Today is the bicentennial of Karl Marx’s birth, and while much of his work is over my head, some of his basic ideas are spot on like how all profit is “surplus-value” (obtained by paying workers less than the value of what they produce). Marx called capitalism inefficient, wasteful, and immoral. Today this seems like an understatement. Read Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism and This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate for starters. Marx wrote of the “laws of motion” of the capitalist system before there were crippling recessions and depressions, booms and busts. Marx also predicted monopolies. Most of these predictions and assertions were writing in his masterpiece, the three-volume tome Capital: Critique of Political Economy (also known by its German name Das Kapital). While I can say I have read the passionate yet anachronistic Communist Manifesto (co-written by his friend and often financial supporter Friedrich Engels), I cannot say I have read much of Capital Volume 1 and I have never seen the other two volumes.
I had a proper introduction to Marx in high school thanks to Mr. Thorn–an exceptional economics teacher–who had his class read Robert Heilbroner’s The Worldly Philosophers. Heilbroner’s Marx seemed to me like the hero of the common laborer, but I was young and a remedial student and was aware of this deficiency. I was easy prey to the smarter kids who thought Marx was terrible. (It was the Cold War and I lived in an upper-middle class neighborhood and attended a high school of the like.) Mr. Thorn was a free-thinking kind of teacher and was open to ideas by Marx and Thorstein Veblen–another thinker in Heilbroner’s book that fascinated me. I loved the class so much that upon receiving a “C” in the course I enrolled in the class again, earning the same grade despite covering the same material. (I told you I was dull!) Without a doubt, Marx was the most challenging chapter in a very challenging book for me, but Marx cared about working person. No matter how mediocre of a student I was, I understood Marx cared for the little guy, and I liked that.
In college, my exposure to Marx was relegated to a guest speaker on one day in my Economics 1A class. My professor lectured almost exclusively on how reduced governments, free trade, deregulation, and fiscal responsibility in government was the ideal. I got re-acquainted with Adam Smith, David Ricardo and was introduced to Friedrich Hayek and other Austrian School economists, as well as Milton Friedman, and other University of Chicago economists. Just like in my high school economics class, I was horrible, garnishing a “C” and compelling me once and for all to stay away from the subject but focus on the social ramifications of economic projects. I have always been compassionate. Where I got that from I don’t know. Maybe my parents, but also there were my Sunday school teachings of Jesus. (I would later articulate Jesus feeding and healing the poor into being pro-welfare, pro-National Health Insurance, and pro-Guaranteed Minimum Income.) When I was a kid, I liked Robin Hood’s stealing from the rich and giving to the poor idea. (I would later articulate this into aggressive wealth redistribution aka Progressive Taxation.)
Anyway, I put up with the libertarian-leaning class study. In a lame attempt to be “fair” the professor had a student who was a member of a socialist party come in an explain socialism to the class. It sounded good to me, but after the socialist finished his talk a classmate who had been quiet the whole semester started asking questions. Soon he was ripping into the speaker rhetorically asking something like “How do you expect architects, engineers, doctors, lawyers, etc. will agree to be paid the same as janitors, waitresses, groundskeepers, dishwashers, etc.” The socialist stammered and the guy in class just kept coming at him. I even remember the professor smiling impishly on the sidelines not about to help the young socialist out even if he could defend the speaker if only in theory. When the capitalist apologist was done, he became the Big Man in Econ 1A. I knew there were smarter socialists on the planet who could debate this student, and for every smarter socialist, there would be a more intelligent capitalist, and so on, but I didn’t know the answers. I would like to think the winner in the Debate Royale would be a socialist. In a timeless universe perhaps Marx would be the last man standing.
After I graduated I put away Marx and socialism and settled down as a family man, discontinued my subscriptions to leftist magazines, and voted an uninspiring Straight Democratic Ticket in most elections. Twenty years later, in 2007, I would get back into following politics after falling in love with the eloquent words of Barack Obama. At the same time, though, I started reading the alternative press, like I did back in college. People were calling the U.S. Senator from Illinois a socialist and I was intrigued to know if he really was one.
Could it be true?
Yes! Lowrie homered!
Shortly after Obama took office, I started wondering how this guy could be a socialist when he was hiring the same people Clinton used to betray American workers with their free trade agreements, screwing the poor by reforming welfare and passing the Crime Bill, and opening the door for catastrophe by dismantling Glass-Stegall. I was flipping through an issue of The Nation Magazine one day and saw an ad for the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). It sported the faces of Cornel West, Noam Chomsky, and the Independent U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders–three people I had a lot of respect for. West was one of Obama’s biggest supporters. (He would later call Obama a “counterfeit.”) I knew of the erudite Chomsky back in college. The Senator from Vermont I just had heard about. Sanders had recently done a filibuster on the Senate floor corporate greed and the decline of the middle class that lasted over eight hours. I had read extracts from it in The Nation and was inspired: I hadn’t read Marx in years but thought this hero of the working class and poor was the closest thing to it. When I became a member of the DSA, it was the first time I called myself a socialist. By the time I read the full transcript of Sanders filibuster in his book The Speech I was a big fan, but I also knew–long before he ran for president in April of 2015–that he was a lite version of a socialist. Bernie was–is–more like a pre-neoliberal Democrat. Noam Chomsky has referred to him as a “New Dealer” and others have likened him to LBJ. I knew he was the best bet by far for president in that election, but neoliberalism has both parties and the mainstream media in a death grip. Bernie didn’t stand a chance. At least in 2016.
