Downstream Thinking

Martin figured that the stupidest mistake he’d ever made must have been when he let Carlos take the shortcut alone.  Up till then the journey had been – well, if not pleasant, at least something he could endure.  He got to eat and sleep on a pretty normal schedule, and anything that went wrong seemed easily fixed or incidental.  He could deal with the rough path and deep bush.  That’s why he decided to stay on course.

But the little setbacks along the way  had hit Carlos harder, and he had already been looking for options.  One finally presented itself in a shabby mountain hamlet they stumbled into one misty morning – a goatpath stuttering up the hill behind the hovels and shacks, and over the next hill, and the ones after that until the fog obscured its further progress.  Carlos asked around and learned that the small path reportedly rejoined the main trail at the trading post, taking a more direct but more challenging upstream route.  Carlos felt compelled to try it.

Once the tough, resourceful locals described it as a tough hike, Martin knew he wanted no part of it.  He’d stick with the main trail.  It had never gotten so very bad that he couldn’t stand it.  The shortcut sounded risky. Martin would endure the longer route, because it was safer.

At least, that’s how it looked on the map, but the map didn’t show all the roadside hazards. Since the day they parted company Martin had been spider-bit, had his food stolen, had his shoes wash away in a flood; he hadn’t found one person or pit stop he could trust since Carlos’ mop of red hair had disappeared behind that first ridge.  From sleeping on anthills  to running from bands of angry monkeys, this had been the worst trip of Martin’s life.  All he could think was how much smarter Carlos had been to have taken a different route.

These thoughts filled his mind as he trudged up the riverbank toward the docks of the trading post.  He noticed there a derelict canoe, crude and rudderless, floating aimlessly downstream.  It drifted with a hollow thud into the docks near where he was standing so he tied it fast, as no one else paid any attention whatsoever.  He glanced inside and saw his friend there, naked and unconscious.  He had no possessions and his flesh had been cut, burned, and beaten.  His cheeks were hollow and his ribs stuck out.  If not for his red hair he’d have been unrecognizable.

Martin looked down on Carlos, barely breathing in his hollow-log canoe, and he thought to himself, “Well, that sure wasn’t much of a shortcut.”

Riding with Kenny Jr

I’d often forget that I lived in Studio City when I was growing up. But then I’d find a nationally recognized movie actor standing behind me at the post office, or someone with his own sitcom out renting a cassette alongside me at the local video shoppe, and I’d remember again. I’d cross paths with celebrities just often enough for the most blinding glamor to dim a bit, but not often enough for it to feel quite normal. it was always a bit of a thrill to see Hollywood’s big names wandering through my life. They were exotic. And my regular old San Fernando Valley self really just wasn’t.

There were also industry faces at my school. We had a couple of America’s most recognizable kids in my Jr High – they had authentic careers with feature films and network series, but during hiatus they’d mainstream with normals like me. We all obviously knew who they were, everybody with a teevee did. But after a few days of school with its weird smells and manifold inconveniences, we stopped caring. In this way, the exotic was normalized.

And then one time, normal suddenly got exotic. Now that was a fun evening.

I had this friend in Jr High – Kenny. He was a “junior” – named after his dad. His dad, as it turns out, had been a big pop star a decade or so ago, and he was just starting in on a second career in country music. Country music was still kind of a niche market, but this guy was about to bust that demographic wide open. But when I was in 8th grade, all that was the unrealized future, and I’d already missed Kenny Sr’s defunct pop star days. All I knew was, a lot of moms knew exactly who my friend Kenny’s dad was.

None of that had anything to do with me, or why Kenny Jr was my friend. He was funny as hell, is why we hung – creative, quick-witted, articulate and raunchy. He kept me in stitches. We were comedy buddies. That’s as deep as I dug with him. Hell, he didn’t even live with his dad. He and his mom had a little place off Moorpark. Despite his apparent pedigree, I had no reason to connect him with Hollywood’s exoticism. Kenny Jr was normal.

Then one day Kenny Jr and I were out, probably at his place because where else were two 14-year-olds going to be in 1978 in Studio City? The hour had grown late and I needed a ride out to someplace on Ventura or Riverside, one of those major avenues. Kenny Jr’s mom said she’d drive me there. That’s no big thing. Moms often gave their kids’ friends a lift. This was Los Angeles; a car-ride represented baseline threshold hospitality. I thought nothing of it, till Kenny Jr’s mom pulled up with my ride.

