The Case of the Missing Alligator

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Max carried his lime green stuffed alligator to the Buick for our drive to Guerneville, California. The Russian River town is about 90 miles north of San Francisco and one of our favorite places for a weekend getaway. Our lodging choice on this trip was the Cottages by the River.


Yes, I was told on the phone, dogs were welcome for a $25 nightly fee, even big ones. “What is your dog’s name?” asked the clerk. When we reached the Cottages, we parked outside the fence surrounding the property. Max pranced alongside Nick and me as we passed through the gate.


We checked in and signed the pet agreement. The innkeeper handed us a rectangular box with the words, “Welcome Max” on the top. Inside the box we found a water dish, dog biscuits, and a floor towel. The clerk invited us to join other guests for S’mores at the fire pit that evening.

max-cottage-exteriorWe discovered fourteen little houses  that flanked a carefully landscaped lawn. Brightly colored flowers — hibiscus, geraniums, calendula, and an array of emerald plants adorned each one.

Inside our unit, Max slurped the water and rested on his dog towel.  After we had settled in, we strolled to the gated pet area designed for dogs to do their business.

Carrying his alligator, Max sauntered along the path. He did his job and then leisurely sniffed the plants and rocks. Later on when it was time to drive to the ocean, Max simply refused to go.  Stubbornly, he stood on the path by the cottage. Usually, he the leads the way to the car.

max-pet-areaMax’s paws wouldn’t move until I realized what was going on. I retraced the route to the pet area with Max following close behind. He nosed through the gate and quickly found his alligator on the ground right where he left it.

Wagging his tail, Max rushed past me to show Nick and all was well again. Later that evening, we joined other guests at the fire pit and roasted S’mores, with ingredients provided by the Cottages.

max-fire-pitThat night Max stretched out on the floor beside our bed.  He sighed deeply, resting his chin on the stuffed toy and drifted into the land of dreams. Chasing squirrels. Retrieving ducks. Carrying the alligator toy. Sweet dreams, Max.



Dinner for one

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Max simply won’t eat in the presence of others. If I’m in the kitchen, he stands by his food dish and eyes me carefully. Until I exit the room, he won’t chow down.

If the cat wanders into his space, Max temporarily gives up on dinner. He walks away. Some of his food becomes a feast for the feline. His rule of life is clear. There’s no need to invite trouble.

It’s possible a miserable puppyhood accounts for Max’s solo approach to his dog dish. He was surrendered to the Northern California Rescue Society when he was two-years-old.

Before I adopted him, Max lived with five large dogs. My guess is the other dogs frightened little Max. They didn’t welcome him to share the food any more than Rudolf was invited to play reindeer games.

Max resolved his food issues without  professional assistance. He trained me to place his full dish on the floor and then promptly leave the room.

After each meal, he finds me, leans in, and thumps his tail, as if to say thank you.



Winter with Max at the Russian River

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Winter is an ideal time for a getaway to the dog-friendly Russian River area north of San Francisco. Max and I have a tradition of visiting friends near the small town of Guerneville each January. We indulge in simple pleasures– walks, naps, reading books, and eating well.

We take daily treks on a path alongside the river. The trees, bushes, and spindly saplings are so thick we can’t see the river along most of the path.

Whenever we reach a clearing and the sandy river’s edge comes into view, Max wades right in without hesitation. He swims toward the mallards that paddle about and feed in the middle of the river. The ducks always fly away and land downriver. But that never seems to stop him from greeting the waterfowl. He returns  to the shore dripping wet and wagging his tail like a flag.

We meander under towering redwoods, California laurel, Pacific madrones, and Douglas fir trees. The flat trail offers an easy hike. Now and then we sight a tall great blue heron standing in the shallows.  I hold Max’s leash and keep him close so he won’t try to visit the heron.


Max likes taking walks along the Russian River.

One year our hosts pointed out the ospreys nesting in a tree on the river’s edge. Like us, the pair returns annually to nest by the Russian River.

On clear nights the moon splashes light on the river and the stars sparkle in the inky sky. Max and his canine buddies Jack and Bandit sleep while the rest of us talk into the night.

