I Don’t Need to Be Reminded

Friday night.  Just chillin’.  I just made a fresh batch of guacamole, I’m flipping through blogs and a song in Japanese wafts through my headphones from my Spotify feed.  I don’t understand a thing the singer is telling me, but her plaintive voice is lovely and the horns, bells, flute and strings backing her up send me into a state of relaxation that seems perfect for the end of a busy week.

The Net is rife with stories about comedian Garry Shandling, who died this week of a heart attack at the age of 66.  For reasons not entirely clear to me, the coverage irks me beyond all reason.  My Zen-like state is gone.

I’ve never been much of a television watcher, so the first time I ever heard of Shandling was during a visit to the old NBC Studios in Burbank back in the 1980s.  (Side note:  I found it somewhat sad to learn, while performing research for this post, that NBC’s TV broadcast operations have since moved to the roller coaster, Harry Potter schmaltz of Universal Studios.  And today’s so-called studio tour?  Its “video host” in Hollywood is Jimmy Fallon, who actually records The Tonight Show a continent away at NBC’s 30 Rockefeller Center studios in New York).

Thirty years ago, I lived in New York and was visiting California for the first time.  I stayed over a few nights with cousins who lived in a gorgeous San Fernando Valley home that was destroyed by an earthquake just a few years later.  They even lent me one of their cars, which turned out to be a comical experience.  For one thing, this was my first time driving the LA freeways.  In the days before GPS and smart phones, I depended on a road map to navigate the labyrinth of freeways that seemed to weave in and out, over and under in a tangled web.  As if that weren’t enough, I quickly realized that my cousins’ speedometer was broken!  So there I was, whizzing along with the high-speed traffic, not really knowing where I was going and trying to drive fast enough to keep up with the flow but slow enough to avoid a speeding ticket.  Somehow, the parking lots that are the Long Island and Cross Bronx Expressways seemed tame by comparison.

I made it to Burbank and participated in the NBC studio tour.  Naïve yokel that I was, I found it thrilling to sit in Studio 1 where The Tonight Show was recorded, before the famous multicolored curtain and the star on the floor where Johnny Carson stood to deliver his monologue.  The group was told that we could return at 4:00 pm to be in the studio audience for the taping, but that Carson would not be there that day.  In his place, I learned, was someone named Garry Shandling (who?).  “He’s very funny,” the tour guide assured us.

Well, excuse me, I didn’t come here from New York to see some Garry Shindig or whatever the heck his name is!  I left extremely disappointed and did not return for the taping.  Today, of course, I would have checked online in advance and determined the proper day to go.  But back then, being a tourist was largely a hit or miss proposition.

While rabid Shandling fans would undoubtedly disagree with me, he will never be on the “A list” in my book.  Yeah, yeah, I know he had a couple of shows of his own.  Call me a meanie if you will, but to me he is not in the same league with comedians such as Carson, Leno, Fallon, Robin Williams and Jerry Seinfeld.

But I digress.  Depending on which website you visit, you’ll see that Shandling was in good health or that he had medical problems.  Pick one.

One of our local television station’s news programs used his death as an opportunity to educate viewers about the dangers of being out of shape as we age.  Obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure are killers, the anchor intoned solemnly, and the average age of fatal heart attacks has now lowered to 60.  The big mistake people make, he continued, is in thinking that controlling conditions with pills is the answer instead of exercising, eating right and losing weight.  So, I guess this means that I am going to die shortly and join Garry Shandling in that great beyond.

Thank you so much for reminding me.  I’d better get my affairs in order, call a lawyer and make out my last will and testament.  Time to buy that cemetery plot.  And, by the way, shame on those nasty doctors for making me take all those pills for nothing!

Apparently, the fact that a lot of us have been fighting (and losing) uphill battles against these conditions since the days of our youth isn’t sexy enough to make it onto TV.  Believe me, we are all aware that we are ticking time bombs and that our days are numbered.  We’ve been to a million doctors, had a million tests, taken oceans of pills.  Meanwhile, we try not to dwell upon our conditions so that we can live some semblance of a normal life in whatever time remains to us.

I’m just glad that I’m not a public figure.  This way, the media circus can’t make an example of me when I’m gone in a misguided effort to educate us regarding health conditions that we are either intimately familiar with or else don’t give a damn about.

