Discover Prompts Day 10 – Orchestrate: Eastward, Ho!

I once taught a class called “Road Trip!” with an exclamation trip. It was a sophomore-level introduction to literature course focused on the journey as metaphor. On the reading list was Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, a book that I really don’t like very much. The other works featured road trips of a kind, starting with the archetypal road trip, Homer’s The Odyssey, which served as a framework for the class. Other works on the list included fragments from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, Nabokov’s Lolita, Hunter S. Thomson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and some others, including L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz for extra credit. The class seated 35 students, but on the first day, 125 students showed up hoping to crash the class. Upon seeing the syllabus, maybe half of the students departed, which left a good many still disappointed as I was forced to cut off enrollment at 35.

The class attracted wannabe Beat generation and granola types. They knew more about Kerouc and Thompson and the beats than I ever cared to, so I was able to put them in charge of delivering the content for that part of the course. I did my homework, of course, and led them to some ideas about the books that they hadn’t considered as well. The class was so popular that I was approved to teach it a second time.

At the conclusion of the course, I gave out evaluations asking the students which reading we did that they liked the best. Almost universally, they responded that they enjoyed Homer’s The Odyssey the best. Obviously we read it in translation. But I was surprised by that choice, considering their preference for Beat generation-type writings. The classics resonate with people timelessly for so many reasons, which is one of the definitions that make them classics.

So I know a thing or two about Road Trips! with an exclamation point in the abstract and in art. But I’ve also taken a great many road trips in my life, especially cross-country, or cross half the country and back. In August 2018, my girlfriend and I moved from San Diego, California to New Haven, CT with her mom accompanying us. We filled two cars to the roofs, with a luggage carrier on top of the one, and a week (plus) to make the trip.

We had several months to plan, so that made everything easier. I sold almost everything I could, donating things that wouldn’t sell, and practiced loading the car a couple of times to make sure everything would fit. I would have to drive my Toyota Rav4 by myself because my small SUV was full, including the passenger’s seat. The girlfriend’s Toyota Corolla was filled but they kept space in the front seats for the two of them to ride comfortably. For some reason my girlfriend’s mom wanted to do most of the driving.

Of course, to orchestrate this monumental move, everything had to come off without a hitch. As I said, we had months to plan and practiced packing and had everything worked out. The girlfriend’s mom would arrive the day before our trip and we would finish packing that day and then head out bright and early in the morning on August 10. I would have my last day of work on August 8, giving me the 9th to pack and clean, and then we’d hit the road. My girlfriend could clean out her shared apartment and stay with me for a couple of days so we would only have to wash down the one bedroom on the morning of August 10th before we headed out, having reduced everything to our change of clothes for the driving day and a blow up mattress. We even had a AAA Trip-Tik, and a plan as to where to stop each day, including some sight seeing destinations (St. Louis Arch, Niagara Falls) and a visit to my distant relatives and the girlfriend’s friend, who were both coincidentally in Ashtabula, Ohio. Our lists were crossed off, and everything went very smoothly . . . until it didn’t.

I’m not a believer in multi-tasking. Neurologically, we must perform one thing after another, even if our brains allow us to do those things very quickly. But it’s still one thing, then another, then another. Of course, when you get multiple people involved, you can do many things at the same time, just like an orchestra can play multiple lines of music on different instruments simultaneously, sometimes in harmony, sometimes dissonantly.

On August 1, I got sick. I had a pimple in my nose. I thought it was on the surface and tried to express it. But it was deeper. And it became very sore and inflamed, and then my nose swelled, like a clown’s or a TV drunk’s. And it was incredibly painful. It was also oozing a bit. I was working at a deli counter at a grocery store, so I couldn’t work with that ailment. I thought I would just let it do its thing for a day or two, rest up, finishing up the packing that I could, and it would clear up. But it kept getting worse.

At the time, I was also nursing a sore thumb, which I thought I might have hurt at work, but I wasn’t certain about that. My work was steady so I never got enough time off to see if some rest would improve my thumb. It was a sore spot under the webbing in the fleshy part of my thumb, a little bump under there, and it was also incredibly painful each time I went to cut a sandwich. I looked forward to some rest so the thumb could improve prior to our trip.

My nose got worse and worse. It was the most pain I had ever had. I didn’t really have access to a doctor at the time, and with moving, had no real time. I also had no medicine. I went to the emergency room. I sat there for 6 hours and when they finally saw me, they took a few tests, said there wasn’t really anything they could do, and they said to take some Tylenol and some antibiotics and rest. But the pain got worse. By the next day, the pain was excruciating, and I went back. I sat in the emergency waiting room again for 6 hours. This time they said, “well, it’s a MRSA infection, and that antibiotic we gave you won’t work. Here’s another medicine to take.” They still hadn’t given me anything for the pain. Finally, they gave me some hydrocodone and some extra strength motrin. My nose felt like a big red balloon. They tried to express it, but that didn’t work, so they stuck a needle into the end of my nose three times! I cried and held the girlfriend’s hand through that excruciating procedure. The aspiration amounted to nothing. There was nothing there though it felt like it. It was just that damn MRSA having its party. I learned that MRSA – the dangerous kind – is actually present in most of our bodies. It’s the same MRSA that leads to dangerous infections in hospitals. All I knew is I needed MRSA to stop the party. I had moving to do.

