Monday, November 12, 2012

Poem: Election Day

Election Day
I mailed in my ballot, so while
America lined up to vote
and another storm bore down
on an already battered east coast
I took my new dog for a walk
on a local trail that weaves
up, around and through an old ranch
a few miles from the coast.
Not much rain yet, but the first green shoots
of new grass colored the dry
leftovers of summer beneath blue skies
and an unseasonably hot sun.
Kona, a long tall mix
of border collie, shepherd
and who knows what else,
rescued from the local shelter,
loped and sniffed ahead of me
when I let her off the leash,
her ears up and alert,
nose twitching, head swiveling
with the arrival of each
new sound and smell.
Suddenly, a ground squirrel
chirped and darted across the trail
and before I could catch her
Kona chased her prey
down the hill to the arroyo,
bounding like a wolf.
Seconds later, the chirp
became a frantic squeal
and Kona emerged from the ditch
shaking her head fiercely,
the squirrel limp in her mouth
as she trotted up the hill toward me,
head up proudly as if to say,
“Look what I did!”
It was then I saw the coyote
a little farther ahead and above the trail,
watching the scene below her
like a bystander at an accident.
Kona obeyed my command
to drop the fat, dead squirrel
and I quickly leashed her
just as she, too, saw the coyote
and surged against her restraint, wanting
to chase it through the tall brown straw.
Unalarmed, coyote trotted along
ahead of us, its compact tawny body
Appearing and disappearing
in the camouflage of its natural environment
for the next fifteen minutes
until it calmly drifted over a ridge.
Distracted by birds, more squirrels,
a shallow creek, Kona soon forgot
her wild kin, lost in moments
of ever changing stimulus
smiling in that way
that only dogs do
when life is good
and their instincts are on fire.
Meanwhile, at the polling stations,
people waited patiently in long lines
to vote for a leader who would guide them
through the gathering storm.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Movie Review: Samsara

Samsara is defined as the indefinitely repeated cycles of birth, misery, and death caused by karma. In the new movie by director Ron Fricke, shot over five years on five continents, misery is juxtaposed with beauty, both natural and manmade, in scenes from twenty-five countries. Music is nearly the only sound in the film, but much is communicated by the looks in the eyes of many of the humans depicted in a wide variety of activities, from ritual dances, to prayer, to digging through dumps for objects of value. In today's instant travel internet world, there isn't anything in "Samsara" that we don't know already exists, but some of the images are shocking just the same. I came away moved by the intelligence I saw in the eyes of even the most abjectly poor subjects, overwhelmed by a hint of the sheer volume of production, and consequent consumption of resources and subsequent waste, required to keep our species alive, and awed by human diversity and creativity, both in art and the expression of our everyday lives. Taking away answers provided by religion, what purpose and meaning does our species have on this planet? Are we even remotely capable of achieving any kind of compassionate balance with other sentient beings or are we on a course of inevitable destruction resulting from our own behavior? "Samsara" doesn't answer these questions but gives its audience plenty to think about. It's worth the time and money to come up with questions of your own.

Movie Review: Argo and Seven Psychopaths

One is about the production of a fake film used as a ruse to save six Americans trapped in Iran during the Iran hostage crisis in '79 and '80. The other is a film about a film that is being written as the film is unfolding right in front of us. Both are about the idea that anything can happen, no matter how outlandish and impossible that anything may seem to be.

In "Argo," CIA employee Ben Affleck is charged with finding a way to extract six Americans who escaped the overrun American Embassy in Tehran and are hiding out in the home of the Canadian Ambassador. Several implausible plans are suggested, including having them ride bicyles three hundred miles to the Turkish border in the winter. Affleck comes up with a better implausible idea: pretend they are members of a Canadian film crew scouting locations for a Star Wars ripoff. Involve real Hollywood veterans like special effects artist John Goodman and producer Alan Arkin, set up a fake studio to make a fake movies actors and script included, and convince the Revolutionary Guard this is legit. Ridiculous, right? Wrong. This is exactly what happened, although Affleck adds levels of tension and drama apparently not part of the real experience. That's OK. It makes for a great thriller, complemented by the irreverent and jaded humor of Goodman and Arkin. There's a wonderful pun on the title that includes an expletive and an imperative that both actors deliver with relish throughout the film. It represents yet another impossibility, but reinforces the idea, which is why we love movies, that anything is possible.

In "Seven Psychopaths," screenwriter Colin Farrell and his actor friend Sam Rockwell are collaborating on a script about pyschopathic killers (one of whom is played by American music icon, Tom Waits: worth the price of admission when you realize he's in the same movie as Christopher Walken). As the film frames the stories of the imaginary psychopaths, real psychopaths are on the loose, including the mysterious Jack of Diamonds and a vicious hood played by Woody Harrelson, whose shih tzu, Bonny, has been kidnapped by Christopher Walken and Rockwell, who kidnap dogs and then innocently return them when rewards are posted. In an homage to Tarrantino and slasher movies, buckets of blood ooze and splatter from beginning to end and both the "real" world and the "imaginary" world of the script mix in the end. Yes, anything is possible.

Anyone who has lived long enough can look back over the circumstances of his or her life and point to any number of circumstances and unexpected twists and turns that, in retrospect, changed everything. One's own life can seem like an impossible fiction written by a overly imaginative novelist or screenwriter. Try writing your own script and selling it to Hollywood. If you're lucky, it'll be as entertaining and implausible as "Argo" and "Seven Psychopaths." You might even get to meet Christopher Walken and Alan Arkin during the production of your life story.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Movie Review: The Master

In Paul Thomas Anderson's beautifully filmed "The Master," it's easy to understand why Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a skilless alcoholic WWII vet with post traumatic stress disorder, would willingly attach himself to Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman): he's a hopelss drifter running fearfully from life. It's harder to understand why Dodd, the founder of a Scientology-like cult who calls himself "the commander," as well as a writer, a doctor, a theoretical philosopher, and a nuclear physicist, would be interested in attaching himself to Freddie. It's not just because Freddie makes an out-of-this-world home elixir that includes a healthy dose of strained paint thinner. What's in it for Dodd? Is it that others either adore or revile him and Freddie seems almost indifferent? Is it because he wants to prove that the Cause can save even a seemingly ruined human being like Freddie? Or does he need to have a fool, an alter ego, around to reinforce and validate his megalomania? Finding value in the film depends on finding an answer to questions about their relationship. While pondering those questions, you can enjoy outstanding performances by Hoffman, Phoenix and Amy Adams as Dodd's loyal and assertive wife. You can also enjoy some extraordinary scenes, like those when Freddie is working as a department store photographer, an employment bound to go bad, or as a field worker in a Salinas cabbage patch. "The Master" is ambitious film making that may fall a little short of its intended goal, but it is thought provoking and will hold your attention throughout. Definitely worth seeing.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

History of Painters

Published in October issue of "Jounal Plus" magazine.

