Wednesday, January 31, 2007

The Unkind Cut

The condemned man strode down the front steps, unaware that this was the final day of life as he had known it. In less than 24 hours his entire world would change. The sun would seem a little less bright; there would be slightly less bounce in his step. This morning, at least, all of that was off in the future.

For the condemned man had no concept of time. For him, days unfolded endlessly into naps, walks, eating. His life had been distilled down to its most rudimentary elements, and when you live like that, there is no reason to pay attention to time: day, night. That's it.

There were times that he was left alone, sometimes inside, sometimes in his cement-walled prison out back. Those were sad times, times when he would peer out the window at the world, see it passing by and wonder, "Why am I left in here?"

Today, though, no one left him behind, forgotten. Today the condemned man joined the rest of the world outside, walking seemingly without a care, stopping to literally smell the roses.

After the walk, the condemned man was brought before a tribunal, inexplicably. He bravely faced a mob of 20, all eager to touch him. They treated him like a pet, like him completely unaware of the tragedy in his near future.

The condemned man lapped up the attention. Because he spends so much of his time alone, he appreciates any attention. "This is the way it should be," he thought. "There's plenty of me to go around."

He had heard whisperings, during his rare outings, of events so gruesome that he couldn't begin to understand. After all, he was a young man, and innocent. It was less than a year ago that he lived with his family on a farm, before coming to the city. And this, this ... process ... that he'd heard of, it seemed too awful, too inhumane to be true.

So he ignored it. He wrote it off as an urban legend, spread by some distempered airhead who liked to hang around the park and steal people's innocence. Why the world had to include people like that, he did not know. But his spirit would not be crushed by a sour old man's tall tale.

Later, the condemned man returned home from the tribunal. He was fine, he thought; the mob had done nothing more than talk to him and touch him. It was not his business if they wanted to act this way. If the condemned man knew one thing, it was that people liked to talk to him and touch him. He was attractive, if doomed.

The condemned man sleeps, dreaming of open fields full of friends, with birds flying overhead. He is relaxed as he can be, completely unaware of what lies ahead.

Tomorrow morning, the condemned man will awake and skip breakfast. The doctors have instructed him to eat nothing after midnight. Then he will get into his car and drive to the hospital. He will do this willingly, because it is a place he's been to before and nothing bad has ever happened to him there, save for a little prodding and poking. They always have good food there, which runs opposed to what he's heard about hospitals.

But tomorrow will be different. He will enter the hospital and they will speak kind words, as usual. They will be happy to see the condemned man.

This time they will take him to a back room and strap him to a table. They will inject him with chemicals, then put a mask over his face and tell him to count back from 100. He will find himself getting tired, and it will feel good, and no old man's urban legend will enter his mind.

He will drift off, and that is when his life will change.

When he awakes, he will be in terrible pain. Something very important to the condemned man will be missing. Someone will have placed a large white cone around his head. His innocent world shattered, he will think of the old man's story and wonder "Why me? What did I do to deserve this?"

And so the condemned man will return home, only part of what he was when he left, one of the growing community of creatures known not as men or women but simply as "neuters."

Poor Shack. He has no idea.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Father/Son Degree of Difficulty

What's harder, being a father or being a son? After yesterday, I'm not sure. I do know one thing, though; neither job looks to be getting any easier in the future.

I told someone once -- okay, it's me, I told lots of people lots of times -- that if you care at all about being a parent you constantly feel like you're screwing up. Take yesterday, for example.

These things often begin quietly. We took Shack for a walk around a very disappointing lake and then went to Trader Joe's. Lately -- not so lately --the Jawa has been devoting himself to making sure that every one of our planned or spontaneous events is somehow ruined. Usually he does this by disagreeing with something -- or everything -- that we say, then, like a litigator ruled more by emotion than professionalism, driving his point home with a series of increasingly combative and pointed comments.

By the time we got to Trader Joe's, I was already sniffing around the edge of the idea that every time we do something, the Jawa makes sure to ruin it. As a thoughtful parent, the kind who spends $19,500 to send his child to school that includes a "kindness committee," I should use these moments as "teaching opportunities." I should gently remind my Jawa how precious our time together is, and that his behavior is doing nothing but compromising that preciousness.

I should also probably have named him "Sunshine," while we're at it, and fed him only organic juices and left-wing propaganda as well.

As a deeply flawed human being, my response to these incidents is always the same. A voice begins, at first small and distant, then, shockingly quickly, throbbingly loud and insistant. The voice repeats the same thing: "How DARE this child RUIN every single thing we do! What is WRONG with this child? He NEEDS TO BE TOLD that he is WAY out of line."

And so I do that, with great skill. By "skill" I mean "relentless sarcasm and nastiness."

This had not yet surfaced as we circled around and around the Trader Joe's parking lot, looking for a parking spot, Shack panting in the back of the car.

Sandra Bullock had an idea. "Wouldn't it be wonderful," she thought, "if we could buy Shack this bed I saw at Cost Plus?" We could put it under the front window. Then he wouldn't have to climb up onto the end table that can barely support his 22.9 pounds.

Here's where it really falls apart. Had Cost Plus not had the wicker bed thing at all, or had they had one not ripped up and damaged, we could have made it through Trader Joe's, either holding our new dog bed or vowing to buy it online.

Since there was a bed, but it was damanged, this put the imprint of an idea into the Jawa's head: Shack needs something like this bed, and he needs it right now.

And so, like a Lorax who speaks not for the trees but instead for partially-grown Corgis, the Jawa accepted his mission: he would find something similar to this wicker box -- where are most of the world's wicker boxes? At Cost Plus! -- and he would find it NOW. We would not leave the store until he found it.

At this point, the voices in my head grow louder. Negotiations ensue. Finally, several minutes past the time I'd hoped to exit Cost Plus, we drag him out of there. By now, his advocacy for Shack has grown epically. Like a small, Vans-shod Clarence Darrow, he continues to plead his case, often in direct opposition to our orders and requests.

Within five minutes, I'm dragging him across the Trader Joe's parking lot. He's threatening me, swinging his free arm at me, yelling at me. All of the other Trader Joe's patrons, many of whom have named their children "Sunshine," and fed them only organic greens, otherwise why would they be at Trader Joe's, have stopped where they are standing and are watching to see how I am going to respond to the fact that my 9-year-old is doing a Rich Little-level impersonation of a three-year-old, minus the adorably cute part.

As usual, I fail. Instead of calming the child, I feed his rage, squeezing his arm harder as he tries to wriggle away, trying to adopt a quiet, threatening voice, not because I think it might be effective but because I'm still hoping that if I don't lose it, the hippies in the parking lot will figure I have everything under control and will continue on their way.

Nothing works. The Jawa is a few seconds short of going Linda Blair and having his head spin around completely. This is my child? This is my partner in funk?

Finally, I snap completely. I lean down closely to my child, the person I would most definitely take a bullet for, and whisper, "Do you want me to hurt you?"

First of all, as if.

Second of all, he doesn't believe me, and rightly so. Third of all, I look up and a family of four is staring right at me. I can see in the mother's face that she's cursing herself for not memorizing the number of Child's Protective Services. I give the Jawa's arm another squeeze and we walk waord the car, where his poor dog is sitting, anticipating the arrival not of a crazed, sub-par parent and a raging child but instead the two people who play with him, feed him and pet him.

Finally, exhausted I pull something out of my childhood. Appropriately, as we will soon learn, I draw from my own father's legacy and apply the feared "fingerprints on the neck" method. It gets his attention immediately.

I rip open the door and throw the Jawa in. That will have to take the place of "hurting" him. I really want to yell at him, but yelling has long since lost its effectiveness. I've been trying the low, threatening thing so far, so I continue, trying to make it sound as if I've compressed an eighteen wheeler full of rage into 45 decibals. And I say this:

"When we get home, you will go straight to your room. You will have no electronics for the week. You will have no playdates. We will talk about the proposed sleepover with Tony Hawk later."

From the back seat, he just sneers at me.

Eventually, Sandra Bullock returns, minus any Trader Joe's loot. In a desperate attempt to pierce my child's impressive personal armor, I say, "Nice job, Jawa. Mommy couldn't even buy food because of you."

I am expecting to receive news, either by phone or email, of my nomination for "most petty parent of 2007" any day now.

We drive home in silence, save for the part where the Jawa tosses a sweatshirt toward me and I swing around and say, "DID YOU THROW THAT AT ME?" with enough force to actually kind of scare him. Two hours later, after we've each calmed down via our go-to sources -- me, crossword puzzles, him, loud funk music -- he is released from his room, sporting a conciliatory attitude.

For this I thank him, because life wasn't done with me yet. Earlier in the day -- and if flying off the handle wasn't my usual M.O. I guess I could blame my behavior on the stress of this -- my mother called to tell me that Gedalya Ben Yitzak was in the hospital. Again.

See, my father is in worse shape than a lot of guys his age. Years of smoking, inhaling saw dust and eating pizza have left him susceptible to all kinds of illnesses, most of which I have to research on my own, due to my family's long-standing policy of sugar-coating all forms of bad news.

So I got the call yesterday morning and quickly shifted from bad dad to good son mode. Since my parents were not CC'ed on the email explaining my lack of ambition and willingness to embrace responsibility, they still have in their mind the argyle sweater-wearing 17-year-old son who could handle any crisis. Back then, their biggest worry was that the world was having a party that I was too uptight to attend. But that persona came in handy then, and I'm thankful that enough of it still exists, at least to them, that I could step up and be of some use yesterday.

Today, after hours of research, I called my dad in his hospital room, asked a bunch of pointed questions about his condition, hung up, satisfied in part that he/they are taking this situation seriously, and then called Noodles' Mom to share my findings. And told my parents that, despite my well-documented distaste for the state of Arizona, that the Jawa and I would be visiting them during Spring Break, when the average temperature in the Grand Canyon State is a comfortable 95 degrees.

Taking these events back-to-back, I couldn't help but wonder where the ceiling is on all of this. I've been telling the Jawa, since he was very small, that the worst part of being a parent is that as he gets bigger, I get older. It seems like parenting has been getting more difficult with each passing year, as the Jawa completes his transition from adorable toddler to disgusting boy. Next comes sullen teen, which I'm sure will be no picnic.

