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Ride Without Hugs

rock store

The only thing missing from our first official HOG day ride since the pandemic was hugs. Some riders gave “air hugs” and fist bumps. Most riders stood apart and greeted each other with a nod, grateful to see friends in person, not on a screen.

Many HOGs rode during the stay at home order, in small groups that we trusted. Even so, my eyes teared up when Tom passed me the ride sheet. We were back! It feel so good to place ourselves in the protective care of a road captain, with route and stops already planned.

One welcome side effect of this terrible time was the lack of traffic. We cruised over to Glendale Harley-Davidson, our first stop, in record time. The dealership was located in a series of old brick buildings. There were many bikers walking around, and if it weren’t for the face masks, it would looked like a regular day. My favorite part was the vintage motorcycle exhibit which included Harley-Davidson racing bikes and a side car motorcycle.

After another traffic-free freeway ride (on the 101!), we finally reached Mullholland Highway. Now the real ride could begin as the winding road led us up into mountains and past ranches. Horses looked up with pointed ears, envious of our freedom.

When we arrived at the Rock Store, I almost didn’t recognize it. Last time Frank and I were here, we approached from the opposite direction, and rows of parked motorcycles began long before the actual building. This time, we could park in front of the restaurant in the original motorcycle parking lot.

When I removed my helmet, I was struck by the silence. No roar of laughter and conversation from the patio, no live music. We lined up with the rest of our group and ordered our food. When we got it, Frank and I sat on the steps leading up to the main entrance, normally where there would be lots of traffic. Others ate at their bikes, using their tourpak as a table.

As we talked and ate, groups of motorcycles passed by on their way to their own adventures. Even in the midst of a pandemic, riders found peace in roaring engines and wind under their helmets.

When we were finished, our group split up to go home. Frank and I chose to follow Tom, who took the long way on the Coast Highway from Malibu to Santa Monica before jumping on the freeway. Riding next to the ocean never disappoints, although I was sad to see all the closed parking lots. Usually I don’t envy those who live at the beach because of the encroaching crowds, but when access is restricted, it seems like a reasonable sacrifice to wiggle your toes in the sand. After a glimpse of the waves, we headed inland where we found our first real traffic, caused by road construction. Even with the slowdown, we got back to Riverside sooner than normal.

Relaxing in our pool, Frank and I discussed our favorite parts of the day. Great scenery, great food, great weather. Another awesome ride with awesome friends, even without hugs.

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Long Comeback

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Tugging on my cold weather gear after a few months’ break was awkward. The last time Frank and I rode with the HOGs in the dog days of summer, we barely wore jackets. Then my husband’s autoimmune disease kicked into high gear in September, and we were on hiatus until February.

Today we were back in the saddle, joining our riding group to Barrett Junction. As we turned into the Harley-Davidson dealership, I heard a scream, “It’s Jodi and Frank.” The greeting rang sweetly in my ears, chasing away the voices telling us our Harley days were over. Frank parked next to the other motorcycles, and I hopped down to hug my friends.

You would have thought we’d won a race. After the funerals we attended this year, seeing Frank back on his bike was needed encouragement. Not that it was unusual for a motorcycle riding group to see members pass away. Every ride was inches from it. But recently, we’d also lost one to cancer. It made Frank’s victory ever sweeter.

After getting our instructions, it was time for kickstands up. Slowly I lifted my many-layered leg over the seat and hopped on our Harley. Engines growled around us and the group of fifteen bikes lined up in the parking lot. After I plugged in my heated jacket and pants, I pulled on my gloves. It was a frosty 45 degrees, but my phone promised 70s by the afternoon.

Our road captain had called ahead to the tiny restaurant. They told him there was another group of 50 coming in at noon. We had a deadline to get there first, so part of today’s trip would be freeway. My heart raced as we passed cars with our roaring line of bikes. Our backdrop was desert outlined with mountains. Some of those mountains we would see up close in a few hours.

Finally, we turned off onto a small highway that led past Indian reservations and a large modern casino. Our staggered formation was now one up as we started hugging the curves. A few ranches dotted the landscape until finally we threaded into the mountains. Spreading oaks were slowly replaced by tall pine trees.

