40 Days and 40 Nights

We Southern Californians aren’t very good at telling time when it comes to cold, rainy weather. It goes something like this:

Day 1 – Okay, the weather report said it would rain by noon today so we had better get a bike ride in early.

Baby it’s cold outside!

Day 2 – Ah, a rainy day, perfect for baking cookies, except the previously unopened jar of all natural peanut butter has a layer of oil, inch-deep on the top and the ground peanuts below are hard as clay. The “best by” date says July 2021 but I’m not one to demand the best so I generate some much-needed body heat by stirring it into a lumpy form of “butter”. While I wait for the dough to chill, I check the weather report. Yup, more rain to come;

Day 3 – Well, actually, it’s still day 2 but it’s now 3:00 in the afternoon and my laundry is folded and put away, there’s bread rising in the bread machine, the house has been cleaned (more or less) and I’ve completed my prescribed exercises for my geriatric hip/back pain;

Day 4 – I check the calendar to confirm that it’s still January 15th, then I check the weather report again. It’s the same as it was yesterday which was really this morning, or was it yesterday morning?

In the last 2 days (or has it been 4?), I’ve finished two books that I’d been reading long enough that I had to renew them. The Orphan Master’s Son (good read despite the torture) and The Four Winds (think Grapes of Wrath Lite), neither of which did much to lighten my mood.

Now, here I sit, in my jammies, eating potato chips and waiting for my subscriptions on Word Press to post something. I’m only half way through the predicted 40 days and 40 nights of rain. It would be hard to take if not for the promise of green hills and superlative traction to come.

Painted with a Broad Brush

Photo by CDC on Unsplash

I went to the doctor the other day for an annual wellness exam. I’m not sure why my insurance company insists that I have a wellness exam but they pay me $50 to do it so, I comply.

The visit consisted of a fully clothed interview with a physician’s assistant who asked me what I wanted to discuss today. I had just come from a particularly fun mountain bike ride so I told her all about it.

She listened to my heart and lungs and stomach with a stethoscope placed over my down jacket. Her subsequent report said we had discussed: Mild brain atrophy and chronic kidney disease. I’ll have to concede the brain atrophy part because I have no recollection of having discussed either of those things. There was nary a mention of the stimulating bike ride.

The physician’s assistant’s assistant administered a cognitive test, asking me to remember three words and draw the face of a clock. Banana, sunrise and chair weren’t that difficult to keep in mind but it was difficult to resist responding, “It’s, uh, like, person, woman, man, camera, TV,” but feared she wouldn’t get the humor. She proceeded to take my blood pressure, 98/72, and checked my oxygen saturation 97%, weighed me, 121.8 (still fully clothed including jacket).

I was sent home with three pages of instructions. Here is a sampling:

  1. To prevent falls, take up throw rugs at home; use a walker or cane for instability and hold onto railings when going up or down stairs. Nary a mention of training wheels!

2. Please be sure to get some regular physical activity at whatever level you are able. I am also encouraging the following; Annual Flu vaccine (we had already determined that I was current on this), improving physical health, improve mental health.

I was super impressed that she was able to diagnose the fact that I needed to improve my mental health. Usually it takes getting to know me to learn that I need to work on that.

The last recommendation was to not drink any fluids after 6:00 P.M. to improve bladder control. That imposes a pretty narrow window since I’ve been told one shouldn’t start drinking until after 5:00 P.M. Gotta go now as it’s 4:48 P.M. and I need to roll up my throw rugs. Cheers!

Photo by Enis Yavuz on Unsplash

Holiday Time Travel

I am not one to attempt travel during the holidays since I prefer to live in a less complicated, less populated fantasy. But my adventuresome great niece, who once worked for Booking.com, boldly put money down on a VBRO, that sleeps 11, at the beach, for the week around Christmas, way back in early 2022. This leap of faith was completely unwarranted since most of the members of my family are on the agoraphobic spectrum.

But as the months went by, my memory traveled back to times when we all gathered around my sister’s dining room table, eating, playing games, laughing until someone peed her pants, and generally enjoying the company of the few people on earth who “get” our mildly ribald sense of humor. I have three favorite nieces, one lives in Michigan, one in Denver, and one who lives a couple of miles away here in California. The Michigan contingent was a given since they had initiated the plan, but the Denver niece, MFN Tamera was going to be a hard sell as she would rather take a beating than be parted from Lucy, referred to by the unenlightened as a dog.

