Thursday, June 24, 2010


My family and I have been really fortunate to spend several days in Hilton Head, SC. It’s a working vacation. Heidi and I have been giving workshops to teachers in Blufton, SC. While we have had to prepare for these extensively by reviewing videos and notes, making copies of student writing samples, making DVDs, listening to tapes of classroom conversations, etc., it is work we love. And, hey, someone has to come to the beach to work with these brilliant teachers in this beautiful environment.

We got here a couple days early and are staying near the beach. From our window we can see a wide expanse of the beach. While there is spectacular diversity of wildlife here, I have been studying the brown pelicans. Order: Pelecaniformes
Family: Pelecanidae
Genus/Species: Pelecanus occidentalis

Pelicans have interested me since we moved here. But honestly, I always thought they looked a little goofy. Their bills are so big and heavy and their heads so large in proportion to their bodies that they seem a little top-heavy when they are standing. Stock Photography: Brown Pelican with summer plumageBut the more I watch them, the more I appreciate their beauty, how wonderfully they fit into their world. How clever to have those huge saggy pouches to capture and hold their prey. Their bills are so incredibly long and powerful. Their flight seems effortless when they skim inches above the ocean water.

animals, birds, ecuador, equator, flight, galapagos, galapagos islands, horizontal, islands, latin america, pacific ocean, pelicans, south pacific, wild, photograph

Sometimes they fly by the window, right in front of the porch (which I always want to call a lanai). I have been able to get almost eye-to-eye with these birds. Their wingspan is longer than I am tall – over six feet. Often they fly in a diagonal line formation and it is fascinating to watch. They all glide for a while. When they begin to lose altitude the one in the lead flaps its wings. Then the one behind. And then the one behind that one. As you watch there is this ripple of wings from front to back. Stock Photography: Brown Pelican in Flight at Sunset in CaliforniaIt’s almost as if they are doing “the wave”. Just now as I was watching a line of 15 or so, the one at the end of the formation broke off and ascended in a slow spiral. Then it dove, folding in its wings back and piercing the water. How did it learn that, I wonder. Did it just come out of the egg knowing that move? Was it demonstrated? When another line of pelicans flew by, it flew up to join them. Awe inspiring. Truly.

I have not seen one on the beach. They are not scavengers of the leftovers of humans like the rowdy crows or the crafty gulls. They stay out over the ocean feasting on nature’s fare. And there seems to be a lot of it. When the baitfish are near the surface, the pelicans spread out, each within its own column, circling and diving. Then lifting off, circling higher and higher; then diving again. It’s really quite graceful, quite simple, quite elegant.

They often glide just over the surface of the water. When the ocean is calm you can see their reflections below as they skim past. When there are big waves, they tilt their wings, catching just the right force to air-surf under the curls. Their life out there above and among the waves is steady. Predictable, I imagine. They do very well, thank you very much.

Brown Pelicans in Flight

Then CNN, NPR, the newspapers, the internet. Then the Gulf Oil Spill. It is the most bizarre feeling to know that as I write this millions of gallons of oil have spewed into our beloved Gulf. My Gulf. Your Gulf. So much oil that the most astute scientists can only guess. We’re talking 2.5 million gallons per day. I can’t even get my head around that. Anywhere from 67 million to 127 million gallons have fouled the waters since the April 20th explosion. And it keeps gushing, and gushing. At 2.5 million gallons per day, thousands of gallons, tens of thousands of gallons have spilled into the Gulf since I started writing. And it keeps gushing and gushing.

And when you Google “pelicans, oil spill” BP’s site comes up first as a “sponsored link” (read: paid-for-so-they-get-the-first-word). Learn about BP’s progress on the oil spill cleaning efforts… Learn how wildlife is being saved from the recent oil spill… Support the Nature Conservancy’s Fund for the Gulf coast restoration!... When you go to BP’s site, the propaganda would be laughable if the situation wasn’t so tragic. Because the oil keeps gushing, and gushing.

“We’ve helped organize the largest environmental response in this nation’s history… More than 3 million feet of boom, 30 planes and over 1,300 boats are working to protect the shoreline… Where oil reaches the shore, thousands of people are ready to clean it up… We know it is our responsibility to keep you informed and do everything we can to make sure this never happens again.”

