Senior Discount Trauma

All of a sudden I felt ancient.

Believe it or not, I remember the exact day I got my first senior discount. I remember it because it was a total bummer. I wasn’t a senior yet. 

I suck at math, but when the young man at the register in Michael’s gave me my change I knew something wasn’t right. I had bought items totaling around $35.00 dollars, and gave him $40.00, and got over $10.00 back.

“I shouldn’t be getting this much money back,” I told him, confused. He looked at me blankly. I studied the receipt. 

“What’s this?” I asked him, showing him a credit.

“That’s your senior discount,” he mumbled.

I went into shock. I was fifty-two. In my prime. I hadn’t yet even remotely thought of myself as being old.

“Senior discount?!” I croaked ungracefully. “I’m not fifty-five! Why are you giving me a senior discount!?”

He just stared at me. He was tongue-tied. Then I realized he was scared, and I calmed down and smiled at him. “Well, never mind, young man. I can use the extra money. Thank you, dear.” I forgave him. He didn’t do it on purpose. 

When I got home I felt better after realizing that surely my white hair had caused him to misjudge my age. It must have been that, because certainly everything else about me was youthful. My smooth skin, clear eyes, athletic body…I could go on but don’t worry, I won’t. But the thing is I’m a towhead, of Scandinavian descent, born with white hair. Just like Tiger Woods’s former wife, Elin. And Greta Garbo, au naturel.

Funny how the years change us. Now, 20 years later, I LOVE my senior discounts. I get upset when they don’t give them to me. Bring ‘em on!


Mike’s long road home

mikeMy brother Mike could never remember exactly how he made the biggest mistake of his life. It knocked him off-course and altered his destiny. All he recalls is hitchhiking to L.A. Somehow he missed the mark and ended up 500 miles from there, in Tucson.

Turns out it wasn’t a mistake at all. It was a miracle.

Maybe he was just standing on the wrong side of the highway. Chances are he was high and not thinking clearly: Mike was a heroin addict. There were lots of events and long stretches of his life that he couldn’t recall. He was high on smack most of the time for almost 20 years running.

Mike was two years older than me. Our father was mentally ill, and by the time I was born Daddy couldn’t handle a job or any other responsibility. Our mother, only 20 when she married, not realizing Daddy was ill, did the best she could but was not equipped to deal with something like schizophrenia. Who is? Mom’s own mother had been a homemaker and her father worked at the Navy Yard near Seattle and brought home the bacon every single day. Everything seemed picture-perfect, right down to the bridge club and the county fair flower judging and the black metal lunchbox Grandma filled up for Grandpa every workday.

I think Mom expected a life like that, but hers didn’t even come close. There was a deep stigma of shame attached to mental illness back in the 1940s. In order to get help Mom would have had to tell someone about Daddy’s schizophrenia, which for her was not an option. So she had no one to share her burden with. She had only a high school education, and worked at low-paying jobs to support all of us. Life was hard.

Mike started experimenting with drugs when he was 12, stealing cough syrups containing codeine that were sold over-the-counter back then. He soon moved on to stronger stuff. He was first incarcerated when he was 13. We were all eating dinner in our apartment when the doorbell rang. I opened the door. “I’m looking for Michael Torello,” a policeman said, looking down at me from where he stood on our porch. Mike had already gotten up from the table, and he walked out the door and drove away with the policemen. I didn’t see him for six months. He had stolen a car, I later learned. After that he was in trouble constantly.

He started disappearing more often and for longer stretches, incarcerated or just drifting in a drug haze. He broke into people’s houses and stole things to sell, or took money if it was there, to buy his drugs with. Mom never talked about him. There was an unspoken rule not to mention him. I had a lot of grief about him I never expressed, and in my thirties I sought out counseling. Talking to compassionate experts helped. I wish Mom could have done the same, but she never got past the shame of her generation over mental and emotional problems in the family. She suffered in silence.    

When Mike was 20, his right arm got caught in a meat grinder in a pizza parlor, where he was working while high on drugs, most likely heroin. Moments after it got caught in the terrible blades someone tried to turn the grinder off, but the external off button was not working. Someone finally unplugged it. The arm was lost up to the elbow. After a long stay in the hospital Mike went to live with our father, long-divorced from Mom and living with his mother.

After a few months Mike disappeared again. Daddy committed suicide shortly afterward. I lost track of Mike for years.

