The Fourth of July



I had been thinking about what I might write on this Fourth of July – the most unsettled and concerning one I can recall. America. It is beautiful, and it is ugly. It is heartbreaking and uplifting. It is loud, it is soft, but what it can never be is silent.

My approach changed as I Zoom’d into the UUCC service, hosted by my wife Jan and populated with personal recollections and perspectives from several fellow congregants. I listened as different speakers shared their American experiences through profoundly personal memories.

I am going to take a bit of personal privilege and share some of Jan’s words. I will also take this opportunity to share the unseen hours of writing, researching, and practicing as she put together her contribution to the music of the service. She thoughtfully combined Lou Stein’s complex and compelling jazz arrangement of “America” with Paul Simon’s poignant musical story of the same name. Two very different styles and visions, brought together to underscore the theme of the gathering perfectly.

In her talk, Jan shared a bit about her family history in America.

“When I was growing up, someone in my family started the rumor that we were directly related to Thomas Paine. I have since learned Tom Paine had no children that survived past infancy, so if we were related, it had to be remotely. I do, however, really have a Grandpaw Paine.

I want to believe my roots hail back to the great man, Tom Paine, the writer of Common Sense, the rabble-rouser who inspired people to embrace the Rights of Man. I want to believe that my heritage is that of a people who demanded a more perfect union. I derive that heritage, or at least the imagining of it, from my mother’s side.

My father’s was a completely different story. He came to the United States at six months old from Sicily, grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, joined the army in the prequel to WWII, fought at Normandy, Ardennes, and the Rhineland.

That’s why I consider myself the quintessential American citizen. First-generation on one side and probably seventh or eighth or more on the other. What could be more American?”


It was her poem, read towards the end of the service, that expressed her American heart.

The Last Rocket’s Red Glare                by Jan Callner  July 4, 2021

There was something

rare – possibly unattainable,

perhaps unsustainable.

Hamilton, Franklin, Adams,

Jefferson, Washington, Paine.

They knew it.

At Fort Sumpter we knew it.

At Gettysburg we knew it.

At Meuse-Argonne and

at Normandy we knew it.

Our vision blurred

with Viet Nam,

the Gulf War,

on 9/11,

and with Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan.

Where are they now,

the Jeffersons, the Adamses,

and, yes, the Lincolns?

Cooler, calmer minds

exist… listen now for

their voices.

For these are the times that try men’s souls.

Trying times,

Don’t be fooled

by the survival, not of the fittest,

but of the brashest.

Of those who follow the bray,

absorb the molecular barrage of insidiousness.

And what of the people who 

arrive from everywhere,

to seek refuge,

a better life?

What will they find

in this land of the free?

The rocket’s last glare?

Lincoln called us America,

The last best hope of earth.

Those ignorant of our struggles and successes,

see what they want to see.

Only hear the loudest voice

as it blares

from myriad digital sources.

Quiet the noise.

Listen to the universe.

It speaks

in a soundless voice

to be divined

if we are to hear the silence

of bombs





Role Models


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There are moments when the vision of the perfect American small town is realized here in beautiful Cambria. Amidst the fractiousness of diverse world views, small moments of grace slip through the noise, just enough to bring a bit of positivity to balance things out. For every rally cry or protest, there are quieter moments where true inspiration occurs almost unnoticed. Within these moments, we get to experience joy, hope, admiration, and pride in the grace and positivity of this remarkable place.

 He drives the community bus.

You see him at the Cookie Crock, cheerfully helping his charges pick items from the shelf. Then, he positions the shopping cart and carefully transfers the day’s groceries and passengers safely into the bus. He does all this with respectful ease, bringing calm to what might be an anxious outing for our senior neighbors.

He smiles a lot, and banters a bit, and seems to know what is needed – support, independence, gentle assistance, some of all the above.

When not behind the wheel, he participates in the larger community discourse. He expresses his opinions and presses for answers on matters that concern him. He holds solid views but doesn’t lock out other voices who see things differently. While others shout, insult, threaten or accuse, he raises his hand or writes a letter. He exercises his rights as a thoughtful adult.

They will create a better future.

Seven young women from Coast Union’s class of 2021 accepted scholarships from the Cambria UU community. Intelligent, articulate, focused. Humble, grateful, and well aware of the opportunities they have earned.  

They spoke of their role models – parents and families who sacrificed so much to give their children more than they took for themselves. As each student shared their plans for the future, they gave me, and many others, a teary-eyed hope for the future. 

They will take advantage of the generosity they received and return those gifts to their community through the skills and experiences they will have gained. These seven young women, and the rest of the remarkable graduating class of 2021, are role models. 


Behind these graduates flow lines of teachers, parents, employers, and community contributors standing as examples of living one’s values. You take your principles into the streets, the shops and restaurants, the farms and ranches, and the places of worship. You turn abstract concepts into tangible skills, demonstrating how to defeat the roadblocks and obstacles that sometimes slow us down. 

