26

26 years of teaching notched off and packed away like so many dusty boxes of memories. Of course they are more than that, and each year represents about 170 lives I got to be a part of–whether they like it or not, of course. But what I tried to do is give them a reason to like it, a reason to reflect on their own lives and their own character.

It’s nothing new to say that public education needs changes. Like any large organization, there is sclerosis and fecklessness, incompetence and degradation–and there is also sacrifice and change, growth and ardor and even a little love. Will the latter outweigh the former? One hopes.

As my daughter, now a high school junior, navigates these waters, I see it through her eyes and I’m reminded of the protean changes that have taken place since even I started. Some of those changes are surely for the better, but most are not. School administrators use “data driven” to describe their approach to education, which is absurd and George Orwell would be sadly shaking his head. The push toward standardized testing, seemingly stymied with the changes to Common Core curriculum, itself a lumbering, hackneyed political erector set, have come rearing back in the guise of more benchmarks, more kids in AP classes, more funneling individuals into the same paddock.

As large corporations swallow up other large corporations and hire people to do menial jobs to keep their Byzantine systems working, schools willingly partake in turning students into “product,” and ignoring the individuals. We teachers are either knowingly or unwittingly, helping to create a people subdued by “norms” and conformity–these are the opposite of what we should be doing.

So, at year 26, I will keep rolling the stone up the hill–pushing back and starting year 27 in my classes asking my students to reflect what they read onto themselves. In the end, it is their character we are building and if we continue down this path, they will only be able to say their character is just like anyone else’s. I hope to stem that tide.

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.

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.

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.

A game of Faith’s Perfection

With apologies to Gus Van Sant, Sean Connery and Rob Brown, last night’s Pittsburgh Pirates at Los Angeles Dodgers game was for me, a distinctively faith-based enterprise.

I’m relatively new to baseball mania. As a kid, I went to a few games, my first was at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh in 1974. The Cardinals beat the Bucs 3-2 in that game and I remember being somewhat disappointed, though not heartbroken.

When we moved to Los Angeles in 1975, dad had season tickets to the Dodgers and though I never grew to be a fan, I loved going to Dodger Stadium and watching that line-up: Steve Garvey, Davey Lopes, Bill Russell, Ron Cey, Steve Yeager. But other things caught my attention in adolescence and I fell away from baseball for a very long time, only occasionally keeping an eye on what the Pirates were up to. I didn’t know players or scores and I didn’t know stats or histories and I didn’t care.

So it was as much a surprise to me as it was to anyone when a couple of years ago, I found myself caring again about baseball. I’m not even sure when or why it happened. It did coincide with the Pirates making the playoffs in the past couple of years, but that’s as distinct as I get.

I don’t know what spurred me in May of last year to grab tickets to a Pirates v. Dodgers game and invite my dad along. He accepted and the two of us went and had a great time together. The Pirates won that game 2-1.

Interested enough in the baseball experience by now, though not sold on the expensive and crowded Dodger Stadium games, I opted to expand my southern California baseball stadium experience and go to see the Angels in Anaheim play. It’s a longer drive to Anaheim, with traffic (and there’s always traffic) it can be close to three hours in the car. But my friend Scott and his sons and Shannon and I headed down to see the Angels play Baltimore. We had seats in the outfield along the third base line for less than $20 and that included a hot dog and a soda. Parking was cheaper and easier and the stadium is really quite beautiful–nicer than Dodger stadium, if not flecked with the same kind of history. And the Angels are a championship team in general, though not this year. The Orioles won that game 5-0.

Emboldened by the experience, I saw on the Angels’ schedule that the first place Toronto Blue Jays were due to play the Angels and I bought the same tickets I had previously along with Sue and my friend Brett. The Blue Jays did not disappoint and while I rooted for the Angels, I went home disappointed with a 12-5 blowout of the halos. My baseball interest was being properly tempered by the truism: You can’t win them all.

The Bucs came to San Diego in May this year, it happened to be one year later to the day when dad and I saw them in L.A., so I invited dad again and to my unending surprise–not only did he come along, but so did Sue and Shannon and we met Sue’s brother and his wife’s brother at the game and completed my southern California stadium experience at Petco Park. Once again, the Bucs won and I was two for two on the west coast. I watched later via the Internet as Pittsburgh swept the Giants in a three-game series and while they weren’t scheduled to play the American league teams on the west coast, they’d made a clean sweep of the National League.

