Saturday, April 16, 2011

Life Colors

An emotional week; the kids are all tired and disoriented. The memorial service for their friend is Sunday.

At last night's spring concert, a bunch of last year's 8th-graders sat together, remembering their friend, and watching this year's classes perform. I sat with them, high above the stage at the lovely old Herbst War Memorial Theater.

My daughter sang, which was not a surprise, and then played the drums, which was. She doesn't think so but she was good on the drums, setting the beat and keeping it going in style.

As some kids sang onstage, and others watched offstage, my mind began to wander away from the moment. It was my birthday. The boys both forgot to say anything and then felt bad.

But I didn't mind. This week questions of life and death are very much on their mind. Birthdays, by contrast, are silly luxuries.

To still be having birthdays by my age is a feat of its own. But in the news I read of the oldest man in the world dying at age 114. Compared to him I am indeed very young. His life spanned three centuries, surely one of the very few people ever having accomplished that. He lived and died in the upper midwest -- Montana in the end.

My eyes wandered to the ceiling of the old theater. My mind wandered back through years and decades to my own childhood, and the defining events, including many deaths on my father's side throughout my youth.

Two uncles in accidents, one when his car was crushed by a train; a cousin, his car also hit by a train, then more uncles one after the other, then my grandmother. Then my mother's side started passing on.

Finally, two entire generations had vanished, leaving me as an elder.

Now I sit way up in a family tree with six children, four grandchildren and a fifth on the way. My role is that of the keeper of our history, the story-teller.

I tell stories -- that is what I do. Plus I drive kids to and from school and soccer. I shop, I cook, I clean.

Sometimes, people pay me to help them tell their stories. More often, I help them tell stories without pay.

Within me, stories scream to be released. Novels. Crazed voices, tender voices, stories of betrayal and stories of peace. The words form themselves into sentences that remain unwritten.

Tales untold. Will they be told? Should they be told? How will they get told?

The chard ripens red, a tiny plum forms on the tree. Something catches my eye -- a hummingbird, green, buzzes into position to slide his long slender beak into an apple blossom, which quivers as he enters her. She gives up her nectar.

Far overhead, a jet banks, reaches the coast and begins its journey across the Pacific. The phone rings; a bill collector's fruitless quest remains unanswered. Unanswerable.

Who owes whom? Why should I pay them when Virgin hasn't paid me? The richest one percent of Americans are millions of times as rich as the 90% of us who have grown poorer under Republican tax policies. Our Democratic President, so hated by the right that they pursue conspiracy theories about where he was born, making themselves ridiculous and pathetic in most of their fellow citizens' eyes. They have no viable candidate; Obama will sweep to victory next year in a landslide.

Donald Trump?

That's a good one. Almost as funny as Sarah (Stupid) Palin.

I don't care about politics, and I certainly don't hate Republicans. My Dad was a Republican and I have pulled the lever for Republicans.

I don't much like Democrats, actually; I'm an Independent voter. But I like Obama, even though his inexperience has led him to mishandle the politics of his first term.

So he will get a second, of that I am certain. Mitt Romney? Give me a break. There are no viable opponents.

A song is playing somewhere in the distance. What is that music? Only a note drifts in, then another, nothing long enough to identify. Maybe it is a fairy crouching in my bamboo, a tiny woman strumming her harp, singing the songs of Asia. Maybe she is imaginary, but if so, maybe too am I.

Perhaps none of this exists, except for the hummingbird, he of the long slender beak. Maybe he alone, sucking sweet honey in an afternoon sun, has received the sustenance to go forward. Maybe we, by contrast, are dying of thirst and foolishness, never even hearing the song that could have carried us to a better day.

But the beat goes on. The drummer stamps her foot and waves her hair, she hits this drum and that one, building a tempo that has the crowd's heartbeat rising. We get ready to rise and cheer our throaty cheer. We are aroused.

The beating heart. Your beating heart. My beating heart. Your story; my story, our story.

