Wednesday, June 30, 2010

52 days to Bar Mitzvah: perchance to dream

At the risk of sounding like the kind of prehistoric father almost universally shunned in San Francisco, I had a moment today while at 24 Hour Fitness, sitting in the steam room while the Jawa -- without any prodding from me -- swam laps in the nearby lap pool.

As predicted, by the time we woke up this morning, my almost 13-year-old son had lost what hittle enthusiasm he'd had yesterday for our trip to 24 Hour Fitness. "What? We have to go now?" he thundered when I appeared before him clad in my workout gear.

"Half-hour," I said.

"Give me an hour."

"Fine." Personally, I like to get the workout done first thing. That way, you're set for the rest of the day. Even if you have a huge lunch, waddle home and collapse on your bed, you can still say, "At least I went to the gym this morning." Life being divided into "Days I Went to the Gym" and "Days I Sat Around and Did Nothing," that was a good day. Calories were burned.

Today, due to an ambivalent Jawa, we got to the Ocean Avenue 24 Hour Fitness at 11, way too close to lunchtime, when the gym population swells to double the size it had been an hour earlier. Still, I was feeling very father-son as we trudged into the gym wearing our backpacks, paid our guest fee and walked through the gym to the locker room.

In fact, the whole thing was very father-son. While Ocean Avenue is not my 24 Hour Fitness of choice, it was very apparent that I was welcoming him into a world that had until now been mine alone. It's not a particularly grown-up world, or a World of Men. It's not a barbershop, or the Van Westerhout Cittidini Molesi Social Club, but it's someplace I went that neither he nor his mother had ever been.

I tried to imagine how he was seeing things, perhaps giving him credit for being interested in something other than his iPod and this month's Lego magazine. If today turns out to be the only time he joins me at the gym, it will be sad for many reasons, but none stands out as much as the fact that if we never again log 25 minutes of cardio on neighboring ellipticals, it'll mean today was the only day I ever saw someone reading a Lego magazine while doing cardio.

What did he think of the locker room, one of my least favorite places on earth? It was hard to tell, because he'd adopted the teenage "it's no big deal and I'm totally taking it in stride" self-protection attitude that would be annoying if it weren't so obvious the minute we'd walked in. Instead of staring around the locker room, wide-eyed, he took on an overtly casual air, tensing up only when it became obvious that I was going to have to help him with his combination lock. He'd been turning it to the left instead of to the right.

Recovery was quick. He sauntered out of the lockerrom and into the gym. After a few tense minutes, we found two open ellipticals next to each other. Cardio wasn't his thing. He seemed to be trying to determine how slowly one can move without having the machine go to "pause" setting. If not for a "Family Guy" episode on his iPod (and the Lego magazine), he wouldn't have made it five minutes.

I've never seen anyone move that slowly on a piece of cardio equipment, but then, I've never worked out at the gym at Sun City West, either. From what I hear, there's some glacial movement going on there, too.

I should have figured; a teenage boy. Would he be interested in going nowhere on an elliptical machine? Or would he want to see how much weight he could lift? I scold myself for cluelessness. We moved over to the weight machines. "Lets try this one," I said, pointing to a Nautilus machine. I did my sets and placed my 90-pound son on the seat. "Keep your back straight," I advised.

He's a teenage boy. Somewhere in the middle of his second set, he decided lifting weights was cool. After banging out ten reps, he jumped up and said, "I'm going to try 30 (pounds) next time."

I'd be lying if I said it didn't feel a little bit good to have my son, who is seldom impressed by my fatherly feats, marvel at the amount of weight I could lift. I'd be someone other than me, though, if I wasn't thinking at the same time about how little time I have left to be stronger than him. We've both known for years that the tragedy of our relationship is that as he gets bigger I'm only going to get older, but it was pretty stark looking down at this thin, pre-adolescent boy who would soon be able to kick my butt. "Five years," I said, waiting for some guy to get off the dip machine.

"Five years for what?" asked the Jawa.

"Five years and you'll be stronger than me. Crazy."

He thought about it for a second, then smiled. He liked that.

It was in the pool area that I again demonstrated my vanished aptitude for being a San Francisco parent. By now the Jawa had thrown all of his chips in for the workout life. "Can we do this every Wednesday?" he asked.

"Sure," I said, knowing full well that we can't because 24 Hour Fitness only allows one guest pass per customer. The goal of the guest pass is to get information so they can badger the guest until he or she agrees to become a 24 Hour Fitness member. Good luck to them the first time they call up the Jawa and realize they've contacted a 12-year-old.

Our only option is the Family Membership. Sandra Bullock was all over that when she got home and heard how the Jawa had enjoyed his first gym experience. Because that's how it goes around here. The Jawa shows any interest in anything and we go gung-ho. It's because of this that you will find so many odd, unused, mostly forgotten things in our house: a new-looking basketball, a student-sized guitar (with case), a skateboard covered in stickers. Mark today, June 30, as the day I predicted they will soon be joined by a surfboard and a wetsuit.

It's not that we're a pair of obnoxious stage parents. We don't want him to be a superstar, but I'm also not saying we'd hate it if we had the chance to root our child on from the stands.

Which is what I was thinking as I sat in the steam room, sweating profusely while the Jawa swam laps in the pool. "He really wanted to swim laps," I thought. "I didn't even have to nag him."

"Maybe he likes swimming, and he's not just saying he does to make us happy."

Not out of the question. He played basketball two years longer than he wanted to just because he didn't want to disappoint us; which made us wonder when the awards committee from the Parent of the Year group was going to come knock on our door with our plaques already.

"Wouldn't it be great," I thought, "if he was on the swim team in high school?"

We'd drive him to school at six in the morning, because that's when swimmers practice. The swimmers would hang together, because nobody else understands how hard their workouts are, how quickly football team members would fold after an hour in the pool. At lunch, they'd all eat together at a picnic table in the quad, because swimmers had been eating at that same table since 1975.

Sometimes, at school assemblies, the whole team would pull some kind of prank, running amok in their Speedos, throwing water on people. Something like that.

And we'd go to his meets and sit way up in the stands, a little out of sorts because we know very little about swimming. Watching him in the starting blocks, shaking his arms, getting loose, maybe with his iPod still on, we'd get nervous -- more nervous than staring down a number three hitter with the sacks loaded and the score tied.

We'd watch him in wonder as he knifed through the water. This is something we already do, as he is the only member of the family able to swim the butterfly, the most beautiful and powerful-looking of all swim strokes. After the race, win or lose, he'd be there in the water, looking up at the clock, knocking water out of his ears, either happy with the results or mad at himself for not staying straight in his lane, screwing up a kick turn, having something just off about his stroke. Then he'd pull himself up out of the pool, grab a towel and go off to talk to his coach and his teammates.

The night before every meet we'd find him in the bathroom, shaving his chest, his arms and his legs, good-naturedly cursing me for my swarthy genes. Our son, the swimmer.

After a minute, I caught myself. Another ridiculous, non-productive and potentially harmful flight of fancy. If my child grows up to be one of those guys at the Lego show, well, then I'm going to buy myself a Lego t-shirt and volunteer to take tickets at the front gate. Legos are, after all, one of the few things in our house that never fall out of favor.

A guy can dream, can't he? I know, I know. Of course not.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

53 days to Bar Mitzvah: workout partners

Tomorrow, in an effort designed to ease several negative aspects of our first summer no-camp week, the Jawa will be joining me at 24 Hour Fitness. It will be his first foray into the workout world, his first time engaging with equipment and his first time walking among all of the gym freaks who populate your average 24 Hour Fitness.

It won't be the first time he's set foot in a 24 Hour Fitness. For the past two weeks, while he's been leapfrogging into Group Four (the final group) at Anderson's Swim Center, I've been taking great advantage of my free half hour by shedding 630 calories atop the Precor elliptical machine, conveniently located at the Pacifica 24 Hour Fitness, next door to Anderson's Swim (and Diving) Center.

My half-hour elliptical session actually takes 38 or so minutes when you add in time for cool-down (five minutes) and the three or four minutes it takes to flash your membership card, secure an elliptical machine, tear off your sweatshirt and cram it into your backpack and then jam your iPod speakers into your ears and choose some appropriate cardio music. Both times in the past two weeks, the Jawa has finished at swimming and come into 24 Hour Fitness to wait out my last gasping minutes aboard to elliptical.

How funny it looked the first time I saw him enter 24 Hour Fitness, dressed in his enormous Walton's Grizzly Lodge sweatpants and a t-shirt, his hair semi-dry and pointing in several directions, his Brandeis Hillel Day School bag slung over his shoulder. How clear the message on his face: I am ready to go now, yet I am forced to come here and sit at weird bar-like counter and wait while you run in place.

From my perch, I tried to indicate: "Two minutes left!" receiving only a blank stare in return.

Although I knew he was resenting every second spent waiting for me, I kind of enjoyed winding down my elliptical session while watching him move around in the world. It almost felt like spying, something I used to do regularly at his school when he was younger. I'd get there to pick him up, but instead of calling for him, I'd stand quietly, barely moving, playing Possum for a few minutes so I could see how he was when I wasn't there.

Naturally, as an almost-teen, the road that leads to 24 Hour Fitness is plagued with potholes, blind hairpin turns and hidden driveways. Having expressed an interest in lifting weights several times so far this summer, and having again lost his computer(s) and iPod(s) due to a recent ill-advised temper tantrum, Sandra Bullock saw an excellent opportunity for me to introduce my son to organized fitness. This, she reasoned, would kill a couple of hours in a day otherwise given over to television and tormenting the dog, give me a guilt-free way to get to the gym and forge a little father-son bonding, minus confusing hobby shops and spontaneous outings to get ice cream or donuts.

Predictably, though, when I introduced the idea to the Jawa, his response was less than lukewarm. "No," he said simply.

"I thought you wanted to work out," I pointed out.

"Not at a gym. At home."

"We don't have any weights at home."

"I know. I just, I just don't like 24 Hour Fitness."

"...based on the five minutes you've spent sitting at the entrance, waiting for me? Come on." As any parent of a teenager can tell you, this is a dangerous tack, for the same clear logic that might persuade an adult to accept your point of view is to a teenage Jawa what a red cape is to a bull. Feeling cornered, out of cleverish responses, he might simply snap, grow devil horns and start a confrontation that ends with a pile of personal electronic devices sitting atop my dresser and approximately three months removed from the end of my life.

