Hello December…

Today is the first of December, which officially marks the end of DEVOLSON. This is a good thing. And frankly, moving towards the end of 2014 seems like it is also a good thing for a lot of people. But for me, I feel like it has not been that bad. I mean, there have definitely been some unexpected challenges, but over all I feel like 2014 has been pretty good to me.

So it was surprising to me to hear someone say they were so sorry my life is so shitty.

Shitty?

I had to think about this.

I am alive. To my knowledge, I do not have cancer. I have a good job. I have a nice place to live. I have good friends. I have enough to eat. I have new shoes. I have fabulous trips to amazing places lined up. I have cats.

None of that sounds so shitty.

I am sad right now. But I am sad right now because that is the kind of person I am and when things happen around me that are sad, like dear friends passing, or getting sick, I get sad. I get sad when I remember people I have lost. I get sad when I think about times I could have been more kind. I get sad when I have high hopes for something and it doesn’t come to fruition, but I am not ever sorry for hoping… in spite of the warnings against expectations. So, I guess I am emotional. I was told that I am too emotional this year. On more than one occasion. But that is just how I am.

For a pragmatist, I am actually much more emotional that I should be. I am a hopeless romantic who continues to take ridiculous chances for whims of the heart. [That is emotion in action, and it is often kicking my ass.] I am passionately supportive of my friends. I am ever defensive of my family, even if they drive me insane (just a little bit once in a while, of course.)

But in the end, I am okay with that, because the alternative is too heartbreaking for words. Imagine never having the chance to be swept away by your feelings… sometimes thrilling, sometimes cathartic, sometimes a maudlin tragedy. I can’t imagine that life.

So, tonight, on the first of December at the official end of DEVOLSON, I can look back at this year and say truthfully that the saddest moments have brought me the most clarity.

And all of it was transformative. Not shitty.

Really, you cannot ask for a whole lot more than that.

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Coach J.

Coach J

My Coach is retiring this year. I knew it would happen sometime, but really it had started to seem like maybe… Anyhow, the older we get the more clear it becomes that nothing lasts forever in a singular familiar way. Sometimes when I think about Coach – which is almost every day in some capacity – I laugh thinking to myself how old we thought he was when we were in school. And he was barely older than  I am now. In fact, if I am precise, when the time comes to mark the anniversary of the actual moment I first met him I think I will be exactly the same age he was on that fall day back in 1984.

I introduced my Coach to one of the teams I coached in the early 2000s. They were thrilled for the chance to meet the man upon whom pretty much my entire philosophy of excruciating hard work, consistency, practice, and the unwavering belief that (in the majority of circumstances in high school basketball) discipline and effort could get ‘er done. These girls were one of the first groups I had led, without assistance, as my own team. They changed me in a lot of ways and I like to think I made a difference for them; and meeting my coach was something I was able to do to show them a little bit of what was ‘behind the curtain’ in my life, one I tend to share very little of with my clientele.

So we drove down to Sacramento where the Petaluma Lady Trojans (a disappointing, yet enduring adjustment of my school’s mascot for the women’s sports programs… often “T-Girls” as well, yet I digress) were playing in the Northern California CIF Championship. For the uninitiated, this is a huge accomplishment in a state like California with more than 1,450 high school teams – our section, the NCS has 171 competing schools at different classifications. (The Southern Section boasts 567!) When we arrived at Arco Arena in Sacramento and found the Petaluma contingency, I felt like a prodigal daughter returning home – in my heart feeling so lacking relative to what I had once intended to accomplish by the ripe old age of 30, and shy about “just” being a high school teacher and varsity basketball coach in front of the man who had seen me through years of awkward adolescent declarations of what lay ahead for me. The moment passed in a millisecond as my coach embraced me, my girls, the moment in the way he always had.

I was one of his girls and he was going to let people know exactly what that meant; he suffered no fools, failures, or lackeys. If you were one of Coach’s girls you were something special, and he was going to make sure you, and those around you saw that. On my darkest days I often find myself turning to some small memory of something Coach said to me over the years.

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What an immeasurable, tremendously generous gift.

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Teachers.

“They” say that everyone we meet in life is a teacher. This may have some degree of validity beyond the new age-y feel, but as a teacher, I sometimes, (like right now)prefer to actually acknowledge that there are real, actual specific Teachers in our lives that deserve to be recognized as such. To this end, I am thinking on my teachers today, and one in particular who many will have the chance to bid a formal farewell to this afternoon, though I will not be able to do this. I have experienced a range of emotions surrounding the reality that I cannot be there to participate somehow in this memorial, and I have come to the (necessary?) conclusion that it might not be that important because maybe I do not need to be physically there to acknowledge the tremendous impact that Gary Hausladen had on my life. Maybe I can just take a moment to be in my own little space with this knowing that privacy in no way diminishes the magnitude with which I would like to scream from the tops of the Sierra that I took the road to the UNR Department of Geography as a result of all of Gary’s subtle (and not really so subtle) encouragement, and that truly has made all the difference. He changed the game for me.

