Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ category

Romeo and Juliet and the Culture War

September 16, 2021

Usually the American culture war is something you see from a distance, that you read about in the media. But sometimes it’s a person you know and it’s something that stops you in your tracks. 

I met her at some tennis courts I frequent in National City, when she was by herself, practicing serves or hitting a ball against a backboard. I asked her if she wanted to hit the ball with me. 

I’m going to call her Gabi, which is not her real name. What drew me to her? The novelist John le Carré called it love or lust or whatever it is that makes us into fools.

She looked like she was close to my age, and she was beautiful in that way Phillipina women often are. She had a pretty smile, a soft voice and expressive eyes. Her figure looked youthful and, well, sexy.  

We ran into each other several times and we played a set once. Gabi was basically a beginner but very fit and a natural athlete. I asked her for her telephone number. Soon we played together again, and I asked her if she’d join me for lunch. It wasn’t a big deal but it was definitely a date, which I hoped would lead to others. 

Gabi was a schoolteacher, a profession I thought had some things in common with me, being a journalist. I remember exchanging texts with her, where I described my reaction to getting a COVID vaccination. She told me she wasn’t going to get vaccinated. It was a time when pandemic politics were still not entirely clear to me. 

If they had been more clear I don’t think I would have asked her, as we sat in that restaurant, why she decided not to get vaccinated. But I did. She looked downward and shifted in an awkward way. She told me she was a born-again Christian and belonged to a church that was well-known for refusing to wear masks or disband their worship services, due to COVID concerns. 

Pretty soon she was telling me she thought Anthony Fauci was a fraud. She told me I should read what some guy, I’d never heard of, said about the pandemic. What she said bore all the signs of Trump politics, religious fundamentalism and distrust of mainstream science. As you can guess, our date did not end well.

Before we talked about COVID that day Gabi and I talked about some of our travels and we’d both been to England. She told me she loved Shakespeare. I told her I did too.

After politics pulled us apart, I thought about Romeo and Juliet. The intense sexual attraction of that story didn’t apply to us. I guess we are a little too old for that. 

But I came to see our story as a version of the play. We were like members of warring families who could have fallen in love. But the politics in our lives meant we — becoming a couple — was just not going to happen. I expect that’s a story more commonly true than the one you hear in Shakespeare’s play.

On Tuesday the California Recall Election took place, when Republicans tried to remove Governor Gavin Newsom from office. I heard from Gabi that day.

She sent a text to me and several others she knew, urging us to vote for the recall, which ended up failing by a wide margin statewide. That election was a referendum on dealing with COVID, and the governor had created regulations and urged people to get vaccinated and wear masks, the kind of things Gabi and her fundamentalist friends opposed. 

I expect I will run into her again at the tennis courts, and I’m sure we’ll be polite to each other and exchange a few words. But I think that text she sent me on election day will be the last one I’ll get from her. 

 

Enecko (Anna’s baby)

August 30, 2021

Enecko. His name sounds like an echo

He has fat arms, a broad nose and black hair.

He lies on his back and holds his pink palms open

Like he’s telling something to stop

But his face is quiet and sure.

His puffy eyelids leave open a slit that seems to make

Even a baby’s rest a time to collect

Pictures of the world.

He was premature. Just two pounds when he entered

The light through a cleft in his mother’s belly.

A Caesarian birth that made his coming

More urgent and violent than what even most people see

As new creatures arrive expecting nourishment

And a gentleness that follows the pain of birth.

A few months later he’d be smiling and laughing at the harness

Parents strap on to suspend him from their bodies.

At the hats they make him wear.

At the cameras they continually point at him as if

They’ll forget everything about the time he was suckling,

Shitting his diaper and trying to hold himself upright.

They’re hilarious to think they’ll forget the love.

And to think that I’m so beautiful.