This time I lucked out. He was still exhausted from our last confrontation, so he conceded. "Okay," he said. "I'll try it." It was easier for him to give in once I convinced him that I had no intention of running down to 24 Hour Fitness right now; I was thinking more about beginning our gym adventure tomorrow. Right now we would go there, but only to find out what we needed to have with us to pull it off tomorrow.

I don't know what they pay people who work at 24 Hour Fitness. Whatever it is, it's not enough to entice qualified workers -- that is, people with functioning senses of logic and a rudimentary knowledge of the 24 Hour Fitness users manual -- to work the front desk. When we arrived at the Pacifica 24 Hour Fitness, the girl at the front desk reacted to the following question:

"I'd like to have him (pointing to the Jawa on my right) come here as my guest. What do we need to do?"

by looking at me as if I'd just suggested we both tie my 12-year-old son to the back bumper of my Volvo V50 and drag him down the street a few miles.

"Uh, you want HIM to come as your guest?" she said, wide-eyed.


"Don't you have to be 13...?"

"No. You have to be 18, or 12 if you're accompanied by a parent or guardian. While my performance seldom merits the title of 'guardian,' I can produce papers proving that I am his parent."

I didn't say that last part. You shouldn't push your luck. What I said was, "I saw it on the website."

"Oh?" she said. "It says that?" she smiled. Since I had cited a rule established by her employer, whatever her personal views of men who force apparently undersized teenagers to endure draconian weightlifting workouts were moot. Her job being to welcome 24 Hour Fitness Members, to make them feel as though the gym were an extension of their living room, only full of sweating, often-misshapen and, in the case of one poor guy who shows up in shapeless black sweats every day, terrible-smelling strangers and a really loud stereo that never plays the kind of music you want to hear, she had to change directions quickly and invisibly. The rules say I can bring a 12-year-old, and rules are rules.

"It will cost $10, and you'll need to fill out a waiver."

"They're not going to take him away and give him a sales pitch, are they? I mean, he's 12 years old."

"Oh, no. They won't do that."

On the way home, properly de-traumatized by a five-pound jelly-filled donut at Donut Time, the Jawa accepted his fitness fate. "Do they have a sauna there?" he asked, finally showing some curiosity.

"Not at that one, but they have one at the 24 Hour Fitness on Ocean Avenue," I answered. The great thing about 24 Hour Fitness, a club no one would ever mistake for a serioius gym, is that they've got franchises all over the place. I've worked out at 24 Hour Fitnesses in San Mateo, Larkspur, Orange, even once in Mountlake Terrace, Washington. You just go up, show your card and you're in. You're not going to find Franco Columbu giving body-sculpting seminars, but at least you can break a sweat, even when you're on vacation.

So if you'd like to join us tomorrow, we'll be at the Ocean Avenue 24-Hour Fitness sometime around 10 a.m. Look for us among the mid-morning crowd of vacationing college students, spin class enthusiasts and weirdly muscled old guys. We'll be the sweaty bald guy and the 12-year-old, churning away on the ellipticals before heading over to the Nautilus machines and probably lifting the same amount of weight.

Monday, June 28, 2010

54 days to Bar Mitzvah: fun tissue paper

I am not a small guy. That's why elderly congregants sometimes mistake me for Rabbi Bauer and why Jenny From the Block's husband, a wiry, supremely confident guy who could probably kick my butt four ways to Friday thanks to his extensive martial arts knowledge, always gives me grief about "looking tough." "I don't like hanging out with you," he told me once at a party where the median age of male guests was around 55. "People might think you want to fight them."

Nothing could be further from the truth. Alas, I am probably the least tough big, swarthy-looking unshaven guy in the nine-county Bay Area.

Still, I'm not a little guy, which is anyone who saw me Sunday, walking through Beverly's Fabrics and Crafts in Colma, holding a basket full of 2 1/4" candles in one hand and a clump of imitation flowers in the other, can be forgiven if they had trouble stifling a chuckle or two. I was like Henrietta Hippo in her ballet skirt, Danny DeVito trying to look sincere so Chloe Webb won't break up with him in "Twins." It was not a proud moment.

As the Bar Mitzvah nears, Sandra Bullock's focus becomes even more laser-like. Yesterday, with the Design Team scheduled to meet at our house at two p.m., she enlisted me to help her find netting for the centerpieces. Not just any netting; this netting must not be too dark; and it must be soft, requiring a trip through the washing machine.

The netting, she hoped, was at one of the party stores in Westlake, an outdoor mall in Daly City. Bar Mitzvah shopping does not take place in San Francisco for the most part. There's just not enough room in the city -- San Francisco is the second-densest urban setting in the U.S., trailing only Manhattan -- for 10,000 square-foot stores that stock netting.

Unfortunately, the Westlake party store only had black netting. Sandra Bullock had bought them out last month. So we went to Beverly's, where I found myself, flowers in hand, wandering lost through the paper lantern aisle.

"We need to find some fun tissue paper," my wife said absently after rejecting Beverly's pathetic paper lantern inventory. Fun tissue paper became necessary when we ditched the colorful paper bags necessary to hold all of the San Francisco-centric items that will greet each guest when they check into the Hyatt Regency Embarcadero infavor of brown ones at $3 for a dozen. Showing a much greater ability to imagine our guests' disappointment at being greeted by a simple brown bag -- no more special than the anonymous brown bags that held their school lunches, a sandwich, a small bag of Fritos, an apple, in fourth grade -- Bullock tried to convince me that only fun tissue paper, plus a vintage post card affixed to the outside of each bag, could make the guest bags appropriately festive.

These small gifts, coming at the beginning of our guests' weekend San Francisco adventure, should reinforce their collective beliefs that coming to the Jawa's Bar Mitzvah was most definitely worth the cost of air fare and hotel. Would they feel that way upon finding a plain brown bag in their room? No.

But I still didn't know what made tissue paper "fun." Would it be a party version of novelty toilet paper, covered with one-liners and puns? Perhaps it would come in brilliant colors -- a blaze of red, a riot of yellow, an explosion of purple -- to set the tone for an exciting weekend.

One thing you can say for Beverly's: their tissue paper aisle completely shames their paper lantern selection. The racks full of tissue paper, arranged by color, were bold and confident while the lanterns were ragged and apologetic. And yet, even when faced with such a display of strength, I couldn't figure out which tissue paper was fun and which was sadly prosaic.

This was the moment I chose to say, "Boy, you want to talk about a place that makes its living selling stuff nobody needs," causing an eavesdropping nearby shopper to wince in pain and earning a sharp glance from my wife. But I couldn't help myself; I just didn't get it.

Here's 10,000 square feet of merchandise: candles, bags, tissue paper, sparkly stuff, flat pieces of cardboard shaped like farm animals. To me, a store selling rocks would have made the same amount of sense. How much of this stuff would Peter Minuet have needed to buy Manhattan from the local tribe? Would it have mattered to them whether the tissue paper was fun or merely bemused?

Despite my disenfranchisement, we managed to spend $168 at Beverly's in Colma, leaving with a twenty-pound bag full of candles and brown bags. Which is fine, because while I clearly cannot fathom why we would spend $168 on candles and brown bags (and particularly foul-smelling netting that requires a trip through the washing machine to make it usable), I also understand that I am in the minority. Though I would be gone later when the Design Team met at our house (I was walking through San Leandro with the Jawa, on our way to a Lego show staffed by the guys who weren't cool enough to get into the model train club. Seriously, these guys looked like mutants. Who walks into LensCrafters, tries on a pair of glasses that are bigger than their face, and says, "Yeah, these are good. I'll take them."?), I'm pretty sure there was much excitement over the candles.

The simple brown bags in particular sent the team into an intense creative electrical storm, as they traded lightning-like ideas back and forth before deciding to add a strip of wrapping paper to each bag, along with the vintage postcard.

It's the little things, and for the past month I've been spending about $20 a week hitting golf balls in San Bruno, which is most definitely money spent on something nobody needs.

Come Bar Mitzvah day -- less than eight weeks from today -- please pause and appreciate the candles, the paper lanterns, which will be hanging elegantly along the wall facing the bay, the softened, deoderized and lightened netting and the centerpiece flowers. Know that someone has spent hours putting them all together for your enjoyment. And that her husband can walk through Beverly's Fabrics and Crafts holding several white flowers and a basket full of candles and still look like he's going to knock the tar out of the next guy who looks at him wrong, even though what he's really doing is being amazed at how heavy a hundred dollars' worth of 2 1/4" diameter candles can be.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

55 days to Bar Mitzvah: pretty as a picture(s)

The shock hit my unflappable wife halfway through the third aliyah on Saturday. We were sitting several rows from the bima, watching Josh S. complete his journey from apprentice Boy About Town to join his father, uncles and grandfather in the exclusive fraternity of full-fledged Men About Town when Sandra Bullock suddenly grabbed my arm, gasped, and stage-whispered, "WE'RE NEXT!"

Technically, that's not true. There is one other Bar Mitzvah, a tandem effort by a pair of twins, between yesterday's and ours. We will be out of town for that one, though, so it is a fact that the next Bar Mitzvah the Jawa attends will be his own.

A sobering thought.

"We have so much to do!" she added, interrupting me as I silently repeated the blessings before and after the reading of the Torah, following along with each aliyah until I got past my blind spot on the blessing after the reading and trying to remember that "asher bachar banu" is from the blessing BEFORE, while "asher natan lanu" is from the blessing AFTER.

Our Bar Mitzvah is scheduled for August 21. That's a little less than two months from now. Three more days of June, 31 in July and three weeks in August. Take away the three weeks the Jawa will be gone for vacation and summer camp and that leaves a little more than a month of preparation. Sobering, indeed.

Tonight, parked downstairs on the sectional, we started the long process of choosing photos for our slide presentation. With the recommendations of Dan from Denon & Doyle ringing in our ears -- "It should be between six and ten minutes in length" -- we pored through photo album after photo album, marking chosen images with post-its. Our subliminal voices were joined as one, all shouting, "HOW ARE WE GOING TO WHITTLE DOWN FROM A THOUSAND PHOTOS TO ENOUGH FOR ONLY SIX TO TEN MINUTES?" The Jawa's photoshop effects, which include zooms, quick cuts and very slow pans, add to the challenge.

How would your seventh and eighth grade years been different if every member of your class took a turn as the Guest of Honor? Think about it; just about every Saturday this year, one kid in the Brandeis Hillel Day School Class of 2011 stood in a ballroom somewhere while a big-screen TV showed a six-to-ten-minute-long slide show of his or her life. There's Josh S. as a toddler. There he is with his sister in Japan. There he is at his eighth birthday. I remember that. They all went to the skatepark in Millbrae.

