Mark’s Notes

Myths to Live by

Our plane drifted slowly down through the clouds after a somewhat turbulent flight and settled gently onto the runway at Seatac International airport in Seattle. It was Saturday and the flight was fairly full, but the ride was made smoother by a nice chap who Sue and I got to know, a Seattle restaurateur with a penchant for discussing politics–not my favorite subject, but he was reasonable and kind.

The stark contrast between the sunshine and high 60’s as we left California with the gray skies and high 40-degree temperatures in Washington was welcome. Most people would prefer the reverse, I’m guessing–especially after Puget Sound had just gotten through some 50 days of rain. For us, it was a nice change of pace and a way for us to consider what it was like here. Few people get to glimpse into their future like this and it wasn’t lost on us that we were looking at just that.

The Pacific Northwest is something of a compromise in our family. I’ve spent most of my life in Southern California, moving here from Pennsylvania with my family at 10-years old and only leaving for a brief time at 18. But in my quiet moments, though the people I love are here, my wife is native here and my daughter, too–I have to admit I’ve never truly felt at home here. Oh, I’ve come to love the west altogether, but Southern California is merely artifice for me. I’m at once kind of inside and outside of it.

But the Pacific Northwest always drew me. In 1992, when my dear friend Keith was living in Portland, I went to visit him with a teaching and college friend of mine. We spent a week in Oregon and I fell so in love with it, that I applied for-and was offered a teaching job in the Beaverton School District. I was ready to make the move. But at that time, I was also falling in love with Sue. And she was smart enough not to commit to anything until it became clear what I was going to do. I nearly gambled and took the job in Oregon, hoping Sue would come join me. But I felt more strongly about her than I did the job and so I returned to California with no regrets.

The rest is family history, of course, but it was endlessly fascinating to me that Shannon decided to attend college in the PNW at Pacific Lutheran University. And while a native Californian, she has fallen under Washington’s spell. For us, it really is an enchanted place.

So it occurs to me that the poetry of the moment is a kind of apex of much that I have pursued for these years. It’s a time for choices. I’ve been reminded twice in the past week of a quote by Joseph Campbell from his book, Myths to Live By. “We must be willing to let go of the life we have planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us.” In so many ways, that’s what all of us are doing. Shannon did it when she chose to go away from home for school. Laurie did the same when she uprooted herself from the comfort of her life with us here in California and moved to Washington not knowing anyone other than her niece. And now we too are headed that way, though another year stands between us and the move. It’s no use wishing a year of one’s life away, but I confess that I do sometimes wish it were 2021.

The past few days we spent in Washington with Laurie at her new home took on new urgency for us. We reveled in her new home and town and we no longer felt like travelers or tourists. We cooked in Laurie’s kitchen and we tried a new local distillery, while visiting downtown Tacoma and the state’s history museum. Our family, reunited in the north along with Shannon’s college friends, were no longer Californians. Instead, we were related to this place and we fell into easy comfort, enjoying the sites, surroundings, and preparing ourselves for the time we’re all here, in the north.

The comfortable thing to do, the easy thing, would be to teach for at least another three or four years and stay put. But life is lived forward, the broad windshield before us. A life that is, perhaps, waiting for me, is calling. It’s time to leave behind the life that was planned and start embracing new challenges, answering that call.

​Onward. Indeed.

This is Just to Say pt. II


Like Mike Rowe, I’ve always been leery about “following my passion.” Passion by its very definition carries little to no practicality. It’s too easy to dismiss that and as a free spirit say, “practicality is over-rated” or something equally banal. But I live by my passion, my feelings. I’ve always lead with my heart and often to my own detriment. That’s not simple self-deprecation, it is an admission to being weak in areas where weakness leads often to failure, or at least to being trailed by wolves.

