Saturday, December 31, 2011

Endings of 2011


It's going to be hard, in the far future, conveying the incredible smugness of Prius ownership in the first decade of this century. For a few years there, the Toyota Prius was nearly the only SULEV (Super Low Emissions Vehicle) on the road, offering all the haughty superiority of a bike with all the seats and AC and awesomeness of a car. In sharp contrast, all other vehicles on the road - including all those hippie-owned, soot-belching VWs - were revealed as monstrous gas guzzlers. Owning a Prius in the aughties was a fast track to self-righteousness.   

It was also a fast track to the fast track. California awarded Prius owners with Diamond Lane stickers. These deceptively flimsy decals clung to our bumpers with some super-strong, secret government adhesive, and made our futuristic cars 2% more futuristic. They also allowed solitary Prius drivers access to the car pool lanes. Can you imagine the unique self-satisfaction of zipping through clogged traffic in your own private freeway lane? Of course you can't. You don't drive a Prius. Or you don't live in California. Or you live in some year later than 2011 and your car is powered by Hydrogen or yard trimmings and you don't have to worry about air pollution.

Anyway, the dream died in July. You can thank CA vehicles codes 5205.5 and 21655.9. Also the new PZEV (Partial Zero Emissions Vehicle) cars. And your own indifference to my moral superiority. All of you guys killed the dream. Congrats.

Why do (other people's) bankruptcies make me so happy? And why does the specific bankruptcy of Borders Books make me so especially happy? I spent many nights in the Borders of Montclair, CA. I read a lot of their books, drank a lot of their coffee, sat through a quake in their leather chairs. I shopped at many Borders in many parts of the country. I never held my miserable one month of employment against them.

So it's weird that I get a little thrill whenever I pass their exit on the freeway and see that big, bare retail space. And who pays to keep all their lights on?

I love shit like this. It's messed up.


I was kind of disoriented the night I arrived in California, twelve years ago. I retrieved all my worldly possessions - a duffel bag of clothes and two frightened cats - from a crowded baggage carousel, and realized with a rough jolt that I no longer owned keys. My girlfriend picked me up and drove us to my future in-laws' house at 1 AM. I was jet lagged, freaked, and slightly stunned that I had actually renounced the entire east coast of America.

All this may explain why I immediately locked us out of the house. It was far too late to wake anyone up. I skulked around the bushes near the kitchen, noticed one of the windows was unlocked, hoisted myself up, and stealthily popped out the screen. I was halfway inside when a large labrador mutt ran up at face level. It was Scully. We'd met once before, but I didn't know if he was the kind of dog who would rip out an intruder’s throat. I froze. We exchanged a long, meaningful glance. Slowly - tentatively - his tale wagged.

We were good pals for the next dozen years. My wish now is that he gets to live in the neighborhood of Dog Heaven where Vincent Price and Elizabeth Taylor hand out t-bone steaks every hour and cartoon fire hydrants dance the fandango on every street corner. Farewell, sport.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Wednesday, December 21, 2011


My grandmother Mavis was 47 when I showed up. She and my grandfather Ralph were then living in the outer LA county province of Pomona (a city I'd return to, by complete coincidence, 30 years later). She taught at Mt. SAC College, he taught at Cal Poly Pomona. After their back yard vanished in an overnight mudslide, they moved to Keno, Oregon. But Keno eventually proved too remote - too eerily silent at night -  and they relocated to the relatively sprawling metropolis of Klamath Falls. They lived there until his death in 1997, and her death late last month. She was 89. 

It's a typical grandparent story. Here’s what’s not typical; my grandmother was a nuclear physicist. Raised in Dust Bowl Oklahoma, she was the first in her family to graduate college, and she went on to work with radioactive isotope treatment for liver and thyroid disease at Stanford Research Institute. Despite her sense of humor – wry? dry? – there was something slightly formidable about her intellect. Although we were very close for four decades, she was never "grandma" or "grammy" or "grim grams". I only called her “Grandmother”.  

Here’s a wonderful photo of her from the late 1950’s, working on the first smog study in Los Angeles. I’m not sure of the context, or the nature of her research, or the tie-in to her particular field. I didn’t start trying to sort out the chronology of her career until it was too late, the precise sequence of her life eluding both of us.

At some point before my existence, she worked on weapons systems at General Dynamics. We never discussed this period in her life. During the years I knew her, Grandmother was a progressive’s progressive. She was a founding member of the Northwest Energy Coalition and the Klamath Solar Association, as well as president of the county’s League of Women Voters and active with the Oregon Citizens Utility Board. Sorting her voluminous papers earlier this month, I was struck by the absurd breadth of her interests: solar power, reproductive rights, campaign finance reform, sheaths of technical info on heavy water reactors, power grids, energy efficiency, many articles addressing Enron before Enron’s collapse, lists of legislators, and literally thousands of newspaper clippings, each neatly dated, and many underlined or highlighted. I got through 10 bankers boxes of information, only slightly more than half her paper estate.

In life, it was a little too easy to overlook the scope of her accomplishments in general. Ralph got her into gambling (she financed her unsuccessful 1990 State Legislature race with $7k in poker winnings). She got him into piloting, and they took their Cessna on several cross country flights, including jaunts over the Canadian wilderness and rural Mexico. They lived in Europe for 4 years in the late 1950s, and she traveled on her own to Australia, China, Israel, and the Soviet Union. She was the only person I ever met to fly over the North Pole (although not in her own Cessna). 

As a devout agnostic, I have to at least entertain the possibility that somewhere she and my grandfather have been reunited, perhaps with some (or all?) of their wonderful animals: Corky, Pee Wee, Pete, Trudy, Vasi. As a devout atheist, she might be very annoyed at receiving extra innings. Or was she a devout atheist? I'd always assumed so. Discussing the matter with my mom, however, the best we could remember was that my Grandmother had once called organized religion “awfully silly”. It's one more detail requiring the clarification that will now never come.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

New: I've written a novel.

MY LIFE, Dec. 7 - Some things have transpired. For starters, I've changed the name of this blog. The URL is the same, so if you've been kind enough to link to me in the past, then you can sleep well tonight, safe in the knowledge that your link is still valid. Same blog, different title.

The name change comes in the service of something larger: my first novel will be released on April 1, 2012, and I decided to use the title for my new book instead of my blog. Perhaps this seems counterintuitive, in that some people will probably mistake this entirely new, 265-page work of fiction for a collection of blog posts in book format. But here's the thing: I'm Sam McPheeters and I can do whatever I want.

The novel The Loom Of Ruin could be called a "satire" or "dark comedy" or a "story in which lots of terrible things happen to a lot of good people". If you like my writing, you will like this book. It was written with you in mind.

The novel is being released through Mugger Books, a new, L.A.-based publisher run by my friend Anthony Berryman. You’ll be able to preorder a copy in the first week of January. Digital e-reader presales will commence in the next month or so. I'll be posting a lot more information about this book, and the related book tour, in the weeks to come.

This is one of several projects I have lined up for 2012. My blog suffered this year because of these projects. That won't be the case next year. I like posting stuff here. If I had the option, this would be my only online outlet. Thanks for your patience. I'll make it worth your while.