Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Tired of Being Tired. Sick of Being Sick. Man vs. Nature.

            I would like to punch pollen in the face.  And mold.  And various danders.  And dust.  And dust mites.  And lavender…oh, my God, the terrible things I want to do to lavender.  I want to grow some beautiful lavender, then rip it from the ground and throw it into a dimly lit basement and laugh at it as I spray it, one agonizing spray at a time, with herbicide. 
            I take allergy medication year round.  And it works.  Zyrtec.  Good stuff.  Doesn’t make me tired.  Doesn’t make me wired.  Doesn’t make me feel like setting wildfires.  But then spring comes.  And where I live, spring means alternating days of torrential rain and pristine sun.  Which means the pollen and mold spores get together for chatty little socials.  I imagine them sipping lattes and patting each other on the back.  For some reason they always have very high class British accents. 
            When spring comes, Zyrtec is a feeble cure.  It is an umbrella in a hurricane.  It is a bucket in a flood.  The allergens laugh at it.  They malign it.  So, I am forced to send in the big boys.  There are two choices, really.  Benadryl – which works wonders but makes me feel like I have a hangover, lost a fight, haven’t slept in weeks, and am the victim of some kind of brain trauma.  And then there is Sudafed – which works wonders but makes me feel like my scalp is infested by parasites, the FBI is looking for me, I will never sleep again, and my thirst will never be quenched.  Oh, and now there is the added bonus of being carded when you buy Sudafed from the pharmacist who looks at you like he knows you are anxious to get back to your homemade meth lab. 
            I tend to go the Benadryl route.  I’d rather feel like a big, dumb, tired ox than a paranoid, itchy, hyper crack fiend.  But that’s me.  Your mileage may vary.
            There are many things that suck about having severe allergies, but one of the worst is people who have very mild allergies.  I walk into a store, eyes bloodshot and itching so badly I want to claw them out, sniffling, sneezing into my elbow while my head pounds and there is always some smartly dressed person to say, “Oh, it’s terrible isn’t it?  This time of year always makes my eyes red.”  And I want to say, “Really?  How about the throbbing in your skull?  How about the feeling that your sinuses are made of fiberglass insulation?  How about the repeated sneezing and coughing that makes your neck and ribs ache?  HOW ABOUT ALL THAT!  You look like you’re going to a cocktail party and I look like I’m going back to my home under the bridge!”
            It is not their fault.  That doesn’t stop me from wanting bad things to happen to them.  It is not lavender’s fault either, but that doesn’t change the fact that I would like to see every lavender plant on earth wither and die in a barren wasteland. 
            And then there are the women who wear lavender perfume.  They are generally earthy types.  They do not realize that they are essentially shoving a nightmare into my face.  But that doesn’t change the fact that I would like to set their hemp handbags on fire. 
            All of this is irrational.  It always passes.  But when I’m in the throes of allergic hell, it is hard to remember that someday things will be better.  That in a few months I will be able to look in the mirror in the morning without trying to remember if I went on a three week drinking binge that I don’t remember. 
            You probably think this is all a little extreme.  You may be right.  It may be the Benadryl talking.  But probably not.  It tends to slur its speech a little more than I do.  

Obama and the Poop Situation

            Allow me to set the scene.  My daughter had been sick for several days and was working on the world record for mucus production.  I had recently contracted said illness and was valiantly (despite what my wife might claim) fighting it with over the counter medication, nasal irrigation, and sedation (namely NyQuil).  There is a lot of hand-wringing and complaining about the change in the Nyquil formulation that somehow prevented kids in the Midwest from making green Crystal Meth that tastes like liquorice.  Or something.  I don’t quite get it.  Regardless, the NyQuil was working.  I was on my second night and sleeping better than I have in years.  I was having great dreams and generally felt like I was sitting on a green, fluffy cushion of OTC narcotics.  Pretty sweet.  Except for the sickness part.  But, so be it.
            The night in question was pretty typical.  We bathed my daughter and cajoled her into sleep.  I drank the green syrup and watched a show I don’t remember with my wife.  And then the next thing I knew, I was at an incredibly fancy (yet somehow still comfortable and unpretentious) party with the Obamas and other dignitaries (read: kids I went to middle school with).  It was very vivid, but what I recall the most was that we opened presents and that there was a gigantic table covered in every dessert you could possibly imagine.  (What this says about me and my life and the dream world, I do not know…I’m old, certainly…everyone was clothed.)  So, I was enjoying chatting with the Prez.  I think I played a little guitar for him.  He was very gregarious and generous with his time.  I sampled an outstanding apple pie.  Then some cake.  Then some…well, the sky was the limit. 
            The spell was broken by my wife shaking and poking me and telling me in a “the house is on fire” tone that we had a “poop situation”.  Now, I am not especially alert when first awakened.  Certainly not at three in the morning.  And definitely not when I was just swimming in a pool of NyQuil induced presidential sugar fantasy.  To say that her words were undecipherable is an understatement.  The world was undecipherable.  I could still taste the apple pie.
            Having a small child and an old cat, poop situations are not too unusual, but it took a few moments (and a few too many pokes if you ask me) for me to grasp the gestalt of the situation.  Daughter sleeping soundly.  Wild haired wife holding a black and white cat in the air and repeating the delicious refrain, “Poop situation…poop situation…poop…”.  I caught on.  In my stupor I managed to pin the cat to the floor while my wife wiped the poop residue from our cat’s hindquarters.  There was no dignity involved for anyone.  The cat was embarrassed.  I was confused.  My wife was perhaps overly vigilant in her poop eradication.  Obama was sorry I ever drank NyQuil. 
            But we got the poop cleaned up.  We ascertained that there was no collateral damage to the blankets or sheets.  And then we lay down to not sleep for an hour or so while I hallucinated about a table of desserts that smelled like wet cat food and pumpkin (with a slight hint of WD-40…go figure).  I did fall asleep eventually.  With a half-wet cat on my legs.  I did not get invited back to the party.  

