Saturday, December 09, 2006

"Nancy's Lake"

You can't poke around anywhere here without bumping into some other odd collection or another. These are aged pieces of birch bark from trees around the shores of a lake in the northwestern part of Michigan's Lower Peninsula. I know of only four times those of us from California ever visited there, but it established a magical hold on my kids' minds.

When she was 9, my oldest daughter had a habit of drawing or painting on things she gathered in nature (like stones, driftwood, pine cones, etc.) At this lake in Michigan, she established what became over the next decade a family tradition. She drew on a piece of the ubiquitous curls of birch bark that line the shore of the lake. She dated her drawing as a momento of our visit.

The trees shed their outer layers all the time. Native Americans, of course, carved birch bark canoes out of these remarkable trees. Their outer bark is white; the inner bark is pinkish-brown. The consistency of the bark is soft, almost like flannel.

It is easy to write on, reminiscent of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

That first visit was in 1985, when her little sister was 6 and her little brother 4.

Our next visit to the Nancy's Lake, which the kids had christened after my own oldest sister, who had a summer cottage there, came in 1991. This time, just the two younger kids with me, and they were 12 and 10.

Then, in 1995, the family gathered to celebrate my mother's 80th birthday. This time I had my two sons, aged 14 and ~1. The following year we again gathered there, in honor of my father's 80th. This time, the birch bark shows, I had all five of my kids (so far), now ranging from four months to 20 years old.

For these large family gatherings, virtually every child and grandchild and spouse of my parents' four kids were there. My three sisters have 8 kids and close to that number of grandchildren. We shot family videos of the events; the one from my father's birthday party is a classic.

That was to be our last visit to Nancy's Lake, however. She and her husband sold the cottage and moved further downstate.

My father lived to the age of 82.

My mother lived to the age of 87.

Today, my 12-year-old and I discovered these parchments, in a plastic bag at the bottom of one of the dozens of boxes I have stacked around this place. As I find things like this, I photograph them and post them on the web. I'm creating a digital family history -- a quirky one, mind you, but what other way could it possibly be if I am the curator?


Friday, December 08, 2006

Romantic Movies, Imaginary Friends

It's the season of office holiday parties, seeing old friends, renewing connections. The kids and I watched "Love, Actually," the British romantic film. I suppose they are too young to see sex scenes (they covered their eyes during those parts anyway), although I've never been much concerned about censoring that kind of content. It's horrible graphic violence that I abhor.

Julia's been carrying an old phone around lately, appearing to be deep in conversation. When I asked whom she was talking to, she said, "Bob. He's my imaginary friend." Sometimes, friends just vanish. I guess you could those people imaginary friends. Memory, as I've often noted, is at least partly an exercise in imagination. Even when teaching memoir writing, I find my own memories don't rush forth without sustained, focused imagination.

Some of us have to imagine our past because we cannot remember it very well. Fortunately, my lifelong habit of journal writing serves as a resource when I want to explore my past. Though, I threw away my childhood journals, unfortunately, I've retained a steady record of my life since I was 22.

The writing in most of them is uneven (some things never change), and I wish I'd been a bit more emotionally aware acouple decades ago.

Lately, I've been remembering things from when I was around ten, eleven. It was a harsh world to me eyes when we moved to Bay City, Michigan. I was outside the local circles of farm kids and city kids, fitting in nowhere. Much of the time, I lived in my own world. I stayed too much inside my own head.

Many things, actually, never seem to change. The conditions and the scenery change, but the essential struggle goes on.


Thursday, December 07, 2006

Comfort Food

My friend prepared this delicious and beautiful salad in my house for us tonight. We ate it together, as she told me her sad story of the recent apparent breakup of her marriage. I tried to express every idea I might ever have had in my long life to comfort her, but also to advise her both on a practical level, but much more importantly, on an emotional level.

I know I failed.

How can any of us help one another when we see our friend falling off the precipice of unspeakable pain?

I have no answers. But eating healthy salads together and talking is my only suggestion. At least, considering the options, we are being healthy about it all. Which is not my first, second, or third option when I am the one seeking comfort.


Know why I am happy tonight? The following story makes me smile big time!

