Notes From The Coast

The beach does funny things to the brain

Chapter 2: The Dock Rats

ShippingContainers-LA-Hal

 

Last time on No Imminent Plan…

Our once-scrappy, now adrift hero, Carl Grubbs was having his coffee when his wife declared, among other things, that she was getting a boob job and leaving him for the plastic surgeon. Plus, he’d missed another story deadline at work. As mornings go, it was not his finest. He was charging headlong into the rapidly collapsing dream that was his life.

But that evening, across the beautiful cliffs of Palos Verdes and down into the working class neighborhood of San Pedro, other happenings were threatening the relative peace of an otherwise perfect California night…

 

 

Chapter 2 – The Dock Rats.

“Where is that idiot?” griped Scott Kidnowski, new Head of Harbor Security at the Port of Los Angeles.

He was talking to Jerry, his newly-minted junior supervisor who was in the control tower with him. He suspected Jerry wasn’t really listening because he had his head over a small plastic trash can under the desk trying to vomit away his hangover from the night before. Scott surveyed the area below. The Port of Los Angeles is a sprawling complex made up of 7500 acres of land and water comprised of loading docks, canneries, processing yards and gated high security areas where terrorism was sought and fought by the Los Angeles Port Police. It is one of the busiest ports in the world but tonight, the only working area open during the night shift was a set of four berths, Docking Bays 312-316, in the shape of a dinner fork, four tines sticking out in the south facing San Pedro Bay. The Port Police night shift called it The Pitchfork.

“Did the dipshit get lost?” Scott said as he wondered about Chris ‘Tugboat’ Nevins, the worse half of the half-wit team of junior supervisors he recently promoted. He had sent Tugboat out for Tommy Burgers. Scott was headlong into the midst of suffering his promotion hangover. The Dock Rats had taken him out to celebrate his much deserved and long overdue promotion to Chief Harbor Security Master, Los Angeles Port Police, knowing secretly that their futures hung in the balance. As a result, he could barely concentrate. Excedrin and Alka-seltzer had provided some relief to the waves of nausea and searing lightning bolts of pain but he needed grease to make it through the late shift tonight.

“Yo, any sign of Tugboat’s piece of shit Toyota yet?” Scott said as he radioed from the control tower down to the docks to Mike on Security Team One.

“Negatory, sir,” replied Mike, “Uh, you want me to call him, see if he needs directions?” Mike sounded just as irritated as Scott.

“Nah.” Scott sighed. “Just let me know when the jerkoff arrives.”

“Jerkoff arrival under close watch, sir. Over.” Mike sighed.

Scott was working with three teams down at the docks, all of whom were equally hung over. Mercifully, it was slow. Scott thoughtfully took in the expansive harbor below.

Big haul-in days at the Port Of Los Angeles had slow nights and Tuesdays were one of them. He was expecting a freighter from China, two from Taiwan and one from the Dominican Republic via Panama between the hours of two and four a.m. Piece of cake. It was coming up on 2:15am, two ships were in and two others could be viewed off the coast. Scott dispatched a small team of security officers with K-9s to inspect the containers for illegal substances coming off the ships. The team on the ground radioed in. The walkie-talkie crackled to life.

“Yo, Scott, we’re waiting for the cranes to unload the first containers. Looks like the Dominican ship’ll be light, but not the Chinese freighter,” observed Mike.

“Looks like China first, Tommy burgers second. Feel free to kill Tugboat after the ship’s cargo is off,” Scott said as he massaged his temples.

“Roger that, sir,” Mike said, as he got to work.

Scott surveyed the scene as each container came off the ship. The security team and their K-9s opened the front doors of hard containers for inspection and lifted the rag-tops of soft containers looking and sniffing for narcotics, booze, small arms, machetes and any other suspected illegal foreign materials that might violate a trade agreement or federal law. Terrorism had made the search teams more vigilant in looking for weapons and opiates from Southeast Asia and Afghanistan but more lax in other areas of harmless contraband like foreign liquor without proper papers. Scott ran a tight crew and they had an excellent record of exposing big security breaches. The Mayor had even written him a letter commending him and his team.

As the Chinese freighter unloaded, Scott kept a vigilant eye. He knew that soft, plastic-topped or ragtop containers were a delicate issue. Among harbor security personnel, it was common knowledge that human cargo was often found in these rag-top containers because they allowed ventilation. In the past four years, over three thousand immigrants from China and Korea had traveled and arrived in shipping containers up and down the coast from San Diego to Vancouver often with disastrous and deadly results. It was believed that one in five immigrants survived the three-week ordeal trapped in metal shipping containers with no light, no food, little water, and lots of human waste. Beyond the hurdles of mere survival in a metal box, many faced unsympathetic security, and stern American courts where they hoped to declare political asylum and be granted a chance to stay. In the best case scenario, if an immigrant did win his dream to stay in America, there was a good chance he would find himself herded off the boat into the waiting arms of a gang eager to transport his sorry ass to an East Los Angeles sweat shop making t-shirts for American Apparel.

Human trafficking was a ten billion dollar industry and one of the saddest things Scott had ever seen. During his first year working the docks, he had witnessed a mother who had died from malnutrition and dehydration while her young son, very much alive, cried in her arms inside a shipping container from Beijing. The boy was sent back to China alone. He couldn’t shake the image of the boy watching the Feds cover his mother with a sheet right before he was carried off in the back of a U.S. Immigration van. From that moment, Scott vowed to treat human cargo as human rather than cargo. He didn’t want anyone dying in his harbor. Not on his watch. He would handle with great care those immigrants who risked and tried to scrape out a better life here. For this reason, he decided to head down to the docks to take a closer look at the containers. He forgot his walkie-talkie when he thought he smelled melted cheese on its way.

###

Three teams were on call that night and all three were now scanning and inspecting the containers as they came in. Refrigerated containers usually got a light inspection due to the nature of the cargo. Usually fish, squid, poultry or beef. There was a huge refrigerated container from China of which the dogs took one whiff of and started barking like mad. The security team looked up at the container and checked the manifest. It was marked as smoked meats and hot dogs. All urgent interest from the humans on the scene was lost. The dogs however were trying like hell to signal something was amiss.

 

“What the hell?” Mike Furniss murmured as he held the dogs back and peered into the container. All he saw were pallets of hot dogs. He closed the door and radioed up to control, “Hey Scott, my dogs are going crazy over the smoked meats cold box. Should we move it in the secured area, take a better look? Over.”

No response. Mike waited another minute and radioed again, “Hellloooooo, do I have to wait until you finish your French fries before I get some direction here?”

###

Chris “Tugboat” Nevin’s Toyota pickup sped into the loading area down below just in time to nearly run over his newly promoted boss. Tugboat slammed the brakes and the truck slid sideways on a wet patch, launching one giant bag of Tommy burgers out the truck window and onto the grimy, fish-gut-covered pavement. This triggered a seagull red alert as the scavenger birds sprang to life and began dive-bombing the truck to get near the fallen Tommy burgers.

“Jesus!” Scott shrieked as he jumped out of Tugboat’s way as a seagull swooped down menacingly close to his head. His reaction time was surprisingly fast for a man with a hangover . “God damn it, Tug!” Scott yelled into the headlights of the Toyota.

“Shit. Sorry, Scott,” Tugboat nervously said. “What are you doing down here? You could get killed.”

“The odds increase substantially when you’re around, Tug,” Scott said. He outstretched a hand in Tugboat’s direction. “I’m down here to inspect some of the ragtops. Cheeseburger, please.”

“Right, you had, uh, one without onions?” Tugboat jostled the bag of burgers searching for the right one. “Or the one with grilled onions?”

“Doesn’t matter. Give me a cheeseburger before I fire you for incompetence.”

Tug tossed one to Scott who caught it and swiftly walked away over to where Mike Furniss was standing.

“Anything suspicious?” Scott asked as he took a huge bite of his piping hot chili cheeseburger.

