Watch The Rack

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Boys and Girls

As a teenager who grew up inside the thrumming pulse of the 1970’s Bronx, I was vaguely aware that local businesses along West Fordham Road offered employment for first-timers, old-timers, and everyone in between. There were shelves to stock, registers to ring, dishes to wash, tables to buss, and bars to tend. Delivery boys navigated streets and stairwells, plastic-wrapped dry-cleaning slung over shoulders as wire hangers dug into fingers and palms. Hustling young men lugged cardboard boxes filled with alcohol and cigarettes to customers who too often lived in an upper floor apartment.

A pageant of high school girls worked behind glass bakery display cases, exchanging numbered slips for white paper bags filled with assorted pastries or kaiser rolls. Square cardboard boxes, expertly tied with red and white twine, sheltered a chocolate layer cake or a pound of cookies. Large vibrating slicers noisily turned fresh-baked rye bread into perfect portions, the short, crusty end pieces given to teething toddlers while older folks enjoyed a more civilized chew. It was hard work, especially on Sundays when Mass let out and parishioners lined up out the door. But boy did it smell great, and even the most downbeat patron couldn’t help but smile at the counter girl as she handed over the treats.

Watch The Rack!

On the corner of Fordham Road and Jerome Avenue stood Loehmann’s, the legendary women’s fashion discounter that drew sharp-eyed shoppers from near and far. It provided me with my first real job and a meaningful introduction to people from different ethnicities and social backgrounds. It was a place where my romantic heart and raging hormones tried to figure out how to get along with each other.

Loehmann’s sold women’s high-quality clothing at reasonable prices. In keeping with the discount business model, the company removed the labels from many garments, but astute buyers identified noted brands by look, texture, and fit.

The sprawling multi-level store filled thousands of square feet with chromed racks of blouses, dresses, slacks, and suits. Cashier stations lined both ends of the upper level. An additional row of registers on the lower floor ran perpendicular to the massive plate glass windows facing Fordham Road.

Tucked into the rear of the second floor, the high-end “Back Room” awaited the sophisticated and perhaps better-off bargain hunter.  

Off to the side, away from the main sales floor, long-faced spouses found a bit of solitude in one of the “husband chairs.”

Staff

The workforce featured scores of part-time employees from across the borough. A good number of them were high school and college students. A team of older women acted as supervisors, assisting shoppers in selecting the right ensemble for an upcoming event, trip, or job interview. The proper and stern Mrs. Schultz ruled over the lower level.

I joined a group of mostly high school boys who worked in the stock room. We endlessly cycled clothing from the fitting rooms to plastic hangars, placing them onto rolling racks that we wheeled out to the showroom floors, accompanied by the call of “watch the rack!”

The best stock boys had the hand/eye coordination of a surgeon, the nimbleness of a shortstop, and the soft skills of a well-seasoned diplomat.

The last thing anyone wanted was a collision between a garment rack and a customer. Still, the caution to “watch the rack!” acted as an alert to shoppers that “more stuff was coming out,” teasing the potential appearance of an elusive Pierre Cardin sweater or a St. Laurent skirt.

Often, I turned back to my cart, dismayed to see the carefully hung and sized clothing ravaged by bargain seekers. When the garment’s actual size didn’t match the shopper’s aspirational vision, it landed, rejected, atop the closest display.

With final selections made – and all sales were final – customers trundled over to one of the register stations and dropped their prizes on the long counter. A cashier grasped the blue tag affixed to each garment, read the price, slid it into the register, rang up the transaction, then inserted the ticket halfway into a metal guillotine and gave the padded handle a quick strike. With a solid “thunk,” the bottom half fell into the metal box while the top remained affixed to the clothing. Experienced cashiers developed a smooth rhythm born of a thousand repetitions. The outstanding ones kept a pleasant dialog going with the customer, with an approving smile that conveyed the sense that a bargain, indeed, had been found.

Faces and Voices

I was familiar with many of my co-workers, while others were new to me. They traveled to work from far-away neighborhoods with names like Soundview, Norwood, Pelham Parkway, and Gun Hill Road. The Catholic Academies – Saint Catherine’s, Mother Butler, and Fordham University’s Rose Hill campus – were well represented.

Many of their surnames ended, rather than started, with vowels. First names were also different, not conforming to the Irish Catholic practice of honoring a Saint. Miriam, Sarah, and Ruth came from a whole other part of the Bible. Puccini gave us a girl named Tosca.

Crucifixes, horn-shaped pendants, and finely crafted stars swayed on delicate gold and silver chains. The iconic Bronx accent carried traces of exotic flavors from far away places. It was all quite intoxicating and distracting to a teenage boy.

