Four Men

Uncle Ken’s passing was documented below this post. It remains a point of grieving and mourning in our family that he’s gone.

My friend Jarvis, about whom I’ve written previously, is the man that married Sue and me. He was diagnosed a little over a year ago with pancreatic cancer. Last night, his wife, Susan held a surprise party for him, a kind of celebration that allowed more than a hundred of us who know and love him to come and be with him, spend an evening and enjoy each other’s company. So far, he’s holding his own-but the disease has spread to his lungs and while he has had a major surgical procedure as well as chemotherapy, there’s no telling what will happen–or when.

Luther Olmon was a member of our church and a man I’d known, at least on the periphery, for many years going all the way back to my college days. Luther was a Lutheran pastor and a senior mentor at California Lutheran University where I earned my Bachelor of Arts in English and my teaching credential. He lived the Gospel of Christ in his life–giving, gently prodding, moving in the direction of God’s love. His beautiful wife, Elaine, passed away a little more than a year ago from complications of food poisoning. She was older and simply couldn’t fight back against the illness. Luther passed away last Sunday, September 16. He didn’t survive his wife by very long. They were a team, Luther and Elaine. And they are still. Today, at the CLU Chapel, where Luther and Elaine spent so many of their days, we gathered to remember his life.

My friend Richard Winterstein, an actor–and my next door neighbor at the high school, where he teaches English and Drama, was off his game. At 65, Richard is a man full of life and passion and he shares that with his students. He wasn’t feeling well and he finally did something about it. He called his friend, a man he’s known for many years, and a cardiologist who put Rich on the treadmill for a stress test. He failed spectacularly. So, it was off to have a scan where it was revealed that 99.1 percent of his main artery was blocked. “You were a day or two away from a massive heart attack, my friend,” his doc said. Instead, Rich underwent angioplasty and is in good shape with stints in the artery and feeling good.

These men are all a big part of my life. Richard appears to have dodged a major bullet. But life is finite. My friends, my Uncle, are all men I admire and love and Luther’s death, while certainly at the end of a long life of 91 years and love and giving, is somehow tolerable. The others are reminders that we are finite creatures–and that if we don’t act now to love those with us, to share the love of God unconditionally, it may be too late.

Would that these will be the lessons I will learn.


The Kvetch Kolumn

Between the new school year and the deadlines, the following of politics and the silliness therein (and that silliness is predominantly on the left. Sorry, it just is), the middle-school beginnings for Peanut, the dog-walking and the birth of my second niece here near home, the death of Uncle Ken and the finishing work for a new client–I just….well, I just haven’t posted.

Crowded, hot classrooms overflowing with the sweat of more than 45 students at any given time. It’s a rough start this year: More stringent parameters from administration, a possible paycut (again) making teaching a possible losing proposition. I dunno….it used to be so much fun to teach. It was a good time to get kids to follow you into a piece of literature and think about its implications on their lives. It was great to get them to write, to think, to clarify and interpret.

But now, I’m so busy following the framework, providing constant assessment, teaching to the test and making less money doing it–that in 22 years, I can’t remember the last time I looked forward to Christmas break so much.

I’m kvetching, I know. And it’s unattractive, too. But there’s just a constant gnawing of some of this stuff and a more formal desire on my part to be a little more entrepreneurial in the midst of the worst economy of my lifetime–and maybe even my parents’ lifetime. They were both born toward the end of the Great Depression–not in it. This is a hard time, and there are people who have it much tougher.

But a little dissatisfaction can lead to a little rebellion which can lead to new frontiers. It’s even healthy, at least according to Thomas Jefferson. My pal Scott now calls me frumpy and belligerent. For now, those terms actually work–but they’re not lifestyle choices, so I have to work a bit on the optimism.

I’ll tell you this–since it’s an election year and all–it will be much better when Mr. Romney wins the election–and that’s my optimistic prediction: Romney will win, probably about 52 or 53 percent of the popular vote–and a good chunk–300 or more–of the electoral college vote.

Go ahead–tear it apart. Reality will set in–and the President will be shown the door. And while I cannot condone the idea that an election has a direct impact on how I feel–I can’t help it. It’s just so.



Uncle Ken

Summer came and my parents went. It was 1977 and the folks separated, their marriage beginning a precipitous decline that would end years later in 1983 after several attempts at reconciliation. But for the moment, it’s 1977 and I’m 12. And I’m panicking.

So, my dad packed my brother Jerry and me up and sent us off with my mom in a small Subaru sedan and we made east. Our goal was the east coast where we would eventually land, believe it or not, with dad’s sister, my Aunt Virginia. Along the way, we had several family members to visit in Idaho, Colorado, friends in Iowa, grandma in Ohio and then to Maryland.

Idaho was Uncle Ken’s home at the time. He and his second wife, Barb, had just had a baby, Kevin and there we stayed for  at least a week as I recall. My mom was grieving, even mourning. Her marriage ended, here she was with her two sons and all of us staying with Uncle Ken and Barb and baby Kevin at their apartment.

Boise was different. I’d not been to the Northwest before. But that’s not really what I think about when I think about that time. What I think about is Uncle Ken and his real attempts to make Jerry and me feel at home. He loved us. He cared about us and he was worried about us.

