Sunday, June 19, 2016


Mario - Northern Kenya 2008
As I tapped my foot impatiently for the right man to come, I held several low-paying, dead-end jobs, including a park-aid for an OHV park where the visitors flirted with me shamelessly.  My boss, a Chuck Norris type, had just the right amount of concern and protection.  “You’re pretty friendly,” he’d say to me when I complained about the unsolicited attention.  “They might think you’re interested.”

Mario about the time I met him - 1987
My boss was a divorced man, older and wiser.  He also ran the place and I was obliged to listen to him.  He gave advice only when I asked him for it, unless he was telling me how to do my job better.  I knew him only a little.  He was a friend of Lisa, one of my mentors,  respected as a leader in his department and worked tirelessly for the State Park Peace Officer’s Association, even though he was a Republican.  Tall, handsome, and muscular, Mario was seen by many women as an extremely eligible bachelor. 

Even in the workplace, women seemed to become softer  around him. I used to tease him about this, and he brushed me off.  I was not one of the swooners. Nine years older than me, Mario was not my type.  I was attracted to younger bad boys, usually Democrat musicians who were between jobs.  Mario was so clean-cut, a definite square -- and my boss.  Nevertheless, we became friends and I trusted and respected him.  I could tell he appreciated me as an employee and the symbiotic relationship worked in our office.  

One day, after a complicated series of events, I sought his advice on a personal issue.  He listened to my story and then offered his advice with humility and sincerity.  I sensed a deep ache in his words, a vulnerability that I had not seen before. 

Walking me out to my car, Mario and I said goodbye –and then we hugged.

As I hugged him, I melted into the firm, stable contours of his body.  I felt heaven open and the earth move.  There were angels singing, accompanied by harp music.  Doves bearing long silver ribbons descended from the sky and draped us in the destiny that was now irrevocable: we were meant for each other.   

That’s how Mario and I began.

Togetherness was inevitable, but entering a future together was another story.  Instead of sailing off into the sunset and living happily ever after, we were immediately navigating a rock-filled, rushing river in a two-person kayak, using nothing but foam paddles.  We eventually figured out that love, no matter how powerful, was not going to be enough to get us through the life we wanted together, so we developed skills together.  Not just how to navigate the river in our kayak, but how to make it out of the rapids without drowning after it crashed on the rocks.  Through the years, we learned how to seek help when we were miserably stuck, find hope in darkness, and press through tragedy.  We learned how to do all of these things with four children – four beautiful, wonderful and forgiving children.  God and our many friends helped us through the places that were miserable and dark.

Mario, through it all, was a fearless leader.  Together we have weathered many unpredictable storms and come out of them still friends.

My husband is unusually strong and likewise tender.  He is a marathon runner who never accepts defeat and works tirelessly.  Above all of this, Mario is a faith-filled man who loves and understands me deeply. He cares more about the inside of people, their hearts and minds, than any external label anyone can place on another human being.  He’s taught me patience, perseverance and humility.  I love him more than ever—with the kind of love that grows.

All of Us- Father's Day 1993
This year, as if to challenge himself even further, Mario was part of  Davis Musical Theater's production of Man of LaMancha.  Taking part in the 50th anniversary production of his father's signature play was a huge step out of his comfort zone, but he loved it.

He also just finished writing a tribute biography for his brother, Stephen.  He asked me to edit the text, but it was so touching and beautiful that I couldn't touch it.  This week we took it to the printers and when it showed up, I got tears in my eyes.   What a genuine labor of love for his family!

Today is Mario’s birthday—and Father’s Day!  On this day Mario will “uncelebrate” – hunker down and do what he loves to do best: relax.  For a man who never stops growing and challenging himself, he understands the need for peace and rest!  I can plan a party for him and invite our friends and family – fill the house with celebration and laughter, but that would be for me, not him.

Sometimes I remember the day after the hug – the day when Mario confronted me and asked me what happened.

