A Slightly Different Christmas Story

Rhumba and I had a low-key Christmas.  We exchanged no presents, attended no feast, met with no relatives.  In no way did our Christmas resemble the cultural standard.

Which, these days, has been set by the ’80s movie “A Christmas Story.”  It’s a great flick, a movie about the goofiness of celebrating Christmas in America.  Which, in in this movie includes an invading dog pack which devours the turkey and necessitates dinner at a Chinese restaurant: the only restaurant open on Christmas.  Despite all that, and more, the family’s Christmas is a success, because there’s love.  A lot of screaming, but also love.

Basic cable channels have played “A Christmas Story” to death over the years.  It’s now the millennials’ paradigm of Christmas spirit.  But let me tell you a slightly different Christmas story from years past. And it is about family, and friendship, and Christmas — and being hungry.

Rhumba and I were newly a couple, back bout 25 years ago, and we went north for Christmas to be with two of her dearest friends: two sisters who lived in Ashland, in southern Oregon.  We had Christmas dinner at sister Carol’s house, and it was memorable.

Ashland is known for theater festivals, and theater in general  Carol taught and directed children’s theater for the school district; her husband was a otherworldly Buddhist monk of sorts, shaved head and all.  Between stints of meditation in the mountains, he did odd jobs. Together, they’d raised two very theatrical daughters.

They owned very little. Their rented house was little more than a shack; the Ashland winter chill beat against the walls with vigor. None of that seemed to matter; all four of them chattered with us about life in general with gusto and no restraint.  At ages 10 or 12, the daughters freely joined in all discussion.

It was great discussion.  At one point the ten year old daughter might be ragging out her father for screwing up her pet-sitting business. (“I CANNOT go away for THREE DAYS without SOMETHING HAPPENING!”) And from there to the perils of children’s theater, and on from there to an intense discussion of the Lost Continent of Mu.  If I had taped that afternoon, you’d pay to see it.   They were unconventional, over-verbal, and quite in love with one another.

All in all, one my most memorable Christmases. And they fed us a fine dinner but… there wasn’t very much of it.  Rhumba and I looked at the modest platters of food and the modest surroundings, and stopped ourselves at one helping each.

“Please, have more.” “Oh no, we’re fine.”  I could have eaten everything left on the table.  But they had so little.  Rhumba and I drove off with fond memories and half-full stomachs.  It was better that way but.. there was no place to get food in Ashland.  The whole town was locked down for Christmas.

It being four in the afternoon, we drove up to Medford for a movie.  And maybe, maybe to find some food. Though Medford had gone  as dark for Christmas as Ashland.  We saw the movie: “We’re No Angels,” with Robert DeNiro.  The sound went wonky about halfway through and management offered refunds to the audience. But we stayed to the end along with the ten other people in the theater, because there was damn all else to do in Medford on Christmas evening in 1991.

Then we were back in the car, roaming Medford’s empty streets for an open restaurant.  Rhumba wan’t hopeful, but I kept driving.  “I’ll know what I’m looking for when I see it,” I said.  I did know what I sought, but I didn’t want to say.  Because it no longer existed back in the Bay Area.  Medford was 30 years behind the times, though — old cars, old storefronts, old everything.  Maybe there would still be, after all these years….

A bright-red building with floodlights and a golden dragon on the roof.  “Lucky Dragon, Chinese and American Food.” And the windows were full of diners.

“YES!” I shouted. “I KNEW they’d have one.”  We pulled in immediately.

When I grew up, most Chinese restaurants advertised “Chinese and American Food,” because there wasn’t enough demand for Chinese food alone, especially bland, inauthentic Americanized Cantonese recipes.  “Chinese and American Food” restaurants were a good place to get fried rice, or a hot roast beef sandwich.  I usually had the hot roast beef.

“Chinese and American” had vanished  in the Bay Area with the Asian influx of the ’70s; a Mandarin or Szechuan eatery could stand on its own now.

But in Medford, in 1991,  Mandarin immigrants and Mandarin food were still but a rumor.  Tacky, old-school “Chinese and American” restaurants still ruled. We were  greeted by an Asian hostess in a silk dress slit up the thigh. She walked us into a red-and-gold movie set of a dining room full of golden statues of Chinese dog-demons.  And yes, their special that day was turkey dinner with all the trimmings.  Which we both were more than happy with.

That’s always been my quibble with the movie “A Christmas Story:” there should have been a “Chinese and American” restaurant around Indiana in the ’30s, one that could turn out a hot turkey sandwich with canned gravy.  At least. But, oh well.

Rhumba and I did do one thing for Christmas today; as in Medford, we went out to see a movie.  That’s also a sort of tradition: see a movie on a Thanksgiving or Christmas Day, when the theaters are empty.

But that tradition doesn’t work anymore, either.  We went to see an honest-to-god new Hollywood musical, “La La Land.”  and found the place was packed with 60- and 70-something couples like ourselves out for a double senior/matinee discount.

We don’t mind sitting in Row 4, though, and the movie was good.  Later on, we noticed that only one real restaurant downtown had opened its doors for Christmas.  it was Chinese, and it was two-thirds full.

Some traditions remain after all.  A grand solstice to you all.

Tales from the Chair

This damned chair.

Last year, my wife insisted that I buy a plush easy chair to replace one that the cats destroyed.  She even picked it out for me: a high-tech Norwegian job. If you believe the company website, it’s made by frost giants in a suburb of Asgard.  Solid wood and leather and high-tech foam on a jointed steel frame:  I could probably invade Iceland in this thing.

