Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Quiet, Happy Life of August the First

The Quiet, Happy Life of August I

The kingdom of August I is dominated by water. The mushroom-shaped swimming pool, though small by pool standards, occupies perhaps two-thirds of the backyard. August I, who is a handsome silver-grey rabbit, does not seem to mind the pool. He prefers the corners of the yard, the low-lying bushes that ring the lawn, and the unkempt side yards, where tools and weeds comingle in an ironic alliance. Mornings and evenings, August I appears in the middle of the lawn, surveying his domain and letting those who care know that all is well. A hutch, stocked with food and water, sits on the concrete patio.

August I may be the lord of his realm, but he is no fancy-pants bunny. He has a large face, with dark, expressive eyes. His ears suggest that his momma or his daddy, but not both, was a lop-eared rabbit. August’s feet are hilariously big, but they are his primary weapons of self-defense against predators or impudent subjects who hold him too long.

August I was born at Phillips Farm in Lodi and was subject to the humiliation of the farm’s petting zoo for the first few weeks of his life. But the bunnies at the farm are for sale, and we happened to be in the market for a rabbit when we met August I. I think I was working in the yard or maybe talking to a neighbor when the girls notified me that a rabbit and a rabbit cage were available for purchase from someone having a yard sale down at the duplexes on the end of our street. Though I was not entirely anti-rabbit (in fact, I’m an old hand with bunnies and rabbits), I refused to buy a used rabbit cage and a used rabbit. For one thing, the cage was really just an extra-large plastic hamster house—no place to raise a proper rabbit. And who wants to start with a full-sized rabbit? So I told the kids that we were not interested in the yard sale rabbit, but we could consider getting a new bunny and a real rabbit cage/hutch.

It’s not every father who knows the wisdom of putting a $5 bunny in a $45 cage. If I remember correctly, we started with the bunny. We knew from previous trips to Philips Farm that bunnies were regularly sold there at reasonable prices. Located in Lodi, Philips Farm, by the way, is home to Michael+David Winery, makers of the well-known Seven Deadly Zins and Seven Heavenly Chards. The farm features a bistro for trendy yet casual dining, a produce market, and a wine tasting bar—all under one roof. Out back, an interested visitor can buy a small bag of feed and then share that feed with various breeds of sheep, goats, rabbits, chickens, turkeys, and ducks. The animals are separated by species into shelters and pens, and many of the smaller ones are for sale.

When the kids decided it was time to add a rabbit to the list of our attempted pets, they and I and cousins, Alyssa and Kristen, piled into my truck and headed north to Lodi and Philips Farm. It was a hot summer day, and the animals at the petting zoo were feeling the heat, but one lucky little bunny got a ride home in an air-conditioned Dodge pickup. On the way home, the conversation centered around two themes: (1) we actually got a bunny (!), and (2) we need to think of a name for our bunny. The pet-naming process is familiar to all parents. We suggest clever, subtle names (Mildred, Bonnie, Saddam, etc.) that will serve the animal well for his or her short or long life, whichever the case may be. And then the kids give the animal a name like Tiger or Angel. In fact, we had a series of ill-fated kittens, hamsters, and fish, named either Tiger or Angel. We tossed around some obvious choices (Bugs, Stu, Thumper), and some unusual ideas like “Summer.” At some point, I received a revelation, and I suggested we name him (I was reasonably sure we were dealing with a he) “August the First.” Why August I? Because that was the date we brought him home from the farm. Besides, we could call him Auggie (which is fun) or Gus (which is just plain cool). So August I was victorious, and we set out to secure a proper dwelling place for our mild hare.

* * *

Modesto Feeds is located out on McHenry Avenue, north of town and Kiernan Avenue, in a building that hasn’t changed much since I was kid. I had not been in the feed store for many, many years, but I was confident we would find what we needed for our new bunny, Gus. I admit that when you enter the feed store you breathe in a bit of dust and notice the fowl odor coming from the back where chicks and ducklings live until they are purchased. But you also smell leather and alfalfa, corn, and other grains. At the front of the store there are display racks full of large sacks (40-50 lbs) of dog and cat food. A large tabby cat usually can be found lying among these sacks, and she will come to you if you talk to her. Beyond the racks, an ancient counter and office area extend from the right-hand wall past the middle of the floor, leaving a generous aisle on the left to provide access to the back of the store. Back there, the chicks and ducklings are on the right. Larger birds live in cages, while the chicks live in a galvanized livestock water trough on the floor. Bulk feeds (rabbit, chicken, pig, lamb) are kept in wooden bins built on to the left wall. These feeds take many shapes, colors, and textures, and they contribute greatly to the complex aroma that greets customers when they enter the building. The rabbit feed happens to be shaped into pellets, and because they are made up of alfalfa (primarily) the pellets are a deep green color. When you want feed, you just tell the owner, Tom, what you need, say ten pounds of rabbit pellets (I don’t actually know that his name is Tom. He seems like a Tom.) He scoops the pellets onto an old-fashioned hanging scale, measures out the right amount, pours the pellets into a bag, tapes it up, and charges me $3.50. I always choose to make the five-mile drive to Modesto Feeds to get Gus his food, rather than go to the Target or Pet Smart around the block from our house. I could say that the reason is that ten pounds of rabbit food at those other stores would cost about $20, but mostly it’s because I love going to the feed store.

On the day we brought Gus home from the farm, I took the kids to the feed store, and we found that Tom offered a number of wire cages, built locally by a local guy, in a variety of sizes. These cages were stacked on the top of shelves around the store, and we soon found one that was suitable for a single grey rabbit. When my brother and I raised rabbits, we built the cages ourselves. We could make a line of connected wire cages, using materials purchased from a fencing supply outfit and special tool that crimped a connecting joint around the corners. Our cages, unlike the one we bought for Gus, didn’t have an attached but detachable tray beneath the floor of the cage. We let the waste fall to the cement floor of our old barn. The waste tray is the key difference between a real rabbit cage and the things they sell at the pet store. I could go into even more detail, but just trust me.

We can assume that the first few days, weeks, and maybe even months of August’s life with the Schmidt family were filled with excitement, as he met the neighbors, the relatives, and our other pets. Gus was held often, in the house and in the backyard. And he was frequently allowed to run around the backyard, though our concern for his whereabouts and his safety led us to buy a silly rabbit harness and leash set up from the pet store. In those early days, Gus proved to be about as amiable as anyone could expect a rabbit to be. When we brought him into the house, he typically sat on a lap, with an old towel between him and the lap. Sometimes we put him on the floor to run around freely, and he rarely made any unwanted deposits on the carpet. Mostly, he just hung out in a tight corner, though occasionally he might interact with one of the other pets (two cats, one dog).

