My Heaven














M y grandparents were best friends.

They’d known each other since kindergarten, grew up together in rural Texas in the late 1800s, moved to Southern California and were married in 1908. They were the kindest people I’ve ever known.

During the summer I often slept overnight in the top floor of their enchanted two-story Spanish-style house. My bedroom had a balcony overlooking a rock-lined goldfish pond in the front patio. A small trickle of water poured continuously from a ceramic pitcher cemented among ragged rocks above the pond, dribbling into the murky green water where fat goldfish drifted lazily beneath a few lily pads.

I was in a storybook house surrounded by a magical forest – my grandparents’ orange grove. The house was full of old furniture and books, lamps and paperweights, oil paintings and figurines, dishes and silver. The furniture was thick, dark wood and the paintings were hillsides, streams and forests – places without people. There was a book of maps with Persia and Siam.

Everything in the house spoke to me of ancestors, an unbroken line of family where no one ever threw anything worthwhile away. If it was worth owning, it was worth taking care of and passing on to the next generation.

In my bedroom was an old lamp on the night table, left on while I fell asleep. The lamp’s tubular base was decorated with a painting of an angel bearing a small-winged boy away to heaven. It was originally a gas lamp purchased in about 1860 by my grandmother’s sister, converted to electricity in the 1920s when a glass bowl and lampshade were added. As I drifted off to sleep I watched the angel and imagined she was taking me to heaven.

Sometimes I was startled awake by a nightmare, but quickly soothed by the stillness and security of my grandparents’ home, by the sense of their protection embracing me.

The only sound was the tic and toc of the Regulator clock at the top of the stairs just outside my room. The clock had belonged to my grandmother’s father. It was the heartbeat of their home, of their constancy.

Most summer mornings I was awakened by the sound of rowdy crows perched near the top of ancient sycamore trees in view of the balcony. I loved being high up in the air, stepping out onto the balcony in my pajamas, looking at the large green world and endless blue sky, smelling the warming air filled with the sharp scent of citrus, brushed with the fragrance of rose and camellia, filtered through my grandmother’s orchard, lifted on the wings of butterflies and blown into my room.

I especially loved the plaintive cries of Mourning Doves, a sound I imagined I would hear when I woke up some morning in heaven. But then, I was already there.



~ by Russ Allison Loar
© All Rights Reserved

Believing In Santa


When I first told my children about Santa Claus, of course I knew there was no actual human being I was talking about. But I told my children he was real and would reward them for being good.

I didn’t care how they envisioned Santa, for there are so many variations of his image, all so innocent in spirit, lighthearted and loving. It didn’t matter. I didn’t care how they imagined he spent his time at the North Pole with Mrs. Claus, the elves and reindeer. It didn’t matter.

We all understood that Santa was real in a different way than our friends and neighbors were real. He was real in spirit, and so we could imagine all sorts of things about Santa and even read conflicting ideas about his life and accept them all without difficulty. After all, nobody really knew for sure.

The specific details of Santa’s existence were not important. It was the underlying truth, that there are larger reasons for good behavior, reasons that could last for a year or even longer. Santa was a power for goodness in the world who would bless you for your honest heart and punish those who were cruel and deceptive.

As a grownup, I replaced the idea of Santa with knowledge. I knew that honesty, no matter how unrecognized it may be among friends and family, fills your life with joy, the kind of joy that is free from shame and guilt. I also knew that those who are dishonest and mean, no matter how long their actions may go undetected, are immediately punished for their sins because of who they become. They have lost the heart of an innocent child.

Heaven and hell are here, and those who are evil live in a hell of their own making, the hell of their own existence, no matter how long they avoid punishment from others.

In this dangerous and unpredictable world there are so many good people who are so unjustly punished by life, by disease, natural disaster, political oppression or just everyday happenstance. Earth is a place where all things are possible, both good and bad. It has something to do with free will. But if we struggle against adversity with an honest heart, we will find higher ground.

So my children grew up believing in Santa, even though they did not keep him firmly in mind throughout the year. But they grew up believing that striving to be honest and good was the right way to live. And even though some of the children they knew did not believe in Santa, they did not fight with them. Some believed, some didn’t. It didn’t matter.

Most of the children who believed in Santa needed no proof. They accepted Santa as a matter of faith, buttressed by the occasional Christmas morning miracle of the missing cookies and nearly empty glass of milk. When my children began to seriously question the existence of Santa, I took them to an old stone church and we sat in a beautiful, vine-encrusted alcove and I explained that Santa was more than just one single person.

I told them Santa was the spirit of giving that lives in all of us who find joy in bringing happiness to others. I told them every department store Santa who gave joy to little children was filled with the spirit of Santa. I told them every parent who wrapped up a special gift with a card that said, “Love to you, from Santa!” was inspired by the spirit of Santa. I told them Santa was more magic than they imagined, that instead of being just one person, Santa was the spirit of kindness and love that filled the hearts of millions, especially at Christmas, and that we should keep his spirit alive every day of the year.

