School Board Letters, Part 2

In fact, I sent another series of three letters, almost four, that is perhaps equally significant before these. That’ll be Part 1. This batch is all about retaining and recruiting students in LHPUSD, more specifically PM/HS. And yes, we were defectors too, sending our kids elsewhere, but I reckon that makes me more qualified to comment on the topic. As a faculty member and taxpayer, I want our little school to thrive, to attract students (and families), but lately we are losing more than usual. Thus, I wrote these…

Save LHPUSD? Part 1

Dear LHPUSD School Board,

Often, driving to Pescadero, I see friends and neighbors taking their children to school in Half Moon Bay. I am reminded of doing that myself – for years. In fact, dozens of other families have been doing it for many years (some go over the hill), all to the extreme detriment of LHPUSD. Why not make our school district so desirable that not only might we retain students and families, but we could actually recruit new ones?

By losing those families, LHPUSD loses valuable resources in the form of the parents. Parents who could participate in events, sponsor activities, coach teams, and support more than just their own children. Worse however, is the loss of their kids, those students as friends to and colleagues of the students who stay in the district. “The more the merrier” resonates at a small school, on sports teams and clubs, and especially in the classroom. Might we agree that the students and families who leave, just based on their drive and determination to find something better, have value?

We could be better! A previous board recognized that when they approved this first vision statement: “Students, parents and the local community will recognize our excellence and see our schools as desirable places to attend.  The unique opportunities available, which include a strong emphasis on local resources, will draw students here from outside the district.” That real vision statement was replaced by a slogan: “inspire, respond, engage,” something the district still seems to have a hard time doing. 

I will address the issue of “excellence” in a subsequent letter, but what about those “local resources”? Having discovered that this was not a new problem, back in late 2012, I did a survey of families (mostly from La Honda) about the desirability of LHPUSD. My takeaway was that if we used the beautiful natural resources around us to more effect, some families might stay in the district. Those results, that data, still resonate, and I’m happy to share them. In fact, such a study should be done again, in addition to conducting exit interviews and analyzing the contents of all those interdistrict transfer requests. 

Our family’s, like many others, was based on a lack of programs such as music or sports, but I’m aware of other interdistrict transfers based on more troubling reasons. Touchy subjects no doubt, but those issues need to be addressed. Whatever their reasons, are there not also complaints about the fact that we have had to spend time and money transporting our children elsewhere? What about the property taxes we paid to educate our children? How does that work?

It has not just been burdensome, it has been awkward, but we’re not alone. Other teachers, as well as current and former school board members have sent their children elsewhere. I’ll refrain from mentioning names, but you have a list of the prominent families, professionals and professors, and regular working folks who defect from LHPUSD (especially recently). In fact, it is an embarrassing, aggravating, solvable problem, and it should be your number one goal to remedy. It should be the district’s primary priority to retain and recruit more students and their families.

Yours Truly, Randall Vail

Save LHPUSD? Part 2

Dear LHPUSD School Board,

This topic, the retention and recruitment of students, is perennially difficult. It has been going on for generations, and any administration must battle that legacy. But why? Why leave LHPUSD? Some say history, patterns, or persistent rumors. Some say white flight (I don’t agree). Many cite the lack of programs, sports, desirable or elective classes, etc. Why this tradition of failure to retain and recruit students, especially after 5th grade, especially from LHE?

As previously mentioned, that should be researched by the district and perhaps it has been? But that effort to collect such data should be publicized, the results should be transparent, and the efforts to remedy them should be district-wide priorities, especially with regard to the Middle & High Schools. However, there may be some other possible contributing factors…

Using Bond Measure “I” to do new construction at La Honda Elementary took those valuable public resources ($3+ million?) away from PM/HS, especially the Middle School which has languished in portable classrooms for over a decade! Enhancing LHE while ignoring PMS did not seem to be the purpose and spirit of Bond Measure I. Read the law, look at the record. OK for LHE! What about PES? What about PM/HS? (The current PES-for-housing debate underlines this point.)

As a teacher (of 20 years before showing up in 2007), I’m bothered by what purports to be “professional development” (grievable still). For the last several years, it seems that there’s been a focus on resolving inherent problems with the faculty – although for the most part, I have been proud to work with a staff of accomplished professionals. However, rather than showcasing, enhancing, or even exploiting our strengths, there has been an emphasis on finding our weaknesses, our implicit biases, or equity challenges. In fact, is not the recent “equity audit” rife with insinuations of racism, favoritism, or elitism?

Look around, you won’t find more kind, compassionate, service-oriented, and non-racist liberals than in public school classrooms. We are not perfect, we are humans, but for the most part we are motivated by love, respect, and an ethos to serve, guided by a profound sense of history, equality, and empathy. Questioning that is insulting, and doubtless discouraging to community members who come to board meetings. How about board members coming to classrooms?! Why continue to “divide and conquer”?

Fortunately or not, we live in a time of reckoning, a time of shifting paradigms. However well-intentioned the current political zeitgeist of our district is (promotion of “critical race theory”?), if it alienates some families (families who could most benefit from some cultural reevaluation), and those children leave, we lose our most valuable opportunity to educate for change, and lose our most valuable of all resources: people – those diverse peoples.

Here’s a guess at causality: low academic and behavioral expectations. There is not a culture of achievement, nor a culture of respect. I am aware of one interdistrict transfer that was the result of bullying and the lack of an appropriate administrative response. As we have returned to in-person learning, that situation may be worse (incubated at home, marinated in media)? I disdain quoting W., however “the soft bigotry of low expectations” is disdainful (even to bigots), especially to those of us who advocate for academic rigor. Many parents appreciate high standards.

When this district is losing prominent Pescadero families, including that of the Director of Puente, in addition to all those La Honda defectors, what is the problem? This issue should be the biggest elephant in the boardroom, the superintendent’s office, and of course every staff meeting which we haven’t had for awhile. That was a conclusion, but here’s a coda (meaning 1, 2, 3, 4, 5)…

Check out the Great Schools webpages for Pescadero High and HMB High. We have a 7/10, HMB only 6/10. Why switch? More significantly, look at our Test Scores: 10/10. Our teachers – as a team effort – must rock! However, College Readiness (compared to HMB) could be improved. We need a counselor with a Pupil Services Credential who can both guide students to college and serve the significant mental health and wellness needs we have. We, as the public school system, should not be farming out psychological services to a non-profit. If we care about our students, let’s take better care of them ourselves. 

While our Equity score is higher than HMB, we must stop letting Math compromise our scheduling. Don’t just consider the new CA Math Framework, consider the fact that a third of the current seniors did not have US History in the 8th grade. Why? Look at the myriad scheduling debacles for every other subject department caused by math. Don’t let it happen. At the same time, every department should have an honors or AP option for almost every subject. Enough for now, I’ll save other possible solutions for Part 3… 

Sincerely, Randall Vail

Save LHPUSD, Part 3

Dear LHPUSD School Board,

Retaining and recruiting students can be an inspiring challenge! Having spent years marketing Magnet programs and small learning communities, here are some elevator pitches. In Part 2, I left off on scheduling and Honors & AP classes. Some parents love ‘em, and offering harder classes is easy.

To start with schedules, offer a fixed menu. On our four-block schedule, we should offer eight classes per year. (Each semester is worth 10 credits [units?] per block*, including all English & Math courses. (Guiding principle: as long as a grade-level cohort is below 35, there should be only one section of every subject every year. [Wiser allocation of taxpayer dollars and teacher time.]) *Thus, a student can achieve required credits for high school graduation by the end of the 11th grade, thus eligible for Concurrent Enrollment, which, offered to all 12th graders = equity and a great selling feature for PHS. 

Public school teachers expect to differentiate, modifying instruction for a wide range of abilities. In addition to accommodating various learning modalities, teachers should also have an honors extension of their curriculum. If a student completes the extra work, which should indicate a higher level of academic rigor, the student earns honors credit (5.0?). Of course it is necessary to monitor syllabi and course work to ensure integrity.

While the value of Advanced Placement (AP) is questionable, it is still a popular (and measured) feature of high schools. If a teacher is not willing to provide AP differentiation, most are available on UC Scout. Another option for students who do not choose Concurrent is to take AP exams as seniors. 

Creating options enhances choice architecture. How about creating our own Alternative School? How about our own Charter School? How about a “Small Learning Community” or Magnet program to attract students & families? Here’s one: The Open Space Academy. All pix are of PHS students in Environmental Field Studies. Now with our new science teacher, such a “Green STEM” program is more viable.

Another theme could be about The Arts. Repurposing PHS facilities could make this a particularly robust program. The Pescadero Arts & Fun Festival and the South Coast Artists Alliance are just two possible partners.

A bolder, more complicated project would be to create a whole new school within our district: Cage to Sage. Now, with the closing of Log Cabin Ranch and Camp Glenwood, there are more possible resources. 

