The Octopus Tree
My friends and I used to play in this tree. We'd climb up and lie on the bent over trunks, or sit under it and throw leaves at each other. I wanted to lie under it and take a picture looking up into the branches, but the path had completely grown over with brambles and poison oak, and I couldn't get through. I was happy to see that the tree was still there, but sad to think that no other kids have been lying under it on a lazy summer afternoon, dreaming new dreams. But, who knows? Maybe some day some kid will find a new way into the little clearing, and the story can start over again.
Robles del Rio
I found out over the summer that the Robles del Rio Lodge had burned down. In fact, it happened three years ago, and I had no idea until I went out of the way to visit the neighborhood. I'd never been inside before, and it seemed odd that I wouldn't get the chance now.
Would the news have hit me differently if I'd lived there when it happened? I wonder.
Over the summer we went back home and visited Juliette's parents. I took the opportunity to go back to my old town and work on my "It Forgets You" series some more. I used to come to this swimming hole a lot when I was young--it's right down the street from where one of my friends lived. I hadn't been back in years. I stopped hanging out with that friend, and then I moved away. The fence around the outside has a bunch of signs I don't remember and there's a new bench. The river is the same, though--here, at least. After all the floods and dredging and new channels, this might be the only part of the river I still recognize.
When I was six years old--some time in late 1985 or early 1986--my mother, brother, and I moved into a small cabin in Bixby Canyon in Big Sur, where her boyfriend, Pete, lived. We only stayed there for a year--half of first grade and half of second grade, as I always described it--but in that way that childhood stretches time in our memories, that period always looms large when I think over my life.
It's a strange to think that I was only a little bit older than Jason is now when we moved down there--I have such clear memories of the place and of the things I did there, and, of course, of Pete. I remember tearing up slices of American cheese, rolling it into little balls, and tossing them into the creek for the rainbow trout that lived under little foot bridge that went from the driveway to the front yard. Pete showed us how to do that. I also remember dropping a big rock off that bridge to try to squish a crawdad I saw, and how angry Pete got with me for scaring the fish away.
How I remember him now--and how I've remembered him at times past--is complicated, but it always seems to come back to those two things: teaching me things, and being angry with me.
The latter is what I mostly remembered about him when I was a teenager, after he and my mom finally split for good, after she married my stepdad, even into my college years. He's the only person who ever spanked me; he kept a piece of plywood hanging on a nail on the wall, and I remember the fear I'd feel when he'd reach for it. When he drank--which was often--he could become brooding and irritable. At the time I remember thinking he was unfair or mean, and even now it's astonishing to me how trivial some of the things that would set him off could be. He once spanked me for accidentally getting my socks wet in the creek. And I knew he was going to as soon as it happened--I remember putting my belt back on, thinking he wouldn't be able to get my pants down to spank me if I was wearing a belt, which, of course, didn't work.
And he was so unpredictable, too. Sometimes he was all equanimity, sometimes he had a short fuse. I remember on two occasions after watering the yard, I remarked that the plants were still green. The first time he looked at me thoughtfully and said, "Those, I think, are gazanias, and they're pretty hardy plants. They don't need much care, really." The second time he muttered bitterly, "At least for once you didn't kill those damn plants."
Often I reacted to his disapproval and anger with defiance, something that's always been a pattern for me. But, too, I remember wanting so much for him to love me, in ways that I didn't truly understand at the time. Once, his daughter came to visit him--the only time I can remember meeting her in all the years my mom was with him--and I remember being struck by how he treated her.
"Why is he so nice to her?" I asked my mom.
"Well, she's his daughter," she said. "He loves her."
"Why doesn't he love me?" I asked, and started crying. I remember the look on my mom's face as she tried to answer that question, and how frustrated and heartbroken I felt.
And yet, as much as I demonized Pete in my memory when I was younger, that wasn't the whole story. There are so many times that I think about now--times I didn't think about when I was a teenager--when he was genuinely interested in me and my brother, when he looked at us and smiled. The kind of smile that I can see now had real pride in it.
