Not-Dead Wood — The Autobiography of a Tree

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By Elizabeth Speth  

“When you go out into the woods and you look at trees, you see all these different trees. And some of them are bent, and some of them are straight, and some of them are evergreens, and some of them are whatever. And you look at the tree and you allow it. You see why it is the way it is. You sort of understand that it didn’t get enough light, and so it turned that way. And you don’t get all emotional about it. You just allow it. You appreciate the tree. The minute you get near humans, you lose all that. And you are constantly saying, ‘You’re too this, or I’m too this.’ That judging mind comes in. And so I practice turning people into trees. Which means appreciating them just the way they are.”

So said Ram Dass, and I love the quote.  I love the way we accept — and love — a tree for what it is, and the elements and factors — some of which are harsh — that made it.

Sometimes, alas, a tree is harvested.  Often, unfortunately, though many of us love them best when they are stretching between an earthy tangle of roots and the clouds.  We love them in the silent cathedral forests, in parks crawling with  happy children, or sheltering a favorite spot in our yards, shading our cups of tea and our books.

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But a tree gets harvested.  Say, oh, a redwood, and it begins a different sort of life, and it is shaped again by the elements to which it is exposed.  It is formed to look like something else, and scarred, and marked.

Say the redwood is dragged from its fragrant forest, from the dappled, wild light, and it is first cut and planed and raised to form the foundation of a house and a barn, somewhere in California. Farmington, for instance, on a rural homestead, sometime in the 1930s.

Say the house turns a weathered color, and shelters a generation or two of children.  Say it is cared for lovingly, or not, but that it eventually falls into disrepair, an abandoned structure.

Say that young lovers stumble upon it, out there in the lonely open.  Maybe they shelter there for an hour or two, and they surely carve upon it with a knife, initials joined together for the life of the wood, if not the life of the carvers.

Say the old redwood structure is a silent witness to some drunken firelight revelry, overhearing hunting stories and bar-room brawl tales, and late in the night guns are fired by the beer-soaked story-tellers, and say a few bullets lodge in the old redwood, which absorbs them  stoically.  Another part of a visible history.

And then say some day my artist friend, Kermit McCourt, comes to look at this wood, with an eye toward turning it into something else.  He sees the square nail holes, where someone has hammered wallpaper.  He sees the knife slashes, the bullet holes.  He sees the original grain of the wood, the beautiful whorls.  He rests his hands on the wood, and feels all of its lives, the derelict, the sheltering, the forest.  And Kermit takes a hammer and gently begins to harvest this wood yet another time.

He stores it in his shop.  It watches him work for a year or two, until I write to Kermit and I ask him to make me a table, a big table, for my kitchen, where all my family can be together and have conversations and meals to remember.  I ask him to find some scarred, old wood.  Kermit recycles everything — he uses nothing new to make his paintings, furniture, jewelry, metal sculptures, so he is the guy to ask about scarred and old.  He is not the guy to ask if you want to separate a freshly-harvested tree from its venerable kin in the forest.  Kermit doesn’t operate that way.

Kermit says to me:  “I have this wonderful wood…  I will do it.”

And, because Kermit is a conduit for beauty that remains unknowable and unseeable to the rest of us, until it passes through his eye and his hand, he does.

He uses that beautiful old redwood, re-births it into a fine, big, strong table, held together with bolts reclaimed from a flatbed truck.  He does not stain it.  He knows the wood’s own face is beautiful, and it’s what he allows the world to still see.  He rubs it with teak oil, and layer after layer of wood wax, until it glows in candlelight and in sunlight.

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He leaves the bullet holes, and the scars, the nail holes.  He runs his fine, talented, work-roughened fingers over them, to show me, and I could weep with the beauty of it.  I do, a little, because the entire life of this wood is laid open before me.  The entire history, lovingly polished and, well, published.  Kermit has just put forth the redwood’s autobiography.

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We load the table into my horse trailer, so carefully, and I can’t believe I will take this wondrous thing home, memorize its topography, touch it every day.

As we are closing the trailer door, Kermit tells me to put my hands, from time to time, on the wood. On one level, I think he means to point out that the wood is a beautiful thing to feel, with its deep, smooth gloss, its soft, thick strength.

On another level, he is reminding me to seek those things which cannot be derived via our mere senses.  Because beauty has a feel, and so does history.  He is reminding me to step away from my judging mind.  To turn people into trees.

And we put the table in the kitchen, and it begins its next life.  A life of holding candles and fresh fruit, hot plates and soft napkins.  Bearing up under sad conversations, and serious, and silly.   Our gratitude will change the shape of it here and there, a little, maybe.  Maybe my someday grandchildren will accidentally scar it with a pair of scissors, or stain it with a marker, or glitter will become permanently stuck in some of the cracks.

That will be life, and the redwood will allow it.

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In Which Angus Gets What’s Coming to Him

By Elizabeth Speth

Every morning Angus and I meet at the front door for a standing date to do chores together.

Now, the thing about Jack Russell Terrorists — what endears them to their humans despite all the crazy behavior, shrill barking, general mayhem and destruction — is that they are joyful dogs. Those frantic, furiously busy little bodies house enormous reservoirs of happiness over the simplest of things.  A wide open place to run.  A puddle of water.  A morsel of food to bury.  A daily appointment to scoop manure and terrorize the horses together.  He’s all in.  Every ecstatic, wriggling square inch of him.

So, as I was saying, we meet at the door, and we wish each other good morning with a dignified handshake.

