Monthly Archives: December 2013

When “Nothing” Happens — Everything Does

“See me,” read the note in my typewriter.  My news director boss wanted to talk to me in his office, door closed.  That was never a good sign.

Maybe he was going to commend me for my boundless enthusiasm as a TV reporter, my joie de vive on live TV.   Anchoring the early morning news, I had finished writing my script early.  Actually, I hadn’t written enough and had finished reading it on-air two minutes early.  For 20 long seconds, I stared at the camera.

What to do?  Read “Horton Hears a Who?”  No, I simply said, “Okay, let’s review the top stories of the day.”  Then I just read my script again.  How’s that for thinking under pressure?  Yes, my being there mattered—a whole lot.  That’s what drew me to broadcasting in the first place.

The boss was mad at me for another reason.  It was my disappointing performance as a night-side reporter.  I was slacking on the job.  I had failed to submit a story for the 11 o’clock news.  Not a word.

The boss just didn’t get it.  It wasn’t my fault that nothing happened.  No news.  No fires.  No accidents.  No city government.  Nothing.  Not even the lights burning in city hall amounted to anything.  That’s right, I listened to an entire city council-meeting and got nothing.  They hadn’t done anything except bore each other to tears, and me too.

Nothing I could imagine could make their meeting interesting to me or anyone else.  So I had just left and called it a night.

My boss was furious. How could you have a newscast with no news?  “If the city council didn’t doing anything, just report that they didn’t do anything,” he barked.  My response: Dust mites don’t do anything either, but that doesn’t make them newsworthy.

I had missed the point.  My being on the job mattered.  I’d better start writing stuff.

I’ve had reason this year to wonder if my being here matters.  Gone are lots of things that helped remind me of that.  I knew I mattered because Nina told me.  I’d give anything to hear her once again chewing me out for buying another baseball collectible.  Maybe that’s why I bought them—just to hear her voice.  Because now they don’t matter.

Unfortunately, we often rely on artificial things to remind us of our relevance.  We think we matter by our paycheck or the number of our “likes” on Facebook.  In fact, social media is what it is because lots of people want to believe they matter.  It’s the same for jailhouse gangs.

As you read this, I’ll be returning from a place where small things count for a lot.  In the small Caribbean village I visit, it is enough just to be alive.  For a child, a glove and a pair of shoes make life all the sweeter.  Somehow, they are learning on their own.

I will keep going there until I figure out how they do it, and why it is still so much harder for us.  I’ll let you know what I am learning.

It helps to follow the examples of others who know they matter.  Fr. Eric Freed smiles when he hears a baby cry—someone else’s baby.  In its own way, it is reminding him that he matters too.  You don’t need much to know the same thing.

How’s that for a headline?  Film at eleven.

Switching the Narrative

“You’re a jerk,” wrote my brother the other day in his annual Advent message.  “Nobody likes you.”

Back when I took him literally, that was a knife in the heart.  But that was before I realized that he always switched polarity. Someone had crossed his electrical leads, his AC to his DC.  Hate meant love and war meant peace, a curious interpretation of truth that could have ended civilization ages ago.  Or maybe it could have saved us a boatload of trouble.

Thank heaven I caught on to him in time.  But that is the challenge that life gives us, understanding those garbled signals from the ones you love.

Once, my daughter, then 13, was battling the trauma of growing up with me, an adoptive father.  Her real dad had flown the coop the day she was born.  And by the time she was seven, her mother had had a series of flaky boyfriends.

Then she met and married me, arguably the flakiest of all of them.  The trouble was that I really loved both mother and daughter and wouldn’t stop.  I still do.  I never stop loving anybody.

When my daughter turned thirteen, she erupted in a seething pubescent tantrum.  She said I didn’t really love her and I would go away.  I told her that I always would love her and would never leave.

She turned out to have misjudged me.  I proudly watched her excel in college, becoming fluent in Arabic.   She grew to be a loving spouse and mother of two, as well as a U.S. Foreign Service Officer.  I still love her and I’m still here.

Similarly, her mother had married a man who could not balance a checkbook and hated to rake leaves.  The leaf thing was a problem only once a year, the checkbook problem—only when I spent money.

These days, through e-mail, we relive our silliness together.  They broke the mold when they made dingbats like me.  In Shakespeare’s words, we “loved wisely but not too well.”  The point is that we loved.

Often we are trapped by our own expectations—or worse, the expectations of others.  Not Nina.  She didn’t get a savvy businessman who could fix the furnace and change the oil.  She got me.  That was 21 years ago—so something worked.