One particular girl, an Italian twin from an unfamiliar neighborhood, totally captivated me. Over time the girl, the street, and the world of the Italian family became very familiar. Goodbye Ragu, hello Sunday gravy.

Rhythms

Cultural historians agree that Hip-Hop sprang from the streets of The Bronx. I heard a very different rhythm within the walls of mid-1970’s Loehmann’s.

The soundtrack sat atop the click of metal hangers hitting chromed display bars. The pulsing hi-hat sweetness of swooshing fabrics sliding against each other, punctuated by the pop of round numbered plastic rings sitting between the twos and the fours. Loaded trolleys rumbled on rubber wheels, cueing the relentless call and response of “Watch The Rack – What’s On That Rack?” while a disembodied voice paged for a hangar pickup at register five. Status stood, invitingly, at the velvet-roped entrance to The Back Room.

I shared the energy of every boy and girl who came to their part-time jobs, looking to bring home a paycheck that rarely broke a hundred dollars.

A Different Lens

When I looked outward, I saw a seascape of shoppers who represented a world I hadn’t experienced in my short life. Women of all ages and backgrounds roamed the racks, each looking for the common threads of value and quality. Mothers and daughters from Riverdale wrangled dresses and skirts alongside sisters and aunts from Arthur Avenue. The racks didn’t favor one over another, and everyone was equal in the harsh light of the communal dressing rooms.

Every month or so, Orthodox Jewish women traveled on busses from Brooklyn to The Bronx store. Their clothing, customs, and manners were alien to me. Looking back, I recognize that I and others who grew up in insolated neighborhoods looked at these women with a mix of mistrust, scorn and bigotry; part nature, part nurture, and an outsized portion of ignorance.

That attitude was part of who I was until I found my way clear of the neighborhood and discovered the rest of the world.

More valuable, though not quite realized amid the rush of a hurried life, were the seeds of awareness that took tender root. I just had to learn what was weed and what was flower.

Rest Well, Shirley

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The passing of Shirley Bianchi has me rummaging through my emotional couch cushions, looking for the right thoughts to express her impact on my spirit. I will write only what I know, and trust others will continue to share their memories as the quilt of her life is passed from heart to heart.

Shirley’s inspired political accomplishments are best shared by those who served with her, and those she served. And she served all, whether they voted for her or made other choices.


Courage and tenacity were the calling cards of her endless drive for environmental sanity and preservation. These chapters of a life lived in service are better written by those who sat alongside her, and across the table from her as that particular bit of history was made.

Her never-ending battle for equality, be it gender, economic, or identity, rolled with the force of the ocean. Her positions were delivered with frankness, steeled resolve, honesty, and humor. She wore her heart on her sleeve and her sweatshirt. Her lifetime of love, compassion, and devotion is best reflected in her family, her friendships, and her commitment to her faith.

Photo – Susan McDonald

My lasting memory will be our discussions around that faith. Shirley embraced the Catholic Church willingly, a choice she made later in life. I, conversely, have spent much of my adult life pushing it away, seeing only the wrongs I experienced while force-marched through a very different version of Catholicism. Where I saw fear, bigotry, and a reliance on blind obedience, Shirley embraced the tenets of love, hope, compassion and service.

Through these discussions, it became clear how she achieved so much, and why she was respected, valued, and loved by allies and opponents. Shirley listened quietly, found common ground, and maintained an openness to other points of view. Her stillness and focus sent a calming message that the discussion at hand was important and merited her attention.

I, the spiritual skeptic, recognized just what true grace on earth looks like. I hope to reach for that grace when faced with contention, and be just a little better at finding it in others.

Shirley Bianchi – fierce, gentle, combative, collaborative, relentless, and relenting, lived a long and valuable life with love in her heart and malice for none. There are shades of this grace radiating from her friends, her family, and those who use her as a guide in service to their communities and causes.

May her soul rest in peace, and may Perpetual Light shine on her, now and forever. And may peace be with you.

Go rest high on that mountain, Shirley.

For a fuller overview of Shirley Bianchi’s impact, please read Kathe Tanner’s beautiful piece in the San Luis Obispo Tribune, where those who knew and loved Shirley share their squares of the quilt.

https://www.sanluisobispo.com/article249548528.html



Shirley and Bill Bianchi, a beautiful love story

You Blockhead!

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” I have a weak back,” I said.
“Since when?” she asked.
“About a week back.” I answered gleefully, delivering the punchline.

As an ungracefully aging man, I have come to accept the realities that dumb things happen while doing non-dumb stuff. Give us an example, you say?

While drying off after a shower, I reached just the wrong way, causing every nerve along my lower back to burst into a chorus of something in the key of F*#@!

