Annapolis

Today I shall behave as if this day is the day I will be remembered.
—Dr. Seuss

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The five victims of the June 28 shooting at the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland. (Photo/Karl Merton Ferron, Baltimore Sun)

Did any of them think that as they went into work Thursday morning, that this would be the day they would be remembered, the five whose lives ended in the newsroom? Did any of them think, as they typed or talked on the phone, walked to the copy machine, got coffee, “This will be my last day”?

I can’t imagine that they did. And yet it was for four journalists and one sales assistant, who together, according to a CNN story, had more than 75 years experience in the reporting, editing and delivery of news. Their lives ended when a disgruntled reader, who had threatened the paper for years, turned into a gunman who opened fire through the glass door of the newsroom of the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland.

For the record (the old journalist in me wants to note in the third graf) the people who died were: Gerald Fischman, 61, the newsroom’s editorial page editor; Rob Hiaasen, 59, an editor and features columnist; John McNamara, 56, a sports reporter and editor; Wendi Winters, 65, a local news reporter and community columnist, and Rebecca Smith, 34, a sales assistant.

I didn’t know any of them, though I knew Rob Hiaasen’s writing. He’d been an assistant editor and Sunday columnist for the Gazette since 2010. Someone sent me a link years ago to one of his columns, and I’ve followed his work ever since.

Hiaasen was 59 years old—my age—and, in addition to his work at the paper, he was a brand new adjunct professor the University of Maryland where he’d just taught his first advanced newswriting class to eight students.

He’d been a news anchor and reporter at news-talk radio stations throughout the south, and he was the brother of best-selling author Carl Hiaasen, who wrote on his Facebook wall Thursday night, “What [Rob] would want me to say was everything [they did] was for the readers.”

And, Carl Hiaasen added about his brother, “He spent his whole gifted career as a journalist, and he believed profoundly in the craft and mission of serving the public’s right to know the news.”

By the time I read this last night, I was so teary, I kept having to dab at my eyes to keep them from dripping onto the keyboard. I didn’t know them, but I knew them. I knew the small newsroom with perhaps 20 people in it who put out a daily newspaper. I knew the characters of a newsroom; I was once one of those characters. Leaving newspapers for first a wire service and then a magazine broke my heart, though I often say that the newspaper left me—or at least it did after it laid me off.

But that was on a large metro daily. The small newspapers—two of them—were where my heart lay. The second one, the Vacaville Reporter, as it was known in the early 1980s, took me in, embraced me, put me to work and gave me a community of colleagues whom I treasure to this day (though many of them have died). I knew the cop reporter with a bottle of whiskey in his desk to help him through the stories that tore out hunks of his soul. I knew the grumbling city editor and the young female managing editor, the assistant sports editor who covered the high school teams where he’d once gone to school. I laid out waxed strips of copy on large sheets of paper that would become the paper, shoulder to shoulder with the publisher, joshed with the paste-up guy designer who became my best buddy, shared an office with the “soc hen,” as society editors were once derisively called—though she was so much more than that, truly the best feature writer on the paper. The man who became my husband got his first full-time job as a photographer there, which turned out to be his last job, 20 years later when he died.

Those people became my mentors and friends, my post-graduate education in journalism before I ever got a master’s degree. It is no exaggeration to say that they helped make me a journalist more than my time editing the college newspaper (which was also significant). They set me up for the rest of my career on that wire service, the big newspaper and the city magazine, and eventually as a journalism professor.

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Participants in a candlelight vigil for the victims of the shootings at the Capital Gazette march down Main Street in Annapolis, Maryland. (Photo/Jerry Jackson, Baltimore Sun)

And though they were not people I knew, the deaths of people at the Capital Gazette struck me like a backhanded blow—also because my student editors whom I advised last semester at my community college wanted to talk about journalists in danger. Not because they cover wars but because they just do their jobs. “What if someone walked in our newsroom with a gun?” they asked in March. This was not an outrageous question; my college had a campus shooting a few years ago, and a student was killed. It was a targeted, gang-involved shooting, and we were not overtly threatened, but we didn’t know that at the time.

So we had the hard conversation that I’ve thought about for years: that we cannot guarantee our safety, that, yes, anyone could walk in and threaten us, hurt us. I’ve been in occasional situations with journalism students over the years when upset people came through the door hollering. Those were scary moments, but luckily for us, the worst thing that happened was the time an angry someone went around campus, gathered up all the issues of the paper and threw them away.

But now the paper is online, updated daily, printed monthly. My students’ work is more visible than ever, and, consequently, so are they.

“I hate that I can’t protect you,” I told them after a horrendous murder spree at a Northern California veterans facility earlier this year. “I hate the fact that all of us, but journalists in particular, are more vulnerable than ever before. People will sometimes put comments on your stories on the website and say awful things. You may get hateful emails and phone calls.”

And that was before someone called my editor-in-chief, a woman in transition, a “faggot” on the phone.

The Capital Gazette people were targeted by an angry, probably deranged man, but so could any journalist. In other countries journalists are killed far too often. But, I naively thought for years, not here. Not in the United States.

And now, in the current climate of hate, I know that that’s no longer true. Regular, workaday, small-paper journalists. As Petula Dvorak, Washington Post columnist, wrote:

“These are not the people chasing congressmen through the halls of the Capitol, or wrangling with CIA officials for information on the latest terrorist cell. Ever read about the construction on your street, the plans for the new rec center, who won the crab contest, how the state delegates voted on highway funds or about the uptick in crime at the mall?

“As Gazette community news editor and metro columnist Jimmy DeButts tweeted, ‘We try to expose corruption. We fight to get access to public records & bring to light the inner workings of government despite major hurdles put in our way. The reporters & editors put their all into finding the truth. That is our mission. Will always be.’

“This is local reporting. This is journalism.”

And somewhere from deep inside themselves, a small crew of journalists—writers, editors, photographers—went to work after the horrible events of that day.

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Capital Gazette journalists, including Joshua McKerrow (facing forward), worked to report the story of the attack on their newspaper from the back of a pickup truck in a parking garage after the shooting. (Photo/Thalia Juarez, Baltimore Sun)

Chase Cook, a Capital Gazette reporter, tweeted in the hours after the shooting. “I can tell you this: we are putting out a damned newspaper tomorrow.” He later told The Baltimore Sun: “I don’t know what else to do except this.”

And he and his colleagues did. Someone had the brilliant idea to center 57 words including the names of the people who were killed on a mostly white editorial page in the next day’s paper.

As journalist and humorist Dave Barry, a good friend of Carl Hiaasen’s wrote on his blog: “…the news people I know are still passionate about what they do, and they do it remarkably well. And here’s the corny-but-true part: They do it for you. Every time they write a story, they’re hoping you’ll read it, maybe learn something new, maybe smile, maybe get mad and want to do something.”

