Saturday, May 05, 2007

To Capture the Dust

The other day I found a penny. It was dated 1976.

My first real job was as a writer-editor at Rolling Stone in 1975. My salary was $16,000 a year. That was more than my Dad had earned in any year of his long career. It also was more than a rookie Major League Baseball player then earned. They got about $14,000 a year at that time.

Yes, times have changed. Baseball stars now make multiple millions each year, and the Boston Red Sox paid over $50 million this year simply to meet a top prospect before signing him. Then, they threw in another $50 million or so to get him on their roster.

Meanwhile, the per-word rate for freelance writers has hardly budged, and still hovers around $1 or less at many outlets. Editors are somewhat better compensated, but they don't get signing bonuses, long-term contracts or the super-lucrative product endorsement deals that elevate athletes from simply rich people into the super-rich.

But none of this was what went through my mind when I squinted out the number "1976" on that random penny. The most important thing about that year for me was that my first child was born on Memorial Day weekend. She was tiny, only a few ounces over five pounds, and emerged into this world as perfect as any baby I've ever seen.

Nurses and other parents gathered around her incubator to admire her beauty through the window (in that era, at UCSF, they displayed the newborns side by side so that fathers and other family and friends could see what their wives, sisters, mothers, lovers, or friends had produced.)


Every time I find a penny I scrutinize its minting date, and start wondering what story that coin could tell, if only it had a voice. How many human hands has it touched, and how widely has it traveled? Thirty-one years is a long time in the life of a coin. So much so that, in the case of this penny, it has almost completely lost its former sense of status.

Today, pennies are throwaways, literally. Most storekeepers don't bother giving you change in pennies -- they round the total up or down and discard pennies like meaningless recyclable tidbits into an ashtray or some similar vessel for customers to use at their will.


So today I missed the boys' soccer game so I could attend my daughter's game.

She grabbed my camera to photograph one her teammates, and friends.

Another of her friends eventually curled up in her father's chair to recover from the rigors of the game.

Afterwards, back home, I made the kids a tropical fruit salad, remembering lots of times and lots of places in the process.

My youngest athlete noticed the flecks of dust rising in the rays of today's sunlight, streaming through our windows. She chased them, raised her hands, and tried to capture them.

If only we could capture the dust of our pasts! All of our ancestors, as well as every other life form, whether extinct or ongoing, are represented there. My little girl knows none of this.

She only sees a spec rising on an invisible wind and tries to catch it in her hands, much like catching a falling star.

I don't know about you, but so far, I have not been able to do that...


Friday, May 04, 2007

Living Artifacts

It was a night for Beethoven, Bach, Grieg and Mendelssohn as these pianists, young and old students of Lauren Cony, performed at the Community Music Center on Capp Street, in the heart of the Mission District.

Coincidentally, Capp Street has long been notorious as one center of prostitution in San Francisco. I remember a young prostitute named "Tracy Anarchy," who approached us at the Center for Investigative Reporting years ago about police harassment of sex workers in the neighborhood.

San Francisco since the days of the Gold Rush and, later, the Barbary Coast, famously celebrated its streetwalkers by bestowing their first names upon alley after alley in SOMA, the South of Market area that in our time became the center of Multimedia Gulch, home of the creative edge of Web 1.0.


Back to the recital. I'm not sure how I got distracted. It should not surprise you, dear reader, that I love music of almost all kinds. It is the most intellectual of music -- modern jazz -- that eludes me, however. Tonight, a closing number -- Debussy -- triggered my usual reaction to modernist compositions: Alienation.

(I believe, technically, that Debussy was one of the important French composers in the Impressionist, or Symbolic mode. Whatever, to my ears, he smacks of jazz.)

It's not that I cannot appreciate abstractly the power of this work, or its obvious relevance to our era. I'm just not comfortable with any numbers of forms -- minimalism, for one that dominated the pre-post-modern discontinuity that has provided nothing positive to the human experience.

Hell, if all of these forms were to be traced to their true godfather, it would be Marx, the documentarian of alienation. I've read lots of Marx's writings, and can say, unequivocally, he was the greatest interpreter of our agrarian roots among any 19th century writer. I simply love his rendition of our history on the land, which resonates all the more through my awareness of my father's life, growing up on that small farm outside of London, Ontario.