So, it was incumbent on me to persuade MFN Tamera to do yet another road trip. In a moment of weakness she tepidly agreed it could be fun when I told her I’d booked a flight to Denver and I’d be there on the 16th. It was her job to find pet-friendly hotels along our intended route to Carlsbad, CA, which included Sedona, AZ.

Denver was shockingly cold when I arrived, and that was BEFORE the cold front that moved in a couple of days later. We immediately headed South to her dad’s place in Pueblo where his wife, Bonnie, had prepared a brunch fit for kings. A fluffy, cheesy, egg concoction that included little cubes of ham (which I could surreptitiously pass to Lucy under the table) was deliciously fortifying for the four-hour drive to Santa Fe.

As we drove through desolate scrub lands of New Mexico, I entertained Tamera with the tale of how her mum (aka Babs, in this venue) and I had nearly run out of gas in this area. Babs had grown increasingly panicky as her low fuel light glowed larger and larger in her consciousness. I had tried to calm her fears reminding her that we had two cell phones, two bicycles, a pop-up trailer with a bed, and a refrigerator crammed full of food. What was the WORST that could happen? At last, we had come upon a for-sale sign on a property with what I thought would be a local phone number. I dialed and got a woman in Idaho who kindly assured us that there was a gas station less than a mile ahead of us. Of course, I embellished the story to include rescue by a Brad Pitt look alike when in reality there was only a girl selling freshly made doughnut holes in the gas station parking lot. She insisted that the first one was free and wouldn’t allow me to pay since I only wanted one. But I digress…

Tam had talked about filling the tank at some crossroads north of Taos but, Google Maps had taken pains to divert us from any road that included gas pumps, and soon we found ourselves in mountainous terrain with dusk falling like fog rolling in off the ocean. Tam, like her mum, prefers not to have adventure forced upon her but, she tried valiantly not to express her anxiety as the low fuel light grew hard to ignore. As luck would have it, we eventually came upon a gas station before adventure found us. And, thanks to a generous state government, we paid a scant $2.99/gallon!

A charming diner/convenience market on the highway through the Laguna Reservation.

Our overpriced room in Santa Fe, reeking of fragrance intended to mask the smell of pet-friendly, rarely-shampooed carpet, was a welcome refuge from the lung-searing cold. I think it was in the high twenties (Fahrenheit). The grand lobby, with its silent, gas-fueled fireplace and twenty-foot ceilings, led to unrealistic expectations of a luxurious room. Our bathroom had no exhaust fan and mold on the ceiling. But the beds were comfy and the neighbors were quiet, even the coyote we had seen casing the parking lot.

In the morning we hiked up a drainage behind the upscale houses above our hotel. Lucy was kept on leash as there was no reason to encourage the local coyotes to develop a taste for pedigreed dog.

In spite of our efforts to keep to some sort of discipline on the road, we still didn’t make it to Sedona much before dark. The steep descent from Flagstaff to Sedona was slowed by road construction that allowed for appreciation of the natural splendor of the darkening canyon.

This time, we were not disappointed by the comforts of our room. The hotel restaurant included a well-stocked bar and a chatty bartender, so we saw no reason to look further for something to eat, especially because we intended to hit the trail by dawn to avoid the crowds at the Subway trail in Boynton Canyon.

The side trail to the Subway was blocked by logs, placed to deter hikers from straying from the main trail, so we mistakenly passed it by. Big mistake! By the time we got to the end of the canyon and turned back, scores of other hikers were already ahead of us making the final ascent into the Subway tunnel look like the Hilary Step on Everest. I made it half way up the slippery ramp before deciding that I was in danger of having another hiker slide down on top of me. Tamera took advantage of a break in traffic and scrambled to the top while I waited below with Lucy.

MFN Tamera poses for a selfie.
The Hillary Step of Sedona
Morning frosting on the cake.

To be continued…or probably not.