Over the next couple of days, the medicine took effect and I began to improve. It was nearing my last day of work, and I had missed almost a week of my last week. When I woke up on August 7, after a week off work, I couldn’t move my thumb. It wouldn’t bend. It had completely stiffened up. I thought maybe there was a reaction with the medicine. And then I figured out that this really was a work injury, but I was running out of time as I was quitting that job. I called my boss, told her about the MRSA, and then told her about my thumb. She was peeved that I hadn’t told her about my thumb injury sooner, but she understood when I explained to her what it was like. So now I had to file for workman’s comp, and see a slew of doctors on the last two days I was going to be in town.

So in those last two days, between packing boxes, helping my girlfriend pack the last of her things and clean her apartment, and cleaning my apartment, I had to juggle doctors appointments for two ailments – my thumb, now a workman’s comp claim, and my nose. My nose had cleared up and the doctor’s were encouraged that it would heal normally and not come back, though I had to practically bathe in Hibiclens, a surgical scrub – a 4% chlorhexidine gluconate solution.

As for my thumb, they got me in to an orthopedist immediately, who diagnosed a trigger finger (the second one I ever had). At this point, when I tried to bend my thumb, I couldn’t, though once in a while I could and it would pop or snap or click as if the tendon was getting stuck and then gave way. I was given a brace so as not to click it, and had to drive across country with the brace on my wrist and also had to do exercises for my thumb.

The last two days were filled with doctor’s appointments, 4 to be precise, cleaning my apartment, packing the cars, and resting. I don’t tbink I got to bed until almost midnight, the night before I left San Diego for good at some way too early time in the morning to beat Friday rush-hour traffic.

I’ve had much practice orchestrating other moves or multi-event work functions, so all of my practice came in handy when faced with these obstacles to our well-made plans.

Our cross-country drive went well, though we got tired and had to be less aggressive with miles made per day near the end of the trip. Moving into a 6th floor apartment in August humidity without a service elevator was another unforeseen obstacle – exhausting and sweaty.

As a final note, my nose completely healed, though now I suffer from a kind of trauma whenever my nose itches inside. I clean it with hibiclens as a preventative. No more MRSA outbreaks for me, thankyouverymuch! My thumb, however, was much more problematic. It took me many months to get authorization from the California worker’s comp office to see a physical therapist and then orthopedist. I went to PT, and he claimed it just needed stretching and exercise. The brace they put on it was counterintuitive to what the PT guy thought should be. It needed exercise, not stability. So off came the wrist and thumb braces. But still I couldn’t bend it properly. The orthopedist gave me two cortisone shots that did nothing. So we spent three months trying to get approval for a small surgery to cut the ligament so the bump could pass through and improve the movement range of my thumb. As soon as we got the approvals, which were good for 6 months, I scheduled the surgery, but then I was out of work and finally found a temporary job, which I couldn’t leave because the surgery would keep me out for 2 weeks. The temporary job was very physical and required me to use my hands (moving books) in a different way than at the deli counter. The exercise actually improved my thumb, and though my surgery approval passed without the doctor ever even reaching out to reschedule, I didn’t need the surgery anymore because I’ve regained 95% of my thumb movement and reduced the pain to almost nothing.

At the end, the orchestra plays those final notes, all together – Da-Dummmm! And there is rest. And applause.

Discover Prompts: Day 9 – Pairs: The Ducks at San Diego’s Balboa Park

I spent a lot of time at Balboa Park in San Diego with my girlfriend watching the ducks. They were mostly mallards, with a few exotic types from the nearby San Diego Zoo. There were 21 of them for the longest time, week after week, a combination of adults and some yearlings. There is a long reflection pool outside the horticultural building, and the ducks would bask in the sun, or hide under the foliage surrounding the pool, or swim during the active part of the day. They attracted quite a crowd. For the most part, the ducks were paired off.

I don’t know much about ducks except from what I’ve watched. I’ve heard about their corkscrew penises and violent attempts to mate. But what I witnessed most was constant duck drama. A single male duck always wanted to steal the girlfriend/partner from another duck. Maybe he or she was attractive, held to some kind of idealistic duck beauty standard. I say “he or she” because I’m not sure if ducks can be gay or not either. For all I know, those corkscrews might just have a mind of their own and not give a whit about gender.

Often a couple of ducks would be paddling leisurely on the still surface of the pond, making a wide wake behind them, ripples in the shape of a V. Then all of a sudden, a lone rogue duck would outpaddle the couple and attempt to come between them. Most of the time, the male duck would run off the rogue, squawking and raising a fuss, beating his wings, and plunging his neck forward, increasing his aerodynamics, and paddle furiously after the culprit. The rogue would flee, but not too far. If at first you don’t succeed, try try again. He’d slyly stay on the fringes, waiting for the male to drop his guard or stray too much to the side, and then he’d quickly zoom in to try to woo her away again. And then the protective male would turn again and run him off, over and over.

Sometimes a rogue duck would try his webfoot multiple times and on many different parties. On some occasions, we would arrive and a full scale war was already in progress. The females were nowhere to be found, hiding in the nearby bushes, maybe tending to the younger ducks. But the males were doing battle. Three or four males might be attempting to oust the rogue duck from the flock.

In the spring, there were baby ducks, usually 6 or 7 to a mama. They would chirp and cheep at such high pitches, it seemed like they were calling to dogs. If anyone walked too closely, the mama would squawk and lead the baby ducks swimming into the middle of the pool. Most of the time, the baby ducks kept right on the mama’s tail. Usually there was a laggard, paddling just as fast as he could to catch up.

