Remembrances of 9/11/2001

I love driving by the stunningly beautiful Pepperdine University campus, located on Pacific Coast Highway overlooking the Malibu coast, especially in early fall.  Just 10 miles from my home, I passed it on my commute twice a day, every day, for about 17 years. The university’s close proximity was a key factor in the decision to earn my doctorate from Pepperdine. Regrettably, the day before classes started, I learned that all of my classes would be offered on an annex campus near Los Angeles International Airport, another 30 miles down the road. A little more research on my part would have been helpful. But I have no regrets, as I had a fantastic experience, and since the year 2000 I’ve been a proud graduate representing the orange and blue of the Pepperdine Waves.

Every September, Pepperdine staff and volunteers start their meticulous project of erecting 2,997 flags, one for each victim of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. There are flags from every nation that lost a citizen on that fateful day. It’s overwhelming and beautiful, especially when the Pacific Ocean breeze is blowing (which is most of the time), and the flags are all unfurled and waving proudly in the same direction. I’m grateful to Pepperdine for giving us this powerful annual reminder that we should never forget.

Just a few of the thousands of flags at Pepperdine. I felt fortunate to have the time to actually walk amongst the flags late Friday afternoon.

Like all of us who are old enough to recall our lives 20 years ago, I remember where I was that morning. I was getting ready to start my 30-minute commute to my job as principal of Malibu High School when my mother-in-law called. She told me that planes had crashed into each of the twin towers in New York and that I should turn on the TV. Well, we did not have a TV at that time – I was experimenting to see if not having one would improve my life (it did not) – so we turned on the radio instead. I heard the chaos and I knew I had to get to school. I was almost at Malibu High when the radio announcers gasped as they watched the first tower collapse. It was unfathomable, and it took a moment to process what was happening, as the announcers were truly overwhelmed by the horror of the moment. In retrospect, their reaction and loss for words were the only way to truly convey the tragedy of the moment they were witnessing.

When I arrived at school a little after 7 a.m., I called every employee who was on campus to come to an impromptu meeting. All of us were devastated, a few were scared, and many were in tears. The phone was ringing off the hook with parents asking if we would be open or closed. We made the quick decision to stay open, and we let parents know that we would understand if they kept their students at home. We wanted our campus to be a safe harbor for the children. We agreed that there would be no televisions turned on in the classrooms. That was a lesson we learned back in 1993 when fires ravaged through Malibu. Some teachers had their televisions on during that fire, and a few students witnessed their own homes burning or in danger. We needed to reduce, not increase, the trauma that we were all going through. Our teachers and staff were amazing that day. They overcame their own justified fears and concerns, and provided an incredibly caring place for our students that day.

As the school day was starting, I received a call from the office of one of our elementary schools – their principal was not yet there and they were looking for guidance. I told them what we were doing and sent one of our vice principals to support that site. I called the principal at home, and they told me that they were just too upset from all of the events to go to work. After a short discussion, the principal gathered themself up and came to work to do what needed to be done. These are time when calm, strong, and caring leadership matters the most. We don’t always need to have the answers before we go into difficult situations, but when the challenges are the greatest, leaders need to face them head on.

Not much academic work happened that day at Malibu High School, but we all got through it together. And I know that the same thing happened around the country and the world. But on that day, everything completely changed.

My brother Pat is an incredibly talented artist and had his own reaction to 9-11. Pat was in the process of making one of the greatest and most courageous career moves ever, where he would eventually quit his lucrative and successful job as an architect, and with no promises or guarantees of income, devote his career to creating art. He was in the early stages of that move when 9-11 happened. Like all of us, he was overwhelmed by the stories of heroic first responders and their efforts that day. He set out to buy an American flag that day, and found nothing but sold out shelves. So he decided to paint his own, and thus created his first ever American Flag painting. Pat usually paints landscapes, ranging from cypress trees in the Arkansas wetlands to aspen trees in the Rockies. His typical medium is thick oil paints, resulting in highly textured and layered paintings that change every time the light changes. That painting, which he remembers painting while experiencing a mixture of both anger and pride in our country, was named “American Pride.” On a whim, Pat made 1,000 prints of the painting and began to sell them. After he had sold a few hundred, he reserved 343 prints (one for each of the firefighters who died that day), then flew to New York to donate proceeds from the sales, the 343 prints, and the original “American Pride” painting to the firefighter heroes of New York City’s Engine 4, Ladder Company 54, Battalion 9. He still paints those flags. Pat has sold them to persons in every state, and he has donated many to charitable causes to be auctioned off. Every one of these special paintings honors the heroes who defended us that day, as well as those who continue to devote themselves to protecting us today.

