Monthly Archives: January 2017

Nightmare with Ranch

Imagine a fine dining restaurant: soft lighting, thick carpet, potted ferns, elegant tablecloths.  A waiter summarizes the order that a well-dressed couple has just placed.

Waiter:  Here is what I have: Sir will have the dungeness crab and avocado appetizer,  rack of lamb with cous cous and salsify, and seasonable vegetables?

Sir: That’s right.

Waiter: And Madam will have the Fuyu Persimmon Squash Soup, followed by duck breast with kale & chorizo-cornbread stuffing and sauteed greens?

Madam:  That’s correct.

Waiter:  Very good.  Ah, there is one final matter…

Sir: Yes?

Waiter:  Would you like fries with that?

Both: Of course!

You may laugh — I rather hope that you do — but once or twice a week, I eat in a restaurant where fries come with everything.

I work at a public university. We produce scholars, technocrats, well-rounded individuals.  Or that’s the theory.  But it’s plain fact that we also produce colossal amounts of food.

University’s massive food mills roar for all the day and half the night.  They must: scholarship withers on an empty stomach, and the academic pace is faster than it’s ever been.

The cavernous dining halls gape open from dawn to near midnight.  Come in, line up at the pizza bar, the omelette bar, the salad bar, the burger bar, the taqueria bar, the Cajun bar, the vegetarian bar.  Stir fry to your left. Spam fried rice and shoyu chicken to your right.

Add whipped cream and Nutella to anything you want.  And Sriracha. And ranch dressing: they practically serve it with fire hoses.

Your brain will not lack the protein it needs to ace that mid-term, or to hack out the last ten pages of a term paper before the sun rises.  And there’s way more variety than I was offered as a dormie, 40 years ago.

Dining hall food is still institutional food, for better or worse: only so much finesse can be blandished on tens of thousands of meals a day.  Much of the meat is prefab, and I’ll swear the pizza is made by ink-jet printers.

But you can also find fresh vegetable dishes, good salads, healthy ethnic casseroles, whole grains, stir-fry and “real” chicken. And sometimes pork pineapple curry, just for the hell of it.  I choose carefully.  Many students do, too.

But there is the matter of fries. They may be straight, or curly; they may be potato, or sweet potato.  But they are almost always available, in one “bar” or another.  And the students will eat them with absolutely anything.  I look at their plates and shudder.

Hey, pepperoni pizza — and fries! Lasagne bolognese — and fries!  Broccoli beef on white rice — and fries!  Pad Thai with shrimp — and fries! And ravioli and coleslaw and fries, vegetable lo mein and fries, spaghetti and fries, and my personal vision of hell: white rice, corn, and fries, with ranch dressing.

Perhaps it’s a phase and they’ll grow beyond it.  You can tell yourself that.

But did the boomer generation — my generation — outgrow the grotesque foods of its youth?  I need only step out of my office door to find all the snacks my co-workers have brought in to share:  giant marshmallow cookies; peppermint Oreos dipped in chocolate; industrial-grade chocolate chip cookies, guaranteed 80 percent sugar and 15 percent stabilizers; and of course Girl Scout cookies.

“Oh, I shouldn’t, my diabetes..” my co-worker moans. and then dives right in.  Greasy hamburgers are fashionable again; so are “gourmet” mashed potatoes.

We boomers never outgrew all the questionable food choices of our youth.  Will today’s generation, in their venerable years, gather with their descendants for a festive Thanksgiving dinner of roast turkey — with fries?

And ranch dressing, of course.

Being Relevant

I was usher last week at the 10:30 service.  Raoul was on the list, but he didn’t show.  So I picked up a pile of bulletins and planted myself in the narthex.  Nobody gets by me without a hearty “Good Morning” and a pamphlet with a lamb on the cover.

“Usher” is one of those problematic words.  Logically, it should come from the verb “to ush,” so that anybody who ushes is inevitably an usher. But no: the word descends from the Latin “ostiarius,” or door-keeper. Nobody ever ushed.  At best, they “ushered.”

