Sunday, December 14, 2008

The Santa Connection

Blog Jogging
Special thanks to my friend, Will, whose recent blog post inspired this brief story. He was recalling the time in his childhood at which he discovered that Santa Claus wasn’t real. This sparked a memory that I think about every Holiday season — but it’s not about me; it’s about my brother Alex.

As for me, I suppose I first realized that Santa wasn’t real when I was about seven or eight years old; don’t remember how or why, just that I have very little recollection of ever really believing that anyone other than my Dad left our presents under the Christmas tree. At that time in my life, my mom was already in the advanced stages of Early-Onset Alzheimer’s disease (AD) and my Dad was always working, so once the idea got into my head that Santa was make-believe, there really wasn’t anyone around to persuade me to the contrary.

However I on my own decided to help my brother Alex, who was four years my junior, to keep the fantasy alive, while leveraging that bit of grown-up knowledge for my own personal enjoyment at the same time.

I convinced him that I was Santa’s personal helper, assigned to our family, and that that St. Nick had asked me to help him out because he was just so very busy. I was assigned to keep an eye out as to whether or not Alex was being good, and to report any behavioral infractions to the North Pole immediately as I witnessed them — via mental telepathy, of course; except it wasn’t your garden-variety mental telepathy — it was vocal mental telepathy; and oh yeah, it was based upon two-way radio communications protocol, too. So in other words, I would ‘talk’ to Santa as if I were a WWII fighter pilot radioing in to base:
“AJ to Santa, AJ to Santa, come in Santa...Sorry to say, but Alex just set the cat’s tail on fire, over...”
Yeah, I was sort of a creep to do that, but oh, the power! If Alex ever dared cross me, I’d play the ol’ ‘AJ to Santa’ card, which would send him instantly screaming to my feet, pleading for mercy.

But don’t think I only used my power for evil. I spent a lot of time reassuring my little brother that he was indeed a good boy, which he was...most of the time. Our Mother’s illness was probably rougher on him than it was on me. He had no substantive memory of her at all, given that her AD onset had begun only a year after Alex was born.

It was a strange, almost surreal time. I may have teased him a little more than I should have, but I tried to protect him as much as my limited understanding of what was going on around us would allow. I loved him more than anything; we were each other’s support group and were extremely close the entire time we lived under the same roof.

In later years we’d kid each other about my little Santa rouse; usually someone would bring it up at a family Holiday gathering. We always laughed about it; Alex was never sore over my abuse. It was always understood as a older-versus-younger brother rite of passage; an example of how we tried to cope in our pre-teen years, growing up without a Mother.

But now, instead of smiles, it brings a pang to my heart every time I think about it; not out of guilt, but just in the sadness of realizing that my little brother will likely never remember that story again. Alex is now himself in the advanced throes of Alzheimer’s. He and my late elder brother David inherited the disease from our Mom. David passed away 12 years ago at the age of 46; Alex’s life however, through the new AD drugs Aracept and Namenda, has been extended beyond that of previous members of my family who’d succumbed to the disease.

He’s 48 years old, and is likely with the final 2-3 years of his life. I don’t know if he even realizes it’s Christmastime.

But I know that I love him; I know that I miss him; and regardless of what anyone else believes, I’d do anything within my power to change his fate.

Oh that I really could speak to Santa; I’d ask for my little brother to be whole, once again; not only for me, but for his family on whose lives his illness has taken the greatest toll of all.

I love you, bro. Merry Christmas.


Monday, November 10, 2008

A Different Point-of-Hue: L.A. Stories 2008
(Part VII)

Dad & Helen
I realize that to this point in the story I’ve hardly mentioned my Dad. However that neither means that I don’t have plenty to say about him or that we didn’t spend much time together on this trip. Actually I spent two days out in Hemet with my Pop and step Mom, Helen.

As always, it was a great time; however this visit had a decidedly more pronounced sense of sober circumstance than in past visits. My Dad, whose health has been stellar for a man 85 years of age, has finally experienced a blip on the physiological radar.

As you may recall from previous blogs I’ve written about him, my Dad suffered a heart attack back in 2001, but has in subsequent years turned his health around completely, losing 40 pounds, and becoming by all accounts healthier than most men 25 years his junior.

At the same time, almost as if by some cruel reversal of roles, as my Dad’s health flourished, Helen’s began to decline. She developed lower GI tract difficulties requiring surgery to remove a portion of her colon. And if that wasn’t bad enough, at the same time she was also experiencing difficulties with her legs and lower back, which rendered her nearly an invalid over the past two years.

The good news however came earlier this summer when a new physical therapy treatment — a spinal decompression therapy administered by Dad and Helen’s chiropractor — began to dramatically reverse Helen’s spinal disk degeneration. She went from barely being able to get around in a walker to walking around on her own after just a few weeks of treatment.

Happy days were here again, right? Um…no; the fickle finger of fate would beg to differ.

Right in the midst of my folks’ elation over Helen’s regained mobility, a routine cardiac checkup for my Dad found something going on with him that was equally, if not more disconcerting. In a routine ultrasound test that has become a regular part of his post-heart attack checkup regimen, the doctor discovered not one, but two small aneurysms in my Pop’s abdomen; one in his upper chest that they opined could simply be shunted to relieve the pressure, and the other, a much more serious aortic aneurysm that if not watched closely, could mean instantaneous death if it were to rupture.

Abdominal aortic aneurysms — as their name indicates — are located on the body’s largest blood vessel, the aorta, which proceeds south from the heart through the lower abdomen where it branches off to supply blood to other major internal organs and in turn, the body as a whole. An aneurysm is an enlargement in the vessel wall, caused by a weakening normally attributed to high blood pressure or heart disease (both of which my Dad has or has had in the past). The result is a ballooning of the affected area which typically increases over time. The wider the bulge becomes, the weaker the integrity of the vessel wall, usually causing the bubble to burst eventually. The result is nearly always fatal as the subsequent internal bleeding is usually too great for the victim to overcome, even with emergency surgery.

(For a nicely informative video explanation of the phenomenon from, click here.)

Such an unfortunate turn of events would justifiably dampen the spirits of even the most optimistic of souls, but Dad and Helen have remained strong and upbeat, believing that God will not place any greater a burden on them then that which they can bear.

Well you can now add one more pebble to the pile.

I just spoke to Pop a couple days ago, and he told me the doctors have given him even more bad news. Living in sunny SoCal for the past forty years, and more specifically, in a desert area like Hemet, on and off for the past fifteen years can have its detractors. For one thing: skin cancer from the constant exposure to the relentless California sun.

Dad has in recent years battled more than one or two Basel Cell Carcinomas, on his lip, chin and now just recently, on his ear. The treatment is to basically cut it out before it spreads. Generally the subsequent scar left behind is minimal, depending on how large the cancerous spot was allowed to become.

And given the fact that the situation has become almost routine for my Dad, he once again is taking the Alfred E. Newman stance.

This man amazes me. For as much as he’s been through, and as many legit reasons he’s had to worry in his life, I’ve never seen fear in his eyes. His faith in God to work things out in his life has been an inspiration to me; you just can’t help but to be uplifted by his confidence.

So now allow me to return to being the worry-wart.

As I mentioned previously, about the aneurysm, the doctors are optimistic that it isn’t anything to be really concerned about. Dad’s otherwise good health make him an excellent candidate for surgery to repair the aneurysm. And for as serious a circumstance as this one, the procedure has about a 95% success rate.

So why hasn’t he had it yet? Good question — despite the fact that I already know (and don’t like) the answer.

Dad learned of his situation in August, a couple of weeks before making this trip to SoCal. At the time it had grown to a size (4.5 cm wide) just under the size recommended for surgery. Naturally he wanted to be proactive and head this sucker off at the pass, but his HMO put up the big stop sign saying that he had to wait until it reached that just-before-it-bursts/by-the-book established procedure size before they’d authorize the surgery.

So he waits; remaining upbeat and patient until his next checkup in a couple weeks to see what the bubble’s status is, and hoping that until then, that he doesn’t have a slip-and-fall or that nobody walks up and punches him in the gut.

But believe it or not, that’s really not what I intended to talk about in this post. So now, in making a complete left turn in subject matter, let’s talk about Angels; not the kind that have wings — the kind that swing bats.

Touched by Angels
I’m not sure exactly when his allegiances changed — probably sometime around the mid-to-late 1970s, but my Dad, somewhat gradually and rather unbeknownst to me, became a Halos fan. He was raised in the Midwest, so quite naturally his love for the National League teams in Cincinnati and Chicago — along with a healthy disdain for the Los Angeles Dodgers — followed him as he brought our family to California in 1969.

As for me, I was a newly-minted but dyed-in-the-wool New York Mets fan. I honestly didn’t even know who the then-California Angels were. I would continue to have little-to-no sense in that regard until the 1973 season when they acquired an up-and-coming Mets prospect who would go on to become one of the most dominant pitchers in Major League Baseball history — for both the Angels, and later, for The Houston Astros and Texas Rangers — Nolan Ryan.

As the decade of the 70s began to fade, so did my love for the Mets; however a curious affinity for the Angels had begun to materialize in its place. The Halos had been perennial losers from their beginnings in 1961, all the way up to the 1978 season when they finally fielded a competitive team. They narrowly missed the American League West division crown that season, but the buzz created by their strong finish created an excitement and expectancy of success in their fans like never before.

1979 brought the team’s first division championship in history and now all of a sudden there were actually two legitimate MLB teams in greater Los Angeles (although the Angels were still trapped in the Dodgers’ shadow, and would remain there, regardless of any subsequent success for many years to come). By this time I was now a rabid Angels fan. I would learn later that my Dad had followed suit, albeit in a somewhat less demonstrative fashion than his #4 son.

I suppose my Dad’s affinity for the Angels was a surprise, simply because we really didn’t hang out that much back then. I didn’t spend a lot of time with my folks those first few years after I moved out on my own, as I was involved in college life, working and doing my own thing for the most part. We still lived within five miles of each other, but I was a pretty busy guy, with my own friends and interests.

It’s a part of the latter-day season between father and son that I’m now sort of experiencing the opposite end of in my relationship with my own son, Shawn. We now often don’t see him for weeks at a time, despite the fact that he lives less than 10 miles away. It’s a guy thing, I suppose. It bugs Michelle a little bit more than me, but I can certainly understand it, so I know it’s certainly nothing personal.

So with that in mind, it did come as somewhat of a surprise that when my pop’s exclamations of, “Hey, how about our Angels?” began to emerge as a recurring theme in conversation.

Now I could never be cynical enough to suggest that my Dad’s love for the Angels was anything less than that of a lifelong baseball fan doing what comes naturally, but I’d also be lying if I said I didn’t admit that it has become a great source of the commonality that we’ve enjoyed in the years since — especially given the surprising dearth of true Angels fans I’ve actually ever known.

