18 August 2017

European Vacation Part Four - Good Old England

Charlie George (right) and yours truly
There was that walk along the beach with the wife at dusk in St. Ives. There was cheering and jumping up and down with tens of thousands of others at Emirates Stadium. There was marveling silently at antiquities in the British Museum. There was and always will be England. Loved and admired, hated and reviled. The people are dry and passionless, they are inspired and silly. England is Queen Victoria, England is Monty Python's Flying Circus. England is tea time, soccer hooligans, tradition and innovation. England is gritty gray cities, England is gorgeous green countryside. England is imperialism and it is democracy it is indecipherable accents and Shakespeare. England and how you see it is a reflection on you and what you bring to experiencing it. To me it is always and forever The Beatles, proper football (soccer to you, Yanks) a long and fascinating history and of course fish and chips. I love the place.

We arrived on a Thursday desperately missing Finland and the great time we had there. But the next night it was off to meet my friend Phil, his daughter and a friend to see my favorite footie team, The Arsenal. It was the opening of the English Premier League season and my beloved Gunners were taking on Leicester City. It was my wife's first match and was it a doozy. Within two minutes our heroes were ahead 1-0 but as halftime approached some sloppy passing and poor defending meant a 2-1 deficit. But at the stroke of halftime The Arsenal leveled and we could relax during the interval. Unfortunately they fell back behind early in the second half and I spent nearly a half an hour of playing time worried that my first match in eight years was going to be a loss. But with ten minutes to go Arsenal equalized and a few minutes later went ahead and the stadium was rocking. It was not just mad cheering but singing that ensued as supporters sang odes to the team and individuals. This is part of what makes football so special. Teams have their own chants and songs for their club and also for some of the players. It was thrilling.

Charlie George in his playing days.
The next day four of us were back at the stadium for a tour. The missus instead took in the Tate Modern Museum. The tour was led by my teenage hero one Charlie George who scored the winning goal in the 1971 FA Cup final. I saw the game, his goal and his celebration (laying on the pitch arms spread) on TV and became an instant Arsenal fan. During the tour I had my picture taken with him (thanks, Phil) and got his autograph. I was like a star struck kid. We saw the locker room, coaches' office, the field, the high priced luxury seats and went through the Arsenal museum. After that it was into the team's mega store where I got an Arsenal jacket and another tee shirt.

On Sunday the better half and I were on the train to St. Ives, a resort town on the southwest coast of England. There we spent several days doing very little aside from enjoying the views, going for walks and eating some of the most delectable seafood I've ever had. One day it rained and that was fine too because you can't be running about all the time. The St. Ives Museum was surprisingly good with relics from both world wars, the shipping industry and everything from local fashions to odds and ends from everyday life in the 19th century.

Back to London for a day and another in a long line of great meals we ate on our trip. Yesterday we flew back to New York for a quick visit with youngest daughter and the last of a series of restaurant meals. Today we're back in Berkeley and I'm glad to see oldest daughter and not be living out of a suitcase anymore. I'm rejuvenated for work and refreshed and raring to get back into my routine.

The trip re-enforced my great love for three things: Finland, The Arsenal and my family. It also served to remind me what a lucky bloke I am. That's worth a trip in itself.


09 August 2017

Euro Vacation 2017 Part Three -- In the Home of my Ancestors

The river I fished and swam in.
Jumping into an icy cold river after a hot sauna felt fantastic. It was after 10:00 in the evening and the sun was still out because this is Finland. Three times I emerged from the hot sauna for a refreshing dip. It was the same river I'd been fishing in earlier in the day with my two strapping young nephews. I caught three fish, all undersized and thus all designated for re-assignment as living -- if wounded -- fish. The three of us had fished for a bit near the cabin but later bushwhacked our way through the underbrush to likely spots and challenged the local pike and trout to snag our lures. It was damned fun. As oldest nephew told me it's called fishing not catching so our failure to reel in an eligible fish was no great disappointment. Youngest nephew had wrestled in a large trout the day before so dinner was already settled.

This whole time in Finland has been damned fun. My first trip to the homeland in decades. I met two cousins I'd not seen since we were all still young, bright-eyed bushy-tailed happy optimists. I'm glad to report that we are all still happy and optimistic, despite our years. Perhaps I am less so as even during this wonderful vacation I continue to fight off waves of depression. There have been distractions aplenty so mostly I've been in good spirits.

Seeing my Cousin Jorma in Tampere was a particularly good distraction. He's my senior by about ten years. I'd been questioning how much longer I wanted to suffer through life after this trip, so bad can the mental torment be. But seeing Jorma charge happily through the world gave me hope and a role model. He reminded me of my dear old dad, a non stop liver. He was charming, funny and wise and most of all active. Maybe, I've thought, I can try that. His wife too is a wonder of glee and enthusiasm and his daughter, who was 3 when last I saw her, is a successful doctor running a family practice, has two precocious sons of 10 and 14 and a charming Phd of a husband. The missus and I had a grand time visiting them.

