Stop The Shooting

Note: This is unlike most of my blogs, but is a big part of my life.

It’s been twelve years since April 20, 1999. An ordinary morning.

That was the morning two teenage boys woke up, got dressed, and went to school to embark on a deadly rampage. They killed 13 people, injured 24 and committed suicide. Columbine became a household word. The bullets fired that day tore a gaping hole through the heart of America, leaving each of us groping for a sense of security that will be forever lost.

By nightfall, April 20, 1999 was recorded as the third deadliest massacre in United States history on a school campus. Since then, Columbine has dropped to  #4. (Virginia Tech, 2007, left 32 dead.) Evidence shows that shooting started at 11:19.  The shooters took their own lives less than an hour after the rampage began.

It’s been twelve years. Ordinary years.

I think of those students and their teacher, and where they would be today if they had not crossed paths with two evil people that day.*

Rachel Scott, the first victim,  would be 29, and she would probably still be making “to-do” lists and doodling in margins and celebrating a love for community service.

Coach Dave Sanders would be 59 today, and no doubt doing the math toward “the rule of 80,” or whatever state-regulated teacher pension plan he was on.

And Steve and Kyle and Cassie and Daniel  and the others would be bursting from colleges and grad schools and into society – building families, traveling, chasing dreams, and joining their friends in probably mostly ordinary lives.

Ordinary lives. Ordinary days.

Rachel Scott, 17
Daniel Rohrbough, 15
Dave Sanders, 47
Kyle Velasquez, 16
Steve Curnow, 14
Cassie Bernall, 17
Isaiah Shoels, 18
Matthew Kechter, 16
Lauren Townsend, 18
John Tomlin, 16
Kelly Fleming, 16
Daniel Mauser, 15
Corey DePooter, 17

I  have had a lot of time to think about Rachel and Coach Sanders and Corey and Cassie and the others who died that day. I think of Columbine High School and Jefferson County, Colorado often.  In an ordinary week, I talk about it at least once or twice. Not as often as I used to, but it does come up in regular conversation in my world.

You see, I have a day job that could land me a spot on the old television program,  “What’s My Line.”

In  real life,  I am the Director of Communications for a national law enforcement training center  based at Texas State University-San Marcos:  The Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training (ALERRT) Center.

Our program teaches first responding police officers how to go into an active shooter situation like Columbine or Virginia Tech or Fort Hood and stop the shooting. In fact, Mark Todd and Kim Munley, who stopped the shooter at Fort Hood in 2009, had just been through our training. The official Department of Defense After Action Report cites ALERRT as the standard in active shooter response training that ended the massacre and saved lives.

The ALERRT program started in San Marcos, Texas in the spring of 2001, in the aftermath of Columbine. Fuzzy black and white video of the shooters in the cafeteria, photos of students running from buildings and clinging to one another were burned into our minds.  The Jefferson County, Colorado after-action reports had been released.  The media had shouted out  questions that regular people were whispering in front of televisions in living rooms across the nation:  How could this happen?  Who can we blame? Where were the cops? Why didn’t they stop it?

The first responding police officers did exactly what they were trained to do. The first shots were fired at Columbine and reported. The first patrol officers arrived on the scene, secured the perimeters and called in the Jefferson County SWAT team. The SWAT team, as is standard in most communities, was comprised of law enforcement officers who volunteer for the SWAT team above and beyond their regular assignments. They answered the call-out, left their regular assignments, assembled, and arrived 49 minutes after the first officers rolled onto the scene. In that time, 13 were killed and 24 injured.

A quick history lesson takes us back to the University of Texas Tower Shooting in 1966. A former Eagle Scout and Marine killed 16 people that day from a sniper’s perch atop the landmark tower. On-duty Austin police officers Houston McCoy and Ray Martinez climbed 29 flights of stairs to the top of the tower and took out the shooter. This effectively stopped the killing.  And was a turning point in law enforcement training and procedure.  Elite, highly trained, special weapons and tactics  (SWAT) teams were created to deal with such violent, high risk operations. The first SWAT team rolled out in 1968 in Los Angeles. A few major cities even created fulltime SWAT teams.

By 1999, even smaller populations had multi-agency teams who would answer the call to action when needed. The  Jefferson County, Colorado SWAT team was one. The Hays County SWAT team based in San Marcos, Texas was another.  And the standard procedure that law enforcement trained to was to do exactly what the cops at Columbine did. Secure the perimeter and call in SWAT.

So ALERRT was born when the Hays County and San Marcos SWAT team members Terry Nichols, David Burns, John Curnutt along with Sheriff Don Montague and Police Chief Steve Griffith started looking at ways to better prepare. A training program that would offer our local first responding officers basic, life saving SWAT tactics and skill sets  to enable them to go into an active shooter situation and stop the killing.

Flash forward from April 20, 1999 to the summer of 2001. The economy was tanking and small newspapers were taking the hit. I had left a career in journalism to take a job as the City of San Marcos grants coordinator.

Terry and David and I created the first grant proposals for ALERRT,  with strong support from Texas State University and the Texas Tactical Police Officers Association, to share this new training program with other law enforcement professionals.  We were awarded a few hundred thousand dollars from the governor’s office  in early 2002 to take this training to other small agencies around Texas – agencies who didn’t have fulltime SWAT teams and could not afford much training.

