Friday, December 01, 2006

How hearts break

In front of my house, this beautiful backhoe sits (thanks, Mark), festooned with the urban languages that only graffiti artists can read. It's part of my daily landscape, here in the war zone of an inner city on the edge of a continent -- a place where those who fit in nowhere else end up, wondering who we are and why we are here, sitting above a seismic zone bent on bringing us to certain ruin.

You do have to be at least a small bit crazy to choose San Francisco as your home. I've long since figured out why I am here, but I worry about the young ones, rich with promise. Do they yet know, or will they soon enough discover what has brought them here, to one of the true ends of the earth?

Last night, in my house, something very sad happened. A special little heart got broken. It was my precious ten-year-old son Dylan's turn. Dylan is an extremely special child (and not just because he's mine). Here is his self-portrait:

(I'm sorry this came out sideways.) He is wearing his signature Russian Red Army Cossack Army hat his big sister brought back for him from St. Petersburg. With him are his beloved pigeons. Dylan has researched these birds for the past few years and discovered how intelligent they are, and how many special qualities they possess. They mate for life (unlike us), care for their young, loyally remain with their group, protect each other from danger, and live peacefully along the most violent, ignorant, unpredictable species on earth -- homo sapiens.

Dylan is a gentle soul. Unlike my other boys, he is not very athletic, though he has a great body, even at age ten, wide shoulders, muscular arms, a lean, perfectly sculptured body. He is big and he is strong. But he does not have an angry bone in his body. I have never seen him hurt anybody. He doesn't fight and he doesn't compete.

Dylan is brilliant. He reads books about many subjects, including his passion of current concern -- birds. His love of pigeons came from his infancy, when he used to chase them around the park joyously. Later, when he could talk, he said he wished he could fly like a bird.

Later still, when he could write, he studied pigeons. He fell in love with their habits, their values, and their kindness. They are very gentle creatures, much like Dylan himself.

As a parent, I always try very hard to do the right thing for each of my kids. Therefore, the other day, when the author of a new book about pigeons was interviewed by Michael Krasny on Forum, KQED's wonderful morning radio show, I heard just enough to imagine that it would appeal to Dylan. I immediately ordered the book (for him for Christmas) and emailed him a link to the podcast of the interview.

Last night, Dylan played the podcast. At first he called out all kinds of exciting facts, like how fast some pigeons can fly, to his brother and me. But then, he started calling "Oh no!" It turns out the author has documented the extreme cruelty humans impose on pigeons around the world.

They corral them, then burn them alive. They stake them on pointed sticks and watch them die by bleeding to death, like Jesus. They play hackysack with their bodies. Poor little Dylan had to ask me what "hackysack" was and I reluctantly told him. By now he was crying uncontrollably.

"Why do people treat them this way? They are harmless. They are intelligent and they help us. They have saved lots of people's lives (pigeons can spot an orange life raft in the ocean better than any other animal or technology). They help us. How can we treat them this way?"

He really cried long and hard, shuddering in my arms. I tried clumsily to comfort him. I told him about the horrible things human do, not only to animals, but also to other humans. That in Africa one tribe hacks another tribe's people to death with swords.

Then I realized I wasn't helping my sweet little son at all. I felt stupid and low. Words really cannot help, of course, when your heart has been broken. (I, of all fools, should know at least that much.) Finally, I just held him, dried his tears, and told him I love him, and that he is so special. I mumbled that too many people are ignorant, have been brought up bad, and know not what they do. I felt like the Bible speaking.

He eventually calmed down and went to sleep in my arms.

I got up and went into my room. Sleep did not come to me, but awful thoughts of anger toward my fellow man did. I felt terrible things, imagined doing exactly to those pigeon-killers what they do to the innocent birds.

In other words, I descended out of love and loyalty to the lowest level of human thought and fantasy -- to the level of just another killer.

That is why, ultimately, I sense that our species will perish, whether from global warming or some other self-inflicted insult. This is not a bad thing. Based on Dylan's research, it is my hope that we are replaced on this globe by pigeons, at least one of which will certainly carry my own son Dylan's reincarnated soul as he soars lovingly over this tortured earth. May they do better than we have.