My cousin Helena and I.
Further north in Yliveska we visited my cousin Helena. In my prior visits to Finland she felt like the big sister I never had. She was kind, warm, fun and funny. Today she is still all those things but is also a mother of three and a grandmother of four. Courtesy of one of her daughter's we drove to the nearby town of Nivala where my father and all his siblings were born and raised. Our visit included a stop at the old family home, which is sadly out of the family now. I'd stayed there during my previous visits when my grandmother was still alive and kicking.

In between visiting long lost kin we stayed in the small burg of Paltamo. My late brother's wife's family has a summer cabin there. The setting was too rustic for us citified folk so we spent our night's in town. My sister-in-law was there along with the aforementioned nephews who, like us, live in the Bay Area. The setting was Eden-like. Besides us there was the river, the trees (Finland has gazillions of trees) and a few pesky skeeters and dragon flies. This was the ultimate in getting away from it all and I, who work and live in a thickly packed urban area needed getting away from as much as possible. I was not in heaven (as the mosquitoes attested to) but I was but a few steps below.

For the last few days we've been Helsinki, one of the prettiest big cities in the world. In Finland it feels like cities, towns and hamlets are just dropped from the sky in and around forests, lakes and rivers. You can't go far without be reminded of nature. Even in the thriving metropolis of Finland's capital this is true. The architecture here is stunning, the people are polite and friendly, the public transportation accessible and convenient and everything is clean. Is it perfect? I guess one would have to spend a winter here to answer that.

We've been going from town to town by train and it is a wonderful way to travel. Out the window you can see trees, fields, meadows, more trees, lakes, rivers, trees again, lots of trees, an occasional town, forests, trees and did I mention trees? It's gorgeous. I also saw a bear. Just a glimpse, but damn that was cool.

With older relatives I've had to speak the native tongue and tough I'm rusty I managed to get by. Virtually everyone here under 50 speaks English and many of them speak it better than Americans do. Still I've used the lingo in a few transactions in stores and at restaurants etc. If we stayed longer I might start making my way toward fluency but as it is we're out of here today. Onto London and a football match, then to Cornwall to stare at the sea.

My God I'm having fun.

31 July 2017

Euro Vacation 2017 Part Two - No Explanations nor Excuses for the Nine Days it Took to Post Something (Maybe I was Kidnapped, You Never Know)

Beautiful Amsterdam.
There was an Asian woman in a Berlin mall sitting and reading The Diary of Anne Frank in English.
There was me eating Italian food in a Mexican restaurant in Berlin.
There was a Syrian refugee waiting on us at a seafood restaurant in Berlin who spoke excellent English.

That was all after Amsterdam which, by the way, has emerged as one of my favorite cities in the world. Top five for sure. Everyone speaks English, the signs are in English, the menus, the directions. The Dutch are friendly. The streets are cleaned and organized and the public transportation system runs like a dream. An incredible number of people in Amsterdam ride bikes and for the most part do so in designated bike lanes. Unlike bicyclists in Berkeley who run lights and stop signs and ride on sidewalks, Dutch cyclists obey rules. I could have kissed all of them. Plus they ride functional bikes at moderate speeds purposefully. There are trees, parks and canals everywhere, a model city to be sure.

One night we ate a place called the Seafood Bar. The first of its kind opened just five years before as a take away place but now there are four in Amsterdam alone and they are jam packed. It's no wonder, the food is delicious. No it's better than that. Also it comes in sufficient quantities and is reasonably priced for such fine cuisine. Me, I love seafood. 

From the Reijks Museum.
While in Amsterdam we went to the Van Gogh Museum which was both fine and dandy and we also went to the Reijks Museum which was fantastic and dandy. I loved the Rembrandts -- literally every one -- and most of the works of his proteges. There were also treasures from the past and works from earlier and later centuries. One visit couldn't cover it all. We missed the tour at the Anne Frank House as it was booked and we had left it till last. I did have the better half snap my picture in front of it and unlike some of the other yahoos there I didn't pose with a grin nor make a duck face. Honestly.

We were in Amsterdam for three days and that was not enough. I'd like to go again for a week, better yet a year. I'd love a year there, it would give time to explore other parts of the Netherlands. We got to Amsterdam by train from London where we stopped overnight. Our train trip included a pit stop in Brussels. From what I could see in that blink of an eye it's a town worth getting better acquainted with.

From Amsterdam we took a train to Berlin. This was a local that stopped at every city, town, village, hamlet, farmhouse, outhouse and chicken coop. We didn't mind. Lots of countryside to see and it was darn pretty too. As in Amsterdam we stayed at an Air B&B in Berlin (still here actually, leave in the morning). In both cases we got nice neighborhoods just on the edge of where everything is happening. Short walks to markets, tram stops and cafes.

