Big head. Balding big head. Overweight with a balding big head. Overweight with a balding and graying big head: My life in a few unflattering pictures

As a toddler, I might as well have worn a hat that said, “C-Section Baby” to remove all doubt from anyone who cast their eyes upon my giant head and thought, “How did mom birth that kid?” On second thought, I would have to wear a T-shirt–they wouldn’t be able to find a hat large enough for my gargantuan grape. My small mouth only accentuated the problem. Growing and keeping my hair longish helped for a while until I began to lose it. Then, after I got married, I began to gain weight followed by my receding hair graying. So the images below are not intended to impress. “There but for the grace of God go I,” I suppose.

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Is this 1963? Close. That is me on the left next to my sister, Michele. It is amazing my neck could suspend that gigantic head!

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The early 60s. After my grandfather got the donkey and told my brother to get off of it, we settled down and watched 8mm home movies on my forehead.

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Two hopelessly square conservatives and one swingin’ progressive in or around 1966.

1967 3rd Grade
1968, Third Grade class picture. I nearly flunked out of this one–as I actually did First Grade. I hate to say it, but I credit my promotion to Fourth Grade to my teacher’s serious car accident. Mrs. Pickett was replaced by a long-term temp who had more patience with me. Geez, look at me! I was a hot mess.

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Eighth Grade yearbook pic, I think. Check out the wave in those bangs!

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Sometime in the mid-70s, we saw Rich Little at a casino in South Shore or Reno, Nevada. Rich Little inspired me to become an impressionist, but like everything else, once I found out it took a lot of practice and hard work, I dumped it. Leasure suits? Good God! Were my brother and I feigning senior citizens?

1975
Because my father built boats for a living, I spent a lot of time on the Sacramento River in the mid-1970s. This pic might be from Folsom Lake, though. What a ham!

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1977 trip to Alcopoco, Mexico. Here my brother and sister and I pose for a picture.

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Senior Year Homecoming. I rarely went to school dances. I was as out of step with my schoolmates–and my date–as that leisure suit was in the fashion of the day. I should have seen it coming! Sorry, Jerri.

1976
I spent two seasons trying to shoot pheasants from the sky. On the last day of the 1977 season, we bagged three drakes. I never hunted after that. I don’t mind eating fowl; I didn’t like the feeling I got standing over mortally wondered birds lamely flapping their broken wings, then having the unenviable task of breaking their necks.

1980
This 1979 lad is beginning to bald, but can still rock a Calvin Klien oxford, Newman jeans, and a YSL belt.

1984
Party time after hours at the Tower Theatre. The year is 1985 because that was the release year of “Cocoon.” That’s me on the ground, my boss Gerry above me, my best friend and fellow floor staffer, Paul on the couch. Randy and Anne are the attractive lovebirds. They met at the Tower, fell in love, got married, and became successful in the film business in SoCal.

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This photo appeared in the now-defunct Sacramento Union in the mid-1980s. It was the main image in an article by Mick Martin about college students opting to stay home. (And, presumably, leave the housework to their mothers.) The picture was a big hit with the ladies. You missed a spot, Mom.

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I think this was taken in 1985 during my one-year relationship with Judi. My best friend, Paul is on the left. I don’t know what party we all went to that required name tags.

Tower Gang '86
1986: The end of my five-year stint as part of the Tower Theatre floor staff. I got a job working for the State of California. When I was put on furlough, I came back and worked for a couple of months. This photo was one of the last nights working with the old crew.

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In 1987 one epoch came to a close, and another one began. I graduated from California State University, Sacramento. (The Ten Year Plan.) Here I am with my mentor William A. Dorman. The new epoch started within a month of posing for this photograph: I got married.

peteI’m not sure if this was taken in 1987 or 1988 since I lived with my future wife and her kid, Peter, for a year. Call it a test drive. Of course, it worked out swimmingly. This is one for the images from a photo booth at either the Pizza Hut or the Time Zone arcade across the street in Old Sacramento. I spent countless hours and quarters on Peter at the Time Zone. First Pizza Hut then, when Ely was a toddler Chuck E. Cheese’s. I was once a pizza snob before this time in my life. Now, it was whatever Peter and later Peter and Ely wanted no matter how shitty the pizza. Parenthood.

1989
In 1988 we bought our first house. Here I am amusing my father (kneeling) and my father-in-law with my sophisticated jocularity while we installed tiles in our new kitchen.

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Then came Ely. I think this was when I started to gain the weight. A lot of time resting, followed by eating, then more resting.

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1989, I suppose. Ely is young enough to ride on my back. I don’t know where we are, but I like the look on Ely’s face, asking himself what the heck is his big brother Peter is doing.

1990
Christmas 1989, I think. I’m trying to figure out my kids’ Christmas toys.

sutters fort
So in 1992 I messed up and didn’t do any of the parental hours I was supposed to perform during Peter’s Magnet school year. I was told I could make it up by spending the night at Sutter’s Fort with my kid and his classmates (and other slacking parents). We had to rough it: wear period-looking clothes, even sleeping on the ground at night. It’s strange hearing total strangers fart in their sleeping bags! My job was the class photographer. See that twine around my neck? Below it dangles a period Asahi Pentax K-mount SLR with a 55mm f/3.5-5.6 lens. Very rustic! This is one of my many pre-smartphone selfies. They did that back in the day, no?

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In 1994/5 my wife and I took separate vacations. She went to Chicago and came back an ardent Cubs fan to this day. I went to the D.C. area where I stayed with our friend Mad Dog and became a passionate hockey fan–for well, about two years. (I’m not good at sticking with things.) I saw all the Smithsonian museums, and on the weekend Mad Dog and I  went to Gettysburg and Baltimore where we took in an Orioles game at the beautiful Camden Yards, John Water’s old apartment complex, and visited Edgar Allen Poe’s monument.

another meth problem
My brother and I have always had to share birthday parties since our dates are only about two weeks apart. I used to think that was a ripoff. Since my youngest son, Ely, has a birthday within a month of my brother and me, my mother makes a big deal of celebrating “The Keaton Kids” birthdays together. I like the idea and other family members’ birthdays are celebrated in a like manner. Here is one of the dozens of Keaton Kids Birthday Cake Blowout pix my wife religiously takes. This one is from the late 1990s. Ely’s big brother, Peter on the right. Since his birthday is near Thanksgiving we celebrate his with Tommy Turkey’s death day.

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At the cabin owned by my parents and brother and his wife sometime in the 1990s. That’s my dad in the background probably saying something like, “Cut that selfy shit out!”

Jack & Peter
Not sure when this was taken, the early 00s, I suppose. I’m either in mid-laugh, mid-fart, or just trying to pull my now gigantic ass out of the chair. This time was also Peter’s long, unkempt, “What’s a rubber band?” hair phase.

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We’re at the in-laws here, Peter, Grandma Peggy, Ely, Grandpa Bob, and me. This was probably taken in the mid-00s.

