Tuesday, May 29, 2007

State Street

I step out of the Indian restaurant onto State Street, and am blinded by a flash of sunlight. As my pupils adjust, a homeless man doing abstract pantomime comes into focus. He’s climbing an invisible ladder, trapped inside a box, walking a tightrope. All of these are done without much skill, or regard to detail. He rushes through each routine like a toy whose spring has been wound too tight. He glances at his wrist to a watch that isn’t there, pulls a banana out of his coat pocket, peels it, then sits on an overturned bucket and begins talking into the banana like a phone. His show is over, and Nick and I were his only audience. I toss whatever change I have into his cup, and he pauses, asks the person on the other end of the banana to hold a moment, looks at us, then whispers “thank you.”

Monday, May 28, 2007

Carl and Bob in Cyberspace - # 3

In 1985 during the dark years before the Internet and email, deep within the server farms of Dionell Software in Irvine, California, history was being made. Two twenty-something MIS employees, Carl and Bob, discovered a way to 'chat' over their computer network. These ostensibly private, candid conversations were saved on magnetic media, and only recently discovered during a data mining exercise. These transcripts are provided with hopes that future generations will benefit from a glimpse at the birth of the computer revolution. Our sincere thanks to Carl and Bob. This is their story.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Weekly Poll # 2

Who is your favorite Simpsons Character?
Krusty the Clown
Other - Leave a Comment

View Results

Monday, May 21, 2007

Carl and Bob in Cyberspace - # 2

In 1985 during the dark years before the Internet and email, deep within the server farms of Dionell Software in Irvine, California, history was being made. Two twenty-something MIS employees, Carl and Bob, discovered a way to 'chat' over their computer network. These ostensibly private, candid conversations were saved on magnetic media, and only recently discovered during a data mining exercise. These transcripts are provided with hopes that future generations will benefit from a glimpse at the birth of the computer revolution. Our sincere thanks to Carl and Bob. This is their story.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Carl and Bob in Cyberspace - # 1

In 1985 during the dark years before the Internet and email, deep within the server farms of Dionell Software in Irvine, California, history was being made. Two twenty-something MIS employees, Carl and Bob, discovered a way to 'chat' over their computer network. These ostensibly private, candid conversations were saved on magnetic media, and only recently discovered during a data mining exercise. These transcripts are provided with hopes that future generations will benefit from a glimpse at the birth of the computer revolution. Our sincere thanks to Carl and Bob. This is their story.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Weekly Poll # 1

Where did you hear about 'Theater of Your Mind?'
Random search engine result
Recommended by a friend
From 'The Unreal OC' podcast
It came to me in a vision
Other - leave comment in this post

View Results

Monday, May 14, 2007

American Accent Quiz

Leave a comment as to your results of this quiz. Here's my result:

What American accent do you have?
Your Result: The West

Your accent is the lowest common denominator of American speech. Unless you're a SoCal surfer, no one thinks you have an accent. And really, you may not even be from the West at all, you could easily be from Florida or one of those big Southern cities like Dallas or Atlanta.

The Midland
North Central
The South
The Inland North
The Northeast
What American accent do you have?
Quiz Created on GoToQuiz

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Movie Review - The Hidden

I first saw The Hidden when it came out in theaters in 1987, and it left an impression sufficient to recommend it to some friends and rent the video when it became available. I watched it last night for the first time in probably 15 years, and I’ll admit that it stands the test of time as an above-average Sci-Fi Thriller.

Kyle McLaughlan plays FBI agent Lloyd Gallagher who’s teamed up with local cop, Tom Beck, played by Michael Nouri, to hunt down an interstellar killer. The slug-like parasitic alien murderer enters its human hosts through the mouth, and then takes over their bodies until they are so damaged that the alien must leave to find another host. Each host is controlled by the alien who has a penchant for speed metal, fast cars, and sex. McLaughlan and Nouri pursue the creature as it oozes from person to person waiting to catch it in the open between hosts which is the only time it can be killed.

The ‘parasitic alien taking over the human’ theme is so well worn that it almost deserves its own genre. Ever since 1956’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers we’ve watched our fellow humans become unwilling hosts to alien guests of all shapes and sizes. The Hidden doesn’t attempt to retool this formula or even refresh it, but it does represent it respectfully. It even adds some decent car chases including one at the beginning where you get to see a Ferrari fly through a window pane before being torn to shreds by the LAPD (worth the price of the DVD rental, alone).

