Wednesday, April 25, 2007

A Learning Experience

Today I went on a field trip with the fourth grade, and I learned many things. Not only that Mission Dolores (or Mission of the Lady of Sorrows) is the oldest continually operational building in San Francisco, though I did learn that. Or that Mary, mother of Jesus, is the lady of sorrows. Seven of them, to be precise, all having to do with her son. She was, after all, a Jewish mother.

I was reminded of how cool Catholic iconography is, when we sat in the 1,400 seat Basillica, next door to the actual Mission. And that, when the chips are down, I think old cemetaries are pretty cool. So cool, in fact, that I have to refer to them as "boneyards."

But that was not all.

I learned that today's schoolbuses have seatbelts, and that you cannot pull away from school until everyone has their seatbelt fastened. They also have much taller seats, making it much more difficult to harass the kid sitting in front of you. Overall, they seem much nicer than they were when I was a kid, or even when I was teaching high school.

My Jawa is still young enough to get excited when he sees me at school, which is nice.

The learning began almost immediately, and came directly on the heels of my first educational moment of the day. We drove a 6th grader to school this morning, as a favor to someone who plays basketball with Sandra Bullock. Halfway through the ride, I heard faint rap music coming from somewhere. 6th graders, I quickly learned, sometimes listen to their iPods on the way to school.

But that was just the beginning. After almost five years of dealing with this class of kids as their basketball coach or the Jawa's dad, I got to take my annual survey of where they are, socially. I found out who are the nice girls and who are the mean girls, and which girls will go quickly to the mini-tantrum when things don't go their way. And I learned that there are girls who are perfectly nice, but are ignored by the nice girls and ostracized by the mean girls, so they have to sit alone on the steps and make it look like everything is okay.

I learned that there are mean girls pretending to be nice girls.

I learned that when the Shaman goes fetal, the best thing to do is "give him some space."

I learned that all of the crazy boys seem to have had no trouble finding each other. Even crazy boys new to the school have quickly found their peers. And that something as simple as a found pair of eyeglasses can cause hours of entertainment and trouble. And that though there are perhaps a half-dozen crazy boys, one is head and shoulders above the rest when it comes to being clever and funny. And being sweaty, then shoving his hair up to maximum height.

And that some boys that I had no idea were crazy are. So crazy that they will take leave of their adult-friendly persona to eat a lemon cough drop that they've found lying on the sidewalk, and then later eat a blade of grass, before returning to their more controlled, sports-obsessed modus operandi.

I learned that there are some boys whose parents should know who they've been hanging out with, because it's not a good idea for them to hang out with these people. And that plenty of my parental peers have no idea (or refuse to acknowledge) how their kids behave when they're not around. And that kids think they know when there're no adults around, so they can practice swearing and talking about killing stuff.

I learned that my child's teacher, like me, prefers wearing a worn baseball cap to not wearing one. And that he is not afraid to go down the slide when encouraged by his class. And that his teaching assistant, though Jewish, did actually go to Mass while at Santa Clara, my alma mater, but only on Saturday night, "before partying."

I found that the other teaching assistant was a very interesting guy, who carries a sports bag that indicates he played some sport at Stanford, which, in my world, is very impressive.

I learned that the Jawa's ex-girlfriend is trying to mend fences, even if that means skipping the mass "capture the flag" game going on in favor of joining him on the jungle gym. I also learned that one of our (S. Bullock and I) favorite girl basketball players plans to become a lawyer, which comes as absolutely no surprise to either of us. And that one of the stars of our basketball team "doesn't like playgrounds."

I learned that all of the "kindness committee" training in the world will not teach your child to clean up after him or herself. Nor will including non-disposable Tupperware in their lunches. Some kids more than others.

There is a boy in 4th grade whom, I predict, will eventually carry the "Animal House"-inspired nickname "Bluto." But he will surprise everyone by being incredibly well-read. And eventually, he, too, will have his heart broken by one of the mean girls. Or the wannabe mean girls. It makes little difference.

I learned that the other 4th grade teacher really likes to emphasize the second syllable of "cafe," suggesting that she spent a semester in Europe during college.

I found that, not surprisingly but still a little unsettlingly, 4th graders from a Jewish Day School know absolutely nothing about Catholicism, Christianity, Saints or Jesus Christ himself. Most of them were upset by the Crucifix. "Why's he up there?" more than one of them asked. Our docent, Al Lopez (not THAT Al Lopez, baseball fans), was very patient, and seemed to be doctoring his presentation. He reminded us several times that Jesus was a Jew, that The Last Supper was a Seder. As our Indie Rock-looking teacher left the Basillica (inexplicably, he had jury duty), he whispered to me, "If he starts giving them communion, get them out of here." Fortunately, it never came to that.

I learned that most kids love dogs, but as much as they love dogs, they hate it when the dogs' owners lay down a blanket in the park and start making out. This will send them running in terror, shouting, "THEY'RE MAKING OUT! GROSSSSS!" If you respond by saying, "What's gross? Are they hippies?" They will give you a blank look, is if you've just spoken to them in Latin.

Everyone should go on a field trip. Even people who are neither parents nor teachers. It's good for the soul, and even better for those who want to know what goes on when their backs are turned.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Change of Command: Dad Misses Out

My dad wasn't able to get from his part of the desert to the Rocket Scientist's part of the desert last Friday, so he missed the impressive ceremony marking the Rocket Scientist's ascension to Commander (Commanding Officer?) of the 452nd Global Hawk squadron. I am positive I have the name wrong, but it is something equally impressive, even through my San Francisco-tinged eyes.