Some cars were mom cars – big station wagons, dinky runabouts, kid-hauling sedans. Some cars were dad cars – sportier, or shinier, or dirtier, or just plain more fun than mom-cars. And then there’s the 1964 Rolls Royce Silver Cloud. When one of those pulled up, I really wasn’t sure where it came from or where it was going. I just definitely knew that I wanted a ride in it. And then Kenny Jr casually popped the door and hopped inside, and I followed him.  As if it were normal.

my ride

The hood was bigger than my dad’s Pinto, and the fenders over the fat front wheels seemed to sneer at the road. The door was like an airplane door in heft and engineering tolerances. As a limo-length vehicle, the passenger cabin was spacious and exquisitely appointed. The interior – maroon, I think – was like a gracious corner of a sophisticated club, with every amenity at one’s fingertips and all the seats inexpressibly comfortable.

I couldn’t believe my friend’s mom was able to drive it. Or did she? Where, exactly, did she take me? Could I hear the engine purr? How did it smell? Today, I cannot tell you. The experience was so rich in details, I actually forget most of them. But this I know without question: That wasn’t just a quick lift around the neighborhood from a friend’s mom. The trip wherever I was going took a matter of minutes. The ride I got that night, in a sense, continues today.


The party was at the little park up the street, where long lawns lay cradled between stands of cypress and juniper, and a spring-fed lake glistens primordially. The birthday boy’s parents had brought in a bouncy-house and laid a picnic table with mostly-healthy snacks plus some cupcakes for later, and different coolers for kids and grown-ups. The sun had broken through and the grass was dazzling green and kids were squealing with joy.

We were set up not far from the main footpath and had tuned out the steady trickle of humanity wandering past our site, walking their labradoodles or running the par course or whatever. It’s a public park; some contact with the public was to be expected. Our kids were safely occupied and our focus was on chips and dip and a coolerful of beer. No one was paying that much attention as the bird people approached.

They were, themselves, unremarkable enough: a woman and a man in their 50s or 60s, north Asian, plain-faced and plainly dressed, neither of them very tall or large, and each of them carrying a good-sized bird cage. She walked ahead of him, approaching us smiling. I assumed at first that she was the grandmother of one of the kids at the party, but the bird cages didn’t quite compute. Somewhere in my medial cortex I began to pay a little more attention.

The woman had walked up to a small clutch of party moms who were chatting nearest the footpath. They seemed nonplussed by this expansion of their little group, but greeted her politely. The birdcage woman smiled, held up her birdcage to show it off. The party moms peered at it compliantly. The birdcage woman sharply called out to the birdcage man, who scurried over to show his cage too with a deferential bob of his comb-over.

By now I was paying too much attention not to get a better angle on the proceedings. I strolled over and asked, “What’s up?”

She thrust her cage toward me, her smile strained when seen up close. Her cage was dusty and far from new, yellow plastic at the bottom and top, with the rest made of rigid metal wires spaced too close together to fit a finger between them. The whole thing was perhaps 15″ square and two feet tall. Inside were seven grey birds with red markings on their temples, shuffling on perches or nestled in bedding. A nesting area suspended near the top held three pearl-sized eggs. A bird sat next to them, looking at me with cold hard eyes.

The woman was still smiling at me, as if she expected something. I told her, “They’re very pretty.” She enthusiastically nodded yes, pushing the cage at me. I said, “Okay then.” With her other hand, she hoisted a clear plastic bag of bird chow or nesting material or some damn thing bigger than her head, displaying it to me. Part of the package. Now I understood. “Oh, wow,” I mumbled.

The woman stammered at me, struggling against a language barrier. They were leaving, for New York. Right away. No time. Leaving leaving, no more home. Birds, birds. Pretty. Eggs. Babies. Birds.

She stopped talking and held my gaze. I told her, “I’m sorry, they’re very nice, but I don’t want any birds.” Her eyes hardened on mine like a bird’s eyes. Without another word she turned her back on us and walked away, back to the footpath and out of our party, her birdcage clutched in bony fingers and her husband hustling along three steps behind her.


It was a sketchy ride from the start. The man who sat at my left knee had that sweet-vinegar wino smell, but at least he was neatly groomed and self-contained. But people kept pouring in at every stop and the guy at my knee got replaced by someone louder and smellier. People started saving seats for their friends, and other people started getting irritated by that. Some big tough-looking guys got on, and some big tough women too. Before we reached Union Square we were out of seats, floor space, oxygen, and patience – and the road ahead looked long and crowded.

When the doors next opened, another half-dozen riders forced their way on board at each of the bus’s three doors. I was across from the back door, where I watched them jockeying for their slots, the standard-issue square shoppers and office hotties… and then one more: At the back of the pack was a man of the streets, who seemed in particular to be having a difficult day. Before he could get one foot on the bottom step he was already yelling, trying to get folk to squeeze further inside so he could board properly, him and his enormous green ripstop duffel. The duffel was as big as a mastiff on its haunches, and the dude was having a lot of trouble getting in with it. So he yelled into the bus, demanding that room be made for him and his: “I don’t care who the hell you are, take a damned step back!” His voice was agitated and gravelly, and he had to repeat himself several times before he could step in far enough for the doors to close behind him. He muttered on the stairwell, It was hard to see hm but it was easy to tell hie was in a bad way.

