Not Passing

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The fairly nondescript tan sedan was stuck in bad Sunday morning I-95 traffic in northern Virginia, on its way back to New York and the colder climes after a wedding in Williamsburg with college friends from William & Mary, now already three years past graduation.

Her left leg was curled up against the door – perfect as a balancing place for her iPhone, in constant use. Her hair was pulled back into a tight bun, the way she used to wear it when she did gymnastics in high school. Her dress, the one that makes her gym-toned legs look extra tanned, hung from the back door handle.

Other cars could hear the blaring music leaking out the doorjambs, her depression playlist of lost-love power ballads. She looked green, positively nauseous as she went back in her head over the weekend’s events.

It had been fun, one supposed, to party with old friends. Hard to get them all in one place these days. So many have left the east coast for grad school, or Europe, or ridiculously high-paying tech jobs in the Bay Area. But most came.

The food was surprisingly good, the bar serving tasty and refreshing drinks all night, the music fun.

But, God, why had she left and taken a drive with him? He was still the impossibly good-looking asshole she’d remembered from their college days together – the perpetually drunk frat boy from a well-connected family who’d kept putting his hand down her harem-girl costume at the ‘Lawrence of Sigma Nu’ party, showing off for his friends. He wanted to take her to his family’s boat, to the very place she’d fallen for his line of bullshit the first time, half a dozen years ago.

Once they’d finished, he supposed out loud that they ought to get back. He made sure to take her new Manhattan phone number, just to be polite, as if he’d ever call, which, intellectually, she knew he wouldn’t. He’d always had the good manners of the rich boy he was to his core. Minutes after they got back to the reception, he was back in his new BMW and gone without the slightest trace.

The only lasting thing she had was a painfully red rash around her mouth from his too-carefully groomed stubble that she somehow found completely irresistible after two or three too many fruity drinks at that damned open bar.

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These Foolish Things

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My father lived in that little house for something like 50 years. And because he was who he was – a kid born in the 1920s, who came of age during the Great Depression – he threw nothing away. Nothing, that is, on purpose.

A few months back, I had to clean out the house where he and my mom lived. The question isn’t what I found; the question is what I didn’t find.

Old tin toys. Ties. Boxes of paper plates and plastic hi-ball glasses. Pennants. Hats. Tchotchkes from his former workplace. Stacks and stacks of twine-bound Stanford Chaparral magazines from the 1940s.

Here’s the thing you have to know: I was very close to my dad. He was my father but also my pal, my business partner and my mentor. I viewed everything of his – and I mean everything – as an almost-sacred artifact. And what does that lead to, I ask? Madness, plain and simple.

Sure, I knew keeping everything was literally impossible and yet, when push came to shove, throwing away any of my dad’s stuff was pretty damn hard.

The story of cleaning out my parents’ house in numbers:

Full-sized dumpster, 1
Truckloads of donations to the Society of St. Vincent de Paul (SVP), 2
Estate sale, 1
Truckload of stuff that SVP didn’t want/wouldn’t take, 1

 

The Stanford Chaparral humor magazines? Yeah, I got rid of plenty. (Although, I kept one or two.)

Hats? Mostly discolored by use and age, so I dumped. Kept his fishing hat with the inexplicable crossed golf clubs but dumped the crappy 49er hat from the 1970s.

Still, the culling and tossing wasn’t without emotion and even pain. I realized I didn’t have the resources, the space, or even the interest, when it really came down to it, in owning and maintaining a museum dedicated to my dad’s keepsakes. But if I wasn’t going to keep all those tangible reminders of him, how was I going to honor him, or at least keep his memory and maybe carry on his legacy?

About 15 years ago, we had a son. He goes by Giggy, a name he gave himself some years ago, but he’s actually named after my dad. And I guess that will have to do, as far as tributes to my dad’s memory are concerned. It’s the best I can do – certainly better than keeping some unfunny humor magazines merely out of a sense of obligation.

Besides, the kid turns out to be pretty terrific, unlike most of the crap I found in the house.

