Mark’s Notes

Questions for Mr. Ambrose on Chapter 1

Mr. Ambrose, in Chapter 1 Sgt. Combs says to the men…

Adieu. For now…

Two masks. Apparently, that’s part of the conversation now. Wear two masks, some say. Because, you know–twice the protection. There is no data to support this, of course. Literally none. It’s non-existent. Vaccines continue to roll out with the efficiency of something like…well….the government: uneven, capricious, slow and full of bureaucratic middle level functionaries who have their reasons, by gawd.

The world turned upside down a year ago and we all told ourselves we’d be home making bread and home-crafted foods for a couple of weeks and we’d learn the value of friendship and family and “me-time” and then we’d be released back into the world, realize what we’d lost and be more thankful and gracious.

How’s that working for ya?

I don’t mean to be sardonic. I truly don’t-and perhaps my friend and co-host, Keith, will have a different take. I’m not being political, here-though for a lot of people, there is no such thing. Everything is political and what’s more everything is partisan. Well-no. “Viruses gonna virus,” and this one does that. It’s frightening, of course. My family is not untouched by it and there is reason to be somewhat cautious, but the media flipped the crazy-switch pretty quickly and the lies we’ve been told have been stacking up, at their peak-the two-mask idea as though walking out the door with two on will provide you more protection from a virus that really doesn’t give a damn about your mask. Sure, it does stop you from spitting on people-and that’s a good thing. But that’s not the only way the virus is spread. Keep that in mind.

And all of this is to say that the podcast herein was developed at the “I’m going to make bread” phase. My heart and mind were in it, then and I wanted to contribute something creative that might be a help, a cri de coeur that would allow me to use time that was forced on me, on all of us while we all pitched in and “bent the curve.” We bent something, alright–but the curve? Well–somebody show me and I’ll see if I can see it.

In the meantime, so much is happening here. There is grief and there is loss in this time–and there is fear, a constant and demanding presence, there are the politics that are so ferocious and ugly and there is much transition in my personal life. I’m retiring from my 30-year teaching career in about 4 months and my family and I are moving out of California. My brothers are making huge transitions in their lives as well, and we are all supporting each other as we deal with the fallout of a sick parent who is going to need us and our efforts to rehabilitate. My creative energies are being spent on these last 4 months of teaching with kids who need something more from their teacher, because sitting in front of a computer all day to learn Shakespeare is not their idea of fun–or interesting. They’re being spent on my family, moving my daughter into her dorm with a vital hope of returning to classrooms and campus all-nighters and library time and commons meals early on Saturday night before the night’s revels.

We plan to come back to this, Keith and I do. I’ll probably be in a different state by the time we do, which will happen this June and I expect we’ll launch more episodes starting late this spring or early this summer. Look for us as I’m out on the road with Sue and our dog, Simon, traveling the west and trying to remember what it’s like to live again.

So, I’ve been considering a lot–thinking a lot and finally, I reached out to producer Jason and said, well–all of the above. And I’m tired right now. It’s time to put CST on a shelf for a while. So, we’ll call this the end of season one. Our 51st episode on Feb. 3 will be our last for now.

With prayers, vibes, hopes for healing, love, vaccines and treatments–I remain your friend. And I’m grateful you were here with me. Be well.


The Greatest Novella Ever Written

I remember the first time that Charles Dickens’s “little Christmas novella” grabbed hold of me. I was a boy in the suburbs of Chicago, IL with my family and there was a 1969 animated version of the story that has the scariest version of Jacob Marley, to my mind, ever. Marley was a sheet-white and enormous figure, with vacant eyes and wild hair that floated like snakes above his head. He had a ghoulish voice and he would simultaneously appear and disappear while he spoke to Scrooge. I was probably 5 or 6-years old when I saw it and it thrilled and frightened me, mixing the sheer joy and pleasure of a Midwest Christmas with what felt at the time like a horror story. But the little “ghost story of Christmas” became an anthem for me and I remain fascinated with it to this day. When I was older and encountered the book, I read it several times through and noticed that I picked up new pieces of it each time. Even now, at this time of year, I listen to the audio-book version at night time as I fall asleep, allowing Scrooge’s world to envelop my thoughts and I dream of transformation, and of hope.

