Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Stupor Bowl

Permit me to be a bit of crank today. I am sick of the hyperbolic cacophony of Super Bowl related nonsense that has flooded America this week. You heard it here first: football is an excuse to worship violence as part of faux tribal warfare. Remember when games were considered recreation? On Super Bowl Sunday we get a pseudo-national holiday replete with domestic violence, rampant gambling, and overindulgence in food and drink.

Let’s examine just one small glob of nonsense from that most middle American of Middle America publications, Parade Magazine, a cheaply printed, mentally challenged publication given away free in Sunday newspapers across the country. No deep, penetrating articles and analysis ever graced the pages of this rag; the reportage in Parade never delves deeper than what shoes a particular actress wore on the red carpet, or what Mick Jagger thinks of Maroon 5.

This week’s screaming cover story is “Food! Football! Fun!” No clever headline for these folks! Inside, we are treated to statements like “With so much that divides us politically and culturally, and so much that isolates us technologically, celebrating the Super Bowl has become a joyous communal rite.” Yes, gather around the campfire, ye animal-skin-wearing brethren and let us summon the gods and tell stories of the 46th war of the Titans.

We are told that 110.9 million gallons of beer are sold for the Big Game, as well as 125 billion chicken wing portions and 11.2 million pounds of potato chips. In addition, 4.5 million Americans will by a new television set for the game, and in total, 10.1 billion dollars will be dedicated to Super Bowl spending on items ranging from food to furniture.

But wait—there’s more.

A sidebar allows us to identify specific character traits of partygoers by the temperature of the hot sauce they prefer. In a section entitled “Be Your Own Referee,” we are warned to “not let guests’ unsportsmanlike conduct spoil all the fun.” Our friends are classified by type—the Over-imbiber, The Tireless Talker, The Nacho-Averse—with clear strategies to prevent them from disrupting the good time guaranteed for all.

Hollace Schmidt gives us “Four Rules For A Foolproof Time,” including setting up a “choice of party zones” for guests. “Create two viewing areas,” Schmidt writes, “one for those who want to see every play and one for the chatters and snackers.” Hosts should also “provide activities for young partygoers,” “offer extra entertainment to the grown-ups” (Super Bowl Bingo!) and be prepared for uninvited guests who drop in.

Here is the crank’s view of the Big Game: we are being duped. We are being lulled into a consuming stupor. Wake up, America! The Big Game is nothing more than an opportunity to watch overpaid muscleheads act violently while we are manipulated by crass, superficial, lowest-common-denominator advertisers into buying stuff we don’t need and can’t afford. Put down the chicken wings, step away from the crock pot of melted cheese and drop the rest of the submarine sandwich upon which you gnaw and wise up. You can wear the jersey, but that doesn’t make you part of the team; your team may win, but you had nothing to do with it. And on Monday morning, we will all go back to our lives no better for the secular holiday called Super Bowl Sunday. Only the heartburn will remain.

Or, go ahead and watch, but consider the irony: the most violent, macho, testosterone-driven sporting event is really a contest watched by millions of Americans featuring big, sweaty men in tight pants grabbing each other with a halftime show performed by that has-been of mindless pop, Madonna, who has promised to “bring gay to the Super Bowl.” In a country divided over same-sex marriage and rife with homophobia, that may be the weirdest part of the whole charade.

Photo courtesy of AM 1400 ESPN

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Teaching Everything

I have come to the conclusion that the best years of my teaching career were the ones where I taught a single curriculum middle school classroom. It was a Catholic school, and I taught every subject to my sixth graders from religion to social studies to English to math. Throw in art, music, and handwriting and we had a complete day. The only subject I didn’t teach was physical education. This allowed me to develop broad themes that inter-linked the subjects, and the day became a seamless exploration of learning. I loved every minute of it. Some subjects were challenging because I was not an expert; math and science were probably my weaker areas, but I enjoyed the opportunity to investigate and research these subjects in my preparation, and I found ample avenues where I could link them to what we were studying in history, social studies and literature.

