Sunday, February 28, 2010

174 days to Bar Mitzvah: break-up

I knew something was up at the Bat Mitzvah Saturday night, when we went to pick up the Jawa, who appeared before us wearing a tiger-striped plastic bowler, an inflatable guitar slung over his shoulder. "Lets go," he said brusquely, after crunching out a few air guitar power chords. We walked quickly to the car, but not before I noticed him brushing by the Chef's Daughter without a word.

"Uh-oh," I thought.

His mood seemed okay, not that of someone who'd just had his heart broken (or done some heart-breaking which, as my son, didn't seem likely). He seemed more interested in talking about the food at the party than anything else.

Today began like any other Sunday. I got out of bed at 9:30. By then, Sandra Bullock and the Jawa had already been having spirited discussions -- usually involving one or the others' inability to completely understand the needs and wishes of the other -- for two hours. He seemed interested in his usual Sunday pursuits -- avoiding homework, scheming to stay on the computer for as long as possible, randomly throwing clothes around his room and then walking over them repeatedly as if it weren't there.

Everything was normal.

What I hadn't counted on was the effects of peer pressure on my young (I mean young even for his age; figure that one out) child. By his count, so far only Josh S. and he had girlfriends, and Josh S. was the son of the legendary Man About Town, so he came from the womb already imbued with the smooth charm of a Vegas lounge singer. Josh S. was handling his relationship with ease. Not so our Jawa, as it turned out.

I left home at noon, to spend the afternoon looking at houses for potential stories. When I returned four hours later, no one -- not even Shack -- met me at the door.

They were sitting in the dining room, my wife and son, under a heavy gray cloud of doom. They were speaking in hushed tones. Shack, using his canine intuition, sensed a shift in tone and decided his best move was to lie flat on the ground nearby, his head in his paws.

It didn't take long to figure out what was going on. What was impressive, to me, was what I found out later. The Jawa, I heard second-hand, was struggling with a number of things relationship-related. All of them boiled down to one issue: he just didn't feel like he was ready for all of this.

Taking advantage of modern technology, he eventually slinked off to his room, where he wrote a Dear Chef's Daughter email. I went in there about an hour later to find him slouched in a chair in front of his computer, listless, wearing sweat pants and no shirt. "What did she say?" I asked.

"I don't really want to go into it," he answered.

He was spent. The past month had, without our realizing it, taken its toll. He had been getting pressure from all sides, zooming into his teens so fast that he'd had to develop an unprecedented (and kind of weird) interest in Hot Wheels cars just to stay in contact with the little kid he'd been such a short time ago.

I hadn't realized that it had gotten away from him. Fortunately, Sandra Bullock was on top of things. Having come to the game late, I played the supporting role, showing up and saying, in a low voice, "Is everything okay?"

"Now you know what we went through," my mother told me a few minutes later, after I'd delivered the news during my weekly phone call to Arizona.

"Yeah, but not when I was twelve," I responded.

"Not when you were twelve, but plenty of times afterwards."

He sat there impersonating a boneless cat, staring at his computer, looking totally spent, for almost an hour. During that time, I went downstairs to check out the TV we bought yesterday with a combination of the gift certificate my grandmother gave me for selling her house and the GenenBucks Sandra Bullock earned from her benevolent employers for yet another stellar performance. Lulled by 42 inches of flat screen glory, I quickly fell asleep.

When I awoke, it was almost dinner time. I came upstairs to find a Jawa miraculously turned back into himself. No sign of the sad struggle he'd undergone just a few hours before. He was unburdened, I was later told by my in-the-know wife, free to return to his usual agenda of arguing, singing loudly and inserting rebellious comments into conversation just to see how much he could get away with.

Later, while he noodled away on his saxophone, trying to learn the Eurythmics "Sweet Dreams," a top-40 hit when I was a senior in high school in 1983, Sandra Bullock laid down the facts. The Jawa was just feeling too much pressure, she said. He wanted to hang out with his friends, but he felt like he couldn't.

From the distant bleacher seats of middle age, it seems like the solution to that problem should be as simple as it is benign: keep hanging out, but do it as part of a group. There doesn't need to be some kind of harsh ending point at all. It just takes an adjustment.

But it hardly ever ends that way, whether you're 12, 22 or 40. It didn't end that way this time either. The Jawa is spending the balance of his evening feeling light as a feather, unaware or simply not caring what happens tomorrow, when he leaves the safety of home and heads back to school to deal with the aftermath.

"I told him he'd have a lot of girlfriends," Sandra Bullock told me. "He's sad."

I like that, because he should be sad. But he should also be proud. I've got to hand it to the Jawa; for a kid who can't decide from one minute to the next whether he wants to be four years old or fourteen, he showed some real character. He realized things were getting out of hand, so he jumped off the train before it reached a speed he couldn't handle.

Digging back through the walk-in closet of thirty-odd years of personal history , I've got to wonder if we've heard the last of the Chef's Daughter. This comes just a few days after we'd had our first face-to-face with the Chef Himself. We'd nervously circled each other after Wednesday's Family Education night at Temple Emanu-El, making small talk about Bar and Bat Mitzvahs.

Earlier that night, I watched the Jawa sneaking glances at the Chef's table. I could see him trying to grapple the sudden changes in his life. Turns out he was deciding that for him, it wasn't yet time to turn up the volume.

Friday, February 26, 2010

176 days to Bar Mitzvah: bearing gifts

Somewhere over the past three decades, the Bar Mitzvah gift-giving paradigm changed. In my day, the Bar Mitzvah resembled a Mafia wedding in its gift-giving. Throughout the day, people would quietly approach the Bar Mitzvah boy (or girl), congratulate him (or her) and hand over an envelope.

Tasteful and subdued as the exchange was, what really mattered was what was inside the envelope: money.

The traditional Bar Mitzvah joke, "today I am a fountain pen," isn't too accurate. Even back in the 1970s, no one was giving out fountain pens to B'Nai Mitzvot. I did receive a nice silver Cross pen set, however, at mine.

Otherwise, everyone else gave me money. Some people gave me checks, others gave me an envelope full of twenties. There were a few U.S. and Israeli Bonds mixed in, too. During these nascent days of technology, nobody gave me a video game system, a lap top or even a pocket calculator, which I probably would have liked.

A few things have changed since 1978, though to be honest I have to ask myself what role geography plays. I was Bar Mitzvahed in Orange, California, so maybe at least in this case (and few others) I was within the orbit of Los Angeles, where the obsession with Bar Mitzvah grandeur and excess is on a Leonard's of Great Neck scale. For all I know, kids in San Francisco werent' getting envelopes in 1978, they were getting mood rings and wearing white Tony Manero suits.

I did pretty well at my Bar Mitzvah, though my haul paled when compared to the wealth accumulated by my cousin David at his Bar Mitzvah the year before. The money was whisked away faster than Tiger Woods at a press conference, ending up in a savings account, where it was slated to be used for college.

Fast-forwarding to the present and changing the locale to Baghdad-by-the-Bay, we find that the rules have been completely changed re: Bar Mitzvah gifts.

Like most things at Brandeis Hillel Day School, the issue of Bar Mitzvah gifts was not something to treat lightly. Before assuming anything or defaulting to tradition and custom, we would meet to discuss the impact and scope of Bar Mitzvah gifts. Our children would be attending 40-plus B'Nai Mitzvot over the course of one year, which presented a gift-giving challenge. Were we expected to extend our generosity at every single glorious event, even for the kids our Jawa didn't like?

Thankfully, no. Instead, we would pool the money otherwise marked for Bar Mitzvah gifts. We would seize the teaching opportunity and create a year-long service learning project in which our children researched worthy charities, held Socratic discussions, completed persuasive presentations to their peers, in which they made a case for a charity of their choosing. At the end of the year, the money would be doled out.

Political organizations -- which are very different from the political arm of a non-profit organization, I was cheerily informed when I asked in a roundabout way if this was just a way to funnel money toward someone's, probably a parent's, favorite cause -- are not eligible for funds. Parameters for contribution were set. They were less than the total we all would have passed back and forth as Bar Mitzvah gifts to each others' kids, but still nothing to sneeze at.

The Jawa spent last night hunched over the kitchen table. Partially hidden under a pair of enormous headphones and randomly shouting out lines (or, in the absence of words, hummed melodies) to his favorite songs, he carefully attached photos of dogs, graphs showing how many dogs lacked owners and some other statistics to a big piece of poster board. His chosen charity is Rocket Dog Rescue.

So ultimately, we are on the hook for only a handful of Bar Mitzvah gifts. Somewhere along the line -- I don't know where and had never heard of this prior to beginning our independent school odyssey -- Sandra Bullock heard that we should always give monetary gifts in multiples of 18, the numeric translation for Chai, or "life." I have no idea and won't know until August 21 what the norm for monetary Bar Mitzvah gifts is in 2010, but we usually go with 54.

What will be impressive is when Sandra Bullock's relatives, who've never been to a Bar Mitzvah but by August will have been well-coached, all show up holding checks for $54.

I've heard rumblings that some kids don't want money. And I've heard that some famillies don't like to give money. It doesn't take thought much to write a check, the thinking goes. Instead of money, they arrive carrying actual gifts. Theirs is a life of risk-taking, of finding joy in the process of gift-giving, of skipping a sure thing for the possiblity of more meaningful success.

Some families are even asking that no one bring their about-to-enter-adulthood kid Bar or Bat Mitzvah gifts. Instead, their invites tell us to make a donation to their favorite charity.

Bar Mitzvahs aren't what they used to be, but this has been apparent from the moment we locked down our date. Every difference seems to be designed to add more "meaning" to the process. The huge slate of classes, meetings, retreats and family nights are all intended to impress on us the gravity of this day, just by their sheer volume they have added meaning. Where my Bar Mitzvah was a weird blip on the life of an isolated 13-year-old Orange County Jew, the Jawa's is a true rite of passage. In this way, we have gone retro, returning to the pomp and grandeur of pre-California assimilation.

Except when it comes to gift-giving. The ritual of the envelope may have become a relic, gone like scores of Italian restaurants with fake grapes hanging from the ceiling, like ashtrays in bars, like leaving your car unlocked and walking inside. Today, I am no longer a fountain pen. Today, I am Mario Cart for Wii.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

177 days to Bar Mitzvah: mortality tale

Last night, I stared my own mortality in the face. It was bored to tears, had terrible posture and needed a haircut. It didn't want to discuss the Talmudic lessons of "Like Father, Like Clown," an episode of The Simpsons that explores Krusty the Clown's Jewish roots.

