Thursday, April 29, 2010

114 days to Bar Mitzvah: electronics

There is a plague in our house. It takes many forms but goes by a single name: electronics. We use the word to mean any item whose technological makeup is either too complex or too current to make sense to us.

"Electronics" is the word we use to describe whatever gadget presently commands most of the Jawa's attention at the expense of everything else. Some weeks, "electronics" means endless simple, yet addictive, iPod Touch applications. They may be games involving fishing, lobbing explosives at things or jumping on moving platforms until you reach the top of the screen. They are best played hunched over, your eyes no more than three inches from the screen.

Last week, the iPod Touch was banned. Some argument got out of hand, so Sandra Bullock banned the iPod Touch from Tuesday to Tuesday. She took the thing and hid it. Its absence went unmentioned for most of the week. Then, on Monday morning, the Jawa decided to see if he could convince his mother that "one whole week" ended with the beginning of the work week. For his troubles, he got hung up on.

It didn't really matter anyway. There are several alternate forms of "electronics." All are designed to capture the user's attention and then hang onto it with a death grip, no matter what is going on around him. With the iPod Touch out of commission, the Jawa turned to more traditional devices.

The easiest one to work is the desktop PC. It's easy because, as anyone who works in an office in the 21st-century knows, it's impossible to determine whether someone is doing work or screwing off unless you see what's on the screen. The physical actions are the same: you're sitting there, staring into a screen, typing.

And as anyone who's every worked in a cubicle should know, it's very obvious when you hurriedly click from one window to another because your boss just snuck up on you. Same goes for Jawas who are supposed to be doing homework.

Homework, then, has become a game of cat-and-mouse. Is he really looking for information about the Bubonic Plague? Is that the Brandeis Hillel Day School website -- thank you, by the way, for the convenience of homework assignments posted online, but there is a tradeoff in that there's no way to accurately predict how long it takes to get information on the day's homework online; sometimes it takes a few seconds, leaving the savvy user/student, who has established a pattern of taking at least five minutes to retrieve assignments, a solid block of time to surf the web before anyone notices -- or is it iTunes? Is that You Tube video I see the documentary on the lawsuit involving the ball Barry Bonds hit for his 756th home run, or is it another episode of "Mythbusters?"

It's become very difficult to tell, which is why the desktop PC remains the go-to device.

The new miniature net book (or whatever they call it) laptop we got him runs a close second. All the kids use them, we were told by the school counselor, especially ones lacking organization skills -- and legible handwriting. No complaints here. The mini laptop is paying for itself in spades at school. At home, though, it's another gray area.

The truly nefarious thing about electronics is that the most obvious ones turn out to be the least malignant. To play Guitar Hero on the Wii, you have to go downstairs (which can be creepy sometimes at night because you have to walk through the laundry room to get there and besides, if you're down there and everyone else is upstairs, what's to stop some maniac from busting out the window down there and kidnapping you? On the Jawa scale, being downstairs alone at night ranks just behind spooky heating vents on the uneasiness scale). You have to fire up the TV, change all the settings, plug in the controllers, hook up the guitars... you get the picture. Guitar Hero is an event. You can't just snap it on and disappear, like you can with your Nintendo DS or your iPod Touch.

Even the venerable DS, now that I mention it, has taken a back seat to the remarkable capabilities of the Jawa's two iPods. I'm not sure why he has two. There doesn't seem to be much actual music on the Touch; mostly TV shows.

Which is significant. With all of these amazing technological advances, with all of the Jawa's obsessiveness over his iPod "apps," which, while including some things practical (like one that gives you sports score updates in real time) lean heavily toward time-wasters. There is the app that mimics the sound of pouring a beer into a glass. There is the one where you fish for exotic fish, earning points based on the (completely randomly determined) type of fish you catch.

There is the application that, when you click on it, simply releases the sound of a particularly loud, torque-bearing burp.

Just now we were driving home from weekly Rabbi class. I picked the Jawa up at school, watched him stare at his iPod Touch, dropped him at the temple, then watched him stare at his iPod Touch again. It was a beautiful, sunny day and we live in San Francisco. It's not like we're driving past an anonymous landscape of Wal-Marts and Dairy Queens, in other words.

Everyone's busy. We don't get much actual time together where we're not doing our own things. We need to take advantage of whatever little snips of time we can get. All these experienced parents tell us they have their best conversations with their teens while driving. "They open up more when you're not looking at them," they say.

And as a child of the 1970s, I've long considered the fathering ideal to be Tom Corbett, roaring down the street in his MGTD, answering Eddie's questions with patience and humor. How effective would Tom have been, had Eddie been buried in his iPod or miles away, thanks to sound-cancelling headphones?

I made him to shut the thing down; told him he was missing the world as it went by. He wasn't happy. "Like I don't see this stuff all the time," he said, reaching for sarcasm but attaining only transparent impatience.

I didn't want to say, "Hey! You're always saying how we never spend time together! Well, it's not a trip to the circus but here we are! No one else to talk to but each other!"

I'll say this for my Jawa. He's very resilient. Less than two minutes later, he was back in a good mood and ready to make the kind of small talk that was once, in the pre-electronics days, effortless.

And then we got home and he marched directly to his room, switched his PC on, and dove into his homework. I think.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

115 days to Bar Mitzvah: choosing sides

Last night, in the midst of our usual heated discussion about the unkempt state of his room, the Jawa dropped a new one on me. “I’m always acting badly,” he said, apropos of nothing. “That’s why I’m always the last person picked for basketball.”

See, that’s the way it is. You think you’re talking about messed-up rooms, when all along you’ve been talking about self-esteem and the cruelty of playground politics.

When I was a kid, I was always chosen last, partly because I was the youngest kid in the neighborhood, but also because I was completely uncoordinated. In response, I threw aside everything I was already good at -- trivial things like math, science, reading and writing – and put all my energy into becoming, ultimately, a mediocre athlete. All in the name of avoiding the indelible scarlet “S” for “spaz.”

How great would it be to have a device that freezes time? Only for a few minutes, as long as it takes to digest whatever new parenting challenge you’ve got. Then you’d have the time to formulate the proper response, immediately solving your child’s problem and reassuring him of his value.

Having left my time-freezing device in my other pants, I said the first thing that came to my mind: “Getting picked last sucks. The only way to stop getting picked last is to work harder.”

Nice work there, Lombardi. Very inspirational.

Five minutes later, a very defensive Jawa was alone in his room with his door closed. I was out in the living room, wringing my hands. “I mean, what was I supposed to say?” I asked the overworked Sandra Bullock, who glanced up briefly from her laptop then returned to her work flow chart. “He wants me to say that they’re all jerks for picking him last. I can’t do that. I know how it works.”

How it works is that you move to Seattle when you’re 23 and still have hair. You meet a bunch of guys who spend every day playing basketball or volleyball and every night at bars. You get tight with these guys in the drunken foxhole manner only shared by hard-core drinking buddies. You’re the newest member of their unstoppable posse. Then one day, some guy you’ve never met shows up courtside, a guy who’s got a little bit of a street edge to him, who you’ve never seen at the bars but seems to know all of your friends. There’s an uneven number of players, and that guy, not funny, not loyal, of no value at a bar, he gets to play while you watch from the sidelines, hoping that a constant stream of funny comments will mask how it feels to be reminded, even after years of devoting yourself to games played with balls, that in the sports world, court vision and crisp chest passes trump friendship.

That’s how it works.

You bet it sucks at age 23. It sucks ten times as much when you’re 12 and they’re picking people who’ve never played before they’re picking you, especially if one of the guys picking teams has been your best friend since kindergarten. That's a reality no 12-year-old is prepared to face, much less one as tightly wound as the Jawa.

There are times – of increasing frequency as we approach the teenage years – when you have to slough off your child’s obviously poor behavior in service to a greater truth. Did the Jawa respond to everything I’d said in his room by arguing and getting increasingly angry and defensive? Yes. Could it be that this is exactly the sort of behavior that leaves him sitting on the sidelines, alone? Absolutely. Is it my job to cut through that, strap on an extra layer of reptile-gauge skin and march back into his room for a more in-depth father-son chat? You better believe it.

So after a few minutes of feigning interest in American Idol (like Simon Cowell, I think this is my last season), I walked slowly back to the Jawa’s room. Employing a soft, unconfrontational aura, I quietly knocked on his door, went in and sat on his floor.

The problem, sometimes, is that we try to solve the problem before taking the time to listen. Not getting picked for sports? No problem. We’ll buy a basketball and start having hoops training sessions after school. In no time they’ll be eating their words. Anyone over 40 knows how well that short-sighted approach worked when Mike Brady tried to teach Peter how to box in the wake of his beat-down at the hands of Buddy Hinton.

Besides, this time it’s basketball, but next time it could be anything. My skewed worldview tells me that being that last one picked for Mathletes isn’t in the same league as being left on the sidelines during P.E., but there are many around me who like to remind me that it is, indeed, the same pain.

In reality, there’s not much chance anyone gets through life completely sidestepping the feeling of being the last one picked. Unfortunately, that doesn’t make it sting any less, especially when you’re 12 and the people leaving you out are the only peer group you’ve known since you were five.

There’s a chance that, after eight years in the same school, my child is simply ready to move on – or they’re ready to move on from him. There’s a chance that he’s inherited certain personality quirks that make it more difficult to get along on a day-to-day basis than it should be. There’s also a chance that everyone he knows is hitting their teenage prime, making each and every meeting between them a riotous explosion of counter-effective hormones. This is why I was never a middle school teacher.

I wanted to tell my Jawa that we’ve been told that he’s the best saxophone player in the school and that I wasn’t kidding when I called him my “home IT desk.” His computer acumen is that good. I wanted to explain to him that sometimes having the skills to interact with people in a pleasant but shallow way is an easier way to get through life than bouncing from intense emotion to intense emotion, always at war, unable to sidestep even a single buried explosive in the minefield of everyday life.

I wanted to tell him because I want his life to be easy and happy. He shouldn’t have to fight his way through every day. Then again, as the venerated philosopher Popeye said, “I am what I am,” so it might be easier to figure out how to get him used to dodging the arrows others seem to slip through with effortless style and grace than to ask him to become someone else.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

116 days to Bar Mitzvah: you've gotta have heart

One more "family education" night to go. Scheduled for next Wednesday, it will satisfy our commitment to attending three such evenings. Unfortunately, the driving force behind this program, Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan, is not able to lead next Wednesday's session. Laid low by a heart attack, he has been "resting at home" for the past several weeks. Word on the street is that from his convalescent bed he is fending off relentless attempts by co-workers and friends to get him to effect radical change to his diet and lifestyle.