The Tick and the Bully

             I had just returned home from fishing.  I was tired.  I smelled of fish attractant and bug spray (though not enough as shall be revealed).  I sat down at the kitchen table, and my wife told me she had a story to tell me.  I like stories.  I was excited.  The story was this.  My wife had taken our two year old daughter to the park.  While there, an older boy pushed her when running up the slide.  My wife told the boy this was not acceptable (she is extremely calm and a former nanny).  Then the boy hit her, at which point she approached the boys’ nanny for a tepid and unfruitful conversation where the nanny asserted that he was “bad”.  My wife was upset.  I was a kaleidoscope of emotion.
            I had calmed down and was reclining in bed watching a show with my girls when I realized that my lower back was in serious pain.  More so than usual after a day of fishing.  I rubbed it and felt a little bump.  So I picked at it.  Because that’s what you do.  Now, I was hoping to find a ingrown hair, or a cancerous mole, or something normal.  Instead I looked into my pinched fingers and directly into the evil red (?) eyes of a small tick.  Now, I consider it a great act of bravery on my part that I held on to the squirming menace instead of shrieking like a girl and throwing the tick into the bed.  Instead, I went into nuclear meltdown calm mode and walked down to the kitchen with wife in tow.  I dropped the tick in the sink and burned it with matches.  I put it in the garbage disposal and turned that sucker on.  If I’d had a machine gun, the kitchen sink would be perforated. 
            OK.  We were calm.  What now.  Check the rest of my body (daughter was involved at this point and I could practically see the future therapy visits happening).  No more ticks.  To the internet, Tickman!  Within 20 minutes or so, we had learned enough to make us extremely paranoid and weirded out.  Good stuff, the internet.
            Now, it is important to note that I have spent many hours fishing, rolling in leaves, climbing trees, pounding through tall grasses, etc.  I have had ticks on me many times.  I had never had a tick IN me before though, and, to put it as eloquently as I can, I felt extremely icky.  I tried to be rational.  I told my wife that if I got lyme disease, I expected her to get tequila disease.  I knew the risk was low.  We washed the area and applied goop and bandaids.  And then we went to sleep.  And then the wait began.
            Bullies are usually big (and dumb or disturbed – “bad” is a copout).  Ticks are VERY small.  But they serve similar functions.  They pick on people who can’t defend themselves.  I was trying to catch fish.  I could not stop an insect the size of a Cheerio’s hole from viciously attacking the small of my back.  My daughter is a sweet little girl who has never been hit by anyone.  She was just trying to play on the slide. 
            I know this situation will come up again, and I worry about it.  One time we were on a hike, the three of us, my wife scouting up ahead.  Me behind with the little one (who was even littler at the time).  All of a sudden a giant black dog charges at my wife.  Then locks eyes on my daughter and charges again.  My wife yelled something like, “Pick her up!” or “Her…dog…DOG!”.  Something.  But there was no time to pick her up.  What there was time for was me to tackle the charging dog to the ground in a rolling mess of fur and dust.  Mid-roll, I realized that the dog was licking my face.  We rolled into my daughter and knocked her over.  I was up in a flash with my daughter on my hip, dragging the dog by the collar.  Around the bend I scared the bejesus out of an old hippy lady.  (I merely yelled, “That wasn’t COOL!”, but I’m a big guy).  She turned and left.
            But what do you do when a little kid pushes your baby?  All the impulses are bad.  Insults?  No good.  Hitting?  Hypocritical and no good.  Crying?  A real possibility.  But seriously, what can you do? 
            I know that my daughter is going to encounter mean people.  And I know that I can’t (and shouldn’t) try to be her protector all the time.  I also know that I am REALLY glad my wife was at the park and not me.  When it does happen to me, I am going to find the nearest tick and put it on the bullies face.  That’s fair, right?  My daughter is back at the park as I type this.  And I went fishing again yesterday.  Such is life.  No ticks or bullies today.
            Post-Script: So far, it does not appear that I have lyme disease.  My daughter has moved on.  I still feel a bit of rage, but I blame that on my wife’s failure to contract tequila disease.

Finding the Lost Coast

Riding a big, heavy, dual sport motorcycle off road is kind of like asking a girl to the middle school dance.  You just have to go for it.  And not be afraid.  Even if you are fairly certain you are about to blow it.  I am getting better about this when it comes to my motorcycle.  And if I can ever get my time machine working, well, Suzy Letkins better watch out. 
            This is a story about motorcycles, sure, but that’s a small part of it.  It is also a story about friendship and camping and “men being men”, i.e., ‘Dude, you put too much white gas on the fire, you’re gonna take off Tom’s eyebrows…do it again!’  And it is a story about California, which is a big, long, beautiful state. 
            There are a group of guys I ride with.  The PPMC.  It’s a  club I started.  We don’t ride Harleys and we don’t wear little tiny helmets or leather.  None of us have beards.  Only half of us have hair.  We span this great state from Sonoma county to LA county.  We ride Kawasaki KLR 650’s…big, underpowered bikes, that can go pretty much anywhere a reasonable vehicle can go.  We are bikers, but we lean more towards high visibility, armored gear that will protect us even if it doesn’t look all that cool.  And we have much better raingear than most guys you might encounter on a bike.  And far more zip-ties.
            Our club is about friendship and respect and helping other riders…the only real rule we have is that you have to stop if you see a bike on the side of the road.  Even if you are late.  Even if it is pouring rain.  Especially if it is pouring rain.  Well, and if you don’t have your club knife on you then you have to buy the beer.  But that’s about it.  We work on our bikes together, we BBQ a lot, and we like to ride.  Not to the bar to watch the game.  Not 150 mph on the freeway.  Our ride is a little different.

            Recently, we decided to head north and check out the Lost Coast and ride Usal Road.  The kind of trip our bikes are designed for.  We rode everything from freeways, to sweeping coastal roads, to tight twisties and dirt and rocks and made it home with a little less oil and smiles that lasted for days.  And with a newfound love of California.  I’ve lived half my life in California and the rest of it all over the two coasts.  Trips like this make it real hard to ever consider leaving.  The one part of the trip that sticks out the most in my mind was just a brief moment.  One of those clarifying moments that feels like diving into cool water on a hot day.  We were standing on the side of a dirt road that sees FAR more rattlesnakes than vehicles.  The sun filtered through the forest canopy and the dust from the road.  I looked over at my friend, Tom, and he had a big silly grin on his face.  I was laughing for no reason.  Tom passed me some beef jerky and I said, “You know what, Tom?  We may not be rich.  But we get to do THIS!  Can you believe that?!?” 

