In middle school, birthday parties were a measurement of social worth. My family was poor growing up, and we moved around a lot: a vicious double-whammy. By 6th grade I’d attended 5 schools in 3 towns in two states. Other kids had huge, memorable affairs that became playground lore. It had been years since I had friends, let alone enough to make for a memorable birthday party.
But 6th grade was the year it all changed: when my birthday rolled around, I had five good friends invited to my party: Andy, Alphons, Kevin, Brad, and Dan.
Everyone arrived at my house early, with lots of daylight before dinner, so we set out to explore.
My house was next to a giant, dirt field/abandoned construction site bordering on a creek. They had started working on a shopping center years ago and never gotten further than prepping for drainage. We came across a large concrete drainage pipe – four feet in diameter– protruding from the side of the hillside above the creek.
“Where does it go?” my friends asked.
“I think it starts in the middle of the field,” I said – which was about 150-yards away. We managed to locate the other end of the pipe and decided that what we needed, was to crawl through that pipe. We went back to my house for light sources – we weren’t stupid, after all – where we found 8 spare birthday candles and a pack of matches.
We walked back out to the creek-side end of the pipe, and began making our way in. We could all pretty easily bend over and shuffle along – except for Brad and Dan, who were taller. Our voices echoed through the pipe, the eagerness of those in the lead drowning out the doubts from the back of the pack as we shuffled away from the light, into the deepening darkness.
We couldn’t see any light up ahead, but figured it was simply because it was just too far to the other end for the light to travel (I know, 6th grade physicists). We marched in, some jovial others hesitant. Brad was normally our dungeon master, and to ease his tension he asked for a roll call of characters. I lit a match and declared, “I am Lord Callahan, behold my +5 vorpal weapon!”
We laughed, and kept pushing in, hoping not to meet any orcs or trolls.
Now, at the creek end, where we entered the pipe, there was a little bit of dried mud, evidence that water had at one point flowed through the pipe, and brought sediment with it. The further in we got, the more dried mud there was. 15 yards in, the dust was 12 inches across and an inch deep. Then 18 inches across and four inches deep. Finally, 75 yards in, it was a good two feet across, more than four inches deep, and not so dry any more.
“Hold up!” Andy called from the front of the line. “It’s getting muddy.”
“How muddy?” we all asked.
“Not too bad, but it’s wet,” Andy said.
Brad, at the back of the pack, asked if we should turn around and go back. We were arranged by desire to actually march through the pipe. Andy and Alphons, at the front of the pack, were the most gung-ho. Brad and Dan, at the back, had needed convincing. Me and Kevin made up the middle.
So when Brad asked, “Should we turn around and head back?” it wasn’t just a question of safety, it was a referendum on our collective courage.
We all turned around and looked back at the opening of the pipe, some 75 yards behind us. The opening was small, distant. A beacon of defeat.
“No,” Andy said, “let’s just go a little further until we can see the light at the end of the tunnel.”
And from that point forward, with each and every step, the mud got wetter, deeper, and the tunnel got darker. It got to the point where we couldn’t really see very well. At all. We lit the candles, and quickly discovered that birthday candles burn quickly, drop lots of wax, and do little to provide illumination.
We took to stepping in each other’s footprints as the mud slowly became ankle, then calf deep.
“Gross!” Andy yelled back, “I just stepped on a dead rat in the mud!”
“Where!?!” we asked.
“Eww, me too!” said Alphons. And then each of us in turn got to hurriedly step on the “rat” and move on. Finally Andy announced, “I can see light! There’s a bend in the tunnel, we’re more than half way there.”
“Does it look like it keeps getting deeper?” we asked. At this point our 4-foot tunnel was over a foot deep in mud. Each step was its own little ordeal.
“No, it looks like this is pretty much it,” Andy sent back. So we pushed on, making the turn and working towards the light. The mud got to be knee deep at the end, and we practically crawled out into the waning sunlight, covered from head to toe.
When we got back to my house, my mother made us all hose off on the front lawn. Then everyone borrowed my clothes and we went across the street to the laundry mat where we had a blast doing our own laundry.
At the pizza parlor, all of us wearing freshly washed and dried clothes, my mom’s boyfriend gave me $20 in quarters – a fortune! – and told us to have a good time in the arcade.
That night, as we lay around the floor of my room, with the lights out, we told stories and tried to slyly learn as much we could from each other about puberty. And by the time we all got back to school on Monday, the tunnel got longer, the mud deeper, the rat larger and more alive. And my friends all agreed: Best. Birthday. Ever. And I learned it doesn’t take money to have a good time, just good friends. And maybe a little imagination.
I recently had an arthroscopic procedure on my dominant shoulder. I decided to write this guide while I was in the midst of my recovery, still wearing The Immobilizer 24/7, because I realized I was re-inventing the wheel on a daily basis. There were so many things that could have made my life easier, if only I’d learned them in advance.
