Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Christmas Diary

[Family Christmas 1973, taken by my brother, so he is missing in the photo]

8:30 A.M.

I woke up early (6:30), which I didn’t expect to, but I guess I’m still following childhood habits on Christmas morning! (The rest of the year, not so much.) It’s now 8:30 and I have made several trips downstairs to dump some garbage. I do believe that I am the only one in this building up, which is surprising. Of course, not everybody is here. I realize that this is the first Christmas morning I have ever been here, or even the days leading up to Christmas, and following it.

After I got up, I lit an angel candle for the apartment and a vanilla-cinnamon scented candle for the kitchen. Then I sat down on the couch with a wonderful cookbook that my friend Patty gave me, The Early American Cookbook, which is made up of the favorite recipes and dishes of famous men and women throughout America’s early history. I wanted to figure out special dish to cook for breakfast. I had bought enough staples yesterday that I probably had whatever ingredients I needed.

I selected a dish I had never made before, “Mrs. Jefferson’s Egg and Tomato Bake,” which I think is fitting in that Thomas Jefferson is one of my favorite people in history. That dish is currently baking in the oven.

In order to even prepare that dish, I had to wash a couple of sink-loads of dishes. I won’t even tell you the condition of my kitchen (or the rest of the apartment); I’ll leave that your imagination. However, one of the projects I want to work on during this break is the apartment, so today is as good of a day as any to get a good start on it!

I also needed to throw away some garbage, thus the trips I made up and down the stairs. It was fresh and cool feeling outside, and very quiet, which is unusual for Hollywood. It had been extremely windy last night, and the evidence of that was shown by the large number of palm fronds that were all over the patio. The poor pool man is going to have quite a time when he comes to clean the pool! Even though the pool was covered with various palm tree detritus, the pool still looked inviting enough for a swim (but not this season!). Since I had used the pool so much in the summer, I wonder what the residents of would think if I went for chilly swim Christmas morning! (But I’m not that brave.)

The idea of maybe taking a nice walk later popped into my head, but meanwhile, I am getting my exercise by dumping this garbage—three trips up and down the three flights of stairs so far. And, sad to say, I’ve got several more trips of garbage-dumping yet to do! In fact, right now I’m going to do some more before my breakfast is done in the oven.

9:09 A.M.

The breakfast was good, although I think what made it was the fried bread crumbs and bacon topping, not the tomatoes and eggs. Of course, in a way, I may have lost all ability to correctly determine. While I was waiting for the eggs to bake, I was thinking of what to drink. I decided to follow our family’s “adult Christmas” pattern (which means that we who had once been children were now drinking adults...but there were still children present, in the form of my sister’s kids). We’d wake up, having something hugely sticky-sweet, such as a coffee cake or some kind of sweet rolls (something we wouldn’t normally have for breakfast 364 days out of the year) and coffee for those who want it. I decided to skip the coffee this Christmas morning.

Then, as we sat in the living room SURROUNDED by presents, we’d chow down on the coffee cake and Dad would place on the coffee table Dad’s punch (we know no other name for it), which really gets the present-opening party going, which will last all day until it is time for Christmas dinner.

We’d open our presents one-by-one, starting from the youngest in age and moving on up. I don’t want to open presents in any other way, because it is so much fun to see what everybody else is getting (we don’t just care about only ourselves) and, this is especially good if what somebody is opening is something that YOU gave them, which everybody else gets to see. As I think you can imagine, we were very careful and thoughtful gift-givers in our family, always working extremely hard to give amazingly wonderful gifts that were to be well-received, which they almost always were. Which is one reason why I am (kind of) glad to not be doing that right now, because I just don’t have that kind of energy this year. (But then again, here it is Christmas morning and I don’t have any presents to unwrap. Maybe I’m kind of stupid! I am also wishing that maybe I hadn’t opened Donna’s box of gifts so soon, as, other than a few people at work, she is the only person who gave me gifts this year.)

Huh, what’s that you say? You wanna hear about “Dad’s punch”? Well, glad you asked!

This is for sure a “crowd pleaser” no matter what your guests normally think about liquor. Dad says that this is his own version of a “French 75”, and I can see that is somewhat close…but no cigar. For one thing, Dad always liked to put in about five times the liquor than normally called for. I mean, Dad wanted the liquor! (Mom, too.)

I haven't made this in a long time and I think maybe I got one aspect wrong, but I already see that regardless, it has begun its desired effect. Now, this drink will send your brain right up to the stratosphere! It actually feels “spiritual” in a good and positive way, but I think maybe all it is is a very effective drunk.

Anyway, the way Dad makes it is in a large sterling silver punch bowl (because you are going to serve a crowd). I don’t have the silver punch bowl, so I just used a crystal pitcher, which even that is probably too much drink for this poor single body.

Pour in one whole bottle of champagne and one whole bottle of vodka, then add a certain portion of…well, for years Dad used frozen pink lemonade concentrate, but the past couple of years he used frozen limeade concentrate, which was a huge hit, so that is what I used this year. I don’t remember how much, I think one can of the frozen juice, but today I think I used too much. You repeat the above recipe, bottle-by-bottle of champagne and vodka and can of frozen juice concentrate until the punch bowl is nearly full. Then you fill the bowl with tons of ice (I think the ice is probably necessary to dilute all that liquor). This is a drink that will make you HAPPY very FAST!

I had made it one time (with the lemonade) for a party I gave when I was in law school and you wouldn’t BELIEVE the goings-on that happened that evening. [I mean, some guys took to walking around with their cock and balls hanging out of their unzipped pants which the girls seemed to enjoy instead of running away screaming, and one friend, whenever he had to take a whiz (which was often), simply used a handy wastebasket…he was having so much fun that he didn’t even want to “leave the party” for the time it took to go to the bathroom. Yet, even with all that, not one person vomited. It’s a high like you won’t believe, but it doesn’t make you sick.] All of which reminds me, I’ve got to get back to giving parties….

For myself here today, I used one split of champagne, which I poured into a measuring cup first to see how much a “split” was (it’s basically a cup), and then poured in a matching amount of vodka, which was kind of hard to do, because I am used to making drinks by the jigger, not by the CUP (by the 1½ ounce, not buy the 8 ounces)! But anyway, I poured it in, and then put in a cup’s worth of limeade concentrate and then filled the pitcher with ice cubes.

I think maybe I should have put in only half a cup of limeade; the “lime” in this mix is a bit too intense for me.

So far, I’ve had only one old fashioned tumbler full of the punch and already my head is a hot air balloon several thousand feet above my body. And during our adult Christmases, we would keep drinking this punch ALL DAY until the entire Universe was spinning and about the only way we could walk from one end of the room to the other was to lie down flat on our backs in the living room. Not that we were drunks or anything.

This really makes me miss Dad. He was sure some bartender, LOVING to mix drinks for guests, who loved to come visit and enjoy his drinks. This is part of the reason that after my parents got old enough that most of the friends of their own generation died, they merely moved down to the next generation and made friends. Of course, it was mostly due to the fact that they were cool, loving, and brilliant, but one can’t discount the positive effect of the liquor! Mom always said that it ISN’T a party without liquor, and to her, a “party” was two people sitting together in the same room.

Gosh, what great people they were!

[Dad at the bar, Christmas 1985]

2:00 P.M.

Well, I spent most of the morning looking for a particular cookbook out of which I wanted to make several dishes for my Christmas dinner. It’s the Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Cross Creek cookbook, one of my favorites. I know it saw it around here somewhere a couple of weeks ago, but now it is nowhere to be found. I carefully looked on every bookshelf and restacked numerous stacks of books that I have no place to put, so they are all over the floor. I also have hundreds, if not thousands of books in boxes in storage in various locations. I can’t even imagine what books are in those boxes at this point, but I do know that the Cross Creek cookbook isn’t one of them. It really hurts my heart to have so many wonderful things that I not only can’t use, I can’t even find, or, worse than that, remember that I have. I somehow feel good about all that, though, for some reason. A solution will come, a decent place to move to, I can’t help but keep feeling that. It’s unreasonable to have to live this way and therefore there is a solution that I will be willing to take.

I wasn’t terribly set on those Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings recipes, anyway (pecan-stuffed chicken, cream of peanut soup, and so on), so found a recipe for stuffed whole chicken on the Internet that looked good (and it sure smells good cooking right now!), and I adapted an Adele Davis recipe on chestnut dressing so that I could use the pecans I had bought. I think it will all turn out okay, so I am happy.

When the Cross Creek cookbook finally does turn up (I will be happy to find out where it actually was!), I will laugh and then treat myself to recipes from it some other time. One of the things I really plan to do STARTING NOW is do a lot more cooking, and by that I don’t mean the simple, easy to do (diet) crap that I have been making lo these many years, but delicious, wonderful recipes that are a joy to prepare and even better to eat. Careful with the portions, though. But today, Christmas Day, to hell with the portions.

The whole time I was looking for the cookbook, and also doing some sorting and cleaning up while I was at it, I was, of course, enjoying Dad’s punch. I see that with more of the ice melting, the limeade isn’t too bad, so maybe I did make it right after all. It FEELS right, anyway.

While I was looking through stuff, I found a pile of papers that had been Dad’s, one of which was his top-level security clearance application he had filled out so that he could work on government contracts with the Atomic Energy Commission. It’s very cool in that it has a resume of all the schools he went to, and when, and all the jobs he ever had. It has every address where he lived ever since he got married, and the dates he and Mom lived there (and me, too, for most of that). I’m going to put those addresses and dates on a spreadsheet so that I can get a good picture of my personal history in that regard. Some of those moves were confusing to me when I was young and the memories have gotten distorted, so now I will understand their timing more.

5:00 P.M.

I got a “Merry Christmas” phone call from my friend Bob in Palm Springs. He was having a quiet day himself, too. He said the view from his apartment was glorious, the setting sun was reflecting gold on the snow-dusted mountains. He makes me feel thankful for the job that I have. For one thing, all this time off we get right now. He works at a Petco and worked yesterday and will work again tomorrow. I guess he was lucky he hadn’t had to work today, too!

He all but hates it. When I met him, he was office manager of a very small business in Beverly Hills. I worked there, too, for a while. The owner retired a couple of years ago and closed down the business, so Bob was out of a job. Bob took this as a good time to get the hell out of Dodge (L.A.), but Palm Springs, where he went, doesn’t have much of a job market. Bob’s biggest problem job-wise is that he never learned computers (they used typewriters in that office), which means that he is utterly unqualified for any office job, now. Thus, the retail sales job at Petco. Actually, retail wouldn’t be so bad for him, except he’d rather the product be a fine line of men’s clothing, something like that. But he enjoys being with the animals and pet accouterments, it’s just that he is lonely there. All the other sales people are “young kids” and he can’t relate. Also, the company is extremely badly managed.

