When they started dating, they drank sodas in her Mom’s kitchen. On the sly, they would taste each other’s sugary drinks whenever they kissed—which was often.
In college, they explored each other’s tastes in movies—she would pick one on one date, he would select one the next date. They enjoyed sharing snacks as they watched videos in his apartment. They were in love, and they couldn’t find faults with each other.
Two years and a little boy later, she wonders if there is anyone on the planet who can eat chips louder than her high school sweetheart.
This is a story about Sunny, the pound trash tabby that stalked mice when the sun went down.
This is the story of Sunny’s owners, who often got little sleep when Sunny brought in half-dead mice so his owners could try to catch the lame rodents. Or to have their morning appetites dashed when they found a mouse in the kitchen, decapitated—it’s brains eaten out of its skull.
This isn’t a story about finches or full-grown owls, either, but Sunny dispatched them as well.
Larry liked the convenience of the corner cafe—it was an easy walk from his home. The problem was the baristas always made the coffee as hot as molten lava. Many times he asked if there was a way to make the drinks less searing, but he would receive the same icy, “No.” He was tempted to reply, “If only you had a button on that La Marzocco that reflected your attitude, that would surely cool down my macchiato,” or, “The beans are already roasted, buddy, there is no need to boil them.” Alas, he held his burnt tongue.
“Just look at that young man in that cowboy hat,” she whispered to her husband. “He should remove that when he’s in church.” “Times change. Younger generations don’t seem to care,” her husband replied indifferently. Then, suddenly objecting, “How come it’s okay that women can wear big fancy hats? Doesn’t the Bible say a woman’s hair is her crowning glory? And why can’t I wear my New York Mets cap?” The wife, flipping through the hymnal, sighed, “Yes dear, but the Bible also says a woman is to cover her head during worship. Anyway, God’s not a Mets fan.”
The hollow in the old Silver Maple had been home for squirrels. These critters angered the dog, who treated the critters as invaders. Now colonies of bees made hives in that hollow. The dog did not protest to the new tenants. The dog’s owner noticed the beauty of a muted pooch, then the beauty of a natural beehive.
Now, the dog owner takes an active part in preserving this repurposed hollow. He calls beekeepers when each hive swarms. He also discovered the wonders of a beekeeping store. The dog’s owner only hopes his family doesn’t mind candles for Christmas.
My father died on December 11, 2014. I want to get that out of the way. The post below was originally published on August 19, 2014. (His obituary can be found here for anyone who cares to read it. I wanted to re-post this for four reasons:
It’s been nearly five and a half years since the original post, and I feel the age difference. I feel more vulnerable with each passing year.
Despite its brevity, I think it is a serious post with a funny story in it worth sharing again.
I’m trying to become a better writer, and looking over some of my older work frustrates me. I’m not claiming this a significant literary work, but it is an improvement over the original 2014 post. By the way, feel free to comment on my writing. Seriously!
I haven’t posted anything in a while, and I occasionally re-post just to add activity.
Recently, my father spent a night in the hospital. 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–or wait, is that fours? That’s dark. 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 I knew 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 a 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 relevant 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 a 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 mistimed his peddling—hitting the gutter with one peddle down, creating a rooster-tail of 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 resulting rash were 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 including me though I had 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!
“But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” — George Orwell, Politics and the English Language
I was doing a search in WordPress on the PSL (a common initialism for the Party of Socialism & Liberation) and I got posts about Pumpkin Spice Lattes–a frou-frou espresso drink that usually pops up on coffee house chalkboards every autumn. I thought the initialization of a drink name went too far. Mind you, the first blog with a post about pumpkin spice lattes I saw from the PSL results page was a new-mom blog. I haven’t been a new dad for nearly thirty years so it wasn’t my thing. Anyway, the post was about a creamer that made a coffee taste like a pumpkin spice latte, so it was faker than the fakeness of a pumpkin spice latte. (In case you didn’t know it, pumpkin spice lattes don’t contain a drop of real pumpkin in them.)