A simple twist led to over a week of decreased mobility, a glaring reminder of how quickly normalcy can be replaced by dependency. I don’t do a good job of maintaining a civil tongue when in pain or otherwise compromised. My behavior, I am told, often falls squarely between Hickory and Dock. My sometimes colorful exclamations garner some shocked looks and, “Oh, you’re from New York” comments from my California neighbors. Sorry, New York, it can’t be helped.

Baby Steps

After a couple of immobile days, I decided it would be all right to accompany my bride on a quick trip into town, where we did the traditional circling of the post office followed by the always exciting Cookie Crock dash. Fifteen or so minutes of sitting in the car did my back no favors. As I struggled to wiggle /squirm /heave myself upright while keeping the car door from slamming into my shins, I felt the old familiar kettle start to boil. My already-confessed short fuse, combined with the re-aggravated back, caused me another round of jerkery.

“It hurts when I go like that.”
“So, don’t go like that.”

We had pre-determined that we would refill a handful of the plastic water bottles that had piled up in the trunk. This chore, which I usually handle alone, became a bit of a team sport. My wife was being super-efficient, scrubbing every surface within the refill zone with a disinfecting wipe. I just wanted to get the job done in my usual way, which generally involves an elbow, two hands, a couple of pockets to hold the bottle caps, and a boatload of coins to feed the beast. I suppose, in hindsight, I could have explained my method before we started, but I have it on good authority that my style of explanation often elevates me to a second level of obnoxious. Plus, you know, my back hurt.

ANYWAY – things quickly became undone, with bottles in the wrong places, caps falling to the ground, and me not having a boatload of coins. The saint had a few, plus a couple of singles that could be fed into the machine. Rather than being pleased that she was so well prepared, I kicked it up a notch, from jerkery to total hole-ness, snapping “give me the money.”

Witnesses

As I turned away, I noticed two young ladies nearing the store entrance. They stopped and stared, slightly alarmed at the sight of a masked, cranky old guy snarling “give me the money” at a genteel, grey-haired woman holding a change purse and an empty plastic bag. We continued filling the bottles, and I didn’t give a second thought to the poor girls who possibly thought they were witnessing some type of street crime. It was only later, having moved from cranky to mortified, did I reflect on what went down at water world. 

Mea Culprit

So, to the two young ladies, and anyone else who may have witnessed my whiny, irrational, presidential-level hissy fit – I apologize. But you know, my back hurt…

sawstars

I saw stars.

Shaken and Stirred

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Oh, Danny Boy

As a young child, upon hearing the song “Danny Boy” I would almost immediately devolve into a sobbing, tearful, emotional mess. Perhaps it was the way it was sung, often by my mother and a host of Irish relatives, some immigrant, some first generation. I hadn’t been alive long enough to understand the connection between music, lyric, and story. I just felt the melancholy, hope, and fatalism of the song. I was an old soul in a young body.

A lot has changed in the sixty or so years since my small boy heart cracked and shook to that particular song, but the visceral response to a powerful lyric still stops me in the same way.

Sunday Playlist

On a recent Sunday morning, I was in the kitchen going through my customary breakfast-making, waiting for Jan to return from her socially distanced church service. I was in a reflective mood, asking Alexa to play a series of songs that popped into my head, and as often happens, one led to another. I noticed my playlist featured three songs that, in some way, brought me back to Danny Boy boulevard.

Each song spoke in an intimate, conversational style, artfully using short, powerful lines that put the listener in the same place as the writer.

Within each of these stories live short verses that are stunning in their simplicity and emotional depth.

Warren Zevon

“Keep Me In Your Heart For A While” is the last song on Warren Zevon’s final album “The Wind,” written and recorded as he was losing his battle with cancer. It is a gentle call for remembrance, and a bit of a promise that his spirit will remain part of the woman he loved. These lines get me every time.

Sometimes when you’re doing simple things around the house

Maybe you’ll think of me and smile

You know I’m tied to you like the buttons on your blouse

Keep me in your heart for a while

Warren Zevon and friends perform Keep Me In Your Heart For A While

Emmylou Harris

“Red Dirt Girl” is a heartbreaking story wrapped in a gorgeous sonic bed of guitars, bass, percussion, and atmospheric production, delivered through Emmylou’s otherworldly voice. It tells the story of a girl named Lillian, delivered by her best friend. Lillian’s life was not easy or joyful, and the tragedy of it all was not her death, but the life she endured. The short bridge contains Lillian’s truth.

One thing they don’t tell you about the blues

When you got ’em

You keep on fallin’ ’cause there ain’t no bottom

There ain’t no end at least not for Lillian

Emmylou Harris performs Red Dirt Girl

Bruce Springsteen

“Moonlight Motel” from Bruce Springsteen’s Western Stars album, gives me Danny Boy level shivers. It is a complex emotional recipe of loss, remembrance, wistfulness, and acceptance. His description of the fading motel drew such a vivid picture that I was right there, standing next to the storyteller, seeing what time and life had done to a cherished and sacred place.

