Thursday, December 9, 2010

For the sake of argument

I drove straight to Jim’s place, hoping to put to rest any doubts or hard feelings that might remain between us.

We’d had a failure of communication—our first—a few days earlier. He got angry when I challenged him about Sarah Palin, whom he admires: “Do you really think she’s qualified to be president?” I asked. It’s the same question he’d asked me two years ago about Barack Obama.

He snapped, thrust his truck into reverse and started to pull away, grumbling something, before he stopped momentarily, stuck his head out of the cab and yelled, “You tell that Steven character to pay his rent on time or I’ll just turn the water off!” He backed out of earshot, furious, and drove away.

He’d come out to check on me, as is his custom, to see if there was anything I needed, to talk about water use in the two-acre blueberry enclosure my friend, Steven, rents from him to house, feed and water 1,500 thriving plants. I know Steven is responsible and would get current as soon as possible—if he had gotten behind, which isn’t so rare in these tight economic times.

I got the feeling that Jim had been harboring other resentments and had simply had enough, and burst out in anger. I didn’t take it personally; I’d never seen him act this way before, not since I started tending the blueberries nearly three years ago. Our conversations have always remained civil, even when it includes politics, on which we seldom agree. I never thought he’d get upset over me asking him about Sarah Palin.

The drive up to the farmhouse winds through Jim’s well-tended orchards and can be treacherous on some corners if you’re not paying attention, dropping off suddenly into a ditch or clump of trees. It’s about a half-mile or so past the packinghouse, workers’ quarters, and the blueberry enclosure. I seldom drive up that way unless absolutely necessary.

I thought about just going straight to the enclosure, set my worries aside and let Jim settle. In time, our differences would abate. But I’ve seen how things left unattended can quickly turn sour, how one seemingly “simple” misunderstanding can turn best friends into bitter rivals or enemies, and make families into unbearable hornets’ nests.

Believe me, I know.

My brother, for example, hasn’t spoken to me, my mother, or anyone else in the family for nearly 20 years; maybe more, I’ve lost count. He’s refused to make peace, not enough even to send flowers or a word of condolence when mom suffered the loss of her husband of 45 years, a stepfather who treated us like his own sons.

His refusal to settle with our stepfather before he died made no sense, and his icy unwillingness to send a note of sorrow to our mother felt needlessly harsh and mean. I wanted to lash out and make him suffer the way I had seen our mother suffer over the many years he’d stopped talking to her. I felt the cold drowning force of bitterness trying to choke down my own grief. “He’s such an asshole!” I said. “How could he not even send flowers?”

It all began with what was an apparently “simple” misunderstanding, not unlike the one I’d just experienced with Jim, when a word or statement is misconstrued, and if left unattended, breaks the bonds of friendship or tears rifts into sacred family connections.

It’s unfortunate because many people pay a heavy price for these hardened feelings, which only become harder to break as the years pass.

I like Jim and didn’t want him to think that I meant any disrespect, didn’t want our misunderstanding to grow into something worse. We may live on opposite ends of the political spectrum but I don’t want it to become an obstacle to friendship.

I’m impatient with things hanging in air, with uncertainty, especially when it comes to friends and people of close acquaintance. It drives my roommate crazy that I want to “fix” things right away.

“I can’t settle things as quickly as you would like,” she argues.

I would rather have gone straight to the field and waited for another day to make amends with Jim, I would rather have gotten busy with work and forgotten about our differences, imagined or real, but I knew that wouldn’t work. I needed to make peace.

I kept thinking about the New Testament admonition of Jesus, who tells his followers that if anyone has anything against them, a complaint or a grudge, it’s better to go and make peace with that person first before going to the altar, the place of worship, to meet with God. Make peace with your brother first, he says, then go and worship.

I haven’t been to church in a long, long time. The blueberry field has been my sanctuary, a more welcome refuge than most—a place of quiet, with few distractions, and opportunities to find clarity. It’s like going to my own place of worship, where every day, in the silence of the vast open sky and surrounding hills, I encounter something much larger than myself, something that makes me glad to be alive.

I could feel some of that slipping quietly away as the days passed without a word from Jim. I was sure that he had taken offense and probably didn’t quite know how to say so. I was sure that the longer I lingered without going to him and straightening things out, the more likely a rift would form, potentially ruining a good thing.

“How hard can it be to make peace?” I asked myself on the drive up to his home. I’d never really thought about it out loud until now, the cost of making peace, the courage it takes to face another who may have a grudge or other legitimate complaint and attempt to make things right. It’s not as easy as it sounds. “How could anyone who wants to make peace get hurt?”

I decided to run up to Jim’s place to see if he was there and tell him, “Hey, I hope there aren’t any hard feelings between us, Jim.”

Usually, when we talk politics, Jim’s good-natured and keeps his sense of humor. He’s never lost his composure. Our differences are not unlike those of other Americans divided by politics; he listens to Rush Limbaugh while driving his truck around the farm. I can’t tolerate Rush for long, not before I begin to think what an enormous misinformed blowhard he is.

On one occasion, Jim drove up in his truck, blasting the radio with Rush Limbaugh’s churlish voice, which he listens to every day on local KVEC. He turned down the radio, popped his head out the window, as if waiting for a sound, and yelled, “What! You’re not listening to Rush?”

He knows I don’t care for Rush. “I don’t have a radio, Jim. I just listen to yours as you drive around the farm,” I shouted back.

Thankfully, Rush is on for only a short time in the morning, and Jim also occasionally likes to listen to the Rolling Stones or other early rock n’ roller’s from his days as a ‘60s rebel. Mostly, though, the farm is quiet, unless the tractors are running close by or the packinghouse is busy.

Jim drives busily up and down the farm’s dirt roads, monitoring his orchards, watering systems, or charging the batteries of a tractor, taking care of problems before they happen—if he can get to them in time. He’s busy and industrious, often getting into scrapes such as rolling his truck on its side while trying to move a fallen tree.

I have a great deal of respect for Jim. He’s been good to me, a complete farming neophyte rescued from the ravages of journalism. He’s gotten me out of jams when the irrigation has sprung leaks, or he’s brought tools I didn’t have on hand, and has offered advice on weed control and other farming matters.

Despite our political differences, he’s been a good friend.

Jim likes to share his story of attending the original Woodstock, where he subsequently met up with some hippie organic farmers and got hooked on a lifetime of farming. Along the way, with nearly 200 acres to tend and a family to support, however, he’s changed a lot of his ideas, including how to farm.

“The whole organic thing’s a sham,” he said once. “Well, maybe not entirely,” he added, “I know a few organic farmers who are doing OK. But how many of the people you know who eat organic are actually environmentally responsible? Don’t they all drive cars? Fly in airplanes?”

