Mr. Ambrose, in Chapter 1 Sgt. Combs says to the men…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In the near future, I’ll archive the old site onto this one so that I don’t lose all of those posts–some of which are very dear to me and I want to hold onto. What happened? Well, I simply got wrapped up in my day-to-day life this summer and neglected paying the bills on the old blog. This led to the revelation that paying bills on a blog that doesn’t pay me isn’t necessarily forward thinking when there is all of this free software around that I can use. So, I moved over here to weebly, where I keep my classroom website, and found a simple blog format that works.
Summer’s travels were elegant and ethereal and it’s hard to believe that Fall has risen and shorter days, lesson plans and school-work have taken over. I’ve found a great deal of solace in changing everything I do at school. After 26 years of largely doing things the same way, I made profound and fundamental changes in my classroom from the way I grade papers to how I communicate with my students electronically and even how I talk to them. Everything is new–and it’s rather exciting to me to be in the midst of it.
Shannon (Peanut) has grown into a remarkable young lady and as I teach her now how to drive, I am flooded with all of the feelings you dads out there have had. Where did that little princess go? Answer? She’s standing at the front door rolling her eyes at me, one hand on a hip-the other one outstretched awaiting delivery of the car keys. It’s a rich life.
I’m in my 27th year in the classroom now and I look forward to what I’m doing–but I am also thinking very seriously about retirement from the classroom within the next four to six years. Depending on a number of financial factors, of course, I’ll make a decision. Primarily, I want to explore other things, do some more freelance writing, perhaps pursue working as an adjunct education instructor and maybe work in a winery, while I find a place to call home, walk my dog, be in the outdoors and near the city. It’s the little big things that count.
A weaving of threaded days has led to challenges with real grief these past few years. The loss of Edd, Brett, Craig, Jarvis, John and many others before their time–has me reeling. The sweeping scythe continued apace this summer as two days before the start of school, Shannon lost one of her dear friends she’d known since kindergarten. Young John (a different John) was 16 when he passed. I’ll simply not go into details–but the tragedy has been visited upon this community and the sadness is deep, lasting and profound. Shannon struggles with processing the grief and as much as I can help her, I do–but she has become aware that while there is help, solace and love for her–the healing she must do, she must do on her own.
I’m grateful for all of you who read the pages. Thank you for that. More posts to come at this new home of my writer’s life.