Monday, August 23, 2010

two days after Bar Mitzvah: the rabbi has left the building

There are times when, after spending the day doing essentially nothing -- maybe a Thursday where I wrote one story and spent the other seven hours reading people's Facebook pages -- I lie in bed at night scolding myself for ignoring the adage that tells you to "live each day as if it were your last." Which, of course, just extends my already-underlived day, as it inevitably leads to wondering how much more time I have before having the heart attack my genes chose for me 45 years ago -- which leads to tossing and turning in bed, then suddenly sweating, throwing off the covers and waking up a bitter, confused Sandra Bullock.

It's impossible to live each day as if it were your last, although, considering how unpredictable our lifespans are, that's exactly what most of us end up doing. What we ultimately get is a handful of truly special days during our lifetimes. We learn to ride a bike, graduate from places and things, maybe get married, spend 46 minutes in a birthing suite as our Jawa comes bursting into the world. It's up to us to make the best of the truly special days -- many of which don't exactly announce themselves when they arrive. Some of the time, we don't even realize until it's too late which days are the ones that are special. Sometimes, special days involve nothing more than barely missing getting hit by a drunk driver while driving around aimlessly with your best friend on an otherwise featureless afternoon in 1988.

Saturday was not unexpected. It was the opposite. It carried with it a year's worth of expectations and pressures. We knew exactly when it would occur, and parts -- but not all -- of what would happen.

For sixteen months, we built to this day; and other than seeing him learn his Torah part, we have no way of knowing how the Jawa prepared. One clue: on Friday, during rehearsals, while my quavering version of the blessing before the reading of the Torah filled the main sanctuary, I caught a glimpse of the boy-to-become-a-man moonwalking across the Bimah. It'd be a lie to say this was my first indication that our Jawa was ready to seize one of his life's most special days; even so, his performance Saturday exceeded anything we could have imagined. It's funny: I'd suspected all along that the time I spent this year yelling at him to practice his chanting was a waste of time. I just got the reasons wrong.

The flipside of having a willful, "spirited" Jawa who is incapable of being a silent, easy-to-overlook non-factor is that he is no more likely to shy away from the spotlight than he is to back down from an argument. A star is born.

There was no stumbling, no stuttering, no rushing through his speech. At one point, as I stood behind him on the Bimah, sweating, I saw him lose his place in the Torah, then refind it with the pointer. He was actually reading the thing. No memorizing here.

And then, suddenly, it was over. 185 people (but not the lady with the box, who attended services in the Martin-Meyer sancturary, so said to me the as-usual neatly-dressed Rabbi Jonathan Jaffe (known as J.J. to some Emanu-El insiders), a short time after informing me that he had found the blog you are now reading and shared it with basically the entire Temple Enamu-El staff, which added an element -- for me -- of the Bar Mitzvah as that dream where you look down and suddenly find that you're wearing no pants.

But it's not about me, and never was. It was all about the Jawa, and he hit all the right notes. No less than Chaim Heller, Head of School, took me aside after the service to rave about my pinstripe-suited son.

When you arrive at a special day, all of the logical conclusions you make during the other 364 days go away. For a year, I'd been going to Bar Mitzvahs and listening to parents gush over their children, thinking, "Geez, I just had a knock--down, drag-out with the Jawa about leaving his iPod on his bedroom floor. When he's up there, am I going to be able to not think about that while delivering a gushing speech?"

As my next-door neighbor said in 1976: duh.

No matter how well he did -- and he did well, make no mistake -- the minute that kid was called up there and threw that (substitue, my parents left the real one at the hotel) Tallit over his shoulders, I suddenly couldn't remember that last time my child had argued with me.

Instead, I sat awestruck, more impressed by my child than I had been since the summer of 2002, when his four-year-old exceptionalness got him into every school we applied to, though he was several months younger than the competition.

The entire weekend, which included a total of four events, two motorized cable cars and three hours removed from the end of my life as I fretted about the weather, included only two minor glitches. The video montage ended up at the bottom of a shopping bag in room 952 of the Hyatt Regency Embarcadero, not at the Golden Gate Yacht Club and the short intros the Jawa was supposed to deliver during the candle-lighting ceremony also disappeared. They remain unfound.

Which mattered not at all, as the Jawa, who'd been told by me five minutes before candle-lighting showtime, "We lost the speeches. Here's the order; you can just say their names or try to do more," decided instead to sharpen his Toastmasters skills, cutting a striking, completely calm figure as he delivered room-enrapturing remarks for about 20 minutes. At the next opportunity, I grabbed the mic and told the room, "Fear of public speaking ends with me!"

By the time Saturday's service ended, four months' worth of fog had lifted, leaving the sunny skies I felt necessary to complete our presentation of San Francisco as fantasy wonderland, not a place where two-liter Coke bottles are illegal. Getting off the motorized cable car, several guests were overwhelmed by the view. One by one, they stopped, turned toward the Golden Gate Bridge, and took pictures. That three hours the fog took from the end of my life? Non-returnable, unfortunately.

And of course, before we knew it, we were back on the buses. Pictures exist of the Jawa and his two preschool friends, who returned to him nine years later tall, blonde, exotic and studly enough to make the Brandeis Hillel Day School girls swoon, doing the "YMCA" dance on glowing speakerboxes.

Dark horse guests danced and spoke in loud, enthusiastic voices. My parents' long-lost and newly-found cousin/Sun City West neighbor Eric responded to the call for family members and joined us in the middle circle of the Hora. Four grown men -- me included -- put the Jawa on a chair and jumped up and down until he almost flew out, which wouldn't have been good.

Yesterday morning, a 13-year-old man awoke in his own Hyatt Regency room, surrounded by his best friends and about 10,000 empty candy wrappers. "I have a candy hangover," he moaned as I peeled him out of his bed for the brunch.

"Too bad. You've got to get down to that brunch." As if he was the only hungover person there.

The Jawa grabbed his special day and held onto it for more than the full 24 hours. He comes out the other side changed but of course the same. By Sunday night -- after an hour of opening quirky, thoughtful gifts and envelopes whose contents left us staggered and with a clear view of how great and admirable the population of the world we've surrounded ourselves with truly is -- he was already giving it back to us because we wouldn't let him make popcorn at 9:45.

Because no matter how long you plan, how good of a job you do, how important a rite of passage a day is, the next day the sun goes up, you take a shower and get back to everyday living. Today, we woke up to alarms and were out of the house by nine. He's a surf camp right now, riding out the last week of summer atop Pacifica's two-to three-foot swells. Sandra Bullock, who should be taking the lion's share of credit for the flawnessless of last weekend but never will, is back at work, talking to other Genentech employees in a scientific code language I'll never crack. I'm looking at my usual weekly workload.

Which won't include this blog. In about five minutes, I'll post this and go into radio silence as I try to convert a year's worth of off-the-cuff musings into something someone might buy if they saw it at a bookstore. And yes, Temple Emanu-El officials, I will change the names of everyone (and every institution) involved. And if anyone knows anything about getting and agent, let me know.

But for now, we will charge ahead. Our meeting with Neil Biskar, Brandeis Hillel Day School guru of high school placement, is scheduled for Friday. So as the Jawa coolly said Saturday morning, when Rabbi Jonathan Jaffe suddenly darted from the Bimah, mid-Bar Mitzvah, leaving Cantor Roslyn Barak and him alone on the Bimah, "The rabbi has left the building."

Friday, August 20, 2010

24 hours to Bar Mitzvah: final prep

One more day.

Who am I kidding? It's already here. You wouldn't know it, right now, if you were using the present scene in our house as a guide. If you had installed a spycam in our house, right now it would show me sitting at the kitchen table and the Jawa sprawled out on the living room floor, an empty plate the once held pancakes sitting on a tray in front of him. He's watching Cartoon Network, looking like he hasn't a care in the world. That is one cool customer.

We all know what's going on in Sandra Bullock's head. If you're reading this, you know what's going on in my head. But what about the Jawa, the boy king who seems to swing wildly between panic and indifference. First thing this morning, he stumbled out of bed this morning and said, simply, "Tomorrow."

The boy-who-will-be-a-man just finished watching cartoons and is in his room, building a fortress out of the Legos he keeps expecting to find boring and childish any day now. In two hours, I will teach him how to shave, lest he look at his Bar Mitzvah like a smallish extra from a movie celebrating the styles and mores of the 1970s.

Somewhere within the city limits, though, Sandra Bullock is charging around in a car holding both Bar Mitzvah supplies and our dog, Shack. Poor Shack didn't rate an invite to the Bar Mitzvah, so he's on his way to Pet Camp for the weekend. Don't waste too many tears on him. He loves Pet Camp and practically loses his mind every time he realizes he's going there. Besides, last time he was at Pet Camp, Sandra Bullock ponied up the extra $5 to buy him his own pancake breakfast. Pet Camp is a business lucrative enough for its owners to send four children to Brandeis Hillel Day School.

After she drops off Shack, she'll go to see The Hammer, who has graciously volunteered to bring several items somewhere for us. Honestly, I was briefed on the whole deal multiple times yesterday but right now I can't find the particulars.

Most of our ceremony and party-specific items are out there already, at the Golden Gate Yacht Club, at the hotel, en route to their staging area in back seat of The Hammer's whisper silent Toyota Camry Hybrid. Only oddballs remain here at home, drips and drabs of what was once a Bar Mitzvah powerhouse. These are the things easily forgotten, small in size but not importance. On the island in the kitchen -- four rolls of quarters (for the trolley ride from Tarantino's to the Hyatt), several innocent-looking envelopes that actually contain thousands of dollars, two DVDs that may look bland and unimportant but if we forget them will create a ten-minute gap where our video slideshow went, and a mysterious-looking battery charger that I can only assume has something to do with a camera or laptop.

This morning, Sandra Bullock burst into the bedroom and announced, "Bad news is coming from all over!" For a second, I flashed on the morning of September 11, 2001, when she burst into the room and said basically the same thing. So this time I was ready for anything and relieved when the bad news turned out to be that one of our guests was stuck in New York and another got bumped to a later flight. Both will be here in time for tomorrow night's party.

Meanwhile, I'm sitting here proofreading next week's Examiner real estate section, which feels oddly surreal, given the fever pitch of my immediate world. A few miles from here, the Examiner production team has no idea how this week is different from all the others. Here's a hint: it isn't because on this week we recline while eating.

Two days from now, our household now comprised of one woman and two men (and a very dense, short dog), I will close the electronic book on this particular project that I hate calling a "blog." You won't get enigmatic updates on your Facebook page and you'll suddenly find yourself with an extra fifteen minutes or so each day. What you do with that extra time is up to you. What'll be weird on my end is what I'm going to do with that extra time.