Now the pool’s filled with empty, eight-foot deep

Got dandelions growin’ up through the cracks in the concrete

Chain-link fence half-rusted away

Got a sign says “Children be careful how you play”

Bruce Springsteen performs Moonlight Motel

Bonus Cut – Puccini

It is opera. It is in Italian. I don’t speak Italian. It doesn’t matter. The passion, the lush orchestrations. The angst of Tosca channeled by the great Angela Gheorghiu. This one endures.

In the hour of pain,
Nell’ora del dolore,

Why, why, Lord,
Perché, perché, Signore,

Ah, why do you pay me so?
Ah, perché me ne rimuneri così?

Angela Gheorghiu as Tosca sings Vissi d’arte

And One For The Road

I am eagerly awaiting the release of “Hymn For The Underground” from my son John’s band Original Son. He continues to amaze me with his insightful, defiant, and powerful lyrics. I call this one a Punk Rock Pep Talk that acknowledges and encourages the everyday people who “make the gears turn.” It is glorious!

You’re not replaceable

And they can’t walk on water

We are the ones who make the gears turn…

You are glorious.

Hymm For The Underground – Original Son

Goodbye, My Friend

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“Hello Miguel, it’s me, your new best friend José!”

So began many a phone call and email from my friend and kindred musical spirit José Quintana, who left us this November. Another terrible sadness during the saddest of years.

Father, friend, musician. Nurturer of talent and builder of careers. Mentor to many musicians, budding producers and engineers, and friend to so many more.

José and I met in 2013. Our friendship has endured beyond that time, as we found more common ground through our mutual love of music. He played bass, and I played bass.josebass

The Dream, Realized

José’s life is, as he said many times, the story of the American Dream. He began his journey as a young boy in his native Mexico, playing classical piano under the watchful eyes of his older sister. His musical muse took him on an adventure that lasted a lifetime. First, playing local clubs in Mexico City, then traveling to gigs at the resorts and supper clubs that drew visitors from around the world. He developed an interest in how music was created and produced and began learning the art of recording.

He left Mexico with a one-way bus ticket and a demo tape he had made with his band. Arriving in Los Angeles, he did what thousands of fellow artists have done. He knocked on every door, visited every record label, and worked hard to convince someone in the music industry to listen and to give him a chance. His last stop yielded some success; the music executive told him his demo tape sounded terrible, but if José wanted to learn, he would sponsor his initial training as a recording engineer.

“In my soul, I am a musician”

And so, he studied and learned, and became a capable studio professional, working up from intern to assistant to engineer. Along the way, he developed relationships with the writers, artists, musicians, producers, and executives who make the music business run. Those relationships lasted throughout his life. The love and respect he earned shine brightly in tributes, photographs, and tearful thanks from the famous and the ones who, along with José, helped make them famous.

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Finding A Better Way

As José grew older, his lifestyle, and particularly his eating habits, began to take a toll on his body. With a family history of diabetes, he knew that his odds were not great unless he made drastic changes. So, he did. As was his way, he began to research different diets and weight-management strategies, settling on an approach that featured many of the flavors and textures he enjoyed. He adjusted his favorite recipes, replacing high-carb ingredients with healthier options.

He lost an impressive amount of weight and improved his overall health, battling back the diabetes that was eroding his body and shortening his life expectancy.

Collaborating

With this success came the desire to help others, particularly the Latin populations who had similar diet-related health challenges. He asked me if I would help him write a book about his experiences. And so, we did, with a few challenges to make it interesting. I don’t speak Spanish, and while Jose’s English was very good he would sometimes find himself drifting into Spanish, looking for the right descriptions for what he wanted to communicate. We found a rhythm over time and were able to complete our collaboration.

It was over these many months that I got to know José better. He would tell stories of his early life in Mexico, and his successes in the Latin music business. Many of the artists in these stories would be immediately familiar to Latin music lovers. The stories were not told to boast or brag but shared in the context of the work environment that played a big part in his spiraling weight and descent into diabetic illness.

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Jose with Legendary Mexican rock band MANA, whose career he helped shape and grow.

I still smile, thinking about the hours we spent listening to the many records he played on, engineered, or produced. I watched José as he listened, sometimes with eyes closed, focused on a spot in the universe where memories live and where the session was again happening. I am always taken with how clean and warm those recordings sound, and how that clarity exposes the amazing talents of the singers and players who make the music soar.

Sadness and Joy

Time and circumstance changed our relationship, nothing more so than the terrible stroke that devastated José three years ago. When I got word of his condition I headed down to Los Angeles to see him, expecting it to be the last time we would be together in our current form.