Traditionally, those teachers pursuing an elementary credential studied all the subjects. They were the ones prepared for a self-contained classroom. Middle and high school teachers got the single subject credential and focused on a particular discipline in the humanities or sciences and spent their careers teaching that subject. Most teachers major in a single subject as undergraduates: an English major or a biology major, for example. Those who are best prepared for a multi-subject classroom are liberal studies or humanities majors, but those disciplines are often looked down upon for being too general, or because they cover large swaths of learning too diluted and not nearly academic enough.

It is time to change that way of thinking.

Teachers today come out of university not knowing enough. Sure they know theories; they know buzzwords like “educating the whole child,” “modalities of learning,” and “authentic assessment.” They know how to navigate legal issues, “value-added assessment,” “reduction in force notices.” Many of them, and their administrators, are particularly good at blaming others for failing classes or underperforming students. It is the parenting or the home life or the economic level of the students, but certainly not the school or the teacher.

There are many teachers who know quite a lot about their subjects. They know all the currently popular literature for the classroom. They can work the gadgets, computers, peripherals, and fancy overhead projectors to create mind-numbing PowerPoint lessons that amount to a slide show with words that the teacher then reads to the class. They can develop time-wasting group assignments—peer editing, reading circles, and class presentations—that never quite live up to their billing, but do shift the focus away from teacher directed learning. In fact, that last phrase has become unwelcome in the classroom: teacher-directed learning. Students should be allowed to learn at their own pace in a methodology that meets their preferred unique learning modality.

This is verbiage. We can use the vocabulary and adopt the latest fad but the fact is that from Socrates to the most successful teacher working today, education has always been about a smart, savvy teacher asking students questions and demanding that they find the answers. Teachers must be passionate about learning; they must be students themselves first, life long learners who have wide interests and see the connections upon which this world is built radiating out in every direction, to every corner of the universe.

In today’s classroom, granted, the lecturer is a dinosaur. And to give a nod to those modalities, lecturing a group of students is probably the least-effective way to reach into a skull and set fire to brain matter. With the internet, Google, and the ability to do distance research in some of the finest libraries of the world, the teacher lecturing the information is just wrong. The information is not as important as how to manage the information sources and facilitate the application of what has been learned. I tell my students that the answers are not nearly as important as the questions. The answers already exist—in books, on the internet, in journals and articles. But if one does not ask the question, or even know what to question, the answers will never be found. One needs a good magnet to find the needle in the haystack, but the needle is there. It is the question that leads us home.

Teachers need to possess a broad range of knowledge. History teachers must know the world’s religions; English teachers must know sociology; students of medicine must know how to be journalists (yes, we must also have a broad range of skills). There can be no more limits in the classroom, no boundaries, no isolated disciplines. The days of academic departments are over. The information age has blown out the walls of the classroom, and there is no turning back now.

Teaching a single curriculum middle school classroom worked best for me because I engineered lessons across the curriculum. We studied nothing in a vacuum. Our unit on Central America included literary works from Panama, Costa Rica, and El Salvador. We used artistic skills and modeling clay to make topographical maps of the region on a plywood platform in the back of the room. When we studied evolution, I chose some easier portions of Darwin for my students to read. Religion class meant reading the Bible, of course, but also introducing some basic philosophy, sometimes in more simplified terms.

In many cases, I let themes or even current events dictate how I approached a subject. For instance, one of the amusement parks near Los Angeles has a day where math students are invited in to compute the design specifications of roller coasters. It is a chance for students to apply the theories and equations they studied in the classroom to a real world scenario.

In short, I ask my students to be omnivores of knowledge, true consumers of learning. In a way, this did shift the teaching from focusing on me to learning from the world, and often the students absorbed as much as they could at their own speed. However, I modeled this “world as my classroom” learning method for my students. I wanted to learn, too, so I became the student leader in the field. And I did learn, as I was teaching, and that made every day a tremendous amount of fun.