“Nah, not really.” Mike paused.  “Although my dogs went crazy about ten minutes ago over a refrigerated container coming off the Chinese freighter. I made a brief check – it was hot dogs. I radioed you but I guess you were on your way down here. Jerry said that the dogs were just confused because, you know, hot dogs. He told me to put it in regular holding.”

Scott looked down realizing he forgot his walkie-talkie. He nodded quietly and kept chewing. But as the Tommy burger started to seep in and make his brain function properly, Scott’s critical thinking came back.

“Hot dogs?” Scott questioned a Mike’s words sunk in.

“Yep,” replied Mike.

“From China?” Scott inquired further, growing more concerned.

“Uh, yeah.” Mike nodded.

“And the K-9s were going nuts?” Scott asked.

“Yeah, but you know… dogs love hot dogs,” Mike said with a hint of uncertainty in his voice. “That’s what Jerry said anyway.”

“I see your logic there, Mike, but these are highly trained dogs. Hot dogs coming from China don’t add up. Japan maybe, Kobe beef hot dogs. Where did you direct that container?” Scott asked, as a silent alarm started to go off in his head.

###

Five minutes later, Scott and Mike were standing in the processing yard in front of the container from the Chinese freighter. Scott stood back as Mike opened the door to the refrigerated container.

“Hey, uh, Scott?” Mike said as he inched inside the container with his flashlight.

“Just hot dogs?” Scott asked, a note of anxiety in his voice.

“Well, yeah, these are hot dogs alright. But that’s not what I was going to say.”

“What, then?”

“Well, it’s not cold in here. Not even a little bit. And there’s a fan blowing.”

“Oh shit,” Scott muttered, more to himself than to Mike. “It’s ventilated.” He took two steps toward the mouth of the container and in that second, twenty-five Chinese immigrants in tattered clothing stormed the door and came streaming out of the shipping container. The terrified crowd knocked Mike and Scott on their backs nearly trampling the security officers. Mike tried to grab for his walkie-talkie but a frantic, fleeing Chinese foot sent it skittering across the pavement.

“Team Two! Team Three! We have a code red in section 314!” Scott cupped his hands and yelled desperately for backup. But no one could hear him as he watched a horde of fleeing Chinese head off into the darkness.

###

On the other side of the shipyard at Docking Bay 312, all was going relatively well as Security Team Two was inspecting some funky substances from the Dominican Republic container, unable to identify most of it. Wedge, short for Sal Wedgeman, a short, stocky man who was Team Two leader, shook his head and wore a genuinely confused expression as he inspected the jars of powders and bags of dried herbs. A lot of it looked suspicious and highly illegal but when they stuck it right under the noses of the dogs, the K-9s appeared utterly bored with the Dominican shipment and its contents.

“Antoine,” Wedge shouted. “Come over here for a second.”

Antoine, a tall black man sporting impressive dreads, a goatee, and perpetually smelled like patchouli ambled over and looked at what Wedge was holding.

“Not to profile you or anything but you come from this general geographic area, right?” asked Wedge, “Any idea what this shit is?”

Antoine inspected most of it and then took a closer look at a small jar of white powder. On the bottom of the jar there was a small stamp of a snake. Antoine narrowed his eyes and paused.

“Voodoo potions, mon,” Antoine said casually in a Jamaican accent.

“No shit?” Wedge said interested. “Like black magic? I thought all that kind of shit came from Haiti.”

“Dominica is da same island, brudda,” Antoine said as he lit a cigarette and then smiled. “But ‘dis is harmless, mon. Most of ‘dis stuff ‘dey sell as novelty shit in the Botanicas. You know, put a hex on your boss, win the lottery, love potions, that kind of tourist voodoo crap.”

“I need a love potion for Sheila,” Wedge said, referring to his current girlfriend. He sighed and took one more look at the disinterested dogs and their reaction to the contents. “Alrighty. Send it on to regular processing.”

As Wedge moved on to another container, Antoine discreetly took the small glass jar of white powder stamped with a snake and put it in his work duffel bag. The dogs ignored him completely.

###

“Great work, Mike, INS is on its way and the ambulance is there, right?” Scott said as he paced back and forth inside the Control Tower. He was in contact with his security team on the ground.

Jerry was sitting in the corner as effective as a toaster. Tugboat was standing by the desk with a Tommy burger in one hand and a gun in the other.

Scott hung up. “Okay, the ambulance is on the way and I just heard from Wedge over on Docking Bay 312, they have three people from the container in custody, two women and a child. Let’s head over there.”

Tugboat checked his weapon then cocked it. Scott looked over at him.

“Ease up there, Rambo. They’re refugees not criminals,” Scott said.

“But, Scotty,” Tugboat said, “what if they’re refugees and criminals?”

Scott got the feeling Tug was itching to shoot someone with his shiny, new Junior Supervisor title. He looked directly at Tugboat, “Do starving women and children dressed in rags seem like they’re armed and dangerous to you?”

“You never know man,” Tugboat remained obstinate. “I mean they could be part of the Hong Kong Triad. In my video game they’re really up and coming.”

“If anyone fires a weapon, it’s going to be me, blowing my brains out. Now move.”

###

Scott, and his crews arrived down by Docking Bay 312 just in time to see two young Chinese men and a small child sitting on the back of the ambulance as the EMTs administered first aid. The child was chewing on a half a Tommy burger. INS was asking them questions through an interpreter. The teams reported to Scott that no other refugees, alive or otherwise, had been found in the harbor yet. Scott suspected they hightailed it into San Pedro under the cover of darkness, alone, afraid, no food, or shelter. But after considering the alternative of human traffickers and Los Angeles sweatshops, he wondered if they weren’t better off with the garden variety hookers and junkies on the streets of San Pedro.

“It looks like things are under control here.” Scott turned his attention to Wedge. “You finished inspecting the Dominican containers?”

“Yes, sir. Sent to regular processing after a thorough inspection. No problems,” Wedge answered.

“Best news I’ve heard all night. Two Panamanian freighters have arrived and need our immediate and undivided attention,” Scott said, seeing the light at the end of the hangover. “Take your team and head that way. Let’s get this night over with.”

“You got it, Chief.” Wedge took his team and headed to Docking Bay 316.

Scott turned his attention back to the ambulance and ten blissfully quiet minutes passed before his walkie-talkie crackled to life.

“Chief, we have a small problem over at DB 316,” Wedge reported. “With the Panamanian freighter.”

“Uh-huh.” Scott cringed. “Define small.”

“Well, the dogs almost missed it because of the coffee, but we’ve got Venezuelan cigarettes. The papers say Columbia Coffee and Panamanian Rum. No papers for Venezuelan cigarettes. Over?” Wedge reported.

“Oh, okay,” Scott said, pleasantly surprised that, in fact, it was just a small problem. “Get the ship liaison down and read him his rights. I’ll be right there.”

****

Scott walked over to DB 316 where he saw the familiar pockmarked face of Luigi Calvarone. Inexperienced traders attempting first time shipments that came to the US hired Luigi, a freelance liaison, to deal with the border patrol and harbor security. He spoke five languages and had the air and cologne of a cheap attorney not quite on the right side of legal. Not far from Luigi, a short man who was built like a fire hydrant stood in an expensive white linen suit smoothing over his waxed mustache. His hair was dark and wavy, and his eyes stayed hidden behind a pair of tinted glasses so bug-eyed and oversized that Scott thought they might be women’s sunglasses. The man didn’t say a word.

“Mr. Kidnowski, congratulations on your promotion, well deserved, well deserved,” Luigi said warmly, as he extended his hand.

“Thanks, Luigi,” Scott shook his hand and eyed the man in the linen suit. “Seems we have a problem here.”

“It does appear that way, sir. May we speak privately?” Luigi inquired as he gestured to the man in the linen suit to stay where he was.

Scott, although suspicious, granted Luigi a private audience a few feet away from the security teams.

“We are men of action, are we not? Paperwork is for the bean counters and pencil pushers. Please let me explain my dilemma.” Luigi spoke softly in a musical way and smiled, “My client ­–“

Scott interrupted Luigi. “Who is your client?” Scott looked suspiciously over at the short sparkplug of a man.