Bonds, Giants agree on $16 million, 1-year deal
By BEN WALKER, AP Baseball Writer
December 7, 2006

San Francisco Giants' slugger Barry Bonds takes batting practice before a baseball game against the Los Angeles Dodgers in San Francisco, in this Sept. 29, 2006 file photo. Bonds and the San Francisco Giants moved closer to reaching an agreement Thursday night, with the sides hoping to complete a deal that would keep the controversial slugger in the Bay Area.
AP - Dec 7, 7:58 pm EST
More Photos

NEW YORK (AP) -- Barry Bonds and the San Francisco Giants reached agreement on a $16 million, one-year contract Thursday night that will keep the controversial slugger in the Bay Area to take aim at baseball's home run record.

The deal includes four performance bonuses that could make the pact worth a total of $20 million, a person familiar with the negotiations told The Associated Press, speaking on condition of anonymity because there had been no official announcement.

While Oakland, San Diego, St. Louis and other teams showed interest in signing the 42-year-old free agent, the Giants had been considered the front-runners to re-sign their star.

Bonds has 734 home runs and is 22 from breaking Hank Aaron's career record. He has played 14 seasons for the Giants and is coming off a $90 million, five-year contract.

Bonds missed nearly the entire 2005 season after three operations on his right knee, prompting speculation on whether he was almost done. But the left fielder bounced back this year to play 130 games, hitting .270 with 26 homers and 77 RBIs.

Shadowed by allegations of steroid use and a target of boo-birds in many opposing parks, Bonds has remained a fan favorite in the Bay Area. He has been tied to the Giants by family and history -- his dad, Bobby, was a popular player with the team; his godfather, Willie Mays, is regarded as the greatest Giant of them all.

The Giants will host the All-Star game next year, and can certainly build the event around Bonds as he nears Aaron's mark.

A seven-time NL MVP, a 13-time All-Star and an eight-time Gold Glove winner, Bonds has stolen more than 500 bases and is baseball's all-time leaders in walks.

Bonds met Wednesday with his former Pirates manager and now-Detroit skipper Jim Leyland, who is close friends with St. Louis manager Tony La Russa.

The Giants have been busy since the season ended. They re-signed Ray Durham and Pedro Feliz and also signed free agents Dave Roberts, Rich Aurilia and Bengie Molina, hoping to boost their lineup.

San Francisco cut ties with manager Felipe Alou after going 76-85 this season, and saw his son, outfielder Moises Alou, sign a free-agent deal with the New York Mets. Pitcher Jason Schmidt is working to finalize an agreement with the Dodgers.

Bruce Bochy was hired away from San Diego to manage San Francisco. Among the first things Bochy did after joining the Giants was phone Bonds.

The day after this season ended, Giants owner Peter Magowan said Bonds would not be the team's main cog if he returned in 2007.

"I think we need to go in a new direction," Magowan said in early October. "We have for a long time had a strategy that has worked well until the last two years, when it hasn't worked so well. The strategy has been one of having a great player -- maybe the greatest player in the game -- at the centerpiece and filling in with veteran players.

San Francisco Giants' Barry Bonds sits in the dugout and watches the Giants play the Los Angeles Dodgers during the third inning of their baseball game in San Francisco, int this Sept. 30, 2006. Bonds and the Giants moved closer to reaching an agreement Thursday night, with the sides hoping to complete a deal that would keep the controversial slugger in the Bay Area.
AP - Dec 7, 7:57 pm EST
More Photos
"For a long time that worked well. It caught up with us the past couple of years. Now we do need to get younger and healthier," he said.

Shortly before Thanksgiving, Magowan called the Bonds camp to clarify his remarks and say he did not mean to offend the star.

When the Giants did not offer salary arbitration to Bonds last week, agent Jeff Borris was miffed.

Borris said it spoke "volumes of their true intentions to have him back in a Giants uniform for the 2007 season."

"It has been well documented that the Giants were trying to sign Alfonso Soriano, Carlos Lee, Gary Matthews and Juan Pierre," Borris said. "And they have been working diligently in trying to trade for Manny Ramirez. The Giants' actions demonstrate that Barry obviously is not a priority to them."

Once the baseball winter meetings began, however, Borris and the Giants talked several times.

At this point in his career, only one thing is missing on Bonds' major league resume: a World Series ring.

Bonds has reached the postseason in seven different seasons, but made it to the World Series only in 2002 against the Anaheim Angels. With a chance to win the championship, the Giants blew a late 5-0 lead in Game 6 and lost, then lost Game 7.