So, when I made the decision to retire from teaching, it wasn’t without a pretty serious focus on the practicality of the decision, a sense of turning to face those trailing wolves and see if I could, at very least, fight them off. My original intent was to get out earlier than June, 2021. I sought out a kind of career change after 29 (or nearly 29) years. Somewhat to my own surprise, I was successful in finding work in another chosen field, working in a communications or student services capacity for a college. I got as far as the first step of applying for a job as an assistant director for communications for a university in the Pacific Northwest. In the moment, it felt good to consider it. I liked the idea of walking away from teaching and stepping into something new. But it didn’t make sense. I wasn’t fully prepared to take on a new career that might last another 10 or 15 years. Doing so felt like a rejection of the teaching career that I have committed to and even loved at times. I realized that I accept the choices I’ve made and I stepped back from that career-change for practical, and not passionate, reasons.

Shortly after I made that decision, another opportunity presented itself. This coincides with something I believe passionately, by the way–that placing one’s self into the stream means opportunities will come, at their own pace, yes–but come they will.

Our school district had an opportunity for teaching in the Independent Studies program, a truly alternative education process working in either small groups or one on one with kids who just don’t fit the high school process mode. A friend of mine worked in that department and I asked him about it. His answers convinced me it was the right fit and I got an interview. But it was during that process that something didn’t feel quite right. Here again, I am fairly certain that the feeling was a practical one: If I do this right, I have another year to teach–why change that up at the last minute? Why not finish with what I know and perhaps support a student-teacher on the beginning of their career in the process?

These feelings were not passionate ones. I didn’t have an overwhelming love of the choices I made. I knew that like some sort of lamp lighting a simple path, I needed to stay put in order to give myself more options when the time comes next year to pull that plug. I have a strong desire for change now, but a capricious application of that desire isn’t going to make life better for anyone in my family, including me.

So these days find me fixing my mind on the future. I’ve been reminded again of late of life’s uncertainties and the near impossible task of striking a balance between leaps of faith and plunges into the abyss. Discernment is such a monumental task and faith must play a role in it for there to be any hope of success. But in this instance I found that answering a call of passion wasn’t an answer at all. The heat of a moment can be a beautiful and powerful thing. But it can also burn and scar forever and choosing wisely is no simple matter.
Onward.

This is Just to Say pt. III: 15 months

 Midsummer sun was just about at high noon. June, 2011 and I was sitting in my little Scion xB with a smile on my face as bright as that summer sun, eating an Italian sandwich from Lombardo’s deli. I’d finished my 21st year of teaching and felt comfortable with what I was doing there. Simultaneously, I’d been writing for my local daily newspaper since 2007 and this summer, things were kicking into high gear. Graduation was just the day before and already, I had stories lined up for the next two weeks. I relished every bite of that sandwich and the sips of Diet Coke I took. I remember feeling like…like I’d arrived. I loved what I was doing.

That was the beginning of a three-year run in which working as a journalist, I was just as busy as I was in my classroom. Even during the school year, I would work after-school, doing interviews, meeting deadlines, making appts. for more interviews. On occasion, during my journalism class, I’d do interviews via speaker phone and let my student reporters listen in to get a taste of how to do it.  At one point, I was writing for the Ventura County Star, the New York Times, Ventana Magazine, San Jose Mercury News and the Silicon Valley Business Journal at the same time. I was granted opportunities teaching never gave me like when I was hired by the Mercury News to do an advertorial profile of a place called Santana Row. A mixed use business and residential community on Winchester Ave. in San Jose, the public relations arm of the corporation that ran Santana Row brought my wife and me to the community and put us up at Hotel Valencia, one of the nicest places I’ve ever stayed, and one I don’t think I could normally afford. They paid for us to eat and drink our way through interviews, tours and discussions with some very nice people. I was in love with what I was doing and I can do no other here than be cliche in response and tell you I don’t know how I did it. I just did. I know for certain that the schedule I kept in my mid to late 40’s is simply not a schedule I could keep now. I feel that in my bones. At least not teaching at the same time.

There was passion there, truly. But like Edna St. Vincent Millay’s candles burning at both ends, it was a life I knew could not go on forever. I’d have to choose to either pursue this full-time or go back to the classroom and complete a “full-term” of teaching to accrue retirement.

