Saturday, July 29, 2006

Here Today, Gone to Truckee

Today I am covering an event in my old stomping grounds, beautiful Truckee, Calif. There is a skatepark up there where my kids used to skateboard and it’s right across the street from where my cell phone store used to be. Memories!

My purpose there is not to cover the event per se, but rather to ask some questions from representatives of the various demographic components (locals, visitors, contestants, kids, event organizers, law enforcement and maybe even a civic leader or two). How is the skatepark working for them? Completed in 1999, it’s now almost eight years old and among the first built after skateboarding was designated a “hazardous” activity; a legal definition that greatly reduced the liability municipalities could be exposed to.

I’ll also be taking a ton of pictures. What does all this have to do with little Colfax? Plenty. The Colfax City Council will have before it a simple question at its next meeting. Can the community group advocating for a skatepark in Colfax begin the planning phase using a chunk of city owned land currently used as a corporate yard? The Parks and Recreation commission is not only behind a skatepark – unanimously so – but also appears to be strongly in favor of beautifying this prime piece of real estate, and getting it into the park system.

My preliminary research so far shows that these parks are better attended than all other park facilities in the municipalities they are located, even after the “Christmas morning” effect has worn off. In Truckee, years after completion, the kids are still shoveling snow out of it in the winter. It is the epitome of dedication. The parks also greatly reduce the number of skateboarders riding in the parking lots and on the sidewalks. While they don’t do it maliciously, skateboarders tend to leave their mark where they ride. The parks are designed for them and are built to take it.

My next post will be one of memories, revelations I’m sure and some pictures.

Stay tuned!

Monday, July 24, 2006

The Heat is On

It’s hot; I mean really hot, even for a Sacramento July. I’m not one to complain about the weather much, and I wouldn’t necessarily call this that (although you may), but after nine consecutive days ranging from 100 to 113 degrees in my little corner of the Sacramento metroplex, I’ve just about reached my limit. Ok… that’s not true. I’ll endure the heat because I have to – it’s just a figure of speech; I have no limit. And just to make these dog-days of summer that much more memorable… in my truck - no AC!

It’s not broken, it doesn’t need to be fixed or recharged – it’s not there. Never was. I’m not even sure if it was an option for a 1983 Toyota SR5. It doesn’t much matter, if it was, mine didn’t get it. So why am I griping? Well, as I said, I’m not really. All those things that may be going through your mind have crossed mine as well. Sacramento summers are hot – every year. No surprises there. My truck has no AC and I know that one won’t magically appear. And I know that when it tops 110, it makes little difference whether the windows are up or down. I am fully aware of these realities.

I’m down with the heat, really. I’m good with lots of wind and rain, extreme cold and as much snow as will fall too. However, even with my appreciation for the vast variety of weather Mother Nature throws at us, I think it’s when that variety comes to a grinding halt; when she provides over two weeks of nearly identical weather that I become somewhat disgruntled. Careful! I said disgruntled, I’m not complaining. Not even when our low was a record high!

Eighty-four degrees, the highest low ever recorded was ours to enjoy yesterday morning. On my way to work in Colfax this morning, the thermometer in my truck measured the outside temperature at about 91 degrees – that was at 8:45 this morning! Right now, at 7:16 p.m., it’s 104 degrees. Did I mention that it’s hot! One hundred nine (a record high) on Monday, July 17 – then 104 – 100 – 106 – 106 - 111 on Saturday (another record) - 113 on Sunday (record), and today, 108. But I’m not complaining.

And I know that this heat wave is affecting far more than just us. Indeed, it has hit places that really do not typically get extended heat waves and they are certainly suffering. Many have no AC because of power outages or because, like my Toyota, they never did; many have health issues that are exacerbated by the heat; many have died. We that have not-so silently had to suffer this unusual but certainly not unexpected heat should stop and realize that we are indeed fortunate – and no one here can claim that they have been blind-sided. This is hot, but we knew it was coming sooner or later.

Friday, July 21, 2006


Five thousand hits came and went; now it’s on to bigger and better things. Hit number 5,000 came from a spam-blog and if it weren’t for the word verification enabled in my comments, I would have had a nice advertisement posted there. And no, I will not mention which wonderful, “as seen on TV,” “no household is complete without” product it is. These advertising schemes obviously generate business – from whom I can only imagine. I don’t buy from door-to-door salesmen (and women) or telemarketers either. I get enough unsolicited advertisement as it is.