            A lot of planning went into this trip.  And as much as I love taking trips on my bike, I hate preparing.  But you do what you have to.  So, I spent the days before the trip making lists of things I needed to take.  I cleaned my air filter.  I cleaned and lubed my chain.  I changed the oil.  I got my camping gear together.  I got anxious.  I got excited.  I watched videos of guys riding Usal Road on Youtube and got a little bit scared.  And before I knew it, it was time to go.  There would be four of us.  Me (Dan), the President of the NorCal chapter.  Tom, the President of the SoCal chapter.  Mark, the Vice President and Dave, our Road Captain.
On the Saturday we left, Tom met me in Burlingame (where my family and I are currently staying with my Mother in Law).  I had been up for a few hours.  He had been on his bike since 3:30 in the morning closing the distance from Redondo Beach to the Bay Area.  He drank a glass of Burlingame water and we were on our way, bikes loaded down with saddlebags, tents, sleeping bags, water, food, clothes, and anything else we thought we might need before we got home on Monday.  We had our fishing rods of course.  That goes without saying.
My wife and two year old daughter waved as we rode off, and we hammered out a quick two hours up 101 and through the city to meet Mark in Santa Rosa.  The plan was to camp on some private land we had permission to camp on and then head north in the morning.  Somehow that got confused.  So, Mark stayed home the first night.  Tom and I added a new rear tire to the pile of crap on my bike and hit the freeway again to get to Dave’s house in Cloverdale.  We got to Dave’s around 5 and changed my tire.  And then we went fishing.
I love motorcycles.  I love lots of things.  But I love fishing.  We jumped back on the bikes and followed Dave to the intended campground.  We crossed a few dry washes and found ourselves on a pristine bank of the Russian River.  It was a few minutes before dusk, so Tom and I wasted no time in getting our fishing gear ready.  We were traveling light, so I had my collapsible spinning rod and as many lures as I could comfortably fit in an old Sucrets box.  I shucked my boots, rolled my pants up to my knees, waded out to the middle and started fishing.   There were no people around.  No sound except the gentle burbling of the water and the occasional cry of a red tailed hawk in the distance.  It was as near to perfect as you could want.  And then it happened. 
I fly fish.  I’m no pro, but I can hold my own.  And one thing I know is that you can pretty much guarantee yourself an amazing hatch if you leave your fly rod at home.  And that is just what happened.  As the sunset painted the sky purple and pink and a bunch of colors that only interior designers know the name for, we hit some kind of hatch.  If I was a better fisherman, I would be able to tell you what was hatching.  But I’m not, and it was pretty near dark anyway.  And I didn’t really care.  I was standing knee deep in cool water with the sun setting behind me and thousands of little insects flying around my head and falling into the water.  There were thirty or so fish rising around me and I was standing like a sucker with a spinning rod and a bunch of bass lures.  Bass is what we had been told to expect.  That is not what we got. 
After I stopped wishing I had my fly rod, I started watching the fish.  They definitely weren’t rising like bass.  They were rising like trout.  You could see their noses just barely poking through the water and sipping in the little bugs.  The yellow rooster tail I had tied on was getting no attention, so I changed to a big bass plug for the heck of it.  On the second cast I got a hit.  It didn’t fight like a bass.  I fished slow and got the fish over to the bank.  Tom was suddenly beside me asking me what I’d caught.  It was getting on the dark side of dusk and I said, “I have no idea, Tom.”  And I didn’t.  I could feel the fish under the water and it felt like a trout.  But it was mostly silver.  We got a light on it and I couldn’t believe it.  There, attached to my 2.5” bass plug was a ten inch steelhead.  I got the hook out without taking the fish out of the water and let him slip back away.  We laughed.  And then we starting fishing again. 
Dave had gone back to get food to BBQ, and I was debating changing lures when I realized that it was pretty much pitch black.  So, I stayed in the middle of the river and cast my bass plug until I saw flashlights worming their way through the woods.  Dave and his boys and the food.  By the time my tender feet had located my boots 40 yards upriver, the fire was going and there were burgers on.  It was a cloudy night, cool, a perfect night for sitting around a campfire and talking about whatever came up (which when you throw an eight year old and a twelve year old into the mix, can be just about anything).
I was halfway done with my burger when I realized it was the best I had ever had.  I was reasoning this out when the firelight hit well enough that I could see the blood-red meat.  I order all my meat very well done.  Apparently, my subconscious craves blood.  It was lightly raining as we headed back to the bikes and made our way back to Dave’s house where I played a little guitar and watched Tom’s eyes droop.  He’d had a long day and went to bed early.  Dave and I were like little kids on Christmas eve.  Even at 12:30 when I knew I had to sleep, I couldn’t.  But then somehow, I did.

Sunday morning was cold and drizzly.  We had some coffee and breakfast and a shower and were on our way.  We generally look pretty ridiculous, and the rain gear didn’t help.  Luckily, we had no one to impress.  And we stayed dry until the sun came out. 
The ride north was wonderful.  The air was fresh and crisp.  The bikes were all running well.  We were lost in the paradise of long slow curves and redwoods and…well, someone has to say it…freedom.  There is something about a bike trip.  You may be tired.  Your butt may hurt.  You may have road grit all over you, but you can’t hear your cell phone even if you have coverage.  You can’t check your email.  You can’t….you get the idea.  And none of us were about to complain about sore butts when Tom already had nine hours of cumulative riding on all of us. 
One of the nice things about our bikes is that we can get about 220 miles between gas stops.  And we were making time.  We passed a lot of other bikers and even chatted with a few who weren’t afraid of their friends seeing them talking to us (watching a group of Harley riders in leather vests and chaps or guys with Italian superbikes and racing leathers size up a bunch of guys in dirty traveling gear covered in reflective piping is a very entertaining thing). 
It was a wonderful ride.  It was also the kind of ride that makes you remember that San Francisco and the Bay Area are nowhere near “northern California”.  We stopped one last time for coffee at a Starbucks with 40 bikes (none of which could do what we were about to do) in the parking lot and set out to find Usal Road. 