The Global Hawk is an unmanned supersonic airplane, one of the strangest-looking vehicles I've ever seen. There was one parked near the stage at the ceremony. Halfway through the event, a guy with very good posture stood next to the Global Hawk while Colonel Cook, commander of stuff much larger than the 452nd, explained how the plane carries the name of the commanding officer of the squadron. With less flourish than I would have expected from a civilian ceremony, the guy with good posture removed a tarp from the plane, revealing the name of the Rocket Scientist. It was pretty cool.

It's very unfortunate that my dad was not at the ceremony, Noodles' Mom and I both agreed. For years I thought that the Rocket Scientist was the son my dad never had. It was only recently that I realized that the Rocket Scientist is living the dream my dad never got. It was only recently also that I learned that at age 18 my dad was accepted to West Point. My grandmother let it slip one day while we were visiting. I knew he'd been in the army, and I knew he revered West Point, to the degree that he somehow convinced the 3-year-old me that I wanted to grow up to become a West Point cement truck driver, but didn't know that he'd almost gone there.

He washed out before he ever got a chance, though. His failing left eye did the trick. What has been a light-hearted family reference for years ("It's blue, just like my eye!") gained a little traction as a vehicle for tragedy with this knowledge. Poor Dad.

This is a long and perhaps too revealing way of saying that he would really have enjoyed the "Change of Command" ceremony we attended last Friday. He would have enjoyed the pomp and ceremony, how we were all ferried into a back room prior to the event, where we met Colonel Cook (who seemed unable to get a grasp on the concept that some women work and support their families. "Uh...I'm a writer, Colonel Cook." Right. I support a family in San Francisco as a writer. The kind of writer who earns $10,000 a year. That woman over there next to my child has something to do with our survival, Colonel Cook. Whatever.). We were happy to be back there -- my family, my sister's family, her in-laws and the Rocket Scientist's very outdoorsy brother, his wife and their very tiny infant son who had a Jewish first name despite the family's so-very-obviously-not-Jewish background.

Dad would have enjoyed that the whole thing took place in a hangar, which had been cooled to 46 degrees F. He would have liked the guy in fatigues who, as we passed on our way in, saluted the Rocket Scientist and said, "Congratulations, Sir. Will we be performing the stomping tonight?"

The "stomping," I later learned, involves a group of military guys who come to your house, climb into the roof, and stomp around until you invite them in for alcoholic beverages. This sort of thing happens all the time at Brandeis, of course. It's rare to have a Friday where a bunch of guys don't come over, climb onto our roof, and stomp around in their Merrill slip-ons until we invite them for a glass of Pinot Noir.

And Dad would have liked shaking hands with Colonel Cook, and the Rocket Scientist's predecessor, whose name I don't remember. What I do remember is that his "call sign (nickname)" was "Squish," and that he had eight -- count 'em, eight -- kids, mostly boys with lots of freckles and a strange hairstyle that involved gelling each individual bang down over their foreheads. Eight kids!

Soon it was time for the ceremony to begin. We were escorted out to the hangar, which was already full of about 150 people, mostly guys wearing olive drab flight suits with patches that said "Test Pilot School Graduate," plus lots of "honored guests" and one absolute pansy from San Francisco who gets nauseous on roller coasters.

The stage was at the front of the hangar. As we sat, Colonel Cook, "Squish" and the Rocket Scientist -- whose "call sign," to my great joy, is actually "Rocket," which is actually short for "Rocket Scientist," because he is an honest-to-God Rocket Scientist -- walked somberly onto the stage. There was one guy who acted as the emcee, plus a nervous-looking guy whose entire job was to hold up the squadron flag for the entire ceremony.

Since I was not privy to the inside gossip (I learned it all later), all I saw was a very disciplined, moving ceremony, involving lots of tradition. The color guard moved slowly to the stage for the national anthem, holding the Jawa's attention the whole time. "Look at how they walk," I told him, pointing out their precise heel-toe action. Colonel Cook thanked the distinguished guests by name, including not only some general, but, among others, my sister, her in-laws, Sandra Bullock, the Jawa, and eight kids with strange-looking individually gelled bangs.

Colonel Cook sung the praises of "Squish," he of the eight kids and prominent eyebrows. Looking a bit like Richard Benjamin, "Squish" ate it up respectfully, then came forward to offer his own quite comprehensive remarks, which included a ceremony of his own invention involving each and every one of his kids, plus a bag full of unusual coins. As he spoke, I scanned his bio in the program. "Squish," it seems, accepted Jesus Christ as his personal savior in 1973, when he was 8 years old.

After "Squish" spoke, Colonel Cook, the Rocket Scientist, and "Squish," all joined together on the dias to complete the actual change of command. The nervous-looking guy joined them with the flag, which they then played some kind of hand-over-hand thing on. I guess at the end the Rocket Scientist's hand must have ended up on top, signaling that he was now in charge of the squadron. "Squish" and his eight kids would now move onto another squadron, but not until "Squish" received an almost comically huge medal, presumably for a job well done.

Then it was goodbye, "Squish," hello Rocket Scientist.

I was not expecting much from the Rocket Scientist's "remarks." Known more for precision knowledge of unusual things -- for example, Colonel Cook introduced him as "probably the nation's pre-eminent expert on unmanned flight," which makes me wonder why my sister is so worried that he will not be able to get a job once he retires from the military -- than for his social abilities, the Rocket Scientist would have been excused if his remarks were as dry as we were freezing in that hangar. But no! In a shocking turn of events, the Rocket Scientist delivered an entertaining, breezy yet very weighty speech, promising, among other things, to "take the squadron to the next (very specific but forgotten by me) step," and to buy my sister another Kate Spade bag. "Squish" may be competent but lets face it; the Rocket Scientist is a stud.

