Lighting Out for the Territories

“But I reckon I got to light out for the territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally, she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can’t stand it.  I been there before.”

Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain


As usual, I really should be asleep.  But there’s a load of laundry still in the dryer, and I haven’t packed yet.  We’ve got to leave for the airport in five hours.  I’m late, also as usual.  At 7:30 am Pacific time, my husband and I and our two sons will board a plane to Miami, where we will meet my father.  On Friday we will head out for Guayaquil, Ecuador where we will be joined by my sister and her family as we board the National Geographic ship Endeavor for a seven day tour of the Galapagos Islands.  My daughter is interviewing for residency programs—sadly she cannot join us.

The Galapagos was my eighty seven year old father’s idea.  As a plastic surgeon of some renown, he has traveled the world to operate, to teach, and to inspire.  But he has never been to the Galapagos, and this trip is on his “bucket list.”  Last January my husband and I traveled to Tanzania which was the trip of a life time for me, and the subject of another blog entry yet to come.  When we returned from Africa, my father said wistfully, “I have always wanted to go to the Galapagos Islands.”  I said, “Dad, you’re 86.  If not now, when?”  After less than a moment’s consideration, he agreed. So off we go to cross the equator just as 2012 becomes 2013, most assuredly a better year for all of us.

For my birthday, I bought myself a new underwater waterproof camera, a compact Canon Powershot D20 point and shoot.  As an ex-competitive swimmer, I prefer being on TOP of the water, not underneath it, but I will overcome my claustrophobia and fear of large predators against whom I have no defense in the name of art, and don that snorkel gear.   And I will be taking the Canon D60 with a moderately good telephoto lens that I bought to take to Africa last year.  All batteries are charged.  As much as I hate the grey screen of my first generation Nook (truth be told, I love “real” books—always have, always will, but I’ll sacrifice in the name of luggage weight requirements!)  I’ve got several books loaded and ready to go.  Detailed (and I do mean detailed!) instructions are written out for my house/animal sitter which include the name of every veterinarian west of the Mississippi.  I am hoping that the clothes just fall into the suitcase by themselves.

My writing may be a bit sparse for the next two weeks, but once again, as I travel, I entreat my friends to write their own stories and send them to me at .   I do plan to have email access most of the time, and I know that most of my readers are also writers, so write on!  I can publish from afar.  And for those of you who are also travelling this time of year, Bon Voyage!

Please Allow Me to Introduce Myself by Dr. Rhonda Houston

They call me Houston at the hospital. Sometimes they add “ Dr.” or “Dr. Miss” before Houston, but either way, I’m still Houston. As in, “Houston, we have a problem.” I work at a behavior health facility. I said I would work the trenches for a semester about 15 years ago and I’ve never left the hospital setting. I love the clients! I promised to share some stories and quotes of the day I’ve collected over the years. I thought of this story today when this particular client returned, as she has multiple times over the years. When she is stable, she is quite interesting and intelligent. But when she is not—well, let’s just say she is never boring.

One of my very favorite stories happened years ago. Then I had an office in the outpatient setting. So the front door was always unlocked. I was coming back from lunch, sandwich in hand, and as I stepped through the door the clerk eyeballed me, motioned with her hand and whispered the familiar “Houston…we have a problem.” Coming down the hall was a fit middle aged woman wearing spandex shorts, spandex top, black leather bikers vest, and black leather boots that went up to her knees. Her hair was long and curly. Her eyes blazed as she came right up to my face and told me how lovely I looked. Oh My! I put on my most pleasant professional voice and asked how I could help. Out streamed a whole bunch of words that made no sense, stuff about the Devil and God. In between she made sexual comments about most everyone that walked by. I knew immediately she needed our help. As I was trying to gain her confidence, I was also trying to figure out how to get her to a safe place out of the milieu.

My first thought was to offer her lunch. In a surly voice she replied, “No thank you, I ate Tabasco sauce for breakfast.” I have to admit, at this moment it was almost impossible for me to keep my composure– I just wanted to burst out laughing! I offered something to drink and she chose coffee. I slipped out and over to the intake department to give them a heads up and to clear a room. I nabbed the coffee, adding some cold water, just in case it went flying. One learns these tricks early in the field of mental health. Upon return I offered the coffee. In a surly husky voice she asked “Did you put poison in this?” Her eyes narrowed to a glare. “No.” I replied, “You didn’t ask for poison, just coffee.” “Ok, I’ll drink it then.”