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I gather my boots, stuff my pockets full of whatever cream, medicine, ointment or pills I’m administering to the horses that day.  I put on my hat.

Sometimes, to shake things up, I pretend to forget my hat, because it is fun to see Angus boy-oy-oing into the air to knock it off the rack with his nose.  Then he looks at me pointedly as if to say:  “Okay, Forgetful.  Pick it up, put it on, let’s get going.”

Angus likes his routine.  All of it.  You can’t skip even one part of the ritual.

Lately, though, our smooth, calm scooping of the morning poop, wheeling of the barrow, filling of the troughs, throwing of the hay etc. has been marred by the presence of a bully.

I’m talking about the neighbor’s enormous, fluffy, blindingly-white cat.  Hereafter I’m going to refer to the cat as (S)he, because there is no way I’m getting close enough to narrow it down any more than that.  This cat is terrifying.

S(he) first strolled out to the middle of the pasture a few weeks ago.  S(he) stood out like an ice floe in a field of dirt, and basically look-dared Angus to come over and mix it up.

And Angus wanted to.  Angus saw S(he), and his jaw dropped.  He snapped to attention as the cat began to grow, arching to twice its size, all that glorious white fur now standing on end, a scattering snow flurry.

“Angus, heel!” I commanded, because I did not want a gory felineocide on my hands.  That cat was positively suicidal, sitting there like that, a creamy challenge to the poor, whining, blood-lusting little warrior that is Angus.

Since then, chores have become very stressful, because every day that damned cat is out there, big and fat and blinding and insolent in the middle of our field.  I should be working, occasionally looking up to see Angus trotting around happily, exploring and stirring up trouble.

Instead, I am constantly anxious, shouting:  “Angus!  No!  Heel to me, Angus!  Stop it!  Angus! Get back here!”

And he is constantly sneaking off, only to be called back, darting away, only to be sharply reprimanded.  He is a yipping, yelping, squirming misery of longing to get at S(he) and show that interloper what is what.

I’ve tried leaving him inside.  His sharp, high-pitched protest was shattering eardrums in the next county.  Authorities were summoned.  The cat situation was explained.  No sympathy was elicited. Noise ordinance violations were handed out.

I’ve tried varying the times we venture forth, to no avail.  S(he) watches for us, and comes sauntering out of the blackberry bushes, all menace and attitude, at the first rattle of the gate.

I tried scaring the cat off with a wave of my arms and rake, and the cat winked at me.

And then this morning it all got away from me.

I lost focus for a moment, I guess, my mind on manure.  Maybe the tines of my pitchfork got snared in a weed.  Maybe I was dozing.  Maybe I subconsciously wanted it all to end.  Whatever the reason, I looked up and Angus was halfway across the pasture, streaking at the fast-swelling S(he), who spat loud and long, screamed hellishly, and then charged right toward the missile that was Angus.

I was frozen in shock and horror.  Angus’ name died a futile death on my tardy lips.

They collided like two white-hot stars.

The cat went over the top of Angus, slashing at him with an impressive arsenal of claws, which sent the poor dog tumbling once, twice, three times.  He crashed into a post.

He wasn’t down for long, though.  Nosiree.  In less than a second Angus’ feet scrambled and found purchase in the witnessing dust.  And he got the hell out of there, tongue and ears flying behind, just trying to keep up.  He streaked past me with a large-eyed, humiliated stare, and then he flung himself under the fence and thoroughly out of the pasture, unmistakably ceding it to the cat.

Who strolled back into the blackberry bushes and, point made, has not been seen since.

Once the cat was gone, Angus, still on the other side of the fence, began running up and down the line of it, barking ferociously at the section of greenery that had swallowed the cat.

Loosely translated, because I’m leaving out the profanity, what Angus was saying was:

Why, you dirty cat!  If it weren’t for this fence between us, and the fact that you’re not even here anymore, why, I’d tear you limb from limb.”  

He did this until the greenery moved, rustled by a passing breeze.  That’s when he ran inside.

Later, he showed me where he thought he might have hurt his paw in the battle.

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He’s been sticking close to the house today, keeping an eye out for that damn S(he).

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I think he will be haunted for some time to come.  When his eyes look out into the horizon, unseeing, he will go back to this terrifying morning.  When a kitten meows softly he will start, and then retreat inward.

There are no support groups for Angus. (I checked.  He asked me to.)  No words of comfort.  It’s his burden to carry.  His and his alone.  Poor fellow.

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Confessions of a Tevis Volunteer (Or: Why I Keep Coming Back)

By Elizabeth Speth

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Volunteers meet a weary rider at the gate into Francisco’s.

The annual Western States Trail Ride, popularly called the Tevis Cup, is a grueling 24-hour horseback ride over 100 miles of exceptionally beautiful and punishing terrain.  Sanctioned by the American Endurance Ride Conference, it is a horse-centric event, designed around the safety and well-being of the animal.

It’s an amateur race against the clock, no cash prizes, only a coveted buckle.  Started in 1955, it is considered the  founding event in endurance racing, and is still known as the most difficult.  Over the years, it has evolved into something that requires nearly a thousand people to make sure up to 200 riders and their horses make the journey safely.

The psychology of the riders — why would they do such a thing? — is the subject of another blog.  They are a breed apart.  The training of their magnificent steeds for such a trial is also another discussion entirely.

