Saturday, November 25, 2006

Connecting at the holidays

It's that time of the year again -- either the nicest, happiest part of the year; or the loneliest, and most alienating. Or, occasionally both. It all depends on your situation, as well as on your willingness/ability to reach out to those you care about.

When I was a kid, it was usually a mixture. For Thanksgiving, we'd gather with my father's entire extended family at his sister Norma's place at Oxbow Lake.

Aunt Norma sternly warned us away from the kitchen if we crept too close. It always seemed to take hours for the turkey to be ready. My cousins, every last one of whom was a boy, seemed like members of an alien species to me. I was a boy, of course, but with three sisters and no brothers, I had little in common with these male cousins. They were rowdy, mean, and quick to turn to fisticuffs to resolve their conflicts.

I hung around the perphery with them for a while, but when they inevitably started talking about torturing my sisters or hatching some evil plot against the adults, I slipped away. It's not I was a goody-goody; I never snitched on them for their doings, but once I saw they might bother my little sisters, I knew I had to prevent that from happening.

The feast finally brought an end to this tireless routine of masculine bullying. There probably were 30 adults and kids at these gatherings. Afterwards, the kids, bloated with turkey and stuffing and pie, retreated to a backroom to play pool or the like. The men started playing cards, drinking and smoking and telling stories.

In another room, the women were doing the same. My aunts, all of whom were tall, slender and prematurely white-haired, lived decades longer than their husbands. Somewhere along the way, I understood this to be because they sucked the marrow out of the bones of turkey or any other meat they eat.

Uncle Ed was the loudest joker. He liked to tell stories from previous gatherings, like the time he had gotten drunk, walked out to the front porch carrying a drink, slipped on the ice and bounced on his butt all the way down the steps to the street. All the while, he had been calling out, "Didn't spill a drop! Didn't spill a drop!" at the top of his voice.

When he finally came to a stop, at street level, he yelled out one more time, "Didn't spill a drop!" only to look up into the eyes of a policeman.

Once the stories had all been retold, it was time for us to get back into our car and head home. Some years, we had to fight our way through blinding snowstorms, inching along as my father skillfully kept the car from snowplaning into a ditch. We had neither chains nor snow tires in those years. So when we got stuck, he and I had to dig away at the snow and ice around the tires, and then push the car, rocking it back and forth, with Mom at the wheel, until it luched out of its trap, tires spinning madly, coating Dad and me with grimy, mushy gunk head to toe.

Afterwards, shivering under a blanket in the backseat, I'd slowly get warm as I retreated into my own fantasy world, where all of the evil forces were neutralized, and the alienation I felt from almost everyone around me turned into a kind of magic, something I later knew to be my concept of love, where kindness replaced violence, and somebody beautiful showed up, knowing me as I was, not as I supposed the world wanted me to be.


Friday, November 24, 2006

Eating principles

Dylan stayed true to his word. He refuses to eat birds, with the exception of chicken (for practical reasons, he figures it is such a common component of his nightly meals it would disrupt those who cook for him too much.) But, I bet he'll phase that out in the future as well. It must have ben hard for him tonight, with a beautiful cooked turkey in front of him on the table, but he refused to touch any. "I love turkey," he noted, "but I think it is wrong to kill them and eat them."

It's aways interesting when young people start asserting their own beliefs about diets, because every time this happens, it makes adults reassess the choices we make. Of course, Dylan is rather young (10) to be getting to this stage, although we know an even younger boy (8) who refuses to eat any animals whatsoever, out of principle.

Many of the people I've known well and respected deeply over the years, from Frances Moore Lappe to Julia Butterfly Hill, have been leaders in the crusade to persuade all of us to stop eating meat and start consuming healthier, more sustainable diets. Both of my wives experimented with vegetarianism, until they got pregnant. Lots of friends are vegetarians; some are vegans.

But Dylan is the first anti-bird eater I've encountered. He has researched several types of birds -- most notably, pigeons -- and says they are much more intelligent than most people realize. He believes people discriminate against pigeons and other birds out of ignorance.

A couple years ago, he named every pigeon in our neighborhood, recognizing many of them not only by their appearance but by their distinct daily habits. I'm not surprised he won't eat pigeon pie, but I'm not sure how he came to exclude turkey from his diet.