If you are about to have shoulder surgery, this guide will help make your recovery post-op go more smoothly. I am not a doctor, and these tips won’t help your shoulder heal more quickly. But they might help you keep your sanity post-surgery (or at least get your pants on more quickly).
f you’ve had shoulder surgery and have tips to add please email me or leave them in the comments and I’ll add them to the main list.
#1 Don’t try and go it alone If you are lucky enough to have a supporting partner, prepare to write a few weeks’ worth of IOU checks around the house. You’re going to need a ride home from surgery, for starters. But that’s just where it begins.
The first two days you are going to be laid out, floating in and out of consciousness as your body tries to sleep its way through the first part of recovery.
After about a week you’ll be much more up and at ‘em, but you’ll still be pretty useless around the house (unless washing dishes one-handed is a long-standing specialty of yours). Accept the fact that you’ll be physically challenged, and start planning on ways to make it up after you’ve recovered.
If you live alone, call in some friends for the first 72 hours. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. I couldn’t move the ice pump up and down the stairs in our house all by myself for the first few days, and had to swallow my pride and ask my wife to do it for me every time I wanted to relocate.
#2 Prepare and freeze food in advance One thing we were able to predict was how challenging it was going to be to feed our family with one of the people who helps make meals out of commission. So about six weeks pre-surgery, we started making double-batches of our favorite recipes and freezing half. By the time we got to my surgery date, we had a freezer full of carnitas, soup, meatballs, etc. All we had to do was pull it out and thaw it.
If you live alone, or you don’t like to cook for yourself in general, stock up on easy to prepare (read: frozen) meals. If I had shoulder surgery when I was 25, I would have had a freezer full of frozen pizza.
#3 If you live alone, consider switching to paper plates It’s not very eco-conscious, but if you live alone you might consider switching to paper plates for the first few days. Doing the dishes one-handed is a pain in ass. And even if you have a dishwasher, simply scrubbing food off of plates while battling the initial pain of post-op might be best avoided. Then again, maybe you’re the kind of person who likes such a thing – in which case, you can come to our house, we’ll feed you and you can do the dishes.
#4Buy slip-on slippers or flip flops & convert a pair of sneakers to slip-ons You aren’t going to be tying your shoes alone anytime soon. Unless you go barefoot all of the time, you are going to need to put things on your feet one-handed. Flip-flops are about as easy to put on as it comes.
I had my surgery in November, and it was too cold to wear flip-flops around the house. So we got a pair of slip-on slippers from Target for $20. Best $20 I’ve ever spent: I lived in those things for a few weeks. Don’t get the high-top, boot style slipper: they are too difficult to get on and off one-handed.
I also needed to leave the house ocassionally, so I converted a pair of lace-up sneakers into slip-ons. It should be self-explanatory, but for the sake of over-exposition: I lace a pair of shoes very loosely so I can get them on and off one-handed, and yet they still don’t fall off.
#5 Custom cut a shirt or two in advance My surgeon sent me home with my T-shirt pulled over the non-surgery arm and my head, and just hanging over the right (operated-upon) shoulder. The consensus was that I’d figure out how to really dress myself when I got home. My surgeon also said, “Don’t take The Immobilizer off, under any circumstances, until you see me again.” Which was going to be at least four days later.
Thankfully, my buddy Ben told me to cut a T-shirt from the armpit down to the waist on the operated side. I was able to get that on and over the whole Immobilizer/ice-pack apparatus, and (mostly) cover my waist & midsection. Protip: don’t cut it all the way through the waist, just to within four inches.
#6 Get a “wedge” pillow My buddy Ben had been through a similar surgery, and he loaned me his wedge pillow. It was an absolute necessity for the first few weeks post-op, in order to be able to sleep upright enough to keep the shoulder in a comfortable position. Now I just love the thing. I’m not giving it back.
#7 Get your hair cut as short as possible pre-surgery You won’t be taking a shower for at least two weeks, and will probably be relegated to fake-a-bath in the sink. I usually have short hair, but I had my hair cut down to a #1 buzz cut on the sides, so I could “wash” my hair one-handed in the sink. It was one less thing to worry about.
My wife says that if she were to have surgery like this, she would find a nearby salon where she could get her hair washed regularly.
#8 Wear your PJs to surgery I walked in to the surgery center wearing sweats and slippers. Hardly the fashion statement on the way in, but exactly what I wanted to be wearing on the way out. In fact, I had thermal underwear on under my sweats, because they are my PJs. The staff was surprised when I vehemently stated through my post-op drug haze, “Thermals! I. Want. My. Thermals on, please.” They obliged, and when I got home from surgery, all I had to do was slip off my slippers and fall into bed.
Wear whatever you plan on spending your first couple of days recovering in to your surgery. You may feel stupid on the way in, but you’ll be high as a kite on the way out.
#9 Don’t bother practicing one-handed stuff You’ll have weeks to practice your one-handed lifestyle after surgery. Don’t bother practicing beforehand. Except: figure out which belt you can fasten one-handed before surgery, or you’ll spend a lot of time figuring it out afterwards. It took me four days to discover which of my belts I could fasten with just my left hand. It also took me four days to discover item #9, which is embarassing.
