Double Nickels

doodle

Double nickels.

When I was sixteen years old, the phrase referred to the 55 mile per hour speed limit on the United States interstate highway system, designed to save energy and lives, uniformly reviled by truckers and just about everyone else.  But when Congress threatened to withdraw federal highway funding from states refusing to cooperate with double nickels, the states fell right into line and new speed limit signs were seen around the nation.  And people didn’t like it.  We had already been forced to get rid of the lead in our gasoline, but we still had lead in our feet.  It seemed as if it should be unconstitutional to deny us the freedom to cruise the open road at high rates of speed.

The epithet “double nickels” may have been coined by truckers, but back in 1975, all of us seemed to regard it as a modern-day curse word.  We longed for the days when the speed limit on the Kansas Turnpike was 80 mph while we looked wistfully toward Germany’s Autobahn and the tracks of NASCAR fame.  We had a need for speed.

The CB radio craze was at its height, C.W. McCall’s gravelly voice was belting out “Convoy” on the radio (a few years before Kris Kristofferson brought it to the big screen) and folks high-fived saying “10-4, good buddy!”

“So we crashed the gate doing 98 and I said ‘let them truckers roll!’”  Truckers were being admired as the new American cowboys, outlaws whose chief enemies were Smoky, swindle sheets and double nickels.

Double nickels was also a decidedly less romantic reference to the sentiment among truckers that the new speed limit deprived them of the ability to earn a living (i.e., they wouldn’t have two nickels to rub together).  When your livelihood depends on on-time delivery and the availability of a back haul, road speed really does make a difference.

So whenever my father pulled off the interstate at a truck stop, I would make it a point to walk past the section labeled “professional drivers only” to sneak a glance at my secret heroes.  And I greatly admired a girl in my chemistry class who had a CB radio setup at home and who, on the school bus, would regale me with stories of the truckers on I-84 with whom she’d most recently chatted.

I hadn’t thought about the days of trucker culture in years, but then I was reminded that I had a birthday coming up.  A big one, a milestone.

And so today I turned double nickels, a bona fide over-the-hill old guy.  We marked the day by driving down to Roseville for dinner and to pick up some of my favorite vegan goodies at Whole Foods.  Pastor Mom delighted me with a non-dairy chocolate pie, my favorite.

chocolate pie
The real celebration will come on Saturday, when most of the family will gather.  We’ll eat a lot, indulge in more pies, reminisce over fond memories and likely reflect upon how all of us are growing older.  And that will be the greatest birthday gift of all.

But the Google doodle with the birthday cakes and my name on the tool tip was pretty cool, too.

 

Advertisements

Don’t Go Begging for Money When I’m Dead. Please!

My wife informed me yesterday that someone on Facebook is seeking donations for an online memorial to honor a deceased relative.

I do not even pretend to understand how this song goes.  I plead ignorance as to what constitutes an online memorial and why it is necessary to collect money for it.  I am guessing that there is some connection between the online memorial and the dear departed’s family offline.  Perhaps funds are required to pay for the funeral of the deceased or to help the family cope with final medical bills or a loss of the family breadwinner’s income.

This reminds me of a phenomenon that I have often witnessed in both northern and southern California (but not in my native New York):  Children and adults waving signs at intersections and street corners advertising homespun car washes being held to raise funds to pay for the funeral of a deceased family member.  Typically, the entire family, from kids to grandparents, is out there in a store’s parking lot with buckets, rags and squeegee bottles filled with liquid soap.  Whether the sponge-and-rag crew does a good job or not is almost beside the point.  What really matters is the one holding the sign and the kid jumping up and down and waving his arms to attract the attention of captive audiences stopped at the red light.  A common prop is an enlarged photo of the deceased mounted on a sheet of cardboard.

I can’t help but think that the dead guy (or woman) must be turning over in his or her grave with embarrassment.  Oh, wait, I almost forgot — they’re not even in their graves yet.  That’s what the car wash is supposed to pay for.

I wonder where they keep the corpse in the meantime.  Is she still stuck at the morgue waiting to be claimed by the family?  Or maybe stashed in someone’s garage?  Every time I pass one of those U-Store-It places, I wonder whether they’ve ever found a body swathed in a shroud in the back corner of Unit 72.  I can see the employees chatting in the front office now.  “I say, Bertie, what do you suppose is that rank odor wafting out of Unit 72?  You don’t fancy there’s cheese fermenting in there, now do you, bloke?”

