Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Bad Day in Review

This is me in a bad mood.

Everything that might slightly annoy me is amplified. Everything that might make me happy is overlooked.

But can you blame me? Who likes to wake up knowing they're going to have a bad day?

There was this presentation, a real estate related thing, that I committed to months ago, only to see my real estate career fizzle out dramatically since returning from vacation. But still, this commitment, hanging over my head, that I had to do much preparation for, if only to avoid looking like a complete loser in front of S. Bullock's peers.

The presentation, you see, was to take place at S. Bullock's place of employment -- also my part-time place of employment. Come to think of it, it's basically my only place of employment at present, which is fine.

The presentation. Bearing down on me, the giant clock in my head flashing 12 noon. If I could get past this presentation, and then manage to not dwell on the cruel fact of doing all this work only to remind myself of another failed career attempt, I could then somehow salvage my day.

But first, the first day of 4th grade.

Which is fine, except when you are completely in knots over a presentation and you park on the grassy strip next to the sidewalk, where you normally park, only to have a cop -- a cop! -- there to protect us from the bad guys who occasionally drive around San Francisco, hitting pedestrians at will? No! A cop there to keep us from parking on the grassy strip next to the sidewalk, where you normally park.

Strike 1.

It wouldn't have been so bad if the cop hadn't tried to explain to me that, well, maybe people usually park there, but "not when I'm here." Enjoy the donuts, officer. And apparently, that only holds for the first hour of your patrol, since I glanced out the window an hour later and saw people parked leisurely on the grassy strip. Erratic police work, if you ask me.

A parent in a bad mood can use their mood for random teaching moments, of course, so I told the Jawa to watch how I did not pop off to the obviously in the wrong officer of the law.

Me in a bad mood means acerbic semi-wit. Today it meant going back to the old standby: making fun of people's shoes and clothing. Specifically, Crocs. They are this year's awful progressive parent trend. When I was a teen, growing up in Orange County, the idea was to always look as if you were about to go to the beach. The idea now, I guess, is to look is if you could run off and do some gardening at any moment.

I apologize to any Croc-wearers I may have offended. Except the boys who wear them. I mean, come on.

From school I went to see my friend and presentation partner the mortgage broker, who was still hoping I'd be able to summon up some enthusiasm for the presentation. Well, no, but the two Hershey's miniatures I slammed down at 10:45 did help.

The presentation, when it finally arrived, was not bad. It was boring, for certain, and humorless by design, but it passed quickly. We spewed out data (as my friend the mortgage broker had advised we do) and I pretended to by enthusiastic but not funny. Scientists don't do my kind of funny. I learned that at the last presentation.

I was hoping that I would no longer be me in a bad mood. I even had a small dog waiting for me at home, who would be eager to chase a tennis ball and then flop all over the place while returning it to me. The Jawa would want me to bring the small dog to school so his friends could see it.

And I tried.

Now at this point, I'd like to recall the rude passenger on our flight back from Seattle, who forced the flight attendants to show him where in the regulations book it says that you can't wear headphones during takeoff. Being my grandfather's grandson and my father's son, I took the opportunity to let the flight attendants kn0w (while waiting for the bathroom) that I found his behavior abbhorant. "It's so much easier to not be a jerk," I said then, completely forgetting this when I arrived at the school with Shack, our new small dog, only to be turned away by the hulking Russian security guy.

"No pets," he said with his thick accent.

Pause. I've been seeing people pulling dogs on leashes at this school going on 5 years now. For awhile, I thought they were a requirment, along with clogs and hybrids. And now you're telling me I can't bring my dog? Forgive me if I'm feeling like the world's rules are being enforced only on me.

Fine. I give up. Even when S. Bullock says, "You really are cranky" at dinner, I don't fight back. Instead, I retreat to the library, on a beautiful San Francisco night, while everyone else sits outside restaurants and talks on their cell phones. Then I come home and have a terrible fight with the Jawa, who vows revenge and threatens at one point to "blow up your dresser."

And now, as we wind down, Sandra Bullock just told me that I need to take the dog outside again before I go to sleep.


Sunday, August 27, 2006


It was only 32 hours ago that I sidled up to a bean dip-constructing Sandra Bullock and quietly said, "You're right. The Jawa could use a dog," but it seems like it happened years ago. And it was only this morning that mother and son were mulling over dog-securing strategies, most of which had lead times of at least a month. "It will take that long to get on a breeder list," explained S. Bullock.

Which was comforting. I was dragged, if not kicking and screaming, then at least anxious and suspicious, into this project. Sparky is not even cold in her (disturbingly shallow) grave, but something about the way S. Bullock sadly summed up the Jawa's situation Friday night, after a quick yet intense confrontation with him, spoke volumes. I went in there after he'd calmed down -- the conflict was based on his refusal to brush his teeth, or something along those lines -- and he was frustrated, not in tears, but close. "I can't sleep," he said. "Usually I watch Sparky, but now I'm all alone. I can't wait until we get that fish tank."

A fish tank. I left the room feeling like the worst dad in the world. What kind of father denies his son a puppy, leaving the kid looking at fish to be his pet salvation? A mean, lowdown, selfish dad, that's what kind; hence my turnaround the next day.

I let them talk about hamsters and fish for awhile, then dropped my bombshell sotto voce, like a fool not expecting them to spring into action immediately, which they naturally did. In a flash they were downstairs on my laptop, searching out breeders of Pembroke Welsh Corgies, the breed they claim to love and I may have suggested would make the entire experience a little less awful for me.

Purebred Corgies come from breeders, who require at least a month to get you on their list, at which point, I guess, the little dogs spit out a litter and you get one.

