Wednesday, February 20, 2013

A Well-Traveled Book

The year I turned 40, I decided to celebrate/ignore/escape/memorialize my birthday by travelling through Africa from Cairo to Cape Town. As I was about to leave Los Angeles on this epic four-month adventure, a friend handed me a book for the plane. It was an already well-thumbed copy of Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry; and it was a must-read, my friend insisted.

At 994 pages, the paperback was two-inches thick and weighed more than I wanted to carry around in my backpack in those pre-Kindle days. Also, I didn’t read westerns. I decided I would just leave the book on the plane. My genre of choice was (and is) mystery novels and I had one I was looking forward to getting stuck into on the long flight.

And it was a very long flight. I finished my mystery crossing the Atlantic. Then, about a hundred years after takeoff when we should have been arriving in Cairo, we were told were being diverted to Istanbul because a wind storm made it impossible to land in Egypt. But before we could land there, we were diverted again to Ankara because of a snowstorm in Istanbul. It would be a while, we were told. So with nothing else to do, I opened Lonesome Dove.

By page ten I was hooked. The writing was so spare but so vivid that I already knew exactly where I was and who the characters were: and I loved them. The five hours we sat on that Turkish runway passed fast.
Lonesome Dove oddly became one of my abiding memories of that African trip. It was my solace when I got sick in Egypt. I’d spent over $700 before I LA to get shots for an alphabet soup of hepatitis; typhus, typhoid, tetanus, yellow fever, and so forth. I’d bought four months worth of anti-malarial meds and just-in-case antibiotics. And in Egypt I got the flu. Between trips to the pyramids and museums and bazaars, I shivered in my high-ceilinged room at the venerable Windsor Hotel sipping hibiscus flower tea for my throat and reading.

The sad view from my Cairo hotel room, a world away from Lonesome Dove

Then as Gus and McCall trekked north from Texas to Montana, they kept me company as I traveled south through The Sudan, Ethiopia, Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya, and Malawi. I became thrilled that there were 994 pages; then as I neared the end, was desolate that there were only 994 pages. I finally read the last word somewhere in Zambia.

Reading Lonesome Dove on board the ferry Ilala on Lake Malawi 

The smart thing to do would have been to hand the book off to some other traveler, but I was unreasonably reluctant to part with it. So it came with me down through Zimbabwe to South Africa, then to England for a stay, and finally back to the States.

I became a Lonesome Dove evangelist, trying to press it on everyone I talked to. I discovered that people fell into two groups: those who’d already read it (it had, after all, been on the New York Times bestseller list for 24 weeks) and those who were adamant about the fact that they did not read westerns even if they had won a Pulitzer Prize. In other words, I didn’t have a lot of luck and my battered copy stayed put on my overstuffed bookshelves.

That was not the end of it for me, of course. It had introduced me to the writing of Larry McMurtry and I had a backlog of his work to catch up on like Terms of Endearment and The Last Picture Show. And there were prequels and sequels of Lonesome Dove to come, not the mention the wonderful mini-series made from the book. In my view, the best, most well cast film adaptation of a book ever.

Robert Duval and Tommy Lee Jones as Gus and McCall: perfect

I was happy to learn that McMurtry owned a huge second-hand bookstore in Texas; since August, 2012, sadly gone the way of many independent bookstores.

McMurtry's much missed massive book store in Archer, Texas

Most recently, I learned something about him from Magic Trip, the documentary made from the raw footage shot by Ken Kesey on the famous cross country adventure in the Magic Bus. McMurtry was a friend and they stopped off to see him in Texas. He was already married with kids, and is seen looking mildly bemused in his Buddy Holly glasses as the Merry Pranksters descend on his family. (As a side note, McMurtry is now married to Kesey’s widow.)

You'd be bemused too if this showed up at your door.

Anyway, years later I finally managed to persuade someone take my copy of the book. A friend was moving from Los Angeles to Austin and I insisted she could not in all conscience live in Texas without having read it. So she took it with about as much enthusiasm as I had first received it. From time to time over the next decade, I’d ask if she’d read it and the answer was always, “Not yet.”

Now picture pages flying off a calendar as more time went  by and I moved to Mexico. My first year here, my friend from Austin came to spend Christmas. “Look what I’ve brought to read,” she said showing me my familiar old friend. So that was the end of her for that vacation. When she finally looked up from the book, it was time to leave for the airport. After she’d gone, I found it sitting on the night stand.

