When to Say No or at Least, No More

webpage photoMy spider bite and subsequent health related problems prompted me to get answers, so I went in to see my new doctor armed with a litany of information about getting to the bottom of my recurring and severe reactions to insect bites. In a nutshell, I told her I was no longer interested in taking antibiotics and steroids, being treated with a nebulizer, or spending countless hours in an emergency room. I’d done a bit of research and asked what she thought about me going to see someone who knows about malaria and bugs. She thought it was a good idea.
My sister had some major health issues as a kid. On the advice of our family doctor, my parents took her to Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. Without the expertise and skill sets of several doctors, my sister may have died. In our family, the good deeds performed at Mayo Clinic are revered as something akin to religious. When I settled on Mayo Clinic in Phoenix, I was certain I would have my health problems diagnosed and treated in short order.
By some sheer stroke of luck, I was scheduled for my first appointment with an internist a week after I made my initial call. Surely this was a good sign! Ron and I adjusted our schedules, then I packed my bags and headed off to Phoenix.
My first appointment went well. The internist admitted he’d never heard of the symptoms I’ve experienced, but he didn’t dismiss me as so many doctors have and believed the root cause might be from the malaria I had years ago. Within fifteen minutes of leaving his office, I had my itinerary to include labs, tests, X-rays, neuro-psych exam, meetings with an ophthalmologist, an allergist, an infectious disease doctor. If you have never experienced a trip to Mayo Clinic, throw your disdain for doctor appointments and crowded waiting rooms out the window. It is a well-oiled machine that rivals the organization and scheduling magic of a Carnival Cruise. Everyone was helpful, knowledgeable, and friendly. I not only felt like I was in good hands, I was in good hands. The doctors, nurses, technicians, and support staff are at the top of the food chain professionally, and they love what they do.
All was good until I met with the one person I thought would have answers—the infectious disease doctor. Instead, she had formed her own theories about my case before our meeting and was unable or unwilling to hear my responses to her questions. I left her office angry, confused, and disappointed. I’d already been told by three doctors that insect bites simply don’t bring on the problems I experience. In one case, just a few years ago, a doctor said my symptoms could not be brought on by a spider bite as I lay in his office unable to sit up while he prepared a steroid IV.
My final appointment that day was with the internist I had originally met with. When he asked how it went with the infectious disease doctor, I took a deep breath to keep from crying and told him she simply didn’t know a thing about malaria or insects in general. He was empathetic and continued with his report that included all my test results and notes from the doctors I had seen over the course of four days. In the end, I learned I am completely healthy. My heart and liver are functioning as they should. I have no allergies to speak of, my eyes, though not great, show no sign of disease, and my chest X-ray was clear. I should have left his office exhilarated, but no, I was still hell-bent on finding the cause of my health issues. I didn’t have answers to my questions about the long-term effects of malaria. Still angry, I called Ron and gave him the news, then I went back to the hotel and collapsed.
That night I stopped in at a little Mexican restaurant and ordered a delicious meal and a margarita to calm my nerves. It didn’t take long for me to realize what an ass I’d been. I was just given the best possible news anyone could receive regarding his or her health. I felt ashamed. I’d seen so many sick and dying people at Mayo who would have rejoiced at the diagnosis I had received. And when I thought about it, I did get my questions answered. At least some of them. I learned that whatever is behind these crazy symptoms, they are not whittling away at my brain, my lungs, or my kidneys. I learned that all the antibiotics and steroids I’ve taken over the years haven’t caused any kind of permanent damage, and that I will live through the next round of symptoms. Sitting there sipping my margarita, I decided I’d had enough—enough doctors, enough medication (unless absolutely necessary,) and enough worrying. It was simply time to be thankful.
After it was all over, I left Phoenix and made it as far as my mom’s house where I spent the night. The next morning I got up and went for a bike ride. Five miles from her house I hit a bump in the road. The crash left me full of scrapes and bruises. The following day, I was back home picking peaches when I was stung by a tarantula hawk. Now anyone who knows anything about these winged-devils knows the pain goes right to that place inside a person that makes her scream for mercy. As the pain subsided, I worried I’d end up down the rabbit hole again, but it didn’t happen. Apparently this is one bug that doesn’t throw my system out of whack.
You don’t have to be religious to see the kismet in all of this. After surrendering to my health issues, I was tested. First a bike crash and then the wretched sting of the tarantula hawk. I will no longer ask, “What else can happen to me?” As the last three weeks have proven, the story of Job can present itself if we invite it into our lives. I’ve made peace with what the internist dubbed a “medical anomaly.” Sometimes it’s enough to take stock in what we have and to be grateful for answered and unanswered questions.