Unfortunately they've had a bit of heat wave in Berlin and the missus and I are not fans of hot weather. Amsterdam was just right for us, maybe a little chilly with spots of rain but nothing we couldn't handle. Berlin isn't made for hot weather like, say New York. The trams are not air condoned nor is much of anything else. That aside it's been a nice stay. The wife has indulged my passion for history which is especially acute when it comes to World War II. We've been to the Holocaust Memorial and a place called the Topography of Terror which is a museum dedicated to chronicling the Nazi regime. Because of my many decade study of such things there was little they had to teach me, but there were some interesting details here and there and it was instructive to see it all in one place laid out like it is. It's particularly chilling to see all this in Berlin which was the epicenter of Nazi Germany. Walking the streets of Berlin it gives one pause to realize that on these very streets Nazi's marched and sang and brutalized. Around the corner from where we're staying there are imbedded in the sidewalk three plaques remembering three Jews who were taken from nearby homes to their deaths in Auschwitz. We also visited the Berlin Wall Memorial Park, just one of many places where remnants of the wall remain or are honored or both.

Display at the German Film Museum
It wasn't all doom and gloom. For example we saw Berlin's Film and TV Museum which is right up there with similar museums I've seen in Paris and Rome. Particular attention is given to the transcendent Marlene Dietrich along with pioneering German directors such as GW Pabst, FW Murnau, Fritz Lang and Ernest Lubitsch, all of whom escaped Nazi Germany to ply their trade in Hollywood.

Berlin is a cosmopolitan city and this is Summer so one hears voices speaking languages from across the globe. From my job I've learned to detect what many a foreign tongue is and also where a speaker is from based on her or his English accent.

We have thus far managed to avoid being involved in any International Intrigue. No secret coded messages have been placed on our person, no one has slipped us war plans, no spy has died in our midst. Yet. 

Next we go to Finland which for me will be homecoming. Hopefully I'll report here sooner rather than later. 

23 July 2017

Euro Vacation 2017 Part One - But First a Brief Visit in New York

Brooklyn Bridge, photo by author (that's me).

It was just a few steps from JFK to the air-conditioned taxi cab Friday night, but it was time enough to feel the wall of heat. From the cab to the hotel there were a few more steps and more of the New York city heat wave. No thanks. To me anything over 70 degrees is just showing off, to be in the 80s AT NIGHT with a good bit of humidity mixed in is just ridiculous. But it was only for a few days. Today the temperature was in the upper 70s and thus manageable.

Weather conditions aside the weekend has been marvelous. The main point of the layover was to visit youngest daughter who lives on the Queens/Brooklyn border. We had a grand time with her, including a leisurely brunch on Saturday and chit chatting in her apartment afterwards. Last night the missus and I saw A Doll's House Part 2 starring Laurie Metcalf in her Tony Award winning performance. Chris Cooper was also in the four person cast. This was one of the top three theater productions I've ever seen. The standing ovation at the end was not at all perfunctory but quite sincere.

Before and after the play we had to manage Times Square my least favorite part of New York and indeed one of my least favorite places anywhere. Gaudy, crowded, commercial and a symbol of capitalistic excess. What a blight on a great city. Wish I'd seen Times Square when it was just a special part of Manhattan and not a nightmare television commercial on steroids.

We've been navigating New York on the subway and via Uber and of course on foot. New York is feast for the eyes. The people you see alone are an endless source of entertainment. Beautiful women aplenty but also the bizarre, misshapen, the angry, the sullen, the screaming, the pathetic, the brawny and in all sizes, shapes and colors. Yarmulkes here, hijabs there, priests, buddhists, Hare Krishnas, guys in Yankee caps, Italians, Somalis, and oh so many tourists.

We had delicious New York bagels Saturday.

We visited The Brooklyn Bridge this morning, one of those iconic sites that's far more impressive in person. Youngest daughter took me to the Gangster Museum on the Lower East Side this afternoon. We both have a fondness for gangster lore and films, as does oldest daughter. The museum itself was small and the displays looked slap together by an 8th grader but there was some impressive stuff including bullets from the St. Valentine's Day massacre, a mobster's safe and John Dillinger's death mask. There were two guides who each gave us long spiels on gangster history, especially regarding the building we were in which had been a gangster hangout in the 20s and 30s and was attached to what was then a speakeasy. It was fun.

From there we re-connected with my wife and later had a terrific pizza dinner in Brooklyn. I could hang around New York for days, weeks, months, years, as long as someone did something about the heat waves. But tomorrow morning the missus and I continue our journey with an early morning flight across the Atlantic. We'll have a one night stay in London....well, you'll be reading about all this later -- or not, your choice. I was sad to have just sad goodbye to youngest daughter knowing we'll not see her again until Christmas but I'm excited for her and her life here and for us and this journey which is just beginning.

20 July 2017

This is a Melange of Writings Concluding With News of My Impending Trip

A picture taken near Tampere, Finland, one of the stops on our forthcoming trip.


This first part was written over a week ago.

