Category Archives: Q’s Musings

The MOTH: Dirt

Originally published December 7, 2017

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.

18 Tips I Wish I’d Learned Before I Had Shoulder Surgery

Originally posted January 20, 2016

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.

The dopey grin of a man whose painkillers have yet to wear off

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.

Save

Originally posted May 7, 2015

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.

Tolstoy: four on the floor, and none on the ground

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.

Blue Moon

Originally posted April 8, 2015

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.

Regrets

Originally posted December 11th, 2013

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.

Lost

Originally posted on October 15th, 2013

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.

Secrets

Originally posted September 10th, 2013

My parents were late blooming hippies. They met in the summer of ’68, still in plenty of time to latch on to the whole hippie vibe. I was born in ’69, and around that time my father joined the army.

Why he joined the army depends on who you ask. If you ask him, he’ll tell you it was because he wanted to give something back to this country that had done so much for him. My father had been forced to leave his homeland, Cuba, when he was 11 years old. He’d had everything taken from him, and in the United States he’d found a land of amazing opportunity. To this day, he swears that joining the army was his way of giving back.

My mother will tell you it was because he was looking to piss off my grandmother as much as possible, and the only thing more aggravating than marrying a gringa was to join the army and possibly get sent overseas to fight in Viet Nam.

He didn’t get sent to Viet Nam, and instead I spent the first 4 years of my life growing up on army bases around the south. Four years later, when my father’s term was up, the whole hippie thing had started to fade, and my parents had some serious catching up to do.

They bought a VW bus, which they immediately installed flowered curtains over every window in. They took off the VW symbol on the front of the bus, and replaced it with a hand-painted yellow sun. And they started smoking pot. I can still remember running into my parents’ bedroom, jumping on the bed, and nestling in with them, the bottle of Blue Nun wine (more of a jug, really), and the ashtray with the roach clip on a leather thong with wooden beads.

These moments were the pleasant balance to the times they fought, when I would have to stand between them and hold up 1 finger towards each of their mouths. My 5-year old sign that it was time to stop yelling at each other and calm down.

Early on, I thought our family was just like every other family. That we were the norm. I thought that every TV only got PBS (my parents hid the knob to change the channels, and told me that was the only channel we got) I thought every TV only got PBS until I attended a friend’s birthday party and spent the entire time glued to the screen, watching King Kong with slack-jawed awe.

I thought everybody’s dad talked to lots of other pretty women on campus whenever they went for bike rides through the local University without mom.

And I thought that everyone smoked pot. There was one time, in the Sears Roebucks, when we were looking for a specific tool my father needed. He was always working on that VW bus, it was the only way it would stay on the road. At my first show and tell in kindergarten I proudly announced that I’d spent the weekend helping my father drop the engine on our bus. He would call out the tool he needed from under the bus, and I’d dig through the tool box and hand it to him.

So there we were, in the Sears Roebucks: I was scouring the aisles, looking for the tool my father wanted when I came across a treasure trove of an entirely different kind. I’d found a bin, full of something I immediately recognized: “Hey, dad, check it out: Roach clips!” I shouted at full volume across the tools section.

He ran over and quieted me down, quickly acknowledging what I’d found, and informing me that I was never to call them that in public. “In public,” he said, “we call them alligator clips.”

“But why?”

And that was when I found out that our family was different. Our family had secrets.  And I was tasked with keeping them.

When my mother threw the 5-gallon gas can at my father in the midst of their last fight, calling him all sorts of names and unaware that I was watching from in hiding behind our car – I knew that stayed with me.

When my mother started dating my father’s sister’s ex-husband after my father left us, I knew I couldn’t call him uncle Steve anymore. At least, not in public.

By the time uncle Steve moved us to a 120-acre plot of land in Mendocino County to start his own pot farm, I was an old hand. I knew the drill. (He’s dead now, and all of the ex-partners from that venture have moved on, so I can talk about it without fear of being hunted down)

And in my teenage years, when my mother would call me into her room to drunkenly lament how our father, or uncle Steve, or Cincinnati Jim, or whoever had let her down: I would hope that this was only my secret, and that my brother wouldn’t have to shoulder this burden once I went to college.

When I met my wife, we both agreed that we didn’t want to repeat the mistakes of our divorced parents. We committed to do all of the things right that they had so gloriously done wrong. We have an 8-year old son, and he couldn’t keep a secret to save his life.

I view that as a sign of stellar parenting.