The entrance to Usal Road is not marked.  Thanks to GPS, we found it without too much trouble, though.  We stopped to make sure we were headed the right way.  We aired down our tires for the dirt and rocks and water crossings and whatever else awaited us.  We smiled.  And then we were on our way. 
Usal Road can be nearly impassible in the spring.  Certainly impassible on anything but a 4X4 or a real dirt bike.  But with summer waning, it was perfect for us.  I’ve been riding for a long time, but I’ve only had my KLR for a few years and offroading is still pretty new to me.  But this was the perfect road.  Not so scary that you couldn’t enjoy a quick glance at the view, not so easy that you could let your guard down.  My brain moves very fast.  Faster than I would like, and I think that part of the reason I like fishing and motorcycles is that they both demand 100% of your attention at all times.  Otherwise you don’t catch fish.  Or you die.  And while I don’t mind getting skunked, premature death is something I try actively to avoid.  Premature hair loss, I can handle.
When we ride, we ride as fast as the slowest person wants to go.  We stop when anybody wants to stop.  And it varies when it comes to who wants to take it easy.  This ride we were pretty much in perfect sync.  Even Tom, who I am now convinced has super powers and an ass made of kevlar.  We are not youngsters.  At 32, I am the youngest by quite a bit.  Some of the guys I ride with are near my Dad’s age.  And we have nothing to prove and a lot to see.  There would be little point in riding Usal Road as fast as you possibly can.  We came to see the views.  We came to stand narcotized by fatigue in sun drenched clouds of dappled dust.  We came to relax.  And the kind of riding we were doing was not easy.  So we took it slow and enjoyed it, amazed that we were lucky enough to be a part of it.

We made it through the dirt and signs warning about donkeys in the roads with no trouble.  One bike went down in the mud, but that’s pretty much a given and the bike and rider were AOK.   We rolled into Shelter Cove about 5pm and let Mark’s God-given, internal beer GPS do the rest of the work.  Sure enough, we were soon stocking up on cold beer and salami and cashews and lots more food (including a bunch of stuff I forgot I had purchased until we got home…we still have some cashews). 
Now, I don’t know if we were there at the right time or what.  But I have lived everywhere from the deep south to the English countryside, and I have never encountered friendlier people than in Shelter Cove.  The nice woman at the general store sent us on our way with supplies and directions to a campground.  The office was closed, but there was a guy on a golf cart emptying the trash cans and he told us to set up and worry about everything else in the morning.  He told us where his boss kept the firewood and looked at us like we were insane when we tried to pay for it.  We offered him a beer and he said no.
We took the camping gear off the bikes and rode to the woodpile to stock up.  We were about 300 yards from cliffs overlooking the pristine coastline.  There was a small airstrip, the prettiest red and white lighthouse I have ever seen, and not much else.  So, we set up camp, had a little food and a few beers.  Made the fire.  And then the sun went down. 
For years, I worked with kids from the shadier neighborhoods of San Francisco.  They were the first thing I thought of when I looked up.  The milky way was thick and creamy.  Whole milk…not the skim milky way you can sometimes see if you get up the in the hills around San Francisco.  No, this was ‘miles and miles and miles from anything resembling a city’ stargazing.  In fact, not since I was 6 and really roughing it camping in Anza Borrego, surrounded by howling coyotes, have I seen stars like that.  You couldn’t look up without seeing a few falling stars.  The sky was crystal clear.  I am not a good enough writer to show it to you.  You had to be there.  I sure wish the kids I worked with could have seen it.
We went to bed dirty and happy.  A howling wind kicked up that night and we slept fitfully, but it didn’t matter.  I had to get up once to use a tree and the stars were still there.  I felt big and small all at the same time.  Mostly, I felt lucky that I lived in a place where I could do things like this.

Tom and I were up at 7 and Dave and Mark got up soon after.  We broke camp and got some coffee at the local place after paying (for only one person of course…I think Shelter Cove’s economy runs on smiles and cookies) for our campsite.  Then it was back on the bikes.  We did a good bit of off road and some windy potholes surrounded by a little bit of road.  We were back on terra firma by lunchtime.  We ate, and then, after we had decided that we could not convince Tom that it was insanity to ride home and work the next day, we figured we could at least get him home quick.  So, we booked it.  We were back in Santa Rosa by 6:30.  I was back in Burlingame hugging my girls by 8:30.  Tom sent me a cheerful text message at 4am when he got home.

Motorcycles aren’t for everyone.  Nor is fishing.  Or camping.  I understand that.  It is for me.  And it is for the PPMC.  We don’t break any speed records.  Girls don’t like our bikes.  We sweat bullets when it is hot (you will never see us riding in shorts and sneakers).  We like to be out in the middle of the woods.  We like to laugh like idiots without anyone to judge us.  We like campfires.  We like to forget about California’s problems for a little while and remember what an amazing and diverse place it is…geographically and in pretty much every other way.  I am not attempting to convert anyone.  But there is nothing better than sharing a beautiful ride with your buddies.  And sometimes hearing the story is pretty nice, too.  Just ask my wife.  She can probably tell it better than I can by this point.  


