Friday, December 7, 2012

Givin' It Up

The most thankless job is the one you can’t get thanked for. Too often someone says “that’s the most thankless job” about the very job that they do, in a backhanded way of proving how beneficent they are. If you are calling your own job thankless, then I would thank you to stop saying that. If you are calling someone else’s job thankless, I might point out that you consider simply thanking them instead. Or just shut up and save us all the bother of listening to you.

I spent the last four years substitute teaching, and let me tell you, that is definitely not a thankless job. School secretaries thanked me for just showing up! When was the last time you got to work and someone thanked you?

The students thanked me in abundance. They thanked me because they liked me more than they liked their regular teacher. I was nicer. I was more fun. If the students were old enough to hear the truth, I told them they were idiots.

I’m not nicer, I would say. I’m not more fun. It’s because I don’t really care, I have no ultimate responsibility. I’m like the crazy uncle who shows up and gives piggyback rides and tells funny stories and smells a little of gin and then leaves. Everybody loves that guy (except maybe the parents). Same goes for me. Everybody loves me (except maybe the parents).

And no, I didn’t teach smelling of gin. But the students thought I was great because when I went home at the end of the day I didn’t give them a moment’s thought. I was on to the next gig, a different grade, a different school.

While I was there I did care. You bet I did. I think I was a good substitute teacher. I actually tried to teach. My worst days were when the teacher’s plan for the day was dumbed down to videos, word searches, or extra P.E. time (not that those chubby little people couldn’t have used a little extra P.E., and maybe a calorie counter with their lunch). I much preferred a lesson plan and lots for me to do on the white board (formerly the chalkboard, but those went out of style when the teacher’s union voiced some objection to rampant chalk-induced lung disease).

I liked being a substitute teacher. It offered a very flexible schedule and a variety of opportunities. Kindergarten one day, eighth grade science the next . . . and yes, eighth graders act a lot like kindergartners. But only in the bad ways.

When students messed with me because I was the sub, I laughed. “Are you kidding me?” I would say. “I was messing with substitute teachers before your parents were born. Sit down and shut up!” Ha ha.

Despite the joys of the job, however, I gave it up. This fall I wasn’t a substitute teacher anymore, and I am loving my free time. I got the third and final kid off to college, there is a lot to keep organized at home and a lot of books to read, and I am helping the wife transition from full time to part time work. I have a lot of experience with that one, let me tell you. Working less than full time is my avocation.

And a thought formed: hey, I used to write once in a while. So here I go again.

Sunday, May 15, 2011


You have been very patient, and for that I am quite appreciative. If I could offer something more substantial than a simple thanks, I would. But some of you live far away, and some of you would prefer that I not violate the terms of the restraining order.

I understand. I’ll just sit in my kitchen and thank you from here.

It is true that sometimes a writer writes just for himself, and I do a fair share of that. Dear Diary, this morning when I got my regular cappuccino, the barista gave me the biggest smile ever. It really made my day! Stuff like that. But sometimes I writer wants to be read, and that’s where you have come in. Like I said, thanks!

But I feel a need, a strange and unexpected need, to stop. Not necessarily to focus on more financially rewarding writing, and not to punish you for taking out that restraining order, but just to . . . stop. Hiatus is a good word. It means a break in something where there should be continuity. And there should be continuity here, because I enjoy writing and you (in theory) enjoy reading.

In its first incarnation, as an email offering called FreezeFrame, this column ran from May 1997 to February 2000 with nary a week off. One hundred forty-five in a row.

When new life was breathed into FreezeFrame in June 2005 it was a pleasure to return to my weekly task. I have always enjoyed watching my students or my children to find something to write about, or perusing the news if that suited, or making something up out of whole cloth if I felt like it. Not a few times people have asked the ever-patient wife “did that really happen?”

Usually she nodded sadly.

So we have hit mid-May 2011 and I calculate that 310 Mondays have passed since the rebirth. You true aficionados will no doubt want to point out that I missed February 19, 2007—and you’d be right. And also a little nasty. You might want to cut down on that whole nastiness thing; it doesn’t become you.

