Saturday, March 22, 2008

"Modeling Skills"

Not recommended for kids without said skills, read the box on the $40 plastic model M1025Humvee that Dylan and I bought today. He's only built two other models, and none in the past year, but he definitely has the hand-eye coordination, the focus, and perhaps most importantly, the patience required to assemble this elaborate model vehicle.

It's been something we've been intending to do for many months some Saturday (buy a model), but with soccer games and birthday parties and play dates and shoe shopping and science projects and illnesses, we never got to it until today.

And what a journey it was. Relying on my memory (never a good idea), we first searched the length of Ocean Avenue, then West Portal, then Irving -- all good guesses -- but none of them yielded the desired (and fondly remembered) model shop that used to exist somewhere out there.

Finally, I gave up on the Sunset and drove over to the Richmond, to the Hobby Shop on Geary Blvd. that Dylan's oldest brother used to enjoy. Here, we found the military vehicle of his choice. It will take many weeks, I suspect, for this model to be completed.

That's okay. He likes elaborate products, like big books. I hadn't realized just how far his historical readings have transported him from the norm for 11-year-olds until he told me that for a school project he happened to mention the leaders from World War Two (Stalin, Hirohito, Mussolini, Hitler, Roosevelt, and Churchill) that no one else in his class had ever heard of anyone except Hitler.


Friday, March 21, 2008

A Certain Kind of Light

Late afternoon in this prematurely warm spring weather, with the grass so green from the rains and the new buds on every tree (even my apple tree), it's the season for kids playing sports outdoors.

One of the first times I became conscious of this particular type of light was in 1969, half a world from here, in Afghanistan.

The sun must have been hitting Central Asia that fall at a similar angle to what is bathing us in light this spring in San Francisco. It's warm enough that sunbathers are out, tank tops are on, and everyone's sneezing from pollens in our air.

Our perceptions of light seem like all other sensory inputs -- capable of stirring memories. We've been here before...a bird is flying far overhead, the sky is deep blue, a far away airplane growls lazily, some small kids are racing about in the foreground, their bodies so perfect and still growing.

An old person walking a dog lifts her head briefly from its usual position pointed southward. She smiles. With the effort, her ancient eyes have spotted a kindred soul. An old man is out of breath from walking ever so slightly uphill. He holds his chest, his face grows red, he is wondering how much longer he must endure these chest pains, and hopes, "not long."

A tiny boy, with golden hair, runs onto the practice soccer field, grabs a ball and kicks it joyfully toward the sideline.

A little girl (mine) takes a ball kicked into her stomach, briefly cries, then returns to the game.

Later, she scores.

Two teenage friends play backyard basketball at a furious pace. When they miss shots, they yell loud expletives. I contemplate whether to intervene. Perhaps a neighbor would be offended?

I decide not to. I was a teenager myself once, and despite my great age, I remember the feelings. Best to let it go.

Later, driving my athletes to their soccer practices, way across town, the boys are talking about what a weird year it has been at their school.

First, the apparent sexual predator who kept trying to talk to girls through the fence
around the playground, and who then turned up at the front door one day, trying to convince one particular girl that her mom had sent him to pick her up.

(He's in jail now.)

Then, the boy, somewhat troubled, who got angry at a classmate and was apparently trying to choke her to death until my youngest son intervened, angrily pulling him off his intended victim.

(This boy has since left the school.)

Today, a boy allegedly with "learning disabilities," who has been a major part of the school for years, announced he is leaving. He's been doing badly in academics and now will try home schooling with a tutor.

The place his Dad works recently was shut down, as well. Could that be a factor?

My kids are privileged to live in one of the great cities on the planet, and to attend a school founded by teachers whose top priority always seems to be their students. But, like so many other families in America, we too are now seriously threatened financially.

Ever since my boss scheduled a "check-in" with me last September, which turned out to be a "check-out" for me, I have struggled to patch together a living to support my family. I have pretty much failed in this regard.

Although I try not to look at my bank account and retirement account balances at times like these, when everything for everybody has lost so much value across the board, it is impossible to remain ignorant forever.

Accordingly, yesterday and today I have assessed my personal financial damage during this downturn, and the bloodshed is terrifying. My "net worth" has largely evaporated; once again, the sacrifices from a lifetime of hard work, a heavy bias toward saving, and self discipline on the expense side has evaporated in the wake of a financial tsunami created by unscrupulous real estate agents, mortgage brokers, and ignorant home-buyers.

The government, meanwhile, is bailing out corruptly mismanaged companies like Bear Stearns, while ignoring all the working families who are losing their homes, however unwisely acquired.