Teaching is a way of life, not a profession. Learning is a way of life, not something done for a few brief years in school and then forsaken for making money. A teacher who sees the interconnections in the universe and explores them fully with students, without fear, without trepidation over looking like he or she doesn’t know something, that will be a teacher with a dynamic classroom.

Education reform is not about integrating more technology, raising test scores, or doing more with less. It all boils down to a return to loving learning, and inspiring students to seize the day and follow the questions, wherever they may lead. The rest will take care of itself.

Photo courtesy of St. Elisabeth School, Van Nuys, California

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Never Passing "Go"

This is an edited version of my story published by Karl Heiss in his magazine, Hippo, in that long ago summer of 1990.

* * * *

Outside the clear glass windows, the headlights of passing cars hurried home in the dark. Inside the crowded restaurant was a swirl of frenetic movement composed of wait staff, busboys, and patrons moving and bumping their way from booth to booth. People at a window table—man, woman, a bond between them that one could see in their eyes—whispered, smiled, chatted. The whole globe of this swirling world existed only for themselves. They stood suddenly, nuzzling each other and moved out of the restaurant together. In contrast, Clara and Josh sat, nearly motionless at a nearby table, he in his standard dark jeans, black tee shirt, and tweed jacket, and she in a simple pink, cotton dress.

“So?” she asked.

“So?” he replied.

The waiter rushed by, sizzling platters resting on both arms. Tangible smells of roasted onion floated above their heads, mingling with the cigarette smoke of the restaurant.

“Do you play Monopoly?” Clara asked.

A five year courtship and he still found cause to wrinkle his eyebrows at her. “Only on rainy days.”

“I always spend my money buying properties. It’s tough because I usually wind up selling them back for cash.” Josh looked around at the other tables, afraid people might have heard Clara’s confession. “How about you?” she asked.

“No, I don’t take chances with my money.”

“It’s only paper.”

A well-known character actor sat in a corner booth. Clara knew he was somebody, but could not remember his name. A woman going to the restroom so intently watched him that she collided with the busboy. Polite apologies were exchanged and both parties kept moving.

“So, can we set a date?” she asked, avoiding his eyes. She feared there might be something too easily seen in his face. She knew this was wrong. He should ask.

“I don’t know.”

She glanced at him but he wasn’t looking at her.

“What about this year at school?” she persisted. “It worked, Josh. We lived together six months and you said yourself it was the best.”


“Doesn’t that mean something?”

“Sure,” he answered, meeting her gaze. “It means we saved money!”

Clara couldn’t swallow the choking sensation. “We were good, Josh…” She let her voice trail off. The muscles in her back were corded, tensioned like guitar strings. She kneaded the skin on the back of her neck.

“What do you want me to do?”

“I don’t want anything,” she snapped. “What’s wrong? What changed you? We’ve been over and over this. Nothing was going to stop us. We didn’t need anybody’s blessing. You said,” she choked.


“You said you loved me.”

“Yeah, but money, what are we going to do for money?”

“We talked about that too! What happened at that tennis match today?”


“What did my father tell you?” She wanted to slam her fork into the wood table. It would stick there, wavering slightly. No one would be able to remove it.

“It was just tennis,” he said. “It was just a game.”

Clara hated tennis. Her father always made her play. Summers, winters, rain, heat, or cold, he would always force her to play. After she had the heat stroke July of her sophomore year at State, the game was over. Daddy still liked tennis, but he never bothered her about playing anymore. Instead, he challenged everyone else—co-workers, acquaintances, her boyfriends. She should have gone with Josh and daddy. She knew her father: big, red-faced man, and how he monopolized the game and the conversation. It was money, finances, stock portfolios. It was college graduations and futures and how much money could be made with certain degrees and occupations. That’s all that ever mattered to her father. Life was a Monopoly game. He had his favorite piece, his favorite moves, and he always avoided unwise or impulsive decisions. Wrong moves must be terminated. Send them to jail. Never let them pass “Go.”