All I’m qualified to address is the volunteerism aspect of this.  For a large handful of years — I’m fuzzy on the exact number out of sheer fatigue — my husband and I have braved miles of rocky, narrow roads to report for duty in the early afternoon at the rugged Francisco’s outpost, at Mile 86.  We remain there until the pre-dawn hours of the morning, sometimes pulling out as the sky begins to lighten.  This is where we put the exhausted horses and riders back together, hydrate, refresh and encourage them, and send them on to the last part of their journey.  This is where we marvel at the freshness of the front-runners, who breeze in and out and look as though they are in the middle of a leisurely ten-mile trail ride. All of them have come from the high peaks near Lake Tahoe, and will end their journey in Auburn, CA, if they make it that far.

A lot has happened in the years I’ve volunteered, and I’ve loved every minute of it.  The following is a list of things I’ve been privileged to do, and so I feel qualified to say I will happily do them again — and again — year after year, until fate and a good horse and the aligned stars finally put me at the starting line.

Here, in no particular order, is my list of proven qualifications and skills:

I will be happy to see you at one a.m. in a remote place, with the moon rising over a tree-fringed canyon, as the air is turning cold.  You have been riding nearly twenty hours, give or take.  In temperatures that exceeded 110 degrees.  You’ve had a long day.  We’ve left the light on for you, because you still have a ways to go.

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I will sponge your horse with cool water as his heart rate slows.  I’ll stake out a little spot for him to eat a nourishing bran mash and clean hay, as peacefully as possible.

I’ll pay attention when you explain her little quirks and preferences, how to best get her to eat and drink and relax.

I will check your gelding’s pulse with my stethoscope, count his respirations, tell you when you are clear to see the vet and get on down the road.

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I will fill your water bottles with cold water, gatorade, lemonade — whichever you like — and I’ll make sure they are safely tucked into your saddlebags.

I will make you sandwiches.

I’ll go find carrots for your horse, a rump rug so he doesn’t cramp, and watermelon because I remember you from last year, and I know your mare loves it.

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I will stay with you while you throw up, wretchedly, exhaustedly, on the ground in front of your chair under the gas lamp.  Riding in the dark for hours gave you motion sickness, and your dehydration didn’t help.  You are too tired to be embarrassed, and I’m glad, because you shouldn’t have to worry about that.

I will hold your horse and look discreetly the other way while you pee on a bush not a foot away from me.

I will share my antacids with you, my Tylenol and my sunscreen.  I’ll rub your bad knee, if you ask me to, or your shoulders or your horse’s muscled rump.

I will run five miles down a trail in my boots, in deep darkness, because your horse stumbled and you both went over a cliff.  My fellow volunteers and I will be overjoyed to find you alive, clinging to a steep hillside, seriously injured but with humor and graciousness intact.  Your horse will have made his way back to camp by then, in better shape than you.  I will sit with you for a few hours while the moon pries the black sky open, and we wait for rescue folks to arrive.

I will follow the rescue crews out as they carry you back over those five miles in a stokes basket, and I will resist the urge to kiss you on the forehead because, for all you have been through, you are still in for the ambulance ride from hell over miles of rough road to get out of this canyon and to help.

I will call your wife as the sun rises, and your helicopter lifts off for the nearest trauma center.  I  will assure her that I’ve seen you with my own eyes, that you were awake and alive.  I will listen to her stoicism and bravery on your behalf, but I will hear her finally break down when I mention that your horse took the best care of you that he could in the accident.  She will say that she loves that darn horse.  What is understood but not said is how much she loves you — enough to let you do this crazy thing.

I will make you brownies.

I will give your horse electrolytes, and trot him/her out for the vet for you because you are tired/throwing up/too lame to do it.  Your horse will, miraculously, be sound at 86 miles because you have spent the day attending to him, monitoring him, reaping the benefits of months or years of careful preparation.

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Both riding and crewing Tevis can be a family affair. My daughter helping out a junior rider.

I will check on you several times while you wait three hours to get your horse trailered out after you are pulled for a lameness because some damn rock in the road had your name on it.  I will marvel that you are sleeping on the ground almost between your horses’ feet, and I will admire both you and the horse for that relationship, and your journey together.

I will envy you as you pile your tired body in the saddle for the last fourteen miles, so delirious you have to ask me which way the trail lies.  I will watch you until darkness swallows you up.  I will think you are very brave.  I will think your horse is a miraculous thing of beauty.

My thoughts will follow you to the finish line.  You started out with a 50-50 chance of making it, and you’ve come so far.  I am willing you to get there.

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My husband Neil and me. Tevis 2014.

Me, I will  be thinking longingly of bed, and also about clearing my schedule for next year.

And likely you are thinking the same thing.

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In Memoriam — Tragedy Strikes on a Friday Morning

By Elizabeth Speth

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RIP, little lizard floating in the water trough, your pretty blue belly turned up to the sky.

I’d seen you around the neighborhood, under-supervised.  I feared you might become a statistic.

We’ll never know if it was suicide, an accident, or murder.

Did one of the horses push you in?  You can tell me.

Maybe you had a heart defect.

Is there a history of sudden death by heart attack in your family?

I am deeply sorry that when I tipped the trough and you flowed out, Angus the Jack Russell Terrorist snapped you up and started chewing you.

I was sorely grieved when he spit you out and began hacking disrespectfully.

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He is in deep disgrace. Also, he is unrepentant.

I’m sorry I gagged as I dropped your several little pieces into that small hole in the ground, and covered you with hot, impersonal dirt.

I should have held it together better.

