New Year’s Eve 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jan Haag, 12/31/20

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

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fear not

Never have we needed
to hear it more

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

Or the same words delivered
to others whose faith was slipping

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

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

which, when absorbed
with our deepest breaths,

heartens and reassures,
counsels trust, even as we

weather the most frightful
storms, reminds us that we

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

where the eternal sun shines,
where abiding peace prevails.

Jan Haag
December 2020

Photo / Michael S. Williamson

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Santa Gets Cleared by the World Health Organization

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

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

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

It’s official:

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

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William Shakespeare gets a COVID vaccination

81-year-old William Shakespeare was the second person to get the first
COVID vaccines at University Hospital in Coventry, England, Dec. 8, 2020.

In the winter of our discontent
‘tis not a dagger I see before me but a needle
to begin the Taming of the Flu, as a newspaper called it.
Patient 2B or not 2B. I choose 2B.

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
A miracle. Here’s our own hands against our hearts.
We have seen better days. But
a light heart lives long. And
what light through yonder window breaks?
Light, seeking light, doth light of light beguile.

A man can die but once, but let that not be today
or tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.
Uneasy lie the lies from the head that wears the crown.
Lord, what fools these mortals be!
Hell is empty and all the devils are here.
Fair is foul, and foul is fair: Hover through the fog and filthy air.
The evil that men do lives after them.

Nothing will come of nothing.
We are such stuff as dreams are made on,
and our little life is rounded with a sleep.
We know what we are,
but know not what we may be.
Let us
Be! Be! Be!

Mostly Will’s lines (the original Shakespeare) with transitions by Jan

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Serena

Fall leaves in Dottie’s backyard

Sereeeeena
I just met a cat named Serena
And suddenly the name
will never be the same to me.

I’ve known more than a few kitties in my life, falling hard for them as a kid when my family acquired our first sweet kitten named Fluffy. She grew up to have many litters of kittens in the days before my mother decided that spaying a cat was a good idea. Consequently, my sister and I, as well as our next door neighbor, Sue (who grew up to be a veterinarian), got lots of lessons in “taming” kittens, as we called it. That amounted to a lot of girl-handling and saying as their tiny needle-sharp talons pierced us, “No claws! No claws!” Sometimes that worked.

I grew up to care for ferals at the college where I’ve taught for three decades, going to school daily to leave fresh food and water, even during the pandemic. I’ve trapped and hauled cats in big wire cages to vets to be tested, spayed, neutered and sometimes euthanized. I’ve hand raised brand new kittens, even toting a cat carrier bearing a pair of pale orange twins to school where some of my students kindly bottle fed those babies as I taught. Dick and I spent many a night rising every few hours to feed them, too.

All this is to say I have some cat experience under my belt, as well as my share of mistakes. So when Dick’s sister-in-law Dottie this summer fell and broke her hip, she was away from home for a good couple of months. Dick, his niece Rebecca and I joined the team of Dottie’s neighbors to do in-home care for Serena, a sweet calico tabby with only one ear. She had the other one amputated because of skin cancer, and she’s now a happy indoor cat with Dottie, who lives alone since the death of her husband Steev, Dick’s brother.

Serena was easy to care for—delighted to be introduced to cat treats (aka kitty crack) and quick to jump on a lap for a pat. We brought her cardboard scratchers and, with the help of Dottie’s neighbors Barbara and Mary, made sure she was fed and visited twice a day. When Serena developed breathing difficulties and had what looked like an ear infection, I took her to the vet, followed by a 10-day stretch of applying various medications to her eyes, ears, nose and mouth. It’s been a great team effort.

I typically sing to cats when I feed them. The smart ones realize that dinner is about to be served, and they usually come from wherever they’re sleeping or hiding to sit politely in the kitchen before the chow-down. I’ve made up kitty songs for years, often spontaneously. I’m fond of this variation on “Wooly Bully”:

Catty o’ catty
It’s just the catty and me
There’s the catty
And she’s ready to eat

Catty, catty. Ooooo!
Catty, catty.

