GÜD WRTR, the car

Twenty years ago my life changed in one swell foop, as we say in my family. When it began, none of us could see how 2001 would spin us around as a nation, as a world, how the actual first year of the new century (if you accept the notion that the year 2000 was the end of the 20th century) would blindside everyone.

In my case it began with the death of my husband, Cliff Polland, in March, which left me reeling all year. Though we’d lived separately for some time, we’d remained married—him living in a rented house in Winters and me in our house in Sacramento. We shared Buddy dog, saw each other on weekends, rebuilt a longstanding friendship. When he died unexpectedly, my life and heart cracked open. I had no idea who I was without Cliff, the tall, once-bearded photographer I’d met in college, the man who, when I said I needed to live alone, said, “I’ll help you move.” And did.

Friends and family appeared to help, and somehow I finished teaching that spring semester and began to shakily regain my footing. About six months after Cliff died, Sept. 11 dawned with the news of two jetliners crashing into the World Trade Center, leaving the world stunned and the United States again at war. It seemed that everyone I knew was thrown off balance and had joined me in the throes of deep loss and grief.

In between those two landmark moments, bright spots winked like sunlight through summer leaves. In June and July, Dick and I bought brand new Hondas, first a Civic for me and an Accord for him because our late 1980s models had certainly seen better days.

And in August, wandering the state fair with my BFF Georgann Turner, GÜD WRTR was born.

I’d never imagined myself a personalized license plate kind of person, but when we happened upon the DMV booth at the fair, Georgann decided that I was. I don’t recall exactly how she came up with that particular letter combination, but right then and there a DMV employee checked a database (it’s possible that it was in a large binder of many printed pages), and it turned out that for a mere $30 registration fee, GÜD WRTR could be mine. They couldn’t put the umlaut over the “u,” but Georgann pointed out that we’d know it was there.

I hesitated, but Georgann did not.

“I can’t put that on my car,” I protested. “People will think I’m bragging.”

“Not spelled like that they won’t,” she said, paying the fee as I dubiously filled out the paperwork.

It turned out she was right, Georgann, as she has been about many things in my life. And, after the plates arrived and Dick put them on the car, she declared herself a published writer, given that she’d come up with the seven letters that identified my little Civic—and me, it turned out—for the next 20 years. (She later had good pieces of her writing published in literary journals, so she was not wrong about that.)

Until I wrote about giving up the car on Facebook, I didn’t realize how many people have come to know me through that license plate. My friend Laura Martin wrote what a surprising number of people expressed: “Now I will never be able to find your car in a parking lot.”

My colleague, retired Sacramento City College track and field coach Lisa Bauduin, wrote, “There were many weekends when I would drive to campus and think I’d be the only fool working… and then I always got a smile on my face when I saw your car as I turned in to the parking lot.”

And my niece, Lauren Just Giel—now a Del Oro High School English teacher who lived with me for a time when she attended Sac State—wrote, “I will never forget the winter of 2004 when you took a trip to Hawaii and let me borrow the car for a week. I had just gotten my license that summer and remember many happy days driving in the rain listening to ‘The Prisoner of Azkaban’ score in my new pseudo-adulthood. To me you will always be ‘GUD WRTR’!”

This week I retired the GÜD WRTR license plates along with the car. It was time, given its rattly condition and the news from the Honda service department that had taken care of the car all these years that it would need a major investment to keep it running. The Accord was in better condition, we learned. If we were going to keep one of them, that would be the wiser move. The Accord would become my car, and Dick would buy a new Civic.

For some time I knew I would one day donate the old Civic to Capital Public Radio. I have former journalism students who’ve interned and worked there, and I’ve been a longtime supporter. But I also recalled the day, years after Cliff died, when Dick and I walked Buddy dog in to the vet’s office to be euthanized. Buddy was growing a massive tumor in his cheek, one that would eventually rupture and cause a miserable, bloody death. The veterinarian gently laid her head on his, looked up at me and said, “He’s ready,” and I nodded as she gave him the injections.

