‘Am I in your book?” – The Worst Kind of Thief

The mountain village of PMC in Kern County California, which served as the prototype for Bear Mountain Place.

Awake, I lack imagination. Asleep, I dream whole new worlds. Unfortunately, I do my writing awake. And so, I identify with Sheryl Crowe’s ‘worst kind of thief’.

In her song, The Book, Sheryl Crowe (from her 1996 self-titled album) sings that she read the book and discovered she knew that girl in it ‘a little too well’. She’ll always remember three days in Rome. She got “written down, sliced around, passed down among strangers’ hands”. She ‘laid her heart out, laid her soul down’. She learned that ‘the love you once made/can’t be undone’. ‘Will I get revenge?’ Well yes. By writing this song.

I longed to find proof that this was autobiographical. It seems too heartfelt to be fiction. But I didn’t.

Why do I care? I “carry a pen and a paper” and “no words I waste”.

I started writing my mystery Hour of the Hawk, when I spent several months in a California mountain village waiting out a family problem. My amateur detectives are two elderly women who set about finding out who is terrifying the town with acts of ecological terrorism, which steadily grow more deadly. I modeled one of them on a friend.

Clara was a disarming little old lady, cute, with flashing blue eyes and a lovely smile.  She had a great schtick. She could seem charmingly helpless-a girl just out in the world, or alternately, a slightly confused elder. The first week she was in Bear Mountain Place, a woman stuck $10 in her purse and told her to buy herself a decent meal.
“Why did she do that?” Clara asked me.
“Generosity,” I said. “But next time tell her you need $20 for a decent meal up here.”

I shamelessly stole other identities as well. Two of these people read the manuscript, and, although they both offered advice, neither objected to the theft. ‘Clara’ still had not read the book when I published it as an e-book on Amazon. Since she didn’t have a tablet, she still couldn’t. Then in February, I published Hour of the Hawk through Amazon’s Print on Demand. Now she could read it.

I’m such a coward that I tried the indirect approach. None of her close relatives would hazard a guess about how she’d react. Fictional Clara is hard of hearing and sight, so much so that the villain of the piece – or one of them at any rate – is able to sneak past here while she is watching television. Real Clara has had her vision corrected, but has also fore-sworn her hearing aids on the grounds that elderly fingers can’t handle tiny, tiny batteries. Would my friend resent these handicaps being used for humor?

The other amateur sleuth, Joanna Hunter, can’t recognize faces, a disability I am familiar with.

So I found my courage and wrote Clara a long letter, explaining my concern and enclosing a sample or two.

Then Jesus, the cable guy, arrived.
His card read Jesus Morales, Direct T.V. He pronounced it for me, Hesus.
“Hesus, Hesus,” I kept repeating to myself. I wasn’t used to Jesus as an ordinary name. I wasn’t used to Hispanic accents. I could understand Chinese or West Indian accents, and, of course, South Asian, but not Spanish.
He wasn’t used to Canadian accents. He didn’t understand ‘rooof’, so I had to say ‘ruf’. We kept asking each other to repeat. I held the record. I just didn’t get Hesus.
“Sit down. Why don’t you sit down?” Reg/Doug called to me.
Clara could tear herself away from them only for a moment. “Joanna can show you whatever you need,” she told Hesus.
He turned on the new 70-inch television set. It hung on the wall in front of the couch where Clara and her company sat. We were all jammed into a ten-foot wide space, crowded with unpacked boxes. When the sound came on, Clara cried out, “I’ll never be able to hear that.” So Jesus turned the volume up and up, until Clara was satisfied. The screen told us the volume was 87. Then she and the ‘boys’ resumed shouting.
Jesus showed me his work sheet, and began to ask questions. A bald guy on the screen was yelling about the shoddy workmanship on a renovation. Jesus was shouting questions at me. The boys and Clara were splitting their sides at some long ago anecdote. I grabbed the remote control, and turned down the volume.
“It says one box here,” said Jesus.
“No, no. We were promised two,” I said. “There’s another set in a bedroom. Colin talked to the company several times. There are to be two boxes.”
Then I moved Jesus over near the utility room, so I had access to the landline.
“Oh, Jesus-with a J-God, I’m going to lose my mind,” I thought.
Once I’d got hold of Colin, I handed the handset to Jesus, and locked myself in my bathroom.
It didn’t work. I had to come back out into the din. Jesus called.
When I came out, he assured me everything was all right now. The bedroom set was working as well. I dragged Clara away from the boys, explained what had been done, and asked her to sign her name. Suddenly, she decided she should take charge, and began to ask questions that had been answered an hour ago. Jesus tended to mutter in his thick accent.
“Do I have two boxes? Colin said I would get two boxes.” She went into my bedroom and came out. “There’s just this tiny thing in there, no real box.”
Jesus began to reassure her that both sets worked, independently of each other
“You’ll have to speak louder,” I told him.
He started shouting. I searched frantically for the remote control, found it at last on top of a pile of boxes and pushed mute. I gestured at the boys who were laughing with each other. Now there were only two voices shouting.