I noticed the other day, after 15 minutes of negotiation culminated in the Jawa agreeing to join me in taking Shack for a walk, that we've long since passed the point where just showing up in public with our child elicits smiles and coos from everyone we pass. Shack does his best to pick up the slack, but my child himself actually now has to do something exceptional to win the crowd's unconditional love.

Where is the precocious toddler who spontaneously danced on the sidewalk to the club music coming from "The Pink Zone" as everyone smiled their blissful approval?

Will I be able to roll with his combative nature as he gets older? Will we turn into one of those toxic father-son teams, where the son charges out of the house in a rage several times a month and then later waits until I'm dead to write odes to my well-intended but poorly-executed attention?

Soon, I know, he will be unable to hold my hand, at least in public. I will always pat him on the head, though, even when he is bigger than me, and I plan to sneak into his room every night before going to bed, as I have been doing since he was a baby, and say goodnight.

Nobody has to tell me that being a son becomes more difficult as your parents (and grandparents) get older. I understand that the whole of my earlier thought is actually "as the Jawa gets bigger and I get older my dad gets even older than me."

I've also got Roger A. Hunt to offer constant reminders of our parents' -- and our -- mortality once a week or so. It's the one thing we can count on, he tells me, though since becoming a hotshot lawyer he's added that taxes are another thing we can count on.

I remember two pictures of my dad from old photo albums. One, which I've referenced more than once when writing a story, was taken some time in the mid-1960s. I may not even have been born yet. It's black-and-white, and in it, he's wearing a white shirt and one of those skinny, cool 1950s ties. He's at work, and he's talking on the phone. In the photo, he looks ambitious and very young.

The other picture was taken at Hammond's, "The Pool." We went there all summer, every summer, in lieu of a country club, most of which in our part of Pennsylvania, I think, didn't accept Jews at the time. In this one, he's standing in the pool with at least 3 kids hanging from his arms, hoisting them all out of the water. I'm one of them, skinny, maybe 9 years old, wearing a bathing cap because they'd decreed that summer that anyone with hair past a certain length, boy or girl, had to wear a bathing cap. There's water flying around everywhere, because all of the kids are climbing up onto my dad, kicking, waving their arms around.

I'm sure that one day the Jawa will be asking himself when he got too big for his dad to carry him up the front steps. That day is coming very, very soon, by the way.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

What Are the Alternatives?

Neal Pollack, who has written for "Vanity Fair," among other publications, recently released a book called "Alternadad," recommended to me by Flush Puppy. "Oh, great," I thought. "Here's another book I should have written but was too lazy and/or screwed-up to do it before someone else got the idea.

So I went to Neal's web site to learn a little bit more about what an "alternadad" is. When the Jawa first entered our world, I assumed that I would be something like an "alternadad," that is, in my opinion, a dad unlike the mainstream of "normal" dads. As I had spent so much energy making sure to not appear a part of any "normal" world pre-parenthood, I would continue to remain visually unusual, culturally vital. I would not don the strangely-cut "dad jeans." I would force feed "cool" music into my culturally ambiguous child's ears. The walls of his room would be covered with Keith Haring prints and pictures of motorcycles. In doing this I would separate myself from the oh-so-boring masses and retain the feelings of shallow superiority that had somehow carried me through 10 post-college years of career failure.

And it worked, for awhile. The Jawa, three weeks old, sat in his cool, oversize-wheeled stroller and caught the Ramones. I continued to ride a motorcycle, or rather more accurately, continued to own a motorcycle. We lived in a cool apartment in a cool neighborhood and strolled him, in his cool little black Adidas, to the restaurant with outdoor seating so we could eat nachos and have a beer while he slept.

When your child is small, especially now, there is plenty of support for parents who want to hang onto their cool. You don' t have to automatically give up your mojo, start dressing like a schlub and bore people with endless stories about formula and first steps. Neal Pollack articulates that, with great support from the people who write into his website, offering up tips on the best cities to raise cool, urban kids (Portland, judging by their responses), best art scenes, etc. Former alterna-dudes like Dan Zanes helpfully provide a soundtrack for cool parents, cranking out kid's albums one after the other. Nobody has to listen to Barney anymore. Nor are they prisoners of Disney.

It's really easy to be an "alternaparent," in fact. They gave us minivans to avoid, for one, as easy a target as frat boys were in college. No minivan = no giving in. The path was absolutely over-greased by the generation before us, who devoted most of their lives to avoiding becoming adults, remaining cutting edge and hip before suddenly and without warning emerging as twinkly-eyed creatures from nursery rhymes.

When the Jawa was almost 3, we moved to San Francisco, which made being cool, at least for me, much more difficult. One night, a couple of years after we moved, I took the Jawa to a burger place on Valencia Street. In our cool shoes, we took BART and moved like a hip urban generational team through the Mission.

There were other cool dads at Burger Joint that night. None of us were anything like our own fathers, who left early in the morning wearing uncomfortable suits, then returned home, present but in their own world, interested in dad things and, importantly, I guess, boring dad music.

My dad was into folk music. I'm not sure if he still is, but my childhood was spent to a soundtrack of Simon & Garfunkel, The Kingston Trio, and occasionally more eclectic artists like Richard Dyer Bennett, whose "Essential" LP we picked up while on vacation in Carmel, to the great ironic delight of my mother, my sisters and I. Dad's music was something to endure, to ridicule, to eventually, begrudgingly, appreciate.

Same with his taste in art, which in my case ran to abstraction, with a specific focus on Joan Miro.

Back at Burger Joint, all of us cool dads were lined up, waiting to order. Since my Jawa was older, he was already back at the table, singing along with whatever baby boomer tunes they had playing.

Cool is what you make it.

One of the other dads, who was wearing the uniform of the literate cool dad (vintage sport coat, scarf), was teaching his kids the lyrics to the Beatles' song playing. The Jawa, also singing along, though I have no idea where he learned the words, got a shout-out from the other cool dad (blue collar artist genre), who said to me, "Yeah, my kids listen to cool music, too. Isn't it great not to have to listen to bad kids' music?"

Before you jump on me as an elitist, let me clear one thing up: I am an elitist. Yes, I am better than everyone else. And worse. Aren't we all?

And yes, I have donned many of the costumes of the cool dad, and have beamed with pride when my passenger has noticed that my 3-year-old is singing along with the Pixies in the back seat. However, at that moment I decided that at some point there was something fundamentally wrong with having "alternative" as a stated purpose in your life as a parent.

For one, what is there to separate the "altnadad" from the boomer who slaps a tie-dye on his kid as a billboard advertisement of the distance he has traveled from the "uptight" world of his own dad? And how about the 80s lover who insists all of his boys sport rattails like his? I saw this guy in the park one day. All four of 'em with the hair hanging over their collars. I silently cursed him for making my life as a parent more difficult.

In the end, it's not a value decision, however. As I realized again while checking out Neal Pollack's next reading, the Pipqueak A-Go-Go here in San Francisco this Sunday. It's fun and dancing for kids of all ages! Some of San Francisco's "alternakid" bands will probably be there, like the Sippy Cups. But even if I did want to go -- and no, I don't, but it has nothing to do with the cloying, "I may get older buy I'll never grow up!" tone of the listing -- I don't think we're invited. It just doesn't sound like something a nine-year-old would be into.

No Dan Zanes, no Pipsqueak-A-Go-Go, no Sippy Cups.

First of all, I don't get to make those decisions anymore. That stopped right around first grade. Shortly after that, he decided the motorcycles and primary colored Keith Haring prints in no way reflected his own interests. In their place went posters for Godzilla moves and pictures of Pokemons.

Music went next. After several years of forcing my will into him, I managed to get him interested in music, but his taste, when it finally emerged, had little to do with mine, or with the taste I imagined he should have. No more popcore, no more punk. Yesterday he mused, "I'm probably the funkiest kid in school," as he sung along to Parliament while building something intense with Legos. I won't argue with that. For a little Jewish kid, he's got the funk. Not on the level of the Beasties or anything, but then again, he's only 9.

If it sounds like I'm bragging, it's because I am. Once I realized that no matter how hip I considered myself, he was going to do his own thing, I was free to just sit back and watch, and then try like mad to just keep up.

I have a pretty good grip on popular culture. I should, given that I've generally devoted my life to absorbing it instead of having some kind of rewarding career. And I'm as guilty as anyone of being hyper-aware of what is "hip" at any given time. Not so hip that I would create an entire blog devoted to my attempts to remain "hip" even after having a kid. Maybe, as the new wave of cool parents' kids get older, they, like me, may learn that it's pointless. Your kid's going to be cooler than you. He'll be listening to Cut Chemist while you're looking in the used CD bins at Amoeba for some weird country thing, your own 21st century "Essential Richard Dyer Bennett."

Maybe the truth is that you can hang on to hipness for the first few years of parenthood. After that, it runs out, rather quickly, and you find yourself firmly placed in the adult world, giving way to the one person in your life who deserves to take the lead, your kid. It's at that point that being cool and alternative is replaced by hanging on for dear life.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Still in Hawaii

Nineteen years ago, following college graduation, Roger A. Hunt and I took a trip to Hawaii. It was my first time there. The first night, we sat on the balcony outside our hotel room and listened to Bauhaus' "Bela Lugosi's Dead," watched the lights of Waikiki twinkle below us and imagined that we were on the cusp of beginning our lives as adults.

Two drunken weeks later, we groggily boarded a plane for home. We'd acquired huge sun tans, dove off of waterfalls, got ditched by two gorgeous, mobbed-up sisters from Las Vegas, and solemnly stood atop the final resting place of the U.S.S. Arizona, amazed that oil still leaked from the then-46-year-old hulk, spreading out onto the water's surface, leaving a little oil rainbow atop the wreckage.

Then we came home. Hunt did eventually begin his adult life, which, after several years of adult complications, plays itself out mostly from behind an oversized desk scattered with dense legal documents. I'm still working on the adult life part -- witnessed most starkly tonight when, reading the online version of the "Seattle Post-Intelligencer," I realized that a kid I once gave a "C" in Contemporary American Literature is now doing sports and general assignment reporting for one of Seattle's two major dailies while I scuffle away on the high school sports beat for the "San Francisco Examiner."