Josh was so open with his brown-grey eyes that changed with his mood. He was boyish and innocent and poetic. The man with two divorces and four daughters sucked him up on a clay tennis court at some country club and spit him out into the net. To her father, Josh was weak. He wanted a money man—a man with substance and meat. A man with these qualities had backing. This was most important: he must have money. Love never mattered. He didn’t want a poet to marry his daughter. Innocent people get slaughtered and poets never play Monopoly.

The waiter levitated in from nowhere and refilled their coffee cups. Clara waited for him to flutter away.

“What did he say to make you change?” she asked.


“My father, you know who!”


“He hates marriage,” she spat, “unless he gets something out of it.”

“He has nothing against marriage,” Josh answered. “He said it made him a man.”

“Wrong,” she said. “He’s an asshole and his marriages were disasters, scorched earth.”

“Come on, Clara!”

“No, you come on, Josh! He’s still a manipulator and he got to you.”

Josh let his eyes rove the restaurant. Clara noticed him shaking his head in a silent no. It was a gesture backed by the constant movement of patrons leaving the bistro—walking out into the damp night air. She could smell them, with exotic and varied perfumes as they passed her table. Passing, passing out into the night which in short hours would become day and then night again. The restaurant was nearly empty. The piano player was putting his music away. Glasses with various levels of amber liquids in them decorated the top of the instrument. The piano player turned and sauntered sleepily to the door. Something was ending, had already ended.

“So what are we going to do?” she asked. This time, Clara had no trouble looking at him directly.

“I don’t know,” Josh answered, pushing his plate away. He folded his napkin and dropped it on the table, a gesture of finality. “Too much,” he said to his plate and to her.

“Don’t Josh.” He finally locked eyes with her.

“I’m thinking, Clara. I’m trying to do what’s right. I’m trying to see the future.”

Clara felt the heat build behind her eyes. She felt the moist reflections of early rage seep out the corners of her eye sockets. The flood came and she couldn’t stop it.

“Look, don’t cry,” he said. “I still love you.”

“Oh my God!”


“You can’t even come up with an original line.”

The red glow began at his Adam’s apple and flushed upward. “I do. I really do.”

“But it’s just not a sound financial decision right now,” Clara offered sarcastically.

“I just need time,” he said.

“Another cliché!”

Clara slid out of the red booth and walked toward the sign that read “Exit.” People criss-crossed her path—waiters, waitresses carrying platters once hot and steaming but now cold, with scraps of food and refuse. A busboy leaped past, a tray of milky glasses in his arms. Tomorrow, they would be crystal clear again. A woman with a green, silk dress sat at the bar, but even she was moving, rubbing her hand up and down the thigh of the grey, distinguished man standing next to her, gently kissing his neck.

Clara took it all in. She looked down at her own legs. At first, they seemed to move sluggishly, but as she immersed herself in the liquid, flowing movement of the restaurant, she seemed to float. She picked up speed, building momentum for what would come next, for the rest of her life. Then she realized. It was a subtle but powerful difference. She was not propelled by schemes or money or a desire to win. The mass of muscle behind her acceleration was her heart.

Once at the door, Clara gave herself a moment to look back. In the current of movement there was a note of stillness. Josh sat staring down at his fingers spread like a fan on the dark wood table. She remembered when he wrote her poetry and kissed her neck. She remembered when he studied her long fingers, brought her flowers, caressed her. She remembered shared secrets, veiled inferences, and making love on cold, rainy, windy afternoons when they should have been in class but stole a moment to themselves in the connection, the weaving interloping of their bodies. But now, it was only she who prized the jewel of crystal-clear love that once moved between them. Now he would be left behind, holding his Monopoly money and his “Get out of jail free” card, never passing “Go.” She would transcend the game, find love and discover an authentic life. This was the last time that she would ever look back.

Someday he would wake to discover that in the end, the things he valued were ephemeral, that he had missed out by standing still. She would choose another path; she would keep surging forward. In an instant, everything was clear: anything real must move, or die. Clara pushed through the doors out into the night where a warm spring rain had begun to fall.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

The Dying of the Light

for K.H.