It took a week for the letter to escape the confines of Canada Post and the U.S. Mail and end up being released into Clara’s California post office box. Yes, she wanted to read it, I heard. A mutual friend handed her a print copy. I waited for her verdict.

“I’m so flattered,” she said when she called.

I have started writing the second Joanna Hunter mystery and Clara, who will soon be 90, will be part of it.

joycehowe.com

The e-book version of Hour of the Hawk is free to download on Mother’s Day May 13/18 and May 14/18. If you decide to read it, please leave a review on Amazon. The print edition is also for sale.

 

 

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Saving a Life: losing a friend

jim and IMon Frère et moi en Bruxelle

I feel like Dante after his epic journey through hell, purgatory and paradise. True I got to see the face of Grace and then to return home. But I’ve been spoiled. The paradise bit was full of light and love and joy. Once I got there, I was able to lift my eyes and love the pine-clad mountains and the pure light and air again. Home in TO sees a couple of hours daylight under gloomy skies. Something is always falling from the sky and the streets are slick with decaying leaves.

That’s not the worst of it. Two of the people I had counted on to welcome me home, to rejoice in our triumph and to console me for our ordeal are no-shows.

One is my son, whose sister’s life was just saved and who is on her way to being able to live a reasonably good life, if not to being cured. What we accomplished, in spite of MediCal and general incompetence, was a miracle, something to be celebrated. But this half of the family in Toronto is hived off into individual units. It begrudgingly pulls itself together for a funeral, if the relative is close enough, not apparently, for a good, boozy party of celebration.

The other is my friend, Sophie. Sophie is given to observing that she is glad she had cats instead of children, particularly since mine are so troublesome. What can anyone say to that? A cat can’t be Shakespeare. No, but listen, those children are unique and beautiful creations. They have made themselves who they are over decades. They have made many people’s lives better for knowing them. I don’t say any of that to her. I sympathize when an elderly cat has to be put down, as if it were an actual person. I inquire about the surviving feline, which drags its hind quarters.

In the midst of the worst or hellish part, Sophie suggested on the phone that it would be better for our patient if we let her go. A slip of the tongue I thought. But then she discovered that I had taken psychotropic drugs to survive the ordeal. “I wouldn’t speak to you, if I’d known,” she said. I’m still taking them of course. She has read a stupid book that maintains they don’t actually work and, despite her education, she believes it.

So she hasn’t called me back and that makes me sad.

Tomorrow, my brother, Rob, arrives from Brussels. “I thought I needed to come and cheer  you up and help you get back to your life,” he told me on the phone. I will pick him up at terminal 3 and take him to Georgia’s, where we will all have a sleep-over, along with two of my nieces. He will call me his little sister, even though I am older and make me laugh. The two of us have a reputation in Brussels for our comic routine. All we have to do is be in the same room and we’re off.

On Thursday, back on the mountain in Kern County, California, my son-in-law will turn chef again and make Thanksgiving dinner. Besides his recovering wife, my erstwhile house-mate Clara, my grandson Leo, his father -that would be an ex- and a friend will be there to raise a glass in glad thanksgiving that she lived, that she is thriving, that some doctors really are brilliant, that faith and dogged persistence and the odd temper tantrum can save a life.

PMC

 

A Change Would Do You Good

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ikjmz_SlGh
Cheryl Crow’s song of the same name
black &white wallI flew back to Toronto on Monday and met my sister Georgia for dinner on Wednesday. I ordered Guinness. She had never known me to order beer. I felt like saying, “It’s not beer. It’s Guinness.” She had not expected that change, but she liked my new hair cut.

Blake, my ex-husband, took me out for dinner Friday. He made no comment when I ordered Honker’s Ale from Goose Island, but he did tell me I looked younger. True, I was tanned from 150 days of sun at 5,500 ft in California, where darkness and silence led me to sleep 10 or 11 hours a night. And I had spent hours sitting beside our patient reading while someone else made dinner. The last seven weeks as recovery proceeded were particularly relaxing.

