A Different Kind of Merry.

Baby Nan and Santa Dad

Baby Nan visiting with the REAL Santa

Christmas. Just saying the word brings a smile to my face. I admit it, I love Christmas.

When I was a kid, my family celebrated in a big, festive, fa-la-la-la manner. We kind of had to because, in case you didn’t realize it, my father, who for 11 months of the year was Dr. John W. Gallimore, Jr., DDS, became Santa Claus during the month of December. I’m talking THE Santa Claus.

Santa Dad revNo, really. He was the real deal. He had the red velvety costume, the big black boots, the white beard, a booming HO-HO-HO, and the hat with the fluffy band. Ask any number of kids who sat on his lap to whisper their wishes in his ear. R-E-A-L.

Ok. The beard may have been fake.

But the twinkle in Dad’s eye? That was the real deal.

And together with his Mrs. Claus (aka: Mom for most of the year), well, our house was filled with shiny, sparkly, bow-festooned Christmas magic.

It’s not that our celebration was unusual, or outside of the box. If anything, our traditions were firmly IN the box. And it was perfect.

It kicked off a week or so after Thanksgiving when we would race around the corner lot to find that one perfect tree that begged to be ours…while also meeting Dad’s exacting expectations.  The tree had to be six feet tall, with still-soft needles, and a very straight trunk. You did NOT want to bring home a tree with a wonky, crooked trunk.

We always found our perfect tree. And sometimes the trunk was crooked. And Dad would grumble a little as he tried to get the tree into the stand, straight and tall. Sorry Dad.

But it was perfect anyway.

My sisters and I would decorate it with Mom’s  guidance. She liked red lights. She liked the ornaments spaced evenly around the tree. She liked the icicles placed carefully, one slender ribbon of silver at a time. No clumps. When she wasn’t looking, I would grab a handful of icicles and toss them into the air, letting them flutter down on the tree in a haphazard  manner.

Mom always said it was the prettiest tree ever.

Christmas Eve was feast time.  Our extended family would gather at our home, in festive holiday attire. I’d always ride in the car with mom to pick up Grandma Daisy and great-Aunt Elva. We’d take the long route home so we could admire all of the best Christmas light displays in town. Then Grandpa and Grandma, Dad’s parents, would arrive and I’d rush outside to help transfer Grandma’s amazing homemade pies from their car to our kitchen, maybe getting a small taste of meringue on my finger in the process.

There was so much food. Mom would worry that the turkey was dry.  There was a running joke about hovering over the gravy on the stove to stir, stir, stir so it wouldn’t be lumpy. There was a kid’s table. There was a lot of laughter. There was excitement and anticipation and lots of hugs.

My sister Terry would play the piano as we sang Christmas carols. We weren’t really a family of singers. It didn’t matter. We sang loudly and passionately. We might have digressed to silly at times. OK, no “might” about it.

My sisters and I did a mad rendition of We Three Kings. We even harmonized. Or at least we tried. If we were slightly off key, and I’m fairly sure we were, no one complained.

It was perfect. Our grandparents always said so.

Before bedtime each kid was allowed to choose and open one gift to whet the pre-Christmas appetite. There were cookies and milk to set out. Then it was off to bed to pretend to sleep while listening carefully as Mom and Dad shuffled around, working their Christmas magic.

Remember, Dad really was Santa Claus and Mom really was the jolly man’s missus.

And finally there was Christmas morning. First, there were filled stockings placed strategically at our bedside, presumably to give us our first little gift of the day, but in reality, I think, to allow the couple Claus just a few more minutes of peace and a first cup of coffee. Their calm before the Christmas storm.

The year I hoped and prayed and hinted for a Mrs. Beasley doll?  She was there, righ under the tree. The year my letter to Santa promised all sorts of good deeds in exchange for a Beautiful Crissy doll? She showed up to share my Christmas morning. The year my obsession with horses was at its peak? A blue cowboy hat and new boots were nestled in tissue inside the box with my name on it.

And the year I really, really, really just wanted a hamster? I named him Kris Kringle.

Santa didn’t disappoint. And, in the eyes of young Nancy, Christmas was pure magic.

Family christmas revAs I grew older, as our family grew to include grandkids,  and as I started to really watch, I realized the magic wasn’t in the gifts, but rather in watching my parents’ excitement as they helped the holiday unfold. The true joy of the season, I grew to understand, was behind the flying tissue paper and oooos and ahhhhs. It was right back to that twinkle in Santa’s eye.

Now, with the passing of time, a lot of things have changed. My family has changed. Those grandkids, my nieces and nephews, are all grown up and have families of their own. My grandparents are gone, and my sister Terry now answers to the name Grandma. I am great-Aunt Nan.

My oldest sister is gone.

My parents are gone.

Christmas looks very different now. Celebrations have shifted and rearranged. Family members come together some years, and go different directions on others. Some are near to us, some are near in our hearts.

Christmas is smaller. It is quieter. We create new traditions. Sometimes it’s just me and Jim surrounded by the dogs that are our family. And, you know, that’s perfect too.

The magic may have a different sparkle, but even with a softer glow, it still shines so beautifully.

This year we’ll celebrate a lovely Christmas Eve at home. Just two people and a herd of dogs. Maybe we’ll start the evening by taking some apples and carrots out to the animals in the barn. I think I’ll ask Santa for a clear, crisp night with a sky sparkling with stars and a bright, full moon.

Then maybe we’ll fix our own little Christmas Eve dinner with all of the trimmings. We’ll light a fire, we’ll turn out all of the lights leaving just the Christmas tree to glow–you know, the tree with the crooked trunk that begged to be mine. There will be classic Christmas movies; maybe we’ll watch White Christmas, or we might give the night a dose of laughter with a Chevy Chase twist. And we’ll each open just one small gift.

On Christmas morning, we’ll get up extra early to head downtown to help a different Santa hand out small gifts we have prepared for children gathering with their families to enjoy a warm, free breakfast. I think we might sing carols. I think we will sing loudly and passionately.

SANTA & NANCY rev

Our own little Christmas. Santa Jim!

And, like my dear Santa once did, I will have a twinkle in my eye that just might escape to trace down my cheek as I remember, as I honor, and as I embrace my new traditions. Different, yes, but still merry. Still wonderful. Still filled with magic.

Thank you, Santa, for this one lasting gift. You taught me well. It’s just what I always wanted.

And it’s absolutely perfect.

I Dare Me.

candles1_PREVIEW

Today is my Birthday. Number nifty-four. Happy to me!

A Monday birthday and I didn’t even take it as a bad sign that my special day started with a record-breaking stock market crash and four buzzards (I kid you not!) lurking on the road just outside our gate. Nope…Monday, stock market, death birds…you cannot, will not, did not ruin my day.

Fiddle-dee-dee.

Now, back to ME.

Years, and years, and more years ago, I made a vow that on each birthday I should do something I’ve never done before.  It was my own little dare to myself to help keep things interesting, adventurous, and a bit on the are-you-out-of-your-mind side.

I’m happy to report that it has been mission accomplished, again, and again, and yet again. I have Jim, my very significant other, and many friends to thank for helping me stay on this thrilling and potentially destructive track.

My “dare me” initiative has resulted in some pretty exciting birthdays.

