Saturday, June 30, 2012

A Tale of Two Funerals

My sister sent me a picture of a gravestone.  
This isn't some macabre hobby of hers.  She's working on our family tree.  She went online to find out where our grandfather on our mother's side of the family was buried.  She found a photo of a headstone that had "Hannibal M. Wilson" and "Isolene Wilson" on it.  She wanted to know if it was the right one.  
I think it is.  Hannibal Metcalf Wilson was the name of our maternal grandfather.  "Pops" we used to call him.  Isolene, who I've written about in this blog before, was the name of his sister, our great-aunt.  I didn't know they were buried together.  For various reasons I missed her funeral.  
I've missed several funerals, in fact.  I don't like going to them.  Funerals are like going to visit a friend and finding out they've moved away, never to come back again.    
The first funeral I ever went to was for my maternal grandmother.  Kathleen Wilson.  We called her, "Mumma."  I was eleven or twelve at the time.  She died suddenly, of a heart attack.  I remember the night Mom and Dad gathered us up in the car.  I was sitting in the back seat, in the middle between my brother and sister.  There was a moment after Mom and Dad got in the car when they looked at each other.  Dad reached across to grab Mom and give her a fierce hug and kiss.  They took us to Grandpa and Grandma's house (Dad's parents) and then went to the hospital.
The funeral was creepy.  Mom lead us inside, me, my brother and sister all dressed up, and found a seat near the back.  She then took my hand and took me up the aisle.  I kept staring at the casket straight ahead of us.  I'd seen them in movies before and knew what it was.  This was the first time I'd seen a real one, with someone I knew inside it.  
My first impression of Mumma was that she looked angry.  Mumma never looked angry.  Even when she scolded us for doing something we weren't supposed to she looked more disappointed than angry.  Afterwards she'd give us something to eat.  
"Her hair is wrong," Mom said, clucking her tongue.  She was right.  It was one of the things they'd argued about at the arrangements meeting.
"How did she keep her hair?"  The funeral director looked up at us from his notepad.  
"She wore it in a bun."  One of my aunts said I think.  
"Not a bun..."  Someone else, another aunt maybe, raised her hands toward the back of her head.  "It was gathered up, it was.  Back here."  
"It was a bun.  Near the top of her head."  
"Not really a bun..."  
"A pompadour, perhaps?"  The funeral director was trying to be helpful.  
"A bun."  Someone nodded her head decisively.  
The funeral director nodded and wrote something down on his notepad.  
They got it wrong.  The tight ball of head perched on her head like a tiny crown wasn't how she wore her hair.  Mumma's hair was a softly bunched up bundle near the back of her neck.  It would fall down clear to her waist when she undid it and combed it out for bed.  
It was then I noticed my Mom was touching her.
I watched in disbelief as Mom reached out and touched her hand.  I looked back over my shoulder to see if she was going to get in trouble over it.  When I looked back she was bending forward to give Mumma's body a kiss on the cheek.  
"Oh..."  Mom looked down at her hand.  Shifting forward to give Mumma a kiss, her hand had moved to Mumma's forearm.  "She's still soft.  Right here.  That means that means she'll come back to take someone with her."
I shuddered.  
"Here..."  Mom lifted my hand up toward the corpse.  "Feel."  
I pulled my hand from hers.  "I don't want to touch it!"  
Mom grabbed me and pulled me close.  She bent over to put her face close to mine.  She looked as angry as Mumma did in her casket. 
"It's not an 'it'!  It's your grandmother!"  She was hissing at me.
"No, it's not," I thought back.  Everything about the figure in the casket was wrong.  The angry look on her face.  Her hair.  The way she was dressed.  It looked like Mumma, but it wasn't.  And if 'it' was going to come back for someone, I just hoped it wasn't me.  
But Mom was mad, and saying anything was only going to make her madder.  I closed my mouth and nodded back at her.  
"Now, kiss your Mumma good-bye."  
I swallowed and shook my head.  My mother grabbed my hand and pulled me back to our seats.
I didn't go to any funeral for a long time after that.  My uncle Howard, my dad's brother, died of brain cancer a few years later.  I refused to go to the service.  My uncle Howard had been a vital, active man.  He'd played football on a scholarship.  He lifted weights.  He had been a policeman.  We used to hang on his outstretched arms like monkeys, my cousins and I, and swing back and forth while he held us aloft.  His illness had already transformed him to someone different.  I didn't want to see him like that again.  
The second funeral I ever went to was Mom's dad.  Pops. 
It was in 1991.  I had moved in with Pops for a bit after a moving from the apartment I had shared with a college friend.  Where Mumma was soft and round and comforting, Pop was short, bald, brusque and hot-tempered.
I remember one time having to pull him back when he lunged at a policeman who wouldn't let him watch a domestic violence dispute in one of the apartments he owned.  