That being said, for movies sharing this theme, The Hidden is not as good as, the suspenseful 1998 Denzel Washington movie, Fallen, where Denzel must chase, you guessed it, an unseen entity moving from one human to another. It’s also not as chilling as John Carpenter ’s The Thing, a 1982 remake of the 1951 Sci-Fi classic The Thing From Another World. Still, The Hidden holds its own as both a Sci-Fi Thriller and an action flick, and for fans of the ‘parasitic alien’ theme, it certainly will not disappoint.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Can You Count the Jags?

That’s right – the answer, my friends, is four. Four Jags in the Goodwill parking lot on a Friday afternoon. It would be easy to assume that such a sight, especially in Orange County, would be commonplace. Fact is, I can drive for three days without seeing a Jaguar, then, one afternoon on my way home from work, I stop by Vons to pick up a can of ribs for dinner, and there’s four Jags parked in front of Goodwill. Being the proud owner of a Jag myself, I can tell you that the owners of such vehicles are not necessarily well-off; nor are they shopping at Goodwill because they have learned through lifelong practice of prudent financial planning that the frugal gesture of shopping at thrift stores will one day lead to great fortune. These fine people, yours truly included, are shopping at Goodwill because we have purchased vehicles so expensive to maintain that we cannot even afford to put air in their tires. Vehicles over which more marriages have been lost, more homes foreclosed, and more nations divided than any other type of car. I give you, dear friends, the Jaguar – life’s sweetest ride, and the favorite automobile of the destitute bourgeoisie.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

New Turf - Part Two

Listen to this.

Not surprisingly, there’s plenty of information on the web about how to create the perfect lawn, but very little on how to transform your neighbor’s lawn into something out of a Boris Karloff film. I thought about what mike said regarding ‘renegades’, and started looking into grass seeds. Turns out that the cheaper the grass seed, the higher the ‘other crop’ content per square foot of lawn. ‘Other crop’, as it turns out, means orchard grass or weeds, or anything else that grows by means of water and sunlight, but ISN’T grass. Also turns out that Home Depot was having a blow-out on the cheapest grass seed they sold. This stuff had such high ‘other crop’ content that they hid that label on the bottom, back of the bag. I bought three bags, and headed home with my seeds of destruction.

I placed the bags next to the garage door, and covered them with a towel. They were ready to go at the next night time rain. The cloak of darkness combined with the sound of the rain would provide the perfect cover for this operation. Turns out that the rain came about two weeks from the day of the last cat-kicking which was fine, and allowed Mike to calm down a little, and stop looking over his shoulder. At about 11:30pm it started raining, and I took the grass seed bags out and began throwing handfuls on Mike’s lawn. I tried distributing them as evenly as I could, but the front half of the yard facing the sidewalk received the bulk of them. Five minutes after I started, my work was done. I walked, soaking wet, into the garage, bagged up all the seed sacks so I could throw them away in a dumpster somewhere – hide the evidence, you know – and went to bed.

Mike and I didn’t have much interaction for a week or so. I glanced at the lawn daily, waiting to see the first sign of the renegade sprouts peaking up from his secret recipe soil. It took about seven days, but when it started sprouting, it came up really fast. Mike was bewildered, he roamed around the sidewalk that surrounded his lawn with a bottle of RoundUp in one hand and the funnel in the other. He didn’t know where to start! He was mumbling to himself, and pacing. The aggressive weeds sprouted first and tallest, they stood out like redwoods against the Technicolor green carpet Mike was so proud of, their delicate yellow flowers dotted his lawn and sprung up faster than he could spray the herbicide. Next, the off-color, lighter green, cheap grass sprouts took hold. They crawled up between the Kentucky Bluegrass and put a stranglehold on the Dwarf Samoan Fescue. Within a week, mike’s lawn looked like – well, to be honest, it looked like every other lawn along our street – a somewhat uneven plot of mixed grass types with the occasional weed. To mike though – well, he was ready to call in a priest. “Ever seen anything like this?” Mike said – wiping sweat from his brow, motioning to his new lawn. “What’s that, Mike? Looks fine to me.” “I didn’t pay $20,000 to a landscape architect to make my lawn look fine! Now look, I know we’ve had our differences, but I’d like to ask you a favor.” I’d never seen Mike like this. He was nervous, unsure of himself, vulnerable. . . “Veronica and I have to go up to Washington State – visit with her parents for a week. We’re leaving tomorrow. Can you kind of keep an eye on things for me?” He nodded toward his lawn, and I took that to mean that his house could burn to the ground, just as long as I made sure his lawn doesn’t get any worse. “You bet.” “Thanks neighbor. Just water the lawn on Wednesday and Friday if you could. Shouldn’t be any trouble to keep this mess alive.” He gave a half grin, then held out his hand – a kind gesture from this man was so rare, that I actually hesitated for a moment, making sure this was truly a handshake offering and not a karate jab to my ribs. We shook hands, and then Mike said “I know I can trust you.” Did he say water his lawn? Well this was a fine pickle. Now I was forced to tend to my garden of terror I had planted. I never was a strong believer in Karma, but at the moment of the handshake, somewhere out there the powers of the universe were having a grand old time at my expense.