I’ve passed along my love for it to my daughter who also cherishes what it is and how it completely encompasses every feeling one has at Christmas from loss and regret to unbridled joy, deep stirrings of faith and doubt and finally, sheer and total love in all its forms. It’s never lost on me that in the opening of the book, Dickens references Hamlet when describing the fact that Marley is dead. “If we were not perfectly convinced that Hamlet’s Father died before the play began, there would be nothing more remarkable in his taking a stroll at night, in an easterly wind, upon his own ramparts, than there would be in any other middle-aged gentleman rashly turning out after dark in a breezy spot—say Saint Paul’s Churchyard for instance—literally to astonish his son’s weak mind.” In the way that Hamlet encompasses so much of the human heart and mind, Dickens attempted to do the same, and largely succeeded, in a much shorter story.

For my part, I wanted so desperately to teach it and my first turn at it was in the beginning of my teaching career at Valley View Junior High School in Simi Valley, Calif. I taught 7th grade and in the textbook was a play by the estimable Israel Horovitz. It wasn’t Dickens’s novel, and it left a lot that I think is important out–but it was fun and the kids loved it. On the last day before the break, we’d watch a film version and bring hot cocoa and snacks for the viewing.

I got the chance at the book itself, finally, when I was attending New Hope Lutheran Church in Agoura, Calif. I led a series of classes over the course of 4 Sundays and not only did I get to teach it, but my dad was visiting at Christmas-time and he and my step-mom sat in on the lesson that day. It was a feeling I don’t think I’d experienced before and I was so moved by the opportunity and by the fact that people came to listen to it.

I then had the opportunity to teach the novella at school in 2017, but strangely, after working up a unit series of lessons for the novel, with which I was fairly happy, the Thomas Fire shut down school at Christmas-time and I never got the chance. We had to abbreviate that part of our school year and that unit turned into one or two small reader responses about the story.

Last year, I had the opportunity to teach it again, and again at Church, here in Camarillo at Mt. Cross Lutheran Church where my wife and I are currently members. Over the course of three Sundays, I taught the novella and each Sunday the class-size grew. It was a real gift to me and, on the first Sunday I taught, my mom was here for Thanksgiving and she got to sit in on a class. So, I’ve come to see A Christmas Carol as a kind of salve to soothe what happens. It’s been interrupted and pushed about by the circumstances of my life and this year, with the pandemic on–it’s just me and Mr. Dickens and my daughter as well as we get to bring the story close to us, think about it’s meaning and apply it everywhere we go.

It’s funny that when I started writing this, I intended to make a kind of academic paper on the subject of what I frequently refer to as “the best novella ever written,” but I find that as I tell the story of my encounters with it, I’m much more interested in it as an emotional vehicle and not an academic one. So much has been made of bringing Mr. Dickens’s personal life into it–and the film of a couple of years ago, “The Man Who Invented Christmas,” while a real joy for me to watch, I loved the movie, still tries to patch holes with fiction that probably didn’t occur. Charles Dickens was a man and he had flaws like other men. But he had a heart of gold and he had an ear for stories and in this one, he simply awakened a spirit, long dormant, that sought to live again–and so it did.

Perhaps it is merely the longing of a world that can change us and “open our shut-up hearts” to a better version of ourselves. In the end, Dickens’s story cannot be told without the miracle of a God who loves us. Marley tells Scrooge that he has come to provide him with a chance at avoiding eternity in chains, “a chance and hope of my procuring, Ebeneezer.” It hearkens back to Medieval texts like Le Morte D’Arthur, in which the King has a dream of his nephew, Sir Gawain, coming to him and telling him that he must forego the battle with Mordred in the morning–and that the Lord Himself gave Gawain permission to come and tell him so. Marley, in his suffering and torment, seeks to prevent his old friend from suffering the same fate–an act of selflessness that sets off the extraordinary change we witness over a particular Victorian-era Christmas eve in which time becomes meaningless and urgent all at once.

