Friday, July 25, 2014

A New Leaf

Joe College's 1998 Volvo bites the dust in a supermarket parking lot and is towed back to Casamurphy and parked illegally on the street facing in the wrong direction. We've known that this death is imminent and that when the tags expire at the end of August, with it's blown head gasket the elderly Volvo stands no chance of passing a smog test. We hope that with the daily addition of oil, transmission fluid and coolant we can keep the sputtering thing on the road for another month but it is not to be. Joe College is wistful when his first car is donated to public radio and towed away.

Having lived in Redlands myself, I would not strand the boy there sans car. Himself probably catholically disagrees but knows to choose his battles. Our 2001 Volvo, the last car we purchased new, is handed down to the boy. The boy notes that he dislikes the color (beige) and instead of smacking him I confide that I don't like it either.

We decide that our next car will be electric. Himself is all about the planet, which is OK by me. But, inevitably some asshole leaves just enough gas in the pump for me to spill it all over myself and stink all day. In that nobody is going to give me a Tesla, choices in our price range boil down to Fiat 500e, Chevy Spark or Nissan Leaf. The Spark is slightly better reviewed than the Leaf but when I see one up close, I realize that it a much smaller vehicle than I am comfortable driving. The Fiat is even dinkier. Himself balks at this but his only experience pertinent to grocery shopping is grudgingly unloading bags and he is so anti-social that it is unlikely he will ever have to stuff anyone into the backseat.

I study up as much as possible and take a colleague who is knowledgeable about cars, although suspicious about electric, to Glendale for a test drive. Back in the day, men in any but blue collar professions, wore a dress shirt and tie. Now there are far fewer professions with these sartorial requirements. The car salesman uniform of white shirt and necktie sort of stands out now and connotes to me an untrustworthy unctuousness. I would be much more at ease dealing with someone in jeans and a Joy Division t-shirt. Despite the requisite uniform, our salesman is patient when we both take the wheel for a much longer than average test drive. We are both surprised at how well the car performs.

I figure out the fair price for a Leaf with the equipment that I want. The salesman in Glendale has spent so much time with us that I give him the first crack at the deal. He responds to my e-mail with a sky high quote and a load of crap about having to “ask his manager,” so my loyalty instantly vanishes. Knowing the exact car that I want, I ask for advice on Facebook about negotiating for a car without having to visit a dealership. Buying services through AARP, Costco and the Auto Club are recommended.

It turns out that all of these services emanate from True Car. You select the exact car you want but are unable to get “best local prices” without providing your e-mail address and phone number. This done, you receive a certificate with a price guarantee to take to the dealer. Upon receiving my certificates I send an email to each of the dealerships to confirm the price, availability of the exact car I want and confirmation that 0% financing is available. I add in huge bold font that I will communicate only via e-mail and not negotiate on the phone or in person. I state that I will only come into a dealership to sign papers and take delivery.

I receive dozens of form e-mails and a barrage of phone calls, even from dealers from whom I received no certificate. The personalized e-mails I receive all indicate that the dealer doesn't actually have the car promised on the True Car certificate in stock but I can get a great deal on a different model or color. Suddenly too, the 0% financing advertised on a huge banner on the Nissan website is not available. I am so disgusted that I stop by both a Chevy and Fiat dealership but decide that indeed these two alternatives are simply too tiny.

One complication is that 2015 Leafs have arrived and the 0 financing applies only to 2014s, which are in rather short supply. The Leaf comes in only in black, white, silver, blue or red and the red is more expensive. Despite Himself's annoyance, I plan on driving the car for many years and know that I will never be happy with anything but a blue model and I hold out for it. I've always been kind of embarrassed by the beige Volvo.

A salesman from Alhambra Nissan finally responds cogently and states that he has the exact car IN BLUE that I want. We go back and forth a bit on the 0% financing and after I copy and paste the offer from the Nissan website, that too falls into place. I provide him with the information necessary for the approval of the loan. It appears to be a done deal. He reports that he will not be working on Monday but one of his colleagues will e-mail me all the paperwork to review and then I'll be able to fetch the car, which it is then revealed to actually be at another dealership. The colleague leaves a chirpy stupid message on my voicemail but by Monday afternoon there is no paperwork. Around 5 the finance manager calls me to try to get me to subscribe to a maintenance plan and a number of different insurance policies. I refuse and also convey that if I don't receive the paperwork by the end of the day that the deal is off the table. He reports that the dealership has no scanner and cannot supply the purchase documents digitally.

