Archive for category: Fairly Odd Parents-Present

I’m Movin Out!

25 May 2015
May 25, 2015
Sony Sterecorder 230

My "portable" Sony Sterecorder 230

As my wife and I drove the nine miles from our house to my daughter’s dorm I said, “I hope that rug is gone. It’s not even ours.” I was in my organizing mode: how to pack up my daughter’s things as efficiently as possible and get them home in our car, including a small refrigerator. The rug belonged to my daughter’s roommate. She had moved out the night before and had offered the well-used industrial gray carpet to my daughter as a parting gift. Right. I know that ploy: pawn off the hard-to-move stuff on your roommate as a gift. I lived in a dorm. Some things never change.

It was a perfect day to move. The day before had been wet and rainy. The next day would be hot and humid. But today was perfect. My mood lightened as we drove the Beltway. We listened to the ’60s on 6 station on the radio. Friend & Lover’s Reach Out Of the Darkness was playing and suddenly I was standing on the roadside waiting for the Greyhound bus to take me to Detroit. It was June of 1968. I had just finished my last final exam and was on my way back to L.A. for the summer. Thoughts of the beach had replaced the angst of studying. And I couldn’t wait to get out of the Midwest. As my wife and I drove to the college, once again I felt that anticipation —moving from one world to another.

Moving out of the dorm was a one man job back then. My parents were in California. It was all up to me to pack. I was pretty efficient even at 18. I had two piles. Things I was bringing with me on the plane and things I would be storing at our family friend’s house in Detroit. Two trunks for storage. Two suitcases for my clothes and my Sony Sterecorder 230.

The Sony Sterecorder 230 was also a marvel of efficiency. By 1968 standards, its footprint was small and the speakers became the cover when you were ready to take it wherever you were going. It was a reel=to=reel dual track tape recorder. I could record hours of music on each tape. Philips had invented the cassette tape in 1962. But the quality was mediocre at best in the 1960s. My Sony allowed me to record much better quality and it was easy to lug around. Sorta.

So, I stood at the bus stop with my two trunks, my two suitcases, and my portable tape player. After dumping my storage, our friends delivered me to the airport. My Sony was much too valuable to check in as luggage so I took it as carry-on on the plane. I laugh now. Can you imagine? It was 1960s portable but it wasn’t small. However, it did fit under the seat in front of me. Barely. I’m sure it wouldn’t be allowed on today, let alone fit under a seat.

The rug was laying there when we arrived at my daughter’s dorm room. I took a deep breath. It was not coming home with us so we dumped it with everyone else’s rugs in the trash. But the refrigerator fit. Barely. My daughter, apparently inheriting my efficiency by osmosis, had done most of her packing and with the help of her boyfriend, we got out of there in record time. No trips to storage. No trips to the airport. She had her laptop and iPhone neatly tucked in her backpack.

I still have my Sony Sterecorder 230. It’s in the attic with my portable Selectric typewriter and those college trunks, now full of decades old term papers and “stuff.” There’s nothing like being efficient.

Unusually Obstinate

09 Apr 2015
April 9, 2015
Upside down watch

For some strange reason I put my watch on upside down this morning. Time appeared backward the whole day. And each time I looked at my watch, just for a second, I was thrown off kilter, as if I had tripped and was trying to right myself. It seemed like time was mocking me and I wondered if anyone noticed.

I kept asking myself, “Why don’t you just take off the stupid watch and put it on the right way?” But, I never had the time. This really wasn’t getting me anywhere.

Telling time didn’t come easy to me today. Tripping over and over hurt like hell. But I deserved it. Why was I so obstinate? And, now that I think about it, that’s not unusual at all.

Turning Over a New Leaf. Over and Over and Over.

14 Feb 2015
February 14, 2015
Hundreds of thousands of leaves

Hundreds of Thousands of Leaves

I lost my glasses. No, they weren’t on my forehead. And, yes, I checked all the usual places multiple times. In fact, I knew exactly where I’d lost them. With a dust filter covering my mouth, my glasses kept steaming up as I raced to get our fallen foliage to the curb before the county vacuumed them up. I could hear their trucks coming but I couldn’t see a thing so I put them in my pocket. And, without warning, my tortoise shell glasses were now completely camouflaged in piles of brown debris neatly awaiting removal. To be clear, they were buried under hundreds of thousands of leaves. As the sound of the vacuums grew louder, I yelled for my family to join the search. We raced to find my specs before they ended up as mulch in someone’s spring garden.