Shortly after the Mid-term elections of 2010, I began attending meetings and reading groups at my local chapter of the DSA here in Sacramento, but while my fellow members were warm and welcoming all my years of reclusiveness had taken its toll. Additionally, I was often by far the oldest person in the room. Most of the attendees were college students–my kids’ ages. I stuck out. I continued to attend meetings off and on, then quit for a while, then started up again, then I just decided to watch from the sidelines. I remain a member. I pay my dues, contribute whenever there are fund drives, but otherwise, I’m more of an armchair socialist.
I have read the Max Beer biography The Life and Teaching of Karl Marx, portions of Eric Fromm’s Marx’s Concept of Man, as well as revisiting the chapter on Marx in Heilbroner’s book. I admire Marx mainly in some of the ways he has inspired thinkers that I better understand and follow. For one there is the filmmaker Raoul Peck, director of the new film The Young Karl Marx. The movie is good if not stunning like his previous film I’m Not Your Negro. The interview below of Peck by Amy Goodman is interesting because they show how the National Rifle Association uses fear of Marx(!) to combat the rise of anti-gun protests after the Stoneman Douglas High School shootings in Parkland Florida.
Another interesting note about Wayne LaPierre’s C-PAC speech is that it is highly speculative that “on college campuses ‘The Communist Manifesto’ is one of the most frequently assigned texts” and it is dubious, at best, that “Karl Marx is the most assigned economists” [sic]. The complaints from Marxist professors like David Harvey, Erik Olin Wright, and my favorite, Richard D. Wolff, is that heterodox economics is not being taught in many colleges in the U.S. enough. The trend for some time now has been towards Neoclassicalism, a school of thought that has no room for Marx, or Keynes or any of the others outside the orthodoxy. I like Wolff (and Harvey and my youngest son who is a Marxist) because he is so accessible. He hosts the excellent podcast Economic Update, he is a frequent guest on The Thom Hartmann Program and here he is on Real Time with Bill Maher.
Finally, I accidentally found the video below when looking up Wolff on YouTube. Wolff is the narrator for this Join the Socialist Party USA video. I am not endorsing the party, but maybe I should. I’m still a Democrat for some inexplicable reason. (More about me and my attachment to the Party of FDR and LBJ (and not the Clintons and Obama) in an upcoming post.)
Anyway, I agree (at least on an intellectual level) with the message in the video. I’d like to think Marx would, too, if he were around today.
I’m sitting on my scooter in a traffic jam at least two full city blocks long. I can see the light half of a block in front of me turns from green to red to back to green and red again. Within each light change, I move a little more than one car length towards the inevitable intersection and my turn to crossover into another block of gridlock. I deal with traffic jams every time I ride my scooter home after work. The difference this time is this size of this jam and that it is pouring down rain. If this were the midday, late evening, or weekend the ride from where I work to home would take about fifteen minutes. Add another fifteen minutes during a usual five o’clock rush, but this is the Mother of all Traffic Jams, and I’m guessing that’s because it is raining buckets of H2O. I can hear the occasional unfruitful honks by frustrated drivers. What are you guys bitchin’ about–you’re dry in your climate-controlled vehicle, idiots!
If I were on my bicycle, I would, unless I ignored the forecast, have rain gear on and I would be home in thirty minutes. Why have I never worn rain gear when commuting via scooter on rainy days? I have no idea. I’m a moron. I bought the rain gear for my bicycle commuting and for some reason my brain associates the bright yellow hazmat-wear exclusively with my bike, not my scooter. As I feel the water run down my back and chest, and my jeans are soaked through, I know I will never make this mistake again. There’s also the path I insist on taking home when I am on my scooter. I know two motorcycle commuters from my work that park away from the congested areas. One reason I didn’t care for where they park is that the slots are about a three-block walk from our office, whereas the place where I park my ride is only a block from our office’s front door. But that is the point–they walk through the gridlock and are only slightly impeded by traffic after that. I blew off that idea because I get to my ride faster than they get to theirs. I know they would argue, “but you don’t have to take that route, Jack.” Meh, I like my way home, says the stubborn old scooterist soaked through. I see a city bus go by in the cross traffic. I bet those commuters are dry and toasty in there. I used to ride the bus. That was the best thing about commuting via mass transit.
Forty-five minutes later, I finally get home. I park my ride in the garage, and open the door to the dry and warm house, and yell for someone to fetch me a big towel. My wife is not home and my son is most likely in his room on the other side of the house with his headphones on playing a video game, I bet. I say fuck it and stripe down to my birthday suit, prance into the house checking the laundry room first, hoping for a towel–clean or dirty, damp or dry–in there, but the laundry gods do not favor me today. I tiptoe through the kitchen, crossing a large window looking out to the street–Hello neighbors!–and snag a clean kitchen towel. After drying my feet and legs, I chuck that wet towel and pick another clean, dry kitchen towel just to cover the dog and dice in case my son runs into me in the hallway and I scar him for life. I make my way to my bedroom. After I dry off, put on some dry clothes, I deal with the mound of soaked clothes I left in the garage. That commute was the worst of the three possible situations for me getting home in a monsoon. Another scenario is peddling home on my bike without my rain gear. I’ve done that too, though not so much these days–I’m a better-prepared bicyclist commuter than a scooterist commuter, I guess. The third scenario is getting home via the bus, but not being prepared for rain (thin or no jacket). Most days–rain or shine–I ride my bicycle. If it rains my rain gear inevitable leaks through the edges of the polypropylene, but I wouldn’t get as douched as I got riding home on my scooter on this early evening thanks to traffic like this.