I stand by that, even with the memory of my Jawa melting down in exhaustion the next day at the California Poppy Festival while the Rocket Scientist and his dad methodically browsed the Arts & Crafts booths fresh in my mind.

The ceremony closed with plenty of hoo-hahing, and then a very surreal moment where Colonel Cook, Squish and the Rocket Scientist led the crowd in a round of "Off We Go Into the Wild Blue Yonder" from the stage.

But it would have been cool if my dad could have been there, if only because he would have been the sole attendee not complaining about the icy temperature there in the hangar, even though he would have been wearing a short-sleeved shirt while the rest of us huddled in sweaters.

I know that the reality of this day was not as clear as this ceremony would make it, and that the military isn't always the most empathetic employer. And I know that as a good San Franciscan, I should have been muttering under my breath about the "military-industrial complex." So shoot me. I'm not a good San Francisco. Not by a long shot. In fact, I kind of enjoyed the opportunity to block out all of the white noise for a morning, be proud of my brother-in-law, and dig the traditions if his chosen profession.

Dad, you shoulda been there.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

My Bad Performance

I keep a mental list of people I'd like to run into. It's been in my head for at least 20 years, since Eric Friedman left for summer after Junior year and never came back.

Surprisingly, I've actually seen many of the people on my list. You can't plan to see them. It just happens. And when you see them, if you're me, you have to make a split-second decision: should I say something? Weirdly, my initial thought is always -- not sometimes, always -- "There's (insert name). I won't say anything. It'll be weird."

Dave K. was one of those people. He materialized via email and for that I am thankful, having now met his delightful wife and exposed him to my jawa and Sandra Bullock. All of those questions I had about his life in the years 1983-2006 have been answered, and it's weird. It's not like I stopped thinking about the guy, referring to him or mentioning him to people. Time just passes.

The last time I saw someone on my list was a couple of years ago. I was at the Claremont Hotel to meet my ex-Mormon New Yorker friend who was in town, and I saw the Original Kathleen, aka Cody, entering an elevator with her husband. Time may usually drag, but in this situation, it moves very quickly. I had no time to wonder if my screaming out the name of someone who may or may not be the person I thought they were would offend my guest, or if this person getting into the elevator was, in fact, Cody, but, unlike me, I took a chance and yelled out her name.

And it was her.

So the ex-Mormon from out of town had to keep Cody's husband entertained while she and I filled in the blanks for the past 10 years or so. To her great credit, she did so. I think they talked about wine.

The great part was that Cody and I were so happy to see each other, and that we've seen her (and her very jolly husband and their adorable children) several times since.

But it doesn't always work out quite that way.

My friend Dug, the college athlete-turned artist, played a huge role in my early post-college experience. Both of us were from Orange County. We were both into music, and both dropped back into Orange County following graduation without any sort of plan as to what to do next. So we spent much of the next year driving to Los Angeles to see what was up.

After that, Dug moved to San Francisco and I moved to Seattle, but every time I came to San Francisco, Dug would drop whatever he was doing and show me the time of my life, which usually included burritos at 2 a.m., often eaten on some hillside with an incredible view of the city. We were both in the same spot -- trying to avoid joining the mainstream world, with varying success. Honestly, he was better at it than me, even back then.

Through Dug I met Big Jody, who, though it's been almost long enough since we've talked that he may have to join the "man, I hope to run into ..." list, remains one of the most treasured people of my world. I think about the guy every day. Met him and his wife at a Dug party in which Rick the Barbarian, long before he became the soulful folk singer Richard Buckner, threw pickles off the roof of Dug's house while the Pogues played.

Dug was at our wedding, actually wearing a suit.

Somehow, when we moved back to Seattle in 1993, I lost touch with Dug. He moved to Eugene, where we saw him once, and then to Portland, got married, had a kid, but unlike me, stayed focused on his goals, i.e. not ending up trying to pass himself off as a "consultant" or a "content manager," when being no more qualified for either than he would be a "smelter" or a "long haul trucker."

That was that. I am at fault. I was 180 miles away, and in fact went to Portland every October for a volleyball tournament, but did not call. One time, hoping to lift me out of whatever funk I had settled into, the Legendary Dr. Bandeau took me to Portland for a spontaneous trip of alcohol consumption and strip joints. I have a memory of having a heartfelt conversation with a stripper about how guilty I felt, being in Portland and not looking up Dug. She advised me to look him up. Even with that advice, I didn't.

I felt like too much time had passed, that it'd be awkward, and I hate awkward. Guilty, however, is quite palatable, so I just tucked it away, referred to my guilt occasionally, and went on with my life.

Last Friday, I was driving the Jawa home from saxOphone practice, when I saw what was undoubtedly Dug walking down Chenery Street with two other people. Without thinking "is this a good idea?" I slammed on my brakes, causing great alarm in Dug and his friends. Then I rolled down my window and started yelling his name.

He had no idea who it was. The Lefty he last spoke to in 1995 had a full head of hair and did not drive a Volvo. In fact, it was Dug who drove the Volvo, albeit an ancient, boxy one with an Elvis Costello "Get Happy!" bumper sticker.

Eventually, we sorted it out. Then I pulled over and got out of the car, instantly realizing that I must look like the biggest yuppie tool ever to walk the earth. Here is my old friend, still looking like my old friend, his wife and his other friend who lives in my neighborhood -- renting a place above the hardware store -- and who I often see sitting in front of the coffee place on Sundays, playing bluegrass music with a bunch of old guys, dressed exactly as you would imagine: thrift shop sportcoat, jeans and work boots.

