Transformation Nation

She looked like a guy in a dress.  She actually was a guy in a dress.  But she thought of herself as a woman.  And so we treated her that way.

This was at one of those university staff pow-wos that fills a day with workshops and discussion groups, plus an hour in the middle for supermarket sandwiches and chocolate chip cookies.  And Connie was new to the university; she introduced herself and talked about her duties and her background.  She did not talk about her nasal tenor voice, her Adams apple, her stubble, her hipless figure, or her dress.

The phrase is “trans woman:” a “she, her, hers” person.  Those were Connie’s chosen pronouns. She is transitioning toward femininity; soon there would be hormones and someday, an operation.

Not all non-standard gender people are transitioning anywhere, though.  They’re happy where they are: in between, or outside, the standard sexes. They use different pronouns:  ve, ver, and vis.  Or xe, xem, and zir.  Or a dozen other sets. These days in the world of gender, it’s all about your pronouns-of-choice.  They’re putting them in their email footers, along with the phone numbers and street address.

Compared to all this, Connie’s M-to-F transition is dead simple.  But still had the damnedest time using Connie’s preferred pronouns.  She still sounded like a man, and looked like one.  In a dress.

So I was relieved when Connie started hormones.  I met with her again after her chest and hips began coming along. They helped me to see her differently.  So when I pick up up the phone and hear a man’s voice say, “Hi, this is Connie,” the image of Connie with tits keeps me straight.

Now that Trump’s in the White House, the great American march forward to gender-neutral restrooms is on hold.  But college campuses like mine will continue to move forward until everybody, of every gender, can lay claim to a restroom that they can be themselves in.

In the meantime, trans men and trans women have their own points of confusion.  Old habits can die hard even after the transition begins.

Rhumba was at the basin in a woman’s restroom recently when a more or less female figure burst from a stall and made for the exit — without washing hands.  Another woman entered the now-empty stall; a moment later, Rhumba heard a sharp snort of disgust, follow by a sharp CLACK .  The previous occupant had left the toilet seat up.

Okay trans women:  I’m learning not to see you as men in dresses.  But it’s up to you not to act like them.

The Big Dial

When I was about 12, my parents gave me a clock-radio for my bedroom: a navy blue GE with a backlit dial and glowing clock hands.  Plus AM and FM and a wake-to-music setting for the alarm. I had it all.

This was the late ‘60s. “Personal electronics” was an AM transistor radio in your pocket.  So an AM/FM table radio was no small thing for me.  I listened to rock and pop, but really I just liked a good DJ no matter what the music.  In the morning, in the evening, whenever I wanted: the DJs’ friendly voices poured out through the speakers.  And just to me, or so it seemed.

This was, and is, radio’s secret:  When done well, no other mass medium seems so personal. Even a good podcast lacks the impact: the feeling that someone is really there, talking and doing, for you.

I’d sit up in bed at night, searching for faraway AM stations with my clock radio.  Short-wave operators do something similar; it’s called DXing, and with their transceivers and antennas they could hear and speak past the curve of the earth.  Next to them, I was  less than nothing.

But sometimes I heard far, especially at 11 or 12 on a Sunday night, when most stations shut down their transmitters and the airwaves cleared.  And then Detroit or even Chicago might loom through the static. Chicago! Two thousand miles away!

These days I can stream music from Radio Swiss-Jazz across eight thousand miles while reading email.  And it’s nowhere near the fun of DXing all night with my little GE, its dial glowing softly in the comfortable darkness. Looking for stations that I didn’t even know existed.

Broadcast radio’s not what it was:  corporate-owned, automated, generic.  You know. There are a few good stations, but — I don’t even have a radio in the house anymore.  Do you? I’m reduced to listening in the car, perhaps 20 minutes a day.  I can stream stations through my laptop.

But you can’t twiddle the dial on a laptop to DX for new stations.  Laptops  don’t have dials. You can’t find a station unless you already know that it exists.

I love radio. And I barely listen anymore. The Internet took the radio out of our daily lives.  At least, mine.

But what the ’Net takes away, the ‘Net can return.  It is, after all, nothing less than the sum total of what everyone wants it to be. A couple of weeks ago somebody on a discussion board told me I should go to a site called; radio dot garden.

Imagine a globe of the earth covered with thousands of glowing dots.  Tens of thousands.  You can spin the world like a top. And every one of those dots is a radio station that streams content to the Internet. There are no country name or city names, just the dots: clustered in mobs near the great seacoast cities, or isolated and alone in the  jungles or mountains or on remote islands.  What are they broadcasting in Northwestern Nevada, the Amazon outback, the Faroe Islands, Vanuatu? You can find out.  You can listen.

Swoop down from space like a god, and the stations develop locations, and names which you can click on.  And the broadcast begins.  Some are physical radio stations, others only stream on the ‘Net.  The URL is right there if you want to learn more, or bookmark it.

There’s KCAW, Raven Radio from Baranoff Island, Alaska.  Or JiveRadio, a brick-and-mortar station that gave up its frequency and now streams hip-but-not-pretentious country and folk to the High Sierras.  And some Quebeckers broadcasting trance music from a lonely island in the St. Lawrence Seaway.

And 70’s funk from Buenos Aires, and some folks in West Africa talking politics, And a studio full of guys at Durian Radio in Kuala Lumpur who swear that they’re discussing business news except that someone breaks out laughing at the end of every sentence.  And Radio Free Brooklyn. And on and on.

You may aske: “What’s new here? All these resources are already on the Internet.  You could already stream them.”

What’s new is that somebody gave the Internet a dial.  A radio dial. And with it, I can DX the world.  My inner twelve-year-old still can’t believe it.

I listen to radio every day now.  And I’d be open to covering my laptop’s glowing Apple logo with a GE decal.  Though nobody would understand but you and me.

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.

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.


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.