It was holding its phone in its many hands, trying to resist the temptation to start texting or testing out the apps it had downloaded earlier in the day. It had a dirty San Francisco Giants knit cap that it kept putting on and taking off, or absently twirling it around its finger.

It needed to shave, but didn't want to because once you shave, there's no turning back.

It found sitting up straight so difficult that as each minute passed, it got lower and lower until, as we wrapped things up, its chin was resting on the tabletop. It wanted to leave the room and run around exploring the synagogue, figuring that the way to do that would be to say it was "going to use the restroom," which would buy at least fifteen minutes before anyone would notice it'd been gone.

It was disappointed that there weren't enough seats for its girlfriend, but the rabbi told us we needed to sit with our families, so it spent almost two hours doing a delicate balancing act -- letting its friends know it wasn't one of "those" guys, who blow everyone off for a girl, but also making eye contact often enough to let her know it'd rather be sitting with her.

Two weeks ago, Doug Feiger died. I was fourteen when "Get the Knack" came out. I've never since been exactly the right age to identify with a piece of popular culture. If I could, I would conjure up a latter-day Doug Feiger to write the songs that speak directly to thirteen-year-old boys. Or I would give them Big Star's "Thirteen," which I didn't hear until I was in my twenties and too grown-up to perceive its lyrics, which include this:

Won't you let me walk you home from school
Won't you let me meet you at the pool
Maybe Friday I can
get tickets for the dance
and I'll take you

as anything more than hazy memories reduced to a wisp in the rear-view mirror.

Though my mortality seems to lean more toward danceable music without a shred of sentimentality, maybe it could hear that "Thirteen" and go, "Oh yeah, I totally get it."

Last night we had Family Education Night at Temple Emanu-El. You are required to attend four of these nights as a run-up to your Bar or Bat Mitzvah, although from what I can tell, people with superior powers of rationalization can skip them guilt-free and get Bar or Bat Mitzvahed anyway, a marked contrast to the many families who continue attending Family Education Nights after their Bar or Bat Mitzvahs. We sat around big round tables, ate whatever food was left once the kids got through the line, watched that Simpsons episode, and discussed the Talmud. We were supposed to sit with our families, but somehow our table ended up including four adults from three families (please note that I was the only father/husband at our table) and six twelve and thirteen-year-old boys.

And there they sat, these boys we've known since they tooled around town in car seats, all sitting there in various states of engagement, living reminders of the time that passes by and cannot be reversed.

It's easy to see that they've already begun heading down the paths they will follow as teens, likely without ever making a conscious choice one way or another. You can tell by what they're wearing, how they talk to adults, how they talk to each other. If you could see inside their heads, or if they had the cartoon thought bubbles I've wished they had since infancy, you'd see a dizzying eddy of thoughts, ideas and feelings careening off each other, randomly coming to the forefront without rank or priority, where they're considered and either acted on or ignored.

Even if you can't see into their brains, you can see it on their faces. You can see the kid who doesn't know where he belongs mulling over how confusing and downright cruel it is for that to remain a mystery when he wants so badly to have it solved. You want to reach over to him and tell him, "Look, it's not worth it," because you know that what's brewing in his head is volatile and risky.

Though they are boys, some of them really care about their looks. During the two-hour program, they'll experiment with different combinations, little tweaks in their personal style, then look around with a combination of curiosity and anxiety, wondering why they never seem to catch all those people who are definitely staring, passing silent judgement on their appearance.

As for my own Jawa, I felt transferance pain for him when one of his friends asked him to move over a seat when a classmate he wanted to sit next to arrived late. I saw the whisper, the perplexed look. The Jawa moved over without a word. He didn't seem to mind at all, even if I did.

And I watched him sneak glances over to the next table, where the Chef and his daughter were sitting. Only a few glances, but enough to see that figuring out the best strategy for this brand-new scenario was another issue added to his already-overflowing plate.

One of his friends has already become the guy who's very comfortable talking to adults, which cracks me up. I should have predicted it when, during a field trip to the Jewish Home in third grade, an old guy asked him what he drank with dinner. "Scotch," the then eight-year-old kid answered.

Yes, we lack cartoon balloons, but spoken and unspoken actions reveal them already choosing what kind of teenager they're going to be. They'll be the kid who has no problem talking to the parents while the other guys drag his wasted friend upstairs, the kid who sits hunched over, resting his chin in his hands, watching everyone else and weighing the risk versus potential rewards of joining in.

There will be popular kids and kids to take foolish risks in the hopes of being popular. There will be kids who don't play the game only because they can't figure out not only what the game is but that there is a game to be played at all. There will be kids who will do what the adults have asked them to do, if to stay out of trouble.

That these kids were five years old recently enough for me to still own some of the clothes I wore that year is mind-blowing, no matter how much preparation we've had. To see them all sitting there at the same table like a sample-sized helping of The American Teen is weirder still.

But what can we do? Keep our opinions to ourselves and keep our hands off as much as possible, being ready at all time to apply them upon request -- or when we properly intuit that they are necessary, which is the hard part. The time for coming out with a shovel and destroying the snowfort built by the bad kids who made your son cry by excluding him is over.

It's tough to show up on a Wednesday night and spend two hours sitting across from your collective mortality. It's like having what's always been on my mind -- that as time goes by, they'll get bigger and I'll just get older -- come to life as equal parts ecstatic rapture, melancholia and harsh reality. And it's strange to see how things are accelerating and childhood alliances are switching and fraying.

But it's also a great time, a time when so many things that eventually take a back seat to the administrative tasks of life lie in the forefront, gleaming like a diamond, there for endless examination and consideration. They'll just have to come up with their own "Get the Knack," is all.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

178 days to Bar Mitzvah: bamboo and chopsticks.

Last night, my wife came up to me and said, "I realized today that it's only five months until the Bar Mitzvah!"

"Six months," I said, inexplicably confused because we'd been talking about something not even remotely connected to the Bar Mitzvah but should know better.

"Five. Less than six."

She was correct. The Bar Mitzvah is in five months and 28 days. Technically, that is less than six months.

"Sure, but I think you're still ahead of schedule."

She was unmoved. Later that night, after completing the massive work requirements one is locked into when they prove to be too successful at their jobs, inviting employers to reward them by giving them more work, she wound down by surfing the party supply sites she's bookmarked on her laptop.

This weekend, the design team converged on our house while I was out looking at houses in San Mateo. Prior to their arrival, Sandra Bullock arranged the mock-up centerpiece on the kitchen table. There it served dual purpose, acting as a living embodiment of the event theme and helping get the team in the Bar Mitzvah mood.

At 4 pm, I arrived home and found the three of them standing around the table. Seems they had too much collective energy to sit. In front of them, strewn about the table, were sample invitations, very small printouts of Godzilla movie posters (in Japanese) and a couple of pieces of bamboo.

The bamboo was a problem. The team can't find a consensus as to the proper bamboo length. Sandra Bullock is beginning to think two to three feet is the correct length.

"That seems long to me," I said to the plate of pita chips and hummus I found on the counter by the sink. The plate, like my wife, did not respond.

Bamboo is not cheap. Or rather, it is cheap, unless you're planning on sticking five pieces of it in the middle of at least 20 round banquet tables. If that's your plan, you're looking at probably a few hundred dollars. Even if you spend every free moment surfing party sites on the web, you may be unable to find bargain bamboo.

"I still haven't checked the flower mart," our Bar Mitzvah team leader said more than once this weekend.

As a family, we have a problem. When we estimate the cost of something, we only include the large items. I guess we assume a margin of error related to secondary costs, but, speaking only for myself, when I hear that first figure, I just assume that's it: the overall cost. It's kind of like living in a world where sales tax is always a surprise.

So when I do the numbers in my head -- which I do at least once a week, the same way I used to be constantly working credit card payoff schemes in my head back when we were buried in crushing debt -- I don't ever include the possibility of, say, bamboo cost.

Nor is there, anywhere on my mental list, an entry for "chopsticks." The chopstick search has been epic, due in part to the wildly varying asking prices for available chopsticks, but also to a disagreement between Sandra Bullock and the increasingly secretive Jawa over whether it would be cool to get chopsticks with little dragons on them. Surprisingly, in this case it is the Jawa going the conservative route. He doesn't want dragons.

One thing they agree on: plastic chopsticks are out of the question. Which I think makes them cheaper. I heard something like fifty cents per pair quoted, or maybe it was a buck-fifty. When we were last in Japantown, I pointed out a wall of chopsticks in one store. The cheapest sold for laughably less than the dragon ones, the plastic ones, than any of the ones Sandra Bullock had shown me. Why not get cheap chopsticks? Other than being perhaps a bit too cutely alliterative, I don't see any problem with cheap chopsticks. I made my case there, passionately arguing in favor of the cheap ones. In a rare show of solidarity, both my son and my wife ignored me.

Which, I have to say, is unusual. Normally, Sandra Bullock likes to share with me everything she is considering. She calls me over to wherever she is, sometimes at the kitchen table, this week sprawled out on the couch with ice on her left ankle, which she sprained while playing her famously aggressive style of basketball, to ask my opinion on wrapping paper, Godzilla figurines, flower arrangements and yes, chopsticks. As a project manager, she likes to gather as much information as possible before making a decision.

The only time that bothers me is when it involves a large decision, like remodeling the kitchen. We discussed possible alterations, picked out a number of potential appliances and made endless trips to Home Depot before finally acting. Over time, her vision for the project changed so many times that I finally had to tell her to stop talking about it.

We eventually got the kitchen done, but only after I suddenly decided, on our seven thousandth trip to Home Depot, to just go home and start demolishing. It worked out fine. We only had to wash dishes in the bathtub for six months.

My interest in chopsticks ran out about a month ago, when they all started to look the same. What can you do with a chopstick?

I'm curious to know if we really are ahead of schedule, if my wife's singular focus on this event has paid off so far. Slightly less than six months to go and we're scoping out bamboo. We've already nailed down the venue, the caterer, the DJ, the hotel and the bunch venue. We may have decided on the restaurant for Friday. We haven't paid for anything yet, I think.

Our next step is to go back to the Golden Gate Yacht Club, where they've been celebrating the America's Cup win by member Larry Ellison, and hash out some details Sandra Bullock has been recording on her Blackberry. Oh, and to go to temple twice in one week. Tonight we have "family education," which is mysteriously attended by people we know who've already had their Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, demonstrating a far less Catholic relationship with houses of worship than me. I go because I have to.