There are still things to write about, of course (your nastiness comes to mind). There must be, because even though Borders has filed for bankruptcy and the Kindle has presaged the end of paper books, people are still reading. So I will keep writing and let the words fall where they may. Only time will tell if any of them fall here again.

I am no stranger to walking away unexpectedly. I took a hiatus from a cushy corporate job way back when to be a stay-at-home dad. Turned out to be permanent. Who in their right mind does that? Foregoes the money and the power? Well, me.

Then I left the cushy sofa cushions to which I had become accustomed to be a kindergarten teacher. What right-minded male does that as he nears forty years of age? A room full of five-year-olds? C’mon, who? That’s right, me.

I will now walk away from a loyal following that waits with baited breath for each of my weekly eruptions (don’t dispel the myth by telling me otherwise) just as I reach international status. Who does that?

You guessed it.

The hiatus is not simply abandonment. Whether the break ends up being temporary or permanent, it is often beneficial to pause and consider. To think. Not “should I be doing this?” or “what else should I be doing?” but “hey, I wonder what would happen if . . .” So this will be it for me, for now, for a while, forever, for goodness sake I don’t know!

Please feel heartily encouraged to pick something to take a hiatus from in your own life, and reading this blog doesn’t count. You can’t just piggyback on my hiatus, you’ve got to come up with something else. Feel free to return to your thing after an hour or a year, or not at all. Just pick something you want to test for its true meaning in your life. Okay?

Ready, get set . . . stop.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011


Hello! A mid-week message from me; perhaps unexpected, but here nonetheless. Thought I'd pass along a link to a column I had in the newspaper recently. If you ever went to a prom, or you have children who have or will, you should read this.

I could have saved it and used it as a regularly scheduled blog post (saving me valuable hours of sitting at the vanity and writing something new), but for reasons that will become apparent next week I couldn't.

So I didn't.

Sunday, May 8, 2011


Back in 1999 I checked out a Web site called Death Clock to see how long I was expected to live. It was a completely unscientific and arbitrary process, but I learned that at the age of 37 I had about another 37 years to go. That seemed pretty good. February 24, 2036 was the predicted date of my demise. I could plan on that, get my affairs in order in plenty of time, and daughter Kelsey would be sure to remember each year because it is the day after her birthday. Cheery!

Of course now twelve more years have passed, and facing age 49 in a few more days I revisited my old friend Death Clock to read the good news. Lo and behold I was given the same exact day to cease breathing: February 24, 2036. What? Are you kidding me? I drink less, I eat better, and I actually have spent the last twelve years running marathons.

Maybe it is as unscientific and arbitrary as I first believed. All it asks is gender and birth date. No questions about diet, exercise, lifestyle. It is no more accurate than “what’s your name . . . okay, that means you’ll live to 103.” Still, I think I should pay attention.

Time is of the essence. I’ve apparently got only 25 years to go. The days and weeks are winding down, and it is imperative that I get going on those “accomplishments” that people can recall when I am mentioned in memoriam. It can’t just be “he was so handsome” and it certainly won’t be “he did so much charitable work.”

I need me a bucket list! One of those lists of things I want to do to prove that my life mattered. Never mind the long-term marriage and the three great kids. I need Machu Picchu, windsurfing on Walden Pond, and a motorcycle ride around the rim of an active volcano. I need to get a tattoo, live on a dollar a day for a year, and learn how to play Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 on a harp.

If these next 25 years are going to measure up, the more outlandish the goal the better. That’s what these buckets are always full of: narcissistic, look-at-me goals by which we can feel superior . . . even if we never achieve a fraction of them. I’d be seriously interested in a study that determines how successful these bucket list makers are in completing the dream.

Perhaps it would be better if the bucket list was comprised of honorable and selfless goals, rather than just a badge of cool things accomplished in a life. Lunch with George Clooney or hammering with Habitat for Humanity? Skydiving over Papua New Guinea or helping illiterate adults learn to read?

