Saturday, October 31, 2015

Almost 31 Days

Today marks the end of the October 2015 blog challenge where thousands of us signed on to write a post each day of the month. I hit 26 blog entries, which is pretty good considering I combined to write 24 posts from 2012-2014.

I'd love to say I learned something about myself or life or the nature of writing and the universe. But I did not. Not because I know everything, but more because the nuggets of truth were sparkling there before me for a long time.

I'd hoped that writing each day (or close to every day in the month) would motivate me to turn my focus onto the memoir, It's Not About The Breasts, I want and need to finish about our family's cancer journey. But I am at a point in my life where I sense change is on the horizon and writing may need to take a back seat a little longer.

I feel I am being called to return to teaching and the classroom, which I hope to do by next fall. I am in the process of studying for the three state exams I need to pass in order to earn my credential. So writing, writing, and writing would distract me from my more immediate goal.

The reality is that blogging is, once said a good writing friend, like a one night stand: you get the pleasure with minimal effort. But writing a book, which I have done once, is like having a long-term relationship. You need to invest time and energy and total focus. It's hard but the rewards are great.

Right now, my dream and plan are to teach middle or high school social studies, resuming a passion I stoked for 12 years after I moved to California in 1987, and enabling me some more freedom in my personal life as a single father.

I did learn something, or maybe I was just faced with the stark reality, unrelated to writing this blog. A friend for more than 35 years turned down my Facebook friend request because of my views on Israel. I can easily handle cyber-rejection, but the experience has made me wonder about the often fragile ties that bind or repel us on this complicated orb we call Planet Earth.

I am listening to Dave Davies, of the Kinks, on iTunes as I type this blog post. I saw him with a a friend last night in downtown Napa. His voice is beyond rough and gnarly, but he is a survivor, having outlasted a massive stroke in 2004. He has to use a music stand to prop up the song lyrics, songs he wrote and has performed for more than 40 years. But he perseveres and pumps joy and passion into his music.

The song that is playing? I'm Not Like Everybody Else.


Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Make A Wish

“Where’s my eyelash?” Maya asked last night in her bathroom before bed. “I want to make a wish.”

I was watching her as I clipped my fingernails. She’d already brushed her teeth and was ready for me to continue reading the second installment in the School for Good and Evil series.

“Oh, good, I found it,” she said moments later. “Now I can make a wish. Do you want to know what it is?”

“It won’t come true if you tell me,” I said.

“It’s not going to come true any way,” she said, and then she closed her eyes, held her index finger to her mouth, and blew the half-moon curved lash away.

“What was your wish?” I asked, certain that I already knew.

Earlier in the evening Maya had asked me for a Fitbit for Christmas.

“Can I have a Fitbit?” she asked.

“I don’t know Maya,” I said. “Why do you want one?”

“Because then I can get exercise.”

“But you don’t need a Fitbit to get exercise,” I said. “You can just go outside.”

For the record, I do not own a Fitbit nor have I ever used one. I am guessing some of her friends at school or their parents use one.

“Then I could do 12 laps around the park,” she said as if ownership of Fitbit would magically propel her out the door any more than she already runs around.

“Maya, think of something you want for Christmas that you will actually use,” I said. “I can take you rock climbing or get you special art supplies.”

“But I’ll use the Fitbit, Dad,” she said. “And I know Santa gets us everything we ask for.”

So I expected her to wish for a Fitbit knowing her Jewish father a.k.a. Santa had more or less nixed her request. But her answer startled me.

“I wished for Mommy to come back,” she said.

A wave of sadness hit me. “I wish the same thing, too, Maya. I am sorry you are sad.” Then I quickly corrected myself. “It’s OK that you are sad. I wish Mommy were here too.”

Maya went on to say that she didn’t really want to talk about missing Verna any more last night. The conversation made her more melancholy. So we climbed into her bed and I started reading about two princesses fighting the forces of evil and trying to get back to their happily ever after.