He’s been farming for more than 35 years, and he’s meticulous, keeps the machinery running smoothly, takes care of breakdowns as they happen, and doesn’t rely on factory mechanics to do it for him for hundreds or even thousands of dollars. He does it himself.

He likes to get things done and doesn’t have patience for people who don’t pull their share of the load. “I get up at 5:30 every morning because I’ve got things to do,” he complained recently. “I don’t sit around and wait for things to happen.”

When I finally caught up to Jim, he wasn’t at the house but down by the enclosure, pounding on a wall in the washroom of the workers’ quarters with heavy mallet. “This is how I work out my frustrations,” he said, after I told him I hoped he wasn’t offended by anything I’d said the other day, and that I didn’t want politics to become an issue between us.

“Yeah, that’s all right,” he offered. “I got a little excited. I’ve had a lot going on.”

A tenant had failed to pay rent since August, he added. The tenant has pleaded for time, telling Jim he’s working on a re-build of a car he plans to sell, and he just needs a little time. “Well, it’s been over three months, he hasn’t sold his car and I haven’t seen a penny.”

It was this and a few other things, like the cancellation of a big order and a family emergency, Jim said, that set him off the other day when he drove away.

“Still,” he added, “I don’t know what the big deal is about Sarah Palin. She’s just as qualified as anybody to run for president. I think she’d make a great president.”

I kept silent, saving that argument for a more appropriate time, biting my tongue to keep from pointing out that Sarah would hardly make a great president if she couldn’t complete her first term as governor. This wasn’t the time for debate, which will come soon enough, but for mending, and making peace. §

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Who loves war?

America loves war.

It struck me most plainly tonight when the waitress asked if I’d like a plastic bag in which to take home some chili.

I mentioned that L.A. had recently come down hard on plastic bags, which was probably a good thing, the waitress said.

“Yeah, you’re right,” I replied, “there are a lot of things we could do without, or if we have to have them, we could at least find a way to make them so that they have less impact on the environment and use up less energy.”

It started a discussion on how our dependence on petroleum reaches into virtually every aspect of our lives: plastics, personal care, travel, commerce, housing, credit cards, you name it.

“We can do better,” the waitress said. “We have the ingenuity to tap into renewable energies, create jobs, and build things that won’t destroy the environment or kill us.”

“Then we wouldn’t have to send our armies and navies overseas to secure a resource that is clearly limited and won’t last forever.”

“Jeez,” she said, “did you have to go there?”

It’s hard not to go there, to where American taxpayers’ dollars are being wasted on mayhem and murder, when we could be spending our resources in more creative and less wasteful ways.

It’s hard to fathom why, when so many Americans languish without jobs, and education, mass transit and other delivery systems in the U.S. are in such shambles, we are spending so much money to conduct an endless war overseas.

But we’re a culture steeped in death and war. We love to battle, which we promote everywhere, in film, games, toys, at the mall, on university campuses. The U.S. war machine permeates our whole culture.

We love grace under pressure, gallantry, machismo, the rule of law, integrity, a sense of duty, commitment, the willingness to rise above, stand alone, face the enemy, and fight for love of country.

We’re a warrior culture, however, with an ethos based less on the glories we publicly espouse—the carefully selected words we use to promote selfish interests—and more on an indignant—steeped in hubris—sense of entitlement, the idea that we can have it all, anything we want. Everyone else be damned!

Take nothing away from the brave soldiers who fight our wars, although I know many who think the whole military enterprise is a complete sham.

George Carlin, who knew his time was short, spoke bitterly in the final season of his life about war and those who participate in it: “If you’re dumb enough to join, you deserve to die,” he said.

I don’t go that far but I understand what Mr. Carlin must have been feeling. He’d seen enough of the waste of war to know there’s plenty of sham in it.

And who, after living through a series of conflicts and wars doesn’t begin to see it for themselves? Who does it really benefit? Who gets rich off of war?

The men and women who go to war for us are not to be blamed for its stupidity.

The problem arises from a lifestyle the rest of the world has only dreamed about, a lifestyle of extravagance and excess that we have come to expect and demand, and will have to change, if we want to avoid the inevitable demise that comes to a culture driven by the violent ethos of war.

America built so much of its wealth, and its lifestyle, on oil and now, as oil reserves become more scarce and more dangerous to extract, we go to even more drastic measures to ensure its continued flow.

We send our armies and navies overseas not to fight terrorism so much as to secure our one and only—but increasingly less—reliable energy source. From the perspective of empire, it makes perfect sense. Secure the cheapest energy available so we can continue to enjoy our “lifestyle,” which is held up before us as a sacrosanct, non-negotiable entitlement. Few of us really know what it means, however, beyond getting what we want.

But from another perspective, one that doesn’t necessarily include war, it doesn’t make sense at all to spend hundreds of billions of dollars each year to feed a machine that destroys rather than builds; that poisons, maims, and kills rather than feeds, heals and creates life.

Sen. John McCain recently suggested that U.S. military spending could be trimmed by $100 billion. Imagine what could be done if we put $100 billion into education or healthcare or alternative and renewable energies. I’ve been called simplistic for arguing this point, even from those who agree that endless war will end badly.

But it doesn’t require much imagination to see the possibilities of limiting overseas adventures, which rob our national treasury of resources that could go into long-term innovations that will help reduce our dependencies on cheap oil.

I’m not a pacifist but I do know that most wars are stupid and unnecessary. They ruin rather than create prosperity. At some point, it becomes more imperative to build and renew, to innovate and create industries that will move the nation forward than to try sustaining an economy based on cheap oil and war.

“What’s holding us back?” the waitress asked. “We all know that eventually we’ll have to consume less, innovate and create new industries that aren’t based on oil.”

“I don’t know,” I said, “no one I know is holding us back. Ours is an economy literally built on dinosaurs.”

“Well, the people at the top, the people in Congress, sure haven’t done much to move us forward.”

“You got that right,” I said. §

Friday, September 10, 2010

I'm ready for that change, Mr. President

Editor's Note: A fuller, more recent version of this story was published as the cover article in the October 2010 edition of Cold Type, an online magazine with "Writing worth reading from around the world."

As I write this, a collection agency is leaving another annoying, threatening message on the answering machine.

The voice is petulant, measured and all business.

I’ve just walked back into the house to make a call of my own after starting up my work truck—a 30-year-old beast that backfires and sputters—and finding the gas tank too close to empty to go anywhere but to a gas station.

I’m literally running on empty. Unfortunately, I don’t have any money to buy gas.

Once the publisher of a literary magazine, I now work as a farm laborer and love being outdoors and away from the crowds, but I don’t earn enough money to cover my basic expenses, nothing in my pockets, and nothing in the bank.

So I came back into the house to call my girlfriend. I need at least $10. That will get me enough gas to drive to the farm where I can put in a few hours and earn some much-needed income. I know, it’s pathetic, but what are my options?