I saw the house he was born in once -- in the summer of 1976 -- when we all were in London while my mother was operated on for the brain aneurism that very nearly killed her more than a quarter-century before her actual passing.

As fate would have it, the best surgeon in the region, Charles Drake, practiced his craft in London, so we transferred Mom there from the hospital in Flint, Michigan, where her would-be surgeon estimated her mortality/morbidity outcome in far more pessimistic ranges than did Dr. Drake.


Dylan tells me he loves playing piano and intends to keep doing so way into the future. Tonight I told him something he didn't know about his birth father (who would be me), and that is that I, too, loved playing piano as a child, and like Dylan, I suspect I was rather good.

Like with most subjects, I have my theory about this. Are you ready? (Certainly, someone will shoot this one down.) The reason so many of the greatest classical composers were German, in my view, lies in the relationship between mathematics, classical music forms, and language.

Old English (German) is the most structured of languages. It appears to have evolved from people who took their numbers and their music quite seriously.

This, at least, is my utterly unlearned contribution to the literature of classic criticism. If this does not fully qualify me as a certified crank on Wikipedia, or whatever replaces the Encyclopedia Britannica, then I don't know what I can do to achieve that lifelong goal.


It's an awful thing to say, but I love this post. It's not that we have traversed the worlds of music, language, math, performance art, sex, my city, my neighborhood, my dear children, or something that have not yet mentioned but ought to -- the Giants came from behind to win tonight! -- it's that this is fun for me.

All I must do is hold myself to two standards -- emotional honesty and intellectual honesty -- as long as a post meets these minimal thresholds I can pretty much weave whatever story knits its way through the sinewy synapses of my electrified brain.

What's not to love about the blogosphere?

Well, there is one thing. Your friends, if they want to, can check in on you and see how you are doing without making any effort to contact you. That, my friend, is a lonely feeling for a writer.

I don't only write for me, but for you. If you like it, it would mean a lot to me to see your smile, rather than only imagining it. I live inside my own head so much these days, the only time in a long life that I have lived alone, that often I imagine that none of this is real -- this blog, this story-telling, this yelp.

My body feels and looks old. I grow tired. For the most part, this is a lonely occupation, perhaps one that will be best appreciated when I can no longer do it. I hope that is not egotistical, but my hope and belief is these 500+ posts, these 300,000+ words and untold hundreds of images will be useful to somebody, somewhere, someday, a long time after I am gone.


Thursday, May 03, 2007

Post #502

You may have to click on this photo (which will enlarge it) to read the bumper sticker on this auto festooned with messages: Why Be Normal? I spotted this on the way to a play this morning. The venue is a former mortuary on the southern end of Valencia Street, an area that once was San Francisco's Mortuary Row. Once real estate values in this part of town forced the business of death southward, to Colma, which boasts that it has "more dead residents than live ones," these elegant buildings were transformed into environments supporting the living.

In this case, a school, a very special school where progressive education is practiced on behalf of a diverse collection of children of all colors, shapes, sizes, and ethnicities in this, the North American city with a lower proportion of children than any other.

Parents might be forgiven for feeling rather isolated here among a population that, despite its progressive politics, often seems strangely indifferent to those who will inherit the mess this greediest of all societies is leaving behind.

How much carbon did you consume today?


Lest anyone misinterpret me, I consider myself among the worst offenders. After all, I commute some 90 minutes a day, up and down a dirty highway that keeps getting dirtier. I happen to drive a small, high-mileage vehicle, but it still burns fossil fuels -- a foolish luxury my grandchildren certainly will not experience.

All around me in my commutes are monstrously huge SUVs, including the almost comical (if they were not so sad) civilian military vehicles called Hummers. I'm not a violent man, but I admit to a fantasy of buying an anti-tank weapon and blowing the next Hummer I see out of it an eco-warrior fantasy.


Meanwhile, back at the play at the school, my little 8-year-old was a dinosaur. Don't ask me to explain the plot; I can't. But in this photo, she is holding her tail. She was terrific in her role (it turns out dinosaurs can talk), but if course since I am her father, you'd have to ask somebody else.

So, why don't you ask my friend Josh, who was there, His daughter, Paloma, was a wooly mammoth. It turns out that they, too, can talk; in fact, they speak English! In my opinion, Paloma played a great wooly mammoth, and since I am not her father, you can take my word on that.


