30 September 2015

I Witness Something I've Suffered Myself, A Full Blown Panic Attack, I Try to Help


I watched someone in the throes of a panic attack today. While I’ve experienced far more than I care to contemplate (one is more than I care to contemplate) I’d never seen someone else having one, at least that I was aware of. The titanic kind that I’ve experienced are rare. But that’s what this young lady was suffering.

This took place in the school where I teach. It is an English language school that draws students from all over the world. I was on my way to the teacher’s room during a ten minute break between classes. I saw this woman, who it turns out is a 19 year old from France named Michelle*, in great distress. Naturally I stopped to see what was the matter. There were a few people around her including a friend who was trying to tend to her. When I asked what was the matter the friend said that Michelle was having anxiety. I could tell it was beyond that and I also recognized immediately that, based on my experience in this area, I might be able to help.

I tried to take charge of the situation. The poor girl spoke very little English but her friend was able to translate. We got her seated. Through her interpreter I assured Michelle that she would be fine, as impossible as it may seem at the time, panic attacks do pass. Of course people started to crowd around and I had to shoo them away. Someone gave her a paper bag to breath into and like an idiot I didn’t stop her. Breathing into the bag made it worse. Much. Later another person came over with a bag and I dismissed them from the scene with extreme prejudice.

Michelle could hardly sit still. She didn’t know what to do with her body. During this level panic attack you feel like reality has been turned upside down. The world is not as you normally perceive it and this is terrifying. It is not unlike being under the influence of a psychedelic except there is no drug in your system and there is no pleasure in how you are feeling. Far from it. The greatest fear is that this will never end and that you will completely lose your mind. The word panic is appropriate.

We eventually got Michelle to an office and onto a sofa. Through the interpreter I advised she breath normally, focus on something positive and get as physically comfortable as possible. I could have given her one of my Ativan as they are perfectly safe (I do not normally suggest giving a prescription drug to a stranger). But she calmed down rather quickly. An administrator made a doctor’s appointment for her which is a necessary step. Through her translator I learned that Michelle had experienced attacks before in France. Adjusting to a new country where you will be staying for a few months, especially when you don’t speak the language well is a recipe for panic attacks. These attacks are physiological in nature but can be set off by circumstances. Worse, one attack can lead to anticipatory anxiety, the fear that an attack is eminent. Anxiety like this can cause attacks that mirror panic. They are not as bad as real panic but bad enough, I assure you.

I would think that Michelle needs to have some sort of medication on hand and perhaps, as I do, may need to take something on a regular basis. I was first diagnosed with acute panic disorder about 30 years. Since then there has been significant improvement in the understanding of the affliction and the best types of medications to counter it. I was a veritable guinea pig for 20 years before the proper medicine and dosage was found. Many people swear by holistic treatments and I don’t doubt there effectiveness. A person has to find out what works best for them and this usually includes some sort of psychiatric treatment or counseling.

One of the most devastating consequences of severe panic attacks is that they leave one feeling depressed and vulnerable. There is a sense of powerlessness in the aftermath of an attack that is almost as awful as the attack itself although truly nothing I’ve ever experienced in life is as bad as the moments during an attack. I have learned from my experiences and know how what to do when an attack hits, which, thankfully, is not very often anymore.

It is fortunate for Michelle that I was at the right place at the right time. Understandably no one else knew exactly what to do. It was revelatory for me to see someone else have an attack. My empathy level was through the roof. But as I left work today co-workers recalled my actions and hailed me for them. I understand the impulse, its what people do. But it made me terribly uncomfortable and still does. (This discomfort is my problem and not theirs.) It is akin to how I feel if applauded for reaching a sobriety anniversary, as is done in certain places at certain times. In most circumstances I welcome and even solicit hosannahs and pats on the back and standing Os. But for something like what I did today or for eschewing alcohol I’d much rather not be praised or singled out. I can’t tell you why but it’s a real strong feeling.


*Not her real name

27 September 2015

When Eva Braun was a Student of Mine, What, I’d Make a Thing Like that Up?

I’ve been teaching ESL for a long long time at a school in San Francisco. We have students from all over the world. Some come for as little as two weeks, others for as long as a year. While most students are in their early 20s, many are older. I’ve had students as old as 62 and as young as 15.

As I said I’ve been teaching for a long time. One of my former students was Eva Braun. The mistress of Adolph Hitler. You may remember him as being the fellow who started World War II during his time as the dictator of Germany. As I recall he was a Nazi who hated Jews. Ultimately things didn’t work out for Herr Hitler and the world is a better place as a result. Anyway, though he figures tangentially in this story, my real topic is Eva Braun.

The year was 1937, just two years before Germany, under Hitler’s auspices, invaded Poland and all hell broke loose.

I always have student’s fill out a questionnaire of my own creation, on the first day of class. One of the questions is: Why do you want to learn or improve your English? I recall quite well Eva’s answer: "after my bf conquers England I’ll be spending a lot of time there, shopping, going to the theater and what not so I want to be fluent or as close to it as possible."
Another question was: why did you choose to study in San Francisco? Eva's response: "My fella has suggested the possibility that, with the help of the Japanese, we’ll also have control of the U.S. by war’s end so I’ll be wanting to come out here for visits. I figured why not scope out some real estate while I’m improving my English? I may even snatch up some property for my guy and I. The Marina District looks affordable and I’m definitely going to check out Marin County."

Eva was a pretty good student. She was in a six week program and moved right along. It was, however, distracting to have an SS guard in full uniform sitting next to her at all times. His name was Fritz, but that’s all I got out of him. He just sat there all the time just glaring at me and other students. Also, I could practically see my reflection in his long black boots. He’d lead Eva into the classroom and salute me with a “Heil teacher.” I never knew how the hell to respond to that so would just nod my head. Eva was far more casual of course. She would smile and say “hiya teach.” I’ve gotta tell you, if she hadn’t been Hitler’s girl I would have quite liked her (no, not in that way).

One time Hitler himself came by the school. Eva said he was on break from dictating which, she related, was a pain in the ass job what with all the rights he had to take away and the oppression he had to bring down and the edicts and the freedom eroding. Adolph was forever dealing with sycophants and on the flip side had to execute anyone who wasn’t. An occasional break was a must, so with Eva out here in SF he paid a call.

For him there were half a dozen SS officers in tow. These guys would “Heil!” something at the drop of a hat. They all knew Fritz and kidded him like crazy about being stuck guarding Eva while they had the boss. I remember him saying “aw shucks fellas, cut it out.” in German. He did get back at em though, saying it took six of them to guard one person while he could guard a person himself. It was kind of a hoot to watch them going at each other so good naturedly. After the war it was a bummer to find out what dicks these guys were.


