I stood over the cast iron skillet flushed with enthusiasm. The chopping, dicing, slicing and arranging were all done. My favorite part was about to ensue--there's something scintillating about cooking, particularly the final moment of preparation. Ingredients together, whether in a melange, as I was doing then, or in parts--start to come together and there is a rush of joy not unmixed with challenge and even wonder.
"Buffoons!" I shouted to no one in particular. "Imbeciles and pimply-faced 20 and 30-somethings who want effects and explosions with their cliches and comic books. They don't want entertainment, they want dissolution on demand!"
"What are you talking about?" my wife said, annoyance clear in her voice.
"Huh? Oh. Critics. Movie critics." I had just read two reviews of Kenneth Brannagh's Murder on the Orient Express. They didn't like it (though SFGate.com did, which makes me happy). They said Brannagh was too full of himself and that they were "bored." I fumed. I'd seen it earlier in the afternoon and I loved it. I was entertained entirely. I found the acting wonderful and engaging, light-hearted, but meaningful, too and I've always thought the story was an homage to humanity's brightest--and darkest gifts.
"You liked the movie?"
"Liked it? I loved it! Oh...It wasn't brilliant in the.... cinematique way, that these pre-pubescent hacks want," I said lobbing pads of butter on the vegetables in the skillet. I sprinkled a pinch of salt and rather efficiently dusted the whole with several grinds of fresh black pepper. "But it was much like Brannagh's Hamlet," I said. "I can see their point about self-indulgence, but that has been Mr. B's style for some time. It's actually quite engaging and he never really takes himself too seriously. I don't get the whining about it. Brannagh is a fine actor--and Michelle Pfeifer was fun to watch--her elegance and charm were perfect in this movie. She was....she was just...gorgeous!" I turned on my heels to the sizzling skillet and put my nose over the whole, inhaling deeply of the onions and garlic, sweet potatoes and carrots as they caramelized to a kind of bronze perfection. I squeezed just a hint of balsamic vinaigrette reduction over them, smiling at the deed, confident in its eventual reward of dark, sweet and tangy-inflected sumptuousness.
"This wasn't about special effects," I said as I picked up the hot pads and delicately lifted the skillet off the heat. I unwrapped the grass-fed filets and simply stared at them for a moment before I ground a few more specks of pepper and a light dusting of salt, most of which missed the meat altogether. "It was the performances... and they were so delightful," I said. "They were engaging and funny and at times, perhaps, stereotypical--but that was the point. That is the point," I said, holding a filet with the tongs. I turned to the skillet and gently seared the meat on all sides and placed it, with care, atop the vegetables. "This isn't Shakespeare! It's a murder-mystery with flare," I said. "Dullards! Every one of them!"
"Who?" said my wife reading with no particular relish, an article in the local paper.
"Critics! Bottom-feeding, gutless film-school dropouts, every last one!" I shouted.
"When will dinner be ready?" she asked.
"You can't rush these things, you know?" I said quietly, and turned to the other filets, searing them as lovingly and carefully as I did the first. The vegetables were still crisp, but warm and caramelizing slowly on top as the balsamic reduction dripped down amid the the sizzling spots of orange, yellow and amber. I placed the whole skillet, meat, seasonings and vegetables, into the oven. "About 10 minutes, I suppose."
"Good," she said.
I stood with the heavenly aromas of savory-sweet vegetables hanging in the air and drank another swig of Buffalo Trace, one rock. God, it was good. When the meat is sizzling and the smoke hangs delicately over the oven, the bourbon seems to take the essence of it all with it. I drank as a prelude to the meal to come and I savored it for every second it lay on my tongue. "Heaven," I said. My wife flipped the page, following the antics of some marble-headed galoot who'd robbed a liquor store in town.
"What? Did you say something?" she asked.
"No. Nothing important." My head down, nose in my tumbler, I swallowed the last of the bourbon and moved to pour myself another. "Hm," I remarked, a bit flush with the last taste. "Not yet. Clear head, oven, heat, burning things. Yes. One moment." The timer sounded and I removed the skillet and aroma came out with it. Sweet, savory and meaty--flesh aglow with glistening pools of clarified butter atop and slowly draping juices down over the vegetables.
"Oh, it smells so good!" my wife said.
"Yes, doesn't it? I can't wait!" I served up the meal on the plates. "The writing was tight, the story was fun, the setting was beautiful--I loved watching the train," I said. "The cars were the most brilliant shade of blue, a kind of dark royal blue that I love so much. It reminded me of train sets I had when I was young. Snow falling over the mountains and the train climbing up. I just....it was enchanting," I said. "I just thought it was so much fun to watch. I was so removed from the world and inside the one on the screen," I said. "Johnny Depp. Captain Jack himself....he was tremendous, almost the cliche of a New York mobster from the 30's. He nailed it. So much fun," I said and poured another glass of bourbon after serving the plates.
