The wonderful thing about vacation is that nothing is familiar. Every mile that passes brings you a new visual experience. I’m excited to be in a town for the first time. Crossing a state line gives me a thrill completely out of proportion to the true magnitude of the achievement. I think most of us feel this way. Admit it, you have to read the “Welcome to Oregon” sign in a loud, happy voice, don’t you?
Yesterday we awoke in Klamath Falls. This morning, a couple hundred miles north, near Madras, I watched the sun rise on a panorama of lush, green farm land along a wide rushing stream called Crooked River. Isn’t that delightful? Of course it is. Along the road just south of Redmond we visited the Petersen Rock Garden just because we could. For sixty years it has stood as a mind-numbing four acre collection of self-made tributes to the ambitious eccentricity of a Danish immigrant named Rasmus Petersen, who picked up a couple of rocks one day and decided that building miniature cities out of small stones was his divine purpose on Earth.
Scoff if you will, most of us never figure out why we’re here.
A few miles farther north brought us to Shaniko, an old West town that sprang up during the 1860s. Originally called Cross Hollow it was renamed after the town’s postmaster, August Scherneckau, who must have been a swell guy to receive such an honor but the locals apparently (and reasonably) decided trying to learn to spell his name properly was too much to ask of anybody.
But here’s the thing about road trips: some of the most awe-inspiring sights you stumble across have no explanation, no real purpose, indeed no reason whatsoever for existing except that they do.
This tree, for example…
We came upon it unexpectedly. Without fanfare, announcement, roadside glorification plaque nor explanation it just sits there, adorned with hundreds of shoes passersby felt compelled to deposit in its branches.
There’s a wonderful story here but I can’t find it.
And for some reason that makes it all the more wonderful.
The lovely and feisty Carolann Williams and I just celebrated our twentieth wedding anniversary.
Thank you very much. Yes, we’ve very happy. Twenty years is a significant milestone but now that we’re home I’m wondering why I chose for us to celebrate by doing the most mundane thing imaginable:
We went to Las Vegas in our motorhome.
The very notion just reeks of middle-class, middle-aged convention. Hawaiian shirt, shorts and flip-flops, that’s me wandering through the gilded monuments to luxury and excess: Caesar’s Palace, the Luxor, Mandalay Bay et al.
We had a lovely time, we really did. Finally at an age where we can spare personal pretense Carolann and I strolled through the casinos, hotel lobbies and cavernous convention centers as the middle-class American tourists we are with zero sense of displacement. We even managed to while away a giddy half-hour of guffaws seated before the awe-inspiring circular escalator at Caesar’s making fun of the people who passed by. (I’m sorry but it’s not rude if they can’t hear you!)
I learned a few things during our trip:
Everybody who goes to Las Vegas for the first time looks around and asks, “Who the hell decided this would be a great place to build a major city?” This is an especially insistent question if you didn’t fly in but, rather, drove from Southern California across the Mojave Desert as we did only to be rewarded with Southern Nevada as your achievement.
But think about it. What is there to do outdoors there? Only one thing: get indoors as quickly as possible! And what can you do indoors? Only one thing: spend money. Lots of it.
No. The location is perfect and brilliantly conceived.
I also learned from our ignominious people-watching session that nobody belongs in a place like Caesar’s Palace. George Clooney isn’t there. Most people are like us, more in our element at Target or Chili’s. Those who attempt to dress properly for the place tend to go too far and either look like they were playing in Mom’s closet or are fifteen pounds and twenty years beyond their imagined, sexy selves.
But the single most important lesson I learned in Vegas had nothing to do with casinos or hotelsand yet, it has to do with money.
Never buy a beer from a guy in a tuxedo!
Ignorantly nonchalant, I approached a mini-bar in Caesar’s Forum Shops mall and asked for a Heineken. Seven bucks. Plus tax. And, the free Las Vegas visitor guides all insist you tip a bartender one dollar per drink!
That was the worst and last $8.54 beer I will ever have.
Every generation of young guys does crazy-ass things with its hair.
The fifties invented pompadours, d.a.’s and flat-tops. The sixties gave us the Butch, the Beatle and a wild conglomeration of styles brilliantly described by the lyrics of the title song of Hair, The Musical:
“Let it fly in the breeze
And get caught in the trees
Give a home to the fleas in my hair…”
In my lifetime alone we have buzzed our hair so short nothing remains but terrified roots broiling in helplessly bare scalp; we’ve gobbed it with Butch Wax and Dixie Peach Pomade — sweet smelling petroleum based mysteries with exactly the same consistency as axle grease; we went neat with Brylcreem (“A little dab’ll do ya!”) and after the Afros, the grunge bands and Alice Cooper had their way with us we were pretty much spent.