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Deepest Sorrow

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Okay, well, here goes; I must start this post with a personal confession.

Between 1990 and 1992, I was treated for severe depression with a combination of psycho-therapy and drugs. Although this was over 20 years ago, I do not consider myself ‘cured.’ Depression has turned out to be, more or less, a permanent part of my life. I have, however, learned to manage it without ongoing therapy and drugs but it’s something I have to remain aware of and it does sometimes color my perceptions and experiences. In some people, the anti-depression drug I took also has the cruelly ironic side effect of heightened thoughts of suicide. For many, depression is not just sometimes feeling blue; it’s a serious and chronic condition.

When I heard about Robin Williams today, well, I can scarcely express how badly I felt and maybe also, initially, how frightened.

Several years ago, I ran into Williams at the Polo Fields in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. I was literally running and he poked out of the space between two hedges. He was with his son and carrying some sports gear. He’d obviously been out playing with his kid, just like any dad would do on a nice afternoon. I said hi and he said hi back and, to be honest, there wasn’t much more to the interaction. He wasn’t in the park to get noticed by a fan and I wasn’t about to invade his personal time and space. I may be reading more significance into the memory than really existed but I’d swear he looked at me with a little gratefulness at being allowed the courtesy of just being a dad in that moment and not a world-renowned stand-up comedy and film star.

I am so sorry for his family’s loss. I can’t, and don’t even want to, imagine their grief today, especially the grief of that boy who had a catch with his dad in Golden Gate Park on a brilliantly sunny afternoon 20-something years ago.

If anyone reading this suffers from depression, or is dealing with thoughts of suicide, please talk to someone. Please. Depression is not something to be ashamed of, or to be suffered through in silence. You’re not alone.

Here’s the number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255. 

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Duly Recognized

Giggy on the Mound

An appreciation…

On a perfect day, with puffy clouds drifting in a picture-postcard Carolina-blue sky, across a field of impossibly-green grass, 400 feet away, a bouncing, running, laughing, grab-ass playing group of identically-clad teenaged boys burst from an opening in a center field fence. At this distance, they look more like one solid mass in form and movement, than a group of individual ballplayers.

And yet, it takes me no more than a blink-quick second to pick him out, my son, Giggy. It’s the loping stride, that comes from growing so much in the past year that he can scarcely keep track of his arms and legs, much less direct them to meet his precise will. It’s the constant talking and joking, which he does lots, even off the field. It’s even the turn of the head in that way he does when he’s listening intently to a teammate or coach or friend (certainly not parent) deliver instructions he’ll be expected to follow, or joke he’ll want to repeat.

Then he starts to throw and all doubt is removed. His rubber-band whip resembles no one else in his tribe. Once I see him throw, I scarcely need to see the number on his jersey for confirmation.

That’s Giggy, alright.

It’s All In Your Head

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Years ago, when I was just a kid, I remember television coverage of someone finishing the swim across the English Channel. I remember the swimmer completing her singular feat, then wobbily stepping out of the water, still covered in lard, or whatever open-water swimmers wore in that long-ago era, to insulate themselves. A robe or towel was immediately wrapped around the swimmer’s slumped shoulders by attendants.

As far as I was concerned, it might as well have been someone walking on the moon, which I would, funny enough, watch on television but a few years later. Felt the same way about that, too. I knew in my bones I’d never actually accomplish either. Pretty much accepted I’d never even know anyone personally who would. Both feats seemed just that other-worldly to me, relative to my life expectations and experience.

When I was young, my own and my family’s life expectations for me were pretty, um, realistic. For the most part, my grandparents were dirt-poor immigrants when they came to America. My parents, although born here in the US, grew up during the Great Depression and had pie-in-the-sky life dreams wrung out of them early. Their guidance to me was to keep one’s life plans real.

This was not so much by the issuance of fiats but by the setting of expectations [dialogs below from real life]:

  • Purposeful education at elite academic institutions? “Sure.”
  • Playing in the NFL? “That’s for guys much bigger and better than you.”
  • Becoming an actor? “Wanna starve?”
  • Olympic bobsled trials? “Grow up, already.”