I’ve been looking for work since the economy crashed two years ago. I’m one of the “long-termed unemployed,” those who don’t receive welfare payments and who no longer count in official unemployment figures.

I struggle to collect my thoughts but, even with the voice machine turned down, I can still hear the annoying bottom feeder trying to get money out of me.

“I’ll leave my number with you one more time in case it wasn’t clear…”

Oh, it’s clear, all right. They call six times a day. How could it not be clear? Our only recourse, given we can’t afford debt relief services, or even to file for bankruptcy, is to ignore them.

The bottom fell out of the American Dream and all we do now is hope we can pay the rent. We’re cutting way back on everything, even things we need to stay afloat—like gasoline.

Ironic, that gas has become the symbol of my worst poverty ever. Gas has always meant going places, getting things done, getting to work on time. Now, I have barely enough quarters to put a gallon in my tank.

I’ve been poor most of my life, but never like this, not to the point where I can’t buy gas to get to work.

As the nation reels from economic woes unlike anything since the Great Depression, we’re finally beginning to realize that the American empire’s attempt to control the world’s oil reserves has had a devastating impact at home.

Cheap oil isn’t cheap any more.

But neither are cell phones and phone lines, which we canceled. Whittling our expenditures hasn’t hurt so much as the grinding, demoralizing effect of not having enough money to cover our basic needs.

I’m almost certain that my circumstances are caused as much by forces beyond my control as they are by failures of character. Still, it’s hard not to feel like a loser when every day six of the 10 messages on our message machine are from collection agencies.

I heard of one collector who, when informed that his potential victim was already holding down two jobs, barked: “Well, get a third job!”

If only it were that easy.

My only consolation on days like this comes from knowing I’m not alone. I’m not alone in my poverty, my anger over government handouts to corrupt bankers, or my frustration over the lack of jobs.

Few people I know have money to spend, their savings are quickly disappearing, and they’re living on less, much less.

Numbers indicating the bleak outlook on the economy keep appearing in the news but they don’t really mean that much to me. They don’t move me in any particular way other than to say, “See, it’s the economy.” But the numbers don’t tell the real story of how so many millions of Americans are struggling.

“Unemployment rose a fraction last month to 9.6 percent,” says one recent report. Tens of thousand of jobs have been created but not enough to sustain a healthy “recovery.”

Meanwhile, bankruptcies and loan defaults continue to plague us as bankers, recently padded with taxpayer dollars, refuse to renegotiate troubled loans and mortgages.

Some prognosticators say we’ll never be the same; wages will never be as high as they once were, homes never as expensive, and banks never as loose with their money. It will be at least 10 years before we can expect a recovery.

Until then, economists say, we’re in for even leaner times, worse than what has already passed. I shudder to think about it. The unrest at home seems to be mirrored throughout the neighborhood and beyond. So many people appear, like me, unsettled, angry, and financially depleted.

The lack of a vision that upholds the interests of all Americans will do that. So will endless war and a failure of leadership. Our current president won office through the promise of change and a real hope for the future.

Sadly, I find myself echoing Sarah Palin: “How’s that hopey changey stuff workin’ for ya?”

What I’ve seen so far doesn’t inspire much hope: The middle-class in America, what’s left of it, has fallen on hard times, malcontents have hit the streets, complaining of socialists and Muslims, and religious nuts threaten to burn holy books, while the government throws billions of dollars down the drain to fight the longest war in our nation’s history.

All of the precious resources we’ve wasted on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, I’m certain, have contributed to the failure of our economy—the billions of dollars that might have been spent on projects at home have surely depleted the national treasury, as did the massive bailout of the banks.

And what have we gained from it all? Where are the jobs? Where’s the money for small businesses? What’s happened to education and the infrastructures that enable fluid commerce and industry? What, really, were the benefits of two wars and the largest cash delivery in history?

Now, it seems, we stand at a precipice, where we vainly await the long, slow and elusive but hoped-for recovery. After two years, however, I’m tired of living so close to the edge of disaster.

I’m ready for that change, Mr. President.

Like millions of other Americans grappling with the demoralizing impact of poverty, I continue to hope for the best. I hope that, somehow, things will get better. Meanwhile, I’ve set my sights on lesser dreams. I’m scaling back and learning to live with less.

My girlfriend arrives in time to hear the fourth collections call of the day. She hands me $10 and a few dollar bills. “Will that be OK?” she asks.

“Fine,” I say, “I just need enough to get to work.”

As usual, we ignore the petulant caller leaving another annoying message on the machine. The collection agencies, obnoxious as they are, don’t scare us. They’re the least of our worries. §

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Field Notes: Watering without a timepiece

I can’t remember today’s date. It’s been one of those kinds of weeks.

In my field notes, I write down: “Aug. 8, 2010 Mon.” It’s actually August 9, 2010. My watch, the one that belonged to my father and which my mother gave to me after he died, is broken. It’s not keeping time properly. I’ll get it fixed when I can get enough money together.

I feel somewhat challenged without it. There are other ways to monitor the irrigation but I’ve grown accustomed to turning my wrist and checking my watch to make sure I haven’t gone over my 15-minute maximum of watering each section of the field.

For a few moments after arriving at the farm, I wonder how I’ll monitor the irrigation without my watch. There are eight sections to water, each with about 200 plants. About 15 minutes of watering ensures a full moistening of each plant’s precious roots. It’s not too hard, however, to tell when the plants have had enough water.

After 15 minutes, little pools of wetness form around the bottom of the grow bags and saturate the surrounding weed mat on which the bags rest. I decide to eyeball today’s irrigation time. When the weed mat gets wet, I’ll turn the water off.

At first, I protested the idea of wearing a watch, even though it belonged to my father. My mother insisted that I take it, which I did. Eventually I got used to wearing it, and I appreciate having a memento from my father, whose death nearly two years ago still unmans me.

It’s not the kind of watch to wear while working on the farm. It’s an evening, go-to-town watch, a Seiko Quartz. My dad enjoyed getting dressed up and going out. Young women have given me doubletakes after noticing the gold wristband beneath my work sleeve. I’d like to think it’s me they’re ogling but, at 52, I’m pretty sure the looks are for the gold band and watch.

It’s probably not a smart thing to do, wearing a fine watch like this while laboring on the farm, but what do I know? I’ve never worn a watch until now; I never felt the necessity of it. I’ve gotten used to wearing it and if I didn’t wear it to the farm, I’d never put it on because I don’t get out enough.

I protect it the best I can.

Recently, while attending a party at a friend’s ranch, which attracts the usual suspects from the area’s original hippie population, a woman considered an “earth” mama, blurted out in front of a group of friends: “Stacey, what are you wearing a watch for?” Her contempt for timepieces was clear as crystal.

