Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Dog Tired

We've hit the dog days of summer.  Uncommonly hot temperatures that help create the image of a pack of tired hounds lying around trying to beat the heat.  Even though the expression traces it's roots to the star Sirius, (the Dog Star)we use the term to illustrate that time of year when we're "dog tired," hot, and worn out.

The dregs of July through the middle of August usually encompass this time to lay low.  I don't fly fish much in August. The fish aren't as active during the daytime.  They lie deep in the darker cooler areas of lakes and streams. Maybe, if your offering brushed close by they'll nip at it. If you go after them, you bake up top.  Sun screen, water, an oversized hat and some breaks now and then are necessary. The fact that the two political conventions take place during this period really adds to the theme this year.  We're enduring the process like walking, or rather slogging trough an enormous swamp.
August is when teachers hear the dreaded phrase "back to school." Not because we hate teaching, but more because it means our vacation is ending.  There are touchstones all along the way.
Officially, the "dog days" are supposed to end by mid August.  In these years of climate change it could get "doggy" all through September and into October.  No doubt the election will add to that.
In the end, the dog days might just be a good thing.  We slow down, we live moment to moment, we have something on the horizon to look forward to and to provide relief.  Hopefully, we'll all go from dog tired to inspired.  We'll fall into Fall.  Just a few degrees makes a big difference.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Alex Part II

After a while it was not uncommon for Alex to give me a phone call.  I became his companion to the dictionary.  Usually it was an idiom that made no sense to him.  It could be something like “let sleeping dogs lie” or perhaps a slang expression that he took literally.
“Gree” what it mean when someone call something “raw” or “bad” but it not really bad.”
Try explaining that bad is good and raw is a very positive connotation.  After a while it got humorous.  Very humorous.  But always, with thanks and plenty of relief, Alex seemed to get the difference between the literal translation and an idiomatic expression. 
One afternoon he seemed very preoccupied with something.  When I pressed a bit, he told me that he was worried about a car that he had.  It hadn’t run for months and he was trying to save up a little cash to have it looked at.  His main concern was that he’d let the registration lapse because he had no plans to use the vehicle until it was running properly and just couldn’t afford the expense.  He wanted t move the car from a driveway to a spot in front of him home.  
“So,” I asked, Can’t you just push it there or will it start and run for a couple of minutes while you re-park it?”  
“It should start and run, but it says in the book not to operate a vehicle that isn’t registered.”
Alex was afraid that if he got caught moving an unregistered car from driveway to curb he’s lose his license.  Maybe there was more at stake there too.  I never asked, but assured him that there would be no way he’s be seen moving that car such a short distance.  
“Just don’t wait for a cop to drive by while you are in the car,” I joked.

I’d seen this kind of over reaction before and was even reminded of an ESL class I’d taught while waiting to get hired for my first full-time teaching job.  A recent immigrant from South Korea was always looking at a Steno pad he carried around with him when he had a spare moment.  Upon further investigation, I learned he’d translated the entire California Vehicle Code from English into Korean on 1 Steno Pad.  He didn’t want to miss any questions on the written test.
BY now, my exchanges at the track with Alex were mostly about language and infrequently about horses.  Because of the large Asian population in the Bay Area and at the race track, in particular, he’d found a second community; a home away from home.    
While our little tutorials were often about the English language, I found Alex could translate some things from Chinese for me as well.
One afternoon during the re-play of a race, an elderly Chinese man was standing close to the TV monitor pointing his finger and yelling at the screen.  Throughout the running of the race, he kept up his tirade.  Heads turned as his voice and demeanor rose and changes with every step down the stretch.
“What’s he yelling about,” I asked Alex.  “What’s he saying?”
Alex watched and listened for a minute then turned and told me.
“He say jockey fuck up.”  
“What else, there must be more, he keeps talking.”

“No, just jockey fuck up.  He saying it over and over in more than one way.”

Tuesday, July 19, 2016


I met Alex at the race track.  At first he was just one of those familiar faces passing by in the line for a program, the line tomato a wager, the line to by something to eat or drink.  Something about his smile and his ability to be alone in a crowd was soothing.  He often huddled with groups of other Asian horseplayers.  They all spoke Chinese, I guess.  But once Alex asked me something in English.  It was probably the meaning of some footnote in the program.
"What this mean, horse is two pounds over?"
"It means the total weight carried by horse and rider is two pounds more than the assigned weight.
"Why that important?"
"Maybe the jockey ate too much last night or drank too much water, but they are just telling yo what the horse will carry."
"OK, thanks."
Our friendship grew from there.  When Alex learned I was a teacher, his questions about language usage multiplied.  He was always asking about idiomatic expressions.  I was always reminding him that English is a strange language and has many contradictions.  I think he knew the parallels to horse racing too.

