Big-hearted, yet petty

One afternoon last week, I came home to find a car pulled into the driveway next to my house. It’s not my driveway — amazingly, I don’t have a driveway, or a garage — but it’s eight feet from my front porch, so I have a certain proprietary interest in  what goes on there.

It was doing one of those half-in-the-driveway, half-blocking-the- sidewalk things, often employed by people who will “just be a minute,” which could be an hour. The car was a Mercedes GLS SUV which “starts” at $68,700. And the engine was running. Someone was at the wheel (hard to tell more because: tinted windows) but she (or he) was just idling, waiting for whatever.

OK, I have a problem with expensive cars. I drive a 17-year old Honda Accord, and, while I don’t expect everyone to follow my example, I think it’s useful to remember that a car is morally complicated transportation device. It seems ostentatious and excessive to own a car that costs more than the average salary of an American worker. Surely there’s a soup kitchen somewhere that could use some of that dough.  I think Americans have become too comfortable with extravagant shows of wealth, not just Trumpian excess but also the kind of low-key swagger familiar to people in my area: $20 cups of coffee and $800 dinners and $50 million houses with a separate yoga studio and full-grown tree planted because it invites contemplation of the transient nature of existence.

And I have a problem with parked cars with their engines running. Wasting gas for no reason at all, spewing earth-destroying chemicals into the air because the driver can’t be bothered to turn a key or press a button.  Makes me so mad I write incomplete sentences. I’m calmer now.

Now, friends, that is a vehicle.

 Now, anyone can tell you that the milk of human kindness flows through my veins. I try to be a good husband, a good father, a good grandfather. I am an exemplary neighbor. I ask “How are you keeping, Missy?” to a woman who might very well be named Missy. I ask “How about those Giants, Fred?” to a disgruntled Oakland A’s fan, implicitly suggesting that he may wish to abandon his long-held allegiance to the local squad.

(Really, there is nothing sadder than an Oakland A’s fan. His team has stopped trying to win. They gladly give up their best players for “prospects,” who, if they’re any good, will immediately be traded in exchange for more prospects.  Really, they have no incentive to win. They make money anyway, so why bother? The Giants bother. They may not always win, but they try. I digress.)

I do not hold grudges. I am slow to anger and quick to forgive. I am genial even in hard times. I am, in point of fact, a prince of a fellow.

Almost seems to have a personality, doesn’t it?

But, in examining my shortcomings, I do realize I have resentments, and most of them seem to be about motor  vehicles. Some days, it’s really fortunate that I do not have a firearm in my Honda. It may be that I cry out to an indifferent universe and ask it to rain fire upon the malefactors. Perhaps I pound the steering wheel. I try to remember not to pound the accelerator.

What behavior causes such a violent reaction? Oh, I’m so glad you asked.

∅ Changing lanes without signaling. It is so damn easy to flip a little lever up or down. It’s a service to people behind you. People might say, “there’s no one behind me.” First of all, you don’t know that. Blind spots, right?  Second, just get in the damn habit. Make it automatic.

∅ Refusing to let people into your lane. I may have mentioned this before. You’re accelerating on an on-ramp. The lane does not last forever, because it’s on an on-ramp. There’s a guy to your left, and he just refuses to let you merge naturally. Meantime, you’re running out of lane, so you have to brake precipitously, and if there’s a car behind you: Rear-ender! Who gets all territorial about a lane? Who wants to make the driving experience harder for other people? I ask you. I just asked you. Who?

∅ People who suddenly remember their exit and swerve over three lanes to get to it. Honest to God, pay minimal attention to your destination. Going to San Rafael? Then get in the damn lane that goes to San Rafael. Easy, right? Then you can go back to dreaming of Jennifer Lopez frolicking in the surf.

∅ Tailgaters and high-beam users. I know this is a familiar complaint, but why do people do it? Is it all testosterone poisoning? What if I hit the brakes suddenly, bro? What if I am suddenly blinded and swerve over to your lane and there’s a head-on collision that suddenly involves 12 cars in a carnival of carnage?