I have seen BP’s ad campaign. It cost them over $50 million. They want us to know how sorry they are for this whole mess. But when you see the ads you know that the oil is still gushing and gushing, out of control. While the BP officials were complaining that Americans don’t appreciate all of their clean-up efforts because of all the negative attention, the oil was gushing and gushing. Are we supposed to pity them? And while Mr. Hayward was apologizing for the disruption in the lives of so many he had to add, “There’s no one who wants this over more than I do. I’d like my life back.” It’s hard for me to feel sorry for Mr. Hayward because 11 lives were lost in the explosion. Those 11 men will never get their lives back. Their families will never see them again. Last weekend Mr. Hayward went yachting. I'm guessing the families of those 11 men killed didn't have such a great weekend. And that spill is still out of control, leaking out millions of gallons of poison every day in a catastrophe so large that we have no idea how long the deadly effects will last. No idea.

Will The Gulf Oil Leak Camera Sink President Barack Obama?              It Is Almost Impossible To Avoid The Live Video Of The Coal-gray Oil Gushing From Bp's Well A Mile... Washington

Hayward was correct in the ad campaign when he said, “The Gulf oil spill is a tragedy that never should have happened.” That is an absolutely true statement. When BP Oil Co. submitted their environmental impact studies to build an oil rig tapping into the earth a mile underneath the Gulf of Mexico, the first thing their researchers were to consider was “worst case scenario”. I guess that didn’t happen. Because this is the worst case scenario and they were totally unprepared because when we woke up this morning and when we go to bed tonight, the oil will be gushing and gushing.

The slow work of collecting oil that's come ashore on Pensacola Beach, Fla.

BP may be sincerely sorry for this tragedy. I hope so. I know they’ll throw a LOT of money at the problem. Some of the fisherman and shrimpers this mess has put out of business, fishermen whose family’s livelihoods have come from the Gulf for generations, may be hired to clean up the mess. BP spokesman Hayward says they intend to make it right. But what about the pelicans? What about the gulls and starfish, the fish, the turtles, the sand dollars and hermit crabs?

Those pelicans belong to you. They belong to me. They belong to the earth. While BP worries about their image, spending millions of dollars so that we know they, “helped organize the largest environmental response in this nation’s history,” they killed our pelicans. Should we be grateful about their response to the largest environmental disaster in the history of the world? The disaster that came directly from their greed, deceit and oversight? Right now, as I look out the window and see these magnificent pelicans making their way the same as they have for thousands and thousands of years, the oil keeps gushing. And gushing.


Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Am I Blessed or Am I Lucky?

This one I wrote in April of last year. This story came up again this weekend when I went to visit my mom and step-dad in NC. I was in the car with my mom and asked her to listen to this David Wilcox song, "Big Mistake". I got to hang out with DW a few weeks ago at a musical retreat and understood once again why I think he is such a master singer/song writer (more about that in future posts). Anyway, we were riding along, listening to this song and I told her a bit of this story. It wasn't very clear at the time, but when you write... I don't know, things just seem to fit. And you can edit out the pauses and goofs. So here is a rerun from last April.

Am I Blessed Or Am I Lucky?

I am a lot of things. I am a dad, a husband, a teacher, a brother, a son. I am not a preaching man. I could never be. I’m not preaching here. Just telling a story.

Our lives are made of critical incidents, right? When you think back on the people and episodes in your life, there are some really big ones and some lesser ones, which make you who you are. These stories and events changed our worlds.

Among mine are…

*Deciding to go to college, although it never felt like a choice, more like an assumption. Thanks, Mom and Dad.

*Living in Wright Quad when I got to college, only because my high school girlfriend and one of my best friends were going to live there. My girlfriend immediately broke up with me, leaving me thinking that I should be living ANYWHERE else but that dorm.

*Taking this Crafts and Design class where I met Heidi Mills (who lived in the afore mentioned dormitory), and we started walking home together from class, and we started sharing our stories, and we started dating, and we fell in love, and we made our lives together.

*Moving to South Carolina because it was the first place Heidi got offered a job teaching at the university after receiving her doctorate. Within days she got other offers, but it was SC first so this is where we ended up.

*Trying to have kids. Not being able to have kids. “The great science experiment” trying to get pregnant. Getting pregnant – identical twins. Heidi miscarrying.

