Yesterday I talked to one of my cousins, the remaining son of my Aunt Jo and Uncle Hank. It seems my Aunt Jo — 94 and dealing with dementia — is on the way out. That right there is not news. The word “imminent” is the big change. My cousin — whom I like very much — and I talked a long time. He doesn’t like his mother much, and I thought it’s interesting how most of the cousins — children of my mom’s sisters — don’t like their mothers much. Something in the gritty past of all those girls left them warped in some mysterious way. They could all be very, very mean given the right (or wrong) concatenation of events.

After my cousin and I talked, I was very sad. I love my Aunt Jo and she has been unfailingly kind and loving to me. I owe her many of my good memories, some of my good habits as well as the knowledge everyone needs that they are loved.

I fed the dogs but didn’t feel like cooking or eating supper at all. I’d told my cousin i would come up to Montana, so I sat down and tried to find a good air fare and a place to stay. “I still have the folks’ house,” he’d said, “but there are no beds in it. I don’t feel right about you spending all that money to come up here and stay in a hotel and all that.”

I haven’t gone to Montana for 7 years for that very reason. To fly, stay somewhere and board the dogs is a huge chunk of change. It’s more than a garage door. It’s a third of a garage roof. It’s money I don’t have.

Finally I gave up. I couldn’t think clearly, anyway. Memories and images of past moments pressed against my eyes; I could SEE them. I sneaked out the back door with Bear and went to the slough. Besides sadness, I was carrying loneliness. When someone we love dies — or stands on the brink of death — loneliness is part and parcel of mourning.

It was nearly 7, an hour away from sunset. A good wind was blowing, promising rain to someone but not to us. Perfect. The light was soft and healing. The clouds blue gray. We hit the trail. I noticed the milkweed were still blooming, and I wondered if I’d ever see a monarch butterfly (I never had). Soon, I did. She flitted up above Bear and then in front of my face. “Bear, we’ve finally seen a Monarch butterfly,” I almost whispered to my dog who was watching it fly away.

We turned the corner and there in the near distance stood a large mule deer doe. I was downwind of her so she was calm and unaware of me for a while, then the wind shifted for a second or two, and she looked right at me. I watched her. Bear was very still. The doe finally decided that while I didn’t seem to be a threat, better safe than sorry, and went bounding back in the direction from which she’d come. I watched her go and saw her stop in the tall chamisa a ways away, still watching me. Bear and I continued. A large bird approached and flew overhead; an osprey.

The greatest delight which the fields and woods minister, is the suggestion of an occult relation between man and the vegetable. I am not alone and unacknowledged. They nod to me, and I to them.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Nature”



Ski Bum Revelation, II

Those of you starting out in life or making your way over the GREAT BRIDGE of life’s productivity, saving the world (I, for one, am grateful) well, maybe this post is not for you, but I think it is. I retired three years ago and moved back to the Rocky Mountains which I had missed more than I can ever describe for the 30 years I lived in someone else’s paradise. Don’t get me wrong. I was very happy in Southern California and found a Coloradoesque life for myself in the wonderful mountains that rim San Diego. I learned to see and love the coastal sage and chaparral, my great teacher in so many ways, but I always, always, always missed the mountains.

Once I retired and came back, I launched myself right into what I thought I’d want to do as retired person. I have arthritis in my knees, so I figured I needed surgery and/or I was a cripple. I never had enough time to paint, so I figured I was an artist. I had an unfinished novel, so I figured I was a writer.

Over the course of this three years, my understanding of myself has changed, shifted. Images of myself that I held up there peeled away. You might think it’s all about self-discovery when you’re young, but I’d say for me there’s been more of that in the last three years than any other time since, well, ever. I don’t have that stuff in front of me, all that “Que sera, sera,” stuff. A lot of my stories have ended and I know how they turned out. For example I know I’m not going to be anyone’s mom and I’m not going to make a million bucks or save all the people in an impoverished country. No one expects anything of me any more, except to creep inexorably downhill physically, to be more out of touch with technology than I am or ever will be, to be not all that bright. It’s funny, but after you do a pretty good job through your working years, there will be people (usually younger) that don’t realize that you once were where they are and YOU MADE IT THROUGH.