            I have been unemployed for nine months.  This is the third time I have been laid off in the last 12 years.  In fact, I have been laid off from every job (except one transitional job that I would have eventually been forced out of) since I graduated from college right on the cusp of the dot com implosion.  I was good at all those jobs.  It didn’t matter.  I know a lot about being unemployed. 
            My last job was working for a non-profit that aims to aid low income families and support their children so that they can have a better chance at succeeding in life.  It was a wonderful job, though somewhat odd.  I loved (and do love) these kids and their families.  I consider them family.  I also visited them in their homes…real houses…not one bedroom apartments like my wife and I lived in.  For six years, I watched these kids get picked up from a private school, often in nice cars as their tuition, books, uniforms, etc were all paid for. The fact that my family is now stranded in the unemployment forest, living with my Mother in Law, and wondering what the future will hold – a future far less than secure - is an irony that is not lost on me.  In fact it haunts me and, at times, fills me with a dark, unfocused anger that frightens me.  But it is fruitless to dwell on these things. 
            If you are unemployed, you never have a day off.  These are not my words.  I read them somewhere and, if I knew who to credit, I would.  Truer words have never been spoken.  There is much depression and self-loathing involved in being unemployed, but this sums up a nice piece of it that people rarely think of.  When you have a job, there are stressful times, but your days off are sweet and rich – you have earned them.  If you want to sleep late, spend the day laying in the sun, etc…well, you earned it.  When you are unemployed you have earned nothing (or that is how it feels, and that is how it is perceived).  Every day is the same…and any time spent not looking for a job is time wasted.  Every day is a descent into the despair of not knowing. 
            Human beings like plans.  We like routines.  It helps to make the world more sensible.  So, unemployed or not, you must develop a routine.  Human beings also like to feel superior to each other.  This is why we feel wickedly giddy when Lindsay Lohan gets arrested.  Why we feel comforted, even as we should feel afraid, that the government doesn’t seem to have their act together any more than we do.  And we feel better than those who are unemployed. 
            I gave my all for six years.  I stayed on the phone with my students until 11pm helping them with their papers only to wake at 5 and start again.  My relationship with my family suffered.  My work was not appreciated, but I felt good about it.  And when I say “not appreciated”, I mean several things.  It was not appreciated by my colleagues, nor was it truly appreciated by anyone I knew (aside from my wife who witnessed the blood, sweat and tears that went into it).  I had a job.  I was one of the working.  That was all.  And that was enough.
            Whether we want to or not…and I am guilty of this just like you are…we judge those who are unemployed.  We feel superior to them.  I have sent out thousands of resumes and contacted countless people who I have worked with…many of whom are now unemployed themselves.  There are very few jobs and it is very much like being Sisyphus.  It is demoralizing.  It is infantilizing.  And, beyond the fact that it slowly wears you down, you are forced to reconcile that most of the people you know (unless they are in the same boat) will, on some level, think you are a slacker.  Shiftless.  They will offer solutions that make sense to them.  “Just get a job.”  “There are jobs out there…are you too good to take that job?”  “If it was me, I would take any job I could get!”  These people aren’t trying to be mean, but it adds to the feeling of being shunned.  They don’t understand the bizarre intricacies of being on unemployment. 
            I fill out a form every two weeks.  This form tells the EDD that I am willing to take work at any time.  I could work and get paid under the table, but taking advantage of the system does not sit right with me.  Having a family further complicates things.  I am stuck between a rock and a hard place.  The frailty of the economy allows companies to offer part time jobs and contract jobs that pay little and do not have benefits packages.  This might be OK if I was single.  But I have a wife and a toddler.  We can’t go without medical insurance.  We pay almost half of my unemployment check to COBRA to continue our coverage as it is, but even that will run out before the end of the year.
            Being unemployed is a complicated business.  It affects your sense of self worth.  You are too hard on yourself.  Others are too hard on you, but they mean well.  Slacking?  I have written hundreds of thousands of words since I was laid off.  I have written a novel…my third.  It is very tempting to suggest to those who seem to be sitting a little too high on their non-slacking horses that they attempt to write a novel.  It does not involve much slacking off.
            Being unemployed separates you from society.  We are bathed in capitalism, but cannot participate.  Every dime I spend.  Every burrito I buy my daughter.  Every dollar I give to another unemployed soul in worse circumstances than I chips away at the small pile of money that may have to last for a long time. 
            Why don’t I go apply for a job at Home Depot?  Well, I have applied for a dozen jobs in the last month that are commensurate with my experience.  Jobs that I would excel at.  Jobs that would further my career.  They begin interviewing in two months.  They expressly forbid follow up calls and emails.  So, what do I do?  I wait.
            I am fortunate that my Mother in Law was kind enough to let us move in with her, but it is a stress on everyone.  It is hard for her to have a family living in her house.  It is hard for us to feel like we are not imposing.  It is hard to live in one room according to someone else’s rules.  And we are lucky.  We are not living in a homeless shelter.  I am not yet to the point where I will take day labor jobs and hope to god that no one gets sick.  That my daughter doesn’t break a leg. 
            Not knowing what is going to happen is rough.  Looking for jobs is discouraging.  But that is not the hardest part of my day.  The hardest part of my day is getting out of bed, because I know I will face another day of stasis.  Another day where I feel the judgment of the world pushing down on me.  Another day where I judge myself and try to convince myself that this is not all my fault.  Another day where I will think about what our lives used to be like when I had self respect and pride…when we lived, modestly, but according to our terms.  When I didn’t have to talk about being unemployed all the time. 
            Shunned?  I think that’s a pretty good term for it.  And a lot of it is self imposed, but that doesn’t make it any easier.  And it gets worse with every passing day.  If it wasn’t for my daughter, I don’t know if I would get out of bed at this point…the urge to give up is strong.  But she doesn’t judge.  She is merely happy that Dadda gets to hang out with her more often.
            Being out of work is a drain.  But it will pass.  I hope.  In the mean time, I will try to smile.  I will try to remember that the words that burn and scrape at the open wound of self-doubt and self loathing are not meant as anything other than loving concern.  I will keep getting out of bed.  And I will keep trying to find a job that will work for my family.  And I will remember that I am not alone and better off than many.  Because there are quite a few of us out there.  Up to 20% percent by many people’s reckoning.  Two out of every ten people who feel worthless, pushed aside, and criticized because they were not able to dodge the bullet that you did.  The shunned, drowning in the stress of constant worry and constant introspection.  Folks just like you and me.  Though that is often hard to remember.
            It is no coincidence that the unemployed turn to drink, apathy, or even suicide.  When you feel worthless, any escape from that feeling seems appealing.  I am able to resist these baser impulses because I know that someday things will be better.  Because my daughter doesn’t think I am a slacker.  Because my wife understands.  Because I have people supporting me.  And because for about two minutes every day…right after my eyes open…I forget that the express train of life kept on moving without me.