There was this…

5112_1173686145981_2397323_nWhy yes, I did step out of a perfectly good airplane at 12,000 feet. (Thanks for the gentle shove, Jim.(Not really! I jumped right out!))

It was FANTASTIC! That was a forty-something birthday.

I also had the great privilege of celebrating one of my birthdays, another forty-something event, in this venue…

Africa 3

Oh don’t get me started on this trip or I’ll fill the whole blog with nothing but amazing memories and photos of our time in South Africa. When you have had an adult male lion pass so close to you that you could reach out to tickle his ears (if you were to completely lose your mind and wanted to freak out your ranger), well, it’s an experience you never forget.

Some birthdays are more tame than others. One birthday the “new thing” was simply smoking a cigar while relaxing at a lake resort. Not a habit that stuck with me, thankfully.

Another year, a group of amazing friends and that Jim guy took me to Worlds of Fun in Kansas City so I could ride rides I’ve never ridden before. There is not a roller coaster on this earth that I won’t ride. Dare me, go ahead.

This was me on a giant crane/rip-cord/swing thing with Jim and a friend (with a death grip on Jim’s arm) who shall remain nameless, but BOY can she scream…

Worlds of fun

So this year, I honestly wasn’t sure what the new thing would be. I mean really, we might be running out of new stuff after nifty-four years, right?

Wrong.

Jim found something new. So this happened…

flyboarding

It’s called a flyboard and basically, there’s a hose that takes all of the power from the attached jet ski and funnels it at great force through a special contraption attached very firmly to your feet. If all goes well, you fly up out of the water. I think the photo above makes it appear I’m doing a fancy stunt. Pretty sure the next frame was a fancy crash-landing.

But fear not! This also happened…

Fly Nan

And some more of this looks-like-a-stunt-but-was-a-crash-in-progress stuff…

Fly Nan 2

And finally this…

Fly nan 3

And lots of this…

fly nan 4

Jim was able to do THIS…

Jim fly 2

Really high, right? He also did this…

Jim fly

I’ll let him tell you if that was on purpose or not, but let’s just say his eardrum was ruptured somewhere in this process (the entering the water sideways and really hard part). He’ll be good as new after minor surgery and several months of healing. No biggie.

Plus now he only hears half of the stuff I say to him. I’m pretty sure he’s good with that. Nancy, “Blah, blah, blah, blah.” Jim, “Huh?” Repeat, repeat.

Back to flyboarding. So then I did this…

Steven fly

Ok…not me. This is our instructor, Steven, showing us how it’s done.

Showoff.

I guess the back flip will be my “new thing” for my nifty-fifth birthday. Yeah.

Probably not.

But there will be a new challenge for number nifty-five, and for all the birthdays to come. You only go around once, you might as well do it with lake water up your nose, or elephants charging around you, or the ground rushing up to meet you.

So what will be next? Who knows. I’m sure we’ll think of something. The “what” is not as important as the “new” and the “with.”

Careful. If you hang out with me on a future birthday, my friends and I may drag you into something “new” too.

How do you feel about hang gliding? Hmmmm.

I’ll Find You.

20150718_145536“I’ll find you again someday, buddy. I promise.”

The old dog looked intently into the man’s eyes, silently returning the promise. With that, the man gave the dog a final hug as the veterinarian quietly administered the injection. And then everything just faded away.

Within what seemed like just a moment, or it could have been hours, the dog’s eyes blinked open. The fluorescent lights of the veterinary hospital had been replaced by the glow of a beautiful early morning sun.

The blanket on the floor of the exam room had been replaced by a soft bed of fragrant green grass.

The old dog sat up, feeling no confusion despite the unfamiliar surroundings.  Everything should have felt new, and the dog knew he should feel lost, but instead he had the same feeling in his heart as he felt when he was at home, the place where he lived with the man.

Nearby he saw a gathering of dogs, humans, cats, horses, and other animals all waiting together, facing a stand of tall trees. The foliage was so dense that he couldn’t see what secret attraction drew man and beast to the small path that parted the formidable stand.

“You’re here!” a cheerful voice exclaimed. “We’ve been expecting you. You’ll want to head straight over to that line to be restored. You’re in for quite a treat.”

The old dog looked up into the face of a kind woman who reached out to stroke one of his silky ears. She seemed somehow familiar to him, but at the same time he was sure they had never met before.

With a long, lazy stretch, the old dog got up and joined the others in line. After a time, it could have been a minute, it could have been an hour, the dog emerged from the trees.

A treat, indeed. The dog was old no more. He was restored to peak physical condition, with a spring in his step, muscles strong and firm, eyes clear and sharp. His coat was a field of pure white adorned with glossy black spots. He shook his body from nose to tail tip in delight.

“Ahhhh, look at you, boy. You’re so handsome.” The dog glanced around to find the kind woman, who knew exactly how to rub his ears, admiring him with a delighted smile on her face. “Oh, but wait,” she said, “you missed one thing…your foot.”

The dog glanced down at his right front foot. The woman was right, this foot had only three toes instead of four. One of his middle toes had become swollen and painful years ago in his life and it had been removed. “Don’t you want your foot restored?” the kind voice questioned.

Looking directly into her eyes, the dog dropped into a playful bow and wagged his tail in the crazy circle wag reserved by dogs for only the happiest of moments. He trotted over to plant his paw into the soft dirt of a nearby trail as he looked back at the woman one last time, and then loped effortlessly down the path toward a new horizon.

The woman watched the dog as he quickly became a speck in the distance. “Well done, boy,” she whispered, nodding in unspoken agreement. “Well done.”

Sometime in the future, it could have been just a few minutes, but it was really many decades, a tall man emerged from the dense forest on a slender, shaded path. He took a deep breath, reveling in how wonderful he felt. “I think I could run a marathon right now,” he said aloud to himself.

“I believe you can too,” a woman with a kind face laughed as she approached the man. “Is that what you’d like to do? It’s completely up to you now.”

The man returned her smile, feeling that he should know this woman, but unsure how. He stretched his long arms, once again firm with muscle as he looked around at this place that was new to him, but at the same time so oddly familiar.

Toby sand-paw-printsJust as he was about to respond to the woman, the morning sun rose just enough to shine beams of gentle light on a nearby path. The man stared down at the soft dirt and saw a set of paw prints – four toes, four toes, four toes, three toes.

With a grin of realization spreading across his face, the man’s eyes locked onto the prints and without hesitation he started down the path, following the mismatched paw prints at a strong, steady jog. “I know exactly what I want to do and where I need to go,” the man called out over his shoulder.

“I have a promise to keep.”

The woman watched in the warmth of the dawning light until the man became a speck on a distant, new horizon.

I Was A Mom For One Hour, 45 Minutes

Vegas flight

Early morning flight heading into Las Vegas

Last Wednesday I headed out at dark:30 for a quick business trip to Las Vegas. Yes it was business. Really.

The flight was scheduled to depart at 6:15. That’s am. In the morning. Ugh.

What a 6:15 am flight means to me: 1. Need to be at the airport at least an hour in advance of the flight to allow time to clear security, and get to the gate. 2. Need to allow a minimum of 45 minutes to drive from our farm to the airport and find parking. 3. Need to allow 15 minutes to feed dogs and refresh their water. 4. Need to allow 10 minutes to give hugs and kisses to Jim and each and every dog.