This morning, Sandra Bullock took the Jawa to school. It's something she likes to do once a week -- or perhaps "did" like to do, given the intensity of the argument they were having this morning as I drifted in and out of sleep -- and it allows me an extra day of sleeping in, something very dear to me.

Usually, on this day, I wake up around 8:30 and head out to the gym. But this morning, sometime between 7:25 and 9:00, I had a dream where someone was telling me not to bother trying to get anything done today, since all of the items on my "to-do" list are of little or no consequence. I snapped awake at 9:00 and decided to see how long I would sleep if I decided not to get out of bed until I was completely awake.

Normally, I awake at 7:00 each weekday, miserable, ill, angry, and thinking of only one thing, namely, how badly I wish I could go back to sleep.

This morning's experiment ended at 10:30. That's right, 10:30; restaurant worker wakeup time. I had gone to bed at 11:45 the night before. Even if you subtract time for the six or seven times I wake up during the course of a night, and the half-hour I was awake listening to Sandra Bullock and her Jawa argue in the morning, that's still a solid 9.5 - 10 hours of sleep.

Not that the overall total is important. What matters is that I woke up at 10:30, refreshed, reasonably happy, minus the angst that usually accompanies my mornings. I skipped my workout, but in doing so missed the part of the morning where I try to convince myself to skip my workout, counting on muscle memory to get me to the front door of 24-Hour Fitness.

And rather than drag myself through the morning's errands, I snapped to them. I was in and out of the shower in 15 minutes, out the door in 30. Errands complete in an hour, hit the library and ready to have lunch with Danger Girl at 12:30.

It's not that I'm lazy, or rather, this is not the conclusive proof that supports the theory that I am lazy. I'm just not wired to function during the same hours as normal people. I don't stay up too late anymore, but that's just because if I do I'm looking at hours and hours spent alone, haunting the night time. Also, I usually have to get up at 7:00, to get the Jawa to school.

Something happened to me during that 1987 trip to Hawaii. I think that when I returned, I remained on Hawaii time and continue to do so to this day.

It's ironic, because I'm no fan of Hawaii. When we were there in 1987, I branded it "the least hip place on earth." I have little use for days on end spent lying on the a towel, and I hate Hawaiian shirts. I'm not interested in Luaus and gigantic ferns don't impress me.

My neighbors down the street moved to Hawaii last year, after several years of deteriorating relations between us. As they prepared for the move, they put a lot of pressure on all of us to share their belief the there was no higher aspiration to hold than to move to Hawaii. I just couldn't board that train. Charley don't surf.

Regardless, I think when Roger Hunt and I went to Hawaii, I just stayed on Hawaii time, which has left me three hours behind the rest of the world (or at least, the world that exists in Pacific Time) ever since. This explains everything, even the weird hours I kept during the all-too-brief time I lived in Boston (in bed by 4, up by noon).

Now, of course, the challenge is to find a way to break the Hawaii Time Zone Hex. Is there a way I can join the rest of the world and recalibrate my inner clock to more closely resemble the Ben Franklin-esque ideal?

Or am I doomed to live my life three hours out of sync, a curse whose consequences I don't even like to think about?

Friday, January 19, 2007

Mall Right, Now!

Several years ago, young and alone and living in a basement apartment in Seattle, I found myself homesick. Even though I was in the Northwest, which topographically could not be more different than my hometown, it was easy to find a soothing place to remind me of home. I just got into my car, drove across the 520 bridge and pulled into the acres of parking adjacent to Bellevue Square, the biggest mall in the Seattle metro area.

I've often told people that as an Orange County kid, I didn't grow up with the same kind of backdrop as normal kids. Where they had actual animals, deer and the like, we had people dressed up as Bambi. We had Disneyland instead of reality, beaches instead of cornfields. And instead of city streets, we had malls.

For awhile, probably right around the time I was living in Seattle and making up for having spent college as if it were a four-year extension of high school, I made it my business to belittle malls, to lament the "mallification of America," being very careful to point out that my generation did not invent malls, we just were left to live in them, to make do with the hand we were dealt.

I was lying, though. I never hated malls. How could I? I'm from Orange County? My dad even had a camera store in the Orange Mall for awhile, which meant that not only did the mall have to stand in for a town, it also was the place I went to see my dad at work.

I held several mall-related jobs in late adolescence: Hollywood Sports Plaza, where we stood around and tried to catch the eyes of the girls who worked at the Wet Seal across the way, my dad's store, even Sears one summer, in the shoe department, thanks to my dad's connections in the mall.

The mall was the first place we could go on our own, chaperone-less, at the precocious age of 11. Dave K. and I would grab our skateboards and terrorize the little old ladies shopping at the City, an open-air mall that would later, after several failed remodel attempts, be reborn as "The Block," a "Shoppertainment" center including movie theaters and a Vans skatepark.

No, you will no longer find me taking the easy road, trashing the malls as synthetic substitutes for "real life," because like it or not, there's plenty of real life taking place in each and every mall. If you look closely, you'll find that malls have, without any planning, begun to mimic city life. There are good malls and bad malls, high-end malls and ghetto malls. Even within each mall itself you will find high-rent and low-rent.

You'll find everything except housing, which used to be a fantasy of mine, during the period of my late 20s when I'd recovered from the tired old trick of mall-bashing and begun to look at malls for what they were: a legitimate interpretation of the urban model. Once I realized that malls were invented to ape a city street, minus the hassles of cars, weather and crime, I started to imagine a mall with a layer of housing above the stores. You could buy a mall condo with a balcony, then sit there and watch the "city scape." At night, the stores would close and you could then stare out at a quiet, peaceful city street, minus the cars and the weather.

Naturally, given its own space, the city-mall would develop as a city would. Think of it as the missing step between SimCity and real city. There would be dangerous parts of the mall, snooty parts of the mall. There would be restaurants and bars, mini-parks (with skylights, naturally), places for teenage couples to have ridiculously dramatic arguments over not showing up after football practice the way you'd promised.

All in a mall.

Today I got home from the gym at a bad time. Street cleaning prevented me from parking, so I just kept going, and eventually ended up at a mall. I wanted to buy basketball shoes, but just as all good San Franciscans know without proof that President George W. Bush eats babies, I need no proof to know that Sandra Bullock somehow got Copeland's Sports to shut their doors and vacate the premises in the time it took me to get to the mall after calling her and telling her I was thinking of getting some new shoes.

With that option gone, I went into the mall and wandered around, just like I used to do on those homesick days in rainy Seattle, circa 1988. In Macy's, I wondered if somewhere there was a place that churned out light jazz loops, slightly sophisticated yet still innocuous, to play in Macy's mens' stores across the country.

In the past, usually while holding down some kind of hateful job that required real clothing, I would drift through the mens' store slowly, looking seriously at clothes, then rubbing my fingers on the fabric as if I was testing to see if it was up to snuff. "What is this? Cotton? What weight? Where did it come from?" In this manner I supposed the store clerks would be forced to treat me with respect, a fashionista who knew his stuff.

I love the way Macy's smells, the way perfume, lotions, new clothing and linens mingle in the air. There are no windows, so there's nowhere for the smell to go. It just hangs around.

I'm not going to change my stance on malls. I know a woman who brags that she never goes to malls. If she needs anything, she goes downtown. Good for her, I guess, but I'm way too old to stake my self-esteem on where I shop. It's not as if downtown is full of one-off mom-and-pop stores. I like the city, too, otherwise I wouldn't put up with the endless hassles of living here.

But sometimes there's nothing that feels exactly like a mall. Nothing that feels as safe as a mall. It's a gigantic cocoon with clothes and DVDs and slices of pizza and packs of teenagers shuffling around, stalking each other. And it never rains. As failed 1950s Shangri-la experiments go, it's held up pretty well.

There were no basketball shoes in the Stonestown Mall today, not for me. Footlocker, which used to actually carry athletic shoes but now just carries oversized versions of the lame sports shoes I wore to my Bar Mitzvah in 1978, is worthless. No one has any cheap sunglasses. I was feeling the loss of Copeland's very deeply, and eventually ran out of time so, large pretzel in hand, I walked out to the parking lot, and drove home.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

I Hate Going to the Doctor

Today's the day of my checkup, the first in two years, so I can be forgiven when I wake up feeling a little bit on edge. She's going to tell me I have high blood pressure, high cholesterol and lord knows what else.

This will completely rule my day. I know this because it began last night. Every time I go to the doctor I have high blood pressure because I'm freaking out since I'm at the doctor. That's one reason why I don't go very often. The other is because I haven't done my cholesterol in over a year. I keep waiting to "get back on track," totally denying the probability that this IS my track, s-curves and all.

So I go through the morning all edgy and nervous, pretty sure that this will be the time I'm told I have six months to live. I go to the gym, which functions much as last-minute cramming for a test, which is to say not at all, but at least it makes me feel a little bit better, the thinking being that, hey, I work out; how bad can I be?

That's the most sickening part about my personal brand of hypochondria: it is equal parts neurosis and denial. Yes, she is likely to tell me that I have six months to live, but she is just as likely to tell me I am doing wonderfully, and send me on my way.

This is San Francisco and our doctor works in the Castro, so I am one of a few straight male patients she sees. The first year we were here, when I had a headache, she casually asked me if I'd ever had an HIV test. I now know that she specializes in HIV cases and always asks that of everyone, but at the time, let me tell you, given how little I knew and know about that virus, that was one long week.

I know I'm going to get scolded. If I were a tough guy, I'd blow it off and go on my way. If I were a sane guy, I'd nod my head gravely and promise to be more conscientious. Being me, I try to not gravely, end up looking vaguely constipated and ask if she knows of any good kennels for my dog. She is a dog owner.

Naturally, when the assistant takes my BP, it's sky-high. So high they won't even tell me what it is. And since they're all paid to be cheerful and play it close to the vest, her expression betrays absolutely nothing about my condition. Am I going to have a stroke right here? When she put the cuff around my arm I could actually feel my blood pulsing through my body. It was pretty gross, if you want to know the truth.