On Friday, I decided that I hated my minimalist decor and began hanging all the pictures in storage, including a wall devoted to the family and another of Georgia’s colorful paintings of houses. This means that I am giving up on feng shui. I’m not supposed to have red, a  fire element, in my living room during the year of the horse. Georgia’s paintings are full of red. Besides feng shui wasn’t doing  any good. My year has had a deal of bad luck. Our patient had also used feng shui which did not protect her from recession, loss or extremely grave illness. Be that as it may, I prefer now to be creative and bask in the warmth of family fire.

Roberta's wallAt my desk, I rounded up all the receipts I have assiduously saved my entire life and trashed them. I have lived altogether too carefully. During the five months I was away, I didn’t get my mail, of course. I didn’t even listen to the messages on my land line until a month before I left and I couldn’t receive calls because my cell phone got no reception. There was absolutely nothing in the mail or in the messages that was important. Well, there was a thank you note for funeral flowers, pretty much a dead issue.

During my mountain sojourn, I talked about the cold as fall drew on and I adapted to cabins heated in the old way by wood or more modern pellet stoves, both of which meant cold mornings. I have hated being cold all my life. For years, I have included the weather at the top of my daily journal entries. Now I have stopped. At first, I glanced at the thermometer outside my kitchen window. But I’ve stopped doing that as well. I assume that for the foreseeable future it will be below freezing. Snow, ice and wind will be apparent when I open the curtains. What difference does it make? I am going to wear thermal underwear, a heavy sweater, a sheepskin hat and a long down coat whenever I go out. I don’t need to hear a forecaster scaring me silly.

Georgia and her friend, the people upstairs, Blake, my brother on the line from Belgium and others who have called have eased me back into life in Toronto. Not everyone has answered my “I’m-home call”. I am sad, but by their deeds, ye shall etc.

So out of a traumatic and potentially tragic situation, has come new life. As Aunt Mae would say, “Ain’t that grand?”

 

 

 

Fare Well; look thy last on all things lovely

sunset over mtnshttp://www.poetry-archive.com/m/fare_well.html

In his poem Fare Well, Walter de La Mare advices us “To look our last on all thing lovely/Every hour”

Since that all things thou wouldst praise
Beauty took from those who loved them
in other days
De La Mare is telling us to really see the beauty of our world because death will take it from us. Not sure that I agree with that idea, but the line came back to me as I contemplated leaving a beautiful place to return to a more mundane one.So I have been imprinting the beauty of this mountain valley all day. The golden aspens and poplars over the golf course, the evergreen slopes, the rocky peaks below which snow still lingers, the sharp outline of green against the clear blue sky.I prefer to think that beauty, like love, goes with us across the great divide and maybe even as far as Toronto.

IMG_0003Toronto: near the Brickworks

Going Home: leaving the Centre of the World

mountain 3Air Canada has generously allowed me to change the return date of my $1700 ticket for an additional $210 and I am returning to Toronto -in the comfort of the economy class cabin- on Monday. (As constant readers know, serious illness here in California kept me five months instead of two weeks.) The ticket was bought two hours before I flew down, ergo the high price. Yes, I paid for insurance, which refused to pay out because I knew there was an emergency when I left, and extra for luggage. I intend to thwart the airline of an additional $75 for a second bag by mailing my summer clothes.

Having dealt with that business, I have moved on to emotional impact.

First of all, I have to leave paradise, what I called Shangri-La in May posts, when I first visited and which I later called the Centre of the World, as the Chumash tribe does.

I have talked about the 3 year long drought, bears prowling the village, wildfire on the mountain and early snow. There is potential for large animals on the winding mountain roads as well as ice. There are signs that say,, “Expect to use chains at any time”, amusing enough when the temperature is 100 degrees F. but in  dead earnest. I haven’t mentioned that our ultra-friendly village sits in a valley shaped by the San Andreas Fault.

But I have also talked about the clear mostly silent skies , blue by day and unbelievably star-filled by night. There are no street lights and there is an ordinance against light pollution. Trees, mostly pine, climb the 8500 ft. peak of Mt. Pinos as well as the lesser slopes of the San Emigdio Mountain range and their breathing purifies the air. Here at 5500 ft. the aspens and poplars are florescent yellow now. The house in the pines is under a steep slope above a pond. House and pond are darkening by 4:45.

When snow fell on Hallowe’en, flocks of birds came down from the mountains. One morning there were many Brown Thrasers and others looking for food on the ground. The Stellers Jays, which amused me in May, flit back and forth between the trees, entertaining Clara and me when we drink our morning tea on the deck of my other, hillside  home. Woodpeckers search for grubs, head down on a pine tree. One jay likes to land on the deck rail and stare at the open door as if waiting for breakfast. But feeding a bird is inviting a bear. A hawk sat in a tall tree at the house in the pines this morning. Yesterday, the family golfer saw an immature condor. His first clue that it was an enormous bird was the slowness of its wings.