Too much to handle? Why not bring in some proven experts to help? The Summit Learning Platform is available for free! Check out our past research, their own slidedeck pitch, Their Model, and my pitch to our district to give it a try. (At least we should appropriate their “Expeditions” program. Here are two of many possible themes: Bikes, Business (or use them another way).)

In addition to improving college readiness, offering electives, and creating unique & innovative programs, there are many things that we could do to improve our current operations. But I’ll save those for Part 4…

Best wishes, rv

Save LHPUSD, Part 4

Dear LHPUSD School Board,

In my previous letter, I encouraged innovation. This next batch of ideas is about reinvention or repurposing, building our institution, expanding our capacity. Let me start with the school board itself (yourselves?!)…

Why not increase the school board to seven members? In this way, we could increase community participation, generate more interest, and add more voices (diversity?) to your deliberations. The Pescadero Municipal Advisory Council has 13 seats (albeit not always filled). The Cuesta La Honda Guild has 9 seats. Many other school boards have 7, why not LHPUSD?

While the Covid pandemic created some challenges, it also created opportunities. One is the use of Google Classrooms. Why not make sure every teacher has a functioning GC for every subject? They can serve as the online platform for every course. Most college classes have one (many on Canvas), and GC is a simple and effective version. That way, students who are absent, on independent study, or even homeschooling, can participate. 

And there are many online resources. Many textbooks, public domain literature, supplemental videos, and other educational resources are available on the internet. Often, they’re free! However, I recommend supporting them with donations (ie. Patreon) which can be raised in the course of a course. And, we can consolidate all these online resources, as well as NWEA, with our SIS using a tool like Clever

Expand the use of NWEA (including its instructional tools) as a supplemental Final Exam for English and Math every semester. For that matter, every other high school I’ve ever worked at has a Finals Week. Why not PHS? It will cultivate a culture of academic achievement and prepare students for college. It should go without saying that all our classes should be standards-based and use the state frameworks, but do they? All of them, from sixth through twelfth grade? Post curricula, advertise syllabi!

All the classes on our official, HS Articulation, course list should have accurate content on them. Have we properly updated all of them? No. Can/should we? Yes! Much work has been done, but the process is not complete. And that course list, that menu of offerings, can/should be robust. Use UC Scout to create a smorgasbord of electives (as well as AP alternatives). They are already UC-approved and available to public schools on Canvas for free!

Speaking of electives, how many district transfers mention a lack of music at PM/HS? Why not use the world-class music teacher you already employ to provide 6-12 music options? (teaching to the choir?) In fact, there are several instructional threads that start in elementary school that could extend through to graduation. (Longer conversation about content threads, skill building, and curricular continuity, especially from MS to HS!)…

Much of what I’ve suggested over these four letters is not new. Another previous suggestion picked up from another district is the idea of “baby bonds,” or starting a district-supported 529 for every child. We could start investing in our students throughout their education with us so they can keep going after they graduate. (An object lesson in delayed gratification, not to mention dollar-cost averaging.) 

And how about their parents? Why don’t we have an adult school for the community? Why don’t we offer evening classes to help everyone get a high school diploma, learn English, or teach vocational skills? Not only could we help families with the Naturalization process for citizenship, but we could have a Career-Technical Education program that goes beyond high school. Again, we should not farm out our responsibility as the local public education institution to non-profit organizations. We have the capacity, let’s use it. 

Returning to professional development, perhaps it should be democratic (empowering v. prescriptive)? Of, by, and for the whole staff at a school? Sure, media culture is pervasive, good ideas can be inclusive, but every community is unique. The Anna Karenina Principle may not always apply, but those who know the particulars of a problem are most equipped to find a solution. The answers to problems in Pescadero may not be found in Maine or Colorado. Here’s a suggestion for engagement and inspiration among the faculty.

Thank you for considering these suggestions. I’m sure my colleagues have others, as would the parents of the students who no longer attend our school. In spite of the defections, and the Covid pandemic, we are doing OK. I’ve heard the learning loss is less than expected. Our sports program has momentum, and our student body seems upbeat. Making the retention and recruitment of students a priority, at the same time addressing some glaring problems, will only help to improve Pescadero High School. I’m sure that is a goal we all share.

Yours Truly, R. Vail

Que sçay-je?

(Middle French, Modern: Que sais-je?) Once upon a time, I heard that this question was posed by Michel de Montaigne to himself as he went forth to write his famous essays (in the 1500s) trying to explain what he knew, or thought he did at the time. I’m going to try to do the same, at least make some attempts. For this first essay however, I am going to try to explain myself to others: Qui suis-je?

There is that expression “do not judge a book by its cover“ but everybody does anyway. And it’s true, I am now an old white guy. So, this might be what goes on my dust jacket – for my friends on the left caught up in their current zeitgeist, and for my enemies on the right caught up in a strangely different one. More importantly, in this moment of history it is necessary for old white guys to explain themselves. (Just FYI, I was not among the over 70 million Americans who voted for Donald Trump. Imbeciles!)

I hope you too can be proud of my humility when I say that there are some accidents of my birth that I like. By that I mean, I cannot be proud of what my ancestors have done, nor should I be ashamed, because blood should be water. Or not. I should create who I am from scratch, create my destiny. However, there are a couple of stories in my heritage that I embrace…

Every year I bring a gun to school. Actually, a gun and a sword. They are artifacts from the Civil War that have been handed down. They come from a relative who was in the Illinois infantry, and I have both the little notes explaining these artifacts, and a book with his name in it. Frankly, I am not proud of being an American, but I am proud of being a Yankee. 

(Digression: I’ve had the opportunity to visit both Normandy and Hiroshima, sites of the D-Day invasion and ground zero of the first atomic bomb. Reading thank yous in the guest book at the cemetery in Normandy did make me proud of the United States, but seeing the images of death and destruction at the Peace Museum in Hiroshima made me ashamed. And, I’ve variously apologized for the actions of the US in France, Togo, Japan, Cuba, Vietnam, and elsewhere. Ideals should be challenged by reality.)

As it turns out, I am not a Christian. But I am very proud of my relative who might be the most disappointed by that revelation. My maternal grandfather, Frank B. Fagerburg was the minister of the First Baptist Church of Los Angeles from 1930 to 1952. Growing up, I was inspired by the titles of the books he wrote: “This Questioning Age,” “Here for a Purpose,” “Is this Religion?” I got lost in the biblical references, but I liked the search for meaning. Dr. Fagerburg quit after 22 years preaching to his large congregation in Los Angeles because the board of deacons would not allow a black woman and her daughter to join the church. (Notice in Jet magazine, here & elsewhere) I admire his integrity and his conviction. 

(Digression: I had not heard the full story until a protegé and successor, Dr. John Townsend told me. In fact, he took me to the archives at the First Baptist Church of Los Angeles to show me the documents and explain what had happened. A few years later he invited me to the installation of the first black minister of that church. I attended in vindication of my grandfather’s beliefs. BTW, Dr. Townsend married Mary Lynn and I at the First Congregational Church in Riverside.)

There is much more to both of those stories, but you’ll have to read more than just my dusty jacket. For those who don’t, at least appreciate that I am anti-racist, value social justice, and aspire to being at home in the whole wide world, a people person (all of ’em), an earthling. I am not proud of the white part, nor the man part (accidents of birth), and you saw me just disavow the Christian part. However, I am proud of the old part (it takes time!). I’m starting to figure stuff out, just a bit. And, “I like what I know.” 

(Digression: My master’s thesis at UCLA was called “Vintage Thoughts: A Search for the Wisdom of the Elderly.” I had researched the topics of wisdom and age, interviewed several old people, and conducted oral history projects with my students. While I discovered that age does not guarantee wisdom, cultures and societies that respect it, have reverence for it, or venerate matured human experience tend to do well. More on my “Reformed Confucianism” in a future post…)

Coda: Perhaps this next bit should be a separate essay, but I’ll squeeze this notion in here. I am proud of what I tried to accomplish in creating small learning communities at North Hollywood High School. 

After working in three different magnet schools: Hamilton Humanities Magnet, Bravo Medical Magnet, and the Highly Gifted Magnet, I created and coordinated two “Academies” with grants from the California Department of Education. The Naturalist Academy began with a Specialized Secondary Program grant, and the Home Engineering Academy continues with a California Partnership Academy grant. 

Borrowing from Harvard Education professor Howard Gardner’s idea of a naturalist intelligence, we built a program to emphasize ecology and environmental studies for previously unidentified gifted students. [Not shown in the PBS documentary “Beyond Brown.”] After the four year funding cycle, we became a School for Advanced Study, still supported by LAUSD. 

The Home Engineering Academy [named so we could call the students “homies”] was designed to teach vocational skills to students on the opposite end of the academic performance spectrum. [Shown in the Discovery Channel show “Monster House.”] 

I’m particularly proud to report that, fourteen years after leaving NoHoHi, those two programs are still running! Check it out: formerly The Naturalist Academy, still The Home Engineering Academy.