*Finally deciding to adopt. On that very day – that critical day we made the decision to adopt – our friend Amy connected us to a doctor, a birth mother. Six weeks later Devin came into our lives.

*Nine months later getting pregnant with Colin.

Any and all of these critical incidents in my life could have gone another direction. Any small change could have altered everything that followed. My entire future may have evolved into something completely different over something really small. What if I worked in the steel mill the way my dad did and didn’t go to college? What if Heidi and I ended up in different sections of that art class and we didn't walk home together? What if Heidi got a job offer closer to home before getting the offer from USC? There are countless ways my life could have been different. But this path, this life led me here; to my people, to this area. Was I just lucky?

Several years ago, I went to a show with a couple of buddies. It was a Jack Johnson and Ben Harper concert. The concert was in Charleston at a baseball field. It was incredible. The weather was perfect; sunshine, skin temperature, low humidity. The music sublime. I mean Jack Johnson and Ben Harper, how could it not be? They even did a couple songs together. It was one of the best musical experiences ever for me.

My friends and I almost didn’t go. One of the guys wasn’t feeling well. We didn’t even know if there would be tickets still available. We took a chance and it worked out.

As we were leaving and sort of letting the event sink in, we were driving across a bridge and watched as the sunset filled the sky with brilliant light. Every sunset is special but this one, on the heels of such wonderful music seemed extra somehow. I said, without thinking it through very much, “You guys, are we blessed or what?”

Well, my buddy Dean said, “I’m guessing you mean lucky, as in, ‘Are we lucky, or what?’”

“Yeah. Sure. We are lucky. But I mean, to be in this place, that music, this sunset, all of it is just so… God. You know what I mean?”

“Not really,” Dean said. “It’s all chance.”

“What do you mean, chance?”

“I don’t really believe in a god, per se.”

“Per se,” I repeated.

“No, god is an invention of man.”

“Really,” I replied flatly.

“Sure, we are the products of evolution, natural selection, mutations. It’s all chance, man.”

“Chance. You think all of this is chance.” We looked out at the beautiful horizon. Beams of brightly colored light were spokes across the wheel of sky, the setting sun the hub. Where the sky was clear it was deep blue, almost indigo. “Tonight’s music? What we felt about the music? That’s just the result of evolution?”

Dean went back over what he knew about evolution. Mutations. Some mutations are favorable. Those organisms with the favorable mutations have a better chance of reproducing effectively and passing on their traits. Over millions of generations…

It was a pretty long recitation and I knew the information. I totally believe in evolution too. The question isn’t if evolution occurs. We know it does. That’s the fact part. The theory part of evolution is… how.

But that music. That couldn’t be merely passing on favorable mutations. That music was too much. Too beautiful to be just the result of chance.

The conversation was a long one. We were a couple of hours away from home and it lasted the whole way. Dean with his chance and mutation way of looking at how we turned out as humans.
“What do you think happens to us when we die?” I asked.

His body was just meat, he said. “What happens to meat?”

I said, “Don’t forget the potatoes!” I’m sure it was sarcastic of me to coin his view of the universe and human change as meat and potatoes. But of course, I did.

I had no empirical evidence to the contrary but it just seemed logical to me that there had to be some guidance in the process. Some overarching hand.

My proof? Well, that was unclear. Because I do believe in evolution. But I don’t believe that I am where I am today just because of chance. Proof? I guess it comes down to love.

Could the accidental mutation of chromosomes which resulted in more positive outcomes for some members of the species and a quick end to others be responsible for the love I feel for Heidi Mills? For my boys? For my family and my students? I don’t think so. Could that feeling I get when I am kissed be the result of chance? Of meat and potatoes?

Love is the only proof that I need that this life isn’t just an accident. I see God in lots of things now. More proof that the universe wasn’t just a big mistake. God is in kindness, forgiveness, compassion. Yesterday was the fifteenth anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda. Way over a million people were killed in three months. Over ten thousand a day. Fifteen years later they have picked up the pieces after that terrible time. They are forgiving and being forgiven. That is God. That is my proof.