Our progress unimpeded by traffic, I was disappointed to see signs that we would need to stop ahead. Men in orange vests brought us to a stop. What was going on? Whirring blades drew my eyes up. A large helicopter was lowering a huge metal telephone pole into place next to the narrow road. All of us were mesmerized watching the precise movements. After the pole was secured, the orange vests allowed us to pass.

In these remote mountains, I lost track of where we were, but soon there were signs announcing that the Mexican border was only 20 miles away. We passed a Border Patrol checkpoint. Barrett Junction was still in California, but at the southern edge.

Turn followed turn as we danced our way down into a small valley. Houses appeared on the sides of the road and nestled into the hills. We turned into the gravel parking lot of a small café. Various models of Corvettes filled the front lot, first arrivals of our rival group. We quickly parked and went inside.

After seating us all at a long table, our waitress brought us menus typed up on a single sheet of white paper. No restaurant name or pictures needed. They made fried fish, burgers, and a chicken salad. Their fish and chips was their specialty.

Frank and I sat and talked with our fellow riders as we waited for our food. Today felt different from the other HOG rides we’d taken over the years. Maybe we had started to take it for granted, that every weekend we’d be on the road with our fellow adventurers. After suffering a forced break, we realized how much we missed it. The back roads, the pulsing energy of riding in a group, the jokes and laughter, the fresh baked goods Jay always brought.

It was great to be back.

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Blustery Day

 

Contrary to popular thought that California has perfect winters, we have wind. Not gentle ocean breezes. Rip your table umbrellas out and deposit them in your neighbor’s yard wind. Destructive and bone chilling, these winds blow into town and linger for days. In the summer, they can be furnace blasts, but the worst come whipping through the winter.

California elementary schools assume we will always have mild weather. There is no shelter between buildings and portables. Students have to brave mighty gusts to have lunch and use the restrooms. “Inclement weather” is declared, and all recesses cancelled for the day. Teachers and their classes remain huddled inside their rooms.

Attention spans diminish, and voices grow louder. Pollen kicks up to spark headaches and runny noses. Already sick children gather at the school nurse’s office while she calls their parents.

Meanwhile, palm fronds land like missiles on cars passing on the streets. Ancient branches raise their arms in surrender and fall on parked cars. Dust and leaves swirl in doorways, waiting to blow in.

Wind makes people angry. A local proverb advises not to make any major decisions on a windy day.

Perhaps we shared a haughty chuckle when it was sunny and 80 degrees last weekend and other regions of the country lie buried in snow. We thought ourselves worthy of that song, “California Dreaming.”

Maybe the wind is our punishment for being proud.

Rush Around and Relax

As I glance at clothes draped over the chair, bags on the kitchen table, and my long list on the counter, I consider that it takes a great deal of energy to relax.

Camping is my reset button.

My husband and I get out every month in our C-class motorhome to spend some time at the beach or in the mountains. Sometimes we set up at campgrounds that have full hookups (electricity, water, sewer) and sometimes we use state or federal campgrounds that only provide a picnic table and a campfire ring. Either works for us, as we don’t watch TV or use electronics very much when we are away.

We love to walk our dogs, Harley and Davidson, around the camp or into the woods. Other times, we kick back on our zero gravity chairs at our campsite and talk. I have outlined a novel and a few plays during those conversations. We’ve also brainstormed two names for motorcycles. No chores, no errands.

As relaxing as camping can be, it takes a lot to get there. Cleaning and prepping the motorhome. Packing it with groceries, water, clothes, dog supplies, and medications.

Every camping trip we usually forget something, so it’s my job to make sure the forgotten item is not essential. We have forgotten pillows, toothbrushes, shirts, flip flops, and bread. My all-inclusive packing list, which seems to grow longer with each excursion, attempts to prevent these mistakes.

Packing the motorhome can take up to a week, sometimes longer than the camping trip itself. Fortunately, our rig is parking in our backyard which allows us access at any time. Several times a day, I carry armfuls of essential items into the rig and find places to stash them. Surprising how much stuff we can fit into it.

The day finally arrives. The dogs are crated on the motorhome couch, we have drinks and snacks in the cab, and we pull out into the alley behind our home. We’re on the road.

