A Walk in the Park

“Men are afraid women will laugh at them. Women are afraid men will kill them.”
Margaret Atwood

After spending a long day alone in a small room staring into a glowing computer screen while intensely concentrating on the backend components of an ecommerce website—I had two urges.

Commit suicide. Or get outdoors.

I went for a walk in the park.

The sun was warm and the early evening air was cool. My body relaxed and my mind did what it does best; it wandered.

I walked briskly along one of a network of trails inside a few acres of precious wetlands. The wetlands were encircled by the sprawl of a gated community of 4,000 square foot houses. The wetlands had survived because citizens united in a lawsuit against the same developers who had built the huge homes they lived. The court had agreed with the citizens’ argument: Preserving the wetlands, and, in addition, forcing the developers to build a network of trails within the chaparral of the wetlands, would improve everyone’s quality of life. In the years since the lawsuit victory, very few residents ever improved the quality of their lives by walking or riding bicycles on the trails. But their property values had increased.

To block the noise of nearby traffic, I had inserted ear buds and was listening to a random shuffling of dozens of popular songs, all of which had been carefully curated for me and downloaded to my phone free of charge by the American-based global corporation, SBUX.

While striding along the dirt trail, my wandering mind allowed me to also be sitting in a living room in Chico, California, reliving a recent visit with a nephew and his wife. I had met the 16-month-old boy they were now fostering and hoping to adopt, after the State of California had determined the boy was “failing to thrive” and taken him from his drug addicted homeless 20-year-old parents. Sometime after a good meal and three bottles of wine and two hours of rambling conversation, my nephew’s wife had told me that when growing up, she had been raped.

As I walked, my mind continued wandering, but now, like my body, it was following a trail.

That trail led through memories of women I knew casually or had known well and loved deeply, each of them telling me a story of being attacked by men. One woman had been a freshman at a large midwest college and while walking to her dormitory in the early evening she was tackled by a man and dragged into the hedges. She fought him off and ran. A mother had told me that her young daughter had been drugged and raped—three—different—times. A 40-year-old woman had described to me, during a rare moment when she could push apart the decades long veil of alcohol, drugs and denial, how her grandfather had repeatedly raped her, starting when she was three-years-old.

This was not the first time I had thought of these women, and still others I know, and the violence done to them. Their stories would be in my thoughts whenever I read the local news of raped girls and women, the international headlines of rape as a weapon of ideology and war, and the reports from societies where rape is condoned as a centuries-old judgment and punishment. Punishment not of the trespasses of men, but of women. Almost every day I see the headlines, even if I choose not to read the stories, of women raped by soldiers, politicians, coaches, athletes, entertainers, bus drivers and yoga instructors.

Because this planet is powered by coincidence and non sequitur, it was of course at this moment that I came around a sharp corner in the trail and saw in the low grass beside the dirt trail, a pair of women’s elastic running pants. And a sleeveless yellow t-shirt. And a single purple running shoe. The running pants and shirt had been folded neatly and the one shoe placed on top, as if to keep the clothing from blowing away.

I took the plugs out of my ears and listened to the real world around me; a few crows cawing nearby, the whoosh of cars pushing through the air at 45 miles per hour, a television playing in one of the three-level houses behind an eight-foot tall iron fence only a few feet from the trail. I looked around dumbly, as if I might hear or see a woman, naked but for one purple running shoe, fighting off a rapist in the high grass and scrub brush of the wetlands.

But the neatly folded clothes made no sense, and even as I looked and listened to everything around me, my mind again wandered, and I thought how, on another dirt trail in my neighborhood not too far from where I stood, a high school student had gone for an afternoon jog a few years ago. A man had overpowered her, dragged her into the chaparral, beat her and raped her and strangled her.

And I imagined calling 911 on my phone. What would I say? “I’m walking on a trail. There are some women’s clothes neatly folded and stacked alongside the trail.”

I imagined the emergency operator saying, “And?”

I heard myself stupidly answering, “Um. It’s odd. Don’t you think?”

“Is there anyone in trouble? Are you reporting a crime?”

I hung up.

Already, my mind had gone off again, now thinking of all the odd debris I had seen alongside trails and sidewalks. The soda, wine and beer bottles; the condoms and underwear, male and female; the pizza boxes with whole, uneaten pizzas inside; the books and magazines, often pornography, both homo and hetero; unopened packages of cigarettes; cheap or prescription sunglasses; and so many shoes. And, always, just one shoe, never a pair; whether a dress shoe, a high-top sneaker, a flip-flop or sandal, a boot; from battered to brand new.

I resumed my walk, moving just as fast, but feeling heavy now, and frowning. I did not reinsert the ear buds to listen to more three-minute bursts of petulantly narcissistic pop songs.

