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BATS AT THE PODIUM. It was a normal Toastmasters club meeting in a restaurant and, being Central Texas, the walls were built with limestone, which bats love. And Austin is BAT CITY. A middle-aged man was just getting his speech warmed up when something flew at him. Again, and again. He raised his arms in defense, and we all laughed -- he was being bat-dived!

Write and tell me your favorite bat encounter! And maybe I'll add it to the page.

TARANTULA ENCOUNTER. On a remote highway in the Central Texas hills, I drove past a tarantula walking along the pavement. I had to stop. Back up. (Not much traffic.) Open the car door. The spider stretched high on its front legs and stared up at me with its buggy eyes. I returned the stare from a few feet away. Finally satisfied, he turned and ambled slowly across the gravel shoulder and into the brush.

Write and tell me your favorite tarantula encounter! And maybe I'll add it to the page.

SNAILS ARE AWESOME. Ever seen a garden snail up close? They are eerie and beautiful, other-worldly. Cornu aspersum, by any other name ... Imported from Europe. They love the tender shoots and leaves in my front yard garden. And strawberries. At 9 pm, when my younger one was in bed, my older kid and I used to go snail hunting with a flashlight and catch them in the act of munching. And mating. They are hermaphrodites; they exchange sperm and can even fertilize themselves. Too weird. We would fill a small bag and dump them onto the esplanade ... or worse. (Shudder.) Don't want to talk about it.

RATTLESNAKE NEAR-MISS. On a moonlight hike near Tucson, I walked with a hiking club along a paved desert road. With each step, we scanned the pavement ahead with our flashlights, looking for snakes still soaking up the heat on the blacktop. I got careless. My right hiking boot felt the edge of the road where the sand and scrub extended out into the black night. And that's when I heard it -- a loud rattling by my foot. I must have jumped five feet into the air before I landed another five feet way. I'd never moved so fast, before or since.

Write and tell me your favorite snake encounter! And maybe I'll add it to the page.

BARREL RACING -- What a thrill! At gymkhana events, we also did drill team, pole bending, and musical tires. As an adolescent, couldn't be more fun. For the speed events, when they'd call our number, I'd guide my horse, Amber, to the arena entrance and she'd prance and quiver, all ready to fly -- she knew just what to do -- and then we'd be off in a flash!

Tell me your favorite riding story.

JUMPING. At age 21, I saw the movie "National Velvet" and shouted: "I have to do this!" So I took English riding lessons and, soon after, was jumping. I never owned a horse again, but didn't need to -- instead, I leased horses by the month, which included training sessions. One time -- and I'll never forget it -- the trainer had us drape the stirrups over the withers, canter toward the jump (had to be 3' or 4' high), then drop the reins and soar over the jump with our arms out like wings. We were flying!  

Have you ever jumped a horse and felt like you'd touched heaven?

A PIKA, OF COURSE. Well, what can I say? My favorite creature in the world. They are all over my website. I've never seen a real one, but I don't have to. I already know they are awesome! And they chirp!

Anyone actually seen a pika? Write and tell me!

THE WOLF IS IN THE BASEMENT ON A CHAIN. A BOUNTY HUNTER / RANCHER PUT HER THERE. That's the start of one of my poems, a villanelle. I love wolves. Well, from a distance. Makes me think of the book Women Who Run with the Wolves. All kinds of symbolism there. Once, to escape some troubles, I took a 3-day trip to the California Coast not far from my town. It was February, and way-off tourist season, so I had some gorgeous spots to myself, watching the waves crash against the cliffs. In the motel, I read that book and communed with myself. It was very healing.

Has anyone read that book?

SHARKS AND SNORKELING. Sharks -- there's nothing like them. My kid screams if she sees one picture on a screen. And I get it. There's never been anything more frightening to me than not knowing what's moving underneath you in the water, all sleek and silent. As a kid, we'd go to the Galveston beach and wade in the murky water to our chests. Every current that tickled my legs had to be a shark, I was sure, so I'd go wading, running and swimming to the shore in a panic. Years later, when living in Galveston, I saw a row of sharks strung up on a dock after a fishing contest -- huge, long, bulky, including a hammerhead -- taken from the water where I used to swim. I shivered.  

