True story. A friend of mine was the lead designer on on a Star Trek video game.

Late one night, he gets a phone call.

“Hi, I’m Dave and I’d like to speak to Scott.”
“This is Scott.”
“Is this the Scott that’s the lead designer on the Star Trek game?”
“It is.”
“I noticed that in the game, the Enterprise-D has only eight phaser cannons.”
“Umm, yeah?”
“Well, according to the Star Trek encyclopedia, it has only four.”
“Oh, I remember that. Yeah, we got the info from the Star Trek people, but in game balancing, we discovered that the ship was underpowered, so we added some more phasers so that it was balanced against the other ships.”
“Yeah, happens all the time in gaming.”
“Game balance is tough. You gotta make sure everything is balanced and fun.”
“The writers on the show weren’t thinking about how to make a good game, they only cared about what looked good on television.”
“Got it.”
“So, what are you going to do?”
“About what?”
“About the extra phasers. Will you release a patch that removes them?”
“A patch? Hell no. Do you know what goes into making a patch like that? We’d have to rebalance the whole game.”
“Or maybe an option for players to remove it, if they want?”
“No. Wait, who are you again?”
“I’m Dave.”
“How’d you get my number?”
“I looked you up in the credits. I guessed you live in the same city as your office. And you’re in the white pages.”


As some of you may have heard me rant about in the past, I used to be a sportswriter. And before I earned a spot covering all the major pro leagues and colleges in Southern California, I did my time covering high school sports. Everyone does it. A rite of passage, if you will.

So, I’m on the sidelines at a girls soccer playoff match in the mid 90s. One of the fathers is just going off on everyone. He’s yelling at his daughter’s team. He’s yelling at the opponents. He’s yelling at the ref. No profanity, so he thinks whatever he’s yelling is just A-OK, character-building shit.

And. He. Just. Won’t. Stop.

About 30 minutes in, the action of the game shifts to toward a goal, and he turns and he’s still yelling. From behind him, away from the action, one of the girls from his team takes the opportunity to sprint off the field. She runs right past me and BELTS this guy square in the chest. A picture-perfect right cross. In the dictionary next to “punch,” there’s a picture of this girl decking this guy. I mean, she just fucking lays him out, because she’s running full speed. Knocks him down, sends his sliding across the wet grass. He’s in a business suit; all I see is worsted wool Brooks Brothers and tasseled loafers, ass over tea-kettle.

Then she stands over him, like Muhammad Ali yelling at the unconscious Sonny Liston.



My wife and her girlfriends (all 40ish mothers) are all about the YA novels. They trade them with each other. Whatever. I watch football and play video games. Everyone has their quirk.

But when the Breaking Dawn movie came out, they had to make a special trip. A special trip to see the movie, for a very specific reason. See, they had to preview the wedding night scene before they’ll let their daughters see the movie.

You remember Breaking Dawn, right? It’s the movie where Edward, the 300-year-old vampire, finally weds Bella, the teenage girl. The mothers were afraid something might not be appropriate for their daughters to view on the silver screen.

“Huh?” I ask. “The wedding night? What happens?”
“Well, they break the bed.”
“They break the bed.”
“Like, he fucks her hard enough to break the bed?”
“Well, I’ve done that. Lousy IKEA shit. So, this bed-breaking love scene is in the book?”
“Well, when she wakes up and looks around, she’s sees that they’ve broken the bed.”
“So, it’s not actually in the book? There’s no line that goes, ‘And then with a final mighty thrust…'”
“But your girlfriends are afraid they’re going to show that in the movie.”
“Right. And they want to preview it before their tween daughters see it. To make sure it’s OK.”
“Isn’t this guy a vampire? Don’t people get killed in these movies? Violently?”
“Yes. And the other guy is a…”
“He’s a werewolf. I know that. But the violence is OK?”
“And these girls, they’ve read the books already, right?”
“Yes, but…”
“What’s the movie rated?”
“And you’re still worried?”
“It’s different…
“OK, fuck this. I’m going downstairs to watch the Broncos game.”

Tebow threw a touchdown pass in overtime to win it.


I don’t deal well with personal challenges. Ninety percent of the time, I’m like, meh, it’s not worth it. I got bigger fish to fry, bigger beers to drink.

But 10 percent of the time, I’m like, challenge accepted, and then I start sharpening various medieval weapons, because I’m going to hunt this challenge down, kill it, skin it, turn its shinbone into a pencil box. *shoots randomly in air* Let’s dance, chump.

Now I got challenged to do this thing, and it’s right on the cusp of turning from that 90% into that 10%, so whatever, I gotta write something now. *throws pencils randomly in air* Let’s edit, chump.

Quick and dirty, here we go. I almost fell out of an airplane.

Yes, you read that right. Fell, as in, gravity. Out of an airplane, as in, out of a airplane. In flight.

Let me ‘splain.

Like many How Are You Not Dead stories, they involve buddies or family in whom I place a foolish level of trust in. Therapists will tell you that you’re probably not recognizing how you’re own attitudes are contributing to the problem. But pfft, whatever, scientist. All being sciencey and stuff. Playing the empirical evidence card. I see your tricks.

Ultimately, this is a love letter to a soldier.

We’ll get to that later. First, we’re going to talk about Tom Cruise. I graduated high school in 1986. I worked at a movie theater. The No. 1 box office draw in 1986?

(Top Gun movie poster)
It’s classified. I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you.

Look, my friends and I have never claimed to be truly original fellows. We’re not rugged individualists. We didn’t set sails for distant horizons.

We pretty much did whatever Tom Cruise told us to do.

Tom plays pool? – the color of money

We played pool.

Tom flips bottles? — cocktail

We flipped bottles.

Tom plays beach volleyball? – top gun

We played beach volleyball.

Yes, we’re all totally heterosexual. Why do you ask?

