Las Vegas

What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.  That’s the party line, but some of my random trips to Sin City were in my mind lately, so I thought I’d toss a few thoughts out here.  I’ve been to Vegas a number of times, for a number of different reasons.  Conferences, work assignments, pleasure trips with friends, and an odd semi-family reunion with my grandparents and mother.  Each experience was quite different.  Don’t worry, they’re all tame stories.

At a developers’ conference, I spent more time than I like to admit actually attending the conference sessions.  There are only two things I remember that weren’t work related.  One, I dragged an Indian co-worker to the Star Trek casino at the Las Vegas Hilton.  Sadly, the Star Trek experience is no longer, but I thought it was the best thing ever when I first visited.  Who can resist the slot machines activated by hand motions or the soothing blue and purple haze that defied the standard casino assault of horrific bright white lights everywhere?  My Indian friend indulged me, but being from India, Star Trek wasn’t to him what it was to me, having grown up with Star Trek: The Next Generation.  Two, I went on a helicopter ride with another co-worker at night where we cruised at such a slow speed I was convinced we’d simply drop out of the sky any moment.  I’m not a fan of flying in general, and the two times I have been in helicopters, I’d have tried to climb up to the ceiling if I weren’t buckled in, just to be a slight bit further from the point of impact if we crashed.

Many years ago, I went to Vegas because my grandparents and my mother and then step-dad were going to be there.  My grandpa used to go to Vegas every year for a sportsman’s show.  It was a business related trip, so they got to write off practically everything they did.  For years, my grandparents had a big glass vase on a shelf that was full of quarters.  Every quarter they got back in change from some random purchase went into the jar – it was their gambling money jar.  My grandparents are thrifty.  They never had much money to spare, but I think Las Vegas was my grandma’s favorite place to go.  I don’t know if she actually went anywhere else outside the immediate Midwest, now that I think about it.  She loved the slots.  She generally stuck to the penny and nickel slots, and she was disapproving as slot machines became more modernized and you could spin by simply pressing a button.  Pulling the handle was what it was all about, and she thought the buttons took the fun out of it.  More than once, she won enough at the slots to practically pay for their entire trip.

It was on this trip that I found what is still my favorite casino.  Slots-O-Fun.  The name alone gets it points in my book.  This place is a complete dive of a casino situated next to Circus Circus and across the street from The Riviera, which is where my grandparents always stayed, even as it declined and became a pretty crummy hotel.  I’m a fan of most things dive-y, except, of course, hotels.  Dive bars and dive diners rank high on my list, as does this dive casino.  Slots-O-Fun is particularly great on weeknights because it’s not so busy and all the table games are much cheaper than anywhere else on the strip.  Who can argue with quarter roulette?  I spent hours and hours at a roulette table with my mother one night, and walked away a few hundred dollars ahead.  Not bad for a quarter table.

A few years ago, I went with my partner to Las Vegas for a weekend, ahead of a work assignment I had for the following week.  It was one of the most relaxing and enjoyable weekends I’ve had, even surrounded by the steady bombardment of screeching slot machines.  We saw Love, the Cirque de Soleil show set to Beatles music, and it was amazing.  I highly recommend it to anyone who is even slightly a Beatles fan.  My uncle turned me into a die-hard when I was only a kid, so it was heaven to me.  We rode the roller coaster at New York, New York.  We went to the Fine Art Gallery at the Bellagio.  We stayed until closing at a Piano Bar where we had to pay $20 apiece just to get a seat.  I blew $20 more bribing the piano guy to sing Bon Jovi so I could scream it at the top of my drunken lungs.  I hadn’t been dating my partner for very long yet, and she had to head back home before I did.  She left me a note scribbled on tiny pieces of paper from the hotel’s notepad telling me how much fun she’d had – it was during that trip that we both stepped over the line from dating to being unable to bear time apart from each other.  I still carry that note in my computer bag.

Anyone else have some Vegas stories to share?

