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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.

Fall into more summer

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Pumpkin spice lattes are back. Halloween decorations dominate the craft stores. And in Southern California, it’s extended summer. Especially for teachers like me who jumped ship at the end of last school year. This is the first year I didn’t spend days setting up my classroom, organizing classroom supplies, and suffering through hours of staff meetings.

Next week, instead of sweating through triple-digit days sequestered inside with kids, my husband and I will be camping at the beach. We’ll walk our dogs, grill steaks, and watch the sunsets. I’m going to work on my latest book project until I run out of power on my laptop.

After 17 years of teaching (which in teacher years is 170), I’m writing a new chapter in my life. In my first years at college, I poured all my energy into being a visual artist. Then at graduation I was cast adrift in a world where creatives had few ways of earning a living. I went to work in retail buying, using my creativity to select season colors and magazine layouts.

After 9/11, I lost my job and became a substitute teacher. Then my husband died, and suddenly I was a single parent of three school age children. That led me back to college where I earned my teaching credential.

Writing children’s books was my new creative outlet. Seven years later, I found a husband that nourished my dreams. I joined writing groups and took classes. My obsession grew until I was up every morning at 5:00 am to squeeze in a few hours of writing before the day began.

Many years passed. My kids grew up and set out on their own journeys. Teaching kids taught me a lot. About hope for the future, and a passion for doing what you love. I gathered characters and stories like shells on a beach. Saving them for when I had time to write.

So here I am in my first year of retirement. Living life as a full time creative, writing instead of making art. My life is no longer fractured with conflicting responsibilities. I still get up early. Ideas flow in the quiet time before the day opens its eyes.

As I fall into more summer, more summer flows into me.

A witch’s loss

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Her magic was failing, and there was nothing she could do about it. It was her fate. When you were over three hundred years old, something was bound to wear out.

The witch knew this with her brain, but her heart still grieved. Magic had been her companion through broken hearts, wars, and witch hunts. Over many long years, she had loved and lost friends and familiars, but magic had remained a constant hum underneath her skin. Now it was a faint whisper.

The witch steam mopped her kitchen floor, her long tangled white hair hanging in her face. She took her time, making sure to get all the blood in the grout. Living in these times was a lot easier than when she first crossed the ocean. Back then, she lived in a dirt floor hut outside the village. It was convenient to have her own animals for spells, but her city condo these days smelled a lot better. And she could order the animals she needed from Amazon.

After she tucked her steam mop away in the closet, she turned her cleaning energy to her bathrooms. Her three-bedroom condo had two of them, a luxury unheard of when she first came to this country. She sprayed her natural cleaner on the toilet and sink and scrubbed with what strength she still possessed. As she wiped down the mirror, she avoided looking at her reflection. That shriveled up crone was a stranger to her. If her magic was strong, she would be able to smooth those wrinkles with a potion.

If her magic was strong, she wouldn’t have to work like a cleaning lady. She used to be able to mumble a few words and her home would be sparkling clean. These were humbling days when she needed to save her magic for the big things.

Spells that used to spill off her tongue now sputtered and failed. Last week, she used her scry bowl to see what her sister witch, Agnes, was doing. The water refused to show her anything. In her anger, she tossed the ancient ceramic bowl across the room. It shattered on the tile floor. She had to FaceTime with her instead.

Losing her magic made her so angry she wanted to transform into a bird and fly away. Usually, anger amplified her power. Now when she spoke the spell, all she got were a few feathers and a sudden urge to eat granola.

When the bathroom was clean, the witch turned her attention to the shelves in her work room. The small room, formerly one of the bedrooms, had one whole wall covered in wooden bookshelves, mismatched and of different finishes. Jars lined the shelves, some filled with liquids while others held dried plants. Using a microfiber cloth, she lifted each one and wiped it before returning it to its place. This took a long time. She needed to be careful as some of her ingredients were volatile in combination with others.

A tear rolled down her gnarled cheek. Most of these jars would never be used again. Maybe she could sell them to a younger witch.

