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.