Anyway Adolph had a look around the school and evidently toured the city. I heard from Eva he was crazy about riding the Cable Cars and was suitably impressed by the Golden Gate Bridge. Hitler also lunched a couple of times in Chinatown, he really loved dim sum. Before he left. the Fuhrer met with me to check on Eva’s progress. “She’s not giving you any lip, is she?” he asked. I assured the Nazi that Eva was a very charming young lady and a good student. “Is she mastering prepositions? I know those can be a real son of a bitch.” Adolph wanted to know. I assured him that Eva was doing as well as anyone with prepositions and my only real concern was her difficulty with conditionals. I was taken aback when he hit the table with his fist and shouted, “no conditions will be accepted, surrender must be unconditional.” Boy was he embarrassed when I pointed out that conditionals was a grammar term. “I guess my head’s still in my work,” he said sheepishly.

I was relieved when Hitler left. He seemed so judgmental and inflexible about a lot of things. Plus a lot of our students were put off by one SS officer in the school, having all these others goose stepping around and singing the Horst Wessel song was downright unnerving. One of my Polish students complained about the way they sneered at him and more than a few French students ran like hell when they saw them coming.

Eva finished her course and did really well. She aced the final exam. That said I didn’t much care for her essay. She chose as her topic “What the world will be like in five years.” Her topic sentence was: “pretty much in ruins for any place that has opposed my lover…” it degenerated from there. Still her writing, vocabulary and punctuation were fine, so what can you do.

On her last day Eva gave me a gift, as some students do. In her case it was strudel. Yummy.

I got a letter from Eva after the U.S. entered the war. She said she was sorry it came to that but if Germany won she’d be sure to get me a gig teaching English to Fritz and his crew. I’ll never forget the next line: “if Germany loses, well, you’ll have seen the last of Eva.”

In case you didn’t know, Germany ultimately got its ass kicked and I never did see her or Adolph again, nor did anyone else. As an interesting postscript, Fritz made it out of Germany and out to San Francisco. When he enrolled in the school he requested I be his teacher. He ended up being a lousy student.

23 September 2015

Abigail Gets Fired

Abigail Jessup was fired. Again.  Surely this was not her fault. Other factors were at play. Abigail reckoned that she was a victim. It was an injustice and “they” would pay. She would never reconcile herself to it.

Abigail strode out of the building. The one she had worked in these past 16 months. The initial shock was already wearing off and reality was setting in. And she was getting pissed off. She would sue. She would have her day in court. She would get retribution. Those bastards. They didn’t know who they were messing with. “You’re just not a good fit with us,” they told her. Not a good fit? This it took them over a year to decide? What tripe. Surely her firing was payback. That had to be it, Abigail thought as she got into her car. Abigail had spoken out at meetings. Raised questions. Stood up for herself and her fellow workers. No doubt Abigail’s firing was just a way to get rid of her and intimidate others. Keep ‘em quiet. Bastards! Bastards!

No way was she going to let this go. Those sons of bitches didn’t know who they were messing with. Abigail pulled into the parking lot of her neighborhood liquor store, Rolph’s. Everyone at Rolph’s knew Abigail, she popped in almost every day. Today she picked up a quart of whiskey, a six pack, some lunch meats, Slim Jims and a couple bags of chips. Nothing out of the ordinary. Abigail had a few pops most nights, tonight it would be boilermakers. Plenty of ‘em. And she’d strategize how she’d get back at those bastards. Messed with the wrong person, they did.

There was only Roscoe the cat there to greet Abigail when she entered her apartment. Roscoe was overweight, just like Abigail. He waddled over to her meowing loudly. He’d continue meowing until she picked him up. But Roscoe would have to wait until everything was put away and she’d taken a piss.

Eventually Roscoe and Abigail were sharing the sofa, the TV was on and the first drink was about to be downed.

There was enough money in the savings to tide Abigail over for a few months easy if she stretched things a year even, but she’d start looking for work right away and start planning her lawsuit against the latest corporate thieves who’d deprived her of a livelihood. Abigail had been down this road before. Fired without real cause. She’d lawyered up right away then too. Nothing came of her efforts but a message was sent. This time in addition to the message she’d bring the bastards to their knees. Hit them for damages. Strike a blow for workers. Not a good fit my ass. This was union busting before the fact. They somehow knew she’d talked about unionizing. There must be a rat among her co-workers. Former co-workers. Could be any one of those weasels. Maybe Len or Todd or Gina or that new girl Chrissie. Chrissie so prissy. She was just so damn cute, looking like the cheerleader who dates the quarterback in high school. Or maybe it was Brent. That asshole was always so quiet, kept to himself. Probably a snitch. Maybe more than one of them was a snitch. You can’t trust anyone these days. Only yourself. Fuck this, I’m announcing my plans. I’m going to tell people straight out what these corporate monsters did. “Not a good fit.”

Abigal got out her laptop. She had a mailing list of all her co-workers, one that didn’t include any of the bosses. Abigail composed the email. It gave a blow-by-blow description of what had happened when those two asshole supervisors called her into the office after work. How they spelled out supposed infractions she’d committed, how she’d already received warning letters, how they said that she wasn’t “a good fit.” All bullshit. Anyone could see through it. Hell people at work would jump to her side. They’d be outraged. They all respected and liked her, well most of them anyway. They’d see how her firing was just the first. They’d clean house. Anyone they didn’t like would be gone soon, anyone who didn’t toe the company line, anyone who tried to organize. This was just the beginning. But they’d see. Her co-workers — her former co-workers — would see Abigail for the hero she was and the bosses, why they’d see they’d messed with the wrong person. She sent the email. Proud as hell and anxious to read their responses. How they would rally to her!

The TV was blaring and Abigail was snoring. Half the whiskey was gone, all the Slim Jims and a most of the lunch meat, eaten without bread. Roscoe was perched on her ample stomach. It was 1:15 am. Abigail awoke with a start. Something in a dream she was having about a dinosaur or some monster had startled her awake. She angrily pushed Roscoe off and muted the TV. There must be some replies by now to the email. She picked up her laptop. Nothing. Just spam. What the hell? Maybe people didn’t read work related emails at home. They’d all see it tomorrow and write to her. No doubt about that.

Abigail took a good long piss and crawled into bed. It was king sized but she hadn’t had anyone to share it with in months, since Curtis left. That was messed up. Curtis wasn’t the brightest bulb on the tree, she knew that, at 56 he was 15 years older than Abigail. But the reasons he gave for breaking up were nonsensical. Every man that ever broke up with her seemed to give the same stupid reasons. It's as if they read from a playbook or something. Always this crap about her temper, and grumpiness and self importance. Curtis even said she drank too much. A couple of others had said the same. Sure she liked to drink, but too much? Come on! Jerks. The hell with it, she’d find someone soon enough. The best guy yet would come along, someone who could really satisfy her prodigious sexual needs. Someone she could talk to and share her ideas with.

Now Abigail couldn’t sleep. She got up and had some more whisky and then a beer. Maybe there’d be a hangover in this but hell, she had plenty of experience with those. Another check of the email. It was 2:34 am. Still nothing. Aw hell who would’ve written her between 1 whatever and 2 something in the morning? Abigail fell back to sleep right there on the sofa. Roscoe settled in on her back.

