Monday, September 1, 2014


Dan with Black Bart/photo courtesy of Carl Botefuhr

In 1966, my brother Dan stole a police car. He was nineteen at the time. He wasn't a thug or a criminal, and he wasn't fleeing a crime scene. When the officers parked at the curb of a residence where a party was getting a bit loud, my brother, a guest at that party, spotted them through the window and quickly retreated out the back door, high-tailing it over the back fence and walking around the block to see what would happen to his friends still inside the house. Dan had intended to stroll by nonchalantly, hands in pockets, but when he noticed that the cops had left the keys in their squad car and the engine running, he couldn't resist. Keeping his hands in his pockets (to avoid leaving fingerprints), he opened the door, slipped into the driver's seat, and drove away. Two blocks later he drove the car into a field, surrounded it with tumbleweeds, and walked away, keeping the keys. He was never caught.

This story was legend in our family and was often repeated on holidays such as Thanksgiving when we all got together. Years later I would share it with my high school students—with the strict admonition that they never, ever try anything so foolhardy.

When I mentioned to Dan once that I shared his story with my students, he chuckled and asked, "Do you also tell them about how I stole a big yellow school bus?" On a walk with his girlfriend and her young son one fine day, they happened upon a bus yard, where row upon row of bright yellow buses sat waiting for the next school day. The boy mentioned that he'd always wanted to ride in one. Since the large chain link gate to the yard was rolled pen, Dan saw no harm in taking the boy inside and climbing into the nearest bus (his girlfriend all the while repeating, "Dan, I don't think this is a good idea"). Lo and behold, Dan found a set of keys above the visor, and to the child's great wonder and thrill, fired up the big bus and drove it right out of the yard as a maintenance man ran along behind shouting at them to "Bring back that bus!" As Dan looped around the big city block and headed back toward the yard, he formulated a complicated plan for escape. "You run that way," he told his girlfriend, "and I'll run the opposite way. He can't follow in both directions." It worked. Again, he was never caught.

My zany, devil-may-care brother had countless adventures in his life. As an adolescent, he was a chubby, nerdy kid with glasses who spent far too much time lying on his bed, eating and reading science fiction novels. But in high school he had to walk two miles to school and two miles home, so he quickly lost the excess weight. Then contact lenses replaced his thick glasses, and suddenly my brother resembled James Dean. With his exceptionally high I.Q., he was smart, confident, attractive and far too ready and willing to embrace what kids would refer to now as the YOLO lifestyle: You only live once.

And what a life he lived. My brother taught me many things: Dogs are family members. Repressed anger can kill you (or at least make you very ill). Bullies are, more often than not, very frightened people, which is why they take pleasure in frightening others. And funerals are for those left behind.

We fought a lot when we were kids, then reconciled as young adults, then fought a lot in middle age (as I found myself still saying, "You're not the boss of me!"), then reconciled again. In Dan's last weeks of life, we spoke often on the phone. We said "I love you" a lot.

Today marks five years since he passed. I still tell him often that I love him, and I still miss him trying to tell me what to do.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Last weekend I drove 34 miles to the Laemmle Theater in Pasadena because that was the closest theater showing the documentary Alive Inside. I'd heard about the film on NPR, and I knew from the clips and blurbs I saw and read online that I would love it. I did.

Here's the basic premise of the film: Provide era-specific music to dementia patients, then sit back and enjoy the miraculous result.

More specifically: Social worker Dan Cohen (upon whom I now have a pretty serious fan-girl crush), in doing volunteer work with the elderly and Alzheimer's patients, wanted to find a way to connect with those who seemed lost inside themselves. He recognized music as a powerful, evocative force which is universal in its appeal. So he filled up some iPods with music from specific decades, purchased a few sets of headphones, then invited a filmmaker to come along and document his attempt to reacquaint patients with the music of their childhood.

