Connected

Yesterday, Mary and I took a hike to Kitchen Creek Falls (near Buckman Springs), and enjoyed a nice view of the falls but decided not to climb all the way down because we had taken some wrong turns and were getting tired.  As we began to head back, we could see a young couple approaching.

“Hey, Mr. Waldron!” the young woman called out.  Yep.  Middle of nowhere.  Former student.

This happens pretty often. It’s a function of having taught in the same school for thirty six years and living in the same community.  It’s actually pretty nice.

Like, there were those years where after coaching AYSO soccer for 10 years so that I could spend more time with my daughter, my former players started showing up in my classroom, kids who I had coached when they were as young as 6, now appearing as teenaged students, and their parents, happy that “Coach Tom” was now their daughter’s English teacher.

There was the time that, when I was an acting vice-principal, I had to pretend to be stern with a 9th grade girl over a minor disciplinary incident.  She was dissolving into tears especially over the fact that I was going to have to call her mom.  I knew that the mom had high expectations for her girls because I had already had her two older sisters as students in my class.  One day I discovered the eldest, tucked away in a corner of the school in tears.  I sat with her for a while, and she told me about the constant pressure she felt from her mom, no matter how hard she tried or how well she did.  Years later, when I was looking for a referral to an acupuncturist, a friend recommended a woman who had a clinic nearby.  It turned out to be the mother of the three girls.  It took us a while to make the connection, but when her eldest daughter began to practice in the same clinic and take over some of her patients, my former student became my doctor and treats me weekly now.  She remembers our high school interactions and the support I offered.  I get invited to her children’s birthday parties.

At the end of 2008, I went through a rigorous, but exciting process, and was selected as one of five San Diego County Teachers of the Year.  I received many pretty certificates and collected a lot of pieces of engraved acrylic trophies, most of which I’ve discarded now.  But the nicest recognition happened when I walked into my local pub, and the man who had run my local hardware store for many years was sitting at the bar and when he noticed me got all excited.  “You got picked as a teacher of the year!” he said, reaching into his back pocket and pulling out a profile of me that had been written up in the local paper.  He’d been holding on to that clipping knowing he might run into me at the bar eventually.  As I settled in, he began going up and down the bar and showing all the regulars the article and pointing at me and pretty soon I had a group of guys coming up to shake my hand and offer their congratulations.  The band broke out their rendition of the CSN song “Teach Your Children.”  It was so spontaneous and heartfelt that I’m sure I did not stop smiling all evening.

So, when I look back at my work life I wonder sometimes about how limited it was, how many experiences I may have missed by not branching out a little more.  But I loved what I did, and I really value the connections that I have in my life as a result of the choice that I made.

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.

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.

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.

The Hope That Only Comes In Spring

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On March 21 I’ll pack up the car and make the 5½ hour drive from my home in the San Diego area to Phoenix, AZ where I will spend the next three days jetting around this sprawling metropolis to watch entirely meaningless baseball games.

I will follow my San Diego Padres around to Peoria, Glendale, Scottsdale, Goodyear or wherever they might be playing on a given day and find a place in the shade to sit and watch. Like a baseball scout, I’m curious about the team they have put together, and the only way to evaluate is to be there and watch maybe twenty players and 5 or 6 pitchers rotate through the game as I play along with the coaches and trying to figure out which players will bust out as stars and which players will simply be busts.

I will probably even go three hours early to one of the games to do nothing other than stand with other fans and watch both the major and minor leaguers go through drills and batting practice. It is boring and repetitive stuff, but you get to be so close to the players, watch them trip up, listen them razz each other.

And then as the players rotate to different fields, they will stand near a fence or cordoned-off area and the gracious ones will sign autographs, chat with fans, and allow them to take pictures. Others will load their hands up with gear and trot quickly on to the next field ignoring the fans or promising to sign, “as soon as I get done.” They never do.

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I watched former Padre stars Huston Street and Jake Peavy go out of their way to sign every item thrust at them and lean in for every selfie requested. I watched former skipper Bruce Bochy sign a ball for my daughter and kid around with her about a question she asked him about an impending trade.

I caught the great Tony Gwynn a couple of times back when the Padres trained in Yuma, once as he took the long way around the fields trying to sneak in the clubhouse away from the throngs of fans who adored him. I spent two or three wonderful minutes chatting with Jerry Coleman, the voice of the Padres for so many years, asking him about his days with the Yankees before he got dragged away by someone more important. I stood in line to get an autograph from the forgettable pitcher Eric Show, passing on a chance to ink a promising young second baseman, Roberto Alomar. After all, he was just a minor leaguer—a minor leaguer who would eventually end up in the Hall of Fame.

Two years ago I contacted Corey Brock who covers the Padres for the MLB.com. He writes articles almost daily as the season begins and is a frequent contributor on sports talk radio and does TV interviews as a “Padre insider.” I emailed him about my interest in sports writing, we exchanged phone numbers, and eventually arranged a time where he came out of the Padre offices and sat with me for about ½ hour just talking baseball and the business of sports writing before he got called away to cover a press conference.

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There is an intimacy in spring training that you just don’t get anywhere else. The ballparks are small, and players will frequently sign autographs and hang out with fans before and after the games. While I don’t certainly don’t venerate any of these guys, I get a kick out of watching them up close before they get to the real season, playing real games in their cavernous stadiums. That being said, I will undoubtedly become a drooling, idiot fan if I stumble upon Trevor Hoffman this spring and happen to have a fresh baseball and Sharpie in my hand.