12324

Mum, aka Baby (in this photo), Tootie (when brother Louis replaced her), Joanne, daughter, sister, aunt, wife, Joan, grandma, great-grandma

December 3, 1924 – the date of my mom’s birth, the anniversary of which slipped by with only a hiccough of melancholy. Probably there are many other dates in her life that deserve more note, particularly the date of my sister’s birth and especially the date of my own, which to my way of thinking, had to have been the ultimate accomplishment. (I’m only half kidding as I did present a rather difficult delivery)

A date that inspires more celebration than her birth would be the date of her death, October 1, 2019. Just shy of the 95th anniversary of her birth, she had been longing for death for many years. Dementia, of which she was acutely aware, had robbed her of all joy in life, despite a position of utter ease. She was able to live almost independently in the granny flat she had designed and helped build (she dug most of the septic pit) to the day of her final exit. But she had lost herself.

In the years between 1924 and 2019 she confidently parlayed her cloistered farm upbringing and narrow religious views into an adventurous life that might be admired by many men. I don’t think it ever occurred to her that there was anything a man could do that she couldn’t do better. From her choice of professions, first studying at an all Japanese school for chick sexing, the tuition for which she borrowed from her father, to becoming a real estate agent and ultimately investor, she simply did whatever she wanted.

By today’s standards, my sister and I grew up rather feral though not without some essential training in manners and hygiene. We knew better than to be cheeky with our elders and not to chew with our mouth open. Beyond the basics, we were left to the village to shape our understanding of how to make our way in life. When the time came, we were taught the fundamentals of procreation and the avoidance thereof. I took the lessons seriously; my sister not as much.

When Mum first noticed the symptoms of dementia, she took great pleasure in reading the memoir she had written while still agile of mind. She, like the rest of us, marveled at her chutzpah and reveled in reading about adventures she had almost forgotten. As the disease progressed though, the protagonist of her biography became a stranger to her and she lost interest. She gradually lost interest in everything as nothing in life related to her. She had evaporated.

My sister and I have both made attempts at writing a memoir, but both of us are better at chronicling our days via blogs, journals and correspondence. Now that Babs is anticipating moving into her own tiny granny flat, she’s consolidating decades of writing into cohesive digital files. We both expect that we will enjoy them as we decline but we have no expectation that anyone else will ever read them. None of her daughters are big readers but our epistles will have served their purpose when we’re finished.

Spreading Christmas Joy Wherever He Goes

Is there anything more crazy-fun than going to Costco between Thanksgiving and Christmas? I think not! First of all, you need to put on your big girl panties and gird yourself for the madding crowd. Personally, I rather enjoy the mad scramble as people ignore the “normal flow” and navigate their boat-sized shopping carts like a New York cab driver.

Starting with the grid locked parking lot, a great deal of equanimity is required. Drivers cruise the lanes like tiger sharks looking for prey. Since there is no preferred direction of travel, it’s common for drivers from both directions to aim for the same spot.

Coming from the newly designed gas station, we were funneled into the slowly moving carousel of parking space seekers. I spotted an empty space in the row next to the one we were in, but held out little hope that we could claim it before someone coming from the opposite direction spied it. At the end of the row, the line of vehicles making their way towards the exit blocked our progress, but since there was no oncoming traffic, I figured it was safe enough to bypass the outbound vehicles and scoot into the next row of parking spaces. Evidently, one of the gentlemen waiting in line to get to the exit, resented my scofflaw behavior and followed me, in spite of the fact that it took him away from his intended route. I saw him and assumed that he had also seen the vacant spot and intended to park, so I passed it by to allow him first access. I pulled into the next spot but, noooo, he was intent on enforcing the rules.

He pulled up behind me and leaned out of his window to inform me of my infraction. Of course, I said I was sorry but he responded, “What if I had not seen you and hit you?!” (never mind that he hadn’t signaled an intent to turn and had ample opportunity before I passed him)

Always irrepressible, I replied, “Then I would have been REALLY sorry.” Oh, dear, wrong response.

“Sorry doesn’t cut it!” he retorted with more vehemence than I thought was warranted. He followed up with some profane language and I realized that de-escalation was in order so I quit with the flippant replies.

Since my adorable great-niece was in the back seat, I briefly considered inflicting her charm on him, but thought better of it. A hostile jerk is in no way deserving of her supernatural charisma. I don’t think I’m biased when I say that this woman can melt the most unhappy man. By her definition, she “blows sunshine up his skirt”. And the reason she’s so successful is because she is sincere.

