Dec 25, 2009

The caretaker from down the road, an old surfer, suggested we all go out to the point, to look at the sunset. My wife has been in love with this man off and on for many years and so off we went.

We passed the cottage where big-wave Dave used to live, until he did what he always said he would — he finished his 40-foot sloop and set sail around the world. We walked past the pool where the wealthy heiress, now in her 70s, swims nude on full moon nights with lovers she finds among the local tradesmen. We went past the caretaker's own house, which has been condemned because it sits on 60 feet of mud and is gradually sliding off the hillside. "Like ice cream slipping out of your palm," as the caretaker put it. His face is volcanized and red as corundum. Even his voice is sunburned.

The others went on through the gardens and up the path to the point beyond. I stayed back, by the caretaker's house, to see where the shifting has caused door frames to slant, picture windows to break, and a stone fireplace to crack; and to consider a soil expert's conclusion that even without an earthquake the whole property would slide away within 10 years. And when it happened, not over weeks or days but with no warning, in minutes. The caretaker has refused to move; his wife and son have left. Now he's weighing whether to follow them to an apartment up in Carmel or else ride the fault line.

Of course he'll stay. After all these years he has no choice. Otherwise, he would have no identity. The hillside is his, the trails down to the beach — he built them all, along with fir patches and the lean-tos where he keeps his kayak and surf boards. The beach itself is his, the kelp beds, the rocks, the abalone, even the spectacular view. It's all his. Asking him to give that up would be as though you asked a millionaire to give up every last bit of his fortune, along with the ability to make more.

Eventually, I followed the others along the path, which runs through a small eucalyptus grove and a lemon orchard, and then up a steep angle to a fork. I had forgotten the way and went to the right, through a gate. The path is well supported, edged with large stones. It's all the caretaker's art. At the top of the ridge the main house stands, a simple boxlike design in the 'barn tradition' you find here. The place belongs to one of the country's great entrepreneurs and sportsmen but he hasn't stayed here in many years. Instead, he gave it over to a one-time mistress.

She lives alone and everyone on the point will tell you she is 'strange fiction.' She was once her lover's pilot. She raced cars, sailed boats and took up surfing in her 30s. Her father was the president of an Ivy League university. She majored in physics. Meanwhile, her sisters are rumored to be insane. She herself is schizophrenic and last year changed her name to include the words, "Aphrodite Mary harmonic." She has told people that she is now a Baptist fundamentalist. Someone else told me she had become a Mormon.

She has no children and rarely sees another person. I have seen her perhaps three times in 16 years and not for a long while. She came across as very polite but distant.

I reached the top of the path and stopped to marvel at the simplicity of the house and imagine what the views must be like. All the windows were covered with curtains. You wouldn't think anyone lived there. Then out of the corner of my eye, I noticed something: a figure. A woman. I thought it was a statue. It was nearly transparent. For a moment I wondered if it wasn't a hologram, or one of those street magicians that stand stock still at Fisherman's Wharf, waiting for a passerby to trick.

It was as though you came across a deer in a clearing and didn't know if you'd been seen. We both held absolutely still. Perhaps, we were each other's apparition.

She wore plastic surgical gloves, a plastic smock with a hood, white pants covered in a smokey plastic, clear goggles. She held a book in her right hand. It looked like a bible. Her left hand hung in mid-air as though about to turn a page.

She stood on a deck, outside a sliding glass door. The door was closed. I remembered that someone said the house smells like cleanser. She is terrified of bacteria.

She and I remained absolutely still. For a minute, then two. A long time. Long enough to take her in, long enough to be taken in. Long enough to feel comfortable in the not-knowing, to become as familiar to each other as two statues on a rampart. Finally, I called out, "I'm sorry to disturb you but did some people come by this way?"

She looked up. Very calmly. She pulled up her goggles. I thought of Amelia Earhart. "I haven't seen anyone."

Thank you, I said.

"Merry Christmas to you," she said and then regained her pose.

Dec 19, 2009

Jason Reitman, who you would think had made Up in The Air all by himself, was on Fresh Air the other day talking about the enormous attention to detail he had demanded while making the film. He sounded like the young writer who fiddles endlessly with the form of a first paragraph and never develops the substance of a worthy conclusion.