But he was feeling hopeful in his phone call. The company brought in a new hotshot manager to “whip the store in shape for the essential holiday retail season”, some young female martinet whose abrasive attitude rubbed Bob the wrong way from the get-go. He had a meeting with her to let her know that her manner was not working with him (he really didn’t care if he got fired), but she was having none of his advice. “This is the only way I know how to be,” she said. Too bad.

So he wrote a letter of complaint about her to upper management and apparently so did several others. Perhaps most telling of all was that the store had its annual Christmas party and according to Bob, only two people showed up, and he sure wasn’t one of them. “Who were the two?,” I asked. “The new manager and the assistant manager,” he said. (He had been told this by the assistant manager.) I guess that party might have been fun for those two if they were into S&M and it took place in a dungeon. Anyway, this kind of thing is a strong indication to upper management that things aren’t good out there. Of course, their solution will probably be to fire all the sales staff, but Bob thinks they will actually get rid of the manager. Well, we’ll see.

6:30 P.M.

I guess I ought to give an honest review of my dinner, which seemed to take forever to cook (you know how the indicator on that meat thermometer seems to NEVER get up there to the top where the “poultry” temperatures are?). The chicken was okay; it wasn’t bad, but I wouldn’t serve it to company. I think the recipe called for cooking temperatures that were way too high, but I am used to slow-cooking a whole chicken in the oven overnight (comes out tender and juicy beyond belief), which of course I didn’t do for this. The person who submitted the recipe said that her family never eats the skin. At first I took this as her telling us how holy she was (no matter what diet I am on, I detest the idea of throwing away the skin and therefore never do), but now I realize that with that recipe you CAN’T eat the skin, which dries up and turns into pork rinds or chicken jerky. The chicken inside the skin was okay, a little dry but at least not burned, but only merely acceptable. I guess if someone likes “extra crispy” when they get Kentucky Fried Chicken, this would be okay. But it could be that my oven runs hotter than it should.

The hybrid stuffing that I made was the best part. What was wrong with that, though, was that there was about a cup’s more of it than I could fit inside the chicken, so I put it on the baking pan all around the chicken on the outside. Big mistake. Although I think that was something I could do with the pecan stuffing recipe I had hoped to make, if only I had found the cookbook. However, being exposed like that (instead of safe inside the chicken), it all burned to charcoal and it looks like I I will have a horrible time cleaning out that pan! Also, it absorbed all the juices as they dripped during cooking, so I couldn’t baste properly. Instead, every so often, I sprayed olive oil on the chicken. I had never done that before, so maybe it was that that contributed to the crispy skin, I don’t know.

The cornbread came out good, though, although I can take virtually no credit for that as I took the easy way out and used a Marie Callender’s mix. So easy, pour the mix into a bowl, add water, stir, and then pour into a cornbread baking pan. Interestingly, mine came out better than the cornbread does in the restaurant. In the restaurant, the bread is crumbly and you can’t eat it with your hands, it just breaks apart, so I eat it with a fork like cake. The home version, though, hung together nicely.

I also went easy with vegetables and merely cooked up a frozen package of artichoke hearts, which I felt was different from the usual fare of peas, corn, broccoli, or various beans, that I eat every day. Ah, they were a bit too fibrous and not all that exciting. But that was my fault; I could have made something a little more interesting. (The recipe I was GOING to cook out of the Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings cookbook is a truly sinful “carrot soufflé”.)

Having enough starch with the bread crumbs in the stuffing and the cornbread, I decided against the other dishes I considered, some form of rice, or maybe garlic mashed potatoes. What I already had was enough, so that was it.

For dessert I had gotten a Sara Lee frozen pumpkin pie and some vanilla ice cream, but after all that dry and baked other stuff (and the ultimate result of a faint odor of "burnt" in the air), I couldn’t get into baking yet something else, and my palate craved something cold and creamy, so I just had the ice cream by itself.

9:00 P.M.

I suddenly got very sleepy and decided to lie down and take a nap. I woke up about a half hour ago and figured that maybe that pumpkin pie might be nice, now. So I put it in the oven along with an oven thermometer to check the accuracy of the oven’s thermostat. That will be ready in about another half hour. Meanwhile, I fixed myself an eggnog. Again, I took the easy route (remember, I still actually have the flu) and simply bought “store-bought” eggnog. For liquor, I put in a jigger of dark rum and a jigger of Crown Royal and dashed nutmeg on top. That went down so easy, I just might make another one to go with my pie. I do have more ice cream, but I think I had enough with Christmas dinner.

It looks like this holiday was more about drinking than anything else. I went through the pitcher I had made of Dad’s punch and enjoyed every drop. I knew with my first drink of the stuff that I wasn’t going to go driving anywhere today, Which is fine, I am perfectly content to stay home.

9:35 P.M.

The pie is ready, but I am supposed to let it sit and cool. The oven thermometer read a perfect 350, but the dial was set at 375, so it actually cooks a little LOWER.

10:30 P.M.

The pie was good enough that I had two pieces. And what the heck, it needed to have ice cream with it, so I succumbed to that. While I enjoyed my pie, I also enjoyed watching on my computer all my favorite music videos that I had bought from iTunes. I’ve long loved music videos and decried the decline of MTV. Now it looks like the iTunes store may be taking up some of the slack. It's a good thing I bought this iMac with the huge, wide-screen monitor!

Bedtime:

I’m writing this final section the day after the fact. Around 11:30 P.M., I got into bed, but read a couple of chapters out of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Capitalism, which is the third or fourth book I have gotten in the “PIG” series, which I love. I hadn’t known before that the word “capitalism” was a pejorative devised by Karl Marx, capitalism’s gravest enemy. Prior to his coining of that word, it was known as “Free Enterprise.” However, free enterprisers willingly adopted Marx's word "capitalism", because they understood that capital, which you get when you don’t spend all your money but save for future productive investment, is a foundation of free enterprise. Those who agree with socialists somehow think that free enterprise is bad, but that’s because they didn’t have the foresight to save their money. Envious of those who did, they devised a method of stealing it (“'fair’ reallocation of assets”) from those who have it and giving to those who don’t (themselves). Isn’t there a fable about this? The grasshoppers and the ants, maybe? Is that really saying that socialists are a plague of locusts? Yes, I do think that is exactly what that is saying. But no wonder socialism is always a clock that gets wound once and then runs down and eventually stops. It’s run by people who don’t understand money, and when you systematically steal it from those who do, you remove their incentive to make more of it. So you kill the goose that lays the golden egg. Wow, I’m just now realizing how much economic sense exists in old fables!

Anyway, it was a quiet, but enjoyable Christmas. No complaints…just a non-frantic feeling of bliss.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Snapping Out Of It



Yesterday it was reindeer, so today we will have a sleigh! Isn’t that beautiful? There actually is a company, called Sugarloaf Mountain Sleighs that makes “real live” sleighs for people to use (wouldn’t do me much good here in L.A., but it would be cool to have something like this in a rural location in a snowy region). Sugarloaf Mountain Sleighs is located in Pennsylvania, and I wonder if the Amish buy sleighs from them? Probaby not, as these are too pretty for the Amish, but the Amish strike me as the perfect people to use something like this. But wouldn’t it fun to ride across snowy hills and dales (to grandmother’s house!) in something like this (assuming you had the horse and all)? It takes my imagination back to quieter, more peaceful times. Of course, I’m not against snowmobiling! But this seems romantic.

Does anyone here subscribe to GoodWord? One of our school librarians turned me on to this and I have subscribed ever since. Every day you get emailed a word, its pronunciation (which you can hear), its use in conversation, and its derivation. It’s the derivation part that I like the best. It probably goes without saying, but there is a lot of wisdom located inside of words, and if a person wants to keep learning, understanding words themselves is probably a good place to start.

Today’s “good word” was “sleigh,” and it was that site that had the link to the Sugarloaf Mountain site.

I feel much better after what might have been a somewhat mournful post yesterday. Well those moods do come upon us, sometimes (and lots of times around Christmas), but I snapped out of it. I opened a box of Christmas gifts sent to me by my good friend Donna, and among some great books and music, she tucked in some Crabtree & Evelyn shower gel, after shave balm, and soap, all in a manly scent called “Nomad” (which I still am, a nomad, although perhaps more in spirit now than in actuality). I don’t really know how to handle shower gel, I guess you just squeeze some on a natural sponge and scrub away. That’s how I used it, anyway, as a special “perk me up” treat. With that and the after shave balm that I used afterwards, I was surrounded by a very subtle masculine fragrance that made everything seem wonderful. I’m going to treat myself to some of it today, again, after I post this. I haven’t showered yet, today…I just had a breakfast of blueberry waffles and, sorry to all those health nuts out there, but I used only white flour this time, so that, too, was a special treat. (I normally put in half or three-quarters whole wheat flour, but I happened to be out of it, so I gave myself an indulgence.) WITH butter and real maple syrup, thank you very much! (I probably would have loved to have gone in a sleigh to get some maple sap up in a forest in Vermont. And if the butter had been churned from freshly-drawn whole Jersey cow milk…. Okay, let’s not go too far; picking these things up at the grocery store three blocks down is pretty nice; I’m not complaining about commercial convenience!) I also had one three-cup size of hazelnut-flavored coffee and a glass of orange juice. I don’t know what it is about orange juice and me, these days, but suddenly there is no more delicious thing on Earth. Orange juice is the nectar of the gods! I can’t get enough of it. Maybe due to the flu my body is craving Vitamin C, which I haven’t been so good about taking this time. But the natural source of it is probably better than a pill, anyway. Regardless of the reason, I have become “a pregnant woman and pickles” about orange juice.

I spent the rest of the day yesterday combing through dozens of websites, trying to find the ideal combination of “mountain lodge in the snow” that also offered a huge Christmas brunch (that I could afford), or, failing that, some other potentially beautiful fun place. While I found lots of possibly good places, none of them quite hit the mark I was searching for. I tried Big Bear Lake, Yosemite National Park, and Idyllwild (in the mountains above Palm Springs), all of which do have snow, but then I worried about the drive getting INTO those places (not quite so eager to slide my Cadillac off the side of a mountain or get it stuck in a snow drift just for a Christmas dinner in the snow). If I were going up for a weekend of skiing or snowshoeing, that would make more sense.

So instead I tried Disneyland, which is definitely open on Christmas Day, from 8 AM to midnight—but then discovered that is the single most crowded day there in the whole year. So next I tried the Danish town of Solvang (that was the best bet financially), and The Festival of Lights at The Mission Inn in Riverside (one of my favorite hotels in the world) and THAT made Solvang pale in comparison, but realistically, it was just too expensive to enjoy all by myself, so ultimately I hung up the whole idea and went to bed.

