Hogwarts in the Olive Orchard

by cheri sabraw

Those of you who have been hanging around my blog for four years will remember my photo montage and accompanying description of the Bird Man of Sunol, Irv’s, building us a custom owl box and installing it in the olive orchard.

The overly hopeful, idealistic, and Pollyanna-ish person that I can be on occasion (not a good combo because I am often disappointed), skipped out to the orchard the day after the installation, looking for signs of an owl pair. Boy. What was I thinking?

A year passed.

No owls.

My hopefulness receded into to a cold reality.

Any possibility that an owl and her mate would shack up here with us on the Rancho was as remote as the reality of Hogwarts. Invaders–field mice and vols, flying insects and humping lizards–all darted  unrestricted out there in a merrymaking Bacchanalia while we slept across the creek in our bed.

One day,  a year later, after Dinah and I plodded through the orchard, our heads held as low as the ubiquitous mouse holes and snake dens invading the adobe soil,  knowing we would find an unfurnished apartment in that barren box, I returned to my computer to pen this description of not only an owl box, but also about the eccentricities of living in my own owl box with my mate.

Three years passed.

I gave up.

And then.

Several nights ago, my wise old owl and I drove in our Gator over to the orchard where we have a small viewing deck with two Adirondack chairs. We watched a steamy red sunset. We complained about the traffic on the road, the state of affairs here in California, about the loss of culture, and of myriad other topics that begin to encroach on conversation if one does not zealously guard the nature of discourse.

The sun disappeared behind the Peninsula and dusk began its death march into night.

And then.

Out of the thicket of black- green oak trees, a white bird flew toward us.

“Did you see that,  Hermione?”  Harry asked me in a low voice.

” Yes. What could it be?” I straightened my horned-rim glasses.

Then it buzzed us in total silence as raptors do, gliding southerly oh-so-close to our wine glasses, looking down and scanning our shapes and movement as if we were fat sumptuous mice lounging on the chairs after consuming olive fruit flies in excess.

” OMG, Harry. It’s a barn owl. I saw its heart-shaped face, did you?” I whispered  into the air.

Another one, darker in color, emerged from the wood, flapping his wings in mysterious silence and flew to the fence, his silhouette made visible by the setting pink sun.

Another heart- face, he perched with two rather threatening talons, surveying the night’s epicurean possibilites.

They both flew to the owl box. One went in.

I said in my child-voice, “Harry, mail delivery. It’s a barn owl.”



Posted in Growing Olives, Life, My childhood, Nature photography | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 15 Comments

A Hot day in Paradise


by cheri sabraw


Cheri! So good to see you again. The green grass is long gone, so here we have come down from the mountains and have been waiting for you with your camera and of course your ample supply of apples, carrots, and NutriGrain bars.


Let us show you how much weight we have put on since last you snapped our  pictures in the middle of the drought when our ribs showed a bit.  Don’t  our coats look lusciously bay? If you paint us again, please use more burnt Siena than burnt umber. Add a little transparent orange. Oh, your Labrador  Dinah has also gained weight? She’s how much overweight? Ten pounds? Well, tell her to stop foraging for turkey poop on the ranch. The vet shamed you this morning? They tend to do this.


So this is our best pose. Hey! ( I mean Hay!) you, Cheri, should not be walking up here with flip-flops on. This is rattlesnake weather. But anyway, aren’t we a picture? Will you paint us again? You’d better get started because Jim, our owner, has told us we are leaving for a Livermore ranch for harness training. You will have to come out and photograph us there. Deal? Don’t cry Cheri. Your tears are producing our longest saddest faces.


Those NutriGrain bars are tasty. Whoa! Cheri. Don’t get so excited about our close proximity. Maybe you should talk to Jim and take us home. Oh? Your husband would NEVER go for this? He doesn’t like flies and manure and vet bills? Oh. One of those types?


Don’t have such a long face, Cheri. You have immortalized us in your paintings. Oh. Whoa. You are painting 12×24 long canvases with our long faces. You are going to sell each of them (if you can find buyers)  for 250.00? Do we get a cut?


