Friday, July 28, 2006

Working out the Kinks

I'll tell you one thing, Mr. ponytail and beard condescending Kinko's Assistant Manager: You only have to tell me once that my request to make a heat transfer t-shirt iron-on at your store is not going to happen. I don't really care about the potential downside for you and your machines. Once you've told me that you're not going to do it, the conversation is over.


Maybe you should ask Sandeep, the nice, unfortunate woman working at the Office Depot copy center. No sooner had she started with, "Oh, I'm sorry..." than I had turned and was on my way out of the store. I've got time constraints here, ponytail guy. This "heat transfer" must be complete tonight, so that Sandra Bullock can iron it onto the white t-shirt she bought at Target yesterday. Then it must be washed in time for the Jawa to wear it to his birthday party Friday.

The t-shirt would bear the legend "Lego Boy," along with a couple of images of Lego creations. This is important, because the t-shirt will single out the Jawa as the host of his Lego-themed party.

This is my excuse. I normally would not be this rude to the employees of copy centers.

I take that back. Faced with a patronizing, beard and ponytail-wearing Liberal Arts grad who has scrapped and fought to attain the post of Assistant Manager, I might draw on my considerably deep reserves of rudeness and direct them at said person.

But I did not. I was in too much of a hurry. So come on, ponytail guy, if you can't do it for me here, tell me where I can go to get it done. I don't care about your machines, I don't need a tutorial, and I can barely hear your dulcet tones over the sounds of the copiers raging in the background.

Yesterday I was exposed to the breadth of copy store employees. There was Sandeep, well-intended but perhaps underinformed; the exhaustively aforementioned ponytail guy. Later, as the Jawa and I roared downtown to the Kinko's at the corner of Van Ness and Clay, we found a nervous, neatly-trimmed beard-wearing Assistant Manager named Jeremy, who was much more deferential and service-oriented than the ponytail guy. Jeremy, who wore the GAP-produced gear of the smart retail manager, made sure to find someone else who could help us before turning and discussing his plans for later in the evening with one of his employees.

Jeremy passed us off to Sayed, who passed us off to Michael, who introduced us to a rather large young woman whose name I never got but whom I am indebted to because she, after telling us that the transfer would not be ready until 9:45, and then listening to me irritatedly relay the information via Treo to Sandra Bullock, suddenly produced our work within 5 minutes. Thank you, overweight, high-end glasses-wearing woman. Though your demeanor was dour and you seemed a little put off by my reverance, and though the eventual iron-on did not, in fact, iron on, you have an understanding of service. For that, I will remember you always.

As for you, Mr. ponytail and beard condescending Assistant Manager, I'll bet your novel sucks.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

The Hot Chocolate Incident

Memo to the people who make the lids that go on to-go coffee cups, or in my case, hot chocolate cups:

You need to work on the seal between the lid and the cup. It works fine in low-stress situations -- sitting, walking, waving your cup around to illustrate a point. But what happens when the lid is put to the test? What if you're tense, driving, arguing, running?

I didn't get the name of the outfit that made the lid I slapped on this morning's hot chocolate, but if I did, they would be getting a disgruntled letter from me today. Everything was fine as I walked, slipped next door to Starbucks to get a lemon scone (with great satisfaction, I placed my Creighton's hot chocolate on the Starbucks counter to get my money. Sorry, no coffee for me. Just a scone.), and continued to my car.

Creighton's is a few blocks from my Zephyr Wednesday sales meeting, at which I have become dead man walking. I have five months to complete 3 deals, they've said. I am still considering whether that is realistic.

So I wasn't in the greatest mood to begin with.

I pull out and go to turn right onto Portola, one hand on the steering wheel, one on my hot chocolate. As I complete my turn, the lid pops up off of the cup. The hot chocolate, which has splashed against the lid during the turn, stays up, landing violently all over the inside of the Acura -- which, by the way, I now only drive on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. So in addition to the discomfort of driving a car full of pools of hot chocolate, I have the added burden of knowing that I must remove every single drop of liquid before returning the car to Sandra Bullock on Thursday.

By the time I completed my turn, hot chocolate was everywhere. It was on the steering wheel, all across the cd player, on the passenger's seat, in the console, on the gear shift, and only a little, thankfully, on my inexpensive Kenneth Cole Reaction pants. I slammed the cup down into the wet cup holder and wished I was a swearing guy, all while being careful to drive sensibly.

Since I am not a swearing guy, I was limited to "Shoot!" and my dad's famed "Aaargh!" as I wrung the hot chocolate out of my hands. Since it had coated the steering wheel, my hands stuck as I drove, stickiness being my least favorite of feelings.

I arrived at my meeting disgruntled, with small brown spots all over my hands and wrists. My cup of remaining hot chocolate sat smugly in the cup holder, hiding about 1/4" of hot chocolate that had gathered underneath, creating a small replica of the mustard-off pools they have in Katroo. Again, I could only exclaim "Aargh!"

It is bad enough to be a dead man walking at a work meeting. Even worse to enter that meeting late, with hot chocolate dripping off both hands, then place your cup on the table only to have it leave thick, dark rings. Because I was late, I had to park a block away, thereby short-circuiting my plan to grab some wet paper towels and wipe off my interior. Instead, the car sat, growing stickier by the moment.

It plagued me all day. During our Wednesday tour of homes, I rode with the very thin, ultra marathon-running Metro Rob, enjoying myself and working out my present career crises. Still, occasionally I would remember. I'd picture the inside of my car and grind my teeth. When we completed the tour, it was like waking up the morning after being dumped by your girlfriend. "Ah, everything is fine... No! That's right! There is hot chocolate all over the inside of my car!"

Happily, the offending fluids have been eradicated. I returned home and immediately ran up, grabbed a wash cloth and began furiously wiping down the Acura's interior. Sandra Bullock will be none the wiser. My cheap pants will survive, and the Jawa thought the entire deal was gut-bustingly hilarious.