Along Came a Spider and Sat Down beside Her

cobweb-morgentau-dew-dewdrop-53367From nursery rhymes to Emily Dickinson’s poem, The Spider Holds a Silver Ball, these eight-legged, silk-producing arachnids ignite wonder for the curious-minded and, in Charlotte’s case, bestow wisdom that stretches far beyond the barnyard. And why not? Their ability to spin glorious webs that catch droplets of morning dew make romantics swoon. But as Little Miss Muffet reminds us, they are also to be feared.
I’ve been a gardener my whole life. I blame it on genetics. My people were Irish and Bohemian farmers. Hearty Northern folk who held the seasons in their bones. I grew up in the 70’s in the suburbs of Milwaukee, where lawn care bordered on religious doctrine and dads fired up the grill in the backyard on Saturday night. In our backyard we had a garden that rivaled those found on hippie communes. It never occurred to me that we were the only family in the neighborhood who spent the summer planting, harvesting, canning, and pickling. My sisters and I were too busy weeding to notice most people just went to the grocery store. I was a scrawny kid who froze most of the year. If for no other reason, I loved working in the garden because it provided plenty of warm sunshine. My mom had a shelf in the bathroom of salves, sprays, and repellents for the bug bites and scratches. If I complained to her about spiders or any other creepy-crawlies, I don’t remember. That all changed after I was bit by a mosquito carrying the malaria parasite while living in Honduras.
I was sick with malaria for five years. What I didn’t realize at the time was that few US doctors have the training or knowledge to address the long-term effects. When the last fever passed eighteen years ago, I thanked God I had survived. Little did I know that it was the beginning of a long list of health anomalies I would encounter over the years.
Our orchard and garden demand our full attention right now. Along with the work, comes a host of insects that can do me in. Whether it’s the seemingly benign grass spider that builds its funnel-looking web among the squash leaves or the banded garden spider whose ladder-like web stretches along the tops of tomato plants, I know that as soon as I enter their domain, I’m fair game. No matter how careful I am, spiders seem to be attracted to whatever it is malaria left behind in my blood.
We finally planted our garden last Friday. It was a terribly windy day. Both Ron and I were exhausted by the time we finished. After a hot shower and some lunch, I was still tired and took a nap. I woke three hours later disoriented and experiencing muscle pain and chills. I immediately checked my body for bites. Sure enough, I counted three. I couldn’t focus my thoughts to make dinner and over the next twenty-four hours, things went from bad to worse. A red ring formed around one bite (perhaps the sign of either a tick carrying Lyme’s disease or a brown recluse) and thoughts of worthlessness consumed me.
Two days later, as I started to come out of it, Ron and I went for a walk through the desert where I was bitten again. Beyond the pain and exhaustion, my greatest fear is that the confusion will stick with me. I wonder if in a week, a month, or a year from now, I will pick up a book or sit down to write, and all I will see are individual words on a page that my brain can no longer link into sentences and paragraphs. I’m terrified I will lose the ability to make sense of the world through stories and my thoughts.
I woke up today feeling much better. My Little Miss Muffet fear of spiders has receded some as I sit here thrilled that I am able to write this. The seeds we planted last week are poking through the soil. Nature waits for no one, and I have work to do.

