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My Vital Lesson — It's the People; It's Always the People (Ch. 1)

I'm writing this, my next book — My Vital Lesson — one chapter at a time here (on

Plans for the drive started when a Google search shook me.

Because Kihei was my first dog, I was caught off guard by how enamored I became with her. And vice versa. Less than a year from when she was "handed up" to my wife Norma and me by our two, too-busy-with-life daughters, I was infatuated and in love.

Before Kihei, I wouldn't have understood such sentimentality. Before Kihei, I liked dogs but didn't really get the whole dog thing. Then, because of her, my love for animals drastically scaled. I became a vegetarian.

Into the search bar I typed

How long do French Bulldogs live?

The answer — 10-12 years — planted the seeds for an expedition that wouldn't start for another decade. What I knew back then was that if Kihei died before me — and the odds were she would — I wouldn't want to be home. I'd get in my car and drive.


To prepare for the pain, I had a vague plan to drive to places I had always wanted to see. The Mississippi River, Key West, Charleston... I'd visit students who had grown and moved to distant cities — Austin, Minneapolis, Philly, NYC, Seattle, Chicago, Nashville...

When the awful day came and I held Kihei for the last time (It was as painful as I had imagined), I wasn't able to follow my plan.

Norma had fallen and injured her shoulder. (She would ultimately need rotator cuff surgery.) Until she healed, at least enough to take care of herself, I'd stay with her.

The delay in departure (over eight months) was, as misfortune often is, a blessing. Not for my wife, obviously, but it gave me time to make specific plans for where I would drive and what I would do while circling the continental USA.

Cliche' adventures came to mind: Visit National Parks. Attend games at iconic ballparks. Camp under the stars.

But, perhaps to a fault, I have an aversion to cliche'. "Avoid the obvious," I always taught.

So, while Norma mended, I decided on these goals for my trip:

  1. Meet with extraordinary teachers and ask them to tell me about their favorite lesson.

  2. Reconnect with former students.

  3. Hang nets on netless basketball hoops.

  4. See places I'd never been but was curious about.

  5. Attend churches and talk with ministers, pastors (whomever??) with the hope of awakening my dormant spiritual life.

  6. Visit independent book stores and ask them to sell one of my books, Missing Pieces.

  7. Figure out how I want to spend the rest of my life. (Kind of a big one, I know.)

With the exception of #6, each goal was realized but, surprise surprise, none played out the way I thought it might. Each goal evolved.

Although I clumsily documented parts of my journey on Instagram, those fleeting glimpses of life didn't properly tell the story.

"You must be having the best time!" people would comment.

Not really. Despite the smiling poses in cool places, I was mostly lonely and rarely comfortable.

Which was ok. This trip was never meant to be fun. It was a time to mourn. I needed to mourn Kihei. I needed to mourn my parents, my brother, the end of my teaching career, my fading physicality, the loss of my youth. I needed to be alone to think, plan and learn.

I didn't have fun, but I wasn't looking for fun. Fun was never the goal. I was searching for something else, but I wasn't sure what.

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