So, years later, I was proud of my courage, when I was snorkeling off the coast of Malaysia, fairly far from the boat, and the boatman yelled: shark. I didn't panic. I swam slowly and calmly waaay, waaay over to the boat and hoisted myself up to safety. And then breathed. Whew! (Sharks have not appeared in my stories or poems yet ... but they will.)

If anyone has had a close shark encounter, please write. I'd love to hear about it.

TIGER CUB ENCOUNTER. At age 13, I volunteered at the Houston zoo. My best memory was playing with a baby tiger. They let him loose in the aisle between the cages, and I sat with him while he played like a kitten, but rough and heavy -- he had to be 40 pounds at least. He kept jumping at me, in his predator play, pretending to maul my arm, and nearly knocked me over! I was delighted, and couldn't stop smiling. (Once, in a cabin in northern Minnesota, I also got to play with a bear cub, but that's another story.)

Anyone ever play with a tiger cub or a bear cub? Or have a more serious encounter?

TORNADO AND A COW. This is the subject of my first-place-trophy-winning sonnet titled Brook Ibarra and Cow Lifted from a Country Road, April 26, 1991. And, yes, the tornado did pick up both Brook and the cow. I saw it on TV, on Nova. Brook was interviewed after and she was fine. But this event soooo stuck in my head, and I just had to write a poem. Once I found Brook's phone number in Kansas. I wanted to call her and tell her about my/her poem. But I didn't. I just didn't know how she'd respond to a stranger calling. Maybe someday I'll get the nerve to call.

If you've ever had a tornado encounter, I'd love to hear about it.

FASTEN YOUR SEAT BELTS. In my youth, I traveled a lot. Back then, it never occurred to me that a plane could crash. Once, when an airliner hit bad turbulence and tossed us around, I held on, turned to my seatmate, and bellowed, "Yeehaw." Now that I'm older (and wiser?), I no longer have this illusion of safety. Now, when the news reports a plane crash, I pay close attention. And feel lucky.

It's hard to imagine such horror. But I did try. And wrote a story about it. It's called Tiger, Tiger.

Has anyone had a scare on a plane and lived to tell about it?

HURRICANE CARLA. Or any hurricane. Carla hit the Texas Gulf Coast in 1961. We lived in Houston 50 miles inland. I was eight. My clearest memory is driving to Galveston after the storm. The houses on the lower west end of the island were all swept away, leaving only the foundations and the toilets. Just the toilets. That image never left me. So I wrote a story called Carla, Swept Away. It's about a family's loss -- the storm is only the backdrop. The story is still out at a journal, but I'm hoping it can be published soon.

Who has lived through a hurricane?

DEAD BODIES AND BONES. In physical therapy school, in the "gross anatomy lab," we PT's got the bodies leftover from the medical students. Dead bodies don't bother me -- only pain and suffering -- so as long as the bodies aren't moving or crying out, I'm okay. But one day, as the professor was pointing out an anatomical part on the table, I stepped around to get a better look, and almost tripped on ... a large torso on the floor, its arms still attached. I jumped back in a moment of surprise.

Later, on the job, I observed two orthopedic surgeries -- hip and knee replacements. Lots of blood and hammer-and-chisel action. Didn't bother me ... until, I could have sworn, the patient was starting to move. I pleaded with him in my mind, Oh, please, Mr. Smith, please don't wake up now. Well, he didn't, of course. And the next day, he was my patient, and fine.

When my mom passed away, we had the opportunity to see her in the casket at the funeral home before she was cremated. I saw her, and patted her, and said goodbye, and I'm so glad I did. For me, death is part of life, and I'm not afraid of it.

Just wish I'd gotten to see my dad's body. He was dead and cremated before I even got word, as I was traveling in Europe in the pre-cell phone days.

Does anyone else have a close dead body experience?

BARCELONA. And other ancient places. Peter Mascaro, my great-great grandfather, left Barcelona for New Orleans in the 1800's, "married" (not) Laura Francois, a local free "woman of color" and child of a freed slave. Interracial marriage was illegal, and the census shows they maintained separate addresses, but he gave his name to their two daughters. So he must have hung out with her often.