But like me, my Pop was seldom able to see the Halos play in person. I can’t say for certain, but I figure I averaged attending no more than 2-3 games a season at Anaheim Stadium in the years I lived in Southern California; my Dad, I’d guess, probably didn’t make it to half that many. Occasionally we as a family would receive game tickets from my sister’s boss, who owned a nice slot of box seats, both in Anaheim and at Dodger Stadium, but those times were few and far between.

Fast-forward to 2004 when I began my current run of regular visits to SoCal and discovered another close friend who just happened to be an Angels fan, and who also just happened to have access to box seat season tickets in Anaheim: my friend Cindy. And as the goodness of her heart would dictate, Cindy has made it a point to see to it that I had tickets to take my Dad to an Angels game each of the past three times I’ve been there, including this visit.

Next: More Etcetera: “Today, Ich bin ein Germaphobe”

Friday, October 31, 2008

Okay...I'll just say it.

Chill, people.
I generally avoid political discussions like the plague because, a.) they’re absolutely no fun, and b.) they make me sick.

I consider myself a classic fiscal-conservative-but-social-moderate, politically. I campaign for no one because I don’t fully agree with either party on a plethora of issues.

I’m basically apolitical, but am well-aware that I’m in the minority on this issue, so I’m sure most people won’t agree with my stance. However I’ve been through a bunch of Presidential elections in my 52+ years and have been a working adult for more than 30 of those, so I believe I can offer this little bit of perspective: Chill, people; this country will neither be saved nor spared by the results of this Presidential election.

The sun will rise and the sun will set; no one person is gonna change that. I just don’t get why people have to become so worked up about it all. I’ve come thisclose to dropping a few folks I follow on Twitter, not because of what they say, but because it seems like ALL they can talk, and grouse...AND talk, and grouse about is politics — with nearly every Tweet.

The fact is, next Tuesday will come and go and we’ll all still be here when it’s done, save for those who’ll be choosing to pack all their belongings into their cars and drive ’em into the ocean — or a choice that’s equally silly and worthless: allowing a presidential election to take their focus off of the only thing that really matters: living.

Y’see folks, we’re not electing a White Knight on November 4th; we’re electing a candidate to occupy the office of President of the United States. Will he be the single-most powerful man in the world? Maybe. Does that power give him the ability to single-handedly fix all of our country’s problems? No way, Joe(theplummer)-say.

And if you think I’m casting aspersions strictly on Barack Obama here, think again. I’m not putting any more stock in John McCain; I have no idea how much if any of the campaign promises either of them will be able to make good upon if elected, and quite frankly I couldn’t care less which one does. What I DO know is that it’s neither their job, nor their ability to make me happy and successful; it’s up to ME and ME ALONE to do get that task accomplished.

See, I’m the only person sitting in AJ’s Oval Office.

I could go on ad-infintum here, but I would instead challenge you — if you’re old enough — to recall the state of the U.S. economy at or near the end of the past three decades, which also just happened to have been in close proximity to Presidential elections.
  • End of the 70s: a full-blown recession. Ronald Regan comes in and things get better.
  • End of the 80s: Black Tuesday ushers in a mini-recession. Things were already getting better by 1992 when Bill Clinton came in and the economy really took off.
  • Then in 2000-01 the very thing that sent Wall Street through the roof sends it crashing back to the ground; the dot-com bubble bursts and all hell breaks loose. Then 911; then Iraq.
  • The years since have been a mixed bag, with things improving early-on, but the Iraq war pretty much keeping the economy at bay, before the mortgage-lending crisis finally pushes it off the cliff.

The point I’m trying to make is that since the 60s, there has never been more than a ten-year window in which the economy has been truly robust, and even when it has been, inflation has tempered overall economic success. And conversely, there hasn’t been more than a two-to-three year period in which we’ve witnessed the economy in any kind of sustained downturn. There have always been these cyclical mini-recessions and market adjustments that crop up, usually at the turn of the decade, often coinciding with the end of a Presidential term. Why that is, I do not know, but I’ve now seen it happen four times in my lifetime and I find it pretty unlikely to be a coincidence. To me, it all has to do with confidence — the consumer variety, that is.

Jimmy Carter wasn’t a bad person, but history now agrees that he was one of the worst presidents of our era. The reason? He didn’t respond to the things that really mattered. He mothballed the U.S. military, and in response, the Soviet Union shifted theirs into overdrive, making our Cold War position with them incredibly tenuous for a number of years, and emboldening the Soviet-supported Iranian jihadists to take the U.S. Embassy in Tehran hostage.

And though he never threw any kind of switch, the helplessness we as a country felt over the Iranian hostage crisis paralyzed us, sucking our confidence dry. And no matter who’s to blame, whenever something like that happens, it’s always a bad thing for a market-driven economy that runs on consumer confidence.

I truly believe that no matter who wins next Tuesday, America will regain its confidence sooner, rather than later; if not for any reason other than the fact that somebody new will be in the White House, like it or not.

The sun’ll come out tomorrow, kids; bet’cher bottom dollar that tomorrow, there’ll be sun.

Howz about us getting back to living our lives, being responsible with our finances, conserving, planning and saving for rainy days, rather than weighing all our hopes and dreams on things or people that really don’t matter?

Howz about us leaving the vitriol behind and starting to show some love and respect for those with dissenting views? It goes both ways, y’know.

I am the only person ultimately responsible for me; you are the only person ultimately responsible for you.

I choose to concentrate on making sure that I, myself am getting the job done right, first and foremost. I don’t need to worry about the guy in the White House. Whomever it ends up being, he’s gonna have enough problems of his own to deal with.



Friday, October 17, 2008

A Different Point-of-Hue: L.A. Stories 2008
(Part VI)

Et Cetera ’08 (continued): Landmarks Lost (and Found)
Continuing the sunshine…nah…jest fudgin.’ From the last installment I know you’re probably thinking this trip to California was just this side of a root canal for yours truly. Nothing could be further from the truth.

By now you realize that the gist of the series’ subtitle is about seeing things differently and as such this most recent trip truly brought about an adjustment in my perception of the only place my entire adult life that I’ve ever really thought of as ‘home.’ It was honestly the first time in all my years of visiting SoCal since moving to Nashville in 1992 that the idea of maybe…possibly someday returning to L.A. seemed, if not impossible, at least more than a little bit distasteful.

So why is that such a big deal, you ask? After all, I’m the one who left. Why should I care if I don’t live there anymore?

But ya see, that’s the problem — in a way, I never did leave SoCal. And I really never gave up on the idea of going back.

Of course I’ve never made any kind of plans to that end, given that such a circumstance would require my doing so without my wife, as Michelle would never go along with such an idea. Her insistence that we get the hell outta Dodge was the primary reason I considered relocating to Tennessee in the first place.

No, this is more like a fantasy I’ve always had, silly as it is. I mean, after all, Nashville has been extremely good to us — on a scale of magnitude better than SoCal was. But a lot of factors could be attributed to both sides of that argument, which really never has been an argument or even a discussed issue in our marriage.

This is just me, myself, and my gut talkin’ here.

There’s a part of me that mourns, longs for that feeling; a feeling of which only a counterfeit facsimile or two each spring and/or fall here in Tennessee manages to find its way into my thirsty soul; a feeling that can only be rendered by a 70 degree day wrapped in a blindingly clear, blue sky and cool Pacific Ocean breeze. Every once in awhile, the millibars of atmospheric pressure will align in such a way that those conditions, so plentiful and common in SoCal, but so rare and foreign to the rest of the country, will make a fleeting appearance here in this huge bowl of pollen, violent winds, and humidity they call the Tennessee Valley, and my soul will dance in celebration at the occsasion of ‘California weather’ in Tennessee, as Michelle and I dubbed it years ago.

It may last a week, or just a day, but it never lasts. Inevitably, the often blustery days of spring, which generate a bipolar mix of warm, rainy, and even bitterly cold days, are never stable. Likewise in the fall, temperatures vary wildly, often staying unseasonably warm well into October. But generally speaking, if we see any semblance of SoCal-type climate here, it’s generally woven into the days between Labor Day and Halloween, before the rainy season kicks into high gear and soon thereafter gives way to the cold, icy and occasionally snowy days of winter.

But what about summer, you ask? Well, as Joey Bag-a-donuts would say — fuggedaboudit. Summer is the practical joke nobody ever told me about before we moved here. If they had, I might not have been so willing to pull up stakes.

Well maybe it’s not that bad, but it certainly isn’t all that good either. I guess it’s all about what you’re used to, and had I grown up in the freaking Amazon I suppose the searing heat and 90-plus-percent humidity every day in July and August would probably feel like…normal. Well I’ve been here now for sixteen years and it still doesn’t feel normal.

So sue me for being intolerant of weather that sucks, but I jest cain’t hep it; I’m a Southern California boy living on the surface of planet Mercury — or at least that’s how it feels by comparison; and I’m sorry, but it really does suck.

The bottom line is this: I love Nashville — I really do, but it will never replace SoCal in that unattainable little bit of gray matter in my head where its specialness in my life is defined and will live forever. As iffy as I may be on the summertime weather here, that’s still no slam on Music City. It’s just that the further removed I get from my time growing up in L.A., the more I realize just what an indelible mark that the SoCal climate made on my psyche.

To borrow a phrase, Nashville’s fine, but it ain’t home; L.A’s home, but it ain’t mine no more…*

*...with all due apologies to Neil Diamond

The indicators are innumerous in affirming that I am now in a better place — in every sense of the word. It’s unfortunate that I actually had to leave Southern California to really start living, but I guess that’s the give-and-take of life in paradise. If it were possible to combine SoCal’s weather with Nashville’s lifestyle options and more favorable cost-of-living, well, you’d probably have far worse chaos than exists in L.A. now, ‘cuz not only would everyone want to live there, everyone could.

Nevertheless I do try to be realistic. I can still visit the old homestead, and do so fairly cheaply (I spent less than $600.00 including airfare and rental car during my recent nine-day trip); so as long as my Dad and other friends are still around for me to come see, I always will — for as long as I’m able.

But upon returning to Music City, I always know there’s something that I’ve left behind; a tune that all thirteen hundred and fifty-two guitar pickers in Nashville** couldn’t play quite the same way I’ve heard it all my life. And as welcome as they are to me, those occasional ‘California weather’ days — those brief meteorological reminders of a state of being in which I can no longer reside — they’re only fool’s gold. I have long accepted the fact that they just don’t make that kinda weather consistently anywhere else but Southern California.

