Wednesday, December 20, 2006

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Why I Don’t Build Boats for a Living

While it does not happen every day, occasionally when strangers learn my last name, they feel the need to comment on it. When I was a kid, older folks would hear or read my name and ask if I am related to the famous classic movie start. Alas, I am not. In my high school and college years, people would tease me about having the same name of a contemporary star of the silver screen. I dreaded some of the cracks my schoolmates made equating me with this star and not the classic actor.

Throughout the years, though, a certain group of people – almost like an elite underground, or purveyors of a profound open secret – would look at me and say, “You’re not related to the boat builder, are you?” This filled me with a strange mixture of pride and shame. The pride came from the confirmation that I was indeed the son of the great boat builder. The shame came from that fact that while I could see these people were impressed – they were talking to an apple that had fallen very far from the tree. In fact, the branch kind of coiled back, and in slingshot fashion, jettisoned this apple out of the orchard. Of course, I should feel nothing but satisfaction that I am my father’s son, and I should not be ashamed that no one is ever going to look at my son’s driver’s license and say, “are you the son of the great California State paper pusher?” I also feel a bit regretful that I did not pursue my father’s craft, though I know it would have been a tough tutelage.

As I was growing up, there were some who thought I had it made; I was going to be a boat builder like my father, run the family business, and carry on the proud tradition. I recall one day camping at Lake Almanor with my family and friends – something we did a lot back then. This one kid, the son of a prominent Sacramento business owner, was skipping rocks across the lake with my brother and me when he turned to us with a big grin and said, “Isn’t it great that one day we will take over our dads’ businesses!” A pregnant silence followed, the kid’s face twisted into a question, and then he queried, “Don’t you guys want to take over your dad’s business?” We did not say no, but our displeasure at the idea of working that close with our father for the next forty or fifty years seemed to be written on our faces.

It is hard to explain to an outsider why I did not become the next great boat builder or even a water sports enthusiast. The best explanation I can offer is the man’s temper. My father was not a violent man; he never laid a hand on us, but it was his anger that totally intimidated my brother and me. I do not know how the Hershey kids (if there were any) handled living with a father who made chocolate all day, but I can just see old man Hershey yelling at his kids how they are mixing the cocoa with the sugar and milk wrong. I can envision the kids just getting sick of their old man yelling at them so often. It is a poor analogy, I know. In my case, my father was the owner and responsible for at least 70% of the work that went into manufacturing each boat and trailer, so we were too close to the whole business. Just as I can see the kids down the street green with envy over the Hershey kids’ prospect, I can also see the Hershey juniors dreading the days they worked in the factory, with the smell of cocoa, milk, sugar, caramel, peanuts, and almonds overwhelming their senses. I can envision them knee-deep in Hershey bars, Reeses, Paydays, Kisses, Kit-Kats, Almond Joys, and Mounds, all the while dreaming of broccoli and Brussels sprouts.

My brother and I were oddities among the children in our neighborhood. When my father got into racing dirt bikes, he would come home from work, hop on his Greaves or Husqvarna, and ride wheelies up and down the street. My friends looked on in wonder, lining the streets like the last leg of a motocross race. To them, my father was the coolest dad in the world; he made boats and could ride wheelies all the way down the street. He did this while his two sons were nowhere in sight.

Things became straight up perverted when my father brought home a brand new Honda 50 mini bike for my brother and me, and we were cowering behind my mother. At 48 years old, I can see how ridiculous this might have looked, but at the time, the kids flocking around the Honda 50 did not know how utterly intimidating my father was. His temper took the fun out of this kind of stuff.

Boating was no different. Family outings on the water were fraught with intensity. “Will I have to drive the boat off or on to the trailer?” which translated into, “Will I get stuck being the one he yells at?” There was also “Will I get up on one ski on the first or second try?” which really meant, “Please God, let me get up on the first or the second try. I don’t want to get that look.”

I blame my sissy self for not being able to enjoy boating like the kids of the parents who bought my father’s boats. Still, the anxiety was real, so by the time I got a car and a job, I did not miss the outings. The woman who became my wife ultimately learned of the legend. Her jaw dropped to find that not only did I not possess a boat, but also that I did not want one. The shockers continued: I was not a trick or slalom skier, and the kicker was that I had absolutely no desire to buy a boat of any kind. My sister bought one of my father’s boats before he stopped building them. Now a quarter of a century later, I have bought her boat – hell has frozen over.

The main reason for the purchase is that my wife has always wanted one, but also my sister needed the cash and my wife thought it would be a good idea to keep a boat in the family, though nobody seems too terribly fired up about boating. Another reason – one that until now has been a secret to all, including my wife – is that I wanted to try to capture something that I missed out on all these years. I really thought I would never buy one of my father’s boats – or any other kind of watercraft for that matter.

So here I am a boat owner in the dead of winter. I have not even seen the boat since I purchased it. I doubt I will even make the trip across town where it sits in storage until the spring when I take it out for a spin with my family. The pathetic thing is all I can think about is which one of us is going to drive the boat up on the trailer when we have finished – not me, I will be the one on the ramp yelling!

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Home Sweet Home
About 17 years ago, my wife, our two sons and I moved out of our mid-town apartment and into a nice little home in East Sacramento. I recall looking at all the children riding their bikes up and down the street when the real estate agent first showed us the house. “What a wonderful place to raise our children,” my wife and I concurred. It was a nice house in a nice part of town, near a freeway, a grocery store, and a beautiful, shaded, median park.

I wonder to this day if the agent who, in the words of Joe Bob Briggs, looked like she had a “head-on collision with Max Factor,” planted her nieces and nephews in the neighborhood with the promise of ice cream for the kids and 20 hours of babysitting for their parents. A short while after we moved in, we noticed the children had disappeared and, some months later, we began to notice suspicious characters hanging around a house a few doors down and across the street. Soon we, and the rest of the homeowners, knew we had a gang’s clubhouse on our street. The music coming from the house was loud, there were many visitors, and this activity went on virtually around the clock. To top it off, many afternoons we were audience to a big guy, who would sit in a chair in the middle of the driveway and shout profanities at people driving by.

We did nothing about this; what could we do? There were police cars patrolling and occasionally stopping at the house. Our first Fourth of July at the house sounded like the decapitation of Baghdad – the gang’s clubhouse had a car trunk full of stuff that you cannot get at Red Devil Fireworks. For what seemed like all night, bottle rockets and, what sounded like M-80s or cherry bombs, were set off.

When one bottle rocket exploded on my front porch – lighting up my front room as if it was high noon – while I was on the other side of the porch wall trying to calm down my infant son, I came unglued. For those following minutes, the fact that I was preparing to lock horns with a bunch of guys that were probably “packin’ 9’s” totally escaped me.

Lucky for me, by the time I got to the middle of the street where these guys were setting off the contraband, they had finished their pyrotechnics show and were calling it a night. Oh, but I was far too fired-up to simply turn around and go to bed. The reason I am here to write this post, and am not just a memory to my widowed wife who had to settle for a closed coffin, is that the people I ended up screaming at were a couple of 11-year-olds who were almost in the house when I got to ground zero. Of course, this did not stop me from unleashing my rage, even if there was no one in the street to receive it.