2006
Martial-arts leaves grabbing in 2006. My all-time favorite pet, Casey is giving himself a bath on the hood of my neighbor’s Beemer in the background. I miss Casey.

2007
2007 Playa del Carmen, Mexico. I remember thinking. Boy, am I going to lose weight in Mexico! Last time I was there (1977) I got a severe case of dysentery and things aren’t supposed to be much better as far as the water goes. As it turned out, we stayed at an all-inclusive resort that had it’s own water filtration system. Outside of the resort, I drank nothing but cerveza and diet soda, so I ate like a pig and hit my all-time high in weight: 235!

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We took an Alaskan cruise in 2008. Best vacation I’ve ever had. The cruise part wasn’t all that great. Like the previous year in Mexico, I pigged out on the ship. What else do you do on a cruise? It was all the ports of call that made the trip fantastic. I’m not a hiker, but this glacier hike was great! To all readers of this post: Go on a glacier hike quick and remember to take plenty of pictures so you can tell your grandkids what they were like.

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This one hurts. Yes, there was a time I liked Obama, and I believed in all that Hope and Change shit. The wife and I had left a restaurant in East Sacramento and noticed an Obama 2008 campaign office near our parked car with this standee inside. There was a short line for people wanting to pose with this chunk of cardboard. The time was obviously magical for more people than just me. Then the man was elected, and he called in the arsonists to put out the fire!

Flag
I took this selfie in 2009. I was in a church in Elk Grove, California and about to join a Bible study session. In the 1980s the right wing hijacked patriotism, the flag, the National Anthem, everything short of apple pie. I never had a flag to put out on Flag Day, but after all this shit I never wanted to be misunderstood! So, no flag on Flag Day or July 4th. Also, conservative churches began to associate themselves with the Republican Party and its candidates. I found this flag hanging in a hallway near the room where the study was being held. What’s a flag doing in a church? Where does it say to worship Ceasar? This selfie was intended to be slightly irreverent–as if to say, “This the way I salute the flag, my fellow Christians!” But after posting it on Facebook, a few of my conservative friends dished out some patriotic tripe. “Hell yeah! America!” and the strange, “All you need now is a cowboy hat, and you’re Toby Keith!” Huh?

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Me and my wife’s little mistake. We are cat people, but in 2009 Ely, her baby boy moved in with his girlfriend. I suppose my wife felt she needed a replacement–something more responsive than a cat. Enter Vivian, somewhat equal parts labrador, beagle, “Canine from Hell.” We were not prepared for this kind of dog. Nor were the two trainers who kicked my wife and her unruly dog out of each of their training classes. My wife says she will cry hard when Vivian dies. Then, after a respectable time of mourning passes and we’ve vacuumed the last hair of dog from the property, she’s going to get a litter of kittens and become “That crazy old lady with all the cats.”

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Keaton Boat Group, Stockton Ski Club, 2009. I’m in the floppy hat talking with Dennis Payton, a long-time family friend. My dad is in his boat. For decades we never had a boat of our own, always taking demonstration models and clients’ boats out for family outings on the Sacramento River. In his retirement, my dad bought a used Keaton from someone who most likely bought it from my dad. Then he modified it into a fishing boat with the ability to troll. Still, he complained he had to settle for a small block. We’re talking about fishing, and my dad still wanted to go fast! I miss him dearly.

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2010: The Year of the Scooter. I got a Vespa GT 200L in 2010. I launched the blog BurgerScoot and rode around town reviewing burger joints and dipping my toes into the local scooter subculture. Turns out you really should know how to cook if you want to write decent, informed reviews on restaurant food. Alton Brown, I am not. I had fun and officially ditched a diet that I was unofficially failing. I discovered food trucks around this time. MY GOD, FOOD TRUCKS! Here I’m at REI where Krush Burger (nee Mini Burger) parked.

Boring
In 2011 we vacationed in London, Oxford, Bath, and Paris. All fascinating places, especially London which I won’t mind seeing again, but I have found over the years that I like to stay close. Close like North America. Is Hawaii considered North America? What about Iceland? I’d want to go to those two places, too. Wait, Ireland, and Scotland! Oh, the Scandinavian countries, also…

2012
Springsteen at The Jewel, Oakland, CA., 2012.  Thanks to Annie and her brother Karl!

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One of the most exciting finds in recent years here in Sacramento is The Moon Lecture Series hosted by St. Mark’s Unified Methodist Church. St. Mark’s is a progressive-minded church and the Moon Lectures, which occur during the last four months of each year, features some of the most interesting progressive voices in the country. I have seen Morris Dees, Chris Hedges, Angela Davis, Michele Norris, and recently Jim Wallis (see below). I am very sorry I have missed past guests like Rev. William J Barber II, Amy Goodman, and Daniel Ellsberg.  Here I am with Advocate Dees, co-founder of the monumental Southern Poverty Law Center, doing my very best Jimi Hendrix impression.

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In 2014 I was diagnosed with Osteoporosis. Osteoporosis is a terminal illness–you’ve got it until your bones shatter like glass or you die of some other age-related disease, or you get hit by a truck. The closest thing to an Rx for the condition is staying limber. My physical therapist recommended yoga. It was one of the two most important pieces of advise I have received in my advancing years. The other being “Lose at least fifty pounds.” I’ve taken the first piece of advice very seriously and am struggling with the second piece.

2015 Rogers Centre Toronto
In 2015 we vacationed in Toronto. It is a beautiful city. Here I’m in the CN Tower. By the scowl on my face, you would think I knew that the A’s would get their collective ass handed to them by the Blue Jays later that evening. No, that’s how I usually look. If you get a chance, visit Toronto and don’t miss taking in a game at the Rogers Centre. It’s a great ballpark, even if the otherwise amiable people of Toronto turn into complete assholes when they are in that massive stadium!

2016 A's v Pirates
2016: A’s host the Pirates. Guess who won?

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Late in 2016 my mom and I saw Anthony Bourdain in San Francisco. It was a fun night. The chef turned author, TV personality, and activist along the way was funny, crude, and gracious. I realize this addition may come off as obligatory after hearing of the man’s death especially considering I never watched his shows on a regular basis. Still, his Kitchen Confidential is one book that I think of every time I walk into a restaurant, glace at a menu, take a slice of complimentary bread, and use the restaurant’s bathroom. Bourdain has been called one of the greatest storytellers of our time and one of the most influential cultural figures of his age.

2017
Last year Mom took me to a Giants vs Nationals game. One condition, though: I couldn’t wear my A’s colors. I couldn’t abide by wearing anything with the Giants on it, so I met her halfway and bought a River Cats cap. The Sacramento River Cats is our local AAA team and, alas, a Giants affiliate, so purchasing and wearing the headgear stung a bit. When I pulled the cap out of the shipping box, I frantically perused it to ensure it didn’t have any Giants markings or that “Stronger Together” bullshit slogan on it. I enjoyed the crab sandwich, a dugout-clearing fight, the Nat’s shutting out the home team, and the excellent company!