That’s what the people were doing at the Capital Gazette when they were shot. They were gathering words and photos, headlines and ads to assemble into the next day’s newspaper. And their colleagues, despite the day’s events, immediately got the news out through social media, then began to call sources and interview people for stories and photos that went up on the paper’s website, then assembled those pieces into an old-fashioned, actual newspaper the next day.

Because that’s what journalists do—find the truth, write the first rough draft of history (as former Washington Post publisher/owner Phillip Graham said), and go out the next day and do it all again.

Bless them all.

If you’d like to contribute to a fund to benefit the families of those killed at the Capital Gazette (set up by Madi Alexander, a Bloomberg journalist in Washington, D.C.), you can do so here: www.gofundme.com/capitalgazette. 

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Nonen gets married

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It was her brother who gave her the nickname. Kevin was all of 3, doing battle with words that wouldn’t wrap around his tongue quite right, including his older sister’s name. Consequently, Lauren came out Nonen. He became Kebbin, as in:

Kebbin, Kebbin, bo-bebbin, banana fanna fo-febbin, me-my mo-mebbin… Kebbin!

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Kevin and Leonard some years ago

And boy, did we sing that song as Aunt Jan drove the kidlets around in her car, the too-funny kids who stood in for the ones I didn’t have, the too-smart-for-Aunt-Jan kids who pounced on the occasional bad word and fined her a quarter for each one. I never heard those kids swear until they were in college, which, I used to joke, Kevin must’ve partly financed with quarters he got from me.

And look at those decades swinging by us in a whoosh, so that this summer on my birthday, it’ll have been 31 years since my sister and brother-in-law gave me the best present ever: Lauren Michelle Just, the eighth grade teacher-now bride-now wife. I was 29 when she was born; I’ll be 60 on our birthday this year. Almost three years later Kevin arrived with a full head of blond hair (his sister’s head resembled a cue ball for the longest time) and a grin that melted us all the first time he flashed it… even if, as his Uncle Cliff said, it probably was just gas.

Speaking of… this was the kid who, as a little guy sitting in the back seat of my car, would holler, “GAS!” and hit the button for the window to roll down, Lauren next to him waving her hand at the stink coming out of her brother, who’d laugh like a hyena as Lauren protested with big-sister vehemence: “Kev-INNNNNN!”

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Kevin Just, all grown up, escorts his mom, Donna (my sister) to her seat at the wedding.

They have amazing parents who did, as far as I can tell, most everything right with their kids, but honestly, Lauren did her best to civilize Kevin and turn him into a respectable brother and eventually a very fine man. (She showed her “leadership qualities” early.) It killed us when Kevin could finally pronounce his l’s and r’s, though, and even more so when his sweet boy voice dropped in puberty.

What I remember most about them as little kids was that they made me laugh a lot. It was hard to stay annoyed with them, even when they were trying to annoy me, because in the next minute they were cracking me up. And they knew it; they knew they had Aunt Jan wrapped around their little fingers… all their little fingers. They still do, but they have grown into kind, responsible grownups, both of them teachers like their dad, Eric, a high school art teacher—Lauren, an eighth grade English and history teacher, and Kevin, a middle school music teacher (band, orchestra, choir and guitar).

I am not in the least bit biased when I say that they are extraordinary humans in every way.

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Lauren and her dad, Eric

OK. Maybe a teensy bit biased. Which is why, at Lauren’s wedding on June 23, the hottest day of the year so far, it was all I could do not to blubber as she walked down the aisle on her father’s arm and the lines of “Sunrise Sunset” played in my head:

Is this the little girl I carried?
Is this the little boy at play?
I don’t remember growing older,
When did they?
When did she get to be a beauty?
When did he grow to be so tall?
Wasn’t it yesterday
when they were small?

Look at these two—Lauren and her new husband, Gerald Giel. They’ve been a couple for a decade, starting their relationship about the time Lauren came to live with me in Sacramento and go to Sac State. Gerald came with her, and they were inseparable. Now they’re both teachers (Gerald teaches mechanics at a specialized trade school in Sacramento) who live in Lincoln with their three cats. They are two of the kindest people I know.

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Lauren and Gerald, walking into the happily ever after

At this point I was glad that I had fished out clean tissues from my bag for my sister to tuck in her dress because she knew she was going to need it, and if she needed one, I’d probably need three. We both needed those tissues.

Some of my favorite photographic moments came before the wedding, like this one of Lauren with her grandmother, my mom, Darlene Haag. I know that she was thinking of my dad, the late Roger Haag, who was undoubtedly there in spirit, as was my late husband, Cliff. Grandma has been a huge supporter of Lauren and Kevin in every way, contributing, among other things, to the completion of their teaching credentialing programs. Because she’s that kind of grandma. (Yay, Mom!)

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Lauren and her grandma, Darlene Haag

This might be my favorite photo from the whole day. Donna and I had the great good fortune to have two older girl cousins, Dee and Pat, who in turn each had two children of their own. This is Lauren with Charlotte, Dee’s granddaughter, who happily stepped up as flower girl. Charlotte is 7, a smart, good reader, and she did a great job at the altar, even holding a bouquet at the side of her best buddy, Ashley, the maid of honor.

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The bride and her flower girl, Charlotte Parratto, who just turned 7.

Ashley, by the way,  will marry the boy we used to call Kebbin (I still do sometimes) next year in June. (That’s Ashley on the far right.) She’s already a cherished part of the family, but we will be most pleased to have her in it officially.

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From left: Eric, Lauren, Gerald, Donna, Kevin and Ashley

Dick, who has been my partner for more than 20 years now, has known Lauren and Kevin since they were small, and he has become Uncle Dick to them, as he is with his own niece and nephews.

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Dick (my best fella) and Kevin (my best neph) on a very hot wedding day with medicinal beer.

Lauren and Gerald’s is the first wedding in their generation in our family, and I have to say, it was a fine occasion—beautifully planned and executed on the hottest day of the summer so far. But don’t these people look cool anyway?

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My peeps: me, Mom, Lauren, Eric and Donna

Gerald’s family and old friends also turned out for the big occasion. And it was wonderful that the Southern Californians (cousin Dee in red, her daughter Marryn next to her and Marryn’s husband Jerome) came up for the big event, along with Dee’s second daughter Robyn, her husband Johnny and flower girl Charlotte. But also, in the second row, there’s the Bay area contingent—my cousin Pat’s family—from left, her son Stephen, then Pat and her daughter Suzie and husband Jeremy.

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Dick and the SoCal and Bay area fam.