“I see you writing in this chair,” Rhumba said, “And the thought makes me happy.”

So we got it.  It’s insanely comfortable.  So comfortable that I have trouble staying awake long enough to write anything.  If I’m short any sleep at all, I just drop off.

And I am routinely short of sleep, because wife Rhumba’s legs are still an issue, eight months after the infection that sent her to the hospital.  They are way, way better. But they still need care from me, and she still struggles to stay calm about the situation.

I must stay on top of things, and I’m not very good at it.  I worry a lot. When I sleep at night, I wake up after about five hours, piss, and go back to sleep. That’s the normal pattern. But lately, worry grab me and I don’t go back to sleep.  I just lie there until it’s time to  face the day.

And then the chair claims me in the evening.  It’s hard to write on a schedule like that.  It’s also hard to get out of crisis mode: the idea that I might be needed at any moment.  I can’t focus on assembling thoughts into an argument: especially if the topic is a serious one.

I’ve  started four or five actually pretty good posts on one weighty subject or another, and  I just can’t finish them.  My own problems trump the problems of the world. I lose interest.

So I’ll stick with humor and surreality for awhile, until I’m peaceful and calm enough to deal with the real world.  If that’s what you want to call it anymore.

Today, “humor and surreality” means police blotter haiku.  I’m back in the saddle with those, thanks in no small part to Rhumba. She turned me on to the police log column for Forest Grove, Oregon.

Now, this blog has more than its share of Oregonian readers: hail, soggy neighbors to the north.  But the rest of you will not have heard of Forest Grove.

It’s small.  It’s old.  The rain falls 156 days a year, on average.  Forest Grove is 25 miles west of Portland, an hour’s drive from the coast: nowhere, kind of.  Retirees like it, and there’s a small private university.  For some reason, 20 percent of the undergraduates are Hawaiian: the cafeteria serves spam and white rice, plus Bento boxes every Friday. The  Hawaii Club stages a full-on authentic luau every year.  Everybody comes.

By email, I’ve asked the university how it came to maintain a Hawaiian colony under Oregon’s damp, gray skies.  I have as yet received no reply.

According to the travel boards, this is about all there is to do in Forest Grove: watch the rain; wait for the luau; maybe go to the sake brewery and get tiddly on samples.

But the police log offers other options.  Perhaps, to pass the time, you might tell the patient officers about the strangers who come out of the wall in the space between your closet and the end table. Or you might call yourself Missy Demeanor and do a twirly dance down the middle of the modest main drag.  You might even hike over to a stranger’s house with a big rock and leave it on the porch.

Stuff like that.  Maybe it’s the rain.

And maybe not.  One of my co-workers used to write for small-town newspapers, and turned out his fair share of police blotter columns way back when.  He tells me that the police chiefs of 30 years ago would release all sorts of bizarre minor incidents to the press — because they made interesting reading, and because the cops saw no reason not to share them.

But over time, police culture became more risk-averse and lawsuit-fearing (as the rest of us have).  These days, most of the juicy reports stay buried in the database. Police blotter columns aren’t what they used to be.  That’s what the old reporter tells me.

So my question is this: assume that the police chief of Forest Grove is one of the expansive old cops who’s still willing to gather and release the odder stories of human frailty to the general public.  This seems likely.

And if this is so, then potentially every city in America is as quietly bizarre as Forest Grove.  They just don’t know it, because the police won’t tell them.

I think that’s sad.  Because if we don’t track how normal it is to be crazy, we’ll just get crazier and crazier in our own disconnected little lives, never knowing that there may well be other people out there who worry that the Martians want to steal their eyeballs.

For example:

Satan in the house!
But… he’s erased his voice from
all the tapes she made!

Child Welfare’ has fears
’cause she drops F-bombs near her
grandkids’ tender ears.

She has no curtains!
She calmed down when she learned that
the cops didn’t either.  

The lady requests
that her statement be taken
by Officer Stud.

The police denied
that they sought, with the Martians,
to steal his eyeballs.

Sanitation sez:
Yeah, you can toss that skunk IF
you double-bag it.

“Their band is too loud.
And I wouldn’t complain but
that lead singer sucks.”

Does his engine purr?
Or is that the kitten who’s
nested inside it?

What does it mean when
your tween tells strangers you’re dead
and asks for the green?

Stranger with a rock.
He’s gone, but the rock remains
on her veranda.

And here are a couple more, from the sparse reaches of the Flathead Valley.

Two above freezing.
And she’s doing jumping jacks
and screaming for help.

It’s dinnertime!
And out in front of his house
stands a man with a spear.

That’s Montana for you. Or, is it only Montana?

A Curious Lack of Outrage

After work tonight, Rhumba and I went downtown to buy a load of cat food and toilet paper — two things our household needs a lot of.   And scones.  What’s life without scones?

Rhumba paid the man, I packed the bags. A roar of voices blasted in from the street.  So I stuck my head out the door where a near-endless stream of healthy young college kids dash by, screaming in the twilight.  Couldn’t understand a word they said.

“What are they doing?” I asked the world at large.

“They’re protesting Trump,” the world said, if the world is a gangly bearded guy in a Panama hat.

Good clean fun; I went back inside.  Reminded me of the Gulf War, when the students nearly stormed the police station.  At the last second they remembered: the Santa Cruz Police Department had nothing to do with war in the Mideast.  And they backed off.