I send a firm e-mail to the original salesman with whom I'd actually had an intelligent interaction explaining the bullshit that has transpired in his absence. I tell him that if I don't receive the paperwork first thing Tuesday morning that I will purchase the car via a broker that a friend's recommended. The paperwork magically arrives and I make an appointment to fetch the car. I e-mail the VIN number to my insurance agent so that he can add the new car to our policy.

Top 40 music blares at the dealership which is filled with young men in white shirts and ties and a handful of women in pantsuits trying to look busy. Despite my request that the paperwork be ready to sign, we wait about half an hour and then are forced behind the closed door of the finance manager's office. I snap first thing that we are not interested in any insurance or maintenance plans but he takes a shot anyway. Finally, documents signed, we are led out to the car. Having run a business and simply lived on the planet for as long as I have, I suspect I may be a bit more sophisticated than many car buyers. I can't imagine the great extent to which an average customer must be screwed.

The salesman goes through instructions so detailed that all are immediately forgotten and the car is left running for so long that it requires another charge before leaving the dealership. The owner's manual is as thick as an old school phone book. Driving the Leaf is weird. I still don't know what most of the buttons are for but I can at least get it into drive and even reverse. A gas powered car uses the least energy when it's operated at a constant speed. An electric car however has regenerative braking so driving in stop-and-go traffic actually extends the life of the charge. Unfortunately, running the air conditioning or even the radio, reduces it. Because the Leaf is only a short hop car and we still have a Volvo for longer treks, I don't anticipate any charging emergencies. When the Leaf reaches a dangerously low rate of charge, a turtle icon flashes on the dash. Cute.

Electric cars are eligible for so many rebates that they end up costing very little. While applying for the $2500 we'll be getting from the State of California, I notice that the VIN number that I'd received via e-mail and reported to my insurance broker is different than the one on the actual car I purchased. Apparently my salesman sews up the deal with another dealership but this car is sold for a higher price and the delay is not caused by lack of scanner, but by lack of car. Fortunately, they were able to scramble and find another, which I am told is the last blue 2014 Leaf in all of Southern California. I wonder, given my paperwork in hand, what would have happened if they hadn't been able to secure this car.

It's a whole new world for us. There is a long list of benefits, including carpool lanes and scads of free parking. We sign up for memberships with the three different firms that supply chargers throughout the state. A home charger arrives and we pull the permits for our contractor to install it in the driveway. The full price of the unit will be rebated by the Department of Water and Power. I spend an hour on the phone with one of their reps trying to determine if it is worth it to switch our electric meter to peak usage or even install a second meter to save money on charging the car. I consider switching to a peak usage meter but discover that the rate is substantially higher during the hours of 1 and 5 p.m. which would make me feel guilty about watching Judge Judy. It turns out that at the rate we pay now, it costs less than $3.00 to charge the car 100% with our charging station so no meter change is really necessary.

I still love the little C30 Volvo I picked up last year. Like the Leaf, it is blue and I call him Bluey. Joe College is mortified and embarrassed that I assign a car gender (male) and refer to him by name. In order that gas sucking, service requiring Bluey, with his 80,000 miles, not feel displaced in my affections, as an homage, the new Leaf is Junior. Joe College is transferring all his crap, like the Jesus air freshener, to his new wheels. “Hmmm,” he ponders. “I think my car must feel bad that it doesn't have a name.”   

Friday, July 18, 2014

A Week with Less TV

After weeks of excuses I tell myself it's time to better embrace the Weight Watchers program. This thought passes and I realize that I am eating a handful of crackers. My memory of grabbing them from the cupboard is hazy. I usually am careful about what's in the house to accommodate my ceaseless mindless eating but with the kids home the larder is embellished. My dog is dead. More writing, that I am particularly proud of, is rejected. A car breaks down. The new refrigerator is on the fritz. The kids are gone and I'm insane. The kids are here and I'm insane. My nails look like shit. I seem more and more to misappropriate the normal vicissitudes as a license to overeat and under-write.

My lovely and generous friend Dianna will not fix a ticket but, having scored jaw droppingly good seats, invites me to see Steeley Dan. I worry that they will perform new songs. They do not. I note that their own website classifies all of their post 1988 releases under “The Dark Ages.” I could quibble and say 1983. We are fortunate to have an excellent view of three absolutely “if I were a lesbian” back up singers. Their voices are incredible but I don't think it's a coincidence that they are all astonishingly beautiful. The last time I was at the Forum I think was for Bob Dylan and The Band in 1978. It is remarkable to think that while rock 'n roll is perhaps having its last gasp, across most of the popular musical genres the convention of the boys playing instruments and sexy chicks singing back up hasn't been much challenged. Women musicians pretty much, except in the classical milieu, are still a novelty.

