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.

Heresy

I thought I was a geek. I saw Star Wars IV: A New Hope 22 times before I quit watching it. I owned all the little action figures. I had the X-wing, a tie-fighter, a Bespin Twin Pod and a land-speeder. I had Luke, Han, Leia, Chewy, Threepio and R2. I had a Star Wars poster on my wall and a The Empire Strikes Back poster and a Return of the Jedi poster.

I got into film-making and read George Lucas’s biography “Skywalking.” I made 8 mm movies with my friends, wrote story treatments and scripts, got fascinated by history and used it as an impetus for story-telling and craft. To this day, my love of writing and teaching is born of a seed that started back there in 1977, somewhere amid Wookies and droids, star destroyers and rebellion.

I considered myself an expert on Lucas and Steven Spielberg’s films. I had the Time Magazine with Lucas on the cover and I kept it in a plastic sleeve and read it continually. I bought a book, whose title now escapes me, of the art of The Empire Strikes Back–a vast high-gloss paperback retreat where I looked at pictures of otherworldliness with escapist joy and wonder.

The day after I graduated high school, I got on a plane and flew to Philadelphia to live with my dad until college started. It was a boondoggle that wound up with me back in California three months later. In that time, I contracted mononucleosis and moved from California to New Jersey to Massachusetts—and every step of the way, I had the Star Wars posters with me. They adorned my bedroom wall in three states and they were a constant companion to me during a tumultuous and difficult time. As my heart broke, I wrapped myself in the Star Wars trilogy (and the Indiana Jones films) and read “Splinter in the Mind’s Eye” and other Star Wars themed books. I was the target audience–and the target was bright, clear and lucid on my back.

So when I went today to see Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens, I went chastened by the last three films (I, II III), which I found simply unwatchable and at some point, grotesquely bad. I didn’t have high hopes, but the hopes I did have I pinned on J.J. Abrams. Star Trek in his hands was wonderful–and a film he produced called Cloverfield, ranks as one of my favorites of the past 10 years.

But Star Wars VII succeeded for me on only one level. I enjoyed seeing Han Solo again and I enjoyed that Abrams stayed true to the story of Han and Leia. I thought they were great to watch and that they have a son didn’t surprise me at all. And that’s it. The rest of the film dragged under its own weight with one-dimensional main characters who seem to be rushing through their hero’s journey story so they can join the Star Wars franchise in its merchandising fecklessness that belittles everything it touches and mocks the very children it seeks to attract as a fan. Star Wars cereal and Star Wars car ads. Star Wars fast food and Star Wars noodles. Star Wars occupies everything–it’s no longer fun and exciting to be a part of. You don’t have to work at it–in fact, you have to work to avoid it.

The film is slow–I found myself day-dreaming through it. I didn’t care a whit about Finn and Rey as characters and their sudden friendship, born in less than a few minutes in circumstances that required hardly any effort, is unbelievable. The story of their entrance to the franchise is incapable of clarity and while Abrams deftly handles his obvious love of the franchise by giving purpose and place to the characters as he sees it, the story never suspends disbelief enough to allow me to see what’s next.

Han Solo appears almost out of nowhere–the near incredible confluence of Finn’s, Rey’s and Solo’s life is unfocused and almost silly. But Harrison Ford, whose career I continued to admire all the way through it, is so good and so worth watching that I could not help but be enthralled. His reunion with Princess Leia is understated and written with restrained passion and I admired that.

But the last half hour of the film leading to a 45-second glimpse of Luke Skywalker, who doesn’t speak at all, is where it all fell apart. Abrams copies the plot of Star Wars IV: A New Hope and it’s simply the same story with new characters reliving what happened 38-years ago. Luke is Obi-Wan now–the good seem to retreat to a place of safety until enough people have died to get them to come back–and that is obviously where the next film will go. I’m left with more answers than questions–and the questions I do have are perfunctory and plot based.The beauty of Star Wars has always been that for the “geek,” the questions were about who was who and what was what. That has been resurrected somewhat with the question of Rey’s identity–who’s child is she and what is she about? But other than that, she is flat, one-dimensional and uninteresting. I never believed she cared for Finn and I never believed Finn could have cared for her. Both actors were fine–the acting was very taut in the film. No, the actors were not the problem. The story was.

