Heather and I are in Chicago for a family visit. We're all gathered at a nice restaurant for dinner - Heather's sister Claire, Claire's husband Owen, and their two boys: Eamon, 6, and Hugh, 2. Dinner is lovely, and the paper tablecloth is gradually covered in spent tic-tac-toe grids, doodles, and food scraps.
I've noticed, in the short time I've spent with parents, that they basically do not eat when their kids do. They eat in the spare moments in between questions and/or tantrums, and then chow down on fast forward just before the staff comes to clear the dishes.
There's an old story. I don't know if it's true, but it goes like this. Penguins mate for life. And there's a moment when some boy penguin is looking over that infinite expanse of black and white when one female penguin stands out. And he stands out to her. And then, well, that's it. Of all the penguins, these two are now together for life.
A couple months ago, Heather and I went camping with some friends. One morning, we emerged from our tent, bleary eyed. There were a number of dogs camping with us, too, and one of them came trotting over to me, happy as can be.
And I did what I always do. I reached out with both hands and gave him a nice hello rub. Slowly, in my early morning haze, it occurred to me. Something smelled bad. Really bad. I looked down at the happy dog and something in his eyes said to me, "Yeah, I met a skunk. Kicked his ass."
I brought my hands to my face and gave them a good sniff. The smell was intense. Skunk smell is bad from afar. But up close, it's like pure essence of death.
And my first thought, of course, was: I've gotta share this with Heather!
"Hey, baby." I said, walking to her, arms outstretched. "Smell this!"
And as she was bent over, hands on her knees, gagging and on the verge of vomiting, I knew I'd found my penguin.
Yesterday Heather and I were walking the pups through Golden Gate Park when we came upon Stow Lake. Heather noticed that, if you rent a proper rowboat (instead of the little paddle boats), dogs are allowed. Why not? Before I knew it, we were in the mucus-colored lake, Heather rowing Bug, Chieka, and I around. Yes, I can let a woman row me around a lake. I'm progressive like that.
Chieka, knowing full well what was happening, sat in my lap and vibrated like a scared thing. Bug, however, being the brave (and perhaps none too bright) soul that he is, immediately started patrolling the boat. We were barely five minutes into our journey when he walked right up to the side of the boat and put his paws up on the edge.
I'm 32 years old. That means I missed reel-to-reel. I never owned an 8-track. But I remember vinyl. In this modern world of MP3s and iPods, there's something romantic about records.
It's the ritual that I miss. I remember flipping through my dad's albums until the immense cover art of one drew me in. I remember unsheathing the thing like a precious gem, touching only the edges. I'd place it on the Technics, press a button, and it would begin turning. I'd gently run the dust brush over it. It was deep red and soft like velvet. Then I'd move the needle, every so slowly, into place. If you did it right, it made no sound at all - you just heard the music start. If you did it wrong, a loud bonk would come out of the speakers, and a stern look would come from my dad.
I was only 10 and I knew these things were older than me. They deserved respect. Reverence.
Heather and I live in a small apartment building in a lovely little San Francisco neighborhood called Cole Valley. And right outside our front door is the convenient N-Judah Muni line. We can take it just about anywhere in the city at a moment's notice. That's the upside.
The downside is that we hear it. All the time. If we put the glasses too close together in the kitchen cabinet, they rattle with every approaching train. The trains come out of the Sunset Tunnel and turn down Carl Street with a metal on metal screeching like giant angry robots. But that's not the worst part.
Because of the turn in the tracks, Muni trains swing their butts out toward our building on every pass. And because of that, there's a big red zone smack dab in front of our home.
I'm coming back home from walking the pups when I see them. A gaggle of drunk fifty-somethings, grey hair all around, whooping it up in the entryway outside building. As I approach, I see that they're passing around a pipe, the smell of cheap swag filling the breezeway.
"Uh oh," says Oldie One, "here comes the guy who lives here."
"We're busted," says Oldie Two.
When I'm just about to the door, I look down to see a pool of vomit at the feet of Oldie Three.
Heather and I, we're creative types. And, like many creative types, we know what an immaculately designed, pristinely clean house would look like. We just can't can't seem to keep one. Our house cleaning happens in fits and starts, usually when someone's on their way over.