The Guatemalan

I used to work with a girl whose family was from Peru.  She’s a good friend, and although none of us still works at the marketing agency, we are all still in close touch.  All includes grass-phobia girl, and some others I have yet to write about. We had a number of hazing rituals when new employees joined the company, one of which was convincing the newbie that the Peruvian was really from Guatemala (or occasionally, another Central or South American country). It drove her nuts, which just provided us with more fuel for the game. Some of us were more convincing liars than others, though. More than once, we ran a marketing campaign that targeted Hispanics, and thus required all copy to be translated to Spanish. We were too cheap to hire a real translator, and though the Peruvian speaks fluent conversational Spanish, she didn’t trust her formal or written Spanish enough to translate for us. So, she enlisted her grandmother. Another example of selling capabilities we didn’t actually have to clients if they only asked is here.

Once I was on a phone call with a software developer working on one such campaign. He was no longer a newbie – he had probably been working with us for at least a year, maybe more. On the call, he expressed his concern that not only were we taking advantage of an employee’s poor grandmother, we were having someone whose native language was Portuguese do our Spanish translations. I laughed, thinking he was just perpetuating the “Peru = Guatemala = Other Hispanic Country” joke. He didn’t laugh back. He thought the Peruvian was really from Brazil. I laughed again, still thinking he was pulling my leg, but no. He was dead serious. I corrected him and said, she really is from Peru and her grandmother really does speak real Spanish. He argued with me, and said, no, she was from Brazil. It took some cajoling, but when I found out who’d told him she was from Brazil, it all fell into place. It was the best liar we had in the company, and he’d absolutely convinced software guy that she was from Brazil. Liar guy had a way of working lies into practically every element of his work, and he always got away with it.  He’s the guy who should’ve been fired long ago, but outlasted all of the rest of us.  Software guy swore he would never talk to liar guy ever again when I finally convinced him Peru was really her country of origin. Miserable as that job was, I sure do miss some of the hijinks.

Typical American

As promised last Monday, here again is a bit of writing from a book I enjoyed immensely. This is a selection from the first chapter of Typical American, by Gish Jen, a wonderful novel about American immigration that is unlike any other. Her imagery is stunning, and the story itself is full of comic tragedy. Enjoy!

   On the way to America, Yifeng studied. He reviewed his math, his physics, his English, struggling for long hours with his broken-backed books, and as the boat rocked and pitched he set out two main goals for himself. He was going to be first in his class, and he was not going home until he had his doctorate rolled up to hand his father. He also wrote down a list of subsidiary aims.

1. I will cultivate virtue. (A true scholar being a good scholar; as the saying went, there was no carving rotten wood.)
2. I will bring honor to the family.

What else?

3. I will do five minutes of calisthenics daily.
4. I will eat only what I like, instead of eating everything.
5. I will on no account keep eating after everyone else has stopped.
6. I will on no account have anything to do with girls.

    On 7 through 10, he was stuck until he realized that number 6 about the girls was so important it counted for at least four more than itself. For girls, he knew, were what happened to even the cleverest, most diligent, most upright of scholars; the scholars kissed, got syphilis, and died without getting their degrees.
He studied in the sun, in the rain, by every shape moon. The ocean sang and spit; it threw itself on the deck. Still he studied. He studied as the Horizon developed, finally, a bit of skin – land! He studied as that skin thickened, and deformed, and resolved, shaping itself as inevitably as a fetus growing eyes, growing ears. Even when islands began to heave their brown, bristled backs up through the sea (a morning sea so shiny it seemed to have turned into light and light and light), he watched only between pages. For this was what he’d vowed as a corollary of his main aim – to study until he could see the pylons of the Golden Gate Bridge.
That splendor! That radiance! True, it wasn’t the Statue of Liberty, but still in his mind its span glowed bright, an image of freedom, of hope, and relief for the seasick. The day his boat happened into the harbor, though, he couldn’t make out the bridge until he was almost under it, what with the fog; and all there was to hear was foghorns. These honked high, low, high, low, over and over, like a demented musician playing his favorite two notes.

