Friday, March 19, 2010

Nothing But Beauty Tonight

There's a baby artichoke growing in our backyard.

Everything else here is growing as well. It's spring.

My life has been in a transitional stage so long I can't remember when things felt stable around me. Everything is in flux; as I find something to hold onto, it soon gets swept away.

Most of what has been most difficult has been professional. My career has been a means to support my family the past 38 years. It has been rough at times, but I always found ways to use whatever skill I had as a writer, editor or manager to pay the bills.

In recent years this has become tougher and tougher. The economy is bad, yes, but the basic platforms where people like me made money in the past have also been evolving in ways that render us increasingly marginal, from the perspective of those who decide these things.

I've always been on the edge of journalism, of course, but there was a time when my edge was a bigger slice than it is now.

But those are simply the reflections of someone engaged in an increasingly difficult struggle to continue supporting his children by doing what he does best. Maybe endings sometimes come in springtime; certainly in my past painful personal breakups occurred in this season. (Jobs usually ended in the fall and winter.)

My second marriage ended in the spring of 2003; my girlfriend left for the Gulf Coast, never to return in the spring of 2006.

But none of this matters to me tonight; all I have seen today is beauty -- the loveliness of new things growing in the yard; my children at week's end.

Others things may soon pass, the signs suggest; but I feel serene tonight that I have done my best and there will always be things I cannot change.

Meanwhile, I'll stay focused on new life, its patterns and colors. On hope.


Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Thin Line Between Security and Helplessness

The blowout happened as I was driving alone on the freeway headed north at rush hour. By the time I'd navigated my car over to the shoulder, the left rear tire was shredded.

After "roadside assistance" arrived, I traveled the rest of the way home feeling like a tin duck in a shooting alley. Going 45 mph, the maximum allowed, with one of those tiny wagon wheels that passes for a modern spare tire, and my emergency lights flashing, I limped 15 miles among SUVs and pickups weaving in and out at speeds up to twice mine.

It almost felt miraculous to survive.

All of my adult life, few things have made me feel more vulnerable than car trouble. First in Michigan, then here in California, I've lived in places where it's impossible to get to where I have to go and do the things I have to do without having a reliable vehicle to get me there.

A little over six years ago, around Christmas 2003, I bought a new car for the first (and probably only) time in my life. At the time, new at the business of living alone after the breakup of my marriage, I felt the need for whatever measure of security a new car might provide.

So I went to a dealer and bought the first car I saw.

It's been fine, really, until the past two days.

Yesterday mroning, as the kids and I piled into it, running almost late for school and work, the car failed to start. I'm not proud to say I lost it then and there. I freaked out, in front of my kids.

Not a great parenting moment.

Half a day and $500 later, I had the vehicle back.

Tonight the tire blew out. What was that about?

I'm back home, in one piece, but I'm not sure how safe and secure I am feeling just now.


Wednesday, March 17, 2010

There May Be No Answer

Take the lid off an old box and your senses from decades ago may rush back into your present.

It was time to clean out an old organizational storage locker today, so my CIR co-founder Dan dropped by a few ancient boxes that were filled with files of mine from the 1970s.

It's hard to describe that era now in any way meaningful to anyone who didn't live here then. The physical City remains, a shell housing the remains of a culture that has almost vanished.

We were young, the 60s generation, called hippies and radicals, but really just American kids. We were idealistic, naive, hopeful.

But we also were bitterly disappointed, by the mid-70s, that our biggest social and political visions had proven unrealistic.

There was not going to be a revolution; furthermore, we'd begun to suspect that we hadn't known even remotely what we were talking about when we called for one.

The violence of the drug trade in the streets hinted at how ugly a revolution waged by "the people" would have quickly become.

Many of us started having kids, getting real jobs, growing up at last.

Through all of this I was pursuing my brand of journalism along with bands of others around my age.

Today's delivery brought that back.

I only took a few items, and quickly recycled most of those. It is tragic in a way -- more of our pre-digital history going into the impersonal recycling bin out front, but space is limited and I cannot think of anyone who would want this old stuff.

The paper is crumbling, it smells stale.

I saved a few letters, envelopes, files, some old copies of magazines and books, at least for a future day of reckoning.