I am fifteen when Can't Buy a Thrill is released. Steeley Dan is in the pantheon of Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Van Morrison and when I'm particularly hormonal, Jackson Brown. These are performers that I never stopped listening to, albeit very selectively. It is weird being 56 and seeing The Replacements and again, at 57 even weirder attending a Steely Dan show. I feel very old and there is something pathetically “desperately trying to recapture lost youth” about it. I classify every person in my sightline as either older than I or the same age as I am but looking older than I do.

The concert begins. Mortality issues vanish. A lifetime ago I am smoking a cigarette in a crummy Hollywood bungalow. The record on the turntable makes everything but “that sound” stop. And in the swell of the mostly post-colonoscopy crowd it does again. Nothing has ever sounded better than My Old School or Kid Charlemagne. After the show I have a fierce craving for an unfiltered Camel.

I feel guilty that I have no interest in their recent material. Although they themselves disparage their own later output. Do they attribute the lack of interest in this work as mere proof of the writing on the wall for rock 'n roll in general? Do they blame abysmal sales on recording company marketing strategies? Or do they suffer knowing that all of the work for which they will be remembered was completed while they were in their twenties? The absolutely nothing I did in my own twenties at least make my meager current efforts seem a bit more substantial.

The work of my contemporary Richard Linkletter however, gets better and better. The Sunrise/Sunset Trilogy is exquisite and his latest offering (14 years in the making!) Boyhood is a wonder. Every writer I know who's seen it has been moved to wax effusively. There will be no “spoilers” here and I think it is public knowledge that Linkletter shot footage annually over the course of fourteen years and has whittled down the progress of a boy from kindergarten to college into, what feels like, three very short hours.

Joe College recently recounts a childhood trauma. We have no recollection of the incident but his is vivid. He remembers this as a time we let him down and carries this memory I did not share. Girl friend in-law is curious about his childhood and while he apparently has a list of every shitty oversight we were ever guilty of he also reminds us about funny and stupid things I probably forgot the moment they transpired. I scan old family photos these last weeks and suddenly my personal history is all topsy turvey and I've lost my bearings. So many long forgotten moments. Happy occasions suddenly there in Kodachrome. My arm around a girl. We look like best friends. I wonder who she is. My life feels different, my story, as I tell it to myself and others, is changed for having perused thousands of photos, deciding which to scan and which to simply box away.

This recent experience makes Boyhood feel all the more poignant. Linkletter balances earth shattering change with the humdrum everyday, while nodding to the significance of both. The trajectory of a boy, in the same range as my own two sons, from six to facial hair is heart breaking. It seems indeed that in my own real life it happened in about three hours. Linkletter is deft in depicting what people of all ages do when there's not much to do. Young kids fighting in the backseat of a car. Young teens smashing boards and drinking beer and bragging about all the sex they almost wish they'd really had. The cannabis infused earnest philosophical pontification of the college bound. The mother left sitting alone in the kitchen when her younger son leaves for college.

The triumvirate of a week of less television than usual, is complete with the New Yorker story Wagner of the Desert by Greg Jackson. I gripe a lot that The New Yorker has so many “friends of the magazine.” Folks who, like Steeley Dan show early genius so remarkable that they can coast on it for eons. Derivative leaden humor pieces by Woody Allan come to mind but there are others. Greg Jackson however seems to have come out of nowhere. I can find nothing about him on the web and his New Yorker bio says only that he's at work on a collection of short stories.

Wagner of the Desert perfectly describes Palm Springs and the surrounding landscape and the thirty somethings there to groove on a Mad Men sort of vibe. A group of friends are in a rental house, one couple, committed to compressing as many vices into a week as possible before they breed and have to clean up their act, and the others along for the ride. Jackson gets that whatever you think when you're high is the most profound thought ever thought in the history of the universe, or maybe it's the stupidest one. Jackson explores the blurred lines between how we earn a living and what makes living worthwhile. The pressure to constantly network often precludes real friendship. The hero helps his filmmaker host stalk a visionary, ala Richard Branson, through the Springs in order to get him to back a film. The great man is eventually located at a party where he sniffs the hero's remaining coke and then turns up his nose at it. Mr. Big it seems has scaled such heights that the only sensation he's able to trust is pain. A dominatrix stands at the ready. Our underachiever narrator however still trusts transcendent moments, even if artificially induced.