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June 23, 2018: My mother’s 85th birthday party at Raley Field, home of the Sacramento River Cats. My mom popped for a corporate suite! Sweet…
Another Moon Lecture at St. Mark’s Unified Methodist Church in Sacramento. This one on
November 2, 2018, with Jim Wallis: preacher, activist, founding editor of the independent news and faith magazine Sojourners. Wallis is also the author of many books including his latest America’s Original Sin. I went with my co-worker and friend, Tom. I think he liked the political activism of the man but wasn’t crazy about the Christianity part. To me, Wallis embodies the best of both worlds, and as you can see by the selfie, he’s quite a sport! Chris Hedges wasn’t so amiable when I asked for a picture together here a few years back.

Eggs, Bacon, and Evil Clowns

Skip is talking about jury duty and how, in his retirement, he gets summoned more than ever before. “I’m so tired of getting picked for jury duty. The next time a lawyer asks me what do I think of black people I’m going to tell ’em ‘There’re great. I think everyone should own one.’ Maybe then they’ll leave me alone.” Skip is a crusty old white man about 75 in a faded plaid shirt and wearing a beat-up, greasy San Francisco Giants cap with the bill bent in multiple angles almost looking like a half octagon. He is sitting two seats to my right. He’s talking to Jesse, another white septuagenarian (I’m also estimating) who is also wearing a plaid shirt albeit newer. Jesse is sitting between Skip and me at a counter of a Denny’s near my doctor’s office. It’s Tuesday, a scheduled day off for me. I have planned some errands to run after my doctor checks under the hood.

Lyn, a plump 40ish waitress, carries a coffee pot around and freshens all our coffees including the young woman on my left swiping through her iPhone. She missed the racial slur Skip made because she has had earbuds in since I arrived, only popping one bud out to hear whenever Lyn has to say to her whenever she stops at her spot across the counter. The waitress slides an All-American Slam in front of me: three scrambled eggs, hold the Cheddar cheese, two strips of bacon, two sausage links, hash browns and two slices of white toast. A better writer would keep his ears open, but my food is here and I don’t multitask well when food is in front of me.

What am I doing at a counter of a Denny’s? If I get a day off for appointments and errands, I almost always go to a neighborhood restaurant that serves a good breakfast, but today, thinking about writing a post on diners, I decided to throw caution to the wind and eat at this place. The original idea was to eat at the counters of a half-dozen diners to take the pulse of “Real Americans,” but felt the triteness of the subject wasn’t worth the extra lining of arterial plaque, so this post is mostly about my personal history of diners.

Lyn speaks to Skip, Jesse, and the young woman (who I’m guessing is in her 20s) as if they are regulars–cracking wise with Skip and Jesse and talking to the young lady with the earbuds in an empathetic tone. At one point the young woman apologizes to us for tuning us our–she says she is a healthcare professional who works a night shift in a skilled nursing facility and is really tired. All of us tell her it is okay. She smiles and pugs her earbuds back in. “When are you going to put cod back on the menu,” Skips ask Lyn. Before she answers, I feel some java coming up thinking about eating fish in a Denny’s. Skip presses the issue. Lyn tells Skip she doesn’t make the rules. Jesse, in a disgusted tone that I relate to, wants to know if Skip eats fish for breakfast. “No. You know I eat dinner here most nights!,” Skip snaps back. I look over at my neighbor to the left. She is oblivious to the fish banter.

I used to go to diners like Denny’s quite often. First, there were the times in the 1960s. I was somewhere around seven years old. My Grandfather used to take me to the Sambo’s only a block away from my his hardware store on the corner of 65th Street and Folsom Blvd. here in Sacramento. I vaguely recall enjoying the murals above the lunch counter that told the tale of “Little Black Sambo.” Of course, I was oblivious to the racist content at the time–it just seemed like a story to me. The NAACP, among other offended entities, saw it differently.

Because of that early exposure to the diner-style eatery, I have always had a fond memory of that kind of restaurant but had little interest in eating in places like that in the  mid-’70s when I got wheels and a disposable income or at least that’s how I felt initially. In the ’80s I occasionally had late night snacks at diners when my friends and I would finish our night clubbing at local places like Club Can’t Tell and Danseparc or after attending local punk/New Wave concerts, usually at Galactica 2000/The 2nd Level. If we went to the now-defunct Carrows, we were often waiting on by a woman who was dating a friend. (She would later become my wife!) But in between the nightclubbing phase and before my marriage, there were my late-night coffee and homework visits to the Peppermill on Arden Way with my co-dependent girlfriend, Judi, one of those visits ending in a parking lot meltdown. (Intriguing? You’ll have to read about that incident in my post The Ballad of the Codependent Rat, but beware, it is not for the faint of heart.)

This would be a good time to mention an experience I had not too long ago. I have been living or working in the area of Broadway since 1980 and from that time the diner Pancake Circus has been a fixture in my mind. It has always looked creepy from the outside: worn down, dull, with the feeling that if you touched the building you would have to scrub that finger with acetone to get the ick off. And then there’s the whole circus motif with balloons and clowns. Surprisingly Pancake Circus has a presence on the web–well, sort of. It’s more like a placeholder, but includes a handy OpenTable reservation tool–I shit you not! It also has a photo gallery that doubles down on the whole creepy feel including an Easter Bunny that is so evil looking it would make poor little Johnny wet himself!

Until recently, I knew of only one person who has been in the place. In fact, if I remember correctly, Geoff Wong ate there every weekday morning. A local attorney, novelist, and host of “Geoff Wong Adventure Theater” that ran in the 70s, Wong was once my old Peppermill-patronizing, co-dependent girlfriend, Judi’s boss! The one time I visited his office to pick Judi up, she introduced me to him. He was eating his lunch standing up. I didn’t think much of him standing while eating, but when Judi and I were leaving she told me that he always eats his lunch standing up. “He says it better for his digestion, but…” I phased her words out at this point, as I often did with Judi, and envisioned the local celebrity barrister in Pancake Circus eating his breakfast standing up, ready to bolt when he saw one of those clowns coming for him!

pancake circus
Be afraid, be very afraid!

That was the only person I ever met who had eaten at Pancake Circus and lived to tell the tale. That is until a year ago when I received a text from my East Bay buddy Paul informing me he was in town to visit family and they had decided the whole family would go to Pancake Circus after attending Mass. I reminded him how creepy that place always looked when we worked at the Tower Theatre down the street and to advise him to eat his pancakes standing up. I later received the adjacent image on my phone. Then, from his sister’s house, he texted me that the place was actually alright.