Miracles, then, are the fabric–the warp and weft– of A Christmas Carol. The unlikely baby in a manger who comes to save us all and redeem us. And following in His footsteps, an old curmudgeon who in paying penance for his greedy and selfish life, comes to save one man, his friend, because he knows that doing so will change the lives of so many others. And it is the miracle of a simple act of kindness, charity and love–and that will change the world again. Count on it.

Merry Christmas to all!

Never, ever give up…

The unsettled nature of the time has us all on edge. We argue about it, stake out positions and label ourselves, or more likely, others. It’s too easy to do, especially within the realm of social media. I’m as guilty as anyone. I do it too–but I’m civil. And most people I know are civil. The ones that aren’t stand out–and cause us to lose more sleep. So I’ve pulled back greatly, though not entirely.

As I’ve begun my 30th year of teaching, online and not in my classroom, everyday I’m reminded that I’m very fortunate to have a job where the paycheck is continuing and also that I don’t like the compromise of teaching online. It isn’t the same, it never will be-and maybe one day, the education students get online will rival the one they get in person, but for now I think not. There is too much human contact needed–and lost in this game. Driven by fear, we’ve allowed the digital world to be our surrogate and we all know it’s second best in nearly every way.

It gets worse for me when I lay awake sometimes thinking of what this time should be–how my daughter should be on campus as a sophomore in college and getting ready for a life-altering trip to learn, live and work in Africa, something she now cannot do.

I think about how this class of seniors would be my last and I’d like the chance to get to know them better and learn with them, teach to them, talk with them about what their lives are like. That harmony, of being on the campus and working with the kids is really a thing I do miss this year. No, I don’t miss it enough to do another year when this all ends–but honestly, we are coming up on seven months of “lockdown” or “lockdown lite” and I never saw this coming. I thought it was possible to go to six months. I thought maybe that could happen. I never saw it going like this and I certainly never saw the craven, dictatorial and outlandish behavior we are treated to daily from politicians of all stripes and wanna-be revolutionaries bent on taking advantage of the moment.

It’s rare I allow myself room to rant like this–perhaps it’s just too raw. I still have hope, I still believe we’re going to get better. I still believe that at some point, we will live with the virus and through miracle or medicine, we’ll be together again–sitting in baseball stadiums, traveling on airplanes, driving in cars, working in hotels, restaurants, theaters, schools and school-yards. We should by all accounts be doing those things now–but we aren’t.

But let’s keep the flame lit. Raise a glass, keep a smile. Do what’s right and power forward. We cannot give up now. Not now, surely…


“…Moving through some changes…”

Even as the pandemic and its deleterious impact on the world continue, we are trying to find ways to forge lives and move ahead. And so it is with CST. There are some changes coming to the podcast for which I am profoundly grateful.

My first guest on CST was Keith Cox. Keith is an old friend I’ve known since junior high school back in the late 1970’s. We’ve remained friends all these years and stayed in touch. I’m a lucky guy, there’s a lot of people I have such long friendships with including Greg Barnett, the founder and owner of NABU wines and a guest here on the podcast in the past as well. Matt Burgess, our music director whom I’ve known for 33 years, Chris Ulm, a web app and game developer and I have been friends for 30 years and Scott Wolfe and Shawn Near, my mates of more than 33 years who, along with their families, remain good close friends.

But Keith went far and wide away and we never lost touch. When he returned, it was to the Central California Coast where he raised his kids, created and developed two businesses and pursued his passion for music. Married to his soul-mate, Tina, Keith is one of the most interesting people I know. He’s got a wickedly quick wit, a broad range of interests and a worldview that isn’t afraid to question what he knows–and isn’t afraid to validate what you know, even if he doesn’t agree.

Keith will be my co-host starting on episode 30 of CST. We’ll continue to invite guests on from time to time as we can, but as I return back to the classroom for my last year as a teacher in this tumultuous and strange time, I find it’s getting harder to make the podcast work as I don’t currently have the time to sweep the world for guests who have something more to say. Keith and I can continually create conversations around topics large and small and when we find some good folks to join us, we’ll do that, too. Who knows, maybe we’ll even change the name…?

