Monday, April 30, 2012

Vacation Story

How I Spent…
            With summer approaching, I recall a memorable vacation my family took in 1964.  My father, a captain in the Philadelphia Fire Department, decided it would be a good idea to visit Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. A high school classmate of mine had moved there, which seemed to be the only motivation he needed to suggest the most ambitious adventure we had ever undertaken.
            I was fifteen when my parents, my younger brother and my sixty-four-year-old grandmother, Nanny Jones, and I piled into the only car we owned, a ’61 two-tone Chevy Biscayne, a cheaper model with a “three-on-the tree” manual transmission. No air conditioning. Think about it: twenty-five hundred round trip miles through the south in the hottest, muggiest month of the year.  
            The outbound trip is a story in itself. Details include mechanical failure, wrong turns on blue highways in Georgia, withering temperatures, and all five of us sleeping in the same motel room at night.  Dad and Nanny competed to see who snored the loudest.
            We arrived in Ft. Lauderdale with no reservations, but found wonderful accommodations right on the beach at the Sandy Shoes motel in Ft. Lauderdale-by-the-Sea. I visited my friend, and we enjoyed the warm water, but on the third day a hurricane blew in.  It was spectacular to watch the storm develop, but not so hot when we had to evacuate to a motel across the road, away from the ocean surge.  Torrential rain followed howling winds. We watched part of a roof blow down the street. The next morning there were fish in the swimming pool and the beach was essentially gone. A day later we had to pack up and head for home.
            We caught the storm in Georgia and struggled through wind and rain for two more days.  Right after we arrived, riots broke out in the city, the rest of my father’s vacation was canceled and we didn’t see him for a week. In late September our beloved Phillies blew a six game lead over the last ten days of the season and missed going to the World Series by a game or two.  My grandfather, Nanny Jones’s husband, died in November, around the time I was practicing to get my driver’s license. He was sixty-three, the same age I am now.
            Mom and dad are gone, and my three sons are grown men. I wonder what vacations stories they’ll tell their children?

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Reflection: You Don't Need a Weatherman

You Don’t Need a Weatherman
            I was new in town, new, in fact, to California, so I was still getting used to the idea that months could pass without any significant rainfall. The green on the hillsides surrounding San Luis Obispo came mostly from scattered oak trees and patches of cactus. The grasses had long turned brown, or golden, if you’re a romantic. Having previously lived in Pennsylvania and Colorado, where rain and snow were abundant, it actually made me a little sad and anxious to think that afternoon thunderstorms and beautiful snowfalls were a thing of the past.
            So I was excited on the morning in early October when heavy clouds blew in and I could smell rain in the air. I had some business downtown at the post office, only a few blocks from my apartment, and as I walked the wind started to blow and fallen leaves started skittering across the street and sidewalk. There was something about the wind that got my attention, but I couldn’t figure out what it was. I just knew that something unusual was occurring.
            I stood in the post office line behind an older man wearing a plaid jacket. His face was tan and lined, and I noticed that his right arm hung limply at his side, a large, working man’s hand protruding from his sleeve. When he turned slightly, I caught his eye, smiled, and made a comment about the impending change in the weather.  I said I’d been in town for close to three months and had yet to see a drop of rain, only mist and dew from the occasional overnight marine layer.
            “That’s the way it is here,” he said. “Almost all of our rain happens between October and April.” I mentioned that sometimes there were clouds but no rain, something I found disappointing, and then he related the first piece of local knowledge I’d heard regarding the weather. “Check the flags when the wind starts to blow. Normally they’re blowing toward the south, but when they turn around and start blowing toward Morro Bay, rain is certain.”
            When I left the post office I checked the American flag flying on the pole out front, and sure enough it was blowing north.  As I turned the corner and started home, the storm broke and I was looking for cover as I dodged and darted down the street back to my apartment, smiling all the way.  I was soaked but happy when I reached my front door.
            I’ve lived in San Luis Obispo for a long time now, and I enjoy anticipating the first few drops that signify the arrival of a replenishing, soaking rain. I saw my weather mentor a few more times around town over the years, but we never spoke again and I never learned his name. But the information he gave me made me feel like I belonged, like I was no longer an interloper looking for the California good life.  Now, when the opportunity presents itself, when the sky darkens and the wind starts blowing north, I say to newcomers or visiting friends, “Do you know how you can tell for sure if it’s going to rain?” And I remember that small but important moment in the post office, the moment when my new town became my home.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

