On 40

30 March 2015

Dear J—

Forty isn’t one of those fun decade milestones that makes you think about what’s coming in an eager sort of way. Here’s roughly my thought process on each birthday of that sort, so far:

10 (Cheney) — Wow I’m ten already!
20 (Berkeley) — Can you believe I’m now double ten? One more milestone to go!
30 (San Diego) — I regret everything I meant to have done by now but haven’t. Yet. 40 (San Mateo) — Ugh. Another ten years already?

I woke up this morning hearing another voice in my head; I’ll call this one the dry voice or Mr. Keepin’-it-real. The deflatinator, with another well-timed oh-yah or ya-right and you-wish. I’m putting him in charge of things for now because it feels like there’s things that have to be done and it’s well beyond time that I stopped playing at being an adult and actually functioned like one. i wonder about these things, too, since I was born the year my dad turned forty, so I’ve finally reached half his age: there are now more years with me than without, so congratulations on that (adds the new voice: uh-huh). I love and admire my dad, being surprised daily with something that he’d done I hadn’t previously considered but wow, did that turn out to be a good idea.

Let’s see. Lawn care. Building a van’s interior. Preparing meals and washing dishes daily. Car washing. Window washing. Storm windows. Knowing what to do with a basement (apparently, storing things and converting it into living space when needs dictated). Bringing your whole family out of China and investing in them. Investments in general. Pushing your kids enough to make them hungry. Taking them back in when they’re too hungry. If that’s not adult then …

And yeah, it all started at forty. Or before, but that’s not the point, or maybe it is; it’s not too late to begin again. Or to make the right choices, even if you don’t know how they’re going to turn out.


Adult Enough

26 March 2015

Dear J-

I could open with an I remember when but I suspect I’d lose most of you within moments.

I just finished an actual by-God adult novel, by which I mean not the kind that comes with a nondescript cover and sales are restricted from minors but the sort that’s targeted towards an adult audience; this one was about the Mary Celeste, which was found adrift with cargo intact and in good order, but mysteriously abandoned at sea with no trace of crew or captain. Water covers nearly 80% of this planet and so we must go to sea, we must go to float for some of our lives, whether we pay for the privilege or choose it as a career. If all life has common origins then we have cousins in the sea as well, teeming with life and specialized adaptations for aquatic existence.

The novel itself was entertaining and purports to present a reasonable explanation of events – it’s not bad, honestly, and the plot is entertaining, though I wonder at times whether a particular point is true or if it was made up to keep the story moving along. Here Wikipedia is of little help; I’ve now been trolling its depths long enough to realize that history is selective and heavily edited. I like to provide unassailable facts and perform fact-checking, which I suppose is something I shouldn’t be doing for free, but there you have it: if your sole stop is Wikipedia then you’re missing a lot from the wider world, but at the same time, it’s easy enough to make an article authoritative and exhaustive using what’s already available on the web.

I’ve learned, since starting, that there’s an archive of old California newspapers at UC Riverside that dates back to circa 1900; that some out-of-copyright books are wholly scanned on the Internet Archive at archive.org; that Google itself has taken to digitizing old newspapers from medium-sized towns, so if you’ve got some event that happened in Spokane or Gadsden or Eugene then you’re in luck: site:google.com/newspapers and you’re good. The guy on the other side of the aisle is watching YouTube videos — which I do as well, mainly to keep up with my music videos and catch the ones I didn’t have a chance at watching, years ago, but these tools, what’s available now is amazing and that’s what keeps me coming back: I wonder if I can find … [and often: YES].


Old Friends

25 March 2015

Dear J-

I just ran into someone on the train I hadn’t seen for months — not since the day after the Giants won the Series, late October then. He’d showed up drunk as anything, vowing revenge on his coworkers for not supporting the Giants and talking fifty different kinds of trash and forever all day but I couldn’t help but think that it was a terrible idea to be heading in to work that impaired, for fun or not, on vacation or not. He’s working a different job now — not surprised — and if that’s a story strictly to save face then so be it; it’s not my job to check veracity or believability here. I’ll say this: it’s believable enough and that’s fine too.

The assertion is that you don’t quit jobs, you quit bosses and at the moment I’m my own boss, which is somewhat frightening. What do I do to get away from this guy, anyway? I’ve reached a point in my career where I’m that most dreaded of all individuals, a middle manager, put on earth solely to cause grief for the immediate layers around me: transmit forces from above, suppress feelings from below and I’m not so sure what to do that will remedy that situation. I’m probably not smart enough for that anyway, but there are metrics and tools to measure job performance and it’s another system to be learned and mastered, right? Let’s start there. We can get this.