Meanwhile, Producer Jason is also becoming busier in his day-job and so we’ll be either looking to produce the podcast ourselves or perhaps, find a suitable successor. But honestly, if it were not for Producer Jason, CST would not exist. So we’ll see where that goes.

Meanwhile, I wanted to talk to you about Keith and introduce him. CST will do exactly what it was founded to do–talk about the times in which we live, using as its foundation the nature of creativity, hope and optimism. Welcome Keith! Very excited about CST’s future with you in it…

The Alternative Way

In this strange and hard time, my biggest daily solace is a walk with my dog, Simon. Today, Independence Day 2020, was no different-at least not different since March. There was a soft breeze down in the Barranca where we walk and as we came out of the tunnel that passes under the road, I was overwhelmed by memory.

It’s broad summer, first in the Midwest and I’m transported back to Whitcomb Avenue in Palatine, IL. I’m 5 or 6 years old and yet memories of that time flood through my mind with what I think are precise details, though I think some of it is rather like Michael Crighton’s “frog DNA” in Jurassic Park–perceived gaps have been, perhaps, filled in. The sun is bright and warm and in carefree, long bicycle days, my brothers, friends and I are wandering the paths and sidewalks in between our homes, our school (which had a summer-day program) and the local K-Mart, which sold Icees, a cherished treat.

Then, in Pennsylvania, across the Susquehanna River from Harrisburg, near Middletown and Hershey, was Hummelstown. We lived there less than two years, but the memories and strong pull of that place, of that time-1973 to 1975, are cement memories, as heavy as they are vivid and beautiful. Strangely, I learned many years ago that my father did not like living there, but it makes sense. He grew up in Pittsburgh and wasn’t terribly keen on living in Pennsylvania again. We visited Pittsburgh to see my grandmother often, and going there too was like time-travel. For dad, it was a step backward in his life. We had lived in Illinois and he worked in the hustle, thrum and vibrancy of Chicago. In Pennsylvania, his office was in the basement of our home. In Illinois, his office was in a Chicago high-rise.

For me, Pennsylvania was the birth of everything. It is where I learned to love baseball, it’s where I became interested in reading about the American Civil War and American history. We were close to family, my Aunt Virginia, Uncle Karl and cousins–and school, friends and adventures were plentiful. 4th of July in both places was a true amalgam of Americana– good, homemade and inexpensive food, fireworks displays-and fireworks at home on our street (something I’ve grown weary of, actually. I don’t care for the loud noises of them anymore).

Why those memories came back to me so hard down along the dirt and scrub-brushy path near my current home is probably owed to my recent reminiscences of photos of those places. Like a dream, I was engulfed in my childhood and my life now evaporated before me. I was a child, but could see through adult eyes the joy that filled those bug-juice, bicycle path days. But I’ve also sought escape from this hard and dark time by thinking back to the freedom of my childhood. Summers were filled with choices my brothers and friends and I all got to make, it seemed. Nothing felt hemmed in. The indoors were not where we wanted to be and the weather hardly mattered. We wanted to be outside, roaming the woods, the sidewalks, the paths of familiar home territory and our parents were content that we were safe enough to manage that navigation on our own. It was a glory I’ve not seen since.

We’ve all been forced to think very differently about our lives and perhaps some of it is needed, correct and honest. I don’t wish to debate that at all with anyone. But in this time, a year before I retire from 30-years of teaching, I feel the want of freedom very keenly just now. I feel the need to escape universal fear, create a life worth pursuing again and one that I hope is worthy of ideals that the 4th of July is meant to celebrate.

Earlier today, in Santa Monica, CA, some 45 miles from where I live, a man leapt to his death from a pedestrian bridge overlooking the 10 Freeway near the Coast Highway. He’s the third one I’ve read about in a week, though one of the three was saved by alert police officers who talked that man down. Desperation is prowling like a wolf and our politicians, feckless and craven, hungry for power and control, make no sense in pronouncements that differ from what they said a week ago. My heart grieves at people’s desperation and fear, illness and death. My mind cannot accept that it is happening. We are better than this–we can be much, much better.