“I’ve never had a hug like that before.  What did you do?”

I smiled, shyly (I am not shy).  I wanted to tell him that I loved him, that I loved who he was inside and out.  I wanted to tell him that I wasn’t like all the other girls.  I was designed for him as he was for me.  Instead, I just said, “I don’t know.”

He didn’t know what to say, but he looked at me suspiciously.  As a cop, he might have thought that I could be hiding something.  I swear I’m not hiding anything, babe –but feel free to search me!

I love you, Mario.  Happy Father’s Day and Happy Birthday.  How did I ever get so lucky?


Saturday, June 18, 2016


Joe - 1987

The first time I met Joe he was wearing a green-striped shirt and following David, his elder brother, into his father’s office.  He looked over the counter and smiled at me.  His father was Mario, my boss who I would marry eighteen months later, though at the time I didn’t see that coming. 

“Boys,” Mario said in a voice reserved for his children.  “This is our new Park Aid, Janet.  She’s brand new so don’t bother her.  She’s still trying to learn how to type.” Mario thought he was funny.  So did the boys.

Instead of “not bothering me” the boys gravitated to my desk.  David told me that they had come on a plane together to California, all the way from Kansas City.

“That’s where our Mom lives,” Joe said, dreamily.  He was a blonde, blue-eyed boy who had just turned six.  David, brown haired and brown eyed was seven, but quick to tell me that he would soon be eight. 

I liked them immediately.  They were filled with observations and questions.  They wanted to use my new electric typewriter.  They told me they had just ridden a horse the day before and Joe actually fell off.

“But I got up and got back on,” he said, proud of himself.  What I didn’t see coming was that Joe would become quite an accomplished horse rider—a cowboy, if you will.  Both boys would learn to break and care for horses with such skill that they could make a living.

I went to Mario’s house for dinner that night (more at the invitation of the boys than of him) and got to observe the family dynamics a bit more.  Both boys basked in their father’s attention.  David appeared to be the alpha, even though Joe would say “You’re not the boss of me, David!”  Joe, as the younger child, was thoughtful. 
Joe and I -that first dinner meeting

At some point, I picked up a book and started reading to them.  It was beautiful and magical.  I read four or five books that evening before I excused myself and went home.

“Why are you leaving?” Joe asked me as I packed up my purse. 

“I have a baby,” I answered above their father.  (Mario was laughing, saying: “Because she doesn’t live here!”)

“A girl baby or a boy baby?” Joe asked.

“A boy.  His name is Vince.”

“Can you go get him and bring him back here?”

I looked up at Mario who was smiling. 

“No, honey,” I said.  “I’m going to go home and spend some time with him.  Usually I give him a bath and put him to bed.”

Mario and Joe at the top of the World Trade Center - 1987
I left that night, feeling like I fit in the lives of Mario and the boys. That seed grew and blossomed into a beautiful relationship, one that we realized would become permanent. What I didn’t see coming was how long it would take Joe to accept me as part of Mario’s life.  He was careful and watchful.  Mario and I were careful to read books on blended families and even saw a family counselor. 

On a trip to New York City, David agreed to hold my hand when we crossed the street or walked crowded sidewalks.  Joe permitted me to hold his wrist.   David shared his heart and mind with me while Joe watched me closely.

Eventually Joe and I became closer and he accepted that I was a part of his new life that wasn’t going away.  Thank God there was that acceptance.  As he grew, I saw that Joe’s heart was so like his father’s: steady, beautiful, tender.

Our Family 1994

A little over a year ago, Joe married Ariel, his long-time girlfriend –who has a young son named Asher.  To see the family together is precious and inspiring.  Joe seems to have come alive with fatherhood and the occupation makes him glow.

Joe (holding Asher) and Ariel (holding Harvey)

Today is his birthday –tomorrow is Father’s Day.  I watch Joe now as he used to watch me; I see him alive and sparkling in full bloom.  A husband, a father and the proud pappy of a new baby, Harvey.  As a man, he has come into his own.