I'm not sure what it does to their fledgeling teenage development or how it effects schoolyard politics. Do kids predisposed to having big egos have even bigger ones after hearing a room full of 200 people go "Awww" in unision at a photo of them, taken at their second birthday, with cake smeared all over their face? Do kids horrified at being singled out suffer shots of their first trip to Disneyland over a bed of Jason Mraz as a fate worse than your mother dancing the Hora in front of all your friends?

Whether intended or not, the slide show also has a political impact on the larger crowd. Everyone stands around wondering if they're going to show up or not. "Hmm," we might be thinking, "my kid was better friends with the Bat Mitzvah girl in first grade. They haven't hung out much in the past few years, but I'd like to think their great pre-school friendship had some meaning. Will my kid appear...oh! There she is! How nice!"

As we began the initial machinations of putting ours together, we realized that familial politics would also come into play. Why, we asked ourselves as we dug through the album tracing our first year in San Francisco, are there no good photos of the Jawa with my parents that first year they came to visit us? How many photos of the Jawa with his cousin Shea are too much? Will the now almost-teenage Emma Price be horrified when she finds herself standing in a room full of strangers, looking at a ten-foot-tall picture of herself as a toddler, wearing footie PJs identical to the ones worn by an ear-to-ear grinning toddler-sized Jawa?

Then, once you get past the fact that balance is impossible, you're free to focus on the the really painful things, most notably how much you've aged in the past 13 years. Thirteen years ago, 32 years old with only a small bald spot and about 30 fewer pounds of heft, would I have been mistaken for the hulking Rabbi Bauer, as I was during the kiddush lunch on Saturday? Probably not.

Hopefully, we will put together a slide show that accurately tells the story of the Jawa's childhood, giving just enough time to each friend, past and present, honoring our guests, not favoring any one grandparent over any other and, not incidentally, reminding people of what a thrill ride it's been shepherding a Jawa through an occasionally confusing, sometimes perilous and often kick-in-the-pants world.

Put together right -- or even sort of close to right -- "this is your life" slide shows can elevate the guest of honor to a level of sentiment and drama that doesn't actually exist in real life.

I first noticed this during an otherwise rowdy fraternity dinner in 1986, when Greg Baker stuck a few seconds of Simon & Garfunkel's "Old Friends" behind otherwise banal photos of drunk guys in Greek letter sweatshirts hanging off of each other at parties: "Time it was and what a time it was it was... a time of innocence (picture of intramural football), a time of confidences (two smiling guys holding beer bottles); long ago it must be, I have a photograph; preserve your memories (group of guys looking impossibly young, sitting at the beach during a sorority volleyball tournament) they're all that's left you." Excellent job, Bake. You really stopped that dinner cold.

I saw it again a few years later at the Austin, Texas rehearsal dinner for my high school friend Mike's wedding.

Not knowing Mike's fiancee and not having spent much time with him over the past five years, I was stunned by how romantic his life looked when laid out in a series of photos. Mike with his future wife at the beach, squinting into the camera, wearing a really cool denim jacket with the collar up, looked like a J. Crew catalog come to life, except that in 1990 I didn't yet know what a J. Crew catalog was. It was both celebratory and melancholy at the same time, like it referred back to some halcyon time that was brimming with meaning and completely devoid of things like hay fever and bad hair days. It was life with all the dull parts removed.

Same goes for the Bar Mitzvah slide show. When that room full of Bar Mitzvah-goers from all parts of the Jawa's life gets a glimipse of that photo of us at Cardoza's, picking out our pumpkin on an unusually warm October day in 2003, they will forget that have ever been times when I have gone into my bedroom, closed the door, put on my iPod and laid on the floor, doing crossword puzzles and listening to Nick Drake until I'm calm enough to speak to my son without doing any more damage to either of us.

This is the power of pictures. And cool effects like fades and split-screens.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

58 days to Bar Mitzvah: unrelated rant

Dear hair,

I hate you because you lied to me. You gave me no more than 28 years that I won't even call good because for the last sixteen of them -- when it really counted -- you refused to obey any kind of orders, or even suggestions, that might have made our life together more enjoyable. And then, just when everyone else in Seattle was enjoying their hair the most, just when it looked like volume -- the one thing we had in spades -- was something they might value over all else, you abandoned me.

Actually, that's not accurate. You didn't abandon me. You're still here, just not where I'd like you to be. Thanks for deciding that it might be more fun to appear everywhere except on top of my head. It only makes me loathe you even more.

It's not like you were so great when you were around. Your unwavering commitment to unruliness just about ruined by teenage years. All around me people were doing interesting, eye-catching things with their hair. They were growing out different parts of it, letting it fall over their eyes, dying it different colors. Didn't it bother you at all to see the fruits of these positive, cooperative relationships between people and their hair? Didn't you just once wonder what it would have been like to relax and hang loosely, instead of standing at attention all the time?

I don't know about you, but I wouldn't have minded having someone run their hands through my hair back then. But that wasn't an option for us, was it? Our lot -- thanks to you -- was hour-long sessions with "thinning shears" and what I thought then was a life sentence of being compared to Big Blue, the Brillo pad spokescharacter.

Your left me no choice. I had to keep you short, lest whispered asides about someone's "Jewfro" ever reach my ears. So don't try to push it all back on me. That dull, helmet-like cut we sported from 1980-1984? That's all you.

Did you think that I was supposed to coast for the rest of my life on the two years during adolescence when it was cool to be the only guy with chest hair? Did you think you were doing me a favor? I've got news for you, hair; pop culture did not end with the pilot episode of "Magnum, P.I." And just our luck to come of age during a period that celebrated all that is waspish (and hairless). Everyone else is running around sockless in their Topsiders while I'm rocking the sock tan? No socks means four more inches of noticeable hair. Thanks for that, too.

And all along, the consolation -- what they'd tell me over and over as I struggled to tame you, having given up early on the options of a long or stylish coif -- was that I'd "never lose (my) hair." To that I can now only ruefully laugh; more of a snort than a chuckle, completely lacking in mirth.

One day in British Lit., Jay Everett and Kim Senft decided that my hair was "dense." Which is, we all know, the exact word everyone wishes people would use to describe their hair. How I hated to hear that my hair was "dense," closer in consistency to a particularly intricate bird's nest than spun silk. And how ironic that term became later on. I wouldn't mind hearing that my hair was "dense" now. I'd settle for "present."

Because it was only ten years later that John Roderick, now an indie rock star whose every iconoclastic word, it seems, ends up as a quote on someone's facebook page, pointed out loudly to me, in front of everyone at Piper Jaffray, where we were both temping, that it wasn't going to be "if" I lost my hair but "when." Thanks, John. And thanks for showing off now, seventeen years later, your ability to grow so much hair as to eventually resemble one of the Hatfields or McCoys whereas I go four days without shaving and i look like one of those drawings that looks like a face whether you hold it right side up or upside down.

"Oh, it's just your part," my supportive wife told me when I pointed out the clearing in the forest. In Seattle, those were the years of great, flowing, curly locks, when "big hair" was no longer a handicap. "Finally," I thought. "My unruly hair has found its place in society."

But of course, it wasn't to be so. You, hair, had other plans. Those plans were to slowly abandon ship, leaving me, at 45, to look like I borrowed someone's grandfather's forehead, to become one of those guys who always wears a hat at the gym, and no matter how much I protest and point out that, without a hat and without hair, there is nothing to stop sweat from pouring into your eyes, how could you blame fellow gym-goers if they assumed that I was sporting a lid to hide a follicle-free dome?

You don't care about that, do you, hair?

No. You made that obvious when you let me walk around Seattle during the 90s looking like some pathetically deluded baby-boomer, with this growing spot of nothing in the middle of otherwise ponytailable-length locks. For however many other members of the scene up there, at that time, who thought me the pitiful hanger-on, possessed of a hairstyle that would later find a home at ComicCon conventions and in the secret hidden dens of hardcore computer hackers, I hate you. You, hair, let me look like an idiot.

And then I saw the fateful photo, taken in Anchorage, Alaska, in 1995, of me walking around at an air show. "What's that spot at the top of my head?" I asked my wife, who years before had made the mistake of saying, "Yeah, I'm not really into bald guys."

But who knew then that it would turn out to be a mistake? At the time, my head lay under several cubic feet of "dense" hair. Dense, unethical, truth-averse hair. Hair with its own agenda. Hair that is not a team player. Thanks alot.

It's been over a decade-and-a-half since my hair revealed its true colors and began to betray me. Thank you, Roger A. Hunt and the Legendary Dr. Bandeau for being considerate enough to lose yours along with me.

And I breathe a sigh of relief every time I consider that present-day popular culture insists that balding men take a pair of razor shears to their heads and keep their remaining lettuce tight. Otherwise, who knows what I'd be doing? Jewfros don't translate into combovers, so I'd be walking around looking like Prototypical Middle-Aged Jewish Man, all crescent-shaped, with random strays sticking out all over the place.

But I don't forgive you, hair. I never will. You have earned an eternal spot on my blacklist, as if you care, and I rue any day I spent as a child enjoying your presence, including you in any of my boyhood secrets or trusting you to keep me looking at least presentable.

Shame on you.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

59 days to Bar Mitzvah: vowels are for amateurs

In 59 days, our Jawa becomes a man. Right now, he is a boy -- who requires a ton of limousine service. Last week I wondered what I'd do with the extra hours in my workweek, the ones I used to spend surfing the web, trying to look busy when I'd already written four stories that day and still had two hours left until five. It took all of three days as a free agent to figure out where that time would go: to driving my Jawa back and forth from appointments.

This week, each day began with a drive to Pacifica for surf camp. Today, the final day of surf camp, I finally got back to the beach early enough to see my wetsuit-clad child stand up on a surf board and ride the foam to shore. "Woo-hoo!" I said involuntarily as I sat there, huddled against the wind and fog on a flight of stairs leading from the world's only oceanfront Taco Bell to the beach, frantically texting Sandra Bullock and cursing the tiny camera inside my Blackberry.

Surf camp is exhausting. Afterwards, you have to drive to Donut Time and order a custard-filled donut just to regain your strength. You're taking a risk; the donut, having been infused with custard before your very eyes like nothing you've ever seen before, might be too heavy to carry after spending three hours paddling through waves. And when you get home, well, you can forget about doing anything other than falling asleep at the desk in your bedroom as YouTube videos of guys surfing run on your desktop and episodes of "Futurama" screen concurrently on your netbook until your father wakes you up and orders you to accompany him to the dog park, which takes another hour out of his day and your nap.