“Er, his name is Baren Bonavico. Goes by Barry to his friends. I call him Mr. Bonavico. A very upstanding citizen who cannot afford to waste time dealing with Federal ATF agents and certainly we do not want complications of, shall we say, an international nature over cigarettes when it is simply a matter of a paperwork oversight. My client, he made the mistake of hiring his wife’s sisters,” Luigi implored. He held his hands in a pleading way. “Dingbats.”

Scott looked at the Luigi and nodded in recognition. Family always gets you in trouble. His brother-in-law almost got Scott canned for trying to slip a half of a blue fin tuna into the trunk of his Chevy Impala.“So, what are you getting at?” he said, with a little more understanding.

“Well, I am simply suggesting that my client, Mr. Bonavico pay a fine. Directly to you and your men, of course. Right here, right now. We will be on our way and we can forget this whole thing happened.”

Scott looked skeptically at the man and then said, “Sounds less like a fine and more like a bribe. I can’t be bribed, Luigi.”

“Not a bribe, my friend! Merely a showing of our gratitude for ease in processing. We’re talking about cigarettes! Not Escobar’s cocaine! How about somewhere in the neighborhood of five hundred cash and a case of Panamanian rum?” Luigi suggested.

“That’s a nice neighborhood,” Scott said to Luigi and then looked over at Bonavico. “But it’s not a bribe. And we’re doing a thorough manned inspection of everything else in that container.”

“Of course,” Luigi said, still smiling as he looked back at his client. Bonavico stood there in his white linen suit not smiling. He smoothed his groomed mustache again. Scott thought he was watching them like a man trying not to get caught watching.

At that moment, Tugboat came running up to Scott panting and pointing at his walkie-talkie.

“Coast Guard!” Tugboat sputtered, “That other freighter! They just found loads of cocaine on it. We gotta dock them right now. The FBI is on its way, so is the DEA and maybe even the Federales. They said it’s the Mexican Mafia! The Coast Guard ordered all our men out on the docks to bring them in,” Tugboat said, gasping, on the verge of hysteria.

“Good god, this night.” Scott grumbled as he massaged his temples. “Okay, gather everybody else and go. I’m right behind you.”

Tugboat nodded in his out-of-breath, slack-jawed way, and took off flailing and frantic like a kid hopped up on Red Bull and gummi bears.

Scott put his hands on his hips and looked back at Luigi and then over to the shady short man in the linen suit. Five hundred bucks and a case of rum could hardly be considered a bribe. It was more like a thank you. Then he looked over at the Venezuelan cigarettes. He took stock of the night so far. Immigrants loose. Mexican Mafia. Gun-happy junior supervisors. And now the motherfucking Coast Guard. He had no time for cigarettes.

“Leave the rum with Sal Wedgeman. He’ll take care of the processing,” Scott said and then smiled cheerfully. “But get it out of my harbor before I get back.”

“Consider it done.” Luigi said, and then handed a small envelope of cash to Scott.

Scott stood there for a few seconds and realized that the cash felt dirty. It felt like a bribe. Somehow the rum seemed more convivial. Like old seafaring tradesmen making a fair deal over booze. Like pirates. But the money, no, the money felt dirty.

“The rum will do.” He handed the envelope back to the liaison.

A surprised Luigi hesitated and then took the envelope and slipped it back into his suit coat. “Of course, Mr. Kidnowski, as you wish.”

“One more thing,” Scott added and then pointed to Bonavico. “The family excuse only works once. Get your paperwork in order next time, Mr. Bonavico otherwise I won’t be so generous,” he said sternly then he motioned to Wedge.

Wedge ran over.

“Yeah chief? Wedge asked as he came forward.

“Take one case of rum and process everything else. But Wedge, scrutinize as if you’re a prison warden, you hear me? The cigarettes are okay,” Scott said.

“Aye, aye, Cap’n.” Wedge signaled to his teams as they started lifting the cigarettes out of the giant plastic bins filled with coffee.

Scott watched for a few minutes to make sure there everything went smoothly without any last minute protests. Then he nodded to Wedge and stalked off in search of Jerry, Tugboat, and his security teams. He straightened his shitty, government-issue tie and set off to the other side of the docks as he mumbled to himself, “The fucking Coast Guard.”

###

However, the highly sensitive noses of the Harbor Security German Shepards are never wrong. Scott Kidnowski could not have known that Baren “Barry” Bonavico had just smuggled in the largest shipment of Venezuelan cocaine in the history of the Port of Los Angeles right under the watchful eye of Harbor Patrol. Barry watched as the plastic pallets that held the cigarettes were loaded onto a truck. There’s money in chaos, he thought.

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Chapter 1 – Jump into my nightmare, the water’s warm.

alligator

THREE WEEKS EARLIER…

“Jesus Christ, Carl. It’s not rocket science. Just pick one,” Amanda barked, the exasperation clear in her voice.

Staring at the three pairs of breast implants on his kitchen counter, Carl ran his hand through his scruffy beard and reflected quietly how much it took the romance out of the Girls Gone Wild videos. All six breast implants were lined up like an absurd artificial boob smorgasbord, increasing in size from left to the right. The final pair in the parade was so impossibly large they could have been mistaken for washed up jellyfish. Carl tried hard to find the right answer for his impossibly hot wife as she stood there, hand on her hip, tapping her foot in her designer wedges impatiently waiting for his response. All he could come up with was, “I need more coffee.”

Amanda, his wife of almost five years, had been growing increasingly hostile in the last few months. He thought it would pass like most of their petty fights but this time there was something driving her. Some kind of turmoil bordering on contempt that he hadn’t felt before. Her anger was quick and ferocious but usually it ended up with great makeup sex. This morning, he was getting a Pavlovian erection assuming her appetite for sex correlated to her level of fury. As usual, the fight stemmed from something he could not provide to his lovely, demanding wife. This time, it was a choice of mammaries.

“Why do you want fake boobs?” Carl mounted a protest. “No man likes Plastic Fantastic over the real thing.”

“Don’t start this shit. It’s not all about you. I brought these implants from Dr. Saks’ office to give you the illusion you had a vote but as usual you bring your little black cloud of negativity to rain on my parade,” she snapped.

“Amanda, you don’t need these. Yours are perfect. I love them. See?” He set down his coffee cup and lovingly cupped his wife’s perfect C-sized breasts and smiled.

Amanda stood there and glared at him. “Carl, I want a divorce.”

As if on seven-second delay, Carl dropped his hands and raised his eyebrows, emitting a slow sad whistle trying to catch the fast moving words as they bounced off his mind like bugs off a windshield.

“Whoa,” he mumbled trying desperately to catch up to the immediate catastrophe. “How did we go from choosing your future breast size to ending our marriage?”

“It’s been five years,” she said dispassionately from stern lips. ”We’ve given it a good go. But the truth is, we don’t want the same things.”

“We want the same things. We just don’t want the same size,” he declared, pointing to her real boobs versus the gigantic implants on the kitchen counter.

“Dr. Saks says I have nearly a perfect body and with a small augmentation, I could easily be a perfect ten.”

“You are a perfect ten. And why the fuck are we talking about Dr. Saks and since when does his opinion mean more than mine, the guy you’re sleeping with?”

Amanda stood silent and looked at the floor. And a small, unnamed worry that had been working its way silently through Carl’s brain began to surface, like an alligator out of a swamp.

Finally, the unnamed worry reared it’s ugly head. “Ah. I see. Saks is the one you’re sleeping with.”

Amanda softened and looked at him. “I’m sorry, Carl. I really am, but you had to see part of this coming right? I mean, with your…condition.”

“It’s not a condition!” Carl spat back. “It was one time when we had too much of that shitty Oregon Pinot Noir at your Mom’s house! It didn’t help that she put us in your grandmother’s room for Christ’ sake, surrounded by her porcelain doll collection. Any normal penis would have declined to perform in front of sixty pairs of soulless eyes! And I thought you said you understood?”

“I did – but it’s been a month. How long does a woman have to wait?”