Class of '81

Life today is exciting, exhilarating and exhausting. No dull moments, not much free time and not much is wasted. I’m at or near the limit while at the same time my capacity is ever increasing. Just when it looks like things will level off, the cosmic accelerator hits the floor and off we go again. It is the mirror image of the pace and direction life appeared to be taking me not so very long ago. How did this about face occur? It’s pretty simple, but not so easy.

It comes down to doing the work. However, like the Nike slogan, “Just Do It” or Nancy Reagan’s famous drug prevention program, ”Just Say No,” it was always easier said than done. That one four-letter word “just” put a sinister spin on what followed, as if to say, “This is so simple only losers can’t do it.” What if I can’t “do it?” No one ever told me what to do then. And if I can’t say “no,” am I a criminal, weak, morally deficient? Indeed, what if I just can’t say “no?”

We seem to want to make everything ultra-simple and lightning fast. Fast food, liposuction, steroids, disposable everything and instant gratification; we are spoiled rotten and complain about how tough we have it. There used to be a work ethic in this country. People expected to have to put in the effort to get the results. Now we’ve become a nation waiting for the personal injury lawsuit to retire and enjoy the fruits of our “labor.”

It’s not just the stereotypical “lowlife” or the down-and-out; it’s not the scam artists or an organized insurance racket. It’s the drunk driver that crashes and sues because there was no barrier preventing his accident, the burglar who falls off a roof and sues the homeowner or the motorist that claims injury in a sub-five mile per hour impact. How about the person who buys a home near an airport and then complains about the noise?

Sacrifice used to be part of the American Dream. Now that “dream” is supposed to be served up on a silver platter – we’re entitled to it. Right? It is a symptom; a telltale sign of generational post traumatic stress disorder. For some, it manifested as apathy; for others, obsessive-compulsive behavior including eating disorders, alcoholism and drug addiction. For some this confusion had no long-term or permanent effects. The point is that the seventies and eighties were a time of recovery and reflection – of redefining the social fabric of a nation.

I don’t blame this phenomenon on anyone; not on parents or politicians; demonstrators or institutions; leaders or followers. It was a time when a nation had to decompress; to try to understand the monumental turmoil and change that had occurred during the sixties and early seventies. The world and the nation were trying to catch up and a generation was caught in the crossfire. Many shook it off and persevered, some of us were bogged down in a quagmire of confusion of identity and many did not make it.

This perspective of the high school graduating class of 1981 is uniquely ours and I am sure each generation or piece thereof could offer its own unique experience of trial by fire, of change it endured. The industrial revolution, the Great Depression, WWII, and more recently, global terrorism and wars without borders are some of the defining events of other generations. Somehow though, it seems to me, in my very subjective opinion – something was lost in the twilight of the last century. It sure would be nice to get it back.

If my graduating class were to have one, this summer would be our 25-year reunion. I haven’t heard anything yet and I’m not hard to find. It would appear that everyone is much too busy or too lazy to put it together. The truth? I really don’t care. Those days are so very long gone and no matter the successes or lack thereof of my graduating class, no one really cared all that much about much anyway. Although my general outlook is far more positive, it doesn’t appear to work retroactively. I assume that I’m in good company.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

5 Thousand

Tomorrow (today, actually) my hit counter will top the 5,000 mark. I’m not sure what it means and I haven’t got any great insights or revelations – yet. I think it appropriate, however, that I express my gratitude to those of you who read my work regularly. Thank you. Changes in my life are occurring at an extremely rapid rate lately and I am still trying to take it all in. There will be more to come, but for now… Who’s going to be number 5,000?

**** Update ****
10:24 a.m. PDT

And by 11 a.m. PDT, the magic number was hit... By a spam-blog!

Friday, July 14, 2006

All I Know

Life has a strange way about it. Maybe it’s the flow of time or the relative nature of things. Perhaps it’s just chance how everything turned out, or is everything according to some grand design? And if so, is all planned down the smallest detail or is it more of a loose framework; the flow chart of life with a series of conditional gates that will determine what the path will be? I have, throughout the course of my own life, seen how these models could be applied, each appearing more or less feasible depending on the situation at hand. And once again I am left with the realization that the more I know the less I know.