When my great niece turns her attention your way, she makes you feel like you are the most lovable person on the planet. Her interest in what you have to say is genuine and her enjoyment of your company feels like the real thing.

For a few minutes after the unpleasant encounter, we all felt a little deflated. After all, it’s sad to think that there are people driving around, seething, rather than enjoying the spirit of the season. But, once inside, we were caught up in the happy frenzy of material acquisition and the poor man was almost forgotten.

Vanishing Places

Simply irresistible!

When the wealthy, mostly older, white men of influence and power made the decision to place yet another dam on the already beleaguered, but still rambunctious Colorado River, in 1952, there was little consideration of what would be lost. The only thing that the decision makers weighed heavily was the value of the hydroelectric power it could generate. United States taxpayers would foot the bill for the dam almost without question as the area to be inundated was so remote that very few people had ever heard of it, much less seen it. Barry Goldwater, one of the few, admitted after the awe inspiring Glen Canyon and its tributary canyons were drowned, that he regretted his vote to build the dam.

By the time I visited Lake Powell, the reservoir was filled to capacity for the first time. This was June, 1980, seventeen years after completion of the dam.

My uncle Ted had a small inboard motor boat and eagerly agreed to meet my husband and me at the lake for a week of exploration. It was early spring and the water was frigid and the main channel was mined with dead trees, recently floated down river by the high water. Waterlogged, they floated just beneath the surface and could only be detected by a stub of a branch that might be visible at close range, making traveling on plane a bit hazardous. I sat on the tip of the bow to scout for underwater obstructions, directing our path upriver.

Our craft had a small cabin at the front and upholstered seats at the back. It valiantly carried my mom, cousin Dan, husband Perry, me, and our captain, Uncle Ted AND all of our camping gear and food for the week-long trip. My husband (now ex-husband) was the life of every party. He could keep everybody laughing and so, made a great travel companion. But, he was heavily dependent on beer to maintain his equanimity. So, we burdened, or maybe overburdened, the USS Minnow with several cases of beer. We were riding low in the water but the lake was calm and we figured that the load would become lighter as the days went by.

In those days, Lake Powell was a remote wilderness, and even though campsites were few and far between for tent camping due to the alluvial deposits being below the water level, we had little difficulty finding suitably level sites for our tents. A particularly memorable site was on what had become an island in Forbidding Canyon. As the water level had pushed all of the wildlife to the top of the ever-shrinking hill that we had selected for our campsite, our tent was besieged by mice as soon as the sun went down.

The marinas where gas was available were approximately 50 miles apart. There was a marina at Rainbow Arch in those days (it has since been relocated to Dangling Rope) where one could buy gas and much appreciated ice cream. It’s crazy what a luxury ice cream is when camping in the desert. Utah regulates alcohol strictly, so there was no beer sold at any of the marinas. By day three, we were out of beer which constituted an emergency for my husband. The closest state liquor store was fifty miles north at Bullfrog, so we headed upriver to buy what passes for beer in Utah. The dramatic canyon walls fell away as we approached the broad flat bay at Bullfrog. The state liquor store was perched above the lake on the opposite shore from the marina, so we first purchased the beer and then went to get gas. Considering that we couldn’t have made it back to our camp on the fuel we had left, it’s telling that we risked the gas station closing before we got there rather than the liquor store. I think both closed shortly before dusk as travel on the lake is discouraged after dark.

Rainbow Arch, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area

The gas station at Rainbow Arch was moved to Dangling Rope canyon for a couple of reasons, the main one being that floating gas tanks are sitting ducks for drunk, inexperienced boat pilots, and Rainbow, with its vertical canyon walls, offered no escape should the dock become an inferno. Though there are signs posted at least a half mile from the docks mandating wakeless speed, pilots driving rented boats occasionally misunderstand their meaning and come into the dock at full speed. As we stood on the dock, we observed a 45′ houseboat approaching with Captain Nemo at the helm. Beer in hand and all hands on deck, he roared towards the unsuspecting, ice cream-licking tourists that had just disembarked from the tour boat. As luck would have it, he wasn’t very precise in steering his craft and managed to overshoot the dock and merely sent a wave over it. Shore patrol was on him like stink on poop and the crowd applauded as he was loaded onto the hoosegow. (or would it be called hoos scow in this case?)

