The habit of giving only enhances the desire to give.” ~Walt Whitman

2.23.04                                                                                  scottsdale, az

FOR THE LAST 3½ YEARS I’VE BEEN GREETED ONCE-A-WEEK BY THE GIDDY FACE YOU SEE IN TODAY’S PIC-OF-THE-DAY. Like a puppy that’s happy to see you after a long day at work, Ruth never failed to light up when I arrived at her doorstep. We should all be so lucky to be welcomed with such giddy enthusiasm on a regular basis by the people in our lives.

For those of you new to my story, I began paying Ruth weekly visits on August 1, 2000. We were paired up through Friends to the Elderly, a non-profit LA organization that hooks up volunteers with local senior citizens in need of companionship. I’ve been involved with Friends to the Elderly for 10 years now and Ruth is the 4th elderly person I’ve befriended.

Having Ruth in my life has been such a blessing. During our weekly visits—which usually last between an hour and 90 minutes—I’ve never once been bored with our conversation. And I’ve never left her apartment feeling anything but inspired and happy.

During my recent 6-week stay in SoCal, my weekly volunteer commitment consisted of my regular Ruth visits. After having been on the road most of last year, it was especially gratifying to spend time with her. Of all the people in my life, Ruth is probably the most eager of anyone to hear my stories. Just like I’m probably one of the most eager people in her life to hear her stories.

I’ll never forget a moment we had a few weeks ago. I was laughingly telling her about my most recent automotive foibles—my car horn was now spontaneously going off for no apparent reason. As I told her how this had already led to some embarrassing traffic moments, Ruth was cracking up.

“Oh, Robuht,” she giggled in her vaguely British intonation. “I never laugh when you’re not around. It’s so nice to laugh. I don’t know how you do it.”

One of the toughest things about being on the road has been not being able to see Ruth on a regular basis.

It’s a beautiful thing we’ve got going. Definitely one of the most gratifying relationships I’ve ever had. And further evidence of the too-often-ignored fact that to give is to receive tenfold.

* * *

The reason I’m writing about Ruth today is because I just got off the phone with her a couple hours ago. She sounded more upset than I’ve ever heard her.

“Hey, Ruth,” I said as I stood in the foyer outside Borders on Cactus Avenue in north Scottsdale. “How’d it go today?”

“Not good,” she said starting to cry. “The doctor says it’s cancer.”

Ruth went in this morning for an out-patient procedure to have a lesion removed above her eyelid. Now she’s gotta wait 7 to 10 days for the results of the biopsy.

“Either way,” she said fighting back the tears, “I need to go back and have surgery to have the rest of it removed.”

Ruth is terrified. I could hear it in her voice.

I tried to tell her it was gonna be alright. I tried to provide my usual dose of optimism. But this time it was harder to pull off.

A few weeks ago when Ruth told me she needed the procedure I was confident everything was gonna be fine. I’d never heard of anyone having “eye cancer.”

I was sure the doctor would go in and quickly remove what I assumed to be a small cyst near her eye.

Then last night, while I was watching the series finale of Sex and the City at the Embassy Suites Hotel in Scottsdale, I met a 6th grade school teacher whose ex-husband actually DIED of “ocular melanoma.”

The timing of this tidbit of information couldn’t have been worse.

But I’ll try to remain positive and muster up as much optimism as possible each time I talk to Ruth. She’s had such a tough life. Her first love went off to World War II, came back, married Ruth—then had a fling with a nurse while he was in medical school. Leaving Ruth to raise their young twin sons.

A few years later Ruth married a man she didn’t love—whose name, ironically, was Bob—so that her boys would have a father figure. (No wonder she’s been calling me “Robert” ever since I’ve known her.)

Ruth stayed with Bob for nearly 20 years. The best part of her marriage to Bob was David, the kindhearted son they had. David is Ruth’s pride and joy, but lives 3000 miles away just outside of Boston. (I enjoyed a memorable 3-day stay with David and his Orthodox Jewish family last July, which included my first visit to Friday night temple.)

After her marriage to Bob ended, Ruth never remarried. But she did fall in love again. To a career military man named John. Ruth and John met in San Francisco and dated for years in San Diego. Then, about 5 years into their relationship, they had an argument and stopped speaking for a few days.

Ruth soon learned there was a reason John wasn’t calling her to patch things up: he had died of a stroke.

And now her heart is breaking all over again.

Maybe everything will turn out alright this time around. But until the biopsy results come back and the surgery is over, I know Ruth is gonna be a wreck. She doesn’t have many friends left in LA. And her asthma and heart condition keep her inside most of the time, where she spends way too much time watching the horror and mayhem breaking out all over the world on the news.

Tomorrow I’m gonna write Ruth a little note letting her know I’m thinking of her. If anyone out there has the inclination to do the same, just let me know and I’ll e-mail you her address. I realize most of you have never met my sweet 77-year-old friend.

But as I’ve discovered time and time again, kind words from a stranger can have a profound impact on an aching heart.

* * *

I know many of you are awaiting my assessment of last week’s 5-day visit with Boston Jacquie. Not to worry. That’s coming in the next few days. I also want to write about some of the fascinating people I’ve met since I’ve been here in the Scottsdale/Phoenix area. As always, the stories are piling up.

I just needed to get this stuff about my friend back in LA off my chest right now. Thanks for hearing me out.

Hang in there, Ruth.

family insight

A family is a place where minds come in contact with one another. If these minds love one another the home will be as beautiful as a flower garden. But if these minds get out of harmony with one another it is like a storm that plays havoc with the garden.” ~Buddha

12.4.03                                                                               new port richey, fl


Her parents—who met after my grandpa rode his motorcycle during the Depression from LA to my grandma’s hometown of Springfield, Mass.—never fought. The family—comprised of 5 kids, my dad being the oldest—lived in a comfortable house in the booming San Gabriel Valley ‘burbs of Los Angeles. My grandpa had steady work as a motorcycle mechanic. My grandma was a stay-at-home mom. Taking care of a healthy brood of attractive kids who never got in trouble.

My dad raced motorcycles. Brother Bill was in the Junior Marines. Sheri, 13 years younger than my dad, was 3 when she became a mascot for the Monterey Park Girls Drum & Bugle Corps, a local group that marched in the Hollywood Christmas Parade each year. My grandma was a chaperone for the girls. Middle sister Carol played snare drum. Oldest sister Betty played tenor drum. Eventually, Aunt Sheri moved up to soprano bugle.