* * * *

As Gus grew into a rabbit and the family got used to having him around, the giddy days of our bunny honeymoon dissipated into our typical pet dynamic: Dad takes care of the animal. I fill the water bottle and the feeder that hang on opposite sides of the wire cage, and I clean out the poop tray. Occasionally, I can get the girls, or one of them, to do the dirty work, which really isn’t so dirty, but for several years now it’s been just Gus and me. When I take care of his needs, I try to talk to him and pet him because I don’t want him to become anti-social. During the nicer months, Gus’s place is on the back patio, in his cage. Then I move him to the garage when it gets cold and foggy outside. In the 100-degree heat of summer, Gus often gets moved inside to the air-conditioned comfort of the house. And to his credit, Gus has never uttered a word of complaint about his solitary life in solitary confinement.

I have often worried, though, that Gus might decide that he has had enough of his lonely life and go on a killing spree. Then the television cameras would be pointed at me, provided I survive the carnage, and I would have no choice but to say, “Well, he was real quiet, always kept to hisself. And he never give nobody no trouble a’tall.” So I talked nicely to him and tried to get the rest of the family to pay a little attention to Gus. Our course of inaction continued for little awhile, perhaps three years. My wife, Paula, was less concerned about what I would describe as Gus’s looming or imminent rabbit rage. Nonetheless, she was the strongest advocate for a radical new approach to our rabbit keeping. Often, when I suggested that someone take Gus out of his cage and give him some attention, Paula would say “why don’t you turn him loose. Let him run free awhile.” And sometimes I would. But a crafty rabbit like Gus is not all that easy to catch in open territory, especially after he’s been out for a few hours. I blocked the side yards, so Gus couldn’t find a tight spot where I couldn’t get him when it was time to go back in the cage. I also tried to keep track of his whereabouts, in case he might try to find an open spot in the fence. I’m sure Gus enjoyed these temporary excursions into the great wide yard, but they didn’t happen that often. And they really didn’t prepare him for the change that Mrs. Schmidt had in store for him.

My lovely wife, despite her many fine attributes, has had no real-world rabbit wrangling experience, so as a rule I try to ignore any rabbit-related input from her. For instance, when she cleans old food out of the refrigerator, Paula likes to ask, “I wonder if Gus would eat it?” In my head (but not aloud), I respond, “Do you think he is a goat?” And I tell Gus he doesn’t have to eat the apples, tomatoes, squash, etc. that gets put in his cage. Earlier this year, Paula began campaigning for the release of Gus. In response to my concern about keeping track of Gus when we let him out into the yard, she argued that he should just be given free reign of the back yard. On her side of the argument, Paula pointed out that Gus would be happy and healthy and would require less upkeep. I, on the other hand, noted that he would be a nice, juicy target for the hawks that frequent the tall evergreen trees in our neighborhood. Paula countered that her sister, Tracy, let their rabbit run freely in their backyard. While I had to concede that the Huberts’ current rabbit, Otis, is a well-adjusted and personable bunny, their pet track record is littered with the carcasses of doomed dogs, cats, hamsters, and even bunnies and haunted by the ghosts of long-lost four-legged family friends. In fact, the Huberts’ previous rabbit, Stu (or maybe it was Stew), enjoyed the wide world so much, he took advantage of an open gate and was seen and heard no more. Oh, sure, there were alleged Stu sightings around town and rumors of a renegade rabbit living on the edge in east Modesto. Frankly, I didn’t want Gus to become an urban legend.

The truth is, given the opportunity, even the mildest bunny can be a wild hare, and then it’s sayonara.

Finally, though, I looked deeply into Gus’s marble-like eyes, and I knew he wanted to taste the glory (to see what it tastes like). August I was set free, within the confines of our back yard, early last summer. And I will be the first to admit that Gus has reigned peacefully and happily and almost incident-free in his domain ever since. In the summer months we saw him mostly in the cool of the morning and evening. Now that winter is upon us, he seems bolder, but maybe it’s just a matter of ambient temperature. He has developed habits: at night, when we sit in the spa (which is located a few feet from is cage), he comes into his cage to eat and drink. And he still uses the cage to answer nature’s call—instead of using the nature around him. Actually, there’s spot on the side yard, where the quad trailer sits, that also serves his needs.

Occasionally, we rein in August’s free reign. During a recent cold snap, I caught Gus and brought him and his cage in the house. Just the other day, the girls saw that he was sitting out in the rain, so they caught him and put him in his little house. If I work in the back yard, I have to be careful not to leave a gate and or the side garage door open. But when I open the big gate to move the trailer in and out, Gus has to be caught and secured because he has already made an attempt to light out for the territory. When Grandpa Ernie visited at Thanksgiving and brought Emily her styling 1994 wagon, he thought he would put the trailer away, so he opened the big side gate. Now, I was not home at the time so no one thought about Gus. But I can guarantee you that when he hopped out into the front yard, everyone was thinking about him and how to get him back to his back yard kingdom. Somehow, Gus was convinced to retreat to a safer place, and Grandpa decided to wait for the rabbit wrangler to return home.

* * * *

Aside from his one sojourn into the front yard flowerbed, August I has conducted his affairs with grace and class. All creatures, human and otherwise, appreciate his regal bearing, and his admirers often refer to him as a rabbit you can depend on (this rabbit is no tiger). And yet August eschews the limelight and resists the label of “role model.” In fact, when I have suggested to August that he’s a hero to his followers, he looks at me like we’re speaking different languages—which leads me to conclude that August I is a rabbit who simply chooses to lead by example.

Saturday, December 19, 2009


I dropped off the kids at a Habitat for Humanity project a few streets off MLK drive. Lisa was there with her kids. I decided to drive further south, where MLK reverts back to Sutter, and check Granny and Granddad’s old street, Faustina. Faustina was in the paper the other day. It’s in an unincorporated area, maybe the worst in town. Like everybody always says, the house, the yard, and the driveway seem so much smaller. The squalor is irrelevant, except when I think of how many nice photos were taken in that front yard.

Aunt Vonnell always tells me how proud Granny would be of the things I’ve done. I think she’d be happy for me, certainly, but the proud part wouldn’t depend on any accomplishments. Mostly what I remember about her was how she accepted people. And let them be.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Argument

Today, I saw a gray-bearded man in a dirty plaid red flannel jacket
And old tennis shoes
Having a spirited, heated even, conversation with a telephone pole.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Are you listening, Mr. Jobs?

When iPod sales begin to lag, I have some terrific ideas for new versions:

1. The iCaress--for lonely people when the iTouch isn't enough.

2. The iLoveLucy--for fans of old TV shows, also called the iYayYay.

3. The iPoop--a personal sound system for the bathroom.

4. The iSore--the unit doubles a massager for athletes, runners, etc.

5. The iCan'tBelieveit'snotaniPod--a joint effort of Microsoft and Sony to build a better unit.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Requiem for a Chalkboard

I am a teacher, a professor to be exact. And this term I am teaching in two classrooms in Brennan Hall and one in Heafey Hall on the campus of Holy Names University—where I have worked for the last fourteen years. But this is the first year in which every room is equipped with a dry-erase (or “white”) board or two. I know some teachers will tell you how messy and disagreeable an old chalkboard could be, what with the dust and dirty erasers and broken pieces of chalk and of course the occasional spine and teeth-grinding scrape on the board. However, I would counter that white boards suck.