Catty, catty. Catty, catty. Catty, catty.

(Bump, bump, bump, bump, bump, bump)

With Serena, a take on “Maria” seemed appropriate. And she responded, coming from wherever she was to sit and watch, even if she wasn’t hungry. I’d sometimes put the food down, and she wasn’t interested, but she’d follow me as I sang:

Sereeeeeena
I just hugged a cat named Serena
and suddenly I’ve found
how wonderful a sound can be.

Dottie with caregiver Iyona

Dottie finally made it home to Serena in October, and in mid-November she had her hip replaced. She came home the day after the surgery (amazing!) already feeling much better with home health care people on duty all day and night. Things were going well until the Sunday night before Thanksgiving when a new care worker left the front door open when he went out to his car, and Serena scooted out.

Dottie alerted neighbors Barbara and Mary, who immediately went out to search for Serena—to no avail. Dottie texted Rebecca and me, and we both said we’d be over the next day.

Rebecca, who lived with me for a time when she was attending Sac State, is the master cat finder. She discovered my old cat, Noodles, who, in his dotage, had lost more than a few kitty marbles. Though I was trying to keep him inside and safe, he’d still sneak out sometimes, and I’d find him lounging in the sun on the driveway, which was better than his former habit of sometimes sleeping in the middle of the street. On a hot day. (Noodles never was the smartest thing on four paws, I’m afraid. Lesson learned: Don’t name a cat something that calls his intelligence into question. The cat will live down to his name.)

One day Noodles disappeared, and Rebecca and I traversed the neighborhood calling and looking under bushes. Nada Noodles. A week later, Rebecca was driving down the street and saw Noodles on a neighbor’s porch about a block away. She parked the car, got out and walked toward him saying, “Noodles, ya moron! Where’ve you been?” He seemed content, she said, not eager to go with her, though she scooped him up and brought him home. The neighbor, Rebecca reported, had been feeding Noodles and even let him in her house.

“Did you just forget where you live or find a better place?” Rebecca asked as Noodles gave us his Noodle-y look.

So R. (as we call her) did a morning look-around for Serena, and we joined forces later in the afternoon to search farther and wider. We put out dry cat food in a few places, hoping she was close enough to find it. Barbara and Mary had been looking, too, talking to the neighbors. The neighbor to the east of Dottie said that his dog was growling at something underneath the back porch. But when the neighbor looked, he couldn’t see anything. I even went to the vacant lot at the end of the street and searched all the way to a slough. No Serena.

The next day I was busy with school stuff, though R. went back to search and post flyers, as did the neighbors. Finally early Wednesday morning, after Serena had been missing for three nights, Dottie’s overnight caretaker saw a one-eared kitty peering in the front window. I said I’d go over mid-afternoon and resume the search.

As I’d roamed the neighborhood a couple of days before, I’d called Serena’s name, but now, the day before Thanksgiving, I sang my way through Dottie’s yard and the neighbors’:

Serena! Serena, Serena!

Unfortunately, the yard guy with his blower had arrived, taking care of three yards the day before the holiday, so I gave up for a while and went in the house with Dottie and Kanisha, the daytime caretaker. Dottie was in tears. “I just want my kitty,” she sobbed.

When the yard guy was finally done, 4 p.m.ish, the sun was beginning its descent. Mary came over from across the street with a cardboard cat carrier. She and I walked to the fence between Dottie’s driveway and the neighbor with the dog. Mary called and I sang through the tall pickets:

Serena
Say it loud and there’s music playing.
Say it soft and it’s almost like praying.
Serena
I’ll never stop saying
Sereeeeeena

Suddenly Mary, peering through the fence, said, “There she is!” I caught a sliver of Serena emerging from under the porch coming toward us. There’s no way into the neighbor’s yard from there, so I sprinted around the front of the house, hoping I could find a way into his back yard. It turned out that there was no fence on that side, so I jogged into the yard, singing:

Serena! Serena, Serena!

