Monday, May 31, 2010

82 days to Bar Mitzvah: fore!

Forget failing eyesight and 2 a.m. trips to the bathroom; middle age truly began yesterday, when I accompanied my friend Teduardo to Golf Mart in San Bruno and came away with my own full set of Taylor Made clubs and a slick little black-and-white golf bag. That the clubs were an early Father's Day present confirmed it: I'm not turning into my dad, I'm turning into someone else's dad.

Okay, maybe that's a little premature, but don't deny that over half of you out there are splitting a gut right now because Mr. Oddball got golf clubs for Father's Day. Next year, I suppose, I'll get a tie. Soon I will develop an appreciation for Buick Le Sabres. My wardrobe of jeans and shorts? Cast aside for one comprised of Haggar slacks. It is all over now. You will find me at the driving range, lost in the rough or knocking back Old Granddad on the rocks at The Nineteenth Hole.

Sandra Bullock and I have been talking about taking up golf for several years. "It'll be our old age sport," she'd say in measured tones. Either old age came sooner than we thought or my invite to Teduardo's mid-summer Lake Tahoe golf weekend sparked in me a desire to follow a very small ball around beautifully manicured lawns, because there I was on Sunday afternoon, trying out different seven irons at Golf Mart while Ted offered instruction from the sidelines. "Make a wall behind the ball," he advised soothingly as I demo'ed two separate pitching wedges. "Widen your stance," he said as I gripped a driver.

When we arrived at the decision to buy golf clubs, I assumed it would work like this: talk about it for a few weeks, announce "I am going to do research" and go to a few web sites, then head down to Sports Authority and pick up the cheapest clubs I could find. The only reason why I was buying clubs instead of renting was because, as a lefthander, I figured it would be near to impossible to find clubs to rent. Also, Teduardo told me that a weekend of renting would end up costing not much less than buying.

My thinking was that, like with modern motorcycles, golf club technology had advanced to the point where the worst possible set of golf clubs were still well past the upper reaches of my talent. Though I rode a Ducati in the 1990s, I would have been just as well served by a Honda. So, too, did I think that a bottom-end set of Nike clubs would do the trick for me on the links.

We will never know if that theory works, just as we'll never know if I would have been just as happy on a Honda. Once Ted became involved, my throwaway approach to buying golf clubs was thrown away. There would be no trip to Sports Authority. Instead, we would drive to San Bruno, where Golf Mart awaited, big box retail, links-style.

The last time I set foot in a store devoted entirely to golf was 1983. Roger Dunn, the last word in golf in Santa Ana, California, was packed tightly with clubs, bags and accessories. You went in, you picked your set, you left.

The club-buying experience has gained immeasurable depth since 1983. Ted outlined a plan that included separate evaluations of each club, their pitch and depth (?), length and weight. "You don't want to get something that's too much of a blade," he cautioned. "Not for a beginner."

After that, he refused to call me a "beginner." Not only was Ted going to help me choose my clubs, he was also going to mentor me to the point where, come Tahoe, I'd be able to hold my own amidst a bunch of guys who'd taken this trip every summer since 1996.

Golf Mart had walls full of used sets. There was an entire rack devoted to left-handed clubs. Somewhere else were left-handed woods. I never saw where because instead, Ted simply emerged with armfuls of drivers as I stood in the fake driving range "stall," whacking neon green golf balls with a pitching wedge.

"Try this," he said. "This is the one I use."

Last time I had golf clubs, in 1983, the latest thing was woods made of metal. That, and not the fact of buying golf clubs in 2010, should make me feel old. The driver Ted handed me yesterday was absurdly big. The head looked like a sleek, metallic basketball. I took a swing. The ball jumped off the club. Twenty feet from the net, every shot looks great. "This is easy," I thought.

I began explaining to anyone who'd listen how I'd played baseball for so long, maybe there was some crossover between swing techniques, conveniently overlooking the fact that between my junior and senior years of playing high school baseball, when I logged some 75 innings on the mound, I had a combined total of six at-bats. They DH for you, even in high school, when you can't hit.

But that was forgotten. Remembered instead were the hours I spent as a little kid, swinging a bat in front of a mirror. It was all paying off in middle age. Irons and driver chosen, we picked out a bag and some gloves, then moved to the checkout line, where Teduardo was accused of looking like, A) the coach at Valparaiso and B) JFK, Jr. I, by association, was either, A) the coach at Valparaiso's bald friend who knew nothing about golf, or B) JFK, Jr.'s bald friend who knew nothing about golf. Figuring I had a better chance at survival, I went with A), which didn't stop the girls at the counter from finding a photo of JFK, Jr. on line and then looking from their computer to Ted and then back, which added to the general feeling of vertigo I was having.

From there we went to the driving range where I felt much as I imagine my forebearers must have felt upon landing at Ellis Island. Intuition no longer served me. I was in an alien land. People were speaking in a language I did not understand. I was constantly doing the wrong thing and had to be corrected at every step.

But like my great-grandfather Henry in 1908 (?), I was excited to be there, eager to soak up every nuance of the New World. I learned that golf guys always carry their clubs around in their trunk, ready to capitalize on any chance to "hit a few balls." You can't do this when you drive a station wagon.

New golf bags are designed to be worn like (very wide) backpacks. I figured this out only after struggling like Judge Smails' nephew to lug my back to the tee by grabbing onto whatever straps seemed most likely.

Golf Mart success does not translate to driving range success. My drives, so true and spot-on at Golf Mart, now hooked to the right in a teeth-gnashing imitation of every single slow-pitch softball at-bat I've ever taken. Decades later, having sworn off that game for life, I was still hitting line drives right at the first baseman.

Teduardo teed up his first ball, displayed a flawless backswing and uncorked a 300-yard drive.

"Uh, do you have a handicap?" I asked, feeling uncomfortable with golf lingo.

"I used to," he said.

"What was it?"

"Nine."

I don't know golf, but I know math. That means he shoots in the low-80s. What have I gotten myself into?

On a positive note, thanks to the range's Astroturf mats, no blades of grass were harmed as a result of my club head hitting the ground before it hit the ball. "Hit the little ball, not the big one," Ted said philosophically. "The big one is Earth."

The problem was my "disco feet." At one point Ted stood behind me, seven iron handle jammed into my right heel in an attempt to stop me from doing what comes naturally even to a guy used to being DH'ed for. Club head back, ready to swing, and I was stepping toward the pitcher. Thus the disco feet.

By the time I got home, my hands stung and my head was full of instructions about staying planted, addressing the ball directly and not two inches behind it, generating power from my hips (without moving my feet) and keeping my head down.

My new clubs are downstairs now, acclimating to a new life in which they will live not in a trunk but at least until August among boxes of Bar Mitzvah supplies. And I have edged ever closer to the part of life where my intake of pills perscribed to combat the combined effects of aging and bad genes far exceeds my intake of alcoholic beverages.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

84 days to Bar Mitzvah: band-aids.

EZR Miracle Cleaner.

Stain, Lime & Rust Remover.

Klean Logic Scratch Away.

Miracle Floor Restore-a-Floor.

Woolite Oxy Deep.

Cault-Aide Caulk Refresher.

Clorox Bleach Pen.

These are the items needed to improve the state of your bathroom and living room when you are A) saving for a Bar Mitzvah that will cost four times what your wedding cost, and B) having people over tomorrow. They are lined up like soldiers on our kitchen island, sharing space with the Official RSVP Box. Over the course of today, while I've been running errands and taking Shack to the dog park, Sandra Bullock plans to employ each product in a low-budget attempt to make our house "presentable."

My errands included a trip to the drugstore to buy the following items: Benadryl, three-way-lightbulbs and liquid soap, also known as the things dreams are made of.

Never having lived anywhere together for longer than two years before buying this place in 2001, we're unaccustomed to living somewhere long enough for things to wear out. The filmy linen curtains in the living room are almost ten years old, which explains why they now resemble the ghostly billowing window treatments in the Haunted Mansion. Time got away from us. I still thought they were new.

Of course, I also think the living room couch is new. I'm completely shocked when I see pictures of Sandra Bullock sitting on it holding her brand-new baby. That baby is now partway through a sustained effort at proving that the "terrible twos" can't hold a candle to the "terrible 12s."

This house was already falling apart when we bought it. No one knows how old it is, thanks to its nomadic history. Our kitchen remodel was equal parts construction project and anthropological study. Here, on the wall where the old refrigerator sat in an ill-fitting cutout, is the outline of a door. Above the sink is a boarded-up square. How shocked were we when, upon removing the plywood cover, we found an actual intact window? In 1959, it looked out onto Glen Park. Now it looked directly at our next-door neighbors' exterior wall. Maybe three inches separated our house from hers.

Behind the cabinets we found relics both interesting (some "flea powder" perscribed by a Mission Street vet in 1960) and horrifying (a dead mouse). When we removed the ceiling, we found that our house didn't always have a flat roof. Someone -- maybe in 1959, so it would be easier to move? -- sawed off its peaked roof. The ceiling joists were all neatly cut at an angle.

I'd like to think that we've retarded our house's decay over the past decade, but it's unlikely. There are things we knew about ten years ago -- disintegrating shower tile, anyone? -- that we have not touched. It was more than five years ago during a rainstorm that we noticed how pourous our front staircase had become. Half a decade later, it can only be worse.

But who has the money to do all of these wholesale renovations? When you add the Bar Mitzvah to the cost of eighth grade, the sum leftover for home improvements equals exactly the cost of the items listed above. They, plus Sandra Bullock's seemingly endless supply of energy and elbow grease, will improve our house.

Our bathroom, sadly, is well beyond the point of Clorox Bleach Pen revival. For ten years, we've discussed fantasy bathroom remodels. At one point, the project included a complete reimagining of our downstairs, leading to a master suite (a phenomenon we've heard of but don't quite believe in, just like those rooms some people have for their cars. I believe they're called "garages.") and a downstairs retreat for the teenage Jawa.

Budget strains have forced us to scale back our plans. Now we're thinking a new vanity and a few doses of Restore-a-Floor.

I suspect that, despite the many caustic chemicals contained in the various bottles sitting on the bar, their ultimate efficacy will be similar to the endless roster of anti-aging and wrinkle-removing products shilled 24/7 on the Lifetime channel.

Even the eternally youthful Sandra Bullcok, whose job once revolved around the invention of a new kind of collagen and whose entire career is devoted to the creation of new medications, preaches fealty to cremes and lotions made by L'Oreal and Neutrogena. In moments of weakness (or strength) she will admit to me that it's "unlikely" the money she pours into Neutrogena's "Intensive" and "Restorative" product lines has any effect on the aging process. And yet, she says, "They seem to be working, so I'm going to keep using them." That's right. It's not genes and a childhood and adolescence spent in a place where it rains approximately 300 days a year; it's Neutrogena's Intensive Wrinkle Remover.