Thanks for the snacks and conversation. Sorry your hand has slobber all over it and there are stickers in your boyfriend jeans, but we are worth it, right?


Posted in clydesdale horses, Life | Tagged , , | 6 Comments

On Campus 48 years later

by cheri block

This is the time of year where most of us are invited to at least 2-3 graduations and the  parties that follow. We are no exception. I attended my nephew’s graduation in film/business from USC last month and flew down to cheer him on and hear Will Farrell deliver a fine and funny commencement speech.

At the conclusion, I tried to find my daughter and grandson among the throngs of people in University Park,  where, in 1969, I often reclined in the shade of the huge sycamore trees in front of Doheny Library reading poetry by Wordsworth and Coleridge in preparation for my British Lit Before 1800 class.

I remember feeling romantic in the park in 1969 (only four years after the Watts riots so close by the campus) , staring skyward on my back at the hundreds of broad green leaves that  shielded my view from the smoggy yellowish sky of Los Angeles. The security helicopters buzzed Figueroa Avenue often back then, not to be outdone by the hundreds of planes landing at LAX minute by minute. Am I forgetting the Harbor Freeway, so close to that soft lawn, only blocks from my grassy tuffet? Somehow those days, reading the Rime of the Ancient Mariner I  felt dreamy, mystical, and sophisticated. After all, I was only 19 years old and the world was my oyster.

But now.

Will Farrell finished his comedy routine. The graduation  ended. I was alone among thousands, adrift in the sappy memories of my youth and the tremendous passage of time.

I needed to locate my family. The graduation party would begin at a lovely cool Zen restaurant in downtown Los Angeles. Hunger blotted out my sentimentality.

My daughter, somewhere on the periphery of University Park, texted me:


“Mom, where ARE you?”

Sara, I am standing right below Tommy Trojan, the iconic USC bronze statue upon which 1 ton of manure was dumped by helicopter during Homecoming Week, 1969, by some spirited enclave at UCLA. Just head to Tommy Trojan and you will see me. I am wearing a big hat and a small sundress,” I texted with the speed of a slug.

“Mom, where is Tommy Trojan?”

“OMG, Sara. Ask anyone and they will point the way. Everyone, except the grandparents of all of the hundreds of foreign students, knows where Tommy Trojan is.

She materialized and with relief, I hopped down from my pedestal.

My grandson wanted a tour of my old haunts. And my take on then and now. Wow!

What was life like for you at USC in 1969?” he asked, looking at me with his soft brown eyes and smiling through a mouthfull of braces. (God bless him.)

I jumped like a kangaroo gramma at his question despite the fact that the heat of Los Angeles had begun to check in with my circulatory system.

(I have reached a stage in my life, since I sold my business and retired, where few people ask my opinion about anything. When I expressed this sad and sorry state of my personal affairs to my son, he told me that the reason is that most people already know it.)

Ouch. Back to therapy.

So we, that day in May at USC–a generational triumvirate– wandered around the campus, which had experienced tremendous growth and change.

We found my sophomore dorm, Birnkrandt, where my memories of my roommate Susie H and of my horrible soriety rush experience came back with the clarity of a high-country lake.


I told my grandson that Susie and I used to watch two of the greatest male tennis players ever to grace a clay court–Stan Smith and Bob Lutz–from our room and salivate. Those were the days when male tennis players and basketball players wore shorts. I would call down, ” Hi Stan! Nice shot!” and he would look up and smile. Melt.

The tennis courts had vanished, moved across campus to the mega-sports complex by Heritage Hall, where all of the Heisman Trophies (except O.J. Simpson’s) were there for viewing.

And so it went, that day last month, where our family celebrated the newest USC Trojan graduate, my nephew.

At his party, I toasted my Grandfather Harry, who graduated from USC Dental in 1907, one hundred years ago.

Some things have changed in LA. The smog isn’t as bad. The traffic is worse. There are more tattoes and graffiti. The San Gabriel Mountains are still hazy in May.

One thing has not changed: the optimism of the graduates, as they anticipate the next stages in their lives.