To say the resulting footage is profoundly moving would be an understatement. I knew this film would make me cry; the soundtrack of my own life includes all the pieces I have sung in church, in weddings, in funerals, at sporting events, in the shower, on horseback, on my bike, on a mountaintop, in my classroom and a thousand other places. My mama was a singer as was my sister, and my last good memories of my father before he died center around him singing—even as his life ebbed slowly away. But oh my lord, I first began to tear up just seconds into the movie. One minute past that, tears were streaming down my cheeks. Click here to see the story of Henry.

Dan Cohen's foundation, Music & Memory, is dedicated to bringing music to individuals with Alzheimer's and other dementias. What Cohen and others have found is that music stimulates memory in a positive and healthy way, and that it is far more effectual than medications and other traditional therapies for reaching dementia patients who have previously been unresponsive to treatment. Cohen devotes his time and energy to raising funds through Music & Memory in order to offer iPods and headphones to nursing homes across the country.

Alive Inside is an intensely personal film which depicts human kindness and tenderness in its most raw and authentic form. I came away changed, determined to spend a bit more time with my guitar—and also determined to try to help Cohen's vision reach fruition.

Find this movie and go watch it—even if it means a bit of a drive to get there. Then go hug your grandma (if she's still around). Then go to Music & Memory and make a donation. Then—and only then—sit down with your family and sing a few of your favorite songs. Because you still can.

Here's a link to a beautifully done trailer for the film. It's two minutes long but you may need multiple tissues to get through it:  Alive Inside trailer

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Letter to Myself as a First Year Teacher

There is a video online of teachers reading letters they've written to themselves as first year teachers. I found their words touching, amusing, inspirational and powerful. So I decided to try to write my own. It has taken me all summer long to finish, but here it is:

Dear thirty-five-year-old Kay,
On this first day, you're thinking you might be too old to begin teaching. I'm looking at you from this vantage point of sixty, and I'm laughing.
I also see that you are proud and thrilled to be teaching in this brand new classroom with white boards which you are thinking are so cool and high tech, but girl, just wait. Somebody out there is working on this thing called a Smart Board. You ain't seen nothin' yet.
You should know that your carefully crafted yet coded lecture on this first day of school about not allowing "hate speech" in your classroom will become far more bold as time goes on and far less necessary. The time will come—yes, within your lifetime—when your LGBT students will be safely out and no longer in need of your protection.
You do not know this yet, but the kids who are about to swagger through the door, looking at you sideways and pretending disinterest, are actually watching every move you make, hearing every word you utter and weighing it, making judgments from the first seconds in your room as to whether you are trustworthy and kind or someone to be feared. Yes, they will seem puffed up, but they are really just frightened little bear cubs, standing on their hind legs, trying to appear large and intimidating. Inside they fear being called out and embarrassed by you or their classmates. Your first duty always is to help them feel safe. But don't be afraid to look them in the eye; for good or for bad, there is power in every word you say to them.
This year, you will make friends with the school librarian who will later be the best teacher-bud you will ever have. Hold onto this friendship as if it were the holy grail. Donna will keep you sane through all the craziness, anger, laughter and tears that is heading your way like a speeding locomotive.
At the end of the school year, take a picture of each class and keep those photos in an album in your room. You'll want to pull them out and reminisce over them when your former students stop by. And they will stop by.
Warning: Next year you'll have a student named Tabitha J. You will ask Miss J. no less than fifty times in 180 days to "Please step outside" so you can reiterate a lecture you're sick of giving and she's sick of hearing about how to behave appropriately in a classroom. She will be the bane of your work time existence for the entire year. Just wait. Eight years later, on a quiet afternoon, the phone will ring in your classroom, and it will be Miss J., calling to let you know she is now a college student working toward the goal of being a teacher "just like you" and to thank you for never giving up on her, thus beginning a legacy of naughty kids who will return, year after year, to thank you for caring about them as individuals despite their dismal grades in your class.
Your experience with Miss J. will also introduce you to one of the few aspects of your job you genuinely dislike, which is dealing with self-absorbed, unreasonable, ignorant parents. You should know now that throughout the whole of your career, you will be cussed out and threatened far more by parents than you will be by kids. When that happens, just let it go. Head for the gym or go for a run or walk the dogs, and as the sun goes down, let the conversation disappear into the wind.
Oh, and that advice your university professor gave you about never hugging the kids? Throw that out the window. When they need a hug, hug them. But be prepared; they will break your heart with stories of family tragedy. There will be a boy whose father shot his mother and then shot himself—in front of the boy. Don't worry about teaching him anything. Just love him. Seven years later you will hear your name called in a parking lot and there he will be, this boy who battled all the demons a boy can face in high school, smiling and hugging you and telling you that he is in his third year of college now, looking forward to finishing his degree.
So don't worry. Your heart will be broken often and just as often it will be mended by the daily laughter and love that will fill your classroom from top to bottom, more so with every year that you teach. Because with every year, you will love them more. In fact, there will come a day—September 11, 2001, to be precise—when you will begin to tell all your students every day that you love them.
Be ready to learn. Because yes, going into this gig, you've already raised four kids of your own, and you've got heaps of fancy book smarts. But your students will teach you volumes every year in every subject from fairness to fashion, including which music you "should" listen to. And they'll be right.
Despite your best efforts, you're going to make mistakes, just as you did with your own kids. When you do, forgive yourself quickly. Self-evaluation is great. Self-criticism is toxic. Be a role model; apologize when necessary, then move on.
Don't forget what your mentor, Dr. Hubert, told you about teaching: Learn to pat yourself on the back, because administration will have no idea what a great job you're doing in your classroom. But don't worry; the kids know, and they will always make you feel appreciated.
Most important of all, never get swept up in the current tide of educational trend. Rather be guided in your teaching by the beacon of warmest light, which is the love in your heart.
Oh—remember what you're mama said, too: Stand up straight. And lose those girlie shoes with heels; you'll be walking miles every day just around your own classroom.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Fisher King

