Not Pets

I’ve had upwards of 20 dogs and they haven’t been pets. They’ve been friends, hiking pals, teachers, and, in the case of Polar Bear Yeti T. Bear, something to hug. I don’t have photos of all of them. There was Truffle, Molly, Maggie a Girl of the Streets, Paddy, Aschi, Xiao, Zorkie, Lupo, Ariel, Persephone Pitbull, Lily, Jasmine, Dusty, Cody, Big Puppy, Reina, Mindy, Polar Bear Yeti T. Dog and a handful of rescued and rehomed dogs.

Cooking? Just say “meh”

I cooked my first meal for my family when I was seven. At 37 I realized I’d had that career for 30 years and I have been semi-retired since then. I honestly hate cooking at this point, but I do it well. Some people are interested in food and its preparation. I’m not.

When I was seven, my Aunt Martha gave me a cookbook for Christmas. Sometime later, my mom was doing her bit as the leader of my brother’s Cub Scout troop. I thought, “I can do this,” and I opened the cookbook, opened the fridge, saw we had hot dogs. I cooked hot dogs and fried potatoes.

My mom came up from the basement and saw dinner was ready. She knew a good thing when she saw it, so she began teaching me to cook.

The one good thing that came out of it (besides meals for 60 years) were consistent grades of “A” in home economics all through school. Definitely helped my GPA.

Prerogatives of Sole Survivors

I dreaded the slide scanning chore for years, and, like a lot of chores, it turned out not to be so bad. Looking at China was inspiring, great.


Yesterday I sat down with the famdamily slides and more or less cursed life as I stacked them into the (usually not functional) bulk scanner. Some of the slides are over 60 years old and the glue holding the sides of the slides together had stopped working. Retired, I guess.

Since so many of them were totally irrelevant to me (as the sole survivor, I get to be the arbiter of relevance for this family) I started holding them up to the light to see if it was worth scanning them. Lots of slides went into the trash, things like store-bought slides of the Air Force Academy or faded scenery photos of the Black Hills. It was a relief just to toss them.

I found some wonderful things in that huge collection of slides.

Like a lot of families in the 1950s, we took road trips, usually to Montana, but in 1957 we drove from Denver to Florida, then to California, Oregon, Montana and back to Colorado. I was five and my brother was three. Some of those photos survived and they are sweet artifacts of a very different world.

Somewhere on the road having lunch, 1957. The background hills look like California, but who knows?

Some of the photos are hilarious, though they were probably not meant to be. Others bring back good memories of the time when our family was functional and happy. Looking at them, I decided to forget that I know how it turned out. But my initial feeling as I dived into this was anger, an anger I never felt before. I was furious with them all for dying.

I’m not big on Facebook memes but a friend happened to post this last night when the “… l’horrible fardeau du temps” (…the horrible burden of time) (Baudelaire) was pushing me to the ground. The meme seemed to give good information, maybe it was the truth. It really was a huge pressure fitting my life around my mom’s expectations. I carried the hopeless weight of my brother’s addiction for years, but couldn’t fix him. My dad? He was doomed from the start and he always said that he, mom, and Kirk were not my job. ❤

It was wonderful to see some of those people again, people I loved and times I savored even as a little kid. The best photos are the ones no one set up or posed, the photos of a day in the life.

Neighbor kids, my brother with a broken arm and an airplane, my Aunt Martha and my grandmother, our house in Nebraska.

When I was done with that for the day, I put on my new skis for the first time. Out there on the snow, with the beautiful San Luis Valley sky and mountains all around me, the snow beneath my skis, the frost falling off the tips of the cottonwood trees, I thought in the vague direction of my mom and brother, both suicides, “Maybe I just loved this more than you did. Maybe it was always enough for me.” I glided forward, somewhat tentatively, hoping I’d still be able to do do this and I was, I am. ❤

“Tell Us a Film, Teacher.”

In Guangzhou, on those long, dreary, cold, rainy evenings in the apartment I shared with my ex and Tex the indomitable cockroach, it was not unusual for a group of students to stop by for “coaching.”

I don’t think it was about “coaching.” I think it was about long, dreary, cold, rainy evenings in the dormitory (or as they said with their British accents, “dormitree”.) Our apartment had a couple of advantages, mostly space. But we had a television and it was amazing how stressed students could become about their studies when there was a soccer game televised or a Shao Lin movie. TVs were somewhat rare throughout China at the time and so were films, especially foreign films.