When I have my heart attack -- according to the very nice doctor we used to go to in Seattle, it's "when" not "if," I hope I will be amenable to suggested lifestyle changes. First we'd have to figure out exactly what those changes would be. The last time I went to see Dr. Felicia Sterman, our present doctor here in San Francisco, I told her, in an attempted to suck up and prove that I'm not a bad patient, that I would "change my diet" after registering cholesterol over 200 despite the presence of very strong (and beautifully-advertised) cholesterol-battling drugs. "Don't bother," she said while writing out a perscription for even stronger cholesterol-battling drugs.

There was a time -- about seventeen years ago, the first time someone measured my cholesterol, thus beginning the end of me doing whatever I wanted and not worrying about how it would play out several years down the line -- when the idea of actually having a heart attack was preposterous. Twenty-eight-year-olds don't have heart attacks unless they've got something seriously wrong with their plumbing or have been mainlining serious recreational drugs for an extended period of time. Those chest pains I periodically had were due to anxiety, the unwelcome partner of poor career decisions and a genetic predisposition to worrying.

There was one time, after a few weeks of these pains, that I actually went to a cardiologist. I'd started with our GP, who uttered the now-famous line that opens this digression. That was after she said the second-most frightening thing anyone's ever said to me. "You're not a hypochondriac," she told the 29-year-old me, handing me a referall to a cardiologist.

The scariest thing anyone ever said to me came a few years later, while getting an MRI of my brain at California Pacific Medical Center's cancer center. While giving my info to the admitting nurse, I said, "I don't plan on coming back here ever."

"That's what everyone says," she said. Nice bedside manner.

Back in 1994, I was sitting at the crossroads of an unimpressive life. One year short of thirty, I was an office temp, cranking out unprofessional, outrageous and weirdly beloved daily newsletters for a stock brokerage. My closest co-worker, John Roderick, promised me that we'd both be famous someday. So far, it's worked for him, but it's not like I'm done trying or anything.

If John and I shared anything, it was that we'd both been childhood prodigies who somehow arrived totally unprepared at adulthood. Where others had resume-building skills, we had interior libraries of useless trivia and abstract theory.

When I was a kid, my benchmarks were all based on being the youngest to ever do something. I was the youngest kid in my elementary school to do pre-algebra; I constantly maxed out whatever standardized test they put before me. Now, at 29, I was adding a dubious notch to that particular belt: I was the youngest person my cardiologist had ever put through a stress test.

They hook up a bunch of things to your chest and put you on a treadmill, gradually adding speed and incline until you're really pushing to keep up, unless you're 29 and weight 170 lbs., in which case it feels like a light workout. And if you're 29 in 1994, it feels like a light workout conducted under the same conditions present when Steve Austin began testing out his new bionic legs at the secret NASA lab.

Afterwards, the cardiologist sat us down. "Your baseline is strange," he said, "but everything else precludes you having heart disease." I exhaled. "Yet."

Fifteen years have passed. If I were to keel over while typing this, it would be very sad, sort of tragic but not beyond the scope of normal experience. "Boy, he was young," they might say. Then again, I'm only five years younger than my mom was when she had her heart attack, seven years younger than her dad was when he died of his and 11 years the junior of her brother, whose heart gave him only 56 years before cruelly and stupidly calling in its chits.

For the more pop culturally-inclined of you, John Mellencamp had a heart attack when he was 42. I hear he smokes like nobody's business, though.

Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan is somewhere in his mid-50s, again no more than a decade older than me. I don't know if he was already taking so many cholesterol and blood pressure pills that he rattled when he walked like I do. This may have been the first sign that anything was amiss.

I guess if I do make it into normal old age without what is euphamistically called a "cadiac episode" it'll be because of the terrifying 308 I clocked the first time they measured my cholesterol. I don't smoke, I don't eat meat; I probably could lose about 25 pounds, though. And like I said, I've got more pills than Carter has little pills.

When I was a teenager, my line was a cavalier, "I'm going to look exactly like this until I'm 50 and then drop dead of a heart attack." Well, five years short of 50, that doesn't sound nearly as cool and fatalistic as it did then. Besides, I don't look exactly like I did then. They took my hair; you'd think they'd fudge a little, heart disease-wise, in return.

My greatest fear is that I've passed these shoddy genes onto the Jawa. So far his eyesight is perfect, but at age nine, his cholesterol was over 200. So what, he'll get a jar of Lipitor for eighth grade graduation?

I hope not. I hope by the time he's an adult they've figured out ways to lase into your chest and fix whatever's wrong in a simple, 15-minute outpatient procedure. Or they've figured out a wonder drug that completely eradicates risk factors, leaving him free to gorge on hot dogs and put as much butter on his bread as he wants.

And with that smooth and very topical segue, you may begin your healthcare debate now.

Monday, April 26, 2010

117 days to Bar Mitzvah: mr. big

Things change. Nine years ago, when we first moved into our neighborhood, we were alien pioneers, introducing a small child to a culture that had long since raised its kids and moved on. In the neighborhood pecking order, kids came somewhere between cats and parakeets, several rungs down the ladder from dogs, especially ones wearing bandanas.

The neighborhood population ran heavily to aging baby boomers. Some of them were homeboys, living in houses their parents had left them in. Others were garden variety post-hippie San Franciscans, the kind for whom the height of sophisticated humor was responding to the president’s ill-fated attempt to rename French fries by declaring “French Appreciation Month” and sticking it to the squares every chance they got.

In nine years, the neighborhood has changed.

In 2001, the Glen Park Festival was a small, only slightly organized gathering of off-the-grid vendors catering mostly to the neighborhood’s New Age population. Entertainment was provided by multi-member jam bands who played Carlos Santana covers, sending the crowd into the kind of beatific ecstasy that doesn’t just suggest but demands convulsive, arrhythmic dancing. Anyone not wishing to participate was welcome to continue walking and go wherever non-groovy people go, muttered curses of “yuppies” trailing them as they slunk away.

Yesterday’s Glen Park Festival reflected the changes in our neighborhood. It’s still San Francisco so I still felt compelled to text my wife and ask that she pick up a clip-on ponytail and a floppy canvas hat for me while she was out so I’d fit in better.

It’s not that the overall culture has changed. Mike DeNunzio of the San Francisco Republican Party wasn’t down there registering voters and handing out stickers. Dancing Mike was still on hand. None of the candidates for district supervisor milling about admitted to owning a car.

The changes were more subtle. Mostly, they were the changes that come when a neighborhood suddenly becomes a haven for young parents after years of playing host to singles and couples.

Glen Park has changed as it’s grown. When the big empty lot became the library and upscale Canyon Market, someone took the rev limiters off the ‘hood, resulting in the addition of a handful of buzz-worthy restaurants that attract crowds of diners too well-dressed to actually live in the neighborhood. If you’re looking for someone to complain about this, keep looking. I may never set foot in the French restaurant that used to be the scary bar, but I’ll still bask in its reflected adrenaline rush every time I walk by, holding the vegetarian burrito I just got across the street at La Corneta.

Yesterday, stroller-pushers were out in force, pinballing off each other as they passed booths selling jewelry and touting the new “Glen Park Comprehensive Plan,” which calls for beautification and “traffic calming” but does not address the future of the BART parking lot, which word on the street says is marked for low-income housing, putting the physical health of the more enlightened of us at risk as we try to find words to express that, while we totally believe in subsidized housing, who really wants to live in a neighborhood surrounded by projects? It’s not pretty, believe me.

When they built the market, the old-timers either hunkered down or moved on. Stung by the battle to get it done, which involved developers and variances and the general San Francisco impulse to say “no” to any kind of new construction or actual progress, they’ve taken a lower profile, pushed to the side by an army of McLaren strollers and shared information gleaned from the new Yahoo “Glen Park Parents” email group.

Which brings us back to my original point: where we once were aliens visiting from the planet family, we are now elder statesmen, cruising the neighborhood with a phone-toting, own house keys-having, dog-walking and argument-craving pre-teen while everyone else is pushing strollers.

Yesterday at the festival we ran into various neighbors standing in line for balloon animals, face-painting and one of the two bouncy houses brought in for the day. We walked around untethered, the Jawa appearing, disappearing into the crowd, then re-appearing carrying various foodstuffs, free to enjoy the festival’s surprising choice of a honky-tonk band to provide the music necessary for Dancing Mike’s genius to flower.

Well, I mean, I was enjoying it. Fie on Carlos Santana covers.

Sometimes I wonder if it’s all good for the Jawa. I worry that he doesn’t have enough friends at school, that he comes home every day to the role of Neighborhood Big Kid, which he loves; I mean, who wouldn’t love to be the Big Kid? But how’s that translate when he goes to school and everyone’s his age and therefore, A) often don’t do what he wants to do, and B) don’t revere him and treat him like he’s their own personal Justin Timberlake.

I’ll tell you what happens: in our world, Bobby Owens was the big kid. He was seven years older than me, four years older than my sister and by far the best athlete on our street. He listened to Bob Dylan, at various times owned a motorcycle and a Mustang convertible and once during a rainstorm spent hours alone with me in his garage, hitting a tennis ball on a string with a baseball bat he’d made himself on a lathe. He got to invent neighborhood lingo, like saying,“Tough kiddo break,” when something went awry and somehow getting the entire block to think chanting the non-sequiter “lemon yogurt” was side-splittingly funny.

Then he grew up, married Karen Holden (who lived on Linden Street) and retreated to a cabin, where he home schools his kids. I think he’s an electrician or a furniture-maker or something but I know he’s super-religious.

Cautionary tale or just one man’s path through life?

I’m not saying that neighborhood big kid = home schooling in cabin. I’m just saying it’s got to be kind of hard to get traction when you’re see-sawing between being a hero and being just another kid in the crowd.

Oh, and that our neighborhood has changed and it’s full of kids now where it was once full of hippies.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

122 days to Bar Mitzvah: getting a head start

Last night, all of us wide-eyed babes in the woods assembled at the Jewish Community High School, to begin Phase II of our children's education, San Francisco-style. "We are blessed," said the JCHS Principal, who seemed to me a bit obsessed with "six-word novels," "to have a wealth of options here in the Bay Area."

Yes, I thought but didn't say, there are a number of ways here to pay $35,000 a year for high school. I'm not sure if I'd call that "blessed," though. Seems to me "blessed" would be Kurt and Patty, who used the proceeds from the sale of their too-small San Francisco house to buy a 3,000+ square-foot center hall Colonial in Wellesley, Massachusetts, home of one of the nation's best public school districts.

Remember, you have to be irrationally in love with San Francisco to make living here work.

