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Story Time: Tournament of Roses

January 2, 2021

I missed the Tournament of Roses parade yesterday. I have loved it forever. The insane spectacle of it all – the fluffy floats, the giant bands, the specificity of the announcers (“The float features 17,500 magenta roses and 83 pounds of poppyseed”).

I loved it so much I built 2 floats. What? Yes, the Cal Poly State Universities in San Luis Obispo (my alma mater) and Pomona each build half of a Rose Float, join them together over Thanksgiving weekend, and spend the whole winter break finishing construction and decorating. 

My floats were in 1983-84 “A Knight to Remember” and in 84-85, “Only in America.” I went to Cal Poly knowing I wanted to build a float more than any other extracurricular activity. 

How does a float get built? Well, let me tell you. 

In January, the float is driven at night from Pasadena back to Cal Poly Pomona, which can be quite a process – a huge, mouldering ungainly vehicle too large for many underpasses and roads. This drive is coordinated with the California Highway Patrol and local police. 

One year the float, a large pink hippo, ran into a freeway abutment, causing an infamous call to report the accident. 

“Type of vehicle?”

“Um, a 32-foot pink hippo.”

“Registered owner?”

“Uh, I guess the state of California.”

The float is then deconstructed and half taken back to San Luis Obispo. 

Students building the float in Pomona

In February or March of each year, the student leadership of the Cal Poly Rose Float organization holds a design contest and selects a float from the proposed sketches. These do not include plans – they are just pictures of what the float will look like.

In the “Only in America” year, my design with a friend was a merry-go-round, which I still maintain would have made a great float, but it wasn’t chosen. We instead tried to represent the whole United States in 30 feet, which made a cute but somewhat confusing float. 

Once a design is selected, students draw plans for the design, the mechanical underpinnings, the electrical system, etc. Both campuses have float barns (which were also built by students) that hold everything you need to build a float – welders, tools, hydraulic hose, electrical wire, chicken wire, etc. The students spend a lot of the year fundraising to provide for float expenses.

Making cotton candy as a fundraiser…with a malfunctioning machine

Students are entirely responsible for building the float from the ground up. Cal Poly Universities have electrical and mechanical engineering programs, as well as computer science and horticulture, all of which come in handy. While students who are majoring in these programs usually take the lead on the related parts of the float, almost everyone does everything. Everyone learns to weld, for instance. 

I learned to weld, not very well, and probably created more havoc than actual finished metal. I remember getting a piece of hot slag in my bra and ruining a weld. Ow!

Students grow the flowers for the float on the campuses. They traipse around fields gathering other plant materials (the weed “Rumex” produces a nice medium brown seed). They also barter for some materials and purchase others. Every inch of the float has to be covered in natural plant material – roots, leaves, seeds, flowers, twigs. The toughest colors are blue – often provided by bachelor buttons or irises, and black, which might be gotten by water hyacinth root or onion seed.

Over Thanksgiving, the float halves are joined together and the decorating structures are built. This involves building shapes out of bent and welded metal rods which are then covered with chicken wire and screen and “cocooned” with a spray-on material. Some structures are carved from foam. Once the structures are complete, the whole float is painted in the colors that represent the plant materials that will go in each place. This makes decorating easier and also hides any gaps that flowers don’t quite cover.

The float, looking pretty much like a float by now, is driven from Pomona to Pasadena for decorating. This used to take place in a nice float barn, but I have heard that in recent years, it has had to happen under a freeway overpass. It’s not freezing cold in Pasadena, but it gets cool at night and float decorating takes place at all hours until it is done. 

Dozens if not hundreds of volunteers use gallons of glue to stick flowers, leaves and even individual petals to the float. It’s messy, sticky and dangerous work.. The glues can leave your head spinning, and you’re often on scaffolds. 

My friend Stacy became a lead decorator by picking up a clipboard and looking smart. People started asking her what to do and she pointed them where to go. This was a wise move, because she didn’t have to climb any scaffolds herself. 

As parade day approaches, you’re either ahead or behind. If you’re behind, as we were on A Knight to Remember, you end up stapling evergreens to the float at 3 am in the parade lineup on Orange Grove Boulevard. 

If you’re ahead, you can go volunteer to help other organizations finish their floats with your hard-won expertise. In 84-85, we helped finish at least 5 other floats. Some floats are built by professionals, others by civic organizations. All are decorated by volunteers, because no one can afford that kind of intensive labor. 

On New Year’s Eve, the floats are driven through the closed streets of Pasadena to line up in formation for the parade. Everyone in Pasadena is out partying on the streets, so it’s a great time. 

