Thursday, March 30, 2006

Lords of Legoland

The shoe has been transferred to the other foot; this weekend, while Sandra Bullock and the Jawa join The Hammer and her son, self-described as "The Shaman," as they frolic through the plastic wilds of Legoland, I will be here in San Francisco, working.

Normally it works the other way. A few summers ago, it worked to herculean proportions as the post-kindergarten Jawa and I teamed up for a two-week vacation in Ohio and Indiana. Highlights included a legendary two-day backroads drive from Dayton to South Bend.

This was the first time the Jawa and I had carved out inside jokes and memories that were just ours. We counted roadkill and Amish. Indiana had just endured massive rains, so we marvelled at the still-flooded fields. We ate at restaurants in small Indiana towns, places neither of us had ever been. These are the hidden benefits of unemployment.

Please see the Jawa's Summer 2002 scrapbook for more details.

Just this past October the Jawa and I completed a father-son Legoland jaunt while Sandra Bullock gutted out what seemed -- at least to me -- to be a mind-numbing class in a San Diego hotel conference room. Father-son we do pretty well, except while sitting around the house, when all I can think to do is read because I'm not interested in Bionicles, especially when the only job offered to me is "finder." The childless among you who can't wait to have a kid so you can play with Legos again? Spend a few hours searching for one specific block among thousands of them. Me, I prefer to get out of the house.

We did well today. Or, I should say, he did well today. With the Jawa at home due to parent-teacher conferences and Sandra Bullock as usual buried under huge piles of work, the child and I were left as wary partners in a work day. And despite his morning pronouncement of "Dad, I'm going to be bouncing off the walls today," he not only behaved himself while at the Zephyr offices, I think his frequent interruptions of the client meeting I was having actually made me more appealing in the client's eyes. And then tonight, when I suddenly had to return to work to send two faxes, he willingly, if a bit disappointedly, turned away from "Avatar, the last Light Bender" and accompanied me back to the empty, darkened Zephyr offices.

So thanks to you, Jawa. And hopefully nobody at worked noticed just how much paper you used printing out Bionicle instructions and then making 18 copies of each page.

Let me tell you about Legoland. As a kid who grew up 10 minutes from Disneyland, to me Legoland falls joins the vast pool of also-rans that starts with Knott's Berry Farm and finishes somewhere around King's Island in Cincinnati. Even though the entire Brady family (including Alice) teamed up and ran a relay across King's Island to return Mike's sketches to him in time, it's still not the Big D. Nothing is.

Legoland has its high points. The miniature reproductions of cities are pretty cool. And the atmosphere is great, because it's uninteresting to teenagers. No sullen teens means shorter lines and happier parents. Better food, too. Last time we were there we had yogurt, bananas and pretzels for lunch. It cost $25.

The Jawa claims Legoland's "official color" is yellow.

The weekend stretches out endlessly before me. I am too old to just call people up at 7 pm on Friday and expect them to meet me an hour later. Instead, I have committed to working both Saturday and Sunday. I choose drudgery.

Oh yeah, I also choose sleeping in, dressing like a slob, watching the Final Four in some sports bar with anyone I can talk into joining me, eating burritos and sleeping diagonally across the bed.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Tips for Sellers

Lets define "embarassing" as reaching into your pocket to hand your business card to the listing agent at a $2 million property, only to realize that the cards you brought claim that you are some kind of "writer/editor" and not a realtor.

And lets also say that asking touring realtors to remove their shoes before entering an open house is to ask them to assume an uncomfortable level of intimacy with the several strangers, also shoeless, who are likewise touring the property. Padding downstairs in your socks is for midnight snacks and Christmas morning, not for the Tuesday broker's tour.

Even worse is the option of slipping pale blue paper booties over your shoes. Unless you feet are of Lilliputian size, the act of "slipping" these booties over your shoes is nearly impossible to do without falling down. Once they're on, you are faced with a dilemma: to obsess over how ridiculous they look, or to wonder how many realtors have worn them before you.

Here's a tip for anyone looking to sell their house: remove all personal items. Empty your closets, put all of your books and cds into storage. You never know if some smart-aleck realtor is going to use their PDA to take a picture of the six pairs of Manolo Blahniks you have hanging in your walk-in closet, or who will be either judging you or constructing a life story for you, based on your taste in music and reading. That picture from the PDA could then be emailed to someone in Seattle, as proof that there are people in the world who own multiple pairs of Manolo Blahniks who are not on "Sex and the City."

And please, remove things like coupons, photos. opened mail and phone numbers from your refrigerator. If you think walking around some stranger's house in your socks is inappropriately intimate, imagine if that person also kinows that you have seventeen unpaid parking tickets and a dentist's appointment next Wednesday. At that point, touring realtors may as well just open up your refrigerator and see if there's any beer in there.

Most importantly -- and I'm not kidding here -- if you leave your personal stuff in your home while it's for sale, prospective buyers will focus too much on you and your life and not enough on what a great value your home is. That's why people use stagers: to highlight the house, not the stuff in the house. We used to scoff at staging (removing your furniture and replacing it with generic, Pottery Barn-esque stuff), but it works. Believe it.

Unfortunately for my repreatedly lame attempts to attain "professionalism," I still find people's stuff more interesting than their houses, especially when I'm lucky enough to be touring a home owned by one family for a long time. Two weeks ago I saw a Purple Heart from the Korean War. An old guy had it hung in the garage, next to a collage of photos -- war buddies and Harley buddies. The whole deal was on the wall over his work bench, so he could go into the garage after work (he was a Teamster, according to a framed certificate nearby), listen to Giants gams on the radio and tinker with some stuff. Upstairs, over the mantle, was a gold-framed portrait of his wife.

And in this, I saw his life. Fortunately, while wearing shoes.

Did you know that eight-year-old boys have an irresistable urge to shove both hands down their pajama pants while watching TV? And that, while this is merely a slightly interesting aside to a father, some mothers get very disturbed when they see their cute, barely-out-of-toddlerhood son doing this?

The same mothers seldom see the inescapable humor of a loud, well-timed burp.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Moving Day, Gallic-style

I met Danger Girl during real estate training. She was in my class. She was thin, red-haired and caustic, and the first time she drove during Wednesday tour I saw my life flash before my eyes several times.

That day, trying to make small talk, I asked her about what her husband does for a living. "It doesn't really matter," she said. "We'll probably get divorced." Later during the tour, she pointed out a bar on Dolores Street. "I got knocked off my bar stool there," she commented.

I knew that this was someone I wanted to hang out with.

Unfortunately for Danger Girl, and for her two young children, she did get divorced, or rather, is presently getting divorced. And it's ugly. So ugly that she was unable to start her real estate career. Through Danger Girl I've learned that getting divorced can be a full-time job, both physically, in terms of time, and mentally, in terms of being knocked so far off the rails that you're virtually unable to function on a day-to-day basis.

She wanted an amicable divorce, and for awhile, thought she might get one. "We're best friends," she told me at first. As time went on, though, it turned out that the divorce would be anything but amicable, as her Prince Charming turned out to have several layers of sneakiness to his personality that he'd been hiding from Danger Girl throughout their marriage.

