July 10-14th 2019
So, we were all set to go out on an adventure, with Harold the Puppy, Joey the Ancient Chihuahua, and of course, the Bus, and Diamond, the best dog ever (to hear this properly you need to say “the besssst dawg ev-ah”). And who is Diamond? In my recounting of the various critters living at my house and in my orbit, I haven’t explained Big Mama D. Our friends are blessed with a surfeit of dogs: Roxanne, a Shepherd/maybe Doberman mix; Lila, a something kind of Australian cattle dog; Lily, a Jack Russell something-something mix, and Diamond, a definitively Pit Bull /Boxer mix. When Harold the Terrold started having behavioral issues, we turned to these friends, and brought Roxie to “play.” I think Roxanne thought this was more like babysitting and above her pay grade. Then we introduced Harold to the motley crew, and Diamond was the one trainers singled out when watching video of the interactions. “He needs to spend more time with this dog,” they said. And so we borrowed Diamond. Here’s the letter she wrote during her first week with us:
Dear Mom and Dad,
I wasn’t sure why you let the LONG HAIR MAN take me away, but then I saw Harold and I knew I needed to help. Harold was so excited to see me, but boy, he is a real brat. Always with the “Diamond! Come HERE! BARK BARK BARK.I Wanna play!” Seriously, he needs to chill.
The LADY also lives here, and she gave me some low fat sweet potato treats that I spit out, but then she had some low fat turkey ones, so I was pretty happy. Also, somehow these people have MY FOOD and MY BOWL. The Lady keeps saying, “Dia-mond, you arrre the best dog ever!” Duh…also, there’s this weird little creature here with fangs that smells like pee, but he really likes me. I think they call him JOE-EE. I think he might be a dog, or some kind of weird squirrel.
These people are very big on walking, which means Harold jumps all over me saying “Let’s play let’s play let’s play” while I try to take a nice walk, but thankfully the JOE-EE knows how to walk. He told me he almost never likes dogs but that I am the best dog ever…duh…
Then today the TRAINER came. A trainer is a lady who carries little bits of hot dog and she told me “Wow, Diamond, you are the best dog ever!” Like I said before, duh….
I was a little worried that I was being banished but the LADY says I will see you soon. She says I just have to squish Harold some more. I just tried to get on her lap while she was on the white thing in the bathroom, and I think she really liked it because she said, “Diamond, you are the best dog ever, but maybe now isn’t the right time…” I don’t know what that last part meant, but duh…of course I am the best dog ever—I’m Diamond!
I think it is almost time for DINNER because the Lady said DINNER but I wanted you to know that I love you and miss you.
Also, I went to a place called PETSMART today where they have bags and bags and bags of food, and bones. I think I want to go live there, next. And at the PETSMART another Lady had a dog who kept yapping at me and I just did helicopter tail and the lady (not Harold’s lady, the lady with the yappy dog) said, “How do you get her to be so calm? She’s the BEST DOG EVER,” and you know what I said…duh….
So I miss you and I love you and I hope the little twerp will chill out soon…maybe after he gets his DINNER.
The Best Dog Ever
So, that’s Diamond, and then we somehow decided to take a camping trip with our friends and SIX dogs. And then the Bus had problems.
First, it was the dying in idle, which my husband spent several afternoons messing with, bought a timing light, and then confirmed: The Bus is dying in idle. This seemed to me like a throwback from our past. After all, almost a year ago we were stuck in Oregon (with Larry—remember Larry?) with a non-working bus because the Bus was dying in idle. So, this was familiar if unwelcome territory. Eventually we got hooked up with a new carburetor and I heard a lot of stories involving mysterious phrases like “15 degrees off top dead center” and then it was time to go. Or was it? Even up to the final morning we were set-to-set sail in the Bus for Los Prietos, a campsite in the hills above Santa Barbara, the debate raged. Should we go and risk damaging the engine? There was the San Marcos Pass to consider, a mighty hill. The mechanic said something like “It should be fine, but just get it checked as soon as you can,” which wasn’t filling anyone with confidence. In the end, we decided to go, and we weren’t sure why, just that summer means camping, and camping means this trip with our friends, and perhaps it would be good for Joey and Harold. We sat at the table and debated, and in the end I used the lesser known version of Occam’s razor: Fuck it.