The results page showed many blog posts on the seasonal espresso drink referred to as PSL. I did a Google search and found even more pages relating to the beverage in that abbreviated form. Later I walked into a coffee house and saw the initialism once again. WTF? We’re now abbreviating crappy espresso drinks?
Where do we draw the line on this kind of abbreviation nonsense anyway? Way back before I knew there was a drink referred to by its initials, my son told me about the Party of Socialism & Liberation, he called it PSL (dropping the definite article for the sake of elegance). Then when I asked what the initials stood for he spoke out the whole name. The “Socialism” part piqued my interest.
I stowed my understanding of what PSL meant and started reading the party’s website. Then, for me, it became what PSL stood for and nothing else. I’m addressing you, you stupid latte, and Pakistan Super League, and Person Stop Loss, and the Romanian sniper rifle called Puşcă Semiautomată cu Lunetă. Yep, Wikipedia makes me look worldly.
While looking up the origin of the PSLing of the Pumpkin Spice Latte and found on its Wikipedia article that Starbucks used the hashtag #PSL in a Twitter and Facebook blitz back in 2012 to push the product. The corporation may have used that hashtag in over 12 million tweets in a single day. Who in the hell Likes or Follows a lousy corporation, anyway? A lot of people, it seems. Depressing.
I was taught in college that there is power in initialisms especially the three-letter ones. This power is associated with the Rule of Three in writing. It is far easier to remember three letters subjects–FBI, CIA, BBC, BMW, JVC–than it recalls two- or four-letter themes. Add more letters and it becomes even more challenging to hold the thing in your noodle.
A good example of this power in words and in initialisms is the sandwich Bacon, Lettuce, and Tomato. Invented around 1900, the Bacon, Lettuce, and Tomato sandwich, or the BLT, is one of the greatest inventions in the history of food–and food has been around for a while! The prominence of the sandwich in American culture is so significant that it virtually owns its abbreviation. (Okay, there are a couple of odd exceptions, but unless you are a computer programmer or a perv they never come up in conversations.) The introduction of avocado has thrown a monkey wrench into the zen of this initialism. Whether or not you prefer the drupe in the otherwise beautifully understated BLT, the initialism “BLTA” puts the whole ordering thing off a little. I never order it that way–preferring to pronounce “avocado” after the core initialism. (Unless I feel like being a coastal elite prick and say, “I’ll have the BLT California Style, please” while inquiring if the establishment sells Pellegrino because nothing less will do!
I have looked up at a bistro menu and suggested (to myself) that the vowel gets pushed up in the order so the sandwich can now be a proper acronym: The BALT, but that does not do the sandwich justice–sounding like the bush-league pitcher error in baseball. We can switch the consonants around, but LABT and TALB won’t do and BLAT sounds horrible. Sometimes we just have to live with the awkwardness and I hate that, even with avocado.
To give you an aural example of how the Rule of Three in initialisms work just listen to Alan Rickman above. Now, imagine Rickman as a waiter delivering a certain sandwich…
At my job, I have written most of my unit’s procedures for over twenty years and dogmatically insist that the Rule of Three is employed in initialisms whenever possible in our documentation. For example, years ago, after someone suggested in a rough draft that Field Services (the group that is responsible for IT equipment installs and removals) be referred to as “FS,” I insisted that the abbreviated name include an additional “S” since the group is a Section in our organization. I spared them the Rule of Three spiel and just said the abbreviated name should be “FSS.” Damn, I don’t care if my fellow staff members immediately conjured up images of Brown Shirts goose-stepping down the office halls with PCs and monitors under their arms, FS just will not do!
My previous boss embraced the Rule of Three to an annoying fault. Back when he was in charge of my office it seemed like every unit in the bureau had a three-letter initialism: the first two initials explained what the office did, the last initial mostly was for the office’s type or size (e.g., unit, office, section, branch).