But these kids weren’t backing off.

“Third time they’ve been by tonight,” the cashier said.

“Well, at least it’s not like the Gulf War.” He looked at me funny. I don’t always bother to explain myself.

Yeah, it’s been quite the day.  Really didn’t see the Trump presidency coming.  Oh, at one point I worried about the possibility.  I thought Clinton was a lousy choice, a political insider’s choice.
But the great mass of pollsters and media men and wise old politicians and Ivy League experts insisted that Clinton was ahead.  I started to believe them.  I think maybe the experts believed themselves, too.

And yet, they were wrong.  If I may be crude, they didn’t know shit.  They’ve been shown out as a bunch of hacks in nice clothing:  made to look stupid by a candidate so loathsome that his supporters, many of them, wouldn’t admit that they were going to vote for him.

But they did.  Hard to poll people like that. And if you don’t take their problems seriously, it’s hard to get their support, too.

The ways of the world make me tremble with rage, but somehow today was just another day: had been since last night, when Rhumba gave me the word just before bedtime.  I’d been doing yoga all evening with the Lords of Savashana, my yoga group. Probably the calmest way to spend election night.

We went out to breakfast this morning; we do a lot of that lately. It costs, but Rhumba’s recovering slowly from the infections that put her in hospital for a couple of months.  And we’re both back to work, but we take it easy on ourselves in the morning.  Worth the money.

And, once in the breakfast restaurant, Betty the co-owner melted down all over our french toast.  “I just can’t, I just can’t believe it,” she said.  “I can’t, I can’t even guess what the next four years will be like.”

I told her, “I’ve been angry about politics for 20 years.  I’ve always thought everything was crap.  To me, this is just another day.

“People are upset about life in general, and it was time for a populist.  The Democrats didn’t let the good populist run, so the angry white men voted for the bad one.  And here we are.”

She didn’t look happy.  “I can’t disagree with a thing you say, but it’s been a really bad year. My mother died, a friend of ours went to prison, and now this.”

Yes.  It’s been a bad year.  Half an hour earlier Rhumba and I were at home inspecting her slowly-healing legs, trying to figure out our strategy for the day.  Wash them now? Later? Could that rash become infected? Apply an anti-fungal, or let it wait?  Little dash of triple-antibiotic over on that red spot?

That’s how we’ve spent every morning and evening for four months now. I’m tired. And frankly I just can’t get the outrage up.  What’s going to happen, will happen.  And there’s always hope.

Because things move in arcs: your life, history, and particularly politics.  Eight years ago on Election Day Rhumba and I were sitting in this very restaurant, yes, having breakfast while Betty’s husband Archie poured coffee from behind the counter and asked us, “Are you feeling gro-oo-ovy this morning?”

“Archie,” I said, “nothing’s been groooovy since 1969.”

“Then it’s the Age of Aquarius again, the Age of Obama,” Archie said, obviously stoked.

“Yeah, right,” I answered.

“Don’t be so cynical.” He grinned at me.

“You have no idea how cynical I can be,” I said, “so I’m not going to say anything.”

And I didn’t. Obama’s “hope and change” was supposed to be a new arc, a new story in American politics, one of honest men of differing opinion working together for the good of all. It was a nice fantasy; but it stalled early and tumbled back to earth with the election of  Donald Trump.  And here we were in that same restaurant, eight years later almost to the day, surveying the wreckage with Archie’s wife.

But there are bigger arcs; there was the arc of the New Deal, 40 years of increasing equality. It was replace by  the arc of small government, of low taxes for the rich, of hidden racism, of rising inequality.  Nixon conceived it, Reagan sold it.  And no Democratic president for the last 30 years has strayed too far from it. Obama included.  Certainly not Clinton. And America continued to deteriorate.

Which left people open for a huckster like Trump, who co-opted all the outrage. Who will, eventually, make worse the lives of most people who voted for him.

So where’s the hope? I can only tell you this:  there are activists in the field right now, making plans. The Occupy movement birthed them, the Bernie Sanders campaign matured them, and Trump will challenge them.  As President Trump and his allies try to free the rich to run riot, these people are ready to fight them.

I get a box of email from them every day and do you know what’s scary?  They’ve stopped asking for money.  They just want me. They want help to field a brand new congress, to raise a new generation of leaders to start new movements which challenge the old arc and start a new one: a free and equal society, this time for keeps.

I think they have a chance.  Because you can rail at Trump voters, but I really do believe that all a great many of them wanted, was for someone real to come to them with a hand out and say, “I want to help you.” And mean it.

It’s a simple thing.  But it’s been awhile.

Haikuniverse

Humans are inference engines.  Give us a fact or two, a little context, and we fill in the rest.  For example, this haiku, taken from a police report out of some newspaper:

Yet another dent.
On the windshield, a small note.
The paper is blank.

From “”windshield,” you infer a car.  From “dent” and “note,” you infer that another car collided with the car while it lay parked, unattended.  From “blank paper,” you infer a sniveling bastard of a driver who left a blank note on the wounded car to give the appearance of responsibility.

And he would only do this, you infer, if there were onlookers that he wanted to send away, satisfied that he’d left contact information on the car.   Only he hadn’t.

As my regulars know — and who else reads this blog — I write 17-syllable haiku taken from crime items in small-town newspapers. A story told in 17 syllables is going to be 75 percent inference — at least.