#10 Put the belt in the pants before you put the pants on This one, sadly, took me 5 days to figure out. But once I had it, it was a massive time saver.
#11 Be prepared for everything to take twice as long Name something that you normally do with two hands that is easier to do one-handed, (probably) with your non-dominant hand? The answer is nothing, don’t let your smart ass friends try to tell you otherwise. Everything you do in the weeks following surgery is going to be harder and take longer than you are used to.
Embrace it, for it is the path you have chosen so that your shoulder may be healthy again. I learned to do so many things left-handed that I am still doing many of them that way. Eating soup, for example.
Protip: Do not wait until the last minute before rushing in to the bathroom if you have to pee. The pressure of fumbling with your zipper one-handed as your bladder is about to explode is more excitement than you need.
#12 Audio books Do you normally read yourself to sleep? Or maybe you like to read books during the day? I couldn’t hold a book in a comfortable way for weeks, especially lying down. Audiobooks to the rescue!
If you have a smartphone, the Audible app has a built-in snooze feature, which is awesome. I’d set it for 30 minutes every night to fall asleep to, and wind up backing up 23 minutes the next day.
#13 Typing sucks Typing one-handed was one of the most frustrating aspects of post-surgery life. I can normally type 70 words per minute, but one-handed that number came down to about 12. I’m not exaggerating.
If your job involves a lot of typing, get yourself something that can help speed up the one-handed process. Voice recognition software, maybe. For me, it was Swype on my phone. I wound up doing all of my emails from my phone, because I can Swype one-handed (Swype is only for Android devices).
My tablet was my second choice for typing, followed (distantly) by my keyboard.
#14 Stock up on ice You are going to be icing your shoulder 24/7 for the first week, re-filling your ice-pump machine every four to six hours (but especially right before you go to bed, and right when you wake up). We went through two to three bags of ice per day. Per day. Hopefully you have a large freezer, and can easily store seven or eight bags of ice. If you’re like us and have a tiny freezer, you’ll need to go to the store every day to buy ice.
And by “we” I mean my loving wife.
Find a local store that has lots of it before your surgery, so you know where to send your partner or friends when you need it.
#15 Take as much time off as possible This one seems pretty obvious, but it’s worth saying: you don’t want to be at work while you’re fighting pain in your shoulder. If you can, take at least a week off of work. I am lucky, and was able to take two full weeks off before I started doing any work. Your body will tire out easily, and your shoulder needs to heal.
#16 Take the laxatives Oh yeah, this should have been higher. Much higher. Extremely effective painkillers cause constipation. No matter how your system has reacted to pain killers in the past, take the first dose of laxatives with the first dose of painkillers after your surgery. Please trust me on this one.
#17 Narrow down your clothing options Those favorite button-fly jeans of yours? Yeah, you’re not going to be wearing them for at least a month. Set them aside, and make sure your possible-to-fasten-one-handed pants are all front and center. Sweats or shorts are a great call, but if you need to leave the house to go to work or pick up ice, you’ll need some pants. Make sure they are zippered.
Skin-tight T-shirts? Nah. Won’t be wearing those for at least six weeks.
Pick a few things that you know you’ll be able to do one-handed, stick to them. I lived in a blue flannel, button-up shirt. If you normally like to wear a hoodie around the house, buy a zippered one. Even once you can start taking The Immobilizer off, you won’t want to be shoving your arm through a pull-over hoodie.
#18 Don’t try to catch things One of the most challenging aspects of life post-surgery: the instinct to try and catch things with your recovering arm. I was trying to help out in the kitchen, and dropped a jar. As it fell, I instinctively tried to catch it with my right hand. Even though my right arm was still in The Immobilizer, I managed to jerk my arm a couple of inches, causing extreme pain in my recovering shoulder.
It will happen to you. But maybe if you know about it in advance, you can try to prepare yourself to not try and catch things. It took two or three episodes of extreme pain to teach me to let things hit the floor. A habit I have not yet decided to break.
#19 Put the operated arm in the sleeve first You’ll figure this one out on your own pretty quickly, but my physical therapist wants to save you the pain of trial and error. When getting dressed in the months post-op, always slide the operated arm in the sleeve first.
#20 Pre-hab your shoulder & get to know your PT Most surgeons are committed to this concept these days, and will send you for physical therapy before your surgery so you can begin to strengthen your shoulder before the surgery. The better shape your shoulder is in before the surgery, the quicker your recovery will be.
This is also important because it gives you an opportunity to build a trusting relationship with your PT before the operation. Once you’ve had the operation, the slightest movement in your arm or shoulder can cause immense pain. So can tightening your shoulder while your PT is gently moving it. You need to be able to trust them, and instant trust is hard to come by.
I saved Tolstoy when I was 25 years old. He was on day two of death row at the pound. A 65-pound Akita-Husky mix, I always described Tolstoy as a creamsicle: orange on top, white underbelly –with one eye blue and the other brown.