My sister called me back this morning and yes, it had been her cell phone cutting out because while we were talking, she had been driving through the wine country of Napa heading toward Clear Lake, but when she started to ascend into the mountainous portion of the trip, she immediately got beyond signal range. Then, making it into a comedy of errors, the back of her cell phone fell off and her battery fell out and as the car swerved around curves, the battery disappeared somewhere into the ozone under the seats. I think her cell phone is one that is “rode hard and put away wet,” because (to my knowledge, anyway), she doesn’t have a landline, since she has three different domiciles (if that is the right word), so the cell phone makes more sense. (So she is more of the nomad than I am, currently. As for me and MY cell phone, I think I use it only to call AAA, which means I use up about ten minutes every two years.)

My sister definitely sounds like someone who could benefit from a Bluetooth cell phone connection to her car radio or some such technology. Maybe her fiance will give her one for Christmas.

So she hadn’t hung up on me, but had been incommunicado for a day, until she managed to find where the phone’s battery had hidden itself.

She had also been depressed and crying, though (she told me), for reasons I wrote about yesterday. I definitely do understand.

She’s going to have a quiet Christmas with her two kids, just the three of them in their beautiful house on the lake. I think that will be wonderful and probably better than a noisier and more crowded “family thing”. Since she’s in that mood (and I think I am, too), I am guessing that my brother and his wife are also wanting the same thing. This will actually be the first time they will have had Christmas in their beautiful Las Vegas house, and I imagine them being like a honeymooning couple, which they deserve, because they so brilliantly help so many other people with their weddings. And as for my other sister, she wouldn’t have ever joined the rest of us for the holidays if our parents didn’t more or less make her come. Now that they’re gone, so she is she.

I decided this morning that I wasn’t going to let nostalgia and sentiment ruin this Christmas break, and running around like a chicken with my head cut off in trying to make this one day into something that I remembered from the past was a bit silly. Instead, I should work on making the whole break into something fruitful, STARTING with Christmas Day. I was strongly reflecting on that beautiful slogan that had been on the Grove Park Inn site, “Over nine decades of history. It’s time for your story now.” That’s MY responsibility, and nobody else’s.

Right now, I’m planning on cooking my own Christmas dinner for tomorrow. I am going to enjoy my personal setting and location and make it into something nice—a task that will take the whole of Christmas break and beyond, but now is the perfect time to start.

So I’m going food shopping right after my “Nomad” shower gel and after shave balm treatment! (But first, another glass of orange juice, please!)

Have a Merry Christmas, everybody!

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Looking Backward Through The Tunnel


Here is a picture of three of Santa’s reindeer, resting up for the big night (tomorrow night!). I took this picture several years ago at an arctic animal zoo in Swedish Lapland beyond the Arctic Circle. (I am very pleased to say that I have been beyond the Arctic Circle, just as I have also been as far south as Stewart Island, New Zealand, which had been used as the southernmost disembarkation point for explorers headed to Antarctica…although, sigh, I have not been to Antarctica, itself.) I think these animals are extremely cute and elegant with that immense rack of antlers they carry like emperors’ crowns on their heads.

These magnificent animals are, for the Lapps, like buffalo were for the plains Indians, except that the Lapps have domesticated the reindeer, like cattle. It’s because of their selection as Santa’s mode of transportation in Clement Clark Moore’s A Visit From Saint Nicholas that I have become more fascinated with them. I think Professor Moore needed to locate Santa Claus in a secluded hideway and somewhere way up north was a great idea. What better beast of burden to select for pulling Santa’s sleigh than the reindeer (whose name is a derivation of the Old Norse “hyreindyri”, meaning “horned animal”)? I don’t think vicious and deadly-dangerous polar bears would have worked as well, for example (although, heaven knows, they sure are cute).

I’ve ordered for myself from Amazon.com a beautifully-illustrated children’s book, The Reindeer People, by Ted Lewin, which I hope to read to some children’s class or another next year, as we head into the Christmas season. I notice that Amazon.com has continued what I see as a recent trend to include some pissy negative review from an unhappy librarian from somewhere (but I choose to follow my own eyes which were strongly drawn to the art on the cover, plus the immensely glowing review by another reviewer). Honestly, I understand and trust what some view as “capitalist greed” more than I accept a hidden sociopolitical agenda, whatever that exactly is for Amazon.com. I wouldn’t mind too much if every single review they publish is glowing for the product they are trying to sell—I would expect that and keep it in mind. (Does the local car dealer, for example, publish articles about how their cars are lemons?) Of course, I realize that one of the good things about Amazon.com is that basically they sell everything, so they aren’t picky about product. And they are already more or less quite fair in letting the general public review the books, as well, and it seems at first glance that they publish the bad as well as the good. Whenever I order a book from them, I glance at both the very positive and the very negative reviews, to get a good spread of opinions. But lately I have noticed that Amazon.com will remove some negative reviews, which I most recently discovered them doing with the reviews of Al Gore’s latest book. So obviously Amazon.com shares the Al Gore agenda and feels that it is within their right (as a what?) to support his point of view, as do other corporations whose product I otherwise enjoy or admire, such as Apple Computer and Starbucks. (It’s been reasonably simple for me to boycott Starbucks, but Apple, I can’t boycott as I think their products are the best ones going, and in their case, Gore is actually on their board of directors--yikes!)

I guess corporations have had political agendas all along, but when that agenda is socialist (or downright communist), I get very confused. That’s been explained, though, by several analysts, that socialism is only for the “people”, not for the “elites” (I dislike that term, particularly when applied to those who are anything but really “elite” in my mind, but human garbage, instead, but I haven’t yet figured out another word to use), so I guess I should understand it. After all, I did have the dubious privilege several decades ago of helping escort a Russian Communist party member on a tour of Disney World (not a good combination of energies). While most of the people in the Soviet Union were living a cold, somber, gray life waiting in long lines for bread, this privileged party member was buying all her cosmetics and fashions from France, could buy a new car whenever she wanted one, and lived in elegant quarters with a glorious view of the Kremlin. She would spit out expletives whenever you mentioned the name “Gorbachev” and his “glasnost,” which she abhorred. Her main reason for coming to the United States was not to see the sights (which she cared nothing about), but to buy as many computers and peripherals as she could carry back home on the plane (Aeroflot, of course).

Those beautiful reindeer may be waiting for the big trip, but I doubt if they are stopping at my house. This is looking like it will be a “solitary” Christmas this year, which I guess is about 65% my fault.

For one thing, I’ve had a terrible case of the flu these past couple of weeks. I had it a couple of weeks ago where I stayed home from work for a couple of days, attempting my usual healing regimen of sleeping the whole time, except I really couldn’t sleep. But it did seem that I got better (but not all the way), so I went back to work. I had things I wanted to do there, anyway.

However, this last week at work, it came back upon me very seriously and while I really didn’t want to do it, I just had to stay home some then, as well, which meant that I missed out on a lot of the Christmas goings-on and only returned to work that last half-day before the break began. Even now, I still don’t feel really well—while the cockroach-throat and whooping cough is bad, it is body aches, especially in the neck and upper shoulders, that are getting me the most—but I can’t see staying in bed this whole break, so I’m doing my best by being out and about in a limited way.

Meanwhile, I finally figured out that Christmas is only two days away, Christmas Eve is tomorrow! I had been waiting, once again, just like I have been ever since October, for my brother to say that the work on our parents’ house is done and the house is now on the market. He wants us to come up there to see the completion of his (and our) glorious handiwork. I’ve been saying all along that he definitely deserves the great family “ooh and ahh” show, plus we all want to see it, but waiting like this for this call to come any minute messed up my sailing lessons which I couldn’t sign up for, so now they’re held off until February, and Thanksgiving was almost ruined because of it, too. Since the house wasn’t ready for Thanksgiving, Christmas, for sure, was the chosen time. So I have been waiting to hear about that and finally called one of my sisters last night to ask her if she had heard anything—and just got her answering machine. (Calling my brother feels like pushing him, which I am in no way trying to do…I only want to know what kind of holiday plans I can or can’t make.)

She called me back this morning and the gist of it is that the house is still not ready and my brother went back home to Las Vegas without telling anybody, so now she feels that there is no way to expect him and his wife to drive all the way up north (again!) for Christmas at her house, which she doesn't feel like having anyway, and he seems totally dispirited and disinterested in Christmas right now as well, so for sure there won’t be Christmas at his house, either.

I feel stupid and helpless waiting around like this for OTHERS to make Christmas plans, but I do not have a place where anybody can come to, so no matter what happens, I’d be some kind of a hanger-on to whatever family Christmas somebody else was going to devise or else have no family Christmas at all. Not really a good situation, but that’s how it is.

I think the deeper truth is that none of us really know how to celebrate it without our parents, and since things are still in flux, we’re all in a state of limbo.

Last night as I tried to fall asleep with my aching neck on a heating pad (didn’t work, so I gave up on the heating pad which felt like it was just burning me anyway), I reviewed how many Christmases in my life I had had without my parents and the rest of the family. I could think of only three times. There might have been more, but I sure don’t remember them. That means that out of my total lifetime of 59 years, 56 Christmases were with the family, and the nucleus of all 56 celebrations was our parents. And since I don’t have a family of my own (i.e., no wife and kids, for example), I’m just a loose ball bearing running around aimlessly on a field.

Not every family Christmas was total joy (a few of them were blasted miserable), and one of the non-family Christmases was, strangely enough, one of the best Christmases I ever had. The other two non-family Christmases were not good though; they were when I was a guest at some OTHER peoples’ Christmases, and that is something I know I don’t want. Plus I don’t like the idea of a couple (or a group) of pathetic solitary individuals getting together and attempting to make something of a holiday for themselves sans family. I’d rather be alone.

I was alone for that one great Christmas, alone in New York City at the age of 24. Not that it had been a quiet Christmas season…just the opposite. Spending the Christmas season in New York could not be more glorious. It was all “Breakfast At Tiffany’s” and “Mame” and maybe even “Miracle On 34th Street”. I remember one of my grandmothers, who lived in North Carolina, would go to New York twice every year, once in the summer to go to all the plays on Broadway, and once in the winter to do all her Christmas shopping. Having been in New York for Christmas, I could see why she would do that. I bought tons of presents for everybody--Bloomingdales, which impressed me because they had their own subway stop, was where I bought most of it—but I bought things from several other stores as well, including FAO Schwartz, Macy’s, Barnes and Noble, and a few tiny stores and some street vendors, as well. I saw President Nixon and his wife Pat, who had come to New York for the holiday, at Rockefeller Plaza, and Aristotle Onassis and Jackie Kennedy, who had also come at that time, docked their yacht, The Christina, right near the street on which I lived, so I walked two blocks over to the Hudson River and feasted my eyes on that beautiful thing. It had two lighted Christmas trees, one on the bow and one on the stern. Very exciting!