You are the local business owners standing in the street with the kids, fighting for a place to skate and congregate.

You are the educators who design curriculums that teach rudimentary skills, the value of teamwork, and the value of commitment.

You are the first responders who arrive when our stress is high, and fears are real. You bring physical bravery and skill, but your kindness and compassion save us more often.

You are the keeper of the environment, the holder of the positive attitude. A builder, not a destroyer.

You demonstrate what good looks like, what truth sounds like, and how decency feels.  

It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.

Shine on, beautiful Cambria.

Far-Fetched Follies


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Well, maybe next year.

While browsing the local social media sites, I saw an audition notice for the upcoming production of the Cambria Follies. This annual extravaganza, produced as part of the Pinedorado festival sponsored by the Lions Club, features enthusiastic locals who leap at the chance to stretch out and share their inner diva.

The shows feature a tangle of plotlines that loosely follow local goings-on and are rife with inside jokes, awful puns, and ersatz re-imaginings of popular tunes.

The audition notice described the upcoming production as a retelling of the classic movie “The Wizard of Oz” with a Cambria twist. Hence, the name – “The Wizard of CambriOZ.”

I wondered quietly to myself , “what other movie might lend itself to a Cambria twist?”  A few came to mind.

Les Miserables

In the Cambria version, there are sixteen Javerts to one Valjean. And everyone sings like Russell Crowe – a happy coincidence! Musical numbers include a nod to our local eateries with Valjean soaring through the prayerful “Bring Him Scones.” Local politics get a rousing sendup in “Do You Hear The People Scream,” with ratepayers waving giant replicas of their water bills. The passionate “I Dreamed A Dream” is delivered by a powerful woman standing fiercely center stage as the ensemble slowly circles her on skateboards. A mirthful couple adds comic relief with a sassy take on “Master of The House,” except it will be tough to follow and sure to annoy a good part of the audience. Still working on how to fit in “Hearst Castle On A Cloud.”

The Princess Bride

The classic William Goldman tale is a fantastic candidate for the Follies treatment. The characters are Cambria-perfect, with everything from a good-hearted brute to a semi-retired wizard, a scheming consort, and a gaggle of townsfolk eager for something – anything – to perk up their static lives. Sadly, they can only get glimpses of what goes on twice a month. Add in a single-minded revenge-seeker, and prepare for hilarious hijinks.

The title character is a vision of loveliness, captured by an evil and cowardly king who is plotting to marry, then murder her in a scheme to gain power and dominion over neighboring tracts. For some reason, the princess’s name changes at random times during the story. Hello, metaphor!

Westley, our hero, traveled across endless miles of brine in pursuit of his true love, arriving amidst the lush green hills in time to see his beloved readying to marry (unwillingly) the creepy king. (Song – It’s Always Fire Season When You Are Near.)

Newly-created musical numbers include The Princess singing “Say My Name…No, The New One.” The scheming king soft-shoes through his show-stopping “I Got Connections.” Hero Westley joins the revenge-seeking Inigo and the lovable giant in a close-harmony lament, “My Heart is a Sensitive Habitat,” flowing into the 11 o’clock number “This I Will Never Permit.” The townsfolk get their chance to voice displeasure in the boisterous “Is It Thursday Yet???”

Inigo Montoya:
Is very strange. I have been in the revenge business so long, now that it’s over, I don’t know what to do with the rest of my life.

Have you ever considered piracy? You’d make a wonderful Dread Pirate Roberts. If that doesn’t work, you can retire to Cambria and continue your skewering.

Mean Girls – Senior Class

What could be more appropriate than the Tina Fey-penned romp “Mean Girls?”

In the original story, a young girl, newly arrived in town, is dropped into high-school hell. She learns to co-exist with a whole new ecosystem, ruled by a cadre of girls who display all the disfunction of insecurity, entitlement, and down-right meanness.

In the retelling, we see these characters many years later. They may have aged, but have they grown up? The characteristics that made them mean girls show up in their interactions and attitudes as they saw through norms and niceties to score points against a group of folks just trying to do the best they can.

The oddball characters from the original have also stayed true to who they are, using their uniqueness to bring positive energy to the community. In the final telling, the outsider, having attempted to fit in with the meanies, learns that her true self is good, kind, and trusted by the community.

Musical numbers include the fiery anthem “Outraged and Loving It!,” the tender ballad “What Did I Get Myself Into,” and the disco-themed “I Will Advise.” The audience receives souvenir giant red mute buttons to mash during the dance break, which will last exactly three minutes.  

The mean girls don’t give up, leaving a path open to the next sequel – “Mean Girls – Meaner Than Hell.”


I will sit by the phone, waiting for the call from a hot-shot producer or a top tier agent. Just not my former agent Ray, who, when asked what he thought of one of my musicals, replied (in a voice familiar to many theater hopefuls) I HATED IT!!!

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.”


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, Mount Saint Ursula, 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.


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 sixty 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 store, 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 enclaves 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.

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.”


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…


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, channeled 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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.