Unless you see an ad in the Chronicle, and unless you just happen to see an ad from a family who are sort of breeders but sort of not, and have one puppy left, and it is male so you can name it Shack, which is the name the Jawa gave to his Nintendogs Corgi after Shaquille O'Neal, which cracks me up so much that it again makes the entire process a little less painless, and unless you all agree to ditch the plans you made for today, which included looking at cars, so you can drive out to Lodi to look at the dog.

In other words, unless you are us. If you are us, and all of this happens, you may find yourself dog owners within 32 hours.

Sandra Bullock and the Jawa were too excited to eat. I saw my easy, kennel-free life flash before my eyes. We took the maximum out of the ATM, because we don't really need that money for things like food and gasoline, and set off for Lodi, 100 miles and 27 degrees of heat away.

Halfway there, with the outside temp right at 90, my mother called. It was her birthday, and I'd spilled the news earlier on the phone. Rightly enjoying her 66th with a casual lunch at Bud and/or Marsi's house, she was looking forward to a Cosante (sp?) event in which, they told me, a little old man with white hair named Paolo Soleri will stand up and tell everyone why the world would be better if only we'd all listened to him in the first place. He's a famed artist -- and social critic -- and the last time they went to a Soleri-themed event people danced around in ways very reminiscent of my mother's own circa-1960 Hofstra University dance class.

But before attending an event which would surely bring forth images of kneeling and holding one arm out toward a totem pole in unison with seven other leotard-clad women, she decided to call me to tell me that my little sister, who is a dog groomer and lifelong canine enthusiast, wanted me to know that a Corgi was a bad decision, because its very short legs plus the 32 steps leading to our front door would lead to certain disaster. "They jump really high," said the Jawa, which was good enough for me, so I spurned her advice.

Because when you're on a spontaneous roll, you've got to go with it. We wondered aloud, as we entered Stockton, how regular people manage to ignore their spontaneous urges. After all, wouldn't it have been smarter to sign up with a breeder, then save money until one was ready? Maybe to do some more research so we wouldn't show up in Lodi with an airline blanket and good intentions? That way would could have driven straight home, instead of stopping at a Pet Co in Tracy with our new, sad and terrified dog.

Meanwhile, outside of Lodi, our dog had no idea that today would be the most traumatic of his life. He knew nothing of the ad in the Chronicle, though he may have had a vague sense that his brothers and sisters were disappearing one by one. When we drove up, he joined his mother, father, grandmother and remaining brother as they swarmed our car, then ran off across the vast acreage of his birthplace. Yes, we took a ranch dog, one with extremely short legs, and brought him to San Francisco. Nice.

Ten minutes later it was done. We left with a 12-week-old Corgi, a half bag of Iams dog food, a stack of papers and wide open future. We got home and Shack walked around, slept, threw up, and tried to eat my laptop power cord. Eventually he figured out that the bowl full of familiar-looking brown cubes in the kitchen was his food dish, so he ate some of that. He stood on the back porch with his front legs on the step, forlornly realizing that he could not get back in the house without our help.

And at 10:30, with the Jawa sleeping nearby the family complete and Sparky breathing a sigh of relief from rodent heaven, we placed him in his brand-new blue bed with his now-familiar blue airline blanket, ready to put the cap on our Norman Rockwell day. Which lasted 30 seconds, until he got out and walked back into the living room. I followed him out there. He liked the other pillow better, so probably breaking all rules of sensible pet training, I carried him with his pillow into the Jawa's bedroom, then laid next to him until he fell asleep. I mean, come on, the guy's probably pretty freaked out, right?

I figured I could be like the man with the yellow hat. What he did to George was truly awful, but George still liked and trusted him. So we took Shack off of the farm and away from his family to be a city dog. There'll be an upside for him, I'm sure.

And as for me, well, today I am a good dad.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

The Dad Cleaning Experience

Be thankful that you are not the Jawa today. If you were, you would presently be recovering from a Dad Cleaning Experience, which, as my sisters and I can attest to, is no way to spend a Saturday morning.

A Dad Cleaning Experience is as blinding as it is unexpected. It comes without warning, and can result in a child finding all of his personal items laid out in the atrium tile. Sometimes, when the dad behind the Dad Cleaning Experience is feeling cheeky, the child may find his breakfast dishes sitting in the sink, each with a small label bearing the child's name.

Fortunately, the Jawa's own dad spent his own childhood on the receiving end of these ingenious methods, so his suffering is limited to a few hours of comprehensive cleaning, with accompanying stream-of-consciousness Dad harangue.

Today's Dad Cleaning Experience was no surprise. We had been charged with the orders, "Start cleaning the bedroom," in the morning, so we were in the correct mindset before beginning. However, for all the Jawa knew, "cleaning the bedroom" could have involved moving a few Legos around, tossing stuff into the closet, and then dancing around to whatever music we had playing.

Not this time.

Unlike a Mom Cleaning Experience, which in my own memories comes almost daily and somewhat haphazardly, and often might result in a real nice clearing of the air, the Dad Cleaning Experience is regimented, almost military in its thudding efficiency though erratic in its frequency. "We'll start with the Legos," I boomed to my child today, who wanted only to watch more Pokemon on Cartoon Network, "and move on from there."

And unlike my own Dad Cleaning Experiences, perhaps because of my long history with the genre, I made at least a perfunctory attempt to be positive and supportive during the cleaning process. Which, at first, seemed to pay off. We slammed his Gorillaz CD into the player and started to work.