Even though it was cold and the sidewalks were slippery, I loved New York for Christmas. I never felt alone, and actually, I wasn’t until the final days of Christmas, because I had friends and we were busy partying, drinking, and dancing. But then they all took advantage of days off from work (or school, where they were getting advanced degrees) and flew off to Athens or Italy or London. So that’s why I was alone on the actual day, because I stayed in New York.

I loved the apartment I lived in and had a bay window all the way across the width of it that allowed me to look out onto the street, West 71st Street. There was always stuff going on outside my window. I know it sounds peculiar, but I kept my TV tuned to a station that broadcast a constant view of the cheery fireplace in Mayor Lindsay’s mansion while Christmas music played. I know that sounds corny now, but somehow tuned into that fireplace kept my apartment warm and cozy. If I wanted to experience the crush of people, all I had to do was walk two blocks in the other direction to the 72nd Avenue subway stop and hop a train, which I would usually take south to Battery Park and from there catch the Staten Island ferry for a round trip that cost only a dime (this was 1972). This “ocean voyage” would take me past the Statue of Liberty (in both directions) and on the way back to Manhattan, I’d feel my heart thrill at the sight of that famous skyline (which, in those days, included the World Trade Twin Towers). I was proud to be a New Yorker.

On Christmas morning, I woke up and made myself a breakfast of blueberry pancakes, fresh-squeezed orange juice, coffee, and ham and eggs. Then I opened the box of presents that had arrived from my parents, which had come several days ago, but I wouldn’t open them until Christmas morning. Later that day, I called them and talked and we all missed each other, but it was okay, I felt warm and loved inside.

In the late afternoon, I decided to get out of the apartment and go on a trip up the Hudson River, one of my favorite regions in the country. I telephoned the garage up the street where my car was kept and to let them know I was coming to get it, which they brought up from down below for me to pick up when I got there. I drove across the George Washington Bridge (thrilling, once again, at the sight of the wall of Manhattan buildings that spread out along the Hudson River) and then turned right at Fort Lee to head up north along New Jersey’s Palisades Parkway. It was dusk just about the time I got to Bear Mountain State Park, New York, right near West Point. There was thick snow all over the place and it was a perfect place to go play in the snow until it got dark. Then I was drawn to the welcoming glow of the Christmas lights decorating The Bear Mountain Inn and realized that that would a great place to have Christmas dinner. They had an IMMENSE Christmas buffet of almost every imaginable kind of food, and since I was by myself, I had no trouble getting a table without a reservation and without waiting. That was one of the most glorious meals I have ever had in whole life, even though I was by myself--the atmosphere was so loving and full of such great cheer--and I don’t think many settings could top it except, perhaps, for Christmas dinner at The Ahwahnee in Yosemite National Park, but that dinner requires a reservation at least a year ahead. Another wonderful place for Christmas dinner along these same lines is The Grove Park Inn, but it made me cry to look at that site, because that is the area where I am from and we had numerous holiday and other special occasion dinners there as a family thoroughout most of my life. The Grove Park Inn was such a major part of our life. (For example, my mother’s parents met there at a summer dance.) The Grove Park Inn was within walking distance of both sets of grandparents’ houses, and also the last house my parents had there until they moved back to California to what became their final home. I see those pictures and feel in a painful flash how many loved ones of the past two generations are now gone. We’re the ones that are left, now. And wow, even that slogan that pops up on the Grove Park Inn site, it’s as though it is speaking directly to me: “Over nine decades of history. It’s time for your story now.”

Yes it is. Yet none of us quite know right now what kind of story we want to tell.

My phone conversation with my sister was cut short. I don’t know why. We were talking and suddenly I sensed quiet on the other end of the line. I said, “Are you still there?” but everything was dead. I heard no dial tone, so figured her cell phone had drifted away somehow. I hung up, waited a while for her to call back, but she didn’t, so I tried her and only got her answering machine. I left her a message. That was half a day ago and I still haven’t heard back. Now I’m beginning to think that she had hung up on me somehow (why else hasn’t called back?). Why, what did I say? But I have experienced that the family has been very sensitive this past year. You have no idea what you will say that will set somebody off, even the most innocent thing, which is another reason why there have been so few phone calls among us. I am sure there are still too many unhealed wounds there, and, if nothing else, my sister might have been overcome by the realization that we all were stuck without any plans and Christmas is only the day after tomorrow. Mom and Dad’s passing left such a void that we don’t even know how to celebrate Christmas without them. Or maybe it was just her battery died and she had forgotten to bring her phone charger with her to the lake house.

At any rate, this looks like it could become another “New York” Christmas if I can make it one, but I’m not in New York, I’m not in an apartment that I love, and I’m not 24 years old. Life looks different from this end of the tunnel.

But I won’t be depressed, only sentimental. Is sentiment a bad thing? Some people think so--they want you to forget the past and forge ahead, bucko! Well, I'm all for forging ahead, but give me a minute, okay?

Perhaps on Christmas day I’ll take a drive into the nearby mountains. Is there snow there? Any cozy mountain lodge with a roaring fireplace and a welcoming Christmas buffet? Should I do an Internet search, or just cast my fate to the wind? Or maybe just stay home with the covers pulled on tight.

Meanwhile, I hope everybody has a wonderful Christmas, however you are able to celebrate it.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Crazies Coming Out In Force


The crazies are coming out in force so much that I can hardly stand it. If you’ve ever had the misery of living in a cockroach-infested apartment (which I suffered in New York, and then again in Los Angeles in the mid-70s, where no matter how many times I “bombed” the place to get rid of these horrendous pests, they’d simply come back from elsewhere in the building), then you’ll understand this image of going into the kitchen or bathroom, turning on the light, and seeing hordes of cockroaches scurrying away. They hide from the light, but come out in the dark.

That’s what it’s like in our society now—you see a level of insanity or ugliness that you never imagined before, but, now, you see it suddenly more and more, like cockroaches running across the wall. We must actually be in very dark times for these creatures to come out from whatever underworld they have been nesting, but some immense light-filled event must be on its way, the dawning illumination of which now reveals the presence of this vermin.

Here’s an example, a loonie in favor of “carbon rationing” stated the following: “When the chips are down, I think democracy is a less important goal then is protection of the planet from the death of life, the end of life on it. This has got to be imposed on people whether they like it or not.” There you go, Ecological Fascism! And Othmar Schwank, whose mother must have had a terrible speech impediment to have mouthed a name for him like that, in supporting a global carbon dioxide tax, crowed that the United States would bear the biggest burden of paying the tax, because the biggest “polluters” must pay the most. Why, exactly, is carbon dioxide, which happens to be “air” for all plant life, considered “pollution”? Well of course it isn’t, any more than oxygen is, or water.

This jolly little report came from the Canadian website I linked to above, in her piece brilliantly titled “Y2Kyoto: The Political Climate”, and it happens to have the very best “comment” section I have ever read on a blog! The people who commented there, every single one, gave me tons of hope. Normally I read people’s comments and really freak out at the drooling stupidity, such as all those people who tripped all over themselves praising Al Gore’s latest book. Amazon.com’s favorable treatment of that book coupled with their deleting strongly unfavorable reviews makes me seriously consider stopping my use of them as a book supplier. I give that company one hell of a ton of money each year, let me tell you. Even though I am not an institution, the loss of my dollars actually could hurt them. But these issues are serious enough that I can no longer stomach companies who sponsor these types of liars and their lies. What they’re really behind is the loss of our very sovereignty as a free and independent nation.

But even this level of madness is more “garden variety Naziism” compared to the people we now discover skittering across our kitchen floor. Of course there was that addle-brained girl who aborted her baby, because “the Earth just couldn’t stand any more carbon footprints.” Wow, now that’s an acolyte that Al Gore can really appreciate! She gave her only baby to his cause! While I mourn the loss of that innocent child, I guess we can be thankful that particular gene line has been stopped. But what are we to make of people who now feel that it is mankind’s philosophical duty to not have children…in fact, to not even exist at all? Somebody like author David Benatar, who actually argues in favor of a philosophy of “anti-natality”, that states that it would have been better if mankind had never been born and that we ought to be extinct. Apparently the meat of Benatar’s argument is that our never having been born is actually better for US, as well, not just for the Earth. I guess for him, “life sucks and then you die,” so let’s just skip the whole thing.

There really seems to be a trend in this direction (which I HOPE is people actually getting ready to volunteer to save the Earth in this way by offering up their own lives—I think that would be a pretty cool franchise to own), such as yet another book, this one by Alan Weisman, in which the author gleefully imagines what would happen on the Earth if mankind suddenly disappeared, due to, say, a virulent virus (which, with this flu that I have, I think I have already). Again, amazon.com’s chosen editorial reviewers may be betraying the corporation’s philosophy by, in one case saying that the book is “anticipating, often poetically, what a planet without us would be like”, and in the other case, postulating “the spectacular return of fish and bird populations, the earth might revert to Eden.”

Are these examples of an astounding hatred of mankind, or is it guilt so massive as to be implosive?

How odd that in the new environmentalist religion, the “god”, which I suppose in this case is the Earth, demands the sacrifice of the people for their sins. But the only eternal life promised by this religion is eternal life for the planet…without people.

I just might become a Catholic, after the Pope so intelligently spoke out against the whole global warming insanity. Thinking about what I said in the just-previous paragraph, I can now understand why the Pope would be against it. In fact, it would be an antithesis to him.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Uplifted

On Thanksgiving morning, I checked out of the motel early. Any idea I had of having breakfast at some nostalgic location fell through due to the passage of time. For example, while I had thought I might have breakfast at Ken’s House of Pancakes, I discovered that Ken was now dead and the House of Pancakes was now a seafood restaurant. Other choices had similar fates. So I left Palo Alto and crossed over the Bay via the Dumbarton Bridge. I don’t particularly care for the East Bay (just endless San Francisco-Oakland-San Jose suburban sprawl) so this portion of the trip was just “slogging north” to get to my sister’s. It wasn’t until I had completed the counter-clockwise circumabulation of the northeastern portion of the bay (across the Carquinez Strait with its $4.00 toll) and approached Vallejo, could I exit this region by turning right at the Napa and Sonoma turn-off and enter into Wine Country on Highway 20.

Pretty soon, driving through Napa, Yountville, Oakville, Rutherford, St. Helena, Calistoga, everything was amazingly beautiful. My heart has a yearning for lovely agricultural regions and while this area is mainly devoted to wine, probably my least favorite thing to drink, one can’t help but be overcome by the shaded lanes of immense spreading trees, rolling hills covered in neatly planted and tended grapevines, and impressive stone-built wine estates. It’s more like the Loire than it is typical California.



While I had never been down this route before, I understood that normally there would be quite a lot of activity, such as busloads of people going wine-tasting from one estate to another, but as this was Thanksgiving Day, virtually everything was closed. It seemed that there were hardly any cars on the road and therefore it was quiet and peaceful and other-worldly.

