Under The Hood

Mechanics at Charles Street Shops, 1956
Image by Seattle Municipal Archives via Flickr

What fools indeed we mortals are

To lavish care upon a Car,

With ne’er a bit of time to see

About our own machinery!

~John Kendrick Bangs 

It is the most unnerving sound in the world – the wheezing, asphyxiated gasps of a car in the process of having a seizure. “Click, Click, cough, ping, ping,” and a final flatulent, life flicker — “pa-tooo-hee”. 

My engine had died and was now simmering the way an egg still cooks even after the burner has been turned off. Under the auto’s hood, a complex ecosystem of moving belts, pistons and strange, rhombus shaped parts fused together with monstrous Frankenstein bolts, had frozen.  The apparent aneurysm was deep inside its steel cerebellum and not visible to my naked eye. 

I looked for the lever to open the bonnet of my Audi A6.  I had no idea what I was looking for or what I might find. A loose wire? A squirrel ejected from his wheel? A gypsy? Yet, my vehicle was in crisis and I needed to save it.  

I pulled the handle and the gas cap popped open.  Despite the fact that I had 70,000 miles on my car, I was like a child attempting brain surgery.  Relieved to find another lever, I grimaced, yanked the handle and looked away, expecting to be smashed into the seat by an exploding air bag. The Audi’s hood momentarily shuddered.  

My next challenge was probing for the ingenuously camouflaged knob that released the hood.  I needed to survey the Audi’s central nervous system – an abyss of meaningless carbon stained engine parts – but why? 

It is a pathetic fact that each time I open my hood; I am engaged in an act of open denial.  It’s as if I expect to have a sudden mechanical epiphany and will be able to solve this German Rubik’s cube. I naively expect to see a dangling extension cord or loose distributor cap that I can gently replace and be on my way – but not before I slam the hood and swipe my barely soiled hands together to the adulation of passing motorists who honk in homage to my utter self sufficiency. 

To the average male, an automotive breakdown is an opportunity to affirm one’s masculinity and prove that he can be superior to, in this case, a mocking bully named modern automotive technology. The cars of the second millennium – with their mysteriously complicated engines, electronic sensors, valves, and fuel emission alternatives – remain one of the last great places where a man can reaffirm that he is indeed, a man. 

For others, it is a sad confirmation of their feeble domestication. There are those unfortunates – and I am one of them  – who have lost their childhood interest in cars and have become grossly dependent on others.  We are eunuchs in the presence of sleek Italian, fast German and haughty English models. 

Specialists have wondered for years whether a man’s mechanical aptitude is driven by nature or nurture. In a type A society, physical prowess seems to define a male in life’s pecking order and in the 70’s, many fathers viewed mechanical prowess as a leading indicator of how a boy would likely turn out.  If Johnny was not able to get an A in wood shop, pump gas and dip an oil stick by 13, Dad was getting a little concerned. It was like a cowboy not understanding his horse or an athlete not knowing which way the jock strap was supposed to go. Next thing you know he is playing with little Suzy’s barbies.  It was – you know- unnatural.  So, like most guys, you faked it. 

It seemed everybody knew how to fix his car.  A real man could change spark plugs, oil, tires, a wayward fan belt or a blown gasket. The strip malls were filled with auto parts stores owned by guys with names like Vic, Dom and Lou.  These oracles spoke as if they personally knew Henry Ford.  At the Pep Boys, Manny, Moe and Jack could teach you to become an automotive savant, subordinate to no one – not your dealer, your mechanic or your local garage. 

Yet, ironically many of the most proficient motor-heads in my neighborhood were also annually voted most likely to do time in San Quentin.  It seemed that it was a veritable midnight in the garden of good and evil underneath that car’s hood.  Perhaps inhaling gasoline and oil caused you to skip school, smoke a jag in the east parking lot and eventually break into your neighbor’s garage.  Is this where the expression, “hood” came from? 

Yet, “man law” dictated understanding cars.  No dude would admit that he did not grasp the finer points of a 1973 Mustang’s 266hp, 8 cylinders, and 4-valve Cobra engine. You had to give the impression that you had just finished taking one apart and were close to reassembling it once you found a rare spare part at the local junkyard. It was in these conversations about cars and girls, that boys learned the fine art of hyperbole.

When the tow truck arrived for my Audi, a tattooed twenty-something kid with the Wolverine lamb chop sideburns barked at me, “Let me take a look at her.”  He peered under the hood,” Ok, give her a try.” The sound was like metal grinding across a belt sander.  “Ok, ok turn it off.” He yelled wiping off his filthy hands with oil stained cloth pulled from his back pocket. 

“Could be the alternator.” I asked rhetorically. I did not want him to know that I had no idea what an alternator actually did. Perhaps an alternator determined who stood in for whom in a high school play. 

“No, that’s not it. The ignition would click,” he said absently.  By now, I am sweating.  He senses my ignorance.  Add $500 to the bill. 

I plunged through the dark. “What about the head gasket?” Bzzzzz! Another buzzer.  Oh, I am afraid that’s not correct. $300 more to your VISA for stupid answer number two.

As he inventoried the eight million things that could have gone wrong,  I became an obsequious blob.  “Of course” I blurted with an unconvincing eye roll and smirk.  The window was closing for me to reestablish my manliness.  The bill was going to require a second mortgage on my house. 

