Coming home


With our friends from the AED Institute, Kim Williams (left) and Jenna Tanigawa (right), who greeted us in Honolulu at the airport.

Part II

It’s not unusual for us, despite our great love for Hawaii, to look forward to coming home after a couple of weeks’ vacation there. There’s something about returning to one’s own abode, own bed, own kitties that tugs us toward that place we’ve made ours—in a completely different place than the ones we love in paradise.

Some might question that whole “paradise” label anyway. For on this two-week trip to Kauai, we saw a lot more stormy than sunny weather. This is not unusual on the north shore in winter, but even in drier Lihue and Poipu, it’s been a soggy January so far. We did not see the sun at all for all of the last week we were there. But that was OK.

Dick likes to call our January trips to Hawaii the “Restore Jan’s Sanity Trips.” And that’s true. They’re a welcome break between the hubbub of my semesters, which land me on my feet going 60 mph (Dick estimates it’s more like 80 mph) from day 1 to the end. I always say that I work 60 hours a week when I teach, and that’s probably an under-estimate. But 10-hour days are not unusual between school and home for any teacher.

I really love my job, I often say. I sometimes wish there was less of it. (And there will be one day, as I contemplate retiring in the near future.) But when you get to vacation in Hawaii, it makes the long hours more do-able.

So that’s one reason it doesn’t matter what the weather’s like in Hawaii in January. It’s much warmer than home, and even in the rain, I can put my feet in warm ocean, which might be the best free method of healing (literally great physical therapy for the ankle I sprained in October).

But with that warm rain and water also comes much aloha—that magical Hawaiian word for love, welcome, hello, goodbye and general affection. We experienced that tenfold last year after Dick’s cardiac arrest, subsequent hospitalization and CABG (coronary artery bypass graft), as well as two more weeks of recovery in a house we rented in Pearl City for Dick and our two friends Connie and Cora, who came to care for him after I returned home, two weeks into a new semester.

Turns out, the aloha continued this year on Kauai, too. Our friends, Toni and C.B. Martin, with whom we stayed in Haena on the north shore, greeted us with big hugs and aloha after following our ordeal from afar. They’ve literally weathered great storms, too, from the April 2018 flood that wiped out great swaths of the north shore to an infection in Toni’s eye that resulted in a corneal transplant. Their wonderful dog, Nugget, the golden lab, though getting up in years, is still a good greeter every time someone comes in the gate.

And we were also happy to see our friends Andy and Leona Doughty for dinner one evening. I’ve worked for Andy for more than 20 years, editing his best-selling Hawaii Revealed guidebook series, and they flew to Honolulu to see Dick the day before his surgery, take me to dinner and then sit with me the next day. Even before that, they made sure I had what I needed to live in the hospital for two weeks, including the assistance of one of their employees (and my former student) Mākena Ongoy, who made Target runs to bring me supplies and clothes.


Jenna, saying to Dick, “I can’t believe how good you look!”

But the aloha continued even as we made our way home. After we flew into Oahu from Kauai, we were greeted with leis and hugs at the airport by two members of the AED Institute team, Jenna Tanigawa and Kim Williams. The AED Institute was started in 2006 in Honolulu by Pamela Foster, RN, at the request of the airport fire chief, and has installed defibrillators all over Hawaiian airports and in other spots around the islands. We were pleased to see AEDs in prominent spots on the north shore of Kauai, too, sponsored by retired physician Jeff Goodman, and the Rotary Club of Hanalei Bay.

Jenna and Kim arrived with plastic AED signs to install in the airport. Since Pam Foster started the Institute, 69 people suffered heart attacks or cardiac arrests in Hawaiian airports. Fifty of those people survived, thanks to AEDs. Dick was No. 50 last year. Since then, the AEDs have been used seven more times at airports with one more survivor, according to Jenna.

After some chitchat with Jenna and Kim, they offered to walk us to our next gate, E1, which is a good distance from where we came in. Last year, the walk between gates really fatigued Dick, who was on the verge of cardiac arrest but didn’t know it until he was suddenly dizzy. This year, he was fit and good for the whole distance (farther, actually, than last year). And when we got to Gate E1, another surprise awaited us.


“Dick, Jan, we want you to meet some of the first responders,” Jenna said as a line of tall, blue-uniformed airport firefighters stood waiting, including now-Assistant Chief Ronnie Arevalo, who responded to Dick’s emergency at Gate C1 last year. (Though we didn’t see them this time, we’re also grateful to Chief Martinez Jacobs, AED program director and ARFF chief, as well as Roy Sakata, airport manager.)