The Jawa threw himself into cleaning, disassembling Legos, even contorting his body to vacuum under his bed. It's satisfying vacuuming under the bed, as it is vacuumed once a quarter and so offers up several giant economy-sized dustballs for the vacuumer. I was a little sad to be on the sidelines, but quickly remembered how much less flexible my body is now that I have passed 40 and am carrying the equivalent of a small child strapped to my stomach with packing tape in extra weight.

We started with Legos, moved onto the desk, then to his bookshelf. I was, as my own father would have said, "ruthless." With Sandra Bullock out of the house, we spent an hour or so throwing toys past their "best if played with by" date into "donation" and "trash" bags, tossing any toy current but homeless onto the bed.

Sadly, the cleanup also involved removing Sparky's old stuff and placing it in the corner in anticipation of the next hamster. I noticed at one point that Sparky's waste had outlived her, which struck me as profoundly sad, but also impressive, as it put her on a level where she had something in common with a nuclear powerplant.

Eventually, with three trash bags and two "donation" bags full, we tackled our biggest potential foe: the closet.

Here's what the Jawa keeps in his closet: two Halloween costumes, Star Wars toys, a poster about Ostriches that he made in first grade, a carboard Godzilla that he made whose head looks like Pac Man, each and every page of schoolwork completed since Kindergarten, some Mt. St. Helens ash, a piece of Boron, painting supplies, several hundred cheap plastic items that came with Happy Meals, weird little figures that could be bugs, but are actually Geonnosians (sp?) from the second "Star Wars" movie, some fossils that his grandfather brought back from Montana, sixteen super balls of various sizes, plastic motorcycles and cars, long-forgotten Game Boy games, seven cubic feet of dust and a plastic sword. And some clothes.

By now I had slipped into the Dad Cleaning Experience equivalent of a runner's high. If Sandra Bullock had not returned in time to establish some boundaries, I would have thrown the entire lot of stuff out. The Jawa, sensing this, began referring to every scrap of paper as "special." "I spent so much time on that!" he'd cry, as I tried to furtively stuff a watercolor fish into the trash bag.

Bullock, sensing that I had gone over the edge and was a Sharpie short of labelling each item then throwing them in the sink or in the middle of the atrium, stepped in. She'd see me slinking by with some enormous plastic toy and say, "You'd better ask him first."

It took us the better part of the morning and a couple of hours past lunch to finish the job. By then, the Jawa had lost all interest in anything other than blaming us for damage incurred by his Legos. "Of course," I pointed out at one point, "it probably would be better to not put the Lego hospital directly under your desk chair."

"ONLY I CAN PULL OUT THE CHAIR," he bellowed. Since we had a run-in last night involving bed time and Roller Coaster Tycoon 2 (a cd-rom game) that ended in tears (his), I gave him some slack. After all, I do remember what a few hours of the Dad Cleaning Experience can do to a young psyche. It's not pretty. I'm sure 4 out of 5 child psychologists do not recommend it as a parenting method. But it sure leaves rooms clean.

Now the child is content, battling foes as Mario on his Game Cube. He survived this round of cleaning, and his room is the better for it.

We even made room for the new fish tank, which I've heard will go next to his CDs, a few feet from the new hamster cage.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Sparky: Postscript

Since Friday, I've spent 41 hours in Seattle and 38 in Southern California, along with 30 total hours of travel time. I say this to explain why, despite the cliff-hanger of my last post, I have been silent for almost an entire week. I duly apologize to all 11 of my readers.

Sadly, my full schedule prevented me from fulfilling my duties as a father. I learned this Tuesday, when the following discussion took place:

(phone rings)

Me: Hello?
Jawa: (glum) Hi, dad.
Me: Hi, Jawa. How are you doing?
Jawa: Sparky's dead.
Me: (empathetic, but still noticing that it's kind of funny to dive right into "Sparky's dead" without any kind of setup) Oh, no! I'm sorry.
Jawa: She had heart disease.
Me: (thinking, "Well, I guess that's appropriate, given that it runs in the Another Lefthander side of the family.") How are you doing?
Jawa: (thinks about it) I'm okay.
Jawa: I want to get another hamster in two and a half weeks. I'm going to name him Fiesta. Or James.

When I finally returned home, after seven hours driving up I-5 in the dilapidated Subaru, fighting sleep the entire way, the Jawa met me at the door and said, "Dad, I'm sorry to say that Sparky is no more."

So there you have it. Sparky is no more. Well spent was the $160 to euthanize her in the Jawa's presence, rather than have someone at S. Bullock's sophisticated biotech employer do it for free. Sparky now lies in a shallow grave in the front yard, because the backyard is way too rocky and besides, is at a 45 degree angle. We joke that no one can break into our house from the back because we'd hear them fall off of the backyard, but we don't want a deceased Sparky rolling down into our bedroom one night unannounced.

All in all, this has been a good lesson for the Jawa. His introduction to the idea that living things die came in the person of a small white hamster whose death was not tragic and who suffered only for a few days. Sandra Bullock told me that the Jawa was brave and stoic at the vet's. "He was crying on the way there, but once we got there he was very helpful, telling the vet what he'd seen and how she was acting," said Bullock.

Now Sparky's corner is quiet. We've saved her Crittertrail Revolution (the gigantic exercise wheel / cage that we bought when she got too big for her original wheel), and her food and bedding sits, waiting to serve Fiesta or James in two-and-a-half weeks.

My trips are complete. We flew to Seattle and wished the extremely tattooed Butter Goats a happy 40th birthday, then I drove the dilapidated Subaru to Los Angeles to interview a famous lawyer for a magazine article. I had to eschew my usual jeans and black t-shirt uniform for the Century City-based meeting, on the good advice of Roger A. Hunt, Esq., who informed me that "Century City is the epicenter of all L.A. lawyers." Good on you, Hunt!