When we arrive at our destination and back the motorhome into our campsite, it is all worth it. We escaped the responsibilities at home and can relax and enjoy being out in nature.

And usually at that point, I’m ready for a nap.

What a robot learned at school

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“I’m not going to listen to any more of this nonsense, Anon,” Mom shouted. “Androids don’t go to school!”

“Then why was I designed to look like a child?” I wondered out loud.

Dad sighed and gave me a sad smile. “We wanted to fit in with the rest of our friends. We couldn’t have biological children, so we selected you.”

Mom took a cleansing breath and lowered her voice. She looked so beautiful when her face was relaxed, which wasn’t often. Long shimmering black hair with rebel white strands framed her symmetrical face. Her large brown eyes were filled with tears. What did I do to hurt her this time?

“Anon, there is no reason for you to attend school,” she said. “You’re already programmed to know everything you would ever need to know.” She patted the synthetic skin on my hand. “You’re a big help to me at home. How would I finish all my work for the corporation if I didn’t have you to do research for me?”

I did help Mom a lot. Not only did I research properties for the corporation to absorb into its ever-expanding empire, but I also did the house chores that couldn’t be completed by the cleaning bots.

Knowing I was useful made my core swell with pride, but it wasn’t enough.

“All the other kids go to school,” I insisted, accessing my sulky voice program.

Mom and Dad looked at each other. Did they have a form of mind speak I didn’t know about? Mom sniffed. Dad set down his tablet and took a sip of coffee.

“It might be instructive for Anon to experience school,” Dad said.

#

The next morning, I stood at the bus stop with a crowd of children, my backpack hanging from my shoulder and my Avengers lunch pail clutched in my hand. Although I would not require food and bathroom breaks, my realistic human design should allow me to fit in as a normal child.

“New kid, back of the line!” A large stocky kid pushed me on my chest compartment, causing me to lose my balance and tumble to the ground.

“Leave him alone, Mikey,” a soft but firm voice said. I looked up to see a tiny girl in a pale pink dress standing in front of the boy who pushed me, her hands on her hips.

“Who’s gonna make me?” Mikey retorted.

“A little girl in a pink dress,” she said, touching his arm.

Zap! He jumped back like his circuits were overloaded. With a murderous glare, he shuffled to the back of the line. The girl took my hand and helped me up.

“Is this your first day?” she asked as we sat in one of the front seats. It seemed most of the other students preferred the back section of the bus.

“Yes, it is,” I confirmed. I watched her buckle her seat belt and then I did the same.

“I’m Adeline,” the girl said, her dimples deepening with her smile. “Don’t pay any attention to Mikey. His parents knock him around at home, so he has to bring it to school. I always carry a zapper with me.” She showed me the small device she’d used on the boy. I scanned its circuits to construct one for myself later. It seemed wise to add a nonlethal weapon to my arsenal.

I attempted to smile back, but my program only allows a slightly upturned mouth. “Thank you for defending me, although it is not necessary. My name is Anon.”

“Nice to meet you, Anon,” Adeline said.

When we got to school, Adeline walked me to the office where I was assigned to Mrs. Roberts’ fourth grade class. How Mom determined this was my appropriate educational level I do not know, but Adeline was in my class, and that made me happy.

We walked around the playground and Adeline introduced me to her many friends. Then the bell rang, and we lined up outside our classroom portable.

“Welcome to our class, Anon,” a tall lady wearing a “Learning is an Adventure” tee shirt and jeans greeted me. Mrs. Roberts smiled, and then added, “Class, we have a new student, Anon. Please help him adjust to our class routines.”

My programming made classwork easy. At first, when Mrs. Roberts asked the class a question, I eagerly raised my hand. After the first five questions, I noticed some of the students frowning in my direction and giving me what Adeline would later describe as “the stink eye.”

“Give the other students a chance to speak,” Adeline whispered.

That’s when I realized being in class was not about showing everything I knew. I was part of a larger machine. Mrs. Roberts’ class was made up of many moving parts, or students. We had to work together. 

But then there was recess. I stood in line at the ball room to get a bouncy ball, as per Adeline’s instructions. Just as the playground supervisor was going to hand it to me, Mikey pushed in and grabbed it. He ran out to the hand ball court, a posse of boys behind him.