Print #950 of American Pride, by Pat Matthews

I appreciate all that I have in my life that honors those who died and those who defended us that on that overwhelming day in September two decades ago. Seeing the steel beams from the Twin Towers that comprise the 9/11 Memorial outside of the Manhattan Beach (California) Fire and Police Station always catches my breath. I have a picture capturing the moment of silence in Malibu High School’s remembrance assembly just a few days after the attacks. I have been proud to display print #950 of American Pride in my office for years, and I have the 2,997 flags at Pepperdine. These and so many other parts of our lives give us pause and a way to honor not only those lives lost twenty years ago, but all of those who strive today to keep us safe. So today, twenty years later to the day, let us all resolve once again to never forget.

I am usually very fearful of student assemblies, as there are a zillion things that can go wrong, but this Day of Remembrance assembly, held in the Malibu High School quad a few days after 9/11, was one of the most powerful moments I ever experienced. Thanks to my friend Carla Bowman-Smith, an extraordinary photographer and teacher, for taking and sharing this picture with me. It has been on my wall for the last 20 years.

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Taking My Youngest to College

That was it. Dawson gave each of us a long and hard hug, picked up the last bit of dorm room essentials from our double Target run, turned around, and walked off to his dorm in the Colorado School of Mines. Oredigger Camp – his three-day orientation – starts tomorrow. He is fired up and ready for this new phase of his life.  And we’ll see him again in November when we come back for parents’ weekend.

Jill and I are truly excited for Dawson, but right now, sitting in our room in the Golden Hotel, we are also both so sad. Sniffling and journaling, there is no talking. Kind of pathetic – I know. But we both knew taking this time would help us.

It’s been an amazing journey – 18 years, 9 months, and 9 days, since his birth in the hospital. I still hear about that day. Jill’s water broke around four in the morning, about two weeks before her due date, and she called the doctor who said we should go to the hospital right away. I told Jill I just needed to go to work for about an hour, as I was leading a large professional development session that day and needed to give some notes to those who would now be leading it. She did not like it, but she acquiesced. Not the best call, I know. It was a quick delivery, but a little more painful because of my delay. Mark that as exhibit ZZZ in the case of Mike being an imperfect husband and father. Why does that list keep growing?

Where was I? Oh yes, it’s been 18 years, 9 months, and 9 days – and I’ve loved all of it. Dawson has been a source of joy and inspiration in our home. He has been a remarkably easy-going kid, and as he progressed through high school, he began asking us to relax boundaries we had set for him.  I don’t remember ever saying no – he earned our trust all along the way. Watching Dawson grow and become the man that he is has also been incredibly special. He is known as a super smart science student, a talented gamer and programmer, someone with a wacky sense of humor, a quiet leader, and most of all, a remarkably kind human being. I like to think I helped with some of those attributes, but in reality, he is filled with so much from his mother.

Dawson and I had quite the journey to Colorado. We took four days to drive over 1,500 miles via the Grand Canyon and Santa Fe. And of our 23 hours of driving, I think Dawson sat behind the wheel for 18 of them. He wishes he could have driven all of those miles and hours.

Packing up the rental car and posing in front of a smoky Grand Canyon

Jill let us have our time together, then she flew into Denver yesterday. We picked her up and together, we all drove to Dawson’s new home in Golden, Colorado. After a family dinner, Dawson left us to join thirty or so other freshman who had arranged a Meet-up via Discord, a social media app too obscure for most adults. I still haven’t figured out Facebook! He got back to our hotel room long after Jill and I had gone to sleep. It was a great start to his college career.