With each passing day, mike’s lawn looked less like his old, perfect lawn, and more like mine, . . .and Steve’s on the other side, and . . .Dana’s across the street. I had a lot of time to reflect on the situation as I stood watering the ankle-high jungle I created. Why did I even bother watering? Half of me felt bad for Mike, I mean I did my best to quiet that voice, but, after all, I destroyed the one thing that Mike seemed to care about most in this world – jerk or not, that’s a fairly heavy burden to bare. But. . .The other half of me wanted the renegade grass and weeds to grow as fast and robust as they could before he came home. So to say I had an internal conflict would be a bit of an understatement. Don’t get me wrong, I felt justice was served – and I had no regrets about how I served it, I guess I was fighting with the fact that I wasn’t planning on having a week to ponder the outcome of the operation while tending to the one thing I was trying to destroy.

When Mike and Veronica returned, they were quiet for a few days and we didn’t see much of either of them. About a week later, I was working in the garage when I heard hammering coming from Mike’s yard. He was standing with a well-dressed man, planting a For Sale sign into the grass. Mike saw me, and walked over to the fence. “Well neighbor – looks like I won’t get to call you neighbor for too long.” “This is a surprise, Mike – I had no idea you were moving.” “Been thinking about it for a while, but our trip up to Veronica’s parents sealed the deal. Her dad isn’t doing well, and they’ve got a huge place up there in Tumwater – great trout fishing, clean air – heck I can’t wait to vacate these virons and motor north. Give me a chance to return to my real passion in life – fly fishing.” Those words reverberated in my head like balls in a pachinko machine. Mike continued “Ya see, the secret to catching a steelhead is to match the size and color of the corkies to the size and color of salmon eggs. Now, Salmon and Trout are fierce competitors who battle each other for the same spawning grounds. Salmon overrun rivers with the amount of eggs they lay and trout eat as many of the eggs as possible, so. . .” Mike kept talking, and I kept nodding, but my mind was drifting. I pictured him in his garage in Tumwater, sitting at his workbench late at night and tying flies under the fluorescent light built into a magnifying glass, content, secure, at peace with himself, and not a single cat in sight.

Back at the donut shop my reverie was broken by a familiar voice. “Hey neighbor – mind if I borrow the home and garden section?” I lowered the newspaper to see Mike smiling at me, his tiny eyes squinting into slits. “Mike – how’s it going man? What brings you to our neck of the woods?” We shook hands, “Veronica and I are moving back next door! . . .Just kiddin’ -came into town for my sisters wedding this weekend. How did the new neighbor work out?” Fine, fine. . .older couple – have their grandkids over on the weekends – pretty much keep to themselves. How’s the fly fishing?” “Caught 116 steelhead last season – go out practically every day it’s not raining, and some even when it is – absolutely love it! Well, I better get scootin’ – gotta get fit for a monkey suit this morning for the wedding. Nice talkin’ to ya neighbor!” “Me too, Mike – you take care now and say hi to Veronica.” That was the best conversation I had ever had with old Mike Glick – and a great way to start the day.

The following Monday I got a call from the vp of Human Resources with Dionelle Software in Irvine, and arranged an interview for the next day. Dionelle occupies the top six floors of a 26 floor office tower in the ever-expanding techno-industrial complex known as Irvine Ranch. Thirty years ago, the whole area was bean fields and orange groves, twenty years ago, a couple of ten story buildings took hold, they built a world-class shopping mall and people started migrating south from Los Angeles, filling in all the pockets of livable space in this new, quieter, cleaner alternative to what’s known as the greater Los Angeles metropolitan area. Now, although still cleaner, it’s nearly as packed with people and businesses as any other point north.

The receptionist told me it would just be a few minutes, and I sat down, folded my arms on top of my portfolio, and waited. A few minutes passed, then a few minutes more and the thought occurred to me that finding a restroom might not be a bad idea. The restroom was at the end of a marble corridor lined with the kind of framed art you find mostly at swap meets – New England Seashores, lighthouses – a sculpture, a cross section of a giant conch shell sat in a lighted alcove at the end of the hall. I was beginning to pick up on a sea theme.