In 1986, the biggest box office draw was Top Gun, and everyone I knew wanted to ride motorcycles like Tom Cruise, get the girl like Tom Cruise and fly jets like Tom Cruise.

(picture of Val Kilmer)
The hair, though? That was Val Kilmer’s area.

Look, the movie Top Gun was a Navy recruiting pitch in 35mm Dolby digital. In the wake of the film’s release, the U.S. Navy reported that its recruiting numbers went up 500 percent.

When the movie went to VHS, Paramount offered the Navy the chance to stick an actual recruiting commercial to the front of the tape. The Pentagon turned them down, literally writing, “(the movie is) already a wonderful recruiting tool for the military, particularly the Navy, and to add a recruiting commercial onto the head of what is already a two-hour recruiting commercial is redundant.”

(picture of Tom Cruise)
If the government trusts me, maybe you could.

Of course we had ideas of running off and joining the military! Tom showed us how to be cool! We were going to go Mach 2 and blow shit up!

(picture of Tom Cruise)
Negative, Ghost Rider. The pattern is full.

OK, maybe not. At the time, I remember thinking I would never survive basic training in any branch of the armed forces. I was too curious to be a grunt. The drill instructor would tell me to drop and give him twenty, and I’d ask, “Why?” I drove high school basketball coaches up the wall asking why, why, why. If I tried to pull that shit at Parris Island, they would never stop beating me. They’d get so tired of kicking my ass, they’d have to fly in relief ass-kickers for long middle innings of ass-kicking. No, the military wasn’t going to be for me.

I look back now and realize I was a colossal weenie. More to the point, the delusions of being Maverick, Goose and Iceman …

(pictures of Slider, Hollywood, Wolfman, Cougar, Wizard)
… and Slider, Hollywood, Wolfman, Cougar, Wizard, etc. Yes, I know all their goddamn names.

… were competing against the realities portrayed in two other movies that came out around the same time.

(Full Metal Jacket and Platoon posters)
Released six and nine months after Top Gun, respectively.

Tom Cruise had his picture of what the military was like. Stanley Kubrick and Oliver Stone offered, shall we say, stirring dissent.

I was never going to learn to fly.

But Jon did.

I have four close friends that I met in high school. If the lens through which I view the world is four-color, Silver Age comic books, then Jon is one of the superheroes.

Electrocuted at Club 33

For some reason, I decided to quit working at Disneyland. I don’t exactly know why. I think there was a girl involved. Wait, actually, yes, I know there was a girl involved.

Not her. I wish.

No, not that one.

But then after a few months waiting tables in Newport Beach, I wanted to come back. I missed the mouse. So, I trekked down to the little HR office that doesn’t exist anymore and pleaded to return to the Jungle Cruise, where, just a few months earlier, I had jumped into the river after closing as a way of saying goodbye in grand fashion. However, the HR dude had a different idea.

“You’ve worked in restaurants? How would you like to work at Club 33?”
“Wait. What?”

This fancy-ass place.

This fancy-ass place.

Club 33 is the sooper-secret, hidden, fancy-pants members-only restaurant inside Disneyland. Behind a non-descript door near the Pirates of the Caribbean exit lay what was, for decades, the only place in the park to get alcohol. And a not-bad chateaubriand. For a long time, Club 33 was a kind of urban myth, only unlike the kid on Facebook that needs a million greeting cards, Club 33 is very real.

Behind that door? Booze.

Behind that door? Booze.

Well, heck, I thought. This was a choice between $5 an hour and $5 an hour plus a chance to pull down $300 a night in tips from impossibly rich, glamorous famous people. I will hobnob with the stars. I will be witty, dashing and handsome in a tux. Disney princesses will be all twitterpated.

There’s a word for this kind of dream. It’s called “bullshit.”

Not buying what I'm selling.

Not buying what I’m selling.

Club 33 was indeed for the rich. In the 80s, it had a multi-year waiting list, a $10,000 initiation fee and a yearly upkeep fee. This was before you actually ate or drank anything, which was generally oversalted and overpriced.

But Club 33 was also for the Disney lifers. Disneyland was a union house (as a ride operator, I was actually a Teamster), which meant it was entirely possible for someone to put on a costume and a nametag at age 18 and never, ever take them off. Next time you’re there, take a good look at the employees. Look at the older ones. They’ve quite possibly been watching those spinning tea cups for decades.

That's a lot of goddamn chamomile.

That’s a lot of goddamn chamomile.

So, if you’re a 40-year-old dude that barely got past high school, and now you’re pulling down $300 a day on a union job from which you can never be fired, what’re the odds you’re going to quit?

Jimmy Hoffa says “zero.” He also says, “Go Giants!” every Sunday, but you can barely him hear him through the concrete.

Jimmy Hoffa says “zero.” He also says, “Go Giants!” every Sunday, but you can barely him hear him through the concrete.

I wasn’t ever going to be a waiter. I was a glorified bus boy that needed to run the goddamn custom ice crusher. A custom goddamn ice crusher, Italian-made, that spit out perfect little shaved crescent moons of ice that I would spoon into the customers’ water glasses with a gold ladle.

I am absolutely not making this shit up. There was a custom goddamn ice crusher. This was a classy joint. So classy, they made me buy leather-soled shoes, because they didn’t allow rubber. Rubber-soled shoes? What are we, farmers?

And it always jammed, that machine, which sat back in that tiny back hallway behind the kitchen. Well, not jammed. The hopper would get overfilled and the ice wouldn’t fall onto the crusher wheel. Which meant I had to reach up the spout and turn the wheel with my hand to get it started again.

I know what you’re thinking. “Dude, you don’t put your hand into the ice crusher. That’s how you’ll mangle your hand!”

But wait, it’s better than that! Who needs a mangled hand when you could have BURNING ELECTRICITY DEATH! Am I right? Yeah!

