Thursday, December 31, 2009

Last Post

Because it's time. Because CHANGE is in order! Well, ain't it? Oh, it's a new year. I resolve to redirect these energies elsewhere. Not that I abhor the blog, or anything like that, but I think the effort has been fulfilled. The title feels used, the opinions, redundant. There's no further need to clarify things. You know where I stand. I've done enough damage to my reputation. And now's as good a time as any.

The Most Significant Thing has always been the following seven: Family, Friends, God, Country, Work, Health, Passion. On hindsight, I should have set up those labels early on and just ascribed every post to one or the other, with an additional label for those days where I just showed up and voted "present" (but who really uses those labels, anyway?) So, such are the most significant things. Ignore one of them, I hold, and your life falls out of balance. Not saying it's easy.

The truth is I have found myself unspectacularly coming back to one of those things in particular: Family. Over the years I've found myself changed up to that point -where the family was once a source of pain, dysfunction, disappointment, and despair, now it is my reliable foundation, a hopeful destination, and an unexpected source of pride. I guess I'm growing up.

It's New Year's Eve and I'm surrounded by the whole big clan. Last night there was an impromptu talent show (I was a judge) that seemed straight out of Dan In Real Life, my new favorite gem of a film. I was sitting there on the couch with a glass of wine, alongside my siblings and their spouses and kids, and we were all hollering and laughing -and it seemed a perfect moment. But I noticed something significant: the simple fact that nobody there made the moment fun per se, but it was the collection of everyone that made it unforgettable. No one in the group was perfect, but everyone was indispensable. No single person held any right or privilege, any authority or preference, any grand talent or unique quality that superseded anyone else's -but the mere collection of us, with little more in common than blood, made the moment whole. "Wholeness" may be more important than any sort of balance, or it's at least the necessary construct of it. What I mean to say is, "balance" -which I have always sought with some sort of Zen indifference- is impossible without all the pieces and parts. When you're trying to get the engine to run, you can't just ditch a few gears. Some 500 posts, or so, and if I haven't made my point by now then I'm not sure I can. Hey. We're running out of metaphors here.

People have told me how lucky I am for having such a loving family, such a big family. And I am. I'm lucky. But frankly I believe it can be had by anyone. Start today: have six kids! (And try and love them!)

That's crazy, I'm sure. But my mom did. And my family has been through a world of incomparable hurt, unmentionable whatnot, and has come through to the other side. My parents made mistakes, but if it was a mistake to have six kids, then at least one wrong thing went right. There was thick and thin in my family over the years, feast and famine, hurdles and harbors, but somehow we're all still together in spite of us all. I would trade nothing for them, nor could I. I have walked away from friends and watched friends walk away over the years, but my Family has remained. What is there to do besides, make it work.

Families are funny things: born, made, assimilated, adopted. They take all sizes and shapes, and mine is not like yours. But one thing they all are: necessary. It begins and ends with family. They are there when you're born and, if you're only half-lucky, they are there when you die, but first things first -you're the family. Some folks fall off, for whatever reason, but you hold on to it and make it real. I have one sibling who goes out of her way to make every event a real party -always, at a minimum, unforgettable- and I'm lucky. And grateful. You do your part by at least contributing with your presence at the births and deaths and the significant in-between things like holidays and weddings. It took me a long time to learn it, but if you don't show up, you'll lose that most significant thing, and unwittingly replace it with something lesser. Without family, you're an orphan. And, hey, maybe you've always been an orphan. If so, endeavor to build a family. Eventually, they'll thank you for it. (And, hey, how do you think you'll feel as a result?)

As for me, I'm a father. And that means, above all else: keep the family together.

It's a new year.

(My mother last Easter with her, so far, eight grandchildren. She's a saint.)


Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The past few days have been a diverting series of misadventures, unlike life back home only in the sense that we are surrounded by some life-affirming, invigorating, astounding beauty. We hiked a bit, explored various gift shops, and sampled local dining fare, leaving a wake of broken crumbly crackers, drinking straw wrappers, and shattered tree ornaments wherever we go. Restaurant servers ro-sham-bo to get our table out of their zone when they see us coming. But the kids are cute enough.

Hiked along a slick icy path the other day for a few miles or so. Long, shoulder-splitting icicles hung precariously above us at points, making us feel brave and trail-worthy. Everyone seemed to handle the 25 degree temps pretty well. At one point the Little Ditchman began moaning, "My knee hurts. My elbow hurts. I hafta go to the bathroom," and I figured we better turn around and head back to the car. Then she said, "Do you dig the hole before, or after?" Pause. Huh? "Oh. It's before!"

She'd been quoting lines from Up, so, yes, she is my daughter after all.

Yesterday we drove in an easterly direction, a hundred miles or so across the vast Colorado plateau (which extends well into southern Utah.) It was a perfect, scenic American byway, blanketed with a recent snow and the remnants of the holidays in rural civic displays, surrendered to the season. If you've seen Cars, (which the Little Ditchman happened to be watching during the drive) and have balked at those over-painted, idealized stretches of southwestern highways with their perfectly carved sandstone tunnels and bright red buttes and towering hoodoos dotting the landscape, I can now attest that that Pixar-crafted vision is grounded in reality. It's all there on UT Highways 9 and 12 -pine trees, teepees, and all.

Arrived at Bryce Canyon National Park at about the same time as a mild snowfall, which was charming for the kids and yet demoralizing for us adults who found the fabled, deep canyon, natural wonder of the southwest, filled with a heavy fog. "Oh well," we thought. "Next time." As if there would be one. On the way out of the park we drove to another viewpoint, on the off chance that maybe some of the weather had lifted. We were in luck.

(We're collecting all the states!)

Today, it's back to the big family for the turning of the New Year, which will be great. (We're out of money, anyway.) I'm going to insist on one last drive through the valley to gaze up at those awesome, glorious red cliff-faces, dusted with last night's snowfall. It's stunning, though the kids aren't quite able to grasp it yet. They get out of the car and immediately look down, so as not to trip over or miss some curious twig or rock or lump of ice. I guess, as you grow, you slowly lift your head, willing to be taken aback by all that miraculous world around you -those curious twigs, rocks, and lumps of ice a thousand times the size.


Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Year-end salutes and salutations from Zion National Park!


Monday, December 28, 2009

Greetings from behind the Zion Curtain! I ordered two large beers at a restaurant last night and all I got out of it was a series of trips to the men's room. It was a nice men's room. Tidy and fresh. They must give them extra attention here from all the extended use, since 3.2 percent is the maximum alcohol content legally allowed in the beer, if you didn't know. This amounts to little more than mugs of carbonated, hop-flavored water, so if you thought you were in a state of inebriation, you're not. You're in the state of Utah. (Unless you drink twice the beer at twice the speed. Enjoy the men's room!)

Zion! We're actually in Zion, too, which has always been just a few hours from my sister's place, though we've never made the trip to get the coveted Visitor's Center stamp. Aside from our church retreat, the Ditchmans didn't get a vacation last year, so this is it. Original plans were for Yosemite, which I thought would've been a pleasant, wintry way to ring in the new year, but it turns out the whole family was going to be in Vegas for the 2010 event, so how could we miss out on that? Anyway, we're making good use of that nether week of days between Christmas and New Year's by visiting Zion. Nothing happens in those few days anyway.

And room rates are cheap. "You've got the best room in the house," the perky lady at the front desk said when she handed me the key cards. This was a surprise, and words I've only heard once before at the El Tovar when I asked Mrs. Ditchman to marry me, bear me children, and then drag them to National Parks seven years hence in the middle of winter -all sickly and complaining. Yes, we were up all night from the cold, dry, coughing, (dammit.)