Last night, the Bucs were at Dodger stadium, game two of a three-game stand and the Friday night game was a typical Dodger blowout. The first place Dodgers are an impressive looking team and they beat up on Pittsburgh 6-2. I was given tickets to the game by my former principal, Glenn Lipman, who is a Dodger season ticket holder. I learned only on Friday night that the great Clayton Kershaw would pitch for the Dodgers against the Bucs southpaw Francisco Liriano. It was my chance to see one of the great MLB pitchers in action, though I wouldn’t be rooting for him, and the seats Glenn gave me were spectacular–loge section along the third base line.

Kershaw did not disappoint. He is truly a marvel to watch. Tall and lanky, he was built for the job and when he winds up, he pulls his left arm back and digs into some reservoir of speed and fear and timing and he bullets the ball toward home plate with a kind of eagerness that isn’t really apparent on any other team.

I’m not a sportswriter–but come to think of it, that would be a cool gig. I’m a writer though, and it would be hard not to describe the game. Dodger Stadium has loyal, loud and boisterous fans. The energy is electric and since the stadium is so large–holding more than 50,000 people, the thundering and persistent power of fanatical waves of blue and white are overwhelming for a guy wearing the other team’s hat.

The Dodgers scored first and did so in style as Justin Ruggiano scored on a smash to right field by Howie Kendrick. But while they scored one more point in the seventh inning, the Bucs scored two when Andrew McCutheon whacked a double in the third inning driving home Mercer and Liriano. The Pirates scored one more time in the eighth inning and held the Dodgers to two. The 9th inning had me on my feet, biting my nails and yes, even praying–as the Bucs’ Mark Melancon took the mound and in flawless fashion pulled three up and sent three down. Note: I don’t recommend praying for your team–I know people do. But it didn’t feel right to me.

The electric energy spun into a deafening whir as Corey Seager grounded out to third and the hordes let out a collective sad sigh–and headed for the parking lot. In deference, and perhaps out of misplaced fear, I doffed my Pirates cap until I walked out of the stadium. But I never stopped smiling–and my faith in the Pirates—in baseball—was bolstered.

Onward.

Teaching Me

The bright sun doesn’t catch me in bed these days and, in fact, hasn’t for some years. I’m up by 5:30 in the morning and out the door by 6:30. That part of the routine hasn’t changed.

But a new life has begun for us all in this new place, a house we rent from friends of ours, and though it has been a rough launch, the new routine is taking shape and we’re falling slowly into it, learning to become happy again.

Sue’s illness, diagnosed now as pancreatitis and most likely brought on by medication she was taking (but isn’t anymore), is a deep chasm behind us. Its shadow threatens on occasion when she doesn’t feel well and the ghosts of uncertainty and fear stalk the nights, as they do for so many people.

I’m in a very different place than I was even last year or two years ago with the end of this school year. I can remember several years ago not wanting the year to end. I enjoyed it too much and reveled in it daily. Now, I’ve taken too many sips at the cup I’ve been proffering for too long, and I can’t wait until the last day of school.

The WWI poet’s unit I developed and was so proud of, which featured this Webquest that I built, has become an albatross. As the teenagers for whom I developed it see it as little more than an obstacle to be overcome, I’m lost in a morass of feelings about it.

There is the one student who found an incredible story of a lonely and lost young man, who fell in love and then went to war. The tainted tryst in which Edward Thomas was involved with his beloved Eleanor also included Robert Frost and it appears that he may have actually written The Road Not Taken about Thomas. I awakened when my student found this and decided to write about it–it was the one bright spot in the whole thing.

There have been others now, too. A film by two of the quietest and most demure students I know has shown me that what I taught wasn’t lost on them at all. They used sparse images, flashback sequences and a brilliant narration using recordings from Apocalypse Now to augment their story of a man suffering from post traumatic stress disorder, basing the entire narrative on Siegfried Sassoon’s Repression of War Experience.

But without realizing it at first, I’ve slipped into a bit of the trauma. For five weeks, I’ve immersed myself, marinated myself, into the dark crevices of horror, chaos and catastrophe that were WWI. I’ve allowed myself to have the nightmares and I’ve awakened with fright at gun sounds, pops and snaps, loud noises–that only existed in my dreams.

The terrible obligation of telling this story has become a weight too great to bear. Instead of having insecure teacher dreams in August or September, I’m having them now–fretted with the unbearable task of making these kids understand Wilfred Owen’s “warning:” Dulce Et Decorum Est Pro Patria Mori.

