Practical Considerations

I am wallowing in a barrage of helpless feelings. August is here and with it, the end to my 26th summer as a teacher. This summer was yet another, like 2012 and 2014, where we were able again to travel and so we went back to Yellowstone, 20 years after Sue and I had gone their together, and then back to the East Coast visiting first with my cousin, Marilyn and her husband, Don, who have become such good friends in our lives–and with Conni and her family from Austria. The latter visit, brief though it was–in New Haven, CT.–was a wonderful chance to catch up and see them again.

These travels, as good travel always does, led to much introspection on my part about where and how and why and all of it. The usual existential angst sets in after you’ve spent several weeks being in beautiful places with friends and family spending days as you wish and enjoying each other’s company. I did that on such a large scale that coming back to my routine feels less than satisfying. It’s a warning, of course, but it is more so a reality check.

The epic gorgeous mountains of Montana and Wyoming, silhouettes of blue and green, blocking out whole swaths of sky, enshrouded some days in mist and clouds, lightning and storm, hold an otherworldly charm. But they are not places where the average person can go to find work and “settle down.” Just the same, the East Coast trip was certainly a reminiscence for me as I lived back there as a boy and traveled there often throughout my teens and 20’s and now into later adulthood–but as much as I love it and consider it “home,” it really isn’t. Home is, of course, where Sue and Shannon are and they are here. They don’t appear to want to live back east and while I’d be willing to give it a go, the fact is Sue and I are not in our 30’s anymore, we’re not just able to “start over” with new careers, etc. Practical considerations set in at some point and one must reckon with those.

Still, the joy of the free-time together, traveling together and seeing things–new things, and old things with new eyes, was balm for all of our souls. Shannon is taking a US History course over summer and while it is not an optimal learning environment, it has given us a chance to talk about a lot of history, which I find fascinating and the summer travels provided us with first hand looks at Gettysburg, Mt. Vernon, the Hamilton/Burr dueling grounds, Lexington and Concord, Boston and so much more. These touchstones enlivened her experience and gave her more than just paragraphs written by committee in a textbook.

More profoundly was the further cementing of our relationship with my cousin, Marilyn and her husband, Don. I was always close to her mom and dad, my aunt and uncle and when Aunt Virginia passed away in November of 2015, I reached out to Marilyn and Don to invite them here and we spent a glorious week together visiting Monterey and points north and enjoying each other’s company. So it was this summer that we gathered together in Yellowstone for a week–and then visited for four days in Maryland together while they hosted us on our east coast trip.

Family as friends, new journeys and growing through times of tragedy and pain—that appears to be the core, the center of my life, perhaps all our lives.

More to come….

Onward.

Borne Back Ceaselessly

The rolling hills, green and lush grasses and trees passed by the window as I looked out. This was my childhood, Maryland and Pennsylvania and it wasn’t a pleasure trip. My dad and I traveled back to Maryland to say goodbye to my cousin, Craig. He died last November and his immediate family decided that the holidays wouldn’t do for goodbyes. So, on April 8, a bright, cool, blue-sky day, we gathered at Catonsville United Methodist Church and grieved my cousin with family, friends and the love of an ominpresent God.

The service was simple and beautiful and we all ate lunch in the anterooms of the church, then back to my cousin Marilyn’s and her husband Don’s house. There was more food, more stories and a time of sharing, laughter, grief and sadness–but also, support and kindness. The bloom of it, a kind of thorned-rose that was at once sharp and beautiful, strong and vulnerable, was a site for us all. I think we knew it, too.

I’m not a champion traveler–flying is nerve wracking, though exciting to me, and new schedules, broken routines, different beds and sleeping arrangements, all of it messes with me more than it should. But since I don’t travel for work, the only time I do is when I’m forced to–or I’m on a vacation. True here as anywhere, but there was a kind of peace as night fell for those three nights in Maryland. I slept well, though briefly, and I was not troubled by serpent dreams or haunting images. I simply slept.

On Sunday morning, I awoke early and took a solitary morning walk. My cousin lives less than a mile from the house my aunt and uncle lived in. I spent many happy hours in that house and brought my own family there in 2012. The place is a store of memories for me, all of them good and loving ones. But when my aunt could no longer safely navigate the house on her own in her 90’s, she sold it and moved in with my cousin. My aunt passed a year before Craig did and so it was that I found myself in the early morning cool outside of the house now owned by strangers, but flooded with streams of childhood memory–and of recent memory that I’ve written about previously here.