With Tuiatua Tuiasosopo and Heather Tanonaka of Hawaiian Airlines.

We shook their hands of those emergency responders and thanked them, stunned to see them, then turned around to see Hawaiian Airlines employees who looked familiar. There was Justin Nowak, senior operations manager, who arranged for us to see Guest Service Agent Heather Tanonaka, who was at the gate and contacted the first responders. There was Tuiatua Tuiasosopo, who was on the ground with passengers Claudio Alvarez and Salesi Maumau, who worked on Dick. And, we learned, Sarah Iida and chief agent Juliet Magbaleta kept the area clear and ensured that other guests could board the aircraft.


Dick meets Chris Ohta.

But the person I’ve most wanted Dick to meet was Hawaiian Airlines guest service agent Chris Ohta. He was at the gate when Dick collapsed and ran for and retrieved the AED. Then he joined Salesi, who was doing chest compressions, and Claudio, at Dick’s head monitoring his pulse. They placed the pads, and Chris pushed the button to deliver the shock that allowed Dick’s heart to restart.


I saw tears in each man’s eyes as they hugged. (Mine were a bit damp, too.)

Last year, when Dick, Cora and Connie departed Honolulu on Feb. 15, there was a tremendous celebration of life and press conference. Some of the same people who met us this year were there last year. But Chris was not working that day and hadn’t met Dick. I got to meet Chris when I flew from Honolulu home on Feb. 1. He and Salesi and Claudio, who didn’t know each other, worked as a team to bring Dick back to life, and they are especially dear in our hearts.


Last year Dick was interviewed by a reporter/photographer from the Star-Advertiser, the combined version of the two daily papers that used to operate in Honolulu. (In 1971 Dick took a leave from The Bee to shoot for the Star-Bulletin, as one of the papers was called then.) This year Dick was interviewed on video by two people from the Hawaiian Airlines communications team about his experience for the airline. Then Heather Tanonaka saw us off down the jetway, with Kim and Jenna waving aloha behind her.

And by the time we got on the plane, we whoomphed into our seats, hung our leis on the plastic attachments on the seats in front of us (the nifty doohickeys to hold your iPad or iPhone so you can access the in-flight entertainment), and dozed off.

We had a blissfully uneventful flight, retrieving luggage quickly, and took a shuttle to Dick’s car we’d left in the airport parking lot. We were pleased to find the weather dry and stopped for our traditional In-N-Out burgers on the way home (we generally don’t eat much on travel days). Hawaii has a lot of wonderful things that we miss when we’re not there, but they don’t have In-N-Out burgers!

And Dick, who in the days of his newspaper career, ate a lot of burgers, rarely eats them now. He is taking good care of his newly repaired heart, walking daily and watching his diet. But I watched his heart nearly burst with emotion (as did mine) at all the aloha bestowed upon us during this trip.


We continue to be nothing but “gratitudinous,” as Dick likes to say, for all that we’ve been given, can say nothing but mahalo nui loa (thank you very much) to our Hawaiian friends.

Looking up the meaning of mahalo on, I found this syllabic breakdown:

—MA in this case means “within”
—HA refers to the “breath of life” or “divine breath of life”
—ALO means “in the presence of”

It adds, “The complete translation including the hidden meaning reads, ‘Thankful to be in the presence of the divine breath of life.’ It both recognizes the divine breath in one’s self and the individual one is thankful for.”

That’s it exactly, what we celebrate every day now: the divine breath in one’s self and the many individuals we are thankful for.


Chris Ohta and Dick

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• 6106 rds gate C1 boarding area3CR

Returning to the gate where it all happened a year ago, Jan. 15, 2019.

Part I

I’m a big fan of the poet Jane Kenyon, whose last book of poems, published after her death in 1995, was called “Otherwise.” Knowing that she was dying of leukemia, she assembled the collection with her husband, the well-known poet Donald Hall (he died in 2018). When I first read the title poem, it rocked me. It still does.


I got out of bed
on two strong legs.
It might have been
otherwise. I ate
cereal, sweet
milk, ripe, flawless
peach. It might
have been otherwise.
I took the dog uphill
to the birch wood.
All morning I did
the work I love.
At noon I lay down
with my mate. It might
have been otherwise.
We ate dinner together
at a table with silver
candlesticks. It might
have been otherwise.
I slept in a bed
in a room with paintings
on the walls, and
planned another day
just like this day.
But one day, I know,
it will be otherwise.