So now her life is a struggle -- to get enough money from her husband to live, to find a way to start a career while juggling the divorce, the kids and the small new house she bought (with me as her agent) in November.

It is now late March. Recently it became apparent to Danger Girl's husband that he would have to sell his/their enormous house, so as a first step in that process, he asked that Danger Girl complete her move. This is where I come in.

There was a enormously heavy armoire (sp?). Not her favorite, but it could provide much-needed storage space in her new kitchen. No way could she, at less than 100 lbs., move it herself.

Moving people's stuff is something you commonly do in your twenties. Nobody can afford movers, and the sum total of stuff at that time is generally a futon, maybe a bed, a few hand-me-down dressers. You borrow a truck, move stuff, then drink beer.

It's not much different at 40, except for an ironically cruel joke: the stuff weighs more, and you can lift less without hurting yourself.

It was into this scene that I drove to Danger Girl's house on Friday. It was to be me, the suave French guy she is presently dating, and her soon-to-be-ex-husband doing the moving. A situation certain to produce some interesting tension, and as a bonus perhaps a muttered Sacre Bleu! or two

Friday it rained. I was the first to arrive, followed closely by not one but two French guys on a Vespa - the new boyfriend and a colleague from work. Once assembled, we caravaned to the "big house" -- boyfriend and Danger Girl in her BMW, me and the French colleague riding silently in a borrowed Toyota truck.

"Wow," I ventured upon arriving at the big house, "That truck is pretty tough. I think it raised my macho quotient."

Blank stares. I resolved then not to attempt any more region-specific humor.

In this situation, and at my advanced age, and conveniently ignoring the awkward scene facing this very nice, young French guy, I decided that the boyfriend should handle the lion's share of the load. It was fine. There was plenty of heft to go around.

We approached the armoire warily. Our path would take us down some stairs, around a corner, back up some stairs, down a long hallway, then up into the bed of the truck.

Let me pause here to remind you how important communication is when moving large, heavy items. And let me pause again to remind you that I don't speak a word of French.

I was left to interpret our situation based only on tone of voice. In the end, I spent twenty minutes with the bottom of this huge armoire shoved into my face, listening to shouted commands and exhaltations in French. Somehow, we made it to the truck.

Ten things I learned on Friday:

1) I have forgotten how to drive a manual transmission.
2) French people don't really say "Sacre Bleu" unless prompted by some smart-aleck American.
3) They do, however, sometimes wear unusually-cut jeans. And Chuck Taylors.
4) I hadn't noticed that the new French boyfriend is smaller than me until I stood next to him while lifting the armoire. Quite a bit smaller, actually.
5) I babble when faced with uncomfortable quiet, like for example if I'm riding around in a Toyota truck with a guy I've just met whose primary language is French.
6) Danger Girl's soon-to-be-ex-husband's attempt to appear jocular and friendly, even to the point of speaking French with the new French boyfriend and his colleague, struck me not as mature, but disingenuous. Okay, it was downright creepy.
7) And he didn't help us move the armoire, either. He stayed upstairs with the kids.
8) And that beer that he makes? I tried some. It was pretty bad.
9) Poor Danger Girl. I don't see how she could start a career right now. She's got her hands full. Which is too bad, because I think she would have been a good realtor.
10) The last time I moved someone (circa 1995?), my biceps didn't hurt for the next 3 days.

At age 40, you still have the option of having beers after moving someone's stuff. Danger Girl and her posse of Frenchmen offered me the option of sticking around and hanging out, but I chose instead to return home, nurse my ruined biceps and watch my March Madness bracket explode into tiny pieces. There goes $10.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Lee Mazzilli and Radical Kindness

As a logical follow-up to my two prior entries, I'd like to point out that tomorrow, March 25, is the 51st birthday of former New York Mets centerfielder and former Baltimore Orioles manager Lee Mazzilli. It is logical to me because:

a) It involves a birthday (see March 21)
b) It reminds me of a party Sandra Bullock and I threw in 1992. We wanted to have a party in our tiny -- seriously, I'm talking 400 square feet, tops -- apartment on Polk Street (San Francisco), and it was around March 25, so I dug up some pictures of Lee Mazzilli from some old baseball magazines and books, slapped them on an 8.5 x 11 sheet of paper (we were late to the personal computer revolution) and made it a "Happy Birthday Lee Mazzilli" party. He was 37, 3 years young than I am right now.

The party was normal for a one thrown by 26-year-olds -- wall-to-wall people. Windows were broken, noise ordinances were ignored. The next day we hauled garbage bags full of empty bottles down our circa 1906 elevator. Someone was accused of throwing a TV off the roof of our building.

Still don't know if that one went down or not.

See entry for March 20. During the Lee Mazzilli party, we were the couple sitting on the steps. For all I know, the couple I saw last weekend was sitting on the steps throwing down coffee to combat whatever they had slammed down the night before.

Don't worry about Lee on the eve of his 51st birthday. He is presently the bench coach for Joe Torre's Yankees. I looked it up on Wikipedia.

Interesting Lee Mazzilli fact: when his playing career ended, he went into acting. He played the lead on Broadway in "Tony & Tina's Wedding."

Last night our (wildly expensive) grade school held what could most accurately be called a "kindness conference." Not to sound too abstract, but "kindness" is a big initiative at the school. We are presently in Year 2 of our "Radical Kindness" program, designed to eliminate bullying, eliminate the passive witnessing of bullying and, as an unintended consequence, create children even less equipped to handle the kind of pushing and shoving that happens each weekend on the basketball courts of the Stonestown Y.

I speak not as one who has bullied but one who continues to suffer at the hands of bullies. Though more subtle as adults, they exist still. I did not have the benefit of a "radical kindness" program while in grade school, which means that, rather than try to reason with a bully, I go fetal, hoping that I have somehow become invisible at the same time.

Those who know me well may say, "What? I saw you take on that Lyndon LaRouche supporter on the street that time! You were fierce!" That is an aberration. Every so often, a would-be bully who is obviously not threatening will have to absorb the aggregate total of frustration I've built up shrinking from truly frightening bullies.

More typical is my experience with the young, stylish listing agent from Urban Bay Properties, concerning the loft my client wanted to buy.

Reader's Digest sums up the situation as this: she sent an email. I checked to see that it arrived, and found the next morning that it was missing an attachment that I needed to make our offer. Several phone calls and emails later, I finally reached her, and was treated to an agressive, rude, accusatory attack. Far as I can tell, I didn't notice her screw-up at a time that was convenient for her.

Of course, I tell you that now. At the time, I tried to be soothing, not only to save the deal, but also in grave fear that she would continue attacking. Had I been the fortunate recipient of radical kindness, I suppose I would have taken a more pro-active approach, drilling down to the real source of her anger, which may have had nothing at all to do with me. Perhaps she had an unsatisfactory childhood, schooling bereft of radical kindness. I could have helped her deal with her anger, rather than just withstanding it.