Finally, here is how our home looks at night. You, my readers, are always welcome here, as long as you can find your way around the backhoe, the trash, and the broken hearts that lie within. But if you do not like pigeons, please keep that quiet when you next enter my house.


Thursday, November 30, 2006

Days to remember; Days to forget

Above all, it's about feeling comforted. And safe. If, a long time ago, you didn't get it as a child, or even if you did, but it somehow wasn't enough, a hole opens in your soul. Are we condemned to live on and on, with this hole in our soul demanding to be fed? How much sugar is consumed by how many souls to salve a pain that can't be sweetened in that way?

The inner city features a large population of walking souls with holes. They slip, one by one, down to the corner stores to buy liquor, or cigarettes. They drive up and sit in their cars, motors running, cell phones to the ear, summoning their dealer. The dealers emerge from the shadows; their identities never quite revealed, their faces cloaked by hoods.

Lots of fresh bills from the ATM are handed through the rolled-down window in exchange for little balls of comfort, or a tiny bag of comfort power.

Addicts sometimes can't wait the time required to drive back home or wherever they are camped. They light up, shoot up, snort their medicines right there on the spot, in full view of a world that never sees anything.

Alcoholics do it at night. The telltale signs are slouching near the buildings, keeping to the shadows as they near the brightly lit neon signs of the store. The signs always speak of liquors, and that other great addiction -- the lottery ticket. People come and go all day long, pulling rolled up dollar bills from their pockets to claim a ticket, and they do it mainly on the two days a week that results will be announced.

As the hour approaches, people sometimes have to form lines to buy their tickets, especially when the take has reached multiple millions.

Smokers are on the run all over San Francisco. It's barely legal to smoke in your own home anymore. They stand in clusters outside every office building in town, dragging on their smokes. A French visitor, seeing so many attractive young women standing outside smoking, told us "You have zee prostitutes everywhere, so many of zem!"

Ah yes. In fact, the actual hookers work certain well-traveled streets, as they have forever. The whole world watches this, too, but never sees a thing. Early mornings are the worst time for street hookers in the Mission, you see them all smudged and staggering, headed home half-naked from who knows what, with who knows whom, from who knows where. If there is glamour, Hollywood-style, in the world's oldest profession, it isn't apparent in these young women's lost expressions. They look more like refugees from some unseen war, wandering aimlessly, and aging almost before your eyes, in real time.


My little boys both woke up with the symptoms of stomach flu. I kept them home from school. The plan was by mid-day I could drop them at their mother's, and make it down the peninsula for meetings at work. As I was showering, something happened that harkened back to my childhood. My Dad always said his nose bled easily and that's why mine did too.

Nosebleed after nosebleed, year after year.

But as an adult they disappeared many years ago; I don't remember the last time I had one. My second wife says she doesn't remember me having any; and that covers the past 17 years! It is cold and dry here; colder and drier than normal for this cold and dry season of our year. Between rains here is the coldest, driest weather we experience on this northern coast.

In the shower my nose started bleeding today. At first I thought it was just another typical nosebleed, but this one was different.

(Warning, those who feel faint when reading about blood may wish to exit my blog at this point.)

Blood was gushing out. The bathtub turned red, the floor was covered with drops. It was cold (if a bit above the low of 27 we hit last night), so I tried to dry myself off with a towel while also trying to pinch off the capillaries spurting blood everywhere.

I fought this dual battle for a while, and even tried to start shaving, before I realized it was a losing proposition. Now my sink was all red.

I grabbed a tee shirt and stuffed it up to my nose. Within minutes the entire shirt was soaked with blood. I grabbed a robe, staggered out of the bathroom, and lay down in the kid's room. I called Aidan to come and help. I felt fluid running down the sides of my head but I thought it was water from the shower.

In fact, he walked in on his father with a face covered in blood. Since I was lying down, the blood backed up in my mouth and I either had to swallow it or spit it out. It was running into eyes and ears. I'm sure it was a frightful sight. My little boy, as sensitive as he is tough, freaked out. I could hear him call his mother on the phone, crying, scared. He came back in a while and said he read on WebMD that a nosebleed like this in "an older person" could be the sign of other severe medical problems.