In the thirty years I have worked in Downtown Sacramento commuting from either East Sac or South Sac most of the commutes were done on the Regional Transit District (RT) bus system, but in the last seven or so years, I have found bicycling and, occasionally, scootering more liberating. (The three years I drove into work by car I’ll leave out of this post. There’s not much to write about.) There are definitely things you miss by not being in a bus besides climate control and being able to relax: people, for better or worse. And unlike the 60s Honda ad, you don’t really get to “meet the nicest people on a Honda,” or a Vespa–you’re moving too fast and the engine noise gets in the way of any meaningful
Conversations at red lights outside of the “two wheels on the ground” gesture. Bicycling is only slightly better for that kind of thing, but if you need/want to get to work or home quickly, discussions are usually cut to a minimum. Also, for a recluse like me, blocking out the world and listen to my audiobooks and podcasts on my phone is ideal.
When I first got my day job with the State of California, I lived in East Sac near T Street’s scenic median park area. That’s where I picked up the bus. Fred, a gregarious bus driver, would greet me with a “Hellooo, JACK!” So outgoing was Fred that he seemed to ignore my head-down, “Don’t Bother Me, I’d Rather Be Left Alone With My Book” body language and introduced himself and ask my name early on when I was stuck struggling with the onboard ticket machine. After the first couple of Hellooo JACKs, I felt obliged to sit across from him usually reserved for the seniors. Within a week I knew his first name and that he lived only a couple of blocks away from my home with his wife, computer enthusiast son, and wheel-chair bound daughter. (An explanation of those descriptors is below.) I began to look forward to our rides and felt disappointed when the double doors would swing open and someone else was at the wheel, but only for a moment. Now, I could read. I don’t make friends easily, and I very rarely make close friends–the kind of friends who know my family, and I know theirs. (A product of my horribly reclusive junior high and high school years, I suppose.) I can’t say I wanted to become close friends with Fred, just that I treasured the short time we had together on the commutes. He also seemed to respect my boundaries and never attempted to take it to another level (e.g., invite my family and me to a backyard barbeque, dinner out, etc.).
The following Halloween when I was walking our older son, Peter, around the neighborhood picking up enough agents of tooth decay to make him happy, I noticed a house with a big institutional-looking traversing ramp in front of it. When my son knocked on the door, Fred answered and gave my kid some treats. I walked up and greeted him as a neighbor for the first time. He was surprised and–I think–a little embarrassed. If I pegged the embarrassment quality, I don’t know why. I hope it wasn’t the ramp or me seeing his daughter who was in an electric wheelchair behind him. We said thank you and moved on. The next day Fred was less animated but just as warm. We chatted all the way to my stop downtown. Inside of a week, though, he began to open up about the challenges he and his wife have raised a child who has a disability. Anyone who knows me knows I will never win any awards for empathy. I am far too self-centered. So when he began to sob, saying, “My poor daughter,” I felt like I wanted to crawl out the window and ride into town on the roof. When he spoke of his son it was in awe of how he built his own computers. When he spoke of his daughter, it was strictly about her challenges and her depression. It is sad when a parent describes a child in those descriptors, then again, I didn’t know what the young woman was like–she could have been in a permanent state of depression over her physical disability or she could have been suffering from clinical depression. Fred never talked about how many books she read, what a good writer she was, the beautiful art she created, etc. He never defined her in any other way but disabled.
Shortly after the sobbing incident, a new regular bus driver replaced Fred on my line. I don’t know if Fred got a new assignment or he requested a change, or maybe he and his family moved. I knew where he lived. I could have walked over to his house on the weekend to see how he was and what was up with his absence, but I felt awkward about doing that. I instead decided to capitalize on the extra time I had to read on my commute. This callous bastard finally got some good reading in. Shortly after I got a new bus driver, my family and I moved to South Sac and naturally, my bus route changed with the change of address.
The new bus trips were not as long, but the timetables were not friendly to my dawdling ways–I missed the morning bus often and because the bus stop to get back home was five blocks away from my office, I had either to sneak out early or get home late. I didn’t get to know any of the drivers, and that was fine with me, but by the time I got on the bus was very crowded, which was a pain. Many of the commuters were Sacramento High School and McClatchy High School students who were not rowdy but were loud and took up a lot of space with their backpacks. You had to ask them to remove their packs and they would rarely scoot over so the insensitive shits would make you climb over their legs to sit down.
By this time my youngest child, Ely, was a toddler the significant amount of weight I had gained while he was in utero had not come off. So, when the weather warmed up my wife told me I needed to exercise and on a Saturday we went to the local bike shop, College Cyclery, to pick up a commuter bike. It was a serendipitous affair: the bike shop owner, Chuck, was an old family friend. Back when I was a kid my family and his used to go camping together tearing up the Sierras in dune buggies my father made when he wasn’t making boats. My wife had picked out a Peugeot from the used bikes chained up in front of the store. I took the hybrid road/mountain bike for a ride and decided it was okay. It was the first time I had been on a bicycle since high school, so the only thing I could compare it with was my Schwinn ten speed I road back in 1976! I would later discover a bigger bike shop with more product in East Sacramento, but a friend encouraged me to patronize the local independent bike shop and I took that advice. With only one exception, I have purchased all my bikes from College Cyclery and have all my tune-ups/maintenances done at this shop, as well.
