Saturday, June 06, 2009

Passages (Real Time)







To live is to be in motion. Even when we are still, we are clinging to a rock that is tumbling and hurtling through space.

Each human culture defines the major passages in its own ways, but birth, graduation, marriage, professional awards, retirement, and death mark some of the major moments in any life.

Today, watching my son and his classmates as they graduated from middle school was one such passage. These kids have grown up so quickly that they sometimes seem to be stretching -- physically, mentally, emotionally -- right before our eyes.

The role of a parent at such times is to stay still and try not to embarrass your child. Knowing it would be impossible for me not to cry, I wore very dark sunglasses.

Mostly, I just bore witness.

All of these kids are remarkable, each in his or her own way. Their school is better than any I've experienced at recognizing a child's true uniqueness. Others claim to do this, and some do, but none does it better than this school.

It helps that we are in San Francisco, where diversity is a positive value broadly celebrated throughout the community. It helps that it is a school established over a quarter century ago by teachers who love to teach.

It helps that the teachers and staff embody racial, cultural, and linguistic diversity; that sexual orientation for students is a safe topic due to the diversity of orientation among teachers and parents.

It helps also that families of all types are represented.

These are not idle truths. These are the cornerstones of a safe, just society.

Watching the children in Golden Gate Park today as, one by one, they stood in front of the gathering to listen as a teacher celebrated them for being who they actually are was life affirming.

We all endure transitions; some are, like today's, sweet and happy. Others are ineffably sad. It's a reminder on the happy occasions that all of it -- all the love and nurturing and caring and dreaming is also a sign of our collective fragility.

I wasn't crying out of strength, nor was it strictly out of happiness for my beautiful son and the lovely words his teacher spoke about him, nor about the deep empathy that defines his character for all who truly know him.

No, mine were the tears of a fragile man, all too aware that, as a parent, there is only so much I can do. We raise our children and then we give them to society, with all of its imperfections, dangers, temptations, and opportunities -- both good and bad.

Some of my tears, frankly, were selfish, the bittersweet feelings of seeing my boy's loss of innocence, of my own shrinking importance in his world. But mostly they were about how quickly we are speeding through our time, all of us together, and how utterly inadequate, as a person and a writer, I will ever be at getting it right.

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Friday, June 05, 2009

When Fathers & Kids Share Moments



You don't have to know or care anything about baseball to appreciate this story. Like in all professional sports, this is no country for old men. In baseball, a 45-year-old pitcher is a rarity.

The San Francisco Giants have one, Randy Johnson. He's also the tallest player, at 6'10", in Major League Baseball. Well, yesterday, during a steady downpour in Washington, D.C., Johnson became the 24th pitcher in history to win his 300th game.

Baseball is about numbers and statistics much more than other sports, and always has been. For over a century, careful records have been kept of the results of game after game. Starting in April, there are 162 regular season games involving the 30 Major League teams every year, plus playoffs that last far into October.

Of the thousands of pitchers to appear in games since baseball's beginnings, only two dozen have persevered long enough and played on good enough teams to rack up so many victories.

Baseball is also a game of rituals, none of which is more revered than the relationships between fathers and sons (and daughters too!) playing catch and going to games together. Yesterday, the Giants' bat boy was Johnson's young son. He wore an official team uniform with his Dad's number (51) and "Johnson" on the back. He stood at the top step of the dugout for the entire game.

When the game was finally over, and the outcome no longer in doubt, father and son appeared together on the field, arms around each other, to acknowledge the crowd roaring "Randy! Randy!"

Watching this on TV, I got chills. What a fantasy for a man and his child! I've never paid too much attention to Johnson's career, other to observe that he's been a remarkable competitor, and still is, long after age and surgeries have taken away what was once his greatest weapon -- a 99 mph fastball.

But yesterday, as a father, and also once a son, I was proud of him.

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Thursday, June 04, 2009

The Greatest of Speeches



President Barack Obama gave a speech today in Cairo, Egypt that will stand out in history as one of the most important speeches of our time. His talk lasted just under an hour, and you can watch it in its entirety at the White House web site.

You should. Everybody should. Many years ago, 40 to be precise, I began living in a Muslim country, Afghanistan. For the next two years, I taught English to Afghan children, and adapted to a village lifestyle that bore scant resemblance to what I had known growing up here.

The poverty was grinding; disease rampant; danger lurked in every drop of water you drank and in every particle of dust that entered your eye. I developed trachoma, which untreated, destroys your pupil, leaving your eye an eerie, sightless white oval. I also had more types of bacterial gastritis that can be described in polite conversation.

These, however, were mere inconveniences compared to what I gained.

I heard prayer calls at dawn and dusk, sung from the mosque by a mullah, whose strong voice, amplified, swept over our valley toward the mountains that enclosed our village.