Sometimes I wonder what grades meant, whether it was more about being polite than spirited, manageable and docile while learning that system, or to see how social orders were arranged and arraying yourself accordingly, measuring up to the different ways they use to measure progress. It’s like learning how to take a test in order to do better, not necessarily what’s on the test but using the system to your advantage. And then I wonder if that’s smart at all or just cheating but those sorts of things are better left to long, contemplative nights when there’s nothing on the television but old faces and familiar ways.


Small Steps

23 March 2015

Dear J-

We took a short trip to the city yesterday, riding the train in and walking from the mall where we’d eaten lunch; you spend a small amount of time out of town and it’s enough, I think, to get you thinking of other ideas and places you might go, between the thousand thundering feet and your own horns tooting that sure, here we’re going and you will be amused.

There was also quite a bit of napping this weekend, which helped; as long as we take for sleep it never seems quite enough, or perhaps there are years of deprivation to catch up on. We tend towards some laziness as we progress through the days, and it seems easier than driving somewhere and surrendering to complaints as we hike around, but in the end, who does that hurt? Yeah. Get over it.

The boy got smiled at by two different women on BART so perhaps he hasn’t lost his essential charm, though I wonder when or if they’ll ever get to the point of shy introspection , though I’m sure it’s probably inevitable as long as we keep telling him to use his inside voice.


New Deal

20 March 2015

Dear J-

There were contractors on-site that I remember not seeing suddenly; just one day suddenly stopped showing up and I’d learn later what the offense du jour was, whether it was not conforming to some perceived norm or because they needed to make a headcount work, that was the life; you never knew what was in store from one day to the next. Get over it I suppose because that’s what you do as a supplemental gun-for-hire; these things aren’t too difficult but they’re needed and so you keep moving forward with it. Somewhere between here and there you realize that job security means a lot at the end of the night, money or not, and so you either specialize or stop moving altogether.

I like to think that if I hadn’t made my choices then I wouldn’t be where I am now, when I’m feeling smug about the status quo, and when I’m feeling unsettled instead I’m cursing those same choices. On the other hand you make them based on the information you have at the moment they’re made and for better or worse you’re stuck with them, as it were, so make the most of it and if it’s not something you can change — or that you can fix — then why are you worrying about it now? Precisely.

There’s many things that can’t be helped when it comes right down to it; the trick is learning which and when to let go, then aggressively flexing the ones you can change. We made choices a couple of years ago in response to the situation, but that’s not to say we can’t keep moving forward to some nicer resolution.


Of Parents

19 March 2015

Dear J-

So in my reading I’ve gotten into the habit of picking up books from the Overdrive site of the local library (xyz.lib.overdrive.com), downloading it onto the phone and reading that way; from the novelty of reading Bleak House (via Project Gutenberg hotsync to the Treo 650 I still have in a box somewhere) to today, where if it’s not on the electronic library I mentally give up and look for some other author, my habits sure have changed. Going to the library was a regular event, one that required some planning and effort and now I’m just at the computer pulling down whatever I can find from the author du jour, who lately has been Cynthia Voigt. Whether it’s because of expected audience or who’s best able to tackle the technology, for some reason the online library is strong with young adult fiction, plus I’ve discovered I’m quite receptive to that genre, so here I am.

I actually started with the Mister Max series, which are clever and fun, but have since moved into reading the Tillerman Cycle of novels; our library has the first four and I’ve read two-and-a-third so far: Homecoming, Dicey’s Song (which should be read together in one generous sitting, or at least in close proximity to each other, one larger work split up by publisher’s demand, perhaps) and am working through A Solitary Blue. Running through all of these like some bright ribbon is the heartache of parents abandoning their kids one one form or another; whether literally or figuratively abdicating authority and care for welfare, you can’t help but feel for them as one adult after another walks through the door, returning sporadically or not at all.

The children are resourceful and clever, mature beyond their years and fiercely independent; there is no stronger character than Dicey Tillerman herself, determined to keep the family together in the face of adversity and challenge. It does make for compelling reading and yet I can’t imagine but surely can understand what the adults must be thinking, walking out like that, failing to follow up on the promises we made to babies and partners, choosing ourselves over anyone else and failing to hold to what we said was right and forever. I understand — because forever is a long time — and don’t — because if these things aren’t changing you forever then maybe there’s something you need to examine within. Push forward with it.


Two Lines

18 March 2015

Dear J-

We have now been … now … well, let’s see. What should I expect if I ignore the kids all night and then choose to be impatient at the end? That sounds about right.Return with patience and kindness and love; it’s easier to practice when you see someone else returning the opposite, though, like you need some sort of counterexample to realize just how ridiculous it is. It is, or you are? You can’t be that weary all the time, and yet here you are, angry as ever, angry as always, so, y’know, get over your bad self.