There was a point in life in which dreams turned into imperatives such as “Holy shit, do I earn enough to make my house payment?” I remember, sometime in my 40s, telling my brother that all I did in my life was “patch things up and hold them together.” He, for his part, was impressed that I could do that! 🙂

So now…the other day, riding the stationary bike and watching a movie, The Last of the Ski Bums, I realized that I was happier skiing than doing any other thing in my life, ever. And I wasn’t very good at it. That’s important. Skiing, in and of itself, was just great, sublime, exciting, beautiful. Snow, high mountains, speed. Wow. I decided then and there that in my next life no one’s going to hijack my aimless existence with their idea of purpose. No sirree.

Then… Well, I work out a lot. Simply being able to walk requires that the muscles of my legs are strong so my knees work like knees should. I don’t know what I was doing, but I found myself in a skiing maneuver. And I thought, “Damn. I can do this. Godnose that next life idea is unpredictable. I might come back  wombat or armadillo or something. Or a child in the tropics where there is no snow and no hope of any. I can’t hang my ski bum dreams on some next life. I missed out this time, but putting my money on my next life is really too big a gamble.”

So I did research. Lots of people ski with arthritis. Since I was never any good, I can probably have a pretty good time on the baby slopes, maybe even blue circles! There are braces people wear on their knees. Then I remembered reading something on the website of the local ski area, just 50 miles away and no mountain pass involved, Wolf Creek, (which, BTW, usually gets the most snow of any ski area in Colorado). Their ski school has classes for “Baby Boomers.” A lift ticket for “seniors” is $25. I might not be the only one living out their Late-life Ski Bum Dreams


Bricks and Mortar

My dad was a brilliant man who died young, but not before he achieved some remarkable things, and not just me ( ha ha ). He was one of the scientists who collaborated on a super-secret government computer code during the Cold War, JOVIAL. The name — an acronym for “Jules Own Version of the International Algebraic Language.“– (IMO) reflects the wry, dark sense of humor of guys who had lived through the Great Depression and survived WW II (a good example of this is Dr. Strangelove). My dad was VERY funny in that style and, as I grew up, I thought everyone appreciated it. OH WELL.

This morning, researching the computer language, the first sentence I came upon was, “Jovial is essentially a dead language.” That is true in so many ways, but I don’t want to digress.

In going through box after box of family photos, I found some from the time we lived in the first home my parents owned, a little post-WWII tract house in Englewood, CO. There were — as was the style and necessity at the time — street after street of little houses, 900 – 1000 square foot homes, usually 3 bedrooms and a bathroom, built to accommodate the Baby Boom. I have played several iterations of SimCity, and, seriously, that’s what a 1950’s neighborhood looks like from above.

However anonymous the neighborhoods, or identical the houses, no two families are alike. As soon as the people moved in, they began to make the houses theirs. My dad did, too.

My grandfather was a building contractor and my dad liked working for him. He liked laying tile, building things with bricks, putting up partitions. As my life with my dad proceeded, we both spent a lot of time in the basement of our future homes (our first home didn’t have a basement) building stuff, usually bookcases. Once my dad told me that if he hadn’t met my mom, he wouldn’t have become a mathematician, gotten a masters degree or any of that. “I was happy laying tile, MAK. But thank God your mother came along and talked me into getting an education.” He had many good reasons for feeling this way, notably, that when he was 27 it became apparent he had Multiple Sclerosis. He was ever-after grateful that he didn’t have to rely on his physical abilities to earn a living for his family.

My dad’s project on his first home was a grill. Here’s a picture of my mom standing beside the grill, probably 1955.

Mom and grill 1250 E Bates Pkwy

And here’s the grill as it looked in 2014, the last time the house was sold. It’s clearly marketed as a focal point of the backyard. From the smoke stains on the blond brick, it looks like the grill has been used a lot. My dad designed it well.

One of the BIG EVENTS of this backyard of my childhood was company (by dad’s boss, for example), a cloth spread on the picnic table (also built by my dad, the kind you find in park service picnic spots), T-bone steaks and corn on the cob cooked over an applewood fire. Why all that was so great I did not know, but for my folks it was a very big deal. I think for my brother and me, the big deal was sherbert at the end.