That's the kind of respect I command.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Bunk Beds: the Downside

Where does "changing the sheets on a bunk bed" rank on your list of things you'd rather not do? For me, it's in the top ten. I would choose it over, say, "following a large dog around with a bag in which to scoop up its feces when necessary," but not "cutting your toenails and risking cutting one too low and having a very sharp, almost unbearable but brief pain shoot all the way up your leg."

As a child, I had bunk beds. In fact, I had them until I left home after college. At some point, we removed the top bunk and I slept on the remaining twin bed. I remember them fondly, even though I fell off of the top one a couple of times when I was 6, leaning over to tell some story about my stuffed animals to Noodles' Mom. If I thought about it long enough, bunk beds were probably one of the things I looked forward to revisiting as a parent, like Legos, Dr. Suess and Sesame Street. We are now into our 6th year of bunk beds. I don't feel that way about them anymore.

I normally don't change the Jawa's sheets and, to be honest, this morning I didn't change them, I just made his bed. Due to the present heat wave, however, I may as well have been changing them. They were all at the foot of his bed, rolled up into a ball. That's why I had to do this particular chore. Normally, he does it, but today, he took a look at the blog that used to be his sheet and comforter and said, "Dad, there's no way. I can't do it."

The job fell to me.

Why is this such a daunting task? I make my own bed every morning, save for the occasional Sunday, when I can slip into the shower quickly, knowing that Sandra Bullock's innate efficiency will not allow her to leave a bed unmade for the time it takes me to shower. But making my own bed, while slightly annoying, is a simple job, and I can complete it in a way satisfactory to S. B. Or at least this is what I tell myself.

A bunk bed is a different animal. To begin, you must negotiate the ladder, or simply remove it and place it somewhere else in the room. By "somewhere else," I mean the 4 square foot area that is not covered by loose Legos or Godzilla memorabilia. Once the ladder is removed, you are allowed 0nly slightly better access to the bunk bed (we are speaking of the lower bunk. The upper bunk, fortunately, needs changing / making only when a guest uses it. In that case, you must go to the yellow pages and look up the number of a nearest Chinese acrobat troupe, or, if you live in New York, call up David Blaine or some other illusionist able to fit themselves into a three foot square cube).

By now, one thing is apparent: you will hit your head on the upper bunk at least twice. There is nothing worse than hitting your head, except maybe the aforementioned large dog, his feces, and your plastic bag. Since bunk bed mattresses are made exactly 1/4" smaller than bunk bed frames, you are likely to also receive rug burns on your hands as you try to tuck in the sheet and comforter.

Have I mentioned sweat? Yes, especially during our heat wave, you must be careful to make the bed quickly, hopefully before the sweat drips down into your eyes. Otherwise you will be blinded, and unable to complete the task at hand.

Overall, making a bunk bed is an experience that is claustrophobic and physically painful. There is no satisfying snap! of the sheets, followed by a zen-like peace as the unfolded sheet gracefully floats down to the bed surface. Instead, you must unfurl the sheet in zones -- first the left, bottom, then the right, bottom, etc. You must jam the sheet into the tiny space between the mattress and the frame, and then pray to whatever preferred diety that the 1/8" remaining will somehow hold the comforter.

And when this is all complete, if you are not S. Bullock and not blessed with otherworldly bed-making skills, you are as likely as not to discover that you have "made" a sadly crooked bed, an embarassingly one-sided bed or, worst of all, an upside-down bed. Are the trucks supposed to be driving towards his head or his feet? Is it okay if there's three feet of comforter hanging down off the outside of the bed and 4 inches tucked into the wall? What if you're male, too old to remember sleeping with patterned sheets, and have completely forgotten that you're supposed to put the sheet in upside down and backwards, so that when you fold it down, only then are the trucks traveling in the right direction, and only then are their colors bright and vibrant?

What then, indeed.

There is no glory. So the bed is finally made, sort of. It is perceived as neat by the non-military male world, at least, and each stuffed Pokemon creature has been placed in his assigned space. You do what you can to smooth out various wrinkles, place the pillows at an angle, just like Sandra Bullock would do. Your forehead is cut in two places, your back is sore, your t-shirt is drenched with sweat.

And you know, sure as you know that the Jawa will forget that you made his bed and put a red "x" on his chore card next to "made bed, Monday," that at some point during the day, Sandra Bullock will come by the room and, like the Peanuts gang and a small, sad Christmas tree, wave her arms and magically, the bed will be crisp, clean and perfect.

And if you need me then, I'll be cutting my toenails.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

To Job or Not to Job

Here's how I know that the Jawa feels ownership over my life: for the past few weeks I've been flirting with getting a "real" job. I saw an ad on Craigslist, answered it, and got an interview. In the end, it didn't work out - the timing, not so good, given that earlier this week I was taken to task by my brokers for "not producing" -- but the process certainly showed me plenty about my present life.

"No, Dad," stammered the panicked Jawa, when I told him it was likely I was about to get a full-time job. "Who's going to pick me up from school?"

Understand here that the Jawa is capable of producing several vehement responses to a particular topic. Often those responses are calculated and/or irritating. Not so this time. His outburst, happening as we drove home from Destination Science camp, was completely without guile. It was honest as it was unfocused, the desperate ravings of a child suddenly pushed to the edge.

Which of course made me think that much harder about the decision at hand -- assuming there would be a decision to make. What is a job worth? An instant release from the world of unpaid bills, the scythe hanging over your head 365 days a year. Perhaps a new car? We could send the Subaru to the great wannabe SUV home in the sky, or sell it to some 25-year-old just moved to the Upper Haight from Vermont.

Would it mean happiness, however? Would I spring out of bed each morning, eager to attack the day's challenges?

Every so often, and usually in a magazine about actors or writers, some guy will be talking about the importance of "the work," and how everything else is a distraction. Personally, I can't imagine what they're talking about. In fact, it's embarassing to hear some guy talking about "the work," as if it's a massive force or a noun you can actually touch. To me, "the work" has always been something to be avoided or tackled because there's no way to avoid it.

This, I admit, is not good.

