Saturday, May 16, 2009

Running Backwards

San Mateo

That's what these kids were doing this morning before their soccer game. I have always been fascinated by the concept of "backwards." What if everyone walked backwards?

If you remember the novel, Catch-22, by Joseph Heller, you probably will recall the character Dunbar, whose main goal in life was to try and postpone mortality for as long as possible.

Dunbar had the habit of walking backwards, which I believe was one of his strategies for living longer.

When I was a student at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, for some reason I decided to test out whether walking backwards like Dunbar could help me get into movie theaters for free.

It did, somewhat to my surprise, though I don't think it will have helped me escape either death or taxes, in the end.

This morning, sitting with my fellow soccer moms, watching our girls lose their final game of the season (their 0-5 record included being outscored 29-2) one of the guys said, "Look, here we are, it's a beautiful day, what do we have to complain about?"

True enough, and I don't think any of us were given to complaining in any event. Northern California is again engulfed in a heat wave. The temps reached 95 degrees in the Mission today; and even tonight, down here on the peninsula south of the City is was 85 at sundown.

Before heading south for the night, I watched my son's game at Franklin Square. This was a warm-up contest for the championship game, which will be played there two weeks hence.

I couldn't help feeling angry that my son was having to play injured due to an illegal and vicious foul last Saturday by a kid who has since been suspended by the league for his violent play and racist taunts. His knee is hurting very badly. Tonight he has it iced. Hopefully, he'll be ready for the championship game.

Although limping all through the game, he played very well.

It was a strange, tense game, as the field was ringed by police and undercover agents fearful of gang violence or other consequences from last week's horrible confrontations. I didn't even know the extent of the problem when I blogged about it last weekend.

Even kid's soccer isn't an innocent activity in the inner city. All kinds of pent-up emotions and unfulfilled parental dreams, damaged psyches and misdirected violence hovers over the poor end of town, where I live and where he plays.

It's a hot summer we are having. And there are things I don't like about this. I don't want to become the over-protective parent who tells his boy to avoid walking down certain streets because trouble may be lurking there.

I want all of the kids, even those who so offensively hurt my boy and others last weekend to continue to have the chance to develop fruitful and productive lives. But threats are threats, and the cops know best about that stuff.

Away from the City tonight, maybe I'll try walking backwards for a while. Maybe that can bring some comfort to the afflicted? Even if I am in no position to afflict the comfortable.


Friday, May 15, 2009

The Boy Who Loves Pigeons

"Live in the moment." Easy to say, harder to do.

Moments vary. Some pass quickly; some seem to drone on like a boring lecturer.

Today I got cabin fever. Normally, I'm happy eating my meals at home; posting to my blogs at home, and managing all my parenting tasks from home.

Not today. I felt restless; I needed some action.

It's not always easy being a man. Less than seems to be the case with most women, we often appear to have little control over our bodies or our desires.

When I get restless, at this point of life, I know what it is I need, although I'm not necessarily sure how to get it.

Sometimes music can help; sometimes a visit to an art museum. Sometimes reading a book; other times watching a movie. Then there are the times no substitute, no metaphor will handle the situation.

At times like that I better hope there's a willing friend somewhere nearby; otherwise, I'm a cruiser for a bruiser, trouble waiting to happen, a male on the hunt. It all sounds good but it never works out.


Back to the books and back to the music. Back to the art and back to the garden. Back to the cabin, get ice for the fever. Nothin' is gonna happen, no one is gonna help. You gotta just suck it up and move on, man.


Thursday, May 14, 2009

High School: Then and Now

High School.

Just the words bring back some horrible memories for many of us. And, maybe, some happier sentiments as well.

I attended Bay City Central High School in Bay City, Michigan.

In the '60s, it hosted a monstrously huge population of young Baby Boomers. There were way too many of us for any existing facility. We jammed the classrooms, strained the capacity of the school to manage us, and overwhelmed the community's ability to understand us.

That was then.

Now, I have a 14-year-old boy who's trying to choose between two public high schools here in San Francisco. He and I spent our morning visiting one of them, and as we did so, I was suddenly transported back through the decades.