Some months later, my wife and I were speaking with Karryl, a woman who lived directly across from the clubhouse. She had had enough of the activities and was going to sell her home – probably at a loss. Karryl told us she had spoken with a detective from the Sacramento Police Department who was trying to bust the gang bangers on something, but could not get anything that would stick. She surprised us when she said that only a week or so earlier, four police cars were parked in front of the clubhouse and the police arrested all the gang members. My wife and I were both at work at the time. She said the police had made a couple of wholesale arrests over the previous six months, but the gang members always returned. She said the detective was also watching another neighbor, who lived next to Karryl, just four houses down on our side of the street.

Karryl told us that about once a week, she would wake up in the early morning, 2-3 AM, to the sound of trucks and multiple voices in the neighbor’s backyard. When she looked through the fence, she would see these trucks were towing cars – into the backyard. It was a chop shop. Karryl told us the police had been to both houses before. What was so ironic was that with all the nefarious activity going on in our own neighborhood, we never were robbed or harassed.

A couple of months later, when I was riding my bike home from work, I saw four police cars lining the street around the clubhouse and the chop-shop house. At the time I did not think much of it: “It is just another bust and these guys will be back in business by sunrise.” However, a day or two later I saw Karryl and she told me she was walking out her front door around noon that day when she saw coming from both directions, descending on the clubhouse, a dozen police officers with body armor and shotguns. She said she ran back inside and hid in the back room, afraid she might be accidentally shot.

By the time she settled on the carpet of her back bedroom, she saw through the sliding glass door a Costco-size mayonnaise jar come flying over her fence from the chop-shop house. Ten minutes later, without a shot having been fired, she peeked through her kitchen window. On the front lawn was a bunch of gang members on their knees in cuffs and the detective she had spoken with before was walking around casually, clad in black slacks and a polo shirt, with a holstered sidearm on his chest. Karryl walked out, greeted the detective and asked him to examine the mayonnaise jar.

It turned out to be crystal meth. Now the detective was able to get a search warrant for the house and found a meth lab in the basement and enough evidence for convictions related to the chop-shop activities. All of this was too much for Karryl; she sold her house right after the arrests. The clubhouse was sold; the chop-shop house was vacant. About five quiet years later, we bought a bigger, better house in South Land Park.

Less than two years after moving into our new home, one of our cars was stolen and, a couple of years after that, our house was broken into and my wife’s jewelry, my SLR camera and equipment, a pair of binoculars and a brand new computer, among other items, were lifted. I would not be surprised if the culprits were from another neighborhood. They might have applied the “trick-or-treat” method of choosing victims: go to the nice neighborhood to get the candy and do not crap where you eat.

Friday, August 25, 2006

The Summer Read I Just Couldn't
Seen a man standin' over a dead dog lyin' by the highway in a ditch.
He's lookin' down kinda puzzled pokin' that dog with a stick.
Got his car door flung open he's standin' out on Highway 31.
Like if he stood there long enough that dog'd get up and run.
-- “Reason to Believe”
I had not heard the final song from Bruce Springsteen’s 1990 album Nebraska in more than 10 years, but the opening lyrics came to mind while reading the first few chapters of Sam Harris’ book, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason (2004). Springsteen’s song is a bitter joke that comes at the end of an album filled with nihilistic despair, so, I was not surprised that my memory would call up this song while reading Harris’ depressing words:
“Despite the considerable exertions of men like [theologian Paul] Tillich who has attempted to hide the serpent lurking at the foot of every altar, the truth is that religious faith is simply unjustified belief in matters of ultimate concern – specifically in the propositions that promise some mechanism by which human life can be spared the ravages of time and death.”
An atheist friend suggested I read Harris’ book after I invited him to comment on my first post on this blog, Faith, Liberals, and Biscuits. He sent me an email complimenting me on my new hobby, made a snide comment about an admittedly shallow theological remark I made in the post and suggested I read Harris’ book. (Thanks for the prescription, Jimbo.)
End of Faith comes at a time when the Neocons and car bombers are sharing the news and beginning to wear down the American public; Harris started writing the book on September 12, 2001. Harris’ solution to the turmoil religion created was to destroy religion for the sake of world peace. Does Harris really think we will all be happier without God or, for his sake, the concept of God? Absolutely. In fact, reading End of Faith is a horrifying experience. “Words like ‘God’ and ‘Allah’ must go the way of ‘Apollo’ and ‘Baal,’ or they will unmake our world.” While he spends most of his time with fundamentalists in his sights, it is a bit strange how he seems to believe that even religious moderates are capable of anything. This, of course, is not a revelation to a Muslim, Jew or Christian. We have asserted from the Beginning that man is capable of atrocities, just as he is capable of lying or stealing an apple from a market; it is called “sin nature.”
If you can remove yourself from any religious predilections and look at the world with pure logic, most of Harris’ views are difficult to refute. Still, who is his audience here? Is he preaching to the choir? (Sorry folks, I just couldn’t help myself.) If he is trying to convert believers to the abyss it is a hard sell. Ask anyone who believes in God, whether their deity goes by Jehovah, Yahweh, Allah or some nebulous entity, and he’ll tell you the idea of abandoning this supreme belief for Harris’ solution is impossible to reconcile with what he knows and feels.
It is not just a choice of which is more sensible; any staunch nonbeliever who reads the Bible is confounded by the idea that millions of people throughout the ages lived and died not only understanding, but also believing in this nonsense. Any college student sufficiently full of himself can read Harris’ book and come away with the idea that this author has found the panacea for religious fanaticism. Conversely, anyone who has gone beyond Harris’ worldly assertions can see how utterly foolish they are and, Biblically speaking, “full of dead men’s bones.” (For a review far more eloquent then these comments by someone who, I trust, was able to finish the book, check out: Matthew Simpson’s review posted April, 5, 2005 at
Ultimately, Harris writes off the religious folk as people who have never reflected on the intellectual foundations of their beliefs. If his book is so tactfully written to cloak his contempt for Christians and other Believers, the titles of some of his posts in the Huffingtonpost like “Science Must Destroy Religion” and the presumptive “There is No God (And You Know It)” remove all doubt. Of course, there are plenty of contemporary works of religious philosophy to discount his claim. One that stands out can be found in To Everyone an Answer (2004), a collection of Christian apologies focusing on subjects that include God’s existence, Intelligent Design, miracles, and Christianity v other faiths and cults, among others subjects.
Like James Moreland and Kai Nielsen’s Does God Exist? and Peter Kreeft’s Fundamentals of the Faith, I found To Everyone an Answer at the bookstore and “just had to have it.” In addition, like so many other books I impulsively purchase, this one could have spent years on the shelf unopened if it had not been for Harris’ impish opus, the Lord works in mysterious ways.
One essay, “A Thomistic Cosmological Argument,” by W. David Beck, lays out the logic of God’s presence and our place in His universe. TheThomistic Cosmological Argument comes from Thomas Aquinas, the 13th-century philosopher and theologian. His Cosmological Argument, as it is commonly known, is based on three premises:
  1. What we observe in this universe is contingent. Nothing we see exists in and of themselves.
  2. A sequence of causally related contingent things cannot be infinite. Just as one boxcar pulls another that pulls another, the boxcars cannot be infinite; there must be an initial cause, like the train’s engine.
  3. The sequence of causally dependent contingent things must be finite. The premise that completes the logic is that if the sequence cannot be infinite, then it must be finite.
His conclusion is that there must be a first cause in the sequence of contingent causes. Still, pessimists like Harris can retort that the initial cause was a “big bang” or something similar. What actually caused the initial “big bang” that ultimately ended in you and me is something Darwin, his followers and, I would assume, Harris would simply shine on as a goal for future science to patch up along with all the “Origin of the Species” holes.