I entered the bathroom, and the lights flickered on, now this is the part of the Podcast where I talk about being in a bathroom stall, so if you’re embarrassed by that, or you’ve never been in a bathroom stall, and don’t want me to ruin the surprise for you, then please fast forward a minute or so. I sat down and a couple of minutes passed (see that wasn’t too bad), and then, all of the sudden, the lights went out. I was sitting in complete darkness – I mean, blackness – the cliché about not being able to see your hand in front of your face – well, I’m forced to use that here. I didn’t panic, just sat there thinking for a moment. Was this a stroke? I was a little nervous in light of the interview, did this stress dislodge a blood clot that shut down my visual cortex? I doubted that. Then I remembered that the lights were off when I entered, so that means they’re on a timer and they’re setup to a motion sensor. I started waving my arms around wildly, hoping that the sensor was high enough to cover the insides of the stalls – no luck. I calmed myself down, stopped flapping my arms and went into survival mode. I was certain that my interviewer was looking for me by this point, and knew that being late for an interview – even if I’m sixty feet away from the lobby and have the most legitimate excuse in the world – wasn’t going to leave a good first impression. I thought about my resources – what do I have that creates light – and remembered my cell phone. The backlight from that thing could warn ships away from rocky shores! I grappled for the phone, staring straight ahead into the blackness. I pulled the phone from my pocket, flipped it open, caught the momentary brilliant green luminance from the screen and then felt it slip from my hands. There was a split second where it spun as it fell, and the lighted screen created a dazzling light show on the stall walls, then I heard the sound of plastic hitting tile, and watched the phone scoot well out of reach, beyond the stall door. The light stayed on for a moment then the show was over. A few seconds later I heard the bathroom door open. All I could think was – this can’t look good. I was sitting, alone in a bathroom stall – in the dark – in the company to which I’m about to sell my services and a good chunk of my life in return for the ability feed my family and pay my mortgage. In my nearly 41 years on this planet, I’ve found my self in a few such compromising positions, but this one- well, if nothing else, this one was the most recent. The thought occurred to me to pull my feet up, stay quiet and wait for the person to leave, but then I remembered my cell phone sitting on the tile just outside the stall door. I watched the shadow of the person approach my door, and saw the cuff of a suit sleeve as he leaned down to pick up the phone. “Anyone in here?” I took a breath ... “Yup – got caught in the dark when the lights went out.” There was a bit of sympathetic laughter. “Ya know – that’s the third time that’s happened this month – gotta get maintenance to fix that timer. I put your phone on the sink here. I’ll see ya in the lobby.” Oh God – that was the VP of human resources! I recognized his voice. Well, it’s been nice workin’ for ya. I thought.

Turns out that the interview went fine, in fact, three weeks from the day of my layoff, I was offered the job, and started the following Monday. I beat my goal of finding a new job within one month - by two days. The Friday before I started, I had the whole day to myself. No job hunting, no frantic portfolio shuffling or resume rewriting – just a free day to do whatever I liked. So I did the only thing I really wanted to do. I put on my sneakers and started walking. Forty minutes later, I sat down at my little sunlit table, laid out the comics, and raised the glazed old-fashioned, ever so slowly, to my mouth.

Sunday, May 6, 2007

New Turf - Part One

Listen to this.

About six months ago I was laid off from a job I had held for almost 4 years. This wasn’t easy news to swallow for neither myself nor my wife. Although I’ll admit, once I got her breathing again and poured her a glass of wine, she seemed more secure with the situation than I. I wasn’t going to take this lying down though, not because it’s against my nature – heck – I’d take just about anything lying down you wanted to throw at me, but because I’ve always had it in my head that in the event of a layoff, I’d really prove to my family and the world that I could land on my feet. So I made a rather aggressive goal of finding a new, better job within one month.

The night of my layoff I jumped into action. I updated my resume, setup accounts on all the internet job boards, and finally, late at night, sat down with a calculator to figure out just how much money we could, as a family of five, spend while being supported by unemployment insurance without having to dip into savings. It was almost 11pm, and I was physically tired, and emotionally exhausted. I’d been running on pure adrenaline since noon, working feverishly in full denial of my fate, and fending off the gnarling, gnashing jaws of reality that I had starved for nearly twelve hours and which now fought to seize hold of my ego and devour it.