Watching the Civic get hooked up to a tow truck and hauled away felt similar. The old girl still had life in her, and even donating her to charity, I couldn’t fool myself into thinking that she’d be sold for anything but scrap. How silly to stand in the middle of the street, watching the car roll slowly out of my life, only to turn around to find a fully functioning one stopped behind me, waiting to motor by. I waved at the patient driver, trying not to burst into tears before proceeding with the rest of my day.

Georgann and her husband moved some years ago to Washington state where she has coped with cancer for a decade. I see her rarely now, but I think of her often. Somehow letting the car go and relinquishing the personalized plates to the DMV is tied up with missing her, too.

The day before the tow truck arrived, Dick, with his trusty little red toolbox, knelt on the driveway and removed the GÜD WRTR plates he’d affixed there so long ago. He has been my rock and ace cheerleader in all things, and I am grateful to him. The license plates were mine to keep, said the nice woman on the phone with whom I arranged the donation.

And the name lives on the home page of this website, which will remind me of the old Civic but even more will remain a tribute to Georgann, a very GÜD WRTR herself.

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Pi vs. cake


You can listen to me read this poem here.

My love for pi is irrational—
cherry pi, chicken pot pi, pasty,
which is just a nicely enveloped Cornish pi.
Give me most anything baked with a crust
and a yummy filling in the pan the precise ratio
of a circle’s circumference to its diameter.

It comes from “magpie,” the kind we eat,
birds that collect whatever catches their eye
we humans can put into pi.

I am not as fond of cake, which has sweetness
built in, thanks to flour, sugar, eggs, powder, soda,
and frosting that can run too sweet, lacking
the toothsome crust of pi.

Ah… but cheesecake—which some insist
is not truly a cake but a form of pi—
the right cheesecake I would die for,
not unlike the young nephew whose mother
made him cheesecake for every birthday,
the only “cake” he truly loved, his mother
annually insisting as she served it at the table,
“It’s easy, anyone can do it,”

though, truly, no one could, especially after that son,
who, only weeks after eating his mother’s cheesecake
for his final birthday, slipped like a boneless thing
off his desk chair at home to the floor, heartstopped,
tootoo young, soso gone.

His mother still makes cheesecake for the family
on his birthday, so that each of us can take
a forkful of remembrance, bite into that
soft bit of sweet, mouth the crumbly crust
and give thanks again for the rough bits
under which hides, like the mystery of pi,
all kinds of love.

In memory of Mitchell Malekian

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Playing God

Mary Sand works on the growing garden mural. (Click on photos to enlarge them.)

Listen to a podcast of Jan reading this here.

On a gorgeous Friday afternoon, as Mary-Mary-not-at-all-contrary began Day 2 of muralizing my 100-year-old garage, I stood at the threshold of the back door, open to the sun, so I could watch her dabbing color onto the stucco.

She is painting a garden because I asked her to, bit by bit, a profusion of greens on a pink base, under a happy yellow half circle standing in for the sun. I have long admired Mary’s art, since she was my student on the college newspaper, the graphic design goddess who laid out the paper when we still had a paper and magazines both journalistic and literary that could be held in the hands. She’s a multi-talented artist, Mary, who sat on the big blue tarp on the ground, her brush dabbing one color of paint into another in the big roller tray, transforming from forest green to purple to aqua.

From behind Mary across the grass trotted Diego, my big orange tabby. Mary looked up from her paint tray to call, “He’s got a mouse!”

Diego beelined toward me, ready to bring his prize in the house, because for some reason dumb humans don’t understand, it’s always better to bring the rodent inside and bat it around until you maul it to death and then maybe nibble on its head.

But thus warned, I grabbed the doorknob and began to close the door behind me as Diego looked for an opening. Unthinking, my right foot jutted out and connected like a champion goalie deflecting the ball. The slight push was enough to startle him into dropping the mouse, who wisely scurried under the fence to the driveway.

Diego, who will never be the brightest thing on four paws, looked around like a cartoon cat—where did he go? where did he go?—confused at the deflection, and by the time he decided to scoot out the open gate to the driveway, the mouse had reached the profusion of new violets blooming outside the kitchen window.