His Thanksgiving meal consisted mainly of mashed potatoes and some raw spinach. He also claims to not like pie, so he didn't try the yummy apple, pecan or pumpkin pies available, either. That isn't a matter of principle, but of taste. He rarely likes sweets of any kind, except for cookies.

I hope everyone reading these words had a nice holiday. Mine was delightful, spent up in cold, rainy, gorgeous Oregon with five of my kids, my son-in-law, and my unborn grandson actively kicking around, hearing our voices, no doubt forming his own opinions about what he thinks is best to eat -- opinions we should be hearing from him directly in another decade or so...

Happy Holiday to you and your family, however you define that concept, and whatever you chose to eat or not eat this year. To me, the turkey was delicious...


Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Love Lost and Self-Esteem

There just never seems to be a good way to break up. No matter how we humans try, it usually ends up a ragged affair. The problem then becomes: How can we know we are over the last relationship when somebody new shows up in our lives, and wants to connect? If the old thing isn't resolved emotionally, how can anything new grow in its place?

This, of course, is what every cheater discovers. Yes, it is extremely exciting to conduct a secret affair. But, it's actually sort of like running up a big credit card bill. The day will come when you have to pay it off, and the price may prove to be more than you're able to pay.

I'm speaking about the emotional costs, obviously.

Since I've made every mistake I could think of in my life, maybe my perspective could be useful. Here is what I've learned:

*When you are the one who breaks it off with your partner, you're going to continue to feel guilty until you see they have landed into a new relationship, or you can convince yourself that it was really their fault you broke up, through some sort of elaborate rationalization you construct for yourself.

*When you are the one who is dumped, you get cut to your core. What is at risk is not necessarily your desire to reclaim that lost relationship, but your belief in yourself to be able to ever again find a new one.

(Am I right here? Comments appreciated.)

Ultimately, in order to get healthy again, we have to heal ourselves after losses. Then, some fine day, we can move on. We can meet a stranger and feel like we've known her forever. In other words, we can fall in love again.

But the balance between the one who leaves and the one who is left behind is fragile and hazardous. I know for my part, I seek to find that place of continuity that allows me and those I've loved to go forward in harmony, mutually supportive but understanding that we both will now make separate choices.

I don't believe it is possible to go backwards in life. What is over is over, period. But our emotions take a long time to heal. They must heal for us to have any shot at a decent new beginning. This process of transitioning out of and into new relationships acquires an urgency as we grow older that can be terrifying at times.

If you are the one who left, you have one set of burdens. They are terrible -- both the guilt and the sadness can easily overwhelm you. I know this in ways that are almost too painful to bring up, but (being me), I will.

I left my first wife. Our three children were still young. I left her for reasons I could not easily articulate, but they amounted to something fuzzy like I thought she wouldn't really care if I left.

But I was wrong. She did care, and my leaving dealt her a terrible blow. It was made much worse by the fact that I left her for another. That person became my second wife.

Many men have lived this story. Many women have too.

During the long, painful transition, I often found myself torn between two cities, in this case Mill Valley and San Francisco. Saturdays were the worst. I always went out to Mill Valley to see my children. As the day slipped toward night, I always had to leave, to rejoin my partner in the city.

I did what I had to do, and what felt at the time like the right thing to do. But many more times than any of them would want to know, I drove on 101 South and across the Golden Gate Bridge with tears streaming down my face. I never, ever felt good about what had happened to us all.

By the time I saw the one I loved so much that I sacrificed living with my first family to help her achieve her dreams, which included creating my second one, I hid my tears and opened my smile. But the contradiction of living this dual emotional reality took its toll, eventually, and I developed some really bad coping strategies.

It's always a bad sign about me when I start reeling off meaningless mathematical calculations to myself as I drive down a highway, sit in a meeting, or contemplate a room, any room, and its particular characteristics. It's not a good time to be trapped inside my particular mind, which inevitably starts adding up angles and calculating square roots, and fills itself with additions and multiplications that (as my second wife often said) border on the musings of an autistic.

For what it is worth, this is how my mind behaves when I am tense. I see some image, say a highway sign, and I quickly calculate its components, according to some set of pre-determined factors that only my visual memory can recite. Then, the pattern begins, for example (to cite the simplest of many)...1,2,4,8,16,32, 64, 128, 256, 512, 1024, 2048, 4096, 8192, 16384, 33768...see waht I mean? That takes me much less time than my fingers require to type, and it has always been so.

