Category: Marks Notes

Remembrance

It’s easy to have lost track of this time. I did not intend to go dormant for so long, but the long and relatively cruel winter gave way to a decent spring and I simply had better things to do, which is something I celebrate.

Memorial Day always brings thoughts of Mike. He was a great kid. I still see him sitting there in my classroom in Simi Valley, big goofy smile, big and happy Italian-American family and grateful parents, loving sisters, good friends. Mike was memorable. He was always helpful and that followed him into his adult years. He wanted to be a paramedic and he earned it–went off and joined the Army after 9/11 and shipped to Iraq where he was with the elite 571st Med-evac unit, “the Witchdoctors.” His Blackhawk helicopter was shot down over Falujah in 2004. All aboard were killed.

There are many stories like his and so many of us have them. They deserve to be told, every year, over and again so that people can know them. Our war dead should not be forgotten. If they are, then war is perpetual. Remembering helps us realize what was lost–and that is the first step toward peace.

There is so much more to say, I know. I’ve got a thousand stories but I have to wade through them one at a time. Today is for Mike–and all of his brothers and sisters. Peace…

Peace.

​Onward.

North to Home

Forgive us. We have made sacred ordinary and deadly things. We are here on the hard edge, buried deep in our culture and honoring, like faith, things that can fail. Deadly, murderous and aggressive, we have allowed ourselves to believe that there are reasons. Feckless and mired in a kind of paralysis, we are losing the most important gift we’ve been given-our children, our loved ones, and the cost appears to be our souls.

These are not sacrifices. These are willful throw-aways. The culture has reached out into a starless night on a pointed tip forging forward and destroying, burying precious and holy things.  Parkland, Florida is a watershed. The dead call out for honor, memory–and for life again. It was not supposed to be this way.

I teach. This is not academic and no pun is intended here. Every day, every class, I work with young people with the primary objective of giving them the tools to be good citizens. That’s always what teaching was about and in a free country, being a good citizen meant teaching people to wonder, to be curious and to consider the good–the best life to live. 

Now, faced with what is obviously the dual sword of a culture gone terribly awry and its people seemingly ignorant on what to do, we do not act. We pray, sometimes sincerely and we hope–but we also allow time to pass, doing nothing and wallowing in the expectation that all will be well. It isn’t-and it cannot be well.

First things dictate that the slaughtered innocents be memorialized and honored and their families cared for. For us of faith, this is not an affectation–but a rite and an obligation. God calls us to this compassion and we must demand it of ourselves. 

That compassion, then, needs to extend to very practical and obvious steps. I’m not willing to debate gun control with anyone. I’m not a gun advocate. It seems to me that the second amendment can remain perfectly in-tact while also instating restrictions, licensure, background checks, mandatory training, limitations on various manufacturing and certainly, a ban on automatic and semi-automatic assault weapons. 

Compassion also dictates that schools take security far more seriously than they already do. Whether armed guards or simply monitoring every entrance and exit and checking identification of all who drive or walk on to a campus and perhaps limiting access to one entrance and one exit, school officials must stop taking daily operations for granted.

Once practical applications have been made in schools and in our society to limit the kind of losses we have suffered as a country, we then need to address ourselves. The issues of mental health, broken families, abuse, drugs and the slow erosion of a moral center and compass are worthy of serious discussion from all sincere contributors and all walks of life. Perhaps schools can even take a serious look at what we have abdicated in favor of what has passed recently as “rigor” in classrooms. But really, the schools are mere microcosms of  what is happening, writ large, in the culture. Generations of throw-away children, broken relationships, a kind of desensitization of violence and a culture that continues to worship fame and wealth over community and  shared  experience have not given us progress. Rather, we have isolated ourselves into factions, feeding off what we believe and seeking to know less, not more.

If we are to stop the wantonness and murder, empty promises and preening politicians will never be enough. Concrete practical action followed by a willingness on the part of families to commit to a new desire for peace, love and healing led by role models who do more than just seek the power of office, will be the new true north. Only then can we hope for peace. Only then will we be home.

The Thin Space

Dec. 1 was all hope, joy and a sense of accomplishment. There was Pt. Loma Nazarene University, my wife and daughter and I as we explored the first college that she wanted to see. She fit in–she was at home, she felt herself and we were excited for her–for ourselves. It was a round, home-like feeling that allowed us to dream, to find.