The trip did not start off well. In spite of Diamond’s general awesomeness, we’d never taken her in the Bus before, and she was perturbed. Apparently she did not recognize the Bus as a car and was unsure why she was locked in the back with Crazy Puppy. After puncturing several water jugs, we got her settled, or, more precisely, I got settled in the back with the Pits. This turned out to be a boon for me and for them. If you have read this blog then you know: fear and anxiety, anxiety and fear. If you haven’t, well, nothing provokes my Bus fear more than freeways and mountains, and on this trip we had the 10 freeway, The Pacific Coast Highway, the 101, and then a mountain. However, settled in the back as we swung onto the many, many lanes of the 10—the best flat road to the coast—I was not concentrating on the cars zooming around. Instead, I was looking at two black and white pit bull mix dogs vying for my attention. I had Harold and his sweet face, snuggling, and Diamond with her drool and goofy smile. Sandwiched between these friends we made it to the sea, and unlike other trips when on the 10 freeway I have fixated on the precise amount of car between me and certain death (answer=no car there. The Bus has a snout, yes, but there is no cushion in that snout). This time I was in the lap of love, or love was in my lap, for certainly we were a dog pile.
Once we hit the coast and stopped at Trancas for supplies and lunch, I was relaxed. Sure, I knew the mountain of San Marcos loomed in the distance, but like everyone, I tend to focus on the dangers in front of me. While taking the dogs for a pee walk, Robert found a hawk feather, and it seemed like a good omen. And then we came to the mountain. It was slow going for us, and people were annoyed, but we used the turnouts. Once I cajoled Robert into an unofficial turnout and tempers were raised, but the Bus, well, he made it through. We came down the mountain to our turn off and then we were on Paradise Drive, the country road of all country roads in California, and so similar to those I know from Marin and Sonoma and Mendocino, rolling yellow hills and steeper mountains in the distance, oak forests and riparian cottonwoods, cottages and farms, the ribbon of black asphalt shimmering in the summer sun, the bus following the yellow median, gently rolling up and down, just as he did when I was a child.
And then we were there, in the oak forest campground of Los Prietos (Best sites=15 &16), a place I have camped with my friends and Robert for years. We were the first there, and at first we were just happy to have arrived. The dogs rolled out of the bus, sniffing, taking the occasional pee to mark the space, and we tried to figure out what to do, and then we noticed the bugs. These are tiny flies, not as small as gnats and not as large as houseflies. They seemed to be clustering around us, and the dogs, coating Harold’s eyes. “I forgot about the bugs,” I said, and Robert looked at me with annoyance. He’d camped there before, of course, but never as often or as long as I had. But we lit some incense, sprayed ourselves in bug spray, and got the bus set up.
Soon enough, our friends arrived, and now is the part where I have to try to explain them, but in a way where I can make sense of them simply, because all of them could have an entire post of their own, and that’s not to mention their dogs.
So, how can I explain Bill and his family and what they mean to me in this space? I can start with the back-story: before I met Bill in the summer of 2005(?), we had been shadowing each other for years. Bill went to UCSB; I went to UCSB, albeit many years apart as Bill is older. Bill had a special connection to Ashland given his theater background, and I grew up there. Bill was connected to San Francisco having been raised in foggy Pacifica, and I knew the fogs of that area well having worked at the Top of the Hill near Pacifica when I first graduated from college, selling sewing machines in that oddly eerie part of town. When I first met Bill I was surprised to find out we had the same spoon rest, the same potholders, but it went even deeper. “I just found this great vet,” he told me soon after he moved into the other half of our strange duplex in SilverEchoPark Lake. “Oh, yeah,” I replied, “I have a great vet. Dr. Martin.” “In Glendale, “ Bill asked incredulous, “Yes.” We had the same vet (and the same tastes, even down to the vintage linens, although we do not agree about everything). We became neighbors and then friends, this tall, elegant man with his small children who I inveigled into doing crafts with me. We had late night talks across the parapet of our safety cone orange hillside stucco duplex, we planned and held a Halloween Party together, and we (I think) both felt that strange thump that means family.