Congratulations to you!



Posted in Life, My childhood, People, Places | Tagged , , | 17 Comments

Gravity at the Rancho

by cheri

After a winter of heavy rain and blustery winds, our 58 olive trees, growing on the hillside in three levels of terracing, have suffered mightily.

Planted seven years ago from 15-gallon containers, the trees are large and loaded with tiny olive buds. Many would have  not survived had not our friend Glenn been staying at our home when the trees succumbed to the soppy clay soil (olive trees hate to get their feet wet) and began to topple over, one by one.

Glenn staked them up temporarily back in January.

We were able to begin the repair  last weekend. It was a sorry sight, like Van Gogh’s image here: download-1

We worked all three days. I pruned the trees (artist that I am),  and my husband (the guy with ingenuity and strength), staked up each tree.

To do this, he had to ask his big John Deere tractor to pull each tree erect before he could stabilize it. Then,  he wrapped two  rubber cords attached to thick wires around each trunk,  and finally with  the triple tension in balance ( tractor, tree, wires) pulled back and secured the tree by hammering two metal stakes into the hard earth. He then topped each stake  with a large orange square for safety.  What a guy.

On his way to deposit the cuttings in our huge chip pile, he noticed a small grey pillow of fluff resting on a log. Oh no!!

One only had to look up to the sky to see and hear a frenzied Red-tailed hawk mother screaming, diving, and zig-zagging throughout the sky. Her baby had fallen out of the nest. Frantic is too calm of a word to describe her angst.

In all of the years that we have been watching Red-tailed hawks construct their huge nests high in the pine trees on the Rancho, feed their young,  and finally give flying lessons to their fledglings, we have never known a chick to fall out of the nest.

She fell on some type snake carcass or something:



As you can imagine, it was a stressful experience for all, including us.

Several calls to what I wish had been a local bird hospital but instead  was one 50 miles away, we determined that this chick was not a fledgling learning to fly. It should be in its nest.

As the mother continued to scream, I wondered why she didn’t come down and pick it up.

My husband put on his gloves, constructed a Banker’s box, laid a towel in the bottom, and picked up the very weak fluff ball and put her in her bed for the night.

He set her in the garage.

“Shouldn’t that box be in the house where it is warm?” I inquired.

He wasn’t so sure.

“Let’s set her  on the dining table,” I said.

He reluctantly capitulated; Dinah, the Labrador, agreed with me although her motives may have been insincere. We locked her in the family room for the night.

This morning, as I arose early to drive her to the Lindsay Wildlife Hospital in Walnut Creek, my husband asked me if I was going to look in the box before I left in commute traffic.

To tell you the truth, I almost didn’t look for fear of finding a dead hawk chick, but I heeded his advice. When I picked up the box and put my hand on the bottom, it was warm. Whew.

She was still breathing but very weak.

One hour later, we arrived at the hospital; they took her without emotion and set the box on a heating table. That was that. I felt the need to emote. But. That was that.

“Do not call for two days and inquire about this bird,” a very nice Green woman instructed me.

The hospital was swamped. “Baby birds are falling out of their nests in droves,” she added.

Other people had small tissue and jewelry boxes with, I assumed, small birds within.

I wondered (but did not say), ” Shouldn’t a hawk (or any raptor for that matter) take precedence over say, a sparrow or hummingbird?”

I’m so glad I didn’t ask that question aloud. The room may have been stormed by rampaging Evergreen College students.

In two days, I will call and hope that Margaret (the name I have given this chick) is still alive.

Until then, let’s hope for the best.


June 2, 2017: Good news! Margaret (or Ed, depending on what sex this chick is) is going to make it. She was emaciated and has a bacterial infection of some sort. She has gained weight. The Lindsay Wildlife Hospital indicated that they thought, when ready, she can be released back “home” on the Rancho.


June 7, 2017: Better news! Margaret has now been moved to home care. She is eating and gaining weight. I have no idea when she will be able to hunt by herself and fly. I will call each week and report back to the blog.