What this is is an obsessive, compulsive attempt at imposing order on a life where there is none.

I know that now. I know that the cerebral life competes with the emotional life in a struggle that often deterines our physical health. I just wish I could stop reverting to this type of coping startegy as I attempt to navigate the unknown and scary emotional territory of what I call the Third Act of my life.

I'm not young anymore and I never again will be. But I have plenty of energy left, lots of things I want to do, places I want to go, languages I want to learn, accomplishments I hope to achieve.

This Christmas, I am traveling to Japan. This will be my third visit there. The Japanese fascinate me. I love their language, their culture, and their food. Americans have a lot we could learn from Japanese, and vice versa. As I was booking my ticket, over two days, I couldn't help complimenting the two female booking agents, as they walked me through the itinerary and credit card processes in English. They both had a lot of trouble, for instance, pronouncing "Portland," which is where my connecting flight will take me from Oakland to Narita.

They both thanked me in English and I thanked them in Japanese. They both then complimented me for my accent. Some Americans make fun of Japanese people for what to our eyes appears to be their excessive politeness. And I am wuite sure, if I were Japanese, I would feel the burden of giri to be much more than I was willing to bear.

But when I am in Tokyo, I hope to rediscover a different feeling, one that dates back over 20 years, and that is the commitment to walk lighter on this earth. I want to experience again how it can be to live in a smaller place, eating less food, taking up less room.

Why? Because we Americans live the most undisciplined lives on this planet. We do not even want to know how many of the world's finite natural resources we consume per capita. It is too gross. On my previous trips, Japan taught me modesty, and reminded me of my essential values, not those that somehow sneak in against my will inside the borders of the bloated U.S of A.

I hope this is the first of many return trips to places that have taught me things. My daughter's wedding in the south of France next August will be one such opportunity. But I wish to return to many places, all over the planet, that have taught me and made me into the person, and the writer, I am.

Plus, there are a few new ones on my radar.

Meanwhile, I had better get back to my calculations if I am to have any hope of paying for all of this!

Highway messages

"Puzzled? God has the answers. 1-800-HIS-WORD."


Hooker Creek Road

Balls Ferry


Warning: Bears


After a harrowing descent in driving rain from an icy summit, I eased into a small mountain town and found a family hotel, with free wireless, an indoor heated pool, and the various usual options.

I'll write some more after dinner at the family pizza and pasta place nearby...


The rain keep falling here. There's a snow advisory. Overheard at the restaurant in this small town:

First Guy: He got mad at me when I called him a Spaniard.
Second Guy: There's a different between Mexicans and Spaniards, y'know.
First Guy: Is it that the Mexicans are all bastards?
Second Guy: Yeah, they don't like you to know that but it's true. They can't really speak Spaniard. They speak Mexican.
First Guy: What about the Hunas?
Second Guy: You mean the Huns?
First Guy: I thought it was Hunas.
Second Guy: The Huns are Germans. They came from the Mongols, who came from China, and took over the whole world until they met the Germans. The Germans were the only ones who didn't cry and just fall over. They stood up to them. So the Mongols liked the Germans, they intermarried and that's how we got the Huns. And that straight to Hitler, who admired the battle plans of the Mongols, especially Genghiz Khan.
First Guy: I really thought they were Hunas.


I swear, this conversation is rendered accurately. I was impressed by the scope of the second guy's knowledge, even if certain details were rather unusual interpretations. We're a long way from San Francisco...


Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Everything's Broken (really)

Veteran investigative reporter Sy Hersh has a new piece, called "The Next Act," in The New Yorker that discusses how Dick Cheney and his fellow neocons in the Bush administration are moving ahead with plans to take some sort of military action against Iran.

Sy's been the main "check" in our system of checks and balances against the Iran War, which the Bush-Cheney team has been planning at least since invading Iraq. Now that the Iraq confict is spiraling out of control, the neocons think that by opening a campaign against Iran they can save their Iraq offensive.

These are dangerously deluded men (and women). Thanks, Sy, for keeping an eye on the madmen at the controls. If they can be kept from bombing Tehran for two more years, maybe the voters, in their infinite wisdom will install leaders with a more sophisticated understanding of the new global political economy than these dinosurs!


