24 December 2015

Lloyd Grows Up

First of all there was his name — Lloyd. It was a stupid name for a kid to have and he knew it better than anyone. His schoolmates all had names like Jason and Cole and Decklin and Josh and Peter and Zach. Of course everyone one of them was either taller or more athletic and better looking and cooler and always knew what to say to girls and teachers and other adults. Lloyd got tongue tied talking to pretty much anybody. That is if he could think of anything to say in the first place. Oh he thought of a lot to say to people before and after, but never while they were there. So Lloyd kept quiet as much as possible.

The thing was though, Lloyd was smarter than anyone else. He wasn't bragging — because he never said it to anyone — he understood math problems like instantly. Science experiments were a snap. He loved history and always read beyond the assignments to learn more. And in English, well he just breezed through the stories and books they were given and would write essays twice as long as he was assigned and in half the time. Lloyd took French too and was practically fluent after only two years. The only trouble Lloyd has was in PE — he was awful, although he always tried his hardest. Lloyd also had trouble socially. For example everyone hung out in their cliques at lunch time or at least with a friend or two. Everyone was socializing or doing sports or playing cards or something. But not Lloyd. He sat off by himself. He’d eat the lunch his mom packed and then read a book. All by himself.

No one seemed to mind. No one paid Lloyd any attention. It was like he wasn’t even there. Sometimes a ball would bounce over to where Lloyd was sitting and he’d weakly throw it back. That was pretty much it. There was a girl named Jenna who sometimes would sit down next to him  and ask for help on a math problem. She was probably the second smartest person in the school — after Lloyd — and like him was among the five 8th graders who went to the high school for advanced algebra. Jenna was really nice and kind of cute but she only ever talked to Lloyd about math problems and he was glad to help but he never tried to talk to her about anything else, not that she would be interested anyway. Lloyd guessed that Jenna was popular. Of course Lloyd guessed everyone but him was popular.

Lloyd had no conception about what the future might bring beyond going to high school and then to a top university. He was neither excited nor worried about his life. Lloyd just took each day as it came, breezed through his school work, dutifully performed his chores at home and tried to ignore how lonely he was. He was an only child so Lloyd’s only companionship came from his parents. Dad was an economics professor and mom wrote books and articles about art history. They were busy people but always managed to give Lloyd a lot of their time, which often meant trips to museums, short nature hikes, and vacations in Europe during the summer. They also watched old movies together, which somehow Lloyd enjoyed most of all. He had an aunt and uncle who lived nearby but their two children were much older than Lloyd and he found them patronizing — a word that had recently joined his already impressive vocabulary. There was one living grandparent on each side of his family but they both lived far away.

It was during the first week of Lloyd’s two week Christmas vacation that his life changed. Afterwards Lloyd realized that it was inevitable that something dramatic would happen. After all he’d lived just a month shy of 14 years with nothing out of the ordinary happening. He was due. Lloyd had gone Christmas shopping downtown. For Lloyd this meant buying three presents, one each for mom, dad and his grandmother who was flying in from back east. He was browsing in a clothing store when he saw Jenna. This terrified Lloyd. He never ever knew what to say to any of his classmates when he saw them outside of school least of all a girl and especially a cute one. The fact that he had a relationship at all with her (and that just being discussing math problems) somehow made it worse.
Sure enough Jenna saw him and she immediately broke into a big smile and said, “hi.” Then she walked over to Lloyd who muttered, “hello Jenna.”

“So I guess you’re Christmas shopping too or you wouldn’t be in this store, huh?”

“Yeah. Um…I’m looking for someone, I mean something for my mom or grandma.”

“I thought you were Jewish and didn't celebrate Christmas.”

“Umm. No we’re not Jewish or even Christian or anything but we do celery I mean celebrate the holiday.”

“Say,” Jenna said her countenance expressing excitement. “I could help you! Being a female I’m probably better than you are at picking gifts for other females. No offense.”

Lloyd was not offended. In fact, Lloyd was finally relaxing in the presence of another person and a girl at that. “None taken. I’d be gl hap glad and happy for some help. If it’s no trouble.”

That settled, Jenna squired Lloyd around the store and helped him select a gift for his mother. She then took him to two other stores where she helped him find a gift for his father and then his grandmother. All the while they chatted freely about school and then movies and travel and food with Lloyd getting more and more comfortable. Lloyd was completely engaged in talking to and being with Jenna. It was not until she excused herself to use the restroom that he reflected on how happy he was and how easy talking to Jenna was. Lloyd was practically giddy. When Jenna emerged his joy was further compounded when she suggested they go the Burger Barn for lunch. This was practically a date! When they ended up at table by the window that afforded a view of the downtown boulevard. Lloyd mused on the fact that maybe someone would see him “dining” with Jenna. This both excited and frightened him. He imagined how impressed others would be but also worried that he’d be asked 1,000 questions. Lloyd had taken a huge step today but was sure that he was nowhere near ready for lengthy conversations with curious schoolmates, especially if it invoked a lengthy q and a.

Lloyd was munching on his burger and listening to Jenna discuss her brother’s high school experiences when for some reason a taxi cab parking across the street caught his attention. Lloyd watched as a woman got out of the cab and was mildly surprised when it turned out to be his mother. Before he could consider whether he should get her attention, he saw a man also get of of the taxi. It was not a person he recognized. Lloyd could feel himself frown in concentration. Then he watched as his mother kissed the man. On the lips. For several seconds. Next his mother and the man walked off in opposite directions but Lloyd noticed that they both looked back at one point and exchanged coquettish waves.

Lloyd could not finish his burger.

“What’s the matter? Did you see something strange?” Jenna was genuinely curious.

“I just saw my mother kissing another man.” Lloyd said it automatically, robotically and seconds later as silence filled the air, he could not believe that he had uttered those words.

The two young teenagers sat in dead silence until Jenna said, “oh my god, Lloyd, that has got to be so weird for you. I’m…sorry.”

Lloyd looked Jenna straight in the eye. “I probably shouldn’t have said that it’s just, just that I was so stunned.”

“Do you want to talk about it ‘cause if you do we could but if you totally don’t want to talk about it we could not or if you want to be alone or — ”

“It’s okay. I don’t need to talk about it and you don’t have to go. But we are done shopping so I guess you want to go home or something.”

“Let’s go to a movie!” Jenna exclaimed.

And they did.

Movies always took Lloyd’s mind of things. He had no problem escaping into the story, but on this occasion his attention was half on the film — which wasn’t that great — and half on his mother. Lloyd found that he was both upset and accepting. He’d always been comforted by the fact that he came from a happy home so this incident suggested that perhaps it wasn’t happy as he imagined and that it might break up someday, perhaps even before he was off to college. But Lloyd also felt something new. Determination. Lloyd had just been given his first good hard slap in the face by life and he wasn’t going to let it get him down. If life was going to mete out a little undeserved punishment from time to time by gosh he was just going to absorb the blow and move on. He remembered what his current history teacher, Mr. Tricamo said recently, “it’s not what happens to you that is important, but how you respond to it.” Lloyd was a changed young man simply because something unforeseen had happened.

After the movie Lloyd and Jenna walked toward their homes. When it came time to part Jenna said, “I had a really nice time with your Lloyd. Maybe we can hang out again soon.”

Lloyd said, “I had a nice time too and thanks for your help and suggesting lunch and then the movie. I’d like it if we could get together again.” Lloyd had never spoken so long and so eloquently (for his standards) to a girl before. He thought about his mother and got a little angry but shook the thought away, then he leaned forward and gave Jenna a small peck on the cheek. She responded by giving him a small peck (though not as small) on his cheek.

Walking the last two blocks home Lloyd sung a Christmas carol out loud. No one was at home when Lloyd arrived. He sat down and turned on the TV. Lloyd clasped his hands behind his head, leaned back and smiled.

22 December 2015

12 Days of Television -- The 12 Best TV Shows I Watched in 2015


Television is largely a wasteland of the inane, the lame and the shame. Endless hours of reality shows that are as close to reality is we are to Jupiter. Loud, obnoxious commercials full of lies and deceptions. Formulaic dramas, unfunny comedies, hateful ill informed talking heads. I could go on. But if one digs deep enough it is possible to discover some hidden gems. Not many mind you. Frankly I don't have a lot of time for TV so I'm very very selective. Most of the best uses for our flat screened beauty is watching sports (and not a lot of that) and films. Here I present 12 TV shows that I happily occupied my time with this past calendar year. You will note that two of the shows on the list have long since ended their original run. The latter has not aired new episodes in over 50 years. Still, all the listed shows provided much needed entertainment and even some insights and cause for intellectual musings. I have not included any one and done specials or straight news shows.