My mother’s father, James E. Keeley, used to say, “Each generation improves the breed,” and I have to say, especially looking at my sister’s and brother-in-law’s kids, that’s true. I can hear my dad saying to Donna and Eric, “Ya done good,” and especially applauding Eric’s superb specimen of a 1956 Chevy, which was the departure vehicle for the newlyweds. (Eric loaned it to Johnny and Robyn when they got married nine years ago, too, making them the coolest bride and groom in Tahoe that day.)

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Eric’s ’56 Chevy: the perfect departure vehicle

Yep, it was a classic, 100+-degree Sacramento valley day for Lauren and Gerald’s wedding, but the fans on every chair helped. And I sat there moistly with tissue and dabbed at my eyes as the little girl we used to call Nonen began her life as a grownup married lady. “Aunt Jan is so proud!” I used to tell the kids when they performed in the choir and the band or did some other commendable thing.

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Aunt Jan is still so proud and wishes Lauren and Gerald a most happily ever after.

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Hello, Faddah

Roger Haag and Janis

Roger Haag and Janis, 1958

That song, a big hit in 1963-64, just cracked you up and cracked up your daughters, too:

Hello, Muddah, Hello, Faddah,
Here I am at Camp Granada,
Camp is very entertaining,
And they say we’ll have some fun
if it stops raining.

(Allan Sherman / Lou Busch, Warner Bros. Records
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9jjiWS__Mp0 )

Donna and I never went to sleep-away camp, but I remember you singing this song when it came on the radio, and you knew all the verses. You were, Faddah, to us, the master of the witty comment, the bad pun, the dumb joke and goofy song. You and Mom together and separately taught us to walk, ride a bike and roller skate, to identify poison oak, to swim and climb trees and water ski. You whispered in our ears from the time we were born that we would be smart, read well, be good at school, go to college.

Perhaps your greatest gift to us was that you didn’t raise us to be prissy girls. That is, you made sure that we knew how to properly wash a car, change a tire and the oil, and you had Donna mowing the lawn before she was in junior high. Though, truthfully, you couldn’t have kept her from car washing and lawn mowing; it became her thing. I was terrified of lawn mowers until I was in my 20s. Nor did I ever learn how to throw a softball, though you tried to teach me. (Donna did, though.) Another good lesson: Not everything works as well for each kid. But, you said to me, “You gotta try. Just try. See what happens.”

And what happened was that you and Mom raised two strong women, feminists before we knew the word, to stand on our own two feet, find careers we loved and be independent in the world.

Knowing that you had a young writer in the family, you brought home the hand-cranked mimeograph machine, plunked it on your workbench, cranked it up so it gave off the sulphurous odor of rotten eggs and brought my first newspaper to life, the Granite Bay Gazette. (Mom typed my stories on stencils on the manual Smith-Corona, which later became mine.)

You took us to Girl Scouts and 4-H meetings and events, to the pool where we swam on the synchronized swim team and eventually became water safety aides, then lifeguards and swimming instructors. You and Mom were our first audiences as we sang at home and family gatherings. You attended our school band concerts (bless you!) and applauded as if we were pros. Your second daughter takes after you in so many ways—you bequeathed your fixit skills to Donna. The woman is fearless, tackles any chore set before her, including laying her own kitchen flooring, and, since you died in 2004, is Mother’s ace Fixer of House Stuff. She sews, too.

I, on the other hand, inherited almost none of those practical skills (“Janis has other gifts,” you and Mom liked to say), but thanks to you, I knew that I would only marry or partner with men who made me laugh and thought I hung the moon. And I found two who have.

I’m pretty sure you were the one who taught me where to knee a guy if he got “fresh,” which I did when I was a freshman and a senior boy who invited me to his prom drove me to a hilltop and parked the car. I was ready for him, and he promptly drove me home. It is a skill that has come in handy a few times in my life.

So every Father’s Day I look up and say aloud, “Thank you, Faddah, literally, for making us to begin with, and for everything you made us after that—especially the strong women part.” You set a high bar for your girls—allowing us to be ourselves and trusting us to make choices for our own lives—and we are beyond grateful to you and Mom for your support in every way, which continues to this day. We know how lucky we are.

 

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Pinky’s long walk

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Ed Cole on the PCT

I am awed by people who do what seem to me impossible feats. My friend Ed Cole, for example, who, bit by bit, is hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, which runs 2,650 miles from the Mexican border to Canada through the western states. This to me is just this side of nuts, but Ed, who is now 72, has been hiking all his life, mostly in the Sierra. The first 700 miles of the PCT are through desert, though, and anyone who’s hiked those bloody awful miles will tell you that they’re not for sissies.

Not that there’s any doubt, but Ed Cole is no sissy. Look at him hefting his heavy pack, getting ready to get back on the trail after his lunch break.

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Puttin’ on the pack

He’s hiked long sections of the trail in past summers that took him from California’s southern border to Castle Crags, south of Dunsmuir, California. He went back on the trail at Castle Crags June 8 and hopes to make it all the way to Canada this summer, hiking 10 to 15 miles a day and carrying a 35- to 40-pound pack. On his first days of hiking this month he reacquainted himself with the trees and increasingly rocky landscape as well as rattlesnakes on the trail. He also saw two bears closer than most people would like. Unfortunately, he did not yet have his bear canister for his food with him. Fortunately, the bears and the snakes moved on and didn’t bother Ed.

That’s where I came in. Five days into his hike, I brought Ed his bear canister (which looks like a big plastic container filled with food that bears allegedly cannot break into) at the Parks Creek Summit PCT crossing in the mountains northwest of Weed, California. I was pleased to be Ed’s first resupply person on this leg of his journey. And because I arrived with a gallon of water, a foot-long Subway sandwich and two lawn chairs so he could briefly sit on something with a back on it, I am now an official Trail Angel, as they call them on the PCT.

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Phil and Ed eatin’ brought-in sandwiches on the trail.

Ed made a friend in his first days on the trail, as hikers often do. Phil Carter of Roseville also recently went back on the trail, so they teamed up for a bit. But Phil injured his knee, and though Ed taped up Phil’s knee for him, Phil needed to come off the trail. (Ed is a big believer in the power of taping various parts of his legs for support.) So it was that I came down the mountain with a PCT hiker in my car to get him to Mt. Shasta City where he could arrange a ride home. I was sorry that Phil had to give up his hike for now but glad that Ed was continuing his. He’s been stymied by weather conditions in recent summers (too much snow for too long), and he’s been itching to get back out there.

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Lawn chairs left behind at a trail crossing for others to find and sit in.

Now Ed’s out there somewhere in those mountains, nearing the Oregon border. He’ll be met at the Etna summit by church friends bringing food and supplies, and after that his sweetheart, Cheryl Fuller, will meet him in Ashland where he’ll take a rest day or two off the trail before he continues.

