Valentine’s Day, 2018

Every school shooting hits me hard, and I assume this is true for all teachers. And at a time when these horrific attacks are becoming all too common, it is sad to say that some hit me harder than others. There was the day in 1998 when I was subbing at a Eugene middle school while Kip Kinkel went on a rampage at a Springfield high school across the river. There was Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012, so shocking because of how young the victims were, so shocking that I still don’t think our society has wrapped its head around it. And now, for me, there is Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, where I did my student teaching.

This is how I remember Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School: a new building full of promise and potential, named after an amazing woman who spent her life working toward the preservation of the Everglades; a building just a year old when I was assigned there in the fall of 1991. It was an easy 20 or 30-minute drive from my childhood home in Sunrise. I was 21 and idealistic, ready to make an impact. My supervising teacher was old school, heavy on grammar and discipline. She suggested I shave my goatee and I listened to her. The school had a state of the art computer lab where the computers were actually connected to each other. Imagine that! One student could post his or her writing and another student could comment on it. But we didn’t really use it. I taught grammar and ‘The Crucible,” by Arthur Miller, and this one day I remember, there was an apathetic vibe in the classroom. I wasn’t having an impact. I can’t remember how we were studying the play, but it wasn’t very exciting. I switched it up and asked for two student volunteers to assume the parts of the male and female leads in a scene. Nobody jumped on the offer, but finally two students who shared a desk in the front row – a white girl and a black guy – looked at each other, shrugged, and stood up. I had just assumed they would read from their seats. The girl was small and she wore glasses, the intellectual type. The guy was over 6 feet tall and pushing 200 pounds, wearing his football jersey. “Go ahead,” I offered, and they just grinned and got into it. These quiet kids from the front row started reading, and then they started acting, raising their voices and utilizing their bodies. The class was loving it. I was loving it. It was a glimpse into all the promise and potential of this teaching career I was embarking on – two seemingly different kids united in this activity and being cheered on by their classmates. They had broken the ice for me.

As I try to make sense of today, this tragic Valentine’s Day twenty-seven years later and 3000 miles away, I choose to focus on the love instead of the hate. I will remember the morning team meeting I attended with my dedicated colleagues, my fellow English teachers and a supportive administrator, and how part of our conversation centered around how hard this job is but how much we love it. I will remember my freshmen classes working thoughtfully on essays about the novel “The Girl Who Fell from the Sky,” which tackles issues of race and addiction, and the memoir “Night,” which tackles the Holocaust, one of the worst tragedies in human history. I will remember a trio of giggling sophomores catching up to me in the hallway in desperate need of a paper clip to hold together a stack of Val-o-grams. I will remember the juniors and seniors in my Creative Writing classes who showed tremendous courage and trust in sharing deeply personal nonfiction narratives with each other, sometimes anonymously and sometimes not. And I will remember the senior who gave me, with all sincerity, a Spiderman Valentine.

I will remember coming home to the love, support, and warmth of my wife, Carley, and one hug that meant more than any Hallmark card. And I will remember the excitement of our children, ages 5 and 7, as they looked through their Valentine’s bags at their cards and their treats and remembered this day that was all about the love.

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So, the eclipse. I can’t stop thinking about it. I don’t want to stop thinking about it, because then I might forget it. Maybe writing about it here will help…

You have to be in the path of totality, they said. But they also said it was going to be a madhouse, gridlock on the roads. And I’m in charge of a 5 and 7 year old every summer weekday. Kids and traffic don’t mix. So I figured we’d wing it, wake up Monday morning a little earlier than usual, see if the skies were clear, see if the roads were clear. They were, so we jumped in the family car, picked up breakfast burritos, and drove north on a quiet country road through the farmland of the Willamette Valley. No traffic at all. Soon we started seeing people in lawn chairs lined up along the road like they were waiting for a parade. The path of totality!

