Thursday, September 01, 2011

It's Time to Notice

As she and I reached the top of the hill walking the dogs yesterday, my daughter and I saw a red-tailed hawk scream and fly toward us, not 20 feet over our heads, as it soared above from one perch to another.

I momentarily felt a shudder at the site of this predator, not out of any sense of personal danger, since what raptor would bother with an old man who is over the hill when younger, sweeter food is available nearby? (Well, not literally over the hill at that particular moment, but on top of the hill, but you get the drift.)

No, what I was feeling was what it must be like to be a mouse or other small creature, hearing that scream high overhead and sensing that wingspan, those talons, those eagle eyes, that beak that tears.

I suppose part of my instinctive response was protective of my daughter, but rationally, no bird could represent a threat to her, either. Though only 12, she is tall, strong, and athletic and could easily swipe that hawk out of the air and send it tumbling into the dirt if she wanted to.

Of course, she would never do such a thing, because she loves animals -- much more than I do -- and volunteers at the SPCA to protect them, whereas her Dad has a checkered career as a hunter and fisherman, things I should probably admit to her someday, even though it will lessen me in her eyes.


Out front of my house, the memorial to my fallen neighbor grows. When I got home tonight, a man was crying and wailing, as other men drank beer and bore witness. The candles and flowers continue to arrive.

The pain felt by those who loved him is palpable on this block. He has two young daughters who now no longer have a Dad. His mother sits on her porch forlorn and aging rapidly.

A guy I know well at the corner store stood outside today looking sad. I gave him a hug. His eyes filled with tears.

What can you say at a time like this?

I also watched my athletic son play soccer today -- his high school team won again, that's three in a row, and this looks to be a very promising season. He very nearly scored anther goal after getting his first the other day.

So much hope and so much hopelessness, all in the same day. The soccer coach told me that he is counting on my son to help some of the Latino kids on the team develop better study habits and improve their grades.

Every day there is a mandatory study hall for the kids who want to play soccer. This is a good thing, I think, although it extends their schooldays to ten or eleven hours most days, and causes me to have to do a lot more driving than I would want to do.

But that's a small price to pay if my son, who is an A student, can help other kids who otherwise might fail become C students. The incentive is soccer. Anyone who doesn't think race and class is still a major factor in who succeeds and who doesn't in this society isn't paying attention.

Sports are great, and it's fun to watch my kid compete and be successful. But I value his work as a fellow student helping other students do better in school far more.

Because all of these kids -- black, white, Latino, Asian -- are "our" kids. They represent our future. The kids who murdered my neighbor are, by police reports, very young Latino kids, perhaps very much like the ones my son works with in study hall to help stay in school and get their diploma.

Some join gangs, are given guns by older men, and earn their stripes by murdering people like my neighbor. Others stay in school, get better grades, earn a diploma, and get a job.

The difference between one outcome or the other can be razor thin, for teenagers.

Those who think we exist on a level playing field are delusional. This society remains deeply biased when it comes to race or class or even gender. The greatest compliment I can pay to my son is he knows that and he cares about that. He has a big heart.

Meanwhile, he's also an extremely competitive athlete, which just happens to give him credibility in the eyes of those kids who are failing in the classroom but will listen to an upperclassman about why it's important to study and learn.

We all should be studying and learning. Maybe most of all, those of us who enjoy the privilege of not being from poor, minority communities. Maybe we are the ones who finally should start trying harder to become real Americans, instead of blaming others for being poor, for turning out how our system dictates they should turn out, as failures.


Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Life & Death

After I dropped my kids off at their Mom's last night, and parked my car, and walked home, something awful happened.

I was writing, as usual, in the front room of my apartment when I heard five gun blasts from a pistol out front. The blasts were so loud, I knew they were from a serious weapon, probably a 45 caliber.

The explosions set off the automated alarm at the corner store. As I ran out front to see what had happened I first glanced left, toward the store, because of the alarm. Not long before, one of my kids had walked there to buy some treats for himself and his siblings, as all three of them have done countless times over the years.

As I watched, a neighbor from across the street who works at the store ran out of his front door and headed there on the run.

But then I looked right. And there on the sidewalk lay a man face down. I immediately dialed 911, and told the operator that a man has been shot, please get here fast, come right away, it's bad, really bad.

As she took down my name and address, I saw his body heave its final sigh and collapse into an awful flatness.

"He's dead!" I screamed.

Within seconds, the first responders arrived. I watched as they tried to revive the man. Meanwhile, another neighbor, a young man, distraught and hysterical, ran up and down the street yelling: "No! Oh no!"