It was Palm Sunday and we rode up to the Pennsylvania border where my cousin’s son and his family live. The day was spectacular, cool and breezy and the warm sun’s contrast brought into sharp relief the slow-sloping, gentle and low mountains of Maryland’s north-western country. Adams County, Pennsylvania sits just across the close border and Camp David and the Appalachian Trail run hard by here in the northern portion of the Blue Ridge. And here I ignored with near abandon the actual activities of the present–a birthday party for the young one’s of my second-cousin’s family. I was adrift on clouds of images–real and imagined–of my own childhood. I spent a good deal of time in Maryland with my aunt and uncle, my cousins and family and for a short time, lived an hour and a half away in Pennsylvania. I mark those times now with stars of favor because they were a firm foundation. And there was this feel of that balmy time, of no real cares and of summer coming while lightning bugs filled the sky and shimmers of lightning rolled across the valley, pelting small rain drops in their wake.

But it wasn’t that–not at all. It was a time of grief, marked by growing older, full of cares and crosses and knowing that all is fleeting. So Monday’s early morning flight back to the west coast was a passage through time. The Southwest flight was from Baltimore to Oakland, Calif. and the normal route was to take dad and I over Ohio and Southern Illinois, Missouri and then west. Instead, we went to the north. We flew over Lake Michigan, just to the north of Chicago where I was a boy, then over Wisconsin, where my dad’s brother and my cousins from that family live and where we went as children to visit and vacation. I stole glimpses out the window, remembering, wondering and drinking it all in.

As we headed west, we flew over Yellowstone National Park, where we’ll meet Marilyn and Don again this summer and flew over the Rockies and out to the coast. I had traveled back in time and spent three days in a kind of dream where I was not the main character, but where I could be to heal and grieve and where I could help others do the same, reminded again that our greatest contribution in life is to be friends, to be family and to love one another.

Our pasts are windows and all too often, our suffering involves their memory, which can invade in the present and steal our content. But our pasts are also defining, self-monitored moments where our ages, as stone, are still and silent allowing us to catch up with them so we are, as F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “borne back ceaselessly into” them.

Onward.

 

The weight of this sad time…

With every attempt at writing in this past year, I’ve stymied myself–and allowed myself to be thwarted. Edd’s and Brett’s deaths are recounted in these pages. My friends, representing large swaths of my life, gone too early, leaving vacant craters behind that leave empty spaces never meant to be empty. Time has passed and I’ve carried on, but their absence is a very real presence in my life.

Then, just before Thanksgiving, my cousin Craig Varner, died unexpectedly. He didn’t take very good care of himself and his heart gave out. It was a blow that capped off 2016 with another deep crater. In our childhoods, Craig and my brothers and I were all very close. In recent years, I’ve become closer with my cousins and Marilyn, Craig’s sister, and her husband Don came to visit us last summer, before Craig’s death. We will also see them again this summer. But in the midst of that, I got to see Craig last in 2012 and I could tell then he wasn’t as happy as I’d like to have seen him.

I have fond memories of Craig coming to our home in the San Fernando Valley in summer when we were all young. We swam in the pool, walked to get ice cream, played fast pitch, went to movies. Those were happy times. I just never imagined he’d be gone so soon. He leaves behind a son, a senior in high school, whose grief is terrible. And all we can do–all anyone can do for the bereaved, is to show up and shut up. Nothing makes it better. Nothing heals it. I was listening to comedian Patton Oswalt whose wife died in April last year. “You can say you’re done with grief,” he said. “But grief will let you know when he’s done with you.” Those words struck me square. It’s true. I know because I’ve lived it.

I didn’t know Craig as well in my adult years. We both moved on, had families and made lives for ourselves across the country from one another. Craig wasn’t much of a talker, but he was kind and caring and he was lovable and he had a great smile. I’ll always remember that wry smile. He was sarcastic and dry and many times, silent and withdrawn. He had his reasons. But my childhood is filled with memories of my cousin and I can’t picture those frosty New Year’s Nights in Maryland without Craig and my brothers and a trip to Mike’s Sub Shop.

Early next month, I’ll go with my dad to Baltimore where we’ll participate in Craig’s memorial service. My cousins all decided that they didn’t want to have the service so close to the Holidays so as not to allow that to be the main memory of the next years–and as Craig’s birthday was April 8, we’ll hold his service on that day. The closure is necessary, but not wanted–and I write this more as testament for myself than anything else.

In recent months, Sue’s health has changed and we had a scare in the last two weeks as she suffered another pancreatitis attack, which brought on dehydration and that combined with some truly awful meds she’s been taking for several years caused her kidneys to begin to shut down. Last weekend this time, she was in the hospital rehydrating and going cold turkey off of those meds, giving her kidneys a chance to stabilize. Apparently, once the damage is done–the kidneys don’t mend. If the damage is severe, then dialysis is called for. So far, that doesn’t seem to be Sue’s case. Her numbers were closer to normal, though not quite, when she was released last Sunday. And her marching orders are for real lifestyle changes, weight loss, no alcohol, low sodium, you name it.

I have faith and I think Sue does, too. She has taken a walk after dinner every night since she got home from the hospital but one. We have been eating healthy food and she’s seeking the counsel of good medical professionals, though that irks her beyond words. She’s tired of the medical runaround. But we’re determined to see her through and make some positive changes that will help her.