Now, math was never my strong point, and that, combined with my mental fatigue may have contributed to the following calculation blunders. I sat staring at the screen in disbelief. The way I figured, we could make our mortgage payments for a period of three months if we made the following alterations to our lifestyle: Ate generic raisin bran for each meal; didn’t drive the cars; stopped bathing, didn’t use the phone, furnace, or any electricity, and allowed the cats and dog to fend for themselves. That sounded too restrictive, I mean I had to drive to job interviews, so I went back to the drawing board, and altered the plan slightly. OK, if we ate TWO bowls of cereal per day instead of three, sold our furniture and most of our clothing, we could probably afford six hours of electricity per day, two baths each per week, and enough gas to drive 40 miles per month. Man, I was a wreck. How could I tell my three kids that Santa couldn’t afford Christmas this year? How could we all stomach that much fiber? These numbers still seemed very wrong, so I decided to go to bed and re-visit them in the morning.

That next morning I realized the sole source of my errors was that I was doing the calculations instead of my wife. She made that clear to me, in so many words, and I decided to allow her the satisfaction of letting her think she had the upper hand. . .again.

I was proud of myself for waking up at my usual ‘work’ time, and diving right into the job hunt. I sat down at my computer, started it up and realized there was something missing – donuts! I mean how could I expect to think without food in my stomach, and what’s a more appropriate food for breakfast than donuts? I slipped on my shoes, grabbed my car keys and stepped outside. It was a beautiful late-fall morning, and I figured it would be a crime – no, worse than a crime - a show of disrespect to mother nature if I were to drive to the donut shop on such a lovely day, so I decided to walk. 40 minutes later I arrived. The donut shop was crowded. Lots of casually dressed people waiting in line, sitting and relaxing at tables with newspapers. . .Newspapers! I thought – I need a newspaper. I stepped outside and bought an Orange County Register. Now all I needed was a couple of donuts and coffee, and if I found a spot to eat here instead of carrying it all back home that would be more – resourceful and efficient – right? I found a table near the window, and sat down, prepared to scour the classifieds for positions awaiting my talents. I took a sip of coffee, then slowly raised the old-fashioned glazed to my mouth. That’s the absolute best part of eating a donut – the split second before the first bite where you breathe the sticky-sweetness into your nose and mouth simultaneously, and you can taste it before it ever makes contact with your tongue. Delicious. I couldn’t quite figure out what was going on, but I felt a little blue – I mean the sun was shining through the window, the donuts and coffee were perfect, but I needed something – laughter! I opened the paper to the comics section and began reading – ahhh good old Garfield – when will Odie ever learn. . .hehe. On my way back from the coffee refill station I spotted a familiar, but unwelcome face. My ex-neighbor - the only person in the world I’d consider my enemy was sitting at a booth on the opposite side of the dining area. His beady eyes were hidden in the shadow of his baseball cap, but I knew it was him – the same way a cobra can sense a nearby mongoose – pure reptilian instinct.

I sidestepped back to my table, and considered sitting in the other chair so that my back was to him – less chance of being seen; then I remembered something I heard about how you should never have your enemies at your back, so I sat facing him. I picked up the newspaper and flipped to the classified section – the good ol’ help wanted ads. This is the way I had to find my last job, and it worked just fine – who needs fancy internet job boards, unemployment forums and cyber-headhunters?!? The trusty newspaper would do just fine. My eyes were darting about the page and I was finding it hard to concentrate knowing that Mike Glick was sitting just a donut’s throw away from me. I remembered the whole episode so clearly.

The saying about how you can pick your friends, but you can’t pick your neighbors is true. Five years ago when we moved to the OC, Mike Glick and his wife Veronica greeted us at our driveway with hearty handshakes and a plate full of freshly-baked oatmeal cookies. I was busy moving things into the house, and thought that was obvious, but Mike decided that was the right time to talk to me about some of the problems he had with the former owners of my house. “Yeah – I tried for six years to get them to install sprinklers for the front and back yards, but some people just don’t care about their lawns.” I looked over to the front lawn of my new house. It was dusk, but still bright enough for me to see that the grass was deeply, uniformly green and well-manicured. I looked back at Mike who was still talking. “And really, Bermuda is not the most attractive grass – at any price. Take my lawn for example” He waved his hand like a game show host in the direction of his yard. “Now that is a custom mixture of Northern Kentucky Bluegrass and Dwarf Samoan Fescue. I had my landscape architect dig down exactly 27 inches to lay a mixture of clay and soil that’s my own secret recipe, so I’d tell ya more, but I’d have to shoot ya!” He shot his elbow toward my ribs, but I blocked it with my forearm. I said “Well, I gotta get back to moving in now. Thanks again for the cookies.” “Wife baked them herself this afternoon – ummm only made two dozen and I got one – gave the rest to you.” “Would you like one more – the plate’s in the kitchen.” “Naw – that’s OK – I’ll let ya owe me one. By the way, I saw you have cats – are they indoor or outdoor?” “Outdoor mostly” I said. “Too bad. Cat urine is horrible for lawns.” We just stood looking at each other – I had no idea how to respond to that statement. “You see. . “ Oh God, here we go. . . “Cats are carnivores so they have a high concentration of protein in them. Well protein breaks down to nitrogen in the kidneys, and comes out as a type of concentrated nitrogen fertilizer in their urine.” “I thought fertilizer is good.” I said with a half smile. “Not pure nitrogen! Breaks down the grass’s ability to absorb other nutrients so what you get is a green-up effect followed by a brown-down.” “A brown-down?” “yeah – the opposite of a green-up - the patch of grass that got peed on dies within seven to ten days.” “Are those seven to ten working days or. . .” I was trying to get him to lighten up a little. “Huh – I . uhh. I don’t think that matters. Anyway, I’ve got that fence there which does a good job keeping the dogs out, but the cats just look at it as a challenge, and climb right over. I’ve got varmit deterrents like high frequency sound generators to keep the gophers out, but the cats – they’re not affected by that. OK – well, I better get back to what I was doin’ (like I was holding HIM up) nice meetin’ ya” Mike turned around and walked back over to Veronica who was talking with Elizabeth.

