Saturday, November 17, 2007

Full House

Have you ever had more to say than can be said? If there were enough words in the English language, in its current iteration, to express your thoughts and feelings at those moments, they would start rushing out of your mouth (or your fingers) with the power of the rapids of one of our Western rivers -- a power that can easily kill a man.

Can a story survive the death of the story-teller?

Of course, that is a no-brainer. But why are some of us so driven to indulge in this weird art form? What is the urgency we feel, especially as we grow older, and the shadows expand as the sunlight retracts? What is it we want to tell as if it were our last story?


Today, I had the parental pleasure of attending my 13-year-old son's end of season soccer party, in a big, lovely house that was built in the 1920s. The architect was a man who paid attention to the smallest of details, dictating in his plans what kind of doorknob would appear on every single door.

I told the current owner, our host today, how his house makes me feel. Although I am neither a design nor an architectural expert, I am very sensitive to my surroundings, and always have been. So what I told Richard is that his house makes me feel at peace, as if all the elements were so well integrated that we could never feel out of place, so to speak.

The soccer coach, a lovely fellow named Kevin, gave each of the players a team patch and said a few words about each boy and his attributes. When he got to Aidan he called him "the best pure athlete" on his team. Naturally, I swelled with fatherly pride. This boy has played sports since he was very small. Now he is rapidly rising to my height and beyond. I've watched him play soccer, baseball, basketball, cross-country, and many pickup games like kickball, dodgeball, and a host of others.

I have always been in awe of his speed, grace, strength, and that ineffable sense of presence he projects in these games. Most of all, I admire his sportsmanship. Win or lose, after competing with all of his heart, he shakes hands, walks off, and invariably tells me, "That was fun."

Of course! Games are meant to be fun. But in this, and other, societies, games are also big business. I cannot help but notice how many of the best athletes at the collegiate and professional levels are falling injured these years. Could it be that our immune systems are weakening? If so, the first victims would be our young athletes, getting hurt in ways that didn't used to happen.

I've never seen even a whisp of this idea in any media forum, so if this strikes you as possibly true, please recall later that you first read it here.


Well, dear reader, I am sorry to say that my consulting business has not yet proved to be very successful. I've come to realize that my whole adult life has been devoted to being a loyal employee of this company or that. Maybe I don't even know how to build my own business?

Certainly, self-promotion is not a strength.

Meanwhile, as our phsyical world continues to fall apart, each of us may wish to begin to ask, paraphrasing JFK:

Ask not what your planet can do for you. Ask what you can do for your planet."


Friday, November 16, 2007

Visions All Around

On a day when my only significant accomplishments seem to have been getting my passport photo taken and my application for my passport renewal mailed, I've been indulging in a little time travel -- back to previous passport eras, if you will.

My first overseas trip came late in 1969 and it was a doozy. We flew from New York to Tehran. It was a long flight, obviously, and one of my very first times on a commercial airliner. I'd flown in small planes; one of my college roommates was a pilot, and he sometimes flew us to Big Ten football games on the road. I was a sports writer at that time, and ultimately Sports Editor of The Michigan Daily.

The well-traveled line was that the sports staff was the most radical part of the entire Daily staff, which was probably true. Most of us viewed sports, no matter how much we loved them, within a larger political-economic-social context. We investigated allegations of racism and other aspects of the Michigan athletic behemoth that revealed less than flattering similarities to society at large.

Our work led to the university's first-ever censure from the NCAA, a shocking development for its time. Of course, it was nothing compared to the awful scandal that brought U-M's basketball tradition to its knees -- the gifts to the "Fab Five" players in the '90s who, briefly, were the most talented, flashiest class of freshmen and then sophomores in college basketball history.

The university, under pressure from the NCAA, may have over-reacted, to put it mildly, by renouncing the championships and NCAA final appearances by the Fab Five. To this day, the program has not recovered.

I wonder whether there were any Daily sports editors in the '90s who could have helped prevent this disaster by doing their job as journalists better before the errors became irreversible.

The worst word I ever heard a coach utter was the n-word. It shocked me then and it shocks me to this day. The coach that said it was a southerner, who recruited and coached black players, apparently successfully. Not long after he said that to me, he left the university for a place he found more compatible.

I never even published what he said, because I was looking into whether there might be a pattern of discrimination that could be attached to his time at Michigan, as opposed to what might have been a slip of tongue. There didn't seem to be a pattern, and I was debating whether to reveal what he said when he abruptly announced his departure for distant pastures.