My Hero: Jamie Moyer

My Hero: Jamie Moyer 

For kids growing up on my block in Philadelphia during the 50’s and early 60’s, two facts of life were predetermined: going to Catholic school and rooting for the Phillies, the hometown baseball team.  I long ago parted ways with the church, but, at sixty-three, I am still a loyal fan, even though I’ve lived in California for almost thirty-three years. I’m the guy wearing the red hat with the ‘P’ on it at Dodgers and Giants games.
The Phillies were dreadful for most of my youth and for most of their one-hundred-twenty-nine year history.  Not long ago they became the first professional sports franchise to lose ten thousand games. Ten thousand!  But no matter what happens between now and when my time comes, the fan in me will die happy because the Phillies won the World Series twice during my adult years, 1980 and 2008, the only times they’ve ever been champions. 
That means fans born in 1883, the team’s first season, had to live until they were ninety-seven to see them win. If you don’t think that’s a tragedy for an avid baseball fan, talk to Cubs fans who have been waiting since 1908, one-hundred-and-four seasons, for a winner. In recent years Phillies fans have been spoiled silly: five division titles, two trips to the World Series and one championship since 2007.  The Cubs have not even played in the Series since 1945.
So now that I’ve established my credentials as a die-hard baseball fan, here’s what this article is really about: last night, April 17, 2012, Jamie Moyer, a former Phillie who now plays for the Colorado Rockies, won his 268th big league game, tying him with Hall of Famer Jim Palmer for 34th on the all-time wins list. He gave up two unearned runs in seven innings and his fastball never broke seventy-eighty-miles-per-hour. If you’ve ever been on the freeway doing seventy-five and had a car roar by at ninety, then you understand the difference between Moyer’s fastball and the fastball of most major league pitchers. And here’s the truly amazing fact: Jamie Moyer is forty-nine years old, the oldest pitcher to win a game in major league history!
Jamie Moyer has pitched for eight teams over twenty-five seasons. He attended St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, signed a contract for a bonus of $13,000 and made it to the majors when he was twenty-three. Despite a poor record over his first few years, he hung on, mastered the art of slow, slower, slowest and won most of his games after he turned thirty-five. In 2010 he was the oldest pitcher to throw a complete game shutout.  Even after missing 2011 with a complete tear of an elbow ligament, he battled back this spring to earn a spot in the Rockies rotation.
Now for the best part.  Jamie Moyer and his wife Karen have eight children. They adopted their two youngest daughters from Guatemala. Jamie has won every possible philanthropic and community service award given by Major League Baseball. Karen and Jamie started the Moyer Foundation and established Camp Erin, a bereavement camp for children who have lost someone close to them, in every MLB city in the country; Camp Mariposa, for children whose parents suffer from alcohol and/or drug addiction; and they partner with other programs to fund countless community grants, all of which support children. They have done all of this while raising their children, moving from city to city, and having Jamie on the road for half of each season.
When he was trying out for the Rockies this spring, Moyer said he came to camp to find out if he had the desire and the stuff to continue playing. “If I didn’t try it, I think I’d always be wondering. And I don’t like living my life that way.”
Somehow I think that last statement applies to everything Jamie Moyer does.  And as he proved once again on Tuesday night, he has the stuff.  Jamie Moyer is my hero.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Article: Journey to Responsibility

