The Katella Deli Cornbread Incident: Or why you shouldn’t punk nice people in front of Ms. Wood

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I have never hid the fact that I like to brawl. You can ask anyone… even my students. I am not proud of my violent past… I made incredibly raw mistakes as a punk rock rebel of the early 1980s and I have felt very grateful on numerous occasions to still be alive. However… I have to admit, that I am also a bit distraught that I am no longer able to put myself in “compromising” situations due to the fact that teachers cannot be felons.

And when I say brawl… please don’t picture me walking around like any number of bullies in books or film who are just “looking” for a fight.  That was never my style. I’m more like the bully that likes to fuck with the bully. And now that I am approaching the age of  “menopause” I’m finding the temptation is returning with a passion and my only fear regarding the looming age of my retirement, is that I will no longer have teaching to keep me in “check.” And honestly… the idea of finishing my life in a prison cell where I can write every day, only to be disturbed during, exercise, eating, or shower time with a bit of one-on-one shank and fist-a-cuffs thrown in… sounds like a Pulitzer prize winning novel to me.

So I swear, on whatever oath you hold dearest to your heart, that I really tried not to brawl at the Katella Deli. I really didn’t want to get into it in front of a whole restaurant of really old people, their main clientele, but the cornbread incident was just too much for me.

He was a middle-aged, white man. Short, squat… one of those guys that overreacts at his kid’s soccer game… who wants to check the rule book before he agrees with the call. The guy that will phone the city if you are out of compliance in anyway then walks around, breaking the leash law, with a giant fluffy poodle shouting to everyone in ear shot, “She’s trained. She’s trained. She doesn’t need to be on a leash.”

Yeah… I know you’re already getting annoyed just reading this…

I glanced at him briefly. He was standing at the take-out counter. I noted his bald spot, his attempt at a comb-over, his cargo shorts and his strappy Drew Warren orthotic man sandals, while sitting on a bench waiting for my own take-out order. He couldn’t keep my attention for long. I’d been conversing with this lovely older African-American man who had not only won me over with his good looks and charm but had really gone in for the kill when he just happened to let it slip that he was a Ph.d of Literature at one of the local prestigious colleges. I was enamored and we were both well into a serious conversation when suddenly a ruckus broke out at the counter.

We both stopped and stared. The little Napoleonic take-out bastard was harassing the waitress pretty good. I felt my eyes begin to narrow and focus. My hearing honed in on his words.

“You will give me the cornbread. Do you understand? I don’t have to explain myself to a take-out waitress. Give me my cornbread, now.”

I waited… I was dying to jump in… but I knew I had to give this young girl a chance to stand up to a bully on her own.

“I’m sorry, Sir,” she said in her kindest voice. “Your order only comes with one piece of cornbread. If you want another piece, I will have to charge you extra.”

Here I watched as he stomped his little hairy-toed foot and threw his arms up in the air, his plastic take-out bag almost clocking the old man eating his matzo ball soup quietly at the counter, before slamming his hand down and making a loud smacking noise on the Formica.

“If you don’t give me another piece of cornbread right now…”

But he was unable to finish.

An older woman, who had been mid-order when the scene went down, turned towards him and said, “Excuse me, but I was ordering for me and my daughter. Could you please let me finish?”

I thought he was going to have a mental breakdown right then and there. His eyes grew large, he turned to the woman and began yelling, “This is none of your business. I was here first. Can’t you see this bag in my hand?” Here he threw the bag towards her and I watched as the young woman behind her flinched. She was small and meek, a girl of about sixteen and you could see immediately that she was special. Her sweet face now confused by social cues she did not understand. Her eyes looking up towards her mother, terrified by the incident, and that was it.

He had gone too far.

If he wanted to pick on someone, he was gonna get a mother fucking handful from Ms. Wood.

“All for a piece of cornbread?” I said.

The restaurant stopped.

I swear to God the restaurant stopped.

My voice, as most of you know, and as some of you current and former students have unfortunately heard in one of my wrathful moments know, that my voice can stop traffic on a busy day in Bangladesh. It is a force to be reckoned with… an entity of it’s own…. a weapon of mass-destruction able to bring the most stoic and unruly bully to tears. I barely raised the level a notch but everyone in that restaurant knew that hell was coming.

He turned to me. Not really sure if the pudgy, white middle-aged woman standing in front of him said it. Then he stepped forward, all bravado, to confront me head on.

“Excuse me?” he said.

I walked right up to his face, my eyes level with his, my chest inches from his chest and said, “You’re really going to behave this way over a piece of cornbread? You’re really going to berate a waitress, abuse an older woman, terrify a special child in front of ALL OF US over your need for one more FREE piece of fucking cornbread?”

Suddenly, he realized that the entire foyer was silent. That every person in the area was waiting for his response.

I was ready to grab somebody’s walker and bash this son-of-a-bitch but good. I was actually hoping for the opportunity.

He tried to hold his ground… he tried to steady his gaze… but he could see that there was something “challenging” in my eyes and he was rocked to the core. It took less than a second for his appearance to crumble and the true wimp to be exposed for all to see.

No balls.

All bite.

“That’s a rhetorical question,” I heard the Professor say from behind me. “I think you better just take your cornbread now, Son… and leave.”

There we were… the ebony and ivory super heroes of the literary world… able to vanquish villains with glossary terms and fine, proud speaking voices.

He stomped out of the restaurant and of course, didn’t say another word until he was within “running distance” of his car but by then, the Professor and I were already surrounded by a round of applause and everyone enjoying a moment of camaraderie as we recapped Mr. Cornbread’s idiocy.

“Thank you,” the older woman said to me. I smiled and then made eye contact with her daughter. “Hi,” I said. “I’m Ms. Wood. I’m a teacher.”

Her face just moments ago scared and sad, looked up towards her mother and said, “Teacher” then she reached out and touched my arm and I held her soft white hand for a moment before she came close to me and hugged me.”