RAGBRAI 2021

August 15, 2021

The Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa, aka RAGBRAI, skipped a year in 2020 thanks to the pandemic but in 2021 I was ready and eager to do my 4th bike trip. And we did, during the last week of July.

Our NPR cycling team was familiar. Scott Horsley (of course) along with Richard Harris and Les Cook. Our Iowa partners known as Team Groucho featured Shenandoah’s Bill Danforth (of course), the Birkby Brothers, now of Montana and Seattle, Bill’s daughter Betsy and two dentists, Matt and Jaye. He was known from our rides past. She was a new face on the RAGBRAI landscape.

The 2021 route took us from Le Mars on the western edge of the state to Clinton, on the Mississippi River. Our overnight towns were all just north of central Iowa and they were mostly places I’d never been, even though I grew up in the state.

Fort Dodge, Iowa Falls, Le Mars, Anamosa and Sac City. They were places as strange and exotic to me as to anyone who’d never set foot in Iowa.

Me and Goats

 

We had hosts in every overnight town. These are people who Bill Danforth could find some personal connection with… we’re talking many degrees of separation. But they were close enough so that that Bill, a man of consummate charm, could call them up and ask if it would be okay if we camped on their floor for one day of RAGBRAI.

Le Mars calls itself the Ice Cream capital of the World, due to the long-time presence there of the ice cream company Wells Blue Bunny. Our first host was a man who worked for the Wells company for 30 years, until corporate restructuring forced him to lay off many of the people he knew. He ultimately created a downsizing plan that eliminated his own job. After what he’d been through, he was happy to do it.

Anne sitting atop a sidewalk paver made by her grandfather’s Waterloo construction company.

In Waterloo, we stayed with a gay couple who were involved in politics. The older of the two was a county supervisor. They lived in an old brick house, once owned by a family that ran a prosperous meat packing company. It was a three-story house that had an impressive staircase and one-time servants’ quarters on the upper floors.

One member of the NPR team, Anne Olesen, was approaching the front door when she looked at a sidewalk paver that bore then name of her grandfather and his construction company. Anne is a Waterloo native.

It’s a Team-Groucho custom for us riders to give a gift to our host families. It should be something small and inexpensive but something that tells our hosts something about ourselves. One member of the NPR team called Jim caught us all off guard when he told the story of how he just learned through genetic testing that his father was not his biological father. His biological father was a man he knew, his Italian Godfather (no joke), and so he gave our hosts a pin showing the Italian and American flags.

Jaye and me posing in front of the old Wonderbread factory in Waterloo.

Jim was due to meet with his elderly mother in the Chicago suburbs right after RAGBRAI to get things sorted out, to the extent such things can ever be sorted out. She and the man who raised Jim are still married.

I mentioned Jaye. She is a dentist who lived for 14 years in Montana, where she still has a home, but recently moved to Clinton, Iowa to work another 12 months to become vested in a federal pension. She didn’t quite know what her job would entail. It entailed working as a dentist at a max-security federal prison. Her first two weeks on the job showed that she would have to carry a firearm and her patients would be handcuffed. I guess I don’t need to say she had some serious questions on whether she would see it through.

One night Jaye and I drank wine at a family-room bar and talked after the rest of our team had turned in. One of our hosts half-jokingly told us it was “closing time.” She invited me to visit her in Montana. Maybe I will, but we’ll see. The future hasn’t happened yet.

About half of our cycling team worked in the news business and we biked along the county roads of Iowa, trying our best to ignore what was going on. More and more cases of COVID, caused by the Delta Variant. That’s what was going on.

The Iowa River

We were in Iowa to celebrate the chance to finally meet up and have a group adventure, and it started to sound like we’d once again be seeing that liberation in the rearview.

We rode our team van back to Des Moines to catch flights back home, and some of us camped in Betsy Danforth’s home which was in the country, but also very close to the Des Moines airport. The house was designed by her husband Ryan, an architect, and it has great floor-to-ceiling windows with a view of the farm fields and forested patches nearby. A deer ambled past the house one evening and Richard Harris, a bird watcher, got out his binoculars to view the avian life.