In 1991, I was one year into a separation from the man I used to introduce as "the most wonderful man in the world," working slowly toward an amicable but irreparably wounding divorce. I've rarely felt so alone in the world.

Somehow I saw a trailer for a movie with Robin Williams called The Fisher King. Williams had won my heart years before with his brilliant stand-up routines and as the goofhead alien in Mork & Mindy, then in his more dramatic roles in Good Morning Vietnam, Dead Poets Society and Awakenings. Especially in the latter film, it was possible to see a depth of pain in Williams that was well-masked by his comedy, and that shared human condition resonated with my soul.

The premise of The Fisher King is this: The sanity of Williams' character, "Parry," has become unmoored after the senseless shooting of his beloved wife by a madman. Once "normal," he now lives in a homeless encampment, struggling daily against the dark force that threatens constantly to overtake him while simultaneously he extends charity, warmth and kindness to others.

I don't know how I found time and opportunity to sneak off to sit in a theater alone and watch The Fisher King. I only remember coming away from it changed. Not healed, exactly, certainly not led from the darkness of the time into a lighter place, but having been handed a sword with which to do battle. In the film, Parry's madness is made manifest in the form of a fierce and fiery figure on horseback which appears whenever something triggers a memory of his wife. Each time, his fear overwhelms him—until he finally discovers what he needs to confront the ominous form.

Wandering, lost, through this very dark time, I had lost all my power, had allowed the heart wound to bring me to my knees. Watching this film and the powerful performances of both Robin Williams and Michael Jeter, I began to find my legs again.

The screenplay, written by Richard LaGravenese, reiterates the theme that there is a very, very fine line—a gossamer thread—between sanity and madness, one step from sunlight to shadow. In watching the film, I heard a voice calling, saw a light shining—albeit far off—which led me back toward the light. Twenty-three years later, I still stand, sword drawn in readiness to ward off the darkness that I know could come for me at any time.

Tragically, we have lost Robin Williams to that same shadow, that dark sadness which menaces anyone with a tender, open heart. Like his character in The Fisher King, he spent his life reaching out to others, even as his own demons taunted him. May he step now into eternal light and peace, and may we always remember his gift.

