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. §

Saturday, February 6, 2010

In the blur of an oak

There’s a turn in the dirt road that’s almost a blur to me, except for the fact that it’s both beautiful and dangerous.

I slow down first because it’s a blind corner and second because it dips dangerously fast into the creek 30 feet below.

One slight missed turn and a tumble down the steep embankment would easily be the end of a life.

The only safety net is an old oak tree growing out of and over the embankment. The road becomes most narrow, and the turn most dangerous, at the point where the spacious oak stands.

I’ve wanted to stop here, stand by the tree, protected by its cover, and listen to the creek recently washed with rainfall. It’s wild, green and alive here.

But it’s too narrow and dangerous to stop.

At the bottom of the turn a red tail hawk sits at the top of a post, watching over the fast-flowing creek. There’s a place where I can park and take in the view.

Lately I’ve been in such a hurry to get to the farm, I haven’t taken the time to stop. So far, it’s mostly a blur with occasional side-glances at the tree and the creek below as I pass by carefully, watching for anyone coming around the corner.

The road is surprisingly busy with trucks from Arizona, farmers on quads, electric service and delivery vehicles, tractors and pick-ups with surfboards on the rack.

The dirt road has turned slightly muddy and it’s slippery. I can see the tread of wheels and the mud they’ve splattered onto the road.

Today’s not a good day to stop. Despite the rain, and the slippery mud, the road has been busy.

In fact, as I make another less treacherous blind turn in the road, I’m startled when a middle-aged man in a ball cap, face gleaming in the gray of recent rain, speeds by me on a quad, the four-wheel workhorses farmers use to tend their fields, check on workers, and repair irrigation.

He didn’t even let up the gas but sped along, smiling brightly, as if he’d been set free from something, without care, fearless.

His cheerfulness brightened me as I kept saying to myself: “Everything’s going to be OK. Everything’s going to be OK.”

There’s been a lot of talk in the area about an heiress of the Arm & Hammer fortune purchasing property here, 3,000 acres some say. At least there’s been a lot of activity—new fences, a new corral, and plenty of trucks from Arizona.

“She brings her workers here from Arizona; that’s where she’s from,” a local resident told me recently. “She won’t hire Californians, at least none from around here. They’re not good enough.”

Most of the crew building the corral drove trucks with Arizona license plates and they worked day and night until they finished the job. Within days, they were bringing in cattle.

I could tell her crew was a different breed, even before I saw their license plates. Everything about them seemed large, like the desert, and imposing.

“She works them like dogs,” the local told me. “She hires only the best.”

I don’t know why but my first thought when I saw the guy in the ball cap was that he probably works for her. He didn’t look like someone who was being worked like a dog. He looked more like management.

I tried to imagine what it would be like to manage a farm. You’d have to grow up with it. I don’t see how it could be done any other way.

I had yet to face my worst danger, still ahead, one that had started the day before. I was happy to be out, testing the road, driving as safely as possible, wishing I’d had the confidence and reckless glee of the man on the quad.

I’d barely averted a disaster, a result of ignorance and a sudden need to relieve myself in the unoccupied workers quarters, the nearest building with functional toilets. You don’t sit on these toilets. You squat. There’s no paper. You bring your own.

I had turned on the irrigation to test the lines and make sure they were drawing solution from a tank with sulfuric acid. In my haste to get to the bathroom, I’d improperly turned off the system and water had backed up into the tank.

When I returned minutes later, the poly tank looked as though it was about to explode. It had expanded and solution was trickling down the sides. My stomach turned ill. I panicked.

Fearful that it was too late, I walked to the other side of the field, distraught and sick to my stomach, imagining an environmental disaster in which acid pours into the creek and the end of my farming days; I collapsed to the ground and sat and waited for it to explode.

I thought of Zorba the Greek, as everything around him turns to shit, and he takes it all in. There’s no time for whining or groveling, he says. Be a man! Take your medicine!

When I realized that it wasn’t going to blow, I returned to the sputtering tank, released the pressure by opening the lines to irrigate the field. A small amount of solution had trickled out onto the muddy clay. The rains were coming.

I wasn’t too worried about it reaching the creek and if it had there was enough water flow to dissipate what might have spilled into it.

Still, I made a call to the supplier. “ I think water got into the line,” I said, “and the tank started sputtering, trickling out solution.”

It should be OK, he told me. “Everything’s going to be OK,” I told myself after we hung up.

The next morning I began researching the hazards of working with sulfuric acid and remembered that I had left a wrench on top of the tank, which had been covered to keep the rain off of it. Acid is highly reactive to metals.

Again, I panicked and rushed to get out there, imagining the top of the tank steaming with the fluid remains of a wrench melted in acid.

In the blur of passing an oak in the tight corner of the road, both beautiful and dangerous, on a wet and rainy California morning, I found a metaphor for my life on the farm.

I know very little of the hazards and joys of this lifestyle. I’m making a dangerous turn in my life and what beauty there is passes with side-glances and an eye out for oncoming trucks.

I’m reminded too that to survive it pays to pay attention.

I’m also reminded that I need to find a place in the road to pause and ponder its beauty as well as its hazards, and to feel the wind in my face, like the quad driver who found pleasure riding through the mud. §