“You’ve got a gift,” the Professor said. “Teaching’s a calling.”

“Teaching lessons to idiots?” I said as I continued to hug my new friend.

“If that’s what it takes,” he said.

We both said our goodbyes, wished each other luck, as we walked off with our take-out orders and on to our regular daily lives.

It wasn’t until I got home that I found a small box in my bag with a piece of free cornbread in it and a note written in blue ball-point pen, on the top of the box, that said, “Thank you, Ms. Wood.”

And it wasn’t until hours later that Mia, my former student, a waitress at Katella Deli, texted me and said, “It was you wasn’t it, Ms. Wood? I heard all about it! Text me!”

I did text Mia that day. She updated me on her progress in college, as she worked her way towards her teaching credential, and reminded me that I was one of the teachers who inspired her to become a teacher.

And isn’t that the great thing about life? That we can have a profound influence on any human being… at any given time… and teach lessons based on our own experiences and maybe by doing the right thing every once in awhile… even end up with a free piece of cornbread?

A Walk for Ms. Wood

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Opal Green Door.jpg

A Walk for Ms. Wood

I live in the forest now. It has been something I have wanted since I was a child spending most of my summers in the mountains around Big Bear and now, here I sit, in an old historic cabin in the middle of the woods. Yes, that’s right. Not in town: in the woods.

I don’t miss my hometown of Long Beach when I am here. I know, like anything or anyone that truly matters; that Long Beach is always there waiting for me. Like a good parent, she let’s me wander and return for comfort as needed. It feels good to feel her strength somewhere off in the distance; just a short drive to the city that holds the people that I love.

Today the wind is blowing through the mountains, what feels like a warm Santa Ana, a precursor to the coming Fall, and I listen as the trees bend and sway knowing that I am completely alone. There is a quiet to the woods, a shift in energy when people pack up and head down the hill, and I know that my cabin neighbors are not present today.

Opal, my baby pit bull, has just come up to me as I write this, tail wagging, whole body wagging really, ball in mouth, hoping I will open the cabin door so we will go outside and therefore I pause for a moment and we do.

Being in the National Forest is not like walking in our town’s Nature Center. Yes, when I am in the Center I may run into a coyote, spot a hawk or an owl, or on the rare occasion glimpse a fox but, I don’t walk the path worried for my mortal life.

Here, I know that once I take the path into the woods there are any number of predators that I may come across and though most people find me to be a person that they see as “fearless” there are twinges that creep in, especially when I am with Opal; who to me seems like a lure for anything wild. I always have the feeling that she is a city girl in the country and that the true beasts will show her just what wild is as she gallops down the path chasing yet another beautiful butterfly or rushing to find exactly where the ground squirrel or the chipmunk live, oblivious to what lurks in her new surroundings.

A few months back, Stephen and I were stopped from our bickering, over who was going to build what inside of the cabin, by a beautiful gray bobcat that crossed in front of our kitchen window. We have always marveled at this window. A ten-foot by five-foot giant pane of glass, brought up the mountain sometime in the 40s and installed so that it captures a large span of forest and lake and makes you feel that you are viewing a landscape painting of magnitude.

The cat came up to the left of the glass, from the base of the ravine, and entered the picture and at first, my mind could not fathom what it was, too big to be a house cat or a raccoon, but not the right shape for a large breed dog.

He was beautiful, the way he moved at a steady pace, sure in his stride, aware of his surroundings with almost a strut to his style. He stopped in front of our window, enjoying the warmth of the sun and preened himself for a moment before something in his nature knew, just as I knew when I was in the forest alone, he knew that someone was watching.

He turned his head quickly and stared us down. We had been sure he couldn’t see us through the reflection in the glass but he had and we were privy to a moment of connection to something truly wild. It was the strangest feeling. His intensity burned through the window. I felt like I had been caught naked: vulnerable and unsure. It was then that I was glad that Opal had not been outside bounding about when he appeared, and though many locals said he probably would have “gone to tree” if Opal was present, something in his steely glare seemed to negate their reassurance.

His ears pricked up as he watched us and I noticed the fine feathered tips that shot straight up from the tips of his ears as if he had his own permanent party favors or fireworks displayed for all to see.

Then, he left, as mysteriously as he came to us, over the ridge and into the next ravine and I prayed to whatever God the forest listens to that he would live a long beautiful life undisturbed in his habitat.

Yesterday, there was a mama black bear and her two cubs destroying bird feeders for their liquid sugar and frolicking and playing in the trees across from our cabin. Someone had taken a video from the safety of their window and once again I was glad that Opal and I had been inside, an instant image of her running forward, baby-to-babies, all cubs really wanting to play and mama, ready to protect.

People love to act as if black bears are “no big deal” when I tell them that we have bears in our area and though I never correct them, I do like to imagine each of these people, walking a path, as they are crossed by a 400-pound black bear with cubs. I tell you what they wouldn’t do in this situation, they would never say something as stupid as black bears are no big deal ever again.

A bear is a bear.

And though yes, a grizzly can be terrifying, and anyone who has seen the film, The Revenant, has now had that idea seriously hammered home, a black bear can be scary too. I’m not quite sure what I would do if I were crossed. I imagine making myself big: arms raised, legs wide, mouth loud, as I have done before when dealing with coyote incidents at the park at home, I doubt I would pull out bear spray as a means of trying to ward a mama bear off; especially if this was a mama bear protecting her cubs. I know how fierce I can be protecting my own children, I can’t even imagine how terrifying I would be if I had canines several inches long and claws that could rip open a gut with one swipe. I imagine that my posturing would most likely amuse her but that my bear spray may be what would set her off. Hopefully, I won’t ever have to find out.

I have seen numerous black bears but I have seen a grizzly only once in the Big Bear Wildlife Rehabilitation Center. I watched as he floated in a pool and swatted a telephone pole around and bear hugged it as if he was on a floatie in a pool in my own backyard. It was then, in real life, not in film, that I understood just how easy it would be to “end me.”

