Thursday, March 30, 2006

More LA Stories: 2005 (Part IX)

Days Three and Four — Monday/Tuesday:
Where’s The Champ when you need ‘im?

In another of the seemingly never-ending series of efforts to date myself, this next chapter in my story brings a particular TV commercial from the 1970s to mind. Back in the days before Don King and Mike Tyson transformed it from The Sweet Science into The Gong Show, the man who was the face of professional boxing was also its greatest ambassador. Muhammad Ali was everything a great sports figure could and should be. But one of the things I loved about him the most was the fact that in addition to being the Greatest of Them All, he was also the easiest to like.

Ali was a crackup. He was the Clown who wore the Crown. From the Ring to the small screen, The Champ was all about entertainment. And in a particular enterprise that some felt was well beneath his dignity, it was his self-deprecation that I found to be the most refreshing.

I remember him doing a TV commercial for Black FlagRoach Motel roach traps years ago (apparently he had a real passion for roach-extermination products — more on that later). “Roaches check in, but they don’t check out! he would say, with that same trademark, faux-menacing, raspy whisper he used for years to antagonize his opponents during many a pre-fight press conference.

With Ali’s Black Flag commercial, the term Roach Motel was added to the pop-culture lexicon; a reference that became much more attuned to describe the genre of typically low-cost motor hotels in which one might likely find the multi-legged creatures scurrying about when the lights come on, than to the actual product itself.

I don’t know if he was busy at the time, but I think I could have used The Champ to “knock out” some nasty-lookin’ cucarachas that were waiting for me in my motel room Monday afternoon when I arrived in Hemet to visit my Dad. I had run out of time and asked him if he could find me a cheap place to stay.

Poor Pop, God love ‘im. He was just trying to save me a few bucks, and he’d obviously never stayed there himself, so how would he have known? I really have no one to blame but myself anyway. In my haste to get ready to make this trip, the one travel arrangement I failed to complete was to book a motel for the two nights I would be in Hemet.

Strangers in the Night II
One might be wondering why I needed to get a room in the first place. After all, I was going to see my Dad, and I had stayed at their place the last time I visited, in August of 2004. The difference was that they had moved since my last visit — and recently I might add.

Dad and his wife Helen had just moved back to the assisted living center each had called home at a time when they were merely acquaintances, while my stepmom Maxine was still alive. They had just moved in to their new one-bedroom apartment just a few days before I arrived. Aside from the fact that they were still unpacking, and maintenance men were still installing light fixtures and such, there was simply no room to put me up at comfortably there.

As I’ve mentioned before, Helen had been a mutual friend of both Maxine and my Dad, one of the first to reach out to them when they initially moved in, back in early 2000. Helen was already a widow, having lost her husband several years earlier. In the months following Maxine’s passing in late May of that year, Helen and Dad, became closer friends through her emotional support to him at an obviously difficult time following Maxine’s unexpected death — the result of complications from a viral infection — and the relationship just seemed to blossom from there.

After Maxine’s passing, Dad found the two of them spending more and more time together. And now suddenly becoming one of the more eligible bachelors at the Center, Pop had to literally fight off the ladies who began coming on to him. All the while Helen was simply there for him, never imposing the obvious affection that was growing in her heart.

And the feeling was becoming mutual.

This is one of my favorite pictures. My Dad and me in the back yard during his visit to Tennessee in June 2001. And no, I wasn’t dyeing my goatee back then…

By the time Pop came to Tennessee for a visit in June of 2001, he was already smitten, yet not quite forthcoming in announcing the news to his family. He was concerned about what we might think, given that it had been just over a year since Mom had passed away. It took a couple of days before he mustered the courage to broach the subject with Michelle and me, fearing we might not approve. However nothing could be further from the truth. Dad seemed a little taken aback when we assured him with no reservation that we were delighted he had found a lady friend to spend his time with. He insisted at the time that it wasn’t serious, but we knew better.

Six months later, my elder brother, TK, took his own endorsement of the relationship to another level, greasing the wheels of an all-out effort to get Dad and Helen to Las Vegas to get hitched. And so they did, in December.

As it turned out, it may have very well likely been a decision that saved my Dad’s life.

Far away from the maddening crowd
It was probably a more uncomfortable scene for Helen than for her new husband, but after losing out to her in the race for Pop’s affections, some of those old hens at the Center turned on Helen. She felt a little spurned by woman she had long considered to be her friends. Combining that with the fact that he’d never felt really comfortable there anyway — and the real kicker — a recent sharp increase in rent and service fees added by the management company, Dad and Helen decided to get the heck outta Dodge.