I do truly hope Restore-a-Floor outperforms anti-aging cosmetics. And I hope Klean Logic Scratch Away is as effective on cars as I've been told it is on hardwood floors.

Unlike most guys, I won't pretend I'm the world's greatest driver or even a "driving enthusiast." I don't get bitten by sharks lurking in the strawberry fields along I-5 (my sister) or back swiftly into the garage door (mother), but I do tend to scrape against things at low speeds. Our beloved Volvo is the sad recipient of my lack of spacial command.

If I do not at least go through the motions of applying Klean Logic Scratch Away to our car, I will be forced to confront the ongoing nighmare that is my child's bedrooms. Short of applying for Federal Disaster Relief, I'm not sure how to deal with that one.

Solutions-in-a-bottle might be band-aids we buy because we can't afford major surgery. Leave it to Sandra Bullock, though, to make sure they're Band-aids in colorful and interesting patterns, instead of the usual beige.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

86 days to Bar Mitzvah: it's nice to share

Some of my best moments as a father have come when I feel like I'm putting the rest of my family's needs in front of my own. Driving back from someone's house, late at night, my wife and son both falling easily asleep because they know they can count on me to get them home safe, that's when all of the happy hours you've missed, all the hours of "Transformers" movies endured, they all become worth it.

Either that or the Tom Waits CD I was listening to put them both to sleep. It's difficult to tell.

I've run into people who tell me, "I could never have kids. I'm too selfish." I have to disagree. I'm completely selfish, and most of the time it works out fine. It's very easy to recognize when I'm being a good parent: it's the times I'm not being selfish.

See, I am not by nature a person who likes to share, another one of the many quirks I like to call "personality traits" but everyone else calls "flaws." Sandra Bullock learned this the first time we were in a restaurant and she demurred on dessert, telling me that instead she'd "just have a few bites of (mine)."

It actually makes me kind of mad just typing that.

It's hard-wired into my DNA, like a receding hairline and hypertension, and equally attractive. I remember being at Disneyland in 1982 with my first-ever Real Girlfriend. I thought the sun rose and set on her, even though my dad said that the only reason she had bangs was to hide the tattoo reading "shiksa" on her forehead and my sister's friend made fun of us at Coco's one night, snickering and calling my girlfriend "Sandra Dee" before figuring out that the tool in the webbed sailboat belt was her best friend's little brother.

The truth lay somewhere in the middle. Regardless, even First Girlfriend was not welcome to eat from my personal popcorn bag as we walked through Frontierland. I held it together and didn't say a word, all in the name of teenage love. It wasn't easy.

It's not that I can't share anything. You want to borrow my car? It's yours. I can't share food.

My inability is to gracefully share desserts, beverages, pasta dishes, whatever. If it's edible, I want it all for myself; further ammo for the "my husband is so weird" school.

I'm not proud of it, but don't deny it, either. It is weird and I hate myself for it and I've worked really hard to not tense up when she says, "I'll just have some of yours," but I'm telling you; in the unlikely event I live to be 100, they'll bring in a bowl whatever space-age salty snack they're feeding guys who've had high cholesterol for 70 years, plop it down on the table and I'll immediately start stressing out, afraid that I won't get any before it's all gone.

And yet, when the Jawa was smaller, I had no problem giving him my food. What was mine was his, proof that I had transcended the selfish world of my single years, fully realized and functioning as a parent. It was part of the responsibility to create a safe and bountiful world for my child. Part of that was giving him what was mine. Whether the hidden cameras caught it or not, it felt good.

So why is it that all of a sudden it drives me crazy that the child never brings his own water bottle? That good feeling wasn't enough to absolve me? To fix the damaged part of me that thinks Daffy Duck had it right when he grabbed whatever money he could and shouted, "It's mine! All mine!"?

Today I picked the Jawa up at school a half-hour before swim lessons. I had no problem going to Ursula's office to get his backpack, giving him the opportunity to launch a few more half-court shots. Back at the car, hidden in my backpack, was a 25.3 oz. bottle of water. My bottle of water, set up for the workout I'd planned to complete while the Jawa was learning the butterfly. Stupidly, I had no contingency plan in the event he did what he does every single day, which is to look around wildly and say, "Dad, do we have any water?"

Clever boy. By saying "we," it challenges me to embrace the concept of the cohesive family unit as fully as he obviously has.

"It's in my backpack in the back seat. If you want it, you've got to get it." This is no problem when you're 12 and still able to touch your toes with ease. In a flash, he had the bottle and was slugging away at my water.

Interestingly, he sometimes employs the language of his mother to get at my water. If he thinks I'm especially hostile to water takeovers, he'll say, "Can I have a SIP of your water?" which drives me insane, because he has no intention of having a "sip." He's going to slam that water, draining half of the bottle in one "sip," no matter how he tries to cloak his intentions in manipulative language. Besides, "sip" is an exceptionally lame word all on its own.

I try to stay calm. There goes my water. Worse yet, he's alternating gulps from the bottle -- my bottle -- with bites of the banana I thoughtfully remembered to bring from home. So not only will I arrive at the gym and immediately have to go refill my water while other people claim free elliptical machines, a rare commodity at 5 pm, but the water I eventually drink will be banana-flavored.

I try to stay calm, but I'm weak. One, two, three gulps. The bottle is a third gone. That's 8.429 ounces for those of you whose laptops have calculators, like mine. The innocent little comments I make are loaded with the pressure of compressed rage. "Hey, leave some for me," I say, hoping it comes out light and joking.

We arrive at swim lessons, my child, 12.65 ounces of water and me, ten minutes early. Usually I hang around until his lesson starts, then hotfoot it for the gym, which is next door, hoping to squeeze in a 20-minute cardio session and be back by lesson's end. This time -- and having nothing to do with the fact that I am presently obsessed with the half-empty water bottle in my hand -- I decide to capitalize on the extra ten minutes. That's 200 more calories I can burn off.

My lame attempts at remaining chipper and neutral have failed. I follow the Jawa into the pool area, only to have him turn, wave at me and say, "Okay, go work out." He usually asks me to stay.

I feel, finally, awful. What kind of father can't share a water bottle with his only son? (The kind who tells the kid to bring his own water bottle, perhaps choosing from the 24 or so in the downstairs refrigerator, left over from last week's block party but, at 16.9 ounces, far too small to satisfy for an entire workout, only to have the kid day after day forget to bring his own water bottle, possibly because he correctly assumes that his father will have one, because his father always has one, and what is his father's is his also, so why bring your own water bottle? That kind of father.)

As I chug away on the elliptical, I vow to allow free access to my water on the way home. In fact, I think, I'll refill the bottle to assure ample hydration for both of us. And, of course, he doesn't touch the thing all the way home, making me feel even worse because he's obviously staying away from it because he doesn't want to make me mad.

As Popeye has often says, "I am what I am." At forty-five years old it's probably too late to change me into a free-flowing sharing machine. Though in moments of weakness Sandra Bullock admits that I'm "much better" than I was 20 years ago, I'll always prefer having my own dessert.

But there is a solution, even for unreconstructed non-sharers like me: next time, I'll bring two water bottles: one for me and one for him.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

87 days to Bar Mitzvah: pride v. worry

I am not embarrassed to say that I watch “American Idol.” It is a fairly new habit and won’t last long. When Simon goes, I’ll go too. Without him, the show is 100% cynical. With him, that number drops to 98%.

I’m fascinated by “American Idol,” how it invents instantly famous people while simultaneously wringing every possible source of income from a group of wide-eyed wannabes. Each year, some of the contestants get rich and famous almost overnight. Some of them gain a tiny bit of Warholian fame, enough to power the small marquees of local venues for a few months. The overwhelming majority of them go home to their lives with an interesting story to tell at parties.
Two weeks before the finale, the three remaining contestants return to their hometowns. Whatever their life was before “American Idol,” they are now pop stars. They fly in a private jet and get a police escort to a stadium, where 10,000 people they’ve lived among, essentially ignored, for 20-plus years, suddenly treat them as if they’re Mick Jagger. Can you imagine how that must mess with someone’s mind? Last year they were watching on TV just like the rest of us.

In the end, whoever wins becomes an indentured servant, trading their na├»ve idea of fame – borne instantly, not gradually accumulated -- for a few years of their artistic soul. When that ends, they’re free to sink (Ruben Studdard, the gray-haired guy) or swim (Daughtry, Kelly Clarkson) on their own merits. It’s a very strange arrangement, almost as cynical as the one that puts very young, attractive girls with overweight middle-aged men who drive nice cars.

This year, one of the finalists is Lee Dewyze, a 24-year-old from Chicago who describes himself as a “paint store clerk.” His appeal is Johnny Bravo-esque; he fits the suit. He’s polite, he dresses neatly but not like a square. When he ends a performance, he stands in front of the judges near tears he’s so overwhelmed by his good fortune.

His competition is another in the tediously endless line of women who think they’re Janis Joplin. The machine that makes raspy-voiced female blues singers only contains one basic mold, I guess, forcing legions of otherwise fine and creative people into singing “Me and Bobby McGee” in the hopes that, by imitating a dead rock and roll legend whose prime happened to occur when Baby-Boomer taste-makers were teenagers (literally, not figuratively, like now), they will cast a spell that transfers all of the freshness and exceptionality of Joplin at Monterey Pop to themselves. Weirdly, on “American Idol,” it always works.

It’s just not very interesting. What is interesting is Lee Dewyze, this clean-cut, ready for production boy from Chicago. For the past month, his very clean-cut, normal-looking parents (who don’t show up in a ponytail and leather vest, like the girl’s dad) have been in the audience for each show, beaming with pride.

There’s nothing quite like watching your child succeed. It’s awesome. I refer to the final scene of “School of Rock,” where the angry private school parents, having unmasked Jack Black as a charlatan, burst into the Battle of the Bands to give him a piece of their minds, only to stumble onto their children performing as a very tight, catchy rock group. Can you imagine not knowing your kid could do this, then suddenly finding out he or she has some incredible talent you didn’t know about? And that talent has a thousand people screaming with joy?

That’s how Lee Dewyze’s parents must feel right now. And that’s how Chris Ballew’s grandmother must have felt the day she stood in front of us at an outdoor show at the Seattle Center by Chris’s shockingly successful mid-1990s band, The Presidents of the United States of America. Someone standing next to her found out who she was. “You must be so proud,” she said to the grandmother.

