Welcome to the club you never wanted to be a member of

(for Christine, in memory of Carolyn Ralston)

We regret to inform you that you
are now a member of the club without
a name, without membership cards
or handshakes or even a commemorative pin,

but there are dues, and you are paying them
moment by moment as your mind hums
with the image of one who has suddenly
left or one who lingered over the long goodbye,

the one who has departed in body, if not
in name, whose smell lingers in the house,
on the bedsheets you changed after
what used to be her was taken away.

And you are left with duties
you never wanted—going home
after a busy work week to clean
out her side of the fridge, where

a wizened half of chicken breast
rests, not to mention a gnawed-on
red bell pepper wearing her teeth marks
because she couldn’t use a knife,

her broken wrist still healing after
surgery. You are left—not a relative,
more than friend but not girlfriend
with the word you two used

to describe yourselves, which defines
the ache in your chest, the emptiness
in your gut, what used to be
the sweetest word you know—

family.

You cannot quit this club;
you have become
a permanent member.

Welcome to the family of man
where everyone has a lifespan
shorter than someone would like,
where, if you are lucky, you will

give and receive love that will
one day turn to grief, a fine and
proper penance for opening
your humble, trusting heart.

 

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Labor day

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Jan and Dick, Lake Crescent, Washington, 2015

(for RDS)

My love, temporarily booted,
his Achilles tendon aching, asks
for help tidying up his tiny courtyard.
On Monday, after a weekend of sloth,
I arrive ready to tug sprigs of privet
that have summered nicely in the happy dirt
as he takes a small trimmer to the delicate
ivy spilling over the wall.

But, despite a good soaking the day before,
some of the stubborn privets refuse to yield.
He tosses me a soft green sit-upon,
and, butt down, I go at the shallow roots
with trowel and elbow grease.

I have learned this before
and practice it again: You can never
extract all the roots, no matter how long
you dig. The best you can do is pull up
the ones near the surface, clip them
and toss them in the pile bound for
the leaf bag, then haul them away.

My old man, as he calls himself,
sneezin’ and wheezin’, now three-quarters
of a century young, sits for a bit,
his big black boot extended, says
he’s grateful for his younger girlfriend.
I look over my shoulder, toss out,
“Where is she then?” as we both laugh
at the old joke.

In 90 minutes the courtyard is tidier,
bereft of stray leaves and privets,
seed pod balls and ivy cuttings bagged.
I heft the haul to the big bin half
a football field away, refusing the puller
he offers. “I need the exercise,” I say,
thinking of the hours my butt will spend
in a chair before a computer, prepping
the new semester’s college classes,
reading student writers’ work.

So I walk, the soft bag bumping one leg,
on a glorious midday under trees still leafy
and green, no outward hint of what’s
to come. I stop, reposition, breathe heavily
as the faces of two beloved poet friends
recently departed flit across my field of vision.

Something in me issues vocal gratitude
for this body, newly 60 this summer,
still moving well, still able to lift and bend
and pull up privets, to rake and scoop and haul,
to labor and love that man in the boot back
in his courtyard, putting the rake away
until the next round of leaves
falls.

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goddess of compassion

quan yin

for marie (1951–2018)

after steven died, you would show up
on occasional friday nights

for my creative writing class, the one
you, my favorite local poet, could

have taught, arrive without poem
or pen, saying you just wanted to sit.

and so you did, sometimes with eyes
closed, a meditating quan yin amid

students scribbling in composition
books in the old trailer by the football

stadium less than a mile from your
house. now, almost a decade later,

what i have left are your poems.
i barely sleep; you arrive in dreams,

meet me in the sweet café—also
recently gone—on capitol avenue,

or back in that classroom, your slight
form origami’d into a tiny desk,

your eyes closed, holding the space
for all of us, listening to me lecture,

but i cannot hear myself. i focus on
your plummy eyelids, your chest

rising and falling with soft breath,
the jade beads of your mala

circling your wrist, you who embody
lovingkindness, having left the body

that was no longer serving you.
i whisper your name; your

purple eyelids smile at me.
you, my friend; you, the poem.