It was with acute regret that I saw Angus immediately begin to dig you up again.

I hoe you understand why I just had to walk away at that point.  It was too much tragedy to bear.

A couple more days of these 110-degree temperatures, and the winds will be scattering your ashes.

RIP, little lizard, floating in the water trough.

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Is Texting and Aging the New Texting and Driving?

By Elizabeth Speth

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This is an intervention.

It’s going to be awkward and painful, especially for the interventionee, my husband Neil, who has become a danger to himself and others.  Who has wrought destruction and acute embarrassment and also occasional nausea upon his loved ones.  Who needs to put down his cell phone.  And walk away.  No last-minute pictures.  No farewell texts.  It’s time to go cold turkey.

Some numbers to consider as I build my case:  According to the Pew Research Center,  83% of American adults own cell phones and three-quarters of them (73%) send and receive text messages. The average 18-24 year-old sends or receives more than a hundred text messages daily.  In the 55-64 age bracket, the number is a much lower ten or so.

In the Neil Bracket, the goal here is to get the number down to a nice, round zero.  My children will back me up here.

Our beef with Neil is based on other hard, cold statistics, like the following:

One or more times a week, Neil forgets he is on a group message chain, and sends shall we say inappropriate messages to our perpetually traumatized, gagging, horrified, eye-soap scrubbing offspring.  So far only our family has been targeted, but it’s only a matter of time before the rest of the world is at risk.

It’s been going on for a while.  Neil has been chastised, he’s been warned, he’s been threatened.  There have been apologies, confrontations, ultimatums, tears, vows to go forth and sin no more.  But Neil is a recidivist.  He’s recalcitrant.  He’ll be fine for a few days, what we now know to call the Honeymoon Period, but then I get the textual equivalent of a mumble, something to the effect that he may have sent a text without his glasses again, not sure, and BOOM!  There is this, which cannot be un-seen:

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You will notice he tried to bluff his way out of this, which is typical behavior for an intervention candidate.

I actually retrieved this photo off my son’s Twitter feed.  It’s in the #Neilstrikesagain series.

More damning evidence:

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I have not included the texts that refer to specific body parts.  I have spared you that, but you can see them on our children’s Twitter and Instagram feeds.

I don’t mean to pick on just Neil here.  Well, that’s a lie.  I do.  This is an intervention.  But I’m probably guilty of being too old to text too.  I still try get the spelling and punctuation right, and I write in complete paragraphs with strong topic sentences and metaphors, as I was taught.  This kind of effort on my part, with the help of the auto-correct feature and my own lack of appropriate magnifying eyewear,  just results in a sort of word salad, especially after cocktail hour.

Perhaps you are feeling badly for Neil now.  You would like to suggest, in his defense, that he could dictate his texts, rather than typing them.  That doesn’t work in Neil’s case, because he does not proofread.  He can’t.  He doesn’t have his reading glasses.

Take a recent evening when he texted me while enjoying a seafood dinner, and presumably libations, with friends.  The mussels were apparently particularly tender that night, prompting the following dictated message of affection:

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In the wrong hands, this could have sparked an International Incident.  This man is clearly dangerous.  Note also the fact that this was, again, a group message.

It is time to face the fact that we are the Jitterbug generation.  The demographic for whom the straightforward flip phones with large, lighted keys were invented.  They can only be used to call 911 and Reverse Mortgage companies.  We can stay out of trouble this way.

Because it’s not just the texts.  It’s the photos.  Neil has discovered the selfie, and he’s obsessed.  I know for a fact, because I have photographic proof, that he goes into his office during the work day, closes and locks the door, takes inappropriate photos of himself and SENDS THEM TO PEOPLE  (more irrefutable numbers here) at the rate of approximately too many times per week.

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See what I mean?

Like a teenager, he sends pictures of what he is wearing:

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Yes, those are mis-matched shoes.  Neil wears them exactly twice yearly.  Neil doesn’t wear his glasses when he dresses either.  But that’s a different intervention.

Neil, you know we love you.  We think you are great dad (other than the inappropriate messages to your children), a great husband, and a good, hard-working provider.

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But author Sara Gruen summed it up best when she said:  “Keeping up the appearance of having all your marbles is hard work, but important.”   

So, yeah.  We just want you to put down the phone. Maybe take up the saxophone?

Or just get some sleep.

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?

By Elizabeth Speth

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How I love a good dinner party.

It is one of life’s best joys.  I haven’t thrown nearly enough of them in my life, but I do understand the essential elements. You must have food.  You must have drink.  You must have conversation, which necessitates people.  For the conversation to be enjoyable, I suggest people you find pleasant and/or interesting.

A few other things that are nice to have but not necessary:

— Flowers, fragrant if possible, low to the table so people can see each other over them.

— Candlelight, because it makes us look younger, and also hides the cooking splotches on your clothing.  The warm, flickering glow casts merciful doubt upon the arugula stuck in your teeth, that large splash of wine on your lapel from your too-vigorous toast, the dents in your ancient cutlery, and the stains on your faded linens, which occasionally double as dish towels.

— Live music, as from a moody, long-haired Spanish guitar player cuddling his instrument on a stool in front of the moonlit window, or a gypsy violinist, or a tuxedoed string quartet.  I’ve never experienced any of these scenarios, but I think they would be great.

