Perfect days

Pat Schneider’s home office, Amherst, Massachusetts, 2017

She lived as a fire and went as a coal on the hearth, yearning for more tinder until there was not one single thing left but the ash of her body and the curling smoke of her will, rising up finally and at last in peace after such a long and beautiful conflagration. It is her first birthday after death. She is leaning on the everlasting arms. Or more likely inspiring the everlasting arms to write. Happy birthday, dear fiery Mom. “What is so rare as a day in June? Then, if ever, come perfect days.” [James Russell Lowell]
We love you.

—Bethany Schneider on Facebook about her mother, Pat Schneider, June 1, 2021

(for Pat)

Though you lived near it, the Pacific was not your ocean
for most of your life, you Midwestern transplant to the Atlantic,

who deeply admired rivers and streams, arteries flowing seaward.
How many visitors did you take to your favorite cemetery

hard by the Connecticut River, to walk among the revered
dead, imagine their lives based only on names and dates?

Catharine, wife of Robert, 1779
Thankful, wife of Nathaniel, 1783

Now your stone in another cemetery bears your name atop
your beloved’s, he who followed you into mystery

four months after your departure — no “wife of,”
no “husband of,” though you two were that and more.

And on the 87th anniversary of your birth, almost
a year after your death, I walk the western edge

of the continent, the Pacific peaceful for the moment,
temporary occupant of Casa Pacis — house of peace —

as I turn the tiller into the wind. You would                     
cheer this new direction, remind me that

a poet needs time and space to stoke the fires,
let the white heat of the muse burn us into ash.

As I stroll the damp shore — white lace surf scalloping
black sand — your voice surges, retreats with the foam:

“Enjoy these perfect days, regardless of the weather,
so many precious hours with your beloved.”

Thankful, I look to him nearby, smile my silent promise
to the horizon in this sea of serenity, forever and ever,


At The Sea Ranch, Sonoma coast, California, June 1, 2021,
on what would have been Pat Schneider’s 87th birthday

Dick Schmidt photographing at Walk-on Beach, The Sea Ranch (Photo by Jan Haag)
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for Dani

This requires math
and, as a writing teacher,
I do not math.
But let’s give it a go,
shall we? Give it the old
college try, as they
used to say.

Taught my first class
in 1984—so that’s
(counting on fingers)
37 years. But a couple
of those years—maybe
three semesters?—
I didn’t teach, so let’s
round that off to 35
years, since there’s no
question that I have
grown rounder over
three-and-a-half decades.

Of those 35 years
I taught full time for
(finger counting again)
28 years. No fewer than
five classes, usually more,
each semester, so let’s
offer a conservative
guesstimate of an average
of 20 people in each class,
which would amount to
(no need for fingers!)
100 students a semester.

That’s 56 semesters
multiplied by 100 students
(again, no fingers!)
for a total of 5,600
students over those
years, but let’s round
up to, say, 6,000
plus or minus a few

I think of those students
now, having lugged home
home boxes of old class
files, as I sort through
them one by one,
fingering roll sheets for
the last time, noting names
and final grades, before
I hand each file to a 20-
something former student
sitting cross-legged on my
living room floor, who
takes each file, uses her
slender fingers to remove
paper clips and stray metal
before carting so many
slivers of trees outside to
the big blue recycling bin.

I want to say at the end
of my final finals week
as a professor that I am
sitting in my living room
with thousands of my
former students, that their
faces line up before me in
classroom-straight rows,
that I can envision them all.
But I can’t—their smiles
and voices and words
long lost.

Except for the one before
me and others like her
in recent years, so bright
and young, at the beginning
of everything. And as I
hand her another file,
I study her face, try to
memorize it, tuck it in
that heart space labeled
cherish where, with luck,
I can count (without
fingers) on keeping
it there (along with other
beloveds) for the rest
of my time.