Maybe in childhood she was a small, stylish version of Bobby Lishman, the most feared bully of my youth. He was three years older than me, my sister's age. Most of us were scared to death of him, for good reason. One of the most enduring scary memories of my childhood is standing outside the cafeteria at Grove Street Elementary, in second grade, trying to melt into the walls as Bobby Lishman stood on a trashcan across the hall, waiting for Danny Rizzo to come down the stairs. There were probably about eight kids there, all like me, trying to hide in plain sight, all of us relieved to the point of prayer that this time Danny Rizzo was BobbyLishman's target, not us. "Shh!" he hissed at us.

In time, Danny Rizzo came down the stairs with his friends. When he reached the doorway, Lishman jumped him and kicked the crap out of him. We all just stood there, watching, terrified of doing anything.

In my head, I've mapped out Bobby Lishman's adulthood. He still lives in a small town in Northeastern Pennsylvania, where he's a mechanic. His wife and children are scared of him. He drinks cheap beer and throws the empties on the ground around his recliner. He goes by "Bob."

Of course, he could just as easily, and probably, be a supervisor at some software company in Connecticut, live in an 1800 square foot home with faux brick finish, and coach his kids' soccer teams. I have no idea. In my world, he grew up just as bad as he was in 5th grade.

Would Bobby Lishman have benefited from radical kindness? Would it have helped Danny Rizzo avoid getting his butt kicked? Would the rest of us, having been taught that to witness bullying and do nothing is to be an accessory to the bullying, have jumped in and tried to stop Lishman when he said, "Shhhh!"? And what happens to my kid, having been protected from bullying for the first 9 years of his school life, when he gets to high school and meets up with a linebacker who thinks Pokemon is stupid?

I appreciate the work they do at our (wildly expensive) school. And I feel like pounding my chest in Jewish pride when I realize how hard they're working at making our kids into great citizens of the world, especially when I open the newspaper and read about the latest propoganda campaign to discredit us and how the fact that some other cultures methodically teach their children to hate us. After all, we do use the blood of Christian children for baking.

Good on us. But having spent a lifetime spent never learning how to fight back, there has to be some value to that, too.

We didn't get the loft. I'm not sure if it has to do with the agent's midguided anger or that fact they wanted $80,000 above asking in a softening market.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Birthdays and Anniversaries

Though I seemed to sleepwalk through this day plagued by a lack of seratonin production, don't let that detract from the importance of March 21. Today marks two anniversaries/birthdays. It is a day of great importance in our family.

First, though I am a bad brother and have not called, lets pause to recognize my little sister's (who comments as Bud and/or Marsi) birthday. The mom most likely to send her child to private school in a Che Guevara t-shirt is 35, thus removed from the lucrative 18-34 demographic. Scottsdale is a long way from the Olympic Auditorium, where she reportedly enjoyed numerous punk shows as a rebellious teen.

Several moments frozen in time: my older sister (known here as Noodles' Mom) and I dancing around in the kitchen on March 21, 1971, chanting, "We have a little sister! We have a little sister!" The toddler with insane curly hair: afro baby. The tough seven-year-old playing football with future Mater Dei football coach Dave Money and I, Dave and I on our knees. We were twelve.

The sudden transformation when Noodles' Mom went away to college. Where there once were curls and little girls' clothes were now Doc Martens, dirty sweatshirts and buzzed hair. The teenage runaway: finding her first at midnight in a field near the high school with a bunch of other runaways.

Promising her that "I'd talk to Mom and Dad," and then, upon failing, hearing her jump out of her bedroom window and then slowly, methodically, removing everything from her bedroom walls with my mother at 2 a.m., only to find her a few weeks later, holed up in her older sister's bedroom, appearing at the door wearing a mohawk and a sullen expression.

A few years later, somewhat reigned in, sense of humor intact, challenging a would-be intimidator of her older brother at a show in Huntington Beach with "Your mohawk's crooked." Claiming that one of her friends laid on the couch with fried eggs covering his eyes, a strip of bacon covering his mouth.

Doing a spot-on imitation of our mother sitting in a chair with her legs crossed, holding a pretend cigarette, at a motel in Carmel. Me on the phone, sitting on the bathroom floor of my dilapidated North Beach apartment, trying to talk her down after the Philomath police shot her boyfriend dead in an alleyway, my parents somewhere on the road between Orange County and Oregon.

And then, inexplicably and completely out of left field, marrying a nice boy from a good family, moving the Phoenix and becoming a rabid Phoenix Suns fan (favorite player Shawn Marion).

Now a rabble-rousing mom, a dog groomer and a John Kerry supporter, a lover of the cartoon rock band KISS and Howard Stern, and someone who apparently still owns t-shirts I gave her 20 years ago.

There she is: my little sister. 35 years old.

We have one more family anniversary today. With apologies to Sgt. Pepper, it was 30 years ago today that we moved operations to California. Infected by an innocent version of the California Dream that has not existed for many years, we cut our ties with the East Coast and moved West. My father had already been here for a few months. He left, coatless, on a freezing day in January. I can see him walking across the tarmac at Scranton-Avoca airport in his short-sleeved shirt because he was moving to California and would no longer need a coat.

We got here on March 21. On that day, my little sister turned 5 three times, once for each time zone. From the slushy isolation of small-town Pennsylvania we came to Orange County, unprepared for the culture shock that awaited us. Now, 30 years later, I am the only family member to voluntarily reside in California. Noodles' Mom, whose husband the Rocket Scientist goes where Uncle Sam tells him to go, is presently sentenced to live at Edwards Air Force Base in the Antelope Valley, a God-forsaken desert 80 miles Northeast of Los Angeles, where she swears her area code is 666. I'm not sure that counts as actually "living" in California. If she had any say in where she lived, it would not be in the Antelope Valley.

Current family lore maintains that we would all be better off if we had never moved to California. Still, and despite 10 years of living in Washington State, I am a Californian. A few years ago I decided to reclaim my East Coast roots. After all, I did live in Pennsylvania for 10 years, and have been reminded more than once that I am actually a New Yorker not fortunate enough to have actually lived in New York.

Thirty years ago today I was a ten-year-old, marveling at the palm trees outside our Holiday Inn window. It was 70 degrees in March, and there was a big league baseball stadium 5 miles away. The 1970s were a golden time for the California Dream. The schools were good, the skies were blue and developers hadn't yet leveled all of the orange groves. Imagine opening your eyes to that after spending your entire life in the rust belt.

Of course, the honeymoon didn't last long. We soon learned that a childhood spent in the safe embrace of a small town in no way prepares a kid for the fast-moving world of Southern California. And an Orange County adolescence is something that would probably require years of therapy to completely sort out.

But we are left with this: of the 40 years I have so far logged, 20 of them have happened in California. You won't find me bashing Southern California, because I think that requires about as much imagination as it does to bash frat boys, business majors and supermodels. As with most Californians, I have a complex relationship with my home state. It's a mix of hope, disappointment, sentiment, anger, pride, wonder and boredom. And as for San Francisco, I love it enough to complain about it.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Living in the City

And then, finally, some sun.

This past weekend brought with it a break from our recent Old Testament weather. Sadly, or perhaps appropriately, the work week signaled a return to gloom. Oddly, as I write this, it is brilliantly sunny outside. And raining.