Life, however, is a funny thing. Sometimes it surprises you.

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I still don’t know anyone who’s walked on the moon (although I did just meet the brilliant director of NASA’s amazing Voyager program) but just last month, a pal of mine by the name of Arnie Oji swam the English Channel, together with some mates from San Francisco’s historic Dolphin Club.

Although, without question, an awesome accomplishment, it wasn’t, of course, an out-of-the-blue miracle, any more than playing professional-caliber sports is. Arnie and the other Dolphins had been open-water swimming and training for years in preparation for this Channel crossing.

The difference between my young and ‘realistic’ conception of possible and Arnie’s adult one is all in the mind; we do, as it turns out, make many of our own barriers.

Thanks so much, Arnie, for your recent real-world demonstration of that life principle.

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This One Time

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We got back from a few family-only days at our little cabin in California’s Sierra earlier today. Time at the cabin is slow, quiet, restorative and purposefully unplugged. We don’t have TV, don’t play the radio, don’t read big-city newspapers.

Occasionally, we come home to discover significant things have happened in the world, like today, when I discovered, unhappily, that a friend and former colleague had lost his battle with cancer.

Anthony Turney packed several lives in his time on earth – soldier during the Suez Crisis, organizer of communities during periods of challenge and crisis, supporter of the arts, member of the clergy. He had a deep and affecting voice and he could tell a story like nobody’s business. He was gracious and generous.

When we worked together at San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral, cash-strapped as it was, Anthony found a way to host moving exhibitions of art that quite literally transformed the place, not to mention the people in it. He presided over prayers for California’s prisoners condemned to die and the annual war remembrance service that many of the other cathedral clergy found too schmaltzy for their tastes; as a combat veteran, I think Anthony found remembering wars an absolute necessity in a civil society.

Once, a young man came to the church, distraught and unbalanced. Anthony found some cake and the two sat together for tea and talked. As they parted, the young man promised to come back, then plunged to his death off a nearby roof that very afternoon. His parents expressed sincere gratitude their son had been given the human comfort and hospitality of the church in his final hours. Anthony was understandably upset but, typically, professional.

The last time I saw Anthony, he was walking his dog at the same preserve where I typically walked mine, at Fort Funston, on the bluffs overlooking the mighty Pacific. Anthony was characteristically warm and pleasant, although even then fighting against the cancer that would eventually kill him, happy as always to run into an old friend.

I am the better for having known him and we are the poorer for having lost him.

I hope he rests in the eternal peace he richly deserves.

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A lovely remembrance of Anthony is here.

 

It Takes a Village

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We live in a little-known San Francisco neighborhood called West Portal, so-named because it’s located at the western entrance (or, that’s right, portal) of the public transit tunnel cut under Twin Peaks.

One of the first businesses we patronized when we moved here, some 22 years ago, was Village Grill, a definite step back in time, in a neighborhood that felt like the San Francisco I remember from my youth. It was a place with simple food, good and ample. It was a place where you’d run into friends, friends of parents, off-duty MUNI drivers and mechanics, the local dentist and, every so often, politicians and reporters.

The Village Grill was hospitable to everyone.

On one Sunday morning, when the place was too crowded to get a table or a booth, Erika and I sat at the counter and met a lady, about a decade older than my mom, who told us about her honeymoon at Yosemite in the early 1930s.

The servers became friends, or at least confidants. The cooks were blurs of activity and sweat.

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It was always active, without ever being too noisy to talk. The food was good and basic. It never became cute, trendy, or fashionable. They did, a few years ago, add a full Irish breakfast to the menu, but that was an accommodation to the many Ireland-born tradespeople in the neighborhood, not any foodie pretensions.

Sadly, I have to use the past tense because, as of tomorrow, the Village Grill will be no more. The owners have sold to the owners of the very-foodie Toast, a place that deals in much loftier fare and atmosphere. Neighborhoods, change, it is true, as my neighborhood proves. We’ve long since lost our Payless Shoe Store. But this loss hits me hard.