In my late thirties I was surprised to get a letter from Tucson. It was from Mike. He had tracked me down. “I woke up in a Tucson jail one morning and wondered what the hell I was doing there,” he wrote, “especially since as far as I knew I lived in California, and didn’t remember leaving it on purpose.” When he woke up in the jail he had an eerie feeling that his life was about to change into something he wouldn’t recognize. The feeling was right on.  

Mike was tried and convicted of burglary. Except for the fact that it happened in Arizona instead of California, it seemed like a familiar story in Mike’s life. Need drugs, commit crime, get caught, go to jail.

But this time, a compassionate judge sentenced him to a residential halfway house, Casa Amigo, instead of jail. At Casa there was counseling and job training, basic living skills like cooking and cleaning, virtually nonstop Narcotics Anonymous (NA) meetings, and other resources. Not to mention friendship and bonding. Mike needed all those things. 

After Mike and I wrote letters for a few months, I flew to spend a week with him in his little bungalow, in an old barrio of Tucson.

“How in the world did you end up in a city in the Sonoran desert?” I asked him over coffee.

“I just remember hitchhiking, and everything else is blacked out until I woke up in jail,” he told me. “I asked a guy in the cell and he told me I was in Tucson.”

Mike didn’t know how he got there, but he knew Tucson was the right place for him to end up. From his first day in the halfway house, when he was forty, until he died ten years later he was clean and sober. He had been addicted to one drug or another continuously for nearly twenty-five years.

Mike was a high school dropout, but he completed two years of community college and then earned a civil engineering degree from the University of Arizona. Job hunting afterwards, he had a lot of anxiety about the felonies he had to disclose on job applications, which would scare off employers. But someone at the Arizona Highway Department read between the lines of his resume and saw his amazing turnaround after so many years of drug abuse and crime. The department gave him a chance, and he was a civil engineer there until he died.

He met his girlfriend Susan in Narcotics Anonymous. She and Mike lived together, with their formerly stray neighborhood cat Petey, until Mike’s death.

Mike had no self-pity over his missing arm. He was grateful he still had his elbow joint. “It gives me a lot more functionality,” he told me. He drove, ironed, cooked, bowled, did everything else people with two arms do.

He didn’t even feel sorry for himself over his rapidly spreading lung cancer. I learned it was already late stage when I arrived. He was thin and gaunt and fragile-looking. His cheeks were hollow. But he was peaceful and calm. Happy.  

My last night there, Mike and I talked and talked until the mountains in the window and the moon hanging over them disappeared, and a faint salmon glow lit the sky. “The last ten years have been fuller than I ever dreamed life could be,” he told me. He had remained in NA and sponsored and mentored many newcomers. He was loved and respected by his extended family of recovering addicts throughout Tucson. He and Susan had a loving relationship. Petey was a joy. “I have no regrets,” he said. Not even about dying.

We never saw each other after that visit. He died soon after I got back to San Jose. His memorial was held in the halfway house, where his healing had begun. Mike’s many friends gathered from all over Tucson and shared their stories about him, and their love and respect for him. Afterwards his ashes were scattered in the foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains east of Tucson. Mike wanted to be in the winds near his beloved home where he had found peace and meaning, and service to his fellow addicts, in his last years. It was there that he finally got treatment instead of punishment, and found healing, friendship, work and love.

I never dreamed that one day I would call Mike my teacher, but he was. He taught me that it’s never too late to change. It’s never too late to recover from addiction, even from one with as vicious a grip as heroin, and even if the addiction has lasted decades. It’s never too late to find love and adopt a cat and make a home and go to school, even after a life of crime and incarceration. It’s never too late for a miracle.  

A rare and lovely garden guest

poppy-356323_640 - CopyAs I rushed out the front door one morning, late for an appointment as usual, I saw a single leaf up ahead on our white walkway. It didn’t look like anything that grew in our garden, yet it seemed strange that it would have blown in from somewhere else. It was a very bright mint-green, about three inches long.

Then it moved, though there was absolutely no breeze that morning.

I slowed down and walked up close. I’m not much of an entomologist, but there was no doubt in my highly untrained mind that it was a praying mantis. I’d seen pictures and recognized the elegant and poignant beauty of its distinctive features—the elongated body, the small head (shaped like E.T.’s) on the long skinny neck, the long antennae, and most of all the long, spiky, folding forelimbs.

praying-mantis-868420_1280The exotic creature was moving, but very, very slowly as the mantis does. It seemed so out of place as it inched along: it belonged in soft foliage, not on the hard, barren cement. I was afraid for it because it was so green and visible on our white walkway, and many neighborhood birds would have loved to make a meal out of it. No doubt they were lurking close by, unseen. The mantis was far away from the only foliage that offered any cover, inside our brick-lined planter area, and it would have had to climb up the foot-high brick wall to get into it.