**Begging John Sebastian's forgivness, as well.

Well the Times (as Well as the Places), They Are’a Changin’
With two lengthy preambles of melancholy machination now established, perhaps it’s time I got to some of those ‘anecdotal’ entries I intentioned back at the beginning of the previous post.

Given all the changes I witnessed and have noted — whether or not they were actually all that recent — my eyes were opened even more throughout the week as I made various and sundried pilgrimages in and around my former hometown of Long Beach, especially in the area of my old high school.

Woodrow Wilson High lay at the physical epicenter of three distinct residential areas bordering it. Affluent, blue-collar, and inner-city neighborhoods surrounded the school and, in a manner of speaking, were held together by the linchpin that was my alma mater’s rich and diverse socio-economic makeup. But as is usually the case, urban blight generally spreads in an osmosis-like fashion into areas that were once more affluent, becoming increasingly less so. And as such, the areas adjacent to my old school have fallen upon increasingly seedy times: a continuing sign of the difficult financial climate weighing upon the families and businesses in the area.

One such local business located just a few blocks from Wilson really surprised me with the completeness of its demise: good ol’ Mickey D’s.

In thinking back now, I suppose I already knew that the old McDonald's was no longer, having been sold and augmented into a rather nondescript Mom ’N Pop type of drive-in restaurant sometime back in the 80s, well before I moved my family to Tennessee. And while sad, it was okay to me, as the place was still a restaurant and better still, a new McDonald’s was built to fill the void just a little ways up the street.

Wilson’s students would suffer however, as the new McDonald's, while still nearby, yet was now far enough away to no longer be a practical lunch destination on foot.

The original Mickey D’s was just off the corner of Anaheim Street and Ximeno Avenue; two and a half blocks from school and very near to the respective locations of my initial two money-earning endeavors: ‘Big Jeff’s Car Wash’ (1972-73), and just two blocks west of that: a grocery store that has changed brands at least five times since the 80s, which was my primary employer from the beginning of my senior year of high school through my early thirties (1973-1986).

Needless to say, with all three venues: my high school and my first two places of employment within a two-mile radius of each other, I was heavily invested in the area to say the least; and it has saddened me deeply to realize how far the neighborhood has fallen.

Anaheim Street, the east/west thoroughfare on which the street addresses of the old McDonald's, Big Jeff's, and the Grocery Store are ascribed, has in my opinion become the biggest loser over the course of time — and I don’t mean that in a good way.*** Its businesses were old-looking way back in the 70s, and certainly don’t look any younger today.

***Oh, and to Jillian Michaels & Bob Harper…um, yeah…sorry…

On the other hand, Wilson actually looks great today — and that’s actually news. I'm of the opinion that either through municipal government authority or even the private funds of concerned alumni, somebody stepped up to do something to reverse the increasingly downward trend that my old school seemed to be locked into just a few years ago. I can clearly recall back in 1994, while in town for my twentieth high school reunion, noticing that the old campus was taking on more the look of a max security prison than a high school. The previously wide open campus had been fitted with foreboding iron gates all about the school’s perimeter, with matching bars across each and every exterior window. Graffiti marred the outside of the once-impeccably kept institution. It was a truly depressing site. However now, four years later, it appears that a great deal of effort has gone into the restoration of both my old school as well as its immediate surroundings.

Gone is the graffiti, as well as the hardware on the windows. The school's curb appeal is just as I remembered it, if not better. And perhaps as significantly — if not more so — all of the real estate on the west side of Ximeno Avenue (Wilson resides on the eastern side of the street) has been completely turned over and is now being used by the school.

Gone is the unsightly parking lot opposite the school's main entrance on Ximeno and 10th, replaced by soccer and athletic fields from 10th Street all the way down to the school’s terminus at 7th Street adjacent to the football field. Years ago, that real estate was occupied by a klatch of modest-to-run-down businesses and an apartment building, directly across the street from the school’s the gymnasium and football field complex.

There was a ‘Pup ‘N Taco’ fast food joint on the corner, directly across from the football field. It’s gone as well, now replaced by the green grass of a soccer field. Besides, with all the cases down through the years of people needing a quick fix of Pepto Bismol soon after eating those P&T chilidogs, I’m surprised the place wasn’t plowed under years ago.

The Scene of the Crime
I have LOTS of memories of that apartment building,s — too many to share right now, but this is something I know now that I must write about soon. One of my best friends my junior and senior years at Wilson lived in that apartment building, so I knew it quite well. Unfortunately that familiarity led to a pretty scary event back in October of 1975. One fateful Friday night the narrow alleyway between the apartments and the building next door became a location in which I was the wrong place at definitely the wrong time. I was mugged by a half-dozen kids I encountered heading up the alley just as I was heading down from the opposite direction, toward the street. There were a number of factors contributing to why I came away from the situation with nothing worse than the seat of my left pants leg being torn down to the back of my knee, but as I said, it’s another story for another time.

Obviously it was one of the more tense moments in my young life to that point. Fortunately, I can almost laugh about it now, but the bottom line is that the alley no longer exists, and the neighborhood is better for it.

It's no surprise that the city finally did something about the bad circumstance that group of buildings was creating. The neighborhood was getting rougher by the year and those apartments along with the few other old, unsightly buildings didn't do much for the property value, let alone the safety of the kids who attended Wilson in those years as the neighborhood was taking a rapid dive.

But having that solid-block buffer of school-controlled real estate in between the campus-proper and the decaying neighborhood to its immediate west seemed to change everything; it’s still not what I would call a 'great' area, but it’s a helluva lot nicer around the school now than it was just a few short years ago.

Meanwhile on Anaheim Street, the old McDonald's location isn't faring quite as well. It’s no longer a restaurant at all, but has been completely razed and replaced by a strip mall — and not a very nice one at that.

Unfortunately this trip I never had a chance to look in on the site of my first job, ‘Big Jeff’s Car Wash,’ about nine blocks further on up the street. I know that as of 2004 it was still operating, and I’d aasume that it’s still going strong today.

I did have the occasion however to briefly pass by the former ‘Market Basket’ supermarket, a place where I was employed just shy of thirteen years. It’s a ‘Ralph’s’ market now, and the place looked as busy as ever.

The newer McDonald’s (heir apparent to its aforementioned predecessor down the street) still stands in the corner of the Ralph’s parking lot, an area in which we employees were once instructed to park our cars back in the day, to allow first dibs at the prime spots in front of the store for the customers.

If I'd had the time I could have gone further down Anaheim to check out ‘Joe Jost’s’ — everyone’s favorite neighborhood tavern both then and now, as I hear its still going strong.

It Was Stupid, But it Made Me Happy
There were several other venues of interest in the area I took note of during my wanderings that week.

About a mile and a half northeast of the market still stands Community Hospital, where I spent the night in the Children’s ICU with my daughter Amy, following her accidental electrocution on the night of August 18, 1987. A couple blocks east of that, just past the traffic circle, is the place where the ‘Circle Drive-in’ movie theater’ once stood, where my roomie Mo and I one night in 1975 snuck into see Young Frankenstein.

The drive-in has been replaced with a huge condo complex and an impressive-looking glass office building on the corner of Pacific Coast Highway and Ximeno Ave.

About another mile and a half due east, in perhaps the saddest change carried by the winds of circumstance that I witnessed on this trip, the Laundromat on Clark Avenue that inspired perhaps my favorite blog story ever, is now some kind of asian meat market. Can ya believe it?

There were more changes in the local landscape of my middle-youth-to early-adulthood, but I’ll stop there. It’s safe to say that the times have changed a lot in my old stompin’ grounds, and that change was a sober reminder of how fast time — and life — is passing by for me.

Next: More Etcetera: “Dad & Helen”

Sunday, October 12, 2008

A Different Point-of-Hue: L.A. Stories 2008
(Part V)

Et Cetera ‘08
As seems to be my unwitting motis operandi, I’ve once again allowed this series to become cast adrift somewhat. I’ve hit a rut, more or less, but one that I need to clear in order to finish up and move on to other topics — both current and retro.

From the beginning I didn’t want to let this thing get away from me like last time (and for those of you keeping score, no, I still haven’t posted those final concluding parts as I indicated were imminent back when I started writing this one…and that’s my next job, really).

There are a lot of other things I could get into, expound upon, spin, and generally emote about for days regarding my recent vacay in CA. However in determining what I wanted to key upon to anchor my central issue, one recurring theme — mundane as it may be — keeps returning to the fore of my mind.

So I’ve decided instead to just conclude in short bites and anecdotes rather than long, fully-plotted chapters on my remaining subjects; the first of which is just a leettle bit more rantage about traffic.

Sorry…I can’t hep myself.

Rush Hour Redux
Like smog, earthquakes, and real estate prices, as previously described, the other famously predominant evil characteristic associated with Southern California is its automobile traffic. I want to touch upon one final thought about the hellaciously frustrating (and surprisingly so) traffic I encountered. As maddening as it was, there were a few satisfying moments in the experience that I wish to note.

My first run-in with the ‘meet the new monster/same as the old monster’ traffic was on Friday, my first full day in L.A.

In order for the two of us to get together prior to his wedding on Saturday, eight days hence, Michael and I arranged to have lunch near the office where he works his day-job in Beverly Hills. We’d planned to meet at 1:00 p.m., and I knew from previous experience what that meant: dealing with the infamous ‘La Tijera Crawl,’ an approximate a ten-mile tract of the most brutal 405 Freeway real estate ever, beginning just north of LAX, at La Tijera Blvd., winding northwest through Culver City, West L.A., Century City, and Westwood.

Throughout the final few years of our living in the area, I pretty much avoided the 405, a.k.a the San Diego Freeway, like the plague — especially The Crawl. I’d had many experiences traveling to L.A. ad agencies and entertainment venues that required use of that route, and most of them were unpleasant. For about as long as I can remember, traffic had moved through that stretch about as fast as crap through Fat Bastards’s colon. If you look up the term ‘gridlock’ in the dictionary, there’s a map of the La Tijera Crawl right there to illustrate the concept.

However as bad as those memories were, they still didn’t prepare me for the current reality of L.A. traffic. I knew it was bad then, but felt surely that it couldn’t still be as bad as I remembered, could it?

Nope; it was worse.

I don’t know if I was just lucky or if in fact they were still working on the same construction that was going on when I left SoCal in 1991, but that motorized Battan Death March still seemed to be some kind of road construction science project. To me it didn’t appear to have changed a lick since the 80s. Slo-go City, that stretch.

I’m really not sure just what they were working on, but it seemed weird to me that 25 years after the 1984 Olympics, they still appeared to be attempting traffic angioplasty on that most clogged of L.A.’s traffic arteries.