I’m not sure what happens to the yearlings. There comes a time when the yearlings must fly off, or that they grow to look like the rest of the adults. I’m not sure what happens to the ducks when they get older, nor how old they look. Do they die under the bushes? Do they have accidents? Is there a duck graveyard, some mysterious place only known to ducks, like with elephants? I could, of course, look all of this up in a book. But sometimes it’s better just to watch, to not know too much. It’s like eavesdropping at a coffeeshop, one of the things I miss during quarantine. You get an idea of what might be going on, but you don’t have the whole story and relying on bits and pieces of gossip and overheard fragments doesn’t give you all the information you need. But still, we piece together a story that makes sense. Or we just make it all up.

I’ve been away from the ducks at Balboa Park for almost 2 years now, and I miss them, probably as much as my girlfriend. This is a memory for two. We are a pair, like the pairs of ducks we watch, wandering through the world, aware of the rogues out there, making sure we keep our wake calm and sensible, basking in the sun when we can, and sleeping under the foliage at night. We need be, we are ready for life’s dramas.

Discover Prompts #8: Curve

Picture a corkscrew. It’s curvy, curved in one direction. Hold that corkscrew horizontally. As you trace the curve, it moves forward and also curves back around to where it started. If you drew a line on the top of the corkscrew, each point on the metal part of the screw would line up, the spaces between are where the metal of the corkscrew happens on the other side.

So picture each of those points being your birthday. You have a birthday. Then the year plays out. You follow the path of the corkscrew. When you reach your next birthday, you are at the same line, the same plane as the previous turn in the screw, but further down the line – one year older.

Everything comes around again. Time moves relentlessly forward, but curves as well, never to return to the same spot, though it will cross along the same plane. Is it any wonder that DNA, the genetic makeup of our very being, is a double helix, two lines of a corkscrew running parallel to each other joined together?

Sometimes it feels like we go backwards. We lose relatives to time. Death comes for all. We lose relationships. Change comes for all. We lose jobs or financial stability. Uncertainty comes for all.

But we’re not moving backwards, even if we’re not achieving our goals or making progress as we intended. Those intentions are merely dreams, goals, ambitions – not reality. They are hopes. And often enough we achieve those hopes. We get the job we wanted. We get the big promotion. We earn more money. We find the partner of our dreams. We get married. We get that house with the picket fence and 2.4 kids and 1.3 pets, and 3 1/2 baths and 3 cars. But then something happens. A recession comes. A job is lost. A health scare leads to scarcity of money. Changes must be made. The house must be sold. The pets grow and die. The children grow and move away. The relationship survives but the shared goals are different now.

The one thing you have through all of this curving and twisting is you. It’s not even that you have to change with the times. It’s hard to see ourselves. We have no perspective. We have to stay true to who we are AND change at the same time – adapt or die.

But a different perspective is that you can’t help but change. You are never at the same point on that corkscrew. Even if you think that you have remained the same, remained true to yourself, haven’t changed, have retained your integrity – everyone is different in some way after a year. The experiences you have had, the triumphs and losses have made you MORE you than ever before.

Change is inevitable. Evolution – that dreaded word that conjures up arguments between faith and science – is merely change. And change happens whether you believe it or not, or whether you have the science background to prove it or not. Change is the one unalterable fact of life.

So celebrate your triumphs, console yourself through your losses, and keep on keeping on. Because time and this world stops for no one, and change will happen whether you are onboard or not.

The Left-Handers Guide to Getting Behind

This is Discover Prompts #6 for April 6 on the word Hands. Something about needing and then getting a root canal slowed me down. But I’m on the mend now.

I’m a left-hander. My brother was a left-hander. My paternal grandmother was a left-hander. I know that my grandmother bowled left-handed in Ohio. She was a good bowler, and bowling is practically the national pastime in Ohio, or was back in the day. My brother was a pure left-hander as well. And I, proudly, carry the left-handed trait forward. However, my left-handedness was interrupted by an uninformed though well-meaning grandmother who believed in a right-handed world.

My teachers all tried to get me to write with a pencil like a right-hander, with the pencil eraser pointing over my shoulder. That doesn’t quite work for left-handers. We turn our hand around and point the pencil eraser away from us so we can actually see what we are writing rather than have our hand cover up the words while we are writing them. I’m sure you’ve seen a left-hander with the page turned diagonally and his or her arm twisted around, elbow flung out, just to write. And then the edge of the hand that sits on the desk runs over our writing, so we get pencil smear or pen glop all over the side of our hand and smear the writing on the page, too.

My grandmother wanted me to adjust well to life and was a constant companion early. So she taught me how to use scissors with my right hand (“it’s a right-handed world!”). Turns out scissors can be right or left-handed, depending on the edge of the blade and the angle of holding them. Also, she taught me how to throw a ball, with my right hand. Now in my head, I was processing everything left-handed, so it seemed weird to throw with my right hand. But that was my formative experience. In baseball, I can bat left or right handed, but I can only throw right handed and catch left-handed. Turns out, with ball sports where I must throw, and in soccer where I kick the ball, I do so right-handed (or footed).