Until the sun came out, I had forgotten the kind of show San Francisco can put on, given the right weather. Right now I have a client who has just moved up here from San Diego, and every time I've taken him out to look at open houses it has rained. Each week I could see him getting a little more uneasy. Finally, last week, he asked, "Is this what the weather is like here all the time?"

"No, no," I assured him. Though my father once said that no matter what the weather, and what time of year, a Californian will always insist that this is "strange weather for this time of year," we do have stats to back up my claim. It has been 10 degrees colder than normal, and our rainfall totals far exceed the usual. So yes, I told him, this is strange.

Fast-forward to this weekend: 62 degrees and dazzlingly sunny. True San Francisco weather.

Saturday morning I took the Jawa to get his hair cut. It had been 8 weeks since it had last been cut, and he was starting to resemble a member of Duran Duran, circa 1985. We get his hair cut in North Beach, across from Washington Square in a place whose window advertises "Tony is Here!" Tony is "Here!" for the Jawa, former Brooklyn Dodger Gino Cimoli and a long roster of old Italian guys, some of whom drive in from as far away as Napa for their hair cuts.

Also "Here!" are a bunch of old Italian ladies, who walk around with plastic bags over their hair and try to talk up the Jawa while he's in the chair. The shop was owned by Joe for many years, but recently was purchased by Christina, whose va-va-voomness still shines brightly, despite the fact that she has a 5-year-old grandson.

This is my gift my child. He gets to grow up in a city, instead of the suburbs. Actually, what I wanted was for him to grow up in the city, circa 1964. In the absence of a time machine, the barber shop is as close as we can get.

Though we live within the city limits, I sometimes feel that, like humans, who only use 10% of their brains, we only use 10% of San Francisco. Sitting in North Beach on a sunny day reminds me of that sad fact. To a civilian, our neighborhood probably seems dense and bustling. Compared to North Beach, Russian Hill, Nob Hill or any of the core city neighborhoods, it seems like the suburbs.

I was considering this while the Jawa made insane faces at himself in the mirror and Tony cut his hair. The barber shop has big windows that look out onto Washington Square. When he's not busy, Tony sits and watches the human parade go by. A preturnaturally tan, silver-moustached sharpie named Sal used to to cut hair alongside Tony. Sal made sure Tony didn't miss any young babe waltzing by the windows. Now Tony is on his own.

What I see when I look out the barber shop windows is old Chinese people (plus the inevitable ridiculous-looking hippie) doing Tai Chi; a huge line of identical young white people in baseball caps waiting to have breakfast at Mama's on the Square. Is it really that good? We've never waited in the line. We have baseball caps, but we are not young. We don't have the time to stand in line for an hour on Saturday morning anymore, not even for the best breakfast in the city.

A few old Italian guys still sit on the benches around the park, but mostly it's homeless guys, dirty, threatening, probably just tired and sad. The pink bag brigade -- little Chinese ladies who only shop at stores that provide pink plastic bags -- looking like wind-up toys, shuffe off in haphazard directions. And the sun.

When we lived in North Beach, I quickly got tired of all the people invading the neighborhood. To me, it became a place where people from outside the city drove in, took up all the parking spots, got roaring drunk, and then walked by our bedroom window at 2 a.m., singing Bob Dylan songs off-key.

The truth is somewhere in the middle. I drove the newly-shorn Jawa over Russian Hill and noticed a couple sitting on their front steps, drinking coffee. My first thought was, "Man, it would be great to be them," quickly followed by, "But wait, we probably were them at one time, only instead of sitting on the steps on Russian Hill, we were sitting on the steps in Seattle." We had our coffee, and our likewise young, childless friends. I realized that, given a few years, this morning of sitting on the steps would be a fond memory for this couple, something they took for granted at the time and would love to have a chance to do, just one more time.

The Jawa and I continued through the city. I took the long way, trying in vain to convince him to put down his Bionicle book and drink in the scenery. Living in a city -- even in one of the uncool neighborhoods -- is harder than living in the suburbs. Our house is tiny, and each month the mortgage payment puts us in bad moods for two weeks. Tuition at the Jawa's grade school costs three times as much as my (private) college did. One of the reasons we only use 10% of San Francisco is because that's all we can afford.

That couple on the steps will likely not opt to try and make a life in San Francisco. Most people push it all the way until their first child is ready for school. Then the siren song of free schools and a backyard becomes too irresistable. I see their houses every week and try to guess which town they're moving to -- Mill Valley, Burlingame, Walnut Creek?

But here we are still. My gift to the Jawa was city life, and he's got it. We don't live in the Rice-a-Roni fantasy San Francisco, but we're trying. It's a lifestyle choice.

Friday, March 17, 2006


Here's how quickly it can happen: when the Jawa woke up at 3:30 Wednesday morning, he was already the third member of the Maccabees 7-9 basketball squad to lose his lunch.

The child burst into our bedroom, which is not unusual. Normally, he complains of "bad dreams," which is a ruse designed to get into our bed. I figured that "stomach ache" was a new angle, and in fact may have made some crack about the boy who cried wolf before last night's sushi suddenly appeared all over our sheets. Sandra Bullock whisked the ailing Jawa off to the bathroom, leaving me wide awake, very aware that I been out the night before with the bookfair committee gals, faced with unusuable sheets.

"Bad sushi," I commented.

To the childless, I offer up the reality of a professional life at the whim of your Jawa's schedule. By 4 a.m., we'd determined that Sandra Bullock would spend the morning with our ill son, while I toured various homes with fellow realtors. Then I would return for the afternoon, leaving her to dive headfirst into the lately overwhelming amount of work assigned to a biotech project manager. I left for work at 8:30, calling out my manta over my shoulder. "Bad sushi," I said.

I did not know, at the time, that the Jawa was #3 in what would eventually become and entire basketball team of sick children.

At noon, Wednesday, I returned home to find a pale, glassy-eyed, nylon sweatpant-wearing Jawa sprawled out on the family room couch, watching Bionicle movies. Sandra Bullock sat nearby, madly typing away on a computer. The poor Jawa had thrown up 3 times, including a particularly graphic regurgitation of some toast (I was told). He hadn't eaten anything but the toast. Not even water.

By then we had learned that his fellow tenacious forward, Daniel B., was also suffering, as had forward-center Josh K. the previous weekend. I sent out an email to the rest of the team parents, warning them of the possible bumpy road ahead.

By evening, the Jawa was feeling much better. He drank water, ate a banana, and began to regain not only color in his cheeks but a large part of his rambunctious personality. We decided to keep him home from school on Thursday, as a precautionary measure.

The next morning, I awoke to find 16 emails from basketball team parents.

One by one, they fell. Sam T-R went first, then Jacob G. and his gregarious little brother Eli. The emails continued. How did this start? Why is it spreading so fast? Is it limited to Maccabee players?

Several theories were explored. Perhaps this began with the group that went to Krispy Kreme before Tuesday's practice. No, food poisoning isn't contagioius. The infamous "Krispy Kreme 6" were off the hook.

Maybe the water at the YMCA is tainted? This theory was deflated when we learned that several non-hoopsters had fallen ill.