Calling the story writers of Storage Wars:  I think you’ve got your next plot development nailed down.  I can see it now.  During the auction, Dave Hester can yell “Nooooooope!” while Barry Weiss falls off his golf cart when he passes out from the fumes and Jarrod and Brandi bicker about how much to bid and whether a coffin would be likely to sell in their store.  Fade to the car wash on the corner with the sign twirler displaying a photo of the dead guy.

But seriously, I can’t think of anything more tacky than raising money for a funeral.  Well, maybe the decorations in fancy script affixed to the rear windows of automobiles:  In Loving Memory of David, March 18, 1952 – July 21, 1993.  Rest in peace, Daddy!”  Someone ought to start marketing these.  Just think, now you can always have your loved one’s headstone with you where’er you may roam!

It’s not that I don’t have sympathy for cash-strapped families who are faced with the sudden death of a loved one.  But the whole car wash thing is nothing but a form of begging.  I don’t see families with the chamois as any different than the panhandler with the styrofoam cup.

So what’s the answer?  What’s an impoverished family to do when a family member suddenly casts off this mortal coil?  In days gone by, I believe that churches stepped in to provide the deceased with a decent burial.  But today, so many are not affiliated with any house of worship, and local churches tend to be so cash-strapped as to be without the means to offer such generous gestures.

Of course, this was less of an issue in the past, when funerals didn’t cost $10,000 or more.  By the time you add up the costs of the casket, the embalming, the beautician, the burial plot, the headstone and the clergy, you’re talking about a lot more money than most of us have in a savings account or a coffee can.

I once asked my father what the morgue does with corpses that no one claims.  He told me that in New York City, where he grew up, the deceased would be interred in a pauper’s grave on Hart Island in Long Island Sound.  Many thousands are buried there in mass graves dug with prison labor.  Not exactly what a loving family aspires to, but it caters to the needs of the destitute and those without families.

I have no idea what northern California’s equivalent of Hart Island might be, but I will tell you this:  When I’m dead, whatever you do, do not go begging total strangers for money for my funeral.

As for my father, he tells me that when he passes on we should tie him up in a burlap sack and throw him in the ocean.

Um, need your car washed, mister?

 

Metamorphosis

monarch

We are forever reinventing ourselves.

Even at my age, I feel a bit little like a hairy caterpillar, belly stuffed with macerated spring leaves, boldly curling up into my cocoon in a quest to emerge as something else.  I’ve had enough of this old, outdated mode, so let’s make it something quite different, okay?  Something, say, less hairy and hmm, maybe with a pair of wings?  Far-fetched, for sure, but you never know.  Give me a few weeks and let’s see what develops.

“I’ve been a puppet, a pauper, a pirate, a poet, a pawn and a king.”  Ol’ Blue Eyes sure knew what he was talking about.

In my case, I’ve been a typesetter, a graphic artist, a desktop publisher, a secretary, a technical writer, a data entry operator, a telephone operator, a trainer, a first-line supervisor, a middle manager and a legal researcher.

And as I’ve walked along my journey from the halls of high school to the employee break room to the unemployment line, I’ve occasionally turned my head just in time to catch the corridors contract and the doors silently shut behind me.

In his masterwork, Catch-22, novelist Joseph Heller asked “where are the snows of yesteryear?”  And where are the ditto machines that spewed purple ink all over your hands and the paste-ups assembled at light tables with tri-squares, Exact-o knives and non-repro blue pens?  Where are the shiny galleys pulled out of the dryer on RC paper, ready to marked up with funny, squiggly symbols by the proofreader?  Where are the TTY users typing out their LED messages on a narrow one-line screen to a distant relay operator in half-English, half-American sign language?  Where are the Vydec and the Wang, the IBM Electronic Selectric Composer, the CompuGraphic EditWriter, dBase II and Wordstar?

Constant change is the only thing guaranteed not to change.  With rapid advances in technology comes the need to be flexible, to bend with the wind, to acquire new skill sets, to embrace new ways of doing and being, to metamorphose into something different and more beautiful.

The alternative is to be relegated to irrelevance and destitution.  As the saying goes, “you’re either green and growing or ripe and rotting.”

Or, as Douglas Coupland put it in his novel, Microserfs, “time to learn for real.”

Where once I could declaim knowledgeably about fonts and kerning, em-spaces and X-heights, and then about hearing carry over, speech-to-speech relay and VCO phones, and still later about preliminary hearings, felony arraignments and writs of habeas corpus, today I find myself in the strange new world of domain mapping, cascading style sheets and SQL queries.  It’s a foreign language and some days I feel as if I am an enemy spy who has been dropped in by parachute in the dead of night.

I am a stranger in a strange land.

And in this land, the only currency that’ll buy you anything is zeroes and ones.  And knowledge.