I told them that as we grow up, many of us replace the idea of Santa with the idea of God.

I told them the best parts of all religions were filled with this spirit, and that this is what so many people mean by the word God, that God is a force for honesty, kindness and love in the world. I told them it does not matter how we picture God or how we define God. As long as we fill our hearts with love and charity, then we are doing the work of God here on Earth.

I told them words and pictures are what we use to help us understand the spirit of Santa, the spirit of God, but the words and pictures are not what’s important. It is the meaning behind the words and pictures, the inspiration that fills each heart.

We are all imperfect, we all make mistakes and we all have times in our lives when we are so certain about things that we become blind to our errors. To fight each other over ideas about God is like trying to prove whose idea of Santa is the real idea. To fight each other over ideas of God is to be so certain that we have become blind to our own imperfection and capacity for error.

I told them some people forget that these stories are about meanings, not details. They are intended to open our hearts and help direct the course of our lives. It’s the message that's important, and what it says to each of us.

I told them to respect the religions of all cultures, that whatever ideas of God people believe in, if these ideas open their hearts and lead them toward honesty, compassion and love, then they are on the right path – all of them.

The details are not what’s important. We all speak different languages and have different ways of describing and understanding things. It’s the essence from which all explanations come that is important. That’s what faith is for, to keep the connection strong between ourselves and God because words are not enough.

We all have to start somewhere. Some of us start with Santa. The important thing is to realize that spiritual growth is like any other kind of growth – it requires change. The lessons we learn as children are for children. The lessons we learn at the beginning of our spiritual journeys are for beginnings. To grow a larger soul, we must not get stuck. We must not stop. We must keep going.

When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.

1 Corinthians 13:11




~ by Russ Allison Loar
~ Photo: Christopher & Joshua Loar with Santa
© All Rights Reserved

Notable People I Have Met ~ Part Eight



Carlos Vega ~ virtuoso drummer







CarlosVega is perhaps best known as the drummer who played with James Taylor for about 13 years. Among musicians, he was known as a premier recording session drummer, having played with the best session musicians on albums for many of the most popular artists.



Click on this link for his biography.

Click on this link for his drum solo video.

   Carlos was about 19 years old when I played my first gig with him. It was about 1976 and we were playing for a private party at the legendary Hollywood restaurant, Ma Maison, a favorite celebrity hangout.

   I was a guitar player and singer in a quartet called The Entertainers that was often booked at upscale locales for a very wealthy clientele. We played with a variety of drummers, including the legendary Ralph Humphrey who played with Frank Zappa and just about everybody else in the upper crust of musicians.

   When Ralph was unable to do the Ma Maison gig with us, he recommended young Carlos Vega, who was already making a name for himself by playing gigs with famous jazz players such as Freddie Hubbard.

   We were blown away by his remarkable balance between technical virtuosity and natural feeling. He was always right in the pocket, deep in the groove. I played with a variety of musicians during my fifteen years of gigs and recording sessions before changing careers, but I’d never met a young man so gifted and yet so humble about his talents. He was incredibly polite, 
the kind of young man you’d want to bring home to meet your sister.

   Carlos was a joyful soul on the brink of a great career. Sadly, he committed suicide in 1998 at age 41. I am so glad our paths crossed, and so sorry he left this world too soon. I will always think of him as the eager young musician I knew, with so many great years ahead.



~ by Russ Allison Loar
© All Rights Reserved

Notable People I Have Met ~ Part Two



Ray Bradbury


Bradbury at Fowler Brothers bookstore in 1975

I was lucky to have met Ray Bradbury on several different occasions through the years, at book signings and talks.


The first time was July 16th, 1975, at Fowler Brothers bookstore in downtown Los Angeles where he was signing books. My wife and I happened to see a small notice of the event in the newspaper, but it was poorly publicized and we were just about the only ones there.



He agreed to the book signing for sentimental reasons. The bookstore was where he'd met his wife, Maggie, in 1946. She was a knowledgeable salesclerk, according to Bradbury, quoted in a Los Angeles Times story: "There are not that many bookstores left where you are going to get that kind of service or that kind of intellect." Sadly, the store closed in 1994.

He signed a few books for mesome old editions from home, and some new books which I purchased at the store. Perhaps because there was no one there except my wife and I, he took the time to write personalized messages in each book. In my copy of "Dandelion Wine" he wrote: "To Russ ~ Good wishes from the boy who became the man who made this wine.”

I asked if I could photograph him and he said yes, explaining that years ago when he'd met philosopher and writer Bertrand Russell he wished he'd taken his photo. I timidly took a few photos using my terrible Kodak 110 camera.