On Saturday, we will rise early and attend two hours of Torah study, along with some people we know and the lady who drags the box around with her. And then a Bat Mitzvah.

It's almost like we can tell the holidays have ended and we're back on our normal 2009-2010 schedule. Back from the far-flung lands of the secular, we are ready to dig into what I won't yet call the home stretch. Six months is still a healthy chunk of time. You just wait until summer. That's when the madness really starts.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

179 days to Bar Mitzvah: define "sanity"

If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over but expecting a different outcome each time, what does it mean if I've been telling the Jawa to quit kicking that chair since 1999? That I'm insane?

It's not exactly the same chair. We got a new kitchen table three years ago. But it is a chair in the same spot, to his right and my left, and for a full decade, at least three times a week during dinner, I tell him to stop kicking the chair. I don't know if that makes me insane, but it is certainly driving me insane.

We do things like this all the time as parents, accepting situations we'd never give into in our "other" life. Would you continue dining with a co-worker who'd been kicking a chair for ten years, despite being told not to approximately (by my count) 1,500 times? How long would it take you to find another dining partner if that same co-worker also repeatedly loaded up his knife with globs of butter the size of Rubik's Cubes, despite being told every single time not to do it. Same action; same outcome. Who's crazy now?

I use these mundane examples to stand in for a phenomenon I felt this afternoon, when a very blase Jawa informed me that he'd gotten to sleep last night at "about one a.m." I hear that and immediately seize up with anxiety. Besides cutting into my very important late night decompression time, his weird aversion to sleep has begun impacting his school performance. More than once over the past month have we heard from teachers, expressing concern at our child's lack of zest in the classroom. "(Insert name of math teacher) told me that he put his head down on his desk today," we heard last week from his school advisor. "When she told him to pick it up, he didn't move."

If there were a way to control this behavior, you'd better believe I'd be doing it. And this is the chilling lesson of this episode: somewhere in the past year or so, we lost the ability to control most aspects of our child's behavior. Sure, every night one of us confronts him when he wanders out of his room at midnight on some bizarre errand -- he forgot to get his book out of his backpack, he suddenly needs to use the bathroom. The kid has the nocturnal habits of a 50 year-old man. When pressed, he offers up the most irrational, poorly-conceived explanations, then gets angry when we don't accept them.

Obviously, we are not approaching this correctly. Standing there browbeating the kid at midnight as he stands there in his boxers impersonating a rational adult doesn't do anything. Again, repeated actions equal repeated results. Which doesn't stop me one bit from lying in bed every night tensed up like a violin string, waiting for him to stroll out into the living room in search of some ghostly object.

These are the times you wish you could just get inside your kid's brain and move a few things around, to allow for more organized, rational thought. At least that's how we see it.

Instead, this; and even though I'm a walking thesaurus, I don't think I can accurately express how powerless it makes me feel. Hi there, son. I am the proud owner of two masters degrees and am known for my incredible powers of rational thinking. Despite this, and despite my greatest -- if somewhat misguided and rash -- efforts, you're going to go on doing whatever it is you've been doing as my voice fades into the background until I sound like Charlie Brown's teacher.

Our latest attempt to crack this increasingly enigmatic nut involves a trip to the doctor. If there's a physical reason why our child chooses to wander around in the middle of the night, we will find it out, though I can't imagine what that would be.

"A teenager who presents with an isolated complaint of insomnia may be found to have simultaneous bedtime resistance, poor sleep hygiene and delayed sleep phase." ("Treatement of Insomnia in Older Children and Adolescents," Timothy F. Hoban, MD, Clinical Associate Professor, Michael S. Aldrich Sleep Laboratory)

What on earth is "poor sleep hygiene?"

The trouble with we Lockeian (sp?) thinkers is that we figure that if we stew on something long enough, if we apply enough logic and brain power, we will come up with a solution. The added trouble with we wordy types is that we also figure that all we have to do is keep rearranging the words; eventually, we'll come up with a foolproof method of persuasion. So instead of backing off and watching to see what happens, I keep diving in with a slightly different approach, convinced that this time the sheer power of my logic will overwhelm the hormones running indescriminatarilly rampant through my son's body and he will snap out of his teenage trance. He will come to his senses.

That's why it's so terrifying to realize that we're crossing over into a land where our influence is quickly waning, where time-honored practices, some of which no more carefully considered than a sharp "Because I told you so!" always yield results.

It's now eight o'clock. Three hours ago, my son bounded into our home after grabbing a ride home (without maybe pausing to think, “Gee, my dad said he’d come get me at 5. If I leave with someone else, he might not get the message in time and then arrive at school to find me already gone.”), laid down a few impressive dance moves between the living room and the kitchen, then disappeared into his room with the door closed.

Ten minutes later, I extracted him, put him in the car, and set off to pick up Sandra Bullock from work. By the time we hit the freeway, he was out. He slept all the way to South San Francisco, then drifted in and out until we got to Sears, where he ramped back up to full strength, randomly singing snippets of songs and climbing all over various fitness equipment while we shopped for exercise bikes.

In 90 minutes, our nightly ritual will begin. Hopefully, it will end tonight before midnight. Otherwise, you may see me applying classic 12-step program tenets to the difficult challenge of raising a child, quoting the serenity prayer as I ask a higher power to grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.

We'll start with sleeping. Maybe by high school graduation we can move on to kicking the chair.

Monday, February 22, 2010

180 days to Bar Mitzvah: cautionary tale

I once had a very long and in-depth conversation with someone about the value of setting a good example for your child. It was back when I was masquerading as a real estate agent -- and failing miserably, badly enough that all I thought about each day was how I could extricate myself from this latest mid-life career change and go back to the old one. Except on Tuesdays, when I'd drive around and look at houses. Looking at houses can cheer anyone up.

Looking down at the rubble I'd made of my professional life, I figured that its value to my child was as a cautionary tale. "Don't be like me," I could say. "See what happens?"

"I disagree," said my conversant. "You need to stick it out so he can see you overcome something. You want him to think of you as a successful person."

The point was well-taken, but I ditched real estate a month later, a full two weeks after being called into my broker's office and threatened with termination unless I started selling some houses. So I got to quit and be fired, sort of, which makes the guy staring back at me from the mirror seem like a real stud.

Over the past two-and-a-half years, the Jawa has been an active party to my latest career ups and downs. These ones are unique, as the job I have started out great, only to slide downhill in a series of small-yet-constant managerial changes. It could have -- and was, for a year -- the best job I've ever had. Instead, I come home sullen and angry, like Kevin Arnold's dad.

Unfortunately, here's what my son has learned: my dad's boss is out to get him.

Which is of course wrong. It's much more complex than that. Nobody's "out to get me," and it'd be a folly to assume that I was important enough for anyone to spend a minute devising ways to "get" me. But he's twelve years old and all he sees is that his dad goes somewhere every day and comes back in a lousy mood. Obviously, it can't be that his dad made a series of really bad career decisions and non-decisions, ending up with exactly what he deserved, could it? If he knew that, how could he help but conclude that his father was unsuccessful?

Problem is, now that he's twelve he's going to make his own mind up about everything he sees. The time where I had the option of demonstrating grace under pressure is over. I should have listened, maybe not to the point of flogging an obviously dead real estate horse but instead by taking charge of yet another career change. I could have hunkered down in the style of my friend Martin McNally, who once spent eight hours a day for almost an entire year trying to find a job. I could have shown my Jawa that kind of focused effort. "I may not end up with a great job," I could have said, "but one thing I know is that whatever I get will be something of my choosing, and that I will go into it prepared to give 100%."

So what is he seeing now? A cautionary tale along the lines of what I just told Ray, the 28-year-old market analysis guy who sits across the row from me, the "writer." "Ray," I began expansively after setting off the latest in a long series of conflicts with the sales people who own my soul, "pay attention to what you do in your 20s and 30s. Because if you don't, you'll end up like me."

Now, says the "woe is me, yeah, right" crowd. How bad is it to be you? I'm not saying it's awful to be me. I've got this great wife, this only occasionally privacy-demanding Jawa, a stupid dog that everyone loves. It's not like I'm pandhandling for change on Market Street. But I know who I am. I know that these are the consequences for not taking it seriously when everyone else was out there chasing careeres in their 20s. I'm not shiftless; I'm aimless, but it still stung a little bit when I learned that the $1.3 million house I was writing about a few months ago had just been purchased by a kid I'd coached back at Saratoga High School in 1987.

I don't say it so Ray will think, "Wow, that guy's got it bad." I'm saying because I know I screwed up in my 20s and 30s and I'd be a deluded fool to tell myself anything else. Instead of chasing a career, I prolonged my adolescence for as long as possible, diving enthusiastically into new careers, then torpedoing them after a year or so, or accepting jobs even though so many sirens had been going off in my head during the interview process that I could barely hear what the guy across the table was saying.

Maybe the biggest risk of presenting yourself as a cautionary tale is that it makes it seem like you're looking for pity. Not me. I'm being realistic. I'm also letting him know the reason why it's unlikely he'll be getting the same latitude I got during my formative years.

The hard part is that you want, with all your heart, to find a way for your child to avoid your own pratfalls. Or maybe he should, so he can learn for himself. Twelve years in and I have no idea which is preferable, but all of this is done with an eye toward helping him become a happy, successful adult. And I'm here to tell you that if the career part of your life isn't what it should be, and it's your fault it ended up that way, well, it gets pretty gloomy on some days.

But there's no way to sugarcoat it and the game's not over yet. Why screw things up if not to learn from it? I think there's value in him seeing how bad decisions can trip you up, leaving you in situations equal parts confounding and frustrating.

He's at least lucky that, while he's got me as an example of poor management, he's got his mother to show him the benefits of focus and drive. The kid wants to discuss the meaning of life, have fun figuring out difficult math problems, deconstruct words or explore the hidden meanings of popular culture, I'm right there. He wants to learn how to succeed, that's Sandra Bullock's arena. Between us, we've got it covered.

Back to that conversation from a few years ago. I'll admit that I was only partly right, and there is some big value in the comeback story. Who doesn't love tales of redemption? Should I manage to get it together before he hits adulthood (or even after), you'd better believe I'm going to go all evangelical on him, preaching from whatever pulpit the values of never giving up, staying focused and working toward a reachable goal. And most of all, the hardest one, of not losing faith in yourself even when everyone else has long since gotten tired of your sad little story.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

181 days to Bar Mitzvah: turn down that racket!