He wore an old sweater, cable knit, mostly pills and pulls, yellow yard that showed a lot of grime. His pants were sturdy burgundy denim. His face was lean and unshaven and his eyes burned. I wanted nothing to do with him. Less than nothing, if possible.

Over the next few stops, a lot of people got on and off. The rank hobo next to me switched out for a leggy young woman. The guy with the duffel steadily pushed further into the aisle. Each time he’d move, he would hoist his bag with a heaving groan, and he struggled to keep it upright between his legs. As he worked his way slowly away from the bus door he continued to chastise everyone around him for failing to make room. Everyone tried to ignore him but he didn’t make it easy.

Finally a big, young muscular guy, more than six feet tall with arms like legs, stood up and started talking back to him. The big guy didn’t shout but his speaking voice commanded respect. After a few sharp exchanges the matter was put to rest. The buy with the duffel did no more shouting, and the big guy sat down again at the center of the back bench with his arms imposingly crossed. The duffelbag guy hovered uneasily over his teetering luggage, scowling through his stubble. I looked up to exchange a glance with my leggy neighbor about all this but she had mentally checked out long prior, so I just went back to my notebook.

At Fillmore, the big guy got off; the duffel dude courteously shifted his back to make room for him to pass. Then he noticed that a seat next to me was open, and with opportunistic alacrity he pivoted the duffel and plopped himself down to my immediate right.

The duffel’s zipper had burst, leaving an open flap that revealed mismatched bedding folded up inside. He pushed the drooping zipper-busted flap back up to cover his possessions, bu tit just flopped right back down again. He slapped it back into place. It drooped down faster. He sighed and shook his grizzled head.

He turned to me, starting at my shoes and scanning up. He apologized to me about his duffel. I let him reply to my response, and we wound up talking. We talked about frayed nerves, crowded buses, NYC subways, Philadelphia SEPTA cars, how people get snippy no matter how nice the weather is, and the rules for riding buses in general. He extended a hand to me. “My name is James.”

His voice was gentle now, resonant over the rasp of rough living. I took his hand in mine and shook it. He gripped back with tired bones I could have crushed in my fist like a baby bird.

Inexcusable Behavior

“Excuse me, young man!”

The speaker was an older woman, well-dressed, with tidy silvered hair. She spoke with a crisp authoritative voice, slightly accented but entirely intelligible. She sat at the back of the bus, speaking generally into the chaotic mass of riders ahead of her. However, from the angle of her gaze and her choice of words, it seemed likely that she was addressing one of the two young men sitting directly across from me.

They wore distressed jeans and high-end t-shirts; they had carefully-maintained hair styles and one wore discreet ear-gauges. At first they ignored the woman shouting towards them as one ignores any background noise one hears on the bus. But she repeated herself with increasing urgency, and it became harder to relegate her to the background. The two young men began exchanging uncomfortable little glances with each other, hoping the importunations would end, hoping the other would succumb to them first. The old woman was persistent, though, and one of the young men had thinner skin than the other. He muttered her answer to her through reluctant lips: “‘Scuse me, what?”

Her somewhat vague gaze now focused specifically on him. “Do you know if unmarried mothers can use the computers?” Her interlocutee seemed nonplussed, as well he might. He repeated himself: “‘Scuse me?”

The query came back with renewed vigor: “The unmarried mothers – the women with a baby and no man. Are they allowed to use the public computer network? Or is it forbidden?”

The one young man looked to the other, unsure how he’d gotten here or how he’d get out. No help was forthcoming from his friend, or from anybody else for that matter. He fell back on the truth: “Um, I don’t know?”

The querulous tone of his response suggested that he knew his answer would not satisfy this woman. She was already well along on her unique tangent, though, and had not time to tarry on old business: “Yes, and the black and Mexicans, what about them? Or the disabled, in wheelchairs? Are they forbidden? Because – I don’t think that’s right! The computer network is for everyone, and no one should be excluded just because of skin or because she likes men too much. Right? That’s wrong, right?”

Her mistake was to have spoken for so long. It gave the young man a chance to shrink away from her, back into the compass of his own conversation with his own friend, talking to him about this crazy woman, leaving her speaking crisply to no one anymore. Though she repeated her final questions a few more times, by now we all knew better than to respond to her in any way. Eventually she stopped asking.