The question of public schools arose during our first break-out session with an "Education Consultant." Without pointing out that San Francisco has the country's third-lowest percentage of parents sending their kids to public schools (less than 70%, trailing only New Orleans and Philadelphia), she did manage to get across what we all already knew: outside of Lowell, you're rolling the dice. Lowell requires an application and test for admission. The rest are done by lottery. Falling in love with the Galileo Academy of Science & Technology does not increase your chances of getting in.

If you do go to Gallileo, remember that A) while Joe Dimaggio attended the school, he did not graduate, and B) the school's sports teams haven't been the same since Deante Bernstein graduated, taking his mother who attended every basketball game and shouted "Get your money!" every time a Gallileo player scored, with him.

Once you get past the massive, equestrian-sized hurdle of tuition, yes, there are lots of options in San Francisco. None of them, we were told last night, are in any hurry to accept our children. "Some of these schools get 900 applicants for 100 spots," said the Educational Consultant.

She also told us that boarding schools have become a popular choice for Bay Area parents, which led me to later deliver a passionate monologue about how I couldn't imagine the pain I'd feel walking by our empty Jawa room each day, only to have him come home on holidays three inches taller, then sit around wearing a blue blazer and khakis, smoking cigarettes and texting his friends until break ends and he can return to campus.

The Jewish High School occupies a unique place in the Brandeis world. Word on the street is that it's essentially Brandeis High School. Nothing I saw last night convinced me differently. That a quick tally of attendees showed 60% Brandeis kids suggested that a JCHS experience would lack some of the social challenges of entering a new high school, sans your middle school graduating class.

Actually, sending your kid to JCHS after Brandeis is about as close as you can get to the line of progression most of us public-educated citizens experienced. I didn't show up for tenth grade only knowing two or three people. The entire Santiago Junior High School ninth grade class went to El Modena High School.

Apparently, though, it is chic among BHDS middle schoolers to resist the siren call of JCHS. They throw around words and phrases like "the real world," "diversity" and "a big school," certain that what they don't want is more of the same. I've heard that many of them change their tune by eighth grade. We'll see. I'll bet we apply to JCHS, regardless, even though by saying that I'm breaking the cardinal rule of a successful high school search by committing to something before learning everything about it.

We're expected to go to high school fairs (held, conveniently, at Brandeis), have our kid take the SSAT, visit school open houses, covertly attend sporting events and plays. Our child will "shadow" at each school. He'll follow a freshman around for a day to get a feel for the school. Then, having gathered information for several months, we'll choose multiple schools for application at $150 a pop.

We learned last night that the San Francisco independent high schools all use the same application general info form, which is nice, but that they also have individual forms where our middle schooler writes an essay and answers questions about himself. There are recommendation forms for English and math teachers and school counselors.

We mail everything off by mid-January. Sometime in March, we hear back. I'll be shocked if the responses don't follow the collegiate model of thin envelope = rejection, thick envelope = acceptance. After all, that's how it was getting into kindergarten. Why should this be any different?

The last time we did this was eight years ago. We felt like naifs then, only to gradually build up knowledge over time. The group that shuffled into the (understatedly impressive) Jewish Community High School theater last night imagined itself confident and street-wise. We saw one of us, Jan Reicher, take the stage with her daughter, a freshman at JCHS and Brandeis grad. Was it eight years ago that we met at Jan Reicher's house to learn more about Brandeis? Was that same freshman in first grade? And are the questions we're asking now any less naive and uninformed than the ones we asked then?

Probably not. We are back where we started, clueless, anxious, sitting at the bottom of the pyramid and trying to find that first foothold that will start us on the trip back to the top. Bar Mitzvahs are a smokescreen. Today I am a man but I am also a meek wannabe high school freshman-to-be.

"How is high school different?" someone asked Jan Reicher's poised ninth-grader.

"Well, there's no kindergartners running around," she answered.

Back when I did school tours, I was fond of telling groups of potential future Brandeis parents to consider, while deciding on a K-8 school, that kids enter Brandeis in car seats and they leave shaving. What's it now? They enter riding MUNI for the first time and exit old enough to vote and be tried as an adult?

Should JCHS' location -- it's got projects on two sides and is two blocks from Japantown -- affect our perceptions of the school? I'm wary of Urban High School not only because it's a haven for rich hippies but also because it's a block off of Haight Street. When I tell people, "I want my kid to at least have to take public transportation to buy drugs," I'm only sort of joking.

Like you had to even leave campus to buy drugs at my high school. Sure.

On the way home, the Jawa went on a tear about how JCSH has no "sporting facilities." "There's no football field, no pool, no weight room..." When did he start caring for such things? Could it be fallout from the fact that his first high school tour was Saint Ignatius, a 2,000-student school and sports powerhouse?

He knows as much as we do. Nothing. He aced the kindergarten application process, nine years ago. Our Bar Mitzvah is August 21. Rumor has the high school fair happening in early September.

...And once again we crest the first rise, pause at the top, and look down at the road ahead.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

123 days to Bar Mitzvah: who can make the sun rise?

The greatest non-Artisan dessert item in the world sat anonymously on a plate at Samara Goldbrenner’s Bat Mitzvah. The theme (all Bar Mitzvahs have themes now. My theme, I guess, was “the 70s.”) was “Samara’s Sweet Shop(pe)." There were bins of individual candies, but nothing short of an act of God was going to move me from the plate full of the greatest non-Artisan dessert item in the world.

Why do I insist on referring to chocolate brownies with chocolate chips and caramel, dunked in chocolate then put on sticks the greatest “non-Artisan” dessert item in the world? Because common understanding at Brandeis Hillel Day School is that the greatest Artisan dessert items in the world are produced by Chuck Siegal, whose daughter is in seventh grade and whose eponymously-named line of chocolates are the go-to for BHDS parents looking for impressive hostess gifts.

Were I to supplant Siegal in favor of mass-produced brownies, I would be cast even further from the nucleus of Brandeis social activity than the distant black hole I chose when I opted for self-appointed exile two years ago.

So good were the Bat Mitzvah brownies that they almost erased the fond memory I have of the legendary “Liz O’brownies” served at a women’s rec league soccer party the day I finished grad school at Seattle University. While everyone else danced, David Ticktin and I stood there eating brownies one after another. By the time the evening ended, we’d had ten between us.

The cleverly-named “Candy Bar” is a Bar Mitzvah fixture. Where in my day we had dried-out pieces of cake (a sad contrast to the Carvel cart, manned by Eddie something, the arrogant Villa Park High School first baseman whose dad owned the cart, that appeared at my parents’ 25th anniversary party a few years later), today’s Bar and Bat Mitzvahs enjoy ingenious dessert concepts.

Josh K had a chocolate fountain at his Bar Mitzvah. The Jawa spent the evening covering unlikely food items with chocolate then trying to make me eat them. “Look, Dad,” he’d say, “Chocolate-covered crackers!”

By now the repercussions of the Josh K. chocolate fountain are well-documented. On our end, it cost us a quick trip to the drycleaners to remove chocolate from the Jawa’s only Bar Mitzvah suit. For the Hammer, it meant hauling home a giant amorphous chunk of chocolate, then consulting with the aforementioned Chuck Siegal as to the options offered someone with a giant amorphous hunk of chocolate in their refrigerator.

We are having a candy bar. We’re also having regular old desserts, for adults either lacking the youthful twinkle required to eat Zotz until they get sick or the courage to battle 70 kids for a Tropical Punch-flavored Starburst.

Last week, the Jawa and Sandra Bullock ordered our candy. The minute they finished, the Jawa bounded downstairs, where I was sweating to the oldies on my stationary bike, and announced, “We just bought 60 pounds of candy!”

If you’re wondering what 60 pounds of candy looks like, join me in being surprised at how unoverwhelming it turns out to be. Our candy arrived Monday. Normally Sandra Bullock’s carpool day, the Jawa crossed us up by getting a ride home with a nearby neighbor instead of waiting for Sandra Bullock to pick him up in the “homework room” at five.

This new habit of his, I’m not so sure I like. He did it again yesterday, arriving home 90 seconds before I’d planned to pick him up. Two minutes later and I’m at Brandeis Hillel Day School -- where we’re taught the minute we first see the enormous, cocksure Russian security guys out front to be aware of the unique security challenges faced by a Jewish Day School -- wondering where on earth my child can be.

On this occasion the timing worked, but I was left with the nagging image of my child shuffling around the school after the last bell, going up to his friends’ parents – our peers -- and bumming rides. If he becomes a pandhandler some day, I’ll blame myself for thinking that aftercare was a great place to get his homework done when he obviously has no problem basically hitchhiking home after school.

I got home at 5:30 Monday to find five clear plastic bags of candy covering the surface of our kitchen island. “That’s six pounds of gummy bears!” said the jumping-out-of-his-skin Jawa.

“Six pounds of Skittles!”

“Six pounds of Hershey’s kisses!”

“Six pounds of those Sweet Tart things that usually come in long cylinders!”

Honestly, it didn’t look like much. 30 pounds of candy should have more heft. It should add up to mounds tall enough to rival the slag heaps we used to drive past on our way into Scranton when I was a kid. I’d imagined us diving into pools full of fun-size Milky Ways, throwing the candy in the air like lottery winners. Nope. 30 pounds of candy is five six-pound bags. “This is only the first shipment,” the Jawa cautioned.

An hour later, Sandra Bullock got home. “That’s it?” she said, pausing briefly from her usual 14-hour at-the-office-and-then-with-a-laptop-on-the-couch workday.

“We have 35 pounds more coming,” advised the Jawa, getting weary of our criticism.

“Isn’t it going to be weird at the Bar Mitzvah that our candy is four months old?” interjected the Jawa’s buzz-killing father.

“No!” Enough of this negativism. The Jawa pressed down on the gummy bear bag, wearing a dazed, faraway expression.

“Are you going to have it in bins, like at the candy store in North Beach?” I asked, shifting to a more positive, safe mindset.

“Yeah. Just like that.”

We ordered it early “so there would be one less thing to worry about,” according to my wife, the Generalissimo of Bar Mitzvah planning. “We had to send it express mail because chocolate is a perishable.”

I pondered that for a moment.

Actually, what I was really pondering was sort of related: I’m looking at several bags of fruity candy. Where’s the chocolate? I mean, what are my dad and I going to eat while everyone else is getting jacked up on Sweet Tarts?

Mine is a lonely quest. As a lifelong Starburst enthusiast, the Jawa couldn’t be less concerned with our chocolate-to-fruity candy ratio. However, he did offer a glimmer of hope. “The next shipment is almost all chocolate,” he said.

Now we’re talking. I lobbied hard for the brownies, but in their absence I’ll accept 30 pounds of chocolate. Fifteen for me and fifteen for my dad.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

124 days to Bar Mitzvah: what's it all about?