Jan and Serena / photo by Mary Larson

And there she was, emerging from under the porch, the little one-eared calico tabby with the white chest and tummy, walking toward me, crying. I stopped, kept singing, and she walked right up to me. I bent over and patted her. “Is this where’ve you been?” She let me pick her up and began to purr. I cuddled her, but she didn’t try to wiggle away, as she often does.

Mary met me in the front yard, both of us flushed with delight. She took our photo. I walked Serena up the new ramp to Dottie’s front door that Mary’s husband George had built just before Dottie came home. As I got inside the small front hallway, Serena leapt out of my arms and plonked on the floor. She walked over to one of her scratchers and immediately dug her front claws into the cardboard. It took Dottie, sitting on the sofa, a minute to realize that Serena was back, and as I went for the box of kitty treats on the cat tree by the window, Dottie gasped and said, “My kitty!”

I put some treats down on the scratcher and then on the cat tree, so Serena would follow me and Dottie could see her. Mary took photos. Kanisha shook her head in amazement, and Serena looked, well, serene, as if it had all been no big deal.

Dottie kept saying again and again, “Thankyouthankyouthankyou… my kittymykitty mykitty.” I lifted Serena onto Dottie’s lap, and she continued up to the arm of the sofa. I stood there grinning and a little teary myself, my heart rising at the sight of a woman who has been through so much this year so joyful at the return of one who was lost.

We’ve all been there, especially over the last eight months—so much lost. But then we are grateful for what’s been gained, too—the recovering body, the friendship and assistance of the kindest neighbors and pitching-in family, the gift of a new hip and kind strangers-turned-caretakers, the joy of arrival, whether in a wheelchair or carried in by someone who loves you, and the feeling of putting your paws down again in the place you call home.

Serena and her mom / Photo: Dick Schmidt

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Election night 2020

Zooming through poetry class online
for the 11th week—still not used to students’
faces in little rectangles onscreen, wishing the ones
who elect not to show their faces would—

weeks of discussing imagery and metaphor,
sonnets and villanelles, syntax and sound,
putting them into virtual rooms to write to prompts,
praising those who read aloud their brand new drafts,

when, as I’m talking, of course, the big orange cat
saunters in my office crying his siren wail,
and I can’t turn around and look at him,
though the students catch his yowl,

but I sneak a glance over my shoulder anyway
and see Diego, head bent reverently over
a dark shape whose tail curls into a question mark
and, before I can stop myself, an “oh, shit!”

falls out of my mouth, and, because they are
muted, I can’t hear my students’ chuckles,
but I add, “The cat just walked in and dropped
a dead rat on the floor… a big one,”

and someone unmutes and says (though we have
not discussed this all evening), “Well, that’s
about right for tonight.” And as I turn back to
the screen, I see them laughing—with weariness?

With relief? We are all so tired; we have reason to be.
And one of the brightest students in class
unmutes to observe in a properly academic tone,
“Well, that’s a metaphor, isn’t it?”

And we all laugh—the grinning faces of those who
allow themselves to be seen in these vulnerable moments—
and I look again—yep, it’s dead, it’s not going anywhere,
and the big cat meows mightily over his catch,

and I say, “Yes, let’s call that a metaphor;
let’s call it hope.”

Diego in a quiet moment
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Pec-i-lan City

Gibson Beach, Pt. Lobos State Reserve, Carmel / photos by Dick Schmidt

Few things soothe me when I’m busy or anxious as well as time spent by the ocean. That’s why, mid-semester in this crazy world of Zoom teaching, Dick and I had arranged a different kind of oceanside getaway—one that involved a whole lotta birds.

If you spend time at the California coast, you’re gonna see birds—lots of gulls, some cormorants, maybe in the distance some pelicans—but in October we headed to a place that’s literally Bird Central, staying just down the road from Pt. Lobos State Natural Reserve.