Shortly thereafter she left the bus, walking with impenetrable dignity without another word, without a glance to anyone. We were each relieved, but not all as a group. There was no group. There was just a bus full of people who preferred to be left alone.

Hidden in Plain Sight

It’s the official start of the end of summer. Let’s have a season-ending blowout with yet another post about the greenbelt:

Even at the height of vernal efflorescence, when every bush and half the trees were laden with blossoms, the boys knew which was the purple plum. They’d plucked from it before; with a claw on a pole they’d filled bags with feral fruits a few years ago. When the greenbelt was ablaze with flowers this past springtime, they were already thinking of the plums to come.

The purple plum stands out on the thin strip of park across the street, gaudy with leaves the same color as its small sweet fruits. It’s a tree that calls attention to itself, tall and full-canopied, standing apart from the other trees, seeming to revel in its runway-ready style. This spring its nascent blooms were fragrant and hung heavy on the boughs. It looked like a good year for feral plums.

The weeks passed and some months too, and we watched the petals fall, the leaves unfurl, the fruits outswelling on the twigs, growing and darkening into promising little ovaries of potential lusciousness. We ventured to try one It was hard and bitter. Weeks later, juicy but sour. The time was coming, though. The cusp of fructification was nigh.

Well I don’t know what happened – some damn thing or other. Whatever it was, a few weeks snuck past us, together with some sharp-eyed hobos and grannies and hipster jam-crafters and a bunch of other folks plus some squirrels and raccoons and assorted sketchy wildlife… and each of those scored a share of early purple plums. More than a share, even, because after they were done the only plums left for me and mine were much too high up to be reached.

The boys, realizing this inequity when it finally occurred to them to pick their plums, were deeply saddened. Since springs early flowers they’d been waiting, and now it was for naught. Their precious purple fruits were out of reach.

In their gloom they didn’t notice me strolling just a few dozen yards down the greenbelt away from that proud, stripped, purple plum tree, back toward the thick bank of green trees linking the bridle path. It didn’t take but seconds to find what I sought among the branches of a particularly green tree, undistinguished from its neighbors but for one thing – the dozens and dozens and dozens of cheerful green plums patiently waiting upon it for me to pluck them and eat them. I tossed a few to the boys. The plums were warm from the sun, full of cool nectar and tender flesh, enrobed in tart green skin none but us had ever touched. They boy were grateful for my having salvaged their summer plumming. And maybe next time they’ll remember that the thing they want might not come to them just as they expected it to.

All Good Things

In honor of the beginning of the new school year and a return to “normalcy”:

It’s no new thing, me getting the kids where they need to be each morning. I’ve had a year to get used to it and we’ve all institutionalized our respective roles for the daily exodus out the door. So the issue wasn’t me being in charge of getting the kids to camp, on time, on my own, without a car. The problem was that the new route was insufficiently convenient for me.

School days, we’d take the 38 west about 20 blocks and we’d wind up one block from our destination. One shot, a surgical transit strike. The bus usually runs every three minutes. Most gratifyingly convenient.

Some other days, the boys needed to get to the Early Education Center in the Presidio. It’s right off one of the two shuttlebus lines that run around that 1500-acre park all day, so we’d walk four blocks up to the Presidio where a shuttle swung by every 30 minutes. From the pickup we’d get a lovely tour of the coastal bluffs and cypress woods on our way to a stop across the street from our ultimate destination. One bus, but a bit of a shlep and a decent chance at a long wait. Not optimal, but within acceptable levels of convenience.

But this summer we’ve had a new destination, way out in the Letterman Complex, and my transit options seemed very restricted. We needed to get to the far side of the Presidio, the side my local shuttle doesn’t reach. I checked maps, I checked the little planning app on the official transit site, I honestly did my homework, and this is what I figured out: From our home we’d need to travel north-east. The 28 would get us north to the GGB Plaza, where we could catch the Crissey Field Shuttle heading east. If we timed it right we’d only need to wait a few minutes at the bridge for the shuttle to come, and it would drop us right at camp. Two buses, a moderate chance at a moderate wait, but almost no walking and a nice set of views. Could be worse. Figured I’d find out how much worse soon enough.

It was our second day on this commute when we arrived at the stop with three minutes to spare for our scheduled ride on the 28, to find ourselves with an 18 minutes wait instead. Infamous, infuriating! The boys did well entertaining themselves for 30% of an hour, but I could see that, though this new commute worked fine when it worked, it wasn’t going to work as an everyday thing. There were just too many variables.

