Pete Gavin

Pete Gavin is one of thousands of evacuated Sonoma Valley residents waiting to hear the fate of his family house. What he does know, however, is that his home is as strong as ever.

It is 2:30 in the morning, and I am in a hotel room in Sonoma 13.8 miles south of our home in Santa Rosa. I am up because I can’t sleep and because we’ve been evacuated due to encroaching fires from all directions. I do not know if we will ever see our home again.

I just went online to a government satellite map that shows active fires in real time in our area. There is a red square less than a quarter-mile southwest of our home, a square that wasn’t there last night when we went to bed. I look it up on the legend, and it says, “Emerging, 0-12 hours.”

A shiver runs up my spine as I try to contemplate the very real prospect we may lose our home, the home we moved into less than a year ago, the home with our treasures, keepsakes, memories from our life together.

It is a chilling feeling, one I wasn’t even remotely familiar with until only a few days ago when we found ourselves thrust into a burning hell we never could have imagined.

My dog snores on the bed beside me, the bed we borrowed from friends because we left our home in such a hurry. Besides Miles’ bed, we also left food in the fridge, plants unwatered, all our clothes – except a few essentials – some of our meds, our art – everything we own.

It’s devastating to think about what may happen in the next 48 hours. But I know there are many brave and strong and very tired firefighters, police officers, PG & E workers risking their lives trying their very best to save our home. Our home, and those of our neighbors.

I am overcome with gratitude and love for these people I don’t even know. People that make me feel connected to our home and community in a way I have never felt before. And I realize: even though our house may go, our home is solid, more solid in fact than it has ever been.

With a Perspective, I’m Pete Gavin.

Pete Gavin is a retired teacher. As of last night, his house is still standing.

In “It’s a Wonderful Life” George Bailey, having seen what his world would have been like if he had never been born, gets a second chance at life.  He runs through the streets of Bedford Falls, shouting in exultation.  Leaning on a frosty window, he wishes the evil Mr. Potter a Merry Christmas.  And when he enters his house, he welcomes with open arms the bank examiner there to arrest him. He exclaims, “Look at this wonderful old drafty house!” He sprints upstairs looking for his wife, and on the way up, the banister knob comes off in his hand, and he kisses it, before returning it to its place.

My home is my touchstone, the collection of everything my wife and I care most about in the world. In the hallway: a picture of my mother, like a young Joan Baez, cradling my brother in a rebozo, my sister in a stroller gazing out across her new world, and me, wearing a sweater two sizes two small, leaning against the textured concrete of the Berkeley Art Museum. Our bedroom wall has that crack resembling the coastline of California. And when you step just right where the carpet meets the tile floor, there’s a squeak that sounds just like a cat meowing.

It’s these imperfections that make a house a home. George Bailey understands this at the end of the movie. He has nothing but gratitude for everything in his life, and the things that once bothered him, he now treasures.

Like George Bailey, I have learned real beauty is found in worn and imperfect things: the asymmetrical redwood tree with the branch reaching up awkwardly like a giant’s hand, the old cast iron pan seasoned so well it turns an ordinary steak into something sublime, the way her voice warbles when she tries to extend the high note in the song she loves most.

As Yogi Berra said, “If the world was perfect, it wouldn’t be.”

With a Perspective, I’m Pete Gavin.

Pete Gavin is an 8th grade English teacher at Kent Middle School in Kentfield.

At 56, most of my friends are parents – a few, grandparents. For me, it wasn’t in the cards. In my 20s, I had testicular cancer – so, to insure the family line, I made a deposit, then married a few years later. But my wife was never keen on kids, and in truth, neither was I. Too selfish, perhaps? I had a classroom of kids every day and liked the quiet and calm at home.

In my late 30s, in a new and happier marriage, we were having the time of our lives, exploring the city – kidless. For a while, we flirted with the idea of fostering or adopting someone in need, but ultimately decided against it.