The last time I saw Ray Bradbury was in October 2000, at Vroman's bookstore in Pasadena. My wife and I were browsing when we heard his unmistakable, enthusiastic voice. He was looking at a display of Halloween gifts, shopping for his grandchildren. I walked over to him and said, "My goodness, it’s the father of Halloween, shopping for Halloween gifts." (He's author of the novel, “The Halloween Tree.”) It was like finding Charles Dickens shopping for Christmas gifts.

He was very friendly, seemingly glad to be recognized, and a bit frail, walking with a cane. He showed me his tie, emblazoned with small pumpkins on a black background. A young female bookstore employee was helping him reach some of the gifts, but she seemed impatient. She asked if he wanted to purchase any books and he said: "No, I've got plenty of books. You know, I've written quite a few of the books you have here on your bookshelves." She didn't know.

Have you read Bradbury's "Dandelion Wine"? It begins with an ode to the beginning of summer, seen through the eyes of youth. The copy he signed for me will always be one of my most treasured possessions. Although Ray Bradbury is known for science fiction, "Dandelion Wine" is not really a science fiction book. It's a deeply felt chronicle of his own youth, seen through the eyes of a boy who begins the summer with a revelation: He’s alive, really alive! What follows is a series of awakenings and realizations in rural Green Town, a magical small town based on Waukegan, Illinois, where Bradbury was born.

Bradbury is a writer who, like Steinbeck, sees everything through a magnifying glass; sometimes through a microscope. Like all the best writers, he teaches his readers how to see, how to think. “Dandelion Wine” taught me so many things when I was first coming of age. His stories remind me of the stories told by my own beloved grandparents, lessons from another place and time, where people are thoughtful and kind by nature. Home.

~Ray Bradbury died June 5, 2012, at age 91


~ Story and photo by Russ Allison Loar
© All Rights Reserved




My Father Among The Chinese



The Chinese children watched the funny fat American in the ridiculous sport coat try to blow up the balloons.

He was a tourist in his late 60s, wearing a gray floppy hat. His face was a fleshy sagging caricature of itself, accented by an unkempt bushy salt-and-pepper mustache intended to disguise the steady loss of masculinity from his features.

Someone back home had told him that Chinese children love balloons. But what really caught the attention of the children was the exuberant vaudeville of this short-winded man in the funny clothing who was having a terribly difficult time inflating the balloons which were too small and thin for such an amateur. Each balloon he attempted to inflate flew from his lips into the air with the sound of a small fart, prompting laughter and applause from the children gathered around him.

My father, a man who once made deals with some of the most influential businessmen in America, had successfully transformed himself into an amusing street monkey.

Later that day he would show a group of Chinese university students how to peel an orange.








~ Story and artwork by Russ Allison Loar
© All Rights Reserved

Complete Honesty





I was an honest man when my father-in-law began to die.

It took me the first twenty-seven years of my life to become a consistently honest man, a scrupulously honest man. I was not a habitual liar, but I grew up wanting to stay out of trouble with my parents who were not of a forgiving nature, and so I lied. During my teenage years the fabrications multiplied as I tried my best to live free of parental rules and regulations. I didn’t lie to get anything in particular, I lied to stay out of trouble.

Do you realize what time it is young man?
I ran out of gas.

I started lying for personal gain during the early years of my marriage when money was hard to come by and even harder to hold on to. I would tell any number of tall tales about automobile repairs and broken-down refrigerators to convince my wealthy yet retentive parents that their money, so painful for them to part with, was at least going to some practical use.

I need $150.
What? More money? Again? We just gave you $400 to fix your car!
The refrigerator stopped. The repair guy is here right now. I’ve got to get it fixed so the food won’t spoil.

Then, one day, the lies stopped.

I was no less impecunious, but something happened that changed my perspective. I became a father. I began to question just what kind of father I would be in the eyes of my son. I knew what kind of father I wanted to be, and so I set out to become that idealized person. I had many weaknesses to address and redress, but the first, most important task was to become a completely honest man. Honest in all things, at all times. I knew the foundation of morality, character and wisdom had to be honesty. Without honesty life is a house of cards, susceptible to the slightest breeze of truth.

I began to test myself. If a waiter forgot to charge me for some item of food, I insisted that it be added to my bill. If a cashier gave me too much change at a store, I returned it. In fact, I paid particular attention to the most trivial transactions and interactions. I had much to atone for. And I was tested. An inordinate number of people dropped money from pockets and purses whenever I was around.

Clerical errors in my favor abounded. The kind of happenstance I constantly wished for during my most poverty-stricken years now occurred with peculiar regularity. I still do not know if this was an odd coincidence, a divine test, or just the sort of thing that happens all the time, a normal state of affairs which I became acutely aware of only because of my near obsessive desire to make amends for a lifetime of ethical lapses.

You only charged me for three of these cookies, but I’ve got four.