That desperation led us — briefly, thank you, Jesus! — to the mullet.
Now, here comes the twenty first century and it’s all been done. I mean all of it, everything you or anybody else can imagine — from spikes and mohawks to weird colors and intentionally butchered patches and guys who had barbers carve symbols and entire words into their cranial filaments…
…IT HAS ALL BEEN DONE.
So…what’s next? Nothing.
Seriously, literally, absolutely nothing.
Just look at your American Idols.
If you’re already a hair stylist I strongly suggest you go to school to learn tattoo removal.
Hammy, my friend and colleague, has just posted a new essay entitled Denial – The Earlier The Better in which she shares her pride and pleasure at the realization that her toddler granddaughter is learning to hone her feminine wiles very early in order to get what she wants. Actually, I had always suspected that this particular skill in female humans was as instinctive as a cat’s aloof indecision once you have finally opened the door to let it in as it had been demanding for the past twenty minutes. They’re just born with it and I’m fine with that. Vive le difference!
Entire books have been written on how men and women are wired differently. To me the subject is so obvious I can’t imagine being curious enough to read one. But Hammy’s composition did give me pause to pay closer attention to my grandson after he came home from school today.
Isaiah and Hammy’s granddaughter have never met but they’re close in age and have similar social and familial backgrounds. And that’s as scientific as this comparison is going to get.
Hammy’s little girl is sugar and spice and all that and Isaiah, well, Isaiah is all boy. Aside from a peculiar fastidiousness about his hands — he hates getting them messy — he loves boy toys and rowdy play. He roars for no reason whatsoever. It’s just energy demons demanding their release, I guess.
But today I discovered something unimaginable.
We ran some errands after school and while Isaiah was strapped into the his car seat he began asking Nana if we can all do certain fun things when we get home. He always asks Nana and not me, though to be honest Nana is a lot more demanding of him than I. This, I believe, clearly exhibits his naturally ingrained and perfectly developed male instinct to defer to women at all times. It’s the five-year-old equivalent of “Yes, dear,” and it serves us well to learn it before we begin elementary school. I’m proud of the kid.
But then he began to show a shocking aptitude I never imagined in a boy so young or, indeed, in most men of any age. He has an outright panache, a real gift for psychological manipulation!
“Nana,” he said sweetly and brightly, “I tell you what…” That got my male gyroscope wobbling just a bit. “When we get home,” he continued, “we can either walk the dogs or play a game! You decide!”
I was stunned. That Carolann didn’t flinch at the suggestion (in fact – she didn’t respond at all) confirmed for me that this male poppet was, under my wife’s tutelage, actually learning the ways of women!
Until today Isaiah had merely been a typical kindergarten boy, more prone to fuss, pout, stomp and shout or wail like a banshee when he couldn’t have his way. Suddenly, inexplicably, he is negotiating and doing so by coyly assuming a position of power!
It’s frightening. I will keep a closer watch on that boy for fear that he may suddenly conjure visions or call upon some etherworldly power from beyond the veil that will allow him to force other men to wait on him as personal serfs and have them thank him for the pleasure and privilege.
It’s far too early to assume this isn’t a passing phase or that some natural intervention…say, puberty… might not eventually turn him from this path.
I shouldn’t profess this now. I just worry, that’s all…
The boy shows every classic early sign of becoming a politician.
While shopping in Target the other day our five-year-old grandson, Isaiah, told his grandmother and me he needed to go to the bathroom. I took him into the men’s room and waited while he finished his business in the stall. After washing his hands we went off to find my wife.
“Nana,” Isaiah told her earnestly, “I have diabetes.”
The British have the best description of the confused look Carolann and I gave each other. We were, as they say, “at sea.”
We had no earthly idea what he was talking about.
“What do you mean?” Carolann asked.
“I had to go potty real bad,” the five-year-old explained. “I have diabetes.”
My wife and I stared at each other blankly for another moment or two until, as the Brits also say, “the penny dropped.”
“You mean you have DIARRHEA?”