Posted in Growing Olives, Life, My photography | Tagged , , | 16 Comments

Release your “kid” inside!

by cheri

One of the secrets to living a zesty life is to remember what you loved when you were a kid.

When paying attention to that “kid” buried in work, adult responsibilities, or sappy nostalgia, you may find that she or he  will come to the surface of your emotions. Suddenly, any doldrums you may feel about the state of the world, the state of the state, or your state of mind will vanish.

In my case, horses remind me of good times.

I carry my camera in my car, hoping for a glimpse of my friends the Clydesdales who, along with a small group of other horses, graze eighty acres on several hillsides that look down on Interstate 680.

Now that the grass is green and my carrots/sugar/apples are not a draw, the little herd has not been down to the old metal corral the owners have in order to catch the horses, and as I learned on Saturday, to water them.

I had groceries in the car and things to do at home which required time.


On my way home, there at the top of the hill were my friends! I had to stop.


OK. The guy on the motorbike is over there. What happened to an old-fashioned round-up?


We are NOT coming down you mechanical monster.


Can we make up our minds?

You can see my big friend, let’s call him Clyde, with his ears pinned back. The other big draft horse is behind him with a roan Clydesdale following up.


OK. We give up. We ARE thirsty. And look who is there with her camera? It’s Cheri!


Easy does it.


There’s the old cowboys who own the herd. Hey Cheri, you want to go to the Rowell Ranch Rodeo this month? Sorry guys, I will be away that weekend.


Geez! That water tastes so delicious!


Cheri, you need to come back with your camera when we are not in the corral or when you are not all dressed up. Cute sandals, btw. Sorry this bar is blocking your photo but, as usual, we are putting our best noses forward.


There we go. Now give me a little kiss.

Jim helped me navigate over the wire fence with out getting a barb stuck in my pants and up the road I drove with melted frozen foods.

What is it that you did in your childhood that would reawaken your “kid” inside?

Posted in Life, My childhood, My photography | Tagged , , , , | 16 Comments

A Woman of Fewer Words


by cheri

I used to be a fast-talker.

Nursery rhymes and pithy poems tumbled out of my mouth, one after another in a dizzying pace, like a carousel moving too quickly in its circular motion.

As the years themselves tumbled by, my speech pattern remained constant: belt out that lesson, that lecture, that funny anecdote before the bell rang in a short 55 minutes.

Time rumbled by. I escaped my 55-minute cage and entered the world of the private educational business.

Running this very busy business, which consisted mainly of East Indian and Chinese clients, exacerbated my motor-mouth.  The East Indians, the Middle-Easterners, and especially the Chinese spoke English faster than I in their frenzied cadence.

Picking up a voice mail from a South Indian and actually understanding it the first time around took the skills of an oral surgeon. Trying to extract meaning from such syllabic hash was not going to stymie me. No way, Jose. And so I continued to meet the challenge, replaying the voice mail until I broke the code. Aha! The caller’s child needed work in speech. Did we have a public speaking class available on Thursdays?

Then I retired. At the Rancho, I felt like a newly-minted Carmelite nun.

And then a slow-creeping disease, a little like leaf-rot, began to manifest itself in my home.

It looked like this:

(Cheri)  I spent the day trying to write one paragraph on my thesis but the topic is so troubling, good God, why did I pick this particular book to dissect? Ron, do you remember when we used to dissect frogs in __________________________________

(Ron) Mr. Evan’s class?

(Cheri) Yes. I remember sitting next to _________________________________________

(Ron) Eric Belden?

(Cheri) Yes. He was the best student. In fact, I think he might have been_____________

(Ron) Number One in our Class?

(Cheri) God Dammit. Will you stop finishing my sentences?

That disease.

The other night, while chopping celery for my chicken soup, I observed (aloud) that I was becoming a quieter person.

He had little to say about my self-analysis.

(Cheri) I suppose you will believe it when you hear it.


Posted in Life, My childhood, People | Tagged , , , | 15 Comments



by cheri sabraw

I stood at the counter at Nordstrom Department Store, waiting to pay for two wallets I was buying for gifts.