That’s what the etymologists say.  And they are wrong.  I do not usher; I ush.  It’s a whole different game.

The parishioners dribbled in, and the service began; I stayed in the narthex.  It’s useless to sit down before the first reading: one or two families inevitably make a two-wheel turn at speed into the parking lot ten minutes into the service, smoke streaming from the tires of their Honda Odysseys.  Ten years ago it would have been Volvo wagons, but times change.

And in fact that happened.  Once the latecomers got settled and the first reading began, I stood in the back of the sanctuary and counted the house for the attendance records.

Thus proceeds another Sunday service at St. Bob the Informal’s Presbymethertarian Church.  Presbymethertarians are a hearty bunch, much given to good works, social reform, affordable housing, traditional worship, and pancakes. They’re nuts for pancakes, in all shapes and sizes.  Where else can you sit down to a church breakfast of spherical pancakes? Only Presbymethertarians have the technology.

In some ways, St. Bob’s does amazingly well.  Pastor Biff is known around town as a mover and shaker for social justice projects. Badly-needed housing for seniors is a-building at the back of the campus; forty-odd units of it, thanks to an alliance with a housing non-profit.  There’s a million in the bank from the land lease payments. We also help Habitat for Humanity

St. Bob’s compassionately-religious preschool runs at capacity. With another few churches, we fund high school scholarships and capital projects for three villages in El Salvador.  We hold frequent pupusa lunches to raise funds for this mission. The pupusa is a traditional Salvadorian dish, a sort of stuffed…. pancake.

And yet, as I counted the house last Sunday attendance was disappointing — as usual.  What heads I counted were mainly gray, white or balding, and filled fewer than half the seats.

Every year there are fewer and fewer of us. If you ask him, Pastor Biff will blame it on the housing market.  St. Bob’s is a sort of Frankenstein congregation, assembled by refugees from three failing churches fifteen years ago.  Back then, the pews were full of young families: what every church wants to have, people who’ll grow old with you, stay with you for decades.  But then housing prices surged wildly around here, and the young Presbymethertarian families couldn’t buy.  So they left town.

That’s part of it.  But I also think that what Presbymethertarians want to sell, not that many want to buy unless they’re already invested in the church traditions.

There Pastor Biff would disagree.  He thinks we have a great deal to offer. Last Sunday he preached to us to invite friends to St. Bob’s, to see what we have and perhaps decide that it’s what they want.

But I can’t think of a single acquaintance that I could sell that to, who isn’t already committed to a spiritual community.  Hundred-year-old hymns?  Elderly metaphors for forgiveness and hope from a civilization of shepherds and farmers? The Lamb of God? The Perfect Sacrifice? Forgiveness of sins? By whom?  And group hymn-sings and Saturday work parties and all sorts of unknown traditions that get in the way of getting the kids to soccer practice or, frankly, of the time you need to collapse and rest up for the week to come?  How does church help that? What do we actually offer that will benefit them?

And I’m not sure I have an answer.   There is community support; a few parishioners did come by the hospital when my wife was ill recently; that was good.  More came from the arts and crafts group that she leads, however.  And yet that group meets at the church, which gives its space freely.  So the issue is complicated, isn’t it?

And on top of all that — these days, St. Bob’s neighborhood is now heavily Latino.  Most of St. Bob’s parishioners have to come from five or ten miles away; they never lived nearby.  Presbymethertarians descend from lands of snow and axes and spherical pancakes; the neighbors do not.  The spiritual traditions are way different. Pastor Biff and the church council know that things have to change, and they’re casting around for ideas. But they’re not sure about how to move forward while staying who they are.  They’re not sure what to offer, or even what they can offer. Resources for change are slim — and manpower.  And not everybody wants change.  But they have to find a way to include more people — make them want to be included — or St. Bob’s will be an empty building one of these days.