I got suddenly self-conscious, put my hand over my wrist as if absent-mindedly considering taking off my watch. Her question wasn’t playful, friendly, or even conversational. It came off like a snob-filled, judgmental statement, not a question.

It reminded me why so many of my friends hate hippies. “Buncha lazy-assed hypocrites,” says one friend who can see right through the plasticity of people who think they’re better than others. Of course, not all hippies look down their noses at Establishment trappings such as gold timepieces.

A whole bunch of thoughts went through my mind: “She doesn’t even deserve an answer…. This is my father’s watch…. I like to know what time it is.” I looked upwards and gauged the time by the sun’s position in the sky. “Sure, I could live without a watch. I did it for nearly 50 years….”

I fumbled with the watch, rotating the band on my wrist until finally, I thought, “Fuck her! I’m wearing this watch. What the fuck difference is it to her?” It pissed me off. I didn’t know what to say and stared at her as she sat lazily in her lawn chair in the midst of a crowd of friends who stood in a circle above her, chatting away. I wanted to say: “How come you’re such a fat ass?”

I went with my first inclination, which was to ignore her.

The leaves of the plants are turning up and away from the sun, exposing their undersides to the light. I’ve never seen them do this. It worries me a little and I make a note of it.

It amazes me how lively these plants are. They put on a new show every day: Changes in color, erectness, growing and dropping leaves, blooms and berries.

I’m always a little surprised at how dramatic the changes can be in the space of even a few hours, depending on the time of day or year, the levels of temperature, light, wind, and humidity.

Several plants appear limp, especially the young shoots that have begun appearing in recent weeks. The new leaves hang limply, as if fallen and defeated, or protecting themselves from lack of moisture. I check the bags and the soil feels dry. It won’t hurt if the plants receive more water than usual today, I decide.

I don’t really need my watch, but I sure miss having it on me. §

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Fourth of July in Cayucos

I’m raw and unbalanced, hung over from a bout with beer and whisky. I skipped going to work today. It’s gray, overcast and generally gloomy.

Besides, it’s a Saturday, and a Fourth of July weekend. I hate working weekends, especially holidays, but I’m getting used to it. In this economy, few can afford to turn down work.

I awakened early, before 7 a.m, and rode my bicycle to the park to practice aikido, a Japanese martial art designed to defuse conflict, with a friend. It’s been a long time since we’ve done this. It helps me keep an even temper.

Even with a hangover it felt good to tussle and talk. We usually talk politics and the economy. He hasn’t worked in nearly four months; I’m barely employed, working as a farmhand and laborer.

“There’s no work around here,” he says. “I may have to drive down to San Diego to pick up work.”

He’s a union carpenter and, until recently, supported a family of six; the last of his four children graduated high school last year. Finances aren’t as critical now as they used to be. Still, like everyone else, he needs to pay the bills.

“If I was smart, I’d find something to do with the military; that’s where all of the money is.”

Everyone but the banks and military is bankrupt, I say. “What’s wrong with this country?” We launch into another frustrated, cynical litany of ills that plague our nation: Militarism, greed, corruption in government and business, a weak economy and an empire in decline.

“This can’t go on forever,” he says, “we’re more than a trillion dollars in debt.” If anything, the message of the last two years of economic failure has been: The party’s over. The excesses of our revered material lifestyle have drained our accounts and left us empty handed.

Most Americans, hopeful as ever, seem to think the party has merely lapsed into a sustained lull. Things will get better, they say. The markets will regain their vigor, jobs will become available, and spending will save the republic.

Glossy red, white, and blue plastic streamers wave in the wind from houses along Ocean Avenue, which runs through the middle of Cayucos, the small California coastal town where I live, where tomorrow floats and troops of scouts, drill teams, and grass-skirted dancers celebrating the Declaration of Independence will march in a show of America’s love for “freedom.”

Cayucos loves a parade, and its freedom. Our small town plays host to more than 20,000 visitors during the Fourth, who come to celebrate their freedoms by eating hotdogs, playing in the sand, and shopping at the "Peddler's Fair," known by locals as “crap on the creek,” mostly throw-away junk.

The word “freedom” gets tossed around pretty easily these days, as if we all agree on what it means: Freedom of the press, speech and religion; the protection of personal effects from government search and seizure, the right to trial by a jury of peers, the right to bear arms.

More often, however, “freedom” becomes an amalgam of unspecified ideas and feelings, which patriots will defend to the death, about what it means to be an American, which usually includes waving the flag, getting goose bumps during the singing of the national anthem, and chanting “U-S-A!” at soccer games.

Upon closer review, this muddle of feelings and ideas about freedom just as likely arises from the belief that Americans are unique in exercising their right to get rich by whatever means possible, to spend money freely without end or hindrance, even when there isn’t any to spend.

“Freedom isn’t free,” we’re told in countless bumper stickers meant to remind us of the sacrifices that have been made on our behalf. Soldiers, mostly young men, have given their lives to ensure we continue to enjoy the clear advantages of being an American, including the right to spend our diminished earnings at any outlet of our choosing.

Fourth of July, as often as not, has come to be celebrated not so much for the Declaration of Independence from tyranny as for America’s great military empire and raw technological power, which still has not squelched terrorism, but nonetheless allows us to conduct full-scale war without the requisite sacrifices at home.

We can still shop at Wal-Mart and spend freely without guilt while others shed blood in foreign lands to stop the amorphous terrorist cell sprouting everywhere like a cancer across the globe.

“The military isn’t protecting me,” Patrick says. “My tax dollars are supporting the slaughter of civilians. That’s not independence.” Independence is being able to protect yourself, he suggests. “I don’t need the military to do that.”

In my weakened mental state, I don’t argue the point. He’s right, the War on Terror, as most wars, was a sham from the start. We still haven’t caught Osama bin Laden, our invasion of Afghanistan has become America’s longest-ever war, and the Taliban is as strong as ever.

“Why are we spending all our money over there?” he asks. “We need it here.”

Already, chairs have been placed in a mass claim for seating along the parade route. Police tape has been pulled through lines of chairs, marking seating sections between groups of the nearly 20,000 spectators who will gather for tomorrow’s parade.

They come from all points: San Francisco, Fresno, Bakersfield, Los Angeles. It’s the busiest day of the year for our little town of less than 4,000.

The parade features the usual Independence Day amusements: Spectators waving American flags, young gymnasts cartwheeling, local bands rocking on flatbed trucks, grannies dressed in patriotic colors, waving to the crowd from old jalopies.

Once, an outfit of youngsters from Fresno, dressed in paramilitary uniforms, marched crisply in rigid formation, looking distressingly similar to the Brownshirts who helped the Nazis in their rise to power.

“I’m not that patriotic,” Patrick says. “It’s all a gimmick.” If they can get you to believe their story, such as “we need this war,” he adds, they can get you to do anything they want.