After we moved to California in 1976, insomnia became my constant companion. From age 11 until about a decade ago, I just couldn't figure out how to organize myself enough to fall asleep. We're not talking days without sleep here; just about an hour or so of randomly-ordered thoughts flying through my head, keeping me awake each night.

My benchmark was the "spring ahead" to Daylight Savings Time day in 1978. That night, I fell asleep at 3:00 a.m. I can still hear the faint noise of my digital clock counting off the minutes.

Huge plot twists, clever asides, an entire campaign strategy for seeking the office of Ninth Grade President; these were the things that occurred to normal people by the cheery light of day. I mapped them out in the dark, carving up the lonely hours after going to bed with endless visions of what could be and what I hoped never was.

Sometimes, just to freak myself out, I'd start thinking about life and death. I didn't want to. I could see it lurking around the corner, this terrible subject that would wind me up worse than anything else, leaving me sweaty and restless and nowhere near sleep. But I couldn't resist. It would be years before I taught myself how to, as Sandra Bullock so succinctly puts it, "shut my brain off."

Sandra Bullock, by the way, started having bouts of sleeplessness after the Jawa was born. Plagued by incomplete renovation plans, small Bar Mitzvah details and long-term career goals, her battle involves trying to cram even more work into her day. For her, insomnia is an opportunity to address things that need to attention, like the ever-changing bathroom remodel scenario.

Me, I'm more of a classic Existentialist non-sleeper.

Over time, I've figured out ways to defeat the ogre that is insomnia. Starting about a decade ago, whenever I felt myself spinning out of control, I'd start trying to name the starting lineups of every National League team in 1974 and 1975. By the time I got to Pete Mackanin, second base, Montreal Expos, I was out.

In three weeks, I will be 45 years old. To prepare, I decided last night to have an explorative "what is life" session instead of sleeping, to see how much things had changed since 1978.

It was just like the old days. It dared me to engage. "Come on," it said. "Forty five is not young. By now you should know what it's all about." Earlier, I'd scanned the obituaries, which I used to do to make sure there were still people older than my grandparents dying. Now I do it out of habit.

Yesterday, I read about a woman who was 57 when she passed. She was born in 1953. That means she was 12 years older than me, the same difference between me and a whole lot of 30-somethings I have been known to hang out with.

What if there's only 12 years left? What if there's less? Wells Twombly went at 42, but not until he'd redefined sportswriting. Rod Serling was 51. John Lennon, of course, was 40. Kirby Puckett was eight days short of 46. My mom's dad, Lou Brenin, was 52 when he had a fatal heart attack.

when I was a kid, late night freakouts focused on a simple question: what happens after you go? Do you just wake up on the other side and continue on to eternity? Or is that it? You're nothing, just dead weight in the ground. Either explanation seemed equally frightening.

These days, I'm less concerned with questions about what happens afterward than I am with ones about what's supposed to be going on right here and right now.

They go like this: "Well, okay, your body's starting to break down. You need reading glasses and are somehow working out five times a week and still gaining weight. That one magical night that blows away everything that came before and launches you into a new consciousness, the one you were meant to have all along, well, it's starting to look like it's not going to happen. You're not someone who 'lives each day as if it were his last,' so what gives?"

Well, what have you done with your life? And what are you going to do? How am I supposed to shephard a wide-eyed Jawa into "manhood" when I don't have the slightest idea of what the concept means?

Once I thought I would be one of those guys who gives up everything they own and lives an austere, spiritual life. That lasted about a week, which is a good thing, since every time I go to a Bar Mitzvah I feel incrementally less spiritual than I did the week before.

Besides, it sounds like a lot of work, you know, being austere, taking vows of silence, doing calligraphy with fountain pens, sitting on top of mountains and walking around among big oaken vats of wine. I like TV way too much to get anything out of that.

And I actually do believe that by buying stuff, we're weiling power, as I told my Jawa while screening the disturbing documentary "Food, Inc." Ours is a democracy, but my one vote for Peter Ueberroth in 2003 sure seemed like pebbles in a well compared to the power I exercise by choosing one business, item or service over another.

Of course, it's not like you get real meaning out of stuff you buy, no matter how many sleepless nights I spent as a teenager thinking, "If I could only have those cool shoes, everything would be great."

That coat I bought a couple of months ago, I felt pretty cool for about four days. Then I was just me in a really cool coat.

I'm not knocking purchasing power. I've spent (hopefully, part of) a lifetime watching to see how people choose to spend their money because I really do think it says something about them.

Or maybe it says something about me. That lady in the Porsche who berated me for driving too slowly up Downey Street while looking for a parking spot and then snagging the last spot-and-half which was "hers?" I probably would have moved my car if she hadn't been driving a Porsche. Of course, I'm also thinking she probably wouldn't be someone who drives six inches from someone else's bumper were she not driving a Porsche.

Yeah, yeah, these are just "things" and it's a shame that someone who knows so many words is so shallow. I don't really care about politics, either. Everyone around here is into them, which to me seems to unintentionally end up a real easy way to reveal you're hypocrisy without trying. It's hard to be "good."

What it boils down to, for me, is this: everyone gets their heart broken, whether they fly to work in a private jet or clock in for the night shift at Wal-Mart. That's what I'm interested in, why I spent eighteen years sitting in classrooms, paying more attention to my classmates than I was to the material being taught and why I sometimes walk around downtown with my headphones on and my iPod off, listening to other people's conversations.

That type of stuff leads to a 2.4 GPA, by the way. I wouldn't recommend it for serious students.

In three weeks, I'll be 45. There was this one moment, I remember it very clearly, sitting in my dorm room sophomore year, looking out the window from my bed, where I thought I had it all figured out. But then someone honked a horn, or a girl I liked walked by and it was gone. Just like that.

One thing I do know is that I'll never pitch for the Mets. Maybe I'll just start from there and work my way outward.

Monday, April 19, 2010

125 days to Bar Mitzvah: a new morning order

I don’t know how it works in your house, but in our house, getting out the front door on a weekday morning is a joint effort. We’ve heard tales of pre-teens who wake up to an alarm, silently and efficiently getting themselves ready for school. Not a peep is heard, save for a terse “bye!” as they slam the front door behind them.

That’s not how it works in our house.

The Jawa requires a little prodding. Oftentimes, he will be lying on the living room floor, his feet jammed up against the heating vent, watching episodes of “South Park” on his iPod, caught totally off-guard by me telling him that he has seven minutes before he need to leave for school. On most mornings, he’ll pronounce himself “ready,” only to have me remind him that most people wear shoes to school.

That’s how it’s worked since the days of preschool. Essentially, I am still pushing a toddler out the door. As I am someone dedicated to not being late, there are bound to be conflicts.

About a month ago, I decided that it was foolish for me to get up at seven. I’m not the one who needs to be out the front door by 7:55. I do that and I’m at work by 8:15, staring ahead at the endless corridor of an interminable work day.

Better I should show up around 8:45. If I’m up at seven, that gives me almost two hours to get ready before I enter my username and password. Take away the 20-minute commute and you’ve still got well over an hour to complete preparations that, after almost forty years of having to get up and go somewhere, have been honed and perfected into a sleek thirty-minute process.

Since 1997, the extra thirty minutes has been built in as the time needed to push and prod the Jawa until he’s finally out the door. For many years, friends have advised me to let him fall flat on his face, morning-readiness-wise. “He’ll wise up quick the first time you send him to school in his pajamas!” they’ve said. "Right," I'm thinking,"that'll work." See “t-shirt, and boxers consecutive-day wearing of,” for more information.

So I couldn’t just set my alarm for eight, hold my breath and hope I wouldn’t find him sprawled out on the living room floor, completely oblivious to the time. I eased into it.

For the first couple of weeks, I set the alarm for 7:30, but generally woke up a few minutes earlier. Before getting out of bed, I’d yell, “IT’S 7:30!” A few seconds later, a pajama-clad blur would fly past my bedroom door.

As an aside, I’ve begun to wonder how it is that a 90-pound child can sound so much heavier than a 130-pound woman. I can always tell who’s walking down the stairs to interrupt my blissful sports-watching revelry. Heavy steps = Jawa; light steps = Sandra Bullock. Loud voices are a toss-up and super-slow steps are Shack, who navigates stairs in a manner not unlike that of a Slinky.

From bed, I’d go for the shower where, about three minutes in, the bathroom door would fly open, which is inconvenient because our shower is directly behind the door. The door opens and I plunge into total darkness. Our shower is about three feet square and we only have one bathroom. Please email me with suggestions as to how city living kicks butt on the suburbs.

The door flies open and the Jawa enters, simultaneously delivering an arcanic monologue and brushing his teeth. Twenty seconds later, it’s over. By the time I get out of the shower, he’s standing in the living room, wearing his backpack and his latest sartorial flourish, a black-and-white trucker’s hat with “Walton’s Grizzly Lodge” written across the front. In true Brandeis/Jewish teen fashion, he's opted for the hat over brushing a hairbrush. He doesn’t know how easy he has it. His hair is only half-Jewish, and thus more closely resembles the smooth, shiny hair of his mother than the steel wool-like Jewfro of his pre-baldness dad.

At 7:55, he was out the door, calling “Bye, Dad,” a truncated version of the multiple “Goodnight, Dads” he’s lately so fond of delivering, over his shoulder.

Last Monday, without warning, I decided to give the boy a challenge and see how he responded. I woke up at 7:30, yelled, “IT’S 7:30!” watched the blur fly past the door and then went right back to sleep.

At 7:40, the Jawa appeared in my room. “Aren’t you going to get up?” he said.
“Soon,” I returned. “Did you brush your teeth?”



I heard him go into his room and hoist his backpack – which is heavy enough that installation of a small crane in his room might be within the realm of good sense – onto his shoulders, then go back into the living room. I was awake, but pretended to still be sleeping. At 7:50, he was back in my room. “Okay,” he said, “I’m going to go.”

“Alright. Have a good day.”

The front door slammed and I lazily got out of bed. I was standing trackside at the Glen Park BART station by 8:25.

So today, I woke up at 7:30 feeling like I’d just been hit by a truck, the unfortunate by-product of a consciousness that is dominated by chronic headaches which approximate the experience of having a hangover all the time. It was 7:40 by the time I got my act together enough to stumble toward the bathroom for a shower.

It was quiet. Too quiet. The kind of quiet that meant the Jawa had fallen asleep in front of the heating vent. I panicked. “It’s 7:40,” I thought, “there’s no way he’s going to be ready in time.”

Hesitantly, I called his name. “It’s 7:40,” I said. “Time to get ready.”