And I am reminded again of how strange and yet strangely compelling Los Angeles is. Bathed in smog, surrounded by traffic-choked freeways, L.A. is a jungle. Yet its harshness is easily forgotten in the presence of its blinding glamour. Two blocks away the Crips are fighting it out with the Bloods, but on this stretch of Pico, high-powered attornies are guarding famous people's secrets. Fascinating, but also very easy to leave.

I arrived home last night covered in the grit of automobile travel. This was the Subaru's final long trip. 1000 miles in 54 hours is a young car's game, not the domain of a vehicle that makes strange grinding noises every time you steer left.

It would be cold and inhuman to compare the Subaru's slow decline to that of the beloved Sparky, but I have to admit that this is one vehicle whose best days are behind it. We bought it three weeks after the Jawa was born because S. Bullock's aging Corolla was suddenly too small. Its first road trip was Seattle to Portland, a few weeks after that. We have pictures. One I remember was taken on a Portland side street. It shows a young, smiling, post-partum Sandra Bullock, lying on her side in the back of the Subaru, having just fed the infant Jawa, who lies next to her, still mostly with pink, ambiguous baby features but unmistakeably already the Jawa.

Back then, the Subaru was a shining symbol of our new adult life. It was solid, safe and grown-up, the automobile equivalent of the big green couch we'd bought to replace our collegiate living room futon.

Nine years later, we no longer need a big station wagon. We live in San Francisco, so don't really need all-wheel-drive, either. That part of our life is over, and feeling the poor old Subaru struggle to get up I-5 in the heat was no fun.

So will Fiesta's trip home come in the Acura, the Subaru, or some as-yet-undetermined vehicle. Dad, can you chime in here?

Friday, August 18, 2006

Sparky's Final Lap?

There's a sad story behind the discarded small pet cage you sometimes see on garbage day, one we are in the middle of learning. How many times have you caught sight of the beat-up cage, tossed on its side next to the city-issued garbage can, and thought nothing of it?

Two Christmases ago, the Jawa, who is known for getting unusual ideas lodged in his brain, where they stay, fester and do not move, got his mind wrapped around the idea of getting a hamster. Several trips to the library followed. We had not had good luck with disposable pets (see: fish, gold) but he was undaunted. After dozens of trips to PetCo to "browse," we finally bought a hamster in early December.

We chose the craziest one, a small white female determined to escape from her overcrowded cage. The Jawa named her "Sparky." We took her home, and then proceeded to buy at least $100 worth of cages, treats, toys, etc., for this $9.95 pet.

And then, unlikely as it seems to anyone with a rodent aversion (I'm talking to you, Princess Grace), Sparky ingratiated herself into our family. Even though she sometimes smelled like a sewer rat and required weekly cage cleanings. Sometimes we would say, "Poor Sparky," because the nocturnal creature was seldom given the opportunity for a full day's rest.

At night, Sparky ran on her wheel like today was her last day. She had a small wheel at first. Then, growing too large for it, she began running on top of it, only to occasionally misstep, then tumble off onto the floor of her cage. Into her life came a state-of-the-art wheel, large enough to keep her running for months.

But as the months melted away, so did Sparky's spark. Though she still careened through the house in her plastic ball, and still pursued escape with single-mindedness, we could all tell that, in recent months, Sparky was inching toward the end of the line. The Jawa, a pragmatist like his mother, mused over what pet would follow Sparky. A rabbit? A chinchilla? Occasionally, mother and son would team up to nag me about getting a dog.

In the past few weeks, Sparky has taken a turn toward the worst. A weeklong visit from the cousins -- which equals exceptional Sparky torture -- followed by two weeks on her own, left her dazed, sitting in her little wooden house, barely moving. She hadn't run on her gigantic wheel in months, and now she was no longer running up her tube to her penthouse condo, formerly her favorite place to stash food.

Last night, I wrote a couple of drafts of an article I had due today. When I came upstairs, the Jawa was in his room, crying. "He's worried about Sparky," offered Sandra Bullock. I went in to see him.

"Dad," he sobbed, "Sparky's eye is closed." I looked down. She was squinting, and shuffling along the floor. One side of her body seemed weaker than the other. Can hamsters have strokes?

S. Bullock and I gave it a good try. "She'll be okay," we said. But this morning, when the Jawa called me into his room and said, "Listen," I heard the pathetic sounds of a wheezing hamster. Sparky was nearing the end.

My stated policy for the past 9 years has been to never lie to the Jawa, so after sizing up the situation and talking briefly to Bullock via phone, I sat down in his room and motioned for him to sit on my lap. "You know I don't lie to you," I began, "and this is going to be harsh. I don't think Sparky's going to make it much longer."

We then discussed how great Sparky's life had been, and how much we loved Sparky, and how great it was for her have been loved like that, and how we don't like seeing her in pain. I told the Jawa that when my time came, I hoped he would consider those things instead of being sad.

"Dad, I'm going to melt down when Sparky dies. Is that going to be okay?" he asked.

"Of course. There is no inappropriate response when someone dies."

"What if you blow up the world in response?"

"Okay, I take it back. There are inappropriate responses."

I told him that, since he would be going to Sonoma for the weekend, he might want to say good-bye to Sparky now, just in case. He gave her a somber wave, then slowly walked over to her cage. He reached behind it and took out all of the food, treats and toys we'd stored back there, placing them in front of the cage. Then he placed his book "The Care and Feeding of Hamsters," on top and put her big plastic ball alongside. "This is the Sparky memorial," he said. We were late for camp, but I let him stand there for awhile, until he was ready to go.