He was a stubborn, aggressive, playful, single-minded dog who wanted everything his way and wouldn’t listen to what anyone told him to do unless he could see a way that it would immediately benefit him.
In short, the perfect dog for the 25-year old me, a reflection of my own self.
I worked hard to train him, every day working and playing with him. But there was always a wild side of him that wouldn’t go away: a wild side I loved & hated.
Tolstoy was a hunter, and he would spend hours hunting a single gopher – as my then-girlfriend’s father found out when Tolstoy dug a trench 6-inches deep across his yard. Three ways. In the course of a single afternoon.
And when he did catch a gopher, he would choke it down as quickly as he could, knowing that I’d try to take it away from him. I could always tell if he caught a gopher at the park even if I didn’t see it, by the stomach ache he’d have in conjunction with the death gas emanating from his butt that night at home.
I had a lot of great days with that dog, but there was one particular day in Golden Gate Park that I will remember until the day I die: it was a banner day for Tol. I was on my in-line skates (it was 1996), and Tolstoy was been off-leash, having a great time running with me, and staying out of trouble. You have to understand what a miracle this is for a Husky, given the sheer number of things to hunt on a Sunday in the park.
We made multiple circuits from the Conservatory of Flowers out to Crossover Drive and back – and it was on our to-be final circuit that we stopped at the little pond right before the 19th Avenue overpass. You know the one, with that big waterfall, filled with skanky, foamy water. There are a few ducks floating on the pond, and the hunter in Tol is fascinated.
Up until this point, he’s also hated the water and swimming. Something about me throwing him in Lake Tahoe when I first got him. So I watch, bemused, as he gets down into the water as far as he possibly can go, just keening for a duck, reaching with one paw as he struggles to stay on land…
…and then he slips into the water. And the first look on his face is “What have I done?!?” but instinct kicks in and he starts to swim. And his focus immediately becomes ducks. Ducks. Ducks. Ducks. Ducks. Ducks. And I try calling him a few times, but it is obvious that he isn’t coming out for anything. Ducks. Ducks. Ducks.
And the ducks would swim just a little bit ahead of him, and were just like, “Quack.” And since this is Berkeley I must state that no duck was ever in any real danger in this story.
A crowd starts to gather, and then other dogs happening by see Tolstoy chasing the ducks in the water, and think, “Hey, that looks great!” and they jump in too. And I am incredibly relieved to see that it’s not only my dog who is so ill-behaved that he’d go barreling into this skanky little pond. Soon, there is a pack of three or four dogs, all chasing each other and the ducks around in this foamy, gross water. And a throng of people gather to watch the escapade, laughing, yelling, some rooting for the dogs, others rooting for the ducks…
The difference between Tolstoy and the other dogs becomes evident, however, as every other dog eventually heeds its human’s voice and gets out of the water. Tolstoy refuses to heed my calls. And I know the little mutt can hear me, because his ears twitch involuntarily when I yell his name.
After about 25 minutes of full sprint chasing the ducks, he starts tiring out. Less of his head is sticking out of the water; he’s swimming slower. Much slower. And pretty soon, it dawns on me: he’s going to drown unless I do something. So I head over to the Eastern edge of the pond, where there is a little dirt depression, and start stripping down. I take off my skates, I take off my socks, I remove my fanny-pack (hey, it was 1996!), t-shirt and hat and set them all down in a pile and wait for the moment to come.
At a certain point, Tolstoy’s legs cramp up, and he tries to crawl out of the water onto the rock in the middle of the pond. He gets out on the rock, and his back leg is spasming straight behind him…googada-googada… and he can’t hold it, so he just falls over sideways into the water.
And that was the moment when I hit the water – that nasty, skanky water – in a shallow dive, and took three strokes to cross the pond to where Tolstoy was floundering. I found I could stand in the chest-high water, so I grabbed Tolstoy, and threw him over one shoulder and started making my way back to the edge of the pond to the great amusement and applause of the gathered throng.
I drug the wet, dripping, smelly dog and myself – who was now also wet, dripping and smelly – out to the edge of the pond. I set him on the muddy bank, where he was almost too weak to shake off. Almost, but not quite: he had enough left in the tank to drench my t-shirt, socks and fanny pack.
Epilog: After that, he was a swimmer. Tolstoy chased ducks until he almost drowned two more times. Eventually, I realized he wasn’t the one who needed to change, and I got him a doggy life jacket. And, I learned to enjoy my time on the beach alone while Tolstoy let his wild side take him further out in the Bay.
I am a professional fundraising auctioneer. This means that I work with non-profit organizations to help plan and implement their fundraising auctions. Then the night of their event I get to get onstage and encourage people to spend-more-than-they-should-on-stuff-they-don’t-need-in-support-of-a-great-cause.
It is the best job in the world. I love my work, in no small part because each and every day I go to work I am using my powers for good – helping to make the world a better place.