This led me to challenge myself one day to have breakfast there, just as I did this morning at Denny’s. It was about as creepy on the inside as it is on the outside. And the wait staff acted as if they stepped out of a wormhole from the 60s–all “Honey” and “Hun” and “Sweety.” As it turned out despite expecting Pennywise to appear in the service window with my omelette au Rohypnol saying, “Tasty, tasty, beautiful fear–uh–I mean eggs,” the food was good–even standing up. (Okay, I’ll stop.) The breakfast was on par with most diners, I doubt I will ever return, though. I don’t remember seeing any cod on the menu, but as I was leaving the place with a full belly I saw something on the sign I never noticed before: “Steaks Seafood Salads.” Ordering seafood there would be a challenge I would never take.

IMG_0255As I left the Denny’s this morning to ride to my doctor’s office, I found fresh vomit in the car lane next to my scooter. (“Fresh” meaning it wasn’t there when I parked my ride forty minutes ago.) A foreboding sign, to be sure, but my stomach felt fine. It dawned on me as I was riding to my doctor’s that I was scheduled to do some labs which required fasting. Oops. It’s incredible how my stomach lords over my brain!

Since my previous doctor retired, I now have a pretty blonde D.O. for a primary care physician. D.O. standing for doctor of osteopathic medicine. (Should be a DOM, but that was a previous post.) What is that, you ask. Here is how the website with the pithy name http://www.doctorsthatdo.org describes it:

Listening to you and partnering in your care are at the heart of our holistic, empathic approach to medicine. We are trained to promote the body’s natural tendency toward health and self-healing. We practice according to the latest science and use the latest technology. But we also consider options to complement pharmaceuticals and surgery. 

Some may think that sounds like a bunch of New Age baloney. Not me! The books I have been reading on yoga, meditation, the chakra system, and Ayurveda have given me the impression that the first time I would see my new D.O. she would be wearing a sari, sitting lotus in the corner, chanting “Om mani padme hum” while incense burned. Nope, she walked in five minutes after me wearing white slacks, a lab coat and only smiled and said, “good for you,” in a near-patronizing tone when I tried to impress her by saying I practiced yoga. (Thank God I didn’t bow my head and say Namaste when she entered the examination room!)

Twenty minutes after leaving Denny’s parking lot I’m sitting on the examination table and whining about my sleeping problems and my weight. The irony is not lost on me here. Also, in the middle of my bitch session, I suppressed an All-American Slam burp into my fist. Was that bacon or sausage? Whatever. I excuse myself and go back to bitching about my weight.

This was my third appointment with my lady doctor and I’m not sure if she has figured out the walking contradiction that is me. If she got a whiff of the dead-meat burp that might explain her doling out some home-spun wisdom, “Don’t love food that doesn’t love you back” and the suggestion I see a nutritionist. I agree to the nutritionist referral knowing that person will not be prescribing All-American Slams for breakfast. I think about the vomit in the parking lot. Someone’s breakfast didn’t love him back, I guess. I ask myself the wrong question–why didn’t I order pancakes.

A History of an Unlikly Wordsmith

I remember when my terminally ill father asked me if I was happy with the career I had chosen. That might have been a good time to lie and make him feel assured that I was doing something I enjoyed–as in the way he enjoyed making boats and my brother presumably enjoyed running a lumber company. I told him I was somewhat content. The fact is I wanted to be a writer and I ended up a civil servant for the State of California, but I didn’t want to dump that on him, so I said something like I just followed the career path that I saw when I landed inside civil service and didn’t look back.

The problem was there was plenty of rubbernecking going on over the thirty years in civil service, but I never wanted to take the chance and just dive into a career in writing. I was too afraid. When it came to going after what you wanted in life, my father seemed fearless. He liked to race cars, boats, and dirt bikes, and he did all that with vigor and success. He seemed brave to me in other ways too, the ways that many grown adults are fearless–starting his own business in a leisure industry. An industry that was reactive to recessions, droughts, and the caprices of human nature.

Thankfully, my father didn’t point out that my mealy-mouthed answer to his question wasn’t much of an answer at all. So I got out of telling him my fear of pursuing a career in writing–my fear of rejection and my fear of the unknown (unknown paycheck, unknown medical/dental, unknown retirement income).

Passions Never Developed

I have always had a passion for telling stories–the vehicle was the problem. In elementary school, I liked drawing comics–well, sort of. My art was horrible–even considering I was an adolescent and just starting out. Unlike a few classmates, I didn’t have the raw talent for drawing. There was Scott Marmaduke (Yep that was his name!) He started drawing when I did, but he not only had a sharp eye, he also understood satire. So his pictures were far more sophisticated in style and message. I remember staring at one of his drawings: A parked Mayflower Moving van, the driver in the cab snoozing–the driver’s speech bubble filled with ZZZZs–while the company’s ship logo was sinking into the sea. My submission was Batman in his Batmobile. For starters, the chassis was excessively too high like the caped crusader was driving a monster truck. Comparing the two drawings was painful.

I recently read David Hajdu’s The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How it Changed America, a book about the early comic book industry and the censorship that nearly killed it. The author wrote how the old masters like Will Eisner (author of the seminal comic book series “The Spirit”) started by tracing images. I did that as well, but I apparently didn’t get as far as Eisner and his peers. I just didn’t have the raw talent, the observation skills, or the patience of the people who–through blood, sweat, tears, and the avoidance of clichés–made it.

And like my short-lived training behind a drum kit, as a child artist, I was all dreams and precious little dedication. Getting my idea across on paper took too much time and patience. I liked conveying stories. I didn’t want to invest the time it took to draw or write them. I kind of had my own oral tradition and the friends around me were my audiences. Think of Homer, but instead of Odysseus and the Fall of Troy it was the neighborhood kids and the Collapse of Mike’s Fort.

I do remember handing in an assignment when I was in the third or fourth grade where the teacher encouraged the class to add drawings to our written assignment. I remember authoring my assignment “by Luke Isles.” Luke was my nickname. As for Isles, well it just sounded cool at the time. I remember being thoroughly embarrassed when I saw the teacher attempting to suppress a smile when I told her Luke Isles was my pen name. Perhaps I was overly sensitive at that time and/or I am overly dramatic now, but I believe that moment may have been a harbinger of my doomed professional writing career. Am I going to have to put up with those kinds of condescending smiles the rest of my childhood? When would someone take me seriously? Later, I would be crushed by bad marks on the few writing assignments I cared about. I think I received criticism from readers of my college newspaper articles harder than most of my fellow journalism students. If this stuff bugged me so much during these tender years how would I endure the rejection notices and having editors keep turning down my ideas for articles?

I think the cocktail of fragile ego and impatience prevented me from taking up writing (or any kind of art for that matter) over the next ten years. In the meantime, I would tell stories (usually true but embellished, self-deprecating stories that often had listeners responding through laughter, “You should write this stuff down!” At one point I became re-acquainted with a childhood friend, Rick, who was managing a shoe store. Against his better judgment, he hired me and we became close friends. It was at this point he suggested I take a journalism class at American River College with him.