Ed has a novel that my new publishing company, River Rock Books, will publish this fall called “The Love Song of Pinky Wollerman.” It’s a great story about a man named Pinky Wollerman who lives and ranches in California’s great central valley in the 1950s who becomes entranced with the idea of Australia and travels there, not realizing that he’s a suspect in a murder. Pinky undertakes a great journey and does, indeed, find love in surprising ways. But one of Pinky’s greatest loves (which Ed writes about beautifully) is for the land that he lives on, ranches and traverses in the outback before returning to California.

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Ed’s hiking plan

It’s no coincidence that as Ed was working through many drafts of Pinky (which is Ed’s nom de plume on Facebook, by the way, and what we sometimes call him in the writing groups I host), Ed began making plans to hike the PCT. It’s a serious undertaking that yields great lessons—one of which Ed has long known: You’ve got to hike your own hike, at your own pace, often alone, which is just fine. And when others come along with whom you’d like to spend time, you hike with them for a time, and when they go, that’s fine, too. Always, though, it’s the magnificent landscape with all of its challenges of weather and critters that keeps you company along the way, which is a very fine thing. He reminds me that we all need to stop, turn and view the place from which we’ve just come as well as look toward the direction we’re headed, take a few deep breaths, appreciate the steps we’ve taken to get there, and then keep going.

DD•IMG_1527crSo many people who know and love Ed wish him well on his journey, one of those explorations of the heart as much as one of land and space and sky and trees. What he finds out there this time will become part of his inner life as the rest of his travels have. We should all undertake such explorations in our lives—not necessarily the PCT but ones that suit our particular paths—that take us away from our everyday selves and allow our hearts to be enriched in the process.

Go, Pinky!

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Heading back out on the trail

 

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Gracieland

Sue Lester was (luckily for me) the girl next door when my parents moved my sister and me in 1966 to this out-of-the-way place next to a lake named Folsom. Sue and I were 8 years old, though she would turn 9 in late November. She was Susie then, and I was still Janis, the names our mothers called us. But it didn’t take long for us to adopt nicknames (hers was Suz for a while), which is how the world knows us now, as Sue and Jan. She was my original BFF, and I’m pleased to say that she still is.

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Gracie

This is Gracie, Sue’s sweet kitty, who, unfortunately, died last year. Sue, now a veterinarian in Nevada City, deeply mourned Gracie’s passing. But Sue, who has seen more than her share of pets die in her personal life and profession, is nothing if not resilient. And Gracie lives on, not only in Sue’s heart, but now in Gracieland (named by Sue’s dear friend Ginny), Nevada City’s newest home concert venue. I was fortunate to attend the second concert in Gracieland history this afternoon where four very talented, professional musicians delighted a small audience.

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Four fine musicians playing together for the first time: (standing) Jeri Jones and Velvy Appleton, (seated) Robert Powell and Pam Delgado.

Jeri Jones and Pam Delgado are half of Blame Sally, one of Sue’s favorite bands. Velvy Appleton is half of the band Spark and Whisper. Robert Powell is a wicked pedal steel and guitar player. Robert and Velvy teamed up for half the show at Gracieland, and Jeri and Pam made up the other half… and then, magic! as all four played together.

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The Pam and Jeri Show

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The Robert and Velvy Show

I felt lucky to be part of the invited guest list. The room is perfectly set up, the sound is amazing (one of the musicians commented that it sounds better than “90 percent of places we play”), and you couldn’t get a more appreciative, focused audience. And, of course, the musicians were top-notch, playing in a variety of musical styles and genres, each of them masters at their craft.

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(far right) Sue Lester, impresario

I have known Sue Lester for (gasp!) 52 years this summer, and she was my first music guru. It was Sue who introduced me to music new to my young ears: Herman’s Hermits, the Beatles, Iron Butterfly. (It was the ’60s… can you tell? “In-a-Gadda-Davida” was never my favorite, though Sue used to rock out on air guitar before I knew it had a name. I played air drums.) She has one of the most extensive CD and vinyl collections of anyone I know, and she introduced me, literally, to Blame Sally at a live show.

When Sue bought her cute house in Nevada City a few years ago, she did so in part because the open bottom floor immediately made her think “concert venue.” She’s been planning this ever since. She and friend built a small stage, she rented chairs and recruited friends to help with food and set-up, and she knew just the musicians she wanted to play Gracieland. (She has a list of others, too.)

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Mom and daughter

I think my buddy Sue has added a new title to her already impressive list (M.S., DVM, BFF): impresario, which is one who, according to dictionary.com, organizes and often finances concerts, plays or operas. And one of Sue’s main backers and biggest fans is her mom, Nell Lester, along with her late father, Bill, who were two of the most devoted parents I’ve ever known. They did good, as my father used to say, and I’m grateful to them for producing such a fine daughter and friend.

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Nell and Sue Lester

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So bravo, Gracieland! Thanks to all the folks who helped Sue make her venue a success. I see a summer concert series in the future. Here’s to a lot more music to come!

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Jan and Sue

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Kokua

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Bust of Father (now Saint) Damien in St. Philomena, the church he built at Kalawao on the Kalaupapa peninsula.

We went to serve, as thousands of people have done, the patients of Kalaupapa. Though there are only ten Hansen’s Disease patients left of the 7,600 banished to this isolated peninsula on the island of Moloka’i, we went as kokua (helpers) to do the most ordinary chores for the National Park Service, which oversees some of the most sacred ground in the United States.

This is a place where, for 103 years, people with what is more commonly known as leprosy, were sent if they were so much as suspected of having the disease. And it is where kokua—family members, priests, nuns, ministers and other religious folks, medical people and others—served the patients, who were segregated from society in great act of social injustice.

A dozen of us flew into Kalaupapa on a rainy morning in May, all of us Sierra Club members from across the country. Dick and I have participated in two other Sierra Club service trips to Kalaupapa—the first in 2002 and in 2012. We probably wouldn’t have done another one (it’s breathtakingly expensive—about $300 a day person for the most modest accommodations you can imagine in Hawaii, but it includes food and air transport in and out of the peninsula), except that Lynne Simpson was leading what was likely to be her last service trip.

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Lynne and Ray Simpson, Kalaupapa, 2002

 Lynne and her late husband Ray Simpson were the ones who in 1970 led a Sierra Club hiking/camping outing to Kauai and Moloka’i that Dick and his late wife Mary Lou went on. They and other participants were among the first groups to be allowed to hike into Kaluapapa from topside Moloka’i, as it’s called. 

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Lynne Simpson and Dick Schmidt at the grave of Richard Marks, who first toured them around Kalaupapa in 1970 and on many visits thereafter.

