Sunday, November 25, 2007

I love my dog

Ok, I know, how totally provincial of me to write about my mutt. How many bloggers have done this, I fear to ask. It's like the novice photographer shooting her cat, over and over again, in cuter and cuter poses.

But my dog, now, MY dog, IS special. Everyone says so. My dog has inspired other people to go to the pound and rescue a puppy, overcome their fear of god (I mean dog) even to receive Darshan from him (Sanskrit for having an experience of God.)

People have sung lullabies to my dog. When he was a puppy he literally stopped traffic. I’ll never forget the first time someone didn’t give him the attention he’d grown accustomed to. He got very still and watched this person walk down the street and around the corner, then looked up at me, mystified.

Of course, he is spoiled. But he’s got enough of the working dog breed in him (border collie, terrier) that he still takes responsibility, patrolling the perimeter of our space always, wherever he goes. He smiles, showing his pretty front teeth. He is conscious of children and older people, treating them gently. If he knows and loves you, you can be assured of a very warm and vocal greeting each time you meet.

Living in Big Sur, also known as "dog paradise" something happens to dog owners, primarily because we are providing a utopia for our dogs. No fences, no leashes, no gates, run around all day long and guard the property from...ok, well, mountain lions (hey, there's a price for everything.)

Until I was in my late 20s, dogs terrified me. A barking dog put panic in my belly. As a small fearless child, I’d played with a dog on the street, who bit me. I still have the scars on the soft part of my right arm. Since, as they say, parenting was not a verb in that decade (or the following one, come to think of it) my fear of dogs was not “addressed.” Nowadays there's help.

Then I met Cacia, a black Lab, Chesapeake Bay retriever mix who was dearly loved by a man I dearly loved. She became my friend, with no prompting from me at all. It was cool to be with her, and my heart opened in understanding. When dogs bark, look, they also wag their tails. Maybe they’re saying,”Hi there! Sorry but I just gotta make this scary sound until I know you’re ok to play with.”

Toby, my husband, chose our dog, Kipling, and gave him to me as surprise. He walked around the corner of our office holding this tiny creature in his arms, handed him to me and said, "it's a little boy." I felt like I was standing outside the delivery room. Toby chooses well with his heart.

A dog is your ambassador, your champion, your love-object, your canine alter-ego. A person with a dog is less threatening than one without.

Have you ever had a long chat with someone about their cute dog, what breed, how he reminds you of another dog and so on but not made any personal contact with the dog’s owner? It’s funny, and among dog owners, accepted. It’s not love me, love my dog (though that does apply to overnight visits with my dog in tow) but really, love my dog, never mind about me, I just buy the dog food.

A tongue we all know and love.

Ready for action.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Torre Fire

Why living with high fire risk is worth it.

Thursday afternoon three weeks ago, the call comes in on the fire brigade pager that my husband always carries: a vegetation fire between the Coast Gallery and Partington Ridge. I hear the (Hawthorne) Gallery, where we both work, and Partington, a difference of a few miles and assume the fire (if it is a fire, since pager calls are notorious for bad/incomplete info) is far away from my home.

Wrapped up in my daily cares and pending town errands I head north down the road in the opposite direction (lesson, when I hear the words Partington and fire in the same sentence, even the same paragraph, I'm going home, pronto.)

On the way to meet a friend who is selling me the laptop I’m writing on now, he calls me on my cell phone, (itself rare occurrence since I don’t use the phone in Big Sur, it generally doesn’t work there.) He tells me that the local tv news says there's a fire near Partington Ridge in Big Sur and (this is key) the ridge is being evacuated.

Our mountain neighborhood is way under the radar, to think it’s being discussed on television is surreal. I stop, dead in my tracks, in the parking lot and immediately change course back to my car, the freeway, home. I don't know what I'll find but I'm going.

I make calls to neighbors to check on my 90 year old neighbor, who is barely mobile, arranging for his transport, and for my dog, who is my surrogate child. I give the ok for the use of our house for another neighbor’s kids and sick mother to stay there as the situation becomes clearer. “It’s a blazer” says my friend who is watching it from her perch at the top of the ridge.

It’s easy to express what is just under the surface freely when confronted with a threatening situation. As I make these calls I find myself telling people I love them, which seems natural and right.