And two days later, I was at a funeral in Ojai. Deb was a colleague, a friend–full of life-esoteric, aesthetic and elegant. She was a woman of words and cared deeply about each one. She filled her life with them. She taught English, she sang in an Episcopal choir and she spoke with a resonance and grace I found alluring. It was there, on the altar at the church, where she was singing in rehearsal with the choir, that she suddenly passed away-singing hymns of praise and grace and gliding, as with one movement, into the hands of God.

On Dec. 4, the world was on fire–the terror and horror of catastrophe ripped through our county and while it is slowly coming under control, we are 21 days into it and still more than 1000 people are working on the Thomas Fire.

So this is Christmas…

Our pastor called Christmas eve “the thin space,” in between the long night of advent and the morning of hope that brings a savior, a peace and salvation unlike any other. And it was a rough-hewn acceptance of grace for which I was unready. Filled with the wails and tears of loss and what appeared random destruction and devastation, I find myself in the gully of my petty grievances and weaknesses. My anger and my sense of revenge topped the happiness. I got glimpses–Christmas lights and cold nights comforted by the closeness of my family, I could achieve smiles and even laughter at times. But in the back was the resounding reverberation of hard-hearted spite and righteous indignation.

But I was–I am–in that thin space. And I awoke this morning to the joy of the day with family around me and food, a roof overhead and the kindness of good and decent souls peering in across the miles of distance to wish the blessings that come with a day celebrated by those of us who believe there is something much more to this life. That thin space where Christ came into the world among a people so undeserving, so fixed against the quiet coos of a baby born in humble circumstances, is filled with expansive light.

There have always been catastrophes–some so great that the depth of human depravity reveals itself ferociously and anew, a raging fire that will not quench. And yet–there is the still-small-voice, the guiding light of a star and a quiet night amid the tumult of sadness and gracelessness that surrounds. How will we find it at all? How will we forgive and love those we, in our peevish judgment, deem unlovable? That must be the question that God asked, mustn’t it?

I have not yet returned to that comfort and that grace-but I find that I want to and that is a beginning. 

Onward.

Burn, part II: Thomas

Picture

I’ve tried for almost two weeks to write this. It’s impossible to encompass all that has happened. I’m fortunate–my wife, my daughter, my family, are all well. But friends of mine, colleagues and associates, have lost everything. The grief of 2017 is as complete a thing as it can be. 

Thomas is the name of the now monster 270,000 acre-and growing-fire that began burning Dec. 4 when the Santa Ana winds, as reliable as any other weather pattern in southern California, began to blow. Now, two weeks later, the winds continue to blow and the fire continues to burn. The numbers are impressive. More than 500 houses lost in Ventura alone, more than 1000 buildings total burned, the sad and tragic loss of two lives, one a young firefighter who came to try to tame the beast and lost the fight.  From Fillmore in the south and east to Santa Barbara in the north, the Thomas Fire is a Greek tragedy, an epic woven deep into the fabric of our own folly and ignorance in California. It is the cost of living in a place where rain is relatively scarce and where environmental policy is haphazard at best.

I wrote about the fire for the first three days it burned for the New York Times as a stringer. I do not feel compelled in any way to write a narrative of the destruction and the anguish and revisit again what I’ve already recorded.

This is merely a reflection of the time and an attempt for me to make sense of who and where I am today.

I have no barefoot days memories. I don’t look back at growing up from the age of 10 onward in California as particularly brilliant or lovely. My adolescence was marked by my parents’ divorce, yet it was in my adolescence that I made my closest friends, two of whom I am still quite close with because one is my wife and the other is my friend, Keith, who lives 90 minutes away. These are the people that keep me here. They have to be–there is no other reason to stay.

On a friend’s Facebook post, I wrote recently that there is a poetry in the scorched earth that the fire leaves behind. It is, somehow, complete. Utter destruction leaving nothing, not even grief. It is beyond that. It is beyond imaginings of hell. It is empty, vacant and stark–a reminder not of randomness, for there is nothing random about the complete lack of attention paid to 50 years of dry brush ignored and forgotten, but of willful, slothful ignorance.

For the past two weeks, the school where I teach has been closed with the exception of three days and during that time, I’ve been forced to deal with some realities of where I live. I listen to the prattling of “there’s been nothing like this before,” by those younger than me and by some who should know better. It is true, this fire is among the top five largest, maybe number one, and certainly among the most destructive.