Fundraising auctions are fun, but they are a challenge, too. Every event I do, there are four or five little things that go wrong. And once in a great while, there is a catastrophe that tests the limits of my experience.
A few years back I was doing the auction for a local organization that benefits the homeless. And this particular event, the auction was transcending. Things were selling for double what they’d sold in the past.
We’re right in the heart of the auction, and an auction lot takes off.
$2,000 – 22 – 24 – 26 – 28, now three! Three thousand, 32, a board member named Nick is in at 35-hundred, woman in the back is in at 38-hundred, back to Nick at four thousand? Yes, no, maybe so? Sold, three-thousand-eight-hundred and the place goes nuts.
I flip the page on my script, eager to get on to the next item when a volunteer comes running up to me: we need a doctor in the back of the room. I’ve had things like this happen before. Eight months before this at a different auction, a bidder almost choked to death on her dinner, and Dr Angel – no kidding – saved her life with the Heimlich. So I know that the most important thing is to get someone who is CPR certified to respond, quickly.
But when I look in the back of the room, I see the second place bidder from the last lot, Nick, flat on his back on the floor, and the event chair giving him chest compressions. And I realize we’re all headed into uncharted territory.
I tell everyone that we’re going to take a break from the stage while we wait for the EMTs, and I meet with the staff to figure out what to do next.
As the time slowly ticks by while we wait for the EMTs, it becomes evident that Nick has died. I’m thinking, but not feeling as we discuss what to do. I know that the crowd needs some closure, something to help make sense of the evening. And the Development Director tells me her program really needs the money we were going to raise.
We agree that doing the rest of the auction would be crass, so we decide to just do the fund-a-need: where people simply pledge money to the cause. Done right, a fund-a-need can bring a crowd together.
After the EMTs take Nick out, we get back on stage, and I tell the crowd that Nick was a big supporter of the cause (he was a board member), and he would have wanted us to make something positive happen. I tell the crowd that it is up to us to come together to save many lives where we couldn’t save one. And with an up swell of emotion, we go on to have the most successful fund-a-need they’ve ever had.
After the event, alone for the first time in my car about to call my wife, it finally hits me; the emotions finally arrive. Hard. I’ve killed a bidder. Instead of good, my powers did bad. It was one of those subjects so serious, everyone played it down. “Of course you didn’t kill him!” my friends would say.
But I felt like I did.
And it haunted me. I’d get going in an auction, start to ramp up the emotions, and suddenly get worried that I might be pushing someone too far. I’d flinch internally whenever a volunteer came running up mid-auction with a question.
It wasn’t until that same event, a year later, chatting with one of Nick’s friends who had been at his table the year before. “I want you to know,” he said, “That Nick died having the time of his life. His heart attack was massive, his death instantaneous. And if he wasn’t at this event, he would have been at home, eating dinner alone.
“Instead, he died surrounded by friends, having a great time.” He could tell I was touched, so he put his hand on my shoulder, looked me straight in the eyes and said, “You know what his last words were? His last words were: ‘Can you believe that lot just sold for $3,800?!?”
And in that moment, he released that yoke of guilt from my shoulders. In that moment, he restored my confidence in our powers. Because in that moment, he reminded me that we’re all here for the short term. And anything we can do to make each other’s lives more enjoyable, more meaningful, in any of these small little moments is using our powers for good.
Inspired by the film Boyhood, we’ve undertaken our own passage of time project. Working with Ryder, who is currently 9, we came up with a list of 10 questions about life we plan to ask him once a year and capture on video. So far we only have one year caught on video, but people have been curious about our list of questions.
We wanted questions that would capture what he was in to at that moment in time, and also questions that would capture his perspective. We may alter as time goes on, but for now the list is:
What is your favorite music?
What are your favorite books?
What movies do you like?
What is your favorite object?
What are you most looking forward to right now?
What do you and your friends do?
What do you wish you could change about the world?
What do you like most about yourself?
What is the one thing you want your future self to never forget?
If you could go back in time and change one thing, what would it be?
I had “What do you like least about yourself?” as a companion question in there to #8, but Ryder insisted on removing it and replacing it with the question about his favorite object. Since he is answering all of these questions, I didn’t object.
This is hardly an original idea, so feel free to borrow and adapt to your family. I would love to hear about it in the comments, or better yet, to see your videos in one, two, or even five years.
When I was nine years old my father and I set out on the most epic camping trip of all time. It was equal parts pilgrimage, catharsis, and adventure with two or three parts of either dogged determination or sheer stupidity. It was the 70s, it was harder to tell the difference between the two back then.
My father was leaving my mother, for good this time, and driving from northern California to Miami, Florida. My mother had fled Florida for California a year earlier, forcing my father to quit his job and follow her in an attempt to keep our family together. Now, he was returning home, and the timing was perfect, because along the way he was going to go camping in Georgia with the school where he used to teach (and I used to attend). I got to go along for the ride, as long as I promised to come back.