The biggest problem with dry-erase boards is that they don’t actually erase. To their credit (not really), white boards certainly blur, smear, and reduce whatever is written on them. So when I walk into a classroom and begin to write on the white board, I write over the traces of what was written in previous classes. Another English instructor noted that the boards look like a “palimpsest,” which was a kind of printing or writing going back to the middle ages where one document would be written over an earlier one. Maybe we just have lousy white boards at our school, but the solution so far has been to place a solution of cleaner in each room, or each floor, so that an instructor can take the time to spray the board and then wipe it down with a provided terry-cloth towel. Of course, if you don’t get the board completely dry, the lousy dry-erase pens won’t write worth beans.

This trying to get a clean board reminds me of my first semester of PhD work at SIU. I enrolled in a seminar with the department chair, Dr. Richard Peterson, on James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (mistake). One day, early in the term, Dr. Peterson walked into the small classroom, and he looked at the chalkboard, which was completely covered by the writing of whoever taught the previous class in that room. Dr. Peterson, who was a small, usually quiet man (except when he played softball on Saturdays), slumped his shoulders a bit and shook his head in disgust. He erased the board with deliberate sweeps with the eraser, wiped his hands, and then looked up at us. He said something like this to us: “You are all teaching here now, and you’re going to make teaching your career. Don’t ever leave your board un-erased when you leave a room. It’s like telling someone else to clean up your garbage.” Seeing as how Dr. Peterson was both our instructor and boss, most of us paid attention to what he said.

Over the years, I’ve erased the chalk of many instructors who taught before me, and I never let the occasion pass without telling my students the Dr. Peterson story. I guess I’m like Dr. Peterson: I would like my students, whether or not they become teachers, to be courteous and conscientious people. Unfortunately, my fellow professors and I are rarely evaluated on common courtesy (or even real competence), either. Now, with the white boards, you can’t tell who is conscientious and who isn’t because the board looks about same if it has been erased or not.

I know there are such things as “smart boards” and LCD projectors and something evil called Powerpoint, but all I ever needed or asked for was a good pieces of chalk, an eraser, and clean board at the beginning of class.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Mr. Gagos's Field

In the empty field near my house,
Where summer fires turned much of the dry, yellow grass charcoal black,
Green plants dot the dark "firescape," and
Today, after our surprise thunderstorms,
White lilies have bloomed!

Sunday, August 2, 2009

A Few Classic and Contemporary Cliches, Updated

I love a trite, hackneyed expression as much as the next guy (see what I mean?). However, some of our most common axioms need greater clarity and accuracy.

Here's what I have so far:

1. Be yourself--unless you are a bad person.

2. Follow your gut--especially if it has a built-in GPS unit. Also, following your gut is easy if you have a nice big one.

3. A fool and his money are soon parted--except if he is a politician.

4. Everyone has a right to their own opinion--but you have the option of keeping it to yourself.

5. Look on the bright side--but not so long you burn out your retinas.

6. Everything happens for a reason--and the reason might be that you are a loser.

That's all for now. Let's hope we can push the envelope and take it to the next level.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

It's the Economy, Stupid.

RVs camp out in the otherwise empty parking lots
of empty businesses.

But nobody's camping in them--they are silent

Friday, July 3, 2009

Sally's Big Break--Chapter the Last

All things considered, Sally stood up to her struggle with the splint quite well. Her biggest problem came from her fur rather than her leg. You see, Sally is a mutt who looks and feels much better when her hair is trimmed close to her body. Unfortunately, Sally's injury prevented any trips to the groomer until the splint came off. So Sally did what any uncomfortable invalid would do: she picked at herself until her hair became matted and her skin developed some scabs. At the end of six weeks in the splint, Sally returned to the vet, and we all hoped that the splint would come off for good (and not evil). Instead, Paula brought her home with the cast still on, her hair shaved off around the scabs, and the dreaded protective cone around her neck (Sally's neck, not Paula's). It seems that only one of the two broken bones was healed at that point, and it was stress that was causing the dog to do the bad barbering on herself.

Now, the cone of silence is a great sight gag, and you could not look at the poor dog without chuckling at her (here's an important humor truth: you can't claim to be laughing with your pet; you can only laugh at animals, except maybe monkeys). For two weeks, Sally had to figure out how to eat and sleep with that huge funnel around her head--talk about stress. After two weeks with the cone around Sally's head and neck, Emily and I returned to the vet office one more time. Finally, the splint was off her leg, and Sally could begin the rest of her life. But it wasn't quite that dramatic. The doc decided to bandage the leg for a one-week transition period, so Sally could get accustomed to walking around on all fours again. And she would not be able to pick at the scrawny, scraggly leg right away. The doc also recommended keeping the cone on for a few more days and experimenting to see if Sally would leave her fur alone.

For the first few days without the splint, Sally hobbled around on three legs, apparently afraid to put her new limb into action. Then we took the cone off for good (and not evil) because we were all sick of it. And near the end of the bandage-transition week, Sally decided she had had enough. So she removed the bandage and revealed her pathetic little leg. Soon she was begging to chase her B-A-L-L, and the old, weird Sally was just about back. All she needed was a morning at the groomer to get the old confidence back (thanks, Biff and Hap), and then the story of Sally's big break was done.

Sally's accident and slow recovery really woke us up to the fact that she's becoming an old dog. When she got her leg back, Sally was quick to play with her B-A-L-L. But her endurance has dwindled and the spring in her step isn't wound as tight as it used to be--which means she's just about like the rest of us.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Sally's Big Break--Part 3

Paula called later to tell me that they were on their way to an emergency veterinary hospital. It was clear that Sally had at least a broken leg. She needed an X-ray and who knows what other medical attention. The dog's unfortunate sojourn was already getting costly before they even arrived at the vet hospital. Prior to Sally's overnight incarceration, the pound staff administered a battery of vaccinations, installed a microchip tracking device, and applied the Frontline flea treatment (I think if Sally were wearing her license, the staff might have foregone all the shots). So to gain Sally's release, Paula had to pay for these services and post bail, which would have been higher if Sally had not been licensed. All totaled, the pound earned the better part of $200 for its efforts to care for our pooch.