Later, when my wife asked me the most basic of questions, I became irritated at her interrogation. “No, I did not get other estimates. I am a busy man.” No, he did not tell me the expected cost?” ” Did, I negotiate with him?”” Please, that’s so un-dude-like”.  I mean did you see the guy’s tattoo?  But, she was right. I hate it when she is right. 

I have now come to the realization that spouses should take the car to the garage. My wife is unafraid to ask any question such as “what is the cheapest option?” Or “explain that to me again. I don’t really understand what that means.” Or is “this covered under warranty if I take this to the dealer?” and the bold “ok, thanks. I am going to get another estimate and I will get back to you.” 

You see mechanics want to see guys bringing cars in. Garage owners know a man does not want to violate man law by asking questions, troubling the skillful mechanic about how things work or how much it will cost. I mean, the guy has a tattoo for God’s sake. He probably was an extra in Easy Rider and knows Peter Fonda personally.  He is obviously a cool dude and I want him to think I am a cool guy. If I piss him off he might pull a shank on me.

As the mechanic gathered under my hood, he began speaking in an advanced dialect of “motor-head”, a language I do not speak.  As he discussed the “5 speed tip-tronic transmission”, “slippage” and “cam seal problems”, I nodded as if I had performed all of these repairs in my bathroom just earlier that morning.  He was an oil stained astronomer discussing a nebula in the far off galaxy of my engine block.  I furrowed my eyebrows in feigned interest and nodded. ” Of course.  Yup.  Makes sense.  Uh-huh. Yes…Of course!” 

The car is an extension of the modern male.  I must admit that my role as an automotive consumer leaves a lot lacking. It is not unlike healthcare, where the consumer says, “just fix it.” 

You get out of it, what you put into it.  Perhaps after Washington “fixes” healthcare,  they can focus on the automotive repair industry.  It’s all so intimidating.

I just hope in the meantime, my doctor does not get a tattoo.

AcroNumb

 

It was late on a school night and my den was alive with the frenetic keyboard tapping of what sounded like a court reporter convention.  My daughter was happily instant-messaging her friends.  Curiosity got the better of me as I surreptitiously entered the den and glanced over her shoulder.  She faced a screen jammed with scores of instant messaging boxes – launching and responding into what seemed a huge cyber gaggle of teens.  The screen was awash in acronyms – “BRB, CSL, TTYL, BFF, PO, CD9, TMB and EG.”  Umberto Eco or Dan Brown would have a field day with these cryptic symbols and hieroglyphics.  The IMs kept flying; given my fascination and bad eyesight, I drew closer to the screen – an ancient moth drawn to an adolescent light.  The floorboard creaked as I tiptoed, and my daughter simply typed in three letters: “POS.”  The screen went dead. 

“Hi, Dad, what’s up?” she said, without turning her back.  Being in the managed care industry, I was naively intrigued that she would be discussing Point of Service (POS) medical plans with her friends.  Perhaps she had been listening to my conversations all these years.  Could it be she was espousing the virtues of an open access healthcare plan instead of a closed panel HMO or PPO?  “Oh hey, hon.  How’s it goin’?” I queried nonchalantly as I picked up a paper I did not need and studied it, walking slowly toward the front hallway.  As I passed through the doorway into the foyer, the typing resumed at a chaotic clip.  I later learned that those three letters stood for “Parent Over Shoulder.

I have become intrigued by the IM and text messaging culture, its secret codes and attention to brevity.  As a writer, and recovering verbal incontinent, I am fascinated by this generation’s embrace of acronyms as a social communication tool.  To experiment, I’ve attempted to incorporate this into my daily work and home communications.  My hypothesis?  If I could get everyone to use acronyms and incomplete sentences, perhaps we could save valuable lines of text, computer storage capacity and time.  This “savings” multiplied across a town or a 40,000-person organization could mean millions in productivity gains as well as improved loss control for carpal tunnel syndrome – and even reduced litigation from less decipherable and protracted emails.

 

At work, the beta test backfired.  I was delighted to receive acronym laden messages, but I had no idea what they meant.  I was not deterred.  I decided to develop a series of codes for my fellow baseball coaches in Cal Ripken Baseball:

NKNP – Nice kid, nuisance parents

GANB – Great arm, no bat

DG – Daisy gazer

GPPSK – Great player, possible serial killer

OTCTC – Other team’s coach too competitive

NAPFPP – No arm, (but has) pool for post-season party

GCRC – Good carpool route candidate

The permutations were endless.  My fellow coaches initially thought I was misspelling my emails and text messages, so they spell checked my missives, which made things worse.  One of my spell checked emails was deciphered to misread that we rob the snack shack at 7:15 pm but arrive one hour early to practice (presumably to rehearse the heist). 

I tried and tried to weave these consonants, like strands of random DNA, into new words that might combine into something profound.  Half the time, I would forget what each letter stood for and need the Rosetta Stone to decipher my own cryptogram.  Was my productivity really improving? 

I decided to spelunk deeper into the cavernous world of IM’ing.  With the help of the Web, I assembled a starter lexicon for the naïve and uneducated parent to help others get grounded in the language of those who dwell in the place I now referred to as the Kingdom of Acro-numbs.  For example,  9 or POS meant parent watching, 99: parent no longer watching, 143 stands for I love you, 404: I haven’t a clue, EG is Evil Grin, LMAO – laughing my arse (if you are a pirate) off, MIRL – meet in real life.  This was just a mere sip of the strange, feckless nectar that was fueling the IM and text generation.  