“He can’t get away with that,” Adeline grumbled.

“I’ll go get the ball from him,” I offered. How I was going to do that, I had no idea. No matter how many questions I answered in the classroom, I wouldn’t be successful until I learned how to handle a bully.

So I walked up to Mikey, who was on the court playing hand ball. “Stop this game!” I said firmly, walking in the middle of their court.

“What are you doing?” the other boy on the court complained. Several kids in line at the side of the court started grumbling.

“Mikey, I stood in line to get that ball,” I said, reaching out.

“That’s too bad, you whiny weirdo!” he shouted. “Get off my court!”

Suddenly, I felt overtaken with strong emotion. My parents had never spoken to me with disrespect. I had been programmed with courtesy protocols that I suspected Mikey had no familiarity with. I was an intricately designed android with capabilities far beyond normal children. Why was I allowing this bully to dictate my actions?

“If you don’t give me the ball immediately, you will regret it,” I warned, choosing a low growl voice.

“You gonna make me?” Mikey scoffed.

“Yes. I will,” I replied. As I raised my arms toward him, I hoped I wouldn’t get in trouble for overriding safety protocols. My wrist cannons popped out, each barrel as wide as Mikey’s arm. “And you better not bully anyone else at this school. Give me the ball!”

Mikey’s eyes bugged out, and he handed me the ball. His supporters scattered. Adeline and her friends walked up. “Let’s play before the bell rings,” she said. No one said anything about my guns.

That night when I sat with my parents at the dinner table (not that I ate anything, but they wanted me to keep them company), Dad asked, “How was your first day of school?”

My circuits flashed. “I met a new friend. She taught me lessons outside the classroom that were not part of my original codes. Damaged humans threaten other humans smaller than them, and you have to defend yourself.”

“That’s terrible! You shouldn’t have to put up with that,” Mom said, wringing her hands. “You’re staying home with me.”

“Please, Mom. I want to stay in school. Friends, classmates, and bullies are essential to learning how to be human.”

The cone of shame

When I wake up in the cage, a plastic shield is attached to my neck. All the sounds that are usually crisp and clear are muffled now. My eyes attempt to focus on what’s going on outside my prison, but everything is reduced to blurred shapes.

Although my other senses are covered in a blanket, my nose never fails. Sharp, forest smells. Fresh pine needles. Blood, old and cleaned up but still smelling like rusty nails and rotten leaves.

A nice girl who gave me treats when I was brought in opens the cage door. I try to wag my tail, but it feels disconnected. She snaps on my collar and takes me into her arms. A dull ache cuts through the cloud.

“Yip!” I protest.

“It’s okay, Davey. Your mom is here to get you,” she assures me. Slowly she lowers me to the floor. I feel a slight tug at my neck. Last week I learned that means I must walk beside whatever human is closest to me.

I take a step and stop. I can’t see my feet! The plastic cone flares out from my neck and prevents from seeing anything except what is in front of me. I plop down, ignoring the pull on my neck. This does not seem safe.

“Come, Davey. Let’s go home,” my beloved mommy says. Because I trust her, and she feeds and kisses me every day, I let her lead me out to the car.She won’t let me bump into anything. She lifts me up to the back seat. I feel so tired I fall asleep.

Next time I wake up, my senses are back to normal. I can see the wood floor that’s so good for chewing and smell my mommy’s food in the kitchen. I start to run around the room, but the plastic cone bounces off the couch, the tables, and the wall. I sit down in frustration.

My bottom starts to itch so I try to take care of it like I always do. The cone’s in the way! What kind of devilish torture is this? If this is my punishment for chewing the wall, it’s too extreme. I thought my mommy and daddy loved me! Just like Harley said, they love her more than me. Harley is a beagle and three years older than me, so she always thinks she knows everything. She doesn’t have to wear a cone!

“It’s okay, Davey,” my mommy scratched behind my ears in the right place where only she knows. I’m so thankful because I have no way to scratch myself. “It’s only for a few days.”

What do I know about a few days? This is now, and it’s terrible.

