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Friday, September 30, 2005

NEW STUDY REVEALS PEOPLE ARE DISGUSTING

I read a recent report about the disturbing handwashing habits of Americans. The American Society of Microbiology observed about 8,000 people using public restrooms and found that only two out of every three people wash their hands after using the bathroom. That means that every third person who touches you may have moments earlier been touching their privates.

PEOPLE OF EARTH! WASH YOUR FUCKING HANDS! I COMMAND YOU! YOU'RE RUINING IT FOR THE REST OF US!

That news is gross enough. But the study went further by interviewing 1,000 people about their restroom handwashing habits. 95% claimed to wash their hands. That means that not only are people not washing up, but they're lying about it, too. To me, that indicates that they know they should be washing their hands but for some reason, they still don't.

What's up, non-handwashers? Is there something the rest of us don't know? Were you born with a special gland that secretes a self-cleansing enzyme moments after urination? Do you possess the power to repel germs with your extra-powerful brain? If not, what's so hard about soaping up and rinsing off? It feels good doesn't it? Does it take too much time? Do you secretly think germs are some sort of urban legend like Nessie or the Yeti? Or does part of you think you're just too damned important to wash?

Hmm. Too important to wash. Now, why would someone think that? Maybe they think that their junk is better your junk. Better, cleaner, OK to touch. This could be it.

I hate public bathrooms. I don't even like using the bathroom at work which is really a pretty nice one. I use it but only because I have to. It's hard to not be hyper-aware of people's behavior in there so I've noticed which guys wash and which ones don't and what I find is this: the bigger the ego, the less likely to wash. The company I work for is essentially run by a very small group of very large personalities. It's not even the people that run this place. It's their egos which seem, not unlike parasites, to have attached to their executive hosts and utterly taken over what may have been perfectly reasonable, unaffected people, the kind of people who, oh, I don't know, understand that it's disgusting and rude to touch your twigs and berries and then shake hands. But then again, these characters have so many other issues, proper hygiene is most likely low on their list of things to do, somewhere below spending time with their kids and somewhere above giving me a raise.

Maybe I should do my own study.

Monday, September 26, 2005

IDIOT COP

1981. Driving from Massachusetts to New York with my friend Arthur in my Dad's Chevy Malibu. Ostensibly to visit colleges, the trip was really just an excuse to go on a parentally-sanctioned road trip. Hell, they even gave us spending money.

It was about 95° and the A/C was out so we had the windows down. I was wearing shorts and a t-shirt but no shoes and no socks. Just over the state line, Arthur was telling some story which I can't remember now but at the time was quite funny, so much so that I failed to realize that I was heading downhill at 88 miles an hour straight into a speed trap. Moments later I shut the engine off and watched in the side view mirror as a state cop sidled up beside me while another stayed in the cruiser. The usual scene was acted out – license and registration were handed over and the cop returned to the cruiser to enter numbers into a computer. We wait. And wait. And wait and wait and wait. I'd been pulled over a few times before and knew that the waiting is the excruciating part, but this was ridiculous. What was taking so long?

Finally, the cruiser's doors opened and this time both cops approached the Malibu. This was when the cop usually makes you sign the ticket and says something mildly intimidating and returns your documents and everyone leaves. Usually. Not this time.

"Step out of the car, please," the cop said.

Stunned by the escalation of the situation, I looked at his face for the first time. I looked into his eyes. He was a young guy, just a few years older than Arthur and I. But he was the one with the badge and the gun and the lights on top of his car so after a moment of adjustment, I stepped out of the car.

My moment of adjustment did not prepare for what the cop said next.

"Turn around and put your hands on the car."

My heart raced and my knees started shaking but I didn't comply. I was paralyzed with the kind of fear you have when your a kid and someone tells you you're in trouble but you don't know why so you try and think of all the bad stuff you've done lately and figure out which one you're about to be busted for.

"What? Why?" I squeaked back at the cop.