“Dad, don’t get so emo!” my daughter exclaimed the other night.  When I asked exactly what that was, I was informed that “emo” people are highly emotional and sort of clueless.  Yet, after hearing a carpool full of kids talking in slang and acronyms, I was feeling a bit “emo” over the future of the English language.  I worry about the limited probability that anyone from the class of 2011 or beyond has any chance of writing a popular novel or winning a literary prize.  At best, many of these crypto-communicators might win an honorable mention from the CIA for developing a system of linguistics so obtuse that not even Navajo Wind Talkers could crack their code. 

My greatest concern is that these insidious little acronyms are continuing to fall like droplets of acid rain, polluting our spoken and written reservoirs.  We are accepting a less complete language.  I, for one, will fight the trend and continue to paint my literary canvas with long, tedious strokes – replete with mind numbing fifty cent words – while the next generation will slash, poke and dab its verbal artwork with a palate knife fashioned from acronyms.  We shall see whether our increasingly short attention span will yield to this new world of mindless short cuts or whether we will come to our senses, and demand another Faulkner or Buckley to emerge and rescue us from our castrated syntax.  It is my hope that the IM culture is a temporary nadir in American communication. 

A teenaged girl has entered my den as I write.  G2GTOS… (Got To Go, Teen Over Shoulder).

The Sandwich Hour

Medical Equipment in the hospital room
Image by cote via Flickr

Bad news usually stalks you under a cloak of darkness. After midnight, a ringing phone is a collect call from the shadowlands – a realm where the awful things that happen to other people find you.

The cell shrilled as we worked our way through traffic on a bright Sunday afternoon of broken clouds.

” Dad, had a stroke,” my younger brother shared with serious certainty.

” The doctors actually think he suffered two but we don’t know much right now. He’s paralyzed down his left side. He can talk but he’s blind in one eye. It occured in the back side of the brain where the speed of recovery is less certain.”

There was a long pause.

” Mike, you still there ?”

” Yeah, I’m just digesting it. How’s Mom ?”

“She’s doing almost too well. She thinks he will be home in a few days and doesn’t really grasp that everything has changed.”

My dad had been caring for my Mom who has Parkinsons disease for the last seven years. He had turned into a resilient caregiver. Over the years, we had teased him mercilessly on his heavy handed approach to child rearing. Yet, there was never any doubt how much we loved and respected him for making his family his primary priority. We were amazed at how easily he shifted from old school overlord and moody shapeshifter to new age male nurse when Mom got sick.

” She basically ran the house while I was building my career. ” He explained when asked if Mom’s constant care was wearing him down. ” It’s my turn and I love your Mom more than life itself. She has made me a better man and given me you four boys and a life beyond anything I could have imagined.”

When I would visit my parents I would always smile with amusement at their symbiotic routines. I would enter their house to find more prescription drugs than CVS, calendars with various doctor appointments, a hospital bed and durable medical equipment that now occupied the first floor living room — a virtual conveyor belt of medical delivery and 24 hour care.

While caregivers would come at strategic times of day and night to give Dad relief from Mom and my Mom relief from him, they had become a loving Abbott and Costello act.

With the TV blaring at AC/DC concert decibel levels, I would hear them yell at one another.

” I NEED MY MEDS, MILES” Mom would announce above the ear splitting dialogue of another Hallmark channel movie.

A yell from the second floor

” WE DON’T NEED TO CHANGE THE BEDS !”

“I SAID I NEED MY MIRAPAX AND SINOMAT !”

“RUTH ,I AM WEARING MY HAT ”

I once called and Dad was pratteling on about how proud he was of my mother for her resilience in the face of her debilitating disease. “Your Mom, Michael, is a brave woman. I love her so much.”

( A noise in the background of another voice and of course, a loud TV )

” Just a minute” he said with minor irritation. With his hand unevenly over the mouthpiece, I could hear him yell downstairs,” what ? Damn it Ruth, I am trying to talk to Michael. Can you just wait a damn minute?”

He returned to the phone perfumed in love and nostalgia. ” Where was I? Oh yeah, your Mom is just amazing.”

I was apprehensive as I called and heard a weak voice on the other end of 3000 miles. “I’m not afraid to die” he shared, ” I just want to be sure you boys take care of your Mom.”

He was exhausted. His brain was working at triple speed trying to repair the broken synapses and uprooted wires that had connected his muscular and nuerological circuit board. The physical therapy was brutal but necessary to quickly recondition the body to learn to walk – not unlike a toddler who must continue the frustrating trial and error of falling until he had mastered his equilibrium.

I flew out to LA where my younger brother had been busy sorting through a landslide of bills, logistics and a thousand speed dialed questions from my mom.

He looked exhausted and welcomed the cavalry. Another brother had also jumped in and we had soon stitched together a primitive stop gap safety net of care, financial support and hospital visitation.

I was unprepared for my visit. The man who had seemed so indestructible for 48 years of my life was bed ridden and vulnerable. ” This damn left hand has a life of its own.” he said weakly. ” Sure is good to see you, Michael. How’s your Mom?”