At the vet hospital, x-rays revealed that Sally had broken two bones, the radius and the ulna, in her right forearm. She was medicated and outfitted with a heavy splint, wrapped in pink adhesive tape, that she would have to keep on for 6-8 weeks. Sally would need subsequent check ups, of course, with our regular vet. But on the Saturday morning visit that started this story, Emily and I did not take the dog in for a scheduled check up. In fact, she had been in the office for a visit earlier in the week. No, this time we made an unscheduled "emergency" trip to the vet because we woke up that morning to discover that Sally had somehow completely removed her splint.

Sally had spent the night on Emily's bed, and she and Emily were still lying in bed. I had been up for a while, and I figured it was time to put the dog out. When I approached Emily's bed, Sally saw me coming and rolled over in her obsequious way. I started to pick up Sally, but she yelped loudly. It took me several seconds and more yelps to realize that her injured leg was uncovered and the splint was lying nearby on the bed. Now I was the one yelping. Poor Emily had to hop out of bed and assist me in taking the dog to the vet. Paula, meanwhile, would have to attend a memorial service for a friend from CSUS without me.

Our mission was to get to the vet before the drop-in office hours turned into the low-cost vaccination clinic. The doc came in to the examining room some time after 9am. She was a bit surprised to see Sally's handiwork. The doc said she would need to put a new splint on Sally's leg but it would take some time to do it--because the crowd would be coming in for vaccinations in a few minutes. She told us to leave Sally with her and to come back in about two hours. The clinic officially closed at noon, and it was possible that they could finish all the shots by 11:15 or 11:30.

The vet office is down on McHenry Avenue--not far from where McHenry begins at "five points" on the edge of the downtown area. So we figured we wouldn't go all the way home and then come back. Instead, we ate breakfast at Jack in the Box (why can't they clean up their restaurants?) and browsed around a few stores, including the motorcycle accessory shop that's on McHenry. We went back at 11:15 and found the waiting room lined with pit bulls, chihuahuas, cockers, and kitties. The only dog I would give two cents for was the border collie named Patrick. Most dogs enter the vet office in a mild hysteria and approach hyperventilation for the remainder of their visit to the vet. Patrick showed no sign of worry and patiently waited for his name to be called (actually, I think he was disgusted by the embarrassing behavior of his fellow canines). In fact, when the vet's assistant came out and called Patrick's name, he sprang to his feet, went to the assistant, and waited for instructions. Good dog.

Emily and I had to wait for every four-legged patient (yes, I think they all had four) to get his or her shots before we could get Sally. At noon, one of the assistants locked the office door, and the last of the pets escorted their owners out of the office. A few minutes later, the doc came out with Sally, set up with a clean, new splint. The new splint was lighter, less bulky, and it allowed more movement. But Sally would have several more weeks in the splint. The doc was nice, though. She charged us only for the splint, not the office visit, because as I mentioned before Paula had brought Sally in to the office earlier in the week.

Coming soon: our not-so-exciting conclusion.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Dr. Dan's Action Steps to a Better Future

Today, friends, I will show you that I am not just a critic. I want to build a brighter tomorrow for all of us and our children. Enjoy.

Dr. Dan’s Action Steps to a Better Future:
1. Elect politicians who are named Russell or Curtis. Or Russell Curtis. Or Curtis Russell.
2. Pass a constitutional amendment protecting our right to bear meat. (keep government out of my kitchen!)
3. Ban the use of the word “boob” as a derogatory term.
4. Establish a nationwide system for collecting post-consumer vegetable oil for the purpose of refining bio-diesel. And convert fuel facilities for the production and distribution of bio-diesel. And forget ethanol.
5. Recruit superheroes not only to fight crime but also to teach school and work in the head-start program.
6. Require all country music radio stations to play Johnny Cash, George Jones, and Dolly Parton regularly.
7. Pay me to correct the grammatical errors and misspelled words in all public signage (stores, public transportation, restaurants, etc.).
8. Be yourself—unless you are a bad person.

Trust me, and God bless America

Monday, June 22, 2009

Dan's Big Ideas for Improving America

Dear Readers: Today, I’m giving you a break from the story of Sally’s unfortunate experience. I’m in the mood for some social commentary, so below you will find my plan to save American culture.

Dan’s Big Ideas for Improving America

1. For crimes against humanity, the following people and groups will forthwith be banned from all forms of media:
• Anyone named Trump.
• Anyone named Hilton.
• Anyone who has ever appeared on Fox News.
• Anyone who has ever competed in a beauty pageant.

2. Jon, Kate, plus any reality show that exploits children will be immediately cancelled.

3. Any “reality” TV show that allows two contestants to cry in one episode will be put on probation. These people need to realize that it’s reality, not real. A second offense will result in cancellation.

4. Gavin Newsome and Sarah Palin will be forced to live in the same house for one year with no contact with the outside world.

5. Instead of firing teachers during the current economic “downturn,” politicians will be sent home without pay, without their perks, without their expense accounts.

6. Sexual dysfunction medications will no longer sponsor sporting events or the telecasts of these events.

7. Anyone who follows the advice of Dr. Phil will be forced to live with the consequences of their stupidity.

Stay tuned for more.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Sally's Big Break--Part 2

Note: Despite the complaints of certain readers, the author stands by his use of the word "stupid" to describe the dog in question. He points to the fact that the dog becomes hopelessly lost when she drifts more than 30 feet from her house--editor.

One Friday afternoon, I invited my buddy Mike to stop by after work (he works just down the street at the old folks' prison) to show me his new motorcycle. At about 3pm. I got out my motorcycle because Abbie decided she was going for a run to my mom's house about a mile away (she has since moved, again). I hopped on the Suzuki so I could check on her throughout her route to Grandma's house. I then rode back home, parked the motorcycle in the driveway, and waited for Mike to stop by.

When Mike rolled in a little after four, Paula, Emily, and Sally came out front to join in the fun. I set out some chairs, so Paula, Mike, and I could relax okie-style and examine Mike's Kawasaki. Mike and I also enjoyed a tasty adult beverage. Emily played B-A-L-L with Sally in the yard. Abbie called not long after Mike arrived to tell us that she was going to run home from Gran's house. Paula suggested that Mike and I use our bikes to make sure Abbie was safe on the way home. We caught up with Abigail as she headed north on Viader Street in the deluxe neighborhood of "Dutchhollow." We rode alongside her, which she loved (not really), and then we tooled around the neighborhood a little while before meeting up with her again. Later, Mike and I realized we were lucky that no one in Dutchollow called the police about the two old guys prowling around on motorcycles and bothering a young girl as she tried to jog down the street. So Abbie returned home safely, and we sat around admiring our motorcycles and visiting.

Around 5pm., we decided that Mike should go home and return with Linda, his taller half, after she got home from work. We would have a barbecue at the Schmidt House. Mike rode off, and I put my bike away and closed up the garage. As we, all of us, headed inside to get ready for dinner, I heard Paula ask, generally, "Where's Sally?" My attention was directed elsewhere, so I guess I assumed that Paula or the kids would account for the dog. Later, we would learn that Emily thought the dog had gone back in the house earlier--which would have been Sally's typical behavior.