I hate the idea of not finishing a book I started – almost as much as I hate walking out of a movie, even if it really stinks. It is just that I have so many books I want to read, and being such a slow reader, the list of books I want to read only grows longer when I am dragging my eyeballs across the lines of a suicide-inducing tome like this one.
I would like to think that Harris would consider the words of Beck and other apologists in To Everyone an Answer, but in the time it took me to read what little I did from this depressing book and all the time this post spent in my jump drive waiting for me to finish it, a new book from Harris titled Letter to a Christian Nation has been published. From the blurbs on the site, it sounds like another tombstone.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

"I Started a Blog, Which Nobody Read"

Go to: Buzz 99: I Started a Blog, Which Nobody Read#links

And it doesn't matter how much I shamelessly promote this thing to those who I thought liked me, all I seem to get is, "Oh yeah, I'll check it out, man" followed by nothing, no comments, nothing. When you get to quizzing your nieces and nephews to find out whether they read the blog like they said they did, that's when you know you've hit rock bottom. Thanks, Buzz.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

The Week I Thought My New Boss was a Ninja
For five months, my office thrived without a manager. In that time we enjoyed long lunches, took breaks whenever we felt like it, and with the exception of only a couple of minor issues that brought down the section manager, it was a very relaxed and productive period.

Our office was like an open city: in-between the departure of one governing body and the occupation of a future one. Since we were only loosely supervised, we never felt we needed to be on guard and in fear of the boss. Unlike before, we were not bombarded by calls from the boss to see him in his office; nor were we pinned down in our cubes, pressed until we answered questions to his satisfaction. In addition, his absence from staff meetings was so refreshing that I made it a point to show up to these gatherings on my own time and nobody cared.

Just like the best all-night pool parties, our hiatus from office management had to end. An occupying force was bound to invade our little open city and re-establish “order.” While it is too early to tell how we will regard our new boss, one thing is for sure, if you would have asked me what I thought of him in that first week I would have told you that he was a ninja!

He was so busy the first day signing papers from our accounting and personnel offices, and getting his PC and phone set up that he was virtually invisible, but that is not the ninja part. It was on his second day when, with ninja-like stealth, he walked through our cubicle farm, surprising everyone. I was busted playing a sudoku puzzle, Edna was caught taking an unscheduled break watching her soap opera on Web-TV and eating cold cereal, I heard her attempting to say "Good morning" through a mouth full of milk and Special K. At the very same time our new boss was jolting Edna out of the world of melodrama and feminine hygiene product commercials, Dorothy was caught sleeping.

On the third day, when he began his walk through the cubes, I heard him speaking to Maureen, the woman who sits in front of me. A moment later, he was talking to Dorothy, the woman who sits behind me. There was no sound of his movement past me – and, believe me, with a half-done sudoku in in front of me, I was listening for him. It also took him only a second to pass me and engage Dorothy in his very soft voice. Did he fly by? My first – foolish – thought was that he threw his voice, but when I heard Dorothy reply to his query, I had to get up and confirm that he was standing in Dorothy’s cube.

When he left that day, I crossed him in the stairwell. He was skipping every other step as he bounded up the staircase. This is in itself nothing special; many people do it, but without making a sound? I only noticed him because he suddenly appeared below me. We reached the landing between the basement and first floor at about the same time. He spoke to me softly, “I’ll see you tomorrow—”. We passed one another. I took two steps on the landing and looked back up, thinking he was going to finish his sentence, give me a command, say goodnight, or something, but he had vanished – all I heard was the door to the first floor shutting.

On the fourth day, we had a party for a couple of departing employees. Occasionally, someone would ask me who my new boss is. When I tried to point him out in the crowd, he would disappear only to appear a second later across the room. A couple of people gave up on me identifying him, probably thinking I had spiked my cup of punch or something. Then he would appear behind me. The whole thing got nerve racking. On the fifth day things calmed down a bit, but still my boss seemed to appear and disappear from his office without anyone's knowledge of his movements. Creepy.

It is week number two of my new manager’s assignment and the mystery has vanished; we see him walking about the warehouse, he says hello to everyone in the office giving up his location in time for us to stash the sudokus and shut down the soap operas; he is just another guy and this is all for the best, I have got some sudokus to solve!

Monday, June 26, 2006

How many times must I tell you, no duplicate numbers on one line!

The Sudoku Kid

I recently took a stress management class at work. Along with breathing exercises and time management tips, I learned that playing games in your free time, like crossword puzzles, could help to relieve stress. One of the instructors said she enjoyed playing sudoku puzzles. Sudoku? This was the first time I had ever heard the word. I jotted down the word phonetically and looked it up when I got back to my desk. When Google led me to I did not hesitate playing my first game. I also did not bother wasting my time reading up on those silly helpful hints.

Hmm, 20 minutes to solve my first “Very Easy” game; this is kind of fun. When I got home I found out this is not some brand new game, but something that has been going around for some years. Nothing new for me, though, to come in late – I did not start this blog until about three to five years after the craze took off; I am always behind the curve.

Another thing I found out when I was back at the ranch is that 20 minutes is an abominably slow time for a so-called Very Easy sudoku puzzle. For once, I would like to discover something and find out I am good at it. One more reason I will not take up New York Times crossword puzzles: If I worked on them daily, I would probably die an old frustrated man with a messy, smeary, Monday puzzle in my claw. Another thing I found when I started playing sudoku puzzles – trying to solve them does not manage my stress. While anyone will tell you, I am not a stressful person, sudoku puzzles bring out the Godzilla in me.

Like chess, I think I need a mentor to show me the hidden nuances of the game and to beat the bully sudoku puzzles that make my morning and evening coffee times a bitter reminder that I am number challenged.

I need a Mr. Miyagi!

In the film “The Karate Kid,” Daniel, played by Ralph Macchio, has finally had enough of waxing Mr. Miyagi’s car and painting his house and fence – all for karate lessons that never materialize. Mr. Miyagi, played by the late Pat Morita, tells Daniel-san in the stereotypical broken English Hollywood would give a Japanese apartment handyman by day/Black Belt Karateman by night, “Not everything is as seems.” When Daniel challenges this comment the pivotal scene in the film comes – the reason Daniel has been doing the handyman’s handy work: it is revealed that the workout Daniel has received on his hands, wrists, and arms while painting and waxing just so happens to be the very same movements used in karate. Only in Hollywood could household duties turn you into Bruce Lee. We never see Daniel-san do any chores with his legs and feet so we just have to assume Daniel-san held Mr. Miyagi's pressure washer with his toes while cleaning the master's deck.