As she sipped her coffee, I offered to allow her to stay so she could have a warm bed for the night. She liked that idea. I was able to walk her over to the intake room where we started paperwork. First, I started the form where we asked for another contact–a relative, or perhaps a good friend, in case of emergency. After she tossed out several names she finally decided “Lucifer!” I repeated, “Lucifer?” She said, “Yes, Lucifer– you can trust him.” I wrote down Lucifer on the form and asked for a phone number. That glare came back and she hissed, “YOU know his number.” Suddenly an angel appeared, backlit by the light of the doorway. To my relief, it was an intake person who swiftly and thankfully took the client up to her room.

Miranda here–This is from my friend Rhonda, and should probably rightfully be called  ”Why I am Not a Psychiatrist #4.”

Love Actually

When I got home this evening I could not believe my eyes.  My husband was sitting in front of the television watching, for about the thousandth time, the movie “Love Actually.”  Let me digress for a minute….have I told you about the television?  It is HUGE and takes up most of my family room.  Three and a half years ago I came home from a medical conference on a Sunday which happened to be Mother’s Day.  I was tired and the weather was nice and all I wanted to do was go outside and sit in the sun.  So I did.  When I came back in, “the boys” were in a tizzy.  How could I have utterly failed to notice my Mother’s Day present, this enormous television set?  Needless to say I got my husband a manicure and pedicure for Father’s Day that year.  As for the television set, I still don’t know how to work it, or just why four different remote controls are essential.  But back to the present….he was watching “Love Actually” again.

I’m not exactly sure what gives this movie such universal appeal since it seems to be a story held loosely together by more stereotypes than you’d find at a romance novel convention—the aged rock star shaking his booty one more time, the middle aged middle management man who deceives his devoted wife to buy a gift for his hot young secretary, the two bashful porn stars who fall chastely in love, the bereaved father teaching his stepson to love again, the bumbling young Englishman who goes to America and is surrounded by sexy coeds who adore his accent and happily warm his bed,  the sad jilted writer who finds himself unexpectedly in love with his maid, the lecherous American president—I could go on.  As my husband pointed out to me as I started to recite the dialog unbidden (unhappily for me I do not sing!)–“It’s a Christmas Eve story!”  And so it is.  For the secular amongst us, who are just a little bit overdone at this point on the eggnog and the sugar cookies and the chocolates, but who don’t go to church on Christmas Eve, sitting in front of a fire and watching a movie where each story has a happy ending and people actually get what they deserve—well, it’s love, actually.

Having put it off long enough, and under the mistaken impression that NO one but us would be at the shopping mall on Christmas Eve, my daughter and I ventured out for the last minute shopping ordeal.  People were shockingly civil, and helpful, and my big red Suburban gained no additional dents from crazed California drivers in their game of parking lot roulette.  Tomorrow will be a quiet day at home with family, deerhounds, cats and horses.  From our house to yours, we wish you the very best this holiday and for many more to come.

Empty Chairs at Empty Tables

There is a scene in Les Miserables where Marius, recovering from his own wounds, sings a song about his friends who died on the barricades. In part, it goes “That I live and you are gone, there’s a grief that can’t be spoken, there’s a pain goes on and on”.

My little dog Jack used to perch on the arm of the couch while I watched television in the evenings.  I would lie with my head at one end, my feet at the other, and he would be on the armrest by my feet. This could be very annoying because something about the flickering screen would trigger a strange behavior of snapping at the air.  A mild seizure disorder, perhaps?  But then, when he got old, and could no longer jump up on the couch, he would lie down on the carpet right next to it, with his head always resting on my shoes left on the floor.

Tonight, after a long day, I watched a movie.  When I got up at the end, and my feet came down seeking my shoes, I was careful, as I always tried to be so I wouldn’t accidentally kick him in the head as I got up. But he is no longer there.

Earlier this week, I lost a friend—Catherine Doyle, who died in Albuquerque from complications after abdominal surgery. Catherine had a little dog too, named Boo Coo, because he was a french poodle and because he was born on Halloween.  I told little Jack to go find Catherine and keep her company.  Truth be told, I never liked this time of year.  Empty chairs at empty tables.

In memory of Catherine Ann Doyle, December 1, 1943 to December 18, 2012, and Vale Vue’s Pocket Change, aka “Jack”, October 27, 1998 to December 21, 2012.

The Call of The Wild



In February of 2005, our old 26 year old Dutch warmblood mare Veronica keeled over dead in her pasture. Apparently she had been running freely, kicking up her heels, and just suddenly, like THAT, it was over.  My 20 year old daughter was home at the time.  She called me at work, quite hysterical.  I was 60 miles away.  She said, crying, “I think Veronica’s dead.”  I said, “What do you mean, you THINK?” She said, “She’s lying down and she’s not moving but her eyes are open and she’s warm.”