I just want to do something like that – create a cool school program – one more time

Clarity

Speaking of, I posted the following on August 19th, 2021, my 62nd birthday (even tho’ it’s saying August 20th, the birthday of my cousin Susan, may she rest in peace).

This is the first of six posts, selected chapters from the novel I wrote some years ago and submitted, unsuccessfully, to the Wallace Stegner Fellowship at Stanford. In fact, I should’ve started here with the intro to that sixth post down: “Elaine Vitale.” Read that, it explains this – fragments of a novel I finally put together but did not finish six years ago.

This first chapter creates a motivation for two workers in an old folks home to learn the stories of their clients, their patients, their mentors. It is a frame story with connecting threads. Missing in the next posts are stories about my Aunt Lourene, other old folks, and my imaginary neighbor who hides in plain sight from the CIA, a sanctioned mafia.

Perhaps I should include all those chapters, but I only polished these a bit. Clare starts it off, but the finish, the euthanasia of another character, I could not write. I could not give up the ghost, go gentle, hear the bells toll, or ever say no to another breath. Here’s to trying again, reincarnation, renewal, and gasping for a grasp (or vice versa)...

++++++++++

Young with a new idea, she was surprised to find herself old. Drifting out of sleep, back into semi-consciousness, Clare was aware of her bones and her breath. Summoned by the hum of the attached medical equipment, she felt the echo of the ache of the age of her body. Her eyelids parted to reveal a big, hazy moon hanging just outside the small window of her room. Slowly, she rolled her head over, stretching the tubes in her nose to see the blurred blip on the screen of a machine on a rickety rack of techno-gadgetry next to the bed. She turned back to the window and, attempting to stretch her toes, arthritic joints and the dust in her lungs brought her more completely back to reality. Tired still, she closed her eyes again.

She had been dreaming of her youth, and just a moment before she had been young, sprightly, and beautiful. It was a sunny day abbreviated by fluffy clouds. She was in a meadow running, not too fast, from her lover. He had finally and gently caught her and they had tumbled together through the grass. They had lain on their backs breathing hard and watching the clouds above drift through the bright sunshine. He was holding her, whispering love in her ear, and she was smiling with joy – for a moment.

Then, she was running again in the meadow, faster, away from her lover – no, away from her husband. In the dream, she went through a series of scenes, being caught and tumbling through tall grass, through dried lawns, through a mountain of laundry, into beds, classrooms, doctors’ offices, and a wilderness of cities and forests, always in bright light. Her idea was a regret-tempered contentment, a resigned satisfaction, her artwork was finished, no more retouching. She thought maybe she had felt a tear follow a wrinkle down to a smile.

Waking up, she was on her back again, but now however, she was old, alone, and pained in the small hours of the night. Instead of the sun, she looked back at the moon and started to cry, her gentle sobs changing the blip on the machine screen. She tried to cry her way back to sleep, back to her dream, her joy, back to her lover in the meadow, or even to her husband, to her children, or to some part of the wilderness of her life and that idea of contentment. The pain in her body prevented such sleep relief, and she was conscious only of the drone of those medical contraptions calling her to keep breathing, forcing her to keep feeling the pain.

As sleep did not come, Clare began to wallow in the pain, to revel in her misery, and she allowed a wave of self-pity to sweep over her, a torrent of cleansing tears. In the next slow moment however, she felt guilty for such selfishness. She had lived a long and wonderous life. Her dreams reflected many moments of joy and complexity, befuddlement and confidence, achievement and frustration, tedium and transcendence. Many others, she thought, led lives of nothing but simple suffering, short ones at that, perhaps even brutish.

Under her translucent, wrinkled skin a nostalgic imagination could see a lovely woman. Svelte under wilt, cheekbones dappled. White hair flowed onto white sheets in a white room, dark in the shadows of the night. Inside big eyes, now under withered lids, her colorful past reflected on her consciousness. As a girl, as a Lucinda Matlock, she had dallied away with Mikes and Spikes and the likes of which her children might not imagine. And then she was a Mom to two, a friend to a few, and a servant to many, so many that she could be great. The rollercoaster of parenthood was bolstered by her confidantes, her Sylvia Sextons, Edna St. Vicious Parkers, and the teacher job she’d had that kept her close to a quasi-peligroso edge, to the seasons of social movements, at least close to the zone of proximal development, to the young at heart, to the ever new, ever old, ideas of life among the living.

She’d been a good wife, up to a point. The point when she realized that her lover had become just a provider of meals and mortgages and not of new ideas, she decided to take their marital drift further. When his prepared mind no longer favored chance, she decided to take one and left him. The girls had made it to college, so she decided to make it in New York, or Europe, or on many an exotic beach. It was natural that there were no more lovers in meadows, so she had had some likes in restaurants and museums, conferences and conversations, but it became apparent that there were very few new ideas for one who’d contemplated so many – existential, reverential, monumental.

Of course how many new ideas can you have in a kitchen or a laundry room or a mommy mobile. Had she been a good mother? She had done her duty, her girls loved her, and each in her own way was reliving a different set of their mother’s mistakes. Ah, the sins of the mothers are visited upon their grandchildren, or the lack thereof. One was trying to emulate the free spirit, the libertina pursuing a new idea of happiness. The other is trying to emulate the dutiful wife and community member with that old idea of happiness. At least it has been interesting to see how words and deeds translated through generations – from her grandmothers, mother, herself, her children, and even the echo of ancestors uttered from the mouths of babes. That old idea made her grateful.

At least she had a lot of gratitude. That was how Clare eventually went back to her husband, and she had stepped into the old shoe of their marriage with thanks. Of course he soon died and she became a serial old person moving from porch to porch, from the nostalgia of others to her own. Not only was she grateful for her long, happy life, she was very grateful for her mind, still vibrant it was, even as her body deteriorated. Her inside had grown more beautiful, as her outside – not so much. In the creaking now, she had spent several years living in her and others’ pasts as the present became more unbearable.

As these thoughts drifted through her consciousness, she began to feel a welling satisfaction, a contentedness tinged with a gray lining. She saw order in the world, a kind of old world order, and her decaying condition was just part of a full life. Although she had sometimes been a religious woman, a Christian for awhile, a dabber, a default Buddhist, the promises of heaven or reincarnation seemed dubious, wishful, unscientific. And she was afraid to die. Sermons on the afterlife or the next life were not convincing to one who had also juxtaposed physics and biology with no-more-existentialism and was facing an inevitable eternity of nothingness. In the next moment however, she experienced a feeling of completion, transcendent of religion. Everything was all right. Like all things in the universe, her anguish – as herself, would pass.

Or should it? She remembered her. Another bit of her, or another herself? The shivering shadow crossed her consciousness. Her dead baby, and the art of forgetting was gone again. The idea of philosophy and lofty purposes shriveled once more by that momentary reality. That once forever. Her abortion. This time it came back to her differently. All the explanations, rationalizations, confabulations of logic didn’t matter. Her own abortion was upon her and that idea of a person bobbing along the river of time, that little flame of life in its common moment of termination, it – she, became a kindred spirit. It was time to abort herself. It time for justice. An eye for an I must die, a heartbeat for a heart attack, a reckoning with recklessness, oh these oh so many years later. She had kept her secret, but now she wanted to know the secret.

It was with this seemingly sudden revelation that Clare felt strength invade her decrepitude. She did not want to be a slave to fate, chance, kings, things, or desperation. She was prouder than death. Her fear abandoned her, and she began to assess the reality of her situation. She decided to turn this newest idea into action. Her vision no longer blurred, she examined the machinery connected to her body, keeping it alive. Then, with a conviction to move she had not felt for months, she struggled to sit up in her bed. Gnarled hands clutched at the side railings and she pulled with all her might.

Finally somewhat upright, she looked more critically at the tangle of tubes strewn between her and the rack of medical equipment. It seemed so foreign to her, all the buttons and dials, screens and meters. Yet, these gadgets had become part of her, they had taken over her body, the octopus had its tentacles in her. She became more resolute in her desire to wrest control of her being back from these newfangled contraptions, from this inhuman use of human beings, this technological crutch, this lie. For a moment, she turned to look at the moon shining on her face as it was through the little window, and she knew that moonlight was really sunlight.

Then, she turned back and reached for the many tubes and wires. Grabbing ahold of all she could, she began to pull. At first, nothing happened. Clare however, was determined now, so she took them in turn, and as she continued to yank, one by one they started to pop loose. The tubes and wires came free both from the machines and from herself. One of the black boxes on top of the stack of machinery came crashing down pushing the tangle of tubes and wires to the floor. She felt sudden jolts and pains as they were torn from her chest and her face. She felt sudden stings as IV’s were ripped from her arm, but she was finally able to raise it free and clear, and she did so with a defiant fist. The blip on the screen stopped moving.