But the choice never really came for me. Rather, it was made for me when, in 2015, newspapers had been burning their own candles, working feverishly to gain readership and advertisement dollars and failing at both while the Internet scooped up their businesses. Reeling from that pressure, freelance jobs around the nation dried up. Here and there, I’ll still get a story, but for the most part, that well is dry. With the advent of California’s AB 5, I wouldn’t be able to pursue such a life anyway. The legislature in California has dis-allowed a freelance lifestyle in large measure. I have an opinion, but this isn’t the place for that. The facts here are simply the facts.

I turned 50 in 2015, too. Sue went back to work full-time while Shannon came to the high school with me and immediately, our roles changed. I was now both bread-winner and caretaker, just as Sue had been previously. She worked part-time, but took care of Shannon full-time. Now, I was teaching and also taking care of Shannon’s needs, though admittedly fewer (at least physically speaking) than Sue had to deal with.

I satiated the passion I had for reporting by pouring it into my Journalism class. I don’t know that I was effective, I’ve always found writing much easier than teaching writing, but I did it and it satisfied that part of my life. Many of my kids won awards for their work and reporting and it made me glad to live vicariously through them. But the glimpses of a future without reporting to the school were starting to manifest themselves and then came the dark years between 2016 and, well…now.

I’ve reported in these pages previously and so for my own sake, I won’t go into detail. Between the Thomas Fire, the Woolsey Fire, Easy Fire and the loss of such dear friends like Edd, Brett, Craig, John and so many others–life seemed to take on an urgency that forced all of us to consider ourselves amid the chaos. What were we all doing to make our lives extraordinary?

The moment, as so many of my retired teacher friends and relatives have told me, came toward February of last year. A year ago, I went into my classroom one morning and simply felt…nothing. Tired and somewhat bored, the strains that states and Feds have put on public education in the last few years combined with 4 years of fecklessness at our school and demands for standardized testing, differentiated instruction (fathom that alone, dear reader–the push to “differentiate” instruction is followed by a push for all kids to score well on standardized tests), class sizes, technology changes, doing more with less–all of it, came to bear, though not in the way I thought. My friends, my cousin, even my late Aunt, who taught for many years, told me, “you’ll just know when it’s time to go.” And I did.

I don’t have regrets about teaching and I’m not bitter. I know how the pendulum swings and this one will, too. There are already new and better changes on the horizon swinging us back into some sanity about understanding relationships with students and how those will drive instruction. But I’m done with them. I don’t get excited like I used to, though I still love to talk about education. I don’t share a passion I once shared with my colleagues about how to do something better, more efficiently, with better comprehension and all of it. Now, I tune out when such things are discussed. I’m not interested.

And that was the moment–I sat in my chair at my desk and realized that I’ve done what I can do as a teacher. I’m not looking back on it and finding fault, I’m just not interested in going any further at the high school level. Maybe a few college classes? Yes, I’d love to perhaps. But K-12 education and I are leaving on amicable terms. I’m smiling, happy and sincere in my choice. But I want to pursue more writing opportunities, more travel opportunities and a chance to enjoy this time without the encumbering weight of grading papers and endless meetings, 5:30 AM wake-ups and preparing lessons, posting grades and all of it. I’ve done that. I’m ready for the next horizon.

The future just 15 school months ahead is still a bit fuzzy, blurry and its edges are not yet in focus. I’m scared of what might be next and what it will lead to. There are “known unknowns” that I wish were not unknown. I am slightly afraid. I ask a lot of  “what if” questions, rather like I did the night before I walked into my first classroom at Valley View Junior High School in Simi Valley nearly 30 years ago. And just now, that’s how I want it. In fact, I don’t think I’d have it any other way. I’m ready for what’s next. I’m ready for Sue and I to push on to another adventure and this is just to say–I have faith in the process, in God’s peace and plan–and in the future.

Onward.

This is Just to Say…

Christmas of 2018 fled and two posts ago, I said it left, spinning out into the universe to wind its way around the sun and would come back in 12 months. And it did–and now, it’s 2020 and Christmas has gone spinning out into space yet again. I’m a little bit older, as are we all, and a bit wiser, I suppose. So, this is just to say….