So would this new job contain "the work" that I loved? Would I survive the all-important 6 month cliff, coming back to the office for month 7 without falling into an unfocused haze? So far, that has never happened. Generally, every "real" job I've gotten has ended in at least semi-disaster, with me sitting on some bench somewhere watching unemployed people walk casually around through the lenses of green-eyed envy.

And now, with the Jawa's panic, I tried to picture what this job would be like. And wondering what, exactly, it would take for me to get truly excited about a full-time job. It's looking more and more like that might have to happen eventually, given how completely I have failed to impress my real estate bosses.

When would I go to the gym? Would I quickly gain 20 lbs. thus taking years off of my already tenuous lifespan? How would the Jawa fare as a latchkey kid? No doubt there are many Brandeis parents ready to step into my volunteer shoes, but what about the juice I get from all the time I spend there?

I pictured massive loads of laundry, waiting for my attention every weekend. Rushing to BART after dropping the Jawa at school. Working late on Wednesdays so I would be able to leave early on Tuesday to coach basketball.

So when people would ask, "Well, do you think you'd like this job?" I have to wonder exactly what would it take for me to answer, "Absolutely!" This particular job sounded pretty good. Good opportunities to take the ball and run with it. Blogging, which I like. Working with writers, which I've done. Maybe some reporting.

So this one didn't work out. The Jawa breathed a sigh of relief. I watched, ambivilantly, as my new car drove quickly into the distance. And real estate, well, it may not be the answer, either. My bosses have suggested that a "change of personality" may be necessary in order for me to succeed in this increasingly difficult business world.

And you wonder why Sandra Bullock gets frustrated?

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

10 Reasons San Francisco Thinks it's Great

1) Europeans' favorite vacation spot. We are obsessed with Europe. I'm sure that a poll of white people in San Francisco would show that we'd prefer to be part of Europe. We regularly compare ourselves with Paris (and New York, a city we treat embarassingly like a high school nerd with a crush on a cheerleader), and the phrase "Mediterranean" is sometimes tossed about to describe our Pacific town. Why Europe? Because it's better than the U.S., of course!

Eiffel tower or Golden Gate Bridge: you make the call.

2) We are the only American city to fully appreciate the World Cup. The day Italy (it was Italy, right?) clinched the championship, we San Franciscans were treated to the full front-page treatment -- the big headlines, the color action photos, the man-on-the-street interviews with a bunch of drunk people in North Beach. People in San Francisco, many of whom pride themselves on a disdain for pro football, baseball and basketball, suddenly became rabid soccer fans in this past June. Somehow, to them, soccer on the world stage represented something sublime and pure, free of the ugly commercialism, vulgarites and general jockishness of American sport. The lack of American appreciation for the "real" football only underscores the limited, nationalistic world view of our home country.

These same people, horrified by the sight of American flags flying on July 4, can be seen pridefully waving the glorious flag of France at a bar on Belden Alley, jingoism somehow being okay if it's representative of a country different than the one in which you presently reside.

And remember that time when all of the black players were violently and systematically harassed at that Giants' game? Oops! That was at a soccer game! Sorry.

3) In San Francisco, Ralph Nader regularly tallies more votes in Presidential elections than Republican candidates. Remember, you're the ones who are out of step with reality, not us. But who am I kidding? I voted for Peter Ueberroth.

Hey, man, it's not our fault. He's not my president.

4) Our original hippies are not yet all dead. You can't blame us; the Summer of Love was the first countercultural movement to have the commercial savvy and sheer numbers necessary to maintain their momentum all the way up to retirement. In San Francisco, "He's a sixties guy," is still a synonym for "good and trustworthy, with his heart in the right place."

The hippies were by not stretch of the imagination the first major youth subculture to come out of San Francisco, but they might be the last. With the cost of living so high, the city's resources tied up in tourism and businesses that manufacture actual things fleeing at an alarming rate, the convergence of factors required to fuel youth culture rebellion is, sadly, gone. Into that rebel vacuum stormed the hippies, grey ponytails flailing in the wind. Because they didn't really "tune in, turn on and drop out." They played for awhile, coined some awesome slogans, then used their overwhelming size and power (in San Francisco, at least) to convince their kids that they still held the key to all things good and rightous. Leaving these poor kids to reminisce about Dead shows they never attended when they should be creating their own culture.

No, I won't mellow out.

5) Toyota sells more Prius's (sp?) in the Bay Area than anywhere else in the U.S. Well, it is good that we do this. Because we drive in a city, Toyota's hybrid setup makes sense. The Prius actually gets better mileage in stop-and-go traffic than they do on the freeway. Also, since the cars usually appear outfitted in classic low-budget trim levels, owners can pretend that they didn't just pay $30,000 for a Tercel with a good publicist.

Best of all, the Kerry / Edwards 2004 bumper sticker is a no-cost option. I think you do have to pay more for stickers containing clever messages relating to the President's lack of intellect, however.

6) We are the most diverse city in the world! Uh, in the U.S. Hmm. On the West Coast! Okay, we are the most diverse city in California located between Fresno and Sacramento. That is, if you consider a city that is 50% white, 31% Asian and 15% Latino diverse. Wait a minute. That's not actual diversity, is it. Lets face it, L.A. kicks our butt. Which brings us to our next point...

7) We are SO much cooler than L.A. Los Angeles is a city full of plastic surgery-enhanced air heads who are obsessed with how they look, call each other "dude," and have no skills other than a burning ambition to "get into the industry." They do not have our emphasis on the arts, important political issues, and World Cup soccer.

Well, actually, that's kind of a dated argument. I hate to admit it -- and I do, really, because every time I go to Los Angeles it freaks me out -- but San Francisco has long since taken a back seat to L.A. in terms of world importance. Maybe it's only because it's the complete opposite of the Big Apple, but it's L.A., not San Francisco that is New York's closest rival. L.A. is a jungle, it's true, but it's a thriving jungle.

San Francisco, on the other hand, is, well, a nice place to visit. A place to be romantic, to visit the sites of great things...that have already happened. You come to San Francisco to eat crab and sourdough bread, to have Italian food in North Beach, to see a show three years after it's run on Broadway... but not because you have business here. Unless you're in technology.