He built us a fort in an old, bent-over oak tree in his back yard, and he knew all the details of every story of aliens and monsters and adventures that I made up when we played in it. He introduced me both to Mel Brooks movies and to inserting movie quotations into daily life--the four of us used to spout off Hedley Lamarr lines and laugh and laugh. The first inklings I ever had of being a writer came when we lived in that cabin with him, and not only did he show real interest in my stories, but he also gave me both the first praise I can remember for my writing, and the first useful suggestions on how to make my stories better.
And he taught me things, things I still think about and use today. He taught me how to build a fire, how to comb my hair, how to tuck my shirt in straight. He taught me how to chop wood and hammer a nail. Everyone who knows my family knows that my mother is a talented cook, so you'd think I'd have gotten my culinary start from her, but in fact the first meal I ever cooked was a can of Stagg chili with a few dashes of worcestershire sauce, garlic powder, and fines herbes mixed in, along with a side of boiled new potatoes--a dish I learned from Pete. My love of John Wayne and Patsy Cline comes from the time I spent with him.
And even though he and my mom split when I was still young, so much of what I still think of as masculinity and strength comes from my image of him. Pete was such a man's man, in my memory, at least. He was a contractor by trade--I remember watching in awe as he and his coworkers poured a concrete foundation when he took me along on a job once--and an outdoorsman at heart. He loved fishing and hiking, pretty much everything about being outside, and he did his best to pass that on to me and my brother. I didn't often appreciate it at the time, being the kind of kid who would much rather sit in his room with a book than run around, but a lot of the respect I have for nature and simple living now comes from him.
I think I was ten when my mom and Pete finally called it quits. Since then I've seen him exactly twice. The first time was when I was in high school; I ran into him at a bank in Carmel when I was going to get some cash. We chatted briefly, and I remember being surprised when I told him that I was doing some acting as a hobby, and he responded that maybe I could make it more than a hobby. I don't know what I would have expected, but he was friendly and genial.
The last time I saw him was the summer I was a waiter at my father-in-law's restaurant. I was working the lawn on a weekend lunch shift, and he and his stepmother were taking a little walk down by the river. Again, he was friendly and interested in what was going on with me, and I think a little impressed that I was dating the daughter of the River Inn's owner. That was thirteen years ago now. I didn't think it would be the last time I'd ever see him. I didn't really think much about it at all.
A few weeks ago--God, I can't even remember exactly when--my mom called me at work and told me that Pete had died. An old friend of hers who was still in touch with Pete had let her know. I was stunned. I am stunned. And in time since then I've been busy. I've been working long shifts for weeks, trying to get a big project finished at my job, so much that I've barely had time to see my kids, let alone to process the fact that I'm never going to see this man again.
A couple of days ago Juliette showed me a note she'd gotten from my mom, describing the small ceremony Pete's daughter held to scatter his ashes. After I read it, I couldn't speak--I just sat there for a few minutes and tried to swallow down the lump in my throat. I don't know if it surprises me or not that I would be so affected by his death. It's been so long since he was a part of my life, but I think somehow I always thought that I'd reconnect with him some day. I wanted him to know what my life is like now, what I'm like now. How I turned out, and what kind of father I am. I guess maybe in some way I was still looking for his approval.
My mom had had contact with Pete and his family a few times over the years, and it's funny how differently he saw that time from how I did. She's told me that he always thought of himself having been a good influence on me and my brother, that he'd done right by us. The last I talked to her about him, a couple of weeks ago, she said she'd spoken to his sister, who'd said that he always talked about his time with my mom--with all of us--as the best years of his life.