And there's me, with my Volvo, my shaved head, my sunglasses and my Banana Republic gear, stupidly babbling about my list of people I'm always hoping to run into.

Dug seemed a little taken aback. He is by nature very laid-back, so he held his ground and seemed happy. He was in town for art reasons, and in fact is a working artist, whatever that means beyond "I don't have a regular job and I still make a living doing what I want."

I felt lame. Silly. Ridiculous. Caught completely off-guard. At least if I'd seen him the day before I would have been unshaven and on foot.

It wasn't like running into Cody or Dave K. I didn't really have the chance to not act like a fool. So we exchanged email addresses, and I'm pretty sure redemption will have to come from me. After all, he didn't volunteer that we should get together while he's down here, and even though his wife said, "Oh, sure, I've heard lots about you," I can't help but think that their post-script was more along the, "Wow, that guy's sure changed," lines than the, "Boy, it was great to see him!" paradigm.

Most of this is my own disgust at having to say, "Uh, I'm a stay-at-home Dad," ...who, rather than using that time to create something and follow through on all of the drunken promises of 15 years ago, instead goes to the gym and has his wife buy him a Volvo. Maybe I should have talked to him about "personal wellness."

Game's not over yet. And the good part is that it has inspired me to not let Big Jody drop to the "it sure would be great to run into him" category.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Ruminations on the Hat

Since I was seven years old, I've worn baseball caps. I wore them when I had so much hair that I had to buy hats a size too large, just to contain my Oscar Gamble-like halo of hair.

One day in 1973, I took my beloved New York Mets hat off twice, for a total of 4 minutes. I noted it, then bragged about it for weeks. It was summer, so I didn't have to remove it for school.

At the time, it was possible to cloak myself entirely in Mets logoed gear. I had the Mets hat, the Mets t-shirt and the Mets jacket. No Mets pants, though Larry Wolk did hand me down a pair of Miami Dolphins cords, which I paired with my Kevin Arnold-style Dolphins letterman jacket.

Since that time, I've experimented with many looks. All of them went just fine with a baseball cap. And each time popular baseball cap style changed, I changed with it.

First, I adopted the mid-70s kid fit: slammed down on your head to contain as much hair as possible, this look always resulted in what my mother called "wings," that is, my pre-puberty Jewish hair was so wavy that it would curl up over my ears, creating huge, magnificent, Dumbo-esque ramps of hair. It didn't really matter that I had constant hat hair. I never took off my hat.

Those, yes, were the days, my friend.

At some point in the late 1970s-early 1980s, when playing baseball became as important as wearing a baseball cap, my style evolved as my hair shrunk. By high school I was wearing my lettuce tight, helmet-like, and perching my hat on top of my head, tilted back to reveal something I would be very proud to reveal today: bangs.

Not too high on my head, however. Not high enough to, as my very athletically gifted but undersized friend Phreb once said, "house a family of midgets under there." Give Phreb a break. It was 1983 and "midget" wasn't yet a slur.

That was a good look. Out on the town, my cardinal and gold El Modena High School lid casually slapped on my head, making me obviously a varsity player even without the accompanying maroon silky jacket with "EL MODENA BASEBALL" sewn on the back, I felt like a part of something, like a real jock.

A few years later, while living in Seattle, I still sported the visible bangs look. It was especially effective during my freshman year of college, when I tried to grow out my bangs like the guy in the gold suit from ABC, only to find that my post-puberty Jewish hair could manage only the approximation of a rooster tail, like the shocking red one adopted by Bud/and or Marsi during the depths of her punk phase.

Senator Chris Winn was the first guy I saw who pulled his baseball cap down onto his head, completely hiding what was, and probably still is, I haven't seen him in years, one of the best heads of hair I've ever seen on a human being. This was fine with Chris. He wore his obvious physical gifts uncomfortably, pleased at the access they allowed him to some of life's finer things, but also concerned that they took away from his grittiness. As a result, he jammed his hat down onto his head, resulting in what his girlfriend commented "looks like a tennis ball."

We did not know that he, like Tim Lynch, who shaved his head in 1981 and looked like an old-time ballplayer in his hat, was actually riding the leading edge. Before long, we'd all have our hats slammed onto our heads.

But first, we would abuse our hats in the worst ways. We would wear them backwards, something I am as guilty of as anyone. My mid-20s were lousy with backwards hats, forcing strangers to accost me on MUNI and sometimes refer to me as "people like you."

And then, suddenly, the backwards hat became a symbol for the worst kind of uncool. The backwards hat lost favor almost as quickly and totally as the "wild shorts" did in the mid-80s. Immediately, struck with a case of selective amnesia that would do a pro-Palestinian activist proud, I joined the loud chorus of backwards hat denouncers.

I had already moved on.

For a time, during the great volleyball obsession of the late 80s and early 90s, we wore much smaller hats. They had the names of clothing companies on them, rather than the names of sports teams. We wore them pushed low, with the brims flipped up, so as not to catch our hands on them while delivering a perfect set at the net. It was this hat style that somehow convinced the coach of the Cambridge, Mass. volleyball team I tried out for in 1989 that I had talent, though I was raw. "I saw that hat and I figured you knew something about volleyball," she said. Or something about posing, I thought.

And then came my favorite hat style, the one that has led to my present-day hat crisis. In the late 90s, when I started teaching high school, I noticed that all of the boys wore baseball caps with perfectly rounded bills. They wore them low and peered out from under the bills as if they were just about to throw a 95 mile per hour fastball just off the inside corner, scaring the crap out of you and sending the message that the inside part of the plate is theirs.