The Iowa countryside

Another memorable moment this RAGBRAI was hearing my friend Scott Horsley tell how important the ride is to him. In fact it was his favorite week of the year. I was wondering whether I would bother to go again next year. I think I will.

The Boulevard

July 17, 2021

Men drink coffee in the parking lot each morning

By the massage parlor on the corner of Menlo 

By the Pho King restaurant and the Hoa My beauty salon

Yer on… El Cajon Boulevard.

Where the Rapid Bus 215, not so rapid, passes Domino’s Pizza

El Pollo Loco and Wing Lee Poultry where they have no crazy chicken.

Where the Goodbody Mortuary used to be Blessed Sacrament church.

Now at Goodbody the once-good bodies are laid down in caskets

Lined with joss and the joss pays their way into paradise.

They pave a way into paradise as broad the Boulevard

At the new Blessed Sacrament Church and Kingdom Covenant storefront Baptist.

Many souls the save on El Cajon Boulevard

Where a Mexican place and Etna Ristorante right next door serve

Asada-Adobada-Cabeza-Pizza-Pasta-Salads-Italian dinners

That’s what they say and they say it on the sidewalk shade.

Fix yer ride at Tire World, brakes mufflers shocks and autoparts.

The North Park water tower towers over Roberto’s taco shop just past 30th

Where the Boulevard starts to clean up on the sly

Can’t keep out folks who wanna gentrify.

You can’t keep away the sidewalks pridewalks prostitutes and laundromats

You can’t stop drinking at that bar, the ‘Til Two.’ 

They’ll always bill you ’cause yer not alone on El Cajon.

 

 

The Day I Almost Fell for a Big Scam

June 2, 2021

It started with my downstairs toilet not working. I’d always solved those problems with a plunger but this time I couldn’t get it going.

Soon my son took a shower upstairs and the drain backup got ugly. Water filled with shit rose in the bathroom shower and in the toilet.

My plumber, Dave Shelton, recommended Baird Drain Service, or some name like that. I found a company with that name on Google. But one thing Dave told me that didn’t register was the man who ran the company was George Baird. There was no George Baird associated with the Baird Drain Service I contacted.

A man named Jerry Garcia showed up. He joked about his name. Same as the star of the Grateful Dead. I later wondered if that was really his name. Maybe something he made up as a joke to disarm baby boomers he was trying to take for a ride.

Garcia took a short look at the pipes under the house, which he said were leaking, and they’d have to replace all the pipes and it would cost $4800. I was shocked at the price but said to myself, “Well, Dave recommended them so this must be legit.”

My dark secret. Nothing wrong with these pipes.

I don’t think I’m an overly trusting person. I don’t believe strangers who call me or send me letters saying I’ve just been chosen for an amazing deal or that I’ve just won a huge cash prize. Of course not. The reason I decided to trust these guys is this was a problem I’d never had before, so didn’t know my way around it, and I thought they were a company they were not.

I called Dave again the evening after I got the estimate to see if he could vouch for these guys one more time. But I couldn’t reach him and told Baird Drain Service to move ahead.

I finally heard from Dave the following morning. By that time the Baird crew had already shown up in a big white van and were suiting up for the work. He said something was very wrong.

“How do they know the pipes were bad? Did they camera them?” No, I said, they didn’t snake a camera into the pipes to check them from the inside.

I finally asked Deadhead Jerry to show me, one more time, the place where he said the pipes were leaking and broken. I went under the house with a flashlight and I saw no moisture stain on the ground and nothing leaking.  Finally, I sent the crew home and said they weren’t going to do the job.

I think that happy, normal people do, when in doubt, trust people. When you encounter someone, you think they’re are going to be considerate toward you and they’re going to tell you the truth. The only other option you have is to always walk around with an attitude. You know. You’re always ready for a fight and ready to suspect people of lying.