And this is where it all peters out. I’m frustrated by my own inability to write about this in a way that makes me feel better. Writing has always been a way for me to express myself and I don’t know if I have here. Perhaps–or perhaps I’m still grappling with it all to see what happens next. I know I’m not interested in company these days. I’m tired, too–anxiety ridden from all of this pain and uncertainty and since Sue doesn’t feel 100 percent, it’s easier just to stay hunkered down with her-figure out what the next step is and take it cautiously.

But, as the title of this post intimates, I’m following Shakespeare’s advice: “The weight of this sad time we must obey. Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.”

Onward.

Brett Ropes

He was tall and lanky and had dark hair and bright eyes. Brett was an athlete, he had been since he was a boy, and he carried it with him into his 40’s as he continued to be an avid golfer and surfer. We met 20 years ago for the first time when he subbed for me as I missed school one day during my first year of teaching at Camarillo High School, seven years into my teaching career. We remained friends since.

Brett passed away yesterday at 5:40 in the evening surrounded by his family after a brief illness.

We weren’t natural friends–that is, we didn’t spend all of our time together. We had common interests, though and those grew as I got back into baseball these past few years. In August of last year, we went to an Angels game together along with my wife, Sue, and had a great time.

Brett was a funny man, full of laughter and sardonic wit. He was part of “the breakfast club,” a group of us teachers who gather every morning to share a cup of coffee, some laughs and kvetch about the ongoing foibles of our lives in education.

Shannon is a year older than Brett’s daughter and when they were young, during the summer months, Shannon and I would go to Brett’s house and swim in his pool while Shannon and Brett’s daughter did, too. We were dads, we had that in common too, and we would bbq a couple of hot dogs, drink a beer or two and spend the summer afternoons hanging out together. As the girls grew into teenagers and went their way, we both looked back on those times fondly and we talked of them often.

My heart has been broken so many times this year, that it is mere scar tissue holding it together. Brett was 45 years old and had people he loved and who loved him very much. He was lovable and kind–always looking out for others. He kept secrets about himself, that is true, but perhaps we all do at some level.

I remember referring to Brett as “the rookie,” and he continued with that moniker, at least to me, for many years. Brett loved teaching–he loved history and he looked forward to days he had organized and focused lesson plans to share with kids. He liked kids, too. He related with them well and he enjoyed their company. He was good to them and they responded to that. He would often leave early from the “breakfast club” because he had to set something or other up for his morning. He would unlock his room early so kids could leave things in there–athletes left gear, others left unused textbooks or projects they couldn’t carry around all day. Brett was their go-to guy.

Brett was an atheist, or perhaps agnostic. In the years I knew him, we would talk about faith and God and he would say, “I’ve never experienced it–never had the feeling.” He tried going to church, but said “it didn’t work for me.”

More than anything right now, I’m praying that God has introduced Himself to Brett and that He is rejoicing at his coming home.

But for me, the one thing that keeps coming to mind is a quote from the film made from one of my favorite books, A River Runs Through it, in which the Reverend McLean says:

Each one of us here today will at one time in our lives look upon a loved one who is in need and ask the same question: We are willing to help, Lord, but what, if anything, is needed? For it is true, we can seldom help those closest to us. Either we don’t know what part of ourselves to give or, more often than not, the part we have to give is not wanted. And so it is those we live with and should know who elude us. But we can still love them – we can love completely without complete understanding.

I love and I miss my friend, Brett Ropes. And I always will.

“…Or you can love…”

The hand that reaches down to save you is never the one you expect. The salvation we seek looks so very different from how we’ve fashioned it in our imaginations–how we’ve worked over its edges and smoothed them with our memories and reflections of time.

A world without Edd Hendricks is a sad world for me. For the many days after I learned of his death, I cried uncontrollably at moments not of my choosing. It’s mornings I still fear most. Edd and I were morning creatures during these past few years. With his health issues and his young children and my career as a teacher, the early morning was time we spent together. We’d get bagels and coffee and during the winter months, it was dark at 6:00 am and the cool morning air and dew or light rain from the Pacific punctuated our meetings.

I loved these mornings more than I ever admitted to myself. I valued Edd’s friendship deeply and though we were unable to spend as much time together as we would have liked owed to schedules, Edd’s health issues and the like, a bagel and a coffee will never be the same for me. I haven’t had one since he passed–and I don’t know when I will again. I can’t bring myself to walk in the Old New York bagel shop in Camarillo. I’ll see him sitting there, I know I will. He’ll be scraping off the excess cream cheese, making a wry comment about something or other, giving me the latest joke from his dad, Tom–or talking about taking the kids, he called the “Bacon and the Egg,” to school.

