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Before I Die

I’m tormented by a chalkboard.

But not just any chalkboard, it’s the one at St. George’s Episcopal Church in Lake Forest – a venerable house of worship, with a vaulted ceiling and beautiful stained glass windows. Outside there’s a promenade, with a greeters table, a memorial garden, and – my personal fixation – a chalkboard.
With a very special feature: there’s a prompting message, repeated twelve times, in two columns of six apiece. And that message is BEFORE I DIE, I WANT TO . You have twelve chances to say what you’d like to do, before that Great Dirt Nap begins.

Just one problem: There’s no chalk.

It seems like no big deal. Others shrug and move on, going “Huh” and leaving their thoughts unspecified. But to me, that blank board is like an itch unscratched, taunting us with possibilities. Why provide space but no writing utensils? Why ask the question with no means to answer it?

Finally, I can bear it no longer. One Sunday I go to Office Depot and buy a box of chalk, for a dollar and twenty-nine cents, that’s my entire purchase. And I go back at Saint George’s and deposit them in the little holder-rack under the chalkboard. I wonder if I can be accused of malicious chalk providing, or perhaps defacing a public surface with self-revelatory insights.

But what to write? Sadly, my first ideas aren’t as lofty as one might hope:
Before I die, I would like to sneeze, belch and fart at the same time.
Before I die, I would like be named People Magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive, beating out Brad Pitt and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, who come in second and third.

Neither of these seems church-appropriate, so they’re nixed from the chalkboard. Instead I try something more thoughtful: Before I die, I would like to stop worrying about when I will. Because no matter how convinced you are of a lemon-scented afterlife, up there in the cirrocumulus, we’re all dreading that final sendoff, aren’t we? The fear of that (I believe) is what drives people to church in the first place, one of the biggest issues we all grapple with. It belongs up on that chalkboard.

Of course, that leaves eleven spaces unfilled, and I’m curious to see what the other congregants chime in with. (Full disclosure: I’m not really an Episcopalian. I belong to the Tapestry Unitarian Church, but our new worship space is being renovated and St. George’s has graciously allowed us to share their facility in the meantime.) But we’re all church-goers, so the question arises: How do your beliefs affect your bucket list? What do the faithful want to do down here on Earth, before graduating to whatever comes next?

I hope to find out, after both groups have had a crack at it, and I’m not disappointed. The following Sunday, when I check out the board, I find lots of ambitions laid bare.

Before I die, they write, I want to make a difference/ be a good person/ learn to live/ see my son become a doctor. Others want to own a Corgi, skydive, or visit Russia. I can’t tell which are Episcopal and which are Tapestrian, because the groups have more in common that you’d think (as our minister, Kent Doss, keeps reminding us). But it’s a rare privilege, seeing these wishes revealed in a public forum.

Two entries are memorable: Before I die, I want to be forgiven and Before I die, I want eat an entire pie in one sitting. Someone else has written in the margin, either the word “by” or “with,” followed by “Jesus.” But you can’t tell which entry it applies to. All we know is that someone either wants to be forgiven by Jesus, or to eat a whole pie with him.

So I’m thinking, I’ve got to write about this, and it dawns on me – with thick-headed abruptness – that that’s mine in a nutshell, the same as every writer: I want to tell stories about what I’ve seen and heard and experienced, a legacy of idiosyncratic prose laced with carefully-chosen adverbs (“judiciously,” perhaps) for others to enjoy. If you see me hunched over a laptop, two-finger typing with reckless abandon, well, I’m fulfilling my dream.

It’s fun and fascinating, seeing all this played out on a church chalkboard, but it can’t last forever. Over the next few weeks, little doodles start appearing on the board, like soccer balls, smiley faces, even one of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Kids can use chalk too, I realize, and while it’s totally wholesome by graffiti standards, it doesn’t exactly set a tone of reverence and decorum.

Apparently, we’ve crossed some sort of appropriate-for-church threshold, because one Sunday we show up to find the board wiped clean, the chalk confiscated, the doodles gone to doodle heaven. I consider replacing the chalk, but decide I’ve already bothered God enough. From this point on, future yearnings must go unexpressed.