“How about longer than a month?”

But Amanda replied coolly, “It’s grounds for divorce. My manicurist told me.”

“Ah! Remind me to hit Angel’s Nail Salon when I need to know my legal rights!” Carl reeled, trying desperately to keep his head. “How long have you been thinking about this?”

“That’s what you want to focus on? How long?”

“How long! How long has Dr. Saks been, shall we say, asserting his opinion?” Carl’s voice raised an octave which, he sensed, was making him sound hysterical. Keep it together, buddy he told himself.

There was a knock on the door.

“Um, I’ll get that,” Amanda said, eyeing the front door, an expression of alarm on her face. “Aren’t you supposed to be on your way to work?”

“’Marriage in shambles’ takes precedent over reporting the daily news.” Carl looked at her perfect ass as she walked nervously toward the door.

She walked to the front door of their mid-century modern home as he stood in the kitchen, with the wretched words “I want a divorce” still hanging in the air like an oily fart, when he heard a man’s voice at the door.

“Hi there, I’m Stan from Sea Coast Realty!” A short, squat man in an ill-fitting suit stood at the door, holding a cheap briefcase, adjusting his glasses, and smiling like an idiot. “I’m here to give you an appraisal on your home’s value?” Stan said, a little too cheerfully.

Carl walked toward the door in his green, ratty bathrobe, black fuzzy slippers and coffee in hand. “Appraisal?” he asked, blinking in disbelief.

“Look,” Amanda said nervously, “This would be a lot easier if you would just get on board…”

“On board? Is that what you want? Okay.” He walked back into the kitchen, picked up one of the implants, noticed how surprisingly soft it felt in his hand and then whipped it at the kitchen window. The fake boob immediately exploded with a huge splat against the glass. Gooey globs of implant slid down the glass. “I vote NO on the Double Ds,” he yelled.

“Excuse me for a moment,” she said to Stan the Realtor and turned toward the kitchen.

“Not a fan of these either!” he yelled, his comment echoing from the kitchen. He wound up like a pitcher on a mound and launched another implant at his soon-to-be-ex-wife. She ducked and the implant hit the realtor squarely in the face, liberating the gelatinous saline all over his glasses.

Stan from Sea Coast Realty wiped the implant flotsam off his glasses and ran for cover behind a credenza in the foyer.

“Carl!” Amanda rushed into the kitchen trying to stop another assault. “What the hell are you doing? Chill the fuck out!”

“Chill? Did you say ‘chill’?” Carl asked in a hostile, sardonic tone as he stood there like bathrobe-clad warrior armed with transparent saline-filled grenades. “What is that, some universal Californian way to smooth everything out? Make everything okay? My wife is sleeping with her plastic surgeon! I’m a walking LA cliché,” he bellowed.

“Congratulations. Maybe this is the Midwest calling you back home,” Amanda said dryly.

“At least back in Detroit, a man knows his wife is leaving him before the fucking realtors do,” he pointed to Stan. Stan shrugged in embarrassment. “I’m from Ohio,” Stan said.

“Carl, the simple truth is I want the life you promised me,” Amanda said. “And you just didn’t deliver.”

Carl stood silent for a moment and then said, “I did deliver. I thought we were happy. We have a house, we vacation in Cabo, you love my Chicken Paprika. What more could you want? Breast implants and a Mercedes?”

“No,” she said flatly. “A BMW.” She grabbed the keys to her Honda, dangled them disappointingly, walked out and slammed the front door. Stan the realtor scurried behind her.

Carl ambled slowly back to the kitchen sink, poured out the coffee, took out a bottle of bourbon and poured it into his coffee cup just as the phone rang.

He looked at the caller ID. It read LA Times. He groaned and picked it up. “Yeah?”

“Grubbs?” The familiar growl of his managing editor, Ed Coleward emanated from the landline.

“Where the hell is the rest of your expose on the eroding state of Emergency Room healthcare?”

“Hey, Ed, yeah, I know it’s due,” he held the phone in the crick of his neck and rubbed his eyes with the back of his hand which was still holding a size 300cc implant. “The thing is…”

“Carl,” Ed interrupted in an even, threatening tone, ”Resist the urge to lie to me right now. I do not want to hear about car problems, dead relatives or injured pets.”

“But Ed, this time I …” he tried to specify but Ed cut him off.

“Beyond shooting yourself in the head, no excuse is gonna cut it, kid. So, cut the shit. For the moment, just today in fact, pretend that you are a competent, working journalist for one of the finest papers in the free world and get your goddamn story here and polished by 3pm.” Ed hung up.

Carl stood at the counter for a moment thinking about the irony of his situation. Finally armed with a legitimate excuse and it was wasted. He slid down the kitchen cabinetry and contemplated how he got here. On this spotless floor of his big empty Southern California house sipping bourbon at 9am in a ratty green bathrobe holding a fistful of artificial boob with no wife, no article, and no motivation.

###

At forty-one, Carl’s life was in a holding pattern of apathy. A streetwise kid from Detroit, Carl earned a scholarship to the University of Michigan and then took a job as a beat reporter for the Detroit News. In his first year, when other fresh-faced reporters were writing about Kite Festivals and City Council meetings, he had been working on a hunch that exposed corruption inside the mayor’s office. His intelligence and street smarts served him well as a reporter. He was hungry and eager to make his mark. With a series of nationally recognized stories and several official death threats, it wasn’t long before the offers came in. Washington Post, New York Times, Chicago Tribune. But it was the lure of sunny beaches and California lifestyle that drew him out west. He took a job as a senior reporter working for the Los Angeles Times.

When it came to his job, it was his instincts that were his real gift. Carl was a born skeptic and he had a good nose for the truth. This trait served him well as an investigative reporter. He could instantly tell when someone was lying to him. Which is why the blind-siding news that Amanda was boffing her plastic surgeon was so unsettling. Was he losing his edge?

There were many things that attracted Carl to Amanda when they first met beyond her physical attributes. She represented a new perspective, a demarcation from his old life into his new one. She was Southern California personified. She was tall, blonde, and had a body that considered gravity a guideline rather than a law. She had long, wavy hair like a mermaid, and a one-sided smile that constantly suggested mischief. Amanda was also as beautiful as she was vapid. She was light. She was free. Unlike the grounded girls in Michigan that would call him on his bullshit. Unlike Carolyn.

At the age of thirty-two, Amanda worked as a stylist for a production company in Hollywood where she was responsible for putting the entire cast of Reno 911 in short shorts. Currently, she was working on an Adam Sandler movie. Carl loved looking at her and he tried to talk to her about higher-minded things or play Scrabble with her but she quickly lost interest and would come up with games like “Topless Tuesdays” in which she would perform chores around the house sans clothing. Deep conversations were overrated anyway. He had thought his Midwestern values would seep into Amanda’s consciousness but he sorely underestimated his adversary – the California Dream.

He should have suspected things were going spectacularly wrong when late last year, Amanda began getting Botox. She didn’t have a wrinkle on her perfect, sun-kissed complexion but she got it anyway. Looking back now, he realized that in the world of plastic surgery, Botox was a gateway procedure. It led to other increasingly unnecessary procedures including like collagen injections, spider vein removal, acid peels, cellulite scrubs, and liposuction to get rid of “saddle bags” whatever those were. Amanda was addicted; the boob job a clear inevitability. What distressed him most was that Amanda thought she needed this work. What kind of quack doctor could look at her terrific physical specimen and prescribe carving her up? One that wanted either money or control, Carl suspected. He could imagine this smug asshole sitting behind a desk assessing Amanda, telling her just how enticingly close she was to being perfect. Preying on her insecurities while his dick got hard watching her write the check. Carl’s started to seethe with anger and wondered just how many women had been manipulated by Dr. Saks. He vowed to find out. But, first, more bourbon.