That is when I think of Ray, the Korean War vet who fought for Nina’s freedom.  He lost his sight doing that.  And now, as we compare pacemaker stories, I tell him that I wouldn’t have met her had it not been for him.  I tell him how much I love him.  I write my own narrative.

In January, a mediator will sit down with Nina’s family and me to sort out issues with her estate.  It is yet another opportunity to rewrite our narrative.  I am hopeful and, yes, loving.

Given the chance, I will say that I love the family still, regardless of the outcome.  I will say that I forgive them as I hope they forgive me.  I will ask, “Forgive me for not being what you imagined I should be. To Nina and to you, I was everything I could be.”

You can’t always change the narrative of the past.  But you can change the future.


Headed Back to El Limon

Ten years ago, I began collecting baseball equipment for the children of the Dominican Republic.  My greatest ally through this has been mi dear friend Rodney Brunlinger.  Recently, he ran across this account of preparation for our trip.  It seems fitting to share it with you now—-

From Humboldt to El Limón (No Problema)

             As I unloaded my bags at the airport preparing for my fourth trip to the Dominican Republic in 30 months, my biggest concern was the weight of my bags filled with baseball equipment for the children of El Limón.  Every year they are overweight and they must be pared down to 50 pounds.  This year my bags came it at a near perfect 50 and 47.5 pounds.

This year my host family would be the Ozuna family.  In the Dominican Republic they don’t just host you, they adopt you.  It’s part of what Dave Silverbrand calls “the love which flows from them like water.”  And it rains year round.

It was not the usual “take stuff, check in on what successfully arrived and present to the children on Cleats for Kids Day, on the second Saturday of every December”.  Dave has been doing this for eight years now.  This was a scaled down delivery and to work with Dave’s counterpart in the Dominican Republic, Onfalia Morillo, on some hurdles which cropped up in the past 12 months. While meeting with her, I discovered that more hurdles had popped up than we were aware of.  But as John Lennon once said, “there’s no problem, only solutions.”

In April 2009, we sent 89 boxes through our Northcoast partners, Fed Ex, and then another partner in Boston would forward them to the Dominican Republic, all free.  But the great recession was taking its toll.  In May, Dave was informed that corporate headquarters of Fed Ex had put the kybosh on gratis shipping out of Humboldt County.  That was the jab.  The right hook came in June.  The agency in the Northeast had lost its funding also and the donations from the people of Humboldt County were temporarily stranded.

Onfalia directed us to send out July shipment to Florida.   Fed Ex gave us the best deal they could and another 30 boxes were off, no problem.

While in the Dominican Republic this July, I received very good news.  The 89 boxes had finally arrived.  But this was not the only news Onfalia had.  Some new really big hurdles were popping up  Every box needed a much more detailed manifest than we had been using and the word “donation” must be prominent on every box in English and Spanish.

Additionally, regarding medical supplies we had been collecting for the clinic in El Limón, there are a host of restrictions on medicine so best not to send them in the future.

Stethoscopes and such are okay.  But electrical devices which are used, like the X-ray machine donated recently by a doctor in Fortuna, are prohibited.  This puts a pinch on my dream to get the X-ray machine and a sonogram/ultrasound machine for El Limón.  Dr. Denny Wilson had listed these along with general medical supplies and an ambulance when Dave and I visited the clinic in December of ’09.

There were other hurdles in export taxes for the U.S. Government, import taxes for the Dominican Government, and daily storage fees at the port while a tax waiver was pursued and while the Dominican government explored all 89 boxes to see exactly what the people of Humboldt were donating to the people of El Limón.  No problema.  Onfalia’s friend and attorney was working round the clock to clear these hurdles.

After a meeting with Onfalia in the capital of Santo Domingo, the Ozuna family left for El Limón with a trunk load of baseball equipment for the children and 40 blankets for the newborns sewn by my mom (a one year supply).

On the way, we stopped at my favorite bodega for lunch.  While the food was being prepared, I thought it would be refreshing to take a dip in the stream-fed pool-like pond with 20 or 30 local young people and kids.  But they know many things I do not.  I stepped on a slippery rock.  Whoosh!  Down I went.

I tried to pop up quickly, mortified with embarrassment.  When falling I had tried to catch myself with my right hand but when I looked at it, my index finger was pointing in a different direction than I was accustomed, beginning at the middle knuckle.  My friends were visibly upset at the sight so I broke the ice saying “No problema.”

They weren’t buying it so off we were to the health clinic of El Limón.  It took only a minute or two to be in a room with the doctor.  They don’t have an x-ray machine so the doctor put on a finger splint and referred me to the hospital in Las Terrenes, 30 minutes away via a road rougher than the roads in rural Humboldt.

