Saturday, June 30, 2012

Eyes Have It

It's in the eyes. Often, the first time you encounter someone you can see their curiosity in their eyes. Intellectual curiosity. It lights up the soul. I've seen it a time or two in one of the nearly 5000 students in my classroom over the years. Dare I say these people light up a room. They have an innate energy that just seems to burst out in everything they do and speak about and pursue. A kind of cheerful approach to learning. So it was this light that drew me to a conversation this morning with a young woman who works at my local coffee shop. She was sitting at a table reading a book in Spanish. When I ambled over to see what she was reading and look at another book, a novel, on her table, she maintained the same level of connection that most of the baristas are required to extend toward their customers. But this was different. Rather than the forced friendliness accompanied by, "so what are you up to today,"she didn't have to say anything. The eyes said it all. We spoke for about 20 minutes and I learned that she's leaving soon for New Mexico and her first teaching job. That sparked more conversation. At my age now, I'm always weary about initiating a conversation with a much younger person. Intentions get lost. Water gets muddied. Care must be taken. But today, we spoke with such a pure enthusiasm about many things we have in common. When the topic somehow involved thoroughbred horses, she revealed herself to be a student of breeding too. That kind of matched energy is rare. It was wonderful to experience it again, no matter how brief. I suppose it's a kind of vicarious relationship. But either way, life's mystery, with coffee in hand, once again comes calling.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Roll Back

Because my parents were married for more than a decade before they had children, I knew they were older than most. While other kids in my neighborhood had moms and dads celebrating their 35th and 40th birthday, my folks were in their late 40s and 50s respectively. Being older, they had a bit more history under their belts. In fact, they married in the big middle of the Great Depression. So the story goes, an elderly aunt gave the the green light because, in her view, things weren't going to get better for a good while, so they might just as well find something to celebrate. Sounds familiar.
Now and then we'd get my dad talking about life in his childhood and adolescence. It was interesting to hear the price of a loaf of bread, the limited opportunities for transportation, and what a typical day without television or a car was like. New Yorkers got on quite well with public transit. If we really pushed it, we'd get him talking about the kinds of penny candy he sold in their little combo soda fountain/grocery store. I find myself in that position today when I talk to my niece's kids or even some of the young teachers I supervise. When I tell them my first year's salary (well under 15k) or how copies were typed and made with a ditto machine, they marvel. Still, they can only imagine the hours put in then. When I pay $4. for a gallon of gas or $2.50 for a quart of milk, I can only wonder what happened? The other day I took my niece's 9 year old to the store in my truck. Believe it or not, it still has roll down windows. This child had never been in a vehicle that had anything other than electric windows. When she looked miffed after trying to find the button to roll down the window, I had to demonstrate how it was done. She was enthralled. "That's so cool," she said. I've noticed that many childhood candy bars are now gone. No more Powerhouse. No more Hollywood bar or Milkshake. Hershey Kisses come in all sorts of flavors too. The 5 or 10 cent candy bar has been downsized for $1.50. Like shopping malls, the stores are full of the same things mostly. Nothing lasts forever. A price, a brand name, a window crank or even a birthday.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

You Don't Know Me

It is a particular oddity, this business of returning to one's previous home.  All kinds of observations and issues arise.  Sometimes it's as if you willed them to.  Case in point: this morning I found myself with some lovely down time and decided to re-visit a neighborhood where I once lived.  Given there is a new coffee place with large comfortable seating and wifi, this was going to be just what I need before the long trip back to Portland.
While there, I began to notice some only in Berkeley experiences.  Oh, I'm not saying they couldn't happen anywhere else, it's just that in the East Bay, they seem to happen simultaneously.  Coffeehouses seem to be the great equalizer as people stumble in and out for their jump starter jolt of caffeine.  This time I hear languages..for spoken in various corners of the room.  Italian, French, Eritrean, Spanish...I guess English makes five.  If I wanted to get technical, there are various strains of English spoken here too.  And this this singular experience.
I look up and see a face I recognize.  It's an old lover who still lives in the neighborhood, apparently.  She was a few years older than I back in the 80s when we wrapped our lives around the silly notion that we would be in them forever.  At first she appears as one of those age enhanced photos that law enforcement uses for missing persons.  It has been 30 years and she still looks pretty good.  Of course her face has not cooperated with any of the wrinkle-free applications it must have endured, but I like that.  These are personal tattoos, of a sort and they bring character...hopefully.  I decide to let her recognize me and give what I think is ample opportunity to do so.  She never sees me.  A fitting metaphor that makes me smile.  I feel strangely liberated from the conversation that might have happened.  I really don't want to see and know any more.  What remains is how stressed out she appears.  Maybe she's selling real estate now or something and is hoping to make some sort of quota. Maybe she's rushing off to meet someone new or break up with someone old.  There appears to be a ring on her left hand, but that means nothing any more.  I peruse all the details: the hair color, the make up, the figure...just noticing that the years have been kind in many ways.  And then she vanishes.
An hour later I wonder; what if it wasn't she?  What if I conjured up this recognition?  That certainly explains why she never noticed me, never made eye contact because there was nobody around to recognize.  But a moment later... I know who I saw.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Bears Thought