I began to have meta conversations with myself at the end of May, wondering if grief continued to look this way. A friend at school likes to say, “grief is a tricky fellow…” and it’s the understatement of the year. I think about Leanne and Bacon and Egg all the time, still. I imagine that their grief makes mine a pale and shallow copy. And I know that a loving God is here somewhere looking after them, after me–after all of us who feel the pain of Edd’s passing so very deeply.

As I’ve explained previously, Edd made me into a musician. I always liked to perform–at least, I used to. I was always on the fringes of it, never taking it seriously enough to pursue it with gusto and sometimes lamenting that. But now at 50, I don’t find regret in my choices. There’s a bit of performance in every teacher and I’ve had unique, wonderful and magical experiences as a teacher and a journalist. I’ve been able to speak to large audiences, travel the west coast for stories, play small parts in little plays and write–and write. I like to think Edd was proud of me for writing. We talked about it a lot and he was interested.

But it was an e-mail from Michael Arndt, seemingly from nowhere, that changed the tenor of it all. Michael is the founder and creative director of the Kingsmen Shakespeare Company and we’ve been acquainted, been friends, for as long as Edd and I have. Michael is a professor at Cal Lutheran University and was when I was a student there. I learned Shakespeare, grudgingly, from Michael’s passion. I was an English major, tightly wound up in analysis and historical reference. Michael taught me to love the performance.

In 2006, I was teaching Othello to my high school students and Michael had come out to talk to them about the Bard. It was later on that he asked me to play the small part of the Duke of Venice in the Kingsmen production and when I did, I learned more in the six weeks I spent on that show than ever I learned at the feet of English professors and notes. I teach Shakespeare differently in my own Shakespeare class as a result. I teach the written word as performance and the character as key to understanding.

This time, 10 years later, he was mounting a production of Henry V, a play I also teach and know well. He needed someone to play the King’s old friend, Bardolph, and running out of options, he asked me. I was both frightened and thrilled. More than anything, I was sad and defeated and I needed Michael’s guiding hand more than he needed me. So, for the past 6 weeks, I have once again lived the life of an actor, mounting a production and learning new things, creating new worlds and foraging for ideas while collaborating with wonderful, talented people.

But more than anything, what Michael did was allowed me to distract myself in my grief. I still go to bed every night and wake up every morning thinking of Edd.

Last night was the final performance and, like so many great enterprises, great collaborations–it changed me. It gave me purpose when I was seeking it and it distracted me to with creativity, love, purpose and soul. Henry V allowed me to gather again with old friends and make many new ones, too.

But more than anything, what the cast and crew of Henry V taught me was that creativity is at the heart of the world. Edd knew this-it was his passion AND his dream AND his life AND his living AND it’s what he did, as Michael Faulkner said in the person of Captain Fluellen in the play.

And it goes on. My eloquence is waning–but my heart is full today.  Now-and recent months, have brought grief to the doorstep of so many, but now I know and I can assure you–there is love, creativity and life in this world. If you need reminding, allow me to introduce you to the Kingsmen Shakespeare Company.

“Pick up the weapon, marry it give it your name. Define yourself by it….Or, you can love.”–Steve Hogarth, Marillion.

 

 

Edd Hendricks

Pray without ceasing. Even when you don’t mean it.

This is raw and unrefined and I may come to refine it later–and I may not. I just don’t know. For your information:

This is not an obituary. I’ve written those. They are measured and temperate. This is not.

Edd Hendricks died in a maelstrom of rage and defiance. Of anger infused with self-righteous indignation. Or was that me? Edd was the quintessential embodiment of a man more sinned against than sinning.

Edd Hendricks died peacefully in his sleep in the most absurd and apropos of places, a motel room in Gallup, New Mexico.

He was 48 years old. And he had been wracked with illness for many years–but none of it, we thought, was deadly.

He was among my very best friends. We had a difficult and, at times, tumultuous, relationship. And yet we loved each other like brothers and we stood by each other–for all of it, even when we didn’t.

Grief, in the form of trauma, consumes me now and these words are as broken as my fettered heart and as heavy as my exhausted steps, weighed down as they are by the shock, sadness, desolation, faithlessness and devastation that I feel.

I stood up for him at his wedding and he stood up for me at mine. The music that defined his life began to define mine. I was never a musician, but that was an indifferent fact–and it didn’t matter because Edd was a musician enough for both of us, for all of us. He took both Chris Ulm and me and turned the three of us into a band, a working rock band playing clubs and parties and mostly practicing and expressing ourselves through cover songs, then originals, giving us each what we needed musically, then personally, so that we might be better–or at least, good enough. I wrote a song after my college roommate was murdered and Edd set it to music. It became, he said, his favorite song in the set of original songs we wrote. I called it “This Life:”

Please shed some light on my last day’s dying breath

Can I please go home now? Can I get some rest?

I just want to miss him the way that I do now.

Can I please be human? Can you show me how?