There is a horse trail that runs 3 miles down to an immense pine, over 20 ft around and 600 to 1000 years old. There are many other hiking trails. The Chumash Wilderness is accessible only by an ancient trail, which the firefighters had to use to get to the fire and crush out the spots the helicoptered water didn’t hit.

Our patient can do the 6 1/2 mile hike to the big tree. I cannot.

There are other amazing things about this place, for example, I can leave here in my fur-hooded jacket in near freezing temperatures and drive to Bakersfield where it is 90 degrees -altitude and an hour’s driving – north.

Not a bad place to find yourself marooned!

Then I will be leaving behind the close companionship that developed in the family as we struggled with a potentially fatal illness. At first we were united by grief and fear and general angst and now by joy that we have found a way to manage the disease. Our patient no longer needs constant care, even though she is still recovering.

Then there is the actual arrival home to deal with, walking in the door of my home. I confess I am afraid of that. I am told that since no one has lived there for 5 months, the dust will be only a light film not the greasier stuff that cooking and shedding skin cells produces. I did ask my sister to make my bed. I leapt out of it on June 4th when I got the phone call and started booking my ticket and throwing stuff into a suitcase. It’s as if I feel that the place is going to reprimand me for neglecting it.

I visualize it, the pictures on the walls, most of them painted by friends, except for the large photograph of the Seine by night, the Fiestaware cups on the sideboard, the bright rugs, the big rocking chair, so I will be familiar with it.

I have made about 55 trips to Southern California, two of them for several month’s stay and I always find the adjustment back to a long distance relationship with my family here difficult for a few days, not to mention adapting to Toronto, a colder place in every sense of the word.

This time, however, I will be taking back a different self, one more confident in support that transcends earthly connections, comforting as they have proved to be. I have the beauty and peace of this place securely memorized. I will have the memory of sitting alone, tearing a baguette for croutons, and suddenly feeling that I really was at the centre of life, at the centre of what Greek legend calls Eros.

 

 

Life is a Cabaret, Old Chum. Come to the Cabaret

Cabarethttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=moOamKxW844

Georgia celebrated her birthday this week. I had bought tickets to Cabaret at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Canada. I told her where to find them in my apartment in Toronto. They weren’t where I thought they were, but she called me on my land line and I told her to look under the paper weight and there they were. I had invited Blake to go with us. He had agreed to drive. And Georgia asked her daughter to go with them on my ticket.

When I bought the tickets in May, I thought to myself that it would be a treat to compensate me for the end of summer, as well as a good way to celebrate my younger sister’s birthday. Blake, my ex-husband, has known us since we were 16 and 10 respectively and we three always enjoy each others’ company.

Only problem – I am here where summer seems never to end and a typical morning greeting is “another beautiful day in paradise”. You hear that a lot in Southern California, but never more than here high in the mountains, a place which the  Chumash called the Center of the World. It is a town built around a golf club and its sole industry is leisure. Some people actually set out at 5 a.m. to drive down to work in the cities, even as far as Los Angeles, but many more do not. They get up early to play a round of golf and only then do they eat breakfast at the club house. They are resolutely friendly, waving as they pass you in their golf carts.

Others are economic refugees, here because you can buy a house for less than a hundred thousand or rent one for less than a thousand. There are many musicians and many free musical events. They will insist on playing without as much as free beer for their reward. There are talented writers and artists as well and festivals and events that showcase their work.

There are weekenders with big houses, executives, movie people, we suppose. We don’t meet them really.

And yet I missed Cabaret.

Georgia reported that it was wonderful, the set amazing. Blake took them to a good, untouristy restaurant for lunch.

I am suddenly struck by homesickness.

The maple tree across the street from the duplex where I live will have turned red by now. The one in front will soon turn yellow. The swallows will have left on or about August 28th. The geranium on the front porch -did anyone water it?- will be dying back even if they did. Tall grasses beside the bike path will be dead. Crows will be calling more than usual. Perhaps like the swallows, they are coming south.

It goes down below 60 F here at night. The cool air comes down from the heights above as soon as the sun goes down. I close the window before dawn. But by the time I go out the door, it is beginning to get hot, reaching the upper 80s by afternoon. And it is dusty. That’s the nature of a desert climate, even a high desert with pine forest. It’s rained once in the three months I’ve been here. A short trip on the golf cart leaves me, the cart and whatever I have with me -groceries, my laptop, my laundry caked in dust. In Bakersfield, an hour north, the valley floor kicks up so much dust that the mountains beyond look misty.

