The tour guide gave us an action item of sorts as we traveled back to Skagway after visiting the toe of the Davidson Glacier. “Get out into the wilderness more often, even if it is your backyard,” she explained that our backyard is a wilderness because it is “wilder” than the indoors. I guess she is correct; although, I have been in backyards of some condominiums that have been nothing but concrete and fences. Personally, I have always been a concrete kind of guy, perhaps that is why I always liked the idea of condos. Even growing up around dirt bikes, dune buggies, campers, boats, and fishing, I have always been the kid that wanted to stay home.
The excursions I took while on my Alaskan cruise didn’t seem too tough; I was well cared for by tour guides, and I returned to a nice comfy cruise liner at each day’s end. Besides, this was during the relatively warm months in the great Northwest. I wasn’t walking on a glacier in the freezing blackness of the Alaskan winter. With that said, here’s a very brief travel log of my vacation complete with images. I won’t bore you with the onboard details. Not to say that the time onboard was boring, it’s just that, unless something like a murder or a diamond heist occurred while at sea, I don’t see much point in telling you how well I was fed and how much reading I did with a breathtaking view of Alaskan/Canadian coast just over my shoulder.
June 28, Juneau: The Icefield While in Juneau, I hiked on the famous ice field. The Juneau Icefield covers nearly 2,500 miles and includes over 20 glaciers. I was so in awe of the spectacle while flying in a helicopter over portions of icefield that I forgot to ask the pilot which specific glacier we would be hiking on; however, referring to the icefield map afterwards, it appeared as though our group hiked on the Mendenhall Glacier. After donning gloves and helmets to our already fitted boots, pants, and jackets, the tour guides helped fasten crampons and harnesses and gave us each an ice ax and a backpack. For three hours, we trekked along the icefield viewing stunning blue ice where the snow had accumulated and had compacted the underlying snow layers from previous years into solid ice, causing changes in volume, density, and crystal structure. The ice appears blue because it absorbs all colors of the visible light spectrum, except blue, which it transmits.
Perhaps the most magnificent component of the glacier was the icefalls, created when the glacier would move downhill on a steep slope. These icefalls are literally hanging glaciers, falling slowly over time by the force of gravity. As the glacier advances down the mountainside and into valley, it breaks apart and accumulates into massive piles of melting and solid ice with huge gaps separating ice blocks the size of houses. The ice blocks then continue to tilt and twist under the weight of the ice above them. Occasionally, we would have to jump over a crack in the glacier only about 18 inches wide, but over 100 feet deep. We could hear a waterfall deep under the surface. When we reached the point where the water dropped off into the narrow gorge, we dumped our bottled water and filled our bottles with the real thing—glacier water. It tasted far better than anything I have ever drank.
We would occasionally walk on what looked like water, where organic material, such as leaves blown in from the nearest mountainside, had landed, and their energy would melt the ice only to have it freeze over, creating a bright clear-blue frozen pond. We all led with our ice axes testing the ice to ensure it was not water; it was that clear. When we crossed the clear-blue ice pond, I could see the base camp tents and knew our excursion was about over. I would be lying if I said that the rest of the cruise and the excursions were anticlimactic, but without a doubt, the best part of the vacation was at an end.
June 30, Skagway: The Davidson GlacierIn Skagway, we took a ride on a 3200 horsepower catamaran to a secluded area near the toe of the Davidson Glacier called Glacier Point. On the beach where the catamaran dropped us off, the mosquitoes were so thick a person could hit at least two with a single swat. We hiked through a rain forest where the guides assured us that, while this was Grizzly country, the trees were too close together for bears to hunt. Still, I regarded the narrow trees to see if I could climb any of them if one of the behemoths was too hungry to care about the tight fit forest or happened to discover our eight-foot-wide trail.
In the center of the forest, we found our guides’ Spartan living quarters. Before using the outhouse, the guide implored us to put our used toilet paper in a box adjacent to, but not directly in, the waste pit. The guides said they dig out the pit every two weeks and add the fortnight’s produce to a nearby compost pile; if there is any toilet paper in the pile, they have to remove it by hand. On the outhouse deck were a half-dozen bottles of mosquito repellent. After dousing ourselves with the spray, we took a short hike to canoes where we paddled to the glacier. One thing that fascinated me about the guides was that the mosquitoes were not attacking them. Additionally, they did their presentations without a single swat at the bugs—as if the bloodsuckers flying around their head were not there.
The glacier would have seemed awesome had I not be hiking on the Juneau Icefield a couple days previous. Still, when the guide explained why we couldn’t get any closer than about 100 feet from the ice, I was impressed. He told us that if the glacier corked (i.e., if the bottom of the glacier, underwater, broke off and shot to the surface), the displacement of water would be so great that we might be knocked over or hit by the giant wave. This explained the outboard motors on all the canoes. We did see a part of the glacier calve. Actually, everyone in the canoe, except me, saw the giant piece of ice break loose from the glacier and splash into the fjord; all I heard was the violent CRACK and when I turned around, I only saw the big splash and heard everyone saying, “Wow, did you see that!” It’s ironic that years ago I began what ultimately turned out to be a ten-year harping to my wife about going on an Alaskan cruise on the prospect of seeing a glacier calve. I missed my only chance.
July 2, Prince Rupert, B.C.: Whale WatchingI saw a Humpback Whale in the waters off Prince Rupert, British Columbia. It is amazing to get so close to one. Now I know why all the people fresh from Alaskan cruises either talk about their experience seeing one up close or whine about not seeing any at all; it’s a stirring experience. Since we missed the season when most Humpbacks are in the area, the guide played down the whale-watching portion of the trip and talked about the seals we were heading out to visit. When the Humpback surfaced, we chased it for a while until its tail fin appeared, signifying it was going down for a long dive. We caught up with it sometime later; however, it did a long dive again, and we headed back to the dock.
Before we took our Zodiac craft out to try to track down these gentle giants of the sea, our guide drove us only a few yards from where the craft was moored to point out Bald Eagles in flocks as thick as seagulls. The majestic birds have grown lazy, roosting near a dock. They now wait for the fishing boats to come back to scrounge for food. This was not the habitat I imagined the iconic American bird to have. Perhaps they are just lazy in Canada.
The sad thing about the excursion was that it was, minus a trip to an old cannery later that day, the last one on the trip. The next two days we were at sea, much of that time was spent eating, reading, and packing. Even in fifty-degree weather, I was beginning to feel the heat of Sacramento.
Home: Smoke and Heat
Four days later, back at work, I just stared at my LCD’s wallpaper, an image of the giant Mendenhall Glacier, fondling a small wooden box I bought in Skagway, supposedly made by natives; it’s the only thing I can touch that came from the place. I feel a little like Peter Riegert’s character in Local Hero—an outsider who falls in love with a foreign land and its rugged beauty but has to return to his lonely office.
I’m now at home playing fetch with our dog in triple-digit weather. I’m in my backyard—the “wilder-ness” and am amazed that I can’t see clearly from one side of my yard to the other; the heat and the smoke from all the Northern California fires have made me long for Alaska. Even the ruggedness of Glacier Point would be a welcome substitute—at least you can swat mosquitoes, you can’t swat smoke.
I normally react to restroom stall literature with disgust, but this got me thinking; first, on how shallow this comment initially sounds—comparing WWII and the Cold War that immediately followed with the Iraq War and the terrorism that will inevitably increase whether or not the U.S. “prevails.” Regardless who will be next president and the presidents that follow him, the next twenty years are going to be rough. Enjoy that latte!
I don’t recall whether I received an allowance from my parents when I was a kid. I do remember working for my father at his shop on certain Saturdays and during the summer. For a short while, when there wasn’t much work at the shop, I found another means of making an income, selling Shaklee products door to door through my friend Mark’s father, Mr. Romano. Shaklee, for those who don’t know, makes cleaners, hair and skin care, and other household and personal hygiene products. Mr. Romano tried to get me, a junior, gum-popping sales representative, to be friendly and to “sell myself” to help sell the products. I didn’t understand the concept of selling oneself until I was an adult, and by that time, it was far too late.
Door-to-door sales were the early predecessor of direct marketing and Internet sales. It was effective in its time, when people interacted more. Door-to-door sales are almost nonexistent now—in an age when both husband and wife are out in the workforce and have little patience for dealing with cold callers like telemarketers. These days, most people look at anyone they spy through the door peep hole, besides friends or expected visitors, as a nuisance. I personally dread even the prospect of a youngster selling magazines, trying to save his school, or an adult from the Sierra Club, trying to save his environment; I am now on the other side of the door.
I would knock on doors and push the Shaklee catalogs at the homemakers. I wasn’t much of a salesman, but at twelve or thirteen, I really didn’t have to be. When I made a sale, it was because the women thought I was a cute kid and they didn’t want me to leave their porch empty handed, and, of course, there were the friends of my parents—that was usually a slam-dunk even if they were small sales. There were, however, the homeowners who would tell me never to bother them again.
The big challenge for me was getting over the fear of knocking on a stranger’s door. Long before I sold Shaklee, I was like any other kid: trusting, curious, perfect bait for a pervert. (Stone Phillips could have used me to catch child molesters and pump up his show’s ratings and his image as a Champion of the People and Enemy of the Sexual Predators in Your Neighborhood.) All of that changed when I started playing with my friend Dave McKensie. Dave was a nice kid, but his dad was a different story. Quiet, private, and much older than the rest of my friends’ dads, Mr. McKensie had a horrible temper if you caught him at the wrong time.
When I knocked on the door one summer evening to see if Dave could come out and play, Mr. McKensie swung open the door, pointed his bony finger at me, and yelled that I should never bother his family while they were eating supper. Besides scaring the crap out of me, his demand begged the question: how would I know when the McKensies were having dinner? Did I miss the big neon sign stating, “Dinner time for the McKensies—do not disturb!”? My family had dinner around 7:00 p.m.; shortly after my father got home, but there were countless times when we ate earlier and without him.
