Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Keeping Your Eyes Open

When I was not much younger, I thought of the world as being divided between interesting people and not-interesting people. And I spent most of my time trying to make sure I was interesting.

How do you do that?

If you are young and shallow, like I was (now I am no longer young but still quite shallow), you start externally. You study the ways interesting people dress and try to adopt their styles. Unfortunately, I was never bold enough -- unlike my little sister -- to completely give myself to dressing like an interesting person. "My hair won't do anything interesting," I would say. Or, "Who can afford to dress like that?"

In the latter, I was correct. I could not afford to dress like that, but it had nothing to do with money. This from a person who, everytime he wore shorts to school in junior high, was absolutely convinced that the entire school had chosen that day to not wear shorts as part of a school-wide conspiratorial practical joke, played on me.

To go from that to, say, wearing Chuck Taylors in 1981, would have been unthinkable. I did have earrings for awhile, but that was in 1985, and by then it was very acceptable to have earrings. But I kept getting them caught on my fraternity sweatshirt, so I got rid of them.

It was about that time that I decided, well, maybe I'm just not the kind of guy who can appear interesting. I don't have the guts. So I should begin a campaign where I go on and on about how it's what's INSIDE your head that makes you interesting.

Seventeen years later, I think I finally believe that. Whew.

I was talking about this with my neighbor, the poet with the 40-inch vertical, the other day. Now that I have a job, I am sympatico with the ills of the working man. Oh yes, I feel the poet's pain -- the waking up early, riding BART to work. The endless stream of people, rushing toward what? Toward jobs that make the world a better place? No! They are just killing time, waiting to die.


Oops! I forgot that I'm 42, not 24.

Regardless, the poet and I stole a moment of calm at 8:30 in the morning in front of our overpriced homes. We'd just teamed up to catch a wayward Shack, who decided that, rather than follow me up the front stairs post-walk, he'd pause, look at me as if I were crazy for assuming that he'd leashlessly follow me up the stairs even though he'd done it the previous 100 times I'd walked him, then slowly back down the stairs, look at me again, and dash down the street.

It took me, the poet, and the new girl down the street to catch him. Finally, we cornered him under a car and I grabbed him by the back leg. Bad dog!

Satisfied with a job well done, the poet and I paused to reflect on our lives. The poet is, if anything, even more tortured than me, though he does a much better job of keeping it to himself. By many standards he is a success. He has a well-paying job, owns his own home, has about 2.4% body fat, and a nice girlfriend. But he, too sometimes wonders what it's all about.

"If you'd told me this was what 40 looks like, I'd have said you were crazy," he told me.

"Yeah. Remember the whole 'no way, man, I'm never going to get some job and waste my life!' thing?" I said.

He chuckled. "Yeah." The poet once taught at Seattle University, at precisely the same time I was a graduate student there. Different departments. He was English, I was, oddly enough, not English but Education. "I get up every morning, drive to work, come back twelve hours later," he said. "All I'm missing is the suburbs."

"And from where I sit, the suburbs don't sound all that bad," I said.

The point is not that we are two typical guys entering middle age, full of disappointment and regret. We're not. The point is that the poet is a guy who goes to work, wears the latest non-risky fashions and plays (or used to play, until he ripped up his knee for the umpteenth time, thus reducing his vetical to something like 35 inches, still higher than most people can jump even while wearing spring-loaded shoes) plenty of basketball. And yet, if you had a few minutes to engage the guy in conversation, or even to look at his life (or at his books, which I did once while the Jawa was watering his plants), you'd come to find that the poet is an interesting person.

And you might find out, under further review, that far more than half of the people in the world are interesting, and most of them just look like regular schmoes as they walk from place to place.

I have this argument with the Ex-Mormon New Yorker all the time. She is unimpressed by the unimpressive, while I'm obsessed with the unimpressive. She has set parameters not on whom she will talk to, but on whom she will think about. In a way, I sort of admire her ability to use her time only for things she finds worthy. I mean, I've spent literally hours wondering about the guy standing next to me waiting for the crosswalk light to change, and generally find that my conclusions about this person -- while fascinating to me -- are usually of no interest to anyone else and in fact it is generally considered weird and rude to pay such close attention to perfect strangers.

Maybe I'm easily impressed. Maybe I've listened to way too many country music. Maybe I'm just really, really naive.

