Friday, December 30, 2011

Piano Lessons 2

My piano teacher, usually frustrated that I hadn't practiced much, was ecstatic one week when the lesson went really well and said that if I practiced like that every week I'd be the best student in their program.  At home my father didn't have anything to do with me.  He was dismayed that one of his sons, already not the butchest boy on the block, was continuing to take piano lessons.  One of my brothers was openly hostile and my mother considered getting the lessons paid for completed her part and expected me to do the rest.  In the passive-aggressive logic of the Midwest she didn't like it any more than my father did that she had a not-butch son taking piano lessons, but made a great show of disappointment whenever I hinted at possibly doing something else.  

I knew I wasn't the butchest kid on the block because one day the kid next door (we were friends, but not great friends; mostly we were somebody to do stuff outside with for each other) said that the previous evening, while they were all watching television, his father had said that I was a pansy.  He did not say this in a mean or taunting way, just matter-of-factly his father had said that I was a pansy.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Piano Lessons 1

Just as some mothers are determined that one of their sons will grow up to be a priest, my mother was determined that one of her sons would learn to play the piano.  She was able to harass my father into the expense despite his preferred spending plan of acting like it was the Depression, and his complete failure to understand why anyone would need anything that he did not. 

So one summer my two older brothers took piano lessons from this nice lady who had a cute house with a steep gable over the front door.  They, wisely, were horrible at it; trying to learn their pieces at the last minute just before the final recital, one of my brothers breaking out in tears, my father looking on proudly, my mother, not too disappointed, realized this wasn't going to work.

A couple years later I started piano lessons with Mrs. Schafer who had a piano studio in her finished basement.  Stupidly, I showed some aptitude for it; learning how to read music and the key signatures and the scales fairly quickly.  After a year her husband got a job out of town and I started taking lessons at the university two blocks away.

Quote: Isaac Asimov

“Knowledge is indivisible. When people grow wise in one direction, they are sure to make it easier for themselves to grow wise in other directions as well. On the other hand, when they split up knowledge, concentrate on their own field, and scorn and ignore other fields, they grow less wise—even in their own field.”

Friday, December 23, 2011


In that letter where my father said he didn't think Mom “would do that” he went on to blame everything that went wrong with our family on our mother.  He didn't mention that, as undisputed head of the household in all things, a role he insisted was his, he might be at least partly at fault. 

In the letter my father justified his blamelessness on being a workaholic and a man of the church, spending time at meetings and classes.  He didn't mention time spent pursuing other women.  One year he took another woman to his office Christmas party.  Another time he had a vasectomy without telling my mother, but she connected the dots of how he was acting when he called in sick to work.

Also in that letter my father expressed his regret at not being around more when I “made my decision.”  My father was a very intelligent man.  It's too bad that he put his intelligence into learning conspiracy theories instead of learning to respect his intelligent son.  After not talking for 2 years he cornered me at my Aunt's funeral, told me I looked sunburnt and skinny and proceeded to expound on the latest theory that being a gay man equaled having AIDS.  I was tan and fit in a room full of pastey, fat people destined to die of heart disease, starting with him.  Seven years later my uncle found him in his apartment.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011


When I was little my father would spend most evenings working late and leaving my mother to single-handedly manage 3 young, rambunctious boys by herself.  That's not redundant:  I mean single-handedly literally.  She survived polio at the age of 2 but was left with little use of her left arm.

My mother would send me to my father's office to keep him company.  Then she wasn't bothered by my walking nearly a mile across town in the dark by myself.  But one year after the YMCA Halloween Party I watched all of the other kids get picked up by their parents, waited a while longer, then decided walking home alone was better than sitting on a downtown street corner alone.  This was a walk I'd made dozens of times after swim lessons. But this time she was furious that I had set off in the dark by myself.  When she got home she screamed at me and got out the belt.

Those evenings when I got to my father's office he'd let me play on the office machines.  I especially remember the large adding machine with all of the numbers lined up down the front of it and a big handle to pull to make it do the calculation.  One time when I got there the office was dark and the door was locked so I just walked back home.

Holiday Party

Monday, December 19, 2011

San Diego Driving Tips

While exchanging emails with a friend about possible activities in San Diego when visiting family over the holidays I passed along a few driving tips and I thought some of the rest of you might benefit as well.  If you’re visiting Southern California over the Holidays, or anytime for a mid-winter break, there are a few differences between driving here and driving in the Midwest that may surprise you and being aware of them might be enough to avoid something you'd rather didn't happen while on vacation.

First: treat driving in the rain like you would driving in the snow back in the midwest.  Most obviously, because the other cars on the road do.  But don't assume they're idiots and zip around them like a maniac.  There are several good reasons for their caution.

Since there can be up to nine months between rains here, the fluids that leak out of cars and trucks build up instead of getting washed away.  And when it does rain it's usually light, floating the oil residue up but not washing it off.  What's left on the road is something with the consistency of snot.  Not a good surface for high-performance driving.

