Volunteering: Feed the Hungry

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I wasn’t entirely sure what I was getting into in last June when I decided to jump in as a volunteer for Mama’s Kitchen, a local non-profit that provides food assistance for San Diego residents who are living with HIV/AIDS or cancer. I went through the training to become a driver, someone who would have a selected route that I would cover one day a week and from about 3:30-5:30 PM would get bags of food out to my list of clients.

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By the time I show up, a whole lot of people have done a whole lot of work preparing the meals that I will deliver to my clients.

I did know that I was going to work for a first-class organization filled with compassionate, dedicated people.  Since 1990, Mama’s Kitchen has served over 8 million meals to needy San Diegans.  Their mission is to provide three nutritional meals a day, for no charge, to their clients with AIDS or cancer and to their clients’ dependents.  That means getting over 400 bags of food delivered every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, 52 weeks out of the year.

That’s where people like me come in.  I show up every Wednesday at around 3:15, load up my bags of food (my client list has ranged from 7 to 17 on any given day) along with a hot bag that contains a freshly prepared hot meal for each client to have for dinner that night.

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Packed up and ready to go!

Then I’m on the road for the next 1-2 hours making deliveries.  To be honest, there was a lot that I did not like about the work in the beginning.  The route changed every time a client was added or deleted as the routing computer tries to give me the most efficient order of delivery.  Initially, that made it hard to relax as I was often in unfamiliar territory and had to pay close attention to Siri’s sometimes imperious directions.

What makes her think I know my east from my west, anyway?

Needless, to say, at the beginning, I missed a lot of turns and sometimes was unsure if I was at the right house even though Siri reassured me I had “arrived at my destination.”  I had to do a lot of checking and double-checking until streets and houses became more familiar.  The transactions with client seemed strangely impersonal, and I just felt like the rewards of this particular volunteer gig were going to be limited.

Seven months in, I’m enjoying it tremendously.  I now am covering the route on both Wednesdays and Fridays and some Mondays as needed.  Now that my clients know I’m committed to the work, that I’m not a student who is looking to do some volunteer work to be able to listed on a college application or someone on probation who has been sentenced to community service, they have begun to treat me more as a real person and not just “the food guy.”

And my clients are no longer just strangers which makes the work both harder and easier.  It’s hard to see them when they are having a bad day because all of them are on a rollercoaster when it comes to their strength and vitality.  I often have to pound on the door and ring the doorbell repeatedly, and shout that, “It’s me, Tom, the good looking-looking food delivery guy!” because they sometimes sleep heavily in the afternoon, and it pains me to think that they might not get their food for the next two or three days.  We are expressly forbidden from leaving food on the porch with the hope that they’ll get it before it begins to spoil.

The longer I do the route, the more of a sense of ownership I have and the more the positives pile up.  I have a standing invitation to join one of my clients for bingo night (Wednesdays at 6 PM) at the senior apartment complex where she lives.  At Christmas, one of my clients insisted I come in while she bagged up some tamales for me to take home.  I get a lot of good wishes and “God bless you”s since I’m the final contact for Mama’s Kitchen and represent all the work done by so many people. The son of one of my clients has offered to detail my SUV for me assuring me that he’ll “take good care” of me.

My favorite moment on the route is delivering to a family with two school-aged daughters, maybe 7 and 10 years of age.  They seem to love being “my favorite helpers!” which I announce loudly whenever I see them.  The older daughter’s bright eyes and ready smile kill me every time as she takes one or two of the three bags I need to tote up to the house.  I haven’t been able to resist treating them by slipping a pack of gel pens or drawing pads into their bags on Fridays and claiming that it “must have been the elves at Mama’s Kitchen.  They must have heard you are taking good care of your mom!” –two children managing to thrive in the most precarious of situations.

As the fifth pillar of my guide to “Surviving the Trump Apocalypse” (soon to be revisited and revised), volunteering is a solid investment of my time.  It takes me out of the whirlwind of bad news that #notmypresident Trump inspires and makes a small contribution to a vulnerable population, one that will receive no help soon from the federal government.

“Post-Truth Era”? Is That Actually A Thing?

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Ever since I read the article entitled “Search Party” by Jonathan Mahler (January 1, 2017) in the New York Times Magazine, I’ve been trying to wrap my head around his use of the phrase “the post-truth era”, a phrase I am hearing used more and more often.   His article begins with a discussion of the growing phenomena of “fake news” and of websites that promulgate specious conspiracy theories, including the one that prompted a young man to load up his car with weapons, drive 350 miles to Washington DC to “self-investigate” whether or not Hillary Clinton was indeed running a child-sex ring from a Washington pizzeria.

I’m not sure why I’m struggling with the idea that Donald Trump is having such success even though he repeatedly has been called out for telling lies, repeating assertions made by others that have been categorically debunked, and then fiercely repeating his own falsehoods and those of his minions.  I guess I’m aghast just because there seems to be no consequence for these actions, especially among his supporters.  His backers will list many reasons for their support of Trump, but what astonishes me is that when they turn to demonizing his former opponent, Hillary Clinton, they invariably list one of her most critical sins as being, “she can’t be trusted; she lies.”

