September 2004


The high school reunion?

So strange. I’ve tried to put a good spin on it. I mean, I went into it honestly expecting everything would be alright. And to be fair, many of the people at the reunion, perhaps even most and certainly including some I barely remembered, were welcoming. And almost without exception, everyone was at least coldly polite.

But what I really got out of that reunion, and it came to me suddenly while we were massing for the traditional group photo before the big dinner on the second day and a brave soul aimed an anonymous anti-gay slur at me, was that even though like most teenagers I had spent my high school years desperately trying for the approval of my classmates, I no longer needed it. That since I had warm and loving friends in progressive cities on three continents, Odessa and I could get along just fine without each other.

So with no goodbyes I left the reunion before the dinner, went over to Manuel’s, a favorite Mexican restaurant of my youth that was still in the same location, and had a delicious farewell dinner by myself.

Like the rest of the town, Manuel’s hadn’t changed much; but in Manuel’s case, that was a good thing.

Here’s San Francisco’s Ferry Building in the morning:

Ferry Building

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I came back to reality yesterday, and a rather nice reality it is here in San Francisco.

Market Street

Well, it was until I went to the gym this morning and after a thorough workout discovered that I weigh six more pounds than when I left for Texas. That’s a pound a day!!!!! And I did not eat all of that hog….just the ribs and chops and OK a little bit of the leg. And I left some of those tamales in Mel’s refrigerator…..totally uneaten although that pig has probably eaten them by now. Mel, I mean.

All I can say is it must have been the chocolate milkshakes, so I’m clearly going to have to cut back on those.

I don’t want to steal too much thunder from the official version of my visit, but I do have to mention one highlight.

My old friend Mike, who I’d never visited, had emailed me astonishingly anal directions to get to his house in the upper greater Dallas suburban sprawl, and I had a trifle too rapidly transcribed them onto a scrap of paper that I could consult as I made my way across the DFW metroplex at the end of my drive across West Texas from Midland.

His directions called for me to take 161 northeast off 183, and as I approached 161 I learned the name that went along with its number. President George Bush. Aaaaarghhhhhh, I squealed, as I contemplated the horror of having to drive on a freeway with such a name and then dwelt on the perfidy of a supposed friend who would play such a cruel practical joke on me.

But see, I was really nerved up (and only later realized that this was mostly because of his strategic fretting about rush hour delays and the possibility of my not getting there in time for us to use our reservations at Abacus, a restaurant that numbers itself among the jewels in the crown of Texas). So I didn’t dare just blaze on past the cutoff and work my way north cross-country on alternative routes about which I knew nothing.

No, I had to take the Dubya exit.

And only then, once I’d turned off a known highway and was totally committed, was the full egregiousness of Mike’s betrayal revealed.

I noticed 161’s full name: “The President George Bush Turnpike.” Turnpike! I shrieked. Didn’t you used to have to pay for “turnpikes”? And then, omigod, there was the sign: “Last Exit Before Toll.”

So yes, it was either take the exit out into the godforsaken wilderness from which there could be no possible way to extricate myself in time to get to Mike and Marilyn’s by dinner, or give money with mine own fingers to drive the Dubya Turnpike. The shame. The horror. The disgust.

I would like to say that I reached a point when the trauma became so great that I went into shock and my mind mercifully blurred the details. Alas, that was not the case, as I very clearly recall digging in my pocket, retrieving three quarters (a Mississippi and two Virginias), and casting them with a curse into the maw of the collection device. Dashing my last hope, it failed to choke on them.

But then I was on the turnpike.

It was new and wide and beautifully landscaped. The curves were banked and gentle. The pavement was groomed to a silken smoothness that eased the passage – no potholes, no bumpy expansion joints, no rough patches. And most importantly, no traffic jams. Actually, not all that many vehicles and certainly no noisy ones, none belching smoke, no exposed Bondo or dents or even smudges. Everything calm and quiet and sparkling clean, rather like the executive bathroom for the board of directors.

Not the sort of highway that trucks and, oh please, buses full of smelly people, would really feel comfortable on, so to spare them the embarrassment, they are excluded – leaving only those of us entitled to this luxury.

And to help us appreciate it, from time to time our hard-earned highway gives us vistas of vehicles on lesser roads huddled in bumper-to-bumper misery and choking in exhaust as they inch, their drivers soaked in sweat and crazed with frustration, to their eventual destinations.

I deserve this tollpike, I realized, and pricing it up to keep the wrong kind of folks off it is, yes, Martha, a good thing.

Don’t know why it took me so long to come around from my former silly liberalism. I guess it was just breathing that Texas air….and well, my friend Mike’s thoughtfully arranging this experience. Oh, how, I wonder, how can I ever repay him?

I’ll think of something. Ohhh, yes, I will.

Meanwhile, a morning shot on Market Street:


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My old friend Mel had said he was so decrepit that he can barely get out of the house, but he’d held out on me. The main problem is that the old fart has totally let himself go and has gone from fat to just plain obese. Hell, no wonder he has trouble walking and taking care of himself. I’d have trouble, too, if I had to heave 300 pounds around… OK, 250.

And yes, I can understand letting oneself go and giving up. I’m sick with shame over my having given up when faced with problems mere shadows of his. Through blind luck I’ve managed to get myself into a better frame of mind and then be blessed with a medical miracle that has me able to walk properly again. (Well, not really a miracle, but it was definitely some very creative stentery.)

But consider Mel’s situation: You’re a very gregarious, family-oriented person, and your wife dies fifteen years ago, your only child – a son a year younger than me – dies last summer, the last of your siblings dies last fall, and your best friend dies last spring. Why not eat yourself to death?