In the background, digitized music pounded out a syncopated rhythm that was undeniably nothing recognizable.

It was…just…there…filling the space. A hollow uninteresting beat, some sucking crescendos, repetitive whistles and counter-whistles—in short, a perfect medley of nothing, which reminded me of the music played at Valley Vista Roller Rink at the heyday of my roller-skating days. Ah, yes the organ music which seemed to emanate from a real person sitting in tails, pounding on the pipes as I laced up my roller skates.

A stylish young Indian woman came to the same counter, waiting for service.

“I wonder what Nordstrom would sound like if the manager turned off the music?” I asked.

“ You don’t like music?” she asked with an incredulous flare. (Such a leap of thought reminded me of the miserable critical thinking skills that have been allowed to compost in high school government classes.)

“Oh, I love music; but I don’t care for a digitized robotic sound, if that’s what you meant. I miss the piano player, which Nordstrom scratched several years ago when its market research told the CEO that shoppers preferred the loud hip-hopping slop to Beethoven.

“How do you feel about the quiet?” I asked her.

“The quiet what?” she asked, pursing the space between her lovely heavy brows.

“Oh, the quiet store, the quiet car, the quiet bedroom, the quiet theater. You know, when no music permeates the background of everyday business and life? When our thoughts and buying decisions are left to the recesses of our interior selves instead of a frenetic pounding and pumping and squealing?”

“What are the recesses of our interior selves?” asked the Persian clerk.

“The places in our souls where there is room to imagine and create, small tunnels of perfect silence in which we can feel free to think under the influence of only ourselves.”

“I like background noise,” commented the Indian woman, edging her way into my place at the counter.

“Most Americans do,” I said.







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My friends, the Clydes (again)

by cheri

I’m not sure when my love affair with horses began. I know they were the subject of most of my childhood scribblings, as well as role models for my cantering around the school playground, shaking my mane and swishing the tail I thought I had.

Before long, I had consumed every horse book written for children and young adults. I mowed through Marguerite Henry’s books as if they were made of alfalfa–Black Gold, King of the Wind, and Justin Morgan Had a Horse, to name just three.

I attended a children’s horse camp for years. In that time, I grew from a shrimp to a bigger shrimp but my size never stopped me from saddling the biggest horse in the barn, Amigo. Here is an excerpt from my story about Amigo:

“When I was ten and a big blowhard, I told all of the other buckaroos at Shady Lawn Farm ( a horse camp for children, not an insane asylum for the nervous) that I could back any horse into his stall, saddle him, and make him worship me. All the other little slack-jawed kids with oversized cowboy hats, filthy Western boots clumped with manure, and a moistened blade of alfalfa resting on their lower lips  took notice of this pint-sized horse whisperer.

To demonstrate my equine acumen, I selected Amigo, a 16-hand old Palomino gelding, to canonize  my standing in the Saddle Club.

With his halter over my shoulder and a sugar cube in my pocket, I presented myself in front of this massive horse and introduced myself, “Hey Amigo. I’m Cheri, your friend. Ha, ha.”

The Gang of Eight  scuffed back, leaving boot prints in the dusty pathway by the stalls.

Amigo awaited saddling.

As I reflect on that seminal moment with my present knowledge of the challenge of enduring banal repetition (being saddled for twenty years every day) and sharp pain of life (girths pulled too tight by inexperienced hands),  often delivered to the gentle and the kind, I should have expected Amigo’s recalcitrant response.

My father told me never to turn my back on the ocean. That same advice might be given when backing horses into their stalls.

I turned my back on Amigo, still with his worn leather halter in my gloved hands. There, in front of his massive chest, I elbowed him in that soft place between that wide chest and his mighty foreleg.

“Back, Amigo, ” I ordered. “Back up boy, that’a boy, Amigo, Back, back, back! I whacked my elbow back and forth as if tenderizing a brisket, hoping to impress the crowd now gathered at Stall Number 11.

Then it happened.

Amigo bit me on my head, right through my straw cowboy hat.