8) San Francisco is the world's center for technology. It is true. We are cutting edge, and darn proud of it. Unless we're mad about it because it's ruining the city for artists. Unless those artists somehow find jobs in technology. Then it's okay, because they can still afford to live in the Mission, in proximity to all of the Hispanic families who keep it real. Except for the one they displaced by moving into the Mission.

Lets face it, we have a love-hate relationship with almost everything in San Francisco. We create it, but because we're (honestly) really trying to do the right thing, we can't move forward without seeing all of the negative consequences of our actions. Unless we're protesting something we really, really care about.

9) We protest. Oh, how we protest. I drove by Dolores Park yesterday. It was sunny and warm. Gay men lay on towels all over the place. The skyline shimmered in the distance. And walking purposely, dodging muscle boys, was a rag-tag group of protesters. I couldn't read their signs but man, they were determined.

Some guy throws a Bichon out of a lady's car, we protest. Martin Luther King Day, we protest instead of celebrating. War in Iraq? Protest upon protest. Immigrants' rights? Bring it on. And if you're particular position happens to fall outside the parameters of this protest, no problem. Come along anyway. Save the turtles? Fall right in. Against or for gay marriage? We've got a spot for both of you, but the anti- faction will have to endure lots of angry shouting.

Well, maybe not everyone. If you're pro-life, or think that Israel should continue to exist as a country, you might want to head down to San Jose for your protest. After all, we're kind of stretched to the limit as far as tolerance goes. We really can't be expected to respect everyone, can we?

10) Finally, we live in this insane, expensive place where people come not because they have a job waiting, not because they have family here, not for any of the normal reasons people come to a place, and never by accident, but because they really want to be here. Remember Mary Ann Singleton in "Tales of the City," standing in front of the Buena Vista, looking out at the Bay and telling her mother in Cleveland that she wasn't coming home? I'm afraid that's all of us. Sometime in the past 150 years San Francisco changed from being just one of many American cities to the last city at the end of the earth.

We came here for ridiculous reasons, most of us, and it's ridiculous to stay, but we do. Sometimes just to get a glimpse of the Bay Bridge lit up at night between a couple of buildings on Russian Hill. Sometimes to start some new phase of our lives that we didn't think was possible in Detroit, Miami, Springfield. Sometimes -- and I'm speaking of myself here -- we come knowing that it's going to drive us nuts, but we found that when we didn't live here, all we thought about was coming back here.

Which is insane, and is exactly my point.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

10 Reasons San Francisco is Great

1) Fog. Though cursed in many ways -- and for many reasons -- fog is what allows sweaty, hairy guys like me to appear cool and stylish throughout the difficult summer months. For example, last weekend we went to the Alameda County Fair, in Pleasanton. After a few hours in the life-threatening heat, we returned home, delighted to watch the "Outside Temp" indicator in the Acura go from 102 (Pleasanton) to 64 (San Francisco) in the space of 45 minutes.

Fog is also responsible for some of the coolest-looking cityscapes in the world. Stand on a hill and watch a big old white clump of fog ease under the Golden Gate Bridge sometime and tell me that fog sucks. Looks pretty cool when you're driving up 101 and see it sneaking over the hills, too.

2) Irish guys who work in the trades. San Francisco was once a city full of Irish guys. They dominated the Mission at one time, and then later the Sunset. Not so much now, but you know how much I love stepping back in time; well, schedule a home remodel and step back and watch the hands of time spin backward. It's likely a guy will show up who can tell you stories about San Francisco back in the day.

See also Italian guys who hang out in bars in the Excelsior.

3) Gavin Newsom. I know, I know, I'll get it from both sides for this one. Everyone who lives outside the city thinks he's a nutball radical who cost the Democrats the presidential election in 2004. Inside the city, everyone thinks he's an insane, silver spoon Republican who wants to force renters out in favor of his business cronies. Whatever. He went to Santa Clara, he played baseball, he shows up at murder scenes to see what's going on, and he does what he thinks is right. I'd follow him through a burning ring of fire.

4) The Hyatt Regency downtown. When I was 10 and we'd first moved to California, we came to San Francisco to see my mom's cousin Alice and her kids. I don't remember all of the circumstances, but I will never forget seeing the inside of the Hyatt Regency for the first time. It had a cool sculpture, fountains, glass elevators and looked more like the inside of Willie Wonka's factory than anything I'd ever seen before. It's completely dated now, but no less interesting to the little boy mind. And if you don't believe me, just ask the Jawa and his various friends we've taken there to ride the elevators.

5) BART. Last night the Jawa and I went to see "Cars." To make it more of an adventure, we took BART, a very efficient mass-transit system that he has been riding like a pro since age 3. My child may not know how to ride a bike, but he will show the true impatience of a city-dwellar when presented with some rube who doesn't know which way the ticket goes into the gate. Hillbillies.

We were waiting at the Daly City station last night at about 10:30, eavesdropping on an Irish couple (see above) and talking about "Cars." The train approached. The Jawa grabbed my Treo out of my hand and took a really cool video of the approaching BART train.

6) It's surrounded by the Bay Area. We lived in Seattle for 8 years. It is a place that, I think, takes a back seat to nowhere when it comes to natural beauty. On a clear day you could see mountains in three directions and the Puget Sound. Breathtaking, really. Yet somehow I never got the same charge out of the that inarguably superior landscape as I do from the wrinkled gold hills of the Bay Area. I love the whole thing, even Milpitas.

7) Really cool houses. Though the architecture of Washington, DC and Boston also hold special places in my heart, there's nothing as unmistakeably of somewhere as San Francisco's hodge podge of Victorian and Edwardian shacks, falling all over each other in efforts to cling to the sides of hills. Sure, the fussy, multi-colored stick Victorians get all the pub, but there's also something really cool about a 1930s stucco cottage in the Sunset with a speakeasy hidden downstairs, or a house with a circa-1900 streetcar hidden somewhere on the second floor.

My love for the houses in San Francisco got me into real estate. The jury's still out on whether I should thank them for it, or curse them as if they were the fog and I wanted just one hot July day, for crying out loud.