I leave notes in Maya’s lunch every day. Today’s note read: “Maya, I wish I could make all your wishes come true. I love you that much!”

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

World Serious

Rivalries and grudges often take on mythic and irrational proportions. Sports, family, and politics would be three areas where many of us have seen the boundaries of civility and decency stretched by absolute unforgivable behavior.

We understand Red Sox vs. Yankees or Giants vs. Dodgers or insert other professional or college teams where the animosity between either the players or the fans (or both) is palpable. I have a few close friends who are Yankee fans and, frankly, it doesn't matter much to me. One friend, though, never congratulated me in 2004 when the Red Sox finally won another World Series after 86 years of cursed futility.

Politics is another potent area, red vs. blue. We all know people who have un-friended or stopped speaking to someone who disagreed with their tightly held beliefs. I was holding a 'Bush Stole the Presidency' poster at a rally in Fresno in 2001 in anticipation of Bush's presence at a fundraiser, and one man, after he found out I had been a teacher, said to me, "I wouldn't want you teaching my kids."

And there are as many stories of intolerant people on the other side as well. But where does this almost maniacal hostility come from?

I didn't talk to my mother for nearly three years after she'd done something that was inexcusable. I had to defend my family against her personal attacks. We made up and all, and she apologized, but I know families today where communication is done via attorneys or where people simply just don't talk.

Sports is another arena for our internecine rivalries to fester. A few years, two Dodger fans nearly stomped Brian Stow to death outside Dodger stadium after the Dodgers played the Giants. I once witnessed several fights break out at the old Yankee stadium when the Yankees faced the Red Sox on a warm summer night in 1978.

My father and I always say we are happy as long as the Yankees lose. Recently, when the Cubs played the Mets for the National League pennant, he and I spoke on the phone about which team we were rooting for.

"I'm rooting for the Cubs," I said. "I can't forgive the Mets for 1986 (even though the errors and bungles that led to the Mets winning in seven games fell squarely on the shoulders of the Red Sox)." Plus two of Verna's cousins, her first cousin, Jim, and his wife, Jessica, are avid Cubs fans. They live here but have season tickets, and they deserve to feel the sublime joy I felt three times in recent years.

"And I'm rooting for the Mets," my father laughed, "because of Theo Epstein (the former Red Sox general manager who bolted for Chicago) and Jon Lester (the former Red Sox ace whom they courted in free agency but signed with the Cubs)."

Obviously I am only touching on this subject in a very superficial manner. Rivalries on a geopolitical and sociological scale are often deadly. The tribal warfare in the Middle East, Israeli vs. Palestinian, Shiite vs. Sunni, carries crises that seem beyond intractable. And the same goes for gang bloodshed, where wearing even the wrong color could get you killed.

But in our daily lives we often opt for the petty and mean-spirited allegiance to a team, an ideology, a point of view, or something else that in the whole scheme of life should matter very little.

I attended an amazing 20-year reunion  this past Sunday and Monday of the Association of Personal Historians, and one of my former colleagues shared this powerful quote:

"An enemy is someone's story we have not heard."

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Brave New World

I plopped myself down for lunch with a bowl of miso noodle soup across from two of my work associates. Two young-enough-to-almost-be-my-grandchildren associates. One is 19, the other is 22.

“The app’s available now,” the older one said, a male. “Did you get it?

“It’s available now?” asked the younger one, a female.

“Yeah, I just downloaded it yesterday.”

“I don’t have enough memory.”

“What app are you talking about?” I asked.

“It’s the middle finger app,” said the older one.

“A middle finger app? You’re kidding me,” I said.

He handed me his phone, and stacked on the right side were about 10 different middle finger emojis, each a different hand color. It was heartwarming to know that the makers of middle finger emojis created something with diversity in mind.

I wanted to blurt out, “This is what you are talking about, what excites you, a middle finger emoji?”