I set the wheel free, toggled the switch and saw a small spark.

And now, a brief word about George Westinghouse and Thomas Edison. There’s a dead elephant involved.

I am absolutely not kidding about the elephant.

I am absolutely not kidding about the elephant.

Long story short – Westinghouse was “Rah-rah alternating current!” while Edison was all “Fuck yeah direct current!” In order to prove what he said was the danger of AC, Edison electrocuted Topsy, a circus elephant that had killed three people.

That's a stone-cold killer right there.

Again, not making this up.That’s a stone-cold killer right there.

Unfortunately, Westinghouse won the War of Currents, and today, all of the electricity that pours out of American outlets is AC. Why is this bad? Well, despite being an elephant-murdering dick (no, really, a total dick), Edison was right. Alternating current is dangerous, and for a very specific reason. Here, let these guys ‘splain it to you.

2013-04-15 22_18_04-Alternating Current - The Physics Hypertextbook

My hand froze on the ice crusher switch. Yeah, yeah, yeah, froze, ice. It’s not a figure of speech.

Hand, frozen. Muscles locked up. Couldn’t let go. And crawling up my arm, pain. Like a million tiny Pain Goblins. ON FIRE.



As I thought to myself, “Hey, check it out, the hair on the back of my neck is standing up,” that’s when I also noticed that I was standing in a puddle of water. In leather-soled shoes. Does leather conduct electricity? Yes.

Not pictured: Absolutely nothing OSHA-compliant.

Not pictured: Absolutely anything OSHA-compliant.

What do I do now, I thought? I can’t die here. In Club 33. I believe I have previously mentioned how bad it is to die at Disneyland. Dude, don’t make Mickey angry. You’ll find out the real definition of “getting a Steamboat Willie.”

I pulled my arm off the switch. Yanked. Wrenched. Tore. Whatever, I pulled away, and every muscle in my body cried out “SWEET FREEDOM!”

And I found myself on the floor.

I looked up. Back hallway. Service hadn’t started for the night. Amazingly, nobody saw me. I have this knack of almost dying, of course, but worse, I have this knack of almost dying WHERE NO ONE CAN SEE ME.

I picked myself up, dusted myself off, and went back to bussing Michael Eisner’s table.

A few weeks later, I quit Disneyland the second time.

Because it’s better to be a quitter that’s alive than a lifer that’s dead.



a bucketful of chlorine

Gas masks for everyone! Wait, wait. Not you, Frank.

I’ve been holding off on writing this one because it’s the very best of them all. It has everything:

  • Death by curiosity
  • Death by suffocation
  • Death by drowning
  • Death by chemical burn
  • Death by generalized 70s malaise
  • Death by miscommunication
  • Actual death (not mine)
  • It even has an actual birth (also not mine) mixed in just for fun.

    But, honestly, the primary reason I’ve been holding off on this one is that my poor mother comes off looking like an absolute dingbat.

    I always think my mother looks like Sally Field.

    Now imagine Sally Field … ditzier.

    No, not ritzier, with an R. I said, ditzier. With a D.

    There you go.

    Anyway, we have to start with a chemistry lesson.

    Over there on the right is a floating pool chemical dispenser, also known as a floating chlorinator. Unscrew the cap, drop in chemical tablets and throw it into your pool. Water flows in through holes in the side of the device, and the tablets slowly dissolve, keeping the water in your pool properly sanitized and preventing the growth of algae.

    With me so far?

    This is chlorine.

    It’s the crazy psycho bitch of the Periodic Table.

    Look, look at this freakin’ model.

    There are two electrons in the inner shell, and eight in the middle shell. That’s fine, but there’s only seven in the outer shell. That shell can take up to 18 electrons.

    But only seven means this atom is ANGRY.

    This atom is not going to be IGNORED.

    If you had eight electrons in that shell, you’d have argon, which is like a harmless, perpetually stoned college roommate. Argon is barely useful, unlike its other inert buddy neon, the one that makes the pretty signs. On the other hand, if your atom had 6 electrons in that third, outer shell, it’d be sulfur, which just smells like a skunk, but at least skunks are cute. And sulfur has other uses. It’s even edible. Onions? Garlic? Sulfur.

    But no, chlorine has seven electrons in that damn outer shell, which makes it as reactive as your crazy, pissed-off emotion-junkie ex-girlfriend. You know the one.

    Anyway, chlorine has its uses (just like the … ahem … crazy ex-girlfriend), one of which is making your pool sparkling clean. The tablets for the aforementioned floating chlorinator usually come in three flavors — calcium hypochlorite, trichloroisocyanuric acid and dichloroicocyanuric acid, which is just like the one before it, only with one fewer crazy bitch atom of chlorine attached to it.

    Now, I’m not really a chemist (unless we’re talking about alcoholic beverages, in which case I’m a goddamn Nobel Prize winner), but Google tells me that there’s a number of different processes in which these ingredients — along with water, sunlight and plenty of time — will eventually give you hydrogen chloride, a colorless gas that percolates out of water and replaces the plain-jane air that makes the floating chlorinator, you know, float.

    Hydrogen chloride is bad news. It’s just a jump to the left of mustard gas.

    … and a step to the ri-i-i-i-ight …

    All right, now that we’ve got the chemistry down, let’s time travel back to June, 1977. I’m 8 years old. I’m swimming alone in the backyard swimming pool.

    Swimming? Alone? Eight years old? Sounds crazy now, but remember, it’s 1977. We’re 15 years away from mandatory bicycle helmets for children in California, much less an understanding that swimming pools are statistically more dangerous than having guns in the house. You’re on your own, kid. I’m still Ray Liotta.

    I don’t know why this shot of Ray Liotta from Goodfellas is my go-to example of 1970s neglect. For some reason, it just works.