"I'm glad you liked it, honey," my wife said. "These steaks are amazing and the vegetables are perfect!" she added, looking at me with a smile.
"Yes," I said. "I too am glad...that you like them." I tucked into a bite myself and chewed effortlessly.
It was good. Simple, but good. Most of life's better things are so, after all.
I have had the sad honor too often in the past couple of years to title my posts with the names of dear loved ones who have passed too early. If I were to keep that motif, I would write the name Linda Lavanne for the title of this post. She passed away early this morning after a four-year bout with cancer, a disease over which she beat the odds and it yielded to her for a time--and she didn't let it steal her joy.
Sue's and my friendship with the Lavanne family goes to our first church home at New Hope Lutheran in Agoura, Calif. As fellow members, we know Tom and Linda and only recently did we get to know them well enough to enjoy several evenings together sharing wine and pizza--Tom's and my favorite meal. If you know Tom and Linda, reading this will only confirm what you know and that is that two more loving, kind, smart, engaging and funny people you could not hope to meet.
Linda's battle with pancreatic cancer brought us together because our mutual friend, Jarvis Streeter, lost his fight to that disease back in 2013. When I joined Team Jarvis for the pancreatic cancer run/walk held each February in Westlake Village, it was to honor Jarvis's memory and Linda's fight--now it will serve to honor them both in loving friendship.
Her path was marked by this fight with disease. But her path was also marked by her ability to set it aside, to focus on the positive and for a while, she had beaten the odds and learned the value of the monster time and lovingly, joyously without sentimentality or even without urgency, shared it with everyone. I love the relationship that she and Tom have and I watched it with all the joy one can muster for friends. There was an ethereal kind of happiness even in the midst of dour world events and absurdities of every kind--it never stole their smiles.
During her fight against the disease, Linda hashtagged all of her social media with "#don'tpostponejoy," and she and Tom never did. They reveled in each other, in their wonderful children and their friends and family, traveling more often, going on wine-tasting weekends when Linda was up for it and she managed to see her son graduate from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and then go on a family trip to Mexico. Her will, her refusal to give up or in, her sheer grit in the face of devastation was a marvel to behold--it was at once peaceful and ferocious and through it all, she smiled. It wasn't perseverance, it was hope in something gold, something wonderful and eternal far removed from cancer and the plodding days of that fight. It was joyous rebounding into each moment and sharing it with the people she knew mattered most.
In a movie called, The Village, William Hurt has an aching and poignant line of which I am reminded: "The world moves for love. It kneels before it in awe." Such was Linda Lavanne's extraordinary gift of life--and today, we all kneel in awe before that gift.
At this point, I cannot say that it came as a surprise. I fear it may not be worth writing about except for posterity: The posterity of my posterior to be precise.
All stories have a beginning, middle and an end--but this end's end is not ending. Well not yet, anyway. It began in late May, in a fervent rush out of the garage door to get errands run, while reading some documents I needed for the next day. I was in a world of checklists and making order out of mayhem, communicating with four or five different groups of people, making sure this group had that group's invoice-that one party would have the right room number and the time they should arrive...the usual kind of organization that occurs with large gatherings.
So I put the garage door up and started walking out--but it hadn't gone up yet and I walked straight into it. I thought it was a concussion--but it wasn't. Down I went on the backside and since then, it's been varying degrees of pain. Suddenly, the organization stuff gained more importance--more focus and yet, I was dazed in various fits of both pain and anger that I'd walked into a rising garage door, ignoring what was in front of me to grab hold of the intangible and in the process, ignoring both.
Today's annual physical revealed that while my general health is pretty good--my tail bone was indeed broken--a broken coccyx. And let the jokes ensue. I debated about even posting this, but since the purpose of this blog is to provide a memory repository for me and more for my daughter, I thought it worth mentioning that I broke my tail bone--mainly because as near as I can tell this is the first major broken bone I've ever had. I may have broken a toe and maybe one time, a finger. But those were childhood things and I barely remember them. This, however, this I'll remember. Trust me.
Foreward: This is the contemplation of a morning and coffee. It is not a perennial state of mind--to see it as such is to assume that no one should have negative thoughts at any time.