Our hosts were a charming African-American lady, a charming young woman (a freshman) who looked to be Eurasian, and a very quiet but charming young black man who is an aspiring wide receiver of the school's football team.

Various other folks, of every ethnicity, came and went during the hours we spent discussing the school's programs and my son's possible presence there starting next August. This school is a reflection of our City: 53% Asian, 22% Latino, 6% Black, and 6% White. If you are keeping track, that leaves a final 13% for the most beautiful of all races, the mixed-race, "ethnic cuties."

It was only when, after our meeting, the freshman girl took my son and I on a tour of the school, that we discovered how tiny she was. She could not have been even 5 feet tall, though she is rich with personality.

My boy, shyly, followed her around the school, a full foot taller than her. Like all teens, they shared a number of characteristics, including unwanted braces, unwanted pimples, and very little desire to draw too much attention to themselves.

The thing that surprised me afterward was the way he hugged me, and thanked me for being there with him. The thing that didn't surprise me was that he said that he really liked the kids he met.


Wednesday, May 13, 2009


One over-arching question hangs over all of our heads, demanding an answer: "Where's the fudge?"

Another way to think about this problem is to consider the concept of the mid-life crisis. One day, you're going along as usual, living your own life the way you've been living it, not bothering anybody, not questioning too much, when all of the sudden you get struck by a psychic meteor.

You suddenly are staggeringly perplexed. Nobody and nothing looks the same. An impermeable, clear membrane has wrapped itself around you like an alien from another planet. You can't get out and nobody else can get in.

It's just you with yourself in a way that you've never been before. It doesn't matter if you are man, woman, or both; whether you are rich, poor, or middle class (although I'm not sure middle is still an option); big, small, or average; none of these things matter when a MLC hits.

Even psychopaths apparently go through mid-life transitions. At least that's what I read between the lines in Dave Cullen's fascinating study, "Columbine."

I mentioned last week that I had to stop reading this book while waiting in a jury room when a suspicious visitor inexplicably entered the chamber, sat for a few moments, then left a book on a table in the center of the room, before exiting the facility. Cullen's account of the mass murders at Columbine High School had so agitated me that I had to put it away that day and turned to another fascinating new book, "Outliers: The Story of Success" by Malcolm Gladwell.

On Monday, flying across the country, my airplane encountered turbulence just as I was reading Gladwell's chapter on why certain nationalities produce most of the pilots who end up at the controls when passenger jets crash, so I set his book aside and turned back to Cullen's.

Cullen writes that even psychopaths, those tragic and dangerous genetic defections who do not have the ability to access the normal range of human emotions like empathy, sympathy, kindness, shame, regret, and love can cause some of them, including the main killer at Columbine, to turn into monster killers, rapists, assassins and mass murderers -- but that even these people often go through a transition where by age 50 or so, they develop coping mechanisms that allow them to exist side by side with their fellow human beings without causing anyone any harm.

Switching back to Gladwell's book, it is packed with so many insights into why certain people succeed at virtually any task while others fail that I think every parent (or concerned citizen) should read this book as soon as you can. The cause of success, in his telling, and backed by solid social science, may shock you.

It's mainly about when you were born (which month of the year), what your ethnic heritage is, and how hard you work (obsess) at something. It doesn't really matter whether we are talking about sports, business, inventions, or art, the same rules apply.

Why? Because, in order to organize themselves, societies choose arbitrary cut-off dates to define which child qualifies for which level of whatever activity (s)he applies for -- in sports, or in schools, or in any other regulated area of life.

If the cut-off date is January 1, for example, in sports, most of the adults who reach the professional level will have birth dates in January, February, or March. Almost no professional sports stars in that society will have been born in October, November, or December.

The reason is that all along the way, at every successive level of development, the older, bigger kids in the cohort will shine while the smaller, younger kids will seem less impressive in the eyes of coaches who judge them not by their current level of physical, mental or emotional development, but by their comparative ability on the court or field.