Fifty-nine days to Bar Mitzvah. This is not a problem when you've already had eight years of Hebrew. Even if you spend seventh grade accepting a demotion from the "highest" Hebrew class to the "middle" Hebrew class, then kind of lost interest enough to get a B+ on stuff you walked into the classroom on Day One already knowing. Even then, you still must invent ways to challenge yourself as you recite your Torah portion in the car on the way to meet Cantor Roslyn Barak for chanting practice.

First, you recite the fourth Aliyah (the last Torah section you will be reading), since this is the one you don't yet know by heart. You follow along in your printed-out Torah portion. The fourth Aliyah is highlighted in pink.

For this read-through, you follow on the side that has vowels, since you want mostly to make sure you know your stuff and won't freeze up on the Bima, embarassing yourself on the day you most want to show the world that you are poised and knowledgeable; that you are a man.

A note to the unitiated: Hebrew has nothing in common with English. It doesn't look like English, it reads from right to left. It's not like Spanish, where some words just sound like English words with the letter "a" added to the end. And most of the vowels don't appear as full-size letters. Instead, they're little symbols added underneath the consonents. Eventually, when you are fluent in Hebrew, the vowels disappear altogether.

You wondered why Jews are so certain that good fortune will always be met with hardship and tragedy? Learn Hebrew. The better you get, the harder they make it.

For this aliyah, the Jawa informs me, as we turn onto Laguna Honda Boulevard, he is employing the "five minute" memorization technique. Since it closely resembles his "ten minute" homework technique, in which five minutes of homework is sandwiched between two ten-minute breaks, I am skeptical.

"No, Dad," he says. "You recite it once, then wait five minutes to see if it's in your long-term memory."

I stand corrected.

Five minutes later, he rips through the fourth aliyah. "That's it," he says. "I know the whole thing."

"Okay, then, from the top," says his father, who obviously was in the kitchen, getting a snack, when the PSA by the Mormon Church, which urged parents to appreciate their children's accomplishments unconditionally, aired in 1985.

The other three aliyot -- highlighted in green, yellow and orange -- are no problem. The Jawa's tuneful, pre-adolescent voice is so soothing that I almost forgot to get mad while inching down Stanyan Street. I imagine thousands of years of tradition flowing through him, ancient knowledge brought into the present by this rite of passage. By chanting in this ancient language he will become part of the unbroken line of generations of Jewish men who've honored their religion and culture in the face of almost constant persecution. Thirty-two years ago, I climbed onto the bima and chanted; twenty-seven years before that was my father's turn; my grandfather did it in 1930. And so on.

"So," I ask when he's through. "Do you feel thousands of years of tradition flowing through your veins?"

"Nope!" he says cheerily. "You know what that part I just said was about?"


"It's about a guy getting hanged. I say it over and over."


"Yup. It comes after the part where they say that if you defeat someone in battle and impale their body on a stake, you're not supposed to leave the corpse out overnight."


"It's an affront to God."

I don't know if any of you consciously try to seize certain moments that you feel somehow require parental wisdom. Since I am still operating according to the Tom Corbett model, in which great sage-like knowledge and judgement flows effortlessly from the father, while he downshifts and steers around S-curves in his MGTD, I feel it is my responsibility to bring light to the ethical and moral questions raised by this issue.

Tom Corbett would say something about how God would want His children to realize that even the vanquishing of an opponent was nothing to brag about, that all killing was tragic, which is why you can impale your defeated opponent on a stake maybe for the afternoon, but not overnight. Honestly, thought, I thought it was going to be because after a few hours, the body would get gamy.

"Now I'm going to try it without vowels."

Who says my Jawa shrinks from challenges? Here he is, 59 days before his Bar Mitzvah, and he's got his Torah portion down cold. Looking for a little spice, he's going to try it without the vowels, for most of us akin to poking around in a pitch-black unfamiliar room.

"Should I see how far I can get or count how many times I have to look back?" he asks.

"How many times you have to look back."

The same stuff flows out of his mouth. He has to look back only twice. The meeting with the cantor lasts 15 minutes, as the Jawa has pretty much already locked up the technical parts of this whole Bar Mitzvah thing. I'm not promising a Pulitzer-worthy speech (the d'var Torah), as ours is a Jawa more comfortable among numerals and figures than he is amidst the mysteries of the English language.

By the time we get home, it's almost six. There's laundry to be folded, Shack needs to be fed and we need to start thinking about dinner, since it looks like Sandra Bullock might be working late. And there sits my laptop on the kitchen table, beckoning, promising me that the road to fame and fortune runs straight through its water-spotted screen.

Monday, June 21, 2010

60 days to Bar Mitzvah: disappointment

San Francisco does not play fair. It sets you up so that one day after you've spent five glorious hours walking from Aquatic Park to the Marina Green, drinking in all that scenery everyone else only gets to see in books or on TV, or during that one week they spent in the city for business in 1991, but it's your own personal backyard and how incredible is that? you get forwarded an email that makes very clear how dysfunctional and downright wrong this city can be. In one 24 hour period, you get to see the upside and severe downside of living somewhere that so convincingly defines itself as "special" that no amount of logic can sway it from its stout self-image.

Since 1976, when we ditched northeastern Pennsylvania for Orange County, every place I've lived has been part of the popular imagination. Ask someone what they think about Orange County, you'll get something back. Ask them about Seattle, especially in the 1990s, and they may go on for hours. Boston, a brief stopover in 1989-1990, may not be New York, but try walking down the street wearing a Red Sox hat anywhere outside of Massachusetts. I've never lived someplace like Belleville, Illionois, probably a perfectly nice place and easier to live in than San Francisco, but seldom included in the everyday discussions of people who don't live there, and then only as a punchline.

And then you've got San Francisco. Has more ink ever been spilled over a place that hasn't been anything more than a grown-up theme park since about World War II? We really believe, when we're marching down Market Street holding our signs blaming everything on George W. Bush, that "the whole world is watching."

I'm not kidding. Yesterday I read an email thread between a Brandeis Hillel Day School parent and San Francisco Board of Supervisors member Chris Daly. In it, the Brandeis dad respectfully asked Daly -- his district supervisor -- not to lend his support to the ridiculous (at best) and immoral (at worst) proposal the Board has forwarded, calling to "condemn Israel for its acts."

Forgetting for a moment how truly misguided and ill-informed I think the sentiment of that proposal is, how about taking a step back and asking yourself how a city whose trains don't run on time, whose schools are awful and whose streets are pothole-ridden finds the time to make lofty proclamations about far-off lands? This isn't the first time we've shared our righteousness with you lesser beings, you know. We already condemned the Iraq war. Yup. Had hearings, spent taxpayer money, etc. We really did that.

But besides that, I read over this email thread and couldn't decide whether to hang my head in shame or write a blistering letter to the editor. Do we really have elected officials here who tell constituents that they "hate politicians, but sometimes constituents are worse?" Do our barely-elected council members really think that "while I am only a local elected, I have had a significant international impact?" I suppose once you've made a 12 year-old girl cry at a public hearing and gotten re-elected anyway, anything's possible.

Seriously. This is where i live.

So I was thinking about this last night. Sunday afternoon's incredible walk -- an hour of coming one step closer to the Golden Gate Bridge at a time, a pause to look out at the Bay from the top floor of the Golden Gate Yacht Club (where Sandra Bullock was measuring windows to determine the correct pitch of the paper lanterns she plans to buy before the Bar Mitzvah), some projected table layouts at Tarantino's -- all disappeared under the increasingly uneasy feeling you can get living in San Francisco: that you're the only one who can see that the emporer is naked.

There he goes, waltzing through The Mission in his birthday suit while everyone stands on the sidewalk and applauds his hip new duds. It can make you crazy if you let it.

On Sunday, the Jawa and I spent a few minutes upstairs at Tarantino's, plotting out table assignments for the Friday night pre-Bar Mitzvah dinner. I know that Tarantino's seldom rates more than three stars on Yelp because the calamari is rubbery and the wait staff has seen better days. I know that the view from the floor-to-ceiling windows is only supposed to impress tourists from Iowa whose idea of sophistication is one of those restaurants in North Beach where the Italian guy stands out on the sidewalk and beckons you to come inside.

But I don't care, and not because I revel in the ironic retro cheesiness of Tarantino's. I'm way too old for that particular game.

I walk into that dining room, with the faded murals on the walls and the view of bobbing fishing boats and Alcatraz, and I feel safe; comfortable. It's like stopping on the channel that's showing a re-run of "The Odd Couple," which immediately transports me back in time to my mother's old teenage bedroom in Great Neck, turned into a TV room by my grandmother where my sisters and I would sit and watch sitcoms on a brown convertible sofa pushed back against walls covered with wallpaper designed to look like the pages of a French newspaper.

You know how it goes, the first time I went to the Hyatt Regency Embarcadero, I was 11 years old, a wide-eyed California newcomer. Thirty-four years later, it's Bar Mitzvah HQ. Blah blah blah.

So last night I'm sitting there emailing with my older sister, railing on the present state of my adopted city and telling her how I miss seeing "The Odd Couple" at Grandma Sadie's house in Great Neck, and I start thinking about why San Francisco is such a heartbreaker. Why it drives me nuts and then rolls out some fleeting moment of awesomness -- it can be something as simple as a bank of fog getting caught up on the bridge as it rolls into the bay or picking Josh K.'s dad's brain about what it was like growing up here in the 1950s and 1960s.

I used to think that my opinion of this city was formed during the long lunch breaks of 1995 and 1996, hunkered down among the stacks at the old Seattle Public Library, leafing through old Herb Caen columns and picture books published in 1970. Last night I realized that wasn't entirely true.

The truth is, my image of San Francisco sprung fully-formed the day in 1971 that my mother took my sister and I to see "What's Up, Doc?" at a theater in Massapequa, New York. Like many women of her time, my mother loved nothing more than Barbra Streisand and San Francisco. She almost succeeded in getting us moved here once, only to settle for the consolation prize of Orange, California.

I'm doomed to be disappointed. My San Francisco is Ryan O'Neal piloting a VW Bug down a flight of stairs in Pacific Heights. Chris Daly's San Francisco is a place where you can be as big of a jerk as you want, provided your political checklist matches up with the local orthodoxy-disguised-as-principle. I really, really wish his mother had taken him to see "What's Up, Doc?" instead.