Moreover, what’s the big deal about knocking on the door during dinner, I wondered. Our next-door neighbor, my brother’s best friend, came over all the time when we were eating, big deal! I only knocked on the McKensie’s door around their dinner time one other time in the eight or so years I knew Dave and that was when I forgot it was somewhere in the general time of dinner. Mr. McKensie, clad in a wife beater, said in a low, agitated tone, “Yes?” I knew I blew it and immediately apologized, backing away from the door to give him room for his bony finger. He quickly came back as if he didn’t hear my apology, “Well, what is it?” “Ah, nothing, Mr. McKensie,” I said nervously. “Is that it, is that your message to David—‘nothing’?” his voice building up anger and sarcasm. Just then Dave walked up to the door as his father shouted my message directly into his face, “David, NOTHING!” When Dave cleared the door Mr. McKensie slammed it shut, as if it was Dave’s fault, poor Dave.
I never had a front porch experience like the two at the McKensie house when I was selling Shaklee, and while my sales area included Dave’s house, I gave the angry guy’s house a wide berth. Still, staring at a door just before knocking always made me feel uneasy—would I be interrupting another crazy Irishman’s meal?
While these two experiences with Mr. McKensie finally trained me never to knock on his front door during the early evening. I had one other experience with Mr. McKensie at his door, unrelated to selling Shaklee or interrupting dinner, but I feel I must relate how scary this guy was to children, how he seemed to have no warmth toward any other child, except, maybe, his own.
Dave told me at school one day that his parents were going out and he would have the house all to himself—an obvious invitation to come over and have some unsupervised fun. That evening, when it got dark, I walked over to Dave’s house, hit the doorbell about six or seven times, and then ran around the side of the house. As I ran to take cover, Mr. McKensie’s hunting dog began barking wildly. I heard the door open, but instead of Dave making some wisecrack about me playing an adolescent game like doorbell ditch (we were both in high school by now), it was all quiet. I slowly poked my head around the McKensie’s garage, and to my horror, I saw the unmistakable shadow of Mr. McKensie.
He waited there for about five long seconds, while the dog continued to bark madly, and then said in a loud voice, “Well, where are you, you goddamn son of a bitch?” I stood there petrified. One of the main tenets of doorbell ditch (or ding-dong ditch) is that you have an exit plan before you execute, but I was expecting Dave—I didn’t need an exit plan. I was stuck and when I saw Mr. McKensie’s shadow turn in my direction I knew I had nowhere to go. I ran out in plain view and apologized, telling him Dave said he was going to be home alone, and I… blubber, blubber, blubber… Mr. McKensie shouted me down, something about how he wished I hadn’t come out from hiding. Something like that, I think. I later thought about it. Did he want to attack me? I’ll never know, I guess.
I don’t know whether Mrs. McKensie would have bought Shaklee products, but I never tried to sell her anything. There were some big scores, some from friends of the family and my schoolmate’s parents, and on one occasion, I sold a bunch of junk to a lonely old lady who just wanted some company. I sat down on her couch, took in the strange smell I always associated with old people I didn’t know, and started jabbering about different products in the catalogs that I had no real confidence in. This lady found a product called “Proteinized Velva Dew.” She kept repeating the name, as if she enjoyed saying it. I wanted to tell her to shut up, because I hated the name. She ended up buying a ridiculously large amount of the ill-named moisturizer. Later that day, I returned to Mr. Romano’s house with my order forms. “Hey, look at all the Proteinized Velva Dew you sold! That Proteinized Velva Dew must be some good stuff,” he said, ignoring the obvious fact that this was a new customer and probably had no idea how good or bad the stuff was. As he filled out his master order form, he tortured me by repeating “PRO-teeeenized VEL-va-Dew.”
A few days later Mr. Romano invited me and Dave (that’s right, Dave McKensie was a Shaklee junior sales representative, too) to a sales meeting. On the night of the meeting, Mr. Romano asked me to answer the door while he set up a Super-8 projector and screen, and set out some new products for us to look over.
Our team turned out to be a very strange group of salespeople. There were two morbidly obese ladies who could barely walk. How did they get around, I wondered; they were thoroughly winded from just walking from the front door to the couch, where they both stayed, never getting up to look at the new product line. There was Mark and his older brother Steve, who looked embarrassed about his father’s part-time job—like John Belushi’s character in the SNL skit about the Scotch Tape Store. Steve kept trying to find excuses to leave the room, but Mr. Romano would yell at him to stay put. I figured there was some history between them and Shaklee selling. Finally, there was Dave, and, of course, me. Mr. Romano held up the film while we waited for the last expected salesperson. When I answered his knock, I found a thin, bearded, distinguished-looking man in a brown business suit at the door. Here was the only one in the group who actually looked like a salesman, I thought for a moment. I opened the door wider to let him in and noticed that he walked with a disability—dragging one foot behind the other. As he schlepped past me he slurred a loud, wet “Thhhaaouuu” too close to my face. Throughout the meeting, he kept yelling over the film’s narrator about how his mother bought this product and bought that product until it became clear that his mother was his only client.
Dave and I had assumed positions on the floor while the others sat on the couch and the chairs Mr. Romano had assembled in a semicircle around the screen. The film bored me to tears. It was about what was new and improved at Shaklee. As the narrator droned on I became sleepy, and I began to make myself more comfortable—shifting from Indian-style to a position so my upper torso was leaning on one arm. Then I folded that arm and supported myself by my elbow and forearm, finally I couldn’t stand it anymore and decided to just lie on the carpeted floor on one side, my head supported by my extended arm—watching the film at a ninety-degree angle. During my descent to the Romano’s beige pile, Dave had been trying to suppress his laughter through coughs; it may have sounded to others as though he was having an allergic reaction to something. Mr. Romano asked Dave if he wanted a drink of water. I could tell Dave was laughing at me; I didn’t see the humor in my actions at the time, but I guess it must have looked as though I was making myself at home during what was supposed to be a business meeting with my fellow sales associates—the movers and shakers of Shaklee.
Since I was lying in front of everyone else, I could close my eyes undetected, but just when I thought I might nod off, the film’s narrator started talking about Proteinized Velva Dew. My eyes popped open as my ears took in the annoying name. Then I got the feeling someone was staring at me. Something told me not to look, but I was a glutton for punishment. I looked around and there was Mr. Romano, his face flickering in the projector’s light, all teeth. “Hey everybody, Jocko just sold a whole case of Proteinized Velva Dew! Good ole Proteinized Velva Dew!” He had to repeat the product’s stupid name. The crowd of misfits all groaned their support in unison. The man in the brown suit said he sold some to his mom.
I never attended another business meeting again and inside of about a month or two stopped selling door to door. I found I’d rather clean up wood chips at my dad’s shop occasionally. I would sometimes think about going back to Mr. Romano and taking up Shaklee again, but one summer day, when Mark was in a particularly destructive mood, he disassembled a fence next to my house. Perhaps it was the way the slats on this particular fence weren’t nailed into place—once one came out, the rest were loosened, and Mark just kept taking them out and stacking them. I was guilty of not stopping him, telling on him, or at least running away. I sat there and laughed my ass off at Mark’s funny remarks as he removed all the middle boards from the fence.
I don’t remember whether someone saw me around the fence with the conspicuous empty middle section or heard my unmistakable laugh, or whether I just couldn’t lie to my mom when she asked if I knew who did it. I do remember having to re-assemble the fence without Mark. I could have narced on him, but I did not—taking hits for other people so they wouldn’t hate me was one of my weird traits. Of course, what ultimately happened is that I no longer wanted to be around him anymore, so why didn’t I narc on him anyway? I guess my brain is just wired that way. What was worse is that the fence belonged to a man whose daughter I was sweet on and she never spoke to me after that. The whole experience soured me on selling any more Proteinized Velva Dew for Mark’s dad.
What is glaringly missing here, my college English professors would say, is a conclusion that sums up the whole story of knocking on doors, having a mean Irishman yelling at me from his front door, selling stuff I couldn’t care less about, and, oh yeah, disassembling a fence. (And how did that last subject get in here, anyway?) I guess I did all this writing without a poignant or pithy ending in mind. I never could sell myself.
I didn’t remember hitting the three-bagger until Erik, an old college buddy and leader of the slow-pitch softball team the Dead Seagulls, reminded me in our first communiqué since those days. I hadn’t spoken with any of my old American River College or Sac State buddies for years, but lately I have begun to search out old friends. For some reason, the details of that one summer I played on the Dead Seagulls have become a black hole in my mind. When Erik mentioned the triple, it was the key to many wonderful feelings, and one bad one.
The team got its name when Erik, his brother Paul, and other original members of the newly formed team found a dead seagull on the diamond when the players took the field for the first practice. Every subsequent practice, the dead bird was there, until finally it was removed. The team didn’t have a name before the seagull incidents, and on the day they registered the team, they couldn’t think of a more appropriate name. (See the above image for the only surviving team shirt in good condition. The design came from one of Erik’s high school friends, who drew it during a geometry class one day for $5.)
A year or two later, when I became a Dead Seagull, my father’s business sponsored the team. Usually, the sponsor’s names were on the back of the shirts, but as I recall, the shirts were already printed, and my father didn’t have a stencil. My dad didn’t care, anyway; he was just happy that his sedentary son was up moving around and, especially, playing a sport. As noted in earlier posts, I have never been good at sports, and my lack of dedication to any competitive game only made my clumsiness worse.
It seems strange that I remember so little of what was a very fun and virtually carefree time in my life. I was in junior college and had developed some very good friendships. Establishing and keeping good, close friends has always been hard for me. This time was also special because I was playing a “sport” for the first time since I wrapped a three iron around a tree at Ansel Hoffman Golf Course and walked off never to play the game again (unless you consider occasionally blowing off steam at the driving range a sport). I quoted the word sport in reference to this softball league because it was more casual than most: For instance, the pitcher was an offensive position. Each batter would select his favorite delivery system, so to speak—whoever knew how to place the ball right where the batter wanted it.