Carl wandered out on the patio in his backyard and let the California sunshine warm him. Carl hadn’t lost his motivation all at once. It never happens like that. No, instead it was a steady and almost imperceptible wane as the California Dream seeped deeper into his psyche. He took up yoga. Learned to surf. Became a Lakers fan. He wrote less hard-hitting stories and flirted with the idea of writing a screenplay when Amanda suggested she could drop it in the right hands. The stories he did write for the paper were less focused and dealt with vague sprawling problems like homelessness and rolling blackouts. They were stories that didn’t need solutions, nor a point of view, and in some cases, even the deadline was nebulous. Carl started to write long, rambling character pieces that highlighted societal problems. He hadn’t done a real story, one that got his blood pumping in over four years. Los Angeles was a tricky mistress, hard to please and even harder to understand. But it was beginning to dawn on him that if you knew what you wanted from the City Of Angels, you could get it – in some form or another. But if you come to Los Angeles looking for answers, direction or, God forbid, yourself, you would remain forever lost in your own recreation and reinvention, much like the city itself. The promise was always there, beckoning, but like the horizon, it never got any closer.

He had fallen victim to that LA epidemic of hope, distraction, and self-loathing which made him just another monkey in the noisy desperate jungle of wannabes. He took a big swig and finished the bourbon in his coffee cup, walked to the bathroom and turned on the shower. At least he was employed. And, it could be worse, he thought. He could be a writer for reality TV.

 

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No Imminent Plan – A serial novel

IMG_5453Attention Readers of this blog  (a small, wily group of people who are most likely related to me):

I’m going to try to commit to writing a serial novel. By commit, I mean I will post a short chapter every two weeks. This should give me enough time to write, edit and revise and follow my outline. The reason for the commitment publicly? I need to finish something. I can’t seem to finish anything. So, along with the voices in my head, I’m hoping you, dear reader, can encourage/chide/bully me on to the finish line.

The working title of the novel is No Imminent Plan and it’s a satirical novel about a hapless LA Times reporter who happens to stumble on to a story that’s almost too crazy to believe. But then again, it is Los Angeles. And while we’re not as off-the-fucking-rails as Florida, we have our own version of insanity going on here in La La Land. Here goes…

 

No Imminent Plan (a working title)

A story by Carrie Talick

PROLOGUE

“This town is full of zombies,” Trevor Nelson declared over an iced Frappucino on the outdoor patio of the Manhattan Beach Starbucks. He was smartly dressed in a faux army jacket, over-priced jeans, and a Dodgers flat-lid cap.

“Dude, not this again.” Jeremy Tillen, best friend and Trevor’s steadfast sounding board, sat across from his angst-ridden friend and shook his head slowly knowing that this was a direct result of Trevor’s latest screenplay having been rejected by every studio and agent in Los Angeles. Even the crappy ones.

“Seriously, how else do you explain ‘The Real Housewives phenomenon? Mindless drama.” Trevor was just getting going. His favorite targets were reality TV shows followed closely by talent shows, game shows, or any unscripted shows, really. “If zombies did exist the only city in which they would go completely unnoticed is Los Angeles. I’d put good money down that at least one of those housewives is an actual zombie!”

Trevor had won some small screenplay competitions but when it came to selling a movie, his material was generally considered ‘too cerebral for today’s audiences’, as one producer had put it. Having read every draft of every screenplay he’d written, Jeremy knew why Trevor’s work wasn’t embraced by Hollywood. It was bleak as hell. Even though dystopian novels were having a moment, all the successful ones seemed to end with either a shocking truth or a hopeful stance. Not Trevor’s. Trevor couldn’t nail the ending, no matter how many Robert Mckee seminars he signed up for. His stories all ended with a sad dissertation on human disappointment and pain. Deep? Yes. Entertaining? No. Hence, Jeremy understood Trevor’s contempt for humanity at large.

“Take a look around. Examine the faces,” Trevor motioned rashly to the innocent passersby. “The aimless wandering, the vacant expressions, the absence of thought. It’s a Xanax Anarchy limping slowly to their doom! They buy their expensive coffee, drive off in their shiny cars, and watch their reality shows. It’s the death of civilization.”

Jeremy glanced down at his expensive coffee but decided to not make a comment. He looked down the Manhattan Beach sidewalk toward the ocean. Another flawless sunny day. Then he frowned. Something off in the distance wasn’t quite right.

“Ah, yes my friend, it won’t be long until our brains are reduced to a translucent green Jell-o,” Trevor said in a sardonic tone. “GPS, iPhone apps, satellite TV, listing apps, reminder apps, even screenplay writing apps! Technology is taking the thinking out of living!”

“Uh-huh. Technology. Not our friend.” Jeremy squinted to try to make out what he was seeing down the street.

“We’re a bunch of lemmings. Constructing our own cliffs to hurl ourselves over. Great thinkers scream but no one can hear them over their Spotify playlist!” Trevor looked over at Jeremy. “Are you listening?”

“I’m with you, big guy. Lemmings.” But Jeremy wasn’t listening. He had leaned over to get a better angle on what appeared to be a man dressed in rags, without shoes that was pitching and weaving up the sidewalk in an awkward herky-jerky sort of way. He emitted a low drone causing a small group of spandex-clad cyclists to scamper out of his way.

“The best selling book in the country is self-help drivel written by Dr. Phil,” Trevor said, arms out, exasperated, “Dr. Phil!! Surely, that is one of the seven signs of the Apocalypse!”

“Uh, Trev,” Jeremy said, keeping an eye on the unbalanced man.

“We’re over-informed yet under-educated,” Trevor continued, unimpeded by Jeremy’s warning. “We reference Hollywood instead of history. It’s a slippery slope. And it’s only a matter of time before we become mindless zombie drones.”

Jeremy was slowly getting up from his chair, his eyes still locked on the lurching homeless guy, now only twenty feet away.

“Take heed, all ye zombies!” Trevor held up his coffee cup in a grand toast to the oblivious patrons. “Judgment day is coming. And I’m not referring to a new Xbox game!”

“Holy shit,” Jeremy said, scrambling to get out of the way. “I think that’s a freaking zombie.”

“No, it’s just my metaphor for our idiotic society,” Trevor calmly explained.

“No you idiot! A real zombie! The Evil Dead kind!” Trevor said, panic rising in his voice.

“See what I mean about Hollywood references?”

“Move!” Jeremy grabbed Trevor by his faux-army jacket and they ducked behind the coffee mixing station.

Trevor turned and saw the man lurch in his general direction. He ducked. But upon closer inspection, it was clear that something was scarily wrong with the guy. Beneath his stringy blond hair, his eyes looked swollen, almost bug-eyed, cloudy, and unfocused as if in a trance. The ghastly looking man launched an attack on an unsuspecting coffee klatch of housewives sitting at the next table. He groaned and snarled, and then with mouth open and rotted teeth bared, went for the neck of one of the housewives.

The housewives, strong and sinewy from societal pressure to lose post-baby weight, launched a counter attack with tartan baby bags, metal water bottles, and expensive toddler toys. A fierce battle raged with plastic giraffes and high-tech stroller equipment. The zombie uprooted an iron table and sent coffee cups and low-fat muffins flying. Finally, one of the housewives hit the zombie in the top of the head with a titanium tennis racket. With a sickening crack, he fell to the ground, unmoving. Black liquid oozed from the sliver in the zombie’s skull.

Trevor and Jeremy, along with a half dozen other stupefied citizens of the quiet beach community stood frozen trying to process what had just happened. Sirens wailed in the distance.

Trevor looked at Jeremy and said, “It’s a bitch being right all the time.”

 

 

 

 

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Firing back up…

I know it’s been awhile. I know I’ve left this poor, floundering blog in the backyard of my mind, untended and unloved. I’ve let the weeds grow thick over it, let the cobwebs obscure it from my mind. But somehow, the little starlings that nest there, come and peep in my ear that I should come back.

Lo and behold, it is still here. And it’s time for me to clean it up, mow the surrounding environs, and see if this tiny plot of internet land can still grow something on it.

So, I’m going forward. Firing back up. Hoping to post my ramblings and I might post chapters of this thing I was working on, then gave up on, then started again, then gave up, then started up again. Which might be my first post… after this one, that is.