I speak heresy and I know it. I will indeed watch the next installment of the film in a year. I’ll look forward to it and I’ll relish the chance to awaken my love of the story and its power to speak to all of us about rising above circumstances and evil and believing in something greater than one’s self.

But I’ll do it with the balance of age, perhaps. Maybe I’m no longer the geek I used to be. Maybe I’ve lost the connection to the story I once had. After all, Star Wars spoke to me about all those things when I needed it most. My own life unwinding as my parents divorced and the center of my universe just simply spun out of control, Star Wars was a reminder that one could balance faith in a Force greater than one’s self and be a beacon of good and kindness. But I am no longer that person and either I’ve forgotten what that felt like….

Or it has.

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.

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.

Summer’s grip.

Summer used to be hot. Temperatures I couldn’t read followed by humidity I could feel through wet shirts and ball caps. I watched baseball and even played occasionally, not really knowing whether I loved it–and not caring. It’s what I did.

Summer was a dream of fireflies and roller skates. It was long days beginning in morning out of the house on a bicycle with a bunch of friends, riding to the K-Mart for Icees and coming home only to eat lunch, then dinner—then sleep. It was sleeping in the basement and it was grape soda and cookies.

It’s not anymore. Summer can be more worries and woes. Summer is pressure to see what’s next and the funnel opens in June at the end of a teaching year, knowing I have a “summer” in front of me–but before I know it, I find myself pacing the floor wondering what to do and frightened by the fact that at 50, I just got bored. I don’t know how to counter it. The summer dreams of youth where boredom only came after I conquered days of bicycles and creek-walks, firefly catching and baseball, trips to the ice cream shop and morning pancakes with butter and syrup–have vanished.

I don’t feel it anymore. I find something to do, but more often than not it isn’t what I want. I want to travel, but nine-years in a house we never could afford has prevented that now. I want to take my daughter to the beach, but she and I both sunburn so easily that we both have abnormal skin marks that need medical attention. I want to sit and barbecue corn and fish filets and maybe some shrimp for the girls–but I never get around to it.

Glimpses have come back–through hardened walls, I’ve begun to let go, or maybe it’s hang on, again.  A couple of baseball games, a few trips to the ice cream store, though I don’t eat much of the stuff anymore. The feeling has come on me since we moved last spring that summer will be open again. I think I knew that this summer would limit us and I would not have the same experience I did even last summer with the extraordinary European adventure to our friends the Englisch’s in Austria.

But a time is coming when I’ll get back out with my family again to see our own country and maybe some more of others. I get a sense that we’ll get there and we’ll all cherish it as much as we did last year. I’m hopeful, but I’m not yet confident. The dreams have stopped–and I’m still trying to get them back.

Onward.

The lump of a day

The lump in my abdomen only made its presence known to me two nights ago and it was an accident. In hindsight, I wish I’d never have found it. I wish I’d just simply carried on–but I wish that because I wish I were…more assured.

Summer 2015 began like so many others but with so many plot twists that it already holds distinction. Shannon graduated from 8th grade and I completed 24 years of teaching. In a time of severe drought here in So. Cal, graduation night 2015 at the high school was flecked by relatively good rainfall. We all sat in our robes, got wet and enjoyed the cool cloud cover as waves of drops would ebb and flow during the perfunctory ceremony. All is one, as they say.

I’m spending yet another summer as a journalist, in love with the craft, wanting to do more in it and limited only by the fact that the vicious circle of teaching and writing and teaching and writing– because journalism, as hard as I work, as many publications as I write for, doesn’t pay the bills. It augments them, yes–but it doesn’t pay them.

So it was that I prepared for bed on a Tuesday night having finished editing at least one story and moving into another. I reached down to simply scratch my belly–not an image I care to leave you with–and there it was. The lump was as clear as day. A bulge, a lump–a swelling–in my lower right abdomen, slightly above and to the right of my appendectomy scar, now 32 years old.