I’ve made a decision that is worth putting here for posterity and it’s the reason why I fire the Blog back up. Perhaps in the next few weeks, I’ll provide more essays and hopefully, find some creative ideas to share. But for now, and particularly with homage to the post immediately beneath this one from one-year ago, I’ve made the decision to retire from the high school classroom at the end of June, 2021. I have three more semesters to ply my trade and then I’m off for new horizons.

This is not the “thanks for the memories” post. This is the William Carlos Williams post; this is–indeed–just to say. In June of 2021, I’ll have taught for 30 years and that’s a long career. I could teach longer and the pension I earn would go up, that’s true. But I’m trading money for time and a little more experience for adventures and new traditions, a new home and a desire to make life anew.

As I seek to do that, I’m going to begin anew here, too. Our little girl is now a freshman in college and Sue’s twin-sister Laurie, has left California as we will soon do.  In August of last year, we lost our dear Lucy, Laurie’s dog–our dog–and Simon remains, sleeping here next to me as I write. Soon, though–I’ll be writing from different spaces and places. And while I do that, I’ll be writing new stories for myself as well. It’s time to trust our faith a little bit and make the changes that will lead to a life beyond my career of the past 30 years. 

​Onward.

On an earnest theory in education

 I have a fascination with timbres of voice and I often will listen to someone speak because I like listening to them. The poet N. Scott Momaday comes to mind. I saw him speak once at Cal Lutheran University where I was a student and I was mesmerized by both his poetry and his voice.

So when I heard Marco Pierre White for the first time, on the late great Anthony Bourdain’s show, I had the same feeling. The British accent added to it, of course, but the timbre of his voice had this gravelly clarity that I found so compelling. So I listened.

And it was while listening that he said something that has spurred a revelation for me that I must write here before I lose it. It’s too important to sweep it away.

As a chef, White said that he learned over-time that nature is the genius. Nature is what provides the best food. “I’m just the cook,” he said. “Start with beautiful produce and keep it simple.” He drew the small analogy of artists who often say things like, “I just drew what I felt was on the paper or the canvas or in the stone,” or whatever the medium. 

In the midst of hearing this, I have been contemplating 28 years as an English teacher. I confess that I have moments of clarity that force me into the realization that I no longer love the career. There are bright and shining moments in it, but the bureaucracy and the politics, the absurd state and Federal agendas, the pay that is almost worth it, but not quite–it gathers up on me now and I sometimes have regrets. 

I have no greater argument with my chosen profession than this: The current mantra in education is “Data drives instruction.” It may well be the most asinine thing I’ve ever heard. It breaks down this very human pursuit, full of all the imperfections and idealism and heroism and cowardly, sinister behavior of people into numbers on paper or screens. Nothing, really, could be further from the truth.

What drives instruction is us–human beings. We drive instruction. My students will no more learn from me if they don’t like or at least respect me than they would an axe murderer. Why would they? If I walk into each class thinking, “it’s the data that makes this class relevant,” I may as well simply go do a much simpler job where I could make no pretense about passion, commitment, love or curiosity. The bright and shining moments are the ones where kids light up with curiosity, discovery, passion or understanding. That’s human and it doesn’t come because of data. Nature provides the ingredients, as White would say. Nature provides the humanity. My job is to provide the opportunity for growth. 

Mind, my job is not to make the students grow–rather, it is to provide them with opportunities for growth, to coax out of them as a cook coaxes her ingredients. If the ingredients are at their peak of freshness and taste, then the dish has the opportunity to be at its peak. But if not, then there is only so far it can go. Time is needed.

And if we’re honest, as we rarely are in this profession, we know that many students at whatever age won’t be ready for growth until they’re much older. That makes them fragile while they’re in our classrooms and the very last thing we should be saying to such students, to such people–is that data drives what we do for, with and to them. It does not. Saying so won’t make it so. I won’t equivocate. Data informs instruction? Sure. Data provides information for instruction? Check. But drives it? Without question–no. It does not. And if you are among those who believe it does, I beg you to leave the profession now–or at least, go to a university and do research where data will provide you years of solace. If you stay in the classroom with that mindset, you are part of the very big problem being made worse every day by standardization, testing and driving education into a piece of data used to measure human beings without anything resembling a heart or soul.