9-11 happened about two months after we rolled out the program around Texas. ALERRT tactics and training  was not exclusive to school violence.These tactics and principles would work with domestic terrorism and workplace violence. Our program became the first law enforcement operational training delivery approved by the United States Department of Homeland Security  and  today, ALERRT remains the only active shooter response program in their state catalog.

By 2003,  the ALERRT program became a training center in the Texas State University’s Department of Criminal Justice. Five of us came to work fulltime to support this vital program.

Today, in our tenth year, we have trained more than 32,000 officers around the country through more than $23 million in federal and state funds. We have trained in 41 states and have been adopted as the state standard in a dozen states, with more on the request list to ramp up their programs. Beyond the small agencies we targeted from the beginning, large metro areas have adopted ALERRT as their standard training for active shooter response.  (San Antonio, Houston, Dallas, Atlanta, New York, to name a few). And our request list continues to grow.

Our program teaches first responding patrol officers to go into a live fire situation, head toward the sound of gunfire,  and stop the killer. In reality, that generally requires deadly force.

And it saves lives. I could go into detail about the fact that we also teach terrorism response, team maneuvers and low light tactics, entry breaching, and building approaches, but the ultimate goal is to stop the shooting.

I am honored to be a part of this program. It is anything but ordinary; and a good, if unlikely, profession for me.

I consider among my friends and heroes, John Michael Keyes and his wife Ellen, who lost their daughter, Emily, to an active shooter in Platte Canyon, Colorado.  They turned from a successful software industry to create the “I LOVE U GUYS” Foundation, named for the last text they received from Emily. They developed a Standard Response Protocol, advancing student and school safety,  that is available at no cost to school districts around the nation.

And  I am proud to know A. J. DeAndrea, one of the Jefferson County SWAT team captains who led the charge into Columbine High School, as well as the Platte Canyon High School shooting in 2006.  I’ve visited with Darrell Scott, whose daughter, Rachel, was the first fatality of the Columbine shooters;  and  I regularly talk to boots-on-the-ground heroes from around the country who have been first on the scene of active shooter situations that have made headlines.

But most importantly,  every day I am privileged to work with people whose actions and efforts prevent tragic headlines.  And allow for ordinary days to play out in unremarkable ways.

So that the Rachels and Kyles and Laurens and Coreys in our communities can grow old.

And live ordinary lives.

Really, it’s not too much to ask.

Listening to: Joan Baez – “Forever Young

(*  Without even thinking, you can probably name the University of Texas tower shooter by name – but do you know the names of any of the victims of any of the active shooter events through the years? It is a sad fact that more people know the names of the shooters in these events than the names of the victims. We ask the media to stop making celebrities of these evil shooters.  Wishful thinking? Maybe so. But we can hope.)

My Heart In Your Hands

"The only dream that mattered had come true..."

It’s a simple red, leather journal, thick with memories and promises, dreams, and dares, and the opening chapters of a happily-ever-after love story.

The unedited version.

Once in a while, I read back through the pages of this book.  My gift to you on the occasion of our first Christmas together. Our first emails and notes are glued to the pages, quilted together with song lyrics and poetry and notes in the margins.

Our paths had crossed many times before we started dating. More than a parallel universe, at times it seems we traveled two lanes of the same highway, heading in the same direction.

In those early days, we grew together as friends  as we cautiously mended our broken wings and cynical hearts.  With baby steps, we carefully introduced one another to our worlds.  We had doubts along the way. We wondered if it was worth the effort. And we laughed. A lot. And I learned that love can be easy. And  life really can be seamless.

In our wedding vows, we said to one another, “You are my best friend, my last first kiss, my coat from the cold, and the great love of my life. In all ways and forever. And nine days. That is my vow to you.”

Today, we celebrate seven years. And truly, I’d wish for seventy more years in this. Realistically, we know we won’t get that, but we have had a chance to see what all those folks have been painting and dancing and writing and singing about for thousands of years. True love.   It’s easy. And it’s worth it.

“Let the world stop turning, let the sun stop burning,
Let them tell me love’s not worth going through.
If it all falls apart, I will know deep in my heart
The only dream that mattered had come true.
In this life, I was loved by you.
– Mike Reid, Allen Shamblin

As I archived and clipped and glued and scribbled notes in the margins, I came to the last pages of that journal.  I couldn’t – no, wouldn’t think of a way to fill the final page. It is a book of beginnings.

Someday, I hope our children and their children will stumble across this story of how we came to find the great love of our lives. I wish for each of them one true love. And the chance to feel – if only for one moment in forever – the way I feel about you.

Happy anniversary, Mark.

Happily ever after. We’re living the dream.

Listening to: Israel Kamakawiwo’ole – “In This Life”

The Soundtrack of My Youth

Do you remember the first record you ever owned? Mine was the Beatles’ “A Hard Day’s Night” and Santa brought it with my portable record player the Christmas I was six.