My Grandpa Munn couldn’t bear to leave his home, a farm in the mountains in Quebec. He would pine away when he did, growing more silent and pale as time wore on. The longest he was ever away was a week, but to him it felt like eternity. I’m not that homesick. I didn’t even notice it until I missed Cabaret. And these mountains are very like his mountains,so they are like that early home of mine.

Besides I’ve had the good fortune of having to be here amidst such beauty and in the middle of my family. Why complain?

The north seems to built into my bones. I miss the quickening of fall.

Reality Hotel: Kern County, CA

golf cart drawingWe are universally addressed as girls, although the universe here is miniscule. We don’t actually play golf, so our storage area holds just our purses. In the two weeks since I learned to drive a golf cart, I have become a go-cart cowboy.

We are actually girls despite our combined years – 163. So, by the way, is your aged mother/aunt/ grandma. My grandma remained one until she was over 90.

The golf cart we take to whatever restaurant we can find open in this sleepy mountain village is only half the fun. Which is saying a lot. Taking a left turn on a steep downgrade is as exciting as Magic Mountain.

The other half of the fun is living in the Reality Hotel, so nicknamed by my sister, Georgia,who willfully misread my email telling her that I had moved to the PMC Realty Hotel. It suited our theatre of the absurd experience here.

The Reality Hotel is comprised of three second-floor rooms linked by a balcony and situated above the realty office. My friend Clara, who lives next door, is waiting for a house deal to close in Las Vegas prior to taking possession of a new home here. Did you know that house deals can fall through on closing day? Well at least they can if they involve reservists and Veterans’ Affairs. There is a new deal but … One way or another, Clara’s new home will not be hers until August 30th. Neither will the spare room with my name on it.

Clara has the best room in the Reality Hotel. It has a kitchenette with a little wet bar sink, a microwave and a tiny fridge. She and her cat also have a private bedroom and a flat screen television with a DVD player.

My room next door has no such amenities, but it is large, and well carpeted with balconies on both ends. I can leave both doors open to catch the breeze. If there is a breeze. Most mornings it is 80 degrees inside by 10 a.m. It can get well up into the nineties by late afternoon. There is a ceiling fan over the bed, which  is mostly for show. There is a portable fan that works much better, however. The good news is that the cool air falls down from the mountains after 7 p.m. I shut the front door at night, but leave the sliding door to the front , stairless balcony open. Whatever climbs in through that window, Bruno the Bear included, is going to get a very rude welcome.I’ve got at least that much repressed rage going on.

So you get the picture, high desert with no air conditioning. Most people here don’t have it. After all it only goes up to the high 90s here, whereas in the valley it gets up to 110.

I have whined on about the no phone, no internet and analogue TV set in previous posts, so I won’t bore you with that again. I can always jump into the golf cart and come to the house in the pines or go to the internet cafe -which serves nothing and is often locked, but the signal works on the deck. Clara has her first cell phone, a Verizon phone of course. We AT&T-ers are fresh out of luck. I am teaching her to use it and so, I am able to send a text from time to time.

Using Clara’s kitchenette has its own difficulty. Clara always locks her screen door so that Jasmine doesn’t escape. Then she falls asleep. It’s hard to knock on screen and Clara is hard of hearing. I stand there teabag in hand, but, hey, it’s not so bad if you put into room temperature water and leave it for 20 minutes.

Because where else can I get hot tea? Well, at the amazing bakery, which makes to-die-for croissants. The bakery is open from 7 to 2 Thursday to Monday. Then there is La Lena, the Mexican restaurant. Amazingly you can get hot tea there as well as beer with lime, but it’s at the other end of town.

That brings up the question of what to eat and where. It is possible to eat cheese enchiladas three times a day at La Lena. That hard working family does not work on mountain time. They work seven days a week, breakfast through dinner. The pizza restaurant is open from 2 to 7,  later on weekends, closed on Wednesday. Their chicken Caesar is made with pre-frozen cubes which puts it a step down from La Lena’s meat. Mommy’s Roadhouse downstairs from Madd Bailey’s bar does a decent Angus burger and closes Wednesday. Then there is the club house which is open for breakfast and lunch every day, but serves dinner only from Thursday to Sunday. In other words, it is closed Wednesday night. The best restaurant is Silva Bella, although the chef leans heavily on milk and the prices are high. If you want to eat on Wenesday, however, that’s the place.

If you are working with food allergies, you are up against even if it isn’t Wednesday.

At least once a week, sometimes more I eat at the house in the pines and cook a family meal that often as well.