It's no El Tovar, but the place is clean. It's got a magnificent view of the edge of the park, and a nice little balcony for drinking it all in, if you can handle the Utah chill. The kids are making a mess of the place, which is one of the reasons we're not staying here, aside from the fact that we can't afford those things anymore. We love old, historic lodges (who doesn't?) so we'll be stopping in for a Near Beer later. In Zion, you get drunk on the view.

It's my first time here, and I didn't know what to expect, but it's all truly lovely -in that breathtaking, grandiose, National Parks sort of way. We went for a little family hike when we arrived yesterday and hoofed it up a snowy sandstone cliff for the promise of an unrivaled canyon view. The Little Digger was in the REI utility papoose, and the Little Ditchman cheerfully bounced astride us, though we were a mile high on a sandy, icy cliff face, with a single frozen steel rail the only thing that stood between us and a busy night for local mountain rescue teams. Then, since we didn't fall, night did -as we hadn't properly gauged the length and breadth of the hike. Happy tunes gave way to whiny complaints. Fingers and faces froze, and I thought, "Yeah. This is about right."

We made it back to the car. Easily found, as it was the only one left in the lot. And it wasn't completely dark yet. Never go camping with a Ditchman, that is, if you prefer the safe, unstoried, boring vacations of anal-retentive homebodies. We're not like that. We prefer impulsive jaunts, the thrill of danger, peril 'round every bend! Indiana Jones carries our bags!

But we're gonna take it nice and easy today.


Saturday, December 26, 2009

A terrific Christmas -the first one we've celebrated at home since we were married, since we usually party down in Vegas. But our Little Ditchman is at that wondrous age where The Magic Man will actually, expectedly, slide down her chimney and dispense the annual reward for twelve long, hard months of niceness. She spread reindeer food on the grass (ingredients: oats, glitter, etc.) and when asked whether she thought the enchanted caribou would alight on the back lawn or the front, she was thoughtful about it. "The front," she announced confidently, giving no reason. And who among us would argue?

We were able to cram all the events in: me with my last minute shopping, Family 'A' coming over for Christmas dinner, Christmas church service, up late to meet Santa and help with the wrapping/assemblage portions of his labors, Christmas morn full of glee and delight, prep and clean abode for sitter, drive hundreds of miles to Family 'B' for Christmas dinner, and finish off with a rousing rendition of our annual family tradition of singing the 12 Days of Christmas around the table -though we were 4 days short this year, and some of us had to double up.

The Little Ditchman took two verses, and I was at first concerned she couldn't handle the workload and tried to take one from her. But her mommy and others jumped on me for this, righted me, and off The Little Ditchman went -she would've taken all 12 verses if given chance. It was quite a sight, and I was proud. (So she loves to sing carols -who woulda thunk it?) I've written of the glorious tradition of ours before, so I won't go into it, but it was fun, especially seeing the little girl join in so cheerfully. It's nice that my big family keeps having kids. We need to fill out the choir.

And there was the Great Unwrapping. This year was different, as it has been spread out over a week or so. There was some on Christmas Eve, and then the following morning, and then just a bit ago, and there will be some later, as more family arrives. In the past, it's been a tsunami of ribbon and tissue, (which I find fun) but this year it was necessarily a rolling set of swells every so often, all perfectly surfable. It's become this way out of necessity, and so be it. Santa comes to our house now, too, and we love it.

I got a good gift, by the way, from my sister. One of these. It met my criteria for the perfect gift -something you've always wanted but were just unwilling to shell out the cash for. I love it! Though... I admit I'm not sure it contributes much more to the wine than a nice swirling of the glass would -but hey, it's a gift. It's fun. And I'm gonna use it later, and I won't have to decant an entire bottle.

Like the day after Thanksgiving, I've found myself with a moment to type some here. Everyone is out: at the park, shopping, movies, and me and the Little Digger are home having a Bud Lime. It rounds out the season. Though this time, instead of napping, he's opening every cupboard and emptying the contents on the floor. (Forgive me if this reads a little on the choppy side.) He's that kind of kid. Leave the bathroom door open and he'll follow you in and fondle your pee stream from between your legs.

I'm looking forward to the next few days. There's a lot of looming worry on the business front, and it's great to put it all aside for a while. Year's over. Go again.

(That is, go again next week.)


Friday, December 25, 2009

When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flocks,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among brothers,
To make music in the heart,
And to radiate the light of Christ,
Every day,
In every way,
In all that we do and all that we say,

Then the work of Christmas begins.

-Howard Thurman

Thursday, December 24, 2009

In case you're wondering about our ongoing neighborhood saga, tonight my neighbor found a baby on his doorstep. No note. Just a simple, friendly little Christmas miracle.

Merry Christmas.


Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Other influences:

Star Wars.

I only mention it because I spent my blogging time today watching this, which is SPOT-ON BRILLIANT:

When you have the time, check it all out. Parts 2-7 are here, every second of which illuminates, enlightens, and gives you the closure you have longed for. The analysis of light sabre duels in Part 6 alone is worth [what I'm still spending on] a USC film school tuition (about $200,000.) I'm not kidding: save yourself a quarter million dollars and just watch all 70 minutes.

And you better hurry, before the Lucasfilm lawyers shut it all down.


Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Here's something you might not know about me.


Garrison Keillor. Yes, I'm a fan. And yes, I listen to NPR from time to time (though I admit nowadays it's mostly Car Talk and Prairie Home Companion.) I like writing that sounds like it's being read to you. I like it when I'm reading a book and I feel as though I can hear the author telling me the story. Now, I know a lot of people don't appreciate this, as the spoken vocabulary is different from the written one, but there is, I believe, some happy medium where the two marry and intertwine, some kind of literate, oral history. I love the Oral Tradition, and Keillor's good at this. It would be a dead art if it weren't for NPR, (and summer camp campfire messages.)

Also, Garrison Keillor is grossly sentimental like me, often wrapping up his homespun tales with some grandiose metaphor. So, that's where I get it. (Sometimes I go overboard. It doesn't show, but I try to control myself.)

Frederick Buechner. He's a terrific Christian author, but don't let that dissuade you from checking him out. He is a sincere talent, and has been nominated for the Pulitzer. His written voice is a wordy one, with lots of commas and run-on sentences -so if my style of doing that bugs you, you can blame him. And I love, of course, what he writes about, and how his faith is the center of his world-view.

Tim Cahill. He's a travel writer and one of the founding editors of Outside magazine. Most people like Bill Bryson, but I like Tim Cahill. When I began reading him, I discovered that I didn't actually have to travel there to enjoy the place, his storytelling was so magically sufficient. And funny. I appreciate funny. It's hard to do. I read a few of his books and got the sincere impression that he loved his job, and enjoyed writing. I immediately envied him.

John Irving. Now, I admit that I've only really read one of his books, A Prayer For Owen Meany, but the book so moved me, and so enveloped me as the story was told, that I will never forget the experience. I was obsessed with movies growing up, and I mean, really obsessed. But when I read Meany, I thought for the first time that writing might be a decent, workable outlet for my creative inclinations if the film thing never panned out. (And a cheaper one.) Anyway, the first paragraph in that novel so inspired me that I wrote a short story in college that opened with a similar, somewhat plagiarized, paragraph -different words, but a nearly duplicate cadence, which was the brilliant part. I dream of being able to orchestrate something like that first paragraph of his. (Irving was a student of Buechner, by the way, and quotes him at the beginning of that book.)

Thoreau/Emerson. Those crazy passionate transcendentalists who wouldn't leave Nature alone. Brilliant, to be sure, but sometimes out there. I saw Dead Poet's Society as a teenager and it got me looking into all that stuff, which was better than the movie -but such is the power of movies. Anyway, those two guys, Emerson especially, got me into heavy ideas. I like heavy ideas.