8) Fisherman's Wharf. Yes, the oft-maligned tourist trap made my list. Why? Because anytime the daily hassles of living in a city get you down, you can always take some interesting form of transportation down to the Wharf and be reminded that a bunch of people from all over the world thought to save up their money and their vacation days and spend both of them here. Head down there, grab something to eat, and then sit on a bench and watch them all go by. They're elated to be here.

Also, if you're the parent of an 8-year-old, Fisherman's Wharf is a no-miss good time.

9) Cool history. 2006 is the 100th anniversary of the Great Earthquake and Fire, so we've been bombarded with reminders of the colorful history of our colorful city. Believe it or not, I am also enthralled (and always have been) with the history of the Haight-Ashbury in the 1960s.

The great thing about San Francisco history, besides the fact that so much noteworthy stuff happened here, is that most of the places where stuff happened are still here. You can go to North Beach and see where Lenny Bruce fell out of a hotel window. You can see where the Jefferson Airplane lived on Fulton Street, but you can also see the first glass curtain building, designed by Willis Polk in the 1920s, and the places where people lived in Telegraph Hill in the 1960s. In fact, one of them is presently for sale.

10) Mission Street and the J Church. You want to see the whole of the city without taking so much as one left or right turn? Start at the county line and walk the length of Mission Street. You'll get the postcard city and the hidden city, and can stock up on housewares, extremely large jeans and illicit drugs for very reasonable prices. Then, when you get downtown, hop on the J Church Muni train and take it back out to Balboa Park. It'll take you through the Castro, Dolores Park, Noe Valley, Glen Park and then, finally Balboa Park. It's an E ticket for $1.50.

There is plenty to boast about, and I even left out the part about the artists and restaurants and theater. I do love San Francisco, which is convenient, because once you stop loving it, it's time to leave.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

A Different Kind of Camp

Red Buttons is dead at 87. He never got a dinner.

I'm not sure if I ever got a dinner or not (and I'm hoping that I have a few years left in which to maybe get a dinner), but I know that, as a youth, I never had anywhere near the vast menu of summer camps available from which the Jawa and his peeps choose today.

This morning, I dropped him off at Destination Science Camp, where this week, from 9 am to 3:30 pm, he is learning about Battle Bots. He is also learning how to make potentially annoying items like digital recorders and boxes that light up and make lots of beeping noises.

Remember when you were a kid and used whatever recording device was available -- depending on the era, it was reel-to-reel or cassette -- to record strange noises, shouting, surreptitious recordings of your parents, and finally, full-blown radio shows? Well, the same stuff that was funny in 1973 is still funny today. Repeating inane phrases, using odd accents? Still funny. Making impossibly long flatulence sounds, then playing them back? Hilarious. Secretly recording your dad as he tells you to stop making that annoying noise? As they say at Master Card, priceless.

To give children these kinds of tools and then place them in the back seat of a moving car is to put everyone on the road at risk. Mothers Against Drunk Driving have nothing on Fathers Against Annoying Children in the Backseat. When the collective decibel level approaches that of a Blue Cheer concert, no one is safe.

Next week, he will return to Destination Science for rocketry camp. He refers to his camp counselors as "teachers," and comes home each day a little bit smarter than he was in the morning. Is it incredible, or incredibly geeky? I'm not sure.

He is not alone. Here in the overparenting center of the universe, children spend their summers learning about science, computers, Shakespeare, fencing, how to cook like Emeril. Shockingly, there is no "activist" camp, nor one that teaches you how to write pithy bumper stickers that accuse the president of all sorts of crimes. Maybe. To be honest, I haven't researched that completely.

There is no "run around and get sweaty" camp, unless you count sports camps. The Jawa will be attending basketball camp in two weeks. This will represent a complete 180 from the brainy camps of early July. I hope he can manage. One thing I know is that he will not return from any of these camps clutching a tooled leather wallet made in crafts class. Sad.

Next summer, he claims, he will join The Shaman and their friend Tony Hawk, Jr. for sleep away camp. We're already sifting through our options. We're trying to do something different than Camp Tawonga, the camp of choice for little Jewish city kids, though I have to wonder, when the time comes to commit, if the Jawa, Shaman and Hawk, Jr. will actually be able to break away from the crowd and share space with the Gentiles for an entire week. Or is that the Goyim? I'm still working on my Jewish identity.

There are already rumors about sleep away camp. A few kids from our class went this summer, so the pipeline is full of stories about the surprising ease with which said children separated from their parents. I never went to sleep away camp, unless you count baseball camp at UC Irvine, so my image of sleep away camp is locked into the cliches of the Eastern seaboard camps I never attended. In my mind it's 1970 and the kids are loading into yellow buses for the drive to the Poconos, where they will learn to sail in small skiffs.

My sister, Noodles' Mom, went to Girl scout camps on the Eastern seaboard in the early 70s, and even later became a camp counselor during her now-disowned Jackson Browne-saturated college years. I remember picking her up at one camp in 1973, driving through the Pennsylvania countryside and wondering when my turn would come.

It never did. I never wanted it to come. Like Sally Brown, I didn't want to go to camp. I wanted to go to Manhattan and see the Empire State Building. And then we moved to California, and no one ever mentioned camp again. Again, other than UCI baseball camp, which was awful in 1977 and great in 1980. Not surprising. I'm usually better at things the second time around.

So every camp has a hook. School doesn't end in June, it just changes venue.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Mod Mark: Still the Definition of Hip

Picture the 18-year-old Lefty, wet behind the ears and full to the brim with Orange County pride, dropping in on Santa Clara University. Insecure, anxious and desperate to quickly sniff out the hippest, coolest corners of the school, he immerses himself in up-to-the-second early 80s culture.

He does his best, but one day, while cross the way too busy city street that runs between the student activities center and the library, he comes across a fellow freshman whose hipness is innate, organic. Where Lefty must read the LA Times entertainment section religiously and spend most of his guaranteed student loan on trips to Tower Records, this guy's casual mod hipness is like a birthright. "He," thinks the overwhelmed lefthander, "must be from L.A."