    Anyway, I’m swimming alone in the pool with the floating chlorinator…

    Now, if you Google the words “floating chlorinator,” some of the first links that come up involve child safety, with very specific warnings not to allow children to play with them, because they look like toys.

    Naturally, I was playing with ours.


    At this point, if we were around a dinner table, my mother would chime in and say she was a responsible parent that was always sure to take the chlorinator out of the pool when I was swimming and that I just a playful scamp and it was only this one time.

    And if you believe that, I refer you to the name of this series of essays.

    Oh, I clearly remember us taking the chlorinator out of the pool AFTER the soon-to-be-detailed accident occurred. Barn door, horse escape and all that. But I also remember that, even after the Great Chlorine Caper, I was the one that took the chlorinator out.

    “Hey kid. Remember that thing filled with deadly poison you shouldn’t ever touch? Yeah, you know, the thing that almost killed you? Go get it for me. I’m Ray Liotta.”

    So, there I was. I’m cannonballing the thing. I’m dunking it. I’m whooshing it. Heck, I’m pretending it’s Stromberg’s secret ocean lair.

    You remember? That thing from this movie?

    Finally, I pushed the chlorinator underwater, flipped it over and let the “air” bubble to the surface.

    Tiny bubbles.
    Filled with mustard gas.
    Headed for my face.

    How did it feel to breathe that shit in?

    It felt like someone painted the inside of my mouth, nose and lungs with napalm.

    Here, let Wikipedia tell you how it feels:

    Hydrogen chloride forms corrosive hydrochloric acid on contact with water found in body tissue. Inhalation of the fumes can cause coughing, choking, inflammation of the nose, throat, and upper respiratory tract, and in severe cases, pulmonary edema, circulatory system failure, and death. Skin contact can cause redness, pain, and severe skin burns. Hydrogen chloride may cause severe burns to the eye and permanent eye damage.

    Imagine snorting a fine aerosol of essence of habanero. Only the burning never goes away. It just KEEPS ON BURNING. And then your chest feels heavy, as every cell in your respiratory tract decides to vomit up every molecule of fluid it owns.

    … ain’t no party like a pulmonary edema party, because a pulmonary edema party don’t stop …

    I instantly knew something was desperately wrong, and as by far the nerdiest 8-year-old at Jackson Elementery, I had pretty much correctly processed what had happened. I had just breathed in, more or less, chlorine gas. And the pain in my chest and foam spittle now leaking out of my mouth were Signs of Very Bad Things Happening Inside Me.

    I jumped out of the water. In retrospect, I could have passed out and drowned right there and then. Swimming, alone, remember? But thankfully, I was in the shallow end of the pool, standing on the steps, actually. Fortune favors the dumbass.

    With my mouth retching, I thought to take a drink from the garden hose, thinking that maybe I could wash away whatever was now painted inside my mouth. No luck.

    My wife: “Wait, you drank straight out of the hose?”
    Me: “Yeah. Why?”
    Her: “Your mother didn’t send you outside with, like, a bottle of water?”
    Me: “Bottled water? In 1977, bottled water was a punchline, not an actual thing. You have to wait until the 90s for the hydration gods — Evian, AquaFina, Brita — to show up.”

    Next, I did what all soaking wet 8-year-olds do when they realize they’ve become the victim of a chemical burn.

    Knock on the back door of the house.

    Her: “Knock on the back door? They locked you out?”
    Me: “Sort of. You see, the rule was, if you didn’t have a towel, you couldn’t track water into the house. I’d get in trouble. Sure, you’ll die on the doorstep. But at least you wouldn’t be in trouble.”

    My mother came to the door. What is it, honey?

    Now, the next few seconds are burned into my memory. Burned in. Right up there with name, rank and serial number. “My name is Frank, I live on planet Earth, and this is exactly what my mother said in the purest moment of crisis I’ve ever experienced.”

    Anyway, this is so, so not an exaggeration.

    “Mom, I need to go to the hospital. I just inhaled chlorine gas.”
    “Don’t worry, honey. The dog drinks it all the time.”

    Actually, no. I have no idea what she just said, either. And I really am Sally Field.

    Here’s what happened.

    I said this:

    She heard this:

    And yes, we had a dog which drank water from the pool. All the time. Now if only that dog had a set of car keys and directions to the nearest hospital, we’d be getting somewhere.

    Hop in, Frank. I totally got this!

    The next few minutes were bizarro-world. I knew I had to go to the hospital (have I mentioned the napalm?), yet my mother kept trying to second-guess me. You’re fine, she says. I’m throwing up more foamy spittle. It’s just water, she says. More foam spittle. This really hurts. Oh, relax.

    She calls my uncle Frank. I mentioned my amazing uncle Frank before.

    “How are you feeling?”
    “I’m feeling like I need to go to the hospital!”

    The three-way argument continued for a few minutes. And if you want to know what a three-way argument looked like in my family…

    After about an hour of this, Mom finally relented and we got in the car. I calmed down a bit. In the car. Driving. Hospital. Yes, this is how it’s supposed to go.

    Now, the first thing they do for a person that walks into an ER with this kind of issue is a gas mask of fresh, clean, cool 100% oxygen. I had the window rolled down and was sucking down a bit of the fresh air, and while that wasn’t 100% oxygen, I was feeling like I wasn’t going to die right that very instant.

    Mom looks at me. Again, this is an actual conversation.

    “How are you feeling?”
    “I’m … I’m OK.”
    “Then why am I driving you to the hospital?”
    “Just … drive.”
    “Do you want to get some ice cream?”
    “Just … drive.”

    Eight years old!

    We get to the hospital and talk to a nurse.

    “What’s the trouble?”
    “He drank some pool water.”
    “I inhaled chlorine gas from a floating chlorinator.”