(from Otherwise: New and Selected Poems © 1996 Graywolf Press)

•J4876 rds hono airport signCRThat refrain, “It might have been otherwise,” has stayed with me this past year, since Jan. 15, 2019, when Dick collapsed in cardiac arrest at the Honolulu Airport just as we were about to board a plane for home. Now we’ve just spent the last two weeks on Kauai, and, though he didn’t set this up intentionally, it turns out that again, this year, this new decade, we are again heading home Jan. 15, 2020.

We spent a week in one of our favorite places, the north shore of Kauai, in the area of Haena, in a sweet little rental called the Tiki Hut, hosted by Toni and CB Martin, people whom we consider dear friends. It’s like coming home when we drive onto the private road, when we open the gate and Nugget, the big yellow lab, greets us, when we find Toni’s banana bread waiting for us with other goodies in the small kitchen of the Tiki Hut, when we stroll the yard that feels like a tropical botanical garden.

Every day, in the morning and just before sunset, I walked down the private road that curves around and leads to the beach, slipped off my flip-flops before I hit the sand and left them near others waiting for their owners’ feet to return. I’d walk north, looking at the interesting shell and coral pieces the tides had brought in. I watched the January waves rolling in like great sheets of gray blue in some places and in others caressing the soft sand into which my feet sink.

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This year on every walk, I sang my appreciation to the sea, the litany of “mahalo nui loa” (thank you very much) never enough to convey my gratitude for all the ways Dick and I have been held and assisted and propped up this year. I fell in October, spraining an ankle and breaking a thumb, so I considered all that sand walking good physical therapy. I’d be thankful for work I love waiting for me at home and good people with whom I work. For this mate with whom I got to once again lie down with and listen to the rain pelting on the roof of the Tiki Hut.

I am so much aware that, to quote Jane Kenyon,
“One day, I know, / it will be otherwise.”

•J4878 rds gate C1 live healthyCR

At the Daniel Inouye International Airport near Gate C1.

That doesn’t mean that I’m pessimistic about things. Not at all. Life is short, but as Dick’s shirt says, Life Is Good. (His original Life Is Good Hawaii T-shirt was cut off him on that fateful day, and he’s now wearing the replacement LIG shirt that our friend Jan Lake had made for him. You can read the story of how that happened here.) It means that I want to stand in conscious awe and not to turn a blind eye, but not to get mired in the sadness and difficulties of the world that threaten to overcome us all. Kenyon suffered from crippling depression all her life, and that she survived and had four books of poems published, working on the final collection to her very end, inspires me.

It means that both Dick and I want to live blown open by love and compassion, to continue to be a force for good in the world, to take every opportunity to extend kindness to everyone we encounter. We live gratitude every day. I’ve given up trying to be a tough guy, even with students who, some might say, deserve that kind of approach. I’m not a tough guy; I’m lousy at it when I try, and it just makes me and others feel bad.

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The very AED that brought him back near Gate C1.

My sweet, generous partner died in front of me and was brought back to life through the auspices of kind strangers, in circumstances over which I had no control. And every single part of it brought people who gave their time and talent and expertise for our greater good. We think of and offer our mahalo to Claudio Alvarado, the UCDMC nurse, who immediately knelt by Dick after he fell and monitored the whole procedure, of his partner, Camron Calloway, who comforted me, of Salesi Maumau, at the time a Honolulu firefighter who performed CPR, all of them in line behind us to board the plane to Sacramento.

We think of and offer our mahalo to Pam Foster, who through her AED Institute, put AEDs in airports all over Hawaii (and all over Kauai, too, we noticed this trip), and her colleague Jenna Tanigawa, who later trained us in the use of AEDs. To the people whose names we never got: the EMTs, ambulance driver, airport firefighers and Hawaiian Airlines staff (including HA employee Chris Ohta, who ran for the AED and pushed the button that delivered the shock that allowed Dick’s heart to restart.

We think of and offer our mahalo to Dick’s incredible care team at Kaiser Moanalua Medical Center, in no particular order—Dr. Diana Kim, Dr. Nicholas Dang, Dr. John Lee, Dr. John Chen, Dr. Lance Blaisdell, Dr. Kenneth Schwab, Dr. Neil Onizuka, Dr. Elisa Zaragoza Macias, and cardiac physicians assistants Tim Berkeley and Whitney Regan. We’re also grateful to the front line nurses Donovan Char, Sally Dominguez, Erin Shulze, Jaime Reese, Tatyana Cathey, Agnes (who found a heart pillow donated by the Manoa Lions for Dick on his last day), the RN assistant named Shy (and many others whose names I didn’t write down), Mel Kai and Tono (human and pet visitor volunteers!).