I love that look, and once one of the kids I was coaching at the time showed me how to achieve it (by rolling the bill over your forearm repeatedly), I adopted it as my own look. The low look complemented my new lack of hair perfectly. With the hat down low and what was left of my hair clipped literally to within a quarter inch of its life, the result was that I took on the air of a serious ballplayer, one who shaved his head not because he was going bald but because it flat out looks tough.

And there I have stayed, happier still to find that hats were now being sold with the bill pre-rolled. The kids took it too far, crumpling their bills until the cardboard hidden inside came poking out through the fabric. They showed up with triangular bills, bills that looked as if they'd been rolled across the forearms of Nicole Richie. I kept mine perfectly rounded. And tough.

A few years ago, when hip-hop style replaced sports style as the point of reference baseball cap etiquette, I noticed more and more of what I considered to be horrid mutations in baseball cap style. Now the brim was perfectly flat, and the size tag was left on, along with the price tag. I wear a 7 3/8, sometimes a 7 1/2, and I'm not Minnie Pearl, so I'm not on board with either tag making its presence felt on my hat.

The angle of the hat has changed, too. No longer is the hat jammed securely on your head. It floats, usually askew -- which used to be the tell-tale sign that you were lefthanded, by the way, according to several former coaches of mine -- and the brim tails off somewhere between 30 and 45 degrees of straight on. Frankly, to my middle-aged eyes, it looks ridiculous and anything but sporty and tough.

Make no mistake: these guys wearing their hats at ridiculous angles are far tougher than me. Their hats don't reflect it.

The real problem is that, after 30 years of moving with the trends, I've gotten stuck in late-90s style, unable to move forward or backwards. I know that when I leave the house -- especially after more than a week without a haircut, when I generally don't go outside without a baseball cap -- I am presenting to the world the image of a burned-out fashion has-been. Someone who, if asked, would as likely claim to choose their clothing "because it's comfortable." That's the kind of thinking that leads to sweat pants and fanny packs. And yet, I hang on.

Why? Why does this latest trend in baseball cap style strike me as so wrong? Why is it completely out of the question for me to try it on for size? I've tried every other ridiculous permutation of baseball cap wear, why not this one?

Is this what getting old feels like? I guess so. That and going bald, I guess.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

44 Hours of Sin (City)

"Dad, can I swear?"

So began 44 hours in Sin City with my Jawa. A few thousand yards of Las Vegas Blvd., "The Strip" to tourists and locals alike, drew forth this response. He was staring up at New York, New York, our hotel, when he said it. I denied his request, naturally. What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas, except when your dad is in the front seat.

A word about New York, New York: last year, while attending the wedding of the Legendary Dr. Bandeau, I stopped into New York, New York while waiting for everyone else to arrive. At that time, I found it the goofiest, lamest, cheesiest theme hotel, casino or park on the planet. Something about the dueling pianos playing Billy Joel, or the reproduction of the bar already made into a movie ("Coyote Ugly") raised my legitimate and real urban hackles, so I sat at the least obnoxiously theme-y bar and sneered at the tourists around me.

This time, seeing it through a 9-year-old jawa's eyes, it seemed wonderfully colorful and fun, as true to its theme as Disneyland to Tomorrow, Fantasy, Adventure, Main Street and New Orleans, which is to say, just fine. In fact, I can't think of a better place to stay with a jawa, save for perhaps Mandalay Bay on the strength of its many and varied swimming options.

What do you do in Las Vegas when you are sans wife and cohort, but with jawa? You don't gamble and do very little strolling around, drink in hand. Instead, you spend hours in the arcades. In a strange, under-21 approximation of a bunch of guys at a bachelor party, we quickly dropped our stuff in our room, then zoomed down the elevator ... to get to Gameworks and drop $20 on video games.

Two hours passed as the Jawa strapped himself into interactive "Star Wars" games, "Jurassic Park" games, a skateboarding game and something where the entire machine swung around in circles as he fired at some kind of on-screen bogies. I stood there, hands in pockets, still trying to figure out if I was allowed to have a beer or not.

The problem is that it's very, very strange to walk around Las Vegas minus vices, treating it as if it were an adjacent land conjured by Disney. "Sin City," indeed. Weirdly, but not surprisingly, to be an obvious dad in Vegas is to be completely invisible. Nobody, not the packs of women, the packs of guys, the old guys, the young guys, the sports teams here for Easter tournaments, the guys shilling for strip joints and casinos, nobody acknowledges you, not even the other dads, who are busy re-assessing their masculine power even as you do your own.

As a sidelight, fifteen minutes after parking our car, the Jawa and I had this conversation:

"Dad, what does 'sin city' mean?"


"Because I think Detroit should be 'sin city'."


"Because that's where all the bad things happen. Sins are bad, right?"

After our week in Sun City WEST, we had only 44 hours, and the good fortune of local escorts, in Sin City. The soon-to-be-married Kathaleen, plus her Scottish fiancee Bill, steered us through the crowds and keyed the Jawa into his favorite attraction, the Bellagio water show. "Choreographed by some washed-out Broadway guy, I bet," said Kathaleen, dryly. Fiancee Bill eagerly assumed to role of good-time and knowledgeable uncle, reaching for the Jawa's hand each time they crossed one of Las Vegas' enormous crosswalks. He ground out local facts and anecdotes with a vehemence that suggested that is was he, and not his betrothed, who was an Associated Press reporter. At one point, after speaking accentless English all night, he disappeared from sight, only to reappear standing next to another Scottish guy, a blackjack dealer he knew, now speaking with a thick Scottish accent. Proximity?