Ya never know what you can write in eight minutes until you try. I’ve got eight minutes before I have to pack up and go, so we’ll see.

After a long pause it seems the answer might be: not much, but I think it’s probably more along the lines of it depends. The word depends has become somewhat of a punchline these days because its the name of an adult diaper. Speaking of punchlines: Donald Trump. Okay that was too easy unlike being president which apparently — who knew? — is rather difficult. People find that out once its too late. How many people have been good at the job? Only 45 have tried and many have been absolute disasters, as we’ve been seeing since January 20. It seems a certainty that this current president will go down as the worst ever. And go down he will. There’s stiff competition for the worst. Consider the recent George W debacle and the greatest foreign policy blunder in US history (the invasion of Iraq is thus far the worst but Trump’ll likely take a shot on topping or bottoming it). Then there was Warren G Harding. Yikes, that was bad. Don’t forget Andrew Johnson. Abe Lincoln was sandwiched in between two awful presidents, the aforementioned Johnson and one James Buchanan. Truth be told most of our presidents have been more mediocre than bad. And a lot of the good ones have significant marks in the negative column to go along with the good that they accomplished. For example FDR and Japanese internment. Then there was LBJ who did so much good domestically but then again that little business about Vietnam. Nixon actually had some accomplishments but they were totally wiped out not just byWatergate but by the continuation of Vietnam and the bombings in the north and of Cambodia. He ended up way, way way in the debit column.

Eight minutes is up.

I actually tell you within the text when I wrote this next bit.

It’s two days later and now I’ve got a bit more time to write. I’ve been so busy tin lizzy drinks that are fizzy. Leaving next week on a big trip getta grip don’t slip I’m hip. One more cause the rule of three up a tree that’s for me tee heee.

Isn’t auto correct a pain in the arse sometimes? Let’s be clear I do not here make reference to Mr. Otto Korectt. He, by the way, is a prominent, distinguished, local businessman of ill repute whose reputation precedes him and is well known, notorious, beloved, much despised, reviled and entirely anonymous. His actions defy description and took a a lot of courage and show a keen understanding of the issues and mark him as a man to be reckoned with, his future is ahead of him and his past behind him. In fact my own future is behind me, but not my past, which I’m looking forward to, I’m living in a state of flux which is one of the contiguous 49 states. Flux produces hard-working Americans who look out for one another and know the value of a dollar. Fluxians are kind, greedy, selfless, selfish people who tirelessly work at being lazy. They believe that procrastinating should be put off to another day — no they don’t.

The next three paragraphs were written earlier this week.

A typical day in the Johnson household begins with dawn. Hours pass by at a 60 minute rate and eventually dusk signals the end of daylight and the beginning of evening which is ceremoniously marked by the Johnsons with the turning on of lights. The Johnson’s also sleep.

But who among us has not imagined necrophilia followed promptly by cannibalism? Come on, you know you have. We’re all human and we all have hidden desires to sexually ravage then devour the deceased. Don’t we? Surely I’m not alone in this. Or surly, he was angry and alone in this. Or Shirley, she was alone in this. Sure, Lee.

I kid, of course. Anyone old enough to remember telegrams? I don’t recall ever receiving nor sending one. I have received plaudits and encomiums and heaps of criticism. Let’s all be self effacing. Or self affixing. Or self adhesive. What is the shelf life of the self life?

I wrote this last bit on Thursday July 20, the same day it will be posted.

It is 7/20, thus the eve of my wife and my departure on a month long vacation. We will stop in New York for a few days — where the hot and humid weather will make me miserable — to visit youngest daughter and take in a play. Then it’s off to such locales as Amsterdan, Berlin, Finland and the UK which will include London and Cornwall.

Yes, I am excited and for so many reasons too. One of which is an escape from the daily grind. I need a break from the weekday morning routine — just not having to slap together lunch will be a relief. Mostly I need a respite from commuting. On a good day a commute is tolerable but there are not all that many good commute days. My students I do not need a break from but I could do with a month without grading, lesson planning, photocopying and wrestling rabid wolverines.

In the lead up to the trip I’ve managed not to be depressed and one can assume that travels may well keep the depression at bay — hell, maybe it’s gone for good. Me, cured.

You will be delighted to learn (actually more like mortified) that I plan on regularly blogging on my trip as I have on other occasions see links to European Vacation and Paris in the Labels section to the right on this page. Or not. Entirely up to you.

The problem with this trip will be that I wont want to come back. I prefer Europe to the States. (So why don’t you move there, ya commie bum? I wish I could have long ago, believe me and I hope to be able to soon.) I have strange relationships with the US and with my city of residence, Berkeley. With the latter I have a definite love/hate relationship. Officially I’m proud of Berkeley, but at the same time its a mess and when I reference all the scruffy looking poorly dressed people I do not just mean our sizable homeless population. Berkeley is dominated by 50ish men with ponytails who wear jeans, sandals and a clean but very old shirt. There are also women of retirement age still wearing the dresses they looked cute in in the Sixties. Others look they slapped together their wardrobes from the costumes used in a production of Hair. (How did I get on this topic? Only my psychiatrist knows for sure).