I was a wreck. My brain was a rapid screen saver show of faded polaroid vacation shots – the flat topped, ex-lieutenant and his four boys with heads shaved cleaner than recruits. ” Mom’s fine. Looks like you have gone to great lengths to get out of commode duty.”

He managed a smile and patted my hand. I was about to lose it but did not want to break the implied ” Stay Strong ” covenant that had been drilled home since an early age.

We talked for an hour until fatigue overwhelmed him, gently taking him from me as he slumped into a deep sleep.

“Welcome to the sandwich generation.” A voice chipped from behind a half drawn, hospital curtain. A gaunt, 50 something, cowboy of a man peered around the corner with a wry smile. His left side had been crushed in a motorcycle accident but he was now on the better side of weeks of arduous physical therapy.

He smiled sympathetically.
“Name’s Doug,” he held out a crooked talon of a hand that gripped mine like a vice. ” You get the complete short straw. You will be caring for your parents, possibly for those extended family that fall prey to the recession and your own kids who will have to work in the long shadows of a sputtering US economy.”

I thought, “who is this guy, Milton Friedman’s Hell’s Angels brother? ”

” Your Dad’s a great guy. All he talks about is you kids, your kids, his wife, Ruth, and of course, how much he dislikes the Obama Administration and Congress” Well, the stroke clearly has not effected his mind.” I mused.

I wondered if the extra burden of caring for Mom had been a factor in his stroke. In recent months, he seemed tired when I would see him but would quickly animate when the subject of politics or business arose.

But each time, he looked like he was losing steam and in some ways, lost to me – beginning some final journey that for the first time in years I could not join him on.

” Dad, where are you going.”

” A business trip, buddy. I will be back home tomorrow night to play baseball with you and your brothers.”

” Can I come?”

” Maybe when you are older pal,” I would watch as the car backed out of the driveway to take him to some exotic location like San Francisco or New York.

.Days later my visits became routine and I witnessed my father’s painful swim back to the surface of the whitewater that had broken his body – but certainly not his sense of humor.”

” I call this useless left hand, ‘ Harry Reid ” and my disobedient, frustrating left leg, ‘Nancy Pelosi’. He grinned. The nurses and physical therapists swirled around him having obviously been charmed by his graciousness and complete willingness to cooperate so he might be released to go home to my mother.

My brothers and I were now wrestling with their fixed income that had not anticipated 24 hour care for two people and a financial meltdown which redendered his fixed income instruments incapable of keeping pace with his expenses. For the first time in retirement, he would be eating into principal. For a depression baby, this was tantamount to deficit spending and leveraging your tomorrow.

Truth be told, he was fine but the anxiety over this next highly complicated stage of their life was weighing on them. Suddenly, father became son and son became father in a bizarre transformation that neither of us enjoyed. We discussed all the salient issues and tough possibilities. In the end. We agreed on a course of action.

Meanwhile, my Mom had mobilized wanting to take a greater role in decisions but missing details that would render her interventions more a distraction than a help. However, without my Dad’s equilibrium, the household was void of control and she was determined after seven years to fill the gap.

Again, we donned one another’s clothing and carried on a difficult discussion about our division of labor and the need for her to let us ” take over”. For someone who bailed boys out of every conceivable miscue and misstep, she still saw us as lacking a critical ingredient of pragmatism that only she possessed. It was some time before we forged an uneasy detente over next steps.

” How are Harry and Nancy today day, Dad?” I chirped as I entered his room the final morning before I was to leave LA

. He was unusually relaxed having gotten an initial conditional release to return home in few weeks. Some motor skills were returning. He would probably never drive his car again.

>”What do you expect from a couple of confused lefties – out of touch with the main body? It’s just one big give away show!”

I smiled and leaned over – hugging him longer than normal and feeling his release twice but choosing to prolong our embrace and not let go. ” I love you.”

” I love you too. I am proud of you and your brothers. Now if those damn Bears can only do something with Jay Cutler at QB, I will die a happy man.”

” I think you should tie your recovery to something more stable than a Chicago sports team.”

” Like what ? ” He laughed. ” The country is going to hell. Obama is running the biggest give away show since LBJ and America will keep reelecting fools like Reid and Pelosi to Congress instead of waking up and realizing they are leveraging our future.”

I left his hospital room and glanced back as he picked up the Wall Street Journal and scoffed at some headline. He was going to be fine and clearly was not going gently into that good night.

For one of the sandwich generation, I began my long journey down a new and unfamiliar road. There is no room for self pity or self centered thinking. It won’t be easy if oracle Doug proves correct – this triple decker sandwich of responsibility. But hey, if Dad can teach Harry Reid to hold a cup and Nancy Pelosi to dance, I can certainly carry my load…

The Summer of Staycation

By and large, mothers and housewives are the only workers who do not have regular time off. They are the great vacation less class. ~Anne Morrow Lindbergh

2009 has been coined the summer of the “stay-cation” – a socio-economic shift wherein families remove the pearls of multiple vacation destinations and string a more frugal necklace of “econo-tivities” and close to home travel. In these uncertain times, many will reacquaint themselves with the simpler things in life – a club that one has joined but never has actually visited, a body of water that rests patiently within miles of their home or perhaps a return to a childhood vacation community where one expended the last gasps of a memorable adolescent summer.