To watch a short clip of the movie which includes both Robin Williams and Michael Jeter, click here.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Treasure hunt

It's trash day. I am awakened at 4:00a.m. by the piercing screech of metal grinding on metal. I don't need to look out the window. I know that the sound emanates from the rickety metal cart used by the wizened old man who roams the cul-de-sacs of my neighborhood every Monday night, gleaning treasure from the trash of others. Black trash bags, stuffed to capacity, hang off the sides of his cart like tumors on a skinny dog.

I rise, let my own well-fed dog out into the backyard, feed the cats, then wander out front to turn on the sprinkler. By now the little man, who does not quite reach five feet in stature, has made it around the cul-de-sac, and I wave to him as he crab walks past, dragging the heavy cart behind him. I never put my trash cans out at the curb until he is gone. It's not that I begrudge him my recyclables. I have witnessed him on many occasions tear open the kitchen trash bags in my neighbors' garbage cans, sifting through god-knows-what in search of an aluminum can, a plastic bottle, any small thing with re-sale value. I am not willing to share that level of intimacy with him.

And anyway, I save my plastic one-liter Evian bottles separately. (Yes, I spend the money for Evian. No, it doesn't taste the same as filtered tap water and no, water is not water. Ask a hydro-geologist. Don't get me started.) When I moved in a year and a half ago, Grumpy Bob next door asked me to save my plastic bottles for him after I caught him rifling through my trash cans. I told him I certainly would. And I have.

But this morning, I give them away. There is another scavenger who comes through the neighborhood on trash day. This one is a woman, as small and wrinkled as the old man. I want to say that she is old but when I see her up close, I realize we are probably about the same age. I am a vibrant, athletic sixty-year-old who will later walk her pampered dog around these cul-de-sacs at a brisk pace. Although the physical maladies are starting to pile up, I am confident that I will live another twenty or thirty years quite comfortably, thanks to the good health care provided by my good job which I obtained with my good education.

I wonder at the longevity of this woman, though, as I see her, like the little old man, tear open trash bags with her bare hands, scrounging through toxic waste to eke out a living. Some would find her labor disgusting. I find it humbling.

As I note the full apron she wears which covers the front of her shirt and her pants down to the knees, its floral pattern edged with old fashioned rick-rack, I am reminded of my grandmother whose first job upon coming to Los Angeles was as a dishwasher in a bar. Holding my Trader Joe's stamped paper bag filled with empty plastic bottles, I shuffle quickly across the street in the gray dawn light. I tell her good morning, offering the bag and asking, "Are you looking for bottles?" though I well know the answer.

"Sì," she says in Spanish, taking the bag. "Thank you!" in English, and her entire face glows with the brightness of her straight, white teeth. Her voice is warm with gratitude, and it resonates with me as I walk back across the street to enjoy another cup of tea before heading out to walk the dog.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Security unit

I always feel like I should follow my posts about Thomas with a post about The Girls. This one will be brief, but it serves to remind us that we should never underestimate the intelligence, love and devotion of our feline friends—even if they are far less demonstrative than our canine friends.

Last week I decided the time had finally come to bathe Thomas. Although we have jogged through a fair share of sprinklers on our walks at 5:30a.m., he has never been officially bathed in the six months that I've had him. I understood his fear of hoses and of being confined, so I have put off that chore. But oh my Buddha how dirty this dog was, and he actually resembled the Peanuts character, Pigpen, as he walked through the house with dirt and hair swirling around him.

The Plan was to wait until The Girls were in the bedroom deep in sleep for their afternoon nap, then bring Thomas in and put him in the guest bathroom tub (a tiny, still pink 1950's job). I put a few inches of lukewarm water in first, then brought Thomas in, lifted him into the tub, stepped in with him and slid the shower doors closed. I soaked a soft rag with water and began wiping him down. He didn't like it, but at least he stood there compliantly.

All went well until he decided to turn around, at which point he slipped and slid down sideways, after which he panicked and started to claw his way out any way he could. Several seconds of complete bedlam ensued, with Thom slipping and splashing and me repeating his name over and over, trying to get him to stop thrashing and hold still. Finally he did, giving up and allowing his body to slide down into the water. Perfect. He lay curled at the end of the tub while I rinsed him all over. (No soap this time. I'm not crazy.)