The Jawa was quick to catch on to the Vegas vibe. He pushed the envelope all weekend, staying up until 11, waking up at 6:30, nervously eyeing the gaming tables, assessing the wisdom of slot machines ("I don't get it. There's no skill.") and, in what could be a frightening foreshadowing, demanding to head out and hit the arcades Sunday night at 9:30, after returning from dinner in suburban Henderson at Kathaleen & Bill's newish stucco home. He had the bug.

I had the pangs. "People come to Las Vegas for three things," said a wisdom-filled Jawa at one point. "They come here to smoke, to get drunk, and to gamble." Can't argue with that, and I'll readily admit some envy when we emerged from the elevator Sunday morning, hand-in-hand as the perfect father-son tabeleau, only to see a bunch of guys walking around in groups, their only cares being 1) how their money is holding up, and 2) whether they should drink bloody marys, to acknowledge that it is 9:15 on Sunday morning, or to just go straight to beer, which is better for the long run. It's a marathon, not a sprint.

One thing you miss when you're that bunch of guys is just how oversized and gross many Las Vegas tourists are. You spend you time at the sportsbook and you miss all of the tourists from Iowa. And you won't go to the Adventure Dome at Circus Circus, naturally, because Circus Circus is aged and decrepit (as are its visitors, generally), so that $100 you would spend on wristbands (to ride the rides at Adventure Dome) can be spent on food and beverage. And, if you choose, you get to shop, something that ranks very low on a jawa's agenda, just below clubbing and putting a twenty on the Mavs to cover at home against Milwaukee.

By Monday morning, the Jawa was planning his next trip. According to him, we will stay again at New York, New York, this time with Sandra Bullock, and we will stay for a week. Even though Las Vegas is not designed to provide many options for his favorite meal -- breakfast -- and even though that led to a 45-minute death march in search of first Denny's and then a simple donut, his plains remain grandiose.

But isn't the that nature of Las Vegas? You take your normal experience and expand it a few notches? You pay $4.50 for an ice cream cone, instead of $2.50. If you normally enjoy a few beers, you have twelve. A woman who normally wears a scoop neck wears a plunging V-neck instead. We all strive to be a little bit more over-the-top than we are in our normal lives, jawas included.

I've now been to Las Vegas twice only, but both times I had this sense of being swept out of town on my last day. We have been spent, and in our place comes new platoons of revelers, fresh and eager as we are worn-out and tired. As we checked out of New York, New York, I felt the urge to give a knowing, cynical nod to everyone checking in. Even our luggage looked tired, theirs wide-awake.

I write this with a 10.5 hour drive in my rearview. Rather than take two days to drive home, the Jawa and I humped it all the way, covering 600 miles and several ecosystems over the course of Monday. After 10 days in the desert, I can honestly say that I had to struggle to keep myself from pulling the car over and kissing every blade of green grass I saw yesterday. I am enjoying every one of the 63 degrees San Francisco has for us today, and am determined to eat all of the bad food I can manage, for tomorrow we truly return to our normal lives, with all of the checks and balances that normal lives require.

As for the Jawa, he spent 10 hours inventing new games of chance, to be played with something called "chew," with 1 chew equalled to 10 dollars. Vegas, baby.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Desert Spring Break #2: The Drool Pool

We all have our own issues with the desert. For me, it is this feeling of vastness, disconnectedness, and beads of sweat running continuously down my face. For the Jawa, it is drool.

Unlike Shack, the Jawa has never been a big drooler. As an infant, he was a swaddler, even on the hottest of days, but not a drooler. He was noted for his easy-going personality, nice grasp of infant logic, and impeccable memory. For him, drooling is new, and, I am not overstating to add, the worst kind of terrifying.

There is geography involved. Three days in the Mojave desert; no drool. On his first night in the Sonoran; drool.

At first, he had no idea what it was. I put him to bed on the new, loudly purple sheets my mother had bought for the guest room (the ones on my separate air mattress were bright yellow. Hence, when I took his pillow, I had the sense of lying down for a nice rest atop an Easter Egg. How seasonal.). He lay there under the whirling ceiling fan, reading his "Star Wars Jedi Masters" book.



"My bed is all wet."

May I add now that the Jawa has never been a bed-wetter, so that particular situation never entered my mind. Since we live in an old, falling-down house, I immediately thought, "Ah, shoot. The ceiling's leaking," forgetting for a moment that not only are we in the desert, where it doesn't rain in April, but are also in my parents' circa-1986 duplex, which is in excellent condition with a roof that does not leak.

I went into the bedroom to see that next to his shoulder, directly underneath his pillow was a small, pancake-sized wet spot. "Huh," I said, amassing all of the logic and sense of a father, "I have no idea what that is."

"It's bugging me. Can you change my sheets?" I considered it for a second, if only to see what other outrageous color of sheets my mother had purchased. Cooler heads quickly prevailed, even in the desert. I stepped forward and moved his pillow down, covering the spot. Though I was still flummoxed, the problem was solved.

Two minutes later, he called me again. "Dad?"


"Now there's a spot on my pillow."

At this point you've got to wonder about the reliability of both our thought processes. If these mysterious wet spots are not coming from drool, where are they coming from? The roof is not leaking. Juice from the grape-like sheets? A hidden underground spring? Grease from the unshowered Jawa's hair?

None of the above.

"Wait a minute!" I said. "You're drooling!"