Clare now sat still, recovering from her strenuous feat, the noise, the chaos. She took a long, rasping yet unaided breath, looked around, and realized she had done the job, she was released. Liberty was truth, now there’s an idea she thought. Then, she lay back down on her pillow and began again to relax. She felt freed, she felt calm, she felt relieved. The drone of the machines was no longer audible. Clare closed her eyes and issued a long, ashen sigh. The dust settled, as it always does. Slowly, she drifted back into sleep, back to her dreams, back to her lover in the meadow. And as she lay in the meadow of her dreams, those memories, those spirits, and the sun came out from behind a cloud, and as she gazed up, it became brighter and brighter and brighter.

Peanuts and Presidents

There was a soft knocking on the door before it opened. “Good morning ma’am,” Corazon said gently as she backed into Elaine’s room carrying a tray. The room was dark, but some light came through the sheer, lacy curtains revealing some paintings and clusters of photographs on the walls.

“I’m sorry you are not feeling well Miss Elaine, I have brought you some breakfast,” she almost sang in a tender low voice.

Elaine’s eyelids flittered open. She had been alternatively reading and dozing through the wee hours, and she discontinued the latter activity by lifting the book in her hand to her bedside table. It seemed heavy, and she pushed herself up with difficulty. She was surrounded by lacy pillows and covered with a plush satin blanket. Her long hair, normally worn up in an elegant bun, fell around her shoulders.

“Oooh, well, yes, good morning my dear. Sweet Corazon, what have you done?” Elaine said in a whispery voice, and she cleared her throat with a dainty cough.

Corazon set down the tray and came over to Elaine to help her sit up in bed. “Have you been sleeping ma’am?” She said as she adjusted the mattress with her hip, propping up pillows with one hand and bringing her into a somewhat more upright position with the other. She turned and moved across the room to pull back curtains from windows to let in some more light.

“Well, I must have been darling, because it seems I had a dream about my first husband, the politician…” Elaine paused, then turned to look out the window. “…he was the dreamer really. Nightmares of guilt I suppose, was that what I just had? Hmmm, in any case he always seems so kind through the mist. Maybe he was…” Elaine looked down, then through the window on the side of the room that was partly open revealing the autumn leaves. “You know he, that first husband, was much inspired by and somewhat acquainted actually with another dreamer, Henry Wallace, the man who would not be king, the hope lost to mystery. Every now and then, when I’m watching some ridiculous politician on the news, I think of him.”

“Didn’t he run for President?” said Corazon who had placed a cup of coffee from the tray next to the book on Elaine’s bedside table.

“Well yes, but he’s not be be confused with another Wallace from Alabama who came along a bit later. That heathen stood in the doorway of a university to prevent black students from entering, can you believe it? He was a disgrace to the name, to his state, to our country, but he did repent of his sins eventually, perhaps under some duress? Anyway, my Wallace, I mean our Wallace, I mean that dreamer Henry Wallace, he was FDR’s Vice-President, and if FDR had died three months earlier he would have been President. It was that fourth election, the convention I believe, that did him in, he and Roosevelt. Anyway, poor Henry was replaced by an unknown Truman who he then watched from the wings become President, and yet, and yet he carried on.” Elaine looked out the window.

“Here is some toast for you Miss Elaine. Would you like me to put something on it? Maybe some butter, some jam, or I could go fetch you some peanut butter?” Corazon leaned forward smiling with a hand on her capable hip.

Elaine turned and looked at Corazon. “Peanut butter? Peanut butter!” she exclaimed. “That’s it, that is the irony, even the meaning in the mystery of the history,” and she paused to take a sip of coffee. “Corazon dear, you don’t have to fetch me any peanut butter, but do you mind if I tell you a story? Please sit down my darling, and eat some of this lovely toast with me.”

The wrist connected to the hand on the hip had a watch, and it swung up to Corazon’s face as she contemplated the request. “Well, I suppose you need some listening to go with that coffee, eh, Miss Elaine?” With that, she looked at the door, then sat down on the chair near the bed and leaned back. “Tell me a story. But you’ve only got about seven minutes.”

Elaine took another sip of coffee, scooched herself up a bit more, and cleared her throat again. “Well, you’ve heard of the man they call ‘the peanut man, or the peanut butter guy’ haven’t you?”

“Perhaps,” said Corazon. “You speaking about George Washington Carver of Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute, right? He was a famous botanist.”

“Oh Cory, you never cease to amaze me. You should be a teacher of the young, not a caretaker of the old.” said Elaine. “Yes, and he was the one who discovered many wonderful uses for the lowly peanut and helped many southern farmers recover from the problems wrought by cotton and tobacco.”

“Anyway, some people know the story of how, when he was a little boy, Wallace’s grandfather, who at the time was the Secretary of Agriculture, brought little Henry to Dr. Carver’s laboratory when visiting the Tuskegee Institute. Carver liked young Henry, they would take walks in the woods and Carver would tell Wallace about the spirits of the forest and that God was in everything.”

Corazon shifted in the chair and raised an eyebrow.

“It must have been fascinating, insightful, and weirdly inspiring for that boy. Little Henry heard from Carver himself about his ideas on communicating with plants, talking with flowers, mysticism of a Christian sort I believe, but it was not your basic scientific skepticism. It wasn’t about proof, it was about belief, it was about love. And Carver was wildly successful. He’d been born of slaves into poverty and rose up to become one of the greatest scientists of his time. He was world famous, and his work was not just scientific, it was practical, applicable, economically and commercially valuable – and it still is. But he was an odd one, and eventually Wallace became known as an odd one too. I even heard somewhere he was referred to as ‘the mystic of the New Deal.’ It cost him the presidency. And maybe, just maybe, cost the world something more.” Elaine paused, having worked herself up into a bit of a tiff.

“Well, I guess it wasn’t just peanuts was it, Miss Elaine?” Corazon shifted in her seat and seemed to be ready to stand up.

Elaine put her hand out as if to heighten the gravitas of what she was about to say, and to keep Corazon in her seat. “The story, the lesson here, is about how one person can influence another, over years, over a lifetime, and how even though that influence might be good, positive, helpful, it may not seem so to others, and how they can twist truth into something negative. Or maybe it’s about how a flaw can ruin the flow, I don’t know.”

With a breath, she continued. “You see, there’s another story about Wallace’s relationship with another mystic from Russia, a fellow named Roerich, an artist, a spiritualist, and also a kind of philosophical politician. Wallace wrote him letters, referred to him as his ‘guru,’ and that was used against him. In fact, Roosevelt might have been as intrigued by such mysticism as Wallace, but he was Roosevelt, and the champion, and well, if it had been Wallace who had inherited the Roosevelt’s presidency when he died, the world might be a different place today. We might not have had the cold war, a nuclear arms race, Korea, Vietnam, and so on. We might have had more international good will, global cooperation perhaps, peace even, I don’t know. Henry was not like Harry. Sometimes it’s exciting to consider, sometimes it’s just depressing.”

“Well ma’am, I need to consider doing my job, and maybe you should consider eating more breakfast?” Corazon rose to her feet, stepped to Elaine’s bedside, and took ahold of her hand.

“You should write that story down, about the peanut man and the Vice President. What he learned, what he could have taught, and what we should all do, or think, or be. Give your gifts Elaine, share some peanuts of wisdom.” And with that they both chuckled.

Elaine looked out the window at the autumn leaves now floating in the breeze. Corazon set the plate from the tray on the bedside table and walked out of the room. She turned to look back in as she closed the door.

Porch Light, Part 1

As the street lights came on and a wind swept up some newly fallen leaves, Larry lifted his eyes and gazed into the gathering darkness. The screen door creaked as if on cue, and Barry ambled slowly out on to the patio. They were two old men, variations on gray, bald, and roundish, both residents of the Swansong.

“Hello porch light! I see you’ve been waiting for me,” said Barry in a wheezy voice.

Larry looked around as if waking up and said, “Ah hell, you made it. I thought I was gonna get some peace and quiet so I could have me a nap before bedtime.”

“Well porch light, I can’t let that happen. I gotta give you some juice to stew in,” Barry muttered as he came around behind Larry’s wheelchair and collapsed into the old rocking chair next to him.

“That sounds wrong pal,” Larry growled. “I’ll pretend you didn’t say that, tho’ I’ve been a-wondering about young whippersnappers the likes of you.”

“I think we’ve established you’re not my type.” Barry adjusted himself in the rocking chair which seemed to be in tune with the screen door.

The two old men, with their baggy pants, raggedy shirts, and old soft shoes, looked like they shopped at the same thrift store. Likely, they had the same stains on the front of their droopy sweaters. But the street lights and porch lights left their rough edges in the shadows of another fresh nightfall.

Larry set about lighting an old stoagy, short and not too big around, that had been setting in a dish on a pile of newspapers on the card table between them. Ashes on dust.