But racket sports I play left-handed – golf, ping-pong, tennis, racquetball – I play all left-handed. I started learning to bowl left-handed, when I was in a league as a young junior high schooler. Being left-handed in bowling is an advantage because the lanes aren’t worn down as much on the left side because there are more right handed bowlers. But I punched a neighbor kid at school. As I flung at him with my left-hand, he was running away and he turned his back and I caught him on the scapula with the pinky of my left hand. The punch snapped the bone in my hand cleanly in two. By that evening, my hand swelled up and I could move only the tip of my finger – “No, Dad, I’m fine. See? I can move my finger!”

Well, the next day I went to an orthopedist and got a cast that I wore for 6-8 weeks, one of those new-fangled fiberglass casts that could get wet. As I was taking a bath one day, since baths were easier than showers with a cast, I forgot and saw my arm floating in the water. Sure, you could get the fiberglass cast wet, but it soaked into the inner lining and took 3 hours to blow dry. To leave it wet would have destroyed the skin inside. Obviously, I didn’t swm for the next 6-8 weeks either. But the point is, now with a cast on my left hand, I had to relearn to bowl right handed. I still do a pretty good job bowling, but I miss bowling left-handed. I bowl left-handed in my head, but I’m uncoordinated with my footing to actually bowl that way.

I was also in Pony league baseball at the time, and with a cast on my arm, came up to bat. The opposing manager, who used to be my next door neighbor until they moved away, appealed the game saying I shouldn’t be used in the game (we would have lost due to not enough players if I didn’t play). His son (my former friend) was pitched. Kenny was headed for the Majors and I was a lousy player but loved the game. He threw a wicked curve ball that sent me bailing into the dirt every time (I got hit with the ball so many times that standing at the plate was a lesson in terror for me.) But this time, with my cast on my arm, I actually fouled the ball off for the first time all season and ultimately drew a walk.

I still write and eat with my left-hand, and while I consider myself left-handed, my right hand and arm are stronger. I do consider myself more ambidextrous than just mono-handed.

I don’t think righties actually give much thought to their handedness like lefties do. We’re a persecuted minority, of about 10% of the population, with a high degree of genius status. The word “sinister” (defined: “giving the impression that something harmful or evil is happening or will happen”) comes into English through Old French “sinistre” and ultimately from Latin, from the word Latin word “sinister” meaning “left.”

There is nothing sinister about being a genius left-hander in a right-handed world. And I’m proud of my left-handed roots.

The Magical Refillable Santa Claus Christmas Plate

I’m a day behind with Discover Prompts: Dish for April 5. Better late than never.

We celebrated Christmas in my house, and my mom and dad pulled out all the stops: decorations, a beautiful tree, holiday gatherings with friends including big meals with elaborately set tables. Families gathered around the television for Christmas variety shows and Christmas TV specials. This was the land of the late 60s and all through the 1970s in the sunny Southern California. If the sun was shining, it was Christmas time!

Family friends from before I was born stayed friends. The Bastians kind of adopted me as their object for spoiling, before they had grandchildren. I don’t know why. When my family learned of my imminent arrival, my parents moved to a bigger house across the valley. They stayed friends with the Bastians. Grandma Bastian made Christmas goodies for all of us. We usually got 6 or 7 giant sheet cake boxes and the deeper ones too of homemade cookies and candies that she started making in October – swirled cookies, fudges and rocky road in aluminum foil loaf tins, chocolate covered pecans and almonds, toffee – the works! My mom and dad also made great treats. We usually made and decorated Christmas sugar cookies – snowmen and christmas trees and santas and the like. Mom made her famous crescent cookies, a type of powdered sugary wedding cookie. And mom and dad both made rosettes, something like a light airy version of funnel cakes. He found a deep frying iron set at a garage sale and we made those for years, sprinkled with a bit of powdered sugar.

My mom had a rattan teacart with a glass top on it. At christmas time, she’d take the decorations off of it and place a large Santa Claus cookie plate on it. This plate had the image of Santa Claus on it, in relief, with his moustache and cheeks and nose all bumpy on it and his beard an entirely different texture. It was gorgeous. It was made by my dad’s secretary, Carolyn Roemaker. This dish was filled with goodies from the beginning of December through the New Year. After the New Year, it would be wrapped up again in bubble wrap and put away until the next year.

But this plate was magic. It never ran out of supply. We’d pass the plate many times a day, taking this or that treat, a nibbling habit we all had. Should we have received a box of See’s candies, it would be added to the plate, and then we’d take one or two and go on with our chores or business.

One day, I realized (and said something) that the plate never seemed to run out of goodies. My mom said, “oh that’s silly!” But we learned the secret. When no one was looking, my mom snuck a big box of cookies and candies from under the teacart and refilled the Santa Claus plate when no one was looking. It WAS magic! She never wanted anybody to lack anything special for the holidays, and Grandma Bastian’s cookies and candies were such a special gift that made sure none of it went to waste.

The magic refillable Santa Claus plate – Christmas just isn’t the same without it.

I’m not quite sure what happened to the plate. There were several making the rounds in the family, and I think a couple developed chips in it over the years. But wherever it is, I’m sure it’s still refilling with magic to make someone happy during the holiday season.

On the Street Where I Lived: McKeever

I grew up on McKeever street in Granada Hills in the San Fernando Valley in the same house for 23 years. The epitome of a Valley suburb, our street was as idyllic as any and held the hopes and dreams for all of us.