When Abigail finally woke up 10:00 she veritably leapt off the sofa with anticipation at reading the many emails of support that she must have by now received. There was one. Cherri had written a few sentences just wishing her luck and saying maybe they could get together for coffee sometime. That was it. What about everyone else? Why weren’t they on board yet? What was going on? Had the corporate bosses muzzled them somehow, had they hacked into her email and deleted the responses? That was crazy. Probably just everyone is busy and they’d be writing her at lunch time. This was Thursday and Thursday was always crazy at work.

After a shower and breakfast and some hair of the dog Abigail called her lawyer, Lester Conklin. He was with a client and would call back. Abigail couldn’t wait. He’d love this case. Meanwhile she kept checking her email. Nothing from anyone at work. Not a thing. Assholes.

Finally Lester called back. She laid out the circumstances of her dismissal. All the crap they gave her about “not a good fit” and those phony baloney warnings they’d issued, all a pretext to silence someone who dared ask questions. When Abigail Jessup finished laying out her case there was silence on the other end of the phone. It lasted a few seconds. Then a sigh. Finally Lester said, “I’m not really hearing an unfair termination case here. Maybe I’m missing something but from what you’re relating to me they had every right to terminate and they followed due process. Can you prove that they targeted you for speaking out? Also, this sounds like a few other cases you’ve called about. Only thinner.”

Abigail actually, literally saw red. She’d was so fucking pissed now. “Are you not hearing me, Lester? I asked questions. I spoke up. All of sudden they start issuing warnings. That didn’t stop me and they fired me. Without cause!”

“Calm down, Abigail. I’m just telling you that nothing you’ve said so far indicates unfair labor practices, least of all anything you can prove. Unless there’s something you’re not telling me I’d suggest you just move on and find another job.”

“And let them win!?” she shouted.

“I don’t see them as winning anything here — ”

“Fuck you, Lester. I’m getting another lawyer. One who knows his stuff and isn’t a chicken shit afraid to take on corporations.” And with that she hung up.

Abigail spent the next few weeks trying to find an attorney who would represent her. She was unsuccessful. She also tried to find a new job. Here too she was having no luck. She also kept checking her email and was hearing nothing from anyone at work. She even sent out another email re-stating her case and urging everyone to take action. The only response she got was from Todd who asked her to remove him from her email list, he said he didn’t want to see anymore of her emails. Abigail wrote back and tore him a new one. Called Todd a corporate swine, a sell out and a loser.

It was two months before Abigail got a job interview. It was with a smaller version of the last place she’d worked. The interview was going well until they asked why she’d left her last job. Abigail kind of lost her cool and said she was a victim of corporate hit men who “took her out for speaking up.”
Even Abigail realized she’d gone too far. Best not to say anything like that in future interviews. But there weren’t any future interviews for a long time. It was almost a year after her firing before she got a temporary position. It was a foot in the door. If they liked her work she’d be given a full time position. After a month Abigail was laid off. She reasoned it was because they overheard her complaining in the lunchroom about the poor ventilation in the rooms and how crowded the coat closet was. Others complained too but she took the fall. No doubt a message was being sent. Maybe she’d sue.

Abigail went home that night angrier then ever. A few shots of bourbon calmed her. She would not be silenced. She would fight back. She was going to win in the end. Roscoe leapt into her lap. Abigail Jessup gave her a cat a big hug.

20 September 2015

Three Men in a Photo and a Few Words on the Recent Release, Black Mass


I like this picture. I have a lot of pictures that I use as wallpaper for my trusty old MacBook Pro (not a paid endorsement). This is one of my favorites.

On the left is Michael McClure, a poet, novelist and songwriter. Frankly I don't know much about him or his work but he is constantly referenced when I read about some of my favorite writers and artists. As I write this I'm think that I should probably take a look at some of his writing. If one is to be judged strictly by the company she or he keeps then Mr. McClure is quite a talent. According to wikipedia his influences include Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Walt Whitman and Gary Snyder. If those are your influences you're on the right track in my book (would that I actually had a book).

In the middle of the photo is one Bob Dylan. As he is want to do Mr. Dylan is looking somewhat affected. Especially during his early career Dylan was a poser. Not so much for photos but in public. He put on this air of casual indifference and intellectual coolness. The sunglasses were de rigueur for this look. He had a definite persona, one that has evolved or devolved over the years into a bizarre eccentricity. As a kid I played my older brother's Dylan album, specifically the song "Like a Rolling Stone" which I was mesmerized by and listened to over and over. But ultimately the prodigious output of The Beatles overwhelmed Dylan and other voices and when I finally started listening to other music again, Dylan was left out. I came back to him only a few years ago and have been enjoying him very much.

Of course the gentleman on the right is Allen Ginsberg a personal hero of mine. In addition to owning -- through various books -- probably all of his published poems, I have books featuring his correspondence with Kerouac, Snyder and his father. I also have a biography and his published journals. I not only love Ginsberg's poetry, but his entire approach to life. He fully embraced living and being and experimented with being what it means to be human. Like myself he survived having an insane mother and experiencing some emotional tumult but he came out of it all with great passion for people, for peace and for contributing to a better world. In this picture there is intensity in his face as he apparently listens to Dylan. In addition to his other gifts Ginsberg could be a patient listener.

And now for something completely different....

Today I saw Black Mass starring Johnny Depp as the notorious real life gangster Whitey Bulger. Depp is a fine actor who gives an astounding performance here. It is transformative. Depp has wasted his talents for far too long on silly, lightweight pictures many of which are downright awful. He's made a ton of money, enough so that he can well afford to take roles like this that challenge him. Depp has been wonderful in such excellent films as Ed Wood (1994), Donnie Brasco (1997) and Dead Man (1995)

(The first rate cast of Black Mass includes Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Kevin Bacon and Peter Sarsgaard as well as some lesser knowns who are terrific, Scott Cooper directed).

The movie itself is essentially quite true to the events it depicts, primarily using the book Black Mass as its source material. Bulger and the events surrounding him make for a compelling story, yet another in a very long series of gangster films from throughout Hollywood's history. There is a scene at a dinner table with Bulger and three others in which a recipe is discussed. Depp is transcendent in this scene which is one of the best few minutes of cinema I've seen in a long, long time.

While I enjoyed Black Mass it was ruined for me by Goodfellas (1990). It was of course my fault entirely but I kept subconsciously comparing the film to Scorsese's earlier masterpiece. Any attempt to imitate Goodfellas would have been forced and unsuccessful but this more straight forward telling of a gangster story can't possibly measure up. If -- as is surely the case -- filmmakers are going to continue to offer the occasional gangster film, they're going to have to do something different and unexpected. Black Mass is a good film on its own terms but it exists in a universe in which many of us have seen Goodfellas, that being the case, good is about all you can hope to achieve.