We have certainly, in my lifetime, have been exposed to destructive institutional deception on a large scale.  Our entrance into the Viet Nam war, the secret bombing of Laos, the cover-up of the devastation caused by Agent Orange all prompted extensive cover-ups.  The Watergate affair and the subsequent efforts to protect the guilty certainly gave us insight into the government’s ability to create an alternate reality as did the Bush administrations efforts to cherry-pick evidence of WMDs in Iraq, sometimes from wildly unreliable sources, just to support the pre-determined narrative that would lead to the invasion of Iraq.  Outside of politics, in the 80’s we watched the Catholic church scramble to discredit and minimize the sexual abuse of children stretching back as far as 50 years.

I guess what seems different about these scandals is that eventually truth won out. Investigations persevered, detailed accounts were written, admissions were made, testimony was taken and the results were acknowledged.  In almost all of these cases, the mainstream media, the Trump administration’s biggest punching bag, was critical in exposing and bringing the truth to light.

On the front page of Sunday’s New York Times one headline read “Slamming Media, Trump Advances Two Falsehoods.”  During the first 48 hours of his presidency, Trump has been obsessed by how many people showed up to his inauguration.  His claims and the subsequent claims of his press secretary that the ceremony had drawn, “the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration,” were quickly shown to be false by photographic evidence presented by numerous news outlets.

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Then, he took time out to mend fences with the intelligence community, appearing at the CIA, where he reassured the 300 employees that were present that he appreciated their work and that he was “so behind you.”  This was just weeks after he had scorchingly tried to discredit their work on the reports of Russian hacking of the DNC and even compared them to Nazis.  Worse than this duplicity, was the setting that he chose for his speech.  As he stood before the gold stars that represent the members of the CIA that have died in the line of duty, he quickly lost the thread of praising their work and dedication, to bemoan his treatment in the media and to go back to his complaints that they (the media) were misrepresenting the number of people that showed up to his party.

I guess this is where I’m starting to see what Mahler meant about the “post-truth era.”  How can one denigrate a professional group like the CIA, undermining their work and calling them Nazis, and then stand before them and say that “I love you, I respect you, there’s nobody I respect more” and be taken seriously?  But this isn’t some low-level hack; this is the President of the United States.  Sadly, we are are a long way from the days of John F. Kennedy, when he addressed Americans after the failed Bay of Pigs invasion and said: “The President of a great democracy such as ours, and the editors of great newspapers such as yours, owe a common obligation to the people: an obligation to present the facts, to present them with candour, and to present them in perspective.”

I guess this was a time when the truth was more in vogue, just something we expected out of our presidents. It was a time where we didn’t need both the facts and “alternative facts.”

Maybe we just need to sit back and take the advice of Kellyanne Conway when she tried to defend Trump’s mocking of a disabled reporter, an incident that was recorded and well-documented, when she admonished reporters that, “you always want to go by what’s come out of his mouth rather than look at what’s in his heart.”

I don’t know about you, but that is one heart that I don’t want to go looking around in whatsoever.  And it has always seemed to me that we, as Americans, have felt that what a president actually says is important.  I hope it won’t be long before we have a president who abides by the time-honored principle that it is important to say what you mean, and mean what you say.

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Honestly, I Lie All The Time

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This whole honesty thing is something that I struggle with because I think of myself as someone who tries to be authentic and straightforward with people, both strangers and friends, and yet I catch myself shading the truth pretty constantly.

Take any doctor’s visit.  I’ve been claiming to be 5’8’’ since I was in high school, and yet I know that on my best day, I never have broken 5’ 7 3/4”.  In fact, I’m pretty sure I’m shrinking as I age.  I might not even break 5’ 6’’ on some days.  Before long there will be rides at Disneyland I won’t be allowed to go on.

No matter how many times I visit my doctor he will ask about smoking and drinking habits.  No, I never smoke.  Yes, I really enjoy drinking.  How many drinks a day would you say you have?  My answer now is always, “no more than two” because I know that that answer will not alarm him.  Plus, I read that doctors know all their patients lie about drinking habits and automatically double whatever number that the patient gives.  In other words, my doctor doesn’t trust me to be honest with him. It makes me sad that this has come between us.  It prompts him to say things like  “we have programs if you ever think you need help with that.”

Help with drinking?  Hell, no.  I’m drinking plenty without any help at all. The trick here is self-regulation.  I have many rules about when drinking is allowed and when it is not.  The problem is that I break my own rules all the time.  Well, not break exactly. I just find that words like “rules” are so inflexible.  i had a rule that drinking was something that I should reserve for special occasions, but if you love life (I thought to myself) isn’t every day a cause for celebration?  At 63, I’m pretty excited just to wake up every morning.  Any given Tuesday, seems like a special occasion to me.  My two favorite presidents, John F. Kennedy and Barack Obama were both elected on a Tuesday.  My birthday falls on a Tuesday every few years, right?  I’m pretty sure I’ve had sex on a Tuesday more than once.  The more I think about it, the more Tuesday seems like a reason to celebrate, truly a special occasion.  And then there are Wednesdays…

I recently discovered that, not only do I lie, I’m even capable of theft.  I was picking up a few supplies at our local Target and opted for the self-checkout lane.  When I got to the car I was tossing things in the back when I discovered two packages of floss sitting in the bottom of the basket.  I had completely missed them when I was scanning the other objects.