In another half mile the winding trail led up some stairs made of railroad ties and across a small grassy lawn. In the center of the religiously irrigated and manicured lawn, there were two men. One man held a black leather pad in each hand, with his arms extended and slowly moving. The other man, wearing jeans but shirtless, sweating, his hands inside red boxing gloves, jabbed punches into the moving targets. His eyes were narrowed and his face hardened. He grunted with the effort of each punch and rapid combination of punches.

Because I am a person powered by coincidence and non sequitur, the sight of these two men triggered questions I had somehow never before asked myself: Who are the men that rape? Where are they? Do I know any?

When I got home I went back into the small room I had been so desperate to get out of. I went back to staring into the glowing computer screen.

I typed, “How many American women have been raped?”

For half-an-hour I browsed articles with many estimates, guesses, including a piece in the New York Times on a 2011 survey by the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which estimated, guessed, that 1-in-5, 20 percent, of American women have been raped. *

I read that even two percent of American men have been raped.

Which made me think again of several years before, when I was standing in a graveyard on a hill outside a small town in Massachusetts. My estranged father had insisted on taking me there to show me the plot in which he would one day be buried. I was surprised to see so many graves with our family named carved into the tombstones. The dates of living and dying began in the mid-1800s when our Irish ancestors had fled the famine and come to the New World, and continued through the Civil War and the Spanish Flu, and the eras of World Wars and anti-Communism wars. And in that graveyard my father told that when he was 6-years-old a cousin had raped him.

The idea of rape stuns me. I cannot comprehend, nor can I stop myself from trying to comprehend, the tens of thousands of years of violent human history, a history of so much spontaneous and systemic rape; rape done to humiliate, to conquer, to enslave, and to kill.

If 1-in-5 of American women have been raped, how many American men are rapists?

The answer is unknown. But, as with everything in human behavior, we have experience and information to contemplate.

There are some studies where men were asked questions not using the word rape, but which in fact constitute rape: had they ever used force to have sex with an unwilling person, had they ever had sex with a person too drunk to resist their advances. In one study 6% of men admitted to doing these things. Just don’t call rape, rape.

I went for a walk in the park and followed my wandering thoughts and discovered a new math. Over my long life I now understand that I have been in classrooms, in business meetings, in writers groups, at concerts and baseball games and in churches; I have been friends with, on teams with, in bands with, men who have raped.

Some of them, a lot more than once.









Mary Koss’ much-discussed 1987 study of rape prevalence is famous mostly for its finding that 1 in 8 college women have been victims of rape at some point in their lives. What’s not as well known is that the same study also surveyed thousands of college men, asking them about if they had ever forced a woman to have sex against her will. About 4.5% reported that they had.

You Are Not Good Enough

Going from an article about ISIS atrocities to a Thich Nhat Hanh quote can give you whiplash, inducing temporary bipolar disorder.

I recently downloaded an application for my phone. It is a feed of articles from news sources and magazines. I did this because I haven’t watched television in many years and thought reading more about popular culture could, at the very least, allow me to understand more of the clues on the next crossword puzzle I attempt. 

thich_nhat_hanh1After downloading the application that would feed my phone articles from the New York Times, The Economist, Google news, Fast Company, Seeking Alpha, Wired, and dozens of other news and information generators, I entered some of my general interests; ecommerce, dividend investing, entrepreneurship, Buddha and baseball.

Each genre of news and information seems to have its own common, underlying, premise. The premise of the international news articles is: The World Is One Fucked Up Place and It’s Getting Worse by the Hour. The premise of the national news articles is: The Nation Is One Fucked Up Place and It’s Getting Worse by the Hour. The premise of the local news articles is: The Town You Live In Is One Fucked Up Place and It’s Getting Worse by the Hour.

On the other end of the spectrum, the premise of the Buddha information generators is best summarized by Thich Nhat Hanh, “Smile, breathe, and go slowly.”

Going from an article about ISIS atrocities to a Thich Nhat Hanh quote can give you whiplash, inducing temporary bipolar disorder.

The common, underlying premise of the business related articles in my new data feed intrigues me.

These articles seem to all be about waking up early, jumping out of bed and doing more, more, more. You need to exercise more, have better habits, eat smarter, know smarter people, work smarter, sell more stuff, dominate others using the latest scientific investigations of alpha posturing, and stand in front of a mirror for seven minutes every day repeating over and over, “I love myself!” 

You have to be better. Really. How can you expect more money, more respect, more sex or better business connections if you keep doing the same things you’ve done in the past? You need to change. You need to execute. Getting up two hours before work to run for 45 minutes on a treadmill is not good enough. You must run on the treadmill while applying the latest scientific research—HIIT—High Intensity Interval Training. If you do not HIIT it, you are failing to maximize your invested time, get the most aerobic exercise, burn more calories, feel stronger leaner meaner. You are failing to succeed. 