I’ve known Edd for 29 years. In the past year, he lived a mile away from my house and we spent more time together especially and unfortunately at the hospital several times over this past year as he was in for one thing or the other. I know Edd. He’s watching me write this right now wondering why I’m not being funnier–why I’m not being understated and self-effacing, a craft he’d mastered long ago. It was his most attractive and most decadent quality. No one was more creative than Edd. Just ask him. He would tell you how bad he is.

This is just to say: Edd didn’t die young. His soul was very old indeed. He wore the countenance and the provenance of a much older man, but he had more in common with young children than any man I ever knew. He was patient and mild and he hardly ever raised his voice. But when he raised it at me, because I deserved it, I knew that it was authentic.

He loved people in ways that I envy and try to emulate. He loved his wife, his boys, his dogs, his friends. He loved unconditionally and saw that people’s rough edges were merely reflections and battle scars and he never held anyone to account for them. He was full of grace–he had grace popping out of his ears, mouth, eyes and nose and at times, his fingers and toes.

In the last year, he had written down–and would say to me, “I’m pretty sure God has a sense of humor. I’m just trying to understand it now.” His body was breaking down and he was in pain.

I caught a terrible glimpse, a prophecy of his passing, a year ago or so when he was in the hospital suffering from pericarditis and fluid collecting around his lungs. The pain he suffered didn’t let him move very much or very well and for several days, he lay in bed, getting up only for the most basic functions. That’s when the condition hit and he was hospitalized. While he was there, I went to visit shortly after he’d been medicated pretty heavily. He couldn’t really talk, he was slow to respond and in the middle of a sentence, he simply drifted off. He was still, silent and lay with his mouth open, perhaps forming the word that had been just on the tip of his tongue. It frightened me to see him that way. I put my hand on his head and leaned in to kiss him. I left him a note saying I had been there and later that night, we talked by phone.

The last time I saw him was three days before he passed. He and Leanne, his mother and his boys were busily packing along with movers and other friends were at the house getting the boys situated to fly off to their new home in Colorado. I’d written him a note and I have a feeling I’ll always be glad I did–though I am unsure if he read it. I put it in a copy of David McCullough’s book Brave Companions and gave it to him, told him to read it on the road…

That was Edd’s favorite place, you know? I was lucky enough to take at least three major road trips with Edd. He was an Edd in his natural habitat when he was behind the wheel of a car. He loved driving and he knew cars, though I wouldn’t call him a gearhead. He was less concerned with the mechanics of them than he was with driving them. Cold mornings against pale blue skies and early sunrises with Western Mountains in sharp relief, I was fortunate enough to share road-time, cheap motel and restaurant time and drive-time with him. He was content–the journey was the destination and the destination didn’t matter. Edd was at the wheel-the weather was indifferent and right now was what mattered.

He was a monster musician. A multi-instrumentalist whose passion for guitar and writing were incomparable and his eclectic musical tastes were the stuff of legend. In college, he had the best radio show on the campus station because he’d play music that no one ever heard of, but loved–and then he’d play Freebird by Skynyrd.

He wore epic t-shirts in college that caused you to laugh so hard when you saw him that you’d have to recover yourself before you spoke to him. One shirt said, “What are you looking at, Dicknose?” And I suppose that today, such a shirt would offend someone and they’d go crying to some authority somewhere. When Edd wore it, you couldn’t help but laugh and I don’t remember anyone ever taking offense.

Because Edd embodied love more than most people I know and because he made choices I didn’t always agree with, I found myself even more attracted to his friendship. He was a mythological character with equal measures of strength and weakness and he never allowed himself to be defined by any of it. He was struggling, not just physically, but metaphysically. He wondered where he belonged and what he should pursue as his life’s work, but you see that’s where I’m on a bit more solid ground today, much more so than I expected to be.

Because Edd’s life work was love and its most vibrant and creative expression to people who he believed deserved it most–and to people he knew deserved it least. I loved him for it and I miss him, the world misses him.

I know God has a sense of humor. And I’m still trying to understand it.

 

A grace of time

For almost 10 years, I’ve identified myself as a writer. Publicly and even privately, I’ve indicated that I’m a journalist, a writer and a reporter. I have business cards that say so. My social media profiles indicate it. I have bylines in the New York Times, the San Jose Mercury News, the Ventura County Star, The Acorn, Ventana Magazine, Christianity Today and half a dozen others. It’s who I thought I was. At the same time, I was a high school English teacher. I never kidded myself–teaching is my bread and butter. It’s how I’ve been able to buy the three homes I’ve owned, at least partially–and it’s how I have health insurance and a pension and all the things that really allow me the life I have.

In October, certain that I needed to take a break from the punishing effects of having two careers, I took a hiatus from reporting and writing. I finished up a few stories for Ventana magazine and I put aside my laptop as a work device and I turned back to my classroom, engaged in teaching, grading, lesson-planning and working with my students. I purposely avoided (and continue to avoid) committees and meetings that I can avoid and focus primarily on my job as a teacher.