We were a young neighborhood. I think there were 15 neighborhood kids within a year or two of my own age, so birthday parties were packed. Everyone got along, at least until puberty.

McKeever street rested between Amestoy, a larger avenue and nestled between Index and Donmetz. There was only one outlet. McKeever street was gently bowed, like the cord on a bow and arrow pulled back taut. It ran from Amestoy up the street for 19 houses, where it then took a sharp 90 degree right turn to a stub of a street with 4 houses on one side and 2 on the other, called Aldea. Thus there was no proper end to McKeever. It jumped several main roads and picked up again in spots.

Our section in Granada Hills had ranch style house, 3 and 4 bedrooms, that, when we got a little older, we realized were actually all slight variations of the same models. Some had attached garages, some had detached garages, some had sliding glass doors that gave way to patios, some had enclosed patios, and some had patios that had been turned into another room in the house. Some houses were L-shaped one way, and then next door, the house was a backwards L-shape, but the same floor plan. All of the houses sat on lots with brick fences keeping the yards apart on three sides. They were all set very close together.

We walked to schools and back along McKeever street. We kicked rocks, raced boat ticks in the gutters when it rained, looked for the plus signs in the corner of the cement slabs that made up the sidewalk. If you stepped on the slab with a plus sign on it, your buddies got to punch you in the arm.

I lived in the 5th house on the south side of the street from Amestoy. My bedroom window looked out over McKeever Street. At the end of our driveway was a street lamp which we used for night time games of tag and hide and seek. My window looked out directly into the center of Wish Avenue, a cul-de-sac opposite our home with 6 houses in it of varying quality.

Many times I looked out my window through the dark brown stained shutters and wished for many things to happen along Wish Avenue.

We knew everyone, and they knew us. The manhole cover in the middle of Wish Avenue was home plate for our famous games of baseball. Until we were young teenagers, we could pull together a game of street ball with a tennis ball and a whiffle bat or sometimes a real baseball. A tree served as first base, we usually set down a paper plate or a piece of cardboard for 2nd based, a metal flip cover for the water main shut off for one of the cul de sac houses was 3rd base. By the time we became young teenagers, we were routinely hitting tennis balls over my yard and house into the swimming pool in my backyard. We had to switch to pure whiffle ball, and even then, my house served as the warning track because we had grown so adept at hitting the ball.

The corner lot of Wish Avenue opposite our house had the largest yard, and it was gently sloped, so we could play football during football season, mostly 2 on 2 Nerf ball.

McKeever street changed over the years, but mostly everyone kept their yards neat and clean, and there wasn’t a party house in sight. There were bullies up the street at the crux between McKeever and Aldea, which we ran past as fast as we could. Later, immigrants from Nicaragua moved in and I overheard parents talk about depreciating property values – people I had never thought could be racist at all.

But for the most part, everybody shared each other’s house. We could walk in to the house of our good friends without knocking, just as our swimming pool was designated a McKeever street community pool for friends.

We also saw our share of tragedies. On the corner of McKeever and Amestoy, an eccentric woman we named Witchiepoo lived alone. She would rarely wear anything but a nightgown, and she’d let herself into people’s homes in the morning to borrow sugar and sit and have a cup of coffee and smoke her cigarettes. One time following a night event at the local elementary school, my dad and I were walking home and the street was blocked off my police and fire engines. Witchiepoo had caught her house on fire smoking in bed and perished in the fire.

Also, in the middle of the block, a young man named Bruce sat on his short brick retaining wall at the end of his driveway playing his guitar. He was probably 6 or 7 years older than me, pleasant and kind, and not disposed to drama. He’d play most of the day. I don’t know if he worked, but he always had a song, a smile, and a kind “hello” for all of us. He rode on the back of a friend’s motorcycle one day. They were riding on Amestoy, which had a middle gutter that grew moss on it most of the year. The motorcycle slid in the moss and Bruce was thrown from the motorcycle and hit his head on the curb, dying almost instantly. He wasn’t wearing a helmet.

Finally, across the street and down two doors from my house lived the Brooks family, my second home. They had 4 daughters, including one my age, and a son, Lonnie, a few years older than me. One day shortly after 4th of July, Lonnie tried to make a firecracker out of a CO2 cannister and some gunpowder from his father’s bullet making machine. He lit it and the cannister exploded. A piece of the metal pierced his heart. People yelled and the mother of my best friend, who was a nurse, came out to calm everyone down. She took one look at him and his fluttering eyes and yelled for someone to call an ambulance. Lonnie was 15 when he died. His parents were on vacation and we had to track them down to tell them to come home to that tragedy.

As a community, we faced a lot, but McKeever street was home to us all. I think the Brooks family stayed the longest. I loved my house and neighborhood so much, that I made my parents tell me if they were going to sell the house so I could buy it and keep it. When it came time for them to sell it, following the 1987 stock market crash, I was in no position to buy the house. My dad called me and said, “So I’m telling you that we’re going to sell the house, and wanted to let you know.” I told him that of course it was his house and it was okay. He said, “Good, because we already sold it.”

That ended my time on McKeever street. I have so many stories from my 23 years in one house on that street, and I will be spending the next 23 years telling them all.

Give My Regards to Broadway

A memory and a tribute to healthcare workers in New York City

Today’s Discover Prompts is about “song.” I’m remembering a duet I used to play with my dad on the piano, “Give My Regards to Broadway.” I’m also thinking of the healthcare workers laying their lives on the line during this pandemic. I’m thinking of you and everyone affected and your great city.