“Oh, yes, I am,” Grandma returned.

Knowing a little bit about The Presidents of the United States of America, I found that moment interesting for one reason: two years before that day, her grandson Chris was an almost 30-year-old graduate of Brown University with no career. His success came from nowhere. Now, firmly established as Seattle rock royalty, he’s set for life.

So, too, will be Lee Dewyze about 24 hours from now. Tonight he’ll find out if he’s “The American Idol,” but at this point it doesn’t really matter. By the time the sun comes up Thursday morning, he’ll already be well into a successful – at least monetarily, if nothing else – career as a musician.

Lee wasn’t lying. Before “American Idol,” he really was a paint store clerk. You can search YouTube and find some videos of him leading a band or doing karaoke, and he managed to release two independent albums over the past few years. Essentially, though, he was 24 and working a dead-end job, chasing a massively challenging, unlikely dream on the side.

Even worse, Lee was a high school dropout. He attended Prospect High School, in Arlington Heights, Illinois, until his senior year. Then he transferred to an “alternative” school, which I understand to mean one of those places they send stoners, where class attendance is optional. Even so, he didn’t graduate.

Here’s a 24 year-old high school dropout working at a paint store. We went postal three weeks ago because the Jawa had four Bs on his progress report. You think Lee Dewyze’s parents didn’t spend some time worrying about their son?

One of my favorite parent games is to go up to people and ask them the following question: “If your child came to you after graduating high school and said, ‘Mom, Dad, I’m not going to college. I’m going to move to New York and try to make it as an actor’, would you support him or her financially?” “Trying to make it as an actor,” we know from the stylized life stories of successful actors, often means several years of living in poverty and working horrible jobs, wearing inadequate outer wear during blizzards and learning to smoke cigarettes. And those are the success stories. Sandra Bullock says, “I’d tell him to major in acting in college, then.”

I spent a few years showing up for Christmas on my parents’ dime, living in squalor and pretending I was trying to “make it” as a writer. Nobody seemed too worried. Mostly, they seemed annoyed and embarrassed. I’m not sure if they read this blog or the Sunday real estate section of The Examiner and beam with bride. Then again, writing a blog and a weekly column in San Francisco’s second-most popular daily newspaper isn’t exactly winning “American Idol” or becoming an internationally-known rock star.

When you look at it that way, four Bs aren’t a big deal. Unless they turn into a job selling paint at Home Depot.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

88 days to Bar Mitzvah: today i am still a boy

Who was the genius who decided to make 13 the cutoff for Jewish childhood? Someone, back in biblical times, when sage advice meant reminding someone to return to its original owner the ox that had wandered into their tent, made a unilateral decision: the day you turn 13, you are a man or woman.

By the way, according to the Census people who accosted me outside my house last week, gender is now something you "self-identify." No kidding. They looked me right in the eye and said, "Gender?" My response: "Can't you tell?" Not until they hear me declare that I am male am I officially male. Along those lines, you can stop referring to me as a "struggling writer." I've decided to self-identify as a best-selling author.

Actually, just turning 13 doesn't do the trick. You can turn 13 all you want; you won't be a man or woman until you climb up onto the bima, grab the gold-handled pointer and start reading from the Torah. One minute you're playing with Barbies or army men. The next, I guess, you're paying bills and worrying about your prostate.

I just realized that I used two childhood toy references that not only don't apply to today's San Francisco child but would also likely make me a Neanderthal in the eyes of my Brandeis Hillel Day School parental cohort. What I meant to say was that one minute they're playing with gender-neutral wooden toys made by artisans in Mendocino and the next they're practicing Ashtonga Yoga and boycotting Arizona.

Last night, 89 days to Bar Mitzvah, I sat in Room 56 at Temple Emanu-el and looked around. Among the parents in various stages of middle-aged physical deterioration were four Bar and Bat Mitzvah candidates. There was the Jawa, who someday will learn what I have learned: how to fidget in ways that don't attract attention.

There was a red-haired kid wearing a hoodie advertising some local youth basketball league. He was completely stressed out because he hadn't yet come close (in his mind) to completing the 18 Mitzvot required of each B'nai Mitzvah. Abra, our Temple Emanu-el representative, found this unbelievable, since everything short of saying "Gesundheit" instead of "God bless you" when someone sneezes is a Mitzvah.

There was Rachel, the ghost of girlfriends past, and there was another girl who actually sounded like a teenager -- and not a kid -- when she spoke. Another candidate was mysteriously absent, represented by his parents and little sister.

Only the preternaturally mature girl seemed like anything other than a kid. And yet all will soon be anointed "adults" by Jewish tradition. Their hurdle to the complex world of adulthood: taking an active role in religious services.

Even that, to a BHDS alum, is a shaky criteria. These kids have been reading from the Torah since first grade. Starting then, every class takes a turn at leading the Thursday morning T'fillah service. So by the time they reach 13, they've laid their fingers on the Torah at least seven times, maybe eight. Their post-Bar Mitzvah glow must be not unlike the feeling of a newly married couple who've been living together for years. "Do you feel any different?"

(Looks down at ring finger on left hand) "Sure! Now lets go home. I want to see if my Sports Illustrated came yet this week."

There's supposed to be all kinds of other adult-style baggage attached to achieving B'nai Mitzvah. Supposedly you will now accept responsibility for your actions and begin working toward improving the world, kind of a tough road for someone who's 13 with one foot still in the sandbox and the other behind the wheel.

(Interestingly, the generation now approaching retirement age has embraced the latter quality while curiously sidestepping the former.)

According to the May 19, 2010 New York Times, 13 is not old enough to climb Mt. Everest, even though 13-year-old Jordan Romero is already at Base Camp. Johnny Collinson, 17, is the youngest to summit Everest. At 13, Laura Dekker may or may not be too young to sail around the world. David Sills, 13, is already being recruited to play quarterback at USC in 2015. That's too young to everyone except, ironically, very youthful new USC coach Lane Kiffin.

Is 13 too young to date? It's too young to drive a car or hold a job, save for babysitting and lawn-mowing, and plenty of people think 13 is too young for babysitting. I'm one of them. It's too young to go on a world tour or be a movie star. Just ask Drew Barrymore, Danny Bonaduce, Michael Jackson, the Corys, Brad Renfro, Lindsay Lohan and about every other child star in history except for Blossom and Winnie Cooper.

This morning, after a comically inept series of events that culminated in me driving carpool in a metallic green Buick, I watched as the Brandeis Hillel Day School seventh grade presented the results of their Tzedek project, a year-long class in which they took money donated by parents (instead of buying 40 Bar Mitzvah gifts, we pooled our money into one fund marked for philanthropy), then each researched a worthy organization for donation. In the end, they donated to four separate outfits.

Today, they presented huge, golf tournament-style faux checks to representatives of each organization. We all sat and watched a DVD about the "Make-a-Wish" foundation, and a video made by a school in Africa who were to received approximately $5,000, thanks to the stellar research of seventh-grader Sydney Osterweil-Artson.

It was pretty awesome to hear these little African kids talking about Sydney Osterweil-Artson.

Were these adults lounging 40-across in the front of the room? As much as anyone can be at 13 while not climbing Everest or sailing around the world, I guess, and definitely more so for the girls than the boys. Though some of them -- Jawa included -- now sport faint moustaches, they all seemed blissfully free of adulthood. Can a rite of passage designed to create a clear line of demarkation between childhood and adulthood have its desired effect on a 14-year-old? I just don't see it.

Maybe back in biblical times. Maybe 77 years ago, when my 15 year-old grandmother and grandfather met on the beach at Coney Island, where he was pumping iron with all the other muscle beach guys and she was hiding the fact that she was able and willing to perform the highly controversial Triple Lindy when the sun went down and the orchestra began to play.

Romeo and Juliet were 12. Maybe all the way up to the establishment of child labor laws in the U.S. Not now, though. I'm sure that, just as 18 was exactly the right age to completely waste a college education through immaturity, 13, at least for our Jawa, who just came running out of his room with his ipod strapped to a cardboard sword he made, will still be a kid on August 22.

Monday, May 24, 2010

89 days to Bar Mitzvah: making lists

Long ago I learned that I was the kind of person who would make lists; not out of Platonic love for lists, but because if I didn't write a list, nothing got done.

Naturally, my predeliction for making lists quickly became an invaluable item in Sandra Bullock's "How weird is my husband" toolbox. You can tell the difference between that and her normal toolbox because her normal toolbox is red and says "Craftsman" across the front. Her father bought it for "us" as a Christmas present one year. Yes, my wife has a toolbox. I have books. How weird is her husband?

The joke around here is that if something is not on the list, it does not exist. I go to Safeway or Trader Joe's and purchase everything on the list. The pen I always carry is used to cross off each item on the list as I put it in my cart, at Safeway always stacking items toward the front of the cart to obscure the picture of Realtor Susan Ring, who once accused me of "yellow journalism" at an open house. You'd better believe she found out what "yellow journalism" looks like the very next Sunday.

If I forget the pen, I buy one. Otherwise, how will I know what is already in the cart and what is not? The list grows organically during the week. When someone thinks of something we need or they'd like, they add it to the list.

Before Sandra Bullock and I first moved in together, my idea of "grocery shopping" was crossing the street to buy a sandwich. I got used to grocery lists pretty quickly though, after a short period in which I would sabotage each week's list by adding things like "donuts," or "lechuga."

If I were King of the shopping list and had free rein to build it as I wished, I'd organize it according to supermarket aisle. "Fruit" would be at the top. The last item would be "bread." This, to me, is logical and sleek, the grocery list equivalent of my system for doing laundry, which involves separating colors into "above the belt" and "below the belt." This limits the number of clothing categories during folding time. Otherwise, you could cover the bed with one- or two-item stacks of boxers, socks, t-shirts, sweatshirts, jeans, etc. until you run out of room and either have to use the nighttables or try to air fold, something I cannot do. I need a flat surface.

Sandra Bullock claims to be exasperated by my laundry system and undermines it every chance she gets. If she hates it so much, why does she often bring it up at social functions? Becase her husband is so weird, that's why.

I might think it weird that there has been a small, green post-it on the kitchen island for the past two days with "wire brush" written on it. "I can go buy that," I volunteered. "What's it for?"

"I want to use it on the stucco, so I can do touch up paint. Or if I just want to paint the outside of the house. Do you know what kind of wire brush to get for that?"

"No," in four-point font.

After I checked to make sure I still had male reproductive organs, I went to get a glass of water. While I was changing into my PJs, she'd emptied the dishwasher. I could have easily done that myself, but it wasn't on the list.