Weakness overcame her, and she had to sit down at her desk. What would be left without her magic? An ancient crone, powerless and friendless. How could she live without her craft?

She glanced down at her phone on the desk. Maybe she was allowing her circumstances to overwhelm her. She still had sister witches who cared about her. Maybe her magic just needed to be recharged like her phone.

There was power in mingling magics. How could she have forgotten? She reached her trembling hand to grasp her phone. She scrolled through her contacts and clicked the phone symbol.

There was more than one kind of magic.

Skulls on a shelf

The witch dried off her newest skull and set it next to the others. She dumped out her cauldron on the roses in her front yard. Then she scrubbed out the pot and set it on a hook in the kitchen.

A huge sigh escaped her lips. She hated it when she lost another friendship. Friendships took many years of thought and nurturing. She poked at the fire and then sat down in her rocker, wrapping herself in blankets. Charcoal, her familiar, jumped in her lap and started purring.

In some ways, she was like her cat. Independent, resourceful, content in her solitude. Yet endless days of tending her herb garden, bottling potions, and sweeping her small cottage left her with simmering discontent.

This discord, a rumbling like a hungry stomach, would drive her to the village. There was a tea shop where women who came to the market would gather. Curious women would invite her to sit at their table. It filled her heart to hear the local gossip and trade recipes for apple pie.

Sometimes there would be one woman to wanted to know more about herblore. The witch would sit with her new friend at another table and talk about various plants and how they were useful for cooking and medicine.

The witch only developed one of these special friends at a time, hoping she would find a kindred spirit with whom she could eventually share her craft. How wonderful it was to unburden herself from her secrets. This was her favorite stage of friendship when everything was shiny like a gold coin.

After the friendship had been forged for several years, the witch would invite her special friend to her cottage. During the summer, they would gather herbs and the witch would teach her friend about their qualities. When the cold winds blew, the women would make bread and tea and sit by the fire. Charcoal would hide under the bookshelf, her yellow eyes glowing with disapproval.

Eventually all friendships ended the same way. When the witch finally revealed that she was looking for an apprentice, her friend would gasp in horror and run home.

Then the village gossip would turn evil. Her friend would tell everyone that the witch was dabbling in dark arts. The witch couldn’t set foot in the tea shop without feeling stares and hearing whispers about her. The witch would plead with her friend not to talk about her. That she had misunderstood what the witch had said about her craft.

Because she had built the friendship slowly, her friend would relent from her mudslinging. However, the damage was done. The friend would not drink tea with the witch anymore. The other women would still look sideways at the witch when she wasn’t looking.

The witch hated what came next, but there was nothing she could do about it. Her secrets needed to be protected. She brought her special tea to the tea shop and convinced the owner to serve it. It was an ancient potion designed to make everyone forget the witch and everything anyone said about her.

For her friend, the witch had another special tea. This tea temporarily made her friend compliant to the witch’s commands. Once her friend drank it, the witch lured her back to the cottage where she did what she had to do.

Now nestled under her blanket, thoughtfully crocheted by one of her former friends, the witch gazed up at the row of white human skulls lined up on the mantle. Usually, she kept them locked away in a chest, too macabre for visitors. Today she had decided they needed to be on display. These skulls were her failures at friendship.

Perhaps this time she would learn her lesson.

My little life

My life was big and now it’s little.

There is a delightfully disturbing book titled Little, Big by John Crowley. It tells the tale of a man drawn into a family that deals with fairies. Fairies are often referred to as the Little People.

One of the characters remarks that her world was big but became little. She used to travel, entertain, take care of her children. Her life was big. Then it changed. She stayed home in the country, her children grew up and started their own lives. Her life was little.

My world shrank as well. My husband and I used to travel often on our Harley and in our motorhome. We flew across the country to visit our kids. We spent a week in Hawaii for our anniversary. We entertained and visited friends often. Our world was big.

Then my husband’s auto-immune disease worsened. COVID 19 arrived. I decided to retire early from teaching to write children’s books full time.

Of course, during the quarantine, my world was little. For days, our car sat in the driveway collecting tree sap. We spent the days moving from room to room in our small home before ending up in the backyard. We visited family online.