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Seaworthy

•Marie-9-9-11_retouch jpg

Marie Reynolds

We sailed out
further than I ever imagined and
turned to look back, gauge the distance, watch
the changing sky. I tell her I do not think we are alone in this world though the
shore is all we know, the line of cottonwood trees, the sloping bank
quickly receding.

—from “Seaworthy,” Marie Reynolds

She was in every way seaworthy, up for the voyage. And though the night-boat carried her off early this morning, Marie Reynolds gave the world one exquisite collection of her poems before she went. She made it one of the great priorities of her last months to give the poems that became “Seaworthy” to me.

“If I…,” she said one day to me in May looking at me as we sat in her living room, “I want you to…” and she handed me a small stack of typed poems. “I can’t assemble it into a manuscript. Can you find someone to type it?” she asked.

This indicated a major shift in my dear friend. She was getting thinner every time I saw her, the metastases eating away at her. She’d stopped treatments, this former nurse, because they weren’t working. It was the third time cancer had overtaken her.

“Yes,” I assured her, not saying what I was thinking, that I wasn’t letting her stunning words out of my hands, that I would type up the poems into a manuscript. We had already agreed that I would publish it. Neither did I say that I hoped she would live long enough for me to put her printed book in her hands.

As it happened, she did. Three of her poet friends (Susan Kelly-DeWitt, Susan Flynn and Dennis Hock) wrote blurbs for the cover in a few days. Susan Kelly-DeWitt contributed a beautiful painting for the cover. A magnificent designer, my co-publisher and our superb copy editor at River Rock Books flew into action to design and assemble the book and get it to a printer in a week. Not knowing how much time Marie had left, I had a proof copy made so she could hold it, perhaps read it. In 13 days, I delivered dozens of copies of “Seaworthy,” her first and only poetry collection into her hands as she laid on the sofa in her living room. She smiled, held it to her chest, ran her hands over the soft cover. She let me take a photo of her, so depleted, so happy.

I leaned over, kissed her on the cheek that day in late July, whispered, “I love you,” and she whispered, “Thank you. I love you, too.” I knew this was goodbye.

Bob Stanley, the president of the Sacramento Poetry Center, wanted to do a reading of Marie’s book. Though she couldn’t attend, 27 people who loved Marie came to read poems from “Seaworthy.” Bob shot video of each reader and got it to Marie’s daughter, Meredith, who showed her mom all those readers, saying how grateful they were to Marie—as poet, writing group leader, inspiration to so many.

•Seaworthy Cover

Cover art by Susan Kelly-DeWitt

Then I went on vacation in Canada, expecting to hear while I was gone that Marie had died. But she wasn’t ready to go, despite not eating for weeks. When she finally let go, early this morning, she’d been without food for more than six weeks. She was 67 years old.

We met as part of the Sutterwriters writing groups hosted by Lawrence (Chip) Spann at Sutter hospitals in the early 2000s. Marie was still working as a nurse at Sutter Memorial, but she’d been an English major at Sac State before she became a nurse. She and her husband, Steven Black, were both English majors. They both became nurses. He worked in the ER at Sutter General until he became ill with ALS and died in November 2008.

As Marie cared for Steven at home, she invited a number of us former Sutterwriters to join her in their living room once a month on a Sunday evening. We’d each bring a poem, read it aloud, hear someone else read it aloud as Marie kept time on her iPad. Ten or fifteen minutes to talk over the poem, say what people thought was working well and to offer gentle suggestions, often in the form of questions.

How many times did I hear her say about my flabby drafts, “I wonder if you need these two lines,” or “What would happen if you moved this section?” Sometimes she’d just smile and say quietly, “It’s working.” She was always gentle, always spot-on with her suggestions for me. Her own poems, even in early form, emerged as polished gems, and we sat awestruck by the precision of her language, the elegant construction of her poems. Some of them now appear in “Seaworthy.”

