Saturday, October 14, 2017

Excited


Maybe, someday, the day will come when I will dread plane trips. I may drag my heels through the concourse, grind my teeth as I stand in line to check my bags, and resent every step of the security checks. Possibly I will find myself bored as I wait at my gate,  or annoyed at the thought of being squeezed into a human sardine can for the next few hours. 

I may someday come to dislike the process of flying. 

But, my friends, that day is not today. 

I am at the airport today, traveling with my second-born to visit my third-born daughter who lives and teaches English in Seoul, South Korea. 

And I could not be any more excited. 


Monday, October 9, 2017

Gracie's New Horse Farm

True confessions: Sometimes I feel really guilty about keeping a dog in the suburbs.

Maybe it's my dogs' wild enthusiasm for adventure.
Maybe it's a throwback to my country upbringing in a day when dogs could run free.
Maybe it's just my utopian fantasies.

But for all the dogs that I've raised here in suburban Seattle, I feel a certain regret for keeping them here in the land of leash laws, property lines, and busy streets.

And this anguish is all the stronger for my girl, Gracie, because Gracie grew up on a horse farm.

We walk every day, rain or shine, for about an hour. 

Just think of it. Two hundred and thirty-some-odd acres of freedom, with perimeter fences designed not so much as to keep the dogs in as to keep unwelcome invaders out. 

I've seen photos of Baby Gracie romping through meadows, wading into ponds, and racing alongside her gorgeous Irish sister. There is no leash at her neck. She is free.

Now she lives with me. There is good in that, because Gracie loves her humans and she needed more attention that her horse farm life could provide. But every day, as I tether my dog to a long leash and guide her through the somewhat dangerous and decidedly dog-unfriendly streets of my community, I suffer pangs of remorse. 

I wish I could give Gracie a happy life on a horse farm.

Well, you can't, I tell myself. 

But still I struggle with the life I am giving to my dog. But eternal optimist that I am, I try to find the sweet spots, the hidden joys, of my dog's life in suburbia.

She's becoming a good little tracker, and works the scents left behind 
by the dozens of other dogs who patrol this street every day. 

Let's not even pretend to call it a leash I walk my girl, as I walked Casey and Ranger before her, on a thirty-foot rope. This allows my active pup to race ahead, scout out the most intriguing scents, and scruffle around in the brush a bit while I carry on at a steady pace. Eventually, she loses interest and gallops up to take the lead again 

This arrangement not only allows my dog and me to walk at our preferred paces, but the rope is quite the conversation starter. Oh, if I only had a dollar for every person who says, "Wow, that's a long leash!" and to whom I typically reply, "Yes. Yes, it is," then I could probably buy a lifetime supply of rope. 

As much as we enjoy this merry form of romping down the sidewalk, there are tines when we must heed a more civilized approach. When crossing the busy streets or passing by pedestrians of the canine or human variety, I coil up the rope to a more conventional length, and Gracie obediently heels at my left side. It's good discipline for her, and she gathers many admiring looks and comments as she walks like a proper lady.

Squirrel country.

About fifteen minutes into our walk, we veer off the sidewalk and turn onto a lane that winds along the sports fields behind the high school. As I give Gracie permission to run out the full length of the rope, she delightedly bounds up a bank to get full view of the soccer field. A bundle of eager and attentive energy, she is often rewarded by the sight of players kicking around a ball. Quivering with excitement, Gracie loves to stand and watch for a bit, just as she does anyone on a skateboard, bike or scooter. Fluid motion seems to fascinate her. 

Next we traipse along the outfield fences of the baseball field. During the late summer and early fall, the marching band lays dibs on this as a practice space, and we usually encounter a subset of the group, such as the drill team or the brass section, if not the full-blow show band. 

Not gonna lie. Gracie attracts a lot of attention. 

"I love your dog!" 
"What's her name?"
 "What kind of dog is that?" 
"Your dog is soooo cute."
"That's the longest leash I've ever seen."

Adults run here and there among the fields. Last week a man about my age took one look at my dog, shook his head in apparent amazement, and beamed at me. "Boy, that's a good-looking dog!"

Sometimes we stop for a petting session, but usually I happily answer questions while Gracie marches on, head held high, tail a'wagging. 

