The Transition to Audiobooks

About nine months ago, I put down the book I was struggling through and made the transition to audiobooks. I did not take this move lightly; in fact, I am a little embarrassed by it. It is not that I have never listened to an audiobook before. Even a voracious reader like my wife chose to buy the audiobook version of David Sedaris’ Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim instead of the paperback. After reading the brilliant Me Talk Pretty One Day, my wife decided to purchase Sedaris’ next book in an audio format just to hear the author’s voice. Although the material wasn’t as good as Sedaris’ previous book, his dry, effeminate voice, replete with hilarious impressions, actually made the audiobook funnier than his earlier work. Before officially making this move I had already listened to the Sedaris audiobook as well as Jeannette Walls’ The Glass Castle, Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s The Shadow of the Wind, and Johnson and Blanchard’s Who Moved My Cheese?. However, my reading problems hadn’t reached such a serious level during the time that I listened to these books on audio CDs.

I have suffered from poor vision throughout my life—I have one lazy eye and elements of both far- and near-sightedness in my dominant eye. I recall my nearsightedness as far back as first grade when I could not see the words on the blackboard. Since I didn’t care much for school, I really didn’t think that sitting in the front row throughout my elementary years was a problem I needed to be concerned with. It wasn’t until a family trip to Disneyland while I was in high school that I realized I had a problem. I remember scoffing at a sign on an empty amphitheatre stage. “Check out the lame rip-off band ‘Doobie Gang,’” I said to my brother. He gave me a puzzled look and said, “It says “Dobie Gray.”

A few years later, I managed to squeak by my first of many vision tests at the DMV. While my “good” eye gave me grief, my lazy eye turned out to cause bigger problems than my inability to get dates. In college I had to read multiple chapters of textbooks every week, I discovered I was not increasing my reading speed, despite Evelyn Wood and other resources, since I was reading with only one eye. Experts told me that this condition was permanent, in terms of my reading speed. My monocular reading condition causes an extra strain on my dominant eye, so I get sleepy easier than most and suffer from headaches during long nights of cramming.

Over the years, I have read many books that I absolutely loved, yet I fought a seemingly endless battle between concentrating and snoozing. Moreover, the older I got, the harder it became to finish books. A few years ago, I started the depressing trend of not finishing books after the first 20 to 50 pages. While some may argue that there is nothing wrong with this habit—perhaps I have become more discerning with and protectiveed of my time, I knew better. Some of these books were quite engaging. The physical task of reading became too tiring for me, and I was annoyed that I could only cover three to five pages before nodding off. What’s worse, I usually ended up embarrassing myself and others, snoring away on the living room easy chair while my sons had to make excuses for me to their girlfriends (I snore loud enough to rattle the windows.)

I started out reading the paperback versions of The Shadow of the Wind and The Glass Castle. After only about a chapter in each I cut over to the audiobook versions and realized that I could consume much more text through my ears than through my eye in a given amount of time. Still, I continued to buy and borrow traditional books instead of audiobooks. It wasn’t until I found myself plodding through Tim Holland’s wonderful Rubicon that I realized I should stick with audiobooks. Alas, the acclaimed British author’s book is not available in audio format on this side of the Atlantic.

In the time it took me to read halfway though Rubicon, I have listened to Barack Obama’s The Audacity of Hope, Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City, a collection of short stories by Philip Dick, Steven Pressfield’s Killing Rommel, Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, and most of William Young’s The Shack. (I couldn’t finish that one—it’s horrible!). At this rate, I am sure I will also complete Jose Saramago’s beautifully written Blindness before I finish Holland’s book. I think it is realistic to say I have shelved Rubicon, though it pains me to admit this. In between all these audiobooks, I have also listened to countless recorded sermons, books from the Bible, and a horrible audio class on the Apostle Paul that I purchased through the otherwise wonderful resource, The Teaching Company.

The obvious reason why I now can consume so much literature, compared to when I was reading, is that listening to audiobooks and other audio materials liberates me from the task of holding a book up to my face. I listen while I am commuting, during slow times at work, during my workouts, at bedtime, as well as when I usually would read, sitting at home or while I am taking my lunch at work. You may argue that many, if not all, of the activities mentioned above can be used to read, and I have tried them all, only to arrive at a similar dismal outcome. I often see someone I know from work at a local restaurant—his head always in a book. I also see my fellow commuters reading on their way to or from work, and I notice fellow health club members on elliptical machines employing the book holders while working out. What I’m talking about is using all this time—just about every free chunk of time I have. Of course, I could use some of the more sedentary times to actually read (at home after dinner, during lunch, etc.), but that only starts the read-snore-read-snore cycle again. I have relegated reading time to doctors’ offices and other bits of free time. At this rate, I doubt I will ever finish that book.

One of the drawbacks of listening to books is that you end up tuning out the rest of the world. As bad as the world is becoming, that would seem like a good thing, but not always. When I don my earphones and iPod, people with whom I usually see and greet on the street act as if I don’t want them to bother me. Although untrue, the earphones must send this message, since people on the bus who usually sit near or next to me just smile and look elsewhere. I felt isolated when I first started listening to books during my commute to work. Later, I began speaking up to my fellow commuters when wearing my headphones. I have had many lively conversations in the past with these folks and don’t want to jeopardize our relationship over my wearing headphones. I realized that I may be giving them mixed signals. I’m still working this out.

Another very different drawback to audiobooks is the recording quality. One rarely finds a book where the font is obtrusive to the story, but an audiobook can be poorly narrated or perhaps dramatized in a way that detracts from the story. The biggest drawback to audiobooks is that so many titles are only available in an abridged version. It is a sacrilege to consume an abridged version of Melville’s Moby Dick or Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo, but abridged versions of these works are available in both traditional and audiobook formats. The problem is that sometimes the audiobook customer has no choice but to listen to an abridged version. I listened to abridged versions of Obama’s The Audacity of Hope and Larson’s The Devil in the White City. I didn’t feel good about this, but the abridged versions were all my sources offered in these audiobooks. Initially I got most of my titles through the library, which limited my choices. I now have an Audible.com account, but I do not enjoy paying $15 per book each month for the service.