I am living a moment, or rather a series of moments, that seems to be pretty smooth – in some respects. And in others there is what feels like chaos. The chaos, however, has not taken top billing; it has not developed a gravitation pull all its own; it is not controlling me. Something is different and although I should know better, I’m trying to figure out what, how and why. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like I am looking this gift horse in the mouth – nothing is taken for granted and I do know the answers to those rhetorical questions. It’s just that those answers feel somehow superficial – even hollow.

There is a simplicity that could be characterized as playing by the rules. Not the laws made by man, but the basics of right and wrong, the simple truths that we seem to be born with. Call it conscience, call it spirituality, call it cosmic energy… call it what you will, but admit there is something. It is either strictly explained by science or it is not – it makes no difference. It’s ingrained, almost pre-programmed, but at the same time useless unless invoked. That has historically been my problem… until recently.

Doing it – whatever “it” is – has been anywhere from difficult to impossible, initiated but unsustainable, simultaneously known and unknown ever since I can remember. It has spawned attitudes of entitlement, feelings of inferiority and plenty of arrogance often born of ignorance. I eventually came to believe that I was either too dumb or cursed to succeed in life and proceeded to prove it. No amount of luck was ever enough and it was always just a matter of time before it all came crashing down. The cosmic reset button was my best friend and I visited more and more often.

After a final set of traumatic experiences came my way in rapid succession, I was left with the will to live and not much else. I finally conceded (although I didn’t know it at the time) that perhaps there was something I was missing. Maybe, just maybe I didn’t know it all. Could it be that re-aligning myself with those basics, those core truths that I came with as standard equipment could be the missing piece of the puzzle? Is it possible that after all those years of believing my own lies I could recognize the truth – that I could be sincere… about anything?

Well, you wouldn’t be reading this if it were not possible. It was in fact a reality that I could change my life at any moment. It only takes acceptance that my way is not working, willingness to do anything and honesty manifested as sincerity. However simple it sounds (and it is), I don’t believe I could have consciously created the conditions to bring these principles to light. If I could have known enough to “get there,” I would already have arrived and I would have written all this then, not now. And now is all there ever is.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Party Time!

Good afternoon… and welcome. I see you brought your swimwear; and your towel – excellent. Grab a soda or some bottled water out of the ice chest over by that big oak tree in the middle of the deck, pull up a chair or take a dip. We’ll be firing up the barbeque in about an hour. We’re having tri-tip and chicken with some hotdogs for the kids. With your potato salad and the other sides everyone else brought, there’ll be plenty for everyone.

It’s way past time for a summer pool party. Here it is almost the middle of July and I have been so busy that I haven’t had time to think of these things. Yes, I have been in the pool many, many times so far this summer, and the barbeque has barely had time to cool off in between uses, but it’s just been me and one or two friends and occasionally the kids. This backyard was made for entertaining and it hasn’t even broken a sweat yet.
It’s too late to put much together for this weekend. Maybe an impromptu afternoon pool/barbeque/poker game, but not a “pull out all the stops” pool party. That takes about a week to pull off. I’m thinking the Saturday or Sunday after next. There is ample time to spread the word and prepare for the second annual summer bash. Usually about half those invited actually show up, but it pays to prepare for everyone – just in case nothing else is going on that day.

They way we do it is quite simple, really. Those whose last name begins with, say, A through E bring drinks; F through K bring a side; and so on. Usually I provide the grillin' materials, i.e.: tri-tip, chicken and hot dogs. Although I have many chairs and a couple of chaise lounges, I always recommend that my guests bring a folding chair because there simply aren’t enough to go around. And of course, I don’t provide towels. It is quite the cooperative production… and clean up? I haven’t been stuck with it yet and I have never had to ask for help.

Good friends are hard to come by and I have been blessed with more than a handful. It is an honor and a privilege… indeed a responsibility to extend my hospitality. I am happy to do it and humbled that I have been lucky enough to be able to supply such a tailor made venue. Yes, it that time of year – party time!

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Saturday Afternoon Paradise

Welcome to Colfax, California. While the heat today in Fair Oaks - elevation about 300 feet – was a balmy 100 degrees plus (at 11:15 p.m. as I write this, it is still hovering around 80), in downtown Colfax – just under 3,000 feet - it was about ten degrees cooler. I spent the better part of the afternoon there “working.” I was interviewing locals about how they feel Colfax should grow, and enjoying the company and the weather. After I thought I had enough quotes and opinions, I decided to go downtown to get a couple more interviews and start writing.