Joseph Campbell. Not a writer, per se -Lord knows his master thesis The Hero With a Thousand Faces was an incorruptible, unreadable bore- but the ideas are genius. He disassembled all the classic myths and explained why they are great, why they are lasting, and he used Star Wars as his modern day example to prove the points (it's what originally got my attention.) The Power of Myth interviews are truly fascinating and utterly brilliant, and if you want to know what makes good stories tick, his teachings are indispensable. I never appreciated his lumping the Jesus story into his analysis of myths, but I still go back to Campbell to remember the basics. The Matrix, Indiana Jones, Harry Potter, and a myriad of others -they all owe a huge debt to Joseph Campbell.

Ernest Hemingway/Kurt Vonnegut. How can I possibly couple the two? Yes, I know, it's nutz. But Thoreau taught to "Simplify, simplify, simplify" and I've always taken that to heart. (Or, wanted to.) These two authors have mastered a way of writing that cuts out all the chaff, loses all the superfluous adjectives, and gets straight to the story. Hemingway more than Vonnegut, but Vonnegut was always so funny that it just felt like it was important that it was funny. Anyway, I can't really bear Vonnegut anymore, as I've grown out of pacifism, but if you see these three and four word sentences of mine -that's where they come from. Hemingway had it mastered to the point where if he actually started using adjectives you might have a conniption or a seizure or some kind of aneurysm from the aesthetic overload.

And Douglas Adams. That guy was just plain, awesomely hilarious. Dedicated atheist, but his humor is immortal. I was a devoted reader, and terribly saddened when he died at 49 in Santa Barbara. I was living there at the time, and always looked for him in the pubs but never bumped into him. Not sure what I would have said in any case. If I was given the choice of either being a good writer or having his sense of humor, I would be a terrible writer -but you wouldn't notice (or care) because you were laughing so hard.

Anyway, it's all just something I was thinking about. If I ever get around to writing some book worth your reading, it'll probably sound like a combination of the above authors. (Did I say "combination"? I may have meant "conflagration".)


Monday, December 21, 2009

First day of Winter. (The Winter Solstice! It's the reason for the season!)

I suppose it's possible that the miscreant who stole my neighbor's baby Jesus was just too poor to afford his own baby Jesus, but in my mind it still ain't right. (See here.) I'm as saddened by that priest as I am by my local cul-de-sac shoplifter, but maybe I'm just Old School Religious, like where, hey man, stealing is just wrong, you know?

This also makes me sick. I visited Dachau about ten years ago and was struck by the (similar) sign and its stark, eeriness. Godless totalitarianism became so real at that moment, walking alone through those gates, where before it had been little more than a historical concept. It didn't occur to me to steal the sign, incidentally, but like a good American I did take a picture of it. When I got home, I taped it on my computer to compel me to keep writing. It hovered there above the screen for years: ARBEIT MACHT FREI. In English: "Work Means Freedom". I was miserable for so long, and yet I held out hope that If I just kept at it, maybe I could get good and make something of myself, sell something. It never really happened, and the pic never really helped. On the contrary, it may have made me loathe the craft altogether, as I dragged myself to that work camp every day, writing what I thought I was supposed to be writing, or something, or whatever. Eventually I hated and resented it. I stopped reading, stopped seeing movies, and then I think I stopped writing the day I ripped that 3x5 off the computer. Went off and got myself a contractor's license and a wife, I did. And five years after that I started this blog. Thought I'd see if it would take.

In some unexpected ways, it did. This will be my 235th post this year, matching last year's 235, and I think, to some degree, that's an achievement. I'm not going to claim that it's all great writing, (or even good writing) but I did it. I sat down and wrote a bit for most of the year. I tried to have new thoughts. I tried to put a few words together that I'd never seen put together in that order before. Some days I succeeded a bit.

The goal was really something else, however. I wanted to see if I could do it on top of a full-time job and a full-time family. I wanted to see if a bit of creativity would transpire amid the madness of spinning those other plates, because... for ten years I thought I needed to suffer "The Writer's Life" being poor and lonely, pursuing the Mighty Dream of ART for art's sake. Now I know that that was a mighty lie. Why, since I started writing this post 45 minutes ago I have had to get up from the keyboard and 1) put the child in the bath, 2) get the other child away from playing in the toilet, 3) turn the burners off on the dinner that's cooking, and 4) well, a million other fits and starts not worth mentioning. But I'm writing. And I'm happy at the same time, where before I thought misery was some necessary apparatus. What a joke.

I know I'm no Van Gogh, but I was very nearly as depressed as he was throughout the 90s. At the time I found it vaguely inspiring, the way no one likes to smoke alone. Now I know that Van Gogh would still have painted great art if he was happy. The two things, disposition and ability, are totally unconnected, and I have no idea why I ever thought they were. (I can still be bold: I suspect that if Van Gogh had conquered his internal demons, his art would have been altogether more elevating -though perhaps they wouldn't sell for the millions they do today. It's the world we live in.) Anyway, if someone tells you otherwise, check and see if they're miserable first. Never accept advice on success and happiness from someone who's miserable.

Towards the end there, circa 1999, I read a quote from Ray Bradbury who said he loved writing so much that he just sat at the typewriter in his basement all day long and just laughed and laughed, and then spent the rest of the day collecting metaphors. It floored me. I was so miserable writing, that I knew I would never be a success, and if I ever were, what would be the point? I knew I could never be like Bradbury because I was living wrong.

So I quit. I quit for about five years.

And then I, sort of... started again. What's surprising to me is how easy it was to come up with something to write about every day. That's not to say that it was ever consistently interesting to read, per se, but I never expected anyone to have a daily rapture upon reading my morning journal. My intent from the outset was just to entertain myself, to find some joy in the craft, and, happily, there have been some days where Mrs. Ditchman has asked me what I'm laughing about, while I was in front of the computer, and I just shook my head and said "nothing" because I was just cracking myself up. If you spend a lot of time being creative, you know the feeling: the good stuff comes from somewhere else. And I like that somewhere else. I want it to vacation here. Now, it would be nice to have something to show for it, instead of some random set of blog entries.

Real writing is hard. It takes discipline and work. And attention. This is more like journal writing, which is little more than a small flexing of the muscles, a few miles of jogging a day when you know you're capable of competitive racing. "Journal writing" is what professional writers do on top of the hardcore stuff they dedicate themselves to. Journal writing is relaxing. And blogging is a joke.

I know how hard it is, and I know I should dedicate some more time to it all if I pretend to aspire to something more valuable. Time is hard to find nowadays, but I know that's an excuse. (I used to have all the time in the world, and look where it got me.) So all this to say... I think I'm going to ease back on the blog. It's always been the original Most Significant Thing: passion, though now there are others. Mrs. Ditchman, who showed me what those others were, has been so great at putting up with it, being my tolerant muse and my dutiful enabler, but I know the sad truth why: because years ago, just after we were married, I told her that I would never be happy working in construction, and it has haunted this family ever since. She's had to live with that cruel joke -that I would mislead her down some illusory path of security, building these funny aluminum patio covers. But she has found it in herself to look the other way when I write. And sometimes she sends me an email, "Good blog today" and I weep about it on the way to work, the grateful husband, doing his duty. Work means freedom.

The year's coming to a close. I'll be 40 in 2010. It's time to work a little harder on some other significant things. I miss fiction, which I happen to think I'm better at than this, local effusive commentary. I don't expect to sell a million novels or anything -I just love it- and someone else out there might appreciate what I got. After all, though the Boston Marathon qualifying time is 3:20 for a 40-year-old, I was able to muster 3:26 without too much extra effort. Maybe I've got something special in me. Hey, maybe you do, too.

I've always been sentimental and, hell, it's Christmas time, so we're frosting the lollipops, here. And tomorrow I've got some big-ass senseless patio cover with some funky plastic sheathing on top of it -you know, to protect from the rain that comes two days out of the year in this county. It doesn't make any damn sense, except that there's a paycheck in it. But like I said, I'm sentimental. I believe things do change, with effort. I used to think every day was the first day of Winter, but now I know those heavenly bodies need us, with our dark matter, to heft them round the sun.


