Sunday, March 1, 2015

Finding Sunshine

She hasn't quite gotten the hang of climbing inside her bed. And yes, her blanket says "Lucky."

For those who nudge me when I don't post for a while, thank you. About five or six times a day the message "Nobody reads what you write" zings through my brain, and I have to counter it with yoga breathing and some positive affirmations. In those times, I remember those gentle emails from Bob, John and Barbara, and I feel validated.

I do have some great excuses this time, however: Two weeks ago I spent the weekend in Tehachapi, and last weekend nothing in the world mattered except Purrl getting well. (We do not know what made her sick, but she almost left me, and I could do nothing but sit beside her and will her to recover, which she did, eventually.)

And this weekend? This weekend I was finally able to bring Honey/Sunshine "Sunny" West home from the shelter. I adopted her two weeks ago, shortly after my last post about Sgt. Thomas Tibbs, but before her spay surgery the next day she was diagnosed with kennel cough, so she had to remain in quarantine until she was all better and could undergo the surgery. That happened Friday, so I brought her home yesterday. As I write this, she is curled in a dog ball on the floor of my office, as is Thomas about three feet from her.  Looks like this is going to work out just fine....

Actually, I've never seen Thom warm up to another dog as he has with her. He'd met her briefly at the shelter a few days before I adopted her, but he was definitely in barely-controlled-panic mode being back on that turf, and he wanted nothing more than to jump back in the truck and return to the safe haven of home, so he paid her little attention. But yesterday when I brought her into the yard, he reached forward to sniff noses with her, and they wagged their tails at each other.  They roamed the yard together, ate dinner separately but shared space when it was treat time, and he was comfortable having her in his domain inside the house. This is all good stuff.

"Honey" (her name at the shelter) has a classic lab personality; she just wants to be wherever I am, so I've allowed her to be, for the most part (in when I'm home, outside with Thomas when I leave). She is extremely mellow (thus the hippie name of "Sunshine," with an homage to Mom's side of the family with "West"— and some of you will remember the old TV series, "Honey West," with Anne Francis, which I loved), and she is so sweet even the vet who did her spay surgery fell in love with her a little bit.

Of course, this is all great testimony to how dogs can forgive and move forward, even when life has not been kind. This girl is three or a bit older, but it's clear from her body that she has spent her life as a puppy factory; she had not yet recovered fully from nursing her last litter, yet when the spay surgery was done it was discovered she was pregnant again. Poor babies. Poor mama. She also has a few old scars on her muzzle and leg, wounds that healed but left traces of the trauma. That's okay. She's moved on to a new life now where she will enjoy good food, a soft bed, healthy treats and a daily walk. (The first one was a leisurely stroll around the cul de sac this afternoon, which she enjoyed immensely.) Oh, and lots of love, of course.  

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Sgt. Thomas Tibbs: One Year Later

Returning to me after chasing down a treat.

It's hard to believe an entire year has elapsed since my boy Thom came home to live with me and the girls. It's even harder to believe that the happy, prancing, dancing pup who races around the back yard in ecstatic figure eights when I come home from work is the same pathetic waif who could only be dragged out of his safe spot in the corner of the side yard on a leash and wouldn't even make eye contact with me for the first two weeks. Since I haven't posted an update on him since his first bath last July, I thought it might be high time to let his fans know that yes, the dog who was once afraid of his shadow is now starting to realize that this life—his wonderful, cushy dog's life—has quite a bit to offer.

Here are two points for illustration:
For an entire year, every time I have gone out to the back yard to work in the garden or pull weeds, I have invited Thomas to come with me (or more precisely, with "us," as Purrl is usually wherever I am, and Sugie will stroll out if it's mid-morning and quiet in the yard and nice weather and if it suits her highness's fancy). And for that entire year, Thomas has been content to remain curled in his corner in the side yard, out of sight but certainly not out of hearing as I usually sing loudly while I'm working in the back yard. But Sunday, miracle of miracles, as I crawled on my hands and knees between the rose bushes, pulling the tiny new shoots of plantain and Canada thistle up by the roots, I heard the now familiar and beloved sound of Thom flapping his ears. (He does this so often I had the vet check him. It's not a medical issue, just a habit.) I looked up to see him sitting, tall and content, in a sun spot a few feet away. "Tommy boy, good job! Hang out with us! We're weeding!" I said to him for at least the fiftieth time. This time, he did, nosing around until he found a sun spot in the dirt about six feet from where I was working. He stayed there for nearly an hour, listening to me sing snatches of song in between saying nice things about him.