Tonight, after a long period of radio silence caused, in part, by the fact that for various reasons -- illness, prior commitments, block party -- the Jawa has skipped three of the last four Bar and Bat Mitzvot, we reprimed the Bar Mitzvah machine and attended a "B'Nai Mitzvot Preparation Class" at Temple Emanu-el. Here we would learn the intricate details of the coming weekend event.

We discussed details, all right, if you consider a "discussion" to be a situation in which one person tells a room full of people exactly how things are going to be, interrupted a few times by timid and sometimes repetitive questions.

Seems that for all of our loopy San Francisco grooviness, there is a definite right and wrong way to be Bar Mitzvah'ed at Temple Emanu-el. You will donate $300 to the Flower Ladies, who used to be part of the Sisterhood until it dissolved, because they go to the Flower Mart every week and their creations are lovely. You can go with FTD, we guess, but it seems nonsensical.

You will add 75 people to your Oneg/Kiddush lunch, because for some of those people, the ones you may see shoveling bagels into their shoulder bags, it may be the only meal they have that day, or possibly that weekend. This your special event, yes, but you must remember that for many people, it is just another Saturday service.

It is a mitzvot, as you know. If you do not do it, you are bad.

Consideration for the temple's congregation is also why, though you may be the reticent type, miserly with their emotions, who sees a Bar or Bat Mitzvah as the perfect time to unleash onto your child an appreciation so overwhelming that you all fall to the floor in tears, you will want to keep the "parents' blessing" to around three to five minutes. You must be cognizant of the fact that, basically, you are renting the temple for one day and while it may be your "special day," in the life of the temple, it is another Saturday service.

If you want to have extra musicians and will be having your event in the Martin-Meyer sanctuary, please tell Marcia. She will choose extra musicians for you. And you should attend several Saturday services before yours, so you'll know what goes on in them, because even though you are a member of this temple, we're going to assume that you're one of those Jews who, when asked his religion, begrudgingly says, "Jewish," before quickly adding, "but barely. I'm not religious or anything."

The Saturday before your Bar Mitzvah, you should be prepared to work during services as a greeter, handing out prayer books and saying, "Shabbat Shalom!" to visitors, regardless of how badly your social anxiety has been acting up as a result of all the people who solicit you for contributions to Calpirg or Greenpeace, want to shine your shoes or give you a massage or simply want to know if you're a registered California voter every day while you walk from the BART station to work.

Don't plan to have dinner on Friday before 7:15, and don't stay out late. You will be at the temple very early the day of your child's Bar or Bat Mitzvah. And while you can hand down a Tallit to your child, that would leave you without one. Better to buy a new one for him.

("If Grandpa gives his Tallus to the Bar Mitzvah boy, what's he going to wear?" said Abra, our Family Education Coordinator. "A new Spooner, of course!" I answered cheerily, to the delight of my wife and utter confusion of everyone else.)

There are definite ways to conduct yourself at services. Each Saturday, Abra told us, begins with the rabbi making some joke about turning off cell phones and getting rid of gum. "I'll be happier when he doesn't have to make that joke," she said.

This is not to frighten you, neophyte Bar Mitzvah-goer. We encourage you to come and wear our inscripted yarmulkes that Abra thinks are a waste of money. If, when I am on the bima, it appears I am chewing tobacco, it will actually be gum, hidden in my lower lip. I chew gum every day and will likely be chewing some on August 21.

I suspect that, based on what I've seen at past Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, tonight's semi-stern lecture was delivered in the hope that we'd follow 75% of the laid-out rules. I can clearly remember, for example, several "parents' blessings" that were much longer than the five lines Abra showed us on the "parents' blessings template." Once you're up there, what are they going to do? Bring out the huge, vaudevillian hook?

I'm making a list. It's called "Bar Mitzvah." Some things I heard tonight will go on it, like "Show up early," "Write parents' blessing," and "send transliterated versions of the blessing before the reading of the Torah to my parents." Other things I heard tonight will not be on the list. Which, as you now know, means they don't exist.

Friday, May 21, 2010

92 days to Bar Mitzvah: an irritable self

Sometimes, living in San Francisco can be confusing. I've always wondered, for example, how people here can simultaneously advocate for the legalization of marijuana and the criminalization of tobacco. Are we talking sprinkle it on your pancakes, a la Bill Lee? Or is it just that there are good kinds of smoke and bad kinds of smoke, and that one type of smoke's qualities are so great that they render it immune from the dangerous qualities of the other?

Whatever the reasoning behind the dichotomy, I don't get it. But then, I am just a caveman.

I work downtown most days, which means that when I leave the office I'm surrounded by San Francisco, which is different than being surrounded by, say, Chicago or Memphis. It's a little bit like being surrounded by Seattle, if Seattle had spent at least one entire decade out of the past ten with the eyes of the entire world upon it, then missed that feeling so badly that it spent the next four decades nostalgically pretending that it was still 1967. Grunge doesn't count.

There are things you learn when you work downtown. Early on, I learned that I had the same hours as Frank Chu, a noted eccentric whose job, it appears, is to carry around a sign with nonsense written on it. Not sort of lucid stuff that I disagree with and thus consider stupid; Chu's message is complete and utter nonsense. "Impeach Clinton/12 Galaxies/Guiltied to a/Zegnatronic Rocket Society" is but one of the mysterious messages written in a shockingly professional and attractive manner on Chu's signs.

In the timeless San Francisco spirit of Emporer Norton, Frank Chu is a local celebrity. He was named "Best Pathological Citizen" in 2007 by The SF Weekly. For a few years there was a bar in the Mission named "12 Galaxies" in his honor. Local businesses buy ad space on his sign -- on the free space left over after his nonsensical messages. Like me, Frank works downtown from 8:30 until 5. Like me, Frank is thought to be harmless. Unlike me, Frank once held his entire family hostage at gunpoint, beating them and shooting at police who came to investigate.

The reason why you don't think this is just another cool aspect of Frank Chu's irreverence is because you're square and we're not.

During the last couple of weeks, I've noticed a new guy showing up on Market Street. He, too, seems to knock off the same time as me, right around five. Unlike Frank, he's not a notable eccentric. He has more in common with the aging hippie couple I see standing next to the Powell Street BART entrance, shilling their personal massage therapy business. Same look: thin gray hair, beatific smile, moustache, REI co-op wardrobe, floppy canvas hat.

His message is simple, or simply complex: "Be yourself," says his sign.

He'd already closed up shop by the time I saw him today. "Be yourself" was hanging down at his side as he dodged the river of TGIF-infused downtown workers. Though he'd worked a full day, he was unbowed. Still wearing a pleasant smile. Why shouldn't he be? After all, how much work can it be to "Be yourself?" Quite a bit, if the daily public carrying of a sign is required to remind us of this simple adage, lest we spend our lives as someone else.

Admittedly, I'm not in the best mood at 5 pm on a weekday, having just spent eight hours at work and facing a BART ride home, where an angry-looking young guy with a beard might push me for jostling him, then stare me down until I turn away. That didn't happen on Wednesday. I'm just saying it could.

And further, my initial feeling about ethereal Baby Boomers carrying signs isn't wholly positive. Still, something about a guy who thinks standing around downtown, holding a sign that says "Be yourself" provides a necessary service struck me as a the expression of the brutally naive at best, the smugly shallow at worst. As a non-hippie, I don't see much difference between carrying a sign saying "be yourself" and soliciting passers-by with the loaded, "Do you have a minute for the environment?" Both are about three degrees from Scientology and/or "Repent! The end is near!"

Of course I'm being too harsh. His intent was probably to gently urge us to stay true to our "real" selves, slipping through the storms of peer pressure and societal norms like a Ford Probe in a windtunnel. I've lived in San Francisco long enough, though, to think that what he really meant was, "None of you are being yourselves. This is bad. You should slip free of the toxic masks you are all wearing and be like me: free."

It this is true, it bothers me on two levels. First, it assumes that, since we're not smiling vacantly and wearing REI gear, we must not be ourselves. We're programmed drones, "yuppie scum." Our messenger bags contain the handcuffs of conformity and ironically, there is only one kind of "real."

But what if being yuppie scum IS "being yourself?" What if being a member of San Francisco's groovy tie-dyed army means nothing more than a uniform of casual attire, a prediliction for mid-tempo, blues-based popular music and adherence to a very strict political code? I tried that uniform on for awhile in college. It was no more "me" than the leather jacket I donned two years later or the Calvin Klein suit I bought for this year's Bar Mitzvah season.

Actually, it was less me. I figured that out at a Grateful Dead show in 1987 when I slammed into a guy and he didn't slam back.

Maybe the VP of Sales where I work, his self is a high-energy, high-anxiety guy who likes to build effective sales strategies. Maybe his self likes to golf, not because it's something he thinks he should do to fit an image of a successful businessman but because he truly enjoys the feel of a chipping from the bunker to within 15 feet of the pin.

The other part that bothers me is all the pressure "be yourself" puts on people who spend time running around worried about EXACTLY THAT. Thanks for the memo, pal. I was starting to convince myself I wasn't a complete sellout. Who annointed you universal conscience, anyway?

My self, obviously, is easily annoyed by people holding signs telling me what to do. This guy probably spent his life not "being yourself." Then, upon retirement or some catalytic moment -- maybe he had a medical scare or he had his first grandchild and realized life was too short -- decided he would dedicate his remaining days to reminding people that their "selves" were too valuable to keep hidden away. Lucky for him he has enough money to spend his days holding a (non-sponsored) sign and still pay the rent.

It's a nice thought. I'd probably believe it, too, if the message wasn't coming from a guy who looks EXACTLY like the kind of guy who would go downtown and hold a sign reading "be yourself," then go home smiling to himself at the number of people whose lives he undoubtedly touched with his simple, serene message.

If one day I left work and saw that the "be yourself" guy had switched signs with Frnak Chu, I'd do a carwheel in honor of the first time in months I'd seen something surprising in my home town.

And yes, I know what Gordon would do.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

93 days to Bar Mitzvah: short the dad gene

One thing I know is this: we plung headlong into every day knowing that there's little or no chance that our behavior will measure up to that which we see on TV and in the movies. Or in some books, for that matter.

Unless we choose to spend each day hiding in a dark, media- and interaction-free room, it's impossible to get to the daily finish line without coming across an image or message that confirms one thing: we're not doing this the way we're supposed to. Our conversation isn't a cohesive string of clever repartee. We don't have six-pack abs even though our character is supposed to represent "everyman." If we are at a train station and see our as-yet unmet soulmate sitting inside a departing train, it's very unlikely we'll be able to whip out our PDA and change our ticket before she pulls away.