Broadway in Animas

24195Before the summer wedding invitations arrive, there is prom and high school graduation. It’s a busy time of year for teachers and parents who hustle to keep up with hectic schedules. The Animas Drama Troupe recently put on The Saga of the Golden Horseshoe directed by English teacher and drama coach, Alysha Wagley and assistant coach and math teacher, Carrie Massey. Family, teachers, and friends showed up early for the spaghetti dinner that was served by parent and student volunteers. As the lights dimmed in the auditorium, I was prepared for something akin to what I sat through each year as a high school student—the dreaded Spring play.
Wow, what a performance. These young people were fabulous. Their comedic timing was spot on, and the acting was brilliant. But it shouldn’t surprise me. These are the same kids that went to the state drama competition at New Mexico State University and that helped take the Animas Panthers to the second round in state for girls’ volleyball and basketball and took the boys’ football team to the state semi-finals. 24189
This year, sixteen students graduated Friday night from Animas High School. To compete in anything, everyone needs to pull their own weight. The end result are kids who exhibit more self-confidence than some adults I know. But it takes a village. Without parents and teachers willing to give up their weekends to drive sometimes eight or nine hours one-way to events, or family and friends stepping in to watch the ranch while folks are away, none of this would be possible.
24193I began my teaching career in public schools. After eight years, I was so exhausted, I couldn’t find it in me to sign another contract. It’s hard work with little financial incentive. I marvel at teachers like Alysha and Carrie who work their regular jobs, raise families, and still find time to support students outside the classroom. When asked why she gives so much of herself to the drama troupe, Alysha said, “I see shy kids open up, and it helps students develop leadership skills. It literally changes lives.”
24199Alysha is unabashedly proud her students, and she deeply appreciates their dedication not only to the drama troupe, but to all the extracurricular activities they are willing to participate in. “Without the kids, we wouldn’t be able to offer the programs,” she said. Six of the actors were seniors who have been in the troupe for four years. They brought experience and talent to the stage and mentored underclassmen. Alysha also recognizes that Animas is a small community where there just isn’t a lot of opportunity for people to come together. “I enjoy bringing quality entertainment to our town,” she said.
24205There is a lot of rhetoric in the media and in general regarding teenagers. They’re rude. They’re lazy. They don’t care about anyone other than themselves. That may be true for some teens, just like it is for some adults. I say, give teenagers a chance. You don’t have to be a parent or a teacher to attend a basketball game or to enjoy a school play. As founder and long-time host of Prairie Home Companion, Garrison Keillor wrote, “Nothing you do for children is ever wasted.”
Animas isn’t perfect, but what teachers and parents in this community seem to understand is that when it comes to kids, the show must go on! 24209
Cast: Rayce Wagley, Haley Bender, Laurena Avila, Orin Offutt, Brenda Acosta, Patrick Needham, Kylee Guilliam, Hailee Cruz, Brandon Hoffman, Tiana Gibson, Brenda Elias, Abigail Cushman, Brittney Sjoblom, Jennifer Acosta, Ryan Estrada, Ryan Shultis,Dashiel Krick, Britney Gibson, Hailey Russo, Ty Wagley, Rybecca Webster, Heather Klump, Jaiden Ybarra, Chance Kipp, Jessica Reyes
The Crew: Stage Director, Carrie Massey; Sound, Lindsey Massey; Lights, Levi Gulliam; Advertising, Elizabeth Mendoza; Program, Layla Shewell; Stage Construction, Mikey Sheehan; Opening song written by Kip Calahan Young and performed by Tiana Gibson; Photos courtesy of Alysha Wagley24207
Special thanks to: Kip Calahan Young, Sam Wagley, Mikey Sheehan, Levi & Missy Klump, Saucedo’s Super Market, Ricky & Bobby Massey, Scott Massey, Jacque Davenport, Kacie Peterson & Lighting Dock Geothermal, Amy & Justin Kip, Loren & Debra Cushman, Parents helping with dinner, Parents of cast and crew