But now, after looking at student projects, reading papers and seeing first-hand the uneven keel of the students who are fascinated, the ones repelled and mostly, the ones who could not give a damn, I’m just left feeling like I accomplished very little. I feel like the year got away from me, like I lost the grip of the literature and I can see in their eyes the yawning indifference to yet another middle-aged man, trying to be cool to keep their interest in something that is completely and utterly lost on them.

I seem to have fallen off the beam–lost the balance somewhere between acceptance that all of us took high school very unseriously once upon a time-and the opposite extreme of thinking that this high school career they have is the only thing that matters in their young lives. I can’t find the sweet spot, the place that says, “I know you’re probably bored. Let me try to give you something to think about…”

My working theory is that in my joyous ramp up of using technology that has decorated my classroom incrementally over the last few years, I forgot that what I got into teaching for in the first place was to share good literature, good writing and maybe provide an avenue for the kids in my charge to learn how to say something about that. That’s it.

But then the overwhelming suffocation of these last years comes smothering down like a thick blanket. I can’t fix the entitlement feelings and the overbearing parents. I can’t fix the drug use, the willful ignorance and the cruelty. I’m not even a tool in that shed–it’s beyond me and moving faster everyday, speeding toward some gravitational center where all of the selfish egos of this new age will explode in an omnidirectional fireball of self-righteous indignation.

The only cure I know of is radical change–the kind of change that calls into question all of my past habits. As careers go, teaching is brilliant–if you make it that way. But I’ve been caught in the spiral of doing the same thing I did three years ago, hoping it works and finding that some alteration, some change-either in me, or in the students, has left those pedagogical tools in the dust.

And right now, the task is daunting and exhausting and I’m very tired.

Onward.

Frankenstein

The ineffable pull of direction as I grow into middle age is harder to manage. It’s not demands on my time that I mind, it is demands on my personality and my sense of self. Until suddenly, I awake with that very feeling I didn’t expect–the one I should have dealt with many years ago, but did not: I don’t know who I am…

Definitions by career are specious because careers don’t last forever and they tend to be narrowly focused. Definitions by family stick, but sometimes I don’t want them to. I’m not who my father was and I’m not who my brothers are. My wife and daughter define me very much so–but in the dark, at moments of quiet, that still small voice whispers and the message is clear: “I am I. Who are you?” I think I’m supposed to answer, but I haven’t. I don’t. I dare not.

It is not jitters, per se. It isn’t queasiness or loneliness. I’m not uneasy about being alone and at times I find myself very focused, very intent and in a state of being with which I am very comfortable. But it is process, not definition. It is evolving each time and there is no fixed place for it: A page to turn, words to write or read, good food and wine, laughter with friends or family, a walk with my dog and a cool breeze heralding a change of seasons.

And it is these moments when I ask myself what I need–what I want–and the answers can be hollow and shallow, filled with material possessions like the car I crave or the computer I want. But I know that as surely as I begin to obtain those things, that voice will be back and it will ask me, “what now?” and I won’t have an answer for it except to stare with vacant expression at the treasures I’ve amassed, the money I’ve spent.

So, I wander back into the classroom for the very narrow sense of career definition and I pull myself up to the desk and pick up a copy of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. I begin to vibrate with the book’s energy. It is at once language that is ethereal and gorgeous and also, stilted and lacking energy–its characters caught in a tragedy of their own making, seeking fame, fortune and eternal salvation because they drove harder than the person before them. It reeks and drips with images of power misused and love malformed and it haunts me even as I begin to decide how to bring it to life for students.

I’m captured now and I see a moment, a well-spring of ideas and I get to put them in motion, slowly and carefully so that the students I manage can see them and decide which one is theirs. When they do-inexorably, they link to a moment, a passage, a piece of lilting language that lifts them to something they barely recognized while reading Shakespeare previously-but it’s theirs now. They get it, they feel it and understand it and it both thrills and frightens them. They are being warned-they are being told and they are being disciplined and they are drawn to it, though they do not want to be.

I’m breathless. It’s exhausting, but in the way that good exercise is. I find myself ensconced in their world and sensing all of their insecurities come to life in a sterile and ugly classroom where they’re wrestling with things they thought they wouldn’t have to wrestle with: “My life isn’t supposed to happen in an English class,” they say.  But it is happening and they have to deal with it.