If I find my own Mr. MiyagiI I hope that he looks more like a Toshiro Mifune rather than a Pat Morita. I hope he will give me the speed to drop my time on hard puzzles from hours to minutes. I do not think I have the time to pressure wash his deck, wax your car, or paint your house and fence. I mean, if I will not do that stuff for my own home how can I justify to my wife doing that kind of stuff for him?

Friday, June 09, 2006

Hoop Dreams
I’ve never been good at sports, and my interest in professional sports has always been inconsistent, at best. When I was a child, I followed the Oakland As and spent many a summer’s day trying to catch Reggie Jackson’s home run balls, but I spent most of my time out in right field devouring Colossal Dogs and peanuts while my brother studied the game, kept score, and remembered the starting line-up. I was even less interested in playing sports, participating in only three uninspiring years of Little League before hanging up my cleats. I put a great amount of time and energy into fantasizing about being a great athlete.

One of my two favorite pastimes was playing tennis against the garage door. The garage was no match for my powerful forehand and dead-spin backhand, but my career came to a crashing halt when I served a blistering foul into the lamp mounted above the garage door, shattering the glass, the bulb and my dreams of being a great garage-door tennis player. The other, less destructive waste of time was playing basketball alone in that same driveway. I knew that if I played against my brother, my next-door neighbor, the golden boy down the street or just about anyone not on crutches, I’d get creamed. Sure, I might learn something, but that wouldn’t be any fun. It’s funny how faux-good you can become at something when there’s no one there to test how really bad you are. I could spin the ball on my finger, transfer it to other fingers and dribble the ball between my legs. (I had to stop to perform this magical feat, but who cares?) I also could transfer the ball from one hand to the other around my back real fast-like.

While many of these tricks amounted to zip when it came to playing against real people, it didn’t matter; I was playing an imaginary team, and the imaginary crowd marveled at my ballhandling. The imaginary opponents shuddered at my wizardry, too. The coolest thing I could do was shooting with one hand. Forget about whether it was wise or not; since there was no one around to shut my game down, I was the king of the (driveway) court. Ultimately, someone like my brother or a neighborhood kid would come over and mess up my game, but there came a time when I marveled more than just my imaginary players.

The first time I applied these tricks in front of someone besides my thoroughly intimated imaginary competitors was during a high school P.E. class. When we split into groups for basketball, weights, tag football and slaughterball, I chose basketball, and by pure luck (and it would never happen again), the most clumsy, awkward schleps in the school signed up with me. While the future Marcus Allens and Ryne Sandbergs were playing flag football and lifting weights, I was with the guys who would probably grow up to become computer programmers and lifetime HO train enthusiasts still living with their mothers. I knew something was amiss when we picked teams for the first time; I was immediately perceived to be the franchise player and was snatched up first. This has never happened before or since. I was usually the handicap, the guy a team gets stuck with because they got first-pick and chose the super-jock.

There I was among a bunch of guys who allowed spittle to collect unchecked on the corners of their mouths and hiked their gym shorts up hopelessly way too high. I probably should have taken this time to be humble and help out these guys who were worse off than me, but I didn’t. I became the terror of the blacktop for that one semester, the Michael Jordan of these slobbering schleps. Actually, I secretly called myself Rick Barry. I remember watching moments of Golden State Warrior games where Rick Barry was the star. I recall the commentator repeat over and over again, “Barry, top of the key, two points!” There wasn’t much of a “key” to be at the top of on the blacktop, but since I couldn’t shoot too far beyond the free-throw line without looking like a girl, it didn’t matter.

Also, since my “muscle memory” at what was roughly the free-throw line was fairly decent, thanks to all the times I was imaginarily fouled during those imaginary games on the home driveway court, I stunned the schleps with those fancy one-handed shots from that distance, which might as well have been half-court for all they were concerned. The great thing about that semester on the blacktop was how these guys figured I was too good to mess with. Nobody tried to double-team me or slap that silly one-handed shot away. I was given all the room I needed; it was a turkey shoot.

If I was the Rick Barry among the schleps when it came to hoops, there was another semester when I was the Archimedes among the remedial math clan. After getting transferred out of my freshman pre-algebra class I remember walking down the hall towards my new math class, transfer papers in hand. I could hear what sounded like chanting ahead of me. As I drew nearer I figured out what they were chanting. I stopped to ensure I read the room number correctly on the transfer papers. They were chanting the multiplication tables! “Three times three equals nine; three times four equals twelve…” When I opened the door a football coach was at the head of the class leading the chant. He didn’t break the cadence, only waved me over, took my papers, and pointed to a chair in the back of the room. When I sat down I received the final blow of humiliation: the kid to my right was from our Special Education program. By the time nine times nine equals eighty-one I recognized a half-dozen more kids from Special Ed. So here’s the equation:

{ x = has a need to review six-grade math + can be taught by a football coach + is attended by >= 7 “special” students }

We can deduce that value x /= a room full of German rocket scientists.

It turned out I had a knack for remedial math. Never mind that I should have had this stuff down in elementary school – I was the wunderkind of the class. When I handed my tests in long before anyone else the other kids would look down at their half-completed tests and back up at me like I was some kind of egghead. I was a genius among my fellow classmates. When that semester ended I returned to pre-algebra where I struggled with the concept of letters in math equations and squeaked by with a C or a C minus. I never looked back after that. I graduated from high school and earned a BA in a university without taking another math class. Needless to say, I struggle when it comes to determining tips and sales tax.

I often think of those blacktop days, but I cannot translate how much I liked to play hoops back then into watching the sport today. My wife likes watching basketball, especially during March Madness and the NBA Playoffs. I’m so removed from the drama that all I can think of while watching parts of the games is how nice or dumb some of the uniforms look and why that Steve Nash guy doesn’t do something with that hair. I also like to try to find a player who doesn’t have a visible tattoo – kind of like a dynamic “Where’s Waldo.” As you can tell, I’m pretty emotionally detached from watching the actual game.

I have attended a few Sacramento Kings games, though, and I think some of the guys I know at work would have killed for the seats my wife bought for our friend Mad Dog and me some years ago. It was a post-season game, and we were about 10 to 15 rows from courtside on one of the corners near the aisle. While the fans were going ape all around me, I sat and wondered how cynical the presentation was. Keep in mind, I spent summers as a kid watching major league baseball, albeit not very attentively. What struck me is how the whole presentation was set up as if for people with A.D.D.; when the ball wasn’t in play, the cheerleaders were jumping around or that big diamond vision thingy was putting on a not-so-entertaining show. When the game was over, my ears were ringing, like the first time I saw the Ramones at the Warfield, but with none of the satisfaction.