We had a stereo console in the living room. It was a big piece of furniture, encased in a maple finished cabinet and had two sliding doors in the top and  gold flecked speaker upholstery. My mother had a good collection of albums: Roger Miller, Nat King Cole, Andy Williams,  The Ray Conniff Singers, Vikki Carr, Perry Como, Ray Price,  and soundtrack albums of every musical Rodgers and Hammerstein ever wrote.

Almost too sophisticated for 45s, that grand old machine did have one of those adapters the size of a toilet paper roll that you could lock in and load with a stack of records, so they would drop and play automatically. You could stack LPs too, in case you were too lazy  to get up and change records every 18 minutes. And of course, it had the tuner and played AM and FM, but we didn’t discover FM until KRMH (Karma) came along a decade later.

The stereo was in the living room, and the television set in the den, so I could listen anytime I wanted –  as long as I didn’t put my feet on the furniture or make a mess.  My cousins were members of a mail order record club, and owned two records I wished were mine.  One was Gene Pitney’s  The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence. The other was Leslie Gore’s It’s My Party. Odd that those albums stand out in this random stream of consciousness. My cousin thought Gene Pitney was dreamy. And I liked the revenge of  “Judy’s Turn to Cry.”

My mom bought some good stuff, too.  I liked Nancy Sinatra the best. The coolest record albums we owned when I was a kid were Nancy Sinatra’s Boots and Country My Way.  I wrote down the lyrics and learned every song on both records.  I was about ten the year I got some light blue jeans  and a striped shirt  almost exactly like she wore on the cover of CMW. And I bought my own single of “Something Stupid.”  Good stuff, that.

We had one store in town that sold vinyl. B&O Music also sold cork wax and Black Diamond strings and bongos, and maybe short wave radio equipment.  Before long, I owned the Monkees and Herman’s Hermits, Paul Revere,  and a stack of other pop hits. I got my music advice from Tiger Beat and Sixteen magazines so I didn’t jump right into being cool. I pretty much started at the shallow end of the cool pool.

Summer camps led to my discovery of folk music.  We called them camp songs. Peter Paul & Mary and Pete Seeger,  Woody Guthrie and The Kingston Trio taught us songs that made us feel nostalgic at the ripe old age of twelve.

Junior high dances added to our social consciousness.”Billy, Don’t Be a Hero” and “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love To Town” found their ways onto the playlists of our lives.  We wondered aloud what Billy Joe McAllister threw off the Tallahassee Bridge.

As soon as someone was old enough to drive and anyone had a couple of dollars for gas money, we’d pile in and head for the nearest dance hall to shuffle the night away to country classics. We waltzed across Central Texas, and two-stepped through the hill country. My high school summers were a blur of steel guitars and fiddles.  Dance halls with names like Club 21, the Rockin’ M,  Crystal Chandelier, Ramblin’ Rose and Texan Palace featured cover bands like The Velvets, The Moods, and the Country Nu-Notes. Once in a while, Hank Thompson or Ernest Tubb would travel through on a big old, diesel-belching tour bus and play the Watermelon Thump or Camp Ben McCulloch Reunion,  and we’d hear the real thing – the stuff you heard on  jukeboxes.

Then came the summer of ’73. The summer before my junior year in high school. We said “We’re going to a picnic and a dance at a ranch over by Drippin’ Springs.”  And our mothers said, “Okay, be careful.”

Willie Nelson put Hays County on the map with that first 4th of July picnic and set the course of my musical taste forever. It was our own Texas version of Woodstock: Kris and Rita, Waylon, Billy Joe Shaver,  Tom T. Hall… and Willie sitting in and singing with all of them.

Today, almost 40 years later, I can still feel the kick of the bass in my chest in the hot Texas sun.

Those great American poets left a mark on my soul.  And I still remember all the words.

Listening to: Willie Nelson – “Whiskey River”

A Reading Addiction

Reading is more than a hobby for me. It is an addiction.  I read at train crossings and long traffic lights. I read to go to sleep, and sometimes while I am blow-drying my hair. I read acclaimed memoirs and trashy beach novels, best sellers and quirky sleepers. I read cereal boxes and instruction sheets. And I have read my car owner’s manual from cover to cover.

Reading for Meaning.

I can clearly remember when I had my first taste. It was the dawning of the 1960s. I was about four and my older cousins were already established school kids. They went to Lutheran Elementary School and were picked up by a Volkswagen micro-bus every morning. More than anything, I wanted to go to school.

And so we would play school when they got home. Kathy would be the teacher and sometimes Gary, the principal.  Kathy had old copies of the entire pre-primer series of Tip, Tip and Mitten, etc. She had even somehow managed to get her hands on a discarded  spiral-bound, teachers edition of The Big Show, which was the follow up to the Tip and Mitten series.

While Kathy was a kind and motivating, six-year old teacher, her older brother was not so patient. It seemed his role was to  grade my tests and threaten “licks” with his mom’s paddle-shaped, wooden cutting board should I fail. I never got a “lick” but looking back, this may be why I have a touch of test-taking anxiety nearly fifty years later.

But I digress. I loved the scruffy dog, Tip, in the book. And his friend, Mitten, the cat.  And their people, Jack and Janet. And their friends, Penny and Tommy and Willie. And most of all, I loved the power of reading.

