Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Cali Flower

While spending this week in the Bay Area, some things have become quite clear. The vibe is so different from Portland. It's only been two years, but I feel the pace and tension down here constantly.
Air quality is miserable because at the moment there are about 800 fires currently burning in California. Oakland is on a record homicide pace with 5 unrelated murders occurring in the last 5 days alone. People drive much faster here. There is no sign that the $4.69 gas is deterring many from driving SUVs either.
In walking, which has been curtailed because of the smoke/ash in the air, the dryness is noticeable. This morning, with the smoke mixing with fog and haze, visibility is nil. People are less friendly. When I pass a mother with a baby in a stroller, no smile. Every place is crowded. Grocery store aisles, surface streets, lines in the coffee shop, lines on the faces.
I wander around like someone whose been gone longer and notice which stores and restaurants are gone, how faded many of the signs have become, how truly bad the streets have become; deep potholes, patchwork quilt of pavement, uneven sidewalks even away from the fault planes. And yet, the diversity continues to amaze. The mixture of languages I hear on the BART trains, in the kitchens, the media, and the schoolyards.
And then there's Berkeley. How Berkeley do you want to be? The tree sitters are being hauled away; the big University will have it's way. This generation can't really relate, they tolerate everything from Young Republicans to the current cost of a semester at Cal. Today, we went to Berkeley Bowl, the only food store I know where people wait outside daily for the doors to open. The price of produce is much better than the Northwest. It's the most impressive display of fruit and vegetables I've ever seen. At least 10 varieties of apples, half a dozen kinds of pears, many berries, all manner of greens, tubers, legumes, and nuts. Last week at Whole Foods in Portland we paid $7.50 for a head of cauliflower. Here we could get 3 for the same amount.
Still it's all relative. I'm an Oregonian now; a proud Oregonian. No regrets, and hopefully, when I return in a few days, no fires.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Nobody's Here

A few days after Tiger Wood's gutsy performance in the U.S. Open revealed he would need a lengthy recovery time for a knee injury, the rumblings began. First the sports commentators complained that without Woods, there would be nobody worth watching. OK they get paid to make statements like that, I excuse the shallow reasoning. Then I heard it again. A boisterous contingent of 30 something golf enthusiasts were saying the same thing in my local coffee shop. They even used the N word-Nobody. "Nobody's worth watching anymore," one of them said.
I'm reminded of the many times a student would enter my classroom a bit earlier than usual, glance around the room, see about ten people, roughly a third of the class, and then announce, "nobody's here," and walk out the door.
We know what they are saying, these nobody's here declarers. We don't even need to say the chopped liver line in response. But could they be saying something more?
Could it be that the personality has become valued more than the game, the event, group? Probably so. If that becomes the case, we lose an opportunity to appreciate everything from our environment to a round of golf from a completely different perspective. I always loved the times when nobody was there. They gave me a chance to interact with students in different ways or with students I didn't always get an opportunity to know as well. I enjoy watching the Giants without Barry Bonds similarly. The game becomes completely altered. The wins have a new appreciation. The home runs are always a surprise now.
A couple of weeks ago I encountered a young couple in a coffee house I frequent. When the guy asked me what I was writing on my computer I mentioned that I'm trying to write a memoir. His girlfriend looked at me incredulously. "What did you ever do to write a memoir?" She instantly realized the foolishness of her remark, but it was such a pure moment of speaking without thinking. I answered her question.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Father's Day Leaves Memories