They moved back to the old neighborhood where Dad and Maxine had lived for years prior to moving to the assisted living residence. They were both in good health (or so we all thought) and figured they didn’t necessarily need the round-the-clock nursing care (nor the price tag thereof) the Center provided. They wanted to fend for themselves. Dad wanted to get back to the vegetable garden he had to abandon. They weren’t old like the rest ‘a them fogies. They could take care of themselves, thankyouverymuch.

Almost immediately, the repercussions of that move would come to roost.

A few months after they moved out of the Center, in May 2002, my Dad suffered a mild, but potentially fatal heart attack at home, and now without the on-call medical facilities that had been available to him previously. If Helen hadn’t been there to call 911, my Pop would most certainly have died. He ended up having quadruple-bypass surgery in the wake of his ordeal, having never shown any signs of heart disease prior to the event.

The good news is, he has worked hard to change his lifestyle and is completely recovered and in great shape for a man of nearly eighty-three years. But the better news is that he had Helen there, or chances are great he wouldn’t be around to celebrate the “good” news in the first place.

And though Dad’s health has been great for the past four years, Helen hasn’t been so fortunate. She began experiencing difficulties with her legs; sores that took forever to heal; and more recently, she had to undergo surgery to remove a blockage in her colon.

So when out of the blue, a neighbor made an offer to buy their house which, in Dad’s words, was “just too good to pass up,” they reconsidered their previous decision and decided to give their old assisted living community another try (and have been very happy there ever since).

Dad and Helen in their new apartment, and still goin’ strong.

‘Cuz I’m a cheap ‘ol bugger...that’s why.
Now you know why I needed to get a room, but here’s how I ended up at The Roach Motel.

Going in, I figured on someplace inexpensive; just a place for me to lay my head at the end of each of the two days I would be spending entirely with the folks. However, per my usual penchant for leaving things to the last minute, I ran out of time and never made the reservation.

So I turned to my Pop for a little travel agent assistance, which he was happy to do. I had phoned him on Saturday to let him know I’d arrived and to ask if he would go and make the arrangements at the local Motel 6 to reserve me a room for Monday and Tuesday, as I had no access to a computer. When he said he’d take care of it, I figured, “No Problem,” and considered it a done deal.

When I arrived at Dad’s place on Monday, he proudly announced, “AJ, I think I got you a pretty good deal on a room.”

“Oh yeah?” I said.

“Why yesss,” he gushed. “I went to the Motel 6 like you said, and they wanted $49.99 a night, plus tax! But I found a little motel over here on the main drag that only charges $45 a night out the door!

“Well okay then, thanks for doing that for me, Dad!” I said appreciatively.

Now I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t at least a little concerned at that point. Motel 6, say what you want about the stereotypical connotations associated with it, is at least a known commodity. You know, going in that you’re not staying at some kind of resort. But at least there is a reasonable expectation that the room, the sheets, and the linens will all be clean and fresh. One can expect there to be decent cable TV, and you can certainly expect that the only multi-legged creature in your bed is gonna be YOU. There was a level of trust with Motel 6 that I felt good about. And while the notion of moving away from that was disconcerting at first, I can honestly say I really didn’t give it much thought.

My Dad, don’t forget, was a Depression Kid, and anytime we were on vacation, it was Motel 6 all the way. So if he said he’d found an even better bargain, who was I to argue?

After a short visit with Dad and Helen, I left to go check in and drop my stuff before returning to Dad’s to go to dinner.

I pulled in and went into the office. On the outside, it looked like a typical cheap motel: smartly landscaped; recently painted exterior; clean and innocuous office/lobby area. The lady handed me my key and I drove my car down a few hundred feet to where my room was at the end of the row of rooms.

The manager had been sure to mention that the entire motel was a non-smoking environment, which was nice, but really didn’t mean all that much to me. While I do appreciate non-smoking to smoking, I’ve never been one to make a big deal over not getting the former.

When I opened the door I immediately realized that the motel’s smoke-free policy was not something they necessarily put into place voluntarily. I’m pretty sure they had to do it because the rooms were already so heavily saturated with the smell of smoke that one more wisp would have probably sent the whole place down into the damned center of the earth!