As a native Californian, I can’t imagine that I haven’t visited what has been called “the crown jewel of the state park system,” but this visit felt like a kind of discovery for me. Not for Dick—he knows Pt. Lobos well from visits over the decades to Carmel, including one to visit photographer Ansel Adams and his wife Virginia six weeks before Ansel Adams died in 1984.

According to the state park website, Pt. Lobos gets its name from the offshore rocks at Punta de los Lobos Marinos, Point of the Sea Wolves, where the sound of the sea lions carries inland.

A more recent visit brought Dick and his longtime friend Connie Raub to Pt. Lobos in 2014 to quietly scatter some of the cremains of Connie’s late husband Richard. They were tickled to find Gibson Beach (in the photo above) since Connie’s original name was Gibson. They enjoyed their time there, taking in sea lions barking on offshore rocks, otters in Whaler’s Cove and the many pelicans at Bird Rock. But that’s just the beginning: more than 250 types of animals and birds call Pt. Lobos home.

The birds with the gigantic 9-foot wingspan captured our hearts, especially when we walked the Bird Island trail. Scores of pelicans soared overhead, and a brief walk took us to a place on the trail where we could one of the pelican rookeries. There, mamas (we guessed) tended the chicks of various sizes.

Mama pelicans (we guessed) tending their chicks

Everywhere you look, it’s Pec-i-lan (as Dick likes to say) City, such quiet birds, preening and tidying up next to their brethren. Such a tight group in close quarters and no fussing between them. What surprised me was the elasticity of their heads and necks, how they accordion’d themselves into compact feather bundles and swiveled their heads Exorcist-style backward to lay their long beaks on their backs.

Those beaks, incidentally, are long, scissored things (from 11 to 14 inches long) that made me realize, as we watched them, that Big Bird must be part pelican. And breeding adults have white heads with a golden wash, a pale version of that 8-foot-2-inch famous bird.

And despite the awkward, rocky terrain, some particularly well-balanced pelicans manage to find purchase in places only experienced rock-climbing humans could.

Once hunted for their feathers and devastated by the use of DDT and other pesticides, pelicans made a comeback between 1970 and 2009, though it’s still listed as an endangered species on the California coast. They’re an indicator species, and because of the decline in sardine populations—one of their staple foods—due to overfishing and climate change, their numbers are in decline.

Such big feet, and yet they easily perch on precarious points.

Fortunately, the number of pelicans at Pt. Lobos makes the species appear to be thriving. In another part of the reserve we walked the Cypress Grove trail through the ubiquitous trees for which this part of the coastline is famous. We rounded a curve in the trail to see this vista before us:

Pelican tress with Carmel in the background

Dozens of pelicans roosting in cypress trees—as birds do, of course—but how funny to see these sizable birds decorating the greenery. Though many of us imagine that they use their voluminous pouches to carry fish, they don’t. They cruise 60 to 70 feet over the ocean, spot schools of fish, then dive-bomb the water, scoop up their fish, and let the water drain out of their porous pouches before they swallow. If they’re caring for young ones, like other birds, after they return from hunting, they regurgitate part of their meal for the babies.

“Bad days happen to everyone, but when one happens to you, just keep doing your best, and never let a bad day make you feel bad about yourself.”
—Big Bird

Anointed by pelican

We had good days walking Pt. Lobos and getting closer to pelicans than ever before. So close, in fact, that one bird, well, christened Dick and his Canon. Perhaps it’s like the tradition of tossing one’s lei in the sea in Hawaii: If a pelican, um, gets you, you’re meant to return.

We certainly plan to.

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Moonstruck

Tower Bridge and moon / Robert Gordon

I was out watering the plants in my front yard a couple months ago, trying to give them a good drink before the heat of a Sacramento August day, when Robert Gordon walked by. He was moving at his usual fast pace, paint-spattered shorts to his knees, flip-flops squishing in the water I’d inadvertently added to the sidewalk.

He sang to me by way of greeting: “Like a bridge over troubled water, I will lay me down.”

“Hi, Robert,” I said, meeting his grin.

“I’m gonna leave you a new painting,” he said. “You’re gonna love it.”