Most of us aren’t like that, and when someone is threatening to us, acting like an asshole or is telling brazen lies we’re taken aback and we may have a hard time believing what we’re seeing.

Baird Drain Service had already gotten away with my 10 percent down payment, and I called the company saying I wanted the $480 back.

The woman on the line (didn’t get her name) acted in a hostile way, claiming I didn’t hold up my end of the deal, caused tremendous inconvenience to the crew and she’d send me another bill for that, and if I didn’t pay it they would put a lien on my house.

You always think of the best thing to say later, right?

I should have told her if she wanted to take this case in front of a judge, I’d be happy to play along since I had a terrific story to tell. I never did get that bill and the case never went before a judge. I decided I didn’t want to take it to a small claims court.

I eventually hired a guy to clean out my sewer connection, which was all that was needed. In fact, the real George Baird showed up at my door. I had contacted his company at some point through a Yelp list of service providers.

George was a tall, skinny man around 70 years old with long hair. He gave me his business card and we talked for about ten minutes. He said this other “Baird” company was causing a problem for his business and ripping people off, but they’d never been officially called on it.

There’s a lot of money in plumbing. So much that it attracts a lot of predators.  I ultimately I had to get my sewer connection cleaned out a second time, and I called George Baird’s company to do it. It only cost me $80, and that included a $20 tip for the guy who did the job. I’ll remember them.

The moral of the story? I don’t think there is one. I guess you have to trust people, most of the time, and sometimes you get ripped off. Thankfully I was only ripped off for $480, not ten times that much.

Christopher Plummer. My Favorite Actor

March 7, 2021

I wanted to be an actor when I was a kid though I quickly realized that whatever my talents, I wasn’t lucky or crazy enough to try to make it in that business. But my love of performing is why I became a broadcast journalist, and it’s why I continued to admire good acting in movies and in plays. My favorite actor was Christopher Plummer, who died last month when he was 91 years old.

I surfed youtube to see what TV obits had made of his career. I was disappointed, of course, to see that every “look back” showed him as Captain Von Trapp in the Sound of Music, a movie he came to hate for being sentimental nonsense. Though I’ve seen him in many movies, I am lucky to be a person who remembers him on stage.

I saw him twice on stage in Minneapolis. The second time I went with my wife to see his touring production of Barrymore, in which he played the Actor John Barrymore in what felt like a one-man show. There was another actor in it, but he was no more than an off-stage voice. Plummer was the only one you saw.

He won a Tony award for Barrymore so it’s funny that I was less impressed by that performance than by the one he did in the first play I saw him in. That was Othello, in which he played Iago to James Earl Jones’ Othello. Mind you, Iago is a scene-stealing role, but I still remark at how Plummer played it so well he swept all other actors off the stage, Jones included.

I remember how, alone on the stage, he spoke the line, “I hate the moor!” He turned toward the audience as he said it in a cold measured tone, which made it so very clear how that hatred had consumed his thoughts, his actions and his very soul. I have never felt a more powerful moment in a theater.

He chose good movies to be in, though some were better than others, and he was always, I mean always good. Being born a Canadian he could convincingly play an American or a Brit. He grew up in Quebec and therefore spoke fluent French. I wonder if he ever was in a French play or film…

His last movie was a good film comedy (those are rare, incidentally) called Knives Out. At the age of 89 he played an old man, in that movie, who died in the end. Death would come for him in real life, shortly thereafter.

I have grown up as Christopher Plummer’s acting career has taken shape. I was 5 years old when he was Captain Von Trapp in the Sound of Music. I’m biased, I’m sure, but I think he was the greatest living actor before he went off to that great proscenium in the sky. And I got to share some space with him, as he reached out beyond the lights to an audience like few actors ever have.

The Susquehanna 

March 4, 2021

In Pennsylvania I follow the river

On Highway 15. The Susquehanna.