From Tehran, I took my second international flight, to Kabul. Soon, Michigan sports and U.S. political issues were distant concerns, as we settled into an unsettled part of Afghanistan stuck in many ways back in Marco Polo's time. The Great Silk Road to China. That's where we lived.

But that's another story.


Thursday, November 15, 2007


As the father of six, I preside over a large family of baseball fans, San Francisco Giants fans specifically. Over the years, the player who gave us the most thrills was Barry Bonds. One or more of us were at most of the games when he hit his biggest home runs, numbers 600, 660, 700, 715, and 756. We were there the night he hit his last at home, number 761.

He did hit one more after that, on the road, and now it it seems virtually certain that he will never get the chance to add to his all-time record of 762.

Because today in San Francisco, a federal grand jury indicted Bonds of perjury and obstruction of justice, alleging he lied when he testified under oath years ago about his involvement in the steroids scandal that has shaken baseball to its core.

It took four years but the feds finally got their man. Bonds may wiggle out of getting convicted, but I doubt it. I've read dozens of similar indictments and the evidence against Bonds is pretty strong.

Perhaps he will try to plea-bargain, but it's probably too late for that. He could plead guilty and avoid a trial, but he'd probably be sent to federal prison either way.

Only by winning acquittal does Bonds stand any chance of regaining a small shred of his reputation. The tragedy of this has been noted by many others. With or without steroids, Bonds was one of the greatest hitters in history, and the greatest of his era.

For most of his career, by all accounts, he steered clear of what are called "performance-enhancing drugs." But the evidence suggests that in order to keep up with the McGwires and Sosas and Giambis and Cansecos and Palmieros and all of the other leading sluggers of his time, Bonds finally succumbed to the temptation late in his career.

Then, caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place, as the news began to leak out, he pulled a Bill Clinton and tried to talk his way around the problem. Trouble is he was under oath.

I envision an extremely sad day ahead, when Bonds goes into prison, and MLB strips him of all his records and honors, bans him from the game forever, and denies him a place in the Hall of Fame. He is already the poster boy for those who hate cheaters, and his arrogant selfishness and surly attitude has not served him well.

In this part of the world, we know there is another side to Barry Bonds -- sensitive, caring, compassionate, loyal, even kind. All human beings are complicated. Those who wanted to break Barry Bonds, for whatever motives, appear to have succeeded. For all his success, wealth, fame, and talent, he looks to be headed for a bitterly tragic end.


Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Fantasies of Home

Every day seems to bring surprises, as long as we are paying attention. Today, walking along the sidewalk, I spotted some movement from a dash of color out of the corner of my eye.

It was (for me) an unprecedented sight: A resting hummingbird, with magnificent purple and green colors and a long black beak. We feared it was sick or injured. Just a couple days ago, I asked rhetorically, "Do hummingbirds ever land?"

Today the answer was given to me. This little bird took off and flew into a tree across the street. So that settles that.

Tonight, we attended a reading by the brilliant Valerie Miner, whose recent novel After Eden, was the focus of tonight's event. Valerie's theme, both in the book and in her talk, was the meaning of "home."

I realized, as I drove back to my modest flat here in the Mission, where there have been two holdups (and one shooting) on our block recently, how much I am invested in my current home.

However, I know from experience that I can easily adapt to some new home, once the opportunity presents itself. I've lived in about 25 different homes already. Much like that hummingbird, who knows the beauty of going tree to tree, I am well aware of the sweetness of change.

One life, many homes.

photos by Junko Sasaki


Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Half-Empty or Half-Full?

Not to give away too much information about a book my Japanese companion will be writing over the coming year, but a strange biological fact she claims to be true is that when we are eating, we initially feel "full" when we've eaten about 80% of what is available to us. If we stop at that moment, we'll never be fat.

In other words, according to her, our bodies telegraph subtle signals, which we may obey or deny, that we've eaten enough of whatever is before us, no matter how deliciously tempting, and regardless of the social consequences of leaving the rest on our plate.

In our culture here in the U.S., we have long since adopted the habit of eating everything that we are served. Thanks to the influence of our parents/grandparents/great-grandparents (depending how old we are), we Americans still carry the collective biological memory of the Great Depression of the 1930's.

In my own case, I was born just a decade or so after the Depression started to ease up, thanks to President FDR's "New Deal," and a national economy that started recovering courtesy of massive new government programs. Then came the economic explosion triggered by World War Two, and in its aftermath, a period of global supremecy, whereby every American got his or her chance to actually become rich.