Luckily, at this moment, a Brazilian friend, Dionice, came to the rescue. Given what a mess I was making of the place, it's lucky it was Thursday, the day she usually stops by to visit. She came into the kids' room, and immediately started taking care of me. She brought cloth after cloth, ice cube after ice cube. She carefully wiped all the blood away from my face and hair and told me, in very broken English, to stay calm.

She seemed to think I had been overdoing something. “Not in 20's anymore, you David, so be careful. Not in 20's anymore."

As I contemplated what she could be trying to say, I realized the ice was starting to seal up the ruptured capillaries. I literally melted six ice cubes by holding them up against and into my right nostril over the next hour. Once the flow of blood slowed, she asked whether I was bleeding from the mouth and nose or only nose. I assured her the nose.

She kept placing her hand on my head, checking temperature, and at one point took my pulse. She also was cleaning up the mess, so she came and went that whole hour. Every time, she said, "Be back in 2 minutes. Don't move and don't worry." When it was clear I had this unfortunate occurrence under control, she brought the boys back in. Aidan broke down in tears, he had been so worried. Now he could let it all out. She comforted him.

Dylan (10) stayed calm, patted my hand, and actually acted very much like a grown-up.

Later on, I could get up. I discovered my glasses were red with encrusted blood so I washed them clean. I discovered dried blood behind my ears, on my neck. Washed that away. Meanwhile, we'd reached my doctor's assistant; she told me what I already knew, "you can't bleed to death from a nose bleed," though I must say my nose seemed bent on changing that conventional wisdom.

The prescription was stay in bed and don't go anywhere. So much for making the meetings at work. Lying in my own bed, under covers, I was shivering. It really was a cold day! Dionice came in and gestured that she wanted to put socks on my feet. I said okay. She carefully raised one foot, and rolled a sock on expertly. Then she repeated it with my other foot, and recovered them with the blankets.

I asked her in a combination of English and Spanish (she speaks Portuguese) how she got so good at that. She said as a girl she did that for her father, who could not pull on his own socks because he was so fat. She said she enjoyed taking care of me, and that I had blue eyes, just like her father. "I love, love, LOVE blue eyes," she blurted out.

She has the kindest face with the most beautiful smile. I thanked her over and over, and gave her a gift.

After Dionice left, and all traces of my bloody nightmare had been removed, the boys are I realized our power was out. No wonder we were all so cold; the wall heaters weren't working. I called PG&E, and was told someone would be out to us presently. Several hours later a nice young man named Keith showed up. He toured my apartment, but found no fuse box. I couldn't remember ever seeing one. I called my landlady, who said she didn’t know either, but to look in the closet.

Keith and I did, but all we found was a sealed metal box he said was the alarm system, not a circuit box.

I took him downstairs, to unlock the basement; then upstairs, to look through my neighbor's apartment, but he returned empty-handed, and only more confused. "I can't find any fuse boxers but you have to have them somewhere. Finally, after one more tour of my place and the basement, he apologized and left.

By now, it was early evening and really getting cold. Suddenly I had a flash of a memory. I removed a framed picture from my living room wall, and there was the missing fuse box. Sure enough, one fuse was tripped. As the lights came back on, the heaters started up, and my wireless router started blinking back to life, the boys cheered.

"Dad, you did it! You're a genius."

If only that were true. At least, we would order Chinese food and spend a quieter evening together. They feel better. I feel very tired. In the middle of the whole thing, I realized how nice it is to have a partner, and how hard it can be if you don't. Not that I don't have plenty of friends to turn to, and in fact, my ex-wife came over to try and help for an hour as well.

But it was Dionice who saved the day. Too bad she's married!

Just kidding. It's 9:30 pm here, freezing outside, but cozy in here. I've got to get my little boys to bed. As for the offending nostril, no news is good news.