Danielle McKinney—super assistant!
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The last commencement(s), 2021

(Photo by Dick Schmidt)

By my rough estimate I have attended no fewer than 24 graduations in my lifetime. Four of those were mine, if I count the eighth grade ceremony where I sang a warbly version of “Bless the Beasts and the Children,” which was big in 1972, outfitted in a yellow polyester mini dress that hit me mid-thigh, the shortest dress my mother had ever allowed me to wear. I got dragooned into that by my eighth grade homeroom/English teacher, Mr. Rolicheck, the giant, thin man with the mostly shaved head and a graying goatee, who made me rewrite every paper I ever handed him because, he told me when I summoned the nerve to complain, “You have potential, Miss Haag.” I didn’t ask, “Potential for what?” but I knew the word and was pleased that he thought I had it.

At my high school graduation I thumped through endless repetitions of “Pomp and Circumstance” in the percussion section of the band, where I’d played three other graduations, but this one clothed in my first ill-fitting cap and gown. I gave up on the cap, which did not fit well (they never do, mortarboards, a word I learned at commencements) and went flying the first time I struck the tympani I was playing. As I recall, a kind trumpet player in the row in front of me retrieved it and handed it back to me. When it was time to call graduates’ names, I abandoned the tympani and went to stand in line right behind Carol Guild—she the last of the G’s, me the first of the H’s.

Express features editor Amaya Torres, 2021 SCC graduate

I attended my college graduation, sort of, though cap- and gown-less covering it for the paper I was leaving as editor-in-chief, preferring not to get caught up in a ceremony with literally hundreds of graduates on a football field, instead taking notes on speeches and racing back to the newsroom to bang out a story on the trusty manual Underwood that had been my boon companion for a year. I should say that I technically was not allowed to graduate with the Class of 1980 because I was six units shy of two bachelor’s degrees, having gotten incompletes in two journalism classes thanks to my nonstop work schedule on the paper. I was lucky I didn’t flunk out that year. It took me two years while working at my first two newspaper jobs to make up those incompletes, and after I did, my diploma arrived in the mail.

I did attend the football field ceremony with hundreds of graduates when I completed my master’s degree a decade later because my mother said that since she’d paid for all this education, the least I could do was go through the ceremony so she could sit in the stands as a proud parent. She had a good point, and she and my father braved the masses to watch me walk across the stage from a great distance. By this time I was married and the editor of a regional magazine, but I dutifully obeyed. My good friend and graduate adviser in journalism presented me with my diploma cover onstage, a nice moment. I never did find my parents in the crowd afterward.

Then, becoming a college professor myself, I was compelled to throw on a rented cap and gown and parade into the football stadium with other faculty and then sit like honorific black crows in the stands as the graduates paraded across the stage to receive their diploma covers and their relatives filled the stands, hooting and honking loud devices. While I was delighted to see students graduate, and the powers that be worked to keep the proceedings mercifully brief, I always went home with a raging headache.

So I learned that instead of gowning up, I could volunteer with other staffers to don a burgundy polo shirt embroidered with Sacramento City College in gold and help graduates in the gym  figure out how to put on their regalia (another fancy word for “outfit,” I told many of them), including special gold or red, white and blue cords to indicate different honors, and bobby pin their caps to hairdos certain to be smashed by them.

In 2016 I was asked to escort Sandra Jefferson, who has limited vision, to her seat and then be ready to walk her to the stage. I’ll never forget her face or her proud husband Anthony. As she sat in a folding chair on the track, I sat near her behind a small retaining wall, out of sight of most spectators, and ran to Sandra’s side when it was time for her to walk the stage. As we did so, she whispered to me, “Just get me there and point me in the right direction. I can walk across the stage myself.”

Sandra Jefferson

Once I got her there, we paused just before her name was read. “Where do I go?” she asked.

“See that man in the center of the stage?” I asked.

“Which one?” Sandra asked.

“The tall Black man,” I said. “That’s the president of the college.”

She looked surprised. “We have a Black president?”

“Yep,” I said. “Head for him,” and Sandra did.

I met her on the other side of the stage holding her diploma cover in one hand.

“I didn’t know we have a Black president,” she said, beaming. As I escorted her back to her seat, Anthony in the stands roaring her name, she delivered a perfect queen’s wave with one hand, lightly holding my left elbow with the other.