Carolann said this. I was too busy trying to choke back a guffaw that was leaking out my nose as barely stifled snorts.
Then, in the spirit of Art Linkletter she issued a follow-up question. “Do you know what diarrhea is?”
If I was honest enough to remember the whole truth I’d probably recall some very uncomfortable or even miserable experiences while dirt camping as a kid.
But why would I want to do that?
Anybody who intentionally spends hundreds of dollars plus weeks in excited preparation for the opportunity to sleep on the ground, live in a perpetual cloud of dust and mosquitoes, eat food from a milk-sodden, meat-bloodied, melted-ice ice chest, and to pee and occasionally poop into an open, fly-infested pit has no grounds for complaint on any level, least of all personal convenience.
These days Carolann and I visit the great outdoors in luxurious, indoor comfort. We have an air-conditioned 34-foot motorhome with a queen-size bed, full shower and toilet, complete kitchen and two TVs. It’s wonderful, it really is.
But camping, it ain’t.
My dad had a big, unbelievably heavy canvas tent. It was bigger than some honky tonks I’ve been in and smelled almost as bad. He had to prop the thing up with a couple of huge wooden poles I think he bought from a circus fire sale. As far as I can recall that tent performed no useful service.
If it rained, the canvas would soak through and drip on us long after the rain had ended. Then it mildewed.
If it was eighty degrees outside it was ninety-five in the tent. If it was sixty outside it was forty-five in the tent.
By the time I started taking my son Jeremy camping in the early 80s the equipment had improved dramatically. Our tent was lightweight nylon. It was the first of those now ubiquitous domed things supported by three long, flexible poles. It didn’t have to be lashed to steel stakes in the ground by twelve ropes poised to grab a foot and trip you every time you walked to the outhouse.
The downside of my new nylon igloo was its height, maybe four feet tops, which was fine for a kid but forced me to mimic a horizontal pole-dancer, writhing and wriggling on my back just to get out of my sleeping bag, pull on some pants and exit on hands and knees through the little flap at the front that was secured by three or four maddening zippers.
Like my father before me, I taught my son to build a campfire the old-fashioned way: with paper under kindling, under twigs, under sticks, all in fastidious layers beneath three logs wigwammed in the center. It was a thing of beauty. We would stand back in solemn appreciation of our half-hour handiwork before we lit the match. Me, with a proud fatherly hand on my son’s shoulder; him scratching madly at dozens of festering bites on his legs and neck.
After Jeremy mastered campfire-building I introduced him to “fire-starters,” those wonderful, waxy chunks of compressed sawdust that make it possible for any idiot with a Bic to start a campfire. Boy Scouts need not apply. My dad would have refused to purchase them.
Dad taught me to fish, of course, just as his dad had taught him, in the fast and frigid trout streams of Wyoming. I wasn’t very good at it and, frankly, I hated it. But that’s what fathers and sons do. It’s tradition.
My kid broke the curse. Oh, I taught him and he caught his first fish when he was five or six. But the next time I asked him if he wanted to go fishing he asked with a gentle degree of pity, “Dad, you know you can buy fish at the store, right?”
That finished the sport for me and I still owe him for it.
But I miss it all…
…the laughter from nearby families, the smell and WOOSH of a white gas-powered lantern sputtering to life; the crackle and smoke of a jolly campfire properly-built of wood chunks gathered and chopped by hand.
I even miss the dirt.
In evenings such as those by the campfire, with no TVs, no smart phones or WiFi, we had no choice but to talk with each other about our daily personal lives; of fanciful, imagined wonders and deep philosophy; of past events shared and joyously remembered which made us a family, and of mutual hopes and dreams which we would then take with us, yawning and regretful of day’s end, into our sleeping bags.
Gazing through a nylon mesh at God’s stars; secure with our parents at our sides, we inhaled deeply the fresh and gloriously-smoky pine air, smiled to ourselves and closed our eyes to sleep the unburdened sleep of woodsmen.
Except for the mosquito bites it felt good and wholesome.
The first car I owned was a 1957 Hillman. It was brown and boxy and not at all “cool.” I looked very odd in it. I looked like a fifteen year-old kid wearing his grandpa’s shoes.
I got my first car when I was still a sophomore in high school. Actually, I wasn’t even old enough to drive legally and, trusting that the statute of limitations has now passed, I will confide here that my mother sometimes let me drive my car – illegally – to the store to pick up some milk or get her a pack of cigarettes! (Back then, in the sixties, she had to give me a note for the cigarettes or they wouldn’t have sold them to me. No way.)