Then at 16—13 years after she’d become a mascot—Aunt Sheri quit the squeaky-clean band. That same year she quit high school, too.

By the time she was 17, Aunt Sheri was arrested for having a joint—1 fucking joint!—and placed in juvenile lockdown for 4 1/2 months.

At 22 she was a junkie with a dead husband. Locked up for writing bad checks to support their heroin addiction. Doing time at Sybil Brand, the same LA jail holding a couple of the Manson family girls.

A few days ago, I found out that during Aunt Sheri’s 72-day jail stay—a time when she also got the news that her junkie husband had just OD’d—not a single person from our family came to visit.

* * *

This afternoon before her meeting with the bastards who’ve turned her down twice for disability, Aunt Sheri poked her head in the spare bedroom where I’m writing this week. I was asking about her many health issues and the abuse that led to it when she casually mentioned: “I’ve pretty much been in a mind-alterered state, 24/7, since the late ‘60s.”

There are people in our family who might scoff and roll their eyes upon hearing such a statement. I’d rather listen and try to understand WHY.

Aunt Sheri doesn’t play the victim. She doesn’t blame anyone for her fuck-ups. During the last few days she’s told me things that made my jaw drop. Things that never got discussed in our family. Stuff I’d never probed too deeply into. Then again, that’s the way it goes in my family. And so many other families out there, from what I’ve seen.

Things I’ve found out about Aunt Sheri: After she dropped out of high school she discovered whites, which got her jacked up—without the alcohol hangover. Then it was pot. Heroin. (Which she vowed she’d NEVER try.) Reds. Mescaline. And acid. Lots of acid.

“I used to LOVE to blaze,” she told me the other night. “And I’d do a LOT.”

She used to sell drugs to get enough money to DO drugs. She told me how she once got away with stealing $600 from an auto body shop she worked at. She remembered going to the Colorado River to sell acid…and eating all her profits.

“I got FUCKED up,” she said with a gravelly, chain-smoker’s laugh.

For 24 years—after she got out of jail and tried to commit suicide twice—Aunt Sheri actually was responsible enough to hold down a full-time job at a mental institution. Over 2 decades of steady employment while being in various mind-altered states. During the last several years she was drinking vast amounts of champagne…BEFORE work. And more at lunch. Plus doing cocaine.

Then, in 1998, Aunt Sheri met a truck driver in a Yahoo! chat room.

Which led to e-mails. Phone calls. Until finally, exactly 5 years ago Monday—the day I got here—Aunt Sheri flew to Florida and met Loren in person.

It’s been almost 2 1/2 years now since they decided to move to the East Coast. The first time in her life that Aunt Sheri’s lived away from Southern California. To live in Florida with the man she met in a chat room—which had become yet another one of her addictions.

And for the first time in her life, Aunt Sheri got religion. In a big way. Although she’s not pushy or preachy about it. She’s even been sober for 2 years.

The ‘60s are finally over for Aunt Sheri.

* * *

At our family functions there’s always lot of talking. But not much is actually said. Too many distractions. Too many short attention spans. Too much apathy. But lotsa laughs.

My dad’s side of the family gets together every Thanksgiving and Christmas. Plus usually one summer birthday/graduation/anniversary party a year. And the occasional wedding or funeral. There’s always lots of cute kids running around. The alcohol’s flowing. And some kind of sporting event is usually blaring from the TV.

I’ve been seeing Aunt Sheri at these thoroughly enjoyable events all my life. I’ve always thought she was great. The cool aunt who actually seemed willing to have an open, 2-way conversation.

And still…

I’ve learned more about Aunt Sheri in the last 3 days than I did in 40+ years of seeing her at family functions.

Maybe that says everything you need to know about our family. Nobody is all that interested in anybody else’s life. Or at least it SEEMS that way.

I’m sure I’ve been guilty of it myself. I know in my heart that I’d like to hear every delicious detail about the lives of the people in my family. But in the Era of Convenience, we seem to have time for everything BUT listening.

And when the need to talk isn’t reciprocated with a desire to listen on the other end—when the scales of conversation are almost always tipped in their favor—who wouldn’t shut down under these circumstances?

Is it so surpising that Aunt Sheri ended up on the road she did? Raised by disinterested parents who, after 4 kids, were tired of parenting. In a household where she was never hugged. At Christmas a couple years ago she told me she couldn’t remember her mom or dad ever saying “I love you.”

She does, however, remember my dad’s teasing and temper. “Your dad was MEAN,” she’s told me a couple times since I’ve been here.

In my dad’s defense, he’d been emotionally ignored at home while getting teased mercilessly at school for years because of his stuttering.

It wasn’t until a few years ago when I felt like I understood all that pent up rage he must’ve felt.

I had my dad over for dinner one night when I was working on “the book.” I wanted to hear all the stories he’d never offered up over the years. I wanted to have the conversation I’d had with dozens of friends and strangers. A conversation where my genuine curiosity and unbridled enthusiasm had gotten so many people to open up and share their stories.

A conversation I’d never had with my own father.

After that night, though, I felt like a dirty window had just been cleaned. I saw things in my dad I never did before. When that conversation was over, I’d never felt such compassion for my dad. For years I tended to dwell on what he DIDN’T have. That 4-hour talk left me full of respect for the man he’d become and for what he’d overcome to get there.

After these last few days in Florida, I feel the same way about Aunt Sheri.

Aunt Sheri is a survivor. Still diving headfirst into life with a laugh and a cigarette. When it would be so easy to just give up.

At 52 she is also the physical embodiment of the consequences of partying too hard for too long. Among her MANY ailments: hepatitis B & C (from shooting up), work-related arthritis in her neck and shoulder (from subduing patients at the psych ward), the onset of osteoperosis and arthritis in her hips and hands, a leaky bladder, cirrhosis of the liver, a hernia and a near-constant headache. She’s also had a hysterectomy, her gall bladder removed and has been on anti-depressants pretty much since my grandma died in 1980.

Now all the drugs Aunt Sheri takes are state-approved and taxed by Uncle Sam.

Through it all, she is upbeat and optimistic. “I’m not ready to check out yet,” she told me before going to have a Marlboro on the patio. She loves her 2 cats (Budhe and Quasar), volunteers once-a-week and loves the music at her Methodist church. She’s got a network of friends — the family that LISTENS to her — thanks to a Yahoo! chat room. (Aunt Sheri and about 20 other chat friends from all over the world actually hooked up in Vegas not too long ago.)