That's the one problem with Up In The Air. Form doesn't quite lead to substance. It's a brilliant film in many so many ways, albeit a little movie in big pants. Clooney is great. Farmiga is even better. She is one more proof that there is nothing sexier than a mature woman. And there are several scenes that make you proud to be in middle age in general.

All that and a fresh eye, but in the last frame the engine cuts out. It made me think of the very last bit of voice over in American Beauty.

Perhaps, it's the fault of the novel that the film is based on, although in that case Mr. Reitman should have come to his own conclusion. As it is the ending leaves the dialogue between artist and audience unfinished and yes, contrary to the la mode need of anything unfinished and unresolved, that ending doesn't suffice.

The problem with Clooney's Mr. Bingham is that he is never able to land, even in the end when he needs to refuel himself, and become something other than a pretender in his life. This is not The Wings of Desire: this is a hero who cannot overcome what, at his point in life, should be an easier obstacle to overcome. And so without character becomes caricature.

Dec 15, 2009

And so the health care debate has become the symbol of the nation's dysfunction. All the branches of government have been implicated, along with the media, political parties, the unions, the special interests, the Catholic Church, Rick Warren's church, the education system, liberals, and the economy.

But isn't the real culprit here the American public itself. You. Us. That man in the street. That woman in the next car. The clerk, the mechanic, the doctor, the insurance agent, the captain, the neophyte, the man with the gold watch, the intern, every last one of us. To blame. Why? Because we cannot think critically, cannot focus, cannot separate ideas, cannot look at the problem from a distance. We are finally selfish, lazy and good for nothing. Tuned to the sound of nothing at all.

And so now you have this horde lynching the president, from a cherry picker in the square, the way they do with pickpockets in Iran. Because he's not Christ, because he can't do everything himself. It's disgraceful what we've done. It's disgusting what we've become.

Dec 14, 2009

He's 15. I'm thinking, he should be a bookie, but how the hell's that gonna work. I give him the $127. He won it in a pool they hold down at Steve's cafe in Redwood Shores. The kid doesn't really care. I bring home the sheet every week; he picks winners; I take it back. Two weeks ago he was tied going into the Monday night game. He would have won $150 if the Saints' field goal kicker hadn't missed late fourth quarter. Ball sailed right, from 35 yards, and we're saying to each other, "how the fuck do you miss from 35 yards. I could fucking kick it from 35 yards." Then this week he wins it clean, but close. The way the card works is if you're tied after Monday night then the one that comes closest to the total number of points in that game wins. Final point total, this was the Cardinal-49er game, was 34. Kid had 37. Next closest had 38. I get my chicken teriyaki sandwich and Rich asks me if I'll take a hundred dollar bill or do I want it in 20s. I take the C note. I bring it home. The kid is happy, but not jumping up and down. He's into a Warrior's game, somebody on his fantasy team. I'm thinking, you know what, he doesn't give a damn about school; you have to hook him up to battery cables to get him to study for 10 minutes. He could care less. So what the hell. We'll go Vegas. We'll try it for a year. Rent one of those empty ass condos in the new MGM Grand. They got rooms where the shag is lonely 'cause no one is ever gonna stay there. Not in this life. The cockroaches 'll come home before that happens. It's all over-built so we'll just take up some headquarters. Do a lot of pool time, babe time. I knew a guy once who was a doorman at the Grand. Earned $175K a year — opening doors. He loved it. Loved the life, the sodom and gomorrah of it, the whole thing. We could do it. Plus the kid's brother is becoming a sports writer. He writes great and he knows more about football than anybody. So we'll all go. Hang out. Maybe do some college games. Maybe get into the ponies. Do the over and under on hamster races, who gives a shit. Hell, we're packed. We're gone.

Dec 9, 2009

This morning, on a crumb-filled table in a Pete's Coffee, in Burlingame, there was a Daily Post. The lead was, Parents Come Out Against Trick Play. The story was about a Pop Warner football team in Palo Alto that won a championship game by a strategy on a par with asset swaps. In this case the exchange was dishonorable play for a win.

Here's how the play works. From the sidelines the coach calls out to the quarterback that the ball needs to be changed. On a perfectly sunny day, no less. Now there's a moment of confusion. But since it's the coach calling who is to be respected by definition — and because a good coach, the likes of Vince Lombardi or Red Auerbach, demands honor above all — the boy comes toward his coach.