Azealia Banks’ “212” Translated for 40-somethings

Originally published February 25th, 2013

Being a 40-something who grew up listening to hip-hop and rap isn’t easy. Most of the (c)rap that passes for hip-hop today sucks. And when you do find something incredible, it was performed by someone who was born the year you graduated college and seemingly speaks a foreign language.

Azealia Banks’ single, “212”  is incredible. And completely unintelligible for anyone over 40. What follows is a translation of “212” written by a 40-something for 40-somethings. If you were born after 1980 you don’t need to read this, and in fact you should be out having fun doing all of the things I wish I could: like seeing a movie without getting a babysitter. Seriously, enjoy life while you can: soon you will be old too.

Actual LyricsTranslation for Old People
[Verse 1][Holy shit, what is this?]
Hey I can be the answerIf you don’t understand the first stanza, this translation is for you. And you are old
I’m ready to dance when the vamp upI am prepared to dance once the hook is established
And when I hit that dip, get your cameraWhen I do dance, be prepared to take pictures. Of course I mean digital pictures, since film is for dinosaurs. Like you.
You could see I been that bitch since the PamperNote that I have been extremely talented since I was but a baby (Around when you were in your 20s).
And that I am that young sis, the beaconAlso note that I am now a young, attractive woman
The bitch who wants to compete andAn extremely confident young woman who desires her shot
I could freak a ‘fit, that pump with the peep andIf I chose to I could look extremely desirable in a more typically feminine pair of high-heeled shoes with open toes
You know what your bitch become when her weave inMuch like the woman in your life does when she dresses well
I just wanna sip that punch with your peeps andMy desires are simple: I’d like to have a drink with your friends;
Sit in that lunch if you’re treatingJoin you for lunch, should you be willing to purchase it
Kick it with your bitch who come from ParisianHang out with your girlfriend from Paris
She know where I get mine from, and the seasonWho not only recognizes the labels of the clothes I wear, she can also tell what time of year I bought them
Now she wanna lick my plum in the eveningBy nightfall she will be so smitten with me that she wants to perform cunnilingus upon me
And fit that ton-tongue d-deep inLike those pornos you “never watch”
I guess that cunt getting eatenI am so confident/carefree with my sexuality that I will carelessly allow your woman to go down on me
I guess that cunt getting eatenAlthough the sheer repetition of this line
I guess that cunt getting eatenWill certainly make you think
I guess that cunt getting eatenThat maybe I will also go down on her
[Verse 2][Wow, that was cool! She’s dirty. Wait, where is this going?]
I was in the 212I was in the Manhattan borough of New York City
On the uptown A, nigga you know what’s up or don’t youRiding the A train towards Harlem, surely you know which direction the trains run in New York
Word to who made youI pay respect to my elders, specifically your mother
I’m a rude bitch, nigga, what are you made up of?I am also exceptionally “street”, a quality I believe you lack
I’m-a eat your food up, booI will take that which is yours, starting with your bare necessities
I could bust your eight, I’m-a do one too, fuck ya gon’ do?I will either: 1) Open your 8-ball of cocaine and snort it all, or 2) I will render your 8-line battle rap useless with my 8-line battle rap. Either way, you are impotent before me
I want you to make bucks, I’m a look-right nigga, bet you do want to fuckI believe there is room in this market for the both of us. I being a pretty woman, and you a man who would obviously like to have sex
Fuck him like you do want to cumBut I am so much better than you, your only hope is to sleep your way to the top. With other men.
You’re gay to get discovered in my two-one-deuceYou have forsaken your sexuality in an effort to make it in New york
Cock-a-licking in the water by the blue bayouIt all started when you began giving blowjobs to producers in New Orleans
Caught the warm goo in your doo-rag too sonBut even that you suck at, as you let them ejaculate on your headwear.
Nigga you’re a Kool-Aid dudeNow you lack street credibility and will follow anyone
With your doo-doo crew son, fuck are you into, huh?Do you have any idea how far you and your friends are in over your heads?
Niggas better oooh-run-runYou should all leave town: melodically and quickly.
You could get shot, homie, if you do want toOnly bad will become of
Put your guns up, tell your crew don’t frontYou and your friends pretending to be gangsters
I’m a hoodlum nigga, you know you were too onceI am willing to do anything to succeed, a position you were in before (her intended target has changed to another female rapper)
Bitch I’m ’bout to blew up tooNow I am on the verge of obtaining complete success as well
I’m the one today, I’m the new shit, boo, young RapunzelMy fresh style and long hair make me more relevant today than you
Who are you bitch? New lunchFor what are you really but fodder for my rhymes?
I’m-a ruin you, cuntI will steal your market share and your fans
I’m-a ruin you, cuntBecause I am more worldly than you
I’m-a ruin you, cuntEvidenced by my British use of the word “cunt”
I’m-a ruin you, cuntWhich I obviously learned while in London
[Bridge][The part of the song you will (try) to sing around the office tomorrow. It is also addressed to herself]
Ayo, I heard you’re riding with the same tall, tall taleHello, word is you continue to represent yourself with familiar fictions
Telling them you made someBoasting to the world that are successful
Saying you’re grinding but you ain’t going nowhereAnd claiming to be hard-working, yet you are unsuccessful
Why you procrastinate girlStop wasting time
You got a lot, but you just waste all yours andYou are talented, but allow said talent to go to waste
They’ll forget your name soonStardom is fleeting
And won’t nobody be to blame but yourself yeahAnd you are the only one holding you back
[Hook][Wait, what? I liked the melodic part! I don’t understand this screaming]
What you gon’ do when I appearI am looking forward to seeing what happens to you
W-when-when I premiereWhen my album is released
Bitch, the end of your lives are nearThe date of which shall signal the end of your career
This shit been mine, mineAs my hostile takeover of your fanbase and market share is so assured I refer to it in the past tense
[Verse 3][I’m lost, but I still like it]
Bitch, I’m in the 212Lest the bridge has made you think I’ve gone soft, I will remind you that I still lack respect for you. I remain in Manhattan
With the fifth cocked nigga, it’s the two-one-zooWhere I carry a loaded and cocked handgun, because it is a wild and crazy town
Fuck you gon’ do, when your goon sprayed upYou may think this is all fiction, but I sincerely question your ability to respond well to one of your friends getting shot
Bet his bitch won’t get him, betcha you won’t do muchBecause you are lame, by extension so are your friends and their girlfriends. Whoever shoots one of your crew need not fear retaliation from anyone, especially you.
See, even if you do want to bustShould you actually have the courage to fire your weapons outside of a shooting range
Your bitch’ll get you cut and touch you crew up too, PopEveryone in your life will come to harm, Old Man
You’re playing with your butter like your boo won’t chewYou are so pathetic that your woman refuses to please you forcing you to please yourself
Cock the gun, too — where you do eat poon, hon?You’re impotent even with a loaded weapon, and you perform unrequited cunnilingus upon your woman
I’m fucking with you, cutie-qOh, have I hurt your feelings? I’m just pushing your buttons. I still want you to buy my albums
What’s your dick like homie, what are you into, what’s the run, dudeSo let me flirt with you just enough to make you feel manly: Are you well endowed? What acts will you perform on me? What can you tell me about what’s going on?
Where do you wake up?Do you currently have a girlfriend?
Tell your bitch keep hating, I’m the new one too, huhExplain to her that she is now your ex-girlfriend.
See, I remember you when you were the young new faceAnd to all you other rappers out there: I remember when you were “it”
But you do like to slumber, don’t youNow that you’ve made it, you are coasting on your fame
Now your boo up too, honNow your fame is up
I’m-a ruin you, cuntMy career shall supersede yours.