And for the first time in her life, she’s in a stable relationship with a man for longer than a year-and-a-half. At 52, she’s found love with a good man who she calls “an absolute blessing.”

I love hanging out with people like Aunt Sheri. People who keep getting off the mat when life bitch slaps them to the floor. People who’ve felt lost, ignored, unloved — yet somehow found the fortitude, the grace, to keep going.

* * *

Aunt Sheri told me a great story 2 nights ago that sparked a pang of recognition.

After she’d gotten out of jail, lost her husband, went through rehab and tried to kill herself twice, Aunt Sheri decided she wanted to go back to school. At 25, she was going to study to become a psych tech — the mental hospital equivalent of a registered nurse. She was a little nervous about the whole thing. She hadn’t been in school since she was 16.

But Aunt Sheri was determined to complete the year-and-a-half program. Even though, as she recalls, “I had never finished ANYTHING in my life. I quit high school. I quit the Monterey Park Girls Drum & Bugle Corps. I quit the jobs I didn’t get fired from. I quit my marriage.”

While Aunt Sheri was in jail, her husband Greg came to visit. Angry that her years with him had led to a junkie’s life and jail, she told him she never wanted to see him again.

It was the last time she would ever talk to him.

Weeks later he OD’d on heroin.

So when Aunt Sheri showed up for the psych tech program, she came with just a little baggage. And a history of not finishing things.

Well, not only did she NOT quit, but Aunt Sheri got straight A’s. Made the dean’s list. And finished in the top 95th percentile in the national certification tests.

When she told me this I was aghast. “Why haven’t I ever heard that story before? Did anyone in the family know about this? Did anyone show any interest in what an amazing thing that was?”

She shrugged and shook her head. “Not really.”

“Well, I hope it’s not too late,” I told Aunt Sheri as we sat surrounded by cats and clutter on her screened-in patio. “But I’M proud of you.”

the coolest teenager in america

“Praise youth and it will prosper.” ~Irish proverb

11.19.03                                                                                          arlington, va


Even though — or maybe because — he loves to scare people. He’ll fuck with his friends.  His mom.  Complete strangers. No one is immune to his zen-ish yen for toothless mayhem.

For instance:

The wallpaper on his iMac is a hilarious picture of the exact moment he snuck up and doused one of his friends with cold water in the shower. In the video snapshot, the unsuspecting kid looks like a wet, grimacing Lee Harvey Oswald getting capped by Jack Ruby.

Only, Cutter’s weapons of choice were a cup of ice water and a digital camera. Delivered with an impish chuckle, no doubt.

The night I met Cutter, my friend GC’s 17-year-old East Coast cousin, he told me about the plot he’d hatched up recently. A plan in which he assembled a team of his high school buddies to kidnap one of their friends. Using ski masks, toy guns and a getaway van, no less.

“Just to scare him,” said Cutter, the kid with the Disney grin and the Pulp Fiction heart. “Believe me, he deserved it.”

The plan came off perfectly — until the kidnappee broke free and ran screaming back to the house party from where he’d been snatched. Cutter cracked up as he watched the whole thing go down from the shadows nearby. When I asked why he didn’t participate in the abduction, he said he couldn’t.  “I would’ve started laughing. I always lose it in those situations.”

(By the way, the kid who got nabbed later got his revenge when he hid a few dead fish in Cutter’s car. One of the fish wasn’t discovered for weeks.)

Cutter also showed me video footage of him jumping out from behind a door and scaring the crap out of Professor Lisa, his patient mother.

Apparently, this sort of thing isn’t that uncommon in their household.

*     *     *

“Today Cutter was saying, ‘I’m pissed at Bob.’ He’s been checking your web site all the time.”

Cutter’s mom is giving me a much-deserved dose of shit. I’m back in LA. Sitting on the blue velvet Pottery Barn sofa slipcover I paid $400 bucks for 5 years ago. In the near-empty office at P.’s apartment. MY old apartment.

It’s been over a month since I spent an unforgettable week in Arlington, VA with Cutter and the Professor.

“I warned you guys,” I’m telling Professor Lisa. “Didn’t I? I said it could be a day, it could be a week before I get around to writing about my visit to Arlington. It could be a few weeks, it could even be a few MONTHS. Did I not warn you guys?”

I don’t blame Cutter for being annoyed. After all, I did have a memorable, action-packed week at his house.  A turn of events that was completely unexpected, seeing as how I assumed I’d stay for a day, maybe 2.

I’d never met these guys before I showed up on a Monday night at their side door. The door just off the kitchen. The one, I later found out, no one ever goes to when they first come to the house.

I’ve known my friend GC for over 10 years. I even lived with him for 18 months. And I don’t recall ever hearing him mention his Aunt Lisa and cousin Cutter.

Cutter was getting ready for basketball practice when I showed up that night. He seemed a bit reserved at first. He must have been thinking: “Who the HELL is this guy?”

Still, he took me upstairs to the room I’d be staying in. It was twice as big as his tiny room at the top of the stairs, where I noticed ESPN: The Magazine and the latest Sports Illustrated on his messy floor.

I soon found out he was a shooting guard on the Washington-Lee High School basketball team. As 1 of only 2 sophomores on varsity last season, he didn’t play much. So this is a big year for him to step up.

When we got back downstairs I sat at the kitchen table. Giving the Cliff Notes version of my story to Cutter, the Professor, Cutter’s best friend William and William’s mom Sally. The 4 of them were immediately friendly and genuinely curious. Cutter, in fact, was so engaged in our conversation that he was almost late for practice.

An hour later, he came rushing through the house as the 4 of us sat having dinner.

“What are you doing home so soon?” his mom yelled out as her son scampered by.

“I forgot my shoes!”

And then he was gone. Out the door. In the car. Back to practice. Leaving the rest of us shaking our heads. The Professor finally broke the silence.

“So what’s he been doing for the last HOUR?”

*     *     *

So you might be thinking: Okay, so he pulls pranks and forgets his shoes. THAT makes him the coolest teenager in America?

No, not JUST that. He is, however, able to make mischief and forgetfulness endearing. But after only a week, I noticed at least 7 other factors that put him in the race for Coolest Teenager In America:

1) He is talented. The night I rolled into town he showed me some of the video shorts he’s made with his iMac/DV camera setup. They were pretty damn good, too. One of them, a long chase scene with a Tarantino/Scorcese vibe, had just been accepted into a new film festival for D.C.-area high school kids. And he’s getting an “A” in his screenwriting class at acclaimed H-B Woodlawn High School. Look out, Hollywood!