I suspect that American business writing from Ben Franklin’s time to Horatio Alger’s time to Tony Robbins time has all been about that one word imperative. Succeed.

Every American business, every man, every woman and every third grade student is trying to be successful. If you are not successful you are a failure. This is irrefutable. This is, the articles tell me, scientific. 

I consider myself an expert on failure. Which may be why this ‘succeed or die’ imperative intrigues me. 

According to the application on my phone that feeds me news and information from dozens of businesses making money by generating news and information to satisfy a seemingly insatiable demand, I am not good enough. No one is good enough. Nothing is good enough.

I, you, we need to be better.

Having a body mass index of 22 is not good enough.

Having $543,578 invested in dividend paying blue chip companies is not good enough whether you are 51 or 27.

Launching a new business and making a profit and creating a handful of jobs but failing to be bought by Yahoo for 52 times the worth of the business is humiliating failure. People will talk.

You are not good enough. You must do more. You must be better than you are.

You, your wife, husband, child, parents, friends, business associates and softball teammates are all not good enough.

Shame on you. Shame on them.

If all you manage to do today is get out of bed, smile, breathe, and go slowly enough to pay attention to the people, places and things around you—you are an abysmal failure.

Fuck Thich Nhat Hanh. What does he know? What’s he ever done? Has he ever dominated an interview by employing subtle alpha posturing? Has he ever surpassed his sales quota by 247%? Has he ever merged a corporation, hacked a database, run a marathon? Who’s his personal trainer? In what five-star restaurants has he eaten or hotels has he slept?

You need to do more. You need to do it better. You need to start right now.

You are failing to succeed.

The First Wonder of the Modern World

augustine-of-hippoMen go abroad to wonder at the heights of mountains, at the huge waves of the sea, at the long courses of the rivers, at the vast compass of the ocean, at the circular motions of the stars, and they pass by themselves without wondering.

—Augustine of Hippo

One Two Many

roger dodger goodelMy brother was in California recently and came to visit. As we do whenever we get together, we talked a little about growing up in the same family. Our secret code words, shrugs, and sudden moments of being transfixed by the vivid memories only we can see, would have sounded to an observer like the communion of two combat veterans.

At one point my brother said something very profound, which made me grunt. I forget what he said, probably because while grunting I was also busy formulating a reply, which, while not as profound, is memorable, but probably only because I said it, not him.

“In a half-century of being alive and wandering around this planet,” I intoned.

(To inflate the meager work product of my woefully incompetent brain, I often assume a portentous, almost Biblical, tone.)

“I am convinced that nothing is ever caused by only one thing.”

My brother said, “Huh?”

I said, “Everything causes everything else.”

Which caused my brother to repeat himself, “Huh?”

I tried a new tack. “There’s never just one side to an argument.”

“Right!” My brother said. “There are always two sides.”

“No,” I said. “There are always many sides.”

My brother nodded thoughtfully while gazing into the center of the infinite space between the sofa we sat on, and the television on the wall.

Then we talked about the Commissioner of the National Football Monopoly. We evaluated his job performance versus his $40,000,000 annual salary. We determined he should be immediately unemployed.

Writer’s Block

writersblock-300x187I hate the name, the condition, writer’s block.

Do carpenter’s get “blocked”? Truck drivers? Pediatricians?

Maybe they do. Maybe all humans do. No matter the work they do. It’s just that a blocked truck driver keeps driving. Sure, maybe it’s not her best driving, she’s not absorbed in the work and fully present in the moment; not feeling the joy of hitting all 9 gears perfectly or parking a 40-foot trailer in a space others would struggle to fit a Prius. While driving, she is, in fact, daydreaming of everything in the world other than truck driving.

From around the age of 20, roughly 35 years ago, I have yearned for, searched for, secretly prayed for, and endlessly applied for a job that would pay me enough to not live in abject poverty while leaving me the freedom, i.e., the time and the energy, to write. 35 years. Perhaps the only other thing I have ached, yearned, wanted, and dreamed of possessing with such persistence, and such frustration, is a weekend locked in a Vegas hotel room with Marisa Tomei.

In spite of, or perhaps, because of, all my pathetic wanting of a job that would provide me with food, shelter, safety, and beer money, without exhausting my physical and psychic energy—each and every job I have had over the past 35 years has been, either because of the work itself or the people I worked with, shitty.

A year and a half ago, I was working in a job with a flaming asshole boss. Invariably, any job being done in the proximity of a flaming asshole will be shitty. (See: The No Asshole Rule)

I quit.

Not a big deal. I had quit many other shitty jobs, fired many other flaming assholes. But a short time later I would wake up inside another bad dream, another shitty job, once again in the proximity of a flaming asshole.

This last time I quit I channeled Scarlet O’Hara. Rather than swear I would never go hungry again, I swore I would never work with an asshole again.

Unless that asshole was me.

I started my own business.