"Just turn around and put your hands on the car," he repeated. So I did. And he started to frisk me. At this point I should have realized that this wasn't the brightest guy because he frisked my bare legs. Now I'm part Italian, but I don't have so much leg hair that I could have been packing heat in there. Frankly, I was so confused and frazzled that I barely noticed the absurdity of the cop feeling me up this way. Before he and the other cop handcuffed us and put us in the back of the cruiser, he explained that the license plates on the Malibu belong to a vehicle that had been reported stolen. I told them that was a mistake, that it was my father's car and he's the only one who'd ever owned it.

"It's not stolen," I pleaded. But they weren't interested. So off to the New York State Police barracks we went, where Arthur and I were taken out, sat down and handcuffed to a wall. By now, I've gone from panic to fear to anger to seeing the humor in it all. I'm calm and just waiting for someone to realize the mistake that's being made. The young cop seemed to be waiting to speak to his superior officer who was on the phone dealing with another matter in his office. Arthur and I sat just outside the office, each with a wrist shackled to the wall. Finally, the superior officer finished his phone conversation, hung up and shouted for the young cop to come in. This is the conversation as I remember it:

SUPERIOR OFFICER: OK, so what's happening.

YOUNG COP: When we ran the plates on this vehicle, it came back stolen, sir.

SUPERIOR OFFICER: Do you have the print out?

YOUNG COP: Yes, sir. Here it is, sir.

Paper shuffled. A pause.

SUPERIOR OFFICER: According to this, the stolen plates are Delaware plates.

YOUNG COP: Yes, sir.

SUPERIOR OFFICER: But the vehicle you pulled over has Massachusetts plates.

YOUNG COP: Yes, sir. That's correct, sir.

SUPERIOR OFFICER: So why did you bring them in if they have Massachusetts plates and the stolen plates are from Delaware?

YOUNG COP: Because Delaware's part of Massachusetts, sir.

Another pause, this one quite sweet.

SUPERIOR OFFICER: Say again?

YOUNG COP: Delaware is part of Massachusetts, sir.

A final pause, even sweeter.

SUPERIOR OFFICER: We'll talk about that later. Right now we've got to get these guys back to their car.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

MAGICAL NIGHT IN LOS ANGELES,
SCREENING IN CEMETERY IMPOSSIBLY COOL

One more reason Los Angeles is an amazing city:

Last night I had without a doubt one of the most spectacular movie-going experiences of my life. Along with several hundred Angelinos, I sat on the grounds of the Hollywood Forever Cemetery and watched "The Shining." For those of you unfamiliar with it, this is a cemetery in the heart of Hollywood where many, many Hollywood movie and television people are interred. The gates to the cemetery opened at 6:30. Cindy and I met up with friend Julia and friend Chris and a couple other kids. The crowd spread out on the large lawn in front of a white building that served as movie screen. Classic movie posters were projected on the side of the building while good, strange music played loudly. Speakers stands dotted the lawn.

We enjoyed about an hour of picnic time (wine and delicious rolls from Chris) and watched twilight turn into darkness. Julia suddenly noticed that none other than Johnny Ramone, dramatically lit from below stood watching over us from his grave 100 feet away. Seeing his figure, in classic Ramone stance – impossibly leaning backward and forward at the same time, straight black hair framing his narrow features, leather jacket crinkled and guitar jutting – gave me un unexpected feeling of warmth and security, like nothing bad could happen to any of us sharing his company.

"The Shining" continues to outclass all other horror movies. Enough said.

A particularly L.A. moment occured during the scene in which Shelley Duvall's character Wendy and her son Doc are watching television. The theme to the Roadrunner cartoon blares from the box. As the scene played, a helicopter approached the space over the cemetery. Low-flying helicopters are a part of everyday life in Los Angeles so this wasn't out of the ordinary except that this chopper was unusually large and had a dummy in a jumpsuit strapped to the landing gear. Spotlights followed its path through the sky indicating that it was being filmed for something, a movie perhaps. So at that moment, I sat in a cemetery surrounded by the graves of moviemakers, watching a scene in a movie in which the characters were watching a cartoon produced very possibly by some of those very people buried around me, while a film production of some sort took place directly over my head. My mind swirled at the confluence of tenses.

"How could this be?" I wondered.