Someday, when he is old enough for it not to seem like yet another example of The Man trying to keep him down, I will explain to my son my absolute loathing for the brand of popular music he likes. Until then, I will quietly gnash my teeth, complain in private to his mother, and curse myself for the thousandth time for insisting we move to San Francisco in 2000, where we would spend our lives sentenced to live in a tiny little house that we can barely afford.

Because I am a man who believes in democracy and two members of our three-person voting bloc are in favor of Lady Ga Ga, there's nothing I can do except offer a thin smile hiding barely concealed disgust. In doing so, I realize, I perpetuate what fathers have been doing to their offspring since the days of bobby soxers and Rudy Vallee. While I say nothing, what i mean to say is, "You call that noise music? Why, in my day, we had music."

But of course, like almost every other member of my generation and the one that preceded us, we are -- especially when it comes to music -- God forbid, not like our fathers, We are better. They were old fogeys. We're going to rock out until they put us in pine boxes. At our funeral, they will play the Clash.

This is the legacy handed to us by the Baby Boomers, whose support of Social Security-eligible rock bands is as unapologetic as it is confounding. You can't blame them, because theirs is the first generation forced to address the issue of elderly rockers. Or you can blame them, because theirs is the unwavering commitment to clinging to youth that drove filmmaker John Hughes, iconic for his depictions of teenage life in the 1980s to, in his thirties, decide to start wearing a suit every day. His rebellion was to act his age.

Why's it so important to be cooler than our dads? Who decided that modern parenthood would include a stubborn refusal to concede our grip on youth culture? Would that somehow make us larger in our children's eyes? Make us feel that as long as we could buy the right ironic tennis shoes, we were successfully holding off the irreversible slide of aging? The point was driven home to me several years ago, when, flush with the heady rush of living in a big city, I took my preschool-aged Jawa with me on BART to the Mission, where we got burgers. While waiting for our order, some other father heard the Jawa singing along to whatever classic rock song happened to be playing, turned to me, smiled and said, "That's so great. I have two kids, and they're both cool, too."

Ever since that time at a park in Seattle where I saw the dad who'd made his two sons into exact replicas of himself -- rattails and all -- I became wary of my natural inner impulse to culturally brainwash my child. While of course I would have loved it if he'd come of age thinking the Pixies were awesome, I realized early on that abusing the direct, unfiltered access I had to his brain would be bad. Schooling him on the superiority of the Replacements would make me no different than Hippie Dad teaching his son that nothing recorded since 1970 can hold a candle (or an upraised cigarette lighter) to the dynamic sounds of the 60s.

And it's not easy, because though I am not many things, I am a music guy. While my actual musicianship is limited to a few rudimentary chords on the guitar and a stint with the seminal late 1980s punk rock cover band The Stupid Americans, whose triumphant Bay Area tour of 1987 was limited to a single party on the campus of Santa Clara University, I did devote several early years of my writing "career" to music, and at one time was a sure bet to be on the guest list at a number of since-shuttered Seattle-area music venues.

I gave it up the year after the Jawa was born, in fact. Not because of pending fatherhood -- hats off to Sandra Bullock, whose participation as my sidekick at live music events ended abruptly three days before the Jawa's birth, when she realized that there was no place for a nine months-pregnant woman at a Helmet show -- but because it had started to feel like I was spinning my wheels. Even though they said that the major labels were circling, that local post-punk band working at Kinko's until they're signed was no more likely to get rich and famous than I was, and it made me sad and frustrated.

Besides, by then I'd started listening to country music almost exclusively. I couldn't see a job that involved making a case for the Goo Goo Dolls as important artists, and there is a limited number of paying outlets for writers pitching feature stories on Wayne "The Train" Hancock and North Carolina's own Thad Cockrell.

So forgive me both for puffing up my chest and expressing my music bonafides as I hide from the dulcet tones of the Black Eyed Peas, wishing my child would eagerly participate in Uncle Tupelo sing-alongs instead of sulking in the passenger's seat, blowing his ears out to the latest Rhiannon track-*. But still, I mean, I shielded him from Barney, from Raffi and from Radio Disney. Can't the kid show some gratitude with at least a nod toward the old man's tastes?


This is a major coming-of-age rite. Not for him, for me. It's the part where you realize you're not cooler than your dad was. I'm guessing that the old-timers who thought Sinatra was noise were every bit as vital and current in their day as I was in mine. Time comes that you have to open up the gate and let the next generation pass you by. Otherwise, you end up paying $250 for a seat in a stadium where the two living members of an important 1960s rock band, backed by an army of anonymous session players, mimic the moves that made them important several decades ago, leaving you obliged afterwards to spread the word that the musicians in question have cheated time and can without question rock much harder than not only any present-day popular act but also their younger selves. Which is kind of sad and transparent, though sometimes it seems I'm the only one who thinks that.

More so I should notice that, while his tastes are a 180 from mine, the Jawa's enthusiasm for music is every bit as intense as mine. I'd love to chalk that up to my efforts at surrounding him with music, but I know better. It's just the latest manifestation of the genetic soup his mother and I poured into him long ago.

On second thought, maybe I should go public and complain every time he cues up another of his R & B favorites, honoring the generations-long tradition practiced by dads before we decided we had to be cooler than our dad. You've got to figure the music would sound that much sweeter if the child knew it were also driving his dad crazy.

So next time I'll complain bitterly, not because it's loud and our house is so small that I'm starting to sweat "I Gotta Feeling" from all my pores, but because I simply don't like that newfangled music. It sounds like people banging pots and pans together and in my day, we listened to real music. Not this garbage.

Friday, February 19, 2010

183 days to Bar Mitzvah: where's the romance?

If you were a teenager, or a slightly pre-teenager, just starting out on the long and often rocky road of a lifetime of romantic-style relationships, what kind of advice would you want to hear from your father? Or would you want to hear any at all? Maybe you'd just want the old man to stay out of it.

There's something to be said for what's always seemed like a tired, malinformated teenage refrain: "My parents don't know what I'm going through." Well, sure, we do, if we can remember. But how often can we do that? And even if we do, what kid wants his parents to tell him that what he's going through isn't all that special, and in fact, we all went through it before becoming the people you see leave for work every morning and then come home at night?

It's been twenty-seven years since I graduated from high school. For seventeen of those years, I've been married to the Jawa's mother, Sandra Bullock. For almost thirteen, I've been the Jawa's father. Add those numbers up and you get almost two decades since I traded in my fully-outfitted leading man trailer for the more humble digs of a character actor.

I make a lot of noise about how I can remember exactly what it felt like to be 12 years old. Sure, I can. I remember exactly what it felt like for me to be twelve yeras old in 1977, and that should serve the Jawa better than if I couldn't remember at all what it felt like to be twelve, but only slightly better. The Venn diagrams of my pre-adolescent world of coveted Op shirts and non-stop sports only slightly overlap those of the Jawa's 12-year-old world. His includes Skype, hip-hop and the limited independence that is the sorry lot of city kids in 2010. Last night, we huddled in the living room, my wife and I, shot through with lightning bolts of anxiety while our son soloed through the neighborhood with our dog. Twenty-four hours and one news report of three separate muggings in our neighborhood on Tuesday and he's back to having an escort, me. He's almost thirteen years old. City life.

What I don't remember from seventh grade was the moment I asked my parents to change from omnipotent (and omnipresent) problem-solvers to laissez-faire managers. It's not like one minute my dad and I were driving around Anaheim every Sunday, eating ice cream cones and having deep father-son conversations like Eddie and Tom Corbett, and the next I was hiding in my room, the keeper of great secrets my hapless father couldn't hope to understand.

But at some point, you start wondering how your parents, those people who hang around acting like roommates or business partners most of the time or, God forbid even worse, moon over each other like they think they're teenagers, could seem relevant in the supercharged world you've started to inhabit.

What's the move for a parent? So far, our Jawa is very communicative. Almost too communicative, if you ask me. Although tonight, after spending an hour Skyping the Chef's Daughter, he took a shower then appeared in the living room, where he announced, "I'm going to close my door for awhile. I want some private time."

I leave nothing to impossibility and, unlike former 10,000 Maniacs vocalist Natalie Merchant, I don't judge. So rather than get all wound up and say, "Why do you need your door closed? What's so private?" I went with, "We're trusting you not to do things we've asked you not to do. If you're asking for private time so you can go back on your computer or your iPod, that's not going to fly," and left it at that. I think I also threw in a "pick these clothes up off your floor," too.

"Good job," whispered Sandra Bullock, when I returned to the living room, where we were wrapping up a screening of "500 Days of Summer," the movie that reminded me of the gulf between the exhilarating beginnings of romantic relationships versus the grownup nuts and bolts of making them last, and got me started thinking about all of this stuff in the first place.

There's no way to convince a teenager that you can remember very clearly exactly what it feels like to feel things -- everything -- so intensely when what that same teen sees from you on a daily basis is essentially a constant show of uninspired ritual, boring talk about finances and money and a weird dependance on unglamorous hobbies. Great, he's thinking, this guy is obsessed with me keeping clothing off of my bedroom floor. He complains about money all the time, and at night, after we're all asleep, he lies on the floor doing crossword puzzles. You're telling me he has any idea what it feels like to have the world exploding all around you every minute of every day? I'm not buying it.

How is he supposed to wrap his head around the idea that a life not erupting with daily emotions is potentially as satisfying as the fireworks he dodges every day? Does he want to hear about how difficult it would be to make it through the week if your emotions at age 40 were as unpredictable as they were at age 15?

Yes, one day you will be like me. You will devote a large percentage of your waking thoughts each day administrative tasks. You will search for ways to maximize the serenity of the time you have leftover each day after completing your tasks. You will worry about your health, your weight and your financial well-being. And your hair, until you realize that nothing you can do is going to change the outcome of that battle unless you're willing to have some guy poke holes in your scalp and feed in transplanted hair shafts, which is too gross to even consider.

If you are lucky, you will be wind-blown the whole hurricane gamut of romantic ups and downs and then one day see an old couple walk from their car across a parking lot in Sun City, Arizona, and realize that what you really want from a mate is that they be someone you wouldn't mind spending all of your time with when you're old. When that happens, all the holes poked in your leading man armor will stop stinging, because everyone knows that leading men go through wives at the rate the rest of us change cars: once every few years. Better to be Alan Alda, married to Arlene for 53 years, than to churn through soul mates like Brad Pitt.