As for me and what I do for the next couple of years as I finish this portion of my career–my profession–will be an honest humanity, a kind heart as often as I can and a hand willing to reach out to my students and provide opportunities so that they can become who they are meant to be. To be at work for any other reason as a teacher is to throw away the very heart of the relationships we build. I won’t do that.

​Onward.

Can it Last?

Snow and cold are memories I cherish with such fervent velocity, it speeds me up. Christmas comes and I want to savor it, like I did when I was a boy in the Midwest and east. But like my damnable eating habits, formed more from 28 years of teaching, its compressed half-hour lunches pocked with myriad bits of paper-work, coverage of various duties and students interrupting and attempting to find something out, I move through it all too fast–and while attempting to slow down, point a lens and maybe share it with people I love, I fail. I don’t live in the snow anymore, but that’s OK. This year’s Christmas has been seasonably cold, for here. 

The Christmas lights of our town’s own “Candy Cane Lane,” called Gemini street, a staple since our daughter was two-years old, is now a mission. She still likes to go, and at almost 18, I feel blessed that she asks and that she wants to share it with me. We went three times this year, once with my wife and sister-in-law, a few of Shannon’s friends–a big group making noise and gregarious with large crowds, spilling off the sidewalk and veritably shouting “Merry Christmas” to each other across the street, smiling and keeping warm together on a cold night. Two other times, it was just the two of us and Simon, the dog. She talked quietly, held my arm at times and barely ever mentioned the past. It was just now–just this Christmas. Just tonight.

I don’t feel age creeping up on me as much as I do experience. I don’t feel older, but I do feel wiser and I am grateful for this. It is a gift and one that I know also can’t last. Age is what age is–and it will do what it does indelibly and without critique. Christmas hasn’t changed. I have. We have-but Christmas is the same. 

And in the small weeks leading up to it, I take all of it in and I use Charles Dickens as my guide. I start listening to the digital book I have on one of the devices that cramps my nightstand with Tim Curry reading Dickens’ words and like the Bible, they begin to color how I am each day. I say Good Morning and Good Day to strangers, smile more and “seem by one consent to open my shut-up heart freely…”  I’m mad about Dickens, really–about A Christmas Carol. I think it’s a perfect book. Like good food, it’s seasonal and it fits into a specific rhythm of the year. It is filled with all of the things Christmas should be about, love, fear, children, ignorance, greed, faith, food, filth, corruption, life, death and redemption. And about a dozen other things I probably missed, but will pick up for next year because Christmas is now on its own journey outward. It left two days ago–and is going around the world sprinkling ever less of its magic as it careers out into space, only to pick up speed, gather ingredients for next year and come hard-charging again into the little darknesses we’ve created for ourselves. Its light will not be denied–at least not for a few weeks out of the year.

Christmas Eve is all hope and anticipation and as a child, it’s the closeness of the night–the “thin space” that allows for Christ to come, a poor baby born to poor people in need of constant care. We’re in that space with Him then and our hearts glow with it.

​When we’re older, we begin to see that the space was created for us by people who love us and we find we have to now create that space for others, for our children, for our loved ones. The trick is not to give so much of it away that we exhaust ourselves of the capacity to share in the joy. It’s the one time of the year when we become not just practitioners of faith, but active participants in it and if Christmas is successful, it reminds us to take more active steps every day of the rolling year. I like to think that’s what Dickens was getting at in his “little Carol.”

Next year, my wife and I will become empty-nesters as Shannon leaves for college and we hold the candle here–not old, but older. Not burned out, but melted a bit down the length of the candle. But she’ll come home for Christmas and because she’ll come home, that energy will be brighter than it was in previous years. It will carry with it her memories of Gemini Street, of Christmas Eve church service, of the meals of her childhood, her grandparents and visiting friends and family. I only hope we made memories worth her keeping.

Onward.