I have now finished Blindness and have moved on to listen to Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and Ravi Zacharias’ Recapture the Wonder, which I am listening to with my wife at bedtime. She has taken an interest in audiobooks, ironically to help her fall asleep. I originally read On the Road in college, and now I am revisiting this classic twenty years later—something I never would have done without the audiobook format. I have been considering a new, more robust iPod—my Shuffle is difficult to navigate without a screen. At the rate I am going, I will soon have an iTunes library of audiobooks to rival my buckling bookcases.

The Wilder-ness


The tour guide gave us an action item of sorts as we traveled back to Skagway after visiting the toe of the Davidson Glacier. “Get out into the wilderness more often, even if it is your backyard,” she explained that our backyard is a wilderness because it is “wilder” than the indoors. I guess she is correct; although, I have been in backyards of some condominiums that have been nothing but concrete and fences. Personally, I have always been a concrete kind of guy, perhaps that is why I always liked the idea of condos. Even growing up around dirt bikes, dune buggies, campers, boats, and fishing, I have always been the kid that wanted to stay home.
The excursions I took while on my Alaskan cruise didn’t seem too tough; I was well cared for by tour guides, and I returned to a nice comfy cruise liner at each day’s end. Besides, this was during the relatively warm months in the great Northwest. I wasn’t walking on a glacier in the freezing blackness of the Alaskan winter. With that said, here’s a very brief travel log of my vacation complete with images. I won’t bore you with the onboard details. Not to say that the time onboard was boring, it’s just that, unless something like a murder or a diamond heist occurred while at sea, I don’t see much point in telling you how well I was fed and how much reading I did with a breathtaking view of Alaskan/Canadian coast just over my shoulder.
June 28, Juneau: The Icefield
While in Juneau, I hiked on the famous ice field. The Juneau Icefield covers nearly 2,500 miles and includes over 20 glaciers. I was so in awe of the spectacle while flying in a helicopter over portions of icefield that I forgot to ask the pilot which specific glacier we would be hiking on; however, referring to the icefield map afterwards, it appeared as though our group hiked on the Mendenhall Glacier. After donning gloves and helmets to our already fitted boots, pants, and jackets, the tour guides helped fasten crampons and harnesses and gave us each an ice ax and a backpack. For three hours, we trekked along the icefield viewing stunning blue ice where the snow had accumulated and had compacted the underlying snow layers from previous years into solid ice, causing changes in volume, density, and crystal structure. The ice appears blue because it absorbs all colors of the visible light spectrum, except blue, which it transmits.
Perhaps the most magnificent component of the glacier was the icefalls, created when the glacier would move downhill on a steep slope. These icefalls are literally hanging glaciers, falling slowly over time by the force of gravity. As the glacier advances down the mountainside and into valley, it breaks apart and accumulates into massive piles of melting and solid ice with huge gaps separating ice blocks the size of houses. The ice blocks then continue to tilt and twist under the weight of the ice above them. Occasionally, we would have to jump over a crack in the glacier only about 18 inches wide, but over 100 feet deep. We could hear a waterfall deep under the surface. When we reached the point where the water dropped off into the narrow gorge, we dumped our bottled water and filled our bottles with the real thing—glacier water. It tasted far better than anything I have ever drank.
We would occasionally walk on what looked like water, where organic material, such as leaves blown in from the nearest mountainside, had landed, and their energy would melt the ice only to have it freeze over, creating a bright clear-blue frozen pond. We all led with our ice axes testing the ice to ensure it was not water; it was that clear. When we crossed the clear-blue ice pond, I could see the base camp tents and knew our excursion was about over. I would be lying if I said that the rest of the cruise and the excursions were anticlimactic, but without a doubt, the best part of the vacation was at an end.
June 30, Skagway: The Davidson GlacierIn Skagway, we took a ride on a 3200 horsepower catamaran to a secluded area near the toe of the Davidson Glacier called Glacier Point. On the beach where the catamaran dropped us off, the mosquitoes were so thick a person could hit at least two with a single swat. We hiked through a rain forest where the guides assured us that, while this was Grizzly country, the trees were too close together for bears to hunt. Still, I regarded the narrow trees to see if I could climb any of them if one of the behemoths was too hungry to care about the tight fit forest or happened to discover our eight-foot-wide trail.
In the center of the forest, we found our guides’ Spartan living quarters. Before using the outhouse, the guide implored us to put our used toilet paper in a box adjacent to, but not directly in, the waste pit. The guides said they dig out the pit every two weeks and add the fortnight’s produce to a nearby compost pile; if there is any toilet paper in the pile, they have to remove it by hand. On the outhouse deck were a half-dozen bottles of mosquito repellent. After dousing ourselves with the spray, we took a short hike to canoes where we paddled to the glacier. One thing that fascinated me about the guides was that the mosquitoes were not attacking them. Additionally, they did their presentations without a single swat at the bugs—as if the bloodsuckers flying around their head were not there.
The glacier would have seemed awesome had I not be hiking on the Juneau Icefield a couple days previous. Still, when the guide explained why we couldn’t get any closer than about 100 feet from the ice, I was impressed. He told us that if the glacier corked (i.e., if the bottom of the glacier, underwater, broke off and shot to the surface), the displacement of water would be so great that we might be knocked over or hit by the giant wave. This explained the outboard motors on all the canoes. We did see a part of the glacier calve. Actually, everyone in the canoe, except me, saw the giant piece of ice break loose from the glacier and splash into the fjord; all I heard was the violent CRACK and when I turned around, I only saw the big splash and heard everyone saying, “Wow, did you see that!” It’s ironic that years ago I began what ultimately turned out to be a ten-year harping to my wife about going on an Alaskan cruise on the prospect of seeing a glacier calve. I missed my only chance.
July 2, Prince Rupert, B.C.: Whale WatchingI saw a Humpback Whale in the waters off Prince Rupert, British Columbia. It is amazing to get so close to one. Now I know why all the people fresh from Alaskan cruises either talk about their experience seeing one up close or whine about not seeing any at all; it’s a stirring experience. Since we missed the season when most Humpbacks are in the area, the guide played down the whale-watching portion of the trip and talked about the seals we were heading out to visit. When the Humpback surfaced, we chased it for a while until its tail fin appeared, signifying it was going down for a long dive. We caught up with it sometime later; however, it did a long dive again, and we headed back to the dock.
Before we took our Zodiac craft out to try to track down these gentle giants of the sea, our guide drove us only a few yards from where the craft was moored to point out Bald Eagles in flocks as thick as seagulls. The majestic birds have grown lazy, roosting near a dock. They now wait for the fishing boats to come back to scrounge for food. This was not the habitat I imagined the iconic American bird to have. Perhaps they are just lazy in Canada.
The sad thing about the excursion was that it was, minus a trip to an old cannery later that day, the last one on the trip. The next two days we were at sea, much of that time was spent eating, reading, and packing. Even in fifty-degree weather, I was beginning to feel the heat of Sacramento.
Home: Smoke and Heat
Four days later, back at work, I just stared at my LCD’s wallpaper, an image of the giant Mendenhall Glacier, fondling a small wooden box I bought in Skagway, supposedly made by natives; it’s the only thing I can touch that came from the place. I feel a little like Peter Riegert’s character in Local Hero—an outsider who falls in love with a foreign land and its rugged beauty but has to return to his lonely office.
I’m now at home playing fetch with our dog in triple-digit weather. I’m in my backyard—the “wilder-ness” and am amazed that I can’t see clearly from one side of my yard to the other; the heat and the smoke from all the Northern California fires have made me long for Alaska. Even the ruggedness of Glacier Point would be a welcome substitute—at least you can swat mosquitoes, you can’t swat smoke.