A dinner party can be an impromptu affair.  Recently a few family members and I emptied out my sister’s refrigerator, and trooped out to her  deck juggling containers of humus, cheese, olives, crackers and the like, and a jug of wine.  We laughed and talked for hours while a huge bank of summer thunderclouds darkened over our heads, and only scurried inside when the first clap of thunder coincided with drops the size of salad plates landing on our heads.  That was a very fine dinner party.

Swap out the wine for water, the lamb shanks for French fries, the finger bowls for pre-moistened, packaged towelettes from the take-out barbecue place, and you’ve still got a dinner party as long as you’ve got at least one other person to sip and sup with you.

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Because eating and drinking and talking together is a wonderful, intimate, convivial, bonding, dare I say loving thing to do amongst humans.  It elevates sustenance of the body to nourishment of the soul.

It’s the closest you can get to people without taking off your clothing, or violating your marriage vows or sterling reputation.  For the space of that meal, until the chewing and swallowing are done, you must look each other in the eye, listen and speak, give and take.  You must let down your defenses as you replenish yourselves.  It’s a glorious exercise in mutual vulnerability.

So, working from that premise, I posed this question to scores of friends and acquaintances:

What person, living or dead, would you like to have at your dinner table?

I’ll start.  I think about this a lot, usually while I cook.  There are so many people with whom I long to break bread, and the social barriers of polite restraint.

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Teddy Roosevelt, for instance.  I want to talk to him about parenting.  I want to see him raise his bushy eyebrows at us leaning in,  wondering if we can ‘have it all’, be good parents and big career builders too.  I want to hear how he informed visiting heads of state from countries like Japan and Germany that their work was done for the day, because he had a standing date at 4:30 pm to play touch football with his children on the lawns at Sagamore Hill.  The heads of state were always invited to join in, but the appointment non-negotiable.  I want to ask him how he overcame physical limitations to embrace a life of such adventure.  I’d like to know how in the world he endured the loss of his wife and his mother in the same day.

I’d love to eat dinner with the first fellow who ever thought to eat an oyster.  He probably had a lot of other really marvelous ideas.

I’d have Dorothy Parker for dinner in a New York second, but I’d water down her drinks and keep an eagle eye on my husband.  Parker is of course famous for saying that she likes to have a martini, maybe two at the most.  At three she’s under the table.  At four she’s under the host.

Jane Goodall would be a wonderful dinner companion.  She would not be a conversation-hog.  In fact, you’d likely never know she was there but for a pair of watchful, intelligent eyes peering out of the floral arrangement. Occasionally you’d hear the ‘scritch-scritch’ of a pen as she observed the dinnertime behavior, especially when the more bombastic guests started chest-pounding.

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Jane quietlly monitoring the dinner conversation from behind the floral arrangement.

I’d love to eat dinner with Robert Duvall.  With Anthony Bourdain and Erik Ripert.  The guy who thought up the show Deadwood, David Milch.  I wouldn’t even ask him to clean up his language.  He could lay waste to the dining room with F-bombs if he wanted.

But enough about me.  Here’s what you all said.  In some cases, I have condensed and paraphrased, so please forgive me.  Curse me for it, if you like.  Call me names, but never call me late for dinner.

There was, amongst you, some duplication of dinner invitees, so I’ll cover that first.  Jesus Christ was the most popular answer, perhaps not surprisingly, and the reasoning varied.  (We all know what Jesus looks like at supper, so I have skipped the photograph.)

My lovely friend Bridget, a missionary who devotes her life to rescuing children from the sex trade in a very poor country, explained her choice:

I would have answers to hundreds of questions, like are there aliens, who first thought lobsters looked delicious.  Since His first miracle was water to wine, we’d be having the best, and Italian food, lots and lots of Italian. There would be great conversation, joy , peace and laughs because God does have a sense of humor.  I want to ask him: ‘Hitler. Why?’

My sister Anna is at the very least agnostic, if not atheistic about her beliefs, although we have certainly discussed at length the historical proof of Christ’s existence.  She said she wanted to ask Jesus:

Are you sorry you didn’t just lay low?  I mean, wouldn’t you rather have led a quiet carpenter’s life? Did you really maybe mean to be a Buddhist?

Another popular dining guest choice was Abraham Lincoln, and I agree that his eloquence at the dinner table, his sensibilities, intelligence and kindness, would be a thing to behold.

My husband Neil’s rationale for inviting him:

He was a good storyteller. He had a sense of history, and such a great sense of humor. I want to know what he’d have done about Reconstruction, and what he thought of America today.

My friend Lucinda on Abe:

How do you make decisions that result in death and suffering for so many no matter what you choose to do?

A few chose Thomas Jefferson.  He’d be on my list too.  He was a great locavore, and I think he’d have loved our California foothill wines.

My friend Mark on Jeffersonian company:

Tommy Jefferson would be on the top of my list. He invented our method of surveying, sent out Lewis & Clark, had a vision for this country before most,  He was into bi-racial (er… let’s just say  Mark said ‘relations’), and I’m pretty sure he brought an end to the Alien and Sedition Acts. He was a little clingy to the French, though…

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Jefferson’s dining room at Monticello. Perhaps we should eat at his place…

My thoughtful friend Christian opined that Jefferson, and some other historic leaders,  would have words of wisdom for a country that frequently finds itself torn in two, politically:

I’d love to have Thomas Jefferson and James Madison over for a long meal, multiple courses, dinner, coffee, and brandy, to discuss how they compromised their personal beliefs to write a Constitution that the States would ratify. Also, I would have the prophet Mohammed over for a simple halal meal, to discuss how his followers have perverted his words (or maybe he would feel they haven’t) to justify some terrible positions regarding women in the 21st century, and dealing with the rest of the world’s non-believers. I feel like we need more leaders who can build consensus, rather than stake out a position because it’s popular with their followers. I would think a couple of dinners like this might just be the ticket towards some ideas to heal our society / world.