Late October and by tomorrow, it will be in the mid-90's. By Tuesday, it will be 100 degrees. The relentlessness of a Southern California autumn hardly ever gets written about. The Santa Ana winds gust from the east at near tropical storm strength and the humidity dives into single digits as the temperatures climb in excess of 100 degrees, and steady in the high 90's. It doesn't last forever--but it feels like it will. No one wants to disparage what they see as paradise, not while they're trying to sell it. Half a million dollars here will by you a 1200 square foot home in need of some renovation. In most other states in the U.S., that money can buy you...well, a lot more.
So people burn through dollars to live here, paying thousands of dollars for rent or hundreds of thousands for a piece of their little slice of paradise--and ignore that the crowded, hot, confines offer very little. In order to afford it, you must work more--or better--to make it work. The young people I know imagine they can get out of high school and get a job and build a nest egg. That's not even an impossible dream. It's just impossible.
Meanwhile, the state's recent droughts have left tinderbox conditions allowing massive fires, the likes of which firefighters say they've never seen, to rip through neighborhoods at unimaginable speeds. In the northern part of the state, in wine country, the devastation is extraordinary--the loss of life full of grief, sadness and inexplicable sorrow. And the pronouncements of "we will rebuild" begin.
Dreams of an easier life, a life somehow deserved, compel this irrational focus and as I've lived here most of my life and still don't understand it, I'm troubled by my own incapacity for clarity. Certainly there are beautiful days here, more often than not, actually. And as I have lived here nearly my whole life, the people I love are here--I married a native of this place and our daughter is now a native of it, too. Even still, I find myself a stranger here and I thought by now these thoughts, negative compactions of near ignorant ferocity, would blow away with the cool and temperate breeze of age and maturity. They haven't, though--and I'm unsure of myself.
This is a moment to say so, to work through this lens of frustration. Perhaps it is 27 years in the same career that has got me to this point--and I'm now restless and wandering through the idea of how to change what I do and prepare to retire from it sooner rather than later. Perhaps, too-it is the realization that happiness and contentment are not brought by outside forces, but by inner-peace and that is found in other moments and cannot be wrought entirely by place and career.
But it is also a warning--that life's changes are impactful and as brilliant a star as shines over our lot who live a middle-class life in a free country, the dreams of that life--airy and wistful, may not be enough to stem the tide of the changes our hearts and minds seek.
Some days are sunrise, all day. The bleeding drops of orange peer in over the peaks of hills and the energy is self-reflective, poignant and powerful. You know the day will take you places you would rather not be, but even then, hope prevails and you accomplish a task and move on to the next until you've completed a round of necessary toil, allowing you to feel privileged enough to reward yourself with friends, family, rest, a glass of something--a quiet moment of reflection.
Some days are sunsets, all day. The darkening down of expectations, the hint of light showing through enough to illuminate the escape plan that must inevitably spring into action because whatever hope was before, is diminished now. There may be a quiet moment to come-but for now, all is chaos, beyond you and yet you will bear the brunt of it, you will carry it on yourself like water buckets half-full, heavy, splashing, unwieldy and necessary.
Your tongue speaks words of encouragement--it must. If you cannot encourage, then you cannot change and of course, you know you can. But you don't always choose to and it's easy to tell someone that you're lesser, that you're not strong. It's easier to collapse into sorrow--not so much your own sorrow, but the sorrow you borrow from others. You want their sympathy--you get trapped by your own drama and you hear music playing as you stumble through each moment. You fix your hair just so and your eyes are just damp enough to avoid looking like you'll cry, but open enough to convince people that you did.
You can choose, of course. Emerson said, "The power which resides in [you] is new in nature, and none but he knows what that is which he can do, nor does he know until he has tried.” And trying is everything. Trying is an answer unto itself.
You'll remove the blinders and you'll peer through to notice glorious color in ordinary days. You'll find love you didn't know existed and it will shame you into a kind of rewarding warmth that you'll learn to cultivate on your darkest days--and that love will be everything. It will be your own self-reliance and in that moment, God will creep in and remind you why it is.
For now, it is a burden--for now, it is unclear and misunderstood. It is an argument to make and a stand from which to retreat. It is loneliness and holiness in a package, wrapped and with a bow--and as yet, you've not opened it.
But you will--and from it will spring the freshest days, the freshest flowers and the fragrant dawn of life beautiful, neatly picked and just so.
October has always been one of my favorite months--except for the last 42 years. I mean that sincerely, though I suppose it's as mysterious and stupid thing to say as any. I love autumn because I used to live in it when I was young. There, in Illinois, in Pennsylvania, in Maryland and Massachusetts, it was a month of transition. An Indian summer might kick in for a week or two, but by Halloween, it was sweatshirts and jackets, leaf-fall and colors growing both dark and bright. Winter was coming--and the clove of seasons was a final delight--the last visit to the ice cream shop before it closed, the last short-sleeved shirt for the year.