So, when the night was extremely long, dark, rainy and cold, my students would sometimes say, “Tell us a film, teacher.” I “told” them as many films as I could remember. They learned a lot about Monty Python. By the end of winter, my students could act out this scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail (and they knew why it was funny 🙂 )

Every time I “told” a film I remembered the Foreign Service Test (that I failed) where the first question was, “What film would you show in the People’s Republic of China?”

I actually learned that answer to that question IN the People’s Republic of China. One night we were invited to the American Consulate to watch an American movie. It was Heaven Can Wait starring Warren Beatty. We went. It was a stupid movie and, I thought, a stupid choice because Heaven, as it’s depicted in that film, is pretty alien to China, as is American football, never mind the LA Rams but OH WELL.

But…we never knew when a movie was going to pop up. One evening we were riding our bicycles home from Guangzhou. We had various routes, and one we liked was through a relatively unpopulated, tree filled agricultural area near what is now the Inner Ring Road. That evening we saw, in a clearing, dozens of People’s Liberation Army soldiers placing benches in rows. A couple of others were hanging a giant canvas on a rope between two trees. Afraid we’d strayed into another forbidden area, we stopped.

“Ni hao!!” said one of the soldiers coming to where we stood with our bikes. “We have Engrish movie! You join us?”

That NEVER happened. We leaned our bikes against a tree and sat down on the bench we were told to sit on. The projector was turned on and the film rolled on both sides of the hanging canvas. The music came up.

It was Roman Polanski’s 1979 film, Tess. A far better choice for China than Heaven Can Wait. The problem (for us) was that it had been dubbed into Guangzhouhua (Cantonese) A beautiful young female voice in Guangzhou is NOT the same as a beautiful young female voice in the English speaking world by a long shot. Tess spoke to us in a Guangzhou opera voice, shrill, high-pitched, and nasal, with exaggerated (even for Cantonese) inflection. We wanted to — but didn’t — laugh.

We sat through the whole film. Afterward there was much “Thank you for sharing our film,” and hand-shaking. As we turned our bikes toward home in the moonlight, China seemed to me a beautiful place filled with sweet and incomprehensible surprises.

Deep Snow

The snow is deep here in Heaven and it’s GREAT. I didn’t buy skis, my new snow shoes have shark’s teeth on the bottom and they scare me. But we remain undaunted and yesterday we headed out to the golf course to smell things and look for tracks.

The San Juan Nordic Club has groomed beautiful trails and, as it was Sunday, people were using them. It was wonderful to see — and it made me envious. Anyone who was outside yesterday really WANTS to be outside. Dusty made two new friends — a friendly neighbor opened his arms and let Dusty run to him, and one of the skiers — a really amazing ski-skater — stopped and asked if he could meet my dogs. They were all about it.

The tracks for cross-country skiing are really nice — there is a wide one for the skaters, lines for the people like me who just glide, and then a packed part to the right of all this for walkers. In snow over a foot deep it’s nice to have something a little more solid under foot. I love that they do that. It’s kind and respectful and protects their ski tracks from the kinds of postholes idiots like me drop into the snow with every step.

So far this winter I have fallen three times and gotten up three times, twice in deep snow. That was one of my biggest fears thinking of winter sports. Every time it was nothing. “I fell, so what,” not even that much thought or dread went through my mind. When you think of being mobile, you don’t think of falling, but it’s part of the equation. Anyone who moves around risks being attacked unaware by inanimate objects that are out to get them. It’s vital to be able to recover from a fall without fear. Just pick yourself up, brush yourself off and start all over again. Yesterday we walked a mile and a half through this deep snow. It was hard work, but fun. Dusty was suffering by bedtime, though.

But I’m getting skis. This is insane.

P.S. The photo is from three days ago. We’ve had more snow since then. 🙂

Rio Bravo

My river is going to be a lot healthier this year because we’ve gotten snow. The high country is at normal snow pack and that’s good news for the river, for farmers, for everyone. There’s a dam upstream, so it’s not a completely free river, and it’s diverted hundreds of times into irrigation canals, but it’s still a river, and it has dug for itself, with the help of uplifting tectonic plates, a dramatic canyon outside Taos.

Photo by Daniel Schwen

“My” river is El Rio Grande, Rio Bravo, this lovely legendary thread of blue that wanders from the San Juan Mountains of Colorado to the Gulf of Mexico. One of the perqs, for me, of moving here was that river.

I didn’t know much about river reality but I’ve been learning steadily by walking with my dogs in a river fueled wetlands, The sloughs and backwaters of the Rio Grande have been my wandering place since I moved here.