It gets water from swamps and hillsides to make a barrier

And a place where boys can float on innertubes, 

Cast fishing lines and dive off tall trees on the riverbank. 

My dad used to call this Pennsyltucky, home of the 

Pennsylvania hillbillies, when he grew up in New York State

Where my grandpa, who I never met, used to stride over roots and

Streams when he and my dad went to the Chemung River to go fishing. 

We leave the Susquehanna in Williamsport, which is up on a bluff,

As the highway takes us to the Finger Lakes and my cousin Julie in Rochester.

If my grandpa lived longer I could have followed him to the Chemung.

I’d struggle to put a worm on a hook and put it into the river,

That wide band of water and of dreams from the travelers on its banks.

Knocking Down Qualcomm Stadium

January 4, 2021

Memories of a place depend on a lot of things. They depend on how and whereabouts you lived in that place. They depend on when you got there. And when I got to San Diego we had Qualcomm Stadium. In fact, I lived in Normal Heights and if I walked just a few blocks from my house I could stand on top of the ridge, overlooking Mission Valley, and I could see it just below me.

It was a huge concrete bowl with a green field in the middle, surrounded by an ocean of parking lot. Some say it was the biggest parking lot west of the Mississippi, though I couldn’t vouch for that. Old duffers who knew it by its old name, Jack Murphy Stadium, hated the corporate name. But I’d never known it as anything but Qualcomm. The Q, for short.

Qualcomm demolishing

By January 1, crews had begun demolishing the east end of Qualcomm stadium as they tore up the stadium’s huge parking lot and graded the land.

But now Qualcomm Stadium is being demolished. If you are a San Diegan and you don’t live in a cave, you probably know the story.

The San Diego Padres left when the city agreed to build them Petco Park downtown. Say what you want about the way Petco was built and whose money paid for it, but it’s a better baseball park than Qualcomm.

And what about the San Diego Chargers? They nagged taxpayers for a fancy new football stadium for years… something that would have ultimately cost in the neighborhood of $1 billion. The day came when a stadium referendum finally went on the ballot and San Diego voters (God bless em) said ‘not a chance.’

The Chargers moved to LA, where a revitalized Rams franchise already had plans to play and where the Chargers had literally dozens of fans.

I know. My sarcasm may show a bad attitude. But I was never angry about San Diego’s loss of the Chargers or the money-grubbing NFL they belong to.  What’s happening in Mission Valley–the creation of a satellite campus for San Diego State and a new collegiate-sized football stadium for the SDSU Aztecs– is clearly for the best. But while I don’t mourn the Chargers I do mourn the Q.

I watched Padres games at Qualcomm Stadium. I watched my first and only live NFL football game there with my dad. It was the Chargers versus the Saints… long before Drew Brees had any connection with either team. I saw light shows and fireworks displays at Qualcomm, some of them with Nicholas and Sophie when they were little.

I remember a guy I met asking me if I planned to watch the KGB Light show at the stadium. This was soon after I moved here and I’d never heard of such a thing. It was a time, in fact, when I still thought that KGB was a Soviet spy agency, not a San Diego rock & roll station.

Any structure or anything else that takes up a big part of your brain when you think about a place where you’ve lived, and where you’ve been happy, is something you’ll miss when it’s gone.

In the meantime, I’ll look forward to seeing games in the new college football stadium when it’s built. One problem with the Q is it was too damn big. Even a good-sized college crowd of 30,000 fans seemed small and silent when scattered around an NFL stadium meant for 70,000 people. I’ll also look forward to giving San Diego State some room to grow.

Yes, knocking down Qualcomm Stadium is for the best. All I’m saying is I’ll remember the place, and part of me will miss it when it’s all gone.

Christmas 2020 and Two Trees

January 1, 2021

The night before Christmas Eve I finally wrapped the presents I bought for my family. I was tired because I worked all that week. Like most men I just barely know how to wrap presents and I couldn’t find stuff.