California in October has charms, but I learned them later. For me, as a serious aficionado and sommelier, it is harvest. The hot days and cooler nights mean the brix count is going up, and the grapes are begging to be picked clean. The light, toasty, fruit-fragrant smell of the vineyard is an allurement I've not resisted for some time. Fall is harvest and fruit. It is heat and light--and cool gray dusk. I miss the changing leaves and cool days of the Midwest and east, but I am ensconced here. I am in love here--and my people, my daughter--are of the west.
So when I bought a car 12-years ago this month, it was practicality in mind. What I got was unique, a box-shaped little go-kart of a vehicle, easy on gas, simple to drive and manage, yet because of its resemblance to a toaster more than anything, it held people and dogs and things.
My wife bought me the license plate. She attempted to have it printed, "Wine Box." But the state of California in its odd and momentary Puritan sing-along, wouldn't let her have that. So she ordered "Wine Bx." They let that go through. Evidently, their understanding of the citizens of this state doesn't go much beyond the literal.
For the past 12 years, my little Wine box was the able-bodied, reliable, if humble, transportation that was recognizable around town. Shannon was 4 when we got that car and her first trips in it included a car seat to comply with the state law. Before its last run in our family, it was the first car she drove as she earns her license. I drove it to Phoenix, AZ to visit with my family there in 2010 and I drove it to the Central Coast countless times to write stories about wine for any number of magazines. I drove it to San Francisco once, not long after I bought it--and it took us north of Bakersfield to fetch another family car that failed us on a trip to see the Sequoias.
I was attached to the thing. Scoop, Simon's predecessor, was a frequent passenger. He and I got to the point where he would travel with me to the grocery store, to Target, wherever. I think about that from time to time. He liked riding with me--and he didn't mind waiting for me while I was in a store somewhere. Simon is a great companion and I love him as much as I loved Scoop, but he's not a traveler. His rides in the Wine box were marked by chaotic shifts from front to back, tripping over himself and landing in awkward positions. Only once did he come to a store with me--he nearly tore the car to pieces in my brief absence and while I take him places still, he can't be left alone in a vehicle. He's simply too co-dependent.
The box's monetary worth shrunk in recent years, to the point where the recent repairs it needed exceeded its value. I thought momentarily about going into more debt for the bill because of my attachment, but in the end--it's metal and rubber, plastic and oil. I believe in making it a point not to get attached to things--people, yes. Dogs, certainly--but not things.
I sold it today for a mere $400. My mechanic, Todd, bought it from me and I was pleased. He's a good guy and he'll use it either for his own daughter or turn and sell it. Either way, it will get some new life with someone who needs it. It has life left in it, but it was beyond my practical ability to keep pumping the money into it .
It was a good car.
I don't go to Wal-Mart very often, but I do go. I am not immune to inexpensive staple-goods that work in our home. They have treats that Simon likes for an extremely unreasonable price, but it's more reasonable than everyone else's. So, I go.
In our neighborhood Wal-Mart is a gentleman named Chris. I don't know him, I just greet him from time to time. He's hard to miss--about 6'3" or maybe 6'4" with disheveled hair and the ubiquitous Wal-Mart vest, Chris doesn't smile often. This can't be that cliche, can it? What he does is offer help and kindness at every turn--to everyone--customers and colleagues alike. I noted about him that he is always on the spot at the self-checkout lanes to see if he can help you or, in the age of California idiocy, offer you bags, which have to be paid for now. His colleagues call him by name, smile at and with him and he smiles back. He's an affable, friendly man.
I read today that he was a sports enthusiast, too. And I assumed also that he must have liked country music. I am guessing at that last one, but it's a good bet. Chris was the 59th victim of the shooter in Las Vegas on Sunday night. He was hit in the head and on Monday morning, yesterday, he succumbed to his wounds. Another hole has been torn in the fabric of my community.
Berated rays of sunshine beat down like heat-angry devils and the cool breeze that has been kicking up has no promise in it. There are only crosses, there are only cares. Yesterday brought grief in heaps, large piles of it, like autumn leaves that stick even when the wind is blowing. There are no dancing, twirling clubs of them on the street under steely gray clouds. This is giant piles of death and dark-arrayed colors on everyone's doorstep--on everyone's stoop. We are in mourning--and we lash out, looking for someone to blame, finding that the ghosts we are grasping at are as ethereal as the fear that must have gripped those across from Mandalay Bay Sunday night.