Despite the defeat, Bonds hit .471 with four homers and had a .700 on-base percentage against the Angels. Overall, he is a .245 career hitter in the postseason.

Email me if you want to go to some games next year with me. The coming baseball season ought to be a lot of fun...


Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Life and Death

There's happiness and sadness imbedded in every day, naturally. When you are working with news stories day in, day out, there is always the story that pulls at your heart. Today’s tragic news that the body of James Kim of San Francisco was found after an extensive search in a riverbed in a ravine in a remote part of Oregon was one of the saddest of stories.
Missing Man Found Dead...

Kim and his wife and two very young children did almost the same things I did with my kids on Saturday, November 25. Both of our families had brunch in Portland, and then headed south on I-5, with a wary eye at the weather on the southern horizon. We both had to fight our way over a series of summits in central Oregon in the middle of driving snowstorms.

We stopped for dinner at different but similar roadside restaurants.

There, our paths diverged. I took my kids to a motel in Southern Oregon, and resumed our drive home to San Francisco the following day.

James Kim and his family, following a route westward off of the Interstate they'd seen on a map leading to the hotel they'd booked on the coast, inadvertently drove into disaster. The road is not maintained in winter, though they had no way of knowing that. Having been up in the same mountains that afternoon and night, I know that driving visibility was virtually non-existent, so it was probably quite a while before they realized that no one else was driving on their road.

You just couldn't see well enough to know who or what was or was not around you. My shoulders and neck were so sore that night after the tension of driving through the blizzards, I can well imagine how this other father was feeling as he struggled to navigate his way through the storm.

He eventually lost the route and turned down an even more remote road -- a logging road -- where they eventually became stuck.

They survived for nine days eating snacks, burning the car tires for heat, huddling together at night to ward off freezing temperatures. Kati Kim kept her young child and her infant alive by nursing them. By last Saturday, their food was gone and they had no further means to stay warm.

James Kim went off, searching for help. Two days later, a helicopter hired by relatives spotted Kati waving an umbrella coated with reflective tape, and the woman and children were saved.

An intensive search ensued for James. He left clothes and pieces of the map that had fatally led him astray as clues for rescuers who he knew would probably be trying to find him. He'd become hopelessly lost. His body was found 8 miles from where his car had been stuck.


Tonight, at my house and oblivious of this tragedy, my children are excited about the holidays. They drew pictures and created little "books," with brightly colored images. Their childish dreams include the magic of surprises, of a season of lights and family visits, fancy meals, and no school! What's not to love about Christmas if you're a kid?

I did what I always do on Wednesday nights -- cooked them a meal, helped with their homework, checked in about their days at school, got them ready for bed, and wished them good night.


All the while, I couldn't shake the melancholy image of James Kim, obviously a loving father and family man, struggling through unsurvivable conditions, trying desperately to find a way to save his family from the fate of starvation and freezing to death.

Sadly, if he'd only stayed with them, he too would have survived. Help was already on the way, though he had no way of knowing that. Instead, he died alone, apparently delirious from hypothermia, in a remote valley, no more than a day or so before the searchers following his clues caught up to him.

They got there just a little too late.


Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Full moon over San Francisco

Of course that's why I couldn't sleep last night. I wondered why I was awake at 4 am, 5:40 am, 6:30 am. Tonight, I remembered. The moon looked pretty full last night and it's the same tonight. Walking home after parking my car a block from here at 9:15 pm, I could see my moon shadow. It was a tall man in a warm coat, carrying a computer case. Actually, there were two men, two moon shadows.

At first, I thought someone else might be shadowing me, but a quick glance around confirmed that I was alone -- and besides my two shadows were identical in proportions, angles, and pace.

This caused me to reflect on whether my shadows knew something I didn't know. There was my leading shadow and my following shadow. My forward one and my backward one. My public life, my private life. My optimistic side, my pessimistic side.

Lately, it seems like many of the people I turned to last winter and spring for support as I dealt with my painful series of losses are going through their own ordeals. Their parents have suddenly died. Their marriages are in trouble. Their jobs are in jeopardy.

Accordingly, I find myself in the mode of giving comfort to some who a few short months ago were comforting me. In this way, too, my twin moon shadows were perhaps reflecting back the strange dialectic Hegel and Marx described. For my part, modestly, I propose that the synthesis is always the best place to bring our disconnected selves back together.

p.s. I hope we all can sleep better tonight.

p.s.s Quoting Bob Dylan, "I'll let you in my dream if you'll let me in yours."

p.s.s.s. Then we could sleep together peacefully, right?