People like to build a story from the inferences I prompt them to make.  I see a glint of satisfaction in their eyes after they reflect on the haiku for a bit, and ‘get it.’ With luck, what they ‘get’ is what I intended them to.

In some sense, existence is a giant haiku: an endless reality about which you can obtain only certain facts.  And from them you infer the rest, or try to.

Jack and Diane live a couple of houses down the block from us; they moved in 25 years ago, just after we did.  We’ve never been close to one another. Rhumba and I are flighty and touchy, while Jack and Diane are somber and stand-offish to a fault.  The day they moved in I walked over to say hello and offer help.  Nobody would speak to me.  It was as if they didn’t know what to say.

Jack is a engineer and as the young people would say, “he’s on the spectrum.”  Doesn’t play well with others, never starts a conversation and sometimes doesn’t finish them either.  Diane  is  no-nonsense with  flinty eyes.  We used to talk some; now she just flashes a grimace.

They raised two attractive, bubbly girls. Eventually, both turned as tactiturn as their parents.

Jack went over the hill to work every day in his Hondota, and Diane had the minivan and, after awhile, mainly stayed home.  The minivan went in and out on errands all day. Their garage could just about fit both cars if each parked as far to left or right as possible.

And that’s about all that we saw of them.  The cars came and went each day. Diane’s minivan would take the kids off to school, and then come home again.    Jack’s come home around six or seven.

Eventually Jack got a job at Google, with even longer hours than before.  He bought  a bigger and better Hondota.  And their cars continued to come and go as they had for decades. Until the day that Jack’s failed come back.  And it didn’t come back the next day or the day after.

Weeks rolled by. We noticed that Diane was parking her minivan in the middle of their garage instead of to one side.  Od mattresses and boxes accumulated against each wall.  In no time at all, the two-car garage became a one-car garage.

One evening, Jack’s car pulled up — but not into the garage. Jack walked to the door with a sheaf of file folders under one arm.  A while later, Jack’s car had gone again.

A couple of weeks later, it appeared for us one more time: waiting outside Jack’s old house again.  Jack was not at the wheel; we assumed him to be inside, with more folders.  A glossy, handsome woman waited in the passenger seat, idly flicking a finger across her smartphone.  Blonde ringlets spilled over the shoulders of a velvet jacket.

A few evenings ago around 7, Diane stood in front of her house: coiffed to impress and dressed to kill.  She straightened her purse and peered down the street. Waiting.

Life With the Little People

(Rhumba says I’m repeating myself with this one.  Oh well…)

Everybody’s got to be someplace.  Sometimes that place is called Necessity; sometimes it’s called Preference; and sometimes, it just is what it is.

Our back yard has gained a part-time tenant.  From time to time he jumps over our back fence and sacks out behind the big blue mallow; it conceals him from our view.  But he leaves traces: an oval of flattened weeds, and an empty beer bottle.  Lagunitas IPA, every time.

Does he need to be there? No idea.  But I don’t worry; there’s little he could do hurt to our feral back yard. Crap in it, perhaps; but he’s never even done that.  So I pretend that I don’t know, and he pretends that he doesn’t know that I know.  In Santa Cruz we call it “maintaining the dominant paradigm.”  People sleeping in our back yard? Never!

People sleep all over the place here, even if they’re deities. A couple of months back I crossed paths again with the Hindu God Kevin. We know each other of old, Kevin and me, from when we worked together at a school for homeless kids. Kevin’s an original hippie who walked the walk and never came back. Short and sun-browned, Kevin is, with a cloud of silver hair and a mighty silver beard that merge into a corona surrounding a pair of eyes and a nose.  Think Hanuman the Monkey God on a bad hair day. Impressive, but bad.

Kevin’s spent his life on the road, in communes, in orphanages in India, in the forest or the fields; if there’s a roof over his head, it’s only a nice-to-have. The journey is his destination, and the perfect place is wherever he is.  Last time I saw him in town, he was looking for manual labor gigs and a ticket back to India.

“Did you ever get there?”

“Oh yeah, and I’m back again.  Thought I had a heart attack.  It wasn’t, but I came back to get it looked at. And here I am,” he spread his arms wide, “where I swore I’d never be again: in America, in an election year.” He shook his head.

But he’s staying:  he’s not young, and the medicine’s better here.  India’s getting worse, Kevin told me; and besides, he generates 400 pounds of atmospheric carbon every time he flies there.  He couldn’t justify that. So Kevin’s living under the stars again, somewhere around here in Santa Cruz’ mild climate; in a field, a back yard, maybe a shack. Somewhere. And he’s seventy years old.  And happy.

“As long as I’ve got my practice (his meditation) and the sunrise, I’ve got everything I need,” Kevin told me, smiling.  We shook hands and he trotted off like a teenager, bound for whatever.  He makes me feel stodgy.  I probably am.

But everyone’s got to be somewhere — except for Kevin, who can be anywhere.  Santa Cruz is in the news again as the third-most-unaffordable housing market in America.  A lot of the locals make good money in Silicon Valley, 25 miles north.  But those who both live and work here don’t make much money at all.  Salaries here aren’t large: not often large enough to afford an $1800/month one bedroom apartment.

When the rents are that high, your $10- and $15-dollar-an-hour workers get almost as creative as Kevin.  They double- and triple-up in rooms, sleep in friends’ back yards, share a one-bedroom with their mother.  Whatever works.

And some of them end up with Mr. Fixit. Or maybe someone like him. If they’re lucky.