Occasionally, I look in on the “Over Forty” basketball league at my club. These guys are twice my size, in very good shape and talk street hoops lingo like “cutting teeth” (ouch!). Sometimes after they have left and before the volleyball net goes up for the next group, I get a chance to dribble down memory lane. There are usually only a few guys on the court, so I can shoot a couple of hoops alone, but it’s not quite the same. That semester on the blacktop is long gone, and so is my muscle memory; now I need to be almost under the net to make a shot. Occasionally a fellow club member will invite me to play a quick game. I should do it. What would it hurt? I might learn something. I guess I just like to dream.

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

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My Forbidden Love for the Fedora
I’m thinking about buying a fedora. I’ve always loved the style, even though you rarely see anybody wearing them these days. I don’t think the fedora ever really returned to fashion from the 1940’s, but, maybe, I could start a trend. The entry for Fedora in gives a list of some fifty famous usages, but only a few represent real people in recent times.

Seriously, though, who am I kidding? I don’t really think I can start a trend, and, even if I begin wearing a fedora, what will I wear with it? I’m not much of a coat and tie man, and I think a man wearing fedora with a tie-less shirt just looks like a guy who any moment is going to break out into a tap dance or a guy trying to cover his baldness.

I tried for years to cover my growing widow’s peaks, moved my bangs around, firing three hairdressers who couldn’t pull a bottle of Rogaine out of the future or rub some magic tonic on my barren peaks and prescribe a daily dose of Jimboy’s El Gordos and Taquitos for hair care maintenance or at least tell me that widow’s peaks were hot! No, they just said ”Oh well, that’s the way it goes,” and attempted to cover my shiny shame wedges. After firing my last hairdresser (“firing” really means just finding a different hairdresser, but “firing” sounds more cathartic), I went home, wet my hair down, and combed my bangs straight back – exposing my receding hairline. The balding jokes stopped – the shame was removed. So you see, when I see my bald/balding brothers donning hats of one sort of another, I want to tell them it’s okay to be bald. Of course, some may be more concerned about preserving their body heat from the cold and protecting their scalp from the sun.

But I digress; the fact is I would have to re-invent myself if I did this. Now, I don’t have a problem with other people doing this kind of a thing – it’s almost required for a celebrity to do it; as a society, we are far too jaded to follow a movie star or pop singer who looks the same, acts the same for years on end – he or she becomes boring, but little old me would feel too self-conscious to show up at work one day wearing a tie, suspenders, a sport coat, and a fedora cocked to one side of my big melon. I guess you’ve probably figured out by now this post is not about announcing my “new look,” but simply a process I am going through to talk myself out of wearing one of these things.

The first time I can remember seeing a fedora was when my father introduced me to the man who would become my favorite celluloid hero, Humphrey Bogart. The man had style, even though he clearly wasn’t GQ material. He was a man’s man – the only guy I ever saw slap a woman, making it look not misogynistic, but macho, and oddly sexy.

I remember spending hours looking in the mirror, wearing any hat that faintly resembled a fedora, with a cigarette butt that I had plucked from one of the ash trays around the house. I would move my upper lip over my teeth, and, repeating ”Here’s looking at you, kid” and “Angel, you’re taking the fall.” I think there were times I didn’t want to be like Bogey, I wanted to be Bogey. If I would have continued in the family tradition of smoking, it wouldn’t have been my mother, father, or sister’s fault – it would be the cool cigarette moves of Sam Spade and “Casablanca’s” Rick Blaine. Thankfully, that didn’t come to pass. Also, if I had based my smoking on Bogey characters, I think my actions would net only horselaughs. I cringe to imagine myself, leaning against the bar, cigarette dangling between my fingers, replying to a bored waitress’ offer to sample TGI, Friday’s new, improved Jalapeno Poppers: “I stick my neck out for no one.”

I don’t have Bogey’s hard look. Before I met my wife and got a huge boost of self-confidence, I used to equate myself with Woody Allen’s character in the movie “Play It Again, Sam” a man who is coached in the ways of love by the ghost of Humphrey Bogart. I took comfort in one of the last lines that Allen’s character says to his hero: “True, you're not too tall and kind of ugly, but I'm short enough and ugly enough to succeed on my own.” I suppose that goes for me too, with or without a fedora.

Monday, May 01, 2006


But those things which proceed out of the mouth come
from the heart, and they defile a man. – Matthew 15:18

About a year ago I realized I needed to cut out all the cussing I was doing around the guys at work. I didn’t cuss that much to begin with, but enough to make anyone question what kind of Christian I was. I also started calling some of my fellow brothers in Christ on their dirty speech. They have thanked me on convicting them and have started watching their mouth – at least around me.

The use of profanity has become an epidemic – I cannot walk three blocks in downtown Sacramento without hearing the “F” or “S” word at least once (I am excluding the street people’s Tourette Syndrome-ranting, of course). What is also alarming is that profanity is no longer used chiefly in anger – it has become a part of our everyday speech.

I remember in college enjoying George Carlin’s The Seven Words You Can’t Say on TV. In the examples Carlin used the forbidden words were usually dispensed in anger or frustration. While there were exceptions, like the kind of dirty jokes Carlin and other "blue comedians" cracked, this was pretty much true. Now, these words are commonplace – well on there way to becoming part of the American-English vernacular.

A critical turning point for me in the development of my own potty mouth was when I took Weight Training in my High School Freshmen year. I found it strange (not to mention liberating) that students could freely cuss in front of the coach as long as it was in the proper context like not being about to bench press 185 lbs or only being able to do 22 instead of 25 chin ups. “Ah s%&#, coach, I could do 25 over the summer.” “That’s okay, Peterson, you’ll have plenty of time to make that goal this fall.” This was the first time my peers and I got to freely cuss in the open around adults as well as bathe our ears in such forbidden words. Sure, there were those moments when Mom got really mad, but that was a queue to duck and cover, and don’t ever get caught smiling at Mom when she cussed!

The cussing reached a fever pitch during the fall, winter, and spring physical fitness tests when the coaches would get out their clipboards and mark down your progress. On the free weights a dirty word replaced the panic verb “Spot!” You had to listen for it, though; it was usually grunted through the guy’s grinding teeth. I didn’t like the free weights. I always envisioned one of those mean seniors smiling at me, upside down, as my arms began to fail and I awaited the inevitable and horrifying experience of chocking to death on a free-weight bar while the satanic senior snickered.

At the weight machine – where everyone would gather around the person the coach was testing – it was a prerequisite to spit out a manly curse when you failed to make the goal you or the coach had expected. Cussing was so pervasive that I used to think the coaches were checking a “Profanity” box along with writing down the weight value: “Sorry Williams, you improved by 20 lbs., but you didn’t cuss; give me fifty push-ups.”

One fellow freshman slid under the bench press after moving the key to 90 lbs. and jerked the bar to success; 100 lbs.: success; 110 lbs: he violently cocked his head to the right, his leg kicked, his teeth grit, his veins bulged, then, just as you could hear the weights begin to lift off the stack, he let the bar go in resignation. The weights crashing back on the stack -- rattling the whole machine. Frustrated, the Freshman exhaled “Shoot, dang-it!” The weight room exploded in laughter. “Shoot, dang-it.” It was too late to take it back or exchange it with the standard boilerplate scatological expletive.