When we were in the field, I was the catcher. Things hadn’t changed much since I had been in little league—what the right fielder was to little league, the catcher was to this particular brand of slow-pitch softball. I would lean against the backstop and pick up any of the balls the batter missed or preferred not to hit. Because of this, there were no strikes, no balls, no stealing bases, and no pitcher–catcher conferences on the mound. Play didn’t start until the batter hit the ball. The only times my position became important were plays at the plate, but that didn’t happen much. I only remember two times that the ball came to me faster than a croquet ball.
I once ran in front of the plate to hold the runner at third. The throw came hard, and I remember hearing Erik yelling my name—not in a “head’s up” kind of way but more like a mother yelling at her son to “get out of the way of that speeding car.” It was widely known that I was the worst player on the team and since this was not a very competitive league, my teammates would rather see me unhurt than depend on my ball handling to save a run or two. The ball came in low and fast, then took a high hop and I caught the ball right in front of my face—the mitt so close to my face that I could smell the shoe polish with which I recently broke it in. I remember Erik yelling my name through a deep breath of relief.
Then there was the time I blocked the plate—like a pro catcher would do. All I remember was concentrating on the ball coming in from the outfield and seeing through my lazy eye what looked like a horse coming toward the plate. Before the ball got to me, the entire diamond turned upside down, and I could see the backstop and the ball flying between my legs. Then I came down—on my back. While I was getting up, I recalled the infamous play at home plate during the 1970 All-Star Game when Pete Rose bowled over Ray Fosse, permanently injuring the catcher. I wasn’t bowled over, though; the runner slid between my legs, and as his feet pushed my feet off the ground, I kind of did a somersault and fell on my back. Both the runner I was attempting to block and the runner behind him scored. I thought it was somewhat cool, though, not like the Rose–Fosse collision, which made me hate “Charlie Hustle” years before everybody else did for his gambling. Most of my teammates acted as if I did a foolish thing; this was casual competition, nothing worth getting injured.
My bat handling was no more stellar than my ball handling. I don’t remember doing anything but grounding out, although I know I hit safely to first occasionally because I remember being embarrassed about how slowly I ran. I was then, and still am now, a very slow runner. I remember running the pads, actually listening to the footsteps of my teammate behind me getting closer. I am not certain, but I think I recall the base runner behind me yelling to “speed up.” It must have been a drag to follow me at bat. If I reached base, the next hitter would be limited to a single or double because I couldn’t run fast enough.
All of these memories came back when Erik reminded me about “the triple.” He used the definite article as if there were only one ever hit in the history of the game. In this league, extra-base hits were as common as pop ups and ground balls in the majors. What makes this three-bagger so memorable was that I had never hit the ball so far—neither before nor after that day. When I cranked this one, all I remember was that when I made first base, I could see I should make second. When I reached second, everyone was off the bench and advancing me to third; all the while, I continued to hear screaming from the bench. When I landed safely on third base, I looked over at our bench and saw all my teammates up and madly rattling the chain link fence like freaked-out monkeys, yelling at me as if I had driven in the game winner in the final game of the World Series.
It was the greatest moment in my life as far as sports go. I never felt so triumphant, never so—at the risk of sounding maudlin—appreciated. Funny how I completely forgot this moment until Erik brought it back when he mentioned it in an email. Unfortunately, I also remember, after scoring and returning to the bench, the smiles on my teammates’ faces. They looked as if they were more amused than supportive. I sat down on the bench, basking in the afterglow, and then Ethan, who joined the Dead Seagulls with me, made a comment that may have defined all the looks: “Man, you run just like Ron Cey!” The all-star third baseman was known as “The Penguin” because of how he ran. The comment crushed me and may be the reason I forgot the longest ball I ever hit. All I could think now was that all my teammates on the bench rattling the cage had been falling out laughing about how funny I had looked running with a 2×4 up my butt. I know in my heart they were exited for me—we never cheered fellow players liked they cheered me, but I couldn’t shake the embarrassment.
I never played a team sport again, unless you count being assistant manager to my kid’s tee-ball team one season back in the early 1990s. Around that same time, a friend at work invited me to join his “sloshball” team. Sloshball, as he explained it, is softball with a keg at second base. Base runners cannot advance past second until they have drunk a mug of beer. There were certain dispensations to accommodate the slow drinkers: more than one runner can be on second at one time, and they can advance together when the ball is in play and they have finished their drinks. They also can be thrown out or tagged out together, creating some spectacular double-play possibilities, assuming the fielders were sober enough to turn them. Even if you homered, the runner had to drink a mug when he rounded second base. I passed on the offer, but considering my batting history, I don’t think I would have gotten very drunk had I joined.
As for the Dead Seagulls, they live on now as a fantasy baseball league. Erik, Paul, and a couple other original players still play ball, albeit vicariously through MLB players.
These days, I don’t play any sports; I only work out at a club. I use a treadmill, but I never run on it! If I were to, I can envision the scene: I would program the treadmill and turn on my iPod. As I started running, I would turn up the music. I would think I heard laughter, but figure it was probably the pounding of the treadmills directly behind me. I would keep turning up my iPod, but the sounds behind me would get louder. Finally, I would hit the off button on the treadmill, kill the iPod, and turn around only to see all of my fellow club members on the treadmills and elliptical machines smiling at me. You know, not the kind of supportive smiles like “good hit, man, good hustle,” but more as if they had found something a lot funnier than Jon Stewart on the gym television.
In an earlier post, I wrote about my fear and awkwardness about being naked with other men. I thought I never would figure out why it was such a big deal. I took philosophy classes back in college in which the professors would ask us why humans are so fascinated with the opposite sex’s nakedness. I was more preoccupied with why I had this weird hang-up about the same sex’s nakedness. A short time after posting that story, though, I had an experience that reminded me of my first experience standing around naked with other guys. It was that first experience that affected how I would feel about this subject for decades to come.
This recent experience, which I will tell you about shortly, reminded me of my first day in 7th grade P.E. class, when, in dropping my towel as I exited the shower, I received a sting on my ass from Gene Franklin’s wet towel. Franklin was a towering 8th grader who wore a white sweatband around his head of long, brown wavy hair. Whether he was in P.E. or any other class, he always wore that sweatband. It was as if it was some kind of Bjorn Borg gang sign. As I held my burning ass cheek, he laughed at me in what I remember to be a deep post-pubescent “ho, ho, ho,” like an evil Santa Claus. His demonic bellowing abruptly stopped when Mr. Homes, the P.E. teacher, walked out of his office and asked what was going on. In unison, we all replied, “Nothing.” I looked over at Franklin as he gave me a threatening stare. Seventh grade P.E. was an exercise in terror. “What would Franklin or any of the other 8th grade thugs do next at my expense?” I often worried.
I ran into Franklin in my early college days as he was bagging my groceries at the local Albertsons. He had shorter hair and no sweatband. He also had stopped growing around the time he lit my ass on fire with that towel and now was about my height—no longer the junior high giant. His mustache, which once looked as mature and menacing as Burt Reynolds’ did, especially for an 8th grader, now looked as harmless as Super Mario’s. He didn’t recognize me as he franticly bagged my purchases while the shift manager barked at him about some other matter. Of course, it was a different time, and as harmless as he looked handling my peanut butter, that didn’t take away from how threatening he had been back in junior high. When he asked if I needed help to my car, I thought for a second that he recognized me. Before I realized he didn’t, I took the bag from him and snickered, “No, I think I can handle it, buddy.” Those two seconds of superiority netted about five minutes of embarrassment when I realized, walking to my car, that he probably made more money than I did.
I was once, in my own way, a menace; wet towels were not my vehicle of pain and intimidation, but an Olympic-size pool. I used to belong to a club that was located directly across the street from my current job. I swam laps during lunch in the indoor pool located in the building’s basement. I didn’t like the fact that a couple of fellow employees regularly played racquetball there at the same time I swam, but I avoided the shower scenes because the racquetball guys played a half-hour longer than I swam, anyway, contrary to my wife’s medical opinion, I considered the time spent in the pool a bath. I just quickly dried myself and showered-off the chlorine hours later, when I got home.
When I entered the pool, the water was placid. I would marvel at how the two or three older men could do laps while barely disturbing the water; it was as though they were knives gracefully slicing the water. After I had finished my laps, the pool looked like a tropical storm—I could hear the other swimmers gasping for air as they turned their heads to breathe but instead of air received a mouthful of water from the whitecaps I had generated. When I stopped for a break, I could hear the water violently slapping against the sides of the pool. After I had established myself as Hurricane Jocko, I noticed the swimmers would quickly leave the pool when I entered it, preferring not to inhale a gallon of chlorinated water for lunch.
Today, I am fortunate that most of the time I am alone when I undress in the locker room at my health club. Still, with everyone’s New Year’s resolutions, the club has gotten busier and I have to deal with that byproduct. One racquetball guy takes up more than half the bench with all his gear. He may have arrived when no one else was in that area of the locker room, but he does not attempt to move any of his crap when anyone comes in from working out. His items are stretched out, as though he was taking inventory, and he does not gather them when I need to use the bench. Of course, I could politely ask him to consolidate his stuff, but passive-aggressive folk like me don’t work that way—we prefer to bitch to ourselves.
Then there’s Mr. Organized; he will come in when I am using the area and sit too close to me, open his personal locker, pull out two identical opaque plastic containers about 9”x12”x4” each, and place them on the floor. His personal footprint has now doubled. Then he opens the lids, letting the covers fall where they may (like on my foot). Looking down annoyed, I can’t help but notice the contents of these containers are neater than my dresser drawers at home are and the articles in the containers are placed together in an arrangement that would make a Tetris Master green with envy. Still, the guy is in my way, and anyway, who folds gym clothes?