I am happy warming up leftovers from the house in the microwave or tossing a spinach salad, but Clara -not so much. Often I eat my gluten free breakfast and then drive her to the club where she eats scrambled eggs and I drink tea. If I order toast, I get a special commendation from the wait staff.

So here upon this bank and shoal of time, we wait for the resolution of our various problems. We wait at the Reality Hotel.

What’s that song: They’re living it up at the hotel California…… Then isn’t there something about “You can check out any time you like/But you can never leave.

hotel California

 

Random Notes from Shangri-la

happy squirrelMy last post was called “Of Stillness and Slow Time”, since then things have got more still (stiller?). I am now staying in a small hotel -3 rooms, no wishing well- no phone, no internet. If I hike cross town, that is past as many as six buildings, I arrive at the internet cafe. It is furnished with sturdy tables and chairs and free internet access. Pas du café. Something about a permit as yet not granted. I hear rumours of available phones at, for example, the Laughing Squirrel Restaurant. The laughing squirrel seems to have split, leaving the field to Mommy’s Roadhouse. Excellent Angus burgers and maybe a phone there somewhere. We tried semi-phore. I am on the second floor on a height of land. Smoke signals are out pending an end to the draught. Shank’s mare works. Just walk up and knock on the door. Thus was I summoned to breakfast this morning.

Amazing how restful it is! My smart phone turns into a stupid phone up here where AT&T gets no reception. Still coping with the altitude, I went to sleep at 8 p.m. and didn’t wake up until 6. Blissfully out of touch.
view from hotel 1

When I first got here I received a  relayed call from a shut-in to bring Black American Spirit. I went to the closet to find a black t-shirt made by that company in L.A. that insists on making its garments in the U.S. Only to discover it is the name of a cigarette.

view from hotel 2Before I moved to the small hotel, I borrowed the Prius one morning to go to the Bear Claw Bakery for croissants. I couldn’t find the usual electronic key. I grabbed the second one. I walked up to the car, pressed unlock. Got in. Put the key in the coffee cup holder, started up and drove away. I bought the  baked goods, returned to the car. The door wouldn’t unlock. I tried again. I tried the other doors. I tried the trunk. It’s a hatchback after all. I took out my stupid phone and gave it a good talking to. I left the croissant bags on the roof of the car and went back into the bakery. Could I use the phone? Wordlessly the chap I call the grumpy baker handed it to me. I called home. Eventually, someone woke up and answered. That remote key doesn’t work. Hasn’t for years. How did I even get the car to go? Hard to explain how to extract the manual key. Help would arrive via golf cart. Meanwhile I managed to get the actual key out of the remote device and unlocked the door. Now the dash kept telling me “no key”. There was a slot below the ignition button. I poked and prodded. I swear I was about to insert the remote key -well, I would have figured it out given five more minutes- when the cavalry arrived.

view from hotel 3The town is remote and perched at 5000 ft. The road up is serpentine. For 30 years, people could and did die waiting for an ambulance. Recently, a helicopter pad was built so that emergency patients can be air-lifted to the Bakersfield hospital. Even so, not everyone arrives alive as we learned last week. In addition there are now paramedics stationed here at the new fire hall. Imagine having to wait half an hour to an hour for the fire trucks to arrive in a town of wooden houses and tinder dry forests.

Today the ribbon cutting ceremony for the fire hall was scheduled for high noon. In deference to my low-land lungs, we drove over. “The whole town is out,” my companion declared. “Really?” I replied. “It’s a small town,” she rejoined. In fact it was just mountain time all over again. We stood in the shade with a dozen other people, all willing to chat. Noon passed. Twelve fifteen passed. Gradually others began to arrive. The crowd doubled and tripled. Around 12:25 -I shouldn’t have even noticed of course – the dignitaries arrived. In due course and with blessedly few speeches, events unfolded.

It had taken over 30 years to get the fire hall and much lobbying and in-fighting, marching with banners and the deaths of two beloved residents. Finally Kern County agreed to build it. It cost 9.5 million and came in 10 months ahead of schedule because there were no snow days. That would be because of the 5 year-long drought. President Obama has declared this a disaster area.