Even after the main rain slows down or stops, 4 or more lanes of cars kick up a lot of spray.  It's like driving through a dense, low fog with the addition of side-rocker jets like car washes have.  You may be able to look up and see blue sky but not see the tail lights of the car in front of you.  Don't mind the jacked up 4x4 trucks with monster wheels zipping by you in the fast lane.  Their higher vantage point and rugged equipment gives them the advantage over your rental car.  Plus, guys that drive those things are compensating for something. 

Hydroplaning is a real possibility.  A couple years ago a friend completely lost control of her car on a patch of rain sitting on the highway.  Fortunately she didn't careen into anybody else or get seriously injured. Unfortunately her new car was totaled.

If you're approaching water or feel yourself losing steering control, ease off of the accelerator.  Don't jam on the breaks.  Make small controlled adjustments with the steering wheel. Do not over steer.

When changing lanes on a 3 or more lane freeway, look 2 lanes over to make sure no one is about to move into the same space you want.  It's not enough to make sure the lane next to you is clear. 

When driving on surface streets through a busy neighborhood make a point of looking for pedestrians.  There can be a lot of us and we have the right-of-way in cross-walks.  If you hit someone who's stepped out into the street in the middle of a block you may not get a ticket but your auto insurance will most likely end up paying out on a bodily injury claim.

San Diego County has 511 service.  You can call 511 for traffic updates, mass transit information, and roadside assistance.  I'm guessing it's also available in Orange County and LA County.

On a recent episode the Car Talk guys berated everyone for comprising safety for convenience and just pulling over to the shoulder of the freeway.  That's an extremely dangerous place to be.  Don't worry about saving tires or wheels; drive slowly with the flashers on as far to the right as possible until you get to the next exit.  After calling roadside assistance for help with a flat try not to be embarrassed when rescued by a guy in a Prius.  Just sayin'.

Update:  As Keith reminded me in his comment I should have mentioned that's it's legal, and common, for motorcycles to split lanes with cars in California.  If freeway traffic slows down motorcycles may come up from behind and pass between your car and the vehicle in the next lane.  It's also good to remind yourself to make a point of looking for motorcycles.  On surface streets also look for bicycles, skate boarders, rollerbladers, and pedestrians.  If you only look for cars, you'll only see cars.

Saturday, December 17, 2011


When I was 3 and 4 years old my mother would get so mad she would whip me with a belt; hard and for a long time.  I have no memory of what, if anything, I did to incite such wrath; probably just trying to get some kind of attention.  I remember trying to talk to her and she’d keep walking away.  At one point I said, “ Mom, I'm trying to talk to you.  Please stop walking away.”  She said I could talk to her but that I would have to follow her around; she had no time to stop.  The beatings were so bad that my father had to take a break from working late to make her stop.  Many years later I got a letter from him saying, “I didn’t think your mother would do that.”

At times both my brothers and both my parents would be yelling at me all at once about how awful, unreasonable, and irresponsible I was.  I’d have to tell them it was completely unfair for all of them to yell at me at once and that if they were going to yell at me they could only do it one at a time.  It was the only point I ever successfully got across.

I do remember wondering why suddenly the beatings stopped and things improved for me at home.  From then on I was more polite and forever more subdued.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Graham Street

We moved into a large, green shingle-sided house on Graham Street 2 blocks from a small Methodist university and 1/2 a block from Franklin Elementary School that had this awesome fire escape. It was an enclosed grey spiral slide down from the 2nd floor that the kids in the upper grades got to slide down during fire drills.  I got through Mrs. Cranberry’s ( Cranapple’s? ) Kindergarten class just in time for the school district to announce that they were closing the school to general education students.  The next year I started walking 9 blocks across town to Bent School.

Bent School is a very nice building that had been built as a high school and then was relegated to lower grades as newer high schools and junior highs were built.  I remember my father nearly yelling at a school board meeting over the closing of Franklin School, saying he'd moved his family to be close to the school they would be attending.  I was the youngest of three so his plan had nearly worked. For my part I was sorely disappointed I never got to go down that fire escape.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Hillary Clinton’s Human Rights Day Speech to the U.N.

I’m not a fan of speeches by politicians or government officials because they rarely have anything meaningful to say and usually talk down to the lowest common denominator in their audience.  However, this speech is full of ground-breaking content and uses straight-forward language that speaks to all of us.  Plus, her delivery is incredible.  There are a few “uh”s at the beginning, but those quickly disappear.

From Rex Wockner

Catherine Street

When I was born our family lived in a small house on Catherine Street across from the railroad yard.  I only remember one Christmas having a package in my hands with a toy airplane in it and asking if it was mine before  opening it.  I also remember peeking through the crack of a pair of locked doors to a garage at the car inside and being reprimanded for being where I knew I shouldn't.  We moved when I was three.  Later we would go back to visit the neighbors who I was supposed to remember as these great family friends, even though I wasn't old enough to remember much of anything when we lived there.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011


 “The opposite of love is not hate; it’s indifference.” 
                  -  Elie Wiesel