Even after my husband and I were vaccinated and some of the restrictions lifted, I didn’t have many reasons to leave my house. I got used to having my groceries delivered. I got used to shopping on Amazon. I worked with my critique group on Zoom.

In this new little life, I was available. I could help my husband with projects around the house. I could help my daughter take care of her preemie twins. I could spend time training our border collie puppy. I could call friends and encourage them in these chaotic times.

Maybe that’s the way life was designed. First we’re big, and then we’re little. To quote Tolkien “even the littlest person can change the course of the future.”

I try hard to make the most of my little life.

A witch’s retirement

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“We’ll throw you a big party with cake and everything,” my boss said, her fake smile lost in the maze of her wrinkles.

“But I’m not ready to retire,” I said. I pointed at my overflowing inbox. “I have all these orders to fill.”

Headwitch Hazel frowned. “Another reason for you to step down. Your productivity is atrocious!” She towered over me with her arms folded, not difficult to do since I was still sitting at my desk.

I sighed. “I’ll do my best to finish my outstanding requests by Friday then.”

“You do that,” she said, and stomped back to her office.

“Hey, Puddle, wanna go to lunch with us? We’re going to Chilis,” Thistle said, coming back from the front office with a fresh batch of orders in her hand. She sat across from me, our desks touching each other. If I left the company, I would miss her management jokes.

Still feeling the Headwitch’s glare, I answered, “Not today. I’ve got to get caught up.” She grabbed her broom and rushed out the door to catch up with the others.

A giant boulder of anxiety pinned me to my desk. What was I going to do with myself without this job? When I was here, I didn’t have to think. I just filled orders, took my breaks, and clocked out at the end of the day. No risks. No magical disasters.

Now I would be on my own.

Trying to shake myself out of it, I dumped out my inbox and sorted the orders into categories. Love potions, wrinkle reducers (surprised the Headwitch didn’t cast that spell for herself), protection charms, wisdom hats, and garden pest removals. Not exactly the magic I thought I’d be casting when I finished magic school.

How did I end up in this dreary magic office, when I could have been in the queen’s army, on the front lines, casting huge wind or storm spells that changed the course of battles? Or assigned to a noble family, protecting their castle from intruders.

If I admitted it to myself, I knew how I ended up here. Every time I had big magic to cast, I choked. During finals week, several of my test spells failed. At my potions final, my brew turned into iced coffee instead of a sleeping draught. My face turned beet red in front of my teacher, who knew I had made it successfully during our practice sessions. Then came my weather control final where I ended up flooding the testing room. I don’t even want to remember my broom driving test, but I still have the scars.

With my abysmal magic school scores, I was lucky to gain a position with A Magical Solution, a magical company that specialized in small magics that most witches didn’t want to waste their power on. I made charms and potions in a small lab I shared with other unremarkable witches. Our meager efforts were then sent off to the shipping department where they wrapped and packed them carefully and sent them out to customers.

Now after thirty years of small magic, it was time for me to move on.

After I’d taken care of huge stack of beauty treatments, Thistle poured in with the other witches and laid her broom on the rack against the wall. She plopped down at her desk and stared me down with her piercing green eyes. “You’re really retiring? It was all the girls talked about at lunch.”

“Headwitch said the company changed their retirement age. I’m only 80.  Normally I’d have until I was 85, but apparently, they want to get new blood in here. Immediately. Friday’s my last day.”

Thistle jumped up and gave me a bone-crunching hug. “Oh, Puddle! I’m going to miss you so much. Whenever I got stuck on a spell, you always had the answer. And you laugh at my jokes.”

“I’ll miss you, too,” I said, putting on a brave face while my stomach was flipping.

There had to be something I could do with my life. I looked at the towering piles of papers on my desk and sighed. If only I could come up with a way to be useful.

Finally Friday came, and it was time for me to say good bye to my desk and my co-workers. Headwitch Hazel had sprung for a delicious strawberries and cream cake and pink punch. At 4:45 pm, she allowed us time on the clock to celebrate my eminent departure.