Yesterday my digital camera broke. Plus my PC broke. Today, after 8 continuous hours of meetings at work, I discovered that my beloved Mac had died. With it went all of my files and photos and lists and writings. Apparently almost everything will be saved when I next find an open Apple store, but...

Today was my last day of work for a bit. I'm taking a five day trip. There must be something about holiday travel that provokes the technologies I am most dependent on to abandon me in my hour of need. Last Thanksgiving, preparing to fly to Biloxi, I lost my cellphone in the park.

Since I lost the use of both of my computers, you might ask, how is it that I am still able to post this message? A last-minute rescue by KK--thank you!


I'm feeling pretty bad about my blog these days. It seeme erratic, chaotic, all over the place. If I were the editor, as opposed to the writer, I'd tell him to try to focus in a bit. I'm afraid my readers may find this style irritating. Often it's as if my mind has warped into hyperspeed and I can't keep the thoughts from erupting, including ideas or conclusions or judgments that may perhaps have been better kept private.

Reading this blog, therefore, must be a little bit like watching a slow-motion train wreck. I'm sorry.

Also, let me say that nothing I ever post here is meant in any way whatsoever to purport to be about any other person -- just me. If the way I describe someone is offensive or at odds with her or his self-image, I trust them to tell me. Even anonymously.

Several times, people have done so and I've immediately changed the offending material. When I was an investigative reporter, back when I first knew Sy Hersh, I was aware that some of my writings could hurt people. Eventually, I stopped doing that work, in no small part because I'd prefer to not cause any unnecessary harm, wittingly or unwittingly, in my remaining time.

The web allows for quick corrections. The sole purpose of this blog is to share my thoughts and feelings with anyone who cares to read them. My hope is they may offer some comfort to the similarly afflicted, i.e., the broken-hearted. I hold no animosity toward any former partner; I'm grateful to each of them. They are not responsible for any of this. I love them all.

This Thanksgiving, while I'm traveling, I'm grateful to those who volunteer and help others less fortunate than themselves. You are my heroes, especially you long-termers down on the Gulf Coast. If you happen to see that girl in the white Mini, tell her I said hi.


Monday, November 20, 2006

Most of the time*

What a sad lament. Tonight I feel like singing the Blues. No, not just tonight, many nights. I’ve been told my best quality is my sense of hope. A number of my friends and colleagues appreciate how much I’ve stayed positive about the overall experience of being alive.

At the same time, I get many worried expressions of concern when I’m depressed. Maybe we’ve made an error in our culture pathologizing a state (depression) that seems to me to just be a natural reaction to the reality around us.

It’s simply not true that the only component of depression is our personal sense of alienation, as we deal with the body blows dealt in our personal lives. There is another piece – and that is our collective depression at what our world has become.

If I hadn’t read as much history as I have, I wouldn’t be able to contextualize what I’m about to say. But I have read a lot of history – of Europe, Asia, Africa, South America and North America. (One of these posts, I’ll list my top 25 favorite history books.) I’m well aware of the chaos of our past. But it’s impossible to live in the past; my own time on earth has been characterized by amazing, almost miraculous improvements in the standards of living for people all over the world.

It has also seen the rise of technological solutions to problems that not long ago would have seemed insoluable.

Nevertheless, we face even greater problems on the horizon. A flu pandemic. Mutated disease vectors against which we have no defense. Germs resistant to all our medicines.

Global warming. Rising oceans. Earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis.

Meteors, cosmic collisions. (Recall that show at the planetarium in New York?)

Human warfare. Idiotic, primitive warfare. What our country is doing to Iraq. What Israel is doing to Palestine. The genocide in Darfur.

This list could be expanded, but I don’t have time now. Okay, so we all know about all of these things, yet our state of emotional well-being often comes down to the particulars of our personal lives.

Losses hurt. Deaths of friends shock. Job losses shock. Financial setbacks shock. But breakups tear our hearts into little pieces. Tonight I mourn every sad heart yearning for an earlier time, a moment when we just held each other softly, kissed, and shared our warmth with each other.

If you have somebody treasure him or her!

Submitted by “all alone in San Francisco.”