After a freezing night spent outdoors on the sidewalk, punctuated by horrifying trips to portapotties and trying to remove 7 layers of clothing while not touching any disgusting surface, parade day arrives.

At precisely 8 am, the parade kicks off with a flyover by some stealth bombers, and then it is just hours and hours of floats, bands and horses. Quite frankly, it’s better at home where you are comfy and can see multiple camera angles while drinking coffee and eating cinnamon buns.

That’s it. A year of work. Good times. I learned more building the floats than I did in any of my classes at Cal Poly. Cooperation, working as a team, taking on new skills, asking for things, planning. 

I hope the parade comes back next year and I hope we will all be here to see it. Stay safe, folks. 

Some of my Rose Float people. Still friends.

A Big Misunderstanding

November 9, 2020

I love to amble around in the outdoors by myself looking at plants, smelling growth and decay, listening to the quiet sounds of nature living. Oregon is a hiker’s wonderland. Sunday dawned cool and drizzly, then cleared up, so I was happy to lace up my Merrell Moab hiking shoes (highly recommended), toss together a knapsack, and head out on a trail that I wanted to explore.

The trail runs behind my RV park, and I had a suspicion it might take me to a lake a couple miles away, The trail was damp and fall was in full swing, with yellow leaves showering down around me, red berries on the bushes, and the endless blackberry brambles turning bright colors.

I found the end of the trail. I could see the lake spillway about a mile away, but there was no way to get there, so I turned around. Because the trail had been wet and slippery in spots, I walked down onto a fire road to go home.

I heard a noise and looked up to see a gorgeous pheasant regarding me. Pheasants are large, spectacular birds, this one in deep blue and purple, with a striped brown tail and a red head. The pheasant didn’t seem shy. It seemed interested. It came right for me and began walking with me. I took a few photos and kept walking, as did the pheasant. I figured it might have a nest nearby and wanted me to get away, so I obliged. I started walking faster and the bird started running alongside me.

It kept getting closer and closer to me and making burbling noises and flapping its wings at me. I started getting creeped out, wanting this strange aggressive bird to leave me alone. I had a long walk home and it showed no signs of dropping away – it was getting weird. The bird was obsessed with me. I started to worry about it attacking me like all those YouTube videos of attack geese and turkeys I had seen.

In a moment of fear, I made a crucial mistake. I swung my backpack at the bird. Oh no. Now it was on like Donkey Kong. The backpack was the enemy and the bird was in full attack mode. I kept the backpack between me and it, but it was determined to get both me and the evil backpack.

The angry bird circled behind me and I swung around wildly, hitting a patch of mud at the same time. My feet came out from underneath me and I fell, involuntarily doing the splits on the way down, hearing something in my hip pop. I writhed around in pain for a minute and then tried to scramble up out of the mud. A shot of red-hot pain bolted up my leg and I realized I could not stand.

I think if there was no bird, I would have eventually gotten up and hobbled home, but I could not both fend off the bird and try to get up again. I was fairly certain I could not even get up. I called 911 and told the operator where I was and what was happening. She said it might be a while before the EMTs got to my town from the hospital 13 miles away and got through the locked gates to the fire road where I lay.

I spent the next 20 or 30 minutes sitting in the cold mud, spinning around on my butt like a trapped crab, the bird constantly circling me. I did not want to let it get behind my back lest it attack my head or something. I tried to wave it away with my jacket and my big orange rain poncho. I yelled at it. I blocked it with my backpack. And nothing, nothing would dissuade this weird murder chicken. The entire time I waited for my rescuers, the bird stalked me, never more than 2 feet away.

Part of me was sad that I had taken an aggressive stance with this bird. Maybe we could have been friends. Maybe this pheasant was someone’s pet. But it was all too late. We were mad at each other, and we were trapped there together in the mud. The pheasant angrily pecked at my backpack, my pants, my arms. Sometimes it would angrily burble at me, and other times it would stop and stand, eyes almost closing as if it were going to sleep.

After what felt like a long time, I looked up to see a group of five EMTs walking quickly along the road. It took one to assess me, two to help me stand up, and two to keep the pheasant away from me. They were laughing along with me at the ridiculousness of the situation. The pheasant was STILL determined to get me. I could see it peering at me from between the EMT’s legs who were acting as my Suebob Secret Bird Protection Service.

I got the first ambulance ride of my life to emergency, then got to tell my story to every single person at the hospital because they all wanted to hear it from the victim’s mouth. The doctor came in, I got some motrin and had a friend pick me up.