“Come on, let’s go outside to go pee pee,” my mommy says.

Easier said than done. I crash into the side of the door, smack my cone repeatedly on the metal fence, and finally sit down on the grass, grateful I didn’t fall into the pool along the way.

How do you pee when you can’t aim? I try peeing sitting down and end up drenching my front legs. I try to lick them clean, but the cone stops me again. Harley’s growling at me from the far end of the yard. This is so embarrassing!

Harley used to be my best friend and play with me every day. She showed me all the best places in the yard to dig and how to eat the hibiscus flowers. Ever since I came home with the cone, she runs away in terror.

I’ve been made into a monster!

Just when I think it can’t get worse, it’s time for my dinner. My best mommy in the world set down my dish and says, “Wait.”

I don’t know why I have wait for my food when humans sit down and eat their food right away. But I wait anyway. You never know when a treat might be involved.

“Go ahead.” I put my head down to eat, and the cone crashes with the floor. I can still reach my food, but it’s like I’m in a plastic tent. Not such a bad thing since that means Harley can’t reach in and steal my food.

Finally it’s time for night-night time. Instead of inside my comfy crate, I have to sleep on the laundry room floor. Harley stares at me with suspicion from inside her crate, growling softly.

As I lay flat on the hard tile floor, I try to relax. Ever since my mommy and daddy brought me home, they’ve given me only good things. I need to trust them even though I don’t understand.  As I drift off into puppy dreams, I pray that I’ll wake up tomorrow and the plastic cone will be gone.

How I survive in the heat

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Inland Southern California has an inverse winter. In less temperate areas, like the Midwest where I grew up, you have to spend a lot of time indoors for at least four months a year due to freezing temperatures and snow. In a similar way, inland So Cal has three months in the summer where triple digit days force us into the safety of our airconditioned homes.

For Californians, who consider being outside our “family room” and “dining room,” this can seem very confining. Fortunately, we can escape to the beach or the mountains. But braving the traffic on the freeways is not always appealing.

My escape is our swimming pool. As an elementary teacher, I have summers off and can enjoy it daily. Our pool is a refuge after errands and housework. A planning room for my husband and me. A playground for our grandkids. A hangout for friends and relatives. When my kids were young, we would roll out our big screen TV outside the back door and watch movies from the pool in the evening.

When we get a string of days over 100 degrees, you’ll find me floating on my lounge chair, ice tea in the cupholder, and my waterproof Kindle in my hand. That’s how I spend my “winter.”

Swiper No Swiping

When we bought our cute little border collie puppy, we didn’t expect to bring home a thief.

The first day Davidson hid under the furniture staring at us with suspicion. After our recent experience with Harley, our three-year-old beagle, we knew we would have to “puppy proof” the house. When Harley was a puppy, she trimmed all our backyard plants down to the roots and chewed through our internet cable.

So this time we thought we were smart puppy parents. We bought bags of chew toys and treats. We barricaded Davidson into approved areas of the house. We started crate training the moment we brought him home. He was potty trained by three months, and caught on to our house rules quickly.

What we didn’t know was our new puppy was a kleptomaniac. He stole shoes, towels, lip balm, coasters, and empty (thank goodness!) prescription bottles. He performed his first magic trick by removing the tablecloth from the table, leaving the items on the table. Well, most of the items. My phone crashed to the hardwood floor, case side down. There would have been no harm done except the salt and pepper shakers fell on my phone’s screen and cracked it.

Then my daughter brought her newborn twins over to our home. Davidson decided he liked pacifiers, and would steal them out of the car seats. He sat in the corner, next to one of his toys and chewed the nipple off them. If no pacifiers were within reach, he hijacked some of the baby clothes from a bag.

He’s a trickster. When you looked over at him, he would be sound asleep by the fireplace. While you turned your attention elsewhere, he would lope around the living room, swishing his tail, looking for what he could reach next. Forget taking off your shoes. Gone in five seconds. Don’t leave your snack on the coffee table if you want to eat it. We would correct him and give him alternative chew toys. Sometimes he got a time out. We get it.

Don’t get me wrong. Davidson’s a smart puppy that will grow up into a responsible dog member of our family. Until then, he’ll do time for his crimes and as we keep his klepto urges under control.