All of this crap was manageable, but the sting of Junior High P.E. came back during an incident at my club a few months ago. I had just come back from working out to find four men in different stages of undress all going about their own business in our 25’ x 10’ niche in the locker room. After walking around a few half-naked men, I noticed a guy standing next to my lockers talking about his BMW motorcycle. (Oh yeah, about the two lockers: I have a small assigned locker with a built-in combination lock, like everyone else, and I use a tall locker, open to all members on a visit-by-visit basis, to hang up my street clothes.) I’ve seen this guy many times before. He stands out because of his clothing—red corduroys, not too many men have the nuggets to wear red cords. I also couldn’t help but notice that he compensates for an unfortunate face by always looking good, whether he is wearing a designer silk shirt and slacks or blue jeans and what looks like an intentionally stretched-out wool sweater. But he wasn’t wearing his red cords or silk shirt now. He was carrying on a conversation about road bikes, buck-naked and leaning on my tall locker and about two inches from my assigned locker. Unlike all the other men in the locker room, this guy wasn’t dressing himself; he acted as if he came to the club naked. I sat down on the bench next to him and as I leaned over to dial my combination, his business was right next to my face. I quickly pulled back, hoping he would, in turn, back up and give me some room; but no, he kept on talking about his Beamer.
Since I’m always on a tight schedule—trying to jam in a decent workout, shower, and get out to the bus stop inside of one hour—I couldn’t just get up, walk around the corner to the sinks and apply the club’s various aftershaves, lotions, and hair gels while I waited for Cycle World to finish his road test findings. The logical thing to do would have been to ask the guy to back up a skosh, but I was too pissed off, and my passive-aggressiveness was now in 5th gear. I attempted to read the numbers on my locker from a distance but my glasses were in my bag, inside the locker Red Cords was leaning on. Losing patience and time, I leaned over again and began to go through the combination—all with the guy’s junk just inches away from my face. Flustered, it took two attempts to get the combination right—like I misdialed twice intentionally.
When I successfully cracked the combination, I swung the locker door open faster than usual. Red Cords took a casual half step back and continued his evaluation of his bike without a beat. I took out my laundry bag from the locker, after taking off my exercise shoes, placed them in the locker, and slammed it shut. I dressed down while listening to how superior BMW drive shafts are compared to Japanese road bikes, then placed my workout clothes in the laundry bag, dropped the bag in the linen shoot, and walked to the showers.
By the time I returned from the showers, the man who had been listening to Red Cords’ road test was fully dressed and was now leaning toward the exit, but Red Cords kept talking, unmoved by his audience’s obvious body language. Red Cords, who hadn’t put on one stitch of clothing, was now talking about his Beamer’s exceptional breaks. I slipped in next to Red Cords, not fully dry. I had been rehearsing what I was going to do if the road test was still going, so when I marched up to my other locker—the one Red Cords was leaning on—and quickly grabbed and violently yanked on the latch, he removed his hand from the door and quickly stepped back. The road test discussion came to an abrupt halt. A split-second later, when I swung the locker door open, he jumped back a half step more. His one-man audience, hearing the break in the statistics, said a quick “Gotta go, man. Take it easy,” and left.
Our area of the locker room became dead quiet, except for the cacophony of muffled mobile phone rings occasionally going off inside lockers all around us. I put on my clothes about two feet away from Red Cords, as though the building was on fire, and picked up speed the more layers I slapped on my wet body. I was waiting for a remark on how an “excuse me” was in order but it never came. I left the locker room with my shoes in my hand, stepping in puddles of cold water as I walked briskly for the door. I put my shoes over my soaked socks when I hit the landing between the second and first floors—I didn’t care.
In the lobby, popcorn was popping. I ate a bag there as I waited the five or so minutes before leaving for the bus stop. I kept running that locker door-opening scene in my head; “What did he think? Did he care?” I kept my face buried in a copy of Men’s Health, too afraid I might lift my head to see him staring at me. A few minutes passed and I looked up to see what time it was and there was Red Cords, talking with some other guy, his head directly under the clock. Red Cords must have thought I was looking at him—maybe even staring him down. At that moment, I noticed for the first time that he had a mustache, just as menacing as Gene Franklin’s. Crap, I thought to myself, I have spent my whole life trying not to make enemies—avoiding the Gene Franklins of the world and situations like this very one and now I share a very small locker space with Gene Franklin’s incarnate, but wet towels are usually not the weapon of choice among grown men and that’s good news…I think.
This post should be titled “In Appreciation of Volleyball,” but because I have, until recently, thought of the pastime as a woman’s sport, and perhaps deep inside I was a sexist when it came to women in sports, the title will stay with apologies to follow. I never liked volleyball; I always thought it was a sissy sport. When we played volleyball in high school P.E. I would conveniently interpret my own awkwardness as a result of having a Y chromosome. The open-handed “slapping” of the ball and the lob serves didn’t help my image of it either. As for the rules, I just hated them.There were guys who could punch the ball, which improved my opinion of volleyball, but still I didn’t think the game was for men. Many years later, one of my co-workers started watching beach volleyball. He would copy hi-def images to place on his PC’s desktop. While these photos showed very muscular men performing feats of athleticism, I still didn’t buy into volleyball as a man’s sport. Maybe I didn’t like those goofy hats with the bills flipped up.
I felt better about women playing the sport, which I’m sure was a sexist hang-up of mine. In some ways I think I reflected the time: Title IX had just passed, yet sports scholarships were still not encouraged for young women. Part of my problem is I never sat down and watched girls’ volleyball while I was in high school. If I had, I might have changed my mind right then and there.
I played beach volleyball as an adult only once, and it only had a negative affect on my opinion of the game. It was a Boy Scouts camping trip at Point Reyes and a dozen or so of us set up a net on the beach. I would have rather flown kites, or played with the potato cannons, but the scoutmaster wanted to play volleyball. I ended up on a team with a hyper-aggressive assistant scoutmaster who was hell-bent on telling all the scouts on our team how the game should be played.
As (bad) luck would have it, the ball never seemed to come toward him so he crashed into me every time it came my way, showing the scouts how to perform various setups, saves, and spikes. After eating half the sand on the beach, I bowed out, as did a kid on the opposing side. We ran off and stole one of the potato cannons and a sack of ordnance. I wanted to lead a spud attack on the assistant scoutmaster and the whole stupid game, but I had to be responsible and lead by example. I limited the number of projectiles we fired, and made sure we shot them in the opposite direction of the game. At that time I didn’t know what was a lamer game: volleyball or badminton.
My opinion of volleyball warmed a few years ago when I spent a few minutes watching hordes of young women play the game at the Sacramento Convention Center. The only reason I ended up there was because I was in a deli across the street two blocks from work when three guys walked into the store shaking their heads in amazement, one exclaiming, “Those girls are off the hook!” After finishing my lunch, I walked across the street to where the games took place. I remember how fast the games were and noted the intense competitiveness. This was not the sport I remember from high school. I found out just recently that the event I saw only a few minutes of is the
Volleyball Festival. I also learned that this national event was huge—with hundreds of athletes competing in games not only at the Convention Center but also at Cal Expo and in Davis. I was hoping to attend more the following years but my wife told me that Reno now hosts the event.About two weeks ago my wife asked if I would like to go with her to the NCAA final between Stanford and Penn State. I said yes, not because I was interested in the match, but because my wife and I don’t go out much and I knew she was going with or without me. The next night we were in ARCO Arena, up in the nosebleeds watching the match. My only complaint is that I wasn’t close enough to catch all the nuances of the game.
I had no trouble seeing the incredible speed and power with which these tall women played Then I saw the diving saves and blistering spikes and the amazing speed, aggressiveness, and skill; I was impressed with their athleticism. I also couldn’t help but be a little intimidated—what would it be like to be on the receiving end of one of those spikes! The setups made sense to me. There was a beauty to the movement; the best setups were as stunningly beautiful as a perfectly executed double play in baseball; I was finally getting it.
Some stuff was a mystery to me, but my wife helped explain the changes since our high school days. All the changes are definitely for the better, making the game far more interesting and dramatic; for instance, no more specific amount of passes before the spike and more open rules on service. It is all wide-open and that made the action far more dynamic, unpredictable, and explosive. About a game into the match and I began caring about the teams. I became a Stanford fan. Although, just as in NBA games, I thought the cheerleading stuff was dumb and unnecessary. The only thing entertaining about them was how unsynchronized the Stanford cheerleaders were—perhaps they had Finals on their minds. I don’t think you will ever see an apologetic post on this blog about cheerleading. In an evening of pleasant surprises, the only disappointment was the scoring.
I was still into the match when, on the fifth game, it was suddenly over with the scoreboard reading Penn State: 15, Stanford: 8. What is this half-of-a-fifth game all about? The fact that Stanford lost was enough to make virtually everyone (shy of the Penn State players) quiet, but I was still wondering why everyone began shuffling down the stairs. “I guess that’s how they score Game Five,” my wife said. When the match started she told me that the rules from the 70s when she played high school volleyball, had changed, but she didn’t know all the changes, so even she was a little befuddled. While Stanford forced Penn State to a tie-breaking fifth game (30-25, 30-26, 23-30, 19-30, 15-8), I felt I could watch more that night—why not the best of seven like in other post-season sports? I left that evening with an appreciation for a sport I used to discredit and an admiration of the athletes that I rarely gave a second thought. Perhaps I should reconsider badminton, too. Easy there, Jocko!
I am currently working on getting a promotion, a promotion that I frankly don’t think I deserve, and I don’t think I will receive. Okay, the fact is, I don’t think I really want to receive the promotion. There, I said it. I don’t know how many people in civil service ever have these kinds of feelings. I do think that civil service can sometimes be like building a pyramid, going as far you can possibly go until you feel you have maxed out or you die. Perhaps it’s something like the Freemason’s pyramid on the back of the one dollar bill. (The iconography may be on other bills, but I wouldn’t know right now; my wife—who makes twice as much as me—regularly “Jane Jetsons” me. She sings the TV theme song as she goes through my wallet for the larger bills.) The incomplete pyramid represents, if I remember my early U.S. history correctly, the idea that God’s work is never done under the all-seeing “eye of Providence.” In my secular interpretation of this Masonic symbol, aggressive civil servants keep gunning for promotions—not necessarily looking at where or when they will stop; if they have the self-confidence to keep going, why not? Forget about whether they deserve it or whether the whole system is self-serving, they just keep locking down those golden handcuffs!