I literally stood there in the parking lot holding on to my $2.78 worth of floss trying to figure out the best thing to do.  There was just no good option.  If I carried them back into the store openly, I might get accused of theft.  If I snuck them back in and then tried to pull them out of my pocket surreptitiously, same thing could happen. I imagined carrying them up to the customer service desk to explain my dilemma, but I’ve found that honesty confounds some people, and the folks that work customer service are usually there because they’ve failed at more complex tasks–like stacking boxes on the shelves.  I could just imagine how the conversation would go:

ME: “Hey, look, I accidentally forgot to scan these items so…”

HIM: “I’m sorry, sir, but we don’t do exchanges on personal hygiene products like floss.”

ME: “No, you don’t understand.  I don’t want to exchange the floss, I want to pay for it.”

HIM: “Do you have your receipt, sir?”

ME:  “No, of course I don’t have the receipt.  I haven’t paid for them yet.”

HIM:  “You are trying to exchange two packages of floss that you haven’t even paid for?”

ME:  “No, you idiot, I don’t want an exchange, I…

HIM: (on the loudspeaker)  “Security, could you come to customer service, please.”  (to me) “There’s no reason to use abusive language when I’m trying to help you, sir.”

I look around and I don’t see a cadre of security guards converging on me so I toss the floss into the back seat without another thought.  There are times when being honest is just not a convenient option.

Surviving the Trump Apocalypse

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I was in bed by 9:30 on election night because I could see the ship was sinking and I couldn’t stand to watch the inevitable.  I drank pretty heavily the next night as the reality sank in, but tried as hard as I could to not think about it.  As the next few days went by, I turned off NPR, didn’t bother to open the New York Times, and stayed away from any television news.  I simply could not endure the post-mortem, the intimate dissection of this horrible election season and it’s horrible outcome.

I felt oddly calm and serene about it all even though I am convinced our country is entering another era where it will be hard to feel proud as an American, that Trump will usher in a court system that does not understand the concept of justice, that efforts to improve the environment and create a sustainable energy culture will suffer greatly.  Efforts to create a more fair and transparent justice system will cease, and women’s health and reproductive rights will wither.  We are still nearly a month away from his inauguration and we are being given daily reminders that our leader is an erratic, self-aggrandizing buffoon. Americans voted for this, after eight years of the principled, educated, visionary presidency of Barack Obama.

So, how can I be calm when I feel we are headed for the abyss?  It’s because my capacity for outrage was exhausted by eight years of George W. Bush. I simply cannot allow myself to read about every tragic misstep, every deception, and the constant brushing aside of the norms and values that I used to think of as being uniquely American and react with the fear and loathing that came with the Bush years.

So, what to do.  Being prone to depression as I wrote about here, it would be easy to sink into a quicksand of funk, but I’ve decided instead to “fight against the dying of the light” by dusting off the once-popular concept of “thinking globally and acting locally” that had us all snipping up those plastic soda can holders to save the seagulls back in the 80’s. As I’ve talked with friends, most of us are still feeling as if we are in the midst of the zombie apocalypse. Most of us know we are still in some stage of shocked denial, and all of my friends have mentioned self-protective measures they are planning to take, so nothing I suggest here may seem or be original.

Regardless, for the next 4 to 8 (shudder!) years, I intend to do the following:

ISOLATE

I already don’t watch much TV news, but I’ve been dedicated to following print news, with subscriptions to the New York Times and my local paper, listening avidly to the NPR news program, reading political posts on Facebook, and daily scanning through the Daily Beast website. No more.  I now will only get the NYT on Sundays so I can have the travel and book review sections, and the local paper will allow me to scan the headlines and get the short version of any news I need.

I simply can’t spend a couple hours a day reading about and listening to news that will tear down my spirit.  I’ve already noticed, that I have freed up a full hour of time in the morning simply by letting go of the news.  I have better things I can do with that time.

EXERCISE

That means I’m often out the door by 8 AM for my morning walk around our neighborhood.  As a slave to my Fitbit device, I need to put in a good 4 miles to enjoy the satisfaction that those damn 10,000 steps require.  However, I’m determined to live long enough to watch the nation realize the terrible mistake it has made and begin the necessary course correction that will eventually come.  If I happen to lose weight and lower both my blood pressure and my cholesterol levels, I will have Donald Trump to thank for it.

I’ve also added yoga as a daily practice.  I try to spend an hour a day now either in class or communing with Rodney Yee on the DVD as he soothingly takes me through an hour of stretches and exercises designed to ease my aching back.  I am lucky to have discovered a wonderful yoga teacher through our local adult school, and I go to three of her classes per week. I am enjoying the community that exists in each class.  There is such a comfort in being around a group of people dedicated to the flow and spirit of yoga. However, I also thrive in the quiet of my own room as I clear the hardwood floors to begin my practice in solitude (well, me and Rodney).

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CREATE

It is time to join the choir.  Or take up painting, learn a language, sculpt something, build a deck, deck the halls, write a poem, or immerse yourself in any kind of creative activity that will allow you to bring light and joy into the world or into your own soul.  As hard as it has been to write these past few months, I’ve decided I need to re-dedicate myself to my writing for my own sake and maybe for the sake of my 12 avid readers.

I began my retirement with lots of projects in mind.  There was that pergola I wanted to build in the back yard, landscaping and painting to be done.  I was determined to actually learn to play the guitar.  Some of these I’ve finished, some I’ve started, and some have fallen by the wayside.  I’m starting the list again and considering other creative avenues that are entirely outside of my comfort zone.