Now, a year and a half later, I have the very thing I have wanted since I was 20.

My work is interesting. My job does not take all my energy, numbing my brain and wasting my body. The business I have created is making enough money not only for me to afford a simple, safe, extremely comfortable lifestyle. But, for only the second time in my Life, I am earning enough money to invest—making my money work for me—rather than me working for it. (The first and only other time I earned investment grade income was when I sold quarter pounds of cheap ass Mexican marijuana in high school in the 70s and had an $800 balance in my savings account.)

I have achieved my dream. I am experiencing a level of prosperity and financial independence beyond what I had imagined.

My Life now has zero—ZERO—assholes in it.

My business allows me to take any hours I want in any day I want—to write.


I have not written a complete story or essay in over a year.

Whisky Tango Foxtrot.

How to Live Until You Die


Once upon a time I was 22 and sitting on a low stonewall in the blotchy shade cast by diseased elm trees lining a quiet street in a city named…Providence. It was 8am but the steamy August day was already soaked through and needing to be hung out to dry before mold began growing on it.

In my damp hands I held a sheet of yellow paper, my copy of the three-part form I had completed minutes before at the temporary employment agency called…Manpower. It was an important document. When the Employment Counselor had handed it to me, he said, “Take this. Don’t lose it. Go out by the stonewall past the gate and wait for a guy in a white van.”

“A guy in a white van?”

“His name is Sonny. You’ll be assisting him today. Make sure Sonny signs that yellow paper. Bring it back here before 5pm and you get paid.”

“What kind of work is it?”

“You listen and do a good job, you can pretty much work with Sonny every day. Like a full-time job.”

I echoed myself, “What kind of work is it?”

“Sonny is the Odorano Man.”

My brain, lungs, tongue and mouth all worked in perfect concert to form the interlocution, “Huh?”

The employment counselor said, “At Manpower you work. You get paid. Cash. Every day.”

He looked past me and shouted, “Next!” 


A horn blared, momentarily startling me from my 22-year-long daydream. A large white van pulled to the curb. The sides of the van were covered by blue and gold letters in the braggadocio typestyle used on the covers of superhero comic books, ODORANO!

The driver leaned over, rolled down the passenger window, and called, “You Manpower?”

I hopped down from the wall, folding the yellow paper into quarters and sliding it into the back pocket of my jeans. Blue smoke came from the tail pipe and loud country-western music came from torn, dashboard-rattling speakers.

I raised my voice, “Are you Sonny?”

“I’m the Odorano Man!” He smacked a hand down on the vibrating metal dashboard and yelled, “Time is money!”

I stood there, outwardly unmoving while inwardly falling through light years of empty space. Like blindfolded Justice, I stood with outstretched arms weighing two life-changing choices: Get in the Van. Walk Away.

“Hey! The world smells bad, Tonto! We’ve got work to do! Get in!”

I imagined my Employment Counselor plunking a battered guitar and singing like John Lee Hooker, At Manpower you work. Uh! You get paid. Uh! Cash. Uh! Every day. Uh!”

I got in the van.


In September I had been living with a roommate in a dormitory and attending classes at a little known private college in Maine. The school was little known for good reason. But it had found a profitable niche to serve; offering an accelerated two-year program for wannabe entrepreneurs impatient to launch their first business and blow through their relatives’ life savings. So I borrowed money from my relatives and enrolled.

The accelerated program quickly revealed that rather than fail at being an entrepreneur, I was much more driven to fail at being a writer.

So I left, and in January I was enrolled in the creative writing program of a little known liberal arts college in Rhode Island. It, too, had discovered a profitable niche: Offering a two-year creative writing program for young men and women impatient to launch their writing careers and blow through their relatives’ life savings.

My new roommate was my girlfriend, and rather than a dormitory, we lived in the second floor apartment of a decrepit wood house, with our 76-year-old Italian-speaking landlady and her 49-year-old unemployed son living downstairs.

My girlfriend worked graveyard shift in a 24-hour restaurant, one link in a corporate chain. Nearly bankrupted from a highly principled, decades-long fight against frivolous lawsuits brought by its own customers, the corporation had recently admitted defeat. It changed its logo from that of a grinning barefoot cartoon pickaninny eating a watermelon, to a grinning barefoot cartoon tiger eating a hamburger. The corporation’s employees also began, with some exceptions, treating customers who had dark skin, respectfully. The lawsuits stopped. The profits resumed.

I worked at a gas station, from 3pm to midnight. About every three weeks the gas station was robbed. A few days later the robbers would be found and arrested, having spent the stolen money on buying drinks for anyone who would listen to them tell how they had robbed the gas station.