My dad had a 1970s VW pickup truck. Basically, a VW bus that had been chopped to turn it into a truck. VWs were the antonym of reliable back in the 70s, and this truck was as unreliable as they came. My father kept it running with willpower alone, and this is the vehicle we were going to drive across the United States. We had no chance.
The first time we broke down was in Arizona. Not even one state from our starting point. Although to be fair, California is so long that we had already traveled a few east coast states.
Somewhere in Texas we picked up a hitchhiker to keep my dad company and help with the driving. It was the 70s, things were different back then.
We only made it halfway through Texas before the truck broke down again, and this time my dad opted to rent a car and tow his truck to his parent’s house in Miami, our final destination. The camping trip started the next day, and we were going to be there.
The only catch was, we had no car, he had little cash, and my grandparents weren’t about to spring for much of either. So we took a train from Miami to Jacksonville, Florida. And then we hitchhiked to Cumberland Island – a mere 50 miles. But what I remember is standing on an onramp with my dad, backpacks at our feet and thumbs out for every car that passed.
I only remember one car picking us up: it was from two off-duty police officers, who thought it was far out that my dad and I had some so far to make this camping trip and they took us across state lines to make sure we made it. Along the way they shared a few laughs with my dad, and a couple of joints as well. It was the 70s…
By the time we got to Georgia I had a minor case of pinkeye and we were too late to catch the last ferry to the island. We slept under the sign for the ferry that night, camping in the wide open. It was here, in the dark Georgia night, under the sign for the ferry that we met Yogi, a travelling German doctor who just happened to have some ointment to cure pinkeye in his huge backpack. He told me that my eyes would be sensitive, so he also gave me his conductor’s cap to keep the sun out of them.
When we got to the island the next day, it was epic! Everyone was fired up to see us. They had huge tents set up, and I was excited to see friends I had been torn away from more than a year ago. No sooner had we set foot in the campground then it started raining buckets, confining us to the tents. We had a ball, playing like I hadn’t played with other kids in months.
That night, while we slept, raccoons snuck into our food tent and ate everything. I mean everything. Over 30 kids and 6 adults with not a bite to eat and no place to buy it on the island.
I was starving, and riding the ferry back to the mainland I managed to guilt a couple into giving me and my friends all of their camping leftovers – with nothing but my puppy dog eyes.
The trip home was far more anticlimactic. The Loblolly crew gave us a ride to Jacksonville, and from there we took the train to Miami.
It was the last big adventure I had with my dad before he got married and started family 2.0. It marked a major turning point in our entire family’s lives, and the last time I’d get to spend so much time with him, just he and I. It may sound hellish, but it was heaven to me.
Funny thing, I always thought that this was what life was like in the 70s: hitchhiking, sleeping in parking lots, living on the road. I thought that it was simply a different time. But the older I get the more I realize that it wasn’t just that 70s that were different, my family was pretty freaky, too.
When I was 11 years old I lived in a trailer on a dirt road 7 miles from the nearest town on what today would be called a horticultural startup, but back then we just thought of it as a pot farm. We had no running water, no electricity and no phone lines – but there were lots of critters, big and small. Living out in the wild like that meant that at an early age you had to learn what animals you might encounter, and what to do if you did.
One particularly hot summer afternoon, I was watching all of the other kids playing on the swingset in the shade between the trees of the hillside our tiny little trailer. There was about 25 feet of space between the trailer and the bushes, and it was the only shade to be found within a half mile of our house. I think there were at least 6 kids out back: my deaf younger brother, who was 4 at the time, Sequoia who was 5 and his younger sister, Odin who was around 5, me and my buddy Jerry.
I came around the back of the trailer, and heard what sounded like some kind of wind-up toy going endlessly in the bushes. I thought it was typical that one of the little kids had thrown their toy into the bushes, and I kept pulling the branches back, looking around…pulling them back, looking around…and the noise kept getting louder. By now I was curious as to what kind of toy this could be, as it simply was Not Winding down.
And then I came face to face with the coiled rattlesnake, about 5-feet deep in the bushes, and it was pissed off. Now, this wasn’t the first rattlesnake I’d encountered in my then-11 year old lifetime, it wasn’t even the 2nd.
The first time I met a rattlesnake I was walking up the path to my friend’s house with my new book of paper airplanes. I was so excited about the book that I wasn’t watching where I was walking, and I felt a soft-ish squish under my feet that wasn’t quite right. I immediately leapt about 4 feet, and the rattlesnake did the same, and started to coil. It was small, only about 3 feet long…
It was miles out of my way to go back down the path to the main road and then around to my friend’s house, so I started picking up rocks and throwing them at the rattler until it gave up and simply slithered away.
The 2nd time I met a rattlesnake I had my 4-year old brother on the back of my Schwinn Stingray – riding on the banana seat, and we came around the corner of the dirt road and there was a snake stretched out over the entire length of the road – easily 6 or 7 feet long. It was massive, at least 4-inches thick. I slammed on the brakes, got my feet down, and started backing up as quickly as I could. My brother couldn’t have heard anything I had to say, and leaned out around me to see what the deal was. And then started hitting me in the back and saying, “Snake! Snake! Snake!”