2) He is curious. He asks questions that let you know he’s actually listening, a reportedly rare quality in teenagers. “Are you religious?” he asked me during our first late-night discussion. “What’s your take on spirituality?” The question left his mom beaming later. “How many kids ask that kind of question?” gushed the Professor.

3) He‘s responsible. He claims he never smokes or drinks. Until proven otherwise, I‘ve gotta believe him. “I don‘t want to have that feeling of losing control,” he told me and his mom. “I laugh enough without that stuff.”

4) He‘s kind.  I don‘t have any concrete evidence. But he strikes me as the sort of guy that would stick up for the nerd getting picked on at school.

5) He‘s resilient. I went to one of his basketball games. Immediately afterwards, he was grumpy. He thought he sucked. An hour later he was cracking up as he put on his thrift store sport coat and pimp glasses, getting ready for the winter formal. And he laughed when his mom and some of her students punk‘d him when he came home from another game in a bad mood.

6) He‘s humble. Named for the type of boat he lived on for the first 3 years of his life, Cutter looks like one of those kids on the WB. He  ‘s smart, funny and has great taste. (He loves Tarantino and I turned him on to Bottle Rocket.) Yet he’s confident without being cocky. And his stomach still churns when he likes a girl.

7) He loves his mother. He shares her curiosity and her goofy sense of humor. Even when he‘s giving her shit there‘s an undercurrent of affection and respect. How many teenagers stay up ‘til 2 on a Saturday night with a buddy laughing with their mom?

If he keeps this up, White Gold — as he jokingly calls himself on his voice mail — is about 10 years from being every potential-mother-in-law‘s dream come true. Proof of what a little praise, nurturing and good parenting will do.

Now if we can just get him to stop playing with toy guns.

the bright side

To conquer fear is the beginning of wisdom.” ~Bertrand Russell

9.16.03                                                                                los angeles, ca

RUTH DOESN’T WANT ME TO TAKE HER PICTURE. She thinks her eyes look puffy and red from crying. I think they look fine.

If she had a computer, Ruth could tell me whether or not she approved of today’s fuzzy photo. I tried to give her my old HP desktop not long after we were introduced 3 years ago by Kay Ginsberg from Friends to the Elderly, the program I’ve been a volunteer with since 1994.

But the perfectly functioning computer that was gonna be Ruth’s window into cyberspace just sat on the faux wood desk in her living room, freaking her out. At 76, the idea of joining the digital revolution sends Ruth into a nervous tizzy.

“You can take your computer back, darling,” she told me a week after I’d lugged it over to her small 1-bedroom apartment. “I’m too old to learn how to use one of those things. Besides, I probably couldn’t see it too well anyway with my eyes like they are.”

My friend Ruth is a woman consumed with fear and worry. And no wonder. Her gluttonous TV diet consists largely of watching the news and the various analysis shows. So of course Ruth is worried about terrorists. Health care benefits. Her 3 adult children. Her finances. Her heart.

Tonight she told me she’s been worried about getting the West Nile virus. Especially after talking to her daughter-in-law recently, who told her how brutal the mosquitos have been lately in Sharon, Massachusetts, the largely Jewish New England town 30 minutes south of Boston where Ruth wants to relocate to be closer to her youngest son David and his family.

I called Ruth tonight just after 7 to see if I could stop by for one final visit before I hit the road again. I told her how my LA departure had been delayed, due to the fact that the mechanic I took VanGo to for a tune-up today told me I need to rebuild both carburetors. Ruth gasped when I told her I was looking at a $500 bill, with no guarantees they could even get it done by the end of today.

“So I decided to get a second opinion,” I told Ruth. “I’m gonna spend the night at my sister Jeni’s place in Yucaipa. Hopefully the guy out there who worked on my car back in June can give me a more optimistic diagnosis and get it fixed in time for me to get on the road at a decent hour.

“But in the meantime,” I added, “would you mind if I stopped by on my way out of town to say goodbye?”

“Oh, Robert, COULD you?” Ruth gushed. “That’s exaclty what I need right now. I was just having a bout of the blues before you called.”

* * *

When I got to her place, Ruth told me about her latest worries. During a visit last week to her old cardiologist, the doc told her she shouldn’t be taking the medication she’s on for her diabetes. Apparently, the drug causes fluid retention, a fact none of her other doctors ever mentioned.

“Retaining fluids is what’s causing most of my problems,” Ruth said with a desperate mix of amazement and frustration. “The stuff with my lungs, the shortness of breath — and you mean to tell me NONE of my other 4 doctors knew that this drug I was on caused fluid retention? And if they DID know, why didn’t they tell me?!”

As Ruth shared her story, her eyes filled with tears and were instantly ringed in red. She conceded that she doesn’t know who to believe. She said she’s lost all faith in the medical system.

“I just want to DIE,” she said through the tears. “I’m not kidding. It’s all too much. I just wish I was dead.”

I pointed out to Ruth that she didn’t JUST lose her faith in the medical system. She’d already lost that a while ago.

“Plus,” I added, “it sounds like this whole situation is actually a good thing. The doctor says you should stop taking the diabetes medication. Which means one less pill to take. And not taking it should help your fluid retention, right? So now you’re breathing and all the other stuff the fluid retention affected just might improve. Right?”

Ruth wiped her eyes and laughed.

“So congratulations on your good news!” I told her, deftly taking her gloomy story and giving it the optimist’s sunny spin.

Minutes later Ruth was calling me her guardian angel. “I’d been so upset and I was praying to God. And then you called and showed up. It’s like you were dropped from heaven.”

When people ask me why I do volunteer work, I’m never quite able to articulate my reasons adequately. Maybe because there’s a million reasons. A series of little moments that add up to something bigger than any of us.

Moments like watching an old lady’s face light up when you enter the room.

Like hearing a kid who’s never trusted anyone somehow get up the courage to tell you he loves you for the first time.

Like the satisfaction of realizing that simply LISTENING is enough. And always will be enough.

Like witnessing a weary old soul fight off her armor of fear and pessimism long enough to wallow and glow in the adventure and absurdity of YOUR story.