As educated adults, we are invested in reminding ourselves and each other that we are quite cognizant of the difference between reality and fantasy. And yet there is a part of us that goes to bed every night thinking, "Man, I didn't resemble Jimmy Stewart AT ALL today."

I am hopelessly lacking in one fatherhood skillset: the aptitude for and interest in doing construction projects with my son. Not that I grew up building birdhouses with my dad. The couple of times we combined forces -- to complete plastic scale models of Apollo 11 and later a transparent view of a Wankel rotary engine -- the division of labor was very unequal. He built while I watched.

There are men who crave the opportunity to build something with their son. If their son were to do what mine did yesterday -- out of nowhere announce that he wanted to build a "dog park" for Saturday's Surrey Street block party -- they would have seized the opportunity, effortlessly cashing in on meaningful father-son time and the teaching moments inherent in working with power tools.

More than an inability to work with tools -- which terrify me, by the way -- I've also got no interest at all in building things. The minute the Jawa started talking about this project, which he'd already mapped out in his head, I began seeing teeth-gnashing trips to Home Depot (where I once stood in front of a wall of drywall screws, frustrated out of my mind because my wife and father-in-law had sent me there to "buy drywall screws" without mentioning the vast array of drywall screw variables, thinking, "I wonder if this is what some people would feel like if I threw the latest 'New Yorker' in front of them and said, 'Read this.'"), followed by much demonstrated impatience on both of our parts, brief but sharp periods of physical pain and a final project whose quality would be so subpar that people would have to lie to us in order to spare our feelings.

But it doesn't matter. Even as the world's most manually inept adult, my responsibility as a father is to nurture his self-esteem. Everything you hear and read tells you about the horrific damage that comes when you consistently crush your child's dreams. The world will crush them soon enough, my mother would say, so what's your rush?

I'm supposed to be like that guy Gordon, whose farmhouse living room I found myself in one day several years ago, after a Poulsbo, Washington groomsmen outing during which I neither got a massage nor appeared nude in the hot tub. Gordon lived on Bainbridge Island and was slated to play the bongos during the upcoming ceremony. The groom, a former college roommate of mine, had met him during grad school in Olympia.

(Around this time I learned that the groom, who later lived in a yurt on Whidbey Island, had spent much of his youth living in a home that fronted a golf course. One day we went there and played golf, leading to one of the two most memorable sports-related moments of my life: seeing a guy in a tie-dyed shirt and Birkenstocks unload a 300-yard drive. The other was seeing a guy in a cheerleader skirt and giant hoop earrings repeatedly hit the ten-foot line during a volleyball tournament.)

Across the living room in Gordon's farmhouse were two unusual, furry objects. In passing, I asked, "What are those?"

"Well," Gordon said, eyes twinkling to indicate that everything he needed to know, he had indeed learned in kindergarten, "those are my drum stands. But they can be anything you want them to be."

If Gordon was the Jawa's dad, he'd be out back under a tarp right now, sawing away at the enigmatic "wood" the Jawa told me he'd need for his "dog park."

Sadly, I'm not Gordon. If those things are drum stands, then they're drum stands. They're not magic carpets, inanimate pets or the initial building blocks of an aerie. And you can't just decide, two days before the party, that you want to build an enclosure out of wood and "mesh," populate it with (as-yet unpurchased) dog toys and food dishes and somehow store the thing in your 1,100 square-foot house on its 25 x 84 lot. That's not even considering the imaginary block of time required to go to Home Depot and buy these materials. And Petco.

But at least if I were Gordon, I'd let the kid down easy. I'd know exactly how to tell him that, while his proposed project was impossible, there's certainly something else we can do -- together -- that will be just as fun and meaningful. Gordon would make sure to start by complementing the Jawa on his initiative. He'd say, "Wow, I wish I had your imagination!" and "It's great that you're thinking about the dogs. I'll bet they really appreciate that!"

Shoot, Gordon. Not counting time spent behind the wheel, I can't even remember the last time I said anything out loud that had an implied exclamation point at the end of it. How do you expect me to Fred Rogers up enough to maintain my son's belief in magic while simultaneously squashing this particular project?

Even as I lounged around your living room, you had to know that I couldn't get on board. When you invited me to consider the endless possibilities imagination could bestow on a pair of bongo drum stands, I said, "Sorry, Gordo. I don't live in that world," and all you did was half-smile. And I did actually call you Gordo, but what can you expect from a guy who, while everyone else was cross-country skiing during the groomsmen retreat on Mt. Rainier, trudged through the snow with the other oddball groomsman to find the nearest bar.

I listened for awhile, agonizing over how to proceed, before saying to the Jawa, "Yeah, you know, I'm just not sure you're going to have the time to do all of that."

"It wouldn't take any time," he protested.

"And it sounds like it might be kind of expensive," I said.

"Wood's not expensive."

Help me out here, Gordon.

Later that night, the Jawa changed his mind. "You're right," he told me. "There's no way that would have worked." Victory has never been less sweet.

And again I go to sleep feeling nothing at all like Sheriff Andy Taylor, Henry Fonda, Dick Van Patten or even Darren McGavin as The Old Man.

94 days to Bar Mitzvah: division of labor

It's a fact: there are days when my wife arrives home, sees me sitting on the couch or worse, lying on the floor doing a crossword puzzle, and says to herself, "Does he do anything but lie around?" To my everlasting embarassment, I've only realized this over the past five years or so. Before that, I figured as long as I always put the toilet seat down, I was golden.

Unfortunately, the one thing I will only do during extreme crisis conditions -- make dinner -- is the most obvious, possibly the only way to change her inner monologue from "I do everything around here" to "look how nicely my husband and I share domestic responsibilities." Anything short of that is lost in the face of what is very obvious: that she worked a long day, making way more money than me, only to come home and find dinner not made.

And I do try to do things to ease her pain, really I do. I mean, as long as they don't cause me pain. No sense in both of us hurting.

For several years, I thought we had an equitable arrangement in which she made dinner and I did dishes. Yes, it got a little less equitable when we bought our house, which came with first a very old and leaky dishwasher, then later a very slick-looking Bosch dishwasher, which stood ridiculously alone and embarassed in our kitchen, whose last remodel had come in 1966.

Eventually, we did a complete kitchen remodel, but not before first entertaining plumber candidate Bill Tracy, who, despite having spent his entire life in San Francisco, looked and dressed exactly like Richard Petty. Bill Tracy stood in our decaying kitchen, wishing he could go back outside to his El Camino and smoke, and told me stories. He told me about how our house, which (I theorize now) had been on San Jose Avenue before they widened it into a pseudo-freeway, had been moved to this spot in 1959.

He told me that he'd once owned the house across the street, which hade begun its life as a horse stable. He'd paid $10,000 for it in 1962. There was a house up on Diamond, near Safeway. Bill Tracy used to go to swinger's parties there in the 70s. Bill Tracy grew up on a farm about a mile from here. I loved Bill Tracy.

Bill Tracy once owned a bar in Glen Park called "Bill Tracy's Lodge." We called it "the scary bar." It was where the French restaurant is now. In the few years we was here before Bill sold out, we never went in, maybe because the guy who stood out front every day, wearing a Giants replica game jersey and a 2.7 degree of difficulty mullet, intimidated us. Just as well. Bill said people used to sell drugs out of the bar until he came down on them like a ton of bricks.

"You know," Bill told me, pausing, "I think I did the last remodel on this kitchen."

But Bill Tracy worked only with copper. While he looked like he'd have been at home in a double-wide, he did not come cheap. Bill Tracy was out of our league in more ways than one, and we'd already spent a ton on our electrician.

Finally, after six months of doing dishes in the bathroom and two very productive weekend visits by my wife's father the general contractor, the new, gleaming, impressive kitchen was done, ending the Bosch dishwasher's days of shame. All it cost was yet another slice of my already-limited masculinity. Two weekends of a man's man trying to impart his handyman wisdom on you, only to have your eyes glass over for ten minutes before reminding him that, while you haven't misspelled a word in 10 years and really do love his daughter, he's wasting his time trying to teach you how to property "mud" drywall, can potentially leave your sense of macho ragged and torn, blowing in the wind like a linen surrender flag.

At the end of each working day, we'd sit at the kitchen table, the three of us, drinking Budweiser and looking at the unfinished project. Sandra Bullock and her father would beam with pride, pointing out to each other the progress we'd made, strategizing for tomorrow's work. I counted the days until we were done.

Eventually, Sandra Bullock re-took dishwashing duties from me. Even with the powerful Bosch dishwasher in my corner, my subpar dish-rinsing skills forced her to decide that it was preferable to do the work herself. And that's the first time she's ever done that.

So I try to do other things, often measuring their impact against the effort they require. I make the bed every morning. I take out the trash, and I do an average of six loads of laundry every week in the fallacious belief that mad folding skills are the equal of bandsaw competency on the manly scale.

Today, Sandra Bullock was home only for an hour before meeting Surrey Street friends for dinner. Sometime around noon it occurred to me that having her make the Jawa and I dinner even though she wouldn't be joining us would not be a good thing. "I hate making dinner," I thought, "but there's no way." Unfortunately, we had macaroni and cheese on Monday. My one cooking option was exhausted.

Halfway through the afternoon, as I was touring this outrageous, 20,000 square-foot church that had been converted into a house, I got an email from my wife. "I'll make the Jawa a hot dog," it said. "There's some leftovers for you, if that's okay."

Now if she suggests it, it's not me making her do it, right? That's the logic that got me through the rest of the day not feeling like a heel.

Still, I tried to increase my low-impact contributions. By the time she got home, the Jawa (inexplicably home today and tomorrow for one of the seemingly endless, obscure Jewish holidays that stretch his school year into mid-June) and I had walked Shack -- a truly awful chore that includes carrying poo around in a small, blue bag.

More than that, in the 40 minutes that elapsed between the time I got home and Sandra Bullock arrived, I convinced the Jawa to clean up, which basically involved retracing his steps to the moment he woke up this morning. This exercise reinforced the idea of just how annoying it is to come home and find that someone who's been there all day hasn't managed to do anything except mess the place up. Score a subtle and unintended point for Sandra Bullock.

Where's this "tikkun olam/save the world" stuff they're supposed to be teaching him at school? Is it too much to ask that it start with not leaving your half-eaten breakfast on the kitchen table for eight hours?

Find me the sloppiest, most inept private detective. He would have no problem accurately recreating the Jawa's day. He began with some pancakes. They were good, but too filling to finish. Same with the grape juice.