On the one hand, I figure we've got at least the next six years -- until the Jawa leaves for his chosen university, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he will room with his very tidy cousin Shea, creating a perfect third-generation "Odd Couple" scenario, to perfect the shift from "parent of a small child" to "parent of an adult." On the other, there is a good chance that every misstep we make along the way could have permanent ramnifications. Those are pretty high stakes.

But listen up, kid; it may have been the 70s, and I may have been a different type of teen than you will be, but I remember. You can change the names and the faces, but we're talking about the Universal Experience here. Anyone who can't recall how it felt when the colors were brighter, the noises louder, when the world was outlined in sharp contrasts and each day brought with it the possibility of great highs and equally excruciating lows, well, they're either lying to you or they deserve your pity.

That constant agitation, that edge, it never goes away completely. The part at the end of "Nick and Nora's Infinite Playlist" where they're heading down the escalator the subway and Nora says to Nick, "Are you sorry we missed it?" and he says, "We didn't miss it. This IS it," is just as cool to me now as the part in "Valley Girl" where Julie asks Randy where he wants to go and what he wants to do and he answers, respectively, "I don't care," and "anything" was when I was 19. People don't change that much. They aren't riding the ragged edge of emotions 24 hours a day like they used to -- except in San Francisco, where those who don't "fly their freak flag" are herded into a pen with the other squares and banished to some far-off subdivision in the East Bay. It's just not so easy to figure out how to let your kid know that you kind of sort of understand what they're going through while still letting them hang onto the feeling that this is their experience -- unique, special and completely valid. If anyone has the key to that riddle, let me know. I'll be out here at the edge of this field, knee-deep in rye, making sure nobody goes over the edge.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

184 days to Bar Mitzvah: tales of ocular woe

It was a steel-gray mid-winter day as we drove over the Mulberry Street Bridge into Scranton. Or maybe it was an unseasonably warm spring day. Maybe it was October, and the leaves were changing. It was thirty-eight years ago. I can't remember what the weather was like. One thing I do remember very clearly, though, is sitting in the back seat of our car -- perhaps a Ford Capri but probably a Subaru -- and saying to my mother, who was driving, "I think my eyes are pretty good. I won't need glasses."

I was seven-and-a-half years old. We were driving into Scranton, the "big city," for my first eye doctor appointment.

My mother, not always known for having a glass-half-full worldview, responded without missing a beat. "That's exactly what your sister said. She left with glasses."

If not for my sister's sub-par eyesight, I would have had no reason to visit an opthamologist as a second-grader. While my father was regionally famous for his poor eyesight, his was the result of a combination of unfortunate quirks. His original eye condition -- bad enough to snuff out an appointment to West Point in 1956 -- was exacerbated by a botched corneal transplant a few years later. We knew Dad couldn't see out of his left eye. It had nothing to do with us. That's just how things were.

I had reason to feel optimistic as we crossed the Mulberry Street Bridge on that sunny, cloudy or brutally cold day. Who gets glasses in second grade? I could see the blackboard just fine. Two hours later, we emerged from the doctor's office, prescription in hand. Who gets glasses in second grade? Me.

We chose a tortoise shell pair, and then an identical pair three months later after I broke the first pair. A year later, we switched to a clear plastic pair, which died a violent death inside my desk at school, when I slammed the desktop unthinkingly on my way out to recess one day.

Three years earlier, after watching this kid Danny break down in tears because he couldn't do his spelling, I vowed to never cry in school. That vow was tested when I came back from recess to find my shattered clear glasses. It didn't help that Miss Tedesco scolded me for having such a messy, disorganized desk on top of it.

That's the life of a little boy in glasses. You break them all the time. Basically, they mean two things, both of them bad: you spend every day at school thinking of comebacks for everyone's favorite, tired "four-eyes" cracks, and then about once a week in the doghouse at home because you broke your latest pair.

Each new pair of glasses had one thing in common with the last pair: I hated them.

It helped a little when Shelly King, Elizabeth Kulkarni and Danielle Ondrick all got glasses later that year. Besides being fellow four-eyes, all of them were also part of our group that got removed from class every week to go do extra "accelerated" work. We were a little community of dorks, but at least I wasn't alone.

Then comes sports, another hurdle for the nearsighted. When you're 10, you can wear a baseball cap every day, all day, memorize the birthdays of every member of the 1975 New York Mets (Rusty Staub? April 1.) and hit .520 for your little league team. None of it will matter if you're wearing glasses. If you're wearing glasses, all it takes is one little slip-up, one time at the little league picnic trying to crack back on someone but starting your barb with the word "actually," and you're sunk. A nerd.

Those glasses hung like an albatross around my neck. There was no way to shake them.

Until junior high school, when I began my image rehabilitation program. In the space of a week in the fall of 1979, I trimmed my unruly Jewfro and got fitted for soft contact lenses. The following week, Mr. Zimmerman, our English teacher, commented, "Wow, you've really changed your look." That's right, Zim. There's no turning back now.

Unless two months later, your eyes reject the contacts. Sure, the Jewfro is gone, but pair a by-now bent and broken set of spectacles -- now held together with cliched white adhesive tape -- with any hairstyle. Glasses overpower all else in the teenage world. I don't care if Jose Eber's been working on your hair. The glasses win.

So I refused to wear them, except for sports. My grades plummeted. No one could figure out why. People started to think I was aloof, because they'd see me at the mall, wave, and get nothing in return. I couldn't see them.

How are you going to tell a kid who's tasted the sweet nectar of popularity that he'll be sporting the Bad Ronald ( look once again?

I had no choice but to keep trying the contacts. This was many years before glasses became a necessary for acheiving the Geek Chic look. They were still stuck on geek, which doesn't work when you're 15. So I walked around blind, until discovering "gas-permeable" hard lenses. Uncomfortable and improbably low-tech, they provided years of almost non-stop amusement for my friends, who enjoyed watching as, several times a day, I suddenly slapped my face and groaned in pain, as something -- anything, an eyelash, a gnat, a very small piece of dust -- lodged itself in my eye, underneath my gas permeable contact lens.

I wore those things for over twenty years. I put them in my eyes in darkened movie theaters, at the beach, in the back seat of Shaun Hyde's car at six in the morning before basketball practice. Sometimes, if I got something in one and wasn't near a water source, I just poppsed it out, stuck it in my mouth and jammed it back in my eye. That was a good one. The horrified looks I'd get -- they were exactly the same as the ones you get when you toss your kid's pacifier into your mouth after he drops it on the ground, then hand it back to him all-new.

Despite the almost-constant pain they caused, I loved those hard lenses. When I got to college, I told my roommate, "The great thing is that no one here knows I wear glasses." It was like being a different person. For a few years, during my misspent early 20s, when I lived in a series of terrible apartments and had no money, I didn't even own a pair of glasses. Those sharp-edged gas permeable lenses were in my eyes 18 hours a day.

I remember, starting in college, how shocked I was at just how many people wore glasses. I wasn't the only one running around hiding his weak eyes behind a pair of contacts. Sometimes it seemed like 75% of the world wore contacts (and then showed up in the morning in glasses, often as shorthand for "I'm really hungover").

Sandra Bullock finally convinced me, in her pragmatic way, to get "backup" glasses. Just to have. Who cares how they look? You wear them late at night and early in the morning and never in public.

Meanwhile, without telling me, glasses had been rehabbing their reputation. Just like when, again without telling me, in high school people suddenly decided that good grades were an honorable pursuit, after bagging on me for years about mine, leading me to purposely drive mine down in an effort to fit in, people started to think of glasses as an accessory.

The people who came into glasses at a later age -- and that was most of them; not too many people got their first pair of cheaters at age seven -- were much more comfortable with the look. To them in fact, it was a "look." Not a curse. A few wiseguys (and gals) even showed up occasionally wearing glasses with clear, non-perscription glass. They liked the look. To me, they were nuts. That would be like choosing to have stomach cramps because you like the pain.

But you know, you get tired. When I began the slide toward 40, I started running around telling people that I'd be done with contacts by age 50. "You think I want to be shoving these things in my eyes when I'm 50?" said the incredulous boy, hiding thirty-plus years of scars. "Dads who wear glasses look hip," his wife convinced him. Slowly, glasses returned to my life. A few years ago, we went to buy my first pair of "public" glasses since 1978.

I wanted the thick black plastic ones, because all the cool people -- the same people who wouldn't be caught dead in glasses when they were teenagers -- wore them. My old roommate Mod Markie had once called them "birth control devices," but they were everywhere in 2005. I tried some on. "You look like a nose and glasses," said my innocent, tactless wife, immediately sending me through a one-way time portal to 1974.

We settled on some thinner tortoise ones. Not as hip as the series of increasingly cool ones Jeff Price, the tattooed, snowboarding, bar-owning and Japanese toy-collecting Seattlite has worn in the 15 years I've known him. Baby steps. But these were casual. Slightly in-the-know. Not at all the tools of ostracization they were when I was a pre-teen.

Speaking of pre-teens, the Jawa has perfect eyesight. Just like his mother. Her time will come. And her glasses will probably look great.

Which brings us to today, Thursday, February 18, 2010. I have been a wearer of sight-improving devices for almost 40 years. For the past six months, I've devised, without being aware of it, actually without admitting I've been aware of it, thinking I was being very sneaky, indeed, a method that involves looking through my glasses to see things far away, and then looking under them to see things close up. For serious reading, I just take them off, which is why I seldom wear contact lenses -- not even my cool new disposable ones that, while you can't put them in your mouth to clean them, you can basically blow off cleaning ever because if they get uncomfortable or opaque you just toss them in the trash and crack open a new pair.

Contacts are limited to activities like going to the gym, looking at houses (part of my job), or going out at night and not wanting to look like a dork in glasses.

Today did not go well. "Well, your eyesight has changed over the past year," said Dr. Kimberly Tom, after fifteen minutes of using that big heavy thing and clicking different lenses over my eyes, then asking, "Which is better? Number one, or number two? How about number three?"

It's like they're tyring to persuade you. I always wonder if I'm getting the answers right.

One thing I do like about Dr. Kimberly Tom: in nine years of checking my eyes, she's not once rammed her abdomen against my legs, something my old eye doctor in Seattle did every single time I went to his office. I liked the guy; we spent at least half of every appointment talking about sports in general and the Mariners specifically, but that abdomen-jamming thing. I didn't like it.