She knows we're all talking about her. But she's got things to do. 

Lately, Gracie has been trying to convince me that the best way to stalk the squirrels would be to crawl commando-style under that turquoise bench. I am not having it. Yet. 

We leave the busy world of the sports fields behind. We cross a walkway through the woods and come out into a serene little clearing in the woods. An administrative building nestles among the trees, and we walk the full perimeter, enjoying this little wild space.

Lately, Gracie has become obsessed with the squirrels back here. As soon as we step off the wooden bridge, her posture changes - head down in a hunting position, gait slow and stealthy. She is a bundled coil of energy. I play my part in this game by staying quiet and keeping out of the way. I gather up the extra length of rope so it doesn't noisily drag stray leaves across the pavement, and tiptoe behind my furry red hunter.. 

The squirrels happily prance in the lawn, scamper across the paved lane, romp around the garbage dumpsters, and frolic in the trees. Gracie freezes in mid-step when she sees them, waits, and watches. Occasionally, she will break free and race after one, but usually she simply stands until she is sated, and then we happily march on. 

Now, on the far side of the school, we pass through a busy pick-up and drop-off area for the gymnasiums and swimming pool. We say hi to more students, who ask more questions and offer more compliments. Often there's a line of cars where parents wait to pick up their kids. I'm sorry to say that Gracie has been known to jump up on a car door, lay her huge furry paws on the open window, and stick her head inside in order to properly greet the occupants. 

Once she tried to board a school bus waiting for the football team. She cleared the stairs inside the bus before I caught up and hauled her out. 

Younger children come and go from swimming lessons at this pool, so I often wrap up the leash and keep Gracie on a heel here. The other day, Gracie and I were engulfed by a group of still-damp young swimmers, probably eight to ten years old, who wanted to pet her. As the kids' eager hands reached out to pet my calm dog, I offered that her name is Gracie. The girl closest to me, missing several teeth, beamed up at me with joy and said, "My name is Gracie too!"

That's the bone my dog found in a bush. Not under the bush. IN it. 

We come out of the high school grounds and head toward home, passing cars on the streets full of friendly if unknown faces who often wave or smile at us. Many of these strangers grieved with me when my Ranger passed away, and now their faces light up at the sight of Gracie. Last week, one woman whom I don't know rolled down her window as her car approached us Wordlessly, she pointed with an outstretched arm at Gracie, and then, with an ear-to-ear grin, gave me a huge thumbs up. 

We see human walkers who say hello. Some people are visibly afraid of my big dog, so I heel her over to the side of the walkway to let them pass. Others smile and say hello. Sometimes we see neighbors and friends, and stop to chat. Occasionally we encounter my husband walking home from the bus stop. 

And we see other dogs with their humans. Gracie has a deep appreciation for other dogs. She stares at them. In fact, she gets so caught up in lasering her eyes onto them that she'll walk right into me if I'm not careful. So I've learned my lesson. When Gracie is goggling at another dog, usually on the other side of the street, we just stop in our steps. I tell my dog to sit, and then together we just stare at the object of her affection as if this were the most normal thing in the world to do.

The owners usually notice. If the social awkwardness meter pegs, I simply say, "Sorry. My dog is obsessed with your dog." And that has made us several new friends. 

On we walk. Gracie is learning how to weave in an out the shrubs planted along the sidewalk without tying her long rope into a cat's cradle. 

And she's teaching me a few tricks too. The other day, she shoved her head all the way up to her shoulders into a yew tree, a solid thing of soft, thick, green needles. And when she came back out, she carried in her mouth a bone. 

The bone must have been resting in the branches of that yew. It was the strangest thing and I could barely believe what had happened. But I took a photo for proof. 

* * * * *

I wish with all my heart that I could give Gracie a horse farm. I wish I could throw away that long yellow rope and let her run wild and free in a safe, natural place. 

But it occurs to me, as we turn the last corner into our neighborhood and cross the street toward home, that Gracie doesn't seem to mind the rope. She might just like that sense of connection to me, and the reassuring tugs and commands that I sprinkle throughout our walk.

And though my mind boils over with the many restrictions and limitations that suburban life puts on my dog, it also occurs to me that Gracie doesn't understand those things. For all I know, maybe she sees our surroundings as her new horse farm: a big, friendly, rollicking place filled with humans and animals that bring interest and variety into her life every day.