Hoot Hoot

animals-birds-owl-fauna.jpgFor thirty-seven days a Great Horned Owl sat on her eggs in a nest twenty feet up in a pine tree outside our front door without doing much more than twitching her ears. During that time, Ron and I got haircuts, joined friends for a fish fry, and spent time with our granddaughter. We planted seeds for our garden, trimmed fruit trees, and Ron harvested three gallons of honey from our bee hives. I hosted the Cochise Creative Writing Celebration, edited the Mirage Literary and Arts Magazine, and presented a writing workshop for the Rocky Mountain Outdoor Writers & Photographers. I learned a little something about birding, attended my first bull sale, and read two novels. In short, our lives consisted of much more than twitching our ears.

The owl came to live with us back in October and perched for months in a pine tree on the west side of the house. At night she graced us with her hoot-hoot. In February, we noticed a male owl and in no time a love connection was made. Once she took to the nest, we included checking on her in the morning when we took the dogs for a walk and again in the evening. I could hardly contain myself when, on the thirty-seventh day, we found her sitting up in the nest. My best guess was the eggs had hatched. Four days later my suspicions were confirmed when a downy, white head with enormous eyes peeked out from the nest and wobbled in the wind.

From what Ron and I can tell, there are three owlets. I’ve been doing a great deal of reading and it seems even though the male and female mate for life, Great Horned Owls lack in parenting skills. Because they are opportunists rather than nest builders, they often make bad decisions when shopping for real estate; often times selecting a nest that is flimsy or too small. Luckily this couple commandeered a vacated raven’s nest. It’s a catawampus mess of sticks, but I’d trust it in a hurricane. Even so, I worry about the baby owls. If the parents are bad, the owlets are god-awful. Some will bat their wings until the nest falls apart, others try to fly the coop long before they’re ready, and sibling rivalry can send a brother or sister tumbling to the ground. I worry at least one of these little guys won’t make it long enough to fly out of here.

That’s the owls’ side of the story. Inside the house we have four cats and a ten pound Corgi-Chihuahua mix named Peaches. The voracious appetite of a parliament of owls leaves little to the imagination should my cats get out. I keep the dog on a leash for our walks with a vigilant eye to the sky. Several times a day I shout out, “Where’s Peaches!” or “Count the cats!” The anxiety wears on me as I make my way through the house checking doors and windows.

Now that I’m noticing the amazing birds migrating through the pine trees and orchard, I’m reminded of my house in Arizona where our cats spent the mornings outside while I gardened. To show their appreciation, they often brought me lizards and pretty, little dead birds. The karmic implications are not lost on me. This is the cycle of life, I tell myself when I can’t find one of the cats or Peaches darts out the front door unaware of the hunters perched above her head.

Black-headed GrosbeakToday a Black-headed Grosbeak is holding our bird feeder hostage as the poor House Finches plead for seeds. I have spent most of my life unaware of how insanely active and cut-throat the natural world is. I’ve been too preoccupied to notice things like the owl-cat-songbird cycle-of-life. I’m too busy with meetings, appointments, and obligations to notice the grosbeak bully on the block. This morning an owlet spread its wings. The birds are twice the size they were when we first saw them a week ago. Moments like this give me pause. Life goes on whether we pay attention or not.