Here's how it will go: what I'm going to do with what for me is actually about 90 minutes each day is read this entire thing all over again, starting 165 posts ago, cringing and destroying the worst ones and picking out the best ones. Then I'm going to organize them, rewrite them and bolster them with the list of related topics and events that I've secretly been keeping for the past year. I couldn't give you everything up front; I had to keep a little bit for myself. And frankly there were some things that I just wasn't ready to either a) defend or b) talk about 24 hours after they happened. Besides, if I gave you everything you'd have no reason to buy the book that will hopefully appear on the shelves at your nearest Barnes & Noble next year. Or you can order it on Amazon.

It'll be a miracle if I get the chance to write in here tomorrow, which seems somewhat anticlimatictic. What good is counting down One Year to Bar Mitzvah when you don't finish it with Zero Days to Bar Mitzvah?

Check back on Sunday. When all the fanfare dies down, I'll jump back in here one last time. Come Monday, the Man-Jawa will be back at surf camp for a week before starting eighth grade. I'll be hammering out real estate stories on my laptop and trying -- probably in vain -- to drop the 10 or so pounds of inevitable Bar Mitzvah weight that shows up right about the time you also stop paying attention to how much money you're spending.

Sandra Bullock, of course, will already be in the midst of another project by then. You can bet cash money on that one.

My head is full of songs from "Fiddler on the Roof." 23 hours and counting.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

48 hours to Bar Mitzvah: reality check

What I just learned is that double-digit trips up and down our front steps are a sweaty business, regardless of how thick the cloud cover is. It only took five trips to load the car, but that was enough to remind me once again how much easier our lives would be if we lived in a Mediterranean-inspired tract home in Walnut Creek.

The games have begun.

It's barely 11, but already Sandra Bullock and I have spent 25 minutes crawling up Third Street, covering the one mile between King and Market Streets at an average speed of 2.4 miles per hour in an efffort to reach the Hyatt Regency Embarcadero in time for our nine a.m. gift bag dropoff. We'd called our contact (whose vowel-heavy first name caused not a small bit of consternation in the car until she answered the phone by clearly stating her name, probably having spent her entire career correcting all manner of name butchering)from in front of the ballpark and told her we were five minutes away.

Almost a half-hour later, we reached the construction site. San Francisco, demonstrating once again its complete lack of practical leadership, had chosen morning rush hour to shut down one lane of Third Street. I can see their logic; if they don't shut down that block of Third, all of those construction guys are going to have to find another place to lounge around and drink coffee. Welcome to the world's favorite travel destination.

A little over two weeks ago, I wrote of the Jawa's August 3, 1997 arrival. Today, and not a moment sooner, I realized that I've been repeating myself. The minute our glass elevator emerged into the ten-story Hyatt Regency atrium, I was knocked senseless by a wave of realization: our Bar Mitzvah is in 48 hours.

I think the idea was that we stay busy enough not to think about stuff like that, but there it was. After almost two years of abstract reasoning, it's as real as the Jawa's tantrum about appropriate brunch attire.

But there's not time for that. Right now we're in a little air pocket between dropping gift bags and centerpieces off at the Hyatt and running a two-car convoy to the Golden Gate Yacht Club. Our car is already full of everything except the centerpieces. That was me running up and down the stairs and shoving -- no, sorry, carefully placing -- bags full of Chinese take-out boxes (with attractive tissue paper inside), 90 pounds of candy, two boxes of candles and a few other miscellaneous items, including two bags of paper lanterns, into the vehicle; then returning to my keyboard, only to feel a wave of after-the-fact sweat hit me as I sat down.

Stop for a moment, if you will, and join me in marveling at the engine that drives my wife. In the past five minutes, while we wait for a text telling us that our neighbor Stephanie is home and will turn her minivan over to us (for the centerpieces), she has done the following:

1) vacuumed the living room.
2) wiped down the stainless steel fronts of the dishwasher and kitchen island.
3) called the party rental place to set up payment for the extra tables and dishes we found out yesterday we needed to rent.
4) called to see if our Godzilla poster's framing was complete. It wasn't, so she slammed the phone down and berated the framing shop for about 25 seconds -- while simultaneously beginning another project.

Right now she's vacuuming the kitchen floor. It is covered with Mexican terra cotta tiles, which apparently benefit from vacuuming.

We just received our text. "Car is ready," said S. Bullock, deftly flipping the vacuum off, stowing it in a corner and disappearing out the front door. A few seconds later, I heard a faint, "Watch Shack!" from somewhere outside.

If I had the time, I would spend today laying back and watching the master in action, but I don't. I'm needed, to drive a car and provide an extra pair of offloading hands, at least. Mostly, I'm just hanging on, trying to keep up. I'd much rather be in my room, singing along to the Black Eyed Peas, which is what the Jawa is doing at present.

I'm lying about that part. I wouldn't be singing along to the Black-Eyed Peas. But God bless my son. Yesterday we went over his tendency to default to rage where others might withdraw into depression. This glee -- running around his room singing, as if he has not a care in the world -- isn't fooling anyone. He's wound up pretty tight, but I appreciate how even his pretend cool is rooted in a total celebration of all things big and grand.

I just got the call. "Comeoneletsgoloadthecarkeepshackuphereletsgoareyoureadyyet?" so I'm going to have to cut this short. Less than 48 hours until our boy climbs up onto the bimah and makes his claim to manhood. Almost two hours since I looked up into the heights of the imposing Hyatt Regency atrium lobby and thought, "Holy cow, it's really going to happen!" No more time for musing or stories.

As Dr. Marcie nee Mark Bowers might say, "We're way past that now!"

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

72 hours to Bar Mitzvah: jawa power play

I can't help thinking, less than 72 hours to Bar Mitzvah, of how much easier my child's life would be if he didn't have to live with idiots like Sandra Bullock and me. I know we're idiots because we constantly try his patience. We know nothing about computers, for example. We don't know how to load photos onto our desktops and we depend on him to do things as simple as switching the TV back to cable after playing a DVD.

Some children suffer their parents foibles in silence. Some retreat into privacy, hoping that by limiting their exposure to the two morons who pay the rent, they can get through adolescence with a shred of good feeling intact. My child prefers to meet this sudden crisis head-on.

Our Jawa is no shrinking violet. His approach to handling life's curveballs is to launch a preemptive strike right back at them. Some kids go fetal, their fallback emotion being sadness. My son's go-to is anger. Add to that some impressively developing skills in the ancient art of sarcasm and you're looking at a long teenage road ahead.

My guess is that this morning our Jawa awoke suddenly aware of the full weight of the coming weekend. All of our efforts of the past year are about to either pay off or flame out spectacularly. And despite what he sees at home -- a mother busily tying bows, wrapping banana bread, negotiating with Bob from the Golden Gate Yacht Club to see if we can drop a bunch of stuff off on Thursday instead of Friday, a father disappearing for hours and returning with tales of multiple parallel parks and often tense back-and-forths with service industry employees -- the Jawa must know that, in the end, it all comes down to him; he shows up and nails it or slinks off in horror in front of 185 people.

So, feeling uncomfortable and pressured, he unsurprisingly established early on, less than three minutes after stumbling out of his room this morning wearing, that today we should think of him as a combination of De Niro in "Raging Bull," Popeye's nemesis Bluto, Steve Jobs on a bad day and Wile E. Coyote. In the hours that have passed since this morning, he has repeatedly demonstrated his commitment to upholding this promise.

The argument I enjoyed most concerned the Sunday brunch. I think I mentioned a week or so ago that, despite the wide range of personalities, cultural totems and socioeconomic status of our 185 guests, almost all have asked us the same question: what are we supposed to wear? The service itself is slamdunk (pretend like you're at a wedding), but our efforts at creating clear guidelines for Saturday night have come up just short of igniting a riot as our flustered guests try to pierce the ambiguity of the term "dressy casual."

The Jawa should be beyond all this. There was the Bataan-like shopping trip that ended with triumph in the Bloomingdale's basement. That took care of Friday, Saturday and Saturday night. We assumed he would carry this over to Sunday morning's brunch (to be attended by everyone staying at the Hyatt Regency Embarcadero), thinking that 48 hours clad in classy duds would convince the kid to don something workable Sunday morning. We were wrong.

"I want to wear whatever I want to the brunch," he announced late this morning.

"That's fine," S. Bullock responded. "Just like, you know, some jeans and a collared shirt."


"Not a t-shirt. This is a brunch with all of your out-of-town guests."


This doesn't seem feasible, I thought. 60 people did not come all the way to San Francisco to watch you eat pancakes while wearing too-small boxer shorts and nothing else.

"At least wear a nice t-shirt. Your nicest Godzilla t-shirt."

There were two or three minutes of back-and-forth in there that I left out. I was hiding in the bedroom, pretending I was getting ready to take a shower, knowing that any contribution I made to this specific argument would only escalate things. Without spelling it out, I can tell you that he was not budging, and that by arguing the point, it only confirmed what he'd known all along: that his mother was a fool.

It seemed pretty stupid to me -- him making such a big deal out of wearing a collared shirt when he'll have been wearing one non-stop since Friday by then -- until I remembered how deep a line in the sand I'd drawn over his wanting to buy a fourth Wii controller (to replace the one mysteriously lost in our house) so that everyone attending his candy-fueled post-Bar Mitzvah hotel room party could play at once.

I figure that, faced with the sudden realization that he'd lost all control over his Bar Mitzvah, the Jawa grabbed onto the nearest thing he could get his hands on. Out of the hundreds of items whizzing by, "what to wear at the Sunday brunch" was the one he grasped. He's had plenty of say in Bar Mitzvah planning and execution -- I mean, as much as a 13-year-old stuck in the midst of a grownup-sized party budget can expect -- but I can see why he'd want to make something, anything, his own; especially something that shouldn't mean much to his parents, if they thought about it.

For all we know, for the past nine years he's been carrying around a very specific image of how his Bar Mitzvah, like how once, for a week in second grade, I locked onto the idea that I was going to grow up and be a teacher, but my classroom wouldn't have desks. Instead, it would have couches and chairs, so everyone could lounge around in class.

We've seen bits and pieces of his Bar Mitzvah ideal. The rest of it he's probably kept to himself, having seen how far his idea to build a roller coaster in the backyard went once it got to me.

This was a panicked Jawa seizing power, using his default emotion -- anger -- to get his point across. Eighteen years ago, I used a barely more mature approach to get my bride to agree to spending her honeymoon walking around Skagway,, Alaska a month after the cruise season had ended.

That, and the fezzes my dad bought for the groomsmen to randomly wear during the reception, totally confusing a few of my brand-new, not dialed into absurdist humor, very not Jewish relatives, who kept asking if "that was some kind of Jewish thing," and the 1966 Triumph Bonneville we rode from the reception to our hotel. Those were my power grabs, and I was satisfied.