If you hate baseball, you probably did not read past the first line of this one. If you are not a San Diego fan, almost none of the names I mentioned will mean anything. It’s OK, I get it. But for three glorious days, I will be toasting in the warm Arizona sun, drinking beer, and rooting for Tyson Ross to find his rhythm, and for Andrew Cashner to get his head screwed on straight. I’ll be cheering if there is any sign that Matt Kemp might find his swing before July this year, and that Wil Myers will get through the season without having his wrist fall apart.

Any baseball fan knows that spring training is the season of hope—the hope that this is the year when the gods of baseball will choose to smile on their team.

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If It’s Friday, It Must Be Barry White

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To be honest, I think most of Barry White’s music is pretty awful. That being said, two songs—“Can’t Get Enough of Your Love Babe,” and “You’re The First, The Last, My Everything”—belong right up there in the Catchy-Ass Music Hall of Fame.

I first got hooked on just how great these tunes were when I noticed that one of the sports guys I listened to on the radio as I was driving home from work every day,  ended his program with a small clip of “You’re the First…” and with the words, “Hey, if you ain’t getting any, it ain’t Barry White’s fault.” The words made no sense, and had nothing to do with sports, but I loved the fact that he did the same thing every day. It was his send off. His ritual.

I’m not sure when I started incorporating music into my classroom (I taught English) but it came from noticing how often some periods began with such lethargy that I felt I was lifting a boulder of boredom before I even got started. So, I started picking out two or three songs to play from the start of the passing period until I had shaken hands with each of the kids, taken roll, and was ready to start the day. When the music went off, kids knew it was time for class to start. I created playlists I thought they would like, made them listen to some international music like Manu Chao, Mexican fusion from Los Lobos and Ozomatli, and lots of Beatles and Motown—basically anything that I liked. Occasionally my son or daughter would advise me to slip in something current, just to keep the “cool factor” up, so I’d surprise the kids with that.

But Fridays were always reserved for Barry White. Monday through Thursday was  a mixed bag, but every Friday was a Barry White Friday. I didn’t explain why, or tell the story about how I had come upon it. I just wrote on the board on the first Friday of the year, “Today is a Barry White Friday.” For some kids, it took months to even notice. Some picked it up right away, that Fridays were different. Fridays were to be celebrated.

Kids are so immersed in so many things that I had to laugh at the number of times I would crank Barry up, and I’d hear someone exclaim, “Oh, my god! It is Friday!” Dancing would then sometimes ensue.

At least two or three times a year, I’ll get a text or FB message from a student telling me about how they were walking through a grocery store or listening to the radio and one of his songs would come on, songs that I had played for 36 almost-consecutive Fridays, and they would be flooded with the memories of senior year.

I don’t think anything about Barry White made my kids better students, improved test scores, or fundamentally changed the arc of their lives. It was just one of those very little things that made our class a little different, a little special. Something that their friends in other classes wouldn’t get, and would never quite understand.

 

 

 

 

“The Kids Are All Right”

My children are now 28 and 33, and yes, it makes me feel old to write that down. Typical of their generation, they are both single and both still testing out a number of possible career choices. Luckily, they are both bright, hard-working, loving individuals and I don’t spend as much time worrying about them as I used to, maybe because they live in different cities and we only get edited versions of their daily lives.

But I have no trouble remembering the early years. Emily (our youngest) did not sleep through the night for the first two years. I have no idea how my wife and I soldiered on with heavy work schedules, early mornings, and no sleep.

We went through the usual number of medical emergencies including several broken wrists due to horses and soccer. When he was a toddler, my son, Nico, implanted a purple button so deeply up his nose that we couldn’t see it and had to take it on faith that this justified a run to the urgent-care clinic. I remember thinking to myself, “You’d better have a button up your nose.” He did and the doctor calmly took some tool that looked like a cross between pliers and tweezers and snaked it out for us.

Emily, my youngest, scared the living shit out of us when one afternoon she suddenly seemed to lose all strength in her legs. She must have been 5 or 6 and seemed quite happy to squirm about on the floor, but we were quickly again off to urgent care for an exam and blood tests. They started throwing around scary words like meningitis. That night we got a call that they wanted to us to come back in the morning to re-do a blood test. The first one had revealed a very high (or was it low?) white cell count and they needed to confirm the results. I called my mom, the registered nurse and asked her what this meant and she hesitated before I pressed her. “Well, it could mean leukemia, but…” I don’t remember the rest of the conversation.

The next morning, they got her right in and drew blood and my wife and I sat with her in an exam room waiting very nervously. Visions of losing my baby girl to some awful disease filled me with dread as we waited. The doctor popped in and without hesitation said “Everything is fine.” The original test had been faulty. By then, Emily was running about like a normal kid again, but I felt like I had aged.

Looking back I can pick out two things about which I was incredibly naive when it came to parenting. The first was my assumption that everything we had learned raising the first child would be applicable to the second child. Not even close. I remember trying to give Emily a pacifier, which Nico had taken to as if his life depended on it. Emily kept spitting it out and looking at me as if to say, “Why do you insist on sticking this piece of plastic in my mouth?” Everything was different. We were five years older. Emily had a sibling to contend with which Nico never did. Her temperament was entirely different.

My second grand misconception was that my job as a parent was pretty much over once I had gotten them off to college. Wow, was I wrong about that. It wasn’t just the financial support; it was everything. I’ve come to believe that kids need more parenting in their twenties than maybe at any other time in their lives. As my father-in-law used to say: “Little people, little problems; big people, big problems.”

I’m proud of the adults they have become. If anything, I would worry that I had made them boring and overly-cautious like I am, but they seem anything but. They seem to be enjoying life and making their way just fine, despite broken bones and purple buttons.