Barry started in, “My grandson told me the other day that one of his buddy’s had a grandmother who died. So the kid’s family was cleaning out the old lady’s apartment, they found granny’s diary, and the kid’s Mom let the kid have it. So the kid’s reading it, apparently to my grandson, and they come across a page where the old lady wrote: “No justice, no peace,” over and over in big letters. And then apparently, there’s all this stuff about race and racism and equality, or the lack thereof.”

“Yeah,” said Larry with a wheeze.

“So the kid asks me, he says, ‘Gramps, what’s that all about? You should know, you’re old like the granny was!’ And I say, ‘well, she musta been some kind of radical. Then I told him, ‘E Pluribus Unum,’ explained that and said that we’re about equality and freedom and the United States is a big melting pot. Aren’t you proud of me?” Barry turned with a shrug and upturned hands. He seemed to be waiting for a hug.

Larry looked out into the night and asked, “Was the kid or his grandmother black?”

“Heck, how should I know? Kevin didn’t say,” said Barry, continuing with the shrug.

“Well did you ask? Wouldn’t that explain a few things to you?”

“I didn’t think about it.”

“Figures. You probably think your kid is just buddies with other white kids. White kids with, God forbid, hippy grandparents. But maybe his friend is black. What about that?”

“What about that. I don’t care. It’s been a long time since the civil rights movement, even longer since the Civil War. They’ve had a black president. There’s still affirmative action. Maybe the granny was just some old socialist freak and she was writing about all her protest slogans, or after she got thrown in the slammer for some sit-in. I don’t know, who cares?” And Barry made a noise his grandson would have found amusing.

“I care about what you don’t know. Otherwise we’d have nothing to talk about,” said Larry. “I’ll bet you your ice cream that your grandson’s friend is black and that his grandmother, or more likely her Dad, husband, or son, was the victim of police brutality. Or maybe they were just from the south. And don’t say anything about chocolate ice cream or I’ll have to use your face for an ashtray.”

“Schwid. I thought you’d like me saying something positive, you know liberal, Kumbaya kind of stuff. I didn’t think you’d get all bent out of shape about this mumbo jumbo,” Barry muttered.

“It’s gumbo dumbo, and as the twig is bent so grows the tree. Just don’t you be the one bending Kevin,” said Larry.

“Now who’s sounding wrong? said Barry.

“You know what I mean. And I’m not wrong, I’m left. And there ain’t no Unum, it’s all about the Pluribus. So get on the bus. Or, get up and push me into the dining room. I don’t wanna get so cold that I don’t want to eat the ice cream you owe me – even if it is oh so vanilla.” Larry pushed his cigar stub into the dish and said, “Let’s go.”

“Alright, I mean all left, you crazy commie.” With that, Barry pushed himself out of his rocker, leaned heavily on the handles of Larry’s wheelchair, backed him up, then off the porch, through the squeaky screen door and down the hall to the dining room.

The Importance of Being Ernesto

Elaine laughed as she finished putting on make up at the bathroom mirror. “Oh my, I’d go broke buying all the cosmetics I’d need to repair this old face. There was a time, Corazon, when I was a pearl and the world was my oyster, but alas. Now it’s just ‘oy’!”

Elaine turned from the mirror and walked to a lounge chair in her bedroom. She was wearing an elegant dressing gown and had her gray hair swept up behind her head. The manicured fingers of her veined and splotched hands now gracefully laced themselves on a knee.

Corazon was changing the linens as Elaine watched. “I had another idea last night for a story Corazon. I really must tell it. Are you familiar with Che Guevara?”

“Revolutionary wasn’t he?” replied Corazon as she pulled off a pillow case.

“Yes, and a handsome one, very dashing and dangerous.” said Elaine. “My second husband and I met him one day shortly after he and Fidel and Camilo and the others threw out Bautista. We’d met Bautista too once, but he lacked the charm of those crazy revolutionaries. Once upon a time, Havana was the Las Vegas of the Caribbean, wild and fun, and we used to vacation there in the winters. That husband was sort of wild and fun too, although when it came to business, he was quite serious. Anyway, he loved to go fishing down there, and that’s when we met Papa too. You’ve read Hemingway haven’t you Corazon?”

“No ma’am, but didn’t he kill himself?”

“Yes, and that’s part of the story. It’s going to be called ‘The Importance of Being Ernesto.’ Have you read Oscar Wilde?”

“No ma’am, but wasn’t he a homosexual?”

“Yes, but that’s not part of the story. In Wilde’s play neither man is actually earnest or named Ernest, but in mine they both are and both are famous. The story takes place on the day of the big sport fishing contest that Hemingway used to put on down there. He was like my husband you know, he wasn’t afraid of the revolution, in fact, we were kind of swept up in the romance of it all. Anyway, in the play each of the fake Earnests gets a girl, but in my story, it’s a love triangle, there’s only one girl and neither Ernesto gets her. Perhaps because they are not earnest, but they were you know, both very serious. Wait, that’s it, you’ve got it. Maybe they were like Oscar Wilde – gay!” Elaine exclaimed. She paused thoughtfully, putting a finger on her lips.

“Well, maybe, we’ll make it ambiguous, you know, to add that aura of mystery. In any case, they were distracted, and of course they both had wives and children and all. Anyway, the young woman, a revolutionary herself, tough, but gorgeous in a dangerous way – sort of like Che – she is drawn to them both. They both had swagger, charisma, machismo. I’ve got to figure out how to get Che to speak Spanish the way Hemingway wrote English. Anyway, they’re all at the marina in Havana on the morning of the fishing contest and she can’t decide whose yacht to get on. At the last minute, instead of considering the importance of being earnest, she’s drawn to the importance of loyalty, and she stays on the dock with Fidel, fidelity, get it?”

“I’m not sure I do Miss Elaine, but I’m sure it will be a wonderful story,” Corazon replied as she tucked in the sheet and threw on a blanket.

“Actually, it’s a tragedy, but it’s calm and there’s a young man and an old man and the sea. Che hops over onto Papa’s boat when they are way out on the water. It could have happened, nobody knows it didn’t, who’s the wiser? So they have a conversation about fishing and politics, about writing and adventure. They argue about socialism and capitalism, was Jesus a communist, and who is the hero – the bull or the bullfighter? We hear about Hemingway’s driving through Europe and Che’s driving through South America. We hear about lying and truth, life and death, dirty motorcycles and clean, well-lighted places. Terse dialogue, cucumber sandwiches, the real and the imaginary. They would discuss Bumby and Bunburying; Hadley and Haydee, or was it Hilda?, their respective exploits in Africa, and how to be cruel. They would compare notes on the time Guevara invited Hemingway to see executions of Cubans who allegedly did not support the revolution, a kind of Cuban version of Death in the Afternoon. It would be a hypothetical meeting of minds – that might have actually happened – and who’s to say it didn’t?

So they’re out there on the water, they’re having this conversation, and then one Ernest asks the other Ernesto for a diagnosis. You know Che was a medical doctor, and Papa had lot of health problems. He’d been punctured and burned, battered and bruised, had crashed in cars and airplanes, and was probably getting way too much sun that day. So they compare their scars, Che advises Papa on his myriad ailments, and then they talk about how to die and how to die a good death. Papa talks about killing animals, Che talks about killing people. They talk about friends and enemies they know who have died, who died well, and who did not.

Neither of them catches a marlin, then Papa goes back to Idaho to shoot himself, and Che eventually goes to Bolivia to get shot by someone else, and Fidel remains loyal only to his men – so maybe he is the homosexual? And our heroine, let’s call her Consuelo, I love that name. She, she marries several men in not-so-rapid succession and winds up in an old folks home regaling the help with tales of her adventures. What do you think mi Corazon, my heart?”

“Another masterpiece ma’am. I need to go change another bed. Is there anything else I can get for you?”

“Yes, a facelift, or maybe a gun. Is it too early for cocktails my dear?”

“Perhaps you should have lunch first.” Corazon smiled, and walked out of the room.

Good Gumbo

Iris, pronounced “ear-is,” Aunt Iris that is, pronounced “ain’t,” as she preferred to be called, was from Mississippi. By happenstance, the whims of fate, and a distant relative, after living her long life of over 90 years there in Mississippi, she wound up in the Swansong. One day she had some visitors, the daughter of a second cousin once removed and the new husband. Even though the young lady had met Aunt Iris only once before, she was greeted like long lost royalty. When introduced to the husband, Aunt Iris said, “You come over here and hug my neck, you kin now.” Such was her warmth and kindness.

They sat for a chat, and after basic pleasantries on health and the weather, the new husband – a curious sort – asked Aunt Iris some questions. “ Aunt Iris, you ever do much traveling?”

Aunt Iris looked up as if watching a bird fly across the sky and said, “Well, let me see…” She paused long enough to watch the imaginary bird fly into the trees. “I went to Arkansas one time. Another time I went to Alabama, but that was just for a spell to get a chair from my great uncle’s cousin’s child who wanted to give me that chair. So, we went and got it, but it broke. Once, we were gonna go to Florida, but I don’t think we did.” She paused to watch the imaginary bird fly back in another direction.