Josh K.'s mother, usually unflappable in the face of crisis and non-crisis, became obsessed with the idea that we were going to blame her son for the outbreak. After all, he was the first to produce the technicolor yawn, the previous Sunday. By mid-afternoon, she had already contacted the school and a toxicologist, in search of evidence that would exonerate her son. Admirable parenting, indeed, but in reality, no one really would have cared if Josh K. was the source, "Typhoid Josh" emails not withstanding.

The day wore on. The Jawa was back at full strength. Our 1094 square foot home could barely hold him. The emails kept coming: Maetal, she of the whippet-quick spin move; the irrepressible Noah (leaving us with no guards). Samara, D'Vonte. Poor little Claire, forced to attend her older brother's T'Fillah service at school, despite her illness. She was spotted lying on a bench while her mother reminisced about the time, several lives ago, that a date took her to see the punk band Vomit Launch.

In the end, only center Gabe S., who did not attend practice, was spared. A few calls to the school revealed that, of 42 total students in 3rd grade, 16 had been absent Thursday. Kindergarten and 6th grade were hit as well. And at the school, the scene was grim. "There were kids throwing up all over the place, in the halls, the bathrooms," said 3rd grade teacher Sarah Kotleba. "The line outside Ms. Bondoc's office was huge."

Ms. Bondoc's office is where kids go when they're sick.

This morning, the Jawa returned to school. The entire campus seemed dazed. I spotted Samara drifting into the building, a blank look on her face. Each kid had thrown up multiple times, with the record being 5 (D'Vonte).

No parents have gotten sick yet, but I'm not feeling all that hot. Chris, the YMCA sports director, just left me a really confused voicemail. He is 23 and I'm sure his job description didn't inlcude "coaches may call during the season and suggest that 'the water' is causing epidemic digestion issues."

The final questions remains: will we have enough players to field a team this Saturday? Will the entire 3rd grade have to change its name to Ralph? Will grades 1, 2, 4, 5, 7 and 8 fall ill next?

Today is St. Patrick's day. In leiu of a gym workout, I decided to walk around and watch Irish and faux-Irish people drink and get rowdy before noon.

Meanwhile, if you need us, we Jews will be here firing off panicked emails to each other about our childrens' digestive tracts.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

The Better Part of Valor

I like gossip. No apologies here. Some may find it lowbrow, sneaky and/or mean, petty, all of that and more, but I truly do like to exchange of scandalous information about famous people and the less-famous people who populate my world. Sorry, everyone.

It's a dirty secret, or not-so-secret, one of my many, made dirtier by the fact that gossip is considered twice as unseemly among guys. Straight guys, at least. Uptight.

This puts me at risk for many things. First, I am susceptible to embarassing situations in which I'm caught putting my otherworldly reading skills to use on something like "Hollywood Babylon" or the online version of Page Six. I have to admit, I don't feel like the most macho fellow in the room when it becomes obvious that I know more about Jennifer Garner's supposed new pregnancy than I do about power tools. Much more, by the way.

More gravely, I risk credibility. Yesterday, Tuesday, three people told me secrets. All of them were told in confidence, by people who know me well. I don't think they will be too difficult to keep, but they reminded me of how many times people have told me things, only to have me run off overwhelmed by the sheer value of the information I now possess, barely able to contain myself with the urge to tell someone. Think drunken sailor with a pocket full of cash.

To be fair, sometimes these secrets are told without the proper framing. Yesterday, two out of the three secrets told to me were told with clear-cut warnings: do not tell anyone. This morning I woke up and decided that a warning, for me, was a good thing. As long as I know I'm MOST DEFINITELY not supposed to tell anyone, I will not. I mean, the last thing anyone wants to do is hurt someone you know and care about.

We gossips, we mean well, for real. But it's very tough. It's compulsive, I tell you.

Now that we've gotten that out of the way, please reset. I am male, I am straight, I am the committed father of a child who has thrown up three times today (bad day to be a Jawa, I've got to say, unless you consider the endless TV-watching element of childhood illness). I love sports and am participating in a March Madness pool. And I will keep these three secrets, plus any others explicitly laid out to me as secrets.

Have you ever wondered why so many serial killers seem to be from the greater Seattle area? Is this fact, or just a myth perpetuated by true-crime writer Ann Rule? Is Ann Rule to killers in Seattle as Herb Caen was to the romantic image of San Francisco?

So help me Ted Bundy, I wonder about this.

Speaking of Seattle, and the rainy weather so inextricably tied into the place, I'm as tired of our recent global warming-fueled bizarre weather as anyone, but I'm more sick of the "it's raining" excuse for general malaise. Me, I don't mind a little rain. Our recent weather is bothersome more because it's so strange and unpredictable.

Yesterday, the day in which people decided to bring me their secrets, included several long stretches of sun and relative warmth, broken up by fierce hailstorms. I swear, I thought the apocalypse was coming, for the second time in the past week. Stepping out of the Valley Tavern last Friday night to find snow on the roof of the Acura was equally jarring. I don't mind rain, but when the weather is strange enough for you to start looking for the eight-headed hydra in the sky, it can have an effect on your psyche.

El Nino? La Nina? La Cucaracha? No idea. I sure could use a good raincoat, though.

Monday, March 13, 2006

The Three Horsemen of the Apocalypse

Quick: name three corporations that are every bit as evil as R.J. Reynolds & Co., and yet not only have so far shrugged off attack but also directly target children as their audience?

Give up? Here they are:

1) McDonald's
2) Coke
3) Starbucks

Well, actually, the last one doesn't specifically target kids (other than slamming down little Starbucks outlets in high school cafeterias), but then is also seldom attacked for its products and/or policies, but merely for being so darn big and for being "the only coffee around, so what was I supposed to do?"

I know, I know, I've included my beloved Coke in there, but let me tell you a couple of stories about Coke.

Before I met Sandra Bullock, I was living a completely unstructured, nomadic life. In the prior two years (1989-90), I had moved to Seattle, then to Boston, then back to Seattle (for a girl who quickly faded from my life after slapping me in front of my friends at a New Year's party). Each time, I moved with no more possessions than would fill my car. In fact, when I moved to Boston, I sold the car and put my stuff into three boxes. I left a string of futons in empty rooms on each coast.

But I digress.

My point here is that, prior to inserting S. Bullock into my life, my daily diet consisted of a sandwich (which is how you start your day when you wake up at 11:30 and there's a cute girl working at the sandwich shop on the corner), something for dinner, beer, and 64 oz. of Cherry Coke. What did I know? I weighed 165 pounds and stayed up until 4 am every night. Everything seemed to be going along fine. If I wanted a Coke, I drank a Coke. Or two. Or just the whole big bottle. Hop on the mountain bike, ride a few miles, play some volleyball, good as new.

Sandra Bullock entered my life on December 28, 1990. At that point, I was working three different waiter jobs. There were six inches of snow on the ground. For Christmas, my friend Jim and I ate Campbell's soup, then went to a bar. We fell down four times on the way home. It was icy. I was wearing a leather jacket and my dad's old London Fog raincoat over a yellow hooded sweatshirt I'd found.

Into this comes Sandra Bullock, who was then just as you know her now: lean, precise and consistent. A bit more preppy than she is now, but otherwise intact.