With the completion of the task, all I had to do was roll back the shower door. He hopped out onto the mat, I dried him off, and all we had to do was get him back outside before he shook water everywhere. Yes! I opened the bathroom door to facilitate our escape, but we were met with the most intimidating security squad I've ever faced—two small cats puffed up like Halloween kitties, backs arched, ears back, mouths open with spits, hisses, growls and snarls like I've never heard (well, at least from Purrl; Sug exhibits this behavior on a regular basis). Oh no! I slammed the door closed again, looked at Thom and burst out laughing. Having heard the commotion and convinced I was finally being torn limb from limb by that huge red wolf-like creature I'd insisted on bringing into our home, The Girls had come to my rescue. (Oh, and if you don't think felines are capable of protecting their humans, you've got to read the amazing memoir Homer's Odyssey by Gwen Cooper—especially if you're a cat lover!)

Somehow through the closed door I managed to convince The Girls that I was fine, and they eventually backed away, waiting in the hallway but allowing us enough space to exit the bathroom and get outside where Thomas, of course, ran and rolled in the grass and unfurled his beautiful flag of a tail and shook to his heart's content.

I gotta say, if anyone ever tries to come at me, I'm pretty sure it will be my cats and not my dog coming to the rescue. They are quite the formidable pair!

The Girls in a much calmer state

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

How is Sgt, Thomas Tibbs, you ask?

Stay tuned after today's blog post for a brief commercial message.

Thomas is doing just fine these days. It's hard to believe that I last posted about him in February. He has made amazing progress since then, most notably now wagging his tail for me (which took four months) and taking a treat from my hand (which took five). Of course, he's still the world's most quirky dog, but that's okay. I love him just as he is, and I don't mind making a few accommodations for him. Well, maybe more than a few. But still okay. Below is a brief update on his progress (and if you haven't read the previous posts about Thom, you might want to click here):

What I mean by quirky:
He's still nocturnal, and I'm not referring to sleeping patterns; he's happy and awake and alive if it's dark outside. As the light comes on, he becomes more and more wary and afraid and shut down. His ears literally begin to droop as dawn turns into day. Thus, I find myself running around the back yard at 4:30 in the morning doing dog bows with him as he huffs and jumps happily, using a stage whisper (so as not to wake the neighbors or their barky dog) to tell him, "Good boy! Good job!" if he runs to retrieve his chew bone. While he will now wag his tail at 4:30 in the afternoon when I feed him (yes! progress!), he will not play at that hour. At least, not until the sun goes down.

Anything out of place makes him anxious. He is learning to come in the house by himself (without being led in on the leash), which, again, is great progress. But if he sees anything out of place—a pillow on the floor, a chair moved to a different spot—he will turn around at the door and trot back to the safety of the side yard, at which point I have to go get him and guide him in to show him nothing will hurt him.

He will sit calmly in the family room while I vacuum the house, will stand in the doorway of the garage while I start the truck, slowly wagging his tail to ask if he can go. Neither the dishwasher nor the garbage disposal scares him. But if he hears a motorcycle start up—even if it's blocks away—he bolts for the side yard in terror. If he sees a motorcycle parked at the curb while we are out walking, he has to be coaxed around it.

His favorite spot to sleep is now the extra cab of my Ford Ranger. When I first began taking him places in the truck, he would become anxious and often get car sick. But he has slowly learned to love sitting in that protected back area between the seats and the wall of the cab, his face turned toward the wind blowing in from the open passenger side window. The loud explosions around the Fourth of July (which are still being heard in my neighborhood) were terrifying for him. One night recently when we came home from a long, leisurely walk in Mt. Baldy, a very loud boom resounded just as he was getting out of the truck in the garage (which is also something he does by himself now). He turned around and dove back in and didn't come out for over an hour. No problem. He's still sleeping part of the night indoors and part outside, so I leave the doors of the truck open in case he wants to duck for cover.