Coincidence or no, all I can tell ya is, the familiar sight of those orange CalTrans’ trucks off to the side placed a feeling in the pit of my stomach that I really did not want to have.

And god hep’ya if you have an accident. Like several other stretches of L.A. freeway in recent years, they’ve expanded The Crawl to the hilt, horizontally; adding what were originally the road’s shoulder areas as new traffic lanes to attempt to loosen the tide that binds. There is literally no place to pull over for miles. And while that may actually come in handy for its potential to keep the CHiPs at bay, I’m sure that the idea of receiving a speeding ticket is about the least likely scenario on anyone’s mind as they move through the area at a snail’s pace.

I mentioned the stretch is about ten miles long; now even under only moderate speed conditions, one would assume that it could be made in less than ten minutes. Couple that pie-in-the-sky prognostication with the fact that I’d left Cindy’s place fifteen minutes later than what I’d planned to allow myself to make the trip, and you can imagine the squirm level of my posterior as I kept waiting for something — anything — to break the stranglehold and allow traffic to resume normal highway speeds.

I had originally allotted an hour’s travel time — which seemed to me to be overkill for middle-of-the-day traffic, but subsequently piddled around, leaving Cypress around 12:15 with about a 45-minute travel window left to me.

I knew I’d be cutting it close but wasn’t worried, considering how well I was doing at first, with that godsend-of-a-freeway, the 105, making short work of the initial half of my journey.

The 105, or Century Freeway, was still under construction when we left L.A. at the end of 1991. I never got a chance to take advantage of it then, but have definitely enjoyed it in subsequent visits — particularly over my past 3-4 trips to the southland. It is one of the newest, and most useful veins of the SoCal superhighway circulatory system; cutting a direct east-west path between the 605 and 405 Freeways, and making a once-painful commute to LAX a comparative breeze when traveling from Long Beach/North Orange County. The freeway terminates just south of Century Boulevard, the main access road into the airport complex. Even at its busiest, the 105 knocks 15-20 minutes off the time it used to take to get to the airport from my old neck ‘o the woods.

I was making great time, but then just a little past Century, that sea of red taillights a few hundred yards ahead immediately began launching into their Christmas tree impersonation.

I knew right then that I might not make that 1:00 lunch appointment.

Now normally I’m not all that bugged about being late. I don’t like to be, but tardiness has defined me for so long that most people who know me would most likely faint if I actually showed up someplace on time.

However this situation was different. The company that Mike works for is pretty strict about the schedule on which their employees go to lunch, so as not to disrupt the flow of business activities later in the day. He pretty much HAD to take his lunch during a specific window of time; otherwise he might have to just forfeit the privilege.

So every tick extra beyond 1:00 that the 405 snatched away from me, ostensibly, was equal to the amount of time that I would not be able to hang out with my friend.

A couple of phone calls later to update my ETA status, I was finally seeing light at the end of the tunnel. An hour and a half after leaving Cindy’s, supplied with Michael’s over-the-phone directions I found myself driving through ‘downtown’ Beverly Hills, which is an experience in and of itself, and one I hadn’t enjoyed since the 80s.

Mike guided me to a free parking garage that I would never have located on my own, and by the time I had parked on the third level, the Groom-to-Be was waiting for me on the street at the base of the structure’s stairwell.

We headed down the street and over a few blocks to a nice, unpretentious little salad cafe. As if by reservation, there was one unoccupied table on the sidewalk outside, so we grabbed it, sat down and began catching up and taking in the local color.

Good people watching there in the 90210.

Nice to be Remembered
Naturally, the conversation was largely focused upon Mike’s imminent nuptials. However, with this being late August in an Olympic year, the topic of gymnastics came up, as it almost inevitably does in conversation with those who know of my athletic background. During the Summer Olympics, a lot of my friends — certainly my older ones — always seem to want my opinion of the United States’ gymnasts and their performances.

Back in 2004, I was in SoCal for a visit and to attend my 30th high school class reunion. At that particular time the 2004 Olympics were just concluding but the controversial judges’ opinion that handed American gymnast Paul Hamm the All-Around gold medal over his Korean counterpart, was still all the buzz. As soon as I arrived at the reunion, one of the first things that several of my old classmates wanted to ask me about was my opinion on that controversy.

It’s kinda funny. I guess gymnastics is a rare enough thing that most people may only meet one or two other people in the course of everyday life who’ve ever actively participated in the sport on a national level. Consequently I suppose I’m the only gymnast of that ilk that many of my friends have ever known, so I guess it’s a natural response.

It’s actually pretty flattering; I’ve had several folks tell me that every Summer Olympics they think about me whenever they’re watching the men’s competition on TeeVee. And given the continual popularity from a ratings standpoint of Olympic Gymnastics, I suppose that’s a fairly nice thing to be remembered for.

But just as I instinctively thought about Michael when the WGA writer’s strike was going on, he wanted to know my opinion on the gymnastics circumstance. He began asking me about my own career, this having never really been a subject we’d broached in previous conversation.

He led with the same question that just about everyone who knows that I competed asks, “So, have you been watching the gymnastics? What did you think about so-and-so’s performance?”

I talked about how proud I was with the toughness and resolve demonstrated both by the U.S. men and women performers, and just how flabbergasted I was by the level of difficulty that Olympic competition has risen to.

I mean, these guys are good.

Again, while its flattering to even be placed in the same conversation as today’s elite athletes, I’m quick to remind people that I may have been pretty good for my time, but my talent level was not on a par with that of the men and women who currently make gymnastics what it is today.

The bar has been raised so high that even hitting my best routine from yesteryear I wouldn’t catch even a whiff of victory competing against them now. The skills that today’s gymnasts are finding some way to make their bodies perform are the epitome of the word, ‘awesome.’

There is literally no comparison to what even the top-level gymnasts of my era were doing in relation to what is now commonplace in today’s sport; all the more impressive that our U.S. men and women did so well in Beijing, as their potential and promise continues to rise for the future.

Goin’ to School on the Freeway
It was great to spend a little while with Michael, in what would be our final meeting with him as a single man (note that I didn’t say, ‘free’). When we parted, I told him how much I was looking forward to the wedding just over a week away.

However now I would be forced to head back into the teeth of the monster, but at least there wasn’t anyplace I really had to be. So just for grins I decided to alter my route on the way back to Cindy’s.

Along with landmark surface streets like Santa Monica Boulevard, Wilshire Boulevard, and Sunset Boulevard, onto which traffic ebbs on and off of the 405 Freeway, there’s another freeway whose interchange connection with the 405 is no doubt responsible for exacerbating The Crawl’s slow-as-molasses nature: the Santa Monica Freeway, Interstate 10.

As the primary east/west artery that proceeds through the heart of Los Angeles, the 10 is right up there with the 405 in the class of places you don’t wanna be during rush hour.

It interchanges with the north/south-running 405 in the heart of the worst portion of The Crawl, but near to where I needed to exit to get to Beverly Hills, so I knew that on my return trip, jumping on the Santa Monica Freeway meant avoiding about seven or eight miles of southbound 405 Crawlspace. And since I needed to head east anyway to get back to Cypress, I figured I’d just ride it out on a different parking lot, to see if it would be any less maddening.

Well, it wasn’t. By this time it was now well past 3:00 P.M. and the worst of the ‘new’ rush hour(s) was underway. Traffic heading eastbound was slow-and-go at its briskest. I was prepared for it at that point so I just sort of went with the flow (pun most definitely intended).

However about two miles in, I noticed something that really surprised me. Back on the 405, traffic was consistent — consistently backed up — in either direction, northbound and south. However on the 10, while heading east toward downtown L.A. was slow as Christmas, the westbound traffic going the other way, back toward the ocean, was practically non-existent!

Making a highly-useful note-to-self, I determined that I would take the Santa Monica Freeway to travel to Mike & Randi’s wedding (which was in Topanga Canyon, just north of Santa Monica, west of the 405) instead of dealing with The Crawl again and possibly arriving late.

Traffic patterns are funny sometimes, and this one was just an unexpected but pleasant surprise. Just shy of a week later, I took the aforementioned route to Michael’s wedding, although I wasn’t taking any chances; I left at 4:00 P.M. for the 6 o’clock ceremony.

Made the trip in less than 60 minutes — at the height of rush hour.

Sometimes you eat the monster; sometimes the monster eats you.

Next: Et Cetera ’08: Landmarks Lost

Sunday, September 28, 2008


Stirrin’ Up the Ghosts
It happens without fail; a venerable stadium or sports arena comes to the end of its lifespan and no matter how flawed or frayed it’s reputation or viability over the course of its advancing age, a flood of emotion and sentimentality always swells within the public and the press.

Now I’m not usually given to parroting news articles I read for use as blog subjects. However this morning while in the midst of our Sunday A.M. ritual of coffee, quiet conversation and the Sunday Tennessean newspaper, I became aware of something that I’m really not sure I knew before I read it. The more I read, the more emotional I became. Twinges of sharp sentiment filled my chest as the story brought to the surface memories that had lay dormant for years.

If you have any more than a modicum of awareness about the current doings of Major League Baseball, then you know that world-famous Yankee Stadium closed its doors last Sunday night. The New Yankee Stadium will open for business next spring in is new location right across the street from its esteemed predecessor.

However New York’s ‘other’ baseball team, the Mets, despite its own storied past, is also getting a new stadium next year. But I’ll be damned if I was aware of it.

The author of the Associate press article I read pretty much assumed that; his opening line: “By the way, Shea Stadium is closing, too.”

The article went on to celebrate the stadium, located in Flushing Meadow, NY, a place not only rich in sports history as the home of the Amazin’ Mets of 1969, but also that of the old American Football League’s New York Jets, who upset the NFL’s Baltimore Colts in Superbowl III that same year behind Quarterback ‘Broadway’ Joe Namath’s ‘guarantee’ of victory.

Several other non-sporting events dot the landscape of Shea’s forty-four year history. Of the most notable were The Beatles groundbreaking first U.S. major outdoor stadium concert on August 15, 1965, and the October 3, 1979 Pope John Paul II visit in which the Pontiff supposedly stopped a steady rain by the raising of his hand.

That wasn't the only miracle seen at Shea; in the summer of 1969, they seemed to occur there on a nightly basis. A team that had up to that point been the joke of Major League Baseball would finally come of age; and in the process, ignite the love of sports in a young boy observing, nearly a thousand miles away in rural Indiana.

(My) Amazin’ Mets
Given that I’m such an unabashed California/Anaheim/Los Angeles Angels baseball fan, and have been exclusively for thirty years, it’s not something I’ve spent a lot of time talking about, my onetime affection for the New York Mets. But for a period of about ten years, beginning in 1969, I ate, slept, drank, and breathed the New York Mets. They were my introduction into the phenomenon of sports fandom.