Josh Cody and Justin Hooper
History of Painters
The earth and all its colors are as vibrant as this feeling
stepping past the worries of the day
A whisper tells me something that I've known all along
The poetry of life is never gone
Chorus from Cathedrals by History of Painters
By the time they were eighteen, Josh Cody and Justin Hooper had already performed at Carnegie Hall…not with their band, History of Painters, but as senior members of the San Luis Obispo High School Concert Choir in March, 2005, under the direction of legendary conductor, Gary Lamprecht. The choir, combined with the Morro Bay High School Concert Choir, was one of three chosen from around the country to sing with a full orchestra, conducted by Craig Jessup, director of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.  
Josh and Justin were both first year choir students, baritones who couldn’t read music. “Learning from Mr. Lamprecht and singing at Carnegie Hall was a huge privilege.  First he taught us how to push for perfection and then further to passion. He expertly combined kindness with discipline, and emphasized having an awareness and appreciation for the moment.” 
They became good friends while participating in choir, eventually leading to creation of their current band, History of Painters, which released its first CD, “The World is Greener,” in February 2011. A follow-up EP was released later that year. The CD was engineered and recorded by Darren Clarke at his Modern Music Academy studio. Darren then produced the EP and continues to work with the band. Most of their music, self-described as alternative folk, can be heard on YouTube and downloaded from iTunes.
Lifetime residents of the Central Coast, Justin and Josh both dabbled in music when they were young. Josh started out on drums while attending Laguna Middle School and later added guitar, with guidance from his father. “Four chords and the truth, he would say, and then play some songs as examples.” Justin took piano lessons when he was nine, but stopped playing for a long time. “When Josh and I became friends, he asked me to play in his band and he assigned me to keyboards. I painstakingly taught myself chords by listening to a chord on the guitar and then closing my eyes and trying to find the notes in that chord on the piano.” Both took guitar classes offered at San Luis Obispo High School and learned a lot by “digging into our instruments and working hard.” Josh has added mandolin to his instrumental repertoire.
When I saw History of Painters perform at the Live Oak Music Festival, Josh also used a bass drum pedal to “play” a percussion instrument made from an empty Samsonite suitcase and a tambourine.  It is part of the charm of the group that odd instruments, like a toy red piano, pop up during a show. Less odd, but equally unique, History of Painters includes two violinists and a cellist, local musicians Raelene Larson, Melissa Newby and Danielle Morrison.  The strings add an ethereal quality and dignity to the music, which is also added by the vocals of Kayla Hooper, Justin’s wife.  “Strings have been speaking to the beauty of the soul for a long time.” Justin and Josh acknowledge being influenced by familiar bands like U2, Counting Crows, Cold Play, and even Simon and Garfunkel, and less familiar bands like Rush of Blood to the Head, Sigur Ros and Sea Wolf. While not overt, strong Christian beliefs also influence the quality of their sound and the content of their lyrics.
While some song writing teams split responsibility for music and lyrics, Josh and Justin contribute equally to both. Each might write some lyrics and music independently, but then they work on it collaboratively.  They take songwriting seriously, and their goal when they work together is to make heartfelt, genuine music, but also to have fun and laugh along the way, something they learned from Darren Clarke: be serious, but don’t take themselves too seriously. In the end they write songs that they describe as “grand, fun and catchy.”
Much of their music is autobiographical, which is reflected in the “painters” part of their band’s name.  While working their way through Cal Poly (Justin) and Hancock (Josh), they took a job canvassing neighborhoods for a painting company. “It was good preparation for the music business: a lot of rejection. If you were annoyed at your home a couple of years ago it was probably us.” The “History” part comes from a shared interest in history, which Justin studied at Poly and Josh enjoyed in high school. Some of their songs include historical themes or references, including “Ninety-five Theses,” based on Martin Luther and the Reformation.  A goal is to have at least one well-written history song on each album. “We respect the past and learn from it and want to reflect that in our work,” Justin said.
Over the years since high school and college, Justin has worked as a history teacher at a private school and currently gives guitar and piano lessons. He has been happily married for two years.  Josh, still single but hoping to be a family man in the future, pursued a career in fire-fighting and as an EMT and spent three years in that line of work. “As much as we loved our other work, we decided to pursue our passion for music fulltime, which includes the business and management side as well as writing and performing.”  They give a lot of credit for their early success to Darren Clarke and also to Alex Kizanis, a local owner of a home studio where they first started getting studio musician experience.  Both have received tremendous support from friends and family.
Josh and Justin were encouraged by the reception to their first recorded efforts, “pleasantly surprised,” as they put it.  Listeners commented on a sense of hope and a meditative quality they experienced in the music.  Totally committed to their art, the dream of the History of Painters duo is to “create the music we hear in our minds, to provide for our families doing what we love,” and to do that for as long as possible.
Impressed by what I heard at Live Oak and by the combination of modesty, maturity, humor and dedication I noted in my interview with them, I expect to be one of those happy locals who can someday say, “I knew them when.” To hear their music and learn more about History of Painters, including where you can hear them play live, go to




The Art of the Letter

Soon to be published on BOBB at

Dear Readers,
Remember the thrill of going to the mailbox and finding an unexpected letter from a family member or friend? Or maybe it was the letter you’d been anticipating for weeks?  Remember actually seeing the mailman approach the house and sprinting to the front door expectantly? Those were exciting times. Sadly, the “art of the letter” days are all but over.
No one can deny the convenience of email, texting, skyping or just plain picking up the phone and calling.  But for those of us who have lived through the transition from “snail mail” to high technology, some of the romance of communication has been lost. Not to the mention loss of personal, family, national and world history that was a by-product of good old fashioned letter writing.  Adams and Jefferson!  Barrett and Browning!  Miller and Nin!
In an old manila envelope I have a collection of letters from the 70’s from a friend in Colorado and my from my brother who was living in Germany. In a shoe box I have letters received over a period of twenty years from a friend who moved around the country and raised a family during those years. In another box I have letters from my father, now deceased, an excellent writer with beautiful handwriting. I know it’s possible to keep a history of emails, but it isn’t the same. So what am I doing to keep the art of letter writing alive?
My first grandchild, Saskia, was born last February. I wrote her a letter and mailed it on the first day of spring.  It was a letter about life and what she might expect as she grows up. Today, the first day of autumn, I wrote her a letter about writing letters and about a gift that her father, my son, gave me ten years ago. He took his brothers and me backpacking, which reawakened my love of the wilderness, and I’ve gone every year but one since then.
Spring and autumn are my two favorite seasons. My plan is to write Saskia a letter on the first day of those seasons for the rest of my life. My hope is she’ll return those letters with letters of her own when she is able and ready. In that way I hope we will grow and age together and keep the art of letter writing alive in our family for another generation.