I loved driving that car so much I would actually try to split one trip to the store into two or three trips. You know, buy the cigarettes so she would be happy and relaxed and then admit I had forgotten the milk so I would have to go back.
Sometimes my mom would let me drive to 7-11 to get an Icee and a package of Hostess Sno-Balls or something. She was a great mom and still is. (Nowadays I go to the store and get her the odd box of wine without her even asking or giving me a note.)
By the way, the price of gas at the time was around 25 or 30 cents a gallon. I’ll pause for a moment to let you absorb that.
From the Hillman I graduated into my dad’s 1966 Corvair Monza and after that I can’t remember all the vehicles I’ve owned in the ensuing fifty-one years. I can probably remember most of them but who cares, really? I never did much care what I was driving. To me, it was always just transportation. And now, for some reason I am at an absolute loss to explain, as Carolann and I are talking about downsizing, reducing our stash of stuff and retiring in a nice, manageable mobile home or something – now I own three vehicles and today placed a deposit on a fourth! I’m not kidding and look, I don’t intend to sell any of them!
I will literally have more cars than I have pairs of shoes!
We now have a pickup truck to carry my camper, a 33-foot motorhome and Carolann’s van which cost more than my first house.
Gas, for all intents and purposes, is $4.00 a gallon. And that’s why today I made a refundable deposit on one of these.
Yes, I’m quite serious. It’s an electric-gas hybrid called an Aptera that will allegedly get 300 miles per gallon of gas.
But boy, am I ever going to look odd driving it.
A couple of weeks ago I was at a traditional/dixieland jazz festival in Three Rivers, California, visiting my musical friend, Bob Ringwald.
If that last name rings a bell, movie and TV star Molly Ringwald is Bob’s daughter. He never mentions that in passing conversation but he’s proud of all three of his grownup kids and pleased to tell you about their families, careers and current projects if you ask.
Bob is the piano-playing leader of the very tight, very hot, Fulton Street Jazz Band based in Sacramento, which is home to both of us.
Ringwald has the happiest fingers that ever danced a keyboard. The fact that he is blind is no handicap for Bob but to those of us whose eyes work just fine but possess fingers like clay bricks, the way he can sit down at a foreign, rented piano and attack it without even appearing to search for middle-C is astonishing.
The funny thing about Bob and me is that we knew each other decades before we met.
When I was a teenager I never talked with Bob but enjoyed his jazz piano and singing at Capone’s Chicago Tea Room and Pizza Joint in Sacramento. Years later he would enjoy listening to me on the radio.
Bob’s life took him to San Francisco and Los Angeles. Mine passed through L.A. and Memphis.
We both always returned to Sacramento and eventually we howdied and shook hands at the world famous Sacramento Jazz Jubilee, where Bob has played piano since the Jubilee’s beginning thirty-five years ago and where I have been a volunteer go-fer nearly as long.
I’ve never been to Bob’s home or him to mine. I can’t claim him as an intimate friend but there is a unique closeness I think we both feel in the happenstance that we made ripples in the same pond and they eventually touched.
This year I’ve been invited back to emcee the Jubilee Opening Day Parade. It’s a great honor and a very special homecoming for me but the one moment I am especially looking forward to is when Bob rolls out in front of the reviewing stand on some flatbed truck, tinkling the ivories and grinning like some old ragtime Cheshire Cat, which he surely is.
I’ll see many other longtime friends in Sacramento that day. I’ll also recognize a lot of people whose names I don’t remember but whose company I fondly recall.
I don’t know for sure what got me thinking about Coach Rodness. Maybe it’s just because it’s April and as you have heard, in spring every young man’s fancy turns to thoughts of love — love of baseball. Well, that’s true of old men, too. At least for those of us who played the game with a feverish passion many years ago and can’t quite get it out of our hearts.
But I don’t think that is why I suddenly remembered my high school baseball coach.
Today I told my youngest son something that sparked a synaptic link to a memory from my self-glorified past.
My son has recently had a spat with his wife. It has gone on for several days and is making both of them miserable. Having “been there, done that” (one of the greatest colloquial phrases ever adopted into American lexicon) I have grown weary of it and I told him, simply, “You love her and so do we. Make your peace with her.” It was just that simple. Dad had spoken. “Fix it,” I told him.And suddenly I realized where I had heard that calm, persuasive voice before.