That is what I hope she thinks. 




But horse farm or not,  what I know for sure is that when Gracie gets home from her walk, she is content.

A Cupboard That I Can't Explain


In my living room stands a black walnut cupboard.

Someone in my husband's family built it generations ago. 

I love it.

Years ago, I filled it up with coconut bowls from Vietnam and a collection of driftwood from Kalaloch Beach. 

I know. The bowls are fine but the driftwood's a little weird.

What can I say. I'm crazy for these bits and bobs of once-towering trees, broken and tossed and polished smooth by the most powerful ocean on the planet, then tossed up on my beloved beach.. 

I love them. 

So far, so good.

Still, this presentation has been lacking a little something. A plant was the obvious answer; a splash of green to ignite the natural tones of brown. 

I searched for a long time for my dream pot and the perfect plant. 

Then I got bored with searching and just forgot about it for awhile. 

Sometimes that is the best way to find a solution. Stop looking and let the solution find you. 


 Last weekend at Molbaks, this white-footed planter found me. 

I dig the hand-thrown vibes, the wobbly lines, the groovy pedestal. It reads very 1970 to me and I love the tension it creates with the straight, somber style of the antique cupboard.

And the ivy was a Christmas gift from my fourth-born. She gave me the plant last winter, and said that we could pick out a perfect pot later on. Truer words were never spoken. 

What can I say. I know that this whole configuration is a little wonky. Why I stuffed a family heirloom full of beach debris and coconut art, I can't explain. And why I feel so satisfied with this out of tune planter mystifies me.

But I don't care.

I love everything just the way it is. 



And Gracie apparently loves it too. 

Live A Little


Do not calculate the calories per bowl. Just eat it and smile. 

I'll be honest. As the dog days of summer sprawl out into a glorious feast of August sunshine, my interest in cooking always dwindles.

By Labor Day, we are typically surviving on big salads, quick sandwiches, and whatever can be thrown on the grill in a hot minute.

But once the crisp days of autumn kick in, when the sun's angle slants toward the horizon and the first fallen leaves chatter across the patio, I'm ready to cook.

This year was no exception. I've been experimenting with new recipes. The heartier, the better. I'm a fool for rich soups and hearty stews and creamy sauces draped over pasta. 

Because after a lifetime of low fat, vegetarian, carb-free penance, I'm done with food rules. I eat healthy, balanced meals and sensible portions. And I'm surprised how well that works out.

Take this soup for instance. 

Shrimp
Bacon
Red potatoes
Heavy cream.

So decadent. My previous self would not have touched it with a ten-foot spoon.

But what I have learned is that one bowl of this deliciousness plus some pear slices and - if I'm feeling really crazy - a chunk of sourdough on the side, makes for a shockingly satisfying meal. 

A small portion goes a long way when I eat the food that my body craves. 

So that's my fall food philosophy. I'm ready to live a little 

* * * * *

Shrimp 'n Bacon Chowder
Adapted from Delish

Ingredients:

8 slices bacon, chopped
1 onion, diced
2 T flour
3 C chicken stock
3 red potatoes
salt and pepper
1 lb large shrimp, peeled, deveined and cut in half
2 C half and half
3 green onions, chopped

Directions:

1. In a large pot over medium-high heat, brown the bacon until crisp. Transfer to a plate and reserve some of the fat in pan. 

2. Add onions to pan and cook until soft, about six minutes. Add flour and stir about one minute. 

3. Whisk in chicken stock, then add potatoes, salt and pepper. Simmer on medium-low until potatoes are tender, about ten minutes. 

4. Stir in the cooked bacon. Add shrimp and simmer until pink, about three minutes. 

5. Just before serving, reduce heat to low and add the half and half. Stir until just warmed through, about three minutes.

6. Serve with green onions as garnish. Eat it up. 

PS Two days later, just to keep things interesting, I served the leftover soup over rice for dinner. So good. 

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Essentially Clean



Sometimes when you're cleaning the bathroom at 1 a.m., you find yourself suddenly annoyed at the little bottles of essential oils scattered here and there across the counter. 

And you realize these little gems need a proper home.