That’s OK. We’ll catch you next time.
No, please, let me pay you for this other cookie.
Don’t worry about it. It’s OK.
I cannot leave here without paying you for this cookie.

By the time I was forty-two, my honesty was habitual. A reflex. It must also be said that no being of human dimensions can achieve perfection, but I tried. I became prideful of the opportunity to display my honesty at every turn. In my professional life as a newspaper reporter, a career begun after my first son was born, I sought out dishonesty with a missionary zeal. I would recount the lies of various miscreants, their attempts to cover up their lies, their false claims of being misunderstood and quoted “out of context,” and finally their apologies. I was instrumental in destroying their reputations and shaming their families. They were ultimately responsible for their own behavior, but I was merciless. There’s no more fierce advocate for the truth than a reformed liar.

Former school superintendent Peter Snyder, convicted last year of embezzling $2.7 million from the Valley Unified School District, was stabbed to death in a San Diego County prison yesterday. “He was a good man who made a bad mistake,” said ex-wife Theresa Snyder who divorced her husband two months after his conviction.

~~~

Does honesty have limits? Should an honest person lie to avoid hurting the feelings of friends and family? Does honesty require you to tell your mother her new outfit is forty years out of date and her hairdo makes her look like Bozo the Clown? Surely we are not required to voice every subjective opinion in order to fulfill the requirements of honesty. A reluctance to express opinions and preferences, after all, is not a masking of truth, it is a refusal to engage in momentary, subjective assessment.

You’ve changed your hair.
How do you like it?
I think it brings out the real you.

And yet when it came to my personal beliefs, I never put the slightest tarnish on the truth. My late father-in-law, a physician, was a deeply religious man. Soon after I began dating his only daughter, I felt no reluctance in telling him just how medieval I thought his particular religion was.

How can you actually believe your religion is the only true religion?

We trust in the teachings of our church.

Did it ever occur to you that your self-serving religious leaders just might be wrong?

We have no reason to doubt them.

My wife and I were subsequently married without her parents’ blessings, and only over the course of years did my relationship with the two godly souls that were her parents, soften. Most of the softening came with the birth of my first son, their first grandchild. And so were we all changed by the miracle that is a newborn child. I learned to hold my tongue while simultaneously developing a genuine interest in the weather as a topic of conversation.

I returned to college and majored in journalism, a profession which is supposed to be about the truth. My father-in-law admired my determination to finish college while working odd jobs to support my family. He had entered medical school late in life after serving in the Army and knew only too well how hard it was to attend classes, study, be an attentive father and still earn some kind of living. My second son was born three years later, between semesters, and the bond between our families grew stronger. Religion was not a subject for conversation, but in all other matters, our relations became cordial.

About five years later, Grandpa Doc, as my father-in-law became known to our sons, retired from medical practice. He was a kind man who left many brokenhearted patients behind when he moved to the small Northern California town of Paradise. Yes, it’s actually named Paradise. Moving was his wife’s idea, for she was the font of all religious discipline in the family and believed the big cities would soon fall into chaos, what with the Second Coming nearly here. The small town of Paradise was indeed a beautiful, if not remote, place to live, but it left him bereft of friends and familiar landmarks. It was a cold turkey retirement. And a few years later, his isolation grew as his mental faculties failed.

And so Grandpa Doc traveled between comprehension and confusion, never fully surrendering to confusion, always fighting his way back for a while. I watched his struggle, and it was during our last visit when he asked me The Question. He was in the hospital and we were alone together. His wife had left the small, sterile room to get a drink of water and my wife went with her. He was lying flat on his back with only a small pillow under his head, confused, but not scared. He looked at me and smiled with the same unassuming manner that had always been his way with patients, especially when broaching the subject of bad news.

How does it look? Do you think I’m going to pull through?

He was counting on my honesty, asking me to confide in him. As a physician, he was only too aware of the fiction of reassuring words from friends, family and medical professionals who have decided the patient is no longer in a sufficient state of mind to process factual information. But this was one of Grandpa Doc’s clear moments and he wanted to know the truth. He figured I was the most likely person to give it to him—straight.

And what was the truth? Could I really predict the future? Was I medically qualified to give any kind of diagnosis, much less prognosis, to this man so cruelly cast adrift by old age? Of course, we all knew that his condition was not reversible. But how could I tell this religious man there would be no miracle for him?

Torn between the obvious and the miraculous, given this grave honor of rendering some kind of truthful information to a man momentarily clear enough to want to know what was really happening, I put my hand on his shoulder, smiled, and summoned my best imitation of the offhand remark, my best imitation of his own reassuring beside manner.

You’re doing OK. You’ll pull out of this. You’ll be going home soon.

He looked into my eyes and at least for a moment, he knew the truth.




~ by Russ Allison Loar
© All Rights Reserved