Another thing that influences my view of crime stories is that I finally, lo these many years late, started watching HBO's The Wire which ran from 2002-2008.  Several people encouraged me to watch it and idiot that I am I waited until seven years after it ended to start. It has been worth the wait. Perhaps I'll delve more into this show later. Suffice to say that for me it ranks right up there with The Sopranos and Breaking Bad among great dramatic television programs.


18 September 2015

Dust Mote on the Tracks


I like to share wry observations with my own inimitable wit. I can hear the deafening roar of a thousand empty chairs as I compose. And still I wonder at injunctions at starting sentences with conjunctions. The steely gaze of a shepherd with his flock, his tea laced with strychnine. Oh the gods of peril watch over us and blast and fury and faith at the new dawn day. Lovable.

On the bus today going through Chinatown a passenger carried in a bag something that smelled like a rotting rhinoceros head. Yet another passenger had evidently bathed in cilantro and more than a few hadn't bathed in a fortnight. There was a large man sitting across from me who was far too obvious a person to be on public transportation. His desire for attention and recognition belied the fact that he was of decidedly low intellect and insignificant accomplishment. Old ladies practically begged for seats up front where teenagers -- regular roustabouts -- sat idly blanking looking at their mobiles.

A tall, long legged woman stood imperiously wondering why fate had thrown her among us mortals. I'd have cast an aspersion but who was I to....

And the rain. After an unlikely heat wave even more unlikely chills and clouds and wet weather. The madness. The unpredictable lunacy of a world ravaged by climate change. I walked from bus to subway enduring and enjoying a few sprinkles boasting neither a jacket nor umbrella. Such is. Now it's going to be hot again then normal then...?

The subway station smells of urine and trash then an overly perfumed woman walks by. Someone blasts music that should be coming through ear buds to their ears only. The effrontery. Casually decadent suited 28 year olds promenade on the platform acting self important as they take a call from the office that they just left. The hustle bustles and there is a bustle to the hustle as pickpockets scope out the unwary. Find a tourist mate.

Trains are delayed because a dust mote landed on the tracks. Screeching halts and obnoxious announcements and gruff middle aged men cursing too loudly and I heave a sigh. A child tugs at mother's skirt and is ignored. The train comes and there is a seat waiting for me next to an overly casual looking young woman crossing her beautiful legs. She ignores me and I realize I have daughters her age and out comes the book and my head zeroes in on the beginning of the chapter where I left off 20 minutes ago on the bus. At the next few stops people jostle on and the train becomes packed and I am bumped and I look up to see sullen faces.

Despite this that and the other I have found myself quite happy recently. This is very unfamiliar and most disconcerting. (I just used quite very and most in the last two sentences, so don't think I'm unaware of my propensity to modify adjectives. Lot of people don't like it. So it goes.) Prolonged periods of joy are unusual for me. I often think they are the lull before the storm, that the scales will soon be balanced, gloom or bad news must be just around the corner. I've never trusted happiness. It's too often built on shaky ground and collapses loudly causing acute pain. The missus tells me to enjoy feeling good and that I deserve. I suppose that's the wise course and I'll sure try but it all seems so unreal and so unnatural.

To betray the dragon that haunted. To live the dogged life of the shadowed man. To spit at the inevitability of death. To clash with the conundrums of time and to smile always to smirk at the relentless happiness of the rewarded man.

Kissing the joyous woman of yesterday's solitude against the mustard sky and revel in the distance between this life and the next while slapping at despair and dancing on the outer edge of yesterday for there is no recourse for the penitent man but the sighs of bygone stories sung by the chocolate choir with angel time at the cusp. Go and do and  then and only then is your love real. Don't cheat love.

And so I imagined an acetylene torch destroying the dust mote.

Weekend at last. Home on chair. Feet up. Eyes forward. Yes.




15 September 2015

The Absolutely True Story of My Invisible Pet Duck and How it Got Me in Hot Water With a School District

This is a duck but not mine because mine was, after all, invisible.

I once had to go see the Associate Superintendent of Human Resources because of an invisible pet duck. This is an absolutely true story.

I was called into the principal’s office one day. This was a terrible awful principal previously mentioned on this blog. She was horrible. This time let’s call her Ms. Padderson (if you substitute the letter t for the letter d you have her actual last name). Ms. Padderson frequently called me into her office. She did not like me. She did not like a lot of teachers. Most teachers did not like her. On this particular occasion she had a toady with her in the form of a vice principal. The issues were so serious that two administrators were present. As I recall there were three issues that she wanted to discuss. The first two regarded some sort of complaint or other from a parent or student. Most administrators take student and parent complaints with a grain of salt. They have to. There are so many of them and many of them are  — you should excuse the expression — bullshit. But Ms. Padderson took every complaint seriously provided it was against a teacher she didn’t like, such as yours truly. I was able to satisfactorily address the first two complaints but the third one I laughed at. Out loud. It seems a student thought hat I believed I had an invisible pet duck. One of the reasons I cracked up was that she presented this complaint to me as if it was a very serious matter indeed. Well I had my chuckle and was on my way. I had more important things to do then waste time with an idiotic school administrator (oxymoron?).

The real story of my invisible pet duck was this: One day in class I called out two students for goofing off during a lesson. I was on the other side of the room at the time and they were amazed that I could detect their behavior from so far away with my sight line obscured. Actually it was as much intuition as anything else. I knew these two kids well enough to detect when they were off task even from a mile away on a foggy day. The young 'uns asked how I could tell what they were doing from where I was. I told them, in front of the whole class, that I had an invisible pet duck who reported what was going on to me. Students got a hearty laugh out of this and the two errant young men didn’t feel so bad because we were all having a yuk. The next day in class a student — jokingly of course — asked if my invisible pet duck were present. I said he indeed was so one and all should be on their best behavior. Everyone got a smile out of that if not an outright titter. My invisible pet duck became a running gag in the class that helped lighten the serious study of history that occupied most of our class time.

Evidently one student thought I really did believe I had an invisible pet duck. As I told the Associate Superintendent, this speaks more about the student’s state of mind then my own.

So one day I got the phone message that I was to down to the district office to see the Associate Superintendent. The message did not say about what. I doubted that it was to thank me for my continued service to the community. It had to be bad. I did one of those gulps you do when you’re scared. Of course I was nervous all the way up to my meeting with Mr. What’s-his-face (I’ll be damned if I can remember his moniker lo these 15 years later). You can imagine my relief when he told me that at issue was a duck. I couldn’t help but chuckle too. He was not amused. He explained that there were questions as to my sanity and the fact that I didn’t take the complaint seriously when the principal informed me of it was a bad sign.

It may come as a shock to those who are familiar with district level administrators, but this bloke was a reasonable guy. He perfectly understood and believed my version of the story and agreed that the reporting student may be the one who needed attention. He also cautioned me about future flights of fancy that might similarly be misinterpreted.