Instead I felt sad and out of touch. I reared back in time and wondered what product or trend I was into that may have caused my father serious pause or concern. I know he hated rock and roll, which I listened to incessantly, but usually behind closed doors in my bedroom and rarely too loud. We both loved sports, so we had shared interests. We didn’t get the Pong video game on our TV until I was 13 or so, and my brother and I only played it on weekends.

I know he also hated my ripped jeans and longer hair. I don’t think he cared that I collected sports cards, read MAD magazine, played with my footsie toy, fought with G.I. Joe and plastic astronauts in the bathtub, or rode a banana seat bicycle.

I am not saying I once dwelled and flourished in the land of ‘things were better then’, but this screen saturation and invasion where young people have to use emojis and emoticons and Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and whatever else, right away, or their heads will implode or explode, depending on which option presents a better selfie, is getting to me.

Miguel does his homework with his laptop propped against his knees, with a baseball playoff game on TV, his cell phone tucked under him. And when he gets a text or Facebook update he has to respond immediately or he will instantaneously combust.

Call me old-fashioned or just old, but I think some of our youth go overboard with their devotion to anything electronic. Just today Miguel bemoaned the fact that he hasn’t won much when he plays someone else online in FIFA soccer. This was after he criticized golfers for not being athletes. And he’s the incoming captain of the high school golf team! At least it’s outdoors even if it’s, as John Feinstein wrote, “ a good walk spoiled.”

Yes, it’s ironic that my vent, er, blog post is being created on a computer, which allows me to cut, paste, insert graphics, or use spell check, not the manual typewriter of my own youth that  clacked away through high school and college. But, hey, if you don’t like that I am also a tangle of contradictions then I have several ethnic middle finger emojis just for you.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Twilight Among Us

"Slit skirts, Jeanie never wears those slit skirts
I don't ever wear no ripped shirts
Can't pretend that growing older never hurts."

~Peter Townsend

The most wistful part of working at a retirement community is not having known the residents in their primes. By the time people move into Drake Terrace in their 70s, 80s, or 90s, they are often beset with a physical malady or cognitive impairment. We missed them during the best years of their lives.

One resident, a former government administrator, once looked straight at me and said, "Don't ever get old. It's terrible."

He and his wife lived with us until they both needed more care than we could provide. He'd had repeated falls and his wife was suffering from dementia. He could no longer care for himself, let alone his wife.

But as their physical and mental deterioration increased, and there were falls and bruised faces and stroke-like seizures, it was hard to remember they'd once been so young and vibrant. They'd met inside the library at the University of Oregon in Eugene. Maybe she walked by him in the stacks, his head turning as her fragrance wafted by. Maybe she caught sight of him, gazing at his piercing blue eyes, and there was recognition. They'd seen each other in their hometown before WWII. They courted, got married, raised a family, were successful in love and life.

Their stories are ones I see playing out everyday: once healthy individuals whose bodies or minds (or both) are losing the battle of old age. I don't mean to make it out to be all gloom and doom. One man just moved out of his San Francisco home, weeks after his wife died, because he wanted to live in a retirement community. He is almost completely independent. He is also 99.

Another resident, a former minor league baseball player, moved out his North Beach apartment in San Francisco earlier this year where he'd been getting some help from a caregiver. His handshake is still firm and he carries on conversations about current events and sports as if he is much, much younger. He turned 101 last month.

But many residents are like the couple from Oregon such as Bill and Flora. When I first met Bill (not his real name), he introduced himself and said he was "SOB. Sweet Old Bill." Then a grin broke out across his face and he chuckled like a man at peace with himself. He and his wife, Flora (not her real name), even had an arrangement with their nurse and caregivers to give them time alone for a special nap on Saturday afternoons. Bill and Flora, who met just after WWII when Bill was stationed in Europe, are both in their late 80s.

I took Bill today to Macy's to get his watch repaired. Flora insisted on going with us. Both are not allowed to leave the community unassisted. Flora has a diagnosis of dementia. Bill has recently been sending money to a scam lottery back east. His son now controls Bill and Flora's finances.