∅ Taking two parking places. Doesn’t everyone hate that? In a 17-year-old Honda, one can solve that problem. One scratch more or less; do I care? But the owner of that other car cares. He plunked down a cool $200,000 for his Mercedes G-class off-road (!) vehicle. Not that I would ever suggest intentionally scraping another car, because that would be wrong. Although, taking two parking places is also wrong. So complicated.

Perhaps you think I’m just a cranky old guy. I promise, I have been swearing at other drivers since my mid-20s. There are many indications that I am irritable and elderly, but this is not one of them.

I would like to add arrogant bicyclists and clueless pedestrians, but my bile is spent. It felt good, typing all that. I understand that bad drivers are people too, and I fully support their right to vote, to earn a living, to love the people or peoples of their choice. But I also appreciate that civilized living in a crowded urban environment requires enthusiastic agreement to a set of common principles, the main one of which is: Don’t be a dope.

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The transient nature of existence

Photography by Tracy Johnston

All my questions cheerfully answered by Michelle Mizera

Pieces of my brain #3

On a cool windy evening in San Francisco, we found ourselves at the corner of Fell and Van Ness. Across the street, there was the brightly lit condo tower.  We decided to investigate, partly to get out of the wind, partly because Tracy’s near-legendary curiosity leads her almost anywhere a  human can go without encountering armed guards.

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TJ at work

The lobby was in that high commercial modern style favored by builders going after millennials, particularly tech-enabled milliennials. Lots of clean blank walls; a lobby desk shaped like an emaciated shark.  There was a tree growing out of a hole in the desk where the shark’s anus would be.

There were perhaps 30 people in the lobby, clustered in conversational groups or checking their phones. We entered, bringing with us a gust of cold air. Everybody turned towards us. It was like one of those science fiction movies where almost everyone (except our hero) is controlled by an alien intelligence. They all looked at us without expression. A telepathic whisper went through the room: Old People among us. Try to stay calm.

We walked around a bit. We tried to make eye contact, but no one would look up. They were afraid the old was contagious. You don’t want to get the old on you; it can decay your teeth and turn your hips into bone-on-bone battlegrounds. No matter how hard you scrub, the old lingers.

This is not the first time my gray beard has provoked silent horror in young people. Many are kind (the old enjoy kindness), although they often feel the need to explain to us things we already know. “The white zone,” they will say considerately, “is for loading and unloading only.” Sometimes that’s entirely charming.

Sometimes: Not.


Fifteen minutes later, we were standing in a stairwell of an old second-floor dance studio. We were waiting to be let in to the space, now repurposed as a theater. Once again, we were the oldest people in the building, but this time we were ignored. Everyone was ignoring everyone else, in the manner of people standing in an elevator. I stared at my phone for a while, but I didn’t want to text anyone. I was just being pretentious.

On the steps below us, four people played a version of charades. One held up a phone to his/her forehead. On the phone was a word. The others tried to get the phone holder to say the word, using only gestures. Splendid idea; this is technology we can believe in.

Then the door above opened, and we poured into the space.

Many years ago, I spent some time as a non-sexual groupie of The Committee, a now-legendary improv comedy group started by Alan and Jessica Myerson, late of the Second City in Chicago. Unlike the Second City, The Committee did not turn out famous comedians who went on to  success. Still, I thought Larry Hankin was the funniest man alive, and Gary Goodrow was a comic genius. Anyway: What I saw in that large room reminded me of The Committee.

Imagine six extremely energetic humans. Imagine a bare stage, minimum props, primitive lighting.  Imagine lots of running around and yelling and standing still and whispering, all at break-neck pace. The players are known collectively as the San Francisco Neo-Futurists.  Their show is called “Too Much Light Makes The Baby Go Blind.” It is not improvised;  each of the “30 Plays in 60 Minutes” is written and rehearsed, although a lot of the writing process does seem to have to do with improvisation. The show is funny, sometimes hysterically so, but it’s also poignant and angry and surrealistic.