As the day progressed, a nasty looking sky moved in on the Bay Area, threatening rain. Late this afternoon, I stood out in our backyard, counting the raindrops descending one by one onto my face. There were so few, you could have counted them on your fingers and toes.

Have you ever noticed how, when the air grows heavy just before a rain, the plants start emitting their sweet odors, the birds scream their warning songs, and your own blood pressure spikes? I'm figuring we are all biologically hooked into the barometric pressure; thus these moments.

Today, I nestled up to the wild roses, the jasmine, and the rosemary in my background, soaking up their musk. I breathed deeply, and thanked whatever spirit brings us these situations that I have reached an age where such tiny matters mesmerize me.


One thing about my little dinosaur, she has reached the age where "normal" starts to exert its inevitable influence. From time to time, she talks about herself in ways that did not come from home. She is getting fully socialized, albeit in a compassionate, humanistic environment that, when it comes to schools, is, in my experience, pretty much as good as it gets.

No child of mine, I hope, feels any pressure to be "normal." In my view, "normal" means being nothing more than a "good German" in the 1930s. Then, the threat was Adolph Hitler.

Now, the threat is global warming, the end of the world. This is a far more complex threat than the singular evil of Nazism. But the response required is familiar: Stand up, speak out, don't roll over in the face of destruction.

We are entering an era where there is no place for the weak or the meek, and it is doubtful they would want to inherit a ruined planet, even if they could.

Nope, we need activists, strong people who stand up, speak out, and take a stand.

Rather like my little talking dinosaur. Nobody pushes her around, and I love that about her.


Wednesday, May 02, 2007

The Human Spirit


Every time you find yourself wondering where you will get the strength to overcome that next barrier that awaits each of us in this life, try to think back, way back, to your infancy. Of course, none of us can remember back this far, but maybe this clip will help.

I love this video of my dear grandson, James, as he struggles to roll over for only the second time in his young life. If he can do that, all the rest of us must certainly be able to accomplish what we need to do, right?


In love with artifacts

Photo by Jeffrey Lau

I've probably published this photo before here, but what better way to talk about history and my love of objects that conjure it for me than a lovely black-and-white photo? People my age remember when the world was still something we viewed through photos as largely black-and-white.

Color photographs are among those many relatively recent developments in this sped-up age.

Lately, as I wander around my smallish (by American standards) home, I have been struck by what is available here. My entire history on this planet screams out to me from every shelf, closet, and long-forgotten box.

Others are present as well. Here are the dishes my Mother bought in Japantown a long time ago, in the '70s. There is the beginning of a fanciful novel my Father wrote out long hand. Here are yellowed clips of articles I wrote in college, and photos of my first wife when we were both so young -- and then, of course -- of our three children, at all stages of their development.

It was a long, rich marriage -- almost 20 years -- so the artifacts are abundant, the stories complex, and the record never exactly set straight.

Thanks primarily to our culture's tendency to focus on how things end, "divorce" or "breakup" always seems to be the final word. When I think of my love relationships, including my two marriages, I think the "first word" is by far the more interesting story.

Then. there are my many collections. Since this is the NHL's playoff season, the quest for the Stanley Cup, all of my Canadian genes are in turmoil, as my beloved Detroit Red Wings struggle to regain lost glory against the local heroes -- the San Jose Sharks, for whom I have yet to develop any sort of loyalty.

If you look closely at these cards, you will see the greatest of all great hockey players. No, not Wayne Gretsky, but Gordie Howe. No debate about that among those who know.

Then, we come to my lifelong preoccupation with stamps. I started collecting them as a child when I was confined to bed for months by illness (rheumatic fever)...Recently, I ordered this three-pack of stamps from the'30s, hoping to stimulate the imagination of the little curly-haired guy pictured at the top of this post.

Stamp collecting is the kind of hobby Robert Louis Stevenson would have appreciated. My lovely friend, recently completely absent from my life, Francesca Vietor, once did one of the kindest things anyone who understands my true quandaries has ever done for me. She organized my massive but chaotic stamp collection into groups of countries and times.

Unfortunately, so far none of my children have shown that they have the habit, so Francesca's work still sits in a box in my closet, neglected for now, but never forgotten.