He took us inter-tubing on the Snake River (kind of like river rafting, but shorter–and fewer serious rapids) and Barb treated us like her own. She was good with kids–she liked us and we liked her.

Sadly, that marriage didn’t last for Uncle Ken, either and though Jerry and I would visit he and Barb later in Boise after my parents reconciled the first time, it wasn’t meant to be.

Ken was mom’s younger brother and only surviving sibling. Apparently, my grandparents had a baby before mom, but she didn’t survive infancy. She still talks about it and it bothers me, actually, that her parents rather instilled on her that there was another child who didn’t survive. I don’t think I’d talk about that a whole lot.

My memories of Uncle Ken are clear, but they are also fragmented-rather like the man himself. He couldn’t settle down. He moved around a lot and for a time in the 80’s, he came to live with us in the San Fernando Valley after my parents split. He was a man of real values and care for others, but he never was able to get his personal thing together very well. He drifted from job to job and he only settled in his late 40’s and 50’s in Virginia where he drove a truck and lived with his wife, Jeannie. I only met her once, that I recall–but I liked her.

All the time I knew him, through all of the years, Ken was a smoker. The last time I saw him, in 2008, he drove a truck here to California and had to bring a load to Oxnard, not far from where I live. He called from Bakersfield and said he was coming. We invited him here and he came for dinner and stayed the night. He even took me, Shannon and our foreign exchange student, Sofie, for a drive in his truck.

Since that time, we spoke on the phone on occasion. I enjoyed getting to know him again and I found him funny and affable. But it was apparent that smoking for so long was taking a toll. He was sick and he didn’t want to admit it. He’d had a series of heart attacks, survived them and had various treatments for his heart condition. But it was cancer that finally came calling–in his lungs.

I was never as close with Uncle Ken as I am with Aunt Virginia, dad’s sister. But I loved him and I even liked him. We never had much in common, but he was fine with that. He once told me, “I didn’t have book smarts like you did. That’s something you’ve got that will help you. I think you’ll be something some day.” He was a loyal friend and he wanted very much to be a father to my cousins, all of whom were largely estranged from him.

Uncle Ken died last week after succumbing to his battle with cancer. I spoke to him before he died and he told me he was getting ready to “go meet Jesus.” I have faith that he has indeed met Him. And I have more than just hope that Uncle Ken is at peace now. I miss him, though I didn’t get to see him as often as I could have. I am mourning his loss and I am grateful I knew him.



Dreams on the Eve of 22

On the eve of my 22nd year in the classroom and I awoke relatively early this morning. There were so many dreams, some of them awful and nightmarish, some of them full of hope. The one that I remember was…well….different.

There I was standing in a lunch line with Neil Armstrong–yes, that Neil Armstrong. No, he wasn’t dead in the dream and I don’t remember thinking that he was a ghost. But then again, there was an almost apparition-like quality. We were mulling over the chicken salad and the vegetables, but he was smiling endlessly.

“The trick is to understand,” he said. “You have to get and I mean really get–that you still have opportunities. You still can go as far as you want to go,” he said.

“But, I’m not a child anymore, Commander Armstrong,” I said. “I’ve got a family, obligations-all of it.”

“Yes, that’s just it,” he said. “Those are the things that will propel you. When you didn’t have a wife and child, when you didn’t have a mortgage and obligations, you could be content with dreaming.” He was so cool, even standing in his Apollo 11 suit, white, too big on him, boots clunking across the linoleum cafeteria floor.

“If you allow your motivation to be creating a better life for those people, you will inevitably create a better life for yourself,” he said. “Dreams are important and you must focus on them.” He bit into the sandwich. “But dreams alone aren’t enough. You have to build.”

I smiled in the hopeless way that I’ve perfected over the years. He seemed to know the gesture and caught it.

“It’s not hopeless. You love what you do and that’s important and it’s true that money isn’t everything,” the astronaut said. “But fulfilling your goals, living your life on your terms and finding a way to pursue what you love are worth doing. You have to stay true to that. It makes you a better father. A better husband.”

“Did you do that?”

“In a way, I did. I didn’t know it until afterward. We didn’t know we’d come back from the moon, you know? There was every possibility that we’d not survive that trip. Look what’s happened since…”

“I read about that.”

“Well, reading about it and living it aren’t the same. But, in a way-there’s a lesson there, too. It’s Biblical, actually. You have to be willing to give up your life to live it fully.” He paused and I swallowed a chewed up carrot-stick with no relish. “It doesn’t have to be that literal, don’t worry.”

“Moving forward, though…”

“Is hard. Hardest thing you’ll ever do. But do it anyway. Keep looking in that direction. Don’t give up on it.”

“The goal isn’t really in focus for me. I’m not sure which direction its’ going…”

“That’s OK. You know it’s there and you know it’s driving you. Don’t let it drive you down–just let it drive you up.”

We walked with our trays of  bits of apple core, carrot ends and sandwich crusts over to the trashcan. “I’ve got to go. It’s time. You need to get on with it. Fly high.”

And then I was awake…