Sunday, February 28, 2010

See, See, See?

On Sunday nights, I take my beloved mother out to dinner. Tonight's place was packed. When we left, the parking lot was full. The car next to mine had its lights on.

“Wait for me a second,” I said to my mother after she got into the car. “I’m going to tell them their lights are on.”

“Tell who?” she asked. “You don’t know whose car it is.”

“It’s the Russian guys who took the table next to ours. Trust me.” I went back in with a grin.

“Excuse me, but do you gentlemen drive a white minivan?” They nodded. “Your lights are on.”

The oldest of them ran out ahead of me and turned off the lights. He went back inside just as quickly, after saying thank you but without asking me how I knew it was theirs. My mother was more curious. As I backed out of the parking space, I pointed to the license plate. 4CCCP.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Call Me Virgil

This story ends fine. I don’t want you to stress. But finely as it ended, there was comedy, pathos and even terror amid things, so let us begin. Take my hand, Dante, it’s time to roll.

Yesterday I went to the DMV without an appointment. I left after 1:00 p.m. to avoid any lunch rush. Ha. 45 minutes to find a space of dubious legality half a mile away, up a hill. Then there was the standing line that stretched out of the building and around the block-- in unexpectedly blazing afternoon heat. About another hour to get my numbered ticket, but once I got into the shade I didn’t care. Not quite two hours after that I was at the window.

She wore a T-shirt that said “Bow to me”, which should have been a tip-off. The change of address displeased her, but her mood brightened when my nearsighted eye couldn’t pass the eye test. I see 20/20 with both eyes, but one contact lens is set for reading, not distance. She acted as if my license was in jeopardy then waved me to a machine at the end of the row.

“Put your forehead on that!” It was greasy and rather disgusting, but her fear tactics worked. I obeyed. “Read line one!” I did, with clarion precision, while she had a conversation with a coworker. I lifted my head. “Put your head back!” I did. “Read line two!” I did. She fiddled, it got blurry. “Line five!” I managed, she fiddled, blurrier. “Line six!” I died inside. “I can’t.” More fiddle, then clarity returned. “Line three!” Proudly, I announced every letter. She stopped talking. Timidly, I peeked out. She’d gone back to her window. I scurried. “Here’s your temporary license. Wait in line for the camera.”

Who could begrudge the next 50 minute line? I waited in a cloud of relief to be thumb-printed and processed. As 5:00 struck and the office officially closed, I watched tragedy strike. A charming old man got lost in the sardine-packed crowd looking for the window when his number was called. The employee he approached for help told him, “You have to go back and get a new number.” That broke my heart.

On the plus side, my parking space turned out to be fine. I was home by 6:00, with eight pages left to read in the book I’d brought with me.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Bureaucracy Loves Company

Little things matter. I’ve read books that try to quantify how random interactions with relative strangers can have pervasive effects. Sure, we all know that one bad driver on the way to work can ruin your morning, but there’s a good side to this single. (Kids, ask your grandfolks what a record is. Be prepared to hear about AOR radio and the movie “FM”. Counter that with “Airheads”. If you’re too young to remember “Airheads” then you shouldn’t be reading this. Go play World of Warcraft, or whatever it is young people do nowadays.)

A smile from someone you see regularly -- whether it’s the security guard, a barista or a fellow drone -- can make you feel like you’re not in it alone, whatever “it” is. It’s not just misery that loves company; a good laugh is best shared.

What’s my point? On Monday I’ll be dropping by my friendly neighborhood Department of Motor Vehicles to wait in line and renew my driver’s license. Granted, the DMV is neither friendly nor in my neighborhood, but I expect to share this experience with a number of strangers who, by the end of what I presume will be a lengthy wait, will be familiar strangers. It’s my own fault for forgetting that the deadline approacheth, and I will pay my penance in time and patience. Hopefully there will be someone else who will see the humor in the situation, and with luck, I’ll share a smile or two. If not, I might be able to give a first hand analysis of the Stockholm Syndrome.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010


Language is both volatile and subjective. A word can imply something completely different to you than it does to me – or worse, something slightly different, just enough to skew but not enough to be obvious.

Let’s put it another way. When you hear “blue” you think of a particular shade that’s different from the one I see in my head. Fine and good. It’s hard to think of a situation where that would matter. But for other words, those little nuances can shift the meaning into a whole n’other ballpark.

What do we intend when we say things? I think most ordinary conversation communicates emotions, not ideas. “How are you?” can translate to “I like you and I am pleased to see you now” as much as it can “Ugh, you again! I’ll be polite until I can get away, which I hope will be soon.” The particular word choices are less significant here, the feelings affect the flow.

But, and it’s a big but, when the feelings are complex or strong or potentially conflicting, the words matter – whether we’re hearing them or saying them. Our personal interpretations can inflame the most innocent comment. This is why I am starting to think that feeling may supersede meaning.

That’s heresy coming from me, given my lifelong love of narrative and philosophy. Meaning used to be the crown, and words the jewels of which it was made. But where there is genuine goodwill, we ought to be able to transcend verbal differences. I ought to be able to. With one hand on my beloved paper dictionary, I’m going to try to. We’ll see how long that lasts.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Rain Check

This wasn’t going to be my next post. I’m taking a break in our regularly scheduled blogging because it’s raining.

Go ahead, make a joke, I’ll wait.

It’s true, I am Southern Californian, born and bred. I’ve lived here my whole life. Rain is a big deal. It’s not that cold and there’s something delightfully disruptive about the spattering. Not to mention that in the middle of a drought, there’s water all over the place. How decadent is that?

Really, that’s what it’s all about, abundance in the midst of rationing. Imagine butter and eggs falling on World War Two communities. Okay, maybe not. My brain is soggy. Or maybe I’m just loopy from the pitter patter. Still, it’s fun.

Not so much for the little dog, though. The water goes up to his haunches, which makes peeing problematic, or it would if he was willing to go outside. Fog may creep in on little cat feet, but rain makes all four of a dog’s legs cross.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Jokes For Today

For a little change of pace, I thought I’d give you guys a few of the jokes I wrote during my “20 Jokes A Day” marathon. The subject of these is…

1. The stick was lying on the sidewalk. A staggering drunk stepped on it, and when he heard the crack said, “Pardon me.”
2. The stick was lying on the sidewalk, wishing it had the same kind of PR that the carrot did.
3. The stick was lying on the sidewalk. A Rottweiler and a Saint Bernard both ran up to it at the same time. The stick fainted.
4. The stick was lying on the sidewalk. A snake slithered up to it and said, “Booty call!”
5. The Barbie doll asked the stick for diet tips.
6. Why is a stick better than a computer? You don’t have to upgrade a stick.
7. The stick was lying on the sidewalk, as if it had anything better to do. Come on, it’s a stick.
8. “This is a magic stick,” said the teacher. “When I point it at you, it knows when you’re telling the truth.” All the children were frightened of the stick and always told the truth. All except Timmy. When Billy knew Timmy had been lying he cornered him at recess. “Aren’t you afraid of the stick?” Timmy answered, “Nah. I’m wearing my magic underpants of Invincibility.”
9. When it was time for him to be reincarnated, Elvis said to God, “Can you make it easier this time?” “Easier?” said God, “You were rich, you were famous, and you had all those women after you.” “Yeah,” said Elvis. “I’d like to do without all of that. I just want to be left alone, and not have to live up to anyone’s expectations.” So God made him a stick.
10. Why is a stick better than a comedy writer? The stick is more useful.