Using these abbreviations came in handy when it came to the written word, but my boss would speak in three-letter initialisms as well. It got to be that our weekly meetings sounded like code to any outsider listening in: “Is the TCO keeping up with FSS’ installs?” “I’m also concerned that NTS may not be reporting to TCO where they are installing the new hubs.” “Two inventory teams today: one for LDC the other for LCB. We’ll start on LOB tomorrow.” “Make sure BAS gets LAMS and FA showing the same search results.” If the language became any more coded the next step might have been for the staff to don headphones and tap out Morse to each other. After multiple reorganizations, many of the office names have become so long-winded, and clumsy it made rendering them down to initialisms essential for the written word, and almost impossible to use in speech. (I wonder if my old boss would throw around initialisms as LOPOD, LACC, WSCRM, WPCM, and CRPMS.)
Sometimes the aural initialization of groups and things turned unintentionally humorous (or at least to me it did). While everyone else referred to the office that provided ID badges, chairs, and ergonomics in our building as Facilities Management, my boss would continue with the abbreviations, so the Facilities Management Unit become “FMU.” So when he said, “What about, FMU?” I heard, “What about Fuck Me Up?” If I were current with urban abbreviations that clash with my internal office initialisms those meetings with my ex-boss could have been very funny, but as it is I didn’t know until now that the unit ETL also stands for “extraterrestrial lesbian,” the section BSS for “bullshit syndrome,” and–my favorite–the division EAD for “eat a dick.”
So, at times, we can abuse the shit out of the Rule of Three, but let’s get back to PSL. I wouldn’t be so touchy about this if it weren’t a damn marketing strategy taken in by, new moms and the other millennials targeted by corporate capitalists. I understand the heavy use of an initialism like the CIA, but maybe that’s because it has been around so long. By the way, two well-known entities use the same initialism and the two entities’ purposes couldn’t be further apart: the Culinary Institue of America and, of course, the Central Intelligence Agency. One gave us Anthony Bourdain and a host of other talented people who are known for their whimsy, creativity, and good taste (pun in place). The other gave us the Bush/Obama black sites, unconstitutional executions, drone strikes, the killing thousands of innocents, and a host of coups and abuses in the Global South. I’ll take the Lobster Frittata hold the waterboarding, thank you.
George Orwell devoted much of his career championing the written word and its meaning. While his classic and now surprise best-seller Nineteen Eighty-Four is best known as a futuristic dystopia based on trends he saw developing back in the mid-twentieth century, it is also about the power of words and how that power could be used to manipulate the reader:
“In the beginning, the practice had been adopted as it were instinctively, but in Newspeak, it was used with a conscious purpose. It was perceived that in thus abbreviating a name one narrowed and subtly altered its meaning, by cutting out most of the associations that would otherwise cling to it.” (Emphasis, my own.)
This is the danger in the power of initialism. Orwell’s Newspeak employed neither the acronym nor the Rule of Three, but a truncation or condensation of two or more words. William Safire, the late conservative syndicated political and grammar columnist for the New York Times, wrote a weekly column entitled On Language (now written by Ben Zimmer) where he would nitpick what he believed was the deteriorating of the English language. He had his critics who said English was simply evolving. That said, he has a good point here:
“… Both abs and ads are now being called abbreves, an abbreviation of abbreviations. The clipping of words is a harmless habit, used less for speed in spoken communication than for its sense of novelty or insiderness. A generation ago, kids shortened “parents” to rents, “family” to fam, “brother” to bro. A generation or two before that, when invited to legit theater, we said natch, saving two and then three syllables. Fab was so well understood to mean “fabulous” that ad execs used it as the name of a detergent…”
“I have gone figging and now believe that the youth of each generation is shortnin’-bred. We cannot attrib the present syllabic slicing exclusively to text messaging, Twittering or the latest cellphoney-baloney; rather, lopping off word endings is not laziness but a function of generational insularity. No tradition is more time-honored than rebellion against linguistic tradition. Youth must not only be served, but its insecure communications must also have its own coded server.” — “Abbreve That Template,” New York Times, May 21, 2009
Before I conclude, one last super-annoying example of an abbreviation or an abbreve, (just kidding) is “inno” for innovation. Thomas Frank uses it liberally in his blistering criticism of the Democratic Party: Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People. The author introduces the abridged word intentionally, I believe, to mock his subjects: the rich tech execs and the neo-liberal Dems that gush over them while offering only lip service to the working class. My basis for this assertion is listening to the audiobook version read by the author. Kudos to Mr. Frank for keeping up the level of palpable disgust in his subject matter for over eight hours!