When I leave to go home for the day, I’m wrestling too. I’m back in the moment of seeing myself in their young eyes and feeling the tapped energy of a cycle that is, in essence, the journey of self–of learning who I am by learning about who other people are. It is beautiful in its own way but I remain detached, a little stand-offish and I wonder how I can embrace it even closer to me and the answer comes in the form of poetry and of words, yes–and of time with people I love and a good bottle of wine and it comes in the cool breeze of a late afternoon walk and the sweat built from climbing hills and moving faster with each pace.

And I look skyward to a God who I know, above all other things, I love and I get misty-eyed for my creator who put me in this position–this delicate, dangerous struggle that I have fallen in love with again and that I wait for every morning with the sun like a hungry child at the breakfast table.

Onward.

That was Then…

I awoke this morning earlier than perhaps I would have liked. I took yesterday off entirely after having been out late with my father. I hopped on a spontaneous opportunity to go see my favorite baseball club, the Pittsburgh Pirates, play at Dodger Stadium. Dad lives about three hours north of here, but I sent him an e-mail asking him if he wanted to go relive our youth–we spent many an evening at Dodger Stadium in the 1970’s and 80’s–and see the game and to my surprise, he was game.

He drove south and we went together on a Friday night, braved the traffic and headed to Dodger Stadium. When I was a kid, dad’s company was working with then Dodger-manager Tommy Lasorda to produce some motivational films. They didn’t become close friends or anything, they just met and worked for a short time together. Dad and his company colleagues would get season tickets and we’d use them every so often.

On our drive down, we discussed whether or not Lasorda was even still around and we didn’t know the answer. But as we arrived at the stadium, we walked over behind left-field where Lasorda’s Trattoria sits. It’s a walk-up fast Italian food affair and it’s expensive as all get out. But, it’s baseball and we were having fun. We went to sit down and noted that there were half a dozen police officers and security officers around us. This isn’t unusual at Dodger Stadium these days, I’m told, because the fact is, things can get nasty as they did when a young man was beaten senseless for being a San Francisco Giants fan. Things like that don’t just bother me, they scare me, anger me, enrage me…and it’s probably one of the dozen or so reasons I haven’t gone to a Dodger game since I was a boy. In the 80’s, we didn’t fear for our lives as we went outside to the parking lot.

Anyway, as it happened, there was an older gentleman with thinning white hair sitting behind us with about a dozen people at his table. He was holding court and talking and the voice was unmistakeable–I couldn’t see his face as his back was turned to us–it was indeed Mr. Lasorda. Mystery solved. He is still quite alive, still Mr. Dodger and is a prince in his very domain.

The Pirates won the game, which made me happy and inexplicably made dad unhappy. He’s now a Dodger fan he’s decided. I told him if I’d known, I would not have bought the tickets–but I was kidding, of course. It was a great night.

Saturday, then, was a sleepy blur of dog parks and naps, movies and wine in the evening and nothing much else.

Which brings me back to this morning. I had two stories to cover and the first one was out at Pt. Mugu State Beach where the National Park Service, which holds dominion over that part of the southern end of the Santa Monica Mountains, was hosting a family fishing day. I arrived early, but so did a bunch of others. Kids with parents in tow and vice-versa rolled out onto the beach. But who wouldn’t? The scene was extraordinary and beautiful and peaceful.

A California sea lion caught a large barracuda and was slapping it on the water, the sound breaking the roar of the waves. Pelicans strafed the surfline while harbor seals bobbed up and down and farther out, more than a dozen dolphin dorsal fins sliced the surface as a pod moved first north, then circled back south along the shore feeding on the fish and leaving a wake of fish parts and seagulls.

The sound of giggling children, laughing parents, waves rolling in on the clean sand, all of it was magical.

Home to write the piece-and then off to Ventura County’s largest food and wine festival, the Casa Pacifica Wine, Food and Brew Festival. I was working, but really, how can you call it work? It was 5000 people, most of whom know each other in some way, enjoying the best food and beverages all to raise money for Casa Pacifica, a worthy cause indeed.

Driving home with Sue, it occurred to me that of all the whirling, strange and sometimes frustrating portions of my life, this weekend was not among them. It was, in fact, a moment in time, fairly prolonged at three days, for which I am truly grateful.

And that’s enough.

Onward.

Balance

The heat wave has come slowly, but come it did. 90’s today and hotter through Thursday of this week–maybe even Friday. Wind, too. Lots and lots of wind.