A Bitter Cup (or what you can glean from a Seattle coffeehouse bathroom wall)

I normally react to restroom stall literature with disgust, but this got me thinking; first, on how shallow this comment initially sounds—comparing WWII and the Cold War that immediately followed with the Iraq War and the terrorism that will inevitably increase whether or not the U.S. “prevails.” Regardless who will be next president and the presidents that follow him, the next twenty years are going to be rough. Enjoy that latte!

My Shaklee Daze and the Dangers of Doorbell Ditch

I don’t recall whether I received an allowance from my parents when I was a kid. I do remember working for my father at his shop on certain Saturdays and during the summer. For a short while, when there wasn’t much work at the shop, I found another means of making an income, selling Shaklee products door to door through my friend Mark’s father, Mr. Romano. Shaklee, for those who don’t know, makes cleaners, hair and skin care, and other household and personal hygiene products. Mr. Romano tried to get me, a junior, gum-popping sales representative, to be friendly and to “sell myself” to help sell the products. I didn’t understand the concept of selling oneself until I was an adult, and by that time, it was far too late.

Door-to-door sales were the early predecessor of direct marketing and Internet sales. It was effective in its time, when people interacted more. Door-to-door sales are almost nonexistent now—in an age when both husband and wife are out in the workforce and have little patience for dealing with cold callers like telemarketers. These days, most people look at anyone they spy through the door peep hole, besides friends or expected visitors, as a nuisance. I personally dread even the prospect of a youngster selling magazines, trying to save his school, or an adult from the Sierra Club, trying to save his environment; I am now on the other side of the door.

I would knock on doors and push the Shaklee catalogs at the homemakers. I wasn’t much of a salesman, but at twelve or thirteen, I really didn’t have to be. When I made a sale, it was because the women thought I was a cute kid and they didn’t want me to leave their porch empty handed, and, of course, there were the friends of my parents—that was usually a slam-dunk even if they were small sales. There were, however, the homeowners who would tell me never to bother them again.

The big challenge for me was getting over the fear of knocking on a stranger’s door. Long before I sold Shaklee, I was like any other kid: trusting, curious, perfect bait for a pervert. (Stone Phillips could have used me to catch child molesters and pump up his show’s ratings and his image as a Champion of the People and Enemy of the Sexual Predators in Your Neighborhood.) All of that changed when I started playing with my friend Dave McKensie. Dave was a nice kid, but his dad was a different story. Quiet, private, and much older than the rest of my friends’ dads, Mr. McKensie had a horrible temper if you caught him at the wrong time.

When I knocked on the door one summer evening to see if Dave could come out and play, Mr. McKensie swung open the door, pointed his bony finger at me, and yelled that I should never bother his family while they were eating supper. Besides scaring the crap out of me, his demand begged the question: how would I know when the McKensies were having dinner? Did I miss the big neon sign stating, “Dinner time for the McKensies—do not disturb!”? My family had dinner around 7:00 p.m.; shortly after my father got home, but there were countless times when we ate earlier and without him.

Moreover, what’s the big deal about knocking on the door during dinner, I wondered. Our next-door neighbor, my brother’s best friend, came over all the time when we were eating, big deal! I only knocked on the McKensie’s door around their dinner time one other time in the eight or so years I knew Dave and that was when I forgot it was somewhere in the general time of dinner. Mr. McKensie, clad in a wife beater, said in a low, agitated tone, “Yes?” I knew I blew it and immediately apologized, backing away from the door to give him room for his bony finger. He quickly came back as if he didn’t hear my apology, “Well, what is it?” “Ah, nothing, Mr. McKensie,” I said nervously. “Is that it, is that your message to David—‘nothing’?” his voice building up anger and sarcasm. Just then Dave walked up to the door as his father shouted my message directly into his face, “David, NOTHING!” When Dave cleared the door Mr. McKensie slammed it shut, as if it was Dave’s fault, poor Dave.