When you live in Los Angeles, you never know what magical moment is waiting for you around the next corner. That's why I love it here.

What these photos lack detail, they capture in atmosphere of the evening.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

SWEET AND SOUR MONEY

I used to work with this guy Dan whose sole purpose in life was to make sure that EVERYONE liked him. Ironically, he tried so hard that nobody did. Two of the most annoying things he did were:

1) call me "Honey." He did this twice. I made it clear that I preferred "Tom."

2) insist on paying for everything. Now, usually if someone wants to pay for something, I have no problem, believe me. In fact, what makes me uncomfortable is even having the conversation of who's paying for what. Ideally, when you're with friends that you're comfortable with and one person pays for a meal or drinks or whatever, you just make an effort to remember so that the next time, you pay. Theoretically, everything evens out in the end. But Dan would never let me pay for ANYTHING. I mean it was weird. I'm not just talking about meals. When we would go to a convenient store and I would put a candy bar and a soda on the counter, he would whip out the bills and insist on paying. Really what he would do is out-insist me because I would end up arguing the case of why it made no sense for him to pay for something that has nothing to do with him whatsoever. But as I said, what makes me uncomfortable is even having the conversation so usually with Dan, I would give in without too much protesting.

Until one time. We were at a big conference at Staples Center downtown. We met at a cafeteria-type restaurant there. We each got our trays and filled them up and met back at the register where of course, he started insisting that he pay. Well, I kind of lost it. I didn't exactly yell at him, but I used a mess of expletives ("fucking bullshit" I believe was the general topic) to get my point across.

Boy, did I get my point across. The rest of the day, all I heard was, "I'm so sorry. You're absolutely right. I shouldn't be paying for you. I'll never do it again. I promise."

I thought about it a lot after that. Why was it so important to Dan that he spend his money on me? And why did it bother me so much? I think it's a matter of control. Constantly scouting for ways to make me like him, Dan saw money as a way to control my opinion of him. And not wanting to be indebted to someone I didn't really like, I couldn't even give up the control of paying for my chicken salad sandwich.

Although he never tried to pay for my stuff again, Dan continued to search for friendship in other ways ("Honey," e.g.) until he moved on to another job. I haven't seen him in years.

Last weekend was my friend Julia's birthday and she and Cindy and I went to the L.A. County Fair and I inadvertently started paying for everything left and right. Tickets, rides, snacks until Julia said very clearly, "OK you have to stop doing that." She was right, of course, so I did.

Monday, September 19, 2005

FASHION AND LIFESTYLES IN POMONA

First off, let just remind you all that I am perfect. I am the perfect weight and wear perfect clothes. My skin, hair, cuticles, breath, all perfect. My perfection allows me the luxury of pointing out the imperfections of others. That said, let me tell you about some of the things I saw yesterday at the L.A. County Fair in Pomona.

Several pregnant women in tank tops that clung helplessly to their abdomens.
Unable to conceal the giant bulb, the tank tops accentuated what is no doubt the pride and joy of these women: their unborn children. And what better way to accessorize that distended navel than to pierce it with a shiny, dangly piece of jewelry and stick it out for the world to see?

Several women who don't seem to realize that just because low-rider jeans and a midriff top look good on Jennifer Aniston, it doesn't mean it looks good on everyone. That ensemble is NOT magical. It does not unlock the hidden power to transform the average body type into the extraordinary.

Many pre-teens trying to pass for teenagers.
God love 'em.

Many teenagers trying to pass for adults.
God help them.

Many adults trying to pass for teenagers.
God help me.

Many elderly folks trying to pass me on their scooters.
God damn it!

Reminder: I am perfect. I am the perfect age, I have the perfect pallor, muscle tone and dermal tension. I have the perfect wife and drive the perfect car.

Also seen at the fair:

A guy, maybe 25, head shaved and sweaty, eyes hidden by wraparound shades, weakly pushing a stroller with a baby who was absolutely wailing, squealing much like the pigs in the pig races on the other side of the fairgrounds. Something wasn't right in this kid's world and the obvious remedy was volume.

The daddy's shirt read "Living the Good Life." Yikes.