Last year, one of the grass-skirted matrons from a beach-chair drill team bolted from the formation as it approached the entry point of the parade. “Hey!” she waved, beckoning me to wait for her. She threw her arms around my neck, firmly pressed her middle-aged buxomness against my body, and planted her lips on mine.

The rank smell of alcohol at 10 in the morning assaulted my senses. Before I could pull away, I felt her tongue probing my mouth. “Yuck!” I turned my head away and slipped out of her arms. She ran back to her group as if nothing had happened.

Cayucos is a friendly place. “Did you see that?” I asked my girlfriend.


“She just put her tongue in my mouth.”

“Yeah, right.”

You never know what’s going to happen at the Cayucos Fourth of July parade, but one thing’s sure: Just about everyone here’s proud to be an American, with or without their hangovers. §

Thursday, April 1, 2010

I never thought it would be like this

Worried that I might sink into a hole, squeaking out an inadequate living as a part-time farmhand, mom suggests that I look into an opening at Fairhaven Memorial Park and Mortuary, not far from where she lives.

“They’re looking for a funeral director,” she says excitedly.

“Mom, I’m not qualified for a position like that.”

“You might,” she responds. “You’re good with people and you’re low-key.”

I try to imagine myself—sober demeanor, faint smile, slight signs of hope and compassion carefully constructed across my face, voice subdued—doing the business of a funeral director: “So sorry for your loss. How may we assist you?”

A warm, professional grasp of the hand and on to the next order of business. “So sorry for your loss….”

“Mom, thanks. I’d really like to stay in the field I grew up with. I like stories.”

I’ve spent most of my adult life pursuing stories for newspapers and magazines. I grew up believing that there’s a place for stories that present life not as another promotional campaign but as it is actually lived by real people. Unfortunately, the market for these kinds of stories seems to be dwindling.

“You could get a whole bunch of stories working at a mortuary.”

“I’m sure I could mom.”

She tells me it’s worth looking into; the job has been advertised for more than three weeks, she adds; they might just consider me. “It doesn’t look like they’ve found anyone.”

“Mom, that’s what businesses do; they run an ad for a few weeks, build up a candidate pool, and make their selections.”

“Well, you could look into it, get some stories, write a book and get rich.”

“I’ll look into it, mom.”

It’s not a bad idea, really. There’s likely to be more job security in this business, of course, because there’s never a shortage of dead people. It’s unlikely to be a dead-end job (no pun intended), and the story possibilities…well, you’d have be six feet under not to see them.

I go online, find the mortuary website and locate “career opportunities.” The site lists openings for Assistant Sales Manager, Family Services Counselor, Sales, and Operations Manager.

I click on operations manager, curious what duties such a position at a mortuary might entail. Assign holes to be dug? Bodies to be dressed or cremated? Gravestones to be lifted, set into place? Coffins to be bought and sold?

The ad reads: “Premiere…mortuary seeking an individual looking for a challenging opportunity that offers the ability to grow and develop a strong employee staff.”

The “challenging opportunity” sounds interesting but the ad offers no details. I can only imagine the possibilities: “Hey Hector! How come you haven’t filled that goddamned hole yet? It was supposed to have been done yesterday. We have another graveside service scheduled in the next plot at noon. What’s taking you so long? … The furnace broke down again? Damn it! We’ve got five stiffs whose ashes we’re supposed to deliver by morning….”

As for growing and developing a “strong employee staff,” I like people but have never felt comfortable managing them: “Here’s the deal guys, I’m used to working a deadline, just not at a mortuary.”

Unfortunately, they want an “experienced manager with a minimum of 5 years of funeral home management experience.” That eliminates me right away. The call volume of “over 700 cases” a year I could handle. Hell, I used to handle almost that many calls in a week as a newspaper editor.

Additionally, the job prefers an individual who’s a California licensed funeral director. That’s probably a good idea. Someone with a license can be expected to get the job done right. No Maxwell House Coffee cans as urns in this business.

Next, the Family Services Counselor’s duties include “promotion of the funeral home through public relations.” Well, here’s another opportunity to create stories. “At Fairhaven, everyone’s dying to get in….”

I hate public relations. I agree with the late comedian Bill Hicks, who said that people who earn their living convincing others they should accept things that aren’t true, or buy things they don’t need, should just go ahead and kill themselves. “You’ll be doing a public service,” he says.

I also hate sales and skip over the remaining ads, so much for career opportunities in the funeral business. The year 2010 seems to be the year of deflated career options.

The latest reports suggest that many boomers like myself are working at “survival” jobs such as checkout clerks at chain hardware stores earning $10 an hour; or the lucky ones have found positions for which they are severely over-qualified at slightly more than $10 an hour and far less than the six-figure salaries they had before the economy crashed.

“I never thought it would be like this,” they collectively groan. “I was supposed to retire and spend my golden years taking it easy.”

In a recent Frontline episode on PBS, “Close to Home,” which features a local hair salon in the upscale Upper East Side of New York City, a woman in her mid-forties laments: “I’ve had to borrow money from my mother just make ends meet.” She’s embarrassed, and surprised that she’s admitting her sudden unexpected dependency as an adult.

A former middle-aged executive who’s been out of work for more than two years admits he never anticipated long-term unemployment. The hardest hit age group in the U.S. for periods of unemployment lasting two years or longer are people 50 and above.

And so it goes, as regular salon customers complain of their reduced circumstances: “I never thought it would be like this.”

Welcome to the economy of dashed hopes, where nearly an entire generation is forced out of retirement to survive the sudden loss of personal financial resources built up over a lifetime, where careers have been severely downsized or eliminated entirely, and where a banking industry on the verge of collapse, recently bailed out by the federal government, refuses to renegotiate home loans for people unable to make ends meet.

So far, we seem to be taking it in the shorts without much complaint, but here’s what one struggling homeowner recently said he’d do if the bank refuses to renegotiate: “If the fuckin’ bank comes after my home, I’m gonna call my buddy, who’s gotta ‘dozer, and I’m gonna have him bring it over here, and I’m gonna get on that thing, drive it off the trailer and plow it right through the middle of that fuckin’ house. And you know what? I’m gonna tell the bank, ‘You can have your piece-a-shit house.’”

Another friend recently called me a “malcontent” because I’ve never been happy with the status quo, with the little bit of truth or good that squeaks out of Washington, D.C. or Sacramento; I’ve never quite trusted Wall Street. I do, however, see something positive in the crumbling condition of our global banking and business enterprises, which seem to have forgotten the smaller economies of Main Street.

We’ve been challenged to reduce consumption, to find more sustainable models for doing business, to turn to our neighbors and friends for help and support, and to think independently from the “experts” who run our government and industry.