Diversity or lack thereof

I grew up in an area of the Midwest that had little diversity in its population. I don’t think there were any non-white residents of Sheboygan Falls when I lived there. There is a concentrated community of Asians in Sheboygan, though. When the United States fought in Vietnam, our government recruited many Hmong natives from neighboring Laos to assist in a secret part of the war being waged there. Various historical accounts debate what promises were made to the Hmong, but the general consensus was that we would assist these people at the end of the war. When we left, however, we abandoned the Hmong, who were then persecuted, victims of intended genocide by the Vietnamese and Thai. Eventually, we granted many Hmong refugee status in the United States in a feeble attempt to make up for our misdeeds.

This was a people from southeastern Asia, though, and why our government chose to settle them primarily in Wisconsin and Minnesota is absolutely beyond me. Their adjustment to life in the United States would be hard enough – why place them in a harsh and bitterly cold climate that couldn’t be more different than the tropics they came from? Large communities of Hmong were settled in cities like Sheboygan and Kenosha, but they were persecuted for their different cultural beliefs, and viewed as incapable people that were only here to live off of welfare. They were ridiculed openly, and still face discrimination today. I never personally knew any Hmong people, but they do reflect one of my earliest senses of cultural difference living in an area full of white people of mostly European descent.

The only other cultural subgroup I knew of while growing up was the Indian. There is a rich history of Native Americans in Wisconsin, and many of the towns and cities carry Native American names, such as Menominee, Winnebago, Waukesha, Kewaunee, Waupaca, Manitowoc, Ozaukee, and Oconomowoc. There are two rivers with the name Kinnickinnic, which referred to a blend of tobacco and other plants, or literally, “what is mixed” in Ojibwa. Sheboygan has Native American origins as well, though many scholars debate the correct translation of the name. These names roll off my tongue with ease, but whenever I speak them aloud to others that are unfamiliar with them, I often have to repeat myself and even spell the words for people to make sense of the sounds.

I learned at a young age I wasn’t supposed to talk about Indians. I didn’t understand why it might offend someone. There are eleven federally recognized Native American tribes still in Wisconsin, but unfortunately, people like my grandparents and great-grandparents were not far enough removed from their ancestors that they had forgotten the clashes between the white man and the Indian. Still, there has been some effort to preserve sacred burial grounds, and there have been some significant archaeological finds, too. There’s a park on the south side of Sheboygan called Indian Mound Park. It contains effigy mounds created by the Native Americans. They were burial sites, and mounds of earth were built over graves in the shapes of animals the Native Americans held sacred – deer, turtles, panthers. Effigy mounds can be found outside of Wisconsin, but the largest concentration of them is in Southern Wisconsin.

There’s also an old family homestead, owned by the Henschels, which operates a small Indian museum. Their property near the Sheboygan Marsh, once a glacial lake, is the site of Wisconsin’s oldest red ochre burial ground, and dates somewhere between 600 and 800 B.C. The ancient burial site was accidentally discovered when a farmer was plowing and his horses fell through the ground into a big hole. A number of Native Americans were positioned, seated in a circle, and buried together in what was surely an ancient ritual practice. I found I am related to the Henchels by marriage in my genealogy research. The farmer whose horses fell through the hole is the uncle of the husband of my second great-grand aunt. This family is said to have co-existed with the Indians in the mid-1850s, and their museum is full of artifacts found on their property.

Many of the people I knew in Wisconsin took all this rich history for granted. I didn’t begin to appreciate it until I had been away for more than a decade, myself. I never understood all the prejudice against anyone that wasn’t white and German or maybe Nordic, but we were never confronted with much difference, either, so like many people, I didn’t give it a lot of thought until I got older. I realized at a young age that I had a real interest in other cultures. I’d always wanted to travel, but never thought it would be possible. Almost no one I knew of in my family had ever travelled far. It was a big deal to go to out of state – most people rarely leave the immediate area, let alone travel outside the Midwest.