I never had a front porch experience like the two at the McKensie house when I was selling Shaklee, and while my sales area included Dave’s house, I gave the angry guy’s house a wide berth. Still, staring at a door just before knocking always made me feel uneasy—would I be interrupting another crazy Irishman’s meal?

While these two experiences with Mr. McKensie finally trained me never to knock on his front door during the early evening. I had one other experience with Mr. McKensie at his door, unrelated to selling Shaklee or interrupting dinner, but I feel I must relate how scary this guy was to children, how he seemed to have no warmth toward any other child, except, maybe, his own.

Dave told me at school one day that his parents were going out and he would have the house all to himself—an obvious invitation to come over and have some unsupervised fun. That evening, when it got dark, I walked over to Dave’s house, hit the doorbell about six or seven times, and then ran around the side of the house. As I ran to take cover, Mr. McKensie’s hunting dog began barking wildly. I heard the door open, but instead of Dave making some wisecrack about me playing an adolescent game like doorbell ditch (we were both in high school by now), it was all quiet. I slowly poked my head around the McKensie’s garage, and to my horror, I saw the unmistakable shadow of Mr. McKensie.

He waited there for about five long seconds, while the dog continued to bark madly, and then said in a loud voice, “Well, where are you, you goddamn son of a bitch?” I stood there petrified. One of the main tenets of doorbell ditch (or ding-dong ditch) is that you have an exit plan before you execute, but I was expecting Dave—I didn’t need an exit plan. I was stuck and when I saw Mr. McKensie’s shadow turn in my direction I knew I had nowhere to go. I ran out in plain view and apologized, telling him Dave said he was going to be home alone, and I… blubber, blubber, blubber… Mr. McKensie shouted me down, something about how he wished I hadn’t come out from hiding. Something like that, I think. I later thought about it. Did he want to attack me? I’ll never know, I guess.

I don’t know whether Mrs. McKensie would have bought Shaklee products, but I never tried to sell her anything. There were some big scores, some from friends of the family and my schoolmate’s parents, and on one occasion, I sold a bunch of junk to a lonely old lady who just wanted some company. I sat down on her couch, took in the strange smell I always associated with old people I didn’t know, and started jabbering about different products in the catalogs that I had no real confidence in. This lady found a product called “Proteinized Velva Dew.” She kept repeating the name, as if she enjoyed saying it. I wanted to tell her to shut up, because I hated the name. She ended up buying a ridiculously large amount of the ill-named moisturizer. Later that day, I returned to Mr. Romano’s house with my order forms. “Hey, look at all the Proteinized Velva Dew you sold! That Proteinized Velva Dew must be some good stuff,” he said, ignoring the obvious fact that this was a new customer and probably had no idea how good or bad the stuff was. As he filled out his master order form, he tortured me by repeating “PRO-teeeenized VEL-va-Dew.”

A few days later Mr. Romano invited me and Dave (that’s right, Dave McKensie was a Shaklee junior sales representative, too) to a sales meeting. On the night of the meeting, Mr. Romano asked me to answer the door while he set up a Super-8 projector and screen, and set out some new products for us to look over.

Our team turned out to be a very strange group of salespeople. There were two morbidly obese ladies who could barely walk. How did they get around, I wondered; they were thoroughly winded from just walking from the front door to the couch, where they both stayed, never getting up to look at the new product line. There was Mark and his older brother Steve, who looked embarrassed about his father’s part-time job—like John Belushi’s character in the SNL skit about the Scotch Tape Store. Steve kept trying to find excuses to leave the room, but Mr. Romano would yell at him to stay put. I figured there was some history between them and Shaklee selling. Finally, there was Dave, and, of course, me. Mr. Romano held up the film while we waited for the last expected salesperson. When I answered his knock, I found a thin, bearded, distinguished-looking man in a brown business suit at the door. Here was the only one in the group who actually looked like a salesman, I thought for a moment. I opened the door wider to let him in and noticed that he walked with a disability—dragging one foot behind the other. As he schlepped past me he slurred a loud, wet “Thhhaaouuu” too close to my face. Throughout the meeting, he kept yelling over the film’s narrator about how his mother bought this product and bought that product until it became clear that his mother was his only client.

Dave and I had assumed positions on the floor while the others sat on the couch and the chairs Mr. Romano had assembled in a semicircle around the screen. The film bored me to tears. It was about what was new and improved at Shaklee. As the narrator droned on I became sleepy, and I began to make myself more comfortable—shifting from Indian-style to a position so my upper torso was leaning on one arm. Then I folded that arm and supported myself by my elbow and forearm, finally I couldn’t stand it anymore and decided to just lie on the carpeted floor on one side, my head supported by my extended arm—watching the film at a ninety-degree angle. During my descent to the Romano’s beige pile, Dave had been trying to suppress his laughter through coughs; it may have sounded to others as though he was having an allergic reaction to something. Mr. Romano asked Dave if he wanted a drink of water. I could tell Dave was laughing at me; I didn’t see the humor in my actions at the time, but I guess it must have looked as though I was making myself at home during what was supposed to be a business meeting with my fellow sales associates—the movers and shakers of Shaklee.

Since I was lying in front of everyone else, I could close my eyes undetected, but just when I thought I might nod off, the film’s narrator started talking about Proteinized Velva Dew. My eyes popped open as my ears took in the annoying name. Then I got the feeling someone was staring at me. Something told me not to look, but I was a glutton for punishment. I looked around and there was Mr. Romano, his face flickering in the projector’s light, all teeth. “Hey everybody, Jocko just sold a whole case of Proteinized Velva Dew! Good ole Proteinized Velva Dew!” He had to repeat the product’s stupid name. The crowd of misfits all groaned their support in unison. The man in the brown suit said he sold some to his mom.