I amused myself over thoughts about how such a culture (indeed, such a snobbery) had built up around the growing and fermentation of this one particular fruit. Nobody cares where their orange or apple juice comes from, for example, but with grapes fermented into wine, the tastes can be narrowed down to particular geographical locations, years, varietals, and vintners. It’s not something I ever got into much beyond “probably shouldn’t have red wine with fish”. Maybe I should come back here to this region for a vacation, stay in one of their lovely country resorts, go tasting from winery to winery, and come away learning something.

Seeing how it looked like everything was closed, I was kicking myself for rushing so quickly through the Bay Area without having stopped for breakfast when there were so many choices. However, I lucked out in Calistoga (where for sure I would like to go back and stay in one of their hot spring spas) and found a cute and quaint café that was open for Thanksgiving Day. The waitress seemed none too happy about having to work that day, but my hungry self verbally expressed my sincere appreciation that they were open and after my meal, I gave her a 25% tip.

A little after Middletown, the landscape changed from sheltered agricultural valley to mountainous and the road rose up out of Napa County into Lake County. This, too, was beautiful country, with spreading oak trees and isolated mountain cabins. Around one of the corners, a highway patrolman hid in a nook off the road, hoping to catch speeders, or perhaps just to take a nap. He, like the waitress, had had to work on Thanksgiving. One of the things I was thankful for was that I had this little vacation to enjoy.

Ultimately, I arrived at the little town of Clearlake, itself, and then began to follow my sister’s detailed step-by-step instructions so that I could find her lakeshore house (the kind of directions where you have to reset your odometer to help you count miles between visual landmarks).

My sister, negatively conditioned by some of her snobby friends (who feel that if it isn’t at least Lake Tahoe, it isn’t worth a visit), self-deprecatingly apologized for the town as being “seedy”, but the one place I have been that it reminded me of was the little village near Cook’s Bay on the island of Moorea in French Polynesia. I wouldn’t describe Moorea, one of the loveliest spots on planet Earth, as “seedy”.

My sister had also always apologized that her lake house was “small”. Well, I suppose if you are thinking of the multi-million-dollar houses springing up all over the place in our former “home town” of Atherton, this house on the lake might be considered small. For example, it only has two bedrooms so that my niece and nephew have to share. But I don’t hear them complaining; they have cozy bunkbeds and the two are quite into closeness, anyway. This is their weekend getaway house, so they might even be happy with a sleeping bag on the floor (which was my own accommodation!).

No, the house is wonderful and beautifully decorated with gorgeous furniture and wonderful art on the walls and appropriate sculptures of pelicans, egrets, cranes, and fish. Much of the art is actually depicting the lakes region of Italy and Switzerland (Lake Como, the town of Bellagio, and so on) and yet looks perfectly at home on these walls. The clear water of the lake spreads out in a fascinating complication of shore and cove below your feet, and across the waters of this particular bay or cove you can see two matched “Teton” mountains and when the sun begins to set and golden light skims across the water’s surface, golden fireflies of light can be seen coming from the houses across the lake.



Naturally in a house like this there is a lot of tall glass for taking in the view (except on one stone wall that has a fireplace), but the most beautiful room in the house was the “sun room” that my sister had added, which has floor-to-ceiling glass on the three sides that are exposed to the lake, and the ceiling even has clear-glass skylights. This room (larger than my apartment) served as the dining room for our Thanksgiving dinner, and also my bedroom for the two nights I stayed there.

Outside beyond all the glass are a couple of layers of large over-water sundecks, and over in the corner of one of the decks is a four-person hot-tub, always piping hot and ready for soaking! What a magnificent spot that was, to be soaking in that hot-tub late at night with a drink in our hand, a bright moon overhead, and the sound of the waves lapping against the shore beneath us!

Beyond the sundecks is a long “pier” type of walkway that extends further out over the lake, taking you over to the built-in roof and pier of the boat house, which is a motorized dry dock and is surrounded by a swimming deck so that when lowered down to the waterline, allows the water skiing boat to be taken out, and the deck with its ladder gives swimmers easy access to and exit from the lake.

In addition to the motor boat, which my sister’s fiancé bought for them to have at the house, there is also a small sailboat on a trailer (which can be launched via the house’s boat launch), which my sister bought as a gift for her fiancé, and several kayaks. However, during this short trip, we did not go out onto (or swimming into) the water. We’ll save all the water sports, for, for sure, a summer-time visit.

As my brother said, “What more would you want?” And in a way, its only disadvantage is that it is too far for my sister to commute to work, but its very isolation is actually one of its main assets. We’re all aware of the potential for various national or local disasters, although each one of us seems to believe strongly in some of them and just as strongly disbelieve in others—such as “peak oil”, “global warming”, “collapse of the dollar”, “World War III”, domestic race war (“Civil War II”), “terrorist attack,” “martial law,” and various other assorted “earthquakes, landslides, pollution, brush fires, running out of water” and so on. I kept noticing that if my sister and her kids really had to, they could actually survive out there—they could catch fish in the lake and terrace and plant the land she owns up the hill across from the road (Lake County is a very good agricultural county) and therefore have food to eat; they could purify the lake water for drinking, and so on.

It’s perhaps odd that I even think in such terms (I DON'T believe in “peak oil” and “global warming”, am about 50/50 on “World War III” and feel that “Civil War II” is about 25% likely, and further terrorist attack a little more likely), but the two that actually DO worry me as more than likely are “economic collapse” and “martial law”, so yes, I do think of such things and I am deeply aware at how terribly dangerous my own personal situation is, living like I do in a place and circumstance where I most likely would NOT survive any of these things. But THAT is soon to change.

Thanksgiving dinner was all about good company and good food and drink and for me it was especially wonderful to be among people who, while we lovingly disagree over things like politics (my brother and his wife are Hillary supporters; my sister and her fiancé are Edwards supporters, and I am way over on the other side supporting Ron Paul), deep down inside, we all come from the same root stock and fundamentally understand, support, and love each other. We’re way more alike where it really counts than we are different. All except one sister who was not present except for one miserable period when my brother’s wife, in a moment of loving compassion, called this sister to tell her we were thinking about her and “wished” she were there with us, and put her on speaker phone, during which we were treated to her unique brand of obsession and insanity, which soon enough degenerated into evil and finally the necessity of hanging up on her.

But after that, the fun resumed.

Being together with these people always helps me to remember (to feel more deeply) who I really am, and I greatly appreciate that. And in fact, that was the kind of thing I was most thankful of this Thanksgiving. I know who my parents were and who our extended relations were (and by this I don't mean their identities, but their value); I understand how proud I can be of my heritage and background and can appreciate the immense quality of the people that I am a part of. When I find myself surrounded by, listening to the din of, and being brought down by the hordes who are NOT that and wouldn’t come CLOSE to even imagining that level for the next two thousand lifetimes, all too easily I can feel alone and shipwrecked on a charred and burning planet, overrun with trilobites. But then I get together with these good people and I am uplifted once again.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Sort of Feeling Out of Sorts



(The above photo is John Travolta's house and his parked jumbo jets, NOT our parents' house!)

My brother's plan to have the "Grand Opening" show-off of our remodelled and beautified parents' house fell through. He called me at work Monday to tell me that he discovered some damage in the new carpet that carpet installers had come to install and there would be no replacement carpet available until December. Besides, the outside of the house hasn't been painted yet, so the house is not ready.

I was having a terrible day at work and frankly, had so much to do that day and the next that I couldn't see how I'd be able to leave right after work the next day, anyway, which had been my plan. If I get to leave right at four, I will reach my destination in Sonoma County by midnight, but if I leave work at six or seven P.M., it's crazy to drive all night. So if we had no official "festivities" until Thursday, I decided to not push myself to leave Tuesday night, but work as late as necessary in order to get things done by their deadlines.

I ended up working to 6 P.M. both days.

Things at work on Tuesday were worse than they were on Monday and the only good thing that happened that day mostly occurred in my head, but here it is:

One of my co-workers has a good friend who is good friends with the wife of actor Patrick Swayze. Patrick Swayze's wife is also an actor, or at least a dancer (Patrick met her due to her being a student at his mother's dance academy in New York--thus because of this famous dance-teacher-mother, you can get an idea why "Dirty-dancing" Patrick became a dancer, himself!), but I just don't know her name. So this makes my co-worker a friend of Patrick's wife via one-degree of separation.

Sometimes a new establishment of some kind will publicize their existence by throwing a party for celebrities and then the word, cache', and coolness factor spreads. For example, when Mammoth Mountain, the large Southern California ski resort, opened in the early 70s, the resort threw a huge celebrity ski weekend, inviting a large list of celebrities who, in turn, were asked to invite their publicists for a multi-day skiing bash. Actor Robert Stack and his wife Rosemary were among the celebrity celebrants, and the Stacks invited their good friend, my uncle (the one who was the celebrity photographer), to come take pictures of them, and my uncle, in turn, invited my sister the ski freak (not the one who is having us for Thanksgiving tomorrow).

Well, some new hotel is opening in Las Vegas and the hotel was throwing a celebrity opener to which the Swayzes were invited, and Patrick's wife invited her friend and my co-worker. My co-worker is one who rarely takes a vacation, but this four-day Las Vegas trip with the Swayzes was too good to pass up. They were going to fly to Las Vegas in the Swayze's private jet, ride a limousine all around Las Vegas, and yack it up in this new hotel (my co-worker loves to gamble, so this whole thing really was right up her alley).

When she got back (Tuesday), the one thing I wanted to hear about was the private jet. My co-worker did not know what kind it was, but from her description I guessed it was bigger than a Lear Jet, for example. She said it seated more than four people.

But to me the VERY COOL thing was that she told me that both Patrick and his wife are pilots. Patrick flew the plane to Las Vegas, and his wife flew it back home to the Van Nuys airport!

I don't know why that excited me so much, but I thought that was so great that I wasn't even envious of them; instead, I was just filled with admiration.

Now I know that other "Hollywood types" are also pilots and some are very accomplished, such as John Travolta, who has a couple of huge jets that he parks next to his house in Florida. Tom Cruise is another accomplished pilot who owns several planes, including a serious acrobatic plane in which Tom loves to fly loop-the-loops, upside down, and other acrobatic tricks (SCARES his companions who come along for the ride!). I think Harrison Ford owns planes that he flies, also, but I'm not 100% sure about him.

As fate would have it, one of my projects that took me up to 6 PM to finish required mailing out that night, so I took the envelopes to the Van Nuys post office on Sherman Way, because it will accept mail up to 8 PM. That post office happens to be quite near one of my favorite restaurants, 94th Aero Squadron, which is right next to the Van Nuys airport and you can watch planes taking off and landing right outside your window as you eat. So, since I was in the neighborhood, and in honor of the two Swayze pilots, I decided to have dinner there and sort of "dream" about the planes.

