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.


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.