Eric Prater: Superintendent of the San Luis Coastal Unified School District
Journey to Responsibility
“I knew I was breaking my father’s heart when I told him I was leaving the family business to pursue a career in education. It wasn’t easy for him, but he embraced the struggle I was experiencing and supported me.”
The best stories often include unexpected twists and turns resulting from the protagonist’s inner conflicts.  In 1989, with a degree in economics from St. Mary’s College in Moraga, Eric Prater went to work for his father’s business, managing the investment branch of the company. But something was missing in his life and he knew it.  A conflict grew between loyalty to his family and his desire to help others, particularly children.
Self-described as a “people person,” Eric volunteered at a local elementary school. He remembered attending YMCA camp in Michigan, where his family lived until he was in 7th grade, and the impact a camp counselor had on him. “His name was Steve, and he had the ability to make each kid feel special. He brought out the best in me. He was positive, team oriented and I wanted to bring those qualities to my work.”  By the spring of 1991 Eric knew he had to make a career change, and the difficult conversation with his father followed.
Eric’s father William, an environmental scientist who worked on a project to clean up the Great Lakes, started a research firm in Ann Arbor. Eventually the company expanded and went public, and the family moved to Danville, California. Analytical Science Associates was involved in projects like investigating ground water pollution in Silicon Valley. Eric’s mother Linda, a math major in college, was ASA’s accountant, making it truly a family affair.  

A three sport athlete, Eric attended Monte Vista High School in San Ramon Valley, where he also played trumpet in the marching band. He had an opportunity to walk on as a basketball player at St. Mary’s but chose to focus on academics.
Following his decision to leave ASA, Eric taught English in Spain for a summer, an experience he calls “transformational.” He returned to St. Mary’s to participate in an accelerated one year program to earn a multiple subject credential. At a career fair he was offered a job teaching 5th grade in Byron, California.
As well as teaching his 5th grade class, Eric also taught algebra and coached basketball, softball, and flag football at the 5-8 middle school. Fully acknowledging “not knowing what I didn’t know,” one day Eric went to a local elementary school to use the die cut machine to make decorations for his classroom. A first grade teacher walked into the teacher’s work room, noticed he was having problems, and pointed out that he was putting the paper in the wrong slot. It was his first meeting with his future wife, Sherri.
When the principal of his school was diagnosed with cancer in 1996, Eric was asked to fill in for a month or two as a “teacher on special assignment.” Before the end of the year the staff and superintendent asked him to stay in the position permanently. He said yes and was on the road to his career as an educational leader. He completed his administrative credential and master’s degree, got married, and in 1999 moved to Tracy to be vice-principal of a large middle school with abundant academic and social problems.
In 2000 a call from the Brentwood Unified School District led to Eric becoming principal of Edna Hill Middle School. His challenge was to convert it from 5-6 to 6-8 and design a curriculum for a diverse school with a large economically disadvantaged student population. He was so successful that in 2006 Edna Hill was named a national model middle school.
By 2007 Eric had three children and had finished his Doctorate in Education.  He was contacted by an educational consultant and encouraged to apply for the superintendent position in Byron, his old school district. He was hired and remained in Byron until 2010, when what he described as an “Eric my boy, I have the perfect job for you,” call came from a consultant hired by San Luis Coastal Unified School District (SLCUSD) to search for a new district leader.  After a lengthy hiring process, the Board chose Eric to lead the district. The Prater family moved to San Luis Obispo, Eric is now in his second year as superintendent, and his family has made the adjustment to its new environment.
Sherri Prater is a reading specialist who for ten years has worked for the Rio Valley Independent Home School Charter. Their three sons, Thomas, Andrew and Matthew are 11, 9 and 4.  Thomas, in5th grade at Los Ranchos Elementary, participates in Junior Life Guards and is a voracious reader.  Andrew, also at Los Ranchos, is in 3rd grade and enjoys 4H and flag football.  Matthew attends the United Methodist Church preschool and loves hanging out with his brothers.
Eric told me that it is a constant struggle to balance family and work responsibilities. “I have to be super disciplined to be ‘all in’ in both capacities. I have to remain focused so that time doesn’t get away from me.”  Sherri and he make sure they have family dinners at least two to three times on weekdays and get out for hikes and other family activities on the weekend.  Most mornings Eric, who holds a 3rd degree black belt in karate, is up at five and in the garage to stretch, run on the treadmill, and do some light weight lifting.