And I wanted more. By the time I was in first grade, I was reading chapter books. My aunt was the librarian at the city library, and I checked out every one of Gertrude Chandler Warner’s Boxcar Children books multiple times.  Do you remember The Boxcar Children?

Okay. I have to go off in a tangent here. I just Wikipedia’ed The Boxcar Children to be sure my memory served me correctly and yes, (Warning: Spoiler Alert) the storyline has a family of orphan kids who run away rather than move in with their grandfather  who, though they have never met,  they believe might be terribly mean. They live in an abandoned boxcar and furnish their abode with broken dishes from a nearby dump. They take in a stray dog, who was abused by a wealthy woman. The oldest brother takes on odd jobs for food for the family. And somewhere along the way, they finally meet up with the rich grandfather who is not a bad guy after all, and they move in with him, but not before he moves the boxcar into his backyard. The series continues with the siblings living with Grandpa and solving mysteries. (Since they were evidently so good at solving the mystery of the mean but wealthy grandpa).

Anyway, those early sips  led to more and more as my habit grew stronger. My childhood best friend, Kate, and I fell in love with a comprehensive reading program in elementary school called SRA, I think. And I have no idea what those initials stand for. But we could come in to the room early before school or finish our work and get to pull a reading card from a box. We would read about dolphins or Ireland or percussion instruments or hundreds of other topics. And then we could take a test and prove that we understood what we’d read. We’d “self-grade” our tests and check that card off on our chart, and move to the next one. They were categorized by grade levels, and I think Kate and I were reading at grade level 13 in the third grade. I loved SRA.

The school library was almost as fabulous as the public library. We read periodicals and memorized the Dewey Decimal System,  which I continue to greatly prefer over the Library of Congress classification.  We didn’t have magazines at home, aside from the occasional grocery store splurge of a Good Housekeeping or Ladies Home Journal, but my Aunt Robbie was a member of the  National Geographic Society (one did not subscribe -but had to be a member of this elite organization). She saved their monthly magazines like precious thin golden encyclopedia in rows and rows in glass fronted oak bookshelves.

The library had Life and Time and Reader’s Digest and Boy’s Life. The doctor’s office had Highlights for Children. Does anyone remember “Goofus and Galant?” My first paid subscription was to My Weekly Reader.

I remember the first time the written word moved me to tears. I was about ten and the book was Toby Tyler, or  Ten Weeks With the Circus – and it was the part about the chimp, Mr. Stubbs. I won’t spoil it for you. But it was really sad.

Grandpa Hinkle gave me a Webster’s Dictionary for Christmas one year when I was about nine.  It was heaven.  A giant, hardbound book of words. I kept that big book under my pillow and would read it in bed at night. After lights out, I would read it under the covers. My mother just shook her head and rolled her eyes and pretended not to notice the flashlight glow coming from under my door.

Today, I am grateful for my cousins and all the reading teachers who came after them.  I am thankful to come from a family of readers, who allowed me to escape into a book and curl up in a corner and read from start to finish.   I savor the scent of a new book, and like to hold it in my hand and look at the cover and read the  flaps and the introduction and dedication.  I appreciate fine paper and readable fonts.

I love computers, but miss real card catalogs  – with little oak drawers filled with index cards with carefully typed  descriptions of each book and Mr. Dewey’s secret code number pointing  to its rightful place on the shelf.

My literary heroes include Pat Conroy and Wally Lamb and  Harper Lee and Flannery O’Connor, and all who can bring characters to life and lead me to wonder “what happened next,”  long after reading the last page.

And I am okay with this addiction. I have admitted it. But I don’t want to quit.  I have a stack of books next to my bed, and a book in the car, in case I get stopped by a train or tied up in traffic. Something in my handbag to read if I arrive at the restaurant early, and a stack of “need to reads” on the coffee table.

Today, a half-century after we met, I hope Tip and Mitten and  Jack and Janet have lived long and happy lives. I hope Harper Lee found happiness in her privacy. And Melvil Dewey got the credit he deserved.  And Pat Conroy is working on a new book.

Here’s to hardcover books with smooth dust jackets.  And epic paperbacks that swell up on beach vacations with salt water and sand. And My Weekly Reader. And readable fonts.

For now, I don’t need an iPad or a Kindle. But please don’t take away my library card.

Hello. My name is Diana. I am a reader…

Listening to: Gordon Lightfoot – “If You Could Read My Mind”

Spring Cleaning

This dreary, misty week has given me a chill.  And maybe the oak pollen casting a yellow cloud over everything in the Texas hill country has something to do with it. But I am not thinking very clearly this week.

For instance, I am obsessing about Spring Cleaning.  Here.  Now.  Get-‘er-done.

As Mark plans to watch Virginia Commonwealth in the Final Four this weekend, I am making a To-Do List.  I am bound and determined to get things in order. And I am making a plan.

As I grow older, I think I am showing signs of early-onset hoarding.   I like stuff. I have a hard time letting go. I need to nip this in the bud. This weekend.