Beaver editor
In my office at The Beaver. Hot shit!

I had begun studying there right out of high school in 1977 but dropped out. Thanks to Rick, I got back into college and (after a few scattered semester-long breaks) received a BA in Journalism in 1987–The Ten Year Plan. In the meantime, I got the writing bug again. I was a little more resilient and patient, but as I would find out later, not resilient or patient enough to make writing a career. Rick, who became the Editor-in-Chief of the campus paper, The Beaver (now The Current) and the journalism instructor, Charles “Doc” Slater, introduced me to the Inverted Pyramid and the Who, What, Where, When, and How of reporting. After a too-short stint as a news writer, I started writing film and music reviews. The following year I became the Entertainment Editor with my friend Erik taking over the helm when Rick left for film school at USC. After reading Greil Marcus’ Mystery Train, I decided I was going to be a music critic. For the first time since elementary school, I was expressing myself via the written word with a passion.

A few years later, I transferred to California State University, Sacramento (CSUS) and started writing for the campus paper, The Hornet, though I was not very productive–only submitting a review or story every few weeks. I remained a journalism major with hopes to become either a rock critic or now maybe an investigative reporter. A lot of hopes, but not much else. This aspiration began to show its weak foundation when CSUS had a career fair one spring day and I spent a couple of hours talking with Sacramento Bee writers under the paper’s big blue tent. When I left their tabernacle, I was filled with that all too common self-doubt.

Just like giving up on being the next Charlie Watts when told I would have to put in many years of diligent daily practice (not to mention even more years working in cover bands for tip money) before I would become a great drummer for an internationally-known band. I was told the road to a position like a music critic for The Bee (and ultimately on to Rolling Stone magazine) would take years of writing death notices or working with ad copy. Then, when I got through that gate, I would then most likely become a reporter doing straight news while submitting ideas to the entertainment/culture editor on the side, trying to get my foot in the door. Like a kid in the back of a station wagon on a cross-country trip, I wanted to be there and didn’t want to endure all of the miles between my diploma and my desk at The Bee with the other writers on the entertainment beat.

VMG 1987
The closest I’ve ever come to my “15 minutes.”

My dimming hopes of being a writer were marginally brightened when Mick Martin, the film critic of the now-defunct daily newspaper The Sacramento Union, approached me and fellow Tower Theatre employee, Paul Plain at a press screening with a proposition: write film reviews for his upcoming Video Movie Guide. I submitted six reviews and saw my name in print in a national publication (albeit buried deep in the Acknowledgements). As the first edition went to print, I agreed to be a Chief Contributor for the 1987 Edition. Paul was wise and turned down the “promotion.” When it came out it was nice to see my name under “Chief Contributors” with only twelve other names around it. But at a substantial cost to me as well as Mick and Ed Remitz, the Guide’s Consulting Editor: with only a few exceptions the films I reviewed were “Direct to Video” releases (read: crap) and I quickly tired of reviewing the worst of the worst.

Paul and I used to love laughing at horrible cinema together, but watching this shit all by myself, taking notes and then writing about it was a hell I never wish to tarry again. I kept misspelling words in my reviews as well as the names of cast members–a cardinal sin in journalism. Mick called me a couple of times to remind me to proof my work before submitting it. Finally, one night he had enough of my misspellings and general lack of care and gently fired me. You’d think that would have crushed me, but I was relieved. The embarrassing thing was that I hung on way past my welcome. Mick needed to fire me since I wouldn’t quit. A tiny part of me wanted to keep doing it, keep cranking out shitty reviews of shitty movies, peppered with misspellings; the tiny part that wanted to remain a proud Chief Contributor instead of an insignificant name in the crowded field of Acknowledgements. This is how truly horrible writing is created: lazy work and false pride. I still keep a couple of the guides around though I never recommended them to anyone–there are far better guides out there–especially online. After changing the title and format a couple of times, Mick stopped the Guide about ten years ago.

Hornet credMeanwhile, my friend and fellow journalism student, Erik, had graduated a year earlier than I had and was already in the field. He was happy doing what I began to think was a  high wire act without a safety net. How easy would it be for him to be let go? Would if his employer had to downsize and he was the least critical staffer? Let’s not forget starting out in a small operation where there were no health benefits. I take a lot of meds and need a neurologist and occasional EEGs and MRIs. Would I be able to afford to pay for my own health insurance? I was on my parents’ plan at the time and whenever this crossed my mind, it scared the shit out of me to think I will someday have to pay for this myself if I don’t get a job with some employer who offers these benefits. This was not the kind of mindset that fosters creativity.

Bailing Out

In my last year of college, I got a job as a proofreader for the State of California. I didn’t know it at the time, but it would be the beginning of a career with benefits that would last to the time of this writing–over thirty years. From the first night, I showed up to work I kept thinking I wasn’t going to pass the probationary period. I clung to Dale, a veteran proofreader, who kept assuring me I would pass probation. I could tell this job was significant compared to stuffing tacos, selling shoes, tagging Giorgio Armani dresses, and tearing movie tickets. And because of this feeling, I became addicted to the security of civil service though I hadn’t finished my first month of service yet. Writing, what writing? I’ve got medical, dental, vision, and a CalPERS retirement account, Y’all! How quickly I dashed my dreams.

What little yearning to make a career expressing myself in the printed word was virtually suffocated by the security blanket that is civil service with a significant pay boost and a benefits package. A year later I was married and instantly became a stepdad. Erik was doing what he always wanted to do–working for a paper. I was proofreading bills, amendments to bills, and legal opinions. But let’s not bullshit, I never attempted any kind of professional writing gig.

Recently, Erik and I had lunch. We talked about our college days, our softball team, old college friends including Ethan and Barry, and Erik’s time as a newspaperman. (He now teaches high school English and Journalism in the Sacramento area.) I told him how I admired him pursuing what I was too cowardly to go after especially in a neoliberal economy with growing worker insecurity. Then there was Ethan who was on The Beaver staff and the softball team. He left American River College to go back to his New England home. He got into the small-market film business. I guess that’s not bringing in enough money because he is now a Lyft driver to help make ends meet. Ugh! Ever the showman he’s promoting his moonlighting job as a unique experience for his customers.

Barry, who Erik and I worked with on The Hornet had it rough after graduation. He bounced from one job to the next often having to settle for telemarketing. At the time of my lunch with Erik, Barry had been unemployed for so long that his unemployment insurance had run out. Erik and I had given him money to help make ends meet. He was also getting some assistance from his LDS ward. Barry set up a GoFundMe account at one point and a request for “mini-grants” through his Facebook page. At one point, the Sacramento theater community that he was once a part of came together and held a fundraiser for him at a local watering hole. Within a year of that event, he was found dead in his apartment. The same apartment he had nearly been evicted from on more than one occasion due to not being able to pay his rent. I realize Barry’s case is unique and as for Ethan’s, well one could say that comes with the territory.