By the time we found an adult, the snake had moved on.
So back to the coiled snake in our backyard: I immediately got all of the kids to move away from the play structure, and then me and Jerry got my mom’s boyfriend’s blow-gun and blow-darts. I’d spent plenty of time practicing with the blowgun – on my The Fonz poster mounted on plywood – and I could sink a dart into the Fonz’s thumb from 15 feet. So Jerry and I took turns shooting darts at the rattler.
Eventually, it gave up rattling, and started to slither away up the hillside, and that’s when we knew that we’d hit it because we saw 2 darts slithering up the hillside. All of the kids cheered, and we started to argue about who had actually hit the snake. And that’s when I noticed that my 4-year old younger brother was not among the kids with us, and as I looked into the trailer I spotted him, and the rifle. Aimed right at me.
As soon as he had realized there was a snake in the bushes, and saw me and Jerry tried to nail it with the blowgun he had gone inside the trailer and worked at the closet door until he had pried it open and gotten at the 30 odd six rifle inside. That last big rattlesnake still on his mind, he was going to settle this and solve the problem for all of us.
I broke into a sprint around the trailer as fast as I could, bounded up the stairs, and opened the door to my 4-year old brother, diligently trying to get the rifle under control, and aiming it right at my chest. I signed for him to stay calm, and not do anything. As I skirted around the barrel of the gun and slowly raised the barrel so it was aiming at the sky, it dawned on me which animal, of all the ones I lived with in the middle of nowhere, were actually the most dangerous.
When my parents got divorced, my mother hooked up with my father’s sister’s ex-husband, whom I’d always known as “Uncle Steve.” If you spent 15 minutes in the same room as my mother, you’d see why I accepted this as completely normal behavior.
Uncle Steve was a pot-growing Viet Nam veteran who had lost his voice in ‘Nam when a hand grenade ripped open his throat, implanted enough shrapnel in his knee to set off every metal detector he ever met, and left him dead in the MASH unit for over 3 minutes. Everyone else called him “Whispering Steve”, and I quickly made the switch myself
I’d always seen Steve as a fantastic father to his two sons, and in the father figure vacuum left by my parents’ divorce, I didn’t see it so much as losing an uncle as gaining a dad.
Steve’s brush with death in ‘Nam had given him a joie de vivre that bubbled over into every part of his life. He always wanted there to be some magic in the world for the kids around him, and made being a parent look fun, if not effortless.
He didn’t just read bedtime stories at night, he made up stories featuring me and my brother-cousins as the heroes: flying around on jet packs, battling orcs with light sabers.
He made discovery fun, and made everyone a winner. I will never forget the first time I saw the Golden Gate bridge, thanks to Steve. We were driving South on 101, and he announced that he’d give a Hershey’s bar to the first kid who could spot the bridge. We were all bouncing around the back seat of the car, craning our necks and scanning the horizon for that first glimpse, trying to be the first. And as soon as we came through the Rainbow tunnel, bam! All 3 of us saw it at the same time.
“Heh, heh: Candy bars for all 3 of you, I guess!”
Steve’s 2 sons spent most of their time with their mom, my aunt. And when they were out of town, I got the majority of his attention. We’d stay up late on Friday nights, watching Creature Features on KTVU. And when he got tired of me hiding under the covers when the zombies attacked in Night of the Living dead, he hauled me 20 miles to the nearest movie theater for opening night of some movie I’d never heard of. He bought me anything I wanted from the snack bar, and as the movie was about to start he said, “If you get up and leave the theater it will be the last movie I ever bring you to. Just remember: none of this is real, all of the actors are still alive. It’s all make believe.”
The movie was Alien, and I was 11 years old. After that, I was the horror-film king of 4th grade.
After he and my mom broke up, he remained a good uncle to me. In college, when I needed refuge from the hubbub of life in the big city, he’d let me come party at his house for the weekend. In 2000, when I decided to attend Burning Man for the first time – even though all of my friends insisted it was “so over” and “totally dead” by then – I went to Steve for help building the interactive art piece I took to the desert and placed in front of our camp. He stood at one end of the band saw, cigarette dangling from his mouth as always.
Less than half a year later, Steve was dying of lung cancer. I’d seen him at the VA hospital in SF when he got the prognosis. It wasn’t good. I made a pilgrimage up to his house, 3 hours North of SF, to spend the weekend and see him one last time. Before I went, I wrote him a letter, thanking him for all of the ways he had helped make me a better person over the years.
When I saw him, I gave him the letter, but I couldn’t stand the sight of him. He was so shrunken, so small. The cancer had eaten away at him, reduced his body to a shell of its former self. He was still bright and vibrant, but when I looked at him all I saw was his impending death. I hung out at his house for the afternoon, then went back to a friend’s house for dinner. My mom pointed out that Steve felt like I’d already written him off, that he was already gone. I wanted to explain to him that I was just shocked by it all, so I walked the mile over to Steve’s house – remember, pot farm country: pitch black , dirt road, no street lights. It took me straight back to when I was 11, walking that same road without a flashlight, worried that a bear would get me.