Our friend’s home, Dream Weaver, may be booked through Russian River Getaways at  http://www.russianrivergetaways. It’s one of the many dog-friendly accommodations near the Russian River. You’ll enjoy lower rates and miss the summer crowds when you visit the area in the winter. See you at the river!



Packing light, the things we carry

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Max prances to the door with a toy in his moth when he senses the slightest chance of an outing. Lately, the object of his affection is a stuffed green alligator. HIs packing list, if he had one, would include one item, a stuffed toy.

I travel with as few items as possible to avoid the hassle of checking luggage. My newest treasure is a travel vest. I love my Scott eVest as much as Max likes his toy reptile.

The vest’s pockets that zip close hold my passport, phone, phone charger, cash, credit and debit cards, and cash. The other pockets carry my prescription medicine, a small brush, a toothbrush, toothpaste, an eyeliner pencil, cotton squares, Argon oil, baby oil, a Lush shampoo bar, conditioner, sunscreen, deodorant a plastic razor, Q-tips, and a nail file.

I toss in a nail clipper even though a TSA agent may confiscate it. A medium-sized pocket holds a pen and journal. The large pocket in the back is a space for clothes: a wrinkle-free dress, an extra top, leggings, socks, and lingerie.

A Sholdit brand infinity style scarf provides yet another zippered compartment to secure some cash, an extra credit card, comb, and lipstick. Max also wears a scarf when he travels. His is a sporty bandana in red, blue, or green, depending on the season.My shoulder bag holds a MacBook, an adaptor cable, and an extra set of clothes.

I’m bound for Florida this week, so I’ll tuck in a pair of sandals. While I’m at the Key West Literary Seminar, Max will stay  home with Nick and his stuffed alligator. I’ll be missing both of my guys.


Union Church of Pocantico Hills, the Chagall and Matisse stained glass windows

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Along with elusive hopes and dreams, I have a few achievable visions. One of these is to view as many of the stained-glass windows created by Marc Chagall as I can. With that goal in mind, my friend Nick and I rode the train from Manhattan to  Westchester County as part of a trip to New York. Our destination was the Union Church in Pocantico Hills, home of nine windows by Chagall and one by Henri Matisse.

We boarded a northbound train at Grand Central Station, leaving behind Manhattan’s grit and dazzle for the tranquility of the Hudson River Valley. About 30 miles north of the Big Apple, we stepped off the train at the Tarrytown station. A taxi ride in a black sedan took us uphill from the Hudson through the winding, tree-lined streets of Pocantico Hills, a small town with some grand parts.

This hamlet in the town of Mount Pleasant is home to the grand Rockefeller estate, Kykuit, (pronounced kie-cut, like die cut) and an unassuming stone church whose building and stained glass windows were originally funded by the Rockefeller family. Inside Union Church, the largest Chagall window graces the back wall, while each side has four Chagall windows that each portrays a scene from the Bible.

The windows are illuminated versions of Chagall paintings. With the help of skilled artisans, he began the windows in the traditional fashion, setting glass pieces in place. He personally achieved the effect of painting by brushing the glass with an acid wash in a process similar to applying color to canvas.

Nick and I spent time with each image, walking between the pews for close encounters. At the front of the church, we faced the Rose Window, an abstract work by Matisse. Some of its shapes in reminded me of green sea creatures. Union Church’s Rev. Pastor Paul Dehoff noted that the windows and the Rockefeller family’s involvement have played an integral role in the continued prosperity of the church. “But, on the other hand, people are people. We have good music, a charming setting, and the windows.

“Windows, even by Matisse and Chagall, do not a church make. They lift us and help us transport us to other beauty.”

I agree there’s much more to a church than stained-glass windows — but art gets me through the door.

One of Chagall’s nine windows at Union Church is titled “The Crucifixion.” He painted Christ’s image in fluid black lines on a cross amid blue glass that shimmers like water.

Hope is the message I draw from the Easter story, Christ’s death on the cross and the resurrection after three days.