"For Sale" signs are sprouting up all over this city, and most other cities.

None of this can be rationalized, unless you believe in a combination of unfettered capitalism and social Darwinism.

I don't want to embrace those philosophies, but if this recession drives my family out of our chosen home city, I'll have no other option to conclude that this society no longer has any kind of heart.

The answer actually is blowing in the wind, Mister Zimmerman.


Thursday, March 20, 2008

Back to First Principles

So, all of the polls now indicate that Sen. Obama's lead is shrinking and perhaps even disappearing after the revelations that the pastor of his church in Chicago vented his anger with rhetoric that many white (though no black) people may consider anti-American.

Give me a break. Have any of those taking this preacher's words literally ever attended a black church?

Let me tell you a story. Forty years ago, I visited the Clayborne Temple in Memphis, Tennessee. I heard some similar rhetoric, anger against America, launched by various preachers. They were organizing the last protest march Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., would ever lead, before he was assassinated by a white racist.

Racism is and always has been the ugliest thing about this country.

Preachers like Obama's play a useful service by blowing off the steam that still seethes within the black communities, but they never, ever incite any kind of violence with their words.

Why? Because their sermons are all about helping people to cope.

The main civil rights movement has always been about peaceful non-violence. Words matter, but actions matter more.

I continue to support Sen Obama as the best candidate to lead my country going forward. I hope the current racist blowback he is experiencing will dissipate, but that can only happen if those white people still defensive about these issues think deeply.

Do they really want to revert to a time when prejudice ruled and ignorance prevailed?

I hope not. Now, finally, is the time to let go of our collective racist past and embrace the potential of a multi-racial future, where little black kids and little Latino kids and little white kids and little Asian kids and all other races might join together and celebrate the spirit of Dr. King with the words of that old Negro spiritual:

"Free at last. Free at last. Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!"


Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Happy Princesses?

(Dolls obviously designed by males.)

It's natural enough, I suppose, for a father with three daughters and three sons to think about the differences in raising girls and boys.

As a dad, I've always been drawn to any article based in scientific studies that quantifies our different (and largely unconscious) choices in how we treat little kids, based on their gender.

Many studies have documented that girls get many more hugs and kisses and affectionate nicknames like "sweetie," "princess," "pretty," "darling," "cutie," and "baby" than do boys.

All too often, traditionally, boys are slapped on the back, given "high fives," or punched in the stomach by men who call them "dude," "little man," "killer," "boss," "superstar," or "big guy."

I'm trying (imperfectly, of course) to remain gender-blind most of the time. I hug, kiss, and tell my little kids they are all "pretty," "sweet," and "beautiful."

Maybe I've had it with the life of being a man in a male-dominated culture. Why raise more problematic males soaked in the sexist soup that I experienced, albeit unwillingly and unsuccessfully when I was a child.

I always hated being among only men -- and I cannot imagine what it would have been like to be in the Army or a sports team. It's not that I don't like my male friends -- I do.

It's just that when we are alone with ourselves, sometimes it seems like the prejudices of the ages rain down on us like a toxic brew. We smell bad; we talk trash; and we rarely help improve the human prospect when females are absent from our lives.

Just to be clear, I'd never chose to be only surrounded by women, either. All that chatter! So many tears! So much drama!

Wow, I sound like an old man now, but I suppose that's appropriate enough. As long as the balance of genders remains in place, I can tolerate the human race...for a while longer, at least.


Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Honoring Dan Noyes

Thirty-plus years ago, in the fall of 1977, a small group of us established a non-profit institution devoted to investigative journalism, and we called it the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR).

Our first office was in downtown Oakland, and there were just three of us who moved in the desks, brought in some files, got phone service, and set up shop. One was Tamara Baltar, our first administrator. The other two were Dan Noyes, pictured here, and myself.

Business was slow, at first. After all, there was no precedent for this kind of organization, so nobody knew what to make of us. In the early weeks, as we began preparing research for some of our first investigative projects, local citizens would occasionally drop by to check us out.

I remember one rather well appointed lady who came in, sat down next to my desk, and asked whether I could arrange to have her husband followed. (She suspected he was having an affair.)

Once I determined her husband was not a public figure, I referred her to a private eye.

Meanwhile, Dan, Tamara and I built an institution. Others were involved to be sure, but Dan was always at the center of our Center.

Tonight, it was my privilege to be present at a ceremony hosted by the Society of Professional Journalists, Northern California Chapter, as they awarded Dan a Career Achievement Award, now he has retired from CIR.