Being the bold rebel that I am, I informed the class the next day that I was retiring the pet duck and I explained why. Students were disappointed but simultaneously got one more laugh out of the duck, I’m afraid at the expense of the anonymous student whose identity was never known to me.

Sometime later a student gave me a drawing of me with a pet duck on a leash. It was titled: "Mr. Hourula and pet duck." It was a simple yet elegant piece of art that I proudly had on my class bulletin board until my last day as a public school teacher.

I guess I should be thankful that no one reported me for telling students that as a youth I worked on my uncle's donut farm. Because I said that. Yeah, I did.

14 September 2015

This Post Concerns Such Things as the Proper Preparation of Salmon, Loading a Dishwasher and the Word Funky

This picture makes my mouth water.


It’s always something. It has to be because if it wasn’t something it would be nothing. No one wants that.

I just enjoyed loading the dishwasher. I’m serious. First I put away the clean dishes that had been in the dishwasher, then I put the dirty ones in. I’m very organized about such things in a way that my family thinks is a little weird. Popularly said, some of what I do is a little OCD. Among all the other peccadilloes, foibles, eccentricities, mental quirks and emotional upsets I live with there is a tendency I have to do certain things compulsively. Well what of it? In my case it's nothing for anyone, least of all me, to be concerned about. I’ve got other fish to fry. Indeed I have a rather sizable lake’s worth of fish to be fried. You know, not that it matters, I prefer my fish not to be fried. Broiled is much better, barbecued is good. Frying is one of the worst things you can do to a fish or to your belly.

My dad regularly went salmon fishing. On the ocean. He did this up until he was 91 and would have continued if on the last trip he took he didn’t have a freakish fall coming out of the boat. That fall ultimately led to his death. He caught the biggest fish on the boat that day. That was my dad. Anyway he once took my father-in-law fishing. The two of them hit it off famously, their mutual love of fishing being a prime reason. They caught some fish, as was generally the case when my dad got anywhere near water. He’d walk down to the pier and the fish would just give up and jump into his lap. So the in-laws were staying with the wife and I at the time and they prepared some of the salmon. This is one of the healthiest foods you can eat. They fried it. Son of bitch, yes they did. They’re from the south where damn near everything is fried. But salmon? Jesus that’s criminal. I tasted it and it was like eating a cross between a french fry and broiled salmon. Meanwhile the wife made me some salmon the proper way. Or I should say, one of the proper ways. My dad used to smoke salmon and even salt it. Either way is delicious. There's a lot of ways to prepare a salmon. Frying should never be one of them. Come on.

But getting back to my original point (and I swear I had one) I enjoyed loading the dishwasher. I like washing laundry and taking out the recycling and compost and trash. I like sorting my clean socks. I like a lot of tasks that are ritualistic and also serve a purpose and make my life a little cleaner and tidier. They are good for the soul. And for someone like me who deals with issues stemming from a crazy and alcoholic mother, they are natural and necessary. There are worse things.

One of the things I like about some chores (mind you there are certain chores I can do without, let’s be real here, I don’t like doing just any stupid thing like mopping or cooking) is that they are reminders of being alive. Occasionally when I’m suffering a particularly difficult commute it feels like death. Waiting in line can be like that. The feeling that life is being sapped away from you. You are helpless and have no power in a situation and just have to take whatever comes. Of course you can just let go and try to relax but that’s one of those things that even after 28 years of 12 stepping is easier said than done. But accomplishing little chores feels like participating in life. In a small way yes, but then who’s to say what’s small and what’s significant?

I mentioned commuting. Regular readers of this blog (both of us) know that I frequently share stories about my bus rides through San Francisco’s Chinatown. On today’s trip a passenger boarded with what must have been a live octopus with an intestinal flu. Whatever it was was in a bag and not moving but the odor betrayed it. I recall the word funky which was quite commonly used in various ways years ago but has fallen out of favor for reasons unknown. I'd like funky to come back. I remember when music could be funky and that was a good thing. More funk, please. It's a word that needs a comeback.

I’d love to chatter on and on and I know you’d very much like me to. But if I wrote more it would keep me from studying Italian which I simply must do and if there was more here for you to read (he flatters himself that anyone has read this far) it would keep you from that book you’re reading. Your book club meets Thursday so that simply won’t do. You're on what, page 86? Jeez. Then again this blog may be delaying you answering some work-related emails, or maybe you should be reading little Millicent a bedtime story or more importantly this might be keeping you from curing cancer. Gracious me.

13 September 2015

September 13, 1940 September 13, 2015

I couldn’t understand why some people were staring at me. Most of them didn’t maintain their gaze for very long. They’d see me, take a good long look and then turn away. A few shook their heads as if in disgust. I double checked to make sure I had clothes on and that my zipper wasn’t down. Everything seemed fine. I even touched my hair to make sure that it wasn’t too mussy. It was fine too. Then I checked my clothes again looking for any stains or anything else unusual. Nothing was out of the ordinary. Nothing at all. So why were people looking at me? This wasn’t a dream. I was sure of that. What I wasn’t sure of was exactly where I was or how I got there. Then I realized I didn’t know what day it was. Tuesday? Saturday? No idea. Hell, I could’t even recollect the month or even the year. This was bad, real bad. Maybe my confusion was somehow related to why people were staring at me. But then why would people stare at a person just because he was confused? I knew I wasn’t acting at all peculiar. I was just standing on the sidewalk in a downtown area.

After a minute or so I started feeling really scared. If I didn’t know where I was, where would I go? Where was home? Was there anyone around I knew or who knew me? I looked around some more and realized that I was in my hometown. Well heck, why didn’t I recognize it before? But it seemed odd, different somehow. Things around me were coming into focus. I finally noticed the cars going by. They were all old cars, but nicely restored ones. Then it occurred to me that people were dressed differently than me. Wait a second…everything seemed different, the buildings, the stores. I only barely recognized some of them. I remembered a picture of downtown I’d seen in the library. This is exactly what it looked like. But that picture was from 1940. Everything looked like then. Had I slipped back in time? Was I 75 years in the past? That must be why people were looking at me, my clothes were from 2015, I must look awfully strange to everyone.

I walked over to a news stand. The local paper had today’s date, September 13, but it said 1940. I felt like jumping out of my skin. I felt like screaming. I felt like I was stark raving mad. I’d had anxiety before but never like this. I didn’t know what to do with myself. Even though it was chilly I was sweating. I tried to imagine how this possibly could have happened. The last thing I remember before turning up here was that…what? I couldn’t think. I had to sit down, try to relax. Try to think. I knew the library was just a block away. It was built during the 1930s so it was sure to be there. It was the same library where I’d looked at the photo of downtown in 1940. The year I was suddenly in.