So what have we learned from this adventure, Dorothy?

Well, first is that these wishes are not whimsical (except, perhaps, for the pie). They involve family, travel, adventure, and forgiveness, all basic themes, like a Rorschach test for what you care about most. Not just what you wish for, but who you are as a person, what you value, what defines you.

Ask yourself what you’d be doing right now, if you had only a few days to live, with no time to waste on banalities. Once you realize the Reaper’s waiting, with a one-way ticket to heaven, hell, oblivion or whatever, those waning hours take on a whole new urgency. Forget caution, prudence and social correctness, heave all that aside and see what emerges. If you were at St. George’s right now, holding chalk in your hand, what would you write?

And would you actually do it?

I suggest yes. Don’t wait, do it now, today. Seriously, I don’t want to hear anyone complaining how they didn’t do it and now they’re dead. Go out right now, while you’ve still got a pulse, and buy a Corgi, go to Russia, skydive, belch, sneeze and/or fart, however the spirit moves you.

As for me, well, most of all, I’d like to write a thoughtful, persuasive article that doesn’t rely on snarky humor and stupid dead jokes.

But not today.

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DOOGIE HOWSER GOES TO THE DOGS

I’ve become a surrogate granddad.  And it’s led to discoveries I’d never have made otherwise – like how to keep the kids quiet by distracting them with television.  And that’s how I found out about original programming on the Disney channel.

It’s awful.

By grownup standards, I mean.  Lisa’s grandkids (ages 2, 3 and 6) will sit watching slack-jawed for whole minutes at a time, neither fighting nor crying, truly a precious gift.  (In a related story, my sister used to hate Barney the Dinosaur, until her young daughter was up all night with a bad cold, and Barney was the only thing that would stop her crying.)

The point is, kid shows aren’t designed for me to like them.  I accept that.  Their demographic is people a fraction of my age – a small fraction.  None of them hold much appeal to someone entering his 60s.

Except for something called Dog With a Blog.

If you haven’t seen it – which seems likely – it’s about a talking dog who, at the end of each episode, blogs about his experiences.  Like Doogie Howser, but with a dog.  I’m half-convinced the show’s original title was Doggy Howser.  I sat down to watch it, thinking What the hell’s this? and made an astonishing discovery.

It’s funny.

I mean, grownup funny.  Subversive, irreverent, startling in its frankness.  Full of jokes that make me laugh out loud, while the kids sit there uncomprehending.  For example, the dog (whose name is Stan) offers this advice:  “If you want someone to forgive you, do what I do:  drop a dead bird at their feet.”  Or this helpful tidbit:  “Never drink out of a public toilet after spicy taco coupon night.”

I often watch the show in disbelief, thinking, Do the folks at Disney even know what Stan is saying?  Because some of the jokes plainly aren’t for kids.  They want to make the grownups laugh, too, which often happens in Disney movies but is virtually unknown in their TV shows.  That’s why I’m a fan of DWAB, though I’m at least six times older than their target audience – and a cat person, to boot.

Sadly, I’m compelled to admit that a talking cat isn’t nearly as funny as a talking dog – as the film The Cat From Outer Space demonstrates.  Even the film Cats and Dogs features dogs doing comedy and cats being villains.  I can only ascribe this to the gleeful enthusiasm typical of canines – something felines don’t share.  If cats could talk, they wouldn’t do standup.

Just as well, because Cat With a Blog doesn’t rhyme.

The other thing I admire about DWAB is its easy suspension of disbelief.  Yes, I know the dog’s mouth isn’t really moving, it’s all done with CGI in post-production, and the dialogue is looped in later (by character actor Stephen Full).  But I defy anyone to watch five minutes of Dog With a Blog without totally buying (at least, until the end credits) that you’re watching a speaking character who just happens to be a dog.

Of course, it wouldn’t work without a strong supporting cast, so I should mention Stan’s two-legged co-stars:  G. Hannelius as the Avery, the pint-sized prodigy;  Blake Michael as Tyler, her vacuous and hair-obsessed brother;  and Francesca Capaldi as Chloe, the middle-schooler who is ironically self-aware.  All of them exist to give Stan something to bellyache about, in ways much too sophisticated for your typical after-school viewing audience.