The writing program was exceptional. The instructor was one of two brothers, both of whom had gained national literary reputations by writing about their separate but equally brutal childhoods. Not only had our teacher’s writing been published, he had been paid for it. Although not nearly as much as he was paid for teaching writing. A dozen of us would sit at a circular table and listen as our instructor told rambling stories that seemed pointless, yet artfully managed to contain one or more cameo appearances by different writers whose names I recognized from having read old issues of The New Yorker magazine. I could not afford The New Yorker, but my girlfriend’s mother had kindly passed old issues to me, after learning that I wanted to be a writer. I was also indebted to her for tactfully explaining that Evelyn Waugh was a man, not a woman

Despite my short time on earth, I, like everyone else in my exclusive and expensive creative writing program, was convinced I had something to write about. And I did. For one semester.

By the end of that semester I had encoded everything I knew about being alive into three overwrought and unfinished short stories. In May I turned 22, the semester ended, and I was drained, depleted, creatively exhausted. Spent.

Fortunately, Life whooshed in to fill the vacuum I had become.

My intermittently faithful girlfriend dumped me. And moved to… Manhattan.

I quit the creative writing program, skipped out on our rent, and moved to… Providence.


Sonny drove erratically. Too slow, then too fast; he became convinced he needed to be in the left lane, but once there, became more and more agitated by the urge to be in the right lane.

I dug out the dirt-encrusted seat belt from where it was wedged in the crease of my seat and bucked it. I asked, “So what are we doing today?”

You’re an Odorano man today!

“What does Odorano mean?”

“In Italian it means perfume!” He slapped the rattling dashboard. “Ha! Per-fume!”

“What’s it mean in English?”

“I don’t speak English, only American! Ha!” He tugged the steering wheel to jerk the van into the right lane. “In American, Odorano means shit! Or, in your case, Tonto, paycheck.”

The radio blared. A man sang through his nose, having perfected a way of simultaneously whining and yodeling.

Baby when you done left mee-EEE-eee-EEE-ooooo

I felt la-la-la-lonely as an emp-TEE staaa-AAAA-dium

After the big gaa-AAA-mmme!

“How, exactly, do I earn that paycheck?”

“You exactly perform sanitation engineering of private real estate that is open for use by John Q. Public. Got it?”

I parsed the sentence and uncovered its meaning. “I’ll be cleaning toilets.”

“Not just toilets, Tonto! Think big! Think entire restroom fa-cil-i-ties! You will also install and maintain a patented air-freshener that magically makes a shithouse smell like Italiano perfumo! I am the Odorano Man! And today, Tonto, you are, too!”

I looked out the side window at the passing landscape of tired brick buildings, and parking lots enclosed by chain link fences topped with razor wire. I had a sudden understanding of a Zen koan contained in a science fiction paperback I had found in a train station: You have to live until you die.

I exhaled slowly, “Hi-ho, Silver.”

(to be continued)

Sunday Morning with Modesta Avilla

Modesta Avilla photo

Modesta Avilla, Felon

“Be neither a conformist nor a rebel, for they are really the same thing. Find your own path, and stay on it.”  —Paul Vixie

I awoke at 3am on a Sunday morning and for two hours lay in the dark watching my thoughts tie themselves into knots.

By the dawn’s early light I decided, for no apparent reason, I would drive to a town I had long heard of but had never been to, San Juan Capistrano.

Then, for no apparent reason, I laughed.

It happens.

(In the interest of brevity, I removed this from the above paragraph: I had first heard of Capistrano when I was a boy watching a Bugs Bunny cartoon in which the animated rabbit was in the shower, wearing a flowery shower cap and using a scrub brush and singing, “Oh, when the swallows a-come-a-baaaaack to Capistrano!”)

It was still early morning when I drove into a parking garage near the train station in San Juan Capistrano. The nearly empty concrete parking structure was, for no apparent reason, reverberating with music so loud it vibrated the windows of my car. But when I drove onto the rooftop level, I discovered the apparent reason. A film crew was taking advantage of the golden sunlight to shoot a music video. I parked and stood by, watching a buxom Latina fronting a nine-piece band complete with horn section. She wore vampire makeup, a purple latex micro-skirt, and vertigo-inducing stiletto heels. She shook her head to make her long straight black hair cover her face. Then shook her head to make her hair fly off her face. All while banging out power chords on an electric guitar suspended below the tsunami wave of her surgically enhanced breasts.

(I deleted this: It happens. In Southern California.)

I walked across the train tracks to the old part of Capistrano, where the narrow lanes were lined with old-growth shade trees and hidden among the trees behind flowering hedges were tiny, sagging wood houses that had been built in the mid 1800s. Some of those houses were still being used as private homes. Others were being used as antique stores, cafés, and restaurants.

(This served no purpose, so I removed it: It was a beautiful morning. Most mornings are. When we are healthy and free to wander around.)