I was thinking about this as my wife and I were driving back from doing some chores at St. Bobs this past Saturday.   As we got near home the traffic turned heavy. Very heavy.  My wife said: “I forgot, it’s the Women’s March! We[ll never get home!”

Yes, we had a Women’s March in our town, too; it’s a college town, well-educated and prosperous, and women (and men) were going to march in protest against the Trump administration.  And as we got closer to home the sidewalks grew crowded with marchers headed toward the rally point.  Like the town, they trended older; they trended well-educated and well-to-do.  They trended liberal.  Who I did not see there was the 20 percent of the town that is Latino.  Nor did I see signs of the old-school blue-collar townies whose families have been here since way before the local university brought the academic crowd.  Many of them voted for Trump.

The townies and the Latinos have a lot in common, though they wouldn’t think so and there’s much low-key racism around here.  Townies and Latinos are both pushed economically, many of them.  Talk to a Latino service worker for awhile and you’ll find yourself talking to somebody who hasn’t had a day off in two months, or works 12 hours a day. They have to, to survive in this expensive patch of paradise where there is at least reliable work.

Talk to a townie, and you’ll find somebody wondering why they’re struggling like hell to make it in the town they grew up in, or, if they’re older, why their kids couldn’t make it here and had to leave.  They don’t know who to blame, so they blame liberals.

I was glad to see the parade.  I’m not glad to see the mistakes of the election being repeated.  At least by people who identify Democrat or liberal.

Our town is a beautiful place.  The educated class, the liberal class, wants to preserve that beauty, and the rights of all to be themselves politically and sexually.  They are not as concerned about affordable housing; not when the rubber meets the road.  Certainly not in their neighborhoods, where their personal lives might be affected (or property values).  Some well-connected group always shows up with reasons not to build affordable housing or high density housing in a particular place.  Pollution; traffic; bobcats (once); something.  Meanwhile, the people who keep the town running try to get by with low pay and stunning rents.  Latinos and townies both.

I look at the videos of the demonstrations country-wide, and the vast majority of marchers are well-to-do and white.  Not always on stage; plenty of color and diversity up there for the TV cameras.  But in the crowds, it’s the old comfortable liberal crowd who thinks that the world will be oh-so-much-better when everybody’s like them.  And isn’t talking to people who aren’t like them.  Isn’t reaching out to them.

I’ve got news; they have to, here in town and nationwide.  They have to talk to the townies.  Talk to the workers.  Talk to the minorities.  Make their lives easier now, right now, top priority, or you will not have them with you.  And you will lose the heart of this country again and again and again.  It’s no longer enough to be the lesser of two evils. Your ideology is outdated, your traditions hearken back to solutions that no longer work for everyone, your prescriptions don’t address the problems of the people who abandoned you.  You are too comfortable.

The Presbymethertarians at St. Bob’s at least know that they have to change to succeed; empty pews are a great motivator.  What do you need to change, happy marchers?  Get uncomfortable with your own assumptions, or you will lose again, and the nation with you.

It’s early, though. I have faith in you.  You will learn.  Rally the faithful around yourself, as you have.  And then reach out to everyone else.

The Calm Before the Storm

It’s hundreds of miles offshore, but you can feel it coming.  The answer to all your prayers, writ large by the Devil himself.  The night-time streets are full of crazy traffic.  Nervous drivers dive two at a time for the same shopping center driveway. Bicyclists shoot out of inky alleys and down the wrong side of the street, nearly invisible.  It’s 8 pm on a Friday night, and people are busy.

Because there’s nothing scarier than a dream come true, if you dreamed too large.  And after five years of drought, five years of water rationing and brown lawns and dying fruit trees, after five years of squinting at brilliant, arid skies: Mother Nature is about to give us everything we asked for. At one time.