A strange, confident voice came from the vicinity of the living room. It carried the authority of Charlton Heston as Moses, of James Earl Jones as the Sith Lord Darth Vader. “I AM READY,” it boomed.

A few seconds later the Jawa presented himself: dressed, teeth brushed, backpack secured, wearing his hoodie and already chewing on its draw strings. “I guess you’ll be gone by the time I get out of the shower,” I said meekly.

“YES,” he thundered.

“Okay, well, have a good day.”


I was out of the shower in five minutes, but it was too late. He was already gone, locking the door behind him with his own personal set of house keys. The door to his bedroom was closed, his dishes were in the dishwasher.

It was very quiet and kind of sad. I'll get used to it.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

126 days to Bar Mitzvah: please clean your room

A few years from now, our Jawa will be sitting in the guidance counselor's office, talking about his college options; or he'll be at a party, long past the decision of whether to partake or not. Maybe he'll be at Denny's at three in the morning, long after the dance has ended, talking with a girl who may or may not eventually become the first great love of his life.

Wherever he is, the topic will be the same. "My dad," he'll say, "is always on my case."

At no point in the past 12-plus years did I gather myself, consider my options and say, "You know, I think I'll be the kind of dad who's always nagging his son to do things." It's just worked out that way so far. Rare is the day I can get through without something he's done -- or, more likely, hasn't done -- rubbing me the wrong way.

It's almost always about cleaning his room, or whatever other surface he has descended on, destroyed, and then moved on with nary a second thought. He is like a Category 5 tornado in that way, random, unpredictable and comprehensive in the damage he causes. The yoke I wear is trying to live with this (hopefully temporary) personality trait without becoming a carichature.

Where do I go from here, for example? Is the next step hounding him about having no direction in life? I would need to remove all mirrors from the house before I could do that with a clear conscience. I may as well scold him for his pre-adolescent mustache, so hypocritical would that be.

One way to rationalize my behavior is to assume that I'm doing a service for him, providing an easy target at which to direct his teenage angst. "My dad, man," he can say. "I'll never be what he wants."

It's funny how that particular cliche is equal parts overwrought and inaccurate. Speaking only for myself, I haven't really thought about what I would "want" him to be. It takes most of each day to get a handle on what he is; who has time to postulate about what he "should" be?

But this cleaning the room thing; it's a problem.

And of course, the worst part is that I know I didn't care about keeping my stuff clean until I was 18 and living in a dorm room. The only reason I picked up the slack there was because there simply was no place to hide. You leave your dorm room bed unmade, you're dealing with an unmade bed all day. You leave your teenage bed unmade, you can simply close your bedroom door, leaving you with -- in our case -- five other rooms to mess up.

I have a word of advice to anyone out there with children younger than the Jawa: don't let your child know how important any single thing is to you. Say you intimate that their tendancy to throw everything in their backpack around the room is an obvious nose-thumbing toward their primary authority figure (their father)? Having spent most of your recent time in the world of adults, you might assume that the logical response would be for the child to think, "I don't want to give the impressiont that, by blatently ignoring my father's wishes, I am purposely stating that I will not do what he wants. I'd better complete the simple, somewhat tedious task of cleaning my room, if only to avoid that erroneous perception."

If you are a wise and rational adult, you will know that your child does not entertain these thoughts, that he has far more interesting things to consider -- like creating remote-controlled stop lights on his laptop, which he can then change from green to yellow to red using his iPod touch, which is pretty darn impressive if you ask me but does not in any way make his refusal to pick up the freaking contents of his binder that have been strewn about his room for three days any less infuriating.

But there is a risk. You cannot simply run your home like a selectively benevolent dictatorship without running into negative consequences. If you are lucky, you'll be too busy to notice. If you're me, you have plenty of bandwidth, and thus can hone in , with laser-sharp focus, on the fact that your child has begun treating your childless next-door neighbor like the cool father he never had.

Not that I blame him. Too much of our recent interaction has consisted of me telling him, in strongly-worded terms, to clean something up. No feat is great enough to distract me. That stop light thing was impressive, but it sidelined me for less than a minute. "That's really cool," I said. "Now when were you planning to pick up the K'Nex downstiars?"

This morning I was on him about five minutes after I woke up. I'm not kidding. That pile of papers on his bedroom floor just struck me the wrong way. I didn't say anything direct, but he got the message. Enough so that when I returned from work four hours later, I got a quick glance, followed by a retreat into the basement (which, I might add, was a complete disaster when I went down there later. Did I say anything? No.).

Today, the entire block convened on our front stairs to plan for our May 22 annual block party. The Jawa is the only minor on the "games committee," chaired by our childless neighbor, the Poet With the 40-inch Leap." That Poet, man, he is into these games. Enough so that he has replaced his usual faint sheen of cynicism with childlike enthusiasm -- and a welcoming interest in the Jawa's contributions, minus any browbeating or strong suggestions that he pick up those clothes he threw in the middle of his bedroom floor.

Gatherings on our front steps are always a good time, even when you feel the edges of your consciousness are telling you something slightly disturbing. Not as acute as Obi Wan's sudden Alderaan-obliteration-fueled headache, but more than stubbing your toe on the baseboards. Of course, parenting (as a verb) is all about give-and-take. You try to let out enough rope to allow for freedom without inviting danger. And you do your best to not be threatened by brief infatuations with substitute father figures, even when you sort of feel you deserve whatever you've got coming.

What's amazing is the elasticity of the father-son bond. He'll put up with my nagging, maybe explode or apply his time-honored method of appearing groggy and confused, as if after a long and trying day he's wandered into an unusual situation and hasn't had a chance to get his mind around it yet.

But just now, on his way into bed, he took three separate trips out to the living room to ask and tell me stuff: "What does xenophobia mean?" "I found four songs from 'Demon Days' on my hard drive!" "If a person never used toothpaste, could they still have good teeth by flossing and using mouthwash?"

Life, I like to remind myself, is much more complicated than anyone told us it would be.

Friday, April 16, 2010

128 days to Bar Mitzvah: denon, doyle and dan

If you want to meet Denon and Doyle on their own turf, you’ll first have to drive out to Pleasant Hill, which will take you about an hour and 45 minutes during rush hour. With any luck, and your meeting ends after all the East Bay commuters have made it home, your return drive will be a breezy 40 minutes.

And you won’t meet Denon or Doyle, if they exist at all. Instead, you’ll shake hands with Executive Director Dan Ohrman, wearer of Vans slip-ons, who, according to, was once an all-league tight end at Ingraham High School in Seattle. If you wait until the day after your meeting with Dan, you may be kicking yourself for not finding that our earlier, which could have created an instant bond between Dan, the former Seattle high school football star, and you, the former Seattle high school teacher.

Fortunately, you may also think, Dan was long gone from the Seattle high school universe by the time you started teaching. Otherwise, you’ll feel about 100 years old.

For all of their flash and zing, Denon and Doyle is located in an anonymous strip shopping center, surrounded by post-war ranch homes and the sweet dry air of suburbia, which might surround you in comforting warmth, reminding you of high school parties and little league practice and make you wonder, only in the flash of time it takes to estimate how long you’d last making a 105-minute daily commute before keeling over or going insane, if it would be possible to ditch your city abode and flee for the country.

Five years ago, according to Dan Ohrman, Denon and Doyle was a minor player on the San Francisco Bar and Bat Mitzvah scene. Bookings were dominated by Miguel “DJ Hightop.” Fonseca. Eventually, Denon & Doyle got a foothold in the city. Word of mouth led to more bookings until events DJ’ed by Hightop became the exception to an almost iron-clad rule. These days it’s not whether to choose Denon and Doyle but rather how to maneuver yourself into getting your pick of DJs.

It’s as easy to understand why. After an hour with Dan Ohrman and his Mac laptop, I had to wonder how we thought we could run a Bar Mitzvah without the steady hand of Denon and Doyle (and the very creative and dynamic yet reputedly slightly absent-minded DJ J.T.).

How, exactly, were we planning to handle the logistics of two floors of guests? Were we going to purchase a pair of megaphones to use, cheerleader-style, during crucial moments that called for group announcements? Was I to croon like Rudy Vallee, “Everyone go downstairs… the Jawa will now be doing the Kiddush and the Hamotzi?”

There are things we’d never considered before setting foot in the nondescript offices of Denon and Doyle. Who knew, for example, that there was a glossy, attractive trade magazine dedicated to the DJ industry? Several issues of “DJ Monthly” were fanned out on a table in the foyer.

Dan Ohrman was concerned with one thing: the length of our party. Five hours. An hour longer than usual. “Are your friends party animals?” he said, not unsalesman-like.

I looked at Sandra Bullock, thinking, “Well, we had a keg at our 40th birthday party. Does that answer your question?”

“I think they’ll hold up okay,” I said to Dan.

Using a sixth sense honed during what must be hundreds of such meetings, Dan quickly decided that one issue would be my personal comfort level. He also referred to Sandra Bullock as “Mom” and me as “Dad,” which seemed kind of cheesy, but the guy makes his living emceeing Bar Mitzvahs and weddings; what do you want?

“You don’t want things contrived, Dad,” he said to me, misreading my horror at the suggestion of J.T. “aggressively” encouraging people to dance. He was convinced that I cared deeply about keeping things “organic.” Actually, I couldn’t care less if they’re “organic” or sprayed with the strongest pesticides currently allowed by the FDA. I just don’t want anyone making me get up there and do the Hula like they did to my dad at my little sister’s wedding.

I don’t want my dad to have to do that, either. He already had to do it once and it just about broke my heart. We’re not those guys. We wish we were, honestly, just like I truly wish I loved eggplant and mushrooms and salmon and all that other stuff that makes people flip out when they hear I won’t eat it. They may as well fit me for a pair of oversized shoes and red nose. That’s how much I like being put on the spot.

While this eluded Dan, in his efforts at avoiding “contrivance” he managed to also avoid anything involving the greatly overrated entertainment value of my embarrassment. Sandra Bullock and the Jawa are very cool with kicking off a mother-son dance. Mom, you’re going to have to find a stand-in. It wasn’t by mistake that my sisters both married unembarassable guys.

I’ll be on the sidelines, enjoying watching everyone else have the kind of good time that just isn’t programmed into my DNA.

Our guests will be asked to come downstairs three times, the last coming at 8:45, when we show a no-longer-than-10-minute video tracing the Jawa’s early development from newborn to faintly mustached teen. After this heartwarming break comes an hour of “blowing the roof off” dancing, featuring giveaways of 194 items including Disco Ball Necklaces (12), Sweatbands (24), Stunnas (24), Blues Bros Sunglasses (24), Starballs (12), Stovetops (12), one tube of Streamers, one tube of Glowies, Bandanas (12) and Slap Bracelets (12), because how can you call it a party if you don’t have Slap Bracelets?