Writing, when not in the service of advertising, is still the hardest, most fulfilling thing I’ve ever done. So, in the immortal lyrics of the hair band White Snake, Here I go again.

 

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On a Final Note – An obituary for my Dad, John Talick

Dad having an Bell's Oberon at the Town Pump Tavern before the Tigers Game

Dad having an Bell’s Oberon at the Town Pump Tavern before the Tigers Game

John Hal Talick, loving husband, awesome dad, avid golfer and devoted Red Wings fan, passed away on March 13th, 2015 in Redondo Beach, CA.

John worked for the United States Postal Service for 38 years and, as if thumbing his nose in the face of every flu warning ever, he never took a sick day. At 18, John and his excellent work ethic started unloading mail trucks on the nightshift. Even after he broke his collarbone, he showed up for work the next night. It was no surprise that he ended up running the place as District Manager of Southeastern Michigan in Detroit. Quite possibly because he never took a sick day.

He loved his work. He loved his people, too. He genuinely cared. He knew somehow that life wasn’t fair to those who needed fairness the most. So, he became justice personified for the people on his team. He didn’t see gender or color, he saw potential, he gave people opportunity, guidance, and encouragement, which led to something far greater than money. It led to their own long-term prosperity. As a result, his fans arrived in droves to his retirement party.

John gave money to the homeless in the conventional ways of supporting shelters and other charities but also in the actual boots-on-the-ground way. He learned the names of the people he saw on the street, talked to them, and handed over tens and twenties in parting. Every time he went to Joe Louis Arena he met up with Max who was in a wheelchair after having lost both his legs. They talked about the Wings’ playoff chances, while he slipped Max a twenty and a pint of whiskey. Then, they shook hands. It’s a safe bet Max would have been at his retirement party if he could have found a ride.

After he retired from the USPS, Netflix came calling. Netflix, notorious for hiring rock star performers, soon realized they hired a legend who changed the game. He fielded phone calls at 3am, flew all over the country at the beck and call of Reed Hastings, and before he left on his own accord, he managed to institute a change in how employees are compensated. This policy was affectionately and privately referred to as “The Talick Raise.” He then took his last swig of scotch, his last bite of filet mignon, and waved a fine farewell to his Netflix family, heading back to the 1st tee on the Nicklaus Private course in La Quinta, CA. He was always happiest when he was within tapping distance of the pin.

He married his wife, Gail, in 1976, and together they spent many happy years at Leon’s on Saturdays for breakfast, at their cottage on Lake Chemung, golfing on courses around Michigan and California, and caring for a giant, furry black cat named Captain whom they adopted after he was abandoned.

He adored his daughter, which might explain why no man was good enough for her until she met Mike, his soon-to-be son-in-law. Dad and Mike spent many hours sitting on the couch together quietly reading their phones and making occasional sports remarks. The mutual affection was downright overflowing.

He was a big fan of the Quarter Pounder with Cheese, SNL episodes from the 70s, Emmet Otter’s Jug Band Christmas Special, and happy hour at Shanghai Red’s on Fridays.

He loved Tom Petty, Jackson Brown and War to name a few, and hated pretty much any music written after 1972 with the baffling yet sweet exception of Sarah McLachlin, for whom he took the extreme measure of buying tickets to Lilith Fair so that he could see her live.

John loved Red Wings hockey like some men love their country. With unwavering loyalty, steadfast support and always yearning for victory. He loved the players like family, and knew their stats, their hometowns, and their best plays on the ice. He died harboring a deep, abiding grudge against the Colorado Avalanche’s Claude Lemieux for breaking Kris Draper’s jaw during Game 6 of the Western Conference finals in 1997. And he was there in person for every single Stanley Cup the Red Wings hoisted over their heads in the modern day era. When that ticker tape fell, he stood in the stands with his arms crossed and a big smile on his face, nodding along, proud of his boys.

In 2010, after he moved out to La Quinta, CA to live happily on the sun-splashed, perfectly manicured grounds of PGA West, he constantly cursed Time Warner cable for not broadcasting the Red Wings games in HD in the desert, a curse we hope Time Warner hears.

John lived on his own terms. He had goals and he reached them and loved helping other people do the same, although he could never quite help his daughter fix her golf swing, a regret she’ll have to live with.

He is survived by his beautiful and loving wife, Gail; his adoring, opinionated daughter, Carrie; his soon-to-be son-in-law Mike Ayotte; and his soon-to-be granddaughter Charlotte Ayotte, who loved accompanying him on morning walks in Hawaii to get coffee, as long as he also bought her a hot chocolate. He is also survived by his sister, Mary Ellen Kopf, his nieces Carolyn Kopf and Sandra Burch, and his cousin Shirley Ostholm.

Intelligent, kind, generous and loving, John will always be missed and he will remain an inspiration to his wife, daughter and countless others.

May the fairways be greener than you imagined and may your drives be forever right down the middle. We love you. Go Wings.

Join us on April 19th at 10am, for a mass at Sacred Heart Parish in Detroit where John’s named will be mentioned in Memoriam. Immediately following the mass, we will convene at The Town Pump Tavern to celebrate John’s life. In lieu of flowers, please send donations to the Maldo E. Talick Scholarship fund at Wayne State University.

Condolences can be sent to Gail Talick at 57690 Interlachen, La Quinta, CA 92253 or gtalick@yahoo.com or to Carrie Talick at ctalick@yahoo.com

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The Quick Fix

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When I was a kid, we never had a microwave oven. That marvel of early 70s modern technology that everyone seemed to simultaneously purchase, adore and tout, never graced our kitchen counter. No beeping. No Popcorn button. No reheating leftovers in 23 seconds flat.

No, we did things the old fashioned way because my Mom was convinced that the microwave oven was unhealthy in some way, even though she was clearly enamored with it. She would commandeer the magic machine to warm up her coffee whenever she visited her friend, Judy. Then she would inspect and judge the contents of the cup, convinced there was a change in its taste.

For us kids, the wonders of microwaved food fed our curiosity. Why, when heating spaghetti, did the inside remain cool while the edges were as hot as molten magma? What happens if you put tinfoil in it? How fast can it heat a pudding cup before exploding?

But even given these microwave mysteries, I never missed not having a microwave. In fact, I took pride in the fact that I still made my corn in a pot, with water, and I waited for that water to boil, like a normal person. It made me feel superior to cook real food on the stove or in an oven instead of “nuking” my meatloaf.

The microwave clearly had limitations, too. It made tortillas and pizza crust spongy. It failed miserably at chicken by turning a perfectly good thigh into a rubbery hockey puck of poultry. And it definitely didn’t do French fries any favors.

So I scoffed. A microwave would never find a place in my home.

But then, my Mom was diagnosed with cancer. It doesn’t matter what kind. It was the kind that ate away at her body and her peace of mind in equal measure. She lost fifteen pounds in a month. Then she lost another ten. I could see her vibrant spirit beginning to fade with every doctor visit, like petals falling off a flower. The doctors told her she needed to eat. Keeping her weight up meant she could fight when she needed to. Food gave her energy, pacified her worries, and gave her the glucose, proteins and carbohydrates she needed to wake up and fight another day. But it takes an appetite for a cancer patient to eat. And that is the one thing cancer patients simply don’t have.

So, we got a microwave. Because when my Mom got hungry it was a fleeting, elusive appetite that demanded immediate action otherwise it would go back into hiding for days. Hers was the fickle, stubborn Scarlet O’Hara of stomachs.

But when it did show up, her appetite gave me hope. It was one of those small, irrational signs that made me think things were getting better. For instance, one evening I had to shave her legs. The hair on her legs was getting so long her vanity kicked in. My 21-year-old naïve brain was so willing to grasp onto the smallest glimmers of hope that I thought if the hair on her legs kept growing, that must mean her body intends to stick around for awhile. She sat on the toilet, propped up by a pillow as I took a clean razor to her pale, hairy legs. It was a happy moment between us. I failed to make the connection that involuntary body functions keep going, sometimes even after someone dies, and that other cancer patients are not completely hairless. Coping strategies of the heart.

