Mark’s Notes

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

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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

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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…

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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.


Broke

At this point, I cannot say that it came as a surprise. I fear it may not be worth writing about except for posterity: The posterity of my posterior to be precise. 

All stories have a beginning, middle and an end–but this end’s end is not ending. Well not yet, anyway. It began in late May, in a fervent rush out of the garage door to get errands run, while reading some documents I needed for the next day. I was in a world of checklists and making order out of mayhem, communicating with four or five different groups of people, making sure this group had that group’s invoice-that one party would have the right room number and the time they should arrive…the usual kind of organization that occurs with large gatherings.

So I put the garage door up and started walking out–but it hadn’t gone up yet and I walked straight into it. I thought it was a concussion–but it wasn’t. Down I went on the backside and since then, it’s been varying degrees of pain. Suddenly, the organization stuff gained more importance–more focus and yet, I was dazed in various fits of both pain and anger that I’d walked into a rising garage door, ignoring what was in front of me to grab hold of the intangible and in the process, ignoring both.

Today’s annual physical revealed that while my general health is pretty good–my tail bone was indeed broken–a broken coccyx. And let the jokes ensue. I debated about even posting this, but since the purpose of this blog is to provide a memory repository for me and more for my daughter, I thought it worth mentioning that I broke my tail bone–mainly because as near as I can tell this is the first major broken bone I’ve ever had. I may have broken a toe and maybe one time, a finger. But those were childhood things and I barely remember them. This, however, this I’ll remember. Trust me.

​Onward…

Burn

Foreward: This is the contemplation of a morning and coffee. It is not a perennial state of mind–to see it as such is to assume that no one should have negative thoughts at any time.

Late October and by tomorrow, it will be in the mid-90’s. By Tuesday, it will be 100 degrees. The relentlessness of a Southern California autumn hardly ever gets written about. The Santa Ana winds gust from the east at near tropical storm strength and the humidity dives into single digits as the temperatures climb in excess of 100 degrees, and steady in the high 90’s. It doesn’t last forever–but it feels like it will. No one wants to disparage what they see as paradise, not while they’re trying to sell it. Half a million dollars here will by you a 1200 square foot home in need of some renovation. In most other states in the U.S., that money can buy you…well, a lot more.

So people burn through dollars to live here, paying thousands of dollars for rent or hundreds of thousands for a piece of their little slice of paradise–and ignore that the crowded, hot, confines offer very little. In order to afford it, you must work more–or better–to make it work. The young people I know imagine they can get out of high school and get a job and build a nest egg. That’s not even an impossible dream. It’s just impossible.

Meanwhile, the state’s recent droughts have left tinderbox conditions allowing massive fires, the likes of which firefighters say they’ve never seen, to rip through neighborhoods at unimaginable speeds. In the northern part of the state, in wine country, the devastation is extraordinary–the loss of life full of grief, sadness and inexplicable sorrow. And the pronouncements of  “we will rebuild” begin.

Dreams of an easier life, a life somehow deserved, compel this irrational focus and as I’ve lived here most of my life and still don’t understand it, I’m troubled by my own incapacity for clarity. Certainly there are beautiful days here, more often than not, actually. And as I have lived here nearly my whole life, the people I love are here–I married a native of this place and our daughter is now a native of it, too. Even still, I find myself a stranger here and I thought by now these thoughts, negative compactions of near ignorant ferocity, would blow away with the cool and temperate breeze of age and maturity. They haven’t, though–and I’m unsure of myself.

This is a moment to say so, to work through this lens of frustration. Perhaps it is 27 years in the same career that has got me to this point–and I’m now restless and wandering through the idea of how to change what I do and prepare to retire from it sooner rather than later. Perhaps, too-it is the realization that happiness and contentment are not brought by outside forces, but by inner-peace and that is found in other moments and cannot be wrought entirely by place and career. 

But it is also a warning–that life’s changes are impactful and as brilliant a star as shines over our lot who live a middle-class life in a free country, the dreams of that life–airy and wistful, may not be enough to stem the tide of the changes our hearts and minds seek. 

Onward.

A new self-reliance

Some days are sunrise, all day. The bleeding drops of orange peer in over the peaks of hills and the energy is self-reflective, poignant and powerful. You know the day will take you places you would rather not be, but even then, hope prevails and you accomplish a task and move on to the next until you’ve completed a round of necessary toil, allowing you to feel privileged enough to reward yourself with friends, family, rest, a glass of something–a quiet moment of reflection.