It had been more than a few years since I searched for you. I plugged your name into the search engine generating 43 million hits. “Remembering Karl and Marisa…Karl Heiss…Marisa Bauducco-Heiss…taken from us far too soon…fatal traffic accident…Olympia, Washington, October 3, 2008…11-year-old daughter, Aliana, suffered brain injury…6-year-old son, Alden, severe case of whiplash…southbound Subaru braked for slowing traffic, but lost control and went across the median, under the cable barrier and into northbound lanes. The car struck the semi-truck head on.” I slumped in my chair. We were best friends in college, you with your trumpet and me on piano. Then, we decided together that a music career wasn’t for us, so we switched to creative writing and English. The only recording session I did as a musician, you produced. You published one of my stories in your magazine.

Now, you are gone, dying with your wife on a lonely stretch of Interstate 5.

* * * *

“How are your blood sugar numbers?” the doctor asked me.

“They’ve been high lately. In the two hundreds.”

He looked up from writing his notes. “Why?”

“It’s my fault. I am not sticking with the program.”

“What can I do to help you?”

I felt my throat muscles tightening. “I am anxious all the time now. My body hurts, and I have constant headaches. I am worried about my financial situation, worried about the future.” My voice trailed off as I studied the floor of the exam room.

“You are not answering my question,” he insisted. “What can I do to help you? I am concerned about your decreased kidney function, your heart. You have to get your sugars under control.”

“Look, my mom died at 62 from diabetes, multiple sclerosis. I mean, I already have some of the complications she had, and they are irreversible. I don’t know if I can fight anymore.”

“Paul, this doesn’t have to end in death.”

Wrong, doc, I thought. It all ends in death. Everything ends in death.

* * * *

I can’t stop thinking about you, all day at work, Thursday, Friday, at home on the weekend. What went through your mind as you slid toward death on the highway? What did you feel? The articles all say you died instantly. What does that mean? You must have felt something. There is no way death is instantaneous. The heart would convulse one last time, even while being crushed. It would have taken a few seconds at least for the oxygen to leave your brain. Even people who are guillotined live a few seconds after the head is separated from the body.

And where are you now? Do you inhabit a different dimension? Are you in the house you built for your family in Idaho? Do you walk the highway where you died? Are you on the beach in Malibu where you grew up? At the bottom of the world in Argentina where your children now live with your wife’s family?

* * * *

Sister Joseph Adele Edwards, CSJ, died on Christmas day. We worked together for the last year and a half at the college. She had worked at Mount St. Mary’s for fifty years. English teacher, administrator, and in retirement, writing tutor at her desk near mine in the learning center. She called her writing students “customers,” and greeted them with a light in her eyes that belied her seventy-eight years. Only when she came to work and left for home did we see the thin, bird-like frame of her body, her fragility, her careful maneuvering around students and tables so she would not fall.

Then, late last school year, as spring was in full flower, she did fall. Her driving privileges were taken away, and she was moved to the convent on campus so she could receive medical supervision. From there, she began to decline. This past summer, she was diagnosed with ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease, and her physical abilities quickly deserted her. She came to the center in November to visit, and the staff had to carry her into the building. Her chin rested on her chest, and her hands were flattened out, the fingers curled at the tips. We crowded close to her to hear her thin voice. Her body had failed her, but in her eyes, we all saw her steely resolve. Sister Joseph Adele was a tough cookie. She would not go down without a fight.

A few days before Christmas, several of us went to see her. She was now under hospice care. She had stopped eating, and the decision had been made to give her intravenous fluids but not to insert a feeding tube. We talked to her, told her news and gossip, wished her a Merry Christmas. She wandered in and out of consciousness, sometimes appearing to register what we were saying, but other times drifting away. A few days later, while watching Mass on television, she died.

At her funeral, the Bishop read from the Gospel of Luke: “He said to his disciples, Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life and what you will eat, or about your body and what you will wear. For life is more than food and the body more than clothing. Notice the ravens: they do not sow or reap; they have neither storehouse nor barn, yet God feeds them. How much more important are you than birds! Can any of you by worrying add a moment to your lifespan? If even the smallest things are beyond your control, why are you anxious about the rest?”