But none of that prepared me for this evening which turned out to be, not cool, but cool-ish. So Shannon and I hooked up Simon for a walk and strolled about a mile and a half, down by the park in between the baseball players. It felt good, actually and taking advantage of it seemed mandatory. It won’t be that cool again for a week or so.

So the school year draws down to a sweet, simple end while we swelter away. God help us that the May/June gloom, one of the happiest weather phenomenons of Southern California, will return before the end of the month. I cannot say the school-year was a good one. The kids were just fine for the most part, but as the giant, grinding, heartless education bureaucracy grinds on and grows bigger–it becomes less interested in creativity and natural force and trades them in favor of the synthetic and the sameness of tests, standards and rule-enforcement. It’s actually like watching a train wreck occurring–there’s nothing you can do to stop it and if you don’t get out of the way, you’ll become part of it.

That is, of course, the paradox of teaching–the bureaucracy inexorably demands you join it and if you don’t, you end up being labeled “rebellious” and “rogue.” Well, these are terms I’ve come to embrace. I’m not going to jeopardize my job-but I’m not going to give in and get crushed under the grinding wheel.

There’s a searching nature about this time and I’m not entirely sure where that search will lead. Spring is indeed the soul-chasing season and I feel like I am chasing mine just now. Sometimes the answers are big and grand and I’m content with them and feel like I’m whole, just so: a finished article, a new editor and a challenging assignment. Other times, I feel like there’s a ways to go and it will take some time before I get there: a grinding day in the classroom, paperwork and forms, layers of regulations, draining finances.

And that’s spring, now–a hot and windy crucible, a glorious and lush day of sunshine and cool breeze, an evening walk with my daughter, a soul-crushing meeting or two and the constant deep abiding love that Sue and I share. The dance requires all of these things and the hard part is knowing that you want more of some and less of the other. That’s what wakes you up every day. That’s what keeps you wondering what’s next.

In other words–A balance.

Onward.

Grace

“To him all good things-trout as well as eternal salvation-come by grace and grace comes by art and art does not come easy.” ― Norman Maclean.

Art does not come easy. It’s also, at times, vastly over-rated as a kind of spiritual entry point. If your art is good, your salvation will be assured. I’m not certain it’s all about art, however. Sometimes craft is just as important.

Consider the simple act of writing. Good writing can indeed be art–and much of it is. Much more of it, of course, is slop–even journalistic slop such as the kind your humble correspondent dabbles in on a regular basis. It’s times like these when one realizes that this slop is, in fact, craft–and hopefully, good craft-the kind that earns a few bucks, yes–but it also tells a simple story and does so in a society that, though it doesn’t always realize it, has story in its lifeblood.

First amendment prattle, yes–I assure you. But the liberty to say and do as we wish is not as American as apple pie or baseball–it is the standard by which those latter two are measured. What good is baseball without Babe Ruth’s story or Jackie Robinson’s or Roberto Clemente’s? What good an apple pie without the story of the orchard and the recipe that grandma got from the German immigrant couple next door? It’s their stories that live on and it’s their craft, the one they practiced everyday from childhood that makes them who they are. Art? Maybe. Craft? Yes.

Telling those stories, though perhaps they won’t last forever, is still a vital function and I feel bound to it in a way. It’s digging in this particular soil and tugging at these particular roots to see where they grow that allows me to somehow feel connected. The craft is constantly there, but the art is indeed hard to come by. I have assignments that are beyond me at times and I start to slide away from them because what I want isn’t the same as what the editor wants or the goals get turned upside down. It happens.

But it doesn’t change the overall charge to keep the craft going. And I think the reason for the craft is to aim for art, knowing full well that you may not arrive there very often. It’s all the smaller sculptures sitting on tables, counters and desks that add up to the great statue admired by the public. It’s nightly dinners, crafted carefully, chopped, diced, sliced, cooked, steamed and baked that lead to the rustic perfection of simple gracious goodness that appears one evening with the perfect bottle of wine.

Norman Maclean has been one of my favorite writers for many years, now. His spartan use of language in simple detail and perfect description without sentimentality is something of a cross between honest journalism and novel originality. But it’s also a constant reminder to me that my own craft’s salvation will probably not come in the form of one poetic license writ upon the page that changes lives. Instead, it will come by grace–and that means it won’t come easy, either.

Onward.