I didn’t panic–but I did instantly sweat. I worried about it—I told my wife who, with a number of her own health problems, was relatively nonplussed. I slept in fits that night–dreaming of cancer and devastation. Dreaming of a shrinking world over which I have no control, no passion, no faith and no light. I’m alone. Utterly alone.

It didn’t help that our family physician whom we had known many years–abandoned our home town and left us high and dry. Maybe it’s just where we live–or maybe it’s Obama-care–or maybe it’s both–but I cannot find a family physician to save my life. Literally. I made an appointment with one through a recommendation from our family allergist–and the first appointment he had was in late August–when I’ll already be back at school. And there’s a bulge in my abdomen.

I was at his office because my wife sees one of his partners. I asked–I explained the situation-I even added the emotional plea. “Look, I just turned 50–and now there’s this lump and it disappears when I lie down, but when I stand up–it’s there and it’s a bit uncomfortable and I don’t know what to do.”

And I was met with perfunctory bureaucratic and tepid response. “I don’t have anything. I’m sorry. You might want to go to the E.R.”

I didn’t. I took a chance.

Sue had gallbladder surgery in Ventura, about 15 miles from here, two years ago. The surgeon, Bryant by name, was fantastic. A very good guy with a very good disposition, no ego and serious and real bedside manner. The evening before the appointment, I spoke to my dad, too–he’d had a hernia and I had all the symptoms–all the signs.

A hernia–it’s not the end of the world–it’s a surgery. No big deal. And I worked myself up to that. Sheesh. Turn 50, school’s out for the summer–your monstrously in debt with no real vacation to take–and then this. Oh well. It’s fine.

Right?

The surgeon had an appointment and brought me right in. Like I said–a good guy who knows his stuff. He was kind and he was thorough–and he wasn’t convinced. “It doesn’t feel like a hernia feels. Same symptoms–it disappears when you lie down, it’s not very painful–yet–but it doesn’t feel right.”

We’re back to square one. I’m out with it–I explain how nervous I am—I’m going to be dead in a month, aren’t I? It’s a tumor isn’t it?

No, he said–well, I don’t think so anyway. And if it is, it’s probably a fatty tumor–benign. Don’t worry. Let’s do a CT Scan…

That was yesterday morning at 10. So I had the thing and I panicked both before it and after it–full blown. Didn’t even tell my wife. Though I suspect she knew. I sat in the imaging lobby awaiting my fate and sweated–and talked to myself and paced the floor and forgot about everything except the lump–the bulge—in my lower right abdomen slightly above and to the right of my appendectomy scar.

CT scans are short–nothing to them. You lie down, close your eyes and in about five minutes–it’s over. The tech was nice but not giving up a thing. So I waited.

And waited–through the late morning into the afternoon. “If the phone doesn’t ring, that’s good. All’s well. It can’t be serious because they’d tell me if it was.”

I bargained with myself. In fact, I think I went through the stages of grief, you know? Denial, anger, bargaining—all of that. Because that’s how I’m wired, apparently. Because it’s either a crisis–or it’s nothing. I have no in-between. I have no neutral.

Today–the phone didn’t ring. I had some things to do–correspondence to attend to for stories, editing for some pieces–editors to talk to. But it wasn’t enough. I had two more panic attacks today. I walked one of them off with the dog up and down the hills and that worked for a time.

The second one hit just as I left to go drink a pint with the boys–and that too worked. Until the phone rang while I sat at the table.

“S’cuse me guys, I’m going to take this….” I answered…

“Mr. Storer, this is Dr. Bryant’s office calling with the results of your CT yesterday?”
My heart raced–and I couldn’t stop it. Not even the alcohol could stop it–I walked to the front door. “Yes–what is it? What’s there?”

“There’s nothing there. The results were negative.”

“Wait. What? I’m standing here right now–there’s a bulge in my abdomen.”

“That may be–but the CT scan didn’t see anything and all is fine. You have no hernia, no nothing….”