If it sounds boring, don’t do it! If, however, it would just be the greatest thing you could ever do in your life, then go ahead and schedule that lunch. Just let George pick the restaurant.

Another quandary: is the bucket list containing just one item (even if it is super great) less impressive than the bucket list of 100 more inferior ambitions? Is this all merely another ego trip? I fear that we will start to be competitive and attempt to determine whose bucket list is best. Because if someone’s is best, I should no doubt be reading it over to see if there is something I can take from it to add to mine. Eventually someone’s bucket list will include the line item “have the world’s best bucket list” and fistfights will ensue.

I’m 49 years old next week and I’m pretty sure 50 comes after that. I am in no mood for a fistfight, over this or any other issue. Whether Death Clock is right or not with regard to the date, my time is certainly finite (like yours, I daresay). I ought to have a plan for what I want to do with whatever time is left. I will watch my three offspring grow to be exemplary adults, and the wife and I will travel and play Gin Rummy and walk to the library.

The thrilling events will no doubt happen here and there, but for the most part I think I will simply live. I’m beginning to think that perhaps my bucket list has only one entry: never make a bucket list.

Sunday, May 1, 2011


Every time I look up over the top of my computer, I am greeted by the dull countenance of my most combative foe. In the words of the high priestess Britney Spears, oops I did it again! Just now. Looked up. Caught in the glare of me. It can be frightening.

That’s what I get for setting up shop on a small wooden vanity with a large mirror. My ugliness is not so readily apparent at first glance. I’m not saying compare me to Brad Pitt (okay, then, compare me to Brad Pitt, I dare you!) but I can make my way through life without causing passersby to cower in fear. Like most people, I keep my ugliness well hidden. That way I don’t get insulted, or slapped, or arrested.

After all, ugliness that is strictly physical will get insulted by unkind people. Ugliness that is behavioral will get slapped by offended people. Ugliness that is criminal will get arrested by official people.

Able to avoid most of that unpleasantness, I manage a garden-variety ugliness that is only witnessed by those closest to me (oh, how lucky they are!) or by me when I look in the mirror.

The latter used to be a rare occasion. Once I passed through the morning lavatory routine, I rarely had occasion to look at myself in a mirror again. A brush of hair and tooth and I was ready to roll.

Now my writing station has been set up in an extra bedroom, the computer sitting atop the aforementioned wooden vanity. It is a family heirloom, with seven drawers and a soft brown finish. Originally from my grandmother’s house, it has been passed around our home for many years, from kid to kid, depending on who needed a little extra storage.

It is not the world’s perfect desk, though. It is about the right height, but is woefully shallow and spare of top space, making it suitable only for the laptop, two small speakers, a cool beverage on one of grandma’s knit coasters, and room for a sheet of paper or open book (should I be plagiarizing). The knee hole (I actually had to look up the name for the area between the drawers where the knees go—the knee hole!) is narrow, accommodating my legs but only barely. The arms of the desk chair preclude it from ever being pushed inside and out of the way.

The mirror, though, is the biggest problem. I always figured famous writers look up to contemplate their prose, with a view through a large picture window toward a lake, or a spring meadow, or a winter forest. Something that expands the mind. Looking up and seeing what at first appears to be a grumpy goblin seems to limit my mind and stifle my creative process. And that is why famous writers don’t mount mirrors above their writing area.

Ah, so that’s why fame eludes me! For a moment I thought it might be the quality of the writing.

Despite the fact that I sometimes startle myself, having a place to write does help me get the writing done. Right now, in fact! Whilst tapping away at the keyboard (never looking down as a good typist should) I watch as the words flow effortlessly onto the screen. In a perfect world I won’t forget to save the document every once in a while. If I have to look something up online (such as “knee hole”) it is only a mouse click away. The ugliness only presents itself if I pause for too long.