Dani planting

Dani—my ace assistant who has helped me revise my life and house week by week over the past year—knelt on a blue foam rectangle, cleaning up a patch of earth rife with winter weeds, preparing it for wildflower seeds, because hope springs eternal, especially as spring approaches, and last year’s poppies have nicely reseeded themselves and are already blooming their fool heads off across the driveway.

Diego startled her as he leapt into the violets. “Whaaa??” she began.

Dani knows Diego well. She feeds him and my other cat Poki when I leave town. She is well aware that he’s a first class doofus, but she had not seen him in action as a champion mouser.

I think of it as his pandemic hobby. On the first day of lockdown last March, he trotted in the house with a gray furry mass in his mouth, tail drooping pathetically. He let the creature go in the kitchen as I hollered, which scared the rodent, who made tracks for the space under the fridge. This is not the first time this has happened, but given the upset the world was undergoing — along with the fact that I knew I would soon be sent home like a misbehaving child, expected in a matter of days to somehow teach a half a semester online with no idea how to do that — I took it out on the cat.

“What are you DOING?!” I hollered.


He ooched his butt a little farther from me but did not give up his seat on the floor near the fridge.

“You can’t DO that! Mouse is outside animal, not inside animal!”

As if he hasn’t heard this before. I yell it at him when he insists otherwise, but instead, Diego flattened himself on the floor, ready to wait it out, nose at the space under the fridge where the mouse had compressed itself and disappeared, as the little shapeshifters do.

“You are SO PISSING ME OFF!” I hollered, opening the back door, ready to toss him outside, wondering, not for the first time, why I hadn’t insisted on making him an inside cat. Answer: Because Poki is an indoor-outdoor cat who, I learned early in our relationship, literally climbed walls if I kept her inside. I’ve had cats who were perfectly content to live forever in the house; she’s never been one of them. She likes to decide for herself whether she’s feeling in or out. But she doesn’t leave the yard either, preferring mostly in her old age to go outside to pee or, on good days, lie in the sun on the back deck.

Consequently, I couldn’t keep Diego inside all the time either, except at night when I put the barrier in the pet door to the back yard.

I don’t remember if he nailed the mouse that night, but given time, a dead rodent appeared on the kitchen floor—thankfully, not on my pillow—and I disposed of it, proud of myself for doing so. I remember when a husband had to do that, when the sight of a dead thing made me nauseous. After the husband died 20 years ago this month, I had to woman up and pick up dead things, intact or not.

Mouse (OK, rat) is outside animal, not inside animal!

It’s been like this all year. I’m home more so maybe Diego thinks he’s obligated to provide more regular rodentia. By my count we’re up to at least 22 mice or rats (I often can’t tell, but he seems to go for the bigger ones with longer tails) in the last 12 months. I should’ve put hash marks on the pet door flap.

And now, on the anniversary of the world’s shutdown, with two young women who are doing amazing work to improve my life, Diego decided to offer another contribution. I think he was showing off for the girls.

I ran outside after Diego who was stirring up the violets in search of his prey, when the prey decided to literally climb the wall to the kitchen’s outer windowsill, its sides heaving, having eluded certain death. I don’t know how many lives rodents have, but this critter definitely lost one of them today and lived to tell the tale.

Speaking of tail, him/her/it/they had a really long one, making me wonder if this was not a mouse but a young rat. I was torn between knowing that it would likely make its way back to the ivy of my backyard or into my next door neighbor’s generous foliage, and I sighed.

After the (mouse/rat/mat?) caught its breath and I confined Diego to the house, I persuaded the creature to leave its perch with a gentle tap of the broom. It swan dived (rat dived?) gracefully into the newly blooming violets below, making a swift getaway. I just couldn’t bear the potential carnage on a beautiful, almost-spring afternoon.

Some might say, Just let it happen. What’s one less rodent? You know they’re reproducing like mad out there in your ivy. Cats are gonna cat. And because you played God, headed Diego off at the pass, he didn’t bring it in the house. Count it as a win.