We stopped just south of Corvalis, pulled over into the shade of a nursery that was closed for the day. We had about an hour until show time. I called my parents in Florida and my Pop said, “We just saw it on the TV, a live shot from Madras!” What? I grabbed the eclipse glasses, looked up, and sure enough, the moon had taken a bite out of the sun. It hadn’t even registered to me that there was more of a show than the designated show time. “Gotta go!” I said, and I got the eclipse glasses on my kids. After some initial oohs and aahs, Audrey pronounced, “This is boring.” They began skipping gravel rocks across the parking lot and had more fun with that.

Things got cooler when the sun started looking like one of those little candy bananas they love. Then cooler, literally, when the day started getting darker. It seemed like every time we took off the eclipse glasses after checking on the sun, the dimmer switch had been turned down. It felt like there was something wrong with our eyes. And I think it happened exponentially. The closer we got to totality, the faster the light changed. We were way into it now.

I had preached and preached about not looking directly into the sun, so we watched through the eclipse glasses until the very last dot of light disappeared. And so we missed that diamond ring effect, as well as the shade that apparently flies across the ground. “Look now!” I said, and we took off the eclipse glasses and there it was, completely disorienting at first: a perfect black circle against a halo of light, and the long, silvery wisps of the corona. There was Venus, bold and bright against the darkened sky. “It’s so beautiful!” Audrey said.

I fumbled for my phone to take a photo and immediately got mad at myself, wasting precious time. I figured we had about a minute of totality, and here I was trying to press buttons. The photo came out terrible, probably because I was unwilling to waste another second holding the camera still. And then I remembered I was sharing my eyeglasses with Thomas.

Yes, we (I) had realized about halfway through the drive that we’d left his prescription eyeglasses at home. I had considered going back. But kids and going back don’t mix. I had him try my eyeglasses on at a stop sign and we determined they would be good enough. We would share. And so I got to see his reaction when he put on my eyeglasses and actually saw what Audrey had declared was so beautiful. He just kind of exhaled, “Whoa.” I did a 360 with my blurry vision to take in what I guess you would call the sunset effect, a rose tint to the horizon in every direction. Audrey was dancing.

I gave Thomas another 15 or so seconds with my eyeglasses and asked for them back. I looked up right away and focused on the corona. I had imagined I would see it moving, but it was fixed, which only speaks to the size and scale of what we were witnessing. And by now I knew the seconds were fleeting. By the time I consciously realized that we all needed to do our best to lock in what we were seeing – but how could Thomas, without his eyeglasses? – here came the diamond ring effect. So we did get to see it on the flip side – at least Audrey and I did, if Audrey was still watching – before I said, “That’s it, put your eclipse glasses back on.”

And the light came back so fast; it seemed to me much faster than the time it had taken to grow dark before totality. It was like the lights turning on at the end of a concert when you’re hoping for one more encore. But the show was over. Still, we were elated, high-fiving each other. “That was awesome!” we said. We looked through the eclipse glasses once or twice, but before Audrey could say, “This is boring,” I asked if we should hit the road and beat traffic. They said yes and we hit the road, and I’ve been thinking about what we saw ever since. That perfect black circle against a halo of light, and the long, silvery wisps of the corona. Venus, bold and bright against the darkened sky.

I haven’t even come close to putting words to it here. When we got home I tried watching some of the live television coverage – it was just wrapping up in South Carolina – but those images couldn’t compare to what I’d seen. None of the images I’ve looked at on the computer can compare, perhaps because the experience was more than visual. There was the sensation of standing on our planet, the coolness of space.

And now I think I’m one of those eclipse chasers. I went from the guy who would maybe drive a half hour to see it if the traffic wasn’t too bad, to already plotting how I can get my entire family to Texas seven years from now on April 8, 2024. I’m already imagining myself in Northern California on August 12, 2045, at the age of 75. And I say my entire family because next time I want my wife Carley with us. She saw it during a break from work in Eugene, in the 99% zone, and she said it was awesome, but “they” are right. You have to be in the zone of totality. You have to look up and see that indescribable sight through your own eyes (or through your eyeglasses, which we will NOT forget next time).