I grew up in the quiet suburbs of the San Fernando Valley north of Los Angeles during the late 60s and 70s. Thus, I rooted against New York and was actually afraid of New York, the crime, the brashness, the ballsiness of it shown on television. We were more laid back in sunny Southern California back in those days.

My how things have changed. I moved away from Los Angeles before the big population explosion and the deterioration due to crime and freeway traffic. And I finally got my first opportunity to visit New York in 1999. I was terrified. But what I didn’t know was that as Los Angeles was falling into disrepair, New York was cleaning up its act.

I had planned a birthday trip for a surprise to see Phantom of the Opera. Once I bought the show tickets, I had to figure out how to get there from Kansas, where to stay, and how to travel between airport and city and within the city, all without a credit card. But once I arrived, I was completely caught off guard by how nice and helpful everyone was, how the city truly does never sleep, and how much I missed city life. Of course, I still have my home grown allegiances to the L.A. Dodgers, but as I was a bit older, I could understand the appeal of a cosmopolitan city like New York. Oh we saw our Broadway show, but we also did plenty of touristy things in the short 3 days we were there, like visit Washington Square park and go to the top of the Empire State Building and walk around Times Square.

I now live in the East and I’ve been to New York city several times and enjoy it more and more each time. When this blog grows up and I’m a famous writer, I’m sure I’ll look back at this time when I’m sucking up to New York as the pivotal moment when I made it.

As the youngest in my family, by the time I was 10, my brother and sisters had all moved out to get married, start families, and/or go to college. My sister Lisa was the last to leave, which left me with my mom and dad to myself. I spent a great deal of time playing the piano without having to fight for it with my sister. My dad played often, especially when he got home from work. He’d sit down and relax, smoking his cigarettes and playing songs he knew by heart on the 1/4 grand cherry wood Chickering piano we had at the time. So in our bonding time, we started playing duets from our piano books.

He could play anything that he heard once, with a riveting “oom-pah” bass and a deft right-handed melody. He had his own style, a cross between 40s and 50s standards and 70s lounge player. I could pick out melodies but had a tougher time with bass progressions. So he usually played the bass and I played the melody. We settled on the song “Give My Regards to Broadway” that we found in one of the piano books.

I think we chose that song because it was familiar to me, mostly from hearing my sister Lisa play it with my dad. The bass was easy and he kept speeding up, especially at some key points where I fumbled to learn the notes. At first, as we were learning it, I was aware that we played ploddingly, like a child learning to read his first books. At 10 years old, I could play piano better than that, but I wasn’t that skilled in the art of duets.

But what I lacked in skill, I made up for with perseverance. One day, everything clicked. My forearms relaxed, I knew the notes, and I could keep pace with dad’s rhythmic bass. He even began to improvise here and there and I’d stay on track with the melody. And then one day, we just let it go. I set the metronome to see what the projected speed was according to the music, and it was much faster than we had been practicing. But we tried and we persevered. Before too long, we had mastered this song. We could play it slowly, with feeling, or we could rip through it loudly and animatedly. And fast. We kept time with each other and could follow each other’s lead. It was truly music in the making every time we sat to play “Give My Regards to Broadway.”

When Lisa returned home from school during break, I was glad to have someone to talk to nad fight over the piano with. But dad and I had cooked up a scheme for her. Lisa always had a bit of a competitive streak with me, and she had several years head start on me in playing the piano and was 7 years of age older. So while I was always baby brother and the kid, she was the grown-up teenager and then college student. Which is to say, she often didn’t take me seriously. But dad and I would surprise her.

I said, “Lisa! Lisa! you have to listen. Dad and I have been practicing, and we can now play “Give My Regards to Broadway.” So we sat down to show her. We played just as painfully ploddingly as one can. One note (pause) one note (pause) one note (pause) Give (pause) My (pause) Re (pause) guard (pause)…….. we played extra slow, and we didn’t miss a note, as if I were a 2 or 3 year old proudly reciting for the first time his ABCs for his big sister. She kinda giggled nervously and said, “Oh, that’s good Lee,” in that big sisterly patronizing way she had.

And then we did it. I looked at Dad and said, “Hit it!” And then we really played it. We played it to tempo and added every flourish we knew and sped off to a grand finale. By this time, we didn’t even need to look at the music. It was all in our heads and in our fingers. I saw Lisa laugh again, nervously in a different way. When we were done she said, “Oh you two!” and stomped off.

We got her, Dad. Yes, we got her.

I’ve had a lot of tragic events in my life. And during times like this unprecedented pandemic, there are a lot of people suffering but also a lot of people helping others, which reinforces my belief that people are ultimately good. It’s hard to see that through the daily partisan fighting in this country, but I’m glad to see so many people come together to battle this horrible pandemic. I’m fortunate to have memories like this one about a key song in my life, about family, about gentle sibling rivalries and good relationships with parents. And I miss my dad greatly every time I think of the piano and of Broadway.

Now in my 50s, I’ve had the opportunity to see shows on Broadway and walk the famous street under the bright marquees. And once our world has found a way to combat this disease, I look forward to once more visiting to “Give My Regards to Broadway.”