When I started commuting via bike the going was rough at first. My fat ass had not done the least amount of exercise since community college, ten years ago, and the extra pounds made the ride brutal–showing up at work sweaty and winded. I was happy when the rainy season began, but the bus experience had its rough moments. There were the altercations at the 7th Street bus stop near what is now Golden 1 Center when I was trying to get home. One time, standing out there waiting for my bus, a fight broke out. The punching and pushing had a mosh pit effect and a second after the fight broke out the innocent to my right slammed into me and I slammed into the young woman to my left who gave me a look like a started it. Another time someone pulled a knife on someone. In a minute, the fight ended up in the street stopping traffic. If I wasn’t so freaked out I might have started snapping my fingers singing “Boy, boy, cool it, boy,” but I doubt the two black guys ready to fight have ever seen “West Side Story.” They probably wouldn’t take kindly to a white guy calling one of them “boy,” either. A short time later, I walked around the corner at this bus stop to find three patrol cars and half-dozen youngsters on their knees wearing zip-tie cuffs. This wasn’t the first time patrol cars had been at this bus stop, but considering how far I had to walk and how crazy things could get there, I started taking the city’s light rail system to a bus stop outside of what appeared to be the “danger zone.”
From time to time, at this new bus stop, a different bus would stop that took me closer to home if not all the way. I would take it just to get moving. Chris rode this line, a guy who was a courier in my office. A cigar smoking, conservative, who lived on the dodgy side of town, I didn’t have much in common with him, but for the short bus ride, we would share a bench and make small talk. I would get off in front of the Tower Theatre on Broadway–my old job. From there, I would wait for my bus. On the last day I ever rode on Chris’ line I heard two people on the bench behind us talking trouble. I’m reconstructing the conversation as best as I remember including the couple’s vernacular:
Man’s voice: “Nes time I see dat bitch, I’m gonna cut her!”
Woman’s voice: “Yeah.”
Man’s voice: “She think I be trippin’, but I’m gonna cut that bitch!”
Woman’s voice: “Yeah.”
The man continued his threats with his companion always responding “Yeah.”
Scared shitless, I discreetly leaned over to whisper to Chris if he was getting all this. I got a loud snore back. He had slept through it. I guess that was commonplace where he lived. It was moments like these where I missed riding my bike.
As far back as I go as an RT customer, Sacramento’s public transportation had always transported high school students to the mild inconvenience of meek folk like me. Things got miserable, though, when my city bus began hauling middle school students. The bus was now packed and the relatively quiet ride turned into clattering anarchy on wheels. There were always problems with high school students on the bus, but the incidents were manageable. When middle schoolers started riding my line the cacophony and hijinks were annoying. After someone pulled the cord requesting a stop other teens would begin yanking the cords to see how many times they could make the bell ring. The bus driver would pull over and chew the brats out. I thought I was back in junior hi again, except I wasn’t so I had zero tolerance for this shit. Still, they weren’t my kids so I tried to stick to whatever I was reading or crank up whatever I had on my iPod. (The middle schoolers may have inspired RT to prevent the bell to ring multiple time because shortly after this hell, the signal would only sound once whenever two people would pull the cord requesting the same stop.) During one week a bunch of girls decided to play a variation on the Chinese fire drill prank. One of them would request a stop, when the bus stopped at the next stop, a bunch of the girls would file out the back door only to run up to the front of the bus and come back in, thinking they were so clever, and making everyone that much later to work. This happened a few mornings until the bus driver said fuck it and took off leaving the half-dozen or so teenagers on the sidewalk having to hoof it to school. I’m not sure if that was the safe thing to do, but he received applause from a few commuters. I should have complained to RT, but it didn’t matter, I guess enough people did protest, and the middle school contingency was gone next school year.
Around this time, my wife, a dedicated all-weather bike commuter, decided I needed a new bike. The days were getting longer and sunnier and she felt I needed an upgrade in the bicycle department. We went to a bike shop in neighboring Rancho Cordova and she picked out an aluminum-frame Bianchi Advantage for me. I flew to work on the Italian hybrid! I was still taking the same route through Downtown to get to work, but I must have shaved a good ten minutes off of my time. It felt great, but it wouldn’t last long. One early evening I made the dumb-ass mistake of leaving my bike unlocked outside a neighborhood video store and two teenage boys snagged it. I ran after them looking like an ass assuming I could catch up with them. When I returned to the video store out of breath and pissed off that the property owner didn’t provide a bike rack, the lady behind the checkout asked, “Didn’t you see the two kids riding in circles right outside the store–one of them sitting on the other’s handlebars?” I knew it was my fault for not being aware and for leaving my bike unattended. (Not to mention, if I had locked the rear wheel to the frame neither of the little shits could have run off while holding up a thirty-pound bike!) Regardless of my stupidity, I vowed to never go back to that store and got a Blockbuster account. Years later I got a Netflix account and I never checked to see if that store got around to getting a bike rack. I make it a point now to see if a business provides bike racks. I usually don’t patronize the places that don’t offer them despite how infrequent I use my bike outside of commuting.
My replacement bike was a relatively heavy Giant Sedona, but by that time, I was going through a medical condition that left me without a driver’s license and made me shy away from riding a bike. I was now entirely at the mercy of the city’s overpriced and underserved bus system year around. My Sedona collected dust until I loaned it to my son, Peter, who rode it to his work at a coffee house near Sacramento City College.