When I took that break before Thanksgiving and Christmas, I told myself that surely once the holidays are over, our overseas guests, Rainer, Michaela, Conni and Vicki are gone and we are settled back into our routines, I would pick up again and begin reporting stories and writing for publications.

It hasn’t happened.

It was as much a surprise to me as it was to my family, I think. January came and I had no real compunction to jump back into the game. By the end of the month, however, I contacted one editor at the Ventura County Star, the local daily newspaper where I had done most of my work, and said I was ready to come back on a limited basis–that is, maybe one or two stories a month. Nothing fancy.

But the Star, which only a year ago had been sold, was being sold again–and the budget axe that fell this time cut deep into bone and tissue as far as I can tell and lay offs were deep and wide. People I know that had worked at the Star for more than 20 years were suddenly faced without employment. The great American corporate spirit of destroying something in order to save it was on full display. In brief, the freelance budget was one of the first things to go.

And other than the loss to the community, the First Amendment and my friends (surely a tale for another time), I found myself not caring about my place in it all. I wasn’t concerned, I didn’t panic and contact multiple other editors looking for work, though I contacted one or two locally to see if there might be a story to write, and I found none. I went from being one of the busiest freelance journalists I know to being completely out of work and, as Shakespeare would say, “cold for action.” There was nothing on the horizon.

I continue to be surprised as anyone about how nonplussed I am about it. If I scratch at the itch long enough, I admit that I do miss parts of it–but just parts–and I do not sit around thinking wistfully about the next writing gig I get or the next editor’s phone call. When I was in my 30’s, I set out to become a freelance writer, a content contributor, a journalist and a reporter. I’ve accomplished that. I’ve written for some of the greatest publications in the world (Decanter Magazine, the New York Times) and I’ve been a regular contributor to publications I’ve always wanted to write for (San Jose Mercury News, Silicon Valley Business Journal). I’ve met celebrities whom I’ve admired, interviewed people whose stories are so heartbreaking and beautiful that I cried with and for them, shared meals, coffee and drinks with literally hundreds of people whom I would have never before known and I’ve covered the poor who celebrate Easter with thanks and grace and I’ve covered the rich who sometimes mindlessly hoard and other times anonymously share–their abundance. I accomplished a goal I set for myself 20 years ago and, short of continuing to do more of the same, I feel like I achieved something.

I didn’t get rich in the bargain. In fact, owed to my wife’s and my colossally bad business decisions at home, I got poorer. I lost the house I owned last, I’m in debt up to my eyeballs and at 50, I’m not thinking about a nice long vacation–I’m thinking about whether I can afford a weekend away somewhere with my family and whether we can arrange to buy a slightly used car that has enough safety features for me to be comfortable with my soon-to-be 15 year old daughter behind the wheel.

But I did meet new friends, I did learn about people in ways I never have before. I stretched out into worlds I had no other business being in and learned about different lives and different eyes. My career as a journalist contributed to my ability to host foreign exchange students like Soife and Conni and now, I have friends across the world with whom I communicate regularly. I find myself looking at the world in ways I didn’t before I met these people and I realize that I got as much from them as they got from any publicity my stories brought them. I know I’m a better teacher because of my journalism career and I know I’m more open-minded and open-hearted.

Onward.

Sunday dogs

So much time and in such little parcels that it escapes. Like Simon, running off leash across the park into a barranca and up the hill on the other side to see the Sunday dogs in their yards. He leaps the distance across the small canyon with almost animated prowess. It’s as though he isn’t touching the ground and a distance of three or four minutes is closed to less than 15 seconds. And a walk of a few minutes turns into half an hour and then more as he faithfully runs to all the fences to report where he is and asks why they are still in their yards.

And now, another year. It was a year ago today that we moved away from the house we owned for nearly nine years. Rather, it owned us and slave-like, forced us into nearly a decade of servitude–of never-ending bills with empty bank accounts, and debt that mounted like snow on mountaintops and broken water heaters, slab leaks, roofing repairs, landscape difficulties. Money, money and more money–a penny earned was a penny wasted.

I liken our lives to a ship and in the fall of 2014, we assessed the vessel with its leaky hull and torn sails. It listed to starboard and lumbered on uncertain of its fate–wracked by one storm after another, it was clear that one more storm would sink her. We were doomed unless we could right the ship.

So we made the decision to start plugging the holes in the hull and sent the crew atop to replace or sew up the sails by selling the house. We have owned three houses in our lives, but the third one, while it certainly was home, was never ours. The extraordinary mistake of buying it in 2006 coupled with a horrible sub-prime mortgage deal that we foolishly accepted created a gaping hole that we simply couldn’t fill. We had to sell and we did so knowing that it’s probable that we will not own real estate in California again.