For me The Village Grill was living proof that my neighborhood wasn’t growing too big (or trendy) for it’s purposefully old-fashioned britches.

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Douchiness, Defined (Humor – NSFW)

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Someone who has surpassed the levels of jerk and asshole, however not yet reached fucker or motherfucker.

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I’ve lately been brought into discussions about douchey men because my beloved daughter is going off to college in a few months and I very much want to prepare her for what she’s liable to encounter.

[As an aside, about a year ago, and quite out of the blue, my daughter asked me why boys her age are so stupid. I told her that, if she's really really lucky, males her age would reach her level of maturity about the time she hits her thirties. She asked if they wouldn't be there in college and I responded that, no, males are at their stupidest and most immature during their college years.]

The first question I’m often asked when discussing the definition of douchiness is, “When describing someone, is it ‘douchiness’ or ‘douchebaggery’?” To my mind douchiness is the quality of being a douche. Douchbaggery is a word to describe the action or actions of a douche.

Clear?

If not, let’s look at some concrete examples of douche characteristics – I often find this helpful.

Car they drive, or aspire to drive: BMW

College they attended, or at least wear the hoodie from: Princeton (see also Princeton mom)

Sport they play, or pretend to know about: Lacrosse (abbreviated ‘LAX’)

City they live in, or are from originally: Dallas, Texas

Tech leader they admire: (tie) Justin Rosenstein and Bryan Goldberg

Drink they order to impress when out at a bar: Artisanal bourbon or pretentiously expensive champagne

Accessory du jour: Warby Parker monocle

Wardrobe they’re habitually seen in, whether event-appropriate or not: shorts, polo shirt, no socks (an aging classic but still reliably indicative)

Favorite passtime: beer pong

Got the picture more clearly now, honey?

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[And before I hear from every guy I know who plays/played lacrosse and doesn't think himself a douche, or mom of a kid who plays lacrosse and isn't (yet) a douche, let me stipulate that not all such people are douches. (Just a large majority.)]

Well, Look At Us

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Every single day in my hometown, and without much incident, close to a million people get out of their beds, bathe, eat something and get themselves to work, or school, or somewhere else they believe to be worth getting to.

Some climb, (granted, with fingers crossed, perhaps), onto our city’s public transit system, called MUNI, or the regional transit system, called BART, or onto AMTRAK, or Caltrain, or into employer-provided buses, or their own cars, or bikes, or even walk; again, mostly without incident, to speak of. Now, MUNI can be insanely crowded, late and filthy. By all rights, there could be riots on the rails every day about some offense or other but there are just not. Mostly, my fellow San Franciscans and I get on, get off and get about our business.

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We go to workplaces and schools and studios and stores to buy food – or maybe eat out with our friends and families on Sunday nights, or special occasions. We’re productive, hardworking people, just like most people in most cities are, trying to do well by ourselves, our families and succeeding generations.

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In my hometown, we residents and our families originally come from places all over the globe – China, Russia, Italy, England, Cameroon, Indonesia, Cambodia, Sudan, Algeria, Lebanon, Japan, Afghanistan, Vietnam and even Greece, like my family did. We’re Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, atheists, Sikhs, Muslims and Druids. And, miracle of miracles, there’s no faith-based violence to speak of – not even much evidenced expression of faith-based hatred, anger or enmity. And this isn’t because there’s no overt expression of religious belief or practice – there are more places of worship in San Francisco than bars (If you know anything about this city, you know that is a significant statistic.) – as some would have you believe.

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And we’re people of all genders and sexual orientations and identities. And – witness any public gathering – widely diverse aesthetics as well.

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This city – any large and diverse city – only works because we collectively agree to accept, appreciate, and even celebrate the diversity in which we live and pretty much let other people get on with their own lives as they themselves see fit.

(Go in peace, my brother.)

The fact that we try, day in and day out, is both extraordinary and startlingly common to all modern cities of any scale.  The fact that it works and has worked here for over 150 years, without widespread insanity and violence, day in and day out, is nothing short of absolutely miraculous.

There’s a lesson in this, for those who care to hear it.

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