I still thankful for the blessing chaplain Leavitt Thomas’ offered us before Dick’s surgery on Jan. 24: “We are affirming a safe and successful procedure followed by an easeful and graceful recovery.” And it was so.

We also offer our deepest mahalo to our island friends who came to our sides and offered so much aloha: Mākena Ongoy, Hawaii Jan Lake, Andy and Leona Doughty, Jervin Wait, Sue Young, Tara Young and Avi Mannis and their son Elliott. To our dear friends from the mainland Connie Raub and Cora Johnson, who left their lives for two weeks to tend to Dick as he recovered in Pearl City. To Kristen Consillio, Star-Advertiser reporter, who interviewed Dick when he finally left Hawaii and did an excellent story about him. To our many friends and family who sent love and support in so many ways, especially Dick’s sister and brother-in-law Marge and John Thompson. To my Sacramento City College students and colleagues (Dean Robin Ikegami, Vice President Ginny McReynolds, Randy Allen, Marci Selva and Jason Peterson, among many others), who made arrangements and filled in for me during the first two weeks of the semester while Dick was still in the hospital.

If I ever needed proof of a higher power, of unseen companion spirits working on our behalf, the last year of miracle after miracle—of being in the right place at the right time, of the people delivered to help us every step of the way—has reassured me that help is always given, even when I forget to ask for it. I take great pleasure in the simplest things. On this trip we got to plan another day just the like one we’d already had—together. Days that on the north shore ended with a walk across sand to look our favorite view at the triangular peak called Mt. Makana, behind which the sun set, the sky awash in different colors and textures.

We’d stand there—sometimes getting rained on, sometimes not—grinning at each other like a couple of happy little kids, thinking how lucky we were to be here. Not just in that place, but here. On the planet. Together. For as long as we can be.

Because one day, we know, it will be otherwise, and the one who is left will have this great treasure trove of memories. And may we remember, in the words of our friend, singer-songwriter Antsy McClain, “I won’t cry because it’s over; I’ll smile because it was.”

As they say in Hawaiian churches at the end of prayers and hymns: Amene.

(Check for Part II of this story—Coming Home—tomorrow.)

e-RDS JLH shadow-7182 redo



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In flight

In flight poem 1-3-20

Writing the poem, Jan. 3, 2019.

A year ago today Dick and I boarded a Hawaiian Airlines jet bound for Honolulu on the first leg of our vacation flight to Kauai. It’s been my custom for some years (initiated by my friend Corinne Litchfield) to bring aboard a skinny Sharpie, perfect for writing on… what is the proper term for them? Barf bags.

I just looked it up online: air sickness bags. And that made me wonder, who came up with that idea?

According to Phil Edwards, writing on, “Though there were a few passenger flights earlier, commercial aviation sputtered to life in the 1920s before taking off in the ’50s. And one of the big anxieties was getting sick on the plane.”

Several factors contributed to that problem: Gas and oil smells sometimes wafted into the passenger cabin, but according to Edwards, planes flying at about 5,000 feet (before pressurized cabins made 35,000-foot flights possible) often encountered a lot of turbulence. That sent tummies into distress, and when Gilmore T. Schjeldahl of North Dakota developed a new bag-making machine using plastic, it changed aviation in a not insignificant way. His company eventually produced a variety of polyethylene packaging materials and plastic bag liners. He died in 2002, after being awarded 16 patents, according to Wikipedia, “and may be best known for inventing the plastic-lined airsickness bag.”

(You can, like most anything, buy them today on Amazon. One version, by VNS creations, describes its bags this way: “Portable and light, the bags are ideal for car sick kids, pet messes, babies sick in plane, pregnant women, drunk passengers. Keep them within reach — whether you’re traveling by air, car, or boat — always be ready if/when you need to puke!”)


And though many airlines have done away with feeding passengers or providing blankets and pillows, the barf bag is (thank goodness) still with us. These days the ones I’ve found are plain white, plastic bags, free of airline logos.

When her mother was still alive, my friend Corinne Litchfield, when flying, used to write her mother letters on barf bags. This prompted her years later to create a now-defunct website called Paper Bag Writers, which encouraged people to submit their creative writing on barf bags. She’d photograph the best ones and put them on the website. I’m proud to say that I had a poem or two on bags on that site.

Now I cannot leave an airplane without leaving a Sharpie-poem’d bag in a pocket or with a flight attendant. I usually do two—one for the plane and one for me—but my rule is that it’s an original poem that I conceived and drafted on the plane.