In lieu of ladling additional debt on top of a chiiped beef breakfast of broken balance sheets, fractured assets and wobbly economic prospects, many families are rediscovering the joy of road-side motels, derelict cabins and beach houses with porches packed with a generation of sunburned sardines in sleeping bags. The stay-cation is a blessing for a society of spend now, worry-later Americans. Summers have evolved into chaotic ballets of vacation trips, sleep away camps, and travel sports only interrupted by the occasional few days home where we shake our heads at the carefully planted vegetable garden now rotting from neglect.

We patronize these less elaborate holiday trips as a sort of temporary inconvenience to be endured during hard times. The American dream includes improving on every aspect of the generation that preceded it. Yet, I wonder if the high voltage, sugar rush uber holiday has ultimately less long term spiritual nutritional value than the simple staycation. The truth is the staycation is an echo of a simpler time when families scrimped, saved and ultimately crowned, what mother’s considered an interminable three month heat wave of thankless servitude with one grand, end of August two week hiatus to a body of fresh or salt water.

It was in the long shadows of these bronzed final days of freedom, that many of us found a first kiss, a first vice or heard our first adolescent urban legend. It was sitting next to an outdoor firepit with toes buried deep in cool sand that we discovered our parents were once children and that our sibling was actually,  kind of funny. Like desert reptiles, sun engulfed us – burning, peeling and freckling our skin while emmersing us in a fortnight of sand granules that relentlessly found their way into every inconvenient orifice via one’s bed, ears, food and undershorts.

Those who grew up in the 60’s and 70’s know that summer is a narrow window to form even the tiniest callous on the hands of a soft suburban adolescent. Its ingredients included a seven hour family road trip in an overstuffed station wagon that looked like it was the get-away car from a convenience store robbery. It meant being wedged between packing cartons filled with an assortment of cardiovascular disease agents – white bread, Jif peanut butter, eggs, bacon, margarine, and Crisco vegetable shortening ( lard) to fry chicken. These vehicles were not travelling entertainment systems but lairs of carsickness, internecine warfare and misery. In these pits of dispair, one could just as easily get hit by the driver or a passenger seated next to you, as you could be slammed by another car.

The drive to reach your August destination was mere mood music for the main event – a broken down beach house with one toilet, an outside shower and futon beds for anyone under the age of 18. The vacation supplies included canvas blow up rafts that within the week would literally sandpaper the nipples right off your body. There were stiff fins meant for WWII Navy seals that would give you blisters across the tops of your toes after three strokes. There was a cooler – a monstrosity of a device weighing more than any family member except your father. Each year, it would be filled with ice and miraculously lugged two miles down to the beach like those large stone faced edifices on Easter Island. No one truly remembers how all the equipment was transported to the beach as the entire  walk was a sort of Bataan Death march where only under hypnosis could one possibly reconstruct the actual events.

The beach abode that looked so charming in the Polaroids turned out to be the unholy offspring of a Richard Scarry bunny house and Fawlty Towers. You would innocently open a door and be met by screams and curse words from an octagenarian who had been left behind by the family that occupied the hose before you.  The dresser drawers of ancient flea market furniture, were lined with curled floral paper that clung to the wood only at the location of a dark undiscernable stain. The tap water tasted as if it had been distilled through an old sock. Rarely was laundry placed neatly in a drawer. It was recklessly and delightfully thrown into a corner where it grew and growled over the course of a two week stay until it would be domesticated in a large canvas bag. Laundry Day was the equivalent to the Allstar break in baseball, a sort of hygenic timeout and initial light at the end of the tunnel for my mother. On this day, we would haul dirty clothes to a local laundromat where we would spend an exhilarating morning washing, drying, and folding while spying on damaged bachelors, aging debuttantes and lonely hearts as they showcased their unfulfilled lives and their undergarments on adjacent tables.

These 70’s trips were vacation for everyone except mothers. Moms were still trapped in that seam between female liberation and indentured servitude. There were rumors of vacations at hotels with maid service and spacious condominiums where children were sequestered in separate rooms like typhoid patients. However, most figured these were just exaggerations started by other female prisoners of domesticity to keep up morale. It would take my mother weeks to recover from these trips. Whether it was the toilet that had not been flushed since the Eisenhower administration, an indelible marker slash that looked as if it had been left by Zorro or the blood trail across the living room floor, this was not going to be the year that we would honor any of her house rules or get our security deposit refunded.

Yet, it was on these summer journeys that we learned how to crew our family ship. We awoke to days of bright, blinding blue skies and the anxious riffle of curtains as they would gust in the breezes of a new morning. We fell asleep to a sensation of constant motion having spent an entire day in the water – our dreams bracketed by the relentless pounding of midnight waves rising and falling below a gently sloped dune. We did not see these trips as a step down from anything. The vacations primary purpose was not to entertain us – – but to keep us together as a unit, expanding our understanding of one another – exchanging insights and mythology that only surfaced from that strange sodium pentathol brew of salt water, fresh air, adventure and fatigue.

It was not quite a complete summer trip unless we rediscovered the utter chaos of an Emergency Room trying to negotiate with a hospital administrator whom my father suggested had “the world’s smallest brain”, My mother quickly understood they also possessed a black belt in the nuances of the word “no”.

“Will my son’s broken wrist be covered by my policy?”