So, lately, I've tried to tidy up more. Just little things, like grabbing a bag of recycling and taking it down to the trash cans on my way out. Stuff like that.
Best laid plans.
Note: In this entry, I talk about life, death, and the conclusion of Six Feet Under. Don't read it if you don't want to know the ending of one or more.
I've loved other TV shows. I was sad to see Buffy go. I misted up at the end of Northern Exposure. But the series finale of Six Feet Under had me leaking like my kitchen sink for 75 minutes.
Here's the thing about Six Feet Under: You can't think about it without thinking about your own life. I think that's the mark of truly exceptional art.
I didn't grow up like the Fishers, but I did grow up with an unusual awareness of death. That happens when most everyone with your last name was killed in a war. My dad went on to become a clinical psychologist, and when I was young, he worked with kids who were dying of leukemia. My step-mom worked in hospice for many years. Our breakfast table conversations often mentioned what a blessing Morphine could be.
My grandmother still says to me every time I call: "Enjoy life when you're young." The second part, the one she thinks but does not say, is: "Because then you get old and die."
Everybody dies. It's the one thing you can be absolutely sure of.
The other night I took the dogs out for their midnight walk. As I was crossing the street, I couldn't help but notice the screaming coming from the park. It was Madison on a binge, having a shout-out with an extremely loud woman.
As I was crossing the street, another of the park denizens was exiting. He saw me and said, "Don't go in there, Derek." I nodded and continued walking the dogs up the street.
Welcome to my San Francisco, where even the homeless guys are looking out for you.
And I thought: Wouldn't it be great to have a site where I and others could post all their funny stories of San Francisco? And then I remembered I already did. I started it in '98.
So, for the first time in a year and a half, I posted a new story there. And it's not about crazy homeless fights in the park. It's about boobies.
Maybe personal sites are like fashion - they always come back around.
As Illustrated by Three Short Stories of Conversations with Professionals
Someone once told me that one of the signs of true intelligence is when you're able to change your mind about things. To learn from experience and grow as a person. If that's true, I think I'm becoming a fucking genius. It's only taken me 31 years to learn my mom was right about (mostly) everything.
A few months ago I installed a car stereo in my old Honda Civic. It plays MP3s. MP3s weren't even invented when that car was made.
I felt a sense of manly accomplishment that was, frankly, intoxicating. I, Derek Powazek, had actually removed a car stereo and installed a new one, my ass hanging out of the passenger side door, grunting and crimping all those wires in all the right places, without any bleeding or setting anything on fire or anything.
When I was done I brought Heather out and we sat in the car listening to the thing boom. The people in the hair salon watched us, leaning into their window, wondering why we were sitting in a parked car, and one of us was pumping his fist in the air.
I guess that's what made me think I had the chops to replace the hard drive in my laptop.
Originally sent to the POWlist on Tuesday, January 20, 2004.
I used to have this joke, see. It went like this: "I never grew up, people just stared letting me do more stuff."
It's a good joke, because it makes a statement that I really mean, just in a lighthearted way. The statement was, all that stuff I felt like I knew as a kid, I really knew. It was the perfect statement for a guy with a ferocious rebellious streak and something to prove.
But in some ways, it kept me a kid. Because some of those things I told myself when I was young are just plain wrong.
The calendar reminded me of a story I wrote three years ago. Here's a bit:
Four-twenty. Supposedly it's the number of active elements in marijuana. Or the criminal code for possession. I think all that's all just urban legend material. All I know is that on April 20th, back when I was in college at Santa Cruz, it was a very special day.
I remember one April 20th when I was hitchhiking up Bay Street to campus. A VW van picked me up and a blue cloud rolled out when the door opened. "Happy four-twenty," said the driver, handing me a joint. It could have been 1969, but it wasn't. It was 1992. Santa Cruz was like that.
Happy four-twenty, y'all.
So I was washing shoes. Heather had expressed some concern. Are you allowed to wash sneakers at the laundromat?
"Of course you can," I said.
But the seed of doubt had been planted.
So when I was moving the sneakers from the washer to the dryer, I found myself doing it furtively. Avoiding eye contact. Rushing.
Just as I was putting the last shoe into the dryer, the man next to me said, "excuse me."
I played deaf.
"Excuse me? Sir?" he said louder.
I turned to face him. "Yes?" I said, a defensive tone creeping through.