Eric cited A. J. Cronin’s The Keys of the Kingdom as his favorite novel, and missionary priest Father Francis Chisholm, its central character, as an early inspiration. Chisholm perseveres through much hardship in the Chinese province where he is assigned.  Despite many humbling experiences, he never loses his dignity or his genuine care for others.
“From Chisholm and others I learned the importance of trusting people, beginning with the end in mind, gathering together a group of people with a similar level of care and belief, and taking risks in order to succeed. I hope that what I’m doing is robust and earnest enough that people will want to follow.” Eric believes that San Luis Coastal has an advantage because it has traditionally been run well and experienced success, but he believes it can function at a higher level.
            Following Eric’s guidance and vision, in 2011 the SLCUSD Board of Trustees approved ten initiatives to advance education for all students in the district. In our conversation, Prater pointed out that thirty-seven percent of the students in the district meet federal guidelines as economically disadvantaged, a number that would surprise many.  He is currently most proud of implementing the initiative to open pre-schools at five district elementary schools where there are high concentrations of economically disadvantaged students.
            All of the initiatives are designed to “pull up the blinds, take a close look at what’s happening and get on board to reflect the reality of today’s world.” Coupled with good working conditions and fair compensation, as demonstrated through recently negotiated raises for all district employees, Eric is confident that San Luis Coastal Unified can be a model school district, one that continuously strives to meet the needs of all students.  Superintendent Eric Prater is “all in” in pursuit of that goal.

Article: I Hear Music

I Hear Music 

If you wake up and don't want to smile,
 If it takes just a little while,
 Open your eyes and look at the day,
 You'll see things in a different way.
-          From “Don’t Stop” by Fleetwood Mac 