When the dogs and I take a ramble out to the (now closed) Rio Grande Wildlife Refuge, the river is one of our destinations. Last month it looked like this:

Rio Grande at Rio Grande Wildlife Area, Monte Vista, CO

In other news, I shoveled snow for two hours yesterday and today it looks like I have a similar job ahead of me cleaning my neighbor’s walk. They’re out of town. I am not complaining. I am happy I’m able.

We got upwards of 10 inches in our recent snowstorm, and it was heavy, wet snow, the best for rivers. The dogs and I took a walk in this — to the golf course — where some of the drifts were over my boots and up to Dusty’s chest. Even Bear wasn’t having the best time she’s ever had in the snow.

Epistolary Wonderment

Letters are marvelous things. I used to wait for them and wait for them and wait for them. I LOVED writing them (before I had a story or anything) so I wrote a lot, but yeah, answers were seldom forthcoming. Now we text and Facebook etc. and no one ever shuts up.

It took a lot of effort for people to write a letter, I guess (it didn’t for me).

In the process of cleaning out my parents’ stuff, I found some wonderful letters, a few that were even helpful to me now. Among my treasures are some letters from my aunts. In the garage are letters from one of the great loves of my life (it didn’t happen because I was an idiot). Once in a while I read, “We need to get back to writing letters” and I know that person has stumbled upon some letters that mean something to them.

I wrote lots of letters from China to my mom, my Aunt Martha, my friend Gale. My Aunt Martha loved my adventure so much that when she wrote, she tried to copy the Chinese address on my letters. That was so cool, and she wrote often. Her letters meant the world to me. Besides missing me, and believing I was lonely for home and writing was the right thing to do, she typed. In my mad letter-writing days I realized why I wrote more letters than those to whom I wrote. I typed 90 wpm. It was (and is) almost as fast as thought.

The other day on a dog walk I noticed some letters written in the snow beside the irrigation canal. I hoped they said something great, but they just said, “My name is Jeff.” I don’t think I would have gone to all that work (essentially signaling an aircraft) just to say that.

P.S. The 1892 stamp above commemorates the 400th anniversary of Columbus landing in the Americas. A friend and her mom found it in a tin box of buttons they bought at a thrift store over the holidays — this and many other treasures.

Lamont and Dude Further Discuss Relocation

“So did you decide, Dude? Are you moving to the mountains?”

“No. I don’t think I’m the same being I was whenever that was and I lived in the mountains.”

“No more enlightenment on the species identification, then. Oh well. We can’t be expected to remember everything.”

“I think you were right. I was some kind of deer. I did a little research on those creatures and it’s not a bad life unless winter is hard and long.”

“Yeah, vegetarians have a greater dependency on climate than carnivores. If anything, bad seasons are good for carnivores.”

“I hadn’t thought of that.”

“Oh well. That’s why I always say, if you can’t come back as an ancient oak tree, come back as a carnivore.”

“Like there’s a lot of choice.”

“True enough, Dude. So you heading out? Looks like some pretty nice sets.”

“Yep. You coming, pardner?”

“Not today. You just git along little doggy. I’ll catch you later.”

Lamont and Dude are characters I came up with a few years ago. They have the uncanny ability to remember many of their past incarnations which gives them an unusual perspective on life, the universe and everything.

Souvenir of China

We’re doing our normal evening things which is very close to nothing. Suddenly, Bear really wants out. I know she doesn’t need out, but she WANTS out.

“What is it, Bear?”


“OK.” I open the back door for her and find the ground is now covered in white. Bear has smelled it, or heard the change that snow makes.

NOTHING makes us happier. Other things make each of us happy, but nothing else makes us ebullient.

It took living in California to teach me that while skiing is GREAT the best part for me is winter itself, snow. I like the cold. I love snow. In the recent “I can’t afford skis” break down, I remembered, again, that running through drifts with your dog is as good as it gets.

In other news (not that any other news matters around here) one of the writers of a blog I follow,  has been staying for a while in my Chinese “home town” of Guangzhou. In one of his posts, he said he wondered how it there was 30 or 40 years ago. As I was there 37 years ago, I shared a description of the place he was writing about. His pictures, commentary and our conversation inspired me to finally spent $70 on a slide digitizer.

I have many, many slides of my year in China and I made a film. The machine will help me digitize all of it. My blogging friend also said, “Maybe a book.” I’ve been thinking about that in the back of my mind, too, and listening to an album that came out the year before I went to China, Jean Michel Jarre’s Concerts in China. I bought this music on a trip to Hong Kong in 1982.

China was a different world in so many ways in the early 80s, but it had also been warped by Maoism into abandoning some of the things which had made China China for thousands of years. It seems that China had lain in wait, a sleeping dragon, beneath all of the Maoist strangeness (strangeness like killing all the sparrows, making steel in the backyard, destroying iconographic images, etc. We won’t talk about killing people right now. Oops. Blew that.)