On the way to camp, we talked about how things, even people, die, and how it can happen suddenly or it can take a long time. He was quiet mostly, though he did suggest that when my parents get older, they should live at the JCC, because "they can take care of anything there."

I dropped him at camp and said goodbye for the weekend. Who knows if Sparky will survive until Sunday. Maybe the sight of all that food sitting just outside her cage doors will spur her into some kind of recovery. Maybe the complex Lego structure nearby, which the Jawa named "The Sparky Memorial Raceway," will inspire her. I don't know.

What comes next? The Jawa is talking about another hamster, named, naturally, Sparky, Jr., but S. Bullock seems to have other ideas. She has sent me several emails today; nothing in the subject line, no message, just links to photos of puppies.

So next time you see a small pet cage sitting on its side in the trash, try to remember that there might be a heartbroken Jawa somewhere who put it there, finding out for the first time that everything that lives eventually dies.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Fun With Insulation

What's not to love about pink fiberglass insulation? To begin with, it's pink. It's nearly impossible to work up a good macho when you're carrying something huge, fluffy and pink around, no matter how hard you try. If the home improvement gods had wanted insulation to be taken seriously, they wouldn't have made it pink.

We recently -- a year ago -- installed a bunch of insulation into our kitchen walls. California code says that all exterior walls, even those that once had windows looking out onto the street but had houses slammed up against them 26 years ago, must be insulated. So during our kitchen remodel, we tossed a bunch of the pink stuff in there.

Yes, I was slightly put off at first, having anticipated raising my pathetic macho quotient by hauling several hundred cubic feet of insulation around Home Depot Pro, but my disappointment evaporated when I slashed through the plastic of the first package.

Pink fiberglass insulation, it turns out, is the adult equivalent of the small tablets that, when tossed into a bowl of water, expand into small animals. You get nothing as cool as say, a pink tiger -- or elephant, us being adults and all -- but seeing the insulation expand to 50 times its original size is pretty cool. I had to run and get the Jawa after opening the first bag.

And it doesn't just explode out of its bag, immediately expanding to maximum size. Instead, it expands slowly and consistently, gradually arriving at its huge pink fluffiness. And when you've been spent the past 72 hours standing witness to your own fixit incompetence in the presence of your contractor father-in-law, it's nice to see him reminded that pink fluffiness is an integral part of his manly world.

Unfortunately, it is nearly impossible to accurately predict how much pink fiberglass insulation you will need for a specific job. In our case, we were left with about 10 large, tofu-like chunks of it, which we stored downstairs, underneath our front stairs. Which are about to topple over due to dry rot, and therefore leak badly. I checked on the insulation a few months ago, only to find it soggy and dirty, like so much abused cotton candy.

I made it to the end of the seventh paragraph before comparing it to cotton candy.

"This stuff has to go," I said, and then reminded myself every time I had reason to go underneath the stairs. Finally, today, given my freedom from my collapsing career in real estate, I resolved to take the insulation, along with about 8 open house signs ("A-frames," in the trade) to the Colma dump.

My crazy neighbor may have proclaimed himself the "king of flashing," but I proved today that I am the Richard Henry Dana of pink fiberglass insulation. I"m sure that each and every car driving slowly down my street was impressed as I flung chunks of insulation down to the sidewalk. Then, having created an ephemeral pink landscape in front of our house, I loaded each piece into the Acura, attempting to return them to their original size.

Once again, I return to my original thesis: how fun is pink fiberglass insulation? Really fun, I thought, each time I looked into my rear view mirror and saw the wall of pink. Equally fun, I reiterated as I transferred the load to the Subaru, which was parked at S. Bullock's place of business.

And how absurd, I thought, to see the gruff old guy at the Colma dump consider my unabashadly pink cargo and say, "It's all insulation?" No, sir! It's also the decaying totems of another misguided career attempt! I've got A-frames in there too, mister!


I drove up the hill and parked, opened the hatch. The insulation sproinged out, revealing the a-frames. Other dump guys eyed the insulation. "It's got to be usable," they thought. "That guy's wasting a bunch of good insulation."

And then came the a-frames. Originally I had considered leaving them randomly around San Francisco, each pointing to a non-existent open house, or using the small chalk board on each to write non-sequiters. "Crunch our New Nachos!" I would write, or, "Consider yourself warned." But I was too lazy or too scared, or just not the kind of guy who's cool enough to actually do something like that. Somehow, they would be traced back to me. Instead, I took them to the Colma dump.

I flung them into the mounds of garbage, each one going higher and further than the last. A-frames 6, 7 and 8 did insane cartwheels in the air, exploding on impact. Someone will take them and use them for scrap or firewood.

After the final one, I clapped my hands together and said, "Well, that's that." I stood back, looking at my twisted pile of wood and fiberglass. My shirt was covered with sparkly pink fibers. If I'd had cut my sleeves off and added a headband, I would have looked like the token bald member of Loverboy.

Worse yet, tiny fibeglass slivers were embedded in my arms. "Be careful," the always-pragmatic Sandra Bullock had warned, "you'll get all itchy." Itchy would have been fine. This was not itchy.

But it's okay. As long as I don't have to wear long sleeves for the next few weeks, it shouldn't be a problem. A few, okay, a hundred or so, fiberglas slivers in your arms are a small price to pay for having enjoyed all of the wonderful benefits of pink fiberglass insulation.

This is how I celebrated Flush Puppy's 39th birthday. I think on her end she's getting a new tattoo or something. I know that's what her husband, Butter Goats, will be doing to commemorate his 40th, which was yesterday. I think for my 40th I celebrated by changing my cholesterol medication from Lipitor to the generic version.