Now, recently retired, for the first time in over 32 years I won’t be surrounded by young people every day. Don’t get me wrong; I am thrilled about this new chapter, but I also wonder: will the decision not to have kids stir me more now? We will have no legacy, no grandkids to babysit, nobody to care for us when we’re old.

Unlike many of my friends, I don’t know what it’s like to raise a little person, to put my own wants and needs behind someone utterly dependent on me. I understand that selfless kind of love, but don’t know how it feels. It’s a big void in my life; I am missing out on something fundamental and basic, and as a result, I am less evolved and not as worldly as I could have been.

But, I accept this without regret.

The bond my wife and I share: it’s the most important thing in our lives. Our pets, they are our kids. I can’t say we love them any more than pet owners with human children, but for us, they’re everything.

And our friends, they too are our family, our legacy, the objects of our affection.

Our family, well, it’s just a different kind of family.

With a Perspective, I’m Pete Gavin.

Pete Gavin is a retired English teacher living in Sonoma County.

It’s 3:30 in the morning, and I’m sitting in my favorite chair: a crinkled and worn, brown leather recliner. One of our cats has discovered I’m up, and he’s come to say hello. Miles, our 11 year-old springer spaniel, is curled up on his bed beside me, snoring. Otherwise, it’s quiet, except for the distant humming of an appliance, the wind outside and the creaking of the house.

When I find myself unable to sleep through the night, I grab a blanket and stretch out in my chair in the living room, the light beside me casting a warm, yellow glow allowing me to read, pet the cat, or listen to the night sounds of the house.

About 10 years ago I had my first real bout of insomnia. It was dreadful. For two weeks I couldn’t sleep a wink. Things had changed at work, and I just couldn’t let it go. As each day passed into night, I felt more pressure to arrest this new pattern and finally tumble into sleep. Deep, beautiful sleep. But the more I tried, the harder it became. I was caught in a vicious cycle of my mind. I became desperate and found myself in the ER one night, begging the doctor for relief. He gave it to me in the form of a shot. Finally, my prayers were answered.

But I had entered a new phase of my life. No longer would I take sleep for granted. I created new routines and formed a novel appreciation for the tenuous patterns of the mind.

My relationship with sleep has now evolved to a place where when I wake up in the middle of the night – and by no means does this occur every night – I don’t fight it. I just go with it. It’s strange, but now I almost treasure those nights I find myself in my chair, a cat in my lap, my dog at my feet, a good book in my hands.

It’s actually the best time.

With a Perspective, I’m Pete Gavin.

Pete Gavin teaches 8th grade English at Kent Middle School in Kentfield.

After 32 years teaching, I will retire in June, and lose a big part of who I am. Don’t get me wrong, I am thrilled to be here. Yet still, I know I’ll be losing a lot.

There’s a certain rhythm to a school year; how at the beginning of every poetry class I poll the kids and find out most of them dislike poetry. So I point out how song lyrics are poems, and we listen to and analyze songs, and then we write our poems, and invariably, people flood to the front to share their poems. Hate poetry? Not so much.

In ‘Of Mice and Men’, when George is forced to shoot Lennie out of love, unwilling to make the same mistake Candy did letting someone else kill his dog, there is an outcry of emotion in the class – often tears, even wailing – that makes me feel so privileged to do what I do.

And when we read ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, and the students see the depth of Atticus’s wisdom in teaching Scout compassion and empathy, and Scout turns to her father and says, “Mr. Tate was right. It’d be sort of like shootin’ a mockingbird.” Man, that gets me every time. It’s like I’m hearing those lines for the first time, just like them.

And ‘Into the Wild’: How certain students realize how despite the stupidity and arrogance of what Chris McCandless does, he also attempts an act of great beauty few people ever achieve, and how the real tragedy of his story is the clarity he seeks so passionately only comes at the end of his life, when it is too late.

My biggest joy is watching my students learn through literature how life is a tenuous gift to be held and appreciated every moment because before you know it, you’re older and the present is only memory.

With a Perspective, I’m Pete Gavin.

Pete Gavin teaches eighth grade English at Kent Middle School in Kentfield.