"I'm done with this dryer and there's 10 minutes left on it," he said, motioning to a dryer next to him.
It took a moment for it to sink in.
"Oh," I said. "Oh! How nice! Thank you!"
I smiled and moved my shoes to his dryer, hit the LOW TEMP button, and thanked him again.
The young lady with the missing nose ring who was manning the Screaming Eagle Chair Lift on Grouse Mountain (appropriately named, judging by the overheard tourist conversations) asked me where we were from. "San Francisco," I said. "But Heather is Canadian."
"Oh," she said. "Then I like her better."
Such is the state of relations with our neighbor to the north. My jokes that I left my home country for July 4 because I didn't want to encourage it fell flat, as the chair came and scooped us up and delivered us to a sweeping view of Vancouver through the trees.
Appropriate, then, that the reading material we brought with us to the Sylvia Hotel begins with an essay on America and Canada called Northern Light. In it, author Hendrik Hertzberg discusses the neighboring countries as old friends, struggling to stay on pleasant terms. Favorite quote: "Good old Canada. It’s the kind of country that makes you proud to be a North American."
So this weekend I attended the only reunion I'll probably ever bother to go to. Only eight years after my graduation (one of the the benefits of constantly hanging with slightly older people is that you don't have to wait for a round 10), I once again wandered the hills of Santa Cruz with the founding flounders of the Fish Rap Live. It was epic. And private.
I will say this, though. We haven't changed, not one of us. Sure, there were a few wedding bands and a baby present. A few extra pounds and even a little grey hair. But no real changes. Not in any of the things that mattered.
Sitting on the couch watching the conversation fly by, you could have flipped a switch and made it 1995 and no one would have skipped a beat.
I don't know if that's good or bad. I just know it is. And knowing it is incredibly reassuring somehow.
It's not that I'm old. And it's not that I'm fat. I am neither fat nor old. I'm just, well, me. And being me means being almost 30 and about 15 pounds more than I was a couple years ago. It also means having new aches and pains and a general desire to just do something different right about now.
So I did. I started walking.
See, I am not a gym guy. I don't own a single pair of sweat pants. The very idea of being one of those overpaid, overstuffed yuppies who coughs up a monthly fee to go into a brightly-lit room full of stink and mirrors to sweat and grunt while looking at, but not talking to, other overpaid, overstuffed yuppies sweating and grunting churns my stomach on a deep, philosophical level. (Not that I have anything against those people. Some of my best friends go to gyms. (Hi baby!))
And any interest I had in athletics was burned out of me that summer I spent wheezing and muscle-spazming through AYSO soccer when I was young. Imagine the odds of being the second "Derek" on the team. To this day, I have barely met any other Dereks, and never been in the same job or group with one. So, that horrible summer, not only was I surrounded by people who yelled at me for being slow and lame and full of locked-up muscles, but they also called me by various mispronunciations of my last name. "Run, Pazowhack! Run!"
So no gym and no sports. To make matters worse (or, better, depending), I live in one of the best-connected neighborhoods in the city. I can walk 40 steps out of my building (I've counted) to the beautiful N-Judah line - the sleek Itialian-made chrome and steel cars that rumble my dishes every 10 minutes of every day of the week - where I can be transported to almost anywhere I need to go. My commute to work every morning included a scant two blocks on foot.
My life, then, was an endless progression of sitting. Sit in front of the computer at home, walk 40 steps, sit on N-Judah, walk 2 blocks, sit in front of the computer at work, repeat in reverse. Sleep.
Not old. Not fat. But getting there.
Then I remembered a few years ago when I spent a couple months walking around Europe. I came home and all my pants were too big. And, really, I was eating like a pig in Europe. And drinking like a fish. And I still lost all that weight. What I did was walk. I walked everywhere. And, usually, I had a giant backpack on me, too.
And then it hits me: I live in San Francisco - this beautiful, marvelous city - so perfect for the walking! Now, I'm not gonna hoof all over the city with a backpack (five days of clothes, 10-pound laptop (old school!), two cameras (film and digital)) like I did in Europe. But what if my daily commute just was a little longer?