Robert Gordon, in collage

Every so often I come home to find a Robert painting on my porch, always on some scrap wood or cardboard. I think of him as the moonstruck artist because there’s clearly something a little different about him. And not least because he likes to paint moons. He veers from topic to topic in conversation, his colors run to the wild, as do his images, some of which look as if they were painted under the influence of hallucinogenics or mental illness—though I prefer to think of it as inspiration.

A couple of years ago my next door neighbor hosted an impromptu art show featuring Robert’s paintings and freeform, found object sculptures. She told me that Robert lived in a halfway house not far from us. I bought a few paintings of his—my favorite a big, beautiful round moon with a smiling face and a clock in the center of it. It had a $15 sticker on it. I gave him $25, and the moon sat in a protected area on my front porch for quite a while.

One day I came home to find that the moon had disappeared. In its place I discovered two pieces—one boxy looking thing, originally cardboard, painted with odd abstract pieces sticking out of it poked onto thin wire. I didn’t love it, but I could guess who’d dropped by. But the moonstruck artist had also left a long, horizontal board with a small moon on it overlooking the Tower Bridge—a Sacramento landmark that made me smile. A new moon, as it were.

When I next saw him walking by, I asked, “Hey, Robert, did you take the moon clock and leave me these pieces?”

He looked momentarily confused, started talking about something rattling around in his brain, then shook his head like a wet dog.

“Oh, yeah. I needed it for a show I’m doing,” and he named a gallery I’d never heard of. “I left you the other pieces—are they all right?”

“Sure,” I said, “but when your show is over, I’d love to have my moon back.”

“Yeah, of course,” he said. “But did you…?” and off he went into another topic as he came up on the porch to look at his art.

“I love the Tower Bridge one,” I began.

“I put a moon in there for you,” he pointed with a paint-spattered index finger.

“I know!” I said. “That’s great.”

“What about…?” he gestured to the boxy thing.

“I’ve gotta say that’s not my favorite piece of yours,” I began.

“No problem,” he said, reaching for it. “I’ll take it back.” He genuinely didn’t seem upset by my appraisal.

“Let me pay you for the bridge painting,” I said.

He looked at me as if he’d never considered such a thing. “You don’t have to,” he said. “I just thought you’d like it.”

Hollywood Art 2020 / Robert Gordon

“I do,” I said. “Let me give you something for it.”

He thought. “Ten bucks?”

I went inside the house and returned with a twenty and handed it to him. He extended his hand for a shake. In that pre-COVID moment, I shook on the deal.

“Thanks,” he said, already heading for the sidewalk, on his way toward J Street. He turned near the end of the driveway. “I’ll bring more.”

And he has. One day I came home to a painting that just gobsmacked me—a vertical piece of wood curved on top that might have once been a cupboard door. It says WELCOME over a house and a tree and under a sweet-faced crescent moon. It took me a minute to realize that Robert had painted my pink house and my tree (and a sweet crescent moon!) in unusually subtle colors for him. I got a little teary. When I next saw him, I offered to pay him, but he refused.

Jan’s house / Robert Gordon

“You’re such a nice lady,” he said. “I thought I’d do one special for you.”

He stops by from time to time, and, if I’m out in front, we chat. When I ask now and then about my moon clock, he is vague. Once he said someone offered him “a lot of money for it.”

“Robert,” I said, “if you can sell that for a lot of money, do it.”

“I’ll make you another one,” he said, “if I can find a round piece of wood again.”

“Deal,” I said. “I don’t need the clock, actually.”

He nodded, then set off into his day.

As I watered, I thought about my friend Pat Schneider who had recently died after a long decline. She created the writing method I use in my writing groups, and over a period of about eight years I hosted her in Sacramento at least six times that I can recall—maybe more—as she led workshops and did lectures here. We became great friends, and she was a feisty, sometimes cranky mentor. But I adored her and she me. She published a book of my poems, and I proofread the manuscripts of her last two books.