As we walked into Macy's and glanced around for an elevator, I wondered if the people who designed these stores ever had older relatives. Macy's aisles, awash in every color of the rainbow, stretched across racks of shirts, pants, Christmas pajamas, stonewashed jeans, shoes, slippers, blouses, nightgowns, jewelry, and perfume, are a maze-like nightmare, a sensory overload of sight, sound, and smell.

Even I couldn't figure out where to go, so how would've Bill and Flora navigated the store without help? A frumpy and kind employee guided us to the elevator. We rode it to the second floor and the watch repair counter, past the bathrooms and near the executive offices. Flora plowed along near me, her walker gliding along the floor, while Bill shuffled at a molasses-like pace. Flora and I reached the repair counter by ourselves.

"Where is he?" she asked, a hint of exasperation in her voice.

I looked out at the racks and racks and racks and saw Bill, his head swaying from side to side, searching for someone.

"Bill," I shouted, "over here!" I repeated myself a few times. My voice is loud enough to hear several towns over. But Bill could not match my voice to my location. I started walking closer to him, but another patron intercepted him and turned him towards me. I wondered if I hadn't been there would he have gotten really lost. Flora's dementia would have been of no help in locating him.

I felt sad for Bill and Flora, married for more than 60 years and proud parents to a caring son, a son who now must exercise control over their money and mail in order to protect them, because they are declining--as we all do. Just as my Oregon couple once did before they needed skilled nursing and memory care.

I also worried that watching Bill and Flora and all the residents who struggle with physical and mental decrepitude was a mirror into my future. And who will see me and wonder who and what I was like during the best years of my life.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Mini Meeze

Some people around my neighborhood call me the Mayor because I seem to know and talk to everyone. Hey, I like people. I could probably strike up a reasonable conversation with a lamppost.

Verna, who was very shy especially in larger social situations, often teased me for being too gregarious--and too loud. She often retreated to our bedroom in our first apartment (on 8th Avenue and Lincoln in San Francisco) when I talked to my mother because our conversations were heated at times and Verna needed respite from my booming voice.

But when she, her mother, and I visited Israel in 1992 and found ourselves in a vegetarian restaurant in the south of the country, I was the one who struck up a conversation with the African-American waitress, who belonged to a Chicago-based sect of Hebrews who traced their lineage back to the Bible, lived in Israel now, and also practiced polygamy. As in men with multiple wives.

The restaurant was empty save for us, a group that also included another woman on our tour, Charlene, so the waitress sat with us and answered our questions about what it was like to be wife number three or four. We tried to be respectful but it was hard to fathom how some people seem content to share their spouses in such an extreme way.

"That was fascinating," Charlene blurted as we left the restaurant, and then proceeded to thank me for initiating the conversation. I probably smirked at Verna, but later she admitted she enjoyed the evening immensely.

This blog post is not going to be War and Peace-like in length so I am sticking with the positive, but there have been innumerable times when I have inserted one or both feet in my mouth and said something stupid, foolish, obnoxious, inappropriate, mean, insulting, blah, blah, blah.

Maya is me when it comes to being loquacious. When Tricia, Maya, and I went to see Wynton Marsalis about a month ago, Tricia was amazed (sort of) that Maya could keep up a running stream of conversation throughout the show. Maya was an unfettered version of me that night, not bound up in the normal social conventions of remaining quiet during a performance.

Now, to be clear, she did not disturb anyone and Tricia was exaggerating slightly, but the amount Maya talked was beyond Tricia's normal fare, and Tricia is even more shy than Verna.

Before she died, Verna worried about how Maya would process her death at such a young age so she made me promise to read a book about mothers and daughters and loss. I read it shortly after Verna died, and realized that Maya will ultimately have little trouble adjusting to the horrible reality of life without Verna.


Because Maya articulates how she is feeling all the time. She questions and probes and questions some more and articulates her fears and worries and then questions some more. She is well on the road to being in control of her emotions.