    The color drained from this woman’s face. The room exploded into activity. Mom got a cosmic-level comeuppance. At this point, I’m sure she was horrified, finally grasping the enormity of the situation. But in my 8-year-old brain, I’m thinking, “Hah! I really am sick! See? SEE?!?!”

    I spent six days in intensive care.

    It was one of those big open rooms with an open-plan nurse’s station in the center. This was my first trip to Extreme Makeover: Hospital Edition. The highlights:

  • This was the first time I ever had blood drawn. Vampires woke me up every two hours to monitor my blood chemistry. DUDE.
  • The first night, I couldn’t stop vomiting. Emesis basin? Please. I’m gonna need something more, shall we say, robust. They gave me mop bucket.
  • The second night, they rolled in a woman that had just given birth. She looked like she had gone a few rounds with Muhammad Ali. Wiped out. The doctor told her everything was fine, the baby was OK, had all its fingers and toes. That was kinda cool.
  • Kinda not cool was the third night, when the old guy across from me up and freakin’ died. Middle of the night, I awoke to the rustling sounds of activity. Fifteen feet away was my very own live episode of Grey’s Anatomy. The flatline “EEEEEEE!” alarms, 100cc’s of adrenaline, the paddles and everything. “CLEAR!” After a while, they just kinda stopped trying, flipped the alarms off and walked away. I fell back asleep. When I woke up, the bed was empty.

    Hey, you think the kid saw any of that?
    Who cares? It’s 1977.
    You sound like Ray Liotta.

    * The respiratory therapist had a T-shirt with a screenprint of human lungs. That was cool. He offered to bring me a Playboy. That was weird. Children’s Hospital, this ain’t.

    * Family came to visit me every day, one at a time because of hospital policy. Dad dropped in and provided his usual heavy dusting of you’re-doing-it-wrong-they’re-turning-you-into-a-wussy. My grandfather was sweet and kind and at a loss for words. My grandmother threw dirty looks at the nurses. Mom and Uncle Frank rotated in fresh comic books. His wife, my aunt Patty, frantically waved at me through the window in the door to the ICU. She seemed so excited, it was like she got a glimpse of the Beatles or something.

    Honestly, at the time, I recall thinking that the worst part was that I couldn’t watch TV. There were no TVs in the ICU, and finally, on the last day, they sent me to a regular room with a TV.

    I’ve never been so happy to see a trucking school commercial in the middle of the day during Donahue. I swear, just as soon as I can breathe normally again, I’ll start a new career…

  • 11 Car Accidents

    The 5-year-old wanted to know something.

    “Mama, how many times have you crashed a car?” he asked.

    “None,” she said.

    “Daddy, how many times have you crashed your car?”

    “Are we going to count both me hitting things and things hitting me?” I said.


    “Are we only counting when I was driving? Or are we counting all the times I’ve been a passenger, too?”

    “All the times.”

    “And does it have to be cars? Or everything?”


    “What about if there was no damage, and we all just walked away?”

    “Everything,” he said.




    “Holy shit,” said my wife. “You’ve been in 11 car accidents?”

    “I may be forgetting one or two,” I said. “But right now, I’m going to say 11.”

    “How are you not dead?” she asked.

    “Hey, that’d be a great name for the blog.”

    The Angry Hasidim

    The first time I visited New York City as an adult was March 1999. I had been to the city several times before as a kid, visiting They Who Must Not Be Named, aka the Rogan side of the family, so I had seen all the touristy sights. But this was the first time where I got to choose between the Statue of Liberty and a bar in the Meatpacking District called Hogs & Heifers.

    Not pictured: The Statue of Liberty

    It was a strange time to be in NYC, and strange circumstances. This was the very height of the dot-com boom, and I was visiting a conference thrown by the now-defunct Jupiter Communications, which had seemingly cornered the market in getting stupid people to throw stupid money after stupid consulting ideas. At this conference, I learned many, many fascinating things that I was completely unable to put into practice when everything went straight to hell one year later.

    Still, I had a great time.

    I mean, other than almost being killed by a crowd of Hasidic Jews.

    You wouldn't like him when he's angry.

    You wouldn’t think they’d be the fearsome type.

    You’d be wrong.

    Let’s look at some evidence.

    Superman. Created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. Two Jewish guys from New York that liked to draw funny pictures.

    The Incredible Hulk. Created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Also two Jewish guys from New York that liked to draw funny pictures.

    Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lansky. Also two Jewish guys from New York. Is this a funny picture? How am I funny? What, am I some kind of clown? Do I amuse you?

    But, back to Frank’s Excellent Adventure in New York.

    Myself and a colleague from work named Jill flew into New York late on a Saturday night. Jill and I had a great time when we weren’t listening to freshly-minted billionaires talk about online heavyweights like Lycos, AltaVista and Pets.com. (cough, cough)

    Jill had a definite agenda for her New York visit, so I played Flava Flav to her Chuck D.

    • A bouncer barred us from one club because we lacked the proper fetish gear, so we went into Hogs & Heifers next door.
    • Jill took me to Meow Mix, a lesbian bar in the East Village — the place was featured in the movie Chasing Amy. I was literally the only guy in the room; I just did my best Ben Affleck. It didn’t work.
    • We hit Bar d’O in Greenwich Village, a showcase lounge for the greatest drag talent in the city.

    Hello, ladies.

    The first day, Sunday, Jill’s agenda had her taking in a Broadway matinee, which gave me the entire day in the city to fart around. While Jill had an agenda, I had no plan. I walked around Greenwich Village, got lost, and had some lunch. I hailed a cab and told him to to drop me off at the World Trade Center.

    During construction in 1971.

    I get a little sad thinking about that. I was one of those little kid nerds with the Guinness Book of World Records, so as a kid, I was in awe of a twin pair of buildings that were the tallest buildings in the world.