The commotion brought the neighborhood out en masse. “Oh, it’s the needle in the haystack,” everyone yelled above the growing din of the vacuum trucks. One came with her rake; another volunteered his metal detector. Every person thought they could, no, they would find those glasses. They stomped amongst the piles, thinking they could will them to appear. The county crew arrived and I begged them to skip our house. The foreman snickered and moved on.

I knew they were there somewhere. I just couldn’t see them —yet. Denial shifted to anger as I retraced my steps again and again. Why did I put them in my pocket? I knew they would fall out. Finally, with my neighbors gathered around, I declared my leaves would not defeat me. “I will find those glasses if I have to look under each and every leaf!” I proclaimed. And that became my plan.

When you lose something really important, you feel like you’ve lost control over your entire life. To counter that, the next morning I got my rake and started turning over every single leaf. Every single leaf! After Hour One my eyes glazed over, overwhelmed by the wide swath of brown before me. The occasional wet leaf brought me back: a reflection of my lenses in the morning sun? I refused to pay for a new pair of glasses.

To the accompaniment of Laurie Anderson’s O Superman, I raked to the cadence of her background riff. I was sure Superman’s X-ray vision would help me find those glasses. At Hour Three I moved into the existential: why did really I lose my glasses? Inevitably, I ended at the resurrection, waiting for them to miraculously rise up and present themselves. God surely must be laughing at me. My neighbor, Carol, came by and asked what I was doing (obviously, the news hadn’t traveled to her part of the street). When I recounted my tale she replied, “Whether you find your glasses or not, you will be enlightened.” Yes, she really said that. So, I convinced myself the act of looking would be my reward. However, any enlightenment my obsessive-compulsive leaf turning yielded lasted only minutes before it —poof— got caught up in a gust of wind and was gone.

At the four-hour mark, my wife came out and asked if I’d found them yet. “Would I be still be raking?” I asked incredulously. I was resolute but getting testy. At Hour Six my neighbor with the metal detector returned. “Found them yet?”

I pictured the find. I imagined yelling: “I found them! I found them!” I would post a sign on that spot and document the discovery with my camera. My neighbors would come running out of their homes to slap me on the back saying, “I knew we could do it!”

It was a team effort in spirit but I was doing all the work. Hour Eight brought me to the final piles. I was nearing the pinnacle of Mt. Everest. Slowly I brushed each leaf to the ground. A branch made me stop. I found albino plants, which, despite the lack of sun, had survived for weeks under my earlier work. But my will was waning. By the middle of the ninth hour I had had it. Completely depleted, I couldn’t stand straight. My body was listing to the left from raking for so long. Utter exhaustion replaced the exhilaration finding them would bring. I simply didn’t have the strength to ruminate, nor did I care.

Years ago I left a ruby ring my father had given me in a faculty washroom. Two hours later I suddenly realized it wasn’t on my finger. I rushed back but it was gone. When I returned to class a student pronounced, “If it’s really yours, it will come back to you.” Yeah, right, I thought. But two weeks later a fellow teacher walked into my classroom and asked, “Is this yours?” My tortoise shell glasses were made just for me. No one else could see out of them. Why didn’t they come back to me? I put away the rake. I hobbled into the house, threw my leaf-encrusted clothes into the washer, and took a hot shower.

The whole neighborhood knows those glasses are still out there. “I’m sure we’ll find them in the spring,” they say. Yeah, right.

I Talk to Strangers in Elevators

21 Aug 2014
August 21, 2014
People in elevator

I talk to strangers in elevators. But not just to any stranger. I pick and choose, depending on the elevator, the mix of people, and, of course, if I have anything to say. Our time together is short and there must be some connection to our shared experience riding up or down. Not quite an elevator pitch, but a close relative. Timing is everything.

It might be Monday morning. No eager beavers on Monday morning. “Thank God it’s Friday,” I might say. I’m often the warm up act for the week. And, if I’m lucky, I’ll get a chuckle. Out of complete strangers. Friday afternoons, it’s a virtual party as office after office empties out for the weekend. Everyone is jovial, anticipating two days off, and talk is cheap.