On that first visit the hikers were toured around the peninsula in a beat-up stretch limo by Richard Marks, former patient and sheriff of Kalaupapa. Dick and Lynne would see Mr. Marks as they came to visit over the decades, and it became clear that he was one of the patients who made it possible for more visitors to come to the peninsula. It was off limits to most people until 1969, when the patients (who’d had their Hansen’s Disease arrested with drugs beginning in the 1950s and were no longer contagious) rose up in their own small civil rights movement. They demanded that they be free to come and go from Kalaupapa like any other American citizens. This was not met happily by the state health department, but the patients eventually prevailed, and they were finally granted their freedom in 1969. There are only 10 of them left now.

The deal was that they could live at Kalaupapa or come and go for the rest of their lives. In 1980 a deal was struck with the National Park Service to put Kalaupapa under the jurisdiction of the NPS to prevent it from being developed. The story goes that the patients couldn’t bear to imagine their beloved and beautiful peninsula developed into condos, and the national parks people would protect it. Besides, the place is still very hard to access. It’s at the base of the tallest sea cliffs in the world, some 1,500 to 3,000 feet tall. You can only get there by hiking down a very steep trail or, if you’re a tourist, you can be part of a mule ride that takes visitors down a few days a week for an afternoon tour. Or you can fly in on a small plane.

But the peninsula is largely inaccessible by boat (the seas are too rough), and a huge barge comes once a summer with items like cars and refrigerators and other large items. It takes away dead versions of those items, too. Food and mail are flown in several times a week, which is how we arrived in Kalaupapa, too.

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Richard, George, Jeff and Dick carting out nonnative plants removed from the cemetery.

It’s been 48 years since Dick and Lynne first hiked into Kalaupapa, and 50 years that Lynne has been leading Sierra Club outings. Dick is 75 this year and Lynne turned 80 a few days before arriving in Kalaupapa. In my humble opinion, neither of them should be doing major physical labor any more. But these people are troopers, and they dove in with great spirit and not a little muscle. I watched them both, wondering if this might be the last time they might go to Kalaupapa to, frankly, schlepp for the park service. That’s still the only way outsiders can stay on the peninsula, by the way—to be invited as the guest of someone who lives or works there or be part of a volunteer group. On our trip a dozen hard-working volunteers had come to do chores—and Dick and I were deeply impressed by the dedication and sweat exerted by these folks, doing, among other things, removal of trash and detritus that floats in to the beaches and lopping and pulling out nonnative plants at the edge of one of the cemeteries.

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Lynne weeding around her favorite gravesite.

I say “one of” because approximately 7,600 people lived and died at Kalaupapa and are buried there in a number of cemeteries, though only about 1,000 of them lie in marked graves. Every inch of that peninsula is sacred ground. So it was with great respect, reverence and appreciation that we returned to Kalaupapa.

This is the place that gave the world two saints—Father Damien, who arrived in 1873 to care for the lepers, and Mother Marianne, who brought six nuns with her in late 1888 to care for the ailing Damien, the only religious kokua (Hawaiian for “helper” or “helping”) who came to the peninsula who contracted the disease and died of it. It turns out that you have to have a genetic predisposition for Hansen’s Disease; only 5% of the population is susceptible to the disease.

But the Hawaiians were highly susceptible, as they were to pretty much every disease brought by white people. They died in droves of things like measles and the flu. Leprosy must have seemed tailor-made to attack their vulnerable immune systems, and people lived in fear of mai pake (the separating sickness) because if they got sick or were even thought to have the disease, it meant lifetime banishment. Most people sent to the peninsula never saw their families or friends again.

But the patients of Kalaupapa became each other’s family and friends. Many of them lived for years; the disease didn’t necessarily kill people quickly. They married each other and had children, though after 1909, the children were taken from the parents to be raised by family members or put in foster care, hoping to prevent them from acquiring leprosy.

It must have been excruciating for women to give birth and not be allowed to hold their children, much less nurse them, to have them immediately taken away. To this day, children under 16 are not allowed at Kalaupapa since so many patients had theirs taken away.

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End of the day, Kalaupapa, looking toward Paschoal Hall and the pali (cliffs).

One of the many lovely things about Hawaiians is that they have a system called hanai in which relatives or friends raise other people’s kids. This was often done in the old days if people had many children and needed help, or to give people who couldn’t have kids a way to raise some. It wasn’t as if the kids didn’t know who their birth parents were—they generally did. The Hawaiians were and still are great examples of “it takes a village to raise a child.”

And, once people’s kids were over 16, they were allowed to come visit their folks at Kalaupapa, though they still were not allowed anything resembling physical contact. For decades the “healthy” were separated from the “sick” in long buildings with screens across the middle. One of those visitation buildings still exists to show how segregated people were, though the screens have been taken down, along with most of the fences that separated patients and kokua (as signs on one of the public restrooms still read).

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Ryan in the visiting station, which used to have a screen down the center of the long table, explaining how visitors were separated from patients.

•••

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Nurses’ quarters, Kalaupapa

We stayed this time in the only building, the nurses’ quarters, which still has a symbolic picket fence around it. Our room in the single-walled building (i.e., no insulation, including heat or air conditioning) had two twin beds and a small table between them, a tall dresser, a closet with hangars and a shared bathroom. The last time we were there, we stayed in another building without anything like a dresser, hangars or table. Things have improved in the visitors’ quarters!

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Our room in the nurses’ quarters

We arrived at the little airport in a downpour and learned from our host, biologist Paul Hosten, that it had been raining pretty much constantly for a month at Kalaupapa. He had a schedule of things he wanted us to do, all of which were outdoors and not do-able in heavy rain. He put some of us to work the first day sweeping and mopping the social hall where a major meeting was to take place the next day.

The second day, more rain. But the bonus for us on those first two days was that we got to do things not on Paul’s list, such as take an excellent guided tour of the peninsula by Ryan Poland of Damien Tours, founded by Richard Marks and his wife, Gloria. 

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Ryan Poland of Damien Tours at Saint Marianne’s gravesite.

Finally, on the third day, the sun came out, the mist cleared over the pali (cliffs) and we had a unique tour from Valerie Monson of Ka’ Ohana o’ Kalaupapa, an amazing nonprofit organization that helps descendants of patients find their ancestors’ graves. One of our leaders, Gloria Amaral, has an ancestor, John Santos, buried in Papaloa cemetery, which looks out on a glorious stretch of beach. Valerie arrived at Kalaupapa just to show Gloria the site of her ancestor’s grave, and, as a bonus gave our group a wonderful tour of the cemetery and later a great Powerpoint presentation about the work of the Ohana.

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Gloria Amaral at the grave of John Santos, her ancestor buried at Kalaupapa. Behind her are Lynne and Liz Simpson.

After our cemetery tour we went to work (finally!) doing beach clean-up just behind the cemetery, where we got to see three mama monk seals, which are endangered, with their new babies on shore and playing in the shallow waters. Kalaupapa is a prime spot for mothers and new babies—while we were there, three pairs of mothers and babies as well as a lone male monk seal were regularly beaching themselves for snoozes.