So now I walk those 40 steps out my door in the opposite direction and keep going. I walk over the giant hill where Clayton and 17th Street meet and down the long slope to the Castro (oh, my aching shins). Then I board the underground and shuttle the length of Market to the Embarcadero. I get out and walk along the bay, under the Bay Bridge, to 2nd where I used to get off the N-Judah. I turn and walk to my workplace.
My old commute of 40 steps and two blocks has become a heart-pounding, sweat-inducing tour of the city. I tell myself that I just changed jobs to one that's located farther away, but this is the same lie the overstuffed yuppie tells himself on the treadmill when he imagines the forests and roads going by. But I'm really walking, really out in the world, and the truth is, it feels great.
Everywhere except in my legs.
Recent Writings: Connecting Invisibles: How Associations Can Get Their Members Talking Online in Executive Update Magazine by yours truly.
Boo hoo: Software firm turns blogs into business tools. Every news story about weblogs is required to include one mention of navel lint. I was just doing my part.
Hey San Franciscans: Voices Known. Come on out on February 13! I will be performing alongside some truly amazing storytellers in a benefit for the Center for Digital Storytelling.
1. Never step out in front of a city bus. They're exempt from stop signs.
2. Dryer number 39 at Doug's Suds will give you 10 minutes per quarter, instead of the standard 7. Washer 12 used to count tapping on the coin slot as quarters, but Doug fixed it.
3. When your laundry is in the dryer at Doug's Suds, don't take your eyes off it unless you consider it a donation.
4. Only half of the people who look homeless actually are. The rest are merely eccentric.
5. Don't ever lie in the grass at the park where the N-Judah comes out of the Sunset Tunnel. As a dog walker, trust me on this one.
6. The big hill with the stunning view is called both Tank Hill and Acid Hill, depending on your state of mind in the sixties.
7. The local guy who always wears the beret and skirt isn't gay. The failed city councilman is.
8. Never ask the bearded man in the cheese shop for an egg salad sandwich.
9. There's someone in the neighborhood who puts up "Lost Mind" flyers. I've never called the number.
10. The flyer that was up in mid-June about a dog found on the roof of a garage? That was Buddy. He's fine now.
11. The Muni trains are able to rattle wine glasses, no matter where you put them.
12. Johnny is only dangerous when he's half-drunk. You can tell because when he's only slightly drunk he tells jokes, and when he's fully-drunk he's asleep.
13. Actually, Johnny only tells one joke when he's half-drunk, and the punch line is: "That wasn't a parachute ï¿½ that was my backpack!"
14. If it's after 10pm and you're hungry, the only place to eat is the crepe place called The Crepe Place. Fortunately, it's not half bad. Just don't take anyone from France there.
15. The French bakery that opened recently is actually neither French nor a bakery. The croissants are cooked by Mexicans across town and delivered every morning.
16. Almost everyone here is actually from somewhere else, so you know there's something special about this place. I think you'll fit right in.
See also: Cole Valley Home Page
This section is called Just a Thought. It's a blog where I post little pieces of what I'm thinking about at the moment. This page shows thoughts about Stories, including:
The Kid Always Gets the Last Word
3 September 2006
Love and Penguins
25 August 2006
My Dog is So Smart
18 June 2006
Goodbye Yellow Brick Road
4 February 2006
Muni, Red Zones, and Faith in Humanity
7 November 2005
The Reality of My Surroundings 2
16 October 2005
The Reality of My Surroundings
9 October 2005
Both Sides Now
22 August 2005
And I'll Call it ... San Francisco Stories
27 February 2005
Things Mom Was Right About
19 August 2004
3 August 2004
Step Two is Today
18 July 2004
20 April 2004
Washing the dirt away
9 August 2003
Greetings from Vancouver
6 July 2003
23 June 2003
Oh My Aching Legs
5 February 2003
The Secrets of Cole Valley
4 February 2003
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Working the web since 1995, Derek Powazek is the creator of many award-winning websites, a couple of which still exist. Derek is the cofounder of JPG Magazine and the CCO of 8020 Publishing. Derek lives in San Francisco with his wife, two nutty Chihuahuas, a grumpy cat, and a house full of plants named Fred. More »
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The Kid Always Gets the Last Word 3 September 2006
Love and Penguins 25 August 2006
My Dog is So Smart 18 June 2006
Goodbye Yellow Brick Road 4 February 2006
Muni, Red Zones, and Faith in Humanity 7 November 2005