I wanted to move it to safety, but didn’t have a clue how to go about it without harming it, it looked so delicate. And I had to get to an important doctor appointment. All I could do for the beautiful creature was pray (no pun intended). 

I left for my appointment, and when I got back a few hours later, the mantis was nowhere to be seen. Our walkway was bare again. I looked all around in the planter area, scouring geraniums and spider plants and poppies and impatiens, and a six-foot-high densely foliated bush that I don’t know the name of. The mantis wasn’t anywhere. It must have been some bird’s meal.  The next day, hoping against hope, I inspected the planter area again. I didn’t see it. I looked morning and afternoon for a few days and saw nothing. I felt regret, along with guilt. I should have moved it, doctor appointment be damned. Sad but resigned, I stopped looking

A few weeks later I was watering the plants one still, breezeless day and a geranium leaf moved. The other leaves remained perfectly still. I tiptoed over and looked closely and there was the mantis. If it hadn’t moved I would have never seen it, it blended in so seamlessly with the green foliage. For a few months after that I saw it every now and then in the planter area, then I didn’t see it anymore. I haven’t seen it now in over a year. I’ve since learned that a year is the average mantis life span.

Though its graceful presence in my world was fleeting, the mantis changed my outlook. For one, I worry a bit less since I saw it sticking out like a bright-green neon thumb on our white walkway, inching slowly over to the planter area, in a neighborhood dense with hungry jays, crows, mockingbirds, even a falcon now and then—and surviving. You may disagree, but I’m convinced an unseen force had been there protecting it on its journey to the safety of the planter area, helping it over the little brick wall to the camouflaged safety of green leaves. It was the same force, which I call God, that protects us on our journeys, and that had guided the mantis to the bountiful smorgasbord that is our yard. My husband was born and grew up in Hawaii, where insects are accepted as a fact of life, and out of respect for them he uses pesticides very sparingly. Our yard is insect rich. The creature had been led to live out its days in a small paradise of nourishing abundance in a modest blue-collar subdivision.

My ethereal visitor, my guide from beyond, taught me that a magnificent order in the universe is always in place…even when we can’t see it because it’s hidden in the secrecy and safety of green.


Want to make a cat laugh?


Tell it your plans. I have two feral cats, which tells you right away that I’m a little crazy. But wait, it’s not my fault. I didn’t choose them, they chose me. Joe, the orange one, started coming through my backyard three years ago and, foolishly, I fed him. Soon he began to leave right after he ate and would come back with a small black cat following him, now named Jack. They would sit very still, with Jack behind Joe, and watch me intently.

I didn’t want to feed Jack—one feral cat seemed like more than enough—but they wouldn’t leave until I did. Joe was obviously taking care of Jack, seeing that he got food. It was hard not to fall in love with this bonded, loyal, black and orange duo. Eventually I trapped them and brought them to the clinic to be neutered and immunized. The veterinarian said they were about a year old.

Now, three years later, Jack and Joe live together in my patio. They still love each other. They always will. These wild cats travel together, groom each other, romp and play, sometimes fight but never very hard, sleep close together, and wrap themselves up in each other when it’s cold. They’re almost always together. Their souls are connected. The veterinarian believes they are brothers. She has no doubt that like nearly all feral cats they were separated after leaving the litter, located somewhere in our neighborhood, but somehow in the face of overwhelming odds they hooked back up.

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Jack & Joe

I think the main reason I “adopted” them and made a home for them in my patio is so they would have a stable place where each would always know where to find his brother. Living wild, it would be easy to get separated, possibly for good at some point. Now they have a home base. They know where to find each other. They sleep in their comfy beds in the patio, and wander around their old haunts in the neighborhood the rest of the time, periodically dropping in to their patio home for rest and food.

They always eat outside except for breakfast, which is served in my house at 5 am, 7 days a week. This follows the perfect plan I devised for them. The key is that I have conditioned them to like wet food, and I only serve it in the house, in the morning. That makes it possible for me to catch them and give them their flea/ear mite/heartworm medication every 30 days, and remove foxtails, and all that kind of maintenance stuff, and also to crate and bring them for treatment if they have injuries or other problems, or when their shots are due, and so forth. Outside, I don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of catching them. Inside, I can. My brilliant plan allows me to give them some protection, from rabies, feline leukemia, ear problems, heartworm and other things.  