Bob Rodness was a physical education and baseball coach at Highlands High School in the Sacramento suburb of North Highlands in the late 1960s. I was a skinny kid who could hit a little, couldn’t run worth a damn, but played baseball like nothing else in the world mattered because in my world at that time it was true.
One day in P.E. class we were playing softball. Keep in mind this was the spring of 1968, right around the time Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. It was a time fraught with racial tension and fears that we Northern California teenagers of the moment had trouble assimilating into the limited observations and half-baked philosophies of our very young lives. From our shortsighted perspectives it seemed the world was divided into colors and you took your side, you had no choice. We knew it wasn’t as simple as that, of course, and we knew that segregation and bigotry were wrong by definition and by moral imperitive, but we were too young and inexperienced to make sense of such worldly confusions as racism, assassination and, not coincidentally, the war in Vietnam.
We who grew up in the sixties need to look upon those events as the vortex to the psychological confusions that haunt us even now.
Back to the softball game…
I was pitching, a black kid I didn’t know was the batter. For no reason whatever he began taunting me in a mean, angry way. I don’t pretend to understand the world through his eyes, not then or now, but he was mad. He yelled a lot, I said something back and the next thing I knew he was on top of me, pummeling me for no reason at all other than the fact that I was on the opposing team and I was white and skinny.
Imagine something like that happening today. We would have both been hauled into the office, for starters. Police would have been called. No doubt both of us would have been suspended or expelled. It’s entirely possible that felony charges would be filed against one or both of us and dueling lawsuits would be launched. We’d be front page news and a community would divide and take sides.Lives could have been ruined for a minor scuffle between a couple of dumb kids.
What actually happened forty years ago was Bob Rodness. He simply yelled at us, “Knock it off, you guys!”And we did.That kid went back behind the plate, I threw the ball and he hit it. I don’t remember where or how well he hit it. The story was long over by then. The game continued, the period ended, we went on to our next class and forgot about it.
Admittedly, that was a different time in a naive world entirely alien to us now. But some things stick in our psyches forever.“Knock it off, you guys.”That’s essentially what I told my son today: “This fight with your wife has gone on long enough. It’s stupid.” The end.
But here’s the Bob Rodness story I really want to tell you, not because it made any lasting moral impression on me. Though, it might have, I just don’t know yet. I just love the memory of this:
Some fifteen years or so after graduating from high school I was a volunteer tending the exit gate at a music venue during the world-famous Sacramento Jazz Jubilee. In those days volunteers were allowed, indeed encouraged, to drink and make merry as they performed their duties. I took the encouragement to heart.
Two beautiful women in their twenties approached the exit gate requesting entrance to the party. I informed them nicely that they would have to wait in line at the actual entrance gate. But gosh they were pretty, and I was nicely toasted. We got to chatting and as we did an older couple approached my gate. With one arm around each of the beautiful young ladies, a large beer in one hand and cigarette dangling from my mouth, I heard the girls exclaim in unison, “HI, DADDY!”It was Coach Rodness and his wife. And even though it had been fifteen years or more since we had seen each other he recognized me.
He sized things up quicker than I did, threw his head back and laughed the unstained laugh of the pure and pious as I whipped my arms away from his daughters, dumped my beer in the nearby trash can and stepped on my cigarette.I expected him to order me to run laps but he just kept laughing until tears were streaming down his face.And yes, I let the entire family enter through the exit.
Yesterday, Sunday, Carolann and I went to Disneyland with our oldest son, Jeremy, his wife, Emily, her mom, Gloria, and of course the grandkids, Isaiah, 5 and Tyler, 3. About five o’clock Emily’s mom took the grandkids home with her and we took Jeremy and Emily out to dinner at a fabulous Japanese restaurant. I had a wonderful day, got home late; went to bed at 9:00 instead of my usual 7:00PM.
Today I feel like I’ve been on a week-long bender.
I overslept, didn’t work well, had to fight drowsiness on my drive home, took a two hour nap — after a one hour struggle to go to sleep — and still feel like crap.Twenty years ago I stayed out very late in honky tonks four nights a week, drank heavily, got two or three hours sleep and was ready to rock and roll the next day.
Now a day at Disneyland has kicked my butt.
Say what we must about the pleasures of aging gracefully and the wisdom of experience it brings. Sometimes getting older just blows.