Mr. Fixit is one of those middle-aged bachelors who can build  or fix anything.  Cars, houses, machinery, laptops, networks; even trees.  Only his life is in poor repair: he drifts from job to job and relationship to relationship.

Mr. Fixit’s sole source of stability is an eccentric old house on a secluded acre or two, all passed down through the family.  Some giant hand has strewn his many projects and parts piles around the property.  For years he worked little gigs for cash and spent the rest of his time puttering.

Sadly, Mr. Fixit can no longer putter as much as he’d like.  He he had to get a steady job, which of course he dislikes.  But there’s always a bright side.  He’s made a few friends at work. And he has seen them struggle to live here on the little that they’re paid.

Soon Mr. Fixit had a work friend living in his half-finished basement for… not a lot of money.  Not long after, another work friend moved in.  She and her son are living in a bedroom. For, again, not a lot. It’s all between friends.

Mr. Fixit has other friends, too.  One of them, an old one, lives in Mr. Fixit’s driveway.  For years this gentleman slept covertly in his camper on the streets and roads around town. But now he truck-camps at Mr. Fixit’s, safe from the attentions of the law. He’s a working man with a steady job, but his money doesn’t go far here.

More people will come soon.  The guy in the basement is getting married.  His new wife will join him down there.  And the woman with the child is pregnant  by her boyfriend.  The boyfriend is trying to find a place for them all to live, and Mr. Fixit really wants him to; but if the new father can’t find something affordable… who knows?

All I can say is that lately, Mr. Fixit has been rehabbing and expanding the leach field for his septic system.  He enjoys a challenge.

This is how the little people live when the big world, the money world, the world of owners, makes life hard for them.  They find cracks to hide in: crowded houses, unnoticed spaces, hidden lanes, or good buddies like Mr. Fixit with his rural stronghold of cheap housing.

The little people do NOT go “somewhere else where they can afford to live,” because where the rents are cheap, the jobs are few or low-paying, or both. Many of the little people were born and bred in Santa Cruz, too, and have friends and relatives here to call on when life gets hard.  Head someplace strange with cheap rent but no connections and no firm job? How smart is that?

Besides, who’ll do the work that the little people do, when they’re gone?  Who could afford to?

And so the little people hang in there, by hook, crook, or the virtue of “knowing somebody” who maybe, possibly has a place for them to stay.  They, not the properties and houses, are what this town is really made of.  It can’t live without them.  And I hope that, someday, Santa Cruz comes to realize that.

Creating a Monster

The average cat sleeps 15 to 20 hours a day.  But that doesn’t mean a cat can’t get lonely.  Especially when its servants (some would say owners, but let’s be real) aren’t around much.

Earlier this year Rhumba spent two months in hospital and rehab.  It proved rough for both of us.  Between tending to work and tending to Rhumba, I spent all but one or two waking hours each day away from home.  And from the cat.

She’s a  meaty 13-year-old Siamese/Burmese mix with muscles of steel and an attitude.  But when our other cat died last year, our tough cat became more — needy.  And then, with neither Rhumba and I around much, almost desperate.

I gave her what attention I could. I knew that she enjoyed being brushed.  So I brushed her until she rolled on the floor and purred.  I brushed her before work.  I brushed her when I fed her dinner.  I brushed her late at night, three-quarters asleep after tending Rhumba all evening.  I brushed enough fur off her to make another cat.

But she didn’t care. She’d flop from side to side on the floor so that I could brush both sides equally.  She purred.  And she purred.   And she PURRRRED.  Until you could hear it  ten feet away while the neighbors used power tools.

And when Rhumba came home, she asked: “Why is the cat going bald?”  I hadn’t even noticed.  The cat hadn’t complained.

We’re both at home now, and Rhumba is back to at her job.  We come home every evening. But the cat still wants to be brushed.  Constantly.  When I come downstairs to feed her in the morning, she runs to her brush, not her food bowl.  I have suspicions that she’s learned to live off the kinetic energy transmitted through the brushing motions.  That, and solar energy from her daily sunbaths.

And I wonder if she will gradually fade away under the ceaseless brushing, until there is nothing left but an eternal purr — a standing wave of sound that never dissipates.  When it wanders near, I’ll run a brush through the heart of the purr, back and forth until the kinetic energy from the motion tops off its power levels.   Then it will float into my lap and PURRRRRRRRR far into the night.

And if we should ever sell our place or pass away, the disembodied purr will wander out of the house onto the highway and let the cars run through it for the sheer love of energy.  Until it is the size of an elephant, and the PURRRR measures on seismographs.  And people will come to wave their hands through it and feel the PURRRRRRR for thousands of years to come.

PURRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR.  Damn!  She wants to be brushed again.

Coffee Break

This blog will experience a slight delay because of coffee.

On Labor Day, in an effort to be cool and suave and get out of the house, Rhumba and I took our act and our personal electronics to a coffee house.

I set up my laptop on a big table in the middle of the room and, after a few productive minutes of writing, knocked a glass of cold-brew coffee right into the keyboard.

I hefted the thing into the air and turned it upside down.  Brown liquid streamed from the cracks between the keys.  No cause for alarm; I’d backed the thing up a mere — six months ago.

“Turn it off before it shorts!” somebody called out. Good advice. I shut down the laptop without incident, half-closed the clamshell and stood the laptop up on its “legs,” so that it dripped and drained for another 20 minutes.  I made no attempt to turn it on. It went home with us, smelling strongly of coffee.