And then we have this beauty.
Thanks to my former colleague Cate Corcoran, who left it behind a plant one day for me to recover, this lovely trophy from 1997 is the only Webby I (we) ever won, to my knowledge. It was for an bygone era's effort -- The Netizen -- the first, and apparently the best, daily political website, part of the HotWired family of sites we launched in 1994-1996, culminating in Wired News. Most awards don't mean much to me (journalists give each other WAY too many awards, IMHO) but this one does matter.

We did well, that small team on Third Street in the middle of the last decade of the last century.

That's what artifacts are all about. Remembering what you have had in your life. I've had a lot and in that, I am blessed.


Tuesday, May 01, 2007

My rap sheet

Fall, 1968. Earlier in the year, Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated in Memphis. Two months later, Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in L.A. That summer was ugly and violent. Fires burned in our major cities.

I was in love. And editing the summer edition of my college newspaper. Once classes started up again, in late August, the tension in the air above Ann Arbor was palpable. Someone bombed the office building where the CIA had a local liaison office. Anti-war and civil-rights demonstrations were at least as regular as classes, and just as well attended, maybe better.

As an activist-journalist, I always faced a moral dilemma: Should I try to write about these developments or take a stand myself? Most of the time, I found a balance, covering demonstrations and writing about them from the point of view of a participant; even though I was too busy gathering factual information to really do things like carry signs or chant.

That fall, however, one cause captured my (activist's) heart, as opposed to my (journalist's) brain. A group of poor black women in Ann Arbor staged what was widely known as a "welfare mother's campaign" against policies meant to reduce their benefits.

This was a movement composed not of college students, with all of our mixed-up, youthful energy, but of middle-aged black women struggling to raise their kids with a paucity of resources in the richest country on earth.

They occupied the county building and a bunch of us from the university decided to join them. That's how I acquired a "record," for trespassing, i.e., sitting down and refusing to move when ordered to do so by the police.

I got roughed up as I was arrested. My glasses were broken as two officers took me into a door as opposed to through it. Slightly dazed and definitely not seeing clearly, I did recognize my friend, the photographer Tom Copi, as I was hauled outside to the paddy wagon.

Bravely (I thought) I raised the Victory signal, but truth to tell, I was shaken by the violence I had just experienced, especially because it was so minor compared to the vicious beatings I'd seen cops deal protestors when I was on the sidelines, wearing my journalistic credential around my neck.

This night, I put the press ID in my pocket and joined the people.

Sometimes, you have to do something like that. As my former colleague at Stanford, Ted Glasser, has said, "Citizenship trumps Journalism."


Monday, April 30, 2007

Luna Llena sobre la misión (Full Moon over the Mission)

Lunes 30 de abril de 2007

Esta semana del trabajo comenzó con un dolor de estómago. No minar, solamente mi 11 hijos de los años. Tan pronto como realizara él no sentía el pozo bastante para ir a la escuela, este lunes tomó una diversa dirección.

Agradece a las tecnologías que te traen este weblog, yo poder como realizan fácilmente mis deberes editoriales como telecommuter como viajero real. Así pues, hice mi deber como padre y también como ecologista hoy evitando emisiones del bióxido de carbono a favor de mi más vieja y preferida manía -- el caminar.

Cuando mi hijo comenzó a sentirse que mejor caminamos alrededor de la misión, tomando algunas de nuestras imágenes de la acera. Más adelante, después del día laborable terminó, yo caminó mitad de la milla hacia el Océano Pacífico para satisfacer a un viejo amigo en Medjool.

El lunes próximo, libro de David Talbot, hermanos: la historia ocultada de los años de Kennedy, sobre Gato y Bobbie Kennedy, será publicada. He conocido a David y a su hermano, Steve Talbot, el director documental talentoso, por treinta años.

Steve era agente de la estrella del niño en licencia él al castor, la serie legendaria de la TV; David era el fundador del salón.

Después de celebrar la publicación del libro de David con él, caminé lentamente detrás a través de mi vecindad, maravillándose en la Luna Llena a mi este y a la puesta del sol rosada a mi oeste.