See, there's not much, except maybe live, slimy fish, that grosses me out as much as imagining the innards of the human body. The idea that someone would go to school for many years just so they can wipe ear wax off of a flashlight after sticking it in my ear completely baffles me. As many who know me can attest, I would be much happier if the entire human body was full of nougat, like a Three Musketeers bar.

Mine is full of inefficient blood-moving vehicles, given to me lovingly by my mother (bad heart) and my father (high blood pressure). This is their legacy, and I have accepted it, Christ-like, to spare my sisters the pain of these two particular conditions. I have had super high cholesterol since I was 28 and weighed 165 lbs. and have had high BP since I was 34.

Don't think I'm not aware that there are big fat guys walking around with perfectly normal cholesterol and BP. Don't think I don't sneer every time my father-in-law slaps another big old steak on the grill. He has nothing to worry about. After a lifetime of smoking and eating whatever the heck he wants, his cholesterol is something like 149.

So this time the news is not all good. The BP is too high. I haven't done my cholesterol. There are the beginnings of a hernia on my right side, which absolutely ticks me off because the scolding I get involves "going to the gym and doing more core body strength workouts."

Wait a minute. You're telling me that merely going to the gym, doing cardio and working out your upper body isn't enough? Now the fat guy is absolutely beside himself with glee, as are the millions of 1950s tough guys who went out to dinner every night, ate whatever they wanted, smoked cigars and drank scotch until they passed out. Did they have a nice doctor telling them that their workouts weren't good enough, and that they needed to get a blood pressure machine so they could take a reading every day and then email it to their doctor?

Hardly, I'm thinking. I'm thinking that maybe the dames they had draped on their arms occasionally worried about them, and if they felt bad they went to the men's club and took a shpritz (sp?).

I walk out of there feeling angry and decrepit, even though my doctor said, "Seriously, you look good," as she gave me a perscription for fish oil. "Take this twice a day and you'll stay out of trouble," she said.

"I'm thinking at this point, and chance I have to get into trouble I might have to take," I respond. She frowns.

They cut me loose onto Castro Street, the one place, thankfully, where you can be an aging guy who's falling apart and still get checked out by passers-by. I'm absolutely disgusted with myself for being old, disgusted more for not really being that old and yet having the problems of an old guy. Didn't I carefully buy flared jeans so as not to be mistaken for an old guy? Don't I have an LCD Soundsystem CD in my car?

I want decadence and youth. It's 3:00 on a Tuesday, and I want to get on the next plane, go to Las Vegas, drink and gamble for the next 72 hours. After 45 minutes of ridiculously lame small talk and going out of my way not to seem neurotic to my doctor, who in the age of HMOs is probably so overworked that she's not listening to most of what I say anyway, I want to verbally abuse someone for almost hitting me with their car as I step into the crosswalk.

But darn me if I don't know my limitations. Even though my BP had dropped to a manageable 128/88 by the time I left, I am still me. What would happen if I went to Las Vegas without my Atenolol and Zocor? My pressure would skyrocket.

I scale down my decadence. Now I want malted milk balls and I want them bad. Zelda has been on me to try the peanut butter chocolate malted milk balls. If I can find them, they're mine.

Castro street would have the proper kind of food store, the kind with emaciated cashiers and plastic bins full of grain. Sure enough, I find one. All they have, though, are tiny little malted milk balls, barely worth the effort, and surely not at $10.49 a pound, a good $5 more than I have ever paid and a solid $7 a pound more than they charge at malted milk ball mecca, across the street from the Jawa's school. I may be old, I may be falling apart, but I'm no health food store's patsy. Shame on them for taking advantage of the elderly like that.

Walking back up Castro Street, I take ironic note of the store names, most of which draw on a seemingly endless source of metaphors for the male sexual organ. Do I want pizza at the Sausage Factory? A new t-shirt at Rock Hard?

Finally, drinkless, Las Vegas-less, malted milk ball-less, running completely out of steam, anger and decadence and almost at Market Street, I settle on two overpriced cookies at a place called "Hot Cookie!" that sells not only cookies but also red briefs with "Hot Cookie!" written across the font. The two cookies cost $4.60. The Castro is a ripoff.

I'm sure, as Zin Gal suggested, that it probably would have been physically better for me to down six or seven alcoholic beverages, rather than eat two cookies. The cookies are pretty good, or rather, "hot," though. The bottle of fish oil capsules cost $6.19 at a pharmacy that specializes in "difficult and complex patient needs," which is a nice way of saying that they stock protease inhibitors.

Aging before my time or not, I'm still me, and I have to go pick up the Jawa from saxOphone practice, then go home. I've got two crossword puzzles waiting for me, and I'm really going to knock the crap out of them. I'll show those crossword puzzles absolutely no mercy.

Monday, January 15, 2007

No Vacation at All

Help me, please! While the rest of you -- or perhaps only those of you whom, like Sandra Bullock, work for organizations unwilling to recognize the heroic deeds of Martin Luther King, Jr. -- toil away at your jobs, quietly staring into computer screens or casually lifting a coffee cup to your lips as you consider the importance of various spreadsheets, I am here, at home, trying to manipulate a disinterested Jawa into completing a rough draft of his book report.

I have been charged to do so by my leader, S. Bullock, who at least expects me to provide absolute coverage of any and all items intercepting our lives having to do with the written word. Because I'm a writer, you know? You do know, because you are loyal, and you come here several times a week to see what I've written most recently. Even if you are my mother and are surprised and uncomfortable to learn that your only son will offer up only a mumbled reply upon being asked "how are things going," and yet will admit to the world that he has spent seconds, nay, minutes, standing at a public restroom urinal, drenched with sweat, unable to complete the simple task he came into the room to do.

The Jawa and I are several Ritalin short of having good, solid attention spans. Give him a bin of Legos, give me a stack of books I have chosen myself, and we are fine. Give us both a PC and the assignment to write a rough draft of a book report about Kate Di Camillo's "Adventures of Desperaux," and we will find anything, shiny or not, far more interesting and important than our assigned project. So far, two hours in, we are about half way done. This represents at least a solid 20 minutes of actual work, sandwiched in among some Lego time, some web-surfing, a sincere examination of a plastic Easter egg that somehow found its way onto the Jawa's new-and-improved bedroom work space, some playing with Shack, etc.

Have I mentioned that my less-than-vast reservoir of patience, while perhaps no less vast than anyone's, and probably superior to that of the always-on-the-move S. Bullock, is unfortunately doled out in very erratic and unpredictable ways? Rather than building in a predictable and therefore manageable way, my style is to calmly wade through an extended period of patience-testing activities, and then WHAM! No more patience.

Ask the Jawa. He is the frequent recipient of my inconsistent ways.

Somewhere on our agenda today is a trip to see the movie "A Night at the Museum." I just checked online (after, naturally, checking out, several blogs, two newspapers and some inflammatory opinions about the Middle East) and saw that it's playing downtown at 3:45 and in Daly City at 2:00. Will we, diehard city residents, brave BART and go downtown? Doubtful. We will get in our car and drive to DC, where we will be joined by every other parent stuck at home with their kid in paying $5.25 for 16 oz. of popcorn.

If and only if we can manage to get it together enough to complete our rough draft. Check that; there will be no movie. I left out the part where we not only had to complete our rought draft but we also had to get through it without:

a) the Jawa trying to sneak something really obvious by my, like continuing to build something with Legos long after I've told him to stop.

b) me delivering a quite impressive lecture on the negative aspects of lying, ignoring your parents and being disrespectful and then...

c) me, at a loss for disciplinary measures to combat what I see as an increased tendancy on the child's part to be disrespectful and inconsiderate, then throwing out my trump card: "WE WILL NOT GO SEE A MOVIE TODAY."

Who wins? Not me, that's for certain. Now, instead of looking forward to a nice entertainment experience with my Jawa, I have bought two more hours of home-based combat. Excellent strategy on my part.

How bad does that missed vacation day look now, workers of the world? Martin Luther who?

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Unintelligent Design

Lets just assume, for the sake of argument and the $18,000 we spend to send our jawa to school, that there is a God. And just in case there is, I capitalized His name.

Assuming that there is a divine being, and going several steps further and acting like there is truth to creation and/or intelligent design, one must assume that each and every element of human design is intentional. Nothing was left to chance.

Take, for example, the miracle that occurs when you cut your hand. With help from no outside source, the skin on your hand -- provided it is not a truly injurious gash -- eventually heals itself. If you pay attention, you can actually watch your skin heal. The process begins almost immediately and, in most cases, is completed perfectly. Good as new.

There are glitches, though, and this is where it becomes too easy to poke holes in "intelligent design." Why do I have high cholesterol, bad eyesight and a lousy throwing arm? Why does Flush Puppy get headaches? Why do some people stop eating when they're anxious, while some only eat more?

Most tellingly, why did God bestow only men with stage fright, when women would handle it with so much more grace?

Please understand what I mean by "stage fright," for this is not a universal expresssion, nor does this usage have anything to do with the theater. The "stage fright" I speak of is a benign name to place onto a truly terrifying experience, that of a boy or man who, when called upon to urinate in a public restroom, cannot get the liquid out of his body, no matter how badly it seems to want to get out.

Most women -- and many very confident and/or completely non-self-aware men -- have no idea what this means. For them, a trip to the restroom is simple: you go in, you unzip, you let 'er rip, and that's it. Girls actually go to the bathroom in pairs.

For some of us, nature's call in public can become a truly horrifying event. If it gets bad enough, we may have to plan the entire evening around the possibility that me may have to go, won't be able to go, and then will spend the balance of the night uncomfortable, thinking of nothing else but the fact that we are dying here, and must find a safe place in which to empty our bladder.

It gets better with age and the greater mind control that comes through maturity, though I've heard that the process, now physical and not mental, will soon reverse itself. Back in college, just the idea that someone might be within ten feet of the door of our dorm floor's bathroom was enough to send me in the other direction. You can forget about urinals, or enlisting in the military. I guess I would have failed at San Franciso's inner-city schools, as well, where they have removed the stall doors to prevent drug dealing. And you ask why we spend $18,000 on 4th grade.

As a young guy, even one whose guy credentials are sketchy at best, you don't want to admit that this is a problem. In a world where people routinely greet their best friends with homophobic slurs and painful blows to the shoulder, to come clean to the fact that while you may have gone into the bathroom to complete the simplest act in the world, you have emerged several minutes later unsuccessful in your attempt is to turn in your membership card in the world of emerging men.