I met Gary through another one of my mentors who left us too soon, Kendyl Depaoli. Thinking back on the completely serendipitous occurrences that led to our meeting makes me smile. In short, it goes a little like this: I moved to Tahoe to be with a boy and had no job and one year of teaching experience under my belt. I had no real idea about applying for jobs and appropriate timelines and such and I saw an opening for a social studies teacher at Procter Hug High School in Reno. I got dressed and drove to the school. I had no appointment, and no real plan. I met Kendyl who was one of the VPs there. And I got a job. Over the next year, Kendyl guided me through the politics of the WCSD and gently shepherded me towards her goal – a geography curriculum in the WCSD. She sent me to a summer institute where I encountered the potential of geographic education, and the illustrious Dr. Hausladen.

And so it began.

A result of simply being in a particular place at a particular time – a geographic coincidence – made a formal geographer out of me.

I have lots and lots of stories about Gary. I am sure everybody does. They all make me smile, and that is not hyperbole. I really cannot recall a time – even when I thought I was crying, or dying – that Gary did not make me smile. He encouraged my tenacity when I needed it. He encouraged my confidence when it was flagging. He encouraged my debauchery at times mostly appropriate. He encouraged my curiosity always, and most significantly as I have come to appreciate, he encouraged me to see connections among ideas, and to acknowledge my intellect in a world where that is not always popular. I loved that Gary thought he was brilliant – he was – and that he thought that of me as well. Maybe I am, too. Time will tell.

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This is one of my favorite pictures of Gary, along with his lovely wife Marilyn, and a spry young waiter named Neil. I took this photo on our summer institute trip to Alaska at one of our formal dinners. For whatever reason, Gary had taken such a shine to Neil – and had a way of pointing out Neil’s characteristics in a way that allowed for truly compassionate hysterics. Neil was, errr, quite the character. Completely over the top in every way, and how he ended up serving us aboard the Semester at Sea boat, I will never know. But I know that he had big dreams of a life off the boat, and I only know this because Gary got him talking. And talking and talking and talking. Eventually, and I have no way to say if this was a result of Gary’s encouragement, though I would hardly doubt it, Neil went AWOL from the ship. Literally tossed his bag over board at port and made a run for it. I still don’t know why this story makes me laugh so hard – but I reckon it has much to do with Gary’s suggested input and beautifully off-color commentary on the entire proceedings. I have no idea whatever became of Neil.

Another of my favorite Gary days was the day of my thesis defense. I was not excited about my defense and was positively put out that I had to actually put up flyers and promote this “public defense.” I was completely irked at the idea of strangers coming to see this production. No matter, Gary (and Paul as well, to give full credit all around) took particular joy in my discomfort surrounding this event. They may deny this, but I know it to be true. They were correct in their assertion that my thesis had a larger public appeal than most, but still. Really? Public? Whatever.

Anyhow, it was fine in the end, as I imagine they – the puppet masters, knew it would be. Following the defense, I went to lunch with Steve, someone I do hope will be in Reno this afternoon, and proceeded to start drinking margaritas. As the second pitcher came, my phone rang. It was Gary. I had to get to the Break Away right away. Yes, that is correct, the Break Away. But, we had just ordered drinks… what to do? In a moment of true Jedi brilliance, I asked the server if we could get the margaritas to go. To go? He said. How can I give you the margaritas to go? You could bring us big soup containers, I said. He looked at me and said, You are right, I could do that. And Steve and I drove to the Break Away with two liter containers of margaritas, complete with straws.

On arrival, Gary and Paul were at the bar with a man who claimed to have worked at Area 51 (my thesis topic) on several assignments. Get over here you have to meet this guy! He said. The guy did seem to know some stuff, but in hindsight, I think he might have been full of crap, he just seemed to be trying a bit too hard, challenging what I said, posturing a bit. No matter, Gary was so excited… Then, What is that? He asked about the giant styrofoam containers we were carrying. We got margaritas to go, I explained. You what? To go, I said. And suddenly Gary made me the star. As he so often did, just when I needed it.

There is so much that I could list in a random collection of my appreciations of Gary, but there is no need. I feel lucky that I get to have them at all. Today that is enough. It must be enough.

Gary was, as I said, a game changer for me, and those are few and far between in a single lifetime. He told me to write. He acknowledged my talents. He pushed me way, way out of my comfort zone. He offered all variety of support for what I did and what I do. He introduced me to “all the right people”. He showed me how everything – absolutely everything – is geographical, a challenge I offer my students every year, and they have yet to find something that is absent some element of geographic influence. He told me, repeatedly and with the appropriate amount of irony, that repetition is the heart of education. And he was right. He was a bright and shining personality, with all of the good bits and challenges that comes with such traits, and he lived. Boy, he knew how to live. I am grateful for the privilege of having been one of his students of geography, pedagogy, and life.

Tonight I’ll raise a glass to you, Dr. Hausladen. You rule.