Come Sunday morning, you can wear what you want; if you need the Jawa, he'll be the guy in the ratty Godzilla t-shirt and hopefully something more than too-small boxers (but not those huge Walton's Grizzly Lodge sweatpants. We drew the line at that). Jawa wear his Sunday morning worst as a proud display of adult-like power? Maybe. Either that or he's just sick of dressing up.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

4 days to Bar Mitzvah: in search of greatness

I'm always going around repeating my two favorite quotes about having kids, paraphrasing parental giants Ethan Canin and Joe Mele. Canin, who wrote a National Book Award-winning collection of short stories while in medical school, was once asked at a reading how the recent birth of his daughter impacted his writing.

"This is going to sound stupid if you don't have kids," he began in response, "and if you already have kids, it's going to sound redundant, but the biggest difference is that until I had kids, I'd always thought of myself as someone who feels things very deeply. Then I had kids and realized I hadn't felt anything at all."

Okay, maybe Ethan is a little hyperbole-happy, but the core idea is strong. As for Joe Mele, he was a guy I went to grad school with who had his first son while both of us were teaching at Blanchet High School in Seattle. A few months in, we -- accompanied by our own smartly-dressed, months-old Jawa, joined the entire extended Mele family for the christening. Afterward, as we dove into an awesome Italian spread at the Meadowbrook Community Center, Joe stood up to make a little speech.

"Everyone asks me what I like most about being a parent," Joe said. "It's pretty simple. The best thing about being a parent is that by the time I realized there was a hole in my life, it was already filled."

I like words. Last week, I told someone that I didn't understand people who say they "don't have time" to do Facebook, not only because my daily investment in Facebook is about five minutes, but also because if I wasn't writing status updates to my Facebook page I'd just have to find somewhere else to put all those words. I've simply got way too many words; the more places I can find to write them down, the better. Otherwise, they'll back up, which may be why I get so many headaches.

As a word-lover, I take my hat off to Canin and Mele. I've been in this game 13 years and I still can't think of a better way to describe the highlights of parenthood; that's why I constantly cite them.

Ethan and Joe touched on the best parts. What they didn't discuss was the street-level life changes that accompany a Jawa. In my experience, the worst part about expecting a baby was having to endure the endless, well-meaning "advice" doled out by everyone in the entire world -- friends, co-workers or complete strangers. Everyone wants to tell you how it's going to be.

I made a promise to myself on August 3, 1997 that I would never tell a pregnant woman or a nervous would-be father, how it was going to be. Last week, when 31-year-old newleywed Matt Elliser asked me if having a kid meant giving up your dreams of being great, I told him how it had worked with me, not how it would work with him. And of course, I quoted Mele and Canin, suggesting that, to them, fatherhood is its own kind of greatness.

It's a greatness that comes when you shrug off all of the selfish impulses you've built up in a lifetime, not by slaying dragons or building a multinational company out of nothing. It's more evident in the way you give up the last cookie than it is when you get promoted at work. As subtle a form of greatness as it is, the hard part is that it's a greatness that is way more elusive than the kind you get when the Queen drops an OBE medal around your neck.

Tell me how it feels when you realize you just ruined your son's night by making some sarcastic remark because you had a headache and didn't feel like hearing more about Disneyland. Or when you figure there's something not right about the 13 year-old in the back seat telling you to close your window because he can't hear his iPod over the wind, which snaps you out of this awesome private moment you've been having, thinking you'd created the perfect Sunday afternoon drive, only to find that your efforts are actually annoyances and Steve Jobs has defeated you again. You know the right thing to do is to close your window without comment, but you say something anyway because darn it, the kid needs to know that the world is not his alone.

It's a balance, and I find it nearly impossible to maintain. I try pretty hard, but I could try harder.

Because it takes a ton of bad behavior to turn your kid against you, which is part of the great responsibility that comes (to those who choose to accept it) with being someone's dad. I still remember a day, several years ago. The Jawa couldn't have been more than four, maybe five, but I was giving him a bunch of crap anyway, because I'd forgotten how to be an adult.

We were out somewhere, arguing back and forth, or he threw a fit because I wouldn't buy him something, which ticked me off and made start thinking in the "how dare they!" mode of thought -- the quickest route to being a terrible dad. We were walking, and somewhere during our twin tirades, we reached a curb. Without thinking, the Jawa reached up and grabbed for my hand, because he knew that I was going to protect him as we crossed this street, and no amount of arguing was going to change that, and no matter how mad he was at me, the bottom line was that I was still his guy, which was pretty awesome and terribly heartbreaking, and something I should have not needed a five-year-old to remind me of, all at the same time.

The one day you wake up and your Jawa is 13 and holding hands is no longer a heartwarming picture of father and son, but instead two hairy guys who need a shave holding hands.

I still feel terrible about the arguing/hand-holding day, several years later; which doesn't stop me from hitting the roof when it's obvious that my son thinks I can't tell that suddenly realizing that you haven't played with your hamster all day is more than a coincidence when it happens thirty seconds after someone has told you it's time to go to bed.

The problem with seeing fatherhood as a paradigm for measuring "greatness" is that if you care at all about it you constantly feel like you're failing. The job often requires behavior that goes against your nature (see: patience/lack of patience) and the rules are always changing. Over the past month, the Jawa's bedtime has slowly crept back an hour without anyone saying anything. One night he's up working on his Bar Mitzvah speech; the next night he's making origami fish for the centerpieces. Last night, after working on paper lanterns for two hours, he joined Sandra Bullock in watching "Clash of the Titans" from nine until 11.

An hour later, I went into his bedroom. Until earlier this year, this was my habit. Every night, after he had gone to sleep, I'd sneak into his bedroom and watch him for a few seconds before going to sleep myself. I don't know why I stopped. Maybe because he's often up as late as me now. Maybe because it seemed like something you do when your kid's little; not when he's a teenager.

Last night I went in there. He was asleep. I went to pat his head and my fingers caught on something: headphones. From them, a cord ran down into the covers, where it was attached to an iPod. He'd been watching videos, something we've told him numerous times not to do.

But what can you do? Sure, I can ban his iPod. I can take it and hide it and tell him he can't have it for a week. It wouldn't be the first time. The efficacy of this behavior modification tactic is questionable. And what, my solution is to let the poor kid lie in bed for hours, staring into space because he inherited my night owl genes and I insist on him trudging into bed every night at 10 even though he can't fall asleep before 11?

Add this to the growing list of confusing elements involved in watching your child turn into a teenager. I want him to go to bed at 10. I want him to put down his various electronic devices and do something else. I want him to keep his room clean. Is any of this realistic? Should my real goal be to monitor his decisions, instead of making them for him?

Back in August of 1997, I had my own take on sudden parenthood. It was neither as eloquent nor as deep as those of Canin and Mele. "It's like someone turned my life up to 11," I said and continue to say. Thirteen years later, I've found that no matter how many things change, that's the one thing that stays true.

Monday, August 16, 2010

5 days to Bar Mitzvah: parallel-parking, Shelley Berman and the Chai life

Less than a week to go and we've lost all control of our budget. Unplanned line items are killing us, but do we fight? No. There's nothing left to lose.

And still I try, clinging to some long-forgotten budget, nickel-and-diming myself to a good night's sleep, saving pennies and spending pounds.

Should I feel guilty for spending only $9.95 on a Challah cover made of polyester and not silk? How many times are we going to use a Challah cover? Were we industrious and resourceful Jews, I would not have been buying a Challah cover today; we would have borrowed one. I'll bet The Hammer didn't have to go to the "Judaica" store near the JCC and buy a $9.95 Challah cover five days before her son's Bar Mitzvah.

By the time I reached the JCC, I'd already parallel parked seven times and spent almost $500 on things I don't remember seeing in the Bar Mitzvah Master Budget. Did I plan to start today by going into Bank of America (parallel park #1) and buying $40 of quarters? Of course not. Anyone who actually plans to do that is obviously unstable, or possesses an enormous amount of laundry.

It is true that by sending our chartered bus home Friday night after dropping us at Tarantino's, we save hundreds of dollars. And yet, the $40 I had to take out of the ATM today and immediately convert to quarters felt like an unplanned expense. The quarters are for our guests to hand over to the MUNI driver when we board, en masse, one of the quaint and whimsical waterfront trolleys that conveniently run from Fisherman's Wharf to the Hyatt Regency Embarcardero. Even as I am saving over $200 in overall expenses, it still feels like I am spending money.

At times, my odd little chores take on a surreal glow. Today, shortly after parallel parking for the third time (on Nob Hill, after waving my arms in what I hoped was a menacing way at the fat cat behind me who was chomping on a cigar in his Mercedes and refusing to back up so I could park), I had a brush with obtuse greatness and also seized the opportunity to act rudely in the presence of a man who probably knew Milton Berle.

Shelley Berman was standing at the concierge at the Mark Hopkins Hotel on Nob Hill, looking about 1,000 years old, trying politely to understand how his plane tickets to Burbank worked. I was the obnoxious middle-aged guy who ignored Shelley -- who as recently as 2008 was nominated for an Emmy Award for his role as Larry David's dad on "Curb Your Enthusiasm" -- before finding out that I wasn't even in the right hotel to begin with.

I would like to apologize to Shelley Berman, his wife Sarah (they have been married since 1948), the guy I mistook for a hotel employee when he was just a good samaritan helping Shelley with his plane tickets -- because who wouldn't help Shelley Berman with his plane tickets? What kind of boor shoves past a dapper, elderly, toupee-wearing Shelley Berman in order to meet his own selfish needs?

The kind who has completed 33% of his parallel parking for the day.

By the time I reached Dayanu, the Judaica store where I bought the Challah cover, my nerves were shot. What is a Judaica store? It is like a gift shop, only the t-shirts all have different whimsical puns based on the Hebrew "Chai" (life) written across the front.

This time, as I parallel parked (#7) amidst whizzing traffic on California Street, some wag in a Cadillac slowed down, rolled down his window and shouted, "I wish my car would park that easy!" I gave him a courtesy laugh. We get it, pal; you drive a Cadillac. I'll bet Shelley Berman drives one, too.

Then I'm standing in front of Dayanu. There is a sign on the (locked) front door of Dayanu, whose slogan, at least to me, should be, "Where else are you going to buy a Challah cover in San Francisco?" The sign reads: "Back in five minutes!"

I have learned over the past nine years that there is a thing called "Jewish Standard Time," which runs about ten minutes behind normal, Christian time. When Dayanu said five minutes, it meant ten. Squinting into the fog because this summer I have either lost or destroyed two pairs of prescription sunglasses and yesterday I tore my left contact lens in half, then went to the closet in the hall to find I had no more contacts lenses, leaving me wearing glasses and hoping Eye Q Optometry in Noe Valley can rush order some contacts to me by Friday, I thanked the gods of technology for creating my Droid, read Peter King's "Monday Morning Quarterback" on and waited. And waited. And waited some more.