1. The Wire (2002-2008). Yes I know, the show ended seven years ago but I only wised up and started watching in August of this year. I rank it among the best five dramas in TV history and wrote about it a few months ago.
2.  Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. Positively brilliant. Oliver and company have taken what The Daily Show has done so well and ran with it. Through the luxury of only having to appear weekly and being on HBO and thus free of too much silly censorship, they can go deeper and more effectively into issues usually focusing on one a week. They have shown a light on such issues as sex ed in the US, mandatory sentencing, child labor in the fashion industry, patent trolls just to name a few.
3.  The Late Show. First we enjoyed the last few months of the great David Letterman and then after a few months in limbo along came his successor, Stephen Colbert who was made for the late night talk show format just as Dave was. Genius to genius. Laughs aplenty.
4. The Daily Show. Like the Late Show we enjoyed the end of a hosts run with Jon Stewart bowing out in August and saw a worthy replacement come along in the form of Trevor Noah. It would seem many of the writers stayed on board and the show is witty and insightful as ever and still taking down pompous politicians and ridiculous newscasters and commentators. A few "correspondents" like the the wonderful Jessica Williams stayed on and a few new ones came on board such as the hilarious Roy Wood Jr.
5.  Fargo Season 2. Unlike True Detective, Fargo came through with a season two that was every bit the equal of the first one. Writer Noah Hawley never disappoints. There are surprises, there is a great cast (Ted Danson, Patrick Wilson, Kristen Dunst and more.) The violence is unflinching but there is a warm human touch too.
6. Better Call Saul. The highly anticipated spin off from Breaking Bad did not disappoint in no small part because of the great acting chops of star Bob Odenkirk. While the first season seemed largely designed to set up what should be some great stuff to come, it was well worth watching.
7. Orange is the New Black. Season three maintained the same quality as the preceding ones. More emphasis was placed on other characters besides Piper (Taylor Schilling) and the result was just as compelling as what we'd seen before.
8. The Simpsons. More than the new episodes -- which are terrific -- being able to enjoy over 25 seasons of reruns is a year round Christmas gift.
9. Show Me a Hero. This was the HBO six episode series about real events in Yonkers, New York over civil rights housing issues. Oscar Isaac starred and gave a transcendent performance. It was this show that inspired me to watch The Wire, which was made by the same people.
10. The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst. Talk about "as if torn from today's headlines" this was the HBO series on Robert Durst, the multi millionaire who kept getting away with murder. No sooner did the show start airing then Durst was arrested. Just today he was order extradited from New Orleans to California to stand trial for one of the several murders to which he has been linked.
11. You Bet Your Life (1950-1961). You tube has dozens of hours of episodes of the seminal "talk show" hosted by Groucho Marx. Whenever I have had a spare 20 minutes and needed an emotional pick me up, YBL has come through.
12. Brooklyn Nine-Nine. I came for the former student (Andy Samberg) and stayed for the laughs. I love a good sitcom but there are precious few worth even one look these days. Here's one with a wonderful ensemble cast that never stoops to dramatic pablum, always remembering that laughs come first last and in between and delivering them.

I hope there is more to come from TV in the coming 12 months. Then again I don't. I barely had time for these shows.


20 December 2015

Yes, Richard There is a Santa Claus: Christmas and I Through the Years

I recall once in elementary school — it must have been around 4th or 5th grade — our teacher asking the class who believed in Santa Claus. I was one of about four hands that went up and the only male one. I suppose this further served as confirmation for me that Santa was a fictional character. I’m sure I knew by then, but I didn’t except the truth either before the teacher polled us, or after. I hung on to my belief in Santa through that Christmas season and perhaps another one or two more. I was a determined lad, even in my fantasies. It was to good a story to let go of.

Looking back I’m quite proud of myself for sticking to my faith in the right jolly old elf. There’s enough reality that one has to start dealing with as adolescence approaches, a warm embrace of fantasy is good for the soul. In my case I believe it was also indicative of my rich imagination.

Christmas was a magical time for me. We always had plenty of decorations around the house, centering around a sizable tree. Stocking were hung — by the chimney and with care — and there were Christmas cookies and hot chocolate aplenty. A visit to the downtown department store — Hinks — to sit on Santa’s lap was de rigueur. This of course was back when it was Christmas season and not holiday season. We even had a Christmas tree in our classroom and a Christmas pageant was held at school. Downtown Berkeley was festooned with Christmas decor.

In the 21st century Christmas is inescapable in these parts, but 50 years ago it wasn’t tread around lightly, there was no such phrase as Happy Holidays (or if there was I don’t recall it) and as uncomfortable as it might have made Jews, Muslims and others who ignored or even disdained  Christmas, the holiday was in your face.

That was fine with me. It was a break from the rest of the year. It was different, it was colorful and it came with presents.  I have always been unambiguous in my love for receiving gifts. Mind you I like giving as well, but there is a real excitement — yes, even today — to opening a present. There are typically about 363 days of the year when one doesn’t get to open a present, so I cherish those two or three a year (usually Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and my birthday) when I do.

But mostly there was the magic of the season and that was wholly dependent on there being a Santa Claus who managed to visit tens of millions of homes and deposit gifts under trees using a reindeer drawn sleigh as transportation. I usually left Santa a glass of milk and cookies. The last year I did this I noted in the thank you note that Santa’s handwriting was quite similar to my father’s. I was not suspicious.

The magic has continued to exist. I experienced through my own children and now through the children of my nieces and nephew. Juolupukki pays a call every year to our Christmas Eve gatherings and we all have the honor of sitting on his lap as gifts our distributed.

When I was a child we went to my Uncle’s on most Christmas Eves for what were rowdy, joyous affairs in which much alcohol was consumed and my cousins and I ran around acting very much like the kids we were. Christmas morning gifts were opened and then it was off to my grandmother’s for Christmas dinner. This would usually be a more sedate affair but with the goodies Grandma provided and the opening of still more gifts, it was a time to be cherished.

One year we went to Lake Tahoe for the holidays and I got to experience my first white Christmas. Being away from our home and most of the extended family was difficult but the snow made up for it. Plus that was the Christmas when I got a much coveted bee bee gun. I spent the next few days trekking in the nearby woods  shooting down twigs (all while pretending I was at the Battle of the Bulge).

By my late teens and early 20s Christmas was still great fun. Then I was coming home from college and reuniting with family and spiked egg nog and other seasonal boozy drinks were much on my mind and in my blood system. For a period in my life Christmas was another excuse — and in my mind a particularly good one — for imbibing freely.

Christmas has always been about the music, stories, films, and TV specials. It is a holiday that has inspired some classic tales, none better than Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. It’s a book I’ve read numerous times just before December 25th. So often, in fact, that I can recite whole passages. I’ve also enjoyed some of the film versions. As a child it was Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol (1962) which I loved so much that one year I skipped the previously mentioned school Christmas pageant to stay home and watch it (I sure could have used a DVR in those days). More recently I’ve favored the 1951 cinematic version A Christmas Carol featuring Alastair Sim as Ebenezeer Scrooge.

Christmas is still a wonderful break from the sameness of the rest of the year. I honestly believe that I love it in some ways as much now as I did growing up, the only difference being that I view it as an adult rather than through the mind of a child. The implausibility of there being a Santa Claus has finally sunk in — okay I admit it, the impossibility too. But I love the smell of our tree and the sound of bells ringing and Nat King Cole singing chestnuts roasting on an open fire and convincing my wife she’s standing under invisible mistletoe.

I seriously wish there was a Santa Claus. Besides of course the one that still resides in my heart.



Ho ho ho.

15 December 2015

I Start off With the Whole War on Christmas Bit But Discuss a Few Other Topics as well, Worth a Look

This is Joulupukki, the Finnish and one true Santa Claus.
Merry Christmas everyone. Or should I say Happy Holidays? Or does it much matter? People on the political right in this country will tell you that there is a “war on Christmas” in the United States. If so the opposing forces are like the Polish army taking on Germany in 1939. This is no war, its a massacre. Most of the hubbub surrounds the substitution  of Happy Holidays for Merry Christmas. Both sides are a bit silly — okay, more than a bit.

I used to have a boss who was Jewish. At the appropriate time of year I wished him a Happy Hanukkah. A few weeks later on December 23 I was leaving work and headed for my hometown to celebrate Christmas. He of course knew this. He said: “Have a happy holiday.” What? You can’t wish me a Merry Christmas when that is precisely what I’m going to celebrate? I had specifically wished him a Happy Hanukkah. Come on.

My daughters attended a pre school here in Berkeley that was very good in all respects. One thing they did that we liked was acknowledge other cultures’ holidays and traditions. Cinco De Mayo, Chinese New Year, Kwanza. the aforementioned Hanukkah. But when it got close to mid December before putting up a Christmas tree (or as some call it, a holiday tree) they surveyed parents and asked if anyone objected. One parent did. No tree. The tyranny of the minority. They never polled us about any other cultural observation. So there you go.

But a “war” on Christmas? Christmas ain’t going anywhere in the US especially as long as this is a capitalist country. Even in flamingly liberal San Francisco, Christmas decorations are everywhere, Christmas carols are playing in stores, Santa Clauses are ubiquitous, stores are jammed with shoppers and December 25th is still a day off. Some war.