Friday, December 18, 2009

Here it is folks. Every year I cart it out and prop it up, and every year I laugh:

Still can't imagine what went into the making of that album cover. "Stand right there, Ray. Now hold this. You look great!" (**snicker, snicker**) The thought of those horses getting suddenly frightened by the likes of the Ghost of Christmas Past and then just racing off into the snow with a blind musician at the reins is the kind of funny stuff holiday comedies are made of.

I actually bought a Christmas album the other day, and thought I'd mention it here, it's so good. Christmas music is one of those things, where you're like, Gawd! I hate Christmas music! But you don't really. You hate the jingly-jangly, over-arching Perry Como stuff that has ten too-many people in the choir and then is played and replayed and played again while you're tethered to the torture table of whatever checkout counter you're at. The stuff that's good is the stuff you're listening to while you're decorating the tree, having a nice cider with a fire going. Or that Vince Guaraldi Charlie Brown Christmas soundtrack. Who in the world can reject the Charlie Brown soundtrack? No one. It's perfect.

Charles Schultz was a big jazz fan, and I can't help but wonder if his naming of "Charlie Brown" was at all influenced by Charles Brown, the notable blues singer who was the exact same age as Schultz, and who died at the same time.

Anyway, you can't go wrong spending $9.99 on iTunes for this album:

I was going to say that it surpassed my love for the B.B. King holiday album, "A Christmas Celebration of Hope" and then I realized that it's nearly the same set of songs. I guess there's not a lot of bluesey holiday stuff out there, so these masters of the genre are stuck reworking the same material. Anyway, the musicianship in both of them is terrific. You'll love them. Buy now.

(Charles Brown wrote the original "Please Come Home for Christmas" by the way, and it was a big hit for him in 1960, and so was later copied by Jon Bon Jovi and The Eagles and nearly everyone else.)

Have a blue Christmas this weekend. That's not a bad thing.


Thursday, December 17, 2009

Christmas beer! Yes, Virginia, there is such a noble thing.

I'm drinking the Jubelale from Deschutes Brewery. Last year it was horrid, undrinkable. Tree sap hopped with the pine needle nests of four calling birds. This year, mmm not so bad... Actually hoppy, with a very nice color.

I'm behind on my tour of the Christmas beers this year. For one, they all seem to have gone up in price. This is sucky. For two, the first few I got were disappointing, and then I followed it with the Samuel Adams Winter Case, which has always been disappointing except for the nice Costco price. But the Samuel Adams Winter Lager was not too bad either this year. I found it refreshing, though not particularly bold nor ambitious as most winter ales are.

People generally don't like "bold and ambitious", with which I can sympathize, but it's good once a year, like garish Christmas decorations are good once a year. And most of these bold beers are well-hopped, well-spiced, and higher on the specific gravity scale (read: alcohol heavy. Meaning, drink a few and you're more likely to fall down from all that gravity.) so you feel warmer on the inside during cold weather. Interested in starting out on a few Christmas beers? Here's a few tips. (I'm an expert!)

The Samuel Smith's Winter Welcome is a great place to start. (Not Samuel Adams.) It's been bottled longer than just about any other Christmas brew and has a very attractive seasonal label, with a friendly Shakespeare quote on it. It's brewed in the style of the classic English ales, but with a bit of seasoning. It's not too heavy and, frankly, I could drink this any day of the year, but if you're new to this kind of beer you can get a feel for what you're in for without wading too deep into the seasonal spicy boldness. (The label, by the way, claims that the brewer uses "Fuggle and Golding hops with nuances and complexities that should be contemplated before an open fire" and who can argue with that?)

On the other end of the spectrum, all should know about the Anchor Steam Christmas Ale. They claim a different recipe every year, but every year you can expect a dark mahogany, fully-spiced beverage, somewhat ricocheted off a porter. It's practically a chocolate mint beer, with all the spices that dust a wassail, and then some. There's nothing like it. People new to beer will hate it, but old brew meisters LOVE IT to no end. I've always felt kinda funny about the stuff, but I find myself enjoying it in an odd way, if only for that pretty tree on the label. But I don't know how to describe this beer. If you put coffee, chocolate, brandy, rum cake, cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla, spearmint, caramel, and whatever random moldy fruit you had on the counter, into a blender and then let it ferment, you might have one nasty disaster, or you might have the perfect winter beer, Anchor Christmas! Anyway, everyone should try it. (This year's recipe feels a bit more mellow than previous years, so it's a good year to be a first-timer.) They also sell it in a magnum, and claim it tastes better after a few years of aging. Maybe it does, for the fourteen people in the world who age their beers.

I personally go for the Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale. You can buy it most anywhere, and it's a hoppy, flavorful winter brew with some citrus notes that raise a December eyebrow like no other winter beer will. If you try this one first and discover yourself liking it, you may find that no other Christmas beer compares. If you don't like it at all, well... sorry -Christmas beers, most likely, are not for you.

There are many others, and I am happily working my way through them as a public service. (You're welcome.) Redhook's Winterhook used to be the best winter beer around, a truly stunning display, but now it tastes like it was brewed in a corporate reindeer stable. (I get depressed every year about it. I blame the Anheuser-Busch takeover.) Anderson Valley's Winter Solstice is always highly rated, and highly priced. I didn't like it last year, with its thick cream soda flavor, but I will gladly give it another tasting. That's what's great about the Christmas beers, they're slightly different every year, but altogether reliably pleasing, like the Christmas tree in the living room.


UPDATE: The Anderson Valley Winter Solstice has unique qualities that will really appeal to some. It reminds me of a cream soda, but with a full seasonal ale astride it. It's a winter beer for a sunny afternoon on the slopes, where the Anchor Christmas is one to have alongside a full holiday meal, and the Sierra Nevada Celebration is an end of day, gift-unwrapping's done kind of beer. They're all a pleasure.


Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Beer and coffee may prevent prostrate cancer. Assuming that this research hasn't been done by climatologists or the Beverage Marketing Board, this is good news! Especially since it specifically lists hoppy beer, my favorite kind. Stick with me kids, we'll live forever!

Did I mention we got a new car? We got a new car! This was supposed to be last Wednesday's news, but somehow that day never made it to print. Anyway, it's a Toyota Sequoia, if you want to know. Mrs. Ditchman has had her eye on one for a few years now, and since she's on the "nice" list, I went out and bought her a nice new one for Christmas. She deserves it. Merry Christmas, baby! What a wonderful surprise. What a great husband.

Okay, so it's not new -it has 75,000 miles on it. And I didn't get it for her -she dragged me down to the dealership and pointed, That one, and five hours and a hundred initialed documents later we were driving it home. She loves it. I'm happy for her. It was a long day.

I love it, too, actually, though I suspect I'll only get to drive it once a week. My Tundra is paid off this month, so the payments transfer over, which is nice. They gave us a couple thousand for the old 4Runner, which was more than it was worth, and we were very grateful. On one hand, we were sad to see the old clunky, little beast go -it was king of the last of the pre-marital possessions, and there are a thousand good memories with that car. On the other hand, when the family loaded up into the new Sequoia and drove it off the lot, no one thought to look back. The Little Ditchman didn't even shed a tear, though she was a mite bit upset we didn't get "a blue one". (It still comes up.)

So it's very clean and we got a good deal on it -at least, we feel that we got a good deal on it, which is all that really matters. It's a worthwhile peace-of-mind to have a roomier, more reliable vehicle. The thing looks brand new, with nary a scratch on it, but the high mileage makes you wonder, just where was the previous owner driving this thing, anyway? Was he commuting to Alaska? It's a 2007 model, so he racked up all those mysterious miles in just a few short years.