I ate meals with peasants who were easily the most generous and gracious hosts I have ever encountered. I read the Koran.

These experiences marked me for life. I have never been able to stereotype Muslims because I've known too many. Like people of other faiths, there are good Muslims and bad Muslims.

The overwhelming majority are good -- very good people.

The President's brilliant speech today reaffirmed these simple, but critical truths. As an American who respects and loves my Islamic sisters and brothers, I am grateful to him for delivering one of his greatest speeches in that place at this time.

May his hope for a "new beginning" come true. For it to be, you must help make it to be so. Listen to his words. Hear their meaning. Then, you will be prepared to do your part to change the world.

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Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Book Review: "A Freewheelin' Time" by Suze Rotolo


It's been a while since I've had the opportunity to teach memoir writing, but when I was doing so -- as one part of a course I called "Journalism as Biography" at Stanford, earlier in this decade; and also more recently as an instructor through San Francisco State University's OLLI program, which is dedicated to students over the age of 50, I only wish I had had Suze Rotolo's excellent book to work from.

This book was recommended to me by the literary agent Steve Wasserman, who knows books like I know stories. And the author was represented by Sarah Lazin, a Rolling Stone colleague from the '70s, who also has been, like Steve, an extremely successful representative of fine writers since she left San Francisco in 1977.

Suze Rotolo appears on the book's cover photo as the person she once was -- the very young Bob Dylan's soul mate, in love with him as he became the person he wanted to be. I read her book cover to cover in awe -- not of her story but, as a fellow writer, of her voice.

Near the very end of the book, I underlined one phrase: "The truth lies in the recalled emotion."

If I should happen to get another chance to teach memoir, this will be my starting point. It was in the past, too, but I never put it so eloquently as she has.

Don't bother with this book, BTW, if you are seeking gossip about Dylan's early years, or things of that ilk. Read it, rather, if you want to understand how it felt to be alive and active in Greenwich Village (as well as in other conscious communities) when an entire generation rose up to challenge the old ways that, in the '60s, still held sway.

This is the story of a woman (and women will especially appreciate her writing) who may have been the girlfriend of one of the greatest artists of his generation, but who, in her own, much more modest way, instinctively knew that unless she could find her own way, outside of his massive shadow, she would end up lost, hopelessly.

This is also a story of young love, tender and heart-breaking. It struck me as a modern Romeo and Juliet, actually.

But the main reason I am endorsing this beautiful piece of work is for my students, including any future students, or readers, who may be considering writing a memoir. That may include you.

Please do not underestimate the power of the story you have to tell. Just sharing "the truth (that) lies in recalled emotion" is all you need to get started.

Please do!

Monday, June 01, 2009

Shame on You, Murderous Christian Hypocrites


Throughout my life, nothing has incited my anger as much as a hypocrite. As a boy, going to my mother's place of worship on weekends and seeing how certain people in town acted there, as opposed to how they acted the other six days of the week, sickened me to the depths of my soul.

I resolved by the age of 13 or so, to never, ever practice any religion, and I remain to this day a proud atheist. With the heinous acts committed by these phony believers, including the brutal murder of a health-care provider in his church yesterday by a so-called Christian, egged on by right-wing media screamers who themselves deserve to have their tongues cut out, I now feel justified in denouncing all Christians.

Why? Because all of you, however decent yourselves, have lost your right to claim possession of any portion of truth or wisdom or even faith unless you denounce these murderers in your ranks. You can't have it both ways. Either you vocally denounce this murder, and declare it a deeply anti-Christian act, or you are a hypocrite with blood on your hands.

That blood came from a decent man, a doctor, ironically a practicing Christian, for Christ's sake, and he was murdered in his church! You who remain silent a disgust me, with your self-righteous hypocrisy. By your silence, you are admitting your faith is nothing more than belief in an ignorant, monstrous cult that threatens all who disagree with you.

If you wish salvation, march, yell, scream about the assassination of Dr. George Tiller. Stay silent and you are an accomplice to murder.

In his memory, I repost this sad story of his life on Wikipedia:

Tiller studied at the University of Kansas School of Medicine from 1963 to 1967. Shortly thereafter, he held a medical internship with United States Navy, and served as flight surgeon in Oakland, California in 1969 and 1970. In July 1970 he planned to start a dermatology residency. However on August 21, 1970, his parents, sister and brother-in-law were killed in an aircraft accident. In her will, his sister had requested that Tiller take care of her one-year-old son. Tiller had intended to go back to Wichita, close up his father's family practice and then go back to become a dermatologist. However, he quickly felt pressure to take over his father's family practice. Tiller's father had performed abortions at his practice. After hearing about a woman that had died from an illegal abortion, Tiller stayed in Wichita to continue his father's practice.


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Sunday, May 31, 2009