In ’69, when I would turn thirteen years of age, I really wasn’t all that much of a sports fan; of course that fact wasn’t because I hadn’t been surrounded by it. In my sports-mad family, my Dad was a big-time Chicago Cubs fan; my elder brothers pulled for the Cincinnati Reds. But if anything, my baseball allegiances fell in the direction of the New York Yankees, due to them being the favorite team of my best friend at the time, my Cousin E. He was by far the most influential person in my life during my early adolescence. Between my 3rd and 7th grade years we were inseparable; I looked up to him like a big brother. So naturally, as E rooted for the Yanks, I rooted for the Yanks. But at the end of the day, I was just imitating someone whom I respected; I really don’t remember having any sense of connection with the Yankees or any other team. I was just tagging along with the bandwagon.

And then along came Jimmy Qualls.

Urrrghhh…Freakin’ Jimmy Qualls.

A career minor leaguer in the Chicago Cubs system, Jimmy Qualls spent a grand total of two-and-a-half seasons in the big leagues, amassing 141 at-bats strung out over 63 games. To say he was a marginal player is an insult to margins. Nevertheless, his 15 minutes of fame are fixed in the annuls of Baseball history.

The day after one fateful game, on July 9, 1969, a newspaper article changed my life. The game it reported launched an obsession and perhaps a miracle as well.

Tom Terrific
In 1969, Tom Seaver was a young 25 year-old pitching prospect in his 3rd season with the Mets. He had already had two back-to-back 16-game winning seasons for a horrendously mediocre Mets franchise that was now finally beginning to open some eyes with their better-than-expected start to the season. They were chasing the division-leading Cubs, who appeared to be the class of the National League, and hosting them at Shea Stadium for what would turn out to be a pivotal series.

Seaver was magnificent that night, mowing the Cubs down inning after inning. After eight rounds at the plate, the Cubs still hadn’t managed a baserunner. Tom Terrific, as the New York press had dubbed him, carried a perfect game into the ninth. Three outs to go, to achieve the rarest of pitching feats.

After getting the first out on Randy Hundley’s failed bunt attempt, up came Qualls. No one in the humongous crowd of 59,083 thought that the little-known rookie was any match for Seaver, but on this night, he was.

Qualls laced a soft line drive into left center field for what would be the Cubs only hit — or baserunner of the game. The Mets won 4-0, but Seaver lost his perfect game bid. Nevertheless, that performance by the Mets’ young ace is unarguably regarded as the catalyst game of the Mets’ pennant run. After having trailed the Cubs for the division lead by 8 games on July 4th, this victory fueled them into overtaking Chicago and going on to win their first Word Series title.

But the next day, when the Associated Press reported the story of Seaver’s near-immortal game, it was painted as if Obi-Wan Kenobi was explaining a ‘great disturbance in the Force.’ How dare this little pipsqueak deny Tom Terrific of his date with immortality! Jimmy Qualls name became mud in the New York media and in my mind as well.

I read the article, reprinted in the local newspaper, not because I cared about the Mets at that point, but rather because of the front page-of-the-sports section photo of Tom Seaver, displaying his now-famous knee-drag delivery, making a pitch during his one-hit performance. The photo’s caption read, “A very determined young man.” That description intrigued me, so I read on, becoming entangled in the drama of the story, so beautifully crafted — albeit one-sidedly so — by the New York-based writer.

How could you not root for a talented, determined young man like Seaver, leading his team, once the laughing stock of baseball, to a date with destiny?

This is my first and most lasting memory of Shea Stadium, although I didn’t know anything about the place at the time. I would however know plenty before the season was over, as I immediately became a Mets-Maven, and most accurately, a Seaver-Sycophant.

Everything went right for the Mets from that point forward. The Impossible Dream would be realized. New York would go on to win the division, the National League pennant, and finally, capture the World Series title from the heavily-favored Baltimore Orioles. I was on Cloud Nine. The Mets were MY team, and WE had won it all.

Kinda screwed over my expectations for future seasons though…

Life in a New Citi
Shea Stadium has seen its last game. Unfortunately, the Mets of 2008 couldn’t pull off the magic act of their predecessors of 39 years ago. It came down to the last game of the season, Sunday. Had the Mets won they would have forced a one-game playoff to determine the NL Wild Card team in the playoffs. However they fell short in their last stab at bringing an October game to their venerable home field.

But they’ll just have to wait until next year, beginning a new chapter in a brand new state-of-the-art ballpark, which like the New Yankee Stadium is slated to be ready on Opening day of 2009.

Unfortunately, the construction of the new Citi Field just beyond the outfield walls were all the Mets faithful had to look forward to after Sunday’s final game at Shea Stadium.

Photo courtesy Nick Laham/Getty Images

The new ballpark, will (initially at least) carry the corporate brand of financial giant Citicorp. Citi Field is currently under construction in the parking lot of Shea Stadium, which will be razed over the winter.

It’ll be bigger, more comfortable for fans as well as players, and should provide an exciting new element for the Mets faithful.

I always dreamed of one day attending a game at Shea, now sadly, that’s never gonna happen. But I may be able to eventually take in a game at Citi Field, hopefully before they tear it down.

I’ve decided that if that opportunity ever presents itself, I want to try and figure out where, in what will be the parking lot of the new stadium, the old one once stood. It’d be kinda cool to at least imagine that I was standing in the spot where the old pitching mound was; where Tom Seaver and his mates plied their magic so long ago, when the Mets truly were ‘amazin.’

Here’s hoping on behalf of Mets fans that some of those ghosts still roam the meadow.


Friday, September 26, 2008

A Different Point-of-Hue: L.A. Stories 2008
(Part IV)

Road Rage.
I know what you’re thinking. You’re wondering when I’m gonna go off. Given the gloomy title and even gloomier Prologue, perhaps you’ve been anticipating that I’d eventually get to the bad part; that I would launch into some kind of Hell-A tirade. Perhaps you were waiting for me to start spouting off about how ‘in my day’ things were different; how life was so much better in the paradise that once was my beloved SoCal.

And in the beginning, when I first returned home and began pondering what to talk about in this series, you would have been correct.

Meh…chalk it up to jet lag.

Fact is, I was tired — physically and mentally — upon returning from a nine-day vacation to the old homestead. There was never a point at which I regretted going; but I now have considerable regret over perhaps spreading myself a bit too thin while I was there. However, that in no way was anyone’s fault but mine alone — and to be honest I really don’t see how it could have been avoided in the first place. Any other course of action would have meant missing out on seeing someone, and I’d have had none of that.

I love my friends; it’s one of only two legitimate reasons for returning to California as often as I do — save for the far greater purpose of spending time with my Dad and Step Mom. But even after the sad day arrives when my folks are gone, I will still make that trip as often as possible to visit my friends, and to reconnect with the abundant memories of an absolutely awesome childhood spent there.

But then again, not every moment on this trip was exactly what you’d call, awesome.

Traffic — the bane of most working folks in the greater Los Angeles area — was an absolute nightmare. One would certainly have a reasonable expectation of dealing with that when visiting Los Angeles. However this time it really caught me by surprise. I thought at first that it might have simply been the fact that three years had passed since my last visit; that I had been away long enough to somehow forget what L.A. traffic was really like.

Nah. I remembered.

I remember what it was like driving the freeways of Southern California for eighteen out of the twenty-two years that I lived there. I especially remember what it was like back in the mid-80s through the early 90s, when I was driving from Long Beach to the San Fernando Valley nearly every day of the week.

It was bad then; horrendous even, but at least it was somewhat predictable. Rush hour was well-defined; and barring some kind of catastrophic event, like an accident (the occurrences of which are surprisingly rare — a tribute to the skill of SoCal drivers), if you factored in the time of day, you pretty much knew how long it would take to get from point A to point B. And perhaps that’s still the case; but if so, the formula has changed.

And yes, this presented a problem for me on this trip.

As a SoCal resident, one of the things I always prided myself on was knowing the heartbeat of L.A.s freeway traffic patterns — inasmuch as my own sphere of personal travel was concerned, of course.

Not many people drive all of the freeways, all of the time. However that Long Beach/North Orange County-to-Downtown L.A.-or-The-Valley route was one that I knew well. To a lesser degree, but still with a certain amount of familiarity, were the traffic rhythms of Long Beach to the Hemet/Palm Springs area, where my folks retired to in the late 1980s. This was also a path I had worn well over the years.

Bottom line is, I had no reason to expect any dramatic changes in the traffic patterns this time around — but I got ‘em anyway. In the more recent trips I’d taken, in 2000, 2004 (twice), and again in 2005, it seemed to me that things had for the most part stayed the same in the 13 years since our relocation to Nashville.

I especially remember thinking, during that 2005 trip, how little the experience had changed, and what a perverse pleasure driving in congested L.A. Freeway traffic brought back to me. I’m sure I didn’t expect it to stay the same forever, but even the logical anticipation of it getting worse didn’t prepare me for what I experienced on this visit.

It may not have been ‘Road Rage,’ but it was close.

In a State of Flex
I noticed the heavier traffic right off the bat, soon after I arrived on Thursday afternoon. One of the things I had purposely done was to try and take a middle-of-the-day flight; one that wouldn’t force me to leave Nashville airport first thing in the morning for the outbound leg, but also one that didn’t depart so late in the day as to place me right in the teeth of afternoon rush hour traffic upon my arrival at LAX.

Fortunately there has been a longstanding flight on Southwest Airlines’ schedule that I’ve taken before, and was able to do so again this time. Not only is it a non-stop, it leaves Nashville at 12:05 PM and arrives in L.A. at 2:20 PM. I figured that would give me ample time to get my bags, catch the shuttle over to the car rental agency, and pick up my wheels for the week, all before 3:30 PM — the traditional start of rush hour as I had known it in all my years of driving in L.A.. And when I say, ‘the start’ of rush hour, I mean the very start, as in medium traffic, and few if any slow-and-goes. Under those circumstances, it should have taken no longer than 30-45 minutes tops for me to get to my where I’d be staying for most of the week, at my friend Cindy’s place in Cypress.

Heh; and guess what’s changed in L.A. over the past few years?

Enter the wonderful world of Flex Scheduling. It’s nothing new or even that novel a concept. It’s been around for years; but apparently it’s now in wide use in Southern California, according to Cindy.

She says that now, instead of most people working the standard 9 to 5, more and more companies are allowing their employees to stagger their hours to dilute traffic concentration, in an attempt to thereby avoid the traditional tie-ups of the work-a-day rush hour traffic pattern. The upshot of all that being, instead of coming to work at 8 or 9 AM, some people are now coming in at 6, 7, 10, or 11’oclock in the morning, and going home at 3, 4, 7, or 8’oclock in the evening.