I walked into the library and sat at a long table near the fiction section. It looked like the same table I’d recently sat at reading periodicals. But the table was new. Of course it was. There were no scratches on it. When had I been at the library? What was the last thing I could remember? I squeezed my fists and scrunched up my face as I tried to think. It was like I was putting physical effort into a mental process. I knew this wouldn’t do so I tried to relax and take some deep breaths. But not too deep, I didn’t want to hyperventilate. I walked over to the water fountain and took a few big gulps. People were still giving me long looks. I hoped it was just because of my clothes and not the way I was acting. I went back to the table and sat down. Maybe closing my eyes would help. I looked around first. I don’t know why. Then I closed my eyes….

I was standing downtown but everything seemed different. What had happened? I’d just been at the library when all of sudden I found myself standing here a block away and everything seemed suddenly strange. How am I in one place on second and another place the next second? This wasn't a dream, I was sure of it. There was very little I recognized. Buildings were different, peculiar looking. There were many more of them. And there are all these people, so many more than usual and they’re dressed in the strangest ways. Men have hair like women. There are a lot of negroes about and crazy people and the cars, my god the cars practically look like futuristic space ships. Some people look it at me kind of funny but I’m sure not the strangest looking person around. It’s like I’m in the future. And this future is very scary and its dirty and smells bad and I just wanted to scream. I saw a newspaper on the ground and picked it up. It had today’s date, September 13. But it said 2015. I wonder if I was suddenly somehow  75 years in the future or is the wildest most realistic feeling dream of all time? I felt panicked. I felt like crying or yelling for help. I headed toward the last place I remember being, the library. I wasn't sure if it would still be there. Thankfully it was and it looked much the same on the outside but I could tell by looking through the windows that it was very different within. I was sweating profusely. It was quite warm. The last I remember before appearing here it was a cool day. I walked by some young ladies who were practically just in their underwear. You’d think they were at the beach. Such short pants and blouses that barely cover them!

The library was laid out much the same as it was but there are strange machines that people are staring at. I walked to the tables near the fiction section, first taking a sip of water at the fountain. I noticed a picture of the wall that purported to show downtown in 1940. It looked exactly like the world I left, my world. I started shaking. What could I do? Who could I talk to? What was to become of me? What of everyone I knew? Many, most, would be dead in this year this unbelievably sounding time of 2015.

I sat at my usual spot. There was a gentleman sitting across from me. He looked strangely familiar….


I tried to relax tried to reason what to do when some guy sat across from me. He looked like, he looked like…me. I was staring, it seemed, into a mirror. But he was dressed appropriate to 1940….

I recognized the man I had sat across from. It was me. Or at least the mirror image. But he was dressed like the other people in 2015….

I reached across to touch him…

He reached towards me and I extended a hand toward him….

I’m exhausted. It was a very strange day. The strangest I can remember. That long hallucination or whatever it was that I came out of in the library has wiped me out. I pick up the remote and turn on the TV. The news is on with a story about the immigration crisis in Europe....

I’ve never felt so physically and emotionally empty. Whatever happened today has sapped me. I could barely make the walk home from the library when it ended. I turn on the radio. Maybe there’s news about the war in Europe.

07 September 2015

Watch Who You're Calling White

Last December I wrote about a woman I met at a party. The post had been on this blog for a few days before I took it down because I thought I’d been a bit too harsh on the person in question. My intention was to revisit the writing and put up a kinder, gentler version in which I recalled that my younger self bore some resemblance to my subject. And so over eight months later here is the revision.

When I was 21 years old I knew everything. Older people were hopelessly out of it and uncool and unenlightened and sans a clue. I’d already been to Europe twice and dabbled in psychedelics and of course lost my virginity. I was nearly through with college and was a reporter on the school newspaper. You couldn’t tell me a damn thing. During the decades since I have gotten progressively stupider. With each passing day I seem to learn more and realize that there is so much more to learn and understand. I completed my degree and subsequently got a few more. I got off booze and drugs and married and raised two children and had a career and now a second incarnation of it. I’ve read, listened, meditated, traveled and paid attention. I look back at the idiot I was at 21 with amusement. There was nothing really wrong with that lad, he never hurt anyone and his intentions were honorable. He was just a stupid kid who needed to grow up and develop a little humility. Check that, a lot of humility. He’s done all right. So having taken a look back at myself I now examine another 21 year old who I met at a party. She was a caution.

Here’s a young lady who proudly states that she doesn’t consider herself white but that she can “pass.” That’s what this young women said. This woman with very white skin. No one would ever think other than white. Which is why — of course — thinking yourself a different skin color is utterly ridiculous. Skin color is a social construct. Its what others see you as. You can consider yourself an ethnicity, you can choose a religion, but you are a skin color. I don’t know what it takes to actually think of yourself as a different skin color, but she’s got it.

The thing is she doesn’t want to be white. I know the feeling. As proud as I’ve always been of being a Finn I’ve had times when I thought it would be cool to be black. But I’ve also had times when I thought it would be cool to be a spy, a rock star, a professional soccer player and a billionaire. This 21 year old was proud to be a woman and “queer.” One was obvious the other was her call and I had no reason to doubt her. But the non white claim was pure bullshit. She was clearly trying to identify with as many minority groups as possible and thus be as oppressed as possible. Being white means benefitting from white privilege. That’s a helluva thing to be stuck with when you want to be with the underdogs. So you hang on to your other differences and pretend to have others. A lot of people like to play the victim. It's easy, you gain sympathy and social status. Never mind that play the victim is an insult to those who have actually been victim. Its not cute to people of color when you try to appropriate their experience.

In the course of our conversation this young lady was able to dismiss any differences of opinion she had with my friend and I because we are white men. This ticked me off, I hate being called a white man. At the same time I am and admit it. But please don’t remind me. When you label someone you strip away a little bit — no actually a lot — of who they are.

I’m a lot of things. Okay so I’m a white guy.

Watch who you call white.

I’m also a socialist and a fan of Cal football and a cinephile and barely middle class. I'm a lot more than white, I'm a lot more than a lot of things. So are we all. Speaking of class, isn’t your economic status more telling than skin color or sexual preference? I think it can be. Society forgives a lot if you’re wealthy. White privilege can be virtually wiped out by poverty. Social mobility has been severely restricted of late in the US as the gap between rich and poor has simultaneously widened into a chasm. So while racism is still alive and well in this country — as recent events remind us — so too is classism, and it may be just as, if not, more powerful.

But I think most galling is using a person’s skin color or gender or sexuality as an out. If you have a difference of opinion you have an opportunity to listen, share and maybe one or both of you will change your mind or bend a little or learn something or understand another perspective. That is if you address the words a person speaks and not the label you've assigned them.

This young woman was full of opinions. She was proud of them and proud of the fact that she expressed them in no uncertain terms. Sometimes one can go from expressing oneself to being obnoxious in the blink of an eye. Being overly strident in one’s opinions and not soliciting other people’s and speaking authoritatively on subjects you know little about is a recipe for alienating people who you might otherwise learn from or at least share with.