But, having said all that, I do believe that I rather come across a bear than a cougar. I have thought about that more than I probably should, imagining me grabbing the scruff of it’s neck after it had pinned Opal to the ground and I of course, being who I am, would not allow my pup to fight it alone, and yes, I might die beating it off, but this is not the Nature Center and this is what you sign up for when you decide to live in the woods.

I have a healthy respect and a great love and admiration for these animals and I understand that this is their home, their territory and they have invited me in as a guest of the forest. I don’t carry a gun, though I have thought about getting one lately to deal with people, not animals, but for now, my only weapon of defense is a big stick, very Teddy Roosevelt as I walk through the National Park and thank him in spirit for creating this for me, for all of us really.

And so, I will stop writing now, and I will put on my shoes and grab my pack, and take baby Opal where she longs to go, out in the wild, and though I’ve heard whispers of a cougar somewhere up by Camp Cedar Lake and that the bears are now rumored to be close to the mineral springs, we will walk that way and be part of this great vast wilderness because as Franklin Roosevelt, Teddy’s cousin once said, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself” and I was not born to stay cradled in a cocoon but to live life to its fullest and look for a story worth telling and so off we go, into the woods, Opal rushing ahead as I follow her lead.

Snowshoeing with Stephen

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To say that I was fussy would be an understatement. Leaving Long Beach late, we hit bumper-to-bumper traffic all the way up the 605 and straight onto the 210.

Our trip to Big Bear would now take a solid three to four hours to get there instead of the usual two and after a long day of teaching, nothing to eat since breakfast, I was beating up Stephen pretty good. And as usual, he sat there and took it; his Buddha like demeanor in almost all situations infuriating.

“You’re like the guy in that Snickers’ commercial.” He said.

If looks could kill, Stephen would have been tossed out the door and rolling down the slow lane of the 605 at that very moment.

“No, no!” he said, correcting himself, “You’re like that guy from Network. You know… I’m mad as hell and I just can’t…

“I know the guy,” I said.

“Yeah but what was his name?” Stephen pushed our pup, Opal towards me as he made room to rummaged about in his pocket, obvious glee registering on his face, “Hang on, I can’t remember his name. I’m going to look him up.” He pulled his phone out and Googled: Mad as hell.

There was a blissful moment of silence before he pressed the phone towards my face and said, “I forgot my reading glasses at home could you read this for me and tell me…”

“Howard Beale! God damn it.” I shouted. “It was Howard Beale!” My knuckles tight and white on the steering wheel. “I’m driving!” I pushed Opal back onto Stephen’s lap and watched as he adjusted himself around her large, lanky puppy body.

“Yeah,” Stephen said. “That’s who you are.” He pointed his finger at me. “You’re that guy.”

We didn’t talk much after that.

Stephen, a keen observer of my road Tourette’s syndrome, chose to take a nap with Opal, so he didn’t have to deal with me, as I navigated the rest of the way up the mountain.

We hit Big Bear around 7, chained up the truck and grabbed take-out from Denny’s, which was a slow and painful mistake, and headed up the paved but pot-holed forestry road to our cabin that sat back in the woods.

Owning a cabin in a National Forest has many advantages: privacy for one, but unplowed dirt roads is not part of the package. I knew that even with the truck we might not get in but I went up to the high road behind our cabin and planned to hit the gas and hope that the chains would carry me up and over the first drift and we’d use gravity to drop us into the area where our cabin sat.

A parked Subaru Outback blocking the road foiled my plan.

I was furious that someone had blocked the community road but Stephen calmly hopped out and headed up to the cabin that sat just a few feet off in the distance.

I rolled down the cab window to listen to the soon to be exchange.

A nice looking older man with jet white hair came out on the porch, he was wearing a fair isle sweater and was a picture postcard representation of how I imagined Alpine skiers in the 1950’s to look. He shook Stephen’s hand and then in a thick Czech accent shouted down to me, “Hello, I am Merik. You can try to go up that road but I tell you, you won’t get in.”

Being a big believer in signs, jinxes, and fate, I was pretty sure that Merik had just fucked me from getting anywhere but my frustration and rage, combined with my super ego was pushing me to show him—show them both really.

He walked down from his cabin and moved his car out of my way and watched as I floored it up into the drive and slammed head first into an ice bank that almost stuck the truck.

I didn’t care.

I was so hell-bent that I backed it up, floored the truck again and slammed right back into the bank.

I watched as Merik put his hands up to his temples, comic really, and shook his head back and forth, Stephen standing next to him, his mouth agape.

When I went back for a third run, I backed up too far and the truck slid down the icy road and went sideways to the edge of the cliff.

This was the moment when Stephen ran over to the cab and whispered, “You’re being stubborn. You’re going to get hurt. Stop it. Let it go. We’ll hike in.”

Merik sensing my fury tried to calm the situation down by shouting to me, “Come on now. Come inside. Let’s have a drink on this.”

Goddamn Czechs. I thought: Always a reason to party.

I waved him off and drove up the road away from the men and went a good clip before finding a small turn around and heading back down towards them.

By the time I returned, Merik was back in his warm cabin and Stephen was waiting to jump back into the cab.

“Just park there,” he said, and pointed to the side of the road. “We’ll take Dora’s path straight up the mountain.”

We parked on the edge of the main road and looked up at our cabin that sat a good football field straight up a bouldered outcrop.

I don’t know what Stephen was thinking but I was thinking, How the hell did a woman in her 80s climb that path everyday for the years she lived there before us?

“Let me get the snowshoes” Stephen said.

I watched as he got out of the truck, the air sharp, beyond cold, and reached under the blue tarp of the truck bed for the shoes.

“Where’s the other pair?” I asked through the open door of the cab.

“I just got shoes for me.” He said.

I swear to God our dog, Opal turned around and looked at me as if to say, “Oh shit.” A serious frown on her baby pitbull face.

“Why didn’t you get me snow shoes?” I asked.