I did eventually figure out how to get out of the Midwest, and I’ve traveled internationally some, though not as much as I’d like.  I’ve been to Thailand, Costa Rica, London, and Amsterdam.  My genealogy research has set my sights on Eastern Europe.  I have had a hard time digging up information on my father’s grandfather, the stowaway from Romania, before his life in the states, so I hope one day to go to the village he came from to see what I can uncover about his family. Of course, living in the Bay Area, I’m surrounded by diversity now, and that’s a good thing.

What were some of your early lessons about diversity? International travel experiences?

Great posts from around the blogosphere

I noticed on Junebug’s blog that on Sundays, she features blog posts she’s enjoyed from around the blogosphere.  It seems like a great idea, so I’m going to steal it (thanks, Junebug) – not necessarily for every Sunday, but we’ll see.  For this morning, though, here are some of the posts/blogs I’ve enjoyed the most over the past month:

The Wuc – The Wuc’s blog is the funniest thing I’ve read in as long as I can remember.  If you’re not already reading this, do not waste another minute of your life without the sarcasm, wit, and brilliance of this hilarious blog.  I recommend reading ‘About the Wuc’ and the descriptions of all the characters she writes about under ‘who the wuc is…’ before you dive into the posts.  BTW, this is one of those blogs where it is absolutely worth your time to dig into the older posts.  You’ll be doubled over and addicted before you know it.

jonellert – The Taming of the Ground Squirrel – This four-part story will leave you in stitches as jon describes his personal battle with an adorable ground squirrel that is tearing up his prized yard. A must-read. I’ve linked to part 4 of the series, but just follow the links back to part 1.

Bottle Caps and Broken Bits – Check out this brief bit of worldly advice. Simple, but oh, so wise.

And, finally, a few posts about the 80s, which I happen to believe trumps all in music and ridiculous fashions. This post on great 80s films took me back, as did this post on the origins of MTV.

Happy reading. I hope you enjoy these posts as much as I did!


If I ever want to get anything done, I have to have a list.  I actually have a list all the time, but sometimes it finds a temporary home in a stack of things to ignore.  When I’m ignoring my list, my days ramble.  It’s not that I don’t accomplish anything – I do (I have many obsessions, and one of them is being productive), but my life becomes reactive.  That said, I never let it get too far out of hand.  Often enough, I kick myself in the butt and realize it’s time to resurrect the list.  When I get into list mode, I go a little overboard.

First, I rewrite the list on a new, clean sheet of paper, carrying over only the things that didn’t get done last time.  Somehow this makes it seem fresh and like I will do all the things that are on the list.  Sometimes I have to do this more than once, because I obsess over organizing items on the list in some way that seems sensible to me in the moment, but then I realize it’s not, or I have to add something and there’s no room in the section I created for things of that type.    Sometimes I write things on the list that are already done just so I can mark them off.

I’ve been in ‘ignore list’ mode for a while, now, and I’m just on the cusp of switching back into ‘pay attention to list’ mode.  I have a memoir in progress that I’ve been ignoring in order to get some perspective, and I think it’s really starting to pay off.  I have more than 350 pages – and, I am starting to see I probably only need half that.  When I started writing, I was writing from a list – a list of topics that represented my life.  It covered mostly my growing up years, but it was a laundry list, and the resulting full story seems a bit like a big pot of spaghetti.  Perhaps the biggest issue with where I left off is that my story had no ending, and I’ve come to believe that’s because it had no central theme.

So, as I get ready to resurrect my list, it will have a significantly different focus than it did the last time around.  It was incredibly helpful to do a brain dump of all the things I wrote about, but now I am excited to start to sift through it, make decisions about what is important and what isn’t, and find the real story within all the writing.  For those of you that have done memoir or creative non-fiction writing, what does your process look like?

Cat Power

I have a friend who is crazy for bacon.  I know.  Who’s not?  But my friend’s obsession is extreme (most of them are, like her grass phobia) – so, my partner once took a picture of a package of bacon using my iPhone and associated that image with my friend.  When she calls, I see crispy fried bacon.  All good. She called today, which prompted me to remember another case of iPhone hijacking, but some back story is required.