Though I knew she’d been declining in her home in Amherst, Massachusetts, and that Pat and her husband Peter had moved to assisted living for the better part of a year, and I got word on an email list of “nearest and dearest” (her term) from one of her daughters that she had entered hospice, I found myself enveloped in grief when word came that she had died. As I do with so many people in their final days, I hold them in prayer and meditation, wishing for an easy passage at the same time I didn’t want her to lose her. It’s so human to want them to stay and go at the same time.

Typewriter / Robert Gordon

That day, seeing Robert, I thought of Pat’s brother Sam, who, like their mother, struggled with mental illness. Sam, whom she described as “a drifter,” often homeless, put in jail here and there. She told the story in her book about writing that Sam was as good a writer as she was, but motorcycle riders from hell, as he once wrote, pursued him. He died young, and she mourned him in her poetry and prose.

I have failed in my life, many times, to appreciate people who are different, especially those who may be challenged by mental illness. I’ve had a lot of students and not a few friends and former friends who fit that description. In recent months I’ve realized that Robert, this uncommon man and congenial artist, has been delivered to me. He is a Sam of sorts but with a safe place to live, a painter who lives to paint, who scrounges materials to make his art, then gives them away with no expectations of money. These are gifts from his heart on found pieces of wood and cardboard.

And Robert can paint anything. Not long ago, as he left after a brief visit, I called to him, “Paint me a typewriter.” He laughed and pointed to an old manual Remington that lives in my front yard. I promptly forgot about my request. But within a week I was coming home to painting after painting of typewriters propped on my porch—a tall vertical one with typewriter and a tall black cat, and another square one that’s inscribed, “Write a book. Get rich.” (That would have made Pat, a well-published but far-from-rich writer, laugh.) At the rate they’re arriving, I may soon have as many paintings of typewriters as I do the actual machines—and that’s a sizable number.

But that day in August, Robert walked by my house and sang to me (“sail on, silver girl, sail on by”) as I was missing a person I loved, one I had never expected to meet, much less turn out to be a woman who loved me ferociously and gave me so much.

After the artist who leaves me treasures continued down the street, I smiled and pointed the hose nozzle up in the air, letting the shower cool me, smiling about the unexpected gifts that arrive in human form—the ones, if we’re lucky, we think to cherish when they’re right in front of us.

Black cat and typewriter / Robert Gordon
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Pelecanus occidentalis

Brown pelican, Pt. Lobos State Reserve, Carmel / Photo by Dick Schmidt

Driving west, fleeing the smoky central valley
toward the mist that hugs the California coastline,
putting miles behind us and dehydrated land
long unused to rain—we pray that the brittle grasses
die a natural death, rather than the fiery kind
consuming acreage by the millions of our
once golden state.

We return to the sea seeking solace from
the too-muchness of a year already burning
before the fires came. We gaze upward through
the windshield to watch ash give way to fog
muscling its way inland. We smile—fog!
Wispy coastal fog! Happy to don jackets
when we emerge from the car to the barks
of dock-dwelling sea lions, as we go in search
of chowder and our own fish.

Every time it’s a homecoming, this return.
We claim saltwater as our permanent address
from whence we came, imitated by our tears.

Later we walk oceanside to the point where
huge, stocky pelicans with thin necks and Big Bird
bills preen before compressing themselves
like accordions into sleep. Others stand, stretch,
their giant wings lifting them, powerful flaps propelling
them in the search for food, scooping fish and seawater
into their great pouches, water draining through
the sieve of ballooned throats. Then they return,
bellies full, ready to feed the young, finding
welcome each time they land on rocky outcrops.

Others make space for them as we hope ours will
for us one day when we touch down, unsteady
and unsure, looking for the familiar,
comforted by the possibility of kindness.

—Jan Haag

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Back to school

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(Photo by Dick Schmidt)

I am one of millions today… millions of kids and teachers who are starting their school year (and will likely finish it) at home—not to mention their poor parents who’ve been dragged into home schooling like it or not, or their partners and families who have to listen to (some of us) bemoaning a learning curve that, at this point, looks vertical. As in mountain-high, there’s so much to learn.