“Well you didn’t seem to think it would be a problem to get into the cabin and you seemed to think I was over-reacting so I bought a pair and thought we could get you a pair later.”

I looked back up at the ravine we would have to traverse to get up to the cabin. A solid six feet of snow at least, giant boulders and tree branches jutting out from each side and then back at Stephen, glaring with hatred.

“I was gonna get you shoes,” he said, “but you were making fun and…”

I cut Stephen off in a fury.

“I want you to put on your little snowshoes and leave.” I snapped. “I want you to climb your little pathway and leave me alone to eat my chicken sandwich. Do you understand me?”

Stephen reached down and strapped his snowshoes on, all the while mumbling, “You didn’t even want snowshoes. You made fun of me thinking we needed snowshoes.”

“What?” I said.

Stephen stood up and looked at me. “Do you want to go home?”

“I want to eat my chicken sandwich in peace.”

He sighed, and turned to head up the hill though I’m sure I heard him say something again about Ned Beale as he slammed the cab door.

I watched him struggling to get up the four feet of solid ice from the lip of the road before he stumbled and fell into the drifts of snow. He righted himself, fell again, righted himself, then stumbled, then suddenly caught his bearings and headed steadily up the hill.

I took the moment to put on my fingerless mittens, my beanie, pump up the old Dodge’s truck heater to high and sat eating my now cold chicken sandwich with Opal.

If she had been upset when Stephen exited the cab, she was now intent on staring at my sandwich, in hopes that I would understand how desirable it was to her.

I fed her small bites of chicken as I watched the hill and wondered where Stephen was.

After a bit, now semi sated, I realized that I was being ridiculous and that if an eighty-year-old woman could climb up that hill in the middle of winter well then Goddamn it, I could too.

I didn’t need any Goddamn snowshoes.

Dora never had any Goddamn snowshoes.

Who cares if I was wearing rubber Crocs and a long dress?

I could do this!

I brought my Oh, Pioneer! mindset to the table and stepped out of the cab with gusto—Opal close behind me on her leash. I reached under the blue tarp on the back of the truck and grabbed my bag of clothes and my pillow: that was all I needed to make it through the night and look at this problem fresh in the morning.

We carefully crossed the icy road. Opal jumping easily up the ice ledge and onto the fresh snow turning to look at me as she landed, as if to offer encouragement.

I steeled myself to the moment, and pushed ahead and my chubby middle-aged body dropped a good four feet down into the snow as I fell forward, face first, into the thick powder.

Opal tried to help, pulling me ahead, trying to get me out of the snow, but each time she tugged I ended up deeper in the drift.

My first irrational thought? Kill The Stephen.

I flipped over on my back and realized that the only way I was going to get back to the road was to actually roll there.

I threw my body weight towards a downhill direction and rolled up over the snow, up over the ice ledge, and down onto the icy street where Opal then dragged me down the road on my back, my rubber Crocs acting as a make-shift sled until my shouts of her to stop finally halted her about twenty feet from where we first tried to climb up the hill.

My second irrational thought? Fuck Dora.

I kept picturing her. Her reed thin tiny body, her long gray wild hair, her large blue eyes and that hard look on her face and I knew that if she would have been watching me at this moment she would have been laughing her ass off.

Pussy, I heard her say in my imaginary scenario.

“Fuck,” I said under my breath as I rolled onto my knees and worked to stand back up.

“You need help?” I heard Stephen shout from somewhere up the hill.

I refused to answer back but took the moment to look up and see that the lights were now lit in the cabin and it’s picturesque beauty was in direct juxtaposition to my situation here down below.

“Fuck,” I said again.

I went back to the truck with Opal to regroup. I turned the engine back on and warmed myself in the cab, my head reclining on the cushioned seat when after a moment; Stephen was at the passenger door.

“Hey,” he said. “Take my snowshoes and we will head up that small road.” He pointed to somewhere a bit further up the mountain. “It’s not too steep. You can wear the snowshoes and I can follow behind in your footsteps.”

I looked at The Stephen.

Still trying to please me.

Still trying to make things right, and I didn’t have the energy or the heart to tell him that in the last few minutes I had already been Googling hotels considering a warm bath and room service for the evening.

“I’ll take Opal,” he said and off they both went towards the new path.

I cut the engine, locked the truck, and stood on the edge of the road working to put on Stephen’s snowshoes.

He watched for a minute, afraid to step in, before seeing that I was once again becoming frustrated, and walked over to help me adjust them.

“Like this,” he said as he tightened my foot into the shoes and strapped my heels to the back. “See?” he said. “Pretty easy.”

He walked on and I followed him in silence, the metal cleats of the shoes striking loudly on the icy road.

I went up the bank first, and of course, fell forward again but this time, my snowshoes kept me towards the top of the surface.

I had a hard time righting myself with my clothes bag in one hand and a hefty bag holding my pillow in the other but I did and stepped forward again. And again, I fell face first in the snow as the fucks began to fly.

“Shhhhh,” Stephen said trying to calm me. “Baby steps. Just take baby…”

“Stephen!” I shouted. Fuck!”

He stood quietly behind me and waited.

I thought of Dora again, how she had lived in this cabin alone for over 20 years, no man, no dog, only her grit and her shotgun and I stood up and pushed myself forward again.

This time, I made it a good ten feet before I face planted.

“We need to make better time,” Stephen said quietly from behind me.

I lifted myself up onto my elbows and turned and glared at him.

He got the message.

“You know what,” he said. “I think I can make it on my own.” I’ll go ahead and you take your time.”

He stepped over me and walked ahead, dropping into drifts every now and then but then Opal pulled him forward and I watched them work as a team until they disappeared down the road.

I lay there a moment. Ready to give up, working to catch my breath before I pulled my phone from my bag and used the light from it to survey the area. I could see Merrick’s cabin far away from me now, the truck, down on the road and then, just a few feet away from me, a long stick, which I grabbed, and dragged towards me and sticking it deep in the snow used it to right myself and steady my balance.

