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Rimgate Park

It’s been a rollercoaster week. Not just for me, but everyone.

On Saturday, I was supposed to attend a Toastmasters Tall Tales Contest, spinning a yarn about alien invaders, how the whole world is endangered by a threat we never expected. The contest was canceled because of the Coronavirus. (And no, the irony wasn’t lost on me.) Then Lisa and I tried to go to Veggie Night with our fellow Mensans, but no one showed up because of the Coronavirus.

The following week I was supposed to give a speech at the Las Vegas Mensa Regional Gathering, but I hesitated because of the Coronavirus – was I likely to get infected, or help spread the infection? I called PK Khemka, a friend and surgeon who knows about infectious diseases, and asked his opinion. What he said was a little startling.

“I was supposed to give a speech at the RG about the Coronavirus,” he explained, “but I had to cancel because of the Coronavirus.”

Screw it, if PK’s not going then neither am I. Reluctantly, I cancel my attendance, only to learn the gathering itself has been canceled because of the Coronavirus. I call the airline to ask for a refund, which they normally don’t do, but I get it all back since the flight was canceled, because of the Coronavirus.

I go to work on Monday but I’m the only one in my department who shows up, all the others are working from home, because of the Coronavirus.

It’s starting to feel like the end of the world.

I’m given a company laptop and a spare monitor, and told I should work from home, too. Processing documents can be done remotely, logging into the database with a passcode generated on my cell phone. There’s no need for human contact at all, but we can always videoconference if there’s a need for it. In the meantime, I’m sent home.

So I’m driving through Lake Forest, passing by the grassy sprawl of Rimgate Park. I pass the park every day, sometimes on my bicycle, today in my car. There’s a playground, Lisa’s grandkids occasionally play here. Sometimes they have events and exhibits, like the time (I swear) when I was bicycling past and came face-to-face with a llama. Yes, the Peruvian mammal, part of a traveling zoo for kids. He thought I was interesting, too.

On impulse, I pull over.

Normally I just want to go home, but it’s midmorning and it’s weird to be leaving work so soon, and – here’s the funny part – I’ve never seen the view from the far end of the park. It’s on a hillside surrounded by soaring alders, there must be a view but I’ve never seen it. I have this monkey urge to go see it now, in this odd new world where I have a job but no office, with no one expecting me at work even though it’s 9:30 on a weekday morning.

Because of the Coronavirus.

A paved trail leads in a broad circle around the park, past barbecue grilles, picnic tables, swingsets, and a little dinosaur you can climb on. Kids are doing that, since there’s no school because of the Coronavirus. A work crew is grooming the greenery, with hedge clippers and leaf blowers. It’s cloudy and a little cold, my favorite kind of weather.

I reach the far end of the park. You have to step off the trail to see what’s waiting, beyond the edge. I take a look and think, Oh great – just what I needed to see.

I’m looking down at El Toro Memorial Park, the local cemetery. Endless rows of memorial plaques, sprawled across the hillside under a gunmetal sky. Peaceful and serene. Oddly beautiful.

I always look for messages in things that happen. Some are subtle, others more obvious, but this one is like a slap across the face. It goes to the real horror of the Coronavirus, I think, the reason it’s so hard to look away from: We’re all going to die. Some sooner than others, but eventually everyone. Most of us ignore that, most of the time – I certainly do – but with this virus growing exponentially, twenty-five times deadlier than the flu, the fact of each and every person’s mortality is right there, in your face.

They say you’re never more alive than when you’re facing death. I say Yikes, who needs that? But if that’s where we’re stuck, looking head-on into oblivion, may I suggest that we take this opportunity to re-evaluate what’s really important, whatever that might be, and dedicate ourselves to that above all else. For me it’s writing, I’m doing it now. I don’t know what it is for you, but this horrific virus might mean you should get on with it.

When something’s difficult, they say it’s no walk in the park. This actually was a walk in the park, but easy it wasn’t. Nothing’s going to be easy, not for months. That’s the strange new world we’re living in.

Not sure I’m ready. Are you?

#Coronavirus #TallTales

I’ve Got a Fortune in My Mouth

So we’re sitting at Panda Express, me and Lisa, and you can’t have Chinese without fortune cookies, can you, though fortune cookies were originally Japanese, they were served at a restaurant that was shut down by the government during World War II, true story, sorry for the run-on sentence.