Yesterday, after getting my morning coffee, I was standing in our office lobby waiting to be whisked upstairs. Another woman and I waited as the elevator door opened. Out walked a coworker of mine. As she walked passed me she smiled and asked, in that perfunctory fashion, “Hi, how’s it going?” Of course, my answer was preordained, no matter how I felt. I replied, “Great.”

The two of us, the stranger and I, got on the elevator: me to the 3rd floor and she to the 5th. As we began our assent, I turned to her and said, “I’m really not great. But this is the ‘Truth Elevator.’ You must tell the truth in this, and only this elevator.”

She laughed, but had nothing to say.

Wading My Stream of Consciousness

12 May 2014
May 12, 2014

Two seemingly unrelated events:

2014 Rose Bowl Game

Esquire backs me up on this one and even provides a simple way to remember which button to button.

A funny thing happened in the elevator at work the other day. I had just gotten my coffee from the Starbucks across the street and was taking the lift up to my office. I shared the elevator with another guy and we were getting off on the same floor. Suddenly, he asked “Jeff, you seem the right person to ask. Is it one button or two?” as he demonstrated on his sport coat.

I hesitated for a moment. Thinking. Thinking. “Do I know you?” I replied. I’m usually not so blunt when a stranger asks me a question out of the blue but everything seemed so odd: the elevator, the timing, and, of course, the question. I simply couldn’t think of any other way to respond. He apologized for being so familiar. He was an art history fellow here at the museum and he reminded me we had talked in the men’s room about our identical water bottles. Now, that would be quite a normal interaction for me. I have no qualms about breaking the usual bathroom silence. I remembered. I’d noticed his chartreuse water bottle and felt compelled to say tell that stranger that I had the same, to the color! “Too familiar? Not a problem,” I replied (how could I say anything but?). And as we exited the elevator I said, “One. Definitely one.” My reputation as a fashion icon seems to be growing beyond my control.

Later that day I saw him entering the building and asked “How’d it go? Was I right?” “Perfect,” was his reply.

• • •

Yesterday, while shopping at Trader Joe’s I stopped to try some of the samples they’re always offering. There’s always a crew member behind the counter preparing and dishing them out (all TJ’s employees are “crew members” and the manager is always the “captain”). The freebie for the day was their cookie dough peanut butter on an apple slice. I had always wanted to taste that so I took one of the small paper cups they put them in.

“Oooh, it sweet. Too sweet for me.” I have a lot of trouble with many of Trader Joe’s seasonings. They over-salt most of their prepared foods and you’ll often find me commenting about it to any crew member who will listen. I’ve got to give them credit. Their answers are always consistent. Obviously, they’ve held numerous training sessions on how to respond to my comments. “We use salt as a preservative instead of chemicals.” And that shuts me up. What can I say? Too much salt or too many preservatives? Not a great choice either way.

So, as I downed my cookie dough peanut buttered apple I looked at the label while spouting one of my cynical comments about the sugar —natural cane sugar of course (everyone is so nice there, these comments seem to just effortlessly slide off of them). Suddenly the server started to laugh. As she did, she accidentally spit her own apple into the bowl of samples. I was embarrassed for her so I said “Don’t worry, I do that all the time.” (No I don’t. I’ve never worked at TJ’s and I’ve never spit out my apple slice after uncontrollable laughter. However, to balance the rest of my TJ karma, it just seemed the right thing to say.) In the first grade, while on a sleepover at my best friend Ron’s house I did snort milk when we couldn’t stop laughing. But, honestly, that was it.

I don’t even remember what I said that was so funny. But I could write a book about my weekly interactions at TJs.

It was a crazy week. Good crazy.

A Homecoming Back to Me

19 Jan 2014
January 19, 2014
2014 Rose Bowl Game

The 2014 Rose Bowl Game

I’m not a sports junky. In fact, I’m worse. I’m a fair-weather sports fan filed under the subcategory “College Sports/Only Schools I Went To.” And that means just football and basketball. So, I follow two schools, both my alma maters: Michigan State, where I got my undergraduate degree and UCLA where I got my MFA. Oh, and as a fallback, I will sometimes follow the University of Maryland just because I live in Maryland (I may follow it more in the coming years because it’s just about to enter the Big Ten, home to my MSU Spartans.)