We stumbled along like this for a week or two, always arriving at the bus stop on time and finding the bus off schedule as often as not. When the 28 was late we’d stand and wait and watch the 28Ls roll past us mockingly. It was tempting to take those rides but I knew better. The L doesn’t roll north like the regular 28 – it hauls east on California and doesn’t course-correct till way out on Presidio Street, where it goes up and then down the big hill, right into the Presidio itself, right past the Letterman Complex, right out of the Presidio again and another five blocks or so into Cow Hollow – without a stop. That’s an overshot, son, and I don’t stand for that. We don’t ride past our destination. That 28L was a pig in a poke.

But under the right conditions, a pig in a poke can be surprisingly alluring. Thus it was when we arrived at our bus stop one morning, on time and under budget, to see that the 28 was a solid 28 minutes away. We’d miss our connection to the shuttle and would have to wait nearly an hour in total for two bus rides amounting to 15 minutes on the road. A black mood settled over me. I glanced to the boys. They looked up at me, eyes shining with innocent trust. I couldn’t make them spend all that time at bus stops. I had to be a dad and fix this. And in true Dad fashion, I acted impulsively but wound up doing the right thing anyway.

The L was coming right up. I just told the kids to get on it. We’d walk back those five insulting blocks. They would still get to camp earlier than if we’d waited. Our bus made its right turn onto CA and then started motoring past the quiet broad avenues of Jordan Park, out past Laurel Village’s boutiques, all the way to the JCC where we hung a louie and went up past some Presidio Heights mansions and then between the sandstone pillars and down into the forest past the long straight trail of Lover’s Lane and a Galsworthy serpent curled expansively amid the euke litter, the coach rocking into the banked corners under the forest canopy, down past some tidy mission revival residences with palms and oaks and emerald lawns, right to the front of the Letterman Complex, where there’s a bus stop, where our bus… stopped.

We disembarked and I looked around, blinking in the platinum light. The ride had taken ten minutes. There was no overshot. We’d been let off exactly where we wanted to be. We started to walk – to the first path between the big office barracks, where robins and goldfinches accompanied us past a convenient Starbucks and a bronze statue of Edward Muybridge, and then down a series of smooth swooping paths descending gently among hillocks to a clear stone pond where tiny ducklings were just learning to swim. Beyond all this, the dome of the PFA rose like a dreamer’s sigh; beyond that, the bay glinted and the islands and hills lounged like cats. The boys took off running and laughing and in moments we were at the gym where camp was held. Fifteen minutes prior I’d been stewing about a missed bus. And now all I could think about is how easy everything just got.

Then a couple of weeks later things got easier still. After I dropped the kids off I took a shuttle right to my building downtown. From camp I’d walk three blocks up the hill right across the street, to wait for the shuttle at the Lombard Gate – its last stop before heading directly downtown. But by then all the seats were usually taken and I was forced to stand and that’s all too difficult and irritating for a delicate freaking flower like myself. I like to sit on the bus. That’s my “me” time, dammit. And then I realized that I could take a slightly different path from camp, turning right instead of left, leading in a slightly shorter distance to an earlier and rather nicer stop for the downtown shuttle, where seats were plentiful and flocks of wild parrots circled overhead to entertain me. From that day forward I rode to work every day in the comfort of my own upholstered shuttle seat. And that’s when I realized my commute was spoiling me. I feel ruined for the school year, but that’s not going to stop it from starting. Like, now.

(Speaking of which, I did ride out Iselle in a black-out in Kapoho at the east tip of the Big Island, where most of the damage happened. Let me know if you’re interested in reading about any of that sort of thing.)

Kapoho: the sea wall should be 10 feet above the surf.  Clearly the surf did not get the memo.

Kapoho: the sea wall should be 10 feet above the surf. Clearly the surf did not get the memo.

Eating Crow

Mornings, this summer, as matters turned out, have actually been pretty good times. Despite the occasional angst about what’s in the lunchbox or who’s got whose jacket or which bus we’ll be riding to camp, the boys have embraced their share of responsibility for getting out the door in time, and our half-block stroll to the main street is typically a care-free affair. I hand out bus passes and we talk about our hopes and dreams and recently acquired MTG cards. Whether the dawn breaks bright or through a mist, it’s sunny times for our little band.

So was it just a few days ago as we set out, the sidewalk glinting with morning dew and the trees across the street garbed in heavy foliage. The trees rise from a bank of thick shrubs, which rest on beds of ivy and nasturtium. This 50-fooot-wide sliver of park runs eight long blocks, connecting – like its identical sister on the other side of Highway 1 – 1,100 acres of parkland to the south, with another 1,500 acres to the north. Much work has lately been done to keep that greenbelt manicured, but it’s still a serious wildlife highway. From carpet to canopy, wild things abound across that street.