"What you mean, I can't watch?  This is MY property!"  Like a bulldog on a leash, he barked at the Pasadena policeman, whose hand, I noticed, had dropped to the handle of his gun.  
"I got him!  I got him!"  I caught the policeman's eyes and willed him to take a step back.  When my psychic powers worked for once, I pulled Pop back from the door.  "Pops...  Let 'em do their jobs."  
"This is my property."  He tried to shrug me off.  I held on and he didn't try to get into the apartment again. 
I learned a lot about Pops while living with him, though.  When he found out that I'd lost my job while I was renting one of his apartments he came and told me to not worry about the rent until I got another one.  At night, sitting with him on his front porch, he'd talk to me about his life: working at St. George Quay in Belize as a teenager, collecting postage stamps while working on the Panama Canal (it was the safest way to save one's money, buying postage stamps), mining for gold in the desert when he came to America, working two jobs plus building the apartments behind his house in Pasadena, the same house my parents were living in when I was born.  
His lungs failed him in the end.  A legacy of his years working for a company that made refrigeration units.  When he started getting sick, and people suggested that he sue the company to at least cover his hospital bills, he dismissed the idea out of hand.  
"They gave me work when I needed it.  They gave me money for what I did for them.  Not going to do that, no."  He shook his head, his jowls shaking with determination.  The matter was settled.  
I wasn't looking forward to Pops' funeral.  I still remembered the fear, the strangeness of Mumma's.  But I older then, a thirty year old man.  And I felt a necessity to be there.  Not just because he was my grandfather, who I loved.  But because he had helped me when I needed it.  And he'd given me a tremendous insight on my family, and by extension who I was.  
I entered from the side.  Pop's casket was there to my right.  I found a seat in the front row.  I was one of the first people there.  I could see his body, just above the lip of the casket.  I took a breath, braced myself, got to my feet and walked over.  
Just like Mumma, Pop looked angry.  But since he always kinda looked angry while alive, that was actually a comfort.  I noticed his lips were slightly parted.  I could see something like fishing line inside his mouth, running up and down to keep his mouth closed. 
I thought, "So...  Even dead, they've got to sew your lips shut to keep you from complaining, huh?"  And it was here that I felt something like relief.  As with my Mumma, I knew that this wasn't Pops.  Pops was gone and this was something he left behind.  But unlike Mumma, who died when I was a child, Pops had wrung every drop of life he could out of the time he had.  It wasn't always good.  It didn't always work out.  But it was as close to the way he wanted it to be as he could get.  
I took his hand.  It was cool.  It was rough from years of hard work.  I bent over his head.  "Good job, Pop," I whispered.  I kissed the top of his forehead.  
I suddenly felt self-conscious.  I took my seat.  I watched the people coming in, filling the room.  Cousins I hadn't seen in years.  Cousins I never met before.  Strangers I forgot about moments after being introduced to them.  
One last thing happened.  It was at the cemetery.  After the gravesite service was over, while they were lowering the casket into the ground, my cousin David and I were walking down the slop toward the narrow road where the hearse was parked.  As two of the many cousins that had lived at Pop and Mumma's house, we shared stories of that experience.  
At the bottom of the slope, something suddenly came to me.  I stopped.  I started to look around.  
"What's up?" David asked me.  
"Mumma."  He shook his head at me.  "I just remembered...  I think...  I'm pretty sure that this is the same cemetery she's buried at."  
"Really?"  He started looking around too.  "You know where?"  
I opened my mouth to tell him I didn't, and that maybe we could check at the front gate to see if they had a directory or something.  But then I closed my mouth and looked down at my feet.  
We were standing on her grave marker.  It was right there, my toes just touching the edge of the metal plate.  I jumped back.  David followed my gaze.  We both looked up at each other.  Eyes wide, not saying a thing.  
Though I've thought about it a number of times, and my sister's photo has me thinking about it again, I've not gone back to visit their graves, Mumma's and Pop's.  
And that's because they're not there.  Their bodies have long decayed.  I'm not sure about where souls are stored once the bodies using them have stopped working.  
If they are anywhere, they are in my memories.  The smell of Mumma's kitchen, rice and beans covered in ketchup that I could eat by the bowlful.  Pop complaining on his front porch about all he saw wrong in the world.  Uncle Howard playing street hockey on the back patio and getting a huge welt on his ankle from my brother's slap shot.  All of that lives in me.  Surprising me at oddly miraculous moments, like when you find yourself standing on your grandmother's grave.
You can keep your funerals.  I'm going to do what I can to miss mine.  

