Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Summertime: Horses, Novels and Hikes

The summer slipped past so fast that I must note a few highlights before they fade away, too. Click on the links for more information. 


Our summer usually starts early, with the Kentucky Derby the first Saturday in May. Since the annual event was so much a part of my childhood in Louisville, we sometimes throw a party to celebrate with a few dozen friends, which is exactly what we did this year. We called it a "party with a purpose" because we co-hosted the day's festivities with my spirited fellow board members from Vista Community Clinic. The purpose was to "friend raise" for our favorite charity, which provides affordable medical care to 65,000 patients in Southern California. In addition to our guests, board members invited guests, too.

About 65 partygoers in a variety of fanciful hats and colorful outfits paraded through the house and outdoor areas. The mint juleps flowed, as did the greenbacks, thanks to a new setup courtesy of board member Mark who wheeled in a giant screen and his laptop to track the bets, bettors and horses. Fabulous new signs, one for CHURCHILL DOWNS at the front entry to the house, and another for CLUBHOUSE at the entry to the backyard where most of the action took place, were courtesy of a board member's husband, Pete, who cut and painted wood plaques to resemble the twin spires of Churchill Downs. A hat contest, quiz, couple photos, and ice-breaker name tags (famous Kentuckians) energized the crowd. Several left for home with winnings in their pockets.  
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After all the hoopla, it was time to turn my attention to professional pursuits. The San Diego chapter of SCBWI (Society for Children's Book Writers and Illustrators) hosted an agents day called Mayfest which featured workshops, panels and critiques by local and national book agents and editors. As a member of SCBWI with three books in the works, I teamed up with critique partner Julie to offer elevator pitches for my Middle Grade novels. Success! Three agents asked for written pitches, the first step in finding an agent to represent a book to publishers. My pitches:

1. Abandoned is the story of 13-year-old Olivia, a troubled girl who spends the summer in Kentucky working with abused horses and begins to heal from the grief and guilt over her brother's death. 
2. Wilson in Yellowstone is about 12-year-old Wilson who is searching for his mother's killer, but spends the summer in Yellowstone where he encounters a life or death situation and  learns he's stronger than he thought and can face life without his mother.  

Lowry signs her memoir, Looking Back:A Book of Memories
SCBWI is a wonderful organization for anyone interested in writing for kids of any age, from infancy through high school. The market is huge, including a wide range of books, i.e. picture books like Goodnight Moon and The Day the Crayons Quit, Middle Grade books like Wonder and A Wrinkle In Time, and YA books like The Fault In Our Stars and The Giver. 

Stephanie Garber poses with her novel, Caraval
The FAB SCBWI Summer Conference LA is held in early August. I attended that as well, with my friend, Joyce, whose Pasadena home has a lovely French garden served up with primo wines. Perfect for our end-of-day chill.

The gathering at the downtown LA Staples Center/Marriott numbered more than a thousand writers, agents, editors, publishers, etc. Many of the talks were poignant and heartfelt (writers tend to be that way), delivered by celebrated authors and illustrators, including Lois Lowry (The Giver), and Andrea and Brian Pinkney (Martin & Mahalia: His Words, Her Songs). 

So inspired, I promised myself I'd practice a morning meditation and write every day when I returned home. That lasted three days. I do have a life beyond the laptop, so my creative work is inspired by the weekly critique group deadline. It keeps me at the keyboard up to several days a week, thanks to Val and Julie! 

Portland, Oregon

In June I spent some time in the Portland area with Betsy and Jeff as my tour guides. What a delightful, diverse city. I recommend a visit if you haven't encountered this artsy funky metropolis and foodie hot spot. Most days started with a walk to one of the local coffee shops in their St. John's neighborhood which acquired it's name from the beautiful antique patina bridge that stretches across the Willamette River blocks from their condo. A great walking neighborhood to explore if you're in the area. The streets are populated with a ton of unique shops and venues. Hairlandia, Arbor Lodge Coffee, the Community Cycling Center, and St. John's Theater & Pub are a few of the popular ones.

My daughter wasted no time introducing me to locations beyond her hood as well. We made a respectable haul at Sierra Trading Post, a big box must-see store for discounted outdoor wear. Other memorable stops included an Asian fusion dinner in Alberta, with pastries afterward at Petite Provence. We drove to Kenton for coffee at Posies before we jumped on the MAX and headed downtown to the Saturday Market. On my last day, we took in the five-block enclave of Mississippi Street for boutique shopping and dinner.

But, alas, this trip wasn't just about eating  and shopping, right? Two days of hiking tested my New Balance walking shoes and less balanced feet (hiking boots didn't make it to the suitcase). The NB 990's passed the test. Feet recovered. 

