Bread of Fire

I saw… The Holy Grail,

descend upon the shrine,

I saw the fiery face as of a child

That smote itself into the bread…

Tennyson, Idylls of the King, The Holy Grail

Bread king of the Humboldt County Fair in Ferndale, California, two years running, and for my trifecta I had a definitive plan: bake my crowning achievement—a personal Holy Grail that one else could ever achieve—collect another blue ribbon, then promptly retire from breadmaking while I was still on top.

Being raised in the south, I learned to eat spicy hot peppers and love them. All my life I’ve never been able to turn down thick slices of bread. Why not combine my two favorite food groups—fire and flour?

Well I did. My chef-d’oeuvre was to be a white bread with hot peppers, since one of my favorite pastimes is to eat habaneros fresh off the vine. But my wife suggested I avoid habaneros because she thought it best to not incinerate the tongues of the judges.

“That would get you a definite thumbs-down,” she advised, “would probably get you banned from entering anything in the fair ever again. Stick with  jalapenos.”

She had a point, and I almost took her advice. I avoided the habaneros (a Scoville heat unit of 150,000). But jalapenos rate only 2,500 to 5,000 Scoville heat units. I wanted something with a little kick, so I opted for a combination of cayenne and red chili peppers (50,000 to 65,000 Scoville heat units).

I worked my dough like a pro, with my eyes on the prize. I let the dough rise, then I worked it some more. I placed it carefully in the oven, then ran my hands across my face and eyes to wipe away the sweat of a hot summer day.

I never saw the bread. The chili oil on my hands, mixed with salty sweat, swelled my eyes closed. For days I could not stop the blur of tears that failed to soothe the burning embers in my eyes. My wife had to drive me to the fair to deliver my entry.

I did receive my third blue ribbon. But I could not focus my eyes well enough to really see it until the next week.

I retired from breadmaking.

Good Ol’ Gal

We met, and she bit me. I loved her from that moment. I adored her lumpiness and how her butt drooped more heavily to the right when she walked—pigeon-toed. Her tawny fur bordered near mange, her ears hung in tatters, but a healthy diet would fix all that, and would even stop her seizures. My wife and I adopted Tiva from the rescue service without thinking twice.

The shelter said our Deerlegged Chihuahua was only five years old and spayed. That first week, after a checkup, shots, and the removal of several rotted teeth, the vet said Tiva was probably eleven or more years old. We loved her anyway.

After several months Tiva stopped hiding under the bed, stopped snapping at us, and begged to be held or to sit on our laps.

She slept every night beneath the covers, wrapped in my wife’s arms. We took her everywhere, and on rare occasions when we didn’t, a tiny face with sad eyes peeked just over the sill of the front window to watch us leave. She knew the sound of the car, of our bikes, and the rhythm of our feet. She always met us at the door as if never having gotten farther than a few feet from it during our absence.

Tiva loved the vegetable garden, snorfling for bugs and stuffing her nose into holes. Only once did being outdoors upset her, the day three crows plopped into the backyard and followed like wisecracking teenagers behind her as she skulked away.

On good days, Tiva would laugh.

She loved the beach, the one place on Earth where she would run without coaxing—edging to the water line, racing back before the tide got her.

December 2007, Tiva became lethargic and struggled into the new year. One evening she dropped. My wife and I stayed up all night pumping her with our hands to keep her breathing so we could get her to the vet in the morning. Within minutes of our arrival, Tiva underwent surgery. January 8, 2008: removal of a 1.2 pound infected uterus from a 5.8 pound dog.

Tiva slowed way down, but remained happy.

Six months later, she went deaf, which was actually a good thing. She couldn’t hear the thunder of the Independence Day fireworks, which in previous years drove her into a frenzy and under the bed to disappear for a few. She had finally gained a reprieve. But by Christmas Tiva began to go blind. The vet now guessed that she was no younger than fourteen years old, was lucky to have lived the four years we’d had her.

She made it into the new year, but the last week of January she began screaming incessantly. She paced blindly, ran into walls, doors, and fell over threshold dividers. We didn’t let her on the bed, afraid she would fall. The incessant screaming got louder, and it did not stop. Sedatives did nothing.

Monday, February 2, 2009, the vet gave us a stronger sedative, told me to use as much as I wanted. I didn’t catch the underlying drift because I was adamantly opposed to putting Tiva down; she was not in pain… but the screaming… . 

Wednesday, I realized it was terror in my old gal’s blind eyes. I removed all the furniture from my music studio so Tiva could pace and wander without injury, but she got stuck in corners. Her terror grew even louder.

One of my adult guitar students came in a few days later for her weekly lesson, but she could hear Tiva, though I had shut the tiny old girl in a room at the back end of the house. My student started her finger-picking exercise then looked right at me. “A good friend will have enough love to make the hardest decision anyone will ever have to make.” I deliberated a few days, then my wife and I made a decision on that following Wednesday night. She held Tiva while I pumped our old gal with enough of the sedatives the vet had given us to down a thoroughbred.

It did not work.

Thursday morning, I called the vet and asked to bring in Tiva. I didn’t need to say what for. They knew. My wife and I arrived at the hospital, Tiva screaming in my arms. The vet ushered us immediately to a room, no words spoken. My wife cradled Tiva during the first injection, a relaxant to her get calm. Tiva’s eyes cleared. She went limp. My wife carried our girl to the examination table, laid her down so we both could hold Tiva as she died. For the first time in months, Tiva aimed clear focused eyes at us and smiled. The final injection, Tiva’s body went instantly still. My wife and I stopped crying.

Our old gal found peace—February 5, 2009, 7:58 on a rare sunny morning in Humboldt County.

I regret that we did not relieve Tiva’s pain earlier, wish that I had not held so steadfastly to my vow not to kill in any circumstance. Sometimes death is the only thing in life that will return our comfort and relieve our fear. When it happens to me, I hope my friends and family let go of their intellectualizing and act from their hearts.

Tiva: one cute little piece of stuff.


Do not judge these words with spouts of anger. Vizualize these sentences and paragraphs in the way you see water, in all its forms. Go with the flow, immerse yourself in the currents and eddies, linger upon the shore… but do not cast stones, for they cause only ripples, which is karma.

We are not all in the same boat. We are in the same storm, on the same journey toward whatever individual conclusions we want to believe.