He became “Shoot, dang-it” to all the guys for the rest of high school and I never knew him well enough to find out his real name. Four years later during commencement, I remember hearing someone shout “Shoot, dang it!” when the graduate was called across the stage to receive his diploma. I remember laughing with a few guys around me – some of them the very same punks who, in junior high, harassed me and then for the next four years simply acted as if I didn't exist. It's strange how cruelty can bring estranged young men together if only for the time it takes someone to walk across a stage. In a better world there would be no junior high or high school caste system; in a better world we would have pulled ole “Shoot, dang-it” up from that weight machine bench, patted him on the back and said “You’ll get it next time, brother.”

As cruel as childhood is I find it strange that P.E. coaches didn’t help the situation – I mean, how could professional educators allow cussing in their classes? Then again, this wasn’t English or Algebra; these were the same guys who created such games as slaughter ball and smear-the-queer.

Thirty years later and now my youngest son is in high school and by the looks of his school-sponsored blog prep profanity has gone from the weight room to the Internet. It frustrates me that he cannot rise above his non-Christian friends’ and school system’s environment and keep his language clean. I’ll admit, if I was a Christian in my high school days it would have been a struggle.

I don’t think the acronyms many of them, as well as adults, use in the Internet and emails, are any better: OMG, OMFG, SOB, AFU, FUBAR, etc.; the intent behind them is as if they were spelled out. I will refer him to Matthew 15:18 mentioned above, or maybe Colossians 3:8:

But now you yourselves are to put off all these: anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy language out of your mouth.

I’ll also remind him that even when Jesus got really mad and drove out the money changers from the temple (John 2:14-16, et al) he didn’t even say “shoot, dang-it.”

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

The Office Workout: Stairwell Therapy
There’s a guy I know who works in my building who has cut caffeine out of his diet, resorting to green tea as an alternative to coffee which he used to drink quite frequently. While I find green tea as appealing of an alternative to coffee as chicken noodle soup to steak (only preferring these if I am really ill), I suppose since he is in excellent physical shape there’s not much else he can do to improve on his Greek-god like body. When my doctor regards my pathetic tabernacle and finds out that I drink coffee with my stable of Blizzards, Dilly Bars, and Buster Bars, he tells me to lay off the ice cream then leaves the examining room with a whoosh of his lab coat; nothing about cutting down on cafe. So you see caffeine is the least of my worries. Anyway, I don’t really drink that much – less than three cups a day. It is the mass consumption of Dairy Queen Products, not to mention, bread, rice, potatoes, and second helpings of all the above and more that I need to declare a moratorium on.

But there’s change in the air, my dear two readers! A couple of weeks ago my old friend Monique came down to the dungeon where I work and asked if I would like to walk to the seventh floor with her. “Why, are the elevators out?” She looked at me the way my wife does when I’ve reloaded too many times at the Indian casino buffet. “Oh, you want me to exercise with you; got it!” I said figuring out her glare. I didn’t really get a chance to think over the offer when she ducked in the stairwell and motioned me in – like she was going to dish some delicious dirt.

Leading the way, I started yakking about how our old manager “used to take these stairs everywhere – never using the elevator unless he was accompanying the director and that it was probably bad news for who ever they were going to visit and definitely bad news for our old manag,” “Be quiet!,” she said cutting me off. “Preserve your energy,” she gasped half-way between the basement and the first floor. It was too late my weight, my atrophied legs, and my jacking jaw did me in already. By the time we made it to Floor Seven I could feel my pulse through my eyeballs and my legs were quaking like an extended arm balancing a cane in the palm of the hand. When we walked all the way down the stairs Monique said we should do this once a day. I don’t know what evil spirit was in me at the time, but before I could scream “Are you out of your flippin’ mind?” a voice from somewhere in my throbbing melon said “Sure Monique, let’s do it.”

The next morning I was so sore I could barely stand up. I felt I needed a day or two to, as I told my wife “let the muscles relax and grow.” My wife, the nurse, did not side with me, “No, you need to continue.” We argued, but it was no use. My wife has the license and the big medical terms – all I have is the pleading lingo that has never worked with her.

After two weeks of this routine my legs stopped being sore, but I was still winded every time we did the walk. Besides these walks I also started taking the stairs whenever when I move about the building from floor to floor. This also included scheduled trips like going to an 8:30 meeting on the Sixth Floor every morning. When I walk into these meetings I can’t help but wonder if anyone can tell I am attempting to catch my breath and, at the same time, attempting to cover it up. I don’t know how dangerous this is – trying to breath regularly when you want to gasp. When scaling the six floor to the morning meeting a seemingly insignificant item as a planner becomes a boat anchor after Floor Four and by the time I reach my destination, before I open the stairwell door stagger out into the lobby, I am thankful that I never write in the damn thing – ink is just more weight.

I also, have scheduled trips every Monday, Wednesday mornings and Friday afternoons. On these trips I carry out-of-date two-pound data collectors and extra batteries to stations on the fifth and second floors. Not one trip to the fifth floor passes where I don’t have the urge to test the drop specifications of these “bricks-on-sticks.”

As an exercising tool you can’t make the stairwell stepping experience sexy. “It’s like the StairMaster, but more dangerous!” See what I mean. I suppose you could dress down, put a towel around your neck and work out in the stairwell during lunch, but who would want to smell B.O. in a confined place like a staircase?

Every once in a while we’ll run into someone who appears to be doing the same thing we are – they aren’t carrying anything and have that deep breathing in concert with a look of purpose on their faces as if this ugly, puke-yellow staircase is where they want to be, instead of the best cardio workout-while-you-work routine. Then there are the annoying guys who are just moving from one floor down to the next because it’s faster than the elevators. These are the guys who like to gallop down the stairs, staying airborne for too long at times, as if the laws of physics don’t apply to them. I swing wide on the landings to let them pass, but the gallop turns into a steady pace as I proceed down the next traverse only for them to start up with that gallop again. I feel a little like Ichabod Crane, afraid to turn around and face my pursuer who is in such a hurry, but refuses to overtake me.

The stairwell is a place where you find out just what kind of people these fellow stairwell travelers are. I suppose you could say the same thing about elevator sojourners. One of my more sophomoric, not to mention dangerous, elevator tricks when I worked as an evening proof reader in a near-vacant thirteen-floor building was to attempt to pry open the elevator doors when the car was in full motion. Boom! The elevator would perform an emergency stop, making the passengers feel their weight displace with a light, but significant thud. I stopped performing this little squealer when the car stopped between floors and stuck there. I was trying to impress the two female proofers I was with at the time. We were stuck there for three hours where I learned a lot about those elevator travelers.

Another trick I learned – this one from my high school sociology teacher – is that people will always balance out the spaces between fellow elevator travelers as more people leave a full elevator on a long trip. I would not move – occasionally pining someone to a corner of the cab as it continued its move up (or down) the empty out. My victim would finally get out in a huff before their appointed stop or would ask if I would move over.