The next morning I got up at dawn to start unpacking all of my garage stuff, and as I stood looking out of our front window, I saw the silhouette of a person hunched over Mike’s lawn. I opened the garage door and walked outside to find Mike spraying RoundUp onto the grass through what looked like a funnel. He saw me and said “Early bird gets the worm – ehe?” “Yeah – what are you doing?” “Getting rid of renegades” he said. “Doesn’t matter how pure your grass seed mixture may be, there’s always going to be birds or the wind dropping seeds of one kind or another onto your lawn. Now I can take care of the birds” He made the universal shotgun in the air, skeet shooting gesture. “but the wind – well, haven’t learned how to control that yet.” Man, this guy was whacked. “Using an inverted funnel so that I can direct the RoundUp to kill only the patches I need to and not the surrounding grass.” “And then what?” I asked. “Then I wait seven days, pull up the dead patch and plant my seed in its place.” Did he just say ‘plant his seed?’ “Can’t you just pull up the weed?” I said. “May not get the entire root. RoundUp kills from the inside out – starves the plant of a vital amino acid so that they can’t photosynthesize – kills the whole damn thing on a cellular level.” Fascinating.
Living next to Mike was like living next to Bill Nye the science guy a week after going cold turkey off his thorozine.

A few days later Elizabeth and I were cooking dinner when we heard a horrible sound coming from the front of our house. We both scampered out to find Mike holding our older cat by the nape of his neck – arm outstretched and walking toward us. “If you don’t mind, I’d appreciate it if you’d keep your cats in your yard – don’t know how you’re going to do that, but that’s not my problem. Caught the critter peeing on my lawn!” I ran over to him and plucked the cat from his hand. Elizabeth and I were silent for a few seconds, then I said “There’s no way we are going to be able to keep our cats from ‘visiting’ your lawn. You’ll have to learn to live with that fact – and don’t ever mistreat my cat again.”

The next weekend Mike was sitting out in a lawn chair on his back patio when my son kicked the ball over his fence. Nick ran up to me and told me about it, so I walked into our backyard and peeked over. “Hey Mike – did you see a ball come over the fence?” Mike didn’t look up from his book. “Nope.” I glanced around the yard then back at Nick “Are you sure it went over?” “Yes – straight over right here.” Nick pointed at the place in the fence it passed over. “Mike – you mind if I come over there to take a look – my son said it came over right here.” Mike didn’t take his eyes away from the book. “Ahh now’s not a good time, neighbor – sorry.” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I mean, I’d heard of people like this, but never met one. It was like I’d stepped over some imaginary boundary that separates our normal world from the exaggerated, stereotypes portrayed in bad fiction and any movie starring Steve Guttenburg.

My son and I went to the store to buy another ball and when we got back, I witnessed the event that broke down all walls of decency and forgiveness on my part. As we drove up to our house my son and I both watched as Mike kicked our younger cat about six feet into the air and off his yard. The cat scampered sideways then ran under a parked car. I calmly told Nick to take his ball and go into the house. I sat in the car for a second. Mike saw me there, and he turned, walked back toward his garage and picked up the garden hose. Mike seemed to me to be the kind of guy who would be fueled by conflict. I’d only known him a little over a week, but I guessed that Mike would take any aggressive behavior on my part and use it as ammunition to commit some other cruel act. He was really enjoying having this feud and I’ll bet he was sad when he found out the last owners were moving because he wasn’t sure if the new owner would be an easy target. This feud defined him just as much as his meticulous lawn care did – it was all starting to come together.