And if that wasn’t enough, Zoom crashed this morning on two coasts.

And if that wasn’t enough, there’s the pandemic that put us here in the first place. Oh, and fires in California sending smoke as far away as Kansas. Devilish fires that yield a blood orange sun through air so thick the experts are saying that no one should be outside. At all.

And yet I suited up as if I was actually going to drive to Sacramento City College—in a skirt even. As if had to contend with the horrible first-week parking that gets all of us cranky before we ever step into a classroom. I knew where I’d scope out a likely faculty spot, if I went early enough. I’d hike to my classroom and up the stairs to my second-floor office, bidding good morning to those already there, working away. And I’d put down my book bag, haul out my big container of tepid tea (because I drink tea at any temperature) and look at the piles I would’ve already set aside for each class I would head into that day.

I’d print the roll sheets for each class and gather some blank 3×5 cards that I have every student fill out with basic contact information on the first day. I’d put all that into the fresh new file folder I’d made for each course. And a couple of minutes before class started, I’d pull my pile of books and folder into my arms and a ready-to-write purple ballpoint into my hand, and I’d head down the hall to the journalism classroom.

It was only five years ago that journalism and photography moved to the second floor of  a new building, and, in the first month, saw the college suffer its first shooting death at the edge of campus. Our journalism students covered that like pros. One of those former students, who has been working in television ever since, also finished his bachelor’s degree and just got a job as news editor at our local NPR station. Another one of those students produces an evening news program at a San Francisco TV station.

Last semester a group of three of our journalism students took on the most ambitious reporting series we’ve seen at our college—documenting in 14 stories, videos and podcasts how social and economic factors derail Sacramento City College students in their quests to complete their educations. And yet so many of them do, slogging through life challenges that most of their professors have never had to endure.

They keep on keepin’ on, and this is what keeps me keepin’ on. They inspire me, the old dog learning new tricks in this all-Zoom age of online teaching. Me, teaching four classes in “real” time, while doing two more remotely. Two classes of students I’ll never see. Not sure how I feel about that since, like most teachers I know, we get jazzed about what we do by seeing the faces of our students light up with comprehension… or puzzle into confusion. We love it when so many of them have questions at once—they’re so eager—or struggle to figure out a concept and then beam relief and walk away with a smidge more confidence in their abilities and smarts. Because they are smart and bright and beautiful. It’s my job to show them that.

Though we came home in March, many of us college teachers simply told our students what they had to do to complete our classes, trying to make things as simple as possible. I was not teaching synchronously online. I did do five writing groups a week, though, between March and the end of August, so I got major Zoom practice. But after more than 30 years of teaching in classrooms, I will now see between 20 and 40 people per class in tiny little rectangles onscreen. And another bunch and another and another.

I hope I can engage them as well remotely as I think I do in the classroom. (One of my good friends who has been coaching many of us in online teaching techniques over the summer pointed out, “What makes you think you were doing such a good job live?” That made us all think.) I hope I do well for them. Because, if all goes according to plan, this will be my last year of full-time college teaching. I hope to retire by next summer.

None of us ever expected to see the end of the world as we knew it, no matter where we find ourselves on the educational spectrum. But I know I will miss their actual faces, students wandering into my office at all hours because that’s how we roll in journalism—if we’re on campus, the door is open. I will miss turning from my computer to see someone with a question, a problem, a joke or just coming to say hi. (I love it when they come to say hi.) But I’ll still get to watch them progress not only in class but become more confident, competent writers and editors, more thoughtful media consumers and, some of them, media professionals.

For this is the new world, baby, and it’s about always being willing to be vulnerable in front of students, knowing that we teachers can’t possibly know everything, of owning this beginner’s mind that puts us back into an I-don’t-know-but-I’ll-find-out place. I look forward to learning new tricks in the online teaching arena. I have no doubt that, as always, my students will teach me as much or more than I do them. Lucky, lucky me.

 

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