She called Ernest Hemingway “a hack.” You don’t like his writing? Fine. You can say that. But calling one of our most revered writers a hack is pretentious. Actually it makes you seem like an buffoon. There are famed and highly regarded authors who I don’t care for but I’m respectful enough of those who do like them not to call them names. Instead I merely relate that their writing doesn’t appeal to me and perhaps add why. I've talked to writers about famous authors. Writers will tell you who they like and don't like but they won't dismiss another writer with an insult. Respect.

Don't even ask her opinions of films. She hates virtually all of those directors considered among the greats. It's easy to dislike. Finding truth and beauty takes work. You have to have an open mind and an open heart. This poor woman is closed up already. Not listening to anyone else, not asking, just forming and fossilizing opinions.

She also wants to read more non white male writers. That’s cool. I can totally understand that. But at the same time I wonder just how similar are "white voices"?  Dostoyevsky, Dickens, Fitzgerald, Celine, Ginsberg and Pynchon. Hey they’re all white guys, right? I don't think all us white males sound alike. I sound nothing like Richard Nixon. But yes, its important to expose oneself to women and non white writers, just don't lump all white writers together. That's too easy.

Clearly there are a lot of young people (as I once was) who should spend more time listening. The problem is, they never know who they are. I sure didn’t recognize myself as a cocky know-it-all who was in reality a know-a-little-bit. Indeed some young people are so blinkered as to think they’re a different color.

I’m a polka dot. 

06 September 2015

I Have Been and Will Always and that's Just the Way...It is

Me as a reporter 24 years old, always in the center.

“…who scribbled all night rocking and rolling over lofty incantations which in the yellow morning were stanzas of gibberish - From Howl by Allen Ginsberg

In early 20s when the world was in my back pocket and all I wanted and could be was in my right hand I would put on the dog Friday nights and float into a local watering hole for cocktails there to hold court and cut up and marvel at my own wit charm and warm smile — handsome devil. I delighted company and smiled at the waitresses and winked at the new girl sitting there demurely who maybe was already keen on me or was about to be and I was interested because she had that shiny gloss fresh out of the package look and I wanted to open it so ignored that someone who was there just to see me be with me because she was from yesterday and I wanted today.

Drinks delicious icy wonders that I gulped bringing a glow and even further assurance that I was the center of it all and you it’s nice to meet you nice to see you nice to be. I be. I. Then ease into the next part of the night would it be dinner or a party another bar to the disco to dance a combination of those or maybe alone with that new girl and if that failed — the idea — then Miss Plan B. Oh and would there be cocaine to fuel more of the fun. What possibilities seemingly endless.

At this time I was a journalist and a good one with a wonderful way with words and clever at eliciting them in interviews where I was so skilled. I dug deeply into topics and drew them out and made them seem accessible and understandable and I was praised and appreciated and in most respects certainly deserving. Encomiums. Please for me please. See how good I am.

I told people as early as when I was eight years old that I wanted to be a famous writer. Teachers encouraged the idea that I was a natural although they seemed to let my sloppy grammar spelling punctuation go and grow bad. But I was nurtured in the idea that I had talent. But of course that part of the brain had to rest a bit while I alternatively starred in soccer and experimented with drugs and after the experimenting I practiced. Also there were girls to chase and sometimes catch although I was often at a loss for what to do with them. Chased the wrong ones and caught the wronger ones. There was Debra senior year high school she was wonderful smart and witty and my match if not superior in every respect but I told her bluntly that I was throwing her over in pursuit of the dumb blondes of the word. Debra is a doctor now and I would think I lost out but I found the perfect wife anyway so things can work out even if you’re being a jerk a lot of the time.

There I was finishing high school shattered by my mother’s madness but an accomplished athlete an aspiring writer and already a veteran drug user and oh yeah the girls thought I had beautiful blonde hair and beautiful eyes and beautiful this and beautiful that and I was beautiful but really in a lot of ways I was something of an idiot. Something. Yeah well.

So I shambled and rambled and stumbled through college for a couple of years then up and went to Europe where I was free but got locked up with girls one in particular and anyway I couldn’t figure out what I was doing and I came back lost and went back to who and where I was and did it again. Only more booze now and yet I managed to be that hotshot reporter and the man about town gadding about and getting laid and getting high and getting hangovers and loving life and loving and hating myself and caring passionately and deeply but being an insecure narcissist and is there any other kind I ask you.

But I learned — many years later.

Oh yes and there was music always music the soundtrack of my waywaywaywaywayward youth. Beatles Stones Hendrix Joplin Crosby Stills Nash Young Billy Joel Fleetwood Tower of Power David Bowie The Who Marvin Gaye and the inevitable more. There was rhythm and deep lyrics to be interpreted answers to be found an understanding just as my reporting would unlike deep secrets and it would all be revealed. Enlightenment and understanding and nirvana and orgasms and the perfect high coming to my mind and soul if only I were pushing for it and awake to it and stayed cool meanwhile I could have all the consequence free fun I wanted of any kind and everything would be cool nothing to worry about. All would be revealed and after that party time.

But damaged yeah there was that and always would be will be. The damn childhood with that damn screaming mother and those words and that ugly sound and poor little me cowering what that did and has done but I learned to show up which is what I do. No matter the depression or the fear or panic you just show up each day for work for play for life you don’t sit it out and you remember all the people you were and you never ever hide from that and pretend it was different it all happened just the way it did and you did those things and experienced those things and you’re still you and you came out of it you wiser now and have been a father and been unselfish and you’ve given and been a teacher and cared and loved and tried and thought and not been content with what you shouldn’t be but have learned to be content with what you should be and that’s a real start for the rest of your days go get ‘em.

02 September 2015

Two Cocktail Glasses - or - Pawns in the Sad Withering Days of Sad Space in Time

Yesterday I wrote about waiting for a to go order of clam chowder at a restaurant bar. There’s more to that visit.

Two cocktails sitting on the bar ready to be picked up by a waiter and taken to customers. Lovely glasses filled with matching concoctions. Amber colored with a judicious amount of ice. I looked at them for two, three seconds tops. It was forever. So many sad stories in those two glasses.

What did they cost? Maybe four or five dollars, not sure what cocktails go for these days, but about that I should think. The contents of each glass probably were actually worth maybe one dollar, probably less. You know how mark ups go on food and beverage. And how much booze was in those two glasses? Not a lot. Didn’t need to be. Just a taste is enough for regular folks. That’s all they want. If the patron’s stomach is empty they may manage a bit of a buzz from the one drink. A second would  surely do it. That’s all a lot of people want. Even if there’s a little wine with dinner. Want a glow to go along with a few courses of food. Might even go with an after dinner drink. Probably that’s it. I understand that a little liquor can aid digestion although I think that really just applies to wine. Moderate amounts of the demon rum do the average bloke no harm. So they say.