What was Patrick’s room until he fled the nest, is now completely empty unless you count the new permanent home for the ironing board, which I quite honestly have not used since the Bush Administration.  HalleyAnna’s room still has a few things in it.  I will  make a schedule and start at that end of the house.

Should not take long to pick up the remnant rolls of Christmas wrapping paper,  the Scotch tape and scissors and ribbon left over from the holidays – trimmings that transformed Patrick’s room into the  holiday staging area. Two stray Christmas stockings are still tossed across the ironing board. Somehow, they missed getting packed away in the attic with the other holiday trimmings. So I’ll  stash them somewhere,  and wonder where the heck they are next December. 15 minutes.

Then I will take another run at excavating HalleyAnna’s room. She has taken everything she wants for the new digs in Austin. The Weezer poster and her high school letter jacket didn’t make the cut. Well-worn CDs that long ago lost their jackets are dealt like a hand of cards on the floor next to an old jam box. Kacey Chambers. Cake. The Best of Hank Thompson, Vol. II.  No time to dilly-dally. I can come back to reminisce later. 15 minutes.

Next up, my office. It looks like a cyclone hit. Receipts and tax forms are still sorted and piled, waiting to be filed away. But clutter reigns in a cozy way in this little corner of my world. I’ve been meaning to go through the stuff in that footlocker… and organize my CDs… and, is that my Flannery O’Connor anthology? Ah, so that’s where I put that box of Aunt Helen’s old letters and pictures.  Been meaning to read throgh those letters. Maybe I will save this room for later.

On to our bedroom. Open the windows. Dust and vacuum. Fluff the pillows and swifter the ceiling fan blades. 30 minutes.

And then into my closet.  Really, does a political tshirt ever become a collector’s item?  How many San Marcos High School Band Booster Mom shirts do I really need?  Do I really think I am ever going to fit into that “skort” – or want to wear it?  What was I thinking when I bought that awful  linen cropped pant suit?  And that short denim jacket was on triple markdown sale for a reason.

But I am not throwing out my dream jeans.  My skinnys.  No, not  those trendy “skinny” jeans of today.  Just a faded pair of old favorites that I can’t bear to think will never fit again.  And exactly  when does a single digit dream become fantasy?  Enough. Forget about the pile o’ shoes for now – it’s time to move on. 45 minutes tops.

What do you call the bathroom counter? The Vanity sounds so – well – vain. Dump the drawers and sweep off the counter top.  I am giving it 10 minutes and a large garbage bag.  This accumulation of product has got to go. I have seen how I look when I leave the house. It can’t possibly take that much product to get there. Open drawers and dump.

And then, back to the office. Take a break time. A frosty Topo Chico with a squeeze of lime will be in order.  Shove that pile of stuff off the sofa. Stack those magazines in the corner.  5 minutes.

Crank up the iTunes and settle in with Flannery for a while. Enough is enough.

Listening to: Bob Seger- “Old Time Rock N Roll”

You’ve Got A Friend

Partial rock heart collection at Billy Porterfield's House of Fables.

One of my favorite philosopher-thinker-historian-musicians stopped by my office a while back. Doctor G (aka Gregg Andrews) and his wife,  noted Civil War/Southern history author Vikki Bynum were back in town for a brief visit, from their new home in Missouri.

Our mile-a-minute conversation covered a lot of ground,  but the visit was too short. We made hard and fast plans to get together for lunch or dinner during Spring Break. Their Spring Break trip was derailed by illness, and I am sorry to have missed them.

They moved away from San Marcos a little over a year ago- settling back to Gregg’s hometown,  the Hannibal area of Missouri – Mark Twain country.  Before that, they lived about eleven houses down the street and around the corner from us.  Though we talked about it,  we never managed to get together for dinner or a glass of wine or an evening out, though we should have.

But since they packed up the cats and moved to the Mississippi River, we have probably talked on Facebook more than we did the whole time we lived in the same neighborhood.

That got me thinking about those “if onlys” and “should haves” along the way. How often have I thought about running over to Lockhart, or up to Fredericksburg,  or into New Braunfels,  or down to San Antonio,  and the need to make some time to see a good friend.

Just tonight, I mentioned to Mark that I really need to sit down and make some phone calls just to catch up with friends I have not talked to in a while. And before I knew it, the evening was gone.  I am still “old school” in that I don’t make phone calls after nine at night, unless it’s an emergency.

Thank goodness for Facebook.  And, hey, it’s not just for college kids anymore. In fact, I read that more than 18 million Facebook users are over 45.

So that’s where you’ve been keeping yourself.

Go ahead and say what you will about virtual friendships, but I believe that Facebook fills that gap left by disappearing front porches, back yards and neighborhoods, and free time.  I like being able to open the laptop at 2:30 in the morning and click on Recent News to see who among my friends has posted something.

And if someone complains too much or whines too much, I can “hide” them, which is effectively ignoring them without them noticing. How great is that?

And it’s like the world’s best family album –  and tag, you’re it.  At any hour, I can check in and see an old friend’s new grandbaby, or a prom picture from 1974, or one of our kids at a party – well – ok. What happens on Facebook stays on Facebook.