As one who was schooled in the liberal arts, I have been cast into the darkness with only the searching beam of a flashlight to find my way.

My most fervent prayer is that there is no truth to the adage that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.

For I have many new tricks to learn.  And with a little luck, one day soon I will emerge from this decades old chrysalis, shake off the dew in a flutter of wings and proudly fly away.

 

Duke’s

After church today, we headed over to the local diner for lunch.  Only we had breakfast instead.

The dining choices in our little town are few, and are mostly limited to fast food.  Going out to eat generally means traveling 20 minutes or more to one of the neighboring towns.  So I was excited to try out an eatery close by.

Duke’s is a homespun, hole-in-the-wall joint that opens at 5:30 in the morning for the early birds and calls in the horses at two in the afternoon.  And yes, there really is a Duke.  Plaques on the wall bear witness to his chili-making prowess in the form of awards from the Las Vegas chili competition in multiple years.

Although it was late in the day for Duke’s, about three-quarters of the tables were filled.  I was concerned that they wouldn’t have much in which a (near) vegan could partake.  On our way there, my wife mentioned that they offer an egg substitute, but it turned out to be Egg Beaters, which is made from egg whites.  So I was surprised at the choices available.

I ended up ordering fried potatoes, oatmeal and dry toast.  The home fries were prepared with bell peppers, onions and garlic.  Delicious!  The oatmeal was served with cinnamon and raisins.  My first surprise was that the place carries nondairy creamer (made from soy).  “That’s how Duke eats his oatmeal,” the server told me.

My second surprise was that Duke’s serves decaffeinated herbal tea, both jasmine and chamomile.  You may think that’s not so special, but you might be surprised how many restaurants serve standard issue black tea only.

Although we ate in the rear dining room, I suspect that the best place to sit at Duke’s is up front on the stools at the counter.  I saw several different newspapers and even a copy of National Geographic hanging around for the perusal of guests waiting for their meals to be cooked.

Those coming in for lunch have choices such as egg salad or grilled cheese sandwiches, patty melts, chef salads, soups and the diner’s specialty, chili.  Now, if I could only convince them to start cooking cauliflower cutlets and Portobello mushroom sandwiches.

But as far as breakfast goes, you can count me in.  I told my wife that she’s lucky that I am currently without my car, which we have loaned out to my niece so she can drive back and forth to her college classes.  Otherwise, I don’t think you’d be able to keep me away from the place.

 

The Meaning of Blogging

Sad events tend to make me turn introspective.

More introspective than I already am, that is.

We grieve, and we try to make sense of the senseless.  The questions start to pile up:  Did this have to happen?  Could this happen to me?  Is there a lesson I’m supposed to learn from this?

When others suffer misfortune, we are called upon to comfort, to be there to listen.  We’re supposed to keep ourselves out of it.  After all, it’s about them, not about us.

Except that it is about us.  It’s about our relationship with the ones suffering the loss.  And it’s about how what happened causes us to take a step back and look at the bigger picture.  Misfortune ridicules the faux importance of the minutiae of our everyday lives and tends to help us obtain a clearer idea of where we’ve been and where we’re going.  For once, we get to ignore the trees and see the whole forest.  What’s the meaning of it all?

Here in the blogosphere, we enjoy opportunities to share both laughter and tears with fellow writers whom we have come to know and love.  Indeed, it is this sense of community more than anything else that has kept me reading and writing on WordPress.com.

I have yet to meet any of my bloggy friends in person.  And yet I feel that I know them better than some people I have known offline for years.  Sure, the anonymity and distance between the writer and the reader of online blogs makes it easier to divulge details of our personal lives that might be difficult to discuss with someone who we had to look in the eye.  This draws us closer to our fellow bloggers than we would ever likely become in person.

Most of us long for deep, abiding connections with others, connections that we often miss due to societal taboos as well as the personal and cultural roadblocks that all of us erect on the highway that is our lives.  “Don’t talk to strangers” is one of the first rules we learn as children.  It’s just too dangerous.  Others will hurt you if you let them.  Don’t wear your heart on your sleeve or it’ll just be broken.  I think of my elderly parents, who have learned to use the internet as a tool, but still try to keep it at arm’s length.  To them, it’s not “real,” just letters and words on a screen.  People are fakers who can pretend to be anything.

I get it that we can’t throw caution to the winds.  There will always be “bad” people online just as there are offline.  Those with malicious intent or a desire to misrepresent themselves can certainly use the internet as a means of doing so.  But that doesn’t give us license to dismiss the entire medium as duplicitous or illusory.  To me, the bloggers I follow have become family.