I remember when, in my early teens, I made a weak attempt to learn my father’s craft. He was at times a harsh taskmaster because he was a perfectionist. Also, he couldn’t let me practice and screw up on boats that were already paid for by customers. I bailed out of that apprenticeship before it ever got formally started. A few years later, I asked if I could train to be a boat builder. I doubt I was earnest. I was probably just looking for some positive reinforcement. He snapped back at me, “Why the hell would you want to build boats…?” I don’t remember the rest of the reply, but it had something to do with his business weathering the OPEC Oil Embargo, followed by a recession, then a drought. I was hurt by his words, but a few years later understood what he was talking about when Reagan’s supply-side economics hurled us into another recession and I started reading about layoffs and businesses struggling or going under in the papers and orders for my dad’s boats sagging again. I got nervous about venturing out and doing something that might net true happiness with the understanding that I would occasionally have to weather unemployment due to the nature of the industry I chose to work in. I ended up “choosing” (more like stumbling upon) an industry that is virtually impervious to economic downturns.

My father’s career choice ultimately provided enough money to raise a family even if the waters got a little choppy at times. Then there is the kind of career that is similarly reactive to economic downturns but doesn’t net much money when days are fat. I give you the professional yoga teacher. I used to practice with a teacher named Aviv. Unlike the other teachers I’ve practiced with, Aviv exclusively taught yoga for a living. He bounced around town doing contract work in various studios and, occasionally, the City of Sacramento (the Yoga in the Park programs). He loved his career and that made me both jealous and sorry for him. He wore his hair long and out, dressed in basketball shorts and jerseys, and dirty, beat up crocs. He looks like the most comfortable–if not the most presentable–man in town.

His love for teaching yoga was evident: he was funny and talkative. On the other hand, in some of his ramblings, he would let slip about jobs that have fallen through that he said he needed. I also saw him come close to begging for more work; trying to sell an idea he had for a workshop to the group exercise director of the athletic club where I am a member. I became anxious just listening to him stress to the director how beneficial this workshop would be to the members. It sounded more as if he needed the money. This is the downside of being free and making your passion your paycheck–especially if your choice is something like yoga teacher or going it alone as a professional musician or–like my college buddy Ethan–try to break into the film business. I knew I never had to do that kind of thing to keep my job at the State. “Just don’t dump a pot of hot coffee in the manager’s lap and you’ll be fine,” Dale, my proofreading big brother assured me whenever I worried that I wouldn’t pass probation in my new job for the State.

Still, Aviv was doing something he really loved. My career is repetitive, mostly a dull eight to five with an hour lunch and excellent benefits. I have run projects before, but never felt the stress Aviv seemed to be emitting as he was trying to sell that workshop idea. For him, it could have meant a little something extra in his pocket towards replacing a worn tire on his failing car or maybe some coin to sock away to ensure he could keep the lights on next month if the work got thin. If my boss didn’t like an idea I had for a project I would just go back to the thrill-seeking job of verifying asset movements and scanning barcodes. A project didn’t earn me any extra scratch; my paycheck is the same size each month project or no project.

About three months ago, I found out Aviv was moving to Maui. We were all happy for him, but over the last two classes he led, many of his students including this blogger asked him what he had lined up over there regarding employment. Avoiding the question, he just kept repeating the locution, “I always wanted to live in a place where I could walk around without shoes and a shirt and not get hassled.” All I heard was the absence of gainful employment while also knowing the horrible homeless problem Hawaii has. The other students kept talking about how jealous they were. Not me, I thought of poor Barry.

Journaling & Blogging: the Amateur Writer

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The Keaton Canon

While I was finishing my ten-year stint as a college student–a dying career in journalism or some kind of job writing now removed from life support–I began journaling. Jimmy, my best friend at the time, fancied himself my muse, as once did my old girlfriend, and encouraged me to keep writing regardless of what I do for the rest of my life. He kept telling me to write every day. He instructed me to buy writing materials and get to it. He would repeatedly say to me “Read a word a day and write a word a day.” Presumably, he didn’t shoot for a high goal knowing my tendency towards idleness. I ran out and bought a fancy pen (because that’s the key to great writing!) and one of those diary-style notebooks. When he saw the journal, he chuckled then said he was thinking of something along the lines of a college-ruled tablet. I guess I wanted my writing to look like it was in a book. How utterly sad. (Then again, I found out a few months ago that’s how Joan Didion got her start. Of course, that’s where the Keaton-Didion comparison ends.) Looking back, I think I would have written a little more if I had the elbow room to wax eloquent instead of the cramped 5″x8″ format of the–at times femmy–looking notebooks I bought and wrote in over that short phase.

I wrote consistently if not rousingly in these journals from October 1984 through August 1987. I would reboot journaling in the early 1990s. The last two “reboot” journals are marked with long gaps of inactivity. The last entry in the last journal was dated March of 1996. All the journals, especially the last two, are peppered with short entries questioning my worth in this endeavor. For instance my ability (“Who am I fooling? My writing is crap!”); my passion (“I don’t know what I am doing.”); and my diligence (“Word.”). A bitterly sarcastic dig on Jimmy’s “Read a word a day and write a word a day” charge.

I was already working on this post when I ran into these journals while prepping my bedroom for painters. There they were, packaged lovingly in a box spine up to save space though I admit it looks kind of like it was in some library bookshelf: The Keaton Canon. As if, the collection would look entirely at home between the works of Dickens and Orwell. The only thing missing was my name and volume numbers on each of the masterpieces’ spine. When the paint was dry, I stashed them back up in my closet unintentionally mimicking Jimmy’s chuckle. Then laughing aloud in spite of myself. They are waiting the day I go through them one more time–looking for some rough-hewn nugget of genius to transcribe into this blog before I take a Zippo and lighter fluid to the lot.

About ten years after my last journal entry I got the writing bug again; this time without any pretense of being a great writer or journalist. I just wanted to express myself in prose. My friend and fellow State employee, Chip, had created a blog and was posting articles. After reading his posts on Blogger, I started my own.

Jockomo, my first blog, was born.

I named it in honor of Jimmy. That’s what he called me. Or at least that’s what I thought he called me. The first time he saw the blog he queried, what is Jockomo? When I told him he corrected, “No, Giacomo, as in Giacomo Puccini.” I didn’t chuckle this time, but a smile that delivered the same patronizing punch. I felt like an ass, but I also liked Jockomo despite its birth through ignorance.

I started posting my writing at this site in February of 2006. In June of 2010, with my blogging activity waning, I added an additional blog where I combine hamburger joint reviews with posts about my new scooter and scooter culture. The first version of Burger Scoot was born. The blog you are reading is my latest stab at writing along with some stuff I transferred over from my old Blogger account.