Because L.A. was a magical place, thirty minutes from Orange County but so frightening that the suburban southpaw and his sheltered crew didn't even entertain thoughts of L.A. nightlife until well into their senior year. L.A.was an attitude that Lefty felt set him apart from the dowdy, preppy Catholics who populated Santa Clara. L.A. was a grail, and the pursuit of this grail made me pathetic, something I realized only upon catching sight of someone for whom L.A. cool was an unavoidable fact of every day life.

It was many years later when I realized that Mod Mark, the guy I saw strolled across The Alameda that day in his Flojos sandals and flowered shorts, had become one of my favorite peole in the world. And I'm sure I'm not alone. Certainly, he is one of the quirkiest people presently walking the planet, and definitely one of the nicest. The hipness is a bonus, even today, on the evening of his 41st birthday, as effortless and comfortable as ever.

Oh, and he's the best dancer in the world.

I thought him unapproachable at first, some kid dropped out of Bret Easton Ellis' "Less Than Zero," probably bored with our provincialism. I could not have been more wrong, though. In the 20 + years since he cross the street, I've watched Mark evolve, following whatever interesting, sometimes strange path he felt inclined to follow. The mod was revealed to be a rabid Dodgers fan. In the right mood, he would don sunglasses and sing along to Van Halen. His mother once sent him a sportcoat in the mail. That day, at lunch, he looked around quizzically, his eyes huge, as usual, and said, innocently, "Should I sport it?"

Mod Mark was known for disappearing. "I'm going to find the bathroom," he'd say, reappearing two hours later with stories of the bar down the street. He was someone, I thought, that life happened to.

Everyone has their favorite Mod Mark story -- Mark locked in his own bedroom closet for an hour, pounding and pounding while someone else's stereo blared away; Mark and his family fleeing the revolution in Nicaragua; riding his Vespa from San Francisco to L.A.; buying a Volkswagen Cabriolet in 1987, then holding onto it for 20 years, the last 15 with someone's tag spray-painted across the hood. Mark tumbling down a flight of stairs in his apartment during the Loma Prieta quake of 1989.

We were roommates, briefly, in 1991, before I married Sandra Bullock. We lived in a flophouse in North Beach. You'd turn on a light and the cockroaches wouldn't scurry. Instead, they'd look up and say, "Would you mind turning that off?" One night, fed up with the bugs, Mod Mark took action. He grabbed the nearest can of bug spray and let fly. Unfortunately, it was not Raid, but a fogger. Everything in the bathroom was destroyed. He emerged, red-eyed, coughing, and went straight to bed. I left for two hours, to buy a new toothbrush. The next morning I woke up late and called S. Bullock. "Uh, Mark's still not awake," I said. "I hope he's okay."

And then he was gone, moved to Boston to follow the Paul Tsongas for President campaign in 1992. Out of nowhere, Mod Marky had turned political, leaving San Francisco, his chosen favorite city, and his friends, behind. We saw him infrequently, sometimes in L.A., where he seemed to be completely without a care, taking us to some weird breakfast place where ex-cons work as cooks.

In 1999, Mark got married. During a hurricane. Five years later, his bride suddenly announced that she was leaving him, and shame on her for that. Mark responded by joining the Army Reserves at age 40 (the secret accounting rangers? I wondered), and shipped out for basic training.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the friends I think about but don't contact nearly often enough. Mod Mark, who once took the train from Boston and arrived for an overnight at our mutual friend Indie Movie Guy's hip SOHO pad armed only with his Palm and a laptop, is at the top of that list of friends. I am better for having known him. And hipper, of course.

I hope this is your year, buddy. We're all pulling for you.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Trouble Comes to Your House

In our neighborhood, trouble rolls downhill. It starts in Diamond Heights, where the Diamond View projects sit, disguised as casual redwood condos, eventually disrupting the hippies, old-timers and yuppies in Glen Park. Sometimes it thunders down the hill as quickly as a tricked-out Escalade slowing to 40 for the stop sign before disappearing in a cloud of hip-hop down the hill.

Other times it slinks downhill, checking the door handles of each car parked on our block in the early morning. Last night, our car was one of the unfortunate ones left unlocked, and trouble, wasting no time before seizing an opportunity, rifled through our glove box, console, front and back seats and sun visors, looking for some loose change or, even better, bills.

This time, trouble found nothing. See, trouble's mistake was assuming that any car parked down the hill belonged to someone in the habit of leaving cash lying around -- or in the habit of having cash to fling casually about their auto at night. Angered, trouble stomped on our floormats, leaving very clear overlapping Timberland boot prints. "I'll show them," thought trouble, disgustedly, as he tore through the glove box, leaving repair bills, maps, my business cards all over the passenger's seat in a disturbing pile of violation. His message was clear: trouble has been here, and he wasn't pleased with what he found.

This is the second time in a month that trouble has visited our Acura. You'd think he'd figure out that we don't leave money in our cars. He didn't take our CDs, which is as likely a comment on my obscure yet somehow pedestrian musical tastes as anything else. Fortunately, he did steal Sandra Bullock's aged sunglasses, finally accomplishing what I could not -- forcing her to recognize that managing to not lose sunglasses for 6 years may not be enough reason to not buy new ones.

The fact that trouble did his work from the driver's seat bothers me. Was he trying to steal our car? And the fact that we have now left our car unlocked twice, only to have trouble visit each time, worries me further. It suggests that trouble comes down our street each and every night, trying the doors of each car. Our neighborhood, so "hot" in the real estate sense, is the kind of place where small-time thugs take a little time every night to see how many cars they can break into. Not to mention that it's also the kind of place where people get shot for no reason. Of course, that happened higher up the hill.

A couple of weeks ago, I was going somewhere when I noticed four police cars blocking off the end of our street. Someon's alarm had gone off, so the cops arrived. It was a false alarm, but the cops here hanging around anyway, just to see, I guess, if trouble would show up from his perch on top of the hill. "Yeah, we've increased our presence in the neighborhood," one of the cops said when I asked.