I love Christmas. I did as a little kid (there’s a surprise) and as a teen, as a young adult and now as a not so young adult (I don’t feel old). And yet I am not a Christian. There are many of us who celebrate the holiday while ignoring its tenuous religious roots. (Biblical scholars believe that Jesus was probably born in the Spring and no evidence exists that he was born in December, let alone on the 25th.) In my case, again as for many, it is time to get together with family. Youngest daughter will be coming in from New York and oldest niece from Italy with her mate and young uns. I like the carols, the tree, like geting gifts, love getting them and like the decorations and the food. It is a wonderful break from the rest of the year plus it come at a time when I have two glorious weeks off from work.

There are also a few really good Christmas films such as It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), Christmas in Connecticut (1945), the original Miracle on 34th Street (1947), The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942), Elf (2003), Home Alone (1990) and Home Alone 2 (1992), The Shop Around the Corner (1940), Mon Oncle Antoine (1971) and the Christmas Carol (1951) version with Alistar Sim. There are a lot of really awful Christmas movies too but then again there are a lot of really awful films of all kind.

New for the Christmas season is A Very Murray Christmas a Netflix feature that I quite enjoyed. It's difficult not to like anything that Bill Murray is part of. This is like the old style Christmas TV specials I grew up watching that starred the likes of Dean Martin, Bing Crosby and Andy Williams, but with modern sensibilities. There were a slew of guest stars like George Clooney, Maya Rudolph, Paul Shafer, Rashida Jones and Miley Cyrus. I was particularly impressed with Ms. Cyrus who has a lovely singing voice and is quite a fetching young lady. It's a shame she's made her public persona more about antics, and shocking people and sexual shenanigans. If she focused on the music we could more easily enjoy a major talent. She might also be a success in film work.

Speaking of films. I finally saw The Martian. I was very impressed, particularly given my lowered expectations. It was an intelligent film about intelligent people doing intelligent things but some characters were witty and charming characters as well. Here was an instance in which all the special effects gadgetry was used in the furtherance of telling a story rather than as an end to themselves. It was big budget without chases or battles or cornball antics. Bravo to director Ridley Scott who, for me, has been off his game of late. Matt Damon was tailor made to play the lead.

I also recently finished reading Graham Greene’s The Quiet American and am about to re-watch the film. It is a superb novel and it is remarkably prescient about America’s forthcoming involvement in Viet Nam (you may have heard something about a war there that went disastrously for the USA and caused a major major riff at home). The book was written in the early Fifties even before the French had been defeated and sent packing. I think The Quiet American should be read in American high schools. It’s accessible, historical and intelligent. The book is a master class in writing fiction.

Anyway what I really want to do is wish everyone a safe and joyous Festivus (it's for the rest of us).



13 December 2015

Incident in the Subway

So here I am sitting in jail and for the life of me I can’t figure out why. What did I do that was so wrong? They say I killed a guy. Well yeah, I suppose. But if this isn’t what you call justifiable homicide then the term doesn’t exist. I mean, come on they should be pinning a medal on me, if anything.

What happened was I was standing on line at the subway station waiting for my train, I had a good position too, third in line which meant I was likely to get a seat. So I’m standing there and I hear an announcement that the train is delayed like five minutes. I think, oh shit, who needs an extra five minutes waiting for a stupid train? I worked all day, I’m tired, I want to get to my apartment maybe pop open a beer and turn the TV on. But what are you gonna do? Ya just gotta wait.

So I’m not in the best of moods when I see this guy. He’s pacing back and forth between my line and the next one. (See the lines are formed on the spots where the train doors open.) Anyway, he’s yakking away on his cell phone. You could tell he was talking to people at his job and that he was some sort of boss there and he was giving orders about one thing or another. Also this guy was pretty young, like in his late 20s or early 30s. The worst thing was his arrogance. I mean this guy was full of himself which you could just hear in the way he talked. Maybe worst even than that was that it seemed like he was showing off. “Hey everybody, I’m a big shot and I’m so important that even during my commute home they need me at work to give orders.” I started to hate this bastard something fierce.

I tried to make eye contact but this guy was so into himself that he wouldn’t have noticed an elephant let alone some schmuck trying to make eye contact. But I kept staring at him with my eyes squinted like they are when I get mad. I shifted my body so that I had a clearer view of the douchebag, I was really getting steamed, I tell ya. Yap, yap, yap that’s all he was doing like he was some biiiig executive who all of us should be so goddamned impressed with. Meanwhile it’s still a few minutes before my train is supposed to arrive and my back is hurting from standing there and my feet are sore and I gotta piss all of a sudden. I kept sighing. These big loud sighs. I’m thinking this might get his attention but no, he’s oblivious to me and everyone else — like I said he wouldn’t have noticed a pachyderm.

Then someone squeezed past me on their way to who knows where and his backpack smacks me in the arm. Did this chump say “excuse me” or anything? No of course not. I was getting fed up with human existence and was even more irritated with the cellphone guy. He was still flapping his gums, the bastard. It sure sounded like he was barking orders at some poor schlep at work or making some big important business deal that would have probably put more money in his bank account at the expense of someone else. He was clearly the type of guy who was all about making money no matter the effect on anyone else. He probably was one of those anti tax libertarian types. More, more, more for me. I’m sure he had a big house in the suburbs and two gas guzzlers in his garage and he probably started out his business life with a lot of his dad’s money and went to some high end business school and got an MBA and didn’t know hard physical labor from a trip to Saturn. This asshole was the worst and he was just reveling in talk, talk, talking on his goddamned cell phone.

Meanwhile the train is even later than they said and there's some annoying, crazy homeless guy in my face asking for money and I gotta shoo him away and this woman behind me is cussing -- which I hate hearing in public -- and there's somebody with a boom box if you can believe it. Everyone is getting on my last nerves which are frayed as it is.

Well finally the train comes and the bastard ends his call and then what does he do? Gets in the fucking front of my line! Can you believe it? Someone says, hey you gotta get in the back, you can’t cut like that, but what he does is he says he was originally in the front of the line and only strayed a bit when he took the call and the other person says okay that’s fine then. Well it’s not fine to me. I’m fuming. I don’t believe for a second that this guy started in the front of the line. I just didn’t. He was for sure used to getting his way and could never, would never, be stopped no matter what. Guys like that have been taking advantage of everyone else forever.

I was gonna take a stand. On behalf of all of us who’ve been pushed around by slimy bastards like this guy I was going to get justice. As the train came into the station and approached the end of the platform where I was standing I did the only sensible thing. I left my place in line and pushed the son of a bitch in front of the train. As I approached him I could smell the disgusting aftershave that he’d bathed in. As I touched him I could feel his silk shirt under the thin sport coat and I could feel the skin underneath it all. Yeah I gave him a good push and he screamed and by god my timing was perfect because he was still in the air when the train smacked him and sent him flying. It was a sight I tell ya.

People screamed and hollered and the train shrieked to a stop and I was suddenly panting but I really felt pretty good, like a hero and all. That’s why I couldn’t understand why people were pointing at me and looking at me like I was some sort of a maniac or something and I really really couldn’t fathom why the cops grabbed me. Shit! I wanted to go home and here I was being taken away from the station and in handcuffs no less. I didn’t think I’d be getting a medal or nothing like that but if anything I deserved some thanks for what I did. Couldn’t they see I was doing everyone a favor and anyway I’d practically been driven to it by the way that guy had been yammering away on his cell phone being such a Class A Jerk.

I got asked a bunch of questions but was too confused by what was going on to really fully understand them so I just basically stared straight ahead and said nothing except when I asked could I use the toilet and could I have a drink of water.

So here I am sitting in this cell and I’m like what the fuck. What’s gonna happen next and when do I get to go home and if I gotta stay long who’ll feed my cat, the poor thing. I mean, don’t they know I got a cat? This is just crazy and…I don’t know. Now that I think about it maybe I shouldn’t have pushed the guy like that. Maybe not. Maybe a punch in the nose would have done it. Ahh the hell with it, I did what I felt was right at the time. Not gonna second guess myself. But I hope the guy didn’t have kids or anything like that. Well what are you gonna do? You can’t go back and change what you’ve done. I’ll live with my actions. That’s all we can do.

That’s all we can

do.

08 December 2015

Tess and Amy: A Tale of Two Women, One Fictional One Real, Who Both Lived Tragic Lives


“Never in her life – she could swear it from the bottom of her soul – had she ever intended to do wrong; yet these hard judgments had come. Whatever her sins, they were not sins of intention, but of inadvertence, and why should she have been punished so persistently?” From Tess of the d'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy.

Goddamn but Tess was dealt a lousy hand. She was like a female Job, but her ill fortunes did not come courtesy of a deity but from the actions of men, one in particular. Tess endures much of the kind of suffering that has been visited on women throughout history -- sexual, societal, patriarchal. Tess is beautiful she is vulnerable she is stubborn she is taciturn yet passionate. She is undone in part by her own moral code, one that demands that she be completely honest with her one true love to the point of revealing to him the ill use she suffered at the hands of another man and her consequent pregnancy (the child died as an infant). Tess could have lived happily ever after by keeping her mouth shut. Simple. Yet for her impossible.