And it is owed to man-made conditions, though I’m afraid we won’t look at the correct reasons for it. There has been no attempt in more than 50-years to remove, clear or burn under control, the brush that nature has chosen to clear for us. It was never a question of the drought we face as a state–drought is a fairly persistent norm in this part of the world, just read the almanac and the history. We do have rainy years, but they are not average or common. What is average and common is the exact cocktail of perfection that came together Dec. 4 and began burning: high winds, high temperatures, low humidity, abundant fuel, steep and rugged terrain. Those things are more or less ever-present in southern California, this just happened to be a fine collection of every ingredient–the best of the worst. 

As a boy in the San Fernando Valley, I remember in the 1970’s and 80’s Christmas days that reached into the mid-80 degree range. I remember one Christmas, I think it was 1976, when I got a new bicycle and went out in the morning to ride it with a sweatshirt on. I came home 20 minutes later, sweatshirt tied around my waist, wind blowing ferociously and utterly unable to do anymore, throat unslaked by moisture of any kind. One of my most common memories of my childhood in this place is being thirsty. Always.

If I think about southern California as place, that is, as landscape of home and a place that, as the author wrote, bred me, then I am despondent. I am an alien here and I have never belonged. The scorched earth is not just poetry, it is metaphor. There is nothing here. So many have convinced themselves that this place, because it does not have cold and snow, is somehow worthy of admiration and even worship. The Hollywood machine and the media giants paint images of a Shangri-La that doesn’t actually exist and never did.

This place is dry, vapid, rough-hewn from a desert climate that sits astride the Pacific, giving the illusion of perfection and swallowing up dreams like a dragon. The fire is merely a natural progression, a kind of linear trash removal that acts as both destroyer and sanctifier. Rebuilding is absolute and necessary for all in Thomas’s path–in every fire’s path. And the process will begin again.

The stories that moved me as a child and into adulthood, books by authors who wrote of place as a character, a holy ghost that brings peace, sanity and redemption– from Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to Norman Maclean’s A River Run’s Through It, do not apply here. There is no redemption in the desert of fire, not for me.

My redemption here comes from the people I’ve met and know here. My family, my friends that have lifted me up and given me grace when I least deserved it, home when I was looking for one and peace when I couldn’t find any, are why I am here. I fell in love with a California girl and she and I had a daughter who is a California girl. While I have found no peace, no joy of place for more than 40 years, the peace and joy I have found is with the people I love here. You all are what give me hope and give me reason to stay. And I know for many of you, your love of this place, its ferocious elements and powerful lure of natural beauty are very much endemic to you as the tumbleweeds and the rolling hillsides. My love and admiration for you is in that very part of your soul.

I will leave southern California one day because it will be cheaper to live somewhere else. I don’t own a house here anymore and of that, I am glad. But in my heart will be the distinct clarity of friends and family, people whom I love who remain special to me not because of where they live, but because of who they are.

The fire melts away all pretense and shreds me down to my very core. It isn’t just the flames, but the hot dryness and intemperate winter–of weather forces that move like monsters on the thin air and leave me to pay attention to something else, someone else–for without the people who live in a place, the place-no matter where it is– is nothing.

Onward.


Waning Wine

Picture


My taste for wine has diminished. For most people, this is nothing to think about, much less to note in any kind of journal. Maybe, if you keep a journal, the spine cracks a bit as you open and run your hand across the page with a weathered pen: “stopped drinking wine for the most part. Much happier with a tumbler of brown liquor.” But unless you’re Anthony Bourdain, probably not.

I don’t wonder why about it. Sue’s health issues have necessitated cutting out alcohol entirely and her sister, with whom we spend a good deal of time, also has abstained for her own health reasons and, I think, in solidarity. So that leaves me as our daughter is not yet of age and drinking wine alone, I have found, is not a great deal of fun. When I obtained my sommelier certificate in 2004, I always tasted and drank wine in the company of others, sharing notes, talking about and enjoying glasses. But that doesn’t happen anymore.

Last night, I cooked a simple dinner of spaghetti squash and made my own vodka sauce. There was a bottle of Stolpman La Croce opened and it was on its last legs and I didn’t want to dump it all down the drain. I poured myself a glass, but the perfunctory nature of it and the fact that it tasted quite good, wasn’t enough, I suppose. I drank it without any relish.