The same road locals traverse in the back of a pick-up truck after motorcycle accidents and other serious injuries (In El Limón, scooters and motorcycles outnumber cars 10 to one.)  Upon arrival at the hospital in Las Terrenas, a nurse performed triage evaluation and in minutes my hand was being x-rayed by a machine at least 25 years old.  In less than an hour, I left in a cast with a five-day supply of inflammatory to reduce the swelling.

For all this I paid a non-mandatory co-payment of about $30.  Only doctors and nurses work at the hospital and there is no paperwork, not even a request for an I.D.  The only thing they knew about me was my name is Rodney and I need their help.  The co-pay was after treatment.

I too have a dream and it is lofty.  Somehow I will-somehow we will-let our love flow through us like water all the way to the Little League ball field and health clinic of El Limón.

This week, Dave and I will go to Redwood Capital Bank, ProSports, the Outdoor Store, and Murphy’s Market in Sunny Brae to pick up more of your donations, so please keep them coming.  If it were not for Dave Silverbrand’s love for the children of El Limón and your generous donations, I would never have had the opportunity for these rewarding experiences, nor the chance to wear an authentic Dominican cast.

(Rodney Brunlinger is a volunteer with Dave Silverbrand’s Cleats for Kids and always considers himself to be “the luckiest man alive.”)


Beauty in a Girl’s Voice

The tiny soloist was singing to a man she loved– when the music stopped.  Something had gone wrong with the keyboard behind her and the musician, her mother, groped to find the problem.  So, in the hushed room, the singer, a little girl with a bow in her hair, went on alone—her voice strong and clear.

I wasn’t the only one in that church who wondered if the little girl could finish.  She was singing to a man everyone loved, Ray Sanders, who with his wife Becky, operated a Christian child care center.  The girl had been one of their clients.  He died this month after a long fight with cancer

Rebecca said Ray was a fun-loving man with a boundless sense of humor.  Who else would be cited for a comic crime—littering?  As a rambunctious teen, he had left his comic books on the riverbank while he swam.  A zealous policeman wanted to make an example of him.  In Gasquet, nobody Mickey-Moused with the law.

Even I saw the larceny in him.  I had written a play about two flim-flam men trying to swindle old people in a retirement home.  In “Make Mine Metamucil,” he had convinced elderly ladies they had talent worthy of Broadway.  The part fit him like a pinstripe suit.

The real Ray was more loving, everybody’s brother—everybody’s angel.

So there was lots of pressure on the little singer in the church service, more than I could have handled–ever.  Remember, I was the bumbling, mumbling anchorman.  I once looked at a guest’s name-tag and said, “What’s your name, Susan?

But no one would blame that little girl.  It happens to all of us, dependent on rhythm and rhyme to carry us through.  I have been dependent—or thought I was.  My mother, then my wife Nina—both gave me the backbeat I needed to find my way.  And how hard it is when the music is gone.

Maybe others doubted the little girl at Ray’s celebration. Maybe they wondered if she had the power to finish.   I didn’t. Not for a second.  Call it the hidden force that watches over us, the rhythm that is there if we listen.

Call me crazy, but I felt that force the day I lost my Nina.  I have felt it ever since.  And I may have greatly changed as a result.  Or maybe not at all.  I thought I couldn’t live without the music of college teaching.  But then the music died.  I felt the same about TV news.  That’s gone too.

If only I could swim a mile or run a marathon as I had so often in my youth.  Not now.   And yet, I am still here, and still joyful.  That’s because none of that—the running or the TV, was the rhythm I really needed.  It is something else.  A five-year old singer reminded me of that.

Verses later, the music came back.  The keyboard was working again.  The voice—the little girl’s voice, had been there all along, right on beat, right on key.

“Sorry about the flub,” someone said after the service.  No, it was no accident.  There was no flub.  There was something for which I am so thankful this Thanksgiving.

I thank the people with whom I have shared life—my mother, my Nina, and Ray and Becky Sanders.   I forgive him for leaving his comic books on the riverbank.

And finally, I thank the little singer who reminded us that she was not alone.  None of us ever is.




On Life’s Mystery Ride

“Let’s go for a mystery ride,” Pop would say, loading-up the family car.  Where?

“If I told you, it wouldn’t be a mystery,” he would say.  And so we would drive down the country road leaving clouds of smoke and dust.  Our world was about to change.

Life works that way—one mystery ride after another.  We try to plan for the unexpected.  When I was twelve, our family drove to LA to stay in an old downtown hotel.   I’d packed “heat”– my snub-nosed .45 cap pistol.