And I love it when Paul or Bill or Joe Nick posts a classic song or obscure one-hit-wonder from YouTube, or  HalleyAnna shares her latest songwriter feat, or Van Wilks is tagged in a Caribbean sunset shot.

It’s not all fun and games. Actually, I got caught up in virtual farming on Facebook a couple of years ago. It was horrible- and I had to quit cold turkey. If taking up walking was 2011’s life-changer for me, I would have to admit that 2010 kicked off with me giving up the “farm”  and gaining hours back in my day.  (I am a little taken by Facebook’s daily trivia quiz, Qrank, but it’s only a once-a-day addiction so I can maintain some control.)

I still lament the fact that I have not made time to spend an afternoon catching up with an old friend, and it’s been forever since my cousin and I have had a “wine night,” and we really do need to invite our tailgating buddies over for dinner in the off-season, but at this point in our  lives, that is not going to change the reality that we are growing ever shorter on time and longer on want-tos.

And so for now, if we don’t see one another as often as we’d like in real life, let’s check in on Facebook.

It’s a lot like my Aunt Robbie’s old front porch swing. You can just stop and sit there a while. And keep in touch, and not overthink what someone meant or said, and for the most part, just expect the best in most people.

And I like that.

See you around.

Listening to: Carole King – “You’ve Got A Friend”

Walking Wisdom and Quality Time

Yes. I wear these in public. (Reebok ZigTechs) And I have two pairs.

Historically, I am not a big fan of exercise. I admire people who do it. And I was pretty good at it back in the day.  Okay, that “day” is sort of a fuzzy dream like when middle-aged men sit around drinking beer and talking about their championship high school football team.

Now, I was not ever an athlete of the catch-a-ball/make-a-goal/win-the-game-at-the-buzzer sort, but I liked to dance,  and was completely caught up in the aerobics fitness era. I even owned Jane Fonda tights and big shirts and leg warmers,  and wore such fashion statements in public, like to the grocery store after class. And I clearly remember “feeling the burn.”

But that was then. We are talking last century.  Jane Fonda is going to be 74 this year.  (Can that be right?)

Indeed, a lot of water has gone under that bridge… and along the way, if cooking had been an Olympic sport, I coulda been a contender. I have never seen a food store I didn’t want to hike through – or a recipe I wouldn’t tackle, no matter how challenging.

Through the years, I have joined gyms and bought treadmills and exercise bikes and cute fitness clothes, appropriate for the  activity…. and dropped the memberships and used the treadmills for laundry racks and sold the exercise bikes in garage sales — and outgrown the fitness clothes.

But this year, I took up walking.  Okay. Yes. Walking. I know it’s not exactly an extreme sport.  One foot in front of the other. Left right left right. I started on January 2 with a new free app for my iPhone called Runkeeper.  My sister-in-law, Karen, told me about it on New Year’s Day. Not one to rush into things without forethought, I waited until Sunday to jump in with both feet.One at a time. I dug around and found my walking shoes. And two good cushy ankle socks that matched. And dug up the headphones that came with my iPhone.  And made a mix-tape (they call them playlists now) for walking.

I have learned a lot about walking in these first few months. It’s a lot more than just getting there. It is decadent, self-indulgent, me time, free for the taking. No sign-up fee, no monthly charges. Just step by step. Breathing deep cleansing outside unfiltered air.  Getting tired and a little out of breath. It’s good for the soul.

My first goal was 60 miles in 2011. Lofty? No. But if nothing, I know my limits and weaknesses – and lack of staying power when it comes to something that makes me sweat. But I did it that day, and the next, and the next. One mile, and then a little further, and a little more.

We have a good walking neighborhood. Not much traffic.  Friendly waves from neighbors I know and  even folks I don’t.  A few hills and lots to see and hear and smell. Streets I have driven for years with the windows rolled up, in climate controlled comfort. It’s funny how my senses have become more aware of all that is out there.

And today -a little more than  midway through March, I have walked more than 125 miles.  And it has become kind of addictive.  Early on, I decided to try to walk  seven miles a week — and passed my 60 mile mark sometime in mid-February. I found that some weeks seven miles turns into 10 or 12.   I am averaging 45 miles a month.

I have walked in freezing weather and  blustery wind, but I draw the line at precipitation. I have not walked in scorching heat yet. I usually walk in the afternoons, but I like the crisp cool mornings that weekends allow.

The music is good. I have literally thousands of songs on my iTunes account – some I have downloaded and some I have uploaded from cds.  While I have background music playing pretty constantly through my life at work and in my home office, and in my car, and in the kitchen, lately,  I had not had time to really listen.

But, wow! Walking is a great listening room.  No one talks over the music. No one walks in  and asks for something during the chorus, or calls in the middle of a great instrumental lead.  I  can listen to Walt Wilkins and Tony Bennett and ABBA and Israel Kamakawiwo’ole and Loretta Lynn and no one questions my format. And I can play a favorite over and over and over – and even sing along, because no one really listens to someone walking down the street.

I like walking with friends. Melissa has walked with me a lot. Mary Mikel and I catch up when our schedules allow. It’s a great way to visit, vent and laugh, albeit sometimes we do get a little out of breath on a steep grade.