Remember that these kids are 11 or 12. And remember that this would demand some practice and indoctrination. Here's what happens....

Dishonorable play for a win... Some parents were outraged. But they were quickly dismissed, with these kinds of arguments...

"This program has been going on for 56 years. What's the problem? Nobody's ever said squat about anything we do here."

"Parents that object don't understand the game and their kids aren't any good anyway. This is a competitive league; they oughta just go play soccer."

"Do you know what Al Davis would say? He would say, 'win, baby, win.' So what's your problem?"

Dishonorable play for a win... But then this is one of those places where, roughly speaking, cleverness has no limits, moral imagination has no cache, and winning something even so minute as this is the only salve for success in the material world.

All I could think of was Coach Greg. Greg Isom who took the San Francisco Seahawks to any number of championships. You could say he's the Tony Dungy of Pop Warner in the Bay Area. It would break his heart to see such a thing, to think that kids would be taught how to win like that, to think a coach would humiliate a player like that.


Below that story, there was what sounded more like true-crime: "Stolen RWC limo becomes doctor's home." RWC is Redwood City.

The story was about a stretch limo that appeared to have been abandoned. Police were called, came to investigate and saw through the window a bag of groceries, a sleeping bag and a manuscript. An officer was able to read a name and telephone number on the ms. He took out his phone and called.

Suzanne Caadium answered and said she would come for her belongings. She arrived shortly and when asked how she got in and out of the limo explained that she had found the car, with the keys in it, on October 24th, the day that the limo had been stolen. It appeared stolen and she used it temporarily for shelter. It also came out that she was a Stanford grad.

Ms. Caadium was arrested. But then what happened and who is Suzanne Caadium?

It is Dr. Caadium and she's 32 according to her website, which includes a photo of a girl who looks younger than 32, with short brown almost curly hair, full lips, and a mischievous smile. She looks smart but not from Stanford. I think of Stanford women as blond with thighs from race horses, and always a little naive. Always a little gee-whizzed by life. This girl does not look naive. Sweet but not naive. Her blog begins with this autobiography...

I have a rich life story along with a strong education and a high creative drive, all of which allow me to provide consultation in a number of areas. Ultimately, I play the roles of healer, teacher, and philosopher in my work.

I call myself a consultant, from the Latin consultare meaning "to discuss" from which we also derive words such as consul and counsel. Otherwise known as a Professional who provides advice in a particular area of expertise. I offer holistic advising and support in matters of political policy, medical education and other industries who seek the truth. By holistic, I mean that I use a broad perspective and a synthetic understanding of human nature in all of my work.

She lists her educational background....

Stanford University School of Medicine
Doctor of Medicine, June 2006

University of Nevada, Reno
Bachelor of Science, Dec. 1999
Major: Cell and Molecular Biology

World School of Massage and Holistic Healing Arts
Individual modules in massage therapy and communication
And then her professional positions....

Resident Physician, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Science,
University of California, Davis, Sacramento, CA

And then there are awards and publications. But no indication of how she might have wound up in a stolen stretch limo in RWC, which is neither upscale or down, but a 'tweener of a suburb.

Dr. Caadium's website also includes a screenplay proposal. Here is part of it.

Screenplay Proposal: “2/5/8: my stint as World Leader Pretend”; 6500 word raw outline

A story about a revolutionary physician who took a militant stand against conventional medicine in order to explore more meaningful concepts around healing as a shaman. In the midst of her consciousness-raising, she becomes astrally attuned and links consciousness with a lot of people in high circuits. With her unique philosophic approach to human cooperation and conflict resolution, she becomes involved with political matters on a surprisingly high level for a young mother at 31. In 3 short weeks of psychically consulting everyone from Hillary, Obama and Ron Paul she gets linked with high officials in nations throughout the world.

Over a matter of days around February 5, the heroine makes a mad dash to save her children from an abusive step/father while running from renegage forces in the police and military who stand to lose power from the negotiations, while working through divinity training through her shamanism. The effects of exposing those waging the war as fundamentally opposed to world peace when it was completely worked out otherwise has been severe. What does the government do with a political rebel preaching logically about ecohappiness and getting the Resignation of George W. Bush. Subsequent weeks were spent fervently creating policy for a new world based on sustainable ecologically sound human coexistance while trying to escape persecution by a psychotic ex-husband, jealous ex-boyfriends, sadistic family member and crazy house mates.

more to come, perhaps. (For more information, I would contact the Daily Post newspaper, or the Redwood City Police.)