Steve was asleep when I got to his house, exhausted from the day. As I walked back to where I was staying, I announced to the universe that I was ready to get on with my life – I was ready to meet her, if she was out there. The next night, back in SF, I met the love of my life, Michele, at a fundraising party for a Burning Man camp.
13 years later, we have an 8-year old son, who believes there is lots of magic in the world. He’s been told bedtime stories about flying around California strapped to a jet-pack, battling orcs with light sabers, and he still hides his head under the covers when he gets scared.
I think of Steve often, and it would be easy to regret things that were beyond my control – like him not getting to meet Michele, or seeing our long-haired son. But the truth is, I have only one regret: that I let my own fear of death stop me from looking him in the eyes and telling him how much I loved him, while it still counted.
I was born in Miami, Florida, which is so far South that it’s not The South – it’s more like the Caribbean. But I spent a few extremely formative years in the mid-70’s living in Gainesville, Florida, a city that is far enough North in Florida to be part of the American South, and carry with it all of the burdens and prejudices that entails.
As a child I was blissfully ignorant of the racial divide. My best friend in kindergarten, Rodney, was black – something I later learned was shocking at the time. And I had no historical comprehension of what it meant when we rented a big house on a plantation, and became the first white folks who lived there to ever talk to the black family of caretakers who lived in what used to be the slave quarters on the property.
All of that is backstory for the main story, which takes place when I was 7: at a party with my parents. The adults were all inside, and we kids, 6 or 7 of us, ages 5 to 10, all white, were playing out in the street, looking for adventure.
In Gainesville in the 70’s there used to be a decommissioned fighter jet-turned play-structure out front of the military base. It was AWESOME. I knew right where it was, and thanks to the great sense of direction I’ve had all of my life: I was sure I knew exactly how to get there.
It didn’t take much work on my part to get the other kids on board with my plan, and soon we were off: a gaggle of kids happily making our way through the neighborhood streets of Gainesville towards a happy destination.
We made our way easily enough, me happy to be leading and blissfully ignorant as the neighborhood started to turn. I didn’t have an eye for the subtle change as we quickly became the minority. As we started to stand out, as we became the only white faces for blocks in any direction.
The other kids started to get nervous, and a couple of them even turned around and headed back to the party. I assured the rest of them that there was nothing to be worried about: I knew right where I was going, and we were close, we were almost there. A few more blocks, and then we had to be close.
When the neighborhood kids started to follow us, the rest of my group wanted to turn around, even though I still didn’t see a reason to, but by then it was too late.
“What are you doing here, whitey?” they yelled.
“Why you in our neighborhood? You stupid? Don’t you know this is our ‘hood? Looking to get beat up?” They shouted as they quickly surrounded us, and started moving in.
Nobody had been hit yet, but it didn’t look good. I started to understand that I had made a huge mistake, but I still didn’t know how.
I refused to get scared, I couldn’t believe anything bad was really going to happen to us: these were kids, just like us, after all. And all we had done was try to walk through their neighborhood – it made no sense.
My remaining friends were scared, though, and one even started to cry. I was trying to talk rationally and reasonably to the gathered group, which wasn’t helping. And then a woman’s voice rang out above the crowd, “What you bunch of little punks doing, ganging up on these kids?!?” as a grandmotherly black woman grabbed me and my friends and pulled us into her living room.
“What on earth are you doing here,” the stern but kindly old woman asked, “are you lost or just trying to get yourselffs killed?” I tried to explain, calmly and rationally that we were just trying to walk to the jet, but she wasn’t having it. “You have no idea what you have walked in to, do you boy? They will tear you apart out there, they will beat you to death you ever come back in here like this. Where are your parents, do you have a phone number?”
I didn’t. I hadn’t even told my parents where I was going or what my plan was. And neither of my blubbering friends did either.
“We got to get you out of here,” the old lady said, “before things get worse. Can you find your way back to where your parents are?” I could. “Then when I tell you three to run, you run all the way back to yo mommas and yo pappas, and don’t you ever come back here agin.”
And with that, she yelled at the mingling group in the street that she had called the po-lice, and they best be gettin’ back to their homes if they knew what was good for them. And when the coast was clear, she set us to running as quickly as we could back to our safe, white side of the world. It was only a few blocks until we were clear of the ‘hood, and a few more before we found our parents, frantically coming to find us. The few who had turned back had told them where we were headed.
Our parent’s relief at finding us trumped their anger at us for leaving unannounced, and we were all unharmed. On the outside, anyway.
Although I was never able to see the world the same again. I had never doubted where I was in Gainesville that afternoon, but I learned that what I was was different. Different in a way that had nothing to do with who I was or how I treated people, different in a way that could inspire hatred and violence from children who had never met me before. And learning that lesson caused me to lose a part of my innocence I could never get back.