I don’t know of any tricks for the stairwell and I don’t think I want to learn any. It has become a necessary evil until I get in shape; that and trying to lay off the Dilly Bars, but there’s no way I’m going to exchange coffee for green tea!

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Fair Trade Coffee and My Dirty Little Secret
It’s about a quarter to eight on a Thursday morning and I am sitting alone in
Temple, a coffee house about a block from where I work. I’ve been to this place only a couple times before and though the location, atmosphere, and coffee is good, I have no really pressing reason to patronize this place for my daily sacrament of java. The fact is there are two other places I can get my coffee that are next door to my office and another that is directly on the way to work – no detour required.

Ambience is not that important since I usually get the coffee to go, but this place is very comfortable – it used to be a bookstore about 15 years ago and hasn’t lost the feeling one gets in an old bookstore -- like you don’t want to leave. I can’t help but feel a little envious though – there’s always a large group of friends or coworkers occupying two or three pulled-together tables nearly every morning, talking about work or play – I’m always alone with nothing to keep me company but this tablet or whatever magazine or book I may have in my bag at the time.

There’s another reason I patronize this specific coffee house: they sell only fair trade coffee. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not one to buy exclusively from farmer’s markets, co-ops, and boycott products that are owned by companies that have been bought out by belligerent corporations; I don’t have the energy to keep that up. The fact is many nights of the week you’ll find me at the local Starbucks ordering lattes for my family. There – I said it, I feel a lot better now. No longer will I have to wonder if one of my old radical left-wing college buddies will recognize me when I am ordering a Frappuccino.

Since the Seattle-based chain started planting stores in locations near my house I’ve been choosing Starbucks nearly three out of every four times I get coffee in the evenings. Some of the guys at work complain that Starbucks is running independent coffee houses, like this one I’m sitting in, out of business. Though I like individuality and uniqueness of places like Temple, I also enjoy the uniformity, convenience, not to mention the wide selection of espresso drinks Starbucks offers.

Behind the warm tones, selves of shiny travel mugs, and tasteful jazz, folk, and rock music CD racks of the corporate coffee houses of North America lies the dirty back-end of the coffee business most middle-class Americans would rather not know about: the Free-Trade Zones. For that matter they probably wouldn’t want to know that the problem is pervasive – covering hundreds of goods and services North Americans buy everyday. The shirt on your back could have very well been made in some Guatemalan sweat shop. Most of us know about the Kathy Lee Gifford incident and, at times, feel a little self-righteous pointing our finger at the annoying “celebrity” and Wal-Mart icon, but it is pretty hard for just about anyone in North America to escape supporting, in one way or another, the institution of Free-Trade Zones.

The alternative to free trade – at least as far as coffee, tea, and chocolate goes – is fair trade, where producers receive a fair price for their product and work under safer conditions. Also, buyers and producers trade under direct long-term relationships – there’s no middle men to cut into the producers’ profit.

Fair trade coffees are not that easy to find and cost about two dollars more a bag. The fact is fair-trade coffee only represents one to two percent of the specialty coffee market. So if brands like Cloudforest, Peace, and Thanksgiving coffees don’t ring a bell you’re not alone. After a lot of bad press, Starbucks finally came out with a line of fair trade coffees.

Starbucks’ free trade coffees have identical packaging to the fair trade coffees, but without the Fair-Trade Certification seal; in other words: you have to look beyond the text about how Starbucks is giving back to the growers yada, yada, yada and find the seal to get the fair trade coffee. Also, as of this post, the few fair trade coffees they have are in whole-bean form only and good luck trying to get a latte or macchiato using fair trade coffee.

This fair trade verses free trade business hasn’t soured my appetite for Starbucks – only sobered me on the politics of coffee and just about everything else I buy, for that matter. In fact, since I discovered this little coffee house on the way to work I have discovered that nearly half of the independent coffee houses I visit either at work or during off hours use fair trade coffees.

It’s another Thursday morning and I am sitting alone, as usual; this time where the old book store’s windowed display case used to be. I feel better now that I drink fair trade coffee and almost want to stand up, like a model, beckoning pedestrians to come in and try this fair trade coffee. The humiliation I would surely feel would be my penance for my post-meridian excursions into corporate coffee country.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Cracking a Smile
I was walking to work the other day when I ran into one of the women who work in my building. “Smile, it can’t be all that bad.” I give her a perfunctory grin to make her happy. I thought “Man, do I look that serious? I’m not in a bad mood – I haven’t looked at my desk yet.” I run into another fellow employee about fifty feet up the mall who tells me one of her funny one-liners as we pass each other. This time I crack a genuine smile. Then, for the first time ever, for reasons I still don’t know, I attempt to hold that expression. I hold it for a quarter of a mile, passing other fellow workers who smile back at me. I smile all the way into my office building. At the elevator a woman who rarely addresses me smiles and says hello. She addresses me by name and asks how I am doing.

“Hmm, maybe this smiling thing is something I should work on,” I say to myself. But by this time my facial muscles begin to ache, you know, like your legs do on the day after the first ski trip of the season. I have always been told I look too serious. In family pictures there are two faces of me: the candid ones where I look like I belong in a Bergman film and the staged ones where my mom, her arms akimbo, says “Smile, this is [Insert name of any festive occasion].”

Most of the people who know me think I’m a nice guy; maybe a little too self-absorbed at times, but not enough to warrant them thinking that I’m nursing a hemorrhoid or plotting their bloody demise. Then again, I can remember these guys telling people I am a “nice guy” – as if my friends don’t think I did a good enough job conveying that message directly.

I once interviewed for a job I just knew I was going to get. Looking back on the experience now and considering the other applicants, I am not so sure I had this one cinched up. Still, the guy who got the job – someone who worked under me – said he thought he got position because he’s an “easy-going guy.” I should have read into that, but I was too pissed about not getting the position and humiliated that someone under me was chosen. I didn’t smile for weeks. If someone would have told me back then “Smile, it can’t be all that bad” I would have broken a window!

I’ve heard from outside sources (the inside source being my mother) that smiling is good for you – both muscularly and emotionally. There have been scholarly studies done on this. Can you imagine getting a Masters in Smiling? There is even such a thing as “Laughter Yoga.” (Don’t laugh, here’s the URL: Laughter Yoga is supposed to help people with their self-esteem, stress, depression, urges to kill someone, et al by making them laugh and smile. I can just see myself in organic cotton sweats, assuming a yoga pose on my mat surrounded by a bunch of old sour pusses, and requesting to the Master Laugher to put in my Dave Chappell DVD: “Hey fast-forward to the skit about the crack whore. Damn that’s a riot!”