I called my equine veterinarian.  I told John Newcomb that he needed to go to my house immediately to “pronounce the horse.”  He was amazed but he did what I asked because he knew my daughter.


Thirty minutes later he called me back.  He said, “Yep, she’s dead alright.  She is indeed dead.”  No sign of a struggle—she just went down.  A fitting end to a beautiful life.


And if that wasn’t bad enough, I got home that evening and was greeted by Izzy, my then 3 year old male deerhound.  It was dark.  He jumped up to kiss me—big wet deerhound kisses.  I felt something warm and wet and slightly sticky on my lips and face. I tasted salt on my lips.   I went inside.  I looked in the mirror and screamed. To my horror, I was covered with blood.


The next morning in daylight, I went out to the pasture to discover the key to the mystery of the night before. Izzy had been chowing down on Veronica’s haunches.  Chomp, chomp, mmmmm, good.  Tasty horse meat fresh off the hoof, grass fed, untouched by chemicals.


I covered Veronica carefully with a tarp until the renderers could get there.  I never told my husband that my dog liked horsemeat. Or that our favorite dog ate his favorite horse.  Somehow I don’t think he would understand. But there’s a lesson to be learned here.  None of us, neither dog nor human, no matter how domesticated, are all that far from that distant call of the wild.  We’ll see if my husband is reading my blog now.

The Most Wonderful Dog in All the Land by Jackie Widen


Sunday, December 18, 2011 in Austin, TX was overcast and cold.  It was the kind of day that encouraged hot cocoa, a warm robe, some channel flipping and being lazy.  But it was also my birthday, so I knew it was my Day to Plan.  I announced to my husband:  Today is the day we are going to adopt a dog.   No response.  We had lost the last of our cats to cancer months earlier, and we had decided to find a rescue dog when we were ready.  Leo, our burly orange tabby, lived a long good life but at 17 he went downhill quickly.    Making that “pink shot” decision is never easy, but it was the right thing to do.  Our Leo had given us so many great years; he traveled from Texas to California and back to Texas again. He loved sitting in our California vineyard, thinking we could not see his 20 pound fur frame among the vines.  My husband had agreed in principle that getting a dog was a good idea, but when the principle turned into a plan of action, he caved.  He had never fallen in love with a pet the way I had – the way my family had.  We had married later in life and our animal experiences were very different. He never looked at an animal like an extension of family, a furry ball of love who usually knew your thoughts before you did.  He was skeptical, but agreeable. He had a fondness for Leo and knew it was time.  After all, it was my birthday.


Off we went to an Adoption Event nearby.  Only two dogs. I was disappointed from the parking lot, because I had fantasized about aisles of cute dogs waiting for my selection.  I was daydreaming about the spring and summer adoption events I had seen.  But it was a week before Christmas, a cold dreary Sunday.  We walked up to the pens.  The first dog was a Mastiff.  Holy Cow, he was dear and sweet but his paws were like footballs and he was taller than I was when he stood to give me kisses.  My husband walked over to the other pen.  Here was a year old Belgian shepherd, black with white markings, with a red coat tied over her back.  She seemed to smile when he pet her, and he was smitten.  I had thought I wanted a short hair Lab mix, but this long hair black female was sure cute.  I walked her, and she was quiet and timid.  After playing awhile with her, but still not sure – my husband announced that we needed to get this dog.  I agreed.  We signed the papers and agreed to a telephone “interview” the following day and went home hoping that no one else beat us out.  I couldn’t sleep that night.  My husband even made a list of potential names for her!  I was falling in love with this adorable girl and knew she was the perfect match.  We passed the interview, she was spayed and cleared for pick-up at a local vet a few days later.  Christened Zoey, she became our new baby.


I learned later that black dogs are the hardest to place through rescue groups.  The shelter that fostered her told me that she was on the schedule for euthanasia – they didn’t keep dogs very long as their facility was small.  Her days were numbered.  Some of the other local shelters actually discount their black dogs and offer complimentary obedience classes to “sweeten the deal”.  I felt like she was destined to come home with us.