It might sound trite and sentimental, but there is nothing like the gift of giving. Of knowing you helped someone’s heart sing again.

Tonight before we said our goodbyes, I saw the light return to Ruth’s eyes, if only for a while. She was cracking up over my twisted logic. And she was beaming when I told her about the 2 friends of mine who, over the last few days, have offered to underwrite my crazy trip for a year.

For a split second there, I almost forgot about how, a mere 20 minutes ago, Ruth said she wished she was dead.

* * *

I don’t know when I’m gonna be able to get online again. That mechanic I came all the way out here to Yucaipa to see? Well, I discovered tonight at 1 in the morning when I went to drop off VanGo that he is going on vacation tomorrow. Now I’ve got to head out to a place he recommended 15 miles down the road in Beaumont.

Hopefully, this new guy can get VanGo healthy again. And pronto.

At this rate, I’m gonna be flying on NoDoz and ice tea just to hit Baton Rouge in time for LSU/Georgia on Saturday.

I’ll keep you posted, Ruston.


An edited version of this post appears in the book B.O.B a blog story (vol. 1 — here & there).

not-so-little orphan ernie

“Although the world is full of suffering, it is full also of the overcoming of it.” ~Helen Keller

9.8.03                                                                                    los angeles, ca

ONE OF THE MANY THINGS I LOVE ABOUT ERNIE IS THE WAY HE JOKES ABOUT BEING AN ORPHAN. When someone does something nice for him, which is not uncommon, he’ll go into his endearingly cheesy game show announcer voice and deadpan something like: “Another generous donation to the Poor Orphan Relief Fund!”

Ernie is, without a doubt, one of the funniest, wittiest people I know.

Then again, it’s pretty much been that way from the day I met him nearly 15 years ago. Back when he was a fast-talking, sugar-loving 9-year-old living at the very same Hollywood orphanage where Marilyn Monroe was dropped off when she was 9.

Unlike Marilyn, though, Ernie never knew HIS schizophrenic, drug-addled mother. Never met his father, either. Instead, he had the good fortune to be dumped into the overcrowded, mismanaged child welfare system as a baby. For the first few years of his life he bounced from one foster home to the next. Finally, at age 6, Ernie was adopted by a Long Beach janitor and his Asian wife.

But the couple who bought him a million toys thinking THIS was how you loved a child eventually grew impatient—and violent—when Ernie began lying and selling his toys at school for candy money. More than once he went to school with welts and bruises on his back and butt from the punishment doled out by dear old “dad.”

When he was 9, Ernie’s frustrated “mother”—who’d signed papers making him her state-sanctioned son just 3 years earlier—gave her husband an ultimatum: “Either the kid goes or I go.”

And so he went. To Hollygrove in January of 1989, thinking he was being driven off to camp.  (Although he became suspicious when “mom” and “dad” were sobbing as they dropped him off at the big brick building 2 blocks from Paramount Studios.)

About 3 months later I was introduced to a knock-kneed runt who told big fish stories about his “dad” and gave me shit for taking so long to get my paperwork together so we could get started with this “special friend” thing.

On our first outing together he dripped his .25 cent triple scoop of Thrifty ice cream all over the front seat of my red convertible Jeep. And he entertained me with a hilarious self-composed rap called “Booger In the Bathtub,” complete with classic lyrics and thumping bass line.

He’s been teaching me patience and cracking me up ever since.

*     *     *

Today’s story might just be my favorite yet of this crazy trip. It’s a story that’s blown me away time and time again over the last decade and a half.

On the surface, my first Saturday night back in LA in over 3 months may not have looked like much. Nothing more than a few old friends—me, Ernie, his nurturing girlfriend Gloria and crazy Carver—getting together to hang out.

For me, though, the night felt so much more meaningful. Because it was my first visit to Ernie and Gloria’s new place, a charming little 2-bedroom in a well-kept 2-unit duplex. A stone’s throw from the 20th Century Fox lot, not far from the writer’s bungalows where the brilliance of The Simpsons is channeled. Doh! And a 40-yard dash across Pico to the 3-par where P. and I chased the ever-elusive hole-in-1 and sub-par round of golf nearly every weekend not so long ago. Ernie’s new home is even quiet, despite the fact that his next door neighbor is dating Marilyn Manson’s drummer.

What got me beaming with pride Saturday night, though, was seeing what Ernie and Gloria had done with the place.

The walls were painted in funky olive greens and candy apple reds. Ernie had ripped up the living room carpet and buffed out the dark hardwood floor. A string of bamboo chutes hung where a bedroom door once creaked. Red ceiling bulbs and a vintage Asian poster picked up at a thrift store gave the kitchen a cool vibe, The state-of-the-art dishwasher a previous tenant had won on The Price is Right was nice, too. Ernie even had an extra bedroom in the back to do his art and play his music. Not to mention a big backyard, a garden in need of TLC and a roomy garage.

After years of shitholes and state-funded way stations, Ernie finally had a HOME. And he pulled it off with sweat, perseverance and integrity.

*     *     *

I found myself getting choked up as I got the tour of Ernie’s new pad. I couldn’t help flashing back to where he’d been—and how far he’d come to get here. Amazing.

During our first 3 years together, when I’d pick him up every other weekend and bring him back to my bachelor pad in Manhattan Beach, Ernie lived in various “cottages” at Hollygrove, where the staff was kind and supportive. But Ernie was obviously scarred and scared by the circumstances that brought him there in the first place. So while he could be charming and hilarious one minute, he was just as likely to lose his temper or retreat into a shell of silence the next.

His 3 years at Hollygrove saw Ernie forever getting in trouble at school for things like putting Super Glue on his teacher’s chair, dumping itching powder down a classmate’s shirt and tossing rocks from the playground onto Melrose Avenue, where he once hit a pissed off dude on a chopper.

Our twice-a-month weekend visits consisted of hanging out at the beach, trips to Taco Bell and staying up late to watch Saturday Night Live. Once in a while Sister Tracy, who loved him like the adorable nephew she craved, would come out from Covina to hang out with us.

On drives along the coast we sang along to Tom Petty’s Full Moon Fever (“I’m freeeeeee, free faaaaaaaaallin’…”) and I took him to movies like Field of Dreams, where he got an upset stomach from the Pink’s chili dogs and movie theater candy he wolfed down. Ernie even spent holidays with my big, disjointed family, which must’ve made getting dropped off back at Hollygrove excruciating for him.