After our meeting, Dan took us into the inner bowels of Denon and Doyle, where the equipment is stored. Earlier that day, I’d run into Janelle Ticktin, Bar Mitzvah veteran, who advised me, “Hold onto your wallet,” when meeting Denon and Doyle. “They’ll try to sell you lights,” she warned.

Later, as we stood surrounded by flashing lights, fog machines and lasers, I found out why Janelle was fixated on lights. “The Ticktin Bar Mitzvah,” Dan told us, gravely, “had 60 ‘up lights.’” We’re toying with getting four, maybe six if we go wild. I’m with the Jawa, though; if we can fit any of those light box things, we’ll swallow the cost. Even someone as recalcitrant as me might jump at the chance to dance on top of a large, Plexiglas box full of flashing colored lights.

By eight, we were back on the road, leaving the honeysuckle-scented suburban air in the rearview, confident that we’d just completed a major step in organizing our Bar Mitzvah. By the time we pulled into where a driveway would be if we lived like normal people and had a driveway, Dan had already sent us an email outlining the evening’s discussion.

We reserved a little variable for ourselves: all music upstairs will be programmed by me. Just like J.T. and Dan Ohrman, I am the DJ. If you don’t like it, you know where to go to complain.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

129 days to Bar Mitzvah: a summer place

I just got off the phone with a woman who operates a combination dog training class/day camp in Noe Valley. This kids/dog training camp (her words, not mine) is kicking off its inaugural year, so the woman running it is forgiven if she's much longer on enthusiasm than she is on organization.

"I know everyone plans out their summers in February," she breathlessly told me. "I'm coming in a little late."

Today is April 15. Summer is two months away.

We slotted ourselves in for the week of June 28 - July 2, the third week of summer. Dog camp will follow JCC Theme Park Camp (June 14-18) and Surf Camp (June 21-23). It's safe to assume that Thursday and Friday of the second week will become de facto at-home Computer Camp.

The week after Dog camp, we go to Cayucos, a small beach town north of San Luis Obispo, for four days. Then comes TechKnowHow camp, followed by the summer's big-ticket item, two weeks at Walton's Grizzly Lodge, up in the Sierras, about 45 minutes north of Lake Tahoe.

After that, we have a week off, then USF Tennis Camp. For those of you keeping score at home, we are now one week away from the Bar Mitzvah, which is then succeeded by a non-planned week. School starts August 31.

This schedule might seem hectic to anyone with fond memories of summers spent watching "Twilight Zone" reruns and bouncing a tennis ball off of the garage doors. In our world, it is a source of concern: we've got almost four empty weeks in there.

This is the point where we lament the loss of childhood, forgetting how excruciatingly boring an unscheduled summer can be.

I remember summers as blocks of free time, stretching out into infinity. Maybe we'd have swimming lessons for a week in July, but otherwise, we were pretty much on our own. Certainly there was no computer camp, as there were no computers. Nor were there camps focused on Legos, Shakespeare, fencing, robotics or surfing.

Before we moved to California, my family spent 75% of all summer days at Hammond's pool. You want to talk about your fond childhood memories? My older sister and I offer you Hammond's. (my little sister was only five when we moved)

My parents must have joined Hammond's when I was a toddler, because I can't remember not belonging. If I remember right, Jews weren't allowed to join the Scranton Country Club. I went there once, when a recently widowed neighbor took all the kids on our street there in appreciation for the bake sale we had to benefit cancer research.

There was golf at the country club. At Hammond's, there was only the pool. It was -- in my memory -- huge and L-shaped. The water temperature seldom rose above 78 degrees, but we plunged in anyway, begrudgingly leaving only for the hourly "adult swim" sessions, which we spent perched poolside, sneakily dunking ourselves in the water when the adults weren't looking. Or to run through the grass between the pool and the snack bar, making car engine noises with our mouths.

Even when it rained, which it does periodically and without warning in the summer in Pennsylvania, helping formulate my answer to people who complain about the weather in Seattle, which is rainy for nine months out of the year, but predictably sunny from July to September, we would stay in the water until the lifeguards kicked us out. Lightning, you know. It travels well in water.

Hammond's was located a few miles from our house. To get their you either drove down Northern Boulevard, passing Carvel and the school that hosted the annual Lion's Club carnival every July, or went up South Abington Road, where my grandfather and I used to take walks but not with our hands clasped behind our backs like that old guy on TV. You parked in a gravel lot, checked out the cool white MGB driven by Mark Morris, who had a moustache and was the best diver among Hammond's members.

Joe Hammond, who owned the place, was an old guy. He spent every day sitting on a lawnchair between the snack bar and the playground, wearing a pith helmet, greeting people as they arrived. Back then I had a choice: weekly allowance of 60 cents or ten cents a day to buy a Milky Way from the snack bar. I usually went for option #2.

You always sat in the same place at Hammonds. At the beginning of the season, you brought your chairs and set them up. We sat between the kiddie pool and the main pool.

It wasn't until much later that I realized we were self-segregating ourselves with all the other Jews. I'd just sort of accepted that the Stroneys sat up on the bluff that overlooked the pool and we sat down below. I'm not saying there was any kind of hierarchy -- I've never given it that much thought -- but we didn't sit near people who lived in our neighborhood. We sat with the other Jews.

There we'd be, Monday through Friday, from June until September. We'd swim, or play shuffleboard, or mess around on the playground. Sometimes we watched the teenagers play volleyball. We were all too small to join in. On the rare occasions that we'd find the volleyball court empty, we'd play something called "newcomb," which was more like throwing the ball to each other across the net. It's your best guess where the name came from. I've never heard of it anywhere else.

Most of the time, we were packed up and heading home by four, but there were rare, magical days when my dad would join us after work. We'd burst through the invisible barrier that separated Just Another Day at Hammonds from A Memory-Worthy Day at Hammonds, Including Barbecue. Dad would park whatever unusual car he was driving that month -- the one I remember best was a BMW 2000 CS, controversial in our house because he sold our beloved Plymouth Barracuda convertible to get it, then spent a ton of money restoring it. To a six-year-old's eyes, it was a lousy business deal, but boy, once he had that thing done, did it look cool -- and join us poolside. Sometimes, we stayed until dark.

There is no Hammond's in Orange County. I doubt there's one in Clarks Green, Pennsylvania anymore, though I did just Google "Hammond's" and found that there is a Joe Hammond, CPA, on Layton Road, right about where Hammond's would have been.

Once we moved, I had the "Twighlight Zone," a bucket of tennis balls and our garage door. Entire fake baseball seasons happened there, and I developed a false reputation among baseball coaches for having "soft hands." Once I got too old for the garage door, the "soft hands" disappeared.

Between you, me and the fly on the wall, I don't know which is better -- an over-planned summer or one full of unscheduled sloth. Every summer I argue that my son should have a few blocks camp-free time; every summer I regret winning the argument when faced with the reality of a bored, electronics-addicted child who has no better options than "Roller Coaster Tycoon III."

I wish he had a Hammond's, but they don't exist in San Francisco. Maybe across the bridge, where the Marin contingent enjoys lazy days at the Tiburon Peninsula Club, or in Wellesley, Massachusetts, where his pre-school friend Axel once took us to "the pool," only to have it rain after a half-hour, which I secretly loved.

No, my child will once again dive headlong into a summer as organized as his mother's Bar Mitzvah budget spreadsheet, his only glimpse of the Huck Finn lifestyle happening during the two weeks he spends at Walton's Grizzley Lodge. That's the way it goes in San Francisco, circa 2010.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

130 days to Bar Mitzvah: little habits and intimidating numbers

According to my wife, I am a creature of habit. This is by necessity, as I learned several years ago that my mind, while capable of great feats of long-term memory, handles short-term items the way Pirates first baseman Dick "Dr. Strangeglove" Stuart once handled ground balls: with great clumsiness and a lack of style. These repetitive actions are the only way I'll get things done.

So most days -- especially ones during which I work out of our house, rather than downtown -- I make a list or major items to be tackled by day's end. If something is not on that list, it doesn't exist. I am constantly flummoxed by certain very organized people's inability to grasp that concept, especially when it is applied to grocery shopping.

To wit: "You didn't get tomatoes."

"They weren't on the list." Therefore, tomatoes, at least in that context, did not exist.

Today while I was riding BART, something I do twice on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, I started thinking about all the things we do over and over without thinking. How many times do I change from my glasses to my perscription sunglasses during a single calendar year? You'd think I'd have kept track, seeing as how annoying it is to take off and put on glasses, shove them into a little pouch for safekeeping and then drop them into your jacket pocket (unless you are not wearing a jacket, in which case you then put them into your messenger bag or, God forbid, the front pocket of your pants, where the possibility that they might break increases as quickly as Serbian inflation).

I'll bet I switched glasses at least a half-dozen times today, maybe more. Sometimes I wear contact lenses which, while no longer providing the giddyup necessary to read menus in darkened restaurants, eliminate one annoying element of everyday living. How great to simply throw on a pair of sunglasses, then cavalierly remove them when entering a building!

Conservatively, I'd say I put on and take off glasses at least 1,000 times over the course of one year.

Recently, we bought a stationary bike. I try to log at half-hour on the thing at least four times a week, my increasingly futile attempt, along with two weekly trips to 24-Hour Fitness, at staving off physical mortality. My mind boggles at the number of revolutions I'll turn on that thing in the next year. It works out to something gargantuan: 102 hours peddling. That's 6,120 minutes, 367,000 seconds, four days and six hours.

And we wonder where the time goes.

This year I will take more than 300 showers, even factoring in random Sundays that are too lazy to commit to hygiene. I will climb our front stairs at least 700 times, for a grand total of 22,400 steps. During football season, I'll probably watch at least a full day's worth -- 24 hours -- of professional football. Sandra Bullock cuts my hair once a week. That's 50-plus razor cuts per year.

Even though we live in a city, if past performance is any indicator, our Volvo will rack up more than 15,000 miles this year. And I'll bet I'll behind the wheel for at least 12,000 or them.

The sheer volume of these stats suggests a largeness in even the most ordinary of lives.

On the other hand, the mundane weight of these figures -- a measuring stick that announces loudly how you are spending your life -- can be crushing. Who wants to put in the time necessary to accumulate metaphoric container ships full of everyday activity? Does anyone really want to know that they've brushed their teeth more than 700 times in the past 12 months? Will you life be richer for knowing that you did 250 loads of laundry in 2009?

