Thursday, June 29, 2017

You've Got Mail


Everybody's got their hobby. For some, its golf. For others, scuba diving or mountain climbing. For Wendi Harner, its handwritten letters. I have to hand it to my friend, who may be single-handedly keeping the post office alive in this modern age that has moved us from the swirls of penmanship and licking envelopes to sending instant messages with our thumbs. Writing letters is, as Wendi says, "a dying art."

As for me, I belong to the E-mail generation. It's how I communicate, all day long. But I can't even remember the last time my daughter sent me an E-mail. That's because her generation is almost strictly into texting. Young people her age are so into using their phones to text, that they can't even be bothered to speak into one. In fact her outgoing voicemail message is "Hang up and text me!"

But my friend Wendi sends real mail.  Like actual cards and letters that involve stamps, envelopes, trekking to the mailbox and the U.S. Postal Service. In fact sometimes she just throws it out there to the world and offers to write mail to anyone. "Want snail mail? I am your girl," she posted on Facebook. "Send me your address and I will send you something handwritten." 

And she will. She really will.
Everybody, meet Wendi Harner.
I found out about Wendi's passion for writing letters when I bumped into her in Safeway a few years ago and she asked me how my daughter was doing. We've known Wendi pretty much since Day 1 in Redding. When we enrolled Sophia at West Redding Pre-School, Wendi worked in the infant room. Sophia was with the pre-school kids on the other side of the building with Wendi's daughter Maddie, and a friendship was born between kids and their moms.

Back to that day in Safeway. I told Wendi that Sophia was having a tough time in the dorms because the roommate situation wasn't working out that well, and she'd just broken up with her boyfriend. Wendi asked me if Sophia might appreciate getting some mail. I gave her the address, and she actually sent her a sweet note of support which really made Sophia's day.

Wendi says writing has been one of her favorite things to do since she was in grade school and kept a journal. And around the same time, she grew fond of receiving mail, because her grandmother Iris sent her mail on a regular basis which often included goodies like gum, a few dollars or some stickers. So all of the mail Wendi sends today is decorated with stickers. But where did her passion for sending letters really begin? Well, it all had to do with music.


Wendi's collection of stationary.

"I've always been a music fanatic," Wendi told me. "My dream job was to be a singer, musician or radio DJ, and that is no joke! Remember Star Hits Magazine?" That was a magazine that had articles on popular alternative rock musicians like Adam Ant, the Thompson Twins and The Cure. Wendi says there was a section in the magazine called RSVP where you could write in, listing info about yourself and the music you were interested in. That's how she got her pen pals Susan in New York and Paul in Hawaii. "We still send each other snail mail after 36 years, and we all prefer snail mail over any other means of communication." She also had a pen pal in Kansas during junior high, and another in Egypt that she corresponded with for years until he got married, and told Wendi he wouldn't be able to write to a woman any longer. 
Madison Harner, crafter of homemade postcards.
There's one person Wendi has been corresponding with for years and years who has saved every single letter that she's received. That would be her daughter Madison, who - like my own daughter - is away in Oregon at college. Wendi visited her in Monmouth earlier this month and Maddie showed her a big box of letters...then told her mom it was just ONE of the boxes she's saved! Maddie thinks its pretty awesome that her mom sends letters to people. "She sends letters to a lot of my friends, even when they are as far away as France! Her letters make my day so much better, and I'm happy that she can make someone else's day too."

Unlike my daughter, Maddie actually writes back to her mom sometimes (Wendi says for every ten letters she writes she might get one back), but Maddie prefers to talk on the phone - which is also pretty rare these days for a person on the cusp of 21. But Maddie is starting to pick up some of her mother's passion. She says she prefers sending postcards to letters, and although her postcard of choice is to send something from an Oregon state park, she also likes to get crafty and make homemade postcards. 




Wendi gets immense personal satisfaction putting pen to paper, and says it's kind of cathartic. "Often I envision the person I'm writing to opening their mailbox and finding something delightfully positive among the pile of advertisements and bills."

Wendi says she sent over 25 pieces of snail mail last week, which might be a personal record. But she's got an ulterior motive right now. There's an entire movement dedicated to sending supportive and encouraging letters to women who have been diagnosed with breast cancer, and Wendi is all about kicking cancer's ass. So she's asking everyone she knows to join her in writing a letter of support through Girls Love Mail. Its a simple concept... you write a letter or two and send it to someone you don't know. But you at least know that this person has been diagnosed with cancer. Girls Love Mail bundles them and sends them along to cancer care centers. The staff then makes sure that your letter offering peace, support, love and well wishes will make its way into the hands of a woman who has just been giving some pretty awful news. Wendi even promises that for every one letter written by folks she's invited, she'll write another two. So don't let this girl down. She needs to break last week's record!

While you sit down and put pen to paper, let me entertain you with some music to write letters by. Just click on the play arrow in the embedded You've Got Mail Playlist below, or listen to it directly by clicking on the link. And let Wendi know if you've taken her up on the Girls Love Mail initiative with a comment below. It'd make her day. Also, if you know someone who's day Wendi could make with some  handwritten mail, all she needs is the address!

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Master of the Mix



A note from Valerie: My friendship with Aaron Williams goes back to the first day of Kindergarten. Not ours, though. It was the first day of school at Manzanita Elementary, 2002. My daughter and his oldest son Brady were in the same class, and we both stood at the back of the room smiling as our kids quickly forgot we were there, and settled into being students.