The concept is sound…in concept, anyway. Spread out the concentration of peak traffic and you have less congestion, right? Except for one little detail that seems to have thrown a monkey wrench into the works: the obviously increased traffic volume in Southern California.

Well, in my day…”
I haven’t taken the time to exhaustively research it, so forgive me if I make assumptions that aren’t the strongest from a perspective of merit; I’m only going by what I’ve observed, what I’ve been told by longtime residents, and what I have discerned through logic applied to the reality of the situation.

There are just a GOB more people in SoCal now than there used to be!

And because of this, despite the flex scheduling, the effect of traffic is now actually much worse, because rush ‘hour’ is now six hours long!

I assure you, it’s not my imagination. The reality is that you seriously have to plan your travels more wisely now than ever before to avoid getting snarled in a sea of red tail lights. If you’re not well en route to where you need to go (of any considerable distance) by 2:30 in the afternoon, more than likely you will deal with rush hour traffic.

Yep, the place they called ‘Paradise’ is more crowded than ever. The only thing one needs to point to as proof is the cost of real estate — supply vs. demand, baby. The more people looking for a place to live in a given area, the higher the prices will be. And the cost of a place to lay your head has never been so high in SoCal as it has been since the mid-90s.

Square feets have always been worth their weight in gold in L.A.; that’s been the case since the late 70s. I was there, so I can say that authoritatively. I watched the average price of what most people would consider a nice house in a decent neighborhood rise from around $75,000 to $125,000 in a matter of 2-3 years in the early 1970s.

The reason? There were a few chief ones back then. First and foremost was an economy that sent America’s Auto Industry scrambling. A new term for the upper Midwestern industrial region along the Great Lakes was coined in the late 70s: The Rust Belt. Many of the recently-displaced factory workers of that era arrived by the thousands, searching for a piece of the new California Gold Rush: the Aerospace Industry, spawned by the heightened military budget of President Ronald Regan’s first term of office.

There was also the massive influx of Cambodian and Vietnamese refugees; the so-called ‘Boat people,’ who fled to the U.S. following the withdrawal of American troops in Southeast Asia. The vast majority of them wound up in Southern California, adding even more coziness to our little corner of heaven.

That was just the beginning.

Prices continued to climb before seeming to level off somewhat throughout much of the 80s and into the early 90s. But that wasn't any help for us; we couldn’t even afford the 20% required for a down payment on what was a then-average price tag of $200K for a 3-bedroom home in Long Beach. Eventually, due this and other unacceptable conditions in which to raise a family, we left SoCal for the greener pastures of Tennessee in 1992.

And as if real estate wasn't crazy enough at that point, it went completely nutso over the next few years.

The L.A. market had softened for the first time in decades, and apparently that's all it took for whatever it was that had been ailing it to get well like never before. By the mid-to-late 90s, home prices began to jump — dramatically.

The 1200 square-foot, two-bedroom, one-bath cracker box in Long Beach that we’d rented for eleven years, which had been assessed at a value of $205,000 in 1990, was suddenly worth $500K. Until recently, those appraisals have continued to climb; bestowing mansionesque value to dwellings that were by any other standard, modest homes at best. The ‘million-dollar house’ was no longer the exclusive domain of the 90210 zip code. The exception had now become the rule.

But aside from the obvious assumption that every property-owner in SoCal had suddenly discovered oil in their back yards, back in Nashville, the question on my mind was, ‘how?’ and ‘why?’

I mean, at the time I left Southern California, I wasn’t the only one. Large numbers of families were fleeing L.A. for the promise of a more affordable life elsewhere. The blush had fallen off the rose, so to speak; it just wasn’t worth the struggle for a lot of people. Multitudes relocated to places like Seattle, Phoenix, and (of course), Nashville and the Southeast.

But as I said, something happened just a few years later. Something changed and sent folks streaming back into the area. There’s no other explanation for the sharp up-spike in property values.

There simply seem to be more people living in Southern California now than at anytime that I’ve ever known. Housing trends would certainly bear that notion out, as the cost of real estate has so famously shot up to the record levels seen over the past ten years.

So the question is, where did all these extra people come from? I can’t say authoritatively. As I mentioned, I haven’t researched this thing as I normally do when I make my famous wild generalizations. And I’m gonna keep it that way. No sense in spoiling a good yarn with needless facts.

Obviously I’m kidding here, but the reason I’m not all that concerned about taking a stab at the answer by my own self is that the authority I do have on the reason is pretty solid, and it makes perfect sense.

Blame the Mexicans
No…not really. I just wanted to see if you were paying attention. But actually, to a lot of folks, that might seem like a plausible suggestion.

The truth is that over the past 30 years, the influx of illegals crossing into California from south of the border has been practically unabated. It couldn’t HELP but play a role in the growing population of SoCal, and by way of extension, participate in the increased traffic and higher housing prices as well. And that’s not just my opinion, but that of a number of residents I spoke to while I was there in August. These people are not bigots, and really don’t begrudge the idea of their new neighbors being there. They’re just pragmatic about the whole thing. The fact is that ther ARE there, and somehow, local government officials are just going to have to find a way to make it work.

Personally, while I can see the logic, I still don’t understand the necessity for the circumstances that SoCal’s overpopulation has wrought in the years since I left. Yes there are more people now. Yes that will naturally express itself in a higher cost of living, higher traffic volumes, and lower boiling points for the tempers of everyone involved.

But to pin it all on the illegals is ridiculous. And I guess this is where the rant rears its ugly head in this story.

The hardship of living in Southern California is not in dealing with longer rush hours and tighter traffic; it’s financial. It’s being forced to pay in excess of 40% of your monthly take-home on housing. It’s being forced to submit to a ridiculous interest-only, ‘Prime +’ or another stupidly-flimsy creative financing vehicle just to try and buy a house there, only to find that you really can’t afford those $3500-a-month payments after all, and you default on your mortgage.

However and whomever is responsible for the obscenely steep increase in home values that have made life hell for nearly everyone over the past 15 years should be shot. And no, I’m not talking genocide on the Mexicans. I’m talking about the mortgage bankers and real estate speculators who just this week nearly brought down our economy single-handedly.

In the movie Wall Street the saying ‘greed is good’ entered our pop-cultural lexicon. But it wasn’t Gordon Gekko who first coined that phrase; it was the blood-sucking real estate industry in Southern California, who has been perfecting it since the 70s.

It’s what drove me out of the state, and it’s what began the trend that now threatens our entire financial system.

Believe me folks, I’m as much a capitalist as the next guy, but I hate greed; I hate exclusivity; I hate injustice. And to see how much worse the cost of living has gotten in my former homeland this past trip just made me want to puke.

Don’t mind me…I’m just blowin’ off a little steam. I’m not offering any answers — ‘cept maybe the part about shooting the bankers and real estate developers.

But seriously, something’s got to give out there. I think what we’ve seen here nationally this past week, that it’s obvious just how thin that bubble has become, and that we need to do something before it bursts.

So that’s it. Rant over; on to happier subjects…

(Hmmm…seems I’m saying that a lot lately, huh?)

Next: Et Cetera ‘08

Thursday, September 18, 2008

So Long, Spymeter

Tracking Betrayal
It’s a hard thing, dealing with betrayal. It elicits an emotional response unlike any other: simultaneous shock and sadness, quickly evolving into anger.

Some betrayals are obviously worse than others; and while this one may not rank right up there with marital infidelity, on a more general, personal level, the violation isn’t too far off the mark.

Hopefully I’m not making too big a deal out of it all, but I’ve been really bummed, disappointed, and saddened by what I’ve discovered over the past few days about a company and a product that I used to trust.

Y’know it’s amazing how we anthropomorphize things; just look at people and the love affair they have with their Macs. As a consumer society we’ve become so enamored with ‘our’ products we use in the course of our daily lives; those inanimate things that bring us comfort and joy, especially if we have any kind of ‘history’ with them. The longer we’ve used them, often the deeper that relationship grows. The loyalty can be fierce, or warmly passive, as in our dependence on something so common as a chair: we’re confident that it will be there every time we take that leap of faith we call sitting down — the act of falling backwards onto something we can’t really even see at the time.

But what if the chair breaks and we wind up flat on our ass? What’s our reaction? Who’s responsible? Whom do we accuse? Do we blame ourselves for unwisely assuming our former four-legged friend would support our weight, despite the fact that it had performed the feat perfectly numerous times in the past?

Of course not; we blame the chair.


Sometimes it’s like that in the virtual world too.

We depend on things like web sites, computer programs and hardware to work as they’re supposed to, and when they don’t, we become frustrated and angry, even if they’ve for the most part been a dependable, consistent part of our daily lives.

Take the Internet, for example. There’s nothing more frustrating than waking up one Saturday morning to discover that you ‘have no Internet,’ right? And far more so when you find out the reason you have no access is because ol’ Butt-crack Bobby, the construction worker, dug up your underground coax line with a backhoe.

Now that’s bad enough, but imagine how pissed you’d be to learn that he did it on purpose?

Me and My ‘Meter
Those associated with this blog for any length of time know how fond I have always been of ‘my’ Sitemeter. It’s that little bit of web-counter tracking code that many of we bloggers use to ascertain details about those who visit and frequent our sites.

I have a number of times written fondly of my attempts to gently bring out into the open a number of ‘lurkers’ on my blog; those of whose existence I learned only through seeing them in my Sitemeter logs; they’d visit but never comment. However through these public invitations to coax them out of the shadows, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by my ability to get them to finally speak up and contribute. I like that

I just think it’s fun to go through the Sitemeter logs and try to imagine who my visitors might be and speculate as to what brought them here. It satisfies that basic human instinct that I have in great abundance — mean, curiosity!

And as those of you who use it know, Sitemeter is (or was) the greatest thing since sliced bread. It’s simple, easy to navigate, reasonably comprehensive in the types of basic information it provides via the ‘free’ account (which is how I’ve always rolled). There’s also a paid service that provides much more in-depth statistical analysis and broader features, but I’ve always been happy just to have the ability to know where my visitors are from, when they stopped by, and what referrer (search engine, web link, etc.) brought them here.

So WHY did they have to go and mess it all up?

I am now in the process of converting my three blogs from Sitemeter to its chief competitor, Statcounter, in the wake of the inauspicious ‘upgrade’ of the Sitemeter web site this past weekend (Sept 12-14, 2008).

It was a disaster by anyone’s description.

Fortunately for everyone who uses them, they immediately rolled back to the previous version of Sitemeter within hours of the new launch debacle of the new interface Sunday afternoon; one that they had never even bothered to beta test with ACTUAL USERS.