But just right for surrogate granddads.

Here’s what I’ll leave you with, the moment when I knew I loved the series.  Stan discovers that, being a dog, he has only nine years left to live.  Faced with his own morality, he wonders what kind of legacy he’ll leave behind.  But after much soul-searching, Stan realizes that he doesn’t need one – because, as he tells the kids, “Your best legacy is in the hearts of the people who love you.”

To which Tyler asks, “What happens when they die?”

It’s a good question, both funny and disturbing, and one I can’t answer.  It’s very Zen, in that the focus isn’t the answer but the nature of the problem.  I often think of that scene when I’m feeling reflective, because of the spotlight it casts on the fleeting nature of human experience, and the ongoing riddle of our quest for meaning.

All this from a show about a talking dog.

I wonder what the 6-year-old gets out of it?

GOING UPHILL FAST

This is the story of me going up a hill.  There’s a hill with me going up it, that’s pretty much the whole thing.  But the climb is revealing.

The reason I’m going uphill is that I gave away my parking space to Brittany, my girlfriend’s daughter, who moved in with us after she fell and broke her back and lost her apartment.  She hates moving in with her mom and mom’s boyfriend, which I completely understand because I moved back in with my parents once, years ago, and it was awkward.

Now Brittany’s part of our household, a classic role reversal.  Her kids have joined us too, three little ones, a boy and two girls.  They’re all welcome here, we’re glad to help, but it means I’ve lost my parking space.

So I have to find street parking, though there usually isn’t any, and I end up parking at the 24 Hour Fitness at the bottom of the hill, though the name’s a misnomer because it’s sometimes closed.  Of course, some of us don’t need However-Many-Hours Fitness, because we (that is, I) get plenty of exercise hoofing it up Via Pera whenever there’s no other parking.

The hike is wearying, but there may be hope – at least, for the parking.  Recently, the Homeowners Association announced that they’re holding a lottery for 13 open parking spaces – lucky 13 – for a baker’s dozen of footsore homeowners, who get to park nearby instead of down at the strip mall.  But there are several hundred residents here, and the odds of winning aren’t rosy.

I jaywalk across Los Alisos and begin my ascent.  I set off confident, start huffing and puffing after Minute One, and soon feel like Sir Edmund Hilary going for the summit of Mount Everest, fighting to conserve precious oxygen.  Or Sisyphus, if you prefer, climbing endlessly up the same hill, but without that big rock, unless it’s some sort of metaphor, like how I’m “burdened” with Brittany and her kids.

Don’t get me wrong, the kids are adorable.  But they can turn any living room into a DMZ, faster than you can say “Hey, don’t touch that!”  They’re small and quick and tireless, and they enjoy recreational screaming.  Sometimes I feel like I’ve lost not just a parking space, but my sanity in the bargain.

Still I keep climbing.  The sidewalk seems endless but there’s a shortcut, if you don’t mind galumphing up the drainage channel that veers into the foliage.  I clump up the dry channel, gasping for breath in a way I never used to before I turned 60.  It occurs to me that my cat Coltrane died near here, doing much the same thing, heading upslope when he just fell over dead in his tracks.

I have a morbid image of my beloved Lisa wandering the hillside, trying to find her idiot boyfriend, finally stumbling across Your Humble Columnist where he dropped dead in this ditch, the victim of one too many hot dogs because they’re saying now, maybe you’ve heard this, that hot dogs will kill you.

I shudder and keep climbing.

But with a sense of real unease.  I mean, I may not keel over dead tonight, but I‘ve reached the point in my life where the years remaining are less than what I’ve had so far – a point driven home when my dad passed, 13 years ago.  I feel oddly untethered without him, like a zeppelin starting to slip its moorings.  Someday all of us will soar into the ether, I know that, but I don’t need any grim reminders in the meantime.  I prefer the comforting fiction that I’ll live forever.

