Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Heaven's Call?

Today there was a "homeless" guy at the Safeway parking lot entrance. He had a sign saying something like "hungry, homeless, Jesus loves." I parked and, as I approached the door to the market only 30 yds from the hapless fellow, I encountered a young woman Salvation Army bellringer standing adjacent her pot shaking her bell and producing that familiar repetitous tone. Although I didn't say anything, I thought of catching her attention, point to the fellow and, in a polite voice, recommend something like "Perhaps you might take that kettle over there and dump some coins in that guy's hands. That's what you're here for... isn't it?" Of course, the plainly-clothed, totally-bored bellringer had been hired by her employer at minimum wage to stand there for a shift and seek donations. I am sure that the Salvation Army at corporate had figured that all the nation's bellringers' yield, aka gross income, would exceed gross expense, producing a handsome gain and the net, of course, would be tax free. Then again I considered that, encouraging good deeds by feeding that vessel, might be for them another way to cook up business, like a supermarket's loss leader, created for the purpose of improving public image in order to facilitate advantage over rivals competing in other profit centers.

Next I thought something like, why don't I go up to the guy on the corner and suggest he walk over and ask her for some help from her collection. After all, wasn't she a soldier of Christ? However, I didn't do this either. From someplace within me, I knew already the outcome. She didn't have any spare change.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Things that Bug Me

Things that bug me: It bugs me to be at a hotel counter, tire store or any place for that matter offering a service when the phone rings and the clerk redirects his attention to the person on the line. You stand there like a tolerant schmuck and are the one put on hold. Worst of all you have to listen to someone else's trivial business.

You are sitting at a cozy restaurant or coffee shop when suddenly untalented and vain musicians start playing loudly, disrupting the wonderful ambiance and putting an end to decent conversation.

Seeing the same panhandler every day at the same shopping center exit with the same sign saying God Bless on it. I want to roll down my window and exhort that I'm neither fond of God nor blesssings nor you, for that matter.

Christmas music in stores starting at Halloween. Hearing such crappy music like Jingle Bell Rock, even one more time, reinforces my growing commitment to atheism. No loving God could validate such stupidity.

Football dynasties. Isn't it great when those Southern schools or Nebraska lose! I'm tired of hearing about university pride and spirit. If you insist on having to be Number 1, impress me that your team raised more food than anyone else for the hungry.

Politicians who talk about the will of the Founding Fathers. They don't know squat about American History, couldn't tell who wrote the Constitution or when.

The sensitive touchscreen of my cellphone. Even the slightest miscue and I'm suddenly calling a friend in Portugal.

Paper receipts stuffed into my hand. What a waste of time and resources. Why should I be given one for a Starbucks coffee? Can you name any possible reason to need one? If a patron needs a reimbursement from an employer, let them ask for a receipt, but even this is idiotic.

Items that come in hard plastic packages, where it takes a sharp pair of scissors or a chainsaw to get them out.

Throw-away newspapers on my walk. Who gave you the right to litter? It tells every thief I'm not home and the delivery guy insists he must deliver them.

People in front of you who stand up at concerts so you can't see. How about that guy next to you who sings the lyrics, of course, out of tune, so it distracts from hearing the real performer.

Sliding glass windows in doctors'offices, the signing long unintelligable and useless HIPPA documents and standing in privacy lines, like you care that the woman ahead of you has hemorrhoids.

Having to fill prescriptions for maintenance drugs every thirty days. What a stupid waste of time and a cheap trick to prevent people from buying in quantity.

Signs attached to trees advertising Christ like he were Smoky the Bear.

Speed bumps in parking lots, especially the unpainted ones.

Toilet paper rolls in public bathrooms that are stuck in the housing, and no matter how much you reach up, it either doesn't unroll or at best it allows you to tear off one tiny sheet at a time.

After comparision shopping, you discover that the reasonable published airline or rental car rates that you chose didn't include taxes.

Bathrooms with blowers to dry your hands instead of paper towels. What am I supposed to do, stay in there and do my laundry while I wait for my hands to dry?

Almost everything about automobile dealerships, where a car becomes a vehicle and every week has a goofy sale with balloons. Speaking of insanely annoying marketing, on my recent trip to California (where else?) I saw a neon marquee over a Ford showroom calling it a Ford Auto Studio and a sign above a dealership announcing an Acura Salon. Talk about going in and getting a haircut!

Having to show ID if your credit card is unsigned or signature is illegible. (One of my cards even has my picture on it.) Then you give the officious saleperson the requested additional documents and have to watch them act like they were making an important decision from discerning something from the mass of numbers before them. It is folly to imagine them saying you stole the credit card and the driver's license too.

Why should you have to sign your name on a reader after you swipe your card as a requirement for a purchase in a store? I usually make a squiggle or draw a finger. Do I really need an official contract when I purchase toothpaste? It is clearly not necessary when I buy gas or purchase online. Maybe people should use the signature pad as a way to give feedback for lousy service.