I never expected one of those to find its way back to me. But the poem I wrote on Jan. 3, 2019, did.

Adrian Ruby found the scuffed, torn, poem’d barf bag in the nose cone of the plane that flew us to Hawaii last year. He works in Tulsa, Oklahoma, for Safety Training Systems, which makes flight control trainers for the military. “One of the first thing we do is we cut the plane apart,” he told me last week in a phone conversation. “In the cockpit area, we found three rachets, three or four pairs of glasses. These mechanics must lose all kinda shit, and it’s like, what in the world? And that was there.”

He read the poem and noticed the date. “I’m thinkin’ this plane was flyin’ in January because she wrote this poem.”

On Oct. 25, 2019, eleven months after that flight, Adrian Ruby sent me a photo through Facebook of this bag, with a simple question: “Is this your work?”

JLH Regurgitated Airsick Bag

First draft of the poem, returned to me by Adrian Ruby, November 2019.

I responded, “It is! Wow! How and where did you find it?”

And that’s when the story began to unfold. I asked Adrian to send me the bag, which he did, and, after a couple of tries, we finally talked a couple of days before the end of the year.

“I think it would’ve been under the forward lab. I don’t know how it got from the [passenger] compartment to down low. There’s spaces in the sideboard liners that it can get in the cargo hold. Either that, or one of the guys who cut it apart found it.”

Curious to see who Jan Haag might be, Adrian decided to check Facebook. “I couldn’t even hardly read the name. I just kinda guessed. When it popped up and it said you were a writer, I thought, ‘It’s gotta be her.’

As he pulled the plane apart, Adrian told me, “I’ve seen inspection dates like 1985, ’91, so it had been in service for quite a while. By the time we get some of these aircraft, I think, ‘I’m not flyin’ on one of these.’”

Adrian is a 52-year-old woodworker, a former cabinet maker, has been working for Safety Training Systems for 13 years. One of his buddies connected him with the job. “It’s kinda interesting and it’s not the same old thing every day,” he told me. “I could be workin’ wood, the next day I could be workin’ stainless steel, aluminum.”

And one of the most interesting parts of his story is that he’s not a guy who reads much poetry.

“I can’t hardly read,” he said after I offered to send him my book of poems. “I have some kind of problem and they never really addressed it. They put me back in a remedial reading class. I can’t sound out words. I just have to work on my brain to want to learn that. I skip words a lot. It’s really tough when I try to write, too.”

I was struck by the sweet happenstance of someone who struggles with words finding a writer’s words on, of all things, a barf bag and being moved to find her and share that with her.

Adrian Ruby’s kindness touched me, I told him, because I wrote that poem 12 days before my partner collapsed at the airport on the day we were to return home, felled by a cardiac arrest, then revived, thanks to the help of people we didn’t yet know. Our lives changed irrevocably on that Hawaii trip, and Adrian Ruby turned out to be one of the people who, months later, also emerged to do us a kindness. Another stranger who was, in the words of my friend, singer-songwriter Ansty McClain, “a friend waiting to happen.”

So Dick and I are grateful to Adrian Ruby for his thoughtfulness, for his persistence in tracking down a writer who scribbled a new poem on an air sickness bag that found its way to a retired jet in Oklahoma. It means more to us than he’ll ever know.










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Happy new year!

2019-2020 hau'oli makahiki hou

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As we enter the ’20s

eRDS-JLH 2019-2020

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Israeli shepherd

It was the shepherds who stayed,
the youngest in their families
remaining with the flock night after night,
those of the lowest station, society’s outsiders,
listening to the moaning of fat-tailed sheep
under the stars, staying present in their
ordinary calling, even on the night when
an angel appeared and said unto them:

Fear not: for, behold,
I bring you good tidings of great joy,
which shall be to all people.
For unto you is born this day
in the city of David
a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.

They could not see the future;
they were afraid, the story says,
when the angel shone the glory
of the Lord round about them,
but they stayed and they listened.
Then, taking in the good news, they took
their first steps toward the light of the world,
took him in and went to tell others
what they had seen.

What became of those shepherds,
always moving, seeking pastures
and quiet pools of water to quench thirst?
Did they return to the holy work of sheep,
leaders of their flock, with newfound faith?
Did they for the rest of their lives
invoke the angel’s words?

Let’s imagine them, standing in open spaces,
surrounded by their woolly congregation—
the world utterly changed and yet still the same—
shepherds leaning on their staffs,
whispering to no one in particular and everyone:

Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace, good will toward men.