In keeping with the ship metaphor, after that, we started bailing out the hull and in the past year, the ship is upright again, it’s not taking on water and the hull is drying out because the home we now have, we rent-for less than the mortgage we had and secure in that whatever repairs need to be made here, they are for the most part not our concern. We can weather storms now and we can sail with confidence. We continue to bail out the hull and trim the sails–but more for adjustment and weather-tacking, rather than sheer salvation. We’re safe and headed toward a calm and safe harbor. Maybe one day we’ll buy a home again, but not here–not now and not very soon.

One year ago today, we moved into a house that we rent from some friends of ours. We did so while Shannon was on her trip to Washington D.C., Philadelphia and New York with her eighth grade class. When she left for the trip, she lived in one house around the corner from the school she’d attended since kindergarten. When she arrived home late the night of March 7, it was to a new house and bedroom-just up the street from the school she would attend in the fall.

Shannon is now in high school and finding her place among the masses as she seeks out what brings her joy and what she cares about. As a parent–and particularly one who has a unique inside view to his child’s high school years as I am with her every day at school–I find myself caring less about how great a student she is and caring more about how good a person she is. Surely, I want her to succeed–but I want to broaden the definition of success beyond money-making and career-finding. Good and true happiness is more than a job and a path–it is the journey itself, spread out onto the world and finding places where love, light and joy radiate.

Shannon is about to turn 15 and Sue is about to turn 50. She has wrestled with more health issues this past year and twice was hospitalized. An immune deficiency has caused various strange symptoms and we’re working on controlling those with doctor’s advice. For now, the hospital threats are at bay and we’re hopeful that some of the treatments she’s receiving will begin to have a more positive impact on her overall.

Meanwhile, the rain that was hoped for this winter never really did show, though it rained last night and is supposed to again tonight–but we’re close to spring and the storms that come now are certainly lighter and shorter than they would have been had El Nino made its appearance in January or February.

So this is just to say–we’ve forged a new path and made some new choices. Things that were supposed to occur did not and things that weren’t supposed to occur, did– and so far, none of it we expected. All the more reason to celebrate.

Onward.

Virginia Varner

Fireflies, fall, family and faith. Aunt Virginia is all of these things to me and she remains as strong, as fervent a presence in my memory and mind as ever she did. Virginia Varner, my Aunt, my dad’s sister who was such a huge presence and part of my life, died suddenly on November 7. She was 91.

As a journalist, I feel compelled to write that she was born on January 1, 1924–15 years to the day before my dad. They were born on the same day, 15 years apart–a fact that I found endlessly fascinating and held onto as an important part of my family lore. There are infinite of these facts that I can recite and often do–for my daughter, for my friends. My Aunt Virginia was a third-grade teacher and a lover of education and of children. She was passionate about teaching, about kids–and about traditional values that taught kids the importance of courtesy, grace, honesty, love and integrity.

During the summer months at the height of her teaching career, Aunt Virginia would take classes, seminars and attend institutes to learn more for herself and for her kids. One summer, she took a seminar in geology and brought rock samples to our house in Pennsylvania for me to wonder and marvel at. I did so dutifully and without obligation–I loved my Aunt and knew instinctively that what she did for me, she did because she loved me.

Paragraph after paragraph could roll out of my keyboard as I extol the simple and fascinating virtues that made my Aunt one of the greatest people I’ve ever known. I could write volumes on her husband, my Uncle Karl who preceded her in death by 16 years. I could write volumes more about how, after my family moved to California, I looked forward every summer to their visit and couldn’t wait to sit and talk with both of them, share meals with them and indulge myself in my Aunt and Uncle’s compassionate kindness, delightful wit, thoughtful conversation and wicked sense of humor.

With a sardonic smile, my Aunt would never feign surprise. She was a woman of the world, a career woman with goals and interest in what she was doing. She understood people as far as they wanted to be understood, as Fitzgerald wrote about The Great Gatsby, and she believed in them as they believed in themselves. She read and she wrote letters to friends and family. Even in the past couple of years, a letter from Aunt Virginia was never word processed–it was never sent by computer.

She was simultaneously a wife and mother, a helpmate and Pastor’s wife to my Uncle Karl. One of my earliest memories is arriving to Aunt Virginia’s house for Christmas a couple of days before her Christmas break. She would come home from work, lock herself in her office, my cousin Marilyn’s converted bedroom, and plan lessons, grade papers and prepare. Then and only then would she come out and spend the evening with us. When she did, she listened patiently to Uncle Karl’s concerns and conversation about the church he lead and offered help where she could. It might take the shape of calling parishioners or even running errands, but she did it with the kind of dedication that only love inspires.

I never heard her raise her voice in anger, though I did indeed see her angry. I never heard unkind words, though I’m positive she said them. My Aunt was not world-wary nor world-weary, but she knew what could happen. Hardship was not a stranger. She battled cancer twice and survived. She lost her husband at Christmas-time, just after they’d shared the family Christmas-eve meal and my Uncle told her he felt it was the best Christmas they’d ever had. She knew sadness, she knew pain and heartache, disease and injury.