No Bull

2017-04-26 22.19.32Cash Massey and his wife, Kanzas, own Three Mile Hill Ranch a few miles north of our place. Cash had invited us to their fifteenth annual Angus Bull sale. I’ve done a lot of work on ranches over the years, seen a lot of bulls, even castrated a few little guys who were better suited for slaughter than passing on their genes, but I’d never attended a bull sale and didn’t know what to expect.
It was a gorgeous day, which for this time of year, means the wind wasn’t blowing. The Massey’s barn sits on a knoll just east of their house. We parked among other pickup trucks, some with stock trailers ready to haul livestock home. Potential buyers walked amid the corrals next to the barn where the bulls were housed. The yearlings weighed between 950 and 1,050 pounds and appeared impressive against the desert landscape.
We joined neighbors in the barn for a delicious lunch Kanzas had prepared and awaited the sale. Gates and alleyways led from the corrals to the back of the barn where the doors opened to a large pen. To the left of the enclosure was a platform big enough to seat the auctioneer and Kanzas. Before the sale, Cash and Kanzas handed out brochures to buyers. Cash welcomed everyone and then said a prayer giving thanks for family, community, and the Lord’s bounty, including the bulls.
Since I first heard my fifth grade P.E. teacher, Mr. Omen, belt out square dancing calls in the grade school gym, I’ve been fascinated with auctioneers—fast-talking men who scare me a little bit. With the confidence of a ring master, Cash ushered his bulls in and out of the pen while the auctioneer had my full attention and buyers bid on the bulls. The mutual respect shared between Cash and his animals was evident. I wondered if he had a favorite.
This is a family affair. Cash is a fourth generation farmer and Kanzas is a fifth generation rancher. Their teenage daughter, Jade, helped with the paperwork and the money end of things while their son, Cap, ran the gates in the corrals along with a few neighbors. Good values and a strong work ethic are evident in the Massey children who are kind, confident kids. Grandparents were available to help out, and even the family’s corgi/Australian shepherd mix was on her best behavior.
When the sale was over, I introduced myself to Bryan Waldrop. As the livestock inspector for Hidalgo County, his job is to verify the purchase of each bull. After all, this is a business. It is also risky business. A family’s livelihood is at stake. I admire Cash and Kanzas for their commitment to a lifestyle that demands a great deal from families. Across the nation, rural communities  lack in education funding, employment opportunities, and health care services. There are over 46 million people living outside metro areas making up 14 percent of our population and, unfortunately, the number is dwindling. Places like Animas are dependent on the work folks like Cash and Kanzas do. Unlike cities that rely on the sale of goods and services, we depend more on production from the land. A bull sale plays an important role in the economic well-being of our community.
Watching folks load the bulls they’d purchased into stock trailers, I was reminded how lucky I am to be free of florescent office lights and a work schedule that once dictated my life. It was Tuesday afternoon, and Ron and I were at a bull sale in Animas, New Mexico. It doesn’t get much better than that.

The Birds and the Bees

IMG_7209My dear friend and author Katie Towler recently visited the ranch from New Hampshire. Her part of the world was getting hammered by a late winter snowstorm. As a birder, she was grateful for the warm weather and bird songs. One morning after breakfast, we drove up into the Chiricahua Mountains about an hour west of here, looking for birds to add to Katie’s life list.

I didn’t know a sparrow from a Cactus Wren. I also didn’t know what to expect when we pulled into Bob Rodriquez’ driveway just down the hill from Portal, Arizona at the mouth of Cave Creek. Katie mentioned she’d found Bob’s bird sanctuary on ebird.org. Bob is one of a handful of folks who welcomes birders into his yard as a public service in exchange for a small donation for birdseed. His place offered parking and a narrow walking path that opened up into a clearing where feeders hung from trees and a rock fountain provided water. The only birds I recognized were the Gambel’s Quail in the sea of small, squawking feathered creatures that fluttered about in trees and on feeders. Someone had skewered oranges on tree branches. Katie explained that orioles like them. I was just along for the ride and had managed to forget my binoculars in the truck. We sat quietly for several minutes. The birds had a calming effect that drew me closer to the present until all my obligations, worries, and the list of chores waiting for me at home dissolved. We heard distinct chatter coming from the brush and turned slowly to follow the noise. To our delight, a Hooded Oriole perched on a branch above an orange. “That’s it,” Katie whispered.

It was a gorgeous day. There was a light breeze and the temperature was in the seventies under the trees. Katie slowly passed me her binoculars and pulled out her camera. To my surprise, the bird, clear as the blue sky behind it, came into focus. I caught my breath. “It’s beautiful,” I said.