It was heartbreaking to see my friend suffering so deeply, fighting to grab and hold on to moments of lucidity as his body and mind were twisted and distorted. We had a brief interlude of peaceful silence. I told my friend that I loved him and that whatever choice he made about fighting or releasing his spirit would be okay. I left that desperate place and drove home, sure that he would pass shortly.

But he didn’t.

With the love of his beautiful family, the support of his musical community, and the generous compassion of a humble mentor, José slowly began to come back. He experienced the setbacks and successes known to many who have fought back against stroke, and over time regained parts of his former self. His wife Diane, strong and determined in everything she does, made certain José got the care he needed, and kept him as active and engaged with the world as his body would allow. His daughter Heather added inspiration and motivation to the mix, presenting José and Diane with two grandsons. The joy of new life brought great invigoration, and happily, José and his grandsons got to have a short but loving time to say hello.

amigos

I was able to visit with José and Diane one more time, sharing coffee and cake in their new home. This visit I did not expect to have made me very happy.

Vaya con Dios

José, my friend, you will always be in my heart. When I hear a particularly beautiful samba, or a fluid, floating bossa nova, I will picture you, eyes closed, and we will connect through the music, wherever in the universe we happen to be.

 

 

 

 

 

Two Good Candidates

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It is unusual for me to share my preferred candidates for local office, but hey – it is 2020!

David Pierson

For those who follow the CCSD board, think back to how contentious board meetings and actions were before David’s appointment. A noticeable change started to occur in the short time he served before standing for election. The tone, often bordering on uncivil, gradually softened. Critical issues that had gone through weeks and months of unproductive review, debate, and delay began to get more focused and disciplined action.

David applied his lifetime of accumulated skills – time management, people management, technical project management, agenda management – to improve what was a chaotic style of governance.

David’s natural leadership and dedication to the community led to his selection as Board President. Progress, though never fast, was happening. The change in board composition, which could have introduced more conflict and competing agendas, was managed with firmness and respect for each board member, and for the community. Even when some of us behaved in ways that did not merit respect or patience, David showed both.

One situation in particular sticks with me; Director Howell was uncomfortable with signing off on a financing agreement that had been previously reviewed but had one small modification. The rest of the board was ready to press ahead, but David, sensing Donn’s reluctance, offered the delay Donn needed to be comfortable. He showed Respect, Leadership, and Character.

Due to a public endorsement he did not seek or have input into, David has been “paired” with another candidate,. This goes against what every candidate had asked for at the beginning of this process – judge each as individuals, not as teams or members of a particular group.

David Pierson is a leader, but more than that he is a good and committed community member who deserves the highest level of respect, regardless of individual differences on issues. I know many of us have already voted, but for those still poised over the ballot, please take a few minutes to review what David has done, and what he stands for. And please consider what he says – all of what he says – and not what others may project onto him and his positions. There is a lot there.

Karen Dean

In an election where character matters up and down the ballot, Karen Dean stands as a candidate for public office I can support.

Karen demonstrates thoughtfulness, preparedness, and willingness to put in the hard work needed to be entrusted with representing our community.

I have seen first-hand Karen’s practice of inclusion and engagement, beginning with what is referred to, tongue in cheek, as the “Infamous Chinese Temple Blue Shirt Circle Incident,” where the call for open engagement and dialog was belied by an ugly and unneeded denial of same. Karen took the time to share with me the goals of the group, a discussion that has led to several years of good, honest conversations around things we agree on and things we do not.

With her demonstrated hard work and integrity, I can easily see Karen working positively and collaboratively with returning directors Steidel and Howell, and whoever the community chooses to fill the other positions.

Karen can be trusted to do what a good leader should do – listen, learn, argue when needed, and compromise when appropriate. Karen will work across the diversity that is Cambria and use her best judgments when decisions need to be made.

Finally, being for a candidate does not equal being against another candidate.

Vote!