A woman sauntering by the deep-fried avocado booth arching her back so the message of her t-shirt could be plainly read across her more than ample bosom: "Not Everything in Kansas is Flat."

Tank tops that said "Bitch."

Tank tops that said "Sweet Taste."

Tank tops that said "God's Team."


I love the L.A. County Fair and will return next year.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

CHECK OUT THIS CRAZY SPA

Millie and Chuck Stamm, managers of Seminole Springs Mobile Home Park, Agoura, on March 21, 1975, seen here at the spa.
Click here to see the big picture.
[From the Los Angeles Public Library photo database.]

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

BUSH DELIVERS APOLOGY, PIGS EXPECTED AIRBORNE SOON

"Katrina exposed serious problems in our response capability at all levels of government. And to the extent that the federal government didn't fully do its job right, I take responsibility. I want to know what went right and what went wrong. I want to know how to better cooperate with state and local government, to be able to answer that very question that you asked: Are we capable of dealing with a severe attack or another severe storm?"
George W. Bush, 9/13/2005

Well, we did it. We finally found what it takes to get W to admit he made a mistake. Lying to the world in order to go to war? Not enough. "Bring 'em on" while mothers and fathers watch their children go off to war? Nope. "Mission Accomplished" followed by the combat deaths of 1336 American troops? No regrets there. No, if by nothing else, the reign of the almighty W has been distinguished by an unwavering faith that if George does it, it must be for the best. If George says it, it must be correct. If George thinks it, it must be true. And if George is in the middle of a mess, it must be someone else's fault. But this week that faith was finally pushed to the breaking point.

And all it took was dead bodies bobbing in the streets of a major city. For ten days.

Of course, it wasn't easy. Think of how far we've come from W's back-slapping of September 2nd.

"Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job," Bush said to then head of FEMA Michael Brown, creating for me yet another WHAT-PLANET-ARE-YOU-ON moment. I used to keep track of them but lost count back in 2001. By the way, Brown is available for any ass-kicking gigs or parties you may be planning. But if the candles on the cake catch the tablecloth on fire, don't count on old Brownie to fetch the fire extinguisher.

So Bush now says he takes responsibility for the slow response of the federal government to the largest natural disaster in American history. Am I wrong or doesn't taking responsibility involve more than just saying that you take responsibility? I know at my job if I deleted a bunch of someone else's files, I'd be expected to do more than just say, "Yep, I trashed 'em. I sure did." I'd then have to figure out a way to get those files back. If contrition were just a matter of saying a few apologetic words, hell, I'd be taking responsibility for a whole mess of stuff. It's the follow through that's a bitch.

W, and I'm guessing that you've heard this before, it's just not that simple. Saying you're sorry is a good first step. Removing Brownie was good too. But now you have to fix the problem. You've got about 40 months before you can retire to your golden years of ATV riding in Crawford and making the help at Kennebunkport laugh at your infantile jokes. Remember the "political capital" you had after your re-election? Do you have any left because this might be a good time to use it. Use it all, please. If the world is as dangerous as you tell us it is, we obviously need a much better system for getting help to people in crisis.

We don't have hurricanes in Southern California. We don't have tornadoes. But we do have earthquakes. Big, fucking earthquakes. We have little ones all the time. The big ones seem to come every couple of decades. The last big one was in 1994 so we're due for another anytime. Watching the news this past weekend, seeing how the people of New Orleans were left to fend for themselves motivated Cindy and me to get together a serious, comprehensive survival kit to keep us safe when that next big one hits. OK, so we didn't get the kit all together. We went online and looked at some cool hand crank radios and flashlights, got bored and watched two DVDs. This is Los Angeles after all. Even emergency management needs to be tempered by some entertainment. And if the big one comes tomorrow before FedEx delivers our hand crank flashlight, then I'll take full responsibility. It'll be really dark, but I'll take responsibility. I mean, what more can I do?