A brief pause in typing gives me a chance to reflect on what I have just written, and to consider what comes next. Any longer, though, and my head rolls up and my eyes look forward—into my own eyes about eighteen inches away. Goblin! Oh wait, it’s just me again.

No wonder I think about myself so much when I write. The furniture piece is called a vanity, after all, and thus comes with a mirror attached for all the reasons a person might sit at a vanity. Therein lies my problem. I’m not sitting there to use a vanity, I’m sitting there to write. And every time I look up, I look back at myself and am clearly not writing.

Oh, the vanity. In more ways than one.

Sunday, April 24, 2011


When I was a kid, there was a grocery store nearby that we could reach by car or bicycle without spending a single moment on anything other than residential streets. It was called Wings, though I don't know why. Maybe it was Wing’s. Facebook has a tribute page for a Wing’s Grocery but it appears to be from Texas.

Elsewhere online I found a Wings Grocery supposedly in Hayward, California, but it appears to be located in a residential area. Not sure I want to be poking around the produce section in someone’s house. The only currently operating Wing’s Grocery I discovered were two in British Columbia and Alberta (in Canada, don’t y’know) and I’m not sure I’m willing to travel that far down memory lane.

Anyway, Wings—with or without the apostrophe—eventually became Nob Hill and then Nob Hill moved across the street and the old Wing’s building became
Big Lots!, where one can by all sorts of cheap plastic crap. It seems like Nob Hill could have just done a little updating and remodeling rather than truck all of their food products across the street. I wonder how much ice cream melted on the way . . .

The upgrade mindset of the common man (new car every three years, new house every ten, new wife every . . . oops . . . never mind) is repeated by large corporations like Nob Hill. There’s a national drug store chain with an existing location in a strip mall in San Jose that is building a new and more grandiose building . . . in the front of the parking lot of the same strip mall! It seems to me it would be easier to just stay where they are.

I generally seek out the easy over the hard. I mean, I’ll run a marathon or climb Mt. Whitney or motorcycle 700 miles in one day, but generally on the day-to-day business I want it all easy. And I have happened upon a rather easy life with the kids and the wife. There are moments of difficulty, of course, what with me being a stubborn and argumentative soul, but the overall picture, the CliffNotes™ if you will, is like the big red button at Staples Office Supplies: easy.

This begs the question: has Staples ever made the decision to close a store just to open another within a stone’s throw? That might disprove their claim that they are the keepers of the ease. I’ll have to look into that.


My easy life has come under attack by yet another grocery store taking their business elsewhere. When we moved to our house in 1992 we were pleased to have a grocery store just about a quarter mile away. Sure, when I was a younger man and not so eager to live easily, I usually drove there, but in recent years I have taken to walking for a couple bagfuls of food whenever we needed something.

The trip to Safeway was not much longer than my long ago sojourn to Wings, though I did have to cross a five-lane boulevard. Nevertheless, I made my way safely by foot many times, as did my kids. Yes, I have trusted my children out in the great big world without me hovering over them, worried about every possible catastrophe. It is . . . easier . . . that way.

Safeway didn’t want to do it the easy way. Rather than remodeling my existing space (they preferred calling it “their” space . . . whatever) they found some other poor building made vacant by another failed business and remodeled it, moving with much hoopla and pomp and a ten-dollar coupon for me to use at the new store.

The only problem is I can’t walk to their new store to use the coupon. Instead of making my life easier, Safeway has made it more complex. Their new store is very large, it offers tens of thousands of items when I can generally choose well from about one hundred, and the parking lot is large to match, and that brings too many of my fellow citizens to the store at the same time.

I have a few alternatives. The now-empty Safeway’s neighbor is a drug store that sells many of the non-food items I used to buy at Safeway. I can walk there. There is a discount grocery not much further in the other direction that sells some trustworthy food items (and some knockoff brands that look positively scary). I can walk there.

And then there are all of my neighbors’ refrigerators, which are well-stocked, and I happen to know that many of those people leave their homes, sometimes for hours at a time.

Some solutions may not be nice, but they are easy.