To hide in the stall is to risk the assumption from strangers that whatever you've gone in their to do has been foul and repugnant enough to last several minutes, so that's out. And to stand at the urinal motionless, literally going through the motions but fooling no one is to invite embarassment on the level of being punched out by someone's little sister.

Ladies, you cannot imagine. You stand there, thinking of anything except the all-too-real fact that everyone has come and gone while you are still there, looking straight ahead, trying to ignore the fact that the only liquid coming out of your body is sweat when you can think of nothing else. Eventually, the urine actually seems to go backward into your body rather than coming out. Meanwhile, every other guy stands there, proudly doing his business, with no thought other than "Who's the loser with the stage fright?"

I mean, we all know what it is. And we all hope it happens to someone other than us. Having suffered from stage fright for most of my adult life, I get a certain joy from realizing that someone else is so afflicted. Since I am already hidden in the stall, I can do whatever celebratory dance I choose without worry that someone will see.

Of course, that's the worst part, of course, the reason why any architect behind something called "intelligent design" would have thought to spare the males of the species of this particular foible. For one, who has more to lose, dignity-wise, by admitting something like this? More to the point, consider something we all know: if it were women who got stage fright, the woman in question would be enveloped by her understanding, supportive friends, who'd help her work through this problem, ultimately solving it.

If women got stage fright, there would be no stage fright.

"Oh, honey, it's okay. Don't you worry about it. We're all here for you."

The best guys can manage is the completely useless, though well-intentioned, "Even if it's just ME in there with you? I mean, we've known each other since we were 12!"

"Yeah. That's actually worse."


Even gay guys aren't likely to show sympathy, finding it hilarious and the springboard for a barrage of jokey insidey references that may be a stretch for straight guys' appreciation, coming as they are in a time of awkwardness and tension. Only women, to other women, would provide the comfort and empathy needed for some social anxiety-wracked, urine-filled slob to overcome this dastardly handicap.

Honestly, I have had a few friends who've ultimately understood, though normally after a period of hysterical laughter, and always because they know of what I speak. Roger A. Hunt once told me that, as a child, he would visualize the poster that hung over the toilet at home, thus mentally transporting himself to the safety and isolation of his own bathroom. Uncle Sam, for whom nothing is cause for embarassment, obeyed my instructions to "get out of here!" many times while we were in college, waiting patiently outside for his turn, which eventually came.

One time, at a crowded Lower East Side bar, my friend Dan barred the restroom door from multitudes of bargoers hip enough to believe him when he told them, in hushed tones, that there was a drug deal going down in the bathroom, and it would just take a few more minutes.

But these are special men, the kinds of men I have taken great care to select as the foundation of my social circle.

Yesterday, as I climbed away on the Precor at 24 Hour Fitness, I eavesdropped on the conversation of two women nearby. I noticed how obvious it was that their conversation would never have taken place between men. "Your hair looks great! Did you just get it cut?"

"Oh, no it's still flat. It'll get better in a few days."

"No, no, it's great. Did you lighten the color?"

They asked how their mothers, daughters, sons, husbands and dogs were, recounted some great things they had talked about last week, and then showed great enthusiasm and interest when some other guy they knew came up to say hello. All he had to do was show up. They carried the rest of the conversation, asking him all kinds of questions about his new baby, his wife and his recent move to a larger house only two blocks from his old home.

Then one of them said, "Well, when things calm down, we'd love to come see the baby!"

Him: "Yeah, whenever. Now's fine."

Them, together, laughing as they would have had he just told them it was appropriate to pin thumb tacks onto bunny rabbits' tails: "Oh, no, no, no!"

Confused: "Uh, you can call first. It's okay."

Again: "No, we'll wait until things have calmed down."

He looked at them, his face screwed up, and went back to something he could understand, the free weights.

So okay, we're different, and that's fine, and no matter how many dolls and pink t-shirts we give our sons, they may end up not noticing their wives' haircuts and never hugging their buddies and telling them they love them. With some practice, they might invent stories about drug deals to spare their friends some dignity while attempting to urinate in a packed Lower East Side bar, which is worth something, actually plenty.

But I promise you that if there were such a thing as "intelligent design," somewhere along the way they would have made it so that stage fright was a thing women fear, not men.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Bad Jobs No. 4

Tuesday night, as Archbishop Riordan was absorbing their first loss of the season, a loss they would avenge last night versus Bellarmine, I was downstairs sifting through the former contents of our office. You know, the one Sandra Bullock dismantled one Sunday while I slept? That one.

She has been on me for weeks to "go through" the slag heap of folders, magazines and general stuff I'd accumulated over the years, items which, were I a real writer and this another time, would be referred to as my "papers." Since it is not and I am not, they are my "stuff," and, as I learned Tuesday night, a sad chronicle of several years spent in a vague, unfocused attempt to define some kind of meaningful "career."

As the still-ill Jawa busily blew virtual stormtroopers to bits nearby, I spent a few hours digging through my life as a teacher, a writer and, lastly, a realtor. It was not pretty. Especially the realtor part.

At this point, I'm just flat embarassed to have spent a year of my life -- one I'll never get back, by the way -- chasing something so I was so obviously poorly suited for. Looking at that stuff made me feel foolish and dirty, and I was happy to see it all -- notebooks with scribblings about interest rates and addresses, flyers with some grinning weasel's face on them, big packets of forms -- go into the recycling bin.

The teaching stuff didn't go down as easily, especially when I uncovered a letter from a former student telling me how I'd made such a difference in her life ... only to bail on her and the rest of her classmates in pursuit of big bucks in the dotcom world.

And the writing stuff, well, it's ongoing. Though it was pretty melancholy to see that I was, at one time, actually full of ambition, however unrealistic and sabotaged by me being me it may have been.

Overall, it was not a very uplifting experience. I threw out about 60% of my stuff, which will undoubtedly frustrate a generation of future English Lit. professors, the ones teaching "Obscure 21st Century American Literature."

There is a point, when you've committed, whether consciously or not, to avoiding the road more travelled, where the bad jobs you continually have go from being cute and vaguely romantic to being just plain lousy and soul-deadening.

In the summer of 1988, after a year of my mother's "HAVE YOU FOUND A JOB YET?" pleas, a few months of sporting light blue Stubbies shorts at Islands, and then six months of pretending I was going to start an advertising career in the lucrative Southern California beachwear industry by working as a gofer at Ocean Pacific, I got in my very cool, very unreliable 1974 Alfa Romeo and drove away from Orange County for good.

The plan was to go to San Francisco for awhile, then drive up to Seattle to see my friend the Legendary Dr. Bandeau, then return to San Francisco and start my life. By the time I reached Seattle, my very cool 1974 Alfa Romeo had broken down twice. It was a long drive. I stayed in Seattle. Which was probably good, because it was in Seattle that I really came into my own, bad jobs-wise.

It was through the Legendary Dr. Bandeau, who was at the beginning of a transformation that would see him ditch his high school persona -- saxophone-playing, Jew-fro-having, eager to please -- in favor of a more brooding, shiny-headed, tattooed, cigarette-smoking hipster guise. He hung out at a cool bar and got me a job there. Since that was only for a couple of days a week, he also got me a job with an entrepreneurial guy who DJ'ed at the bar on Thursday nights.

In addition to being one of Seattle's most in-demand "80's nights" DJs, Evan Blackstone also ran a valet service. Since he was a guy we knew, both Bandeau and I could be hired minus any paperwork or hassle. We jumped at the opportunity.

I have a bad habit of jumping into things because someone I know is already good at it. For reasons known only to God, I assume this will mean that I will be good at it. In the case of Uncle Sam and Islands, I admired his ease with people and wanted to be more like him. To be Uncle Sam was to have fun, to not worry about everything, to not spend every day staring down your inevitable failure to reach the boundless potential someone stuck you with when they pulled you out of class in first grade and told you you'd be getting special attention from that moment onward.

In this case, Dr. Bandeau had spent all of high school nursing a secret identity, one where he spent evenings dashingly parking cars at Orange Hill restaurant. He would come to school with tales of driving Ferraris, and on trips to the beach, could whip any car into any parking spot with ease.

So I joined Dr. Bandeau, and as always, thought it would be great.

No matter how lousy these jobs have turned out to be, no matter how short of a time it took for me to realize the folly of my ways, no matter how many red flags came out during the interview, I always assumed that this would be the job that would make my life great. Even a job parking freaking cars.

Here's how the thinking went: "I'm living in Annie's walk-in closet for $100 a month, so all I really need is a couple of part-time jobs, and then I can write all day. And that this particular job comes from someone hip and cool, whom I will now know well enough to drink with when he's not being an in-demand DJ and probably knows all of the women in town, well, will help me make a quick inroads into the world of Seattle nightlife."

Simple, right? And maybe someday I will use my powers for good, not evil.

How difficult can it be to park cars? I went out and bought some black pants and a white shirt. Since I had not yet graduated to Doc Martens, I wore the cool black shoes I'd bought in Australia, which gave me a little bit of depth should I be parking the car of some hot young women just in town for the weekend from L.A. Evan Blackstone gave me some tips on how it all worked, then got into his Jeep CJ-7 -- the one missing a big chunk from its dashboard from, he swears, the time his girlfriend ripped a piece from it during an argument -- and left me there outside the Roosevelt Hotel in the rain, waiting for a cool Ferrari to roll up.

Or maybe an army of subcompacts with Hertz stickers in the window, driven by businessmen eager to drop their bags on me and get out of the rain as quickly as possible. The lot held 14 cars, and I had no idea what to do when the 15th guy drove up.

Making matters worse, when I get nervous I sweat. Which gets on people's steering wheels, their upholstery. If a Ferrari had driven up, I probably would have been so unnerved by it that the owner would have returned to find a massive pool of perspiration filling the interior of his car.

When you park cars for a living, you're supposed to slough these kinds of things off. You routinely park cars inches from each other, then skillfully extricate them when their owners return. You ignore the rats running in the alleyway behind the Roosevelt Hotel, and you own proper outerwear for a Seattle winter, even when it surprises you and snows.