I’ve written before about the fact that I worked for a marketing agency. The place had trouble with turnover. Someone recently did an official count of how many people were hired and left in the past couple of years. The company averages about 20 employees, but 32 people have come and gone in less than 3 years. Amazing, I know. Anyway, a few years ago, the President of our company hired a person who we were told was a whiz-bang expert at Client Service, which is sort of the holy grail function in a marketing agency, and a role that had gone unfilled for a long time. This guy was awesome, we were told. He had years and years of experience and had started and sold multiple companies, one of which turned into a pretty major player in the digital marketing space. He was going to be our savior, especially since there was a guy that worked in Client Service that all of us in Production secretly wanted to kill. Well, it wasn’t even that much of a secret, actually. This guy made our lives more miserable than a vegetarian eating liver and onions would be.

A few months in, none of us could see the whiz-bang in our new SVP. We didn’t get it. We didn’t get him. He was very Texas, and we were very San Francisco. He liked to talk, but he didn’t understand what we did and he didn’t like to do any actual work.  He was very polite, and the evil and small New Yorker he inherited was meaner than Faye Dunaway in Mommie Dearest. Our “savior” was ineffective, forgetful, and entirely unable to exert any control over The Devil. So, we began to ignore him and go on about our frustrating work. One week a handful of us were in Las Vegas for some client that had a display at a big tech conference. Between courses at a late and luxurious dinner, the big boss checked his email and just stared at his phone – so we all followed suit. Below is the exchange we found in our inboxes, names removed for the sake of privacy:

Email 1
From: Evil New Yorker with Anger Management Issues
To: Entire Staff
Subject: Stuck in Charlotte

Sorry for the mass email, but my quick-in-quick-out has turned into a nightmare. I’m stuck spending the night in Charlotte. My brick is dead and my cell is about to croak. Supposedly flying back to NYC in the morning, so hopefully I’ll be settled by the time you all read this, but if anyone’s looking for me, now you know.

[Guatemalan], we need to cancel the [big alcohol brand] call in the morning.

-The Devil

Nothing big here, nothing to worry about.  Unfortunate for The Devil, but nothing that should cause the endless staring our boss was still engaged in.  BTW, “brick” is the term we used to describe the smart phones our company forced us to use due to their unwieldy size, shape, and weight.

Email 2
From: Whiz-Bang CS SVP (aka Boss of The Devil)
To: Entire Staff
Subject: Re: Stuck in Charlotte

In times like these you need a strong leader (such as myself) and:

  • something warm to drink It should be brown and from the UK; not yello
  • A place to stay the night (remember the guidelines!!)
  • and the knowledge that I will personally help you out of this mess in any way that I can– go to JD’sBBQ and have five shiner bocks, ribs and some potatoes.Take it from me, it’s better than havng a goat’s tongue wake you up in a dirt airport.
  • YOU’LL BE OK. If I can help, lend some support or whatever call me at home ((9X7X2x 3O7–1212 or cell
  • I will however be in a deep ambien trans while my wife is in NYC living the cool life.

But, you an always trust in me –I’m here for you ===^..^=== (cat power !!!)

Are you confused yet?  I have not modified a single bit of the email above other than to change the final few digits of the very weirdly formatted phone number.  I have included it here in all its glory – spaces missing, punctuation missing, letters missing, half words, and the brilliant closing emoticon-ish image of a cat with whiskers.  Eventually, our stares turned to puzzled glances at each other, and finally the big boss broke the silence.  “Hahahahahahahahahaha.  He must be drunk.”  It was not unusual for employees to be drunk – that’s a well known activity that goes with the marketing territory.  Work hard, play hard.  Or, work til you think you’re going to die, then go drown yourself in whiskey.  This was different, though.  Drinking was a group activity, so acceptable drunkenness occurred only when you were with someone else from the company.  And even then, we had standards.  Crazy drunken emails were not part of the package.