The San Luis Obispo Art Museum. The Little Theater. The Academy of Dance. The Palm Theater. The Vocal Arts Ensemble.  Followers of the visual and performing arts in San Luis Obispo have instant associations with these centers of culture in our community.  They are part of what makes our town great.  But how many are familiar with the work being done at an equally important local cultural center, the Modern Music Academy, by Darren and Jessie Clarke?
Located at 265 Pacific Street, behind Central Coast Pools, the Modern Music Academy includes ample teaching, practice and performance space as well as a state-of-the art recording studio.  After many years of offering a variety of guitar workshops and other musical collaborations, Darren and Jessie have settled on three primary opportunities for budding music professionals: House of Bands, for 12-16 year old musicians who are comfortable with their instruments; Artist Development and Songwriting, for serious musicians ready to move to the next level; and Songwriting and Music Production for songwriters who want to learn how to produce great music by working with a professional producer.  Darren describes the atmosphere at MMA as “a collaborative community of musicians with its own identity where great musicians show up every day to create amazing music.”
Over nine hundred students have taken classes at MMA. Today the emphasis is on improving skills, working with others, songwriting, getting songs recorded and production work.  “The goal is to optimize the music in your blood, to focus and direct your talent, gain self-esteem, confidence and discipline. There’s nothing better in life than being able to play music,” Darren told me.
The adventure that Darren and Jessie set out on in 2003 to create MMA is the stuff of the American Dream, but like most dreams that involve turning a passion into a small business, their story also includes a certain amount of peril, a lot of hard work, and personal stories that make their achievement even more impressive.
Darren, thirty-eight, born in Newcastle, England, and Jessie, thirty-five, born in Harrowgate, both spent most of their early lives in and around London.  By the time he was thirteen Darren was playing guitar in rock-and-roll bands throughout London, emulating the style of Lindsay Buckingham from Fleetwood Mac, and participating in “the rock and roll lifestyle.” At nineteen he experienced what he calls “a spiritual awakening,” which led him back to Christianity and into writing, playing and recording worship music, which included working and touring with Matt Redman, a well-known modern day hymn writer.  One of Darren’s songs “I Love Your Presence,” has been covered by many bands and has over one million plays on YouTube. In the meantime, and long before they met, Jessie was being raised in a Christian home and singing in the church choir.
Darren, who has a Bachelor of Arts degree in music from the Academy of Contemporary Music in London, became involved in the Vineyard Church in England, and came to San Luis Obispo in 1993 for a three month ministerial training program.  He stayed on to intern at the SLO Vineyard, which included a musical outreach program.  In 1994, when Jessie was sixteen, her father, a pastor, was invited to speak at the SLO Vineyard, so the entire family traveled here. Although she had never met Darren, she knew of him through her sisters who attended school with him in London.  They met one day when, according to Darren, “I was cleaning bathrooms at the San Luis Coastal Adult School cafeteria, where the Vineyard congregation worshipped.” With a smile he added, “It was part of my intern duties.” They became friends and then Jessie and her family returned to England.
Darren became worship director at 5 Cities Vineyard and was busy with outreach and putting together a church band.  Jessie had finished high school and with support from her family and the church she returned to assist Darren through a busy period for what she thought would be a three month visit. However, Vineyard invited her to return as a paid employee and offered to help her get a green card. After one more trip to England to earn money, at twenty she came back to the Central Coast for good.  According to Jessie, “I never expected to live here. I was a home girl, the least outgoing of four siblings.”  After five years of courtship, Darren and Jessie married in 2002.  They have two wonderful children, Reuben, 3, and Talulah, 1.
In addition to working with the church, for the first eighteen months of their marriage Darren toured with a band half of each month.  Modern Music Academy started as Guitar Lab in 2003 with classes at night at the Bagel Café on Higuera Street, moving to Pacific Street in 2004 as the business grew, and becoming the MMA in 2008 when additional space was added.  By then it was a full time job for the Clarkes, including Darren’s work as a producer.
In December I attended an MMA Showcase performance at Kreuzberg Café in San Luis Obispo.  Packed with enthusiastic friends, family and regular patrons, the café rocked with great original music for over two hours, with numerous musicians participating.  Everyone smiled, shouted encouragement and had a good time at what I have come to recognize as a classic SLO community event: phenomenal artistry supported by knowledgeable locals who worship the arts and are eager to help artists succeed.
I recently attended an Artist Development and Songwriting Diploma class and spoke to several of the participating musicians.  San Luis Obispo High School graduate Jeff Mitchell said, “My guitar playing has improved immensely. I’ve been released from the pentatonic box!”  According to Nathan Zak, who, along with Academy student Bri Bloemendahl, co-wrote “You Don’t Believe in Anything,” a catchy indie song recently produced and recorded by Darren, “This is a professional music class where both my playing and theory skills have improved immensely. It includes aspects not offered at Cuesta.” Sidney Willson Young, recovering from cancer, said that the class is “partly therapy, like belonging to a supportive, creative family.” Current student and Morro Bay High School graduate Molly Reeves performs in the popular Red Skunk Band. Students who complete the class earn diplomas from the London Academy of Contemporary Music. Guest lecturers include world famous musicians like Jon Anderson of Yes; local jazz vocalist and guitarist Inga Swearingen; Kenny Lee Lewis, guitarist for the Steve Miller Band; and Terry Lawless, keyboards for U2.  
Darren and Jessie Clarke have created and worked hard to sustain another center for the arts in San Luis Obispo that benefits everyone who comes in contact with them.  While the weak economy has made their road a difficult one over the last couple of years, at MMA they are dedicated to music, teaching and helping musicians fulfill their dreams. As the song says, “Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow.”
 Learn more about MMA and upcoming classes at

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Poem: Brothers


Reunited, you’d been on the town the night before,
But still rose early to tilt with the local waves,
Icy waters chasing the vapors from your foggy heads.
Now, after lunch, I stand in the doorway
And watch you load your ride with surfboards and wetsuits,
The shields and chainmail of your passionate quest.
One fair, one dark, united by blood, love and courage,
About to venture on the grail road together:
Big Sur, Santa Cruz, Half Moon.