It was, I told people, the best graduation ever.

Then came 2020, the year the whole world shut down. When commencement time came, no one commenced in our community college district. I found myself envious of places that held drive-through graduations, and I vicariously watched people waving signs at decorated cars holding graduates, some capped and gowned, chauffered like celebrities.

Old Grad Bob

My next door neighbor Christine, who regularly decorates her front yard for holidays and occasions, put up some Class of 2020 signs. I told her that I loved them since my graduating journalism students who had toiled on the college news site would have to do so without ceremony. “Let’s give them one!” she said, and with that, the first Santa Ynez Way Curbside Commencement was born.

Christine added more graduation decorations and set five folding chairs at the curb, each with a silhouette of a graduate and that graduate’s name on it. She dressed up her 6-foot-tall manikin (formerly The Man, lately Old Bob) in his own cap and gown.

I invited the six graduating Express editors to come over one afternoon, donned the proper cap and gown I had finally bought in my waning years as a professor, and celebrated their accomplishments both academically and journalistically. Rose, Dani, Sarah, Ben, Kelsey and Sydney arrived, greeted each other after not having seen each other in person for a couple of months, sat in the chairs bearing their names and grinned for photos.

“Best graduation ever,” I pronounced.

2020 Express editor grads: (from left) Old Grad Bob, Jan, Kelsey Brown, Danielle McKinney, Ben Irwin,
Sara Nevis and Rose Vega

And it was. Until this year, the second annual Curbside Commencement, which I used as an exercise in English usage. “Why can’t we call something the ‘first annual’?” I teased them in the email invitation, thinking that if they didn’t know the correct answer, I’d rescind the invitation. Casey, the Express editor-in-chief, responded first: “Because something can’t be annual until it’s held at least twice.” I’d asked Christine if she’d be willing to set up her lovely curbside commencement one last time—this time for me, too, since, I pointed out, I was at last graduating from community college.

“I thought you were retiring,” she teased.

“Same thing,” I said.

And Christine outdid herself again, setting up chairs and silhouettes bearing the names of Tony, Amaya, Casey, Shayla and Jen. She made popcorn for them and delivered in little bags, along with 2021 graduation rubber ducks, and she again painted her front porch steps for the occasion. Old Bob—now Old Grad Bob—again made an appearance, in appropriate regalia. This time, my Express co-adviser Randy Allen came, along with Dick, so we had two former Sacramento Bee photographers shooting the event, I pointed out to the students, some of whom came with parents or spouse.

Express co-advisers: Randy Allen and me
(photo by Dick Schmidt)

They brought me flowers and gifts; I gave them mugs with the Express logo on them. We hugged and talked and had to move out of the street when cars came. No one honked, but many people waved.

“Best graduation ever,” I told my now-former students, and they agreed.

2021 Express graduating editors, from left: Jen Lum, Amaya Torres, Casey Rafter and Tony Rodriguez
(We missed you, Shayla Merene!)

But there was one more. Sacramento City College organized (a huge undertaking) a drive-through commencement in its huge parking lot on campus to honor both the 2020 and 2021 graduates. Some 400 students RSVP’d.

Me at the swag table (photo by Sara Nevis)

Donning my SCC polo shirt one last time, I volunteered and was assigned to the farthest point the drivers would hit—the swap table. There I met four other colleagues cinching nylon bags containing SCC logo stuff, ready to hand out. We worked to peppy music blaring from speakers—not a trace of “Pomp and Circumstance,” which is, truth to tell, more a dirge than a dance.

And, given the last year, we all deserve to dance.

SCC faculty and staff hand out swag to the drive-through grads.

As my colleagues held congratulatory signs, the students convoyed through the big, empty lot just as I’d seen others do on videos—some in caps and gowns, some driving, some being driven. One graduate arrived in a huge old RV filled with well-wishers—a graduation party bus—and she hung out the window to gracefully receive her swag bag. One young man walked beside his family as they drove the route.