Garry, you’ve really made my day.

 

Through Routes

 

The 2016 Great American Escape

The great American interstate highway system, officially named for its promoter, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, criss-crosses the continental United States in every direction.  We no longer need to plan our route across as carefully as the pioneers in their Conestoga wagons did, but we still have many options for driving the 3,000 miles from coast to coast.

The interstates tend to be boring and uniform, but they are typically the fastest routes.  State highways go through many towns and therefore offer a slower, but far more interesting experience.  And then there are the back roads on which one can meander in and out of states and counties, looping up and back through rural areas, offering the potential to meet locals and experience landscapes, vistas and conversations that are lost to most automobile travelers.

For our upcoming nationwide odyssey, we plan to make use of the directness of the interstates on the way to the east coast, then follow a combination of approaches for a more leisurely sightseeing trip on the way home.

Opening my large road atlas, I see that there are four primary through routes from the Pacific to the Atlantic.  From north to south, they are as follows:

  • Interstate 90 is the most northerly through route, extending from Seattle to Boston. Although not particularly accessible from California, it has the advantage of traversing a number of the northern states that I wish to visit (such as Montana and North Dakota).  We’ll be seeing a fair bit of the 90 on the way back, particularly since it cuts across upstate New York as part of the Thruway from Albany to our planned stop in Niagara Falls.  After that, I-90 will take us through Erie, Pennsylvania and across the Shocknessy Ohio Turnpike as far as Toledo, where we will turn north for a tour of Michigan and Wisconsin.
  • Interstate 80 extends from the Bay Bridge in San Francisco to the George Washington Bridge (over the Hudson River from New Jersey into Manhattan). This is the through route closest to home, as it runs right through Sacramento and the nearest entrance is less than two miles from our front door.  We plan to head out of town on the 80, through Reno and then the Nevada desert, Salt Lake City, Wyoming, Nebraska and Iowa.  In Iowa, we will head south on Interstate 29 en route to Missouri.
  • Interstate 40 is almost as convenient a way in and out of California as I-80 is. From Sacramento, shoot straight down the 99 to Bakersfield, then head east on Highway 58 to Barstow.  I-40, which roughly parallels the old Route 66 of Americana fame, extends from Barstow through Arizona, New Mexico, the Texas Panhandle, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Tennessee on the way to its terminus near the Atlantic Ocean in Wilmington, North Carolina (a place I have visited on numerous occasions).  While most of the 40 runs farther south than we plan to travel, we will see part of it as we travel from Oklahoma through Little Rock, Arkansas and on into Memphis and Nashville, Tennessee, where we intend to visit the Country Music Hall of Fame.
  • Interstate 10 is the southernmost of the through routes, extending from near the Santa Monica Pier in Los Angeles to the Atlantic beaches of Jacksonville, Florida. On the way, I-10 traverses Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama before cutting through the Florida Panhandle to its terminus by the ocean.  Prior to living in Sacramento, we spent more than three years residing in a town directly on the 10 near the California/Arizona border.  Having done thousands of miles of back and forth on Interstate 10 during those years, we are pleased to be able to avoid it completely on this trip.  Its far southerly location, with its lengthy route through Texas from El Paso to Houston and beyond is nowhere near the places we hope to visit.  Also, I did a cross-country trip solo on the 10 right about this time of year in 1996, so I’d like to see some other parts of the country this time around.

So what’s the goal of this trip?  Other than to satisfy some good old American wanderlust, we plan to cross off the remaining ten states on my list of the continental United States I’ve visited.  If all goes according to plan, we will arrive home with nothing but Alaska and Hawaii standing between completion of my list of the full 50.  Hopefully, we’ll be able to make special trips to those outliers within the next few years.

Also, I’ve wanted for years to show my wife my old stomping grounds in New York and New England.  I am sure the nostalgia will be nothing short of unbearable, although perhaps tempered by the unfortunate truth that nothing is ever as wonderful as you remember it.

Ultimately, it’s true that you can’t go home again.

 

Losing the Game of Body Poker

My aging body has upped the ante lately, and this is one pot that I may not be able to win. I like this metaphor because, some days, it really does feel like a high-stakes game of poker. I get the feeling that this time my body may not be bluffing.

I am hobbling around with a nasty infection in my foot, gobbling antibiotics like candy and praying this disgusting thing resolves itself sometime soon. I try to stay off the foot as much as possible, which has given me a new appreciation for the importance of being able to walk. Meanwhile, my nightmares are populated with scenes of losing the foot, dying during surgery, being relegated to life in a wheelchair, being fitted with a prosthesis.

I thank God that I have been blessed with a wonderful wife who puts up with me even in bad times. She runs around taking care of everything while I try not to act like a cripple (which I have not done very successfully).

I have lost trust in my new Kaiser doctor, as she diagnosed athlete’s foot when I first came in to the office with this problem. I tried to tell her that I’ve had plenty of athlete’s foot and this definitely is not it. She disagreed and prescribed some ointment that, of course, did nothing to help a bacterial problem. Two weeks later, I show up in her office again to demand answers. My foot looks like a picture in a medical textbook. I remember seeing a photo that looked just like this back in the days when I worked for a drug company. I recall being grossed out then, and now it is me! I cannot shake this dread feeling that I am going to end up in the hospital and that this will all come to a bad end.

As if that weren’t enough, the doctor looked at my blood tests and diagnosed me with celiac disease. This means I am now on a gluten-free diet. Okay, stop for a minute and imagine a vegan on a gluten-free diet. This is a disaster!

As it turns out, nearly all my vegan convenience food (Boca burgers, veggie dogs, bean burritos, “deli slices”) are full of wheat gluten. This pretty much limits my protein sources to tofu and beans.

I really don’t know that I can hack it. Sure, if you look around online, you can find gluten-free vegan recipes. I even found one for scrumptious looking cupcakes with chocolate ganache frosting. But the recipe requires me to start by roasting some beets!! Um, I don’t cook and I don’t plan to start now. This is not going to work for me.

So what are the alternatives? I can stick to mostly vegetables, supplementing them with tofu and canned beans. Or I can abandon veganism entirely and revert to my ovo-lacto vegetarian ways. As tempting as the latter course of action may be, I will start by trying the former. Like everything else in life, I will have to figure it out as I go along.

Now if only this damned foot would heal!

Mom’s 82nd Birthday

MADERA

On Friday we drove down to the Central Valley, about four hours south of here, to celebrate my mother’s 82nd birthday.  My sister and her two adult children drove in from the Bay Area and we all had lunch at Mom and Dad’s on Saturday, followed by dinner out that night and then cake and gifts.

My sister announced that she did not bring a gift because Mom hates anything she gets and either returns it to the store or allows it to sit, abandoned and unused.  While I don’t approve of the smarmy attitude, Sis has a point.  Mom has often said that she doesn’t need anything because anytime there is something she wants, she just buys it.  Now, my parents, while not wealthy by any means, live fairly modestly and have a comfortable retirement.  They have always objected to consumerism and acquisitiveness in general.  They say they’re doing fine because they never wasted money on frivolity.  They taught me well, as I see most purchases for the inanimate objects that they are.  Early on, I learned to value people rather than things.

Case in point:  I own one pair of shoes, the ones that are currently on my feet.  When they begin to wear out, I will buy another.  Why do I need more than one?  I find clothes pretty boring.

I am glad that my parents don’t require financial help from anyone, but they do need assistance in other regards.  Over the weekend, Sis replaced the tricky overhead lighting in my parents’ kitchen while my nephew the engineer worked on getting their computer working again.  Dad loves his computer, which allows him to spend hours each day browsing classic cars on eBay Motors.

When pressed, Mom finally admitted that she would like some dark chocolate.  Sis and her kids made a Trader Joe’s run, netting Mom a couple of Big Blocks and other assorted fodder for her sweet tooth.  As I am a bad son who never gives proper attention to these things, my wife had kindly found a book on nutrition (among Mom’s favorite subjects) during her shopping rounds last week.

I am pleased to report that the fighting and fussing that typically accompanies visits from my sister were largely absent this time.  Well, except for her reference to the time Mom’s sister (long gone), who had begun losing her teeth, went running down the street, wrapped in a muumuu and yelling at the top of her lungs.  But that was a minor glitch.

Mom wanted her birthday dinner to be at Cheesecake Factory, but the place was packed to within an inch of bursting (Fire code?  What fire code?) with teeny-boppers who wouldn’t think of yielding a seat in the lobby to a senior citizen, and we ultimately decided not to wait an hour and a half for a table.  We retrieved the cars and headed for Macaroni Grill, where we were seated immediately.  That was a lot easier for me, as I’ve only dined at Cheesecake Factory once, prior to my vegan days.  They serve a veggie burger (hold the cheese and mayo, please), but is it really free of dairy products?  At Macaroni Grill I have a tried and true standby, pasta and mushrooms with garlic and oil instead of butter.  Having a regular dish at certain restaurants may sound rather unimaginative to some, but animal products are everywhere, so the vegans among us will undoubtedly appreciate my point of view.

The moments that make me most uncomfortable during visits with my parents are the inevitable apocalyptic references.  Those with aging parents know what I mean:  The conversations about decline and death.  We all want to believe that our parents will be healthy and happy forever.  We want to remember younger versions of our parents, before surgeries and pill bottles and a litany of aches and pains.

My parents mentioned that they would leave their home to any of the grandkids who would live there.  None of them will, of course.  Mom and Dad live out on the rangeland, where fields of cattle much contentedly on the waving grass before being murdered and turned into steaks and Big Macs.  The place has always reminded me a bit of the prairies of Kansas and Nebraska.  They live less than a 30 minute drive from downtown Fresno, but the nonagricultural parts of the Central Valley economy, never all that robust in the first place, took a particularly hard hit ten years ago during the recession and have never really recovered.  Mom acknowledges that living there would be difficult for people of working age due to the lack of well-paying, stable jobs.

Dad insists that he will be the first to go.  While the idea of his demise is in itself distressing to me, the thought of having to deal with Mom (a very difficult person) afterward is downright scary.  We live in a tiny mouse hole of a place and have no way to take her in, and we certainly aren’t able to move out to farm country.  Even if we could afford a two-bedroom apartment (we can’t), Mom would be miserable without trees to plant and rose bushes and tomato plants to potchke with.

I am aware that Mom is already lonely.  Her superannuated cat died just before Christmas and my father, whose hearing has become quite poor, likes to sit by himself and stare into space or sit in his darkened office, keeping company with the glow of his computer monitor.  Despite the work involved, I could see how much she enjoyed our visit.  Dad had even vacuumed the carpets throughout the house.  Mom did a lot of shopping and cooking, sending me home with jars of my favorite homemade mushroom-barley soup.

I need to try to live in the present and not fret so much about the future.  I should count my blessings.  When I reminded my boss on Friday morning that I would be leaving at noon to travel to Mom’s, she shared that it was her father’s 91st birthday and that she would be heading to Stockton after work to visit him in a nursing home.  He has recently suffered a pair of debilitating strokes.  While I squirm like a bug thinking about what the next few years might bring, I realize that this is one of those times when I really do need to rely on my faith.  Let go and let God, as they say.

Ultimately, I know that my very wise wife is correct:  Whatever is supposed to happen is what will happen.

 

Haircut in My Language

Someone, please tell me:  Why is it so difficult to find a place for a man to get a decent haircut?

It’s not like I need a haircut all the time.  I show up for this quarterly, like a corporate financial report.  My father tells me that he is old enough to remember a time when men sat in the barber’s chair on the corner for a touch-up every week.  I have a feeling that the experience was intended to be more social than depilatory.

I’ve read about remnants of the haircut as social experience lingering on in barber shops frequented by African-Americans in urban communities.  And while I support public opportunities for socialization, perhaps it is my suburban sensibilities that cause me to prefer an arm’s length business transaction.

Notice to hair cutters:  I’m not here to make a new friend; I don’t expect you to be my bartender.  I don’t want to swap life stories, nor do I wish to discuss the presidential election, my marriage or even the weather.  If you do ask me a question, I will endeavor to respond politely and I expect the same courtesy in return.  Please can the rudeness and do not inquire about my weekend plans or what I’m having for dinner.  In return, it will be my pleasure to include a generous tip to express appreciation for your time and expertise.

Some would claim that my attitude paints me as inhuman.  At some level, I would have to agree.  I’m still hoping that modern technology comes up with a reliable robo-barber.  Tim Cook and Satya Nadella, are you listening?

These days, it seems that my alternatives are the national unisex haircutting chains or the local three-chair shop that we pass regularly along the highway.  Yesterday, I tried the latter and was quite disappointed.  I suppose that, from an “it’s all relative” viewpoint, I have no cause to complain.  At least I didn’t emerge looking like a Marine on Parris Island, as I did after my previous haircut in Fresno.  My chief complaint is that the hair cutter, who was not at all gentle, nicked me twice.  I attempted to point this out by yelling “Ow!” but I don’t think she got the message.

I suppose I should be grateful that this hair cutter did not attempt to engage me in conversation.  Perhaps this was due to the language barrier.  As she seemed to understand the general type of hair cut I was requesting, I was not aware of this issue until she was done and I asked how much I owed.  Although she repeated herself twice, I could not understand what she was saying.  She finally resorted to the international language of money by holding up the corresponding number of fingers.  Now, I am all in favor of multiculturalism, but I do believe that we require a common language in which we can all communicate.  Perhaps this is easy for me to say, because English has become something of an international language and happens to be the language which I speak.  Perhaps I need to “check my privilege.”  Should the common language we choose turn out to be Spanish, Mandarin or something else, I will begin studying.  In the meantime, however, I expect those with whom I am spending my money to speak enough English so that we can conduct business without resorting to sign language.

Until then, does anyone know a decent place for a guy to get a haircut?

 

Sticker Shock

When my wife and I were first married (17 years ago), she was surprised that I did not look at prices in the supermarket, at Target or at Walmart.  My philosophy had always been “if you want it, buy it” and, as for the price, “it is what it is.”  Should I deny myself a mass produced cherry pie just because it costs six dollars?  I figured that I had no control over prices, so why should I be concerned about them?  If I refused to buy an item due to my objection that the price was too high, would that change anything?  Would I teach the store a lesson (“So there!  Take that!”) so that, on my next visit, the price would be slashed?  I think not.

Things have changed a bit for me in the past couple of decades.  I do look at prices now, although they confuse me.  I rarely do any shopping without my wife.  This is probably a good thing because I have no clue whether something is expensive or not.

Until now.

In the course of planning a trip to New York, we have been checking hotel prices with the goal of making a reservation.  Now, as a charter member of the Motel 6 and Red Roof Inn club, even I can tell you that $400 to $500 or more a night is expensive.

Let’s be real about this:  All I am looking for is a place to lay my head and take a hot shower.  The word “amenities” doesn’t mean anything to me.  I simply am not looking for anything fancy.  If that’s the case, I’m told, then don’t go to New York.  It’s all about location.  Just being in Manhattan is itself “fancy.”

Indeed, we have been able to find (somewhat) reasonable prices out in the suburbs.  We considered taking advantage of that fact until we realized that it would mean not only paying for gas and fighting the bridge and tunnel commuters to get into and out of the city every day of our visit, but also paying for a parking garage in Manhattan ($50 a day!) and then paying taxicab fares to get to the attractions we’d like to see.  When you add it all up, it would be almost as much as staying in the city.

Sure, we could save some money by taking the subway or staying at a fleabag (some of which are notorious for bedbugs).  But that’s not what we’re looking for in a vacation.

We were originally thinking of spending five days in Manhattan.  With the prohibitive cost, however, we settled on four days.  Then we began figuring out how we can do most of what we hope to accomplish in three days.  And lately, we’ve been considering paring it down to just two days.

After all, we’re already going to be spending a lot of money driving cross-country to get to New York, then driving back to California.  True, we’ll see a lot of our great nation on the way, but our hotel costs for the entire 6,000 mile round trip will be about the same as the cost of staying just three nights in Manhattan.  Even a dunderhead like myself knows that this is way too expensive for the likes of us.

I realize that the costs of maintaining a hotel in Manhattan are exorbitant and that these costs have to be passed on to the consumer.  I am also aware that Manhattan hotels increase their profits by raising prices for visitors and businessmen who want to stay in a convenient location.  Something tells me that I should “just say no” and let the New York hotels make their money off the suckers who are willing to shell out hundreds of dollars per night.