More sleep? Free time? Quiet activities? There are many (many) other choices in the world besides the ones you’ve chosen, so hopefully these lessons of impatience and I-don’t-have-time-for-you don’t stick too deeply, although I fear it becomes permanent after too long. It’s not the choices so much as it is tuning out and abdicating responsibilities. I’m not pleased with myself lately, and that’s got everything to do with choices I know are wrong and that I’m willing to admit are wrong.


What You Know

17 March 2015

Dear J-

I’m reading books — two or three a week, assuming I have the energy to stay awake on the train — and the latest one is Treasure Box from Orson Scott Card, who I honestly haven’t read much of since the various controversies about his (lack of) support for gay people around the release of the Ender’s Game movie. I did like that novel quite a lot, as well as the others in the series (up to Xenocide at the time) and I remember his Maps in a Mirror quite well, which I checked out as an undergraduate between freshman and sophomore years from the city public library keeping me sane in the hot nights at Casa Z.

Treasure Box opens with a right-to-life portrait of parents having to make that terrible choice for their daughter, brain-dead and on life support and the younger brother fighting them for it with the same kind of screechy diatribe reserved for the most ardent Terri Schiavo ventilator boosters; it’s a memorable first impression and it’s colored my perception of the protagonist, Quentin Fears, to the point where I can’t separate that initial picture of him — rigid, inflexible, uncompromising — with the adult he becomes soon thereafter. There are many impossibles in the world, but we are who we are through the experiences we’ve had to what we’ve become.

Now that I know more about the author — the Internet being the great and terrible thing that it is — I wonder how much the politics of the author can be separated from the characters, or how much of it is my assumption; it’s not to say that you can’t write with authority of people with beliefs so different from yours, but I’ve always thought there must be some sympathy in your views. You write what you know, that’s the first lesson I learned from Prof. Ogden in Dramatic Arts, and that observation is inescapable; your knowledge and experiences are some sort of gravitational well that distorts your perception of the fabric of reality.


Find Your Center

16 March 2015

Dear J-

We’re having a quiet Monday so far (I just got on and we’re going slow as we head into San Mateo — the work on the four bridges means they’re reducing speed; I’ll have to take a picture of the new retaining wall on the southwest side of Tilton and Railroad) and the cab’s arranged backwards today, which is a detail I never thought I would have noticed even as short as a year ago while I was riding the train but there you have it. The project keeps dragging on as we keep tweaking the report back and forth, here and there but ultimately as we insist the customer or client is right, aren’t they?

Yes I’m sorry but … yes. As infuriating as it gets, you get over it and keep a cool demeanor; it’s not worth crying or puling about; just get it done and get it done quickly. I’m not the boss of that so get over your ego and remember all the other things you are in control of, chief amongst which are your reactions. Write the letter you want first. Then erase it and write the letter you need to. Follow your own advice and stay sane; this isn’t worth getting worked up over: there will be a thousand other such things if you’re lucky and one demanding client does not a career break or make.

Cheer up. Say you to the horse: why the long face? Things that aren’t worth it: this. Lately it feels like everything you do lately is work; where else do you have to find before you’re happy with it?


Sleep Forward

13 March 2015

Dear J-

Let’s start again, with my mouth full of a garlic taste and ready to be flushed clean with … I dunno. I brushed my teeth this morning but that muzzy taste is back, leaching into my mind like some kind of bad dream. I did end up taking the long nap yesterday after dinner, the kind where you wake up only half-refreshed (probably should have just gone to bed) and with just enough to make me uncomfortably awake as I did lie down for the night, not willing to be either asleep or aware enough to be conscious of what I read in the dark.

Yesterday afternoon the gallery car was crowded with bikes; I had to shove my way forward into the vestibule and watched one guy essentially straddle-ride his bike down the stairs — the possibility of damage to tenders made me wince a bit. In the afternoons I take an early enough train to suspect there’s quite a lot of students riding back from school, laptops cracked open or books being pored over while rolling back home. In the mornings, though? The riders are one of three groups: hospital, restaurant and maintenance workers, coming on day shift with a fair amount of preparation to sustain as well.

What would you never do? Because never is a very long time, it’s hard to say that in all we have left going forward there’s never an opportunity for never. These thought exercises of “if you were desperate enough, would you … ?” are impossible to complete on a full belly and in warm shelters; we do what we have to and we get along with it. Life, right? Of all the things we’ve encountered already we have a great capacity for survival, and that more than anything else will dictate how we move forward with these opportunities.



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