How strange, the way that time erodes everything. Nowadays when I think of my year in Bixby Canyon, I can't help but think of it in terms of some garden of innocence, a natural playground of my youth. Is it that the years have worn away the bad memories and left only the good? Or was the pain of that time just too close for me to see the whole picture when I was younger? Every time I go home now, something is gone, something has changed. Every little piece feels like a bit of myself washed away down a river, never to be found again. Sometimes it seems like everything I do is an attempt to hold on to time, but it's not a thing you can keep in a jar on your shelf. Some day all of my fathers will be gone, some day all I'll have is memories and old photographs, maybe a laugh or a wistful conversation. How will I get by? How does anyone?
There's so much I don't know about Pete. I don't know when he was born or when, exactly, he died. I don't know, really, what his story was. In the past, I've judged him, maybe unfairly, and for that I'm sorry. I don't know what I can say that would be a fitting epitaph. But I think, maybe, what I can say is this: he did the best he could. In the end, maybe that's all anyone can ask for.
I met Dante in the summer of 2000 when I was working at my future father-in-law's restaurant. I was a few weeks away from turning 21 and Juliette's dad had given me a job waiting tables for the summer, a job I wasn't really qualified for and which I probably didn't deserve. Dante was one of the other waiters on the staff and, like me, he mostly worked lunch shifts so I got to spend a lot of time with him that summer. From the moment I met him, he was always friendly and warm toward me, even though I was a pretty terrible waiter. He was patient and kind, and he helped me a lot. Today I was saddened to learn that he died suddenly and unexpectedly this morning--of a heart attack, I'm told.
I can't help but regret the fact that I didn't know him better. We worked together for a summer, and in the years since we always took a couple of minutes to catch up whenever I came back to the restaurant for a visit with the family. There was a lot I didn't know about him. And yet, looking back, there was a lot I did know. I know he was hard-working, and that he cared about his work and took pride in doing it well. Since that summer we worked together he became a manager at the restaurant, and everyone I've ever talked to about him has loved him. I know that he was easy-going, quick with a smile, a genuinely nice person. I know that he loved his family. I know he had a bit of playfulness to him--I watched him spin a serving tray on one fingertip, laughing, one afternoon after the lunch rush was over. I know he will be missed, by me and many others.
I wish I could remember clearly the last time I saw him--but then, it wasn't remarkable at the time, just another visit home, another meal at the family restaurant. It's not as though this was something any of us saw coming; he wasn't even that much older than I am. So many of the moments in our lives that turn out to be important go unnoticed. I guess that's just the way of things.
My heart goes out to Dante's wife and children. I can't imagine what it would be like to lose a father and husband this way, so completely out of the blue. It's a tragedy, and we are all the worse for his loss.
Goodbye, Dante. I'm glad I had the chance to know you.
It Forgets You
I've been sitting on a bunch of pictures from the trip home I took over Christmas, mostly because I couldn't decide which to post. Ultimately, I came to the realization that they work better as a set than they do individually, and thus this post.
It Forgets You
This morning I stood in front of the house I grew up in, for the first time in seven years. It was different, and the same. Like me, I suppose.
I was surprised at how small it looked--how small the whole neighborhood looked, actually. And how graceless the lines were, how rough the walls. I didn't step onto the property, just stood on the gravel outside the driveway and looked in. The air smelled of oak and earth and river plants and cold, just the way I remembered. Familiar, but foreign now.
Everything about the old neighborhood was like that. The doghouse next door had the same names on it, though the people had moved away--and, come to think of it, those dogs are probably long since dead. The little stone mailbox down the street was gone and across from where it had stood someone had put up a mansion--with columns! But just past that was the thicket of cactus where my brother and I had hid and rained down with squirt guns on our friends. The big chalk shelf we used to swim next to was still there, but the river didn't cover it anymore. The same, but different.
Standing there looking at the house my parents sold seven years ago, I knew, finally, that I could never live in that town again. I've carried little bits and pieces of the place with me for all this time, leaves that I could press between the pages of my memory, or maybe old, worn photos that I could keep in my wallet and thumb the edges of every now and again. But I spent too long away; now these old photos are all I have, and coming back, they're all I can see. You can't build a new life around the ghosts of your old one.