The reason I see this as an immunization against the poison of Trumpism is that I believe that anyone involved in the creative process brings light into the world, and in this time where some of us feel surrounded by darkness, it is important to bring our light together.  I’m not strong on spirituality, but I am so struck by the simple greeting that often ends yoga practice.  If you look up definitions for the word “Namaste” you will find many, but my favorite is, “The Divine light in me salutes the Divine light in you.”  I think creativity brings out the “Divine light” in all of us and gives us an opportunity to share it with others.

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Rendered by Scott Knox, friend, and self-taught artist

PLANT SOMETHING

The Trump administration is shaping up to be the most aggressively anti-environmentally oriented collection of scoundrels since, well, since the last time the Republicans controlled the White House.  Clean air?  Clean water?  Sustainable energy?  Psssh.  Who needs it?  Oil and gas, baby.

I’m looking around my yard and trying to figure out where I can squeeze in a few more trees.  I’m looking at ways to expand my year-round vegetable garden.  I feel like I need to grow as much as I can in my drought-affected part of the world to make my small contribution to the health of the planet.  Trump came along just when it looked like the country and the world were bonding together to make a concerted effort to battle the effects of climate change.  I guess that was part of the anger Trump tapped into.  The anger of those folks that were just mad as hell that someone was going to make them change over to LED bulbs.

If you live in an apartment, find a window where you can grow some basil, thyme, or parsley.  It won’t stop a coal plant’s production, but you’ll enjoy the greenery.  Every new bit of natural growth that you foster is now an act of subversion.  Welcome to The Resistance, my friend.

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VOLUNTEER

Lots of organizations are going to be hit hard by this administration, especially ones dependent on federal funding.  Groups that support the environment, women’s reproductive health, and immigration support and reform are going to need more than an occasional donation.  Organizations that support LGBTQ rights and social justice causes are going to be likewise vulnerable.

I currently do volunteer work occasionally for the Solana Center which promotes sustainability practices throughout the county and weekly for Mama’s Kitchen which provides food support for clients throughout San Diego County that are affected by cancer or HIV/AIDS.  I can do more.  Of course, I have the luxury of being retired and my kids are on their own, but too often I still find myself saying “I’ve just been so busy,” or “I just haven’t had time.”  It’s bullshit.  We all have time.  It’s just awfully hard to reorder one’s priorities, especially if you are someone like me who thrives on routine.  I have to make the effort.

CELEBRATE

Within the last thirty minutes, I heard the news that the Army Corps of Engineers is going to deny the easement for the Dakota Access pipeline.  Some people who sacrificed greatly and worked countless hours and those who supported them with money, supplies, and encouragement have every reason to celebrate tonight. It’s a big win, even if it proves to be temporary.

But I’m also talking about celebrating every small local and personal success that keeps  us positive and hopeful.  Today I met two neighbors I’ve never spoken to and enlisted them in providing lawn clippings for my personal composting project.  They were so kind and enthusiastic and ready to provide me with far more material than I can process.  That’s a win.  If your garden squeezes out a head of lettuce or your new tree flourishes, grab a neighbor and break out the champagne.  Make sure you tell everyone who will listen every time you hit a new personal fitness goal.  Post your artwork, photography, writing, and other creative pursuits on Facebook and let us honor your efforts to help to raise each of us up during this dark time.

I might be wrong about just how bad this presidency will be, but I doubt it.  I do have faith though in the swing of the pendulum.  Look where we were as a country in 2008 when we elected the first black president of the United States, voted for vision, hope, and change.  Eight years later, I’m not sure what people were voting for, but the pendulum will swing back once again.  In the meantime we will need each other more than ever before. We will need to come together to be “keepers of the light.”

Depression: The Gift That Keeps On Giving

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I am prone to depression as I wrote about some time ago.

It’s not the kind of curl-up-in-the-fetal-position, paralytic, soul-crushing kind of depression that I know a lot of people suffer from.  It’s more the garden variety, somedays-I-just-get-the-blues kind of sadness.  It feels like a dark, silently negative squatter invades my heart, mind, and spirit and decides to take up residence.  It’s hard to get rid of him.  He came to town about a month ago, and and just this past week, I managed to evict him–for the time being.

Given the fact that I’ve got a pretty good life, I feel like I don’t deserve to be depressed.  I marvel as I see people who have so much less than I have, so much more to complain about, making their way through the world happily and wonder, what am I doing wrong?

When I sink into this state, I can’t seem to enjoy anything.  I’m sensitive to every slight, every perceived criticism. Every negative perception that I have about myself bubbles to the surface just to make me feel more miserable.  I feel like the people I love the most have withdrawn from me when often I am the one pushing them away at the moment that I absolutely need them the most.  My sense of isolation is palpable.

During this past bout I could actually identify some of the triggers that had opened the door to this sadness.  One was having to watch this horrible election cycle play out where instead of being able to root for an inspirational, dynamic, progressive candidate like Barack Obama, I had to entertain he thought that a buffoon like Donald Trump might conceivably take his place.  Only by unplugging myself from the intense day-to-day  coverage could I begin to feel some peace.

Dealing with chronic pain can wear down my spirits.  My depression coincided with a flare-up of some symptoms that have made my lower back and legs feel as though they are on fire at times, all the way down to my feet.  Since exercise and activity are my best weapons against depression, the pain makes it doubly hard to fight back.