Today was move-in day. We are so impressed with the Colorado School of Mines. They had volunteers out the kazoo greeting students, carting their room contents into the dorms, smiling, and confirming our belief that Mines is the perfect college for our aspiring computer scientist son. Jill thankfully took over as we helped Dawson set up his room. We unpacked everything, figured out where it all seemed to work best, and determined what else we needed. It’s a good thing Jill was there. If it had been just me, I would have given Dawson a thumbs up after we moved the boxes and duffle bags into his room and said, “You got this!” With Jill leading the effort, his traditional, ordinary, and very non-air-conditioned room ended up looking pretty darn good. The tables, crates, chair, and containers from the Lakewood Super Target fit perfectly, and Dawson’s dorm was nicer than any college room I ever lived in. I told my son that guys can be pretty darn worthless when it comes to making things look like home. And even though he was ready to jump into this without our help, Dawson admitted that once again, he’s better off because of his mom’s help.

Dawson putting together his computer, and Jill making his dorm room into a home

And now he’s settled at Mines, and we fly back to Malibu tomorrow – just the two of us. A week ago, I was ready for this moment. Then, as my youngest son and I drove through the deserts and mountains on our way here, I was reminded of how much I would miss everything about living with Dawson. We laughed at Mike and Tom Eat Snacks, an inane podcast that truly representsour kind of humor. We listened to a lot of pop punk music, much of which I knew, but I did not know until our trip that Dawson knew the words to so many of the songs! We talked about important topics, and about silly ones. It was all sublime. I found myself getting more emotional as we neared Golden. And even writing this, I can barely see through my tears.

I know our relationship, and our friendship, will only grow. That’s what I have experienced with my now-30-year-old son Ryan. But I will miss the daily interactions and joy that dominated this portion of my life with Dawson. I miss it already, and it’s been about an hour.

On to hour number two. Wish me luck.

There he goes . . .

Reflections of School and Life in the Midst of COVID-19 (#9, Ladybugs and Dogs, April 25, 2020)

It may have been the most thoughtless senior prank I ever experienced.

As a former high school principal, I don’t love senior pranks. Usually, very little thought goes into them, and they end up being destructive, damaging, or time consuming. Occasionally though — and I mean very occasionally —  a group of seniors pulls off a truly clever idea that is not at all destructive, damaging, or time consuming. A few years ago, seniors brought their pets to school. It brought a lot of smiles to campus, and some students declared it the best day ever. My mistake was not saying it was a one-time only event, which I had to say when the next year’s students tried to do the same thing. Clever one year, and inconvenient after that. I know that with my cat allergies, I would not like Bring Your Cat to School Day. But we all know the cats wouldn’t like it either.

During my time as a high school principal, the second-best senior prank was when some students, with inside help, moved my entire office, desk, chairs, bookshelves, everything, into the quad. I “had to” work outside the whole day, holding meetings in the bright sun, and making a spectacle of it all.

But the best prank was when a group of seniors spent months deconstructing a Volkswagen Beetle and then one night rebuilt and secured it around the flagpole in the quad. When I came to work, students and employees were admiring a VW Bug in Malibu High School colors with the campus flagpole rising through the middle of it. It was awesome, and I let it stay there for a week. And when I asked the students to take it down and leave the quad in perfect condition, they did just that. Spectacular.

Back to the thoughtless prank. Some seniors at Santa Monica High School had released about 200,000 ladybugs on campus. I’m not sure that was the number, but that was the rumor. It was a lot. Ladybugs blanketed several hallways and just didn’t know what to do. I’m sure there were rose bushes all around town that would have loved them, and local aphids should have been fearful, but instead the ladybugs were just clogging up the hallways, getting stepped on by people trying to leave the building, and eventually being removed by custodians. It was a needless loss of life for some beautiful and extremely useful creatures, and I hated it. In the course of helping to deal with the prank, I mentioned to one of the office assistants that my then-five-year-old son loved ladybugs, and he would have hated to see this. As I was leaving, the assistant gave me an emptied plastic liter bottle, punched with air holes, containing about 50 ladybugs to give to Dawson. Her unsolicited act of kindness gave me the only smile I had that afternoon, and I am still grateful.