Monday, September 12, 2005

LIKE FLOOD WATERS, SENSE OF URGENCY RECEDES

In a hotel room the night of September 2, I tried to sleep but couldn't. I dozed off for a bit and woke up again as Fox News reporter Shepard Smith described the scene at a bridge that led from the flooded city of New Orleans out of town. A checkpoint had been set up and no one was being allowed to leave the city. Relating the desperate situation tens of thousands of people were in, Smith became increasingly agitated, essentially pleading the people's case. Frustrated by the non-response of the federal government to the devastation of its own citizenry, Smith bordered on panic as he no longer merely reported the situation, he was now trying to affect it.

Cut back to the anchor desk where things looked quite calm and comfortable. The anchor asked when help would be arriving and what was causing the delay to which Smith blankly replied, "I don't know." Compelling and honest, it's not the kind of news reporting we're used to.

I fell asleep again and awoke to see Geraldo Rivera holding a baby and crying, begging no one in particular to open the checkpoints and let the people walk out of the city.

These guys were losing their shit on the air. It's not something we usually see.

Ten days later here in Los Angeles, it's business as usual. The Katrina story is losing it's edge and stories of box office takes and car chases are seeping back into the news stream. Temporarily knocked off balance, the people's spiritual foundation – a steady diet of celebrity miscues and manufactured reality programming designed to make us feel better, smarter and prettier than our peers – has re-established itself. Things are getting "back to normal." And that's what people want. That's what we've wanted since 9/11. People want to go to work and not worry about being downsized or outsourced. People want to want to fill their tank without breaking a twenty. People want to not have to make room in their closet for 20 gallons of water and a box of Power Bars to keep on hand in case God knows what happens. And they want to believe that if God knows what does happen, their government will be there to help.

People want to worry about simple things like how to get their kids to school on time, not how to get out of town if a dirty bomb explodes in their city. They want to worry about what to make for dinner, not whether Iraqi insurgents will kill their neighbor's child, or even worse, their own. People want some stability in the world and their lives. Essentially, people want the luxury of being complacent without any of the consequences. I fear that the complacency we desire is a luxury we can ill afford.


Note: Al Capone's vault is still empty.

Friday, September 09, 2005

BRIAN WILSON AT THE HOLLYWOOD BOWL

Friend Julia gave Cindy and me tickets to see Brian Wilson perform Smile at the Hollywood Bowl last weekend. Thanks, Julia!

Cindy, Julia, friend Chris and I attended the concert preceded by a picnic. The performance included a portion of Smile along with a liberal dose of Beach Boys hits. The highlights of the evening were:

Figs with almonds
Tabouleh
Hard Spanish cheese
Prosciuto, mozzarella, basil, tomato, roasted vegetable sandwich on Porto's baguette
Olives
Assorted vegetables
Red wine
White wine
Uncle Eddie's Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip cookies
Uncle Eddie's Oatmeal Chocolate Chip cookies

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

DODGERS 4, GIANTS 2
BUT THIS RED SOX FAN IS NOT IMPRESSED

Last night I went to see the Dodgers play the Giants with Cindy and our friends Eric and Mindy. Mindy got the tickets from work. The Dodgers pulled out the 4-2 win despite being outplayed for most of the game. Down by a run in the eighth they scored the tying run on a Jeff Kent bloop single. Kent went on to win the game in the bottom of the 10th with a two-out two-run homer. Pretty exciting, huh? Yes. It could have been a lot better though if not for the idiots who call themselves Dodger fans.

34,575 attended last night's game although in the 56,000 seat stadium it looked and sounded more like 3400. Entire sections were empty. Keep in mind the Dodgers are only six and a half games out of first place and the Dodgers/Giants rivalry is second only to Yankees/Red Sox. OK, it's a distant second but nevertheless, in this situation, Dodger Stadium should have been packed with fans. Real fans. People who go to a game to help the team win. Instead, the crowd last night was much more taken with itself than the on field heroics of Kent and crew.

Granted, I'm a life long Red Sox fan. I know it's chic to say that right now but it's true. I've been following the team since 1975. I'll just come out and say it. Red Sox fans are the gold standard. Just being honest here. When you're at a Red Sox game with other Red Sox fans, no matter if its in Anaheim, Baltimore or Fenway Park, the focus is on the game. Sox fans take the game apart and put it back together, observing every tiny detail, speculating on every strategy, calculating every permutation. Yeah, it's insane, but that's what it's all about. The game and how it's being played.