The fire hall is a thing of beauty. Since it is our fire hall, we got to tramp through it. It is still waiting for its brand new furniture, but everything seems to be of the best quality. Stainless steel and granite counters. Two person bedrooms with private bathrooms and built in desks set under the window. One room to accommodate a person with disabilities. (Fire halls are also refuges for battered women, as well as collection depots for unwanted new-borns.) A fitness room lined with mirrors. And of course room for the two fire engines.

view from hotel 4Some advice, in case you need it. If the great recession has done you in, move to a place like Kern County where the unemployment rate is double the national average. Such places have access to funds because they are poor. The medical health clinic is 40 minutes down the hill beside the I 5, again beautifully new and up-to-date. Another is due to open up here next month, smaller no doubt but no travel necessary. The new library down the hill has soaring ceilings, an auditorium, a beautiful children’s room, computers, a good collection and remarkable art work. Certainly people are here because the cost of living is much cheaper and many are retired so unemployment doesn’t matter as much to them. Nevertheless, there are service jobs available and every second person seems to be a realtor.

view from hotel 5For several weeks, we have been trying to identify a certain bird call, almost piercing, two noted, pendulum-like. It seemed to me it must be made by a large bird. We hear it in the morning and then again about 5:30 in the afternoon, often from a tall pine across the road. We crane our necks, we sneak around and peer upwards. No dice. We listen to bird calls on the Audubon app. Perhaps it is a woodpecker. That could account for its invisibility. One morning, the mystery is solved. The singer sits upright on a rock pile outside the kitchen window and pipes up. It is a squirrel.

sunset over mtns

 

Pack in Haste: regret at leisure

suitcase(howtodothings.com)

You’ve see those movies where the grifters have to leave town asap. They throw their clothes, hangers and all, into suitcases. Easy to do, because they had only one suitcase of clothes to begin with. Or the flee-ers scoop everything out of drawers into suitcases, which they slam shut. In comedies, some personal item trails out.

This time I had a 2 hour notice that I had to get from Toronto to Southern California. (Last time I got maybe 20 hrs.) It took me a half hour to figure out how to book  ticket while in a state of shock. (Definitely, on-line. Definitely don’t pay attention to prices.) Signed, sealed, delivered, checked in, bag paid for, boarding pass printed. Now what to pack?

I had made the same trip under more relaxed conditions, in early May, four weeks earlier. No problem, pack what I took then.

I dragged the purple suitcase out of the back of the long narrow cupboard. I set it on the blanket box at the foot of the bed, opened it and began flinging clothes at it. I had to be at the airport at 6 p.m. It was 5. Okay, this isn’t working.

I phoned Blake, my ex-husband. He knew he would have to drive me to the airport already. I said, “You have to come now,” I can’t think. He was with his young female friend. Let’s call her Noreen. “As soon as he could,” he said. They were caught in traffic. I kept flinging clothes. Breaking off now and then to empty the fridge, tie up the garbage, unplug the fountains. Forget the timer for the lights. I could cancel the papers once I got there. I was a whirling dervish.

5:20, they arrived.

“Joyce, this is Noreen” etc. I had heard a lot about Noreen. She seemed amiable enough.

“Can you two roll all this stuff up tightly and pack it.” The first time I’d met her and she was rolling my underwear.

I was stuffing toiletries into a plastic bag. When they finished, I put the dresses, etc. into the top compartment where they stood a small chance of not getting wrinkled.

They dropped me at Pearson International airport at 6:15. Noreen helped me put the bags on a cart and hugged me goodbye. Big surprise. No crowds. I self-served all the way through baggage check, customs, immigration, baggage loading – a nice Jamaician man lifted my bag onto the belt and sang me a song of his own devising- and finally, that metaphysical hurdle, security check, to arrive in good time at the gate for an 8:15 departure.

I forgot to mention the stop at the exchange counter. I have several hundred untouchable U.S. dollars in the bank, untouchable unless I present myself at the bank counter to claim them. I paid $138 Cdn for $100 US.

Fine.

At the first of June, on the mountain, north of Los Angeles, I survey my suitcase. What a difference a month makes! 24 times 31 little hours! It is hot, even at 5000 feet.

The grey wool suit, however light, is a non-starter. The tights will work on cold mornings or for midnight trysts. The desert cools down at night, especially at altitude. I have one t-shirt. No problem, here are 3 t-shirts from my male host. They should work. No shorts. Not even any capris or clam diggers. Well, here are 3 dresses and a wrap-around skirt that my size 2 hostess can give me. I am a size 14, but by some miracle, these are loose and flowing – on her. On me, not so much. I have brought the top of my bathing suit but not the bottom. (You should have some fun even in the middle of an emergency.) You know how they always say, “You can buy what you need when you get there.” They weren’t talking about the wilds of Kern County, but it is true in this one case. I find myself in Bakersfield and  buy a black bottom in Walmart. No sandals. No problem. I order some from Birkenstocks. I do not upgrade the shipping. Two weeks later I try to track the package. It has just been accepted by the mail service. In China. I pull out the silky tank top. It’s not the plain, soft one. It’s covered with glittery bits of plastic, like scales. I bought it for a costume.