It would be easy enough to declare Tess the culprit in her own demise. But she was the victim of an older man's aggression and it was her loving groom who could not stand the truth about her, as innocent as she may have been in the matter.

Of course Tess came from most humble beginnings and despite having a pathetic father and enabling mother, she may have gone on to happy a life, even with the added burden of being the oldest of a brood of six children. But fate intervened when her father found out he has noble blood. He sent Tess to "claim kin" with a rich woman who shared the family's original last name of d'Urbervilles (a name that her family purchased). It goes all wrong from there as instead of the woman, Tess meets her sophisticated, swarthy son, Alec.

No matter what happens to Tess she plods on. Literally. She is forever walking great distances and taking on whatever job presents itself. Tess falls for the interestingly named Angel Claire at a dairy farm and an ill fated romance ensues. Eventually abandoned by Angel (during their honeymoon) after reveling her past, Tess perseveres and initially and quite proudly rejects Alec's offers of help. But yield she does as her family's destitute state in the wake of father's death is too great a cross to bear. The price for financial salvation is giving herself body (though not soul) to Alec. When Angel finally comes to his senses and tries to reclaim his Tess the final tragedy unfolds.

It's impossible to blame Tess for anything that happens to her, however great the temptation. Yes she is stubborn and proud but these are hardly sins worth the defilement, rejection, poverty and abuse that visit the poor girl.

I recently read the Thomas Hardy novel for the first time then viewed Roman Polanski's film adaptation for the fourth time. Both are, in my estimation, masterpieces. They evoke the beauty of late 19th century England rural life, as well as the hardships and the cruelty. Both book and film are masterfully told by artists who were at the top of their respective fields. In the hands of less accomplished creators Tess the book or film could have been merely a tear jerkers, maudlin and weepy. Instead we have have a compelling story, a tragedy in the grand tradition of Shakespeare.

"If I could give it all back and walk down that street with no hassle, I would...." - Amy Winehouse.

Among the great jazz singers, Tony Bennett ranked Amy Winehouse right up there with Billie Holliday and Ella Fitzgerald. Of course the world got far too small of sample of Winehouse’s great talent as she died at 27 from the effects of alcohol abuse, drugs and bulimia. The brilliant documentary Amy, just released last week on DVD, chronicles her amazing rise to stardom, her troubled times at the top and her predictable end.

Amy Winehouse loved music and she loved to sing and she was passionate and hugely talented. But she was overly influenced by rotten men who used and abused her. She was also an addict. While it is true that you are either an addict or not, there are degrees within the addiction community. I've heard from people who usage went beyond even mine (which is saying a lot). For some too much is never enough and for others too much is just a starting point. Amy Winehouse was clearly in the latter category, but with the right kind of guidance she could have gotten and stayed clean. While its true that a person is only successful in recovery if they want to be, it is also true that an addict can get helpful pushes and corresponding affection and support from those around her. We face our struggles with addiction both very much alone and within a community and support group of those fellow travelers and those who love us. Life is full of contradictions.

Addiction is difficult enough to conquer but when it is accompanied by a fame, well that I can't imagine. Worse still is sudden fame. From humble beginnings one is suddenly recognized and hounded everywhere. This is made clear in the documentary as we see dozens of camera flashes over and over as Amy emerges from a nightclub or hospital or car or her apartment. These flashes are accompanied by the ubiquitous shouted questions. The documentary served to redouble my hatred for the paparazzi.

Fame seems the ultimate double edged sword. Yes it confirms that one's art is appreciated worldwide and thus success has been achieved on a mass scale, but it also means a total loss of privacy. The ability to walk down a street alone is forfeited and details of a person's private life can be spread all over the tabloids, internet and TV. If, like Ms. Winehouse, there are ongoing personal struggles that are common knowledge, it would seem too great a cross to bear.

Was Amy Winehouse responsible for her own sad demise? Sure whatever happens to us is ultimately on us but the only break she ever got was enormous talent. Yes that sounds like a lot but it can't make up for not having a loving family or healthy relationships or freedom from addiction.

I did not discover Amy Winehouse's music until just after her death. I immediately bought all her albums and I've not tired of them yet. To me she is one of the greatest and most original musical artists of all time. Like two other greats, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, she died at 27 and the world is a poorer place for their early departures.

One can only hope that the documentary and the story of Ms. Winehouse's life will serve as a cautionary tale for others, be they headed for great fame or not.


06 December 2015

The Time I Met A Guy Named Herschel


I remember this guy named Herschel who I met once at a party. Herschel was unlike anyone I’d ever met or have meant since. He was wearing a bow tie which was odd given that this was one of those college bashes on a Saturday night and everyone else was dressed real casual. I also recall that he had on a white shirt with those thin vertical stripes. He had really curly hair but he combed it in big waves,  I think using hair gel.

So Herschel kind of stuck out from the rest, plus he had this huge ear-to-ear grin which it seemed was a permanent fixture on his face. I was instantly attracted to him but not of course in a sexual way me being a straight male. I just mean that I wanted to get to know him. Odd but interesting was the way he looked. So anyway I sidled over to him at one point and introduced myself. “Pleased to meet you, Richard,” he said while pumping my arm vigorously. I’d never received such an enthusiastic handshake before, least of all from someone who was hitherto a stranger.

“I’ve not seen you around before,” I told my new friend.

“No, no, of course you wouldn’t have, I’ve only just arrived in this lovely little berg.” Herschel acted like there was nothing more pleasing than speaking to me. As he spoke he would variously look me right in the eyes and glance around the room as if he was expecting something. I couldn’t help but think him an odd duck yet one I -- for some reason -- wanted to become acquainted with.

“Where you from?” I asked him. At this he looked me square in the eye and said: “The great state of New York, all the way on the other side of the country. The upstate part near the border with Canada.”

“What brings you out to California?” I wanted to know.

“Visiting, seeing things, meeting people, exploration and vacation.” His answer contained many words but told me nothing. Then Herschel began to ask me questions in a manner akin to an interview. Indeed I would have felt that this stranger was surpassing the boundaries of good manners had his voice and countenance not been so downright cheery.

I obligingly answered all of his questions even when he got on to the subject of politics. “Many of the people here in this town and certainly attending the university and at this very party would seem to be to the left of center politically. Does that include you?” Herschel asked me.

“It certainly does, Herschel.” I'm proud to say that I've been a raging liberal from the time I could form my first political opinion.

“You’re not a commie, are you?” he asked as a particularly wide grin enveloped his face.

I thought that perhaps Herschel was joshing and that was reflected in my answer. “Not a card-carrying member, at any rate. I broke with Stalin after World War II,” with that I chuckled and drank the rest of my beer.

Herschel’s smile and generally happy air vanished. With complete earnestness he said, “we should have kept fighting after the Germans capitulated. We should have marched on Moscow and wiped out the Red Menace then and there but of course we had the wrong kind of government, one that was lacking in steel. They handed over a large part of Europe to the Soviets and we’ve been fighting this stupid Cold War. You see…” but just as suddenly as Herschel had begun his tirade he stopped at mid sentence and let the smile re-emerge. “Anyway, I suppose this is a topic for another time.”

There followed an first awkward silence an occasion which I used to excuse myself to get another beer. In the kitchen I spoke with a good friend, Kyle, who noticed that I’d been in deep conversation with Herschel. “He’s Becky’s cousin,” Kyle informed me. Becky was the host of the party and an ex girlfriend of mine who I’d broken up with on happy enough terms that we were still friends.

“He didn’t mention that,” I told Kyle and added, “interesting fellow, hates Communists, it seems.”

Said Kyle, “naturally, all fascists do.”

“Fascists?!” My attitude at the moment can best be described with one word: incredulous.

“Yup, he’s a fascist, all right. And I’m not even kidding.”

I knew Kyle and could tell he wasn’t. “I’ve never met a goddamned fascist before. I don’t now whether to punch him or study him like some rare virus,” I said.

“Well, he seems pretty harmless. It’s not like he’s trying to lead a government takeover. Least one that we know of.”

“So how did you come to find out Herschel’s political leanings?”

“Oh Becky told me. They’re cousins after all. She said he’s been a right wing nut job since like junior high. He’s in some organization but its just to talk and study about fascism. He seems resigned to the fact that fascism isn’t going to catch on in the US anytime soon.”

“Wow. A fucking fascist right here right now and at this party. My mind is blown.” With that I returned to the living room where the revelry was in full swing. I noted that Herschel was locked in conversation with someone else. This time it was a woman. She was a pretty girl of about 19 with hair down to her rear. She was wearing torn jeans (long before it was fashionable) and a loose revealing tie dye shirt. A simple description of her would have been — hippie chick. I don’t know what the two of them were talking about, although I could tell she was doing most of the talking and Herschel was doing his big smile routine. Funny, if I’d imagined a fascist before then it would have been a sullen looking Aryan with a crew cut and a crisp uniform of some sort who never cracked a smile. And there was old Herschel in a bow tie, striped shirt and his weird hairstyle with that gigantic smile.