Finally, I happened to pass by Mr. San Francisco today on his way to pick up his new, slightly used Honda SUV. This is great news for all of us, especially Zin Gal, who can take some comfort in knowing that she will no longer be the only carpool candidate with three rows of seats.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Post-Apple Depression

Why don't I live in New York? Actually, given that the answer to that question is pretty obvious, or rather obviously supplied by S. Bullock and the Jawa as two-part harmony ("We like San Francisco better!"), the real question is: why have I never lived in New York?

We just returned from a very short stay in Manhattan, during which I played an endless loop in my head -- "I wish we lived here. I wish we lived here. I wish we lived here." -- even while being denied such New York staples as nightlife and casual strolling.

I have to be fair here. Our New York life could have easily been reproduced on, say, a vacation in San Francisco. We could eat in restaurants, attend the theater, walk around a large, urban park and check out really cool architecture. In fact, as part of my present "return the life to Lefty's life" campaign, I vowed that our family would be more active in experiencing the culture of our culture-rich (and politically insane) city.

Democratic rule is the norm in my house, especially when I stand so far from the revenue-producing stream. We will live in San Francisco. I will remain a New Yorker who has never lived in New York.

Now that we have returned to San Francisco, Sandra Bullock has decided to take it upon herself to aid me in recapturing the personal magic she feels I feel I have let slip away. After berating me at baggage claim for wearing identical black t-shirts every day of our vacation, Bullock boldly announced this morning that, as part of our day's errands (most of which involved getting the Jawa in position to spend his birthday money on Legos), we would go to Walgreen's and buy "some of that stuff that makes hair grow."

I have no problem making hair grow. I do have a problem making it grow on my head. But now, with the addition twice daily of 1 ml of hair-growing potion -- surprisingly not provided by a fast-talking sharpie in a circus wagon and not called "elixer" -- I will soon be running a comb through a full head of luxurious hair. As a side note, I have not run a comb or brush through what remains of my hair for over 10 years. Has comb technology advanced since 1995?

I say this up front so that if any of you are confronted with the creeping suspicion that I am suddenly gaining hair, rather than losing it, you will know the reason. When I first began going gray, I tried coloring my hair, only to stop because I felt I already lied about enough things without having to add another. If this stuff works, I will be up front about it.

And yes, Dad, I am worried that it will grow hair everywhere but on my head.

As to our earlier question -- why didn't I ever live in New York? There probably wasn't much chance I would. Six years ago, when S. Bullock, the Jawa and I moved to San Francisco, we considered New York, only to realize that, whoops! we had a three-year-old.

During our short stay in Manhattan, I visited an old college friend who's become an Indie film somebody, plus my old high school girlfriend the ex-Mormon. Both are living lives stuffed full of glam. We dropped by the see Indie guy at his cool office, just before he and his stylish wife were off to Montauk for the weekend. They go every weekend, to escape the city.

The ex-Mormon met me at a hip Israeli restaurant directly after finishing a meeting with her producer, who told her that her screenplay, with a little work, would be "Oscar-worthy." I sat there in my GAP 1969 jeans, sucking in my gut, completely in awe of her accomplishment. Like me, she got the idea to write screenplays in her late 30s. Unlike me, she finished a few and began "taking meetings."

I wonder if I have a reservoir of glam hidden somewhere, untapped so far for 41 years. Maybe it's hidden in my brain, overwhelmed by overwhelming urges for Black Cherry Vanilla Coke, malted milk balls and 3x daily viewings of Sportscenter.

In New York there are legions of guys fatter and balder than me who walk around like every woman in the joint should be falling at their feet. And the scary part is -- the women actually do. I pointed this out to S. Bullock while we strolled through Central Park. She considered it and responded, "They're probably very successful at what they do."

Ouch. And true. And not really solved by 1 ml of hair-growing juice applied topically twice daily. Nor by fantasizing about the amazingly glamorous life I somehow sidestepped by never living in New York.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Midnight Run

Last night, I awoke at 2 a.m. with a terrible, pounding headache. Where it came from was no mystery. The combination of the Jawa's horrible mood turn, plus my mistake of watching Peter O'Toole and his #1 twin child, Good Time Charlie, on the spinning swing thing (since my infamous migraine period of 1999-2001, I can no longer even watch people on spinning rides, let alone ride them myself) at some boardwalk on the Jersey Shore, plus a week of sleeping on the floor, led to the inevitable return of "the headache."

Sadly, I'd packed no Tylenol, Advil, Alleve, anything vaguely pain-relieving. I was forced to conduct an early-morning sweep of O'Toole's princely estate. In the dark.

Something about New Jersey: it is dark. There are no streetlights, and no inside lights are left on at night, leading to danger for guys stumbling around with 20/300 vision.

A few thoughts, as a digression, about the Jersey Shore. While running from ride to ride, I couldn't help but imagine The Boss, Bruce Springsteen, cutting his teeth on a scene just like this. Eventually, I had to email Roger A. Hunt, a fellow pre-"Born in the USA" pundit Springsteen fan, to relate my skepticism at any of the people roaming the boardwalk being capable of circa-1974 Springsteen-like romanticism. All I saw were muscle guys with ridiculous sunglasses and big fat tank top guys, none of whom I could imagine chasing the factory girls underneath the boardwalk or blowing out of here to win.

But then, maybe they could. Maybe the Boss was reminding us that even the meatheads with the little shorts could be boy romantics. Maybe a steady diet of TV and movies, where the guy plowing the streets in the small, blue-collar Massachusetts town is Matt Dillon, has made me forget that regular people are what it's all about. I relaxed and suddenly, it seemed as possible on the boardwalk as anywhere.