In my bus travels, I have met and befriended a few people–not something I do very well. There was Alex, the most negative person I have ever met. To any of my readers who know me personally they may conger up images of pots and kettles upon reading that last statement, but seriously, Alex made me seem like Zig Ziglar. As far as how Alex made me feel, watch the short video below from the 1980 film “Airplane!” I felt like anyone or all three of the poor bastards sitting next to Ted Striker (played by Robert Hays) when Alex got going about his life.
I had the misfortune to end up on the same buses with Alex in the mornings and the afternoons. There he was with his copy of the day’s San Francisco Chronicle in his lap. His paper of choice since The Sacramento Bee was a “liberal rag.” I don’t like to mix it up with people, but as a student of journalism, I knew that most West Coast press analysts calling The Bee one of the best newspapers this side of the Mississippi while The Chronicle was often criticized for its poor editorial judgment. I just listened to him complain about the world. The refrain that dragged me down with him was his beef that his boss had blackballed him from making it into an analyst classification. Poor Alex and poor me, too: I was tired of my job running a warehouse and was trying to get into the analyst class, also; albeit, I wasn’t really applying myself. I was just feeling sorry for myself. This made the bus trips with Alex toxic.
Then there was John. Unlike Alex, he was an inspiration. Because he got on the bus after I did we almost never sat next to one another. The first time I noticed him he was yelling. A couple of Sac High male students were seated knees to knees blocking the aisle–like they often did, intimidating fellow commuters from walking past and nearly all of them would place their backpacks on the adjacent seat so you had to ask if they would remove it so you could sit down on their bench. The first time I saw John, he stopped at the blockade, looked straight down, the students returning his gaze as if to challenge, then John bellowed, “MOVE,” as if the slight man was a football coach. They moved. I was impressed.
I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but there was a third high school represented on this bus every morning. The Met is a small experimental charter high school in Midtown. The students on my bus who attended the school seemed relatively quiet, courteous, and unassuming compared to Sac Hi and McClatchy students. I noticed John striking up conversations with them. He always wanted to know what they were doing, what video games they were playing at the time, TV shows they liked, films they had just seen. John was never judgmental, just inquisitive. On one of the rare occasions, he sat next to me. After exchanging greetings, he pulled out a devotional and began reading. I took that moment to tell him I was a fellow believer. As a Doubting Thomas, I am always impressed with people whose faith is strong. We had a lovely talk before parting. John continued talking with these high schoolers as the school year progressed. After our initial conversation, he seemed to make a point of saying hi whenever he walked down the aisle to find a seat, which was nice.
Unlike Alex and John, I met Mike at the bus stop outside my home one morning. He was open, but with enough distance to make me feel comfortable. His icebreaker was something like, “Hmm that sounds like a hawk.” Time past in silence as I noticed he was craning his neck to try to get a better look at the bird. “It is! Check it out: a Red-Tailed Hawk! It looks like she has a nest in that tree,” pointing across the street at the top of a tall tree of which he knew the species.
In fact, he seemed to know a lot about many things. I didn’t attempt to verify every assertion he made, but he did seem wiser than his years. (He was around 50 at the time I met him.) I don’t think he was trying to impress, just making conversation. Another thing, Mike knew Alex and he agreed with me when I confessed I thought Alex was friendly but had a soul-sucking personality. Mike was a Buddhist who raised Bonsai trees and a pharmacist for Department of Health Services. He regaled me with stories of inspecting pharmacies in California State prisons including the time he was caught during a lockdown. On one occasion, I was waiting at the bus stop and Mike rolled up in his 1972 Honda Civic and asked me if I wanted a ride to work. The man was so meticulous that the car appeared to be brand new. He was an avid bicyclist with a half-dozen different styles of bikes but didn’t ride to work because he felt the commute was too dangerous.
During this time my current bike was slowly going through waves of disintegration and renewal. Peter would start borrowing our second car (which was not a problem since I couldn’t drive). Whenever I asked him what’s wrong with my bike, he would say either the front wheel had been stolen, or the saddle was stolen or both. Whenever my wife and I drove by the coffee house, there was my old red bike locked to the bike rack, but missing a wheel or saddle/post. Giant bikes came with quick releases on the axils as one would expect at this time when bicycle thefts were on a steep incline. What was befuddling was the addition of a quick release on saddle posts. Presumably, the owner was supposed to remove the post/saddle every time the owner parked the bike and, maybe, carry it over the shoulder? What was equally as moronic was that I never got around to replacing that quick release with a bolt and nut which made this situation worse. (On subsequent Giant bicycle purchases, before I wheeled the new bikes out of the shop, I would have the quick releases replaced on the saddle post with a bolt and a nut and the quick releases on the axils replaced with security hubs.) In the meantime, I would buy him a new saddle post and/or front wheel and one or both would get ripped off again. I don’t think I ever showed him how to use a quick release, but he also never asked or explored how to mitigate this chronic problem. Presumably, he felt it wasn’t his bike, so he didn’t care. With my medical condition limiting my transportation options and RT continuing to reduce services (by this time they had canceled both Saturday and Sunday service for my line) my choices were whittled down to begging my wife and my son for rides. These were not happy times for me.
Later, Mike reported to me that he got a job working for the Department of General Services. He was especially excited because he had a safe route to ride his bike to work, riding along the Sacramento River, crossing the Tower Bridge, and parking his bike of choice that day in a secure bike room in the Ziggurat in West Sacramento. The Ziggurat (or the “Zig” as the locals called it) is without a doubt the ugliest building on the Sacramento skyline–a mustard-colored god-awful thing by day, and by night, it glowed gold like an exercise in pure kitsch architecture! Aside from the crappy outside, Mike said it has many amenities including a gym and a cafeteria.