Dec 2, 2009

The better part of midnight, I'm coming home with wine and bread. For those in need, on a drizzly night and drear. I step over the legs of a man asleep under a bus shelter bench. You wouldn't come outside unless you had to. I cross the street. The blinds on the crab restaurant window are falling. Everywhere curtains are drawn. I walk on.

I notice a woman in the distance, walking toward me. Same side of the street, a hundred yards away. She's screaming something. I walk faster. At 40 yards, she's blonde, shirt no sweater, hair tied up, in her 20s maybe. Just out of graduate school, I'm guessing. And before that, private college. Private everything. It's in the way she walks, the way she screams, the tone of voice, she's heard powerful authority figures up close.

She stops by a man sitting on the curb. Now I understand: they're together. He's wearing a white button down shirt and jeans. He's long legged, hair cut short. Like the nerd babies down at EA Sports. He's sitting on the northwest corner of Kirkham and 46th. Under a street light thick with mist and moths. I slow down to take in the drama. “What are you doing?” She's screaming. Over and over. “What are you doing?” The emphasis is on doing. “What are you doing?” The man doesn't answer but the body language says, “I’m leaving you. I’m done.” His head is bent over, legs spread, arms resting on his knees, fingers clasped, as though an IED just went off. He's trying to figure out who lived, who died.

And you know right away from looking at them, from hearing her screaming and his anger. His horror. You know what must have happened. He was betrayed. That was the IED. The images of her, maybe just in his imagination, have detonated. He has seen her underneath her lover, he has seen her responding.

Do you remember that scene in Visconti's 1960 film, Rocco And His Brothers? Alain Delon and Annie Giradot. Do you remember the scene when Rocco finds his mistress in the arms of his younger brother, Alain Delon. Rocco takes immediate revenge. While hoods hold Delon, Rocco takes the girl, by force, but there is a moment, more nuanced in some film versions, where after resisting the Giradot character gives in. She responds to Rocco. Fully. Delon is faced with the cruelest fickleness and promiscuity. He is condemned to hopelessness and cynicism forever....

I'm thinking of that as I approach the couple. The girl notices me and says something. He looks over his shoulder and says it doesn't make any difference who hears since, 'you've already woken up half the neighborhood'. I walk past, I don't look at either of them. 'I don’t see you', I'm thinking. 'I have no idea what you’re talking about. I don’t want to know.'

And yet I do. I want to know everything. I want you to tell me everything, from the moment of conception. I may be able to help. I've played all these parts myself...

But of course we let people have their dramas by themselves, even in a public place. Still, I would like to make a stage play out of it. Improv Everywhere. Actors popping out of trunks, appearing out of the shadows, coming up out of the manholes, like they did in those train stations in Europe. But these are twilight zone actors. They can actually play the different roles in these people's lives. Including the lover. And Nina Rota in the background.

Act 3 will be years later. They'll see each other again and they'll remember that night on 46th and Kirkham, in the damp and drear. "Was it 46th or 45th?" "No, we lived on 46th..." It will be awkward to remember such a thing. There'll be regret. Each will remember it differently. One or the other will be defensive. She will apologize still again, even as she wonders about his secrets. They will agree it was an untimely end. They will finally agree it might have been a mistake to react so definitively....

So I cross the street like a whippet on a leash and head down toward the ocean.

“I didn’t do anything,” she's saying. Over and over and over. “I didn’t do anything.” The tone is so plaintive, so genuine with apology. And every other word is 'think' or 'want.' ‘I wasn’t’ cheating on you,' is what I'm hearing. 'Not like you think? Did you think I wanted him? Did you really think that? Yes, I was lonely and you were off in your anger and who knows where were, where have you been, there are questions I could ask you.... but I didn’t want him. I don’t want him. It was nothing. It was just something that happened. I didn’t care about him. I don’t care about him. I’m sorry. Just stop for a minute.’

All of a sudden, he starts yelling. And now you can hear the wound itself. I linger by a parked car to hear better. I try to see through the car, but the windows are tinted. I go back a few yards in their direction. I'm thinking, 'well maybe I can do something'.

But what?