Princess Fishing

I stood on the bank, eyes hidden behind my polarized lenses, holding a pink and purple “princess” fishing rod as long as my forearm.  Birds chirped happily in the trees, and the sunlight capped the small wind chop.  I was staring intently at a red and white bobber that floated above a tiny piece of chartreuse Powerbait.  The sun was at my back and the breeze felt soft and gentle.  Behind me, I could hear my 19 month old daughter asking for: “More Powerbait please”.  It sounded like: “Ma Palabala plelelelele”.  My wife happily obliged, and my daughter threw handfuls of the bright yellow balls into the water.  I resisted the urge to mention how expensive Powerbait is.  My fly rod and spinning rod lay untouched on a large rock to my left.  I smiled and continued to watch the bobber.  And then the beast struck.
            I have caught my share of decent sized trout.  I have caught enough bass in the 6-8 pound range that I was only slightly jealous watching my Dad pull an 11 pounder out of my fishing hole with my rod right after my girl was born.  I recently went sturgeon fishing for the first time and caught a 70”monster.  I have felt fish adrenaline my whole life, but nothing compared to what was about to happen.
            The bobber dipped and I set the hook gently, less of a hook-set than a coaxing, an invitation.  I turned quickly, shouting to my daughter that she had caught a fish.  She looked absolutely wide-eyed panic stricken, so I had to reel in the 3” bluegill all by myself.  I don’t know if you’ve ever tried it, but reeling in a miniature gill on a two foot rod involves just about as much finesse and skill as falling off a log (a feet I accomplish regularly while fishing).
            When we had the fish in hand my daughter looked at it with some confusion.  I asked her if she wanted to touch the fish.  She declined, pointed at the lake and said, “Wawa”.  So we returned our trophy to the depths.  Then we caught the same fish (or its kin) three more times.  Each time she got a little braver, but the most important thing was still to get the fish back where it belonged.  As a catch and release fisherman, I was more than a little touched.  And I was more excited, and certainly less tired, than when I caught the Sturgeon.
            At this point, you may be asking yourself, “What kind of jackass takes a girl who is less than two years old fishing and expects any kind of awareness or enthusiasm?”  It’s a good question.  I’ll answer it.  That jackass is me.  And you know what,  it wasn’t the first time.  And you know what else, every time I say the word lake my daughter makes casting motions and fish mouths.  And with a stuffed fish tied on, she will cast and reel in our apartment for hours (or at least minutes, which are like toddler hours).
I don’t know if this is a unique phenomena.  Maybe it is just another way that I am weird, but I remember as a kid, learning how to fish thinking, “Man, it will be fun to teach my kids how to fish”.  And now it is happening.  I don’t want to push it too hard.  But she really does seem to like it.  And she likes being out at the lake.  She likes the hike in and the lizards/snakes/herons/ospreys/hawks/cormorants/otters, etc.   
            I’m new to this whole parenting thing, and I am still learning a lot.  I work with kids, so that helps some.  I know you can’t force your kid to like the same things you like.  Unless you want them to want to do the exact opposite, that is.  What I truly hope is that, whether she ever likes the actual act of fishing or not, she will like it for the same reason I always liked it when I was a kid: it was something I did with my Dad.  Something filled with weird rituals and camping trips, and rites of passage.  Something to be respected, because, when we fished, we always got along.  The fact that I actually liked the fishing part was just icing on the cake.
            I fished with the princess rod quite a bit that day.  I did a little work with my rods too, no luck.  I even broke my good spinning rod putting it back into the car.  And I didn’t care.  All I could think about was that sweet little face demanding that I put the fish back in the water.  That, and that I needed to buy some more powerbait.  It may have been the best day of fishing I ever had.  My daughter “caught” four gills by the time we left.  I got skunked.  

The Chair

            I have no interest in discussing capital punishment for two reasons.  One, I never know how I feel about it.  Philosophically, I am opposed to it.  But if someone hurt my wife or my daughter, well, I would probably take the burden off the state’s hands.  Or at least throw a party when they flipped the switch.  Two, I am not interested in that kind of chair.  You get in there and your pain is immediately followed by the sweet release of death.  The chair I refer to resides in the offices of dentists across the country…dentists who provide a noble service.  I am not ragging on dentists.  I do not think they are sadists.  I do think they are out of their freaking minds, but we’ll get to that.  First, I have some whining to do. See, I just went to the sadist yesterday.
            I am 33 years old and, up until yesterday, every dentist visit I have had has consisted of them asking me if I floss.  No.  Brush?  Yes.  They clean the teeth.  “Well, you got lucky, you have good teeth…carry on.”  Not this time.  Ironically, I do floss now.  Not every day.  But sometimes.  My wife and I decided to go together with our 2 ½ year old daughter.  I mention this because we had to pretend the whole time that the dentist is AWESOME.  Like Disney land, but cheaper.  Anyway.
            So, they put the uncomfortable little plastic things in my mouth and covered me in a lead vest and took their damn pictures.  Big smiles…this is FUN, honey.  Then we wait.  Then I play I spy for an hour while they clean my wife’s teeth.  Then they get to me and we pass the child like a baton.  Then they tell me (ME!) that I have two cavities.  This hurt me far deeper than you will ever understand.  But they did the cleaning, I scheduled an appointment to come back and get drilled (gonna be hard to make that sound fun).  Blah, blah, blah.
            Now, onto the more important consideration.  Why in god’s name would anyone want to be a dentist?.  I don’t buy the ‘couldn’t get into medical school’ explanation.  It sounds mean.  And unlikely.  Dentists make OK money, but nothing spectacular as far as I know.  I can understand why you would want to be a plumber…even though you might get sprayed with sewage.  The money is great for the level of education and initial cash outlay necessary.  But you have to do some serious schooling to be a dentist.  And there is one even more important reason I think they are crazy.  No one hates plumbers.  Plumbers are like superheroes.  Sure, the time the main line backed up and the guy wearing rubber gloves covered in slime asked to use my cell phone I was less than stoked.  (You’ve never seen a sanitation job like I did on that phone).  But everyone, unless they are weird fetishists, dislikes the dentist.  Maybe I am wrong.  But if there are dentist fans out there, I have never met one.  It’s like deciding you want to grow up to be the grim reaper. 
            So, why do we hate the dentist?  Well, because going to the dentist royally sucks.  It’s like being in A Clockwork Orange.  Horrorshow.  They put you in a chair and shine a bright light in your face.  They put a bib on you.  They put their hands in your mouth and take all kinds of liberties with your tongue, teeth, and saliva!  There is a spray of plaque and water and ??? clouding the office.  Getting on you, getting on the dentist (they don’t seem to mind?!?).  They often make you bleed and don’t apologize.  Even the polishing sucks.  Fluoride sucks.  Granted, they have made some improvements since I was a kid.  But it still sucks. 
            So, what’s in it for the dentist?  They get sprayed with saliva/plaque juice.  They make you feel small for not thinking about dental hygiene all the time…which is a big reason we hate them.  They have to look at people’s teeth.  They have to put their hands in your mouth.  I don’t get it.  What kind of person signs up for this?  Who goes to college and says, “hmm, I want to infantilize people and be hated for the rest of my life…I want to make children cry and then try to make it OK by letting them pick some cheap toy from a ‘treasure box’…damnit, I want to go home covered in other people’s plaque!”  Who?  Why?  It is one of the great mysteries.  It makes me look for ulterior motives.  Do they like nitrous oxide that much?  You can buy it at head shops if the sound of helicopter blades and dying brain cells is your thing.  Do they enjoy the crying of children?  Are they really making millions and I don’t know it? 
            So, I went to the dentist.  He gave me a hard time about not seeing him for over four years.  Why, he asked?  REALLY?  Why?  Why don’t you take a guess, nimrod?  And keep both your hands where I can see them.
            I’ll go get my cavities fixed.  And then I will wait another four years.  Because the dentist sucks.  I don’t care if they seem nice…it’s like a ‘serial killer’ nice.  And I take back what I said in the beginning when I had lofty aspirations about being “fair”.  I think there is something up with them.  I don’t trust them.  I don’t like people’s hands in my mouth.  And I don’t think there should be an age cut off for hitting the ‘treasure box’ on the way out.  I didn’t even get a free toothbrush.