Family is not just who you are born to; we make our own families in life, and Bill was and is my family, a member of my tribe. But when I thought about how to describe him for this, I was stuck. “Father, brother, husband, son” came to my mind, as these seemed like words that would more aptly name Bill than friend. I mean, sure, he is my friend. I am also friends with the guy at the store at the bottom of the hill. But for me, Bill is father, too. Not because he is my father or because I have ever lacked a father; no, I have never wished for a father figure mine being so much of that and father enough, but rather because Bill is my father’s name, of course, and because Bill is so consummately a father to his two children. I have gone on trips with Bill when I have been mistaken for their mother, and that has always pleased me in some incomprehensible way—not that they lack a mother, but because of the honor it is to be associated with people I admire so much.
As for brother, I have a brother, and while the circumstances of our life make our connection difficult, I have never longed for a brother, and yet Bill is a brother to me, as close to me as only flesh and blood can be, and still not “flesh and blood.” In the paths we traced unbeknownst to one another, the trails and patterns we followed that finally brought us together, we are siblings as true as any born of the same mother, or at least I hope so.
Husband is a tricky word, and I do not want to offend anyone here as I love my actual husband Robert more than words or deeds can ever say, but I feel a marriage of our two families with Bill. When Bill’s son Andre was young, he liked Robert, telling me once that Robert was just like a kid, except he had a credit card and could drive. I believe this was right after Robert took the kids on a trip to 7-11 to see if they could drink the largest Slurpy sold. Once Andre even came out to meet us with an approximation of Robert’s habitual outfit on, a Bowler hat and a vest. And I always felt like Alicia was the daughter I would never have, partly because I could never imagine having a child of my own who was so happy, so easy going, so given to joy and laughter. These children feel like our children, and I guess in that way Bill feels like my partner, too.
And then there is son, and as my posts regarding Harold the Puppy reveal, I am not maternal. It is good that I have never had to be a mother for anyone other than canines or turtles/tortoises. And, in truth, I cannot imagine having a son, nor have I ever felt motherly towards Bill—he would hardly allow it as he is always so busy taking care of everybody else. But I can say clearly that he is the son I would have wanted to have if I had ever had children, for he is one of the finest men I have ever met and ever will know.
And then of the others, Bill’s children, Andre and Alicia, both bright and smart and funny and quirky and exactly like you would want children now adults to be, only not too perfect, not too fake, just enough of their own selves to be believable. More of them later. And Tina, Bill’s lady friend? So awesome—a dynamo of energy and enthusiasm and intellect and beauty who I hope to know better as time passes. And that’s not to mention the dogs (but then I think I already mentioned them). So, once everyone arrived, our tribe was complete, and we set about setting up camp.
It won’t work to try to tell everything that happened on the trip—the lovely meals Bill cooked, the perfection of the creek, the beach, the stories by the campfire, the triumphs and tragedies of every trip. Instead, I would like to write just a bit more about dogs. I know, I know, I have already written a great deal about dogs this summer, but I spend most of my time with dogs, and they are like people to me. On this trip Bill brought his pack, Alicia brought her Jack Russell, Lily, and we of course were with Joey and Harold. What was interesting to me was the way all of the dogs adjusted to camping. I imagine that if I was a dog I would be mildly perturbed if my humans went off to sleep in the woods with wild animals, and Harold certainly was no fan of the wild turkeys that wandered into camp, but the dogs took everything in stride. More than that, they seemed to relish camping and traveling to the beach and just being dogs. This is something I long to learn from dogs: how to live in the moment and trust the universe, trust that everything will hold. Sure, Harold was inappropriate with Lily on the beach at the river, and he was corrected by all the senior dogs, and Joey threw his usual Couch Possum/Exorcist Oven Mitt fits at night when anyone approached me, even biting me and Robert, but in general they were all pretty awesome, and they had so much fun. I looked at them in the evening all sacked out around the camp chairs, dusty toys forgotten, and I marveled that we had such a pack.
However, there was one unexpected event. When we adopted Joey 2 years ago, we knew very little about him except that he was on the kill list at Baldwin Park, his owner had died, and he had myriad health and behavioral issues. The first night we were there we headed across the road to White Rock on the river as the camp host said there was still water there and we could wade and swim. Walking down the path to the river I smelled all the river smells that make me remember my childhood, for rivers have a particular tang in the air, of green leafy growing on the banks and dusty rocks and water and life. The smell of a river or creek always transports me back to being a child, wading in Lithia Creek every summer, hunting frogs in nameless bogs, swimming in the Applegate river. So, on this day as we walked near sunset down the path to the river, carefully crossing the road, I was already back in childhood, enjoying the gauzy feeling of remembered time and having a perfect moment on the first day of the trip. We made our way to a little beach bounded by a muddy bank and trees, and we were the only ones there. The water was still but running some, with reeds and cattails on the farther rockier shore. I went to the water immediately, waded in, and delighted in the silt between my toes. It was a nice firm bottomed spot, not mushy or afflicted with leaves and downed branches, and although it was only chest high in the deepest spot, it was enough for me to paddle around with my kickboard. There was a dragonfly brilliant blue just as there are always dragonflies near water as they lay their eggs there, and as it buzzed by and I looked at the silhouette of the golden hill above and the faded denim sky, I felt a peace I only find when camping.