Shortly after Mike started riding his bike, I received the green-light on getting my driver’s license back, and with that confidence, I also began riding my bike to work again. I had a new bike now, a Giant Cyprus–which was very similar to my last bike, except this one had suspension in the forks and saddle post. It just might have been the heaviest bike I ever rode. I’m not sure why I bought it, though it might have had something to do with the very comfortable ride. On one of my first days back riding to work, I ran into my boss, Rich. Rich was a tall, svelte man in his 60s. He worked on the seventh floor and always took the stairs taking every other step. (If he took the elevator that meant our director was chewing him out for something.) Rich’s passion was tennis and the Shriners. Work was somewhere pulling up the rear in that list. When I agreed to meet him at the Sacramento Zoo every morning to ride into work, it meant a cardio workout–the man peddled fast. “Pump it up, kid,” he would say whenever I started lagging behind him. Besides being in much better shape than me, he rode like Vin Diesel in Fast and Furious–flying through intersections as if stop signs and on-coming cross traffic did not concern him. One of the benefits of riding with Rich was I got the inside scoop on whatever accommodations our office was planning when it came to bicycles. I saw the early blueprint drafts of the new Lower Level floor that included a Bike Room with lockers and showers and I got my pick of lockers when they first were installed. These perks were not really that special, but Rich made me feel like I was a part of getting people out of their cars and off of the bus and to at least try to commute via bike. He was sensitive enough to let me suggest I lose my spacious office and move into a cramped cubicle. “We still need more room in the warehouse, kid. Hmm, I just don’t know where we are going to find that space.” His finger tapping near my office on the blueprint. “I know, Rich. I don’t need an office. We can gain space for two more cubicles if we demo my office.” “Really, kid. That’s okay?” “Sure!” Holding back the tears. “Use that space. I can work from a cubicle!”
When the rainy season started up, I was back on the bus. The first thing I saw to my utter amazement was all the Met kids holding Bibles! It seemed incredible, but when I had a moment to talk with John a few days later, he told me he had bought all those Bibles for them and ask them if they wanted to read The Gospel of Mark (presumably because it was the shortest and most accessible of the four gospels). Though there didn’t seem to be a proud bone in his body, I thought John was a remarkable man! When I complimented him on this grand gesture, he said it was the Holy Spirit. I wish I had that kind of faith. He also told me that none of them confessed to accepting Jesus, so he doesn’t know what is in their hearts, they may have just liked him and his gift of a book.
Shortly after my talk with John, two significant things happened. First, I got a scooter and found the freedom and self-respect I had lost some years back. I also started riding it to work from time to time. Second, and most importantly, I began to ride my bike to work–rain or shine. My wife and I took a weekend ride along the short, but serviceable Sacramento Bike Trail–the route Mike had told me about. From there we cut over to Front Street and crossed the R Street pedestrian bridge. We stopped here, but I could visualize my route to my office from that point. It was a much more pleasant and safer ride than the other ways I have ridden over the years. Of course, this does not mean I haven’t crashed and burned a couple of times including a time I got hit by a car, but it’s an excellent commuter path just the same. I bought some fluorescent-yellow rain gear and I gave my bike to my youngest son and bought a Giant Escape 3, the fastest, lightest bike I have had so far. It is still not as fast as the road bikes my wife and roadies who work in my office, nor has my garb changed–no bib shorts and a lycra top. I always look like a hot mess out there on the road: dress shirt with a safety vest over that, thermals with shorts over them. Also, people still pass me up like I’m riding backward, but I’m moving.
I rarely ride my bicycle around town, though I probably should. My bike is almost exclusively for commuting. My scooter is the way I get around when I am not commuting. My scooter has given me the freedom I lost many years ago when my driver’s license was suspended. Funny thing is I see people I remember from my bus commuter days. I live by Mike and wave to him when he is maintaining his immaculate lawn or is riding one of his many bikes down his street. I saw Alex at a grocery store on time. I was mid-aisle when we both noticed each other and I was too big to hide behind a box of Raisin Bran. As it turned out, he got an analyst job! I don’t recall if it was in the same office that he claimed blackballed him, but he was happy and that made me happy in more ways than one. Finally, there is John. I saw him talking with a rough-looking young man in a black tank top with sleeve tattoos in Vic’s Cafe. When the young man left, I was able to speak to John for a moment. Not surprising, he had recently led the young man to Christ and he was now attending John’s church. It’s hard to meet people like John or Fred or Mike or even Alex while riding your bike or scooter to work. Still, I’m glad I’m off the bus timetables no matter how wet I can get.
Skip is talking about jury duty and how, in his retirement, he gets summoned more than ever before. “I’m so tired of getting picked for jury duty. The next time a lawyer asks me what do I think of black people I’m going to tell ’em ‘There’re great. I think everyone should own one.’ Maybe then they’ll leave me alone.” Skip is a crusty old white man about 75 in a faded plaid shirt and wearing a beat-up, greasy San Francisco Giants cap with the bill bent in multiple angles almost looking like a half octagon. He is sitting two seats to my right. He’s talking to Jesse, another white septuagenarian (I’m also estimating) who is also wearing a plaid shirt albeit newer. Jesse is sitting between Skip and me at a counter of a Denny’s near my doctor’s office. It’s Tuesday, a scheduled day off for me. I have planned some errands to run after my doctor checks under the hood.