A special thank you went to my computer guru friend, Michael, for alerting me to the danger. He offered his home to for us to stay at if we needed to, and we exchanged “I love yous” too.

Rounding the corner past Deetjens Inn, I saw what we never want to see: that pale orange pall in the night sky, the smoke dancing above as if it were some supernatural phenomenon. Almost like what tornado watchers must feel—here it comes, and it ain’t good.

Drawing closer, flying through each curve of the highway, I try to assess it, west side of the highway, white smoke is good, no high orange sparks. But that glow, that glow is always unforgettable.

I park in the pull out just before Torre canyon, where a sheriff has stopped traffic. He scolds me for parking there but I leave the car where it is and begin chatting with the neighbors.

We can’t get through, it’s not safe. Firefighters and equipment, sheriff’s search and rescue team and flames that could jump the highway prevent us from getting to the other side and the tiny road up our ridge. None of us can evacuate our pets and belongings, but some have family members at home who are packing up.

So far, though, not too much stress, it looks like it’s under control, from our safe distance we can’t see flames, and it appears to be dying down. It hasn’t jumped the highway, the main concern. We pride ourselves on being country people, after all. Some even talk about hiking up the back road to their homes, if only they could cross the line.

One neighbor opens a bottle of French wine, out of sight of the sheriff. We pour it into the only cup we have amongst us, a plastic travel coffee cup, rinsed out with bottled water. We despair of the local authority not letting us through. Other neighbors drive up, are stopped, chat, then most head back to the valley for a bite to eat or to find a place to sleep just in case, thinking all will be well soon.

I stay, and walk down to the edge of the pullout, where there’s a locked gate, guarding a tiny point of land on the edge of the cliff. It’s where I got married 12 years ago. Quite a different experience, with flowers strewn across the field making a path to my beloved, standing at the very edge, on a drop dead gorgeous day, our friends assembled, champagne. One neighbor, who is up at the top of the ridge packing at this moment, rode her horse down the mountain to see the ceremony.

Now I really see the dancing smoke. I watch for a while, remembering. Then back to chat with the scolding sheriff. I find him eating a banana. Seems he’s been on duty for 15 hours. The radio crackles with the voice of our local volunteer fire chief. He oks the admission to the fire area of Mary, who lives next to the edge of the fire. Her husband and young son are there, packing and watching.

Moments later, Mary and a friend pull up, and I hop in the car with them to help. I feel a moth to flame attraction, my husband is on the fire line, and I want to be close (or, since we had a fight that morning, perhaps immolate myself.)

Around the corner and over the highway bridge, lined with emergency and tv vehicles. The tv crew part is funny, basically none of the people who live in Big Sur get local tv coverage, even from satellite, so the practical usefulness of the coverage is moot, except, come to think of it, the tv news got me back down the coast, v. doing the grocery shopping. if you'd like to see
local tv coverage of the fire here you are.

Down the driveway to Mary’s house. Aghast, we all stop and look at a huge line of fire, coming up from what looks like the bottom of the cliff, hundreds of feet long, snaking up towards the road. A few firefighters on the other side of the fire line look like figures in a Hieronymous Bosch painting, so tiny against the roiling bright orange flames.

The fire is maybe 50 yards away. Mary drops to her knees. As she turns and runs toward her husband and son, we watch as the wind changes. A long orange ribbon of fire rises up as if in slow motion, and then the whole line is moving toward us, fast.

At the house I say, what can I do, and the fire chief and his wife (who lived there many years ago and are friends with Mary and her family) both say, Leave now. We are all leaving NOW.

As I run behind Mary’s young son up the driveway, the fire begins to reach a stand of nasty, oil-filled eucalyptus trees. Keep running Jesse, keep going, we’re right behind you, don’t worry, they’re fighting it, it’s going to be ok, I encourage him, and myself too, as we move up to the road. A burning eucalyptus branch falls to the asphalt and we run around it.

Next we’re all hopping into cars, and the possibility of gridlock on the bridge occurs to me. I end up in Mary’s husband’s truck, with their cat meowing loudly. Jump in Linda, jump he says, and I grab the bar above the window and swing up. Then a few sobs escape me, I’m so worried about my man. Sam talks about their goldfish, he had to leave them. O fuck the goldfish! I say, your family is safe, that’s what’s important.