I stared at the high, beamed ceiling of the church. I thought of the dead; so many have gone before. Where are they now? Many of the people around me at Sister’s funeral were looking at their own mortality. I was looking at my own mortality. Not knowing what happens when we die has preoccupied me for months, and I was no closer to any answers. Of course, how could there be an answer.

Sister Joseph Adele touched so many lives—students, teachers, community members. They shared their stories of her. I kept thinking about the last time I saw her. Next to her bed, on the window ledge, were pictures of her parents in Texas, her beloved San Antonio Spurs basketball team, her early days of pre-Vatican II religious life wearing the full habit. She was both a Texan and a Californian. On that ledge her entire life could be traced, and lining the floor underneath were boxes of papers and books, a lifetime of work in an academic institution. Where would all that life go now?

At the end of the funeral Mass, the small choir sang the Irish Blessing. It was my grandmother’s favorite prayer. “May the road rise up to meet you. May the wind be ever at your back. May the sun shine warm upon your face. May the rain fall soft upon your fields. And until we meet again, may God hold you in the hollow of his hand.” Sister Joseph Adele, my grandmother, my mother—I suddenly felt aware of all of history, all of the dead, the past, present and future colliding and losing their boundaries and lines becoming blurred.

* * * *

Do you remember that recording session? It was a demo tape for a middle-aged guy who wanted a second career as a lounge singer. He sounded like Jim Morrison of the Doors. He was not purposely imitating Jim Morrison of the Doors. He wanted to be Frank Sinatra. The cassette tape of the session is in a box in storage now.

When we were young writers starting out, you decided to avoid the slush pile and start your own magazine: Hippo Magazine. Typed and edited on an early desktop computer, you printed it up at Kinko’s or someplace and put together a mailing list. I have the issue with my story in it: “Vernal and Summerly ish, 1990.” I page through it and hear your voice in the words. Inside the front cover, you handwrote to me: “Hello, Paul. Hippo’s here and Karl is elsewhere. More info later. All the best, Karl.”

I turn to the “Hippeople” section, your authors’ bios. For me, you wrote: “Paul L. Martin—Northridge, CA. Paul teaches at a Catholic elementary school where he spends his time stunning the nuns by actually inspiring the children to think about life and—sometimes—even God!”

I always wanted you to be a teacher. I wanted to teach alongside you, because I knew you would have been great at it. You would have inspired me and your students. But you were still finding yourself and your trajectory through life. You lived everything on your own terms, never compromising. I wish I could talk to you now. To be honest, I feel a little lost, jagged, bruised. Things have changed so much, and I am no longer sure of the path.

I cannot see the type in the magazine anymore. The colors run and fade, the light grows dim.

* * * *

My father called me the other night. We have not spoken or seen each other for a few years now. We make a date for the next evening to get together. When I arrive at the house where I used to live, I find that he has remodeled it, added a bathroom and family room, expanded the kitchen. It looks nothing like the house of my memory, and the feeling is disorienting. My father is bent and twisted, and struggles to walk across the room. Years spent in a physically destructive and demanding job have taken their toll. He looks so much older than his 71 years.

When we speak, his syntax is as twisted as his body. He struggles to find words, loses his train of thought, stutters. I am frustrated because I cannot even guess what he is trying to say to help him out. As we move through the evening, I am quite sure he has had a stroke. In his words as I decipher them, I still hear a bit of the passive-aggressive behavior I have recognized in the past. He tells me that all of his brothers, sisters, cousins, and friends got together for his seventieth birthday. I, his eldest son, was absent. I don’t say anything, but I think about all the birthdays I have had where he did not acknowledge the date. I think about all the things that have happened in my life in recent years of which he did not take part. I needed a father, and he was absent. A relationship between a father and son runs both ways. I was never the son he wanted, and I was certainly the child he understood the least. In the same breath I am sorry about that and angry. I love him, even though he can be ignorant and narrow minded. I love him for working seven days a week for most of my life to support his family, to keep his kids in Catholic schools. I love him because he was once strong. I love him because he is my father. I recognize him in some of my habits, my movements, my life. But we will never be close because he cannot deal with my emotions, my intensity, my need for a life of the mind. I don’t follow sports. I don’t work in a factory with my hands. Inadvertently, I sometimes make him feel inadequate or unintelligent. Yet he has called on me when he needs someone to parse the language of his retirement accounts, or when he needed to redraft his will after my mother died.