Rather than dwell on large, cold numbers, we prefer to record our lives in a series of snapshots -- Kodak moments, for those of you over 40. We assemble them into a slideshow, magically transforming our lives into something far more romantic and event-worthy than we could ever have imagined it would be when we posed for that family photo in front of the Palace of Fine Arts.

Recently, we started to feature more family photos in our home. In our dining room, we've hung wedding photos -- ours, our parents', my grandparents', plus a five-image montage of the toddler-aged Jawa. And it's great. In our dining room, at least, it is always September 20, 1992, and we are always 27 years old, sitting on Scott Morell's 1966 Triumph Bonneville in front of a white, colonial mansion.

Our parents look down at us in black-and-white. Mine -- elders of the group at ages 22 and 20, are posed stiffly, my father in a black top hat. Sandra Bullock's parents, all of 19 years old, are dodging rice as they walk back down the aisle. My grandparents, also in their teens, stand proudly at attention. They didn't have photos at their wedding. This one was taken at someone else's wedding the same year. 74 years ago.

So maybe it's the peak moments captured by photos that keep us from dwelling on things like the amount of money we've spent on gas over the past 12 months. Or maybe it's something along the lines of still pictures telling truths we're too busy or too distracted or too confused to overlook, so bogged down are we in counting the number of grapes eaten during the course of a year.

As for me, I've got another number. One big reason I've chosen to count down the days to the Jawa's Bar Mitzvah is to shame myself into writing every day. It's not on any physical list, but it's become enough of a habit that I was stressing out earlier tonight, wondering if I'd get time to write in here.

Tonight, I spent the walk up the hill from BART (ridden six times a week for an approximate yearly total of 300), calculating. By the time I reached home, I realized that I will write somewhere in the neighborhood of 500,000 words this year. That's a whole lot of words for someone who's not writing a novel.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

131 days to Bar Mitzvah: magic packages

Every week, it seems, several packages arrive. Sometimes they come when I'm home, and I have to make some little joke, because that's what the UPS and Fed Ex guys expect. Something from the time-honored "women and their shopping" genre usually does well, transporting us from San Francisco to the Catskills, circa 1954.

Sometimes we come home and find them waiting for us. Other times, the UPS guy sneaks them onto the porch. Today he did that. Shack went nuts, but since I've been programmed to ignore him when he goes nuts, I didn't realize we'd received packages until I saw the Fed Ex guy walking down our front stairs.

I have no interest in opening these packages, unlike the Jawa, who will rip one open the minute it arrives, positive that inside is something exciting even when past experiences should have taught him that there is NEVER something exciting in the package, unless you are part of the Bar Mitzvah design team.

What I kind of dig about the situation is that we never get one medium-sized box. It's also three or four, and always in random sizes, shapes and weights. Take today, for example: once I saw that the Fed Ex guy was back in his truck, thus removing the pressure to say something semi-witty yet grounded in traditional male-female roles, I went out to see what we'd gotten.

A trip to our front porch is a study in an aesthetic power struggle I've been losing for almost 18 years. What was once dingy and dark, hidden behind cast-iron gates, is Sandra Bullock's attempt at creating a welcoming space, an extension of interior square footage, a friendly landing inviting weary travelers to take a load off and rest for awhile.

Where I would have simply ignored the porch, with its peeling paint and confining walls, she was ventured to improve it, adding a small bench, a potted plant, and recently a summery wreath (to replace the autumn wreath she put there last October). For all I know, the Fed Ex guy has to rip himself away from our porch every time he drops something off. Personally, I've never felt compelled to pass the time there, no matter how attractive the new wreath. I drew the line -- for what it's worth, a toothless demand on my part -- at adding artwork.

But I wasn't thinking of any of this today as I sneaked out through the front door. Instead, I was pondering the four boxes sitting on the bench.

There was one big one and three small ones. I thought about leaving them there, but remembered the power of small, simple gestures. Sandra Bullock would not have been surprised to come home and find packages still sitting on the front porch, but she would be pleased to find I had brought them in. It's sort of the UPS equivalent of learning to leave the toilet seat down: small investment, big payoff.

"I'll take the big one first," I thought. "It's probably the heaviest." I lifted the big box, which weighed slightly more than an empty cardboard box. All of the boxes have since been moved downstairs. I have no idea what was in the big box.

I wouldn't be surprised to find that it had been put there as a red herring, to distract me from how back-snappingly heavy the three small boxes were. I had approached them with a cavalier attitude, initially thinking I would sweep all three up, depositing them en masse in the living room. How I love finding ways to save trips. You learn that when you live on top of a 32-step staircase.

It wasn't going to happen this time. Each box weighed 21 pounds, according to the fine print on their labels. What could be in them? They felt like boxes of rocks.

The invitations! That's what they were. We'd been struggling over the guest list for the past week. It made perfect sense for the invitations to arrive. Four months early, but what else could they be?

"It's the candy we ordered," said the Jawa, when he got home.

"Didn't you order that stuff yesterday?" I said.

"We sent them express."

"Why? The Bar Mitzvah's four months away."

"The chocolate will melt if it spends too long in transit."

Okay. If these dense boxes were full of chocolate, I could understand wanting to open them, even if it meant torturing oneself with the knowledge that his home was full of chocolate he was not allowed to eat.

The Jawa ripped open the first box. Inside were ... rocks. It actually was a box of rocks. "Mommy's rocks," said the Jawa, crestfallen.

Three boxes of smooth, black rocks. The big box was full of super-light bamboo.

Now it's real. The basic building blocks of the centerpieces are in the house. The black rocks will go in the vases that arrived a few weeks ago, the bamboo rising out of them like a giraffe-esque garnish.

Sandra Bullock spent much of last weekend carefully cutting silver Godzilla cartoons into envelope shapes. They will be the liners for the invitations (which did not arrive today). The Jawa, for his part, bounded into the living room last night and performed his first aliyah -- two solid minutes of vowelless Hebrew, chanted old-style. And I called Pet Camp to set up Shack's August 20-22 reservation.

Everything is coming into place, and we're just wrapping up Act I, which, in big-budget movie lingo, means were only about 30 minutes into the story. We've established a dizzying pace, this early in the game. And by "we" I mean Sandra Bullock and the Jawa. Shack and I are just getting pulled along in their twin impressive wakes.

Monday, April 12, 2010

132 days to Bar Mitzvah: a shot of Jack

When I was a little kid, we lived across the street from John J. (Jack) Stroney. Jack Stroney was a neighborhood character, known both for the iron hand by which he ruled his wife and four children and his annual ritual of falling off the roof while working on his TV antenna.

Jack Stroney and my dad had this thing where they’d yell each other’s names from the front porch of their respective homes. My dad would boom out “JACK STRONEY!’ and Jack Stroney would return in kind. Sometimes, Stroney would sneeze, and my dad would yell, “GESUNDHEIT, JACK!” from our front porch.

Jack Stroney was also known for the hyper-competitive basketball games he’d hold in his driveway. The neighborhood dads would play for hours while we kids – who would never be invited to play, not even in our teens, though I think Steve Broydrick got a little run when he hit his 20s – sat on the Stroneys’ lawn and watched.

Jack Stroney had a good job, a large, loving family, was a member of the Rotary Club and had a good deal of status in our tiny Pennsylvania town. The Scranton Tribune once even ran a caricature of him in the paper. A few years ago, when he died, the paper gave him a long, warm obituary.

But there was one thing Stroney wanted that he could not have. The father of three boys and one girl, he wanted more than anything for his sons to follow in his sporting footsteps. Unfortunately, none of them were interested, though his daughter, Karen, went on to play college basketball. University of Deleware, I think.

We were a pretty big sports neighborhood, spending just about every summer day playing baseball. Every fall and winter, we played football, sneaking into the nearby high school football stadium and playing until our hands just about froze off.

The Stroney boys participated in that. Everyone did. Even my older sister and Marianne Dettorre, who we called, cruelly, “Neosinephrene” because she talked through her nose. She could kick a football, though.

Jack wanted his boys to also play organized sports, which led to this weird, indelible memory I have of Scott Stroney running into their house in a rainstorm, wearing his little league baseball uniform, as miserable as a kid can be.

He didn’t want to play baseball. He wanted to hang out and play army men, or create a very sophisticated banking system while playing Monopoly. But his dad wanted him to play baseball, so he played baseball.

I was one of the worst athletes on our block, but I was the one who kept playing until they told me I couldn’t anymore. I was the one who ended up with a malformed left elbow and chronic tendonitis in my left shoulder, the one who left his baseball dreams on a far-off bullpen mound at Santa Clara University, elbow throbbing, shoulder dead, with Coach McLain telling him, “You just don’t have anything on the ball.”

I was the one who then coached high school baseball for several years, switching to girls’ volleyball when I picked up that sport in my late 20s.

My reward for this? I am now Jack Stroney.

I love sports in that weird, literate way that made John Updike write “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu,” made David Halberstam hang out with Michael Jordan and makes you cheer for guys you’d probably cross the street to avoid, were you to run into them at night somewhere. I’ll watch any high school sporting event, as happy as Scrooge McDuck in a vault full of money. I can break down your pitching motion and tell you how to throw at least 10 miles per hour faster.

This year, finally, I think I came to terms with the Jawa’s utter disinterest in all sports. It wasn’t easy. But seeing him try to look interested in a Mariners game just to make me happy was harder to live with than knowing we’ll never throw the mitts on and have a catch.

Fact: no sporting team made up of boys from the Brandeis Hillel Day School class of 2011 has ever won a game. Not a basketball game, not a baseball game, not a soccer match, not volleyball. Sandra Bullock and I coached them from kindergarten until fourth grade. Despite her well-documented high-decibel style and our emphasis on defense and good passing, our boys never got better. In fact, they seemed to regress.

I’m not talking nail-biters here; this is season after season of blowouts, humiliations like having the opposing coach force his players to pass five times before they shoot or play defense with their hands behind their backs. I know sports can be character-building, but it’s tough to work on sportsmanship when you’re getting crushed week after week. And encouraging them to get angry and not take this sitting down? Definitely frowned upon by our school community, where we had to change the Bookfair Poster Contest to a simple “poster-making exercise” became because if you have a winner, that means you also have a loser.

In the face of this, my Jawa retreated. There will be no trophy case, no poster of Stephan Curry on his wall. In their places are very intricate robots made of Legos and framed posters of Godzilla. Which is pretty cool and indicates a child likely to spend his life ignoring peer pressure and marching to his own (probably electronic and synthesized) drum.

So I’ve got a Yu-Gi-Oh master instead of a shortstop. As if I’d want anyone else.