I got out of the car, smiled at Mike, and simply said “I saw that...” Mike just glared at me, but also looked somewhat relieved that I didn’t walk up and pummel him. I just kept walking - right past him and over to the cat who was wheezing under the car. I carefully picked him up and brought him into the house. One of my best friends from high school is a veterinarian so I took my son along, and we drove the cat to his office. He took some x-rays, and he didn’t charge me for extracting 20 cubic centimeters of air from the sack around the cat’s lungs – neumothorax I think they call it when air escapes into the chest cavity. Anyway, he said the cat probably would have died without treatment. The cat, by the way, recovered within a couple of days and is still doing just fine. The thought occurred to me to ask my friend to mock up a bill so I could hand it to Mike, but I realized that would just be fueling the fire. No one with a personality like Mike’s would gratefully accept the bill and pay for it. That would just turn into a mess and work against me. No – I had to be creative about how I handled Mike. On the way home from the vet, I thought about what I knew about the guy. I knew three things for sure: He thrived on conflict, he was extremely self-important, and he had an unnatural obsession for his lawn. Then I thought about the few necessary elements for my plan.
1. Fist and foremost it should be innocuous – no one could be hurt.
2. It had to not feed the feud, in fact if possible, it should deflate it.
3. Whatever I did should be as discrete as possible. He shouldn’t know I was to blame, but should suspect me without any way to prove it.
4. The outcome of the act would lesson the chances of either of my cats being hurt by him again.
5. And finally, whatever I did, it had to hit him where he lived so it would leave a lasting impact.

The pieces of the plan formed, and as they did, a smile, no – a grin grew on my face that I’m sure would have frightened me if I looked in the rear-view mirror. As soon as I got home I went to the computer, fired up Google and Wikipedia, and started learning everything I could about lawns.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

One person's trash - part 4, final

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The morning warms to noon, and most of the people in the lot are breaking for lunch. Some sit on their truck’s tailgate and open brown bags, but most gather in the center of the lot, dragging chairs of all sorts from their own trucks or borrowed from a neighbor. Men sit and begin talking as women carry bags and large containers of food and arrange them on a bed sheet in the center of the circle. The vicious haggling on the auction floor seems distant, as do the arguments amongst the bidders and the squabbling on the loading dock. What’s left is a very real sense of community. Javier opens both doors on his pickup and turns his radio up loud enough to fill the lot with music. Three boys play handball against a dumpster. I watch the ball go over the lip, and one of the boys climbs the metal steps to rescue it. Two young girls, perhaps five years old, sit in the shade of a plastic tarp and play with dolls. One of the dolls has an arm missing, but the girl doesn’t seem to care in the least.

I realize that I’m watching a picnic. I’m a little disturbed that it took me a few minutes to recognize it. But it all starts coming together. To me, the dumpster is dangerous, the parking lot is filthy, and the imperfect doll is worthless. I become aware of a severe crises of perspective - one that makes me unable to recognize these things for what they really are – a handball court, a picnic area, and a little girl’s best friend.

All the sudden I feel out of place, like I’ve walked into the wrong party or crashed a family picnic. Javier breaks off a Coke from the six pack and tosses it to his brother who misses it. It rolls under a cart loaded with computer monitors. They’re laughing as I approach. I shake Javier’s hand, thank him. He holds the grip an extra second, looks at me in the eyes, “Good luck my friend.” he says. Maybe he’s right. Maybe I am the one who needs luck. I walk the rest of the way across the lot, open the gate, and step through.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Collateral Damage

There I was – laying down in the backseat of the Chevy Vega, being propelled at a ludicrous speed down highway 215 halfway between Las Vegas and LA. In the front seats, Brent and his wife Nancy screamed at each other – foul, hurtful messages fired back and forth between them like well-placed sniper shots. Brent still wore the tuxedo he and I rented in Seal Beach only 72 hours before, and which he wore to the chapel on the way out of town. I stared out of the open window, counted telephone poles, and listened to the newlyweds verbally sodomize each other.

The hot wind blew in from all the windows and whipped around inside the car like a localized, superheated cyclone. I had my sunglasses on, and Brent and Nancy might have mistaken me for asleep, but I’m guessing they were so caught up in their fury that they didn’t even remember I was there. I laid there thinking that if it wasn’t for their unborn daughter, this could have been their last fight, their final battle before the annulment and subsequent emotional aftermath.