"I'm writing you a new perscription," said Dr. Tom today. "You could get bifocals. It's up to you. If you don't mind taking off you glasses to read, you could wait a little longer." Call me vain if you want, but remember that I was wearing glasses when I was seven freaking years old. Thirty-eight years later I'm finally used to wearing glasses to the point where at certain points during the week, I actually think I look better with glasses than without, you're telling me I need bifocals?

"You can always buy a pair of reading glasses to wear with your contacts. Last time you weren't even close to needing them, but now they would work."

Who set things up so that your body starts to break down rapidly long before you've figured out how the world works enough to sit back and enjoy it? I'd like to speak to them, please. Dr. Tom added, "I've been wearing bifocals for three years."

"How old are you?" I asked, rudely.


Well, there you have it. When I was 28, they started taking my hair. At forty, I started taking early morning trips to the bathroom. Now they want my eyes.

One hundred and eighty-four days to Bar Mitzvah. You'll have no trouble spotting me. I'll be the one wearing the bifocals.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

185 days to Bar Mitzvah: hard-boiled oneg

While the Bar Mitzvah party can take many forms, one Bar Mitzvah ritual has only a few variables: the oneg. Proper name: oneg Shabbat, pronounced OH-neg. It is the not-so-gently suggested tradition -- read: requirement -- to "make" oneg Shabbat following your child-turning-into-an-adult's B'nai Mitzvah.

You don't "make" oneg with tools. Though its literal meaning is "joy of Shabbat," "Oneg Shabbat" is the Chosen People's way of saying "provide lunch." This is how you "make" oneg.

That I'd never heard of oneg Shabbat until this year is further evidence of the many holes in my Jewish identity. I probably skipped Hebrew school the day they taught us about oneg Shabbat, either for baseball practice or to take some blonde goyishe girl somewhere on a date.

So many times in the past eight years, since beginning kindergarten at Brandeis Hillel Day School and accelerating tremendously in the past year, I've run up against Jewish traditions I've never heard of. Calling our trademark little scullcaps "kippot" was one such occasion. Finding out that you are required to buy lunch after your Bar Mitzvah and then call it something that ironically sounds a bit like eggnog, a Christmas tradition, was another.

It happens so often that I just assume nobody else in my immediate family has ever heard of this stuff either. I knew my father had been Bar Mitzvah'ed, but save for dressing as Moshe Dyan every year for Halloween, it wasn't until he hit retirement age that he starting ramping up his Jewish identity, and that was mostly out of solidarity with Israel.

To me, his being a Zionist was a logical extension of his emphasis on justice in all facets of life. There didn't seem to be anything particularly Jewish about it. It wasn't until about ten years ago when I heard him reciting the Sh'ma as they wheeled him away for an agioplasty, that I thought about his connection to the faith itself.

And of course I never bothered to ask my mother about her upbringing. If I had, I would have discovered that she'd been raised in an Orthodox house. The only reason she wasn't Bat Mitzvahed was because in 1953 Orthodox girls weren't allowed. Her mother had hers, if I'm remembering correctly, right about the same time my cousin David had his, in 1977.

If my Jawa wanted to learn about growing up Orthodox in the 1940s and 1950s, he need only ask his grandmother, something I've started doing when these oddball (to me) Jewish traditions suddenly appear. Who knew that she joined her cousin Alice at Passover every year to change out the dishes and silverware, then go around the house removing all the trayf (non-Kosher food and leavened bread items) to properly observe the holiday? One year, she told me, they were left alone, Alice and she, on the day Passover was to begin. Though this happened right in the wheelhouse of her rebellious teenage years, the two of them dutifully went through the house, removing the trayf.

And yet, despite my growing sense of my mother's strong Jewish identity, I was still surprised that she knew exactly what an oneg was, the first time the word fell from my non-Jewish wife's lips.

I wish they could call it something else. Like most Hebrew and/or Yiddish words, it sounds nasal and full of otherness to me. If we could just refer to it as "brunch," I might be more on board. And "oneg" is just too close to "egg," or "eggnog," two words I abhor. As you may have guessed, my oneg buy-in is not required.

At Temple Emanu-El, your oneg responsibility is simple: you choose one of three levels of oneg and then you pay for it. Being resolutely middle-class, I assumed we'd opt for the mid-level oneg before even knowing what that spread out in the hall after the Bar Mitzvahs was called. And even though Sandra Bullock has become something of a self-styled oneg critic, I am unmoved. The middle option is the best.

My wife likes to keep tabs on these onegs. It's part of her overall effort to gather as much information as possible before our turn comes. What have we been to now, a dozen Bar and Bat Mitzvahs? Every week, during the service, she makes sure to mention that she wants to stay for awhile afterwards to check out the oneg. Not to partake; we've only done that a few times. She just wants to feel it out, to measure one oneg against another, to get ideas. She won't say it, but I know that if she could, she would assemble a file folder titled "ONEG." In it would be small bits of food, taken from each oneg.

I like to break up the service -- which is usually two-plus hours long -- by stepping out for a bathroom break about two-thirds of the way through. After the Torah portions but before the speeches. Every time I go, as I pass my wife, she whispers, "Check out the oneg while you're out there." When I return, she says, "How was the oneg?"

Which is pretty funny, given that all of the fact-gathering missions in the world won't change the fact that at Emanu-El we're limited to one of three oneg options. A few weeks ago, while attending a Bat Mitzvah in the main sanctuary, we learned that Temple Emanu-El uses two caterers for their onegs. Which one you get is determined by date. It's a crapshoot, in other words.

Well, I thought the oneg at that particular Bat Mitzvah was pretty awesome. They had pita and hummus, which I'd never seen at an oneg before, alongside the usual bagels and caesar salad. "Hey," I said, thinking Sandra Bullock would be pleased to see me show an interest in the oneg, "This food looks great."

"I know. This is the other caterer," returned my wife.

"What other caterer?"

"Emanu-El rotates caterers every week."

"How do we guarantee we get this caterer, then?"

"No way to do that."

"You're telling me we could pay just as much as we would have for this good caterer and end up with the b-list caterer?"


I probably won't eat at our oneg, anyway. I didn't eat at my own wedding. Annie Fergerson ordered pizzas back at the suite, where we'd invited everyone after the reception. But I won't eat at our oneg because, frankly, onegs are complete chaos. Take 200 people who got up early on a Saturday, came to temple and sat through a two-plus hour service, open the doors at 12:30 and show them two long tables covered with food. See what happens.

It's not an optimum way to dine, which might be why it's not called a brunch. Brunch is relaxing. You sit at a table, you drink a Mimosa. Even if it's a buffet, the trips to the buffet line are unhurried. There are no worries about running out of food. You take as much as you want, then casually return to your seat.

Oneg isn't like that. Oneg is a mad rush to the buffet table. It's a combination receiving line, cocktail reception (with no alcohol) and cafeteria lunch. Oh, and those 200 people who were until recently lounging about in a giant sanctuary? They're now crammed into a tiny entrance lobby. At oneg, you learn to eat standing up with your arms wedged against your chest. Oneg experts only move the part of their arm from the elbow down. The upper arm stays in tight.

Forget beverages. There's simply too much of a chance that your tiny plastic cup will get knocked from your hand by an enthusiastic well-wisher or someone snaking their way through the crowd, desperately looking for air and escape.

And yet there it is: the (required) oneg. Anyone seeking a more personal oneg Shabbat experience can log onto, where they will connect you with people with which to "make" oneg shabbat. Why are they looking so hard? All you've got to do is show up at a temple at 12:30 on any Saturday.

When you order your oneg at Temple Emanu-El, you order enough for your party plus 75 more. I take that to include the "professional Bar Mitzvah-goers," who show up every week and attend whoever's Bar or Bat Mitzvah happens to be going on. "They do it for the free food," my mother says. I'd like to think they're getting more out of the experience, especially since I also see them at our Saturday morning "Family Torah" classes. They don't have to be there. They could just show up at noon, slam a few bagels (and hummus, if they're savvy enough to have marked their calender in advance) and totter off down Arguello Street, fat and happy.

That's okay. They can come to our oneg. Even that lady in the dirty ski jacket who always drags a little box along behind her. She can come, too. We're getting option #2, so there'll be plenty of food. But I won't know until we get closer to August 21 if we're on the right week to get the hummus.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

186 days to Bar Mitzvah: remember me?

It was spring, 1978 and I was four feet, eleven inches tall. I wore oversized, tortoise-shell glasses and the volume of my hair could only be measured with the aid of a protractor and then plotted on an x/y axis. I was in love with Robin Hardy.

Flash-forward 15 years, to the summer of 1993. I'm a foot taller, seeing through contact lenses and enjoying what would turn out to be the high point of my experience with hair: all of it was on top of my head and showing no signs of the abandonment it would later put me through without so much as a "so long, good to know you." I'm sitting at a table in the back of a ballroom at a hotel near John Wayne Airport, talking to Steve Bilt, who I haven't seen in years. It is our ten-year high school reunion.

Steve and I are sitting there, really enjoying ourselves, when who should walk up but Robin Hardy. Somehow, fifteen years earlier, all I saw was blonde hair, I guess. I hadn't realized what a complete weirdo she was. Having left our high school early (sophomore year? I'd moved on to other crushes by then.), she'd become somewhat of an enigma. No one knew what had happened to the girl whose popularity peaked in seventh grade.

Turns out she'd moved to Utah, or Nevada, and had changed her name to something odd, like Faith or Charity. Rumor was that she'd become a small-town weather girl or newscaster. Now she approached Steve and I, spread her arms wide and shouted, "Look at you tow. You're all grown up!" Not satisfied with saying it once, she repeated that phrase no less than a dozen times in the five minutes it took Steve and I to convince her to move on.

But boy, back in the spring of 1978, did I have it bad for Robin Hardy. Such a cliched little ethnic boy. Bring me your white women. She loved that I was Jewish, though. I remember that. Such a novelty. It made me wince.

It is now 2010, and I'm trying to remember what it felt like to want to be near Robin Hardy, how utterly confused I was if she paid any attention to me. My approach was usually to act depressed. It had worked for Peter Brady, I figured. How confusing to a thirteen-year-old girl. Why is this weird little Jewish kid with the giant glasses and the insane hair acting so odd? I'm sure she didn't give it much more than a passing thought.