Knocking things over is a sort of unintentional hobby with me, but I actually haven’t spilled fluid into data processing equipment since the ‘80s, when I sloshed a can of Diet Coke into a computer terminal.  It did not survive.   I hoped for a better outcome this time around.

Fortunately Rhumba has a laptop, also, and the Internet is a fine source of information on anything trivial.  We were not surprised to find an extensive literature on the ramifications of pouring coffee into laptops.  The wise heads advised putting it on its legs and letting it dry out.  Preferable for a couple of days; a minimum of one, you mad fool.

I waited one.

My laptop booted alright, but the fan wouldn’t turn off.  After a couple of minutes the screen went black.  Then it tried to boot again. Then it went black.  Then it tried to boot again.

Finally, it just sat there and looked at me.  And then it spoke:

“BoopBoopBoop.”

“What?”

“BoopBoopBoop.”

“What does that mean?!”

“BoopBoopBoop.”

What it meant, the Internet told me, was that I had a RAM problem.  Either one of the RAM modules had gone bad; or, it wasn’t seated correctly in its sockets.  Or some foreign substance had gotten into the socket.

Was this substance brown, liquid, and of robust flavor?  I can only surmise.

So the laptop goes back on its legs to dry out for yet another day. We shall see if the morrow brings happy sockets to its motherboard.

And if not, I’ll hunt through our rolodex for the number of a certain bearded yeti who lives in the hills, descending only to buy supplies and fix ailing computers for cheap or free.  And to occasionally play the marimba at parties.

In the meantime I have Rhumba’s computer, but none of my files.  Who would think that something like this could happen in this day and age?

BoopBoopBoop.

(Update, 24 hours later:  It’s back from the dead, by God! Happy sockets fer sure!)

Police Blotter Haiku: Back from County

For your abbreviated reading pleasure, here are a few more police blotter haiku.  A year has passed since I’ve published new ones.  Life’s been a little hard lately.  But every one in awhile I’m inspired to spit a few out.  I almost have enough for another book.  Almost.

Rest assured that America has not changed; and in newspapers large and small, harried city editors continue to publish  three-line crime stories about people who are neither too good nor too bad but simply, at a key moment, out of touch with good sense and impulse control.  Enjoy.

“So, what shall we eat?”
It seems a harmless question.
Yet police were called.

I’m fine, she told them
And ran down the street laughing
in her underwear.

Go home, sleep it off,
the cop said, but hours later
their paths crossed again.

Too many shrooms, man.
He needs some help, plus help for
his spectral girlfriend.

As he ran the reds,
they noticed from the sidewalk
that his eyes were closed.

He can’t find his wife!
And his wife is fine with that,
the police would learn.

At the wheel, asleep.
As a cold rain bathes her through
the open sunroof.

Sex on the white line.
While their bicycles rest by
the side of the road.

He and his vodka
watched movies all day at the
Elvis Cinema

Inside Laundry Land
a hand scrawls swear words backwards
‘cross the fogged windows.

 

 

Jeremiah

It’s a cool Thursday evening, and I’m standing in the parking lot outside St. Bob the Informal’s Presbymethertarian Church.  Inside, my wife Rhumba hosts a meeting of her knitting group.

St. Bob’s is well off the street.  Most of the campus lays beyond the view of passing motorists; and the parking lot is barely lit at night. I like to hover outside as the ladies come and go.  Just in case.

I also put out the tea and cookies.  I’m versatile.

Churches aren’t really public spaces, but they stand empty most of the time and as long as your dog isn’t digging in the geraniums or you’re not obviously casing the joint, we don’t say much.  A few Thursdays ago I had to gently persuade a homeless man to move his camp away from the front door so that we could enter.  No sir, the building’s not deserted, it just looks that way sometimes.  St. Bob’s is a small church getting smaller, as old members die and new ones fail to materialize.

But tonight, as usual, all is well.  A while ago, an old man wandered onto the campus and disappeared behind the parish hall.  But I’m not worried.  He had a newspaper under one arm, and there’s a little concrete patio back there with a chair or two.  It catches light and warmth from the setting sun. Not a bad place for an old man with cold bones to sit for a bit, and read.

The old man reappears from behind the parish hall and walks toward to the rear of the campus.  He sees me and says, a little defensively, “I like to come back here and check how the construction’s going.”

“And we’re very happy for you to do that,” I answer.

“The construction” fills the whole back half of the campus. Where once stretched a derelict field of weeds, now stands a substantial building, or what will soon be one.  The roof’s not on yet, but the framing stands tall.  And it’s big; two stories high, easily 100 yards wide.  They’ll have it buttoned up in a few weeks, and ready for business by spring.

“What’s it gonna be?” the old man asked.  His face was all vertical creases, like the shell of a walnut with human features superimposed.

“Subsidized senior citizen housing,” I told him.  He nodded.  “Forty-six units. You could apply, maybe, if you qualify.”

Just briefly: I live in a small, beautiful city that’s become too desirable. Investors from near and far swoop in to scoop up income properties.  Enrollment at the local university is up by 1000 students, and there’s little room for new housing.

Wealthy folks from Silicon Valley are buying second homes near the beach — which then stand empty 29 days a month.  We have a housing crisis, yet whole neighborhoods show but one or two lights after dark.

And the rents are crushing, and if you lose your rental you may never get another one.   Meanwhile, where do regular folks live?  And how can the town live, if regular folks cannot?

