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.

 

Wet Towels and Menacing Mustaches


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.

On Certain Saturdays

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.