Paying Off The House

I thought there should have been fireworks.

Six weeks ago, my wife and I walked into our credit union late in the afternoon, waited patiently for a teller, and then told her we wanted to pay off the balance of our mortgage loan.

It was not a spontaneous decision.  I had begun planning, over a year ago, to begin making double payments and make a push to get the final payment made in November, thirty-seven years (almost to the day) after taking out our original loan.

I guess the confetti canons and bubble machines were in storage because rather than celebration what we got mostly was confusion.  The young teller had to call over a supervisor.

“He wants to pay off his mortgage.  How do we even do that?”  She was staring diligently at her computer looking for the “paying off the mortgage” icon.  It wasn’t there.

The supervisor only knew that they needed to call the loan servicing department to ask them what to do.  Apparently, this happens so seldom, they just aren’t very familiar with the process.  We finally jumped through all of the hoops and settled up with them.  They were very happy for us and offered their congratulations.  I just had one question.

“Don’t I get something that says that I now own the house–sort of like the pink slip on a car?”

There was a hesitation.  The supervisor jumped in with, “Yes. The loan department will send you something official in a few weeks.  I’m pretty sure.”

I chose not to worry about the details. I had an expensive bottle of champagne chilling at home and was anxious to get back and sip it slowly with my wife and savor the moment.  There was a feeling of satisfaction, something akin to the feeling I had in seeing each of our kids graduate from college knowing that my wife and I had found a way to make that possible without sinking them or ourselves into debt.

Our home is a modest 3-bedroom house in a suburb of San Diego.  We bought it in 1980, a spec home that was immaculate on the inside and barren of any kind of landscaping on the outside.  Getting the yard fully landscaped has been a 37-year pain in my ass that still goes on today as I tackle previously untouched areas and try to revitalize parts that need re-landscaping.

However, every day I can enjoy my three towering pine trees planted early on from one-gallon containers, mere twigs that I stuck in the soil some 35 years ago.

And there are 20 relatively new iceberg rose bushes that now rim our lawn, the same lawn that provided room for softball and soccer practice for so many years.  I visit my vegetable garden every morning, which produces year-round now that I’m retired, and marvel at the beauty of home-grown food.

The inside of the house seemed firm enough when we bought the place but turned out to have a certain elasticity to it that I could not have imagined back in 1980 when Mary and I moved in.  It seemed huge at the time–3 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms, a living, dining and family room with a two-car garage just for the two of us?  Are you kidding me?!

Then in ’82 when Nico was born, it got a little smaller, shrunk a little, now having this tiny person sleeping across the hall from us.  When Emily came along in ’87 our study evaporated and the house continued to contract as the kids grew bigger and simply sucked more air and space out of the house.  We nearly reached critical mass and thought long and hard about moving to a bigger place, but decided to sit tight and wait for the kid’s planned exits to college to give us more space again.

And the magic happened.  Nico headed off to UCSB in 2000 and Emily departed for UCLA in 2005, and late in the night I could actually hear the house give off a sigh as it stretched and once again grew to the size it had been when we first moved in.

So yesterday, when I sat down to do the bills, for the first time since I moved out of my parents’ house in July of 1973, I had no one to whom I needed to give money so that I could continue to live in my place.  It truly was my place for the very first time.

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.

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



…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.


When I used to have students ask me to write their letters of recommendation for the colleges they thought they longed to go to, one of the boxes I was almost always required to check was the student’s level of “intellectual curiosity.” To be honest, I think this is a great quality for other people to have. I just don’t think I’d rate very high on the scale.

I mostly enjoy reading mindless detective fiction and watching unchallenging (but well-written) TV shows. If I stumble across something on the History or Discovery channel, I’ll rarely hang around to watch. I only want to learn about what I want to learn about—something about the next city or country I’m going to visit, that kind of thing.

Today, though, I was thinking about how my mom had spectacularly lied to me when I was young and curious. It probably happened when one of our neighbors or relatives was pregnant and I asked her that dreaded (at the time) question about “how does the baby get out of her tummy?”

Even though my mom was an RN, I could tell my question made her uncomfortable. It was the 60’s and I’m sure I must have been in elementary school at the time, and we simply never talked about reproduction or bodily functions. Never.

So, she took a deep breath and told me that when it was time, a “natural opening” in the body, “the bottom” opened up and the baby squeezed through. I’m sure, at the time, that I thought the whole thing was just gross and certainly had no follow-up questions, but the image stayed with me—for years. We had all been crapped out of our mothers. That was just how it worked.

Imagine my surprise when my nervous sophomore biology teacher got to the chapter on human reproduction and was determined to find a way to make a discussion of sex boring. He succeeded admirably. But imagine my confusion when he threw up a transparency on the overhead projector showing the outline of a pregnant woman in the process of giving birth, and the baby was headed in entirely the wrong direction.