So St. Bob’s teamed up with a nonprofit housing agency and, after years of bureaucratic wrangling, put together the senior housing project. St. Bob’s gets a small chunk of change for a 99 year lease, and the nonprofit handles the rest.  Upwards of 50 seniors will live there. In what was once a messy wasteland, there’ll be lights and life and activity at all hours.

And St. Bob’s campus will no longer be dark and forbidding at night. To me that’s better than the money.  The money is welcome, but simply makes St. Bob’s a shrinking congregation with a nice bank balance.  Young families are the lifeblood of a church; and most of ours moved elsewhere years ago.

“The rent’s not all that cheap,” I tell the old man.  “Just cheap by local standards.  You know, you’ve got investors buying all the apartments and doubling the rents  And then everybody has to move out. Investors don’t care, it’s all about the money to those guys.”

The old man nods.  “You know what’s going to happen to them,” he told me. “They’re going to go to the court house, the big house, and the big man there, he won’t mess around with them, he won’t take any crap from them, because you don’t mess around with the big man, no you don’t.

“And the big man, at the big house, the court house, he’ll bring them down low.  Real low. Lower than the street. Lower than the ground.  Low, low, Low. And all their properties will be given to others.  You don’t mess with the big man, at the big house.  He’s tough, he’ll take them all down. Low, lower than the ground, and….”

And he repeats himself, and repeats himself again, and suddenly he is chanting to the air.  Over and over: the big man, the court house, the big house, the mighty brought down low, low, low.

Later I’d tell all this to my Rhumba, who knows three or four hundred thousand things about religion.  And she laughed and said, “You met Jeremiah!”

Jeremiah, the Old Testament prophet who couldn’t keep his mouth shut, even though he asked his God to shut it for him.  And God wouldn’t.  Jeremiah, who for decades looks the people of Judea in the face and condemned them for their sins. He condemned them for turning to idols, to sacrificing their children to Baal, for ignoring the wisdom of a demanding God for the selfish good times of a pagan god.

God would send the Babylonians to bring the Judeans low, Jeremiah preached endlessly.  He frightened the people.  He made uncertain the soldiers.  He enraged the priests.  The powerful put him in the stocks.  They threw him down a well.  They sent the establishment prophets to discredit him. They imprisoned him. But he couldn’t stop preaching.  He wanted to, but his God wouldn’t let him.

Now, when random strangers like the old man rant at me on the street, I never interrupt.  Listening isn’t what they want to do.  I just move on. But I stood and listened to the old man carry on and on, about the Big Man and the court house and the mighty brought low.  I liked his message.  I agreed with it.

But he does go on, that old man; and the darkness comes on, and I haven’t brought my coat.  It seems to me, by his body language and the way he shuffles his feet, that the old man himself wants to leave.  But he can’t. He can’t stop talking.

So finally I say, “Look, it’s getting a little cold, so I’d better go back inside.”

And he ends his rant at once. “Don’t get cold, don’t get cold,” he says, shaking his head.  “Nossir, don’t get cold.” He turns and walked back to the street, paper under his arm.

“You neither.  Stay warm!”

Now, old Jeremiah’s dire predictions landed him in jail.  But they came true.  The Babylonians did come. They destroyed the kingdom of Judea forever and sent its people, or many of them, into exile — where they mended their ways and made a new, righteous form of Judaism that lasts to this day.  And birthed other great religions.

And lo, the Babylonians were very kind to Jeremiah.  You tend to approve of people who’ve told others that God sent you.  They set Jeremiah up in a comfortable home, and let him be.  His preaching done, Jeremiah set to writing down his teachings.

It seems to me this year that Jeremiahs are popping up everywhere.  Things are wrong, they say.  The old truths are now lies, they say.  And unlike in old Judea, people are beginning to listen.

A Jeremiah ran for president.  He did not win, but he carries on, as do his followers: some still walk behind him, while other find new paths.  Right here, right now, plans are under way to breach the walls of old Washington: once the center of justice, now a place of false prophets where lies are called “spin,” and evil gets a free pass.

And the battle may be long, but the Jeremiahs won’t stop.  They can’t. And someday, down at the court house, the big house, the Big Man will deal with the mighty.  You don’t mess with the Big Man, because he’ll bring you down low, lower, lower than the ground.  And your property will be given to others.

I don’t know who the Big Man is.  Justice, perhaps.  Perhaps, just us.  Perhaps we are our own Babylonians, waiting for Jeremiah to summon us.  But whatever happens, in the end, I hope that my old Jeremiah gets a nice one-bedroom apartment out of it. With a sit-down shower.

The Easy Way Out

I ran into Ruth the other day — not literally, thank God because she’s a parking control officer, and that would be awkward. I’ve known her since I moved here 30 years ago; she was the only teller at the Bank of America who knew the answer to anything. When they fired all the full-time tellers and replaced them with college students, Ruth joined the meter maids and I got another bank.

I see her every six months or so, cruising the streets in her Interceptor III ticket bomber. She always pulls over when I wave. But it seemed, the other day, that more time had passed than usual.

“How ya been?”

“Oh fine,” she said. “I dropped dead last year.”

And not at home in front of the computer or at the dinner table, either. No, Ruth dropped dead at the 12K mark of the Bay to Breakers, the San Francisco clothing-optional fun run for 50,000. One of her coronary arteries called a strike, and Ruth hit the ground like a stone.