Through the guest bathroom I went. No Tylenol. I'd have to risk climbing the stairs.

Getting up was no problem. I stuck to the walls. When I reached the second floor, I considered the embarassment of getting caught sneaking around in my boxers at 2 a.m. and slowed my steps until they made no sound at all. Into the boys' bathroom. Would there be pain reliever? Given that the boys are 6-year-old twins, I should have known that the only pain reliever available would be of the grape liquid variety.

I rifled through the drawers. Nothing. I briefly ran through various scenarios that could get me into the master bath without waking O'Toole and Princess Grace. None seemed even remotely realistic.

There I stood, at 2 a.m., staring into a 3/4 length mirror, weighing my options.

And speaking of "weigh," as I stared into that mirror I realized that at some point between Wellesley and Ridgewood, I became a fat guy. No more will my pleas of, "Man, I feel huge," be greeted with, "You're not huge." My Banana Republic fitted black t-shirts (of which I brought six, and nothing else, on this trip) no longer cling to my chest first, accenting my gym-toned pecs. Now they bulge out, highlighting rather than obscuring a mini-reproduction of the "midriff development" my father used to call "El Grosso" when it appeared on him in his 40s.

This morning Sandra Bullock enthusiastically related her dream from last night. In it, I was "fat, like that guy from the Sopranos, the one who was gay." Obviously, my return to San Francisco will include a comprehensive 24-Hour Fitness program and diet adjustment.

Meanwhile, back in the boys' bathroom, I considered the bottle of Children's Tylenol sitting on the counter. "It's grape," I reasoned, "and I like grape." I checked the dosage. For a child weighing 95 lbs., 3 oz. are recommended. What about for a guy who's fat like the guy in the Sopranos?

I figured that 6 oz. would do the trick, so I choked down three 2 oz. shots. It tasted like very thick grape soda whose expiration date had long since passed. As I felt the gooey, sweet liquid ooze down my throat, I wondered if there would be any side effects. Is there something about children's Tylenol that is harmful to adults? My head hurt so badly that I didn't really care. On the bright side, maybe I'd wake up childlike and playful, with a full head of hair.

I returned to my bed on the floor after careful navigation of the stairs. How embarassing would it be to be found collapsed in a heap, shirtless and broken, in Peter O'Toole's new foyer?

This morning I awoke shaky and confused, my head improved but not cured. I'd had yet another dream about being in high school, this time committing to all kinds of assignments I could not complete and carrying Colleen Tivenan down a flight of stairs. Princess Grace provided 3 adult-sized Tylenol from a suspicious plastic bag. I did not tell her of my adventures from the previous night. Would you have?

Today we move on to New York. Our vacation is drawing to a close. 24-Hour Fitness awaits.

Monday, August 07, 2006

The Worst Drivers in America

When I was sixteen, like many Californians, my father took me out to an empty parking lot to teach me how to drive. I had received drivers' education in school (something, I've heard, public schools no longer provide), under the ancient, slightly dodgy guidance of health teacher Dick Stock, but since I would be driving cars with manual transmissions, AND ONLY CARS WITH MANUAL TRANSMISSIONS, Dad felt I needed some further training. We went down to "the plant" -- what we always called the place Dad worked, in this case the office furniture manufacturing concern Hon Industries (#2 in the biz, behind the hated Steelcase) -- grabbed the beat-up Toyota pickup truck that always seemed to be available to us whenever we needed it, and put the neophyte me behind the wheel.

As I've said before, in my world all car knowledge begins and ends with Dad. If not for Dad, I never would have risen above my teenage geekiness, courtesy of the 1965 Alfa Romeo Guilia Spyder we bought with my Bar Mitzvah money. If not for Dad, we would not be driving our beloved Acura today. I wanted a Saab.

On that day in 1981, I learned how to coordinate the clutch/throttle combo; how to pull smoothly away from stop signs, how to match revs on downshifts, how to upshift without foolishly revving the engine between gears (something, I might add, that many Harley-Davidson riders have yet to learn). I also learned some driving philosophy. Dad is a defensive driver, and he preached a motto that I've never forgotten. "Always assume that everyone else on the road is a homocidal maniac," he said.

In the twenty-five years since that day, I've remembered his advice often. But I have to admit, I haven't always followed it. "Dad was overreacting," I'd think. "These other drivers are like me: usually careful, not very agressive. They're not maniacs at all."

That was before I drove in New Jersey.

Yesterday, we left the comfortable Bergen County residence of Peter O'Toole and Princess Grace and drove 75 miles to Skillman, NJ, home of former Seattlites Dr. Eisman, her stylish French husband Dr. Flipper and their irrespressible 5-year-old daughter. We've been in New Jersey since Friday, and during that time I've been offering up "New Jersey drivers are the worst in the country," repeatedly, with no actual proof. I now have my proof.

Several times during the short drive I was almost run off the road. At one point, needing to change lanes to the left or face spinning off onto the wrong "highway," I found that the big pickup truck next to me was actually speeding up to block access. The goateed driver wore a menacing glare. On the way home, after negotiating a half-hour of pitch-black, streetlight-free suburbia, we settled in comfortably on the Garden State Parkway, only to be buzzed at 90+ mph by five boy racerized Honda Civics. I imagined us as their Tom Wolfe shiny black shoed FBI agents, our pale marshmallow faces exploding as they zoomed past. In their Hondas.

This is not safe. Even in our luxurious rental Camry, we were terribly overmatched. I don't have the lightning fast reflexes, the take-no-prisoners mindset, the night vision goggles. I am a Californian, as I had remembered earlier, and not prepared for New Jersey's killing fields. They have no on-ramps here. You just pull out, mash your foot onto the accelerator, and hope for the best. Highway exchanges are on the left, which is completely counter-intuitive.