Most improved

Me on my new Harley named Perseverance (Percy)

“Jodi, what are you doing right now?”

“I’m trying to find neutral so I can start the bike!”

Of course the training motorcycle I was assigned had a hard time shifting to neutral. I couldn’t start the bike until it was in neutral. My foot was flailing as I tried to bump the shifter up a half step. The whole class behind me was waiting.

I’m an adult. I’ve driven cars for many years, including stick shifts. Why is riding a motorcycle so complicated?

I had ridden behind my husband on our Harley for years. This was the year I was going to learn how to ride my own. I registered for the riding class at our local Harley dealership. Three days to make me a rider.

The book work wasn’t that hard. I have a Masters Degree in Teaching so I know how to study. Our first session was reviewing some of the information in the guide which included the controls, how to start and stop the bike.

There was one other woman in my class. One other adult over fifty. The remaining five students were young men with dirt bike miles. I didn’t let my inexperience freak me out as I knew all the answers in the classroom.

The next day was the range.

We met at 6:30 am at the fairgrounds parking lot. A line of small black Harleys waited in a line. Our instructors had cones placed in a mysterious pattern. For each activity, we watched one of the instructors ride it while the other explained what we had to do. Looked easy enough.

Until I tried to start the bike. Neutral eluded me many times that day, adding to my stress and frustration. During the course of five hours, I had to push all fear of failure and negative self talk out of my brain, as I only had room to focus on making my bike move.

When our instructor finally gave us the signal to park the bikes, I was soaking wet and trembling. It was time for lunch and back to the classroom.

My whole body ached when my head hit the pillow that night. The other woman in my class had already quit after the practice range. One of the young guys didn’t come back either. I didn’t have to prove myself to anyone.

I didn’t have to ride a motorcycle.

I groaned when my alarm went off the next morning. The day of our riding and written tests. Should I get up and get dressed?

When I showed up holding my helmet, my instructor raised his eyebrows but didn’t say anything. My mind was set. I was going to do this.

I got on my bike and fired it up. All I could think about was following directions, following the other riders, following my dream.

After some warmups, we completed a series of motorcycle skills for the riding test: swerves, slow turns, quick stops, street turns. The instructors scribbled on clipboards as we sped by. Then we got the signal and parked the training bikes for the last time.

My hands shook as I unbuckled and took off my helmet. My hair was plastered to my face and my makeup had disappeared hours ago.

“We need to retest one student. The rest of you passed. Go get lunch and meet back at the classroom for the written test.”

The name they called was not mine. I passed the riding test.

On my way back, I stopped at Starbucks for a cold drink and a cake pop. My mind buzzed like I’d just come out of my first Lord of the Rings movie. I knew I could pass the written test, but the riding course was the hardest thing I had ever done in my life.

Later that afternoon, the instructors passed out awards to our class. All of us who showed up the second day had passed both tests and were ready to apply for motorcycle licenses at the DMV. We’d still have to take another written test there, but after what we’d been through the past three days, it sounded simple.

The awards were light-hearted, including one for Speed Demon, Shortstop, and Curve Master. My award was not surprising.

Most Improved.

Calla Lily

“Don’t doubt your value. Don’t run from who you are.”

Aslan

 

Another boring day in front of my screen. I seriously think my history teacher runs searches for “most boring details from early American history” before making her lessons. Wow! Crazy boys rode horses at breakneck speed to deliver mail to California. Who cares what happened five hundred years ago before there were aircars or globalnet?

I sighed and started drawing on my notekeeper. Ever since I took that virtual tour of the LA Arboretum, my doodles took the form of various flowers I had seen. Not seen in person of course since there were no flowers outside of state-run sanctuaries. I loved drawing all their varied shapes and colors. My favorite was the calla lily with its graceful sweeping hood and bold yellow stamen.  

“Ms. Stamly.” I heard my voice and jerked my attention back to the class display on the screen wall. Oh no, she was calling on me.

“Yes, Ms. Hill,” I said as I frantically paged back on my notes trying to discover what we were talking about in class.

“I thought maybe your audio went out,” she droned. “My question was whether you thought the railroads were unfair in their domination of early California transportation?”