That Alex could switch from English to Cantonese so quickly always amazed me.  But he was so curious, he began asking me personal questions.  He learned I had a wife and also a part time job writing for a thoroughbred horse magazine.  My interest in going to the track was much more than trying to win a few bucks.  For Alex, it was his escape from a minimum wage job, a home with some family members in an overcrowded apartment, and a chance to hang out with friends.  It soon became a chance to learn more about the English language.
We exchanged names early on but somehow he was more comfortable calling me by my last name, or most of it.  Greene became GREE.  This in the same way that Alex and his Chinese friends took American names and make them one syllable sounds, like the jockey Tom Chapman.  I'd hear them shouting Chap Mon   Chap Mon.  The numbers too got translated into loud one syllable sounds in staccato.  If the number two horse finished first, and the number five horse was second, followed by number 8 in third, they's shout TU-FI-AYE  (two-five-eight)
One afternoon, Alex and I shared a small table in the Clubhouse.  We ultimately shared food and more of our life stories.  I learned that Alex had lived most of his life in Vietnam.  I knew that South Vietnam had a large Chinese population at one point in it's history, but never went into the war and the U.S. role in Vietnam.  I figured if it ever came up, we'd be good friends by then and it might be better understood by then.  During the course of this afternoon, I mentioned to Alex that I had a Stereo receiver that had recently stopped working.  He told me that he was good at electronic repair and that I should bring it with me and he'd look at it.  A week later, we met in the parking lot of Golden Gate Fields for the exchange.  A week after that the receiver was in working order again.  Alex explained that it was nothing more than one loose wire that he re-soldered to the proper connection.  I offered to pay him; he said no with that wonderful smile.
"No," I countered, that's at least $20. for your time."
He refused.  But I had the last word when I left that day by giving him my voucher with an extra $20. on it.  You see at the racetrack people run around with little slips of paper called betting vouchers that they insert into self-operated betting terminals.  Alex and I often split the cost of a bet.  If we wanted to "box" three horses in an exacta (any combination of the three numbers has to run first and/or second) we'd each put up three bucks for a $1 box or six bucks for a $2 box, or nine dollars for a $3 box.  If the horses came in we'd split the winnings.
"I gotta go,"
 I told him and stuffed the small slip into his shirt pocket.
"Who you like," he countered.
"Play the five horse, with any two others you think have a chance. See you later"
That night the phone rang.  I answered:
"Gree" we didn't win, FI ran third.
Oh but we did, Alex, I thought.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

1968 Redux

It feels the same.  The pall of 1968 has returned.  The air is thick with questions...with "work left to be done," with the simplicity of polarization, and most importantly with the anticipation of what is to come when we look over our shoulders.

1968 was a difficult year to endure.  Like 2016, it was an election year where the choices seemed clear, no matter the fact that few felt comfortable with any candidate.  It was a year of surprises, of shocking media imagery, of calls for law and order, and, of course, of guns...guns...guns.  It was a year of assassination and civil disobedience. The Constitution was asked repeatedly to bind a bleeding wound.  We investigated with blue ribbon commissions.  The massive tome of the Kerner Commission boiled it down to one simple statement...that we were becoming two separate and unequal societies.  Didn't we know this?  Weren't we trying to teach our complete history? Hadn't many of us raised our consciousness considerably in the last few years?
I often imagine the year 1968 with the inclusion of smart phones.  What if we had been able to record our daily experiences, to stream the political events that occurred within and without us?  Would that have made it easier to bridge the gap between the unfinished work and the current state of affairs?  Perhaps.  I'd have been able to video demonstrations against the illegal war being waged in Vietnam, the visible and audible signs of racism, and a few personal experiences like the time an elderly Black woman with a cane fell boarding a bus in Houston, Texas and the driver sat there, and sat there, and sat there.  The look I got after helping her would be mine to keep forever.

In 1968, people had difficulty communicating their differences.  Whites asked, like they do now, What can we do?  They were told, like they are today, to work in their own communities to educate, to change attitudes, to develop cultural sensitivity, and ironically, to learn their true history.
The term white privilege and the phrase Black Lives Matter did not come until 40 years down the unpaved street we've trod.  The terms "red lining" and gentrification were not that commonly used either. The complexities of race in America seldom penetrated Sunday morning talk shows and Presidential platforms.  By the time we elected our first Black president, we got lazy. We were momentarily buzzed. The term "post racial America" surfaced no matter how absurd. Some folks didn't want to be bothered with the warning issued by the Kerner report.  The two cultures expanded, grew together and apart, together and apart.  The media exploded...24/7 piled words and images in huge heaps full of sound bites and furious verbiage.  Signifying little or nothing.
I recall a time in my 7th grade history class when our teacher asked us to place the USA on a graph that measured the quality of life in our country.  This was in the midst of the Cold War and the blossoming Civil Rights movement.  Were we still on our way up...an ascending arrow...or had we plateaued..or were we, as a culture, on our way down?  By far, my classmates and I had never even considered we weren't still climbing on that chart.  The moment we considered anything other than a soaring potential, we realized we were unprepared to deal with the consequences, should that perception be valid.  1968 made me think of that mythical chart.  The same way I think about it today.  We can't keep reminding ourselves that we have work to do, while our culture is being destroyed.
I find that in the last few days people are anxious to talk about this pall that hangs over our heads.  That's a good sign.  But that's all that it is.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Collecting people

He enjoys seeing people every day that he's never seen before,
such a simple thing that few think about, but he takes the time to note, takes the time to place them in his mind.
Families, introverts, extroverts, the broken and disillusioned, the altruistic and naive.
He notices them all he even imagines them as his friends, lovers, colleagues, companions, and relatives.  When a child, he watched twigs float down the gutter in watered-lawn runoff.  Boats on rapids, whole lifetimes, entire rivers that nurtured and then disappeared.  Microcosms that developed into alternative lives with people who entered his lifetime daily.

That person walking ahead of him on the sidewalk, that waiter or waitress, that bus driver, that chance encounter in the grocery store.  They all entered his life and many never exited.  This age we live in now is one of fear and uncertainty.  It's no longer prudent to share everything, lest someone get the wrong idea.
People build alternate families all the time, but he builds random ones.  Like the friend who once told him that she collected people.  He didn't question, didn't say what do yo do with them?  Just accepted that for what it might be, knowing it would be a benefit to be in such a collection.