One of the small farmhouses was being used as a petting zoo. Children rode in circles on the backs of toy-size donkeys and ponies. Swarms of calmly quacking ducks followed the feet of children who were scattering packets of feed. Once in a while the ducks would nip the butt of a pigeon who had crashed the free buffet. Just past the petting zoo was a fenced field in which about a hundred people were standing or sitting at picnic tables and in lawn chairs, listening to musicians playing guitars and fiddles and ukuleles, and watching a line of stout women swaying side to side and singing. They sang about feeling grateful for all of Creation, and its anonymous Creator.

(I removed this excess description, hoping the reader would see it or something like it without my having to show it: The women who were undulating their ample hips and waving their hands in a slow-motion hula wore faux grass skirts and flowery blouses.)

My wanderings carried me back across the train tracks to the modern side of Capistrano. In a city park I saw workmen positioning a lectern and microphones in front of a five-foot high wall of amplifiers. A large banner strung between two shade trees informed me this would be a political, not a spiritual, gathering.

(I removed this because it is judgmental, simplistic, and essentially true: The event would be a loud rallying of like-minded citizens deeply angry at their government for trying to provide more of its citizens with health care services.)

Fortunately, my wandering soon took me back to the wrong side the train tracks, back into the sanitized and preserved Mexican California history. I soon came to a pocket park under construction. Stone paths had been laid down but the landscaping had not been started and the brown earth was exposed to the warming sun. The main feature of the new park was a low curving stucco wall that had been embedded with bronze plaques depicting events and people from the town’s past. There was a photoengraving of a dark-haired dark-eyed woman staring straight back at me, and I stopped to read her story.

She had been born almost where I stood, a hundred years ago. Modesta Avilla earned her plaque on this wall because, like Henry David Thoreau (whose face is on lots of engraved plaques in New England where I grew up), she dared to express resistance to civil government.

In 1889 the Santa Fe railroad laid its tracks across Modesta Avilla’s family’s property—without paying them. While Thoreau’s civil disobedience took the form of refusing to pay taxes to support slavery and the war on, coincidentally, Mexico, Modesta Avilla expressed civil disobedience to the state of California, née Mexico, by stringing her clothesline across the railroad tracks on her property. And hanging her family’s laundry on it.

Like Thoreau, Modesta Avila was arrested.

Unlike Thoreau, who spent one night in jail, Avilla was sentenced to three years in jail. She became California’s first felon.

(Trying to make an already sluggish essay flow, I removed this boring statistical aside: America in general and California in particular have evolved greatly since jailing Modesta Avilla for airing her clean laundry in public. By 2009, the United States achieved the highest documented incarceration rate in the world, managing to keep 3.1% of its adult population, (7,225,800 people) under correctional supervision, i.e., probation, parole, jail, or prison.)

(After deleting the above diatribe, I realized I also had to delete this related snippet: Perhaps one way America paid for the expensive feat of jailing so many of its citizens was not helping out the 18.9% of non-elderly Americans (50 million people) who were without health insurance in 2009.)

When I got back into my car on the roof level of the parking garage it was past noon, the golden light had turned into hard white daylight, and the Mexi-Cali rockers were gone. Maybe home to bed.

A few days later I asked the oracle (the www) to tell me more stories about Modesta Avilla. The oracle obliged. I read how an historian, alive now, described Modesta Avilla, dead a century ago, as a “charming dark-eyed beauty.” I reckoned he had seen the photo engraved on the plaque in Capistrano.

The historian also wrote that Avilla depended more on her beauty than her intelligence “to keep food on the table and a roof over her head.” He said she was extremely proud.

(I deleted this, assuming the reader, if willing, could do their own translation of the historian’s code talking: Modesta Avilla was Mexican, a prostitute, and, worse, she was an uppity Mexican prostitute.)

The historian’s narrative told how, despite locals saying Avilla had strung her clothesline across the tracks, the Santa Fe Railroad claimed she had put a railroad tie across their tracks.

(I redacted these ignorant and irrelevant questions: Aren’t railroad ties big and heavy? Did someone help the 22-year-old Mexican whore with such hard labor? Would not that make them an accomplice? )

The railroad claimed that an agent of its employ had, fortunately, removed the tie before a train came down the tracks.

(I cut this: Apparently also before anyone not employed by the railroad saw it.)

The first jury to try Modesta Avilla deadlocked. But the state-railroad partnership was determined, and paid for a second trial.  “Rumors circulated,” the historian writes, “That the attractive single woman was pregnant.”


(I deleted: Shocking!)

Modesta Avilla’s attorney appealed and was able to argue before the state Supreme Court that his client was convicted on her reputation, not her deed.

(On the advice of legal counsel, I deleted: She was railroaded!)

Her attorney lost the case. On an unspecified technicality. And during the second year of her three-year sentence in San Quentin prison, 22-year-old Modesta Avilla died.