Oh. My. GAWD! My eyes hadn’t watered like that since that time Michelle and I got caught downwind of the south end of a momma hippo, cuttin’ it loose at the San Diego Zoo several years ago.

I immediately began to re-think my stance of not being bothered by smoking-allowed. This was easily the worse one I’d ever encountered. Just when did they implement that “smoke-free” policy — AN HOUR AGO? Perhaps by “smoke-free” they meant that they no longer CHARGE people for the freakin’ privilege!

And that was just the tip ‘o the iceberg. True to its Ali-inspired nickname, as I flipped on the lights I saw no less than three cockroaches scurrying off to points unknown. I just rolled my eyes. I had a notion, but I didn’t wish to insult or embarrass my Pop, who actually had tried to do me a favor. Looking at the place from the outside, there really was no to know how bad they were on the inside.

Oh wait. I forgot about the three-pound Yuban coffee can ashtrays that were mounted onto the building just outside the door of every room. Yeah…that might have been a clue.

The best thing I can say is, apart from its aforementioned extremophylic permanent residents…and the broken toilet paper roll dispenser…and the cracked tile in the shower…and the TV on which it appeared they were showing the ice palace scene from Dr. Zhivago on every channel, the place was pretty clean. The bed was comfortable, and when I awoke the next morning I hadn’t yet turned into any kind of Slither-like monster, so hey, I was okay with it.

Next: Days Three and Four — Monday/Tuesday (continued):
He Got Walkin’ Fingers…

Monday, March 27, 2006

After Further Review…

Be careful what you ask for
As the old saying goes, Be careful what you ask for — you just might get it. Well, I asked and I got, and I probably shouldn’t have been surprised with the outcome.

Pretty much on a lark a few months ago I decided to take the somewhat narcissistic plunge of having my blog evaluated by The Weblog Review. The TWR, if you’ve never visited, is a Web site dedicated to the review of these wonderful little pockets of piss, bliss, pizzazz, and personality that are the thousands of weblogs scattered across the Internet.

This past New Year’s Day evening, I was updating a few things on my blog — blogroll links, story archive page, etc — when I decided to go for it. I had recently read the post by my friend Sidra (that’s El Sid to you) from a couple days earlier, reporting the fact that she had herself been reviewed by TWR, just as now-retired fellow Blogsville neighbor, Jay had done a year and a half earlier. One of their requirements for consideration is that you must place a link to their site on your blog from the time you sign up. So since I was updating my template anyway, I went ahead and added the link.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have stopped there. But I digress…

As you peruse the evaluations they’ve done, it’s pretty clear that these reviewers are no soft-sell. Even the good things they have to say about a blog are often balanced by their perceived negatives. So why I thought they’d see mine any differently is anyone’s guess. Frankly I didn’t really care all that much, but I was curious, as most anyone who has a public blog would be. So I decided to offer myself up for scrutiny and abuse pretty much just to see what they’d say.

So I went to the TWR site and registered. According to the instructions on the site the waiting period would be of indeterminate length, that is, unless I wanted to pony up $4.97 to have it done within five days by one reviewer, or $7.97 for the opinion of two separate reviewers. Either way, if you pay, they supposedly get it done in a week. However, being the cheapskate that I am, and considering the sort of egotistical guilt I felt about doing this in the first place, I was more than happy to wait.

And wait…aaannnd wait.

Within a month my Sitemeter identified visitors with referring URLs pointing to making occasional visits, so I figured the process had begun. I had no idea how long it would actually take, but hey, I was realistic. I understood that anyone approaching my blog for the first time would likely take awhile to extract any kind of true impression from it. I honestly didn’t expect it to take a whole lot less time than it actually did, which was just shy of three months.

Actually, I consider myself lucky, as I’ve noticed that The Weblog Review has ceased accepting non-paying submissions for now. If you want them to review your blog, it’s pay-or-don’t-play for the foreseeable future. Perhaps they’ve just gotten so many requests lately that they’ve accumulated a bit of a backlog. Lord knows my lengthy web of words didn’t help.

But what would they think? Would they understand where my “head was at?” Would they think I was funny and charming, or some middle-aged, pseudo-intellectual hipster dufus? Would they find my blog self-indulgent, or would they enjoy looking into my world, my thoughts, my dreams of life as it was and what I hoped it would become?