We sit in his remodeled house and talk about what has happened in our lives over the years since we last spoke. He asks after my health, but I do not tell him what the doctor has told me. I don’t think he wants to know, not because he does not care, but because after burying his mother and father, his two brothers, his wife, he does not want to contemplate burying his son. We stay with safer subjects—remembering when I delivered the newspaper, our various neighbors over the years, and the latest good news from other family members. As I leave the house that does not resemble the house of my memories, he insists that we must talk more, go to dinner soon, and keep in touch. In his voice I hear a note of panic; he means what he says and is afraid I won’t keep to my part of the bargain, that I will disappear back into my life and he will not hear from me again. He does not have to worry. Even though he is not the father I need, and I am not the son to whom he can relate, I will not let anymore years go by without contact. Even though I struggle to understand his words as he fails to understand who I am, I will work to keep our connection, because years fly away like birds in winter, and he is my father.

* * * *

Do you remember when we took that logic class together? You tried to teach me, but I could not comprehend the readings. “If A is B and B is C, A must equal C.” Sure. Right. We used to study in the cafeteria on the top floor of that building. I was thick headed, and some of my answers made you laugh.

Karl, you were the better musician. You were the better writer. You were just better. I do remember only one time when I could help you. Do you remember when you broke up with the girl you were seeing, and out of anger, you put your hand through a plate glass store window? The cuts on your hand and arm severed the nerves and left you unable to play your trumpet and guitar as effectively. We talked about your anger. You told me you did not think you’d fall in love again, a young man’s retort in the face of rejection. I am glad you found Marisa. Although I never met her, I am sure she made you happy. And I am relieved that you died together. If the next life is one where we can be with those we love, it must have been some comfort to arrive there together. But of course, this is only conjecture. We really do not know what happens when we die, although the poets, saints and philosophers try to teach us something of their theories of the other side.

This is where my burning questions live, Karl. Where do we go when we die? Could you ever be at peace knowing your son will grow up without you, or that your daughter is severely brain damaged? Were you able to let go of what was and move on? I don’t think I could. What bothers me more is that here in this life, I long to talk to you again, or to hug my grandmother, or to tell my mother I did love her, even though we rarely found common ground in the last years of her life. You, and they, are elsewhere, and I miss all of you and regret the lost years. I should have tried to contact you. I should have done so many things, and I didn’t, and that is the tragedy of middle age: realizing there are things you should have done and now you have lost the opportunity to do them.

* * * *

During my lunch breaks at the college, I often go to sit in the chapel on campus. It is cool and quiet there, and I can close my eyes and meditate. Sometimes I see my grandmother kneeling in a pew ahead of me, her head bowed and the veil covering her hair. She does not turn to look at me, but I know she is aware that I am there. In the side aisle, I often see my mother, standing and looking at me. She does not smile, but I know she recognizes me. Both figures fade in and out of my reality, like a distant radio signal.

Through the open doors of the chapel, I can hear the voices of students—laughing, teasing, sharing gossip. They have years ahead of them, stretching to infinity. They firmly believe they will never die, and they cannot wait to seize the world and make it their own. I cannot teach them the way life has strict borders, the way that the years flash by. To understand the finite nature of existence one must live it. So it is a paradox that human beings do not recognize the limitations of their years until they approach the end. Then, as Dylan Thomas wrote, they rage against the dying of the light.