It worked.

My pioneer spirit was back, and I moved forward with a vengeance, my phone light and my bags in one hand, my walking stick in the other. And after a few minutes, I had a steady solid rhythm and for a moment, realized that I really liked snowshoeing.

I paused again.

My eyes had adjusted to the night so I put my phone away and readied to follow the path to the cabin. And in that moment, everything changed for me.

The forest was bright all around me.

The snow reflecting the moon.

I was surprised by how light it all was and looked up to note the thousands of stars, the full round moon, the beauty of everything around me, so lovely, everything I had ever wanted, and then I looked toward my cabin.

The cabin I had wanted since I was a very little girl, the good man inside of it who would do anything for me, and I stood in that forest and cried with relief that I had been strong enough to make it up the hill and cried with joy for how blessed I was, and cried and laughed as I heard Stephen call from the cabin, “Do you want me to help you?” and laughing like a fool as I shouted back, my true self again, “No, I’ve got it. I’m almost there.”

Before walking on into my forest, towards my new life.

Losing Matilda

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Chicken Love

Matilda died.

Just a bit before midnight.

And I knew immediately.

As those that have suffered great loss always do.

Something woke me from my sleep.

The house a bit stiller.

Something a bit off.

I got up quickly from the bed and tip-toed to the bathroom, praying… just as I once did on Christmas mornings… that I would get my wish and find the thing I wanted most… but she was gone.

Still elegant in her death.

Her long rusty red and white tipped neck draped gently over her towel laden bed, as if she had only fallen asleep, and in the morning, would be mine to love once again.

She sits now, next to me, wrapped in her burial blanket, waiting to be laid in the ground, and I think of how only a few hours ago she was staring me down in a way that only chickens can, accusing me of being selfish.

And I was.

I had tried to care for her on my own, but feeling that I had done it all wrong, and worried that I had waited too long, I took her in to the vet, hoping he could save her but fearing the worst.

He walked in and smiled at her… reached out and brushed her soft feathers.

He said she was the sweetest bird he had ever met and then… that she was the thinnest chicken he had ever seen.

And though he meant it without judgement, I felt a failure in the way of a parent, that I had let my child down… so sure in my ego that I could give her better care at home… and now feeling as if I was a Judas who betrayed her trust…  had brought her to be put down in the company of strangers.

I made all the promises then that we all make when we lose those we love:

I’ll do anything to save her.

I”ll do it all differently this time.

I’ll be good.

I’ll be good.

I’ll be good.

And so the doctor left the room to get her fluids, and food, and the medicine she would need.

He made no promises but said that we would give it our best shot.

“Our best shot,” I whispered to Matilda after he left so pleased that we even had a shot.

But she sat there with her eyes closed… ignoring my words, pretending not to hear me. Obviously wiser than I would ever be so I pushed it and whispered again, really more of a plea:

“Please don’t die, everyone else is an asshole.”

She opened her eyes immediately, glared at me, a tight knit scowl that seemed to say, “Jesus Christ, lady. That’s a lot of responsibility to put on a chicken.”

And I laughed.

It was always so with Matilda.

There was always something that was more human than chicken about her.

The way she first found me that night in the park. Popping out to say hello, sure that I would take her home before the coyotes got to her.

The way she would hear my mini-van pull up and run wildly pell-mell to the fence, so excited to see me.

The way she would hunker down, preparing for me to pick her up… as if she had positioned herself for freeze tag… before I would scoop her into my arms and hold her close while she cooed and cooed, eyes closed… sure in my love for her.

Stephen tried to comfort me when she was gone, “Don’t you see how you have done right by this animal? Don’t you know that you saved her?”

But do you ever see the things that you’ve done right when you are in the middle of a loss?

I don’t think that you do.

I think that you cry… you beg… you ask for a take back… and you say.

I’ll be good.

I’ll be good.

I’ll be good.

Hoping that you can somehow stop death in its tracks… and find a way to hold tight to those that you love.

The Day the Substitute Custodian got an Eyeful: Or also known as… Ms. Wood’s Accidental Full Monty

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caught

Boobs are something most female high school teachers try to hide.

Having large boobs in fact, is a detriment in this particular profession.

You have to constantly check that they do not bounce, jiggle, shake, or incite ANY type of movement that may provoke an inappropriate remark.

And, you might be surprised what topics will cause an inappropriate remark.

Take the time I was talking about getting an EKG, thinking I was making students aware of screening and good health when I look down from my perch, on top of an empty student desk, and see my 11th grade student, Zach Smith, staring up at me lovingly, mouth agape, breathlessly imagining me topless and connected to electrodes, on an examining table, before he breathes in a whispy whisper, “God I love when you talk about your doctor’s visit, Ms. Wood.” (student=1, ms. wood=zero)

Or just recently, when I bought a t-shirt from Old Navy. Not realizing when I put it on in the morning that it was completely see-through and that my nude underwire bra made me look like I had the best pair of perky breasts since the days of the Playboy Vargas girl drawings. Student commentary? Uh, no comment. (students=2, ms. wood=still zero)

Yes, we work hard to protect our reputations as stand-up teachers but sometimes our bodies just get in the way. And though at times high school boys and yes… sometimes girls make an inappropriate remark regarding my mammary glands… these incidents are of course, few and far between in my twenty years of teaching, but have made enough of an impact on me to still fill me with complete despair when they return to my memory.

But in my WORST nightmares… I never imagined that my breasts would make a public appearance on a school day but OH let me tell you… they did.

It was the substitute custodian, actually who enjoyed the full monty of my breasts.

He was a slow man (think Portagee Joe in John Steinbeck’s, Tortilla Flats) who shall ever remain nameless due to this “incident.”

Mr. Marshall, my regular custodian, was out on sick leave and so the district added “PJ” temporarily to our night time crew.

Now, “PJ” loved to take his break in my room.

He would sit at the desks and read my plethora of books.