For me, it was like being a divorced dad. Without the ex-wife and child support payments.

But there was a price to pay for having Ernie in my life. The behavior that drove the Long Beach couple to return him like an unwanted wedding gift also surfaced from time to time.

The first time I took Ernie Christmas shopping at the mall he shoplifted a whoopee cushion.

He later tried to “clean” the fish in my dad and stepmom’s backyard pond with laundry detergent, killing their entire collection of expensive koi.

While staying at my family’s cabin in Green Valley, Ernie took $20 bucks from my cousin’s purse on the same day he nearly started a forest fire, which brought a visit from the local fire department.

Then there was the time he lifted 5 credit cards out of my desk and took them to school, which somehow resulted in $4500 in charges from a pair of obscure towns I’d never heard of in Russia.

And that was just the first 3 years of our relationship. The Hollygrove years were only the beginning. Things were just starting to get interesting.

*     *     *

Ernie was finally moved to a group home in the rural town of Acton, which added another 90 minutes to my drive. Our visits became less frequent, though no less entertaining. But within 2 years, Ernie would get busted for doing speed in the boy’s bathroom at school.

Which led to a few years at a juvenile detention facility in Woodland Hills. He was no longer allowed to come stay with me. Holidays with my family were out of the question, too. It was during these years that I bought Ernie a guitar and the materials he needed to paint. I also encouraged him to write, which he did with alarming proficiency.

By his 16th birthday, Ernie was out on good behavior and living in a cramped foster home/soulless apartment with 3 other boys from child services and 6 cats that gave the place a foul stench. Plus Arnie, a sullen, obese career foster parent who treated me like a pariah every other weekend when I showed up to visit Ernie for the afternoon. (Overnight visits were still verboten, even though Arnie’s lax “parenting” helped Ernie return to a life of chronic drug use, habitual truancy and petty crime.)

Months before his 18th birthday, Ernie ran away from Arnie’s and began staying with various friends, at least one of whom became his partner in a series of thefts and other illegal activities I never quite got the details of.

A few months after his 18th birthday on March 31, with nowhere to live and no money to get his own place, I let Ernie move into my small 1-bedroom apartment near the Beverly Center. Despite the fact that I was in the thick of trying to finish “The Book” and had little time or space to help him get on his feet. I did, however, insist he find a job.

But after I caught him in yet another lie regarding his attempts at finding work, I told Ernie I was moving in with P. He had another month in my apartment to get his shit together before I gave up the place.

By the end of the summer, Ernie was in jail. Convicted of snatching a purse from an elderly woman. A crime that felt like a double slap in the face, seeing as how he knew I’d been visiting an amazing 88-year-old lady named Henrietta in my volunteer work for the local Friends to the Elderly program.

*     *     *

A year behind bars changed Ernie’s life. Since he was released from Wayside County Jail over 4 years ago he has completely transformed himself. He’s been working at a Beverly Hills printing company, where he started off making copies over 3 years ago. Now he manages a small staff of office workers, handles the accounting duties, goes on sales calls to million dollar companies and does much of the graphic design work.

Ernie’s also been going to college off and on at Santa Monica City College and wants to enroll full-time next fall in the same art school where Dennis Hopper went. A couple years ago on his 21st birthday we organized a gallery/fundraiser showing 35 of his art pieces. He sold 31 of them, raised over $10,000 and got featured on the local 5 o’clock news along with a big piece in the LA Times.

Despite his moral and spiritual transformation in the 4+ years since he got out of jail, Ernie’s post-jail living conditions have ranged from squalid to cramped to dangerous to even haunted. He went from a Jewish halfway house near downtown LA to the floor in a small nearby room occupied by his friend Shaun, Shaun’s mom and Shaun’s uncle. From there it was on to a room at the Covenant House in Hollywood, a shelter for homeless teens.

Ernie’s first apartment, shared with another “homeless” teen who never washed a dish or lifted a finger to help clean up, was a small, albeit inexpensive, Covenant House-owned apartment on Franklin near the Hollywood Bowl.

After he’d used up his eligibility in the Covenant House program, Ernie and Gloria moved into a tiny, roach-infested 1-bedroom hovel in a seedy area of Hollywood. Within a year they’d moved again, this time into another 1-bedroom place around the corner from the tourist buses at the Mann’s Chinese Theater on Hollywood Blvd.

Before long Gloria became sick, thanks to a dangerous mold in the walls. Then Ernie had an odd experience one night when he heard some dishes rattling in the kitchen. Then he saw what looked to be the ghost of a young boy sitting on his couch. The next day the building manager told him a family had been murdered a few years back in the apartment above them.

So that’s why it was so gratifying to see Ernie in his new place tonight. The ghosts are behind him.

The future, finally, is looking bright.

the kids are alright

“A wise person cares not for what he cannot have but for what he can achieve.” ~today’s fortune cookie

9.1.03                                                                                            winnetka, il

TODAY’S PIC WAS ANOTHER ONE OF THOSE PHOTOS THAT WAS TOO COLORFUL TO POST IN BLACK AND WHITE. That’s Carrie, 9, and her brother Patrick, 10, the 2 youngest siblings among the 6 Atkinson kids, who’ve kept me highly occupied and completely entertained during my 3 nights here.

For those of you who haven’t seen the Atkinsons in the feedback section of my web site, they’re the generous, funny family I met at my friend Edmund’s wedding on July 12th in Grafton, VT. After hanging out with them at the wedding, the Atkinsons kids — and their cool mom, MaryAnn — sent me a couple e-mails letting me know I was welcome at their big house in the posh suburb just north of Chicago. Even if my VW bus did threaten to drive down property values in their swanky neighborhood.

Team Atkinson has a sweet WiFi setup in their endearingly chaotic 3-story house, where they’re surrounded by neighbors like the owner of the Chicago Blackhawks, the anchorwoman on the local ABC news and various doctors, lawyers and CEOs. But this is the first time I’ve had a chance to do any work on my site since I got here Thursday evening in time for a delicious steak dinner. (It’s late Monday night — nearly 2 AM — right now.)

I’ve been THAT busy.

To say that I’ve had one of the most memorable Labor Day weekends of my life would be putting it mildly. And I want to write extensively about it. I’ve met and hung out with so many great people since my last posting that I am craving more time to write the stories.

But I’m heading out tomorrow. Destination: Omaha. And Patrick wants me to take him to school in the morning. Which means I can’t be staying up until 4 AM tonight.