And so today I was saddened to learn that one of my favorite bloggers has deleted his blog.  Simply picked up his marbles and went home.  I felt a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach when I clicked on his goodbye post and received the message “(Blog name) is no longer available.  The authors have deleted this site.”

Some of you may know to whom I refer.  He was a popular blogger whose work helped to give me a sense of what our electronic community is all about and what sorts of things are possible on here.  In the early days of my blog, I paid close attention to those of his posts that referred to the hazards of blogging and how difficult it can be to strike a balance between one’s public and private personae.

As I started out saying, this sad event (like any loss) makes me introspective.  When a popular blogger who has been working at this for a hell of a lot longer than I have makes a decision to simply vanish, I feel compelled to take a step back and ask myself what exactly I’m trying to accomplish here.  For that manner, what does any blog hope to achieve?

We blog for many different reasons.  Blogs may be a method of doing business, a gallery for displaying photographs, a travelogue, a forum for political debate, a poetry slam, a cooking school.  Or an intimate journal.

But all of these reasons come down to one lowest common denominator:  We want to share a little piece of ourselves.  And no, we don’t want to talk to the wall.  We want to be heard and we want feedback.  We go to bed praying for “likes” and wake up with squeals of delight to find we have comments, reblogs, new readers and followers.  We want to start a discussion, an argument, a dialogue, a movement, a revolution.  We want to be a part of something bigger than ourselves.  We want to break out of our little worlds.  We want to make a meaningful connection with others.

My WordPress.com Reader brings widely scattered friends into my living room for a chat on a daily basis.  Pull up a chair and have a cup of tea, dear ones.  There’s one mother who has been feeling depressed and another who is dealing with her husband’s infidelity.  There’s the divorced one, the one coping with a sick child, the talented artist, the cancer survivor, the published author.  There’s a French teenager who manages to crack me up in two languages from the other side of the world.  There’s even a cat and a dog that I follow.

All of these and many more have become valued members of my online family.  For, in the end, that’s what we are, isn’t it?  One big, noisy, crazy, delightful, loving, extended family.

And the loss of any member of that family leaves a gaping hole that diminishes us all.

 

#9 Dream

(with apologies to John Lennon)

I had this dream the other night.

Now, I rarely remember my dreams unless they’re one of the recurring ones that I’ve had for years, and those are beyond boring at this point.  I am not one of those people who keep a pad and pen at bedside to write down whatever I remember the moment I open my eyes.

For some reason, however, lately my dreams have begun sticking with me (you remember the one about the snake, right?).  And I wonder what it means.

This dream had two parts.

In the first part, I received an email from a coworker I barely knew at a job I worked nearly thirty years ago.  Only in the dream, she worked out in the desert in the job from which I was recently laid off.  The email was an invitation to a baby shower.  All in color and very professionally done.  I had to think hard to even remember who this person was.

Then cut to my old neighborhood in the suburbs of New York City.  It was autumn, there were fallen leaves all over the place, I was wearing a jacket against the crisp air.  As I walked along, I was feeling down, thinking about how bad my financial situation was and wouldn’t it be nice if some money came into my life.

Just then, I noticed a few coins in the gutter — dimes, nickels and pennies.  I picked them up and counted them.  The coins added up to 85 cents.  Well, it’s better than nothing, I thought.  That’s when I approached a driveway and noticed that on the house’s lawn, near the edge of the driveway, were three enormous piles of coins — dimes, nickels and pennies.  They weren’t raised up in heaps, but spread out in long tongues.  There must be hundreds of dollars in those piles, I thought.  I could start scooping them up and dumping them in my pockets!  I pictured myself walking home with sagging pockets weighing me down and lowering my pants like some gangsta kid.

And then it occurred to me:  Those coins that I picked up a few yards back must have come from this pile!  Now that I know who they belong to, I have to return them.  So I removed the 85 cents from my pocket and replaced the coins in the appropriate piles of dimes, nickels and pennies.

When I turned around to leave, I noticed that a woman had just driven her car into the driveway.  She must have observed my actions.  She exited the car and said hello.  She unbuckled her children from their car seats and extricated them from the vehicle.  There were three of them:  A boy of about five, a girl of about two and a baby a few months old.  The woman thanked me for returning the coins that had blown away in the autumn wind.

I waved and walked away.  I now had a spring in my step and a smile on my face.

So what do you think?  Some of the themes seem fairly obvious.  Both parts of the dream involved children; my wife and I spend a lot of time with our little grandniece.  The financial concerns of the second part fit in with the fact that I’ve been unemployed for 3½ months.