As I walked out of the Barranca and onto the road, my dog turned to the right and we headed for a neighborhood called The Pinnacles, with a steep-hill climb that makes the exercise worth doing. I looked ahead to the hill and started thinking about 11 months from now, June 2021. I’ll be newly retired and perhaps with some hope, grace and faith, the pandemic will subside whether from vaccine, or plain old miracle. Maybe I’ll be free again and if I am, I may just go find another path to walk on. And see where it leads.


The Words Were the Beginning

The words were the beginning. And in them was solace. And sacrifice. In them were love. We’ve been stripped from them, like husks from ripe fresh corn. They are vapid now.  We look for banners, signposts--and empty things filled with fresh, false hope as we navigate Still waters, lurking monsters, pronouncements of doom and climb aboard dream airplanes, pilotless, pathless, mindless, lifeless, hopeless. 
Where are the green shutes? Where is the hand-holding, smiling walk of lovers, friends, graced by God for touching, laughing and sharing. We’ve been distanced. Social loss, social dysfunction and misfiring engines. Social destruction, distortion, disgrace, disaster.
The clouds whisper in cool breezes-waiting for the touch of God to move them along.
The people are clamoring, seeking, wandering, waiting--longing.
And it will come. It is coming. Slow, graceful steps among weeds, rust and loss.
Spirits rise, call to us-what will those who have passed on---left behind?
Will they have passed in vain? Will that flag tatter and limp into fetid breath?
No. Rise. Rise...rise. We will not be afraid and we will not ignore the need, the sick, the want.
We have work to do! It is not the work of politicians, bureaucrats, lawmakers and editors-but
The work of the lost, lonely and hopeless--toward bright sun, toward health, toward love, toward God. We will not be afraid and ignore. We will bless and be blessed-and we will return again to
The flowing, weeping, joyful words. Words that speak comfort, grace and life-the Words of God.

A Place called Time

I’ve lived in California for almost 45 years, coming here when I was 10 years old. For whatever reason, though I’ll forget things I discussed last year with someone, I have a very rich storehouse of memories, nearly a kind of constantly running film in my head, of my life and childhood before California. And though my childhood in California was a fine one as well, I separate the two. Life before CA. Life in CA. It is a curiosity to me that people from some places are identified with place. A New Yorker, for example. A Midwesterner. And, of course, Californians, which I suppose, I am.

The friendships I have here, the life I have here are wonderful-even dreamlike, my wife is a native Californian, my daughter is a native Californian. I’m not. I don’t feel like one, though justly and truly, I am. Place has always meant more to me than ever I could embrace. In my mind, being of a place is a great gift, a kind of identifier that allows us to ground ourselves, even if only for a moment, into something real, practical, right now. In my religious and faith tradition, “we are not of this earth,” and maybe that is as it should be. Yoda said, “Luminous beings are we…” and I think God spoke to that in a number of religious texts as well. But there is a difference between “not being of this earth,” and not engaging on this earth while we’re here.

Just before the pandemic started, I had this uncomfortable feeling that I wanted time to speed up because doing so would mean I’d retire from teaching after 30 years and move north out of California to Washington, a place that my whole family has fallen in love with. I say uncomfortable because I don’t want to wish my days away. I want to live every moment. And then the pandemic came and since March, I’ve simply been feeling time stand still. Life won’t start again until we can get back up and out into the world. In many ways, the tension I feel is the tension in the debate at hand: We cannot afford to stay locked down forever. We will ruin ourselves. It would be nice if we could all just stay home and avoid the world until this went away–but that’s just not going to happen. We will lose everything. We are caught with a very tough decision–either we start turning the wheels of industry again and getting people back to work–or we simply shrivel away into nothing and the suffering that is happening with those who are ill multiplies geometrically into hunger, homelessness, despair and grief–for all.

But returning to a semblance of normalcy is not without risk, certainly. And we’re going to need to be much smarter than we’ve been about it. Time can’t stand still. Time is going on and people are suffering, some from illness, some from loss, some from despair and purposelessness that suddenly appeared revealing how little control we all have. We are left with ourselves as the world turns upside down and begins to feel strange, odd–and frightening. No one can see a year from now. No one can see six months from now. Maybe we’re looking to next month. Spots of hope from approval of good medicine that seems to be working to millions who have had the virus and are healing, getting better. Those stories don’t get told as often as the struggles, the death and the grief. As real as the latter are, there is also the reality that many more have healed and still more never got that sick. How do we reconcile this?