I forgot about Herschel the fascist for a bit and circulated around the room, chatting with friends and meeting new people. At one point I looked back over in Herschel's direction and happened to see the hippie woman grimace and shake her head. Then it looked like she and Herschel were arguing. I decided not to be interested and struck up a conversation with this woman, Rachel who I'd long been attracted to. We were getting along quite nicely and in fact she accepted my offer of a date for next weekend when the hippie came over, it turned out she was Rachel's roommate. "Rachel, you wouldn't believe it but this guy I was talking to is a fascist."

"Why, what did it say?"

"He said he was a fascist, I mean he told me. He said all this pathetic, horrible right wing kind of stuff and when I said that he sounded like a fascist he was all like, 'yeah, 'cause I am a fascist.' And I'm like, 'what do you mean?' And then he just flat out tells me he's a fascist. I even asked him if he liked Hitler and he was all like, 'yeah, ya know, 'cause Hitler wasn't so bad.' I mean it was so weird."

"I talked to him too," I said.

Then Rachel introduced us, her roommate's name was Melody.

"Isn't that just so freaky?" Melody asked me.

"Yeah and the odd thing," I said because it had just occurred to me, "is that his name is Herschel which is generally a Jewish name."

Rachel asked if he was an anti-semite.

"Aren't all fascists anti-semites?" Melody asked both of us.

"Well, I don't know that it's a requirement or anything, the Nazis sure were but I guess you could even have Jewish fascists," I said.

Rachel wondered where he came from and I told her that I heard she was Becky's cousin. As if on cue Becky walked by and we grabbed her. "What's the deal with your fascist cousin?" Melody asked her.

"Oh, Herschel. Well what can I tell you, he's family. If you don't talk politics he's a pretty decent person but the whole right wing act has made him kind of a pariah in the family," she told us.

"How do you stand him?" Melody demanded.

"I don't hate him. I keep thinking he'll change. Like he'll see the error of his ways."

I watched as Herschel was talking to two other people. "I'll say this for him, he looks like a happy person."

Becky said that she didn't think he was. His mother -- her Aunt -- had died of cancer when he was 8 and his father was an alcoholic. His brother and sister were much older and had never had much to do with Herschel. All the cousins and aunts and uncles were nice to Herschel but when the fascist stuff started they tended to be pretty cool to him and were downright hostile if he ever introduced his political views to a discussion -- which he invariably did.

I kind of felt sorry for the guy.

Rachel asked Becky, "you ever try talking sense to him, about politics I mean?"

"God yes, all the time. It gets nowhere though. I'll keep trying. I mean he's family, what can you do?"

Around 11:00 people started either to leave the party or to dance. I was one of the latter group and was dancing and sneaking kisses with Rachel. Herschel was dancing too, which kind of surprised me because I didn't think fascists danced. Live and learn.

Rachel and I left together a little after 1:00. I said good bye to Herschel and told him it was nice meeting him and wished him well and we shook hands and he said it was nice meeting me and he enjoyed our chat. His grin couldn't have been bigger as we spoke. I said a few more goodbyes and as we went out the door I looked back and saw Herschel talking to someone else, still smiling. Rachel asked me why I was so cordial to an avowed fascist. "What would be the point of being hostile to him or ignoring him? Neither approach would influence him to change his views. It's better to be nice to people like that, set an example."

The last time I saw Becky was a few years later. I'd moved out of town by then and was back for a visit. I asked her about Cousin Herschel. She said he disappeared a year or so ago. No one knew where he'd gone or if hit been a victim of foul play. Rachel said he'd talked of moving to a country that had a fascist government so that he might feel more comfortable. I hope he did. I hope he did and found out how awful it was and that he changed his views and that today he holds mainstream political views. I also hope he's still got that big smile. It was a nice one, I tell ya.

01 December 2015

Confessions of an Idiot and a Dream Sequence

The Flying Finn, Paavo Nurmi. He was not an idiot.

I’m an idiot. No, seriously I am. Many of the people who know me will vouch for this. Oh sure some people only see the genius that I am or overlook my foibles but there is no question of me being stone stupid. May I provide evidence? Thank you. Here it is: Today I went to the doctor about pain I’ve been experiencing this past week which is located just above my left foot. I was entirely confident going to this appointment that I had already correctly diagnosed the pain as being from shin splints. I had further accurately predicted the cause of this malady. To wit: not cross training, running too much for too long too fast and not replacing my running shoes soon enough. I knew good and well that I was running too much too fast for too long and that my shoes were due for a replacement and yet I continued to run 20 miles a week, or more. In fact, I even thought at one point that I should let up but countered to myself that I would just continue until I got an injury. Well I got one. Idiot.

I am the type of person who will stubbornly continue to do a physical exertion or exercise despite the risks. That is to say, I am male. Men are far dumber than women in such instances, even more dumb than women in this instance than in all the countless other ways we are their intellectual inferiors. A man can even know that what he is doing will come to a bad end and yet continue to do it. For me this is compounded by my addictive personality. I am addicted to running (it is a much better thing to be addicted to than some of the substances I had trouble laying off). A month or two ago I should have taken four to six weeks off and engaged in another form of aerobic activity. One that did not put such stress on the same part of my body. But I get off on running. Endorphins.

I also happen to be something of a bookkeeper about my running. I record the length and times of runs and tally them for the month. This I find fun. I set goals, make projections and try to beat records. If I don’t run I can’t make an entry in my running log and that gives me an empty feeling. Well I ain’t running now, that’s for sure and it will be several weeks before I do again. Idiot.

My recovery will no doubt be slowed by the nature of my work. I teach. And I don’t sit behind a desk or stand in one spot. As a teacher I gallop and prance and stride and march and bounce and sashay and hop and glide and goddamn it even dance. I am a whirling dervish of a teacher. It’s the only way I know how. This frenzied activity coupled with my running and the fact that I walk a lot keeps me from being morbidly obese despite my ravenous appetite. I’ve gained four pounds since I was last weighed a mere 11 days ago. Obviously the fact that I’ve run but once in that time and have consumed enough food to feed the Bulgarian Army accounts for my ballooning. I went from looking like a chiseled athlete to being confused for a zeppelin in under two weeks.

So I suppose you think I’ve learned my lesson. I do too. But I also know better than to assume that everything will be hunky dory from this day forward. The thing about us idiots is that we have the capacity to repeat the same mistake twice or thrice or more. That’s why we’re idiots.

I now change the subject….

Two nights ago I had a dream in which I was given the opportunity to live my life over again starting at age15 all while knowing what I know now. This is situation many of us ponder occasionally. I remember meeting some friends of my dad’s once. One asked me how old I was I told him (I believe it was 16,17) and he said he wished he could be that age again knowing what he does now, the other friend heartily agreed. (My dad did not participate in hypotheticals.) Anyway I didn’t understand what they were talking about. I thought being older was the answer to life’s problems. Fat lot I knew. As a number of wise people have said (and I paraphrase here) “experience is the worst teacher, it gives the test before presenting the lesson.” Amen.

So in the dream I started mapping out some of the things I would be doing differently before actually living them again. Boy did I have a lot of them. But with each action or behavior I was going to change I wanted to be sure that I married the same woman. Somehow through all the colossal fuck ups I’ve committed in my life I wound up with the perfect mate. Not surprisingly this has resulted in two perfectly wonderful children who I wouldn’t trade for anyone.

A problem did occur in the dream, I kept realizing by taking a different course I’d miss out on some of the fantastic people I got to know. It was difficult to imagine my life without those people who had shaped it in such positive ways. Of course there would have been other people who might have been just as wonderful not to mention the fame and riches I would have amassed by taking different roads. In the end it was all a mess. I realized that you get one shot and make the best of it and live with your choices, try to learn along the way and count your blessings (but not necessarily in religious way if, like me, you aren’t a religious sort). There are some people whose early mistakes reap devastating consequences and they spend their lives in deep regret. Regrets are nasty things that can suck the joy out of your life. They’re best not to indulge in.

All said and done I enjoyed the dream. It was better than that other stupid one I had about Berkeley putting in a crocodile pond in a downtown park without any barriers. That was stupid.

29 November 2015

Jake's Death Experienced

Jake was shocked. He couldn’t believe that his life had ended at 27.  Just like Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison and more recently Amy Winehouse. At least they had been rock stars. Jake hadn’t been a damn thing. A nobody, really. Hadn’t even finished college. Never learned a trade. Sure people liked his writing, but he’d hardly published anything. What a waste.

All Jake saw now in death was a table with an apple on it in a narrow alcove with a little late afternoon sun streaming through a white curtained window. He was seeing it as if he was looking through a cone and it was slanted. There was no movement, like it was a painting.

There was no sound, although the memory of a ticking clock was persistent in Jake’s mind. Jake felt calm but a little bit sad and resigned to this sight and the fact that it seemed to represent his eternity. For a time — there was no telling how long, not in this state of being — Jake just regarded the scene with no thought one way or the other. But finally he broke out of it as if from a spell and tried to make reason out of what he was seeing. Was this symbolic? What did it mean? Why the apple? And had the lacy table cloth been there all along? It seemed this might have been a recent addition but Jake couldn’t be sure. Was it possible to enter the scene, or see anything else, indeed to do anything but regard the table?