Wide Open Sea

When I was 16 years old, I sailed on the Trimaran Columba from Ventura, California to the Hawaiian Islands with 11 other people. The captain was our high school football coach, and the rest of us were high schoolers and a few beginning college students.

I had a love/hate relationship with the water. In every part of my life, I had intense motion sickness. I ruined every car my family ever had, I couldn’t ride any amusement park rides that went in a circle, and I had earned the nickname “King of the Barfers” from how often I got motion sick. My parents loved to fish, especially deep sea over night trips. As the youngest child, I often had to accompany them. I loved the adventure of it all, but the movement of the ocean combined with all the smells of fish, diesel fuel, and cigarette smoke left me holding onto the rails and puking my guts out. With a bare hook and nothing else to do, I always caught my limit in the well-chummed water.

Being out to sea with the land in the far distance, I was always amazed at just how slowly sailboats travel. We could see land, and from that point, it was always about 24 hours of sailing before we made it to shore. It was faster on a motorized vessel, of course, but my love was for sailing – the slow rocking of the boat, the sound of the waves flapping or making the wind whistle through them, and the tinkling of the shrouds, the creaking of the hull, and the slap of the water against the hull held a magical fascination to me. Here we were – with wind as our only propulsion, going from point A to point B, not in a straight line, but with a plan and science.

On the trip to Hawaii, I was camped out in the back of the boat for 5 days, seasick out of my mind, unable to swallow pills or medicines of any kind, hoping to die. Finally, I got a seasickness pill down and some coca-cola syrup. This remedy did the trick and I slept fitfully for about 36 hours. When I finally woke up, having missed many watches, much to the chagrin of my shipmates who had to cover for me during this time, I made my way to the center of the boat and looked all around.

There was no land in sight at all. It was the first time I had sailed in which land was completely gone. All I could see was blue – a vast blue sea, somewhat calm, and a bright blue cloudless sky. The weather had warmed already and we were surfing waves pleasantly as we had found the trade winds which would take us in to Hawaii.

I had never experienced such openness in my life. I saw where we were on the nautical chart, far from anything, so small in the grander scheme of things. And yet, this boat, all I knew as home at that moment, didn’t feel like an insignificant speck in a vast universe. The sky, the ocean all of existence was wrapped up as if our boat was encapsulated and had become the whole world. That vastness of everything was like looking through a telescope – we were magnified and made bigger by the emptiness. And without any land by which to catch our bearings, the surface of the ocean became alive. I saw the ripples and small waves, the rivulets of current, every piece of foam course and flow with texture and shape. The minutiae of detail grew out of all proportion until seeing itself was all there was left. Gradations of blue filled the sky rather than a complete monochromatic blue.

The world became both smaller and bigger at once. Openness like this can drive some people made, while for others, they can see the far reaches and curling edges of the universe. For me, blue in every direction guided by the invisible wind upon which we played lightly with our sails and floating home, this openness became a way that forever after I would live my life – free from common strictures, free from conventional thought, always looking for a less common understanding and finding a way out of life’s closed-in spaces.

All I need is a glimpse of sky and a small boat on the water to achieve a peace like I’ve never felt anywhere else.

Later in my life, I lived on a sailboat. My greatest joy was to leave the workday behind, motor out to San Diego bay and turn off the engine and float, listening to all the nautical sounds and the seabirds while bobbing gently in the light winds on the water at sunset. Stress would melt away quickly, and I felt more at peace then I ever had before.

Someday, I will have a sailboat again.

Adventures in Sailing, Part 9 – Land-Ho!

Photo by Markos Mant on Unsplash

The longer the trip to Hawaii took, the more on edge we all became. Imagine 11 unbathed teenagers and young adults, diminishing food supplies, an irritable captain, a navigation chart with a criss-cross line for our trail and no land in sight. We did what we could to bide the time, reading books, playing cards and games, negotiating with each other for trades of snacks. But still, there was no land in sight.

The captain worried that we might be too far south and miss the islands completely. That could cost us days of sailing, put us into an entirely different wind pattern and jeopardize our fuel resources, though he planned on the most conservative side possible regarding fuel. It didn’t help that our primary VHF radio didn’t work and that we knew it while we were still on the West Coast.

We had a pool going as to when we would sight and arrive at land. The date I had chosen was on track according to our chart and progress, and I wanted that money to pay my poker losing debts.

After 20 days at sea, the captain was looking for land. It should have been right in front of us, but we still couldn’t see it. One day while changing sails to account for the fluctuations of the wind, I saw a big fish, bigger than any I had ever seen. It was a dolphin! Soon there were 5 of them, a welcoming party. The trimaran had a swing on it that we could let down underneath the netting between the pontoons. We took turns swinging and petting the dolphins.

I won a Spam eating contest, 16 slices. We were down to the dregs of food at this point, coffee cake and peaches for breakfast.

Our traveling companions, Sea Vista, had reportedly made it in the night before, though they left a week earlier than us.

By the afternoon on day 21, we finally saw land! The mountain top peeked through the four day fog bank in front of us. The celebration began with washing down the boat and cleaning our sleeping compartments. We were able to use fresh water to take showers, a refreshing change from salt water baths.

We made it into Hilo under cover of night. We docked next to Gene’s boat, SeaVista and rushed out to a restaurant to eat. My sisters had and their friends sailed on Gene’s boat, but they had left the boat. A complete mutiny had occurred. I tracked down Lisa and her friend Jack, but Leslie and Theresa had flown to Maui. Restaurant food filled us up and we made it back to the boat for some well-needed sleep in the marina at about 4:00 am.