A few hours later, rather than eat lunch, he ate two Nutri-Grain bars and handfuls of pretzels while sitting on the living room floor, simultaneously watching on-demand episodes of "Mythbusters" on TV and reruns of "Lost" on his little netbook computer.

At no time did he entertain any thoughts of changing out of his pajama bottoms and into pants. It was only when I made him walk Shack that he begrudgingly made the switch. Even then, he stuck with the green t-shirt he'd been wearing since he got out of the shower at eight last night.

Much of the day was spent handling Butters, his new hamster. Butters was in the kitchen. She made a brief visit to the coffee table in the living room. Time was spent in the hallway, and on the Jawa's bedroom floor. Don't be impressed by my crisp, all-knowing report; all I had to do was follow the trail of white shredded paper, Butters' cage bedding of choice.

I kept my cool, reminding myself that Sandra Bullock feels like this more days than not, and knowing from experience that I was never more than two or three angrily delivered comments away from a scene where the Jawa ends up slamming his door after making a series of progressively more defiant and cutting remarks. Instead, we both kept up our cool, communicating in a tight, overly-patient way that we pretended the other didn't notice. No big deal. And better than the alternative.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

95 days to Bar Mitzvah: game theory

One of the Jawa's recurring spoken wishes is that we "spend more time together as a family," and who can argue with that? You'd have to be a pretty low, mean parent to look your kid in the eye and say, "No, I think we spent plenty of time together as it is."

So of course Sandra Bullock and I nodded our heads furiously and set about carving more "family time" our of our days, which are already weirdly hectic for two relatively unimportant people. So wrapped up were we in the abstract wonderfulness of a pre-teen wanting more, not less, time with his parents that we didn't stop to ask ourselves a very obvious and relevent question: what exactly does a family do during its 'family time?'"

Last night I got part of my answer: they play games.

Please, someone throw me a line before I plummet down into the private abysss exclusively occupied by terrible fathers who don't like to play games. Because until I hear otherwise, I am certain that this is the sin that will keep me out of heaven. Instead of floating around plucking the strings of a harp, I'll spend eternity misjudging fly balls and trying to get across town during rush hour. All because I don't like playing games with my child.

I know that I was once a game-lover, because all kids like playing games. I liked them even more over at the Stroney's house, because before we could start playing "Monopoly," "Life" or the mysteriously lost to history "Easy Money," Scott Stroney would spend at least an hour creating an elaborate bank that always ended up looking like a fort. And I loved forts. Still do, in fact, though it was really strange when my Freshman year roommate built one in our dorm room.

He did not return for his sophomore year.

Entire days were lost with us playing board games in the Stroney's basement. You name the 1970s board game; we played it: Clue, Risk (which I wasn't allowed to play, my relative youth denying me both participation in Risk games and a seat on the floor during neighborhood Cheech and Chong album listening parties) and a game called "Masterpiece," in which you tried to figure out if works of art were real or forgeries.

There were the three-dimensional games, like Which Witch? and Mousetrap. There was Bing, Bang, Boing! which never came any more real to me than a full-page spread in the Sears Christmas catalog. There was Ker-Plunk and Pick-up-Stix, which were inexpensive and took up very little space. There was Chinese Checkers for more cerebral moods.

No one messed around with games that needed batteries. Who wanted to risk discovering a dead battery after setting everything up?

And then we'd return home, doomed to an endless cycle of trying to replicate the fun we'd had playing games in the Stroney's basement by playing the exact same game with our parents. Who naturally didn't want to play, which at the time was very disappointing, and because of this I should know better now to just suck it up, swallow my next lame excuse and start dishing out the fake money and cardboard deeds.

Last night, I was juggling the first game of the Western Conference Finals with the Mariners-A's on Fox Sports. I was alone downstairs with 42 diagonally-measured inches of HD television glory all to myself. My plan was to come up for dinner then retreat back to my cave, emerging late at night when all sporting events (and recaps) had concluded.

It was not to be. During dinner, Sandra Bullock piped up. "Since the Jawa's homework is finished early, why don't we all play a game?"

Why? Because there was a comfortable spot on the sectional waiting for me downstairs? Because games are meant to be played with peers, not your parents? Because games take forever and somewhere in the air between Scranton, Pennsylvania and Orange, California, I lost not only my childhood but also my childhood interest in board games?

You bring me Scott Stroney to make a bank out of a cardboard box and I'm on board. I don't care if I can be the car, the dog or the top hat, I don't want to play.

None of this was said, of course. Instead, I delivered my message with great subtlety, pausing for a split-second before saying, "Sure. We can do that."

See, the pause sets up a scenario where you're responding to something that is simply undoable, so completely impractical and absurd that it's stopped you cold. The slightly longer than a beat length shows that, while the request is undoubtedly doomed to failure, you will try your best to make it work only because of your commitment to the person(s) making it and your parallel wish to shield them from the inevitable disappointment resulting from their unrealistic dreams.

Sandra Bullock, with eighteen years of decoding experience under her belt, suggested she play "Battleship" with the Jawa while I watch basketball. Her vast body of work also taught her that it was even money that by the time they finished their game I'd feel so guilty that I'd take winners. And by "winners," I mean the Jawa. Not that we'd let him win; more like even if he lost soundly, I would still be facing him in game two.

For the record, he defeated both of us despite my airtight "fire no more or less than two squares apart" offensive strategy.

There must be other parents out there whose initial response to "lets play a game" is "I'd rather be sealed into a ziplock bag." I can't be the only bad parent. And there must be ways to log "family time" that don't include dice, plastic cars and the Milton Bradley products.

What happened to me? I was the kid who would set up the board for "Life" even when no one else would play, happy to have some uninterrupted time to drive the cars up and over those 3D relief map plastic rises. Now, even "Life" has no meaning.

Or maybe this: please send your child to our house to play games with my son. It shouldn't take too long for him to figure out that it's much more fun to play "Monopoly" with the Scott Stroneys of his world than it is to play with his mom and dad. Okay; with his dad.

Monday, May 17, 2010

96 days to Bar Mitzvah: adios, Roanoke

Fifteen years ago, Sandra Bullock and I sat on bar stools with Chris and Jeff Price, wondering what we were doing in the Roanoke, a bar about a mile-and-a-half from the small apartment building we all lived in.

We knew of the Roanoke. Everyone did. Of all the bars in Seattle, none greased the wheels for college-aged partiers to grow into neighborhood regulars as smoothly. One minute you’re there to watch the Huskies in the Rose Bowl. A decade later, you’re paying your tab once a month. Picture “Cheer,” done up in full Seattle-style – equal parts snowboard, softball mitt, REI two-man tent and screaming punk rock. But what were we doing there?

I’m not sure when we started considering Chris and Jeff’s downstairs apartment an extension of our own, but it happened pretty shortly after we moved into the five-unit building at 723 Federal Avenue. Mornings and weekends were the predecessors of today’s Surrey Street stoop parties, barbecue optional. Back then, everyone was 30 years old. No one had any kids or money. Our motorcycles shared a garage behind the house.

“What do you think of this bar?” Chris asked us. Maybe she was wearing overall shorts. Or a gigantic sweater. Or both. Jeff and I were probably dressed identically. It was years before I made Banana Republic my personal walk-in closet and he started the process that will eventually leave each of his limbs entirely covered with tattoos.

“Why?” I asked.

“Because we’re buying it.”

That was May of 1995. We’d been in Seattle for less than two years. Five years later, we’d be gone to San Francisco. By then we’d spent hundreds of hours in the Roanoke, which eventually became shorthand for all the things about Seattle I was surprised to miss when I grabbed at that Golden Gate-colored ring ten years ago.

Under Chris and Jeff’s stewardship, the Roanoke did not become the hottest ticket in town. It still drew a combination of college students and old guys, filling in spots in-between with people from the neighborhood, friends and people from the neighborhood who became friends.
Weekday afternoons you’d find a lineup of guys who’d graduated years before from Seattle Prep, the Catholic high school two blocks away. On not-so-rare occasions, some member of Seattle rock-and-roll royalty would slip in, take his place at the bar and drink anonymously. Kim Thayill of Soundgarden was known to stop by. The fat guy from Blues Traveler also showed up once when I was there.

When Sandra Bullock got pregnant, there was no question that the baby shower would take place at the Roanoke, on the deck by the ping-pong tables. That one of my college friends, now a non-babysitter-inclined parent, took great umbrage to this was his problem, not ours. The party turned out great. In my family’s photo albums are pictures of my parents sitting on plastic chairs in the sun, out back at the Roanoke.

After the Jawa showed up, it got harder to stop by the bar. Usually, it was either Sandra Bullock or me. On the rare occasions we both went, we always got nachos, flying gleefully far under the foodie radar, thinking anyone stupid enough to order nachos somewhere else deserves to be disappointed.

Then we left town.

Last weekend marked 15 years of bar ownership for our friends Chris and Jeff Price. Since that day we sat there, casing the joint, we’ve produced three kids (and two dogs) between our two families. Though we now live 800 miles away, they will still command reserved seats at the table of honor, come the Jawa’s Bar Mitzvah. In the past decade, while we’ve been tilting at windmills here in San Francisco, the bar has become the center of the Price family, a stubborn constant to both treasure and curse.

While the rest of us are sitting in cubicles, banging away on keyboards, Jeff Price is at the Roanoke. He doesn’t go to the bar after work; he goes to the bar TO work. You come in, there he is. He treats his employees better than most, which – along with the fact that no fewer than eight of them have coupled up and married during his watch – earns him their undying loyalty. Though not the most outgoing of men, his bar is a comfortable place where the walls are covered with photos of patrons sporting Roanoke sweatshirts while in far-off lands.

Which is why when, last Friday, they received an email telling them that they had 60 days to vacate the premises, everyone acted like someone had died.

It’s not just boom economies that bring change. Their landlords freaked and sold the building. The new owners want to run their own bar. Or find someone else to run a bar. Or knock the whole thing down and build condos. Nobody knows for sure. All we know is that there’s been a bar in that building since about 1938, it’s been called the Roanoke since 1982 and Chris and Jeff have poured 15 years of their lives into it only to receive a 60-day vacate notice in return.

We were up in Seattle last weekend for what was supposed to be their 15th anniversary party. I was sitting in their front yard with Chris when the news came. After two months of back-and-forth with lawyers, the hammer finally came down. She laid back on a wooden bench under an unseasonably warm sky and said, “This feels like it’s someone else’s life.”

Jeff came roaring up on the motorcycle he still rides (mine is long gone), got the news and said, simply, “Well, I guess that’s it.”