I think he's a he, I should say, since I don't know the gender distinction of "Librado Arellano" -his name was on the insurance card, which we found in the sun visor. So I looked him up in the phone book, and it turns out he lives a mile from here. It would be funny to pull up his driveway, honk the horn, and yell out the window, Hey man! What did you do to this thing!? Unless it was a repo, then we'd have trouble, with him coming out thanking me for returning it.

Sometimes I wonder who is driving my old Tacoma. I miss it. I wish I had never sold it, but then I didn't have a choice at the time since size mattered. (Still does. For work.) I'll never forget how proud I was for having bought such a nice car, and how grateful I was to the future Mrs. Ditchman for making it happen for me. And then we drove off in it after our wedding. It was covered in rose petals and shaving cream, and for a couple days after we were that smiling, giddy couple moving down the highway. You've seen them: the ones in the car with the hand-scrawled writing on the rear window, JUST MARRIED. I'll never forget it. People honked.

I want to ditch the car seats -with the kids in them- somewhere. I want to go out and paint JUST MARRIED on the back of the new Sequoia and drive off with my wife, up the coast for a few days, people honking at us. I want to walk in the forest and drink wine. Sit together in an old Adirondack chair in the middle of a stream. Frolic. It seems an escape is in order: some kind of small, romantic adventure that is exclusively ours. Because we're coming up on that fabled seven-year-itch -the one that if you scratch it it won't heal. You've got to do these things sometimes, lest the reason for all your subtle, unspoken melancholies becomes merely that: that you're just married.


Monday, December 14, 2009

WHAT A WEEKEND! Okay, I exaggerate. I humbly admit my unqualifiable enthusiasm. It was ho-hum, a December weekend like most other December weekends. One filled with the high hopes of year-end accomplishments, and yet only a paltry few were fulfilled. I made a list. There were eleven tasks. As of right now, only four are crossed off, and two of those were crossed off on the hasty side, as minor touch-ups remain to be done. Ackk.

Today I was not up with the concrete guys, I was up with the children. But this was fine, since I needed to be up pouring concrete anyway. Went and rented another VERY LARGE concrete trailer again, since I am such a master of the thing now, and found at the end of the day that I had about four full wheelbarrows of the stuff left over. Concrete! Who wants concrete? What was I going to do with it? So I went home to see where I could pour it. Mrs. Ditchman emerged and pointed out a right, good empty spot near the driveway that always bugged her. "Pour it there," she commanded. I did, but I had to build the forms first. In the end, she was very right about it all, and it was serendipitous -we even put the kids' handprints in it, like the good sentimental Americans we are. The concrete wasn't wasted, and everything turned out okay.

I'm not mentioning all the other myriad of things that went awry this Monday.

Went to church yesterday, which was nice, and I didn't blow it on the communion, as I am want to do. I even stopped myself from exclaiming in a whisper, as I handed the Holy Host to my wife, "Eat drink and be merry! For we are wholly forgiven though we don't deserve it!" One could argue that this is biblically correct, but I doubt anyone could make the case that it was proper for the moment, so I just went with "Christ's body broken for you," like everyone else does. Meh, it works.

The pastor pointed out the shepherds. The poor shepherds. He said that shepherds were not allowed to bear witness in the courts of their time -they were so distrusted. They were like communal hippies, I guess, living out in the fields with their animals. Anyway, the angels appeared to them first:

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger."

Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests."

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "WOW."

Okay, they didn't say "wow" exactly, as it reads in the Bible, but this is the way our pastor ended the reading and it got a good laugh.

It got a good laugh because of course they said "WOW!" But the Bible doesn't have time for flowery theatrics in this section -there's just too much information to get across. The Heavenly Host has just appeared, however unlikely, to the most untrustworthy folks in the land, and has informed them of this impending momentous occasion. It's like every UFO sighting ever recounted, and at the end of which, if it happened to you, you would say: "WOW."

Then the shepherds run out and tell everyone that they basically just saw a flying saucer, "and all who heard it were amazed." Amazed at the passion of idiots? Perhaps. But there was proof: that little baby lying in that manger in suburban Bethlehem.

The Bible tells us to be like Jesus, or at least like that innocent child Jesus. But we are more often not like Jesus, and, if we are lucky, we are only vaguely like those hippie, untrustworthy shepherds. No, the Bible tells us we are like the sheep, the goats. (Isaiah 53:6, Matthew 25:33) It's sad. It's sad because, well, the Heavenly Host showed up for the shepherds. What were the sheep and goats doing at that moment?

And this is why we need Jesus. Luckily, the Lord is our shepherd.
(Psalm 23)

Merry Christmas.


Friday, December 11, 2009

I can't take it anymore so I'm making a list. Will check it twice. Not going to be nice about it, but things need to get done around here, as it's all just piling up. I can see on the calendar that next week has me fully occupied, so now's the time to get everything else done. It's raining. You're stuck in the house for the weekend. Take advantage of it.

I don't think I've ever been more worn out after a marathon, its resultant pain having hung around all week, but neither have I spent a full day with a 55 pound jackhammer after a marathon either. That was Wednesday, and if there was an unsore muscle before that, we took care of him then. I was roundly angry about it, but had no one to blame. The inspector signed the rocky holes off yesterday. I'm sure he could feel the vibe that his very life depended on his initials in a certain box, on a certain building permit.

So that all got unexpectedly delayed, jamming up next week and piling us all headlong into the holiday whether we get our shopping and wrapping done or not. The rain doesn't exactly help. Neither do those typical year-end few who have a mite drip or two from their solid-ceilinged cover installed some ten months ago, when it was dry as the moon. I'll get to you. Soon as the clouds part.

But 'tis a happy time. I lit a fire tonight, put on some old Christmas jazz, poured a wee dram of Drambuie, and took a walk in the rain with some kids. Went out to the wet wood pile and was reminded of a poem. I may just read it aloud to myself later. It's called "relaxing", and we've heard whispers, rumors about it from other tired parents. Yes, it is the thing of myths: this place where the children sleep and parents recline. But we have hope all the same.

Have a peaceful weekend. Tidings of comfort and joy.


Thursday, December 10, 2009

Have you been following this story? It broke yesterday.

That's an actual, unretouched photo, by the way, and I find it supremely cool. There are more on the link, as well as video. So: aliens? Yes, yes, aliens, yes of course! Obviously! Either that, or the twelfth imam or Jesus or [your deity here] has returned from the heavens, arriving in Norway. Who cares that the Russian military denies any recent missile testing?

I knew what it was from the moment I saw it, but so did a lot of folks, and I didn't even get a chance to brag about it here before someone at Gizmodo came up with a computer simulation that explains it (here) heading off the inevitable international panic. One question for you doubters of truth: did you actually think that the Russians would announce that their new intercontinental ballistic missile spiraled out of control? There's 10 separate nuclear warheads on that thing! (Well, potentially.) Anyway, the pics are neat and I couldn't resist posting one.

Sorry if you came here looking for EOTW news lately and have been disappointed. #1: it's Christmas, and we shan't be talking about such matters. #2: I'm embarrassed to admit that I didn't actually get out to see that Roland Emmerich masterpiece, king of all disaster flicks, 2012 movie. I really should have, if I want to be a scholar on the subject. Truth is, when I heard that Danny Glover was playing the president, I thought the storyline had jumped the shark and just gone too far. (California tumbling into the sea, I can handle.) I'll catch it on video. (That is, if it comes out in time!)

What can I say? Everyone's got their thing. Some people love bacon, I love this end-of-the-world stuff -as I do all things Bigfoot, Nessie, Little Green Men, and Unknown Species/Phenomena. Sometimes I hold back from blogging about it, because there's just so much out there. And some of it really is.

Someone commented on the Gizmodo site that the photo was like a photo of a lone tree in the middle of nowhere with skid marks that went straight into it. Yes, in all the vast, empty universe, a wayward alien crashed into our little inhabited planet.