Finally, a woman I have for five years been secretly thinking of as "Evil Lynn" even though I know her name is "Eva Lynn" -- not because I don't like her; I don't really know her except by sight. It's just that the first time someone mentioned her name, I thought they'd said "Evil Lynn." My sense of humor is juvenile enough that I still find it hilarious, five years later -- arrived and I bought my Challah cover. Embarrassed by my cheapness and still wondering if Evil Lynn was going to recognize me, I made some lame crack about how I "bought the polyester Challah cover."

"It's very colorful, and inexpensive," Evil Lynn responded, thinking she was speaking to a very sane, not-at-all-childish stranger. Or maybe she recognized me but, like me, did a quick cost-benefit analysis and decided that the 30-second conversation that would follow acknowledging each other was not how she wanted to spend that particular 30 seconds of her life. Maybe she had other things on her mind, like whatever had taken her away from her business for five minutes in the middle of a Monday, and just wanted me to leave with my $9.95 Challah cover.

"Oh, I don't care about that," said Joe Kennedy's debonair and long-lost Jewish son. "I mean, at this point, who cares."

What I didn't say but meant was this: come on, now; give me a little chuckle, a raised eyebrow, anything. Show me that you get it: a guy walks into a Judaica store, looking for a Challah cover. You think he might be that guy who used to run the Book Fair at Brandeis Hillel Day School, where you'd set up a table and sell stuff while everyone milled around, buying books. Maybe he has a kid who might be Bar Mitzvah age, which would explain why he's randomly buying a Challah cover on a Monday in August. What he's probably telling me with his little toss-away line is that by now, so soon before his son's Bar Mitzvah, he's been hemorrhaging money for so long that the difference between a $10 Challah cover and a $30 Challah cover is negligible.

I get it. We're all in this together.

Come to me, Bar Mitzvah father, wandering Jew in a city with Jews so rare and assimilated that you can carry on a 10-minute conversation with a Realtor about how blown away you were the first time you visited your cousins in Great Neck as a teen and found that their high school included Jewish football players and cheerleaders. I, too, am a Jew, and so understand how absurd this Bar Mitzvah process has been, how you've struggled with rationalizing the costs until you've simply come to the point where you'll worry about the money later. You are in the right place, balding Jewish man. We are sympathetic.

Am I asking too much? Stupid question. Evil Lynn, being of sound mind and right in the middle of her day -- which for all I know, might have included multiple parallel parking opportunities -- instead adopted the distant, careful air often employed around the insane or people who somehow wander past the security ropes at a crime scene and said, "Oh, well, I don't know anything about that." And then she told me about how Dayanu sells round Challah for the High Holy Days in the fall.

That was it, my one shot at finding human connection in a calloused urban environment, and it was ripped to shreds. I got back in my car, mailed something I needed to mail (parallel park #8) and drove home in silence. Tomorrow is another day, number four on the countdown. By then, Shelley Berman will be in Burbank, Evil Lynn will have sold t-shirts with (Chai) Anxiety! written across them, and I, odds are, will have parallel-parked another half-dozen times.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

6 days to Bar Mitzvah: one lap to go

One you get down to the point where less than a week remains between you and your child's Bar or Bat Mitzvah, the event itself becomes the only thing people want to talk to you about -- and the only thing you can manage to talk coherently about. Everything else takes a back seat.

It must be relieving, in a way, for our more socially anxious friends and acquaintences; for the next week, they have a can't-miss conversation starter. We'll always have something to discuss, whether our sub-topic is "final preparations," "unexpected drama" or "the Jawa's state of readiness." Both meaningless small talk and potentially relationship-changing in-depth discussions are off the table. Unless you ring up a string of jokers and ask Jack to go off the board, you're stuck talking about our Bar Mitzvah.

Yesterday, as we drove home from an overnight in Stinson Beach, approximately 95% of our road trip conversation hinged on Sandra Bullock's shockingly long "things to do" list. The other five percent was about how we weren't sure if we'd missed the turn for Sir Francis Drake Boulevard and how nice Fairfax would be if it weren't overrun by hippies.

At first glance, the list is daunting. It is two pages long. You'd think, with six days remaining until the Bar Mitzvah itself -- five, if you count the beginning of a Bar Mitzvah as the moment we sit down for Friday night services (Barbara Boxer might say it begins the moment we depart the temple) -- we'd have all the heavy lifting completed. That was S. Bullock's original plan. Six months ago, she laid it out for us, saying that her goal was to "get everything done so (she) wouldn't spent the last week running around, trying to get stuff done."

As it turns out, that plan, like most of my career plans, was more of a fantasy than a tangible goal.

As we drove past the rolling hills and redwood groves, we went down the list. Most of it involved calling people to confirm stuff and picking up very small items that may have a negligible impact on the overall event but will stick not only in my wife's craw but that of our graphic designer neighbor, a crucial member of the Bar Mitzvah Design Team.

My worry is that Sandra Bullock, famous for refusing to leave her mother's house while on vacation, lest she seem unappreciative and thoughtless, will not accept the offer of her very willing and eager Bar Mitzvah Design Team members: to sprint from the Bar Mitzvah to the Golden Gate Yacht Club, where they will do a major share of the set-up while S. Bullock remains at Temple Emanu-El, greeting guests (and the lady who drags a box around behind her on a small cart while attending every single Bar and Bat Mitzvah held at Temple Emanu-El, a small price to pay for the free lunch that follows) as they chow down on our mid- to upper-mid-level Oneg.

I plan to do my best at reminding her that this event, a year in the making, will pass in the blink of an eye; and that any time she spends not with our guests shortens that blink to a nano blink of an eye. But she has repeatedly said that she "doesn't want (her) guests to do any work," so it is likely that I will be the one greeting guests and the lady with the cardboard box at the Oneg, which is fine with me, since I hate battling for food at an Oneg and will probably not spend a second in the food line. I can't say she'll regret it, because from Day One this is how she's imagined it unfolding. If it was me, I'd regret it; which is probably why my primary responsibility next Saturday will be guest-wrangling.

Will this be an easy job? All I have to do is get everyone out of their hotel rooms and down to Market Street, where they will witness first-hand the mighty power I hold over parking and transportation in the world's favorite tourist destination, make sure nobody shows up in sweatpants and a t-shirt, and shepherd them onto one of two buses by 4:30. Oh, and I have to make sure the buses know where to park, though honestly, I think I saw that as an item on Sandra Bullock's to-do list for the week.

Can you believe it's only six days away? It may become more real tomorrow, when I wake up to find Sandra Bullock not at work but instead sitting at her laptop in my "office," the Jawa's seat at the kitchen table, but today, it still seems months away.

As for the Jawa, he's still playing it cool, save for a moment last night when he burst out of his bedroom, ran the three steps between his room and ours and leapt on our bed, suddenly bellowing, "It's only a week away! Scary!"

I have another job, actually. I have taken it on myself to look skyward each day, shake my fists and curse the Fog Gods. You know the old joke that starts, "Do you believe in God?" and ends with, "Well, someone's out to get me, that's for sure,"? It's tough not to agree when the largest event of your son's life, planned August 21, which is traditionally the tail end of a fog-free month, takes place during THE COLDEST SUMMER SAN FRANCISCO HAS EXPERIENCED SINCE 1960.

Fog Gods, you have exactly five days to get it right. I say five because I don't want our poor shrug- and sport coat-wearing family members to look out the floor-to-ceiling picture windows of Tarantino's -- a restaurant we chose not for its fine dining but for its so-iconic-it's-kitschy Fisherman's Wharf location -- and see not a tableau that brings to mind an Italian fishing village but instead one solid wall of impenetrable white.

Every day for the past week I've made certain to catch at least one local news weather report, hoping to hear good news. Unfortunately, the power of my positive visualization -- already proven to be folly during a recent 72 holes of golf in Lake Tahoe -- is no more effective in willing whatever local affiliate's perky young self-appointed meteorologist to give me anything more than a five-day forecast showing half of a sun shrouded in fog. I curse them, much as I once cursed Jeff Renner of KING-5 in Seattle for his cavalier manner in telling us, each night between October and July, that it was going to rain tomorrow.

I eventually embraced the rain, to the point where hot weather still stresses me out. And over the past decade of living in San Francisco, I've always counted the fog as my friend, showing up just in time to guarantee a good night's sleep in our non-insulated home, always choosing whipping winds over the oven-like state we'd achieve whenever the mercury topped 75 degrees.

So I ask you, just for 48 hours, fog, please part and give our guests the drop-dead gorgeous view of the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz and the riotous ramshackle mish-mash of houses, apartments and downtown skyscrapers that renedered the Golden Gate Yacht Club's aged blue carpeting a moot point the day we chose it for our venue, way back in the early summer of 2009.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

9 days to Bar Mitzvah: your name in lights

The first time I saw my name in print I got all goose-bumpy, which seems endearingly innocent and clueless 19 years later. It was atop a story I'd written, a sourceless rant, really, for a 24-page newsprint 'zine called "Big Whoop," that two friends of mine had started in their Lower Haight Street apartment. They printed 10,000 copies, put them in coffee houses and bars. Then we had a party and all sat back and waited for our careers in journalism to begin. It was the spring of 1991.

Since then, I've seen my name in newspapers and magazines well over 1,000 times, and have made about as much money out of simply making stuff up and writing it down -- or listening to someone else make stuff up and then writing it down so they sound smart -- as I would have earned in a year had I gone to law school. Having my name show up in stuff people read is still pretty cool. It would be cooler if my name was "Pete," but I make due.

A few times, when I was either writing way too much for a publication or, recently, having to write stuff I thought sucked, like a thousand words on a Ford dealership or a glowing review of a sushi restaurant that sucks and has a questionable commitment to hygiene, I use a fake name. Paying homage to my old friend and semi-mentor Bill Crandall, I use a name he used when he wrote for his own 'zine in 1991.

Bill Crandall went on to become an editor for Rolling Stone. While he has never been forced to write 1,000 words about Serramonte Ford, I have seen pictures on his Facebook page of him playing softball with the Jonas Brothers, which, if we're going ot pretend it's possible to get through your adult life without sacrificing most of the things that were important when you were 21, is only slightly less heinous of an event.