Tomorrow is our One Year Anniversary of owning Zoey.  I cannot imagine our life without her.  Every morning we are out walking.  She is friendly with everyone, dogs and people.  Her only vice is chasing squirrels, and she tries valiantly but so far she has been unsuccessful in catching one.  They chirp at her, taunting her from the trees.   Her bed is beside our bed and every night she gets a story, which she expects around 10:30 PM.  It is “The story of Zoey, the most wonderful dog in all the land”.  Her eyes close, she sighs, and I repeat every night the story of how she came to live with us.  It’s cheesy I know, but that’s what animals do to us.  They allow us to be honest and funny and silly and goofy with wagging tails and loving eyes.  My husband only grumbles occasionally about the shedded fur – oh my how long haired dogs shed in the summer.  I watch him patting her and rubbing her and behaving the way I never knew he could with an animal.  Totally in love.  But that’s how it’s supposed to be; and he never would have known about this love if we hadn’t found Zoey.  December 18, 2011.  A good day.

Where Has All The Good News Gone?


Occasionally, something I write gets picked up on another of the “social media” outlets, and as with this blog, the responses I get are truly appreciated and provide me with insight into others’ points of view.  After my essay about the tragedy of Newtown, CT last Friday night, one reader responded:

“ I wonder why we don’t have as many joyous moments to recall as tragic moments. The tragic moments can bring us together and help us make changes to our society, I hope. The greatest public joy I recall was the lunar landing, which only goes to remind me how far we’ve strayed from what we once were.”

So this got me thinking:  Was the last time our country truly celebrated an event in a universal unbridled display of happiness July 20, 1969, the day the Apollo 11 mission succeeded and the Eagle landed on the moon?  Everyone alive on that day remembers Neil Armstrong’s words “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”  But does anyone remember the inscription on the plaque that was set down on the lunar surface that day:  Here Men From the Planet Earth First Set Foot Upon the Moon, July 1969 AD.  We Came In Peace for All Mankind.

There were many episodes of national optimism, heroism, pride and discovery in the twentieth century.  The Wright brothers took flight, Hitler was defeated, the polio vaccine was discovered, man walked on the moon, the Berlin Wall fell and the Cold War ended. But in the twenty first century we seem to have fallen on some lean times.  Can we truly say that the day Osama Bin Laden was captured and killed a day of national joy?  Or was it more accurately a day of closure, revenge and remembrance of sorrow?  My friend Dr. Emily Gibson, a family practitioner wrote yesterday in her blog “Barnstorming”—“There is an epidemic of hopelessness among our society’s young people that I’ve never before seen to this extent in my thirty years of clinical work. To them, their debts seem too great, their reserves too limited, their foundations too shaky, their hope nonexistent, their future too dim. They cannot ride the waves without feeling they are drowning. So they look for any way out.” (

Perhaps we have become a nation so ideologically divided by race and culture and money that we would not recognize a cause for national celebration if it was staring us in the face.  Every day I see in my practice individual acts of kindness and bravery, and I see cancer patients with that indomitable human spirit overcoming the most desperate of odds.  These individual triumphs inspire me to live my own life with optimism, since there is no reward in doing otherwise. But one day soon, I would like to wake up to news of a nationwide—no—a worldwide celebration.  To my children, and all of the pessimists of their generation, I say “Make it so.”

“Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune–without the words,
And never stops at all.”

Emily Dickinson

My Funny Valentine

I was watching Saturday Night Live tonight and Paul McCartney was singing.  For several years I have had to suppress a cringe when he comes on stage and sings live—there is something a little bit unseemly about a 70 year old man who’s had a face lift or two singing “Hey Jude.”  But there he was, singing “My Valentine”, a song most undoubtedly to his lost love Linda.  It goes “What if it rained?  We didn’t care.  She said that someday soon, the sun was gonna shine, and she was right, This love of mine, My Valentine.”  This song is beautiful.  It took me right back thirty years.

In 1980, I read Out of Africa, by Karen Blixen, who used the pen name Isak Dinesen.  The opening line was “I had a farm in Africa at the foot of the Ngong Hills.”  For me, it was the equivalent of “You had me at hello!” I was transported.  Karen Blixen, known affectionately as “Tania”, was a Danish woman who moved to Africa in 1913, married her second cousin Baron Bror von Blixen-Finecke, and started a coffee farm in the British colony of Kenya.  In her book, Dinesen details a story in which her deerhound Dusk plays a major role.  Coming home one night, Dusk stops his mistress with furious barking at a tree.  Thinking that there is a leopard lying in wait, Dinesen takes aim with her rifle. Just as she is about to kill the animal in the tree, she realizes with a start that it is her own house cat.  The cat is safely retrieved, but every evening walk after that is punctuated by Dusk stopping at the same tree, barking and then looking back at Dinesen while baring his teeth in what can only be described as a big deerhound grin. Dinesen commented that if ever there was a dog with a keen sense of humor, it was this deerhound.  I was enchanted.