My father never promised much. So when he did, the expectation was always a little overboard. Like the time he was all set for his vacation and lost his job on the eve of a special dinner to celebrate the event. The bottle of white wine chilled in the refrigerator for the next ten years.
At his worst, he was distant, brooding, obsessive-compulsive, and underachieving. At his best, he was warm, tactile, intelligent, and romantic. I owe my interest in literature, history, politics, and music to him. He often told me that I reminded him of my mom, and that brought us closer after her death. I don't think he ever got over the fact that she died at 54. His death came 10 years later at 71.
My father bought into his own chiseled version of the American dream. I love this photo of my sister and me smiling as he dutifully cuts the grass. Could this moment in time bring contentment? Aside from the house payment and the two kids in the suburbs, his was a world of July 4th picnics and parades, baseball doubleheaders, dramatic political conventions, and neighborhood gatherings to celebrate wedding anniversaries, birthdays, and mild weather.
My father was really a New Yorker all his life. Even though I'd never been in New York with him, he lived partly in the San Fernando Valley and partly in New York. He never drove a car. He loved baseball and was a loyal Giants fan, not too easy in L.A.
When I think of my father, I think of his dedication to our front lawn. I could never rake the leaves or mow the lawn correctly. I gave up trying. Wish I had known then about that lawn being one of the only things he could control. How it became such a wonderful metaphor for his life. I remember one windy Saturday morning after all the leaves were raked and the lawn mowed his way, (first North/South and then East/West) he stood there a minute and then as one or two leaves blew off the big Silver Maple tree n the front yard, he'd go back and pick them up. He did this for about 15 minutes. I was peeking out of the living room window, where I was sneaking a look at the Major League game of the week, watching him wait, gather up a few new leaves, and then stand back. After he finally walked up the driveway, a dozen more leaves trickled to the ground. Something Sisyphean about his life. Perhaps all life.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Dot Dot Dot

I think I've done a rather good job of entering this new century. Eight years in and I've already let go of most fast food, many fat and sugar loaded baked goods, owning every book I read, and using my truck everyday. I walk daily. I remain fairly open-minded about music I buy and listen to, (blues music will always come first) I get that life in the first half of the 21st century demands change, flexibility, humility, and tolerance. I am trying to age gracefully and use my considerable experience and knowledge with precision and empathy. Some things, like Levis are not negotiable. Chocolate, real, dark, antioxident loaded 75-85% chocolate is here to stay.
Last weekend, while buying a Sunday paper in my local convenience store, I noticed something revolutionary. Dots, the gumdrops we all grew up with, have gone new age. On the shelf, next to the traditional rainbow of familiar gumdrops were the new names and flavors. Dots now come in 4 elements: Earth Wind, Fire, and Water. The flavors are cinnamon (fire) green tea (earth) pomegranate (water) and wintergreen (wind).
I recall first buying Dots at the Lankersheim Theater, in North Hollywood, on Saturday mornings when kids got in for 20 cents and that nickel left over from the quarter we got would buy a box of Dots. Most often the nickel went for an all day caramel sucker, a box of JuJubies (I can still feel them in my teeth) some licorice dots called Black Crows, or any number of 5 cent candy bars. By the way, I picked up a rather thin foil wrapped item that morning in the store. About the size of a large French fry, it was a 3 Musketeers candy bar! What happened there?

About twelve years ago I had one of those bug shields installed on the hood of my truck. It came with a few small plastic bumpers wedged in between the shield and the hood, probably to stabilize the fit. In time, with, rainstorms, hail storms, car washes, and wind, the little dot gumdrop sized gaskets dropped away. When I asked my mechanic if he had extras, he said that they only came with the original installation kit for the bug shield. I tried to buy some at a few auto supply stores but they just didn't exist. Then it hit me. dots would work perfectly. They were dead ringers and even matched the color of my truck. I bought a box of traditional Dots, wedged in the green ones and found they worked perfectly...until it rained. They hardened within a week, but water tended to reduce their size just like consuming them in the movies. I wonder if these new Dots "elements" will perform better?