Which is good, or bad. It depends on what you expect of your neighborhood. "I guess we'd better remember to lock our cars," said the always-chipper S. Bullock when I told her of this morning's incident. Oddly enough, she is the one unfazed by the realities of city living, not me, despite my often-repeated soliloquies praising city living.

I always thought that cities, at their best, were basically a bunch of small towns stuck together. Your neighborhood was your small town -- the grocery guy knew you, the mailman, the bartender, the pet store workers, etc. Only with cities, you also got culture and access to big-time restaurants and stores.

Sometimes, though, they remind me that they're not small towns. Either that or I'm getting old.

I must be getting old, I swear.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Only Living Boy in SF

I am determined. I am not going to sit at home and watch another movie. Thursday's screening of "Assault on Precinct 13" was adequate, but back-to-back, with one night being Friday, is unacceptable. So I scheme. I sit at my part-time job and wonder: who can I call? Is there anyone left in my life that I can call up for a spontaneous evening?


But I remain determined. I live in San Francisco. To step out of your home on a Friday night is to breathe deeply the sweet smell of possibilities. Endless possibilities. What can happen tonight? I remember running up Haight Street at 4 a.m. one morning in 1987, breathing in that smell. What is it? A combination of restaurants piled on top of each other, ocean air and the slow decay of wood framed Victorians. Tonight, I will do something.

I will begin with culture. I will go to see Beth Lisick, a woman I find hilarious, read at Booksmith on Haight. And to show how urban I am, I will take public transportation. Following this, I will draw on my sporting side. I will catch a rare Friday night San Francisco Pro City League basketball game at Kezar Pavilion. Though I am 41 years old, and bald, I will mix freely with the hipsters and homeless of Haight Street, and then with the hoopsters and bling-draped neighborhood heros of Kezar. When I return home, I will be duly impressed with my ambition and taste. Well rounded will I be, so cool that my peers' envy will be subtle and nagging. They will know they've missed out on something, but they won't be able to put their finger on what exactly it was.

And all of this does happen -- except the envy part. That was a pipe dream. Beth Lisick is hilarious and inspiring. She passes out cookies. After she reads, I shed myself of all intellectual pretensions and watch struggling pro basketball players, home for the summer from exotic leagues in Portugal, New Zealand and the Philippines, run and gun. At every time out, a mob of kids dashes onto the court to slip in as many jumpers as possible before the buzzer sounds to end the time out.

But I only last a half. Sure, this night looks great on paper, and being the kind of guy who will go out and do stuff when his wife and child are fishing for sharks in Washington State is something I am proud of. I kept getting flashes that this was going to be a memorable night, the kind where San Francisco looks like a place people actually come from, not just a way station for loud young activists and their moneyed, equally young antagonists.

It's about the wind, and the weird light that comes from fog and streetlights, filtered through the trees, and the old houses, the guy shouting out of the window of his apartment to his friend down on the street. It's in the air -- something great is going to happen tonight. Anything can happen. For the other people on the street, but not for the 41-year-old guy heading home to watch another movie.

I stand at the corner of Cole and Carl, remembering that I spent my first night in the city in the apartment building behind me, not sleeping because I was totally jacked up on the idea of living in a city. Now there's a wine bar on the ground floor, and it's completely packed. There's a cool-looking Japanese place across the street, so I mentally note it in the vain hope that the next time we have a babysitter, I'll remember to suggest this place, instead of Luna Park, where we usually end up every time we have a babysitter.

I look in the windows of the wine bar, actually look in like a kid with his nose pressed against the window. I am the loneliest person in San Francisco.

But it's not that bad. Sometimes lonely is okay. When we were in our early 20s, my more dramatic friends and I used to talk about "really pulling down a good melancholy." Sometimes, the situation just demands that you pretend you're a character in a Tom Waits song.

A half-hour later, the night fading toward 10 pm as I stood eating a Milky Way, waiting for a Muni connection in the Castro, my phone rang. It was the Jawa, on his way back to the hotel after a day spent fishing on Camano Island.

"Dad, you're not going to believe this, but something great happened to me today."

"Oh, yeah?"

"I caught...a shark!"

Now you can be in the middle of yanking down a blue-ribbon melancholy, but if your kid calls you and, completely without warning, tells you he caught a shark (a two foot long sand shark, actually), it's very difficult to keep your grip on your blues. You go from Tom Waits to Steve Martin in "Parenthood" almost instantly. A shark. Seriously.

"And you're not going to like this, but there are 20 crabs in our trunk."

Absurd. I wish I was surrounded by people I knew, instead of the bored attractive young woman to my left, the drunk gay couple to my right and the guy cranking Rage Against the Machine from his Mercedes SUV.

It's an okay night. I'm home by 10:30, in front of the TV watching "The Grudge," eating tortilla chips. Organic ones, okay? Each day that they've been gone, I've stayed up a little bit later. On this night I hit the rack at 1:30. I wake up Saturday morning at 10, hang around the house for a few hours, then walk the length of Mission Street to buy a wireless router at Best Buy. This post comes to your courtesy of linksys. Like Pinocchio, there are no strings.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Ignoring the Fourth

There are holidays that offer up unexpected, refreshing surprises; then there are holidays that serve up only pressure and elevated expectations. Take, for example, the 4th of July. Second only to New Year's, the 4th is a potential nightmare of applied pressure. The question, "So what did you do for the 4th?" if you did not do anything, or anything short of wonderful, for the 4th, loses its innocence in a hurry.

In my adult life I've had two really memorable 4ths, occuring in 1989 and 1990, in Seattle, Washington, among friends I no longer see and women I no longer know. As a child I had several great 4ths. In fact, the 4th was the highlight of the summer social season for our small neighborhood in Clarks Green, Pennsylvania. That stopped abruptly and totally in 1976, when we moved West. That our first disappointing 4th in California was also the Bicentennial only served to frame the start contrast between the 4ths we had and the ones to come.