I was kind, even polite–and very thankful. “I was nervous–I’m grateful to you for your help. Thank you!”

“You’re welcome. Glad to do it.” She hung up.

And I was standing in Wade’s Wines in the tasting room with my friends and I was O.K. I drained a celebratory pint and to add to the festive nature of my joie de vivre, I stopped and had a cheeseburger on the way home.

Tomorrow’s another day–and I’m in it. I have many passions to pursue–many things to accomplish and I’m ready to do that. The machine says I’m O.K. I still have a bulge in my abdomen and it is, at times, uncomfortable.

I have faith that God above knows what He’s doing and I have a lot I believe He wants me to do–so I’m going to do it now, though yes–I still wish I was….more assured. And I think that’s just how it is going to be.

I’m OK.

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.

Old Flames

What happens to dreams that die? Does it mean the imagination is no longer active, that age, care and worry, the slings and arrows of all have somehow overwhelmed?

I can’t remember my dreams anymore–not the nightly stuff of sleep and unconsciousness, but the dreams I once had for doing something new, finding something great, accomplishing some goal. They almost feel childish now. Every day is a slog through to accomplish what the day has put in my way and every night is a surrender to what the day brought and an acknowledgement that it didn’t go as planned.

Sunsets are harder to grasp just now. Literally. My house doesn’t look out at them any more and the magic painting and swirling clouds of a spring California sky are ethereal now, giving way to sunrise over the hills over my back fence to the east. There is promise there, but it’s a tired promise that gets up every morning with no real change, no real optimism that what is now will get better, though it wants me to fight for that.

I’ve been humiliated and humbled, pushed into corners I didn’t even know existed and I find myself on reconnaissance in strange new territories where all the rules have changed, all the familiar surroundings are gone.

It’s not lost on me that in a couple of months, I’ll turn 50 and so these incongruities feel more poignant, feel like they might be the result of me aging, me getting crankier, me losing hold of things I once held dear-or perhaps, choosing to let go.

Last night, I sat on my new patio and looked off into those hills while gentle cool breezes kicked around a lazy sunset behind me. The shadows began to darken and I went to light the fire pit, but it burned for perhaps 10 minutes and then it too lazily smoked itself into oblivion. I was content, though. I’d put thought to paper and was processing, arranging and rearranging these thoughts in my heart.

When I went to bed, I saw to it the flame and smoke were extinguished, but windows were open and while outside the smoke had dissipated, inside the smell hung in the air, seeming dusky and dank. I turned up the air purifiers and hoped they would do the trick before going to bed.

I was dreaming of broken and blocked paths. Impossible hills and jagged walls stood in the way first of me on a bicycle and then me on foot trying to get to the next thing. There was a sense of urgency in my steps and I knew a destination awaited, though I didn’t know what it was. One last dark hill, on a bicycle as fast as I could muster and the road merely ended; dropped off into black oblivion. To my left was a stone staircase that climbed up to another road and I had to portage with my bicycle to the top. I didn’t get there before I awoke.

Up immediately, shuffling loud enough to get the dog’s attention, I ran outside. The wind had increased in the opposite direction and Santa Ana east wind gusts had blown the fire back to life. At near full pitch it engulfed the rusted-out old fire pit and I grabbed the hose to douse it amid half-awake sharp and pointed fears of burning down the neighborhood. It was out in seconds.

The path to sleep blocked, I went back inside, hands both wet and sooty and as I cleaned them, I awoke fully into a day of fire.

Every road blocked, every fire started–I did. Every relationship harmed, every ignorant comment made, I did. It isn’t enough to wallow in the sadness of it…

The house still smells a bit of smoke and I fear its musty presence is here for a few days. Perhaps that is as it should be. One dines on one’s own ashes for a short time and for that short time, it’s good to do so and feel the sting of it. But sooner or later, one must allow the fire to be extinguished, the air to be renewed and the sunlight to come through again…

Onward.