Atmospheric river, baby, 100 miles wide.  Gigatons of water scooped out of the tropics by a monster low pressure system, now barreling straight for central California. Tomorrow night and Sunday, the river’s going to flow across Sonoma on the north to Monterey on the south and the beating heart of it is going to pass right over the mountains north of this town, Santa Cruz.

We may get 12 inches in 24 hours.  Or if not us, the mountains.  It doesn’t matter; all the water will flow straight into town anyway.  Whole communities in the mountains will go wet and dark.  Fallen trees will break up the fragile web of roads.  It’s going to be interesting.  Thank God they fixed the river levees.

Hence the flying traffic:  batteries, water, groceries, get it and get it NOW.  Rhumba and I were among them. We bought a hundred bucks worth of stuff at the locals market and navigated carefully home.

But we’re not ready; this town’s not ready.   The storm drains clog when you look at them wrong, there are too many trees too close to roads and houses and power lines.  And we don’t actually have a power “grid:”  it’s more of a long, raveled string.  It’d be a joke to say that one car hitting a power pole could cut power to three towns at one time, except that it’s happened a couple of times.

I work at the university up above town, a woodsy campus on a hillside where classroom buildings loom above the trees like rock formations.  They had to send us home early a couple of days ago because a tree fell across the power line that feeds campus.  One power line. There wasn’t even a wind.

Before they sent us home I took a break and hiked through campus, empty except for a wandering staffer or two, silent save the roar of generators floated by on the mist.  There was no business; it was not usual.

Fortunately, the kids weren’t back from winter break yet.  But they will be, thousands of them.  Tomorrow.  Just in time for the atmospheric river. I wonder how long the power will stay on this time.

We’ve already had a pretty wet season; now, this.  And another storm right after it.  Honestly, if I were single I’d just leave town.  But I’ve got a woman and a cat and a job and a house with a new roof. Not going anywhere, and we’ll hope for the best. At any rate, the drought will be done, for now.  “For now” is the new happy ending.  Really, it always was.

Because after the storm passes, if there’s anything left, the university’s due for a one-day union strike.  A week later, demonstrations on Trump nomination day: a “general strike” called by the town’s budding leftists.  A week after that, who knows?  The depressive civil servant and poet A.E. Houseman once wrote:

And while the sun and moon endure
Luck’s a chance, but trouble’s sure.

“Depressive civil servant and poet:” sound like anyone you know? Anyway, I’ll spare you any weather metaphors for the coming Trump presidency except this one:  sometimes when you wish for change, the universe laughs and give you change squared, change cubed, And it’s up to you, to us, to make something of it.  Certainly to be ready for it, and find advantage in it.  Fewer brown lawns this year, that’s for sure.

Some other famous guy said “Another word for crisis is opportunity.”  It was either an ancient Chinese philosopher, or a  Ferengi on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine; but what the hell?

Will the Real Robert Robertson Please Take His Hand Out of My Pocket?

Have you ever made a difference in someone’s life?  I did, once. And I still laugh about it.

In high school I sat in the back of the class with this bad boy who stole, fenced, sold dope, copied assignments, everything. He was a gonna-be criminal with a serious work ethic.

Robert Robertson was his name, hustling was his game. It was just what he did: his way forward through life. He even scammed meals off the cafeteria by pretending to be a another Robert Robertson who was eligible for free school lunches but never bothered to eat them.

He cared about grades, too, or he wouldn’t have bothered to copy. I put together a literary magazine for the class we had together, and Robert Robertson contributed a pretty good piece. Months later I discovered that he’d ripped it off from The Reader’s Digest.

Here’s a typical Robert Robertson encounter: I’m standing in the quad on Bike to School Day — it was the ‘70s — and Robert comes swinging up on a ten-speed Schwinn. In a gold leather jacket and gold leather beret.

“I didn’t know you had a bike.”

“I don’t. Some people should remember to lock their locks.”

The ten-speed had a cargo carrier full of fat, new paperbacks with pastel covers: the kind they stocked for housewives at supermarkets.