I had never noticed the small birds that chortle and sing as the sun rises in the pine trees outside our bedroom window. Since Katie left, I carry a pair of binoculars with me when I work in the orchard, walk the dogs, or tend to the garden. I’ve started my life list using The Sibley Field Guide of Western North America and a small notebook. I like the physical feel of a book in my hands and the weight of a pen between my fingers. I like being outside with a purpose other than work. I like surprises. These intriguing birds force me to slow down and take stock of my environment and my place in it. I ponder the symbiotic relationship. The birds go about eating insects and spreading pollen while the ranch provides shelter, food, and water.

IMG_7187Last night, before sunset, I spotted a Vermillion Flycatcher rested on the garden fence. This morning a pair of Western Kingbirds called from an apricot tree. Each day I talk to the Great Horned Owl who has not left the nest in over a month while she incubates her eggs. Her partner is more elusive, but he visits at night and in the early morning bringing her food and conversation. Katie and I listened to the hoot-hoot of the owls one night while we lay awake in our respective beds. The sound settled deep inside me, lulling me to sleep.

Katie’s article in Literary Hub, “Why do Writers Love Birding so Much?” delves into the intellectual, joyful, and spiritual world of birding. The act of seeking out birds allows some writers an escape from the creative self that tends to needle at us. It is a must-read for anyone willing to step into their yard with a pair of binoculars.

Thank you, Katie, for opening the door to this new adventure. Gifts don’t always come in packages. Sometimes they are simply shared through friendship.

Portal–Bob Rodrigues yard (Dave Jasper’s old yard), Cochise, Arizona, US
Apr 2, 2017 1:30 PM – 2:15 PM
Protocol: Stationary
11 species

Gambel’s Quail  8
Broad-tailed Hummingbird  1
Curve-billed Thrasher  1
Black-throated Sparrow  2
White-crowned Sparrow  25
Canyon Towhee  1
Northern Cardinal  2
Pyrrhuloxia  1
Hooded Oriole  1
House Finch  10
Pine Siskin  8

*Photos courtesy of Katie Towler

Stormy Weather

barn owlIt is not late snow or heavy rains that send us indoors dreaming of better weather to sooth our aching souls after months of cold and darkness. Here, in Animas, it is the wind. March comes, and we pray this spring will be different. It never is.
I have sacrificed scarves, hats, dog dishes, even food (Cheetos mostly) to the wind gods, and still they laugh, sending stronger gusts our way. A stretch of I-10 is often closed this time of year because of dust storms. The birds and rabbits hunker down for days. We pray the roof will hold. It’s that kind of wind.
I was out of town last weekend when Ron called to say he’d found the barn owl that lives in our pine trees, injured on the floor of the garage. Ron surmised because of remarkably strong winds, the bird was caught off guard and may have slammed into a tree. Soon a photo came, via text, of this once majestic bird laying with its wing at a peculiar angel on our doggie bed.
Ron and I both made calls and by ten that morning, we’d found someone who could help. While I went about my business in town, Ron wrestled with a logistical nightmare to get the owl to a wildlife rehabilitation hospital.
The recent weather reports coming from New Hampshire and Louisiana sound like something out of a postapocalyptic thriller. Before cable television, weather events like we’re seeing now were big news. Families huddled around the TV in the living room, where they watched stories that rocked the nation on the CBS, ABC, or NBC evening news. Parents shook their heads at climate anomalies. “It wasn’t like this when we were growing up.” People talked about the aftermath of such storms in a collective frenzy at offices, schools, and factories. There was a sense of community in the shared experiences we gleaned from the news. The nation would have grieved for the people who lost their lives in Louisiana; the family who lost their house when a tree toppled in New Hampshire. “Terrible,” we would have said while waiting to use the copy machine. “Just terrible.” “Let us bow our heads in prayer,” our spiritual leaders would have asked of us.
It isn’t like that now. There are too many bells and whistles vying for our attention. We are all kids in a global candy store. Our barn owl nearly lost its life in a crazy wind storm. Like us, it was caught off guard by changes in the weather; by the changing times.