Most writers would sell a vital organ to have something published in a New Yorker. If there were some sort of guarantee of posthumous publication I would seriously consider that. Wagner of the Desert is one of the best stories I've read in ages and the fact that Greg Jackson seems to have popped up out of nowhere without a single publication credit is heartening after my spate of rejections, which if they didn't arrive by e-mail, would now be a formidable stack. On some level though, Wagner of the Desert reminds me that my fantasy of being published in the New Yorker is more than a little rooted in shit-headedness. Of course I would like my work to be acknowledged and read more widely but the gratification I imagine is mostly the pure “fuck you” that my name included in the contributors list would be to a long list of persons who don't know I exist. Most of the people who I like the most find something meaningful or amusing in what I cobble here each week. It is gratifying when what I write here provokes discussion or is praised. 

  In an interview with New Yorker fiction editor Deborah Treisman, Gteg Jackson offers, “Achievement is difficult, unstable, ephemeral, often tainted by unacknowledged luck. It is also, always, comparative: measured against other people’s relative “luck” of achievement or outright failure.” This, and that a an unknown, at least to me, writer is published in the New Yorker nudges me to again apply myself to some non-blog writing. If I can keep up my resolve and get on a roll with that, there's still the out of control eating thing to address. Unfortunately, Girlfriend in-law is making crepes. But I really plan to write. Really.

Friday, July 11, 2014


We arrive at the rustic Asilomar Conference Grounds, by the sea in Pacific Grove, and I immediately go into full throttle Jewish Princess mode when our assigned room smells funny. We end up about ¾ of a mile from the rest of the study group but I eat enough to compensate for the extra calories I burn. Most of the meals offer a choice of red meat which neither of us eats or some guaranteed-to-induce-flatulence vegetarian option. It isn't bad for institutional food but it isn't very good. There's an inordinate amount of squash which Himself despises, and I can live without. And don't get me started with quinoa (ubiquitous but still not recognized by spell-check.). Nevertheless, I clean my plate.

Most of Asilomar is staffed by Filipinos. I notice that many of the workers are uncomfortable speaking English and I assume that they're newly arrived. Inevitably while I wait in line for my soon to be methane meal, there is another guest interrogating the server about the food. “Does it have dairy?” “Is this vegan?” “Were there any tree nuts used in this kitchen?” I, believe it or not, have been known to make a fuss about what I will and won't eat but I feel embarrassed that people arrived from a place where food is scarce have to endure these inquisitions.

We are attending an alumni seminar, under the aegis of my alma mater, Johnston College. The subject is Lawence Durrell's Alexandria Quartet. “Durrell” is not pronounced “Dur—ell” but instead to rhyme with churl or hurl, both of which are apt (the latter in the colloquial sense). After Himself has a happy experience at another alumni seminar last year (on Death) we enroll in this one, knowing only that the Quartet is considered a masterwork of modern fiction. I've read scads of books that were hard to put down but perhaps never one (four actually) that is so hard to pick up. I suspect this resistance it is due to my  bafflement at Durrell's incessant use of French and references to mythology and post-Freudian psychology. But, Himself who can converse on just about any arcane topic you can think of, and some that aren't really arcane but that I simply find boring or confounding, is also disappointed with the Quartet. To some extent, after dipping into the books, we both regret having signed up for the seminar.

I make the long slog through the four novels, finally finishing Clea, the last volume, three days into the seminar by listening to an audio book played at double speed. I know going in that Himself thinks the quadrilogy is way overrated but I am afraid that the other brainy attendees will disagree. There are 23 of us, including one of Joe College's classmates, some retired university professors and representatives of every generation in between. I am comfortable in my own element, mainly bossing people around, cooking and watching television but outside my fields of specialty, and particularly among those who have attended graduate school, my self assurance flounders. My presumption, as I suffer through the Quartet, is that Himself hates it for more sophisticated reasons than I do and that the level of discourse will be way over my head. Despite not having finished the books, I do manage to get a manicure (gel), pedicure, eyebrow arch and a haircut before our departure, not really priorities that will foment any awesome intellectual gymnastics.