The only sad part is that there’s this big chunk of my life that stays mine alone. I watch the Golden State Warriors downstairs, alone. Sunday afternoon 49er games? A solo act. Though there are two major league baseball teams where I live, I seldom go to games because no one else in my family wants to go.

Now that you mention it, my dad wasn’t a sports guy, so I guess they’ve always been mine alone. Nothing changes except the size of my TV and vertical leap. One gets bigger while the other shrinks down to nothing.

We’ve all got a little Jack Stroney in us, not because we want to force our kids to follow us but because we start out with an idea of what it’s going to be like to be a parent, only to see that initial untouched image change almost immediately in ways we could never have imagined.

By the time we’ve adjusted to that new reality, another one's come along to take its place. I’ve heard horror stories from people forced as kids to take piano lessons, go to church, play chess.

There’s more than one kind of Jack Stroney. I don’t know if you watch the news or not, but there’s plenty of worse things to be.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

134 days to Bar Mitzvah: ouch

Let this be an open apology to everyone I saw at today's Bar Mitzvah. Well, not everyone. There were some people I snubbed on purpose. For the rest of you, though, the reason I mostly sat there like an intert reproduction of Rodin's "The Thinker" was because I had a crippling migraine. I've had it now for three weeks.

It's difficult to describe how it feels, but I'll try. If you can imagine what it would feel like to be hungover all the time, with no hope of feeling better tomorrow, then you'll understand why my conversational skills fell far short of sparkling today. It's the kind of thing that renders obsolete every good and exciting thing that has happened in your life up to that point. Sitting there at my table, trying to stay upright, it was impossible to imagine that I'd ever watched fireworks, rode a motorcycle, proposed to Sandra Bullock while sitting on her mom's sectional after watching "Northern Exposure." Everything is right now, and right now completely blows.

This is not new. Several years ago -- right as we were moving to San Francisco, in fact -- I had the same headache. That time it lasted two years. I'm hoping this one is not as stubborn. Unfortunately, it's a complete personality-changer, debilitating enough as to dominate every moment of consciousness. It even makes crossword puzzles more difficult.

That aside, today's offbeat religious ritual was fine. The room was nice, our table was populated by people I wanted to hang out with and the dessert -- some kind of chocolate cake with more liquidous chocolate inside -- will haunt me for weeks to come. Unfortunately, the dense cloud of migraine that surrounded me rendered my admirable resistance of the uneaten dessert on the next plate insignificant, I am saddened to say. A rare display of willpower was blown away by general malaise.

Nobody knows why I get these headaches, what makes them come and what made them go away for seven years. Last time I ended up going to 17 doctors (counting the groovy homeopathic doc who stuck a very long q-tip up my nose and rubbed my shoulders). No one could figure anything out. "It's stress," said the first one. Ten years later, no one's come up with a better diagnosis, though many of you would wonder what in the world I have to be so stressed about.

I saw everyone. At its most frightening, the headache sent me to the Helen Diller Cancer Center on Divisadero, where I told the admitting nurse, "I'm hoping this is the only time I'll be here."

"That's what they all say," she answered, displaying a spot-in bedside manner.

As a weird aside, at that time I had no idea I'd eventually know Helen Diller's daughter and son-in-law, or that her son-in-law's brother had been friends with my older sister years before. Kind of like how during college Roger A. Hunt showed up wearing a t-shirt promoting a band called the Young Fresh Fellows, which became ironic several years later, when an ex-girlfriend of mine married the drummer from the very same Young Fresh Fellows. As Steven Wright would say, it's a small world, but I wouldn't want to paint it.

As it turns out, I have not yet been back to the Helen Diller center on Divisadero, and hope to only every see it as I did today -- a blurry building passed at speed on the way to the north side of town. That MRI I got back then was plenty scary, thanks. It gave me lots of focused time to ponder the meaning of life. Then, as now, I came nowhere near figuring anything out. Not even close.

My headache odyssey included two chiropractors and a chiropractic neurologist named Sergio Azzolino, who wrench on my jaw so hard I couldn't eat for a week. Every few weeks he tested my neurological functions by passing before me a strip of paper with lines drawn on it. Sometimes it seemed like he was making stuff up as he went along but man, I kind of dug that post-session dazed feeling I'd get from being beat up for a half hour. Not covered on insurance, though.

I went to the dentist, where they determined I had TMJ, which indirectly led to the weird mouthpiece I now wear to bed each night, thus making me appear even more dashing and romantic to my wife of almost 18 years. It didn't help the headaches, though.

I got a new pillow, designed to relieve the pressure on my neck as I slept. It cost $90. No change.

Eventually, the headache went away -- as mysteriously as it arrived. For the next seven years, it occasionally showed up, usually after what I could concretely point to as a particularly aggravating period of time, and even then it went away like a normal person's headache.

Well, now it's back. Watching "Food, Inc." just now didn't help. Try sitting there with your head feeling like it weighs about 45 pounds, watching pigs get crushed by a machine that looks like a giant drycleaning press. Not too appetizing.

Meanwhile, we are now back where we started. The last time this happened, the accompanying stats -- all of the stuff that had happened to me while feeling awful -- was staggering. I had four separate jobs, for instance, during that period. Unsurprisingly, none of them turned out all that well. I'm sure that the percentage of my head covered with hair fell precipitously from 2000-2002, as well.

So there you go. And since I can't count the number of times in my life that people have thought I was acting rude or standoffish when I had no idea I was doing so, I'd like you all to know that this time, I have an excuse.

We now return you to your regularly-scheduled program.

Friday, April 9, 2010

135 days to Bar Mitzvah: his suit is to be hirsute

Not to generalize too much, but we Jews are not a hairless bunch. Quite to the contrary, which can be a source of anxiety and embarrassment when you grow up in a world that champions smooth, non-hirsute skin. Bill Gray asking my dad, “Aren’t you going to take off your sweater before you go in the pool?” in 1973 may have demonstrated a quick wit, but it also underlined the reality of being a hairy guy in a waxed world.

How I envied my cousins, growing up in Jew-centric Great Neck, New York, where everyone was swarthy. I remember my amazement once, glancing through their Great Neck North High School yearbook, amazed: “You mean you had Jewish football players? Jewish cheerleaders?”

At El Modena High School, in Orange, California, we had me, Dena and Greg Schwartz and Kim Geller. Greg Kelman, who actually did play football, kept his Judaism under his hat. Literally. He wore a baseball cap every day and, rumor had it, blow-dried his hair with the hat already on. For metaphorical reasons, I will now ask you to imagine a kippah under Greg’s hat.

These people, the combination of WASPs, Hispanics and Irish-Catholics who made up my high school, they were a smooth bunch. The contrast between them and the few of us who were hairy was great enough that having chest hair became a calling card, like juggling or throwing a 90 mile-per-hour fastball. “You know him? The hairy guy?”

“Oh, yeah, of course. That guy always looks like he needs a shave.”

How I hated being a hairy guy. To this day I won’t walk around with the second button on my shirt undone. How I hated it at age 23, during my first year in Seattle, when I spent almost every day playing volleyball at Golden Gardens, to see the difference between my smooth-talking, well-defined, hairless peers and myself. Of course I couldn’t jump as high or move as well in the sand; I had all that hair to carry around.

So much so was it on my mind that when we first became pregnant with the Jawa, I spent sleepless nights imagining that he would come out looking like an orangutan. Having only my niece as a baby template, I gnashed my teeth over the fact that, while my sister had this blonde, fair-skinned child, I would be bringing a miniature Gabe Kaplan into the world.
Fortunately, while he did arrive pretty hairy, the Jawa did not look like either Gabe Kaplan or a primate. He looked pretty much as he does now, only smaller. But he was covered with fine hair, prompting the nurse to say, cheerily, “That’ll all fall out soon.”

“Yes,” I said, gravely.“Only to return in 30 years.”

Now that he’s 40% of the way to 30, the Jawa is coming into his own as a hairy Jewish guy. It was inevitable.

He’s taking it much better than I did. Far from being embarrassed, he’s very proud, often finding excuses to point out the dark hair now setting up shop under his arms. Maybe the Jewish Day School experience, where he is surrounded by similar ethnic types and not Glenn Poyser, who would arrogantly and confidently strut around the showers in eighth grade P.E., despite not having yet reached puberty,

Over the past half-year the little rumor of a moustache that’s been sitting on his upper lip for – seriously – the past five years is starting to become more prominent. Perhaps this, and not being called to the Torah, is the true dividing line between a Jewish boy and a Jewish man. Before you know it we will be standing side-by-side in front of the bathroom mirror, our faces lathered up, scraping the demon beards from our faces.

The first time I noticed the Jawa’s little moustache, I immediately thought back to a time when I was six, sitting between my mother and her cousin Alice during a winter, 1971 trip to San Francisco, when suddenly Alice said to my mom, “I wonder what he’d look like with a moustache?”

“I noticed that, too,” said my mom. “He’s got a little moustache there.”

Some kids, maybe the ones who never in their whole lives have to shave more than once a week, who are probably the same kids who grow up to be guys who complain they “just can’t keep weight on,” would immediately run to the nearest mirror and look for that hint of macho on their face.

Not me. But I want everyone to know that absolutely did not spend the next eight years looking at myself every single time I passed anything reflective to make sure a Fu Manchu hadn’t broken out on my face while I wasn’t paying attention.

I first shaved a few weeks after my Bar Mitzvah. By the beginning of ninth grade, a little over a year later, guys were bragging about shaving. Tino Younger, during one of the periods during adolescence when he wasn’t my sworn enemy, once confided in me during History class, “Yeah, my face always feels numb after I shave. Isn’t it weird how your face gets numb when you shave?”

And, of course, our school – like every school – had its share of guys who didn’t shave but needed to. I’m talking about you, Martin Gascon and your swirling, patchy eighth-grade beard.

No, I never reveled in shaving. I hated it from the start. I hated more my ability to grow a beard in a week and have never had one for that reason. Even during the 90s in Seattle, when you could practically buy a goatee at Walgreen’s, I stayed clean. When beards came back into style, I was unimpressed. “Amateurs,” I scoffed, secretly knowing that if I were to grow a beard I’d instantly become Prototypical Middle-Aged Jewish Man.

I’m not going to take away the Jawa’s thrill at his changing body, but he has confided that he’s not too keen on the budding facial hair. Come Bar Mitzvah time, he says, he will be ready to enter the world of shaving. Today I am a man and all that.

We will make it an important father-son moment, since I already botched the “learning how to put on a tie” lesson. Sandra Bullock has suggested that we use my grandfather’s electric razor, the only thing I took when we were cleaning out his room back in October. “It would mean a lot to him,” she said, but I wasn’t sure which “him” she meant: the Jawa, me, or my grandfather?