Some days are sunsets, all day. The darkening down of expectations, the hint of light showing through enough to illuminate the escape plan that must inevitably spring into action because whatever hope was before, is diminished now. There may be a quiet moment to come-but for now, all is chaos, beyond you and yet you will bear the brunt of it, you will carry it on yourself like water buckets half-full, heavy, splashing, unwieldy and necessary.

Your tongue speaks words of encouragement–it must. If you cannot encourage, then you cannot change and of course, you know you can. But you don’t always choose to and it’s easy to tell someone that you’re lesser, that you’re not strong. It’s easier to collapse into sorrow–not so much your own sorrow, but the sorrow you borrow from others. You want their sympathy–you get trapped by your own drama and you hear music playing as you stumble through each moment. You fix your hair just so and your eyes are just damp enough to avoid looking like you’ll cry, but open enough to convince people that you did. 

You can choose, of course. Emerson said, “The power which resides in [you] is new in nature, and none but he knows what that is which he can do, nor does he know until he has tried.” And trying is everything. Trying is an answer unto itself. 

You’ll remove the blinders and you’ll peer through to notice glorious color in ordinary days. You’ll find love you didn’t know existed and it will shame you into a kind of rewarding warmth that you’ll learn to cultivate on your darkest days–and that love will be everything. It will be your own self-reliance and in that moment, God will creep in and remind you why it is.

For now, it is a burden–for now, it is unclear and misunderstood. It is an argument to make and a stand from which to retreat. It is loneliness and holiness in a package, wrapped and with a bow–and as yet, you’ve not opened it.

But you will–and from it will spring the freshest days, the freshest flowers and the fragrant dawn of life beautiful, neatly picked and just so.

​Onward.

Sans Wine box

October has always been one of my favorite months–except for the last 42 years. I mean that sincerely, though I suppose it’s as mysterious and stupid thing to say as any. I love autumn because I used to live in it when I was young. There, in Illinois, in Pennsylvania, in Maryland and Massachusetts, it was a month of transition. An Indian summer might kick in for a week or two, but by Halloween, it was sweatshirts and jackets, leaf-fall and colors growing both dark and bright. Winter was coming–and the clove of seasons was a final delight–the last visit to the ice cream shop before it closed, the last short-sleeved shirt for the year. 

California in October has charms, but I learned them later. For me, as a serious aficionado and sommelier, it is harvest. The hot days and cooler nights mean the brix count is going up, and the grapes are begging to be picked clean. The light, toasty, fruit-fragrant smell of the vineyard is an allurement I’ve not resisted for some time. Fall is harvest and fruit. It is heat and light–and cool gray dusk. I miss the changing leaves and cool days of the Midwest and east, but I am ensconced here. I am in love here–and my people, my daughter–are of the west.

So when I bought a car 12-years ago this month, it was practicality in mind. What I got was unique, a box-shaped little go-kart of a vehicle, easy on gas, simple to drive and manage, yet because of its resemblance to a toaster more than anything, it held people and dogs and things.

My wife bought me the license plate. She attempted to have it printed, “Wine Box.” But the state of California in its odd and momentary Puritan sing-along, wouldn’t let her have that. So she ordered “Wine Bx.” They let that go through. Evidently, their understanding of the citizens of this state doesn’t go much beyond the literal.

For the past 12 years, my little Wine box was the able-bodied, reliable, if humble, transportation that was recognizable around town. Shannon was 4 when we got that car and her first trips in it included a car seat to comply with the state law. Before its last run in our family, it was the first car she drove as she earns her license.  I drove it to Phoenix, AZ to visit with my family there in 2010 and I drove it to the Central Coast countless times to write stories about wine for any number of magazines. I drove it to San Francisco once, not long after I bought it–and it took us north of Bakersfield to fetch another family car that failed us on a trip to see the Sequoias.

I was attached to the thing. Scoop, Simon’s predecessor, was a frequent passenger. He and I got to the point where he would travel with me to the grocery store, to Target, wherever. I think about that from time to time. He liked riding with me–and he didn’t mind waiting for me while I was in a store somewhere. Simon is a great companion and I love him as much as I loved Scoop, but he’s not a traveler. His rides in the Wine box were marked by chaotic shifts from front to back, tripping over himself and landing in awkward positions. Only once did he come to a store with me–he nearly tore the car to pieces in my brief absence and while I take him places still, he can’t be left alone in a vehicle. He’s simply too co-dependent.