In my own neighborhood, we’ve talked about how to grow more of our own food, and ways to earn a little more money by selling the surplus, and saving money by doing more of our own repairs. Maybe it’s a pipe dream but already one of our own opened up his yard as a nursery because he can’t find enough work as a landscaper.

Selling plants won’t make him rich, he says, but it’s a better alternative to having nothing.

I’ve never lived so close to the ground, planting, tending crops, working as a farmhand, as I have in these reduced circumstances, thinking how much better it is to be above ground eking out a living than to be below ground pushing up daisies.

Still, there’s enough uncertainty and desperation in this economy for people like my mother to suggest that maybe, just maybe, her malcontent of a son might qualify for another ground-breaking endeavor. I won’t waste my time pretending that I might qualify for such an opportunity, but at least it’s an opportunity. §

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The nexus of my grief

My life has been mostly a train wreck since the economy suffered a near-collapse way back in October 2008.

I say “way back” because everything moves so quickly now; it feels like ancient history.

But several possibilities are likely: I’m broke because I’ve never made getting rich a priority, never fared well in the money economy, and some things, like voraciously greedy bankers, are simply beyond my control.

The forces at work today have made an already bad situation worse and seem to have burdened many others besides me.

A neighbor told me a friend of his who retired from pouring concrete 10 years ago is back on the job, just to make ends meet. He’s older, in his 60s, but thank goodness he’s got his health.

“It’s better than nothing, I guess,” my neighbor said.

“Yeah, but it’s a shame that someone who’s already worked so hard to enjoy his last years working less has to go back to the grind.”

“Oh, he doesn’t mind. He’s gotten used to it. He’s adjusted. At least he’s working.”

A lot of people seem to be making these “adjustments,” coming out of retirement, buying fewer consumer goods, picking up groceries at the weekly church food charity, and moving in with family to reduce expenses.

And not everyone’s lucky enough to be working. Fortunately, I’m working but not earning enough to cover the bills. I’ve also thought about calling up family to ask if I can stay with them to ride this thing out.

Last week, a fellow blueberry farmer asked me to give him a heads up if we had any additional work.

One of his tenants, a landscaper who was among the first to employ me last year when my magazine folded, needs a job.

“Oh, you bet. He’ll be the first to know,” I said. “He’s a good guy. Always pays on time.”

“Yeah, well, he’s having a really tough time right now,” the farmer said.

I’ve got barely enough work to keep one person busy. I’m mowing, weeding, tending the irrigation system, and making minor repairs. Soon, I hope, we’ll be harvesting.

Lately, I’ve wondered what future I have in working as a farm hand. Like the guy who pours concrete, I’m adjusting, making the most of a bad economy, but more uncertain about life than ever.

Print, which I grew up loving, went out of fashion just days ago, it seems, and has suffered its worst losses since the big crash. More than 30,000 journalists have lost their jobs in the past two years.

Online publishers, claiming a lack of funds, have taken advantage of writer angst and desperation, either severely reducing the amount they pay, or not paying at all.

The “free” mantra that governs the Internet has made it difficult for publishers to claim any proprietary interest in the material they post. Publishers better learn quickly they’ll never control content as they did when print reigned supreme.

It’s everybody’s business now. It’s open game for any and all; readers contribute and shape the news as much as the suppliers; and no one dare try to sell the stuff.

Additionally, digital space appears to demand less content with lower quality. I hope I’m wrong.

A recent episode of Frontline, Digital_Nation, showed that our young, who were brought up in this high-speed digital world, think they are capable multi-taskers, able to work on their computers, send text messages on their phones, eat lunch and have conversation with their friends all at the same time.

Studies are beginning to show that the more we multi-task, the more our dialog suffers. We simply can’t absorb all the data that kids today claim they can do with ease. They’re not that good at retaining information. They consume and write in bite-sized chunks. They can’t sustain a narrative beyond three paragraphs.

Everything comes in bits and pieces. The word, which once held a higher place in our public discourse, comes cheap. We don’t pay for words any more.

The complete devaluation of the word has made making a living nearly impossible for old schoolers like me who enjoy reading and writing stories that last more than three minutes.

I try not to begrudge the circumstances. The rush to throw up everything online will finally settle one day and, I hope, rest upon more established values than speed and efficiency.

I hope that we haven’t lost our appetite for stories, or our respect for storytellers.

My neighbor told me that he was also making adjustments, realizing that nothing lasts forever, accepting the inevitable—loss, change, and finally death.

At our age, we come to accept these things because there’s no use fighting them. The key, we agreed, is to embrace the changes, make the most of what we have, and move on.

That doesn’t make it any less painful. Rather than avoid the pain, though, we both agreed it’s better to grieve our losses. Why pretend that a train wreck doesn’t feel bad?

“I’ve had a hard time not getting sucked into the idea that this is a cold, mechanistic, and cruel world,” he said. He’d gone away last week and asked me to take care of his chickens. When he returned, he discovered someone had broken into his home and stolen some cash.

“I can’t think of anyone who would do something like that,” he said, more hurt by the possibility that it might have been someone he knew.

My girlfriend said later: “These are trying times; you’d be amazed at what some people will do when they’re desperate. Even among the ones you think are your best friends. If a person’s hungry, it doesn’t take much to justify stealing from another.”

My neighbor said he counters his negative thoughts with the belief that nature seeks exuberant expression; life energy finds its fulfillment in flowering and reproducing. We can choose to celebrate or rue our lives. Nature asks us to find joy, he said.

“The only way I know how to do that,” I said, “is to grieve. I’ve been doing a lot of that lately, doing my best to let things go. I may never publish again. I may end up a farm hand for the rest of my life. It’s not what I envisioned when I started out…but I’m doing the best I can to embrace the changes.”

He looked at me a moment and then asked: “What is the nexus of your grief?”

I didn’t know what to say. I thought it was the disappearance and destruction of an entire industry—a way of life that I thought would last forever. Maybe it was the loss of a common story, a shared experience.

“I guess I haven’t gotten over the loss of my dad, who died just over a year ago,” I said. He nodded. “Or it could be that I have no idea how I’m going to make ends meet.”

“Money,” he said.

“Yeah, money. Sad isn’t it, that the lack of money could make a person feel so bad?”

Not even money can take away a person’s grief, I decided later, but it offers the illusion of safety and protection. It buys us small escapes from our misery.

The nexus of my grief probably goes beyond the loss of jobs, or money, or even of family; it seems to go much deeper than that, to the moment of my birth perhaps.

What I know most of all, however, is that it has connected me to my neighbor more concretely than online social networking, more simply than a smooth-running economy, and just as completely as any train wreck. §

Sunday, February 28, 2010

On a full moon after the rain

Great horned owls hoo-hoo in the trees across the street. Their deep, resonant calls echo through a canyon of hills surrounding our home.