You could say that I've become calloused at seeing my name in print. In the nineteen years since Ken Dunque rapped on my one-bedroom apartment door, then shoved the first copy of "Big Whoop" in my face when I opened it up, only a few stories stand out. They're outnumbered by the number of times I've gotten really excited about something -- a possible story, a new publication who wants me to write for them -- only to have the whole thing blow up in my face or quietly fade away without a word. It's not like I've been on Oprah like Po Bronson or established myself as a professor of creative writing, like Tom Beirowski, who always wrote stories about his experiences in Catholic seminary, or even become an editor at Rolling Stone.

Still, my face shows up in a part of a semi-major metropolitan newspaper every Sunday and I get to write about pretty much whatever I want, unless one of the sales team decides that something I've written might hamper their efforts to attract clients. It's not ideal, but at least two people I haven't seen in 25 years have found me via the San Francisco Examiner over the past three years.

And yet, all of it -- every half-hearted but earnest attempt at fame -- pales when you consider the fate of anyone who tries to park on the 00 block of Market Street next Friday and Saturday. Most of the area is a no parking zone anyway, but next weekend, anyone who tries to flaunt the law has to answer to me. However cavalier they are about parking, when they exit their vehicle they will find a series of signs, clearly marked "NO PARKING." Above that will they see the name of a construction firm? The city department of parking and traffic?

No. They will see my name. For it is me that has decreed there will be no parking on Market Street next Friday and Saturday. And if they don't like it, if they are able to shrug off my obvious authority, putting their petty needs above mine, I will simply whip out my Driod and call the number printed at the bottom of my "No Stopping" permit. Within minutes, I'm told, their vehicle will be towed. Game over.

What does it take to wield such power? A simple two-and-a-half-hour trip to the Hall of Justice, three separate trips through the metal detector, the total indifference of the woman working the desk at Room 458 (Permits), a short, angry scolding from a policewoman working the phones at the Southern Station, who then disappears for ten minutes and returns with Sgt. Gutierrez and then, finally, the complete, undivided attention of Gutierrez, who has been on vacation in Mexico for the past week and was drunk "at least half of the time."

Let me sing the praises of Sgt. Gutierrez, because planning a Bar Mitzvah, especially at this late of a date, requires almost constant interaction with people who work in the service industry, and not everyone is cut out to work in the service industry, which doesn't prevent people from signing up anyway. By the time I reached Sgt. Gutierrez, I'd already spent two hours of my day navigating seemingly simple tasks that were complicated to the point of psychotic break by automated customer services systems and ambivilent service reps which, combined with a Jawa who awoke at 10:48 on the wrong side of the bed, had me longing for the relative calm of my old Examiner cubicle -- even though it faced the wall, leaving me vulnerable to anyone who wanted to sneak up and scare the daylights out of me).

Thanks to Sgt. Gutierrez, the citizens of San Francisco and their guests will now know the awesome power I can wield. They can ignore my keen weekly real estate observations all they want; if they want to park anywhere between 50 and 98 Market Street next Friday and Saturday, they're going to have to get through me first.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

10 days to Bar Mitzvah: it's the little things

First of all, lets establish right away that the Jawa is not known for his demure and respectful world view. Fact: if you happen to be sitting in the main sanctuary at Temple Emanu-El ten days from now, you will hear Sandra Bullock read from a speech I wrote that heralds our son for his indominateable spirit and his zest for life.

She will go on to point out great our respect is for his willingness to stand up for his beliefs -- not ours, a subtle difference often unacknowledged by zealotous San Francisco parents -- but his alone, even if it means having to slowly explain once at a cocktail party that even if your child makes the "wrong" choice -- say, he decides as a six-year-old that he really likes George W. Bush because "he has cool hair" -- what the child is doing actually IS "questioning authority," which he wouldn't be doing were he merely parroting his parents' beliefs. You will hear of this, but AT NO TIME will you hear us speak of our Jawa's core respect for authority (at least that of his parents), his ability to deftly avoid conflict or his powers as an arbitrator. The "listens quietly" option does not appear on his pull-down menu.

Which is something we live with, an often infuriating but completely understandable part of the "spirited child" package. Hey, I'm the one who let him run around saying he liked George Bush, right?

And I will be the first to admit that, as the Bar Mitzvah gets closer, the tension in our house rises, creating periodic outbursts completely in character with our personalities. I think my wife almost threw something at me tonight when I made her repeat the instructions for contacting the San Francisco Police Department (Traffic Permits Desk) because I wasn't paying attention the first time she said it. No, I'm not kidding. I looked over there and she was fingering an apple with malice in her eyes.

More importantly, why on earth do we need to obtain a traffic permit from the SFPD? I went over the guest list; there were no dignitaries on it. We haven't scheduled a motorcade.

What we have scheduled are buses, running to temple and Tarantino's and the Golden Gate Yacht Club from the Hyatt Regency Embarcadero. When we ordered up these buses, I imagined them sidling into the turnaround in front of the hotel, all of our guests filing out the revolving doors and lining up -- unhurriedly, away from the street -- to get onboard. Yesterday, we found that it is not to be so.

Despite their decades of experience extracting visitors from stopped vehicles, the Hyatt claims it cannot accommodate buses -- not even buses that hold a mere 40 people -- in the turnaround. They didn't call it a "turnaround." They had another word for it; something French.

Their solution is to park the "buses" -- that are not actually buses but more like very bulbous, overgrown SUVs -- on Market Street. Do you know of Market Street? It is often described as "one of the most congested streets in San Francisco." Market Street runs from the Ferry Building to Twin Peaks, passing what is essentially an open air drug market between Sixth Street and City Hall before changing its name to Portola Drive and continuing almost to Brandeis Hillel Day School, way past anywhere casual tourists would want to go. Portola Avenue is very pleasant, save for the cars whipping down its gentle curves at freeway speeds.

Market Street is another thing entirely. Our buses will be competing with tourists, a cable car turnaround, several makeshift vendor booths selling amateurish watercolor paintings of San Francisco, angry cab drivers playing sitar-heavy music at elevated volumes while flaunting California law by speaking on their cell phones while driving. Into this we plan to park two (very small, barely worth mentioning) buses and ferry 60 people -- some of whom will likely already be wrapped in blankets not because of the fog that we told them wouldn't go away but they didn't believe us because who thinks it's going to be 57 degrees in August? but because they're still in shock after negotiating BART from the airport after never setting foot onto any public transportation for their entire lives.

And this, only if we can get the permits, which require access to a fax machine. I am one of 46 freelance writers in the U.S. who does not own a fax machine. Pretty exclusive company.

It's things like this -- piddling little details, traffic permits, the fact that Denon & Doyle ask for your slideshow on a DVD and you have no blank DVDs so will be driving to Target tomorrow to buy about 100 blank DVDs, even though you need only one and last burned something to CD right about a week before you discovered the iPod -- these are the unexpected glitches that ratchet up the stress in our 1,079 square-foot piece of paradise, here in Baghdad-by-the-Bay.

So should we just look the other way when the Jawa answers a pointed question ("Do you realize you've been playing with your phone from the moment we got into the car until the moment we arrived home?") with a similarly pointed response ("So? You're obsessed with your Blackberry!"), chalking it up to stress that otherwise is imperceptible?

Or are we being fools, saying, "Let him play 'Roller Coaster Tycoon' for a few hours, not stopping until we threaten to remove his CPU unit from his bedroom. He's under a lot of pressure," instead of laying down some kind of law and implementing a forced legal separation between Jawa and keyboard?

It's hilarious unless you're up to your eyeballs in it. We probably have little explosions and sparks coming from our heads that we don't even notice. Every so often one of us mentions a particularly heinous night of insomnia. Otherwise, we act like everything's normal, except that we don't watch TV anymore because we're sitting in front of the Jawa's computer trying to sync music up to our eight-minute "This is your Jawa's Life" slideshow. And nobody agrees on what music we should use, so we yell at each other or say something sarcastic then storm out of the room, at which time the Jawa quickly switches back to "Roller Coaster Tycoon," assuming that we are done working for now and he can finally have some peace.

I'm afraid not, boy-soon-to-be-a-man. Just now I ducked my head into his doorway and said, "Nine days."

"Scary," he answered.

On the contrary, I thought; by the time we get to August 21, all of the scary stuff will have already happened.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

11 days to Bar Mitzvah: a world apart

As the wait time for your Bar Mitzvah closes in on single digits, your life begins to take on a quality most often found in the stellar phenomena known as a black hole. Once you pass that event horizon, you enter a great sucking maw from which there is no escape. Nothing, not even light, can get out.

Nearby stars are toast. The gas they create is drawn into the black hole, where it is superheated, kind of like how everything that takes place within our 1,079 square-foot slice of San Francisco from now until August 21 will operate at a heightened pitch, ten billion pounds of matter compressed to a single point. Margin for error is a luxury for others; not us.

Even the usually unflappable Sandra Bullock is beginning to show signs of wear, occasionally losing track of items she's spoken out loud versus only thought. As a result, guests sometimes move mysteriously from table to table, and woe to the husband poorly-equipped to anticipate such a move.

Each blown-off request to "go do your chanting" is a potential moment of life-changing embarrassment on the bimah. The two hours I just spent poring over iTunes, looking for songs to accompany the slide show tracking the development of the Jawa from birth to yesterday (no, seriously; the last image in the slide show is from yesterday) could make or break that very important segment of the party. You don't want people walking away in the middle of the show, their interest quashed by music too obscure or inappropriate to keep them on board.

As for the Jawa, he is finally beginning to feel the pressure, I think. Yesterday, while hurtling down 101 toward the promised land (you and I call it "Great America"), he sometimes looked up from his Droid and said, "Eleven days. Freaky."

"I remember when it was eleven days before my Bar Mitzvah," announced Josh K., expansively, from the back seat. "I already had my Torah portion memorized."

"Do you have yours memorized?" I asked the Jawa, breaking the unwritten rule that states adults sitting in the driver's seat must concentrate only on their assigned task -- driving -- and not make any potentially mortifying attempts to join the conversation.

It was difficult, because I've known Josh K. since he was five and have always had an easy rapport with him. Some things that don't crack up the Jawa crack up Josh K., which I've always appreciated. But this time, with two civilians -- Jonah and the bewitching Jenny -- in the car, every time I opened my mouth I risked ruining my child's social life.

The Jawa does not have his Torah portion memorized.

Interesting thing, riding in a car with three 13-year-old boys and a single 13-year-old girl, even one as clueless about her power over the boys as Jenny apparently is. "Jenny's just cool," the Jawa told me last week, when he screwed up his courage and called her, enduring parental inquisition on the other end before finally, nervously getting Jenny on the phone and asking her to go to Great America, then slamming down the phone afterward and announcing, "Now THAT is how it's done!"

As a completely unpretentious tomboy, clad in soccer shorts and tennis shoes and slightly taller than our Jawa but dwarfed by the towering Josh K., little Jenny had absolutely no clue that three boys were vying for her attention, each exaggerating certain elements of his personality in the hopes of winning her favor. It was bedlam in that car, let me tell you.