But if you’ve got to have a coronary, Bay to Breakers is a great place to have one. Few of the runners are professional, much less in good shape or sober, and so paramedics lay in wait on every corner. They had Ruth in hand before she even bounced. Which was good, because seven full minutes passed before they could jump-start her heart She remembers watching the ambulance and its motorcycle escort drive away with her body in it. It was one of those memories that you’re not supposed to have.

Anyway, she looks really good for a former corpse, and she’s running again. She’ll retire one of these days. One of these days. Yep. One of these days.

The thing is, that a lot of people hope to die like Ruth. They just want to go till they stop: one minute, all systems go: then, shutdown; lights out; oblivion. The darkness. No muss, no fuss, no bother. Even more so if they’re broke. I’ll work till I die, they say. I’ve got no choice, so that’s what I’ll do. They want to die like Ruth.

Only, Ruth didn’t stay dead. Remember? The medics pulled her back in time. And she’s alive and well.

But what if she was alive but not well? Mobility impaired, perhaps even brain damaged. Maybe a stroke? Laid up for life? Who’d have taken care of her?

That is, by the way, an awfully popular question these days.

Everywhere I look, people of my age group, in their 50s and 60s, struggle to take care of elderly parents. The competent adults who raised them are now weak, unable to take care of themselves or manage their own affairs alone. Their aging children must see them through the hellmaze of modern medicine and make the decisions that their parents can no longer make or understand. As medicine keeps them alive, but not well.

Many of these struggling children, the ones that I know, have no children of their own. And to a man, and a woman, they see what their parents are going through, and have become, and wonder, who’s going to take care of ME? Who’s going to do this for ME? Because there is no one, no relative, whose duty that it will be. And their own years of decline loom in the middle distance.

My office mate has dealt with this for over a year now. I’ve heard her end of many calls. Endless arrangements for treatment. Loss of a father to Alzheimers. Endless, fruitless discussions on the phone with an angry distressed, 88-year-old mother who wants out, out, OUT of rehab and back to assisted living, even though she’s just had a stroke and is nowhere near ready. She’s be fine on her own, she’s sure. Meanwhile, all her complaints about life in rehab are completely true. Even when rehab’s not evil — usually, they try — it sucks.

And her daughter, my office mate, calms her down, for the nth time and all is well. Until tonight or tomorrow when she calls again and wants out, out OUT, right now! Come and get me! And my co-workers is in her 50s with little money and lives alone in a mobile home; and when her body and mind start to fail her, her only support will be a younger brother who can’t stand the sight of illness. And she asks herself, “Who’s going to take care of ME?”

Rhumba and I ask ourselves the same question. She’s just out of hospital and rehab, where we both had our hands full watching out for her. We made sense of the bureaucratic tangles. We turned back the nurses who kept bringing drugs she was allergic to, even after the orders had been changed. I put on gloves and helped the nurses treat her. I roamed the halls at night hunting down the staff who’d promised to change her dressings but were nowhere to be found. And, sometimes, roamed them with a box of fresh-baked cookies from the bakery down the road, just for the good PR: “Look, nurses, COOKIES. Courtesy of that kindly woman in Room 35, Bed B who so appreciates your attention.” I’ve got no shame at all.

And there was that horrible day when the rehab staff dispatched us by handi-cab to a long-awaited specialist appointment, and gave Rhumba a malfunctioning wheelchair to ride in. They fiddled with it a bit, gave up, and took us to the front door. And once we were outside the nurses turned back. We were on our own. Apparently, by policy and law.

One of Rhumba’s legs burned like fire; had been doing so for days thanks to an allergic reaction to blood thinners. I tried to roll her chair out to the street where the cab waited, but she wailed in pain every time that her foot slipped from the wobbly footrests and hit the ground. I dropped to my knees in front of the chair, bear-hugged the damned thing’s loose parts back into position and literally knee-walked it, and Rhumba, all the way to the cab. We had to get to that appointment. The specialist might be able to stop Rhumba’s pain. I would have done anything.

And yes, the specialist did treat her wounds, and her pain. Though when we got to his facility, we had to get Rhumba’s bad chair another 100 yards from the cab, through a hospital, to his office. Again, with no one authorized to help us. I’ll spare you that part of the ordeal. It was absurd and awful. It was modern medical bureaucracy at its worst.

So tell me; fifteen years from now, when we’re both a lot older and creakier, can we do all that again? Can we defend ourselves again? And if not — as I suspect — who’s going to take care of US?

“Maybe we should band together,” Rhumba’s boss said to me. She’s our age. She’s just seen her husband through a bad patch in a bad hospital; and if not for her intervention he might be dead now. “If there’s no one else to look after us, maybe we can look after one another.

“It’s an attractive thought, and I’ve heard it from others. There are volunteers who look after foster kids and make sure that they don’t get eaten by the welfare system. This would be the same. Is it workable? I have no idea. Is there an alternative besides, “trust the system?” I haven’t seen one, outside of never getting sick and then dying quickly.

God. Old age is supposed to be the time to ramp down, not ramp up. But the times are different now. More will be asked of us. Of that, I’m sure. Maybe we’ll be better for it. Or broken by it. I don’t know.

What I do know is that, hoping to die like Ruth, quickly and simply, isn’t enough. Old age and death is a process, a long one. Modern medicine makes it even longer, and also more difficult. It might be simpler to die quickly, but most of us will fade gradually. And we will need help along the way. It is past time to start thinking about that help, and how to get it to everyone.

Somebody’s got to take care of all of us. Even if that someone is us.