Will Jones

Friday, September 21, 2012

Farm Cats, 1970

I backed the truck up to the corn crib on the Amish farm about two miles down Chapman Hollow from 11 and 15, the road that parallels the west side of the Susquehanna River north of Harrisburg. Because there was no electricity to run a small elevator, my job was to shovel all the corn onto the truck and take it to the mill to be ground up for feed.   I dropped the back gate, opened the corn crib and got to it. Despite the cool fall air, before long I was down to a sweaty t-shirt as I worked.  The scrape of the wide, flat blade made a considerable racket in the morning quiet.  Before long the sound attracted a couple of barn and yard cats.  They sat on their haunches intently watching the crib as I shoveled.  I was mystified.  About a third of the way in, my efforts exposed a handful of fetal mice curled up in a nest of silks and husks. Now I understood the presence of the cats.  Soon mature mice started to appear. With each shovelful they tunneled deeper into the crib. It was just a matter of time.  As I approached the end, one by one the mice made a dash for freedom, only to be caught and gobbled by one of the opportunistic cats. It was the feline equivalent of shooting fish in a barrel.  Was it my imagination, or, in silent moments between each shovelful, did I really hear tiny bones crunching?  Was that really the last inch of a mouse’s tail sticking out of a content cat’s mouth as I emptied the crib, closed the gate and headed back to the mill?

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Poem: Devil's Postpile

Devil’s Postpile
Hexagon: A polygon with six edges and six vertices.
The total of the internal angles of any hexagon is 720°.
As if these terms – hexagon, polygon, angles, vertices -
could capture the beauty of these ancient basaltic rocks
fallen like Greek columns in a jumbled heap
at the bottom of the monolithic cliff
each with its six sides reflecting light and shadow
like a Michelangelo returned to its original form
piled in a timeless geometry beyond imagination.
And then, atop the vertical columns
smoothed and polished by eons of rain, wind and sun
perfect hexagonal tiles of rock
locked together like nature’s dance floor
inviting a slow waltz of awestruck wonder
in the cool breeze of a Sierra morning.
And what of the rock’s hexagonal cousins:
honeycombs, soap bubbles, turtle’s backs,
cloud patterns on Saturn -
evidence of cosmic cooperation
a universal sharing of perfection
meant to dazzle and tease our finite minds
that sing to praise the music of infinity.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Poem: Burning Men

Burning Men
One hundred degrees or more in the high desert
Red Rocks State Park on 14 between 58 and 178
On the way to Bishop and the Eastern Sierra
For a series of day hikes with my wife:
Little Lakes Valley, Convict Lake,
Devil’s Post Pile, Rainbow Falls,
River Trail out of Agnew Meadow
To Shadow Lake above the San Joaquin
Turn left at the faded green sign
Barely visible white letters gone rusty red
Drive along the dusty road
Past the devilish pipe organ hoodoos
Past the empty stop-and-pay kiosk
Into the nearly empty parking lot
The small visitors center closed
On this first day after Labor Day
Quiet, desolate, bright and hot
Only an old, battered, dust covered VW Van in sight
Spare mounted on the front, two bicycles on the rear
We carry our lunch to one of two tables
Beneath a shade giving trellis
Amid stunted cottonwoods and soft green olives
At the other table, two shirtless, sandaled,
Long haired, tan young men
One reddish blond, bearded and ponytailed
The other smooth faced with a mop of loose brown curls
Dancing in the light hot breeze
Both so lean their hips barely support
Their loose fitting shorts
Fresh from Burning Man, on their way to Santa Barbara
They share a meal of fresh raw vegetables
Chopped into a large metal bowl
Dipping in their chopsticks
Like birds feeding at the edge of a pond.
We talk briefly. The van is a ’78.
I think but don’t say, You are my children.
I am of that tribe that gathered near Woodstock
For 3 Days of Peace and Music in ’69. I was there
With my beads and bib overalls, my dark hair
Touching my shoulders, slim like you,
Like you my unknown future stretching out before me
Like a two lane in the desert, puddles of heat
Shimmering in the dips of the  blacktop
Road fever always simmering
Not knowing that someday I would meet my past
Going in the opposite direction
To a different destination.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Poem: Twin Willows

Twin Willows
The choice was always between
the Jersey Shore and the Poconos
that time of seeming innocence
when the other big decisions were new or used,
six cylinder or eight, Ford or Chevy,
those days when any reason to get off the block
during the dog days was good enough.
In the summer of ’60 it was the Poconos
or at least that was the outcome.
Our two car caravan –
mom, dad, brother and me in one,
old family friends in the other –
first wandered north across the Pennsylvania border
to New York and the Finger Lakes,
hours of leafy back roads, the summer heat
blowing through the rolled down windows
the only air conditioning we knew,
looking for an enticing place to stay
up and down the lakes with no satisfaction.
Back seat lethargy set in, my brother jumped cars
to escape our father’s moods, and finally, defeated,
like exiles returning to their homeland,
we re-crossed the border to familiar territory.

Near dusk on the third or fourth day,
losing hope and seeking shelter,
we nosed into the parking lot
of the Twin Willows Resort
somewhere on Route 6
near Honesdale, Bethany and Beach Lake,
a collection of small cabins, a small swimming pool,
a shed with a couple of pinball machines
and an old barn for square dancing.
Mercifully, cabins were available.
We checked in, we stayed,
we went back the next two summers.
Just down the two-lane, a classic roadside tavern
with the no irony name, The Big Apple,
watering hole for the adults as twilight eased into night
and the kids were secure in their bunks.
Just up the road, an eleven-year-old’s paradise,
on one side an ice cream parlor,
product from the local dairy,
hot fudge sundaes from heaven.
On the other side a go-cart track,
low slung, wide based 5hp screamers
hay bales to protect the fearful and reckless.
Farther down the road
the Cricket Hill Golf Course,
primitive yet eager,
still transitioning from cow pies to fairways.
Went there in the late afternoon
as the heat receded
and the shadows started to lengthen,
first lessons in a game I still play.
Finally, Beach Lake, a short drive
to boat, fish and swim,
a quiet melancholy expanse
where six inch waves slapped
against the shore, meek and harmless.
In the ancient photo, black and white,
I stand holding a stringer of small perch,
thirteen as I recall, Charles on my left,
my little brother wedged in between,
on our faces modest smiles like the ripple of fish
on the surface of still water.
Memories and pictures haunt me.
Words whispered around their edges
by the ghosts of those who are gone,
like shreds of high clouds
that break off and vanish
on warm summer days
when the sky is deep blue
and a light breeze stirs
the heat beneath the twin willows.