Everyday, I discover new left-behinds: the list of my passwords for example. And no one will believe that I know my mother’s maiden name.

Bell has handed my cell coverage over to AT&T. The mountain is served only by Verizon. I send pleading texts from other people’s phones: please water the plant, did my parcel from Amazon come? Have they stopped paper delivery?

I can get most websites on my computer up here, but not my bank’s. I am reduced to telephone banking. How 90s!

They say that new experiences keep the aging brain young. I figure mine has dialed back to 17.

 

 

 

Bulletin #2 from Shangri-La: altitude

The village I am visiting in the Sierras sits in a bowl, at about 5000 ft., surrounded by 9000 ft. mountains. The mountains I was born in are the northern end of the Appalachians in Quebec, Canada. Mt. Hereford is less than 3000 ft. high, but down the way in the New Hampshire, White Mountains, Mt. Washington rises to over 6000. I went up it once with my young children and had to fight the urge to crawl. My additional 5 ft. 4 in. were just too much. I had the same impulse on Mer de Glace in the French alps.

One summer, I went camping in Yosemite with my daughter and her family and my French brother. He joked about being the only member of a film crew on a mountain shoot that had to go down to sleep. Poor thing, I thought. Then I lay down in my tent at 9000 ft.

Half an hour later, I woke up suffocating. I got out of bed, unzipped the tent flap and walked around in the pitch dark. That got tiring. I crawled back into my sleeping bag. Repeat and repeat and repeat. Around 1 a.m., I ran into my brother, who was even worse off than me. He was babbling. My daughter emerged from the tent where she, her son and husband had been sleeping soundly. Being a health care professional, she questioned us about our symptoms. Her most alarming question was, “Are you hallucinating?”  She advised us to go down to sleep.”Don’t sleep in the car. The cops don’t like that,” her husband called out from inside their tent.

I’m not sure what happened next. Rob seems to have set out to walk to the car, some distance away. I must have gone back to my tent to get something. My next memory is of walking the long dark track wrapped in my sleeping bag. A figure up ahead suddenly came toward me.

“Joyce,” it cried out.”Is that you?” Rob walked up to me. His face in the moonlight was full of horror. “I thought you were a giant ninja turtle come to take my soul.”

This was hysterically funny to both of us. We staggered toward the car, laughing. We laughed and laughed until we started to cut down through Tioga Pass where a huge full moon hung in a velvet black sky. Then we both began to cry, convinced that no matter how difficult our lives had been and they certainly had, this moment made it all worthwhile.

It took some time to find a motel. Rob disappeared into reception and came out laughing and waving a key.

“I told her you were my sister,” he chortled. “And I think she believed me.”

There were five beds in the room. It took us an age to chose.

So I scratched vacation spots of 9000 ft. off my list. The town where I was able to sleep was 7000.

Peppermint Creek up the Kern River in Kern County qualified. We spent several vacations there camped under the redwoods beside the rock pools. No problem. Well, there was the time I was getting breakfast food out of the car trunk when something breathed down my neck. Something taller than me. I took a breath. I slowly turned to meet death by bear and found myself nose to nose with a cow.

Then came the year after I had had major surgery, a whole year after. Shouldn’t I be ready to camp up there?

Obviously not. This was my daughter’s dream vacation after a very hard year. Both sons-7 and 16-were there, the latter of whom lived with his father across the continent, her newish man, her best friend and me, old short-lunged me.

Suffice to say that I spent my nights sitting in a car seat, only slightly reclined, the only way I could breath. Well some of the night. The rest of it was devoted to taking the trenching tool and the flashlight and hying myself off into the bushes. This time, altitude sickness featured the runs. But rattle snakes hunt at night and we seemed to be camped in the middle of rattlesnake city. And the flashlight seemed to have a black spot in the middle of the beam. True I could see the bowl of heaven above me and it was absolutely dense with stars. I felt as if God were talking to me. During the day, I got more and more skittish. I was getting about 2 1/2 hours sleep a night. I didn’t want to spoil the holiday. Guess whether I did.

So now I am here at  5000, among pines and bird song. And sun. I’m Canadian, don’t forget, and we’ve had a cold, rainy spring. I  have taken two walks. All roads are uphill! I stop frequently. I aim for benches. Getting showered and ready for the day makes me breathless. I sit gazing out windows at the pines. I sit on the deck gazing at the pines. I sit and read. Once in a while, when I get rested, I do tai chi. Down at sea level, I am full of energy, all those new red blood cells racing around.

I want to stay of course.