An indescribable look came over my Jawa's face. He wasn't angry or frightened so much as utterly disgusted at himself. That a strange liquid would involuntarily come out of his mouth seemed to him the most unpleasant of facts. This Jawa is no neatnick. Unlike his cousin Felix Unger (the artist formerly known as Count Burpalot), he has no problem going several days without showering, spent several months learning how to burp on command and has been known to wear the same clothes for 48 hours straight, provided those 48 hours take place away from home where Sandra Bullock and I are not there to nag him to change his clothes, doing our best to make him feel like a swamp monster for even considering that wearing the same clothes for 48 hours straight is a viable option. And yet, the drool nearly made him ill.

"Yuck," he said quietly.

"It's no big deal," I said, ineffectively. "Just flip over your pillow."

It went on. Each solution was fine for a couple of minutes, then: "Dad!"

If we were at home, it could have gone on all night. Fortunately, my mother stocks a limited number of outrageously-colored linens, so once he'd gone through both sides of his pillow, a couch pillow and a rolled up blanket, he was stuck facing the truth His solution: take the case off of his pillow and hope for the best. In this fashion he made it through the night.

Today, while absorbing the full flavor of Sun City WEST, he occasionall brought up the incident and how strange it seemed. "That was weird," he told me while changing into our swimsuits in the men's lockerroom. "I was drooling." His reputation, it seemed, was in tatters. Fortunately, it was not too much of a stigma for the friendly old guy in there with us. He offered God's blessings for us as we hit the showers.

Which reminds me that today the Jawa also met his first salty old guy. At first, every old guy we met was benignly nice, friendly and definitely willing to answer Jawa questions as they arose. While sitting in the photo lab, though, talking to another harmlessly nice guy, a true salty old guy burst through the door. "So they let you out!" said either my dad or the nice guy working at the lab, I can't remember.

The salty guy zeroed in on the Jawa, peppering him with quips about his age versus the Jawa's age, and then something about how his wife's mother thought he'd never amount to anything. I half expected him to produce a few quarters from the Jawa's ear. As a kid whose old guy world is normally populated by kindly grandparents and aging hippie burnouts, the Jawa responded by trying to remain polite while internally experiencing mild freakout. I say good on you, salty old guy. The world needs you.

Meanwhile, afternoon and most of the evening passed minus any new drool. Then, dozing while my mother and I eagerly Tivo'ed through "American Idol," the Jawa produced a small pool on a black and white striped couch pillow. "Oh no!" he shouted when I woke him up.

"What is it with you? You're a drooling machine!" I said that for two reasons. One, because he has become an actual drooling machine, "drooling machine" defined as a reliable and consistent producer of drool; two, because that's what Sandra Bullock would have said, and we've been apart from her for four days now, so I figured I'd put her back in the room, if only in a small way.

By now the Jawa had had 24 hours to adjust to the idea that he was going to drool every time he fell asleep. Though uneasy with the idea, I think I'd convinced him that it was a weird by-product of our being in the desert, and to expect it to go away once we returned to the normal, humidified world.

That was when he decided that drooling, like burping, might have some comedic value.

I put him to bed, thinking he was barely awake, went out into the family and came back to find him lying with his head in a virtual pool of drool. It was like a crime scene of drool. "No!" I said. "You're drooling even more!" He sat up, doing what I later discovered was a convincing portrayal of someone awakened from a deep sleep. "Oh, man," he said groggily.

We flipped over his pillow, me envisioning another night of pillow musical chairs. He flopped his head onto it and I turned to go.

Something made me turn back, though. There was something about his grogginess that didn't sit right. On Saturday night, on my way into bed at 11, I came into the room we were sharing to find him lying diagonally across the bed, totally wrapped up in the sheet, holding his "Star Wars" book in one hand, seemingly asleep. I was gingerly taking the book from him, feeling very paternal indeed, when he sprung up and shouted, "Almost April Fool's!" then explained his logic. Seeing that it was 11 p.m. on March 31, it was almost April Fool's day, making me eligible to be fooled. Interestingly enough, when he told the story to his cousin the following day, the time of the prank had moved up to 12:01 a.m.

Instead of leaving the room, I turned back and took a glance at the boy on the bed. His perfect little shoulders were squared to the mattress. His legs were curled up, his eyes closed, his ridiculously long eyelashes fanned out above his cheekbones.

And small bubbles of drool were being forced from his mouth onto the pillow.

"You're faking it!" I shouted. He kept the charade going for about one second more, then began laughing, his eyes still closed.

"I wasn't faking it before. This is the first time," he said, unconvincingly. "Dad, can I have another pillow?"

"I'm done with this," I said, waving my hand in what I hoped was dismissive fashion, and walked out of the room, leaving him there with his drool-covered pillow, probably thinking that a wet cheek was a small price to pay for the joy of tricking your father one more time.

As I said, the desert does strange things to people. And Jawas.

Spring Break in the Desert

The first thing you notice is that there is no music. No, the first thing you notice is that what looks from behind like an attractive blonde riding her bike down my parents' street is actually someone's grandma. Then you notice that there is no music. No, then you notice the golf carts which, were they being driven down Powell Street in San Francisco would be heralded as a great commitment to "green" comportment. Here they are old guys on their way to the store, or, as my dad says, "Guys who lost their licenses so they got golf carts. Which is illegal."

Then you notice that there is no music.

Right now I couldn't find myself on a map. The Jawa and I, after three days at Edwards Air Force Base, spent yesterday driving through 400 miles of desert(s) -- first the Mojave (known for its Joshua trees) and then the Sonoran (known for its Saguaro cacti) -- to arrive here in Sun City West, NOT Sun City, my mother explained dryly, but actually one of four Sun Cities presently stocked full of old people of all stripes. We came for Passover, but we will stay for the dry desert air. Isn't that why people come to the desert?