A lot of you would like to have dinner again with family members who have died.  My Uncle John comes from a long line of artists, and he very much embraces modern technology in his work.  He opted to send out an invitation to dine to his deceased father, Merle, also a man of considerable talent.

I’d love to turn his designs into laser art,  John said.

My friend Ken suffered through the agony of his father’s dementia, watching the man fade away mentally long before he did physically.

With all the conversations we had, I would love one more, he said, and there is a lot of heartbreak behind that simple statement.

A lot of my female friends wanted another meal with their grandmothers, myself included.  We want to talk to them about their wonderful contributions to history, about those old recipes that were such a big part of our childhood.  It is our consolation for growing old, I guess, for the slow murdering of our vanity by  time, that our daughters’ daughters will not cease loving us.

But historical figures definitely carried the day, in terms of desirable diners.

Take my friend Crockett, a modern-day man of the frontier if ever there was one (his address contains the words ‘outlaw’ and ‘trail’), who chose:

Etta Place…  I’ve got not a clue to where/ how she disappeared so successfully. Also Robert Leroy Parker (alias Butch Cassidy).  These are the things I would ask him:  Where is the Rhodes Gold Mine, where is the Lost Dutchman and where is Butch Cassidy Buried?

Laurie said:  I’d go with Anne Frank, because she left so much of her life’s story unsaid. I would love to sit next to her and let her be a child again at a table where she could eat to her heart’s content and talk as loud as she wanted.

Spencer’s selection:  Alexander the Great. Questions… What makes you so confident? How were you able to conquer so much territory? HOW DID YOU DIE?  (Illness?  Poison?)

My friend Jacqueline, a woman with a colorful artistic personality, would gravitate to the table with Pablo Picasso and  Frida Kahlo, and they would eat paella.  A table always needs an artist, she explains.

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I imagine Frida would want to light up an e-cigarette after her dinner at my friend Jacqueline’s house, and damn the health risks.

Laura, my literary and nature-loving friend: 

It would have to be Henry David Thoreau, though he wouldn’t care for me, nor would he drink with me. He was not, in general, a fan of women, nor did he drink. He was a rather stiff and solitary fellow, as Emerson said of him, “One might as well put one’s arm around a young pine tree.” But he did like conversation, and I don’t believe he hated women, just didn’t have much use for the overall frivolity factor, in either men or women. So perhaps we would find something in common.  Hard to say. Many people found Thoreau off-putting and difficult. But then, this could also be said of me.

(For the record, Laura is neither.)

My son Leland:

I’d like to get ridiculously drunk with Ulysses S. Grant. I’d want to figure out how to be a strategist like he was.

Uh, Leland?  Not until you are 21 (you’ve got three more years, young man!), and I respectfully submit that the first step to being a great strategist is sobriety.

Finally, a last few invites to share with you.

My nephew Andres:

Bob Marley. Just to listen to this man who was so at peace with his life. I’d ask him questions about his  history, what he thinks about modern medicine, what he thinks the purpose of life is.

Andres did say what would be on the menu for his dinner with Bob, and I’ll just say that they’re both going to be mighty hungry when they’ve finished that particular form of…er…refreshment.

Tracey, my adventurous hiking friend:

Amelia Earhart is THE woman.  She said:  “Adventure is worthwhile in itself.  Decide if the goal is worth the risks involved. If it is — stop worrying.”  I would love to ask her if indeed it was worth it. 

My niece Olivia:

Esther Earl.  She was Sixteen when she died of thyroid cancer.  Through the Harry Potter Alliance she got books to kids who didn’t have access to them.  She was just a normal girl who made such a difference in a short time.  I’d  want to cook fancy food for her.  We’d have a proper English tea time.

From my niece Mari:

Carl Sagan.   I’d ask him if he’d finally made contact with other life forms. I’d make him seared ahi, sautéed spinach and mashed garlic taters.

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Make sure you seat Carl next to a bowl of fruit, which he often finds helpful in demonstrating the concepts of dimensionality.

And Erin, my wonderful horse-loving, Wild West-embracing, very literate riding buddy:

Virginia Woolf, Queen Noor, Eleanor Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and also my great grandfather who rode with Wild Bill Cody and broke horses as one of Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders.

My son Lyle:

Bill Murray. He is an anomaly. Humor and personality.

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Ok, Lyle, but I hope you don’t mind crumbs in the sheets.

Ideally, of course, the dinner party ends here — with you ringing a little bell (which summons people to clear our dishes, put food away, render the kitchen spotless), and me fetching the cigars and brandy.

It’s been lovely.  Let’s do it again.  And soon.

messy after

Hot, Crowded, Hungry…and Old

By Elizabeth Speth

midlife

Mid-life crisis? What mid-life crisis?

Recently, I had a birthday during an unseasonable wave of heat, against a backdrop of bad news.

Though it was supposed to be spring — the air soft and cool and green with possibility — Mother Nature had careened right past that season, screeching to a halt on a startlingly hot day,  the anniversary of the day of my birth.

Never mind which anniversary.  Suffice it to say I am getting close to the age of measuring in portions of centuries.  In most cultures, that is not something women feel like celebrating.