Could happen.


Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Can it be repeated? I kept asking myself, out there on the run this morning. I ran my own little 5K around the suburbs, the one I contrived years ago, the one where it all really started. "My 5k", I call it on my little running calendar. It goes out across the mighty intersection and tours the suburbs. Past the elementary school where the kids will go in a few years, up and over some hills, past the high water towers and a hundred homes just like mine, and then down and around the hillside, a vantage point from which I can see my own backyard and, on some days, the big tv glowing in the distant living room with the kids watching Handy Manny or Little Einsteins, or something. Then my course goes down, down, down, where I try to pick up a little speed without breaking my ankles, back across the boulevard, and then up, up as fast and as hard as I can, back into my cul-de-sac. It's exactly 5 kilometers. My PR on it is 22:07, which is about 2:30 slower than I can do on a flat 5k course. The hills really throw you, and crossing the Big Street is always a crapshoot, which I chalk up as that capricious variable that exists in every race (like this past Sunday's biting cold.) Some days there are no cars, and I can rocket across the highway. Other days I have to wait, as big trucks lumber by and the seconds fall off my watch.

Today I ran/walked it in 30 minutes, feeling the residual pain of the Vegas race, but trying to rub it out of the system with some sort of massage of consistent, but slowed, footwork, like a painter moving from oils back to pencils. These marathons punish the body, taking it right up to the limit, and I couldn't honestly see how I'd done it, or whether it could be repeated, or even improved upon. It can, I'm sure, but I'll have to take it nice and easy for a while, which is really the challenging part. But it's Christmas, so that set of distractions will help.

Back to making shade this week, though who needs it after last weekend's storm? We arrived back in town to find a new set of broken pottery and our patio umbrella halfway across the yard. Some weather tore through here while we were gone, and by the looks of it there was quite a fight. But it's good to be home. Someone ought to put these ornament boxes away so we can get on to enjoying the holidays.


Monday, December 7, 2009

The Good Sean of the North's Las Vegas Marathon write-up is more interesting and informative. Here, there's merely this humble offering.

At Mile 17 I was feeling like Wayne Newton with a full house, and my sister caught this great action shot of me, high-fiving my brother-in-law:

Marathons. What more can be said about them? Well, a lot, actually, but it all sounds redundant to a non-runner. Okay, it is redundant. I admit it. Put a few passionate folks together and they all end up talking about the same esoteric stuff. After every race, the story is the same: how you felt after this mile, how you felt at the finish, what strategy worked, what strategy didn't, oddly-dressed participants, and the chafing of intimate body parts. Not a runner? Then I doubt any of it will hold your interest... but we had a great time!

How? the non-runner asks, incredulously. There's no good answer. It's all a big joke, and you had to be there. And trust us: it was painful, miserable, cold, and we're still feeling the effects of it. You don't want to have been there... but it was awesome!

If you're interested, I got a PR (personal record) of 3:26:29, which I feel great about, since my previous best was 3:46 at the OC marathon earlier this year. And that elusive Boston qualifying time is just over the horizon now, six short minutes away. I saw the 3:20 pace-setter about a half a mile ahead of me at around 19 and thought, Can I catch him? and at 24 I knew the answer with clear and reasonable certitude: No. Maybe next time.

The race itself may have contributed a few slowing factors: 36 degree start time with cold and dry temps all morning, and a 2000 foot elevation, where I'm accustomed to a warm, pleasant, oxygen-rich, sea-level atmosphere. But the truth is I got what I trained for. Ideal conditions would have improved my time by maybe a minute or two, and only prolonged, tempered self-discipline can wipe all that out. Excuses.

I have an unusual condition today, however. It's some sort of exercise-induced asthma brought on by running hard in the cold, dry air. Or perhaps it is my genetic predisposition to asthma (my mom, my uncle, and recently my sister, have it). Or perhaps it was the pre-race Tylenol I took, messing with my lungs in that stinging, cold air. Anyway, I'm finding it a bit difficult to take a deep breath today, (a new marathon symptom for me) but a night back in Oceanside and I'm sure I'll be fine. The same old post-race aches and pains are there, as well as some back pain from tensing up with the cold. It doesn't matter if you run 3:26 or 3:46 or 4:46. It's still far, and it still hurts.

It was a terrific race! Elvis beat me by a few minutes, but I also beat a few hundred of him.


Friday, December 4, 2009

Friday News Roundup:

How could they?

"As a precaution, he was wearing a full-length stinger-suit, a lightweight version of a wetsuit that covers everything but the face."

All men watch porn. ALL OF THEM.

"The World's 18 Strangest Roadways."

Jon Stewart: “Poor Al Gore: global warming completely debunked by the very Internet you invented. Oh, the irony.”

More irony.

Toy Hannah Montana doll says, "..later we'll have some F-ing pie and we'll do some caroling." Parents thrilled.

Finding the Perfect Christmas Tree can be dangerous. Here's some tips.

Have a marshmallow weekend. If you're going to be running the Las Vegas Marathon, I'll see you there!


Thursday, December 3, 2009

Oh, no. I hope it's not going to be one of those Christmas's...

I am a third of the way through putting up the Christmas lights on the house. Also, we still have the ornament boxes piled around the living room. It's been that kind of week. Putting up the decorations is fun. Dragging the boxes down from the attic and then cleaning up the mess of empty boxes and crumpled newspaper afterward is half the work, and no fun at all. It's because of the stairs, I believe. I believe!

The reason the exterior house lights are taking so long is because I am installing an elaborate system of hooks on the fascia boards, to make the light-hanging of 2010 (and beyond) a breeze. I have to drill out the holes, and then screw in a little hook every two feet or so. I have a lot of roofline, and it's pretty high, so I'm going one hook at a time. It's nice up on the roof, with the Santa's sleigh-eye view of the cul-de-sac, but one wrong move and it will all be remembered as the Christmas where Daddy broke his back. (Which, in my mind, is like most Christmas's, but no one ever remembers.)

We had an AFV moment the other day, but the cameras weren't rolling, unfortunately, so there will be no prize money. The whole family was outside watching Daddy hang the lights. Every head was turned in an equal and opposite direction, and I picked up the ladder and swung it around, a leg of which clocked the Little Digger square in the head, knocking him flat to the ground in a perfect little Buster Keaton-style pratfall. It would have been pretty funny, if it hadn't hurt him so bad. He had a good-sized bump on his head -an AFV-sized bump. That show never seems to go into the resultant medical status of its participants.

Only a few ornaments have been broken so far, but we're only a few days into it, so give us some time. This is the year many ornaments found their way to the Wednesday Morning Curbside Experience, unfortunately for them. We were unpacking box after box of dumb little plastic baubles with corporate logos on them, and I resolved to sequester them away under cover of tree lights late one night. The children will never notice that they're gone, but the dross must be wrapped, ironically, before being placed in the garbage. You see, these kids are always looking through the kitchen trash can, and finding old, forgotten works of art and faded bric-a-brac with dangerous sharp edges. The parents always get a stern rebuke: "HEY! Who threw away my [busted plastic teacup, torn paper with scribble, old ribbon tied to deflated balloon, etc.]? Why? WHY!?"

I don't know where most of these ornaments come from, or how we've accumulated so many. We never buy ornaments, except for the one-per-year for the family ornament exchange. Perhaps we are the family whom no one knows what to get for Christmas, so they get us the old holiday gift standby, The Ornament. And then, I suppose, they are all kept out of a certain obligation. But as soon as an ornament's point of origin is forgotten, it's trash -unless, of course, it is undeniably beautiful, at which point hanging it on the tree risks its doom, since the kids angle for the pretty ones, with breakage on their minds. (I keep the Crazy Glue handy.) Anyway, we have several fine ornaments, all clustered near the top of the tree, clinging to the little ornate ceramic angels, holding on for dear life.