On occasion, I will pour myself a bourbon or an Irish whiskey. Sometimes, I’ll make a Negroni and for whatever reason, I don’t mind drinking that alone. I have, of late, been thinking about my sense of world-view and I wonder if, because these drinks are often considered “spirits” or “hard liquor,” there is a natural tendency to believe that drinking one in solitary company is more acceptable. Am I yielding merely to the acceptable set of what alcohol is supposed to be? Has wine lost its lure because I learned it is not supposed to be consumed alone? Is drinking alone truly a danger?

Perhaps that is the issue with alcohol–for some, it becomes necessity, a part of how they see themselves and their lives. Maybe that’s alcoholism? Not the somehow deep craving for a drink that will numb any pain–but the world-view of seeing one’s self as a drinker, someone who drinks because that’s what they do? I have always been able to take it or leave it, even in the height of pursuing writing about wine as a semi-career. I get the sense, though, that not everyone can be so aloof.

My suspicion is that wine has always been a social occasion to me, not a solitary pleasure. I find the joy of eating and drinking in company absolutely appealing–whereas I find drinking without company rather abhorrent.

​That said, a glass of bourbon while I’m grading papers or reading or, perhaps just petting the dog on the patio by firelight, alone—is such an alluring and welcome thing that I would have trouble understanding anyone who didn’t want that.

So much for shifting my worldview.

Onward.


A symphony of simplicity

I stood over the cast iron skillet flushed with enthusiasm. The chopping, dicing, slicing and arranging were all done. My favorite part was about to ensue–there’s something scintillating about cooking, particularly the final moment of preparation. Ingredients together, whether in a melange, as I was doing then, or in parts–start to come together and there is a rush of joy not unmixed with challenge and even wonder.

“Buffoons!” I shouted to no one in particular. “Imbeciles and pimply-faced 20 and 30-somethings who want effects and explosions with their cliches and comic books. They don’t want entertainment, they want dissolution on demand!”

“What are you talking about?” my wife said, annoyance clear in her voice.

“Huh? Oh. Critics. Movie critics.” I had just read two reviews of Kenneth Brannagh’s Murder on the Orient Express. They didn’t like it (though SFGate.com did, which makes me happy). They said Brannagh was too full of himself and that they were “bored.” I fumed. I’d seen it earlier in the afternoon and I loved it. I was entertained entirely. I found the acting wonderful and engaging, light-hearted, but meaningful, too and I’ve always thought the story was an homage to humanity’s brightest–and darkest gifts.

“You liked the movie?”

“Liked it? I loved it! Oh…It wasn’t brilliant in the…. cinematique way, that these pre-pubescent hacks want,” I said lobbing pads of butter on the vegetables in the skillet. I sprinkled a pinch of salt and rather efficiently dusted the whole with several grinds of fresh black pepper. “But it was much like Brannagh’s Hamlet,” I said. “I can see their point about self-indulgence, but that has been Mr. B’s style for some time. It’s actually quite engaging and he never really takes himself too seriously. I don’t get the whining about it. Brannagh is a fine actor–and Michelle Pfeifer was fun to watch–her elegance and charm were perfect in this movie. She was….she was just…gorgeous!” I turned on my heels to the sizzling skillet and put my nose over the whole, inhaling deeply of the onions and garlic, sweet potatoes and carrots as they caramelized to a kind of bronze perfection. I squeezed just a hint of balsamic vinaigrette reduction over them, smiling at the deed, confident in its eventual reward of dark, sweet and tangy-inflected sumptuousness.

“This wasn’t about special effects,” I said as I picked up the hot pads and delicately lifted the skillet off the heat. I unwrapped the grass-fed filets and simply stared at them for a moment before I ground a few more specks of pepper and a light dusting of salt, most of which missed the meat altogether. “It was the performances… and they were so delightful,” I said. “They were engaging and funny and at times, perhaps, stereotypical–but that was the point. That is the point,” I said, holding a filet with the tongs. I turned to the skillet and gently seared the meat on all sides and placed it, with care, atop the vegetables. “This isn’t Shakespeare! It’s a murder-mystery with flare,” I said. “Dullards! Every one of them!”

“Who?” said my wife reading with no particular relish, an article in the local paper.

“Critics! Bottom-feeding, gutless film-school dropouts, every last one!” I shouted.

“When will dinner be ready?” she asked.

“You can’t rush these things, you know?” I said quietly, and turned to the other filets, searing them as lovingly and carefully as I did the first. The vegetables were still crisp, but warm and caramelizing slowly on top as the balsamic reduction dripped down amid the the sizzling spots of orange, yellow and amber. I placed the whole skillet, meat, seasonings and vegetables, into the oven. “About 10 minutes, I suppose.”