At this point, I feel compelled to apologize to the world for Fever Pitch. That is a movie for Drew Barrymore fans, not Red Sox fans.

As the night wore on last night and the scoreboard filled up, the crowd became increasing vocal. Down by a run in the bottom of the seventh, you'd think the home crowd would get behind the Dodgers. Instead, these knuckleheads started the rather sad "Giants Suck!" chant, a weak West Coast imitation of something that most Red Sox fans aren't really proud of to begin with – the "Yankees Suck!" chant.

Childish though it may be, the beauty of "Yankees Suck!" like any other expletive, relies on its context. Alex Rodriquez slaps tries to slap the ball out of Bronson Arroyo's glove? Yes, time to chant. Sox losing Game 3 of the American League Championship 19-8? No, keep your chant to yourself. Gary Sheffield pushes a Sox fan in the right field stands? Eh, that's a tough call. That guy kind of had it coming to him and a lot of people who sat near him said he had been an asshole for a long time. Anyway, you see my point. It's all about timing. With the Dodgers needing a run to stay in the game, the fans focus should be on the Dodgers, not the Giants, and certainly not each other.

As the crowd last night grew uglier, Cindy asked what I would do if a Yankee fan started giving me crap about my Red Sox hat. I said I'd just point to my shirt that says "2004 World Champion Boston Red Sox."

"Yeah, but then he'd point to his '2000 World Champion New York Yankees' shirt and then peel that off to reveal his '1999 World Champion New York Yankees' shirt and then peel that off to reveal his '1998 World Champion New York Yankees' and keep going like that till he'd gone through all 26 championships."

That's why "Yankees Suck!" is more just a tool to be used effectively when the time is right rather than an absolute truth. Don't get me wrong. The Yankees do indeed suck and they always will. But they're also winners.

But back to the knuckleheads at Chavez Ravine. When their team needed them most, these people were too busy yelling at each other, causing scuffles, and inciting each other to even watch the game. I looked with amazement as spectators, embroiled in a security guard vs. patron fracas, literally turned their backs to the playing field as the Dodgers batted in the bottom of the ninth with the score tied. At that point, one swing of the bat could have won the game and these people wouldn't have even seen it. By the tenth inning the front railings of the first two tiers were lined with young men, elbow to elbow screaming down at the crowd below. These guys didn't come here to watch a baseball game. They came here to show off for each other.

Two summers ago I went to a Single A minor league game out in the desert between the Mavericks and the Quakes. The Mavs fans had more class than these Dodger fans.

Go Sox.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

LIKE A STEAM LOCOMOTIVE

US Route 59 North from Houston to Livingston. 70 miles. I gave myself 2 hours for some reason, I guess because I tend to be paranoid that I'll be late to events that must start on time like weddings, movies, flights. I think I also imagined that the drive would give me time to collect whatever thoughts needed collecting before getting to the main event of my trip to Texas, the memorial. The image I had was of me driving on one of those desolate two lane highways you only see in beer commericals, smoking cigarettes with the windows down as the saguaro whizzed by and I listened to music that magically captured both the life and the death of Al. All these details would result in a comforting melancholy that would wash over me and seep deeply into my pores.

Some of this fantasy was realized, some not. I don't smoke cigarettes so that was out. It was 98° so AC with the windows up was a must. The music, carefully selected the night before and burned onto a CD in my hotel room, did actually create the desired effect. I can be a great wallower when I want and music always helps facilitate that sad, soothing feeling. And a bonus: I had accidentally included a version of "The Weight" (the one song that Al sang the lead on) that had Al joking around for a few seconds before we start playing. I hadn't heard his voice in years. Or his joke-making. Pretty nerdy, both his joke-making and my sentimental reaction to it.

I got to Onalaska a good half hour before the memorial was to start. I parked the rented Grand Marquis at an abandoned Texaco station near Lake Livingston and looked at the water till I had to get to the church. When I got there, I stepped out of the heat and into the church exactly as the service was starting. I quickly met the pastor, a woman with too much powder blue eye shadow. Another woman handed me some printed material and asked me to sign the guest book. Unexpectedly, she said, "You look familiar."