We would all live another day—Diego, the mat, Poki, asleep on my bed, Dani who weeded and planted and watered, Mary who painted purple wisteria into the glorious garden on the garage, and me, who got my first COVID vaccination two days ago, me, halfway through the last semester of my last year as a college writing professor.  

Because it’s March, and here is spring rearing its lovely head again, as it does, even when the world feels as if it’s falling and contracting at the same time, and, after a year of confinement, of a planet upended, the panic of the pandemic is beginning to ease, and we here in this space will all draw breath after blesséd breath on this day and another and another, god willing, bless us all, amen.

Artist Mary Sand at the end of Day 2 muralizing.
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Muralizing, part 1

Mary Sand creating a new mural for me.

Since she was our graphic designer at the Express in the days when the students put out an actual, hold-in-your-hands newspaper, Mary Sand has amazed me with her patience and skill. It’s not easy dealing with a bunch of student editors (and one fast-moving, mind-always-changing adviser), but Mary designed the Express and Mainline magazine with ease and aplomb and taught us all a lot in the bargain.

Turns out she’s also a super-talented muralist (a leaf off her painter mama’s tree), guided by thoughtful art teachers at Sacramento City College. And now, to honor the centenary of my house and its little garage, Mary is muralizing a fanciful garden.

It’s her canvas, I told her, giving her minimal input. But she asked for copies of some poems and wants to work in my words to this art piece… one of the best investments I can imagine for this old house, this old teacher about to retire.

I’ve long said that the greatest gifts of teaching are getting to know and nurture people like Mary. If we’re lucky, some of them stay in our lives and add to them, the students who taught us more than a little, too.

Mary at work muralizing my garage
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Photo / Dez Pain

Listen to Jan read this poem here.

And so you sit in the chair to which you have been guided
by the white-cloaked angel, your own pew among many
sprinkled around this cathedral of inoculation,
filled with other souls like you, each tended by an angel
who asks them to bare an upper arm — which one?
your choice — and you choose, wondering, as you do
so often these days, if it’s the right choice, the best choice.
If there is such a thing anymore.

And you have waited for this, prayed for this deliverance,
and now it is here, and you wish you could see the smile
of the angel at your shoulder, lifting tiny bottle to
delicate needle, but the angel’s lower face is shrouded,
upper face shielded, and you want to clutch one of
the angel’s blue-gloved hands, say, thank you
because you have read about the more than 2 million
around the world who would have loved to sit
where you do now.

And the angel says, “Take a deep breath,” and you do,
and you barely feel the prick of hope deliver the promise
of safety from the unseen demon that floats into the
unsuspecting, some of whom you know, some of whom
you loved. And you smile up at the angel, who,
you imagine, smiles back under the mask, who says,
“There you go,” and suggests you sit a bit, to rest
in this holy place.

And you do, gazing above your own mask at the olders
spaced so far apart, gray and white heads anchored
in the gentle sea of angels, reminded that you are
among the fortunate, with many decades behind you,
perhaps one ahead of you, if you’re lucky, your odds
greatly increased thanks to the little card in your hand,
the blesséd testament of new science delivered unto you.

And when you rise, you inhale deeply,
find your footing and walk, grateful to do so,
toward the exit, toward the light.

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Food, glorious food

Food distribution, Sacramento City College, Jan. 25, 2021

Six days a week, between about 1 and 4 p.m., I head to my city’s oldest college campus that has taught students for going on 105 years, now quiet, seemingly abandoned. It’s not, of course, though nowadays students and teachers like me learn and teach from home. Still, maintenance folks and district police, along with a few hardy administrators and operations people, not to mention construction workers laboring on new buildings, appear at Sacramento City College every day through the pandemic.

As do the cats, the ferals of SCC, some of whom I feed Saturdays through Thursdays. My colleague, physics professor Doug Copely, feeds the cats on Fridays just outside the old portable building where he was teaching before last March when we were all sent home, having no idea when we’d return. (We still have no idea when we’ll return.) I worked in that portable for 20 years before journalism moved to a new building across the campus.