So the details will have to wait.

* * *

I’m amazed at how the days can get crammed sometimes with so many meaningful, memorable experiences. Back in LA, when I was holed up in my home office with Ringo the Cat, I could go days without seeing a new face or having a moment that resonated in my soul. The minutes, the hours, the days often became a forgettable timeless blur of monotony.

And now there is this. Snippets of time when change is constant. New faces are everywhere. Inspiration abounds.

Again, I don’t have time right now to get too deeply into the details. But since my last posting from Pittsburgh last Wednesday night, I’ve chugged from a deep well of life experience and chance encounters. In a mere 5 days here’s a brief, incomplete, rundown of what and who I’ve encountered:

…on the road to Columbus, Ohio last Wednesday night I got pulled over by a Wheeling, West Virginia cop who looked suspiciously like Sgt. Stepdad, the man responsible for much of my adolescent fear and despair. Unlike the Sarge, though, the Wheeling cop felt a little compassion for me and not only didn’t write me up for going 57 in a 45 zone, he also insisted I follow him through Wheeling and back onto the interstate, where I’d be heading back in the right direction.

…minutes later, I got a phone call from an angry P., who was pissed about my most recent posting from New Hope. She thought what I wrote made her sound self-absorbed and unsupportive, which she most assuredly is NOT. I told her I’d be more than happy to post her perspective on this matter. (She said she’d think about it once she got a good night’s sleep.)

…on Thursday I arrived in Winnetka and was greeted by a pack of eager Atkinson kids, who enthusiastically showed me around the house before we sat down to a delicious steak dinner, followed by fun, fun, fun with the kiddies in the big backyard.

…on Friday afternoon, mama MaryAnn took me for a ride in her black Porsche to the local country club, where we had lunch with 2 of her very cool sisters, Bean and Maggie, and their funny mom, who shared the perspective of a woman who raised 9 kids, all of whom are married with many children. (She’s got 34 grandchildren!)

…that night I drove up to Green Bay, where I not only witnessed an inspired performance by the Obsoletes, a young band from nearby Neenah, Wisc., brimming with talent and promise. But I also heard some incredible stories from Matt, the band’s de facto roadie and childhood friend, who told me about how he got over the death of his mother after she died from getting hit by a dump truck 3 years ago. I also got into a long discussion with Mike — father to Obsoletes’ bassist/singer/co-songwriter Justin — himself a frustrated songwriter and longtime garage band singer who told me about his own father’s deathbed confession and his frustration about having a large collection of mostly unfinished songs.

…after crashing in Neenah at the cluttered apartment of Justin and Tim, the other songwriter/singer/guitarist in the Obsoletes, I had lunch with Tim and his girlfriend Rebecca at the iHop in nearby Appleton, where we shared road trip stories, discussed our favorite writers and talked about Rebecca’s 2-year-old little girl and her love of the Beatles. After lunch we went back to the apartment, where Rebecca told me about her big brother who’s been missing for 9 years and Tim filled me in about the many incarnations of the Obsoletes/Yesterday’s Kids.

…after saying goodbye to Tim, who burned me a few CDs of his acoustic tunes and some of his favorite music, and Rebecca, who gave me a collection of Douglas Copeland essays and a book called The Kindness of Strangers — former Yesterday’s Kids drummer Joe and his brother were there, too — I drove across town to hang out with Justin’s dad, Mike. I was in a hurry to get down to Milwaukee, but Mike couldn’t have been more welcoming. I had a beer, hung out on the back patio with Mike, his girlfriend Kristine, who made me a turkey sandwich for the road, plus Jamie and Doug, Mike’s former brother-in-law and current next door neighbor. The 4 of them sent me on the road with a big dose of Wisconsin hospitality and Mike handed me a CD of a bunch of songs he and Justin, along with their friends, recorded a few years ago in Mike’s basement recording studio.

…and then there was the Harley Davidson 100-year anniversary celebration in Milwaukee that night, where I hug out with Cousin Bill, who made the trip out from SoCal on his Harley, complete with a road-reddened face and a slew of hilarious stories. Not only did we see Jimmy Van Zandt perform “Freebird,” but I met Lisa Lips, the local girl who enthusiastically offered to show me her boobs. Plus Jeff, the most blissed out Vietnam vet in America, thanks to thousands of miles of Harley-fueled road tripping; and Rene, the Tennessee mom whose leg was amputated just below the knee exactly 3 months to the day before I met her. (More on my memorable Milwaukee pit stop later.)

…then there was the Cubs game the following day with papa Mike Atkinson and 2 of his boys; dinner that night at Ruth’s Chris steakhouse in Winnetka with the whole Atkinson clan, plus their friends Howard and Margaret, their 2 kids and 4 of oldest son Jimmy’s friends; lots of ping pong games with the Atkinson boys (congratulations on those 2 tainted victories Jimmy); Chinese takout Monday night; jamming on guitar with Charlie, the 2nd oldest son, who helped me get started on “Ode to the Atkinsons,” yet another odd gee-tar tune from Bad Voice Bob; watching a few of my short films on Charlie’s iMac, where I got grilled from the boys about the death of Sister Tracy…

But more on this stuff later. Right now I need my rest. Tomorrow it’s time to get back on the road. Where I’ll have lots of time to bask in the beauty of these last few days.

Onward to Omaha and beyond…

farmer rex

8.27.03                                                                                                                                    sidling hill, pa

FROM: Rex in PA
DATE: 8.27.03

Hello B.O.B (Bmakela13), I’m the fellow who sold you a few peaches(?) or apples(?) today (August 27th) at the Sidling Hill rest stop on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Sounds like you’re on one fine adventure! Got a feeling you’ll make many acquaintances and friends along the way! I’ll tune in to your web site to see how you’re progressing.

Best of fortune to you!!!

take it slow,

your story of your previous 5 or 7 years lends credence to my belief that we should treat each other with kindness. One never knows the path of the stranger in front of us.

“Do the thing you believe in. Do the best you can in the place where you are and be kind.”

~Helen Nearing

may fortune be your frequent companion



Thanks for the wisdom and enthusiasm. Love the sentiment. We’ll be spreading the message. The quote is perfect, too.


P.S. It was plums, not peaches or apples. And they were gooooooooood!

in defense of bill

8.4.03                                                                                                                             west hollywood, ca

FROM: Carrrrver
DATE: 8.4.03

Jordan has never met Bill and I don’t get why he’d be compelled to speculate about his life like that. But it’s a free world. I thought I’d offer a little counter-insight from someone who actually knows him.