Christmas 2019


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Jan’s Christmas poems podcast


A real one-horse open sleigh, overlooking Lake Tahoe (photo by Dick Schmidt)

As Dick’s best boyhood friend Kent Hancock famously said, “You’ve gone and done it this time.” In this case, I’ve dipped a toe into the cool pool of podcasts.

Watching my student editors on the Express record a podcast each week made me think that I should try my hand at one. So as the students wrapped up the semester, I asked our Express webmaster, Ben Irwin, if he’d help me record a podcast.

Ben, ever the helpful guy, immediately agreed. “What do you want to do for your podcast?” he asked.

“Good question,” I said. As a longtime (i.e., old) media person, I know that content is everything. “Let me think about that.”

It came to me as I was preparing my annual Christmas poem that I give to friends and family and have in recent years been posting here. I could read some of my Christmas poems, past and present, as a podcast, I thought. Try it out. See how the old vocal cords resonate over the air these days.

I remember a young student broadcaster at the Sac State radio station back in the ’70s (before that station became Sacramento’s public radio station, now Capital Public Radio) who told me, the editor-in-chief of The State Hornet newspaper at the time, that I didn’t have a voice for radio. “It’s kinda high and tinny,” he said after we recorded an interview, which, it occurs to me now, was not unlike what my student editors are doing in their weekly podcasts. In those days I occasionally went on the air to talk about what The Hornet was covering.

That comment stayed with me, obviously, longer than it should have. By that time more and more women were appearing on the radio—particularly on National Public Radio—but I was a committed print journalism gal. Still, every time I’ve been on the radio since (thanks, CPR friends and colleagues!), I wonder how I sound.

Well, one thing I learned doing this podcast is that my voice has lowered over the decades, and that I don’t sound too bad. And after years of watching students practice reading aloud, I’ve gotten better at that, too. “Slower,” I used to coach the students on the literary journal before their public readings. “You’re reading too fast.” It’s advice I still give myself before recording (and I should remember every time I lecture, too).

So, without further ado, here’s my first podcast, a collection of my Christmas poems at the end of a decade, on the brink of a new one.


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This longest night

A winter solstice poem

So much good arrives
at precisely the worst moments,
though we can’t see it
for the flames, for the seizure,
for the accident, for the illness,
for the unknown thing
that has befallen us.

The way, it turns out,
has been made. Has always
been made for us, even as we lose
our jobs, our minds, our beloveds,

as we see the hands of people
lifting the terrified child from the boat
just traveled over rough seas,
take in the haggard faces of those
seeking sanctuary

and the strangers who emerge
from the darkness bearing
their particular kind of light:
the cup of water, a morsel of food,
a warm blanket, bandages,
medicine for body and soul.

What we don’t see
when something is taken away
is the thing being born underneath,
the new bud on the hibernating
branch. Awash in grief, in pain,
in distress, we forget.

Just wait. Take a breath.
And another. And another.
You’re safe. You’re held.
So much good lies ahead
on this darkest day,
this longest night.
Tomorrow you’ll see
more light.


Thanks to Terri Wolf for the prompt that elicited this poem in my writing group the morning of the winter solstice and to the people who come to write with me all year long. Your generous spirits bring light during both difficult and joyous times.

Thanks to fine scenic photographer Joe Chan for allowing me to use his lovely photo. You can see more of his fine work here.

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The kids are all right

Jordan McGowan-SCC football coach

Coach Jordan McGowan (center) with the Panthers football team. (Photo by Sara Nevis)

People (often former journalists) frequently ask me what on earth my journalism students are going to do out in the world. “Newspapers are dying,” they say, which is true. I cited the most recent statistics for a lecture I gave in my mass media class this semester.

Since 2004, about 1,800 newspapers have shut down, according to an ongoing study at the University of North Carolina. (And how depressing it must be to work on that study, I didn’t say to my students.) Then I get on my journalistic soapbox and tell the students that this is a bad thing because, in the words of Brian Tucker, a former newspaper executive, “In the absence of a decent robust newspaper, politicians are going to do bad things. Nobody is going to be watching. No one is holding your feet to the fire.”

I pop back with some variation on this theme: Newspapers may be dying, but news is not. Some of the best reporting I’ve seen in my lifetime is happening right now as journalists diligently cover the current administration, climate change, fires and floods, wars, sexual misconduct—even as the major daily in my town has shrunk to a skeleton of its former self. But even as that happens, my most talented community college students—those who would’ve never had a shot at so much as an internship at the mighty Bee two to three decades ago because the paper was hiring people with much bigger credentials—are being hired, at admittedly very low wages, and are producing kick-ass journalism, as are their more experienced colleagues there.