I never attended another business meeting again and inside of about a month or two stopped selling door to door. I found I’d rather clean up wood chips at my dad’s shop occasionally. I would sometimes think about going back to Mr. Romano and taking up Shaklee again, but one summer day, when Mark was in a particularly destructive mood, he disassembled a fence next to my house. Perhaps it was the way the slats on this particular fence weren’t nailed into place—once one came out, the rest were loosened, and Mark just kept taking them out and stacking them. I was guilty of not stopping him, telling on him, or at least running away. I sat there and laughed my ass off at Mark’s funny remarks as he removed all the middle boards from the fence.

I don’t remember whether someone saw me around the fence with the conspicuous empty middle section or heard my unmistakable laugh, or whether I just couldn’t lie to my mom when she asked if I knew who did it. I do remember having to re-assemble the fence without Mark. I could have narced on him, but I did not—taking hits for other people so they wouldn’t hate me was one of my weird traits. Of course, what ultimately happened is that I no longer wanted to be around him anymore, so why didn’t I narc on him anyway? I guess my brain is just wired that way. What was worse is that the fence belonged to a man whose daughter I was sweet on and she never spoke to me after that. The whole experience soured me on selling any more Proteinized Velva Dew for Mark’s dad.

What is glaringly missing here, my college English professors would say, is a conclusion that sums up the whole story of knocking on doors, having a mean Irishman yelling at me from his front door, selling stuff I couldn’t care less about, and, oh yeah, disassembling a fence. (And how did that last subject get in here, anyway?) I guess I did all this writing without a poignant or pithy ending in mind. I never could sell myself.

 

The Triple (or, Why Running is Not My Exercise of Choice)

I didn’t remember hitting the three-bagger until Erik, an old college buddy and leader of the slow-pitch softball team the Dead Seagulls, reminded me in our first communiqué since those days. I hadn’t spoken with any of my old American River College or Sac State buddies for years, but lately I have begun to search out old friends. For some reason, the details of that one summer I played on the Dead Seagulls have become a black hole in my mind. When Erik mentioned the triple, it was the key to many wonderful feelings, and one bad one.

The team got its name when Erik, his brother Paul, and other original members of the newly formed team found a dead seagull on the diamond when the players took the field for the first practice. Every subsequent practice, the dead bird was there, until finally it was removed. The team didn’t have a name before the seagull incidents, and on the day they registered the team, they couldn’t think of a more appropriate name. (See the above image for the only surviving team shirt in good condition. The design came from one of Erik’s high school friends, who drew it during a geometry class one day for $5.)

A year or two later, when I became a Dead Seagull, my father’s business sponsored the team. Usually, the sponsor’s names were on the back of the shirts, but as I recall, the shirts were already printed, and my father didn’t have a stencil. My dad didn’t care, anyway; he was just happy that his sedentary son was up moving around and, especially, playing a sport. As noted in earlier posts, I have never been good at sports, and my lack of dedication to any competitive game only made my clumsiness worse.

It seems strange that I remember so little of what was a very fun and virtually carefree time in my life. I was in junior college and had developed some very good friendships. Establishing and keeping good, close friends has always been hard for me. This time was also special because I was playing a “sport” for the first time since I wrapped a three iron around a tree at Ansel Hoffman Golf Course and walked off never to play the game again (unless you consider occasionally blowing off steam at the driving range a sport). I quoted the word sport in reference to this softball league because it was more casual than most: For instance, the pitcher was an offensive position. Each batter would select his favorite delivery system, so to speak—whoever knew how to place the ball right where the batter wanted it.

When we were in the field, I was the catcher. Things hadn’t changed much since I had been in little league—what the right fielder was to little league, the catcher was to this particular brand of slow-pitch softball. I would lean against the backstop and pick up any of the balls the batter missed or preferred not to hit. Because of this, there were no strikes, no balls, no stealing bases, and no pitcher–catcher conferences on the mound. Play didn’t start until the batter hit the ball. The only times my position became important were plays at the plate, but that didn’t happen much. I only remember two times that the ball came to me faster than a croquet ball.

I once ran in front of the plate to hold the runner at third. The throw came hard, and I remember hearing Erik yelling my name—not in a “head’s up” kind of way but more like a mother yelling at her son to “get out of the way of that speeding car.” It was widely known that I was the worst player on the team and since this was not a very competitive league, my teammates would rather see me unhurt than depend on my ball handling to save a run or two. The ball came in low and fast, then took a high hop and I caught the ball right in front of my face—the mitt so close to my face that I could smell the shoe polish with which I recently broke it in. I remember Erik yelling my name through a deep breath of relief.

Then there was the time I blocked the plate—like a pro catcher would do. All I remember was concentrating on the ball coming in from the outfield and seeing through my lazy eye what looked like a horse coming toward the plate. Before the ball got to me, the entire diamond turned upside down, and I could see the backstop and the ball flying between my legs. Then I came down—on my back. While I was getting up, I recalled the infamous play at home plate during the 1970 All-Star Game when Pete Rose bowled over Ray Fosse, permanently injuring the catcher. I wasn’t bowled over, though; the runner slid between my legs, and as his feet pushed my feet off the ground, I kind of did a somersault and fell on my back. Both the runner I was attempting to block and the runner behind him scored. I thought it was somewhat cool, though, not like the Rose–Fosse collision, which made me hate “Charlie Hustle” years before everybody else did for his gambling. Most of my teammates acted as if I did a foolish thing; this was casual competition, nothing worth getting injured.