But that wasn’t what surprised me. In my eagerness to get into the water and cool off and swim—and mercifully there were no tiny flies pestering us here—I left Joey the Chihuahua on the bank. I figured he would whine a bit and be disturbed that his Lady was in the water. After all, Joey has watched me swim in motel pools with only mild annoyance and confusion. All the other dogs were bounding about, some in the water, some trying to stay on shore, Harold splashing about like the puppy he is, and I figured Joey would stay worrying on the shore. But he didn’t. Instead, he waded right in; he looked like he knew exactly what he was doing, and in truth, he did, for Joey entered the water like a creature born to it and immediately started swimming with a tidy crawl, keeping his head well above the water, making a beeline for me. Everyone was surprised, and then as Joey swam in neat circles around me, using his tail as a rudder, we all celebrated: Joey can SWIM! I don’t think I’ve ever been so surprised by Joey, but I was proud of him, too, and as I lifted his scrawny and dripping body to mine, I loved him more than before, which helped make up for some of his more egregious behavior to come.
That rinse in the creek cooled us all of, and then we made our way back to camp, and then began the unspooling of days when you are gone on a camping trip, dropping out of the world. We went to the beach at Isla Vista near UCSB and the dogs ran and ran and ran. We ate meals, watched fires, and talked about the things you talk about around the fire, stories and memories. But we had our sights on a larger prize, the trip up the river past Red Rock to a secret beach we had been at years ago, and that we hadn’t been able to reach in the previous year because the road was closed, and so we set out.
There’s a long story about the trip to Red Rock and why we stopped there instead of heading further, but it isn’t the point, here. Actually, the point was what it reminded me of. We made it to a beach with deep pools and overhanging rocks, and everyone, including dogs, got in the water, and although there were the usual college kids drinking and families swimming, we were having a nice enough time. Everyone swam to the farthest rock and climbed on; the boys practiced skipping stones and proved that they are better at this than I, and we sat on the rocky shore. After a time, Andre began making leaf boats. When we first went to the river, many years ago, I taught Andre to make leaf boats just as I had made when I was a child in Lithia Park. You take a flat leaf and a twig, then you fashion a boat, then you sail it. In Lithia Park I delighted in dropping a boat from one bridge and then racing down the creek to the next bridge to see if my boat made it through. Some boats sail, some boats sink, and others are dashed on the rocks, but this was a gentle river, more of a swimming hole, really, so the current wasn’t a problem. Andre had some trouble getting his boats to float, and Alicia’s boyfriend eventually asked me what the trick was. I thought about it and replied: “The trick is making sure they float.”
But watching Andre and Alicia swimming to the rock, I was reminded of an earlier trip, and time seemed to morph and sway. It happens sometimes when you are what I call “all the way out,” meaning out of the ordinary humdrum cacophony of life, camping and noticing the way the moon gets a little bigger every night, just the things you miss when you are watching TV instead of the moon. The sense of time doubling back on itself is something I wrote about last summer, and will write about again, how these trips remind me not only of who I am and want to be but also of the cycle of life.