At the end of the week, sunburned and craving a restaurant meal, we loaded the boat and nosed into the main channel. High clouds had cast a shadow over the lake turning the sparkling green water an ominous black. A chill wind whipped the waves into white caps as we plowed our way across Wahweap Bay. Water was precariously close to coming over the side of our intrepid little craft but thankfully, everyone except our captain was unaware of the danger we were in. The little inboard motor couldn’t overcome the weight and the rough water to get on plane, so we chugged along, fervently hoping the tour boat didn’t pass us and swamp us with its wake. When at last we reached the safety of the dock, retrieved the tow vehicle, dragged the bedraggled USS Minnow up the ramp, Uncle Ted discovered that he had a bilge full of water, having forgotten to turn on the bilge pump.

Today, just as Glen Canyon vanished under Lake Powell, Lake Powell is vanishing due to years of drought. The water level is just thirty feet above the level necessary to turn the penstocks and power generation is already down to 25%. It’s a very real possibility that the water level will drop to dead pool level in the next few years. There are few people left alive who remember the canyon and its glorious side canyons but I would wager that every one of them is experiencing schadenfreude at the prospect of the canyon’s restoration.

Wildlife in a side canyon of Glen Canyon

Thanksgiving

Photo by Brad West – Unsplash.com

Behold our family here assembled.

We are grateful for this place in which we dwell,
for the love that unites us,
for the peace accorded us this day,
for the hope with which we expect tomorrow;
for the health, the work, the food and the bright skies
that make our lives delightful;
for our friends in all parts of the earth.

Give us courage and joy and the quiet mind.
Keep us to our friends, soften us to our enemies.
Bless us, if it may be, in all our innocent endeavors;
if it may not, give us the strength to endure that which is to come,
that we may be brave in peril,
constant in tribulation, temperate in anger
and in all changes of life, and down to the gates of death,
loyal and loving to one another.

Robert Louis Stevenson, 1850-1894

Winter Joys in Southern California

Morning on Mountain Home Creek Road

Winter in Southern California is a season of freedom: freedom to sleep in as late as you want because there’s no need to hit the trail before it gets hot; freedom to traipse through brush and rock without fear of stepping on rattlesnakes; freedom from applying sunscreen.

Camping in the Mojave Desert
Exploring Afton Canyon – Mojave Natural Area
An outdoor shower after a bike ride
Happy Dogs

And this one just because I like it though it has no relevance to anything.

Vladimir’s Escape

Because of my “crime”, I was discharged from the army and my father was forced to resign from his position.   I took a job in a tool and die factory and my father opened a law office.  In 1950, I returned to the university, now at my own expense.

At this time many Yugoslavians who had fled the country during the war began returning from Australia and America.  They regaled us with tales of making $200 – $300 per month working in the mines, a small fortune by our standards!  I could only imagine how much an engineer might make in those countries.

Sometime in 1952 while staying in a student vacation home in the port town of Bakar near Rijeka I met Ernest Traina who was to become a life long friend.  Our house was a sort of co-ed dorm where girls lived on one floor and boys lived on the other floor.  We held loud parties with live bands that attracted the attention of the seamen who were in port.  It was during the course of one of these parties that I struck up a conversation with Traina who was an American of Sicilian descent who spoke Italian.  At that point my Italian was better than my English.  He and his buddy Richard were in port for a couple of days so we rented a row boat the following day and took some girls out and had a good time.  In the process of getting acquainted I confided to them my distaste for life under Communist Tito and the reasons for it.  Traina and Richard were sympathetic to my plight.  The next evening we hung out together drinking until about midnight.  Then the three of us headed for their ship.  As a disguise, they put a loud necktie on me that no Yugoslavian would have ever worn.

Emboldened by drink, we sauntered nonchalantly past the native guard who was standing near the bottom of the gangway, armed with an automatic rifle.  My companions made small talk and as we passed the guard I said loudly, “Yeah” in my best American accent.  As we approached the steeply pitched stairs, the guard took a step or two in our direction as if to demand ID but seemed to think better of it and turned away. 