And when it does snow, and your very cool 1974 Alfa Romeo is buried in a snowbank and naturally won't run, which is probably fine because your girlfriend, the one you don't yet know is insane and have been chasing since you first got to Seattle so are beyond euphoric to finally have cinched the deal with her but you continue to hide the relationship because your much-revered roommate can't stand her, is house-sitting on top of a hill. The Alfa Romeo, used to its former life in Orange County, has no chance of getting up that hill anyway.

So you walk up the hill to see her, and then back down the hill to get to your job parking cars, as if anyone is going to show up in the snow anyway. We also parked cars at a French restaurant at the bottom of Queen Anne Hill called "Le Testevan." I may be spelling it incorrectly. It's been gone for a long time, through no fault of the crack team of valets who used to store customers' vehicles in the garage beneath the restaurant, even when it was snowing.

It's actually not a bad memory, rolling down that hill to get to Le Testevan in the snow, 23 years old and unaware that your girlfriend will eventually stab you, then get together to "catch up" with her old boyfriend, only to take the phone off the hook for 72 hours and then have the old boyfriend get on the phone and threaten to call the police when you finally get through.

On New Year's Eve, 1988-89, I worked two jobs. I began my night parking cars at the Roosevelt, freezing my 23-year-old butt off but thankful that the guy I replaced left his gloves behind. The lot was full of Chrysler K cars, courtesy of Hertz, and they weren't moving. For the first but not last time I had the sensation of standing outside, Oliver Twist-like, watching through the windows at the party going on inside. People were warm. They seemed to have money and very little need to chase some dream that involves sitting in a bar and writing poetry on the back of a napkin. They seemed very happy, in fact.

Later that night I moved onto my other job, where I performed poorly, as usual, earning disdain from the older, more seasoned doormen whose leather jackets fit them perfectly and were not gifts from much cooler friends who had pity on them. The owner also stepped out from time to time to remind me not to screw up, as I had once, a few weeks before, forgotten to climb up and reset the film projector that beamed silent movies onto the building next door, displaying, instead of Charlie Chaplin, a big square of white for several minutes.

In 1988, in Washington State, bar owners would incur a $10,000 fine if they were caught letting in under-aged patrons. Let me tell you this -- it's not as easy as you'd think to spot under-aged patrons. It's harder still when several of them are people you've met since moving to town and whom hold great social capitol for you, should you do things to make them happy. I did what I could. It wasn't enough.

New Year's Eve 1988 ended with a completely sober me searching the streets of downtown Seattle for my completely drunk-off-her-butt girlfriend. I must have said something, so she ran away. It was 3 a.m. and not snowing, but cold enough to bring down some flakes. I was 23 years old and if someone had told me that this was just the beginning, I would have slapped them across the face.

Two weeks later I quit both the valet job and the bar job. They were opening a new Marie Callender's in North Seattle, which to my Orange County ears, sounded far more lucrative than two nights of abuse working the door at a bar plus parking cars at French Restaurants and the Roosevelt Hotel. The loss of street cred would certainly be made up by the stability of the job.

Naturally, I was wrong.

Notice that at no time do I consider that maybe another job in the service industry might be a bad idea?

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Great Big Lie

Everything you have been taught about progressive parenting is a lie. Forget the myth that fathers can be every bit the maternal presence in your child's life. There's a reason God did not give us breasts, and it wasn't just to prove that intelligent men can repeatedly act like morons.

As many of you know, I have -- whether on purpose or by accident -- dedicated my life to the careful well-being and raising of my Jawa. Sandra Bullock, possessed of ambition and drive, has chosen to pursue career excellence.

In our small world, this arrangement is well-appreciated. It's better than the traditional set-up, demonstrating as it does the serenity achieved when one teams a fully-empowered woman with a man who has been freed of the tyranny of paternalism. It even gets me out of jury duty. I just write "primary caregiver" in the space where you can write an excuse to not do jury duty, send off the forms and never hear from them again.

I was chugging along, feeling like a resident of the upper echelon of "stay-at-home dads" (thanks, baby boomers, for that sophisticated and manly name, by the way), until yesterday, when my Jawa was sent home with a fever of 104.

Crisis may bring out the best in people. For guys masquerading as primary caregivers, it is a harsh reminder of the built-in limitations of their vocation.

Maybe it's different with little girls, but little boys don't want much to do with their fathers when they're sick. Granted, my son spends his days in an environment where wanting your mommy is not just accepted but reinforced, but I figured that the time I spend with him may have bought me at least minor entree into the world of hard-core parenting in times of crisis. Am I going to have to wait until the day he thinks his girlfriend is pregnant to really make my bones?

Five poorly-timed minutes in the shower cost me the initial contact. By the time I dried off, Sandra Bullock was on her way to the school to retrieve the under-the-weather Jawa. By the time they got home, the die was already cast. She'd outlined her management plan for dealing with the illness -- Tylenol, rest, reassessment the following day if fever still present -- had him in his PJs and was hauling his bedding downstairs to the couch.

I just sat there in awe. Which is what I spend lots of time doing, now that I think of it.

Time passed. S. Bullock went back to work. The Jawa and I watched TV and played with Legos. Time came to make soup. I had a meeting at the school.

So instead of providing the classic "sick kid" rehab perks, I instead went to the child's school for a marketing committee meeting. None of this occurred to me as depressing until around 8 pm, when it became apparent that I would not be spending the evening in my own bed. Instead, I would be outcast, uninvited again into the mother-son coccoon, not even as a guest.

I can live with that. My need for sleep sometimes supercedes my desire to feel needed by my child in his time of want.

Today, luckily, some would say, Sandra Bullock was home in the a.m. due to a 9 o'clock dentist appointment. I stayed home with the sick child, giving him his Tylenol at the assigned times, rubbing his head when it seemed appropriate, making beds, getting him whatever he needed which, admittedly, wasn't much.

Naturally, when S. Bullock returned home, I had no answer to any of her pointed questions, beginning with "what's his temperature," and going all the way up to "have you called the Dr.'s office yet?" Hey, I started the taxes and the financial aid forms. Shouldn't that count for something?

And then, the final insult.

Cheerful, as always, and tolerant as usual of my shortcomings, S. Bullock took the Jawa's temp (38.2 C, which I skillfully converted to a Farenheit reading of 100.58) and called the doctor, then got onto her laptop while we waited for a call back.

You are correct: she was double-tasking, actually working while parenting. And looking very cute and efficient all the while. I was on the floor, reading the paper with the Jawa leaning against me.

I got into the shower, which is when all important phone calls come. S. Bullock went outside to move my car so it wouldn't get a ticket (street cleaning), yet another job I should have been doing myself. This is when the nurse called back.

"Jawa! Can you get the phone!" I yelled from the bathroom. What this nurse would think of a primary caregiver who makes his sick, fever-addled child answer the phone while he, what? does drugs in the back room? Gambles online? I know what she would think: "Fathers shouldn't stay home. They should get jobs and support their families."

I ran out of the shower. The Jawa was lying on the ground, holding the phone. "I'll take it," I said, forcefully. And my little helpless Jawa looked up at me and shook his head: no.

"Is it the nurse?" I asked. He shook his head again: yes.

"I can take it." Head shake: no.

By then Sandra Bullock had completed moving my car to a safe spot. She burst through the door. The Jawa said, "Here she is," into the phone and handed it to her.

"Were you talking to the nurse?" I asked him.

"No," he said.

"Just sitting there on the phone, waiting for Mommy?"


"You know, I could have talked to the nurse." He gave me a screwed-up look, as if I'd just told him that I could create fire by rubbing my hands together. As if.

"No," he said, after a pause. "Mommy has to."


And here is a feature that comes with having a 9-year-old Jawa, old enough to understand that people are sensitive, and yet too young to adeptly spare feelings. "Well," he said, obviously lying, "Mommy already talked to the nurse. She knows what's going on."

The worst part of it? He was right. I listened to S. Bullock on the phone. She was asking questions I never would have thought to ask. When she got off, she hit me with a barrage of facts and options. I retained about 10% of it.

Now the Jawa is again lying on the living room floor, watching TV. I've stuck to doing what I do well -- getting him things, letting him use my computer, feigning enthusiasm in his latest CD-rom games. In ten minutes I will administer the Tylenol. Several hours from now I will ease back into the bottom bunk, as I have been already told that the chances of me sleeping in my own bed tonight are slim indeed.

And so, San Francisco dads and enlightened men the world over, be aware of your boundaries. As sensitive and caring as we are told to be, we'll never be Mommy. I've got a sneaking suspicion that might not be such a bad thing...

Monday, January 08, 2007

Sick Day

You can convince yourself that your child is growing up too fast. Go ahead, point to his habit of disappearing into his room, slamming his door and then, after a short pause. cranking his Gorillaz CD to migraine-inducing volumes.

Think of this as he sits, crammed into the back seat of your car with two other friends, doubled-over with laughter at the similaries between the word "weenus" (loosely defined as "elbow skin") and "penis" (we know what this is).

Yes, he is growing up, perhaps too quickly for some of us. I'm not really part of that groupthink, actually. I don't mind that he is growing up, and if I have to remind him that he's "no longer a baby" several times a day, so be it. I'm fine with it.

I was once a high school teacher. Even though I failed at it (shocking, I know), it wasn't because I didn't like the kids. I loved the kids. Because of that, I'm operating under the assumption that once the Jawa hits adolescence, I'll understand his motivations and concerns better than I do now that he is 9.

All of that seems pretty ridiculous right now, however. Though the Jawa and I began our morning in the usual fashion (me yelling, him lying with his feet against the heating vent in the living room, reading instead of getting ready for school), the phone call I got at 11:55 indicated that this would not be a normal Monday.

"Hello, this is Brandeis Hillel Day School. Your Jawa has a fever of 104."

Fifteen minutes later, I got another phone call.

(smaller voice than normal) "Hi, Dad. Mommy came to get me."

And then he started crying because he wanted to go to band practice today, but you just don't get to blow that horn, Dizzie Gillespie, when you're running a fever of 104 and appear at the front door with red-rimmed, glassy eyes an bright red cheeks. Instead of band practice, you get a makeshift bed on the downstairs couch, the remote, a glass of water and all the TV-watching you can stand.