The first trek started at the Lower Macleay Park Trailhead in the city of Portland and wound its way under an old bridge, past a small stone house, up to the Pittock Mansion, surrounded by lush rose gardens. A friendly Asian girl recommended the pink roses for the finest perfume scent. After a few sniffs of vibrant varieties, we agreed. The panoramic view of the city and Mount Hood was awesome from the outdoor lawn where hikers sprawled on the grass to rest and take in the scene before hoofing back down the trail.

The second hike, to Moulton and Yacolt Falls along the East Fork Lewis River in Washington, was especially scenic. In less than an hour's drive from Portland, we set out along a well trodden dirt path, hiking three across, and reached the falls an hour or so later. Picnickers who left their cars in a lot nearby dotted the rocky landscape with blankets and baskets. Several jumped off high cliffs into the icy river below. Betsy and I passed on that e-ticket while Jeff snorkeled the river for fish. 

The bridge is a popular pedestrian destination, forming a lovely archway over the river for picturesque photo ops. 

On the drive home, dark clouds moved in and threatened a downpour, but we took our chances and stopped for a happy hour overlooking the Columbia River. It was the perfect ending to a perfect day and trip to Oregon!

Thursday, December 28, 2017

The Oaks at Ojai

Ojai is a special place in Southern California with an earthy, artsy, authentic vibe. So it only fits that The Oaks at Ojai should reflect the same image as a spa destination. Which it does. If you're looking for upscale modern with austere and ultra luxury appointments, skip The Oaks. This place is down to earth, earnest, and honest in its goals to help you achieve yours. A taste of Old California only adds to the charm.

My daughters took me for a weekend retreat in August to celebrate a big birthday with healthy meals, workout classes, hikes, and mother-daughter bonding. From the moment we pulled off the highway, cruised onto the covered driveway, and walked through the double door entry, the ambience of Old California greeted us in the nostalgic style of Spanish stucco architecture. 

Inside, the lobby spreads across a wide expanse of carpet where cushioned couches and a wood-framed upholstered chair perch aside a dark coffee table straight from the pages of Ramona. Flower arrangements decorate smaller tables, and a generous stucco and stone fireplace trimmed in Spanish tile complete the cozy sitting area. Off to the right, an antique-inspired wood counter serves as the check-in desk while a gift shop called The Nest with an arch-tiled entryway beckons on the left. Hallways with mission inspired arches lead to a gallery of stone sculptures and wall paintings straight ahead and to spa services and a comfy relaxation room behind the shop. An office and health center off the main lobby offer easy access for guests to approach staff ready to monitor blood pressure and weight during your stay.

From the side hallway off the lobby, we climbed stairs to reach our second floor corner room awash in light. The spacious location was a plus. The bathroom tile in black and white hexagons trimmed in 50's garish green reminded me of an early 70s apartment in Chicago. A small deck overlooking a side street of town gave us a view of locals. Paned windows on the front overlooked the main street where dozens of shop and gallery windows greeted us on an early morning walk. Two double beds and a rollaway bed fit with room to spare. The older bathroom design with a bathtub/shower combo, but only enough counter space for two sets of toiletries, sufficed since Betsy's cosmetic bag with its handy hook was perfect for hanging. 

We found all the food quite good, sans salt and sugar, but with substitutes that worked well enough, except when it came to popcorn. There is no sufficient replacement for real butter and salt to satisfy the crunchy taste of well seasoned popcorn! Regardless, I somehow ate a whole bag during bingo, which awarded two of the three of us with winning games and prizes -- lotion and soap, plus two gift certificates for the shop. Note: The Oaks at Ojai offers recipes for their nutritional cuisine under the Blog item on their website menu: Recipes at The Oaks at Ojai.

Through the gallery hallway, we ventured into the Libbey room where we ate casual breakfasts, lunches and snacks, the gym area with a wide assortment of equipment and access to the pool and spa, and the gymnasium where a variety of classes was held. We took advantage of an ample selection of offerings and particularly enjoyed the morning hike (6:30 am) to hidden succulent gardens, pool cardio with noodle maneuvers and a soothing circle exercise, the gym cardio class with hula hoops-plus, and relaxation yoga. 

 The spa was particularly charming with an elaborately arched tile entry and similar decor throughout, particularly in the locker room and jacuzzi/fountain area. Spa services were the best. I gave my deep tissue massage an 11. Betsy felt her facial was just as delightful and relaxing. 

At the end of the day, what I found most enjoyable was the relaxing time I spent with Betsy and Amy. But the friendly people we met were absolutely delightful, too. The staff were fabulous, with a shout out to Sherry who keeps the Libbey room running smoothly for meals and the bingo hopping along with Hollywood trivia questions between games! The mostly women guests were equally friendly and engaging. We met repeat customers from the Los Angeles area, new people from Portland, Seattle and Kansas City, and  a mother with her eighteen-year-old daughter on their way to a college campus for the daughter's first year of college. 