One young woman sat atop her family’s car as they slowly drove the coned route, waving at everyone as if she were the grand marshal of a parade—which, in a way, she was.

Former Express photo editor Sara Nevis photographs the 2021 SCC drive-through commencement.

Finally, to see people in person, happy people, masked, yes, but out in public and celebrating. I spotted one of last year’s journalism graduates—now transferred to Sac State who’d just finished a reporting project for students for The New York Times, about to begin a photo internship for The Sacramento Bee—hired to shoot the commencement. I greeted the pregnant public information officer who had been so helpful to the Express students when they couldn’t reach sources typically found more easily on campus. The vice president of instruction came to give me a goodbye hug; when he was a young English prof, we started the college literary journal together. And I went to the president, handing out those blank diploma covers, and thanked him for his availability to the Express during these extraordinary times, not to mention his leadership of the college I’d called home since 1989.

Sacramento City College President Michael Gutierrez at the 2021 drive-through commencement.
(Photo by Sara Nevis)

He thanked me for my years at the college, said I would be missed, and hugged me twice, putting the cherry on the top of my already tall sundae.

(Photo by Sara Nevis)

And with that, after my shift ended, I strode across the parking lot toward Hughes Stadium, taking in its great Roman numerals indicating its origin in 1928, when it was “the largest of its kind in the United States.” I thought of the long lines of graduates I’d watched snaking toward the stadium before each ceremony, the crush of humanity emerging afterward, of delighted students chalking up their first degree of higher education—with luck not their last. So many of them the first in their families to attend college.

(Photo by Sara Nevis)

I hope it will be ever thus in the years to come. For each of those students, past, present and future—best graduation ever.

Graduated (aka retired) from community college at long last!
(Photo by Dick Schmidt)
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Clean out

Photos / Dick Schmidt

It seems as if in March 2020 we all got swept into a fast-moving stream at the same time the world shut down—an oxymoron if there ever was one.

Go home, stay home, figure out how to teach from home, but without your school computer or old-fashioned paper files (or newfangled electronic ones unless you thought to download them onto a thumb drive) or resources except for these online tools you’ve never used before. Here—we’ll give you a quickie seminar on how to put up your course materials online and use Zoom. You’ve never used Zoom? You have but only as a participant? Well, here are the basics. Tell your students that attending classes is optional for the rest of the semester but that you’ll try to hold them on Zoom. If you can figure out Zoom. Oh, and spend the summer putting all of your classes online to teach over the next academic year. Which will be your last because you’ll retire in May 2021.

And, by the way—no one ever said—you’ll never set foot in your college office to work again. In fact, you’ll never see your students in person again for the next two-and-a-half semesters.

No one said that because no one knew. And I have to say that I was certainly not alone in that rocking, leaky boat. Every teacher I knew was jammed in there with me. I have the kindest and most patient dean (thanks, Robin!), but she, like all of us, was at a loss, yet daily responded to the anguished cries of her professors trying to Make It All Work.

That we did Make It All Work Somehow still stuns me… not least me who had liked the idea of creating asynchronous courses that students could do without attending class but had never done the work to create them.

I have now. And weirdly, I’m glad I did, even though it took a hell of a lot of work for one academic year. I’d decided a few years ago that I’d retire about the time I turn 63, which will be at the end of July. That it would come at the end of one of the most tumultuous moments in history, of course, was a surprise.

So for each of the past two semesters I’ve taught seven classes—five of them synchronously on Zoom at regular class times, and two asynchronously where I never saw the students, just communicated with them through email and other electronic means. One of those classes was the Express (former newspaper, now news site) where the editors and staffers saw each other only onscreen in small rectangles and had to figure out how to cover a campus that most never went to yet still had a lot going on. And they did so with professionalism and compassion, two of the most important qualities in journalists.

In the midst of all this, I realized that I needed to clear out my school office, though we weren’t supposed to be in the building. And that began a number of stealth visits to gather up those old-fashioned paper files to bring home and discard—because there’s no one on campus to empty the recycling bins or wastebaskets. I knew one thing: I couldn’t do it alone.