And on this side of the street, on the sidewalk along the row of mostly-Edwardian flats, we three men stepped out, well-breakfasted and equipped for our day, heading up to the corner and our bus. A raven burst from the greenbelt across the street, with a frenzy of glossy black flapping. This is not unusual, we see plenty of ravens. I think some nested on our next neighbor’s roof this past spring, so it was no surprise to see this morning’s raven setting down atop the house we were just passing. This allowed me to watch it carefully, with observations I brought to the boys’ attention.

The raven flew hard, pushing down against the air, climbing laboriously. These are big birds and skilled aerialists, birds that plainly take joy in flight, so my attention was drawn to the obvious effort this bird was exerting. Why? It held something in its black talons. It was hard to tell what it was holding, as the bird wheeled through the air, crossing the street, climbing to a perch on the rooftop right over our collective shoulder.

Not till the exhausted animal plotzed down on the sill of the eave and set down its burden, did I notice how whatever he had had a long skinny hairless tail, and even then, this I noticed only because it had flopped over the edge of the roof where for a moment it hung limply against the grey morning sky. That’s when I mentioned it to the boys. We all watched as the raven, now hidden by the eaves, yanked his breakfast further back onto the roof. The rope-like tail disappeared, and the raven began to squawk and flap.

Within seconds, four or five more ravens came swooping smoothly out of the trees, homing in on fresh meat. The first cawed loudly a few times but soon was hopelessly outnumbered. Then, they all gorged silently.

The boys and I watched these events in silence too. Jesse looked thoughtful. “I’m sorry for that rat, daddy.”

I took his hand. “It’s what animals do. Some die so others can live. But if it helps at all, I think that rat was already dead. I don’t think the raven killed it. It just found it, and wanted to eat it.”

Jesse smiled. “Yes, daddy, that helps.” I was shocked, but that actually helped me a little. Now that I think on it, that’s probably why he said it.

Egg On My Face

Hating eggs wasn’t just something I did, it was part of who I was. I had always hated eggs, with implacable utterness. No matter how they were made, what they were served with, how you disguised them, so far as I was concerned every egg was just a retch waiting to crawl up my throat. If I realized mid-sandwich that there were diced hard-boileds in the chicken salad, I’d have to lie down, so ill it made me. I was convinced it was an authentic allergy if not something much worse. In so many ways I had no idea who I was as a person, but at least I knew with perfect clarity that I did not eat eggs.

Then I went to college and things got fluxxy. I deliberately picked a school where I’d have no carry-over from my former life; I was free to shed old masks and habits, to be myself, whomever that might be. I made new friends, tried new things, pushed my limits in a range of ways. Of course… eggs remained anathema. Some things aren’t subject to negotiation.

Ah, but negotiation is only one way agreements change. I had yet to absorb the intricacies of force majeure. That’s what you invoke when an event beyond the control of the parties changes the very landscape of agreed reality. Acts of God, rioting mobs, criminal acts by agents unknown… any of these can cancel a contract. And of course I am obliged to mention the Trojan example.
Not that Trojan you randy devil, I mean like Troy. But not that Troy, not the jewel of Asia Minor, destroyed in legend for hubris and by hubris. My Troy’s went dark only around 1990 or so. During my time in Philly it was still going strong enough to knock me out of my rut.

Troy’s was the quintessential greasy spoon. You could get a combo-plate of fat and starch there from dawn till after the bars closed, with a beer for every meal. Me and my cohorts visited Troy’s often, suckling at its life-shortening teat with singleminded enthusiasm. My friends would always order the house special, the eggel: a puffy white-bread bagel, grilled in grease, topped with an egg over easy, cheese, and your choice of meaty embellishments. They’d set it on a melmac plate with gravy fries – crinkle-cuts in hot brown gravy, perfect for dipping the end of your deeply-bitten bagel as the barely-congealed yolk begins to drip forward … The ingredients were simple but it was like no one ever truly understood what a fried egg on a bagel could aspire to be, until Troy built his first eggel and my people rejoiced.

Well, those people, anyway. Everybody ahead of me in line. Even visitors from far off-campus pilgramaged to eggle-town, and all seemed to think it worth the trip. Everybody was ordering and enjoying eggles. Everybody but me.

These were my thoughts as I crept through the line at Troy’s late one parched and peckish evening. My friends had all just ordered their eggle plates with tallboys, and I was about to get… what? A burger? Gyro? The Philly-afal Plate? My heart said no and my spirit rebelled. Be bigger! it told me. Get what you want right now, not matter what you hated this morning! Ride the wave of your desire! Answer the call of the eggle!

As I ordered my eggle plate with bacon, I was disappointed that the rafters and floorboards didn’t gasp out their incredulity. No one even seemed to notice. My culinary exploration didn’t raise a single eyebrow. Reality continued unabated. Even as I took the plate to our banquette, only my one original roomie inquired, “hey, isn’t that what you never eat?”