The dinner was great and afterwards, I went out to their patio and stood by the chainlink fence and watched several executive jets, some taking off, others coming in to land, two helicopters take off, and one single-engine prop Cessna take off. Each type has its distinctive engine sound, the jet's shriek, the helicopter's stacatto, and the Cessna's roar, but all of them are exciting. I was impressed at how many people were perfectly secure flying late at night, but I guess if they know what they are doing, the darkness doesn't matter.

I wonder how hard it would be, how long it would take, how much it would cost to learn how to pilot a jet? One thing for sure, I think that would be quite a thrill.

Oh well, as for me, I better finish learning how to sail, first! That is much more practical and useful for now.

* * *

I left bright and early this morning and did not encounter heavy traffic, which was a pleasant surprise. The car was smooth, fast, and beautiful, and I filled "the cabin" with gorgeous sounds from my iPod piped through the car's stereo system. I did not leave L.A. with a full tank, reasoning that I might just encounter lower gasoline prices outside of the city, which sometimes does happen. However, that did not happen this time. When I needed to fill my tank, I went to a brand-new Union 76 station and then had trouble getting the pump to work. I'd slide the credit card in and put the nozzle into my gas tank and the pump would shut off before dispensing a drop and nothing I could do would make it work. So I cancelled the transaction, tried the whole thing again, and the same malfunction repeated.

I went into the station to get help from the manager, who came back outside with me to see what was going on. He couldn't get the pump to work, either, so I suggested that perhaps I should move forward to the pump just ahead of me that was now vacant.

"Oh no, I don't think you want to get gas from there," he cautioned, "that's racing gasoline and costs $7.00 a gallon."

"Racing gasoline," I asked, "what's that?"

I had never heard of this, but it is 100 octane gasoline for high performance engines such as Ferraris and Lamborghinis. Honestly, I had never known there was such a thing, or that they required special gasoline, and to think I'd first see it practically way out in the middle of nowhere on I-5.

So instead I went to yet another pump and the manager determined that for some reason, none of them were going to work with my card, but that I had to go inside the station, instead, and run the card through there. And yikes, this place cost me $50.00 to fill my tank, that was the highest I have paid in my whole life, and I only had 91 octane Super!

* * *

I got to the motel in Palo Alto (where I had decided to stay tonight) in record speed, I felt. Tomorrow I will then drive the rest of the way to Clear Lake for Thanksgiving.

I checked into my motel (where I am now, writing this on their free wireless network in the room, something I HAVE to have now wherever I stay), went shopping for some wine to bring my sister, and then went to dinner.

My sister might think this is cute--I bought the wine at a liquor store where she had her first job. She worked there in their gift-wrapping department for the Christmas holidays when she was in high school.

I hope her kids will think this is cute (and I hope that this isn't something that has been done before)--I bought "wine" for each of them, too, but their "wine" comes in perfect champagne-looking bottles (complete with cork that you have to pop) but is sparkling fruit juices, one is peach and the other is mandarin orange. The labels are painted with very beautiful "botanical" drawings of the fruit.

After that, I went for a drive through my old neighborhood in Atherton, which was where we lived during most of my life.

Yegads, the name of the game in Atherton is Silicon Valley millionaires and billionaires buying $2,000,000 to $3,000,000 houses, tearing them down, and building $6,000,000 to $8,000,000 (maybe more) houses. Our house was torn down a couple of years ago, and that house which is taking its place is only now nearing completion.

I've gotten used to seeing all those immense monster houses peppered around in the neighborhood, by now, but it no longer feels like the neighborhood it was when we lived there, and I guess it isn't. These houses aren't just tall, such as what you get when you replace rambling one-story ranchers with houses that are three-stories high--these houses are rambling three story houses.

I guess if I had that kind of money, I might want to live in something like that, too. But somehow, with me NOT having that kind of money, today I really felt as though something major had happened when I wasn't looking and the world split into two different dimensions, with me stuck down in the old, backward one and having no possible hope of ever being in the new, elevated, "rich" one (and being depressed with what is going on at work doesn't help). People flying their own jets, filling the tanks of their Ferraris with 100 octane $7.00 a gallon gasoline, and tearing down beautiful multi-million-dollar houses (that most people would view as their dream house) so that they can replace them with something with five or six times the square footage--I guess Mars attacked when I was asleep and our world was taken over by aliens. Aliens with a LOT of money (hauled in from some uninhabited "mining planet", rich with gold, diamonds, uranium, or whatever it is that is valuable to a Martian).

Tomorrow I'm going to be thankful, but tonight, I'm just a little...sigh.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Gross Polluter


I guess I’ve now had my car for six years, based on the number of smog checks I’ve had to have which come every two years after the initial registration. I’ve been rather arrogantly smug about those tests, as the car handily passed the two previous tests with scores well below the average levels (low is good, high is bad). I blame the DMV for my smug attitude, as each time they require me to go to a “Test Only” facility, instead of “Test and Repair” facility, claiming that certain “likely to be polluting cars” are assigned to “Test Only” facilities, so when I handily pass, I mentally flip the DMV the bird.

Why do they think my car is “likely to be polluting”? Yes, it’s old by some standards (it’s a 1993, and so now is 15 years old), and has 108,000 miles (but its engine is made for 300,000 miles), and it’s big (it’s a full-size American freeway cruiser). But it’s also extremely well-maintained by the best mechanic I have ever had, and as it is essentially the flagship of what was once the world’s largest auto maker (but sadly, is no longer), it’s extremely well-made. And even now that I have had it for six years, I still marvel over how well-made it is, a quality that transfers itself to my hands on the wheel, feet on the pedals, and body on the seat. For what it is, there is nothing quite like it, and as near as I can tell nowadays, nothing being made anymore that is quite like it, not even its own brand, which has given itself over to primarily making SUVS and, gasp trucks. (Not that I have anything against trucks, but somehow a Cadillac truck is just a bit too much “Texan Big Hat, No Cattle”.)

I think the DMV is being cagey or dishonest about these types of facilities, “Test Only” versus “Test and Repair”, because all of them are licensed by the state and are supposed to be entirely honest and above-board. So why should a car “more likely to be polluting” be sent to one kind of facility and not another? It’s as if they are telling you without really telling you that they expect the “Test and Repair” places to be dishonest and will somehow pass you even when you are a polluter, whereas the “Test Only” facilities will “tell it like it really is”. Actually, what makes more sense to me is that a car more likely to be polluting should to be sent to the places that can fix the car, too, which the DMV seems to feel is inevitable, but that’s not how it is.

For these tests I have been going to a man whom I call “Mr. Moneybags”, because he has a little Walt Disney Scrooge McDuck figure glued to the top of his testing computer. When I was a kid, I wasn’t allowed to read comic books for reasons I never fully understood—it’s not that I wasn’t already a reader and therefore was in danger of being dumbed down by comics. But somehow there was just supposed to be something “bad” or “trashy” about comic books, not something my fine brain should be subjected to (so instead, I read them at my friends’ houses or at the barbershop; otherwise, I might have grown up never knowing a thing about Archie and Veronica, Superman, Batman, Green Lantern, or The Silver Surfer). However, my mother finally decided that maybe a subscription to a Donald Duck comic would be okay—even that I don’t fully understand, because it wasn’t as if I were begging to get some kind of comic book (after all, as I said, I was reading them elsewhere anyway). Anyway, I was “allowed” to receive Donald Duck and I must say that I did enjoy the various adventures of Donald, Daisy, Huey, Louey, and Dewey, and Scrooge McDuck, the very rich “uncle” Duck.

So I was rather surprised, but pleased, that somebody else even KNEW of Scrooge McDuck and liked him even to the point of making him a mascot of his business. I pointed the figure out to this smog-test-only man, who was from India, and said “Oh, is he going to make you into ‘Mr. Moneybags’?”, and he giggled and said, “Yes, I hope so, that’s why I came to America!”

There was something inspirational about that and I have always loved the idea of people coming here from a foreign country, becoming assimilated into the culture, and making it financially—understanding the opportunities here perhaps better than most of our natural-born citizens do, and having the courage to take advantage.

I don’t know if this man is making more money than I am, but somehow I imagine that he is and I think what he did was so easy and so much smarter than what I am doing. How hard would it be, as I imagine it, to take a course on state-approved smog testing, pass a test, become licensed by the state, rent a little garage, lease (probably) the testing equipment, and voila, you’ve got a simple-to-run business that people HAVE to come to periodically. How this man stood out and kept me as a repeat customer for six times was (a) he was very nice, (b) he gives you a $10 discount if you get a coupon from the Internet, or if you, like me, tell him you’ve come back to him, he’ll give you the discount as an “appreciation”, and (c) he has a nice little “comfortable waiting area” set up outside on the parking lot with an umbrella, two outdoor chairs, and a table. Anyone could do those thoughtful little things, yet I’ve not seen anyone anywhere else doing them.

Not that I would want to earn my living with a smog testing facility—that was just an example. I just feel that this represented a relatively easy and quick creation of a money stream that didn’t carry a whole lot of risk and I think all of us need to understand the possibilities of that kind of thing. Who knows what will happen with our jobs in the future (outsourced to India!) or how long we can stand “working for the man,” as they used to say in the 60s.

To be honest, I wasn’t so secure about the test this time. I had noticed lately that I was getting worse gas mileage than normal, averaging a pretty terrible 9.5 miles per gallon around town. I was due for an oil change and figured that when I went to Harry, my mechanic, I would discuss it—maybe it was time for a tune-up.

And sure enough, I did not pass. In fact, I failed big time.

Mr. Moneybags was nice about it, though. He didn’t say “You didn’t pass,” or “You failed”, instead he said, “You didn’t make it this time.” And then he showed me how much I hadn’t made it. The computer had printed across the testing sheet “GROSS POLLUTER”, which means “We the people of California want you to get this car off the road!” On one measure, for example, the maximum allowed was 0.48, but I had 10.11, and on another, the maximum allowed was 82, and I had 414. Even though what was coming out of the exhaust pipe was invisible, it was many time times the level of smog-producing material than the standard allows. I thought I saw Al Gore standing off in the background, grinning a devilish grin, although I can’t blame Al Gore for this, as this standard has been there for years.

A friend of mine at work told me, “California will buy gross polluters from you, not for a lot of money, of course, but it’s at least better than simply junking the car.”

Junk the car? What’s this talk of junking the car?

Mr. Moneybags was relatively positive, however. “I think it must be something like the oxygen sensor,” he said, citing something that didn’t sound very expensive to fix. Oh, just replace a sensor and all will be well, right?

I took the car to Harry, who looked at the smog test readings and I repeated the hopeful “oxygen sensor” idea. “Well, that could be part of it,” he said, but he pointed out various other failed sections of the test and said, “There’s a lot of other things going on.” Well, we would just have to see. I left the car with him that night so that he could work on it the next day.