It is an unequal playing field, and the younger kids get penalized again and again until in the end they get discouraged, drop out, and leave their dreams behind. This is not only a personal but a social tragedy. We all lose in the process, because we have mindlessly created a self-fulfilling prophesy about who is "best" among us.

It is not about inherent ability, nor is it about IQ. It is, most centrally, about our arbitrary divisions of time.

Please read this book and let me know what *you* think.


Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Texas Morning + Arizona Afternoon = California Night

I had to blink twice from my hotel window this morning as I realized just how close to Minute Maid Park, the home of the Houston Astros, I was.

Not for long. It was another day on the road. By mid-afternoon, we were landing at Phoenix.

All parts of this continent interest me, but the air smells sweeter here at home, in the Bay Area. I'm too tired to write anything of value tonight, I'm spent, but I am happy to report that our Giants are starting to look like a winning baseball team this year, for the first time in years.


Monday, May 11, 2009

Wet Moon Over Texas

Here in downtown Houston tonight, the air is humid and everything's closed. Houston is not what you'd call a late-night city. It ain't New York, where I've been spending much time lately.

But this is a place that evokes memories -- of a long ago media tour when I was a Rolling Stone reporter, the place my older sister and her family lived for a while, the city that welcomed refugees post-Katrina from New Orleans, which is just down the road.

It's also across the Gulf of Mexico from those Florida islands that shaped so many of my fantasies and fueled so much of (as-yet) unpublished fiction -- Sanibel and Captiva.

People not from around here like to diss Houston. I don't know, it probably wouldn't make my top fifty cities in the U.S., but then again, I've known some nice guys who came from here, and it was the corporate setting for the hero in that great movie, Local Hero, about the oil industry exec who also was a star-gazer, and who in the end spared a scenic Scottish coastal village the ruin of becoming a new petrochemical port -- even after all the residents decided they wanted to be pillaged by the rich Americans.

Every city has its virtues.

I'm perfectly happy to be in Houston tonight, breathe its humid air, gaze at our common moon floating high above the mighty Gulf, and wondering about the forces that send us here and there, stirring old memories, establishing new ones.

Journalists have a saying: "Dead men can't sue." What that means, of course, is that you can write with impunity about a dead person, since (s)he has no standing in court that would allow you to be sued for slander, defamation, slander.

The problem is, who wants to slander a dead person?

Not me, for one. After all, I am the superstitious type. The dead may well have other ways of getting back at a mere journalist with a nasty-spirited pen. Better to let the dead rest in peace and aim your arrows at those living whose actions hurt others in unconscionable ways.

Journalism, to me and many, is all about social justice, righting wrongs, making power accountable, giving voice to the voiceless. These are lofty goals, but we are imperfect vehicles for pursuing them.

Because all we are is people, as likely to err as any other person. The arrogance of some journalists puzzles me.

But it exists, and maybe that's one of the reasons why their chosen outlets stand threatened with bankruptcy tonight.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Drive Down Memory Lane

Do you like road trips? Of course you do. Any American, or anyone in America, gets excited by the prospect of driving down an open highway, even as we grow more conscious of the need to reduce our collective carbon footprint.

In that spirit, today's vehicle, courtesy of Zip, was a Honda Fit.

I love driving along El Camino Real south from San Francisco. Not only does it present a time capsule from days long gone, it also reflects the kind of ethnic diversity that makes me proud to be an American.

After lunch at the newly reopened Santa Ramen, I got a chance to play with one of my favorite two-year-old friends.

She and I share very few words. She mainly speaks Japanese. But this tiny little person is an expert communicator. We understand each other; words are for the most part unnecessary. Her parents are just one of the couples I know in the Bay Area struggling to persist during an awful era of discrimination against immigrants by the Department of Homeland Security.

(Note to President Obama: Change this name. We don't need Orwellian institutions in our country.)

Not to throw a wet paper towel on this possibly meaningful conversation, but this is what a wet paper towel looks like at my house.

Every decent writer knows when to throw in the towel. That is the moment that you realize you have absolutely nothing useful left to say. For me, that would