He would eat his snacks and watch my classroom videos on the dvd.

He would saunter about and flop on my couch.

The only thing the man WOULDN’T do was clean.

I tried time and time again to tell him that I appreciated his love for my room but that it was filthy and he needed to clean it properly.

He would nod his head seeming to understand, a big sweet smile on his face, his hands wringing his dust rag in anticipation of the great job he would do for me and then… I would leave and find the next morning… my room still a dirt pit from the day before… his leftover snack crumbs trailed from the couch, across the floor, to his attempted deposit in the trashcan. Filthy, filthy, filthy.

My bungalow buddy, Dr. Hawkins was sure that he had something wrong with him. “There’s nothing going on up there,” she said one day as we were conspiratorially whispering during our nutrition break. “Brain like a bag of rocks” she added as she tapped her temple repeatedly… and I knew… that if Satinder Hawkins, a woman who can communicate with anyone and teaches advanced psychology couldn’t get this guy to pick up on our message and clean the fucking rooms… then no one could.

Days passed.

Mr. Marshall did not return.

PJ was our sub and there was nothing we could do about it.

All of the teachers on his run tried to reason with him but no matter how we cajoled and pleaded: the empty stare, the large smile, the wringing of the hands, the nodding head, the filthy rooms remained.

We gave up and assigned students to take over the cleaning until Mr. Marshall returned from GOD KNOWS WHERE but man… did we want him back.

For weeks nothing changed… until a Wednesday.

A non-descript Wednesday.

I’d stayed late that day… a group of alumni water polo players, our current coach and I had decided we would all get in the pool after regular practice and rip it up “after hours” with an alumni scrimmage. It was great fun… alone in the pool… a small crew… playing hard and laughing each time someone made a goal… until it began to grow dark and worn… we decided to get out and call it a night.

The girls all wrapped in towels headed off to the parking lot to get in their cars and shower at home but since the locker room was still open, I decided to stay and have a quiet shower alone… a bit afraid of my old high school locker room but… feeling grown-up and responsible and silly for giving into childhood fears.

I walked in and noted the half lights… the quiet calm… the emptiness without the sounds of a hundred girls shouting or giggling or blow drying their hair and headed to the first stall. I left my towel on the bench and stripped out of my suit in the shower. It felt good to be alone. I finished my rinse and then reached for my towel. I did a quick pat down and then wrapped it around my hips before I bent over and wrung out my hair. My head was down… my breasts were bare and dangling… when I did an extra large hair flip and bounced up to feel my long wet hair slap the middle of my back.

It was then that I heard a loud gasp and looked straight into the large stunned eyes of my substitute custodian.

I tell you the moment seemed to last forever.

The eye contact.

The amount of force I used to throw back my head must have showcased my breasts in stunning jiggling glory.

I imagine the uplift alone must have startled him silly as I watched his eyes roll back in his head and his breathing become ragged.

I yelped and rushed to hide in the shower stall.

There were no words spoken.

He scurried off… ashamed that he had entered the lady’s locker room without first shouting out. His little bowlegs painfully working to gallop away… his back hunched as if he had just received an actual physical blow… as I peeked at him from the top of the shower wall and waited for his shadow to disappear before pulling my suit back on over my hips…. Running for my pool bag… towel pressed to my chest as if it’s terry cloth fabric could erase the scar from my bosom. I hoofed it to my car, rushing to the warmth of the private interior, where I laid my head upon my steering wheel and moaned, “Oh God…” at the realization that I would have to see this man actually SEE this man on a daily basis until Mr. Marshall’s return.

I wanted to call in sick until further notice.

The next day, I headed to my classroom late…. terrified that he had left me a note about my improper impromptu show as he “innocently” tried to clean the lady’s locker room. But as I turned the key and flipped on the light… I found nothing… absolutely nothing but…

A SPOTLESSLY CLEAN ROOM.

My mouth dropped open and my face flushed.

‘God damn it,” I whispered.

I felt like I had a scarlet letter burned across my chest.

My own breasts used against me!

My dirty room now spotless not because of my voice and my brain but because of my abundant naked boobs.

When I finally got up the nerve to tell Dr. Hawkins several days later why my room was now each day…  “sparkling clean” she laughed a deep throaty laugh that made me feel connected and comfortable as a woman. “If that’s what it takes,” she roared.

It was two weeks before Mr. Marshall returned, and I refused to stay late after the ‘incident” and thankfully… I never had to make eye contact with the substitute custodian again. But now… as I grow older…. and my breasts give way to gravity (as they all do) I like to imagine the moment… and even have a bit of a giggle… knowing that somewhere in the LB Unified School District… I am legendary and considered “Custodian Porn.”

 

 

 

 

 

My moment with Allen Ginsberg resulting in a misunderstanding over the word “asshole.”

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Allen Ginsberg

I had grown up in the shadow of the 60’s.

Being born in 65, you could say that yes… I was a child of the era, but seeing that I would not be coming of age until well into the 80’s, what I picked up from that time period came directly from my older sister, Char, who was actually a senior in high school the year that I was born.

She spent my formative years raising me on the art, music, writing, pop culture of that time period and though I was so very small… it was not lost on me:

Being painted up with designs of psychedelic flowers and taken to the Griffith Park 1967 Summer of Love Love-in.

Studying the artwork in R. Crumb’s Big Yum Yum book; though my parents thought it was “inappropriate” for small children.

Going to the Glide church in San Francisco to get a hug from Reverend Cecil Williams and listen to the “Church of Rock n Roll.” And of course browsing in the City Lights bookstore (where on any given day) we could have a chance run-in with one of the numerous beat poets my sister taught me to emulate and admire.

It wasn’t really a normal childhood but… one that made me blessed with awareness of the greater world around me and the numerous possibilities that lay ahead.

And so… influenced by it all, I carried it with me over the years and hoped that someday… my path would cross with some of the greats of that time period.