Over thirty years later, I am still besotted by deerhound humor.  The females are the funniest—they are sly; they are bad girls, and they love to make fun of human beings.  Valentine, aka Ch. Gayleward’s Valentine, was one of the best.  Her particular joke was to lie on her bed, beseeching us, or our guests, to pet her.  Ear rubs were the greatest—she would moan and groan in the most embarrassing and yet self-reinforcing way.  But woe to the person who would pet her, and then stop.  Val’s head would pop up and she would give a hearty deep throated and very frightening bark, while “smiling”, with teeth bared and lips curled back.  To the uninitiated, it was terrifying.  The late, great Vicki Hearne wrote an essay about a deerhound called “A Distinct Impression of Diamonds.”  With Valentine, it was more of a distinct impression of a whoopee cushion.

Valentine passed away peacefully at nearly twelve years old in 2006.  Our current comedienne is Queen, otherwise known as Grand Champion Jaraluv Queen, or sometimes QueeQuee or Quigley.  Quee has  a peculiar way of showing her affection—she pokes her head between your legs, then comes out the other side.  I will never forget the first time I handed her off to a professional handler at a dog show.  She performed like the trooper that she is.  When the handler brought her back to me, Queen surprised us both.  Slipping her lead entirely, she dove between my legs, wheeled around and approached with another nose dive from behind. And then back again, from the front.  And again from the back, then coming up for air and placing her nose across from mine, she laughed and  clearly stated, “Am I not the funniest girl ever?”  We call this “going through.”  She now does it on command.

One day I will go to Kenya.   I will visit Karen, Dinesen’s house which has been preserved for posterity.  And I will thank Tania, forever young and hopeful and beautiful, for the inspiration which led to our own funny Valentine.

The Stars are Misaligned Tonight

As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods. They kill us for their sport.  King Lear, Act IV

There are certain days that everyone will always remember.  People of my generation uniformly remember where they were and what they were doing the day that John F. Kennedy was shot.  My children’s generation will never forget 9-11.  For my parent’s generation, images of Pearl Harbor, D-Day, Hiroshima and Nagasaki were burned into their brains.  But these were all public moments—John John’s salute, the mushroom clouds, the fall of the twin towers.  Amongst these more public iconic moments are the quiet ones, the ones that hit each of us hard individually.  For me, I think of the Challenger disaster, played out on the television screen in the waiting room of my department.  I tried to go on seeing patients as Christa McAuliffe, the first Teacher in Space, and her crewmates exploded before our eyes.  I had wanted to teach, and had dreamed of being an astronaut while growing up in Houston.  They were there, and then suddenly, they were gone.  The bombing of the Murrah building in Oklahoma City was another of those moments—for me, that firefighter will be carrying that baby out of the carnage forever. Thirteen years after it happened, I dragged my youngest son to Oklahoma City to visit the museum, and to sit and contemplate one of the loveliest and saddest public memorial spaces ever built.

Today was another of those days for me as I tried to keep my patient flow going and stay on time while watching the Connecticut school shooting play out on my computer.  I can read the eyewitness accounts, and I can put my thoughts on paper, but it is the images, the pictures that will forever haunt me—the teachers and SWAT team members leading the frightened children, eyes and mouths open in terror, from a school which will never be the same out into a town that will likely never be able to celebrate Christmas again.  Where is the soul of a human being who can fire point blank into the heart of a child?  I asked my friend, who is a devout Catholic, “Where is God while all of this was going on?” She did not have an answer which I could believe or understand.  It rained a cold wet rain all day, here in this city where it never rains.

As I was driving home tonight I got a call from Daniel, my farrier.  Daniel never calls me at 7 pm on a Friday night, so I knew something was wrong.  He said, “Come home quickly, Gabriel called– Dash is colicking.”  Dash is my 27 year old Quarter Horse, recently laid up and on antibiotics for lymphangitis, an infection in his legs brought on by a late season of heat and drought which triggered a swarm of blood seeking flies.  Colic in an elderly horse who has never colicked before can be a bad sign—a stone perhaps, or a lipoma twisting the gut.  John, my horse vet for twenty years, got here quickly, sedated and tubed the old boy who is now resting comfortably.  I will be on horse watch for the rest of the night, armed with syringes full of painkillers and sedatives.  I know one thing for certain—this old horse has had a full, long and happy life—something those children who died today will never have.  It is almost midnight here.  Can this day be over soon?