There those fucking glasses were. Maybe gateways. They could have been the opening salvo in a bender. It always starts with the first one and who knows how many more. People like me never understand how some of you can go out “for a drink” and leave it at that. Have a beer or two or a couple of glasses of wine with dinner and then just stop. That’s madness. I can’t even believe it — still — when I see people get up and leave with half a beer still in their glass. I can’t fathom people nursing a drink. It even drives me potty when I’m watching a movie. Look at those idiots with their drinks not drinking them, I mean come on. What’s it there for?

But hey, that’s me.

I work around people who drink and always have and unless I take a job with a mormon school probably always will (incidentally, there’s no fucking way I work for a mormon school). I hear co workers talk about booze. It doesn’t bother me a wit. It’s not like they’re trying to pry my mouth open and pour whiskey down my throat. Some on some occasions I’ve been pretty sure if not totally convinced are alcoholics. Not my business though. If one were to ask me about my sobriety and what it's about I’d talk, its happened, but it’s not in the 12 step playbook to go soliciting members.

I’m not envious when I hear people talk about drinking. Been there done that. Cheers to you.

So I was writing about those two glasses. They were some sort of touchstone. A talisman. Icons. Symbols. They were cold and wet and lethal and they made me sad somehow. Not about my own story but about…well, shit I’m not sure, a lot of things, I guess. Our culture. All those cocktails going out to people with disposable bucks. The waste. The emptiness of a cocktail. Of just one and of 12. I don’t begrudge anyone a drink or as many as they want. But sitting there, they’re glossy sad fuckers. Portraits of decadence. Banal and yet ostentatious. Not the gargantuan symbols of cultural decay that cruise ships are, just pawns in the sad withering days of a sad space in time.

I wanted to knock them off the bar with one fell swoop. I wanted to curse them I wanted to cry I wanted to laugh and stomp my feet and dance to the reaper’s song of endings. I wanted.

But. So. There you go.

01 September 2015

Smile -- This Starts Out Waiting for Chowder But Ends Up a Look Back at my Family and Photos and a Different Era

Family photo. I'm the little tyke.

Last Friday I decided to get a bowl of clam chowder for lunch. Because we had a meeting at work during the lunch hour I would have to get it to go. I went to a restaurant in Fisherman's Wharf, placed my order and was directed to sit at the bar while my order was prepared. I have many years previous experience sitting at bars but have mostly stayed away from them for last couple of decades in order to maintain my sobriety. I looked up at the TV set but it wasn't showing anything of interest (how often does it actually happen that a TV shows anything of interest? For me its a rare occurrence.) So I looked at the pictures on the wall. It was one of those family owned restaurants that had been a successful going concern for several generations. These types of restaurants tend to be pretty good. The family that owned the place was of Italian ancestry and kept up with the lingo as I could tell by from the banter of the staff. The photos had recurring characters at different ages. Some of the pictures were from fishing trips with beaming men holding up their catch. In many cases the angler was carefully displaying a recently captured crab. There were pictures at the wharf and on the boats and there were pictures of family gatherings and parties. There were day-in-the-life photos. All featured people grinning broadly for the camera. Happy. Most of the photos were in glorious black and white and all were framed. I liked looking at them.

I'm quite familiar with these types of photos. I've spent a lifetime looking at pictures like this of my family, some of which include yours truly. I've seen countless pictures of my dad on hunting or fishing trips, or at construction sites (he was the world's greatest carpenter) or at picnics, barbecues, birthday parties, Christmas Eve celebrations, weddings, funerals, sports events, large Finnish gatherings or just sitting in the damn backyard drinking a beer. In most of those pictures -- including all that were not candid -- my father, and everyone else for that matter, is smiling. All the smiles seem genuine. Not the phony baloney type of smiles my late great brother and I used to conjure up when ever a camera was pointed in our direction (to this day I still give with the put on smiles, I just don't know how to do it naturally).

In some of the pictures at the restaurant, and in many of our family photos, people are horsing around -- good naturedly of course. These are often party pictures. When I was a kid my family, my extended family and all the various Finns they hung out with, were grand masters at having a good time. Here I am a brooding, melancholy figure who sits quiet and taciturn at most parties while my forbearers were all having great yuks at parties.

Last Sunday was my youngest grandnephews' birthday. His first as a matter of fact. There was a large gathering to celebrate this momentous occasion. This was quite unlike similar bashes of my youth. Even though my nephew married a Finnish woman, the vast majority of attendees this Sunday were not from the fatherland. (Not that there's anything wrong with that.) I hardly heard any of the mother tongue being spoken. (It's a "father" land but the language is the "mother" tongue. Don't ask me why.) There were also a fair number of people of color in attendance. I found this a welcome change. In my youth it would be all or almost all Finns with perhaps a few spouses either from other European countries or from the USA. We treated them just the same although there were a few Finnish women who would just speak their native tongue thus rudely excluding non Finns from their conversations. My father had a very low opinion of these women. Anyway the times they have a changed. My brother married a Finn but I didn't. My two nieces married an American and an Italian and my daughters and youngest nephew are still in the market.

Some of the Finns I was surrounded by as a child were racist though they were a minority. Finns then were no more bigoted and probably less so than counterpart immigrant groups or indeed US born and bred citizens. It was not a topic that was made much of. This was at a time when referring to an African American as a negro or colored was not at all pejorative. Asians were lumped together as Orientals and nothing negative was meant by it. A man of Chinese ancestry or from China was a Chinamen. I remember hearing my dad and uncle reference a "jew lawyer" but it seemed a way of identifying him rather than an anti-semitic remark and I even got the sense it was supposed to signify that he was a good lawyer. There was nothing negative said about people from Mexico or other Central or South American countries. Of course gay people did not exist in my childhood so weren't spoken of at all. I was practically a teenager before I knew that there was such a thing as same sex couples. When it finally became a topic because a cousin came out it was just seen as an oddity and no one really gave a damn. If you're family it's all good and as for anyone else liking to have sex with their own gender, well that was their business.

Most Finns that I knew didn't get the Civil Rights Movement. They just didn't understand the problem. Everything seemed fantastic to them in their new country so why would anyone rock the boat? I had one uncle who was a virulent racist and when he popped off no one shut him up or argued with him. Then again no one much agreed with him either. Finns at that time in this place were not interested in arguing with each other. Actually I knew of one true oddball, another uncle who was an actual republican. The only Finn who was. My dad thought he was an idiot. Most Finns were part of the labor force and were Democrats. If you ever asked my dad what famous Americans he most admired he'd rattle of the names of recent Democratic presidents.

I loved growing up within an ethnic group and able to speak another language. It gave me a strong sense of identity. And not incidentally I was quite proud to be of Finnish heritage (and still am). I have detailed on this blog my mother's insanity which made for what was, in many ways, a pretty fucked up childhood, but I did benefit from being cocooned within a huge Finnish community. Even people I wasn't related to were relatives. We all drew security from the group and yet felt part of the country as a whole. No wonder everyone smiled in those pictures.