To their credit, the new interface did offer a wealth of information that users never before had at their disposal. However it was so counter-intuitive and clunky, the thing was virtually worthless (no pun intended).

I was extremely frustrated, but refrained from taking my frustrations out on the company directly; however my show of restraint was apparently in the vast minority. It’s now obvious that the company’s customer service forum was absolutely inundated with complaints and the incoming hate e-mail was off the hook.

But that aside, I still assumed that it would all shake out eventually, so I stepped back, watched some football and revisited the situation later that evening. It was only then that I learned the rollback was in process and realized the level of hell that must have broken loose.

So I did a little digging around the Intertubes to gage the reaction. I figured that any response so drastic must have sent at least a few bloggers screaming straight to their keyboards.

And this is what led to my current action; my decision to say sayonara to Sitemeter. It’s not because they experienced a major gaffe in execution of an upgrade attempt — hell, I hope I’m not that unforgiving.

Nope, this was something that was most likely related (more on that later), but not obviously so. But much more importantly, what I found shocked me, saddened me; infuriated me. It opened my eyes.

To Catch a Thief
Sure, I was all about the frustration with the Sitemeter upgrade alright, but not the one; not the one that happened last weekend.

I did a little Googling to try and unearth recent reaction to what had just happened, but didn’t find any right away. Instead, the material I came up with was over a year old; several blog references from the spring of 2007, revealing the non company-publicized news that Sitemeter had teamed up with SpecificClick, one of the better-known (and most despised) spyware/tracking cookie companies.

Now I was hot!

I learned that I had for the past 18 months unwittingly been serving up spyware to all of my blog’s visitors, and had myself been spied upon by this piece-of-crap excuse for web technology. I just sat there, my mouth agape. I couldn’t believe what I was reading.

And then it hit me like a wet mackerel across the chops. In their advance e-mails and site blogs, Sitemeter, in touting the coming new features of ‘Sitemeter II,’ touted new information-gathering capabilities for its customers that would employ visitor demographics reports as well as ‘User Interest Reports,’ that would reveal “what categories of content people are reading when they are not on your site,” promising to “find out what your visitors’ real interests are.”

I had read that several months ago and it didn’t really faze me at the time; I figured that all these new bells and whistles would be lost on my being a ‘free’ user who used only a fraction of the available features Sitemeter offers its ‘paying’ customers; I pretty much dismissed it without really taking the step of logic to realize just how the aforementioned new features would be employed.

Well, Sunday night was my V-8 moment. I immediately checked my cookie list in Firefox and sure enough, there was SpecificClick.

To assure myself that the illicit cookie wasn’t placed there by a site other than Sitemeter, I cleared out all the cookies in my browser and surfed around a few other sites and checked again.

No SpecificClick!

Then I went to my OWN blog, waited a minute and then again checked a third time, and sonofabitch...there it was, back again.

Needless to say I was livid then, as I am to this minute, 72 hours later.

A Breach of Trust
Sitemeter, I’m sad to say, has betrayed the spirit of the Web in my opinion, and that sentiment is spreading rapidly, especially in the aftermath of their aborted upgrade debacle. They’re taking on water faster than the Titanic.
So I’ve decided. Sitemeter is out; StatCounter is in.

I’d heard good things about StatCounter over the years, but was already emotionally invested in my trusty Sitemeter. I know it’s silly to think of it in those terms, but I considered Sitemeter a true partner in my blogging life. If they’d gotten a dollar for each time I’ve visited their site over the past forty-eight months, well...I’d be broke and they’d be a heck of a lot richer than they are today. Maybe then they wouldn’t have felt the need to do this deal with the devil; but I doubt it.

I suppose that’s really the root of all this: the apparent need to profit at the expense of not only their customers’ (and by extension, the blog-browsing public’s) dollars and cents, but also their privacy.

I don’t begrudge any company the legitimate attempt to gain an honest return on their products and services, but not when it involves the unwitting acquisition of the personal information of its users.

These SpecificClick cookies record and categorize the browsing habits of the web browsers they spy upon, allegedly transmitting that information to Sitemeter’s customers for use in augmenting and/or creating topical content to better attract and interest the violated party who visits their blog or other web site; a pretty audacious means to a purportedly innocent end.

For one thing, that’s a fairly diabolical way of gaining the upper hand that absolutely NO ONE would approve of if reported of in advance to the user. It’s no different than illicitly reading someone’s diary for the purpose of currying favor with them by catering to their innermost hopes and dreams.

However beyond the out-and-out distastefulness of that flavor of data mining, there’s also no guarantee that the collected data will stop there. There is no way I can believe that anyone who could stoop to that kind of technological subterfuge would refrain from using it for other purposes, such as the selling of it to a third party or some other unscrupulous end.

Call me paranoid, but as it is I have enough of a battle on my hands in the battle to retain my freedom, my identity, and my integrity of choice.

Losing my Cookies
So, as of this post, Sitemeter has been officially dispatched. I’ve removed it from my Blog code and it is no longer tracking the visits of this blog’s users.

I now use StatCounter exclusively, which also uses cookies, but not ones that follow you around like a slimy private eye.

Unfortunately, regarding the Sitemeter/SpecificClick spyware problem, that’s not where it ends. I’m obviously not the only one ever used that Benedict Arnold-ware utility. More specifically, a number of my friends and Blogsville neighbors have used it for as long as I did, and likely will continue to.

So the hassle remains; unless all my friends join with me in kicking Sitemeter to the curb, I’m going to have to make it standard procedure to constantly cleanse my cookie roster each and every time I visit their sites — which is not an idea I relish. I hardly expect that anyone besides myself would necessarily follow me down this path I’ve taken. Maybe they don’t see this kind of thing so passionately as I do; maybe they don’t care. And be that as it may, whether or not they do it’s neither my business nor my place to lay such a burden on them.

Making the switch to StatCounter has, admittedly, been an adjustment. I’ve been using it for nearly a week and I like it okay, but I’m just sayin.’ It’s actually a more powerful tool than Sitemeter (at least in its own ‘free’ version). Many of the features it offers free-of-charge are only available in the paid version of Sitemeter, and that’s a nice perk indeed.

However the interface is taking a little getting used to. It’s not that it’s so bad, or that Sitemeter’s was so good; it’s just that it’s not what I’ve been used to looking at for the past four years; and every time I do, I’m once again reminded of why it is I’m looking at it in the first place — because I’ve been betrayed — and that still bums me out, even now..

So I guess the bottom line is, it’s going to be a painful transition — perhaps not drastically so, but uncomfortable nonetheless.

Not that There’s Anything Wrong With That…
Again, to any of you who believe that he doth protest too much, believe me, I’m almost in agreement with you. However in this case, it’s really not that I have anything to hide, it’s like my dearly departed Step Mom, Maxine used to say, “It’s the principal of the thing, dammit!”

Those records of your web site visits hither and yon, around the Interwebs my well never wind up in some shadowy Homeland Security database, but then again, who’s to say they won’t? And even if they don’t, it just doesn’t make it right for anyone to keep tabs on you like that. Again, call me paranoid, but I’m funny about my freedom that way.

So if you’re still into SM (not that there’s anything wrong with that…), fine. Stay with them. I’ll gladly take the time to purge the beasties from my browser after I leave your site. But if you really want to send Sitemeter a message — as I do —letting them know that it’s NOT okay for them to pursue this unscrupulous tactic — then I’d invite you to join me and make the switch to StatCounter or any of the other dozens of similar web traffic utilities out there that won’t spy on you or your blog’s visitors.

It’s up to you, and I’ll like you just as well no matter what. Feel free to contact me if you have any questions.

Now back to some hopefully happier subjects…


Tuesday, September 09, 2008

A Different Point-of-Hue: L.A. Stories 2008
(Part III)

I just love it when a plan comes together.
Okay, I have to say going in, I’m probably gonna embarrass a couple folks, but that’s something else I do — call it a gift — I love to tell people how great they are. I just don’t think most folks get enough of that; but that’s not why I do it. I do it because I feel like it. And it’s my blog, so sue me, aiiight?

Anyway, sometime around February 17, 2008, I read the comments in another post on Kay Reindl’s blog, Seriocity. It was yet another offering from a fellow TeeVee industry person, which understandably, is pretty much the norm.

Now I would say that most of the folks who comment on Kay’s blog are either working or aspiring writers themselves; her stuff has a way of attracting those types of folks. Some are more compelling than others. Some have an axe to grind, joining in with Kay on one of her famous industry rants; others may offer support or mild disagreement with her subject du jour. Then again, some just sorta come off as folks who just like to hear themselves talk, but…judge not… I guess, said the pot.

But in this particular comment however, I did not derive any sense of the latter intent. The setting was soon after the WGA strike had ended in February as most everyone was stopping by to offer well-wishes to Kay in addition to expressing the relief they themselves felt in returning to work after being out on the picket line since November.

The fellow commentor in question wasn’t a writer, but he sure seemed to know how to spin a nice paragraph or two. He mentioned that he was a lighting technician, a juicer; a ‘below-the-line’ member of the industry.

Being the industry-jargon virgin that I am, this was a totally new wrinkle on my melon. “How funny,” I thought. “What a cool nickname.” As I read on, he mentioned that during the strike he’d kept quiet, but now that the strike was over he felt it was time to comment.

He went on to talk about the importance of solidarity from this time forward between the so-called ‘Above-the-Line’ segment of the industry, among which the WGA is a part (along with directors and producers), and the ‘Below-the-Line’ segment: the craft and technical services personnel (including lighting and camera operators, film editors, sound technicians and make-up professionals).

This so-called ‘line of demarcation between power and no power’ was apparently somewhat of a sore spot early on in the strike, as the below-the-liners were out of work, and truly powerless as they were forced to sit on the sidelines and wait out another union’s strike.

Perhaps it was the diplomatic way he put it, even quoting Kay’s arch nemesis, Craig Mazin, in the process. Maybe it was that cool nickname. Or maybe it was that shameless plug he slipped in for his own blog there at the end of his schpiel (not unlike what I had done in my initial comment on Kay’s blog a year earlier, BTW). But whatever it was, my interest was piqued. I copied his web address and visited his blog, and as I mentioned earlier, became immediately hooked on Blood, Sweat, and Tedium: Confessions of a Hollywood Juicer.

To be honest, I had already thought about possibly trying to meet Kay at some point in the future, though it really seemed like a longshot, given the obvious obstacle of geography — and the even more obvious potentially creepy Internet blog fan factor. I mean, why in gawd’s name would she want to meet me? I knew that my intentions were honorable, but would that certainty go both ways?

I’ve gotta give my wife Michelle credit; she didn’t even bat an eyelash when I told her I was going to meet Michael and Kay for brunch on the Sunday after I arrived in town. Now had I not mentioned Michael, well maybe we would have discussed the matter a little more. But the good news is, we didn’t have to.