I am sure only a few people remember JOVIAL. The events of the Vietnam war — with which my dad was involved as a war-gamer and adviser to the Pentagon — will be debated as long as people remember it. But this grill has stood for 62 years in this little backyard in Englewood, Colorado, and though no one who lives there, and enjoys cooking on this grill, will know who built it or anything about the lives of the people in the little family who first owned the house, I do. 🙂



Old Movie Time Machine

Last night I visited the 1980s and watched St. Elmo’s Fire. I didn’t see it when it came out in 1985 because I was too cool for Hollywood movies. I only saw arty-farty films.

The movie jiggled my memory, taking me back to what I was doing. I was in my early 30s, new to San Diego (where I had not wanted to move), in the throes of making a marriage work, building a career and contending with stepsons. I remembered lots of flights to Montana to visit my mom and aunts, trips to the beach with the boys in late summer afternoons, students — lots of students, competition and confusion with colleagues. I had some of those clothes, a very pretty and very feminine black wool suit that I never had any reason to wear in Southern California. High-waisted jeans with the cuffs rolled in a certain, unique, 80s way. Shoulder pads in T-shirts.

But overall, the decade is a blank, except for a few memorable moments, it is like one of those dreams that consumes you in your sleep but which you can barely remember when you awaken. Of the 1980s I mostly remember the ends of stories. The marriage didn’t work out. I didn’t get a career out of all my effort. Music. My first dog. My VW van. Discovering a place to hike.

I remember writing my magnum opus about Pearl S. Buck (and listening to Springsteen sing “I’m sick of sitting ’round here trying to write this book”), having a typewriter that had a memory, borrowing my neighbor’s Macintosh and seeing how it helpful it was in contending with the vast amount of information my research had yielded. I remember arguments with the spouse over things, seldom getting my way, for example, when we bought a computer it was an Amiga, not a Mac. There was the huge argument about staying where we were — in a beautiful, large, urban apartment — or pursuing my ex’s midlife imperative of buying a house. We bought the house; a former crack house in the “barrio.” Ultimately, he lived there five years and I lived there seventeen. It provided the financial foundation for the rest of my life, and my years there are among the most intriguing and happiest memories I have. From my experiences in the 80s, I learned that we really are not the “masters of our fate.” Stuff happens. The best we can do is go hiking. 🙂

Pearl Buck sits in a box in my garage. 400 pages (double-spaced) about the history of Chinese fiction in the 20th century and Pearl Buck’s relation to it. The spouse has another spouse and lives on the east coast. I did not get a full-time job at that school (for the best). When the 90s came the shit really did hit the fan and that decade is palpable, even twenty years later.

Watching the film last night, I saw the point — the kids had all reached that moment in life described by one of my students long ago as the moment when a person realizes he’s “…not The Highlander.” That moment in my life was forty years ago and just as turbulent as that experienced by Rob Lowe et. al. What I didn’t know in my early-twenties turmoil is that I would reach a point like that over and over in life. It seems humans often reach a moment when they realize they are not the person they were and they have to adjust to living with someone else, themselves, but someone else. I’m there now. 🙂


The Wind Beneath My Wings

Today is my Aunt Martha’s 98th birthday. I actually celebrated a couple of days ago when I accidentally ended up on the “luv” station on my car radio and this was playing:


The last Christmas my Aunt was reasonably independent and in her mind, she bought Christmas presents, went shopping first with my Aunt Jo and then with me. It was a lot of fun. My present was a music box (my aunt had collected them for years) that played this song.

I have no idea if the song meant anything to her. I never liked it. But now it is my Aunt Martha’s song. In my mind it is my mom helping her big sister in school — my aunt couldn’t see well until she got glasses. It’s my Aunt Martha being on my side all through my life. I don’t know what, where or who I would be right now if it had not been for her steadfast faith in me, her encouragement, her sometimes very wise and timely advice, her perception, and the life she lived herself which was courageous and beautiful.