Buried Treasures, Continued

So, I've been a collector of bottle caps, coins, stamps, model cars, old books, seashells, seaglass, and many other strange items. Over the years, I've met many other collectors, including people with more exotic collections, like hand-made dolls, old model trains, insects, feathers, and art of many types.

That's probably why I so readily embraced the opportunity to have these bottles dug up in my backyard. Now, I collect old bottles. (Actually, I always did, I just didn't have very many.

Now, this set of three dozen tell the story of the people who lived in this house in its early years, the 1880s and 1890s. My grandparents' generation. From the bottles they discarded over a hundred years ago, I can devine something about their age (old), drinking habits (spirits), their smoking preferences ( a pipe), their health problems (constipation, consumption, hangovers), and their sexual life (vaseline.)

In some places, this information would be a little easier to know because property records still exist, but San Francisco's burned in the fire that followed the 1906 earthquake. Here, many things are mysteries. The bottle repositories in backyards are hints. Other old dusty records do exist that might help fill in the gaps, such as old address books, newspaper morgues, etc.

It's sobering to think we are our what we throw away.

But we are.


Monday, December 04, 2006

Who is listening?

So, this is the essential problem for every writer.

I remember when I published my very first story, in the Michigan Daily, in January 1966. That's a long time ago now, over four decades. On the University of Michigan campus, where I was a freshman at the time, the Daily was distributed free all around campus, including a newsstand at the Michigan Union.

So, on that very exciting first day that my very first article appeared, I went over to the Union, and stood around the newsstand, wondering whether anyone reading The Daily knew that the actual author of that piece about wrestling on the back page was standing nearby.

It is so nice to have once been young. However, I also now wish, as Bob Dylan put it, that "I didn't know now what I didn't know then."

That knowledge, of course, is that whatever we write, and no matter how hard we try to get it right, it all ends up in the recycling bin, as if nothing at all had ever been said in the first place.

Thus, every writer's lament: Why even try to speak if no one cares?


Sunday, December 03, 2006

Buried Treasures

Two nice young men came by today with probes and shovels, a pail and some rope. They had old maps of this neighborhood, which showed the house I live in has been here since the 1880's or so. (It's hard to date precisely when old homes were built here because most of the records were destroyed in the 1906 earthquake and fire.

They explained they collected old bottles from the Civil War period to the end of the 19th century by using a simple method. From the old land maps, they identified properties that have not been significantly reconfigured since that era. Plumbing arrived slowly in these areas of town, so everyone had privies dug in their backyards.

By the turn of the century, when the houses got inside plumbing, the outhouses were carted away and the privies were filled with dirt. First, however, most people "sealed up" the aromatic "night soil" with a layer of bottles and other trash.

They said they typically found what they were looking for about four and a half feet below the surface. So they went around the perimeter of our backyard, probing for glass about that far down. They quickly identified the spot -- it's about halfway back the rear property line on the left side of the yard.

They roughed out the likely dimensions of the old privy and set to work. When they were about four feet down they hit the first glass -- shards and some whole bottles from the Prohibition era. They were ceramics, liquor bottles and other machine-engineered bottle pieces.

Then they hit layers of a new kind of dirt -- the fine ash from fireplaces. This indicated a dry hole, where not much corrosion was likely to have occurred.

On and on they dug -- five, feet, six feet -- now finding bottles from right around the year of the earthquake. Other items emerged -- a corroded half an old pistol, the remains of what looked like a toy train, a piece of a pipe (for smoking). Down another foot and we were in the 1890s.

They brought up an almost complete brown teapot. The ceramic handle for a dresser drawer, an old button.

At eight feet they hit pay dirt: A whole cache of bottles, many inscripted with manufacturer's names like Dr. J. E.Plouf's Rheumatism Cure, and Lengfeld's Prescription Pharmacy, San Francisco. These were all from the 1880's and 1890's, and thanks to the ash, in surprisingly good condition.
Julia helped comb through the pile of dirt excavated shovelful by shovelful. When the pit got too deep, the guys lowered the pail and then hauled up, like miners.
PPiso's Cure for Consumption
Paul Rieger's Jamaica Ginger, S.F. Cal
(for hangovers)
California Fig Syrup Co.
Tillman's Extract
Dr.King's New Discovery for Consumption
Enterprise Sodaworks S. F.
(soda bottle)

Lots of bottles of petroleum jelly, including Vapo-Cresolene Co. All in all, the haul was about three dozen bottles -- including a red bitters bottle, milk and cream bottles, as well as an exquisitely painted purple candlestick fragment.