Anyway I’m outta here tomorrow. More to come.

15 July 2017

Memorial Services are Discussed, Particularly One Attended Today



It’s hard to get a memorial service right. I’ve been to a lot lately, two this year alone for good friends.  I was at one for a friend about six years ago that was nearly perfect. One feature of a good service is that there’s no “open mic” at the end in which anyone in attendance can come up and say a few words. That can drag on forever and some of the people I’ve heard in such situations barely know the deceased, ramble incoherently, merely repeat what others have said or are up there to hear the sound of their own voices. A good memorial service creates an atmosphere in which the dearly departed is celebrated and mourned (emphasis on the former) and tedium does not set in.

I want to a memorial service today and they had an open share at the end but limited it to just a few people. Two were welcome additions and the other was not. The overall service was fine. It was well attended and reasonably well organized. It served to remind me what a great person Paul was and how lucky I was to have been his friend for four decades. It also — and this is inevitable — made me miss him and wish I’d been a better friend. (I wrote about Paul shortly after learning his pancreatic cancer had reach the the-end-is-near stage.)

The first speaker during the service was a disaster. Here’s a sign someone is going to be a poor speaker: they start by telling you that they’re “not very good at this sort of thing.” Then they prove it. The poor guy went on way to long telling pointless stories and sharing uninteresting facts (we could have got by without knowing what bands Paul liked listening to in the 80s). He also had a terrible speaking voice. Not his fault but it only served to acerbate this meandering talk.

A few subsequent speakers were darn good. They included humor in their remarks and kept their comments brief. A few others could have been done without but at least spared us being overly long as the first chap was.

I generally think about the deceased during a memorial service and the times we had together and the impact we had on one another’s lives. But I also can’t help but think about my own memorial service. I’m determined to earn a good one, one in which people can say nice things and genuinely mean them. If not, what the hell, I’ll be dead anyway.

There was a reception afterwards as is usually the case. Post memorial receptions are a lot like retirement or birthday parties, people mingle around chatting and make reference to the honoree but inevitably go on to other topics. It’s only natural. This was a potluck reception. I shy away from potluck food finding it can cause havoc with the digestive system.

I caught up with a few people I’d hadn’t seen in ages, most of whom I probably will never see again. One kept talking about how great his life was these days to the extent that I wasn’t sure if I should believe him or that I should at least question his motives on insisting he was living the good life. There was another person who I hadn’t seen in close to ten years who I was looking forward to exchanging pleasantries with. He’s an author who’s first book I read before meeting him. It was called “If I Never Get Back” and it was fantastic. Years later he wrote a sequel which was one of the worst books I’ve ever read. Paul had shared my opinion on both novels. Nevertheless he’s a good chap — or so I remembered. We shook hands and exchanged, “good to see ya"s. Then he made comment on my purple tie which I was wearing with a black shirt — suitable to the occasion — as the backdrop. He cracked wise about me being Catholic. Fair enough. We were interrupted and when resuming conversation I asked about his daughter. After a brief update he poked fun at the Buddhist prayer beads I wear. That was in lieu of asking about my children or my doings or my opinion on reforming the Julian calendar. So that answered my question about what he’s been doing the past few years  — turning into an asshole.

I checked in with a few more people, all of whom greeted me warmly and I them. Then the missus and I gave hugs and chatted briefly with Paul’s widow, as sweet and wonderful a woman as ever worked the earth. That was enough for me, time to head home.

During the service someone shared a quote from Maya Angelou. I here paraphrase it: people will not remember you for what you said or what you did, but how you made them feel.

While one person today made me feel irritated and disappointed, the focus of the day’s memorial was a man who, for most of our time together — dating back to freshman year in college — made me  happy. Now I'm trying hold on to how happy he often made me and let go of how sad his death is. RIP Paul Tjogas.

10 July 2017

The Blogger Finally Blogs Again Mentions A Coming Trip, Al Franken, Two New Films and Names his Favorite Planet

Al Franken

I am not deceased, nor have I died, passed away, been lost nor have I met my maker nor a baker or candlestick maker. It is, however, quite true that I haven’t written in ages (see Bronze, Iron, Middle) so one may have begun to wonder whatever became of me. I say “one may have wondered” because that is approximately the size of my readership. Give or take one or two. ( I have, at times, speculated that my total number of readers is less than zero. I’m not sure how it can be a negative number but I’m equally sure that it is possible.)

So what have I been up to recently? Funny you should ask…

I am still gainfully employed and still must commute to and from said employment. The total number of hours I spend in these worthy pursuits occupies a large portion of most weekdays (excepting those that I do not go to work such as when I have a medical appointment, today for example).

