Dear Bob

Last October, as I noted recently, I lost a dear friend of more than twenty years, Bob Burkhart, to cardiac disease. Unlike the tragic deaths of other friends, it was unexpected. Except, in a way, it wasn’t.

Dear Bob,

I miss you more than I thought I could. As I think back on our time together, I realize that you were really good at the true fundamental of friendship: you honored my strengths and ignored my faults.

Remember the drive we drove back from Kansas because Justin’s father had given him a car? We decided – because it was kind of on the way – to go through Vegas, but that meant crossing Hoover Dam and it was just after 9/11. The backup of cars being searched for security purposes stretched on and on, and turned me into a cranky toddler. When we finally checked into the Bellagio, you asked the desk clerk to immediately send a bottle of Veuve Clicquot up to the room “because my friend really needs one right now.”

You didn’t try and change me, because you never wanted to be changed yourself. You were a big man, wonderfully in heart but unfortunately in body too. When friends asked why you never dated anyone, you said it was because women always wanted you to lose weight. We got the message. Don’t mention the weight thing.

You lived the way you wanted to live. In fact, you lived the way the rest of us wanted to live, with everything from M&Ms to fine chocolates in crystal dishes scattered around the house. You knew all the great wines. You knew all the great restaurants, whether they served filet mignon or greasy breakfasts. You were a great cook, too.

When I lost six inches off my waist a few years ago, I hoped to be a role model to my friends. Not to you, though. I knew that was fruitless. I was both thrilled and saddened when I found out later that you had tried to lose weight, and hated how the effort made you feel. Really, I would have coached you.

But to our eternal discredit, we let you be obese. Because all your friends loved you as you. Because you loved us as us. It was part of the bargain we made with you.

But now, with you gone, I see the error of our ways. We kept our silence even as we knew that your size was putting a greater and greater burden on your heart. You were, in essence, breaking your heart day by day. And we thought it was okay because it was your heart and your decision, and we loved you so much.

If only I’d known you were breaking my heart too.


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The Downside of Happiness


Photo courtesy NOLA Doughnuts

As my most recent post explained, we have fallen in love with Oregon. However … to be as transparent as possible, there is a downside.

We fell in love with our house in large part because it was easy to walk to downtown Lake Oswego. The library, the bank, the supermarket, the florist, city hall, the farmer’s market, the barbershop – all within walking distance. Our gasoline bills are significantly lower than ever before.

But downtown also features some problematic retail establishments. There’s the Lake Oswego Creamery, which has locally made ice cream, sandwiches, and burgers. And when I say local ice cream, I mean milkshakes to die for. Ever had a bananas foster milkshake? I hadn’t, and they’re a real issue. Why? Because the amount of calories in a bananas foster milkshake is WAY higher than the amount of calories one burns walking from our house to Lake Oswego Creamery and back.

That’s not all. There’s also NOLA Doughnuts. NOLA stands for New Orleans, Louisiana. What kind of donuts do they make in New Orleans? Beignets. Fluffy pastries drowned in powdered sugar. We went to NOLA before we went to Café du Monde in the French Quarter this fall just to do a comparative taste test, and I have to say that the one here edged out the one in the French Quarter. Oh, and speaking of issues – NOLA Doughnuts has a happy hour, of all things. After 2 p.m., beignets are half-price!

Remember the freshman 15 in college? As much as I’ve tried to watch my weight, not surprisingly I’ve developed an Oregon tummy. I have the happiness 15.

This cannot be blamed solely on bananas foster milkshakes and beignets. If it could, I would just stay out of that part of downtown, make it mentally off limits unless it’s Mardi Gras or something. Not so easy.

Admittedly, this whole mess began back in the summer when we moved here. The moving van that was supposed to take two days took ten, and because I couldn’t cook, we had to eat out. Yes, I feel your sympathy. It flows across the Internet in waves.

But then, being in a new town and a new state, we had to try new restaurants. It’s the law, I think. We’ve been in Oregon six months and we’ve had one bad meal. One. It was an artisanal pepperoni pizza with four slices. I don’t just mean four slices of pizza – I mean four slices of pepperoni. It was like pepperoni was being rationed but nobody would admit it.

Every other meal has been fantastic. People say San Francisco is a foodie town – they ain’t seen nothing. This place is gastronomic heaven.

So now it’s the new year. Time to stop being so happy – or at least, time to stop celebrating with food. I’m not sure how to proceed. I do know the task would be much easier if I couldn’t practically smell the beignets from my front door.

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On Becoming An Oregonian

Welcome to Oregon Sign As we’ve sent out our holiday letters, some friends have been surprised that we’ve left California for Oregon. One said, “I was under the impression that once someone got to California, they never left” – as if being born there, as we were, was some kind of exalted prize never to be relinquished.