I went to light the gas barbecue some time between 6:30 and 7:00pm. Since it was dinnertime, I called out to Emily to see if she had fed her dog. Right then, someone, it might have been Linda, asked the fateful question: "Where is Sally?" A quick search of the house and yard revealed that Sally was not at home, and suddenly our peaceful evening of sipping wine and eating good food was disrupted.

Seven people (me, Paula, Mike, Linda, Emily, Abbie, and Abbie's friend Sabrina, who was spending the night) went looking for the mutt who went missing. Emily and I set out on bicycles. Mike and Linda went in style in their Acura. Abbie and Sabrina walked, and Paula tried to talk to the neighbors. I knew that the last time she drifted off I found Sally down the street, east of our house, by the duplexes. Unfortunately, just a little farther in that direction is the very busy Dale Road. We looked all over the neighborhood for that stupid dog (!), and we asked everyone we saw if there was any sign of Sally. Finally, some of the extended clan of the Indian people across the street came out of their house and said that earlier in the evening they had seen some people trying to catch a stray dog over on the other side of Dale Road, near the parking lot of the Kaiser medical office. I hopped on my bicycle and searched that area, but there was no Sally there at that point.

We eventually ate dinner, and then Paula and the kids began the process of making lost dog signs and placing a lost dog ad in the newspaper. Throughout the evening, I was impressed by Emily's calm demeanor and her confidence that Sally would be found. There is a lesson to be learned in losing a dog, but I resolved not to make a big deal of it. I remembered, actually, that when I was about Emily's age I took considerable blame for the death of a dog (who was hit by a car) because a backyard gate apparently wasn't latched securely.

Paula and Emily were up early the next morning. First, they worked on the lost dog signs, and then they left for the dog pound (I know there's a fancy word for dog pound, but that's what it is.). When I got up and around, I posted the lost dog signs in the neighborhood. Mostly, I went up and down Dale Road, putting signs on light and power poles. Even though at that point I was beginning to wonder how much easier life would be without our peculiar dog, I rode my bike home and printed a few more signs. After those were posted as well, I returned to the house--just in time to get a telephone call from Emily: "Sally's here, Dad. Someone brought her to the pound last night."

Friday, June 5, 2009

Sally's Big Break--Part 1

On any Saturday morning at the low-cost vaccination veterinary clinic, dozens of very interesting people line up with their dogs and cats to get them inoculated. And by "interesting" I mean any of the following: weird, strange, loud, poor (not surprising), eccentric, etc. We take our pets there for their shots. If I had a dollar for every double negative I heard while I sat in the waiting room on a recent Saturday morning, I might be able to bail out General Motors. The interesting people probably thought my daughter Emily and I were the strange ones because we were sitting there in the waiting room without a dog or a cat. The other patients and owners did not know that Emily's Sally, our goofy terrier-corgi mix, was already in protective custody, again.

Before I tell Sally's unfortunate story, I should tell you about Sally. Sally was a rescue case who came to us to be Emily's dog about 8 years ago. She was 1-2 years old at the time. Though she has been a relatively trouble-free and low-cost pet, Sally has a few quirks. To wit, her stomach is more sensitive than a geiger counter--which means she never goes on trips with us (camping and so forth)--which also means we always have to find a dog sitter (usually my mother) when we go to the mountains or anywhere else.

Sally's weak stomach is exacerbated by the fact that she is a known poop eater. I won't say much more here, except this point: there's barf and then there's poopbarf. The good thing about Sally's stomach is that she's not usually interested in table scraps--because she pays for them later, I suppose. Sally is happy with her dry kibble (Target brand) in the morning and very happy with her canned Alpo (the slices not the ground stuff) in the evening. So, Sally stays at a svelte 15 pounds.

Sally does not seems to care about much. She likes attention, but she's not a lap dog. Sally doesn't get excited about going for walks, either. She does, however, exhibit a terrier-like compulsion to chase her B-A-L-L. Luckily, the dog isn't much of a speller. But if you even breathe that word, Sally starts barking, begging you to throw the B-A-L-L for her to chase. She will chase it and retrieve it until she is exhausted and you have to make her stop and drink water. At least Sally is good about bringing the B-A-L-L back and giving it up for the next throw. I don't know if anyone trained her to fetch (I doubt it), but we certainly did not.

Sally also came to us "crate trained," which means she can be put in her little dog kennel over night or during the day when we are gone for a few hours. I had never had a crate-trained dog before, but it's crazy how attached Sally is to her tiny home. In fact, she prefers her crate to the great outdoors. If we say, "Sally, let's go outside!" she will hop up off the couch and make a bee-line back to Emily's bedroom, where her crate is located. We lock the wire door on the crate, and Sally stays there, apparently content, until we come home. Sometimes, we come home and forget to let her out because she doesn't make any noise in her cage.

Because Sally rarely wants to go outside, she in fact spends very little time outside. And she's not comfortable outside. Occasionally, Sally will come out into the front yard with us to chase her B-A-L-L while we're doing something else (shooting baskets, for instance). If we don't throw the B-A-L-L for her, Sally will run to the front door or the door inside the garage and beg to get back in the house.

Our job is to pay attention to when Sally needs to go back in the house. Unlike other dogs, she has neither the ability to just hang out with us on the lawn nor the skill to know where she is in the great wide world beyond the front door. Sally gets disoriented outside her tiny environmental sphere. So, even though she never wants out, she will nonetheless drift off without close human supervision. In other words, Sally's rather stupid.

Well, that's really where this story begins.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Random Precision, an Introduction

The essay below is the introduction for a book that does not exist. Well, let me explain. A little more than two years ago I finished a collection of essays that still is yet to be published. I plan to get that book, which is now called Houndini and Other Tales, released through this summer. Anyway, I have been writing since Houndini was written, and the other day I realized that I had more or less written another book, which will be called Life in the Middle Lane. In addition to the titular essay, the new book will include the pieces I have on the blog right now and several longer stories, including "Thrive!," "Blue the Psycho Kitty," "Does a Deer Defecate in the Lake," "Sparks Fly High!," and others. The introduction is called "Random Precision" because it's a phrase from the Pink Floyd song "Shine on you Crazy Diamond." and the first book's introduction is called "Heroes for Ghosts," which is from "Wish You were Here." I'll probably have to change both titles to avoid prosecution. Enjoy, if you can.

Random Precision

If you are reading these words, chances are you are related to me or my wife. If you are a relative, I'd like to say, "How ya doin'?" If you are not related to me, then I want to thank you for making such a wise purchase.