Joe with Harvey -- January 2016
Over the years, I have amassed thousands of memories and thousands of words to describe Joe, but the best way I can sum him up is to say he is like Mario.  He’s kind to strangers, loves his family and thinks he is funnier than he really is (wink, wink).  He  is tender and strong.  He thinks before he acts, works well in a team, and make decisions cautiously and carefully. 

In truth, Joe has become stronger with each passing year, and in this world that matters. 

Happy Birthday, Joe!  Your faithful love and understanding has been greater than I could have ever hoped for.  I love you. 

Saturday, June 11, 2016


The Alleys of Khan el Khalili
I remember the day I almost met Naguib Mahfouz.  I was a mess, cramping with excitement.  I had admired his writing, especially Midaq Alley, a book that both enchanted and horrified me.  On our first trip to Cairo, I begged Mario to take me to Khan el-Khalili, the Islamic marketplace that Mahfouz haunted, writing in coffee-houses with a pen and paper, drinking coffee like he was ordinary.  I knew he breathed atoms there; perhaps I could breathe the same ones.  I wanted to understand the hold that his words had on me. 

“Do you want me to take you to his coffee house?” Our eavesdropping taxi driver spoke perfect English, and I was surprised. “He should still be there.”

“What do you mean?” I asked, turning my attention toward him.  “Do you know him?”  I suddenly felt naked and exposed.  I sounded like some literary groupie, but Mario laughed. 

“This is perfect.  You know where he has coffee?”

The driver looked at his watch.  “If we hurry we can make it before one o’clock.  He goes home for lunch.”

We made it to the bazaar in record speed and parked.  I was shaking.  I was suddenly aware of how western I was.  My hair hung, black and uncovered, all the way to my shoulders.  My white skirt, in proper missionary fashion, covered my knees, but not my ankles.  

I followed our driver through the narrow alleys, passing hanging chandeliers and brass candlesticks to a doorway with an ornate carved entrance.  As soon as we stepped inside, an oil painting of Mahfouz greeted us; his books lined the walls.  Here, Mahfouz penned the entire history of modern Egypt in a series of books. 

My knees shook; I held Mario’s hand too tightly.

Naguib Mahfouz's nook at his coffee shop, Khan Khalili
The taxi driver took it upon himself to speak to the maître D, a man in a dishdasha and fez.  He looked over at me as our driver explained what an insane fan I was, and sized me up.  

Then. Turning to our taxi driver, he shook his head slowly and whispered something.  I knew I had been rejected.  Perhaps the master liked to write undisturbed- after all, I did.

Our driver returned to us with a sad look on his face. “I’m sorry,” he said, in a low voice.  “But he died last year.”

The moment makes me laugh now.  What was I thinking? I was going to meet a writer, a fellow author who wrote about his corner of the world.  What would I have said?  What would I have asked him?  

The truth is, it didn’t matter.  I loved the WORDS that Mahfouz gave me; I loved them, ate them, digested them.  They became part of me and I adored him for that.

Like all readers, I have the propensity to write.  I love words and find God in the detail of them.  Whispers of civilizations, friends I will never meet, cultures I will become temporarily attached to, are all in the safe pages of a book that I can buy and own and curl up with somewhere.

Michael Spurgeon, Josh Weil, Christian Keifer,
and Bich Minh Nguyen after the Friday Evening Reading
This year, I heard that Luis Urrea was coming to Summer Words, American River College’s event for writers and readers.  Summer Words is the brain child of two creative writing professors at ARC – Christian Keifer and Michael Spurgeon.  Both authors themselves, Spurgeon and Keifer are master networkers, and model the arts of researching, developing projects, and editing with fellow writers for their students. 