Later that same evening, my son arrived, bringing dinner for us and a movie. Thomas had just finished his own dinner and was getting ready to trot inside the open back sliding door when he noticed the tall dark handsome man standing in the kitchen.
            "Woof," he said. (Thomas, not my son.)
            "Hey, Thomas. Woof!" said my son.
            "Wait—what?" I said, walking into the kitchen. "Did he just bark at you?"
Up until that moment, the only time I've ever heard Thomas bark is when he's sleeping.
            "Woof. Woof," Thom said again. This was not an anxious or aggressive bark, and it wasn't loud at all, just his way of saying, 'Hey, who's that in my house with my mom? Do you belong here?' I brought him in, Ezra gave him a treat, and he slept peacefully (no nightmares) on his bed for the duration of my son's visit.

And about those nightmares: He rarely has them now. Whew. Many times in the past year I have been awakened by his anxious pacing and whining after he's had a bad dream. In those times, I have calmed him by talking to him, then made myself comfortable on the couch until he can sleep again. When he wakes now, he is exuberantly happy. Morning is still absolutely his favorite time of day. Before he goes out, he flattens himself on the family room floor so I can spend a few minutes petting him and scratching behind his ears. Recently he discovered that sweet spot, just above his tail, and his eyes close in bliss when I scratch him there.

Over the past year, my mantra to Thom whenever he has withdrawn or recoiled from my touch has been this: "Don't worry, Thom. Someday you'll be a real dog. You just have to be loved enough." This is, of course, an homage to The Velveteen Rabbit. I think he's just about there. He still doesn't come up to me when I call him, but he does trot happily out of the side yard when I get home from work and call him. He now looks forward to his daily walks (instead of resisting them), and he loves riding in the back seat of the truck with the window down. Every night, I look forward to bedtime. The kitties get treats and then Thomas gets a treat... and a chew bone... and Bunny Tibbs...  and a back rub.

I am daily grateful to the volunteers at Upland Animal Shelter who never stopped believing in Thom's capacity to recover. They took a feral dog and worked with him for months until he was adoptable, and in doing so they not only gave him a chance at a great life, they also gave me a boon companion who makes me laugh and warms my heart every single day.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

How Sarah Koenig is helping me stay fit just by telling stories

As some of my readers already know, I seized upon the idea of becoming a writer based on an experience I had when I was given the assignment to write a short story. Upon its completion, that story was read aloud to an audience, and when that audience responded with unsolicited positive feedback ("I liked your story!"), I determined I would spend my life writing stories. My decision was helped along, I will confess, by my fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Walton, who had given the writing assignment and who had read my story to my classmates. Still, the experience was profound and life changing. I mean, here I am, fifty years later, still writing and publishing stories of one sort or another.

What I gained from that event was the experience of having an audience become so wrapped up in a story (in this case, a story about a boy who builds a robot) that they are utterly swept away by it. Ok, it may be a stretch to characterize a passel of nine-year-olds as being "swept away" by anything other than a cupcake party or the last day of school, but they truly were attentive. They laughed in all the right places and were surprised by the plot twists. Mind you, I was nine. The adulation afterward at recess ("Your story was good!") went straight to my head.

Because of that event (and because I am an avid reader of fiction... and a lit major), I have known all my life that a story well told can be powerful indeed. And it is this very power that has been unleashed with the production of "Serial," a new podcast produced by radio station WBEZ in Chicago (which also produces This American Life, a popular weekly radio show on NPR). This is how the podcast is described on its website,

Serial is a podcast from the creators of This American Life, and is hosted by Sarah Koenig. Serial tells one story—a true story—over the course of an entire season. Each season, we'll follow a plot and characters wherever they take us. And we won't know what happens at the end until we get there, not long before you get there with us. Each week we bring you the next chapter in the story....

The first season of Serial (which I had greatly anticipated, having been a fan of This American Life for many years) involves a murder that was committed fifteen years ago; a teenage girl was allegedly killed by her former boyfriend. He is now serving time in prison for that crime. But aspects of the prosecution's assertions do not ring true to Koenig as she embarks upon her own exhaustive discovery of the facts surrounding the case, and so with each episode of Season One, we are made privy to the investigation step by step. Knowing that this is not fiction, that a young man's fate hangs in the balance as Koenig attempts to determine if he has been unjustly accused makes this story all the more compelling.

I've been listening to each episode on my iPod as I ride my bike to work. I heard the first episode Monday and honestly, I don't even remember the ride in, I was so riveted by the story. It's only a couple of miles from my house to the campus where I teach, but it's uphill every bit of the way. Having "Serial" to keep my mind off pushing those pedals has been a godsend.