Once I knew for sure I was going to be able to make the trip I contacted Kay and floated the idea. To my utter shock, she said she thought it would be fun. I then contacted Michael and over the course of a few days, synchronized our three respective schedules.

Hey Big Boy…Why don’cha come over and spend some time with me…
In order to make things as convenient as possible for her, I had asked Kay to choose the place to meet. To my delight she chose the landmark Bob’s Big Boy Restaurant on Riverside Drive in Burbank, just a few blocks from NBC and Walt Disney Studios, and about two miles from the record company where I used to work in the early 90s. Finding the place wouldn’t be an issue, even for my senior moment sense of direction.

In thinking about traveling to the meet I had actually relished the idea (yeah, that’s what a nutcase I am) of retracing the commute route that I used to take to get to work from Long Beach to Burbank. I was sure I wouldn’t have any trouble remembering it.

But sure as shootin’ I missed one of the three freeway exchanges required to get to my destination. In the stretch where the I-5, the 101, and I-10, all converge, I took the 101 instead of the 5, which took me toward downtown Los Angeles instead of northwest toward Burbank and the San Fernando Valley.

I immediately realized my error, but my first opportunity to get off and turn back around was about four miles in. That, along with the fact that the same exit wasn’t available going the other way, meaning I would have to overshoot AGAIN and turn around a second time, meant that I was now 15 minutes behind schedule.

We had agreed to meet at Bob’s at 10AM, and I left Cypress (in North Orange County where I was once again staying at my pal, Cindy’s place) at 9:00am, assuming that traffic would be light on a Sunday morning. Fortunately I was right. When I got myself tuned around, just past the Downtown Civic Center area, I glanced at my watch. It was only 9:25 AM. I had gotten all the way from North Orange County to Downtown L.A. in less than 30 minutes! That as much as anything is a pretty good indication of just how drastically L.A.’s suffocating traffic can affect commute times. And it wasn’t like I was the only car on the road either. The difference was, there were no bottlenecks due to the lighter traffic, unlike the circumstance as it would be 24 hours later and more than likely was 24 hours earlier.

At any rate, I knew I would at that point probably be right on-time, which I was.

I know I had driven past that Bob’s dozens of times in years gone by, but I really couldn’t see it in my mind’s eye when trying to remember just where it was. However I knew I wouldn’t miss it when I saw it. Sure enough, it stuck out like a beacon as I came around the bend on Riverside Drive in the light of a sunny SoCal Sunday mid-morning, and at once the entire scene came flooding back into memory.

Kay had said the landmark restaurant had become one of her favorite places over the past year, as with its close proximity to the TeeVee studios it had become a sort of hangout for the writers during the strike.

Bob’s restaurants carry some history with me as well. The stores in Long Beach, including the one near my parent’s house where my sister Janice worked in high school, were the quintessential ‘cheap date’ destination throughout my teen years. That and their great coffee made it one of the prime late-night-java and/or-early-morning-breakfast haunts where my friends and I liked to meet.

Unfortunately the franchise began to die in the 80s and four of the Long Beach area restaurants had disappeared by the time we moved to Tennessee. It had been a very long time since I’d even seen a Bob’s Big Boy, let alone dined at one.

Michael had thrown me a shout on my cell while I was en route, telling me how to recognize him; I returned the favor. We all must have arrived within seconds of one another as there was no one standing in front of the restaurant doors as I was pulled into the parking lot. However, by the time I got out of my car and walked the 15 yards or so to the front entrance, there was a man and a woman standing there facing each other talking. The guy was wearing a ball cap matching the description Michael had given of the one he’d be wearing, so I made the split-second decision that I was either going to make a complete ass of myself, or a grand entrance — one of the two.

Like I said…caution to the wind.

Sixpence None The Richer Reunited - April 2008
“Nice Shirt.”
This image of my coolest shirt EVAR courtesy of someone else out on the InterTubes who thinks he’s as cool as me...
I approached the couple rather quickly and neither really seemed to notice me until my head was practically between theirs and I quipped, “So, I guess this must be where it’s all hap’nin, right?”

They both reared back a little at first, no doubt wondering who this weirdo crashing their conversation was. Then I saw Michael’s eyes light up as he smiled and pointed at the t-shirt I was wearing, which I had described to him on the phone earlier. It features the heads of sixteen retro Marvel Comics Super-Heroes, including The Fantastic Four, Spiderman, The Incredible Hulk, The Silver Surfer, Thor (God of Thunder), and The Inhumans; A very cool shirt indeed if you’re a comics nut like me, not to mention instantly recognizable, which is why I wore it and why Michael was pointing and smiling.

“Nice shirt,” they said, nearly in unison.

So immediately following the formal introductions and handshakes, we proceeded on into the restaurant, where we inquired about a table outside on the patio, of which there were several available. It was just the setting I was hoping for. The receptionist walked us out; we sat down and started talking.

I doubt that that goofy smile left my face for the entire two-and-a-half hours we were there.

Above the Line meets Below The Line meets What’s My? Line
It was perfect. Two new bloggers whom I’d only known via their words floating through cyberspace, who live in L.A., whose blogs I have grown very fond of and who seemed to be extremely interesting people, had actually agreed to meet with me pretty much out of the blue.

Only in Blogland, folks, only in Blogland. No matter how many times I do this, it still blows me away.


The aforementioned two-and-a-half hours seemed like about 25 minutes. The conversation never lagged. We talked quite a bit about The X-Files, a subject that I was particularly keen to get Kay’s opinions on, and which will also be the sole subject of a future post. Yes, I’m an X-Phile, and I unlike Kay, still think the series still has legs as a feature film franchise. But I’ll get into all that at a later date.

Needless to say it was all highly interesting. We talked about the strike briefly, but it seemed to me that it was a subject Kay and Michael just would have assumed be left in the past; and that was fine with me; far better to look forward than backward, I suppose.

Kay and Michael offered details of their daily lives in the business. Kay is of course right now in perhaps her busiest time of the year, working ten hours a day on scripts with her writing partner. They call it, “being in the room.” And when you’re in the room, you don’t run out to pick up the dry cleaning at lunch time. You’re there to write. Lunch comes to you; you don’t go to it.

As I mentioned earlier, Michael is also well-acquainted with 10-14 hour workdays. He related a few anecdotes on the matter, giving insights to some of the stories I had already read on his blog.

So despite the fact that Kay, as a writer, is regarded as ‘above the line’ and Michael, as a lighting technician, is ‘below the line,’ they both work their respective bums off.

When it all comes down to it, the only ‘line’ that matters is the bottom line of getting a project created and sold to the networks, and hopefully, on to TeeVee. It’s a rough business; brutally competitive, and one for which those who involve themselves in it are absolutely required to suffer for their craft. There is no easy path to the staying power that everyone seeks, but when achieved, the rewards obviously are tremendous.

I’ve experienced a small sampling of that type of frenetic activity in the record biz, but nothing like this. In my experience most of the unrealistically short turnaround times of my former profession were artificially if not arbitrarily so. However with TeeVee, there are so many more people involved in the process, it’s pretty tough to imagine how they could get it done any other way. It’s a high price to pay, and I say god bless those who can submit to the taskmaster’s whip and succeed where others have failed.

Horsin’ Around
The conversation inevitably gravitated to one of if not the chief passion (outwardly anyway) in Ms. Kay’s list o’ favorite diversions: Horse Racing. Seems it’s not just a passing fancy with her but something she’s been into her entire life. I was astounded at her intimate knowledge of the breeding process and physical indicators that horses give off to lend credence to whether or not they’re in top form on any given occasion. I wish I could have been more conversational on the subject; I just sort of sat there and listened, not being able to do much else than nod my head.

I did manage to relate my memories of the great Triple Crown horses of the 70s, Secretariat, Seattle slew, and Affirmed; three horses who won that great triumvirate of races, all over a mere five year span from the mid-to-late 70s.

Kay mentioned something that I wasn’t aware of; that prior to Secretariat in 1973, there had been a twenty-five year gap since the previous TC winner. That’s why it was such a phenomenon to see it happen again, twice more in the next five years, including consecutive years in 1977 and ‘78.

I admitted to figuring in my enormous naiveté that such a string wasn’t that big a deal; that it almost seemed commonplace to someone like me whose only knowledge of the Sport of Kings was pretty much limited to what I read in the sports pages following the big races.

However Kay went on to give a brief synopsis of why the Triple Crown is such a rare feat, and why now, 30 years removed from Affirmed as the last horse to accomplish it, we may well never see another one, due to changes in the way horses are trained and their value as commodities for breeding purposes. Fascinating stuff.

Eventually the conversation turned to baseball, and Michael talked about his affinity for his childhood local team, the San Francisco Giants. Kay of course bleeds Dodger Blue.

I was stayin’ out of this one, yo.

The Juicer floated his opinion that the Dodgers, who had recently re-acquired pitcher Greg Maddux, had done so primarily to keep the Giants at bay during the NL West Pennant stretch run, as the Dodgers played their arch rivals six times down the stretch in the final weeks. You see, Maddux has more wins again the Giants than any other team in his imminent Hall of Fame career. It was a very interesting proposition, just like 99.9999% of all the other things that came out of the mouths of these two very entertaining, talented, and intriguing bloggers.

Shortly after 12:30 PM, Kay received a phone call on her cell and realized how much the time and coffee refills had gotten away from her. I think we could easily have talked for another hour, but it was a good point at which to call it a wrap.

She obviously had things she needed to do with this, as her weekly routine in the midst of script season obviously leaves only the weekends for errands and other personal business. I knew going in that Kay would probably be mindful of how much time she could spend, but was very happy to notice that up to that phone call, she never once looked at her watch.

However now she needed to go, and actually, I did too; I had also received a call earlier during this marathon confab from my friend Az. He and I were loosely scheduled to get together later that afternoon once I got back to Cindy’s and he was calling to touch base.

So we all threw down some cash for our breakfast and coffee, then made our way towards the door.

After a few ill-fated photos captured in front of the huge trademark Big Boy statue near the restaurant entrance, we took leave of one another, thanking each other for a wonderful time. I was particularly gratified that Michael made the point to thank me more than once for putting it all together. I was just relieved that they didn’t say...“I’ll call you,” if you know what I mean…

So I called them instead.

As I was preparing to get back on the freeway, I dialed up Kay to again thank her for taking the time out of what I knew was an extremely busy time for her. I really appreciated it.

The ride home was a no-brainer, as my mind went on auto-pilot, tracing my old work commute. It was a great day, and a tremendous opening weekend for my nine-day L.A. vacay.

Next: Road Rage