Feeling Foolish

            I have always thought that the feeling of embarrassment is one of the worst we experience as humans.  Physical pain is terrible, but once it is gone, the memory gets hazy.  Romantic pain is rough, but a broken heart can be fixed by a new love.  But embarrassment, for whatever reason, likes to lie dormant and return at odd times in fully rendered, high definition flashbacks.  Dave Barry wrote brilliantly about this, and I am not trying to steal his gig, but it bears thinking about.  I can’t remember what it felt like when I broke my collar bone.  I can remember EXACTLY what it felt like when I mispronounced the word “dĂ©nouement” in a high level writing class in college. 
            I have been thinking about this a lot lately because of my daughter.  She is exceptionally cute and does exceptionally cute things on a regular basis.  And we laugh.  And she gets a little look of terror on her face and says, “Why laughing?!?!”  We assure her that it is because she is cute and then she is fine.  But it is obvious that she is afraid we may be laughing at her.  I remember this feeling from my younger years as well.  Part of it is wanting to be in on the joke.  A lot of it is not wanting to be the joke. 
            Why?  It makes sense to remember physical pain so we don’t repeat it.  And we’re not very good at that.  It makes sense to remember the mistakes we made in love.  Why does it make sense to remember the things that happened, that we had no control over, that made us feel worthless and like the whole world was laughing at us.  We can’t prevent it.  I don’t believe in God, so I doubt he’s getting his jollies. 
            I thought about this a lot last night.  Yes, these are the kinds of things I think about at night.  Pretty exciting.  Anyhow, I think I have come up with the answer.  Humans are pack animals.  We don’t necessarily act like it anymore.  Or we do.  Depending on how you look at it.  But the wiring is there, regardless.  And in an animal pack, the worst thing you can possibly do is to stand out for the wrong reasons.  Strongest?  Good.  Smartest?  Good.  Most likely to trip and fall in the river?  Liability.
            So, if you look at in this context, it makes total sense that my brain will never let me forget that I wore what I thought was a cool Ocean Pacific shirt to elementary school.  I think it was my Mom’s.  It WAS a cool shirt.  I would wear it now.  I don’t embarrass too easily anymore.  And I have no idea what little kid knew that men’s and women’s shirts button on different sides.  But one did.  And I was mortified.  And I remember it like it is a movie being played for me.  Why?  Because, on that day, and many others to come, I was not one of the pack.  I was the one that the pack laughed at.  I brought the pack together with my foolishness.  They felt better than me.  That bonded them.  And I was marked. 
            Someday, I will be old and won’t remember my dog’s name (I don’t have a dog, but I’m sure I will be convinced that I did).  All those embarrassments will be gone.  I might miss them.  I will be pushed out of the pack for other reasons.  I thought about that, too.  And then I fell asleep.

Insanity Comes Softly

            I have a friend who is obsessed with the idea of not dying.  He fears death to the point that he can’t sleep at night.  He lays awake and listens to the sound of his heart beating.  It tortures him.  I have discussed this with him many times because I fear many things, but dying is not one of them.  I don’t believe in an afterlife.  Neither does he.  That is why he fears it.  Ironically, that is why I don’t find the idea intimidating.  If everything is going to be over, there is no point worrying about it. 
            This same friend has a brother.  When they were young “adults”, his brother was diagnosed as schizophrenic.  My friend doesn’t worry about losing his mind.  To me, this is baffling.  I am not on some kind of death mission, but when it comes, so be it.  Hopefully it will be when I’m old.  Hopefully it will be painless for me and for those around me.  But we have little control over that.  Ever since I can remember, however, I have been terrified of losing my mind.  The idea that I might wake up one morning convinced that the government is watching me, frightened to go outside, unable to recognize reality…that is worth being afraid of.  The brain is very fragile, yet remarkably resilient.  But, what can I say?  Shit happens.
            I have recently realized that I have been losing my mind slowly for a long, long time now.  I don’t need hospitalization.  I don’t need a straightjacket.  I am just like everyone else.  This is the realization I’ve come to.  Some forms of insanity are obvious.  There is no denying that the foul smelling, dirty man wandering around Golden Gate Park looking for Jimi Hendrix is crazy.  But, just because we hide it better, and are afflicted less obviously, does not mean that we aren’t detached from reality in our own special and unique ways. 
            I worry about germs more than anyone should.  I worry that people are judging me constantly.  But everyone has their bit.  Everyone I know is crazy in some way.  Everyone I know believes or behaves in a way that is totally rational to them, but strikes everyone else as utterly ridiculous.  I’ve been giving this some thought.  Here’s how I see it.
            The brain is a mystery and, even though we assume that we all have relatively the same brain, there is no real reason to believe that this is true.  It doesn’t even make sense.  We all have different eyes, why would our brains be identical?  So, I’m going to assume that everyone is given a slightly different, incredibly complicated brain.  Now, the world is madness.  We can handle it on a day to day basis, most of us, but the complexity of the world is enough to drive anyone crazy.  You combine that with the fact that everyone is running off their own operating system and it’s a wonder we’re not all looking for Jimi Hendrix. 
            We get crazier as we get older.  More stuck in our ways.  More attached to our little delusions.  Our pet theories.  Our ideas of what will work in life.  Convinced that wheat is the root of all evil.  Afraid of failure to the point that we stop taking risks.  Whatever.  We all have our crazy. 
            It amazes me that we can all get along for the most part.  Murder and mayhem are rare, but when you think about the fact that the world is populated by autonomous nut jobs, that seems pretty remarkable.  I think it is important that we don’t judge each other’s crazy.  You’re convinced that if you eat a burger in a circular pattern at exactly noon then your lottery ticket will win?  Fine with me.  You think you can taste the difference between ‘organic’ milk and regular?  OK.  You think that your doctor isn’t telling you something?  So be it.  Me?  I’m going to go wash my hands.  