The next morning, I walked the few blocks over to Enterprise Car Rental and got a rental car for the day. There is absolutely no more riding the bus to work for me; when the car is in the shop, I get a rental car. (This is me finally seeing that I am a big boy, now.)

The car I rented was a Ford Focus, and while I didn’t like it as much as the Chevrolet Cobalt and Chevrolet Malibu, my two previous rental cars this year, I did have fun driving it. It felt almost like a sports car to me and wasn’t too uncomfortable once I figured out how to get the seat back reclined out of the “yoga pretzel kiss your crotch” position. I especially liked its radio (which in that small car was practically in my face, not three arm lengths ahead of me like mine is in the Cadillac), which seemed to clearly pull in about twenty more stations than the radio in my car does. I also liked the idea that it not only scrolled across the screen the names of the radio stations (not just the frequency numbers), but also the names of the artists and song titles. Having a car fifteen years old does sometimes cause me to be surprised to see what new “technology” there is!

Later at work, Harry called me to discuss what he found. Basically the way he described it was that when one smog control component went bad, it ended up causing other ones downstream to go bad, too. He’d have to replace the oxygen sensor (Mr. Moneybags was right!) and the EGR solenoid relay (whatever that is), reset the ignition timing, and probably replace the catalytic converter (but he would do that only if the other repairs didn’t get me to passing). He told me that I had been burning a very rich mixture of fuel, which meant that a good portion of it was spewing (invisibly) out the exhaust pipe. “You’ve probably noticed your mileage had gone down,” which, yes, was particularly noticeable now that gasoline costs $3.60 a gallon.

It would cost something like $600 to $800 to do all that. “Do you plan on keeping this car?” Harry asked.

Well, my only reservation would be that the only other time I had a car that had been declared a gross polluter, I had spent over a thousand dollars in repairs in order to pass the test, only to attempt to drive it to work and discovered that the car didn’t even have enough power to go up a hill. I took it back to the shop and the very same mechanic who had collected all that money in order to get it to pass the smog test then declared to me that I had a cracked engine block and that the car needed a whole new engine. So that car went from “gross polluter” to the junkyard, with all that “smog test passing” money wasted inbetween.

“What kind of car was that?” asked Harry.

“A 1982 Chrysler LeBaron with a Mitsubishi engine,” I said, knowing full well that in that phrase, I had given Harry no less than three code words for “that car was a piece of junk”: “1982”, “Chrysler LeBaron”, and “Mitsubishi engine”.

“Aw,” ejaculated Harry, “that car was a piece of junk! What you have now is a Cadillac, this is an entirely different animal! Believe me, if you have a cracked engine block or whatever, I will see it!”

So I went ahead and approved the repairs. It ended up costing me in the neighborhood of $700 (Harry ended up having to replace the catalytic converter, too), which all-told, I thought wasn’t too bad. Harry got it smogged for me at the “Test Only” shop right door to him, who electronically transmitted to the DMV my passing scores. The California State-approved print-out said, “Congratulations! Your vehicle passed the enhanced Smog Check inspection, which helps California reach its daily goal of removing an extra 100 tons of smog-forming emissions from the air. Thank you for keeping your vehicle well-maintained.” You’re welcome. I felt as though that 100 tons of smog-forming emissions had come from me, but now no longer!

Harry said, “You will now experience a considerable improvement in gas mileage!”

As usual, driving the car away from Harry’s felt like I was driving a brand-new car (I had also had the regular oil-change and so on service). And sure enough, after two days of local driving, my average mileage was revealed to have increased to 15.5 miles per gallon. Well, that is more like it!

I also got the car washed (at a place whose work is the closest thing to auto detailing without actually being auto detailing), so now I am driving a beauty to be proud of again. Ready for my upcoming trip north to Petaluma and then to Clear Lake for Thanksgiving.

My brother said that all the extensive repair and upgrading of our parents’ house (in Petaluma) is now complete and the house is ready to be sold. On Wednesday morning, I will be meeting my brother, his wife, one of our sisters, and her two kids at the Petaluma house for the “Grand Opening” and then will put the “For Sale By Owner” sign out. May that beautiful show-place of a house sell quickly and bring us the price we think it deserves! (Fortunately, this much-in-demand area seems immune to the recent San Francisco Bay Area housing bubble crash.)

Then Thursday, we will be driving two more hours north to Clear Lake where our sister owns a house on the lake, which is where we will be having Thanksgiving dinner. This will be our first family Thanksgiving without any parent attending, and it will be the first family Thanksgiving that will not be in the house of our parents. We’re the oldest generation, now, and it is at holidays like this where you really feel that.

So Happy Thanksgiving everybody. It’s been a very hard year for a lot of people I know, including me, myself, but we all still know that we have a lot to be thankful for and that is what will be uppermost in our minds.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Dead Tired



Yesterday (Saturday) was a beautiful day for sailing, although even I would have wished for more wind. I've gotten much more secure out on the ocean, and by that I mean less afraid than I was at first.

It wasn't so much that the experience, itself, was scary, but whenever I was at the helm, I'd begin to think back to the few flying lessons that I took and also the boy's book, Hatchet, by the very popular children's author, Gary Paulsen. In my flying lessons, it was just me and the instructor and I kept thinking while up in the sky that I had no idea how to land this thing or even find my way back to the airport; I was entirely in the hands of my instructor. What if the instructor had a heart attack, or in some other way became incapacitated, what would I do? In Paulsen's book, the hero of the story, a young boy, is being taken to stay with his divorced father (who lives in Alaska, I think it was) for the summer, and is being flown there in a tiny two-seater plane, just the boy and the pilot, who DOES have a heart attack. Dealing with the terror of that ends up being the least of the boy's problems. The plane more or less lands safely (although the pilot dies from his heart attack) and the boy now has to survive alone in the Yukon. It's really a great book, one of my favorite children's books, but I wouldn't want any of it to happen to me.

So out there on the ocean on a sailboat, even though I wasn't alone with the instructor, it was me and three other equally-inexperienced students, if something happened to our instructor, we might be bobbing about "in shit's bay" (my for-the-occasion alteration of "up shit's creek"). Also, I'm not taking these courses to just tootle around the Marina del Rey marina, or maybe have an occasional three-day weekend cruise to Catalina or Ensenada (although those do make great beginnings). Currently, I don't really consider the possibilities of local cruising in this area to be all that exciting (although as I learn and experience more, I may change my outlook on that). Having a boat in an area with much more to offer, such as, say, the Florida Keys, which as a location just itself is worthy, but also having the entire Caribbean is at ones doorstep from there, is more like it. Even our sailing instructor doesn't have his boat docked here. As I think I wrote before, he has it in La Paz (in southern Baja California), because the Sea of Cortez is his favorite sailing area and it's an easy flight from here to there. I could conceivably see docking a sailboat in a harbor in Fiji or Tonga (or any other place in the world--how about the Mediterranean, or the Stockholm Archipelago, or Indonesia?) and flying there to then explore by sea the regions around those locations.

But anyway, I hope and expect to sail whatever boat I get in oceans other than the local coastline, so if I can't imagine feeling comfortable sailing to Tahiti, then I shouldn't consider pursuing this activity at all, and so I have viewed the experience as telling me, "Gee, can I stand this? Can I stand it for months between here and somewhere else across a whole ocean?" At first I had begun questioning that, but now I don't think I do question it. I am getting much more secure with the prospects, and my understanding and ability.

We were lucky it was so nice, as just the day before, the manager of the sailing school had telephoned all of us to warn us that the class might be cancelled because the conditions could become too dangerous. As it was, they evened out and the day was quite calm--so calm, in fact, that on the return leg of our trip northward in Santa Monica Bay (up to the buoy opposite the Santa Monica Pier), the wind was too light for any but the most patient sailing, so we returned by engine, instead, and even then just barely got back before dark.

And today, Sunday, was dark, overcast, and quite cold (by California standards). In fact, I kept the heater on all day in my apartment, so I'm glad we didn't have a day like today when we went sailing yesterday.

The first portion of the day was in class, though, not out on the water. We were learning about spinnakers, the alternative second sail that you can use in place of the jib when the wind is behind you for any period of time. Spinnakers are the glorious, multi-colored "chute-like" sails that you see when sailboats are racing; they pull the sailboat forward and therefore operate somewhat differently from the other sails that act like an "air foil". Boats pretty much can't win a race without properly using a spinnaker (unless none of them are), and any failure of the crew to quickly and correctly set the spinnaker will for sure lose the race (so the pressure is on them!). An improperly set spinnaker will twist around like an hour glass and therefore be useless, but too much time is wasted in dousing it and then resetting it correctly. Also, these sails are fragile and easily torn when in inexperienced hands.

We practiced on land how to pack this kind of sail in its container that is called a turtle. Packing a spinnaker wrong makes it all but useless to the next crew that hopes to use it. You might not think that such a thing is hard, which it isn't once you know how, but if you DON'T know how, you are subjected to a huge pile of chaotic cloth that is equal to about forty loads of laundry! And in real life, packing that forty louds of laundry is done single-handedly on the bow of a racing yacht out on the ocean on the waves and in the winds and that is moving as fast as it can!

As we were practicing this, I kept thinking of "pack your own chute," which refers to hang gliding and parachute packing.

Using this sail out on the ocean is not practiced in these basic sailing classes, because the liabilities to the school are too great. This is the kind of sail that could pull a person right off the boat if they aren't extra careful. Also, the sail, itself, which costs several thousands of dollars, is too easily shredded by inexperienced students. The last time use of this sail was taught in a class like ours, the group managed to bend to uselessness the spinnaker pole, which is like a "boom" that is installed for use with the spinnaker. So that ended that.

However, use of the spinnaker on the boat while sailing IS taught in the school's racing course, so students do have a chance to learn it if they wish and sign up for that specific class.

The sailing component of yesterday's class, in the afternoon, was mostly to fine tune our sailing experience, to this time explore north of the marina (as last week we explored south), and to have a chance to sail a boat that had an outboard motor. Up to now, when we had a sailboat that had an engine, it was the inboard diesel engine. These two types of engines operate differently, of course, diesel inboard versus gasoline outboard (and then there would also be a third type, gasoline inboard; as to whether there is a diesel outboard, that I don't know).

At first I thought learning about the outboard was a step backwards as, "of course" I would want an inboard engine, but outboards do have some advantages, particularly on a smaller boat that a person like me is more apt to end up getting. The bigger the boat, the more expensive, of course, but also the more difficult to handle without a crew (30 feet is offered as a possible threshhold--a boat longer than 30 feet on deck is probably more than a single-handler can handle). As I don't expect to have a crew, there definitely is a size consideration even if money were no object (which is not the case with me). An inboard engine, of course, takes up interior space that otherwise could be put to other use, whereas an outboard can be simply hung off the back of the boat. With an outboard engine, you don't necessarily have to have (to buy and to carry) another engine for your dingy; whenever you are anchored off-shore and are "tendering" in to land, you could use your sailboat's outboard on your dingy (involving perhaps the unscrewing and screwing of about four bolts, I think). An outboard engine is lifted up out of the water when you are under sail in order to reduce drag; the propellers of an inboard engine will always produce that drag.