61 days to Bar Mitzvah: day one

Day One of the First Day of the Rest of My Life went like this:

Woke up at 7:45 to the sound of frozen waffles ejecting from a toaster, with a little bed of Bakugon cartoon soundtrack underneath. Squirmed a little bit in bed because my back wanted to remind me that spending three hours a week on an Elliptical machine doesn't make your 45 year-old back any happier after 165 golf swings.

Got up, threw on some workout clothes. Now even in middle age's sweet spot, I still like to pretend I'm not part of the old guy demographic at 24-Hour Fitness. They wear small cotton shorts? I wear giant shiny ones. They throw on whatever t-shirt they got at last year's company picnic? I go with the long-sleeved Nike one made out of some synthetic fiber that didn't even exist when I was in my physical prime. The spots where the clingy fabric is supposed to be flat instead of bumpy? We call that "incentive."

This morning marked not only the First Day of the Rest of My Life but also the first day of Surf Camp; three days from nine until noon, the Jawa will meet other Jawas at foggy Linda Mar Beach in Pacifica. By Wednesday, the brochure promises, he will know how to surf.

Where I come from, surfing carries with it a very large and very specific kind of cache. You don't just surf; you are A Surfer. Would that the Jawa could emerge from this week A Surfer? How would that go over at Brandeis Hillel Day School? Totally tubular, dude.

How to feel like an old man: drop your child at Surf Camp. We got down there about ten minutes early, which gave us plenty of time to wander around, looking for the clump of surfers who seemed most likely to be the nurturing type. Those guys over there, changing out of their wetsuits on the beach? No. That very large group sitting in the back of a van with "PACIFICA SURF CAMP" written on the side? You'd think they'd be our surf camp, but they were not.

Our group was smaller. Only two adults and three kids. Is it strange that I felt slightly ripped off when it turned out that the head of Surf Camp had a New York accent?

What's strange about our Jawa is the unpredictability of his social skills. For six months he's been coming home complaining about how everyone makes fun of him, how he doesn't get invited out with everyone else. This morning, as I turned from his little Surf Camp group, I caught out of the corner of my eye this very same Jawa walking boldly up to a nervous-looking kid about his size, sticking out his right hand and saying, "What's your name?"

(Shakes head in confusion and continues rifling through the sofa cushions until he finds his copy of "Raising Your Erratic Teenager.")

Three hours later, I returned to Linda Mar Beach, having just spent 90 minutes at the gym, looking like a much younger man, thank you very much, as long as I keep my baseball cap on... and speaking of baseball caps, don't believe it when Adidas claims to have invented a baseball cap that wicks away sweat. If by "wicking" they mean "encouraging the production of," then they're on the level. Otherwise, their claims are fraudulent.

The rest of the time I spent at a coffee shop in Pacifica, cranking out a story about a house in San Carlos and doing all I could not to jump up every five minutes and shout, "HOORAY FOR ME! I AM DOING MY JOB, FOR WHICH I WILL BE PAID THE SAME AMOUNT I HAVE BEEN PAID FOR THE PAST YEAR, HERE IN THIS COFFEE SHOP INSTEAD OF AT A CUBICLE DOWNTOWN!" Some have predicted that within a month I will be pining for my old commute. Maybe. Until then, I'm going to enjoy myself.

Back at the beach, the Jawa was effortlessly cool in a pair of gray Walton's Grizzly Lodge sweatpants, some flip-flops and my Mariners hoodie. His hair was tousled just so. The transformation to surfer had already begun. "He got up (on a board)," said one of the counselors. She adopted a grave expression and added, "He was really stoked."

"I'm going to be a surfer now," the Jawa said calmly after we'd settled into the car. "It's really easy. Easier than Boogie Boarding."

"Is life really better when surfing?" I asked, parroting a nearby bumper sticker.


Then we returned home and retreated to our respective neutral corners; that is, he fired up his computer and I sat down at the kitchen table and started typing.

Five hours later, thirty minutes since I told him to turn off his computer, he just called out to me from his room. "Do you have any idea what I'm supposed to be doing right now?"

"That's kind of up to you," I said.

Around here we like to pretend that there was no equivalent to sitting for hours on end in front of a computer when we were kids. Back then, we reason to our child, we spent summer running unfettered through empty fields, playing kick the can until dark, walking down to the corner store and flagging down the Good Humor Man for an ice cream sandwich.

In my case, that scenario is partly true. Before we moved to California, I did spend most summer days outside. When we weren't at Hammond's pool we actually were out somewhere, picking blackberries or playing baseball until our parents called us in for dinner. Every parent on the block had their own unique calling card. Ours was a cowbell. Your hear the cowbell, you come in for dinner.

Two other families on the street, I can't remember exactly who, had almost identical-sounding bells. They could always tell them apart.

Once we moved to California, though, my summer days became every bit as aimless as the Jawa's, minus Surf Camp. Or any other camp. My post-1976 childhood setting was about as far from Hannibal, Mo. as anywhere.

So we didn't have laptops. We had TV. You think it's through osmosis that I developed a love of 1960s episodic television? Those weren't first-run episodes of "The Twilight Zone" I was watching every weekday from noon until one. We watched TV. In a truly sad and pathetic, now that I look back at it from the distance of 30-plus years, attempt to continue my life the way it had been in Pennsylvania, I rode my bike -- alone -- to Ralph's to buy candy.

Several years later I started taking the bus to Newport Beach with my friends. It was an all-day affair and by no means something we did every day. So there was plenty of time left over for gaining encyclopedic knowledge of "The Bob Newhart Show."

The Jawa just marched past me toward the front door. "I'm going to go skateboarding," he said. "It's supposed to help your balance for surfing."

"Okay," I said. He walked out the front door. I waited a minute or so before walking into the living room and looking out the front windows to satisfy myself that he wouldn't be kidnapped within five minutes of leaving the house. That, as much as anything, is why he doesn't spend his summer days running through empty fields. Not only are there no empty fields; if there were any they'd have homeless emcampments in them. City living. All so he can blow his freshman roommate's mind when he asks him where he's from. "San Francisco? Wow! What was it like growing up there?"

Good that he took the initiative and found something to do instead of standing here, looking over my shoulder and driving me insane. Too much of that and you've got a real long summer and a non-productive freelance writer.

Friday, June 18, 2010

64 days to Bar Mitzvah: career menopause

My final day as an official employee of the San Francisco Examiner (actually, just “The Examiner,” but if I throw that “San Francisco” in there it makes it seem like I’m working for the paper that Wm. Randolph Hearst used to own, not some weird little freebie whose web presence is powered by citizen journalists) was full of confusion. Appropriately, since the last two years of my tenure has been notable mostly for weird gaps in management and job status changes that suddenly appear without prior warning. I posted something about this being my last day on Facebook and drew mostly concerned inquiries and comments saying, simply, “Whaa?”

So for everyone out there wondering what happened, it’s a good thing. It’s been in the works for months. And the end result, unless someone calls me Monday morning and says, “Game off. We were just trying to get rid of you without having to pay unemployment,” is that, like Jay Leno and NBC, I’ll be signing off only to reappear the following week in a different format. That is to say that starting Monday, I’ll have the same job – populating the paper’s two Sunday regional real estate sections each week – but will be doing so as a freelancer, not as an employee. Yes, it is what I wanted.

Even though it’s what I wanted, I understand that it could go a number of ways. This isn’t the first time I’ve stepped back, tore my keycard off its lanyard and declared myself a “freelancer.” I could be back in six months, stuck in some other cubicle somewhere else, a little bit more dead than I was this time. We’re hoping that’s not what happens.

Because this could also mean that today is the last time I’ll ever have to sit in an office. What if it works, and Monday is the beginning of this great run that ends only when I keel over one day, sitting at my desk in some retirement resort, while the retired Sandra Bullock is out riding a bike or cross-country skiing or whatever you do when you only age chronologically? What if in five years I’m signing books at Barnes and Noble and we both look back and say, “Wow, why did I wait so long to do that?” How great would that be?

Because my last week coincided with Sandra Bullock’s trip to Zurich, it has been lacking most of the “we’re going to miss having you around here” events that normally accompany a job change. The most I could manage was including my boy Ray in my usual Friday falafel outing. Weirdly, it marked the first time I’d ever gone out to lunch with a co-worker at The Examiner. Normally, I go the loner route, shoved into the corner at Noah’s Bagels, reading the “other” newspaper. Or worse yet, slamming down a sandwich at my desk, my back to the room, looking at

Some people are cut out for the workaday world. My wife, for example, is always hooking up with “work friends,” going on work-sponsored outings, meeting for happy hours. She even keeps in contact with her former co-workers, getting together a few times a year for dinner. If there’s one thing we all should know by now, it’s that it is unwise to try to compare Sandra Bullock’s work experience with mine. You just don’t want to go down that road, unless you’re trying to make me feel bad. And anyone who didn’t spend their childhood tying tin cans to puppies’ tails or pulling the wings off of butterflies would not begrudge her success. My hat is off to her, revealing a growing bald spot.

I’ve got to hand it to me. Here I am, 23 years out of college, and I’m still walking around trying to be a writer. I didn’t fall into some vague – yet insanely lucrative – consulting career. I didn’t become a lawyer, as good of a son as that would have made me. You’ve heard the joke about the Jewish mother whose son is flailing about in the ocean? “Help, help! My son the lawyer is drowning!”

Nope. In the face of what has often been crippling feelings of failure, the disheartening realization that what everyone tells me is a “gift” is only worth about 10% of what I’d make if my “gift” were an ability to analyze the stock market, and the sickening feeling that comes from using my “gift” to do things like help sell Fords, I’ve persevered. It helps that Sandra Bullock functions as not only my wife and partner but also as the modern-day equivalent of a Renaissance art patron.

At age 45, quitting my job now is like getting a tattoo of a spider web across my face. It puts me one step further from employable. All of the pieces are in place: my biggest fear, the couple of times I’ve tried to freelance in the past – and make no mistake, I absolutely loathe the word “freelance” – I’ve panicked a couple of months in because of money. “I need income!” I’d shout, just before signing on to a contract job at AOL, even though I’d had lunch with the guy who would be my boss and couldn’t hear most of what he was saying because there were flashing red lights and sirens going off in my head, saying, “DO NOT TRUST ANYONE WHO DESCRIBES THEMSELVES AS A ‘STRAIGHT-SHOOTER.’ NOTHING GOOD WILL COME FROM THIS. YOU WILL BE TRAUMATIZED BY THIS MAN.”