Happy Birthday, Aunt Martha. I wish you were here and we were making you a cake with a ridiculous number of candles so that all the wax melted all over the top as we did when you turned 50. I wish we were trying to put pennies under your plate, the family custom when you were a kid that we kept up every year for you. You are almost worth a dollar now. I love you and I miss you.

P.S. Aunt Martha is the woman in the light suit; I’m between her and my mom. It’s Easter, 1967. Her name was Martha Liberty because she was born on George Washington’s birthday. The family name was Beall — pronounced “Bell.” Her middle name was source of greater or lesser embarrassment to her all her life. 🙂


“Where is he?”

“In the hideout.”

“Aaaaaaaahhhhhhhrrrgggrhhhh!!! We’re going to get you this time Butch Cassidy (or someone).” Run, run, run, run, run, run across the pasture to a hole we’d all dug. And there he was, of course, in the hideout.

“Bang, bang, bang!” Wooden guns or fingers. Nothing draws faster than fingers.

“You can’t get me!” Up out of the hole. Run, run, run, run, run, run across the pasture to an unanticipated destination (behind the chicken house? Behind the cottonwood tree? Behind the COW for godsakes?)

“Get ‘im!” Run, run, run, run, run, run across the pasture.

“OW! WAAAAaaaaaa!”

“What happened?”

“I got a nail in my knee!”

“Uh oh.” War over. Cousin on one side, cousin on the other, brother behind. “We better go to gramma’s.”

Hobble, hobble, hobble, across the pasture. Blood streaming down my leg.


Dad comes out. Practically faints. “We have to clean that right now or she’ll get lockjaw.”

“She’s had the DPT, Bill.”

“Infection then.”

“What’s lockjaw?” Suddenly the mortal wound — quite bloody and fairly deep — doesn’t matter as much as this strange word. “Lock+jaw.”

“Tetanus, honey. Put your leg under the water.” I sit on the edge of my gramma’s old bathtub. “The hotter the water the better. Remember, there are no antiseptics better than lots of hot water and soap.” Truth.

“What’s lockjaw?”

“It’s a terrible disease where your jaws lock shut and you can’t eat and you can’t drink and you die. Put your knee UNDER the running water, dammit! Do you want to die?”

My dad was never chintzy with consequences.


Cold Update

My heart goes out to everyone who’s sick this winter. I think it’s a lot of people. I made it to the store this morning and the first aisle I went to was the OTC drug aisle. I have never seen a supermarket shelf so ravaged and depleted. Chalk some of that up to life in a small town between two high mountain passes after two snow storms, but clearly the whole town is suffering.

I also called to see if I could see my (or any!) doctor. There are no appointments until Friday afternoon.

This cold has been hell as you all know from my copious whining. It’s still hell but climbing up slowly to purgatory. What I’m hoping is I’m not stuck in limbo long.

Sleep has been particularly bad. My sinuses have an intrinsic problem so they don’t drain easily which means — extra coughing. When I try to sleep, it sounds (to me) like a full concrete truck is working in my chest and head. I am forced to cough. It’s extremely annoying, but tonight I realized the trick to dealing with it

“Ignore it, Martha Ann.”

My mom’s wise words. Lying there, the concrete moving around in my chest and head, I think, “I can’t do anything about this, and I’m tired. I’m going to ignore.”

It actually worked.

Mostly. It’s 3 am, but that’s OK. That’s the time when I’ve — lately — actually been, finally getting to sleep. The thing is I’ve already slept 5 hours, concrete and all.

I’ve also had an epiphany about why my Montana aunts and uncles had motorhomes and visited me in California on their way to Texas and Mexico every winter. I totally get it. You must need to be 65 for that bit of arcane knowledge to be made manifest…

On the famous writer front, I have been asked to send The Brothers Path to the largest independent bookstore in Colorado for them to review. If they take it, I will do a book signing up there if I can find 30 people to invite (their rule). Their Colorado Author’s program has been on hiatus for a while, and last week I learned they were reopening it next month, but only for books published in the last three months. As the program has been closed longer than that, and I’ve been waiting, I had a hissy fit and “reached out” (god I hate that phrase) on Facebook Messenger objecting to the vast injustice. They responded right away and told me who to write to. The coordinator of the program responded immediately to my emailed proposal. Thank you to everyone who read and reviewed The Brothers Path and posted reviews on Amazon and Goodreads. You helped my book get the buyer’s attention. ❤