(I delete this anti-climactic ending: One night not long after my Sunday morning in San Juan Capistrano, I again awoke at 3am and again lay for hours in the dark watching my thoughts tie themselves in knots. By the dawn’s early light, I fell back into sleep. And I dreamed of Modesta Avilla. She was wearing a purple micro-skirt and stiletto heels, tossing her long black hair around while banging on a guitar and belting out Spanglish lyrics, backed by a 9-piece band.)

Finding Someone Else’s Diary

cyclist passing truck on highwayMost of my life I have managed to be reasonably happy and comfortably poor.

An exception came when I was approaching 40 and living in Portland, Oregon. I broke up with my girlfriend and became unhappy. When I moved out of her house that had the fenced backyard for my golden retriever, Newton, my poverty became uncomfortable.

But Richard and Sarah, an unmarried couple I knew from my job, wanted to leave the basement apartment they were renting, so I took over their lease. The only way I could afford the rent was by having a roommate. So I took the bedroom which was just big enough to fit a floor lamp and a futon bed, both of which I had purchased, along with all my cookware and kitchen utensils, from Richard and Sarah. And I rented the very large bedroom to a Japanese-American woman who had just graduated from Reed College. The only modification she had made when moving in was to bolt into the high ceiling of her bedroom a leather net on a swivel hook.

“What’s that for?” I asked.

“It’s my swing,” she said. Then she made a big slow wink at me. “I’m a swinger. Get it?”

The best roommates are the ones who you never see except when they hand you the rent check. Almost every day after her office job my roommate went to all-night parties hosted by members of Portland’s diverse and hyperactive sadomasochism community. The only guests she brought home were her best friends, a married couple, both of who were over six-feet tall and 240 pounds. The husband was a computer programmer and an undistinguished player. But the wife was a renowned and sought-after professional dominatrix. Only once in a while did my dog and I awake in the wee small hours of the morning to the sounds of a bullwhip cracking and high-pitched whimpering coming from behind my roommate’s bedroom door.

Despite my small job, small bank account, and a room so small there was no place for my dog to sleep but on the futon with me, I had a big dream. It was a dream that had been buried somewhere between the lower mantel and outer core of my memory since I was 17. For an unknown reason that made perfect sense, the dream chose this unhappy and uncomfortable time to erupt.

I wanted to ride a bicycle across America

There was a question repeating in my mind day and night. “If not now, when?”

I was no longer on great terms with my former girlfriend, but my dog was. So when I asked, she readily agreed to take care of Newton for an indefinite time. I began, without really paying attention to what I was doing, buying or borrowing bicycling gear and camping equipment. I randomly chose a date five months away on which I would quit my job, give up my apartment, and sell the futon I had bought from Richard and Sarah, along with whatever else I owned that could not be carried on a bicycle. And, on the nights that I awoke to the call-and-response of the bullwhip and whimpering, I would lie in bed vividly imagining myself dipping the back wheel of my bicycle in the Pacific Ocean. Then dipping the front wheel of my bicycle in the Atlantic Ocean. I cleverly chose to not imagine the weeks of grueling sun-scorched rain-soaked sleeping on rocky ground between those two baptisms.


Three weeks before I was to hit the delete key on my unhappy life and open a new, blank document on which to draft a better one, I blew out my back. That is, as the first chiropractor I had ever consulted informed me, “Your L4-L5 disc has succumbed to age, and to a series of assaults.”

“Assaults? What assaults?”

He quoted from the three-page history I had provided. “Tackle football, bicycle crashes, slipping on those ice-covered stairs Thanksgiving morning. Not to mention falling off the horse onto that rock while on your honeymoon in England.”


“Your back,” the chiropractor said, “Records and remembers every insult and injury.

“Oh. Like my mother.”

Until then, I had never been seriously injured, never had an arm in a sling or a leg in a cast, never taken pain-killing pharmaceuticals, and had given but never received blood. Now I could not sit down or walk without pain. The pain was transmitted along a high-intensity electric cable strung from the toes of my left foot up into my lower back. And there was no off-switch. I was shocked to find I had become a member in good standing of the one group any person—regardless of race, creed, sexual orientation, health or wealth—can suddenly become a member of. The disabled.

I asked the chiropractor, “Can I still ride my bike across the continent.”

“Absolutely,” he said.

My spirits soared.

“Maybe a year from now. If you’re lucky.”

Now, three weeks before the date I had resolved to declare my life a Do Over, a new question began repeating in my mind day and night. “What the fuck am I going to do now?”

The answer came in a rapid succession of seemingly unrelated events over which I had no control other than how I responded to each. In a word, Life.

My employer announced a layoff. I volunteered. Having worked at a job of one kind or another since I was 15, which is a reliable method for being comfortably poor, being suddenly unemployed was a shock, disorienting, and liberating.

Richard and Sarah decided to get married. For some reason the preparations required them to buy a new car and to sell Richard’s battered 20-year-old Toyota pickup he had been driving since high school. I bought Richard’s truck for $200.

