Friday, June 22, 2007

Remembering Summer

For twenty years, from the age of five to twenty-five, summer was to me a glorious celebration of liberation and independence punctuated by a State-certified and parent-ratified amnesty from school for three magnificent months. It’s 6:36 AM on this, the first day of summer vacation for my kids, and as I recall my own childhood memories of summer – the lingering afternoons spent at the beach, the carefree days and balmy nights, a truck’s air horn gently reminds me that I’m sitting in traffic on my way to work. I’m convinced there’s no worse way to start a day than being stuck in traffic before you even get to the office. The semi truck in front of me has moved nine inches in ten minutes. I’m not even sure if the driver is still in the cab. I was forced to stop short as I merged into the lane and came to rest with a generous three centimeters of clearance between my bumper and the iron lift gate on the back of the truck. I’m so close to the truck that it completely obscures my forward view. Every time I get up the nerve to step out of the car to peer around the edge of the truck, it releases a blast of pressurized air from its brakes, and jerks forward half an inch. I check my rear view mirror and see the guy behind me shaving with an electric razor while reading the OC Register which he has folded neatly against the steering wheel. He continues shaving with one hand while the other reaches toward the console and brings up his cup of Starbucks. He takes a casual sip, then slowly lowers the cup and turns the page. This guy has it down – definitely a professional commuter.

I look ahead again, let my eyes rest on the black diamond plate design of the lift gate, and my mind rolls into a reverie of a summer long ago. I was ten years old and lying on the sand at Alamitos Bay in Long Beach. My friend, Jonny and I had just finished a long swim along the buoy line, and beached ourselves in the cool sand at the water’s edge. There was a commotion behind us, and we looked back and saw several people standing and pointing over our heads toward the water. Six bottlenose dolphins skimmed the surface just outside the swim line some 100 yards offshore. Their dorsal fins sliced through the morning glass in rhythmic undulations. They swam past at a casual pace and then headed toward the 2nd Street Bridge. Jonny and I scrambled to our feet and ran to catch up with them. We ran as far as the bridge then watched them disappear into the next harbor. Several minutes later they returned, and for the rest of that day and most of the next, Jonny and I did little else besides swimming, laughing, and running up and down the beach chasing dolphins.

A car horn jolts me back to reality and I instinctively pop my car into gear and creep forward. I drum the steering wheel a few times and look to my right. A very large man in a mid-90s Tercel is bludgeoning the tiny buttons on his cell phone with his enormous index finger. He’s talking to himself too, no, yelling. Thick strands of greasy brown hair lay flat, plastered against his sweaty brow. He’s wearing a short sleeve shirt and a tie. A black suit coat is hanging from the hook over the passenger window behind him. I figure he’s late for a job interview, but then realize it’s too early for that, so I resign to the thought that this poor soul is probably a mess like this everyday. The semi lunges forward a few inches, but I stay put. I’m gonna need a couple of feet of clearance if I’m ever going to maneuver around him.

Once again I stare ahead and drift away. It’s the summer of 1981 and I’m 16 years old. The year before, for my birthday, my parents bought me SCUBA lessons. My friend Chuck and I dove mainly in the shallow waters of Alamitos Bay, sinking to the murky silt at the bottom and cruising along under the marina docks looking for whatever sea life or barnacle-encrusted jetsam we could find. This day we started the dive later than usual and raced daylight to get in a quick dive. It wasn’t long before Chuck and I got separated while cruising along the underside of the docks near his parents’ boat. I checked my air and compass, realized I had a few more minutes, and continued on my way. Finally, as my air tank began to empty I made a gradual ascent. At the surface, I pivoted toward the west and was greeted with the most perfect sunset I’d ever seen. I pulled my dive mask from around my eyes and rested it on my forehead. I just stayed there in the channel, treading water, and gazing at the reds and golds and the brilliant shafts of light shooting into the yellow clouds as they chased the sun into the horizon.