Oatmeal was a big star in those moments of appetite sneak attacks. Spoonfuls of buttered and brown-sugared goodness delivered life giving nutrients, or at least calories, to her ever-shrinking frame. Another favorite was fingerling potatoes with butter and sour cream. Simple carbohydrates eased our complicated emotions. These hurriedly heated dishes would satiate her and put her to sleep. They would ease my mind and allow me an hour or two of cancer-free thought while I zoned out on reruns of Law & Order.

It’s no secret I’ve got a few extra pounds on my bones. But I can’t help thinking that my weight might be rooted in a subconscious fear of watching her get weaker and feeling utterly helpless. To me, skinny means sick.

I’ve since softened my stance on microwaves and their nuclear cooking methods. But I still don’t trust them. The only time I ever really use them is to heat up water in record time to make French Press coffee.

But now, my Dad is sick. And just like my Mom before him, he’s lost fifteen pounds. And all I can think about is buying him a microwave so I can make him oatmeal and potatoes with butter and sour cream. I want those fifteen pounds back. I want his health back. I want Mom back, too. The microwave did not provide a miracle. But it did give us a way to warm up food and stoke hope in the moment. And at least we had that.

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Don’t call him a pony.

minihorse

At first, people stare. It’s not every day you see a grown man traveling in a dinky cart drawn by a miniature chestnut-colored horse down the posh streets of the East Bay neighborhood of Crestview, California. Not unless there’s a parade going on. Which there isn’t.

Normally, I drive a Prius. Not because I want to. I hate Priuses. But because “it makes sense,” according to my wife who drives our Mercedes SLK 250. We also have a Ford Explorer, a much more definitively manly car. But we also have a teenaged daughter who is much safer driving a vehicle like that. So, the Prius is how I get around. That is, when I’m not in my little horse cart hauled by “The General.”

Originally his name was “McLovin’.” The owner, a stoner from Humboldt county who had a buzz on homegrown herb called “Outdoor Church” and an affinity for the movie Superbad, deemed him so when his uncle talked him into trading a pound of product for the miniature horse. Our daughter, for whom this animal was intended, mercifully did not get the reference. So, his name then became “Bandit.” A proper, friendly, western-y type horse name. That lasted for about two weeks until our diminutive horse started getting surly around the other full-size horses. That’s when the entire stable staff started calling him “The General.”

My wife and I (and by that I mean myself, alone, with no other financial help) spend a small fortune for horse room and board. Lately, the staff at Roughriders Stables called us to talk about The General’s attitude problem. He’s ornery, selfish and an overall asshole to the other horses. He somehow breaks into the other stables and eats the other horses’ food. This feat requires unlatching not one, but two “horse-proof” gates. The stable hands have no idea how he does it. I personally think this also makes him a genius. I’m considering teaching him how to talk. This is a testament to our relationship from that first contentious day.

About a year ago, my sweet fifteen-year-old daughter started to develop a love for horses. Showing the first signs of interest in anything beyond ask.fm and Snapchat, my wife and I leaped at the chance to foster a good, old-fashioned hobby for her that didn’t require a Genius Bar appointment or contraceptives. We bought books on horses, horse figurines, and ordered every horse-themed DVD on Netflix. A friendly warning here: Repeated viewings of My Friend Flicka will drive a man to drink a half bottle of Scotch in one sitting. So, I suppose looking back on it now, it seemed inevitable.

My wife started secretly trolling horse auction sites. It didn’t help that California Chrome was all over the news. An unassuming stable in Central California had sired a horse with an obscure bloodline. He was sold for a pittance in the Thoroughbred world. Yet, the horse turned out to be a champion, winning the Kentucky Derby and then the Preakness. The Triple Crown was in his sights. Deemed “The People’s Horse” for his humble beginnings and astonishing success, California Chrome had given unknown breeders a brand of hope they had scarcely experienced before. And sent my wife on her own determined search for equine greatness. However, Anne claimed that her search was altruistic. Our daughter was having a tough time in school. Anne reasoned that pets could help a child through the tough teenage years. I rebutted that surely a guinea pig could offer the same comfort or even, and I said this with all the trepidation that comes with a future of hairballs and Fancy Feast barfed up on my carpet, a cat. But it was too late. They were leaving that Saturday morning to drive two hours north to “take a look” at a horse. I strongly protested. I stated that a horse was not practical in any sense. The work. The money. The commitment. Didn’t these things live to be, like, thirty? I stood strong and put my foot down.

But I think we’ve already established that I had no real control over my life.

Three hours later, I get a call from my wife.
“Hi. We bought a horse.”
My anger at being patently ignored put more force in my voice than normal and I was surprised to hear myself bellow, “God damn it, Anne!”
“Oh calm down. It’s a miniature one.”
I think she felt that because it was not a full-size horse, that this was some kind of warped compromise.
“We are NOT getting a pony!” I bellowed louder. The line remained eerily silent. Maybe the bellowing had worked.
Finally she said in a clipped, indifferent tone, “Don’t call him a pony.”
And then she hung up.

Frustrated and utterly dismissed, I angrily tapped the finicky call back button on my iPhone and waited for her to answer. At the last possible ring, she picked up.
“I AM NOT going up there to get it,” I said, hoping this would thwart her plans.
“Fine,” she said. Her voice had an unnerving calmness to it.
I waited for more. An explanation or instruction or cue, so I mimicked her, “Fine?”
“I got it covered. I don’t need you.”
Stinging words for any man to hear as it strikes at the heart of our greatest fear; that deep down women believe we’re only good for siring children. Or opening pickle jars.
Resigned, I finally said, “Anne, you cannot get that horse home without my help and a trailer. Don’t get any crazy ideas.”
She hung up again.

She had no trailer, no bona fide or legal horse carrier in her possession. But Anne had an idea and a strain of genetic stubbornness that was rivaled only by the deep, momentary lunacy this act would take. My wife, an educated, decent, mannered woman of privilege descended from Texas oil money, decided that the best way to get this shrimpy horse home was to drive it there. In the back of our 2009 Ford Explorer.

Given its small stature, the theory was that the miniature horse was going to lie down in the back, like a Great Dane. It would buckle its knobby knees, and nestle into the horse blanket and have a lovely ride south. But that’s the thing about theories. The horse did not lie down. There was no nestling. Anne could not bully this animal into doing what she wanted. She had effectively met her match. The only more poetic turn would have been if it had been a miniature bull. The horse stood there, cramped, terrified and angry as hell in the back of the Ford Explorer riding at a steady 55 miles per hour for 113 miles down the I-5 freeway.

Now, any Californian can tell you that driving a torpid 55 miles an hour down the I-5 freeway is taking your life in your hands. Big rigs barrel down on slower travelers, they honk, they swerve, they go screaming by while flipping the bird. The big rigs own the road on the I-5 as it is a major trucking route from the fertile farming communities of the north to the ever-demanding masses of Los Angeles. Driving with the flow of truck traffic, which is somewhere near the speed of light, is well advised.

But Anne had no choice. The horse wasn’t steady enough for them to go any faster. It wasn’t long before a pair of big rigs barreled down, one on each side. The horse, rightfully sensing imminent death, came unglued. He let out a panicked whinny and then his squat legs kicked hard at the back of the SUV. The rear window shattered just as another Semi roared by letting out three thunderous horn blasts.

And then all hell broke loose. Anne and my daughter first heard what sounded like a garden hose on full blast as the distinct and overpowering smell of horse urine permeated the cabin of the Explorer. Anne tried to roll down the windows but the noise only made the animal freak out further. In fear, or perhaps in protest of its horrifying circumstances, the miniature horse let loose its bowels in a slurry across the entire back of the SUV. Fresh, runny, and hay-scented yet foul smelling manure dripped from the walls and remaining windows. It started to congeal all over the back seat. Gagging and sweaty, Anne blasted the air hoping that cooling it down would diminish the stinking horror in the back seat. Impervious to her circumstances, she continued down the I-5 toward Crestview on what would become the worst road trip in living memory. For the humans, and the horse.