Things break at Christmas, and it's always so unsettling, what with the joy once-removed by broken decorations, broken ornaments, broken just-opened gifts, broken hearts. Perhaps it's all part of The Big Divine Design of Christmas, to repair/renew/replace at year's end, fresh for Spring. Or perhaps God lets it all break on purpose, since there's a nice tree under there.


Wednesday, December 2, 2009


I love Christmas! But so many people find so much about Christmas so upsetting. I fall into that category of people who catch themselves loathing so much about the holiday, who realize their criticism curbs the joy of others, and who then backpedal furiously -No! I love it! I love the holiday! I love the music! The presents! The time with family! I love decorating the tree!- and then denying all the misguided gaudiness that surrounds them.

When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, THE PEACE SIGN, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was. When they saw THE PEACE SIGN, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy. And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him...

So Pottery Barn just doesn't get it, so what? So what if they want to decorate their trees with the symbol of the British nuclear disarmament movement? What's wrong with that? Sheez. Relax. Peace on earth, good will toward corporate marketing.

I was going to make a big deal out of it, but then I saw that one of my sisters bought a big peace sign for the top of her tree, and so I shut up. Because she loves Christmas, and possibly even more than I do. It's just that I love the subset of "Christmas" that has to do with religion and family and tradition and history and that Ultimate Gift that both blessed and confounded the world for the ensuing millennia. The peace of it all, actually. She, on the other hand, loves a mostly different subset of "Christmas". The one that includes shopping, wrapping, partying, and large, inflatable snowmen in the yard. We're all happy. What's wrong with that?

But you're doing Christmas wrong, you know.

What kind of crazy family opens presents on Christmas Eve, for example? And what nut spends Christmas morning dishing out turkey at a homeless shelter? Don't you know we're all supposed to shuffle downstairs in our pajamas and dive full-bore into the plunder at the fireside? If there were ever a confluence of elves and pirates, it would manifest on the American Christmas morning.

But, ahhh, Christmas! It's the most wonderful time of the year! I got some of the lights up on the house the other day, and plan on spending a few more days to trim the remainder of the roofline later this week. And we got a tree. A good tree. So many of the trees in the lot reached out at odd angles and had bare spots without branches. I jokingly commented to Mrs. Ditchman that I guess God had made those trees wrong, and I realized then that that's the way so many people treat the holiday: they're all busy looking for the perfect tree.

Find the perfect tree. And then cut it down, bring it inside, and decorate it. (Of course, Charles Schultz knew all this.)

It's so distinctly human to miss the point of everything, that I can accept it all blithely and cheerfully. What choice do we have? That the Prince of Peace would come amid the shame of two unmarried young adults, that a genocide of infants would soon follow, that the world would change by the eventual gruesome sacrifice of the miracle-maker that was born among some dirty farm animals...

And we celebrate that birth like this! And here in Southern California the fantasy is layered on the miracle, since there's no winter wonderland, no ice skates, sleighs, or snowmen, no certainty of what a reindeer really looks like. It's sunny all day! We'll be lounging in deck chairs on New Year's!

It hardly makes sense. It's confusing, like a lot of things in life. But the Little Ditchman gasped at the neighbor's lights as we drove by last night, and she has learned the lyrics to Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer, and right now she is downstairs with mommy gluing some glitter on home-made Christmas cards. The Little Digger is wearing felt antlers with little bells on them that jingle every time he turns his head. Holiday music is playing. We're together. Have a cookie. This is great. Don't ruin it for me.


Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Last month was National Novel Writing Month, and I failed miserably, again, although last year I didn't even try. This year I actually tried -I signed up, I had a plan, I started a new blog, and then I quit on Day 1. How did you do?

I was really going to do it, too. Years back I wrote a lengthy, ambitious screenplay with a dumb, pretentious title and I always thought it would make a fun book. Recently, the idea of sitting back every night for an hour or so and having some creative time, hammering out a novel, sounded like a good idea, and one I was ready for. But November turned out to be too busy with all that work, and running, and then there were all those time-sucking holidays. Seems I just can't write a novel in any month with a holiday in it. Maybe January, but then there's MLK day smack in the middle of it, messing up everything.

The goal is to write 50,000 words in a month, just for the sake of doing it and calling it a novel. It's not really that much. People don't realize how little that is, how easy that is to reach, how, by the end of this paragraph, I will have already logged 250 words in this post alone. My word count for TMST in November was 10,000, (It is. I counted.) and I practically did that in my sleep. Why I don't just pump out novels is like asking why you do all those 20 milers, but never run a marathon. There's a reason for it, I'm sure.

Crying babies. Needy customers. The stress of day-to-day living. I used to pride myself in the fact that I could concentrate within the fracas, write with the music blasting, work under pressure. Whether that was ever true is no matter, I can't do it any more. I guess I'm getting old. I need peace. I need quiet. I need space.

So, maybe some day. I could have just uploaded all the blogs and declared myself a winner. (There is no prize, by the way, but bragging rights. Hell, they don't even offer to read the book for you, and that's the hardest part of the whole endeavor -courting or conning someone into reading your dumpy novel.) I'm not sure there's a definite arc to my blog's characters, however. It would make for an odd work. I can see the book jacket:

Written in a uniquely hypnotic, free-form style in the literary tradition of Joyce and Faulkner, Hawkins abandons all the conventional aspects of language and trailblazes to the frontier of the artistry, or, at least, proficient chicken scratch. The uncommonly compelling story follows The Family Ditchman, their adventures in the aluminum patio cover industry, and their travails and triumphs in a suburban cul-de-sac.

And beneath it, a quote from someone famous:

"You won't be able to put it down! At least, not without bullets. Hey, when the horse has broken legs, what good is it?" -Margaret Thatcher

Seriously, the Little Digger is screaming his head off right now and I can't put two words together. I had something I wanted to say, here, and it has been cried out of the building. I guess that's why I run -It doesn't involve me being in the house. Speaking of running, I get a lot of great ideas out there on the run, but I can never remember them when I get back.

I can't remember anything when there's noise, and hardly more when there's not. You'd think the deafness of old age would contribute to brilliant writing, but the forgetfulness that accompanies it precludes this. So I can run marathons at 40, but I can't finish a novel. At this age, mid-life, it's like there's no time to stop for anything. I'll just keep running.


Monday, November 30, 2009

Mrs. Ditchman has not had a full night's sleep since before we were married, six and a half years ago. I know this for a fact, since we've not been apart more than a month's time, total, in all those collected nights. I treasure them.

I don't think it's what she agreed to, when she said yes to me seven years ago today on the edge of that Grand Canyon, both literal and otherwise. For that matter, I'm not sure I knew what I was asking. If we knew then what we know now, would she still have said yes? Would I still have asked?

And the answer is a resounding Yes. For all those sleepless nights are the price you pay for those full days -that full life, brimming with the joy that only such precious, dedicated, familial camaraderie can bring. Our cup overflows. It's how we asked the angels to fill it, (hoped they would, anyway.) Later that night it snowed, and some would say, expectedly so. She thought we were going camping in it, and she still said yes! It was a cold, wet snow, but the sun came out the next morning. And I was quietly prepared for bad weather: I'd reserved the best room in the lodge.

She was itching to get out to exercise this morning, even though she's sick, and after being up all night. At 5:30AM she was holding the baby in the dark, in the hall, and I got up because I couldn't stand the thought of her standing out there any longer. When she saw me, she turned her back to me so I could see the kid, and she asked in a whisper if I could see whether the Little Digger's eyes were closed. They were, finally, and she exhaled. A few hours later she was angling for the front door for her workout, but she stopped, and then encouraged me to get my run in first. She knows it's important to me, which is what made me move fast to get back home, so she could get out there, too. For me, the day was a mess, but she managed to get groceries. She knows just what thing will occupy the children for the ten minutes she needs to make that business call. She let me complain about every useless thing, and responded by asking if I needed my laundry done. She made dinner. She did the dishes. She looked good. She bathed one kid and I bathed the other. She fell asleep on the couch towards the end of House, but she woke up and leaned over and puckered up to kiss me before she went off to bed tonight. When she does that, it doesn't matter what happened, or didn't, today. Everything's going to be fine tomorrow.