This year, I decided to ignore the 4th completely, to use the occasion of our nation's freedom to declare my own independance from the holiday that hung like an albatross around my neck for so many years. My family was 1000 miles away, my friends were in the rearview, and I was alone, driving half the length of California, from the Orange County of my past to the San Francisco of my present.

The 4th of July is a good day to drive. I began late, around 11, about the time the first burgers were slapped onto so many grills. I drove with the windows open and the music blaring, avoiding the intense heat of the Central Valley (I'd had enough heat, thank you) for the cool breezes of the coast.

In Ventura, I stopped to buy a sandwich, finding not only the nicest Vons checker -- not to mention a moustached guy who offered up his Vons card for me ("Sorry, we can't do that," said the nice checker) -- but also the largest focaccia sandwich in all of California. So large that it did double-time nicely, as both lunch and dinner.

In Carpenteria, as I have sought to, but failed at, in life, I veered from the main road, opening myself up to 40 miles of twisting, sun-dappled backroads. There I found the perfect home for R Hunt and Zeta-Jones, should they ever exceed the high power they now wield. Massive, acred, casual ranches sat behind gates and trees. It was like inland Orange County's big brother. This was Montecito.

By now I was in a backroads groove. I ignored 101 completely, crossing over onto Highway 1, which took me through Lompoc, where huge Hispanic families were setting up barbecues at churches, to Vandenberg Air Force Base, where a small, motley crew of protesters were set up outside the front gates.

I drove on. Next came Guadalupe, a mostly Mexican town near San Luis Obispo. Its main street seemed to offer up ten of the most authentic-looking Mexican restaurants in the country. People lounged around on benches wearing cowboy hats and boots.

In San Luis Obispo, after downing a Foster's Freeze ice cream cone, I returned to 101, where I rode out the rest of my drive in semi-consciousness. I returned to San Francisco at 8:00, just in time to notice a complete lack of July 4 festivities, which was no surprise. I thought about trying to catch some fireworks, but once you've seen them at a Mardi Gras celebration in some weird Australian town you've hitchhiked to, really, what's the point? And besides, with Peter O'Toole and Princess Grace gone, we've lost our July 4 home base.

So I stayed home and watched a very interesting show on PBS about Japanese high school baseball players. Quite San Francisco of me, I think. Then i went to bed and listened to the intermittent explosions all night. They could have been July 4 revelers or just the new gang in town, the Diamond Heights Boys, flexing their muscles. I'm not sure.

In the end, I remembered that July 4 is appropriately the birthday of my New York-based friend the Indie film guy, so I thought of him as I drifted off to sleep, very pleased to have neither eaten nor drunken excessively on this the most excessive of American holidays. Next year I'll celebrate.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Life Among the Ghosts

We come to you from the road, reminiscent of my first blog, written what today seems like about five hundred years ago. This week, with S Bullock and the Jawa bumping around in Washington State, I took a look around our now-empty, lonely home and thought, "Maybe I can't go to Seattle for ten days, but I can sure go down to OC for the weekend." And here I am.

To be honest, I wish I'd checked in with my rapidly aging body first. My lifestyle over the past three days has accelerated the aging process by at least 300%, I am sure. The combination of:

a) extreme heat
b) sleeping on an air matress
c) eating each and every meal at a restaurant
d) consuming my body weight in mind-altering beverages

... has left me feeling a bit run-down.

This sense of premature aging was made very clear last night, as Roger Hunt, Katherine Zeta-Jones and I attended a party held by one of ZJ's former roommates. Young, hot babes mingled freely with moneyed old guys as I stood by the keg, trying to keep straight the highly fictionalized capsule explanation of my occupation I'd made up earlier in the day.

"Go with real estate," offered Zeta-Jones. "Practically everyone there is in real estate."

"No," said Hunt, "stick with 'writer.' That makes you interesting."

In the end, presented with the challenge of maintaining eye contact with a woman blessed with an abundance of God's good will and not at all shy about displaying His favor, I went with the former. It seemed more appropriate. Unfortunately, I later switched to "writer" while drunkenly playing yenta for a young recent Michigan MBA and an outrageously blonde single mom. In the end, my credibility was at zero, which is right where it was when we arrived.

Here in OC, we live a life of casual affluence. Roger Hunt is a lawyer, but he is also the son of a contractor, so his two masters fight a constant battle in his mind and conscience. He is renovating a house next door to his parents, which means that, while most parts of my youth are gone, I can still go swimming in my best friends' parents' pool. Only now, unlike 27 years ago, they serve us margaritas.

Hunt's life path has taken several twists, making it almost unrecognizable from my perch as under-employed dad and husband. Divorced, an equity partner at his law firm, Hunt landed on his feet with the 20-something Zeta-Jones. And though he now wears Tommy Bahama, drives Darth Vader's Mercedes and often speaks with authority, I can still clearly recognize him as the angry, mailbox-bashing bassist of our circa 1985 punk band, the Stupid Americans, able to spend hours deconstructing the great music and disappointingly unsophisticated political slogans of the Dead Kennedys.

What I don't understand, however, is his fascination with the World Cup. I trudged along faithfully at 6:30 am, but I am here to tell you that Saturday mornings are for sleeping, not for slugging down Guiness after Guiness and shouting "dirty wanker!" at Portugal's national team.

Also present this weekend is the pint-sized, neatly groomed, always hilarious Uncle Sam, his bubbly wife and adorable 1 year old. I am the fifth wheel, while Bullock and Jawa traverse the Great Northwest.

Meanwhile, I age. Most of my childhood haunts have been bulldozed, replaced with identical houses or shiny new Walgreen's -- which is convenient, because the more Walgreen's, the easier it is for me to get my blood pressure medication re-filled.

In some ways, and especially when you live your life as if everything has happened, is happening and will happen at a single point in time, going home makes you feel younger, as if you could knock on the door of your old girlfriend's house and have her appear, frozen in time, at the door. But mostly, going home consists of driving down a familiar street, expecting it to be the same, but finding it populated by different buildings and different people. When I get to the corner of Chapman and Crawford Canyon, I turn right, toward Roger Hunt's house, instead of left, toward my parents'.

My parents, after all, live in Arizona.