Whatever. I've got to say that, having spent so much of my life thinking that people were uninteresting, I'm pretty proud to now consider them all interesting. If that's because I'm gullible or naive, I'll cop to it.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Welcome to the Working Week

Everyone in my immediate family must read this article. Pay close attention to the second-to-last paragraph. Enjoy.

Shockingly, tomorrow is my last day of joblessness. Yes, you read that correctly. After three years of chronic "freelancing," and seemingly out of nowhere, I will re-enter the world of work Monday morning at 9 a.m.

And who are these obvious fools who have hired me, you ask? None other than the people who've given me the greatest $50 a week job in the universe, The San Francisco Examiner.

I'm not being facetious. I have absolutely loved my $50 a week "gig" with Brand X, and in fact will be one melancholy sportswriter tomorrow night, when I cover my last game, Mills vs. Half Moon Bay. That it is at Half Moon Bay is nice, since the first game I covered last season was at Half Moon Bay. And so life continues its nice little circle, as Andy Williams once sang in a Christmas Special that has been taking up space in my memory since 1967.

The world is a circle
Without a beginning
Without an end

So sang Andy while wrapped in a cardigan sweater, Claudine Longet already buried somewhere in his past.

Unfortunately, my new job will not involve dredging up ancient and obscure pop culture references. Instead, I will be neatly wrapping past failures up with future successes (I hope) as the Examiner's new real estate reporter. Once a week, Brand X will flop onto your porch swollen with a 16-page real estate section, mostly written by me.

What will I write about, you ask? Unlike the paranoid and obtusely authoritarian
San Francisco Chronicle, I will not offer weekly updates of how quickly the sky is falling. Since my new boss's boss's boss told me (his words) that we were going to be more "hip," than the old dying Chron, I guess I will be dishing out of-the-moment, streetwise articles about houses in San Francisco (and San Mateo County), which is fine with me. If he wants to look out at a bald guy wearing the last of his three aged and wrinkled dress shirts and see "hip," then maybe he knows something the rest of us don't.

Everyone keeps saying, "Are you excited?" Well, yes and no. Yes because I went out and got a job, thus keeping us from the poorhouse. Yes because it's actually a writing job, unlike the potentially spirit-crushing corporate "communications" job I foresaw when I began this search. Yes because for all of my career failures, my record when I'm hired to actually write is pretty good.

But also no. Or if not "no," than maybe more of an apples vs. oranges answer like, "Well, yes, but I'm a little freaked out, too." As all of us under our small and crumbling roof should be.

Shack, for one, will be slammed with a massive life change starting Monday. Saying "so long" to his daily romps at the dog park and the half-hour play sessions that have him eagerly awaiting my return from the gym each day, he will have to adjust to the life of a two-income family dog. Hours of sitting in the concrete corridor that is our backyard await him. Thrice-weekly sessions with a dog walker. No more mid-morning playing. No staring out the front window for hours at a time.

His life will change.

And then there's the Jawa, who'd gotten so used to the idea that my getting a job would equal financial salvation that he'd spent the past few weeks asking me, a la my mother, if I'd gotten a job yet. He, I am sure, will not miss the refrain "because we don't have any money," but how will he feel not having his dad at the ready each day. What about next summer, when my water park attendance drops from four to zero? And what happens during all of those Thursday and Friday Jewish holidays that litter the school calendar during September and October?

I'm sure we can do it. I mean, most people do it. They haven't been lucky enough to have three years where their primary job is getting their kid to and from school, coaching his teams and volunteering to chaperone field trips. Both Shack and the Jawa tend to squish their bodies up against me when we're all home together. Will that change, now that I won't be constantly present in their lives?

And what about Brandeis Hillel Day School? Here's a list of this year's volunteering responsibilities:

Parent Association Secretary
Marketing Committee
Campus Tours Leader
Annual Fund
Grandparents' Day Chaperone
Booster Club

Okay, I think that's it. And that's my answer to the question, "Okay, you haven't been in an office setting for quite awhile. How do you think you'll function in one now?"

All of these new issues, things we haven't faced, basically, since I was a dot-com flameout in 2001. In return I get two things: money and a professional purpose in life. I get to go from having a three-paragraph answer to the cocktail party question, "And what do you do?" to a neat, easily digested, completely respectable response: "I'm a journalist. I work at the San Francisco Examiner."