When people ask why we left, I’ve found one response resonates most deeply. It relates to income inequality. When someone cut us off on the freeway, were they a jerk, or were they going to be fined if they were late picking their kid up from day care one more time? It was impossible to tell. And because it was more likely the former, we found ourselves losing our empathy for the latter. When you find yourself growing harder toward your fellow citizens, not softer, it’s time to move on. Perhaps the Republicans who’ve escalated this inflexibility to a fine art could depart for … somewhere far away.

We flew back to California for the weekend before Christmas, to see family and friends, and nothing about being back affected our resolve that Oregon is now home. Oregon is different, even though it’s now full of Californians. I suspect that the state was completely empty up until five years ago because everyone seems to be from California. Perhaps for that reason, I’ve only gotten one set of raised eyebrows about where I’d come from, and that was from a retail clerk who should have known better.

How different? For one thing, it rains here. Not as much as it used to, we’re assured (even though there’s no such thing as climate change; yeah, right), but water does indeed flow out of the sky on a regular basis.

For another, people drive differently here. We were walking through the small downtown of the community where we live a few months ago, and someone honked their horn. We turned to each other and said almost in unison, “What the hell was that?” Oh, and here’s the weird part: when you activate on your turn signal, the driver behind you will actually slow down and give you space to merge. We’re still getting used to that one. And in a state with so much precipitation, it’s legal (unlike in California) to drive without your lights on in the rain.

Our little town is a delight. Where we live, just north of downtown, there are few sidewalks. The air is so amazingly crisp and clear and crystalline, I feel like I’m waking up in a cross between Lake Tahoe and Carmel every morning. There’s a state preserve a few blocks from our house that we still haven’t explored completely. It’s invigorating.

What’s strange is how many people have dogs here. I began to wonder if the city government just automatically issued dogs to people upon arrival (“Here’s your driver’s license, and your dog. Welcome to Lake Oswego.”). Apparently, we got the cat exemption.

There are some oddities to the state of Oregon, as well. Some things are cheaper, but others unexpectedly are not. Our utilities are cheaper, but our housekeeper isn’t. My barber is much more expensive, but Monica’s hair stylist is cheaper (and they’re married to each other). Massages are cheaper. Restaurants are cheaper. Parking is unbelievably cheaper. Property taxes are cheaper, but still more expensive than we budgeted. But there’s no sales tax, so the government’s got to fill the tills from somewhere.

Then there’s the quirkiness of political geography. In California, the liberals cluster on the coast and the conservatives cluster inland. There’s a mountain range separating them for each other’s safety. That’s not true here. We live just south of Portland, which is very blue. Our community is the northernmost one in the adjoining county, called Clackamas, which is mostly agricultural. The result is that liberals and conservatives intermingle here, so you have to be careful what you say about certain hot-button issues, like abortion and gun control. At the Clackamas County Fair, there was a cluster of vendors designated as Second Amendment Row. You wouldn’t find that in our old neck of the woods.

People ask us what we miss in California. Friends, of course. Sports, too. Portland only has professional soccer and basketball, so it’s a bit of a crapshoot come Sunday morning NFL broadcasts. I suspect the local affiliates just throw a dart at the wall to see what they’ll broadcast; there’s no other way to explain how many NFC East games they show. And not being able to go to baseball games, either Stanford Cardinal or San Francisco Giants.

But the food here is fantastic. The airport is an unexpected hotbed of efficiency. Regional theatre is wonderful. Hiking is unparalleled. Traffic is bad, but nowhere near as horrific as California. It may get there yet, but there’s also a terrific public transportation infrastructure that the mishegoss of BART, Caltrain, Samtrans, and Muni can’t even touch.

So we gave up the prize that is California. We got a bigger one in exchange. Oregon is the best Christmas present ever.

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A Christmas Memory

(with apologies to Truman Capote, who I think would have understood)

Bob BurkhartEvery year around this time, one of our friends cheerfully asks us to recount our favorite Christmas memory. Every year around this time, we have to remind her that people who grew up in dysfunctional families don’t have favorite Christmas memories. They have vivid Christmas memories, but those aren’t the same thing.

I wish we could have taken our cheery friend to a recent church service commemorating the darkest day of the year (that is not, as you might suppose, the Solstice – that’s the longest day of the year). The minister riffed on the fact that while Christmas is frequently about families getting together, exchanging gifts, preparing food, telling stories, making new ones, it’s not that cheery for everyone. Some people are lonely; some are ill; some are dealing with loss. Not everyone is happy around the holidays.