I stand before you now a changed man in many ways. Importantly, one of those S. B.-inspired (demanded?) changes has been a serious curtailing of my Coke intake. I am down to one 12 oz. can per day, usually at lunch.

What would my life be like now were I to continue tossing down the equivalent of a 7-11 "Big Tanker" each day? I'd have no teeth and would weight 300 lbs.

Why is Coke evil? Let me tell you another story. In 1998, I was teaching English at Blanchet High School in Seattle. One day, right before the bell rang to end school, the activities director's voice came over the loudspeaker: "Hey, kids! The people from Coke are here to give you free samples of their new drink (I can't remember the name of it)! Just head out to the quad and pick up your free sample!"

I was floored. It makes sense, though. All drug dealers give out a free taste to get future customers hooked. "Don't you do it!" I told my class dramatically, channeling Officer Candidate Mayo as he pleads with Gunnery Sargeant Foley from a mud puddle, "Don't let them pour that stuff down your throats!" Ineffective. They laughed at me. They may have even told me to "lighten up." Off they went, to get a their free samples of sugar and highly-addictive caffeine.

If you do not have children, you undoubtedly realize that McDonald's is gross, lowbrow and yet ubiquitous, but do you know how know truly evil it is? After driving a few miles with the annoying pleading of an 8-year-old who knows, because they saw it advertised during "Ed, Edd and Eddy," that McDonald's is including Star Wars watches with their Happy Meals, you, too will understand the nefarious ways of Ray Kroc's empire. And then when you're in McDonald's, take a look around at the other customers. Then go home and watch "Supersize Me." Gross.

Which brings us to Starbucks, supporting player in the "Pottery Barn Nation" post of a few weeks ago. Yesterday I stopped into a Starbucks with a client. There I noticed, not for the first time, pre-teen kids buying those bottled coffee things. "Mocha! Mocha!" yelled one of them.

It's the tip of the iceberg, but you know I don't do politics. Me, I just wish I could still put away 64 oz. of Cherry Coke a day and feel right as rain. Man, you should have seen the head of hair I was sporting back then.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Opiate of the (third grade) Masses

Assuming that "love" and "hate" are absolutes, there is no point in saying that I hate Pokemon "a lot" or "tons." It is an absolute: I hate Pokemon.

I hate it because it has kidnapped my child's soul, and left no ransom note. He is not alone. Many of his friends suffer from the same affliction. Somewhere in Japan, in a behavioral modification laboratory hidden deep inside a cave, Pokemon's creators developed cutting-edge methods designed to hypnotize children so they will become addicted to Pokemon.

Like the steroids Barry Bonds continues to avoid discussing, Pokemon comes in several forms. It can watched in TV or movie form, or carried with you as trading cards. Most heinously, it comes as a video game, for either large (PS2, XBox, Game Cube) or small (Gameboy, Nintendo DS) format players. The cards, TV shows and movies are bad enough; it is the video games that are truly the work of Satan.

The scientists in the secret Pokemon lair have designed these games (there are several, though the specific differences between them are indistinguishable to civilians) so that the players cannot turn on their Gameboy, play a game, and then shut down. No, these are continuing games. To turn off a game without saving would mean losing all that you've accomplished and accumulated up to this point. And if you've achieved, say, Level 5, that could mean the loss of many hours of focused Pokemon playing.

In practical terms, this means that parents cannot demand that children immediately shut down their Gameboys. First, the child must save. And he cannot save if he is, say, "in the middle of a battle," or "about to get a new Pokemon." Worse yet, from a distance the movements required to save are identical to the movements used to continue the game. All we see is a glassy-eyed child punching a few buttons. He could be doing anything.

Even the usually saintly Josh K. has fallen victim to Pokemon hypnosis. He is in fact worse than the Jawa, sometimes moving from one battle to the next under the guise of saving.

It is easy to spot a child caught in the throes of Pokemon addiction. He will forget the many times you've told him that you "hate Pokemon," and continue to excitedly share his Pokemon adventures. "Dad, I got (silly name of Pokemon)!"

Is it bad parenting to continually answer, "You know I hate Pokemon."?

Yes, Pokemon is the scourge of society. It will make your adorable child into a strange zombie, capable of emotion only under the threat of Pokemon removal. And that emotion is anger.

How many hours can you stand? Does the idea of an otherwise smart, engaging and funny child droning on and on (sometimes in a cloying, babyish voice) about various Pokemons and their actions make you want to run screaming down the street?

Parents, grandparents, and importantly, future parents, please do your best to remove Pokemon from your lives. Prevent it from entering your lives. If your child, as mine, is interested in Japanese culture, know that there is a large, rich world of Japanese toys, games and animated movies that do not include Pokemon. And be aware that the evil scientists of the Pokemon labs will never run out of Pokemon-themed items for your child to buy.

It's a slippery, steep slope. For me it's too late. Save yourselves.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Bald: not Beautiful. Painful

To revisit a post from long ago, there is no apparent follow-up to 24 Hour Fitness shower conversations. Twice in the past week I've seen the nice Buddhist who once engaged me in non-stop showertime conversation. Twice in the past week he's walked right by with little more than a curious glance. One time I thought, "I know all about this guy. I know that he's from the city, but lives on the Peninsula, and that his kid is a handful." And yet, we pass now without even a nod of recognition.

Today he caught me finishing up in the shower. Where is the dignity? I should just be thankful that he did not try to start anything up, given that as he passed I was drying myself off, trying to reach my calves while contorted into a strange, pretzel-style shape, wearing only my Flojos-brand flip-flops and a look of extreme concentration. Am I imagining that his face bore a look of pity as he passed by the shower room door, fully clothed?

It only got worse from there. When I reached my locker -- carefully chosen earlier for its isolation and distance from the old Chinese guy who always arrives and showers at precisely the same time as me -- I got caught in the crossfire of a conversation between a young 24 Hour Fitness employee and an older (later revealed to be 45) radical. I say "radical" because, despite his admittedly advanced age, he sported all black spandex and a combo mohawk-ponytail hairdo. I will assume that, given his appearance and the fact that he was arriving at 24 Hour Fitness at 10 a.m. on a Tuesday, that his resume looks similar to mine.

He was discussing relative age with the young employee, going on about how he's so old that it's difficult to work out, aches and pains, and that the young guy has it easy. I'm watching quietly across the room, sort of minding my own business, when the old guy swings around and looks me right in the eye. He was still speaking to the young guy, but he made sure I was listening and said, "He has no idea what it's like to be old."

What would you do in this situation? Do you smile ruefully in agreement? Do you pretend not to have heard? Is he talking to me? I decided to meet it head-on:

"Why are you looking at me?" The timing was good. The young guy cracked up. The old guy backpeddled.

More on why it sucks being bald. If you have hair, it's probably never occurred to you that having no hair means having no padding on your head. Similar to the shocking realization that having no hair also means you have nothing to filter out ultraviolet rays. This should happen only once, followed by a new interest in hats.