My bat handling was no more stellar than my ball handling. I don’t remember doing anything but grounding out, although I know I hit safely to first occasionally because I remember being embarrassed about how slowly I ran. I was then, and still am now, a very slow runner. I remember running the pads, actually listening to the footsteps of my teammate behind me getting closer. I am not certain, but I think I recall the base runner behind me yelling to “speed up.” It must have been a drag to follow me at bat. If I reached base, the next hitter would be limited to a single or double because I couldn’t run fast enough.

All of these memories came back when Erik reminded me about “the triple.” He used the definite article as if there were only one ever hit in the history of the game. In this league, extra-base hits were as common as pop ups and ground balls in the majors. What makes this three-bagger so memorable was that I had never hit the ball so far—neither before nor after that day. When I cranked this one, all I remember was that when I made first base, I could see I should make second. When I reached second, everyone was off the bench and advancing me to third; all the while, I continued to hear screaming from the bench. When I landed safely on third base, I looked over at our bench and saw all my teammates up and madly rattling the chain link fence like freaked-out monkeys, yelling at me as if I had driven in the game winner in the final game of the World Series.

It was the greatest moment in my life as far as sports go. I never felt so triumphant, never so—at the risk of sounding maudlin—appreciated. Funny how I completely forgot this moment until Erik brought it back when he mentioned it in an email. Unfortunately, I also remember, after scoring and returning to the bench, the smiles on my teammates’ faces. They looked as if they were more amused than supportive. I sat down on the bench, basking in the afterglow, and then Ethan, who joined the Dead Seagulls with me, made a comment that may have defined all the looks: “Man, you run just like Ron Cey!” The all-star third baseman was known as “The Penguin” because of how he ran. The comment crushed me and may be the reason I forgot the longest ball I ever hit. All I could think now was that all my teammates on the bench rattling the cage had been falling out laughing about how funny I had looked running with a 2×4 up my butt. I know in my heart they were exited for me—we never cheered fellow players liked they cheered me, but I couldn’t shake the embarrassment.

I never played a team sport again, unless you count being assistant manager to my kid’s tee-ball team one season back in the early 1990s. Around that same time, a friend at work invited me to join his “sloshball” team. Sloshball, as he explained it, is softball with a keg at second base. Base runners cannot advance past second until they have drunk a mug of beer. There were certain dispensations to accommodate the slow drinkers: more than one runner can be on second at one time, and they can advance together when the ball is in play and they have finished their drinks. They also can be thrown out or tagged out together, creating some spectacular double-play possibilities, assuming the fielders were sober enough to turn them. Even if you homered, the runner had to drink a mug when he rounded second base. I passed on the offer, but considering my batting history, I don’t think I would have gotten very drunk had I joined.

As for the Dead Seagulls, they live on now as a fantasy baseball league. Erik, Paul, and a couple other original players still play ball, albeit vicariously through MLB players.

These days, I don’t play any sports; I only work out at a club. I use a treadmill, but I never run on it! If I were to, I can envision the scene: I would program the treadmill and turn on my iPod. As I started running, I would turn up the music. I would think I heard laughter, but figure it was probably the pounding of the treadmills directly behind me. I would keep turning up my iPod, but the sounds behind me would get louder. Finally, I would hit the off button on the treadmill, kill the iPod, and turn around only to see all of my fellow club members on the treadmills and elliptical machines smiling at me. You know, not the kind of supportive smiles like “good hit, man, good hustle,” but more as if they had found something a lot funnier than Jon Stewart on the gym television.

Wet Towels and Menacing Mustaches


In an earlier post, I wrote about my fear and awkwardness about being naked with other men. I thought I never would figure out why it was such a big deal. I took philosophy classes back in college in which the professors would ask us why humans are so fascinated with the opposite sex’s nakedness. I was more preoccupied with why I had this weird hang-up about the same sex’s nakedness. A short time after posting that story, though, I had an experience that reminded me of my first experience standing around naked with other guys. It was that first experience that affected how I would feel about this subject for decades to come.

This recent experience, which I will tell you about shortly, reminded me of my first day in 7th grade P.E. class, when, in dropping my towel as I exited the shower, I received a sting on my ass from Gene Franklin’s wet towel. Franklin was a towering 8th grader who wore a white sweatband around his head of long, brown wavy hair. Whether he was in P.E. or any other class, he always wore that sweatband. It was as if it was some kind of Bjorn Borg gang sign. As I held my burning ass cheek, he laughed at me in what I remember to be a deep post-pubescent “ho, ho, ho,” like an evil Santa Claus. His demonic bellowing abruptly stopped when Mr. Homes, the P.E. teacher, walked out of his office and asked what was going on. In unison, we all replied, “Nothing.” I looked over at Franklin as he gave me a threatening stare. Seventh grade P.E. was an exercise in terror. “What would Franklin or any of the other 8th grade thugs do next at my expense?” I often worried.

I ran into Franklin in my early college days as he was bagging my groceries at the local Albertsons. He had shorter hair and no sweatband. He also had stopped growing around the time he lit my ass on fire with that towel and now was about my height—no longer the junior high giant. His mustache, which once looked as mature and menacing as Burt Reynolds’ did, especially for an 8th grader, now looked as harmless as Super Mario’s. He didn’t recognize me as he franticly bagged my purchases while the shift manager barked at him about some other matter. Of course, it was a different time, and as harmless as he looked handling my peanut butter, that didn’t take away from how threatening he had been back in junior high. When he asked if I needed help to my car, I thought for a second that he recognized me. Before I realized he didn’t, I took the bag from him and snickered, “No, I think I can handle it, buddy.” Those two seconds of superiority netted about five minutes of embarrassment when I realized, walking to my car, that he probably made more money than I did.