Anyway, I enjoyed the outboard motor as much as I enjoyed the inboard. I was the first one at the helm, yesterday, which meant it was my job to start the cold engine. It started with my first pull; none of that tiring, frustrating wrestling with the outboard that is sometimes shown cartoon-fashion as a typical frustration (which had previously soured me on this kind of engine). So I liked it from the start! We took the boat by engine out of the marina and into Santa Monica Bay, at which time we raised the jib (the main sale had already been hoisted out in the marina) and shut off the engine. The wind took us north at a reasonable and enjoyable speed. I had never seen the cities of Venice (California) and Santa Monica from the ocean side before; it was a beautiful view. There were two piers, the Venice pier, and the Santa Monica pier (with its ferris wheel and other amusement park rides). It is tempting to a boater to want to go close to those piers, but we were warned to stay at least 50 feet out due to the underwater dangers closer in. Our instructor told us that once Santa Monica had a small marina, but that was destroyed a couple of decades ago. There is still wreckage from that underwater and there are tiny white floating markers in a line across the water that delineate for boaters that hazardous zone. There is no safe anchorage in Santa Monica Bay north of Marina del Rey until Paradise Cove north of Point Dume (beyond Malibu) or south of Marina del Rey until Redondo Beach, neither destination were we able to make in an afternoon's sailing. So unless one leaves early in the morning with stopping for lunch in either of these two spots, there is really nowhere to go and anchor in one day of sailing out of this marina.

Catalina is even further away, and generally is reserved for a three-day weekend (or longer).

What I enjoyed most about yesterday's sail was seeing the dolphins (!) and the sea lions. I had never seen dolphins out in the wild before; I had only seen them in marine parks such as Marineland or Sea World. I was extremely excited to see them, first one, and then four more swooping up out of the water quite near us. Our instructor said that he sees them all the time in the Sea of Cortez, and many, many whales, too, who come there to winter. I would really like to see that someday, and I imagine I will! Of course, there is also the possibility of seeing whales in our area during their twice-yearly migrations.

The sea lions, of course, were, in their own way, fighting over the Santa Monica buoy just like they had been fighting over the El Segundo buoy last week. This buoy was loaded with sea-lion-flesh, yet one more wanted very much to get up there, too, but not having much luck when we first saw him. He would poke his nose up out of the water, attempt to lift himself up onto the buoy while growling at whichever sea lion was in his way, which already comfortable sea lion would "shout" or scream back at him and snap at his nose, making him fall back down into the water. The poor sea lion would then swim around the buoy and try again at another section, with the same bad results.

Finally, he found a sea lion who seemed compassionate and welcoming; instead of screaming at him or snapping at him, "she" (I am only guessing at their genders) sniffed at him and they rubbed noses. Norman on our boat said, "Ah, now he is making love, not war," and sure enough, after we came about the buoy, which we had chosen as our turn-around spot, we found our sea lion, now comfortably ensconced on this buoy. Some other sea lion was now standing up and barking his displeasure to the skies, I guess he resented the increase in crowding, but all the others ignored him and continued to "snooze" peacefully, including "our" sea lion. Both Norman and I said simultaneously, "Persistence...it pays off!"

I kicked myself or not bringing my camcorder.

The most beautiful time was when we were back inside the marina and heading due east up the channel, the just-setting sun was directly behind us and cast an amazing transparent light blue glow over the waters of the marina and reflected a myriad Christmas-like lights from the glass of all the buildings. It made me want to go sailing out there during the Christmas season when many of the boats decorate their riggings with Christmas lights.

It takes a while to get up the channel and then into our slip. The instructor and Norman rushed off to the bathroom (as this boat did hot have a head) and left me and Shay to cover the mainsail and fold up the jib (the sail in front). We covered the mainsail fine enough (this will be the sixth time I've done that), but when it came to the jib, I realized I really didn't remember how. I had never actually folded it before, but had only watched other students do it while I had performed other tasks. As for his part, Shay was no help, offering only that I should unclip all the whatever-the-hell they are called (jibhanks), clips that attach the jib to the headstay (the rigging that the jib is attached to), which I dutifully did, but then as I attempted to somehow fold up the sail, I was left holding an embarrassing mess just as the instructor returned (sails are much bigger when you have them in a mess on the deck than they look all nicely hoisted).

"You unhooked all the jibhanks!" he chastized, which ended up being the LAST step in the process, not the first. So now it was dark, and Norman, who was standing there on deck at the bow of the boat, hooked them all back on again so that then I could fold the sail properly. The instructor guided me into doing what I was supposed to do (NOW I know how!) and then, additionally, showed me how to properly gather and tie together the sheets (ropes that control the jib), which he does leaving a perfect "skein" of ropes (that's how it looks to me), whereas mine was, well, as the instructor said, "getting better".

Then I, too had a chance at the bathroom, and then got in the car to go to dinner. Along the long route from Marina del Rey back to Hollywood, I went to Cora's Mexican restaurant in Culver City, which I discovered last weekend. Cora is a real sales person for her restaurant, knowing immediately who is a first-time visitor, a repeat vistor, and an old hand. For my now being a "repeat" visitor, she treated me to a complementary guacamole, which was quite delicious. I also happened to quite enjoy the "Pacifico" beer that I asked her nephew, the very-cute-but-hardly-knows-a-word-of-English nephew, Lalo, to bring me, in honor of my dreams of sailing on the Sea of Cortez. I'm not loyal to any particular brand of beer (there must be close to several thousand different brands), but will choose whatever seems to match my mood, memories, or yearnings (advertising, logos, and packaging go a long way with this). Then, after dinner, I hit the road for home.

This ended up being, possibly, potentially the most dangerous road journey I had taken in years, and I am maybe revealing myself to be an irresponsible driver for continuing it. I wasn't drunk, not by a long shot, but in a way it almost felt like I was. What I was, was absolutely incredibly tired. I'm not quite sure why. Although like most everyone else these days, and especially in these stressful, crushed-by-work times, I never get enough sleep at all, and certainly not quality refreshing and rejuvenating sleep. People like me, people I know, often wake up more exhausted than they were when they went to bed.

But I thought the night before I had a reasonably good night's sleep, perhaps longer, and better quality, than I had for the several weeks before. But for sure I still have an immense "sleep debt" that would never be repaid even if I slept as long as Rip Van Winkle. Is there any court in which one can declare bankruptcy from their sleep debt?

But anyway, perhaps it was a combination of my normal sleep debt, and the activity of sailing out there in all that fresh air, and then the cold weather that came in on us that required me to put on a heavy jacket, and then the one bottle of beer, all conspired to make me as suddenly sleepy as all the people in Sleeping Beauty's palace. It was weird.

I felt more or less okay whenever I was actually in the process of driving; my mind was engaged by that. But when I stopped at a red light, oh boy, for a moment or two, I would actually fall asleep and then wake up. It wasn't enough to incapacitate me, but it WAS enough to make me very, very concerned.

I am in the process of trying to read a book about sleep by a major sleep scientist who reveals more things about sleep, the benefits of it, and the dangers of not getting enough of it, than a person could imagine. Most people (me included), thought that going to sleep was a gradual process and you therefore have some conscious awareness and control over how close you are to actually falling asleep. But this is not true.

In one of the author's experiments, he had a test subject who had been kept awake for more than 24 hours. A bright light was put so that it shone directly in the subject's eyes. The light would flash at random moments, but at least several times a minute. Whenever the light flashed, the subject was supposed to press a button. After quite some time of this, there was a flash and the subject did not press the button.

"Why didn't you press the button?" the scientist asked.

"Because the light didn't flash," responded the test subject.

But it DID flash; everyone saw it, except for the test subject. The scientist then realized that the test subject had fallen asleep, which is why he failed to see the flash. When they questioned him about it, they had awakened him.

What they learned from experiments like that, and others, was that there is no "gradual going to sleep". The brain will suddenly shut off and the person will be instantly asleep, and this will happen without any control of the individual, but will be done involuntarily BY the brain when the person is so sleep-deprived that it the brain feels it is necessary. This presents an immense danger on the highways, because fatiqued drivers will instanteously fall asleep at the wheel. Just a couple of weeks ago, there was a trucker who inexplicably lost control of his rig very early in the morning going through an underpass (a tunnel, really) on the truck lane of Interstate 5 north of Los Angeles. He smashed into the side of the tunnel and was trapped inside the cab of his truck as the resultant explosive fireball consumed him. When I read about that, I immediately thought that he must have suddenly fallen asleep...and if so, I hope he was asleep as his body was incinerated in the cab of his truck.

This could happen to any of us.

And it was happening to me, one stop light after another, as I made the tortuous way back home. It seemed that as long as I was actually moving, I was okay, but doing nothing at each light was just too much "nothingness" and I would basically black out. Fortunately, this also meant that the car was stopped each time, not moving. Then, as the light would change and the cars ahead would move forward, I would suddenly wake back up again and see that I was now five car lengths or so behind--maybe not quite far enough for the cars behind me to start romping on their horns, but ALMOST!

I wondered if this were bad enough that I should actually find some place to pull over and rest in the back seat of my car. Well, it wouldn't be impossible to do that, but I just didn't want to. This was a VERY crowded (and not very safe) urban area, moving in agonizing slow motion, and all I wanted was to just get home and get into my own bed.

Instead, I turned the radio on and made myself sing or talk along with every word that I heard. This seemed good enough to keep my brain engaged even during the stop lights, and in this way, I managed to get home. I told myself that the minute I got inside my apartment door, I was going to drop everything I was carrying, throw off all my clothes, and get right into bed without even brushing my teeth (I have NEVER gone to bed without brushing my teeth before) and that is exactly what I did. It wasn't late, only about 7:00 or 7:30, and yet I fell right to sleep and didn't wake up until about 5:00 in the morning. Even then I didn't get out of bed, but went back to sleep and never did rouse myself from bed until later this afternoon. I didn't even have a bite to eat until 3:30.

I don't ever want anything like that to happen to me again. I am really, really, really going to have to get enough good quality sleep somehow. I don't know if that means going to bed earlier and earlier each night in order to ensure it, going to bed at 8:00, say, or even after I get home from work, but I HAVE to do something. This is fundamental.

But one thing for sure that I can say--I understand the phrase "Dead Tired." "Tired" is bad enough, but it could make someone "Dead".

Right after I post this, I'm going to bed.