Yet another neighbor, much older, with hair as white as mine, also was on the scene, and looked disoriented and very disturbed. He approached the body as the emergency workers tried to revive it and had to be told to back away.

Soon the area was covered in cops, firemen, all sorts of responders. A woman ran out of her house nearby and screamed "He is my son. Can you save him? CAN YOU SAVE HIM?!" She had to be restrained, sobbing and wailing into the night, one of the most awful sounds I have ever heard.

As I watched, they gave up and laid a piece of plastic over the man. Then the crying spread as other family members rushed to the street and realized what had happened.

The dead man had been walking his dog. Over the years, I got to know him due to his friendly manner. He was a striking figure -- tall, lean, black, with a fancy hat and the kind of attitude that revealed a sense of humor and an ability to connect with others around him.

I'd say he had charisma.

Normally, I'm pretty reclusive, like most writers, and kind of shy. I don't get to know my neighbors easily, like many inner-city residents, and I am not proud of that. But this man was among my favorite people to encounter when I was out and about.

He always had a knowing smile, a greeting, a certain way of connecting. "How are the kids?" He'd ask. "They're gettin' big."

He made me feel oriented, in that way, recognized as a part of the neighborhood.

Today, I went down to his relatives' houses, took off my hat and held it over my heart, and told them how sorry I am that he has died. I told them he was a good man. They thanked me, but their eyes were filled with tears.

Tonight, a memorial is growing outside of my front window. There are many candles, flowers, and lots of empty beer and liquor bottles (I don't understand the those empty bottle gestures but pretty clearly all the men around here are getting drunk, and I fear there may soon be more incidents. Guys are yelling.)

There also have been many people gathering here all day long. And reporters and photographers and undercover police, no doubt hoping that the killers decide to revisit the scene.

I've read the press reports and talked to the neighbors. I know what the conventional wisdom is. He was a drug dealer. He had problems. He was affiliated with one of the Latino gangs that war over territory around here, the "Northerners" and the "Southerners."

But I also know he was a very friendly man in a pretty unfriendly place, a place that can be lonely and alienating and scary at times, but the place I also call home.

And I'm going to miss him.

Last night, after being interviewed by the cops, I sat alone here, shaking and scared. I didn't know what to do but I needed to "talk" to somebody. So I emailed my adult kids, but by then it was after midnight.

Then, I did something very strange. It surprised me. I emailed the ex-girlfriends who, over the eight years I have lived here, sometimes stayed here with me and know what this neighborhood is like.

Two of them responded, and one of them called me.

I feel a great deal of comfort as a result. After all, I live alone, and when this happened, I wish I had had someone here to hold onto. But I don't. But at some points in the past I did. So those people remain precious to me, and I when I needed them last night and this morning, they chose to respond.

There really is no way to express what that means to me other than to say that what one of them told me a long time ago might just turn out to be true: "Once you've loved someone, on some level, you will always love them."

Thank you, J&J. Thank you.


Tuesday, August 30, 2011

First Goal, First Interview

The pace of life changes substantially as the school year gets underway. And, especially with soccer, my weeks start to revolve around these games and practices and driving from point to point along the grid of high schools and parks spread throughout the 49 square miles that defines the city and county of San Francisco.

In tonight's game, my sixteen-year-old, who wears #16, had a turning point game. He's a junior, starting his third season as right back on his high school team. This year, for the first time, his coach has given him some new marching orders.

Noting his height, he is now sending him in on set plays like corner kicks and telling him to try to get his head on the ball. Tonight, in the fifth minute of a game against a traditionally very tough opponent, the coach's strategy worked, as we saw the red-headed #16 soar high above the scrum at the front of the net to put his head on the ball as it arced in from the corner.

He met the ball perfectly and redirected it into the upper left hand corner of the net for his first goal ever -- in a high school game.

For a second, I stared in disbelief, as this was so unprecedented as to be unimaginable. A goal! Then I broke into a long throaty cheer. A kid who, no matter how well he's played, has rarely ever had a taste of this kind of glory, now was being high-fived by his teammates for putting his team ahead, 1-0.

Eventually, after his team won the game, 2-1, he got to have another "first" experience, as a young athlete.

One of the small group of reporters and photographers covering the game asked if he could interview him. He asked him about scoring that first goal, about beating such a touch opponent, and about holding the opposition scoreless under their increasingly desperate assault throughout the second half.

As I watched my young son field these questions, I could tell that he was feeling a bit embarrassed by being made the center of attention, but I also was struck by his poise. He complimented the other team, saying how tough they were to play against, and how talented they were. He also allowed that it was a real thrill to score his first goal.