I've been traveling around Northern California for the past few days, finally settling into a brief Berkeley visit.  Although it's only been half a dozen years since I've lived here, the changes are mighty.     This overcast,  misty day is quite reminiscent of Portland, but that's where the similarities end.  I see California's budget crisis in the number of businesses gone and going. An empty movie theater is difficult to tolerate.  All the possibility gone dark.  I  see the publicly insane staring at me from their street caves and perches.  I see some familiar faces, well worn by time, age, and their addiction to remaining in the same place for decades.  Even some of the streets have been re-configurated adding an unfamiliar tone and the anxiety that I really don't know where I'm going.
Still, I love the diversity and hate the traffic.
This morning I found a few minutes to wander the UC Berkeley campus and dropped in the bookstore. Looking a little shabby these days, the old student union.  Across the street and just down from the famous Telegraph  Ave. and Sproul Plaza historical intersection still resides a textbook store.  There used to be 3 or 4 of those used book places in the glory days.  Of course, that's all changed now.  I give the one remaining four or five years at the most.
The UC campus in Berkeley is very Asian.  That's just a statement of fact.  It just is.  Perhaps I should say it just seems that way.  I know that's an uncomfortable stereotype and I will definitely look into it.
Parking is always a challenge.  The South campus area is still filled with all manner of hangers on.  At one point, I chanced to see an old white Victorian house, a few blocks south of the campus on Dwight Way, near Fulton St.  It looked the same as it did when a 23 year old kid spent the night there back in 1970.  Don't really know who lived there then but I managed to find the place with a couple of folks I was traveling around with that summer. Back then word of mouth could get you a place to crash. When the tenants extended the use of the floor, we jumped at the offer.  A roof and a bathroom; no charge.  I wonder who will be sleeping there tonight?

Monday, June 11, 2012


It started with a simple discussion about the word fete.  It suddenly seemed "funny" to me.  Fete, in case it seems peculiar or unfamiliar to you, simple refers to a day of celebration; a holiday.  From there it went to a small bundle of words that have been popping up in my reading lately.  New words to the vocabulary are always exciting to try out.  Use them or lose them is the best policy, in my view.
So it was with conservative columnist George Will's recent use of the word bloviate.  Will, obviously displeased with Donald Trump's continual bullying over Barak Obama's birth certificate authenticity called The Donald a "bloviating ignoramus."   Such an elegant way to call someone a windbag.  Perhaps it's the blo in bloviate that adds the onomatopoetic justice to the phrase.
Seems to me that so many of the cable news channels these days are full of bloviators, if I might coin a word.
I read the word gauche in print the other day.  You know this one; it's pronounced with the long o sound like in go.  Some of those bloviating pundits exhibit a bit of gauche behavior more often than not.  Like a Venn diagram, their hot air blows over the plains of insensitivity into the swamp of crude.  Some folks have no social filter, others no social grace.  I've noticed that Facebook, too, contains no shortage of bloviating, knuckle dragging, lecturers.  Trouble is most are too lazy to look up the word, even with an online dictionary.
I've been reading the Julian Barnes novel The Sense of an Ending lately.  Barnes, a British writer, has published 10 previous novels as well as short stories and three collections of journalism.  He has a massive vocabulary and always has me running to the dictionary.  I heard him interviewed a few months ago on NPR while driving across town, and the result was the same.  I went right to the dictionary when I got home.
Last night I read the sentence, "Over a susurrus of awed mutterings, he told us that..."  I read the sentence a few times and since it was late decided to take a shot and then look up the word later.  I think I went with something like frequency, but I was way off.  A susurrus is a whispering or rustling sound.  Lovely, isn't it.  A susurrus of leaves or leaves of paper, or perhaps voices.  I think it would be a real fete when some rather gauche folks replace bloviating with a susurrus of thoughtful sounds.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Crowning Moment

We are two days away from the Belmont Stakes and the possibility of a Triple Crown winner in the form of a 3-year-old colt aptly named I'll Have Another.  But will we get another?  After all, there have only been 11 Triple Crown winners ever, and none since Affirmed became the third one in five years back in 1978.
We just might get the ultimate trifecta this year, but the Belmont is far different from any horse race, especially for a 3-year-old.  Sure it's about distance.  The mile and 1/2 distance is rarely run any more and certainly hasn't been run by such young horses at any point in their careers up until now.  It's about timing too.  The massive oval that is Belmont is unlike any other track in the country.  It's all a big mystery with a  bouquet of new variables that is all part of the mystery and anticipation.
When Affirmed completed his magnificent run with the courageous Alydar, the year was 1978.  34 years down the road, on the verge on what quite possibly be the last Triple Crown winner I'll ever see, I was wondering who we were back then and who we are today.
A quick review shows some remarkable differences that offer another perspective on just how long it's been.  In 1978, we were in the thick of the Disco era.  But we weren't just dancing our way through days filled with gasoline at 63 cents a gallon.  Affirmed was sharing the headlines with serial killers like The Son of Sam, and cult leaders like Jim Jones, whose People's Temple Kool-Aid suicides were six months away.  While Affirmed was adding his name to the record books, people were buying houses at an average cost of just under $55,000. We were trying to find a use for the Susan B. Anthony dollar and complaining about the rising cost of rent which averaged about $260.00 a month.
Yup, it's been a while.
But we are not just these facts and figures.  We've evolved in other ways that are not easily measured.  In 1978 we were not using personal computers, so everything from banking to telephones was rather simple.  We had no social networking, so we rarely counted our friends and still wrote letters on occasion.  Music was on vinyl, and there were still 3 major TV networks in most households.  No, I wouldn't go back, I've no desire for any version of the good old days, because that's not going to happen.
Still, I'd like to think that a horse like I'll Have Another could reprise a little of Seabiscuit's magic for an ailing nation.  Our economy continues to be gravely wounded, people continued to become de-sensitized to the violence in techno-wars and techno-action movies.  Half of us didn't read a book last year and half of those that did read an electronic version, no doubt.
So what's the verdict?  Any predictions?  The only thing I'll say, is the horse will run his race, of that I have no doubt.  If he wins, we get to see life from the top of the mountain for a year.  I'd like to think it might have some sort of civilizing, (as in acting civil) on our culture in this election year.  It's all a little too much to ask of a 3-year-old colt.  There is a lot riding on him in a couple of days.