“No ma’am. We need your credit card”.

“Do you accept insurance?”

“No ma’am”

“Well then can you at least talk to someone from my husband’s human resources department about how his insurance pays direct reimbursement?”.

“Maam, I am not authorized to accept insurance. Our insurance person is at lunch. I have been told not to talk to other people.”

“I’m a person.”

“You are a payer.”

“What’s the difference?”

“Maam, I can only answer questions about this hospital’s policy as it relates to the costs of your son’s broken wrist.”

“What if I plunge this pencil into your eye socket? Do you think you can see me better – you know, as a person? “

While to some coddled kiddies and cocooned communities, this primitive form of holiday is a sign of the impending apocalypse, for a generation who grew up without seat belts, stuck in a purgatory of long, air conditionless station wagon road trips, it’s a return to the halcyon days of youth. It remains to be seen whether the staycation is merely a solid patch on an otherwise slippery, material slope or whether it is the first sign of spring in society’s discontented winter search for liberation from its never ending need for affluent diversion.

In the end, perhaps it is a second chance to discover that less is more – – and that the best things in life still remain free.

Except, of course, a broken wrist.

A Guide To The Golden State

California State Route 1 shield
Image via Wikipedia

A Guide To The Golden State

Each August, we pack two shirts, shorts, swimsuits, flip-flops and a few pair of underwear and return like swallows to California to see family, dive into the emerald Pacific and run down our self esteem comparing ourselves to legions of cosmetically altered people who resemble clothing store mannequins.

As native Californians, we often hear friends planning a trip out West. It’s always good to get an insiders perspective. To help you maximize your trip and avoid unnecessary embarrassment, I offer a primer on the Golden State – it’s psychology, its citizenry and its odd etiquette.

First, a lesson in geography. California is a fractured amalgam, comprised of semi- autonomous regions similar to Spain — the country from which we initially stole California.  Its massive GDP makes the state the 9th largest economy in world with a current debt rating just above the Ukraine and Romania.  The regions are defined by geography and a maximum allowed number of Whole Foods stores.  These Baltic bastions include: Southern Cal, Central Cal, Northern Cal and all points north of Napa Valley.

Southern Cal extends from the Mexican border crossings east to Palm Desert and north to Malibu. Orange Counts and San Diegans take exception to this unilateral annexation of their regions but other than beaches, Marines, Fashion Island and a few amusement parks, Orange County and San Diego serve as Southern Cal’s pimped out basement.

LA is an area, not a place. NYC is a place but in La-La Land there is no center. Do not go to downtown LA.  There is nothing there but street urchins, Staples Center and New York restaurants. If you are going to stay in LA, stay in Westwood, Santa Monica or Manhattan Beach.  Beverly Hills is expensive and overrated.  Do not go to the San Fernando Valley – again, nothing there.

Do not go to Malibu thinking you will bump into Matthew McConnahey frolicking with his perfect body in the surf. His beach is private and the size of a postage stamp.  If you must go to Malibu, have dinner at the Saddle Peak Lodge in Malibu Canyon. It is a 1930’s hunting lodge set back in the Santa Monica Mountains. Order the bear or buffalo. Be sure to make your reservation between the annual fire and mudslide seasons.

If you must go to Venice Beach to see the orange, veiny psychotic people who roller skate while juggling chain saws, take one hour, leave the car running and then head south to Newport Beach to walk, lie out and body surf. Go to Balboa Island and the Fun Zone. Order Mexican food – this is where nachos were invented. Attend the Sawdust festival in Laguna Beach and see the Pageant of the Masters .

When you finally visit Southern California beaches, understand there is an implicit beach towel ” no fly zone” equal in length to the heighth of the largest adult in your party.  I am not sure what it is about the Coney Island syndrome where people must connect their towels in some grotesque quilt of humanity.  People from the East Coast and other countries seem to have no problem with family style sunbathing – choosing to lay their blankets within centimeters of another group of strangers.

In addition to enduring your major violation of sunbathing personal space, the offended party gets an unsolicited stereo concert of your family dysfunction as you scold your kids, talk about your sister-in-law and comment ad nauseum about the perfect weather.  This is in addition to witnessing your alabaster folds of manatee skin as you use an entire bottle of SPF 45 on your back.

Central California begins 50 miles north and inland once you descend the desolate stretch of I-5 known as the Grape Vine. The name is a misnomer as there are no grapes here, let alone flora of any kind.  It is appears that 1-5 may have been a US Army testing ground for the defoliant, Agent Orange.  In the spring these same barren hillsides of chaparral are a rolling ocean of tangerine poppies.  Think of The Wizard of Oz and the creepy wicked witch voice,” poppies, poppies..”

Inland Central California, aka the San Joaquin Valley, is the hub for earthquakes, mortgage defaults, agriculture and long, vacant stretches of interstate as uninspired and vacuous as Paris Hilton. The Central California coast between Malibu, up to Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo and ultimately Big Sur, denies even knowing its inland sibling.  It is embarrassed to admit any affiliation and stands a bit like Barcelona and the Catalans – bold and independent. In 1968, Central Coasters attempted to create their own language but the Santa Barbarians could not unlock their jaws to enunciate the pronoun “dude” and the fleeting dialect died.