Gonna Change My Way Of Thinkin’
Going in, I hoped I might be lucky enough to be reviewed by someone at least close to my own age. However the more I examined other reviews conducted by TWR, I realized I was much more likely to wind up with a twentysomething Web-head with no kids, itching to make snarky comments about my bare-bones Blogger template.

Guess which one I got?

When I received the e-mail announcing that “Dylan” had reviewed my blog, I gotta tell you, I was pretty excited.

“Great!” I thought. “Someone of my own generation! And since when did ol’ Zimmie start doing blog reviews?”

Unfortunately it didn’t take long to discover that my reviewer wasn’t that Dylan. Nope, this Dylan wasn’t a member of my generation at all, but rather a member of the Net Generation, just a few years older than my own kids. Dylan O’Donnell is twenty seven years old and has reviewed more than twenty-seven blogs in less than four months since starting with TWR last December; no mean feat by any stretch, and nearly twice his required monthly quota.

Apparently, Dylan’s a pretty busy guy. In addition to being a talented photographer, he’s also the Webmaster and Message Board Admin for an Aussie blues band that I understand is quite good. I’d provide a link to their Web site, but apparently a marauding band of spammers performed an all-out assault on it recently, so it’s out of commission at the moment.

In his Technorati profile, Dylan describes himself thusly: “Australian photoblogger, Dylan O'Donnell. Unix Sys Admin by day, rock guitarist and singer by night and somewhere in amongst it all, photographer, emergency services volunteer and blog reviewer.”

Needless to say, with everything he has on his plate, Dylan needs to stay focused, so in my review, one thing about my blog he seemed really focused upon was, I’m sure, the most important part to him: the look. I mean, anyone so gauche as to leave the CSS template that comes with a Blogger account essentially unaltered, should definitely be taken to task for such an egregious violation of Web ethics, right? ESPECIALLY if they claim to be a Web designer. I believe that’s a violation the hypocritical oath or something. And given that Dylan has probably been writing CSS code since he was in high school, I can certainly understand why he was so appalled.

Now obviously I’m busting Dylan’s chops a bit here. Actually I agree with him to an extent. My blog’s appearance is something I’ve wanted to upgrade from the very beginning, but at the end of the day, it’s just been something I’ve never found the time to do. That being said, anyone who has read my blog lately probably knows that I’ve had little to no time to even write, let alone worry about making my template pretty.

Besides, I find that less is more sometimes...

Nonetheless, having already communicated as much to Mr. O’Donnell in a message board comment, I do consider myself properly challenged, and will definately, “rip that blogger headline bar out of the CSS template” in due time, and hopefully soon. When I Paint My Masterpiece, he’ll be the first to know.

Although his review of my blog was laced with snarky comments, Dylan did have some good things to say about the writing, which I did appreciate. And let me say right here, despite my own snarky commentary in response, I really do understand his criticisms, and I also remember what I was like when I was twenty-seven (and perhaps he’ll be able to appreciate that statement a bit more ten or fifteen years down the road).

To be fair, he actually did hit the nail on the head when he finally remarked, “…but I don't think AJ's main reason for blogging is the design at all. Like most personal blogs I think the reason for writing varies. Sometimes its to vent, sometimes to laugh, and sometimes its just to order ones own thoughts by writing them down.

Bingo. And for that bit of insight I’ll give him a pass. I’ll even go beyond that; I think that all the folks at TWR deserve a lot of credit for the effort they put in. Grasping an accurate read on a blog without spending an inordinate amount of time on it is no doubt a daunting task. And Dylan’s reviews are to be applauded for the obvious care he puts into them. Really, my only criticism of his criteria (and not just because he called me to the carpet on this, necessarily) is his consistent hatred of Blogger templates, which I found to be a recurring theme in his reviews. While I don’t exactly think they’re that great myself, I do believe it might be in the greater interest of a blog reviewer to focus a bit less on site design issues that the vast majority of bloggers neither have the expertise nor the desire to concern themselves with.

Not everyone is a Web developer, and most of the Bloggers I know, are scared to death to do little more than barely touch their templates, and that’s okay in my opinion. It’s the reason the templates were created in the first place. Blogging is the tool of the everyman, not just the technologically resplendent. I believe it’s the content, not the look that should be the focus of a personal blog.

So thanks again to The Weblog Review for the time and for the most part, their even-handed criticism of my work. I had fun researching this post, and in the process, gained great deal of appreciation for the work that these folks do.

If you’d like to read the review of my blog in its entirety, you can find it here. If you’d care to register with TWR, you may then cast your vote to agree or disagree with the opinions of any of its more than 1,969 blog reviews currently available.