Saturday, June 23, 2012

The Importance of Mistake Avoidance

I don't like making mistakes.  I work very hard to not make them.  The only thing I can be grateful for is that most of the mistakes I make won't cause someone to get shot or arrested.  
That's only happened once in my life.  
As I've mentioned before, my first job I had when I came back to California after my very weird and difficult road trip was working in a 7-11.  The store is at the corner of Shoup and Fallbrook in Woodland Hills.  I worked the graveyard shift, from 11 PM to 7 AM.  
It happened fairly soon after I started working there.  A carnival had moved in up the street, creating a couple of unusual late-night surges of customers.  One when the carnival closed and the carnival-goers would stop on their way home, and another when the carnival people would come in after shutting down their rides and booths to buy drinks and snacks.
On the second day of the carnival, I was told a new bulletin had come in.  Bulletins were flyers with alerts for our area.  I ducked into the back real quick and saw it posted on the wall just inside.  In the bulletin was an item about  a couple of guys robbing 7-11's in the west San Fernando Valley.  I skimmed it real quick.  This is what I remembered: 
Two guys.  Black.  Baseball caps.  Hitting stores on Venture.  The last one hit was two nights ago at Shoup, the next 7-11 east of us.
The evening guy left right after we closed out his register.  I did my usual stuff.  Cleaned the store.  Restocked the shelves.  Filled the drink cases.  A couple hours into my routine the people leaving the carnival came in, picking up the milk and peanut butter they needed for tomorrow.  Forty minutes later, the carnival people arrived.  There were a lot of them.  They grabbed handfuls of stuff to eat and drink and formed a line that stretched to the back of the store and curved toward the drink coolers.  Almost as long as the morning rush crowd.  
I had taken care of about a third of them, with more coming in, when I looked up and saw this guy at the back of the line.  He was a tall, broad shouldered black guy.  He was wearing a blue baseball cap.  
Huh.  Ok.  Lots of black guys in the valley.  Lots of them wearing baseball caps.  I finished helping the girl in front of me, a skinny girl with scraggly hair.  
"Oh!  Shoot."  She clutched the bag I'd packed her items in and looked at me almost desperately.  "I forgot something.  Can I leave this here?"  
"Sure."  She was already trotting down the aisle.  I moved her bag to the side.  The next person started piling their items on the counter.  
I looked back toward the end of the line.  The tall, broad shouldered black guy was still there.  And another guy was with him.  Also black.  Shorter and more chubby looking.  Also wearing a baseball cap.  And they were both standing at the end of the line.  Why hadn't they moved up?  
As I watched, some more people from the carnival I recognized from the night before joined the line.  The big broad shouldered guy with the blue baseball cap nodded for them to go before them.  They smiled and moved up.  The scraggily haired girl got in line behind them.  They waved her ahead as well.  
I think I started shaking at this time.  Why would you wave everyone ahead of you in line in a convenience store late at night?  Because you wanted everyone else to be gone before you got what you came to the convenience store to get.  Like all the money in the register.  
"Excuse me."  
"Huh."  I jumped.  The guy at the counter opened his hands before over his stuff and raised his eyebrows at me.  I rang it up as fast as I could.  While doing so I saw another person I recognized from the carnival come in.  He trotted in and grabbed a bag of chips from the rack and got in line behind the two black men.  
They waved him ahead of them.  He gave them a smile and a wave and joined the scraggly haired woman.  
I dropped the change I was trying to hand the guy to the counter.  
After sweeping the coins into my hand and putting them in his, I turned to the woman behind him.  "Just a minute."  I dashed from behind the register and into the back room.  I wanted to make sure I had it right.  Maybe I was mistaken.  Hopefully.  
I read the bulletin again while the people in line waited.  I kept losing my place in the paragraph.  I tried to run my finger across the page under the words.  
"Two Males...  Black...  Baseball caps...  Two days ago...  Shoup."  That's all I could find.  But it was enough.  
"Just another moment."  I raised my hands to the lady waiting next in line.  Just like I thought I might in a few moments to the two guys at the end of the line.  I got on the phone and dialed 911.
"911 Operator, what's the nature of your emergency."  
"I think I'm gonna be robbed."  
After some back and forth, I was able to tell the lady where I was and about the bulletin I had read, and that the two guys kept waving everyone ahead of them.  She told me she would have police dispatched.  
I got behind the cash register.  The line still stretched to the ice cream cooler.  The two guys were still at the end.  It seemed to me like they were watching me.  I tried not to look at them.  