Already people have tried to slice through my haze of ecstasy, and I appreciate their concern (and tips), but I'd kind of like to just sit back and enjoy the haze. It feels not unlike the time the seventeen-year-old me went to Roger A. Hunt's house after my first date with the future ex-Mormon New Yorker. "This is the greatest part," I told him. "it's all just laying out there in front of me, and I'm standing on the hill, looking down at it."

But don't get too excited about the money. I did the math, and figured that I will be making approximately 28% of what Sandra Bullock pulls down. Ink-stained wretch, indeed.

So family, did you enjoy that article about our hometown? Yes, Scranton, PA is "hip," an idea that I always assumed would require the earth shifting off of its axis to come true. I always thought it was hip, frankly. Even now it fits into the paradigm of an old, small, dirty city with real ethnic neighborhoods that I like.

I'm pretty sure that's not what they're talking about, though.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Mod Mark Goes to War

It took three days, but by my third day in Santa Monica, I was beginning to assimilate. By then, however, my self-esteem was completely shot.

I'd been having the vivid dreams of a feverish Malaria victim all weekend. On Sunday, I dreamed that a guy with no arms or legs had asked me to take some papers out to his car. I stepped out his front door and immediately fell into a deep mudhole.

But by Monday, at least, I'd tossed my running shoes aside in favor of some flip-flops, and was wearing a tighter t-shirt than usual. In this manner I fit in. Sort of.

On Sunday afternoon, a few hours after everyone but the Big Apple and I had left, I stood on the corner of The Promenade and Arizona Street, caught in a weird triangulation of a rapper, a violinist, and a homeless guy whose diatribes against Jews and Gentiles eventually devolved into non-stop swearing. At one point, a Lubivitcher canvasser approached me. "Are you a Jewish man?" he asked.


His eyes brightened. It was Sukkot, and he was holding some vegetation. He asked me something in Hebrew. Just now the Jawa informed me that the vegetation he was holding was a Lulav and an Etrov. As a Jew, I still need work.

Which point was driven home Saturday night, when the Big Apple suddenly introduced eight L.A. women that he knew to our formerly all-male group. We'd been sitting at two tables outside our plush suite, soaking up Santa Monica and paying tribute to Mod Markie, who will be going off to Iraq in December. This was the second night of tribute, and we'd found an awesome groove. The high school friends had seamlessly blended with the college friends. The sports guys were allowed to watch sports; the art guys received their fill of art. The sun worshippers went back to the hotel and got all Zen on us, lying by the pool.

The Big Apple is good at knowing people. He's kind of like an indie movie Man About Town. All weekend he ran into people he knew, which was strange, since he lives in New York. So on Saturday night, after several hours of sitting at our tables, these women showed up, and one took heated exception to my explanation that my child attends "Jew school."

"You're ghettoizing yourself!" she fumed.

Three hours later I was walking down Wilshire Boulevard with Uncle Sam, Dug and our friend the American Original, who carried a box of flowers he'd stolen from a nearby wedding. It was past midnight and we were 42 years old, and no one wanted the flowers. All of us, save for Dug, had been in the same fraternity, along with the Big Apple, Mod Markie and Come Fly With Me, back at Santa Clara University. Dug, as regular readers will know, managed a few months ago to forgive me for blasting out of my Volvo at top yuppie speed when I hadn't seen him in 15 years.

As it turned out, the yuppie part hadn't registered, thank God. And in fact, over the course of our weekend, it turned out that Dug, among the crowd, could most easily identify with my job-needing, starving artist/writer vibe. Even though I often wore a baseball cap and shorts.

So we all met up Friday, me telling everyone who'd listen that I had no idea what to expect from the weekend. I was smashing some disparate personalities together, and we had the college vs. high school issues as well. I'd been trying to make Saturday a blowout and already knew that wasn't going to happen. What would we do? Sit around at tables and drink all day? Watch football in a bar, mixed in among throngs of tall, thin guys in bootcut jeans, flip-flops and oversized sunglasses? Sit around some more and argue with strange women? Force guys who don't really know each other to share hotel rooms?

Yes, yes, yes and yes.

By Saturday morning, my fears had lessened. I was staying with the Big Apple, and he was on EST, so we were the first ones awake. We went down to the suite at 10 and knocked. Soon, the American Original met us at the door. He'd arrived late Friday night, and had no qualms about answering the door wearing only a pair of very small shorts. And for all of his mysticism, the guy was in great shape, which left me in a state of awestruck irritation.