And this is when I looked around and made one of the smartest moves of my academic career: I hired a former student to organize my life.

For decades people have asked if I’ve had a student assistant or a grad student to help me, and my response has long been, “I’m the student assistant.” So no. Doesn’t work that way for most community college professors. Divisions, sometimes departments and often offices have paid student help, but I didn’t. Occasionally I’d pay friends or former students to help me grade papers, but I usually did it all. That was my job, and while I loved it, it got to be too much after a whole lot of years.

But Danielle McKinney came along and saved my bacon.

Danielle McKinney (left) packin’ me up.

Not long ago Dani was an Express co-editor-in-chief with her good buddy Rose Vega, and over the past year I hired the two of them to assist me—Dani as general home office/life organizer and Rose to moderate my online Writing as a Healing Art class. Now both Sac State journalism majors, these two have shown extraordinary patience with this old dog as she’s had to learn new tricks.

I’ve long been proud of the fact that my late husband and I were early Macintosh adopters in 1984 (his farsighted idea; I said, “But I’ve got a typewriter”). Dick bought me a new iMac for my home office last spring, but the computer sat looking expectantly at me in its lovely box for months. It was all I could do to teach not at all well on my older Mac laptop. I just couldn’t face setting up a new computer. I knew it would ask me questions I didn’t know the answers to. And I was exhausted trying to figure out things I didn’t have the answers for.

Dani, who had been slowly but surely helping me reorganize last spring, said in June, “Let’s set up your iMac.” And though she hadn’t done exactly that, because she’s 26 and so smart, she figured it out with no apparent angst. And suddenly I was back to using a 21.5-inch screen instead of a 13-inch one. Which made all those little Zoom rectangles bigger. Which made Zooming so much better! Who knew?! (Everybody but me!)

So after last summer’s clean out of my home office to purge and rearrange files in my three large filing cabinets and the installation of a new backyard shed that could hold the thinned-out papers, I knew it was time to tackle the school office.

Once again, Dani came to the rescue. We did it in stages, in between classes and office houring online, bringing home the paper files first, opening boxes in my living room—me on the sofa, Dani on the floor. Me handing her papers to recycle, Dani pulling paper clips off them and hauling things to the big blue bin on the driveway.

Over the last couple of weeks we’ve finished the clean out of STS225, my Sac City home since the summer of 2015 when the journalism department moved out of the old trailer we’d occupied for 20 years and into this brand, spankin’ new building with the photo department.

As photo department chair Paul Estabrook said, “It’s like photo and journalism were going steady all these years, and now we’ve finally moved in together.” It was exactly like that. And it’s been a terrific partnership.

But now it’s time for me to leave the building.

So I did, with a kind photographer in tow to mark the occasion. (Thanks, Dickie!) Because of the steadying presence of Dani and Dickie, I managed not to blubber my way through it. And I have the satisfaction of knowing that I’ve left my office cleaned out, though I know the powers that be will need to come in and thoroughly sanitize it for the next occupant. (Jon Hanson, I left you some of my favorite tea and my trusty pencil sharpener since I already have its twin at my house.)

Weirdly, I may have done some of the best teaching of my career over the past two-and-a-half semesters. Not that I taught journalistic/writing skills more effectively. But I think I became more compassionate and understanding as students had their lives falling apart around them, many in far worse ways than mine. I can’t count how many students got sick, how many family members of my students got sick, some who died, so many who lost jobs and homes and loved ones. Every time a student asked (via email, of course), “Can I have an extension on this assignment?” I said yes. Every time a student wanted to talk by phone or Zoom, I made that a priority. I did some of the best amateur counseling (as does every teacher) of my career during this pandemic.

This was my silver lining. That and a whole lot of new tech skills.

I believe that, if we’re smart, we all remain lifelong learners, and I’ve had the great good fortune to learn so much from so many people—not least my students and former students. I know I’ll continue to do so from home, using the Zoom skills and others I’ve acquired over the last year as I lead writing workshops and publish other people’s books and work on my own.