Six months later I was gone, my legacy a blistering email to my boss, which, I later heard, sent him into an existential tailspin that lasted the length of time it took him to drive to Napa with his wife the following Saturday.

As Elvis would say, and has said, “It’s now or never.” That’s the scary part of next Monday. If the powers that be at The Examiner have been telling the truth, I’ll have the same income six months from now as as I had six months ago. That takes care of the money panic. Three years of writing a weekly newspaper column should give me some kind of leg up on the me of ten years ago, shouldn’t it? Someone must have read the thing. My name’s got to ring a bell somewhere.

And then there’s this blog thing. Several months ago, I sat at Barney’s, a hamburger restaurant in Noe Valley, with Teduardo and his clan. “You should write a book about the year leading up to a Bar Mitzvah,” he told me over garden burgers.

“I’ve got folders on my desktop full of 25-, 35-, even 50-page semi-novels,” I thought. “I’ve got unfinished screenplays, short stories, three-page plays. They sit around collecting virtual dust. I grow older and the number of people who think I’m talented shrinks each day.”

“The only way I’m going to finish something is if I know people are expecting to read something from me every day,” I said, and left it at that.

If I’m any good, you’ve been reading the results of that conversation for the past six months. Now, with every obstacle, real and invented, out of the way, it’s up to me to turn it into something someone might want to buy someday.

Wish me luck.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

65 days to Bar Mitzvah: measuring success

How much do you care about grades? I mean now, not when you were a kid. Because I can tell you that I seem to care about them way more now then I did when I was the one being graded.

Today, report cards arrived.

They came along with "practice" SSAT scores. It was coincidence. I'm sure Brandeis Hillel Day School, which sent the report cards but had nothing to do with the timing of the SSAT scores, did not plan on giving us such a comprehensive impression of our children's academic progress. We got it anyway, all wrapped up in a neat little package. Total academic judgement is as easy as laying two sheets of paper side-by-side.

I'm not sure if I've discussed the SSAT here yet. It is the pre-pre-SAT, the standardized test favored by most San Francisco "independent" high schools. A quick Google search reveals that it is also favored by many prestigious boarding schools like Choate and Andover. These are the shark-infested waters in which our children swim. We are, whether we intend to or not, sending them out to do battle with the former Masters of the Universe, the rep tie-clad scions of American fortune.

And here they are: undersized, perhaps a touch immature, sporting faint moustaches that will disappear the first time we, their fathers, teach them to shave. These little kids are taking the exact same test Finny and Eugene would take, were they hashing out their separate peace today, rather than in 1940.

When I was a teacher, I cared not at all about grades. If I thought about it at all, it was to determine that a D should be as hard to get as an A. While the baseball state geek part of me loved the actual act of tallying up people's scores, I was firmly, philosophically against the notion of summing up a kid's value by a single letter grade.

My thinking was that grades are supposed to function as check points. They assess the student's progress. How well is he keeping up with classwork? Is this subject something that interests her enough to give me back what I require in order to give her a top grade? A quiz or test grade seemed simple: it measured how much more you needed to learn. You got a 75? You've got 25% more stuff to master until you can safely move on to the next concept or unit.

Grades should be instruments used to help students figure out how they're doing, and I suspect that whoever invented the four-point grade scale had exactly that in mind. They're not supposed to be endpoints by which we judge kids' value.

Lets say, for example, that the Jawa comes home today and finds two sheets of paper on the kitchen table, along with my laptop, which has not moved since Sandra Bullock left for Zurich, because we're guys and guys are efficient; why move the laptop when I'll just have to put it back there again the next day?

Lets say he sees these sheets of paper. One of them, his report card, has him getting a B+ in math. This is very disappointing for a number of reasons. First, the impressions was that this year, having dropped from the "top" math class to the "middle" math class, an A in math should have been a given, which is so screwed up on so many levels -- the idea being that you should back off from something that challenges you, opting instead for an easier version, so you can log a good grade and improve your chances of getting into a "good" high school. It becomes a game instead of a chance to learn.

Lets say that sitting right next to your B+ is your SSAT score, and your highest SSAT score -- by far -- comes in, you guessed it, math. How are you going to process this obvious dichotomy?

Actually, as a parent who isn't too jazzed about using letter grades as a value judgement, the stellar SSAT score gives you a nice crutch. Instead of railing, "HOW CAN YOU GET A B+ IN MATH?" you can calmly hold the two sheets of paper next to each other and say, "See here, where your math score is so much higher than your other scores? Don't you think that should somehow translate into math being your best subject in school?"

And thanks to the numbered comments system. While it limits teacher comments to a string of digits, "1-9, 12, 16," it at least, in the Jawa's case, forms a nice pattern on which to hang a reasonable discussion. "See this? All of these comments are the same. None of them have anything to do with your ability to do the work, and yet all drag your grades down. Doesn't that frustrate you?"

Even after making this convincing case for raising his grades which, in all honesty, weren't that bad, but with this looming high school admissions pressure coming ever closer, we have to assume that everything short of perfect is potentially a one-way ticket to San Francisco public schools, many of which have no doors on their bathroom stalls, making it much more difficult for students to complete drug transactions or beat each other silly without anyone seeing.

It's a lot of pressure. Too much. We all know that. And yet, it's the agenda we accepted the minute we fell in love with the view from Coit Tower. When in Rome.

How strange is my child's school experience? Think of this: eight years in and he wouldn't recognize a totally checked-out kid if one was standing three inches from his face. Nobody in his school is checked-out. Nobody completely blows off teachers, never does their homework, shows up at school drunk, habitually ditches class, regularly talks back to teachers and spends time every week in the principal's class. Nobody has a marijuana leaf drawn on their P.E. uniform. Nobody hangs out in a gang and threatens people. The one time a bad seed somehow made it through, he was suspended seemingly every other week until finally "not getting asked back" this year. But even that kid, as sociopathical as he was, still managed to have a Bar Mitzvah.

Sometimes I wish the Jawa's school curriculum could be built around Legos and roller coasters, with a few "Godzilla in Literature" Humanities classes thrown in. I bet he'd bring home some killer grades if they did that.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

67 days to Bar Mitzvah: business trip

It is going on a full 24 hours that the Jawa and I have been alone. Last night, at 7:30, Sandra Bullock boarded a plane for Zurich, Switzerland. It is a business trip, the latest in a not-unimpressive line of trips that have taken her to France, Denmark and Finland in the past and probably several times to Switzerland in the future. She will be gone until Saturday.

The Jawa and I have never really discussed our strategy for seeing a vital member of our small nuclear family off on a week-long business trip. Still, I was surprised to find, upon getting home from work, that he'd chosen to make her departure easier by reminding her how miserable life can be around here when he doesn't get his way. It was an interesting approach and very unprecedented. Usually, he's all clingy when she goes somewhere. Not this time.

In play was $10, the amount he was supposed to save from his first day of Theme Park Camp. Yes, you read that right. There is Theme Park Camp. Yesterday, Monday, they went to Great America. He left the house with $40 and was instructed to spend no more than $30, which still sounds like a sack full o' dough until you consider how much food costs at theme parks. And he only spent $20 on food, leaving me to wonder what, exactly he ate, since that'll buy you a pretzel and a Coke, maybe, at Great America.

With the other $20 he bought some swim trunks for a fellow Theme Park camper who'd forgotten to bring some. This way, the guy could join everyone else at Great America's waterpark. 24 hours later, I still can't decide if that was an admirably selfless act or a symptom of entitlement on his part. Sandra Bullock, while not sharing with me her opinion of the act itself, took a firm stand: the $10 will come out of tomorrow's per diem.

This went down minutes before I came home with visions of a heartfelt airport scene, followed by dinner somewhere in South San Francisco in my head, only to see them evaporate before I'd even made it the 12 feet that separate our front door and kitchen.

"What's going on?" I asked with the innocence of babes.


But of course I did get involved, because despite my great efforts at keeping cool in the face of adolescent irrationality, I'd mistakenly left the "on" switch for rage exposed, within easy reach of an eye-rolling, rudely-interrupting, angrily smug Jawa. Within ten minutes it was me standing over the Jawa, lecturing, trying not to explode, while Sandra Bullock, oh-so-helpfully, told me to "walk away."

The airport scene was not heartfelt. It consisted of me quietly fuming while my wife went over her last-minute preparations. The Jawa was not invited to accompany us. He was banished to his room, as, you know, punishment. Unfortunately, this particular "punishment" is indistinguishable from his "leisure time," as it involves him sitting on an office chair, staring hypnotized into a computer screen for hours on end.

We reached the airport. I double-parked and didn't get out of the car. I was too mad. The goodbyes were terse.

Forget Mothers Against Drunk Driving; tearing up the 101 on the way home I was the poster child for Mothers Against Fathers Feeling Several Conflicting Emotions At Once (MAFFSCEAO). Ever been blisteringly mad, worried and anxious while simultaneously trying to figure out a way to cool your child's rage, teach him the error of his ways and create a plan to avoid these kinds of run-ins in the future because the last few have left you clutching your chest, wondering if this was the big one and you'd be joining Elizabeth soon, while also planning a day-by-day schedule to get through the week in a manner that will not cause Sandra Bullock to come home and think, "These guys are hopeless without me?"

All of this in the 15 minutes it takes to get from SFO to our front door. I needed more time. No way was I focused enough yet to make this into a positive.

Entering the house, I adopted a laconic, distant mien. The Jawa, taking my lead, followed suit. For the next three hours, we spoke to each other in stilted, weirdly polite tones. "I'll make dinner," the Jawa announced, a few minutes after my return.

"Oh, no, that's fine. I can make dinner." Me.

"No, no, it's no problem. I'll make Annie's (San Francisco for 'macaroni and cheese')."

"That's great. Can you make the orange kind?"

"Well, I had hoped to make the white kind, but I can make the orange kind, since I know you like it."

"Are you sure? If you'd prefer the white kind, I'd be okay with it."

"Oh, no. No problem. I'll make the orange kind."

We went on this way until about nine, when we both decided to thaw it out a little. My idea to write down everything he "needed" to do before bedtime (practice his Torah portion, feed the dog, take a shower), lest he receive no per diem tomorrow, seemed to work well, too. Is this a bribe? Is it adherence to the most tired and amoral of parenting techniques, the "reward/punishment paradigm?" Yes, and yes. I have long since given up my dream to be the Davey Concepcion of parenting. I'll have to settle for being the Ed Brinkman. Look it up.