After lunch we visited with the two nuns of St. Francis, Sister Barbara Jean and Sister Alicia Damien, who are the spiritual descendants of Mother Marianne and the first nuns who came in 1888 to Kalaupapa to care for the ailing Father Damien and set up a school for girls. They had us for tea and coffee at the Bishop Home, which Mother Marianne and the first sisters set up as a home for girls. We were honored to hear the stories of the former sisters from the current sisters, who volunteer in a variety of capacities at Kalaupapa.

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Sister Alicia Damien (left) and Sister Barbara Jean give us a tour of the Bishop Home at Kalaupapa, founded by Mother Marianne.

We also got a great tour of the museum from curator Julia Aleszczyk where so much history of the settlement is kept. This is Julia with paintings by patients Elaine Remigio (the kitty) and Ed Kato (the Kalawao landscape).

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From old wheelchairs to plaster casts of patients’ crippled feet to tools adapted for use by people who had lost fingers, Julia pulled out drawer after drawer to show us the artifacts of the place. I was tickled to see a couple of Dick’s 1970 photos of Richard Marks hanging in the museum with the original wooden cross used on his grave.

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On the fourth day, the 145th anniversary of Damien’s arrival at Kalaupapa, many of us rose in the dark to go to mass at St. Francis Catholic church with the sisters and one patient who regularly attend. But it turned out that there was a relative crowd that morning at St. Francis Church, and we got to sing a special song about St. Damien. We felt honored to be there on that anniversary day, though we were going to have to leave before the big weekend celebration in Damien’s honor.

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After mass and breakfast, we helped clear an area behind that cemetery of non-native plants for Momi Hooper, who is Hawaiian and a park service employee. Her grandmother oversaw a mausoleum on Oahu where ali’i (royalty) are buried. Fittingly, Momi, among her many duties, also tends the cemeteries and does repair on crumbling headstones at Kalaupapa. Like her grandmother, she is kokua to the ancestors.

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Momi Hooper of the NPS talking story during a break in our work day (with George Zweibel looking on).

That afternoon we went out to a more distant beach beyond the airport and the lighthouse with the park’s marine ecologist, Eric Brown, and his intern, Alix, from France, to do more clean up. That beach is far more littered with detritus that washes ashore, and even nine of us working for a couple of hours barely made a dent in the amount of garbage out there, it seemed. Still, we gave it our all. 

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The beach cleanup crew, ecologist Eric Brown, center.

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Alien algae removal

On the fifth day, our last one at Kalaupapa, we again rose in the dark and driven out to a distant tidepool area by dawn to remove “alien algae” with Eric and Alix. (Dick and I went but opted not to go in the slippery pools. We stayed atop the old lava flow, collected trash and took photos of the folks down below.) Some of us were out there longer than planned due to a flat tire on the van that took us out there—more adventure! But Eric saved the day by returning with a pickup truck to retrieve us and returning us to our quarters for a late breakfast (fantastic omelettes by Richard Torrey!) and time to pack and clean up our quarters before we departed.

Once again, the team did a great job—leaders Lynne Simpson, Jan Torrey and Gloria Amaral, along with participants Suzanne Doodan, Christina Fowlks, Roland Fowlks, Jeff Joneson, Liz Simpson, Richard Torrey and George Zweibel. And us, of course.

Late that afternoon, in sunshine, we left Kalaupapa, gazing out the windows of the small plane carrying a bit of the mana, the life energy, of that sacred land.

In our own small way, the dozen of us Sierra Club volunteers performed a bit of kokua at Kalaupapa, and that, more than any kind of vocal appreciation (which we got, too), was our reward.

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Mother Marianne painting at St. Francis Church in Kalaupapa

The thing about Damien and Marianne and all the others who followed them as kokua to patients—whether they were nuns or priests or brothers or pastors or family and friends of the patients—was that they operated from a place, first and foremost, of love and compassion. They couldn’t save these people; they died, eventually, of this disease. But Mother Marianne made lovely dresses for the girls. The children went to school. There was a boys’ band a girls’ choir. They made coffins for them when they died and had meaningful funerals for them.

These kokua loved the patients and encouraged them to love each other for as long as they were on earth. Which, when you think about it, is what we’re all here to do: to live and grow in love.

•••

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The Kalaupapa lighthouse, the tallest in the Pacific

Kalaupapa has been a place of immense suffering and sorrow. But it is also a place of joy and community, and the stories of the people who lived and died there can help the rest of us who walk the path every day between this paradox of life and death. We have to hold the full truth of this reality, but instead of fighting it and staying locked in suffering, we can be willing to look at it differently, to transform the dark side of things. We can’t reconcile this paradox—it’s not solvable. But with patience, humility and forgiveness (especially of ourselves), we can live the two sides of this great mystery. This is grace, which is always available to us, and it (not the suffering) transforms us, often without our knowing it. We look up one day, and we realize we are living this duality more than we are fighting it.

I came away from Kalaupapa reminded that we are here for each other as kokua all the days of our lives. It is one of those small things, as Mother Teresa said, we do with great love, as it has been done in Kalaupapa, a place of great suffering, for more than a century.

This is what we do as humans: We go through the fires of great loss and other suffering. We come out annealed—heated, then cooled, like steel or glass—which softens us and makes us less brittle. We are transformed with grace.

We kokua others as we have been kokua’d.

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Father Damien’s gravesite, Kalawao

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Gradjits

Every year about this time I go to my college’s graduation ceremony—sometimes in cap and gown as a “perfesser,” but more often lately in a maroon Sacramento City College shirt that says “staff” on it. Staff at my college are the folks who keep it all running—in this case, the folks in Admissions and Records who put on commencement ceremonies under the most capable direction of supervisor/guru Kim Goff.

Truth be told, I love getting to be part of the staff more than being a professor in cap and gown because staff folks get to hang out in the gym as the gradjits-to-be file in, looking awkward in their black gowns, clutching their mortarboards like the strange creatures they are (“I have to wear this on my head?!”). We have them sign their name on a long roll of butcher paper that will go in the year’s time capsule. We ask them to sign up to be part of the alumni association (I got this gig this year and loved it) and give them an alumni sticker. (I had to explain to more than a few folks tonight what alumni means… and that it’s Latin for “graduate.” One bright person said, “Shouldn’t it be alumnus, if it’s just me—you know, singular?” I wanted to kiss her and tell her about “alumna” for females but add that “alumnus” works for both genders, too. And then I remembered that the semester’s over; I can stop teaching now.)