I’m still wishing for time to move ahead, but it’s sheer will on which I’m working. The ever-present low level of anxiety that permeates is balanced by its counterpart that maybe now is a time to stand still, to offer love and hope where we can, to use humor (even dark humor that we all succumb to on occasion) when we feel like crying and to reach out with love when we feel close to despair. Maybe that’s the best way to see each day through-so that as time passes, we do feel it instead of ignoring it. And then perhaps we get a chance to see our own futures rise again, like sunrise-with a healthy dose of lessons learned, love lost and love moving ever and always…



Episode 10 is now posted and so Considering Some Things will become a weekly podcast and will post each Wednesday. Jason Abrahamson (hereafter known as Producer Jason) and I have worked out the scheduling to fit both of our schedules and allow time for recording and editing (we do occasionally have to edit due to technical issues and, more rarely of course, errors by yours truly).

I’m uncomfortably writing in the meta-fashion, but I suppose it is a by-product of doing the podcast in the first place. We moved very quickly, thanks to Producer Jason, from a sort of experimental recording of a conversation with my friend, entrepreneur and musician Keith Cox, to a website, to a well-functioning and useful website to a podcast–to being available on iTunes and Tunein. This was not by design, not at first anyway. I’ve been interested in podcasting for a long while, as I mention on the about page here–but it is this terrible situation, a global pandemic, that gave me pause to think of it in terms of the time I had and, perhaps, the urgency of being creative after realizing that nothing in life is guaranteed. So, like so many of the people I’ve been interviewing, who have been trying something new or “pivoting” to a new way of earning a living, it is a desire to connect with people because the number one thing I miss in all of this–is connecting, hugging, talking to and sharing with people I know and love.

Upcoming episodes are being recorded and we’re still focusing on speaking to the idea of maintaining hope, optimism and creativity as well as the challenges facing small business and entrepreneurship and life during this pandemic.

Meanwhile, hope abounds and everyday there are changes. While the suffering is immense, we begin to see moments of a brighter future in everything from successfully flattening the curve, as it was known-to some states making slow returns toward reopening.

I hope you find our conversations worthwhile and interesting. I know we still do-and while that’s so, we’ll push…onward.

Rain and Sun

As the argument goes on about when and how to open states and their economies back up, the usual forces are pitting politically divisive side against politically divisive side. Unhelpful, but probably simply part of the landscape of discourse these days. Still-something will come out of it…

The sunlight through the clouds is slow in coming for so many and the debates rage on as some say we should simply hide ourselves away until there is a cure or a vaccine. Of course, we cannot do that. In the midst of all that is happening, I started doing the podcast located here and I have been so moved by the response to it–and by those I’m interviewing and their insight, bravery, thoughtfulness and compassion. The struggle to remain one’s creative self, whatever form that creativity takes, is the one I’m interested in. I learn so much from talking to people who are making things work as best they can.

For my own part, which is all I’ve really written on this blog for years, I know that I love having my wife and daughter home with me. For a while, we had my sister-in-law here as well, but she went back to her home in Washington. We are a happy family and through the darkness, we have each other. I know many feel this way and I know some do not. As we move further through this dark tunnel, there is light at the other side and we may even begin seeing it very soon.

We’re all–and by all I mean our govt. too–going to have to accept that viruses don’t go away. We can vaccinate against them, yes–and perhaps treat them (as is looking more likely) but vanquish them? Probably not. Sooner or later, we’re going to have to develop a process to get ourselves back on our feet again, while supporting and protecting the most vulnerable to this disease and giving them the security of knowing that we can keep the economy moving, the medical and science professionals looking for answers and prevent them from contracting the disease the virus brings. These are not insurmountable goals. They are musts from a society that has had to reinvent itself any number of times. These clouds will part–and hopefully, we’ll learn to live with them when they do.