Spreading Wings

On the precipice of a day
when clouds hugged the peaks of hills
dragging themselves over the tops like proud warriors–
And the sky, blue with memory and tradition
poured over us, bathing us in intimate glory–
She said little as she held my hand and hugged my arm–
And biting into apples fresh with looks of resplendence 
and surprise–
I knew then, as I know now–that this won’t last forever and its preciousness 
is an alarm–and a comfort, etched in deeply held visions like the cattle along the roadside
Or the horses she called “beautiful,” as she turned her head to see them longer.
I was reminded then of the scar that struggles inside me, indignant and proud at once,
A family tradition that I long ago eschewed by choice, but one she has kept–
Just because feelings are unsaid, it doesn’t mean we don’t feel them.

Where’d you go?

lIt was inevitable in all the recent dark prophecies surrounding Facebook that the proverbial shite would hit the fan. In the most recent hack, I was compromised–and I couldn’t log back in. The e-mail and the password that I had previously used, but hadn’t had to remember for more than two years,  were lost to history and in order to get back in, Mr. Zuckerburg and the gang want me to upload a copy of my driver’s license, Social Security card or birth certificate. It’s OK, though–they’ll only hang onto it for 30 days and then they promise…promise…to destroy it.

Ah…..No. Thanks.

So, I’ve opened a new account and am refriending folks as I can. I have to admit, I was comfortable without it for a week or so and it felt good not to hang out on FB. But I also misses so many people and their good and friendly influences in my life. So, if you receive a friend request from me–it’s real. And if you don’t, please don’t take it personally. I’m moving as fast as I can. I’ll stay on it for now– and I’m comfortable with it. For now….

I have many posts to come here–I’m working on several and will post them as I am able in coming weeks.

Onward. 

The Foreboding of August

August is a time of foreboding and rejoicing for me. It heralds the not-quite-an-end to summer, yes, but it also is a time for last minute trips, or just a working knowledge that as yet, I don’t have to get up at 5:30. I do anyway, of course. Once you’re past 40, sleeping in is a vague memory, a kind of pleasurable but distant and removed folly that you can talk about while sitting on the porch sipping lemonade.

Today, however, a new fate awaited and it caught me unawares. I was running errands with my wife, who has Thursdays off generally, and we wanted to get some groceries and she said she had to stop at Target. The word itself made me tingle. I felt my heart leap against my ribs and repeated the word after licking my lips, like a soldier in the trenches aware he has no choice but to go over the top. “Oh,” I said. “OK, we’ll go….to Target.” I considered the possibility of a Starbuck’s Coffee because, of course, there’s one in Target. But I’d already had coffee. I considered the possibility of an Icee, my go-to junk food choice, but it wasn’t quite 10:30 in the morning and, well–that much sugar at that hour might cause a coma-inducing diabetic shock. I felt better at the prohibitions I had thrown up against myself and in to the store we went.

Sue delicately pointed out that the men’s clothing area was that way and I said, “Oh, OK, thanks.” But I wasn’t planning to shop for clothes. I knew she was tense, then as I followed her, sheep-like, to the women’s section. I was unwelcome at this point. Women do not want their men to come clothes shopping with them. They know that we’ll whine about how much time it’s taking and we’ll not respond correctly when we’re asked if we like something, grunting something about baseball scores or staring inappropriately at the bras.

For my part, I was full of dread wondering what my life had come to and then I realized, it’s August. This is what happens in August. One steps outside one’s door and casually goes about errand-running and winds up in the women’s clothing section at Target. It’s then one questions one’s choices in life. You have to–the unexamined life and all that. So I turned to her and said, “you go where you need to, I won’t bother you.” And just like that, she was gone. Like something out a Harry Potter movie, she up and disappeared and I was turning in 360 degree circles looking every bit a drunk man who didn’t know what dimension he was in. Some other women walked by me and looked at me, some with pity, others with knowing disdain.  Unforgiven and repentant, I sauntered to the men’s clothing area.

I had done the great purge of my closet earlier in the summer, throwing away clothes that had no business being in there. I must have donated 100 pounds of clothing to the local Goodwill and as I folded them neatly into garbage bags, I wondered whatever possessed me to buy them in the first place.