That ride home with those two friends was one of those pivotal, life changing episodes for me, one of those critical incidents. Honestly, I had been going to church for several years. I mostly did it for our boys so they could grow up in a church. I went to church because Heidi wanted to go. I went to church for the music and the fellowship. I went to church for the occasional sermon that moved me and made me think. I was on cruise control. I hadn’t given the existence of God a whole lot of thought. Like going to college, I was just operating under the assumption of God. Not the white-bearded God who sits on a throne in judgment, surrounded by cumulus clouds with an angry look on HIS face. Not the lightening-bolt-throwing-God. Just… God.

Talking to my atheist friend helped me fit together pieces that had been floating around in my mind for my whole life I guess. That simple experience helped me to clarify and distill a lot of basics. Proof? I had all the proof I needed that God exists. I just hadn’t put the pieces together for a while. I needed that conversation.

I am not a preaching man. I could never be. My friend didn’t change his mind about the existence of a god. Maybe I wasn’t convincing enough. I would never claim to know the specifics; I would never claim to know what God thinks. I don’t know, for example, why bad things happen to good people.

I can tell you what DID happen to me that day. My friend, who is as devout an atheist as anyone I know, helped me to understand that God does exist and that all of this isn’t just a big mistake. Ironic, huh?

I’ll end this post with the lyrics to a favorite song by a favorite singer/songwriter David Wilcox. In this tune, David fits together more “proof” that this life isn’t just a big mistake. “To have lips that smile as I swim your kiss…” "The fact that anyone could find their only one along this darkened path..." No, it is so much more than a Big Mistake. Am I lucky, or am I blessed?

I embedded a cool little ramble by DW about the miracles happening in our bodies. I've been thinking a lot about that lately. I think it fits here.

Big Mistake – by David Wilcox

They taught us kids in school between the recess breaks
That the universe just sorta fell together like a Big Mistake
It started with a bang that sent the pieces flying
Then it cooled and twirled into dinosaurs and dandelions

It was a Big Mistake to have eyes that see
To have love like this inside of me
To have lips that smile as I swim your kiss
To have minds that will forever be every part of this
All the moonlight shrouded in the clouds above and
The autumn leaves and the falling love
The still reflection in the moonlit lake
All, they said, it was a big mistake, it was a big mistake

Now back to science class through the looking glass
We were magnifying little ancestors of our ancient past
Watch 'em break a couple chromosomes, wait a zillion years or so
And get an ostrich, a jellyfish, a kangaroo, and a Romeo

It was a Big Mistake to have eyes that see
To have love like this inside of me
To have lips that smile as I swim your kiss
To have minds that will forever be every part of this
All the moonlight shrouded in the clouds above and
The autumn leaves and the falling love
The still reflection in the moonlit lake
All, they said, it was a big mistake, it was a big mistake

The choreography of a coincidence
At the turning point there was eternity behind a moment's glance
It was for you and me the timing made us laugh
The fact that anyone could find their only one along this darkened path

It was a Big Mistake to have eyes that see
To have love like this inside of me
To have lips that smile as I swim your kiss
To have minds that will forever be every part of this
All the moonlight shrouded in the clouds above and
The autumn leaves and the falling love
The still reflection in the moonlit lake
All, they said, it was a big mistake, it was a big mistake

I am blessed.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

My Prayer

There is nothing like a serious health issue to make one grateful for life and blessings. If you know me, you could probably predict that my mind and heart would go to the darkest places. Would Heidi be OK? How about my boys – now young men? What about my students? My little school? My friends and acquaintances? Who would love up my dog? This was a wake up call. An accounting of sorts.

All kinds of questions kept bubbling up. Have I been a good enough father, husband, friend, teacher, brother, son? Have I done what I could to leave this world a better place? Have I affected others in a positive way?

But I'm putting the cart before the horse.

A few weeks ago I went to the dermatologist. I had some lesions removed that looked suspicious. It happens every time I go. No big deal. Days later I got a message at school to call the doctor’s office. Again, no big deal, I thought. It was just to tell me that everything checked out fine. I was in no rush to return the call.

Then Lyn, my principal and dear friend, came in to tell me to CALL THE DERMATOLOGIST! OK, serious. Maybe a big deal. I stood outside my classroom on the phone looking in as Lyn took over my lesson. I got the receptionist. “Wait just a moment to talk to the doctor, please’” she said. Talk to the doctor? When was the last time I talked to a doctor on the phone? Never. OK, probably a big deal.