But Brent and Nancy weren’t going to split; they were going to continue fighting just like they had been for the past two years. And because they were bound by principal and obligation to provide a good home for their daughter they would try to get along the best they knew how - inside the same small apartment in the government subsidized complex in Orange County.

It’s in that apartment that their daughter would take her first steps, read her first book, and whisper in her daddy’s ear about the new, cute boy in her class. It was in that apartment that she’d spend the first nine years of her life before the decade-long war between her parents eroded their resolve to the point of mutual surrender. In the span of one Friday night, Nancy would pack two suitcases and she and her daughter would leave – for good. Brent would spend the remainder of the month gathering the fragments of his life into cardboard boxes – pulling pictures off of the walls, sorting through ten years of memories, and trying to make sense of a suddenly senseless world.

We pulled into Baker to get gas. Brent and Nancy both got out of the car and Nancy went to the bathroom while Brent pumped. Through the rear window I could see what Baker claims as the world’s tallest thermometer. It read 102 degrees. I grabbed the cooler from the floor of the back seat, got out of the car and walked over to Brent who was leaning against the pump. “What’s up?” I said. “I’m sorry Tommy. You’re witnessing one of our worse fights. And you know the craziest thing?” “what?: I said, “I don’t even remember what the hell we’re fighting about, but I know it’s not over.”

Man, if Brent could have known just how prophetic that was. We both stared out at the highway that was laid out straight as a die into the distant hills. We didn’t say anything, just stood looking at the heat waves boil up from the horizon. I watched dust devils dance along the desert floor and carry brownish-red plumes of sand hundreds of feet into the air, but my eyes kept coming back to that road. I don’t know what Brent was thinking about – probably his future, maybe a little about the past, but I’m almost certain that somewhere in there he was thinking about his unborn daughter because with all the heat, the sand blowing in our faces, the recent and impending fight with his new bride, he was still able to let a thin smile grow across his face.

I was thinking about how the child was going to be born into a loving but very volatile home – that the most peace this child might know between that moment and the time she leaves the nest was right there in the womb. I had known Brent for twenty years, and knew that he would never leave Nancy no matter how bad it all got – he just didn’t have it in him to look after his own interests above anyone else’s – his low self esteem simply wouldn’t allow it. The decision to break up would have to be mutual, but in the meantime, their daughter would sustain the emotional scars, the collateral damage of their seemingly endless skirmishes. I saw all of this on that road, and Brent must have as well, but judging from the smile on his face he had somehow found an oasis out there, and at least for the moment, it didn’t matter that it was only a mirage, because the good thoughts were winning over the bad.

I glanced up at the thermometer –104 degrees. “Don’t worry about me man, I can’t even hear what you guys are saying.” I lied and Brent just kept smiling and then turned his attention back to the pump. I started walking in the direction of the bathrooms and noticed that my shoes felt sticky on the as fault and I realized my soles were melting. Nancy was walking out of the women’s room as I approached, and she didn’t raise her eyes to meet mine – just looked down onto the smoldering ground. The bottoms of her $1.99 supermarket flip flops were turning into molten black goo, to the point that she had to pull them up with each step and they slapped against her heels as she walked. I thought about how we were all being consumed by something. That there were troubles in our lives that ate us from the inside out if we let them, and now – now we were being consumed by the desert with only a thin layer of galvanized latex separating us and the percolating planet beneath our feet. The wind whipped up a screen of dust which blew between us so that when we passed each other both our eyes were closed tight, but I could hear her sticky sandals, and thought I heard her say ‘hey.’ I said ‘hey’ just in case, but I didn’t put much behind it and I’m sure it was lost in the wind.

When I walked out of the bathroom Brent and Nancy were standing in a patch of shade beneath the mini-mart’s awning. The two of them were some couple – Brent with his tuxedo shirt and pants, Nancy with her t-shirt, shorts and flip flops. I swung around to the far side of the pump island and grabbed a soda from the cooler. I looked over at the two of them - expecting to see them fighting, but they weren’t. Nancy was wiping tears from her eyes which I’d seen plenty of times, but this time it was different. Brent was standing with one hand on Nancy’s shoulder, the other on the underside of Nancy’s belly. They were smiling and laughing as they shared feeling their daughter’s kicks for the first time.

I looked over my left shoulder at the world’s tallest thermometer which now read 106 degrees. From there, my eyes moved to that highway. A big dust devil spun sideways toward it about a mile or so in the distance. It might get rough I thought – but then we all knew that, and after all,it’s the only road we’ve got.

Listen to this story as a podcast HERE.