The pieces collected here have been written, slowly, over the past two and a half years, since the drafting of my first collection, Houndini and Other Tales, was completed in January 2007. Surprisingly, publishers did not leap at the chance to publish Houndini, but I nonetheless began work on the follow-up book because that is what you are supposed to do, I think. The first book is structured around a chronological framework: it begins in 1988 and ends around 1994. The stories told here took place in "real life" in the years following the conclusion of Houndini, but they are not arranged chronologically. I have actually attempted a thematic structure in this collection. The reader can decide if it works.

* * * *

Ernest Hemingway once said that he tried to write stories in the same way that Cezanne painted paintings. But if you look at a Cezanne work and then read a Hemingway story, you might not immediately see a similarity. I think Hemingway wasn't talking about the result but rather the approach and the perspective. Similarly, when you read my stories and essays, you might not be reminded of a Tom Petty song. But that is often what is in my head when I write. Right here, I would quote from some of Tom's (and his writing partner Mike Campbell) songs that have inspired my writings, but I don't think I can afford the royalties. It could be that Tom wouldn't mind if I used some lines, but the record company might have other ideas.

I come back to Tom's lyrics to remind me of what I think writing is about: clearly distilled images, moments--described with a sense of humor and humanity. I also, in case the reader is interested, admire songwriters like Lyle Lovett, Paul Simon, Christian singer David Crowder (he uses the word "antonym" in a song), Dave Matthews, and, of course, the Boss. The Christian band Third Day is also a favorite: the album Time must be heard.

When I was young, I started what I thought was an experimental novel that was going to use lines from rock and roll songs throughout to expose the emptiness of our pop culture and philosophy. What a nightmare that would be to get the permissions for all those songs. I gave up the book for academia, and now, more than twenty years later, I write stuff that amuses me.

Life amuses me, even though my wife accuses me of becoming a grumpy old man because I worry about the neighborhood and I'm bugged by the neighbors who clog up the street with 14 cars every night and the people who drive their cars on the grass at the park just so they can party with their car stereo close by. And the graffiti--don't get me started on the gangbangers and their graffiti. But, really, even my grumpiness amuses me. Grumpy is comical, just ask the other dwarfs.

Let's not confuse grumpiness with anger or pain or sadness. We have these feelings all around us today, but for the most part they do not enter into these writings. The people I observe, though, are not immune from trouble and suffering. And while our troubles complicate our lives, none of us would be very interesting without complications. I write about the more comical complications.

I admit that I write because it soothes my enormous ego. It pleases me greatly to express myself, especially when it's about me--even if I'm exposing my own foolishness. I also write for my kids (for the ninas) and my beautiful wife. Like any other dad, I want my kids to be proud of me. Let's face it, though. I am a doofus. I know it. The kids know it. Some of the American people know it. So I will inevitably embarrass them--sometimes on purpose. My writing shows the kids that the old man has some skills. Really, though, I write because I hope that the girls are encouraged by it to pursue their own skills and abilities to their own satisfaction.

I feel some pressure to succeed when I write. I need to develop a list of publications and a strong readership to overcome some skepticism about my literary pursuit that exists in my corner of academia. I have recently developed a new Master's degree in writing at my university, and it would help if the program director were a successful writer. But for me, success is counted sweetest when Paula, my wife, reads a new piece and says, "It's good." And if she really likes it, she will say where it deserves to be published. At that point, I'm satisfied with my work.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

A Rider Starts Over

A Rider Starts Over

My first mistake was stopping at the edge of the incline to watch my buddy Mike go down the hill on his big, new bike, a Kawasaki KLR 650. I should have hit the hill with a little momentum in 1st gear; then the bike would have run down Schoolhouse Ridge without stalling, without me killing it and locking up the brakes. So while everyone (Mike, my wife Paula, and Mike’s wife Linda) watched from the bottom, I struggled to get the rhythm and feel of the clutch, throttle, and front and rear brakes of my new ride, a 2001 Suzuki DRZ 400s. I virtually walked the bike half-way down the rocky hill before I got my act together. It was irritating and embarrassing. And as we rode away from Schoolhouse Ridge, where we saw the natural monuments of Yosemite in all their springtime glory, I realized that I am learning to ride all over again.

I have written before, in my story “One Rider’s Beginnings,” about how I became a rider, first of motorcycles (dirt bikes) and then ATVs (all-terrain vehicles). For the last eight years or so, I rode my trusty and beloved Yamaha Kodiak up and down the hills and trails that surround our family’s secret hillbilly compound, up and down the dunes of the Oregon coast and Pismo, and all around the muddy and rocky terrain of our local off-road parks. But recently I was inspired to switch to two wheels by Mike’s desire to get a dual-sport bike (on and off-road), my brother-in-law Ritch’s acquisition of a bike (Yamaha TW 200) from Paula’s Uncle Warren, and the fact that we have other quads to ride when I want. So I sold my Kodiak, ironically to Uncle Warren and Aunt Pat. And then I sold the kids’ old mini quad, a Polaris Sportsman 90, using Craigslist (We have sold 1 car and 2 quads on Craigslist.).

After a few weeks (not years, Mike!) and the temptation to spend too much money on a new bike, I found my bike on, you guessed it, Craigslist, in Angel’s Camp. I almost bought another bike (same model, but newer) in Modesto, but the would-be seller did not accept my offer until after I had bought the 2001. You see, I looked at an ’05 with 5,000 miles on it first thing on a Saturday morning (Ritch went with me). The guy wanted $3,900. I offered $3,200. He declined. Later the same day, the kids and I had gone to jog at a local high school track, and I received a phone call from the guy in Angel’s Camp, to whom I had spoken earlier in the week. The Angel’s Camp guy, named Dan, informed me that his bike was still available, so Emily and I drove up to the foothills to look at it.

Dan originally listed his 2001 Suzuki DRZ 400s with 4,200 miles on Craigslist for $3,500. Then he lowered it to $3,300. When Emily and I began negotiating with him, Dan went down to $3,000 easily. But I wanted him to go lower. I failed in my efforts, but he threw in a bunch of stuff that’s now in my garage: a loading ramp, a motorcycle jack-stand, a street helmet—sized Medium , a Clymer repair manual (very helpful), the original seat (the bike has a nifty Corbin aftermarket seat on it), and an aftermarket exhaust pipe that for some reason was taken off the bike. What a deal. The next day I was putting away my new bike when I received a phone call from the guy who had turned down $3,200 for his ’05. He called to accept my offer. Go figure.

* * * *

The advantage of the dual-sport motorcycle, of course, is that it is a street-legal dirt bike, and that means I need to have a motorcycle license to ride the Suzuki on the road. I am proud to say that I missed only 3 questions on the motorcycle test at the DMV (You can miss a maximum of 4 questions and still pass), and I answered just one question incorrectly on the regular test, which you also have to take. My fine test results earned me a motorcycle operator’s permit, which allows me to ride on all surface streets (no freeways) during daylight hours, with no passengers. I’m currently practicing to take the riding test at the DMV office. If I don’t pass the riding test, which could be tricky, for $250 I can take the Motorcycle Safety Foundation class at the junior college and by-pass the test. The test is actually a slow-speed maneuvering challenge where the rider weaves around cones and follows lines without stopping or putting a foot down. We’ll see what happens when I try, but at least I can ride down to the DMV office on weekends and practice.