Jake struggled for a memory, something before this, anything. There was a vague notion of having been alive but no vital statistics, all he remembered for sure was that he'd died a failure at 27 years with no meaning to his existence or any accomplishments. His mind seemed to be fading. This seemed at once frightening and quite natural, still Jake fought against it and tried to conjure memories of who he was or had been. There were a few images. A red tricycle, looking down at the ground from a tree, a kickball smacking against his face, chemistry class, Linda Minkovich smiling at him, a line of cocaine, buying a used copy of Moby Dick, looking out an airplane window at clouds. Then in his mind there was blackness. Jake screamed but there was no sound. So he focused again on the apple on the table with the late afternoon sunlight coming in from the curtained window. It gave him comfort. 

How long had he been staring at the table? It could have easily been ten seconds or ten thousand years. It could have been eternal or just this nanosecond. There was no time. Wind blew. Somewhere. It could have been behind Jake or in front of him or inside his brain but it was a strong wind that emanated from nowhere and did nothing. Jake thought he felt a tear going down his cheek. He thought he felt a sense of loss and emptiness a sensation that time had been wasted and there would be no more. Again he soundlessly screamed. Where is my body, he wondered.

The loneliness was oppressive. Jake could no longer visualize what a human being looked like but he craved the presence of one, the touch, the sound, the sight of another life. But he loved the table. The apple. The curtained window. He loved them beyond all measure. Jake had no idea why.

Then a cacophonous whirring, a horrible sound of machinery interrupted everything. It was incredibly loud and real, not like where he was. It came from another place, perhaps another dimension. It was awful. It went on for…there was no telling because there was no time -- but it was too long for Jake’s liking.

The second the horrible noise ended everything changed. Now he was floating. In a hospital room, looking down on — himself, in a bed, surrounded by doctors and nurses. This was strangely serene. Then nothing. Then a park with children playing and his grandmother pushing a swing and then an office building and Linda Minkovich talking to him and she was wearing a bikini and then he was playing football and then he was awake.

“Jake, Jake. Hey buddy, we thought we lost you there for a second.” It was Jake’s father. His face loomed. Jakes’s mother was behind him tears streaming down her face. “Oh Jake, honey, you’re back. Can you hear us? How do you feel?”

Jake could barely muster saying: “What happened? Where am I?”

“You nearly died is what, son,” his father told Jake. “Too many drugs all at once. I warned you Jake, if this doesn’t teach you nothing will.”

“You mean…I almost OD’d?”

Jake’s mother burst into tears.

“Don’t worry about it son, we’re just glad to have you back. Maybe you can spend a little time on the straight and narrow. Work on your writing But of course first you’ve got to get well. Healthy, hale and hearty. They’re taking good care of you here. Hell, they saved your life.”

Jake’s mother pushed her husband away and smothered Jake with kisses.

He’d been clinically dead. But he had a second chance. Jake was not like Joplin, Hendrix, Morrison and Winehouse who’d died at 27. He’d been given a reprieve. Another opportunity at making something of his life.

Two days later Jake was released from the hospital. His parents brought him to their new home. He’d never seen it before. They led Jake up to what would be his room while he stayed with them. Jake opened the door and saw a table with an apple on it and the late afternoon sun streaming in through a curtained window.

"See there's even a writing table for you, Jake," his mother said.

“Now where do you suppose that apple came from?” Jake’s father asked. “Why, I didn’t put it there," said his mother.

Jake smiled. He walked over and took a big bite out of the apple. It was delicious.

27 November 2015

A New Film I Saw Today Inspires a Post About My Father's Immigration Experience and the Power of Choices


“Trust your heart if the seas catch fire, live by love though the stars walk backward.” E.E. Cummings.

I never understood it as a child but the United States was paradise to my father and millions of other immigrants. It was long before my dad arrived and remained so long after. Even unto this day. I grew up here and took everything for granted plus I had a strong rebellious streak which, coupled with the time and place I grew up in — Berkeley in the Sixties — made me far less enamored of the US and it all it stood for.

Today the missus and I saw a wonderful new film called Brooklyn which is about a young woman coming to the US from Ireland in 1951. Like all good movies, Brooklyn gave me a lot to think about (it was also visually spectacular and was rich with strong, yet nuanced performances). One thing that quite naturally came to mind was the stunning contrast for immigrants between the US and the “old country.” The main character, Eilis (Saiorse Ronan), while not exactly caught between two worlds, is certainly made aware of the marked contrasts between them. Like many immigrants she comes from a small town and tight community to the ultimate big city, New York. One would think deciding a preference would be a simple matter given the contrasts, but such is not always the case. Life is not always so cut and dried for many people. It was, however, for my dad.

My father was unabashed in his eternal love for Finland, where he grew up and spent his first 24 years, but the United States was everything to him. Supermarkets, oh my god the supermarkets. Aisle after aisle of all manner of foods including fresh produce, meat, fish, packaged cereals, canned soups, bread, coffee, liquor, spices and everything required to bake, broil, steam, boil, roast, fry, barbecue, simmer and freeze to one’s heart content. There was nothing of the sort in the small town where he grew up. And here supermarkets were a short car ride away and he had a car and the roads were paved and there were places to park and he had a job that paid, what must have seemed an enormous amount of money, so that he had plenty of money to buy to his heart’s content.

He lived in a heated home, with electricity and gas and separate bedrooms and for crying out loud indoor toilets and there was running water and a TV set and he even owned the place. Everything was possible. Everything was there. Everything was available. He could go to first run movies, to night clubs, to professional sports events to parks and on boat rides and on ski trips. Neighbors were generally friendly but it wasn’t like everyone knew everyone else’s business. There was privacy. The union took care of his medical needs and those of his family and all he had to do was work hard. There were convenient schools for his children and they would surely go to college and be whatever the hell they wanted. Others from his country followed, including a younger brother, so he was able to maintain his culture and language because many had preceded him. The United States gave my father everything he could ask for. No wonder he loved it.

My dad’s experience was not and is not unusual among those who immigrate to this country. A lot of immigrants come from bad times in bad places. There is poverty, repression, violence, fear, and want. The US can be a safe, comfortable place that affords opportunities. Throughout this country’s history many recent immigrants have very quickly developed into patriotic citizens with an abiding love for their new found home.

(As a life long student of American history and as an observer of current events I hasten to add that immigrants have also been targets of abuse and discrimination and they have been scapegoated and used and abused. The Irish, German, Italian, East Europeans, Jews, Chinese and Mexicans, not to mention more recently our Muslim friends, have faced hardships that in many cases rival or even exceed what they were subjected to at home. Yet the majority have stayed, have assimilated and raised families. Many of them too have — despite their harsh welcomes — become patriotic citizens. Others among them have turned to crime including gang activity and others have participated in subversive political activity, not always without good reason or to bad ends.)

My father left Finland in 1940 to join the merchant marines and see the world. That he did. Of course his departure coincided with World War II so he also saw airplanes attacking him and the periscope of submarine moments before it sunk the ship he was on. He settled first in New York where he met my mother — a woman of Finnish parentage — who hailed from the Bay Area where they moved in time to have two baby boomers, my brother and I. It was 14 years before Dad returned to Finland, to attend his own father’s funeral. I can only imagine what he thought upon returning to his home town. The house he grew up in still did not boast a telephone and the toilet was a few yards away in the form of an outhouse. I wonder what he told everyone about America. Knowing my father I’m sure he emphasized how wonderful everything was and I’m quite certain he encouraged kin and friends to make the move and enjoy the modern splendors of the USA.

It was another 18 years before his next return to Finland. Life was still very very good indeed for him in the States although tragedy had struck his marriage and rocked his world owing to my mother’s mental problems. He eventually re-married and made still more trips back to Finland. Towards the end of his life Dad talked of moving back to Finland. This struck me as both sensible and quite odd. It’s only natural to want to spend your last years “at home” where your roots are. But he’d not spent more than about six weeks at a time in Finland in over 60 years. It was hard to imagine that he could “go home again.”

Where is home, anyway?  For some people it is one structure they've inhabited for the majority of their life or one neighborhood or one city. For others it is more fluid and for others still it is ethereal. Home can be a house or a family or a community. Moving from one to the next can be upsetting regardless of how old you are. It can require great courage and great vision or it can be an impulse. We make such moves seeking something better. Promises. We also make moves for the sake of other people. That person we want to live with or for family. And it always is so central to our identity. “Where are you from?” or “Where do you live?” can be a very personal question for how much it reveals not only about who we are but how we want to be seen.

In Brooklyn, Eilis faces this question twice as she makes decisions that will set the course for the rest of her life. She is young. It strikes me how many decisions we make that will effect us for the rest of our lives when we are still in our late teens and early twenties. As Jean-Paul Satre said, “we are our choices.” My father didn't hesitate to commit to the US. If he ever suffered an iota of homesickness I never heard about it. He was of a generation of Europeans who knew a good thing when they saw it. They were part of the backbone of this country for decades after the war. My dad literally (he was a carpenter) built part of the Bay Area. The flow of Europeans to the US has slowed to barely a trickle these days. In places like Finland life is simply better than it is here in many respects. People come from Finland to study or to visit or work for a few years in a highly trained profession. But Finland is as modern as the US and the living is, if anything better, the schools are judged by many to be the best in the world. The times they have changed.