I’m excited to start the project. I remember only a few of the images. There are a few I separated from the ‘mother ship’ (we’re talking about a Vogon Cargo Vessel of slides) and they became my slide show (who wants to sit through hours of that shit, right?) I have two MacBooks and I’m thinking of dedicated one to the slides. They will need a lot of memory.

If I were to write about it, there would be a few things that would only enchant a person who’d lived through the Cold War, such as flying on Aeroflots, but if I’m any kind of writer, perhaps I can share the enchantment of flying in a plane that does not just go forward, but shakes from side-to-side in flight. Scary, but meanwhile, I remember thinking, “I’m on an Aeroflot! An Aeroflot! Wow!”

In the last few years of teaching, I taught many Chinese students at San Diego State and came very close to running a program for them. The program never took off (unlike the Aeroflots) but it would have been amazing because it would have involved trips to China. The students? Well… Often it was great because I let them know about my own background and they felt more comfortable knowing they were with a professor who had lived in their culture. A couple of times students attempted to use the “Guang Xi” method of earning grades (bribery) but it couldn’t work with me. I had one student from my Chinese Home Town and our interaction was one of the best parts of my last years teaching.

I loved China more than I’ve ever loved anything except maybe the San Luis Valley. It took five years — or more — after I returned to heal that broken heart. I wish I’d stayed, but I had the idea that my marriage mattered (it didn’t) and my ex had hepatitis and couldn’t recover in China, so, at the end of our contract, we came “home.”

To my surprise, home wasn’t home. In China I’d missed the Rocky mountains, but as soon as I saw them, and saw they hadn’t changed while I was in China yearning for them, I regretted my return. It would never matter to the mountains how long I was away. Whenever I came back they would be here.

One of the things I brought back with me was a carpet, 2 m x 3 m. I bought it at the one export store in Guangzhou, a store next to the Bai Yun Hotel, one of three foreigner’s hotels in Guangzhou when I left. I spent my first night in China in this hotel, my first meal was there (joak, a kind of rice gruel), my first night’s sleep. The rug was wrapped and delivered to our apartment where it stayed wrapped for months, until it was time for us to return to America. I carried it on my shoulder through the airports in Guangzhou and Shanghai. It was nearly left on top of a baggage cart at the Las Vegas Airport when we changed planes from San Francisco to Billing, MT where my mom lived. I saw the car begin to pull away from the plane and I went apeshit.

It was like a movie. The stewardess came running to appease the crazy lady.

“It’s all right. We’ll send it on the next plane.”

“No you won’t,” I said. “Either it goes with me or I get off.”

My getting off would be a worse hassle for them than getting my carpet. They called the baggage guy and he came back the 15 or so feet and loaded the carpet.

Now that I think of it, the first night I spent in my Chinese apartment, looking out over the fields of the agricultural college that was behind my college, at the water buffalo in his shelter, at the mountain beyond, in the soft light of the tropical sunset, knowing I was finally there, on the brink of a great adventure — that was every bit as good as snow.


“Home” isn’t a place any more, well, other than my house. There was a moment when I realized that I am a snail and home is a thing I carry with me all the time. Even now — in what I believe will be my last house — I feel like a tenant and I’ve been slow to unpack.

When I moved back to Colorado, I learned something about what home means to me by what I chose to put in the rented van I drove over the mountains.

I packed a box of art supplies, another of winter clothes (because, coming from San Diego in October, I would need them), my dad’s Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, and my three dogs. Were those things — and animals — “home?” The animals, definitely.

My goal as a young person was to be “at home in the world” rather than tied to a place. I’m not sure I managed that. If “home” is a feeling, well, I’m home when I’m outside with my dogs experiencing whatever happens to be going on when we arrive.

Nature is not “out there.” It’s right here all the time. In my case, it’s literally a block away in winter. Now that the crepitus of arthritis has been diminished through surgery (I still have it in my left knee), my days are centered around the time when we can go out and see what’s happened in REAL reality while we were sleeping.

We humans with our towns and cities have just carved out little bastions of human safety in the midst of it. All animals do this for themselves one way or another, and all of them are destructive to some extent though I don’t think they regard nature as a foe or friend. I think they get it in ways we humans have forgotten. I like it very much when I’m out there and have to adapt to something I cannot negotiate with like cold, rattlesnakes, heat, whatever. For me there’s liberty in that depth of reality.

I hope this summer to have even more chances to go home. It’s a little difficult now without a 4WD car, but that’s OK. I’m making plans.