One by one, I got through the customers.  I kept glancing outside.  I'd heard no sirens.  I didn't see any patrol cars pull into the parking lot.  What was taking them so long?  
Finally, as a pair of carnival people left, I saw one of them, a girl with blond hair, look to her right past the door.  An arm snaked in and grabbed her by the wrist and pulled her along.  I got a glimpse of sergeant stripes on a blue short sleeve shirt.  I heaved a shuddering breath.  They were there.  
I just finished helping the girl with scraggly hair.  I took her money and stuck her item, I think it was a tub of ice cream or something like it, into her bag with her other stuff.  I handed her bag to her.  She turned to leave.
At the door, she turned around.  "Donny?  You comin' right away?"  
I looked at the guy who came trotting in for the chips.  He wasn't looking at her though.  
"Yeah," the tall black guy with the blue cap answered.  "Right after I get my stuff."  
"I'll wait for you then.  You can walk me back."  She backed out of the door.  Just as Donny looked toward me, I saw the policeman's arm pull her out of harm's way.  
They were carnival people.  Just like the others. 
"My chips?"  
The guy that should have been Donny gave me his money.  The guy that was Donny was now standing before me.  As the guy with the chips opened the door to exit, I could hear the scraggily haired girl's voice.  
"Did Randy and Donny do something...?"  
The closing door cut her off.  Donny hadn't heard her.  Neither had the other guy, who I took to be Randy.  
"I'm paying for this too."  This was from the black baseball cap guy.  He showed me an empty Slim-Jim package.  He was opening another one to take a bite.  
I nodded.  I rang them up.  I took money.  I handed them change.  I put stuff into bags, including the empty Slim-Jim package.  I handed bags fto them.  I watched them head toward the front door.  
It was at this point that the thought came to me that I should say something.  "Don't go out there," or "Wait, I'll tell them I made a mistake."  
"Uh..."  Came out before they opened the door and stepped out on to the store's sidewalk.  
Suddenly, the front of the store was filled with lights.  I guess the police cars pulled in with their lights off.  I saw Donny and Randy raise their hands.  I saw them kneel.  I saw Randy throw his half eaten Slim Jim to the ground at some command.  I bowed my head, stared at the counter and waited.  
A police man came in.  Young cop.  Still fit.  I think it was his hand pulling customers out of the way.  He spoke like he was auditioning for the role of Sgt. Friday in a remake of Dragnet.  
"We've determined that they individuals in question are associated with the entertainment venue currently operating up the street.  You mentioned in your 911 call a bulletin from your company?"  
I lead him to where the bulletin was posted.  He read it.  I read it with him.  Reading it this time, I could see differences that I hadn't spotted reading it before.  The two suspects wore hooded sweatsuit jackets with the hoods over the caps.  They were red, the baseball caps, with the logos of a specific sports team.  
"Hmm."  The policeman seemed to be expressing a negative opinion about my observation skills with that grunt.  "One of the individuals had a snack product that was contaminated when he complied with our instruction to release it.  I suggest that you might want to replace it as a good faith gesture."  
Sure.  Of course.  No problem.  
Donny and Randy came back inside.  I replaced the Slim-Jims and other stuff that had been ruined when the police tore open the bags they were holding.  They said nothing to me.  I said nothing to them.  
The carnival was still there the next night.  The people that visited the carnival came in to buy the toothpaste and deodorant that they needed the next day.  About a forty-five minutes later the carnival people arrived.  
Donny came in again.  As before, he got to the end of the line.  He waved all of his friends and co-workers ahead of him.  I helped everyone as they came through.  I tried not to look at Donny.  
The scraggily haired girl was right ahead of him in line.  She gave me a nasty, hateful look as I handed her bag to her.  Donny was next.  I didn't look up at him as I rang up his purchase.  It was one of the most embarrassing moments in my life.  
I braced myself for a tirade that put into words what Scraggily haired girl had said with her look. 
"Buddy.  Shit happens, ya know.  But we can at least try to be friends, can't we?"  
"I'msosorryaboutwhathappenedtheygaveusthisbulletinIthoughtitwasyouandyourfriendbutIknowitwasn'tandI'mreallyreallysorryIfIhadreaditmorecarefullyIwouldhaveknownitwasn'tyoutwoguysbutyoukeptlettingpeoplegoaheadofyouandIthoughtyouwantedwitnessesoutofthewaybeforeyourobbed..."  The words poured out of my mouth nonstop.  
Only when Donny raised his hands, as if I was holding a gun on him to take his money, and said, "Hey, hey...  It's Ok!" was I able to stop.  
The carnival left a couple of days after that.  I left that 7-11 a couple of years after that.  I didn't see Donny again, either that year or the next couple of years the carnival came returned.  
Since then, I make a practice of reading the instructions I'm given for a job or project before starting it.  I do this because I don't like making mistakes.  