So it was with profound joy, that in my early 20’s, just after finishing my first album with Hollywood Records, that I finally had my moment with Allen Ginsberg.

I couldn’t believe it.

I’d basically been waiting to meet the man since I was three and as luck would have it, he was signing books in Long Beach that week.

I couldn’t wait to see him.

I had no babysitter that day…

Joe, my husband was “on the road.”

I was broke and waiting for my advance to come in from just making my first record.

But I didn’t care… I grabbed my son, who was just a baby at the time, grabbed my vintage Ginsberg books, one of which was a rare photo diary of the Beat Poets in Tangiers only 2,000 copies ever made, and off I went.

When I walked inside, I found a decent, yet modest line, and I was surprised that he hadn’t drawn more of a crowd.

But I stood there in awe: watching every move he made until it was my turn to approach him.

And when I was finally next in line, he finished talking to the person he was with and turned to look at me.

I think now I must have seemed so young to him… standing there in cut off shorts, an old pair of chucks, an old worn wife beater, a baby with a baby slung up on my hip… some of his oldest books clasped tightly in my hand.

I looked at his large eyes… what was left of his graying hair… he seemed a bit removed… stone-like, a Founding Father of literature…. looking at me as if I were puzzling to him… without a smile on his face… and I was immediately intimidated by his presence.

In a small voice, I told him how much his writing had influenced my own, how I hoped that he would sign these books I had brought with me… and that as soon as my advance came in from my record, I would buy his new book, but barely had enough money today to pay for the gas to come and see him. And then, I pulled my cd from my pocket and asked him if he would accept it as a gift.

He took the books and the cd from my hands.

He paused as he looked over the two books I had brought, before looking up at me and saying, “These books are older than you are.”

I smiled as he flipped through the photos of him frolicking with Kerouac, Burroughs and the others down in Tangiers.

“And this?” he said as he looked at my cd. “Is this spoken word?”

“No,” I said.  Almost embarrassed that it wasn’t. But then I held my head up and bravely said,  “It’s music. These are my songs. I wrote them.”

He looked at the photo of me holding the baby on the cd cover and then back at me holding the baby in real life.

He didn’t speak again.

He opened both books… signed them… and handed them back to me.

I smiled… thanked him… and remained in a daze the entire ride home.

I didn’t need much.

I wasn’t necessarily “star struck” but I was silenced by the magnitude of his work and the influence it had had on so many.

When I got home I put Dylan down to play and sat on the swing to look at what he had written.

In each of the books he had signed his name… the date… and then had printed a large A and a large H inside of a circle.

I didn’t know what to think.

What did it mean?

Why A.H.?

What was with the circle?

I felt a bit uneasy suddenly about the whole exchange… I began to wonder if this was some secret code to distinguish me as one of the jerks that hadn’t bought his new book and then I realized what it meant.

“Asshole,” I whispered.

He totally got away with calling me an “ASSHOLE” for not buying his book. 

Suddenly my heart went cold.

I was embarrassed.

Furious.

Disappointed that he would do something so low.

I fumed about the insult all evening until my husband called me from the road.

“Did he really write the word asshole?” my husband asked.

“No,” I said. “But he put A. H. with a circle.”

“Yeah…” he said. “Sounds like code for asshole. Especially with that circle and all.”

I suddenly hated Allen Ginsberg.

How could he be so cruel?

Hadn’t he once been a young struggling artist?

I wanted to go find where he was staying in Long Beach and slap his old face.

But instead.. I sat down and wrote a vicious and scathing poem about him and then shoved it in a box, along with my bruised ego, and let the years brush the incident aside.

It wasn’t until Dylan, my baby boy, was in his early 20’s that the memory came back to me… when I found my son, in my writing room, looking at my signed copies of Ginsberg’s books, Dylan’s hands gingerly touching the pages, studying the faces of the Beat Poets in Tangiers.

“Did Allen Ginsberg really sign this for you mom?” he asked.

“Yeah,” I said. “But he was a jerk.”

“How so?” Dylan asked.

And so I sat down and told him the story of when we met Ginsberg.

Dylan, obviously not as idiotic as his parents, listened to my story before looking at me and saying, “Yeah but how do you know he was being a jerk? You just assumed he was being a jerk because you felt bad you couldn’t buy his book that day.” He closed the books and put them back on the shelf. “Now that we have internet have you ever gone on line and looked to see if he wrote that in anyone else’s book?”

I stared at him.

Of course I had never thought to do that.

After I had been so humbled by the incident I tried to never think about it again.

“Come on,” Dylan said. “Let’s look.”

I sat down on the computer, beyond trepidacious, with my son standing behind me, and my hands on the keyboard.

I typed the words: Allen Ginsberg A H in books.

And a moment later… this explanation appeared:

From the Holy Soul Jelly Roll liner notes Ginsberg explains how he came up with “Ah”, “…[I] got in the middle of the group who were going off to blockade a highway and started chanting “Ah” after asking them to chant with me. Everybody sat down, then we discussed strategy calmly rather than as a hysterical mob. “Om” closes out at the end but “Ah” leaves the mouth open, breath goes out [see Ginsberg’s Mind Breaths poem for more]. On the 4th of July you see the fireworks and say “Ah”, or you recognize something and say “Ah!” When Trungpa said “Why don’t you try ‘Ah’?” he joined an American sound with Himalayan wisdom, and I’ve used it ever since. “Ah” for recognition, appreciation, the intelligence of speech joining body and mind and for a measure of the breath.”

Suddenly, I felt sick.

All of these years… all of this time…

He had died with me angry at him.

“Wow,” Dylan said. “That’s really cool and super sad that you thought you were an asshole all of these years when really he was showing you recognition for being an artist.”

I wanted to cry.

I wanted to shout, “I AM AN ASSHOLE for thinking Ginsberg was the asshole.”

I wanted to go back in time and rush back into the store and hug him until it felt like his old bones would break.

But I couldn’t.

That’s not how life works.

We make our mistakes.

