Last month at my 50th high school reunion, I chatted with a Michael G. Vail, a classmate who had just published his first novel. And since I know how difficult it is for unknown writers to get the word out about their books, I bought it and read it.
The title and lack of cover art gave me no clue as to the genre or subject matter. A spy thriller? Historical fiction? A military saga? So, I just started reading, hoping I could review it positively.
I am relieved to say that I can.
It turns out to be a modern heroic tale. Think Don Quixote living in Southern California in the late 20th century. Our unlikely hero, workaholic Micah Wada, is a facilities planner for the San Juan Cajon School District which is facing the impossible situation of massive overcrowding and nowhere to grow. Contentious factions, including the school board, city hall, California State Legislature, and the diverse population of the community must come to consensus or lose funding for a proposed and much needed new high school. Economic, cultural, and racial issues are pitted against each other. And then there is a suspicious death of a prominent woman.
Micah is a widower and has built his very successful professional life around solving such problems, but his failure as a father gnaws at his conscience. His teenage son ran away four years ago and he has no idea where he is.
If you have ever worked for a school or municipality, or wondered why public projects take forever to accomplish–this story will likely resonate with you. Mike’s insider knowledge–borne of a career as a manager of facilities and construction for some of California’s largest school districts—illuminates the challenges of balancing conflicting interests for the greater good.
Mike even left room at the end to carry the story forward. Good job!
Three weeks ago, I attended my fiftieth high school reunion and it was amazing. Simply amazing. Amazing that it’s been fifty years since graduation. Amazing to reconnect with those friends. Most amazing though, was that despite my advanced age, the friends I made at Valencia High Schoolare still teaching me things or at least reinforcing lessons I’ve learned along the way.
For over forty years, I have lived in Northern Nevada (near Tahoe, not Vegas) and 500 miles from my home town ofPlacentia, Californiajust east of Los Angeles. However, because of the internet, I could serve as part of the “virtual” planning committee. I helped with social media posts, emails, and some cyber-sleuthing. I learned to search county assessors’ records for addresses, proving that you can indeed teach an old dog a new trick.
As plans progressed we were excited to reconnect with long-lost friends and enjoyed many virtual reunions on Facebook and via email. You see, some of us had started kindergarten together when our little town was a sleepy place in the heart of Orange County, surrounded by orange groves. Our downtown boasted a packing house next to the train tracks and a Rexall drugstore with a soda fountain. The population was less than 2K in 1950. By 1968 it had grown ten times to over 20K. Much of that growth was due to the burgeoning aerospace industry for which Placentia became a bedroom community. Today the population of Placentia is about 52K.
And while I’ve been gone from Southern California for decades, others never left. They are still friends with and see each other in real life—not just on Facebook. A few married their high school sweethearts.
Over one hundred attended the party. Some flew in from across the country. One flew in from his home in Denmark. I’m sure there were many bionic hips and knees, and some spinal fusions and cataract surgeries, and surely a few heart attacks, strokes, and cancer scares. Still, it was surprising–given we are all the same age–the range of how old we looked. Some were still rockin’ on the dance floor–and playing in the band!–until midnight. Others used a cane or a scooter to get around. Some had changed so much that I could have passed them on the street and not known them. Others retained so much of their youthful selves that aside from wearing glasses and a few extra pounds, I would have known them anywhere. A few looked 45 at most. (I’m looking at you, Theresa, Judy, and Gail!) Some looked 80. Happily, I think I was somewhere in the middle.
I’ve learned that how we age is not only the choices we make. It’s not all about sunscreen, exercise, and low-carbs. It’s a matter of our genetics, what life throws our way, and how we weather those challenges. Illness, family tragedies, financial stresses, and access to healthcare all work to age us and make us look and feel older than we are. I know I’ve been lucky and am grateful.
I have to admit some trepidation about how we’d get along for an evening, consdering the horrific, hateful state of American politics–and the presence of alcohol. This was Orange County, after all. Reagan Country and the home of the Nixon Presidential Library and Museum. But I shouldn’t have worried. No one talked politics, at least not in my presence and I hopped from group to group all night. We were simply so happy to see one another that potential bones of contention just didn’t come up. Go figure.
Happily, I discovered that I would choose many of these people as friends again. They are still smart, kind, compassionate, and funny—the same qualities I look for in new friends. I had good taste, even in high school. A prime example is my long-time, long-distance friendship with Bruce who was one of my two handsome and charming “dates” for the evening. The other was my brother, one of my favorite people in the world.
I also learned that reminders of our mortality are everywhere. Of the nearly 400 members of the class of 1968, thirty had passed—that we know of. They had succumbed to the Vietnam War, suicide, AIDs, cancer, heart attacks, and accidents. Given our age, this will become much more common. In fact, three classmates have passed just since the reunion. I know there are more goodbyes in our future.
My biggest regret however, was that the reunion was simply too short. There wasn’t enough time to sit and visit with more than a few people. The cancer researcher who was in my wedding. Two retired nurses who moved across the country to live near their children. The she who used to be he. The surfer girl who settled in Idaho. And a dozen more…
Sadly, this reunion will likely be the last for many of us. Maybe we shouldn’t wait ten years to get together again at our 60th. At our age, just being alive is something worth celebrating, right? I think 55 years sounds good. Or maybe 51.
“The choices I didn’t make are almost as ruinous as the ones I did.”
What a lovely gift my good friend Linda gave me for Christmas. A Lowcountry Heartis a fine collection of the last bits of writing by Pat Conroy, who died in the spring of 2016. His friends and family gathered a few of his blog posts, speeches, and letters and put them together in a lovely tribute to this big-hearted, story-loving, low-country man. Since it’s Pat Conroy, and I can’t ever hope to match his words, I’ve just picked a few quotes to share with you.
“Though I’ve never met a teacher who was not happy in retirement, I rarely meet one who thinks that their teaching life was not a grand way to spend a human life.”
“Teaching remains a heroic act to me, and teachers live a necessary and all-important life. We are killing their spirit with unnecessary pressure and expectations that seem forced and destructive to me. Long ago I was one of them. I still regret I was forced to leave them. My entire body of work is because of men and women like them.”
“No one warned me that a teacher could fall so completely in love with his students that graduation seemed like the death of a small civilization.”
“…a novel is always a long dream that lives in me for years before I know where to go to hunt it out.”
“It is not long life I wish for—it is to complete what I have to say about the world I found around me from boyhood to old age.”
“It was at the writing desk that I would be made or broken. In every biography of every writer, that was the secret to our kingdom of words. No other measurement counted for anything at all.”
On the veracity of his memoirs:
”None of them will be true word-for-word…It’s some version of the truth, even though I’m telling you right now it’s probably not going to be yours.”
“If a story is not told, it’s the silence around the untold story that ends up killing people. The story can open a secret up to the light.”
He is generous in his praise for other authors and the act of reading widely. Aspiring writers should take note.
“A great book took me into worlds where I was never supposed to go. I met men whose lives I wished to make my own and men whom I would cheerfully kill. Great writers introduced me to women I wanted to marry and women who would make me run for my life.”
Conroy’s troubled early life, schooling, and profound sense of place provided all the material he needed to make a career as a novelist. Like many readers, I’m sad there won’t be any more books by him. I really don’t think you can go wrong with any of his books, but these are my favorites. Which ones have you liked best?