Your mind flashes to the wooden set of shelves you bought at the thrift store last spring but never found a good use for. 

Is it still out in the garage, waiting to be re-donated? 

Quick. Run down and check.

Yes. 

But will the bottles fit? 

Maybe. 

This is too close to eyeball, so quick - gallop up the stairs with the shelves in hand, choose a bottle and c a r e f u l l y slide it into place.

Yes. 

By the width of an eyelash, the bottles fit perfectly.

All that remains is to paint the set of shelves white, attach it to the wall with Command strips, and load in the bottles. 

Alphabetically, of course. 

And now, the bathroom looks truly and properly clean. 

Monday, October 2, 2017

Hunting Dog




A secret smile slips across my face as I listen to my dog's footsteps fall on the soft ground under the trees.

I look back to see her nose down, lingering around the bases of the towering Douglas furs, scenting whatever has been there before her. 

She's becoming a little hunter after all.

In the first few weeks after I adopted my girl, Gracie, she ignored the thirty feet of freedom offered to her every day on our long walks. Preferring to walk at my side, she didn't wander in the brush or even track scents on the sidewalk. Assuming that her life with her last owner didn't allow for much time in nature, I have been hoping and praying that her natural-born hunting instincts would eventually return. 

I hear her gait shift gears as Gracie rushes to catch up to me. Expecting her to whoosh past me and take the lead, as she has also begun to do, I'm surprised that she slows as she approaches me..

I glance down just as reaches my right side and beams up at me, her eyes aglow.
With a decidedly dead squirrel in her mouth. 

Two thought instantly and conversely pop into my head.

This is the deadest thing I have ever seen.
Flat as flat can be.
Drier than any autumn leaf.
Definitely in an advanced state of decay.
Though surprisingly intact and recognizable as a little furry animal.
I am grossed out beyond words.

But. At the same time:

The look of joy on my dog's face as she presents her treasure to me with the utmost love and devotion is sweet enough to make the angels sing. 

My heart bursts with love for her.

Still, she holds this dead varmint in the mouth that occasionally rests against my pillow 
and I'm not having that. 

So I let loose a weird gurgling wordless cry of protest
and my dog drops her prize.

I praise her effusively
and we continue on our walk.

* * * * *

About a week later, she does it again. 

After lagging behind to track among the trees, Gracie catches up with me and voluntarily heels in her proper place on my left, slowing her pace to perfectly match mine.

This is odd. 

I glance down at her and there it is.

Her lips gently clench the same squirrel, even drier and deader than before. 
Her eyes shine with pride and devotion.
Gracie clearly offers me her prize.

And this time I can't even fake it. I scream, "Drop it!"

Gracie does not know what that means.

So I take her by the back of the neck and shake her until she drops the carcass. I kick it to the curb 

Then I pull myself together and praise my pup to the high heavens. 

* * * * 

A few days later, we encounter the squirrel again. 

This time, I'm prepared. I scout the curb as we walk, and spy the flat flap of fur perhaps before Gracie does. But we both know it's there, and we stop to look at it.

I take a photo.

I praise my dog.

And we walk on to unknown adventures, my clever hunting dog and I. 


Monday, September 25, 2017

Visiting Prison: Part Four

Until recently, I never dreamed that I would ever know anyone in prison, let alone make a regular habit out of visiting a prison. 

But in the past year, a lot has changed in my life. 

I now feel completely comfortable and quite at home during my time inside the walls, and in case you haven't had this experience for yourself, please let me share it with you.

Part One: From waking up to walking into the visiting room
Part Two: Happy times in the visiting room.
Part Three: On the other side of the wall.
Part Four: The women in the van

* * * * *

Driving home after a prison visit is simple.

Emotionally cleansed from reconnecting with my friend, I feel good. Facing the five-hour road trip home from  Washington State Penitentiary on a perilously sleep-deprived brain requires focus and attention, whether I'm the driver or one of the passengers helping to keep the driver alert. Cheeseburgers and conversation spell the end of a successful day.

More complex is the ride home in the van.

In Washington, there's a privately-funded van service that provides free rides to anyone who wants to visit a state prison. Research shows that inmates who get regular visits are more successful in their lives behind the wall, and readjust better to life when they get out. Families are happier, prisons run more smoothly. Everybody wins when prison visits happen, and this service makes more visits possible.