Saturday, June 16, 2012

The Distinction between "Role" and "Model"

Tomorrow is Father's Day.  I am not a father.  At this point in my life I have serious doubts I'll ever become a father.  This is disappointing.  Not only because having a wife and family was one of those things I wanted as I became an adult, or at least one of those things I thought I should have.  But also because I believe I would have made a good father.  I think this because I had a pretty good example of my own while growing up.  
My dad grew up in Arkansas, near a town called Ozark.  Same name as the mountains there.  His family was "the richest family on the poor side of town," as he once told me.  They got through the depression by raising their own food and selling the meat from the pigs they raised.  
He joined the marines when he was eighteen.  He did a Mediterranean tour and a Pacific tour.  He was stationed in Lebanon for a time, having landed there after the Muslims in the Lebanese army revolted in the mid-50's.  He described riding with ammunition convoys south to the Israeli border while Israel was fighting Egypt in the Suez.  These were illegal arms transfers by the way.  I don't think he'll get in trouble for it at this point.  
He was also stationed at the top of Mt. Fuji in Japan once, when the Marines operated a communication outpost there back in the 50's.  And he was stationed in Okinawa, which he described as his favorite station of all those he was assigned to.  Maybe that's where I got my interest in Japan from.  
He made staff sergeant by the end of his four-year term.  Ask anyone who knows and they'll tell you that was an impressive feat.  
He stayed in California after he got out of the service.  He met my mom at a party in Pasadena, in an apartment building that is less than a five minute walk from where I'm typing this right now, at the corner of Del Mar and Marengo.  His friend lived there.  My mom came with some of her friends.  Every time I drive by that apartment building on my way to the freeway to go to work, I shake my head at the coincidences one meets in life.  
For a time he was really into playing golf.  He taught me how to play.  Or...  Maybe it's more accurate to say that he kept telling me what I should be doing, and I kept getting mad at his pestering me with unwanted advice.  He's more into bowling now.  A few years ago he bowled a perfect game, a 300.  It made the papers in the town where he lives in Arkansas with my mom.  He's got a ring from the National Bowling Association to commemorate it.  
All of these are facts.  True things about my father.  But none of them tell you about how he was as a father.  This will...
My dad drove a truck for a living when I was eighteen.  He had lost his job as a supervisor of a paper mill a few years earlier.  Driving the truck was the best job he could find.  He had driven a truck for a time after leaving the service, so he had experience.  He didn't like the job though.  He described it as "dirty, tiring work."  When I asked him if it was really that bad, he had me drive along with him on a short run.  It felt like being strapped to the blade of a blender.  You kept shaking even after the truck was stopped.  When I told him I didn't want to do that again, he nodded and said, "Good."  
The worst part about the job, he once told me, was that it kept him away from the family, sometimes two, three days at a time.  But work was work, as he taught me, and a person had to make a living.  So he drove the truck and gave it his best.  
It was in June, 1979, that I graduated from High School.  My graduation ceremony was set for the first Saturday in June.  The Wednesday before, Dad got a call from work.  Someone called in sick.  They needed him to drive a truck north, make a switch switch in Northern California with another driver coming down from Oregon, and drive that other truck back.  
"You're gonna make it back in time?" I asked him, referring to my graduation.  
"Yeah," he nodded as he gathered up his thermos and his logbook.  "I should be back sometime Friday."  
On Friday, though, we called us from the road.  Turns out that whoever was supposed to meet him in California had called in sick, too.  He now had to take the truck he had driven there to the place where it was supposed to be taken, in Oregon.  He'd pick up the truck the guy he was supposed to me was supposed to bring, then he'd bring that truck all the way back to where it was supposed to go down here.  
"Are you gonna make back by Saturday," I heard Mom ask.  "I dunno," she said he said. 
"I'm gonna try, though."  She also said he sounded tired.  
It was while I was getting dressed in my suit Saturday morning that I heard him come through the door.  I went to see him.  He looked pretty whipped.  Exhausted.  There were grease and oil spots and other sorts of grime covering his clothing.  He staggered past on his way to the bedroom.  
"I'm supposed to be there by 11:30," I said to his retreating back.  "Are you going to be able to make it?"  
"Dunno...  Tired... Drove all night..."  I could barely make out what he said as he headed down the hallway to his and mom's bedroom.  
I nodded.  I had been bracing myself for something like this.  I told myself that it wasn't his fault.  He was working hard for all our sakes.  That was important.  Right?  Mom hustled me back to my room.  I finished changing.  I yelled down the hall toward their bedroom door that I was leaving.  When no answer came, I went outside and got into my car and drove to the school. 
My mood improved after I joined my friends at school.  Everyone was in high spirits.  I was able to forget about my dad not being able to make it.  A school chum of mine, a guy named McNamara, who was just ahead of me in the graduation line, made up a walking game for when we headed down the aisle to our seats, walking in step with each other in time to a cadence we counted out.  
Parents arrived.  We got our caps and gowns on.  McNamara and I played our little walking game and we ended up creating a big gap ahead of us, and backing up everyone else behind.  We had to hustle to our chairs when we saw that.  Speeches were made.  Prayers were prayed.  Finally, our names were being called off.  At the sound of my name, I stepped on to the podium to my left, shook the hand of Father O'Laughlin, our school's principal, took my diploma and stepped off to my right.  
That's when I spotted him.  My dad was standing amongst the other parents that came late, at the far side of the podium.  He was all cleaned up and shaved.  He was wearing his best suit.  He was grinning at me from ear to ear.  
I felt an indescribable something inside me.  To call it "happy" would be to demean the feeling.  It was a very, very good feeling though.  It brings a tear to my eyes as I remember that moment, even now, after all these years.  
I got to my seat.  More speeches.  We stood and threw our caps in the air.  I tracked mine down and got it back.  I found my dad amongst the crowd.  He gave me a big hug and told me, "congratulations."  He said he'd meet me back at home.  
I have other memorable moments concerning my father.  When I got home that same day with some friends of mine, dad offered us all beers.  We all looked at each other, wondering if it was a set-up.  One on friends took him up on it and got a beer right from our refrigerator.  He sat and talked with us and told us stuff he'd experienced growing up that I'd never heard before.  
I think it was fifteen years or so later, visiting my folks, that I got drunk with my dad for the first time.  He stopped at the liquor store on the way home after picking me up from the airport and bought several bottles of wine.  We sat together until 2 AM arguing about all sorts of things, finishing off most of what he bought.  Just before I stood up to stagger off to bed he said, "I can't remember what the hell we were arguing about, but I KNOW I'm right!"  
He once sent me a check, out of nowhere, for two thousand dollars.  When I called and asked him what it was for, he told me it was because I had never asked him for help after leaving home and figured he ought to send me something.  
There are other memories.  But my favorite one is him showing up at graduation, when I knew just how dog-tired he was, and saw him there not showing a lick of it.  It's also the reason why I think I would have been a good father, had I been given the chance.  
There are things one has to do in life, and there are things you NEED to do.  Knowing the difference is what makes a man a father.  
Happy Father's Day, Dad!  