“Speech! Speech!” the witches cried, guzzling down the punch which may have had an intoxication spell added.

I cleared my throat and thrust my shaking hands in my pockets. I hated speaking in front of a crowd, but these were witches I’d seen every day for most of my life. “Thanks, everyone, for your kind words,” I said. “I’ve been with the company for a long time. If I never see another desperation love spell, I would be happy.”

A chuckle echoed across the office. No one liked to cast that spell, especially since it included dog feces and stinging nettles.

“It’s hard for me to say goodbye to all you wonderful witches,” I continued. “When I heard I was retiring, I was upset. I hate change. That’s probably why I stayed here all these years. But Headwitch Hazel has given me a new opportunity. An open door to the new stage of my life. When I was young, I was too afraid to make mistakes. Now I’m ready to use my experience to cast new magic. I may still make mistakes, but I will learn from them. It’s time for me to step out on my own.”

“What are your plans?” Poppy from Accounting asked.

I took a deep breath. “I’ve been thinking about it all week. I could start a bed and breakfast at the beach. Or I could become a wise woman in the forest. But I know what I really want to do.” I paused. Headwitch would not like this. “I’m going to write a book.”

“A grimoire?” Thistle asked.

“Not exactly,” I said. “A grimoire is for my own personal use, to be handed down to my children, of which I have none. I’m going to write a magic book that every witch can use. A book of everyday, small magics that can make their lives easier.”

Headwitch frowned. “You mean like the spells we do here at the company.”

I nodded, swallowing my fear. “Too long have young witches ordered out spells and potions that their mothers and grandmothers always made themselves. They shouldn’t have to pay for milk preservation spells or anti-wrinkle treatments for their clothes. Witches have become lazy in their magic. It’s time for them to take back their heritage.”

Although it would affect their jobs, the witches in the room cheered. My hopes soared as I realized I was finally ready to cast big magic of my own.

Driving the motorhome and the meaning of life

The strangest part of driving a 30-foot Class C motorhome is you can’t see anything in the rear-view mirror. In fact, the rear-view mirror is a backup camera that only comes on when you’re in reverse gear.

As I took my turn driving down Highway 395 toward Mammoth Lakes, I readjusted the huge side mirrors and the driver’s seat. This was only my fourth time driving the rig. Including the mirrors, our rig was over eight feet wide which can make you feel squished into your lane. But the road we currently traveled was wide with a shoulder, so I smiled at my husband as he headed to the bedroom for a nap.

It was just me and the highway.

Just like he taught me, I shifted my eyes from side mirror to ahead to other side mirror to check my lane position. My hands were a little damp on the steering wheel. This thing was so big! Not as big as a bus-sized motorhome that cost as much as our house, but much larger than my Tundra pickup.

As I rolled down the highway, two challenges emerged. First was keeping my big butt in the lane, even as the wind bumped me from time to time. Second were the hills.

When you’re in a car, you don’t notice the hills as much. Our Corolla zipped up and down the mountains on the way to San Diego like it was motocross. But for a thirty-foot monstrosity, hills take a little planning.

As I spotted an incline in the distance, I reluctantly pushed the speedometer up to 70 mph. At this speed, our rig started to feel like a small boat in choppy waters, so I gripped the steering wheel. When I reached the hill, my speed would start to drop, and the tachometer would start flipping numbers quickly. I divided my attention between the tach and the road, trying to keep the rig within reasonable stress on the motor. Finally, I reached the peak of the hill and could shake out my shoulders.

Until the next hill. Which came soon, as we were steadily climbing into the Sierra mountains.

Hours flew by. As I settled into the routine, I realized that driving the rig could be a metaphor for life. Instead of being able to look at my past directly while I was looking ahead, I had to give side glances at it instead. I had to pay more attention to where I was in my own lane, or life, than looking at others. Looking at the road in front of me and ahead was more important than what was behind. Focus on what I could do now and not past failures.

Lessons learned while driving a motorhome.

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

Photo by Engin Akyurt on Pexels.com

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.”