Just like me. I am a rock emotionally and able to share my inner turmoil freely, but being so garrulous is both a blessing and a curse. Sometimes I just don't know when to shut up. Maya can still hide in the mist of being an innocent nine-year old. I have no excuse for over-sharing and inadvertently making people uncomfortable.

But Maya's ability to be calm and a big sister to all the younger kids in the neighborhood and meet strangers in the park and immediately tell them that her mother died is a force to be reckoned with. Most people don't forget the smile stretched across her face and the genuineness of her extroversion.

As a teenager, I waited to the last minute to do anything connected to school. I'd study 75 words for a Spanish test minutes before the exam and get more than 90% correct. One time in Israel I stayed up all night writing a ten-page paper for a class on Middle Eastern history. When I realized I could only finish the rough draft, I handed it in with illustrations. The professor rejected it and gave me two or three days to type it, which I did and earned a solid B.

I took days to bring in the garbage pails, one of the few tasks my parents insisted I do, and I left my bedroom a mess, clothes strewn on the floor and sharing space with dust balls the size of healthy rats.

Miguel is also my mini me. In temperament, quiet and reserved, he is all Verna, but in his approach to life, he is all me. He prefers to play video games, surf the Net, and text friends to homework. My distractions were different in the non-digital age, but the games I played with sports cards and board games alone in my room with dice were the same escapes from my scholastic and domestic responsibilities as Miguel practices right now as I type these words.

Miguel might take hours to throw out his garbage, days to fold his clothes, and days more to return the folded clothes to his bureau NOT THE FLOOR! I have never seen anyone (other than me) delay writing his college entrance essays as much as Miguel. Well, except me.

I also realize that Miguel, I hope, is a mini me when it comes to being caring and trying to do the right thing. Unlike me when I was his age and hated toiling at Cow's Farm, Miguel truly enjoys his job as a server at the retirement community. He is also funny and engaging with residents. He makes jokes and takes jokes. And, often, he gives up his meal at the end of the night if a resident has requested the same.

Maya seizes life by the reins, as I do, and exclaims how glorious things are. She gets excited and enthused, two qualities I display at both the right and wrong times. Miguel is a teenage boy often looking for the short cut, as I did, and content to park his butt for hours in front of a screen. But he is sweet and has an affinity for people of all ages.

It might be trite and glaringly obvious to say that Miguel and Maya are products of both Verna and me in the best and worst senses.

I would've finished this essay sooner, but...

Wednesday, October 21, 2015


I was going to say this blog post is momentarily interrupted because Miguel and I are watching Back to the Future II which takes place on October 21, 2015. But, hey, I can crank out a few words, I think.

Games. Most nights Maya and I play a game before bed. Tonight was Hiss, where players match colors and make snakes from heads to tails. We've also played Step To It, a memory game, even one person Twister, were I spin and Maya lands on the mat. Sometimes we draw and then offer, in theory, positive critiques on each other's art. She is sometimes a little too honest.

I have fond memories of playing board games often with my mother and brother. We played Sorry, Monopoly, and others. We also played lots of card games, Setback, Casino, Rummy. Setback was our favorite, and my mother often shared how when she was younger and playing a childhood friend, Harriet Levine, and losing 17 or 18 to 3, she rallied to win the game by getting first to 21 and bidding recklessly.

The kids and I don't play cards. Yesterday I mentioned War to Maya and she didn't know what I was talking about.

Card games and board games are more than just fun, they are memories we create. I will always cherish all the times I spent with my mother when we played various games. I remember one time playing Setback with my father's family when I was 15 or 16 and I actually won. It was a big moment.

Maya is still at a point where she doesn't like losing. So I either let her win or I try just a little less hard.

And now back to the movie and bonding with Miguel, who is watching it and typing into his cell phone. Because his days of game playing are mostly of the video kind. We used to play now and then, only Play Station basketball but I was terrible. And he never let me win.