The moon shines full on a landscape sodden from recent rains, two inches in a matter of hours last night.

We sit at the foot of a reservoir that has been mostly dry these past few years and is probably little more than half full now, even with the wet winter we’ve had so far.

Gov. Schwarzenegger warned not long ago that if we had one more dry winter, water conditions in California could become “catastrophic.”

I’ve celebrated the several storms that have swept the California coastline these past few weeks, keeping my fingers crossed that the dam containing the reservoir would hold and that mudslides in the state would be few.

So far, we’ve been lucky.

We’re still not entirely in the clear, but we can breathe a little sigh of relief that rationing water this summer will be much less likely than it was even a few weeks ago.

I knew this storm would be the one to get us. It rained all night. Two inches wouldn’t ordinarily make a whole lot of difference. But the ground is already saturated after weeks of heavy rainstorms. We found two feet of standing water beneath our house today.

I woke up to a cryptic email this morning: “Here are some websites to check out while you await the tsunami.”

I wanted to get outside and check the rain gauge, see what, if any, damage or flooding was caused by last night’s rain. The last time someone warned me about a tsunami it was my daughter calling me on the phone at 10 p.m.

“Dad, there’s a tsunami coming.”

“That’s not funny, Anna,” I responded. “Do you know what time it is?”

“I’m serious, dad. There’s a tsunami.”

I’ve since learned to take such warnings more seriously. Realizing this morning’s email was a tongue-in-cheek warning, I went online and checked the news, and learned of the 8.8 magnitude earthquake that struck Chile today.

A tsunami advisory had been issued for the entire Pacific coastline.

For some reason, the hooing of the great horned owls makes me feel at ease, even after I’ve gone to bed for the evening. In the middle of the night, they call from different locations around the hills, flying between cypress, pine, redwood and eucalyptus trees.

Sometimes, they seem to call from just outside the bedroom window. I don’t mind. I like hearing them sounding the hills as they hunt, or mate; I like knowing that they can cut through the night with deadly precision and silence, stalking their prey.

The great horned owl is a formidable bird of the night. Its powerful talons grip and tear, its wings beat like clubs, and its beak is razor sharp. 

I heard my neighbor Claude rummaging through his garage outside this morning, cursing and tossing planks of wood.

I went outside and walked up the hill to scan for slippage, new openings in the earth, where rainwater might have rushed in and caused erosion. The great horned owls spend a lot of their time on this hill.

A steady stream of runoff flowed from the next yard over, Teresa and Tim’s place, and down through Claude’s backyard, dropped a few steps and into the back of his garage.

“Damn it!” I heard him say.

I like this neighborhood because we’re the last out post where the wilderness meets the edge of town. Only five houses on the street, which dead ends at the bottom of the reservoir that ascends nearly 200 feet above us and opens to miles of wilderness.

Osprey and eagles occasionally soar hundreds of feet above the dam. Flocks of migrating birds pass overhead nearly every day.

The enormous earthen dam was built in 1961, with a capacity of more than 40,000 acre feet of water (enough to cover 62.5 square miles in water a foot deep). That’s a lot of water.

I try not to imagine 40,000 acre-feet of water crashing down the valley, which is shaped like an enormous toilet bowl.

If the dam ever breaks, a wall of water will swish around the hillsides, flushing everything in its path—houses, trucks and trees—down to the ocean barely a quarter mile away.

From the ocean side, a sizable tsunami would come into the valley and do essentially the same thing from the other direction.

With the dam towering nearly 200 feet above us, it gives us the illusion that everything’s fine. We can’t see the enormous body of water behind it. Out of sight, out of mind, except when it rains.

I think about it every time we get rain. I think about the hills sliding down on top of us in one huge wall of mud and debris.

The owls don’t talk much during the rain, but tonight it’s clear. The bright full moon throws its bluish haze over everything; it drips in through cracks in the curtains and lights up the room.

There’s plenty of food for the owls, which will carry animals two to three times their weight; they’ll eat rabbits whole, take out skunks and raccoons, and occasionally snag a dog or a cat. Their hoo-hoos give me a feeling of reassurance. The system works.

The runoff had piled up in Claude’s garage. Water had soaked several pieces of choice wood he’d stacked on the floor. We pulled the good stuff off the floor and he dried the place out as best he could.

We followed the flow of runoff and traced it back to Teresa and Tim’s place. She came out to investigate.

“Hey,” Claude started, “I was thinking of putting a few sandbags down to keep the water from your yard running into mine and into my garage.”

“You’re getting water?” she responded.

Her husband came out and the four of us watched as the water pooled near some of Teresa’s flower pots and then ran down into Claude’s yard.

“I could probably dig a little trench right here,” Claude said, stepping past her flower pots and to a low spot that ran between their yards and away from his garage.

“Or,” Teresa’s husband suggested, “we could just move some of these pots and see if that helps.”

“I’m not moving those,” she shrieked.

“Why not?” Tim asked.

“It’s just going to open up a whole can of worms,” she complained, “and I’ve gotta babysit the grandkids today.”

She made such a fuss about it, I walked away thinking: “You wanna see a can of worms, try looking into Claude’s garage.”

She was so unwilling to be inconvenienced. Tim, her husband, later moved the pots himself, allowing the water to flow freely away from Claude’s garage.

Claude finally got the place aired out and dried up a little bit.

The owls have been quiet for a while, and now the cat fusses to be let outside. I don’t worry about the owls attacking our cat. I’m more worried about the coyotes. The rain has stopped for now.

The surf pounds in the distance and the surges of ocean water from the tsunami ceased hours ago.

Claude and I rode our bikes down to watch the ocean before the sun went down. A crowd of young people danced and teased as the water lapped at their feet. Tomorrow I’ll finish pumping the water from underneath our house. §

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Between ministry and sports writing

Tustin News Publisher Bill Moses took a deep breath, relaxed back into his leather chair, interlaced the fingers of both hands, and rested them on his chest. He gazed at me.

I had just asked him for a raise.

“You know I’m letting you be sports editor at my expense,” he finally exhaled.

I was earning $4 an hour, had just graduated from college and was beginning to develop a loyal readership.

“Really? That’s what you think?”

The area boasted numerous competitive high school sports teams which frequently dominated the playoffs and won state championships: football, girls basketball, soccer, baseball and water polo, a beehive of sports activity, including swimmers training for the 1984 Olympics.

I’d taken the sports editor position after completing an internship as a reporter at the weekly newspaper in the town where I grew up.

There were three high schools in the city, all jockeying for space in the local sports pages, wanting to be recognized for their hard-won battles and scores. Good sports pages meant devoted readers, subscribers, mostly parents of kids whose only glory might be to score the winning goal or to win an actual high school championship.

My readers let me know where they stood. They wrote letters to the editor, talked to me at games, told me secrets and asked me not to print things.