However, by the time he’d finished the question, I’d already had a big bite all on my own, and, already, things had begun to change. The opinions of those around me faded to meaninglessness. I was experiencing a complex of gustatory sensations so sublime as to render speech both inadequate and impossible. There was too much going on in my mouth for me to process it at the time, and I won’t sully the experience by trying to recapitulate it here. But the interplay of textures, together with the layering of flavors, in that efficient little package stacked steaming in my hand… It was all so good, and it was undeniably held together by that egg, its yolk bursting, whites just set and blending with the cheese melting from the bagel crown above it with its crisp fried crust…

That eggle had converted me in a single bite, not just to itself but to its foundational ingredient. I suddenly felt no connection to my previous 18 years of absolute rejection of all things egg. I had broken, as it were, out of my shell. From that point on I was happy to try anything with eggs in it, from benedicts to bi bim bap. Cholesterol counts notwithstanding, I had begun to embrace the egg.

That embrace continues to the present day, more or less – cholesterol is now fully withstanding, and I still think hardboiled eggs are generally not food. But one of my life’s purest pleasures these days is to be importuned by my whole family to grill up some eggels on holiday mornings. I can’t take the boys to try the original, that’s long gone and maybe best left behind. But I can honor the legend and make it live in the moment. When I bite into one of the eggles I make these days, I feel the grilled face of the bagel crunch between my teeth, my mouth floods as the yolk bursts, I see my boys with eyes closed and canary goatees dripping into their laps, and I know I’ve honored a proud tradition. I don’t just eat eggs, I proselytize. No aversions and no apologies. On days I make eggles they are good enough to be the first egg I’d ever eat, but they’re hardly that now. I’ve eaten countless eggs, so many that my old aversion is now something I have to stretch to remember. Yet To this day when I eat an omelet or ikura with raw quail yolk I feel like I’ve taken a step forward. Some days that’s enough.

The Soccer Bitch

There’s a lady – no, a woman, but hardly a lady – who has made a career out of selfish, xenophobic agitation. People read her columns and get upset, or worse, at her meanspirited insulting words. Her screeds get passed around in disgust and it all ends up giving her more readers and more publicity. She speaks with the certitude of the ignorant, and the vindictiveness of someone who might actually realize, deep down inside, that she is wrong about most of what she says.

I won’t pay her the compliment of a link or the use of her name, but if you don’t know who I’m talking about yet, maybe this will help:

This particular woman wrote a few weeks ago about Association Football, known worldwide by the latter of these words and in the States by an abbreviation of the first word – soccer. This woman threw every aspersion her fetid mind could generate at this game, this recreation that enlivens so many lives on this too-often-dreary planet. With the power and influence and reach she’s got, the best she could think to share with the reading public was something along the lines that Americans who watch soccer, and the World Cup in particular, are sapping our national jism and losing us the war on terror.

Well I watched my share of the Cup and enjoyed it too, and my boys are soccerers well and truly. I can absorb a few barbs my own self but there’s no way in hell I will sit by while a hateful bigot insults my kids, even through their sport of choice.

It benefits no one (but the antagonist of the essay we’re discussing) to answer a fool according to her folly, so I tried to channel my outrage in a more productive way. I tried to imagine – for she really offered no specifics – what she found so offensive about soccer, what about it was “unAmerican” any more than bike racing or boxing or whatever. And because I am a deeply clever person I was able to identify her most likely concerns, better than she herself did in her column. Naturally these concerns are all devoid of any rhetorical value, or even rational content, but my dander is up so I’ll break it down one piece at a time anyway, just so I can walk away from all this ugliness with a clear mind.

1. Soccer is a game without breaks. You get 45 minutes with the clock running, and then some, before you pause for a commercial. That attenuates corporate co-opting of the sport culture. In smaller words, businesses make less money during the games, and viewers watch games with fewer interruptions from businesses. Soccer has no Gatorade Gamebreaks or Aflac Updates. And maybe this woman thinks this is a bad thing, either because multinationals need more opportunities to rape our popular culture, or because this woman is incapable of 45 minutes of uninterrupted attentiveness. Either way it’s a weak plank.

2. Soccer players can have multiple allegiances. World Cup players all play on their own different club teams, as well as together on the national squads. This underscores the distinction between nation and corporation. For this woman, though, nation and corporation are conjoined. The USA is a brand, itself composed of trademarks owned by a few dozen corporate giants. If soccer casts that commonality into an unflatteringly lurid light, it must be antiAmerican. For the record, my view is pretty much exactly the opposite.