Well, I bite into my fortune cookie, curious to see what the future holds, but somehow the fortune winds up in my mouth, not in my hand. I have to peel it out and spread it on the table, much to Lisa’s amusement. And here’s what it says:

SOON ALL OF YOUR DOUBTS WILL DISAPPEAR.

I’m tempted to add “in bed” after that, but I wonder if the message isn’t something more profound, sublime even. Who wouldn’t want all their doubts disappearing? I say “Great!” and prepare for a state of peaceful serenity. Sweet relief, here it comes. All that stands between me and Nirvana are two piddling obstacles. hardly worth mentioning.

Obstacle One: I don’t believe in fortune cookies. Some guy in a fortune mill churning out feel-good slogans does not (in my humble opinion) affect what really happens. And Obstacle Two, perhaps the greater one, is that recent events have conspired to drive me wooga wooga SNORT! insane.

To be specific: They were going to make a sequel to my zombie film. All we needed was the rights. But the owner of those rights wants to monetize his film collection, offering to sell the rights to all 300 of his movies (including my own Dead Heat) to the highest bidder, as soon as there is one, and there it sits.

I blame God.

“That’s sweet,” Lisa says, referring to my original fortune, not the God-blaming.

I try to imagine what earthly circumstances would make all my doubts disappear, like a blemish before stain remover, uncertainty begone – and darned if the universe doesn’t cooperate. No, they’re not making my zombie sequel. But something else pops up unexpectedly, in the form of an instant message from Beth, my former wife.

A group of us are planning a collection of stories about seniors and romance, she writes.

In fact, I’ve been getting emails about the senior romance stories, organized by some of my writer friends, which I’ve totally ignored because who cares, but Beth thinks I should give it a shot. I was pretty sure you’d be in on this, she writes.

The organizers are a coalition of romance writers, who are planning to issue a boxed set of romance novels with a common theme – finding love late in life, in your 50s or beyond. The books would be similar in tone, with a common setting and common incidental characters. Some of the writers are well-known in romance circles, and could give a mantle of respectability to those of us who aren’t.

They thought of me because I actually wrote a romance novel last year, just to see if I could do it, about a garbageman who falls in love with the woman whose trash he’s emptying. The book drew a collective yawn from the romance novel industry, but it was fun to write, especially the scene where Marty and Kelly rush a sick friend to the hospital, dodging traffic in a borrowed garbage truck.

But can I write another romance novel, in response to this golden-age opportunity? I decide no. My doubts, the supposedly disappearing ones, step in to yank this off the table. Until Greta, one of the romance writers, asks if my garbageman story might qualify as a senior romance. The guy’s on his second career, albeit a trash-centric one, and his girlfriend’s a bookish librarian – couldn’t they be in their fifties?

Oh, and there’s one more problem, Greta says, almost apologetically: The novel must have an earthquake in it.

That’s right, an earthquake.

They’re issuing a boxed set of stories about 50s-and-older couples who find love in the second act of their lives, when they least expect it, and (oh yeah) the town is threatened by an earthquake. Minimum Length, 50,000 words.

Deal-break city. I’m not writing a senior romance with a temblor in it, you have to draw the line somewhere. In fact, I’m starting to wonder about that fortune cookie. How can ALL YOUR DOUBTS DISAPPEAR in the face of a December-December romance where the earth moves, and it’s not a metaphor? My doubts aren’t melting away.

Then it comes to me.

What if, at the story’s climax, Marty and Kelly are rushing their friend to the hospital, dodging not traffic but the wreckage of a devastating earthquake? What if the roadway heaves and buckles at every turn? And what if, against this turbulent backdrop, their true love finally emerges?

I run this by my romance writer friends, and they’re totally on board. With minimal rewriting, basically one big scene, My Trashy Romance will soon join the pantheon, part of an exclusive boxed set available for print-on-demand next year. Stay tuned.

In the meantime, I feel like Pinocchio – because I’ve become a real writer, once again. All my doubts have disappeared, just like that fortune said, replaced by a satisfying overconfidence. While I’m at it, maybe I’ll find a way to get Dead Heat 2 produced and in theaters.

Thank you, Panda Express. Be sure to try the honey walnut shrimp.