And Dani and me? Our partnership continues. We still have work to do sorting and tossing. She’s up for the challenge, and I am most grateful, as I am to Sacramento City College for giving me a home for three decades and all kinds of students to teach me what I most needed to learn.

Jan Haag has left the building!
Dani and Jan: We make a good team!
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Wearing a Julie mask, Lake Tahoe, 2020

So we’re really tired of the masks, right? We figure we’ve done our time in them, bunches of us have been vaccinated, or we’ve got our immune systems functioning well. Enough with the masks already.

I think this every time I get out of the car maskless and have to go back to the car to retrieve one. I try to remember (all this time and I still forget) to leave one hanging around my neck like a little pandemic scarf so I can just pull it up when I’m heading into a store or going to be around people.

But like most everyone else, I’m done with the mask. As one of the people who writes with me bemoaned early in the pandemic, It’s bad enough you’re telling me that I need to isolate myself from the world. When I’m out in it, even walking a trail, and I see you coming toward me, I can’t see your face, your smile.

I find myself still smiling at people underneath my mask, a reflex. Not because I have to but because it’s what I do. I hope they can see my smile in the lines around my eyes, which I’m pretty sure have deepened in the last year.

My partner Dick, who has a hearing impairment, finds it even more difficult to hear soft talkers behind their masks. Put them behind Plexiglas, and he often has no idea what they’re saying. It’s beyond frustrating.

But what if the masks have something to teach us? What if, in the wearing of actual masks—not only to potentially protect ourselves but also as a kindness to others, not knowing if we could be contagious—we’ve had to drop our metaphorical masks? Certainly we’ve all at various times in our lives donned masks to project an image or hide one or protect ourselves. I like to think that now, when we pull down our literal masks, we’re so delighted to see each other (as I’m observing in people sitting at restaurants nowadays) that we won’t feel we have to keep the metaphorical ones so firmly in place.

Many people have been incredibly honest about how painful life has been during the pandemic, how much has been lost—not least in illness and deaths. Some of my students have not been shy about venting their frustration with online learning, with having to stay inside, with all the things they’re missing. They dropped their masks some time ago. My teaching colleagues, like me, have been in near-constant worry about the quality (or lack thereof) of our instruction, how we can’t do what we usually do, and are the students learning anything? The phrase “lost year,” especially bandied about in education, makes us cringe. We have spoken open and honestly about these things, including to our students.

But over this lost year, I have listened to the stories of people who write with me and my students, and I have sat with their pain and frustration, their grief and loss, and thought, There we are, all of it on the table, no holding back, this is how it is. And, as I’ve pep-talked more than one student, It won’t always be this way. This will end. Some of them have believed me. Sometimes I could believe myself.

I look at my cloth masks now, the ones made by my friend Julie Woodside early in the pandemic. Like most of us, I’ve acquired a number of masks, including some hardy paper ones, but I still like hers best—bright cloth masks with wires to bend over the nose (a must for us perennially fogged-up glasses wearers) with stretchy ties that go around the head and neck.

Just a couple of weeks ago one of my Julie masks went missing. It must have dropped out of the car or my little backpack when I wasn’t looking, and, when I discovered this, I was bereft. I have other Julie masks, but that one was one of my favorites, and I have thanked it and its brethren for helping to keep me and others safe over the last year. Many of us dedicated mask wearers have not suffered colds or flu, not to mention avoided the big, bad virus.

In addition to handwashing and maintaining that 6-foot distance, masks have kept us safe. I find that wearing one outside these days helps keep the spring pollens from tickling my throat. But when we drop the masks, once and for all (and dear God, let that happen soon), let us remember not to remask our emotions and reactions. Let’s show our real selves and delight in others doing the same. Let’s allow those smile lines to crinkle with genuine joy.

I’ll keep my Julie masks for some time as a reminder of the loving care we took to protect ourselves and others. Maybe even after the allergies pass, I’ll don one again voluntarily in the next cold and flu season.

It won’t always be this way. This will end. Everything does. Especially us.

Before that end, I promise to revel in the sight of other people’s smiles, give tight hugs and keep my metaphorical masks put away.