Queen of Cards

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The FaceTime alert on the iPad started jingling around noontime. That usually means the grandkids are calling.
Knowing how low their tolerance for delay can be, I quickly tapped the display to accept the call. Sure enough, three chattering children filled the screen, each waving a colorful Halloween greeting card that they had just collected from the mailbox.
After a short chat – well, maybe more of a whirlwind of questions and an attempt to give each of the children equal time and attention, Chloe’s voice cut through with a request for an explanation of her card, which featured a witch trying to decide on a broom for the day. “What does “accessory” mean?” she asked, staring into the camera while I fumbled for an answer.
“Uh, well, um, I guess…”
I was saved from further flummoxing by the arrival of the keeper of all things card-related, the tracker of tidings, the manager of messaging, the Queen of Cards, Nana Jan. She quickly and authoritatively answered Chloe’s question, using an example of a purse that goes with an outfit. Chloe got it right away, responding with a crisp set of accessories based on Jan’s definition. “Oh, I get it. Like a bracelet. Or a necklace.”
“Exactly!” Jan answered. She then went down the line, speaking to each kid in a way that was very specific to how they communicate. River studied her card, reading the text and describing the pictures. Ben happily waved his card at the camera, spilling words and word-like sounds that joyfully conveyed his interpretation of what his card contained.
Jan has always been a card-sender. Birthdays, graduations, anniversaries, births, and deaths require a card that captures the right sentiment, with the right words or a meaningful image. I can’t count the number of times she will say, “I need to pick up a card for…” She finds them in the local places, like Among Friends. She’ll somehow extract the perfect greeting from the rack at the Cookie Crock, or get lucky and discover something funny or poignant at the Post Office. Sometimes she adds a short note, other times just a “Love, Jan.”
But these kids, they get Super Nana. Cards are just a small part of how she lets them know she is always thinking about them. Surprise gifts will appear in their mailbox. Twirling ribbons for the girls. A collection of Matchbox cars for Ben. Magazine subscriptions from Highlights and National Geographic Kids land in rotation. Zoo memberships so they have a place to visit where they can run, laugh, and learn about the magnificent animals that share our planet. Books are chosen and sent, to be read together when the time comes to sit side by side once again and explore the stories revealed through paper and ink.
I know, no matter how many birthdays or anniversaries we have left together, there will be a card sitting on the table when I wake up. And I know that every son, daughter-in-law, sister, niece or nephew, and dear friend stand a good chance of seeing that familiar, bold hand-written envelope appear on a special day.
Queen of Cards? More like the Queen of Hearts.

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Darts of Contempt

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We gather our tribes, define our borders, and set our pikes pointing outward, determined to keep away the scourge others try to bring to our door.
All the while, self-created viruses are capturing parts of our hearts and souls, turning our humanity grey, then black, as it dies an ugly and needless death.
That scourge is as simple as a differing viewpoint.

A Good Book

I remember when I was a kid, someone gave my mother a small book of writings by the Scottish poet Robert Burns. The book, bound with a tartan plaid cover and printed on a beautiful stock, drew me in. I didn’t fully grasp the meaning behind his words. The job of understanding was made more difficult by the traditional language of the time and what I have come to appreciate as sardonic wit wrapped around scathing commentary on the mores of the age in which he lived.
I inked notes in that book, selfishly unconcerned that I was defacing and damaging what was not mine to damage. When my parents saw what I had done they shared more words, not ambiguous and definitely timeless in their meaning. The words of poet and parent still affect me.
I occasionally seek out works by Mr. Burns and find new meanings and new applications for the verses written centuries ago. A few I can remember and recite from memory, burned into my mind fifty years back.

Ye true “Loyal Natives” attend to my song
In uproar and riot rejoice the night long;
From Envy and Hatred your corps is exempt,
But where is your shield from the darts of Contempt!

Loyal

What defines “a native” in today’s world, in this country, in this town? And to who or what is that native supposed to be loyal?
Are we loyal to an individual because he or she is a friend?
Are we loyal to an individual because they think as we think?
Are we loyal to an individual because we have great animosity towards another?
Are we loyal to an ideal?
Is our loyalty locked in place regardless of changing circumstances?

Symptoms

As we careen down the last straightaway to November 3rd, there are a lot of opportunities to visit those questions.
The local election cycle is less about spirited dialog and strong advocacy and more about personal animosity and the diminution of individuals. It seems like the strategy of the day is destruction and debasement.
It feels like ideals, convictions, and engagement have given way to character assassination, fallacious arguments, and ugly demands to engage on terms absent a sense of fairness.
We have become entirely comfortable with disregarding what was said in favor of what was “really meant.” It is not a question of having misheard, it is a strategy of misrepresentation.

But..

All may not be lost. We will see after we vote if the choices we made will move us ahead. The goal of any election, be it average or extraordinary, is to have an outcome that guides us forward. Not total agreement, not chaos. We won’t all be happy, but hopefully, we won’t all be permanently enraged. There will still be plenty of things left to disagree about if we can survive our current pandemic of personal destruction.