This is Day four of our Spring Break Desert adventure. It culminates next weekend in Las Vegas, and what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas, even if you're nine years old. We are far from our Sandra Bullock and our Shack, earning our desert stripes and allowing the Jawa the sublime experience of GameCube on a 50+ inch plasma screen.

So far, we have spent plenty of time in our car. That much is certain. You don't get from San Francisco to Sun City (West) via Edwards Air Force Base without spending lots of quality time, just you, your Jawa and your Volvo, in what would be lonely interstates if not for the ten billion other people "sharing" the road, many of whom pull enormous trailers full of their belongings and/or intimidating-looking off-road vehicles and Jet skis, and most of whom practice what the Rocket Scientist calls "left lane entitlement."

This is only our second time to Sun City (West), our first spent truly absorbing the retiree experience. This morning, after slogging through the heat to one of the myriad rec centers, we saw the copper room, the photography club's digs, the glass club's "lab," and met many older yet very active people. The poor Jawa, feeling slightly confused and extremely shy and wanting only to go swimming, stood in the background. Everyone wore shorts and there was no music. None. Just the sound of contented seniors going about their hobbies.

As I told my father and mother, give it about 10 years and you'll be hearing music here. All of those baby-boomers will show up, bringing their dinosaur rock with them.

I'm not a huge fan of the desert. I've been obnoxiously vocal about my dislike and frank aversion to Arizona, but I think it might be the desert in general that puts me on edge. Speeding across the Sonora, surrounded by its vastness, I could only feel nostalgia for the Pacific Northwest with its cool, damp weather and it's giant umbrellas of green trees. I like road trips, but to me the interesting thing about them is the towns you go through, not the breathtaking views that used to make my dad break out in "America the Beautiful" every time we went on vacation.

Mostly, though, I just freak out at the idea of "NEXT SERVICES 55 MILES." That's why Edwards AFB makes me edgy. On the way down, I had the foresight to buy two extra packs of gum, knowing that there was no way I'd be able to get any at Edwards AFB.

The scary thing about Edwards is not that the closest cities are the very dangerous and glum Lancaster, Palmdale and Rosemond -- though that fact is considerably scary -- but that once you pass the security gates, you still have to drive through about 10 miles of depressingly empty desert to get to Noodles' Mom's house. It makes me want to hang my head out the window and start howling.

From there, another 400 miles to Sun City (West). This includes Needles, where you can pay $4.09 a gallong for unleaded premium and see remnants of Route 66, once "America's Main Street," but now Needles plus several miles of unkempt road running alongside US 40. The Jawa and I, excited by the Route 66 conjured by the movie "Cars," spent an hour on this unkempt road, doing untold damage to our car and watching the unbroken desert landscape creep by. Occasionally, we'd see a sign boasting MOTEL! standing in the middle of a field, no motel in sight. It was disappointing and very sad. Eventually, after passing the long-since dead down of Acton, we went back to the 40, which was at least honest and up-to-date about its emptiness.

And empty it was. Hours of rocks, tumbleweed, scrub brush and cactus. What if our car broke down? What then? As I've mentioned, I can walk through the Tenderloin at midnight and feel safe as a kitten. Put me in a six-month old car going 90 miles per hour and the NEXT SERVICES 55 miles, and I'm tense as caged lion.

Then, finally, dodging golf carts, we arrived in Sun City (West). This afternoon, we went swimming in one of the complex's several pools. This one was open for children until 4 pm, so the Jawa and I entered the 85 degree water, this time dodging the human manifestation of the golf carts -- an army of seniors, doing their daily "pool walk." The pool, in fact, was set aside for walking. "No Swimming! Walking Only!" warned a sign on the wall. "No Jumping From Pool Deck!" said another.

Imagine. You've worked your whole life for this payoff. Now your have sunk your life's savings into a sparkling new duplex, are overwhelmed by the number of clubs and activities available to you. You look forward to your afternoon pool walk, and what do you find? A score of Spring Break-loosed kids, all hopped up on Grandma's chocolate cake, doing cannonballs off the diving board and imitating dolphins directly in your path.

Who can blame the Sun City West residents, one of whom looked eerily like Vice President Dick Cheny, for shooting killer glares at us as we went about ruining their day? Ask them what is worse than other people's grandchildren? Certainly that would be other people's children, if they join the grandchildren on the diving board, offering tips on how to create the largest splash.

"I can't understand why they'd be like that," said my mother, following a quick 15-minute poolside nap. I can kind of see it. I'm not here to change the world, just to fit within its parameters, so I turned over a new leaf, and then spent most of our remaining pool time urging the Jawa to limit his splashiness, nay, his 9-year-oldness.

On the way back to the house, we played a game. "Robert Duvall, yes," I said. "Clint Eastwood?"

"He's too tough," said Mom.

"Warren Beatty, no. Jack Nicholson, no. Harrison Ford?"

"They still make movies!"

"Yes, but they are all old enough to live in Sun City. I mean, the various cities of Sun City. Clint would be one of the older guys. He's 80."

"They'd live in Sun City Grand."

"Is that where the rich people live?"


"Mick Jagger. He could live here. He's 65."

"Your older sister could live here on her next birthday. They're lowering the age to 45."


There are a multitude of crafts clubs. Everyone is making something, then for sale at the local craft store. They make totem poles, wooden toys, jewelry, sculptures that look like a cowboy on a horse. They take photos (color and black-and-white), make movies, play lots and lots of golf, bowl, and meet other senior singles, if the need arises.

But there is no music. Except, I'd imagine, when the various music clubs meet.