And that’s something else I’ve been thinking about: how this awesome experience – this vision that I’m willing to say was life-changing, just like we were hearing about – wasn’t quite right: Thomas missing his glasses, Carley not being with us, watching from a random gravel parking lot, not making sure all three of us could totally lock in what we were seeing before it was over. I’ve been thinking about how that’s kind of reflected in the word eclipse (noun – an astronomical event that occurs when an astronomical object is temporarily obscured) – how some things for us were obscured. But aren’t some things always obscured? What might go wrong in Texas, or Northern California, after years – decades – of planning?

All we get is a glimpse. As epic and awesome and beautiful as those fleeting moments in the path of totality are – so awesome that some of us are willing to travel to the ends of the earth to experience them again – it’s still just a glimpse. And isn’t that all this life really is? One big beautiful glimpse.

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Light at the end of the winter

If seasons were days of the week, spring would be Friday, summer would be Saturday, fall would be Sunday, and winter would be Monday through Thursday. Thank God it’s Friday. Well, not officially for another week, but today we were able to spend the whole day outside in t-shirts, getting our hands dirty in the soil. It was amazing, and I look forward to more honking geese flying north, more daylight and sunlight and blossoms on the trees.

I am very excited that my short story, “Runner,” appears in the current spring issue of The Massachusetts Review. What a great literary journal. I enjoyed working with the editors and participating in an interview that you can read here.

It’s been awhile since I posted here, over a year! Throughout last spring I made good progress on my novel, and then I made a big career move. After teaching at Cal Young Middle School for over fifteen years, I decided to make the leap to South Eugene High School, where I’ve been teaching freshman English and junior/senior Creative Writing. I always knew that a mid-career switch would be in the works for me – a change of pace, new challenges – and I knew it would affect my writing time in the short term, which it has, but I’m really happy with the decision.

Last summer was spent preparing, and this fall and winter have been spent working my butt off. Here are the major works I’ve taught so far, all for the first time: Oedipus the King, Othello, Night, Maus, The Glass Castle, The Old Man and the Sea, Lord of the Flies, The Girl Who Fell from the Sky, and The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. With a lot of support from my awesome colleagues, I’ve pretty much created everything I’m doing. I’m developing a system based on student choice, and it seems to be working. Someday I might have to package it all up and sell it to the highest bidder; until then a lot of it is on my teaching site. Here are the pages where you can find most of my freshman English and Creative Writing documents.

So while I haven’t been writing much, I’ve definitely been reading. And learning. And now I can see the light at the end of the winter. My writing wheels are turning. A press that I have great respect and admiration for has offered me an insightful developmental edit for my manuscript of short stories, Earth Names, and I look forward to working on that. I have one story still floating around out there, another nearly finished, and a novel waiting where I left it. There’s so much to do. Good thing it’s nearly the weekend.

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ALR, Weber, and Wisconsin

Updates on three short story publications: “McKenzie Water” is up and available to read at American Literary Review, “Country Fair” appears in the Fall 2015 issue of Weber-The Contemporary West (which also includes a great interview with Neil Gaiman), and “Catching the Baby” is forthcoming in the Fall 2016 issue of Wisconsin Review!

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Chillin’ with the Trappists

“He is a true monk who is separated from all and united to all.”

– Evagrius, 4th Century monk


This past weekend I had the good fortune to participate in a personal retreat at Our Lady of Guadalupe Trappist Abbey near Carlton, Oregon. Trappist monks take vows of silence as part of their cloistered lives of contemplation, and it’s been on my bucket list for a long time to visit such a monastery. I just realized this past year that we have one in Oregon.

The Trappists are a Catholic Order that dates back to the year 1098 in France, but you don’t have to be Catholic – or Christian – to participate in a retreat. I was never asked about my religious affiliation. For a suggested donation of $50 a night, you get a simple room near a pond with a waterfall and three vegetarian meals a day, the same food the monks eat. The monks are men, but both men and women are welcome to visit.