As a reader, I'm a big fan of radio stories, as they challenge us to construct images from words and also to learn to listen attentively. Koenig's friendly, down-to-earth narration coupled with her pointed but never demanding interview skills contribute greatly to the success of this podcast as a whole. I hope it continues with a strong Season Two. I haven't even finished Season One yet, but I'm already looking forward to the next story.

If you're interested in listening to the podcast, you can download it for free from iTunes, or simply go to the website, (or click on my link) and listen on your computer.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

If only tears were words

Ever since I was a child and understood the nature of war and conflict, it has been appalling to me that humans would kill each other over ideas. The fact that a man would do violence to another man not to defend himself or others against harm, but because of a thought (God is green/the earth is square/whatever) that the other man might hold in his head just seems incredibly senseless and barbaric.

As a teacher of Journalism, I participate in conversations every day regarding what we should or should not include in our newspaper. [I want my young students to weigh the impact of every story, every idea, every sentence and yes, every word or image we present and that they realize their own responsibility in that impact. But never, ever in any of our conversations have we ever had to consider that we were in danger of being gunned down because of what we might choose to print.

It is my fervent hope that every journalist around the globe tonight will write something--anything--in response to the shootings at Charlie Hebdo in Paris. Consider our words a universal embrace of those who were closest to this tragedy... and a raised fist to those who perpetrated the pointless attack. The pen is mightier than any weapon. Let the resounding thrum of fingers battering keyboards by the thousands be heard in heaven tonight.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Remembering Mark Strand

Pulitzer Prize winning poet laureate Mark Strand died yesterday.

When I was a deeply depressed graduate student, I composed a pastiche of Strand's poem, "Courtship." I did not do so because I was a fan of Strand's esoteric work. I dashed it off while meeting with some fellow students. We were supposed to assemble a presentation of "a Twentieth Century poet." In the midst of a bitter, anyone-can-write-like-this-guy moment, I switched the point of view in the poem from male to female and celebrated both the difference and the opposition. A year or so after graduation, I was going through my poems one day and found it. On a whim, I tracked down where Strand was teaching (Utah, of all places) and sent him a copy.

Some weeks later, I received a handwritten reply which begins "Dear S. Kay Murphy! You have written an absolutely stunning pastiche." I was at once delighted and humbled. His letter went on to ask about my plans for the future and whether I would eventually pursue poetry writing or teaching. Classy. With all his accolades, he took the time to respond to a quirky stranger.

And he did so again when I wrote to him a second time, asking permission to pursue publication of the pastiche along with his original (since he seemed to enjoy mine so much). His reply, again handwritten, began "Thanks for writing back. Of course you have my permission...." What a sweetheart.

I had addressed him in the letters as "Dr. Strand," assuming that he'd earned (or been given) the PhD long ago. At the end of his second letter, he closed with this: "Dept. of Clarification: I'm not a doctor. No PhD. Wouldn't think of having one." Somehow, it made me like him all the more.

Strand lived to be 80. He was named the United States poet laureate in 1990, and in 1999 he won the Pulitzer for his poetry collection, Blizzard of One.  Our hope, as writers, is that our work will continue to live on after us, offering us a type of immortality. I have no doubt that Strand's work will continue to be included in anthologies for years to come. Somewhere out there is a young grad student in a 20th C poetry class struggling to make sense of the moderns, the confessionals, et al. May she land upon a poem of Strand's that hits her right between the intellectual eyes.

Note: "Courtship," by Mark Strand, can be found easily with an internet search.  "Courtship: A Pastiche," by S. Kay Murphy, cannot, as mine (thankfully) never made it into print.

My sincerest condolences to Strand's son and daughter, Thomas and Jessica. Your dad was a pretty cool guy.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

About my failure to be gracious at the post office

One of my ex-husbands—the sweet, forgiving one—used to tell people (in my defense, mind you) that I had been "raised by wolves." He offered this as an explanation whenever I committed a social faux pas of some kind. He understood that I never intended to be rude, but there were certain lessons in grace and good manners I hadn't learned as a child or young adult, partly because I had to raise myself and partly due to my introversion. Social interaction has always made me feel uncomfortable and inadequate, and these feelings are reinforced every time I fail at responding correctly in social situations.