You do not get GameCube, unfortunately, especially when, for you, GameCube is a very physical activity.

Remember staying home from school? Adulthood has never come close to providing the security and overall calm of a day spent lying on the couch -- with your pillow and the blankets from your bed -- watching TV. And I am sincerely sorry for kids whose parents won't let them watch TV in that situation, or will only let them watch PBS. They may grow up to be enlightened adults, but who knows if they'll spend their lives plagued by a nagging sense of insecurity, one which they cannot name?

So today, instead of sitting upstairs in the kitchen, I am on the floor downstairs, equidistant from my ill Jawa and 27 inches of "Tom & Jerry" with surround sound. Right now, after being hit on the head with a household object, Tom has not only lost his memory but also taken on the attributes and interests of a mouse. This has upset Jerry's equilibrium to the point that he feels it necessary to create a mine field of falling household objects with which to pummel Tom back into cat-ness.

A few minutes ago, I watched the Jawa's eyelids get heavier and heavier, finally settling onto his lower lids, giving him what will, with luck, turn into a couple hours of respite from illness, courtesy of the fatigue of a 9-year-old body battling illness, and, naturally, the makers of Tylenol.

He is the child who likes "Star Wars," hip-hop, Vans slip-ons with a repeating bug motif. Earlier this year, he "broke up" with his girlfriend, but she still hangs around to talk to him when they get out of school. He hopes to work at LegoLand someday and cannot bring himself to let go of an argument until he has had the last word. He doesn't like baseball, but he plays basketball, I think, because he knows we want him to play at least one sport. He still isn't comfortable being downstairs alone. Dave K. and his wife took us on a tour of Lucas Arts last Friday, which the Jawa said was "sweet." Right before he fell asleep, he begged me to let him play GameCube.

All of that is true, and when he wakes up I'm sure he'll be bugging me to play GameCube again, but right now all he looks like is a larger version of the sleeping infant I remember from 9 years ago.

It's just as well that I spend my afternoon watching over a sick Jawa. Maybe it will give me a chance for redemption after what now looks like a morning harassing a sick child in the service of getting out the door on time.

It's a parent thing. Once, a few months after the Jawa was born, I took some of my students to see Ethan Canin do a reading at the Elliott Bay Bookstore in Seattle. At the reading, someone asked him about becoming a new parent, how it felt, etc. His answer: "Well, if you don't have kids, my answer is going to be boring, and if you do, you already know how it is."

Second-best answer. Best comes from Joe Mele, a guy I knew in grad school, who at his kid's christening said, "The best thing about having a kid is that by the time I realized I had a hole in my life, it was already filled."

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Bad Jobs No. 3

When you're 22 and a senior in college, the idea that there is urgency to life is completely foreign.

Wait. Edit that.

When you're 22 and a senior in college -- and a shiftless English major who is positive he will be signing author's copies at Tower Books when not responding to Larry King's questions with refreshing candor in a very short time -- the idea that there is urgency to life is completely foreign.

But it's far more than that, and far more nefarious than that. When you're the guy described above, you actually may react with violent opposition to the concept of dressing up and meeting with corporate recruiters on campus when you'd much rather be playing volleyball, sleeping off the activities of the previous night, or spending a few hours arguing with your girlfriend, who is a sophomore at UC Irvine, should be allowed to go out on a Friday, have a good time and not have to answer to some controlling boyfriend 400 miles away and really doesn't deserve this kind of harassment.

If you are this guy, then instead of planning for a future career, you use equal energy invent ing clever retorts like, "You know, the world will still be there when I'm 30," or, "Kimo, that's great that you're going to make $30,000 next year, but you'll still be at some cocktail party where a jerk like me is going to make fun of you."

All very snappy, indeed, but perhaps responsible in part for the five years I spent waiting tables up and down the West coast. The world certainly was there when I was 30, but by then it wanted no more a part of me than I wanted of it when I was 22.

Kimo makes high six figures doing something dreadfully boring and lives in Connecticut. His marriage was announced The New York Times.

I returned from Australia in December, 1987, sporting two hoop earrings, a bunch of Grateful Dead friendship bracelets, military shorts and a mullet that would have made Jose Canseco proud. I landed in Orange County and wondered what to do.

I'd imagined gathering steam, planning another adventure fitting of a singularly gifted boy romantic like myself, but quickly realized the folly of that when, after a few days at home, my mother began appearing at the foot of my bed each morning, shouting, "ARE YOU GOING TO GET A JOB TODAY?"

Fortunately, my college roommate and high school buddy Uncle Sam was in town, living what seemed to me to be a very carefree life, bartending at a local restaurant.

Understand now, as I did not then, that Uncle Sam and I are very different. Where I am neurotic and brooding, he is more the type to ignore life's small dramas. He is small and compact, can sleep anywhere, never worries about what the neighbors might think, and, while seven inches shorter and 40 pounds lighter than me, also could throw a baseball about 15 mph harder than me, which still kind of ticks me off.

(Orange, CA, March, 1982: former Mater Dei star Adrian Witt joins the baseball coaching staff at El Modena High School, watches in the bullpen as Uncle Sam throw bee bees through brick walls, and then I step up there and begin lobbing meatballs to catcher Brandy Sheets. After a few minutes of watching me toss lollipops, he pulls me aside and says, "Okay, okay, great changeup. Can I see your fastball now?")

Uncle Sam is charmed. He has a way of landing on his feet. He went to Santa Clara on an ROTC scholarship and then immediately got into the reserves. A full year passed before they assigned him to a unit. When I got home from Australia, he was not yet in the reserves (and yet somehow logging military time as if he were), working instead at this place called Islands, a Chili's knockoff where the Bud Light was so cold that each glass had a thin sheet of ice across the top.

Please pause to realize the full impact of my arrogance. When I graduated high school, since I spent absolutely no time planning for college, I ended up at a local JC for a semester, where I played baseball and never studied. One day I ran into a girl from my high school, who looked at me, aghast and yet obviously taking sadistic pleasure in it, and said, "What are YOU doing HERE?"

And yet I thought I, like the very relaxed Uncle Sam, could pull off bartending in my home town, obviously not yet having taken the time to reflect on anything I might have learned by my behavior on the banana fields of Tully, Queensland, Australia the month before.

I went to see Uncle Sam at work a few times. He was behind a u-shaped bar, wearing a Hawaiian shirt and shorts, joking with everyone, pouring drinks for regulars before they knew to ask for them, casually dealing with the restaurant managers, and SURROUNDED by the INCREDIBLY attractive girls who worked as waitresses there with him at Islands.

"This is for me," I thought, quickly establishing a lifetime pattern in which it takes less than a second to convince myself that the potential upside of a job (in this case, the chance to be more like Uncle Sam, whose attitude I'd long admired, and the chance to date one of these INCREDIBLY attractive Orange County girls) greatly outweighed everything I already knew about myself, in this scenario, namely that I'd be miserable and embarassed every time someone I knew walked into the restaurant. Oh, and that I had no idea how to bartend and in fact had never made nor ingested a mixed drink. "Yeah," I continued, "I can pull this off."

It'll be great! I'll be this funny, cool and casual bartender. I will have regulars who come in when I'm working, and we'll talk about sports. I will date the best-looking of the INCREDIBLY attractive waitresses. She'll come by while I'm working, get her drink order, and then kiss me on the cheek while all my regulars gnash their teeth with jealousy.

And I'll write my first novel on my days off.

A week later it was me behind the bar, totally clueless, suddenly learning that you couldn't just show up in any old pair of shorts. You were assigned a very specific type of short, made by Stubby, a brand now lost to oblivion, which were several inches shorter than the droopy, oversized shorts I sport to this day. And you couldn't wear a t-shirt under your Hawaiian shirt, which was fine for the small, hairless men of Orange County but not so good for the swarthy ethnic types who generally hail from the East Coast until their parents, after some career soul-searching themselves, succumb to the California Dream and move the family West.

As the girls, well, nobody's really attracted to incompetence, are they?

At first, I tried. Mostly, I tried to be Uncle Sam, albeit a larger, hairier, far less comfortable in his own skin verson. Unfortunately, Harvey Lucas taught me to fear authority, to mistrust authority, to be completely intimidated by authority and yet diss authority behind authority's back at every opportunity. So whereas Uncle Sam engaged in the give-and-take of peers with Steve, the manager who'd just gotten out of the Army, looked like Richard Gere and loved Oliver North, I was terrified of the guy.

It took me until I was 30 to realize this: if I think the coach thinks I suck, I suck. And if the manager things I'm an incompetent weirdo who, unlike his much easier to deal with little friend often spouts strange non sequiters that are not in the least bit funny or even contextual to an ex-Army guy who looks like Richard Gere, loves Oliver North and just wants to do his freaking job and go home without being bothered by all of these 19-year-old girls who won't leave him alone.

It was at Islands that I learned the hidden upside of restaurant life. Five nights a week, minimum, Uncle Sam and I donned the buttoned-up, blousy shirts of the era, pegged our jeans and joined several our co-worker waitresses on the town. If you are single, aren't worried about becoming an alcoholic and aren't paying rent, restaurant life can be a great ride. If you show up with a posse of Los Angeles Rams cheerleaders in tow, nobody really cares that you're doing nothing at all with your B.A. in English and even fewer people assume that the women you are with actually think of you as a depressive, incompetent, slightly weird brother.

The Islands months were a time of complete confusion for me. It was the first time in my life that my policy of skating across the surface had gotten me nowhere, and in fact had led me right into what I perceived as a corner. My work ethic declined along with my attitude, and somewhere along the line I was beginning to realize that my future may not lie in Orange County, amidst my lifelong friends. I wouldn't get the house on the beach I'd wanted, because I didn't really want it anymore.

I couldn't imagine anything that I could do in Orange County that would make it right for me to live there. Certainly not working at Islands, which seemed so effortless to Uncle Sam. But what did I expect? The guy was so mentally, emotionally and physically adept he didn't even own a bed. After college, he returned home to his parents house and removed his bed, replacing it with a love seat. He slept there, on the floor, in the family room, wherever he felt the need to sleep. Talk about adaptable.