The next morning, the entire company was abuzz about the email.  We were obsessed with trying to figure out exactly what Whiz-Bang SVP meant by “cat power!!!”  The Devil had been stuck in Charlotte – was it an obscure reference to the Carolina Panthers?  One brave soul decided to ask.  He said, “When you wrote “cat power!!!”, did you mean “cat power!!!” [said in the style of an innocent high school cheerleader raising a pom-pom high in the air], or did you mean “cat power!!!” [said in the style of the Incredible Hulk]?”  Whiz-Bang SVP replied with something somewhere in the middle, so we were no closer to an answer.  We did print out copies of the email, though, and tape them on the walls around our desks to help raise our spirits on dark days.

A few weeks later, the entire company gathered in San Francisco for some meetings.  We ended one day with an exhausting scavenger hunt through Chinatown and North Beach and our significant others and friends joined us for dinner and drinks.  After we’d had a few, someone convinced my partner to go talk to Whiz-Bang SVP about “cat power.”  He adored my partner, so we all thought she’d have the best luck.  She spoke with him for some time – probably at least 15 minutes, so we were hopeful she’d come back with an answer.  All she learned was that one of the SVP’s hobbies was rescuing cats – a very particular breed of cat I can no longer remember the name of.  She’d had to use every ounce of self-control she possessed to keep a straight face throughout this lengthy discussion of lost cats, and it was all for nothing.  Perhaps he was trying to will the strength of these rescued cats to The Devil, stuck in an airport.  We still had no clear answer, and to this day, no one really knows what “cat power!!!” meant, let alone how the Whiz-Bang SVP knew what it was like to be awoken by a licking goat in a dirt airport.  He “resigned” a couple months later, so we’ll probably never know.  I do, however, still have his phone number saved in my iPhone, and were he to call me, a picture of my own sleeping cat would appear on the screen.

A funeral in winter

A more somber post today. The writing prompt that struck me in Old Friend from Far Away was “Tell me about a funeral you attended in winter,” so I went for it. For those of you who have read my previous post, Memories with my grandmother, this story is not about her – it’s about my other grandmother, my father’s mother.

My grandma died in 2004, in January, just days after the New Year. Few of us had come home for the holidays that year. Not me or my cousins; not my sister, her kids, or my uncle. It was a smaller gathering than normal at Grandma’s house on Christmas Eve, but I don’t think she minded. She was proud of all of us for the lives we lived in faraway places she’d never seen, doing complicated jobs she never understood. She’d lived through The Great Depression, some of her childhood spent in an orphanage when her widowed mother couldn’t raise enough money to provide for her and her brother. She understood that people didn’t always have money to spare, and never wanted us to feel badly on those years we didn’t make the trek back to Wisconsin.

We minded, though. We minded a lot. We had been too busy or too broke to come home just a week and a half earlier, yet here we all were, travelling for a funeral instead of a holiday. It seemed fitting punishment that we experience her death in the darkest, windiest and most wickedly cold days of the year.

In the first couple days after her death, my aunt was a wreck, unable to decide what to put in Grandma’s obituary, afraid she’d left someone out of the “survived by” list, but by the time we got to the wake, she’d stopped torturing herself and decided she’d done the best she could.  The mood at the wake was somber, but not excessively so. She was 90, had lived a long life, and she was ready to go. In many ways, she had been ready since the day her husband died thirteen years earlier. We were sad, but we knew her last days had been full of joy, despite some of us missing the festivities.

I remember being astonished at the vigor in her voice when I called her on Christmas Eve. We talked for a half hour, about everything and nothing. She told me about the latest electronics my aunt bought her, laughing her infectious golden laugh at how she’d never be able to figure out how to use them. She chuckled that still no one visiting could outlast her in the evening.  For years, she’d kept late hours, watching TV and doing crossword puzzles until 4am, sleeping into the afternoon.  She was eager to hear anything I could think of to tell her. I spoke with my dad after we finished. “She sounds great, Dad! It’s like she’s ten years younger! She hasn’t sounded so good in such a long time. I just can’t get over it!” He agreed, with a smile in his voice, and I hung up a minute later to sounds of laughter and music in the background. They say that happens for some people right before they die – they feel wonderful and alive and healthy for no reason anyone can point to. It’s the body’s way of sending you off with a parting gift. I hope that happens to me.