We become strangers to ourselves.  We grow speckles and spots.  We soften and spread.  We look like our mothers.  The older versions of our mothers.  Men stop behaving with gallantry toward us.  No one looks up when we enter a room, and what we have to say does not seem as riveting as it did when we uttered it through the rosy lips of youth.

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When we are young, our skin fits snugly and our clothing is loose. Now, of course, the opposite is true.

I know that there are three definite, terrifying signs that you are officially old. One is losing your memory.  I can’t recall the other two.

But that wasn’t the only bad news on my birthday.  Something else was dragging me down as I trudged sizzling sidewalks, wiped sweat from my newly creased forehead, wondered if the whole world was having a hot flash, or just me.

I was sluggishly digesting (that’s one more thing that fails with advancing years) a news story about falling rice production in my beloved home state.

California’s recent dry spell, it seems, is expected to have a dramatic effect on rice production.   That is a big deal, and not only because this state supplies virtually all of the nation’s sushi rice.  The other half of our crops are exported.

Economists say that, of all the food crops, rice is likely to be affected by the drought the most, and the California Rice Commission estimates that rice farmers will leave 100,000 acres, or about 20 percent, of their fields fallow.

This of course nudges prices up worldwide.  Which can be a tragedy, depending upon where you live.  For us, rice is a comfort food, a sticky pillow upon which to rest your sashimi.  Something to round out a meal.  But in other cultures, a bowl of rice can make or break your day.  Perhaps that is most of what you will eat in a 24-hour period, and now you can only afford half a bowl.

To complicate matters, with food stores in the pantry beginning to dwindle, a real crowd has just shown up for dinner.

California’s population grew by roughly 332,000 people in the last fiscal year — its biggest increase in nearly a decade, according to new California Department of Finance estimates.The estimated population rose 0.88%, exceeding 38.2 million as of July.

Most of that growth was “natural increase” — births minus deaths (all those young whippersnappers having babies, which used to be my job, minus old people at the end of their lives, which is what I am now).  The rest is immigration.

So let me put all the layers of the birthday cake together for you, so you can see it clearly.  (Hang on.  I will need to find my reading glasses so I can see it too.)

My world was suddenly hot, crowded, and about to be very hungry.

The sky seemed to narrow, its gaze hostile and unwelcoming.

The message I thought I might be hearing was, ‘Shove off, Grandma.  Move over.  Make room.’

In a time of contracting resources, like space and food and familiar climates, shouldn’t we defer to the talent, beauty and energy of youth?  Can we afford the luxury of a vast, aging population, sucking up sustenance and space, reminding us all that the end is coming, and it is wrinkled and grim?

Have I, at my advanced age, over-stayed my welcome?

My youngest child had become a legal adult the week before.  What would I do with myself now?  How would I contribute?  Here I was, your typical old folk, obsessing about  weather and crops and the fact that my joints, like today’s young people, are so darned disrespectful.

It’s enough to make you want to whack someone with your cane.

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As I usually do, I sought refuge and comfort in the gloaming of my horse pasture at evening feeding time.  I took comfort in the fact that I can still, for now, lift a bale of hay, and that I do still serve at least one purpose, even if it is only keeping the herd from starvation.  They need me.

I sat on the edge of a feeder and listed to the rhythmic munching of hay, and watched a feverish, fussy wind harass the tree tops.

I rejoiced as I felt one tiny tendril of cool breeze lift my hair, and then another.

I listened to the birds chirping to each other, telling stories about the day, and it did not sound as though they were complaining.  Small, colorful butterflies ignored the heat as they flirted with each other on the mustard blooms.  They don’t have a lot of time either, in this life, and they were getting on with the business of living.

I became aware of the drone of bees among the blackberry flowers and felt the world — finally, blessedly — expand.  As if drawing a breath.

Without realizing, I exhaled along with it, and the high, hot wind gusts finally quieted as the cooler breezes gathered momentum closer to the ground.

Because I had been thinking about rice all day,  I suddenly remembered something.  I remembered how many things can fit on a single grain of rice.

Grain-of-Rice-Art1Amazing-art-on-rice-grain

I thought:  If you can write entire verses — or faithfully detail the unique features of a human face — on such a small surface, how crowded are we really on this earth?  With the proper perspective, and appropriate tools, a grain of rice is enormous.

I looked around my familiar, large pasture, with its groves of trees, its seasonal ponds.

I thought, well, I have a little room.

I reminded myself that the hot weather I was finding so onerous of course meant the advent of the season of longer days.

That’s a few more hours in the day to get things right.  More time, if you will.

And my age has some benefits.  I can serve as a powerful cautionary tale, at the very least.  A walking, talking essay about things that should be done differently.

I am a living, breathing admonishment to:

— Wear sunscreen.

— Refrain from gluttony, because enough is as good as a feast.

— Live more outside of the comfort zone, even if it’s a bit terrifying, or become merely a collection of habits.

— Travel, or risk a mind that is fused shut.

— Accumulate fewer things.

— Glorify busy-ness less.

— Go ahead and get naked, because it’s only ever going to get worse.

Yeah.  That’s stuff young people aren’t born knowing.  Some unfortunate old person always has to demonstrate it.  I can do that.

Later that week, the oldest trainer in Kentucky Derby history, Art Sherman, 77, won that race handily with his horse California Chrome.  This duo — this perfect balance of very young horse and wise old man — also hails from the state of shrinking rice crops and swelling populations.  That made me feel better.