So that’s what happened after the Pony Express. All I had were sketches of flowers.

“I’m sorry, Ms. Hill, I think I missed that part. Globalnet problem,” I offered.

My teacher’s face scrunched up like she’d just tasted something sour. She straightened and wrote something on her notekeeper. “Well, you’d better get the newest update.” Then she called on someone else, and my mind drifted away.

I hoped she wouldn’t message my parents. They had big plans for me after secondary school, and getting a bad grade in American History was not part of them. If I did badly in school, they’d take away my screen time, my only escape from our apartment’s sterile white walls. I would go crazy in less than a week, and then they’d put me on those pills that most of my friends took.

It’s not my fault my mom and dad were doctors at the university hospital and my destiny would be to join them one day. The thought of sealing up a bloody wound with a Sealit wand made me want to swoon like a lady wearing a corset in those ancient texts.

Locked up in our sanitized apartment tower, I longed to feel dirt on my hands. Hear the drone of bees and cheerful gurgle of a rushing stream. Like the rest of the ill-fated children of my time, we were quarantined to our homes until our secondary graduations. Viruses and bad influences they said. When she was home, Mom would tell me stories about how teens used to drive cars and meet for bonfires at the beach. Going anywhere seemed a fairy tale. Fires? I couldn’t imagine the government allowing anyone to set one for personal use.

I needed to get out of here. Maybe I could get Amy to go with me. I texted her on my watch.

“Log out of school, and meet me in the rec room.”

She wrote back right away, “Are you crazy?”

“Just the right kind.”

A few minutes later, a tall girl with spiky yellow hair met me by our apartment’s pool. Without a word, I waved her over to the changing room, the only place without cameras. I unpacked the duffel I had brought, dumping out adult clothes, wigs, and makeup.

“What is that for?” she asked, her voice wavering.

“We’re going to smell flowers,” I said.

A short time later, we were riding in an Uber aircar on our way to the LA Arboretum. Mom and Dad would probably blame Amy and never let me speak to her again if they found out what we were doing. They refused to believe I would resist any of their plans for me. My heart was racing, but it would all be worth it.

The car dropped us off without a word. I was so glad self-driving aircars were the norm, as the AI wouldn’t see that we were teens under our disguises. However, we would still have to get past the front gate.

I exhaled in relief when I discovered the entry kiosk was only a machine. I waved Mom’s spare cash card that she left for emergencies and the gate opened with a click. 

“Come on,” I said as I pulled Amy with me into the Arboretum.

Wild pungent aromas overwhelmed us. Competing layers of sweet smells combined with a musty undertone, scents that I had never experienced. Some reminded me of candy or cakes, while others were dark and mysterious. The plants were so green they hurt my eyes. Not only green, but so many shades of green I lost count.

And flowers! In every shape and size, shades of red, purple, yellow, orange, and a white so brilliant it must have been copied from a cloud.

“Penny, are you alright?” Amy shook me by the shoulders.

“I’m more than alright. I’m perfect.” I had stopped in front of a long stemmed white flower, its curving bell shape holding me in awe.

“I’m not going to medical school,” I said almost like a prayer.

“Penny, these flowers are making you dizzy. Every child has to take their parent’s place. What if all doctors’ kids decided to choose a different career? We wouldn’t have medical care.”

“But that’s not who I am,” I insisted. I waved my arms toward the paradise surrounding us. “I belong here. Caring for plants and flowers. Adults can make laws and control what kids do, but we’re born with our own talents.”

“We’d better get back,” Amy said, looking around to see if anyone was close enough to hear us.

I nodded, and called up the ride service on my watch. “I’ll be back,” I whispered on the breeze.

The calla lily bobbed its head in reply.

 

A Pandemic, Distance Learning, Natural Disasters, and Stories

storm bird

 

If you’re a writer and having a hard time focusing on your story, it’s not surprising. As hard as I try to impose order on my daily life, personal plot twists keep popping up to thwart my efforts. But don’t worry—this is not one of those “doom and gloom” posts that no one wants to read. Instead, this is about how stories emerge despite the chaos around us.