Left unfettered and to my own devices, I started looking at what Target calls fashion. I’m not a Target guy, generally. But that’s not important, as I said earlier. It’s August–and when one saunters out on errand-running with one’s wife, one is likely to end up at Target. It is the way of things. Let that go. I found some nice clothes that I thought were sort of, well, “hip.” I teach high school, so you know it’s not Brooks Brothers and Men’s Wearhouse, it’s jeans and t-shirts and stuff. I liked this rather rugged pair of black jeans that were sort of faded and pock-marked and I thought, “these would go great with that green short-sleeved button down I saw.” Mind you, they probably didn’t look good together at all, but I figured solid colors and rather drab–how could I go wrong? I took both to the fitting room, a sort of hard-plastic EZ-up in the middle of the floor, locked the door and disrobed–uncomfortably. When you’re 17, you get to buy new clothes and look at yourself in the mirror. It’s glorious. At least I think it was. At 53, I’d just as soon the mirror weren’t in there.

I pulled the jeans on and realized my first error. They were slim-fit jeans, but built to my size. No one with a 38 waist should wear slim fit jeans, though I will admit, they were comfortable–those things hugged my ass like a hooker in a cheap Minneapolis motel room in February. Man did I like how that felt. But I recoiled in horror at how it looked. If I’d have put my blue sneakers on, I’d have looked like my legs were charred from a horrible bbq accident and the pants had burned away.

I tried on a few more things, without relish, and without looking in the mirror too much. By then, Sue came over as she had found a lovely outfit that suit her nicely. The tables were now turned and she was “assisting” me in clothes buying, but I knew how this would go, too. I’m a sensitive guy. I need big, bold emotional strokes. If I say, “do you like this,” and her answer isn’t an emphatic and panting, “YES!” then I know that, in fact, it does nothing for her. Tepid  responses of, “that’s OK,” or “Um, yeah, it works…” are not what I am after. A full-throated shout of “Huzzah! You’ve found your style!” is all I need to hear and if I don’t, I’ll hang it back up.

The only thing we settled on was a harvest-khaki colored pair of pants that fit well, didn’t make me look like Ozzy Ozbourne’s illegitimate off-spring and were a decent price. She LIKED those. The rest was tepid and, in one case, hostile. 

I was excited to check out at the self-checkout stand because they have my favorite mints and sometimes they’re on sale, the only time I’ll buy them actually, and I consoled myself with the thought of a container of them. But, as it happens, Sue’s gift-card required a Ph.D. in computer science to use, which meant I was useless and that sent my head spinning off in the direction of how much I hated Target and that it was actually unfair that the place still existed. In my mind, it should simply disappear. They can’t even get their damn gift-cards right and…”Oh, you’ve got it? Right, well off we go.” 

August, my friends. September isn’t far off.

Turtle Surgery

Picture

Author’s Note: My own inability to manipulate images here as I wanted prevented me from posting more pictures. If there is one picture that gathers together the feeling of the past week, it is the one above (the one to the left, here, is mere affectation). This is the story of a gift of vacation, of love and peaceful, gentle travel…

Ask a South Carolinian about the weather in June with its 95 degree temperatures and 80% humidity and they will simply smile and say, “Yeah. It’s hot. But it’s nothing like July and August.” They don’t complain about it. It’s just how it is. There is joie de vivre here and a smile on everything whether it’s filling up the car with gas or shopping at the local farmer’s market. Weeknights, locals come home from work and gather together for meals in local taverns, or go out on the boat on Shem Creek or the Cooper river. They live the moment.

This was our experience during this past week we spent in Charleston and Savannah, Georgia after flying into Charlotte, NC and meeting up with my cousin and her husband. We’ve now spent three vacations together and loved every single moment we have. It’s more fun than we ever imagine it can be and we spend the better parts of our days laughing, joking and laughing some more, sharing that same joie de vivre. It revealed itself in our first stop, a kind of prophetic sense of place called Peace and Hominy. Real southern barbecue run by a local Charlotte family whose restaurant is filled with life-affirming sayings and a diversity of people from well-dressed Saturday night church goers to tourists like us.