Wednesday, November 29, 2006


Probably the number one problem on the web is how to get the item you want people to see to rise to the surface -- be it an ad, a piece of content, or a special offer. It's just like other real estate issues, which all come down to location, location, location.

All over Silicon Valley and all around the world teams of developers, designers, editors, and business people are struggling to find solutions. Much of the work involves complex algorithms, where various factors (timeliness, relevance, quality, etc.) are "weighted" in order to achieve the desired effects.

You don't have to spend too much time around this stuff to gain a new appreciation of the human brain. After all, our brains make decisions involving multiple factors all the time.

Personally, ten years of working closely with computers has given me a deeper respect for human intelligence. We struggle in my workplace every day with how to program automated systems to essentially replicate the judgments about quality and categorization that people make almost casually. When we change one factor, the whole equation can get thrown off.

The truth is a five-year-old child is much, much more intelligent than any computer system I've yet met. While computers are terrific at calculations, at sorting, searching, and cataloguing information, they cannot judge quality, they are incapable of recognizing the all-important connections between otherwise unrelated items.

For a pretty good sense of the state-of-the-art ability of computers to figure out what you, a living, breathing human being, might want, just visit Assuming you've been there before, and are properly cookie-d, Amazon's many algorithmic sensors will clamor for your attention, presenting a cacophony of options in music, books, electronic devices, etc., based on your previous buying and browsing patterns, as well as relational database functions that basically amount to peeking into the shopping carts of other buyers who purchased or browsed at least one of the items you've perused there in their superstore.

Fine and good, so far. Some of the options Amazon presents me, for example, are right on. But I use Amazon as much as a place to order gifts for others as I do to find things that interest me. Actually, I prefer visiting an independent bookstore to buy books or one of San Francisco's many music stores to buy music.

But Amazon believes I am a big fan of rap. Of course, with so many kids of varying ages, I've purchased any number of rap albums. And, truth to tell, I do like rap sometimes. But I'm hardly the fan Amazon thinks I am.

My real music passion is a dirty secret -- I've always loved country music. I don't know why, I just do. There's one song called "I was country before country was cool." Well, I liked country for a long time when, believe me, it was totally not cool.

Hell, the only singer I asked to be able to interview at Rolling Stone in the 70s was Loretta Lynn. If I'd been given two chances, the other would have been George Jones.

How uncool is that? My point, if I had one, has now eluded me, but it's gonna be a long, long, long, long, long, long time before computers can peer into our private brains and discover our true passions. We are a lot more than we purchase, but then again, in our time, with capitalism supreme and unchallenged, nobody really knows what the hell I am talking about, do they?


p.s. Yesterday, when I tried to provide a link to that hot new amateur 007 movie, Silent But Deadly, YouTube was down for maintenance. So here it is: The Weirdudes' Latest Hit .

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

What the problem is?

Just like a walking cliché, I can't buckle my belt without loosening it a notch or two this week. Not only did I eat a large volume of turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, gravy, and other fattening foods courtesy of my daughter and son-in-law, Sarah also baked pies -- lots of them. Pumpkin pie, cherry pie, blueberry pie, apple pie, and pecan pie -- each better than the last.

Peter and I both wolfed down pie for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Of course, he can absorb the calories and continue to look great. I can't.

But for just this weekend, I tried to revert to the younger man I once was, when I could eat whatever I wanted to eat, in whatever volume, and nothing showed up at my waistline as a consequence.

Well, those days are definitely gone.

While I was busy eating, my children were busy creating their latest movie. If you wish you can view it at YouTube (search under "007" or "Weirdudes.") You won't regret it. This is one of our family "businesses" -- none of which (including this blog) make much money yet, but who knows? We're still perfecting our product.


What the problem is?

Everybody around me seems to think I need to have a woman living with me in order to be happy, if I understand them correctly. Where would they get such an idea? Because I have spent most of my life married or living with a woman? Is my writing nothing more than a plaintive cry for a new life companion?

I hope not. Because I have a lot of other things to do, besides complicating my life in that same old way again. I want to travel, write, grow my own food, play with my grandson, make enough money to retire sooner than later, help my three younger kids get through college, and concentrate on growing those family businesses.