The air brakes blast and the truck moves another few inches. I click my turn signal and watch the mirror for a break in traffic. The big guy in the Tercel waves me in front of him. I’m surprised by that because I had pegged him as a frustrated, angry loner – someone incapable of such an altruistic gesture. I wave back at him, and he nods. I feel bad for stereotyping him. When did life get so complicated? Not that many summers ago I didn’t have a care in the world. I straighten the car out in the lane and feel my phone vibrating on my hip. It’s my ten-year-old son, Nick. “Hi Nick – what are you doing up so early?” I said. “I couldn’t sleep any more. I’m too excited because mom’s taking us to the beach today!” He says, exuberated. “That’s great pal!” I say, then begin rehearsing my checklist of obligatory parental caveats – wear sun block, shuffle your feet as you enter the water to scare away stingrays, stay right in front of a lifeguard. . . Nick speaks up, “Yeah – I can’t wait!” Reflexively, I take a deep breath in preparation for my lecture, “Don’t forget to. . .” I pause for a moment, bite my tongue, then Nick cuts in, “Don’t forget what?” He says. “Don’t forget to have fun.” I say. “I won’t dad, I’m gonna have the best day ever.” That resounding, innocent exclamation rattled around in my head for moment, then must have jarred something loose that had been too tight for too long. “I’m sure you will, buddy.” I said. “I’m gonna try to do the same.”

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Sense of Direction

I have a horrible sense of direction. Late last month I got lost inside a clothing store fitting room. While driving, I constantly have to stop and ask for directions, so two weeks ago, by request of my wife, I drove to Best Buy and bought a GPS. I programmed it so that I’m given turn-by-turn directions from a very pleasant-sounding British girl named Jane. The GPS had several built-in voices to choose from, but Jane was far and above the best of the lot. I’ll do just about anything Jane asks me to. Turn left, merge, keep right, make a U-turn. Elizabeth, my wife, asked me why I listen to Jane and follow her every request, but won’t pick my socks off the closet floor no matter how loud she yells. She accused me of running unnecessary errands, of using any excuse to drive the car. I told her what all men tell their wives, “It’s nothing honey, really. There’s absolutely nothing going on between Jane and me.” Elizabeth knew better; they all do. She’s been married to me for too long, and can tell when I’m preoccupied by something or someone. I’ll admit that Jane had piqued my interests.

One day last week I left work and set the GPS for home, but purposely ignored all of Jane’s directions. She never got upset, never yelled nor cursed. She kept the same, composed, sensitive tone as she continually recalculated my route during the entire extended commute. When Elizabeth asked me why I was two and a half hours late from work, I was at a loss. I couldn’t lie to the woman I loved, the mother of my children, my best friend. “Honey, let’s talk.” I said, and led her by her hand into the living room, away from our darling children playing quietly in their room. “There’s something I’ve been meaning to tell you.” Her face held a look of deep concern, and a thin, glossy sheen wetted her eyes as she blinked away the rudiments of tears. I pulled her close, then spoke. “Well, you know Jane, right?” There was an abrupt shift in her expression like someone had come up from behind and hit her hard on the rear with a canoe paddle. Her body shuddered; she pushed herself away from me and just stood there. I felt compelled to say something, anything. “This isn’t how I wanted to tell you.” I said. Nothing. She just stood before me, and I watched as her look turned quizzical, then perplexed, stumped, and finally flabbergasted. It was about then that rage set in. Those eyes, once heavy with tears, turned blood-red, and her brow migrated inwards forming a distinct ‘V’ over the bridge of her nose. Her lips tightened to a thin line, and I could hear the even pant of strained respirations from her flared nostrils. Something deep within the reptilian recesses of my brain screamed ‘run!’ but I couldn’t move. I had stumbled out of the jungle and found myself standing eleven inches from the nose of a hungry, snarling lioness who wanted nothing else than to tear me limb from limb then devour me with the help of her adorable cubs.

Then something quite unexpected happened. She turned, walked into the kitchen, plucked her purse off of the counter then walked out the front door. I followed, but not too close, and reached the patio as she was pulling her car out of the driveway. I watched as she disappeared down the street then I went inside. About an hour later she returned carrying a Best Buy bag. She said hello to me, cordially enough, then went into our bedroom. I stood silently just outside the doorway, out of her view, and relatively safe from airborne projectiles. A minute or so passed then I heard her cycle through the familiar GPS voices. Like the call from an estranged phantom, Jane’s voice echoed from our bedroom into the hall, “Voice one, Jane. In four hundred yards, turn left, then turn right.” My heart was beating like a rabbit. My wife and the ‘other woman’ were in my bedroom – together – talking to each other! A few seconds of unbearable silence passed, then another voice – a man’s voice “Voice two, Richard. You have reached your destination.” It repeated - the deep, tranquil, quasi-Mediterranean tones of his voice modulated with seduction. “You have reached your destination.” He spoke again, this time louder, “. . .reached your destination.” I saw a shadow moving toward the door so I backed up flat against the wall. The door shut, and I heard the click of the lock. “You have reached your destination. . . reached your destination.” I could listen no more.