These experiences come with a kind of dallying and ethereal dream-like quality as we work to defeat the time-difference between us. We travel from the west coast and Don and Marilyn from the east coast and flights east are in the early morning hours, drowsy with sleep and hard-charging through airports and baggage claim terminals. 

And then we get together and the fun begins. Charleston was singularly beautiful. The 17th and 18th century English architecture, suitable as a stand-in for some London neighborhoods with low hanging Live Oak and Magnolia branches draping their outsides and the alien-looking palmettos lining the streets were a vision in splendor. Porches punctuated with rocking chairs and the ubiquitous sky-blue ceilings that keep the “haints” away, and keep the birds from nesting. Sue found for us the most beautiful home to rent for the week in Mt. Pleasant and it was our gathering and sleeping place, our air-conditioned comfort run by truly decent and kind people who took care to make it feel like home to us. 

Qualities of light in the south are peculiar, providing a kind of water-droplet reality to everything. It’s a languid and golden look and adds to the air already thick with humidity and the pace becomes naturally slow. One cannot hurry, no matter the need, in the southern summer. Walking anywhere is to risk dehydration and yet, we do it, content with our lot and happy to see the Spanish moss dangling from the trees and the sea birds screeching from the Ashley and Cooper rivers as they dive for meals into the cool water.  Even the dolphins move slowly as they dive low into the colder depths, surfacing only for a long, slow breath and then back down.

Food is religion here, and we prayed dutifully. We sat at table with those who would be strangers and became fast friends. Boundaries of race and ethnicity, at times the ugly hallmark of the south, faded into common humanity and friendship, discussion, talk and understanding. We felt loved–and we gave that in return. We were able to eat at both Husk and Rodney Scott’s Barbecue and better food in the U.S. you simply will not find. I don’t have a “bucket list” per se, but these were places about which, now that I’ve visited, I feel I’m a better man knowing I’ve partaken of such carefully and lovingly prepared food. I’ve been elevated to a place where the meal is communion, a coming together of hearts and souls over genuine and real food.  These were dinners of slow roasted meats, dripping their own juices and paired with locally grown vegetables prepared in mouth-watering ways with sauces, cream, seasoning and just plain and we savored each one. 

We found a small place not far from the aquarium called “The Craftsman.” Charleston, like so many other cities, has an explosive craft-beer scene and Sue, Laurie and I each had local beers and food that complimented it with a technical and artistic elegance.

We visited places ripe with such American history, standing on ground fought and bled over by patriots and rascals, racists and cowards and we watched at Fort Sumter, ground-zero of the Civil War, as people from all over the country gathered to strike the colors for the evening. 

In the morning on Tuesday, we went to the South Carolina aquarium and even there, the dream-like qualities continued as we happened upon a theater-gathering in the operating room where veterinarians, biologists and specialists gathered to operate on a Kemps-Ridley sea-turtle, whose lungs were damaged. Shannon was riveted and even she realized that she was in her happy-place, around animals in their natural habitats and wanting to assist them and nurture them in their surroundings . An odd, life-affirming spirit pervaded as we watched the technical but successful procedure, and we were aware of a kind of kindness we didn’t know was needed–that these animals are endangered and saving one is not only saving others, but reminding us that living creatures are sacred, like love itself and by saving them, maybe we’re saving ourselves in the process.

The sea-turtle’s name is Ron Weasley, by the way. And his prognosis is guarded, but improving.

Revelations in Savannah of heat and humidity, but also of beauty, history and kindness, greeted us for a day we spent on our longest drive of the vacation. Sue’s house-rental hunting was so very good that we were in the center of everything we needed in the Charleston area and rarely drove more than 20 miles a day most days. The exception was down the Interstate into Georgia and this fine city where food was again the centerpiece at Mrs. Wilkes’ (see photo above).

More than all of it, again, is the gathering of family who are now friends with whom we cannot dispense. Our relationship to Don and Marilyn continues to grow stronger and we get excited when we get to see them and sad, to the point of tears, when we have to leave them. They fill our hearts, all of us, with a kind of life-affirming joy that has been as surprising to us as it is wonderful. We have already begun plotting when we’ll be able to see them again, on to the next adventure.

Onward.