I’m not all sure about the part about being honest and returning the coins, nor why someone would have so much money out in the open for anyone to steal.  And is there a significance in the amount being exactly 85 cents?

Clearly, I was pleased that I had done the right thing by returning the few coins I had found rather than scooping up piles of money that belonged to someone else.  I was also pleased that I was recognized for this.  I was tempted to go down the wrong path merely for personal gain, but I felt richer for resisting that temptation.  I also felt relieved that I had narrowly missed making a grave error by selfishly accepting ill-gotten gains.

The first part of the dream about a long-ago coworker who I haven’t thought of in years may have at least somewhat of a connection to real events.  Lately, I have been thinking of a guy I worked with long ago when I was just starting out.  I wasn’t friends with him or anything; he would say whatever came to mind, no matter how inappropriate, and he would engage in high-decibel arguments with the boss.  He was a tortured soul who got into all manner of trouble at work and was always on the verge of being fired.  The union shop steward was constantly being called.  Then one Monday we heard that he had been found dead over the weekend.  He couldn’t have been more than 25 years old.  I have no idea how this all relates to a baby shower.

Although I am no dream interpreter, I do believe that dreams are a window into the soul.  I am convinced that there is a deeper meaning there somewhere.

So how many of you have had strange dreams lately?  Please leave a comment and tell us all about it.  After all, you don’t want me to be the only weirdo, now do you?

 

Something for Everyone

My mother called a couple of days ago to tell me about the plans for her birthday.  My father celebrated his eightieth birthday the day after Thanksgiving and, about seven weeks hence, it will be my mother’s turn.

She wants to make a weekend of it in the Bay Area, as two of her grandchildren live there.  My sisters live out-of-state; although they were here for my father’s birthday in November, it is unlikely that they will return.  So there’ll only be a few of us, but at least we’ll be together, which is what matters in the end.

I soon learned the real reason for my mother’s call, however.  She wanted to find out what we are doing for my own birthday.

“Nothing that I know of,” I told her.  I usually don’t make a big deal out of my birthday.  My wife and I go out to dinner, we order dessert, and I am perfectly content.

However, my mother thought that perhaps there were plans for a birthday celebration that she hadn’t heard about.  I assured her that I’d let her know if anything developed.  Turns out my parents, who live 3½ hours away in California’s Central Valley, want to come visit.

Well, wouldn’t you know, as soon as I mentioned this to my wife and Pastor Mom, they started making plans for a birthday dinner in my honor.

They asked me what I wanted.

Well, I began, the simplest thing would be for us to go out to dinner somewhere.  Most restaurants serve meat, fish and veggies, so there’d be something for everyone.  With our extended family, however, there are quite a few of us and the cost would likely be prohibitive.

In that case, we decided, we can just make dinner at home.

“What do you want?” my wife asked.

I didn’t even have to think about it.  “What I really like,” I told her, “is that broiled tofu you make for me.”

She made a face.  No, no, we have to think of everyone else.  I’m the only one who will eat that vegan stuff.

“How about potato soup?”  Pastor Mom offered.

“Yes,” my wife agreed, “we can make vegan potato soup.”  When my mother-in-law prepared a big pot of potato soup a few months ago, she made a separate batch for me using soy milk.  It turned out to be really delicious.

This sounded like a plan.  Bacon and cheese on the side for everyone else.  Some good French bread.

“Or we could make sandwiches,” Pastor Mom offered.  I had to nix that idea.  My mother won’t eat deli meat unless it’s kosher, nor will she eat my vegan “deli slices.”

“How about spaghetti?” I suggested.  All of us agreed on that one and I felt that we were set.  Pastor Mom makes an incredible spaghetti sauce that’s full of zucchini, tomatoes, onions and mushrooms.  My wife doesn’t like veggies, but she agreed to pick them out.  We’ll have garlic bread and salad.  Done!

Then Pastor Mom mentioned that cleanup is a real bear when there’s all that sauce everywhere.  Pots and dishes have to be scrubbed.

So back to the drawing board we went.

“Hot dogs!” my wife suggested, then noted that it was a rather plebeian meal for a birthday celebration.  But I don’t mind.  I’m satisfied with pretty much anything.

We determined that this would work out.  Everyone enjoys Hebrew National hot dogs, and my mother will eat them.  Vegan soy dogs for me, of course.  Chili and cheese on the side for those so inclined.  And homemade macaroni salad (this time it was my turn to make a face).

My mother-in-law will make pies for dessert — a vegan, sugar-free chocolate pie for me (my favorite), as well as a lemon pie and a coconut crème pie.

Who says you have to go out for an expensive dinner to have something for everyone?