Northern Cal really begins at Carmel although geographically, San Francisco marks the center of the state.  Everything about Northern California is unique. It is home to academics, inventors, militant activists, people of every sexual orientation and Nancy Pelosi. Anything one could ever desire is within a two hour drive of San Francisco – which is quite a contrast to LA where a two hour drive gets you about five miles from Westwood to Marina Del Rey on the 405 freeway.

In a 200 miles radius, one can visit Yosemite, Lake Tahoe, Pebble Beach, Muir Woods, Sequoia National Park, and Napa as well as the Gold Country and Sutter’s Mill where in 1849, the face of America changed forever with the flash of a nugget in the rippling shallows of the American River. Northern Californians do not like Southern Californians.  So Cal steals their water through a mischievous artery called the California aqueduct.  And then just to spite them, Los Angelinos flush their toilets incessantly and keep the water on while brushing their whitened teeth. Angelinos are also arsonists, ritualistically starting brush fires each October because their homes have negative equity and they want to collect insurance.

San Francisco is ground zero for militant liberalism.  It is the most inclusive city west of Amsterdam and prides itself on sniffing out discrimination wherever its insidious tendrils may be taking root.  Legislation has actually been passed to protect the ugly (who is actually going to claim being hit with the ugly stick?), the overweight and the excessively sweaty.

The City is the home of brotherly love – literally, and it is a sight to behold when the gay pride parade courses through the Castro district.  Men dressed as high school flag girls work complex routines more adroitly than any of the girls that went to my high school. In this wonderfully nutty Eden, or Gomorrah, depending on your religious views, you can call a girl a “dude” and a guy a “chick”. It is a melting pot of ideas, cultures, mores and yes, Nancy Pelosi.

If you cross the Golden Gate, you enter magnificent Marin County home of the pony tailed, Birkenstocked aging hipsters who spike their own trees and grow their own produce.  They are Dead Heads, iconoclasts and counter-culturalists. To visit Marin and hike in the shade of twisted native oaks on Mt Tamalpais is to know serenity. If someone offers to sell you marijuana, do not accept the invitation. He/ she is most likely an undercover cop.  True Marin County residents grow their own “herbs” and give it away like tomatoes and zucchini to neighbors.

Once beyond Marin and through Napa – it gets a bit, how should we say, rustic?

You still have several hours along 1-5 to get to the Oregon border.  This is the true Northern California but most do not acknowledge it as anything other than the home of Sasquatch (Bigfoot), meth labs, pot farms and Mt Shasta.

A few simple tips when visiting the Golden State:

1) Never, ever say ” Callie” when describing the state of California.  “Callie” is the name of a 14-year=old golden retriever with bad hips. She is a horse one step from the glue factory that your children ride at a Bronx petting zoo.  To castrate the Golden state’s name is to defile it and show your provincialism with the excruciating effect of nails across a blackboard. Yes, it is a stupid and parochial reaction to an innocent abbreviation but hey, we cannot help it.

2) Do not, I repeat, ever refer to the City of San Francisco as “Frisco”.  Frisco is the guy Jack Wagner played on the soap opera “General Hospital”. Frisco is the name of a down and out character trying to change his luck on “Fantasy Island.” (The plane! the plane!)To a Northern Californian, when you reference San Francisco – you acknowledge it simply as ” The City”. I know most of you believe there is really only one “City” and it is called The Big Apple. However, there are two – and the other is a jewel by the bay.

To a Southern Californian, you are free to refer to San Francisco as the Bay Area or “that screwed up place where all the liberal nut jobs live and accuse us of stealing water.”

3) Do not get your colon cleansed, your tongue pierced or model for someone who promises to introduce you to Sting if you show a tad more skin. If driving and someone flips you off, just smile and wave.  They have a gun and have probably killed three people that same day.

In the end, do not feel out of place.  Everyone is from somewhere other than California. The difference is they are trying to be someone else. You, on the other hand, don’t care that you are wearing black socks, sneakers, and shorts and possess skin whiter than a harp seal.

Have fun and if you see Sting — give him my regards.

Oh Tannenbomb

A Christmas tree inside a home.
Image via Wikipedia

Oh Tannenbomb

Before the ice is in the pools
Before the skaters go,
Or any cheek at nightfall
Is tarnished by the snow —

Before the fields have finished,
Before the Christmas tree,
Wonder upon wonder
Will arrive to me!

— Emily Dickinson

The holiday season is a time of grand irony. It is a wassail of potent ingredients — cinnamon tradition, candy-stripe anticipation, clove-scented memories, orange-peel nostalgia and egg-yolk dysfunction. The mélange simmers over the course of December, building into a highly combustible brew. Add in a few relatives, alcohol and close quarters and you are in for a Christmas full of secular surprises.

Our Titanic holiday season was officially christened with the thump of an ancient train set that would be heaved onto our playroom floor after being wrested from the spiders and dust mites that reigned supreme in our basement. It was followed by a six-foot plastic Santa, illuminated with a powerful 200-watt bulb, placed precipitously on the seldom-used balcony outside my parents’ upstairs window. To those passing by in motor vehicles at night, it appeared we were being overrun by extraterrestrials. “Good God, Norma, there’s an alien climbing in the window of that house!”