According to Washington State liquor laws – some of the strictest in the country – they now have 60 days to find a new location, outfit it to function as a bar and open their doors. If they can’t get it done by July 14, they lose their liquor license. 15 years becomes not an investment but a lark. Jeff Price, a film major at Central Washington University, graduated and worked at a bar owned by his father, who sold it to a retired guy whose son was an All-Pro kicker for the Oakland Raiders. Then he bought his own bar. What’s he supposed to do now?

All things being equal, Chris and Jeff’s spirits seemed okay. “We’re taking turns being depressed,” Chris told Sandra Bullock and I Saturday morning.

That night, the party went on not as all as if nothing had happened. The celebration was just a little bit off, as if someone had removed everything and replaced it with exact an replica. One-by-one, customers and present and former employees came by to share their regrets and rant about how they were going to track down there new owners, formulate a plan and then ruin them. If wishes were ammunition, those new owners, whoever they are, would be pulling buckshot out of every square inch of their bodies right now.

“I have an idea who it is,” one employee told me. Some would-be buyer from 1995, he said, who’s harbored a grudge against Chris and Jeff for 15 years for beating him to the punch. “I can’t be certain,” he continued, “but that guy shouldn’t underestimate how vindictive I can be.”

The night ended with two live bands, an unusual set-up for the bar. Both included friends of the family. The first band played crowd-pleasing covers and a dance floor emerged. Chris hit the parquet with a group that included our very own Sandra Bullock, whose low-key yet dead-on rhythmic dance steps have wowed me for close to 20 years.

Jeff stood off to the side, his customary spot being the end of the bar furthest from the front door. Everywhere, it seemed, were big guys in shorts with shaved heads, big black eyeglasses and tattoos: the Jeff Price look. A fine testament to their uneasy leader.

The second band didn’t come on until midnight. By then there had already been a noise complaint. The Roanoke has sat, since 1982, in an otherwise almost exclusively residential neighborhood.

I know Jeff didn’t pre-screen band #2. They launched into their first song and I swear half the bar contorted, pushing themselves as far from the wall of caustic sound as they could manage without either bursting through the back door or spilling out onto 10th Avenue. I took a seat at the far end of the bar, next to another longtime bar employee, who met her husband here while working for Chris and Jeff.

“This is what it looks like inside of Jeff’s head,” she said off-handedly. I nodded. Jeff Price is far too polite a guy and not nearly untethered enough to do it himself, but the minute the lead singer of that second band climbed on top of the bar and started screaming, the Roanoke delivered a brash, defiant middle finger to landlords, rich new investors, neighbors who complain about noise, the Washington State Liquor Board and everyone else who took something absolutely right and shut it down long before the music was over.

Everyone’s ears rung until the middle of Sunday. By then, the Prices had already begun driving around, looking for “For Lease” signs.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

97 days to Bar Mitzvah: virtual time-travel

When you live somewhere for most or all of your life, change comes with fair warning. Buildings don't pop up overnight. People don't gain 25 pounds, lose their hair and suddenly have to stay home Saturday because they couldn't get a babysitter. Neither do you feel any gaps in time. Of course everyone got older. Of course they knocked down my old elementary school. I was here when it happened.

Even my friend Roger A. Hunt, Esq., who has much better access to -- and a much keener appreciation of -- the scenes of his youth than most, has to acknowledge the passage of time. His sometimes wistful looks backward are all rooted in concrete evidence of the present. He knows where he might run into people he knows and where he won't and it would never occur to him to frequent a nightspot he hasn't been to in 20 years.

Prior to moving to San Francisco and becoming a tax-paying, home-owning citizen, my life was a series of self-contained time units: ten years of Pennsylvania (legal term: "the childhood"); about a decade in Orange County ("the adolescence"); four years in Santa Clara ("college"), then about another decade in Seattle ("the years when other people were creating "careers" instead of staring at their shoes, hoping for inspiration"), with a couple of years off for Boston and San Francisco. Then, in 2000, San Francisco where, ten years on, we have remained.

This is a blueprint for disassociation. Everywhere you go, you're there but not really there. You're visiting not only a place but also a specific point on your own personal timeline.

I get off a plane at JFK, I start looking for my grandparents' yellow Chrysler because the last time the air smelled like this, I was riding in the backseat on the way to Jones Beach. I sit in Roger Hunt's hot tub at midnight and think, "Gee, when I grow up I want to be..." Even Boston, a brief layover in what I hope is a long haul of a life, last time I was there I automatically began trudging up Beacon Street, trying to approximate the feeling of a young, tormented artist with $12 to last until the 15th.

It's a cursed blessing. At best, it keeps you dialed into all of the significant (and not-so-significant) parts of your life. At worst, it makes you want to drive past an old girlfriend's house not because you want to see if she's there but because you want to remember what it felt like to drive by an old girlfriend's house to see if she was there. It's real, in an unreal way.

Last Thursday, the "romantic weekend" Sandra Bullock and I planned went sideways, leaving me alone in Seattle for 24 hours before my wife and child arrived. So I had all night and most of a day to wander the very same streets I once claimed as my own.

This was the Seattle of my first year in town, of sharing a one-bedroom basement apartment two floors down from a drug dealer named "Slim" and ending most evenings either eating grilled cheese sandwiches at The Dog House on Seventh or wandering through the rain alone because I'd had another argument with my girlfriend and she'd kicked me out of the car. Stuff whose Venn diagrams in no way overlap those of a 45-year-old dad who a few hours earlier was dragging a wheelie bag through the airport, his prescription sunglasses stuffed into his shirt pocket because that's where dads keep their sunglasses when they're not wearing them.

Last Thursday, I start the night the way I started almost every night back then. I put on my coat and start walking down Fourth Avenue. Difference is that this time there's no doorman who knows me to wave me past the line to get in.

Still I look into every bar I pass, unconsciously scanning the crowd to see if I know anyone, which is ridiculous. Not only is everyone at least a decade younger than me; most of the bars I went to are now gone as well. They're all in Ballard, where I once bunked with my friend The Legendary Dr. Bando, who took me on a stroll of Ballard Way and said, "Wouldn't it be great if all of these empty storefronts became bars?"

I end up at the Pike Place Brewery, a tourist joint, according to Seattle lifer Butter Goats, alone at the bar, eating a garden burger and reading the paper.

A few hours later, I'm back out on the streets, chasing ghosts. Over there, where that 25-story condominium tower is? That was the parking lot where one night I was arguing with my girlfriend, completely exasperated, when suddenly Dr. Bando, six-foot-four and about 170 pounds, all arms and legs and (naturally) black Doc Martens, came roaring up in a Jeep CJ-5 with some girl, scooped me up and got me out of there.

Ironically, on this night 21 years later, the only two people who've respond to my Facebook message saying I'm in town? The girlfriend I was arguing with and The Legendary Dr. Bando. I end up seeing neither of them. Babysitter issues.

Eventually, I wind up standing in front of The Virginian, where I once lived in the living room of what was officially a two-room studio, sleeping on a mattress I'd pulled off a Murphy Bed from the wall. We had no shower, only a bathtub, until my roommate Annie's brother Chuck rigged one up for us.

The Virginian, once the home of us, and Slim, and the White Surpemecist punks who hung American flags over their windows, now touts itself as a "boutique apartment building." Our block, which in 1989 contained us, a sandwich shop, a hotel, a run-down SR0 building for seniors, a body shop and a small grocery store called "Ralphs," has completely changed. Ralphs has doubled in size. The empty office across the street is now a chic restaurant. The run-down SRO on the corner now commands $300 a night.

I stood there, thinking about the old guy who used to sit in a wheelchair outside the SRO hotel. Every day I'd pass him, thinking that one day, I'd offer to push him across the street, creating this wonderful bond and bringing meaning to both his final days and my nihilistic youth, until the time I saw someone try to help him across the street and he started screaming at them.

My revery is interrupted when two young guys oame down and exit the building. Don't think more than five seconds passed before I'm doing the math, wondering if these guys were two four-year-olds I passed on this street two decades ago.

There's the spot where my car sat for two weeks in December, 1988, because I couldn't get it started after a snowstorm. Back then, you could park your car on the street downtown for two weeks and not get a ticket. That building over there used to be The Watertown, where Bando got me a job working the door about two weeks after I got to Seattle. Sandra Bullock tells me now that it's likely she was one of the girls sitting in the booth I had to climb over once an hour to reverse the movie we projected onto the building next door. One night, this drunk guy threw the owner, Keith, through a plate glass window.

That weird hillside has been the Seattle Art Museum for a long time. The low-rent portion of Third Avenue where one night after last call we went to see Annie, who was working as a P.A. on a movie they were filming there, is about as hazy as the memory of River Phoenix, star of said film, wreaking drunken havoc on downtown Seattle that summer while wearing tie-dyed pants.

If I'm still living in Seattle, if I hadn't talked Sandra Bullock into making tracks for San Francisco in 2000, I wonder if I notice this stuff. Maybe each new building gradually and effortlessly rubs out all of the memories. Maybe the daily administrative tasks of life don't allow for dramatic gaps in time.

I drive around San Francisco, I don't see ghostly images of the circa-2000 Sandra Bullock, the Jawa and me. Glen Park has changed completely since we've lived here, but I don't grab a barstool at the Glen Park Station and reminisce about that time, a week after we moved in, when those two cops we met at the bar welcomed us to the neighborhood.

Yesterday, having finally distanced myself from 1989 upon the arrival of my wife and child, Bullock and I took a slow drive across Capitol Hill, where we lived together from 1993 until we moved to San Francisco.

Here, instead of pointing out scenes of drunken brawls, almost every little patch of memory has to do with the toddler-aged Jawa. We see him in his tiny little Adidas Sambas, reaching up to hold our hands, pointing up to the sky and yelling "Ahh-pane" when a plane flies by.

Our old neighborhood barely resembles itself, so much has it been physically transformed. A six-story building sits where the old grocery store was, almost completely hiding our apartment building. One block away, the one-bedroom apartment at 711 10th Avenue, where the two week-old Jawa had his bris on a rare 100 degree day, now cowers in the shadows of another new condo building.

The Jawa and I hate time travel. We talk about it often. The only way it could exist, we posit, is if all time were to happen at once. If that were true, then we could see being able to step outside of time, choose another spot along the continuum, and set down there. Even then, we get frustrated and angry when we try to make sense of the implications of going back and forward in time.