Perhaps Safire’s “On Language” column wasn’t as stogy as we all thought. Perhaps our language is slowly devolving, after all. All I wanted was information on socialism and I got a frivolous espresso drink!
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.
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.
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.
Meanwhile, 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.
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
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.
Somehow, 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.
I am currently working on getting a promotion, a promotion that I frankly don’t think I deserve, and I don’t think I will receive. Okay, the fact is, I don’t think I really want to receive the promotion. There, I said it. I don’t know how many people in civil service ever have these kinds of feelings. I do think that civil service can sometimes be like building a pyramid, going as far you can possibly go until you feel you have maxed out or you die. Perhaps it’s something like the Freemason’s pyramid on the back of the one dollar bill. (The iconography may be on other bills, but I wouldn’t know right now; my wife—who makes twice as much as me—regularly “Jane Jetsons” me. She sings the TV theme song as she goes through my wallet for the larger bills.) The incomplete pyramid represents, if I remember my early U.S. history correctly, the idea that God’s work is never done under the all-seeing “eye of Providence.” In my secular interpretation of this Masonic symbol, aggressive civil servants keep gunning for promotions—not necessarily looking at where or when they will stop; if they have the self-confidence to keep going, why not? Forget about whether they deserve it or whether the whole system is self-serving, they just keep locking down those golden handcuffs!
This is exactly like me, except in super-slow motion and without the self-confidence. There was a time, though, that I figured I would never even get to where I am. My career path out of high school started with panic. Before I graduated from high school, I visited my counselor. It was time for Mrs. Connelly to tell me what my options were for college: UOP, UCD, or maybe USC. It turned out the only USC I qualified for was the University of Southern Carmichael–the local community college American River College. With news of fellow classmates being accepted to Stanford, Cal, and UCLA, I somehow assumed that even with my sterling 2.3 GPA, some prestigious college would love to have me. When Mrs. Connelly said defensively, “Hey look, you were the one who couldn’t get a passing grade in ceramics, what do you expect from me?” I panicked.
As I remember it, on the first weekday as a high school graduate, I found myself downtown in the U.S. Post Office and Courthouse building. I started with my first choice: the Coast Guard. You see, when the college thing fell through, my plan was to go to the Coast Guard Academy and become an oceanographer or maybe an ocean photographer. (At one point I thought the two were the same.) After graduating from the academy, I would put in my time taking pictures of fish; then, if I decided to leave after my service was up, I would become a firefighter.
Firefighting seemed cool—not the actual firefighting part, but the fact that someone actually pays you for laying around a station watching TV and playing cards, at least that is how firefighting was depicted on TV—my chief educator. Since it’s a great-paying part-time job, I figured I could either kick it during the abundant time off, or get another low-pressure job and put in the time I wanted before I had to go back to the station and resume laying around and watching TV—what a breeze.
Sitting across from a butch-haired young man wearing an immaculate white uniform, my plan unraveled fast. First the academy, then oceanography, Butch couldn’t even promise a stint taking ID photos of sailors, but that didn’t stop me from signing up to be a yeoman just like Butch. I have never been able to explain to my family’s satisfaction why I continued to allow the yeoman to fill out the enlistment papers after finding out I wasn’t going to go to the academy, etc. Nor can I explain without being embarrassed that I thought oceanography would be fun—I didn’t really consider oceanography a science, my worst subject in high school, besides ceramics. I had a big book on ocean fish and another on sharks, but since I only looked at the color pictures I somehow associated oceanography with photography. Regardless, when the time came, I signed on the dotted line. The only reason I wasn’t stuck scrubbing decks or sitting in an boring office signing up suckers like me was found on a separate form yeoman Butch forgot to fill out but remembered just as I was getting up: my medical information form. It was the medication I took for my seizure disorder—the same disorder that made me feel like an undermench, brittle among flexible young men—that spared me the sponge and bleach.