Dan took an entire carload off with him to his house in Berkeley, where he will resort it and recycle much of the rest.

As he drove away, one box's label shot me the eternal question through his back window.


Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Steps From Disorientation

Photo by Dylan

There are several times in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (ねじまき鳥クロニクル), by Haruki Murakami when the middle-aged protagonist goes down a deep well, withdraws from the world he knows, and waits.

In one case, while he is sleeping down there, the ladder out disappears.

If I recall correctly, a teenage girl who is his somewhat mysterious neighbor rescues him.

Most of what makes this younger character mysterious is her youth. After all, who can comprehend the young?

Memory cannot help.

The other day, on the beach, we came upon this hole in a structure devoted to managing the City's sewer overruns in storms -- or at least that what a sign explained.


Today's situation for older generations is particularly stressful due to the pace of change.

Technology is the most obvious indicator of this change. Today, while taping a radio interview about social media and how they've affected the way we live, I started thinking about all of the people who find Twitter, Facebook, the iPad and the rest just too overwhelming to handle.

Many even find blogs daunting. When I started writing this one, about four years ago, blogs were still a novelty among the non-early-adapter set -- in other words, everyone normal.

Having been immersed in Geekdom for 15 years hasn't allowed me to escape some of the feelings of alienation and disorientation I see sweeping others around me. This is truly a confusing time; changes seem to have sped up and -- in certain instances -- left reason behind.

What's important to know and what can be safely ignored?

Even assuming you can navigate the technological and economic storms swirling around you, each person faces the universal human challenges of aging, social dislocation, health issues, broken hearts.

Then, one person's misfortune often creates the next person's opportunity.

You see that in properties that turn over. Why, exactly, is this house now unoccupied and what happened to those who lived here?

What do we know about what went before. And how can we hold on to any certain sense of what faces us tomorrow.

What is cool about perdurance?

Sometimes, on a lonely day in a lonely mood, steps down a well may beckon all of us. Taking the nearest hand from another is probably a better way out than waiting for a pretty young mystery girl to show up and save you.

Because I'm fairly sure that that only happens in novels.


Monday, March 15, 2010

Footsteps to Everywhere

After my commute home tonight I sat in the garden with my neighbors for a bit and we listened to the birds sing. A large bluebird flew into the apple tree, followed by a tiny, bright hummingbird.

The sun fell and I got a call from my eldest son. He's working on his PhD down in Pasadena; and called me while walking home from his lab.

There, like here, it was a mild spring evening.

As we talked I remembered him as a little boy, with a thatch of bright yellow hair and brilliant blue eyes. He was always smiling.

From an early age, he was quite clearly athletic, so we played baseball, as fathers and sons do in this country.

As he approached the age to qualify for Little League, I bought him a bat, glove and hardball and took him to a nearby park to practice.

The very first ground ball I hit took one skip and smashed him in the nose.

Nice work, Dad!

He laughed it off, despite the blood and the shock, and turned into quite the baseball player.

I lived in San Francisco and he lived in Mill Valley with his Mom, but I never missed a baseball game of his. Time after time, I would leave my jacket on the back of my chair at whatever office where I had a job, and race across the Golden Gate Bridge to attend his late-afternoon games.

He turned into a fine shortstop but also a terrific hitter, with speed and power. Most of his teams were good; one of them, during his best season, won 18 straight games, losing only in the city championship final.

That season, earlier in the playoffs, he hit a grand-slam home run over the fence and out of the park.

That was 18 years ago this spring.

They grow up fast, our kids. Pretty soon, they've moved on, sometimes quite far away, as he has.

The memories linger. Somewhere I have a framed copy of a newspaper article mentioning his exploits that wonderful season. I was always his loudest fan, of course, and was sorta disappointed when he decided to cut his sports "career" short.

But, as it turns out, he made all the right choices, and I couldn't be prouder of him than I am. A neuroscientist. Also, a softball coach of his lab's team. And a loyal son.

They don't make them any better than Peter.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Waking Up: The City

As the sun comes out along the northern coast, everybody turns his face toward the warmth. New hopes are born.