Somehow, seven years back, I made the right call.

And I'm taking credit for it. I own all the love I have for her, but it's hers for the taking at any given moment.


Friday, November 27, 2009

Thanksgiving accomplished. We won.

The slump is history. Now we shall slink into December with all its shimmering promises of a celestial wintertime beauty. Okay, it's Southern California. Let's not overstate things. I'm dreaming of a brown Christmas.

But we're feeling good, now. Nothing like piling on the relatives in close quarters and jamming food and wine down their throats to upturn recent melancholies and kickstart the prevailing mood. Seriously now, pull all the big tables together and throw a large sheet over it. Light some candles. Make the kids sit somewhere else. It's Thanksgiving.

One of my nephews, who is eight, announced that he would like to start a family Thanksgiving tradition. Hooray! we all said, and the new tradition was that we should go around and each state what we were thankful for. Brilliant! So we did. But everyone said essentially the same thing: that we were thankful for each other, that we were thankful for family, and that we were thankful that my mom was there and feeling better and looking good. (Also, it was mentioned, immense spontaneous gratitude for not having any homework this weekend. Praise be.)

I would have thanked my mom for having six kids so that we could all have so much family to enjoy and be grateful for, but then I realized that that might put a certain undue pressure on my wife and I -a pressure we could never withstand. And then it made me want to thank my mom all the more.

There were the usual two turkeys cooked by the usual two turkeys, my brothers-in-law. One bird was fried, one roasted, and the two turkeys cooking them remained mostly sober. They were, all of them, excellent company, and the tasty meat was just left out on two platters where, like some sort of strange, holiday vultures, we picked at it until midnight and then again this morning over coffee.

The women are out shopping now, and the men are down at the park playing ball. I am here alone with the baby, who sleeps, which is a good and necessary thing, though it is a sickly kind of sleep. I have a laptop out on the patio, and I am sipping a "Bud Lime" before noon, trying to think up a clever retort when someone calls me on it. Hey, I'm relaxing -let's all try it! Anyway, Mrs. Ditchman (and I, by extension) were up all night with that sick crying kid. It feels like 5PM on a Saturday, so a Bud Lime is in order. Why Bud Lime? Don't know. It was here, in a cooler, a few feet from me. Why not?

The clan held the annual ornament exchange last night, and it was the usual Black Friday Eve riot. It must be seen to be believed, but if you haven't heard the story, my family goes all out on this event. Everyone buys and wraps an ornament -some fantastically ornate, some gaudy and obnoxious- and we put them all on a table and draw numbers out of hat. Number 1 goes first, and all successive numbers retain the option to steal any previously-opened ornament, or choose a fresh one. Sounds fun, until you realize that families work deviously together, teaming up to purloin the good ones, retreating into dimly lit corners to plan out a strategy to obtain that Tiffany icicle or that dangling seahorse -the one blown from European glass by Bavarian artisans. It gets way out of hand, which is the entire point, and everyone is a good sport about it. Ornaments are only allowed to be stolen three times before they are considered "dead", so there is a lot of horse-trading and illicit wrangling to get the good items off the market. (You should know that exceptions are made for the innocent ones. The Little Ditchman got her hands on a blinking, singing set of waxy, hanging polar bears and she held it in such high regard, with a steady gaze of such adoration, that no one would dare think to steal it. She won.)

I have left the game with good ornaments in years past, but was fully shut out this year, having had one after another stolen and killed. It was I who ended the event last night by opening the last gift. I still maintain a change in the constitutional rule, that after the last person goes the first gets a chance to steal, but none will have it. I'm not sure why no one will go for it, but I guess if you start changing the rules one year, Thanksgiving will degenerate into desultory shin-kicking within a decade, and who wants that?

There were five pies. There was A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, which always feels a bit forced. There was some more wine and a lively discussion about iTunes and the fate of "the album". There was a failed attempt to Skype. Then we all fell asleep watching Elf, which is danged funny, but we'd all seen a hundred times. It was a good day.

And in that distant past of yesterday morning, a hundred miles away, I ran the Oceanside Turkey Trot 5K and came in 5th in my division! Number of runners in my division? Hmmm, I think 5. Gotta go. Bud Lime's getting warm.

Enjoy life, eat out less often!


Thursday, November 26, 2009

"None is more impoverished than the one who has no gratitude. Gratitude is a currency that we can mint for ourselves, and spend without fear of bankruptcy. " -Fred De Witt Van Amburgh

Happy Thanksgiving!


Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Inspector signed off on the cover yesterday -the cover with the big, deep holes filled with concrete, a ton of steel in the posts and headers, and a thousand bolts into the house- so I can finally put that all behind me. More or less. A friendly man is coming to install solar panels atop the overwrought aluminum edifice next week, so I may have to field a few questions. Otherwise, the permit is initialed and the box is checked -the one that says READY FOR OCCUPANCY. Burden lifted.

Also finished another one yesterday and signed up at least one for December. Though the year is slowing down to a close, with our income flow reduced to a trickle, I am very grateful. I need a bit of rest.

But there's no time for that! Gotta get up at daybreak for the local Turkey Trot! And then drive 125 miles to Thanksgiving, where the Little Ditchman has been promised she would get to build a gingerbread house. And then later this weekend: Christmas lights.

I actually had the foresight to purchase some lights the other day, knowing that they all sell out by Saturday, and since last year I found myself stuck mid-strand, without a workable set to move forward with. You see, our house requires a very specific type of light string with a "random twinkle" effect. This is different from the "blinking sparkle" effect, which will not do. Putting up these lights is a whole day affair, somehow, but I will blast Christmas music and pack away everything pumpkin and replace it with all things pine and winter. It's here. Time to stock up on the necessities: firewood, wrapping paper, ribbon, tape, cards, stamps, gifts, and other sundry items.

I was impressed with myself for a few hours, having bought the lights before that inevitable crisis of '08 was repeated. I was at Lowes and found the display box of my needed lights empty and I almost ho-ho-hollered in despair -until I saw an unopened crate of them buried up and behind the rack. I got it myself. Whipped out my key chain x-acto and began stocking shelves. No one said a thing. (My contractor work shirts happen to be a Lowes blue and, as a result, customers are always asking me where things are. Unfortunately for corporate, I usually have a quicker answer than the employees. No, seriously. I was waiting at an empty checkout counter the other day and the guy behind me asked sarcastically if I was going to fire up the register or just stand there looking stupid. I almost took his money.)

So I was impressed with myself for being ahead of the game, but when I turned up my cul-de-sac at day's end I noticed that one of the Jims had his lights UP AND ON! The Monday before Thanksgiving! The bastard! And then I drove past another Jim's house and HE HAD CHRISTMAS GARLAND HUNG AROUND HIS GARAGE! This was especially intimidating because I know he happens to be in Guantanamo, but damn, he is on top of it this year! So I gave up, and decided that Saturday I would give them all hell for going at it early. Later that night I went out to fetch the mail. Another neighbor had his ladder against the house. He was hanging lights in the dark. They were already plugged in. Damn you, Rod! I shaked my fist.

But it actually makes perfect sense, since you can more easily tell which bulbs are out when you're hanging them in the dark. So that will be my weekend, amid a paltry few other chores. What am I thankful for? So many things, but my family and my country more than anything, since just about all else can be remade. Gratitude wards off ruination, and is the key to happiness. It's not a key I intend to misplace.