Aquí está alguna estadística para las de ti que piensen que no cuidas sobre números:

el *22.5% (el porcentaje de juegos del solitaire que he ganado en -- 45 de 200)
*.264 (el promedio de batting de mi equipo de béisbol de la fantasía de la mafia del lago mud (MLM))
* 11mo lugar (posición de MLM en la liga de 16 equipos)
* seises (el número de niños que tengo)
* 19 (el número de diversas tarjetas de visita que he tenido desde 1989.

David y yo especulamos sobre cuánto pudo traer mi colección de tarjetas de visita en eBay. Convinimos que podría potencialmente alcanzar las altas uno-figuras. El problema es, yo incluso no sabe cuántos trabajos he llevado a cabo -- se parece ser alrededor 25, algunos de los cuales no vinieron con las tarjetas.

Estoy pensando que si cuento mis años del trabajo y de la universidad de niño, yo he llevado a cabo alrededor 32 trabajos sobre los últimos 48 años. ¿Puede ser que califique para el libro de Guinness de expedientes?

Probablemente no. Pero no contarme hacia fuera. Todavía me no hacen.


Fijado por David Weir en 8:11 P.M. 0 comenta

This work week started with a stomach ache. Not mine, but my 11-year-old son's. As soon as I realized he didn't feel well enough to go to school, this Monday took a different direction.

Thanks to the technologies that bring you this weblog, I can as easily perform my editorial duties as a telecommuter as an actual commuter. So, I did my duty as a parent and also as an environmentalist today by eschewing carbon dioxide emissions in favor of my oldest and favorite hobby -- walking.

When my son started feeling better we walked around the Mission, taking some of our Sidewalk Images . Later, after the workday ended, I walked half a mile toward the Pacific Ocean to meet an old friend at Medjool .

Next Monday, David Talbot's book, Brothers: the Hidden History of the Kennedy Years, about Jack and Bobbie Kennedy, will be published. I've known David and his brother, Steve Talbot, the talented documentary director, for thirty years.

Steve was a child star actor in Leave it to Beaver, the legendary TV series; David was the founder of Salon.

After celebrating the publication of David's book with him, I walked slowly back through my neighborhood, marveling at the full moon to my east and the pink sunset to my west.


Here are some statistics for those of you who think you don't care about numbers:

*22.5% (the percentage of games of solitaire I have won at -- 45 of 200)
*.264 (the batting average of my Mud Lake Mafia (MLM) fantasy baseball team)
* 11th place (MLM's position in the 16 team league)
* six (the number of children I have)
* 19 (the number of different business cards that I have had since 1989.

David and I speculated about how much my collection of business cards might bring on eBay. We agreed it could potentially reach the high one-figures. Problem is, I don't even know how many jobs I have held -- it seems to be around 25, some of which didn't come with cards.

I'm thinking that if I count my child labor and college years, I've held around 32 jobs over the past 48 years. Might I qualify for the Guinness Book of Records?

Probably not. But don't count me out. I'm not done yet.


Sunday, April 29, 2007

Magical beings

I've long been curious about the beings among us too small, fast or otherwise elusive to qualify as "real." It has often bothered me, as a scientific secularist, that I have never been able to dismiss my sense that such creatures indeed exist, somewhere just out of reach of our consciousness.

Recently, exploring a collection of ancient English folktales, I happened upon an extensive list of supernatural beings that have come down to us through the centuries:

...boggles,bloddy-bones,ignis fatui,brownies, bugbears,shelycoats, scrags, breaknecks, fantasms, boggy-boes, dobbies, hobthrusts, fetches, kelpies, warlocks, mock-beggars, mum-pokers, urchins, satyrs, pans, fauns, and on and on, ten times as many names as these.


What else, other than these tiny creatures, can explain the odd twists of fate that define all of our lives?

BTW, the above list, though abridged, forms the basis of several literary classics, including Tolkien's "Hobbit" and the superstar "Harry Potter" series. The authors of these blockbusters simply tapped into our ancient British superstitions to create their fictional worlds.

But as any Scotsman can tell you, verily, there are spirits among us, just outside of our perception, that our language has long tried to document.

All we have are mysterious shadows and unanswered questions. But somewhere deep in our collective soul, we know that magic exists, and that angels watch over us as we fall, urging us to rise again, and tell our stories in a more hopeful vein, one that just might inspire yet another generation to find its magical voice...