I highly recommend The Oaks at Ojai for anyone who wants to experience a spa in Southern California with healthy food, numerous options for physical activity, and friendly staff and patrons, with the added bonus of early Spanish architecture in a gorgeous valley surrounded by mountains. 

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Horses and Healing

When I did research for a novel about a San Diego teen who spends the summer on a Kentucky horse farm, I was amazed to learn about the powerful effects horses have on humans. For example, would you ever guess troubled teens, autistic children, and prison inmates have something in common? People in each of these groups are forming unique relationships with horses that allow each to heal. The bond is unlike anything achieved from counseling, medication, medical interventions and living behind bars.

Teens who exhibit risky behavior such as bullying, fighting, taking or selling drugs, stealing or joining a gang are at risk for dropping out of  school, or worse, going to jail. Some come from broken homes with absentee parents and some have experienced abuse, been victims of bullying, or have an untreated disability. Many turn to drugs to numb the pain and confusion and to fit in with peers. 

When a troubled teen works with and forms a relationship with a horse, they feel accepted for who they are. Since animals don't judge, challenge or accuse, and they have no knowledge of a person's background, the relationship is genuine, allowing the troubled young person to let down his defenses and get in touch with his humanity. Self-esteem improves and the teen begins to open up and release some of the anger that motivates him to act out. The horse's non-judgmental approach can also serve as a positive model for the teen who's reeling against authority and his situation.

Teens who have lost a family member may feel guilty or depressed and want to avoid family and friends, which can place them at risk for social, emotional and medical problems. Their response to the death is to shut off feelings and avoid anyone who might trigger them. 

When working with a horse, a young person can find solace and peace that may not be as easy to attain with other people. The horse's nonverbal communication allows space for acceptance and validation of whatever feelings the teen brings to the relationship. In time, they can work through the grief and gain confidence to open up emotionally, accept the death and even forgive themselves for any lingering guilt.   

The Spring Reins of Life program is one of many that incorporates Equine Assisted Psychoterapy (EAP) into working with troubled teens: 

Children with autism face a variety of challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication. Other areas of mental and social development may be affected as well, depending on the severity of illness. A 2015 study conducted by researchers in Colorado and North Carolina demonstrates the effects of therapeutic horse riding on children with autism, when compared to children with autism who only learned about horses, but didn't interact with them over the same period. The riders had better scores on language and social interaction, and greater improvement with hyperactivity and irritability. The results on irritability were "about half" the effect one might expect from medication. 

Since horses respond to the nonverbal body language of the rider and adjust accordingly, the child with autism can experience a sense of balance and kinship to put him at ease. The researchers believe the learning and calming effect of riding a horse can enhance self-esteem and communication in everyday life. One parent whose 11-year-old child with autism is also deaf put her son on a horse when he was three years old. The mother feels the riding has helped him to improve his core strength and senses of sight, smell and touch. 

Prison inmates represent a unique group benefiting from equine assisted therapy thanks to the efforts of the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation (TRF). This is an organization that funds 24 facilities, some with prisoners, and many more individuals to care for thousands of horses retiring from the track. 

The reality is that horses are expensive animals and many owners are not able to maintain them after their career has ended. Unfortunately, the TRF reports 10,000 American racehorses are shipped to slaughter in Canada and Mexico each year, and TRF "is determined to change that." 

Photo: Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation
Nine state prisons around the country participate in the TRF Second Chances Program which is a partnership effort allowing TRF to access state land and prison volunteers to create horse sanctuaries. Most of the horses suffered injuries that ended their careers. With the supervised care they receive from prisoners, they can recover and experience second lives as pets, in equine competition, as police mounts and in equine-assisted therapy programs. 

Inmates from a wide range of backgrounds learn about horse anatomy, caring for injuries, equine nutrition and stable management. They receive a certificate upon completion of the rigorous program and some secure jobs as farriers, vet assistants and caretakers. But not surprising, the prisoners gain much more because of the trust and love they experience with a horse. They build confidence and a sense of empathy that can turn their lives around. Studies have also documented a reduction in recidivism rates at the facilities that host the program. 

News Story on Indiana Second Chances Prison Program

A few years ago, I visited Montpelier, the James Madison estate in Virginia which is a TRF farm with 40-50 thoroughbreds. Some are rescue horses and others come straight from the track with injuries. All are quite beautiful in the pristine setting. I'm attaching a few pictures here. If you're inclined, the TRF depends upon grants and donations to run their farms and Second Chances Program:  Make A Gift to TRF