I wish I had gotten that reporter's card, because maybe someday this interview will prove to have been the first of many. Who knows? But for now, for me, it was good enough just to witness this newest stage in the development of my young athletic star.


Monday, August 29, 2011

Another Summer's End

The day after tomorrow, my seventh-grader sees the end of her summer as school finally starts. (Her brothers are into the third week of their school year already.)

Today, in anticipation of all that, we decided to harvest the onions we've been growing in the flower boxes out front. She pulled them out of the soil, clipped the roots, cleaned off the dirt and washed them.

Then we sliced them and sauteed them in olive oil with canola spray, dusted them with salt and garlic powder, and served them over white rice with seaweed, butter and soy sauce.

Such tiny domestic tasks, for her and me, cement our days when we are alone together. The rest of the time, I was interviewing CEOs, blogging, and communicating with clients, while she was finishing one of the books on her summer reading list.

This afternoon, we walked the dogs around Bernal Hill. On the southeast side there is a large blackberry patch, so we took the dogs there today and picked a bunch of berries.

With the city laid out below like a giant Lego construction, and the sky blue overhead, with a breeze from the west cooling what otherwise was a layer of warm air, both of us picked and ate and offered some to the dogs.

One likes blackberries and gulps them happily. The other likes to smell them but refuses to eat them.

Afterward, as we descended the hill, we compared fingers. Both hers and mine were red with the juice from the berries, but mine were darker red because the berry-loving dog had thoughtfully licked hers for her.

We passed a mail truck on the way down. I explained to her the difference between UPS, USPS and FedEx.

She told me that until recently, she had never noticed the arrow in the FedEx logo. That gave me an excuse to go into one of my talks about her future.

She wants to study art and to become an artist. Her portfolio of drawings is growing; I often proudly publish bits of them here, usually without labels.

But, of course, as her (aging) parent, I worry about what choices she may make. Being an artist does not strike me as a particularly sustainable future for her in an ever-more difficult economy.

I don't think 12 is too young an age to discuss practicalities, particularly when she is one of the most practical of all of my children. Evidence of that includes her bank account, which due to her many small jobs like dog-walking is more robust than anyone else in her immediate family.

In fact, she often extends loans to the rest of us and charges no interest rates. (Note to self: I should talk to her about interest.)

But what I chose to talk about when she mentioned the FedEx arrow is the role designers play in branding for companies. I explained how artists come up with concepts like colors and symbols and branding icons, such as arrows or the Nike swoosh.

"That's how you can pay your bills while you pursue your passion," I suggested.

This seemed to sink in, who knows. Each of our conversations of this type is loaded by my acute awareness of our extreme age differential. My ability to exert influence over her choices has to be expedited just in case I am not around long enough to be her consultant in her 20s or into her 30s.

Although it sometimes makes me sad to know that I probably will not be, it also adds some determination and purpose to each and every conversation like the one we had today, because I know she is listening quite carefully.

And I'm quite sure she will remember.


Sunday, August 28, 2011

Memories of a Storm

Walking through this foggy neighborhood this morning, Johnny Cash's Sunday Morning Coming Down playing in my head, I passed a small Latina girl, maybe five years old, taking care of two younger siblings on the sidewalk in front of her house. She stared at me.

I smiled meekly at her, and said "Hi." She continued to look at me with that kind of frank, open stare that only children employ as I passed her. At the last second, she smiled back and said "Hi."

I'm a storm news junkie, and so have been watching CNN a bunch this weekend. Thankfully, the East Coast dodged disaster pretty much.

That brings back certain memories, as I've been in the glancing blows of two big hurricanes myself.

One in Bermuda, with my then-GF. We were staying on the top floor of a beachfront hotel, when the hotel staff posted a sign in the lobby (this was before the Internet, email or cellphones so communication options were limited), warning guests to check frequently for updates on the situation.

As the hurricane approached, all flights were cancelled, so our return to the States was delayed -- not necessarily a major inconvenience in this case. Then the skies darkened ominously and the ceiling of our room (which was the roof of the hotel) started banging ominously.

Various generators, vents and other attachments to the roof were getting battered by the gusts, and it felt scary -- like the roof might well blow in. Then we lost power.

Back down the stairs to the lobby, now the elevator didn't work, we gathered with other guests to wait out the storm.

But, almost as suddenly as it had arrived, the edge of the storm bounced off of the shoreline and tore itself, spinning, off in another direction. The winds fell, the skies lightened, the power came back on, and the sign in the lobby said "All Clear."

The story of the other hurricane I'll leave for another day.

As much reason as there is to feel melancholy about many things, there is every bit as much reason to feel grateful for friends and family on the East Coast, and that at least this one danger has now passed.