Practice is the key to anything, I suppose, and my transition from 4 to 2 wheels is no exception. I think of how, in the old, old two-wheel days, Ritch and I had our hands full making it up (and down) Schoolhouse Ridge on his Suzuki 185 and my Kawasaki 175. Then we went all quads, and Schoolhouse, despite being somewhat steep and extremely rutted and rocky, became a piece of cake for everyone. This past week I watched my girls, on their Polaris 4X4s, shoot up the hill and practically trot back down, never hesitating or bobbling in either direction.

Meanwhile, for now, the old man is the slow link in the riding chain. But I’m practicing. And though practice is unlikely to make my riding perfect, I am getting better.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

A Bus Stop in Modesto

A cyclone fence surrounded by weeds separates Highway 99 from the bus stop on Sisk Rd. across from the Olive Garden.

An attractive young woman wearing a tightish t-shirt, jeans, and sunglasses sits motionless on the bus stop bench and stares straight ahead.

Around her, the young woman's mentally challenged students sit, stand, bend over, and look in every direction but straight ahead.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Dr. Dan's Little Book of Bacon

Dr. Dan’s Little Book of Bacon

(Dr. Dan says, Everything’s better with bacon!)

• A Message from the Bacon Advocacy Council of North America (BACONA).
• A Comprehensive List of Foods and Prepared Dishes that Taste Better with Bacon.
• The Bacon-Sausage Dialectic: Towards a Hermaneutical Solution.
• Bacon-enriched Recipes for the Whole Family!
• Verses on Bacon:
1. BLT
2. That salty Smell my stomach knows
3. O bacon, My bacon!

A Message from the BACONA: Legalize Medicinal Bacon!
The FDA, under pressure from anti-pork organizations and major drug companies, is covering up information from a series of scientific studies that shows bacon is an effective treatment for depression, anxiety, E.D., and the munchies that result from taking medicinal marijuana. In fact, these suppressed studies prove, once and for all, that no person has ever eaten a slice of bacon and then said, “I feel worse.”
The Porkists, those who discriminate against bacon and all tasty cured meats, are part of a larger conglomeration of tyrannical foodinistas whose agenda is to remove all taste and satisfaction from the American dinner table. These people don’t want you to know that bacon is good for you and good for what ails you. The Porkists claim you’ll live longer without Bacon. But what is life without bacon?—a bunch of irritable, skinny, old people watching the globe get warmer.

A Comprehensive List of Foods that Taste Better with Bacon
1. Everything (except cheesecake because cheesecake is disgusting and adding bacon to it would be a colossal waste of food).

The Bacon-Sausage Dialectic: Towards a Hermaneutical Solution
My friend Herman, Herman Eutical, likes bacon and sausage. He is a big fan of the Grand Slam Breakfast at Denny’s, which gives you two slices of bacon and two links of sausage. I support the Herman Eutical solution.

Bacon-enriched Recipes for the Whole Family
1. Make a sandwich. Add bacon.
2. Make a salad. Add bacon.
3. Make a baked potato with all the fixins. Add bacon.

Verses on Bacon
Three crispy slices
Of Bacon

Hide deliciously on the
Sliced tomato and chopped lettuce

Between the two toasted slices
Of sourdough bread.

That salty smell my stomach knows

That salty smell my stomach knows
Is coming from the kitchen below.
Oh Cook! Do you cook for me?
Call me and I’ll break my Fast with Thee!

There’s fat back a-frying—I reckon
I’m a-waiting for you to beckon.
My hunger---don’t frustrate---must I beg?
Please, Sir, say “Come and get it.”

O Bacon, My Bacon!

Lines composed 8:05 AM, 9/18/089
I hear bacon a sizzlin’.
Everything is better with bacon.
And bacon makes everything better.
And everybody loves bacon—even people who don’t eat pork.
A single slice of bacon makes even the pig proud.

I will eat bacon with the teamster, who makes union wages.
I will eat bacon with the man who pretends to be homeless and holds his sign on the street corner.
I will eat bacon with the vegetarian who sneaks pieces of the delicious pork off my plate.
I will eat bacon with George W. in the White House,
And I will eat bacon with a community organized by Barack Obama.

Lines added for 2nd Edition: 9:15 AM, 9/18/08
I eat with the male and the female.
Their bacon is the same to me.
My bacon will be cured, though there is nothing wrong with it.
And I will be cured, and you will be cured… because of the curative powers of cured meats.

Lines added for 3rd Edition: 2:30 PM, 9/18/08
I am the poet of the bratwurst and the chorizo…even Canadian bacon.
My fat back will sustain me,
And I will sustain you.
And you will sustain me.
And bacon will be our breadth and on our breath.
You will taste my hot link, and find it spicy.
I’ll try your sweet andouille, and maybe we’ll share a Hebrew National.

Lines added for midnight snack edition: 11:30 PM, 9/18/08
O bacon, my bacon!
The night is long without my bacon.
My heart beats for bacon.
O nature bid the sun to come, so I may get some breakfast at the diner around the corner.
Bacon is my life and your life, too.
O bacon, our bacon.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Lunchtime in America

Two Muslim women, covered in dark clothing,
Only their faces showing,
Pull open the heavy wooden door
And enter the Sizzler.

A young man waits in line
To order McNuggets.
He picks up his little boy,
a toddler,
And kisses him loudly on the cheek.

The cashier, a Latino teen,
Takes his lunch break in the dining room.
Before he unwraps his Whopper,
he closes his eyes and bows his head slightly.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Placism: What's so Miserable about Modesto?

It was announced recently that I live in the fifth-worst city in these United States of Amercia. Actually, let me clarify that: the media didn't announce that I live in the fifth-most miserable city. They announced the worst (apparently) cities, and I just happen to live in the fifth-worst one. I wasn't mentioned at all in the report.

At least I don't live in the worst place to live, Stockton California, which is about 25 miles from my house. I wonder if that's what dragged Modesto down. It could be that proximity to other miserable cities is one of the key criteria that Forbes magazine considers in ranking the cities. From what I understand, when Forbes lists Modesto, they really mean the Stanislaus County metropolitan area. Modesto, which has about 200,000 residents, is surrounded by a number of smaller towns, villages, hamlets, and wide places in the road. So, Turlock, Ceres, Hughson, and even Oakdale--I have a message for you--don't get smug because you're fifth-most miserable, too (Ironically, Oakdale California, about 15 minutes east of Modesto, was recently named one of the 20 best places to live by Cowboy magazine, which is apparently not a Steve Forbes publication.).