We continued to meet after Steven died, the last time late in 2017. What I would give to sit in that living room one more time with Marie, to hear the iPad’s gentle chime that was the signal to begin reading and end discussion of that piece.

Just a few days ago in the writing groups I host, thinking about Marie’s long goodbye, I wrote a draft of a new poem, which ends (for now) with these two stanzas:

I want to find the wings you helped
me grow, fly to you and whisper,
You’re OK. You’re OK, my dear,
cleared for takeoff, ready to leave

this clump of cells and bones behind,
you who are becoming a poem
without words, stretching beyond breath
and body, resting here in my heart.

I know she’d have something to offer me about this, though I don’t know what. For now, as so many who loved Marie bid her farewell—including her daughter, as well as her new love, and many friends and family members—I will hold onto her words, the last part of the last poem in “Seaworthy,” which I read before a full house at the poetry center 27 days before she died:

What does it take to trust? We are at sea,
you and I, and the soul that rises,
rises like an island between us. Wary
dreamers. At night, we sleep. Moths watch
from the screens. Oars slide without sound
into the water and all through the hours,
the night-boat glides us toward morning.

—From “The Night-Boat,” Marie Reynolds
© 2018 “Seaworthy,” River Rock Books

—–

If you’d like to purchase a copy of “Seaworthy,” send me a message at janishaag@gmail.com.

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“Yellowjackets vs. my girlfriend”

3055 yellowjacket macroCR

That was the subject line of an email I got from Dick today. The first line of the email was:

“BAD yellowjackets!!!!!!”

And what followed was a series of photos—some of which I shot, some of which he shot—of my backyard, which, normally a place of safety and sanctuary, where I got kamikaze’d by a swarm of pissed-off yellowjackets a few days ago.

To be fair, they had reason to be angry. While Dick and I were merrily vacationing on the cool-weather’d, blue-skied Vancouver Island, a man named Henry was cleaning up my backyard of decades of unchecked ivy activity. Henry, a career landscaper, and his wife Olga just did a great clean-up/planting of the apartment house next door to me. And I accosted them one day asking if they could do something similar for me.

Since I had a practically dead tree removed earlier this year, my whole front yard is a new climate zone. It went from mostly shady to primarily sunny, killing most of my longtime azaleas. I loved those azaleas, but I’m once again remembering that when things die, stuff changes, and whether we welcome those changes or not, they’re there, and get used to it, Janis.

So I asked Henry and Olga for their expertise on what might work in my now-sunny front yard as well as hiring Henry to do a major cleanup of the whole kit and caboodle.
What I didn’t expect was that (a) he’d do it while I was out of town, (b) he’d uncover a wasp’s nest in an old stump, and (c) forget to tell me about (b).

So I was out in the yard the day after I returned, stunned to see the urban jungle of my backyard (i.e., the way-too-much-ivy’d section) laid practically bare (like a haircut, it’ll grow back). I went out there with the hose and was watering the dry area when… bam! out flew a squadron of yellowjackets aimed right for me.

I should say here that I am not fond of stinging things and have, in fact, been known to scream in a very high, little girl voice when, on rare occasions, I’ve been stung by flying insects. Can’t help it, not very brave of me, but there you go. And without thinking, I immediately turned the hose on myself, trying to spray off the yellowjackets (which are, it turns out, a type of wasp) all over me. (Note to self: That doesn’t work; in fact, it pins the damn things to you.)

I did scream in a high voice and pulled off my T-shirt clotted with wasps going for blood and hollered “ow! ow! ow!” as I was repeatedly stung. I thought to turn the hose nozzle off, dropped the hose and ran for the back door to the house, trying to shed the yellowjacket air force and hoped I wasn’t bringing in any bad guys with me.