Lyn, a plump 40ish waitress, carries a coffee pot around and freshens all our coffees including the young woman on my left swiping through her iPhone. She missed the racial slur Skip made because she has had earbuds in since I arrived, only popping one bud out to hear whenever Lyn has to say to her whenever she stops at her spot across the counter. The waitress slides an All-American Slam in front of me: three scrambled eggs, hold the Cheddar cheese, two strips of bacon, two sausage links, hash browns and two slices of white toast. A better writer would keep his ears open, but my food is here and I don’t multitask well when food is in front of me.
What am I doing at a counter of a Denny’s? If I get a day off for appointments and errands, I almost always go to a neighborhood restaurant that serves a good breakfast, but today, thinking about writing a post on diners, I decided to throw caution to the wind and eat at this place. The original idea was to eat at the counters of a half-dozen diners to take the pulse of “Real Americans,” but felt the triteness of the subject wasn’t worth the extra lining of arterial plaque, so this post is mostly about my personal history of diners.
Lyn speaks to Skip, Jesse, and the young woman (who I’m guessing is in her 20s) as if they are regulars–cracking wise with Skip and Jesse and talking to the young lady with the earbuds in an empathetic tone. At one point the young woman apologizes to us for tuning us our–she says she is a healthcare professional who works a night shift in a skilled nursing facility and is really tired. All of us tell her it is okay. She smiles and pugs her earbuds back in. “When are you going to put cod back on the menu,” Skips ask Lyn. Before she answers, I feel some java coming up thinking about eating fish in a Denny’s. Skip presses the issue. Lyn tells Skip she doesn’t make the rules. Jesse, in a disgusted tone that I relate to, wants to know if Skip eats fish for breakfast. “No. You know I eat dinner here most nights!,” Skip snaps back. I look over at my neighbor to the left. She is oblivious to the fish banter.
I used to go to diners like Denny’s quite often. First, there were the times in the 1960s. I was somewhere around seven years old. My Grandfather used to take me to the Sambo’s only a block away from my his hardware store on the corner of 65th Street and Folsom Blvd. here in Sacramento. I vaguely recall enjoying the murals above the lunch counter that told the tale of “Little Black Sambo.” Of course, I was oblivious to the racist content at the time–it just seemed like a story to me. The NAACP, among other offended entities, saw it differently.
Because of that early exposure to the diner-style eatery, I have always had a fond memory of that kind of restaurant but had little interest in eating in places like that in the mid-’70s when I got wheels and a disposable income or at least that’s how I felt initially. In the ’80s I occasionally had late night snacks at diners when my friends and I would finish our night clubbing at local places like Club Can’t Tell and Danseparc or after attending local punk/New Wave concerts, usually at Galactica 2000/The 2nd Level. If we went to the now-defunct Carrows, we were often waiting on by a woman who was dating a friend. (She would later become my wife!) But in between the nightclubbing phase and before my marriage, there were my late-night coffee and homework visits to the Peppermill on Arden Way with my co-dependent girlfriend, Judi, one of those visits ending in a parking lot meltdown. (Intriguing? You’ll have to read about that incident in my post The Ballad of the Codependent Rat, but beware, it is not for the faint of heart.)
This would be a good time to mention an experience I had not too long ago. I have been living or working in the area of Broadway since 1980 and from that time the diner Pancake Circus has been a fixture in my mind. It has always looked creepy from the outside: worn down, dull, with the feeling that if you touched the building you would have to scrub that finger with acetone to get the ick off. And then there’s the whole circus motif with balloons and clowns. Surprisingly Pancake Circus has a presence on the web–well, sort of. It’s more like a placeholder, but includes a handy OpenTable reservation tool–I shit you not! It also has a photo gallery that doubles down on the whole creepy feel including an Easter Bunny that is so evil looking it would make poor little Johnny wet himself!
Until recently, I knew of only one person who has been in the place. In fact, if I remember correctly, Geoff Wong ate there every weekday morning. A local attorney, novelist, and host of “Geoff Wong Adventure Theater” that ran in the 70s, Wong was once my old Peppermill-patronizing, co-dependent girlfriend, Judi’s boss! The one time I visited his office to pick Judi up, she introduced me to him. He was eating his lunch standing up. I didn’t think much of him standing while eating, but when Judi and I were leaving she told me that he always eats his lunch standing up. “He says it better for his digestion, but…” I phased her words out at this point, as I often did with Judi, and envisioned the local celebrity barrister in Pancake Circus eating his breakfast standing up, ready to bolt when he saw one of those clowns coming for him!
That was the only person I ever met who had eaten at Pancake Circus and lived to tell the tale. That is until a year ago when I received a text from my East Bay buddy Paul informing me he was in town to visit family and they had decided the whole family would go to Pancake Circus after attending Mass. I reminded him how creepy that place always looked when we worked at the Tower Theatre down the street and to advise him to eat his pancakes standing up. I later received the adjacent image on my phone. Then, from his sister’s house, he texted me that the place was actually alright.
This led me to challenge myself one day to have breakfast there, just as I did this morning at Denny’s. It was about as creepy on the inside as it is on the outside. And the wait staff acted as if they stepped out of a wormhole from the 60s–all “Honey” and “Hun” and “Sweety.” As it turned out despite expecting Pennywise to appear in the service window with my omelette au Rohypnol saying, “Tasty, tasty, beautiful fear–uh–I mean eggs,” the food was good–even standing up. (Okay, I’ll stop.) The breakfast was on par with most diners, I doubt I will ever return, though. I don’t remember seeing any cod on the menu, but as I was leaving the place with a full belly I saw something on the sign I never noticed before: “Steaks Seafood Salads.” Ordering seafood there would be a challenge I would never take.