Oh yeah. And I need to allow time to shower, dress, and attempt to look human.

My late night math on Tuesday evening before the flight determined that I had to set my alarm for 3:30 a.m.

A 3:30 a.m. wake-up? Inhumane to woman and beast.

I did pull it all off by promising myself that I would get on the plane and immediately fall back into slumber, well aware that my drifting-off head bobs and “sleeping face” (all slack and yes, I’m a mouth breather. Nose doesn’t work well), would provide good fodder for a few strangers’ Facebook feeds. Fine. The promise of extra sleep trumps all vanity.

I was on Southwest airlines, so no assigned seat, and I was in boarding group “C” on a full flight. The dream of prime snooze-worthy seating (toward the front, by the window) was unrealistic, so the next task was to choose seatmates who would be as equally committed to ignoring me as I would be to shutting them out.

About three-fourths of the way back in the plane, I spotted an aisle seat open, with what I thought was a young couple sitting in the middle and window seats. Score.

If I had been a tad more awake, this configuration would have been a red flag. On Southwest, savvy travelers, whether traveling together or solo, fill the window and the aisle seats first, hoping to dissuade people from filling in the dreaded middle seat. But hey, this was, by all appearances, a young couple and the flight was full. They wanted to sit together, right? And they probably wanted to sleep too, right?

Oh, so wrong. So very, very wrong. They were anything but sleepy.

Now don’t get me wrong, I generally enjoy meeting and engaging with people on flights. It’s a fun, speed relationship and I find that people often reveal amazing things about themselves during this brief and temporary bonding time. I swear I’m the bartender of the skies. But at dark:30, no one really wants to forge a temporary relationship. No one, but my row-mates, that is.

Judging by my quick sideways assessments, I guessed the young man next to me to be about 21 and the young lady by the window to be about 18 or so. He was lanky and clean-cut, she was a bit goth in appearance with dyed hair, dark clothing, black nail polish, and heavy black eyeliner – not over the top, but definitely on the moody side.

I initially thought they were boyfriend/girlfriend. And then I stopped thinking about them, closing my eyes in the universal flight language for “I’m not interested in interacting.”

Oh but wait. There was an announcement about a sweatshirt found at the gate. The young couple next to me stirred in excitement. It belonged to her and she was about to vault over me to get to the flight attendant holding it aloft in the aisle.

“They said to just push the call button,” I explained, “They’ll bring it to you.”

After showing them the location of said call button, my first “uh-oh” moment, the sweatshirt was delivered and we settled back in.

Ahhhh. Sleep.

Not.

“This is only our second time to fly.”

Huh? Oh…he was talking to me.

“Really? Well, enjoy the flight.”

My eyes remained squeezed shut.

My determined row-mates apparently did not speak airplane-ese.

He: “Have you flown more than twice?”

Me: “I have. Lots more.”

He: “How many times?”

Me: “I really don’t know.”

He: “Where have you flown?”

Me: “Oh, lots of places.”

He: “Like where?”

So I rattled off a few of the more interesting places on my travel list, and settled back in to obvious nap mode once again.

He: “What was it like in Africa?”

Shoot. In hindsight, I should not have shared the more interesting places on my travel list. I should have said Detroit and Burbank. I politely gave some details so we could return to sweet, sweet silence.

He: “Are you getting off the plane in Denver?”

No, I explained. I was traveling to Las Vegas. I learned that he and his girlfriend(?) would be getting off in Denver. I clung to that promise.

The question and answer session continued…where do you live…I learned where they lived. Why are you going to Vegas…I learned why they were going to Denver. I learned again that it was only their second flight.

My brain was fighting consciousness; fighting to not become engaged.

Then it happened. He asked THE question. He found my kryptonite.

He: Do you have any animals?

So yeah, I have animals and I can’t NOT talk about them. It’s physically impossible. Let the airplane relationship begin and get ready to see photos of my very cute animals.

My new, temporary, too-early-in-the-morning best friends were Zach and Heather (I might have made these names up. It’s not to protect the innocent, it’s that I don’t remember names easily with a wide-awake, first-dose-of-caffeine-on-board brain, so a dark:30 brain doesn’t have a prayer).

I was asked to guess their ages. I said I had no idea but tossed out my 21/18 estimate. I learned that he was 16 and she was 12. So much for any subconscious dreams of joining a carnival as the “guess your weight/age” person.

Wait, thought sleepy brain. TWELVE? Who lets their 12-year-old wear make-up like that? Did you put that on in the airport bathroom after your mom left you at the terminal? And please tell me you are brother and sister, not underage boyfriend running off with way underage girlfriend.

Whew. Brother and sister.

Let’s see…it was their second flight, but their first flight without an adult along for the trip. They were going to see their uncle who lived in Colorado Springs. They were going to climb a mountain, but they weren’t sure which one.

Zach was in ROTC in high school. Heather liked music and staring at her tablet and/or phone. Zach was excited about climbing a mountain. Heather did not like to be outside. They lived with their mom and stepdad and two step-siblings.

The family had two chihuahuas, a dachshund, and a Rottweiler, but Zach really wanted a dog that was his own dog.

Zach worked at the Taco Bell. His father and grandmother had worked there once as well. Heather liked to make (and wear!) lots of bracelets. She did not yet have a job because 18-year-old-in-appearance Heather was really only 12.

And somehow, through all of this back and forth, I became their surrogate mom.

They: “Do the drinks cost anything? What do they have? Can you ask for us? Can I have two drinks? Will they charge for the extra drink? What should I do with my gum? How much longer do we have before we get there? Can you hold my sweatshirt? How high do you think we’re flying right now? Can I have your peanuts? Can we get more peanuts? Can I get another drink? Will you ask for me?”

kid on planeI took care of my adopted kids and exchanged weary, knowing glances with the frazzled dad across the isle who was trying to wrangle two wide-awake young boys. This was a first for me. Having never had kids of my own, until Zach and Heather, I was never inducted into the Paternal Order of Bone-Tired Moms and Dads.

But now I had a little taste. A tiny little 105 minute taste.

We landed in Denver and I helped my kids gather their belongings, I told them to check the seat-back pockets, I asked if they knew where to meet their uncle.

While I stayed put for the next leg to Las Vegas, I sent “my” kids on their way with well wishes, while playfully admonishing Heather to turn off her phone and enjoy her hike up the mountain. Oh yeah, I was in mom mode, though I did stop short of telling Heather to immediately wash that crap off her pretty face.

As it turns out, when I set my dreams of a nap-time flight free, I actually enjoyed my gregarious temporary kids. They don’t live too far away from me, and sometime in the near future I may wander into the Taco Bell where Zack works to see if I can say hello.

Or maybe not. That might be a tad stalkerish. In the real world, he is not really my kid at all.

Not having kids was not so much a conscious choice on my part as much as it was a never-got-around-to-it thing. During my married years, well, it just wasn’t something that interested us. Had I met Jim during my childbearing years, I suspect we might have decided to have a kid or two, but who knows. When I had anything that resembled a nesting instinct, I got a puppy.

I have honestly rarely, if ever, regretted my decision to remain childless.

I am an aunt and a GRRRRREAT aunt (I do require you say that in Tony the Tiger style) now that my nieces and nephews are starting families. I have wonderful, beautiful kids in my world. I do not have to pay for their college education, I do get to enjoy them and spoil them. Eventually, I think they’ll be willing to look in on me now and then when I grow old.