But she played tennis well into her 80’s and walked daily while she could. She slowed down the past few years, but only in her legs. Her wit, her mind–and the rest of her body, stayed fit and focused. The night before she died, she was doing exercises preparing for the next day.

Of all the things I’ve ever been happy about, at the top of the list is that I spent time with my aunt in these past few years. I brought my daughter to Baltimore, where she lived, and we spent a week with her–traveling to Lancaster, Pennsylvania and Amish country together. When Shannon was younger, Aunt Virginia was the one to teach her basic third grade math and helped her with reading. In 2012, I took Shannon to Baltimore and taught her to catch fireflies in Aunt Virginia’s backyard, the same backyard I caught them in when I was a boy.

My parents divorced in the 1980’s and after a time, my dad remarried. But my Aunt and Uncle never gave up on my mom. They remained great friends and wrote, called and even visited fairly often. I always felt that something like that would take a kind of dedication, a commitment to what one believed was right–but that’s not why they did it. They did it because they loved my mom and while they understood how things fall apart, they weren’t willing to simply walk away from a relationship they spent time cultivating. All of that, they did while fully accepting my dad’s wife and making her part of the family.

My dad remained Aunt Virginia’s baby brother. She raised my dad, acted as a kind of defacto mother to him and that continued even into her later years. They shared a bond that extended beyond blood-they were friends and they looked after one another. It was dad who insisted that Aunt Virginia no longer live alone in a tri-level house in which she had trouble moving around. It was dad who visited her every year, more than once if he could, flying across the country and spending time just to be together and it was dad who flew her here to give her a chance to get away, to travel and see new sights.

Her passing leaves her three children, David, Craig and Marilyn and their families behind. They are all so important to me and since we visited in 2012, my and my family’s bond with Marilyn and her husband has strengthened and will now, we hope, supplant the one that Aunt Virginia shared with us.

As I write, I am disappointed in myself for my lack of poetry–but I have a feeling poetry will come. My Aunt Virginia was a giant, a woman whose place in my heart is more secure than nearly any person outside of my immediate family I can imagine. More than anything, what I carry in my heart about Aunt Virginia is that love conquers all–that it travels across the world, across borders and past hardship, separation and pain–and it sits comfortably, like a fireplace on a cold evening, a place of warmth welcoming to all who would come and sit a spell.

Onward.

A long winter’s nap

So fervent have I been in search of, in need of a break, that I didn’t even write about the break. Allow me to change that.

The short version, so as not to bore you, is that in 2007, I went into spring semester wondering what I’d do for the summer. I didn’t want to sit around. We weren’t planning any big vacations and I didn’t want to do summer school. I’d been writing stories for a few magazines and enjoyed it–I was a journalist before I became a teacher–but the work was spotty. I called the local paper to see if I could freelance or string, something that would bring in a few bucks and allow me to work as a journalist. Within a couple of days, I had several assignments and the list kept growing.

Before long, I found myself working nearly two full-time jobs. I would have one or two assignments every week and after school would go do interviews or make phone calls and then sit in the evening and tap out the story. Weekends were booked– I had a story every Saturday and Sunday. I even got three stories one weekend until my editor found out and that was frowned upon–too many bylines in one name.

By 2011, I was “making a living” as a reporter and still working full-time as a teacher. I made more money as a freelance writer in that year than many of the full-time staff at the local paper. Because of the paper’s use of an online platform called “ebyline,” I was picking up more work, too. I even got to string for the New York Times. In 2012 and through last year, I was writing regularly for the San Jose Mercury News, the Ventura County Star, Ventana Magazine, The Pacific Coast Business Times, the Silicon Valley Business Journal, the Acorn (a local weekly here) and a couple of others. I loved it–and still do.

But, I’m tired, too. Not tired like, “oh, I need a rest,” but tired like, “I’d like an opportunity to spend a few months focusing on one thing.”

Shannon is now a high school student and attends school where I teach and my focus has been on her. Now that this has happened, Sue decided to go and get a job and though it took much longer than we expected, she will start working next week as a dietitian for a local health-care company on a regular basis making pretty decent money.

I suppose that was the stars aligning and so I’ve taken a hiatus from being a journalist. I’m finishing one more piece today for Ventana magazine for the Holiday edition and that will be the end of my assignments for a while. I’m not quitting–I love it too much to do that. But through the holidays and into the new year, I’ll be a husband, a dad and a teacher pretty much in that order. Sometime in February, I expect to pick back up again and do a few stories. We’ll see how it goes.

I’m feeling rather like this post–sort of perfunctory and basic. I’ll continue to write, but not much of it will be for publication in any way. My Ventana editor may ask me to do a few things here and there, but certainly not until after the new year, and I’m glad of the time. My focus for eight years has been on being a teacher and a journalist and they are both jobs I love–but it was time to pull back and have a rest. I’m looking forward to that.

Onward.