By the time we got to Great America, after 45 minutes of me not sharing with the car just how headache-inducing it is to drive while someone is playing youtube videos starring teenage boys yelling at us about how to become a ninja, I realized the folly of our boys’ efforts. The scales had been tilted all along. Jonah is a chick magnet.

We got out of the car to find that some ninth-grade girls -- former students at Brandeis Hillel Day School -- had parked next to us. Of our carload, they knew only Jonah, who absorbed their excited hugs and questions about his summer with effortless panache. My boys stayed behind and discussed certain roller coasters. Jenny milled about uncomfortably, not, I suppose, because she'd lost Jonah's favor but because she was honestly flummoxed by girls who'd wear impractical shoes and uncomfortable clothing to a theme park.

It's amazing what you can learn when you keep your mouth shut in a car full of 13 year-olds. The friendly science teacher, so polite and enthusiastic around parents, apparently transforms into Senator John Blutarski once we're out of earshot. And the Scottish P.E. teacher who earned my ire last year by repeatedly forcing the Jawa onto teams with his tormentor? The kids love him so much that they find his verbal abuse hilarious. It must be the accent.

It's easy to forget how much eighth grade is a world apart from the time kids spend at home, with us. We see them for a few minutes in the morning and then a few hours at night. When we talk about school, it's to monitor performance: are you keeping up your grades, are you behaving in class, are you learning things that you find interesting or will benefit you later in life? We totally overlook the fact that they, along with a bunch of adults we barely know, have constructed an entire universe within a bland institutional campus.

Which is our bad. We should know better. But we get caught up in the administrative tasks of running a life -- there's food to buy, laundry to fold, bills to pay, very short but dense dogs to feed and walk -- and so tend to only focus on the low-hanging fruit, the stuff they tell us we should pay attention to, lest our children end up poor citizens or unhappy adults.

Back when I was a schoolteacher, this stuff was foremost in my mind. I understood that for the two girls sitting next to each other and disrupting my English class, what they'd remember about that class wasn't Beowulf; it was that they'd sat next to each other. I was a chirping annoyance in the distance, a J. Crew-clad version of the teacher barking orders at Charlie Brown and Peppermint Patty.

It's harder as a parent. Much harder. They should force us to take classes where we sit behind one-way glass and watch teenagers interact. Then we'd have some clue of what we should have remembered all along, before we ran headlong into mortgages and politics and forgot how long it took at 13 to get over some random sarcastic remark made by a hurried, overworked teacher or a completely out-of-patience parent staring at a mountain of unpaid bills and a child demanding an upgrade on his Wii.

I say this as my child sits in his room watching "Predator" on his computer, only a few hours removed from our latest dustup, in which he made it very obvious that my authority extended only to the keypad of his phone, lasting as long as it took to dial his mother and get her to overrule me. “You sound just like Dwight,” he spat at me, referring to the sadistic father in “This Boy’s Life,” assigned summer reading from Brandeis Hillel Day School.

And still, we plunge forward. Ten more days as a boy and then he's a man. One week later, he's back in school, trying to find his way, a Bar Mitzvah whose how-to-be-a-man guidebook is still several pages short, steered by parents hoping to remember that there are unquantifiable lessons that must be included along the path leading from childhood to the world.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

13 days to Bar Mitzvah: in-between sizes

Right now, I would estimate that the Jawa stands about five feet, three inches tall. That's the same height as Harry Chappas, the shortest man to ever play regularly in the major leagues. Eddie Gaedel doesn't count.

Chappas was a shortstop who played 72 games for the Chicago White Sox from 1978-1980. He was a career .245 hitter, but appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated in March of 1979, due mostly to the relentless promoting of his team owner, Bill Veeck. (Veeck is also the man who, as owner of St. Louis Browns, sent the 3'7" Gaedel to the plate to face the Detroit Tigers in 1951. Briefly the starting shortstop for the White Sox, Chappas was quickly demoted, reportedly after missing a "stop" sign while rounding third base during a regular season game. Veteran Don Kessinger took his spot. Harry was demoted, returning to the majors only briefly before completely flaming out in 1980.

A decade later, the Orlando Sun-Sentinal reported that then 33-year-old Harry Chappas was living "in Coral Springs with his parents and (spending) much of his time fishing for bass in nearby canals while sorting out his future." Six years later, Chappas was living in an SRO hotel in Florida, about to begin vocational school.

After spending several fruitless hours yesterday at Brooks Brothers, Macy's, Zara, the GAP, Nordstrom and Banana Republic, I have only one question for Harry Chappas. It does not concern his experiences playing baseball in Italy or the terrible motorcycle accident that shattered his leg, ending his professional career and any hopes he had of one day joining the Professional Golfer's Tour.

My curiosity where Harry is concerned is limited. I want to know one thing. It's the same question I'd ask my Great-Grandfather Henry Tillis and Lou Gehrig's dad if either were alive today: Harry, after you completed vocational school in Florida in 1997 and began looking for a job, where did you go to buy a suit for interviews? Because I know you didn't go to Brooks Brothers, Macy's, Zara, the GAP, Nordstrom or Banana Republic.

I can't speak for South Florida, but here in San Francisco none of the stores named above keep on hand any mens suits smaller than a size 36. Harry, being the same height as the Jawa, probably wears a 32 or a 34. After yesterday I have my doubts that either size actually exists. In hindsight, our chances of finding a men's size 32 suit yesterday were the same as they were of seeing a unicorn. Were Harry buying a suit in San Francisco in 2010, he'd have to face an unpleasant reality: the children's department.

If you're out there today, Harry, and have turned things around to the point where a suit is an integral part of your wardrobe, here's a bit of advice: find the Bloomingdales closest to Florida. There's one in Miami at the Falls Mall (8778 SW 136th Street), which shouldn't be surprising, since it's a New York-based department store and Miami is full of ex-patriot New Yorkers.

If you go to Bloomindales, you will find, hidden in the basement along with housewares, a perfunctory children's department. If you're looking to completely outfit your tot, you will be disappointed. Unless the love affair you had with Ralph Lauren products while in high school during the mid-1980s (see below) continued into the present, you are better off finding an Old Navy for everyday wear. Poor Harry probably knows this; even money says he's been buying graphic tees up on the third floor at Old Navy for the past decade.

But if Harry, or Great-Grandpa Henry, or Heinrich Gehrig need a sharp-looking suit, one that is neither solid black or solid blue, not haphazardly strewn across several display racks where it is forgotten and eventually violated by someone needing size 16 dress pants but no jacket, not festooned with oversized shoulder pads so that when donned, its wearer takes on the appearance of a cast member of MTV's "Jersey Shore," then Bloomindales is the right place. For there, proudly displayed apart from the Ralph Lauren section and the pink skinny Levis are several racks of Joseph Abboud boys' suits.

Ironically, yesterday Bloomingdales was an afterthought, an 11th-hour brainstorm tacked on to our Bataan-like downtown shopping march at the last minute, just as we were ready to trudge home and order a second sober blue Nordstrom suit online -- to match the one the Jawa wore throughout the 2009-2010 B'nai Mitzvah season. Exhausted, short-tempered and hopeless, we were checking every single men's store downtown, since as far as we knew, only Nordstrom and Macy's had children's departments. We simply had no other choice: the Bar Mitzvah is less than two weeks away.

Already we'd nailed down a semi-casual Saturday night outfit, which featured a green Polo shirt whose significance hit me just now while folding laundry. Crank the clock back to the fall of 1981, when the just-employed and determinedly social-climbing me, with a pocket full of cash from my new job at Baskin-Robbins, set out for the Santa Ana Town & Country mall with one goal: to buy a Ralph Lauren Polo shirt.

Back then there was no "vintage" look, no "athletic fit." There was just the status implied by the simple, perfect logo: the rider on the horse, polo mallet drawn back, ready to strike. It was the culmination of a journey that began the year before, when I realized that a simple polo shirt was worthless -- or even counterproductive, an article of clothing that actually made you look worse, not better -- unless it bore the sewn-on alligator label of Rene LaCoste's Izod brand.

My mother is not a frivolous woman where money is concerned. In 1981, her track record included a yearly outlay of $15 for tennis shoes. Anything more came out of our birthday money or anything else we could scrape up on our own. In 1981, a Ralph Lauren Polo shirt cost $30, the equivalent, in our house, of two pairs of shoes.

The first one was red and smelled like Polo cologne. I brought it home and looked at it for the rest of the day, then proudly wore it to school the following morning. The skies did not open. Kris Erickson did not suddenly decide to go to Homecoming with me. The change was imperceptible, invisible to the rest of the world, but I could tell. And here the Jawa gets his first Polo shirt at age 13, begrudgingly, since as he says, "I'm just not a person who cares what they wear."

He's lying, by the way. Over the past month, he's worn a yellow t-shirt that says, "Six Flags" across the front at least 11 times.

Poor Harry Chappas; living in his efficiency unit in Florida, probably by now a licensed air conditioning repair specialist with little use for a nice, three-button summer weight suit. He's probably better off for it. It's bad enough that Bill Veeck treated him like a very tall dwarf. Nobody wants to see a 52-year-old man trying on suits in the boys section of Bloomingdales.

Friday, August 6, 2010

15 days to Bar Mitzvah: to slumber, as a teen

Lets just circle August 6 on the Calendar and call it "the day the Jawa truly became a teenager." We can record every official milestone all we want; it's not until a child masters the art of sloth that he can truly call himself a member of the youth culture. And my child, who just for the second consecutive day refused a cash money offer in return for vacuuming the house, is now a member of the youth culture.

Since he was a toddler I've worried that he didn't get enough sleep. Never one to accept a toddler-like bedtime, he's battled going to sleep forever. You hear about kids who pass out on the couch or on the floor at 7:30, exhausted after a day of crawling, chewing on things and throwing up on themselves? Not my child. From the day we caught him impaled on the side bars of his crib, trying to escape what was once a haven but now seemed, to his 18-month-old eyes, a prison, he's accepted bedtime begrudgingly.

Which would be fine, except for the utter lack of privacy it affords, if he also slept past the first rooster's crow in the a.m. Four years old and the kid's sleeping an average of eight hours a night.

For years I wondered what the aggregate negative impact would be. Would he be four inches shorter than he was meant to be? Does a lack of sleep during the formative years mean a lack of cranial development? All of that Baby Mozart; was it wasted, overwhelmed by a post-toddler's interest in David Letterman?

Add to the late bedtimes the child's propensity for bolting upright immediately upon any sleep disrutption. Four, five times a night, I'm lying in bed reading and I hear something, some movement coming from the room located about four feet from mine. (This is a particular joy of living in San Francisco, by the way, where the tidy sum you set aside for home ownership buys not a spacious, three-bedroom stucco home built in 2004 but instead a mere 1,079 square feet of falling-down bungalow of indeterminate origin.)