Before she could go on, the new husband, one of them native Californians asked, “Aunt Iris, what’s your favorite food?”

“Well,” said Iris, her eyes now looking at the imaginary banquet table before her, “I likes fish. Catfish. Yessir, fried catfish. Mmm’.” As if an after thought, “I could have me some of that right about now.”

The couple stayed for about an hour chatting about this and that, this and that person who was related to such and so. What happened here and there, when and where. Eventually there was more neck hugging, well wishing, and they went on their way.

After they’d left, Jesse came in and said, “Aunt Iris, what can I get you? Do you need anything?”

Aunt Iris said, “Darlin’ I don’t need a thing, but a nice glass of water would be an absolute pleasure.”

When Jesse came back with the water, Iris thanked him profusely, took him by the arm and said, “Jesse honey, I’ve got to tell you something. You know that nice young man who was just here?”

“Yes,” said Jesse as he leaned over Iris’s bed.

“I neglected to tell that boy that I’d been to Louisiana one time. It was to pay a visit to my friend’s cousin’s grammy to fetch another chair, and for the life of me I can’t remember why, but it was delightful. I’ll never forget being in her kitchen,” she paused, “except that I forgot to tell that young man about it so I guess I cain’t say never. Anyway, that woman was just making some gumbo, but she told me something I’ve been realizing was more important than when she said it. But even then I reckoned it was pretty important.”

“What was that?” asked Jesse.

“So she’s cuttin’ an onion there in the kitchen, and she says to me, “sweetie, did you know that if you whistle while you work, whistle while you cut onions, then you won’t cry.”

“That’s some nice advice,” said Jesse.

“But then she said that she don’t whistle, that she likes to cry, that the tears she cries while she’s cuttin’ onions cleansed her soul. She said that onions was sympathy, that peppers was excitement, and that celery was most of the time. She said that what made a good gumbo was the diversity. She said that if all you had was potatoes, you might live, but it’d be borin’. She said ‘flavor ain’t one thing. Spice is nice, but spicy is better and it’s more than one spice, more than one flavor, that makes for good eatin’. An’ most important is that just one tongue can taste it all!’”

“Sounds like a wise woman,” said Jesse.

“Well, she was wise with her pies, but her gumbo philosophy was unreal. She said that some people was like okra, sticky. Some people was like garlic, stinky. And some people was like tomatoes – and there’s lotsa kindsa tomatoes, but the ones that have a hard life taste better. She said some people was like bay leaves and some people – like her – was like sassafras, kinda sassy like. But if she cut some onions she’d be less sassy and more sympathetic. Lotsa folks was like rice or grits, but most important, if you didn’t have ‘em all, if you didn’t have that diversity, you wouldn’t have no good gumbo.”

“Well, as Mississippi people might say, that sounds like it tastes mighty good,” said Jesse with a smile.

“Yessir, she knew a thing or two,” said Iris, happy that Jesse seemed to like her story. “I’ll tell you another funny little thing about that woman. You know I said she was my friend’s cousin’s granny?”

“Yes,” said Jesse.

“Well, that friend of mine was black. Her cousin was black. But that woman, that granny, she kinda looked white. At leastwise, you couldn’t really tell. I mean, I figured she’d be black, but when I saw her, she looked white. When she talked, sometimes she sounded black, sometimes she sounded white.

“Well, ma’am, if you don’t mind my saying, sometimes southern accents confuse me. I think of them as black or white. Is there a difference?” Jesse asked.

“Oh my yes,” said Iris. “There’s a difference betwixt Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, and ‘tween city folks and country folks, left of here, right of there, and most definitely between whites and blacks. But,” and she paused, watching that imaginary bird fly once again across the ceiling, “I reckon ya’ll from hereabouts might not know some of all that. I mean some comes from accents, you know, the deflections of voice. And others come from their colloquialisms. Or as Daddy Bob used to say, ‘their localisms.’”

Jesse just nodded.

“Anyway, I reckon that woman was both, black and white, and really lots of us are. Those racist people talk about keeping folks apart, but we weren’t, aren’t, never were. It’s hard to live around that, the bane of my existence really. I just saw people, just people, some’s good, some’s bad, and that ain’t about what they look like, it’s about who they are, how they act, what they do, what they say, or leastwise what they really mean – what they’re about, you know?” The bird flew back across the ceiling. “Folks is folks, and if you’re even just a little bit patient you can tell that. But some of those garlicy people just get up and say this or that all loud. Too much of that spoils the gumbo.”

“Hmm,” said Jesse.

“Maybe that’s why I don’t like my food too spicy,” said Iris. “Maybe that’s why I haven’t gone too far from where I’m from, ’til now that is? Maybe I’m too patient? You know Jesse, I think I’m gonna start writing some letters, you know, to politicians and such. Help ‘em out with all their confusionisms.”

Jesse looked confused, “What do you mean?”

Iris looked at Jesse, then out the window. “Well, it’s too late for me to wander around. It’s too late for me to start eatin’ too much spicy food. But it’s not too late to let these young whippersnappers, what’s runnin’ everything, know what’s important.”

“And what is important,” said Jesse.

“Love,” said Iris. “We all just have to love each other, don’t you know, like how you feel when a good gumbo tastes good.”

Porch Light, Part 2

Larry had a newspaper in his lap as he rolled his wheelchair up to where Barry was dozing on the porch. He backed in next to the rocking chair, set his brake and set to reading.

Maybe it was the rustling of paper in wrestling the pages, or maybe it was the rumbling in his grumbling about what he was reading, but Barry stirred in the chair, it creaked, and rocked him awake. But he only opened one eye and rolled it toward Larry who sputtered some low grade profanities in response to what purported to be the news.

“What’s wrong now,” Barry asked, opening both eyes.

“More war crap. Makes me sick,” Larry announced. “The specific vaguaries are a lie.

Barry paused, stretched a bit and looked at his watch, “What’s that s’posed to mean?”

“Buried at the end of a little nothing story on page four, they finally give some numbers about the financial cost and American body count in the last decade of bloodshed, and the Pentagon wants more, more money, more kids. And they’re probably gonna get it,” Larry said.

Barry paused again, stopped rocking, and said, “Don’t you want to be safe sitting here on the porch? Like they say, ‘Freedom isn’t Free.'”

“Bullpucky,” Larry spit. It’s a scam, a racket – to quote a Marine Corps General who knew – the rich get richer, and schmucks like us pay, and pay with our children. Don’t you see that after all these years?”

“It’s voluntary now. Those kids want to go. But even when there was a draft, military service is a good thing. It teaches ’em discipline, love of country, and maybe it’s just a necessary evil in a hostile world,” Barry replied. “I wasn’t old enough for Korea like you, but I did my time in the National Guard and I’m proud of it.”

“Pride schmride. More balderstash,” Larry said. “Did I ever tell you what my Uncle Howard said about war, about all American wars?”

“Nope, but don’t make a career out of it, lunch is in 20 minutes,” said Barry.

“These were your kind of people, straight shootin’ Pennsylvania farmers, proud Americans, muy conservative!” Larry paused. “In fact, maybe it’s being a farmer that gives you the long view. In any case, one time when I was back east, Howard told me that the United States should not have fought in any war. Not one. He referred to Canada, they didn’t fight for independence, but they eventually got it, without a Revolutionary War. If we had still been part of the UK, slavery would have been banished and we would not have had to fight the Civil War.”

Barry just nodded.

“World War I was a mess, and if we hadn’t gotten into it, Europe would not have had the taste for Hitler 20 years later. It’s never good to fight other people’s battles,” Larry said.

Now shaking his head, Barry said, “I don’t know about that. Hitler might have been inevitable.”

“Not if we provided moral leadership. Or followed the leadership offered, like Wilson and his fourteenth point. Hitler might have been restrained by a League of Nations. Then Korea, Vietnam, both police actions, both losses…”

Barry cut in, “Korea wasn’t a loss.”

“It mighta been proof that quitting is a good thing. ‘Nam, definitely a loss. People finally recognise that. It was a schtoit schtorm on schteroids.”

“You can get involved in other peoples business, but it doesn’t have to be violent. People respond to incentives, they can be bribed. Unfortunately we’re bribing them to fight back. ‘Course, I’m not necessarily a pacifist. Sometimes ya gotta kick some ass, but it’s usually only one ass. Sock the bully in the face, and everyone takes a deep breath. But that’s not the American way, that’s not the military-industrial-complex-way.” Larry coughed. “War is a business, war is a racket, and just killing one guy is not enough for the old profit margin. They require an economy of scale.”

Barry jumped in, “Sometimes war is inevitable. The history of the world is all about combat.”

Larry paused, took a deep breath, and changing his tone he said, “Maybe you’re right. Civilization must have its discontents. People are violent, and more articulate with their fists. Kids fight, and sometimes heroically. My beef is the business part. The innocence lost so corporations can make money. Doesn’t that bother you?”