I got the wrapping paper out of the garage. Do we have any of those bows you can stick on the top once it’s wrapped? No but I’ll manage. Where’s the Scotch tape? I had a pair of scissors… Where did I put the fucking scissors!

Fade Xmas tree

My first fake Christmas tree

Most of the time being a divorced man is not like being a single dad. My ex-wife is still in town and still helps with the kids. But she’s not here, and having a partner in the house means sharing tasks, like getting a Christmas tree, buying presents and wrapping presents. Having to do all that stuff yourself really sucks.

This year I bought a fake tree for the first time. I went to Lowe’s about a week before Christmas. I was first told that they had none remaining but was later told that they not only had one left – the gal gestured to a box on the floor – but it was small enough to fit in my living room. It had also been marked down to $70 and if I applied for a Lowe’s credit card I could get it for $20.

My son and I left the store with a $20 tree, which wasn’t the fullest and most lifelike fake tree I’d ever seen. But it came with lights already hung on the branches, and a remote control that would turn the lights white, colored, flashing or undulating from white to colored and with some options I’m sure I forget.

My mom’s Christmas gift to me was another tree.

It was a Tipu tree to replace the 80-year-old Pittosporum I had to remove just west of the house. I chose a Tipu because I planted one about six years ago that grew with such speed and vigor that it was sure to be the kind of tree that would soon replace the shade and beauty I was missing where the old tree used to be.

Ted picked it out at an Escondido nursery where I had earlier bought a Jacaranda, which he cursed because he didn’t pick that one or plant it. He was going to plant this one.

Ted is an arborist who I’ve known since moving to California, and in his 70’s he’s gotten more angry at the world. He arrived with two guys who dug a hole as Ted would hawk and spit and tell me how important it was to not bury the root crown. He told me (again) that this nursery (mentioned above) had to hire crews to replace trees they’d already put in because they planted them too deep or otherwise screwed it up.

Ted loves Tipus. Some people call em Tipuanas. They grow like weeds. They love the spare San Diego soil and bring orange flowers in the spring. The Tipu was finally planted and upright and Ted headed off to another client with my check in hand.

Planting tree

Ted and assistant ready to plant the Tipu

What else did I get for Christmas? Obama’s new book. A gym bag from my daughter that I could put my tennis stuff in and a cool plant – an aloe – from my son to also put in the garden.

It’s New Year’s Eve. The lights on the fake Christmas tree, and the ones we had time to set up outside, will glow tonight for probably the last time. We’re about to start a new year and get back to business. Planting a tree is a good way to start 2021. The fake tree will go back in a box and return, evergreen, when the season reappears.

The Summer of A Crazy Year

September 20, 2020

The sun sets in a cloud of smoke in California. But this picture of a filtered sun in San Diego is mild compared to the bizarre sunsets in the north of the state where wildfire has generated smoke that has has consumed whole cities.

It’s a very human thing to imagine the world’s end. When I was a kid it was nuclear armageddon. Now it’s global warming and that apocalypse is looking more and more familiar as we feel the rising heat and witness its many expressions on earth.

Not just California of course. Fires are burning up and down the west coast. The Seattle Mariners baseball team had to move their home games to San Diego because the smoke made the air quality so bad in Seattle. I got to see a funny thing. Seattle was playing in Petco Park, San Diego’s ballpark, and they were batting last in the inning.

It was technically a home game for the Mariners so, even though they were playing in San Diego, they were batting last, not first. Surely the end of the world is near when the rules of baseball are so messed up.

American adults grew up in a world where it seemed everything would be okay. That is still my hope. Donald Trump, that scourge on our democracy, will lose the election. The coronavirus will be tamed and people will try to create a promising future for my kids and grandkids.

I’ll stop thinking of doom. We’ll look back on this year and we’ll all have a good laugh.