Fortunately, there are others who are not enamored by Durrell's prose. In fairness, all four of the novels have passages that are as beautiful and vivid as anything I've ever read. Unfortunately, these are often larded with impenetrable pages of aphorisms and grotesquery. Perhaps no one is as turned off as I am. I do attribute a lot of the inaccessibility to my own borderline militant intellectual laziness and inclination to brand anything that is beyond my grasp as pretentious. My current commitment to indolence, for the most part, keeps me out of groups. After a lifetime of volunteer and committee work I am over this sort of participation. I expect, at Asilomar, like in every other group I've ever been in for my whole life, that there will be at least one asshole. You know, the person who makes everyone else cringe whenever he or she opens his or her mouth. Remarkably, I like and respect each of the twenty-two other members of our group. After a week of eating, drinking and studying together there is not one thing I have to say about any of my co-participants that I would not say to his or her face. Himself, of course, would be the exception to this.

With the litany of complaints that are probably part and parcel to any long marriage, the week at Asilomar gives me a look at a facet of Himself that I seldom see. I spend a lot of time rolling my eyes at his lack of practical life skills and profound food fussiness. This seminar provides a good reminder as to why I married him in the first place. He is not only smart but he is reliable to an extent that is almost creepy. He can converse on subjects I didn't know existed and in matters of fact he is consistently infallible. Truly, the pope would defer to him. Teaching at a technical college and living with someone who has a serious addiction to reality TV, Himself doesn't get much opportunity to stretch his mind muscles. I am proud to witness the respect he garners and love to watch him bask in this sort of stimulation. The afterglow of this softens me a bit when we return home and I am reminded about how hapless and indifferent he is in attending to more earthly matters.

Joe College and girlfriend in-law are in charge at Casamurphy during our absence. I text regularly to inquire after ancient dog and psychiatrically troubled cat. I am suspicious when I am informed tersely that “all is well.” We return home to find a broken light fixture, a gnawed door frame, some paint damage and most of the really good coffee I'd hidden gone. Based on previous kid-in-charge experiences, not bad at all.

My boy Rover, age 15, has taken to resting quietly under some outdoor stairs. He manages to enter the house, wag his tail, lick me and accept a treat when I return. The next day I am able to coax him out from under the stairs and feed him a bit of roast duck. By the evening though he is refusing food or to move from his bed. Rover was old for a dog his size two years ago. Most nights I wake up and go downstairs to make sure he's breathing. I am lucky he's lived as long as he has and touched that he manages to hang in until we return from Asilomar.

We are both dog people and we know the drill. We are lucky to find a kind vet, with a special aptitude for ending suffering and comforting people, to come to the house. She patiently drinks in my memories of Rover. She respects my story and must do the same for sad families all over the Southland.  They are all the best pet ever in the world.  No one ever tells her, "I hate that dog.  Can't wait to put him down."

It is done now and it is a bit of relief not to have to dread it anymore. Still, I feel almost like an amputee, my boy was such an appendage, always by my side. I haven't the heart yet to remove his bed and water bowl from my office. I tear up still when I look down and am reminded that he is not snoring at my feet. Counselors advise that the worst possible subject for a college admission essay is the death of a pet. Indeed, in the scheme of things and in the face of all the sadness of the world, a dead dog is a trivial thing. Unless of course, it's your dog.

Our recent loss conjures memories of other pets now long in heaven and it is more than just the death of Rover, it is a sorrow for a life of loving pets, that up until now at least, we inevitably outlive. I am grateful that we've had such a pleasant week at the conference before the loss of Rover. Although Rover is inextricably bound to me, Himself has a hard time too. Fido, a spectacularly intelligent half breed standard poodle, is the dog who bonds with him from the moment their eyes meet. She is only about six when she is diagnosed with cancer and when the time comes, the only vet we can find to provide in-home euthanasia charges a lot more than we are able to afford. Fido is taken to a local vet who won't permit Himself to stay with her. We are lucky to find a vet to perform this service for a reasonable price for Rover but I feel guilty that his end is so much more befitting and dignified than poor Fido's.

The old sailor Scobie is a tragi-comic character in the Quartet.  The character is so beloved that after his death he is deified (with a shrine erected in his honor) and summoned by ventriloquism in the fourth volume.  The lovable Scobie is a transvestite and pederast and brews literally lethal moonshine in his bathtub. The sailor's drunken yarns are about Toby, the mischief-making love of his life.  Scobie's transgressions are forgiven perhaps due to the sweetness in evidence as he waxes on about his beloved lost friend Toby.  I have been scanning old family photographs and I find one of a gentle faced mutt in the then raw backyard of Fulton Avenue. It is taken before I was born. The dog's name is Toby and he ran into the street and was run over. My parents' divorce was acrimonious and left me confused about their affection for me. I remember though how comforting it was that both would weep when they remembered little Toby. My house is a bit more peaceful than the one I grew up in but again and again, our dogs reaffirm our commonality and humanness.