I was once, in my own way, a menace; wet towels were not my vehicle of pain and intimidation, but an Olympic-size pool. I used to belong to a club that was located directly across the street from my current job. I swam laps during lunch in the indoor pool located in the building’s basement. I didn’t like the fact that a couple of fellow employees regularly played racquetball there at the same time I swam, but I avoided the shower scenes because the racquetball guys played a half-hour longer than I swam, anyway, contrary to my wife’s medical opinion, I considered the time spent in the pool a bath. I just quickly dried myself and showered-off the chlorine hours later, when I got home.

When I entered the pool, the water was placid. I would marvel at how the two or three older men could do laps while barely disturbing the water; it was as though they were knives gracefully slicing the water. After I had finished my laps, the pool looked like a tropical storm—I could hear the other swimmers gasping for air as they turned their heads to breathe but instead of air received a mouthful of water from the whitecaps I had generated. When I stopped for a break, I could hear the water violently slapping against the sides of the pool. After I had established myself as Hurricane Jocko, I noticed the swimmers would quickly leave the pool when I entered it, preferring not to inhale a gallon of chlorinated water for lunch.

Today, I am fortunate that most of the time I am alone when I undress in the locker room at my health club. Still, with everyone’s New Year’s resolutions, the club has gotten busier and I have to deal with that byproduct. One racquetball guy takes up more than half the bench with all his gear. He may have arrived when no one else was in that area of the locker room, but he does not attempt to move any of his crap when anyone comes in from working out. His items are stretched out, as though he was taking inventory, and he does not gather them when I need to use the bench. Of course, I could politely ask him to consolidate his stuff, but passive-aggressive folk like me don’t work that way—we prefer to bitch to ourselves.

Then there’s Mr. Organized; he will come in when I am using the area and sit too close to me, open his personal locker, pull out two identical opaque plastic containers about 9”x12”x4” each, and place them on the floor. His personal footprint has now doubled. Then he opens the lids, letting the covers fall where they may (like on my foot). Looking down annoyed, I can’t help but notice the contents of these containers are neater than my dresser drawers at home are and the articles in the containers are placed together in an arrangement that would make a Tetris Master green with envy. Still, the guy is in my way, and anyway, who folds gym clothes?

All of this crap was manageable, but the sting of Junior High P.E. came back during an incident at my club a few months ago. I had just come back from working out to find four men in different stages of undress all going about their own business in our 25’ x 10’ niche in the locker room. After walking around a few half-naked men, I noticed a guy standing next to my lockers talking about his BMW motorcycle. (Oh yeah, about the two lockers: I have a small assigned locker with a built-in combination lock, like everyone else, and I use a tall locker, open to all members on a visit-by-visit basis, to hang up my street clothes.) I’ve seen this guy many times before. He stands out because of his clothing—red corduroys, not too many men have the nuggets to wear red cords. I also couldn’t help but notice that he compensates for an unfortunate face by always looking good, whether he is wearing a designer silk shirt and slacks or blue jeans and what looks like an intentionally stretched-out wool sweater. But he wasn’t wearing his red cords or silk shirt now. He was carrying on a conversation about road bikes, buck-naked and leaning on my tall locker and about two inches from my assigned locker. Unlike all the other men in the locker room, this guy wasn’t dressing himself; he acted as if he came to the club naked. I sat down on the bench next to him and as I leaned over to dial my combination, his business was right next to my face. I quickly pulled back, hoping he would, in turn, back up and give me some room; but no, he kept on talking about his Beamer.

Since I’m always on a tight schedule—trying to jam in a decent workout, shower, and get out to the bus stop inside of one hour—I couldn’t just get up, walk around the corner to the sinks and apply the club’s various aftershaves, lotions, and hair gels while I waited for Cycle World to finish his road test findings. The logical thing to do would have been to ask the guy to back up a skosh, but I was too pissed off, and my passive-aggressiveness was now in 5th gear. I attempted to read the numbers on my locker from a distance but my glasses were in my bag, inside the locker Red Cords was leaning on. Losing patience and time, I leaned over again and began to go through the combination—all with the guy’s junk just inches away from my face. Flustered, it took two attempts to get the combination right—like I misdialed twice intentionally.

When I successfully cracked the combination, I swung the locker door open faster than usual. Red Cords took a casual half step back and continued his evaluation of his bike without a beat. I took out my laundry bag from the locker, after taking off my exercise shoes, placed them in the locker, and slammed it shut. I dressed down while listening to how superior BMW drive shafts are compared to Japanese road bikes, then placed my workout clothes in the laundry bag, dropped the bag in the linen shoot, and walked to the showers.

By the time I returned from the showers, the man who had been listening to Red Cords’ road test was fully dressed and was now leaning toward the exit, but Red Cords kept talking, unmoved by his audience’s obvious body language. Red Cords, who hadn’t put on one stitch of clothing, was now talking about his Beamer’s exceptional breaks. I slipped in next to Red Cords, not fully dry. I had been rehearsing what I was going to do if the road test was still going, so when I marched up to my other locker—the one Red Cords was leaning on—and quickly grabbed and violently yanked on the latch, he removed his hand from the door and quickly stepped back. The road test discussion came to an abrupt halt. A split-second later, when I swung the locker door open, he jumped back a half step more. His one-man audience, hearing the break in the statistics, said a quick “Gotta go, man. Take it easy,” and left.

Our area of the locker room became dead quiet, except for the cacophony of muffled mobile phone rings occasionally going off inside lockers all around us. I put on my clothes about two feet away from Red Cords, as though the building was on fire, and picked up speed the more layers I slapped on my wet body. I was waiting for a remark on how an “excuse me” was in order but it never came. I left the locker room with my shoes in my hand, stepping in puddles of cold water as I walked briskly for the door. I put my shoes over my soaked socks when I hit the landing between the second and first floors—I didn’t care.