To do my part, I brought a large selection of chocolates. An assortment of the very finest I could find in San Francisco. To drop some names: Recchiuti, Schmidt, Scharffen Berger, Guittard…and then a stack of imports, mostly single bean Venezuelan criollos, etc.

This is rather like bringing a selection of fine liqueurs to an alcoholic. Contributing to the delinquency of others has always been my forte.

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It’s still there, and I’m in it.

Getting here was surprisingly easy. When you’re not having to fly a lot, first class isn’t as important as it becomes for the frequent flyer, and coach is perfectly adequate, especially when the flight is made short by an entertaining passenger in the adjacent seat.

The good news continued after my arrival at DFW. Ten minutes out of the airport, just at the Ft. Worth eastern city limits, I spotted a Whataburger® sign while there was still time to make the exit ramp. Double meat, no cheese, no fries, Diet Dr Pepper®. I’m easing into this cautiously.

But then as I approached exit 408 near Weatherford, I saw a billboard for Baker’s Barbeque, and I just knew in my heart this was the real thing. It was. And through a miracle of misunderstanding I ended up with only two ribs and thus did not gorge myself.

So then I headed for Midland in earnest. Near Abilene I was suddenly hit by a smell that brought with it a memory rush that nearly cost me control of the vehicle: sweet crude. Well, actually, this crude wasn’t totally sweet as there was definitely a hint of hydrogen sulfide to give it some character. Oh, that oilfield smell, a heady mixture of volatile esters and rich hydrocarbons, a smell underappreciated by folks who didn’t grow up in oil camps and thus as toddlers associate that smell with Daddy when he came home from work. That’s reinforcement.

Poor Marcel, having to make do with the smell of a dinky little almond cookie to evoke his memories. Not, of course, that there would be any comparison at all between us. Well, other than the inversion, and we don’t talk about that.

No indeed. Not in the Oil Patch.

Here’s some tanks out between Orla and Kermit (photographed on a different visit just in case anybody knows that those two towns are on the other side of Midland from DFW):

oil tanks

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I’m off to Texas for my forty-fifth high school reunion in Odessa and to see my old friend Mel in Midland. My doctor has refused to staple my mouth shut against the possibility of 1) my saying something that would get me shot or 2) my losing all self control and eating as much as I could of chicken-fried steak, Tex-Mex cuisine, chili dogs, barbecue, fried chicken livers, and other Texas delights like the one invented a few years ago in Austin where they take a medium-size bag of Fritos® (serves 6), dump a hot can of Wolf Brand® chili (serves 3) into it, and hand the bag to you along with a spoon. Once all that chili’s in there, it serves only one. Well, there might be enough for two, but it’s a cultural thing: two Texans can’t eat out of the same bag…not peacefully.

I’m sure I’ve mentioned that while life as a galley slave at the gym is turning out to be easy, I’m still at the concept level on life as a starved-for-its-own-good lab rat. To solve this problem I now have a new diet. Actually, I invented it. The Everything-You-Want Diet: If it tastes good, it’s forbidden. Spit it out.

All of it.

Otherwise, you can eat everything you want.

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I just got home from the hospital. I’ve been thoroughly stented, four of ’em actually, one at the bottom of my aorta, one at the top of the left iliac, and two at the top of the right iliac. The best part is that i got to watch the entire procedure on the monitor above me as they snaked the instruments in through a femoral, positioned the stents, and squirted dye into the aorta.  Such a joy to see it not go anywhere after they installed the first stent in the right iliac and then whoosh right through after they installed the second.

I’m taking it real easy now because they got my attention when they released me by pointing out that if I popped my traumatized femoral open, my life expectancy could be measured in the low single digits…of minutes. However, I can already tell that yes, there’s a major difference in functionality, or to phrase it plainly, I sure can walk a lot better. I can already see that what will slow me down on hills is going to be lack of lung power rather than lack of oxygen to my legs.

And the lung power will improve after I’ve spent a few months in the galleys.

Now for the credits: Dr. Ross for setting this into motion by being unable to find a pulse in my feet and diagnose my walking difficulty as due to a lack of blood flow. Dr. Eichler at UCSF Medical School for gaining my confidence and convincing me I should do an angiogram. Dr. Schneider and his crew at Moffett Hospital for performing the angioplasty, and some really nice folks on the recovery floor whose names I was too gaga to write down.

More credits: On Tuesday morning when I was changing into the gown for the procedure, I remembered to rub the belly of the little green good luck frog Merrill and Sybil had given me Monday night.

Later in the afternoon:

I just got back from taking 24 jars of assorted jams, jellies, and chutneys to the hospital, 12 for the Interventional Radiology crew and 12 for the staff on the 14th floor, where I languished for a day after the procedure.

Still later:

Now that I’m up from my nap, it’s all clear. Merrill’s little green frog must have restored my ability to walk for a reason, so he now sits atop my monitor to guide me. For the first time in my life, I have an icon I can follow wholeheartedly.

He has not spoken to me yet, but I stand ready to do his will. I don’t know what my first mission will be, but there’s a lot out there that needs correcting.

Meanwhile, I am purifying myself spiritually, building strength and endurance. I bask in the blinding light of the Certain Frog.

At bedtime:

Some folks inquired after my first missive whether I had been enjoying some post-operative pain medication. Oh, yes, pain is now a stranger. Others inquired whether congratulatory chocolates were in order. The Frog has indicated that after I have served as his terrible swift sword, chocolate will be in great abundance.

It is good to be The Frog’s scourge, but tonight I must rest, for I feel as if a tiny all-terrain vehicle has been driven around inside me.

Meanwhile, an interior shot of the Ferry Building after the restoration but before it got swarmed with tourists:

Ferry Building interior

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