Saturday, June 09, 2012

My One-Sided Love Affair with the Los Angeles Kings

I watched Game Five of the Stanley Cup finals today.  The Los Angeles Kings are playing in only their second Stanley Cup finals.  They are playing against the New Jersey Devils.  New Jersey won tonight by a score of 2 to 1.  The Kings, who once lead the series three games to none, are up 3 to 2 and are coming back for a game in Los Angeles on Monday.  
I sat and watched the game in my chair set three feet in front of the TV.  I did not leave my seat while the game was being played.  My drinks and snacks were set on the floor around me, largely untouched.  This method didn't work.  I'll have to try something different next time.  
I became a hockey fan and an Kings fan in the fifth grade. A friend of mine brought something to school with him.  He was playing around with it in the school yard at recess.  I asked him what it was.  He said it was a "puck."  
"Yeah.  You play hockey with it."
He described the game with such fervor and passion that I became very curious.  He played in a pee-wee league and had a game that weekend.  He invited me to come see him play.  
His team was dressed all in purple.  The opposing team was in white with blue highlights.  They had "West Covina" written down the length of their arm in white over the wide blue striping.  My friend's team was called the All Stars, though they didn't play as such.  The team from West Covina had a 6 to 1 lead at the end of two periods.  The West Covina team relaxed a bit too much in the third, allowing the All Stars to score three goals late in the game, making it a more respectable 6 to 4 loss.  
There was something about it, though.  The fluidity of the game.  The non-stop action.  It was...  Beautiful.  I was like someone taking their first drink on the way to discovering they were an alcoholic.  I found out that Saturday afternoon that I was a hockey fan.  
Sometimes, if I have something to do, like cleaning the dishes, I'll do it during intermission or stoppages in play.  If I can get all the dishes cleaned, for example, by the end of the game, the Kings win.  That system worked in Game 2 of the series against the Devils.  
After watching my friend play, I went to the library.  I checked them all the books they had on hockey, up to the limit of what I could take from the library at one time.  There was "Hockey's Greatest Rivalries," and "Hockey's Greatest Players."  There were rule books and one book about coaching a hockey team.  There was also a series of yearbooks, "This Year in Hockey: 1971-72."  I took them home and read them through.  Armed with what I'd learned I started watching the games on TV.  
I don't where my Kings tee-shirts when I watch them on television.  Tee-shirts with the team represented on it are only worn for going out in public on game day or seeing them live.  I made the mistake of wearing my silver and black tee-shirt to the gym, where Game 4 was on TV.  I apologize profusely for forgetting this rule.  
I saw my first live Kings game on April 13, 1974.  My dad surprised my brother and me with tickets to see the Kings playoff game against the Chicago Blackhawks.  We got to the Fabulous Forum (later the Great Western Forum) late.  My dad let us out in front of the entrance to get our seats while he drove around to find a place to park.  My brother and I ran through the crowd.  Our seats were twelve rows behind the Kings goal for the opening period.  
They dropped the puck as we were walking down the steps.  A player for the Blackhawks named Germain Gagnon (which I think is French for "gag me with a spoon") scored as we sat down.  Only forty seconds had elapsed since the puck was dropped.  
My dad joined us a couple of minutes later.  He asked us what happened and we told him.  "Oh, well," he said.  "There'll be more scoring."  
The game ended, 1-0.  
The game was thrilling, though.  I later heard my dad tell our family, "I was on my feet cheering, half the time I didn't know what I was cheering for, but it was fun!"  
One other incident worth noting took place.  About halfway between our seats and the glass was a drunk guy, who kept getting up and shouting his opinion about the game and stuff.  He'd stay on his feet for minutes at a time, blocking my view of the play.  
At one point, at the opposite end of the ice, while the drunk was on his feet, the Kings were trying to make a play on goal, but it was disrupted because the ref got in the way.  A beautiful scoring chance was wasted.  I yelled at the ref from the far side of the Forum, "Why don't you get out of the way next time?!"  
The drunk, still on his feet, turned and looked right at me.  
I raised my hands, waving them at the guy.  "Not you, not you!  I meant..."  
Before I could finish, my dad grabbed me by the shoulder and leaned over to whisper in my ear.  "Don't you take back what you told him!"  
Huh?  Did my dad actually expect me, a 13 year old kid, to stand up to a grown-up drunk man?  
I looked back at the drunk, who was staring at me with that bleary way drunks do when they're trying to figure out if they're angry or not.  Then one of his friends said something.  The drunk laughed and said something like, "Yeah...  He might throw something at me if I don't," and sat back down.  He didn't get back up for the remainder of the game.  
If they have the game on at the gym, then I watch it while working out on the cross-trainers, those machines that have the cross-country skiing motion, where you pull back on the poles while moving your feet.  I have to keep going as long as the Kings are playing.  A thirty minute session on the cross-trainer will cover one twenty minute period of play, with stoppages included.  This worked for Game 3 of the series.  I got to the gym right before the start of the 3rd period.  Game 4, unfortunately, I finished my thirty minute workout before the 3rd period was over.  The Devils won that one.    
For the most part, though, my relationship with the team has been a brutal one.  The 80's were particularly ugly.  I used to tell people that being a L.A. Kings fan was a lot like being a Chicago Cubs fan, except the Cubs fan could point to a championship about a hundred years ago.  Year after year, I'd watch and hope.  Year after year, we finished at the bottom or close to it.  I'd meet other hockey fans from time to time.  When I told them my favorite team, after they asked me, they'd laugh.  It was like being told your wife was the ugliest woman in town.  
The 90's did me in.  They started great.  Wayne Gretzky joined the team for the 88-89 season.  The Kings had their best season and upset the Edmonton Oilers in the playoffs.  The defeated another defending Stanley Cup champions in the playoffs for the second year in a row when beat Calgary Flames.  They won their first Smythe Division championship in 1991.  They made it to the finals in '93.  
They didn't win, though.  They lost four games in a row to the Montreal Canadiens after winning the first game.  It was heartbreaking.  The team began trading the players that got them to the finals for older players that Gretzky wanted in a bid to get one more Stanley Cup ring.  Then Gretzky left to St. Louis and the franchise was left in shambles.  Most of its draft picks had been traded away for players about to retire or move on.  
The Schrodinger's Cat method is the hardest.  That's where you don't check the game before leaving work.  This leaves the Kings will be in a state of both winning and losing.  When I get home and check the score on line, the quantum wave front of the game collapses into victory.  I was going to use this method today, but the game was just starting when I turned on the TV.  I had to watch after that.
I didn't completely walk away from the game all those years.  I'd check the stats and the standings.  I would watch the news and see how they did.  It was like being separated.  You couldn't stand living with the person any more, but you couldn't forget them.  They were a part of you.  I started paying more attention these last few years.  They were getting back into the playoffs, though they still didn't advance that far.  I watched the Anaheim Ducks get a Cup before they did.  A team that came into existence because Gretzky came to the Kings.  
I started watching them play again this year during the playoffs.  They were good.  Better than good.  They were dominating.  They were a machine.  They rolled over the 1st place seed in the west, then the 2nd place seed, then the 3rd.  No team had ever done that.  They looked soooo good.  Seeing your ex-girlfriend on the arms of another guy sort of good.  
And now...  I'm scared.  They're playing the Devils.  They're up three games to none, then three games to one, and now three games to two.  The old familiar feeling of being a Kings fan is creeping upon upon me.  The weight of all that bad history is weighing down on my shoulders. 
I'm not a superstitious person.  I know that nothing that I do, not the washing all the dishes in twenty minutes, not the tee-shirt I wear, or doing cardio while they're playing, none of that will help them win.  At least, I don't think it will.  I'm pretty sure it won't.  I mean, it could.  It feels like it could.  It feels like, if the Kings win the Stanley Cup, a lot of the disappointing things in my life might be made up for.  And I need to do something, anything, to help make that happen.  
I think the lesson the Kings have taught me over the years is this: The things and people you love have the power to hurt you the most.  It's part of the love.  The pain comes with it.  The better you can accept that, the better you can handle things.  
So, I'm watching them play again.  Like a drunk that's jumped off the wagon, I'm taking it all in.  I'm hating myself for getting so worked up, but I can't help it.  Maybe it's a cosmic joke where the universe dangles the chance of seeing the team finally win the Cup after forty-five years of waiting only to snatch it away, Lucy-like from Charlie Brown.  I'll keep trying to kick it over.  
I think on Monday, I'll try the Schrodinger's Cat method.  I'll keep the game away from me until I get home.  Then I'll turn on the TV to see they have the lead, and will watch the final few minutes of something I've been waiting to see since that year in fifth grade.  And if it doesn't happen...?  Sigh...  There's always next year.
Go Kings Go!