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Being There

Cliches either contain a grain of truth, or their accuracy is such that they couldn't become cliches if they were not recurring themes that are useful from time to time. So it is that... "90% of life is just showing up."
Big Brown didn't show up yesterday. The minute he was jostled on the first turn, as Desormeaux angled him out for position, I knew his trip was doomed. Maybe that's why I was more relieved than shocked to see him eased. For the uninitiated, eased means the jockey eased off the pedal, it means he slowed him down for the purpose of the horse's safety, health, and well being. It's not easy to slow down a 1200 pound animal, especially in front of 120,000 screaming fans who expect you to win. Props to Kent D. for making the tough decision.
We all wanted to see a Triple Crown winner. Even the jaded cynics who can't help themselves wanted to be eyewitness to history. But you can't always get what you want. We needed this super horse right now, but this time, we couldn't get what we needed. Like Dylan, from time to time, he wasn't there.
About an hour before the race, I uncharacteristically fell into a blue funk. Of course, I thought about the what ifs and all the hype. I was surrounded by hundreds wearing Big Brown buttons and brown clothing. It looked like an UPS class reunion. They even gave out $2.00 win tickets on the horse at Portland Meadows. But I was thinking of past Belmonts I've shared with friends now gone or in other cities. I was wondering what that conversation would be like, how we would play the race, whether or not we'd have an alternative pick (Dennis of Cork) and how the day would have gone. We'd have all arrived at the track early to get a spot and shared food and wisdom. Yes, I was feeling a bit lonely in the sea of brown. Too bad Big Brown didn't show up. Horses, like people have a way of doing that too. I've known people who never showed up to their own weddings. Much will be written about this Belmont, most will be forgotten. The Tao of horse racing is alive and well.
On Friday, Katie and I were returning to our truck after stopping downtown to run a few errands. Last stop was the Rialto, the OTB downtown on 4th St. I wanted to get a Racing Form for Saturday and I knew it'd be there by early afternoon. So here we are just about to get into the truck and Mitt Romney comes jogging by. Yeah, that Mitt Romney. Our eyes met. He smiles, slightly embarrassed but obviously delighted that he's recognized. He's wearing running shorts and shoes, but also a blue striped dress shirt and black street socks. Looking like a dork, but definitely the former Governor of Massachusetts.
"That's Mitt Romney, I said. "Sure looks like him," Katie replied. Then we both laughed and thought, what's Mitt Romney doing in downtown Portland, jogging by himself on a Friday afternoon?
Next day in the paper it was confirmed. He'd come to town to fund raise for McCain, just checked into a downtown hotel, went for a run on the river front and, of course forgotten the proper shirt or socks. Sometimes people just show up.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Big Brown, Obama, and Superman

Look! Up in the sky! It's a bird; it's a plane, it''s... it's neither. It's 2008.
Go Big Brown! GObama! Who needs Superman?
Sometimes the stories just write themselves. It's June 4th, the 40th anniversary of the assassination of RFK. 35 years since Secretariat's Belmont, and the eve before Big Brown takes the Triple Crown and Obama the Presidency.
Predictions? No, just observations. But also a wonderful yardstick to measure the last half century.
Since we, as a culture, are still throwing off the crusty veil of mean-spirited cynicism, I have to pre-date my thoughts carefully to maintain my street credibility.
Both Obama and Big Brown are poised for the history books. What is written from this day forward will be the stuff of critics and true believers. It matters little. A page of life has turned. Two names inscribed; quasi immortality, the only kind.
Sure I'd like to see a Triple Crown winner and the first African-American president. (Why can't I just say American president?)
And I will, but if I don't, we've already won both races.
Big Brown may not run another race after Saturday's Belmont. That is an uncomfortable reminder of much that is wrong in horse racing. But even if he doesn't ever compete know this much: he's no ordinary horse. Today I saw a blog featuring 10 good reasons why he can't win. Some folks don't get it, but then we all need to believe in our own ways. Some folks think that trainer Rick Dutrow's karma will get in the way with Big Brown's destiny. Nice try. Did George W. Bush's karma get in the way of his destiny?
And on the day that Barak Obama clinches the nomination of his party, I celebrate the fact that he is no ordinary candidate. He's certainly not perfect, and he's certainly not superman. But he is a believer, who overcame obstacles and critics. Like Big Brown, he is short on experience but long on talent.
So here's the deal. And it's a double deal. Watch the race; enjoy the race. The best doesn't always win; but you knew that. Often the best does win. Consider what makes a winner best.