That beat goes on.


Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Please Join My Boycott of Virgin America!

Do you see that little search field up in the left-hand corner of this blog? If you enter the word "virgin" you will access the five previous articles I have written mentioning Virgin America, four of which were quite positive.

It has been said that you can suffer no great disappointment with someone or something unless you believed in them or it greatly.

Or if it hasn't been said before, I've just said it.

The first time I flew Virgin, I easily fell for it. Who wouldn't? The airline is as user-friendly as any I've experienced, other than Singapore Airlines, which is my personal all-time favorite.

But I digress.

Here is why Virgin America has made me very sad and mad.

The week before last was spring break for public school students here in San Francisco, and I took the opportunity to let my youngest son drive down to Pasadena with my oldest son to visit the latter's lab at Cal Tech.

In order to get the former home, we had to find a one-way flight from LA to SF that was affordable.

The boys and I searched every airline that flies that route and picked Virgin because it offered a fare (~$185) that was competitive, and a time that worked with our mutual schedules. Plus I and my kids all wanted to support what we thought was a very cool company.

As part of making our choice, we of course investigated whether his age (14, just a week shy of 15) would classify him as an "unaccompanied minor," which would not only be embarrassing to him, but utterly inappropriate, given his many travels by air, here and overseas.

Every other airline site we visited clearly stated that the "unaccompanied minor" age ended when a kid turned 12. Although Virgin's website did not explicitly confirm this (because it said nothing at all about this issue), we assumed that they too conformed to the industry standard.

We were wrong, and that proved to be a very expensive mistake. When my oldest son took my youngest son to LAX to catch his flight home, they were informed that Virgin, alone among all domestic airlines, considers a child an "unaccompanied minor" until he reaches the age of 15.

This led to a whole series of problems for all of us on both ends of this journey, and also to an extra charge of $75!

I can't express how angry this has made me, and all of the members of my family. We feel totally ripped off. If Virgin had had the decency and honesty to have revealed on its website that the true cost of flying from LA to SF for a 14-year-old was not $185 but $260, we would have chosen one of the many alternatives, most likely Southwest.

As it now stands, I have decided to never again fly Virgin America, and I ask anyone who reads this post to join me in this boycott.

What do you think? Your comments are welcome.

p.s. The Virgin representative who helped me fill out all of the ridiculous paperwork to be able to meet my son when he arrived told me she could not believe that her employer was maintaining such a "consumer-unfriendly" (her words) policy.

p.s.s. I think I deserve to get my $75 back. I will cancel this boycott when and if that happens.


Another Year Passes

The past few days, seeing this city through the eyes of my friend, as she visited here for only the second time in her life, San Francisco reminded me why I love it. That may sound strange -- loving a city -- and often my feelings have been more ambiguous about the experience of living here for so long.

I don't expect to live here forever, any more than I expect to live forever, but for a while longer this will be my home base.

This is a birthday week, always a time of mixed emotions. It was nice, and a bit strange, to have a woman on my arm again; it feels as if it has been a long time that I've gone everywhere alone.

Downtown life, from a small hotel; breakfast at Sears; dinner in North Beach; a walk in the park, including the arboretum and tea at the museum cafe.

It was a chance to go to places I used to like, and start to like them again, free of unpleasant associations.

But hovering over everything this week is the tragic loss of the young man who made so many visits to my apartment over the years, playing games and watching movies with my sons.

The grief counselors are meeting with the kids tonight; a little memorial has been set up at the school they all shared for nine years; next Sunday a family memorial event will take place.

When a child takes his own life, it casts a long shadow over many of the values all of us hold dear. We have to believe in the future, in some sort of future, in order to be parents; we have to find ways to hold onto hope in dark moments.

Most of us know how it feels to lose love, to lose jobs, to lose friends. Most of us understand the pain that betrayals inflict.

Everybody hurts sometime. Everybody hurts. Hold on.