I have a badly strained left leg, a bruise about 6 inches wide. sciatic pain that makes going to the bathroom a special adventure, wounded dignity and a crazy story. I also have a new respect for a mighty, scrappy little pheasant who lives in a bush not too far from here.

And then what happened?

October 30, 2020

To catch up: I got laid off in March while renting a room in Ventura, expecting to stay home for a bit before taking off to explore the western states.

Then my housemates decided to stop social distancing, so I got back in Gladis and became a gypsy, haunting the streets of Ventura with all the other people living in RVs and campers. (I also stayed at several friendly Elks lodges up and down the Central Coast).

I looked at job ads and would feel woogy as I saw the requests for energetic, enthusiastic people wanted to prepare strategic communications plans for large corporations. I felt neither energetic or enthusiastic at the idea of preparing a strategic communications plan.

Well, shit. I had no idea what to do.

I retreated to my friends’ home for a few days of laughter and petting their 5 dogs. My friend gave me a lead on someone he knew who wanted to retire and turn her business over to someone. She was busy and could not meet with me for a month, so I Gladis and I drove around while continuing to look for other jobs. Nothing developed.

Finally I got to meet with the woman. Hit it off. She turned out to be one of the kindest, smartest, most interesting people I had ever met, and she was incredibly generous in teaching me her business. She took me under her wing, taught me, fed me, drove me around, took me kayaking, and quickly became a real friend.

That, my friends, is how I became a grant writer and moved to Central Oregon. I’m staying in a tiny town on the I-5 corridor among thickets of Trump signs and drive 13 miles to get groceries. The moist and grey weather suits me, and I drive the 90 minutes to the coast whenever I get the chance.

That’s the brief update. More to come.

Storytime: Mom’s Confession

June 11, 2020

Mom regretted it her whole life. She mentioned it often as she grew older, sometimes once per day. She would shake her head.

“So stupid,” she would say. “I don’t know what I was thinking.”

I, like all bad children, thought it was hilarious. I told her it was fine, but she didn’t agree. She couldn’t forgive herself by being so stupid.

I had not thought of it since she died, but the other day I was back where it happened and saw a historical marker with a photo of it. I started howling with laughter.

Our town had had a small private zoo next to Andersen’s Pea Soup Restaurant, a famous local tourist trap. Mom and I went to the grand opening and the person giving the tour asked for children volunteers. I waved my hand and was chosen and lined up with the other kids.

We had volunteered, we found out, to hold a fig newton in our teeth while a large bear named Sweet William, reclining in a bathtub, gently snatched them from us with his big snout.

This is a photo of one of those children:


Once we all got done, the smiling lady tour guide told us the bear was the only animal in the park who had ever attacked anyone. Mom never got over it.

No children nor animals were injured in the creation of this blog post. 


Story Time: Freeway of Love

May 25, 2020


The air conditioning in the work van had gradually been dying. Every day the summer got a little hotter and the air conditioning a little less cool. My sister and I drove around with the windows down, sticking our faces out to catch breezes, but the fragile product we were selling was sitting in the back of a windowless metal box.

We had a job selling greens to florists. Each week we drove through two counties, visiting 10 or 12 florists per day, delivering the leaves they needed to make their bouquets and baskets look full and lush.

Most of the greens were what we called leather – a triangular glossy fern leaf that arrived from Florida in thick waxed boxes that were too big for one person to carry. 

We would talk with the florists, ask what they needed, and grab the orders from the van. Most greens vendors had refrigerated trucks, but we only had a large blue Ford Econoline van with wimpy air conditioning. 

The owner of our company insisted she couldn’t afford anything more, and she probably couldn’t. Her business was spotty at best. She had rapid cycling manic depression, so Laura and I never knew what we would find when we arrived to pick up the van each morning – joyful, ebullient, talkative Kim, or the Kim who would swear at us and occasionally threaten to kill herself or someone else. 

Floristry is a business rife with the crazy, the odd and the addled, so most of Kim’s customers put up with her descents into the bizarre, but often Laura and I were left to sort out her messes. Laura was much better at this than I was.

In fact, Laura was much better at the people side of the business than me. She would hang around, chat people up, ask about their families. We were working on a day rate, so I felt like time is money – get in and get out. But Laura was what kept the business going, because while many vendors sold greens, the reason people bought from us was Laura’s kind heart and genuine interest in their lives. 

If they didn’t buy from us, it was because greens which have been driven around in a hot van for a few days start to turn yellow. If they weren’t yellow when we sold them, they started to turn in the days following their sale. No one wants yellow ferns in their bouquets.