Inside, I leaned against the door, breathing as hard as a fleeing cartoon character, my skin alive with stings. I sped toward the bathroom, stripping off more clothes, whispering to myself, “You’re OK, you’re OK,” horrified to see one rogue pilot crawling on the floor by the tub. Naked by now, I headed for the kitchen, retrieved the fly swatter and returned to the bathroom.

I routinely shoo flies out the back door rather than kill them, let spiders set up shop in the kitchen’s highest corners each summer to catch the flies that refuse to leave, yet I did not hesitate to whap the downed enemy before I got in the shower to scrub off the venom, to wash any stingers down the drain, red welts already blooming. (Also learned: Unlike honeybees, yellowjackets can sting multiple times and not die, and their genus name is vespula, which is rather pretty.)

When I emerged, clean and somewhat calm, I stood before the mirror and counted: 16 stings and still standing. I didn’t feel shocky. I took deep breaths without a problem. I downed antihistamine, dabbed welts with aloe vera, then tea tree oil, then cortisone cream, all while avoiding the corpse on the floor (which was nicely mounted and appropriately photographed at the top of this post by Dick Schmidt, retired Bee photographer).

Later that day, I went with Dick to a doctor’s appointment. His GP is also mine, and at the end of visit, I ventured a question about wasp stings.

“Should I be concerned that I got stung 16 times by yellowjackets today?” I asked.

The doctor’s raised eyebrows answered my question. “How do you feel?” he asked.

“Stung,” I said and told him what I’d done to rinse and dose myself.

He asked a few good followup questions, then suggested Benadryl and cortisone cream, which I added to my regimen and added, “That’s a lot of stings.”

More than 30 years ago, doing a story about beekeepers in Vacaville, I got stung three or four times and had an allergic reaction. Those were honeybees; these were wasps. I don’t know if there’s a difference, but I was glad to be still standing.

And again, while I’m generally sympathetic to insects, I called in an expert bee guy, who came the next day to… well, frankly, commit waspacide in my back yard. Honeybees can be relocated; yellowjackets cannot, I learned from Paul, the bee guy.

3299 beeguy suits up2cr

And in a matter of minutes, Paul sprayed a concoction of “a little insecticide” with peppermint oil, which, apparently does wasps in. I did not go outside to watch this procedure, but I took photos from inside the house.

3303 beeguy at the siteCRh

And Paul told me, after it was all over, that as soon as he went out there, he was immediately swarmed by hundreds of bees (“500 to 700,” he figured), and I knew I’d done the right thing to call him.

Two days later Dick and I ventured out in the back yard to survey the carnage. Surprisingly, we found no yellowjacket corpses, though we did find their comb with little dead wasps-to-be inside:

3027 yellowjacket eggsCRs

The yard was blessedly free of the wasps, who were, I understand, doing their jobs, defending the nest and their queen. Perhaps there was a kinder way to persuade the yellowjackets to leave, but I haven’t found an effective one on the internet yet.

But here’s the thing: Sometimes, in a crisis, we discover things about ourselves that we didn’t know. Somehow I knew what to do, and I did it (admittedly, with a few screams along the way). I didn’t panic. I usually think of myself as a weenie, but when I stood in front of the mirror, dabbing unguents on my stung spots, I decided that I am tougher than I think I am. I took steps to quell an allergic reaction. I am a 60-year-old woman who is not an easily frightened weak person (Merriam-Webster’s definition of “weenie”) after all.

And that—after six decades on the planet—is not a bad thing to know about yourself.

 

 

 

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The Big Muckle

1529 the big muckleCR

The Big Muckle delivered to two unsuspecting first-timers at the White Heather Tea Room.

muckle
1. (chiefly Scotland) A great amount.

So first, to call it “the big muckle” is a wee bit redundant, it seems to me, but you’ve gotta hand it to the Scots when it comes to a fine word. And then, when you understand that this is what the White Heather Tea Room in Victoria, B.C., calls its biggest array of tea goodies, and when it arrives, three tiers tall of savouries* and sweets, you really appreciate the term.