I won’t lie. It was a shock. I screamed. The crowd left. I do not remember adults assembling.

It all got down to Amigo and me.

As it always does in life.”

Life presented me with a new opportunity last fall when I stopped at the bottom of our road to photograph these two old Clydesdale horses, who at the time, were hungry because the hills were dry. I had apples and carrots, so they wandered on over.


photo by c. sabraw


And now, they are feeding me.


Posted in My childhood, My painting, My photography | Tagged , , , , | 14 Comments

Mr. Churchill, the painter

by cheri sabraw

I’m not sure when it occurred to me to begin painting my photographs.

But in doing so, new neural pathways of thought are growing  like spring jasmine tendrils.

I am not at the helm of  my frenetic business anymore or staring at a blank screen while writing my thesis, a deadline looming in front of me like a dark and sinister twister.I have the time to re-acquaint myself with oils and canvas, brushes and pencils.

But many do not have much time, either by choice or by necessity.

Winston Churchill wrote a short book, Painting As A Pastime, a collection of short essays that was first published in 1948. I commend it to those of you looking for inspiration to create a respite from the relentless march of your responsibilities.

Most of us, I would hope, are familiar with the excruciating stress that Churchill experienced as a public servant in his early life but even more so as the Prime Minister of Great Britain during World War II. How was he able to be such a steady leader in such unstable  times?

He love affair helped.

With painting, that is.

He began painting in 1925 and continued for fifty years. His paints traveled with him to North Africa to meet Roosevelt,  to the battlefield,  and to his home, Chartwell.

In Painting As A Pastime, he advocates rescuing your brain and emotions with something different.

 ” The cultivation of a hobby and new forms of interest is therefore a policy of first importance to a public man. But this is not a business that can be undertaken in a day or swiftly improvised by a mere command of the will.”

He writes about mental fatigue and about mental rejuvenation.

“A man can wear out a particular part of his mind by continually using it and tiring it, just in the same way as he can wear out the elbows of his coat. There is, however, this difference between the living cells of the brain and inanimate articles: one cannot mend the frayed elbows of a coat by rubbing the sleeves or shoulders; but the tired parts of the mind can be rested and strengthened, not merely by rest, but by using other parts.”

He continues.

” To be really happy and really safe, one ought to have at least two or three hobbies, and they must all be real. It is no use starting late in life to say,’ I will take an interest in this or that.’ Such an attempt only aggravates the strain of mental effort. A man may acquire great knowledge or topics unconnected with his daily work, and yet hardly get any benefit or relief. It is no use doing what you like; you have got to like what you do.”

The Roman poet Horace has been credited with this quotation that, I might add, is included in the Publisher’s Preface  to Painting As A Pastime:

“Dare to great (wise): begin!”


My friends, the Clydes, who live at the bottom of our road

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On the road to Oklahoma


“Home watching the nest” photo by c. sabraw 2017

by cheri

My husband flew to Flagstaff, Arizona, last night to hook up with his high-school buddy, who is driving to Oklahoma to inspect the oil wells his father left him and his brother. Evidently, one well is not producing.

“Bring your work boots and gloves,” Bruce told Ron.

So off they drive into tornado country, two vital and manly sixty-somethings, jeans and work boots, memories and nostalgia.

It is a very neat (and sexy) package.

Masculine seems to out of favor these days what with the pelting of the American male by everybody and every institution on the West Coast and East Coast. And sadly, the American male has acquiesced, in some cases becoming soft and squishy.

I am attracted to a man who like his vodka tonics (and gets annoyed when the tonic is out of a gun), who approaches serious topics with serious intensity, who has a Skill Saw in his garage and can perform electrical repair, who chooses a hotdog at the turn instead of a salad, who knows how to shoot a rifle and a handgun instead of how to call the alarm company, who has served his country, who still carries a handkerchief in his back pocket, who has no idea how to  use Uber, and who still wants to enlist in the Israeli IDF (if needed).

This kind of man appeals to me.

God Speed.


“It’s OK to be prickly ” photo by c. sabraw 2017




Posted in Life, People | Tagged | 42 Comments