Take, for example, my former student Jason Pierce, who plopped himself in my office Thursday before he was going out on the quad to shoot B-roll video for a Sacramento Bee story he and a reporter were working on about the City College president. Jason’s been through hell and back fighting depression, and at more than one point when he was our student, he was more or less homeless and often hungry. My co-adviser and I fed him and found him work and encouraged him as, despite his challenges, Jason shot terrific stills and video. He delivered not only as a photographer but also as a writer and editor of both the Express newspaper ( and Mainline magazine, our journalistic magazine. He’s spent this semester as a photo intern at The Bee, and through the peculiarities of circumstance has covered wildfires and major sporting events, plus the usual small assignments that every newspaper photographer shoots.

He is doing so well, in fact, that The Bee is keeping him on past his internship. It’s just a part-time job, and I wish they’d pay him better, but it’s enough that Jason can survive as he and his son live with a friend in Roseville. This is a huge win for him, and he’s worked hard for it.

Jason, a burly, red-bearded guy, beamed ear to ear as he sat in my office, this man who wants to do a documentary about the five first-line jazz bands in town he’s befriended. And I beamed back at him. Because it was so clear to me that the guy sitting in front of me is the future of journalism. He will find a way to tell stories in pictures and words (because he’s also a good writer and also had three front page writing bylines in recent months) through whatever channels he can find.

I also saw the future of journalism yesterday in a small history classroom in an old middle school in Del Paso Heights where Jordan McGowan teaches. After school is over, Jordan migrates to City College where he coaches the wide receivers of the Panthers football team. I’d never met him before, but my current student photo editor, Sara Nevis, loves to shoot football and, in fact, is shooting the 49ers tomorrow for the Stockton Record. She practically danced into my office Thursday to tell me that. She’s been covering the Panthers this season and has gotten to know Jordan, who, it turns out, started an elective journalism class at Rio Tierra Middle School this semester.

“You want to come with me?” Sara asked, knowing that I don’t teach on Fridays.

I thought of all the grading I have to do, the set up for next semester that needs doing by the end of the month. “Yes,” I said. “I’d love to.”

So we gathered up pens that I had made that say, “Sacramento City College Express: Covering the campus since 1922” with the website url. And stickers that one of my former students (thanks, Jackson!) put together at a nifty campus spot called The Makerspace where people make stuff.  Then Sara and I headed out on a drizzly Friday afternoon to show up in Jordan’s Rio Tierra classroom for their final class period of the week.


Jordan is a lanky, 30-something guy with a ‘fro that sticks straight up from his head and a beard that’s spotty in places. He’s got a 100-watt smile and was coaching his journalism students on their social media posts. “They’ve just come from a rally,” he explained. “Now they’re putting out social media about it.” He had organized the students into teams to cover the rally, and just before we got there, the teams were working together on words and images for the posts. These were not casual, slapped-together things.

Neither was the video reporting Jordan put up on the screen linked to his laptop. The students took turns reading news stories they’d written based on national and local news, a lot of them about school shootings. All with quotes and sources and even some video pulled from other news sources.

I stood there as Sara talked to the middle schoolers, almost all of them kids of color, which is, I know, what our next generation of journalists will look like. I see this in my own students, and this is a good thing. They more accurately reflect who we are nowadays. These seventh and eighth graders cared deeply about what is happening in the world, and Jordan, who mostly teaches history and knows very little about journalism, has obviously trained them well. I told him so. How has he learned how to do that?

Jordan, whom the students call Mr. Mac, blushed. “I’m a big consumer of media, and I knew I wanted them to give them experience with different media,” he said. “I’ve been watching closely to see what I should be teaching the kids.”

That’s why he and his students did a radio segment, aka podcasting, earlier in the semester, followed by their TV news section. They also put together an online paper using a Google platform (“it wasn’t the best,” Jordan told me, “but now I know how to do it better next time.”)

That’s the kicker—next time. Though Jordan’s principal is behind him, he’s not sure if the district will let him do the class again. It made me want to write to the district, urging them to let Jordan continue.

“You’ve got great news instincts,” I told him, as Jordan looked a bit embarrassed.

Sara nodded. She’s been coaching Jordan a bit about how to talk to his students about writing accurate captions, which she emphasized to the students. When it was my turn to talk, I bragged about Sara to the students and told them she was going to cover a 49ers game Saturday.

“Against who?” one kid asked.

“The Falcons,” Sara said, and I made a mental note to look up where the Falcons are from.