That’s as sports-minded as I get.

Ever since I entered State I had hoped they’d go to the Rose Bowl. They had the year before I came in as a freshman and the thought of coming home to Los Angeles for Christmas vacation only to top it off with a trip to Pasadena was my most fervent college wish. Alas, they didn’t. Nor did UCLA go during my three years there.

Now, that’s not to say I had never gone to a Rose Bowl game. In fact, I did. January 1, 1970 I attended the 56th Rose Bowl match between the Michigan Wolverines (NOT to be confused with the Michigan State Spartans please) and USC. But there was a heavy cloud hanging over me that day.

I had flown home from school a couple weeks before, picked up at the airport by my father who suddenly suggested we go for a walk on the beach. There he told my sister and I that my mother was dying, she had six months to live, and that we were not allowed to tell her. It was a heavy burden for me to carry. And the thought of going back to school after the holidays, thinking I’d never see my mother again, was that cloud that seemed to follow me. I have written about this before so I won’t belabor you with details. My father was trying to do the best he could and thought that a trip to the Rose Bowl with friends of the family would help.

To this day that Christmas vacation has been hanging around me in one form or another. And I have devoted a large portion of my life working to put it in its rightful place: a sad memory and one that no longer held me under that cloud.

So, when MSU beat Ohio State for the Big 10 Championship this year (by the way, I turned the game off when it looked like Ohio State was surging —yes, I am that fair-weathered sports junky— only to be totally surprised the next morning to learn that the Spartans had won), I walked into the kitchen and boldly announced that I wanted to go to the 100th Rose Bowl. My oldest daughter, a gymnast, cheerleader, and dating a football player, immediately chimed in: “Me too!” So it was set. My daughter and I were going to go to the Rose Bowl. My wife and younger daughter were not even remotely sports-minded. Yeah, you know those spur-of-the-moment declarations. No thinking required.

The trip was on, then off numerous times during the next two weeks. The school ran out of tickets, those who had them wanted $1500 a piece, United Airlines had frequent flyer tickets available; then they didn’t. There were numerous parts to this puzzle that had to come together. But they never seemed to come together at the same time. I watched the game ticket prices fall on Stubhub (the aftermarket website that has become to “go to” for ticket deals to games and concerts). But not far enough. Finally, twelve days after my initial pronouncement, suddenly game tickets were going for a “reasonably” unreasonable amount. And just as suddenly, United frequent flyer seats during the busiest week of the year suddenly appeared. It was meant to be. I locked everything in. And we were set.

I was excited about the game. But suddenly, I remembered my last trip to the Rose Bowl 44 years before. This trip immediately took an extraordinary turn when it occurred to me that I could right a memory with a new one. Not exorcise it, but simply include a ying to that horrible yang.

When we arrived at LAX, we got the rental car and drove immediately to the beach. It wasn’t necessary to find that rock my sister and I sat on so many years ago, but I wanted to look out at the Pacific with my daughter. This present would stand in front of that past. I now had my own family and my own children. I’ve always tried to be there for them but this time my daughter was there for me. It became the new normal for me.

I couldn’t help reflect on this dichotomy throughout our trip. My daughter and I never discussed it; it just was there, sort of like that cloud many decades ago, only this time it was just a reminder. And, during the game I thought about sitting in that stadium years ago. I knew exactly where I had sat and I remembered how overcast it was that day. But this time it was sunny and warm and I seemed to be amongst lots of friends (even the Stanford fans sitting in front of us). And, it didn’t even matter if we won (although, I can tell you that if I’d been watching the game on TV I would have turned it off after the first quarter when Stanford led 10-0 —yes I’m still fair-weathered).

The facts were clear: I had survived that horrible time and made my way to something better. As children, we must rely on our parents to protect and comfort us. We have no ability to rationalize the real world: a world that often is as cruel as it is triumphant. We simply don’t understand. We only feel.

We won!

We all won!

Our trip to the Rose Bowl was more than just a trip to a great game. It was spending some quality time with my daughter. It was realizing just how far I’d come. It was a homecoming I’d made for myself, not back to L.A. —it was a homecoming back to me.

© 2001-2015 Jeff Gates ISSN 1544-4074