Retired…and Loving It

This first appeared in in August 2012

I retired in June of 2011 after a long career in public education. Ever since, the first questions anyone asks when they haven’t seen me for a while are “How do you like being retired?” and “What are you doing to keep yourself busy?” Some people, who aren’t retired, ask those questions with a good natured edge to their voice, while others, who are or are about to be retired, genuinely want to know how it’s going.
It seems there is some fear out there among boomers that the transition to retirement will be difficult, tedious, boring…even depressing. That hasn’t been my experience. In fact, it’s been just the opposite. So when people ask those two questions, my first answer is “I love it,” and my second is “How much time do you have?”
First of all, retirement meant a huge reduction in responsibility, a significant weight off my shoulders. I immediately felt lighter in spirit and more energetic. With the elimination of constant “work thoughts,” my creative mind reawakened. I started writing articles for a local magazine, keeping a daily journal, starting an online blog and filling a notebook with poems and other ramblings. I also started playing more music (guitar, harmonica) and picked up the tenor saxophone. I have a wonderful seventy-six-year-old teacher who comes to my house every other Monday for a forty-five minute lesson. A friend and I have played at a few events under the name FreeWill, taken from the first part of his last name (Freeman) and my first name. It suits us perfectly and we continue to practice and expand our song list.
I started a book club called The Short Attention Span Book Club, comprised mostly of male friends. We meet once a month, alternately choosing a book from Column A (Classic) or Column B (Contemporary). We have a 250 page limit, and so far it’s working out beautifully. On my blog I post Short Attention Span Book and Movie Reviews, and friends check in regularly for updates.
My wife and I have been on two very rewarding vacations, one last fall to national parks in the southwest (Grand Canyon, Canyon de Chelly and Mesa Verde), and one in the spring to New York and Boston (Broadway shows, historical sites, meeting our new granddaughter, Fenway Park). Regular hikes on beautiful Central Coast and Big Sur trails, backpacking trips in the Eastern Sierras, and golf (no cart) have helped keep me physically fit, along with other exercise routines. Frequent participation in cultural events keeps me psychically fit.
Finally, regular service activities keep me involved in the welfare of the city I love, San Luis Obispo.
Looking ahead, I don’t see the need to make many changes in my new life. I try never to be in a hurry and there is nothing better than the sound of the alarm clock not ringing, although on most days I’m usually up by six anyway. If year two comes close to rivaling year one, my “attitude of gratitude” will grow even stronger, and retired life will continue to get better. “To boldly go where millions of my fellow boomers are going…”

Pat McKeague – Author, Mathematician, Teacher

This article first appeared in the September issue of Journal Plus: The Magazine of the Central Coast

Number was the substance of all things. - Pythagoras
Pat McKeague, one of San Luis Obispo’s best-selling authors, doesn’t rely on intricate plots or unique characters to captivate his readers. He engages them by developing themes in mathematics using a human cannonball, the Ferris wheel in the Orson Welles film “The Third Man,” and the dragsters in the film “Heart Like a Wheel” as examples.
Since the publication of his first math textbook in the mid-70’s, Pat has sold over three million books, from algebra to trigonometry, mostly at the community college level, and he estimates that roughly four million students have used his texts. After thirty-five years his sales are still going strong, but there’s more to Pat’s interest in math than just big numbers.
Pat’s parents moved from Superior, Wisconsin, to California after World War II. Pat was born in Santa Barbara in 1946. His father, a radio operator and a waist gunner in a B-24 Liberator, was shot down over Albania and spent the last eight months of the war as a POW. He went on to become the personnel manager for Ampex. Pat’s mother taught kindergarten. The family moved south to the San Fernando Valley, and Pat eventually graduated from Granada Hills High School, where he played football.
“Los Angeles in those days was an easy place to get around. I remember driving to the San Diego Zoo for a date. Everything was accessible and fun.” His favorite teacher, Victor Ansalone, was a New Yorker who taught honors social studies. “Victor had been investigated for being a Communist. He predicted America’s involvement in Vietnam long before it happened. He was just an interesting guy who told the truth and shared his opinions about history.” Pat, who at the time belonged to a social club called the Del Vikings and didn’t consider himself honors class material, eventually dedicated one of his books to Ansalone.
After high school Pat attended San Fernando Valley State, now Cal State Northridge, where he met his wife Diane. They have two children, Pat III and Amy, and seven grandchildren, all of whom live in San Luis Obispo. In one of those turning points best appreciated from a distance, had he been accepted to dental school, his first career choice, his success story as a math teacher and author would not have happened. Due to the Vietnam War and the fierce competition for graduate school deferments, his dental school plans didn’t work out. He attended Brigham Young University where he earned his master’s in mathematics in 1971, completing a two year program in eleven months.
With a young family, and after getting rejections from ninety-one companies for work in engineering or programming, Pat learned about a teaching program in California for students with graduate degrees, and three weeks later he was teaching mathematics at Lompoc High School. “I was almost fired the first year. I had no control of the classroom. I shaped up the last few months with the help of a fellow math teacher, Pat Clevenger, after the principal told me he might not ask me back.”
As his skills improved and he began to really enjoying teaching, Pat started applying to community colleges up and down the west coast, eventually landing a job at Cuesta College where “Once again I got lucky. I had an office right across the hall from Gil Stork, who became my role model.”
Inspired by two Cuesta faculty members who had published math textbooks, Pat wrote a chapter for an elementary algebra book and sent it to eight publishers. Three rejected it, three showed an interest, and two lost it. He accepted an advance and a royalty offer from Academic Press and his first book, priced at $12.95, sold 6000 copies. “It had more mistakes than any book I ever published. I called the teachers who used it, which turned out to be the right thing to do. I revised that book and went on to write one book every year for the next eight years, and eventually ended up with sixteen titles,” Pat said. His pre-algebra and trigonometry texts became the bestselling books in the country.
When I asked him the secret to his success, he said, “I’m just a normal person who likes math and likes to teach. I write my books from the student side, but they also appeal to teachers.” Pat’s company, XYZ texts, now prints, publishes and markets his textbooks. New components are Math TV, a website with instructional videos featuring Cuesta students demonstrating problems, worksheets and electronic versions of his texts, and XYZ Homework, an online homework and course management system that instructors can purchase with the texts.
When he was teaching Pat devoted the first five minutes of each period to something of interest from the real world that complemented and enriched his instruction. Now, at a half dozen or more math teacher conferences a year all over the country, he delivers that message, suggests that teachers give themselves permission to develop a story about what they’re teaching and get it out five minutes at a time. Pat’s talks include Islam and mathematics, showing how algebra developed in the middle east centuries ago; spirituality and mathematics; success in math and life; and the previously mentioned references to the human cannonball, the Ferris wheel and drag racing.
In addition to his devotion to math and teaching, Pat has been involved with a variety of organizations in his local community: 4H, the Literacy Council, Friends of the Library, Creative Mediation and others. He has also been a long time sponsor of the San Luis Obispo International Film Festival.
My guess is that there are many students who remember Pat McKeague as their best and favorite math teacher and many more who have benefited from his approach to teaching math as presented in his textbooks. He once told me a funny story that demonstrated his humble approach to his success. Feeling the need to get back into the classroom, he applied for a part time position at Cuesta. As he was going through his teaching background and qualifications for the job during the formal interview, one of the panelists quietly said, “And you wrote the book.”
As a math phobic who barely scraped through Algebra II by the time I graduated high school, I wish I had learned from a teacher and an advocate for math like Pat. Think of all the pain I could have avoided!