It’s 3:30 in the morning, and I’m sitting in my favorite chair: a crinkled and worn, brown leather recliner. One of our cats has discovered I’m up, and he’s come to say hello. Miles, our 11 year-old springer spaniel, is curled up on his bed beside me, snoring. Otherwise, it’s quiet, except for the distant humming of an appliance, the wind outside and the creaking of the house.

When I find myself unable to sleep through the night, I grab a blanket and stretch out in my chair in the living room, the light beside me casting a warm, yellow glow allowing me to read, pet the cat, or listen to the night sounds of the house.

About 10 years ago I had my first real bout of insomnia. It was dreadful. For two weeks I couldn’t sleep a wink. Things had changed at work, and I just couldn’t let it go. As each day passed into night, I felt more pressure to arrest this new pattern and finally tumble into sleep. Deep, beautiful sleep. But the more I tried, the harder it became. I was caught in a vicious cycle of my mind. I became desperate and found myself in the ER one night, begging the doctor for relief. He gave it to me in the form of a shot. Finally, my prayers were answered.

But I had entered a new phase of my life. No longer would I take sleep for granted. I created new routines and formed a novel appreciation for the tenuous patterns of the mind.

My relationship with sleep has now evolved to a place where when I wake up in the middle of the night – and by no means does this occur every night – I don’t fight it. I just go with it. It’s strange, but now I almost treasure those nights I find myself in my chair, a cat in my lap, my dog at my feet, a good book in my hands.

It’s actually the best time.

With a Perspective, I’m Pete Gavin.

Pete Gavin teaches 8th grade English at Kent Middle School in Kentfield.

When ‘Men of a Certain Age’, a TV show I loved, was discontinued, it caused a void in my life. Suddenly these men, not that dissimilar from my friends and me, were gone. Their struggles had become my struggles, their victories, my victories. Now, I would never know their fate.

I decided to copy the premise, so I sent out a group email to several old Berkeley friends and proposed a breakfast club where we would commune on a regular basis. The idea caught on. Though it started as a men’s group, we have added a female member. A few times a year, we rotate between cafes in the Bay Area and catch up on each other’s lives. It’s very low key – no by-laws or procedures; we simply talk and eat. After breakfast, we take a walk, a dog or two beside us.

We are old friends; some of us go back to nursery school. Words aren’t always necessary; a look, a laugh, a hand on a shoulder speaks volumes. We know each other’s history, each other’s families; we understand each other’s challenges. We have survived different trials and tribulations: deaths of family members, raising kids, aging parents, divorce, remarrying, living eternally single lives.

Not only am I blessed to live near old friends, but also I’m lucky to live in the place where I was raised. I still hike in Point Reyes where my family regularly picnicked. I buy groceries at the Monterey Market where my mother shopped. And I still feel that rush, exiting the Yerba Buena tunnel, the city gleaming in the sun, like when I was a kid, and my parents took us to Ghirardelli Square for black-and-tans.

Though I am 55 and on the back-end of life, I am grateful to have old friends and familiar places nearby. They ground me, tying me to this place, these people, my youth close enough to touch.

I am blessed.

With a Perspective, I’m Pete Gavin.

Pete Gavin teaches eighth grade English at Kent Middle School in Kentfield.

Long nights give way to long days. The once brown and thirsty hillsides drink from the sky, producing sweet green grass my dog chews and savors as we hike up the mountain. The crisp air fills my lungs as we ascend through cow pastures and budding California oaks. We are above the town, above the houses, above the valley below. In the distance, a sweeping ridge rises from the wetlands of the bay. Further up the trail, a pocket gopher pops up, his whiskers twitching, as he surveys his home and these unwelcome approaching figures. He eyes my dog, then quickly retreats into his hillside hollow.

I am reminded how good things are born in spring. Two months ago, I only saw the bare trees, only felt the damp insidious cold attacking my insides, only heard the ferocious wind ravaging the land, leaving leaves and branches, and pieces of whatever from wherever in its wake.