I conceived this as a writing retreat – uninterrupted time to work on my novel – but it turned into more of a life retreat. I just couldn’t shut myself away in my room on such a beautiful August Saturday with so many miles of hiking trails to explore. The Abbey includes 1250 acres of pristine land that the monks have been tending since 1955, huge swaths of oak savanna and Douglas fir surrounded by rolling wine country. I gained about 1000 feet hiking up to a shrine to the Virgin Mary (Our Lady of Guadalupe refers to a series of miraculous visions of Mary that occurred in Mexico in 1531) and on my way up to the awesome view, I saw the scat of what I think were coyotes, cougars, and black bears.

The life of a monk has always appealed to me – the simplicity, solitude, and quiet meditation, removal from the rush of the modern world to focus on the rhythms of the natural world – but I’m not sure how I would fare with the religious expectations: chanting in the chapel five or six times every day, beginning at 4:15 AM and ending at 7:30 PM. (Retreat guests and the general public are invited to attend all of these services, and they are definitely something to experience – the same 25 or so monks, aged in their 30’s to 90’s, taking their same positions and singing to God, bowing to the Cross and an image of Mary.)

I’ve always felt closer to God outside, in the midst of nature, which these monks are lucky to have literally at their doorstep. And of course, I’ve already committed this lifetime to my family, to my wife and our two children. I won’t lie – a huge draw for me was taking a break from our loquacious five year-old and clingy three year-old (thanks, Carley!) but it sure was nice to be able to step away from my life, if only for two nights, to reflect on how good I have it, how blessed I am on this path that I have chosen, with all that I have been given.

I brought a book along to read on my retreat, “The Seven Storey Mountain,” by Thomas Merton, who is probably the most famous Trappist monk, and I thought this paragraph would be a good one to end on:

“This means, in practice, that there is only one vocation. Whether you teach or live in the cloister or nurse the sick, whether you are in religion or out of it, married or single, no matter who you are or what you are, you are called to the summit of perfection: you are called to a deep interior life perhaps even to mystical prayer, and to pass the fruits of your contemplation on to others. And if you cannot do so by word, then by example.”

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American Literary Review!

My short story, “McKenzie Water,” has been accepted by American Literary Review! It will appear this fall and be available online, so stay tuned. That makes six of the nine stories from my MFA thesis and short story collection, Earth Names, finding publication in a literary journal. I’ve begun submitting that manuscript to agents and editors, so we’ll see what happens…

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I just got a check in the mail from New Ohio Review for my short story “Smoke,” making that the first time I’ve gotten paid for my fiction, outside of self-publishing. Yahoo! I scanned it to make a copy in case I want to frame it and put it on my office wall, like George Jefferson did with that first dollar bill he earned at his laundromat. Movin’ on up.

Also, I hit a cool milestone today while working on my novel-in-progress. Every time I work on it, I rename the file by upping the number that comes after my working title (still top secret). So Title1, Title2, etc. Today I worked on Title100. One hundred sessions so far, which puts me about fifty pages in. So if I maintain this pace of producing half a page a day (which is pretty slow, but that’s my life right now) I’ll have over 200 rough draft pages written by the end of next school year. That’s roughly 60,000 words, which just might be the length of this thing. We’ll see.

But it’s cool to have my first real timeline on this project, a doable goal I can work toward. And thinking beyond that, maybe I could have a first revision done by the end of next summer. But maybe I’m getting ahead of myself…


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My short story “Big Mother” will appear in Flyway in mid-April! I’ve been wanting to publish with Flyway because of their environmental focus. Stay tuned!

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Reading in Portland in April

I’ll be reading from my short story “Waves” along with other authors published in Cirque‘s winter issue, Friday, April 10th, 7-9 PM, at TaborSpace in Portland.

And in other news, the first death has occurred in my novel-in-progress! More to come!

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New novel underway!

This afternoon I found myself with a bonus hour to myself, then found myself at a table at the Bier Stein with a pint of cider and my laptop. I’ve been thinking about the idea for this novel for months now, taking notes for the last couple of weeks, and today I got a first paragraph down…


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