Sunday, March 19, 2006

So many stories, so little time...

Hmmm…so I already used the line about the dog eating my homework, huh?
This is another impromptu post; another one of those stream-of-consciousness diaryesque spiels I find I need to write every so often, just to open up my head and see what I’m thinking. Not that I feel the need to apologize for my absence — I gave up that guilt trip long ago — but I do need to explain it, to myself if to no one else.

I had been writing since yesterday, trying to complete my current series, which in all honesty, I believed had languished simply because I had become bored with it. However now that I've gotten back into the flow, it's coming along a just fine. Hopefully I’ll have something posted soon.

But what I’ve decided was the real source of my recent writer’s block is not boredom, but rather information overload. There is just so much going on in my life that I want to talk about, so much to reflect upon, I simply don’t know where to start. I just want to put everything else on hold, but my half-cocked obsessive sense of order just won’t allow me to do it. If I had my way, I would go on a week-long writing bender; drink a gallon of coffee a day and probably age ten years in the process, not to mention wreck my marriage while I was at it (Michelle and I had an interesting discussion about that, by the way, that I’ll have to write about at some point soon).

I always thought it was a cliché reserved only for the old and bent, but I can truly say now that I understand what my Mom meant when she used to say, “There just aren’t enough hours in the day.” There simply aren’t. I have no idea when somebody decided to speed up the clocks, but my days literally fly by now. It doesn’t seem fair. Weekends aren’t long enough. Vacations seem like weekends. I’m really starting to grasp my own mortality, and I’m not sure how I feel about that. However it does serve to be a wonderful impetus to write. There is truly just so very much I want to say. I simply don’t seem to have the time.

The primary culprit is my job. I have been placed in a position of such uncertainty, yet with so much opportunity, I dare not screw it up. I have been challenged by my new boss to step outside the box that I’ve been comfortably huddled in for at least the past five years. She has given me the permission to do what I’ve said I have wanted to do ever since I started working there, but had never found the support to accomplish. Now it’s up to me. Problem is, during the time I was complaining about not having the means, I allowed myself to fall so far behind on the technologies needed to accomplish these initiatives that I’ve been caught somewhat flat-footed. It's put up or shut up, and buddy, I'm puttin’ as hard as I can.

Every free hour I’ve had at work, in addition to a few nights and weekends, I’ve spent studying; scouring the Web for any tips, tricks, or tutorials I could lay my fingers on. I’ve made some strides, but I still have a long way to go, and not a lot of time left to get there.

Quite frankly, I feel my job is secure, but if I play it safe, that security may not last. What’s more, the prospect of turning fifty this year and possibly looking for a new job is not something I find particularly attractive.

Therefore my nose has been to the grindstone, each and every day. And those fifteen-minutes-that-usually-turned-into-an-hour here and there during which I used to write during the workday have now ceased to be. I know I had related that before, but now it truly is a reality. Now the weekend is my only devoted time in which to write, and even that has been challenged and will only be more so as summer and its clarion call of yard work reasserts itself into my weekly routine.

Music has also played a big role, both in its occupation of my free time and my exasperation over the inability to write about it. I’ve been to some fabulous concerts, musical plays and movies over the past three weeks that I most definitely will be writing about in the future. I would like to blend those stories in with some other as-yet-not-written remembrances of shows that I’ve attended as far back as the Fall of 2004, which never got written but for my entrenchment in still other long and emotionally taxing series that I couldn’t seem to pry myself away from. I know, I know; it’s a sickness. But it’s my sickness, and it’s a part of myself that I actually kinda like, so I deal with it.

And speaking of concerts, the story of the very first rock concert I ever attended (which was also a large part of the genesis for this blog), has been solicited to be a part of a new Rock Music retrospective on the Web by a music historian in the UK who found me here on Blogspot. Pretty cool, huh? I only received the e-mail from him yesterday, so I really don’t know where it will go — if anywhere — from this point. But again, it’s nice to know that there are indeed people out there who are reading. I’ll have more to say if and when it happens.

My marriage (Michelle and I celebrated our 27th Wedding Anniversary last Friday); my job; my kids; my aunts and uncles; my brother Alex; my music. I have stories in my head right now that I want to write on all of them. But time is not on my side. Guess I have to just get back on the saddle and ride as far as ‘Ole Paint will carry me, one story at a time.