3. On the stage of world soccer, the whole world is represented. Europeans, Africans, Arabs, Asians, and New World nations of Latin heritage all contribute players of the highest caliber. But when it comes to our nation of nearly 400 million souls, most of our best sports talent is diverted elsewhere. Consequently, our home-grown soccer stars are often of a lesser magnitude when compared to those from nations that more assertively emphasize soccer development. We play with heart, but that’s not the only muscle of significance in this game. As far as this woman is concerned, it seems that any game at which Murkins are not by definition the world’s best, is not worth playing. She seems to prefer a smaller stage of pre-annointed national champions, competing among themselves for a star-spangled prize. But that’s certainly not how this nation became great, or even good or whatever it is today. Picking only the battles you’re sure to win, is too limiting a proposition for a big-thinking people like us. If America is to justify its opinion of itself as a world power, it should try its strength against the world – and when it occasionally loses, it should learn and return stronger, not cut and run in an isolationist fug.

4. Soccer is a team sport, even more than our primary national pastimes. There are superstars in soccer but their moments of brilliance are fleeting – the game is played with passes, retrenchments, coordinated attacks, feints, and a group dynamic that verges on being organic. This is also true for some mainstream Murkin sports, but for this woman, USA is apparently inextricably tied up with NFL and MLB, and that’s not the way those teams operate. Those are teams of individuals who each occupy specific positions and play clearly-defined parts. These parts all fit together in a concatenation of individual efforts. We think of great sluggers, great receivers, great pitchers and quarterbacks… but not the team structure, the great outfielders or centers who make their achievements possible. Their contribution is too often washed out in the glorious radiance of the big stars. Soccer players, on the other hand, cover more ground over more minutes of continuous play than any of our big pro ballers, so they must rely on their teammates more. In soccer more than in many sports, individuals score but teams win. And I guess that’s not egocentric enough for some folk.

5. Soccer is often low-scoring, which offends the Murkin addiction to excess. Then, in case of a tie, you either resort to a shootout – which even devotees of the sport richly detest – or you walk away with a draw. Neither of these is satisfying to the Murkin ethic of forcing things until you get a winner and a loser, till you can distinguish the righteous from the fallen. God picks winners and a tie defeats his supernal purpose. That’s what I think this woman thinks. Now, some people know that this is ridiculous. They know that a soccer pitch is about the size of an NFL field, but you run it like a basketball court. Soccer players work their asses off and don’t get down-time. If after 90 (or 120) minutes of play they still haven’t been able to thrash out a winner, maybe it’s appropriate to call the teams evenly matched. If that’s not good enough, a tiebreaker is the only way to end the madness. Maybe in a tournament with different stages, a team can advance to the next round on points even if it loses a game. Things must be brought to a close when the contest cannot resolve itself on its own standard terms. The clock is part of the game. You don’t necessarily become a loser if you don’t beat the other team. What’s wrong with that?

6. In soccer, bigger isn’t always better. Top players can be short, and that diminutive size can be a real advantage in ball-handling and evading defenders. But this woman is used to giant athletes, to the point that anytime one is the normal size of a normal human it makes her confused. However, even big soccer players are not bulky and endomorphic. They need to be agile and to sustain a high level of exertion for a long period of time. They must be able to leap high and to take to the turf; they must not be so large as to make accidental contact with opposing players. A player who may be called the world’s best today, stands five foot six inches tall. Superstars on the pitch can be norm-core on the street. This might confuse my antagonist. She seems to be one who prefers her superheroes supersized, so she can tell at a glance who’s good and who’s bad. Because America has the biggest economy in the world and that makes it the best in the world (putting aside that we’re far from first in any number of other rankings). For those whose minds are too simple to navigate the nuances of variable sizes and variable skill levels, the “size matters” philosophy is comforting. Personally, I’d like to think I’ve moved beyond that.

7. Soccer players are not above taking it to the turf – sometimes for reasons more theatrical than otherwise. They will flop around like they’re getting an EKG if someone steps on their shoelace. It’s pretty ridiculous, especially when you can hit replay and zoom and see just how groundless their posturing on the ground sometimes is. Granted, some of those dudes actually break their backs or crack open their heads while playing, and real injuries are a real concern. But there’s too much play-acting and whining for my taste sometimes. Instead of just playing the game, they pervert the game by playing about other things like who ran into whom. It’s petty and childish and detracts from the true skills on display with the rest of the players. And actually, this is probably the best reason why this woman probably should enjoy soccer more than the average American – she’s so good at feigned outrage and falsified injuries, she could bite her own shoulder and blame you for it. So that’s a reason I don’t want her watching soccer, I guess – she’d only learn more about how to do what I find most irritating about her.

And with that, I will stop doing something that I find irritating about myself – complaining. I’m better than that. I am now that I’ve got this off my chest, anyway.