When I start to feel some of my most important relationships begin to shift and drift, I worry that I am beginning to lose something that has been a pillar for everything that means anything to me.  I know our bonds are strong, but fear creeps in and doubts create uncertainty and sometimes resentment in my heart.  What did I do?  What should I do?  Those questions become part of the cycle that squashes my spirit.

So, how did I manage to start feeling better?  It was a web of things, but it started in the midst of my daily practice of yoga.  I’m a firm believer in the mind-body-spirit connection, but at the same time, I think of yoga as a form of low-impact exercise that I enjoy and during which I rarely get injured, not as a spiritual exercise.  However, in the midst of a yoga routine the words “gratitude” and “forgiveness” simply floated into my mind.  I could actually see the words in my mind’s eye.

Afterwards, I thought that by consciously practicing gratitude for all that I have, constantly making myself aware of the goodness in my life, I’d be less prone to the self-pity that goes hand in hand with my depressive periods.  I saw that the practice of forgiveness was something that I have long neglected, knowing that I tend to hold on to past grievances long after their code date has expired, doing nothing but poisoning my own mind and spirit.

Armed with this new insight, I felt I was ready for the breakthrough, but having an intellectual realization didn’t mean I was ready to put it to its best use.  I literally have to practice these values daily. I post the words around the house so I have constant reminders that both my thinking and my behavior must change. It’s going to take time.

I lucked out though, and had a lovely week where I managed to reconnect with family members and important friends, sometimes in just casual and informal ways, just enough to stave off that sense of isolation and feel once again connected to the people who nourish my spirit. I felt, once again, how lucky I really am (practicing some gratitude here!).  It could not have come at a better time.

I didn’t really want to write this piece.  Now that things are going better, I didn’t want to go back, but I know how many of us struggle in this same way.  It seemed that sharing one good moment was the least I could do.

A Poem For The Wedding

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It was in Chicago in the spring of 2015 standing under the pavilion pictured above on a cool, spring morning, when my former student and friend, Kevin, told me that this was going to be the site of his wedding in July of 2016.  It was my second trip to Chicago since my retirement and we always made a point of spending some time together enjoying the town’s breweries, restaurants and, always, a game at Wrigley.

We admired the view and imagined how great a day it would be for him, when he suddenly asked if I’d be willing to do a “reading” at the wedding.

First of all, I have NEVER been in someone’s wedding.  Never.  Not a best man, not a groomsman, not a ring bearer.  I honestly thought that Kevin was just being polite to his former English teacher and that he’d eventually realize his mistake and find a way to graceful withdraw the offer and bestow the responsibility on a close friend or family member.  So, I promptly quit thinking about it although I had been truly touched by the gesture.

But then, months later, he followed up with an email to check and make sure I was still planning to come to the wedding, do the reading, and participate in all the pre- and post- wedding festivities.  Then it hit me that I was actually going to have come up with something poignant, meaningful, and hopefully not generic because I had really grown quite fond of Kevin and his fiancé, Elizabeth.

One quick look through my favorite book of poetry convinced me that I could not recycle some old love poem without it turning into an English lecture and a boring list of conventional wedding wisdom.  They were a vibrant, modern couple, and I wanted to give them something more original.

I started to envision a mash-up of poetry and song lyrics and somehow weave them into sort of a cool, spoken-word, hip-hop kind of a rhythmic poem that wouldn’t just be read but would need to be performed. The fact that I have never done anything remotely like this, or that I never actually listen to this kind of poetry/music and wasn’t likely to start, did not seem to intimidate me even though “fear of failure” is pretty high up on my list of personality traits.

I watched the weeks begin to click by and began to work on the poem exactly one month before I would have to present it.  I jotted down pages of lyrics of love songs that I thought might fit and at times would find myself dashing into my study to jot down a fragment of a line or two that had come to me while I was driving or in the shower.  It was constantly on my mind.

I would fall in love with a lyric or a line or a concept that I would come up with and find myself trying to shoehorn it into the poem convincing myself that it really did work. The editing was excruciating as time and time again, I had to jettison my favorite parts because they simply did not work with the whole, and in fact, I watched it get better and better as I let go of unwieldy pieces and smoothed the edges of others. The more I worked on it I was pretty sure it was starting to sound more like Dr. Seuss than Dr. Dre.

I came up with the title, “The Road to Yes”, from an experience with my wife where we noticed that when things were going well that we could quickly get to “yes”–a consensus, an agreement, a compromise.  I did not mean for it to imply that good couples always agree with each other.  It has always seemed to me that if couples always agree, one or both of them are just not paying attention.  Rather, I wanted to say that a couple is likely to be happy and successful if they both assume that agreement or consensus or compromise is always inevitable at times of conflict.

So on that lovely, warm July afternoon, as pretty as a summer Chicago day could possibly be, to honor my friends, Kevin and Elizabeth on their wedding day, I read the following:

The Road to “Yes”

Every relationship begins with a “yes”

There is no “It Had to Be You” (sung)

Though we wish it were true

But somewhere there came a moment

Where both Kevin and Elizabeth said

Yes,

I like you too.

I like you more than I’d like to admit

And I know that I should take some time to sit

And think this through

But there really is something I like about you.

He came from out west and she came from

“My kind of town, Chicago is…” (sung)

he biked around seeking gig after gig

Even on days where it was as hot as hell-y

Just to arrive at a place called Potbelly.