I don't know exactly how long I stood there, my breath steaming in the cold of the morning, looking at that old house. Eventually, a man on a motorcycle rode up and parked in the driveway. "Hi there," he said, smiling.
"Morning," I replied. He tucked his helmet under his arm and pulled the keys out of the ignition. I blurted out, "I used to live here." I immediately felt pathetic, but continued on anyway. "Almost fifteen years ago now."
We chatted for a few minutes. I found out he'd been renting the place for four months. He was very polite; friendly, even. I felt awkward for interrupting his morning and quickly bid him good day.
I took a turn by my mom's old shop--empty now--and my old school. I took a moment to visit the tree we planted at my afterschool program to remember a friend who had died. I took a picture of it, then reached out and touched it's cool, rough bark. Some kids were playing at the playground next door while their moms complained about the school's plans to remove the sandboxes and replace them with wood chips. I'm not sure if they noticed me standing there, nor what they would have seen if they did. A strange man caressing a tree, I guess.
We like to think that when something or some place leaves its mark on us, it, too, retains some imprint from us. But it doesn't really work that way. You may not forget it, but eventually it forgets you.
I Wonder If My Brain Can Be Considered a Markov Chain
Apropos of nothing, the line "Jazz to Moonbase 2! A ginormous, weird-looking planet just showed up in the suburbs of Cybertron!" popped into my head this morning as I was shaving. For those of you under the age of 30, that is a line from the 1986 animated Transformers: The Movie, which I probably saw twenty times or more when I was in elementary school.
Thinking about that line, it occurred to me to wonder whether it might not be a little racist that Jazz's voice sounds black. And I wasn't sure whether the voice actor was black or not, and I didn't know if it would make it more racist or less if he were white. (It turns out that Jazz was voiced by Scatman Crothers, who was black, and who died shortly after the movie was released.)
But then, really, why did Jazz even have an accent? Why did Perceptor sound English? And, come to think of it, Shockwave and Starscream sounded vaguely English as well? What's up with that? All of them are robots from another planet. Why should any of them have regional accents?
That led me to think about Optimus Prime's voice, which made me wonder if Peter Cullen might not just have the best voice of all time. I could listen to that man read the phone book. I still get taken back to the excitement and amazement of childhood when I hear him say lines like "One shall stand, one shall fall, Megatron," or the "From days of long ago..." monologue from the opening of Voltron.
Thinking about voltron made me remember that live-action Voltron short that the AV Club linked back in October. I can't imagine that a movie like that could ever get made, or made well, but man, if it ever did I would watch the hell out of it.
I wondered, though, how a movie like that would go. Would King Zarkon really be the main antagonist? Because, really, Zarkon was a pretty ineffective villain. He pretty much had one go-to move--sending a Ro-Beast out to go destroy Voltron--and it always failed. Looking back, it's kind of baffling that he wasn't overthrown and someone more competent put in his place.
But, of course, none of the bad guy leaders in 80's cartoons really made much sense. Cobra Commander was supposed to be the leader of an international terrorist organization and he was a whiny loser. Even Destro, who wasn't as much of an out-and-out wiener, still made no sense as the head of a huge multinational corporation.
At this point I came back to myself enough to realize that I had spent nearly fifteen minutes pondering the minutia of some rather silly, extremely childish, and completely out-of-date pop culture items, and I had to marvel at just where my brain will go when I leave it unattended. But by then I was just about done with my shower and I had to start paying attention to real life again.
Just so you know, I am aware of the irony that this, of all things, would be the next thing I post after a rant about not being taken seriously as a mature adult. Maybe it's for the best that Juliette is the one to get the respect as a grown-up, after all.
Places We Lost Along The Way
A few months ago, I had a dream. I dream most nights, but even though I usually remember them when I first wake up, they tend to slip away some time between rolling out of bed and leaving the house. This one, though, has stuck with me.