But the point of all this is that I, as the child of parents who lived through the Great Depression, was never allowed to leave the table until I had eaten everything on my plate. No matter how disgusting, as is the case with all children, I found certain foods.

Still, I and my fellow Boomers were never known for obesity. Then, as the age of Fast Food arrived, combined with TV and the ever-more seductive though sedentary options of the Home Entertainment System era, which continues unabated, many of us started to gain weight.

Many of our kids began to gain weight.

Go to any typical American restaurant, Fast Food or not, and you're likely to be served a portion for breakfast, lunch or dinner that is far more than you really need to eat. You can feel the flicker of the 80% factor, but then, of course, the waiter brings out the dessert options.

Hell, I know what I am talking about. I reached the size of an NFL linebacker, albeit a "small" one, by loving food so much and by not leaving anything uneaten. For way too long now.

But, since my companion has introduced me to the 80% rule, I am learning to pay new attention to when my body indicates it's time to stop, as opposed to my eyes. You see, our eyes really can be bigger than our stomachs!

It's up to us to know when that has happened and act accordingly.

(Submitted, lovingly, as we enter the gluttonous Holiday period.)


Monday, November 12, 2007

Patterns of a Day

No two days ever being the same, none of us can predict with certainty what tomorrow will bring. It's Monday night in San Francisco, with some chill and a cloud cover trying to erase the memory of a warmish day.

Somehow, I'd missed that this was a holiday. Materials and messages and bills I'd prepared to mail will now have to wait until another day.

I'm always reading one book or another these unhurried days; currently it's The World Without Us by Alan Weisman. You could easily imagine from the author's premise -- that humans as a species may well vanish, and if so, the planet would ultimately regain its ecological balance, free at last of our self-destructive activities -- as a big downer.

But I find this book strangely comforting.

Of course, like every conscious being, I'd love to imagine always being alive, able to enjoy these special pleasures like watching my children develop, my grandchildren grow, my students succeed, my plants grow, and the stunning visual beauty of life on earth in its many forms continue to mutate and evolve.

On the other hand, death will eventually quiet my need to know about things that I find so hurtful...torture, rape, genocide, violence, cruelty, the breaking of so many hearts and the shattering of so many dreams.

photo by Brian Castagne

In that way, it is wonderful to read this writer's vision of how the surviving plants and animals after we depart will replant and repopulate this ruined planet that appears to be our lasting human legacy.

Of course, with our brains, it is still conceivable that we will somehow avoid the inevitable and survive another few hundred years, or even longer. But at this moment in our common story, the outlook is not good.

Most of us alive now will live out our lives not having to deal directly with the looming threats presented by global warming, but our grandchildren will not enjoy that luxury. If, as seems probable, a shrinking human population facing overwhelming ecological threats divides one against the other, hoarding precious dwindling resources, seeking what little fertile higher ground remains as the oceans rise and reclaim most of the places we now live, with mutating microbes decimating our numbers that will make the plagues of the Dark Ages a quaint memory, horrible consequences await our descendants.

It is easy to make out the outlines of a future where armed tribes hunt down and eat each other; where resurgent species of predators wait for us to weaken and die as we relentlessly roam from place to place, seeking water, food, and shelter.

It can all so easily happen, yet most of us live in a constant state of denial. It is time to change all that. Please read this book.


Sunday, November 11, 2007

No Secrets

It seems that when people think of me, what they usually find remarkable is that I have so many children. I am not poor, nor am I Catholic. Neither of my wives ever took those drugs that yield twins. No one would ever mistake me for the touchy-feely type, you know, the guys with drawstring pants, Birkenstocks, and front packs.

Nope, sorry to say, I've always been the macho type. You know, a sports fan, an investigative reporter familiar with the insides of bars, a competitive athlete, and the rest of that kind of baggage.

On the other hand, my truth is I have always been more interested in listening to people than telling my stories. Not that I am shy; I'm not, though I was until somewhere around age 20. It's just that I am a natural reporter, more interested in collecting stories than discovering my own.

On the other hand, as I age, I've become more aware of how many aspects of my own life might prove useful to others. The trick is to tell the truth, the emotional truth, under my own name. I hate anonymous writing. It hides all manners of sins.

In fact, when people post comments on community sites whilst hiding their true identities, I feel sorry for them.

Say what you believe or what you feel and say it in the naked glare of your true identity. I yearn for a day when this medium, the Internet, evolves to the point that to speak carries the responsibility to do so as yourself.

Really, none of us have anything to fear, if we tell the truth. No secrets.