Recently I experienced severe muscle spasms that made me curl up in pain. For a while I forgot about everything else, though I held out hope the misery was temporary. I repeated my mantra that “It’s only three days.” Coincidentally — or not — my back pain ended in three calendar days.

Whenever life gets me down, I am reminded of the story of Jesus’s death and resurrection three days later, a limited period of time. Temporary. No matter how deep the pain, physical or emotional — it too, will pass. Easter morning will come.

That day in Pocantico Hills, I took one last look at the light streaming through stained-glass windows. The dancing light and color filled me with a sense that good things will happen. As we walked out of that rare intimate venue for great art treasures, I squeezed Nick’s hand with satisfaction.

Riding the train back to Manhattan, I felt different. I was changed forever by the seeing the Chagall windows at the Union Church.

The Benicia Herald published this essay in 2014.

The Chagall Museum, Nice, France

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Bound for the Chagall Museum on a winter afternoon in the seaside city of Nice, France, I turned my back on the Mediterranean. Walking past the train station, I took the Boulevard de Cimiez to the site dedicated to Chagall’s paintings, prints, and stained glass,

One can easily reach the museum via Bus #15 for a single euro, or by one of Nice’s ubiquitous taxis, but on the day I visited I preferred a light hike in the French Riviera sunshine.

The sleek, gray, box-shaped buildings were midway to the top of the Cimiez Hill. A simple silver sign near the street told me I had reached my destination. I navigated the sidewalk that cut across the lawn. The place seemed oddly quiet for a site dedicated to one of the 20th century’s most celebrated artists. I wondered whether it would be open or closed after. My fears fell away when other visitors stepped out of the museum.

Feelings of relief washed over me. This was the museum visit of my dreams. All the planning and travel time was over. I purchased a ticket for 8.5 euros and followed the clerk’s gesture to the glass doors. I opened my eyes and heart to the experience.

For the briefest moment I paused in the gift shop before moving on to the exhibit area. I rapidly surveyed the array of prints, books, DVDs, cards, bookmarks and other small items designed with Chagall images. Though they were beautiful, the many reproductions had to wait because I was about to enjoy original Chagalls — paintings, glass art, drawings and tapestries.

For me this was a sacred site, a temple of art.

I advanced through two sets of double glass doors to find the actual paintings. After handing slips of paper to the ticket taker, I entered two adjoining oval exhibit spaces and became immersed in Chagall’s deep, radiant colors.

Rich greens, purples, crimson reds, and rays of yellow colored the larger-than-life series based on images from the Old Testament. Titles included “The Creation,” “Abraham and the Three Angels,” “The Sacrifice of Isaac.” Chagall filled the corners with brides, angels and roosters that appeared as if they floated above the scenes. Flights of fancy were never so free.

The palette changed to raspberry, rose and other shades of red in a room that displayed the five paintings in the “Song of Solomon” series, a celebration of romantic love. Chagall’s two great loves were his adored first wife Bella and the second, Valentina, with whom he lived at the end of his life.

The artist unabashedly portrayed love through entwined human forms painted with broad, sweeping strokes. The audacity of the colors and energy astonished this writer.

Chagall’s work has touched my soul for decades. I saw his paintings for the first time at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. The childlike simplicity, the bright color, and whimsy drew me into his world.

I traversed a long hallway adorned with other paintings; I peered into the semi-darkened auditorium. Floor-to-ceiling blue-stained glass windows made me gasp. The stained glass windows on the opposite side of the auditorium were similar to their sisters at the Chicago Art Institute and other sites with Chagall window installations.

As if on cue, a jazz pianist on stage played a few bold notes on the grand piano. A jazz ensemble rehearsed for an evening performance. That concert and others serve as a living fulfillment Chagall’s vision that his museum would bring together music and painting. I watched the play of light shining through glass before returning for one more stroll through the display of canvasses. Chagall’s art is a gift. So playful. Such happiness! Love of life saturates his art.

On leaving the Chagall Museum, I faced the dazzling sunshine of the Cote d’Azur, and followed my wandering spirit downhill to the sea.