That pit knows more about who lived here and how they lived than anyone alive today. After extracting these treasures, the guys (aided by Julia) refilled the pit and let the shards rest in piece.



With our temperatures dipping to freezing and below, our houses are uncomfortably cold, as we have no effective heating systems and the buildings are old and drafty. It is a time of sick kids. The rapid weather shift catches them at their most vulnerable. At least one of mine has been sick every day for weeks now.

Yesterday, however, was the first day in a long, long time (months) that I was alone and had absolutely no obligations until evening. So I walked, covering a mile or so of the Mission District. It's been sunny, which makes it feel even colder than it is. The planet is tilted at its most radical angle toward the sun. The sun's rays slant toward us from such a low arc that the days are short and the nights are long.

The earth never has a chance to warm up. People walked about, some bundled up against the chill; others seemingly oblivious. Every tree and building stood out in magnificent detail. With my new camera in tow, I was tempted to shoot houses and buildings, but for the most part I stuck to my normal Sidewalk Images .

The Buddhist monks were out in their robes by their magnificent temple on 22nd Street. The evangelistas were grouped in clusters of nicely dressed men and women on 20th Street, including cute little boys in dark suits with ties, and girls in white dresses. I imagine they were promoting the big Evento Cristiano that I see advertized around the neighborhood.

But most people around here don't really seem all that interested in being proselytized to. I waver from hating the sight of these groups to yesterday's mood, which was more tolerant. I caught one Mexican woman's eye and she smiled at me. I smiled back, nodding toward two boys, maybe ten years old, with buckteeth, neatly combed hair, and pinstriped suits.

I encountered neighborhood people I know, the carpenter next door, the student two doors down, the sweet little Arab man with Down's, the guy from further down Hampshire who used to live next door, one of the guys pushing an ice cream wagon noisily through town. A little further I saw another cluster of evangelistas circled around a wizened old Salvadoran man, with his ice cream truck. They weren't buying Pushups or Creamsicles, I noticed, as I lingered for a moment. They were listening as he recounted how he had already been "saved" back home.

I wonder how many evangelists it takes to convert one heathen?

I didn't photograph any of the litter, but the sidewalks were replete with evidence of the local addiction to lottery tickets. So many are in Spanish! All are brightly colored and shiny. (Note to self: I should collect them and make a gallery of lottery tickets.)

In San Francisco, every corner market sells not only wine and beer but also hard liquor. They sell cigarettes, sometimes via illegal channels that get around the high state taxes. Periodically, the authorities crack down on this practice and shutter the stores for a while -- a warning to every Mom and Pop in the city.

After a while, the cigarette brokers slither back into the alleys and deliver their merchandise. It's a cash crop. The Franchise Tax Board is left out of the exchange. You can sense a black market transaction intuitively when you walk into a store. The cigarettes come in plain boxes, and the storeowners unload them quickly. The cardboard boxes are then broken down and bundled for recycling. But rather than leave them in front of the store, as is the usual practice, the shopkeeper takes them down the block, to a neutral drop place.

This neighborhood suits me. When my mail came, late in the day, it was all junk, so I tossed it straight into the blue recycling container -- it never even made it inside my door. The football games on TV involved the usual subjects; but the pleasantly surprising UCLA upset of USC raised the possibility anew of a rematch between Michigan and Ohio State for the national championship game on January 8, four days after I return from Japan.

Last night and this morning consist of "special time" with my daughter, who is coughing and has a sore throat. Twenty minutes after swallowing kid's Motrin, that tasty orange drink, she is perking up, drawing monkeys and puppies and coloring them for me. Soon, we will shop.

It's the quiet stuff, the little stuff of daily life, nothing at all exotic or overly stimulating, but it suits me just fine just now. With no conflicts about how to spend my time, I live easily and peacefully. My trusty car rests, knowing as I do that soon enough, we both will have to spring back into action.

But not just yet...