Most of those present tonight, honoring Dan, don't know his secret nickname that those of us who played with him on the legendary Michigan Mafia softball team used: Boomer.

Yep, Dan was one of the greatest home run hitters we ever had in the Bay Area Media Softball League (BAMSL).

And, as any baseball player knows, there are those who are flashy and those who are clutch.

Dan was always clutch. Whether on deadline on a big story together at CIR, or trying to pull out a win on the softball field, my (irregular) heart always beat a little more steadily when I saw Dan Noyes on deck.

Congratulations, Dan! You deserve it.


Monday, March 17, 2008

How to know you are not rich

The wretched Bush Recession, as it will eventually come to be known (you heard it here first), is driving middle-class Americans crazy. With the exception of tenured professors, wealthy family scions, and those few working under union protection, most Americans now are becoming worried.

Our jobs often are on the edges of an economy that is ever-changing and morphing. Our financial obligations, especially home mortgages, turn out to have dangerous land mines hidden deep in the fine print.

Our credit cards extract double-digit interest rates that amount to usury.

("The rich ruleth over the poor, and the borrower is servant to the lender" -- Proverbs 22:7.)

These are the kinds of times when people go into migration. If it is too expensive to remain where you are, maybe you should seek a cheaper place.

Who wants to give all their earnings away to banks, lenders and cheats?

Hit the road! That soon will be the cry of families all over America who can no longer tolerate the expense burden of remaining in their cities of choice.

People in motion. A good thing.

Meanwhile, for the rich, these are good times. One family's tragic loss of their home is a golden opportunity for those with the resources to buy it cheap -- as an investment. Because, of course, we'll be back. When times improve, like during tidal changes, the life forms that exist on the edges return, to be lured by the ownership class into once again becoming over-extended, and barely aware that the good times will soon enough turn into bad times, in capitalism's endless cycle.

Such is life for most of us in George W. Bush's America.

p.s. See you somewhere along on the road, brother...


Sunday, March 16, 2008

Material Girls and Immaterial Lives

My early Sunday morning walk, before this city was stirring, confirmed that spring cleaning time has come.

Around here, people just put whatever they no longer want out on the sidewalk and wait for somebody else to haul it away.

There's always plenty of electronic junk: computers, radios, speakers, circuit boards, and the like.

Wow, it wasn't a good night for shoes! Or, if you prefer, it sure was a good morning for shoes!

Household items, like ironing boards, refrigerators, microwave ovens, dishes, pans, and silverware abound.

When ever I see these cast-offs, I can't help but think back to the "iron bazaar" in Taloqan, Afghanistan, circa 1969-71, when any piece of metal was recrafted into a new, usable item like a pot.

Or, the "broken dish bazaar," where chipped and shattered pottery pieces were patiently stitched back together.

I even came upon a cast-off, back-lit knock-off of The Last Supper.

This was a downright eerie find so close to Easter.

This I salvaged, took home and cleaned up for display in the bedroom window in what used to be the kids' room, but these days is our storage facility.


Remember when those T-shirts -- "Born to Shop" -- were so popular with young women not so long ago?

They should have been followed up with a sequel -- "Born to Throw It all Away."

This is not a knock on females; I'm certain that American males throw away even more stuff, including bigger stuff like the electronics mentioned above, plus the occasional car, boat, motorcycle, machine gun or tank; not to mention their most precious relationships.

It's just that as I was walking around this cluttered town, I had a vision.

In this vision, the surviving artisans in Central Asia, who have preserved their ability to eek out a living from the scraps discarded by their ruling classes, will prove to be better suited to the dismal future awaiting all humans on earth than our middle-class families here, grown so soft and vulnerable.

I utterly reject and hate Little Bush's pathetic description of our time as a "war of civilizations," but I do know this much.

No Muslim throws away a religious artifact the way one of my careless neighbors so heedlessly cast off his multi-media Jesus.

Forgive me for hearing the following song in my head:

"Thank You Jack White (For the Fiber-Optic Jesus That You Gave Me.)"

-- The Flaming Lips


That seems to be a fitting enough way to close this particular post. Except for this: What the hell was I referring to by mentioning immaterialism in the title above?

Courtesy of Wikipedia, I was simply referencing my old philosopher friend, the immortal George Berkeley:

Immaterialism is the theory propounded by Bishop Berkeley in the 18th century which holds that there are no material objects, only minds and ideas in those minds. Berkeley summarized his theory with the motto "esse est percipi" ("To be is to be perceived.")

See, this is how our dear town of Berkeley, CA. got its name. (A little known fact.) No wonder people there are always acting out!