This is exactly like me, except in super-slow motion and without the self-confidence. There was a time, though, that I figured I would never even get to where I am. My career path out of high school started with panic. Before I graduated from high school, I visited my counselor. It was time for Mrs. Connelly to tell me what my options were for college: UOP, UCD, or maybe USC. It turned out the only USC I qualified for was the University of Southern Carmichael–the local community college American River College. With news of fellow classmates being accepted to Stanford, Cal, and UCLA, I somehow assumed that even with my sterling 2.3 GPA, some prestigious college would love to have me. When Mrs. Connelly said defensively, “Hey look, you were the one who couldn’t get a passing grade in ceramics, what do you expect from me?” I panicked.
As I remember it, on the first weekday as a high school graduate, I found myself downtown in the U.S. Post Office and Courthouse building. I started with my first choice: the Coast Guard. You see, when the college thing fell through, my plan was to go to the Coast Guard Academy and become an oceanographer or maybe an ocean photographer. (At one point I thought the two were the same.) After graduating from the academy, I would put in my time taking pictures of fish; then, if I decided to leave after my service was up, I would become a firefighter.
Firefighting seemed cool—not the actual firefighting part, but the fact that someone actually pays you for laying around a station watching TV and playing cards, at least that is how firefighting was depicted on TV—my chief educator. Since it’s a great-paying part-time job, I figured I could either kick it during the abundant time off, or get another low-pressure job and put in the time I wanted before I had to go back to the station and resume laying around and watching TV—what a breeze.
Sitting across from a butch-haired young man wearing an immaculate white uniform, my plan unraveled fast. First the academy, then oceanography, Butch couldn’t even promise a stint taking ID photos of sailors, but that didn’t stop me from signing up to be a yeoman just like Butch. I have never been able to explain to my family’s satisfaction why I continued to allow the yeoman to fill out the enlistment papers after finding out I wasn’t going to go to the academy, etc. Nor can I explain without being embarrassed that I thought oceanography would be fun—I didn’t really consider oceanography a science, my worst subject in high school, besides ceramics. I had a big book on ocean fish and another on sharks, but since I only looked at the color pictures I somehow associated oceanography with photography. Regardless, when the time came, I signed on the dotted line. The only reason I wasn’t stuck scrubbing decks or sitting in an boring office signing up suckers like me was found on a separate form yeoman Butch forgot to fill out but remembered just as I was getting up: my medical information form. It was the medication I took for my seizure disorder—the same disorder that made me feel like an undermench, brittle among flexible young men—that spared me the sponge and bleach.
At that time, I didn’t see the one and only good byproduct of suffering through humiliating seizures in front of friends and strangers and being the “special” kid who had to take pills with his lunch. No, all I did was panic some more. “What am I going to do now?” I cried to myself. What I did was hit every other enlistment office in the Post Office. After being rejected by the National Guard, the Navy, the Air Force, and the Army, I found myself in front of the last office: U.S.M.C. it read on the shingle outside the door. I remember almost running into the office and abruptly asking without any introduction to a black man sitting at a desk reading the paper if the Marines would accept someone who takes medication for seizures. The pleasant looking older man with salt and pepper hair looked up from his paper and with a warm smile said, “Son, I bet you have been to every other enlistment office in the building, haven’t you?”
As I sat on the steps outside the building, emotionally shot, I saw a homeless man pushing a shopping cart full of crushed cans and thought, “That is me in one year.”
Of course, I didn’t end up a transient; my parents didn’t throw me out into the street, they were very patient with me. I started attending college, and I quit my job at Taco Bell to sell shoes until I got the brilliant idea I didn’t need college—I could sell shoes on a full-time basis and skip the school gig; college was for losers.
Besides dropping out of college being hubris, the decision to take on a full-time job that depended on commission ignored one glaring fact: I didn’t have the people skills required to sell shoes. Week after week, I would receive paychecks from Florsheim Shoes—each one said I made $50 in wages and, on an average, $40 in commissions. This brought me to about $90, which was $70 below minimum wage; California law forced Florsheim to pony up the balance each week. “Earnings Adjusted” was the caption of shame that contained the money that I didn’t earn but had to be given to me to make it legal. I actually made more money at Taco Bell as the nightshift crew chief, where I made two bits an hour over minimum wage. During weekly staff meetings, my manager, Jay (who also happened to be my best friend and the inspiration for my dropping out of college so I could make big bucks selling shoes) would ask me, “So, you’re getting the hang of this, right?” If I weren’t his friend, he would have righteously fired me. In retrospect, that would have been the best thing for me; instead, I lasted almost a year making minimum wage on Florsheim’s dime. I followed Jay to Julius Clothing, where I worked as a stock clerk for a short stint, learning just how much the markup is on high fashion clothing. Then, for some insane reason, I returned to Florsheim and languished there until landing what I still consider the best job I ever had.
For a couple of years, I attended college again and wrote movie and music reviews for the American River College campus paper—The Beaver (now The Current). While attending screenings at the Tower Theatre as a movie critic, I started up a friendship with the manager. When a position opened up there, I applied and got a job tearing tickets. I spent the rest of my college years studying journalism with the hopes of becoming a rock critic like my heroes Greil Marcus and Robert Christgau. Of course, working at the Tower turned me into a bit of a film aficionado (snob) as well. More importantly, I developed friendships like those I never had before or since.
The last days of college turned out to be just like the ones in high school: fraught with panic. As I was finishing up my degree in journalism I figured I couldn’t cut it as a journalist. I was told by editors from both the Sacramento Bee and Union at a career fair that “all writers” have to work their way up from cub reporter doing ads, funeral notices, and other short news pieces before they can work in the field they want. I felt I couldn’t (or wouldn’t) go through this process. This gloomy outlook on my chances to become a music/film critic, it turned out, was not true; things were changing in the newspaper business, and the old salts I had talked with were only reflecting how they remembered their own career paths.
So what was I going to do being so close to graduating with a BA in Journalism and not wanting to be a journalist? Before running down to the Post Office building a friend told me about a proofreading job for the State of California. With my journalism skills and credentials (I edited two college papers) I aced the exam, the job test, and job interview, and got a position as a proofreader. Thus began my long career in civil service.
While I have always had self-confidence problems I believe civil service has worn what little I had down to a nub. This lack in self-confidence has manifested itself in the last ten or so years in shiftlessness. In an age when most professionals are expected to move up or out every three years, I have moved only three in over 20, and in seventeen of that score I have worked in a depressing basement of the same building. Since I have been working in civil service I have seen many coworkers who have had the same classification as me, or lower, move many steps above my current classification. While this is humiliating I am not bitter at their successes; I am quite intimidated at the work they do: they have earned their station and I have earned mine.
I rarely attempt to move up anymore, rarely apply for new jobs, and rarely work on my resume. But that doesn’t stop me from wishing I were doing something else. The last promotion I received was handed to me—all I did was whine at the right person. I was sitting at my desk when I saw my old boss walk through the door. My current manager was leaving, and the job announcement was out for her replacement. When Fred came through the warehouse doors, asking about the open position, I jumped out of my seat and ran to him like Peter to the resurrected Jesus. This was the same person I had problems with in the past and about whom I used to spend hours telling my crew how much of a jerk he was and how glad I was not to be under his boot heel. I asked what he was doing down here, though I already knew. When he confirmed my hunch, I went into action. I gave him a tour of the warehouse and then complained to him that I didn’t want to work in my current position anymore. He reacted the way I knew he would, saying, “If I get the job, I’m going to make some changes around here.” To any rational man with an ounce of self respect, this should have been my exit queue, but that didn’t bother me, nor was I phased by the fact that his promise to “change things around here” was a direct criticism of how I ran my shop. I just sat back and waited for my new assignment and, ultimately, my bigger paycheck.
Ironically, when the new classification came, it dawned on me that any hope of leaving civil service for an outside, private job with equal pay and benefits was as good as gone: I was now making more money than I could ever hope for on the outside considering my skill level—the ratchet on those golden handcuffs clicked down. Time went on, and I didn’t move up the ladder or on to a different post or agency. On the rare occasion that I attempt to move, the ultimate denial only reaffirms the self-fulfilling prophecy that I didn’t deserve it.
So, I have worked the same old job for over five years rarely pursuing any change in venue or attempting to make more money for being just as miserable. At times, I wish I were more ambitious; at other times, I wish I could be content in my station—that would be the Christian way to look at it. About a year ago, in a Bible study, when we were taking prayer requests, Ken, a Brother who works for a state agency, chimed in asking for a prayer of thanks, saying, “I got a promotion!” We all clapped and congratulated him. After the study, when we were outside the hall, I asked him what his new classification was. With a great big grin, he said, “You are now lookin’ at an Office Technician, Brother, or at least I will be when the paperwork goes through.” Ken is a 50-year-old file clerk who is happy doing entry-level work. He was so happy that I was surprised he wasn’t a Staff or an Associate Analyst—how could someone be happy being a clerk at his age. I knew the answer. I just couldn’t be happy being what I am, which is a sin.
Recently, in a closed-door meeting, a co-worker, Sharon, told my current manager, Andrew, that it was time for our agency to promote me. If Fred were still my manager, he would have promoted me a second time by now, not because I deserve it, but because he promoted his staff to justify his own promotions—this is how civil servant managers build that seemingly endless pyramid. I didn’t know anything about the meeting Sharon and Andrew had until it was over and she told me what she had said.