Anyway, it is getting late. My son would probably say that this narrative is the ranting of another crabby old man. He may be, in part, right. Yet I'll bet my one-day-only coupon that is honored any time that you have a few annoying things you could share as well.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Grateful Dead?

One of the purposes of my trip to Southern California was to visit the cemetery where my parents are buried and to clean the grime off of their gravestones. I began this task several years ago and have used it as a springboard to visit old high school-era friends and explore the neighborhoods of my youth.

I have found the need explain to my Darwin-adulating, rational-thinking friends, somewhat awkwardly of course and unable to cloak adequately my embarrassment, that my 21st century consciousness has not been damaged by primitive superstition.. I asssure them that I really do know that below the markers there is a coffin and bones and NOTHING ELSE, and that at night, spirits neither emerge to lament nor serve as oracles, even though the graveyard scene in Thorton Wilder's Our Town had moved me deeply as a child.

So why then should I care about cleaning the markers of dead people whose lives had no particular impact on the wheel of history? Perhaps Abraham Lincoln's resting place deserves to be maintained for future generations, but why the spot belonging to Fred and Hennriette Spangler?

This question led me to the following line of thought. Am I still seeking parental approbation, captive to an unfullfilled desire, an almost primal urge emanating from the jungle of my emotionally entangled childhood? Am I the the prodigal son, who through doing good acts, seek expiation? Well perhaps, but caring for the dead follows a powerful human tradition transmitted over massive lengths of time and appearing in totally diverse cultures. Not every one has needed to slap his chest and cry mia culpa.

The above photo taken outside of San Augustino, Colombia, shows some stones from a plot of several hundred, from an ancient graveyard of elaborate crypts making the site a most treasured archeological landmark. Two thousand years ago giant jaguar-toothed statues of people and animals were placed over the bodies of local dead to narrate something important about the decedent's past or future life or both. In this case this task expresses a complex religious-mythical meaning nearly incomprehensible to us today. Equally significant, it underscores the message that humans, unlike animals except possibly elephants, consider it important to preserve the memory of its people.

So where is the value in remembering the past? Those of you who know me well are aware that I love studying history. It brings me intellectual joy, a sense of community and feeling of continuity. Then there are those people I know who deepen themselves in genealogy research. They take amazing pride in understanding their family tree and derive lasting emotional benefit in feeling connected.

In my observation this week at cemeteries, with only rare exception, tombstones of even recently passed relatives are left to deteriorate. The estate has been settled, the heirs have gotten their deserving due and the benefactor can rot in "somewhere". Even my children neither know anything about my parents, who were their grandparents nor about my grandparents nor, for that matter, much about history at all.

Perhaps these pursuits are out of fashion and have been replaced by other forms of activities that generate equally valuable gratification. To be sure young people have gained other tangible information especially computer skills, but when you hear constantly in the news how our society's ills can be attributed to the decline of the family social unit, isn't the lack of caring and the paucity of knowledge about the chain of events that created a family or the events that led to the present time one more poignant symptom of the decline in respect of fundamental core values of civilization?

Learning history, even family history, contributes to establishing a positive self image. The stories are rife with joy and saddness, of success and failure. They have the potential to evoke genuine compassion of the human condition. From this standpoint I am glad to scrub mom and dad vigorously and to let the light of their time shine through to the future.

Btw. If you like cemeteries please visit Taphophile Tragics. It is a cool site from Australia about the benefits of visiting graveyards.

Monday, November 14, 2011

A Day at the Beach

Yesterday I left the SF Bay Area and began my coastal trip on Hwy 1 toward LA. The road hugs the beach and rocky outcroppings, offering vistas of the Pacific so riveting that rubberneckers like myself slow down traffic and drift back and forth in the lane like flotsam bobbing in the tide. Before Davenport, near Santa Cruz, I spotted the entrance to Ano Nuevo State Park, home to the largest breeding grounds of the elephant seal.

I learned at the gate that the high tourist season would begin after Thanksgiving when access to the park was only allowed by guided tours requiring reservations and when trams would shuttle tourists to the ocean front. I considered myself fortunate that I would have to trek 2.7 miles each way through deserted marshland and dunes to reach North Cove in order to see these weird floppy-nosed mammals.