Over the years Aaron and I spent many a morning chatting on the playground after dropping the kids off at school. He was usually bleary-eyed and dog-tired, after pulling an all-nighter, writing up last night's high school games for the newspaper where he was sports editor for many years. He also had some radio gigs, and has developed a relationship to music that is very similar to mine, and like me music has played a big part of relating to his offspring. His love of music was definitely picked up by Brady, who sadly perished a year ago in a vehicle accident.


Just recently Aaron and I had the chance to hang out and chat again. I told him I would've loved to spent a day in his shoes at his last job, teaching radio to the kids at Central Valley High, and he mentioned that he would love to have a shot at filling in for the Mistress of the Mix sometime. 


What better time for Aaron to do that than the weekend we reserve to celebrate fatherhood? It's a job he knows a lot about, and is so much more qualified than I to discuss. And so, I present to you my friend Aaron Williams. We'll call him the Master of the Mix. Because I said so.




It’s the most important job I’ve ever had. Some days it’s a real challenge, while other days it’s a breeze.

And the pay? The riches are unimaginable – hand-made Christmas ornaments; adventures that make real work seem a million miles away; the smile when they hit the game-winning shot; watching your little boy turn into a kind, thoughtful young man; the promise of seeing them become loving husbands and fathers themselves.

Aaron Williams & sons (from left) Tanner, Brady and Nolan

Being a father isn’t necessarily something you can list on a resume, but make no mistake, it’s a full-time occupation.

Father’s Day is a mixed bag for me. I’m blessed to have had five wonderful young men in my life – three (Brady, Tanner and Nolan) that come to me naturally and my girlfriend’s two (Jeff and Robby) that I’ve been fortunate to - in small part - help raise. Yet, the loss of my oldest, Brady, just over a year ago still leaves an unfillable void that has made everyday - let alone holidays - difficult to navigate.
All 5: Brady in the front, with Tanner, Nolan, Robby & Jeff
Music has always been a huge part of my life. It’s given my life a soundtrack. I remember times, places and events by songs and artists.

My parents loved music. I am an audiophile. My kids have developed wide and varied musical tastes.
It’s amazing to watch the soundtrack of my life meld and grow with theirs.

My Father’s Day playlist includes your father-and-son staples – “Father and Son” by Cat Stevens, “Teach Your Children” by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, “The Living Years” by Mike + the Mechanics and the anti-dad “Father of Mine” by Everclear.

Of course, the gold standard is Harry Chapin’s “Cat’s in the Cradle.” I swore when I was about to become a father that I wouldn’t be the dad in Chapin’s haunting tale about missing out on his son’s youth only to have the tables turned as his boy grew to be a man.

But most of my playlist are songs that take me back to times and places with my boys and our many adventures.

My mom used to sing Stevie Wonder’s “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” to me as a boy; something I did when my kids were younger.

The Williams Crew on a roadtrip
As they grew, we’d visit grandma in the Bay Area or go hiking in Tahoe and listen to music as we traveled. Songs like Cake’s “The Distance,” Outkast’s “Ms. Jackson” and Daft Punk’s “Da Funk” all were regulars on road trips.

Of course, tunes like “I Like to Move It” by Reel 2 Real (off the Madagascar soundtrack) always got a laugh and would become an ear worm – a song that you just can’t get out of your head.
As young boys, they always laughed when King Missile’s “Detachable Penis” would come on … because what boy isn’t deep down a little bit Beavis and Butthead (huh, huh, he said penis.)

As they grew older, we’d play iPod roulette on car trips, with everyone getting a song and then passing it to the next person. We’d always get a random and diverse mix that included everything from “Institutionalized” by Suicidal Tendencies to “Battle of Who Could Care Less” from Ben Folds Five to “Viva La Vida” by Coldplay and my choice of “Subdivisions” by Rush.

Some songs in our soundtrack were from concerts we’d see – “Numb” by Linkin Park, “How I Could Just Kill a Man” by Rage Against the Machine, “The Black Parade” by My Chemical Romance” or “The Pretender” by Foo Fighters. Silversun Pickups always were a staple, as was rap – my boys are all well-versed in Wu Tang, Beastie Boys, Public Enemy and Notorious B.I.G.

Silversun Pickups in concert

Along the way, they learned to like some of my music and I even have introduced some of theirs into my soundtrack. For example, hearing Tanner sing “Danny’s Song” by Loggins and Messina always makes me smile and tear up. On the flip side, he turned me on to baseball-player-turned-rapper Mike Stud with “These Days” and he’s now on the iPod and someone I’ve seen in concert.

Brady making his own music
After Brady died, I started listening to some of his music – he was well on his way to being a bigger concert-goer than I was at his age. Some of Brady’s music I could take or leave, but some of it has been a big help in the healing process. There are days when Circa Survive’s “On Letting Go” album is on repeat. And if it’s not Circa Survive, it might be Silverstein or All Time Low’s new album, which was on repeat as I wrote this.

I’ve learned along the way that it’s the journey, not the destination, that matters most in life. I’ve been fortunate to be part of a journey that’s seen five boys turn in to kind, caring, loving and pretty remarkable young men. And our journey has had a pretty kick-ass soundtrack.


Happy Father’s Day.

To enjoy the music on today's Father of Sons playlist, click on the play arrow below, or access the playlist directly at Spotify. And please share the songs that define your parenthood soundtrack in the comments section.