After that first rustle, it's only a matter of seconds before the next sound: tiny footsteps -- of remarkable density; it sounds like a baby rhino is charging through my house -- leading from the room next door to mine.

Sometimes, he was still asleep. You could just take him by the shoulders and guide him back to his room. Other times, he was wide awake and, his mind functioning at an age-appropriate level, would demand that one of us, either Sandra Bullock of I, find a way for him to fall back asleep. And you're not allowed to look your child in the eye, spread your arms wide and plaintively say, "I don't know how to help you," until he's at least 11.

So it went, with a few variations, until he returned from Walton's Grizzly Lodge two weeks ago. Then, suddenly and without warning, his 7 a.m. wakeup call became 8 a.m., then nine. Today, he stumbled out of his room, hair askew and wearing no shirt but already dialing up something on his iPod, as I was leaving the house for a 10 o'clock meeting. "Hey," he mumbled, shuffling off to the kitchen for his everyday and unwavering breakfast of frozen pancakes and really expensive maple syrup whose intimidating purchase price should in now was dissuade someone from completely drowning his frozen pancakes, which makes sense since, like the garden burgers I've learned to love when they're accomopanied by cheese, lettuce, a tomato slice and a number of different sauces, frozen pancakes have no flavor themselves.

Several hours later, I returned home to help the Jawa with a rewrite of his Bar Mitzvah speech. "I wonder if he did that load of laundry I left on the kitchen table with specific instructions attached?" I thought, quickly filing that idea in the dustbin when I entered the house to find the following tableau: my 13-year-old, pre-Bar Mitzvah Jawa stretched out on the living room floor, still wearing his pajamas, his headphones hanging half off his head. Next to him was an iPod, several pieces of paper and his netbook computer. Some online show he'd been watching was still blaring away.

It took me a few seconds to convince myself that he wasn't dead. Only after I watched him and saw the he was breathing did I relax.

No, he wasn't dead; he was deep into the kind of daytime sleep only teens can manage. After 13 years of alertness to the point of annoyance, my child had become an adolescent.

"How long were you asleep?" I asked after finally rousing him.

"I don't know. Last thing I remember, it was around 11:30." I did the numbers. Even with last night's patience-testing hour of calling out to me from his bedroom (at 1,079 square feet, your living room is only about 25 feet from your bedrooms) he'd logged an impressive 11 hours of sleep. Right now it's about four. I'm looking across at him and, I swear, he's completely zoned out. Not nodding off, but in a password-protected netherworld occupied by denizens not old enough to vote.

And Sandra Bullock is vacuuming. I'm sitting her typing, which means that, with the Jawa settling into his teen identity, we're all doing what's expected of us.

It's Friday, August 6. Two weeks from right now we'll be speeding back downtown to the Hyatt Regency in time to turn right around and return to Temple Emanu-El for Friday night services. After that, we'll load up 25 family members in a bus and cruise down to Fisherman's Wharf, much maligned by locals except me, who goes there occasionally just to be reminded of how some people save up all year to go to San Francisco for two foggy weeks in August, and have dinner at Tarantino's. Then I'll drop a pocket full of quarters on an F MUNI trolley to take us all back to the hotel.

The next morning we'll wake up and this slumbering child I just spent two hours badgering to stop playing with the camera and pay attention while we rewrite your speech will speak Hebrew to 187 people (plus an estimated 75 Emanu-El congregants, including the mysterious Lady With the Box, who show up every Saturday, regardless of who's being Bar or Bat Mitzvahed, so they can rifle through the free lunch afterwards) and, under Jewish law, become a man.

That's two weeks away. Today, he is a teenager.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

16 days to Bar Mitzvah: rehearsal

It's 3:35, two weeks before our Bar Mitzvah and we're tearing across town for a four p.m. meeting with Rabbi Jaffe, our second-to-last meeting before the big day. On a good traffic day, this drive takes 30 minutes, and it's not a good traffic day.

I've been told that "yelling" while driving really stresses out a certain 13-year-old Jawa, so I'm doing my best to say nothing, just stare straight ahead, silently noting that once again, a single rose protruding from the built-in bud vase of a Volkswagen Beetle is a failsafe indicator of someone who will drive exactly 22 miles per hour down Clayton Street, where the speed limit has to be at least 35. I am convinced that Lucifer had a hand in designing this particular half-hour segment of my life. He's giving me a preview, in case the ledger sheets don't add up when I leave this mortal coil.

With only two weeks remaining until the Bar Mitzvah, tensions are running high. Following our Hallmark-ready birthday outing to Raging Waters, the Jawa and I have spent another difficult day: me nagging him to work on Bar Mitzvah stuff, him fending off my verbal blows by hiding under a pair of inexpensive Radio Shack headphones. And now we're rushed, my least favorite thing to be.

It doesn't help that, once we arrive at Temple Emanu El (at 3:53, thanks to a campaign of silent but intensely focused and slightly illegal behind-the-wheel maneuvers employed by me in the last 20 minutes) we spend 15 minutes sitting on the dusty couches located outside Rabbi Jaffe's office, absorbed by our individual Smart Phones and wondering if there's been a scheduling snafu.

Finally, I call the temple -- from inside the temple, a weird type of 21st-century phenomenon that's surprising, given that two hours earlier I refused to use my phone to call the Jawa, who was about 100 yards away swinging on a swing while I kicked the ball in a field for Shack. "Call me when you're ready to go," he had advised me. Instead, I just yelled for him, old-school-style -- and find that Rabbi Jaffe has a new office. The junior team member has been moved from his Siberia-recalling location to new digs closer to the inner sanctum. Good for him; would have been better for us if someone had told us before we spent the first 15 minutes of our 40-minute appointment sitting on dusty couches playing solaitare on our Droids.

To Rabbi Jaffe, we must look like exactly the kind of basket cases he sees in his office every day. I'd thought about complaining that the Jawa is procrastinating, but realized quickly that he actually isn't the first kid to procrastinate doing his Bar Mitzvah stuff. Just as I hadn't given any thought, a few weeks ago, to the possibility that I wasn't the only guy losing golf balls in the trees, I'd forgotten that we weren't the first and only people ever getting Bar Mitzvahed.

This meeting was the kind Sandra Bullock loves -- a step-by-step layout of the actual Bar Mitzvah ceremony, revealing every opportunity to involve/honor family members and friends by giving them things to do. Even non-Jews like the kind comprising over half of our Bar Mitzvah party can be slotted into the service. They can open the ark, quickly stepping aside once the Torah itself emerges, not because they're not "allowed" to hold the Torah; more like since this is a traditional rite of passage, it'd be weird to have people hold it for whom it represents nothing more than a 25-pound scroll of paper whose exterior adornments seem to have been inspired by Liberace.

They can walk with us during the joyous Torah procession, in which we (the parents and Bar Mitzvah boy) walk up and down the synogogue aisles, shaking hands with our guests like Bill Clinton at a political fundraiser. Nobody shakes hands like Bill, but we'll try.

At 4:40, the Jawa dashed from the room for his meeting with Cantor Roslyn Barak. "You guys can wait in the car!" he shouted over his shoulder as he disappeared down a hallway.

Which is exactly what we'd planned to do until we passed the message board in the temple lobby and saw listed among today's events our child's "Bar Mitzvah Rehearsal."

"Rehearsal? Isn't that what we're going to do on Friday?" I asked.

"It's not a wedding," said my bride of 18 years. "I think he's in the main sanctuary, practicing his Torah portion. Lets go spy on him."

Five minutes later we're huddled in the foyer of the main sanctuary. Sandra Bullock's shoes are off and I'm inching silently toward an open archway, hoping to catch a glimpse of the chanting Jawa without getting caught.

There he is, up there on the bima in his blue hooded sweatshirt and jeans. He sounds ready, our Jawa. His pre-Peter Brady changed voice fills the sanctuary with chanted Hebrew. It only stops twice; two glitches. Satisfied, I slink back to a bench and sit down.

"I see you, Mom." Sandra Bullock, who will later claim she "meant to get caught," is not as slippery as her husband.

"Are you spying on us?" I hear Cantor Roslyn Barak say.

You're not supposed to spy on Bar Mitzvah rehearsal, but they let us off with a slap on the wrist. Afterwards, a confident Jawa emerges and pronounces himself "ready." Save for the five photo albums he needs to scan for his slideshow, the multiple playlists he needs to make for our boyband-looking Denon and Doyle Emcee, A.J., his intros for the 13 people we will be honoring with a candle-lighting and the last touches on his Bar Mitzvah speech. We celebate a few blocks away at the Hukilau with terayaki garden burgers and fries while some jingle Kevin Gagan made up while we were pledges keeps running through my head. It's to the tune of "We're going to a hukilau," whatever a "hukilau" is.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

18 days to Bar Mitzvah: happy birthday

Exactly thirteen years ago at this moment, I was a mess, with no control over my future happiness. The entire thing was TBD, thanks to a guy I'd known for less than six hours. Stop me if you've already heard this.

August 3, 1997 was a Sunday, ridiculously warm, the beginning of a heat wave that would bring triple-digit temperatures to Seattle for the better part of three weeks. Sandra Bullock and I were living in a one-bedroom apartment in a small, five-unit brick building built in the 1920s. Though today it abuts a giant condominium complex, in 1997 it sat next to an empty lot. From our kitchen, you could look out at the intersection of Broadway and Roy Street. One more block down Roy was the DAR House, where we'd gotten married almost five years before.

Unfortunately, the bricks and the open lot meant maximum sun absorption. Early on that Sunday, our apartment was already sweltering. Two weeks later, I would awake in a heat-generated daze at 7 a.m., stumble two blocks to Safeway and buy two donuts, a Coke and a bottle of Excedrine Migraine Strength, so bad was the headache I had from the heat. I'd weave back to our apartment and lie on the living room floor, silently repeating -- "Please, just let it go away enough that I can get through the bris."

But that was still two weeks away. On Sunday, August 3, I was thinking more about Sandra Bullock, and why the child inside her was waiting so long to get out. He wasn't so late -- his due date was August 1 -- but we'd spent the past month dodging phantom labor pains. Two weeks prior, I'd coached at the annual Blanchet High School girls volleyball camp with a now-prehistoric-seeming beeper attached to my gym shorts, but no call came.

A week later, hoping to speed along the process, my young wife responded to contractions by frantically ironing a pile of clothes. She'd hoped the activity would encourage labor. It didn't.

On this day, she awoke early (sleeping had become a luxury reserved only for the non-pregnant). Wracked with pain but unconvinced of its sincerity, she took a shower and ate breakfast. Then, at around nine, she came into our bedroom and shook me awake. "I think we should go to the hospital," she said, simply.