It’s one of two feeding sites on campus, and, as I’ve written elsewhere, the Sacramento City Kitty Committee (so named by my retired colleague Holly Kivlin) continues to feed the ferals that hold down the campus space so others don’t occupy it.

Yesterday, the first Monday of the spring semester, as I pulled into campus next to Hughes Stadium, the 1928 football stadium named for a long-ago school superintendent, I saw masked volunteers waiting by tables, also there for food duty. They do a different kind of feeding as part of the college’s now-monthly food distribution. Students who’ve signed up for various pickup times drive up and, staying in their cars, pop their trunk lids or hatches so volunteers can deposit a box of food from the Sacramento Food Bank.

This is all the doing of Dean of Campus Interventions Andre Coleman and his team who, working from home, have been concerned since last March about food insecurity that they know affects students. Before the campus shutdown, Coleman and his staff, plus volunteers, provided donated food weekly on campus—no questions asked—to all comers. But the shutdown stopped that, and it took Coleman and his staff months to reinstate the first regular food distribution in November.

Now they’re giving food boxes monthly to those who sign up—again, no questions asked—and drive in to receive it.

Of course, all over the region volunteers are participating in food distribution, even during the pandemic—not least through agencies like the Sacramento Food Bank and the River City Food Bank and on-site feeding places such as Loaves and Fishes. Multiply this times thousands of groups doing this across the country, across the world, always, not just in pandemic times, people doing the work of angels.

I watched the teams at work as I fed the ferals, realizing that we were doing the same kind of volunteering at the same time—feeding those who need feeding. I’ve always fed students, too, bringing snacks from home, buying pizza for newspaper staffs, going out for sandwiches. I’m not much of a cook, but I can buy food, and students are always hungry.

Like the cats. For better or worse, I’ve brought a number of cats home over the decades (cats that have been pets do not fare well after being dumped, so we in the Kitty Committee have tried to find them homes). I often tell people I haven’t gone out to purposely acquire a cat in 25 years. Unlike the recipients who pick up food, the cats are champion social distancers and not nearly as grateful. Even across the road at the trailer, I could hear people calling out their thanks after the volunteers closed the open trunks and hatches.

And that made me smile. I rarely see the feral cats; they’re wild animals, after all. But I have gotten to know some of them over the years who’d sneak out and eat, who’d learned the sound of my voice. The food distribution folks and those of us feed the cats don’t require thanks. I’m honored to be part of a campus full of people who believe that feeding the hungry is important enough to show up at a campus closed by a pandemic, to smile behind their masks as they put food boxes in trunks, and wave as the recipients drive off.

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Happy second rebirth-aversary, Dickie!

Shooting our annual Christmas photo, Sacramento, CA, December 2020

Two years ago today Dick Schmidt felt dizzy and collapsed as we stood in line in Honolulu to board a plane home after our annual winter trip to Hawaii. Without warning, he died in that moment.

But two men immediately came out of the line behind us — Claudio Alvarado to monitor Dick’s then-nonexistent pulse and Salesi Maumau to perform CPR. Chris Ohta, a Hawaiian Airlines employee, ran to get an AED and returned with it to literally shock Dick back to life.

That began a chain of goodness and compassion from strangers who stunned us as much as the events of Dick’s cardiac arrest, a series of kindnesses that continues to this day. We are grateful beyond measure to Claudio and Salesi, to Chris and all the Hawaiian Airlines staffers who rushed to help that day, along with the EMS personnel, the lovely women at the AED Institute, and the tremendous medical team at Moanalua Medical Center.

Each of them, as our friend, songwriter Antsy McClain, sings, proved that “a stranger’s just a friend waiting to happen.”

Some longtime friends appeared in Honolulu to be by our sides—Makena Ongoy, Jan Lake, Andy and Leona Doughty, Cora Johnson and Connie Raub. Many others, including those of you reading this, cheered us on from afar.