Working and commuting continue although both will soon be blissfully interrupted when the missus and I go to Europe via New York. Stops will include Amsterdam, Berlin, Finland and the UK. Departure is set for 11 days hence. Planning the trip has also occupied a lot of my time and it has been time well spent and enjoyed. Half the fun is getting there.

Too much of my time has been sitting and staring at a spot on the floor while in the throes of depression. This is time wasted and it is time spent being sad which makes it doubly useless. Through therapy I am doing my best to limit this time with slow but steady success. The depression has been compounded by the deaths of two of my best friends in the first six months of this year. I miss them greatly. My life was richer for their presence so their premature departures leave a void that memories can only partially fill.

I have continued to watch movies religiously. I’ve seen two in theaters these past two Saturdays and enjoyed both. They couldn’t be more different. The first was Baby Driver. I do not like this kind of film but I loved this film. It had an energy and intelligence and a  brilliantly melding of music and action. The second was the Ornithologist, a Portugese film in which an ornithologist looks at birds, gets tied up by Chinese female hikers, has gay beach sex with a deaf goat herder, is shot by three topless women on horseback, is visited by a dove in his zipped up tent, turns into someone else, views bizarre pagan rituals and loses and find things hither and yon. Typical stuff.

The wife and I saw Senator Al Franken speak here in Berkeley and it was 90 minutes well spent with a great deal of laughter some of which of the uproarious variety and a lot of insight into Franken’s life and into the US Senate (spoiler alert: everyone hates Ted Cruz). I am a long time admirer of Mr. Franken’s, from his time at SNL, through his comedic/political books, through his time on the Senate.

I’ve also spent a lot of time not writing and more specifically, wondering why I’m not writing. It is a mystery why the spigot goes off completely at times and cannot be turned on. Sometimes I would sit down to write and manage a sentence or two and other times I would just stare at a blank screen. More often I couldn’t even get that far. The idea of writing something was akin to the idea of inventing a time machine, I had no idea how to even start. “The feeling” came back today and so far I’ve managed over 600 words with no trouble at all. Am I back or is this a fluke? Hopefully the “block” was the fluke. I certainly intend to chronicle my travels and those brave souls who venture to this blog will see a steady diet of posts from Europe.

Meanwhile the news continues to be dominated by that blowhard in the White House who is making the US look like a badly told joke. He is also threatening to ravish the economy, the environment, health care and the country’s status as a champion of liberty, compassion and equal rights (at least a supposed champion of those, if not always one in actuality).  Moreover he is disgraced the office of presidency and set the bar so low for his successors that they’ll be able to step over it.

I can recall the assassination of a president, the Vietnam War, Watergate, Iran-Contra, the Clinton impeachment, the invasion of Iraq and yet this is the lowest point the country’s seen in my lifetime.

Hey, it can only get better.

Right?

I’ve also enjoyed visits from grandnephews and a grand niece with another scheduled for today. I am a huge fan of messing about with the three to seven year old crowd. They seem to like me a lot and its no wonder when I turn like them so much. I guess the word love could have been substituted for like. Prior to that youngest daughter was in town for a few days and we’ll see her again when we stop in New York on our way to the old country. Given her and oldest daughter’s successes in life and the fact that my marriage just reached the 30 year mark, I think it safe to say I haven’t made a total shambles of my time on Earth.

Earth, by the way is my favorite planet. It has an overwhelming advantage over other planets in that I’ve never visited them. Maybe I’d prefer Neptune or Saturn but who’s to know absent a visit? Come to think of it Earth is also my least favorite for the very same reason. My favorite star is the sun. It provides us with solar heating. Can’t beat that. I like our moon although as I’ve said before it needs a name. Moon is what it is. We don’t call where we live “planet” so why do we call our one and only moon, “moon.”? Moons of other planets have names so why not ours? I will now step down from my soap box.

Hey look! I finally wrote a blog post again! (I think this was an instance in which exclamation points were called for. Don’t you?)

25 June 2017

Words Speak Louder than Actions -- The Sad Fate of Watkins, Middle School Math Teacher



Watkins was turned out on his ear. They did everything short of executing the poor bastard. Nearly 20 years a teacher in good standing then one remark, one slip of the tongue and his career goes down the drain. How do you measure one short comment against all the young lives he’s positively impacted and his incalculable contributions to the school in general?

Poor Watkins had maintained a spotless record, making no enemies among colleagues, staff or administrators. Then that damn little bastard Tyree Robinson pissed him off. It was particularly strange because Watkins had a reputation for a really long fuse. Tyree had tested the patience of many a teacher including yours truly. I’d visualized choking the little shit myself. But no one would have predicted that if anyone snapped it’d be Watkins.

Of course there were mitigating factors at play. It was a day in which nothing was going right for Watkins. He spilled coffee in the morning, splattering a few papers he’d been grading. Then there was a testy phone call with an irrational parent at lunchtime. I heard that Watkins handled it as well as one could. Plus there was the general shitty attitude of kids that day as they practically fell over one another to be obnoxious. It was a cool, slate gray and very windy day. Lunchtime sports had been cancelled and a fight had been stopped before it could get started depriving students of a highly anticipated spectacle.