I love the desert. I spent most of my life in Southern California and I've never loved it here--never been as happy with the climate as most are. But when I go to the desert, it is a place without pretense. It isn't trying to be something it's not--it is a vast expanse of beauty and emptiness writ large on a landscape that seeks its own level by saying, 'you can't live here. What does live here is tested, tried and tough. You aren't. Move along.' I like that about it. I am at peace with the place because it is hot and empty and large and it doesn't want to be anything else. And Las Vegas was the giant middle finger to the desert, in some way; an oasis of all the hedonism a nation can manage in one city, corrupted by its own sin, lifted by the same and carried as a playground--where you can find trouble if you want it and ignore it if you don't. But the desert doesn't ignore it. It will swallow it up one day---and there won't be anything left.
Right before school started, Sue and I went to Las Vegas and stayed in a friend's timeshare there. We enjoyed ourselves, ate some good meals, saw two wonderful shows with Penn and Teller and Cirque de Soleil. It was just the two of us, romantic, lovely and at peace. Each of the three days, we drove by the big gold Mandalay Bay structure, marveling at the glitz of all of it--marred and sodden now with the wreckage of insanity, the detritus of sadness, grief and rage. It will never be the same, of course. But it will get better. Someday.
For now, there is heartbroken America. There is weeping and gnashing of teeth and there is conspiracy and blame--as all seek to make sense of the impossible. I want it to stop, like we all do. But I know better.
And then Tom Petty died. I'm not as eloquent as he is--the great American songwriter and singer who knew that what counted in music was truth and morals, justice and love. He was torn apart by the business end of it, but landed on his feet. His lyrics are the soundtrack to American summer--to American life. His death is a melancholy sadness--a man who died just a bit before his time, who had so much more to offer, but offered more than enough. On a normal day, his death would have been worth a long post by itself, full of reflections and recitation of his lyrics in paragraphs too thin to hold them. Now, he's hovering above with the other angels--nearly an afterthought on a day that will scar memory like 9/11 did.
So, I'm not much tonight. I am wind and wisp of breezes that carry memories through some very dark tunnels. But I persist---and I dream. I must strive in the midst of it for that is what grief has taught me--to never give up, never let go--never stop loving and never stop. Just never stop.
The blog of lo-these many years has a new home, now. I had to retreat from the previous blog because what I write here has never been a money-making enterprise. When I write for profit, it is for an editor at a publication of some kind, but the blog is mine-uninhibited, as it were, by the necessities of commerce and fortune. I write because I want to--and the freedom of that should be unfettered, as it now is.
In the near future, I'll archive the old site onto this one so that I don't lose all of those posts--some of which are very dear to me and I want to hold onto. What happened? Well, I simply got wrapped up in my day-to-day life this summer and neglected paying the bills on the old blog. This led to the revelation that paying bills on a blog that doesn't pay me isn't necessarily forward thinking when there is all of this free software around that I can use. So, I moved over here to weebly, where I keep my classroom website, and found a simple blog format that works.
Summer's travels were elegant and ethereal and it's hard to believe that Fall has risen and shorter days, lesson plans and school-work have taken over. I've found a great deal of solace in changing everything I do at school. After 26 years of largely doing things the same way, I made profound and fundamental changes in my classroom from the way I grade papers to how I communicate with my students electronically and even how I talk to them. Everything is new--and it's rather exciting to me to be in the midst of it.
Shannon (Peanut) has grown into a remarkable young lady and as I teach her now how to drive, I am flooded with all of the feelings you dads out there have had. Where did that little princess go? Answer? She's standing at the front door rolling her eyes at me, one hand on a hip-the other one outstretched awaiting delivery of the car keys. It's a rich life.
I'm in my 27th year in the classroom now and I look forward to what I'm doing--but I am also thinking very seriously about retirement from the classroom within the next four to six years. Depending on a number of financial factors, of course, I'll make a decision. Primarily, I want to explore other things, do some more freelance writing, perhaps pursue working as an adjunct education instructor and maybe work in a winery, while I find a place to call home, walk my dog, be in the outdoors and near the city. It's the little big things that count.
A weaving of threaded days has led to challenges with real grief these past few years. The loss of Edd, Brett, Craig, Jarvis, John and many others before their time--has me reeling. The sweeping scythe continued apace this summer as two days before the start of school, Shannon lost one of her dear friends she'd known since kindergarten. Young John (a different John) was 16 when he passed. I'll simply not go into details--but the tragedy has been visited upon this community and the sadness is deep, lasting and profound. Shannon struggles with processing the grief and as much as I can help her, I do--but she has become aware that while there is help, solace and love for her--the healing she must do, she must do on her own.
I'm grateful for all of you who read the pages. Thank you for that. More posts to come at this new home of my writer's life.