One of my favorite parts is looking at the students’ decorated mortarboards. They show up with great things on them:

We have staff who volunteer to help students with those tricky mortarboards:

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And some just tug at an old teacher’s heart:

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And for my nurse friends and family:

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And then there are my own students… who are actually no longer my students. Now they go off to the Big School, as I teasingly call the university, and they fly. They really do. Like this guy, Nick Pecoraro, who has been the Express newspaper’s sports editor this year. He’s a gem, already a pro, heading off to Sac State. He showed up two days ago at our end-of-semester potluck looking like this:

Nick and Lukas

This is Nick with his son Lukas, all of a month old, who joins his mom Becky and sister Olivia (below), as well as his dad in the Pecoraro family. (Are they cute or what?) Because Nick’s a sports guy, I’m used to seeing him in T-shirts and shades and a ubiquitous baseball cap. It’s kinda the uniform.

Becky Jean Pecoraro Olivia and Lukas

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And then, tonight, Nick showed up at graduation looking like this:

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Nick Pecoraro, super sports editor, and Dianne Rose, ace sports shooter

When did he become a grownup, that guy in the baseball cap and baggy shorts? Oh, yeah—he was there all along, as all of them are, growing more capable and competent as journalists, reporters, photographers, simply by the doing of it. We offer them a place to practice, and they (to use an overworked sports metaphor) knock it out of the park.

And the next semester we start over again with a new crop of folks, some of them young, some of them older and returning to school, all of them eager and unsure at the same time, all of them who will improve—like the students before them—by the practice and the doing.

It took me years to learn that I actually teach people very little. They teach themselves what they most need to learn. I facilitate and nudge, sometimes a little, sometimes a lot. I point out technical things and occasionally hear myself holler, “You can’t do that!” when an ethical issue arises. I am an adviser (AP Style spelling). Most of what I do is advise, even in classes where I’m technically a teacher. I always say I can’t teach people to write or do journalism or take photos. I offer advice and guidance and suggestions, which are not always accepted or taken. And that’s OK, too.

I am also a lifelong student myself. Just today I sat at a computer next to our outgoing editor in chief (thanks, Heather) and had her give me a lesson about something I needed to change on this blog. She showed me how to do what I couldn’t figure out how to do and waited patiently as I fixed it.

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So much of what we do in the world stems from having confidence in ourselves, which is certainly supported by our families and friends and teachers, as well as by staff folks like the volunteers at commencement, every one of us thinking and saying things like:

You rock, 2018 gradjits. Go out there and believe in yourselves. Do even more. We’re proud of you!

————–

Update, July 19, 2018:
Nick Pecoraro is now a sports reporter for the Auburn Journal. So proud of you, Nick! Check out his story at: http://www.auburnjournal.com/article/7/19/18/introducing-our-new-sports-reporter#.W1Ez7RTdunA.facebook

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Resumé

Teaching Experience

Sacramento City College
Professor of Journalism and English, Department Chair of Journalism
1993–present

  • Oversee Journalism Department, including students, scheduling and curriculum, as well as teaching 15 units each semester, including advising student newspaper, The Express (www.saccityexpress.com), and Mainline magazine (also can be viewed at www.saccityexpress.com). Teach style/grammar classes for journalism majors, feature writing, news writing, mass media courses.
  • Co-founded college literary journal, Susurrus, in 1994, and advised it for 17 years.
  • Researched and wrote the history of the college, published as a magazine for the 90th anniversary in 2006 and expanded into book form (Sacramento City College: 100 Years) for the 100th anniversary in 2016.
  • Teach composition and creative writing courses as schedule allows, including a class I created in generative writing, “Writing as a Healing Art”.

Sacramento City College
Adjunct Professor of Journalism
1989–1993

  • Taught a variety of courses, including news and feature writing, as well as co-advising the campus newspaper, The Express.

American River College
Temporary Professor of Journalism
1986–1987

  • Filled in as full-time journalism professor/adviser for one year for a colleague on leave, advising the campus newspaper, The Current, and teaching a full load of journalism courses.

California State University, Sacramento
Adjunct Professor of Journalism
1984–1986

• Taught a variety of journalism courses including lower division and upper division          newswriting to magazine writing to co-advising the student newspaper, The Hornet.

Journalism experience

Editor, Sacramento magazine
1989–1992

  • Produced monthly magazine based in the capital city of California, overseeing an editorial staff, including design editor, managing editor and staff writers, after spending a year as associate editor doing both writing and editing. Trained writers, oversaw interns, helped host annual Best of Sacramento party that accompanied a special issue.

 Reporter, United Press International
1986–1988

  • Reported on the state Capitol, first covering the Senate and then the Assembly, as well as daily press conferences, protests and other news and feature stories for an international wire service.

Staff writer/copy editor, The Sacramento Bee
1983–1985

  • Edited copy for the features section (then called Scene), as well as for entertainment and home and garden sections. Also wrote regular feature stories, profiles and travel pieces for those sections.

Education

1992
Master of Arts degrees in Journalism and English, California State University, Sacramento

1982
Bachelor of Arts degrees in Journalism and English, California State University, Sacramento

Other experience

Amherst Writers & Artists
Instructor/trainer, board member
2005–present

  • Train people to lead writing workshops in this encouraging generative writing method created by Pat Schneider of Amherst, Mass., as outlined in her book, Writing Alone and With Others (Oxford University Press). Serve on AWA board and lead weekly workshops using the method in Sacramento, California.

River Rock Books
Co-publisher
2017–present

  • Small press publisher of memoir, poetry and fiction based in Sacramento, California.

Freelance editor
1990–present

  • Edit book projects from nonfiction to fiction to poetry, including a best-selling series of Hawaiian guidebooks for the past twenty years.

Publications

Journalism
Sacramento magazine, The Sacramento Bee, United Press International, The Sacramento News & Review, Motorland and various travel publications, and more.

Creative writing
Tule Review, Birdland Journal, Pure Slush (forthcoming), Her Heart Poetry, Origami Poems Project, The Fourth River, The Poetry Box, Poems & Plays, as well as pieces in the following anthologies:
Eat Pray Love Made Me Do It (Riverhead Books), The Healing Art of Writing (UC Medical Humanities Consortium), I’ve Always Meant to Tell You: Letters to Our Mothers (Pocket Books), To Fathers: What I’ve Never Said (Story Line Press), Blood on the Page, Sacramento Voices, and An Ear to the Ground (Cune Press).

Poetry book
Companion Spirit, Amherst Writers & Artists Press, 2013

Posted in Resumé | 12 Comments

Annie’s spring

Annie drives

Annie drives her mama at Funderland in Sacramento.

One of the things I’m often asked by people who read my posts is, “How’s Annie?” And the answer is pretty much always, “Her usual happy self.” My friend Nikki traveled to China to adopt Annie two summers ago and bring to her “forever home” in Sacramento.

Annie will be 9 in May, and in April she and her mama got a visit from Nikki’s friend Colleen. They met as volunteers in China, and Colleen Joss, who lives in Ottawa. They’re truly besties, though they don’t get to see each other in person often.