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Muralizing, the finale

Happy tulips on the shed

Every morning I walk into my kitchen and look out the window of the back door to see Mary’s murals smiling at me. I didn’t know murals could smile, though I knew they could make me smile. But I swear these painted gardens on the north wall of my 100-year-old garage and the one on the shed in the back yard seem to grin in the spring sunshine.

Mary’s garden on the garage

For six Fridays in a row, Mary, Mary-not-at-all-contrary-Sand has been painting more permanent flowers in my life, and I’m just delighted with the results. As I said in an earlier post:

I have long admired Mary’s art, since she was my student on the college newspaper, the graphic design goddess who laid out the paper when we still had a paper and magazines both journalistic and literary that could be held in the hands. She’s a multi-talented artist, Mary, who sat on the big blue tarp on the ground, her brush dabbing one color of paint into another in the big roller tray, transforming from forest green to purple to aqua.

(You can see earlier incarnations of the big mural here.)

But wait! There’s more! After I had a new garage door installed, Mary added touches around it, too:

Mary’s garage ornaments

And she added fanciful tulips to the new shed out back as well:

There aren’t words enough to say how this delights me, bringing home the talent of one of my former Express newspaper students, one who design actual, physical newspaper after newspaper—not to mention a couple of Mainline magazines and a literary journal, Susurrus—and taught basic page design to many student editors. In a way I hadn’t really envisioned before, this helps wind up my career as a full-time college writing professor with an artistic bow.

It reminds me of the thousands of students who’ve sat in my classes, toiled on the paper and other publications, many of whose names and faces are lost to me. Mary’s generous spirit and compassionate heart remind me of so many people who watched me figure out how to teach new classes and try different ways of approaching the teaching of writing, whether in composition classes or journalism or creative writing.

This past year of teaching virtually has demanded all that I have and more. It’s certainly made me question my capability as a teacher, as it has so many of my colleagues who have persevered, trying to give their students the best possible instruction.

I could not have done my job without the help of colleagues like Rose Varesio and Timi Poeppelman, who taught me the ins and outs of Zoom and Canvas, as well as that of my dean, Robin Ikegami, of Language & Literature and her staff, Man Cheung and Candy He, who have been endlessly patient with me. I am deeply indebted to my Express co-adviser Randy Allen, who is Just the Best. And I so admire my students over the past two-and-a-half semesters, especially the ones on the Express, who have redefined—along with journalists around the world—what it means to report and photograph during a pandemic.

Such a fun collaboration! Art completely of Mary’s design with some of my words.

How do we carry on in times of deep strife? With a great deal of lovingkindness, to put it mildly. I have been the beneficiary of much of that in my life, and I like to think I’ve returned a good deal of it into the world, too.

But looking out at these fanciful flowers—the ones now blooming in my yard and the forever ones on stucco and wood—reminds me that, as the song says, love is all there is. All you need is love.

It doesn’t get any better than that.

Thanks, Mary!
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Artist: Jack Tarpon

“…we are always fish in the belly of the whale of earth.
We are encased and can’t stray from the house of our bodies.”

—from “Spring,” Jim Harrison

for Kristie McCleary

But what if you could find your way
out of the whale’s belly,
kick through humble earth
and emerge, your grit-caked,
fishy self, finning through air?

What if, set free in another form,
you don’t need to see or even breathe?
Unbound, you surf currents of wind,
swim toward whatever catches
your fancy, the flicker on the edge—

the jasmine blooming on the fence,
the smudge of fat-blossomed rose,
a loved one’s face you know by touch.

Aim for the moon,
you, the untethered, the unblooded.
There is no need to become;
you have arrived.
You are there.

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GÜD WRTR, the car

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

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

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

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

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

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

I hesitated, but Georgann did not.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Pi vs. cake


You can listen to me read this poem here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

In memory of Mitchell Malekian

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Playing God

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

Listen to a podcast of Jan reading this here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dani planting

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

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

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

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

“What are you DOING?!” I hollered.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Artist Mary Sand at the end of Day 2 muralizing.
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