Now, mystery rides happen when you least want and expect them, the roadway curving into darkness. Yet there is no turning back.

I feel that way now– in the silence of life without Nina.

It used to be different—our Humboldt Holidays.  I often grumbled about them, especially Black Friday.   I questioned the frenzy of it all, packed parking-lots and pre-dawn shopping.

And yet I was fascinated by it.  I’d rise before dawn and, with TV camera in-hand, run to the old Mervyn’s to watch them open the doors.  Customers would clutch their free tree-ornaments.  Unlike the big city, nobody ever fought.

Unfairly or not, I also grumbled about the family.  Wherever we went, we shared the same small hotel room.  Every night was a symphony of snores, burps and teeth grinding, the equivalent of sleeping in a smelting factory.  Things were so much quieter when I was young and packed my .45.

On the other hand, I knew that my family would always be there.  Nina would always be there.  What did it matter that everyone smart-phoned around the Christmas tree and bought odd gifts for one another?  My favorite was the battery-operated scalp massager Nina’s daughter bought me, vibrating wires draping over my scalp.  It felt like a frontal lobotomy.  Maybe it was.

This year, my gift list priorities are somewhat different– kitty litter and hairball pills for my cat Amadeus at the top.  He loves those things.  I’m also buying a refrigerator for a family in the Dominican Republic.  Theirs is broken, so fresh food is not common.

Each night, one of the kids runs to the corner store to buy orange juice, butter or anything perishable.  Everything else would quickly spoil in the Caribbean heat.  So refrigerator it is.

More specifically, it’s me spending my Social Security benefit on somebody who needs it more.  I earned that money through 45 years of gainful employment–working holidays, covering snowstorms and plane crashes.  I can’t think of a better way to spend it.

Life has a way of stripping one of things and people you hold dear.  It has in my case, and probably yours.  But you were meant to continue on– or you wouldn’t be here.  That is where the mystery comes in—frightening and captivating—life without a map. Have faith.   Celebrate that mystery—for it is a great and beautiful gift.

There was comfort and beauty in those childhood mystery rides.  We always returned home—safe and loved.  The same is true today.  Home awaits us.  We can be sure of that.

Visit with the Chief

Armed guards watching our every move, we waited for the shuttle-bus to the cellblock.  I was visiting my friend in the SHU at Pelican Bay State Prison and sharing the bus with a woman about to see her husband.

She had seen my writings about Nina’s death and remembered my face from the TV documentary about her.  In those articles, I have grieved for her, but also pardoned the one who is responsible for her death in a crosswalk May 1.

“I know you,” said the woman on the bus.  “You’re the one who forgives people.”

Not always.  I still struggle to forgive someone for a loss so small by comparison.  A month after her death, someone stole a Tommy-gun from our closet— a member of my own family.

That’s the part that hurts the most, and the reason I went to visit Eureka‘s new Chief of Police, Andrew Mills.  Maybe he could help me cope with the crime, if not solve it outright.

I found his openness disarming and compassionate.  He understood my pain about losing Nina but also the ugliness of the crime that followed.  He told me that 70 per cent of in-home theft is committed by a member of the family.

So with all our worry about strangers and home-invasion, much of that crime is committed by people with a key to the front-door.  I’ve changed the locks, but that still leaves unresolved a crime so grotesque because it is so personal.

It had happened before with us, her jewelry and my camera pawned at a local pawn-shop.  They had the records to prove it.  But families protect and enable—always at their own peril.  We demand punishment for crime—until it is committed by one of our own.  Then the rules change, and we will pay attorneys great sums of money to keep our loved ones free.

Chief Mills understands that, along with the moral dichotomy it creates.  How can we understand some things and not others—understand my loss of one so dear as Nina but not that of a firearm?

I have wrestled with that ever since, and sought the counsel of police, religious leaders and attorneys.  Collectively, they have helped me follow a moral path.  It is within my power to forgive the driver.  I have and I always will.  I hope someday to tell him so.

I could also forgive the gun thief.  He does not have to ask for it.  But that forgiveness presupposes that he would value that forgiveness.   To him, it has no value unless he accepted his need to be forgiven—admitted his mistake.  That has not happened and probably never will.

The Tommy-gun is still in the netherworld where lost things go.  It is, after all, the currency of Eureka’s dark side.

These days, my world is oddly beautiful.  In it, I am finding spiritual peace from people unlikely allies, an inmate and a woman on a prison shuttle-bus.  They are, in their own way, the family I always wanted.