*By Bob Dylan

Most of the time
I'm clear focused all around,
Most of the time
I can keep both feet on the ground,
I can follow the path, I can read the signs,
Stay right with it, when the road unwinds,
I can handle whatever I stumble upon,
I don't even notice she's gone,
Most of the time.

Most of the time
It's well understood,
Most of the time
I wouldn't change it if I could,
I can't make it all match up, I can hold my own,
I can deal with the situation right down to the bone,
I can survive, I can endure
And I don't even think about her
Most of the time.

Most of the time
My head is on straight,
Most of the time
I'm strong enough not to hate.
I don't build up illusion 'till it makes me sick,
I ain't afraid of confusion no matter how thick
I can smile in the face of mankind.
Don't even remember what her lips felt like on mine
Most of the time.

Most of the time
She ain't even in my mind,
I wouldn't know her if I saw her
She's that far behind.
Most of the time
I can't even be sure
If she was ever with me
Or if I was with her.

Most of the time
I'm halfway content,
Most of the time
I know exactly where I went,
I don't cheat on myself, I don't run and hide,
Hide from the feelings, that are buried inside,
I don't compromised and I don't pretend,
I don't even care if I ever see her again
Most of the time.


Night Treats

This just in: Fox TV Cancels O.J. Deal


I know, I know. A Dad shouldn't let his kids buy sweets at the corner store very often. But sometimes at night, everyone needs a little special something. Around my house, we all get the Sunday Night Blues. Occasionally, a quick trip to the corner seems to boost the spirits of my little guys.

My own emotional dip is less easily elevated. Lately, though, I've taken to eating a big bowl of vanilla ice cream with fresh raspberries on top. That seems to help a bit, except when I buckle my belt the next morning.

Mainly, the way I work out my feelings is to write. Like you, a great deal of contradictory information always seems to be engulfing me, twisting me this way and that. My fate, for the past three decades plus, has been to spend my nights worrying about money. It is terrifying to consider that I need about ten times as much income each year as my parents did 50 years ago. Or that my rented apartment costs me more money in one year than their suburban house cost them to buy!

Or that by the time my younger three head off to college, the cost of a four-year degree at a good university will come to at least $50,000 a year. The concept of coming up with an extra $600,000 for those 12 years of undergraduate study is unimaginable.

One of the benefits of the Democrats taking over in Congress is that they promised to pass legislation that would bring some relief to working families trying to help their kids go to college. Ted Kennedy and other Democratic leaders say they will increase Pell grants and decrease the interest rates due on government college loans. But, as any recent graduate (or parent thereof) knows, government loans are increasingly hard to get, and grants are almost impossible for most students, no matter how well they perform in high school or how high their scores are on the SAT.

Therefore, private lending agencies have entered the picture, and there is no talk of them following the government's lead in lowering interest rates -- au contraire, these private lenders charge whatever the market can bear.

What the market seems to be bearing is not always what an individual young person or her family can bear, however. When will baby boomers with children be able to retire? What kind of lifestyles will we be able to afford when we cannot work any longer? How will we afford health care and prescription drugs?

The bad news behind the answers to all of these questions has been obvious for years to those of us driven to investigate such things. But usually we just don't want to think too much about it. That kind of thinking creates monster headaches.


Thus, when considering little matters like the sweets from the corner store, I say, "Why sweat the small stuff?" Soon enough it will be hard to get them to smile those big smiles, as they begin to comprehend the economics of life in a city like San Francisco.

As much as I love it here, it's possible that the time will come when it is no longer practical to stay. Already my three older kids have moved to other places. On the other hand, since this is the city of booms and busts, maybe one of us will hit a jackpot of one kind or another, and my kids will actually be able to live in the city where all six of them were born (two in the late seventies, one in the eighties, and three in the nineties...)


Sunday, November 19, 2006

Is power an aphrodisiac?

During my nightly troll, look what the Internet brought in. S. F. Gate story

The story quotes Stanford Professor Deborah Gruenfeld, who is a social psychologist focusing on the study of power. When in her earlier career she worked as a journalist, Gruenfeld occasionally met with Rolling Stone founder and publisher Jann Wenner. According to this article, "She recalls that he (Wenner) routinely would swig vodka from a bottle and eat raw onions -- without ever offering to share -- 'and it never even occurred to the rest of us, because it was understood that he had the power and we did not.'"