Saturday, June 02, 2012

I AM One of the Omitted

I am single.  I don't want to be single, but that's how it is.  I accept it and do what I can about it.
I believe in technology.  I am a longtime technophile. I remember the story Steve Jobs once told about bicycles, how humans were mediocre in terms of efficient traveling when compared to other animals, but shot to the top of the list in terms of efficiency when you put a person on a bike.  It was his example of how humans are tool-users.  It's what makes us special.  Computers, he concluded, were tools to help the brain, just as bikes helped our feet.
My singleness and my belief in technology combined to make me one of the first users of online dating services when they arrived on the scene back in the mid-90's.  It made sense, from my point of view, to use the latest tools man had come up with, the internet and the computer, to solve the problem of finding someone to spend the rest of your life with.  
That was before.  I don't do online dating any more.  
You're probably thinking I'm saying this because it didn't work out for me.  And in a general sense, you'd be right.  I tried a number of different services.  They all worked in the same way: You sign up.  You fill out a profile.  You upload a photo.  You scan other profiles.  You send messages.  Sometimes people would respond, sometimes not.  When they did, you'd make arrangements to meet.  With me the process would continue with: You come home after the meeting.  You delete the profile of the person you'd just met from your favorites list.  You scan other profiles, etc.
I experienced the usual problems people have with online dating.  Someone posting a profile photo that was ten years out of date.  Someone writing in their profile that they "Don't Smoke," only to have them tell me, as they lit up a cigarette, that they didn't smoke "much."  It would have been nice to have that "much" included in the profile.
The most successful match I had through an online dating service was with one woman where I had three dates with.  The first encounter was encouraging.  She was a professional woman.  A bit off-center, but in an appealing way.  She was learning to ride motorcycles and was planning on buying a Harley.  She liked to ballroom dance, which was what attracted her to my profile (I was into ballroom dancing at the time).  We had a great second date where we went dancing together.
It was the third date when things came apart. It started with her almost getting us killed racing another car on Laurel Canyon Boulevard because the other guy won't let her change lanes in front of her.  At the last moment, with the lane we were in about to end and the rear end of a parked car staring us in the face, she yelled, "All Right, Fine!" jammed on the brakes, swerved in behind the guy she'd been racing, missing the end of the parked car by inches.  
"Were you worried?"  She said this after glancing over at me in the passenger seat.  "There's no need.  I was in COMPLETE control of the vehicle the entire time."  She kept emphasizing that through the rest of the trip to the theater we were heading, how COMPLETELY in control she had been.  
In addition to this, I discovered that evening that she had a low tolerance for cross-dressers (our "waitress" was a man, she insisted, and kept insisting until I told her I didn't care one way or the other), and that she thought my taste in music indicated low-brow tastes (the pre-show music included "Sweet Home Alabama" by Lynyrd Skynyrd.  As I was singing along she kept making a face at me while asking, "Really?  Really?  You like this music, really?"  
Yeah.  I liked that music.  Still do.  Really.  
After that, I shied away from online dating services.  I did not use them until eHarmony came along.  I remember from their first television commercial the thing that made them different.  They didn't just throw a bunch of profile pictures at you.  They culled the millions of people out there to show you the ones most compatible with you.  From the personality test they gave you, their sites algorithms would give you choices of potential partners that was practically guaranteed to succeed in finding you someone.  
It was rational.  It was reasonable.  It was scientific.  Just as the Internet gave the computer it's ultimate usefulness, eHarmony's algorithms would make online dating work.  
After creating my account, and before they would allow me to see any matches, I had to take their famous personality profile.  It would be fifteen to twenty minutes of my time, as I recall the site informing me, but would lead to lasting happiness with someone that would be my life-partner. 
I began to get suspicious that something wasn't working right when I was still taking the personality test 30 minutes later.  I began to wonder if there was something wrong, or whether the site was giving me some longer, more detailed version of the test.  Maybe it was stuck in some loop and I'd have to start over again.  
Finally, after an hour and fifteen minutes of test taking, I got this message on my screen: 