Bill did not get divorced to “find his muse,” he got divorced because his marriage failed after 11 years. But not before he worked his ass off trying to keep it together. In the end, they simply had irreconcilable differences. The decision to split was mutual and amicable and probably the first thing they’d agreed on in years. Bill did not leave his family stranded for some young hottie to keep the ol’ mid-life crisis at bay. He went through some damn difficult, lonely months after the divorce when he didn’t have anybody. And he really cares about Dana deeply, she’s not some “temporary pleasure,” whatever that means.

To my knowledge, Bill has never put his kids’ happiness second to his own. This is a guy who gave the shirt off his back to provide them with a huge beautiful home. He worked a full-time job as an engineer for the state while going to law school at night when three were born already and a fourth was on the way. He also moved from a condo to a house to a bigger house during that same period. When he became a lawyer, he’d spend every night after work with the kids, usually helping them with their homework. He basically had no social life outside of his family except when I’d visit. He was always all about his kids. He’s the kind of father you’d see in 1950’s TV shows.

Only difference is, they didn’t get divorced in the ’50’s. Those guys became alcoholics and cheated on their wives. But at least they stayed married, right?

The kids are happy, healthy, incredibly smart, funny and creative and a blast to hang out with. So if how they turn out will be how he’s judged at the end of the day, he’s the odds-on favorite to win dad of the century. I haven’t been proud of too many people in my life, but Bill-the-dad tops the list. His ex-wife is a world-class mom, too, and Bill would be the first to tell you that.

So Bill is guilty of finally enjoying his life again for the first time in years while never once ducking his responsibilities as a father or missing an alimony payment (no small feat in this case, trust me). He and his ex used to fight constantly, but now they get along again and can even have a few laughs once in a while. Their new step-father treats them great and I hear they recently hit it off in a big way with Dana, too.

Sounds like he’s making all the right moves to me, for himself as well as for his kids.


the last goodbye

“You can never plan the future by the past.” ~Edmund Burke


4.6.03                                                                  beverly hills adjacent, ca

WHEN PEOPLE ASK WHY P. AND I ARE BREAKING UP, I’M NOT SURE HOW TO RESPOND.  I don’t have my sound byte answer down yet.

It’s just so complicated. Seemingly a whole bunch of little reasons adding up to one big sad ending. One of the fundamental differences we seemed to clash over on a semi-regular basis was our vastly different perceptions of the future.

P. was the type to worry about what lies ahead. She wanted to feel like she was in a partnership, working towards common goals. There was a time during the last 7 1/2 years when she would’ve gone weak in the knees if I had said to her over dinner one night:

“I’ve been thinking…I want you in my future, so I’ve come up with a 5- and 10-year plan to get us a house and start a family.”

But I never could do it. I never could buy into the long-term planning concept. It’s just not me. Now I’m sure there are some who find this attitude foolish. Irresponsible. Immature.

But here’s the thing:

I don’t care.

I find it liberating.

Even if I did go to P. and tell her I was ready to settle down and embrace the responsibilities that would come with being a husband and father to our children, I don’t think she’d believe I could pull it off. Based on my past, her future with me would be filled with too much uncertainty.

Or so she thought.

And that’s part of the story of how we arrived at tonight. Standing in the alley behind the apartment we shared for nearly 5 years. Crying like anguished funeral mourners. Locked in a series of big, aching hugs. Knowing each one could be the last.

And laughing.

Still laughing.

At the absurdity of breaking out the digital camera to capture the final crushing moments. Shameless to the bitter end.

a beginning…

“To me faith is not worrying.” ~John Dewey

4.1.03                                                                    beverly hills adjacent, ca

TECHNICALLY IT’S APRIL 2ND. But April Fool’s doesn’t end for me until my head hits the pillow. I’m sitting amid the half-packed rubble of CDs, tapes, magazines, files and more personal flotsam, trying to squeeze in the one hour of writing I’ve committed to doing on a daily basis for the rest of the year – personal observations during my upcoming nine-month nomadic sojourn around America that I will post on this website.

I chose this particular photo because it pretty much sums up why P. and I are splitting up after 7 1/2 years. Here it is April 1 — the day I pretty much promised her I’d be moved out by — and I’ve still got an office full of CRAP. One final broken promise, one final flawed time-related prediction. (She claims that when I tell her I can write my magazine article in a day, it really means 3 days.)

But this being the Greatest Year of My Life, I’m gonna focus on what I DID get accomplished today: I finally got a storage unit, I finally moved some things in (a heavy file cabinet, my albums, old magazines, etc.), I contacted a guy in Florida who’s very interested in my Scout. And he’s willing to pay $6K right now. (Not the $8K I was hoping to get.)

I also began yet one more Day 1 of the great Power 90 Experiment.

Plus, I also returned a few pressing e-mails. (I’m forever behind on that.) I even had a semi-euphoric moment playing my off-key, yet spirited, rendition of “Summer of ’69.”

Yes, I am a freak.

* * *

It seems slightly ludicrous — not to mention self-indulgent and a tad arrogant — embark on a 9-month road trip around the U.S. while American soldiers are dying every day in Iraq. (Not to mention the innocent Iraqui civilians.)

So who wants to hear THIS story?

Someone in my family recently remarked: “You really think people are gonna check this out every day? I mean, I love you and all, but I’m telling you right now I won’t check it out more than 2, 3 times a week. If that.”

And that’s the thing. I’m not going into this thinking anyone will check this out. No expectations. The truth is, I’m doing this for me. And to share with certain people in my life. But mostly it’s just me creating a living document of what is most assuredly destined to be one the most — if not THE most — memorable years of my life.

How do I know this?

I just do.


* * *

So this morning starts with tears. Before P. leaves the house to go to her high-powered TV job, she goes through about a dozen costume changes. Each time she asks what I think. As if my half-asleep fashion judgment is to be trusted.

As I watch her go through the familiar routine — the pursed lips in front of the mirror, hips out, brows furrowed in deep study, the half-turn to check out the arse — I see her vulnerabilities all over again. And I realize I will miss these morning fashion shows. The same fashion shows I’ve groaned about getting sucked into all these years.

I get up to give her a hug. To let her know she was still beautiful. Before you know it, we’re both crying.

And that’s how my day started.