Sierra Serenade

This originally appeared on on 9/4/12

If there is music at the highest elevations of the Sierra Nevada it is the music of near silence.  A recent three day hike in the Eastern Sierras starting at the Pine Creek trailhead, a few miles north of Bishop, reinforced that reality for me once again.
Each summer since 2004, except 2010 when I was recovering from an unexpected “cardiac event,” my friend Frank and I have spent a few days backpacking in the Sierras.  We hike in anywhere from six to fifteen miles, establish a base camp near a peak we hope to climb, attempt to summit the next day, spend another night and then hike out. The peaks are usually in the 13000’+ range, with suggested routes to the top rather than obvious trails. Our highest summit was Mt. Agassiz at 13891’ in 2006.
This summer we chose Royce Peak, 13200’, as our goal. On the first day we hiked about nine miles with an elevation gain of over 4000’.  When we reached Pine Creek Pass at 11100’, we left the trail and hiked overland to Royce Lakes at 11560’.  The hike was demanding, like being on a stair master for seven hours, the difference being the magnificent Sierra vistas that accompanied us: clear flowing water, waterfalls, aromatic pines, serene lakes, majestic granite peaks, the stark almost lunar beauty of the landscape above the tree line.
It is above tree line that the Sierras sing their sweetest silent song.  Camped on a patch of sandy ground next to the lake, only a few intermittent notes call out once we quiet our human activity:  murmur of the lake against the shore; a tailless pika’s excited squeak; the wind rustling the sides of our tents.  As night approaches and stars and constellations appear seemingly just above our heads, it is so quiet I can hear the blood surge through my body with each serene heartbeat.
We had company on this trip.  Throughout our two days by the lake, a lone seagull drifted on the water, preened on a nearby rock, soared above the rippled surface with Merriam and Royce Peaks as a backdrop.  It was like a theme in the music of this journey, one better felt than explained. 
And although it was satisfying to reach the summit of Royce Peak, and glorious to return to the trailhead the next day, it is the music of the Sierras that remains with me when I return to civilization, the ancient silence that yields a quiet heart and a peaceful mind, that keeps me right-sized as I walk through an otherwise noisy life.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Poem: Open Water

Open Water

In the open water between kelp beds
just below the bluffs, where the green ocean
usually rolls calmly with the tide,
a thousand sea gulls and pelicans
kamikaze into a bait fish ball
roiling just beneath the surface,
a feeding frenzy both antic and fierce,
as if saved from the brink of starvation.
Then, like a giant mushroom
emerging from loamy soil,
the enormous head of a humpback whale
rises in the midst of the turmoil,
its gaping mouth filled with water and fish,
the birds attacking its wake for leftovers
as it silently recedes and disappears.
I scan for another sighting
rewarded first by the long rolling back and flukes
and then again, in a new location,
the vertical rise of head and mouth.
Further out, a lone humpback
surges north like a locomotive
mist from its spout
lingering above the whitecaps,
elusive like a dream.
Spellbound, I can’t avert my eyes.
It’s like looking at photos
of galaxies and nebulae in deep space,
like hearing the message in great music.
It’s to know without knowing,
to ask questions and lean into the mystery
without expecting an answer
and not really wanting one

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Poem: Cutting Lettuce

Cutting Lettuce: June 27, 2012

Today is my wife’s and son’s birthday.
Twenty-three years ago, when my wife was thirty-three,
the doctor lifted him from her and proclaimed,
“What a little porker!” “Hey,” I objected,
“that’s my son you’re talkin’ about!”
“George!” the other doctor scolded.
My wife left for work at ten this morning.
My son at eleven to go surfing with a friend.
Me, a year removed from locking my office door
for the last time, wrote, practiced saxophone,
cut lettuce on the garden terrace
in our compact backyard.
Doves drank from the birdbath
and pecked seeds from the feeder.
Our gray yard cat, Otis, flowed
down the terrace levels like water.
All the while, a perfect blue sky
and warm sun lovingly bathed
my creaky bones and achy joints.
Later we will eat cake and celebrate.
What will the next year bring?
I don’t need or want to know.
I think I’ll be here for now.

Olympic Moment

Recently published at the story telling website BOBB:

What was your Olympic moment? I don’t mean the day you went for the gold, although you may have had one of those, but the day you watched an Olympic event, either in person or on TV, and it changed your life?
Mine happened as a twelve-year-old watching the Rome Olympics on TV in 1960. Imperial Bodyguard Abebe Bikila, a last minute addition to the Ethiopian Olympic team, won the marathon in record time…in his bare feet.  It was the first Olympic Gold Medal ever won by a Sub-Saharan athlete.  I watched the race on my parents’ newly purchased Zenith color console at our home in Philadelphia.
The 1960 marathon started and ended at the Arch of Constantine, next to the Colosseum. In a spectacular and mesmerizing display of romance and artistry, the last few miles of the race were run in the dark with only occasional spotlights to illuminate the course. Bikila, tall and graceful in red shorts and green singlet, the Ethiopian colors, out sprinted his lone challenger to the finish line and through the Arch, the lights of the Colosseum behind him.  Bikila became my hero and I vowed to someday run a marathon and win a medal of my own.
Bikila won the marathon again at the Tokyo Olympics in 1964.  In 1969 he was paralyzed in an accident while driving the Volkswagen Bug given to him by Haile Selassie for his Olympic conquests.  The accident occurred when he swerved to avoid student protesters on the streets of Addis Ababa. He died of complications in 1973. He was only 41.
On December 18, 1983, three days before the birth of my son Willie, I ran my first marathon, finishing in three hours and twenty-six minutes.  I dedicated my training and race to my wife, my unborn son, and my inspiration, the great Olympian, Abebe Bikila. A few months later I was fortunate to be in the Los Angeles Colosseum when Joan Benoit won the first women’s Olympic Marathon. The temperature was in the 90’s but I remember getting the chills as she entered the stadium and circled the track to the finish line, tens of thousands of fans on their feet cheering as she passed.
What was your Olympic moment? BOBB and I would love to know.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Movie Review: The Intouchables

