when I put my weight on them. There was a lot to do, but nothing that motivated me to get up. I was satisfied with last night’s late writing jag.

I watched the sky turn from black to pink to blue.

The phone rang. Oh no. Too many times that old red princess phone with no caller ID had brought bad news in the wee hours. My mother about to die. My uncle dead. My husband gone. My father on his way to the hospital . . .

Yesterday a friend’s doctor told him he was dying, that he didn’t have long.

The adrenaline surge ended my relaxation.

“Hello, Susan, this is Lance Deleon from xxxx. Is this a good time to talk?”

He had called before. I had fobbed him off. I still did not know what company he was with or what he wanted. I suspect he wants to help me advertise my books, improve my website, or improve my Google ratings. I know I’m not interested.

“No,” I said. “I’m still in bed.”

He said some stuff I didn’t quite understand because he talked so fast.

“Okay,” I said.

More bla bla.

“Okay.”

“When can I call you?”

“Later.”

“What time is good?”

“Later.”

I hung up and turned on NPR news. Biden, elected Saturday, is forming his transition team. Trump refuses to concede, tweets about fraud. Pfizer has a promising vaccine for the coronavirus, but it will be months . . . stocks are up, the temperature is down in the 30s . . .

The sky had turned gray. I took my morning pills, slid my feet into my fuzzy slippers, and got up. On my office phone, caller ID showed one of those fake numbers from familiar places that I would not have answered if I had seen it. Modesto, California. Yeah, right. “They” know I have family in that area code.

Thank God it wasn’t bad news.

Lance DeLeon would be a wonderful name for a character. Handsome but devious. Hmmm . . .

My shower and breakfast will have to wait. I’ve got writing to do.

Later . . . There was a spider in the shower. While I was eating breakfast, the dog went into full guard dog mode. I jumped up to look out the window and spilled my Red Zinger tea all down the front of me. No one was there. Welcome to Monday.

How are you doing today?

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.