Certainly part of me isn’t this year. A few months ago, I made plans to visit my friend Bob (see photo) in Las Vegas for his late-October birthday. He had moved from Silicon Valley a couple of years ago, hoping to become a STEM teacher; it didn’t work out primarily because of Clark County’s ridiculous educational bureaucracy. And although he liked the weather in southern Nevada, it was clear that he was lonely. He warned me after I sent him my flight information that he’d had been fighting a horrible bout of the flu.

Except that it wasn’t the flu; it was the onset of congestive heart failure. He died a couple of weeks later, just days shy of his 59th birthday.

Bob was a big man, both in size and heart. I hate that the latter failed him. I miss him. I fear that the worst part of getting older, especially for those of us with really good genes, is accumulating more and more memories of departed friends and loved ones. It doesn’t help that one of Bob’s favorite activities was throwing an annual Solstice party. This year, we’re getting together on that day with some mutual friends to toast his memory.

That’s what’s hovering over Christmas present. There’s also Christmas past. Some people, like us, simply don’t have fond memories of those either.

For my spouse, whose parents were florists, Christmas was one of their busiest and most hectic times of the year, equivalent to Valentine’s Day, Easter, and Mother’s Day. Her parents had no energy left over for the yuletide. As for me, I remember my father yelling at my mother for paying $25 for the top-of-the-line Lego set for me one year. Even more vividly, back when I was around twelve, I remember the Christmas morning of the flashcube.

We were at our beach house (we were not destitute). My sister had received an Instamatic camera as a gift. It used those light-blue flashcubes to illuminate the subject. My sister was goofing around, and put her foot on an ottoman next to me; I took a picture of her big toe. In addition to setting off the flashcube, it set off my father. He started screaming about how expensive flash cubes were and how wasteful I was. He opened the front door and yelled at me, saying I might just as well have thrown thirty-five cents into the street. As my wife has gently pointed out recently, my father’s path in life was not to be my parent. (When we spread his ashes in the Pacific, even though it was illegal to do so, I added a quarter and a dime so that he would have the money in eternity.)

Don’t get me wrong – I love the holidays now. Our tree is adorned with ornaments from all the places we’ve visited around the world. My wife and I stuff stockings with each other’s favorite candy. We watch Miracle on 34th Street and Scrooge (the 1951 version). I love cooking Christmas dinner. I’ve made molasses gingersnaps using Bob’s recipe – twice – in his honor.

This is the lesson I will try and take away this year, and every year: The old memories will never completely dissipate. They’re here to stay. What’s important is to keep making new ones, nicer ones, so that one day, perhaps very soon, we’ll be able to recount to our friend that we’ve finally created our favorite Christmas memory.

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The Four Things That Are Really Wrong With Love, Actually

Andrew Lincoln in Love, ActuallyHere in the midst of the first post-Me, Too holiday season, there has been an Internet meme about the inappropriateness of Andrew Lincoln’s holiday caroling scene with Keira Knightley in Love, Actually. This meme may actually have been started by Lincoln himself, who told TV Guide back in 2017 that he thought his character was a creepy stalker.

Disclosure: I love Love, Actually. It’s become one of our favorite holiday movies. When Colin Firth proposes to Lùcia Moniz in broken Portugese, I’m the puddle on the floor. Nor do I think Lincoln’s character was creepy – I thought it was sweet that he finally revealed to Knightley why he’d been so cool to her.

However, if we’re going to nitpick about what’s become a holiday classic, I do, however, have other issues with the movie.

  • Hugh Grant looks way too young to be prime minister.

I don’t mind Hugh Grant as prime minister; I just wished he’d looked a little older. Of course, if he’d been considerably older, then his relationship with his aide, played by Martine McCutcheon, really would have been me-too-creepy.

  • The scene where Grant goes looking for McCutcheon “at the dodgy end of Wandsworth.”

Admittedly, it’s sweet to see the prime minister interacting with his constituents on Christmas Eve, but really, doncha think the head of the country would have access to an address database?

  • The whole horny Colin subplot

The film clocked in at far longer than any audience could stand, so director Richard Curtis did lots of snipping. I wish he’d cut this whole sequence, in which Kris Marshall finds his way to Wisconsin and hooks up with a stunning quartet of horny girls. In his dreams. It would have been much sweeter if he’d just found a demure farm girl and fallen in love … even if it would have meant losing Denise Richards at the end. (Curtis did cut a subplot about Thomas Brodie-Sangster being a gymnast in addition to a drummer; check out the DVD’s deleted scenes to see how silly it might have been.)

  • Laura Linney’s inability to turn off her phone

Really? The man of your dreams brings you home, and you still can’t let the attendants at your brother’s institution take care of him? What are you paying them for?

Disclosure: None of these will keep me from watching again this year.

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Silicon Valley: Describing the Indescribable

A couple of weeks ago, I was in New York City for a conference, and a local author, hearing where I lived, asked me to describe Silicon Valley.