Nikki and Colleen

Nikki and Colleen

But Colleen came to Sacramento for a week, and she and Nikki and Annie did a bunch of fun stuff, which yielded some lovely photos, which Nikki is allowing me to share.

First, let me say that going out for Chinese dumplings with Nikki and Colleen yields a lot of wonderful stories from their days traveling around China as young missionaries. Colleen is now married and calls herself the Grand Diva of All Things Domestic at the House of Joss in Ontario, Canada.

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Ready for dumplings!

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Colleen is also the mother of three children, and though I’ve just met her, I can tell that she’s a lot of fun. Clearly, Annie thinks so, too.

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Auntie Colleen reads to Annie.

Among other things, the girls, along with Nikki’s friend Kelly Cunningham and a couple of others, soaked up a bit of NorCal spring with a walk around Table Mountain near Oroville. They enjoyed the seasonal waterfalls and wildflowers and had a great time.

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Annie relaxes on Table Mountain amid the lupine.

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Kelly Cunningham and her canine companion admire one of the seasonal waterfalls at Table Mountain.

But here’s my favorite picture of two friends I love dearly:

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Annie and Nikki, Table Mountain, April 2018

Are those happy smiles or what? So happy to be a part of their journey!

(Thanks to Nikki and Kelly for their great photos!)

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Mandalas

Laurie's mandalas

Laurie’s mandalas

Sometimes life hands you rocks. Sometimes they’re pretty rocks. Sometimes they’re art pieces made by a kind soul so that their heft in the hand is downright healing.

That’s what Laurie Aboudara-Robertson sent me. She’s the women I met while visiting my friend Ursula at the Yountville Veterans Home in late March. (You can see my post about that here.) Laurie made a series of commemorative mandalas, as she calls them (because, really, they’re no longer mere rocks; they’ve been transformed) to honor the people killed March 9 at the veterans home. And the day I visited Ursula, who is the acting director of the veterans home, Laurie and her friend Harrell came to place the final rock—the littlest one for the baby who died in utereo when her mother was killed.

As soon as Laurie got to talking to us about this mandala project, I knew I wanted to ask her to do some healing stones for me, too. She’d done a series of them to honor those killed in Parkland, Florida, at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. She sold them and sent the proceeds to the Parkland survivors’ fund. And she felt moved to do a similar tribute closer to her home in Napa.

So after I returned home to Sacramento, I found Laurie on Facebook, and we began a conversation about the mandalas. Could she make some for me, too? I’d be happy to buy them, including one of the Parkland commemoratives. Sure, she said, and set to work.

What I didn’t expect was my reaction when they arrived in the mail, three stones with serious heft and a smaller, oblong-ish one with a painted heart for the Parkland folks. I stood in my dining room and took each stone, one at a time, into my cupped palms, and I breathed deeply, closing my eyes.

To be honest, I’ve had trouble sleeping since the veterans home shootings, since the killing of Stephon Clark in Sacramento. This is nothing compared to what Ursula and her team or Stephon Clark’s loved ones are experiencing, but in a smaller way, horrific images have awakened me in the night, making it hard to find peaceful sleep. Maybe it’s because this random, hideous violence has struck close to my heart, deeply affecting a dear friend. Maybe it’s because I, too, am on the verge of taking up a sign and chanting, “Enough is enough.” No one should walk into schools or offices or back yards and shoot people. Of any age, size or color. Ever.

As my mother used to say to my sister and me when we were kids, “No hitting. Anyone. Ever.” We didn’t always comply then, but as far as I know neither of us has struck anyone since we’ve been grownups. My sister didn’t spank her kids, and neither did I when they were in my care, even though we used to tell them that Aunt Jan had “spanking privileges.” We wouldn’t have dreamed of it.

No hitting. No shooting.

I realize that I’ve swung deeply into the camp of advocating for serious gun control. As in saying to people, “Do you really NEED to own that gun/rifle/assault weapon?” I can’t imagine this country banning all forms of firearms; the gun lobby and the second amendment will see to that. But I—who have long disliked guns of all kinds, who was married to a responsible but enthusiastic gun owner who, at the end of his life, had enough weaponry to take out the small town he lived in, had he wanted to—am done with this. Clearly, I’m not alone.

And yes, I know people, love people, who own weapons and who are perfectly responsible gun owners. Some even have permits to carry concealed weapons. But really, people. Something’s got to change. Could it not start by giving up guns you’re not using, just collecting? Could you not release the most deadly ones into responsible hands that could dispose of them properly? Could this be more than a symbolic act, as in the case of people in Florida and Chicago and Baltimore, who walked into police stations and handed over their weapons?

“I could have sold this rifle, but no person needs this,” said one of them named Ben Dickmann in Broward County, Florida.

“I am member of probably the second-most vilified demographic in the country currently (if you didn’t know, I’m a conservative leaning, gun-owning, middle-aged, financially stable white male),” he wrote in a Facebook post. “Within this demographic I’m probably in the minority, but maybe more like me will stand up, because I’m sorry, until my demographic gets behind this, nothing will change.”

So I hold these mandalas in my hands now, and I offer what have become daily wishes/prayers/mantras to end this violence revved up by the emergence of so much bigotry and ignorance and hatred, especially in the last couple of years.

“We are better than this,” I tell my students in my Race and Gender in Media class before we pull out our journals to put our outrage on the page. “This should not even be a concern on a college campus, the possibility that we could be shot or killed. I’m deeply disturbed that I cannot protect you. I hate how vulnerable we are, sitting here in class or walking on this beautiful campus or in the park across the street or any place in our city.”

They nodded. Some of them had things to say. We listened. We wrote.

On the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s assassination, I did a PowerPoint presentation about MLK in class and said, “Like so many others, I’m sickened by the knowledge that one of our former students was shot and killed by our city police in his grandmother’s back yard.”

And we got out our journals and wrote about that, too.

Today I’m bringing my mandalas made by Laurie’s loving hands to class. I will pass them around and let each student feel what those stones have to offer. Perhaps the healing that Laurie imbued in them will seep into the hands of my students, who have weathered injustices as people who are Latino or African American, Asian American or Puerto Rican, Korean, Chinese and more. Some are LGBTQ or have disabilities others can’t see. Everyone has faced discrimination or name calling, whether as children or more recently.

But we all agree: This has to stop. We’re starting by being kind to each other. By listening to each other’s stories. By sharing the rocky love of a stranger in the Napa Valley whose mandalas we will hold and appreciate. Then I’m playing this video, which makes me smile and gives me hope:

People all over the world
join hands
start a love train, love train

Love Train Paula Abdul Turnaround Arts

Paula Abdul and the Turnaround Arts kids doing “Love Train”

Sing it with us:

People all over the world
join hands
start a love train, love train

 

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