Have I missed out on a huge life experience? Obviously, yes, but I have had other experiences that mommies and daddies don’t get to have. We all walk our own path.

One thing I do know, if I did have kids of my own – the permanent kind, not the flight-to-Denver-kind – my son would absolutely have a puppy, or three, of his very own and my 12-year-old daughter would not be allowed to wear heavy black eyeliner, but I would cave to allow a bit of light lip gloss and maybe a touch of mascara from time to time.

Hope you had a great trip, Zach and Heather. I hope you climbed the heck out of that mountain. I hope your temporary mom or dad on the return flight learn a lot from you too. You probably won’t remember our 105 minute relationship, but I sure will.

Hey, Bill! Pick on Someone Your Own Size. (Or, Sparrows are not Ducks.)

20150618_190414So if you’ve been reading along recently, you may have read a post or two about the rain and subsequent mud we’ve been experiencing here in the Heartland. Specifically at my house. And all over my house, thanks to mud-loving dogs. According to very excited local meteorologists, it was the wettest May in Oklahoma history with upwards of 15 to 18 inches of rain depending on where you were standing.

And then, just to mess with us, all of that wet weather was followed by a couple of weeks that were almost rain-free. The mud surrendered to the blazing sun. We actually got to mow the yard. We ventured out without even a backward glance at the old raincoat.

Well, kids, it was just the old calm before the storm. During the second week of blissfully sunny, dry weather, we heard rumors of a storm brewing down in the Gulf of Mexico. We ignored it. The whole ignorance/bliss thing.

But then some of the reports actually managed to breach our defenses and there was excited chatter about a weather event. Oh, it is NEVER good when they toss the word event in there.

The final blow was when they named the damn storm. When a storm gets a proper name, you have to take note.

789436_1280x720Tropical Storm Bill. Yes, Bill. I know we’re being all P.C. by not calling every hurricane and storm by a feminine name, but don’t we all agree that Bertha is a bit more tropical stormy sounding?

Alas, we were stuck with Bill. And I think he was a bit bitter. He swirled and whirled his way right up from the Texas gulf coast and took a good swipe at Oklahoma. OH the rain. And then more rain. And top that off with a bit more rain.

Screenshot_2015-06-18-17-25-32 (1)This is when I started wishing that phones weren’t so darn smart these days. Our phones sounded alarm, after alarm, after alarm about the serious threat of flash flooding. Now, far be it from me to downplay the dangers of copious amounts of water pouring down from the heavens to overwhelm our storm sewers, rivers, and streams, but if I have to hear that honking alarm one more time, I just might go off the grid.

At some point we just smash the phone to shut it up and don’t even take note of the actual alarm. It’s the phone that cried wolf/flood/tornado.

The kicker about that alarm is that it does NOTHING to warn baby birds about the danger of steady downpours. There are no little, tiny smartphones in the nest. And evil Bill took full advantage of the situation.

Right now you’re thinking my brain is waterlogged and I’m making no sense whatsoever. Stay with me. We’ll get there.

Yesterday, during one of Bill’s milder outbursts, I was walking a stout, feisty dog down a sidewalk in front of my business because apparently dogs still have to go to the bathroom, even during a “major weather event.” Suddenly, something sitting in the middle of a sizable puddle in the parking lot caught my eye. There, soaked through, shivering, and stunned, was a tiny fledgling sparrow.

20150618_153022Fortunately, I saw the little bird before my canine escort did. One quick scoop and the soggy baby was out of the puddle and headed inside my dog boarding and daycare facility for a little check-up. Pretty sure, had he been aware of said destination, the bird would not have considered this development an improvement to his situation. Ignore the 50+ carnivores, little guy, I got this.

After handing the dog off (we did not need his curious, insistent help!), I tossed some little towels in the microwave (note: I put TOWELS in the microwave) to warm them and then wrapped little Soggy in the warm towels. (Note: You do NOT put the baby bird in the microwave to warm it…that is WRONG. You might think I don’t have to spell that out, and yet…well, I feel better for having said it.)

I put Soggy into a little bucket all cozy and covered in warm towels and ran errands with him. Yes, he went with me to the credit union. We went through a drive-through for a beverage (he didn’t want anything). We dropped some plastics at the recycling place. It may seem crazy to take a baby bird for a trip in a Jeep, but what Soggy needed was a little time to warm up, dry out, and calm down. I needed a little time to get my errands done. Multitasking at its finest.

Finally, a few errands into our outing, I heard a little peep from the bucket on the seat next to me. Good sign.

Then that peep was followed by a little chorus of questioning cheeps and chirps. Very good sign!

Back we headed to the spot where I found Soggy. There are lots of shrubs and trees around that parking lot and the sparrows nested there in droves this spring. Soggy was likely born in that parking lot and he still needed his wild parents to finish his how-to-be-a-bird education. The best thing for Soggy at this point was to get him back to his mom and dad.

Ah, but what about Bill? Bill was still hanging out. Bill was still spitting and drenching everything in his path.

Time to outsmart Bill.

20150618_163106I took Soggy’s little bucket, turned it sideways to create a little storm shelter. I tucked the shelter beneath and behind a large shrub and made a little cave in the warm, dry towels. Soggy could hang out there until the storm passed and his folks called to him to come home.

Tiny bird vs Tropical Storm Bill. I am pleased to say that the win goes to tiny bird in this match. I’m also pleased to report that Bill has moved along (friends to the east, your phone may be screaming at you as I type) and we now have a bright shiny new day to enjoy as we work to dry out once again. There is surely some grand David and Goliath message in this story, but right now, I’m just grateful that one small bird caught my eye yesterday.

Hopefully, Soggy’s parents will now teach their adventurous child the difference between being a sparrow and a duck. They will surely scold him and tell him that in the event of another Bill, Bertha, or Charles, as the case may be, it is not wise to fly into pouring rain or to land in standing water.

Either way, I think great things are ahead for Soggy. He dodged many potential tragedies yesterday – Bill, dogs, flooded parking lots, torrential rain, microwave ovens – to survive and likely thrive. Surely he is destined for birdie greatness. I hope he throws a feathered wave my way if our paths cross again.

How will I know him if I see him, you ask? He’ll surely be the sparrow sporting a teeny, tiny smartphone.

Have To? I’d Love To.

Nan and Mom 2One day, several years ago, I was leaving work and in the process of saying goodbye to co-workers I said, “I have to go see my mom.”

Have to.

Mom lived in a nearby assisted living community. She was in her mid-80s and she was fit as a fiddle physically, but her dear mind had begun to play some pretty significant tricks on her. Visiting mom was pretty much a daily event. You know, routine. “I have to go to work, I have to go see Mom.”

I didn’t mean anything by it, that “have to” I tossed out there. In the moment, I didn’t really even realize how I had said it…or how it may have sounded. And I doubt anyone else gave it a second thought.

But I did.

On the drive over to spend some time with my mom, my heart reached up, tapped me on my shoulder and said, “Hey…you don’t have to go see Mom. You get to. Remember that. Because someday you won’t have to and you sure won’t get to.”

Oh heart, you wise and wonderful muscle! How right you are, I thought.

You have to go to the dentist. You have to pay your taxes. You have to take out the trash.