There was time, maybe, I thought.  Perhaps even for something amazing.

So, even though there is less and less room for me in the world, everyone knows people shrink as they age. I will take up less room. Well, vertically, at least.

birthday

What Value, the Soul of a Dog?

By Elizabeth Speth

Angus 4

This will be a hard post to write. I’ve been putting it off for more than a week.

It’s about a beloved family member who stretched out to sleep in the warm sun on the front steps last Friday morning. It’s about Death coming quickly to claim this gentle creature, mid-nap, in his favorite snoozing spot.

I’m talking about our dear friend Dobra the Doberman, who came to live with us as a foster rescue dog when he was a young adolescent. He stayed for more than a dozen years, helped us raise our children, roamed our three and a half acres, kept its borders safe. He kept the horses in line, fended off intruders of all species. If you posed even a possible threat to any Speth creature — equine, feline, human or otherwise — you had to go through Dobra first. And God help you.

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Dobra the Doberman, with my son Leland, whom he helped raise.

We don’t know if he lifted his head in surprise those last seconds, somehow understanding what was happening to him. We don’t know if he fought his mortality, twitched in protest as he struggled up from sleep. We don’t know if he woke at all, or experienced any discomfort. We weren’t there for any of it. Only his best friend was with him. Angus, the Jack Russell Terrorist was there, lying beside Dobra when we found him, keeping watch while the slow humans finally got around to understanding what we’d lost.

I was very sad that Dobra was suddenly gone. It was so unexpected.

But then I was so grateful.

He had just begun to experience some arthritis, but otherwise seemed youthful. So I didn’t have to agonize about the ‘when do we put him down’ decision, which is so hard.

I rarely have the luxury of having the decision made for me.

Let me just say for the record that Dobra had an epic morning, which was typical for him. He chased some horses, cornered a rodent in the woodpile (that was VERY exciting).

I was scrubbing horse troughs, a game he loved.  He chased the water rivulets as though they were live animals, which he killed by digging holes quickly in their paths to stop them. The holes always drove me crazy — I had to fill them before the horses or I broke a leg in the dark, but I’m glad he got to enjoy the activity on his last day.

Angus 2

Dobra supervising morning horse chores.

I scooped loose dirt back into those holes with such a heavy heart.

He had a ginormous plate of leftover spaghetti for breakfast — his favorite meal ever.

Exhausted from our morning chores, he stretched out on the front steps. I stepped over him coming out the door, on my way out for a horseback ride. He raised his head, and I could tell he was grateful I hadn’t made him move out of my way. He put his head back down and went to sleep.

My husband Neil and I got a call from our son Lyle that afternoon. We were deep in the American River Canyon, at least two hours over rugged terrain from our truck and horse trailer. Lyle was devastated, and said Dobra had not moved from his napping position, but that he was gone.

Neil and I had miles to ride to get back. We both cried all the way home.

We buried Dobra on the property, as we have all of our beastly friends over the years. We thanked him for all his lovely companionship, and we gave thanks that he had not suffered. We were shell-shocked. Diminished.

But the hardest hit was Dobra’s buddy Angus, the Jack Russell. He has not made a peep since Lyle found him lying beside Dobra, whimpering a little.

When Lyle wrapped Dobra in a sheet to bury him, Angus started pawing at it. He looked to us to fix it. And of course we could not.

Angus

Angus on a typical day. He is usually pretty feisty, which is how he earned the Jack Russell Terrorist classification. He is not the same right now.

I dragged Dobra’s favorite sleeping blanket over next to the fresh grave, and Angus has been sitting or lying on it ever since, except when I make him come inside for the night. He is not eating. He just keeps sniffing the air and looking around, as if he can’t quite figure out where his friend has gone, or from which direction he will come when he returns. That makes me the saddest.

We are not supposed to anthropomorphize animals. They each behave and think according to their unique, species-specific programming. They are not people, and woe to any of us who assume their behaviors are explained by our own human motivations.

But, after this sad week watching poor Angus in the enormous bewilderment of his loss, I know that animals are capable of great grief. It follows that they must be capable of great attachment. That is why we love them so, and are so grateful to walk with them a ways in our much longer lifetimes.

Angus 1

Many, many animals, horses and dogs and cats, have passed over this property, leaving footprints that eventually fade, fur and fluff blown away in the winds. We have fostered them, dogs and horses and cats in various stages of transition, some traumatized. Some have gone on to wonderful homes. Some, damaged beyond repair by neglect and cruelty and human failings, have been put down as humanely as possible, which is a weak apology at best. Some have just quietly told us, in one way or another, that they would stay.

Some of them have been very special, for whatever inexplicable reason. They have burrowed particularly deeply into our hearts. I still see them in the corner of my eye if I turn suddenly, or gaze into the smudged shadows of the pond, deep in the trees at sunset. I see a lolling tongue and a trotting dog, the flick of a horsetail and the twitch of a mane. I hear a faint nicker in trees that creak as they are nudged by night breezes.

I know it is these creatures I will rush to see, first thing, when I get to heaven. I hope I can find them right away, because I will be so eager to throw my arms around them. I will catch up with my lost relatives and friends afterward. But everyone knows you always say hello to the dog first when you get home.

My horse Santa Fe. My blue Doberman Baron. I hope they are waiting, that we will see each other again.

And I powerfully, profoundly wish to see Angus and Dobra, together once more, as they most certainly belong, the loneliness of their separation a mere memory. That would be an appropriate end to this story, I think.

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