As a bald guy, or a bald gal, Sinead, other than wearing a hat (which my grandfather, long known for smashing his shiny dome against lamps and cabinets, has taken to doing whenever he is near either) here's nothing you can do to protect yourself from hazards. So there I was, a few days ago, in the bathroom. With the medicine cabinet door open, I dropped my contact lens case on the floor, bent down to pick it up and...WHAM!

On the positive side, it's always nice to be reminded that your involuntary scream is deep and mannish. And loud enough to scare the wits out of a Jawa.

Even if you're bald, you can't see the top of your head. When you smash it against the sharp edge of a medicine cabinet, you can only feel your head, pull your hand away and look for blood. And have the freaked out Jawa who has just rushed into the bathroom take a look at the wound.

"It's red," he said, solemnly.

It's been almost a week since this incident. I have not been able to cut what's left of my hair because I have a big old scab on my head. So now, instead of looking like a hip buzz cut guy who's totally cool with being bald, I just look like a regular old bald guy whose remaining hair is quickly turning gray. Which is probably why that guy at the gym reached out for me to join him in his brotherhood of old guys. Maybe I should use this opportunity to grow a beard, get some wire-rimmed glasses, camping shorts and Tevas and go for the "prototypical middle-aged Bay Area Jewish guy" look. I wonder if they have any "Kerry/Edwards" bumper stickers left?

Monday, March 06, 2006

Winding Down

I understand that I speak only for myself when I say that, though at first I found her refreshing and cute, I have reached the point where I just want Reese Witherspoon off of my TV.

My grandfather is 89 years old. In May, God willing and the creek don't rise, he and my 88-year-old grandmother will celebrate their 70th wedding anniversary. We (children, grandchildren, cousins, etc.) will all go up to Sacramento, where they live, and have a party. As people who are almost 90, they are in better shape than many. Though they're not the spry, often bow tie-wearing codgers you see doing jumping jacks occasionally on the local news, they live on their own, and just recently accepted that they'd need a cleaning lady and a gardener.

We -- S. Bullock, the Jawa and I -- went to Sacramento last weekend, because we hadn't seen my grandparents since November. One of the reasons we moved to San Francisco (instead of to New York, my first choice) was to be closer to them, so we try to get up there every couple of months.

Since we moved here, we've both had plenty of time to get used to the idea that eventually they will go. Hopefully they will go together. Their original plan was to walk slowly into the water at Bodega Bay when they turn 90. Unfortunately, my grandmother has two bum hips, so now she would have to drive a little cart into the surf, and then the cart might short out and stall, leaving her floating around in 18 inches of water while my grandfather continues to walk dramatically into the ocean.

So that's out.

We go up there to their still-immaculate house, full of the same furniture that I remember jumping on when I was five and they lived in Massapequa, New York. (They no longer have the white chairs that I silently painted with dirt from a potted plant at age 3, however.) My grandmother sits in a dining room chair in the middle of the living room and entertains the Jawa, who, even though he spends much of his time there playing with Legos and, this time, building endless origami animals, at least knows his great grandparents and gets a little bit of the experience I had with them as grandparents.

And they were wonderful grandparents. The best. And a very big part of my sisters' and my life, growing up. They're funny, supportive and I always want to show them off. They still have thick New Yawk accents, and when we bring new people over to see them, they take great interest in their lives, asking them all kinds of questions.

This past trip, we went through all of the details of their wills and trusts. I am their executor, because we are close. So they showed us their safe deposit key, their files, told us they had some deal with the Nautilus society. I don't know what that is, but I guess I will soon enough. It was all matter-of-fact, like they were telling us how to water their plants while they're on vacation, and it didn't really make me sad. They are, after all, almost 90.

More than that, I am so completely honored to be able to do something for them. They gave us so much as kids and as adults. Ask my older sister -- how happy was she to see them when she was living in a tent is the Sinai Desert in 1985 with her foot rotting off? I am so glad that we moved here and are able to spend time with them, to expose the Jawa to them. I'm angry that they got a gardener, because I used to mow their lawn when we went up there. I mean, as a person I'm okay, a good father and a fair husband, but if I can get a chance to be an outstanding grandson to them, naturally, it's going to feel great. I swear, if I could, I would build a shrine.

And watching them now, I get to see what it's like to approach the end of your life. My grandmother, oddly, as she gets less mobile, gets more fiesty. You can see the neurons firing off wildly as she shouts out to my grandfather, "Irv! Get the dessert!" She loves to drive, and when she does, she ratchets their Honda up to 80 and sticks there.

I think for my grandfather, right now his life is passing slowly before his eyes. Not at once, like you see in movies, where someone catches snippets of all their great and favorite moments right before they kick. Instead, over the past couple of years, he sees whole sections of time, good and bad, unfolding before him. I can see him sometimes mulling over something, outside of whatever conversation we're all having. Sometimes he backs into deep thought about something we'd be talking about before. A story about his years with "the association," that used to focus on the outrageous antics of "the boys from Brooklyn," now hits him differently, and he'll get quiet, then pipe up a few minutes later and say, "I wonder if I should have handled that differently..."

This past trip, after dinner, he stopped me in the kitchen and talked to me for a long time about his life, and told me some of his regrets. Self-doubt is my legacy, but I could do nothing but respect him for not being some guy who claims to be bulletproof. Later he told me that he'd wanted to talk to me about this for a long time. And, he wondered, if knowing this about him surprised me, or if it made me think less of him.

Think less of him? I told him that present-day equipment wasn't made to measure how highly I thought of him. I didn't tell him that I wish I had the direct path to my emotions that he has, or that I tell everyone who will listen (and some who won't) that, to me, my grandfather is the pure definition of a real man. Instead, I stood there dumbly, not sure what to do. If only I could have written something down, right?

When I was a little kid, my father told me stories about my grandfather. He told me that my grandfather was ping-pong champ of Brooklyn, that he boxed, that he lifted weights on Coney Island and had a 48-inch chest. He spoke several languages and graduated from high school at 15, because he was so smart.

When I was 20, I started wondering how many of those stories were true, how many my father had embellished, and how many I had added to with my own imagination.

When I was 30, I realized that it didn't really matter if they were true, and now that I'm 40, I realize that, whether the stories were true or not, I believe them all.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Safe at Home

God bless San Francisco, self-satisfied town of unusual micro-climates. Today I drove to a meeting a few miles from my cold but sunny neighborhood. By the time I reached the meeting place, five minutes later, I'd driven through rain, hail, high winds and, finally, sun.

By now you might be wondering how long I can sustain this Seinfeldian obsession with gum, water pressure, b-list actors, carbonated beverages and other arcania. You're not alone. I'm 40 years old now, and I'm pretty sure everyone whose come in contact with my life is wondering the same thing.

The short answer: probably forever, which is unfortunate. A head full of useless yet occasionally entertaining information is good as a sideline, but please learn from me and don't make it your primary skill set.

Meanwhile, I present for your enjoyment, a seemingly unending laser-like focus on the meaningless details of life. Check that. If I hear anyone dismissing the difference between gum brands as "meaningless," I'll come out swinging.

Would you like to know my opinion on the pressing political issues of the day? Here in San Francisco, you can find out the whole of someone's politics merely by driving behind them.