They’re quite addicted to wet food, which is how I planned it. For three years they’ve come in practically every morning for their can of Friskies. But now…horrors…SOMEONE ELSE IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD  IS FEEDING THEM!! I’m sure of it. They’re not at the patio door in the early morning, like clockwork, like they used to be, leaning against each other, staring in at me. They’re no longer there to scramble in eagerly when I open the sliding door, practically falling over each other as if they hadn’t eaten for days, and gulp down an entire can of food between the two of them in two minutes. Now, often just one of them is there and will come in, take a few nibbles while the other waits outside, and then they’re gone, leaping over the fence into the still-dark morning. Or neither one is there. Only occasionally do they both come in, and then they eat just a tiny bit and leave.

It’s not a set schedule anymore. My plan has blown out of the water. Obviously they’re two-timing me. They have another food source, someone who must be feeding them something they like better than Friskies. They’re opportunists. Their only loyalty, besides to each other, is to the best food. I have to go to Plan B: Fancy Feast! I’ll even escalate further if I have to. Whatever it takes. Purina Gourmet Gold au poulet. I’ll even consider Tiki Gourmet Carnivore, but OMG, I hope it doesn’t come to that, it costs $22.45 for a case of eight 6-oz cans. But I have to get those cats back in here. They’re overdue for their monthly medication. Mosquito season is coming, they could get heartworm which can be fatal. I’m going to win those cats back, whatever the cost. I just hope I don’t have to go to Plan C, the surveillance drone scanning the neighborhood in the wee hours to see where they go to eat.

Oh Lord. Sometimes I think I made a mistake taking these guys in. I use the term “in” loosely since they live outside. But then I look out in the patio and see them playing, and then cuddling up together and grooming each other, and then sleeping in each other’s arms (I use that term loosely too), and I know I did the right thing. Jack and Joe belong together.

Dogs welcome, hallelujah and amen!

My church, Unity, is all-inclusive. Anyone can attend: people of all colors, religious backgrounds, political affiliations, sexual orientation, whatever. No one, and no dog, is left behind. Lots of dogs attend our services with their people. Most of them are rescues. They never bark. The most disruptive they get is excitedly licking people who pet them.

dog-569992_640One Sunday, while we all stood linking hands and singing Let There Be Peace on Earth as we do after service, I felt a little tweak on my thigh. It startled me, and for a brief delusional moment I imagined it was the handsome man who had come and sat in the pew behind me. Of course, that was ridiculous wishful thinking. The tweak was Baby Jane sitting on the pew and nipping me. Baby Jane, a rescued Chihuahua, comes to services often, always dressed to the nines. She’s a clothes horse. Clothes dog, I guess I should say. She comes to church in ruffled dresses, adorable sweaters, graphic tees, coats, hoodies, every type of clothing known to dog.

One time, Baby Jane’s mistress was socializing in the courtyard after service without her tiny dog, which was unusual. “Where’s Baby Jane?” I asked her.

“Oh, I needed some down time so my daughter’s watching her. Actually, I get tired of that little rascal getting all the attention!” she joked, good-naturedly and affectionately. I got her point though. She was wearing an absolutely gorgeous dress, which I probably wouldn’t have noticed if Baby Jane had been with her in one of her killer outfits.

Our minister has a very charismatic Cockapoo that often comes to “work” with her. I volunteer in the church office and when they walk in, I always run up to adorable Maggie and pet her and throw her office toy across the room over and over and tickle her and just generally make a huge fuss over her. When I’m done I always look up at Rev. Karyn and say nonchalantly, “Oh, hi. I didn’t see you come in.”

“Everyone says that,” she always replies. We never tire of the routine.

face-1083900_640There are all kinds of endearing dogs. A golden retriever, Shelby, always has a toy in her mouth, and runs up to you like she wants to play and when you reach for the toy to throw it for her, turns her head and trots away. It’s crazy making, like Lucy in Peanuts when she holds the football upended for Charlie Brown to kick, then whisks it away right when Charlie gets there so he falls on his butt. And there’s dear old Sammy, an elderly, arthritic Heinz-57 mix, who slept in the aisle every Sunday right by his mistress, Linda. He barely moved, but somehow you knew he loved it when you petted him. Even in his sleep, his love for Linda and for us filled the room. One day Linda came without him. He had passed. Many of us cried, and we still miss him. His beautiful spirit lives on in the sanctuary.