"I'm Tom, Al's friend from Massachusetts."

She looked like she didn't believe me. Maybe she was disappointed that the name didn't register. I half expected her to correct me.

I scooched into the last row. I listened to some off key singing from the forty or so other attendees. Singing off key is seemingly very important to the Lutherans.

"Who are these people?" I thought. I recognized Al's wife Carol from the one photo I had seen. Plus, I deduced it was her since she had the pole position of church – first row aisle right. But other than her, I didn't recognize anyone. Jack should have been there but wasn't. Loser.

I checked out the room. Very modest. Acoustic ceiling. White walls. Casio keyboard. And on the wall behind the pulpit, three large items. In the center a large faux stained glass depiction of Jesus in the woods kneeling at a tree stump and looking up into a beam of light from above. The Big Man's work, no doubt. To the left of that, a large banner proclaiming "Jesus is Lord." Well, duh. Even I knew that. Or rather I knew that Lutherans believe it. But the thing that I noticed most was right smack between the Jesus in the woods and the banner. Slightly skewed and about 8 feet high, projected on the wall was the instantly recognizable Microsoft Windows desktop. Obviously some sort of presentation was going to take place but I cringed at the inadvertent and unfortunate product placement. If Al had been there I would have whispered to him, "Dude, you're getting a Dell."

The service lasted about an hour. And included a lot of singing. Really bad singing. I kept thinking how Al wouldn't have approved of the rampant disregard for pitch. I didn't participate even though I had the words in front of me. I've learned over the years that when church-goers start singing, it's best to just bow my head and solemnly read along.

Al's first wife got up and told a weird story about how her daughter (from a previous marriage) was supposed to write something for the service but "just couldn't bring herself to do it," but that Al would understand. Ouch. There was the photo tribute (that's what the Microsoft projection was for) that was both insipid and touching. I was surprised and conceitedly a little pleased to see that a photo I took probably ten years ago was included. It was a black and white photo of Al fly fishing. I had made an enlargement and given it to Al. Back when I gave it to him, I never would have predicted its ultimately use, here at his memorial.

More singing. A prayer. Another prayer. Chanting? What is it with these people? Why are they talking so much about God. This isn't his gig. It's Al's. Why do they keep mentioning his cat Gator? What's with all these "signs from God" that the Lord was watching over Al. Am I in the right church?

In my mind, I stood up and said "Listen, people. Let me tell you about Al. He was a wiseass leftover hippie who liked to party and get over on people. He was a riot, he was a good musician, and he was smart as hell. That's it. As far as God mysteriously turning on CD players and choosing the music to play here today or anointment oil giving Al the stigmata, all I can say is 'Whatever.'"

That was just in my mind, though. When the hour was over and the singing was done, I was left with a room full of crying strangers. Al's sister heaved in her husband's shoulder. Carol dragged one leg in front of the other as if it took every ounce of strength she had just to leave the hall. Some guy my age who sat next to me and wept throughout the service was now slumped in the pew, the discount tissue in his hand soaked and fraying. Even the pastor's eye shadow had mixed with tears and left smears across her temples.

I felt intrusive. I felt like this memorial meant something wholly different to them than it did to me. I had had my teary moments weeks earlier, before Al died but after it became clear how his life would end. I remember one Sunday last month driving to the grocery store listening to the Grateful Dead sing,
Like a steam locomotive
Rollin' down the track
He's gone, gone
And nothin's gonna bring him back
He's gone
Tears pooled at the bottom of my eye sockets.

We mourn in our own ways. Projecting a PowerPoint presentation on a church wall while Anne Murray sings "The Old Rugged Cross" is one way. Crying in heavy traffic is another. It's the same with the people we mourn. They mean completely different things to different people. This churched-up Ned Flanders version of Al is someone I never knew. But because that's who he was when he died, or at least that's who he was to his wife, that's the Al that is honored at the end. It's almost like a game of hot potato where whoever is closest to the person who dies when the person dies gets to define that person's entire life at the memorial service.