I looked out at the class. One girl had an Express sticker plastered across her nose. I wondered what she’d do with it after class. Others were clicking the Express pens we’d given them. Two or three kids asked most of the spontaneous questions, and I congratulated them for thinking on their feet, which is what good reporters do.

All too soon it was over. Jordan thanked us for coming. We got a round of applause, and Sara and I left after the final bell rang. We found ourselves in a hallway swarming with kids, some of whom we’d just seen in Mr. Mac’s classroom. “Thanks for coming to talk to us!” one of them sang out as she zoomed by, her bright red backpack blazing a trail for those who followed.

I tell my former journalist friends that kids like these help me have great faith in what’s coming from these future professional communicators. They won’t need newsprint; news and photos and video and podcasts will find a way into the world. That doesn’t guarantee that everyone will see them; people will always be able to opt out or seek out points of view that only agree with their own.

But look at these kids—reading their news on video, trying on newspapering and radio, tweeting the rally out to the world, interested and searching. Their mascot is a pioneer, and there they are, these young pioneers on the frontier of digital journalism, doing a respectable job of it, too. The kids are all right.

(Oh, and the Falcons are from Atlanta. I just looked it up on a trusted news website.)



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The Sea Ranch, May 2019 (photo by Sue Lester)

In the old days of newspapers, when stories were typed on half sheets of blank newsprint, to indicate that a story continued on another page, you’d type this at the bottom of the page:


And when the story was finished, you’d type what the kids now call a hashtag, and what some of us older folks think of as “the number symbol.” You might do two or three for emphasis.


But the other symbol to indicate “the end” was this:


Old-school newspapermen and typesetters, like the ones I was fortunate to know at the Roseville Press-Tribune in the 1970s, pronounced that symbol “dash 30,” though the dash was really a hyphen—two of them, actually, surrounding the number. It was an old typesetter, in fact, who taught me about the three kinds of dashes (which I teach my journalism students because, I tell them, I may be last generation of human who knew the last generation of old typesetters):

• the hyphen, the shortest one that my students call a dash
• the mid-sized n-dash (like this–), which is the width of a lowercase letter “n,” used to indicate “to” or “from” with numbers, as in 2–4 p.m. (done neatly on Macs by holding down the shift and option keys and hitting the hyphen key at the top right of the keyboard)
• and the m-dash (like this—), which is the width of a lowercase letter “m”

There was a column in a journalism magazine years ago that had, at the top of its last page the headline “-30-” for obituaries of longtime journalists. I was thinking of that earlier this year when my retired journalist/photographer collapsed and was brought back to life, grateful that I didn’t have to write -30- on what could have been his last day.

But today, we’ve been playful about the number 30 because it was three decades ago that Dickie “dropped the bomb,” as I like to say, on Dec. 7, 1989, confessing that he loved me. It was not convenient or the best timing for this man, to whom I was not married, to make this proclamation. But he did. He did, and from that, three decades of devotion have followed.

Though his family knows him as “Uncle Duck” or “The Duck,” I’m the luckiest duck in this equation. I tease him that being literally jolted back to life, he came back for me, whether he knew he was doing so or not. He has not disagreed.

So our -30- today is not the end but a celebration of three decades of an unconventional kind of love. People are still amused to learn that we do not live together (to which we attribute the longevity of the relationship, I tell them), but that we consider ourselves a longtime domestic couple with two homes. We had deep, longstanding relationships with our former spouses, both of whom we feel with us often, as our companion spirits. He has buried more of my dead cats than I care to count. I coax him outside to walk the lovely 2-mile route he created long ago through his condo complex that feels like a park. (He does walks often by himself, though, too, looking for his fellow ducks in the pond.) He takes me to Hawaii and The Sea Ranch; I drag him to the occasional poetry reading.

Like tonight. As the people in my writing groups debuted their tenth edition of our “Soul of the Narrator” chapbook tonight, there was our photographer, shooting everyone who came to the mic to read. Several people teased us about working on our anniversary, and I pointed out that I had offered Dick the night off. But after taking a friend home from the hospital, Dick arrived at the poetry center to help me set up the place (along with some other dedicated writing group folks) and to take up his traditional spot to document the evening.

None of us knows when -30- will come for our loved ones, much less for us, but tonight I got to watch and listen to 26 people read their wonderful writing as the man I love took photos of people I love. I will cherish those images, as I cherish the one who made them.

Happy 30-year-i-versary, Duck. You’re the best.

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Nevada City, December 2019 (photo by Sue Lester)

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