The box’s monetary worth shrunk in recent years, to the point where the recent repairs it needed exceeded its value. I thought momentarily about going into more debt for the bill because of my attachment, but in the end–it’s metal and rubber, plastic and oil. I believe in making it a point not to get attached to things–people, yes. Dogs, certainly–but not things.

I sold it today for a mere $400. My mechanic, Todd, bought it from me and I was pleased. He’s a good guy and he’ll use it either for his own daughter or turn and sell it. Either way, it will get some new life with someone who needs it. It has life left in it, but it was beyond my practical ability to keep pumping the money into it . 

It was a good car.

Onward.

A sadness compounded

I don’t go to Wal-Mart very often, but I do go. I am not immune to inexpensive staple-goods that work in our home. They have treats that Simon likes for an extremely unreasonable price, but it’s more reasonable than everyone else’s. So, I go.

In our neighborhood Wal-Mart is a gentleman named Chris. I don’t know him, I just greet him from time to time. He’s hard to miss–about 6’3″ or maybe 6’4″ with disheveled hair and the ubiquitous Wal-Mart vest, Chris doesn’t smile often. This can’t be that cliche, can it? What he does is offer help and kindness at every turn–to everyone–customers and colleagues alike. I noted about him that he is always on the spot at the self-checkout lanes to see if he can help you or, in the age of California idiocy, offer you bags, which have to be paid for now. His colleagues call him by name, smile at and with him and he smiles back. He’s an affable, friendly man.

I read today that he was a sports enthusiast, too. And I assumed also that he must have liked country music. I am guessing at that last one, but it’s a good bet. Chris was the 59th victim of the shooter in Las Vegas on Sunday night. He was hit in the head and on Monday morning, yesterday, he succumbed to his wounds. Another hole has been torn in the fabric of my community.

Berated rays of sunshine beat down like heat-angry devils and the cool breeze that has been kicking up has no promise in it. There are only crosses, there are only cares. Yesterday brought grief in heaps, large piles of it, like autumn leaves that stick even when the wind is blowing. There are no dancing, twirling clubs of them on the street under steely gray clouds. This is giant piles of death and dark-arrayed colors on everyone’s doorstep–on everyone’s stoop. We are in mourning–and we lash out, looking for someone to blame, finding that the ghosts we are grasping at are as ethereal as the fear that must have gripped those across from Mandalay Bay Sunday night.

I love the desert. I spent most of my life in Southern California and I’ve never loved it here–never been as happy with the climate as most are. But when I go to the desert, it is a place without pretense. It isn’t trying to be something it’s not–it is a vast expanse of beauty and emptiness writ large on a landscape that seeks its own level by saying, ‘you can’t live here. What does live here is tested, tried and tough. You aren’t. Move along.’ I like that about it. I am at peace with the place because it is hot and empty and large and it doesn’t want to be anything else. And Las Vegas was the giant middle finger to the desert, in some way; an oasis of all the hedonism a nation can manage in one city, corrupted by its own sin, lifted by the same and carried as a playground–where you can find trouble if you want it and ignore it if you don’t.  But the desert doesn’t ignore it. It will swallow it up one day—and there won’t be anything left.

Right before school started, Sue and I went to Las Vegas and stayed in a friend’s timeshare there. We enjoyed ourselves, ate some good meals, saw two wonderful shows with Penn and Teller and Cirque de Soleil. It was just the two of us, romantic, lovely and at peace. Each of the three days, we drove by the big gold Mandalay Bay structure, marveling at the glitz of all of it–marred and sodden now with the wreckage of insanity, the detritus of sadness, grief and rage. It will never be the same, of course. But it will get better. Someday.

For now, there is heartbroken America. There is weeping and gnashing of teeth and there is conspiracy and blame–as all seek to make sense of the impossible. I want it to stop, like we all do. But I know better.

And then Tom Petty died. I’m not as eloquent as he is–the great American songwriter and singer who knew that what counted in music was truth and morals, justice and love. He was torn apart by the business end of it, but landed on his feet. His lyrics are the soundtrack to American summer–to American life. His death is a melancholy sadness–a man who died just a bit before his time, who had so much more to offer, but offered more than enough. On a normal day, his death would have been worth a long post by itself, full of reflections and recitation of his lyrics in paragraphs too thin to hold them. Now, he’s hovering above with the other angels–nearly an afterthought on a day that will scar memory like 9/11 did.

So, I’m not much tonight. I am wind and wisp of breezes that carry memories through some very dark tunnels. But I persist—and I dream. I must strive in the midst of it for that is what grief has taught me–to never give up, never let go–never stop loving and never stop. Just never stop.

​Onward.