Christmas lights followed, faithfully tracing the eaves of our red-tiled Mediterranean home. Each light was nailed with a sharp swear word as my father blasphemed his way through the decoration process. The gods despised his profane embrace of the Christmas season and would torment him with strands of colorful light bulbs that would never fully illuminate. As a conservative, he considered these electrical outages a challenge to his American ingenuity and resolve. These lights were like small banana republics: If one light fell into communistic darkness, a domino effect of failures would surely follow, resulting in an entire house, perhaps even a neighborhood, yielding to yuletide ignominy. A house with broken bulbs said much about a man and his inability to provide for his family. His battles with extension cords, burned-out fuses and blacked-out gaps of lights were the stuff of legends and were always punctuated by unholy utterances.

“The man that lives in daddy’s mouth is saying bad words again,” reported my younger brother to my mother. He adored my father too much to accept the fact that dad had probably once won a gold medal at a sailor-cursing convention. When the defective bulbs were finally bested, the colored lights had no logical sequence and ran on in analog confusion — two reds, a blue, two greens followed by a white, and then two more reds. Across the Mason-Dixon financial dividing line known as Huntington Drive, St Albin’s Road homeowners would skillfully string alternating red and green lights across roofs and around each dormer window. Their 100 foot pine trees were brilliantly lit with a palette of perfectly numbered lights that flickered like a thousand roman candles, while our roofline and single hibiscus plant looked as if we were the home office for the Center for the Color Blind.

The advent calendar soon arrived as an important calculator as we counted down to Christmas Eve. This magical talisman with its fragile pre-cut “doors” elicited irresistible curiosity from each child, especially after my older brother told me that the Catholics used these calendars to pass messages to one another. It could very well contain the secrets of Fatima. By Dec. 3, every window had been vandalized by children willing to risk eternal damnation for the opportunity to decipher the odd illustrations that presumably had been sanctioned by the Vatican. Not far behind would be the old Gumps department store box filled with chipped and scuffed Nativity figurines. We would watch while my mother would faithfully arrange them, humming the theme song from the Harry Simeone album, The Little Drummer Boy. Within hours, the nativity was reconfigured into a highly inappropriate scene where all participants and its choreographer were surely going to hell. About this same time, Baby Jesus would disappear and miraculously appear days later in the dog’s mouth as he lay on the floor chewing what my mother had thought was a bone. It was now time to start lobbying for our Christmas tree.

My mother was the daughter of a German immigrant and was orthodox about the mechanics of purchasing of our tree. Der Weihnachtsbaum could be procured no earlier than two weeks before the Christmas Day. The tree must be at least 7 feet tall, a blue spruce pine and must be purchased at the local tree lot run by the YMCA. My mother was very loyal to the Y for keeping her boys occupied and out of jail. My father dreaded the entire process of acquiring the tree. To visit the Y lot in the fading glow of sparkling lights, with its army of clueless volunteers who could not be fired because they were in fact, volunteers, was the equivalent of being forced to attend a village idiots convention. He never referenced the tree lot by name, but instead chose to refer to it simply as “Clod City.”

The men rubbed their chins and walked around our car. There must have been six of them. “How you want to put this on the wagon?” asked an overweight, ruddy-faced fellow holding a hand axe. “I got an idea,” shouted a tall, dour mortician of a man, “let’s swing it across the back and push it forward.” My father would be apoplectic with contempt at this point, imagining the deep scratches in his Fleetwood station wagon’s roof. Invariably, he could tolerate the confederacy of dunces no longer and would order us to help him hoist the evergreen up and over the luggage rack rails that lined the roof of the car. The men, already sensing my father’s distain for their logistical retardation, melted away mumbling something to the effect, “it’s all yours, *&%^$!” Christmas seemed to be a time where everyone swore. A half hour later, our car would ease into our driveway, after an excruciating snail’s pace 5-mph drive across town. Our spiritual education was not yet complete.

The tree would be trimmed, adorned with lights, festooned with ancient ornaments and carefully positioned in the far corner of our living room where the dog would be least likely to urinate on it. Our tree stand had been handed down, presumably from Italians, which caused our tree to lean like the famous campanile of Pisa. The perpetual tilt of our holiday sapling was an emotional hemorrhoid to my father, leading him to constantly manipulate its position with primitive joists of newspaper and magazines. This, in turn, would guarantee its continued instability until the inevitable day arrived, when a door would slam, a person might raise their voice or the wind would blow outside, and the tree, on cue, would crash to the ground with a shatter of ornament and light bulb glass. The “Crashing of the Christmas Tree” was a rich tradition in our stucco cocoon of abnormality and as with all family dysfunction, seemed quite normal. Years later, I would become restless and irritable as Christmas approached, not understanding that the ritual of going to Clod City to curse our way through the purchase of the perpetually falling evergreen was as important to me as the presents, ceremony and gilded glitter. It was, after all, a familiar and reassuring routine.

Years later, I visited my parents at Christmas time. They had long since retired and were living blissfully in a seaside empty nest. I noticed their tree, fashioned out of wrought iron, presumably designed by some famous sculptor catering to those who are still recovering from post-traumatic tree disorder. “Nice tree, Dad. I’m surprised Mom let you get out of going to Clod City.” He thought for a moment and then flashed a mischievous smile. “Those guys were the stupidest human beings on the planet. Why, I remember….” I looked at my mother, who was laughing, and smiled, “Merry Christmas, Mom.”