When I visited Barcelona, I stayed in a Gothic hotel and was awakened by spirits in my room, pulling my mind toward the balcony. Jump! Jump! they silently screamed. Even after the light was flipped on, they kept coming at me. It took all I had to fight them. Now, I am not crazy. This had never happened to me before, and has never happened since. Was I having a mental breakdown, or were there spirits in my room? I don't believe in spirits, ghosts, but... So I wrote a story about it, with some fictional parts added -- in the story, Lt. Peter Mascaro had murdered an officer and fled to New Orleans, and the officer's ghost was sill hanging around. Waiting for Peter's descendant. Much fun to write, but in the end it's still not clear: mental breakdown, or ghost? You'll have to decide when the story is finished.

Anyone sure they've seen a ghost? Could it be real? Who knows. What do you think?

GRAVEYARDS. Don't you love old cemeteries? They're especially creepy and fun at night, when the wind picks up and the leaves swirl at your back. The dead, they harbor so much history. Family plots tell stories -- of yellow fever, typhoid, cholera. Children stricken down, and the mother follows a week later. I walk around and look for the oldest graves. Cholera during the Gold Rush, Sacramento. Yellow fever, New Orleans. Influenza, any place, any time.

Does anyone else love to explore old cemeteries? Did you gasp at life's cruelties carved there in stone, and want to know more?

DAY OF THE DEAD. MEXICO. My home away from home for so long. Rich culture, colorful past, cordial community. And the language, my God, it's like music. I could listen to Spanish all day. One year in Puebla riding horses, another year in urban Guadalajara, absorbing the friendly people, the energy, the street noise, the bustle, the laughter, the hand on my waist in the crowded metro, the train pulling into Mexico City at midnight New Year's Eve, with the drunks hoisting their bottles and shouting (to me): Viva méxico, Viva estados unidos! And the honoring of ancestors on the Day of the Dead.

So what if I was jailed for three days? It was just part of the adventure, and no había problema.

Does anyone remember the scene in Ray Bradbury's Dandelion Wine where the old man calls his friend in Mexico City once per week, so the Mexican friend can hang his phone out the window to transmit the lively sounds of the streets -- the life, the bustle. Because the old man's American world was silent. Stiff. Deadening. In Mexico, everything is alive -- even the ancestors.

So much rich story material, I could write 50 years and not be done. But I did start. Three draft stories so far.

DARK CAVES. Enter at your own risk. In my foolish youth, five of us drove outside Austin to spend the night in a cave we'd heard about: Compass Cave. On arrival, we were shocked at the tiny entrance. A chain had once blocked the opening, but the chain now lay in two pieces, useless. So, what did we do? Well, duh! We went on in. 

The opening was just big enough to push a sleeping bag through, then one body at a time. The first room was big enough for us all to sit up, barely. Someone said a larger room lay farther on. But to get there, we had to slide a long way, sandwiched between a flat floor and a flat ceiling. One by one, we started. After an eternity of scooting and sliding, we made it to the big room and shined flashlights around, where we hung out, making ghoul faces, till someone decided they wanted to go home. Forget camping "out" (or "in"). We all agreed. But the way out seemed worse. The "sandwich" was so tight, I had to push with my fingers and toes to inch along, my head forced sideways under the low ceiling.

I considered earthquakes. I considered getting stuck. I considered being crushed. And that's when the giggling began -- mine. Louder. And louder. My friend Mitch was inching ahead of me, his sneakers poking in my face. I laughed and snorted and spit, my stomach heaving. Mitch snarled at me: shut up, shut up, just shut up. And that just made me laugh more. Oh, God, I couldn't stop.

Well, in the end, we made it out, of course. I grew older and gained some sense. But the event provided the seed for one of my favorite stories that was published in Kaleidoscope in February 2017, The Devil's Grip, about a young man with cerebral palsy in West Texas. Rusty is one of my favorite characters now. And he loves caves.

Now caves are one of my dreaded Sweet Spots. Anyone else?

Revised 8/29/17.

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