And here’s my epiphany, such as it is – based on a crazy dream I had once, shortly after Dad’s funeral.  I dreamt I was supposed to meet him, but I arrived way too early.  And I was approached by a nun, only it wasn’t a nun at all, it was a kid on a tricycle with a big cardboard picture of a nun somehow mounted to the handlebars, because that’s become my view of Catholicism, the church I grew up in.

But behind the nun there was this tree, the most awesome of all trees, tall and golden and filtering sunlight, seeming to embrace all the heavens in the reach of its wise old branches.  It was everything that fake nun wasn’t, all that’s sweet and beautiful and magic in this world, the truest expression of spirituality I’ve ever known.  And the reason I mention this is when I finally reach the top of that hill, and hop the fence into the ass-end of our complex, there’s a soaring alder that fills the sky and blots the starlight with the spread of its branches.

And for just a moment I think holy crap, that’s that tree.  The dream has touched down in real life, right in front of me.

Then the moment passes, and it’s just a tree again.  But it feels like something wonderful has just happened, like that tree is my family somehow, biological and otherwise, with Dad’s spirit alive through me, so I can pass it on to others after I’ve gone, and they can pass it on, too, because that’s what a family does, that’s what a family is.

Screaming toddlers and all.

I go home and get the mail and surprise, there’s a letter from the HOA.  Turns out I won the parking lottery, woo-hoo, pretty soon I won’t have to make this long hike again.  I’ll have my very own parking space, like a normal person, and my ditch-climbing days will be over.  I might lose the space in one year’s time, but Brittany’s back is healing fast and by then we may not need it.

Plus, I’m starting to think I’ve won another kind of lottery here, when Brittany and her brood moved in, turning this once-lonely condo into a crowded one, at least for the time being.  Sure it’s loud and messy and furniture-damaging, with diapers and extra laundry and toys underfoot – but the place has come alive, thanks to this raucous family, and I’ve decided to enjoy the ride.

Thanks to a dream I had about a phony nun, and a tree you can’t imagine.

A Carl’s Jr Christmas

Well, technically it’s the day before Christmas, because actual Christmas is reserved for my side of the family, my mother and siblings and so on.  But Lisa, my quirky and never-boring girlfriend, wants to honor a long-standing Panzica family tradition by gathering her whole family, almost, at the Carl’s Jr on Lincoln Boulevard in Buena Park.  They celebrate the Yuletide at a fast food restaurant, as they have for most of her adult life.

For me, though, it’s a peculiar custom, this business of commemorating Christ’s birth with a side of fries.  I feel like I’m intruding, somehow, on an event I don’t fully understand.

“I’ll have the Teriyaki Six-Dollar Burger and a medium soft drink,” I tell the counterman.  “Uh, Merry Christmas.”

Lisa gets the fish taco combo and Josh, her developmentally disabled son, gets a Famous Star with Cheese and a strawberry milkshake.  Josh enjoys Christmas.  He’s in his mid-twenties, taller than I am, but with the brain function of a second-grader.  We’ve just picked him up from the group home where he stays with other, similarly challenged young men, under supervision from the county.  Today he’s showing off his new haircut.

“Haircut,” he says, preening.

“Josh, have some french fries,” Lisa says, spreading them out for him.  He digs in hungrily.  I’m a little uncomfortable with this big, man-sized boy, but we seem to get along anyway.

Lisa’s cell phone rings.  It’s Brittany, her daughter, reporting they’ve gone the wrong way on Lincoln and they’re in Anaheim, not Buena Park.  They’re U-turning and should be here soon.  Meanwhile, Lisa’s mother and brother are heading up from their home near Disneyland, which is closer, but they’re chronically late and today’s no exception.

While we’re waiting, we eat.  The burger’s good.  It’s not your traditional pre-Christmas dinner, but the savory combo of pineapple, teriyaki and ground beef gives a holiday zest to our fast food vigil.  Josh makes short work of his burger and fries, and Lisa wolfs her fish tacos.  We’re finishing up when a white SUV pulls up outside.

And a parade comes into Carl’s Jr.