There was no question about my dad's staying in the US, for Eilis there is a question and it is a profound one. It is at the heart of who we are as people. Creatures who make choices. I'm particularly glad I saw Brooklyn because it has caused me to reflect on my Dad's experience and on the fact that the power to make choices can be at times either a great gift or a serious burden. Or both.

25 November 2015

What I'm Thankful for this Thanksgiving

One of the things I'm thankful for, Marilyn Monroe

I am thankful for the way my wife says "hi, how are you?" when I phone her from work. I'm thankful that my oldest daughter loves working with children and that my youngest daughter has such a strong social conscience.

I'm thankful that because I DVR Fargo I can fast forward through the commercials. I'm thankful that I get a seat on public transit during my commute. I'm thankful for the way Brandon Crawford ranges up the middle for ground balls. I'm thankful for Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) the night before Thanksgiving. I'm thankful for the Cal band playing The Big C. I'm thankful for Stephen Colbert and Trevor Noah taking over for living legends so seamlessly.

I'm thankful for Bergman films on Criterion. I'm thankful for rain. I'm thankful for Thomas Hardy novels and Dylan Thomas poems. I'm thankful for Paul McCartney and Wings on CD. I'm thankful for Arsenal matches on television. I'm thankful for Instagram photos of Italy. I'm thankful for tweets that make me chortle.

I'm thankful for Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Ken Kesey and Neal Cassady.

I'm thankful for big white puffy clouds and the blueness of the sky after rain and the contrast of green trees and blue skies and waves hitting the shore and hills and mountains and grass.

I'm thankful for Hendrix doing All Along the Watchtower, Dylan doing The Man in Me and Joplin at Woodstock and Al Green singing Tired of Being Alone and Amy Winehouse singing Back to Black and Bill Evans playing Danny Boy on the piano and The Kinks Ultimate Collection and Stan Getz and Gerry Mulligan and Miles Davis and David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust album.

I'm thankful for being drenched in sweat after a seven mile run.

I'm thankful for Marilyn Monroe and other classic beauties.

I'm thankful for Bernie Sanders running for president.

I'm thankful for journalists like Glenn Greenwald and the people at Mother Jones and The Nation and Vox and for Edward Snowden and for the ACLU and Amnesty International and Doctors Without Borders.

I'm thankful for Ben and Jerry's ice cream and quality black licorice and tea and coffee and the blender I use to make smoothies and good produce and veggie burgers and salmon and chocolate and fresh fruit and nuts and legumes.

I'm thankful for The Simpsons reruns and the new episodes.

I'm thankful for John Oliver's show on HBO.

I'm thankful for Shakespeare's plays and the better film versions of them and for Penguin Classics and for good bookstores like Moe's in Berkeley and video/DVD stores like Amoeba.

I'm thankful for my nieces and nephews and grand nieces and grand nephews and for having had such a great father and such a great brother and for my grandparents.

I'm thankful for having a job I love with some great coworkers and fantastic students.

I'm thankful that I grew up in Berkeley in the Sixties and that I was imbued with the spirit of progressive social movement and questioning authority.

I'm thankful I was born of Finnish ancestry.

I'm thankful for kisses, hugs, handshakes, high fives, fist bumps, pats on the back and intimacy.

I'm thankful for You Tube making it possible to watch George Carlin, Groucho Marx, Robin Williams, Bill Hicks, Chris Rock, Richard Pryor, Bob and Ray, Monty Python, Jack Benny, Jonathan Winters and Rodney Dangerfield.

I'm thankful for the way I feel after stretching and after meditating and after a good sleep and a good day's work.

I'm thankful that for all the crap in the world its still possible to have so much to be thankful for.


22 November 2015

Parents: The Hidden Terror of Teaching, Unless, as Usually is the Case they are Really Nice, or More Likely Unseen

Parents. When you're a middle school teacher -- as I was for decades -- they are as unavoidable as colds and sometimes just as welcome although they can be perfectly charming, wonderful and delightful. But truly they are mostly unseen. I offer you know a different sort of reminisce of my teaching days.

There was the woman from New Orleans who was known to hate white people. She came in on parent conference day and asked angry questions and glared at me and when I pointed at a grade print out wouldn’t look at it. She would not listen to explanations but she did sigh loudly at me as if putting up with my nonsense was more than a person could bear. Her child was a decent kid but a lazy student. Frankly I still have no idea why she showed up. To show contempt? She was a rarity, however, I never felt a dose of racism directed towards me by other parents, though it doubtless existed to some degree. On the flip side one parent accused me of being Afrocentric. And I came to understand that there was some grumblings about my alleged over emphasis on the black experience in US History. There ya go.

There was the mother who came into see me to complain that school was not challenging enough for her Becca and could I please double assignments for her. Give her two papers to do instead of one and extra homework and extra test questions. Why not, I said, but I thought that the mother should back off and let Becca be a 13 year old girl. It didn’t surprise me when six weeks later Becca the A student was getting a C and her mother called off the extra work nonsense. Teacher knows best.

Of course there were parents on the other end of the spectrum who complained about too much homework which limited their child’s time for family activities. These were invariably parents of high achieving kids who were doing quite well in school and had many friends. They didn’t need mom and dad playing the role of a buttinski. I was particularly careful never to overdo the homework but at the same time I had to get the wee ones ready for the rigors of high school.

“You will see a change.” I wish I had a greenback for every time I hard this nugget. The comment would come from a parent after a conference about their child's academic failings or their errant behavior or likely both. The “you-will-see-a-change” students almost never changed and if they did it was usually temporary. I remember walking out of such a meeting once with a colleague who said with much sarcasm: "that oughtta do it." We often spoke of students who made 360 degree changes. After a few weeks of real effort they'd revert to their tried and true practice of slacking off.

Some parents wanted to be notified any and every time their child missed a homework assignment or disrupted class. They did not want to hear how unrealistic it was for us to follow through on such a promise if we ever chanced to make it. The more realistic approach was the weekly report. Students who were having trouble would get a form from the office on Friday morning then get each of their teachers to fill it out telling how they were doing and what assignments, if any were missing. It was easy for students and teachers and effective for parents. In theory. I was constantly finding the damn things on the ground at the end of school and many students forgot to get them filled out by all their teachers or in many cases any of their teachers. It always amazed me that so many parents lost interest. Report cards would come or it would be time for parent conferences and they would express their concern and vow to oversee a turnaround. Often we never heard from them again.  I think it many cases these parents were more personally embarrassed by their child's errant ways than they were concerned about seeing the young 'un succeed in school.

We had some parents who came in once for a conference about their struggling youngster. Both parents were on disability and thus always at home should we ever needed to call them. Toward the end of the conference a teacher asked them if they were on the internet because if so it would be particularly easy to update them. “We don’t have time for all that,” one of them replied. Yes, one can see how two people who are at home all the time wouldn’t “have time” for computers and such.

On parent conference days most folks who showed up were the parents of model students. These conferences went something like this: “so how’s she doing?” “Great, she’s getting an A, participates in class and is just a wonderful student.” “Well, she really enjoys your class.” Smiles all around. It was nice for the parents to hear how wonderful their children were (I was a parent in such conferences myself) but other than ego gratification they were a goddamned waste of time.

The vast majority of people whose children were failing and/or had discipline issues never showed for conferences, even if we called them and even if they promised to come. Not everyone is well suited to be parents or they have children too soon or too late in life or they have serious problems of their own like addiction, imprisonment, poverty and not knowing where the hell the child's other parent is. I felt for these families but there was nothing I could do save being the best teacher I could and perhaps lending their progeny an ear. Needless to say many of the children from "broken" homes are the ones giving you the most trouble.

I always said: "I like all my students, even the ones I don't like." Other teachers knew what I meant. In over 20 years of teaching I had about five or six students who I actually didn't like and this was because I hated them. Each one was a sociopath with no conscience, no sense of morality. A couple were decent academically and any one of them could have achieved financial and social success legally but they all seemed as though they would forever be heartless human beings who could and would beguile innocents at any opportunity. None of them had parents who I ever laid eyes on.

I got along famously with many parents. Especially in my role as the school's soccer and girl's softball coach. One who I got to know quite well was an author and historian who wrote the definitive biography of the great American abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison called All on Fire, the chap's name was Henry Mayer and I had the pleasure of talking to him about the book as well as other matters in the course of car rides to some of our matches. Sadly he died suddenly and much too soon of an undetected heart condition. I also got to know a parent who was a professor of and a leading authority on constitutional law as well as one who was a federal judge, an English professor, and others who may not have boasted impressive CVs but were fine people.