We spent the afternoon in Princeton, NJ, where I urged the Jawa to consider an Ivy League education. After dinner, we repaired to the Drs' wide verandah for dessert. Flipper turned on Van Morrison's "Moondance," which is exactly the album I used to listen to and brood about San Francisco when we lived in Seattle. The music floated out through the factory-installed outdoor speakers.

It was a pleasant night. The fireflies buzzed about nearby. We knew that the Drs' 5000+ square foot home in Skillman cost about the same as our dilapidated Glen Park pad, but Van reminded me how it felt to be crouched down in the Seattle Public Library, looking at San Francisco picture books, missing it so badly that it felt like something I could eat.

Stupid San Francisco. It makes absolutely no sense to live there. The minute you stop loving it irrationally, it's time to get out. But ask Peter O'Toole and Princess Grace, who have now been in exile for one month and are already planning their triumphant return in 3 years.

That is, if they survive the drivers in New Jersey.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

My Comfort Zone is a Nice Place

Somehow having managed to avoid a trip to a Massachusetts beach, I am sitting safely behind a wall of air conditioning, looking out at the Fusco Brothers' massive -- and massively green -- backyard in Wellesley, MA. It is 94 degrees and humid just a few feet away.

For reasons which I will go into eventually, this heat doesn't bother me nearly as much as the blast furnace dry heat that envelopes Phoenix, Arizona for 10 months of each year. Nor does it annoy me like our 11-day Bay Area heatwave of early July. Maybe it's the air conditioning, though I just returned from a 2-mile round trip walk to the store, completely drenched, and yet not all that irritated.

The day we arrived here, Sunday, we went with the Fusco Brothers in their minivan to "Members Appreciation Day" at their swim / health club, and I think every member of my immediate family knows what's coming next. Yes, the Fusco Brothers belong to a "pool." And though this one is not super-chilled to 72 degrees F, it does provide almost the exact vibe of the "pool" we belonged to during my much-publicized and much-romanticized Clarks Green, Pennsylvania, youth.

Before we moved to California, we spent our summers at "the pool," which explains why, when discussing summer options recently with other San Francisco parents, I was unable to come up with the names of any day camps I attended as a kid. For the sub-11-year-old me, "the pool" was hours of running around, barely supervised, swimming for 45 minutes every hour until the lifeguard blew the whistle for Adult Swim, playing tetherball and shuffleboard, then charging up the grassy hill at top speed, making car noises with my mouth, a quarter clutched in my hand for the Milky Way I would buy at the snack bar.

For the 41-year-old me, I have now learned, "the pool" is staying confined to a four square foot area in the water, usually with one or more children attached to my arms and/or torso. It's coming up with the money (no longer a quarter, now a dollar) for the snack bar, lying on lounge chairs and then almost falling out of them in hysteria when, after the lifeguard blows the whistle for "adult swim," 14 adults glide silently across the pool quietly, heads above water so as to not get their sunglasses wet. They look just as silly as they did when I was 10, and the 75 kids sitting on the sides of the pool, shivering, dangling their legs in the water, look just as impatient.

That a place like this still exists had never crossed my mind. A few summers ago, the Jawa and I, beset with an uncommonly hot summer, spent weeks searching for "the pool." We found some parks and rec pools, but they were indoors, completely mobbed, and cost $7 for an hour. Eventually, we drove to Marin, where we sampled the sparkling new semi-indoor pool at the Mill Valley Rec Center.

But that there are "pools" where parents sit around and talk (when we arrived, I took one look at the place and announced, "This is just like the pool we went to when I was a kid. Where do the Jewish people sit?") and kids run wild is such a long, relaxed trip from my everyday life, ending at my safe, comfortable suburban / small-town Pennsylvania roots, is it any wonder that the heat and humidity don't bother me?

Nobody sits by the pool in our world. We may do laps, though. No kids go to the snack bar, certainly not without a parent. We are vibrant, it is true, and we are smart, cultured, open-minded and all kinds of great things. Yesterday, my child held court in the minivan about the Middle East, and sounded pretty informed. He wants us to buy a hybrid and knows exactly how to act on public transportation. And when we have to paint over the grafitti that some teenaged gang-banger left on our retaining wall, well, that's an admission price we readily accept.

We drove home from "the pool" in the minivan, me looking out the windows at the trees, the split-levels and colonials and their huge, unfenced yards. I realized then why, every time we come and visit former San Francisco residents the Fusco Brothers, I am tempted to nag Sandra Bullock until she agrees to move us here: everything about it reminds me of Pennsylvania, and by extension, everything reminds me of being a kid. It's as if, when we moved in 1976, time slowed down here and rocketed forward on the West Coast.

Now Another Lefthander raised no fools that I know of, and I know that Wellesley is not Clarks Green, PA. I also know that, despite the presence of a thriving biotech community just down the street on Route 128, Sandra Bullock presently has a wonderful job at home with a great future. I also know that, although Peter O'Toole and Princess Grace have moved on -- and we will be visiting them next week at their new, doubtlessly Clarks Green-like home in Ridgewood, New Jersey -- we have a great circle of friends in San Francisco, the world's favorite city. And who knows what kind of Clarks Green parent I would be? After all, I only know how to be a kid in that setting.

But I can certainly sit here, sweating but not minding it, imagining a place where the adults still get 15 minutes every hour to swim, where kids charge up the hill to the snack bar, and nobody's retaining wall gets tagged by local gangsters, can't I?