The day after the wake, we held her funeral. We drove in a few cars to the cemetery and gathered in the snow next to a dark and frozen hole in the ground. Everything was gray that day. The sky, the bare trees, the casket, the light, my father’s face. I don’t remember what words were said. I don’t remember who stood where. In those moments, in the punishing cold, surrounded by my family, I was alone with only my thoughts, and even they were fleeting. I simply stood and existed in the whipping wind and desperate cold for what seemed like both an instant and a day all at once.  The wind went through me and I didn’t fight it.  I just felt it in every bone in my body.

After the funeral and lunch at a nearby restaurant, we all gathered at Grandma’s house, determined to deal with her things as a family, as a team, so my aunt wouldn’t have to handle it all alone.  Everyone was encouraged to find something of Grandma’s they wanted to keep, whether for practical or sentimental reasons.  We packed boxes of bedding and dishes, marking them with the name of whoever it was that would take them home.  Her furniture and jewelry was split among family members, and her clothes packed away to give to Goodwill.  After everyone else had claimed what they wanted, I chose a print that I’d always admired.  It was a Picasso print, something that stood out in my mind when I thought of her house.  It hangs on my dining room wall now, a happy reminder of my grandmother that I look at every day.

Piles of papers had to be reviewed and lists made of who needed to be contacted with the news that she was no longer with us.  Social security, a realtor to list the house, her credit card company. As I rummaged through odd notes and papers in Grandma’s bedroom, I found an obituary she’d written for herself.  When I realized what it was, I felt like the wind had been knocked out of me.  I couldn’t comprehend writing my own obituary.  I read it a few times, slowly, imagining her lying in bed in the wee hours of the morning, jotting a few paragraphs in a pocket-sized notebook, writing her own brief summary of her life.  It was simple, not very wordy, written with pride about those she would be leaving behind, and focused mostly on the idea that she’d gone to be with her husband.  Though I don’t believe in heaven, when I read her handwritten notes, I sincerely hoped I was wrong, and that she had found Grandpa again.

You don’t like grass?

I have a friend who doesn’t like grass. Actually, she detests grass. When she first confessed her disdain for the odd patch of green we had come upon in the city, my face crinkled up in confusion. “What do you mean, you don’t like grass?” In fact, my face is now crinkled up in confusion as I write this. Who hates grass? I guess I can understand not being excited by it, but to hate it, despise it, as she does – I mean, come on. Seriously?

Grass is not a subject that comes up often in our conversations, but when I have the opportunity, I mention it. Sometimes, I bring it up in the company of others – just to see whether I’m the only one that thinks it’s crazy to hate grass. Sometimes, I mention it to my friend as a reminder to myself that our friendship is true – so true, I have intimate knowledge of her weird grass phobia. We have certainly graduated beyond the deep things in life and on to the completely random and mundane. To me, that’s a sign of a good friendship.

A few weeks ago, we attended the wedding of a mutual friend that took place on the lawn outside a log cabin in the Presidio. As we were walking to take our seats, it occurred to me she was walking on grass, and in high heels, to boot! I grabbed her shoulder from behind as we were nearing our row of folded metal chairs and said, “How are you handling it? Are you doing OK?” I didn’t have to mention the word grass – she knew exactly what I was talking about. She said she was OK – she knew she only had to step on it for the ceremony, and when that was over, we’d be inside the log cabin drinking the night away. She did say she wished she’d brought her flask, but she thought she could handle it. I was glad.