    My company had just moved to a new building, which I considered to be very big. But I think it would have fit into the *lobby* of one of the World Trade Center buildings..

    That’s when I noticed the Hasidim.


    Small groups, emerging from subway exits and parking garages. All walking in the same direction. A family here. A couple of men there. All headed … somewhere.

    Intrigued, I followed them. Pretty soon, I was mid-stream in a torrent, as more and more appeared from around corners. A few turned to dozens, and there was a buzz in the air. Dozens turned into hundreds. OK, I thought, this isn’t just anything. It’s something. They had a purpose. But I still had no idea what.

    The stream of Jews + Frank turned a final corner and we emerged onto Wall Street. Hundreds of Jews? Try thousands. The women and children had peeled off from the crowd, and where first I had seemed to be the odd duck in a massive family outing of rather formally dressed people, I was now just a lone gentile adrift in a sea of burly dudes, all dressed in black.

    While not an actual photo of the event in question, it looked exactly like this, and since this is what you get when you Google "Hasidic Jews demonstration New York City," I'm going to roll with it.

    The NYPD was waiting for us, herding everyone into manageable groups, using the same blue barricades I saw every New Year’s Eve with Dick Clark.

    You can say a lot of things about the NYPD. "Unprepared for large groups of people" is not one of them.

    Bing. A light went on in my head. Oh, I get it. I’m in the middle of a demonstration. Something political. I guess I’m just a little slow on the uptake…

    And then, from the distance, a voice on a loudspeaker started speaking in Hebrew …

    … and SHAZAM I’m the only one not shuckling.

    Click the image to hear Rabbi Jonathan Ginsburg explain shuckling.

    Mind you, I’m not mocking the Hasidim for the shuckling. I was raised Catholic. Entire generations of Catholic school children have one bad knee and one huge thigh. Turn to the right! Kneel! Genuflect!

    Stand up, sit down, fight, fight, fight.

    Regardless, I don’t have the black suit, I don’t speak the language and I’m not bowing and swaying. Saying I was sticking out like a sore thumb is an insult to sore thumbs worldwide. Religious garb? Umm, no. I was even sporting a jacket emblazoned with the logo of a videogame developer whose most significant contribution to the world was a game called TOTAL ANNIHILATION.

    Seriously, man, try not to say the word "annihilation" when standing within a crowd of angry Jews.

    A particularly wizened old coot was moving through the crowd, handing out a flyers … or perhaps prayers, since Hebrew is Greek to me. Get it? Hebrew … is … Greek. OK, moving on.

    Anyway, the old coot looked me up and down, muttered something under his breath and moved on. No prayer for you!

    I was being buffeted from all sides by the shuckling. Just imagine a very, very religious mosh pit. Or perhaps a rugby scrum with hats and tefillin.

    I briefly considered trying to crowd surf.

    Sometimes the voices in my head use visual aids.

    Despite my delusions of achieving instant immortality among the younger Hasidim (because you know they’d still be telling the story about the time the crazy guy went all Lollapalooza on their religious demonstration) the shuckling scrum went from “Hah-hah, very funny, you’re not one of us” to “Beat it, asshole; can’t you see we’re praying here?” I started getting shoved around. Then I started getting elbowed and slapped upside the head.

    I looked for an exit and I KID YOU NOT an NYPD cop named O’Malley waved me over.

    An Irish cop in New York? No way!

    “Hey, man, can I step under this sawhorse?”

    “Beat it, asshole. Can’t you see they’re praying here?”

    Never let it be said that Irish cops in New York aren’t sensitive to the values of the religious community.

    I took Officer O’Malley’s advice and indeed, beat it. I stepped into a bodega, where my multicultural New York experience went briefly Dominican.

    “What the hell is going on?” I asked.

    “No se,” said the guy behind the counter.

    I found one guy standing on the sidelines who, while Orthodox, was not Hasidic and seemed willing to talk. He explained that what I was seeing had nothing whatsoever to do with the U.S., but was instead a demonstration in support of a segment of Israeli politics.

    I walked. It was several blocks before I found the “end” of the demonstration and I could move safely around it. I wandered down to the South Street Seaport and its tourist-friendly view of the Brooklyn Bridge.

    And me without a camera. Oh wait. Google.

    Three Hasidic teenage boys had peeled off from the crowd, doing what teenagers always do — hang out. Take off the black suits and throw them some Chuck Taylors, and they’d be just like me and every other dude in the world. Hanging out at the mall. They probably played videogames when their parents weren’t watching.

    Rated A for Awesome.

    The Hailstorm

    Stick around for the comedy, but if you want to skip right to today’s lesson, it’s this: “Don’t get caught in the open during a hailstorm that has gone past ‘golf ball’ and has edged up to ‘kiwifruit.'”

    Look tasty, don't they? Now imagine them made of ice, hurtling at your head at 32 feet per second, squared.

    So, let’s get acquainted with pain:

    F = ma

    There it is. Pain. Just look at it. Sitting there, all sciencey and shit. Mocking you.

    Force equals mass times acceleration. It’s Newton’s second law of motion. In other words, “big things hurt, and little things moving really fast hurt, too.”

    But let’s get to the hail.

    Weather was a bit of a mystery to me when I was a kid. I grew up in Orange County, Southern California, which has two seasons — perfect and not-quite-as-perfect. The joke is that in California, you only need to see the weatherman twice a year.

    April: Hi folks. It's going to be 72 degrees and sunny every day. See you in October. October: Hello again. It'll rain a few times from here until spring, but for the most part ... 72 degrees and sunny. Merry Christmas.

    It wasn’t until 1995, when I was 27 years old, that I lived in a place where snow on the ground wasn’t anything other than a bizarre, freak occurrence that disappeared in a matter of seconds. I vividly recall waking up one morning in Kirkland, Washington, and thinking, “Weird. I don’t remember driving to the mountains last night…?”