“Hey, you like to read,” Robert said. “You interested in any of these? Make you a good price.”

“Uh, no thanks.”

“Cool. I’ll find somebody.” And off he went.

Robert Robertson was going places, no question. They all looked like prison to me, though I’m sure he had other plans.

But I liked Robert Robertson; I was shy and smart and awkward, and he was completely honest about his life and never pulled any attitude on me or anybody. That’s not so common in high school. We talked a lot as seatmates.

Despite his many extra-legal activities, Robert Robertson never got busted that I’m aware of. Sometimes his life went bad in other ways, though, and I’d brainstorm with him for solutions. For example: one day Robert Robertson was holding his face in his hands as I sat down.

“What’s wrong?”

“I got a girl pregnant. Oh MAAAN!”

“Does she have another boyfriend?”

“She doesn’t.”

“But are you sure you’re the father? She could be lying.”

(Hey, I was 18, too, I had no values as of yet.)

“Nah, It’s me. Oh MAAAN!”

“Could you say she led you on?”

“I could say it, but nobody’d believe it.”

“I’m not coming up with anything good, I guess.”

“No, it’s good, good ideas,” he said from behind his hands. “Keep ‘em coming, keep ‘em coming.”

And I advised him when he wrecked a car, and on a few other tight situations. I’m creative. I can always come up with crazy angles. Robert Robertson was always happy to hear them.

One day, Robert Robertson stopped me in the hallway during passing period.  He said he’d had a dream the night before. He wanted to tell me about it:

In the dream, he was bidding against me on a bale of marijuana; I was wearing a big purple pimp hat. And every time Robert Robertson bid on the marijuana, I’d turn to him and smile. And outbid him.

“What do you think it means?” he asked. I didn’t know. Not at the time.

Robert Robertson was no dummy.  He figured out what his dream was trying to tell him: that the best way to rob and steal and stay out of trouble is to think your way around the law, instead of just breaking it. I was a helpful metaphor.

And Robert Robertson worked his way through college, got a law degree, and is now the shadiest real estate lawyer you ever saw. I told you he had a work ethic.

I knew none of this until a couple of years back; we  went our separate ways after high school, and I left town. But one day I was surfing the Internet for stories about the old hometown, Petropolis; and I found one about the mayor there, a guy I used to know. He’d just been burned out of his law office: arson. Petropolis can be a lively place

And another lawyer was burned out of that office, too: Robert Robertson. The Robert Robertson.

I dug into the Petropolis newspaper discussion boards and archives and my, there was a lot said about him. Robert Robertson was a noted landlord; some said, slumlord. Robert Robertson taught popular classes on how to deal with the real estate crash — or “How to walk away from your expensive mortgage and buy another house for less money before your new lender finds out.”

Robert Robertson was quick to bill and slow to pay. Robert Robertson opened his own restaurant — which closed mysteriously one night, and never reopened. Robert Robertson’s employees claimed he made them sign legal documents that just weren’t true.

Robert Robertson ran for superior court judge; his campaign video boasted that he’d worked his way through high school. The nature of that work was not disclosed. And although he has ever and always gone by the first name “Robert,” his campaign billboards all read “Vote for Bob Robertson.” That is the name of a popular politician in a neighboring town.

Given all that, in my opinion it’s only 50-50 that the arsonist was after the mayor — not Robert Robertson.

It’s all just Robert being Robert as he ever was, of course. And he’s still never gone to jail.

Just one thing made me a little sad: Robert Robertson’s naysayers wrote that he likes to throw his weight around at Petropolis’ modest nite spots. “DO YOU KNOW WHO I AM?” he is said to have demanded of the staffs and the customers and the world at large.

Oh Robert, I do know. I’m just afraid that you may have forgotten.

But for better or for worse, with all my schemes and advice: I inspired Robert Robertson to become the successful crooked lawyer that he is today.

And he almost won for superior court judge.