Any movie with a soundtrack that includes Vivaldi, Nina Simone, and Earth, Wind and Fire can't be all bad. "The Intouchables," starring Fracois Cluzet and Omar Cy, lurches dangerously close to cloying sentimentality and racial sterotyping, but thanks to performances by Cluzet and Cy that transcend the cliches, it survives as a first rank, life affirming, feel good movie. Philippe, played by Cluzet (a Dustin Hoffman lookalike) is a rich quadriplegic Frenchman who needs round-the-clock care and has the money to pay for it. Driss, played by Cy, is an African immigrant recently released from jail after serving six months for robbery. Driss is applying for jobs, knowing he'll be rejected, but it's the only way he can apply for public assistance. Philippe, impressed by Driss's energy, honesty and political incorrectness, hires him and thus begins a beautiful relationship in which each learns from the other (hence Vivaldi vs. Earth, Wind and Fire). Cy is luminous from start to finish, like Usain Bolt in a starring film roll, and Cluzet is amazing with only his head, eyes and smile to work with. There are some wonderful set pieces that work perfectly, including a hilarious trip to the opera, and the usual complications that attempt to give some depth to the characters, but in the end it's a "buddy picture" starring unlikely buddies from opposite ends of the cultural spectrum who find common humanity somewhere in the middle. When I saw it, everyone applauded when the credits rolled. Check it out.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Poem: There is No Comparing

There is no comparing

There is no comparing
A gunman who unleashes deadly fury
in a crowded movie theater
killing many people
and injuring many more
A revered coach who covers up
repulsive crimes against children
and after his death has his bronze statue
removed from public view
A golfer who blows a big lead
on the final holes of the British Open
while millions watch on TV
and pity his stunned disappointment
A friend who turns to face the sea
just as two dolphins leap
and describe a perfect arc
as they pass each other in mid-air
Physicists who rejoice at the discovery
of the God particle that explains mass
and reminds us once again
that the gunmen, coach,
golfer, friend, dolphin
are all just the same:
Protons, neutrons, electrons
and empty space.
There is no comparing

Movie Review: Beasts of the Southern Wild

I used to tell my students that one way to determine one's quality of life is to receive a stimulus (song, painting, poem, film, etc.) and then see how many references it activates as it bounces around one's brain. Many references, high quality. While watching "Beasts of the Southern Wild," and thinking about it later, the references were numerous. I thought of Max from "Where the Wild Things Are," the denizens of Cannery Row from Steinbeck's famous work, Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County, James Lee Burke's Robicheaux novels, Delta blues and more. In other words, "Beasts" was a rich experience for me, a gumbo made of ferocity, love, longing, extreme poverty, fantasy and hope. Hushpuppy, played by the unknown and astoundingly vital child actor, Quvenzhan√© Wallis, lives with her alcoholic, terminally ill father in the "Bathtub," a group of small impoverished Gulf of Mexico islands on the wrong side of the levee. Every action in Hushpuppy's life requires extreme physical exertion and confrontations with danger just to survive, but she is driven by an intuitive understanding that everything is connected and that reconnecting those driven apart by poverty, sickness, environment and loss is the only way to survive the chaos waiting to be unleashed at any given moment. Determined to find her mother and save her father, Hushpuppy battles overwhelming odds and we silently cheer for her at every minute. This is a courageous movie made on a small budget that deserves to be seen by anyone who admires honest film making, and it doesn't hurt that it comes along when so much is in doubt in these fragile times.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Love and Happiness Recipe

This short piece was published on the website on 7/17/12

Love and Happiness Recipe

My wife and I celebrated our thirty-first anniversary on July 18th. Recently, our oldest son, our daughter-in-law and our one and only granddaughter visited from Boston. The whole family gathered for four joyous days. If there is a recipe for love and happiness, from July 7th to July 11th it looked like this:
Take one beautiful wife and add three handsome, healthy loving sons. Stir in one beautiful daughter-in-law, one beautiful fianc√© and one beautiful girlfriend. Season with one beautiful, heart-melting granddaughter and two loyal, affectionate grandogs. Add one proud and grateful husband-father-grandfather. Blend all together for a long weekend of food, friends and fun at the beach. Serves nine to your heart’s delight.
Feeling love and seeing it in action is a grand feast of heart and soul. The recipe isn’t the same for everyone, but it tastes so good when you get it right.
Bon appetit! 

Movie Review: Your Sister's Sister and Safety Not Guaranteed

I'm reviewing both of these films at the same time because they have a lot in common. First of all, they are both set in and around Seattle, which means they look the same: green, woodsy, wet, three layers cold and like living inside a cotton ball. Apparently the sun only shines in those parts for dramatic sunsets. Second, one of the actors in the films, Mark Duplass, appears in both of them, and in both he has a distinctly green, woodsy and wet appearance, favoring jeans, hooded sweatshirts under denim jackets, moppy brown hair and a slightly dumpy face and body, although more dumpy in "Your Sister's Sister." Third, all of the major characters, including two charmingly attractive women, Audrey Plaza (Safety) and Emily Blunt (Sister), suffer from melancholy, depression, mild hysteria or outright delusion based on some kind of real or perceived loss: a spouse, a lover, a sibling, a parent,  the image of a perfect girl-friend, or youth. In an article I read recently, I encountered the word "adultesence," defined as the modern phenomenon of having adolescence stretch beyond college and into adulthood. To one degree or another, most of the adults in these two films fit that description. Finally, both of these indie style comedies reach similar conclusions in different ways. In "Safety," the world is disappointing and screwed up and the only way it can be fixed is by intense and eccentric dedication to a screwball idea, like time travel, or to the delusional but charismatic person who believes in it. In "Sister," the world is disappointing and screwed up and it takes three damaged people (and one big surprise), to figure out how to live in it. Both of these films were enjoyable, but if I only had enough money to buy one ticket, I'd choose "Safety Not Guaranteed." It takes more risks,  has a better script, is less predictable and more eccentrically funny, and Audrey Plaza is terrific. You have to love a character who says about her view of the world, "I expect the worst and then I try not to get my hopes up."

Monday, July 9, 2012

Book Review: The English Major by Jim Harrison

Cliff is a sixty-year-old farmer and former high school English teacher from upper Michigan. His wife of thirty-eight years is divorcing him, he's had to auction off the farm, which belonged to his wife's father, and his beloved dog, Lola, has died. What's a man to do? Why, go on a road trip of course.

Cliff's humorous, self-deprecating first person narrative, woven with country wisdom, quotes from his favorite poets, and R rated advice from his friend AD (alcoholic doctor), takes the reader west to Washington, south to Arizona and New Mexico, back north through the Rockies and home again to Michigan. Along the way Cliff reconnects with a former favorite student, Marybelle, now forty-three, frisky and, it turns out, delusional; his successful gay son living in San Francisco; on old friend harboring a recovering female meth addict on a snake farm in New Mexico; a stunning teenage waitress in Bozeman; and numerous other characters of the American west.