Where he worked for Elizabeth–

it didn’t always go right

“He’s too easy-going”

“She’s a little uptight”

because sometimes love has to grow

and be slow

not everyone gets to say

“you had me at hello”

For love to last

For love to stick

love sometimes is built, brick by brick

slowly and with care

between two lovers who dare

to love and not be scared by

how they are not the same.

Their story began with a timid first yes,

followed by,

the hopeful yes of engagement,

and now the resounding yes

that our friends will share today.

The word “no” is a minefield you must reject

eject

elect instead to say

Yes, to our imperfections

Yes, to our differences

And Yes, I will hold in my heart

every tiny bit of you, and

every tiny bit of us

that has made me love you

and brought us to this very moment.

May your love lead to a dedication to “yes”

To the daily affirmation of your love, your uniquenesses,

your challenges, your flaws, and yes, to the many glowing traits

you both possess

that are the reason

we surround you both with our love today.

Note:  The poem had different stanzas and line breaks, but WordPress tends to toss them all out no matter what I’ve tried so far.

Driving Down Memory Lane–Literally

After four years of retirement, I began to realize that I have more time available than I need for my many critical pursuits:  travel, reading, writing, home projects, gardening, napping, and beer drinking.  So, it was almost inevitable that I began to think more about volunteer work.  I already volunteer occasionally for a local environmental non-profit that specializes in teaching the basics of composting and other sustainability projects.  I also substitute teach at my former high school which is tantamount to volunteering given the amount of money one is not paid for working as a professional teacher.
So when I was ready to make a regular commitment to an organization, I had no hesitation to select San Diego’s Mama’s Kitchen.  Besides having been a regular donor for years, a close friend of mine is the head chef and my wife and I have attended many of their events and fundraisers.  Mama’s Kitchen provides 7 days worth of food, every week of the year, for nearly 600 San Diego residents who are affected by HIV/AIDS or cancer.  They have a cadre of drivers who spread out over the county delivering both hot and cold dishes three times a week and are always in need of more.

After my orientation, I selected the route that was closest to my house, west of where I live now but directly south and east of where I grew up and all around where I went to elementary school.  And there will be another post where I talk about what it is like to work with my clients, how I am slowly getting to know their needs and quirks, and how I have started to worry about them at times, but that is not what this is about. Instead, I discovered that my route unexpectedly took me back to people and memories and experiences that stretched back to my childhood.

I have to mention that I would never complete the route on any given day without the help of Siri.  Left to my own devices and sense of direction, people would starve.  Siri and I have become so close that I actually pay little attention to the street names or the how I am getting from client to client.

So, as I’m blindly following Siri’s friendly but imperious demands to “continue on Federal Blvd for 1 mile and then turn right on 61st St.”, suddenly I’m seeing street signs and buildings that have been hugely significant to my development as a person.  Honestly, I was stunned at how this route would string together memories spanning nearly every decade and every important stage in my life.

The first street sign that brought me up short was La Corta Dr. where my first girlfriend lived.  We were in the first grade.  Having a girlfriend at that early age just meant that you had admitted that you liked her, she happened to like you back, and it was ESSENTIAL that NO ONE should ever know or find out.  Our mom’s drove us back and forth to “play dates” that I have almost no memory of, but I do remember that she was a petite little blonde girl, and I thought she was absolutely beautiful.

And a single block further down was where, Mike, one of my buddies from high school lived on Madera St.  One night when I was sleeping over, I discovered that he lived next to someone who allowed Sandy and the Classics, the pre-eminent cover band for all big high school dances, to practice in their garage.  Hanging outside on a warm summer evening, listening to them working on all of our favorite songs while we dreamed of all the fantastic girls we were never going to meet in the coming year at the dances in our steamy, stinking gym, was like getting to be backstage at a free show. It was about as good as life gets for a ninth grader.

Next thing I know, I’m cruising past Morse High School, the site of my very first teaching experience. Back in 1975 I was assigned to Morse as a student teacher to teach one sophomore English class for one semester.  I had a wonderfully patient master teacher who forgave me all of my inadequacies and spent endless hours talking to me about teaching, life, and personal development.

I so owe those sweet kids an apology.  I was woefully unprepared to teach them anything about reading and writing and simply did not know how to plan thoughtful, cohesive units.  What they got was my energy, enthusiasm, and sense of humor which helped to paper over some of my shortcomings.  The class was a wonderful mix of Anglo, Mexican, Samoan, Guamanian, Native-American and African-American kids. Day after day when my lesson, planned for the 55-minute period, expired after 40 minutes, instead of giving up and giving them “free time” I’d go from student to student and check in with them, badger them about missing homework, find out what they were up to outside of class, encouraging them to keep trying hard.

It was not unusual to see those same students that same afternoon helping out their moms with the grocery shopping at the market, located just a short distance from the school,  where I was a grocery clerk.  It must have been weird for them to see me as their English teacher at 10 o’clock in the morning and as the guy bagging up the family groceries just hours later.

I cruise past the latest iteration of my old grocery store, still anchoring a crumbling strip mall as I’m rounding a corner on my way to my very last client.  But before I make that turn, I pass by Darby St.  Halfway down Darby sits the first house my wife and I owned, our starter house, purchased back in 1977 on the day that Elvis died.  I remember hearing the news as we were in the midst of signing away our lives.