But most of those miles have been solitary. That is when it is  completely, selfishly, totally my time. To think, listen, wonder, dream, and yes, even pray. There is much to be thankful for when you give yourself time to just be. Uninterrupted time with nothing required beyond putting one foot in front of the other allows mercy and grace some breathing room.

There is much to learn about our neighborhood. I have figured out who burns real wood and who warms the hearth with gas logs on cold days. I know who gets up early to mow their grass on Saturday mornings, and who has fresh fertilizer waiting to be spread.  Who rakes their leaves and who leaves them for the next strong wind. And who puts their garbage can out the day before, and who recycles. I know who grills on propane and who uses charcoal or mesquite or live oak  to cook their  weekend supper.   And the hoarder in me has fought the temptation to poke through the boxes of stuff at the curb when a trendy upscale neighbor moved to Dallas.

Along the way,  I got some trendy new Reebok ZigTech shoes. My friend, Bob Pankey,  is a gait expert and he told me to get my walking shoes a size larger than my normal shoes.  No kidding. But I did. They looked sort of like clown shoes at first. But he was right, and they are perfect. No shin aches or blisters or knee pain.  I learned to tie them like a marathon runner so the heel is tight and doesn’t slip.

And so it goes. 125 miles. Next goal, 200 miles by summer. Along the way, I have shed a few pounds, but more importantly, I have gained some personal space and quality time  that I didn’t even know was missing.

Try it. And if you have a smart phone, get one of those apps that tracks your distance. I like the accountability – and how the steps add up to miles.

Take a walk. To the mailbox or the street corner or around the block.  Make some quality time for yourself. When was the last time you did that?

Listening to: Walt Wilkins – “The Shape I’m In”

One Good Thing…

E Shafer Bookstore in Savannah, Georgia

E Shafer Bookstore in Savannah, Georgia

Around the first of the year, I discovered a quirky little website called “One Good Thing” that singles out life’s pleasures and promotes the idea of sharing the things that give us joy.

So is it too optimistic to look for One Good Thing every day in 2011?  They don’t all have to be trips to paradise or lottery wins. I think I can. And I bet you can, too.

Bundling up for a long winter walk with an old friend –or inhaling the aroma of a rich homemade cup of coffee with a sprinkle of cinnamon and a cloud of cream – or savoring the perfect light, with or without a camera in my hand – or an afternoon in a great bookstore – or a practically perfect date night at home with the great love of my life…

When you stop and think about them, it’s fun to come up with a list of good things we have stumbled across when we least expected them.

Stumbling into a real bookstore. Mastering an heirloom recipe. Making  a new friend. Celebrating a sunset. Sipping an icy beverage. Getting the perfect shot. Exploring a backroad.  Poking through a box of old photographs. Feeling sand between your toes.

They’re right. One good thing really does lead to another.

Come on. It’s your turn.

On your mark. Get set. Go.

Listening to: Deryl Dodd – “Good Things Happen When You’re Around”

Good To The Last Drop.

I drink coffee now.

Yes. It’s a new thing.

Diet Coke was my beverage of choice in the mornings. A boiling cup of joe couldn’t  hold a candle to that first chug of icy cold Diet Coke burning its way down my throat to wake me up.

I would buy a cup of mocha latte at the coffee shop once in a while but for the most part, the sound of the pop-top fizz was the sound of caffeine morning for me.

But then my mother gave us one of those fancy Keurig one-cup coffee makers for Christmas. And now, I have joined the majority of Americans who wake up and reach for the mug instead of the poptop.  And now, I drink coffee.  Plain and flavored.

I am not yet a purist. I don’t drink it straight – or black. I use  real half-and-half, and sometimes for fun, I even get that aerosol real whipped cream in the can and squirt it on top and add a sprinkle of cinnamon and a packet of Splenda.The ritual of fixing the perfect cup and then sitting down and savoring it  warming both hands around the mug is a big part of it.

There is nothing like leaning into the machine’s  personal counterspace and inhaling the aroma as the steamy liquid pours into my cup. There really is no better smell than coffee in the morning, no matter what Robert Duvall said in “Apocalypse Now.” But some mornings that quote does cross my mind.

And my new Keurig device makes tea, too. Hot and iced. Herbal and traditional. Have not figured out chai tea yet.  Someone is going to have to teach me to love chai tea. I hear it is a little like scotch whiskey. An acquired taste. I am a fast learner when it comes to beverages. I took to Chivas and Black Bottle after a few tries, so I can probably learn.

And meanwhile, I have even “registered” with the Keurig coffee pot club online and ordered a giant shipment of coffee to be delivered to my front door (free shipping).  My go-to everyday coffee is Kona. Sometimes I go to the coffee ordering website and pour over the flavors. I wonder what Creme Brulee coffee tastes like. Or “Jamaica Me Crazy” decaf.

Okay,  enough of the Joe talk. Yes. I am just a tiny bit obsessed.  I think I’ll have a cup of Sleepytime herbal tea with a splash of lemon and hit the sack. Morning comes early.

Listening to: Guy Clark – “Instant Coffee Blues”

The Obituary Club

Clockwise, Janice Williams, Joan Kornblith, Diana Hendricks, Denise Boudreaux, Jenni Finlay (Lana didn't make the shoot!)