This was a constant source of stress for us. Kim would take the angry calls from florists and we would have to drive far out of our way to take replacement greens for the ones that had gone bad. I saw this as cutting into our day rate, and it made me tense, which made Laura unhappy. It also cut into Kim’s profits, which made her moods even more unpredictable and foul.

We knew that every extra minute on the road in the hot van was killing our ferns. Sometimes we would be sitting at a stoplight in midday and we would just look at each other, both thinking about the disaster taking place in the boxes behind us.

One day in the middle of summer, we were coming up the Conejo Grade when we hit a traffic jam. We had already had a long day of deliveries, and the heat was rising off the blacktop in shimmery waves.

Traffic was stopped. There was an accident at the top of the grade and it was apparent we weren’t going anywhere for a while. We sat silently, contemplating the death of our greens.

Laura reached over and switched on the van’s radio.

“Here we go,” a voice sang. 

We started laughing with Aretha and singing along, as loud as we could:

City traffic movin’ way too slow
Drop the pedal and go, go
Come on baby, go, do it for me now 

We goin’ ridin’ on the freeway of love 
Wind’s against my back
We goin’ ridin’ on the freeway of love
In my pink Cadillac

We didn’t care if the people around us were staring. It was the perfect song at the perfect moment. We forgot about the ferns, the heat, everything. Suddenly we were on the freeway of love, and all was funny and pink and perfect. 

Thank You for Helping

May 17, 2020


Life is a little odd, isn’t it? I am back in Ventura. I had gone up to San Luis Obispo county and spent a week in Oceano, but had to return to Ventura for one thing.

Did I mention I got laid off? Yeah, me and 36 million others. We’re a big club.

I filed for unemployment benefits online. It took me 10 days to get onto the website – and California is one of the better ones. There were several times when I was able to log on and partly complete the form before the site crashed. Once I completed it, but when I returned, there was no record of it. Eventually I got it done and at the end there was a box to check saying something like: “I would like to conduct all correspondence electronically” so I checked it because of course.

Several days later, after I had headed north, I got an email from the state: “You requested online correspondence only, but we have mailed you a form that needs to be filled out and returned within 10 days.”

Of course you did.

I packed up and came back to Ventura to retrieve my Very Important Form lest I receive a note in my Permanent Record or get thrown in jail or lose my $450 per week.

When I opened the form, I found it is a Very Important Form to confirm what I told them online. It was literally a list of the answers I had given them on the online form. It said if I needed to make changes, I would have to inform them within 7 days and return the form. Otherwise, ignore the form.

BUT I JUST TOLD YOU WHAT I TOLD YOU. I do not need to untell you the thing I just told you.

The upside is that I got to come back to Ventura and found a sweet super-secret place to stay at night in Gladis near a friend’s place. I spend the days in the Ventura Harbor area, enjoying the great weather and beach for the incredible price of free. Could be worse.

What next? Good question. Hit me with your ideas in the comments section. I’m considering either becoming a cowgirl, a charismatic preacher, or making hemp kombucha.



Remember the Sabbath

May 10, 2020

Mothers Day 1963

Mother’s Day 1963, Gaviota

My RV Gladis is named after my grandmother, who owned a dress shop. The shop was called “Janie’s,” because my grandmother was smart enough to figure out that no one wanted to shop somewhere called “Gladis’s.” 

Every day, she walked out of the store in the late afternoon, walked the day’s receipts down the street to the Wells Fargo bank, and went home to make dinner.

One of her shop assistants locked up and was home shortly after 6. The shop wasn’t open nights or weekends. Hardly anything was. And pretty much everything was closed on Sunday. If you needed something, you could borrow it or wait.

I remember Sundays as being both boring and fun. You knew there wasn’t going to be a lot to do, but there was always the possibility of a drive around the county. Many times, there were visitors – an aunt and uncle and their children, a random cousin driving through, neighbors who had moved to a nearby town.

Visits weren’t formal. Someone would show up and knock at the door. They would be greeted with delight. After all, we weren’t going anywhere or doing anything. Someone would make coffee. There might be a beer or two consumed while sitting on aluminum lawn chairs with green webbing out in the yard. The adults would all be smoking like mad.

We children chased each other around outside, playing freeze tag or shoot the pin, a complicated kind of hide-and-seek. We rode bikes around in circles.

That was the Sabbath. We weren’t church people. We never rarely talked about God. But we had a Sabbath – everyone off together, all at the same time. 

Covid has made me realize how much a Sabbath is missed. A time to stop, a time where just hanging out is more important than getting things done. On Sabbath, no one has classes or sports practice or meetings. 

I remember going to the park with my dog a couple years back on Thanksgiving Day and finding a softball tournament in progress. I was horrified. People can’t even take Thanksgiving Day off anymore to be together. Something must always Be Done. 