    How does this work? Is someone going to just bring me a danish? How will they get here? By dogsled? I'm puzzled.

    This is a long way of saying that, when I was in the second grade on the day of the hailstorm, the idea that weather could kill you wasn’t something on my 7-year-old radar screen.

    The school bell rang, and everyone piled out. It had rained earlier in the day, and my grandmother had made arrangements with a classmate’s mother — she would offer to drive me home if the weather was bad. I met her in the parking lot, and she offered me a ride, but it was barely spitting rain at that point, so I declined. “I like walking in the rain,” I said. And she let me go.

    This is another example of 70s sensibilities. Every kid was a free-range kid. Can you imagine a mother today, tasked with giving a 7-year-old a ride home, allowing said 7-year-old to decline the offer?

    “Hop in.”
    “No, thanks. I’m good.”
    “You’re seven. Shut up and get in the car.”
    “Seriously, I’m good. It’s what — a mile? — to my house? In the rain. I’m good.”
    “Get in the car.”
    “Chill out. I got this.”
    “Again, you’re seven.”
    “Annnnd? Your point being…?”
    “That you’re seven. That’s my point.”

    But no. She offered, I declined, and I skipped off.

    Straight into Mordor. And despite what Boromir says, you apparently just walk right in, too.

    Ten minutes later, the “spitting rain” turned into “Genesis chapters 6 through 9.” And the cold day turned ominously colder. I really had no idea what was coming.

    I crossed the one major street between my neighborhood and the school’s and turned down the alley, and …


    “Wait a minute,” said my wife.
    “What?” I said.
    “An alley?”
    “Yeah, an alley. It lead from my neighborhood to the big street I had to cross.”

    Like this. The alley is that little thingy with the cinderblock walls on either side. Thanks, Google Maps.

    “How big was this street?”
    “You know, big. Major artery. Six lanes.”

    Not pictured: Frank on the bus. The bus was for wussies.

    “And you walked to school every day? Down an alley.”
    “Yep. One time, there was this rabid German Shephard in the alley. Growling, foaming at the mouth and everything, and I had nowhere to run…”
    “And how old were you?”
    “Well, I started walking to school in the first grade, so…”
    “Six years old?”
    “Well, five. I was a year ahead. Plus, the street had this wicked drainage canal beside it, and when it rained, it filled up with whitewater, and every year, some kid would be swept away and…”
    “How are you not dead?”
    “Hey! That’s a great name for the blog!”

    End Sidebar

    The hail started falling. At first, it was cute. “Hey look! It’s like snow, only hard. And in little icy balls. Tra la la, la la…”

    I don’t remember actually saying “tra la la la, la la,” but I was a rather innocent little lamb. It’s entirely possible.

    Five minutes later, I was in the iciest plane of hell. The world had turned white. The sound of the crashing hail was deafening. It was like I was at a Norwegian death metal concert and Ymir the Frost Giant was hucking kiwi-fruit sized hunks of ice at me.


    Besides taking a gatling gun’s worth of body shots, hail was hitting me square in the head. More than once, I took a shot to the noggin, and looked up in time to see that specific ball of hail rebounding off my cranium.

    “Gee, Frank. Did you try to take cover? Like, under a tree or something?”

    No! I already told you that I missed the weather-can-kill-you class! I honestly didn’t know what to do. I had (ha ha) frozen up. It was total deer-in-the-headlights moments, only instead of a deer it was me, and instead of headlights it was HAIL THE SIZE OF KIWI FRUIT.


    A man emerged from his house and ran out to his car, presumably to move it out of the hailstorm. I ran up and pounded on the driver’s window, pleading to be let into the car where I would be safe. Dude just looked at me like I was an alien.

    Who, me? Rescue the elementary school kid that's bleeding from the nose and ears? Son, this is the 70s. You're gonna hafta toughen the fuck up. Screw it, I'm just going to pretend I don't see you. I'm Ray Liotta.

    I stumbled down the street a little farther. I passed a house that displayed a sticker from the Safe House program.

    Remember that? You could sign up and display a sticker in your window, and in theory, a child in trouble would know to knock on your door and get some assistance.

    I knocked. No one was home.

    So much for that idea. I kept stumbling down the street. Three more houses and a few more hail shots to the ribs later, a sane, adult woman finally spotted me and called me onto her porch.

    “Look at your face!” she said.

    “I’m OK,” I said.

    “Why didn’t you use that dictionary to protect yourself?”

    I looked down. Yeah, forgot all about that. I had been carrying 200-page student dictionary the entire walk home. A great, big, fat book I could have used to at least shield my bleeding-from-three-orifices head.

    FAI ... oh, wait. That's one's on me.

    It finally stopped hailing, the ice turning back into rain. The nice lady asked if I lived nearby, and when I said yes, she went back inside her house without another word.

    Again, let’s look back at the 70s-style level of caring. A battered child is on your front porch. Your reaction?

    What do I look like? Ray Liotta? Beat it, kid.

    I went home. My grandmother was angry at me for refusing the ride from my friend’s mother. In hindsight, she definitely had a point.

    She gave me cookies, and I’m not sure she told anyone about the bleeding-from-the-ears part.

    And I still don't trust them.

    The Catamaran and the Sea Snakes

    I'm on a boat, I'm on a boat.
    Everybody look at me, 'cause I'm sailing on a boat.
    I'm on a boat, I'm on a boat.
    Take a good hard look, at the motherfucking boat.

    I was nearly crushed when I fell between two moored boats in a harbor. When I hit the water, I screamed like a little girl, clawed at my rescuers like a drowning chimpanzee and thoroughly embarrassed my preteen self.

    And I reacted this way not because of the danger of being, you know, crushed. You see, someone told me there were sea snakes in the water.