That night by the campfire I started doing what I think of as my talking think, trying to make sense of the day and rambling on in a way that I am sure is annoying and yet feels necessary. It is a quality I share with my father, for he taught me to pontificate, to question, to search for threads that tie our existence together and make it make sense. By the fire I was thinking about E.B. White’s essay, “Once More to the Lake.” I used to teach it when we were working on descriptive writing and showing versus telling, fashions that seem to have been abandoned in recent college writing, but the pull of describing a thing accurately still has traction with me. I tried my best to explain it to the folks around the campfire, but explanations aren’t as good as reading the thing itself: http://fd.valenciacollege.edu/file/jcarpen1/Week_3_EBWhiteLakeEssay.pdf
When I think of the essay, I think it as a lovely, elegiac response to visiting places from the past, but it is also a reverie of death. In the essay the author returns to a childhood haunt, a lake he visited as a boy, and he has these thoughts:
But when I got back there, with my boy, and we settled into a camp near a farmhouse and into the kind of summertime I had known, I could tell that it was going to be pretty much the same as it had been before—I knew it, lying in bed the first morning, smelling the bedroom, and hearing the boy sneak quietly out and go off along the shore in a boat. I began to sustain the illusion that he was I, and therefore, by simple transposition, that I was my father. This sensation persisted, kept cropping up all the time we were there. It was not an entirely new feeling, but in this setting it grew much stronger. I seemed to be living a dual existence. I would be in the middle of some simple act, I would be picking up a bait box or laying down a table fork, or I would be saying something, and suddenly it would be not I but my father who was saying the words or making the gesture. It gave me a creepy sensation. We went fishing the first morning. I felt the same damp moss covering the worms in the bait can, and saw the dragonfly alight on the tip of my rod as it hovered a few inches from the surface of the water. It was the arrival of this fly that convinced me beyond any doubt that everything was as it always had been, that the years were a mirage and there had been no years. The small waves were the same, chucking the rowboat under the chin as we fished at anchor, and the boat was the same boat, the same color green and the ribs broken in the same places, and under the floor-boards the same freshwater leavings and debris—the dead helgramite, the wisps of moss, the rusty discarded fishhook, the dried blood from yesterday’s catch. We stared silently at the tips of our rods, at the dragonflies that came and wells. I lowered the tip of mine into the water, tentatively, pensively dislodging the fly, which darted two feet away, poised, darted two feet back, and came to rest again a little farther up the rod. There had been no years between the ducking of this dragonfly and the other one—the one that was part of memory. I looked at the boy, who was silently watching his fly, and it was my hands that held his rod, my eyes watching. I felt dizzy and didn’t know which rod I was at the end of.
Sitting there by the campfire, I tried to explain that this is what I felt when I watched Andre making the leaf boats and Alicia swimming like the mermaid she is. I struggled to explain the end of the essay, where White watches his son pull on his cold bathing suit—a sensation we can all relate to –and feels the pull of death. At the time, it seemed deep and profound. It seems so now, too, although I am hard pressed to explain why. Perhaps it is that returning to places reminds us of who we were while making us see who we are and hinting at who we will be become. And like every child, we will become our mother or father (although hopefully not with all the same maladies), and as we watch time wend its’ path in our lives, we must realize that even as we repeat patterns, behaviors, and revisit memories, we are on a path that will surely end. And yet to have such times—to see Andre and the leaf boats and Alicia the gracious mermaid—that is the real gift of life. And if I can just be like a dog for one day and not clutter up every experience with worrying and fear and anxiety and thinking about the environment and the Trump administration and the plastic in the ocean and all of the things I cannot control, if I can instead focus on the sun shining on the water, the leaf boat sailing and even sinking, the shadow cast by the mountain, the dragonfly, well, perhaps then I will have learned something.
After Bill and the A’s and Tina and the dogs left, Robert and I headed out to Lake Cachuma to buy gas and supplies at the weird country store. I saw a man abandon a toddler in pursuit of a cigarette. I saw a man with rippling muscles and pants hanging on by some gravitational force I do not understand buy beer. I was ecstatic to have more water, but sad about the quality of the drink selection: no tea without sugar. And then we were alone in the camp, so we went back to the river, once more to the lake, and took Joey for a swim, walking home muddy with Harold misbehaving on the trail, and then just us in our bus, ready for bed and driving home.
There were no great lessons from this trip that I can succinctly state, but it was a great trip, and I am thankful for all who made it possible. We returned worrying about the Bus and whether or not we would be able to make our big trip at the beginning of August. There was something about a King Pin and something about the idle and the engine not sounding right and the mechanic saying things like “I think you might need a something something piston valve.” For me, anything involving valves and engines is bad, and pistons, well, that sounded bad, too. We returned to the world relaxed, more tan (Robert’s freckles being closer together), and filled with anxiety about whether or not the Bus would make it for our big summer trip, whether or not to bring Harold the puppy, and what was to come, but we were well and truly rested after the trip, and thankful to have gone.