I got to town just before noon and started interviewing at the local supermarket that is in a newer part of town. I tried to intercept customers on their way in so that their groceries wouldn’t have to endure the heat while I questioned them. I didn’t bother with the tourists; their opinion was not what I was after. Many of those who identified as locals were too busy to talk, but they were all very nice and polite – except one. And then there were a few that were happy to answer my questions, about half of which had read part one of my story.

After I spent enough time harassing the grocery store’s customers, I moved to the oldest part of town, South Main Street. The buildings there have survived two big fires in their 100-year plus (plus a lot) lifetime. Camp 20 is a coffee house that, like my favorite coffee shop in Sacramento, has free WiFi for its customers. They make a mean cup of coffee as well. My intent was to begin writing my stories in the warmth of the summer shade on the sidewalk outside the coffee shop.

So much for making plans. I was not there more than five minutes when a local walked by and struck up a conversation with me. Soon he was sitting with me at the table and I was getting schooled on the ins and outs of Colfax. Fascinating. Over the course of the next one and a half to two hours – I got nearly nothing written, but I learned so much. I spoke with several locals about the past, the present and the future.

Although much of the conversation has little to do with today, it has everything to do with how we got here. And I’m not talking just about Colfax. The technology, the growth, the railroad and the Lincoln Highway, Old Highway 40 and Interstate 80 and so much more that went into making Northern California what it is today. There is living history in those hills and I could listen to it all day.

As much as they volunteered, they asked as well. Where do I hail from? What brings me to little Colfax? How do I like working here? What do you hope to do with your degree? That last one is a very good question – one I have not thought about recently. And… recent experience has not necessarily changed the response; it has deepened it; in some respects clarified it and in others perhaps expanded it.

This little three unit internship has lived up to everything I had hoped it would and so very much more. I owe much of it to the little town of Colfax, its newspaper and most of all, to the people who live in and around this “sleepy little mountain town.” It’s so much more than meets the eye.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

My Byline

My byline has changed. Instead of “Michael Althouse, Colfax Record Intern,” it now reads “Michael Althouse, Colfax Record Staff Writer.” A promotion? It sure feels like it. My editor said in an email to me today that her boss felt that they could not call me an intern because I was (wrote) the whole front page. The way it all happened was odd, to say the least.

Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good? Sure, but nothing beats being lucky and good.

Of course my goal is to be a better writer, to be able to create my own breaks and opportunities. I will also acknowledge, albeit reluctantly, that I am a good writer. In fact, I’ll even say that luck, though perhaps necessary, is never enough. Without the work I have done over the past several months and years to get positioned, the breaks I received of late would be absolutely meaningless.

In hearing the personal accounts of how some journalists got their breaks, it is rare that it was just hard work and education. They all had that “lucky break,” or several. However, equally universal is that they were driven, motivated and in position to capitalize on the breaks as they presented themselves. Such was the case, on a smaller scale, this past weekend.

Colfax had its annual Independence Day celebration on Sunday, July 2nd. Being the small town that it is, many of it’s 1,600 residents had a part in putting on a party that would increase the towns population tenfold for one day. Such was the case with my boss and the other full-time employee – they were participants and it was up to the part-timer and me to “cover” the entire event – the biggest shebang for the entire year.

I was up for it. Scared? Hell yes. The weight of the world, or at least this small piece of it was on my shoulders. Friends would ask what I was doing for the holiday and I responded, “working.” Why would I have to work on the holiday? They didn’t get it. I didn’t have to, I got to – and it was a choice I made. Would it have been covered if I didn’t do it? Probably. As completely? Probably not. Add to the mix that, for whatever reason, the part-timer had little to contribute.

On Monday, July 3rd, I had class in the morning (no, it was not a holiday and no, my friends didn’t get that either) and Monday afternoon I wrote. Monday is usually the deadline, but this week, Tuesday was acceptable. Tuesday, Independence Day, I wrote in the office. Now my friends were just baffled, especially since I was not even getting paid for it. In fairness to them, they could not see what I saw; could not feel what I felt; they had no way of knowing that this is not “work” to me.