We didn’t think of the house as a wreck, but in fact, it was by every measure a major fixer-upper.  In three years, we painted or wallpapered every square inch of the place inside and out, ripped up the avocado green indoor-outdoor carpet that greeted us as we walked in and re-did all of the flooring.  It was just getting comfortable when we were finally driven to sell after battling constantly with a noisy garage band across the street.  Sandy and the Classics they were not.

I sit in my car across the street from our old house now and I can barely recognize any remnant of the work that we had done.  As far as I can tell, the garage band is long gone.

I rouse myself and get back on the road to make my last delivery to a nice guy who has two very active dogs in a small house that most would call run down.  I suspect his wife is the patient.  He is chatty and fun to talk to.  We say goodbye, and I take the short cut back home where I sit in my driveway, steeped in the snapshots of so many unexpected memories.

I’m Doing The Best That I Can

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Even though I am an early riser, I’m not one of those people that jumps out of bed and is out the door to hit the gym, or take a walk, or do much of anything physically active. I’m more a cup of coffee and newspaper kind of guy. Lately, I’ve had to be a little careful of what I choose to read about in the paper, or I will sink into a depression that sends me right back to bed.

The grief over the Orlando shooting seems almost exhausted, and then I hear about a Sacramento pastor who has already delivered a sermon declaring that the Orlando victims “got what they deserved” and that the only sad thing is that more of them weren’t killed. Really? A pastor?

I’m starting to skip most of the presidential election coverage and really wish the election could be next week instead of having to watch five long and painful months of moves and countermoves, accusations and lies. I try not to read the articles, but it is nearly impossible. It’s like trying to take your eyes off of a slowly evolving but inevitable train wreck that no one can stop.

So when I see something in the paper that really inspires me, I sometimes will clip it out as I did last March when an obituary, of all things, caught my eye.

It was written in tribute to Bob Ebeling (1926-2016) and was entitled Predicted Challenger Disaster.  A booster rocket engineer, Ebeling and other members of his team had begun to worry that the cold temperatures might harm the O-ring seals of the booster joints allowing burning rocket fuel to leak out—the exact problem that led to the Challenger explosion.

Ebeling becamed convinced that the mission and the astronauts were in grave danger. He gathered data that illustrated the risks and spent hours arguing with his bosses to delay the launch. In the end, his concerns were dismissed, and sadly, his predictions were proven to be accurate.

The part of the obituary that got to me though was that he was wracked by guilt over what had happened. He became convinced that he should have done more to stop the launch. He felt personally responsible for something completely outside of his control. After a twenty-year career with NASA, he retired a few months after the disaster.

After he left NASA, he and his wife immersed themselves in conservation work, spending hundreds of hours restoring a bird refuge near his home. “It was his way of trying to make things right,” his daughter was quoted as saying.

But apparently he was gripped by the guilt until just a few months before his death at age 89, when he was featured as a part of an NPR story on the 30th anniversary of the Challenger disaster, and Ebeling was inundated by hundreds of supportive phone calls and letters. His daughter revealed that “It was like the world gave him permission, they said ‘OK you did everything you could possibly do, you’re a good person.’” So this good man, this honorable man finally found peace in the last three months of his life.

It made me think a lot about self-forgiveness, something with which I struggle. It may be time to put a post-it over my desk that reads, “I’m doing the best that I can” and then try letting go.

Note:  As hard as I tried to keep this all in my own words I may have used a phrase of two directly from the AP account of his death. My apologies to the obit authors of the Associated Press.

 

A Day In The Life

The most frequent question any retiree gets asked is “What do you do all day long?” sometimes followed by a forlorn statement of “I don’t know what I would do without work.”

So sad.

I know you think I’m going to wax on about all of the obvious glories of retirement that include things like travel to exotic places, making the world a better place by volunteering for organizations that no one has ever heard of, or training for that ultra-marathon that no one in his right mind should be thinking about doing.

All of those are great things.  But all of them take a lot of time, and/or planning, and/or money.

No, the best thing about being retired is taking care of shit around the house that you’ve just never had time to do.  Believe me, if I have prepared well and constructed an excellent “to do” list, I can putter about with the best of them and not feel a moment of existential angst over whether my life has meaning. I have important things to do.

Feeding the birds

I have taken on the responsibility of feeding all of the birds of Spring Valley, my community.  Ever since I hung, not one, but two, wild bird feeders on my back fence, the word has gotten out, and birds come from far and wide to pillage my feeders.  What used to last all day now gets savaged in a couple of hours, and then they line up along the fence, moping and staring at me inside the house hoping I’ll come out and fill them again, ignoring the two inch carpet of seed they have wasted, throwing it left and right as they look for the good stuff, whatever that is.

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I went out last night to talk with them about the wastefulness, the expense, and their apparent lack of gratitude.

“Cheap, cheap, cheap, cheap, cheap,” was all they had to say.

Ungrateful bastards.

Cleaning stuff up

Do you have any idea how many years it has been since I had cleaned out–I mean really cleaned out–my workbench drawer and cabinet?  No one with a real job has time to do that sort of thing.  I actually took everything out of every container on every shelf and threw away a full trash barrel of stuff and ditched a Christmas tree holder that I have come to loath but have been too cheap to replace.  I went so far as to wipe down each shelf.  The grime was impressive.