I've heard this same story from several sources over the years while researching my book on Wenner, but this is the first time I've seen anyone go public with it. In my day at the magazine, I saw him snort cocaine. And, of course, everyone drank. But when I first heard that he was resorting to daytime vodka swigging, I doubted it was true.

First, one person told me, then another, then another. Today's article pushes it well into the realm of the believable. Professor Gruenfeld sees it as a prerogative of power to act this way, and she's right. We've all had bosses at one time or another who acted in ways so outrageous that if we'd tried to copy them, we would have been summarily dismissed.

I've worked with a lot of CEOs since Wenner. I've watched power up close, and seen its temptations, its abuses and its sweet kindnesses. I do not agree with Henry Kissinger, who supposedly coined the "power is the ultimate aphrodisiac" phrase. Henry is one of the prime ass-kissers of all time. My friend who is David Rockefeller's granddaughter told me some wicked Kissinger stories. The old man himself indicated a certain disdain toward his protégé when I asked him what he thought about the drive to bring Kissinger before an international war crime tribunal.

Since he had no real power of his own, I wonder who Kissinger was attracted to? Rockefeller? Nixon? Or was he referring to his own derivative power, serving at the whim of his masters, therebvy allowing him to abuse underlings and attract lovers who otherwise would have eschewed him completely?

Some people wield power cruelly, employing fear as their main weapon of control. Others use charm, even though they remain capable of duplicity that would make an hypocrite cringe. Most utilize a tool I like to call the "forgetter," as in they conveniently forget who originated the ideas they appropriate.

One way or another, all such behavior is, of course, as despicable as it is so recognizably human. Who among us could do better?

Weekend Update

Photo by Terry Joyce

As always, there were wins and there were losses. Michigan lost its classic battle to Ohio State, 39-42. But the two teams are still ranked 1-2 in what is known as the BCS standings. Unless this changes as the season wraps up, they would face each other in a rematch for the national championship next January. Even if Michigan does not get that opportunity, they have a lock on the Rose Bowl, their traditional goal, on New Year's Day, 2007.

Cal lost to USC; otherwise they'd be going to the Rose Bowl, too.

Aidan's soccer team, CRZ Fusion, won their championship game. The teams tied 1-1 and Fusion won on shootouts 4-2. The kids are well-coached and perform as a cohesive unit, very fun to watch.


My friend Mary came over last night and ordered us Indian food. We looked over interviews of women she's conducted for her upcoming book. The subject was, basically, sex, but I'll wait until some future date to start promoting it for her. I'm just giving editorial advice for now. Every time I read a woman's honest version of her sexual experiences and how she has come to view her own sexuality over time, I learn new things.

It is absolutely stunning how different our worlds are -- men's and women's. Sex is the most intimate way we can connect with one another, yet we have such different impressions of what happens when we actually do. It's dangerous, for certain, a great way to wreck a perfectly good friendship, yet an inevitable element of love.


Dylan and Julia performed well in their piano recital. Dylan has graceful fingers and looks comfortable when he plays. Julia is self-possessed and manages to smile at the audience.

Tonight I'm cooking a pot roast. My son Peter taught me how to prepare pot roasts correctly.

Karen Armstrong's Islam: A Short History is a terrific summary of the religion that most Americans find so confusing. When in the Peace Corps, in Afghnastan, I read the Koran and other relevant books, so much of this material is familiar to me. But it is nice to refresh my memory.

Jews, Christians, Moslems. All emerged sequentially from the same place. Each built upon the former. Nothing inherently requires them to be in conflict. It is a huge tragedy that they are.


The Inside of Love*

*A very special friend sent me this song. She knows how much I can appreciate it. Maybe it will help you too. I hope so...
Play Song

Inside Of Love
by Nada Surf

Watching terrible tv
It kills all thought
Getting spacier than
An astronaut
Making out with people
I hardly know or like
I can't believe what i do
Late at night
I wanna know what it's like
On the inside of love
I'm standing at the gates
I see the beauty above
Only when we get to see
The aerial view
Will the patterns show
We'll know what to do
I know the last page so well
I can't see the first
So i just don't start
It's getting worse
I can't find my way in
I try again and again
I'm on the outside of love
Always under or above
Must be a different view
To be a me with a you
Of course i'll be alright
I just had a bad night.

Love, David