Some people even bring their dogs to the board meetings. It’s totally permissible, but there is a very strict rule in force. Dogs may attend the meetings, but they are not allowed to vote.


Having fun helping the planet.

I led a pretty vain, self-indulgent life until I was in my mid-thirties. I’m not proud of it. Now I’m striving to be a part of healing the damage we have done to our planet, and a part of preventing further damage. My priorities have changed. As I grow older and, hopefully, wiser I am becoming less selfish and more eager to help with solutions to environmental problems.

cleanup-342707_640I was surprised to discover I can help and still be self-indulgent, because helping preserve our earth turns out to be a hell of a lot of fun. There’s a lot to do close to home. I join in weekend creek and beach cleanups whenever I can. They start frightfully early, and I’m not much of an early riser when I don’t have to be. But getting up early for a cleanup is worth it when we’re done and I see the natural beauty shining through, trash and litter gone, and the habitat safer with the removal of plastic bags and six-pack rings that kill so many water fowl. Not only that, the people at the cleanups are a lot of fun and I’ve made a few new friends.

I’ve also lost weight doing the habitat cleanups. And I’ve been shopping with cloth bags for a long time and believe I’ve lost weight traipsing back to my car to get them when I discover, usually when I’m in the check-out line, that I absent-mindedly left them in my car. 

I’m conscious of doing things that make my footprint smaller upon the earth. We hooked up a water-saving “Navy” showerhead, and always buy green household products. I take light-rail now whenever I can, even when it’s more convenient to drive. As a result I do a lot more meditating and reading, which I’m a big fan of, and I’m more relaxed. Instead of saving money washing my car at home, I take it to the car wash, where they recycle and keep harmful chemicals out of the storm drains and thus out of our of creeks and the bay. It costs money, a drawback, but on the other hand I can catch up on email and phone calls—and more reading, while I’m waiting. I recycle religiously, down to buying used books from Amazon.  

These are just a few things I’ve been doing differently from how I lived during my misspent youth. The satisfaction I get from helping heal the earth cancels out any sacrifice involved in changing my lifestyle. Helping save the planet is its own reward. I do have to admit though, that I like the way I look since I’ve lost weight. I have changed in a lot of ways but my vanity is healthy and intact. It still loves to be stroked. One more reason why habitat cleanups rock.


Pet me.

When my husband Frank had a survey job in our very urban Silicon Valley city long ago, he didn’t expect to end up being the object of intense affection. He was a good-looking man (is, sorry Frank!) but he wasn’t often chased by yearning females. Not ever, in fact, until that memorable day.

When he got to the job site he found himself on a farm, right there in the middle of high-tech Fremont. The parcel remained like a ghost of the past in the midst of our fast-developing city, surrounded by expensive homes of technology-sector executives. Frank knocked on the door of the old house and the owner led him out to the back where, in what seemed like a time warp, there was a large garden and a few chickens and geese and some penned pigs and goats. Frank set up his equipment and got to work.

While he was concentrating on doing whatever surveyors do—I’ve never really been clear on exactly what that is—he saw a vague shape moving in back of him out of the corner of his eye. It turned out to be a large cow. Very large. Unpenned. Frank, who wasn’t used to farm animals, was a little alarmed. But he remained calm, until the cow started moving toward him. Then it started moving faster, until it was trotting. It was looking at him intensely with big cow eyes.

No longer calm, Frank left his equipment and began to head for the only way out he could see—a chain link fence that he would have to climb over. He looked back and saw the cow moving even faster, gaining on him. So Frank started moving faster too, until he was racing as fast as he could go. The cow started racing too. Frank made it to the fence just in time, got a good footing, scrambled up to the top and threw his leg over just before the cow got close enough to him to get a grip on his pant leg. He hoisted himself over the top and dropped down to the ground on the other side.

Then he turned to look at the cow. Looking lovestruck, it was staring right back at him. With those big cow eyes. And then Frank saw that a little girl had been following the cow. cow-634283_640“Here I am, Daisy,” she said with great affection, “I’m right here, baby.” She reached Daisy, put her arms around her neck lovingly, looked up at Frank fiercely, and said, “She just wanted to be petted, mister.”

Frank’s retired now, and the farm is gone. It’s been turned into a tract of homes like the executive mini-mansions surrounding it, with a park or two added in. You know how it is with old familiar things that have been gone for a long time—eventually the day comes when you forget that they were ever there at all. That happens a lot in our ever-changing city. But whenever Frank passes the housing tract where the farm used to be, he always thinks of Daisy the cow, who was loved dearly by a little girl.