Suddenly, a jackrabbit streaks across our path; my dog springs to action. I call him off, and reluctantly – trembling – he abides, incredulous he cannot follow his instinctual desire. But soon, we are in the thick oaks and the volcanic sprinklings of rocks and other treasures, and he has forgotten the jackrabbit, now intoxicated by new smells and delights: fresh cow pies, Douglas iris, maybe even new truffles beneath the oaks. Who knows? And who really cares? We are here, in this moment, in this place.

There is nothing I want, nothing I have to do or consider. Just my dog and me. This mountain we’re climbing. And whatever happens to present itself next. This is spring, the payoff we almost forgot about. The reminder that out of darkness comes light. Out of suffering comes celebration. We are alive, and what a glorious thing that is.

With a Perspective, I’m Pete Gavin.

Pete Gavin teaches middle school English in Marin.

Hard for me to believe, I've been a public school teacher for 30 years.  It doesn't seem that long ago, when during my student teaching, I stood in front of my class, trying to exhibit my classroom management skills to Rob Moore, my supervising SF State professor.  One of the more precocious 4th graders didn't like the idea of me telling her what to do, and I didn't like the idea of her not doing it, so she hurled her chair across the room at me.  Devastated, and sure my young career was finished, tears welled up in my eyes and my master teacher took over the class.  Rob pulled me aside and talked me off the ledge.  I'm not sure he realized it at the time, but he changed my life that day.

I just heard a former 5th grade student was hired as an architect by one of the top firms in the country. Others are doctors, lawyers, chefs, teachers, police officers, contractors, business owners, you name it.  Some are fathers, mothers, even a few grandparents. And there's a handful that never made it this far, exiting this world way too soon.

Nona, my crazy and wonderful Jewish grandmother, used to grab me by the collar, wagging her finger in my face and spitting, calling me a puskidnik and warning me about how fast it all goes. But of course I never took her seriously. She was just a crazy lady with a screwy eye in a leopard coat, full of color and colloquialism, whose sole purpose was entertaining my chuckling friends and me.

The thing is she was right, and now this is a message I try to pass on to my students. I'm not sure they get it any more than I did when I was their age. And that's fine; in fact, it's good. But I also know there will come a time in their lives when like me, they'll look back and say, "How the hell did I get here so fast?"

With a Perspective, I'm Pete Gavin.

Pete Gavin is an 8th grade English teacher at Kent Middle School in Kentville.

In "It's a Wonderful Life" George Bailey, having seen what his world would have been like if he had never been born, gets a second chance at life.  He runs through the streets of Bedford Falls, shouting in exultation.  Leaning on a frosty window, he wishes the evil Mr. Potter a Merry Christmas.  And when he enters his house, he welcomes with open arms the bank examiner there to arrest him. He exclaims, "Look at this wonderful old drafty house!" He sprints upstairs looking for his wife, and on the way up, the banister knob comes off in his hand, and he kisses it, before returning it to its place.

My home is my touchstone, the collection of everything my wife and I care most about in the world. In the hallway: a picture of my mother, like a young Joan Baez, cradling my brother in a rebozo, my sister in a stroller gazing out across her new world, and me, wearing a sweater two sizes two small, leaning against the textured concrete of the Berkeley Art Museum. Our bedroom wall has that crack resembling the coastline of California. And when you step just right where the carpet meets the tile floor, there's a squeak that sounds just like a cat meowing.  

It's these imperfections that make a house a home. George Bailey understands this at the end of the movie. He has nothing but gratitude for everything in his life, and the things that once bothered him, he now treasures.

Like George Bailey, I have learned real beauty is found in worn and imperfect things: the asymmetrical redwood tree with the branch reaching up awkwardly like a giant's hand, the old cast iron pan seasoned so well it turns an ordinary steak into something sublime, the way her voice warbles when she tries to extend the high note in the song she loves most.

As Yogi Berra said, "If the world was perfect, it wouldn't be."

With a Perspective, I'm Pete Gavin.

Pete Gavin is an 8th grade English teacher at Kent Middle School in Kentfield.