From an observation point just above the waterline, I observed several hundred elephant seals hanging out either sunbathing or engaging in water sport. I was told by a volunteer docent that all of these were juvenile males that had arrived in the past week for a brief Winter holiday. Elephant seals travel to these breeding grounds not in pods, but totally alone deep in the sea all the way from the Aleutian Islands. When coming to the surface for air, many fall prey to predators such as orcas and great white sharks. These pinnipeds eat nothing on the whole journey, therefore there is neither poop nor acrid smell wafting about which is usually pervasive with colonies of birds. Unfortunately for these youngsters the trip to this lazy clime and birthplace is for naught since they must flee the beach when the adult males come on shore. A young male weighs only about 300 lbs but daddy weighs 3,500 lbs. Two smaller adults had shown up early and their impressive hulks can be seen in the middle picture. Only a few dominant males ever mate with females so, over the next months, this tranquil scene transforms into a circus of jousting, fighting and uninvited mounting. By April all the 70 lb pups have been born and the time to return to the nutrition rich North begins.

These spots are special to me. I have always loved the outdoors and observing animal behavior. When I was young, my parents took my sister and me often to zoos where we learned of the diversity of the animal kingdom, albeit from behind bars. Yet there is nothing like seeing amazing creatures in the wild. I know that such experiences add value to my daily adventure and a stimulates a profound feeling of wonderment of life itself.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Armistice Day Today

Since today is Veteran's Day, I thought I would mention that this holiday was originally called Armistice Day. It wasn't intended to glorify patriotism or war. In fact, it was established in 1918 to commemorate the end of WW1, an incredibly horrible time that was touted as a war to end war. Some estimates suggest that twenty million men and women were killed outright or died later from wounds. This number includes my grandfather for whom I received my middle name. The Spanish influenza spread by the troops killed an additional one million people. The use of trench warfare and gas exacted a terrible toll on the battlefield. In the first Battle of the Marne in September 1914, two million men fought and more than 500,000 were killed or wounded. French casualties totalled 250,000, 80,000 of them dead, while British casualties were 13,000, 1,700 of them dead. The Germans suffered 220,000 casualties.
If anyone cares to read an excellent history of the events that led up to World War I, then The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman is a must. Also, a gripping personal account not for the light-hearted of the life of a young German soldier in the war is narrated in the book All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque.
Anyway for those of you who are off of work today because of Veteran's Day, perhaps it is worth a moment to ponder this historical event and consider the issue of man's inhumanity to man.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

For the Birds?

It has been important for me to block thoughts of my own mortality on this trip in response to the fact that in the past week I have spoken with three friends who are dealing with serious illnesses. The best antidote to prevent my own anxious thoughts has been to immerse myself in writing, photographing and in drawing.

I have had some spare moments to linger on fishing piers while my old friend has been at doctor appointments. Also yesterday, I took the opportunity for a short hike at one of my favorite places from years ago, the Bay Trail at Shoreline Nature Reserve.

Shoreline Park, which is East of downtown Mountain View and South of Palo Alto, is an enormous area of salt ponds, marshes and bayland located on the flyway for millions of birds who either reside year around or travel back and forth from Alaska to Mexico. It has extensive walking and biking paths, observation platforms and informative signage, making it an outdoor person's paradise.

I snapped quite a few pictures of colorful ducks and geese, lanky blue herons, ibises and noisy gulls, but my goal was to keep my body moving. Too much sitting in the car, eating the wrong food and drinking too many mochas has added a lump to my middle-age paunch which regretably I may have inherited from my father.

To excell in photographing birds requires patience, keen vision and perseverance, qualities which I severely lack. The darn things usually swim away from view or fly off or are hard as heck to spot when a call emanates from a tangle of high branches. Also invariably, the moment before the shutter snaps, the damn thing sticks its beak in its feathers or turns and shows you only its backside.

I have spoken with binocular-toting folks who collect species-sitings like I do stamps. They carry handbooks and checklists and seem to be almost disappointed when the lovely blue-breasted flysucker on the post is a bird they had already spotted three years ago in New Mexico.

In any case, to me it is simply a winged thing, which is willing to serve, if I am lucky, as a lovely component of a vibrant day out in the fresh air. I realize that as I grow older that my need to experience fully such moments have increased. Maybe I sense an internal desperation to make the most of my time before I fly off.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Signs to Ponder?

Traveling evokes for me thoughts about nature, social-political issues, or nostalgia. Recently I expressed my disappointment with the sameness of the signs, buildings, and houses in much of the modern urban and suburban landscape I had seen so far on this trip. Yet I have made a conscious effort to look for unique messages. These are hard to find and photographs of unusual advertisement have been discovered by many and are even an integral part of Jay Leno's humor on his late night program.

Nonetheless I decided tonight to post three such scenes that caught my attention on this present trip. The first sign is a Watch Out for Deer message which can be found near meadows along rural highways. Anyone though, who has hit a deer, probably struck one when the poor creature has leaped out where there is nothing posted, since deer clearly neither heed instructions nor use designated crosswalks. This message of Watch Out has been altered to give it a different meaning by some local hunter. Someone has superimposed a large sticker of a bullet over the picture of the innocent animal. He encourages gun-toting drivers to appreciate venison, the thrill of the kill, and to be vigilantly on the lookout.