Huh.  Really.  Oh-kaay...  
And to show you how serious eHarmony was, the following screen informed me that there would be no charge to my account for the trouble I'd gone through, and that my credit card information would be deleted.  They didn't even want to take my money after all of that.  
I moved on after that.  In the years since I've had a couple of reasonably long relationships. Both were with people that came out of nowhere, so to speak.  An actress in a play I auditioned for and performed in.  A woman that came from halfway around the world.  
Finding myself single again, I recently decided to give eHarmony another try.  I went back to their site and tried to start the process again.  
The system recognized me.  Before I could get started I got a message that basically said, "Look...  We told you before.  We can't match you.  We're really, really sorry, but please...  Don't waste our time."  I got this image of my profile being posted on some cork-board in the office where the eHarmony programmers worked.  Above it is posted, "Keep at it!  One Day we'll find a match for everyone, EVEN HIM!"
On May 4th, Scientific American Online had an article about these "scientifically based" online dating services.  Here's a link for you to read it yourself: "The Scientific Flaws of Online Dating Sites."  
One conclusion of the article is that the available evidence suggests mathematical algorithms are negligibly better at matching people over random chance.  It points out that a lot of what makes a relationship work isn't covered by the tests they tout.  The stress of being recently unemployed, or having life-changing disease like AIDS or Cancer, having a history of drug abuse, don't get picked up by their tests.  The people answering their questions, who presumably have yet to find a compatible match, are a pool of people who might not know what a compatible match is for them, and are making incorrect assumptions about what they want in a partner as they feed this information into those fields.  
I was encouraged by this article.  Until I got to the last page, that is.  That's when I found this paragraph: 
Indeed, it appears that eHarmony excludes certain people from their dating pool, leaving money on the table in the process, presumably because the algorithm concludes that such individuals are poor relationship material. Given the impressive state of research linking personality to relationship success, it is plausible that sites can develop an algorithm that successfully omits such individuals from the dating pool. As long as you’re not one of the omitted people, that is a worthwhile service.
"As long as you're not one of the omitted people..."  Huh.  Really?  Oh-kaay.

When I tell people about my online dating experiences, one suggestion from them predominates: I should change my answers to these personality questionnaires.  Give more "normal" answers.  I should not set my standards so high, they'll also suggest.  
I'm not going to do that.  For one thing, and this may be my way of showing my relative lack of experience in long-term relationships, I don't see how this sort of compromise helps.  When I look around and see so many people breaking up or getting divorced, or even worse, trapped in bad relationships that they can't or won't get out of, I think to myself that I'd rather be single than go through that.  
But more importantly, I really do like the person I am.  I know I'm an odd-ball.  I've been this way for as long as I can remember.  I remember back in High School making having the choice of trying to act more normal in order to fit in more and "hang" with more people, or be myself and have a much, much smaller circle of friends.  I chose to be who I am as best I can.  I still stand by that decision.  
And really, it's the only fair way to enter a relationship, right?  I mean, if I start dating someone pretending to be normal and then suddenly started being myself, what would that poor woman think?  
Everyone tells you to "just be yourself" when trying to form relationships but how many of us really do that? 
I will.  I will state it right here.  I AM one of the Omitted People.  I don't do online dating, not just because they didn't work for me, but because they've made it clear they don't want me either.  That only tells me that their collection of profiles don't include anyone suitable for me.  Enough of that, then.  Sayonara.  No more online dating sites for me.
Unless they come up with something like "Omitted People-dot-Com."  That one I might check out.  
PS: Some of you may have noticed the link in the eHarmony "We can't match you" dialogue box where they offer me a copy of a personality profile they created about me.  I didn't check it out the first time.  I went back to the site while writing this blog and found that it's still there.  So, if you want to know what the personality of one of the Omitted looks like, you can find it here: My Personality Profile.  free Personality Profile