I am not quite sure how it came about, but I am a charter member of a small but unique organization, The Obituary Club. We are an unlikely group of women. Men are not discouraged from joining our group, but none have yet to actually step forward. So for now,  Jenni and Janice and Joan and Denise and Lana and I make up this odd group. Our ages range from early 30s to mid 50s.

We meet regularly via email. Our mission is to make note of the passing of important, infamous, or otherwise notable people. Bonus points are given to the member who breaks the story, but I don’t think anyone actually keeps score.  Sounds a little weird – maybe looks a bit morbid at first glance, but bear with me here.

Most of us have done time as “professional” obituary writers at some point in our careers. One of Jenni’s first assignments on the college newspaper, of which she later became editor, was writing the obit for the beloved dean. (Challenging since she didn’t know him, but so moving that they blew it up displayed it). Radio professional Janice has had to announce deaths on the air – breaking the news of celebrities’ demise.  And Joan has the most world-wide acclaim: having written some of the most memorable obit essays about celebrities for radio’s Voice of America.  My favorite: her obit for Mary Travers of Peter, Paul & Mary fame.

I didn’t just fall into this club by accident. I come from a long line of obituary aficionados. My grandpa used to hand deliver funeral notices all over Lockhart. Is anyone old enough to remember those?  Small town funeral homes used to print funeral notices on little squares of paper with black borders,  and take them around and put them on peoples’ doors.  In towns that only had  weekly newspaper, that was the only way to be assured that you got the word out in time for folks to attend the service.

While she was not a great fan of death in general, my (great-)Aunt Robbie was a true fan of funerals and well-written obituaries. She would say, “Did you see Miss Jackson’s obit in The Paper, this afternoon? It was a good one.” Or, “Pennington’s sure did a nice job on Marjorie. She didn’t look plastic. I’d hate to look plastic like some do.”

And, of course, “You know, he was a good Methodist. So we all went back there after the service. Lois made those chicken salad sandwiches I like so much. Only white meat and real mayonaise.”  And, “Someone took them a bucket of store-bought fried chicken.  Umm. Umm. Didn’t even put it on a platter. I swan…”

And, as has become a family saying, my favorite expression that Aunt Robbie used to use, when I drop by her house after work -and before the paper hit the street, “Did anybody good die?” (Good in this interpretation was not actually referring to the heart and soul, of course, but newsworthy.)  My mother still asks that sometimes, when calling from Houston – wondering about the goings-on in San Marcos.

When I was the features editor of The Paper, obituaries were on my beat. Sometimes, I would be asked to write the obit, but most came pre-written by the families- through the funeral home.  I know a good obituary when I see it.

The information superhighway is a long way from walking door to door in Lockhart delivering the news. Random death announcements pop up during the day. We stumble across something in the online edition of New York Times or the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

A couple of our members even subscribe to an online Celebrity Death Watch that notifies them directly when somebody good dies. My husband helps me. If he sees a death announcement in his web-surfing, he will instant message me and say, “Did anyone post Dandy Don Meredith yet?” And sometimes, just as news pops up on the evening news, my iPhone bings with a message from one of the club members. Drat! I missed being the “first to know-first to tell.”

Every obituary we post is not necessarily one of celebrity status. When Mr. Hada died in San Marcos, I had to tell the group about him, because he was the only chicken sexer I had ever known.  Janice posted one recently about oldest guy in that “We’ve been to every Super Bowl” club, who was too weak to go this year. She thinks he may have died from heartbreak  for having to miss the game.

Nearly forgotten celebs whose names conjure up memories are always newsworthy. Mitch Miller and Jack Lalane, Barbara Billingsley, Sargent Shriver…

Sometimes these posts take us off on tangents. When Jane Russell died, most of our group were of a generation who didn’t think of her as a voluptuous movie star as much as the “Cross-Your-Heart bra” spokesperson who touted the Playtex 18-Hour Bra “for us full-figured gals.”

We all swapped emails about bras for about a week. Department store fittings, appropriate foundations, when they should be discarded, car wreck concerns,  etc.  (Maybe this is a reason we don’t have a rush of men in our numbers.)  But Jane was not our first bra-related obit.

The New York Times has some of the best obits in journalism today.  Their ledes draw you into the life story of the departed, whether you’ve heard of them or not.  Take Selma Koch, for instance:

Selma Koch, a Manhattan store owner who earned a national reputation by helping women find the right bra size, mostly through a discerning glance and never with a tape measure, died Thursday at Mount Sinai Medical Center. She was 95 and a 34B.

Now, that is a good one.

Oh yeah, and  they really do go in threes. Aunt Robbie had heard the Indian legend  that people die in threes because it takes three to paddle the boat across the waters to the Happy Hunting Ground.  And that does make sense. So we try to count. Or we say, “There you go – he would be the third.”

Elizabeth Edwards and Dandy Don were in the boat with Barney Miller actor Steve Landesberg. I’ll bet that was an entertaining canoe trip. I hope Elizabeth got to laugh a lot.

Listening to Shelley King’s  “Welcome Home.”