The end result was unexpected, but in retrospect not exactly surprising either. I worked my butt off. I walked through the fear. I faced a challenge armed with skills and knowledge that I have been working equally hard at honing. Opportunity knocked and I answered. Now, not only am I a “Staff Writer,” I am even getting paid – at a very, very entry-level amount – for my writing. The amount is not relevant… what is relevant is that I have been paid to write – I am, by definition, a professional writer. Game, set, match.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Gone Racing

I am not what you‘d call a huge race fan. I am known to watch bits and pieces of some NASCAR races, an occasionally NHRA drag race and some other forms of motor sports on TV. I have been to many of the big professional events of the nationally touring series: Winston (now Nextel) Cup, IRL Indy cars, AMA Grad Prix, Super Bikes, Monster Trucks, etc. It sounds like a lot, but it really is just a sampling of these different race forms as they visited nearby tracks. It does not make me a “fan” in the fanatical sense.

I have also had the opportunity, on a more frequent basis, to attend much smaller events at the local tracks close to areas in which I have lived. These are the short track, fairgrounds type of venues that so many small rural and even suburban communities have. I have had the pleasure to know a couple of drivers in some of these races and watch them race from time to time. Not including today, it has been some time since I have gone to the races.

The very first race I ever attended was a drag race at the now defunct Fremont Raceway. It was the venue for the NHRA Northern Nationals for years and eventually added a quarter mile dirt oval for sprint car racing – eventually changing its name in 1981 to Baylands Raceway Park before succumbing to the encroaching residential dwellings and the lure of the developer’s money in 1988. I don’t remember how old I was or what year, but it was before the dirt oval and the name had not changed yet. It was in the middle of nowhere – on the wrong side of the tracks, on the wrong side of the bay. It had to be the early seventies.

It wasn’t a major event. If memory serves, it was a bracket race. There were no national stakes, it was just a bunch of locals that "run what they brung." It was not the last time my Dad took me to the races, but it was the last drag race. He also took me to a handful of other races - different kinds, big and small - and when I had kids of my own, we all went. As much as I am not a race fan, my Dad is less one. I think he took me mostly because he thought I would enjoy it. He was right about that, but I know he had a good time too.

Ok, so going to the races with my Dad has a nostalgic place in my heart. Given - so does doing lots of other things with my Dad. That’s not the point. Nor is it to analyze what constitutes a fan of a particular sport. It’s an open ended definition – in my opinion, it takes more passion and dedication to a sport than I have towards racing to make me a fan. Having said that, I suppose I could look at the money spent on the pursuit and draw the line at a dollar amount – or time spent – or miles traveled – enough!

What it’s all about is simply this: There are some spectator activities that do not require extensive background information to be enjoyed. It also doesn’t require extensive investment in travel or money or time. Often, the travel and money involved to attend a major national event preclude many from enjoying them – they are relegated to TV. This is not the case when it comes to local, short track, fairgrounds style racing. It is often nearby, inexpensive and one need not know anything at all about the class of vehicle or the drivers to enjoy an afternoon or evening of excitement like none other.

A few hours ago, I returned home from the Placer County Fairgrounds in Roseville, Calif., home of the All American Speedway’s paved quarter-mile oval. I met several friends there, one of which was racing. Although I had the somewhat more expensive pit pass, general admission tickets are only $10.00. There were several heat races, trophy dashes and main events in four or five different classes. It was a blast from start to finish.

There were no TV cameras, no mega trailers and no pit stops. The cars were not brand new and shiny, but bore the scars from a season (at least) of racing. The teams operate on a shoestring and make do with what they have – which in many cases is a whole lot of guts and not much else. And they race. And we watch; fathers and mothers; sisters and brothers; uncles, aunts, nieces, nephews, cousins, in-laws and friends - all from the local neighborhood, the neighboring city or the next county.

It’s the motor sports version of the high school football game or the local little league -families and friends getting together to watch families and friends. The rest of the world isn’t watching and doesn’t really care. My friend raced a little blue car, number 81. He lost his main event. Most of the race he was in a battle for last and next to last. He came in last (of the cars that were still running at the end) – but we cheered for him as though he was racing for first – and came in second. After his race was over, he joined us in the grand stands. His smile was a mile wide. I guess that sometimes, it really isn’t whether you win or lose…