I had managed to power through ARC and graduate with an AAT without taking either one of these professors.  This was not purposeful, but as I wrapped up my time at ARC, it was one of my chief regrets. Going to the Summer Words conference meant so much to me.  I applied for a scholarship to Summer Words and was granted one, graciously, by the beautiful (and generous) English Department at ARC.

 Urrea is a Latino author and poet who somehow brings issues of identity—especially Latino identity—to the fore in order for us to realize similarities in our human condition.  His blunt expression of what is going on along the Mexican border in The Devil’s Highway earned him a Pulitzer nomination.  His newest collection of stories, The Water Museum earned him a Pen/Faulkner nomination.  NPR called him a “literary badass”, which makes me laugh.

Then. My knees started shaking when I thought about it.  Not only was Urrea coming, but I might possibly get to meet him.  Other notable authors were on the schedule, including those two writing professors who I had managed to elude in my rigorous schedule at ARC.

 I chastised myself.  Hadn’t I gotten over this starry admiration of fellow writers?  Hadn’t I realized (by the ripe age of 53) that we are all writers, seeking to connect with readers?  We were all seeking to impart secrets from the corners of our hearts to a readership.  We writers seek the same thing: connection with our readers.  Some of us have made it into that fragile thing we call notoriety; others have not.
Joshua Mohr explains "Plaracterization"
 to our full classroom.

Attending the conference was amazing.  Summer Words covered a broad range of topics, including “Morality in Fiction” “Writing from Your Gut” “Plaracterization: The Kiss between Plot and Character” and “The Organic Outline.”  And there I was, in the center of it all, with words swirling around me like spun sugar.  The presenters were amazing (three of whom signed their books and gave me advice); some were ARC professors. 

By the time Urrea showed up (on Saturday) I was busy having a ball.  I saw him in the hallway and had the shaky knee thing again, but I tried to ignore it.  

His keynote address on Saturday night reminded me why I needed to read him more. Writing about the USA and Mexican border is one thing; writing about the border in our identity is another.  These subjects are not light, they are necessary.  We don’t prohibit them in our country –this is the 21st century and we combine intellectual and cultural influences in everything we call Literary Fiction.  BUT what he is writing is unusual.  It is time-capsule stuff that we deem important and part of our country's identity.  “There is no ‘us’ and ‘them,’” he told us, solemnly.  “There is only us.”

Summer Words 2016 presenters

I knew there was a scheduled Q and A on Sunday morning.  The night before I wondered. If I were to ask one question -what would it be? It was then that I realized I would ask the same question of Naguib Mahfouz.  It is the same question that I would ask any writer: how can I be better?  What is it about the craft of writing that you can impart to me?  I knew I would be “Shaky Knee Janet” on Sunday morning during Q and A, so I wrote the question down on my program.

I asked it, poised and ready to hear the answer.  Urrea raised his eyebrows and casually leaned against the wall as he answered.  “I would tell you that if you’re not going to fill your pen with love, don’t even bother picking it up.”

I began to weep. The answer was the cherry on top of the whole conference.

That’s why I loved Mahfouz.  That’s why I love Austen, Faulkner, Joyce, Urrea, Burroughs, Tan, Cisneroz, O’Brien, Lahiri, McBride, Morrison, Colson, Kingsolver, and Dickens.  Not only do they tell a story well, they love me and show me how they see things.  They respect that I have bought their book and that I want to be taken away.  I want to be loved and shown the corners of the heart…and they do it.

Time and again, they do it.

At the end of the conference, I managed to have Urrea sign the  stack of books he had written that I brought from home.  I even gave him an expired Zimbabwean dollar "A present from another border," I told him.  He was genuinely appreciative.  

Me and the "literary badass"
I managed to hold it together long enough to take my picture with Urrea, which was cool.  I am grateful that he didn't see me as a Kathy Bates kind of fan, which I really am not.  I know that one day I will get over my thing with meeting my literary heroes.  

One day.