Watkins had started that post lunch class with what he knew would be a real boffo lesson plan. But as often happens among middle schoolers, the damn kids got in the way. They were so boisterous and uncooperative that Watkins had no choice but to shut it down and make them work silently out of their textbooks. So by the time Tyree went into his act, Watkins’ nerves were frayed.

Maybe it was the accumulated frustrations from 19 years of dealing with adolescents. Here’s a man who was famed for his patience, understanding and tolerance. He would make himself available to students at lunchtime and after school, happy to go over the minutest detail over and over again until the student understood. And he didn’t care how much a student acted out in his classroom, Watkins gave the same measure of his devotion to the troublemaker as he did the apple polisher. Maybe the damn was bound to break. Maybe there was a limit to what one man can do. He’d endured the slings and arrows of the vilest student and carried on. Watkins never asked the administration to mete out harsh punishment to students in his charge. Indeed he often begged for leniency. He hated for students to get suspended. And he never uttered a bad word about a student, let alone to a student. Maybe no one can go on like that forever. Maybe everyone has a breaking point. Perhaps on that fateful day Watkins simply reached his.

I heard the ruckus that led to Watkins’ outburst. It was a bit rowdy in his classroom but nothing to be alarmed about. I was on my prep period grading papers and didn’t give it a second thought. Then I heard what turned out to have been the reaction to Watkins’ infamous comment. First a sudden dead silence, then there were howls. There was outrage. There was indignation. This was not an ordinary noise to emanate from a classroom. Middle school teachers learn to respond to the unusual. I got up and peaked in Watkins’ room. He stood there looking at the students with total defeat playing across his pallid face. As Watkins later said he knew instantly that his comment had crossed the line and there was no taking it back and no apology that would redeem him. He stood there stock still being bombarded by angry reposts. It was as if he had just stepped into an elevator shaft and was resigned to his fate.

Meanwhile stupid Tyree Robinson was a martyr. A true hero to classmates because he was the one to whom Watkins’ words had been directed. Tyree was eating up the attention just as he did any attention that came his way. Tyree was an attention whore and a loud mouth who did not have a selfless bone his body. To think that these young people were putting him on a pedestal while getting ready to tear down a great teacher like Watkins was unbearable.

“Could you get, Mr. Durango?” Watkins asked me feebly. Durango was a vice principal. He’d need to come in to calm the situation, sort things out and take statements.

While we waited I stood physically and emotionally at Watkins’ side as if he were a prisoner facing execution. Students, of both genders, all colors, and all abilities, stared at Watkins. Some in anger, some in shock, some seemed bewildered, curious, almost as if they were mystified by how a grown man could transform before their eyes. I made it a point to keep them quiet and was particularly keen on keeping Tyree from uttering a word. I knew he was reveling in the triumph of getting a teacher to crack.

When Mr. Durango came in half the students tried at once to tell the story of Watkin’s utterance. But no one could silence a room faster than our vice principal. Once he’d done so and subsequently gotten the gist of the story, he asked Watkins to go to his office and wait there. I returned to my own room as Durango heard the students out noting the consistency of their stories. He then had them write statements and remained in the room until the dismissal bell..

Due to the nature of Watkins’ remark he was suspended — with pay — pending further investigation. Really there was nothing more to investigate. Watkins did not deny what he said and the remark he admitted to jibed with the student’s claims. A cursory look into Watkins’ background would be fruitless because he had maintained a spotless record. The parent outrage however was another matter and it quickly spread to become community outrage which of course got the attention of the school board which of course made the matter infinitely more serious. Watkins wouldn’t be able to get by on the technicality that, other than for one moment, he’d been an exemplary teacher. The odds also were, at least in my opinion, that he would continue to be an outstanding teacher for the next ten or 15 or however many years he plied his trade.

The matter was taken out of the hands of our principal and would be decided the school board under the advisement of the district superintendent for human resources. Watkins’ suspension was extended indefinitely. Meanwhile his class was taken over by a sub who had no control over the students and whose lessons were straight out of the textbook and thus dull and uninspired.

Watkins was divorced and lived alone, seeing his children on weekends. I visited a week after the infamous “incident.” He’d aged ten years. He sat slumped in an easy chair in front of the TV which was blaring some stupid game show.

“I never got the chance to apologize, to say I was wrong and that those words don’t in any way shape or form represent who I am or what I believe.  I just don’t know what happened, it came out….it all happened so fast and I’ve felt nothing but terrible ever since.”

It was hard listening to Watkins, just as it was difficult to look at him and see him crushed. All I could do was give him assurances about how we were all behind him and that it would blow over and everything would be all right.

But it didn’t blow over and everything wasn’t all right. The school board found cause to dismiss Watkins post haste, his salary and benefits honored until the end of the school year. The union mounted a defense of Watkins but it was too little too late and it was uninspired. The union could have acted sooner and with more vigor but were timid in face of the exact words Watkins said.