At first, I wasn’t sure how to respond. In writing about technology for thirty years, I’d steeped myself in the history of the valley (there are those who trace its origins all the way back to the California Gold Rush). But she wasn’t interested in history. She was interested in now. I suppose to outsiders, it does seem like an intriguing place. But like most places, it has two sides. I described both to her.

The most famous side of Silicon Valley is the one of lore, though it is no less real for being famous, because dreams do come true here. The people that live here are dynamically and manically focused on solving problems through technology, of making the future better, so much so that it bristles and sizzles with the seemingly osmotic exchange of ideas and innovation. In that valley, financial lightning can strike in a flash, bestowing untold winnings akin to a lottery.

The flip side of Silicon Valley, I told her, is just as real, but less shiny. It is a valley of overwhelmed infrastructure, of too many cars and not enough roads, of too many buildings and too little water, of too many people and not enough public transportation.

It is a valley where all those untold winnings trigger their own nightmares. People with inflated home values stay put sell to avoid whopping capital gains taxes. Government mandated tax loopholes like Proposition 13 keep people in their houses long after they’re working, or enable them to retain low tax rates by bequeathing those homes to their children. The tech lottery winners drive up the cost of the remaining housing stock. Lines at stores stretch on Saturday afternoons because no one being paid minimum wage can afford to live here.

That was my capsule explanation for this author. I likened it to the original California Gold Rush, where only a few miners struck it rich, and the rest went home empty-handed. But for many – now and then – the air buzzed, and people lived in a time and place that they could tell their grandchildren about.

I neglected to elaborate, but there’s more, and it’s worrisome. Part of this perspective, I admit, comes from our decision to flee the valley for quieter climes, and can be attributed, truthfully, to justification and rationalization for that decision. But still …

The cracks are beginning to show. The winners in Silicon Valley exhibit an excessive level of entitlement and competitiveness, whether it’s beating someone in something as big as a deal or as trivial as a parking space. The losers in Silicon Valley exhibit an increasing level of anxiety, whether it’s trying to pick up a child from day care before penalties ensue or figuring out which bill to pay.

The problem is that on the surface, entitlement and anxiety pretty much look the same. There’s a difference between being desperate and being an asshole, but it’s impossible to discern whether someone acting like an idiot deserves scorn or sympathy. And that makes life extremely difficult, even when you’ve grown up here and seen so many changes transpire already.

It’s easier to just leave, and that’s the saddest part of all.

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A Moving Experience

As the weeks count down toward our move north to Oregon, I am faced with an unanswerable question: why in the hell did we spend so much money on so much stuff that we’re now spending so much time trying to get rid of?

Even with a house far too big for two people, there was never enough wall space for the framed posters and artwork; there were never enough display cases for the toys and tchotchkes; and there were never enough guests for all the dishes and silverware. It was like we were intentionally trying to piss off the ghost of Thorstein Veblen.

Our conundrum became clear when our real estate agent insisted that we declutter the house in preparation for showings. What? We’ve spent 14 years turning it into the house we wanted, and now we have to take everything out? To add insult to injury, once we removed our clutter, the stager brought in a bunch of other clutter; we never quite understood why our clutter was inferior to her clutter.

Unexpectedly, once the house looked a little more austere (as long as no one looked in the closets and drawers), we were intrigued. We kind of liked these Spartan surroundings, and vowed to emulate them in the new house. That required a newfound discipline in terms of redistributing what we owned. It’s a process, but we’re progressing … and processing.

The thing I hate the most: our garage looks like Spielberg filmed the last scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark there. Boxes and boxes and boxes. I’ve been haunting the local moving supply stores, not to mention cadging boxes from our local grocery store (parts of the garage have so many wine boxes, it looks like I hijacked a liquor distributor’s truck). I’m frankly tired of squeezing my way through narrow passages of boxes in constant worry about knocking, bumping, dropping, falling, or some other participle that brings back aural memories of Fibber McGee’s closet.

If that weren’t bad enough, it seems as if our stuff procreates in the night. Open a new drawer or closet that you swore you packed, and there’s more stuff in there. I worry about either ending up with too much stuff left to pack, or too many unused boxes (yeah, like that ever happens). Having the stuff-versus-box ratio come out even at the end is one of life’s unsung pleasures.

This too shall pass. Eventually we will get everything packed and then unpacked in its place in our new home in a new city. It will be a house full – but not too full – of art, music, and flowers, with a huge Douglas fir in the front and a babbling fountain in the back. The cats will adjust to their new home, and hopefully forgive us for putting them in cages for twelve hours. We will resist the temptation to fill up every inch of space.

And somewhere, Thorstein Veblen will be smiling.

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