Stories want to live, too. Even if our minds are swirling like hurricanes (hopefully not as we’re boarding up our windows), we can’t help creating a narrative. As we go about our normal lives, which now includes teaching to a screen several hours a day, a story begins impose itself over our concerns. A character emerges, braver than us, who faces our same problems but in space. Or in a world of magic. Or sometime long ago before Google Meets.

Soon other characters rise up to aid our main character’s quest to save their world and right its wrongs. Quirky friends that illuminate the main character’s strengths and weaknesses. Maybe even a potential romance, although our hero really doesn’t have time for that right now.

Just like us in the real world, our main character, who now calls herself Raylene, tries lots of different strategies to solve her problems, only to be stopped at every turn. Fortunately, she doesn’t have to deal with lagging internet connections. It’s the antagonist who has shown up, just to make things more difficult. The villain is product of our nightmares, armed with complete knowledge of her fears. We’re not sure how to help our hero because her paralyzing fears belong to us.

We could remain stuck like that forever, but Raylene has her own Samwise Gamgee, reminding her of who she is and why she is risking everything. They go on together, and suddenly a thought pops up that we should call that friend we haven’t hung out with for months because of the pandemic.

When our hero and her sidekick fail, unforeseen help comes their way, and suddenly the battle is back on. At the same time, we, the writers, are in the middle of our own battles, standing in line at the medical center, waiting to get your temperature taken, or grabbing the last bottle of Lysol off the shelf at the grocery store before an old lady with a cane beats you to it.

Finally, the fighting ends, the day settles into night and your mind calms. Raylene limps back down her mountain with her hair all askew and rejoins her friends. We reach the end of our day and realize that despite overwhelming odds, we made some progress. When we lay down on our pillows, we hope the melatonin we took will really help us sleep. Because we need our rest before the battles tomorrow.

When the story comes back.

 

 

The Locked Room

door

Who knows how long I’ve sat here in this room. The door beckons me, but I know it’s locked. My current situation can’t be easily explained. But for the sake of my sanity, I will attempt to retrace my steps.

One day, no different than any other, I left home with my lunch pail and my coffee in hand. After allowing my car to warm up in the frigid morning air, I drove to work. I even parked my car in the same parking spot that I do every day. Of course, I was the first one in my office to arrive.

My key turned in the office door as easily as any other day. I confess my mind was already consumed with the huge pile of problems waiting on my desk inside. After I flipped our sign around to Open and closed the door, I turned to find myself in an unfamiliar space.

I struggled to reconcile what my eyes were telling me to what should have been there. No desk, no computer, no phone, no filing cabinets, no thin, uncomfortable chairs for clients. Instead, a small cot with a lumpy mattress. A small table with a pitcher and a glass. A tiny window high up on the wall secured with black bars. Bars?

It made no difference to my circumstances whether I believed them or not. Everything I knew was gone, replaced by a solemn prison cell. Suddenly, my common sense kicked in, and I ran back to the door.

My frantic yanks on the knob produced no result. I was locked in.

Of course, I did all the things one should do when finding themselves locked in a strange room instead of their office. I cried. I tried to stand on the table to look out the window. Not as successful as crying. For hours, I pounded on the door so hard my hands turned red.

“Help! Open the door! Anyone out there?”

No one came.

Exhausted, I plopped down on the bed, but the musty smell forced me back up. One close look at the floor convinced me the bed would be a better choice, and I sat back down. Was this a prank? Someone would enter soon with a video camera and crowds of my friends shouting, “Surprise!”

No one came.

Anger surfaced after time passed. This is no way to treat one of their best employees. Twenty-three years of my life sacrificed to this company. Not one single sick day. Never late. Always willing to work overtime off the clock.

“This is what I’ve worked so hard for?” I scream at empty walls.

If I ever get out of here, I’m going to do something I love. Like start a catering business. My lemon bars are legendary. Or sell everything, buy a motorhome, and travel the country. The more time I spend planning my alternate future, my anxiety begins to recede.

Here I am, sitting in a locked room. After considering everything that led me here, an idea blossoms. I’ve always known how to escape, but I’ve been afraid to do it.

“I quit,” I said with a strong voice. Striding confidently to the door, I turn the knob and walk into my new life.