On those rare occasions that I smile or laugh I can also feel a little foolish. I was eating orange chicken at the local Panda Express and reading an article in The New Yorker by David Sedaris. Try attempting to suppress laughter while reading and eating orange chicken and fried rice – it can get messy. I don’t know how many people saw me. I must have looked kind of crazy with the orange sauce dribbling down my chin and the tears rolling down my cheeks. My wife tells me I have a great laugh, if not a tad too loud at times; a rather eccentric friend tells me he hates viewing comedies with me because my cackle drowns-out the actors’ following lines. He says he prefers to watch comedies like “Airplane!,” “Young Frankenstein,” and Marx Brothers films in absolute silence. He says he laughs hours later when he is at home.

I think I’m going to work on my smile. Currently, I’m wearing a stress-induced mask like the local undertaker. It will take some practice to crack the ice. Perhaps I’ll rip some Dave Chappell, Chris Rock, and vintage Firesign Theatre on my MP3 player and walk around the office, earbuds in place, laughing my rear end off.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Tango and Altoids
I’m standing in a circle in one of the studios normally used for aerobic or step exercises. With my tongue I jockey an Altoid around my mouth – the last of many I’ve been popping since I got off work and made my way to the health club. I look around the circle, checking out my fellow classmates – mostly couples.

In the middle of the circle is Rebecca, a tall, dark-haired woman with a black beaded cocktail dress and three-inch stiletto heels. Her partner, Aaron, is also in black with black suede dancing shoes with Cuban heels – cool.

This is the first night of Argentine Tango lessons sponsored by the athletic club I belong to. I love Argentine Tango, but my self-consciousness makes dancing – even with my wife of 18 years – a mixed bag of emotions. I continue because I believe I will ultimately overcome these feelings and be able to fully appreciate this wonderful dance and the absolute hypnotic music we dance to.

After doing some warm-up exercises Rebecca tells us to find a partner. Immediately, all the women who came with men clutch on to their partners as if they had just been told the floor may drop out from under them. I can’t help but take this personal – like all these women checked me out when I walked in the studio and ran to their partners spitting “Please don’t make me dance with the short, bald guy!” I go counterclockwise past all the white knuckled women until I find a wallflower – usually an older woman who was told tango lessons would be much more fun than bingo.

Dancing is a strange activity. Its roots have a lot to do with the mating process, which makes the experience with a stranger all the more awkward. Argentine Tango pushes this awkwardness far beyond what I felt when I took waltz lessons from an ex-Arthur Murray teacher at work. When the few of us loners find partners and introduce ourselves, Rebecca and Aaron illustrate just how awkward this is going to be – they show us the close embrace: Rebecca leans into Aaron almost as if she tripped and crashed into Aaron’s chest; her face so close to his neck she could be whispering “Hey Aaron, check out the short guy who swallowed a whole tin of Altoids. Someone must have tipped him off about his breath.” They back off and show us the much more conservative “salon embrace.” Okay, that makes me feel a little better.

I check to see if the Altoids did their job by breathing in sharply through the mouth. Ooh, that almost hurts! My wife tells me I have bad breath when I get home from work, but when I go from work to the club and ultimately get real close to a stranger in a salon embrace I don’t have a bottle of mouthwash or a bagel to tame the acids raging in my empty stomach.

Tonight my wife is not with me – she has a college class, but even if she was present Rebecca suggests that switching partners is good so couples don’t end up "complementing each others' mistakes." My wife supports Rebecca’s suggestion so I’m out of luck whether she’s here or not.

My first partner is a woman who must be in her late 50’s/early 60's and can’t be over five feet tall. This may not seem too bad if you know that I am only 5’6, but it is. Tango is all about intrusions – the leader placing his feet deep inside of the follower’s space. This lady’s little legs can’t create the space required to execute the proper steps -- at least for a rookie like me. We trip and almost fall. She gets the idea that this is her fault, and while it really isn’t I’m frustrated enough to give the impression that it is. I look at all the previously white knuckled, 5'6ish women, now laughing and feeling good that they are with their dates and not with a stranger like me.

After we stumble through an otherwise wonderful tango by Astor Piazzolla it is time for the leaders (men) to move to the next follower (women). After I travel over half the entire distance of the circle, past all the white knuckled women I find Julie, a young woman at least five inches taller than me.

Tango is not meant for this kind of height difference – at least not where the woman would easily win the tip off in a basketball game against the man. When the music begins I realize I can’t even see over her shoulder to direct us around other couples; navigation must be done by dead reckoning. At least I don’t have to worry about stepping on her feet.

Time to change up; I finish the circle only to find I am back with the five foot lady. I finish the lesson with my two partners, check out of the club, and go to my car where I put in my Tango Nuevo CD and crank it up. Perhaps next week I can talk my wife into skipping class and going dancing with me, and then I'll be the one with the white knuckles.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Faith, Liberals, and Biscuits
I had just sat down with my second-helping of eggs and sausage and a really good biscuit when I heard one of my brothers in Christos exclaim “God bless President Bush! We are so fortunate to have a godly man in the White House. Can you imagine how bad off we would be if Hillary becomes our next president?” Suddenly, the eggs and sausage didn’t look so good. The biscuit was still wonderful. I’m not one to lose my appetite for biscuits over something someone has said across the dinner table.
Every January I make the pilgrimage to Santa Nella, California for the annual Faithful Men’s Conference. Since 2001 we have been meeting here at “The Oasis of I-5” for speeches, prayers, hymns, fellowship, not to mention breaking bread. Faithful Men is sponsored by the IFCA International, which stands for Independent Fundamental Churches of America. Since I placed my trust in Jesus Christ I would never go back to the lukewarm churches I attended when I was a child and later when I was courting my wife and attended church with her because she wanted to go and I didn’t want to be without her.

The thing is I have been a liberal far longer than I have been a Christian. Now there are plenty of churches out there where the pews, as well as pulpits, are filled with liberals, but I have found that most churches do not believe in the literal interpretation of the Word of God. I think whenever man says “Well the books of Job and Jonah are only allegories and shouldn’t be taken literally” then you’ve got flawed humans telling other flawed humans what God really meant: a faith based on human interpretation – scary.
Since a true fundamentalist will leave politics out of sermons, theology, Bible studies, prayer meetings, etc., I can attends these functions, like Faithful Men, and worship my God without feeling like I am at a Republican Party fund raiser – which has as much appeal to me as being cast into the Lake of Fire.
It’s the road trip conversations – where there’s nowhere to go but out the door into a tuck and roll on the Interstate; the comments in the dinning area, and the discussions between speakers when we are not studying God’s word where I wonder if anyone will see my ACLU membership card when I open my wallet to leave a tip; those are the trying times for this left-winger. “Hey, you know that Berkeley church group that made it out here? Did you know many of them belong to a Young Republican’s group right on campus? Praise the Lord, there’s some straight arrows at ‘Bezerkeley’ after all.” Or “Bill’s son died in Iraq. You know, it really gets my dander up to see all those Democrat congressmen criticizing President Bush.” [One nice thing about these men is that they never cuss, even if their choice of words seems hopelessly corny.]

Of course there are some political subjects that are so deeply woven into Christian theology that they cannot be avoided even in serious study: abortion rights and Gay/Lesbian rights, to name only two. Nobody here has asked me how I feel about Rowe vs. Wade; I quietly eat my biscuit.