I’m still unsure why she hates grass as much as she does. She did grow up around LA. Maybe that’s at the root of the problem. I grew up in the Midwest where there is more grass than you could ask for. There were things about the grass I hated – mowing it weekend after weekend when it was supposed to be my step-dad’s job. Being harassed if I didn’t walk the mower across the lawn in exactly the right pattern. Inevitably spilling it on the driveway when trying to empty the unwieldy canvas bag that caught the clippings. It’s impossible to sweep freshly cut grass from concrete, by the way. It just sticks, sometimes moves an inch or two, always dying the concrete green the more you attack it with a broom. You should just skip the broom and go immediately for the garden hose on high pressure. I hated cleaning up the dog crap in the back yard before I could run the mower, too – although it was easier than chiseling it out of the frozen snow in the winter. But none of those things made me hate grass itself. One of these days I’ll have to ask again why, exactly, she hates grass. Oh well, to each his own, I guess.

On Employment

Employment has been on my mind quite a bit lately, for a handful of reasons.  First, I’m currently unemployed (though, hopefully, not for much longer) and have been looking for work for the past couple of months.  Second, I picked up Then We Came to the End yesterday, which reminded me of my past job in a marketing agency.  I shared an excerpt of it that made me laugh. Third, I heard from a friend today who just got a new job. Finally, I just finished Before We Get Started, A Practical Memoir of the Writer’s Life, by Bret Lott. In it, he devotes some time to explaining that characters in stories need jobs, and the best place to find jobs for them is to steal your own work experiences.  That could be particularly interesting for me, as I’ve worked in a toilet seat factory.  That’s a story for another day, though.

As all these thoughts about jobs, work, careers, and employment turned over in my mind, I thought back to high school.  I was very bored in high school, but I was pretty good at it, so occasionally, a teacher took an interest and tried to give me something more challenging to do.  In sixth grade, my teacher let me work ahead in math.  I finished the entire year’s work in a month.  I didn’t have to do math for the rest of the year, so instead, I read when everyone else was stuck doing long division or whatever it is you do in sixth grade math.  As a sophomore, a guidance counselor thought I should take the pre-SAT a year early, just for fun.  I did it and it was not fun.

I expected to go to college, but I had absolutely no idea what I wanted to be when I grew up.  No idea.  None.  My school offered a test that was meant to help you determine what job you would be good at doing.  It was a sort of affinity test.  You answered a ton of questions, and it spit out the ideal job for you at the end.  Mine was … believe it … garbage collector.  I’m not kidding.  That’s totally for real.  I wish I had a picture of what my face looked like when my counselor shared that potential career path with me.  Needless to day, I stopped going to her for help, but I still had to figure out what I was going to study.  I liked math, science was OK, and I loved flying in airplanes, although I’d only done it once.  So, the logical conclusion was that I should be an aerospace engineer.  I’m not sure who came up with that, but that became the plan.  I applied to Purdue, got in, was all set to go, but it wasn’t meant to be.  That is also a story for another day.

Suffice it to say, I ended up not going to college, working in factories and restaurants for a few years, and eventually found my way to San Francisco, where opportunities abounded.  I still had no idea what I wanted to do, and almost just stuck with restaurant work.  I thought it would be interesting to work in an office, though, so I signed up at a few temp agencies, and landed a filing job that led to another job working on a big software project.  I’ve worked in technology ever since.  It was purely by accident, and sometimes I’m not sure I really want to work in technology anymore, but it is what it is.

Thinking back to high school again, I remember that we actually did have a computer programming class.  It was early in the PC revolution, but we had a few computers in a lab that used floppy discs – the original floppy discs that were big and actually floppy.  It was still early enough that the poor teacher that had to instruct us had no clue about programming, though.  He sat at a terminal just like we did, cranking out the same assignments so he could try to get a half a step ahead of us.  We were generally instructed to write BASIC programs that spit out various characters in lines on the screen so that they made pictures.  A smiley face, a very square looking dog or cat.  Some of us spelled our names so that each larger than life letter was made up of a bunch of small versions of itself.  Maybe we wrote a program that added up every number from 1 to 100.  Nothing more useful than that, though, and never did it occur to anyone that there might be careers in this newfangled technology.  I wonder if they’ve gotten any better at helping kids figure out what they want to be when they grow up.