So that was that.

Faculty was mostly supportive of Watkins although a few of the African American teachers were not in great sympathy with him. Still no one reckoned that he deserved to be ousted. We invited him to the big party teachers have on the evening of the last day of the school year. It’s traditionally a big bash with a barbecue and lots of booze. Watkins didn’t show.

Two weeks later some joggers watched as a man drove his car into the bay. It was deep enough at that spot that the car was completely submerged. Watkins body was found in the driver’s seat of the car. Pinned to his shirt was an envelope in a ziplock baggy. Inside the envelope was a note that simply said: “all I did was call him fucking ni--er. NOT FAIR!”

The darn guy couldn’t even spell the word out.

18 June 2017

HEY REMEMBER ME?! I'm Finally Back With a Blog Post After Overcoming a Horrible Case of Writer's Block


That's Rihanna, she's mentioned below.

Some people say that writer’s block doesn’t exist. Some people also say that global warming doesn’t exist. In conclusion: some people are idiots.

I’ve had a case of writer’s block -- okay forget block it’s more like that monolith from 2001 -- and it has been sucking all of my writing ability into a black hole. I thus been rendered  incapable of stringing together more words than it takes to write an email. Mind you, I’ve written some nice emails, a few have displayed the wit and grace that have personified my writing lo these many years, while others have been most informative and still others have included a lone pithy remark and a link to a hilarious video.

What causes writer’s block? Fuck if I know. I don’t get it often and it usually just drops by for a few days, maybe a week. This has been a particularly virulent case aggravated by various factors. The most notable of which is some pretty bad ass depression. I’ve written enough about said depression lately so suffice to say that this has been the darker, deeper, more numbing variety. (As of this writing I am enjoying a depression free day as I did for four consecutive days recently.) I’ve also been wrestling with various nettlesome, though not serious, physical ailments, most notably a rash. Add to this coming to terms with the pending death of another good friend (that will make two this year) and it's little wonder that my fingers have not been dancing about the keyboard at their usual pace.

So it seems that I’m over the dreaded block (monolith) and boy don’t it feel good. Not being able to write is like not being able to speak coherently or to be sexually impotent or to have lost memory. Writing is my past, present, and future and it keeps them all alive just as a well rounded human needs. I do not suggest that I am particularly well rounded though if someone else does I’ll not issue a denial.

One of the problems with writer’s block is that there is no topic that seems worth scribbling about. Of course when you’re in the zone you hardly need a topic, a kernel of an idea, an image, a quote, an event will suffice. When free of the dreaded block I can write about your dog's fleas. Anyway I've got other topics of more importance and interest than fleas to write about...If I can just think of one....

Let's see there was another white cop who got away with killing another African American in cold blood. It's not just about cops, its really about the system and the institutionalized racism. We can't continue to accept this.

The jury in the Bill Cosby rape case couldn't reach a verdict because in this country an African American can get "justice" if he is rich and famous (see Simpson, OJ).

There were a couple of more mass shootings this week and the NRA still has a sizable number of congressmen by the balls so no gun laws will change and there won't even be much, if any meaningful dialogue on the subject.

Senate republicans are crafting a new health care bill behind close doors, it's all very hush hush although other republicans support the bill despite not having seen it. It will doubtless favor the huge pharmaceutical companies and insurance conglomerates with nice fat tax breaks for the already wealthy. Meanwhile screwing millions out of their health care. These are a people without compassion, without a soul who are available to the highest bidder.

We still have an idiot for a president who's favorite subject seems to be himself. He is a liar and a cheat and a sloppy businessman and this is all empirically verifiable. As is his obstruction of justice and his fuck buddy relationship to any Russian who can help get or maintain power or cash. Especially Boss Putin.

A "man" (alex jones) who claims that the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in which 28 people died many of them small children, did not take place, is being given air time on NBC tonight. How is this different than putting on a guest who claims an alien abduction or that Elvis lives or that the moon landing was faked? I'll tell you how it's different, it's worse. Any of those three would have more credibility and do far far less to unnecessarily hurt any feeling sthan this rabid dog in human skin.

See? There's ever so much to write about and for the sake of balance I'll close with some pleasant topics.

Rihanna.

Season five of Orange is the New Black, seasons three of Better Call Saul and Fargo. Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, the Late Show with Stephen Colbert, The Simpsons.

The resistance is strong and the pushback to Trump's reign of error is effective and predictive of great change in the days to come.

It's Gay Pride month and celebrations are taking place all over the world.

Strawberries are delicious. So are bagels and smoked salmon. So are the smoothies I concoct after I run. So too my wife's cooking.

The wife is retiring in two weeks and can devote more time to separating Rihanna and I. We're going to Europe in July (the missus and I, no Rihanna).

It's Father's Day and I had a great dad and I have two beautiful daughters who I am enormously proud of.

And the writer's block has been chiseled down to nothing.