The merchant marine ship was named Tuskegee Victory from Alabama.  She was floating high in the water as she had disgorged her contents and the top of her prop was showing above the water line.  We clambered up the steps with our hearts pounding more from fear than exertion.  If possession of anti-government flyers nets a prison sentence of 6 months and 15 days, one can imagine that the sentence for fleeing the country could be exponentially more severe. 

At the top of the gangway there was an American guard who let us pass without comment.  I was hustled to a four bunk cabin and stashed beneath one of the beds across from Traina.  It was July and beastly hot under that bunk.  The wine that had given me courage earlier, now begged to be set free.  Sometime during the night, I felt I couldn’t stand another minute.  They convinced me to tough it out and stay put, though my bladder was ready to burst.  In the morning Richard came in with an empty champagne bottle saying, “Congratulations, we’re in Trieste!”.  If I hadn’t perspired so much during the night I surely would have overflowed that bottle.  My clothes were wringing wet.

During the course of the day, Traina managed to smuggle some chicken into the cabin where I remained hidden.  I waited in the cabin until 5:00 P.M. when work on the ship finished.  Traina gave me his identification card and I shaved my mustache off to more closely resemble him.  Then Richard and I disembarked.  The Italian guard at the gate on the dock made a cursory inspection of our ID and let us pass.

We caught a trolley car to the house of a distant relative whom I had never met.  He was a wealthy merchant and a friend of my uncle Tomas.  Our knock on his door was answered by his grown daughter who welcomed us warmly when I introduced myself.  She called to her father who invited us in.  Richard, being polite, declined to intrude and left.  I told them my story over refreshments.  My relative was sympathetic but explained that as a foreigner doing business in Italy, he could suffer if he were to take me in.  He took me to the police station and asked them to grant me refuge.  The police, all in civilian clothes, were cordial, and agreed to take me, along with four other people who had crossed the border on foot, to the refugee camp.

Vladimir Imprisoned

In 1948 Tito broke ranks with Stalin which created some instability within the government.  In an effort to ferret out any dissension, the secret police anonymously distributed anti-government flyers to monitor the response of the recipients.  One of my cousins passed several of these flyers on to me.  He was arrested and beaten until he confessed to having distributed the flyers and to whom.  The police then proceeded to arrest anyone who had received a flyer from him and had not reported it to the government.  While I had not distributed the flyers, I certainly had not turned my cousin in to the authorities either, so in April 1949, I was arrested and questioned. I was handcuffed so tightly that the circulation to my hands was cut off.  The cuffs were left on overnight and I suffered some nerve damage that made the tops of my hands tingle for several months They slapped me around a bit to intimidate me then asked me what I had done with the flyers I had received.  Though I had shown one to a friend, I dared not reveal his identity for fear he would be arrested too.  So I told them I had torn them into small squares and tossed them into the latrine.  At that time toilet paper was a nonexistent commodity so my story was entirely plausible, but I was convicted of the crime anyway.

During the first three months of my sentence my mother was allowed to bring parcels to the jail for me.  She was permitted to see me only once.  We were allowed one hour of daily exercise in the courtyard.  After the first three months of my six and a half month incarceration, security was tightened.  I was confined to a cell designed for one, with four other fellows.  We were allowed no books, no paper, and no contact with the outside world.  The barrel that served as our latrine was emptied by other more fortunate inmates.  I was not allowed the luxury of a job.  As to food, bread was the staple; everything else was poor and not enough of it.  There was a thin tepid liquid in the morning, a tin of coffee or tea, a watery vegetable soup at noon, and runny corn mush in the evening.  Wednesday was the best day: A few bites of meat, and beans infested with some kind of corn borers that crackled between your teeth.

My fellow prisoners in that filthy place were a broad cross section of society.  Some were political prisoners like me, others were thieves or real criminals.

My father and uncle worked tirelessly to obtain my release through the influence of their highly placed friends and relatives.  One relative, who shared my name, was a diplomat and later an ambassador to the United States. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vladimir_Popovi%C4%87_(diplomat) Eventually, they were able to obtain my release. I came out an embittered young man.  My mother came to pick me up in a taxi and I told her I was going to leave the country by any means possible.  She was brokenhearted and cried knowing the danger I faced and that I would not be dissuaded.