Indeed getting to know some of the parents was one of the privileges of the job. Its easy to recount stories of the wild and wacky -- believe me I've only scratched the surface, I haven't even gotten to the ones who claimed that anytime a child failed it was the fault of the teacher, there were many of them -- but the majority were either anonymous to me or quite pleasant or even practically friends (I would never start a true friendship with a student's parent as a few of my colleagues did on occasion,  that's just me).

Generally speaking parents are decent sorts. Take me for example. I'm sure my children will attest to what a great father I have been. I'm not sure enough to actually ask them, but pretty sure. 

15 November 2015

Tales From Middle School and a Sober Discussion on Education


It was a three day group assignment in which students were to create a country wedged in between two existing countries. They had to imagine and record what such a country’s imports, exports, culture, government, etc. might be given its geography. I provided each group with tons of materials and a detailed explanation of what they were to do.

I gave a verbal explanation while projecting those instruction with the overhead projector. I took questions. Everyone seemed to understand, even though they were all 12 and 13 year olds. They got started. After a few minutes I did my rounds checking in on the groups. At the first group I came upon there was a young man who was sitting at his desk staring off into space. I asked the lad why he wasn’t working. “I don’t know what we’re supposed to be doing,” he claimed. I suggested he ask one of his fellow group members. “They don’t know what to do either,” he replied. “None of you know what to do?” I asked them. They shook their heads. I pointed out that the instructions were in the packets they all had.

The next group I approached was sitting idly not a care in the world. I asked what was going on. “We’re finished,” one student announced. The others happily nodded in agreement. I expressed disbelief that they had finished a three day assignment in 15 minutes. One student proudly showed me their work. It was a crudely drawn map with a few names on it, one for the country and others for cities. I asked where the rest of their work was. They were clearly baffled. “The country’s political system, exports, imports, culture, all the things that comprise a country.” They were still baffled. I sighed, “It’s all their in the instructions." They were genuinely surprised to find that there was more to the assignment.

(As a postscript I should point out that both those groups as well as the others in the class ultimately did a fine job with the assignment and presumably learned something.)

On another occasion I was introducing and explaining a rather complex term paper. Giving such assignments always led to a lot of questions. This was my third class of the day and much of the first two classes had been taken up with questions. But this time there were no questions. None. Zero.
Frankly I was worried. “No one has any questions? You all understand?” I asked them. Finally a hand went up. This student had a question. “Is you wearing a new tie?” And that was it for questions.

Once I assigned a term paper that was supposed to be about a famous American who gained their notoriety during the 19th century. I offered several examples, pointing out that this biography could be about a man, woman, politician, explorer, abolitionist, military man, writer, inventor, entrepreneur, suffragist anyone who gained fame in the 1800s. I got an immediate question: “So we can do it on anything?” I said anything as long as it was a person from the 1800s. Another student exclaimed, “I’m going to do it on Tupac.” I pointed out that Tupac Shukar did not live at any point in the 19th century.

Middle school students have notoriously short attention spans as illustrated by another story. Again this was an instance when I had just assigned a term paper. This one required an annotated bibliography. I painstakingly explained what such a bibliography entailed, I got many questions but as class ended most students seemed to understand. One student approached me after the dismissal bell rang and asked if I could again explain what an annotated bibliography was. I, of course, was glad to do so. I had gotten so far as to say: “In an annotated bibliography — ” when the student saw a friend entering the room and asked him if he’d seen “the game last night” the querying student than turned his attention completely away from me, walked over to his friend and never bothered to follow up on his question. A few weeks later the student turned in a paper sans any sort of bibliography. In grading his paper I pointed out that he should have stuck around to get his question answered. Now some might say that I should have tracked the young man down and finished my explanation but I felt I was teaching him a better lesson by making him "pay the price."

One of the most frequently asked questions by students was: "what are we supposed to be doin'?" It was at times infuriating but it was also sad but it was also to be expected. You can have a lengthy discussion about the wisdom of trying to teach academics to young teens. One of my colleagues, who was one of the most serious and ernest teachers I ever worked with, often opined that students needed to be spending more time outside playing, their bodies and minds were simply not geared to sit in classrooms for long periods of time trying to absorb countless bits of information. There are very few ideal times for students to be sitting in a classroom. In the early morning their brains aren't awake yet. Scientists have determined that the optimal learning time for students doesn't start until after 10:00 yet classes in most schools start as early as 8:00 though typically around 8:45. Just before lunch isn't good because students start getting antsy. Right after lunch is really bad because they've just been socializing and playing and their minds and bodies aren't ready to re-focus. Of course the end of the school day is bad too because students are anxious for the dismissal bell and freedom. There are a few "good times" to teach. One is mid morning and one is mid afternoon. They last about 15 minutes each.

I've long thought that our current education system needs to stop the constant minor reformations it is forever undergoing and have a revolution. Schools and school districts are forever tinkering. Bell schedules change. Classes are made longer or shorter, all manner of different instructional methods are introduced new materials and the latest technology are integrated. At the end of the day the same students are succeeding the same ones are failing and there are but a few in the middle who are even slightly effected by this change or that. Most students' destinies are assured at the beginning of their educational lives because of their home environment. It is the single biggest factor in determining student success. Certainly by the time a student got to us in middle school their future course was pretty much etched in stone. As educators we were ecstatic whenever we helped affect a turn around in a young man or woman. This jubilation stemmed in large part because those instances were -- sadly -- so very rare. I gave a geography quiz very early in the school year and I could pretty much be sure that the students who got As on that test would be A students throughout the years and the students who got Fs would still be flunking at year's end. I hasten here to add that I, like other teachers, made every effort to help those F bound students. It is not only your job, but your passion.

The current school year and schedule were set up when this was an agrarian society. It was based on when students would be needed to work at home, thus Summers were off. It may not surprise you to know that a very small percentage of today's students live on farms -- virtually none in urban areas. Yet in most school districts the schedule remains and it appears unlikely to change. Indeed I've seen no indication that any radical thinking is going to be introduced into our school system. I'm sure some people have ideas but they are evidently not being heard or even taken seriously.

The flaws in our school system are most evident when we look at the achievement gap between white and African American students. This gap is really between rich and poor.  Where I taught, our most successful black students were those who came from middle class or higher families. The white kids who struggled were usually from poor families. This metric can also be seen in discipline problems. Not surprisingly the vast majority of students who were suspended or regularly received detention were from poor families and thus most were usually African American or Latino.

(One frightening fact is that the achievement and discipline gaps have gotten worse than I was a student 40 years ago. I don't fully understand but it depresses the hell out of me.)

Towards the end of my middle school teaching career I had a troublesome young student named Maurice. He was a crack baby, his mother was addicted to and smoking crack cocaine when Maurice was in utero. He could neither sit still nor control his mouth. Maurice was also given to using crude language, being willfully defiant and being argumentative.  Before and after I would feel sorry for a young man like Maurice, indeed we had many students with similarly tragic backstories, but while he was disrupting efforts to teach a room full of 13 year olds you wanted nothing more than to be rid of him.

One day after school when I was feeling fed up with Maurice, I stopped in the principal’s office. I shared my frustration with the principal and asked what we could do. The principal acknowledged that Maurice was a problem and he suggested the following: just keep on writing him up and we’ll keep suspending him and when he gets to 28 days we can move for expulsion.

In other words the solution to the problem was make him someone else's problem. School districts do this. They’ll expel a student (a long drawn out process which entails a great deal of bureaucracy) and thus be done with the poor sap. Of course this just means he registers in a neighboring district and becomes their problem. We, of course, got a few such students from other districts. Here’s a shocker: students who are expelled do not magically transform by moving to a new locale. They bring the same baggage, the same attitude, the same resistance to teachers.

For a long time after I was disappointed with the principal. That was the best he could come up with for Maurice and others like him? Make him someone else's problem? But I eventually realized that it wasn't his fault. What could he suggest? What could he do? School districts don't have the resources to effectively work with the Maurices of the world. Absent parent involvement, most schools are generally impotent in trying to help such students.

Inner city public schools are much like battlefield triage. You help who can be saved and let the rest bleed out. You've only got so much personnel with so much time. Thus, of course, Maurice gets passed right along though school. We ended up promoting Maurice to high school with the rest of his class. Sure students are often threatened with retention, but if anything retaining a student is worse for him or her than just moving the student up. I'm sure Maurice didn't finish high school and today he is society's problem. The money that was not spent on Maurice when he was a child will be spent many times over by society in the years to come. This is happening all over the country where we are penny wise and pound foolish.

Recently a former student named Anthony was arrested for murder. If found guilty (as appears likely) he'll be at least the third of my students convicted of homicide. Others have been convicted of lesser offenses. About a dozen of my former students have died from gunshots. In most every case of a former student who has ended up dead or in prison none of us who "taught" the young man were surprised upon receiving the news.  Their fates are sadly predictable and in most cases their elementary school teachers saw what was coming as well. I think it behooves a society to invest in helping its young and vulnerable so that they may best serve that society and themselves. We are letting young lives go astray early and then are left to pay for the mistakes we make.

A good first step would be to re-think how we educate. Clearly what we are doing now is not working for far too many young people.