Friday at the post office was a great example.  After work, I rushed home to pick up my granddaughter's birthday present which needed to be shipped that day in order to get to her before her birthday. That same day, I had received an email from a school in Missouri ordering twenty copies of Tainted Legacy. Since I had to get to the post office anyway, I decided to ship the books as well.

Which is why I ended up staggering into the post office carrying one package containing twenty paperback books and another on top of it containing a Hello Kitty backpack ("Hello Kitty sleeping bag inside!!"). My biceps were fatigued by the time I had negotiated the parking lot and two doors to get to the line, and as I stepped up to what I thought was the end, a petite older woman looked at me and said, "Español?" I didn't hear her the first time, so I leaned closer, said, "Pardon?" and she repeated her question: "Español?" Finally I understood.

"No, I'm sorry," I said, stepping around her and into a line of six people. The sixth person in line was an older man wearing wool slacks and a sweater—on a ninety degree day. He had watched our exchange, and he stepped slightly to the side and faced the others in line.

"Does anyone here speak Spanish?" he asked the group. A voluptuous woman in a tight-fitting dress and sexy shoes stepped out of line.

"I do!" she proclaimed, and the man motioned her over to the woman who needed help. The two women chatted away in Spanish, the older woman asking frequent questions while the sexy woman answered quickly and, seemingly, authoritatively.

The gentleman had saved the day by simply speaking up for the woman who didn't speak English. Why didn't I do that? Why did it not even occur to me?
            And as Sir Galahad was stepping back into his place in line, holding a single envelope in his hand, he noticed my burden of boxes. He stepped to the side again and made a sweeping gesture with the envelope hand.

"You can go ahead of me," he said.

But I declined. "That's okay," I told him, "they aren't that heavy." The truth is, they were heavy, and my arms were already aching, and I still had five people ahead of me. So why couldn't I just graciously accept his offer and allow myself to be the other damsel who gets rescued? I don't know. I just don't know. Part of it is believing on some level that I don't deserve such kind treatment from strangers. Part of it is that accepting help of that nature undermines my badass tomboy persona.

The bottom line, though, is that these were missed opportunities. I could have been the one to find help for the non-English speaker, and I could have accepted the man's kind offer to cut ahead of him in line. In either case, I would have had to be a bit more mindful of the others around me instead of being, as usual, completely absorbed in what I was doing.

This is, I think, the key to being gracious. It's about being mindful always of the others around you, whether they are known to you or whether they are strangers. It's about seeing them and what they need, which requires focusing outward instead of inward. Be patient with me; I'm still learning.

Saturday, November 1, 2014


It wasn't cancer this time. This time, I didn't see the look of panic-held-in-check concern on my doctor's face. I did not feel the stomach flop because the word "malignant" wasn't spoken. Nor did I have that dizzy whirlwind of a moment when I demand of myself the answers to a thousand questions, the first of which is "Who will raise my children?"

This time, in a fifteen-minute consult with a dermatologist, I learned about Seborrheic Keratoses (and also about how most women don't talk about it as these are spots which come with aging, and they seem to cluster around women's breasts). Up until I heard the doc say, "Actually, what you're seeing is not even a mole, it's something even more benign..." I'd been taking shallow breaths but trying to remind myself to breathe deeply, walking tall but experiencing brief flashbacks to the cancer scare twenty years ago when I became paralyzed on the couch for days, waiting for surgery, then test results.

This time, I was free. Free to go home, no follow-up appointment to wait for, no hasty plans to spend the day as a surgical out-patient. Free to hand out candy to trick or treaters and smile at the pretty, pretty princesses and the awesome teenage mutant ninja turtles without having, behind my eyes, the specter of my mortality. This time I could rise the next morning and take my dog on a long walk without having to wonder who would take on this blessed activity (admittedly a chore to some folks) if I were no longer around to do it.

I usually don't talk about my brief but scary bout with skin cancer twenty years ago because, well, when I do, I feel more than a bit of survivor's guilt. The original misdiagnosis of malignant melanoma sent me into a tailspin from which I was still trying to recover when it was determined that, no, this cancer wasn't going to threaten my life; it would hardly even inconvenience me. Since then I have lost a brother to the real kind of cancer, the kind that knocks you down for a while until you fight your way back up, demanding to live life on your own terms, not those dictated by the disease. I have a friend now who has just finished his last round of last-ditch-effort chemo. He, like my brother, 'should have,' 'would have' died many years ago. But Jerry, like my brother, has not been willing to go. They humble me with their courage.

Dan is in my thoughts today on this eve of All Soul's Day, as are others I have lost. As for me, Death was nowhere to be seen outside my door last night. Only trick or treaters.