At that time, I didn’t see the one and only good byproduct of suffering through humiliating seizures in front of friends and strangers and being the “special” kid who had to take pills with his lunch. No, all I did was panic some more. “What am I going to do now?” I cried to myself. What I did was hit every other enlistment office in the Post Office. After being rejected by the National Guard, the Navy, the Air Force, and the Army, I found myself in front of the last office: U.S.M.C. it read on the shingle outside the door. I remember almost running into the office and abruptly asking without any introduction to a black man sitting at a desk reading the paper if the Marines would accept someone who takes medication for seizures. The pleasant looking older man with salt and pepper hair looked up from his paper and with a warm smile said, “Son, I bet you have been to every other enlistment office in the building, haven’t you?”
As I sat on the steps outside the building, emotionally shot, I saw a homeless man pushing a shopping cart full of crushed cans and thought, “That is me in one year.”
Of course, I didn’t end up a transient; my parents didn’t throw me out into the street, they were very patient with me. I started attending college, and I quit my job at Taco Bell to sell shoes until I got the brilliant idea I didn’t need college—I could sell shoes on a full-time basis and skip the school gig; college was for losers.
Besides dropping out of college being hubris, the decision to take on a full-time job that depended on commission ignored one glaring fact: I didn’t have the people skills required to sell shoes. Week after week, I would receive paychecks from Florsheim Shoes—each one said I made $50 in wages and, on an average, $40 in commissions. This brought me to about $90, which was $70 below minimum wage; California law forced Florsheim to pony up the balance each week. “Earnings Adjusted” was the caption of shame that contained the money that I didn’t earn but had to be given to me to make it legal. I actually made more money at Taco Bell as the nightshift crew chief, where I made two bits an hour over minimum wage. During weekly staff meetings, my manager, Jay (who also happened to be my best friend and the inspiration for my dropping out of college so I could make big bucks selling shoes) would ask me, “So, you’re getting the hang of this, right?” If I weren’t his friend, he would have righteously fired me. In retrospect, that would have been the best thing for me; instead, I lasted almost a year making minimum wage on Florsheim’s dime. I followed Jay to Julius Clothing, where I worked as a stock clerk for a short stint, learning just how much the markup is on high fashion clothing. Then, for some insane reason, I returned to Florsheim and languished there until landing what I still consider the best job I ever had.
For a couple of years, I attended college again and wrote movie and music reviews for the American River College campus paper—The Beaver (now The Current). While attending screenings at the Tower Theatre as a movie critic, I started up a friendship with the manager. When a position opened up there, I applied and got a job tearing tickets. I spent the rest of my college years studying journalism with the hopes of becoming a rock critic like my heroes Greil Marcus and Robert Christgau. Of course, working at the Tower turned me into a bit of a film aficionado (snob) as well. More importantly, I developed friendships like those I never had before or since.
The last days of college turned out to be just like the ones in high school: fraught with panic. As I was finishing up my degree in journalism I figured I couldn’t cut it as a journalist. I was told by editors from both the Sacramento Bee and Union at a career fair that “all writers” have to work their way up from cub reporter doing ads, funeral notices, and other short news pieces before they can work in the field they want. I felt I couldn’t (or wouldn’t) go through this process. This gloomy outlook on my chances to become a music/film critic, it turned out, was not true; things were changing in the newspaper business, and the old salts I had talked with were only reflecting how they remembered their own career paths.
So what was I going to do being so close to graduating with a BA in Journalism and not wanting to be a journalist? Before running down to the Post Office building a friend told me about a proofreading job for the State of California. With my journalism skills and credentials (I edited two college papers) I aced the exam, the job test, and job interview, and got a position as a proofreader. Thus began my long career in civil service.
While I have always had self-confidence problems I believe civil service has worn what little I had down to a nub. This lack in self-confidence has manifested itself in the last ten or so years in shiftlessness. In an age when most professionals are expected to move up or out every three years, I have moved only three in over 20, and in seventeen of that score I have worked in a depressing basement of the same building. Since I have been working in civil service I have seen many coworkers who have had the same classification as me, or lower, move many steps above my current classification. While this is humiliating I am not bitter at their successes; I am quite intimidated at the work they do: they have earned their station and I have earned mine.