In 2010, I am the father, hard by middle age and still looking for answers. This time, I am calling on my legendary powers of memory to more clearly understand the world my Jawa now occupies. Though the soundtrack is different and the clothes are nowhere near as groovy, there's got to be an underlying commonality. I was once a seventh-grader. He is a seventh-grader.

I need this to help me understand -- and remember -- what it felt like to have one world at school and another at home. To enter the atrium at Santiago Junior High always looking for one of two things to happen: for someone popular like Rocky Lall to notice me (and maybe give me the seventh grade standard greeting of "Hey, fag!") or for an opportunity to accidentally run into Robin Hardy, to see if she'd say "Hi," or even better, say something about my shirt or my shoes, horribly embarassing me but leaving me thinking of nothing else for the balance of the day.

And what was it like to then leave that at 2:35 every day, exit the hermetic world of the yellow school bus, where people tried out swear words, talked about sports and music and sent coded messages through go-betweens to the girl or boy they were interested in, and then walk through the front door of home, only to find that the other occupants of your house -- in my case, mother, father and two sisters, in the Jawa's case, Sandra Bullock and I, had not received the bulletin outlining the emotional growth you'd experienced that day.

Is it any wonder the Jawa bristles at any attempt to control what he does? Or that he rolls his eyes at a suggestion that deviates from the plan he'd concocted in his brain (but not shared with us) during the day? I need to remember.

Otherwise, as a parent, you suddenly find yourself living with the most self-absorbed, irrational, quick-tempered, frustrating person you've ever met. To make matters worse, that person is your creation. It's your fault.

No, I've got to remember. School world, friends world, girlfriend world, they're all far more vivid in the mind of an adolescent Jawa than home world could ever hope to be. Home world is the time that exists between opportunities to visit those other worlds. What was once the only place you felt comfortable is now a challenge: how do I convince these people that they're not dealing with a child anymore? Don't they know what I deal with each day? And I don't know about you, but I don't see that hierarchy changing very much over the next few years.

Except for those times when it does. Because sometimes, I can vaguely remember and equally vaguely suss from my son's actions, you don't want to live in those other worlds, and you sure don't want those worlds intruding on home world, the world you've known longest, the most reliable world, run by those people who, with luck, will get any reference you might make to something that happened when you were a little kid. Remember our old hamster? Me, too.

If you pay close enough attention, you can hear the gears moving in a twelve-year-old's head. You can hear them mesh smoothly as he leaps forward toward adulthood, maybe when you catch him holding the door open for an old lady at the bank or laughing at something on TV he wouldn't have found funny six months ago.

Other times you can hear the gears crash into each other, clattering wildly in chaotic failure, outwardly manifesting as eye-rolls and rude backtalk that continues long after it should be over. Sometimes, I swear, I can see the smoke coming out of his ears, not from anger but from the difficult task of making all the gears fit together as the world changes seemingly minute-by-minute.

Thirty-two years ago, I was a Bar Mitzvah. I was also the little kid edging away from Brett Gebhardt as he lit up a cigarette every morning at the bus stop, the dreaming romantic who secretly read his grandparents' copy of "A Stone for Danny Fisher" not because it was racy but because it had scene after scene where Danny, a tough kid who got bad breaks, got the girl, mooning over Robin Hardy because she seemed like everything you were supposed to want in a girl. I was a confident first baseman, soon to lose that confidence when my body, unused to sudden growth, lost its ability to pick it around the bag in the summer after eighth grade. This was the trade-off for growing nine inches.

I was desperate, begging my mother to take me to Miller's Outpost for OP and lightning bolt shirts, which were beyond our budget. But to walk into that atrium wearing a Sears knockoff would have been almost as bad as showing up with no pants -- a circumstance I dreampt about almost nightly.

Yes, someone needs to remember. Because even though Family Guy has replaced Benny Hill as the forbidden fruit of comedy, the general chops are the same. Being twelve is being twelve, which doesn't make it any less confusing. I just figured that being the parent of twelve would be easier than being twelve. I was wrong. Being the parent of twelve is nothing like being twelve, but it's about as hard as being twelve.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Seven months and eight days: retreat to the suburbs

Look, I know I'm supposed to hate the suburbs. I turned my back on them long before San Francisco taught me that they're full of ignorant people who hate all of the enlightened tenets we urban types hold dear. I get it.

And I'm not here to tell you I'm putting my tiny, water-damaged hilltop Glen Park home on the market and decamping for Walnut Creek. First of all, we'd never get enough for our house to buy in Walnut Creek. Second, I'm not in a position to make such decisions, and third, I wouldn't want to live in Walnut Creek. I think.

All I'm saying is that last night, while walking my dog past the swollen, proud homes of my sister's subdivision in Simi Valley, California, the suburbs didn't seem like such a bad deal. Please don't throw me out of the urban warriors club for thinking this.

It's just that the sun was setting and it was warm enough for shorts, and the elementary school that had a nice wide dirt path running through the woods behind it looked very new and clean, and the park where other people were with their dogs had really thick, really green grass, and my dog was loving it. No stopping and making himself heavy because he'd rather go in the direction of the pet store. More like bounding through the grass, since grass is a complete novelty to him. He's used to concrete and mud. That's it.

That part was nice. Even the most prejucided city dweller would have to admit it, unless the thought of no sirens or horns or taking their time getting into their car because it's parked in a driveway and no one's going to come tearing down the street, forcing them to quickly jump into their car to avoid getting hit makes then nervous. I can understand if it does.

I've lived in cities since 1988, when I packed up my 1974 Alfa Romeo GTV and drove to Seattle. It was a long drive, as the legend goes; too long to drive back. Since then, I've never lived more than three blocks from the nearest bar.

When I was a little kid, living in Northeastern Pennsylvania, all I wanted was to live like the kids in "Family Affair," in a big high-rise building where you took an elevator to your floor and walked down a long hallway to get to your front door. I loved "The Odd Couple," too, when Felix and Oscar paused under the awning in front of their building before hailing a cab or heading to the subway to go wherever they needed to go.

That was it for me: not just a city, but THAT city. New York. Even later, during high school and college, when I carried out a very public love affair with Orange County, I secretly wondered if I would ever get to live in a big high-rise in New York.

Well, it's getting late and doesn't look like that's going to happen. Instead, I've had a series of apartments and then this small house in Seattle, Boston and San Francisco. No New York. I went there for business once (get that; me, for "business"). On the first morning, I strode down Fifth Avenue, thinking, "Here I am to claim my birthright." But that was it.

And now, a few months short of 45 and seven months and eight days to Bar Mitzvah, I'm starting to wonder if my big city mojo has dried up and abandoned me. The getting from point A to point B, the people cutting in line on BART, the constant budget shortfalls and mis-governing, and the uniquely San Francisco tendancy to cavalierly dismiss anyone who disagrees with you as lacking the great tolerance with which you conduct your life, it's all got me thinking a walk past a shiny new elementary school in a neighborhood full of 10-year-old multi-story stucco homes isn't such a bad deal after all.

Until, I'm sure, I ended up there. Noodle's Mom, my sister, was very clear on that. "I have to get in my car to go anywhere," she told me. "Anywhere."

"Well, sure," I responded, "but I'll bet getting in your car here isn't like getting in your car where I live." I'm working on a theorem that will measure the number of minutes you lose off your lifespan for every minute spent dodging obstacles as you search in vain for easy passage across the city. There will be an addendum for the lifespan impact of parking in Noe Valley.

On today's drive home, Sandra Bullock and I managed to squeeze in some conversation between traffic-induced psychosis and being reminded by our Jawa and future Bar Mitzvah boy that our instructions are actually suggestions and should be treated as such. At one point, she said, "If we were ever to come into some money, you know what I'd do?"

We were driving up 101 at the time, a half-hour south of San Luis Obispo, rolling green hills on either side of us.

"I'd buy a beach house at Cayucos (a town of 2,000 on the central coast, fifteen minutes northwest of SLO). What do you think that would cost? Two million?"

Since we were dealing with what-ifs, two million was a reasonable sum. "Yeah," I said back, imagining our small-town life -- the one I've always come back to after exhausting city and suburb options, ever since being uprooted from Clarks Green, Pennsylvania (population 1,200) to Anaheim and then Orange, California (population, 200,000) in 1976. In it, I picture us hanging out at the one bar in town, sitting around on benches on Main Street, learning how to surf and riding bikes.

"How about this," I ventured. "If I were a best-selling author," which, though as likely as mysteriously "coming into money," still seems like a possible option to my deluded mind, "We could get a place in Cayucos, have our place in San Francisco, and get a one-bedroom condo in Manhattan."

"I could do that," said my bride.

"Okay, then," I said. "It's decided."

With our future determined, I returned my attention to the road, where a fifth-wheel trailer being pulled by a moustache guy in a big pickup truck had decided to assume left lane supremecy. I figured he undoubtedly lives in a large stucco home, identical to its neighbors, on a cul-de-sac in a subdivision somewhere in Southern California, right? I was sure I spotted a sneer on his face as he passed me. Putting the pansy in the Volvo in his place, right? Big man.

And thus realized I was ready to return to San Francisco.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Seven months and ten days: road trip

I have been driving the length of the San Joaquin valley for almost as long as I have been driving. My first trip, in September, 1981, ended in failure, as the fuel pump on Scott "Soot" Moores' Pontiac wagon blew outside of Tulare, leaving us sitting on a curb outside a gas station for eight hours until my father could get to us from Turlock, where he was moving my sister into the condo they'd bought (for something like $40,000) for her to live in while attending Cal State Stanislaus.

Being sixteen, it never occurred to Soot and I that we didn't have to sit on the curb the whole time, watching lowered pickup trucks drive by, all of them, improbably, playing the same song: "Tom Sawyer," by Rush. We could have gotten up from that curb and walked to a restaurant, maybe eaten something besides the Chevron food available at the gas station.

We could have explored Tulare. Maybe if we had, I would feel differently about it today. It could have stood out from the rest of the valley towns, not to say that it doesn't anyway. It stands out as one of my least favorite places in the world, sharing time with the entire Antelope Valley and parts of Snohomish County, Washington. In the dozens of drives I've taken up Highway 99 since -- a number which, by the way, pales in comparison to the hundreds I've logged on I-5, I've never stopped in Tulare. I may step on the gas a little bit harder, actually, to get through it as quickly as possible.