In the following two weeks, Sharon provided me with other people’s promotion paperwork as templates for my own paperwork. This wasn’t the first time someone else spoke up for me; a couple of months prior, one of my dearest friends, Sophie, left the agency. At her going-away party, she took Andrew aside and said, “Jocko doesn’t promote himself, but he is an excellent employee, and a very dear friend. Watch out for him.” On the bus going home that night I wept, partly because Sophie cares that much (though she has nothing to lose by saying this stuff) and partly because I need people like Sophie (and Sharon) to fight my battles for me.
So this is how I kicked off my promotion process—with a little help from my friends—friends who really, truly didn’t know whether I deserved a raise. Both Sharon and Sophie have been promoted twice since my last raise, and they were probably sensitive enough to think I was embarrassed about that, which I am, but also it is the civil servant thing to do—to get promoted—and I am obviously not doing a good job at it. A month after Sharon’s meeting, I submitted my papers. I have no idea how this will go; my boss hasn’t said a word, and there is only about a month left before the promotion committee reviews all the candidates. I think I am going to dread the outcome regardless—these golden handcuffs are tight enough.
Occasionally, when the weather isn’t prohibitive, I walk to a café about two miles from my house. It’s good exercise—and usually boring as hell. The route I take brings me by a small camper, maybe only 15 feet long and not very tall. I’d imagined it was for sleeping only—no stove or toilet, like some have. On one Saturday, while I was walking by the trailer I saw a man in his forties, and what I assume was his teenaged son, unlatch the back wall of the trailer and set it down, revealing two dirt bikes. As they wheeled the two four-stroke motorcycles out of the trailer and onto the front lawn, a melancholy feeling swept over me. I wanted to abort my health walk and start a conversation with the father figure. I had a thousand questions for him and many tales from my youth I wanted to impart. Even if I’d had the nerve to strike up a conversation with a complete stranger, and he was friendly enough to reciprocate, he would get tired of all my questions and my “When I was into dirt bikes…” stories. Still, the feeling hung with me like a dull ache for many days following the encounter.
First thing the following Monday morning, I emailed someone at work who I knew was a dirt bike enthusiast about some of the changes in the dirt bike world over the last few years. “Ben,” I’ll call him, was happy to fill me in on the details, though, being younger than me, he could not fill me in on all 30 years that I have been away from the sport; in fact, his emails took on a kind of anxious tone when I kept the email correspondence going far beyond his own interest. (Perhaps it was a good idea I kept walking the other day.)
Ben helped me understand why these two dirt bikes I saw, which clearly were racing bikes, replete with number plates, had four-stroke engines—when I followed the sport the four-stroke engine was relegated almost exclusively to the street due to the engine’s weight and poor, low-end performance. California’s green legislation, Ben told me, has hurt the two-stroke motorcycle owners. One can ride a four-stroke dirt bike (also known as a “thumper” because of the low-pitch sound that it makes) year round compared to two-stroke bikes, which can only be ridden when air quality permits; this is determined by the Air Quality Index (AQI). This translates into two-stroke bikers can’t ride on public land during the warm weather months. Also, if for some reason air quality is poor during the cool months, they may not be able to operate their bikes on those days either.
I was a true wannabe dirt biker when I was a kid. For the year or two that he competed, my father was an accomplished novice racer, winning trophies in Enduro, Hare and Hounds (Scrambles), and Hillclimbing competitions. He didn’t like Motocross—what I believe to be the coolest and most exiting motor sport in the world—because “you just go around in circles.” Typically self-effacing, he would come home from a race with a huge trophy, walk directly into the garage, and throw it up in the attic, never to be seen (at least by him) again. I used to go up in that crawl space, set up his trophies—which included awards in auto and boat racing—like a shrine. I couldn’t understand how someone could actually win something like a trophy (and some of them where big, from big events), then just chuck it like an ugly dish won from a coin toss at the State Fair.
In my near 50 years, I have never won a trophy; the closest things I have are the numerous certificates a State employee receives for training. I feel so special when I receive the decoration on multipurpose printer paper and see the blank line where I am supposed to enter my own name, for sleeping through a class on “Professionalism in the Workplace.” Some of my father’s trophies have his name etched on gold plaques.
Though my father was not an expert rider, he occasionally raced with accomplished professional riders like Hall of Fame inductee Dick Mann, who is featured on the 1974 Bruce Brown film On Any Sunday; though my dad admits he couldn’t keep up with the legend. I saw the Brown film with my dad when it first came out and then again just a few weeks ago after all these feelings of longing hit me on that street where I saw those two dirt bikes. I think my dad had hopes that his two sons would ride with him, but when he brought a little 50cc Honda mini bike home that fateful day, we were petrified of the little thing.
Later, when I grew out of my fear of falling and, to some extent, my fear of my father, I asked him for a 125cc Honda Elsinore. By that time, he was no longer interested in dirt bikes; he now ran around in the dirt with a dune buggy. I guess he didn’t want to spend the money on a new bike for me since he sold his last bike, or maybe he thought I was just all talk. He later bought me a 70cc Honda. I don’t recall what happened to that bike. However, I do remember riding that bike and my mom’s old 90cc Hodaka, but he only took me out to an OHV park a couple of times to ride it. I usually went out to the gravel pit (now William B. Pond Park at the East end of Arden Way in Carmichael) and played around there.
Similar to how I watched the Oakland Athletics when I was playing little league, I kept up with the professional racing side of the sport, subscribing to Dirt Bike magazine. I had my favorite riders, just as fans of baseball have their favorite players and teams. Only a Motocross maven like me would call it an honor to be clocked by Brad Lackey’s handlebars when we went to Livermore to see an International Motocross. It didn’t feel like an “honor” at first—more as as if I had just walked into Barry Bonds’ wheelhouse as he was swinging for the Bay. I saw all the leaders go by—Swedes, Fins, Belgians, and Germans, then I leaned over to get a better look and Lackey came in close with his lime-green Kawasaki. The next thing I knew I was grabbing my arm and trying not to faint.
I would have loved to get the future World Champion’s autograph next to the big bruise; alas, it would have faded away much as the bruise did. What paled in comparison to the Lackey bruise was the bruise I received by a line-drive foul ball in a 1972 ALCS game at the Oakland Coliseum. I don’t even remember the batter’s name. Who cares who that Baltimore Oriole player was; I got a black, blue, purple, and sickly yellow bruise by Brad Lackey! I would later get 500cc World Champion Roger DeCoster’s signature on a cool 8×10 glossy of him on his Suzuki when I saw him at Carmichael Honda a few months after the race, but I misplaced it. If I ever find it, I will probably also rediscover the banquet program with the autographs of the future 1972-74 World Series Champions; yes, I had a dynasty on a 1968 fund-raiser program and I misplaced it.
In my correspondence with Ben, he also told me about Monkey Butt!, the book written by Dirt Bike magazine’s first editor, Rick Sieman. (The title comes from a condition, the author states, where a person has been riding dirt bikes for so long that his rear end starts to look like a monkey’s ass.) The next day, Ben came down with his worn copy of Sieman’s book. I didn’t ask to borrow the book and felt somewhat awkward taking it, but after I started reading it, I was transfixed. Monkey Butt! is poorly written, poorly edited (if edited at all) and—for someone like me who experienced this subculture (albeit from the cheap seats) some thirty years ago—a blast of a read, typos and all.
The book is a collection of very short essays that range from the whimsical to the outrageous to the occasionally poignant. Sieman is not an accomplished writer; his style is provincial at best, but what better voice for this subject? A friend once told me I was a fool to read Dirt Bike, he told me Cycle World was a better-written and more serious motorcycle magazine. In retrospect, he was correct, but that wasn’t the point—Cycle World was more like the Establishment: proper, sober, and shiny—like a chrome stock fender. Dirt Bike was the Counterculture: irreverent, funny, and as gritty as a Carlsbad berm.
Sieman captures the excitement of experiencing a brand new pastime much like the Bruce Brown film so beautifully celebrates. However, Sieman’s book goes back to the dusty alleys where street bike enthusiasts would tinker with top-heavy, ill-handling road bikes that were stripped down for racing in the desert. The book chronicles the rise of a different kind of motorcycle club dedicated to dirt and desert racing, documenting the synergy of this movement with the evolution of the two-cycle dirt bike to meet these hungry new enthusiasts’ demand of lighter, faster machines. Just like in surfing—which was gathering momentum at the same time—southern California became the Mecca for the dirt and desert racing subculture. In typical American style, dirt bike racing became an “American sport,” despite Europe’s legitimate claim to the pastime. Monkey Butt! is a remembrance of this discovery.
While the first half of the book focuses on the early, developing years, the second half is mainly about the battle between off-road bikers and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the other “eco-nazis,” as Sieman calls them. This part is where my love for the dirt bike runs smack into my liberal politics. Still, Sieman puts up a strong argument for desert racing, claiming that the ecosystem of the Mojave Desert, just to name one, is always in a state of change:
“One sandstorm in the Mojave can move millions of tons of sand and dirt over hundreds of miles. One flash flood can tear away the base of a mountain. How can this compare with a set of tire tracks over shifting sands? If all the dirt bikes in America got together and rode around in a circle for a month at a spot in the Mojave, one sandstorm could wipe out every evidence of them having been there. Overnight.”
Still, I know there are other arguments that support the abolishment of desert racing, such as the endangerment of the Mojave Desert Tortoise and other wildlife, but that does not stop developers from creating fire roads, mines, and other types of development that do just as much damage. If Sieman is very critical of the BLM, he equally doles out harsh words about the American Motorcycle Association. He believes they have been impotent against these powers and act like a puppet for Japanese motorcycle corporations who do not support the very people who buy, ride, and race motorcycles because they want to avoid making waves in the U.S.
Reading the book only exasperated my longing for a time I never truly experienced first-hand. I was more like a third-string high school football player, permanently pined for the season, watching my teammates win the State Championship. With each story in the book, I recall names and events that I knew of, but because of either my age or my situation, I was always on the outside looking in.