Mom and her girlsBut spend time with your beautiful 85 year old mom? Spend time with the woman who rolled your fine little girl hair on those pink spongy rollers every night in an attempt to have curls for even a minute the next day? The woman who made your family amazing fried chicken every Monday evening in the pre-cholesterol concern era? The mom who dutifully drove you to the horse barn every non-school morning and then repeated the trip to pick you up every single evening? The mom who encouraged your love of drawing and who saw a spark of something good in your early writing? The mom who was always 100% there for you, even when you didn’t really realize it?

That’s a get-to visit. A grab and cherish every moment you can get-to.

From that day forward, I consciously changed my phrasing and my attitude from “have to” to “get to.” Oh sure, some days weren’t easy. Some visits were taxing, emotional, and draining. My mother, in the grips of dementia, was not always the sweet, compassionate, gentle, fun-loving woman who raised me. Some days it seemed nothing made her happy.

But still, I did get to see my mother. And for each of the days, in the last years of her life, that were a bit of a struggle, there were 10 days that were great ones. Most of our time together we laughed, we sang, we danced, we held hands, we played with one of my dogs, we talked, we walked together, we conquered Bingo as a team, and we loved each other. Always.

Now, I don’t get to see my mom. It’s Mother’s Day and I don’t “get to.”

But I do get to celebrate her. I do get to remember her. I do get to feel her spirit alive and well within my heart…the heart she created and nurtured. She didn’t have to. She wanted to.

Do you have to, or get to? We should all think carefully about the ones we love, the ones who spent a lifetime caring for us, and who perhaps need to lean on us these days. “Get to” now because some day you won’t be able to, and you’d sure love to. I’d sure love to.

mom and donkHappy Mother’s Day, Margaret Kirk Gallimore. You were and are loved so dearly. You are missed every single day. What a cool, amazing, fun mom I get to remember.

Thank you for sending me seagulls and for popping into my head every time I find a button for our jar. 

Some Are Silver. Some are Gold. And Some are Syl.

Jill and Syl

Syl and her friend Claire on Jillie’s adoption day.

Remember that song? I think we sang it when I was a Camp Fire Girl (yes…I was a Camp Fire GIRL before they went all politically correct and said it would just be Camp Fire and boys could join too).

Make new friends,
but keep the old,
one is silver
and the other gold.

Now , with the internet and the whoosh of social media hitting us from all directions, we have a whole new avenue for making and maintaining friendships. (For the record, I’m a admittedly addicted to Facebook and I toy very occasionally with Twitter, but that’s about the extent of my online presence, dedication, and attention span.)

Oh, and there’s the online dating. Thank the good lord that I have not had to do the Internet dating thing. I know I would doctor the bejeezus out of my profile pics and then panic at the reality of having to meet someone in person and explain why I didn’t actually have Christie Brinkley’s body from her Sports Illustrated cover days.

Anyhow, I have a really nifty extended circle of amazing friends, some I’ve never met in person, thanks to this now-clunky, aging Sony VAIO laptop. We may live hundreds of miles apart and we may rarely, if ever, meet for lunch, but they are friendships I value greatly.

One of my favorite online friends is Syl. Syl stands for Sylvia…not Sylvester. Let’s get that straight right off the bat.

Syl and I actually met about 3000 years ago (we’re aging quite well, thank you), in a pre-Facebook, early version of online chatting era. And really, the reason we met has absolutely nothing to do with technology at all.

It has everything to do with spotted dogs.

Syl and I both adore Dalmatians. We both hold true that like a Lay’s potato chip, you can’t have just one. And through the years some of my all-time favorite Dalmatian foster dogs have gone to live with Syl in her home state just to the right of mine.

This is the highest praise my dog-hair-addled brain (I think it seeps in through the ear canal. A brain scan would be entertaining) can offer to anyone. I was willing to send dogs that were “keepers” to live with my friend Syl.

“Willing” isn’t exactly accurate. I may have kind of somewhat stalked Syl. I recall very clearly when a gorgeous liver spotted Dalmatian that I named Mason came into rescue and into my home. Oh Mason. What a love. I fell for that dog hard and fast. He was in great danger of being one of those foster fails we joke about in rescue circles.

But with plenty of dogs of my own, and in my ongoing quest to dodge the slippery slope that is known as hoarding, I started plotting about getting someone special to adopt Mason.

To this day I compare it to fishing (for the record, I don’t actually fish…I think it’s rather mean to offer a free snack and have it turn into an involuntary piercing). I tossed a line out Syl’s direction–because truly, if I couldn’t keep Mason, I wanted him to have a home with Syl. I just had a feeling that he should, nay, would be her dog.

Now mind you, Syl was not looking for a dog. She had already adopted a darling dog named Annie. But I cast a line straight toward her anyway. You know…photos, “he’s so sweet” stories, more photos.

Syl nibbled the bait just as I hoped she would.

I set that hook hard and fast and before you could blink, Mason was headed to Arkansas to be her much-loved dog.

I’m wondering if Syl knows this side of the story. Well, she does now.

And then…maybe a couple of years later…Syl heard that ziiiiiing over the top of her head again and saw another yummy piece of bait land just in front of her. This time it was in the form of a black spotted sweetheart named Henry.

You know what? Syl bit again.

And then a couple of years later? Well, I didn’t have to troll for Syl this time. She saw a story about a Dalmatian that we had rescued from a puppy mill and she let shy, troubled Jillie come into her loving world. Jillie is still a bit shy, but no longer troubled. Syl has worked her magic on Jillie Bean.

Oh how I have loved sending my favorite foster dogs to Syl. I always know they have a great home and I know they can still be my family too…because I adore Syl like a sister.

Syl is that kind of person. You cannot help but love her. I dare you to try. You will fail.

She has the most delicious southern accent and when you talk to her, you hope she’ll want to tell you stories for hours. You don’t want to interrupt…you couldn’t possibly have anything to add that would make the story better than Syl’s version.

When Syl tells you a story, she paints a picture. She tells you side stories that, in her own words, “…really have nothing to do with this,” but it’s great, and you want more side stories.

Conversations with Syl are lively, colorful, and special, even if you’re not talking about anything special at all.

I love this woman.

So this year, Syl has been going through some STUFF. Now, we all have our stuff, don’t we? But right now, Syl has been struggling through STUFF. Honestly, it’s a package of stuff no one should have to deal with, especially dear, sweet Syl.

I’m trying very hard to be the right kind of friend through it all. Sometimes it’s hard to know how to support someone you truly care about when they’re dealing with STUFF. It’s particularly hard when there’s about 375 miles between you. It’s not as if I can drop by with a casserole.

I’ve decided that the best way for me to be there for Syl is to listen when she needs an ear, to talk when I think there are words that need to be said, to be available anytime she needs a long distance shoulder and/or hug, and to be her friend…just like I always have been.

You see, one thing I am learning from Syl right now is that you don’t let your STUFF define you. There was a lot to Syl pre-STUFF and there is a lot more to come from Syl post-STUFF. So while she is weathering her STUFF, I want to be the kind of friend she can talk to about anything…dogs, shoes, flowers, STUFF, what we each had for lunch, whatever.

Syl is NOT defined by STUFF.