That's a full enough plate for anyone. And it surely will keep my waistline growing unless I find some new ways to burn some calories. Hmmm. That would argue for engaging in the oldest and best exercise of all. But that brings me right back to the central dilemma. How can I have it all? Or at least enough of it that I don't gain back every last pound my (temporarily) broken heart stole away from me, starting a year ago, almost to the day?

Guess I'll have to go back to working on my night moves...


Rejoining the Flock

Yesterday I wrote about the little ways people fall away from each other; today, it only seems fair that I mention the little ways people get back together. As long as there is a strong foundation of love and trust with somebody, you can always rebuild at least your friendship, and possibly even your romantic partnership.

When two people are feeling alienated from each other, even a slight positive gesture can have a major beneficial effect. When I was younger, I absolutely hated conflict, and tried to avoid it at all cost. Slowly, over the years, I came to realize that conflict with others is inevitable, and that it need not be destructive.

You see it your way; I see it mine. Our interests may diverge. In order to be partners -- in business or in life -- we need to arrive at some accommodation. The earlier me was so grateful for the chance to mend the rift that he would invariably be the first one to "give in."

The problem, over time, was my real needs seldom got met. Other peoples' needs got met, but not mine. Over and over again I compromised, going more than halfway toward the other person's position. Partly this was my pattern because more often than not in those years, I was wrong and (s)he was right. I knew that, instinctively, so I did not recognize the larger pattern, wherein I was compromising away my hopes and dreams and beliefs in order to settle conflicts.

It isn't worth it.

When I awoke to this knowledge, I started becoming more aggressive in getting my way. For a while, I became convinced that my way, if not always the right way, usually was the right way.

This was a new me. This David fought his way through highly political situations in various work lives and fought in his personal relationships. Now, the pendulum had swung to another extreme. I was willing, even eager to engage in conflict, and I sought out battles. I convinced myself I was growing tougher, and that the force of my convictions would invariably carry the day.

I would get what I wanted.

Wrong, again.

All I can say about the latest iteration of me is that I no longer fear conflict, nor do I seek it. When I get into a new relationship with anybody, anywhere, I'm seeking the middle place on the scales between us -- so each person feels (s)he has an equal voice. I'm not going to even pretend this works perfectly, or that I have mastered this new art of maintaining equal relationships.

Especially between modern men and women, many troubling issues remain. We can't seem to get it right, most of the time. But if at least our goal is to try and be true equals, we are starting from a better place than in days gone by. Which brings me back to the start: little gestures, and how much they mean.

For me, just being willing to remain in contact stirs my loyalty and my deep feelings of friendship and love for another. I reach out all the time. When others reach out back, it feels good.

It's as simple as that.


Monday, November 27, 2006

Departing the Flock

Over the past decade or so, we've become accustomed to people revealing the intimate details of their personal lives in books, on radio and TV talk shows, and over the Internet. Obscured in this fog of exhibitionism is whether any of it helps us understand each other better, or if it is in any way helpful to comprehending the human condition collectively.

NPR's Maureen Corrigan made an interesting observation today in her book review of Alice Munro's new short story collection, The View from Castle Rock on Fresh Air.

"Oftentimes the most daring secrets an autobiographical piece of writing can reveal," said Corrigan, "are not the over-the-top confessions about sex, drugs and recovery, but those small but devastating betrayals of thought and affection known only to the one harboring them." You can hear her entire piece at .

I loved that phrase, "small but devastating betrayals." When it comes to the emotional honesty that is required in order to tell our stories truthfully, it is these tiny, pivotal shifts in a relationship that sends it tumbling toward oblivion.

In case you are wondering how I can reference a review of a work of fiction in my comments about memoir-writing, Munro's book is partially an attempt to take on that eternal question all fiction writers face from their readers -- "How much of what you write is autobiographical?"

This is by far the top question put to every fiction writer at readings, in letters, and on talk shows. (My advice,FWIW, to anyone publishing a novel or short story collection is to come up with your own answer to that question before going out on your book tour. The worst thing you can do is sweep it aside with a note of awkward irritation.)