Coming to Terms With Rooting for Football

Originally posted February 1st, 2013

Football was my first love in the sporting world. I was introduced to rooting for the 49ers in 1981, when I was in 6th grade. Like so many 49ers fans that season, I was treated to a storybook season that made me a lifelong fan of the game and the team.

Social issues weren’t part of the fabric of sports at the time, or I was very shielded from them. The focus was never on the culture of the game or the locker room, just on the performance of the team. It was a blissful ignorance.

Chris Culliver, trying to apologize for being a homophobic idiot.

Colorful characters made for good press, of course. Gene “Hacksaw” Reynolds, so named because he purportedly used a hacksaw to cut a Jeep in half. Ronnie Lott, who cut off a digit so he could play in an important game. But their stance on civil rights issues was never a measure of their character.

As I got older, I would become intimately more familiar with the macho culture surrounding the game. My high school football team locker room was a treacherous place to be anything but part of the herd, and the herd was not accepting. Hazing took place frequently, and it was hard to stand up for yourself, let alone anyone else.

Freshmen were forced to compete in head-butting competitions with upper classmen. Two guys in full pads would line up in 3 point stances 15 yards apart, and then charge headfirst at each other, full speed, until you either proved your worth or “had your bell rung”. It was stupid. And dangerous. And the coaches looked the other way.