#BetterLateRomance #PandaExpress

I’m Disturbed

Recently, Lisa and I saw It: Chapter Two, and she had trouble sleeping afterward. “I can never get to sleep after watching a horror movie,” she confesses, “because it seems so real.” I assure her that Pennywise the Clown is nowhere near our townhouse in Mission Viejo, but she insists (with childlike unease) that it feels like he’s close by.

I’m tempted to make fun of her – after all, it’s a silly movie about a made-up clown – but I hesitate because I, too, was very disturbed by a film I saw recently, so much so that it became a minor obsession, something that troubled me profoundly and at times still does. But it wasn’t a horror film – rather, it was billed as a “drama-comedy.”

It made me laugh. It made everyone laugh. And that’s the problem.

The film was Quentin Tarantino’s latest, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood.
OUATIH (as it’s known) is the story of western actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), living in Hollywood circa 1969. Dalton’s past his prime as an actor, struggling to retain his celebrity, even as a younger actress begins her rise to stardom, on a path that’s the opposite of his. The younger actress, played by Margot Robbie, is sweet and instantly likeable. She’s Dalton’s next-door neighbor, though they’ve never met.

Her name is Sharon Tate.

If you have any knowledge of local history, you can see why this story is upsetting. On August 8, 1969, Tate and four others were murdered by cultists devoted to Charles Manson, at her home in Benedict Canyon. The murders were savage and pitiless, and became a grim chapter in Hollywood history. I googled this to find out more, and it’s as bad as you think. If you want to see for yourself, I recommend you don’t.

So why did I go to this movie?

Because I was told “It’s not about that,” meaning the murders aren’t the focus of the story, it’s really about something else. Plus, it’s a comedy. How on earth do you make the events of that night funny?

Tarantino has asked us not to reveal the movie’s ending. I’m not going to, not directly, but I’d like to share an observation about the nature of violence in movies. How violent a film is, I believe, depends greatly on who the violence happens to. If an innocent woman suffers a horrible death, the scene will be very upsetting. But if, say, Adolf Hitler meets a violent death – which actually happens, in another of Tarantino’s movies – we’re less horrified, less upset, less inclined to take offense.

We might even laugh.

I thought Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood would be depressing. To my surprise, it wasn’t. Tarantino did a twisted-retelling of the story that was surprisingly palatable, even to someone as squeamish as me, evoking not horror but jet-black mirth. I give the film a surprisingly high rating.

But it still upset me. Because no matter what happened in Tarantino’s self-described fairy tale, the events that inspired it are just as nightmarish as they ever were, and now they’re in my head and I have to deal with them. This is the very thing Charles Manson wanted, it occurs to me, the slap-in-the-face realization of how fragile life is, how easily it can be wrenched away, how dreadful the loss will be. Manson’s dead, but his toxic message persists.

So how do you cope with that?

My quest led me to http://www.SharonTate.net, the website maintained by her sister, Debra Tate, which is not about the murder, but rather a celebration of Sharon’s life and career, which included the dramatic film Valley of the Dolls and the comedic film The Wrecking Crew, featuring Dean Martin as superspy Matt Helm, and Sharon as his bumbling assistant. There’s a Sharon Tate filmography and photo gallery, also a mini-biography of her life, her pilgrimage to Hollywood, her marriage to controversial director Roman Polanski, and more. (Did you know Sharon was the model for Malibu Barbie?)

Full disclosure: There’s also a page where you can sign petitions, asking that pardons be denied to all of Manson’s killers who are still alive. You’ll find “Terry Black” in the list of signers.

As for Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, Debra Tate loved the movie, saying, “I had Sharon back in front of me again, but it was too short a visit.” And maybe that’s the morsel of redemption we can take from all this. As I’m writing this, in theaters all over the country, there’s a smash-hit film featuring Sharon Tate’s character, impeccably recreated, filmed half a century after she left us. She’s become a legend, an icon, someone who lives forever in movies – not just as a victim, but as a star.

This film disturbed me, but I’m glad I saw it. Sometimes we need fairy tales.

Scary clowns, not so much.

#SharonTateForever

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 want to sneeze, belch and fart at the same time.

Before I die, I want to 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.

#BeforeIDie

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?

#DogWithaBlog #DoggyHowser

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.

#UphillFast

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!

#CarlsJr #Christmas