Progress! More than I Imagined Possible. :)

Me and Bear, 8:7:2015

Bear and me at Rock Creek Campground, 8/7/2015

For much of my life I was a very avid hiker and trail runner. Then, about 10 years ago, my right hip went south and I ended up having hip resurfacing surgery in 2007. In between here is a long story (la la la). OK, so the upshot was that my body lost conditioning, my arthritic knees had no support, and I couldn’t hike, never mind run. Often, I could barely walk. After I moved here, in October 2014, surrounded by the Rockies I loved and had missed for 30 years, I was really sad because of all the trails here that were just not going to be for me. BUT I bought an Airdyne (stationary bicycle) and started working out just hoping to improve, even a little. It was a slow process and I honestly didn’t expect much. As I got stronger, I added other things to the regimen. I started 10 months ago and I walk a lot better now — better than anyone (including me) expected.

Friday, my friend L and I took the puppy, Dusty, and L’s dog, Shoe, and went to the area near the Rock Creek campground to check it out (wow in so many ways). I looked at the trail/road and said to L, “Maybe I can run.” I handed L my cane and Bear’s leash and stood there for a minute, taking stock of things and psyching myself up. I took off. I think I ran 30 yards or so and I could have kept going. I wasn’t fast, but I could feel that my form was good and I was well balanced.

It was one of the happiest moments of my life.

Reinhold Messner and Me

I’m not a mountaineer. I’m just a little lady who loves mountains. What I love best about mountains, actually, is looking at them from a distance. They seem to promise so much and I love those promises. As long as I can remember, I’ve felt this way about them and I’ve been lucky to have seen a lot of great mountains in my life, some of them up close.

But when you’re close to a mountain, it becomes something else. It becomes a trail, a ski run, a face, a glacier, a route, a snow field. The mountain is gone. Because of this, I never really minded Southern California. The “mountains” in my California life were all under 10,000 feet and the ones I spent the most time on were not mountains at all; they were hills that happened to rise above the surrounding landscape one or two thousand feet. I got to know these mountains well; they were the right scale for intimacy.

I spent at least an hour most days between 1987 and 2005 on one or another of these trails through the mountains. What I liked was motion and the chance to see animals and the way my mind would work after about 30 minutes of hard exertion. I also liked that I was alone, with my dogs, most of the time and I liked whatever surprises came my way. Coyotes yipping and howling, sometimes to me; the burst of Datura fragrance at dusk on a warm summer evening; an owl silently flying ten feet from my face; the screech of a hawk in the blue sky; the fragrance of black sage after rain; rainbows; clouds that touch the ridge; standing with one hand in rain the other outside of the rain shadow; the  view of the desert from a high place; small seasonal waterfalls; dogs “fishing” in puddles; standing in a golden field with a friend watching a black shouldered kite hover in her hunt; bald eagles fishing in eskers coming out of the flooded reservoir; following my white husky into a thicket to find a surprised doe staring into my eyes; wild lilac blooming all around, their tiny blue petals falling on the trail; thousands of lady bugs in the tall grass; the fun of climbing up a mean little mountain with a good friend and looking over the desert at the Salton Sea; my white husky swimming in a spring; a manzanita ancient and huge with beautiful red bark; orange poppies blooming everywhere; a roadrunner staying in arm’s reach as we both climb a steep, steep trail; ravens surfing on a thermal showing off, I think, for me as I sat and watched on a cliff right beside them; sunset bright red on the ocean 70 miles from where I stood on a narrow, snowy ledge; a mountain lion; the coyote following along beside me as I carried my dead dog’s tag to place on a fence post. I also liked the discomforts; flies in the face, rattlesnakes on the trails, carrying water (lots of water in summer), heat, cold, wet, storms, mud, night. I liked that everything around me was OTHER than I, that the only power I had in that place was over myself, my attitude. I liked that the power of it, nature, is never arbitrary or fake. I liked being where I knew I belonged as a natural creature, not a proponent of culture — a teacher.