My last bike was a 125cc Yamaha Enduro DT-1, but I never rode it in the dirt—it was my ride to and from high school for a couple of years. When I got my first car, I was already deep into listening to and writing about rock music and movies, and lost interest in the dirt-racing scene. I never returned to the dirt bike world. Bruce Springsteen, The Clash, and Bob Dylan had replaced Joel Roberts, Roger DeCoster, and Dick Mann in my personal pantheon.
The years went by and I only heard bits of news of the dirt biking world: There’s this thing called Supercross, kind of a combination of motocross and, I don’t know, football? Anyway, it takes place in a stadium where you have an assigned seat as though you’re at a football or baseball game. Hell, that’s no fun; you can’t freely walk around the track to the best berm or the starting line or finish line, where you are inches away from your hero and his handlebars. Ironically, Dirt Bike was instrumental in organizing the first Supercross: the Superbowl of Motocross held in the Los Angeles Coliseum in 1974. Then there’s the latest thing that I’ve seen on TV, Freestyle Motocross (or FMX) where riders take dirt bikes and try to do daring, artistic moves way up in the air. It looks more dangerous than Motocross, but it still is kind of lame; the whole thing flies in the face of real Motocross, where you want to get as little air as possible. Also, FMX is not a race, but rather something contestants are judged on—like figure skating. Anyway, I guess this old fart is out of it.
On another Saturday walk, I find myself spying on the dirt bike family getting ready for the races. I have my mobile phone to my ear, as though I’m talking to someone, and I stare through my dark shades at the father and son checking out their bikes. The trailer door is down and is now a ramp. (Oh, the trailer is more spacious than I thought, and the amenities!) The father starts one of the bikes. It has an electric starter. Hmm, that seems kind of sissy compared to the old kick-starting method in my day. They look over at me standing in the middle of the street, “talking” to someone on my mobile phone, and then father says something to his son that I can’t hear over the thumper’s pulse. Perhaps they are wondering if I am some kind of wannabe. They don’t know half the story.
One winter when I was a teenager, my father, brother, my brother’s friend (I’ll call him “Bob”), and I took up pheasant hunting. I am not sure how this came about. I think my father’s fishing buddy had suggested hunting. It was an interesting venture, but I am sure I never want to do it again. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed hunting for fowl to an extent, but as the season went on, some things developed that confirmed to me that I didn’t want to be around guns.
Before we could go blasting away at the birds, we needed to take a gun safety class. One of the things the instructor taught us was that even when everyone in a hunting party knows that a shotgun is empty, it is rude to point that gun at someone. While this seemed like a very reasonable thing, Bob took this piece of gun etiquette to a ridiculous level. Whenever one of us was cleaning our gun and had the barrel removed from the stock and firing mechanism, Bob would absolutely freak out if you pointed the empty barrel at him. Turning the business end on you and the back end towards him would net the same response, and even having the disconnected barrel on the table with one end pointing in his direction would send Bob under the table yelling, “Stop it!”
Bob’s hypersensitive attitude aside, gun etiquette and safety is nothing to joke about. On one occasion, we invited another kid from the neighborhood (I’ll call him “Chris”) to go skeet shooting with us. At the time, the pheasants were illusive, and the only thing we enjoyed shooting were clay pigeons. My dad bought a little clay pigeon shooter and a few cases of clay pigeons for us to practice on. The clay pigeon shooter was like a spring-loaded, side-arm catapult that acted like a Frisbee flinger. The clay pigeons looked like small soup bowls turned upside down, and shot into the air by the shooter. We had a lot of fun shooting clay pigeons, but for all the power that clay pigeon shooter had, we wanted to try our hand at real skeet shooting – where the targets were fired from a farther distance, at a faster speed, and the direction was unknown to the shotgun operator. So, we loaded up our shotguns, ammo, and neighbor Chris and went out to the range.
I believe some of us could have died that day on the range. Chris, who had absolutely no experience with firearms, couldn’t understand the concept of keeping his shotgun barrel pointed down. He kept it level, and whenever the range employee tried to teach him something, Chris would turn to him with his shotgun pointing wherever he was looking. Each time, he swiveled past my brother, Bob, and me we would scatter, yelling at Chris to point the barrel downward. Even though he didn’t have a shell in the chamber, we were well trained, to avoid the muzzle. Then the guy from the range – red-faced and frustrated – would pull the barrel down and range-ward, took a deep breath, and told him not to point a weapon at anyone. Then he’d give Chris a shell and tell him to load the gun but not close the chamber. Chris didn’t hear the second part and closed the chamber. As all of us screamed at him to keep the chamber open, he swung around, pointing the shotgun at all of us once again. All that needed to happen was for him to slip up and squeeze the trigger, and some/all of us would have been worm food. The range employee caught the swinging barrel and told him to point it towards the range and the skeet shooting commenced. When Chris’ turn was over, we all sighed with relief; someone took the shotgun from him, and the potential for catastrophe ended. Still, he wasn’t the only one who was dangerous with a firearm.
A short time later, a kid I went to high school with (I’ll call him “Paul”) received a shotgun around the same time we started getting into hunting. It turned out to be a foolish decision by his parents. Paul wasn’t an emotionally unbalanced kid, just a little too squirrelly to handle the responsibilities of owning a shotgun. We heard tales of him discharging his weapon in his backyard, and the first and last time I ever visited him at his home, he had the gun down from the rack in the front room and was pointing it at things like a vase, the TV, a window. His oblivious parents got him a shell press for Christmas with enough empty shell casings, shot, primer caps, and gunpowder to light up Carmichael.
Paul would tell us stories at school of how he would modify shells to create a bigger bang – chalking the casing with as much powder as possible and adding some heavy-gauge shot so he could see just how much damage he could do firing at some poor, defenseless 2×4 or one of his sister’s “missing” dolls. No question, this was scary stuff, but it’s all good. Squirrelly Paul finally ran out of powder and, on a dull-gray day with nothing better to do, Paul took one of his casings, installed a primer cap in it, put the casing in a table vice, pumped up his Daisy BB gun real powerful-like and then started taking shots at the primer cap from across his father’s workbench. When he finally hit the cap, it blew up, launching the cap across the workbench, lodging in Paul’s forearm. His father, hearing the screams, came out and saw the damage his son had done and finally had enough of Paul’s mischief. Rumor has it that before he dismantled Paul’s pyrotechnics lab, he took out a pair of needle-nose pliers from his tool kit and pulled the burning cap out of Paul’s arm – no doctor, no numbing agent, just one fed-up dad taking care of his mischievous son. I occasionally see Paul. He appears to be a nice, calm, responsible person, his Ted Kaczynskidays behind him.
Our own experience with shotguns turned out less eventful than some of my acquaintances.’ Absolutely no funny business with the shotguns and, aside from a whole mess of shattered clay pigeons, we shot only two pheasants in all our outings, and that happened in one day. (See picture of this humble blogger holding the two lucky birdies.) We would have bagged a few more over the season, but accompanying us were the two most undisciplined German Shorthaired Pointers known to the hunting world. We would be walking an alfalfa field early in the morning, skunked as usual. Then a jackrabbit would dart across the field, and the two “trained” dogs would take off after it barking up a storm. Straight ahead, but just out of range of our guns, a bunch of pheasants would flush – pheasants that would have been game if the dogs were knew anything of their breeding.
When we did get the two birds, no one really knew who got them – we all shot at once. When we landed one of them, it was still flopping around…and it was at that moment I lost my taste for hunting. I don’t know why I’m such a sissy when it comes to killing mammals and most critters larger than a pot roast; I can kill spiders, flies, and other pests, but I just have a thing about larger animals. I guess it’s kind of an anthropomorphic thing – it is closer to a human. This, of course, doesn’t stop me from telling ranchers to go ahead and slaughter them steer. I’m waiting for my steak. I guess I haven’t thought this out thoroughly. A guy I work with has a picture of himself and a dead deer he presumably killed – the proud hunter holding the buck by the antlers. I don’t know why I have a problem with that kind of stuff; I don’t mind venison – especially jerky! Anyway, I used to wish that I shot wide that day, but only God knows. This incident didn’t stop me from finishing-out the season; I just wished I didn’t have to shoot again. In fact, I didn’t.
Getting up at 5 AM on a winter morning was tough for me, even though I was a teenager, but at least we were walking these fields. Duck hunting is something completely different. With pheasant, quail, dove, or turkey hunting, you are always moving; with duck hunting, you are standing still in waist-deep freezing water. I tried duck hunting one time. My neighbor Pat invited me when he found out that I hunted pheasant. He told me about how much more enjoyable it was than pheasant or quail hunting, which he also did.
On one very cold winter morning, we parked his truck and walked to a blind he said he used quite often. Pat let me borrow a pair of waiters. They were excessively big, but Pat told me since I wouldn’t be walking around much, it didn’t really matter. What mattered to him was the orange shotgun safety patch I had my mom sew on my hunting vest. I figured I needed to add some flair to the otherwise drab apparel, and the patch I got for completing the class was all I had. Pat said the bright orange in the patch is visible to fowl and may cause ducks to stay out of shooting distance; he also thought the patch was straight-up gay, which in retrospect he was right. I couldn’t help but comment on how cold the water was. Pat reminded me in an annoyed whisper to be quiet, but I couldn’t stop my teeth from chattering. Some time later, I let out a small chuckle when I noticed the floating bubbles in the water were actually thin slices of ice. Pat shot me a mean stare, then looked at my patch again and rolled his eyes.
After not seeing one duck in range for over an hour, Pat left the blind for a while, telling me that he may know of a better location where the ducks may not be flying so high. When he returned with what looked like an instant case of herpes, I asked him what happened to his face. He nonchalantly told me that he had been “rained on,” as if it was something all duck hunters experience from time to time. If the freezing cold weather, immobility, and the fact that ice slices were conspiring to create a skating rink around us wasn’t bad enough, this “rained on” crap was too much. But what was I supposed to do? He had the keys to the truck. Later, I found out that being hit by shot falling from the sky does not hurt or cause shot herpes (my term) – Pat must have caught spray from a discharged shotgun leveled. If he would have been any closer to the center of the spray, he might’ve been seriously injured, and I would have got to ride with him in an ambulance with a heater and warm blankets!