It was then that I received a text from my daughter with five of the most powerful words I’ve ever read. Words that would delineate a shift in my world as I knew it.

The text read, “Mom says you were right.”

The Ford Explorer has never recovered. It still smells faintly of horseshit but my daughter doesn’t seem to mind. She gallivants all over town telling her hilarious horse story. Although, she’s lost interest in the horse itself. This isn’t completely her fault. After all, it’s a miniature horse. You can’t ride it, or jump it, or show it. There’s really only one thing this horse breed was meant to do.

The General and I come to a stop at our local farm-to-table restaurant & wine bar. I step out of my cart and tie him up to the patio railing. The General starts munching on the sustainable local kale growing out of the flower boxes next to the entrance.
Horrified, a flustered waiter approaches us.

“You can’t tie up your pony here, sir.”

I look back and watch The General happily mowing through the butternut squash in an adjacent flower box.

Like a proud father, I tilt my head and say, “Don’t call him a pony.”

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The beautiful impermanence of everything

Yesterday, on a foggy morning at the beach, 7-year-old Charlotte and I decided to build a sand castle. She instructed me that we had to go down to the wetter sand. We had beach buckets and shovels for the task. While we filled out buckets and built our castle, Charlotte was humming and singing.

When it was done, we assessed our work and we were proud of little lopsided castle with a moat.

I said, “It’s a good castle.”

“Yep!” And then Charlotte said, “I want to destroy it.”

“Whoa. Why?” I asked.

“I don’t know. I just do.”

“Oh…okay.” I watched her trounce and stomp all over our castle and then she ran in a huge circle, chased a couple seagulls, and came back and sat down, out of breath with a wide open smile.

“Let’s build another one!”

I was puzzled. I had flashbacks of Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke when the warden forced him to dig a hole, and then immediately fill it back up, over and over again. The pointlessness of this task nearly broke Cool Hand Luke. I could relate. Except that I wasn’t in a Florida prison camp.

I asked, “Why build it if we just destroy it?”

“It’s fun,” she said.

It took me a moment, as I stared at the detritus of our freshly made sand castle, to realize the true Zen mastery of her actions.

I’m used to producing things, making thing, creating things. When I write copy, I then seek approval from other people.  If they like it, it’s a high. If they don’t, I feel dejected.

But not Charlotte. She didn’t need anyone’s approval. She simply built the castle because it was a good way to spend time. As I sat filling up plastic buckets with more sand, I tried to work out why this was so unsettling.

Perhaps it was because this was a reminder of the impermanence of everything. If the sand castle was left intact (like houses or property or legacies or first novels) then it’s a thumbprint, proof that we were here and did something that left a mark.  Very adult thinking.

You know what kids think? “The sand feels good on my hands.” “Look at the dolphins!” “I love that Carrie is spending time with me.” “Let’s sing a song!”

Here she was enjoying life. And here I was trying to understand it.

Adults tend to accrue things. Whether it’s houses or bowling trophies or crocodile skin purses or meaningless awards. All visible measures of success. But what are the visible measures of happiness?

I know it when I see it.

And I’m witnessing one right now, as she tucks her hair behind her ear and gets back to work on a new moat. Charlotte derives happiness from the action, not the accomplishment. She embraces the impermanence of the moment, gives it a big hug, and takes the memory with her instead.

And she’s on to something. Because even when the castle is gone, and we have dusted the sand off our clothes, I can still feel the cool fog on my cheeks, and hear the sound of the waves gently crumbling on the shore, I can still live in that moment that I shared with a little girl who knew how to have fun. And suddenly, the lightness of my soul comes fluttering back to rest on my mind like a butterfly, and for a moment, I am a 7-year-old again.

It’s time for popsicles.Image

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At a loss for words…

speech-bubble-hiWhen it comes to ad writing, I’ve got some game. I can be efficient, fluid, lyrical, sales-y, straightforward, irreverent, wry, poignant, English or ironic. I can write in the voice of a Muppet or a Manservant, and every possible voice in between. Even the boring ones. Whatever you want, I can get it done. Snap, crackle, pop.

But when faced with loftier writing goals, like a good story that entertains and/or delivers a message, well, those writing muscles, much like my underutilized triceps, are on the verge of atrophy.

I have proof.

Exhibit A
I was reading an excerpt from a National Book Award winner yesterday. She described a teenaged boy this way: “Tanner had a blithe sense of entitlement, a certainty that he was destined for an undefined brand of greatness.”

I chuckled at the accuracy of this characterization, as it was the epitome of every teenaged boy I know.

But in a moment of private horror, I realized I had to look up the word “blithe”. I thought it meant “agile”. Nope. It means “cheerful indifference” or “happy”.

Blithe. I used to know this word. Much like I used to know “adroit” and “torpor” and “fecund.”

Now, words like these, the ones that authors use regularly to enhance an idea, or to richly describe a character, these words are like frozen kernels of corn that have fallen under my fridge. They used to be part of something bigger. Once useful, now forgotten, they just lie there, thawing out and waiting to be joined by the frozen peas “diaphanous” and “apocryphal.”

Texting and chatting has changed our language so drastically that one might question if the above-mentioned words are still important, usable words. And the answer is YES, DAMNIT. We cannot let ourselves devolve into a society where educated adults use shortened non-words like “Totes”, “Awesome” or “Mad” to describe every damn thing.

But personal opinion aside, if you want to write, you need the tools. And vocabulary is the most essential.

Exhibit B
I have this scene in my head that I tried to write. Two kids are in a mountain tunnel as a train approaches. I actually, for a millisecond, began to write, “As the train roared into the darkness toward us, it sounded like a freight train.”

There is no need to point out the obvious and glaring fact that it is a truly shitty simile. In fact, I am well aware that this could be featured in one of those “15 Worst Similes and Metaphors by U.S. high School Students.” But, it’s also part of a Bruce Springsteen lyric.

Like I said, the muscle is on the verge of atrophy. Scheduling an appointment with simile trainer right now.

Exhibit C
I’m working with a writer. An actual author. We’re working on ad copy and it’s a great gig. I pointed to her ten seconds ago and said, “Quick, what does ‘blithe’ mean?”
Without skipping a beat she said, “happy.”

Which I am not.

Closing argument

Keith Richards was once asked if talent ever goes away and his response was, “Yes, it goes away. But it’s the last thing to go away.”

Somehow, I find this encouraging. Whether I have talent or not is irrelevant. It’s the attempt to do something more. And I still believe there is always beauty in the attempt.

So I shall attempt to drag myself out of this torpor and over to the computer where I shall adroitly compose a better simile for the train in the tunnel while trying to fully realize my fecund years of creativity.

I might be sore for the next few days.

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Failure: It’s an option

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For all of you out there who thought I would never finish the Lavaman Triathlon in Hawaii, I would just like to say…. good call!

It’s true. I didn’t finish the race. I didn’t even start the race.

I could give you at least five semi-valid excuses for not doing the race but it all boils down to the fact that my heart (and certainly all of my joints) was not in to it.

I grappled with the decision not to do the race for a long time. And, looking back on it, I did fail. But failure is a funny thing. Failure has always taught me more about myself than success. It causes a self examination of my own motivation, or lack there of. It forces me to consider how I change as time marches on. It makes me ask if I like who I am. And if not, why not? If so, why so?

All this contemplative thought brought me back here. To my quiet little blog. To my place in the world where I can toss stones in the form of essays over the abyss and see if they make a splash.

I seriously considered abandoning this blog because I had focused so much of it on my ongoing training vs. living life battle and the dumb race. But then I realized there are other things I want to talk about. Like how the best moments are always the unplanned ones, or why collaboration always sounds like a good idea, unless of course you want to come up with good ideas, or my deep need to explain some choices on my Netflix queue. I know they sound like random thoughts right now but I promise I’ll bring them around to a make a point. About something. At least, that’s the dream.

So, I’m back! I hope my readership is still intact – I’m talking to you Mom, Dad, Mike and random stranger in Pennsylvania!

Ah, it’s good to be back,
xo
C

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