We misjudge those we love.

We allow skewed perspectives to lead to rash judgements which get in our way.

I would never have a chance to meet with Ginsberg again… and the sting of that… painful.

“It’s okay Mom,” Dylan said. “He didn’t know what you thought all of these years.” And then hugged me hard. “Think about it…” he continued. “He might have been listening to your music this whole time… and glad that he inspired you to write it.”

And I was proud of my son.

Proud of his voice.

Soothed by the comfort he offered me… when I was unable to forgive myself.

Lying to the Lake Patrol in Big Bear

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Charlotte was nine-years-old when I lied to the Lake Patrol.

Dylan and Lily weren’t much older… a few years… but still quite young.

It was our first summer, with all of us together in Big Bear, and I thought it would be fun to rent jet skis.

Everyone in the group had been swimming since they could walk and since I, unlike my brothers, preferred jet skis and water skiing to surfing… I thought it would be fun to show the kids what I could really do.

Was I showing off?

Yes.

Isn’t that what water sports are all about?

I can do things with a jet ski that moms aren’t supposed to do.

Moms apparently are supposed to ride safely.

Moms are supposed to stay close to the kids.

Moms are not to see how deep they can submerge the tail while they spin a tight 360 and then pop the jet ski out of the water with a child on the back of it.

Moms are not supposed to know how to reach under the cover and reset the switch so that the rental jet ski can now do exactly what it is supposed to do: HAUL ASS… but this mom… well, that’s a different story.

I knew that Lily really hated the lake water: she did not want to get wet.

She did however want to ride on the back of the jet ski with Dylan, who she adored at the time, and so poor Charlotte, having no idea yet how crazy I was after only being connected to our family for about six months, was stuck with me.

I putted out to the buoy, looking like the perfect PTA mom, waiting for the children, waving at the lifeguards, riding close to Dylan and Lily, pretending to enjoy the leisurely pace, until I had enough distance from the rental office to open it up.

Dylan was smiling… happy to have his own jet ski to ride. Lily was smiling, happy to be snuggled up to Dylan… and Charlotte had her little fingers wrapped in the belt of my vest… not really worried about anything.

I waited until Dylan pulled along side of me before turning and telling Charlotte to hold on. Now, Dylan didn’t hear me say “Hold on” but he saw my face when I turned back to crank the throttle and he knew (having lived with me since birth) he was in for it.

I gunned the jet ski and shot off across the glass with just one smug look back at Dylan who was trying his best to catch up. I waited until he and Lily were dead center in the lake before I spun a large circle around them and headed back towards them… ready to play chicken before I stopped about twenty feet from where they now were, cranked the handle hard, and watched as a good seven foot high wall of water flattened them.

They didn’t have a chance.

They were tipped over and in the lake in a matter of seconds.

I wasn’t really sure what Charlotte was up to. I could feel her hands now clawed into the armpits of my vest. I’m pretty sure she was screaming bloody murder as we roared up to Dylan and Lily, positive that we were going to kill them, but she hung on through it all and I was quite impressed that the child who once used to stare out the window at me, afraid that I would walk too far away from the house and strangers would somehow jump out of the bush and snatch her while I was somewhere near the garbage cans for five fucking seconds, was actually a bit ballsier than I had given her credit for.

I waited until Dylan and Lily got back on their ski before I took Charlotte for a few more passes at them, hitting them hard again and again with walls of water, before I raced off to freak Charlotte out with some 360’s.

This is when the Lake Patrol came on the scene.

I turned to Charlotte and said, “Whatever you do… don’t speak.”

I doubt she would have… by this time her lips were blue from the cold wind and the cold water, and her face was pale white, ghost like in the terror and realization that she really had picked the wrong jet ski to ride. I saw her glance back towards the dock. I’m sure she was thinking if she just jumped off now and made a swim for it, she wouldn’t go to the Big Bear Lake Patrol jail wherever the hell that was.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” The Lake Patrol officer asked.

“What?” I said, looking confused and humble with my little mom pony tail and my little mom bathing suit.

“We have rules on this lake missy and you just broke every single one of them.”

“I did?” I asked and I used this opportunity to practice my “totally innocent”‘ face which isn’t one that comes easily to me.

“Speed limit, reckless driving, those tricks aren’t allowed in California,” He stopped here and removed his aviator shades and leaned over the edge of the boat. “Did you know that?”

I actually did know that, but the good thing about being a mom, is that most people would believe, as I said earlier, that a mom would NEVER break the rules intentionally.

“Really?” I said. “Officer, I’m so sorry. This is the first time I’ve ever been on a jet ski. I just rented it over there.” I stopped and pointed to the far dock.

He made a face, “Those tricks you were doing were tricks only experienced riders can do.”

I looked at him and blushed. “Really?” I smiled, and pretended to act shocked at my “natural” ability. “I just watched a how-to video on TV about an hour ago and thought I would see if I could try it.”

This was the moment where he could have written me a ticket.

This is the moment where he could have taken me in.

This was the moment where he had to decide if I was a true mom: responsible, honest, mini-van driving, church on Sunday, bake sale cooking woman or…

a she devil… a harpy from the lake… a sea nymph waiting to lure him down.

He chose wrong.

“No more,” he said to me as he pointed his bony, weathered finger my way. “I’m going to be watching you.”

I smiled and nodded before I putted off towards the dock.

“You lied,” Charlotte whispered from the back of the jet ski. “And you’re a teacher,” she said as if God himself was about to come down and smite me.

So I lied again.

“You didn’t want to go to jail did you?” I asked. “You know, they take everyone on the jet ski… not just the driver.”

Charlotte was silent.

I could tell she didn’t know what was worse… hearing a mom and a teacher, a double pillar of the community, lie so blatantly to an Officer of the Law or… believe that she could go to jail at the age of nine.

Either way… in the end I left without a ticket, Dylan and Lily had a good story to tell, and Charlotte learned to never ride on a jet ski with me again.