After eight hours of sitting on that curb, eating Doritos and listening to the far-off strains of "Tom Sawyer," my dad arrived in a rented pickup truck. We emptied Soot's Pontiac into the truck bed and crammed into the cab. Three very long hours later, we arrived in Turlock.

Since then, I've traversed California's Central Valley too many times to count. Between 1984 and 1987, Greg Baker and I crossed it several times a year, eventually lowering the time spent driving from Orange, California to Santa Clara University to a record five hours and 44 minutes. We did that in a bronze-colored 1982 Toyota Tercel. By then, cruise control was not necessary. The car knew where to go.

The drive includes 180 miles of flat, straight road, passing towns like Pumpkin Center, Lemoore and Kettleman City. If you get bored, you can stop at the grocery store on Panoche Road and buy straw cowboy hats, then sit on a nearby split-rail fence and watch the sun set. You can learn all the words to every song on "The Eagles Greatest Hits." You can make up your own words, to make it more challenging.

I've driven across California at night and during the day, during impenetrable fog and blinding heat. I've driven over 100 miles per hour and, during one drive in the early 1980s, gone 55 in the fast line, running parallel to Greg's friend Howard, just to see if it would make all the other drivers mad. It did.

I've driven with girlfriends, roommates, siblings and acquaintences since lost to history. I've driven it alone and as part of a convoy.

And now, as of yesterday, I've driven it while hashing out very small details about a Bar Mitzvah that will take place seven months and ten days from today.

The trip between San Francisco and my sister's new digs in Simi Valley takes six long hours. If you're not driving, if, say, you've sprained your ankle playing basketball in the plush gym provided by your employer, whose largesse makes it a bad idea for anyone else to hire your spouse, lest he compare the meager benefits available at his company to the endless list of perks given freely at yours, you sit in the passenger's seat with your foot propped up on the dashboard, looking for things to do.

If this is you, and you are Sandra Bullock, that six hours is easily filled, thanks to your BlackBerry, whose "notes" function you have just discovered. "This is great," said my injured bride to me as I hit I-5 in Santa Nella. "I can write down all the questions I need to ask Bob (the General Manager of the Golden Gate Yacht Club."

"First, do they have a sound system upstairs? We can plug in your iPod and play music while the kids are downstairs with the DJ."


On three-days weekends, the road through the San Joaquin Valley ceases to be an easy -- though boring -- drive. Boredom is replaced with white-knuckle anxiety as you pick your way through traffic. Ninety miles per hours can become sixty-five in a heartbeat if a semi truck decides it's time to pass a bus. The trip becomes one long, frustrating sociological study in which the tendancy of drivers (often in minivans) to occupy the passing lane for miles at a time, oblivious of all around them, is a recurring theme.

So if my participation in this stage of Bar Mitzvah planning was less then enthusiastic, if my attention was skewered, I have an excuse.

"I also need to ask Bob about where we can play our slideshow. Do you have anything you need to ask Bob about?"

Right then I was about fifteen feet from the back bumper of a Prius, in the left lane. Before I could answer, I would need to change back to the left lane, hit the gas, pass the Prius while throwing a disgusted glance at the driver, then cut back into the left lane before hitting the eighteen-wheeler doddering along up ahead.


"Do you have anything you need to ask Bob about?"


Meanwhile, a few feet away, the Jawa was absorbed by one of two Star Trek movies he'd brought along as I silently thanked the technology gods for inventing every piece of equipment necessary to provide my child with this distraction. Otherwise, as we learned when the portable DVD player malfunctioned earlier, we could add non-stop vocal complaints to the increasingly stressful tableau unfolding before me. These are not the cute, high-pitched, benign complaints of a child. No, this is the pointed, sarcastic, uniquely worldly plaintive wails of a teenager. "It's not like I can hear anything with that music playing," he said when he first cued up his DVD.

From the front seat, dripping with road sweat, I answered: "I AM THE DRIVER," I thundered. "MY NEEDS COME FIRST."

My injured bride turned to stare at me in disgust, but there was no way I was meeting that glance. From the back seat, mumbled anger. And then, of course, two minutes later I felt like a fool, and the music I'd been listening to suddenly became embarassing, so I turned it off.

"Try my headphones," I volunteered cheerily. "They cut out all outside noise." Problem solved.

At eight o'clock, foresaking dinner and all other niceties, we descended into Simi Valley. By now, my nerves were shot in an exceptional way that doesn't exist when you drive with college buddies or girlfriends. This was the special mood that can only result from a family road trip. I pictured cartoon birds and short-circuits fizzing and popping around my head. My poor son was sentenced to single-word responses, lest he be told to "STOP TALKING PLEASE."

I got them here safely, in less than six hours, having only cut off two people badly enough to have high-beams flashed at us. Showing great judgement, my passengers pretended not to notice both times.

We staggered from the car, a tired and motley crew, poor Sandra Bullock dragging her bad leg behind her, only the Jawa and Shack possessing of enough energy to show excitement at my sister's new -- and mind-numbingly enormous, after twenty years sentenced to tiny, often military base-issued housing -- pad. And for the first time in my long and colorful history of driving cars through the middle of California, I reached my destination not having wasted six hours. Thanks to the efforts of my indefatigable and unbowed wife, we now have a long list of questions to ask Bob, all compiled during the drive.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Seven months and twelve days: wheels

We live in a city devoted to tell its citizens they don't need cars. They encourage us to "get out of our cars" by raising bridge tolls and proposing we eliminate parking spaces to promote sidewalk dining. They throw out fanciful ideas like "congestion tolls" (While it sounds like it might be a levee on allergy season, congestion tolls involve charging drivers who go downtown during rush hour.) and making sections of now-free highways into toll roads. If we make driving more unpleasant than it already is, the thinking goes, people will have no choice but to take the bus.

Unfortunately, the second piece of this equation -- improving local public transportation systems -- has been ignored. And as long as enough people write self-congratulatory letters to the editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, extolling the pleasures -- and environmental benefits -- of bike riding, our city government will continue to think our ultimate goal is to become a city of sweaty, disheveled, slow-moving commuters with incredibly high self-esteem.

None of these people drive across town to Temple Emanu-El once a week. I heard the complaining from the north siders for years. Their sentence: driving across town EVERY DAY to get their child to Brandeis Hillel Day School. I am in no way minimizing the impact of that drive on their psyches, because I know I couldn't have done it myself. Trying to get to 1 Lake Street once a week is damaging enough.

There is no easy way to get across San Francisco. Thanks to the "freeway revolt" of the 1950s, Highways 101 and 280 both stop before getting to the city core. Which means that not only does my wife always have a legitimate reason for us to not to move to Mill Valley (not to mention $12 a day in bridge tolls), it also means that getting from point A to point B can take several years off your life.

Had we joined Ner Tamid, the Charlie Brown Christmas Tree of synagogues, our weekly drive would be five minutes long. Not that I think about this as I'm inching down Nineteenth Avenue, glancing at the dashboard clock every three minutes in hopes of slowing it down enough to allow us to get to temple on time.

As luck would have it, we are decent San Franciscans, though not good ones. Two years ago we got rid of our second car, the much-beloved Acura TSX. We did it purely to save ourselves to $600 a month a second car would cost. High insurance rates are another hidden "benefit" of city life.

It didn't suck to know that we were only polluting half as much, but that wasn't a primary cause for the move. We did it to pay for school. But it was nice to be able to run around telling people that while we may not have a Prius, and while we may not bike everywhere, at least we have only one car. And honestly, if the Jawa went to a school that was on the BART line, we probably wouldn't even need that.

Or, I should say, "wouldn't have." No way does this Bar Mitzvah happen without our Volvo V50 wagon.

"During your speech, when you thank everyone, you should thank the car," I told the Jawa one day, while careening through the narrow streets of Ashbury Heights. By the time we reach August, that car will have clocked well over a thousand miles just going back and forth between our house and 2 Lake Street. In the end, we will have made that drive around 100 times over 18 months. Not a huge number for a car, but try it on a bike.

Most of our weekly temple commitments are meetings lasting an hour or less, which makes the entire package similar to a flight between San Francisco and L.A.: actual flying time is only part of the total time spent.

When the Jawa was just a toddler, on the days we weren't forcing him to walk the mile between daycare and our Seattle apartment, I sometimes picked him up after work in our then-new Subaru Outback. One day, while following three cars slowly down the street, I heard, from the back seat, a tiny little voice saying, "Come on, buddy!"

Until that moment, I'd never thought of myself as much of an angry driver. I'd heard much better driving rage come from others. I also knew that an eighteen month-old child doesn't come up with "Come on, buddy!" on his own. He hears it somewhere.

Sheepishly, I held my tongue for the rest of that ride. Since then, I've tried -- really, I have -- to keep my cool while on the road. I try to act rational, even as I'm pointing out to the Jawa that the guy in the SUV up there really doesn't care about anyone but himself.

I fail. They tell me this all the time. My reputation as a behind-the-wheel hothead is cast in stone. Despite my best efforts. And that's with people in the car. It's worse when no one's there. I don't actually yell, though. They made that up. Or they're remembering it from years ago, like how I kept getting argyle socks for Christmas long after I'd stopped wearing them.

What I need to do is find a study whose results determine that San Francisco has the worst traffic in the U.S. It doesn't seem to exist, unfortunately; most of them peg weird places like Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina.

That's because they're limiting themselves to freeways. The real action in San Francisco is on the surface streets. When you're trying to get across the 6.6 miles that separate Brandeis Hillel Day School from Temple Emanu-El, it seems that every imaginable obstacle -- including tourists driving with maps spread out on the dashboard, people looking for parking spaces, people who took a wrong turn about a mile ago and need to throw a quick U-turn to correct, people who didn't realize that you can't turn left on Nineteenth Avenue for the three miles between Sloat and Fulton -- they're all out there, doing their best to make your drive resemble the 1980s video game "Frogger."

If you can make it through without exploding, swearing, randomly shouting out the driver's side window or transferring all of the angst you have toward your boss and unloading it on the old lady in the Nissan Sentra driving 25 in the left lane, then you are a better person than me, which isn't saying much, so don't get cocky.

Of all the things I will miss once this Bar Mitzvah is over, the drive between Brandeis and Temple Emanu-El ranks very low. Somewhere above "making a speech," somewhere slightly below "wearing a suit once in awhile on a Saturday."

And then, I will consider trading in my car and purchasing a bicycle. Or a Segway. Maybe a Razor scooter. Or not.