Immediately after the service I felt extremely uncomfortable. People were sobbing left and right. It was like some sort of mourners triage out there. I thought that maybe I should introduce myself to Carol, try and offer some sort of comfort, but my instincts took over and I headed out the door with about ten others. The heat pressed around my body as my black jacket dropped off my shoulders. That's that, I thought. Done and done. I got in the Grand Marquis and headed straight for the airport.

Friday, September 02, 2005

DEATH NOTIFICATION ATTEMPT #2



So this part's kind of funny, I think, anyway. Attempt #1 failed and certainly raised more questions than it answered, but I still had an email address for Jack to try. Now, Jack and I had a, hmm, complicated relationship. As is the case in most bands, we injected one another with varying degrees of hatred, joy, conflict, support, hatred, resentment, inspiration, betrayal, "love," oh, yeah, and hatred. Did I mention the hatred? Actually, that's beside the point but a manifestation of the hatred is that I feel compelled to point it out. All that aside, one thing to be said for Jack and me is that we had the potential to be excruciatingly honest with each other. We often were not, but the potential was always there.

So when I typed in the email address I had for Jack, and tabbed to the message field, here's what I said.



Obviously, for purposes here I blurred out the part from Al's wife. She doesn't need weirdos like me spreading her words of grief throughout the internet.

So I was blunt. Honest. Tellin' it like is. Jack, Al's dead. I can do that with Jack. He gets it.

Unfortunately, here's the reply I received the next day.



I love that fact that this total stranger had such sympathy that he said he was sorry to hear about Al.

So, I never got in touch with Jack although I left a last ditch message at another number I had. No response. Here I am in Houston, friggin' Texas now. Tomorrow I drive north for 2 hours to get to Onalaska on Lake Livingston for the memorial service. There are at least two or three cells in my body that are still holding out hope that Jack will be there.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

DEATH NOTIFICATION ATTEMPT #1

So Sunday I did indeed try to track Jack down to tell him that Al had died. I was nervous about it. Not only had I not communicated with Jack in three years, but I had never in my life broken the news that a friend had died. When my Dad died, I had to tell a friend of mine but I asked him to tell everyone else for me. I guess I kind of copped out but frankly I was a mess back then and copping out was standard operating procedure. But this was different. The three of us had been very close. Even though Jack's stoicism is unrivaled, he is extremely perceptive and would understand the gravity of Al's passing. At this point, I think I understand the gravity of it if not the full effect.

I had looked online for a current phone number for Jack but the information was confusing. His wife was listed at the old address but with a new number. I figured I would call the last number I had for him. I stood on the beach in Malibu on Sunday and watched the morning tide wash away Saturday's sand castles. I opened my cell phone and dialed the number. It rang three times and then someone picked up just as a wave crashed about 30 feet out. I couldn't make out what the voice on the line said but I could tell it wasn't Jack.

"Hello? Hi, is Jack there?"

A pause. A man's voice, sounding both irritated and amused said, "Nope. He hasn't had this number for three years."

"Oh," I said, pondering my next move. I waited for a little help from the man but he offered only silence.

"Well, do you happen to have a new number for him? I'm an old friend of his calling from California and I'm trying to locate him."

"Nope."

Another pause. It's amazing how quickly your brain can process such little information to assess a situation. After this ten second phone conversation with a total stranger, I was convinced that Jack had gotten divorced and moved out and the voice on the other end of the line belonged to the guy who was now banging Jack's wife and raising his kids.

Then the clincher.

"Sorry," the man said with the kind of sarcasm so thick is drips with contempt. A more honest person would have just come clean and said, "Sorry, asshole."

One last pause, my mind racing to try and figure out a way out.

"OK, thanks anyway."

I closed the phone and looked out at the water. More waves crashed and shrank and rolled over my feet and into the moat of a fairly large but crude sand castle, the kind that had been topped off with handful after handful of wet drips squeezed out of little hands to create a gooey, stalagmite effect. The rushing water toppled half the castle at once and then sucked the sand back out to sea. Well, I thought, I still have an email address for him.