Every time people ask me, “How’s Dick?” I want to respond with “alive and well.” Usually I say, “He’s doing great.” We both are. Even during a pandemic and unrest. He’s taking photos, as he always does, closer to home than on our usual travels, loving his snazzy iPhone (for which, I tease him, he had to die before he agreed to own) with its outstanding camera. (Thanks, John Thompson!)

He continues to be a great helper serving family and friends, something he’s done all his life. And he’s coming up on his 78th birthday in February, in addition to this second “rebirth-aversary,” as one of our new friends dubbed it. (Thanks, Eryn Maumau!)

We’re alive and well and so “gratitudinous,” as Dick likes to say, for all the love bestowed upon us. Thank you all.

Dick at Thanksgiving 2020
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New Year’s Eve 2020

For Dani, whose help this year has made all the difference

On the last day of the no-good-very-bad year
we get to work. You come to my house—
a near-weekly stint for the past nine
months—take stock of the living room,
the boxes, empty and full, into which we
have slowly poured the detritus of my life,
survey the interior of the old garage
and new shed, and say, “What if we…?”

Without thinking too hard, a plan emerges,
the notion of making things better
cheering us both in a time when it seems
we can do so little.

How can it be that everyone on the planet—
no one is immune—suffers at the same time?
Additional agony doled out to those who
have the least, who have been preyed upon,
kicked one too many times, who can’t carry
any more pain, who deserve better.
Still, no one got the hall pass, the easy out.
Everyone is fighting a great battle;
many of us are dying in the trenches.
The wounded wander, masked and stunned,
trying to make sense of the senseless.

You and I know the sick, the dying, the dead.
Yet we work like stevedores, unloading freight
from the vessel of my century-old house
into the shed, which replaced the one erected
by someone who died two decades ago.
The last of his handmade Adirondack chairs
graces the deck, the second incarnation
of one he and his brother built. There is
so little left of him, the one I called husband,
yet he lingers as you and I work on this
last day of the no-good-very-bad year.

As we schlepp boxes, I mull over the remodeled
lives none of us saw coming, think of a friend
who spends each year’s end cleaning,
tidying up for the next twelve months,
literally putting her house in order.

And so do we on this sunny, light-breezed
day, so unexpectedly lovely that you pull out
the folding table recently tucked away for winter,
and you eat your bean and cheese burrito,
and I dive into my chicken taco plate, an
abundance of warmth on our backs,
basking in the accomplishment of a job
well done. This is grace, I think,
this peaceful moment of satisfaction.

Well done, indeed, good and faithful
servants, you who toil, you dearly departed,
rooted in the hearts of your loved ones,
now residing in mystery—never, thank God,
left behind, never forgotten.

Jan Haag, 12/31/20

New Year’s Day sunset, the island of Lanai, Hawaii, 2007 (Photo/Dick Schmidt)

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fear not

Never have we needed
to hear it more

as Mary, terrified, must have
received the angel’s tidings.

Or the same words delivered
to others whose faith was slipping

or perhaps had vanished entirely—
how did it sound to them?

In these days of trial and peril
let us embrace the message,

which, when absorbed
with our deepest breaths,

heartens and reassures,
counsels trust, even as we

weather the most frightful
storms, reminds us that we

are the sky through which the clot
of weather-beaten cloud passes,

where the eternal sun shines,
where abiding peace prevails.

Jan Haag
December 2020

Photo / Michael S. Williamson

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Santa Gets Cleared by the World Health Organization

All is calm; all is bright
at the North Pole,
where Santa,
it has been reported,
is immune to the virus
and ready for takeoff.

The big man and elfin team
are working in earnest,
getting ready to load the sleigh,
hitch up the reindeer
and make their worldly rounds.

No one knows if he’ll wear a mask,
but his is a solo act.  And he’s a champion
social distancer, able to slip presents
undetected under brightly lit trees.

It’s official:

This jolly fellow,
stealthier than any virus,
who circumnavigates the globe
in one night, will fly his annual journey
as always, leaving the greatest of gifts
under every tree—peace and joy and love—
this year delivered with extra helpings
of hope.

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