But to be Uncle Sam was to have it all worked out. He never cared when Ernie Luna's dad came in and said, "Gee, that's a great idea. I'm going to encourage Ernie to take a year off after he graduates," and he found it funny that Grant, the other bartender who looked slightly like Robert Downey, Jr., had every one of the waitresses begging to be his next conquest.

After Islands, he bartended at an old man bar in Tustin, where he seemed no less appropriate or at home behind the bar than he had in his Stubbies and Hawaiian shirt at Islands. Then he lived in Bakersfield for awhile, where I once showed up to find him sitting in his backyard at sunset, wearing cowboy boots and drinking scotch with a guy who looked a little bit like Merle Haggard. Seventeen years after Islands, he married Tre Si, the girl he met while working there. They still live in Orange and have a 2-year-old son.

The only thing keeping me sane during the winter of 1987-88 was another job I had, coaching JV baseball at Foothill High School under the leadership of another high school buddy, the Big D. I did it for free, but figured it was saving me thousands of dollars in therapy bills. Except for the part where one of the Islands waitresses was a senior at Foothill High School and I'd occasionally run into her while coaching. That was kind of strange.

The message was clear: if you're me, you don't work in restaurants in your home town unless you're in grad school. It's important to know who you are. Whether the things you learn are good or bad is of little consequence. The fact that I knew my situation shouldn't bother me but did because I was petty and arrogant and felt I was somehow "above it all" made very little impact on my attitude and performance as an Islands bartender.

And so, eventually, it ended. One day I was at the beach in the morning, then rushed back inland in my wildly incongruous 1965 Alfa Romeo to make it to Islands in time for my shift, only to have one of the managers (who'd graduated from Santa Clara, just like me!) call me into her office.

I've been fired, laid off, "let go," more than most, so you've got to trust me when I say that this particular manager went out of her way to make it as painless as possible. She had to tell me the truth -- that I kind of sucked as a bartender -- but she added something about how I shouldn't be spending my time bartending anyway, which was nice but would be proven totally inaccurate by the next five years of my life, and when I shook my head sadly and said, "Man, I feel like a total loser," her expression of empathy seemed very sincere. Fortunately, I read the situation correctly and didn't finish my sentence, which would have ended with, "...what kind of a loser gets fired from a place like this?"

I walked out of there the proud owner of three Hawaiian shirts and two pairs of Stubbies shorts, no closer to any of the INCREDIBLY attractive women than I had been when I first returned to Orange County in December. I drove back to the beach and walked around, approximating the look and feel of a young man wondering where his life will go next. Then I came home and my mommy made me dinner. And then asked me if I had gotten a job yet.

Meanwhile, several hundred miles away, Kimo was making his $30,000 a year. No one was around to make fun of him at cocktail parties, but even worse, if I had even been at those cocktail parties, I probably would have been there to serve the drinks.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

By the Numbers

Some significant numbers recorded already in 2007:

9 - total height, in inches, of Shack.

12 - average depth of snow in Lake Chelan, Washington, where we spent December 24 - 28. It was quite a sight, let me tell you.

4 - average adult weight, in pounds, of the tiny little dog -- a miniature Yorkie -- some mom I don't know brought to school today. Its name was "Stanley."

6 - the total number of police vehicles seen in Glen Park today. 4 this morning, parking at odd angles in front of the BART station. The Jawa and I saw them while driving to school. 2 more this afternoon, in front of the high-end grocery store, which destroys my earlier theory about the gang-bangers on Arlington Street never shopping at Canyon Market. Two guys in handcuffs.

8 - number of seconds that passed before the Jawa commented, "Did someone get shot?" And speaking of which...

3 - total shooting incidents in Glen Park since October. Only two made the papers, but since we saw the cops digging shell casings out of the telephone poles in front of La Corneta, I'll call that one a fact as well.

499,000 - asking price of the 600 square-foot, one bedroom fixer for sale on our block. According to the sign out front, its sale is "pending."

7 - loads of laundry I have completed since yesterday morning. Sure, I'm tired, but it's a good kind of tired; the kind of tired you get when you know you've accomplished something of true substance.

7 - estimated total weight, in pounds, gained by me during the time period of December 23 - January 2. One for each load of laundry.

470 - cost, in U.S. dollars, of the perscription sunglasses waiting for me at the glasses store on 24th Street. For some reason, I had to spend an outrageous amount of money on something medically-related before December 31, so I obliged. Ironic that it's sunglasses, isn't it?

20/300 - my vision. Better make sure I've got the right sunglasses before leaving the house, don't you think?

50 - cost, in U.S. dollars, of the AT-AT walker the Shaman had proposed to trade to the Jawa in exchange for a number of other Star Wars miniatures. The trade was vetoed by the Hammer.

80 - number of holiday cards sent by us in 2006.

27 - number of holiday cards received by us as of January 3, 2007.

59 - temperature, in degrees farenheit, of our home this morning at 7 a.m.

70 - temperature, in degrees farenheit, of the maximum thermostat setting I will allow in my home.

72 - temperature, in degrees farenheit, that the Jawa and Sandra Bullock push the thermostat to when they think I'm not looking.

37 - total number of minutes required to read one issue of Entertainment Weekly, which arrives each Friday in our home.

65 - percent, in words, of each issue of The New Yorker that I actually read, which takes far longer than reading Entertainment Weekly cover-to-cover.

0 - number of times S. Bullock has shown interest in anything having to do with any issue of The New Yorker or the contents within.

480 - amount of credit card purchase those dirtbags who found my wallet attempted to spend at Stater Brothers the next day. Funny thing is, they had my Safeway club card in there; if they'd gone to Safeway they could have gotten much better deals.

100 - percent change in the condition of the Diamond Heights Safeway between yesterday and today. And still, no fruit trays.

77 - average age of Safeway patron, be it January 2 or January 3.

52 - height, in inches, you must be to ride something the Jawa was referring to as "class B" rides at Legoland. He mentioned this after asking how tall he was, expressing great relief at my answer of 54 inches.

10,000 - estimated number of Legos presently owned by my child.

26 - why do we still have all of these boxes when the Legos that came in them are no longer in them?

433 - ditto the instruction manuals.

1/8 - length, in inches, of the Lego he would like me to find. It is gray.

50 - number of Legos Shack would consume each day, given half the chance.

60 - degree slope of our backyard. We would someday like to put a deck up there, but presently, ours is the only backyard I've ever seen that you can actually fall off of.

5 - number of times I had to tell the Jawa to do his spelling before he actually responded.

10 - number of Star Wars miniatures you can receive in trade for 5 figures, if you are a savvy trader and one of the figures you trade is Jango Fett.

1 - person in the world who thinks "Jango Fett" should be spelled with a silent "D." That would be me, by the way.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

2007: Day 1 & 2

Something happened at our Safeway over the past 10 days. While we were driving up and down the western states, something apocalyptic went on at the Safeway. How else can you explain the scene I faced there today?

I don't know about you, but for me, 2007 began in the pre-dawn Seattle gloom. 10 days of blasting through snow, having dinner at people's houses and introducing our dog to weather conditions unimaginable in his birthplace of Lodi, California brought me to this point. New Year's Eve ended a mere five-and-a-half hours earlier with my carefully placing a wad of gum on the doorknob of the revelers who chose room 325 of the Seattle Homewood Suites (by Hilton) for their New Year's party.

We were in room 323.

The denizens of room 325 got direct revenge on me by enjoying bass-heavy music well into the wee hours. They got indirect revenge -- without ever knowing -- for the entire next day, a 12.5 hour, 812 mile drive which began just after I found myself standing on the sidewalk in the dark, my hand holding one end of a dog leash, with Shack at the other end.

But that is not all. If it were just that I was awake with a few hours of sleep, freezing and charged with using a small blue plastic bag to retrieve whatever came out of my dog, then sitting in a car for 12.5 hours, that would be enough. Always looking to break new ground, S. Bullock and I decided to add a snarling, miserably sleep-deprived Jawa to our New Year's paradigm.

"It's MOMMY'S FAULT that I'm mad!"

Several hours later ... no, I mean several hours. Like an entire day went by and we were in the car the whole time. Like Shack sat, perched on the suitcase holding the snow clothing -- and as a digression, how shocked were we to find that by living in a mild climate we were depriving our pet of his true calling as a snow dog -- staring longingly out the window as first Washington, then Oregon and finally California, went by in a series of blurs. Like any attempt I made to soften the blow of our trip, say, stopping in God's gift to white people, AKA Ashland, Oregon, maybe to take Shack for a walk, get a hot chocolate and break up the trip, was immediately and voraciously shot down by Sandra Bullock with a curious "We have to make time!" refrain.

So. Several hours later, we arrived in San Francisco, paid our new $4 bridge toll, and for that amount we should get at least 2 bands, and pulled up to our house. We had absolutely no food, were forced to wear "second-string" underwear and improvise a 9 p.m. dinner.

Which led me to Safeway today, where something apocalyptic seems to have happened while we were gone.

As I imagine it, when the aliens arrive, when the earthquake and ensuing tidal wave hits, when the economy collapses, people will descend on Safeway, grabbing for whatever is on the shelves. By the time I arrive, the shelves will be mostly bare. There will be a few brown, dotted bananas remaining, no organic milk, and there will be a guy sitting cross-legged in front of the Progresso soup, reaching up to his elbows into the bottom shelf, looking for the last few cans of chicken and dumplings with vegetables.

"Why isn't there any food?" I asked a Safeway worker.

"Holidays," he said sadly.

So it wasn't aliens, but the result was the same. When the guy brought out the one box of new bananas they had left in the back, four women hovered over him, waiting for him to set down the bananas. Once he did, four sets of hands reached violently toward the bananas, ruining his best efforts at creating an attractive, if rudimentary, display.

There will be more food tomorrow. I have been assured of this.

If you're keeping score, so far 2007, to me, has meant the following:

- party goers in room 325 (two of whom strutted out into the 7 a.m. morning as if it were still last night while we were struggling to affix the gigantic Thule bag thing we bought at REI to the top of our car)
- picking up my dog's business in the pre-dawn gloom
- receiving the short end of a verbal beating from my own child
- interminable drive almost the length of the western edge of the U.S.
- weird, post-apocalyptic Safeway experience.

With this, who needs resolutions?