Cliff fishes, hikes, takes pictures of cattle, passes judgement on roadside cafe cuisine and free associates about life, time passing, loss and the remaining prospects for a man in later middle age, already consigned by younger women to "the biological dumpster." I laughed out loud often enough for my wife to say "Cut that out" because I was breaking her concentration when we were laying in bed reading at night. I wouldn't necessarily say that "The English Major" is a man's novel, but my guess is that women might not find it as humorous or charmingly elegaic, especially if they've spent the bulk of their lives living with someone who loosely fits Cliff's personality and behavior. I loved the book as did seven of the eight men in my book club. But then again, I'm a sixty-three-year-old former high school English teacher! Take a chance on Cliff. High reward, low risk.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Movie Review: Moonrise Kingdom

The Kids Get It Right

In Wes Anderson's "Moonrise Kingdom," two twelve-year-olds run away, enjoy an innocent romance, get caught, and in the process transform the lives of the repressive, or absent, adults who have abandoned them emotionally up until this point in their lives. You may be thinking, "I think I'm familiar with this plot line," but trust me, you've never seen it as inventively, beautifully,  whimsically, or intelligently portrayed as in this wonderful fantasy, all of it shot on an island off the coast of New England, like Prospero's enchanted island in "The Tempest." Many fine actors do good work, including Bill Murray and Frances McDormand as the lawyer parents of Suzy, Bruce Willis as the island police chief, Edward Norton as a cigarette smoking Khaki Scout leader, Tilda Swinton as Social Services (her name, not her title), and Bob Balaban, a narrator dressed inexplicably like a gnome. There's one more surprise, almost inexplicable appearance, which I won't spoil. But the real stars are Jared Gilman as Sam and Karen Hayward as Suzy. They are an unlikely couple, with Sam in his big owl-like glasses and Suzy in her 1965 era Carnaby street dress and blue eyeshadow, but think back, remember your first love, and be assured that Sam and Suzy convince the audience that they're meant to be together, like Romeo and Juliet in Zefferelli's version. The cinematography is clever but not tricky, and the music is perfect. Don't miss this terrific film by one of America's best directors. And stay until the end of the credits for a lovely musical surprise!

Freedom Fighters

This story was published on the website on July 3, 2012

Freedom Fighters

By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood,
And fired the shot heard round the world.

-       From “The Concord Hymn” by Ralph Waldo Emerson

On April 19, 1775, 500 militia and minutemen defeated 700 regular British troops at the North Bridge in Concord, Massachusetts. Forty-nine Americans and seventy-three British soldiers died, and the Americans harassed the British along the Battle Road all the way back to Charlestown. So began the American Revolution and the eventual establishment of one of the world’s greatest democracies.

On May 17th of this year, during a trip to Boston to visit my son, my daughter-in-law, and our three-month-old granddaughter, my wife and I walked part of the Battle Road between Lexington and Concord and spent over an hour at the area around North Bridge in Minuteman Park.  Although I grew up in Philadelphia and visited its historic sites, including Valley Forge, many times, never before did I feel the powerful spirit of the Revolution that I felt on the battlefield of Concord. Never before did I fully understand the great gift those brave men gave us on that unforgettable day two-hundred-and-thirty-seven years ago.

Maybe it was because my granddaughter was with me, or maybe because it was a pristinely beautiful spring day, but I was completely alive to the heroics that took place on that field, able almost to see the troops, hear the shouts and musket fire, and smell the smoke rising from the hollow along the Concord River.  It seemed miraculous to me that the farmers who took up arms to defend their freedom were willing to sacrifice their lives for it, as if they somehow knew the historic importance of what they were doing.

America is not right now experiencing one of its greatest eras, and it is easy to become cynical and pessimistic about the future. But on this 4th of July, 2012, I am going to remember the feeling I had at Concord, the pride I felt in being an American, and the debt of gratitude I owe to the nameless heroes who fought for the freedom my family enjoys today.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Saxophone Jones

This is one of a series of weekly posts for the website BOBB at

Saxophone Jones

MONDAY, April 25 (HealthDay News) -- Music lessons may help keep the brain healthy as people grow older, a new study suggests.
I’ve been noodling around on the guitar since the 60’s, and while I can competently strum some chords and sing a few songs without disturbing the neighborhood cats, I’m not a musician. But, by degrees, I’m moving in that direction.
A long time jazz fan, years ago I bought a tenor saxophone at a local pawn shop and swore I’d learn to play. From time-to-time I’d take it out of its tattered case and work my way through some of the exercises in the Belwin Saxophone Method book I purchased, but soon I’d run out of motivation and go back to plunking the guitar. I’d blame it on being too busy with work, children, lack of natural talent, or just plain laziness.
All that changed when I retired.  I decided it was now or never. I hired a teacher, started taking lessons, practicing daily and learning to read music. A few months ago I played “Happy Birthday” at a friend’s party and recently I played “Summer Time” at a going away party for friends leaving on a one year, round-the-world adventure. I am not now, nor will I ever be, a threat to Stan Getz or Lester Young, two of my tenor heroes, but I’m improving all the time.
I’ve told my sons that I plan to live and torment them until I’m at least ninety. I want to know how it’s all going to turn out for them. I figure playing the saxophone will keep my brain healthy and help me achieve my goal. My teacher says I’m almost ready to play in the back row of the County Band. I think I get to wear a royal blue blazer and maybe a funny hat. Does it get any better than that?

Monday, June 11, 2012

Article: Grey Eagle

John Nicholson
Grey Eagle
Published in June 2012 issue of "Journal Plus: The Magazine of the Central Coast" 