I had lived ten years in Manhattan followed by three years in San Francisco, two cities where happily comfortably poor people do not need to own a car. Then I had lived seven years in Portland, where my preference and my poverty determined I would use only my feet or my bicycle to take me anywhere I wanted to go, day or night, light rain or heavy rain. Suddenly owning a motorized vehicle was a shock, disorienting, and liberating. Although just getting into and out of the truck or sitting and driving was painful, I could now travel 50 miles in an hour instead of half a day. And I didn’t have to shower when done.

Within two weeks I had completed a two-step dance with the truth. The first step was to accept that my dream of bicycling across the continent would not become real. The second step was to understand that, even without that dramatic catalyst, I still desperately needed to change.

However, lacking the courage and discipline to change the root cause of my unhappiness—me—I instead chose to radically change everything but. I decided to move to a city I had never been to and where I knew no one. I chose San Diego for the sole reason that its weather was warm and dry and sunny; the inverse of Portland’s.

When I told the clerk at the unemployment center that I was thinking of moving out of state she woke from her sleep to enthusiastically explain how easy it would be for me to become California’s problem instead of Oregon’s. I sold or returned the camping gear I had bought or borrowed. But I kept the bicycle I could not ride. I gave my roommate notice to vacate. She moved in with her married friends. I took a cash advance at a usurious, poverty-insuring interest rate and purchased an old Volvo that could tow a small U-Haul trailer to San Diego. I found a company that would tow away Richard’s decrepit truck and even give me $25.00 for its title.

While waiting for the tow truck to arrive I searched through the cab to be sure I had not left any personal items inside. From under the driver’s seat I pulled out an empty orange package of Zig Zag rolling papers, a sand-encrusted red lollipop, and $1.67 in coins.

And I found Richard’s diary.

It was one of those mottled black and white composition books. Two-thirds of its widely spaced blue-lined pages were filled with angular block-lettered handwriting in different colored inks and pencil. I knew at a glance that it was a journal, a diary, and a secret private emotional one, by the way the writing slanted left, then slanted right, then was rigidly erect, all in one paragraph.

After the briefest hesitation, I  did what I always do when finding a book. I opened it to a random page and began reading.

The Richard I knew, just past 30-years-old, was tall, pale, and thin but lumpy, the way a kid who hates to exercise and was always on a computer would grow up to be. He had taught himself the internet and music, and he was a gifted mimic and actor who had never been on a stage. He could make anyone laugh. Anyone.

Richard and Sarah had been a couple since high school. Which is why, despite their young age, theirs was the solid, warm and constant kind of love that only couples who have sailed through many years of calm and storm and calm ever reach.

The Richard in this lost diary was someone I had never met.

He had roiling doubts about Sarah’s love for him. And his love for her. She got on his nerves, irritated him. For three pages he eloquently raged against being held back from the pursuit of some unnamed happiness. In the pages of the diary, I met Richard’s father, an affable English teacher in the same New Mexico high school where Richard was an underachieving student and slouching member of the slacker-geek clique. Everyone in the school, students, teachers and administrators, liked Richard’s father. And mocked him. He was an active, happy, natural alcoholic who would not or could not wear any of the disguising masks society held out to him.

The 30-something Richard writing the diary filled page after page with detailed memories of the repressed frustration and anguish he had endured as a boy and a teenager.  His father—would not would not would not—just—stop—drinking. In the journal I saw Richard as a boy of 14, riding inside the very truck I had bought from him while his father drove fast and wavering on empty sun-baked New Mexico roads. I could hear his father performing a rambling monologue to his passenger son. He spoke of great scientists as if they lived next door, of science fiction he argued was great literature, of colonies on Mars or planets in other solar systems, while quizzing his son on the periodic table and the mind-bending rules of quantum physics. And all through the talk he gulped down can after can of cheap beer, tossing the empties into the truck bed to bounce and bang around as he swerved into the oncoming lane while coaxing his reluctant son to grab another can from the two cases on the floor and pass it to him.

The tow truck arrived. Five minutes later I had a check for $25 in one hand, and Richard’s journal in the other. I pocketed the check then crossed the street to the alley behind my apartment building. I opened the black cover of the big green dumpster and dropped the diary into a crevasse in the mound of trash. I pulled a soggy leaking paper bag of garbage on top of it.

On the pre-dawn morning I left Portland, I walked my dog one last time in the rain. Then we got into the old Volvo with the U-Haul trailer attached and drove away. Inside the trailer was the bicycle I could not ride; a used Nordic Track I had purchased because it was the only form of exercise I could do without being incapacitated by pain; the floor lamp and kitchen utensils and futon bed I had bought from Richard and Sarah and that, after all, I needed to keep.

Cutters Cycling Team, from the movie, Breaking Away