I had gone back to my home town to visit an old friend at the house he lived in when we were kids. Everything was more or less the way I remembered it, and we chatted for a while--about what, I don't know. Eventually we wandered out into the yard, and I stood by the hammock at the edge of the property and looked out across the valley at the hills on the other side. I just looked and smiled for a few moments when I remembered that he and his mother had moved out of that house a long time ago, and suddenly I was crying. "I never thought I'd get to see this view again," I thought to myself.
I woke up almost immediately after that, but that feeling of having lost something stuck with me for most of the rest of the day. Since then, it's come back to my mind every few days, and I often find myself feeling an intense sadness that I probably won't really get to see that yard again.
Not too long after that I stumbled across Ze Frank's Childhook Walk project, in which he asks you to imagine a walk you used to take as a child, then try to recreate it in your mind, possibly with the help of Google Street View. It reminded me so much of the dream that I knew I had to try to see what Street View had for me. Of course, my friend's old house was well back from the road, so there was no chance I'd actually be able to see the view from his yard. But I was able to find the front of his driveway:
I must have walked up and down that driveway five hundred times over the years. Maybe more. It's strange, sometimes, to think that that's all behind me now. But he doesn't live there anymore, nor does his mother, nor anyone I know. There's no reason I'd go there, and no reason for whoever lives there now to let me on the property if I did.
It's been probably fifteen years since they moved out, and until a few months ago I never thought anything of it. After all, people move, things change, and life goes on. I guess that's why it surprised me that I reacted the way I did in my dream; I hadn't realized that I still cared so much. It makes sense when I think about it, though. A lot of what I remember about myself at that age goes back to that house and that yard, and while I'll obviously never be able to visit those days again, somehow being also unable to visit the place makes the loss more poignant.
I tend to the maudlin, I suppose.
I think most of us have places like this, places that were once really important that we'll never go back to. Take a minute to think about what that place is for you. Maybe you can find it in Street View. Maybe you have a photo of your own. Maybe you only have your memories. What did it mean to you then, and what does it mean now? Tell me about it, if you don't mind. Share a picture, if you can.
This was supposed to have been written a week ago but, as I say often enough that it's more or less become the blog's unofficial motto, better late than never.
The finale of our "Copy NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour" series is a very special episode all about collections. When I was just a wee lad, my grandmother told me that everyone should have some kind of collection. One of my cousins collected wind-up toys, for example, and another collected pins. Over the years I've collected a lot of things: pins, Matchbox cars, and Choose Your Own Adventure books when I was younger; comic books, coins, Marvel cards, and tabletop game miniatures when I was a teenager. These days my collections are mostly unattended and gathering dust, but thanks to my stepdad's adamant stand against my mom getting rid of my stuff, I still have all of them. Even my complete set of Secret Wars II comics.
I can tell how jealous you all are.
Actually, it turns out there is one collection from my youth that has been lost to the sands of time, and it was my first: baseball cards. I started collecting baseball cards in first grade, which was when baseball and the San Francisco Giants first came to my attention
The mid-80s were a heady time for a young Giants fan. Those were the days of Candy Maldonado, José Uribe, Robby Thompson, and Rick Reuschel. I remember sitting on the steps above the playground when I was in second grade, opening a pack of baseball cards with my friends and desperately wishing for a Chili Davis card. Unlike most of my friends, I also always chewed the gum, even though it both tasted gross and tended to break into little shards when you first bit into it.
The mid-80s are also about the last time I actually paid attention to sports until college. Certainly it was the last time until about a year or two ago that I actually knew the names of a significant number of players on any team. Not that knowing those names or caring about the Giants translated into, you know, watching the games or anything. No, I don't think I've ever heard of any fan as passionate as myself at seven years old who had less interest in the actual game.
How about you? Did you have to have every single Nancy Drew book? Or perhaps your thing was G. I. Joes? Leave a comment, tell me all about it.