As I left the Denny’s this morning to ride to my doctor’s office, I found fresh vomit in the car lane next to my scooter. (“Fresh” meaning it wasn’t there when I parked my ride forty minutes ago.) A foreboding sign, to be sure, but my stomach felt fine. It dawned on me as I was riding to my doctor’s that I was scheduled to do some labs which required fasting. Oops. It’s incredible how my stomach lords over my brain!
Since my previous doctor retired, I now have a pretty blonde D.O. for a primary care physician. D.O. standing for doctor of osteopathic medicine. (Should be a DOM, but that was a previous post.) What is that, you ask. Here is how the website with the pithy name http://www.doctorsthatdo.org describes it:
Listening to you and partnering in your care are at the heart of our holistic, empathic approach to medicine. We are trained to promote the body’s natural tendency toward health and self-healing. We practice according to the latest science and use the latest technology. But we also consider options to complement pharmaceuticals and surgery.
Some may think that sounds like a bunch of New Age baloney. Not me! The books I have been reading on yoga, meditation, the chakra system, and Ayurveda have given me the impression that the first time I would see my new D.O. she would be wearing a sari, sitting lotus in the corner, chanting “Om mani padme hum” while incense burned. Nope, she walked in five minutes after me wearing white slacks, a lab coat and only smiled and said, “good for you,” in a near-patronizing tone when I tried to impress her by saying I practiced yoga. (Thank God I didn’t bow my head and say Namaste when she entered the examination room!)
Twenty minutes after leaving Denny’s parking lot I’m sitting on the examination table and whining about my sleeping problems and my weight. The irony is not lost on me here. Also, in the middle of my bitch session, I suppressed an All-American Slam burp into my fist. Was that bacon or sausage? Whatever. I excuse myself and go back to bitching about my weight.
This was my third appointment with my lady doctor and I’m not sure if she has figured out the walking contradiction that is me. If she got a whiff of the dead-meat burp that might explain her doling out some home-spun wisdom, “Don’t love food that doesn’t love you back” and the suggestion I see a nutritionist. I agree to the nutritionist referral knowing that person will not be prescribing All-American Slams for breakfast. I think about the vomit in the parking lot. Someone’s breakfast didn’t love him back, I guess. I ask myself the wrong question–why didn’t I order pancakes.
“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 just got back from a vacation in Vancouver British Columbia. I got to see my son, his wife and their daughter. They live in Beijing so it is a rare treat when we can meet. There was some business the young family had to conduct and we were happy to offer any service possible to make their visit a pleasant one. Below are some images and words describing my part of the stay. (My wife is still there.) This post is a test: about half of it was done using WordPress’ mobile app. This post is also an example of just how far I had fallen from the days when I had an SLR, multiple lenses, and a portable darkroom. Sorry about that.
Packing the Night Before
Sacramento International Airport
SeaTac car rental
Okay, I see one-third of a breakfast sandwich here
Vacation house for a week
First Meal in Vancouver
Vancouver International Airport
Loonies, Toonies, and different chips
Getting Settled In
Site Seeing Over the Week
Throughout my week, we drove around town to various offices so Bin Man could get her paperwork done and also had lunches and dinners at different places. A couple of years back I took a passive interest in the winter sport of curling. I still don’t know the rules, but find it fascinating. On one car ride, I saw the Marpole Curling Club! I wonder if Rachel Homan plays there when she is not on Canada’s Olympic women’s team. (I kind of have a crush on the lady.)
The Medicated Traveler
Getting Ready to go out
Peter and his daughter Alanis.
The Crystal Mall
If the reader has never been to Vancouver, they might be surprised the city has hundreds of thousands of Chinese-Canadians. This market caters to many of them. Think of a farmer’s market, but inside a building and seemingly endless. I have yet to go to China, but I am told that this market (among others in the city) is just like the kind in Beijing. All you would need to do is quadruple the number of people. The top left image is of a woman creating my Chinese pancake!
Chinese New Year Dinner
Sorry, no pix of the family dinner, but that’s a good thing, right? I didn’t sit there taking pictures while we were having a nice family dinner. My daughter-in-law cooked an excellent meal. I sat across from Alanis and felt a little more like a grandpa. It’s hard to get into that kind of mode when I see her as rarely as I do. At this stage, she has not warmed up to me, but that’s okay.
Fun at the (excruciatingly cold) Kitsilano Park
We went out to the park near our digs in Kitsilano located (sort of) across English Bay from Downtown Vancouver. Alanis had a great time. Growing up in Beijing, she thinks 35 degrees is nothing. My teeth were clenched the whole time so I didn’t rattle the fillings out.
Idle Time with Alton
The flights home
The only other time I flew on a commercial prop plane (top right image) was when my family and I flew from Acapulco to Cabo San Lucas back in 1977. (I remember we landed on a dirt runway!) I don’t have a fear of flying, but the Airbus Air Q400 and the choppy Northern Pacific sky made the one-hour flight nerve-racking. The landing was so rough the entire cabin burst into applause when we finally came to a stop. The trip from Seattle to Sacramento was also on an Airbus, but this bus had jets on its wings. I sat back and enjoyed the ride.
The vacation is not over for my wife or me. She is still in Vancouver for another week and a half. I’m now at home with one more week off–a staycation albeit with a long honey-do list.
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.