Now here’s another very cool thing about Syl. She makes it really easy to be the right kind of friend. She is so open and so honest, truly a glorious example of a strong woman.

What she has taught me recently is that “strong” doesn’t mean you don’t need to cry. Strong doesn’t mean you don’t have the right to be mad, or sad, or happy, or fill-in-any-emotion-here.

Strong means being honest with yourself and the ones you hold dear. It means screaming at the top of your lungs if that’s what you need to do and then moving on from there, because that IS what you need to do.

Strong means facing fears and challenges and out-of-your-control change, and getting through it all with grace, determination, and a good dose of humor.

Strong means recognizing when you need someone to be strong for you…for just a bit…so you can curl up with the blankets over your head.

Strong means planting flowers and celebrating the hope of spring.

Strong means talking to your friend on the phone and somehow, despite all of your STUFF, hitting the end-call button and leaving your friend feeling better than she did before she said, “Hi Syl, what’s up?”

Yup. That’s a fact. She has that special mojo.

A conversation with Syl is like riding a merry-go-round that just might jump track and do a figure eight instead of sticking to the counter-clockwise circle route. It’s fun, it’s beautiful, it’s musical, you might cry, you will laugh, and you get off that ride feeling really, really good.

What a gift. I wish everyone could have a friend like Syl–the platinum kind. I can only hope that I AM a friend like Syl, to Syl.

(Love you, friend. This is what I thought to do for you. In the words of our mutual man crush, James Taylor, “…you’ve got a friend.”)

Sharing life with Animals

Nan and Van color 2

This is a photo of Vanny, one of my dear dogs from days past. This photo was taken just before he left this life for his next adventure. He was born into my hands and he left cradled in my hands. What a privilege.

I have loved many lives
far more temporary than my own.
I have looked with awe into the eyes of creation,
I have held steady in death’s unyielding gaze,
always transfixed by the complex beauty of both.

A story just beginning,
The final act coming to a close.
Performers who fast forward through life’s stages,
toddling, racing, bounding, then shuffling,
each stage easing my mind into the inescapable reality.

A glimpse at mortality,
theirs and my own.
An unremitting lesson in love and vulnerability,
but also one of joy, of strength,
of compassion, of acceptance.

My heart swells.
My heart breaks.
My heart heals.
And still, I celebrate the blessing
of embracing lives more temporary than my own.

This poem is a tribute to all of the lives that have come and gone from my world, most recently my hog, Spamela Anderson, and our old thoroughbred mare, Silent. But it’s not meant to be horribly sad, or a post mourning their loss. It’s a post about the beauty of the journey. I think living on a farm in the midst of so many animals, I am not hardened to loss, but rather the animals teach me about accepting the reality of transitions.

When you open your heart to loving an animal, whether a pet farm hog, a horse, or a loyal dog, you are allowing yourself to travel through all life’s stages with that animal. We experience their encapsulated cycle of life while gradually changing and moving through the spring, summer, fall, and eventually, winter of our own existence.

 If we let them, our animals have so much to teach us about grace in the journey.

 

Unsuspecting Tourist. Finding Batu

BatuIt was just a chance encounter that lasted no more than a few moments. We were watching people feed hundreds of pigeons near the entrance to the Batu Caves Temple in Malaysia when a small puppy trotted into the scene.

Just as Moses parted the Red Sea, this puppy had the same effect…not on the pigeons, on the people. You’d think she was a 100 pound rabid Rottweiler instead of a 10 pound pup the way people jumped out of her way and kids ran screaming. Yes, literally screaming.

Jim and I must have looked like a happy port in a storm of very jumpy humans. Little Batu, as I immediately named her, came right over to us. She had a sweet expression on her face, her tail was wagging gently, and she was giving all of the soft body language that I love to see in a young puppy. Jim and I were, of course, immediately smitten.

She couldn’t have been more than 10 or 12 weeks old. Her coat was a bit rough and dirty, her toenails long. She was not thin. My guess is that she hasn’t been away from her mother’s nourishing care for very long.

I kept looking around thinking that someone would quickly come after the puppy. “Sorry! She got away from me.” “Oh goodness…there she is! I was so worried.” “Oh thank you for catching her! Come here silly girl, how did you get so dirty?”

But that didn’t happen.

Batu was the first and only dog, beyond working dogs searching luggage at the airports, that we saw on our vacation to Kuala Lumpur (KL) and Langkawi, Malaysia, and Dubai and Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. This really should not be a surprise as Islam is the dominant religion in both areas, but my stubborn, dog-infused brain still had a hard time embracing the idea of a non-dog-loving culture.

In my world, I am surrounded by people who love animals, and dogs in particular. Jim and I have lots of dogs. Our personal dogs, our foster dogs, they all combine to make our lives richer, hairier, and a bit crowded in the feeling-smaller-by-the-day king size bed we share with too many of them.

It was a culture shock to step into a world where no one was walking their dog; where no children were running and playing with a family pet. Jim’s brother, Jeremy, told us that many expatriate families brought dogs with them to KL, and some residents of KL had dogs, but I sure didn’t see any. Only Batu.

It’s a confusing topic because even information searched on the Internet relating to dogs and Islam is a bit contradictory.  Traditionally speaking, the Islamic religion states that dogs are impure and several injunctions have been created to warn Muslims against most contact with dogs.

So on one hand, while it is not haram (an Arabic word meaning sinful, an act forbidden by Allah) to own a dog, it is not permissible to keep a dog in the house because dogs are not considered hygienic.

And while it is not haram to touch a dog (though apparently many Muslims won’t), if the saliva, snout, or mouth of the dog touches any part of your body or clothing, then you are required to wash yourself and your clothes in a specific, ritualistic manner.

At the same time, Islam very clearly states, and I’m paraphrasing here, that all animals have been created by Allah and that it is the duty of Muslims to protect and provide for the well-being of animals as an expression of thanks to Allah. From everything I read, this injunction requiring compassion and care for animals has a loose and disparate interpretation.

I’m just barely scuffing the surface of the topic here. I have to admit it’s all a real head-scratcher for me, and I’m apparently not alone in that feeling. From articles I’ve read on the Muslim view of dogs, interpretation varies greatly from region to region, and country to country. Some Muslims feel they can’t even touch a dog, some Muslims own dogs as pets.

KL dogI think the dispute over dogs in Malaysia, where the majority of the population is Muslim despite a growing multicultural influence, was really brought home for me by an article written for the New York Times by Thomas Fuller last fall. It detailed an event organized by Syed Azmi Alhabshi, a pharmacist in Kuala Lumpur.

The event was called “I Want to Touch a Dog” and was created as a get-together for dog lovers and traditional “canine-averse” Muslims.

Prior to the event, Syed Azmi advised state religious authorities of his plans and made sure an Islamic scholar was on hand to show Muslims how to conduct the ritualistic washing following contact with the friendly pooches in attendance.

According to the article (read it here) Syed Azmi, who is Muslim himself, thought he had his bases covered. He thought he was hosting a simple, positive event to promote a better understanding of dogs in his community.

The event went well. Photos of Muslim women in head scarves hugging dogs appeared on the event’s Facebook page. And then all of the good intentions backfired. Syed Azmi started receiving messages…thousands of messages, many rather unpleasant. In fact, some of the messages were apparently quite threatening. It would appear that despite all of the planning and precautions, Malaysia’s Muslim leadership denounced the event.