Last night I announced to the American people that the North Vietnamese regime had conducted further deliberate attacks against U.S. naval vessels operating in international waters, and therefore directed air action against gunboats and supporting facilities used in these hostile operations. This air action has now been carried out with substantial damage to the boats and facilities. Two U.S. aircraft were lost in the action. President Johnson’s Message to Congress, August 5, 1964
            Until his A-4 Skylark actually left the flight deck of the USS Constellation, Navy fighter pilot John Nicholson thought it was another drill.  He and fellow crew members were on deck watching a “B” movie, “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes,” when he was ordered to find two other pilots, change to flight gear and report to the flight deck. Their mission was to provide air cover for two American destroyers under attack in the Gulf of Tonkin, off the coast of Vietnam.  It’s not in the history books, but San Luis Obispo resident John Nicholson was the first Navy pilot in the air on the night of the Gulf of Tonkin Incident, the official start of America’s war against North Vietnam.
            The next day, following direct orders from President Johnson, American planes attacked North Vietnam.  In what turned out to be a critically important day for Nicholson, his wingman and friend, Everett Alvarez, nicknamed Alvy by the other pilots, was shot down and became the first American prisoner of war.  John would not see Alverez again for eight-and-a-half years. 
            Nicholson was born in 1930 in Bombay, India, where his father worked for the Goodyear tire and rubber company. He lived there until 1936 when the family moved to South Africa. Worried that he was “going native,” John’s parents shipped him back to the US in 1945. He arrived in New York on the day an Army B-25 bomber smashed into the Empire State Building. It wouldn’t be the last time John’s major life events coincided with famous historical moments. 
            John finished high school in Ohio and attended Oberlin College where he studied engineering and met his wife of sixty years, Evie, who studied classical piano in Oberlin’s famous music program.  Evie still entertains family and friends with expert performances of Beethoven and other famous composers. They had four daughters between 1954 and 1959: Paula, twins Jacqueline and Jennifer, and Eve.  John and Evie have nine grandchildren and six great grandchildren.  They were all smiles when talking about their large and close family.
            Following his retirement from the Navy in 1976, John taught high school for eighteen years in Sanger, California, and served as Superintendent for the Sanger School District for one year. He helped many students gain admission to the United States Naval Academy, and today they call him to say that the legacy continues: now their children are attending the Academy.
            John joined the Navy because he had an interest in flying but also because he saw that men he admired had fought in two wars, WWII and Korea, and he wanted to do his patriotic duty.  Also, his father had been General Douglas MacArthur’s chauffeur during WWI. John committed his allegiance to honoring the chain of command, and even though he had no ROTC or Naval Academy background, he advanced to the rank of Captain, and in 1973 became the Commander-in-Chief of the aircraft carrier, USS Ranger, on which he had served as a combat pilot in 1969. Not surprisingly, John Nicholson loves a challenge, a word that to him is synonymous with fun. But not all challenges are fun, especially when the life of a friend is at stake.
            As Nicholson approached the Vietnam coastline on August 5th,  he remembers looking at the mountains near the Chinese border and thinking they looked just like the calendars hanging in his childhood home: dark green, mist shrouded, mysterious.  When his target was abruptly changed from Wallu, near the Chinese border, to the docks of Hon Gai, he focused on his mission.
            He saw flak after a successful bombing run in the harbor, and then he heard a “may day” call from his friend Alvy, who was hit and had to eject. Low on fuel, Nicholson came around once to check on his friend, but then headed back to the carrier. His last words to Alvy were “You know what to do.” For the next eight-and-a-half years, Nicholson was focused and motivated by his friend’s capture. “That was my challenge. It might not have been fun, but as long as he was a POW, I was not going to quit anything.”
            Deployed in the Vietnam conflict until 1973, Nicholson flew over 100 combat missions, the most memorable a mission that never happened. It was April 1, 1968, and he was scheduled to attack Hanoi.  He was extra keyed up because he had the premonition that he wouldn’t return, as strong a feeling as he’d ever had in his life. At the last moment a voice announced over the intercom that the mission had been cancelled, followed shortly by “April Fools!” Nicholson came unglued, and he didn’t settle down until the perpetrator of the joke apologized and made it clear that the mission really had been cancelled. Once again, Nichoson’s life intersected with history: President Johnson had just announced that he would not seek reelection and military operations were suspended that day.
            Following the Paris Peace Accords in 1973, 591 American POW’s were released during Operation Homecoming. John Nicholson was at Hickam Air Force Base in Honolulu when Alvy Alverez’s plane landed, en route to the US. It was 3:00 AM and at first John was told he would not be able to see his friend until after a long debriefing, but he persuaded the security personnel to give him thirty minutes alone with Alvy. When he saw Alvarez approach, he went to give him a bear hug, but Alvy flinched. “He was nothing but skin and bones,” said Nicholson. “He had suffered horribly during all those years at the Hanoi Hilton.”
            After both had recovered from the shock, the first thing Alvarez said was “What did you mean by ‘You know what to do?’ I’ve been thinking about that since 1964.” After that they talked nonstop until it was time for Alvy to go.  Still friends after all these years, they see each other periodically. Divorced by his first wife while held captive, Alvy married the stewardess he met on the flight from Hawaii to the United States. Nicholson’s comment? “You don’t waste any time, do you Alvy.” You can imagine his response.
            While commanding the USS Ranger early in 1976, an admiral insisted that Nicholson hold a flight drill during heavy weather.  John argued, but the admiral ordered him to put planes in the air. Certain that planes would crash and lives would be lost, Captain Nicholson asked the ship’s chaplain to join him in the command center overlooking the deck and pray for the pilots. As predicted, an approaching jet hit the fantail of the carrier. Miraculously, the cockpit detached and started skidding across the flight deck, prompting the startled chaplain to pronounce, “Lordy, Lordy!” The pilots ejected before hitting the tower. One landed on the deck and received minor injuries, while the other landed in the ocean and was recovered unhurt by a destroyer. 
            The challenge was no longer fun for John Nicholson. Even though promotion to admiral was possible, he announced his resignation from the Navy, but, true to his character, he commanded the Ranger until the completion of its mission in September.
            Most of us observe history from a distance. John Nicholson, also known as Grey Eagle when he was flying, made history. To learn more about this remarkable man, visit his website at

Poem: Seeing


Walking the Bob Jones Trail along the creek to Avila Beach,
surrounded most of the time by deep June green,
I see a huge, ancient oak tree, it’s lower trunk
and massive gnarled roots encased in rock and dirt,
the Mother Tree as it’s known to some,
its many limbs signaling its gender,
offspring scattered on the hillside below the Buddhist Temple
I see pods of young mothers pushing strollers,
their voices animated with excitement about life and babies,
the passion of their common bond,
small feet kicking from the shadows of their safe ride.
I see a sycamore leaning low across the creek,
a leafy branch parting the slow current
like a parasoled woman trailing her hand
over the side of a boat on a Sunday afternoon.
I see snowy egrets and blue herons
hanging out around the dam and steelhead ladder,
motionless and patient like images in an Audubon painting.
I see, as I walk out of the woods and past a golf course,
a white ball roll to a stop in the long green grass
beneath the gently waving limbs of a willow tree.
I see, at the beach, sun bathers
stretched out sleepily on the warm sand
or strolling along the water’s edge
the cold June surf splashing around their ankles.
I see the pier reaching out and receding across the water
like a lesson in perspective, and I see the horizontal triptych
of sand, sea and sky like a Rothko I saw at MOMA years ago.
It’s not always like this. My mind doesn’t always
clear enough space for my vision. But today,
in the shelter of the woods, or as sudden gusts
whip stinging sand across my legs on the beach,
I get to see, to really see, and it feels good.