Even an endless-seeming recession can't dampen new dreams. "For Sale" signs still crop up around the city; small groups of potential buyers (or maybe just dreamers) turn up for Sunday afternoon "open houses."

The kids fill the parks; the old folks stroll along Stow Lake. The joggers hit the park or the beach. Far offshore, the Farallon Islands float above the mist.

This year, more than most, I feel like a bear, blinking awake after a long, cold winter. If hibernation isn't the right description exactly, I've at least spent a long time asleep.

Waking up to the light, now winter's dark has passed, opens many questions. Which further aspects of the way I have been living should be cast aside?

This is a year of rapid change for me. When I think back to that room near Alamo Square, recovering from illness, squinting at the distant downtown lights at the Christmas holidays, I'm not sure whether I was imagining the feelings that fill me now.

I'm not sure I could have.

Life is reborn every spring, whether we notice it or not...whether we appreciate the fact or not.

Far to the north of here, my youngest grandson has started crawling this weekend. Up in Oregon he has mastered moving across the room before even turning eight months old. He copies his heroes, his brother who's three, and his nearby cousin who's one-and-a-half.

Here my schoolkids work through their 9th, 8th and 5th grade schedules, growing smarter and more confident day by day. It's spring soccer season now; my daughter's first practice was rained out Friday but took place today.

As she and her teammates ran about the field at St. Mary's, I happened to be standing on a hill whose name I don't know, several miles to the southwest. Responding to the motion of small figures moving far away, my eyes turned in her direction.

My mind had been on another matter, a different conversation. But I was aware of the time, which meant that in the back of my mind, she was there. The clocks had turned today; did she remember? Do her cleats still fit?

A parent's thoughts drift -- sometimes just outside the range of consciousness -- but they are always there.

She and her cohorts were far too far away for me to differentiate who was whom, so I just imagined her running and jumping, much as the great Jacob Lawrence once imagined a childish Harriet Tubman.

All of those bright sprites, cartwheeling across the green. My imagination suddenly merged with his imagination, as we collaborated on remembering the past and anticipating the future.

It's spring-time. The impossibly green leaves with their pure white blossoms snake up and down the branches of the plum tree, doing their part to help feed us this coming summer.

The earth is fully awake now, so our time has also come.


One Boy's Next Step: A Tribute

Another spring; another child waiting to hear what high school he's gotten into. Just as every child is different, every outcome and reaction records its own emotional impact within a family.

This time, yesterday, came a moment of unqualified happiness. My youngest son got into Lowell High School, his first choice.

Students are admitted to Lowell according to a merit system, based on points awarded for grades and test scores. It's extremely difficult to get in.

But he did, by a mile.

I happened to take this photo just as he realized the contents of the letter. He and I been across town when it arrived at his Mom's; he insisted that she not tell him the news; instead, we drove back there and then he waited while I parked, walked up her stairs, and came into the house to be with him as he learned the news.

His reaction was typically simple and unvarnished: "I'm going to Lowell."

No whoops, no fist-pumps. Just a quite smile of satisfaction.

Because I write so often of his (slightly) older brother's accomplishments, I sometimes feel like I'm overlooking my quiet, deeply thoughtful 13-year-old, even though that is how he would have it be -- no questions asked nor answered.

As little public attention as possible.

The two of us took a short walk on the beach. There, in the open air above a wild Pacific, his red curls tousled and his lanky frame energized by the chance to run and jump, he let off some of the nervous energy that had had to be building up during weeks of waiting for this day.

For a bit, he chattered, too; in his unique way, when he gets talking, there is no stopping him. He had lots to say about lots of things, his words misting like a gentle fog over the two of us at a semi-empty portion of beach where we frolicked together.

I love the way he uses language; to reproduce it here would amount to plagiarism of an invasive sort. Rather, I will await his writings in years to come.

This was a day I feel sure he will remember always. At a quiet moment, he stood alone on the dunes looking east toward Japan (which he badly wants to visit) and China. I stayed back, took another photo.

In that moment, I felt myself in his memory, many years hence, as he remembers the day -- the first day, really -- where his extraordinary intellectual curiosity received a bit of official recognition.

I can only say I was proud to be there.

And that I'm also sure there will be many, many more.