I could go up to them. I could say, "Do you know anything about the blue Morpho butterfly? Yes, well it lives in the Amazon rain forest. It's the most beautiful butterfly you've ever seen. The shade of blue is exquisite, unimaginable. If you saw it it would take your memory away. Literally, it does that. Here's something else. It defends itself by having such a bad taste that all its enemies know to avoid that taste. it's in their genetic memory. And here's something else, the Morpho lives for just a month. That's all. One month. All that beauty for just one month."
"And that about sums it up," I would say to them. "Just a different shade of blue. Don't you see. You're on the flip side of something fabulous. Don't give it up. That's all. Okay, then. Back to your fighting. "

Nov 10, 2009

I hadn’t heard from him in years but then one day an email appeared. He started right in with his health. “I’m taking some new medicines for my heart,” he wrote. “Last year I was also diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease. I'm feeling better now. The cardiac and Parkinson's medicines agree with me and are keeping things in control. When I'm sick or have symptoms, I never know what causes it. Is it my heart? Parkinson's? Old age (72)? I've always been interested in politics. In January Nancy Pelosi invited me to Washington for her swearing in. Washington was exciting. February 23 I met and talked with Hillary Clinton. She has an outstanding intellect. I also met Senator Dianne Feinstein, who was delightful. I met John Edwards three years ago. I liked him. I'd like to meet Obama.”

He suggested we have dinner, just as we used to do once a month. “I’m free on Tuesday for lunch, or Thursday, or Wednesday for dinner.” I told him I’d come get him on Friday but then at the last moment I couldn’t, I said I would reschedule but didn’t and half thought that might be the end of it.

Then two weeks later he sent another message saying he was free on the following Friday. I wondered why he cared so much. We had had a minor argument a few years ago, I can barely remember what it was, but I wondered if he wanted to resolve it. I resigned myself and got him. He was standing outside the parish as always, in an A’s baseball cap, his ancient windbreaker, talking to one of one of the homeless people In line for food at St. Anthony’s.

The neighborhood looked worse since I’d lived there, 15 years ago. The new apartment buildings then now looked worn, their prefabricated fronts looked prefabricated, the seams and joints all showing through, the color fading, dripping away. The mask was coming undone. When they first opened, designed as low-income housing, those buildings held such promise; just the look of newness in that part of town, held such promise and all the politicians foretold a new day.

Once on a campaign tour with TH we walked down Eddy Street; the cops pointed out this improvement and that safe street corner. A new day they told him, but privately they sneered, at him and at optimism. “It’s bullshit, the crime is worse than ever,” a patrolman told me between smiles. Still, you thought it had to get better. How long could the poor hang on in the second or third most expensive city in the country. There would be no market for drug dealers....

Plus the faux gentility is all sweated out. This city loves to say it loves the poor “we love you, poor people, and we have every program for you, every good intention, right up to the Speakers door, but you need to be heard not seen. See that’s the way we can all get along. Yes, let’s play a little game. Hide and seek. You hide and we’ll find you. Go along now.”

But 15 years ago the Laotians and Cambodians and Burmese were all moving in. They were filling up the schools in the Tenderloin and they didn’t tolerate crime, to the extent they could resist. But apparently the promise could not be kept, can never be kept, only the endless programs for the heavily laden, those fly traps for hope, and so the neighborhood remains rich in crime and loss.

* * *

My friend got in the car and right away confirmed it all. “The cops think of it like sand and whatever you make better falls away, the SROs are jammed, there are more stabbings and murders and assaults than ever.”

He looked gaunt; I didn’t want to look at him closely. And there was a familiar smell around him that I couldn’t identify at first. We drove into the Mission, and on the way he told me about his graphologist, who had examined his handwriting, and how he was this on the Miller Briggs and that on the Ennagram test. I’m a number 3, he said conclusively, as though he were in line at the sandwich counter. I want to be judged by my appearance but I’m also a leader.

He’s always loved to tell the truth about himself, and startle you with self-criticism. I’m a compulsive truth teller he said and I remember that the very first day I met him he confessed he was having a sexual relationship with a African America over in Oakland. The man worked as a blood taker at a local hospital. He showed me pictures of him.

I can’t believe I’m telling you this, he said. You won’t print it will you? No I said and I didn’t. Nor when he told me later about his adventures down in San Carlos at the gay movie houses where he could slide in during the middle of the afternoon and get a blow job in the dark and anonyme....