What a confusing world little Batu lives in. And yet she is still nothing more than a sweet, innocent little stray puppy happily approaching people, then confused and frightened when they recoil from her. But she seemed ever hopeful. I will always remember the sight of her trotting away from us to follow a man walking down the street, her little tail wagging away as if to say, “Maybe this will be my human.” That’s the last time I saw sweet baby Batu.

When I have the opportunity to travel to foreign countries, in addition to sightseeing, a huge part of the adventure for me is learning about other lifestyles.  It’s not about agreeing with everything I see and learn, it’s about developing a level of understanding. It’s about knowledge and respect.

And this trip was a doozy on that front. There are so many things I don’t understand about Islam and the Muslim culture. I got to observe a lot firsthand. I saw the variety of traditional clothing worn. I visited shrines, temples, and mosques. I learned about traditions and 1400-year-old beliefs. I observed Muslim families together. I saw Muslim teenagers enjoying a day on the beach. And I saw Muslim people reacting to a tiny, harmless puppy.

I came home with more questions about Islam and Muslim culture than answers, but I’m slowly filling in some of the blanks. I also now know there are dog rescue groups in KL and throughout Malaysia. Not to the extent that you find them in the United States, but they exist and they do good work. I did send them each a message about Batu with a photo attached with the hope that somehow, that cute little tan and white needle might be found in the vast haystack north of KL.

I know it’s not likely.

20150113_110821 (2)Had she still been there when Jim and I emerged from our tour of the Batu Caves, I can’t really tell you what I would have done, but I have a feeling I would have done something. Or maybe there was nothing to be done.  We were guests in an apartment complex that did not allow pets. Seeing her again and not being able to whisk her away to a safe and better life would have gone against everything that I believe and practice in my life in good old Mounds, Oklahoma.

According to the Nancy and Jim philosophy, it is a sin to NOT take care of a little stray puppy. Now I know what you may be thinking…there are plenty of stray dogs right here at home that need our help. I guess the difference is that at least here, a stray dog has a fairly good chance of running across someone that will offer assistance. For Batu in KL, well, her chances for finding a good life seem almost nonexistent. I sure hope I’m wrong about that.

I wish I could have given Batu a happily ever after. I wish her story ended with a long flight back to the United States where she would be free to plant a kiss on my nose and curl up on my pillow.  All I can do now is try to believe that the puppy who doesn’t know her name is Batu has charmed her way into the heart of someone in KL. Someone who will look into those bright eyes and fall in love just as we did. Someone who will take responsibility for her welfare.

Stay hopeful, Batu. I’m pulling for you from half a world away.

Unsuspecting Tourist. FINALLY!

20150113_111017I am SO excited about this post. Seriously. This is the one I’ve been waiting to share. Why, you ask? MONKEYS! So many monkeys. Stick with me…we’ll get to them quickly.

On this day of our see-everything-you-can-possibly-see tour of Kuala Lumpur, we decided to head a bit out of the city to explore the famous Batu Caves.

Prerequisite tourist information:

Set high in a range of rugged limestone cliffs just north of Kuala Lumpur, the Batu Caves are a vast complex of caverns that are a popular tourist and religious destination. The caves gained worldwide attention in 1878 when American naturalist William Hornaday came upon them and compared the largest cave to a grand cathedral. In the 1890s it was converted into a shrine dedicated to the Hindu deity Lord Murugan and soon became the most important pilgrimage site for Malaysia’s Hindu population.

The first thing that strikes you when you arrive at the Batu Caves is your introduction to Lord Murugan. It’s not subtle. The statue is 141 feet tall and sparkling gold against the backdrop of trees and hillside. Fortunately, he looks pretty benevolent. I only had one tiny little Stay Puff Marshmallow Man/Ghostbuster flashback.

And may I add here that this is the world’s tallest statue of Lord Murugan? If you have been reading my previous posts, Jim and I were on a serious “’est’ in the world” tour. Tallest, biggest, fastest…we were on an “est” quest of epic proportion. Thank you, Lord Murugan, for keeping us on our roll.

20150113_110606In the area in front of the tallEST statue of Lord Murugan, there are some shops, small restaurants, and pigeons. Not “some” pigeons. Hundreds of them. And they are hopeful. It is clear the pigeons get fed often…and, yes, we joined the party. I have to believe the local businesses have a real love/hate thing going on with these birds. Yes, a tourist attraction…a messy, messy, persistent attraction.

Of course while visiting the pigeons we found a stray puppy. A darling, precious, needed-to-go-home-with-Nancy-and-Jim stray puppy. This is the one and only dog I saw during my entire trip, beyond the dogs at the airports who so very carefully sniffed my bags (and don’t you know they thought DANG, this woman lives with a lot of my cousins!).

20150113_110726The puppy really threw me for a loop. First, she was just a baby. I would guess 14 to 16 weeks old, give or take. Second, she was a little pumpkin (that is Nancyspeak for irresistible). Third, we were the only humans being kind to her. No one was specifically abusing her, but certainly no one else was being kind to her either.

I’m not going to go into detail about little Batu, as I dubbed her, here. I’m going to give her a post of her own because it links directly to my journey to a better understanding of the different religions and cultures we encountered on our trip. Maybe understanding isn’t the right word. There are some things I will never fully understand. Maybe it’s fair to say she helped me gain knowledge about the different cultures we encountered.

I will tell you that I left a piece of my heart with that puppy and I sure wish this story ended with her sleeping safely on my pillow. More about Batu in a later post. I promise.

Moving on. We were told by a guide in one of the caves adjacent to the temple that the Hindus chose to build a shrine in this particular cavern because the opening to the cave was a similar shape to the point of Lord Murugan’s spear. After a little research, I found that our young guide knew his stuff.

20150113_140115In 1890, K. Thamboosamy Pillai, an Indian trader, was indeed inspired by the ‘vel’-shaped (a vel is a divine javelin or spear) entrance of the main cave and promoted it as a place of worship to Lord Murugan. The Thaipusam festival, a major Hindu religious celebration, has been celebrated there annually in late January or early February since 1892.

Wow. We just missed our chance to visit the temple with about 1,000,000 Hindus on a pilgrimage. While it may have been an amazing event to witness, can’t say I’m too sorry. Too many people in one place can make for an antsy Nancy. But it would have been quite a sight to see, I’m sure. The Hindu attire and shrines we did see were quite colorful and ornate.

To get to the temple you first must climb 272 steep stairs. It looks impressive from the bottom and some might find it daunting, but it’s really not too bad. There are several landings along the way that allow you to stop to catch your breath and enjoy the scenery. I will say that the caverns are anything but handicapped accessible. I don’t think Lord Murugan made that a priority when he inspired this temple.

20150113_111342For me, the climb was pure joy because the first think that greeted us as we started our ascent was…YES! A MONKEY!

A darling little macaque monkey served as our initial tour guide as we counted our way up the 272 steps to the mouth of the cavern temple. Oh happy, happy day! We tried to take a bunch of photos of this little friend because who knew if there would be more? (Silly, silly Nancy, there were more. SO many more.)

DCIM100GOPROThis was a Tuesday morning, but the caves already had a steady flow of visitors, both tourists and Hindus coming to worship. The sights were spectacular looking up toward the caves and also turning to see the vista from our increasing vantage point.