If that's not enough, you can confirm those political beliefs by opening up any edition of our local newspaper, The San Francisco Chronicle, where yesterday a columnist compared the city to a high school misfit sitting in the back of class, misunderstood but generally smarter, kinder and morally superior to every other kid in school. Chicago was a good-natured but dumb linebacker. Los Angeles was an air-headed cheerleader.

I'm serious. The columnist's name is Joan Ryan, if you'd like to email her.

Would you like an exhaustive monologue outlining my encyclopedic knowledge of music? In the right mood, I might unload that on you. You would be thrilled and would learn so much, mostly about me.

Would it interest you to know that right now I am sitting on the floor with 55 lbs. of Jawa on my shoulders? He is watching "The Blues Brothers," one of his favorite movies. Sandra Bullock is out at some important dinner with important work people. When something like that happens, we respond the only way we know how: by going out to dinner, walking around, and then coming home and watching TV. Guys. I look forward to the day, 12 1/2 years from now, when we can follow up the dinner by dropping into the local bar for a beer. Father and son.

How about some discussion about global warming? My thoeries about unrest in the Middle East? I'm sure that would be yawn-inducing, annoying and/or infuriating.

Besides, there are thousands of places online where you can go and get pundited. But how many sites offer in-depth analysis of gum?

I just put the Jawa to bed. Like his father, he has a routine he must follow in order to get into the proper frame of mind for sleep. He sleeps with four stuffed animals, which, interestingly, are shoved into the space between his bunk bed and the wall. And yet, they must be there. Tonight he has his favorite pillow case, the one he made at school last year. They used some kind of paints, and were supposed to draw something comforting, something that would help them sleep. Naturally, he drew Godzilla. Underneath Godzilla, he wrote, "Sweet dreams and destruction. Love, Godzilla."

Also like me, the Jawa has to read before he can sleep. So he has a big stack of books and toy catalogs next to his bed. But before he can read, he has to feed Sparky, his hamster, which I think is uncool, because he's just exploiting that poor animal in order to squeeze a few more minutes out before he goes to bed. Sparky has to wait until 8:30 every night to get her vitamin and snack.

Once he's settled in bed and has his book, we turn on his stereo. Every night he listens to the same jazz CD. The same one every night. I've tried to mix it up on him, but he knows. He can't have another jazz CD, or maybe a nice quiet folk thing. Gotta be that same jazz CD, called "A Night of Jazz." It was part of a 5-CD set I bought at Costco to add a little sophistication to my otherwise lowbrow CD library.

In fifteen minutes I will go into his room and turn off his light. Then he'll pull the covers completely over his head and complain that he wants the light on. Go figure.

And then, a few hours from now, before I go to sleep, I'll go back into his room, turn his light on and look at him for a few seconds. If he's lying in some weird, contorted position, I'll straighten him out. Then I'll turn off his light and go into my own room. I do it every night on my way into bed, no matter what I've been doing up to that point. It helps me get to sleep.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

In Praise of Semi-Famous Men

My best friend, Roger Hunt, esq., has a thing about dead guys. Not all dead guys, though he is like me in that he reads the obituaries every day. Not so strange. You can find some interesting/heart-warming stories in there every day, made even more interesting when you realize that being born in San Francisco in 1915 means you've seen some massive changes in your hometown. It means when you were a kid, the Sunset was all sand dunes. Also means you had more than 50 good years of this town before the hippies came in and screwed it all up.

R. Hunt mostly enjoys -- though that may not be the correct word -- take time to mourn, rather, the deaths of b-level celebrities. It was a sad day when Richard Mulligan died, for example. That day we sent at least ten emails back and forth recalling his classic turn as George Custer in "Little Big Man", and then his reprisal of that role (sort of) for "Teachers." After all, Custer is to Richard Mulligan as Mark Twain is to Hal Holbrook.

Last weekend was bad for b-level actors. In the span of three days, we lost Don Knotts, Darin McGavin and Dennis Weaver. For anyone whose childhood world included Barney Fife (in reruns), Mr. Furley, Kolshak the Night Stalker and McCloud, it was correct and honorable to take time out of your day to reflect on these three actors' work.

As usual, Hunt and I rushed to see who would tell the other of the latest death. On Thursday, I texted him the simple message: "Don Knotts." He understood immediately: "No. Really?" A few hours later he came back with, "RIP Kolshak." Most people, media outlets included, led their McGavin obits with mention of his role as The Old Man in "A Christmas Story." I can't speak for Roger Hunt here, but I feel pretty safe in saying that we both consider that to be a Johnny-come-lately reference, sort of like if someone knows Bea Arthur from "Golden Girls" instead of "Maude." Karl Kolshak , the Night Stalker, made a huge impact on our little kid brains. He solved crimes, it is true, but they were creepy crimes. With "Dark Shadows" off the air, and "The Sixth Sense" too scary for me to watch without having bad dreams, Kolshak filled the important prime time supernatural creepiness gap (already capably filled during the day by endless "Twilight Zone" reruns).

I'm not a huge "Andy Griffith" guy, and R. Hunt, who once went to law school at Loyola and as a result had some L.A. entertainment industry friends, told me that Don Knotts was a miserable person, but I always appreciated the singular uniqueness of Knotts' talent. Barney Fife could be overplayed, but his turn as Mr. Limpet was classic, as was his uncredited cameo in "It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World." And though I'm more of a Mr. Roper guy, Furley had his place in the "Three's Company" pantheon.

Dennis Weaver, honestly, I could take or leave. I whistled the theme song to "The NBC Sunday Night Mystery Movie" a few times, but to be honest, I never really watched "McCloud." We were a "McMillan and Wife" family. My mom liked that Rock Hudson, even though she somehow already knew that he was gay. How, Mom, how did you know? Is this a secret perceptive mom gift that comes in a rush when your first child is born? Of course, though, Weaver was great in "Duel."

I'm reading this all back and thinking that maybe it's no mystery at all that I've gotten to 40 without establishing a beachhead in any career. I sure can go on about TV and minor celebrities, though. As I once told a grad school professor, "Forget Ginsberg. I saw the greatest minds of my generation memorizing the lyrics to 'The Brady Bunch' theme song."

Hunt always says that these b-list celeb deaths are "sad." His emails and texts are heavy and morose. But I don't know. Weaver, Knotts and McGavin made it into their 80s. They did some good work. What's kind of sad, or at least melancholy, to me, is that as each of these guys goes, we lost a link to a time that's never going to come back. I read McGavin's bio. It's full of all of the familiar stories about guys who came of age in the 1940s and 50s -- fought in World War II, came to New York (or L.A.) with $10 in his pocket and sold pencils on the street corner, was a bartender, washed dishes, etc. before finally getting his big break.

What's it going to look like when some present-day b-lister dies at 82? How are we going to remember Ashton Kutcher or Chris Klein? "Went to high school, college for a year, modeled for Ralph Lauren. Got a part on a sit-com, became a Scientologist, hooked up with numerous equally famous babes, did some bad movies, made so much money that by the time he was 25, his life in no way resembled any of ours. Dodged paparazzi and showed up in roped-off VIP sections of briefly "hot" nightclubs.


So in that respect, Roger Hunt, I join you in mourning these men.