PublishSomehow, I forgot all the grammar, punctuation, and structure I learned in my College English classes that got me a degree in Journalism with a minor in History–both disciplines requiring a high volume of writing. Speaking of college, many of the better-written, earlier posts were actually proofread by college students. I found an online service where I could email my drafts to a proofreading service and the service would have an English student go over them; mark them up (with some of the better proofers writing lengthy explanations why specific corrections were made). These notes also revealed just how far I had (have) to go to be a good writer. (I don’t think I’ll ever drop the passive voice. I like it too much.) I believe this service was replaced by a computer program similar to the Grammarly.com service I use now which just doesn’t come close to catching the plethora of errors an English college student finds in my prose. It may seem to the reader that paying a proofreading service for a blog post only a few people will read is indulgent. (Or is it overindulgent? See what I mean.) The practical side of me agrees, but I feel naked without that help–as I’m feeling right now as I am typing this, and how I felt when I hit the big green Publish! soft key.

If you are still with me, thanks for sticking it out. This post has meandered quite a bit. It started as one thing then became something very different with some awkward transitions in between and at least eight long paragraphs cut. (I nearly cut out many more. Perhaps I should have.) I usually start with some kind of outline in my head, but this one may have got away from me. What do you know: a post about writing, poorly written. Hang on. It is almost over.

My life as a writer has been marked by fear, insecurity, laziness, frustration. With all those attributes it is incredible this blog doesn’t cave in under its own weight. Ultimately, my desire for self-expression is the arch stone that keeps it together and me continuing to express myself.

Baseball, booze, and sacrifice zones

IFC’s  Brockmire

IFC‘s new comedy Brockmire is the perfect storm of raw comedy, baseball mythology, rust belt economic depression, chronic substance abuse, corporate malfeasance, desperate sex, and–ultimately–redemption. I can’t get enough of it. And considering there are only eight twenty-two minute shows in this first season, it is very frustrating. Hopefully, IFC will increase the number of episodes next season, if there is a Season 2. I can only hope.

Jim Brockmire, played by Hank Azaria, is a baseball announcer who is fired after a profanity-filled on-air meltdown after discovering his wife was having an affair. Brockmire returns to the broadcasting booth ten years later in a significantly smaller market and–at least initially–in a more minor role. Amanda Peet is Jules, the owner of the Morristown Frackers who hires Brockmire. She is battling the local shale oil company that want’s the team gone so it can expand its enterprise. Tyrel Jackson Williams plays Brockmire’s assistant, Charles–an introverted geek who, by comparison, seems the only ordinary person in the town.

Azaria’s has been developing the Jim Brockmire character for six years. It is based on baseball announcing style like baseball Hall of Famer-turned announcer Phil Rizzuto, but his folksy, down-home delivery reminds me of Monte Moore sans the booze talk. The Kansas City/Oakland Athletics radio announcer from 1962 to 1980 was a familiar voice in my house when I was growing up in the 60s and 70s. I learned such lines/terms as “donnybrook” (a dugouts-emptying fight) and “arson squad” (a chronically unsuccessful bullpen). I remember his home run call “There she goes!” and how he called the A’s “the good guys in the white shoes” (referring to the A’s iconic white cleats).

The socio-political commentary is simplistic and direct: the desperation of Morristown (meth labs and pervasive alcoholism) that have been sacrificed by free trade agreements and mining, the manipulative and evil shale oil company that can’t have a business meeting without sinking into debauchery, and the baseball players who are hardly the image of “the boys of summer,” all of this is delivered with dark humor.

I haven’t seen the whole series yet, but I’m about half way through the far too short Season 1 and wish there were more episodes in front of me.

Repost: Why I Don’t Build Boats for a Living

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I originally posted this back in my “prolific” phase of blogging.I thought I might revisit this piece in honor of my late father. When it was first posted in December of 2006 some mistakenly thought this was a criticism of the acclaimed boat builder. Far from it! While the focus is on me (surprise!) the reader will definitely come away with how much the writer was in awe if his dad.

While it does not happen every day, occasionally when strangers learn my last name, they feel the need to comment on it. When I was a kid, older folks would hear or read my name and ask if I am related to the famous classic movie start. Alas, I am not. In my high school and college years, people would tease me about having the same name of a contemporary star of the silver screen. I dreaded some of the cracks my schoolmates made equating me with this star and not the classic actor.

Throughout the years, though, a certain group of people – almost like an elite underground, or purveyors of a profound open secret – would look at me and say, “You’re not related to the boat builder, are you?” This filled me with a strange mixture of pride and shame. The pride came from the confirmation that I was indeed the son of the great boat builder. The shame came from that fact that while I could see these people were impressed – they were talking to an apple that had fallen very far from the tree. In fact, the branch kind of coiled back, and in slingshot fashion, jettisoned this apple out of the orchard. Of course, I should feel nothing but satisfaction that I am my father’s son, and I should not be ashamed that no one is ever going to look at my son’s driver’s license and say, “are you the son of the great California State paper pusher?” I also feel a bit regretful that I did not pursue my father’s craft, though I know it would have been a tough tutelage.

As I was growing up, there were some who thought I had it made; I was going to be a boat builder like my father, run the family business, and carry on the proud tradition. I recall one day camping at Lake Almanor with my family and friends – something we did a lot back then. This one kid, the son of a prominent Sacramento business owner, was skipping rocks across the lake with my brother and me when he turned to us with a big grin and said, “Isn’t it great that one day we will take over our dads’ businesses!” A pregnant silence followed, the kid’s face twisted into a question, and then he queried, “Don’t you guys want to take over your dad’s business?” We did not say no, but our displeasure at the idea of working that close with our father for the next forty or fifty years seemed to be written on our faces.

It is hard to explain to an outsider why I did not become the next great boat builder or even a water sports enthusiast. The best explanation I can offer is the man’s temper. My father was not a violent man; he never laid a hand on us, but it was his anger that totally intimidated my brother and me. I do not know how the Hershey kids (if there were any) handled living with a father who made chocolate all day, but I can just see old man Hershey yelling at his kids how they are mixing the cocoa with the sugar and milk wrong. I can envision the kids just getting sick of their old man yelling at them so often. It is a poor analogy, I know. In my case, my father was the owner and responsible for at least 70% of the work that went into manufacturing each boat and trailer, so we were too close to the whole business. Just as I can see the kids down the street green with envy over the Hershey kids’ prospect, I can also see the Hershey juniors dreading the days they worked in the factory, with the smell of cocoa, milk, sugar, caramel, peanuts, and almonds overwhelming their senses. I can envision them knee-deep in Hershey bars, Reeses, Paydays, Kisses, Kit-Kats, Almond Joys, and Mounds, all the while dreaming of broccoli and Brussels sprouts.