Has Covid taught us that we slow can down a little more? Yes, I realize this is a privileged position. Yes, women still do much of the labor on “days off.” Yes, some people will always have to work.

But would most things being closed one day per week be so awful? Wouldn’t it be nice to be human beings for a while and not human doings? 

Just wondering. 

Storytime: Oceano, California

May 2, 2020

Chachos restaurant

My housemates decided to stop social distancing, so I hit the road a little earlier than I had been anticipating. I knew I might run into some difficulties being out and about in the time of Covid, but they say to isolate at home, and Gladis is both more home and more isolated than where I was living.

I ended up in Oceano, California for a few days. I spent 20 years in San Luis Obispo county, so it’s all very familiar.

So: Storytime

I became a vegetarian in 1986. My sister Laura visited me not too long after. She and I went to Oceano to the legendary Chacho’s, a tiny tiny little box of restaurant (there were 2 tables) for burritos.

In the middle of a burrito the size of your arm, I said, “I wonder if these beans are vegetarian.”

“I don’t think so,” said Laura, barely pausing from her burrito while pointing behind me. I turned around. Cardboard boxes labeled Manteca Lard were stacked up to the ceiling.

I walked by Chacho’s today. It didn’t smell very vegetarian now, either.

Ginning Up Trouble

April 29, 2020

Covid-19 has forced us into some weird little strategies that may be more superstitious than effective, but we’re grasping at anything to feel safer.

One of mine is that I leave my groceries in the back of my station wagon all day after buying them (cold food and produce excepted). I figure the sun and heat will bake some of the germs, and time will cause some die-off as well.

Can’t hurt, right?

The other day I splurged on a $35 bottle of gin. My rationale was that it is made by a local company and they need my support, and I need a really lovely, beautiful gin and tonic every once in a while.bottle of Wilder Gin from Ventura Spirits company

When I went out to my car in the evening to fetch my sun-sanitized groceries, I opened the door to be met with a wave of air that was positively shimmering with alcohol fumes. It knocked me back on my heels.

The gin is corked, not bottled with a screw cap. The heat had cause the cork to separate and fly out, and 5/6 of my lovely gin was now scenting the air of my car. The angels had gotten more than their fair share.

The good news though, is that my car got doubly sanitized – first by the heat and sun, then by all that alcohol circulating all day.


Update: I had contacted Ventura Spirits about their most recent batch of gin tasting of sesame oil, which was a little off-putting. They asked me to drop off and exchange the bottle so they could taste for themselves. I had to admit what had happened, and sent them the link to this post. They kindly offered a replacement bottle. How nice is that? They don’t just make good liquor – they are good people, too.



I Fell in Love with Every Place I Went

April 20, 2020


Dogwoods, Yosemite National Park, May, 2010

I am opinionated. Everyone knows that. And they comment on it. I have never been so proud as when I found out that one of my college professors told a friend, years after university, “Oh, Sue? She was quite a radical, that one.”

One of my most strongly held opinions was that I couldn’t exist apart from California. My family moved here early on both sides – in the 1860s and 1870s, which in some places is practically yesterday, but in California’s timeline is ancient history.

I felt like I was Californian more than American. California, as much as people love to hate it, was in my bones.

I didn’t expect to fall in love with other places. I knew I would visit and like some of them, but sitting here in my rented room among strangers, I feel the pull of the lands I visited and made my temporary home. I realize I have fallen in love with so many of them. A friend’s Instagram picture of dogwoods blooming brought tears to my eyes as I realized I would not see the dogwoods bloom this year. I have only seen them bloom twice in 58 years, but that doesn’t matter. Remembering a lost love, one only remembers the time together, not the years of absence.

I want to be everywhere at once. I want to wake up to the sunrise over the pure sugary dunes of White Sands National Monument. I want to have my hat blown off as I walk along the Mendocino cliffs. I want to smell the piñon burning in Taos under that purple-blue sky. I want to hear the bayou frogs and flip on the radio to hear Cajun music playing. And yes, I want to sit beside a creek and see the dogwoods bloom.

Physicists talk about alternate universes – that our universe may be like one slice of bread in a loaf with similar universes on each side of us. I wonder if my longings are being fulfilled in the universe next door.

My sister used to say that you needed to do crazy stuff in life so that, when you got old, you’d have something to look up at the ceiling and think about. I never knew the opportunity to sit still and think about things would come so soon, but thanks to social distancing, it has.

So please, appreciate the dogwoods for me. I will go down to the harbor and watch the seals for you. And in some alternate universe, let’s all meet again.

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