“I’m a proud American and the business of America is business.” Barry paused, hearing what he had said. They both stared into a blurring distance. “But that could be a bunch of bovine manure, I don’t know.”

“Smells like victory to me.” Larry’s frown morphed into a smile. “Time to eat your lunch.”

Elaine Vitale

So, I’ve been nursing a novel for years. In Spain, I finished a first draft. Later, I couldn’t do the rewrite. Then, I offered up fragments for the Wallace Stegner writing fellowship at Stanford. I did not make the cut. Alas.

Here are some of those fragments serialized in reverse chronological order. I know, that messes it all up, but blogs are about reverse chronology, so when I get to the first bit, I’ll encourage readers to start there and go X posts…

However, there’s a non-linear concept here. The novel was about an old folks home in which a nurse and an orderly hear the stories of several residents. Thus, it was a frame story, consequently the chapters could stand alone.

Except there were breaks, interludes that followed a linear sequence – so that bit may get messed up. Anyway, groove to it as broken artifacts, palimpsests, or – all together now – randomness…

Corazon was watching Elaine sleep. Rather, she was watching her breathe, as stillness it was, expecting that any one of her slow breaths could be her last. She was fading, but not too fast. As she was always full of surprises, again her eyes fluttered open. Without moving, they looked at Corazon and smiled.

In a whisper of voice she said, “Corazon dear, I see you are sitting down. Good, well, here’s another story, but bless me, it’s not related to any husbands, though it could be. It was sort of the unfinished idea of an old boyfriend, who by the way was very sympathetic to women, and perhaps even wanted to be one? Anyway, it’s science fiction and I just now dreamt of how it ends.”

“You see, once upon a long time ago in the future there were a couple of couples, four scientists, perhaps swingers don’t you know. They were sitting around bemoaning an imminent, disastrous fate for poor old earth, what with climate change, overpopulation, pollution, looming doom and what not, when they hatched a little plan. They would hijack a spacecraft and relocate life on a new planet. Two of them were astrophysicists, and had access and ability to hijack the space ship. The other two were biologists, and had the DNA of thousands of lifeforms tucked away into a suitcase, maybe two suitcases. Sort of a mobile seed library for life on earth – don’t you, well, I don’t know.”

Sitting up in bed, Elaine continued, “Their problem was, because of the cruising speed of their spaceship, they’d have to go into cryogenic suspended animation for what would be around two thousand years, 20 centuries of stony sleep, in order to reach the appropriate planet that they’d determined would sustain life. In order to operate their spaceship, which was quite large, more a space station, and required a crew of hundreds, they needed people, special people.”

“So really, the story is about them, the special people, the ‘Numans’ – that’s what they’ll be called. You see, you had to have a group of people, a new race, that would not overpopulate the finite space of the spacecraft, who could run it effectively, and then eventually die out like an old plastic bag once they reached the ‘New Earth.’ So, our biologists create a new kind of human, a numan, and how they live – in comparison to us – therein lie the morals of this story. The battles of the second sexes, the Looking Backward metaphors. The old plastic that doesn’t evolve, the social hierarchy that dissolves. And here’s where it takes a turn for the weird. Numans, in spite of their differences, copulate like humans, but at the climax of the act, instead of ejaculate from the man’s penis, a small bean pops out of the woman’s mouth – with all the same turgid drama and gravitas as that nutty clit gravy gets. The fruit of their orgasm, if you will.”

“Oh my,” said Corazon, “I would if I could, but this has become quite strange. Miss Elaine!”

With a reflective animation, Elaine said, “If the couple wish to create a child, they simply put the bean in the man’s bellybutton, it is absorbed in a kind of space-lapsed horizontal gene transfer and he becomes pregnant.”

“Ha ha ha,” Corazon laughed, startled at the thought. “I didn’t realize this was a comedy.”

“Yes, I suppose it’s kind of funny, but there are practical applications to this arrangement, and some of the biology is not unknown in the animal kingdom, so please bear with me. Once the man – the ‘numan’ man – becomes pregnant, during gestation he undergoes a metamorphosis and turns into a woman. Transgenderization if you will. During this process his genitalia – package, I’ve heard tell – wither and fall off and he develops a vagina and grows breasts. He, now she, then delivers the baby as women do. But when the baby is born, it is always and only a manchild.” “She” always begets a “he,” whatever pronouns those numans might use…

“Oh my goodness Elaine, you are hysterical,” said Corazon, “such an imagination.”

“No hysterectomies here thank you,” said Elaine. “Please consider the advantages of this arrangement. Each couple can only have one child, or rather each person can only have one pregnancy. And every person gets to have the experience being both sexes during their lifetime. The nature of sexuality has completely evolved, perhaps revolved, older women having sex with younger men, then becoming lesbians. Of course, one has to decide what is to become of marriage, monogamy, and the nature of the family. But you also have advantages in managing only boy children in a society run only by women. All Oedipus, no Electra. There is a natural order and natural stability. Not the kind of chaos we have amongst humans, especially nowadays.”

Corazon thought about it, “I suppose you may be onto something, but what is the point?”

“Darling! The point of the scientists in this story is to have these numans run the spacecraft for thirty or so generations during which time their population will remain the same. I suppose there might be the occasional fatal accident, or the occasional set of twins, but the numan population remains constant. Then, when they all arrive at New Earth, the scientists will awaken from their cryogenic suspended animation and activate their suitcases, which are kind of like little technological Noah’s Arks. They will repopulate the new planet with species from Earth. The numans may continue, but likely will die out over time.”

“Ah,” said Corazon, still intrigued and contemplative, and just getting it.

“So here is the twist. Of course things don’t go as planned. The Gods laugh and chaos brings reason, in the form of happenstance, to this new world order. The black swans appear.”

“Oh, I’ve heard of them. Jesse says that we are all black swans, but especially him.” Corazon exclaimed and chucked.

“During the voyage there are mutations biologically, mutinies politically, rebellions among the crew, anomaly analogies, unanticipated events. The sets of twins and the fatal accidents throw off the balance of their planned community. Then there are young numen who refuse to get pregnant and don’t become nuwomen, and older nuwomen who don’t want to have anything to do with the young numen. And there is jealousy, ” said Elaine with gravitas.

“Ah ha,” said Corazon.

“Yes, all those human foibles, those vices, that march of folly that led to the havoc from which the scientists think they are escaping. They are happening again right there on the spaceship while they sleep. The bad dream is new reality. The numans are different, but not so different. They are like all of us who think we are unique, special, one-of-a-kind, thus unkind to others. We are the same, whither race, class, species, we just want to feel ourselves.”

“Ah,” said Corazon.

Elaine paused for effect, then continued forcefully, “Things fall apart. The centre cannot hold. Mere anarchy is loosed upon the new world. And this rough beast of a spaceship slouches toward a brave, new world to be born.” Elaine paused. “Or it would if I could write the book, but I shan’t. If I could, it would reflect how we could be, but are. I’d show the worst part of our best selves and the best part of our worst selves. I’d try to give the reader an out-of-body experience, so they can perhaps look back and see themselves as they are, and perhaps love themselves, and our lonely planet, a bit more.”

“Ah that is a beautiful idea Miss Elaine,” said Corazon, “so how does it end?”

“Well, maybe it’s a dream and the scientists wake up realizing that they need to take care of this planet. That we can’t just leave it like so much rubbish. Maybe they are not awakened from their stony sleep and the numans go on to successfully inhabit the new earth, the terra recognita. Or maybe the scientists, once they awaken, see what has become of their creation, and it changes how they restart life on new earth. Or maybe they question whether or not they should restart life as we have known it at all.”

“But you said you had figured out how to finish the story,” said Corazon, “which one is it?”

“Well darling, why don’t you decide? My ending is just an ending. People, humans, numans, we all want happy endings. I’ve realized that sometimes some things are just over, everybody dies. Its just the end, my beautiful friend.”

“Oh my,” said Corazon, “that’s no fun. I want to go have some beans.”

And both ladies laughed out loud, looked at each other, and laughed out loud again.

“Oh thank you for listening to that foolishness, my dear heart, Corazon. Once again I’ve worn myself out telling you a story. I want to elaborate on that ending, my ending. It is coming soon and I need your help. I’ve written you a note that I’d like you to read and think about. Let’s not talk about it until tomorrow, or as Twain might suggest, the day after tomorrow, but I’ve been thinking about it for a long time and I’d be honored if you would accept my proposal. Here you go dear.” Elaine reached into the drawer of her bedside table and withdrew an envelope which she handed to Corazon.

“Open that when you get home, or perhaps when you’re with Jesse, he’s a part of it too.”

Corazon raised her eyebrows and looked at the envelope. “Well Otay, Miss Elaine,” she said, realizing that Elaine had transitioned, in a flicker, from a fanciful tale to a serious request.

“Now I need to get some rest dear,” and with that, Elaine closed her eyes and went back to sleep.