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The drawer was a revelation.  It too had plenty of trashables, but more remarkable was how many things of value I discovered.  Like, why can I never find a tape measure when I need one?

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Why can’t I ever find the right drill bit?

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The result of my many years of disorganization has been me frequently storming around  the house in the midst of a project, angry that I can’t seem to keep myself equipped with even the most basic tools.  By the way, has anyone seen my Phillips screw driver?

Organizing stuff

I am in a continual war to create enough space in the garage for both of our cars.  The battle began in ernest when the kids started moving away to college in 2000 and using my garage as their free storage unit.  Well, to be fair, it was the ripple effect caused by their leaving and my wife and I reclaiming the two bedrooms that we had loaned to them for eighteen years. This meant boxing up all of their toys, trophies, games, and books so that we could re-take the house.

The lack of wall space available because of their boxes of stuff means that I’m continually looking for creative solutions of where to put everyday household stuff that we are continually tripping over.  There are just not enough corners to pile this crap into. Part of every day is coming up with solutions to complex problems that can only be solved by a simple 29-cent hook.

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Planting stuff

I like to grow things.  It started when we bought our place in 1980.  It was move-in ready on the inside and a barren wasteland on the outside.  One of my greatest joys has been watching my pine trees grow from one-gallon twigs to the 80-foot sentinels that surround the front yard.

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On a smaller scale, I try to keep a vegetable garden going year-round now.  Most recently, I rescued this tomato plant from Dixieline.  I felt sorry for it because it was sickly looking with drooping yellow leaves, sort of dried up and spotted.  Kind of reminded me of me.  I brought him home and replanted him in a pot with some good soil and home-made compost, and as you can see, he is no longer the 98-pound weakling of the garden department.  I can’t wait for the yellow tomatoes he is going to give me as summer comes on.

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So, you see, it doesn’t take much to fill up a day.  This doesn’t even include exercise, yoga, reading, napping, and doing absolutely nothing–all things at which I excel.  But just getting through a few items on the ever-present to-do list can leave me feeling completely fulfilled and satisfied, ready to reward myself with a cold brew out on the back deck where I can relax and listen to the sounds of evening coming on.

“Cheap, cheap, cheap, cheap, cheap.”

Bastards.

“He Swings, and Hits a Loooong Drive to DEEP Centerfield…”

 

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…where I loped after it as I watched it sail over my head, chased it down, and ran it in toward the infield until I felt I could make a respectable looking throw into the pitcher.

It’s a warm night in Kalama Park in the town of Kehei on the island of Maui and thanks to my brother-in-law’s invitation, I’m chasing fly balls around the outfield as the guys on his team take their weekly batting practice.  It is the first organized baseball activity I’ve done in maybe 25 years and the first time I’ve put on a glove since 2009. I know that because on a spring night in 2009 I, along with the other four San Diego County Teachers of the Year, got to throw out the first pitch at a San Diego Padres game.  From the mound, I threw a perfect, 47 MPH fastball for a strike, and the entire experience was much, much cooler than I could have ever imagined.

Tonight though, I have very modest goals.  I would like to avoid injuring myself, and I’d really like to catch at least one fly ball hit to me. And while this is the most casual of practices, in the most casual of settings, it only takes moments before my imagination kicks in, and I’m getting into a “ready position” and imagining that I’m the new centerfielder for my San Diego Padres.

As I adjust my cap to shield my eyes from the lights, and as balls start flying toward the outfield, I can hear the Padre radio announcer begin to narrate my every play.

Ground ball right up the middle.  Rookie centerfielder, Tom Waldron, is on it quickly and flips it in toward second base holding the runner to a single.

I discover the ground balls are pretty much a cinch except for the fact that my arm isn’t warmed up properly and my shoulder gets cranky on me almost from the first throw. That’s OK.  Have to play through the pain.

There’s a drive into right centerfield.  It looked like Waldron had a shot, but he didn’t get a good jump on it, and it’s past him.  This one will roll all the way to the fence.

In fact, any ball hit past one of us rolls all the way to the fence since it is a fairly small field, but I’m definitely having trouble tracking balls as they come off the bat, trying to judge just how hard they are hit.  This is tougher than it looks.

My brother-in-law steps in and waves me over into right field so he can practice hitting to the opposite field.  This puts a wicked slice on the ball and makes them even harder to judge.  Plus, he’s the teams best hitter and sprays the ball around everywhere.

Urban hits a rocket into right.  Waldron is giving chase, but the ball is curving away from him, and he will not get there.  Another double for Tom Urban.

I try standing on the line and letting the ball curve toward me, but nothing works.  I’m either too deep or too shallow or just too darn slow.  I’m getting a little winded chasing after his line drives and I’m starting to not like him very much.  However, I’m happy that I’m running fairly well and haven’t pulled or sprained anything yet.

I can tell practice is beginning to wind down and starting to despair that I will have spent an one and one-half hours chasing down balls without a single catch. And then suddenly there it is.   One of the players lofts a ball into short center, and I drift over and feel the ball settle into my glove as if I do this kind of thing all the time.

It’s a pop fly to center field.  This should do it.  Waldron trots over and….he’s got it.  Routine play, for out number three.

I’m actually delighted beyond words.  I have to pretend that it’s no big deal, because it isn’t, but it just felt so darn good–outdoors, on a beautiful night, playin’ ball.