Quick note here, if you are going to visit the Temple, you are asked to do so with respect to its religious significance. I found the following tips for visiting the Batu Caves online (obviously written by someone who uses English as a second language…not corrected here, because it adds to the flavor.):

  • Do not smile at the Monkey.
  • Do not bring any food during climbing the steps.
  • With effective from 12 August 2013, the Batu Caves Management Implemented New Regulation and Dress Code For Visiting Batu Caves Kuala Lumpur:
    • NO Short Pant and Hot Pant.
    • NO Short Skirt Above Knee.
  • Others Regulation:
    • NO Pets Allowed.
    • NO Spitting Around.
    • NO Smoking in the area.
    • Bring your own toilet paper

The dress code is not too hard. I wore ankle-length pants. I saw other women who wore shorts, but tied a scarf or shawl around their waist to cover their legs while in the temple. I don’t believe they would actually turn you away for breaking this dress code, but it’s all about respect. I will touch on some of the other regulations as we proceed, but we had zero problem with “no spitting around.”

Jim and Nan at caveThe shrines in front of and built into the walls inside the temple cave were beautifully ornate and detailed. The cavern itself is truly a natural temple and awe inspiring with or without the temple shrines. While, from a historic standpoint, the temple is relatively new, the limestone formation that houses it is said to be around 400 million years old.

nan and monkeyAnd, to my great delight, what did you see just about everywhere you looked inside the temple cave? MONKEYS.

Yes, the monkeys have made themselves right at home inside the temple. I did notice the locals banging sticks to keep them away from certain shrines where ceremonies were taking place, and I’m sure they think the monkeys are nothing but pests. It goes back to that love/hate thing that they likely have with those pigeons out front. But there is no denying that these funny little characters are a huge tourist attraction.

20150113_113125The downside to the temple, in my opinion, was that I didn’t feel it was well maintained. Lighting has been installed around some of the shrines to make them more visible and it seemed to be just slapped together with random lights set here and there, and wires draped in plain sight. The temple was also pretty messy. There was trash everywhere. I’m sure the monkeys had something to do with this, but it would seem they would try to police it a bit better. Or better yet, teach the monkeys to do it. Yes. The monkeys could help clean up the trash and earn the respect of the Hindu worshipers.

I’m sure that’s completely feasible.

But still, trash aside, the temple is a wonderful experience and truly beautiful. From the Temple Cave, we headed over to tour the Dark Cave. The Dark Cave is exactly what the name suggests—a  really, dark, natural cave and an extremely important conservation site.

dark cave nanWe donned some hard hats, picked up small flashlights, and joined a tour group heading into the cave. Dark Cave is home to rare species of animals and insects including the rarEST (YES! Another “est!”) spider in the world, the Trapdoor spider. (Have I mentioned that two of my major phobias are pitch black hallways and spiders? Well, wasn’t this a nifty combo of both! Our own little episode of Fear Factor.)

Of course the cave is also home to a healthy number of bats. We didn’t actually see them and we were asked not to shine our flashlights toward the ceiling because it would disrupt the bats…and I did not want to disrupt the bats… but in the dark recesses of the cave you could sure hear them squeaking away, you could sure smell them, and yes, their guano was plentiful, though somehow our wooden walkway was clean.

Our guide, provided by the Cave Management Group (CMG), pointed out that it is the guano that sustains a tremendous and scientifically significant ecosystem. I will point out here that when the guide asked our group of about a dozen people what “guano” was, I was the one to pop up with “what is bat poop, Alex?” Yep. I got the bat poop question. I think the Italian tourists were very impressed.

Until CMG took over management of the cave, it was open to the public. Those dreaded “open to the public” words mean that the caves were abused with trash, graffiti, and disruption of the fragile wildlife within the structure. Though some of the mindless graffiti is still visible in sections of the two kilometers of passages (humans are SO arrogant), the cave is now a protected conservation site renowned for its rich scientific and educational value. Tours are conducted carefully, in specific areas of the cave and you are constantly reminded to stay on the wooden pathway and not to step on the natural floor of the cave lest you smash one of those beloved spiders.

20150113_130932_LLSWe were shown magnificent cave formations – stalactites, stalagmites, flowstone, cave pearls, cave curtains, columns, and gour pools (none of which photographed well because it’s a dark cave and you can’t use a flash that might disturb the bats). It took Mother Nature eons to form these structures and it’s still a work in progress as water continues to gently change and form the cave. We saw millipedes, we saw trapdoor spiders, and we experienced what pitch black really is when we turned off all of our flashlights in the interior of the cave (blink all you want…your eyes aren’t going to adjust). It was truly a spectacular experience…a must-see for anyone going to Kuala Lumpur.

After surrendering our stylish hard hats, we stepped back out of the cave to find a world of monkey cuteness awaiting. Mom monkeys, ridiculously cute baby monkeys, mischievous teenage monkeys, and don’t-screw-with-me adult male monkeys. Monkey paradise!

20150113_133851I don’t really need to tell you that the monkeys were the highlight of the whole tour for me, do I? I could have stayed and watched their antics for hours. They were fascinated with Jim’s Go Pro camera. They were fascinated with my feet. They distracted me while one of their tribe attempted to steal my purse. They succeeded in stealing a bottle of water from another tourist. They climbed, they posed, they chattered, and I was 100% enamored.

20150113_133833So back up to that list of guidelines for visiting the temple…you know, where it says “Do not smile at the Monkey?” I think they don’t want it to appear that you are baring your teeth at them in case the monkeys see that as a challenge. I found, however, that it’s the monkeys who do the “smiling.” Try to get next to one of the mature male monkeys, who really have no interest in being cute or having their photo taken. They will bare their impressive teeth and lunge right at you.

20150113_134049Hey monkeys, take a cue from the guidelines and don’t “smile” at the tourists!

Big guys aside—and we happily gave them their space—the monkeys were amazing and charming. I can’t imagine living in a place where monkeys are as common as squirrels are in my neck of the woods.

We did finally tear ourselves away from the monkeys and wandered around a bit more by the shops and restaurants. I bought a “Coke Light” (they don’t call it diet Coke), and Jim bought a fresh coconut with a straw stuck in it. He is so the yin to my yang.

Then we found our way to the bathrooms where a woman sat at a table in front of the entrance asking for 25 ringgit (Malaysia dinero) as admission to the facilities. I kind of think she just stationed herself there, but who was I to question her and my bladder thought the price, about seven US cents, was more than fair.

So this bathroom. Um…the “bring your own toilet paper” suggestion suddenly made perfect sense and I got to once again master the art of squatting over a hole in the floor. I was introduced to this experience previously in Hong Kong at a public restroom, and also in Africa, only that was just squatting behind a huge termite mound…no hole in the ground. OH the call-of-nature experiences of the world. Good times.

Once back in front of the temple, I won’t tell you that I didn’t scour the place for my little puppy friend, Batu. I truly hoped to find her, though I had no earthly idea what I would have done with her if I could have found her. But again, that’s another story for another day.

We flagged a cab for another “interesting” tour of traffic through the streets that took us back to Kuala Lumpur and our home base apartment. Another excursion, two more “ests” added to our list. A good day.

Up next? Who wants to fly AirAsia?

Meanwhile…gratuitous monkey photos!

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