Nature’s God

In March of 2016, our family stayed at the Good Shepard Agricultural Mission in Banbasa, India. It was perhaps the highlight of our big trip, and you can check my GSAM posts in the Contents to learn more.

While I have rejected most religion as superstition, their particular brand of Christianity was appealing, not too fundamentalist, very friendly, even fun. After a couple of Sunday services there, it occurred to be that the sermon was a literary form of importance. Preachin’ is a lot like teachin’. So I took a stab at the genre. (I mean, why not, my middle name sake, Frank Fagerburg, wrote more than a few!)

Even tho’ I was not invited to deliver it there and then, I thought I might deliver it here and now. I mean, it is Sunday. And it is my Dad’s birthday. So, in honor of him, my grandfather, GSAM, and mother nature herself, here goes…

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Good morning and thank you! My family & I are so grateful to be here, our experience at the Mission has been more wonderful than we imagined. The love, kindness, and joie de vivre here at the farm is an inspiration. (joy of life)

Its the beginning, so let me start there, Genesis 1:1 – “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.” And then in the next few verses come light and water and sky and vegetation, and God saw that it was good. And then came stars and living creatures and mankind, and God saw that they were good too.

Further on: Genesis 1:29-31 – “Then God said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds of the air and all the creatures that move on the ground – everything that has the breath of life it – I give every green plant for food. And it was so. God saw all that he had made, and it was very good…”

So, moving quite a bit forward in time, let me tell you a little about myself. I’ve been a teacher in various capacities since 1984, and even before that I realised there are many causes one can stand for: social justice, equal rights, fair treatment, healthy living, etc. But one, damage to our environment, global climate change, could make all the others irrelevant.

Thus, it seems to me – especially with the global population well over 7 billion – wise and gentle stewardship of nature is the key. So, for 12 of the 15 years I worked at North Hollywood High School my classroom was in the Agriculture Area where we had many organic gardens, vineyard, orchard, greenhouse, nursery, and various projects like aquaculture, vermiculture, and helping other schools start their own gardens.

During that time, I would take students on senior trips to Yosemite National Park, camping trips to the Channel Islands, and even an ecotour of Costa Rica. Then, almost 10 years ago, wanting to raise our children in the countryside, Mary Lynn & I moved to the little town of La Honda in northern California. We love the rolling hills, the redwood trees, the Pacific ocean, the Pescadero Marsh, and we go hiking, mountain biking, and kayaking whenever we can. And we are often inspired by the educational farm, Pie Ranch, that my sister Nancy and her husband Jered have created nearby along the California coast. (Come visit and check it out.)

Whether gardening, being out nature, or observing its beauty from afar, that interaction is always a blessing. Nature is the work and even the hand of God. Understand the mysteries of nature and you are looking into the mind of God. Wonder at the beauty of a tree, a sunset, the cardiovascular system, the way the water, wind, earth, and the life therein all work together, the stars in sky, the atoms in a grain of sand, and you are praying to the God who made it all.

Parenthetically, we have something in common – the US and India both had to win our independence from Great Britain. The US Declaration of Independence starts with a preamble that talks about the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God. (quote?) But we used violence and you used non-violence, and that same wisdom can be applied to my message this morning, that stewardship of nature is not just being responsible citizens of the earth, it is honouring the God who made this wonderful creation, revelling in his manifestations of love, and preserving a world that allows us to share his grace for generations to come.

Consider… Job 12:7-9 – “But ask the animals, and they will teach you, or the birds of the air, and they will tell you; or speak to the earth, and it will teach you, or let the fish of the sea inform you. Which of all these does not know that the hand of the LORD has done this? In his hand is the life of every creature and the breath of all mankind. Does not the ear test words as the tongue tastes food? Is not wisdom found among the aged?

Now consider the miracle of Photosynthesis. Beautiful plants use their chlorophyl to make our food from the light of the sun. Amazing no? And the molecules of Chlorophyl and Hemoglobin that have a similar structure differ by one atom. Chorophyl magnesium, Hemoglobin iron. That green chlorophyl and our red blood are in a symbiotic union, and strangely, direct opposites on the color wheel. Is that not intelligent design?

Consider Chaos Theory. OK, I’ve considered it and I still don’t understand it, but part of it has to do with the fact that nothing is perfect in nature, not perfectly flat, not perfectly round, not perfectly rhythmic, always a little off. But underneath that variability, hidden in the chaos, there is order. I could have googled more info, but check it out, it is fascinating, and how can that not be another of God’s miracles?

Consider the Heisenburg Uncertainty Principle, the idea that we cannot know everything about the location of an electron moving around the nucleus of an atom. But miraculously, quantum physicists have found that an electron will appear wherever a scientist is looking for it. It seems to know we are watching. Does it knows because God knows?

I consider the words of my brother Ron, a medical doctor who now lives with his family in New Zealand. When he was in medical school learning anatomy and dissecting corpses, he would be amazed at how the body is put together, and he felt that it was the hand of God.

So, studying nature scientifically is good, but working with nature, like farming, is also like working with God. There are many Bible verses about farming. Here are just a few…

Genesis 2:15 – “Then the LORD God took the man and put him into the garden of Eden to cultivate it and keep it.”

Isaiah 28:24-29 – “Does the farmer plow continually to plant seed? Does he continually turn and harrow the ground? Does he not level its surface And sow dill and scatter cummin And plant wheat in rows, Barley in its place and rye within its area? For his God instructs and teaches him properly”

Proverbs 27:23-27 – “Know well the condition of your flocks, And pay attention to your herds; For riches are not forever, Nor does a crown endure to all generations. When the grass disappears, the new growth is seen, And the herbs of the mountains are gathered.
The lambs will be for your clothing, And the goats will bring the price of a field, And there will be goats’ milk enough for your food, For the food of your household, And sustenance for your servants.”

2 Corinthians 9:6-11 – “Now this I say, he who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each one must do just as he has purposed in his heart, not grudgingly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that always having all sufficiency in everything, you may have an abundance for every good deed…”

James 5:7 – “Therefore be patient, brethren, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious produce of the soil, being patient about it, until it gets the autumn and spring rains.”

…there are many more. But there are fewer about pollution as we know it today. When the Bible was written, pollution often referred to blood spilled, or to spiritual pollution. There were not substances or things that pollute the air, water, and land like there are today. Now we have chemicals, toxins, and products that do not break down or biodegrade. It’s a problem around the world.

Once upon a nearby time, chai, Indian tea, was served in earthenware cups. When a person finished their tea, they just threw it on the ground and it biodegraded, it went back to the clay it came from. And so it was with lots of items considered rubbish or garbage: bones, stones, shells, leftover food, things made of wood and paper and cloth. But now we have plastic, styrofoam, and other synthetics that do not decay or breakdown and they pollute the earth, the water, and even the air.

So another message this morning, in addition to appreciating nature, is to not litter, to pick up trash, and to “give a hoot – don’t pollute.” It is as blasphemy, a slight against God, a sin against nature. When we disrespect the earth, we disrespect God. I could evoke a verse from Revelations about the “destroyers of the earth being destroyed,” but the Earth is not yet destroyed. It can be cleansed, swept up, tidied up, and brought back to a more natural, a more God-like state.

Here at the Mission you have a wonderful opportunity to be an example of righteousness – you already are: your dairy, your crops, your methane production, your school, your neighborliness, your sustainability, your caring, and your wonderful kids. In many things, including this kind of respect for nature, you can be an example for your community, your state, your country, and the world. You can show others how to live, how to enjoy the beauty and abundance of nature, and to respect God’s creation. Kindly – do not litter. Stash your trash. Pick it up. Set that example.

As I’m sure you know, Gandhi said, “be the change you want to see in the world.” Be that change, even in small ways, it’s easy. And Martin Luther King said something like, “we can all be great because we can all serve.” And sometimes that service is looking out for the negligence of others and picking up their trash.

So, consider Proverbs 6:6 – “Go to the ant, you sluggard; consider its ways and be wise! It has no commander, no overseer or ruler, yet is stores its provisions in summer and gathers its food at harvest. How long will you lie there, you sluggard? When will you get up from your sleep?”

Hopefully I haven’t put you to sleep. Thank you again for this opportunity, and for already being a change in the world, for already serving, for already showing us so much love. It has been an honour to be here and to get to know you. I’ll close with a few verse from Psalms about nature, agriculture, and the environment. Consider…

Psalm 104:10-14 – “He makes springs pour water into the ravines; it flows between the mountains. They give water to all the beasts of the field; the wild donkeys quench their thirst. The birds of the air next by the waters; they sing among the branches. He waters the mountains from his upper chambers; the earth is satisfied by the fruit of his work. He makes grass grow for the cattle, and plants for man to cultivate – bring forth food from the earth.”

Now here’s a little prayer I wrote when I was a small boy: “Dear God, Thank you for the food we eat, thank you for the songs we sing, thank you God for everything.”

Amen!