I think by then I knew what a vagina was so I knew there was another “natural opening” but I kept staring at that diagram and trying to reconcile it with what I had been told and had believed for maybe 7 or 8 years. I felt the impulse to raise my hand and try to clarify things, but even then I was smart enough to realize that there was a pretty good chance I was going to reveal my total ignorance if I did.

Since during those hormonal years I was mostly concerned with simply finding a kind girl who would let me experience all of the fun stuff that comes before pregnancy and birth, I didn’t feel scarred by the experience. I could understand why my mom struggled with treating the subject clearly and rationally. I soon learned that friends and heavily dog-eared books were much better sources of information than parents.

Even though I tried to be much more open and matter-of-fact as a parent, it became clear to me that it was a subject that kids don’t quite always know how to talk about either. I hope your generation is doing better at it that we did, but I’m not at all sure. After all, we never talk about it.



Grieving in Teaspoons


When it comes to grief, I often feel there is something I am missing.

I watch my friends and relatives deal with the loss of a loved one and often they are drenched in sorrow, tears, depression, and anger. I just passed the sixth anniversary of the death of my dad, and I have lost some friends and colleagues about whom I cared deeply. In fact, as I enter my 60’s, I find myself attending too many funerals as social events. However, in watching the grieving of others, I have been surprised (so far) by my own sense of detachment, as if I’m failing at grief.

My dad, Jack, was a wonderful man. He gifted me with his sense of humor, an indispensible tool in my experience as a teacher, and he lived his 86 years with a sort of joyful kindness and a true affection for others, especially his grandchildren. When we gathered for his funeral, the same comments came up over and over. No one could remember ever seeing him angry. No one could remember him uttering an unkind word toward another person.

As a child, he came to know the things I cared about and made sure I got to experience them. He was never a sports guy, but he could see my interest grow. So he made sure I got to see the Dodgers in Chavez Ravine (unfortunately a guy named Joe Moeller was pitching that day instead of the great Don Drysdale or even greater Sandy Koufax). We made regular trips to Westgate Park where the minor league Padres played their games. We experienced hockey, professional basketball, and the Harlem Globetrotters together. When Bill Cosby broke on the scene, and I began to memorize his comedy routines and perform them at Scouting events, he surprised me with tickets to see him live on stage. I am positive he would never have spent that money on himself just for his own enjoyment.

My dad’s last three years were difficult ones. He became increasingly crippled by arthritis and was in constant pain. Dementia began creeping in. He kept punctuating conversations with phrases like, “I bet you never thought you’d see your old dad all crippled up like this” as I’d help him into the car on the way to endless doctor appointments. More and more often, even at holiday gatherings, he began to express his desire for his life to be done with. Hearing every one of those woeful comments was a moment of grief for me.

He passed away in the hospital, sneaking away suddenly and quietly. He woke up in the morning, began teasing the nurses and talked one of the pretty ones into helping him with his morning coffee. He got on the phone to my mom to find out when she was coming in to see him and took time to tell her once again how much he loved her. And then, when no one was looking, he died. It was May 2, 2008.

I expected to have a wrenching, emotional response even though he had been through three years of suffering, and we had had numerous close calls during that time. Instead, I found myself consumed with the details of his funeral, keeping an eye on my mother and my children, and in writing a eulogy that would give him all the credit he deserved.

That emotional response never came for me, not entirely. My good friend Stephen noticed it and told me, “You can’t just be the tough guy through all of this. You have to allow yourself time to feel it.” But it just wasn’t there. Not then.

The first time it hit me was in June. I was on a walk through the neighborhood and mentally working on a “to do” list, and it hit me that it was almost Father’s Day and that I needed to be sure to get by the store and pick up a card for……oh, yeah. I didn’t need to do that. I would never need to buy a Father’s Day card again. Suddenly, his loss began to feel real.

In September, I was chosen as one of five San Diego County Teachers of the Year, a truly memorable recognition, at a televised, gala event at the Balboa Theater in San Diego. In accepting the award, my thoughts went right to him and how proud he would have been to see me receive that award. He was never the kind of father that I had to work to impress or please, but someone who always gave me the confidence that came with knowing that my father believed that I had already exceeded every expectation that he could ever have for me. I missed him there, on that stage that night.

One of the most trivial, but most painful moments came when I grew tired of seeing “Mom and Dad” on my cell phone every time I had to call my mom. It was inaccurate. Dad was gone. Dad was not going to answer.   I needed to delete my father. Every press that removed the “and Dad” felt like a rejection and a betrayal.

Even today, I will catch myself thinking of an odd encounter or a pleasant moment and how I need to get on the phone and call my dad and tell him the story. And then I catch myself in mid-thought and lose him once again.

I began to realize, early in the process of writing this, that not only does everyone grieve differently, but that my reactions to grief are packaged all around the history and circumstances of the loss. There are potential losses that I refuse to even think about much less write about. I can’t begin to imagine how crushing they might be.

For now, in my way, I still grieve for my dad. This grief continues to be doled out to me in teaspoons, painful ones. Perhaps the next one will be a tidal wave.