There is more sailing to do through the islands, but now we bask in having made it from the West Coast of the continental United States to Hilo, Hawaii, a 22-day voyage.

Adventures in Sailing, Part 7 – The Day-to-Day in the Pacific

Photo by Oliver Sjöström from Pexels

Adventures in Sailing, part 7

The day-to-day in the boat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean can become quite dull. Oh, give me that dullness all year long.

In the first part of this series, I described our encounter in the doldrums. But when we had wind, there wasn’t anything quite like sailing in the Pacific.

It grew warm quite quickly on our trip. It’s late June and we’re heading south and west from southern California to Hawaii. Take a look at a globe to see — yes, even you flat earthers out there can learn from a globe.

Our days were very regular. I slept on the dining table, stowed down to become a bunk. My bunkmate was Tonya, the skinny blonde hard rocker partier teenager a couple years older than me. We slept in our own sleeping bags, head to foot. At 16 and inexperienced in the ways of the world (euphemism alert!), I didn’t quite know what to do with myself on this crowded vessel. At any rate, we were saved by the daily schedule — table up at 6:00 am for a 7:00 breakfast, and table down at midnight for lights out. That gave us 6 restful hours for the night, 4 of which were taken up with my watches. I drew the unfavorable watches of 12–2 am and 4–6 am, due to my lapse from seasickness. Fair is fair — or since the captain made the rules and the watch and cleaning schedules, there was no arguing.

We had our meals at 7:00, noon, and 6:00 pm. There were also snacks through the day whenever they happened to be done. For chores, we each had to care for our own bunks, and then we were assigned chores: bright work (polishing anything metal), washing the dishes and cleaning the galley, cleaning the head and head compartment, scrubbing the decks and pilot area, and whatever other cleaning activities had to be done.

On our way to Hawaii, we had the wind at our backs, trade winds, and often we sailed wing on wing, with one sail out and the other out on the other side, like a giant wingspan. The wind was behind us, pushing us to Hawaii. The effect is that there was very little slapping noise of the water on the boat, and we surfed the waves. We’d reach the crest of the waves and then the boat would surf down into the trough and we’d repeat, gently, all day long. It was warm (sunscreen was absolutely necessary!) but we did a fair amount of sunbathing. If we got too hot, we could dunk a 5-gallon paint bucket into the water on a rope and haul it up and douse ourselves.

Our boat was a 42-foot trimaran with three pontoon hulls. Between the hulls up front, there was netting that could be lounged on. Also, there was a swing, and we could hook the swing up between the pontoons and swing into the water. On other days, we tied a milk jug to a rope and let it out the stern of the boat and had target practice. We each bought several boxes of bullets, .22 gauge. I had never shot a gun before, but this was great fun. We also flew a kite that we tied off aft and just let follow us.

There wasn’t much to see except vast amounts of blue water and blue sky with various configurations of clouds. Every once in a while, we’d see a large vessel some ways off, not close enough even to see us.

We spent time playing games — Scrabble, Dominoes, Othello, Backgammon, and cards. We read a lot and listened to a single cassette tape over and over by The Kinks — I still remember most of the songs and words. I read Tolkein’s Return of the King and books about Star Wars and Battlestar Gallactica. I must have had English major aspirations even then because I also read Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises.

After our adventures in the doldrums and my card playing fiasco, we began to itch for land. We still weren’t quite halfway there. The captain showed us the course he had plotted on the chart — a zig zag due to our collective inexperience at the helm that cost us a great deal of time. We also had a pool going as to when we would land. For most of the trip, we were on a course to make the date I had for landing, so I was excited that I would win some money to recoup my gambling losses. We settled into a fine routine.

One of the personal items we were asked to bring were snacks. The food situation didn’t turn out as well as he had hoped, so snacks were a premium required for us to keep going. But they also entered “the market,” a bartering system that could last days, especially with some of these stubborn sailors. I had the premium treats and had also bought quite a few boxes of bullets, which were great items to trade for food. At one point I had Almond Roca and See’s Suckers, which went for a premium. It took Dave and me 1/2 hour to come to an agreement: he would give me 3 pieces of beef jerky and 2 boxes of raisins for 1 almond roca and 1 See’s sucker. Then Dave traded a box of bullets for the rest of Cloud’s gorp. I loved that gorp, so Dave and I bartered some more. I remembered I had chocolate chips which I could put in the gorp, but Dave took the gorp off the market, but he wanted the chips. Cloud ran out of bullets again, so I traded a box and a half of bullets for his yogurt peanuts. All in all, bartering helped the time go by and was great fun.

We were getting closer to the islands all the time and waiting for the mountain peak to peek through the clouds. There was a heavy cloud bank in front of us, and we should have been seeing the islands, if our charting was correct. Or, we were too far south and would pass it completely.

Lazy days at sea with calm weather is something I remember fondly, though my journal betrays that I missed Big Macs, the Dodgers, and was unhappy at being picked on constantly. I was a dorky kid — 16 and still wearing a plastic Dodgers helmet (I had not yet discovered fitted baseball caps), and I was reading some 3rd rate sci-fi magazines and Tolkein’s first-rate fantasy.

There are still plenty more sailing adventures to share, including a brief scary squall, riding with the dolphins, and finally sighting land.