I rarely attempt to move up anymore, rarely apply for new jobs, and rarely work on my resume. But that doesn’t stop me from wishing I were doing something else. The last promotion I received was handed to me—all I did was whine at the right person. I was sitting at my desk when I saw my old boss walk through the door. My current manager was leaving, and the job announcement was out for her replacement. When Fred came through the warehouse doors, asking about the open position, I jumped out of my seat and ran to him like Peter to the resurrected Jesus. This was the same person I had problems with in the past and about whom I used to spend hours telling my crew how much of a jerk he was and how glad I was not to be under his boot heel. I asked what he was doing down here, though I already knew. When he confirmed my hunch, I went into action. I gave him a tour of the warehouse and then complained to him that I didn’t want to work in my current position anymore. He reacted the way I knew he would, saying, “If I get the job, I’m going to make some changes around here.” To any rational man with an ounce of self respect, this should have been my exit queue, but that didn’t bother me, nor was I phased by the fact that his promise to “change things around here” was a direct criticism of how I ran my shop. I just sat back and waited for my new assignment and, ultimately, my bigger paycheck.
Ironically, when the new classification came, it dawned on me that any hope of leaving civil service for an outside, private job with equal pay and benefits was as good as gone: I was now making more money than I could ever hope for on the outside considering my skill level—the ratchet on those golden handcuffs clicked down. Time went on, and I didn’t move up the ladder or on to a different post or agency. On the rare occasion that I attempt to move, the ultimate denial only reaffirms the self-fulfilling prophecy that I didn’t deserve it.
So, I have worked the same old job for over five years rarely pursuing any change in venue or attempting to make more money for being just as miserable. At times, I wish I were more ambitious; at other times, I wish I could be content in my station—that would be the Christian way to look at it. About a year ago, in a Bible study, when we were taking prayer requests, Ken, a Brother who works for a state agency, chimed in asking for a prayer of thanks, saying, “I got a promotion!” We all clapped and congratulated him. After the study, when we were outside the hall, I asked him what his new classification was. With a great big grin, he said, “You are now lookin’ at an Office Technician, Brother, or at least I will be when the paperwork goes through.” Ken is a 50-year-old file clerk who is happy doing entry-level work. He was so happy that I was surprised he wasn’t a Staff or an Associate Analyst—how could someone be happy being a clerk at his age. I knew the answer. I just couldn’t be happy being what I am, which is a sin.
Recently, in a closed-door meeting, a co-worker, Sharon, told my current manager, Andrew, that it was time for our agency to promote me. If Fred were still my manager, he would have promoted me a second time by now, not because I deserve it, but because he promoted his staff to justify his own promotions—this is how civil servant managers build that seemingly endless pyramid. I didn’t know anything about the meeting Sharon and Andrew had until it was over and she told me what she had said.
In the following two weeks, Sharon provided me with other people’s promotion paperwork as templates for my own paperwork. This wasn’t the first time someone else spoke up for me; a couple of months prior, one of my dearest friends, Sophie, left the agency. At her going-away party, she took Andrew aside and said, “Jocko doesn’t promote himself, but he is an excellent employee, and a very dear friend. Watch out for him.” On the bus going home that night I wept, partly because Sophie cares that much (though she has nothing to lose by saying this stuff) and partly because I need people like Sophie (and Sharon) to fight my battles for me.
So this is how I kicked off my promotion process—with a little help from my friends—friends who really, truly didn’t know whether I deserved a raise. Both Sharon and Sophie have been promoted twice since my last raise, and they were probably sensitive enough to think I was embarrassed about that, which I am, but also it is the civil servant thing to do—to get promoted—and I am obviously not doing a good job at it. A month after Sharon’s meeting, I submitted my papers. I have no idea how this will go; my boss hasn’t said a word, and there is only about a month left before the promotion committee reviews all the candidates. I think I am going to dread the outcome regardless—these golden handcuffs are tight enough.