And second, if anyone ever needed further proof about how much my fella loves me, all they’d need to know is this: Not only does he follow me into bookstores never asking, “Are you finished yet?” but also when we’re in Victoria, he follows me into tea rooms, this man who doesn’t drink tea, and doesn’t make fun of the fussy finger sandwiches. OK, he teases me a little, but only enough to make me laugh.

Last year when we were in Victoria, Dick accompanied me to the White Heather Tea Room, which is my current favorite spot for tea in the city. Yes, people talk about going to the grand Empress Hotel for tea, and that’s all well and good, but I like a simple, single room where every place setting has a different cup and saucer. Where they bring out homemade scones so fresh you can smell the oven on them, and the little cups of lemon curd and clotted cream make my heart sing. (And yes, if you know me, you know that I try to avoid sugar, but in Victoria, at tea, I make an exception.)

I attribute this to the early influence of two Englishwomen, Molly and Barbara, who were friends of my godmother’s. When I was 19, about to go on a college tour in and around London with my favourite* history professor Jim Straukamp, my godmother Jo Corbin arranged for me to spend a few days with friends of hers “in the country.” An aspiring Anglophile anyway, I’d sat in Dr. Straukamp’s Tudor/Stuart history class at Sac State and salivated over stories of the battling sisters (Mary and Elizabeth), the other queen Mary of Scotland (whose son James eventually became Elizabeth’s heir and king of England). When he said he was leading a trip to London over winter break, I knew I had to go. I used my summer money earned as a lifeguard/swimming instructor/coach and, with my parents’ blessing, departed for London.

And, in the middle of that trip, I spent time with Molly and Barbara in their 400-year-old thatched-roof Tudor cottage in Suffolk. These two retired schoolteachers (Barbara was the headmistress of a girls’ school in Sudbury; Molly taught art there) lived together for years and spent much of their retirement travelling* the world. They met my godmother in Southern California through mutual friends, and in an any-friend-of-yours kind of way, took me under their wings to show me around. Barbara made Yorkshire pudding to go with the roast beef, and I was instantly hooked. British-Scones-at-TasteOfThePlace.com-inline-3They introduced me to the shandy (half beer, half lemonade… not my favourite*), and they took me out to tea (“proper tea”) and stuffed me full of scones and clotted Devonshire cream, which looked like whipped cream to me but was ever so much better. We went to tea at least three times in small, single-room settings with white tablecloths and a mish-mash of china on the tables and morsels I’d never seen the likes of before.

I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. In England. During a bloody cold January. That’s how much I loved it.

On their next trip to California, Molly and Barbara came north to meet my parents, who put them up and showed them around our neck of the woods. Their favourite* part? Tower Books on Watt Avenue (where Molly bought me my first volume of Rumi poems) and next door Country Club Lanes.

“Do you want to bowl?” my mother asked them.

“No,” they said. They just wanted to watch, the two little old (to me) English ladies, who remembered watching American GIs bowl during the war. And they did, with rapt attention, for a good half hour. I wish I’d asked them what they were thinking about as they watched.

Molly died in 1986 in their cottage called Waylands in Lavenham, and Barbara died a few years later. I cannot sit down to tea with triangle cucumber sandwiches or pinwheels of bread and smeared ham or scones with clotted cream and not think of them. Such was the early influence of Real Englishwomen on this California girl. And, a few years ago, finding the White Heather Tea Room in Victoria brought Molly and Barbara back to me in a big way.

But, I realize, not everyone shares this affection for tiny sandwiches and cake and tarts and scones.

7085 tea for two (2017)

Last year we sampled the Big Muckle at the White Heather, and even the non-tea drinker, who vastly prefers Pepsi, gave tea a chance. (That’s how much he loves me.) But! He discovered that he was inordinately fond of the White Heather’s lemon curd and some of the best homemade shortbread we’ve ever had.