Going Postal

            I went to the post office the other day to mail a package.  I go to the post office quite a bit.  It is not normal.  I understand this.  There are a few reasons.  One, I don’t trust the blue boxes.  Two, I fear that I will use insufficient postage, yet am too cheap to get a mail scale.  Three, that place is magic.
            So, I was waiting in line to make my transaction.  There were two postal employees working the counter and about 5 people in line ahead of me.  Nice, right?  Not so.  You would have thought someone had asked these people to swallow a bag full of cockroaches.  To find a way to get to the moon.  To…god forbid…deliver their own epistles!!!  They were outraged.  And somehow people feel it is OK to voice their outrage at the post office.  Like the employees are deaf.  Or not trying hard enough.  Or…I don’t know…stupid.
            A few years ago, I was walking past a bar near my house and there was a postal employee enjoying a beer and watching the game after a hard day’s work.  I walked in, bought him another beer, thanked him…we chatted.  This may sound crazy to you, but that is because you are a jerk.
            We’re all jerks.  I’m just less of a jerk when it comes to the Post Office.  Here’s why.  They are magic.  Pure and simple.  When I try to think about what goes into delivering MILLIONS of pieces of mail, all over the world, every day, it makes my head throb.  Mailfolk are maligned in the media.  They are harassed by dogs.  They are bitched at by petty customers who see the mail as some unassailable right.  It is time to wake up.
            Everything gets more expensive, but when they raise the price of stamps, it is like they are asking for a kidney.  People are outraged.  Starbucks could raise their prices the same amount, redesign their cups, and no one would hiccup.  Something is seriously wrong there.  I live in California.  My parents live in Pennsylvania.  I can write a letter, buy a stamp for less than a candy bar, and the letter will be in their hands in two days.  That is simply amazing.  Sure, I’ve had a few things lost or damaged over the years, but not very many.  Not as many bad meals as I have had.  Meals I still tipped for.
            Email is great.  It’s free.  But there is something about getting an actual letter.  Or being able to mail a package for less than $5.  Something that involves…alright, maybe not magic, but certainly art!  We recognize soldiers.  We tip our garbage men.  We tip for a cup of coffee to go.  We have days to celebrate great men.  We praise our teachers, our athletes, our mechanics.  But we ignore the PO unless something goes wrong and then it is open season.  Your package is dirty?  Damn post office.  They don’t want to take the box you wrapped in old newspaper and taped with duct tape?  Bastards.  Really? 
            A lot of things amaze me (I’m a little simpleminded), but the Post Office astounds me.  If every part of the government worked as well as the men and women in blue, then we would have a lot less problems.  So, snap out of it.  Appreciate the fact that you can send a birthday card thousands of miles for less than the price of the card.  Buy your Postal Carrier a beer.  Or at least shut your dog up and say thanks.  It’s the least you can do.  

The Stupor Bowl and Charlie's Sheen

            Since I am an American, and easily manipulated, I spent six hours with the TV this past Sunday.  I haven’t owned a TV in years, so this is saying something.  I had no vested interest in either team.  It was a decent game.  Watching my two year old daughter dance during the half-time show was by far the highlight.  The commercials were not what I had hoped for.
            It is interesting for me to watch pro sports because A) I never do it, and B) I used to be a sportswriter.  It is a bizarre world.  Money aside, I am very happy that I am not a professional athlete.  There are many reasons, but one stands out.  We hold athletes to a standard higher than almost anyone else.  Higher than politicians and CEOs.  Higher than our teachers.  Higher than actors, for God’s sake. 
            You look around the crowd at a major game and there are drunken, painted fools waving bible verses in your face.  And they want blood.  But they want it clean.  No lions are released into the coliseum, but it wouldn’t be out of place.  But god help you if you make a mistake.  Or if you are not a very nice person. 
            Now, I think we should hold everyone to a certain standard of decency as humans, and religion has nothing to do with it.  But the hypocrisy is astounding.  Michael Vick made a mistake.  Maybe he’s not a nice guy.  Same with Brett Favre and Ben Roethlisberger.  And many others.  We like our athletes confident, but humble.  Honest.  Forthright.  But why?
            Politicians lie and cheat, and we accept that because they are politicians.  Lindsay Lohan, it seems, has a free pass to make a mockery of the LA court system.  And then there is Charlie Sheen.  Here is a man who makes almost two million dollars per episode of a sitcom that is not very original or entertaining (last time I checked).  And, instead of using that money to do something decent and kind…hell, instead of just keeping his head down and indulging in whatever he wants…he shacks up for days at a time with a bunch of booze and cocaine and porn stars.  And he flaunts it.  And it doesn’t really seem like anyone cares. 
            Don’t get me wrong.  I am not petty enough to suggest the man shouldn’t be able to do what he wants as long as he isn’t harming anyone.  What I don’t understand is how, in this increasingly right wing Christian nation of ours, he isn’t tarred and feathered.  He is not an especially good actor.  He plays himself. 
            But before I get off-track…my issue is not with Charlie Sheen.  My issue is why we don’t care about Lindsay Lohan’s drug problems and larceny.  Why we ignore Charlie’s bacchanalian shenanigans.  Why we watch dumbly as rich politicians and business men actively screw us over, and yet expect our athletes to be good sportsmen, to visit children in hospitals, to support charities, to be better than, perhaps, we even are ourselves. 
            People are people.  They are good and bad, and their vocation has little to do with it.  Brett Favre is kind of a sleezeball I guess, but he isn’t the damn pope.  His job is/was to throw a football better than most people can.  Why does he have to be a boy scout?  It would be nice.  But I say, until Charlie Sheen is chased out of town by a posse, professional athletes should be able to do whatever they want.  We can mind our own business, or we can vilify people.  But we can’t do both, as the mood strikes us, without rhyme or reason.  That would be almost as crazy as watching TV for six hours.