 

 

Notes from a narrow room

The light through the window in room 2305 fades with the plastic blinds and they move, as if some unseen breeze generated by the beehive of activity in the halls, pushes them. It is a tiny space with barely enough room to turn around without hitting a door, stumbling over a wire or tripping over the bed. I’ve been sitting in this chair for nearly three hours watching Sue’s intermittent breathing go up and down, by fits and starts, as the hum of the hospital flows like a drug into her brain.

We came here Wednesday after Sue experienced intense abdominal pain. She’d been complaining of a gut-ache for a few days, but today, she said, was worse. I left school early and drove her to the emergency room where she waited until 1:00 the next morning to be admitted. During her stay in the ER, they did a CT scan and blood tests. The blood tests were not remarkable, but the CT scan showed a slight enlargement of her pancreas. She was miserable. I didn’t know what to think and tried not to, but it came to me soon.

Jarvis. Jean. Linda.

Linda is a survivor, a rarity in pancreatic cancer. It’s a brutal and swift disease and it moves ruthlessly and sometimes soundlessly, creeping up on its victims and attacking all at once, overwhelming everything and leaving no quarter.

It is hell.

And so I worried all that night and all the next day. But the blood tests again returned unremarkable and so I commented to the doctor, without affectation on the advice from a nurse-practitioner friend: “let me tell you my experiences and why I’m afraid……Is this what we’re looking at?

There was reassurance on a number of levels. The blood tests were the key to easing my clouded mind and Sue was awash in pain killer and anti-nausea meds, so she wasn’t interested. Promises? Guarantees? No such thing. But assurance.

Her eyes moved rapidly inside the lids and her face would contort into different shapes as uneasy sleep washed over her. One never truly sleeps at a hospital and mostly the rest one does get is from the medications prescribed. Her complexion changed with the current drug administered and she would vacillate from wan and pale to hearty and rosy cheeks, as though she’d just been on a bender.

On the third day, yesterday, full of medication, empty of food, the gastroenterologist said the wrong things. He didn’t ask questions about her past health history, which is complex and involves Hashimoto’s syndrome and thyroid irregularities as well as a primary immune deficiency. He was interested in her personal habits and he looked more at that than at the human being in front of him. Sue was incensed, with some cause, and she gave up. She shut down, as she does when attacked, and by the time I got to the hospital yesterday morning, it was all I could do to get her to be calm, to breathe deep and focus on the task at hand: an endoscopy and a CT scan with contrast had been scheduled by the offending doctor.

I spoke to the man, told him about who this woman was–asked him to set aside his pronouncements of “sometimes this happens and sometimes that happens,” asked him to concentrate on this person in front of him who is suffering. He seemed back on his heels–as though he considered her only and entirely from a clinical perspective. That has its place, I’m sure. But this is a person–someone who is greatly loved and I’d like you to consider that.

He did.

The endoscopy was unremarkable and, as was the suspicion, the CT with contrast indicated all the signs of pancreatitis. The remarkable thing, however, was that the blood tests were normal. Pancreatitis, while a complex process, is simple in its response: the pancreas, when offended or damaged, leaks enzymes into the blood streams. That’s all it can do–it has no choice. Blood tests reveal elevated pancreatic enzymes and, voi la, an answer. Sue’s blood tests were better the second time than the first.

No lesions. No tumors. No involvement of lymph or adrenal glands–the only thing to say was that she has a “mild” case of pancreatitis, only she didn’t experience anything mild about it.

It scared her–and me and our daughter. It forced hard truths about her health and how there really isn’t a pill or a drug that’s going to fix anything. If she is to have better health for herself, she’s going to have to take the lead on it herself and do the hard work. She knows that.

And as her health has been doing for some years now, it has knocked me back on my heels, frightening me into the fragile reality inside of this strong and capable woman. She has another chance now to work at change–as do so many of us.

So I feel the breeze a little more keenly today while I celebrate her and pray for hope for friends and acquaintances who need it. I’ll feel the sunset a little more palpably and I’ll watch as the cool Pacific breeze plays up against the hillside now visible from our new home.

And maybe, just maybe—she’s not the only one who needs the change.

Onward.