Pragmatic Patriot

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I am finally able to put a name to my feelings about my country. I declare myself a pragmatic patriot.
I have always been pretty positive about the United States of America. The good and the terrible, things in transition, and things in stasis. We have sent people to the moon, and we have sent people to their deaths in pursuit of noble aspiration and misguided conquest. For every act of aggression, there are acts of generosity and resilience that define the best of what America can be.
Yet here we are in 2020. We watch astronauts go to space and come back to earth, live on television, while at the same time we are told it is too risky to vote by mail.
“WTF???”
Here, in 2020, we witness brave Americans coming before us, testifying under oath to the terrible, illegal, and immoral acts of our most senior elected official and his cronies. Yet nothing changes, except that the truth-tellers lose their jobs, have their reputations brutalized by criminals and sycophants, while millions of fellow citizens cheer and jeer at their pillorying.
Again, “WTF????”
Some will argue that “it has always been this way.” Some posit, “this is nothing new, and it used to be worse.” I can’t remember when, in my lifetime, so many bonfires have been burning, using our most sacred and vital principles as fuel.
Tribalism has grown worse. Ugliness is exacerbated by conspiracy theory and amplified by a willingness – even eagerness – to make all manner of accusations against our neighbors. We seem to have abandoned education in favor of indoctrination.
Has the time passed for the dream that is America?

Books

Our home is filled with books, many of them biographies of past American leaders: Adams, Franklin, Jefferson, Washington. They serve as valuable resources and lessons on how we have faced crisis and triumphed over crushing odds. They also serve as a reminder that leaders aren’t always great, or perfect. The ones we remember, those who have shaped history, managed to find themselves when the world most needed them.
The table next to my bed has a small shelf on the bottom that holds a collection of books. Among them are three that tell a story: the past, the warning, the result.
The first, “Leadership: In Turbulent Times” by Doris Kearns Goodwin, examines the lives of Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson. Goodwin details the major historical events faced by each of these American Presidents, and how their leadership and vision propelled the country and, arguably, the world forward towards a more just and moral state.
The second book, which paints a decidedly different picture of a man who would become an American President, is “Unbelievable: My Front-Row Seat to the Craziest Campaign in American History” by journalist Katy Tur. This recounting of her experience covering the 2016 Republican candidate demonstrates the rot and ugliness of the man who would eventually succeed in becoming the nation’s 45th President. Tur’s reporting shows a person with the exact opposite qualities and morality of the four men covered in Goodwin’s book.
The third book is “A Very Stable Genius” by Philip Rucker and Carol Leonnig, both veteran Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists who have covered American politics for years. Their effort chronicles the realities of an administration led by the candidate described by Tur. An administration headed by a person whose lack of leadership, morality and courage stands on the opposite pole from the men described by Goodwin.
I struggled to finish each of these books. Goodwin’s work, because it was painful to realize how far we have fallen from the standards these four Presidents set for leadership and moral courage. Tur’s, because I knew how it ended, and I did not want to be gut-punched again. And finally, the work of Rucker and Leonnig, for it exposes the realities we now suffer – the manifestation of all the warnings that did not matter to enough of us to avert this American nightmare.

Shaken

Of all the sobering and frightening warnings about the potential end of our grand experiment in self-government, one that shook me deeply came from historian and author Jon Meacham.
Mr. Meacham has devoted his life to studying and chronicling the many roads that have taken America from feisty dreams to magnificent reality. As our leadership careens into chaos, destroying everything good and noble built over our very few centuries, Meacham would most often calmly assess it all and put it in the context of history.
This implacable, scholarly observer found himself at a crossroads. He had wondered, if he lived in a time and place of existential crisis, what he would do.
Mr. Meacham recognized it is no longer an academic exercise. Now is such a time. He spoke, not from his tomes but his heart. His words, while measured, revealed the depth of his conviction and the angst he felt as he spoke, not as a historian, but as a citizen, and said:

With our voices and our votes, let us now write the next chapter of the American story. One of hope, of love, of justice. If we do so, we might just save our country, and our souls.

His act of conviction gives me, not hope, but a sense that justice still matters, and good people will choose to take principled stands.

Our Better Angels

Many more historians, journalists, teachers, politicians, doctors, soldiers, religious leaders, and ordinary people here in America and around the world are raising their hands and speaking from their convictions. We need to listen.
I am not writing because I believe I am right. I am writing because I believe our current direction is horribly wrong. I know we can always be better. America must be better.
I am a pragmatic patriot.

YOU Decide

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I can’t believe it’s “destroy your neighbor’s political yard signs ” season already. Where did the time go?

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From reading local posts and roasts, one might think multiple evil twins are running for the three Cambria Community Services District board seats. (From Wikipedia – “The evil twin is an antagonist found in many different fictional genres. The twin is physically nearly identical to the protagonist, but with a radically inverted morality.”

For every positive endorsement of an individual, there is an equal number that declare the candidate a disaster. It is Amazing how many Kreskins live around here, and how confidently they predict each twin’s exact agenda for the future. Spooky!

kreskin2

The Good

Cambrians are fortunate to have four well-known and qualified candidates competing for three seats. Each individual is deeply involved in the community, serving in both elected and appointed roles.