The second picture is not all that rare. Some restaurants enjoy having a diverse menu. The owners of this eating establishment have obviously an identity crisis. Not long ago I posted a photo of a place in New York that had Chinese food and pizza, but this place in Berkeley, Ca. takes the cake, so to speak. Can you imagine the possibilities on the menu? Yes Senor, I think I'll have the tandoori tamales and wash them down with the Tequilla tea!

The third photo, taken in Klamath Falls, Oregon, requires greater scrutiny. I think, if you click on it and enlarge it, you will be able to see that this building has quite a motley assortment of tenants. On the right is Gigler's Health Food Store, and for those who don't take Gigler's merchandise seriously, its neighbor on the left sells tombstones. I would have been able to snap a better picture if I could have backed up and centered myself in front of the building. Unfortunately this structure sits squarely at the intersection of two incredibly busy highways. I had no intention in juxtaposing life and death in myself for the sake of this blogpost. Incidentally, on the roof between the two shops, is a masonite board advertising a trailer park located in the back. I am glad if you want to give this fact your own special meaning. Perhaps this scene could be immortalized in your own country-western song.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

On the Road by Lee

After several days of sleeping in isolated campgrounds in some of the most tranquil natural settings almost totally devoid of people and also after traveling on backroads through the Sierras, I am now in the thick of the South Bay of SF. I am sitting in the noisiest, most crowded Starbucks I have ever visited which, strangely enough, has only one small dirty bathroom. I arrived last night after exploring historic Placerville. On my drive I followed my GPS obiedently and, as I approached Berkeley, the "voice" asked me to turn off and circumvent the Bay Bridge, which was probably no more than 15 minute from my destination of San Bruno. Instead, it urged me to cross the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge, hook up with Hwy 101 and drive over the Golden Gate. The traffic Southbound was limited to two lanes and the Friday traffic heading to the City like marauding hoardes caused a backup of five miles. Two hours later, feeling withered and blinded, I arrived.

I guess I am not accustomed to the millions of people, cars lights, stores etc.... I know there is great value in the amazing energy and cultural diversity. There are so many Asians, Hispanics, Blacks and Caucasians, its like living confetti spread over the Earth. Strangely enough, with all of this blaring information, there seemed fewer interesting items to photograph. I saw the same stores, signs, shops, blah blah blah, thus my vision became blurred and my inspiration dulled.

Earlier I had been on a beautiful back road passing small farms and cabins and going through little towns, when I flipped on the radio. ABC news spoke of the Occupy Oakland group shutting down the Port of Oakland, blocking entrances and breaking windows at a Wells Fargo and an announced that some city employees and teachers failed to show up for work. The contrast was so dramatic as golden and red leaves blew across my path on the road and resident ducks bobbed serenely on adjacent ponds. The report reminded me of years ago, when I had been part of similar Oakland-Berkeley protests. The "people" believed that revolution was around the corner. Then, when I left Berkeley and hit the road driving out of the big city and into small-town California-America, I discovered a much different mood.The same could be said today. In these small towns I saw lots of empty store fronts. There were huge mills which had been pivotal to the economy abandoned and deteriotating. You'd think there would be anger or resentment, but I didn't get that feeling. Maybe the angry, disappointed people had left or had become resigned and used to the kind of hard luck immmortalized in country-western songs. In any case, I didnt get the sense that the local people were playing the "blame" game or touting their victimhood. I saw little cottage industries sprouting from many houses. There were signs advertising taxidermy, scrapbooking lessons, beauty work, tool sharpening and the usual antique sales. To be sure, these weren't great-paying jobs with benefits, but showed perseverance and the bulldog tenacity of Americans to succeed by their own wit, independent of large outside forces. Was it enough to make car payments, house payments, and pay for necessities, I don't know, but I didn't see a lot of foreclosure signs. I stopped in one small town market along the Pit River and spoke with the owner, who made excellent deli sandwiches. She told me she and her husband had left the "rat race" of the Bay Area several years ago and had bought a dilapidated general store. When I asked her about being part of the 99%, she knew the expression well from watching the demonstrations on the news. I am paraphrasing her, but she said something like, "Most people around here can't stand those protesters. They've appointed themselves to represent our interests just like many of those fat cat leaders in Washington, but they really aren't like us at all." I didn't pursue what she meant, but felt by her facial expression her repugnance with the noise, the slogans, and the manner of behavior of those people "back there" in Oakland. The disapproval of those actions clearly overshadowed any disillusionment she may have had with the system. Perhaps she felt that fresh country air cured all ills!

Now I am staying in a building of approximately 500 apartments where giant jets from the nearby airport roar almost at rooftop. Instead of on an air matress under the stars, I am sleeping on a couch in a breezeless livingroom. This stage of the trip may not seem like much of an adventure, but it will have its moments, just you wait.