So twenty-five years, three continents, thirteen countries (if you count sitting on the runway in Turkey) and way too many cities to add up later, Lonesome Dove is back on my bookshelf. I opened it up when I started writing this but at page five firmly snapped it shut. I have things to do.

But if you haven't read it ... seriously, you have to read this book. I don't care if you don't like westerns, you have to read this book. Just read a few pages and you'll be hooked. Trust me. Read this book. I'll even lend you this one if you promise to give it back.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Dogs: Ambassadors of Love

In the late 90s, I bought a sweet little 1920s canyon bungalow in Mt. Washington, an old Los Angeles suburb. Shortly after moving into it, I realized that I was living in an entirely family neighborhood and was likely the only single person for blocks. It was a nice, but I felt a bit out of place. I didn’t immediately connect with the community and I somewhat morbidly used to wonder if I fell down a ravine while on one of my daily walks with my dog, Andy, how long it would be before anyone noticed I was missing.

We lived on Glenalbyn and hiked up to the top of Mt. Washington every day

Andy, like most of my dogs, was a foundling. Before buying the house, I had lived for three years in the mountain community of Big Bear, California. Early one Monday morning, when I was walking around the lake, this long-legged puppy joined me and wouldn’t leave. I believe he’d been left behind at a nearby camp site that had been packed with people over the weekend: either intentionally or because he’d wandered off and got lost. I spent two weeks trying to find his owner; then happily called him my own.

He grew to be 100 pounds of sweet-natured goofiness. I’m not sure what he was, but he likely had some Labrador or even Newfoundland in him. His fur was long and silky and shed water like the proverbial duck’s back, and had a thick undercoat. He loved swimming in the lake and the rolling around in the snow.

Andy was swimmer and was known to come out of Big Bear Lake with a fish!

We went through some tough times in that cabin. One day when playing in the snow, his leg went down a gopher hole and sustained a terrible injury. He had to have two operations to repair the ligaments in his knee and was in a cast for months. I know he was in pain a lot of the time so I took the mattress off my bed and slept cuddled up with him on the floor. 

Later, when his leg was mended but my heart was broken, he’d jump on the bed, circle a couple of times, and then curl up next to me. I wasn’t sleeping very well back then and whenever I opened my eyes, he’d be gazing at me with his big, soulful eyes.

When we moved back to town, I knew Andy missed being out in the wilds so I took him for very long walks every day all over the neighborhood. One day, a little boy playing behind a fence struck up a conversation with me. I heard is mother call out through a window to ask who he was talking to. “It’s that lady with the nice black dog,” he said. I realized then that I actually was not as invisible in the neighborhood as I thought. People were aware of me, but probably more so of Andy. Things got rapidly better after that and I became close with my neighbors and made many friends in the area. A lot of it had to do with Andy. He was so pretty and so sociable that people would stop to pet him and talk to me.

Then after I’d lived in that house for about nine years and Andy was around thirteen, he got cancer. By the time it was diagnosed, the tumor on his pericardium was big and growing rapidly. The vet told me he only had weeks before it grew so large that it would stop his heart from beating. About six weeks later, he keeled over panting and couldn’t get up. My neighbors on either side came over and made a stretcher from a blanket and carried him to my car. Another came with me to the vet and stayed with me until Andy gave one last big gasp; his heart, big as it was, was no match for the cancer.  

Andy had so many friends that I couldn’t stand the idea of having to tell the story over and over. So I pasted a picture of him on some card and put a little note on saying he was gone. Then I tied it to my front gate. By the next day, I had a “Princess Di” situation going on! Kids brought handmade cards with sweet messages in crayon and stuck them on the gate. People left flowers and notes for me. Someone even stuck a bottle of wine through the fence, another a tin of homemade cookies. Andy truly had been an emissary of love.

Now, years later, I moved to my current home in Mineral de Pozos, with Andy’s successor, my little dog Henry

Henry at home in Mexico

Things were different here. I felt immediately at home and assimilated into the community very quickly. But there are the odd occasions when I still feel like the new girl. Then one day last week I met some friends for a drink at Pozos’ new swanky hotel, Casa Diamante. Since I hadn’t been there before, the assistant manger offered to show me around. As we were touring the impressive rooms and gardens, I started to tell him that I lived in Pozos. “Oh, I know,” he said. “I see you walking your little dog when I’m driving to work every day.”

Welcome to the hood.