And Corrigan offered her insights in the context of Munro's admittedly semi-autobiographical style that permeates this new collection.

"Small but devastating betrayals." It doesn't take much to alter the mood between two people. A perceived slight, the opening of an old wound, the subtle change in how you greet one another, hold each other, even the nuance of which words are not spoken, all influence the chemistry we are able to maintain for each other.

The shifts can be so minor. One day, you feel safe, secure in her love. The next day, the slightest breeze causes you to shiver to your bones. Your instincts spring to life; she isn't being truthful, she's interested in someone else, she's hiding something.

Personally, I find these intuitive flashes irritating. It is much nicer to trust someone whole-heartedly, risking a larger pain I suppose, than in becoming paranoid about the tiny shifts in moods that potentially could grow larger and eventually cause you to separate from one another.

Collectively, we move as a culture toward sharing ever more sensational details of our lives with each other, but the result is only a desensitizing of our spirit; we become hardened and cynical, with only the lowest expectations for each other.

This is not the picture of a culture moving toward a place of greater love and compassion. This is a culture moving into deeper isolation and alienation. This blog is and always has been about sharing our loneliness, so that we might fight it, and develop new ways of connecting the small truths that can bind us together as surely as they can rend us asunder.


Sunday, November 26, 2006

Snow, ice, wind and rain

My trusty car knifed its way southward through six hours of relentlessly bad weather today. Once in traffic school (yes, I've been a couple times), a truck driver impressed upon me the foolishness of driving parallel to a big rig on the interstate. They lose tread, caps and other large pieces of gear much more often than cars do, as evidenced by the truck detritis lining every highway in the nation.

He said that if you happen to be unlucky enough to be next to a truck when this happens you could easily die. I thought of that, in a different context, when Alan Pakula, the man who directed the only feature film* I ever wrote (co-wrote, actually, with my buddy Howard Kohn), was killed by a piece of freeway junk (metal) that pierced his skull some years back.

The thing about freeway hazards is that they don't respect whether you are a millionaire or a pauper, whether you are a famous movie director or just another dumb schmuck, whether you just fell in love or are crying bitter tears of lost love as you speed down the highways of this nation.

I wonder how many of us realize yet what a primitive age we live in? An age so partially formed that we are still using petroleum products in our vehicles, even as previous uses (linoleum floors, etc.) have been set aside as too expensive. We burn toxic petrochemical vapors as we speed down the highways of this country.

Politicians, weaklings that they are, still fear that their fortunes will rise or fall along with the price of oil, or more specifically, how much we consumers have to pay at the gas pump to get our steel and plastic boxes well-enough fed to go the next two, three, or four hundred miles.

So what do we pay here in the middle of the richest empire on earth? Almost nothing, frankly, a mere $2.50 a gallon along the west coast, give or take a dime or a nickel. My dad used to keep detailed records of every fillup he paid for in the glove compartment of his car. He also noted the cost, the amount in gallons, and then (as the fun part) computed the MPG.

This was one of the things about my father that fascinated me the most, and resonated deeply. For years, I did the same as I saw him do, but then other distractions caused me to abandon his family tradition. Four years almost to the day he died, I bought my first new car at a dealership, and guess what I found myself doing soon after?

You got it. I wrote down the date, cost, volume and MPG of every tankfull of gas I purchased.

If I'd never driven a car anywhere but here in America, I might fall for the crap that a few cents up or down per gallon at the gas station matters one whit. But I've bought gas in Malaysia, Spain, and Tahiti (the last for my motorcycle), and let me tell you, we at the center of the (current) universe have it as good as it gets.

That's why I plan to take as many road trips as I can in coming years, driving here and there, seeing the Western States while they can be reached via what we in America consider a "family vacation."

I remember the AAA guide my family used some 40 years ago to drive from Michigan to Florida. At that time, a little bit of history was included along with the maps. Within a couple years, I was driving the same route with my college friends, but this time, my guidebook was Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Dubois and Jack Newman's A Prophetic Minority.

But *that* is quite another story...


* Rollover (1981)