Incumbents David Pierson and Harry Farmer are both seeking re-election. Director Amanda Rice has decided to step back for a while. I hold Amanda in high regard when we agree and when we disagree. She is pragmatic and passionate, always does her homework, and values data, facts, and solid reasoning. As a keeper of the community’s trust, Amanda embraces challenging issues with compassion and a drive for social justice. Thank you for your leadership, Amanda.

Now, back to the election.

Incumbents

Harry Farmer and David Pierson have both served as Board President and chaired District Standing/Advisory Committees. Both serve with non-CCSD organizations such as the Cambria FireSafe Focus Group, Friends of The Fiscalini Ranch, American Legion, and Greenspace. Both men have demonstrated their values, influences, and approaches while serving as Board members. 

Harry and David have name recognition and a catalog of service. Those who follow the CCSD have a good idea of who they are and what they believe.

(The other Harry and David, in case you need a nosh while researching.)

Pierson

David Pierson is a mature, moderating force on the Board. He offers civility and collaboration to what has often been contentious and partisan governance. David’s life-long devotion to leadership continues to be a great asset to the board and to each committee and community group he leads. His extensive engineering and management experience make him uniquely qualified to understand the intersections of technology and process as it relates to the critical issues that face the community. He is always calm, polite, and practical.

The “no he isn’t” contingent tag him as relentlessly pro-growth with little regard for fire safety, failing infrastructure, and the ratepayer pocketbook. All that leadership of the FireSafe Focus Group is just a cover for his true plot to build the town to within an inch of the ocean.

Five minutes with David should put a rest to those ridiculous assertions.

Oy Vey!

Farmer

Harry Farmer has been a consistent advocate for fiscal responsibility, environmental awareness, and preservation of Cambria’s small-town community essence. He does constant outreach to the community and the district employees, looking to better understand the needs and concerns of the different parts that make the community what it is. He is not an experienced manager or public official, so his approaches don’t conform to usual practices seen on many boards. Over his four year term, he has become more familiar with the technical aspects of budgets, infrastructure programs and practices, and employee relationships. 

 Harry’s evil twin has all of the same characteristics, positioned as negatives rather than positives. Torch-bearing townsfolk see his behaviors as disruptive, uninformed, and regressive, with an unhealthy tilt towards a subset of the overall community and a significant disdain for Cambrians on the other side of the issues. 

Harry Farmer is Harry Farmer – he speaks his mind, and what you see is what you get. I appreciate the consistency and transparency of his service. 

Talk with him at the Farmer’s Market – you’ll find him deep in discussion with his fellow citizens. He’s a good man.

Non-Incumbents

Karen Dean and Tom Gray also have long records of service to the community. Both have served on the North Coast Advisory Council and CCSD standing committees. Karen and Tom each stepped up and offered to serve as appointed Directors during the last go-around of Board vacancies.

Dean

When I look to gain a wider perspective on how our community is managed, Karen always welcomes a conversation around the challenging and divisive issues plaguing Cambria. These discussions are always respectful and factual, and regardless of disagreement often end in the sharing of some of her awesome home-baked cookies.

But wait, say her detractors! Her deep concern and environmental activism make her suspect in the eyes of some. Her “evil twin,” according to her doubters, is violently anti-SWF and anti-growth, and is easily swayed by more vocal and aggressive partisans.

I have yet to meet that twin and don’t believe she exists.

Karen Dean walks the walk, humbly.

Gray

Tom Gray has deep knowledge of the issues that impact Cambria’s quality of life. He engages in public service from a sense of obligation and perhaps a smidgen of hubris. We differ significantly on a few key issues, and have exchanged some heated comments while representing our positions. Regardless of differences, Tom’s education, experience, and work ethic can add value and substance to the efforts to keep Cambria in good health. 

Meanwhile, Tom’s evil twin wants to enable his coven of secret developers so they may turn a sleepy coastal community into a hellscape of mansions and swimming pools. His work as the Public Information Officer for the District during the development of the Emergency Water Supply project is all the proof one needs to convict him of everything, and then some.

Ay, Caramba!

This, of course, is silly, though it is not unusual thinking in a place where people’s character and motivation are suspect based on their professional associations.

Ask Them!

My recommendation to all who have questions, or who struggle to decide which twin is which, is to actively participate in the process. Each candidate has made it clear that they are accessible and eager to engage in positive dialog with anyone – though I would personally disengage from the rude, the bullying, and the abusive, like those who steal campaign signs. Visit the websites, call the numbers, send an email, and make your assessment on who will best serve the entire community.

Here’s a good place to start – 

LOWV

Listen. Learn, Question, Debate. Decide.
VOTE.