When you slice your life into finite sections of time, though, it feels like you can go back and visit the sections that are already past. You can't go forward, obviously, and going back isn't like really going back. It's more like you're Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Past has given you the keys to the time-travel machine. You float around visiting things that, even if they're no longer there, remind you of how you felt when they were. Perfectly preserved in amber, the past comes free of head colds and unpaid bills, which makes it really easy not to look back with regret.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

101 days to Bar Mitzvah: flying blind, as usual

Two evenings ago, our children hours away sleeping in tents, the parents of the Brandeis Hillel Day School Class of 2011 met in the school library to discuss the proposed eighth-grade School Trip. Emails we’d gotten leading up to the meeting explained that, while the school used to sponsor a week-long class trip to Washington, DC, a few years ago they’d added a two-week-long trip to Israel. Adding Israel immediately put the DC trip in jeopardy. Even in a world where everyone is seriously considering investing another $150,000 in their child’s high school education two trips of this size are a lot to get your mind around.

For two hours, we discussed the relative merits of Washington, DC versus Israel. The problem, Head of School Chaim Heller told us (after, you know, he told Sandra Bullock and I how great our Bar Mitzvah invitations were), was two-fold. First, doing both trips would mean our kids missing at least 15 days of school. To the faculty, this was a non-starter.

Though my own teaching experience was abbreviated and long-ago, I can see where they’re coming from. You set up a plan to cover a certain amount of information over a 180-day school year. If you remove 15 days from that, you’re going to end up cramming too much information into the remaining 165. Also, when Heller told us that the other independent schools average about five days away from school, it made us sound soft, like we’d have been perfectly happy had our kids spent the past eight years dancing in a twinkling meadow instead of getting down to business in the classroom.

I’d gone into the meeting thinking I was going to advocate for either two trips of only a U.S. trip. After a few minutes, though, I switched sides. I can take my kid to Washington, DC. We have friends there. No way can I replicate a trip to Israel that includes two days bunking with locals plus a camel ride plus a dip in the Dead Sea.

At one point, I turned to the guy next to me, a San Francisco lifer, and asked where he’d gone for his middle school trip: “Great America,” he said, dryly. Were we really throwing around words like “divisive” and “unfair” to describe having to choose between two awesome, partially school-funded field trips?

Then someone very sensibly pointed out that it might be easier if the school had just said, “Washington trip’s off. We go to Israel now.”

No way does BHDS do that, because we would have screamed bloody murder if they had. Make a unilateral decision about our kids’ education without consulting us first? Who do they think they are, Ariel Sharon? The school had no choice. They had to do it the wishy-washy way, even if they suspected that other schools would have simply made the change and moved on.

One day ago, I met with the Jawa’s teacher to talk about his latest social and academic challenges. Since I spend 24 hours a day thinking about the Jawa’s social and academic challenges, it was nice to have someone else to discuss them with.

We talked about eighth grade and how the relationships you make during a nine-year stint at one institution evolve and change. We wondered how to teach the Jawa, no shrinking violet, that people don’t always want to hear your opinion but that it’s often not personal.

It took an hour. By the end, I was exhausted, a parental failure, sitting there hiding 20 extra pounds underneath a hooded sweatshirt meant for a man half my age. We’d just analyzed and re-analyzed my absent 12-year-old son for 60 straight minutes and all we could come up with was, “We should be positive for the rest of the school year.”

Later, expressing myself poorly to Sandra Bullock over Salvadorean food, I meant to say that all of this hyper-attention paid to every one of the Jawa’s steps and missteps is leaving me hollowed-out and unsure. It’s starting to feel like over-parenting, the kind that leads to Yahoo homepage stories about how today’s college students are self-important narcissists who can’t get jobs because they expect the keys to the executive washroom right out of school.

I’m finding it impossible to determine what is a real concern and what is just growing pains, and I keep thinking about two things: first, all of these biographies of people that mention in passing how they were either outcasts or troublemakers in school, and second, the fact that I was a model child all the way until I drove away in that Toyota Tercel in January, 1984, and look where it got me.

Do we live in a more complicated world of our own making? Does the fact that my child has never ridden public transportation alone make me a vigilant parent or a neurotic one? Where’s that rule book I was promised?

Let me tell you about two kids I had in class during the brief period I spent as a teacher. Both, I thought, had flaws that would seriously compromise their future prospects. One, a total manipulator for whom every day was a series of dramatic scenes starring her as the victim, eventually switched schools. A couple of years ago I saw her name somewhere so I Googled her. She’s a “Senior Marketing Manager” at a PR firm here in San Francisco.

The other kid was verbally brilliant but completely out of control. He couldn’t sit still and demanded as much attention as I could spare. He was cocky, arrogant and inappropriate. Teaching him meant letting all of the well-behaved, non-demanding students slip through the cracks. I’d sit there and watch these poor, pleading faces, kids who’d never make a scene but were at wits end, anyway, while this kid hijacked my class day after day. Finally, I started sending him to the Dean’s office. At least that way my class could function.

I don’t have a happy ending for him.. In fact, I have no idea where he ended up. Nor do I know where the angry stoner kid who never let his guard down in two years or the really smart, really mad at his divorced father kid who only spoke in class to make clever, distracting, irrelevant comments ended up. Or the girl who didn’t say a word until I let her sit on her desk, then dominated the conversation about “The Great Gatsby” for the rest of the unit. No idea what happened to them.

If I knew, maybe I’d feel better about tackling the Jawa’s future. Or maybe I’d feel worse.

Sorry. I hope you weren’t hoping for a sage lesson about how kids all grow up in their own ways but all end up okay in the end. We can spend our days guiding the Jawa’s every step or we can hand him a housekey and tell him we’ll be home by ten. Right now, there’s no way to know which is the right answer.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

102 days to Bar Mitzvah: out go the invites

Though the Jawa is gone camping until Friday, Bar Mitzvah preparations soldier on. To paraphrase someone lost to history, "they wait for no man." Or Jawa. If we were to suspend Bar Mitzvah activity every time the Jawa was unavailable, come August 21 we'd be staking out a spot at Lafayette Park near the picnic tables, trying to replicate his 6th birthday in grand style.

No, the Jawa's presence is not required for the Bar Mitzvah machine to go. His job is to be the guest of honor. In his absence, in fact, we flew past a major landmark: we sent out our invitations. Well, most of them, anyway.

Yes, it seems a bit early to me. The Bar Mitzvah isn't until August. Sandra Bullock reasons that in order to maximize positive RSVPs we should send out our invitations while school is still in session. That way, anyone waffling over late-summer vacations can say, "Oh, hey, we'll want to stay in town for August 21. I've got to see what that Jawa has up his sleeve, B'nai Mitzvah-wise."

Could it be that 100-plus days is too much lead time? Isn't it possible that people will see the invite, make a mental note then tell themselves, "I've got plenty of time," only to completely forget to RSVP in the 102 days between now and the event?

Why yes, it is possible. But worth the risk, I am told.

Not practiced was the slightly underhanded method of waiting until the last minute to send invites to people whose presence is not really required. I can't remember who told us to do that but it's pretty ingeneous in a crazily passive-agressive way. Not us. Save for a few stragglers, they're all out there.

Response has been swift. Not "response" meaning we have any idea who's coming. "Response" in this case means that at least a half-dozen people have contacted us today to tell us how cool our Bar Mitzvah invitations are. Even Chaim Heller, esteemed Head of School at Brandeis Hillel Day School, who is invited to every Bar and Bat Mitzvah, took time out of his day (in this case, the beginning of a meeting regarding next year's class trip that would eventually see him cornered by a library full of slightly accusatory but well-meaning seventh grade parents) to say, "That was one of the best invitations I've ever gotten."

"It was really eye-catching but understated," said the oft-understated himself statesman.

Today, the accolades for the Bar Mitzvah Design Team continued to roll in. Emails were sent; special phone calls were made. Everyone, so far, is in agreement. Or rather I should say, everyone who has something to say is in agreement. Everyone else is polite enough to say nothing, as far as we can tell.

Maybe now it's time for me to stop making light of the Bar Mitzvah Design Team? Should I back off on finding humor in their Sunday afternoon hummus and pita spreads, their single glasses of white wine, their melding of freehand and computer-assisted graphics?

Next up, the Design Team shifts its focus back to the centerpieces. Having set the bar so high with the invitations, I wonder if their next meeting will have an air of expectant tension not present in earlier sessions. So far their centerpiece prototypes, featuring glass block vases, netting and reproduced "Godzilla" movie posters (in Japanese), seem pretty much set. Two days ago, though, I did witness a period of uncertainty involving white paper flowers.

While it is the norm to wait until approximately six weeks before the event to send out the invitations, I like how our altered approach works out as the first concrete step of the process.

Yes, we have already done much of the foundation work -- securing the Golden Gate Yacht Club, hotel rooms and a Friday night restaurant, working out the big details with our DJ, attending various classes, meetings and gleeful comfort zone-challenging retreats. Add them up, though, and they equal actual commitment to just about nothing. Until those invites went out, we still could have, at any time, folded up our tents and gone home, trailing a weak, "We were just kidding," to anyone interested in why.

Now that the invitations are out, somewhere between 150-200 people have in their hands piece of evidence showing that we will be having a party on August 21, 2010. If they show up at the Golden Gate Yacht Club that day and find some random person's wedding or Sweet 16 party, they're going to be confused and hopping mad.

Our reputations would collapse. We'd be known as "the people who spent all that money, then backed out of their Bar Mitzvah at the last minute." Our spiritual peers would be Sally Field's character in "Smoky and the Bandit," San Antonio Spurs small forward Richard Jefferson and Carrie Bradshaw's soul mate, Mr. Big. Nothing we ever said afterward could be taken as immutable fact.

"No turning back now," read the email I got this morning from The Hammer. Indeed, we have made our statement. Now we sit back and wait for RSVPs, dealing with the slight tweaks to our overall plan that will come with each response. Sandra Bullock has already set up a cardboard box on the kitchen center island. On it, she's written "RESPONSE CARDS."

Every time we see people from school, they ask us: "How are the Bar Mitzvah preparations going?" Most of them are veterans of the same process, but I think the prep, like the event itself and parenting, now that I think of it, changes from person to person.

In our case, thanks to the steady hand of Sandra Bullock, we seem to be on the trajectory championed by Mike Bright, fellow 1980s Santa Clara undergraduate, who thought nothing of spending the night before finals week playing UNO. He'd been studying all quarter, he reasoned, and was prepared for finals days in advance. Anyone who hadn't been studying like that, well, one night of cramming wasn't going to make a difference, so deal the cards.

Looks like we dealt our first hand this week. The stakes are high, but so far it it appears we're not bluffing.