The fire chief’s wife and I check on the other nearby residents: an elderly couple, who’ve lived in Torre canyon for decades. They move quite calmly and purposefully. Dogs and birds chatter in their SUV. We watch the flames going up the east side of the mountain as we wait for him to disconnect the propane.

I drive to Deetjen’s, where the mood is somber. It’s 8:30 pm and we’re all wondering if we’ll have homes in the morning. Upstairs in the office, we make calls. The phone at my home rings and rings and rings. I know the power is out, but many of us keep old-style rotary phones for emergencies. After several tries, I reach my husband, who has left the fire lines to rescue our 90 year old neighbor, our dog, and some possessions. What should I take, what do we need he asks me, Bob, the dog, the computer, the camera, I reply.”I’ve put on the sprinklers,” he says. Then, he adds, “it’s all going to shit!”

Well that’s it, I think. And toddle off to the Fireplace room (funny) which Deetjen’s has kindly given to me and two other neighbors, mother and daughter, to share for the night. I’ll eventually sleep on the air mattress, which takes several comical attempts to inflate. The General Manager, who I know from a previous lifetime as a teacher at Esalen, brings me a bowl of soup, which I eat slowly on the bed curled up like a weak cat.

Later in the evening, we hear that the fire, miraculously, is dying down. Just like that. Down to the restaurant for an update, several folks there chatting quietly. We chuckle over a neighbor who never moved from his spot looking down at the fire; if he’d been in a tornado he’d be holding onto the storm cellar door, commenting on the stiff breeze.

Several hours later, it rains. We’ve been passed over. Like death, as the old-timers say, it’s not IF, it’s WHEN. This is part of how we feel about fire on Partington Ridge. It’s a great clarifying experience, to really get that possessions mean NOTHING, that all our accumulating stuff is silly, that in a crunch, we only care about our people, our pets, artwork, our memories preserved in photos and a few sentimental objects. O, and nowadays the computer hard drives.

If given too much time to think it over we’re like the wife in Steve Martin’s “the Jerk” I only need this, and this and this and this….what do we really, really need? What is really important to you? What would you carry with you from your home if you had 15 minutes to choose, in a stressful and scary scenario?

Update: The Torre Fire was started by a man who drove off the cliff just north of Partington Ridge. He was injured and unable to climb the 250’ to the road. So two days later, he allegedly started a signal fire. He’s not liable for any costs or damages because he was trying to save himself. 75 acres were burned, no homes damaged, there were a couple of minor fire-fighter injuries. CDF, BLM, USFS, North Tree fire, Big Sur Volunteer Fire Brigade, convict labor from Gavilan, and a few good Samaritans all helped put this one to rest.

To contribute (EVERYONE should) to the local, Big Sur all-volunteer fire-fighters (the first on the scene, at this fire, and most) please do so now! They're currently fund-raising for a new engine, the one we have is several decades old.

The car that started it all.

Scary eucalyptus, after the fire.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Padmasambhava and me

Here I am, all grown up. Note Buddhist medallion. Wishes come true when you pray to Padmsambhava, the powerful 8th century Indian dude who brought Buddhism to Tibet. My wish that evening was, as always, for more love, truth and intimacy in my life. I think it's coming true, which is quite an accomplishment when you live at the end of the road. Make that two miles up a dirt road, 50 miles from "civilization."

Ok, ok, I'm whining a bit. We have a computer (obviously) and a satellite, a local radio station and a fire brigade pager. It's not like we're that isolated. We have cars, we drive twice weekly into "town", we vote. My husband and I watched the towers fall on the morning of September 11.

Perhaps...this existential longing for more is part of what Big Sur is calling forth from my soul. To paraphrase former local bad boy, writer Henry Miller, the land is so big, so beautiful, that it simply demands that I make the best of myself. I certainly can't improve on the landscape, but maybe I can live up to it, in a way.

Welcome Committee

So here I am, decades before I heard of Big Sur. That's my favorite stuffed animal on my right, "Bully." Bully eventually morphed into my imaginary friend, and we carried on together in secret for years.

Now I live in a beautiful place, with a lovely man, a dog and host of friends who visit Paradise as often as they can. The view is breathtaking, in all kinds of weather, day or night, any season, even when you're blue. Living on this wild coast provides a mega-dose of nature, the opposite of alienated city living.

What does it take to live here? Read on...