Just today we returned to the White Heather for our 1:30 p.m. seating, and I told Dick that one of the reasons I chose the place was because this time I could have a smaller tea service (the “Not So Wee” Tea), still with lots of goodies, and he could have a sandwich. He selected a black forest ham and Swiss cheese grilled sandwich on foccacia with (and this surprised me) cold cantaloupe soup (“It was weird because it was cold, but you wouldn’t want it warm,” he said, adding that he liked the flavour* of cantaloupe).

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Turned out Dick was most happy. And he did not have to think this:

7111 rds white heatherTXT(2017)

No, he got to have a proper lunch, and I got to have a proper tea, and yes, I shared the lemon curd, scone and shortbread with my fella, who enjoyed that part just fine. I did not make him drink tea; he chose plain old water, though there was “pop*” on the menu. I loved the cucumber sandwich, mini quiche and mini scone with (today) chicken salad, the pinwheels with egg salad and ham salad, the yummy green and black blend they call Mad Hatter tea… and oh, yes, gobs of Devonshire cream on the big scone.

The fact that we did this today on what would have been my father’s 88th birthday also made me happy. We got to lift lunch, as Dick likes to say, with several of our companion spirits, American and English—Aunt Jo, Molly, Barbara, Dad (who probably would have preferred the shandy… or more likely just the beer).

7088 tea goodies top tier(2017)

(*Yep, English/Canadian spellings… when in Victoria…)

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The Sighting

J2548 fly fisherman1

Fly fisherman on the Campbell River, Campbell River, B.C., July 30, 2018.   Photo/Jan Haag

In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing.
—Norman Maclean, “A River Runs Through It”

Let him be
standing just like that,
legs apart in the stream,
one hand on the rod,
the other pulling the fly line
toward him, red filament pooling
in a circle atop the swirls
of water at his knees.

Let him be
there in July,
when the chinook
are heading upstream,
when they are ripe with eggs,
when they might be hungry
for the fly.

Let him be
the young man in waders
wearing a reddish beard,
his calm hands unhurried
as he waves the wand
over his head in a graceful
arc between 10 and 2,
deftly setting leader and fly
atop water on its busy way
to the sea.

Let him be
aware of salmon
swimming toward him
as the river runs by him.

Let him be
aware of me as I stand
dry-footed on shore,
watching. Let him cast me
a fond smile. Let him wish me
a happy birthday, many
returns of the day.

Let him know
that I made it to sixty,
though he did not.

Let me turn and walk
back up the hill
whispering,
thank you,
and once again,
goodbye.

Let him know.
Let him be.
Let him.

7/30/18
Campbell River, B.C.

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60 years ago tonight…

Dar Mom Jan Long Beach 1959ish playground

Janis Haag and Darlene Haag, circa 1959, Long Beach, California

…this woman was laboring to bring this little blonde girl into the world,
a baby showing up early (a habit not cultivated for the rest of her life),
the baby tiny at 5 pounds-ish, the woman, even pregnant, lithe and dark-haired
and lovely, just having had her 27th birthday, her husband, about to turn 28,
out in the hospital somewhere, waiting for news of his wife and child…

…and they had no idea what lay before them, but the hope of this little person,
their new roommate, and, as it happened, the next little person they made,
a sister for the first one, as they made a family…

…and on the eve of that former baby’s 60th birthday, she is grateful
for the labor that went into making her, for that first push into the world,
followed by many other pushes into things she didn’t think she wanted to do
(tying her shoes, riding a bike, swimming, playing in the band),
for encouraging the things she did like to do (write, read,
publish a neighborhood newspaper, publish other people’s books)…

… and for the continuing love and support of a longtime mother
and for starting that former baby on her lucky, lovely six-decades-long life…

thankyouthankyouthankyou, Ma.

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Annapolis

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

capital gazette

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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