He steals things. Specifically, my gardening gloves. The first time he did this, I didn't realize what had happened (Now where did I leave those gloves...?) until the next day when I found a pile of dog vomit in the back yard and, as I cleaned it up, found both gloves. He had taken them off the patio table, ingested them, then (thank heavens) regurgitated them. Now, there were several other items on that table: His leash. His brush. His Nyla bone still smelling of peanut butter. His Kong toy that is hollow inside so that I can put treats in it (which he loves to play with to extract the treats, even though he still doesn't know how to play with toys). But he ignored all those goodies and took my gloves. So I have been very, very careful since then to always leave my gloves up on the workbench in the garage where he can't reach them. Until today. Today while we were working in the back yard—me heartily pulling weeds, Thom contentedly curled in a corner—the phone rang. I ran to get it, pulling off my gloves and setting them, yes, on that same table with his Kong toy, etc. while I went to answer it. Ten minutes later I returned to find one glove missing. Thomas was still in his corner. I looked everywhere in the yard for the glove, thinking I might have dropped it. I even made him get up to see if he had taken it to chew on and then curled back up on it. It was nowhere to be found. In the hour it took me to mow the lawn, I considered my options: I could wait for him to puke it up. I could make him throw up. I could call my vet to get his opinion. I was still mulling these things over as I went to check on Thom, and as I stood talking to him, I kicked some loose dirt with the toe of my shoe. A finger emerged. Well, not an actual finger, but the index finger of the glove. When he'd seen me set the gloves down, he'd gotten up, trotted over, taken one and trotted back to his corner to hide it for later. Son of a gun. There are just certain things—my gloves, BunnyTibbs—that he feels are rightfully his, and he will reclaim them if he gets the chance.

He still refuses to come when I call him. (I say "refuses" because I'm pretty sure he knows what I want, he just doesn't see any good reason to comply.) But he has gotten better and better on the leash. When we first began walking together, he would bolt through doorways or gateways and around corners or up onto curbs. We worked on it constantly, and I finally began teaching him the command, "Walk slow, Thom." Doing so was serendipitous. Just as he began to become proficient in responding to it, I tore a tendon in my ankle. At first I was devastated because I assumed we'd be unable to take walks for a while. But a day later we were limping around the culdesac, Thom on "walk slow" and me hobbling beside him at a snail's pace. Yes, it probably took much longer for the tendon to heal, but I just wasn't willing to give up our daily walk. Now when I tell him "Walk slow," he immediately slows his usual trotting pace to that of an old arthritic woman, which is basically what I am these days. I use this command to take care of my ankle when we are ascending or descending steep trails. He will continue the slow stroll until I tell him, "Ok, thank you, Thom," at which point he resumes his standard trot.

He still has a long way to go in terms of recovery. I know there are memories that still haunt him. Sometimes in his sleep, he barks or emits a low, ominous growl. But he has never uttered a sound while awake—even when all the dogs in the neighborhood are barking, even if that pesky little black cat is taking a swipe at him again. If people pass us while we're walking, he still cowers and tries to move to the side, tucking his tail so far between his legs it touches his belly. When friends stop by, he runs outside, remaining in his safe corner until he's certain there are no strangers present. But he has slowly warmed to my son and my friend Doug, so I see a time in the future when he will begin to trust other humans more readily.

My favorite time of day with him is early in the morning, just after he's had his breakfast, when it is still dark and he is feeling as happy and goofy as a much-loved dog can feel, trotting around the yard with his tail and head held high. My second favorite time is in the afternoon when he lies sprawled beside my desk as I write (as he is right now, matter of fact), softly sighing in his sleep. Just his presence here makes my life better.

And now for that brief commercial message: If you have enjoyed reading about Sgt. Thomas Tibbs, you might also enjoy the memoir I wrote entitled The Dogs Who Saved Me. All of the royalties for that book are donated to animal rescue groups who do the hard work of rehabilitating dogs like Thom. There is a link to the Amazon page for that book right here in the column on the left. And thank you!