“Peace!” you shout as you begin to pull away,
“Love and Truth!” I reply, as you swing a left,
Vanish around the next corner, my heart beating
A little faster as you go.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Role Reversal

Both my younger brother, Kevin, and I left home when we were still in our teens. He settled in New York and I eventually settled in California after a few years in Colorado. Our parents lived first in Philadelphia and then in Norristown, just outside the city.  We visited home as frequently as we could, but from the late sixties and early seventies until both of our parents died, father first in 1999 and mother second in 2009, we were never more than temporary guests. My parents visited me in both of the western states where I lived, but for forty years they mostly stood and waved as I pulled away from the curb in front of their house.  When I was younger I'm sure their thoughts included concerns about my well being and my future, and when I was older happiness about my career and family life. Either way I know they were sad to see me, and later my family, go.

Yesterday I stood in front of my house as I watched two of my sons leave for a surf trip. They were headed up Highway 1 through Big Sur and then on to Santa Cruz. My oldest son lives in Boston with his wife and their two-month-old daughter, our first grandchild. We'll be visiting them in May. At sixty-three, I'm now the waving parent alternating thoughts about safety, future and happiness as I watch my children grow farther and farther into their adult lives. Such bittersweet feelings. Each is his own man, each with unique looks and talents, each fully engaged with life from his own perspective and personality. I'm of two minds when I think about them, both now and as I visualize and dream about their futures: part of me wants them to enjoy their youth but also be planning for a more or less "conventional" life that will make their middle and later years  secure and free from financial fear. The other part of me wants them to live free of convention and create thoughtful lives based on their passions and individuality without succumbing to all of the pressures applied by the oppressive economy of modern life. Somehow, I guess, I want them to have it both ways.

My boys are 31, 28 and 22. Each has started down the road to his future, but they have a long way to go. My path didn't become clear until I was in my middle thirties and later on I had to make some big personal changes to hang on to a good life that was slipping away from me. Today my life is better than I ever could have imagined, and that includes great relationships with my sons. I admire their strength, their courage and their fierce individuality, but I also have those concerns about safety and security that my parents had decades ago as they watched me pull away from the curb without knowing when they might see me again. Our farewell yesterday went like this: my sons waved and called out "Peace!" I replied, "Love and truth!" as they swung a left and soon vanished from my sight, following the grail road to the future.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Poem: Zero to Seventeen in Sixty Seconds

Zero to Seventeen in Sixty Seconds 

I was born in forty-eight. Not much happened
until the fastball crashed against the side of my face,
effectively ending my baseball career at 11,
although I wouldn’t give it up for years.
There were basement dances where the Duprees
“You Belong to Me” and Lee Andrews “Teardrops”
taught us to how slow dance  with Ann Marie and Joanne,
our bodies doing what our minds couldn’t comprehend.
Next, not knowing life was a pinball machine,
I caromed into Mingus, his “Better Git It In Your Soul”
changed everything, made the idea of God seem plausible,
even after all those years with the nuns,  
the sacraments and the catechism. 

High school happened, but all I really remember
is the bus fight with the Germantown brothers,
the sad Friday in ’63 when time stopped,
the glory of breaking the tape
after four laps around the track,
passing the exhausted competition
like they had weights in their shoes;
then steaming a Winston with my buddies
while we waited on the corner for the bus,
our heads pulled down like tough guys,
although back then we were just
skinny Irish kids from the neighborhood,
didn’t know shit from shinola
but thought we were cool anyway. 

Weekends it was cruising
in the two-tone ’56 Buick Special
up and down the avenue looking for Nadine and Sheila,
sucking gas through the four barrel
so fast you could watch the needle drop
right before your poor ass eyes,
everybody pitching in fifty cents
for a couple of cold quarts to pass around
before retreating, alone again on Saturday night,
to Sam and Ben’s deli
near the circle on Castor Avenue
for the runner-up prize, corned beef
piled high on seeded Jewish rye,
a side of slaw and a Tastykake,
the “gives-a-fuck” bravado
of comrades in defeat. 

No satisfaction, man, no satisfaction,
but, you bet your ass,
we’re all in it together,
you bet your fuckin’ ass we are.