I learned so much on those trails, mostly about myself. I learned things I probably am not even fully aware of but which stand me in good stead every day of my life.

Growing to maturity in Colorado in the 70s meant that I was surrounded by the emerging climbing culture. Many of my friends climbed — I climbed, when it comes to it. I liked the feel of rock under my hands; I liked finding routes; I liked the strength involved in making it from place to place. It was never more than a hobby for me, though. What I liked best was moving through space and climbing what came between me and the next vista. Others, though, became mountaineers. Some of them got hurt and most of them didn’t and ended up quitting at a certain point because it is kind of a stupid way to die unless it is your passion.


Last night I watched a film done by Outside magazine, a little documentary and interview of Reinhold Messner, probably THE greatest climber of my generation, and because I liked climbers, love mountains and faraway places, I followed Messner’s adventures. He was the first climber to solo climb Everest without bottled oxygen. He was also a participant/believer in the “free” climbing movement which means climbing without relying much on technical tools to make the climb safer. That style of climbing means you don’t leave hardware on the mountain and the route remains pristine for the next person. I knew if I were a climber, that’s what I would do, too. Messner free-climbed Everest (and many other mountains).

Reinhold Messner was born in 1944 so he’s eight years older than I. In the film I watched last night, I’d guess he was in his sixties. He talked about his philosophy of climbing and answered the question, “Why did you climb?” He asserted he was climbing to learn about himself, to learn about his limitations. He spoke about fear and what fear can teach a person. He said (as I used to say to my students!) “We suck as animals. We might have a man he runs 100 meters in 9 seconds or so but any horse would beat him; we’re not so fast, and there are animals that can pull themselves over an overhang, no problem. We have nothing special except this,” and he pointed at his head, “we have this brain. It’s fear that pushed us into figuring things out, how to get away from the lion or the tiger.”

The interviewer asked him what he had hoped to achieve as a climber and Messner said, “I wasn’t achieving anything except for my own. I was having adventure. The adventure begins here.” He tapped his head again. I thought about that a lot since then — adventure is really everything. All my trails were adventures. I went out every time ready for whatever happened; happy with the consequences. I thought about Messner’s idea of adventure — it does begin in the mind. It is going out into something you’re afraid of and maybe you fail. He said, “Well, I was going up Everest alone without oxygen so there were some things I wasn’t going to do. I was going to take the usual route most people take, not an unknown route. I had to carry all my things myself, so I knew I had to go fast, and to stay up at that altitude too long is dangerous. I was three days up and two days back. It would be easy for things to go wrong. I had to be able to see my footprints or I wouldn’t get back down, but you see, I saw them, I got back down.” He laughed. Thinking is the part that eliminates all that is NOT the adventure.

He talked about how all the big mountains will stop being adventures. “To get to the top of a mountain is a kind of superficial goal; that’s not the adventure. There are thousands of mountains and walls and faces no one has climbed, but the people are going to the top of Mt. Everest.”

I thought about that, too. Since, for me, mountains are beautiful things at a distance, they are all mountains I have not climbed. The mountains I have climbed? Fortuna, South Fortuna, Kwapaay, Cowles, Laguna, Hays Peak and Garnet Peak. That’s it. Not much of a peak bagger… My life has been on a few hard trails but all mountains are trails. I just had to earn a living and I never earned much. It wasn’t like I could pick up and go even to Yosemite.

But the most truly beautiful thing Messner said was that in his mind, in his climbs, he had inscribed lines on the faces of the mountains and walls that he climbed. Only he can see the lines, no one else. Others will have the chance to make their own lines in their own lifetimes. “Each generation remakes the world,” he said.  Without the beauty and the mystery, the story that hasn’t yet been written, there is no adventure. Leaving protection on the rock is stealing from the future the possibility of adventure.

He said some other things that touched me, but maybe most touching was this, “I can’t do it any more. I got this leg that gives me some problems, so now I’m going to do these other things, find different adventures.”

Here’s the film: