Duke’s Library

Life in the Time of Coronavirus

I realized it was time to sit down for a serious talk with my wife. All this conversation about coronavirus and social distancing and death rates is causing me to contemplate things that I usually try to avoid.

“I can’t think of anyone to leave my book collection to,” I began. Most people just expect to pass down their prized possessions to their children. When you don’t have children, however, is when things get interesting. I’m talking about the lifelong bachelor or spinster who leaves vast sums to the ASPCA in the name of his or her cat. “We do not have a single niece or nephew who would appreciate my books,” I whined. My patient wife nodded. “Maybe I could leave them to a school or the public library.”

I have visions of my precious volumes being strewn about an outdoor book sale table beneath a handwritten “50 cents” sign. Sigh. And then there’s the unfortunate fact that our little town doesn’t even have a public library. If you drive across the Feather River, there’s a library in Marysville. I’ve been there exactly once.

Maybe I could get Duke’s Diner to take my books. They could set them on little bookshelves lining the walls around the restaurant. I guess I’d have to leave them some money to buy the shelving, too.

I love Duke’s. It’s just a little hometown breakfast and lunch joint, open 5 am to 2 pm, seven days a week. Most of the employees are extended family of the late founder and chili master, Duke Griego. They know who you’re related to and what you like to drink. The place has been around since 1962 and it’s an absolute institution in town. Not to mention that they make the best home fries in the state of California. I’m talking peppers, onions, salsa. I’d eat that every day if I could. I am also more than a little attached to their blueberry pancakes.

Alas, the front and rear dining rooms at Duke’s are now empty, all of California’s restaurants having been closed by order of the governor as a coronavirus prevention measure. I noticed on their web page that they are still cooking, take-out orders only. So Sunday morning (ok, so it was afternoon already) I called in my breakfast order and my wife and I drove over there to pick it up.

Duke’s is only about a five-minute drive from here, across the railroad tracks and past the Headstart and the elementary school. It’s near the center of town, with a Mexican carniceria and a convenience store across the street. The place where I fill my gas tank and the medical clinic are on the next block. Cue Montgomery Gentry’s “My Town.”

The décor inside Duke’s is so cornpone that you just have to love it. There is a gigantic fork and spoon mounted on the wall. There are signs featuring sayings about family and blessings and coffee. There are photos of Duke Griego himself with awards that he has won for his chili.

I ask myself whether mounting shelves on the wall and filling them with my library would kill the hometown countrified mood. Perhaps so. Somehow Mailer and Nabokov and Shields and even Steinbeck may feel out of place. Would a shelf filled with my American history books be seen as patriotic, or just as hopelessly egghead? Now, if I were to donate a photo of an egg, and maybe a chicken crossing the road, the history shelf might work.

Okay, so maybe Duke’s is not the right venue for my books. Perhaps my little library could be the start of a community public library here in town? Add a few computers with internet access and my fellow townsfolk would no longer need to sit in traffic on the bridge to Marysville. If we could get someone to donate a house near Duke’s, kids on bikes could pedal over and our many carless neighbors could conveniently visit on foot.

Well, I can dream, right?

As we approached Duke’s on Sunday, I noticed that they had pushed a small table and a chair out onto the sidewalk. Two menus were on the table. The sandwich board near the door advertised the day’s special, pineapple upside down pancakes — takeout only.

When I walked in the door, I found it jarring that every seat was empty, including the stools at the counter, on a normally crowded Sunday. My order was ready to pick up and pay for. Did I want salsa? Sour cream? More syrup?

On the other side of the pass-through window, the cook was still working away even though it was almost closing time. Two more people came in to pick up their orders as I signed the credit card slip.

“Are you guys doing okay?” I asked the server. “Are you hanging in there?”

She smiled and nodded. “We’re doing fine,” she told me as she disappeared into the kitchen to pick up another order.




In her recent book, Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century, journalist Jessica Bruder delves into the subculture of aging Baby Boomers who have been priced out of traditional (“sticks and bricks”) homes and apartments (by layoffs, ageism in the workplace, debt and bankruptcy, underwater mortgages, health challenges and the woeful inadequacy of a monthly Social Security check) and have found new lives wandering the nation and working short-term jobs while living in their “wheel estate” (vans, campers, RVs, old school buses and even compact cars).  In between gigs as seasonal help at Amazon warehouses (ten to twelve hour shifts spent squatting, reaching and walking miles of concrete floors with a hand scanner), working the sugar beet harvest in North Dakota, and serving as “camp hosts” at remote state and national parks, they alternate between “boondocking” (camping in desert, mountain and wilderness middle-of-nowhere locations, sometimes legally, sometimes not) and “stealth camping” (staying overnight in their rigs at the far reaches of Wal-Mart parking lots, at 24-hour truck stops and gyms, or even on suburban streets).  These kings and queens of the road meet other like-minded souls, forge friendships, form loose-knit clans, trade knowledge, help each other out, share their meager possessions, and follow each other to the desert Southwest in the winter, to the coolness of the woodsy mountains in the summer, and to annual gatherings such as the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous (organized by longtime van dweller, Bob Wells) off Dome Rock Road, on the outskirts of Quartzsite, Arizona.

I am fascinated by this phenomenon on multiple levels.  For one thing, I have more than a passing familiarity with many of the locations described by Bruder.  Having lived and worked in Blythe, California for three years, I am painfully aware of the Podunk nature of Colorado River hamlets such as Ehrenberg, Arizona and the summertime ghost town imitation performed annually by “the Q.”  The former is the place that everyone in Blythe goes to gas up their vehicles at one of the two truck stops, due to petrol prices often running 50 cents or more per gallon less than just across the bridge in California.  The Flying J truck stop there became desert dessert heaven once they acquired a Cinnabon and a Carvel to go along with their Subway sandwich shop.  Even with the cheaper Arizona gas prices, it would still cost me fifty dollars to fill up the gas-guzzling boat of a Mercury I was driving at the time.  I would stand at the pumps watching my iPhone go crazy flipping the time back and forth an hour every few seconds, not quite able to decide whether this border location was in Pacific or Mountain Time.  And I would find it hard to escape the premises without bringing home a cinnamon roll for my wife and a soft serve sundae for myself.

As for Quartzsite, about 20 miles east of Ehrenberg on Interstate 10, let’s just say that I spent a little too much time there.  Bruder failed to mention the Friday night all-you-can-eat fish frys at  The Grubstake on Highway 95 (the restaurant is still there but, alas, the fried fish pig-out is history; they sell it by the piece now).  I have so many fond memories of that place, from the ghost pepper eating contests advertised on the menu to the NASCAR posters on the walls of the loo to the autographed dollar bills on the ceiling of the dining room to drunk coworkers attempting to recover their misspent youth by dancing to Madonna’s “Like a Virgin.”

Bruder did, however, visit Silly Al’s, a pizza parlor and bar where I once witnessed the superannuated karaoke hoedown that she describes.  I never returned, finding the food overpriced and mediocre.  (Let’s be honest:  When it comes to Italian food, it’s hard to satisfy a New York boy).  She also dropped in on Paul Winer, the naked bookseller of Quartzsite (he does wear a knitted codpiece to cover his whoosie-whatsy) who has chatted with me a number of times, has entertained me by demonstrating his boogy-woogy piano skills on the old upright he keeps in the store, and has sold me a number of esoteric tomes that I unearthed like desert gemstones from the towering disorganized stacks representing shelf overflow and covering nearly every square inch of floor space.  Paul’s bare skin resembles old tanned leather, which should come as no surprise considering that 120°F is a perfectly normal temperature at the Q.

As for the locals, we completely ignored the schlocky vendors hawking beads, polished stones and T-shirts, as well as the snowbirds and their cheek-by-jowl RVs crowding the campsites from December through February.  We could reclaim the place for ourselves when the temperatures topped the 100 degree mark in March and the out-of-towners evaporated like snowflakes hitting the desert floor.  For the next eight or nine months, it would just be us desert rats and our native companions, the lizards, rattlesnakes and cacti of the Southwest.

Another thing that fascinates me about the modern-day nomads described by Bruder is the sociological implications thereof.  That these folks often stick together in common cause is no surprise; in some respects, it is no different than the Scrabble subculture that has become so familiar to me.  But the eerie, post-apocalyptic, Cormac McCarthyish wandering from place to place, the living from one Social Security check to the next, the maximum 14-day stays on federal lands, the fear of “the knock” from cops or security guards, it all strikes me as the anti-American dream.  I certainly don’t blame anyone for attempting to eke out what joy and camaraderie is available in survival mode, but my gosh, is this what the United States has come to?  I admire the pride the nomads take in their way of life, even if forced on them rather than freely chosen.  It reminds me that the line between dystopia and utopia can be fuzzy indeed.

The nomads refer to themselves as “houseless” rather than “homeless.”  As Bruder acknowledges, “the H word” has become a loaded term, fraught with some implications that don’t necessarily apply (alcoholism, drug use, mental illness) and some (poverty) that may strike a little too close to home.  It’s as if the road has become the new diaspora.  The dispersed keep in touch via websites, blogs and Facebook pages, accessible courtesy of free wifi available outside Starbucks, truck stops and restaurants.  And a little voice inside of me says “there, but for the grace of God, go I.”  I can’t forget how, as a child, I used to tell my parents that I wanted to live in a car.  My mother and father were horrified.  But being able to go anywhere and everywhere at a moment’s notice, with just a touch of the gas pedal, seemed like nirvana to me.  It sure beat taking baths and doing homework.

These days, as I approach the age of sixty, I have to remind myself to be careful what you ask for.  Your dreams might just come true, and they might turn out to be nightmares.  One wrong move, I think, and I, too, could end up living in a van as an alternative to living on the street.  Even worse, the people who Bruder met remind us that not even a wrong move is needed to face this fate.  You can do everything right and still end up with nothing.  The current low unemployment rate notwithstanding, the fickleness of the economy and the realities of growing older are cruel indeed.  “Part-time at Burger King is not enough money to live on,” says one of Bruder’s new road friends.  We are seeing the underside of the leaf we call capitalism, and it is covered in worms.

I must admit that I got quite a kick out of Bruder’s story about her first experience taking a shower at a truck stop, which happened to be at the Pilot off I-10 at the Q (another place I am very, very familiar with, although I’ve never showered there).  She headed up to the register to pay for her shower, carrying soap, shampoo and flip-flops in a plastic bag.  Only then did she learn, to her consternation, that a shower costs $12.  In her case, she got lucky in that a trucker at the next register paid her tab with his rewards card (usable only once every 24 hours), concluding that, heck, he hadn’t had a shower in a week, so what’s waiting one more day.

A few weeks ago, the hot water heater that serves our rented tiny house went kaput.  This meant we had no heat, no gas for cooking, and of course, the delightful experience of taking ice cold showers every day.  This untenable situation was complicated by the fact that we have become accidental subletters.  We had been renting from the owner of the big house in front of the property — that is, until he sold his business and decamped to Arizona with his family.  Now he rents out the big house to two women and, while they are certainly nice enough, we are more or less at their mercy.  Even worse, they were out of town, about nine hours away dealing with a family emergency.  We ended up on the phone, back and forth between the renters down south and the owner in Arizona, trying to figure out who was going to do something about this.  Eventually, the water heater was replaced, but not before engaging in the folly of making three fruitless attempts at finding parts and repairing the old unit.

The first day wasn’t too bad; apparently, there was still some hot water left in the lines, so a lukewarm shower was still possible.  After that:  Ice, ice, baby.  Showering became impossible by anyone other than a member of the Polar Bears Club.  Resigned to realities, I went to work without a shower.

By the end of the day, I realized that I was beginning to give off a faint odor of body sweat.  By the next morning, I was smelling really funky, and I had a big meeting to attend.  Just me, a lawyer and all of my bosses, three levels up.  Just the five of us sitting at a tiny round table while I gave a presentation.  After two days of no shower, my deodorant had decided to give up the ghost.  I tried to keep a straight face and hoped no one would notice (as if!).  Later in the day, I filled in my immediate supervisor about what was going on, just in case one of the higher-ups had something to say.  I sat in my cubicle and stank myself out the rest of the day, trying to stay as far away from people as possible.

My wife texted me at work.  Want to go to a hotel and shower?  Yes! Oh, yes, please.  As I alluded to above, I hated to bathe when I was a kid.  Luckily for me, my parents were usually too preoccupied with other things and rarely forced me to take a shower.  Being unwashed for weeks (um, months sometimes) didn’t bother me a bit.  When my grandparents would come to visit, Grandpa would be appalled.  I would tell him that he must be mistaken, because I couldn’t smell anything.  “You can’t smell yourself!” he would yell.


Well, now even I could smell myself.  This was getting bad.  My wife said she couldn’t stand it anymore.  I thought the hotel was a really great idea, but by the time I got home from work, she had come up with a cheaper alternative.  We could go to the ‘49er Truck Stop and, like Jessica Bruder, shower for $12.  But we had to get there by 6:00, after which the showers were open exclusively to truckers.  That only gave us a few minutes to drive way out to the west end of town.  Neither of us thought we would make it, but to my disappointment, we arrived just in time.  As much as I reeked, stripping down to my bare tokhis in a grimy truck stop was nowhere to be found on my 2018 wish list.  And just like Bruder, we carried in soap, shampoo, even towels.  The truck stop provides a towel, but, eewww, a truck stop towel?

We had to wait about a half hour for a shower to become available.  By that time, it was well after six, but no one seemed to care.  I couldn’t find a place to sit, so I leaned against an electronic pinball machine that was wedged into the corner.  It happened to be Ghostbusters.  Goodness, have we gone retro or what?  That’s the kind of pin I would have gladly loaded a roll of quarters into in my younger days (and probably would have made change to get a second roll of George Washingtons after that).

Wow, what a blast from the past.  I remember seeing the movie in the mid-eighties with a young lady who was home from a Peace Corps assignment in Zaire.  I knew her from college and hoped that perhaps she wouldn’t go back to Africa.  She did, and I never heard from her again.

At the truck stop, I marveled at all the flags and gates and flashing lights on the machine.  Along with the high scores, a message on the LED indicated that the now ubiquitous phrase “You’re toast!” was coined by Bill Murray for the original Ghostbusters movie.  I poked the flippers and was treated to clips from the movie.  “Either I have a monster in my kitchen or I’m completely crazy” and “it’s the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man!”


Then a shower became available.  My wife asked if we had to pay $24 because two of us needed showers and the clerk asked us whether we needed two shower keys.  One key, just $12.  Good news.  We could each take a shower, one after the other.

The shower room was tiny, but it contained a toilet, sink and a little bench.  Both of us are big people and we barely fit without tripping over each other.  The hot water felt great after a few days without, but the steam was so intense that we had to crack the door open to avoid suffocating.  I could barely fit my fat rear on that bench and my wife had to help me put my socks on.  But, by gosh, I felt clean!  And the next day at work, I didn’t smell like a sewer.


Two days later:  Still no hot water at home.  I had to go to work in San Francisco for a couple of days, but I was stinking again.  Back to the truck stop we went.  Another twelve dollars and another shower for two.  I waved to the pinball machine on the way out.  A trucker was pounding the flippers and racking up the points.

Meanwhile, I prayed that maybe, just maybe, we’d have hot water by the time we got back from the City by the Bay.  If not, I knew where we’d end up to de-stink ourselves.

Who ya gonna call?


For further reading:

Arlie Russell Hochschild, “In ‘Nomadland’, the Golden Years are the Wander Years,” New York Times (Nov. 17, 2017).

Paruhl Sehgal, “On the Road with the Casualties of the Great Recession,” New York Times (Sept. 19, 2017).

Timothy R. Smith, “’The Last Free Space in America is a Parking Spot’:  On the Road with a New Kind of Workforce,” Washington Post (Oct. 13, 2017).

Jessica Bruder’s website:  https://www.jessicabruder.com/

Bob Wells’ blog:  http://www.cheaprvliving.com/blog/


House Books, Car Books

I am reading (on my phone, in a hotel in a distant city, in the middle of the night because I can’t sleep even though I have to teach a class in the morning) New York Times article about how e-books have yet to supplant paper books, when I am struck by the illustrative photo.  Two stacks of books on a shelf, 16 tomes in all, at Common Grounds bookstore in DeKalb, Illinois.  Nothing too exciting about that, until I realize that I have actually read three of these books.  This surprises me because I routinely assume that most of the world would have no interest whatever in the books that tickle my fancy.

Indeed, I tend to think of my literary preferences as a bit off center.  For one thing, after years of reading novels, I have more or less left fiction behind, abandoned with the things of youth.  There is just too much knowledge out there awaiting my consumption (a word that conjures up images of both Mark Strand and Archibald Macleish) and application to, well, the meaning of life.  I’ll add this to the list of things that my father warned me about but that I blithely ignored until I was well into my fifth decade and finally began to see things his way.

As for my reading habits, I divide them into “house books” and “car books.”  We do a lot of long distance driving, and my wife spends most of the time behind the wheel.  So whenever I acquire a book that I believe may interest her, I save it to read aloud while she is driving.  Books that I believe she would find boring I read by myself at home.  There aren’t too many house books, for the practical reason that we live in a tiny house and I simply can’t concentrate with the TV always being on.  This may change as the weather warms up, as the other renters on the property have brought chairs and tables into the garage.  I may make that my private refuge when they’re not using it.

The photo in the Times reminded me of my wild and wooly novel-reading days.  The pictured books I have read are Jonathan Franzen’s creepily realistic The Corrections, Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon Days and George Carlin’s When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops?  Fond memories of years gone by are associated with each of these, but I have no intention of going back there.  History, autobiography, memoirs and social science have my attention these days.

My current “house book” is Kory Stamper’s Word by Word:  The Secret Life of Dictionaries.  On deck is Jessica Bruder’s Nomadland:  Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century.  After that, I plan to attack a doorstop-length biography of Harry S Truman that has been sitting in the bedroom jeering at me since I purchased it at the Truman Museum in Independence, Missouri a couple of years ago.

In the car, we are reading Lars Eighner’s homelessness memoir Travels with Lizbeth:  Three Years on the Road and on the Streets.  Before that, my wife and I read another memoir, I Will Always Write Back:  How One Letter Changed Two Lives (Ganda, Alifirenka and Welch).

I am encouraged by the inclusion of several memoirs in the Times bookstore photo, most notably George W. Bush’s Decision Points and Bill Clinton’s My Life.  Now, I’ve never thought highly of Bush the warmonger or Clinton the sex fiend, but curiosity got the better of me and, in my insomniac state, I took the opportunity to read the first few pages of the Bush memoir on amazon.com.  To Bush’s credit, he admits that he focuses on what he sees as the most critical points of his presidency rather than covering every detail of his life.  Still, he starts with a description of his childhood and high school years that he wraps up in about fifteen pages.  This makes me a bit sheepish about having written an entire book-length memoir of my childhood.

Then again, I’ve never been president.  Perhaps my childhood is the most interesting part of my otherwise bland life.

My favorite moment of Bush’s brief description of his childhood is the time he visited his wealthy grandparents in Greenwich, Connecticut, had to wear a coat and tie to dinner, and was disappointed to find a bowl of red soup with a glop of white in the middle at his place setting.  Bush found it awful, which he attributes to the fact that he was brought up on peanut butter and jelly, not borscht.

Among the most important elements of any book is the ability of the reader to relate to the protagonist.  I am certain that I’d be disappointed by Decision Points and I won’t waste my time reading it.  I simply lack the requisite empathy for oil and Wall Street wealth, and he who was born with a silver spoon in his mouth.  After all, I was raised on borscht, if only at Passover.  Also, lox, herring in cream sauce, chopped liver, gefilte fish and matzo balls.

Peanut butter and jelly I didn’t discover until high school, where a triple-decker version was a cafeteria standard.




I am standing on a sidewalk in Albany, New York with my father.  It is the late 1970s and I am, loosely speaking, a college student (I spend more time working on the college newspaper than in going to class, reading, writing papers or any of that boring stuff).  My father visits me often, for which I am eternally grateful.  Not only does he remind me of that other world, outside of college, but he takes me out to dinner (Yes!  No dining hall goop for me tonight!  Red Lobster, here I come!), buys me milk and orange juice for my tiny refrigerator, and leaves me with a twenty to stuff into my perpetually empty wallet.

I do not drive.  Driving might be a useful skill to have at this point, considering that the dorms are stuffed full with tripled-up students and I am forced to live five miles from campus on the tenth floor of a downtown single room occupancy firetrap hotel.  This means that there is a particular ordeal involved in getting back and forth to campus or getting anywhere else I might want to go:  I ride the bus.

There are the long green college buses, which are free to use with a college ID card, although the drivers almost never ask for it.  However, if I wanted to go anywhere other than up Washington Avenue to campus or back down Western Avenue in the opposite direction, there was the Capital District Transportation Authority, which went by many names.  The CDTA, the city bus, the shame train.  Back then, the fare was forty cents for a ride.  Most of the time, I didn’t have the forty cents.  But when I did (such as right after one of my father’s visits), I knew that if I were standing on the street corner when it was, say, ten below zero with a stiff wind blowing, it was exactly 30 minutes before the start of my first class of the day, and there was no Green Machine in sight, a glimpse of the #12 chugging up State Street hill would be an answer to prayer.  I gained more than a passing familiarity with the city bus schedule.

A bus blows past us and, staring at its tail lights, I remark to my father that I don’t know which bus it is because it has no number displayed in its rear window.

“Why would you want to know that?  To know which bus you just missed?”  My father laughs.  His son is weird.

Well, yes, Dad.  Actually, knowing what bus you just missed is pretty important.  After all, you wouldn’t want to wait out in the cold for a bus that had already come and gone, thinking that it was running late today.  It was important to know that you missed the bus, dummy, now you’re going to miss your European politics class again.

Seeing that “12” in the rear window of the city bus when you’re still about half a block away would occasion nothing but regret.  Regret that I didn’t wake up earlier, regret that I wasn’t able to walk faster, regret that I was forced to live so far from campus, regret that I was even taking this dumb class.  On particularly bad days (sleet and freezing rain come to mind), I would regret attending college in a city with such ungodly weather or I would regret going to college at all.  I knew I would never survive another 2½ years of this (somehow, I did).

Regret is a tough road to go down.  The older you get, the more the regrets accumulate, piling up like snowflakes in an Albany winter.  To get from one day to the next, you lull yourself into complacency by saying that, all in all, you made the right decisions and that, given the chance, you’d do it all again.  You start singing Sinatra.  “Regrets, I’ve had a few, but then again, too few to mention.”

But then it hits you over the head suddenly.  Or it comes stealing over you as a foreboding sense of dread in the middle of the night.  Those two words.  What if.

You never know what will be the trigger for these head games.  It could be a remark overheard from two cubicles down the hall at work.  It could be a story on the six o’clock news.  Or for one such as myself who daily gorges upon the smorgasbörd that is the internet, it could be lurking stealthily behind any URL or hyperlink.

This week, the regret monster hit me not once, but twice.

First, I read the story of fiftysomething Dan Lyons, who, after being laid off from his editorial job at Newsweek (just like me, when I was laid off from the state court system!), braved the culture shock of joining a startup firm full of 21 year olds with their bean bag chairs, foosball table, free beer and workspace décor “like a cross between a kindergarten and a frat house.”  Damn, I want to do that!  The place was presided over by a charismatic leader pushing platitudes that evoke both Orwell and Communist Russia.  I keep hearing that, in the tech sector at least, this is the face of corporate culture today.  It fascinates me, and I wish I were a part of it.  This is the reason that, for the last couple of years, I’ve had a vague fantasy love affair with the idea of working for Zappo’s in Las Vegas.  (I unsubscribed from their emails some time ago in order not to be repeatedly reminded of what I’m missing out on in my gray, government bureaucratic job.)

As if that weren’t bad enough, I then ran across an article about people who make a living (get this) writing dictionaries! Kory Stamper’s new book, Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries, tells the story of what it’s like to be a lexicographer with Merriam-Webster.  For one who is a word nerd and who has loved the intricacies of the English language since childhood, this seems like the ultimate dream job.  I recall reading Simon Winchester’s The Meaning of Everything, about the writing of the Oxford English Dictionary, when it was published almost 15 years ago.  Not long after, at a job interview, I was asked what would be my ideal job if I could do anything in the world.  The interviewer told me his was “rock star.”  I didn’t hesitate when I told him that I wanted to be the editor of the OED.  Need I say that I didn’t get the job?

Alas, nothing is ever as good as it sounds.  Decades ago, I read (mostly while standing in the aisle of a bookstore in Paramus, New Jersey, as I couldn’t afford to actually buy the book) Scott Turow’s memoir of his first year at Harvard Law School.  One L mesmerized me and was certainly one of the factors that influenced me to eventually attend law school.  Yet as much as Turow waxed poetic over “learning to love the law,” I never managed to quite pull off that particular flavor of amour.  I wonder if I’d be similarly disappointed if I were, like Stamper, “falling in love with words.”  The irony that Merriam-Webster is located in Springfield, Massachusetts, the same fading industrial city in which I attended law school, is not lost on me.

Regret returns with a vengeance to bite me in the ass again!  As a third-rate student at a second-rate law school, I suppose that I shouldn’t have been surprised upon graduating from the big U to the little u (unemployment).  The only employer willing to hire me was Wendy’s (yes, that one, home of the Frosty), and even they were concerned about whether they could find a uniform large enough to fit me.  I ended up going back home to New York to work for a temp agency until I finally found a low-paying job as a typesetter with a weekly newspaper.  I would lay awake at night regretting having wasted three years and untold thousands of dollars, and thinking about burning my law diploma, or tearing it to bits and putting it out with the trash, or perhaps using it as toilet paper and flushing it down the loo (no telling what that would have done to the wonky septic system in my parents’ house).  And all of that when look what I could have done!  I could have just driven my aging Pontiac down to Federal Street and asked for an application to work as a lexicographer!  If only I had known.  How dumb was I not to know what was available right in the very city in which I lived?

I must confess:  After reading the review of Stamper’s book and staring a bit too wistfully at the MW dictionary with the red cover that I’ve owned since junior high and that now graces my desk at work, I couldn’t resist taking a peek at Merriam-Webster’s website to see if there were any jobs posted.  My labor was all in vain.  While the link to “Join MWU” was tantalizing, it was not about joining the staff but about paying $29.95 annually to join an email subscription to definitions to “over 250,000 words that aren’t in our free dictionary.”  There was a “contact” link on the website, but none of the categories on the drop-down menu had anything at all to do with career opportunities.

The fog soon cleared and it all started to make sense.  Stamper herself admits that when she first tells others that she works writing dictionaries, “one of the first things they ask is if we’re hiring.”  Well, it wasn’t long before I came across another article citing that, with the popularity of free dictionaries online, Merriam-Webster, which didn’t have a large staff to begin with, recently laid off seventy employees.

All of which teaches me that you can’t go home again.  Even Dan Lyons soon left the startup for greener pastures.  Scott Turow became a novelist.  And Kay Stamper, while still a lexicographer, no longer occupies an office in the brick building on Federal Street, but now telecommutes from her home near Philadelphia.

Life goes on, but I know that, sooner or later, I will read or hear or see something that will once again have me craning my neck to make out the number of the bus that has passed me by.  As my wife often reminds me, I need to learn to be content, to count my blessings.  To tell that bus “later, gator.”

And it’s true.  Life’s been good, so there’s no need to constantly ruminate about the road not taken.  Regrets, I’ve had a few, but then again, too few to mention…

What I Learned This Week

TGIF!  Happy weekend to all those who worked all week and now have a chance to relax.  Now two weeks unemployed, every day is the weekend for me!  Not to rub it in or anything.

What I Learned This Week:

  • WinCo Foods may have decent prices, but they are not very community oriented.  They expect local residents to spend their money there, but they refuse to allow local churches to conduct a holiday canned food drive outside their store on Saturday mornings.  A manager told me that this is easier than choosing who to say yes to and who to turn down.  She also told me that their attorneys won’t allow it.  I wonder what would happen if the community were to turn WinCo down the way they turn down the community?  Lucky thing there are so many other supermarkets in the area.  Wonder if they all feel the same way?
  • We have a population of resident frogs on the property between the church and the parsonage.  And I don’t mean the little things that hop out of the bushes at night at my parents’ house.  No, these guys are big suckers.  The kind of grenouilles whose cuisses show up drenched in garlic butter at French restaurants.  The kind that end up pickled in formaldehyde and dissected in biology classrooms.  The kind of tz’fardeah that jumped out of the Nile en masse and took up residence in the mixing bowls of the Egyptians and in Pharaoh’s bed chamber and in his bed.  I don’t know what these guys are feeding on, but they are obviously happy amphibians.  Ribbit!
  • Tower Mart’s deli counter closes promptly at 7 pm.  So if you get a hankering for some potato wedges in the evening, forget it!
  • My niece has acquired a one-piece PJ outfit that is all red and white stripes with pictures of the Sock Monkey on the pocket and on the footies.  Adorable!
  • The way Highway 70 in Marysville is being chopped to pieces by construction crews, it is very difficult to get over to Yuba City, particularly if you are new to the area and haven’t a clue about where you’re going.
  • When you buy a book for a penny on eBay, do not be surprised if it has been written in, marked up and highlighted to within an inch of its life by a maniacal college student.
  • Marie Callender’s sells frozen pie crusts in the supermarket, and they are both vegetarian and kosher.  Big smiles!
  • If I clap my hands, my little grandniece will copy me and start clapping, too.  If only I could figure out who or what we are applauding.
  • If Starbucks messes up your drink, they will not only remake it for you, but will also give you a coupon for a free drink next time.  Woot!
  • My mother-in-law’s coconut crème pies are a huge hit with all of our family and friends.  Three cheers for Aunt Jackie pie!
  • Technology has always confuzzled me, but I am a bigger technodork than even I imagined.  I have just barely figured out how to use Spotify, but Twitter is making me frustrated!  Sign me “caught somewhere between the @ sign and the hash tag.”

Blogs I discovered and enjoyed this week:

  • Piglove – The adventures of Bacon, the pot-bellied pig!
  • Must Be This Tall to Ride – Dad shares custody of his five year old son while maintaining his sanity and his job as a writer.  Funny, funny stuff.  No typos, please!

Blog posts that most moved me this week:


Twilight outside our new digs.  In silhouette are my nephew and niece.  After spending hours digging a trench to try to fix the gas line to the social hall, my nephew had to drive back over here to help my niece when her car wouldn’t start.  If you listen very closely, you can hear my grandniece in her car seat screaming her fool head off — just because she can.

On Scott Berkun and Working Remotely

remote working

As disappointing as it was to be laid off recently, not working has provided me with a lot more time to read, both here in the blogosphere and offline (those bound-up paper thingies called “books”).  When I was working, it might take me a month or more to get through a book.  But today I did something that I haven’t done in many years:  I read an entire book straight through in a single day.

Some of this reading was accomplished at the kitchen table, some on the living room sofa and some seated on a pew outside the entrance of the church next door, while batting away moths that persisted in landing on my book, on my shirt and in my hair.

The book in question was Scott Berkun’s The Year Without Pants.  Sure, I was curious about how Matt Mullenweg started Automattic and I was interested in learning a little bit about what goes on behind the scenes of the bloggy world we so love at wordpress.com.  The real reason I picked up this book, however, was to experience Berkun’s take on working remotely, what he refers to as “the future of work.” 

You see, I am considering pursuing an employment opportunity that would be almost entirely online, “working from home.”  And despite the obvious advantages of such an arrangement, I harbor more than a little trepidation.

I am duly impressed by the “distributed” environment in which Automattic’s employees can be (and often are) all over the world, collaborating with the aid of such tools as IRC and Skype.  (IRC?  Seriously?  Is that dinosaur still around?  I’d rather not think about it.  Too many stories of misspent nights on IRC in the not-so-halcyon days of my youth.)  And yet, Berkun points out that something is definitely missing when coworkers type to each other.  It is difficult to gain a full understanding of another’s remarks when such cues as body language and tone of voice are stripped away.

There has to be something exciting about collaborating with colleagues in Europe, Asia and Australia, right?  I would think that the cultural diversity involved, rather than constituting barriers, would contribute depth and breadth to the conversation.  Not to mention that, when working on a product, it is helpful to have firsthand feedback on ways in which the interface and documentation could be interpreted very differently overseas than it is in the United States.

But then there is the fact that Automattic is a “flat” rather than hierarchical organization. It is one thing to provide and receive assistance from colleagues when everyone is on the same level.  It is quite another to have to constantly report to a boss, and to monitor employees, who may be hundreds or thousands of miles away.

On a personal level, how would I deal with the challenges of working remotely?  Would my work habits fit in with this mode of operation?  Berkun is right on target when he admits that working remotely is not for everyone.  To succeed at remote work, he points out, people must be “masters of their own habits to be productive, whether it’s avoiding distractions, staying disciplined on projects, or even replacing the social life that comes from conventional work with other friendships.”

Bingo!  My chief fear about working remotely is that I am simply not disciplined enough to be successful.

To date, all of my employment has been within established work hours in a traditional brick-and-mortar office environment.  About five years ago, however, I experienced a tiny taste of what it’s like to work remotely, and it did not go well.  My wife was in the hospital for a few days, and rather than using vacation time and absenting myself from my projects entirely, I promised to work online in between running back and forth to the hospital.

Bad decision.

Aside from the obvious distractions (the doctors were trying to figure out whether my wife had fallen victim to the H1N1 virus and my mind was not really on work), I quickly discovered that when I was not at work physically, I was not there mentally either.  Even though I had access to the corporate intranet and was supposed to be working (our crude collaborative efforts consisted of instant messaging), I found myself drawn to such other occupations as:

  • Sleeping
  • Playing turns in my ongoing email Scrabble tournament
  • Reading blogs
  • Messing around on Facebook
  • Did I mention sleeping?

After four days of this, my wife was back at home, I was back at work, and I breathed a sigh of relief on both counts.

Berkun posits that some folks need to have that barrier between their home life and their work life, and for them, a traditional work environment is more suitable than working remotely.  My wife, however, says that I just need to buck up and learn some self-discipline.  She may be right.  Perhaps I could do this if I just set my mind to it.

Think of how practical this would be if I could pull it off.  We now live in a small town in northern California, surrounded by family, and with expenses a heck of a lot lower than they would be down the road in Silicon Valley or San Francisco.  I could be working right now, in the middle of the night, on a laptop dangling off a TV tray, sitting in our living room listening to Steely Dan over headphones.  Or sitting in Starbucks with a soy latte.  Or out in the fresh air on the church pew next door, batting the moths away.  And who knows?  Maybe we’d finally be able to fulfill our dreams of living part of the year by the ocean in Pismo Beach.

This working remotely thing is starting to sound better and better.

Breaking the Rules: The Fosters and Madame Bovary

The Fosters

I had no intention of watching The Fosters.  I am not big on television to begin with, but when I was forced to see repeated ads for this show at the bottom of my iPhone screen for a week before the premiere, my contempt meter went through the roof.  So the last thing I expected was that I would be looking forward to the series’ fourth episode that airs this evening.

What happened is that one day my wife informed me that she had recorded a new show that she thought we both would enjoy.  It’s about a lesbian couple who take in a variety of foster children, she explained.

My wife knows me very well.  As I have long been an advocate of foster care and adoption, she was right to think that this show would be right up my alley.

Coincidentally, when The Fosters began airing at the beginning of this month, I happened to be reading Gustave Flaubert’s masterpiece, Madame Bovary.  Now, one would logically think that a TV drama about a modern family would have nothing in common with a classic 19th century French tale about the boredom, desire, disappointment and betrayal of a middle class wife.  But looking a bit below the surface, significant parallels emerge.

Among the themes of The Fosters are the consequences for violating the rules of society and the conflict between our true inner selves and the outward image we present to the world.  The character of Callie (played by Maia Mitchell) was introduced in the first episode of the show while she was in juvenile detention, a result of a rampage in which she vandalized her foster father’s car.  Callie’s initial reputation in Stef and Lena’s home is colored by that incident, her stint in juvie, the fact that she was beaten up there and has the bruises to show for it, and her in-your-face “what’s it to ya” attitude.  It is quickly revealed, however, that all of the above were the results of her attempts to protect her little brother.  It soon becomes apparent that her “tough girl” veneer is more of a survival mechanism than anything else.  The outer layers begin to peel away when her love of music, closely associated with memories of her mother, enables her to make a connection with Brandon (but not before she almost gets him killed trying to help her rescue her brother).  Still, Callie seems reluctant to drop her guard too far; after all, this is just another foster home and she doesn’t want to be hurt yet again.

Like Callie, Emma Bovary presents herself to the world as one thing when she is really quite another.  Emma attempts to play the role of the respectable middle class wife of a country doctor, while in reality she is bored to tears and wracked with inner passions that lead her to infidelity not once, but twice.  In the end, neither of her two lovers, Rodolphe and Léon, can save her from herself.

Both Callie and Mme. Bovary are forced to break the rules and risk the opprobrium of society in order to be true to themselves.  The moral of both stories is that standing one’s ground comes with consequences.  Callie’s attempt to protect her brother lands her in juvie; Emma’s deceptions (regarding finances and her tawdry affairs) lead her to suicide.

Brandon (played by David Lambert) and Mariana (played by Cierra Ramirez) also put up a brave front while they are fighting their inner demons.  Brandon, a talented pianist, is heading for college and is initially presented with a rather straitlaced image.  (To some extent anyway; the show contains numerous references to he and Madisen being sexually active.)  However, the arrival of Callie turns his world upside down.  He begins to shuck off his outer layer and explore his inner self as he absconds without permission to help Callie, then tells off his moms when his father asks Brandon to come live with him.  Stef and Lena are shocked by this uncharacteristic behavior; they didn’t think he had it in him.  Despite being disappointed by Brandon’s mischief, it is easy to see that they have just a tiny bit of pride in him (as they do for Callie) for standing up for what he believes in, consequences be damned.

Mariana’s exterior persona is that of the happy teen and good student with many friends and a good life.  Inside, however, she is tortured by her lack of a relationship with her birth mother.  Her attempts to regain that relationship lead her down the path of stealing, selling drugs and lying.  Mariana’s story turns out to be a bit of a morality play as her birth mother ends up betraying her and she narrowly escapes trouble with the law during a school locker search for drugs.

Like the characters in The Fosters, Flaubert presents Emma Bovary as consumed by the ghosts of the past and indeterminate longings for what might have been.  As a child, she is unhappy with the nuns at her convent, then she is unhappy taking care of her widowed father at Les Bertaux, then she is unhappy in her marriage to Charles.  She wants more excitement in her life, and chases after it in novels, in opera, in conspicuous consumption and in illicit love affairs.  She repeatedly deceives her devoted husband in order to engage in her trysts, but ends up being betrayed by her lovers.  She is more than willing to break the rules to chase her dreams, but ultimately she is unable to run away from herself.  She is left ruined financially, her public reputation in tatters, her heart empty.

One would hope that it is not too late for Stef and Lena’s kids to avoid such a fate.  Emma is so repulsed by the bourgeois lifestyle and the shell of her marriage that she incapable of turning to her husband, who has cared for her all along, as a last bastion of hope, refuge and forgiveness.  The teens in The Fosters, however, are just starting their young lives and still have time to turn them around.  They are not yet as jaded as Emma Bovary, and still susceptible to the love and guidance that their moms have to offer.

I find it interesting that the elements of a good story have changed very little from the nineteenth century to the twenty-first.  Conflicts between our public persona and our inner desires, and conflicts between temptation to break the rules and the extent of our willingness to accept the social consequences will always be a part of the human drama.

And just as Flaubert himself broke the rules when he shocked his public with a tale of adultery, ABC Family created quite a stir in conservative circles by spinning a tale of a motley crew of foster kids headed by a lesbian couple.

Perhaps authors can create a compelling story only when they themselves are willing to sample a taste of what their characters are experiencing.


A Farewell to Old Friends


I have to get rid of some books.

This is not just a matter of spring cleaning, a ritual from which I have long ago declared books to be exempt.  This is more serious:  We may have to move.

Let me start by saying that moving hundreds of miles from one end of the state to the other is not exactly one of life’s lovely moments.  In fact, I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.

So this time we are planning ahead.   We are taking action tinged with regret, but necessary nonetheless.  Doing things like cleaning out closets and selling stuff on eBay.  And yes, culling the book collection.

It would not be too much exaggeration to say that my library is my prized possession.  It is something like an extended family in which individual volumes are brothers, sisters, aunts and uncles, each with his or her unique internal and external stories.  Internal as in the pages and words between the covers, external as in memories of when and where I read them, not to mention my particular stage of life at the time and how they affected me emotionally and changed the way I think about things.  Even recalling how I acquired each book is a story in itself.  Some of those stories are pretty boring (Barnes & Noble), others are lost to the sands of time, while still others are never-to-be-forgotten moments involving library book sales, incredible finds in dusty piles and books borrowed and never returned.

Some people say their books are their children.  I won’t go that far.  I don’t make enough money to support several hundred children.

The hard part of this little exercise is determining which books stay and which go.  I’ve been approaching this problem by means of triage.  I have favorites that I would never think of setting loose, while there are others that I must admit were obtained in ill-considered moments of weakness and (sotto voce) were never actually read.  (Gulp!)  I feel like a bad person even making this admission.  At any rate, the former will stay and the latter will go.

In between these two categories are books that I enjoyed years ago.  Perhaps I still smile when I notice them sitting on the shelf.  But I know deep in my heart that I will never reread them.  These are the hard decisions.  The pleasant memories associated with these books will remain with me whether or not I continue to own them.  For I will always own them; they have been incorporated into who I am in a way that cannot be deleted merely because a copy no longer sits in a bookcase in my house.

Some of these middle category books will be sold, given to friends or donated to the thrift shop along with the aforementioned ill-conceived purchases.  Others will find their way into packing boxes sealed with tape and labeled in black marker, alphabetically by author.  They will be loaded into a truck, transported to another city and unpacked in the next place we call home.

I know I will keep the literary greats — Mark Twain, Flaubert, Shakespeare, Steinbeck — along with many obscure books that I have come to love for quirky reasons that I cannot always elucidate.  Our collections of novels by Carol Shields, John Grisham and Anne Tyler will follow us wherever we go.  My fat reference books that weigh many pounds, of course.

But what of Garrison Keillor, John Irving and Barbara Ehrenreich?  No.  Enjoyed at one time, I have moved on and will free them to be enjoyed again by others.  What about Bill Bryson and Stephen Jay Gould?  I’m still not sure.  As much as I love the former’s travel writing and the latter’s explanations of the mysteries of the natural world, I know I could do without them.  Nevertheless, I have a sneaky suspicion that they will be coming with.

I will probably relieve myself of a number of books about computers and the Internet, although I will undoubtedly keep a few.  These are subjects that ought to be updated daily, and I know I will acquire more recent works as time goes on.

Novels are more difficult to decide between.  I will never get rid of my Salingers, but what of Lorrie Moore, Barbara Kingsolver and Ann Hood?  I’d love to keep them, but I have to get rid of something.  I just don’t know whether it will be the works of these particular authors.

Have you ever heard of a collection of short stories titled Plan B for the Middle Class by Ron Carlson?  How about The Fruit Cocktail Diaries by Carmody and Hayduk?  Last Night at the Lobster by Stewart O’Nan?  Microserfs by Douglas Coupland?  These relatively obscure titles are favorites that I do not plan to part with, not only because I have already hauled them across a continent, but also because I love them.

Many will be appalled at the titanic titles and authoritative authors that I will dismiss with a pat on the binding and a last wistful look.  How could I bear to part with these defining novels when I am keeping such dreck?

For me, selecting books to cull from my collection will always be a bit of a Sophie’s Choice.  In the immortal words of Simon and Garfunkel, any way you look at it you lose.  But when the pressure of moving day approaches, choose I must.  And as I bid goodbye to forgotten volumes covered in dust as well as some old favorites, I am comforted by one thought that remains in the back of my mind.

I can always go online and find another copy.