My brother and I were oddities among the children in our neighborhood. When my father got into racing dirt bikes, he would come home from work, hop on his Greaves or Husqvarna, and ride wheelies up and down the street. My friends looked on in wonder, lining the streets like the last leg of a motocross race. To them, my father was the coolest dad in the world; he made boats and could ride wheelies all the way down the street. He did this while his two sons were nowhere in sight.

Things became straight up perverted when my father brought home a brand new Honda 50 mini bike for my brother and me, and we were cowering behind my mother. At 48 years old, I can see how ridiculous this might have looked, but at the time, the kids flocking around the Honda 50 did not know how utterly intimidating my father was. His temper took the fun out of this kind of stuff.

Boating was no different. Family outings on the water were fraught with intensity. “Will I have to drive the boat off or on to the trailer?” which translated into, “Will I get stuck being the one he yells at?” There was also “Will I get up on one ski on the first or second try?” which really meant, “Please God, let me get up on the first or the second try. I don’t want to get that look.”

I blame my sissy self for not being able to enjoy boating like the kids of the parents who bought my father’s boats. Still, the anxiety was real, so by the time I got a car and a job, I did not miss the outings. The woman who became my wife ultimately learned of the legend. Her jaw dropped to find that not only did I not possess a boat, but also that I did not want one. The shockers continued: I was not a trick or slalom skier, and the kicker was that I had absolutely no desire to buy a boat of any kind. My sister bought one of my father’s boats before he stopped building them. Now a quarter of a century later, I have bought her boat – hell has frozen over.

The main reason for the purchase is that my wife has always wanted one, but also my sister needed the cash and my wife thought it would be a good idea to keep a boat in the family, though nobody seems too terribly fired up about boating. Another reason – one that until now has been a secret to all, including my wife – is that I wanted to try to capture something that I missed out on all these years. I really thought I would never buy one of my father’s boats – or any other kind of watercraft for that matter.

So here I am a boat owner in the dead of winter. I have not even seen the boat since I purchased it. I doubt I will even make the trip across town where it sits in storage until the spring when I take it out for a spin with my family. The pathetic thing is all I can think about is which one of us is going to drive the boat up on the trailer when we have finished – not me, I will be the one on the ramp yelling!

The Tough Business of Our Mortality and the Legend of Super Stu

Evel Knievel

My father spent the night in the hospital the other night. His illness is not uncommon for a man his age. My brother had surgery a day or two before that. Then there’s me with some weird strain of chronic vertigo and skin cancer. It always comes in threes–er wait, is that fours? That’s rather macabre. Still, when this stuff happens to you and the people you love it reminds you how we are not invincible. It also reminds me of my youth. While I was so afraid of baseballs traveling in my direction in what I believed to be at a lethal velocity or riding my bicycle or trail bike faster than a crawl for fear that a limb would tear off * some kids were fearless.

Enter Stewart, the next-door neighbor who held the record for most trashcans successfully jumped with a bicycle (at least in our neighborhood). Stewart wore an old-fashioned “brain bucket”-style helmet he got from my father who no longer used it. After my dad tore up his ear while racing in an enduro or scramble, he moved to a three-quarter Bell helmet.Stewart re-painted it and, using a magic marker, created his new personae right on the side of the helmet, “Super Stu” with a four-leaf clover for luck. As far as I could tell he needed that charm. It scared the shit out of me seeing him start in the street, peddle like a madman jump the gutter with only a split-second to re-gain his form before his front wheel hit the ramp.

The passing of this helmet and this trashcan jumping is germane to the hospital story. My father raced cars, boats, and motorcycles. He found enjoyment in pushing his body. He almost died in a boat racing accident years before he got into racing dirt bikes. He wasn’t a daredevil, but he had injured himself enough to know his body had limits, but that’s about as far as it went. Super Stu was just crazy, but I like to think there is poetry in the passing down of a helmet even if it is not to his son, who, let’s face it, was a pussy.I don’t know why we set up the ramp in the area we did. While the landing zone was on grass that’s about where the OSHA-mindfulness stopped. There was precious little real estate at the end of the last trashcan before Super Stu’s family fence (and surely the Grim Reaper) stood. He had to hit the breaks the second his back wheel gained purchase.

I don’t know why we set up the ramp in the area we did. While the landing zone was on grass that’s about where the OSHA-mindfulness stopped. There was precious little real estate at the end of the last trashcan before Super Stu’s family fence (and surely the Grim Reaper) stood. Super Stu had to hit the breaks the second his back wheel gained purchase. He only had one contender (read: someone stupid enough to try to match his record). But Dan didn’t ride a Schwinn Stingray like Super Stu and everyone else, for that matter except for Dave, who had a Huffy. (Poor Dave, always the one with colored socks when everyone else had Adidas and Puma white sweat socks, green cords when everyone else had blue jeans, loner parents whereas everyone else’s parents were social.)

Dan had a route bike. Basically, a beach cruiser with a significantly longer wheelbase than a Stingray and heavy racks in the back and on the handlebars for his newspaper sacks. I suppose Dan could have used one of the stingrays that we were all sitting on in kind of a “festival banana seating” fashion, but then again I doubt anybody would have agreed: “No man, I’d be in Dutch if you died on my bike. I’d be grounded forever and ever.”

Dan had plenty of room for his approach, but he timed his peddling wrong—hitting the gutter with one peddle down creating magnificent sparks behind him! The gutter/peddle business made him lose his balance, and one foot and hand slipped off his bike. He shot by the ramp, missing it by only an inch, and hit my parent’s Albizia tree carving a large chunk out of the trunk. In my later years–when Dan had moved down to SoCal, and he was now only a memory to me (to manipulate in my mind at will) I used to fantasize about him not missing the ramp, but hitting it—launching him with one hand and leg flailing—into what would be the closest thing I would ever see in-person to the remarkable footage of Evel Knievel’s legendary 1967 Caesar’s Palace jump and wipe-out landing.

 

Super Stu once told me that he thought he was immortal, that he couldn’t die (unlike Dan or my mother’s poor silk tree, or me and my skin cancer and vertigo, or my father with his medical condition). I don’t know if Super Stu was joking or if it was pure hubris, but when he decided to do some urban skiing behind my brother’s Kawasaki 80 he found out that at least he could bruise. His crash and rash was spectacular! I only wish I could have seen it up close and not from down the street.

Which brings me back to how we all are mortal—even Super Stu, whether he believed it or not. Sitting in my father’s hospital room hearing about his ailment and how he has had problems over the last few years or so and has just adapted to them rather than ask a doctor about them, I am reminded of how growing old is a tough business. My father has adapted, but there will be a point when his body finally fails. I don’t like to think about that. My family is taking it very well. I have broken down and cried a couple of times when I was alone. When that time comes we will be left with precious memories, clear images that will stay with us the rest of our own moral lives, just like Super Stu’s record trashcan jump and Dan’s near-colossal fail!

My Shaklee Daze and the Dangers of Doorbell Ditch

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.