What reminded me of The Committee was the sense of possibility. The Neo-Futurists have been around since the 80s, but I don’t think the people in the cast can make that claim.  There’s talent up on stage; more importantly, there’s enthusiasm for the possibilities of theater. Ryan Patrick Welsh is clearly the first among equals, but every performer is  enthusiastic and committed.

Here are some of the play titles: “David Mamet’s The Little Mermaid;” “Robo Libido Fugue State:” “Questions for a Twinkie;” “How I Bore Mission Bartenders;” and “WHAT I ASSUME GETTING YOUR PERIOD  IS LIKE ACCORDING TO THE WONDERFUL WORLD  OF TV ADVERTISEMENTS”.

You could spend your entertainment dollar on Meryl Streep pretending to be somebody or other, or, for just a little more, you could see The San Francisco Neo-Futurists. Come early, stand in the stairwell, laugh unreservedly. There’s a soupcon of audience participation (nothing embarrassing, although I was asked politely to eat one bite of a dreadful sandwich, which I did, for which I was called a “hero,” a double-decker sandwich joke) but mostly not; this is not some Vegas hypnotist’s show.

Out by 11. Steps away from BART. Everything perfect.


Last time, in pursuit of happiness, I published a few jokes I’d picked up here and there. (I found 500 banjo jokes, none of them funny). My friend Carol Carr sent me a few she’d saved over the years. If you hang out with the science fiction community, you may know Carol, or have heard of her. She is not, by the way, the Carol Carr who killed two of her sons. Just clarifying.


What do you get when you cross an elephant with a peanut butter sandwich?  Three elephants that stick to the roof of your mouth, and one peanut butter sandwich that never forgets.

What do you get when you cross a Mafia hit man with a performance artist?  Someone who makes you an offer you can’t understand.

“I just learned the answer to the question asked in Hamlet, “What is he to Hecuba, or Hecuba to him?”  Answer: “The shortest volumes in the encyclopedia.”

A Jew gives a blind man his first piece of matzo.  The blind man takes it and rubs his fingers over the surface for several seconds, then says, “Who wrote this shit?”


This very morning, I was driving home from random errands (grocery store, bank) when I thought: I bet Pancho is in my wire basket now. He’s there most every morning; you can set your watch by it. And then I thought: I really do think a lot about Pancho’s habits.

His smiles, his frowns, his ups, his downs, are second nature to me now.

And that’s strange, don’t you think? I can see the point in petting a cat, snuggling with a cat, watching a cat doing cat antics — sure. That’s pet ownership: The cross-species exchange of affection. But I think I have something different: The cross-species crush.

When  I was a young man and subject to crushes, everything about my love object was fascinating. Her handwriting, her lunch preferences, the books she read, the music she listened to, her feelings about insects and aviation and deep soulful kissing. And maybe I would bicycle by her house, not in a stalking way because I didn’t actually stop, except that one time I saw her watering the lawn. “I was in the neighborhood…” I said, which was true. I was in the neighborhood.

And now I have memorized Pancho’s routine. He’s extremely predictable. Cats may be independent creatures, but they like their habits — as do most humans. Habits are comfortable; they free your mind to think of other things. Each night I close up the house, check the doors and windows, straighten up the kitchen, let Pancho in, turn out the lights. Pancho will inevitably check his food bowl, then amble up the stairs, where he curls up on the bed in Tracy’s office.

Once in a while, that doesn’t happen, and I worry that Pancho is sick. But no, he’s exercising his free will — when he remembers that he has free will. I have free will too, but I’ve lived in the same place for 35 years.

I brought the groceries in and checked. Sure enough:


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Find the missing number on the clock!


Photography by Tracy Johnston, except the one that obviously isn’t

Behind-the-scenes competence by Michelle Mizera