I walked down the hall to the kids’ room and sat on the edge of my daughter’s bed. The two little ones were sitting on the floor in front of me, playing with Matchbox cars. My son skid a red Corvette into the bay of a plastic gas station. “Hey – How do I get to McDonald’s?!?” He said to my daughter who was playing the role of the reluctant attendant, “I’m not going to tell you! Get yourself a GPS like my daddy!” Then she looked up at me. “Right daddy?” I smiled at her, leaned forward, and brushed a few strands of hair from in front of her eyes. “Sometimes it’s better to ask for directions, honey. There’s certainly no disgrace in that.”

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Notes on National Politics

Me dear pop wrote this yesterday.

Well, for a start, let us look at the political scene. Do you agree the quadrennial circus that is the campaign for the presidency has gotten way out of hand? The excuse offered is that it takes many millions of dollars and the candidates need almost two years to gather needed funds and supporters. To blow a hole in this excuse take the case of Republican Fred Thompson who hasn't yet announced but as of this date (6/13) has captured the number two spot in the GOP polls.

Do you think maybe the public is turned off by the interminable marathon and is not going to tune in until election time draws near? That has been the case in the past and all those eager to rescue the suffering world, or, let's face it wear the crown, have learned nothing from past campaigns.

All right, lets us grant there is a spark of truth in the desperate need for lots of money to seek office. Doesn't that call for campaign reform? We all know that money greases the wheels of government and big money buys big favors too often at the expense of the rest of us. It is time to finance campaigns from the government treasury and set a limit for everyone under law. Of course that AINT going to happen any time soon, but it is something to shoot for.

Soooo since the race is underway and we can't stop it this time we can either ignore it altogether, look in once in a while, or follow along through the entire boring thing.

And as for me, I am not favoring anyone at this point. Didn't I just say it is much too soon?

Thursday, June 7, 2007

My full name is Sandra Fay Lipton, but my friends and customers call me Sandy. I’ve been a waitress at the Mexi Casa cafe in Franklin, Tennessee for 52 years. I don’t know if that’s some sort of world record, but people tend to be impressed by that. What surprises people the most though is that, at 70 years old, I still look forward to coming to work here nearly every day. Fact is, before my hip surgery last Spring, I hadn’t missed a single shift in more than thirty years. A lot of that has to do with the people I see here everyday – the regulars who come here for the best cup of coffee in town. They are family to me; and just as most people look forward to coming home to see their families, I look forward to coming to the café to see mine. But there’s another reason I’m still here, and that has to do with a conversation I had with someone, right here at the counter, nearly 50 years ago.

In late March of 1958 I was 21 years old, and had been waitressing at the Mexi Casa for almost three years. I didn’t go to college right out of high school. It wasn’t the normal thing for a young woman to do back then. Girls growing up in rural Tennessee in the 1950’s were burdened with many expectations, but the pursuit of quality education wasn’t one of them. I was expected to get married, raise a family, and provide grandchildren for my parents to dote over. At the time it seemed like my parents’ only concern was that I met these expectations. I’m sure that’s why my passions and plans were closely audited. They had to be in case I somehow became self-aware at any point in my life and decided to actually act in my own best interest. Heresy!
My plans did not include marrying a local boy and living in town with six children. My plans were to work at the cafe until I had enough money to move to California where I’d somehow become a movie star. I know that probably sounds corny now, but that dream was one of few things that I could truly call my own.

Of course a dream that delicious just had to be shared. I told it to anyone who would listen; and so, as I knew would be the case, this dream of mine became an unending source of arguments with my parents and siblings. After one particularly nasty fight with my mom and brother, I stormed off to work with the intention of quitting my job at the end of that evening’s shift, and catching the first bus to the west coast. I had felt that way on numerous occasions, but that night I went as far as to pack my things into a suitcase and hide it behind a hedge under my bedroom window to pick up later that night.

My six-hour shift started at 5:00PM, and around 10:00 I was standing behind the counter drying a stack of saucers and planning which streets I would have to take as to not attract any wondering eyes as I hurried toward the bus station with my suitcase. It was about then that I heard the bell on the door jingle and I turned to see two gentlemen walk in. The smaller, younger of the two walked up to the counter and sat down. The larger man looked around for a few seconds then walked back outside and got into his car.
I grabbed the coffee pot from the burner and walked over to the man. He was gazing at the menu, and from my angle, the brim of his hat covered his face. I flipped his cup over and poured the coffee. He looked up briefly, caught my eyes for only a moment, then tipped his hat and said “Thanks.” Now I’ve thought about this night thousands of times over the years, examined every detail of it until I can close my eyes and watch it like a movie, but I still can’t put into words the way that I felt the moment I realized I had just poured a cup of coffee for Elvis Presley.