First comes Brittany, a stunning girl with olive skin and raven hair who’s fiercely outspoken, even more than her mom.  Her partner is Ivan, who’s tall, strong as a bull, and scrupulously polite – at least, in front of Lisa.  The kids are Aiden, age three, who’s clever and loves to scream; Ariah, age almost-two, who’s got an impish smile and is constantly falling off things; and Autumn, age six months, who watches the world through solemn, steel-gray eyes.

Ivan carries Autumn in her portable carrier.  In his other hand, he’s got a bag of Christmas presents so overstuffed it would make Santa Claus hesitate.  They troop in and commandeer three booths, perching Autumn’s carrier on a plastic seat, jamming Ariah in between them so she doesn’t tumble off and hurt herself.  Aiden runs between tables, checking out what the other diners are having.  Brittany embraces Josh and says, “That’s a great haircut, Josh.”  The presents are jammed on the seats, on the tables, under the tables, wherever they’ll fit.

“So where’s your mom?” Brittany asks Lisa.  “How could we get lost and still beat her here?”

Discretely, Ivan says nothing.

In time, Lisa’s mother arrives.  They call her Emma, which is not her name, but rather a corruption of “Grandma,” as mispronounced by her grandkids.  She lives with her son Nino, Lisa’s brother, who’s off-the-charts brilliant but painfully shy.

Lisa gives him a kit to make a Star Wars lightsaber.  He loves it, with the true devotion of a lifelong fanboy.  Josh gets Lakers memorabilia – gloves, slippers, a visor cap, all emblazoned with the Lakers emblem.  He says “Lakers!” with obvious delight.  Emma gets a lovely angel figurine; Ivan gets DVD movies; Brittany gets a gift certificate at Sephora.  And I get a Doctor Who coffee mug, being something of a fanboy myself.

But the kids’ presents are the most fun.

Aiden’s favorite is a battery-operated Buzz Lightyear figure, which shoots light beams and cries, “To infinity and beyond!”  Or it would, if we had the right batteries.  Aiden doesn’t care – he starts acting out galactic warfare scenarios, annoying people as only a cartoon-obsessed three-year-old can.

Ariah is a tougher sell, fitfully crying for no obvious reason, unconsoled by the french fries Lisa keeps shoving at her.  But when her presents are unwrapped – starting with a plush Minnie Mouse in a hot pink dress – her mood quickly brightens.  They say Minnie (and Mickey) are appealing to kids because they’re drawn from circles, the simplest of shapes, and Ariah’s sudden upswing seems to confirm it.

I don’t know if baby Autumn understands about the holiday, but she loves her new Snow White doll, grasping it with small, plump fingers, flashing a loopy, clown-faced grin.  Christmas is a hit with all three kids, washing away their seesaw moods and outbursts, turning even this glorified burger stand into a place of magic and miracles.

Which I find oddly depressing.

I have a knack for that, finding gloom when others celebrate, but this time there’s good reason – I’ve never had kids of my own, and always wanted some.  Now it’s too late, probably, and I look at Aiden and Ariah and Autumn with a certain sad jealousy, all examples of the kids I might have had but somehow never managed.  I’m sitting apart from them at the last table, watching their meteoric sorrows and delights, wishing Lisa’s family could be my own.

And that’s when it hits me – they are.

I’m welcome here.  This peculiar, over-the-counter late lunch holiday is for family members only, and I’ve become part of the clan.  Munching burgers and shredding gift wrap is part of the family DNA, as surely as their hot-blooded Italian temperament, and I’ve earned a place at the hard plastic table.  I always help Lisa with the babysitting, making Autumn grin and Ariah cry (no matter what I do, she’s always crying), trying to contain Aiden as he catapults around, spreading glorious three-year-old chaos.  As for Josh, the grownup kid – don’t tell him, but the Lakers stuff came from me.

In short, their story is my story, partly, something I’ve never fully appreciated until this weird, wonderful, teriyaki-flavored Christmas Eve at Carl’s Jr in Buena Park.  Hallmark it’s not, but I’m pleased to belong to whatever the hell this is.

Merry Christmas, everyone