But then we wouldn’t be able to stay in New York.  Perhaps we should just go somewhere else.  Prices are more reasonable almost every other place you can think of, so why New York?  Because there’s no place like it.  It is this very uniqueness that leads tens of thousands of travelers to the Big Apple every year, prices be damned.

Perhaps my former way of thinking was the right one after all.  If you want it, buy it.  Take out your credit card and don’t think about the price.

Just try not to wince when the Visa bill comes in.

 

Next Stop, Manhattan?

Soooo, New York.

Huh.  Where do I start?

We’re hoping third time is a charm.  The first time we planned a trip back east was a couple of years after we were married.  Ultimately, however, I couldn’t see blowing all our money and all my vacation time to pull it off.

Then some strange things happened.  First, I turned 40.  Then, before I knew it, I had turned 50.  How many more chances would I have to do this?

When we lived out in the middle of the desert, we decided to try again.  We hauled out the calendar and set a date, started to save money for the trip.  Then we got word that my employer was failing and might actually close our small desert branch.  Would I be out of a job?  We’d better save our money.  Trip cancelled.

It turned out to be a wise decision.  Although the branch did not close, I was forced to lay off half my staff.  Shortly after, I myself was laid off and we returned to northern California.  I was out of work for a year and we pinched pennies like never before, particularly after my unemployment checks ran out (described in great detail in this space).

As they say, however, if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.  However, I would never have guessed that 2016 might be the year.

Then, one morning a couple of weeks ago, while sitting in freeway traffic on the way to work in downtown Sacramento, my wife casually mentioned that we should go on vacation.  “Yes!” was my immediate response.

“We could just drive for three days and see where we end up.  Where can we get in three days?”  I suggested Chicago, if we pushed it.  This would not be a problem, as we typically do “push it,” with my wife and I trading off four-hour shifts with one of us driving and the other sleeping.  We’ve been to a lot of places this way, including Texas and Canada.

My wife said she’d never been to Chicago, and I admitted to only having seen the inside of O’Hare Airport.  The wheels started turning in my pea brain.  Art Institute of Chicago?  Deep dish pizza?  Watching the waves come in on Lake Michigan?  The Sears Tower?  Oh, they call it something else now, don’t they?

“Hey,” said my wife, her wheels turning as well.  “How long would it take to drive to New York.”

That did it.

New York.  No, New York, New York.  Sounds so nice, they said it twice.  It’s a hell of a town, the Bronx is up and the Battery down.  Bite the Big Apple. (Don’t mind the maggots!)  If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere . . .  Give my regards to Broadway, remember me to Herald Square.  Maybe you know some little places to go to where they never close.  New York City rhythm flowing through my life . . .

The thought of seeing New York again, probably one last time, turned my brain to mush and evoked every cliché song you can think of.

Maybe I’ll finally get to see the museums.

I spent more than 30 years residing less than half an hour from Midtown, but the only museum I ever visited was the Museum of Natural History, as a child.

I thought I had missed my chance.  I knew I’d never get to see the Met, MOMA, the Guggenheim, the Jewish Museum.  I’ve seen the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building in so many movies that I have no desire to go in person.

But Times Square.  Back in the day, I drove through the area many times and even walked there once.  The place was loaded with triple-X movie theatres and was generally a filthy pit.  Since I’ve been in California, however, Times Square has been renovated to encourage tourism.  Now you can make a pilgrimage to the huge Disney Store past costumed Elmos and Mickeys trying to make a few bucks on the street from photos taken with gawking out-of-towners.

My wife said she wants to eat at Katz’s Delicatessen, so well represented on TV.  I visited there once, with my father and Grandpa when I was about five or six years old.  I still remember it.  I refused to eat anything because it wasn’t kosher; they had to take me down the street to Henry’s.  But now?  I’m game.  Even a vegan can enjoy some kugel and a kasha knish.  And, if I’m to be perfectly honest with myself, I don’t know that I would be able to resist the lure of a bagel with cream cheese and lox.

There’s just too much to do, see and eat in New York.  You really can’t hope to accomplish much in a few days.  But at least I’d be able to show my wife the big town.  This is where I’m from, this is who I am, this is the essence of my being.

A quick check at work revealed that I have several weeks of paid vacation on the books.  But, man, this is going to be an expensive venture.  Can we really pull it off?  My wife says we can.

All that’s left is to make up an itinerary.