“Good,” she said.

I stood with the heavenly aromas of savory-sweet vegetables hanging in the air and drank another swig of Buffalo Trace, one rock. God, it was good. When the meat is sizzling and the smoke hangs delicately over the oven, the bourbon seems to take the essence of it all with it. I drank as a prelude to the meal to come and I savored it for every second it lay on my tongue. “Heaven,” I said. My wife flipped the page, following the antics of some marble-headed galoot who’d robbed a liquor store in town.

“What? Did you say something?” she asked.

“No. Nothing important.” My head down, nose in my tumbler, I swallowed the last of the bourbon and moved to pour myself another. “Hm,” I remarked, a bit flush with the last taste. “Not yet. Clear head, oven, heat, burning things. Yes. One moment.” The timer sounded and I removed the skillet and aroma came out with it.  Sweet, savory and meaty–flesh aglow with glistening pools of clarified butter atop and slowly draping juices down over the vegetables.

“Oh, it smells so good!” my wife said. 

“Yes, doesn’t it? I can’t wait!” I served up the meal on the plates. “The writing was tight, the story was fun, the setting was beautiful–I loved watching the train,” I said.  “The cars were the most brilliant shade of blue, a kind of dark royal blue that I love so much. It reminded me of train sets I had when I was young. Snow falling over the mountains and the train climbing up. I just….it was enchanting,” I said. “I just thought it was so much fun to watch. I was so removed from the world and inside the one on the screen,” I said. “Johnny Depp. Captain Jack himself….he was tremendous, almost the cliche of a New York mobster from the 30’s. He nailed it. So much fun,” I said and poured another glass of bourbon after serving the plates.

“I’m glad you liked it, honey,” my wife said. “These steaks are amazing and the vegetables are perfect!” she added, looking at me with a smile.

“Yes,” I said. “I too am glad…that you like them.” I tucked into a bite myself and chewed effortlessly.

It was good. Simple, but good. Most of life’s better things are so, after all.

Onward.

Don’t postpone joy…

Picture

I have had the sad honor too often in the past couple of years to title my posts with the names of dear loved ones who have passed too early. If I were to keep that motif, I would write the name Linda Lavanne for the title of this post. She passed away early this morning after a four-year bout with cancer, a disease over which she beat the odds and it yielded to her for a time–and she didn’t let it steal her joy.

Sue’s and my friendship with the Lavanne family goes to our first church home at New Hope Lutheran in Agoura, Calif. As fellow members, we know Tom and Linda and only recently did we get to know them well enough to enjoy several evenings together sharing wine and pizza–Tom’s and my favorite meal. If you know Tom and Linda, reading this will only confirm what you know and that is that two more loving, kind, smart, engaging and funny people you could not hope to meet.

Linda’s battle with pancreatic cancer brought us together because our mutual friend, Jarvis Streeter, lost his fight to that disease back in 2013. When I joined Team Jarvis for the pancreatic cancer run/walk held each February in Westlake Village, it was to honor Jarvis’s memory and Linda’s fight–now it will serve to honor them both in loving friendship.

Her path was marked by this fight with disease. But her path was also marked by her ability to set it aside, to focus on the positive and for a while, she had beaten the odds and learned the value of the monster time and lovingly, joyously without sentimentality or even without urgency, shared it with everyone.  I love the relationship that she and Tom have and I watched it with all the joy one can muster for friends. There was an ethereal kind of happiness even in the midst of dour world events and absurdities of every kind–it never stole their smiles.

During her fight against the disease, Linda hashtagged all of her social media with “#don’tpostponejoy,” and she and Tom never did. They reveled in each other, in their wonderful children and their friends and family, traveling more often, going on wine-tasting weekends when Linda was up for it and she managed to see her son graduate from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and then go on a family trip to Mexico. Her will, her refusal to give up or in, her sheer grit in the face of devastation was a marvel to behold–it was at once peaceful and ferocious and through it all, she smiled. It wasn’t perseverance, it was hope in something gold, something wonderful and eternal far removed from cancer and the plodding days of that fight. It was joyous rebounding into each moment and sharing it with the people she knew mattered most. 

In a movie called, The Village, William Hurt has an aching and poignant line of which I am reminded: “The world moves for love. It kneels before it in awe.” Such was Linda Lavanne’s extraordinary gift of life–and today, we all kneel in awe before that gift.

Onward.