You know, sometimes it's a drag being the volatile, slightly unstable parent of a pre-teen. Of course he rolls his eyes. He's 12. Don't think I'm not fully aware of that. And yet each time I think, "This is going to be the time he says, 'You're right. I'm acting like a real punk. I'm going to apologize and stop now. Thanks.'"

I think our frosty three hours did the trick, at least for now. Today has been incident-free, even though he didn't want to walk the dog when he got home. It was laid out there on his list. He couldn't argue with it, so after a very short protest and the brief adoption of kindergarten teacher tones by me, he took the dog for a walk. I saw him cross out "walk the dog" with relish after completing the task.

Last night, after the thaw, I was standing in our bedroom, looking at all of these pictures we have on these shelves. Lately, whenever I have a run-in with the Jawa, I go in there and look at them. They're various shots of Sandra Bullock, the Jawa and I, taken over a period of years.

A while ago, I was looking at them and noticed that in every single one, I'm touching the Jawa. I'm either holding him, or he's climbing all over me. In one, I have one finger touching the side of his coat.

I took him in there last night to look at them, but I don't think he got it because I'm not sure what it was I wanted him to "get." I just wanted the both of us to go in there and look at them for awhile.

Monday, June 14, 2010

68 days to Bar Mitzvah: as young as you feel

Do you remember a commercial, aired sometime in the 1970s, that included a woman repetitively saying, “You’re as young as you feel!” until watching became a study in anticipation as we waited for someone else in the ad to suddenly snap, grab the “You’re as young as you feel!” lady around the neck and shake her until her eyes fell out? Obviously borne of the “annoying song stuck in my head” school of brand strategy, the spot was equal parts successful and a failure; decades later, I know that “You’re as young as you feel!” comes from a commercial; I can hear the exact inflection of the woman’s voice who said it, but have no idea what she was pitching. Geritol?

I just Googled it and went to YouTube. The origins of “You’re as young as you feel!” will remain murky. While it is very easy to call up the Alka-Seltzer, “I can’t believe I ate the whole thing,” commercial, and YouTube has several variations of the pre-PC “ancient Chinese secret” Calgon spot, “You’re as young as you feel!” is lost to history.
Just as well. “You’re as young as you feel” is annoying. Especially when you’re not.

Once the generation that preceded mine turned 30, they started saying things like, “I may get older, but I’ll never grow up!” (variations include “I refuse to grow up”) to explain that their childish behavior was not due to character flaw but instead a shrewdly concocted life strategy whose core belief boils down a psychotic need to demonstrate to your parents that while they are stodgy and old-fashioned, you are the living embodiment of nothing less than a new way to live. It is necessary to pledge 100% fidelity to this concept if you’re planning on spending your 50s attending Rolling Stones concerts and/or enjoying a rousing game of kickball whenever the mood strikes.

However hard you can try to fend off what you perceive as the dull conformity of old age, I’m here to tell you that your body is going to age at whatever rate it wants. Your mind may tell you you’re 18, but your body can’t lie. In two hours, when I get off work, I can walk right into Hot Topic and buy myself a crate of ironic black logo T-shirts; it won’t change the fact that I am 45 years old. It might actually amplify it.

Yesterday, I did something simple: with Sandra Bullock and the Jawa gone for an unplanned all-day trip to Six Flags Discovery Kingdom and with me having a few hours to kill before I had to go to “work” (call it what you like; driving around on a Sunday, looking at multi-million dollar houses and having Realtors suck up to you because they want you to write about their listing isn’t really like work to me), I decided to follow up on Saturday’s poor driving range performance by heading to the range and hitting a bucket of balls. My head was full of Teduardo’s advice: “Front arm straight; wrist cocked. Don’t turn your wrist in your backswing! Feet planted; follow-through; get under the ball; slow backswing. Front arm straight!”

Once I got there, though, it took only a few swings before I became very aware that golf is a repetitive sport that requires repeated upper body and core torqueing and delivers constant punishment to your hands and wrists. About halfway in, I really started to hurt, pretty much all over. I was as young as I felt, and I felt 70.

How was this going to work in six weeks, when I was expected to play 18 holes for four consecutive days? At an elevation of 7,000 feet, for crissakes! Would I hold up?

Way too often, we sit back on our couches and watch pro athletes run around. I can’t speak for you, but it never occurs to me that Kobe Bryant might be sucking air after 45 minutes of running up and down the court. And I certainly never thought that golfers – golfers! – whose physique often trails only that of professional bowlers in resembling your Uncle Morty or that guy in Accounts Receivable who always eats egg salad sandwiches at his desk, would wake up on Tournament Sunday, having already logged 54 holes since Wednesday, and feel as beat up as Brett Favre on a Monday morning in November. I’d gone back-to-back to the driving range and already my hands were on fire, my left wrist was throbbing and my back was all bent sideways.

It was pathetic. I could go home, drop off my clubs and troll Squid List for the next scheduled Bigwheel flash mob event. I’d still feel old. Probably even older. When was the last time you tried to fit yourself into a Big Wheel? I tried it last year at the Surrey Street block party. Didn’t get ten feet before the dumb thing went into a wheelie that continued the entire time I was on it.

Thirty-five years ago, our house in Clarks Green, Pennsylvania had two good surfaces at which to throw a ball. I used the garage doors to throw grounders to myself with a tennis ball. Sometimes Mark “Red” Comerford would come over from next door and we’d have day-long one-on-one wiffleball tournaments.

In front of our house, underneath the front deck and behind a small flowerbed whose contents interested me not at all, we had a smaller brick wall. It was about three feet high and fifteen feet wide. Our lawn was sloped, but there was enough flat space at the top for me to get a decent distance from the wall, throw a hardball against it as hard as I could, then field the rebound, which, because the wall was made of bricks, always came back in some erratic, unpredictable way.

I’d be out there for hours, throwing a ball against the wall, diving in the grass to make the stop, jumping up and throwing against the wall again, then diving to make the next stop. Repeat, rinse, repeat.

Some summer nights I’d be out there until it was so dark out that I could barely see the ball, my shorts and New York Mets t-shirt grass-stained, sweat rolling into my eyes, my hands shaking because I hadn’t eaten in several hours, all alone, throwing that baseball against the wall, completely destroying whatever had been in the flower bed because either it wasn’t just me that didn’t care, or my parents just considered dead flowers part of the price of doing business when you were raising an obsessive little boy.

In the summer of 1975, I could throw a ball against a wall, dive in the grass a thousand times, hit my elbows against the dirt with the entire weight of my body, then wake up the next morning and do it all over again for a month solid.

My dad once told me that he spent his entire career wondering when someone was going to break into a meeting, call him out for pretending to be an adult, then drag him away so the real grown-ups could get to work. I don’t think that’s the same as bouncing around saying, “You’re as young as you feel!” but it kind of sums up the idea that, while we weren’t looking, 35 years passed. And as much as we profess to not remember that passage of time, our bodies will always be there to dutifully remind us.

Friday, June 11, 2010

71 days to Bar Mitzvah: birthday girl gets her wish

Today is my wife’s birthday. Each year, as she refuses to age, I start looking like more and more of a stud. To paraphrase David Wooderson, “I get older and she stays the same age,” meaning that if I can hang on long enough, I’ll eventually look like an old guy with a hot young wife. All done without the benefit of a divorce and/or a high-paying job.

For her birthday, my very demure wife asked for a barbecue. She’s wanted one for a long time. Until now, I’ve successfully deflected her attempts at buying one by pointing out the obvious: the usable portion of our backyard is approximately ten feet square, hemmed in by four foot-high retaining walls, which keep the rest of the yard, which is at a 60 degree slope, from falling into our bedrooms.

The upside of this arrangement is that any casual thief wanting to break into our house from the rear would first have to rappel down the yard. Either he’d make so much noise digging his boots into the dirt that we’d hear him, or he’d simply fall off the yard, tumbling past the retaining walls and onto the cement patio. And then he’d sue us.

It didn’t matter. She continued to indulge her backyard fantasy. At Target, she’d pore over the outdoor furniture display, rearranging pillows and sitting in chairs. “This would be great,” she’d say. Usually, I’d let a few seconds pass before adding, “…if we actually had a backyard.”

That we are also vegetarians who will never, by definition, throw a few steaks on the barbie, went unsaid. There are always garden burgers.

Someday, we will transform our backyard. Like many of our neighbors, we will chop, grade and dig, moving mountains of dirt, adding more retaining walls and a multi-tiered deck. On the deck will be a hot tub, the quasi-Adirondack chairs that showed up via FedEx two weeks ago, and a barbecue. Only then, I would bellow, will we need a full-sized barbecue.

Two weeks ago, completely bereft of ideas, I went to my wife and asked her what she wanted for her birthday. She didn’t know. Maybe a gift certificate to Nordstrom for some new sunglasses. There were these Kate Spade ones she liked.

That just wasn’t going to rate. A gift certificate? For Kate Spade sunglasses? Doesn’t the Spade family have enough celebrities in it? Not wanting to press the issue, I filed that away and figured, “Hey, no problem. The Jawa and I can go grab that gift certificate any time.” So it is when you have already celebrated 19 birthdays together.

Then, about a week ago, she changed her mind. “I know what I want,” she said. “A barbecue.”

Clever girl. By making the barbecue a birthday request, she’d removed my ability to resist. Were I to ridicule the idea, I’d be a bad husband who makes fun of his wife ON HER BIRTHDAY. Were I to opt instead for a Nordstrom gift certificate, I’d be a bad husband who, given two options, chose not only the easiest one but the least personal one to boot. The next day, I received an email, subject line: “Sandra Bullock’s Birthday Present.” The body of the email was a link to the Weber E210 propane barbecue, available at Home Depot.

So three days ago, the Jawa and I rolled down to Home Depot, once I’d checked online to make sure the Daly City store had the E210 in stock. There we stood in proximity to many barbecues, waiting for someone to notice us while the Jawa tried repeatedly to get me to reject the E210 in favor of larger, flashier units. “No,” I said. “This is the one Mommy wants. She did research, and I know her: she will not want to get something other than what she has stated she wants.”

Undeterred, the boy continued to hammer away, pointing out the advantages of the other barbecues. “This one has three burners!” he said. Finally, I had to appease him by agreeing to get a cover. We got out the door, my wallet much lighter than it had been an hour prior, and set about getting the thing home, taking it out of the box and putting it together.