We went in. The room was dark. Dug and Come Fly With Me were still lying in their beds, asleep. Empty beer bottles littered the room. It was a tableau more fitting for men half our age, but it somehow calmed me. I had no worries. Everyone was going to get along.

So we sat there, waiting for Mod Mark and the Arcadia boys to arrive, and I watched the Original get dressed, my interest growing as he added clothing, each piece a little bit more outrageous than the last.

He started with a pair of tan shorts, which was normal enough, but then accessorized them with a huge brown belt. Then came a bright green t-shirt with the sleeves cut off, a pair of beige dress socks, and some shoes with Chinese writing inside them. I shook my head in appreciation.

A word about the American Original. He showed up at Santa Clara when we were sophomores as a transfer from UC Davis. He was from Grass Valley, up in the Sierra foothills, and rode a Honda Supersport 400. He wore little round glasses and had a large seashell dangling from a necklace around his neck.

Over the years, the Original has drifted in and out of my life, which I understand, as I am sure I am one of the less interesting people in his world. Right now he lives just a few miles from us, but I hardly ever see him, which is my loss.

On Saturday night, a few hours before I was browbeaten for being a lousy Jew, the Original and I had a great conversation about how much we love people whose freakiness goes unadvertised.

There are very few of these people in Los Angeles.

By Sunday, I'd laughed so much that my face hurt. The weird combo of people had gelled into non-stop comedy. Best of all, Mod Mark seemed to be having a great time. That morning, we woke up, dragged an unshowered, bed-headed, still-wearing-the-shorts-and-t-shirt-he'd-slept-in Come Fly With Me out of bed, sorted through the wreckage, and went to have brunch, weirdly enough, at a Mexican restaurant.

By now everyone was comfortable with each other. As a sports guy, I'd particularly enjoyed the Arcadia boys' encyclopedic sports knowledge, and their eager willingness to watch college football and drink beer at noon on a Saturday. I also liked that they suddenly imported a guy whose father was the legendary Spanish-language Dodgers broadcaster Jaime Jarrin.

We ate our breakfast burritos and checked out the waitresses. Everyone wore sunglasses. Then we walked back to the hotel one more time.

People were getting ready to leave, Mod Mark among them. We stood in a circle in a spot where yesterday there had been a wedding. Mark felt he needed to make a little speech, so he told us how much he'd appreciated our showing up, and how he'd be thinking of this weekend while he was in Iraq. We stood there for awhile and did the math: he'd be shipping out in December, and would be in-country for 270 days. So in around 400 days, he'd go back to his normal life as an accountant for Price-Waterhouse in Boston. Like Uncle Sam, he'd go back to being a weekend warrior.

And then there was a little pause. I was standing next to the Original, who'd been so good and kept his rantings about wanting to "shoot Mark in both feet, so he can't go," to himself, or within the hidden confines of the suite, out of earshot. But right now I could feel the air go out of him, and in fact just about every person in the circle, one by one. And I thought, "I am 42 years old, and this is the first time I've ever seen a friend off to war."

I remembered one time, sophomore year, when our dorm floor put on a dance. Halfway through, I elbowed my way up to the DJ and put on some song, I don't know which one, but something Two/Tone or Mod. Someone said, "This one is for our own Mod Mark!" who, I must add, was then and remains today the best dancer I have ever met.

I don't know. Not the most poignant memory at a time like that, but it's the one I had.

We went back to the room a dazed and quieted group. The Arcadia boys went home. The Original fired up his bio-diesel Jetta and drove Dug and Come Fly With Me to LAX. Only the Big Apple and I stayed over until Monday.

That night, the Big Apple and I had dinner with a women he knew, one of the group that had infiltrated our party Saturday night. She was so SO VERY L.A. and had contacts everywhere. She'd gone to high school with Sean Penn. We went to dessert and the celebrity chef came out to talk to us. And I didn't know this woman at all, but even she said, "It seems weird that the nicest, sweetest guy in your group is the one going to Iraq."

I'm better in print than in person, but the Big Apple managed to skillfully weave a story in which we're in college and he's riding on the back of Markie's Vespa, listening to the wind make a cool flapping noise as it runs through Mark's super-thick hair.

So meanwhile, as we return to our lives and the wreckage that is my checkbook, Mod Markie will be keeping track of his time in a journal that you can find here.

398 days and counting.