After spending three hours in a giant glass of iced tea, Pat called it quits. On the way home, Pat stopped at A&W for lunch. While the sun was up, my wet jeans were ensuring that even if it hit 80 degrees that day, I still would be miserable until I shed my denim. When Pat ordered a root beer with his lunch, I told him he was crazy. It was at this time that Pat introduced me to the concept of “Reverse Chemistry.” He told me that Eskimos often eat chunks of ice to keep warm. “You see,” he explained, “when the ice hits your system, your body melts the ice and warms the water and, ultimately, your body.” So I ordered a root beer, too. A word to the wise: If you think slamming down an ice-cold A&W Root Beer is going to make your frozen nuts drop again, think again. I sat there in his unheated truck, my teeth chattering through a Teen Burger and a side of calcium deposits, breathing to myself, “Come back, duck blind, all is forgiven!”
Of the few gun tales I have to tell, this last one is the shortest…and darkest. It is also, praise the Lord, the only one of which I do not have firsthand experience. Daniel was an early childhood friend of a friend. Though he lived just around the block, I lost touch with him in my early teens. In his 20s, Daniel became a member of the National Rifle Association. He was also trying to recover from PCP poisoning. I know very little about what happened to him other than he must have smoked pot laced with the pesticide and was later arrested while having a reaction to the drug. After his loving parents had taken him in and tried to help him recover from this very serious problem, he had another reaction that led him to gun down both his parents. His last act as a free man was to call the Sheriff’s Department and inform them of what he had just done.
By the time Daniel murdered his parents, I was completely out of the hunting thing. I remember thinking to myself when the news broke, “Whatever happened to our shotguns?” My guess is, we sold them. With all the gun violence happening in this country over the last 30 years I can see why there are people who want to control the manufacturing, purchasing, and use of firearms. While I have never felt that we should ban weapons used for gaming, I do believe we need to remove handguns and automatic weapons from the market. As for hunting weapons owned by not-so-stable people like Daniel, we need to be far more thorough in our screening and maintenance of gun ownership records. I know this sounds like a red-tape nightmare, but there must be a way to do this effectively. There is something far more important at stake than protecting free enterprise and our “right to bear arms.” I think Daniel’s case is a good argument for that. As for the other loose cannons I’ve been lucky enough to dodge, I haven’t seen a reasonable gun control proposal yet that can keep you safe from the lunacy of puberty.
an inept chess player
Source: Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary
I recall filling out the personal information on the Profile page of this blog when I started this thing. Favorite Movies and Favorite Books, as well as my occupation, were easy fields to fill. Where I got stuck was on the Interests field; I had none. This is not exactly true, but unlike my sister, who enjoys golf, hiking, snowshoeing, kayaking, and a plethora of other healthy activities, I had none — or at least none that I wanted to list. I mean, at the time I was entering the information, all I really liked to do was sit on my ass and watch movies, listen to music, and read — that’s it.
Since that initial entry, I am happy to say I have added an interest that requires some movement besides operating a remote control — working out. The thing is, it’s not really an “interest,” it’s more like a chore — like washing my cars. Another interest I listed that is more of an on-again, off-again/love-hate affair is chess. Chess can also at times seem like a chore. It is during those times — usually during a correspondence chess tournament that can become long and drawn out — that I lose whatever transient passion I had for the game, and the rest of the moves become obligatory.
I first became interested in chess back in 1994, after seeing the film Searching for Bobby Fischer. After the initial excitement of discovering something new, it became like anything else. In that first year or so, I bought a chess set, chess software, and a couple of books on the game, and as if I knew I was going to become a tournament player, I became a member of the US Chess Federation. This kind of behavior is not unlike me — diving into the latest interest with an open wallet and myopic vision.
The next thing I did was visit a Sacramento Chess Club meeting in hopes of making some friends. I found the chess players there very competitive and aloof. After losing games to a couple of people who thought I was some kind of a joke, I decided to ask for help. The first person who agreed to help me was one of the club’s best who mistook my request for personal training as a request to train my protégé son. It turned out he was not interested in teaching someone who was old enough to grow facial hair. I left discouraged. Online gaming was no better. I joined the Internet Chess Club only to find I was the worst player in the world. I was thoroughly humiliated on a couple of occasions by members who mated me in less then ten moves and then said things like, “My mom wants me to get off the computer and go to bed.” or “37, you’re older than my dad!”
Shortly after this, I discovered that a top-ranked Sacramento Chess Club member was a fellow civil servant and accessible by email through the State email list. I emailed him and asked if he would teach me the basics of chess. This is embarrassing to admit, since most players learn through reading how-to books and playing in club settings; but the books weren’t helping, and I felt I wasn’t good enough to show up at club meetings. The fellow State worker and top-ranking chess club member agreed, and we met at a café in midtown once a week.
On our first meeting, we sat down with our lattes and began a friendly game. A couple of moves later, he asked, “What system are you using?” “What system?” I replied. I never heard of “systems” in chess. (Over the years my “what system” joke has become a tired joke among friends as well as my Blogger account handle. Nobody gets it and for a good reason.) I realized I never learned an opening system for either white or black. Chess was getting more complicated by the game.
About six sessions and two months later, we had our last meeting. I told my own personal chess master that I decided to give up the game. This was in fact a lie; it was getting more embarrassing with each time I paid him to teach me what most people could learn by just playing the game more often then I was playing it. My personal chess master was also getting tired of teaching me. Though he did not say this to me directly, on more than one occasion, when he was frustrated that I could not give him an intelligent reason why I made a particular move, he would say through a sigh, “Look, if you are not going to respect the game, you should stick with checkers.” I know he didn’t say it to hurt my feelings, this guy is a USCF Senior Master and loves the game, I think he was hurt that I was disrespecting that game that he has studied for years.
I also felt tired, and this game requires a lot of concentration and dedication that I no longer wanted to dole out. Take for instance how the number of possible moves in a game grows geometrically with every move. The first move of the game is easy: the player has twenty legal moves, but as the game progresses, the permutations become mind blowing especially when the Queen, Rooks, and Bishops get moving. Perhaps I was taking this all too seriously, but I felt I wanted to learn the science of chess and play in rated tournaments – not just how to play a friendly game. This was my downfall. Ultimately, chess ended up like the drums when I was a kid. When the instructor told me I would not be the next Gene Krupa unless I practiced many hours a week for many years, I dropped the sticks and said forget it.
One of the positive things that came out of these sessions was that I learned the first few moves of three opening systems: for White openings, the Colle System; for Black openings, the Center Counter Defense and the Tarrasch Defense. I purchased books on these three opening games, but as par for the course, never got past the first few pages of each book. In this period of training, I bought many other books on chess — most I don’t think I ever opened! There they sit on my bookshelf, right next to the books on web design, in-line skating, Argentine Tango, and all the other things I thought I would be an expert in by now.
I experienced a renewed interest in the game some time later when I started playing email chess with Gus, an acquaintance from work. The outcomes of the games were not much different from playing either online or at the club — my opponent would beat me or we would draw. Still, Gus was humble and never belittled me. It may sound childish or immature, but it is amazing how small you can feel by losing to someone at chess. If I lose at basketball, I can say I am not athletic. If I lose at a video game, I can write it off as a child’s game. Even if I lose at dominoes or backgammon, I can laugh at how bad I am with numbers. Since chess is all smarts and there is no luck involved, when you loose it is as if your opponent just placed a dunce cap on your head and then proceeded to laugh in your face – it can be that brutal and humiliating.
Last year, Gus and I played another series of games. The outcomes were the same until I started reading the book Logical Chess: Move by Move: Every Move Explained by Irving Chernev. I beat Gus in the last two games we played. While I’m only talking about two games out of probably a half dozen, I think it rattled him; he never lost to me before, now he lost two in a row. We agreed to play OTB (over-the-board), but it never happened. I should have been inspired by these victories and continued to work my way through Chernev’s book (which requires playing through many games while the author explains his tactics). I should have started mixing it up with the guys at the club, and dispatching those pubescent punks online; but for some reason I stopped working through the book and didn’t get back into the game. Perhaps I was comfortable losing — man, that sounds pathetic!
Though I have not played much chess in the last year, I still eagerly await the paperback release of David Shenk’s acclaimed book, The Immortal Game: a History of Chess or How 32 Carved Pieces on a Board Illuminated Our Understanding of War, Art, Science and the Human Brain. The book attempts to illustrate how chess has been an omnipresent factor in the development of civilization, from its invention in India around 500 A.D. to its importance in the development of artificial intelligence. Shenk tries to explain why chess, above the thousands of games invented and played throughout history, thrived within every culture it has touched. Just about everyone has played the game at some point in their lives, and its rules and pieces have served as a metaphor for society, influencing military strategy, mathematics, literature, and the arts.
After browsing through the hardcover edition of Shenk’s book, I bought Bobby Fischer Teaches Chess — a collection of chess puzzles that I worked on during my commutes. I felt inspired that I could solve some of the puzzles that were taken from real games with the greatest player America ever produced. I stopped when the puzzles became too difficult, and I decided to spend my commute time doing something easier on my brain: napping. Recently, I tried to pull out my chess set. I don’t know why exactly. There was no one to play against; I guess I just wanted to lay out the board and pieces. Even with a cheap set like mine, chess is one of the two most beautiful games to behold (pool being the other one; unfortunately, I don’t have a pool table). I looked for my set for half an hour before I quit, picked up the remote control, and watched The Simpsons. I’m doomed to be a patzer-for-life if I can’t stay focused on the game, but I feel so warm and toasty (read superior) watching Homer make an idiot out of himself. If only he played the Immortal Game!