Because I am a typical American, I did not read the whole article that reported the miserable-ness rankings, nor did I read the actual article in Forbes. Therefore, I have no idea what the official criteria were for the ranking. But I suspect that the criteria did not include the following:
  • abundant food supply: it's two minutes to McDonald's from my house;
  • convenient shopping: one word--Costco. Okay, for the wife and kids there's also a mall.
  • affordable housing: the three bedroom, two bath home across the street from my house is available for $170,000. The best neighbors in the world lost the home to foreclosure last year, and now it's empty and waiting for anyone who can get the bankrupt (in every way) bank to accept an offer
  • land for landfills: if it is so miserable here, why do higher-ranking cities like San Francisco and Berkeley think we are good enough for their garbage? Every day trucks full of high-class Bay Area trash make the trek over the Altamont Pass to our miserable valley to bestow upon us the leftovers that our green brothers and sisters won't allow in their own backyards.

As good as valley life must sound, we do have our problems, too. Sometimes we're called the meth capital of the country, sometimes the auto theft capital. And we have a large collection of street gangs in the area. But these challenges only serve to remind us of the splendid diversity of "Mo-town" living.

Speaking of diversity, on my block there are Hispanic people, Indian people, Pacific Islander people, Southeast Asian people, African-American people, and white people. I have heard my well-meaning and higher-ranked Bay Area colleagues scoff at the very idea that the valley could be a hotbed of multiculturalism, but none has ever been to my neighborhood. Of course, many Bay Area residents do venture out into the hinterlands, and they stay here. These people are sometimes called BATs: Bay Area Transplants. And every housing boom that brings more residential development to the valley brings new people to the valley from the high-ranking Bay Area. The BATs are typically commuters, like me, who still work somewhere in the Bay Area. For the record, I have commuted for 15 years to Holy Names University in Oakland, but I am a valley native, not a BAT--not that there's anything wrong with that.

Why, the reader might be asking, would anyone choose to live in, or move to, the fifth-worst place in the country? For me it's home. Family, friends, church are here. I can see the Sierras on most days and get good strawberries from roadside stands for a good part of the year. For people who come here and stay here, the easy answer is cheaper real estate than on the coast. I think, though, it's the fact that the real estate usually comes with a front and back yard, maybe even a swimming pool, and room to park your car. Parking is another of our strengths.

I will admit, finally, that there are trade-offs when you choose to live in the fifth-worst place rather than, say, San Francisco. For culture and entertainment, San Francisco has the famed Gay Men's Chorus. But here, Stanislaus County operates two, not one but two, off-highway vehicle recreation parks. No doubt many fine people would prefer the Chorus. We happen to own several all-terrain vehicles (ATVs). So, as a great gay writer often said, "There you are," which might be the only thing to take from mostly meaningless studies and surveys that tell us how good or bad we have it.

I know where I am, and it's okay.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Writing in Public

Writing in Public
D.W. Schmidt

I recently wrote a book (as yet unpublished) at McDonald’s—but not in one visit. To be truthful, significant portions were also composed at Burger King, Carl’s Jr., Der Wienerschnitzel, Taco Bell, Jack-in-the-Box, and Wendy’s. It’s just easier and more fun in a post-Super-size Me world to say I wrote it at McDonald’s. Really, though, the particular place isn’t the point. The point is that even if I’m not writing for publication, at least I’m writing in close proximity to my public.

By day, and lots of nights, I teach mostly indifferent college students to write essays and read literature (I’m known on campus for my “Grammar Talks,” which have goofy titles like “Mysteries of the Apostrophe” and “The Wonderful World of Commas.”). My coming of age as an academic coincided with the proliferation of the personal computer. As a graduate student, I made the transition to word processing (what a horrible word, really—as if words and sentences were like Velveeta). And I never went back to paper and pen, until a few years ago when I decided I wanted to be a “creative writer.” Suddenly, the keyboard was no place for composition. I needed a pen in my hand like some toddlers need to eat dirt. Then I took my pen and notebook to McDonald’s.

I think we think of writers writing in quiet, isolated, low-fat environments, so it’s not surprising that friends sometimes ask why I write at the golden arches. I usually say, “Free soda re-fills.” But seriously, besides the obvious health benefits, there are a number of practical reasons why I am a fast-food writer. For one thing, where else could I go? The library? No food or drink allowed. One of the giant bookstores? Too much pressure to purchase something. And how about the coffee houses, especially since there is one on every street corner? Well, I don’t drink coffee; I don’t like coffee houses, and I’m not particularly fond of people who frequent them.

My real problem, though, is that I can’t seem to write at home. Home is certainly where the heart is, but it is also where the laundry is, and the pets, and the dishes—not to mention email, the www, and Fox Soccer Channel. When I am home, these things refuse to be ignored. I do not have the ability or discipline to set aside the chores and distractions long enough to focus on my writing. One might think that writing in public would be subject to exponentially more distractions than writing in my home or office. Somehow, though, it is easier to tune out, say, the four foul-mouthed, teen-aged girls (yes, girls) who are sitting now in the next booth than the things I care about. Unbelievably, the girls are congratulating themselves for beating up a classmate. The public isn’t always pretty.

More often, the public distractions entertain me, even inspire me, and give me future material. I frequently run into the special kids from the special school in our neighborhood. I love to watch the “kids” interact with each other and their teachers, and there are certainly days when I think that the guys who wear bicycle helmets all the time might know something the rest of us don’t. I want to believe that I feel more comradeship with the challenged kids than pity for them. They are funny, and I try to be funny. Their teachers, though, remind me that my humor writing, besides being profit-less, is remarkably self-indulgent.

I was writing at Wendy’s one day when a train of three people entered the restaurant through its series of two doors. The first person, a tall man, opened the front door and held it open for the next person, another man, but shorter and rounder. As soon as his friend had control of the first door, the first man went on to the second door, which he opened part-way. He stood there in the doorway a moment, reading a sign that hung from the ceiling near the entrance. When he finished reading, he turned back to the second man, who was holding the door for the third member of the group, an older woman who walked with a walker. The first man said loudly, ‘See I told ya: it’s called a ‘Mandar-ian Chicken Salad.’”

The next man replied, “What?”

“It’s called a Man-dar-ian Chicken Salad.”

“Oh,” his friend said. By this time, the old woman with the walker had reached the threshold of the first door.

“What’s he sayin’?” she asked.

“He says it’s called a Man-dar-ian Chicken Salad.”

“Well get it if it’s what you want,” she offered.

“I’m just sayin’ that’s what you call it. That’s all,” said the man who started the conversation.

The Mandarin Chicken Crew probably won’t read my book if it is ever published. For now, though, they are my public (frankly, they seem more kin to me than my academic brethren), and I will continue to write for them and the other nuts (oddballs, crazies, retirees, lonelies, etc) who spend their days in the shadows of the golden arches.