Chez Palmyre, a bistro in Nice, France

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FOR A LONG TIME, I CONSIDERED A TRIP to the south of France an impossible dream. Even though it ranked at the top of my bucket list of places to see before I die, I doubted that I could afford on my modest budget what seemed like an such an extravagance.

A spiritual counselor heard about my dream and challenged me with the question, “What are you willing to give up?” So, after a period of belt-tightening and saying no to small luxuries, I made the trip.

I took advantage of lower airfares and room rates in the off-season, and weathered the January cold in a comfortably warm woollen coat. I flew from San Francisco to the Mediterranean port city of Nice. My hotel room facing the turquoise sea cost a fraction what it would in summer. I traveled around the city and the surrounding region on city and regional buses; the spectacular ride along the winding coast from Nice to Menton cost a single euro, while the fare for the bus ride to see the Matisse Chapel in Venice was a mere four euros.

One evening in Nice, after days of dining on fresh fruit and artisan cheeses purchased at markets and shops through the city, I embarked on a quest to have a traditional French dining experience. The bistro of my dreams had to be situated off the main square away from the masses, preferably along one of the narrow passageways that date back to the Middle Ages. I wanted a small, quaint place to dine with authentic regional cuisine: gnocchi, perhaps, the potato pasta that was invented in Nice; socca, the city’s signature crepes made from garbanzo meal; or the dish named for Nice, salad Nicoise — mixed greens with tuna, tomatoes, slices of hard-boiled egg and olives.

Chez Palmyre, one of several cafés in Rick Steves’ guide to the French Riviera — conveniently listed under the heading “Cheap Eats” — appeared to fit my goal of high quality at a low price. I pulled out the page with the restaurant address, grabbed my map and stepped out of the hotel into the brisk winter air. I walked along the Bay of Angels and turned away from the sea to enter Old Nice.

I followed Rue Droite, a long, narrow passageway that once served as the fastest route from the sea to the wall when Nice was a medieval fortress. As night fell, fewer and fewer others walked the avenue. Doubt nipped at my comfort level. Was I putting my safety at risk? Where is the restaurant?

No need to worry. Just as I was about to turn back, I noticed the faded sign with chipped red letters spelling Chez Palmyre. Peering through the single steamy window, I saw an eatery just wide enough for three tables on the left side and four on the right. Couples and families chatted away, all looking very French to my American eyes. Perfect.

Stepping inside, I surveyed the menu, handwritten in white Hearer, on the mirror above the tables. It swirled with options for each of the three courses of a fixed-price dinner.

Clueless about the language — in all my careful planning, I simply ignored the central fact that I speak fewer than 10 words of French — I pointed to one of the choices for the first course. The waiter served a plate of pulled duck, boiled potatoes and fresh herbs.

For the main course, I asked for the waiter’s recommendation. Fortunately, he understood my English.

“Alouettes,” he said, pointing to the phrase on the menu: “Alouettes Sans Tetes.”

“Fine! Alouettes,” I agreed, satisfied that a decision had been made, but once again having no idea what I would get.

I carefully copied the term “Alouettes Sans Tetes” into my journal. My French-English dictionary gave me the word-by-word translation: “Birds with their heads cut off.” Poultry?

While I waited for my order, I watched as the waiter delivered individual orange-enameled crock pots to other diners. When my pot arrived I discovered not headless birds but what looked like two small filets mignon swimming in a rich brown sauce.

Looking closer I found tender beef strips wrapped around a filling of spiced ground pork and beef.

After the beef rolls, it was time for tiramisu and coffee. The dessert arrived in a tiny chilled glass cylinder that revealed the layers of cream, mocha powder and cake. I savored each taste of delicate chocolate and sweet milk.

I asked for the bill, as one must in a country where diners and waiters are never in a hurry. The meal cost an astonishingly low 13.5 euros, about $20 at that time.

The dining experience that night was both authentic and inexpensive. Reluctant as I was to leave such a pleasant place, all good things must end. Under the star-peppered night sky, I strolled back to my hotel, satisfied that dreams can come true.

This story was published by the Benicia Herald.