When I came home, Dawson came outside to greet me and I gave him the bottle-o-bugs. He looked at it with big eyes, then looked at me and said these now famous words: “Thanks, Dad. I finally have a pet.

Oh boy.

Dawson had been bugging us for a while for a dog, but he’s such an easy-going kid, that he figured lady bugs must be the next best thing. I turned to Jill and said, “It’s time to get a dog.”

That weekend we went to the local animal shelter and spotted a Pekingese that someone had dropped off at the pound’s front gate. We saw her as she was being taken out of her cage for the first time and walked around. There’s a Kenny Chesney song about his adopted dog, where he sings, “Lying there like a lost string of pearls.”  It’s a perfect line for a beautiful abandoned dog. Dawson and Jill fell in love, I quickly gave up any hope of looking the least bit masculine as I walked this white fluff ball through the neighborhood, and Penelope (Penny) was ours. That was October 18, 2008.

Last Saturday, exactly 11 and one half years later, our Penny died of old age in our arms.

Those of you who have lost beloved pets know that in these deaths you lose a family member and a friend. It hurts.

But it was a great run.

There’s a touching book called The Art of Racing in the Rain, by Garth Stein. The movie is OK, but the book is special. It features the relationship between the main character, Denny, and his dog Enzo. Their close friendship is almost human in nature, and the dog understands emotions, illness, auto racing, and the meaning of the universe. I don’t think Penny understood any of those things, but she was still a wonderful dog. More from Enzo later.

Pets have been a great source of companionship during this COVID-19 era. There are plenty of Facebook posts about dogs tired of walks and belly rubs, of happy dogs, or dogs imploring their humans to go back to work. I Zoom regularly with two colleagues, one of whom has a dog always begging to get picked up so he can co-Zoom from her lap, and another who has a cat who lurks behind her, ready to attack, like Cato in the Pink Panther movies.  Our pets and companions, intelligent, loving, or diabolically crazy, make our lives so much more full, which is particularly reassuring while we are spending so much time at home with plenty to worry about.

YoungPenny

We adopted Penny when she was four or five, when Dawson was also four or five. They grew up together. She slept at the foot of Dawson’s bed, they played together in their younger years, and when they were older, you could usually find her lying on a soft pillow next to Dawson as he sat at the computer. She didn’t need much: a little food, occasionally with some cheese mixed in, clean water, access to the back yard, and short bursts of companionship. She spent most of her time just looking for a soft place to sit, close to us, but not too close. We called her a cat-dog. She liked us, but didn’t need us, except when she did. We loved her in spite of or because of all of that.

OldPenny

“Dogs’ lives are too short. Their only fault really.” I found that quote from Agnes Turnbull, and I couldn’t agree more.

I have never spent more time at home than in the past few weeks. Never. One of the gifts of that time was getting to spend so much time with Penny in what turned out to be her final weeks with us. All of us being with her at 3 a.m. when she breathed her last breath was powerful and emotional. She knew she was loved, and though I was not ready, I believe she was.

Back to our dog philosopher hero Enzo, who philosophized, as only dogs can do, “To live every day as if it had been stolen from death, that is how I would like to live. To feel the joy of life, … to separate oneself from the burden, the angst, the anguish that we all encounter every day. To say I am alive, I am wonderful, I am. I am. That is something to aspire to.

I am convinced that many of us, when it comes to the pursuit of happiness, are our own worst enemies. We humans overthink things, and the more leisure time we have, the more we overthink our lives. We should learn from our dogs.

One last quote from Enzo the wise sage/dog: “That which is around me does not affect my mood; my mood affects that which is around me.”

We are living in the midst a very challenging time. If we can take the time to step back from our challenges, feel the joy of life, and seek to improve the moods of those around us, that’s good stuff.

Thank you, Penny, for making our moods better every day of your 12 years with us.

May all of your animal friends, dogs, cats, horses, and even ladybugs, past, present, and future, ease your burdens and bring smiles to your faces throughout your lives.

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