I come back to life in the darkness of the chapel. Somewhere in the distance, a door slams in the wind. I stand, straighten myself out, and walk out into the brilliant light of January. As I make my way down the steps, I see Santa Monica Bay, the water like glass. I feel the wind on my face. The sky is an intense, forever blue. For now, the light is clean, strong, and true.

As night follows day, I know that existence is transitory, and that death is the end of life. Questions cannot always be answered, but that does not mean we should ever stop searching. I will look for those I have lost in the faces of those I meet. I will listen for their voices in the wind. I will continue to question this life, even though the answers may never come. That is something with which we all must live until the day we pass “into that good night.”

Friday, January 6, 2012

Cliff Walk

What does it mean to be brave? Is it different from being fearless? Being brave means facing our fears and not letting them overwhelm us. Fearless means one is afraid of nothing. We can only be fearless in increments. There will always be something that terrifies us. However, it is possible to be brave in the scariest moments and in the horrible face of what terrifies us.

Over the holiday, I was rereading Don J. Snyder’s 1997 memoir, The Cliff Walk: A Job Lost and a Life Found (Little, Brown and Company/Back Bay Books). Snyder was a successful English teacher at Colgate University in upstate New York when he received his pink slip. The experience changed his life in dramatic and decisive ways.

Snyder’s journey follows his departure from Colgate and details his emotional climb through anger and arrogance, his shortsighted immature approach to the crisis. He is 41 years old, married with three children under the age of seven with a fourth child on the way. Not a good time to be adrift and unemployed in America. (Is there ever a good time?) He applies to universities and colleges literally all over the map, but fails to find another teaching gig that meets with his criteria.

After several late night sessions making endless lists of job prospects and his dwindling resources, Snyder decides to relocate his family to Maine, and they begin to draw on his retirement and meager savings to survive. He proceeds through a number of misadventures, both comic and disturbing, while trying to skate over the thin ice of his collapsing future before he is forced to face facts. The episodes will make the reader cringe, and Snyder is painfully honest, often painting himself in a less than positive light. He bottoms out and takes a physically demanding job as a day laborer in construction at far less pay than any teaching position. His is frigid, exhausting work through the bitter coastal Maine winter, but he is transformed by the experience.

Snyder’s story is one of redemption, and the book contains moments of ethereal beauty. It is a story that moves from fearlessness born of denial and ignorance to bravery and resilience. For most of the book, Snyder seeks to avoid retrospection; he is immature, stubborn, and childlike. But his life forces him down the path to salvation and maturity.

His story reminds me that we suffer our way into wisdom and knowledge. “These are the times that try men’s souls,” Thomas Paine wrote, and although he was speaking of the tyranny of an oppressive monarch, he could have been speaking of the human condition. Every day, in every way, we are tested in this crucible of life.

When we are young, bravery comes more easily because it is born out of ignorance. Young people relish their invincibility; every generation believes they will live forever. And then someone dies, or a war begins, and the illusion is shattered. We become older, more aware of the risks, the high percentage of failure, the fragility of human life.

We seem to want to ignore the signs around us. Things are not that bad, we tell ourselves as we race to the malls for the latest sales. It is all about instant gratification, getting what we want now, rampant materialism. But homeless ghosts wander our streets. People have been so demoralized that they have stopped looking for work. Our government is locked in partisan politics, with ego and party taking precedence over what is right for the American people.

Where is the deeper understanding? Where is our humanity?

We clearly have not suffered our way into wisdom, which means we face more difficult days ahead. On the edge of a chasm, we can claim to be fearless, but the sentiments ring shrill and hollow. To summon true courage to face our fears we first must admit we are afraid. We must be realists and dig deeper to find a way to deal with a rapidly changing world. We must embrace change and accept that impermanence is a part of life. Empires fall, the wind shifts.

I know in this new year there will be pain and suffering because there is always pain and suffering. We must accept the consequences of our lives, even when we did not have a part in creating the situation. Things happen, and we must deal with the fallout. This scares me and makes me wonder if we have the strength and courage to persevere. There is only one way to go: forward. Against the odds, against what fears may come, we must endeavor, every day of this new year, to be brave.