In the lobby, popcorn was popping. I ate a bag there as I waited the five or so minutes before leaving for the bus stop. I kept running that locker door-opening scene in my head; “What did he think? Did he care?” I kept my face buried in a copy of Men’s Health, too afraid I might lift my head to see him staring at me. A few minutes passed and I looked up to see what time it was and there was Red Cords, talking with some other guy, his head directly under the clock. Red Cords must have thought I was looking at him—maybe even staring him down. At that moment, I noticed for the first time that he had a mustache, just as menacing as Gene Franklin’s. Crap, I thought to myself, I have spent my whole life trying not to make enemies—avoiding the Gene Franklins of the world and situations like this very one and now I share a very small locker space with Gene Franklin’s incarnate, but wet towels are usually not the weapon of choice among grown men and that’s good news…I think.

In Appreciation of Tall Women

This post should be titled “In Appreciation of Volleyball,” but because I have, until recently, thought of the pastime as a woman’s sport, and perhaps deep inside I was a sexist when it came to women in sports, the title will stay with apologies to follow. I never liked volleyball; I always thought it was a sissy sport. When we played volleyball in high school P.E. I would conveniently interpret my own awkwardness as a result of having a Y chromosome. The open-handed “slapping” of the ball and the lob serves didn’t help my image of it either. As for the rules, I just hated them.There were guys who could punch the ball, which improved my opinion of volleyball, but still I didn’t think the game was for men. Many years later, one of my co-workers started watching beach volleyball. He would copy hi-def images to place on his PC’s desktop. While these photos showed very muscular men performing feats of athleticism, I still didn’t buy into volleyball as a man’s sport. Maybe I didn’t like those goofy hats with the bills flipped up.

I felt better about women playing the sport, which I’m sure was a sexist hang-up of mine. In some ways I think I reflected the time: Title IX had just passed, yet sports scholarships were still not encouraged for young women. Part of my problem is I never sat down and watched girls’ volleyball while I was in high school. If I had, I might have changed my mind right then and there.

I played beach volleyball as an adult only once, and it only had a negative affect on my opinion of the game. It was a Boy Scouts camping trip at Point Reyes and a dozen or so of us set up a net on the beach. I would have rather flown kites, or played with the potato cannons, but the scoutmaster wanted to play volleyball. I ended up on a team with a hyper-aggressive assistant scoutmaster who was hell-bent on telling all the scouts on our team how the game should be played.

As (bad) luck would have it, the ball never seemed to come toward him so he crashed into me every time it came my way, showing the scouts how to perform various setups, saves, and spikes. After eating half the sand on the beach, I bowed out, as did a kid on the opposing side. We ran off and stole one of the potato cannons and a sack of ordnance. I wanted to lead a spud attack on the assistant scoutmaster and the whole stupid game, but I had to be responsible and lead by example. I limited the number of projectiles we fired, and made sure we shot them in the opposite direction of the game. At that time I didn’t know what was a lamer game: volleyball or badminton.

My opinion of volleyball warmed a few years ago when I spent a few minutes watching hordes of young women play the game at the Sacramento Convention Center. The only reason I ended up there was because I was in a deli across the street two blocks from work when three guys walked into the store shaking their heads in amazement, one exclaiming, “Those girls are off the hook!” After finishing my lunch, I walked across the street to where the games took place. I remember how fast the games were and noted the intense competitiveness. This was not the sport I remember from high school. I found out just recently that the event I saw only a few minutes of is the

Volleyball Festival. I also learned that this national event was huge—with hundreds of athletes competing in games not only at the Convention Center but also at Cal Expo and in Davis. I was hoping to attend more the following years but my wife told me that Reno now hosts the event.About two weeks ago my wife asked if I would like to go with her to the NCAA final between Stanford and Penn State. I said yes, not because I was interested in the match, but because my wife and I don’t go out much and I knew she was going with or without me. The next night we were in ARCO Arena, up in the nosebleeds watching the match. My only complaint is that I wasn’t close enough to catch all the nuances of the game.

I had no trouble seeing the incredible speed and power with which these tall women played Then I saw the diving saves and blistering spikes and the amazing speed, aggressiveness, and skill; I was impressed with their athleticism. I also couldn’t help but be a little intimidated—what would it be like to be on the receiving end of one of those spikes! The setups made sense to me. There was a beauty to the movement; the best setups were as stunningly beautiful as a perfectly executed double play in baseball; I was finally getting it.

Some stuff was a mystery to me, but my wife helped explain the changes since our high school days. All the changes are definitely for the better, making the game far more interesting and dramatic; for instance, no more specific amount of passes before the spike and more open rules on service. It is all wide-open and that made the action far more dynamic, unpredictable, and explosive. About a game into the match and I began caring about the teams. I became a Stanford fan. Although, just as in NBA games, I thought the cheerleading stuff was dumb and unnecessary. The only thing entertaining about them was how unsynchronized the Stanford cheerleaders were—perhaps they had Finals on their minds. I don’t think you will ever see an apologetic post on this blog about cheerleading. In an evening of pleasant surprises, the only disappointment was the scoring.

I was still into the match when, on the fifth game, it was suddenly over with the scoreboard reading Penn State: 15, Stanford: 8. What is this half-of-a-fifth game all about? The fact that Stanford lost was enough to make virtually everyone (shy of the Penn State players) quiet, but I was still wondering why everyone began shuffling down the stairs. “I guess that’s how they score Game Five,” my wife said. When the match started she told me that the rules from the 70s when she played high school volleyball, had changed, but she didn’t know all the changes, so even she was a little befuddled. While Stanford forced Penn State to a tie-breaking fifth game (30-25, 30-26, 23-30, 19-30, 15-8), I felt I could watch more that night—why not the best of seven like in other post-season sports? I left that evening with an appreciation for a sport I used to discredit and an admiration of the athletes that I rarely gave a second thought. Perhaps I should reconsider badminton, too. Easy there, Jocko!