Jerry Seinfeld thinks father-son projects are the funniest thing in the world, and he’s right. Had anyone been watching is wheel this giant box, precariously teetering on top of a standard shopping cart because the guy who finally noticed us standing near the barbecues couldn’t find a flat cart, through the Home Depot parking lot would have had no choice but to assume that the Jawa and I had a mutually abusive relationship.

My boy, he likes to take charge. “This way, Dad. No! This way! Wait! Back up. BACK UP!”

Me: “What, you’re the world’s biggest authority now? You just backed me into a pickup truck.”

Him: “DAD! Hey, Toyota Tundra. Don’t you see us back here? HEY!”

Somehow, we reached the car without beating each other up. I was bathed in sweat. He, twelve years old, looked as if he’d just completed a refreshing stroll in the park. It would have been great if he’d not felt the need to continue project managing me while we drove him, but it was not to be so. “Can you see out of the back, Dad? Do you need me to tell you what’s behind us? There’s a car back there.” I was forced to turn the radio on, volume up, before we even reached the freeway.

And then there’s the issue of the 32 steps that stand between the street and our front door. “I’m going to go get one of the neighbors,” my son announced forcefully as we pulled up to our house.

“No!” I said.

“No? I’m going to get one of the neighbors.”

“No. We can do it ourselves.” Seriously. I’ve got great relationships with my neighbors. I don’t need to be bothering them to come hoist a giant box up our 32 steps. In retrospect, given that I probably lost about a half-hour off my lifespan by trying to carry that thing up the steps with the Jawa, I should have listened to him. At age 12 and 90 pounds and imbued with an analytical confidence that can only come from the child of a woman whose job it is to keep people in line, my son was not the ideal furniture-moving partner.

By the time we reached the top of the stairs (and we only went up 16, since we opted to stow it downstairs), the folly of our ways was evident. The only reason I was able to summon the brute strength necessary to single-handedly shove a giant box into our basement was because, like that woman who lifted a two-ton car off of her husband when the jack broke, I’d been possessed with superhuman strength borne of crisis. It was push that thing into the basement or strangle my child.

“Okay, lets hide this thing,” he said, once inside. “We need to build it and then move it to the backyard. I want to surprise Mommy on her birthday.”

My kid is the kind of kid who, once he’s got an idea, will not be swayed by trifling details. Like the fact that the “Mommy will be surprised” ship sailed the moment I got the email outlining in great detail her birthday present wishes. “Okay,” I said, mostly to get out of the room.

“I’ll put it together Thursday,” answered the Jawa.

You know what I wanted for my birthday? Freedom from ever having to assemble items that come in big boxes. And you know what? That’s what I got for Sandra Bullock’s birthday. Last night, with back-to-back episodes of “Mythbusters” as his soundtrack, the Jawa went downstairs, took everything out of the box and, by God, assembled that barbecue. Naturally, he was positive that the thing had arrived missing screws, bolts and other hardware. That always seems to happen to him. Kind of like how his alarm seems to go off at weird times because the radio’s broken. “What are the odds?” I often say.

But I’m not kidding. We went down there at about nine o’clock and the thing was together. My only contribution was grabbing a bottle of Windex and wiping the Jawa-sized fingerprints from the barbecue’s gleaming stainless steel surfaces. I led Sandra Bullock down to the basement, where the Jawa executed a dramatic reveal. He yanked the cover and there is was: a gigantic, assembled barbecue that will occupy approximately 38% of the total usable ground space in our backyard.

“Wow. It’s really big,” said Sandra Bullock.

“No kidding,” I said.

“We’ll bring it up there once I paint the ground.” Because what good is the Saturday after your birthday if you don’t spend it painting cement?

Today is my wife’s birthday. For it, she asked for and received a Weber E210 propane grille. To keep our theme consistent, on my next birthday I’m thinking I might ask for a nice piece of jewelry.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

72 days to Bar Mitzvah: day one summer reflections

Today was the last day of seventh grade, so the newly-retired Wine Guy and I took our boys to Malibu Grand Prix. For me, it was sort of a break from the relentlessly discombobulated Hillsborough Centennial special project I've been toiling on for the past month. Sort of a break because, had I been able to figure out how to work the "documents to go" feature of my BlackBerry, I would have edited this story contributed by a long-time Hillsborough Realtor, instead of just reading it over again on a very small screen, making mental edits that I would convert to concrete ones upon returning home.

When was the last time you were at Malibu Grand Prix? If it was less then a decade ago, you shouldn't be in any rush to go back. Malibu Grand Prix is the kind of place 13-year-olds should go with each other. You should drive up to the entrance, drop them off and return two hours later to pick them up.

Unfortunately, when you live in San Francisco, this is impossible for two reasons. First, Malibu Grand Prix is 29 miles away. With traffic, that's a 45 minute trip. What, we're going to drop them off, drive back to the city, sit around for a half-hour then get back in the car and battle traffic on the 101 to pick them up? No.

The other reason is that in San Francisco, most people don't just drop their 13-year-olds places, especially ones that are 45 minutes away.

When I was 13, Dave K. and I were always unattended. Whether we were skateboarding through the open-air shopping mall near his house or disappearing into Knott's Berry Farm at dusk for the annual "Knott's Scary Farm" party, it was just the two of us, plus the ghostly presence of all the girls we thought we'd be able to convince to hang out with us but never seemed to appear in the flesh. Dave K. and I had huge imaginations.

The Jawa will be 13 in two months. Josh K., his buddy and the Wine Guy's son, has been 13 since last October. We have not as-yet dropped them off somewhere as a duo then picked them up several hours later. Long past our best-if-used-by date, we are still chaperones. Today we were chaperones at Malibu Grand Prix.

Malibu Grand Prix is always running special deals. Today they had two. For $29, you could take four laps, play mini-golf, ride the bumper boats then go nuts in the arcade, thanks to the combustible mixture of 20 video game tokens and a free Coke. For $25, you got unlimited laps, golf and the bumper boats. No Coke, no tokens.

It's kind of amazing to me that Malibu Grand Prix even exists this close to San Francisco. Where are all those people who spend their Saturdays toting "U.S. Out of Iraq!" signs? I looked in the parking lot. For the first time in a long time, I was looking at a scene where pickup trucks outnumbered Priuses.

Back inside, little league jerseys ruled supreme. Dads wore baseball caps that advertise golf equipment. The only food available was hot dogs, hamburgers and personal-sized pizzas. For an extra 99 cents, you could add a large Coke. This was the Bay Area?

I was thankful. Everyone needs a break now and then. In fact, I once decided that every San Franciscan should be forced to take a cross-country road trip at least once every five years. While for most it may simply reinforce their existing prejudices, at least they will be forced to deal with the rest of the country, instead of issuing blanket dismissals of the other 49 states.

Do you remember the last day of school? Next year, the Jawa and his classmates will be the ones wearing miniature caps and gowns as they "graduate" from middle school. The day will take on a sepia tone as they suddenly realize that they will no longer see every day these 40 other kids they've known since they were in kindergarten. Grandparents will fly in. Tears will be shed. But that's still a year away. Today we are at Malibu Grand Prix.

Our first glitch comes after the boys complete their four laps on the Malibu grid. The Jawa improves his time on three of the four go-rounds. As he eases his go-kart toward the start line, he sees his time flashing on the big leaderboard they have and raises his arms over his head in triumph.

Afterwards, we dine on the worst food we've had in months. I actually say this at one point. "I'll bet this is the worst food I've had in at least a month." I am eating the Malibu Grand Prix version of nachos, which are remarkably similar to the County Fair version of nachos and the Baseball Stadium version of nachos, which is to say that they are a platic bowl of chips along with a cordoned-off well of melted Velveeta cheese. They are awesome.

But then the Jawa wants to play games in the arcade. Josh K. wants to go to the batting cages. I want to go to the batting cages. "Just go, Dad," the Jawa says. "That's what you want to do." I'd feel worse about abandoning my child in a sea of pre-teens wearing replica jerseys if I didn't suspect that he didn't really want me around. He likes to eliminate distractions during his arcade time.

So I went to the batting cages, bought a few tokens and struck up a left-handed stance in the "medium" cage while a bunch of young guys watched. Once I timed the thing -- it was really slow, about 30 mph slower than the "medium fast" cage, which, brimming with confidence after hitting the tar out of the ball in the "medium" cage, I cockily tried afterwards, only to barely make contact on about five out of 15 balls -- I got off a few good strokes, enough to transport me back to 1983, the last time I swung a bat with any regularity.

After a quick 18 holes of miniature golf, we packed it in. Several work assignments had begun casting an irritating shadow over me. I needed to get home and put out the fires.

And that's it: the last day of seventh grade.

I can't remember exactly how seventh grade ended for me in 1978. I probably went over to Fred's house and played basketball. There were no parents in sight, because both of my parents worked and that's how it was in 1978. It was sort of like living in a "Peanuts" comic strip. On the rare occasions that adults spoke, it came out, "Wa-wa-wa-WA-wa?"

When I finished up in the "medium" batting cage, my hands were stinging. I'd hit at least two balls really hard. "That's what it looks like at 45, boys," I said to the young guys waiting their turn, secretly thinking less of them because at 22 you should really be hitting in the "medium fast" cage. I slammed the bat back into the rack they had and shoved my helmet into its cubby hole.

This summer, not counting the week leading up to his Bar Mitzvah, the Jawa has something like 15 free days. All the rest are scheduled out with camps. Next week, as Sandra Bullock goes off the Zurich for work meetings, the Jawa will be at "Theme Park Camp," a JCC-sponsored day camp that couldn't be more in his wheelhouse if he'd designed the syllabus himself. No afternoons where you watch four "Twilight Zones" in a row. No walking to Ralphs to buy candy, even though it's two miles away, because who cares if it takes a couple or hours, you've got all day?

No playing an approximate version of baseball with very intricate rules, one-on-one at Dave Money's house, using his garage door as a backstop and pitching from a spot five feet closer than him, because he's the kind of athlete that will one day earn a college football scholarship, whereas I am the kind who will eventually apply bargefuls of effort and focus on becoming a mediocre high school pitcher while simultaneously ignoring my own personal gifts to the point where they atrophy and become unusable.

And on the ride down and back? Both boys hunched over in the back seat, mesmerized by their iPods, identical white ear buds blocking out all other sound. "They'd rather link up in games than actually talk to each other," said the Wine Guy.

Tomorrow is Sandra Bullock's birthday. She will be pleased to hear that the guy who owns to gift and card store thought she was turning 36. Awesome for me. Ten more years of this and I'll look like the old guy with the hot young wife.