I got to know their kids, whose names and pictures I’d run in the paper.

I freely quoted the young athletes and let their color and personality show through, adding depth and drama to the sports pages. The feedback from readers was mostly positive.

Coaches encouraged their players to talk to me about their experiences during the game, how they suffered a beating or outsmarted an opponent, and to get used to the needling of sports writers.

This was especially helpful for those kids who planned to compete in college, a coach once told me: “It’s good for them to learn early on how the press can really fuck things up.”

Quoting the prep athletes was fine as long as opposing teams couldn’t use their printed words against them. “If I ever hear of an opponent using something you printed as a way to get back at us, I’m holding you personally responsible.”

Overall, covering local high school sports had been a positive experience.

I liked working at the Tustin News, even though it wasn’t something I wanted to do forever. For now, it was a fun first job as a reporter.

The only problem was that my wife and I couldn’t afford to live off $4 an hour. “What are you going to do if he refuses to give you a raise?” she asked.

“Hell, I could get a job as a janitor for $4 an hour,” I said. “I’ll give him my notice. If he doesn’t want to give me a raise, I’ll go somewhere else.”

Bill pointed to the many errors I’d let pass, told me that it wasn’t cheap getting me up to speed as a page editor. He was spending a lot of money on the presses right now and wasn’t sure he could afford any more expenses….

“I’ve never hung you up, Bill.”



“We were late and it cost me a bundle.”

“If you remember, Bill, my pages were already finished when the ad department decided to throw another ad into the sports section, and not just a small ad but a quarter page. I had to cut an important story and shift things around.”

He lifted a hand from his interlaced fingers, and gestured for silence. We’d already had this discussion about late presses.

“Let me think about it.

Bill seldom gave pats on the back. As long as you didn’t hear from him, you could safely bet that he was satisfied with your work.

The next day, I stepped into Mr. Moses’ office ready to turn in my notice. I’d quit if he persisted in telling me that he was doing me a favor. I had nothing else lined up and nothing, really, to lose.

I’d already given up a chance to go into ministry.

Before going to work at the newspaper, I had been offered an associate pastor position at the American Baptist church down the road.

Pastor Hollywood, as my wife’s family liked to call him then, sat me down in his office one evening to show me that he had worked out the numbers and figured out a way to create a new position in the church budget. He only needed to get approval from the board of deacons.

The pay would have been about the same. The only difference was that the church would cover some of my seminary expenses and, down the road, a housing allowance perhaps, eventually a congregation of my own.

I liked Pastor Hollywood, even though he could sometimes come across as puffed up and buffoonish. His mantra, and his mission, was: “Bless people’s hearts and lives.” In spite of his sincerity, it always came off as a little bit vague.

He believed in me and allowed me to speak to the congregation whenever the spirit moved.

He wanted to build a family of believers, who’d gather weekly to pray, read and study the Bible, sing hymns, and occasionally sit down together for meals. He loved church barbecues and held them as often as he could.

He was more social than spiritual.

He kept a proud demeanor, with wide, grandiose waves of the hand as he blessed the congregation. “May the Lord bless people’s hearts and lives through you as you go about your week,” he’d say, his hand and arm passing over the flock.

He held his head high in the pulpit, slightly tilted, like an enormous sea bird, chest puffed out, feathers extended in a showy spread, which is how he earned the nickname “Hollywood.”

His showiness, however, always came across as a little bit stiff, as if God personally held him around his mid-section with a firm hand and turned him this way and that as he preached.

He looked down his nose at the congregation. Not in proud disdain but as one who’d once been raised to new life. The new life had long since disappeared but he still kept the composure of a child whose father was king.

He wanted to grow the church, he told me, and needed a younger associate to provide support and bring in new, youthful energy. “The board will probably go for it if I can show them how to work it out in the budget,” he said.

Pastor Hollywood’s offer appealed to me on several levels:

• The job would give me plenty of time to study and pray; and I’ve always liked time alone, although God presumably is never far away, if not occupying the same space—even in our most troubled, indecisive moments.

• I liked the idea of passing on a message of hope, letting others know they were never entirely alone and always loved, no matter who they were or what they did.

• I liked the experience of grace, of unmerited favor from a person whose love is unconditional, forgiving and kind.

• I could socialize, put off a real job for a little while longer, explore church life more deeply, and learn the ways of the Spirit.

• I might find a calling, a place for my best self to excel and shine as a beacon of light and grace.

“I have to warn you, though,” Pastor Hollywood told me, “just as many seminary students are as likely to turn bitter and leave the church as they are to find a place in it.”

He meant well and spoke the truth and it scared me. I had no plans of becoming bitter and leaving the church, but I could see how it might happen. Seminary students were among the most miserable people I’d ever met.

There were no guarantees, I decided.

Even with God on my side, I was learning, there would always be some measure of risk choosing a path, especially one that meant working in the church.

Prayer, the heart enlightened by the gospel, God’s truth, the Bible—all these would serve as signposts, I was told. When they all fall into alignment, I was taught, then I’d know without a doubt which way to go.

Unfortunately, most of my major life decisions had already been fraught with troubling doubts. The three-point method of discerning God’s will—aligning the heart through prayer, fellowship, and reading the Bible—made sense in theory but seldom worked out for me.

Does God want me to be a preacher or a journalist? Does God even care? More often, I stumbled into my opportunities and made my decisions based on what felt right and made the most sense.

I had worked hard in college to master the basics of journalism. I wanted to write and tell people’s stories. My parents, who were more interested in how I would support myself than in my ideas about following God, had pointed me to a career in journalism.

“You’re so nosy,” mom would say, “you’d be good at it.”

“I’m not nosy, mom. I’m curious. And I like talking to people.”

“Well, you are very social,” she’d add as if that was the same as being nosy.

Putting great stock in the Christian ethic that a child, no matter how old, should respect his parents’ wishes, I followed their advice.

In the end, faced with the choice of a career in ministry or journalism, I chose the latter, learning quickly that my professors were right: “It’s not a career where you’re going to make a lot of money.”

I was beginning to think I’d made a mistake choosing a career.

Bill Moses wasn’t religious as far as I could tell but he was a good Republican. He spent as little money as possible to keep his news business running. I was convinced that he certainly wasn’t going to spend another penny on me.

At a minimum, I would have appreciated at least 25 cents an hour more; an hourly rate of $4.25, but I’d already given up the possibility. I was ready to quit.

“Well, Bill,” I started, “I was thinking about our conversation yesterday….”

He stopped me mid-sentence. “How about $5 an hour?”

I didn’t know what to say. It seemed a huge increase. If I’d known better, I would have asked to think about it. Play out the drama. But I was too elated, realizing that he valued me enough to make such a leap.

“That sounds good, Bill.” It was the start of a long bumpy career that today has been devastated by the digital revolution. §