I didn’t play football in college, but I had my share of run-ins with the UC Berkeley team between 1987 and 1991. One red shirt defensive lineman in the stands near me didn’t like the fact that I was lamenting how badly we got our asses kicked in the big game in 1987, and hit me in the face. Forget the fact that I was a fellow Cal student, or that it was assault.

One night, a Samoan guard was on the verge of beating up some poor kid 200 pounds his junior outside of my favorite bar. When I pointed out what an unfair fight it was, he turned on me, picking me off of the ground by my throat and shoving me against the wall.

“Oh yeah,” I gasped, “this is much more fair.”

Football is a game of violent poetry, played by men who are often sheltered from personal responsibility by authority figures with a vested interest in their on-field success. By the time a player reaches the professional ranks, he has at least a decade of validation for who he is – bigot or otherwise.

So how can I root for them? How can I support their product? How can I encourage my son to become a fan of the game, knowing what I now do?

I’ve been wrestling with this question all season, as my 7 year old son becomes more aware of the nature of the game. But it was brought into more poignant focus the week of SuperBowl XLVII when 49er safety Chris Culliver revealed what a sheltered life he has led by espousing horrifically homophobic statements.

I don’t have any easier answers. I love sport, and I love their sport specifically. I believe that the positives of participating in and rooting for sports outweigh the negatives.

The culture of sport isn’t going to change overnight, and it certainly isn’t going to change as long as we as fans continue to support The Product.

But how many products do you support that are made in questionable ways, or by less than stellar humans? Do you shop at Wal Mart? Do you buy products produced in sweatshops or inhumane factory conditions? Is there a difference?

Something to ponder as you watch the SuperBowl on your made-in-China TV, tweeting on your iPhone this Sunday.

Yo Jay, Check This Out

Originally posted January 31, 2013

Hip Hop was the first music that was truly mine…

Christmas, 1980. I was 11 years old, roller skating in a park in Miami, and I happened upon a kid about the same age as as me captivating two of his friends. He was regaling them with a tale of prowess, bad dinners, and stealing SuperMan’s girlfriend, and he was doing so with a lyrical style I’d never heard before. I, too was captivated, and tried as hard as I could to listen in without looking like I cared.

Jam Master Jay was the one in charge…

Eventually I had to move on (one can only skate back and forth along the same 15 feet of sidewalk before you start to become obvious, after all) but the singing I’d just heard was imbedded well within my brain. That night, as we were decorating our Christmas tree, the song that kid in the park had been singing came on the radio. My dad went to change the station, and I pleaded for him to leave it on. It was the full-length version of the Rapper’s Delight, all 15 minutes of it.

My dad only lasted 7.

I had for the very first time discovered a music that the adults around me didn’t like. I had something that was mine. However, It wasn’t the taboo that was attractive; I was absolutely taken with the music, the lyrical style, the stories these guys told. I also lived in a small town in Northern California, and when I returned home from visiting my dad for Christmas, it would be a long time before I heard any of that music again.

I had almost forgotten about it by 1983, but when Run DMC released their first album, Run DMC I was immediately drawn back in. Rap, as I would learn it was called, changed my world. Rap resonated deeply within my soul, and made me want to dance. Rap brought with it an energy that didn’t exist for me anywhere else, and Run DMC spoke a language I understood. The stories they told applauded chivalry, underscored the importance of education, and gave hope to powerlessness.

I learned every lyric, and knew each and every part by heart. Some songs I’d do just Run. others DMC. Sometimes I’d bounce back and forth, playing both parts and running out of breath faster than a smoker in a marathon. More than anything, I loved the creativity of the man behind the turntables. I knew every scratch on that record by heart. The moves I made to imitate the scratching may have been wrong, but the timing and intent were always right on.

To this day, Jam Master Jay is my favorite track on that album. I was blown away by Jay’s creativity, his musical sense of humor, and his incredible skills. I was a trainspotter long before I knew what it was called. I would constantly be amused and enthralled by Jay’s use of self-referentiation on subsequent Run DMC albums. Jay always made it fresh for newcomers, but rewarded the faithful with samples off of past Run DMC records. His sense of humor and skills set him as one of the all-time greatest Dj’s to ever put the needle on the record.

Jay pioneered Dj’ing into the mainstream, taking the art-form to places no-one else had ever been able to before. He merged rock and rap for all the world to see, sending Run DMC to new heights and reviving Aerosmith’s career at the same drop of a needle. He set the standard for Dj involvement, respectability, and commitment. He gave back to his community, and fought hard for the right to do so.

More than anything, he made me want to be a Dj.

Peace, Jay. The lives you changed continue to change more lives, and the wheel keeps coming ’round.