While the morning van ride to prison is invariably quiet, a trip in the van with mostly other women passengers is special The post-visit euphoria can take us in some different and surprising directions.

Early morning rest stop at Snoqualmie Pass.

Take for example my last van trip in August. Seven women spread out in the eleven-seat vehicle and most of us still sat quietly absorbed in our own thoughts.

Except for Mo.

Mo was sitting directly in front of me, roughly my age, and experiencing her first trip to prison to visit her twenty-four-year-old nephew.

Maybe it was because this was her first trip.
Maybe it was because this was her nephew and not her son or brother or husband.
Maybe it was just because we were going home.

But Mo was in a mood to talk about her guy.

She told me in great detail about how her nephew had landed himself in prison: the years of addiction, the robberies committed to fund the drugs. She described the changes she saw in her nephew during the visit, who was sobered and matured after a few months behind the wall. She opened up about her emotions - how it felt to see her sister's son in this state, how she would struggle to explain what she had seen to her sister whose physical condition left her unable to visit her son herself.

I listened while Mo talked. The other women minded their own business and mostly ignored us, quietly making phone calls, staring out the window, or talking about logistics with the driver.

And when Mo finally wore herself out, she smiled and asked what I had been hoping she wouldn't ask."So. Tell me about your friend. What's he in for?"

Hmm.

It's not that I don't want to talk about my friend.
It's not that his crimes are a big secret.

All that he did is a matter of public record, his crimes are high profile.
All around the world and across the internet, people have talked about his story.

But I try not to talk about it.

The events of that day are profoundly personal and searingly intense.
The media has misrepresented and misunderstood the story.

And while I long to correct public perceptions of my friend's actions, I know that is not for me to do

This is my friend's story.
He is the only one who can explain what happened.
And when the time is right, he will tell us.
I look forward to that day.

For now, I try not to talk about it.

And an evening stop at the same location. 

As these thoughts flashed through my mind in an instant, Mo saw the hesitation on my face.

"Oh, you don't have to tell me. I don't mean to be rude," she pulled back.

But this time, I knew I needed to try to talk.

So.

I drew a deep breath and spoke about depression, Invisible depression that no one can see, not even the people who love and support and spend time with a person. Sometimes no one can glimpse the black void of hopelessness that sucks a person down into spiraling, devastating despair. Sometimes even the person himself doesn't have any idea what is happening to him.

I spoke about guns. How natural it is for a person who is feeling utterly powerless to reach out for a gun not as a weapon for committing a crime but as culturally respected symbol of power .How they cling to the desperate idea that owning a gun may somehow provide a tiny foothold of strength in the midst of this unending panic.

I spoke about perfect storms of intense emotion that slam together only rarely in our lives, when all rational thoughts and coping skills and sound advice are drowned out by the wild screams of our pain, and we utterly lose control.
.
Then I stopped. I didn't know what else to say.

And I suddenly noticed pin-drop silence.
Every single person on that van was staring at me.
They had listened to every word I spoke.
Their compassion and understanding electrified the air.

One of the women spoke my friend's name.
She said it with humanity and respect.
She had followed his story.
She recognized him when she saw us sitting together in the visiting room.

Mo asked a question. "Do you mind if I Google him and read more about his story?"

My heart sank.I knew the bleak picture those stories would paint.
But who am I to tell anyone what she can and can't Google?
I said, "Sure, read whatever you want. Just know the media doesn't get it."
I spelled his last name for her, and sat back in my seat, feeling defeated.

An idea popped into my mind.

I leaned up over the seat, scrolling through my phone as I interrupted Mo's reading.
"Take a look at this. It's his sentencing statement."
And Mo took my phone and read the words my friend read to the court last January.
Words that don't necessarily explain what happened on that fateful day, but words that reveal much about the character, the beautiful heart and mind, of my young friend.

Mo read.
Then she handed me back my phone and wiped away the tears from her cheeks.
"Tell your friend that Mo is praying for him,"
We hugged each other across the seat that separated us.

* * * * *

These are the kinds of things that happen when I take the van to visit prison.

And even though I love the privacy and convenience of a car, it can sometimes be a remarkable gift to share life with the women in the van.