“Mr. O’Keefe, I am really sorry to have to tell you this…” were her first words to me. The rest of the conversation remains a blur. But I heard the words invasive and malignant and melanoma in the same sentence. That could not be good. She said that I needed to make an appointment to see an oncologist and a surgeon. She recommended ones she preferred. The words as soon as possible were also in there. I took notes on a piece of scratch paper that was near the door. They were nearly unintelligible. I don’t really remember the last few hours of school that day. I must have been on autopilot. My apologies to my students.

Fast forward. The skin biopsy from your right anterior chest showed… Phone calls. Consultations. …invasive malignant melanoma… The love of my family. Trips to the surgeon and the oncologist. Breslow thickness of 1.38 mm Being surrounded by beautiful third graders. Prayers from family, new friends and old friends. The lesion had no connection with the epidermis Reading about this on line. Consulting Ruthie O'Keefe– my family doctor. unusual for a primary melanoma skin cancer My own prayers of thankfulness for these 53 years, my family, my students. Encouragement from friends and family. I recommend that you see a general surgeon Not knowing who to tell. Not wanting to be a whiner but needing to talk about it. a general surgeon for a complete excision and a sentinel node biopsy… The hectic end of the school year. Saying goodbye to my children after two years together. You may need MRI or PET CT scans… Insomnia, bad dreams. Music to fill me up. This is important to take care of these things as soon as you are able…

And so it went. Office visits, scans, bolting right after school for doctor visits, insurance questions, the support of my family, my teacher friends, my church friends.

Yesterday was the surgery. Heidi hung out with me all day, chatting me up while I had radioactive injections around the site (ouch!), was scanned to find the lymph node, waited in the hospital bed for hours before surgery, loving on me. We talked to the doctors, the nurses, the anesthesiologists. After all of the meds were given, the IV put in place; when the nurse anesthetist gave me the final shot she said would make it so I “wouldn’t care” about what was going to happen, Heidi kissed me and said that she loved me. She flashed me that bright intense smile, her special reserve brilliant smile, the one that only I get, the one that says I’ll love you forever, no matter what happens. Just what I needed.

They wheeled me toward surgery. I was expecting to feel out of it, but I had this amazing moment of clarity. I said a prayer of thanks for all of these years, for my sons, my mom and dad and siblings, my students and friends, for music and my home in the woods, for all of the goodness in my life. It felt right. “Hey, I still care,” I said to the nurse anesthetist. She gave me another shot and then it was lights out.

We still have a few days to wait to be sure that the pathology report is good. It will be. I’m a little sore. Not bad, really.

I got up this morning FULLY AWAKE. My prayers are those of gratitude. I’ve got it made and I know it. I’ve got SO much to be thankful for.

I’ll end this post with a song I wrote about 10 years ago. It’s funny when you come back to something you’ve written long ago and find that it has new meaning. This one really does.

My Prayer

I am thankful for this golden day

And for all of the beauty that lies in my way

For music – for laughter and for all these friends of mine

For family and children and the precious gift of time

I am grateful for all that’s been and all that lies ahead

For patience and kindness and – yes – my daily bread

To live every day as if it were my last

To leave all my yesterdays far in the past

For the changing of leaves and the sky so blue

For the sparkling green eyes of my love so true

I am grateful for this golden day

And for all of the beauty that lies in my way

I am grateful.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Last Day of School

Someone gave this to me years ago. I think it is from one of those Chicken Soup books. It says a lot about how I feel today. I am very blessed to be where I am today, doing exactly what I love.

A quiet tension fills the room
On this last day of school
I expected the exuberance and rowdiness,
But that came yesterday
When there was still one more day to go.
Today the children are disturbingly subdued.
I am embarrassed by my own emotions;
I cannot look at the children directly.

The room is so blank.
The desks are cleaned out.
The last traces of the party have been swept away.
The charts and posters are down for the summer.

So now we sit quietly,
Too wrought even for songs and games,
And we wait for our rides to come.

I expect to see these children again, of course,
But it won’t be the same.
They know it,
And I know it.

They will come around to see me,
Jealous of the new class.
And I will look at a room of little strangers
And miss the familiar faces.

In time
The strangers will become friends.
But every class is different and special;
No new group of children will ever take the place
Of the one leaving me today.