I'd imagined that when the day came it would resemble a scene from "The Dick Van Dyke Show." I'd leap up, throw a narrow-shouldered suit jacket over my pajamas, run around the room like a lunatic, trip over an ottoman, maybe run out the door without my wife... but it was nothing like that. It was more like our Sunday trip to get coffee, except we were in the car instead of walking, and when we reached the coffee place, we kept going for another half-mile until we reached the Swedish Medical Center.

This would not be the last time my preconceived notions turned out to be wrong.

We were prepared. Oh, were we prepared. We'd completed Lamaze class, breast-feeding class (I was the only guy there without a ponytail, and probably the only one who'd admit he'd rather be at the Mariners game), had written out our birthing plan, had an overnight bag and a backpack full of relaxing Van Morrison CDs to play during the birth.

We'd imagined it would take hours. In the weeks leading up to August 3, I'd pictured us walking the halls of the hospital at 3 a.m., shouting at people in the delivery room, collapsing, completely exhausted after hours of labor, our new child lovingly sprawled out across a hospital-gowned Sandra Bullock.

Instead, we arrived at the hospital and were quickly moved to an examination room. There was another couple there. Unfortunately for my competitively efficient wife, though the other couple was moved onto the actual delivery center, we were sent away. "Maybe walk around for awhile to help induce labor," they advised. So we went out into the heat to take a few laps around the campus of Seattle University, located across the street from the hospital, where I'd just finished a since-tarnished-from-lack-of-use Masters in Teaching the year before.

Now lets get something out in the open right now: I was relieved when we got sent away. I can admit it, 13 years later. Right up until the moment that child came storming out of his mother's womb, I was in complete and utter denial. Yes, I had participated in the whole run-up, the trip to buy the crib, the stroller, the multiple baby showers. I wore the beeper and I kept my mouth shut.

But on that day, as we trudged up the sweltering streets of Seattle's Capitol Hill, I waited for each contraction to end and then said silently, "Thank God, it's not going to happen."

But, you know, you talk the good talk. So when we passed one of the places that was on our list of potential daycare centers, I stopped and looked inside. And I held my wife's hand as she waddled down the street. Even if I had no idea what do to about the eventual result of her condition, I already knew that I'd married one of those women who glowed during pregnancy. She'll tell you now that she was fat and uncomfortable, but I will still today go to the mat versus anyone who insists she was anything but radiant.

And impatient. "I can't believe those people got to go in," she muttered as we climbed Jefferson Street. "Lets go back. I think I'm ready."

Still dialated at four centimeters, they moved us anyway into a very luxurious "birthing suite" in the new birthing center, introduced us to a twelve-year-old who insisted he would be assisting our doctor with the birth, and told us to settle in for the long haul. "Why not start running a bath?" the nurse suggested.

We were nervous, but mostly because we knew that our regular doctor, the soothing and calm Dr. Ann Bridges, who'd shepherded us through the entire pregnancy, was not available. The week before, during our final scheduled visit to her office, she advised us that she would be gone for a few days. She introduced us to her office partner, who would be doing the honors, should we deliver that weekend.

In walks this very soft-spoken, very tall guy with Michael Landon's hair and a pair of tasteful gold stud earrings. But that description is inadequate. There was something else, something a bit off about his appearance, something more than just being a guy wearing Michael Landon's hair. "I'm Dr. Mark Bowers," he said.

Today you may know him as Dr. Marcie Bowers, the stylish blonde woman who has become a world-renown gender-reassignment expert and the star of the reality show "Transgender Hospital." I read in the paper last week that Dr. Marcie Bowers is now moving to San Francisco, after several years practicing in Colorado.

But again, this is all in the future. On August 3, she was still a he we didn't know who was about to spend the next few hours pulling a child out of my wife, assisted by Doogie Howser, who turned out to be the other Jew living in Seattle, and looking for a few synagogue recommendations. "Can't help you," I said, "but if you know a good mohel, we may be needing one in a week or so."

All was calm. The bath water was running. I was about to cue up Van Morrison then walk out to the car to get our birthing plan, when the nurse suddenly lost her cool.

"We're at TEN CENTIMETERS AND CROWNING!" she said. Doogie ran from the room. The bath water was still running. "Uh, should we think about drugs?" I asked, stupidly.


Into the room strolled Dr. Mark/Marcie Bowers, cool, calm and reassuring beneath his head of Michael Landon Hair. With the wide-eyed assistance of the Jewish Doogie Howser, he extracted my son from my radiant bride in 46 minutes. At no time during that 46 minutes did Sandra Bullock call me names, swear at me or shout random obscenities, not even when I lamely tried to imitate the guy from the lamaze video and say, "You're doing great! Good job!"

"Just grab her leg!" shouted the nurse. So I spent the first few seconds of the Jawa's life cranking on his mother's leg until it was up around her eyeballs.

At 3:06, it was over. My child, whom I'd assumed would arrive looking like the missing link, had a perfectly-formed little head of brown hair and was not covered with goop; which may be the reason why, at that moment, someone reached into the amplifier of my life and turned it up to 11. Never before or since have I so completely changed my worldview in such a short period of time. A total lifechange, one summed up very succinctly a year later by my friend and classmate Joe Mele who, upon his first son's christening, told the assembled crowd "The great thing about having a kid is that by the time I realized there was a hole in my life it was already filled."

Even with all that, though, there was no way I was cutting that embilical cord. Let one of the ponytail guys do it. I could have skipped Doogie and Dr. Mark/Marcie Bowers staring thoughtfully into the aft end of my wife following the delivery, too. We appreciate your patience with young interns, Doc, but a little sensitivity here?

If it had ended there, it would have been fine. Had I never seen the inside of the fetal intensive care unit, had Sandra Bullock and I been kicked out of the hospital that night, clueless yobbos with 12 hours of parenting experience forced to finally grow up all at once, no one would have complained. We would have laid wide-eyed on our bed, put our tiny infant to sleep in the crib we'd set up in the corner of our one and only bedroom and just stood there and stared at him for a week, until it was time for his bris.

But it didn't work out that way.

Instead, it worked out like an episode of "ER," at the height of its popularity in 1997. Two hours after the Jawa's abrupt arrival, as we were showing him off to Sandra Bullock's parents, the nurse came back into the room. She looked at these monitors they had the Jawa hooked up to and frowned. "I don't like this," she said.

"What?" I asked.

"It's probably nothing." If, at the end of her life, this nurse suddenly finds herself alive but three words short, she has only herself to blame. "It's probably nothing" were three completely wasted words.

"I'm a little concerned about his respitory rate. It should have come down by now."

Everyone in the room stopped. We looked at the monitor. It read 121. For the next five minutes, we all sat there looking at the monitor, each of us silently trying to will the number down, but it didn't budge: 121.

Fifteen minutes later, we're ushering everyone out. And they're leaving without argument. Nobody wants to be part of this. We're like the couple that comes into the ER with a small problem, only one of them ends up dead by 9:45 and George Clooney has to go tell the other one what happened. And they all start with, "It's probably nothing."

"It's probably nothing, but we may want to take him upstairs to check him out a little more."

"It's probably nothing. You'll probably be able to take him home tonight."

"It's probably nothing, but we're going to move him up to the natal ICU for some tests."

Baby ICU sucks. It's up on its own floor and everyone who's in there is thinking the same thing: "It can't be as bad as it seems." They try to make the place cheery with balloons and little signs over every baby's bed with their name and birth weight written on them, which for a lot of the kids, only reminds their parents why they're in there in the first place: "RYAN, 1 lb. 3 oz."

It was grim. All of us were avoiding eye contact, desperately looking for signs. "The nurse smiled at me; maybe it's going to be okay." "The doctor told that couple to sit down. He didn't tell us to sit down. Is that a good sign or a bad sign?"

At three a.m., some doctor we'd never before met took us aside. We'd spent the past six hours going back and forth between our birthing suite (still with the bathtub half-full and Van Morrison sitting there, waiting, on the CD player) and baby ICU, washing our hands over and over, talking to nurses and doctors who all said the same thing: "It's probably nothing, but..."

We'd go into baby ICU sit there looking at the Jawa. He was twice as big as all the other kids in there, wide awake, looking all over the place, probably already thinking about robots and theme parks. Every so often his monitor would start beeping like mad and both of us would have nervous breakdowns until a nurse came by and explained that a sensor had come detached. I'd had to leave the room at midnight, when they stuck an IV into my hours-old child's head. If we got through this, I figured, the bris would be a snap.

So this doctor with a crooked smile takes us aside. He's on duty, it's three a.m. and someone has turned all of the flourescent lights up as high as they go. We're freaked out beyond lucidity. He starts explaining, "So it may be as simple as there being fluid in his lungs that wasn't expelled due to his fast delivery," he said, "or it could be some kind of infection. We're not sure."

"Okay," I said. "Just tell me this. Are we talking 'worst-case scenario is an extra week in the hospital?' or 'worst-case scenario is something much worse'?"

"Oh," he said, suddenly realizing that he was talking to two completely freaked out people facing a situation that nothing yet in their lives had prepared them for -- and who'd been awake at a fever pitch for going on 20 hours. "Worst-case is he's here for a week. But I think it's just fluid in his lungs. If you want, we can put him on antibiotics just in case it is an infection."

Four billion pounds removed itself from my back. It was still dark, very dark, but dawn was only a few hours away.

"One more thing," said Doctor 3 a.m. "There might be some nerve damage on one side of his face. All it means is he might grow up and have a crooked smile. Like me. I've got a crooked smile." He smiled crookedly. Turns out, 13 years later, that he was wrong about that one.

I went back to the birthing suite to sleep in a chair. Sandra Bullock came with me, then awoke a few hours later and went back to baby ICU by herself. The sun was just beginning to rise when she reached the Jawa, who was lying on his back, his eyes wide open. At birth, his eyes covered about half of his face. The rest was cheeks. And they were rosy, healthy looking.

The new mother reached into the crib, picked up her baby and sat back down in a rocking chair. When she held him in her lap, she noticed that it felt like something she'd already been doing for years. She was a natural, as it turned out.

They were sitting in front of a large window, so she looked past her new baby at the world outside. For the past day, it had seemed as if that world didn't exist.

The sun was almost all the way up. It was going to be another beautiful, sunny day. Mount Rainier, visible from downtown Seattle on only the most pristine days, looked gigantic outside, framed perfectly by the baby ICU window. They sat by the window, rocking. "He's fine," she said to herself.

She told people later that she knew, at that moment, that everything was going to be okay. They'd been right all along; it turned out to be nothing.

By the time he came home, three days later, we were ready.