I walked back to the coffee station, set the pot back on the burner, and looked around the café to see if anyone else had noticed. There were only two other customers, and they sat at a booth against the window. I looked through the order window into the kitchen. Jeff, the cook was out back smoking a cigarette. Pete, the manager sat behind the register reading a newspaper. Elvis was mine – all mine. I walked up to him. “What can I get you?” He took his hat off and set it on the stool next to him. “Is it too late or . . .” He paused, looked at his watch, and smiled. “. . .too early to order some breakfast?” I giggled. “No, you can have anything you’d like.” God! That must have sounded stupid. I waited for him to look away from me, laugh, shake his head, but he didn’t. He kept looking at me, and as he did, he smiled. I must have smiled too, because I still smile when I think of that moment. He looked down at his coffee then said, “Say, would you get in trouble if you were to join me for some coffee?” I’m not sure what my answer was or even if there was an answer. I remember grabbing the coffee pot, topping off his cup and pouring one for myself, then walking around the counter and sitting next to him.

I speak with strangers every day in the café, and know that most people are pretty private about their lives. I’ve come to respect people’s space, and I can usually tell from when I greet them whether they are the chatty type or not. Even when they are chatty, conversations usually start out shallow and become deeper with trust and time. On rare occasions though, I meet someone and somehow manage to avoid small talk completely. I begin rambling, without hesitation, like I’ve known them my whole life. That’s how it was with Elvis and me. I told him things that I couldn’t even tell my friends – heck that I hadn’t even admitted to myself. I told him about my plans to leave town that night, and as I did I became aware that, down deep, my dream of moving to Hollywood was more of a plot to make everyone in town jealous and infuriate my parents. I admitted that I was miserable about the fact that I didn’t have any real plans of my own, but I sure as heck wasn’t going to live according to the plans of other people. Elvis listened intently, and then shared with me that the next day he was reporting to the Army Draft Board. He said that several months prior he was offered special treatment if he had volunteered, but he took his chances with the draft. He said he was scared, more scared than he’d ever been. He was certain his career would be over when he returned in two years, but that didn’t seem to bother him as much as having to leave his mama for so long. He confided in me, leaned in close, and confessed so many fears and personal details that I felt overwhelmed; but I kept listening, and kept staring into those deep green eyes.

It’s as if, with all of the craziness and excitement in his life, he rarely had the chance to speak openly with someone. As if he came into this obscure, little café just to find someone like me to talk to. For me, he was the light in the storm – a stranger and a friend at the same time, who helped me more through the simple act of listening than any number of people could through offering their advice. By the end of our conversation things lightened up a little. He smiled and told me that if I really wanted to get back at my family and the busy-bodies in the town, moving to Hollywood wouldn’t do the trick. He was right, and I knew it the second he said it. He helped me realize that by staying here, and spending my money on going to college instead of Hollywood, I could really turn this sleepy town on end.

When he stood up to leave he reached in his pocket and pulled out a hundred dollar bill and laid it on the counter. I’d never seen a hundred dollar bill before, so after my initial shock, I looked up at him and said “I can’t keep this. It’s too much money; and . . . you didn’t even eat!” He gave me a crooked smile, “I wasn’t really hungry, darlin’. Plus, I’m not giving you this money as a tip.” Elvis leaned in toward me, plucked his hat from the seat, and then gave me a serious look. “This here money is part of a wager, and by taking it, you’re promising me that you’re gonna do whatever makes you the happiest in life, no matter what people think or say.” He smiled again, then leaned in and kissed my cheek. “Thanks for talking with me tonight.” He said. I picked the bill off the counter and turned toward the door as he walked through. “Goodnight.” I said. I finished my shift that night, then went home and brought my suitcase inside.

The following fall I started classes at Southern Tennessee Lutheran College, and eventually got my degree in English literature. I never did marry, but discovered I have a knack for writing. Over the years I’ve had four novels published. I took the money from my first book and bought the MexiCasa. That was in 1979, and I’m proud to say that we still serve the best coffee in Franklin.
Most evenings I leave the café around eight, but Tuesdays I stay until we close at eleven. I suppose it’s a silly ritual – staying late like that, but I still enjoy listening for the bell on the door, and summoning the wonder of a night long ago.

Sunday, June 3, 2007

Carl and Bob in Cyberspace has a new home! Yep, our favorite retro-geeks have outgrown this humble blog, and have formed their own blog worthy of their (potential) popularity. You can find Carl and Bob HERE -


Friday, June 1, 2007

Carl and Bob in Cyberspace - # 4

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.