    The Yellow-Lipped Sea Krait is among the most venomous snakes in the world. It has everything and absolutely nothing to do with this story.

    Everyone has a superpower. Something they can do better than just about anyone else. Like how that one guy you knows can cook a perfect steak, or how that other guy is blessed with perfect pitch or the ability to do calculus in his head.

    Me? I’m practically dolphin-esque in my ability to swim. And I have a freakish memory for useless facts. I have a third superpower, but it’s significantly less useful — I can roller-skate much better than any man my size has a right to be able to do. Seriously. Six-foot-four and 300 pounds, and yet the hard-won skating skills are still there.

    Now, if I could only find a men's underwater roller-derby-and-Jeopardy league.

    But in San Felipe, Mexico, both of my primary superpowers — the swimming and the memory — failed me spectacularly.

    My Uncle Frank is the reason for the roller-skating. He managed a full-scale roller skating rink in the late 70s, right at the zenith of roller disco. I spent multiple nights a week there. I can still hear it. Roller Boogie. We Will Rock You. Barracuda. Ballroom Blitz. “All skate. This is an all skate in the normal skating direction.”

    I had these. I am absolutely not kidding.

    Uncle Frank and his wife, Patty, decided to hang up the skates in the early 80s. They had a wild idea. They bought a 36-foot catamaran and sailed it from Newport Beach, California, around the tip of Baja California, and up to San Felipe, Mexico. Given their level of sailing experience — both freshly Coast Guard-certified — this was its own How Are You Not Dead story.

    But that wasn’t the wild idea.

    The actual wild idea was using the boat and the town of San Felipe as the centerpiece of a vacation charter service. The business model was, you pay them money, they drive you from Orange County to San Felipe in their 70s-era Ford van, they take the boat out and tool around the Sea of Cortez for a while, and they drive you back. If you’re imagining an air-conditioned charter bus, a white-sands resort and someone bringing you champagne and fresh tropical fruit, just stop. This is a 600-mile roundtrip through the ass-end of California and Mexico. In a van. Not a bus. A van.


    But my Uncle Frank was amazing. For a very brief time, he actually made this work. Sort of. He moved onto other things. And sprinkled in there were four family trips to San Felipe to see the boat.

    Probably the best depiction I could find of the boat we're talking about.

    Let’s talk for a minute about San Felipe.

    And seriously, it'll only take a minute.

    San Felipe was not a resort city in the early 80s. It’s apparently much better now, but at the time, San Felipe had no real economy. The fishery had collapsed. No oil, no minerals, no farming, no factories. A tiny airport, likely suitable only for drug smuggling. It has a beach, yes, but the water is murky and silty from sitting too close to the mouth of the Colorado River. There’s no “there” there.

    The boat was moored in the man-made harbor, which consisted of two rock jettys that formed a rough letter “C.”

    There it is, courtesy of Google Maps. Note the distinct lack of amenities such as "civilization" and "rule of law."

    The harbor was guarded by federales with M-16s, but there wasn’t much to protect.

    • A few rusted-out shrimpers. Nice people, but the boats would make the guys from Deadliest Catch run far, far away.
    • The “school ship,” a vessel owned by the local fishery school. Not once did I see this thing move, nor did I ever see anyone on it.
    • Various semi-abandoned small boats with years and years of barnacles clinging to the hull.
    • Uncle Frank’s boat.

    It was bad news, man.

    Compared to the San Felipe fishing fleet, the F/V Northwestern is a paragon of safety and seaworthiness.

    Nobody swam in the harbor. Uncle Frank told me the shrimpers emptied their raw sewage directly into the harbor.

    And oh yeah, there were sea snakes.

    Yo, what's up.

    I don’t know exactly who told me there were sea snakes. But it seemed perfectly plausible. The water outside the harbor was always the color of a chocolate milkshake, and inside the harbor, it was black. The ruins of Atlantis could have been hidden under there, for all I knew.

    Naturally, I fell off the boat between the catamaran and one of the shrimpers. Right between them. You know, exactly where you don’t want to fall, at risk of being turned into hamburger between the two hulls.

    We had just pulled in from … I don’t know? Whaddya call it? A pleasure cruise? The wind was never right for sailing. We ran the outboard and aimed for a distant rock island, white with guano. I drank “Hecho en Mexico” Cokes and tried to keep from going mad.

    Anyway, we moored, pulling up next to a shrimp boat. I had a job — sit at the front of the boat and, with my feet, keep Uncle Frank’s catamaran from running into one of the abandoned skiffs, also moored to the shrimp boat.

    I stuck my foot out, pushing the skiff. Except instead of going straight back, it caromed off the shrimp boat and aimed for the catamaran hull again. I reached out farther and pushed it again. No luck. Farther, push. Dammit, it ain’t right, someone’s going to yell at me for letting our boat get scratched. I extended my foot out even farther. And my ass slipped off the gunwale and I fell right into the water. Sploosh.

    Do you hear someone screaming? I don't even have ears and I swear I hear someone screaming.

    So, there I was, just thrashing in the water. And my sea snake memory is going apeshit. Pages from encyclopedias are flipping through my mind like a scenes from a carnival of pure snakey, snakelike murder.




    I had completely lost my mind, and with it, my memory superpower, which would have told me the following…

    Western Pacific. As in, the other side of the goddamn world.

    Two guys yanked me out of the water before I was turned into chum. Or sorted into House Slytherin.

    Even more embarrassing was the fact that, even at just 12 years of age, I was a full foot taller than my two rescuers. They gave me the look you give a Great Dane when it’s intimidated by a Chihuahua at the off-leash park.

    I can't even look at you right now.

    And I spent the rest of my life assuring my mother that yes, I could swim quite well, thank you. Thank you, no. Don’t need the water wings. I’m good. Really.