The bishop is a number 7, he went on. Father F. is a 1. He added that F. had gone to Rome and become a huge success.

How is your faith these days, I asked.

“Never been better, Brother. I feel very close to God.” And he added, “He has not forsaken me, after all...”

His is a simple faith, no more than an acquired conviction that the voices he hears are His and correct and when he needs reassurance he hears them. But this faith gives him no self knowledge. A why but not a who. So he finds refuge in the ennagrams, the graphologist, hazel-eyed seers in the street, his psychiatrist — a Norwegian who tells him how to deal with say, his brother’s death, but also how to think about death.

We stopped at a Tea House he used to go when he lived at St. Anne’s. I dropped him off, parked, and returned. He was seated on the banquette, his back to a mirror that stretched the length of the restaurant. He’d taken his cap off and scanned the room with the air of a man accustomed to being not just regarded but honored. His greatest hope has always been that he would be beloved by this city to which he has given so much. But no one notices him anymore, no one knows who the man is, and his anonymity sometimes hurts him....

There was a family at the next table, no doubt from Bernal, the man showing his kids a new i-phone, which had come to stores just the day before. They were chattering on about the coming week at Camp Mather, the city’s gift to the upper middle class, a lodge and lake near Yosemite.

My friend went on about the mayor, the new DA and the police. The gossip about Supervisor Jew lives. I asked about the mayor’s scandal, sleeping with his campaign manager’s wife, his best friends’ wife, the stories of his cocaine use, and still the people love him, seventy percent of more. How is it possible that character isn’t any issue?

“It never was,” he said. “Not here. The people love him. When he opened City Hall to gay marriage he could do no wrong. But that’s what cost the Democrats the election....”

I was surprise to hear him say it. I always imagined him tied to the establishment but he seemed genuinely offended that the mayor had slithered out of his scandal. “Something about this town,” he went on. “Character has never counted for much, it’s the nature of seaports.

The conservation turned to the Church and how it had become so rife with pederasty. I didn’t know it was as bad as it was, he said.

I didn’t believe him, but he said it so sincerely that it occurred to me that whatever he knew or might have known he believed it was all new knowledge. We tried to remember when news of the scandals began. He told me how bad it was still in LA. “There are 200 or so bad priests that we know of.”

How many here? I asked.

He looked at me and shook his head, as if it suddenly occurred to him that I might write about it.

I’m a compulsive truth teller, he said to me once and he said it again on the way to the restaurant.

He also wanted to tell me the five top women he hated. Kid stars mostly. Paris Hilton was at the top of his Five although he told me that someone had suggested he show true compassion and send her a note. He did, a few lines about how she was a good person and should not let herself get down about being in jail. "She didn't write me back," he said

He ate slowly. From time to time he looked off, his eye followed someone and then just stopped. I noticed the terrible bruise spots on the underside of his arm, from his illnesses I assumed. He went on about that again and then the waiter asked he wanted desert. No, he didn’t want any but could they wrap what was left on his plate. He looked out of breath and owl like in his oversized glasses. He looked frightened and suddenly I remembered that scent, that smell my father shortly before he died.

I got the car; we drove back down mission street. I asked if he seen his old lover, the man he told me about the very first time I met, in the fall of 1985. The lover was African American and lived over in Oakland. Took blood at a local hospital. They were happy for a year or two. No, he hadn’t seen him, but had heard the man moved into a retirement home.

We were back at the end of the world. People were literally piled up on his doorstep. It took him a while to get out of the car. He was gracious as always, summed up his impressions of me, always in a positive light, always a father doling out the good news, even when there isn’t any. He made his way to the gate and stopped to chat with the people preparing for the night. ‘The coldest winter I ever spent’. But he didn’t just chat, as if to pass the time, but he asked them what they needed and could they make until morning and did they know of the free beds over on Leavenworth or others over at Episcopal Sanctuary. He was in no hurry. The good Franciscan was doing his work say what else you will.

Nov 4, 2009

"You want to know how I know I'm reaching menopause?" asked a friend the other day. She was angry as hell. "Now that my husband is ill I'm taking the trash out every week. I've noticed I'm the only woman who does that. And so then I yell at these men whenever I see them. "Make your wife do it. What kind of feminist are you? Don't you see you're just enabling. Is this what you're down to?" You know what I mean? It's just sick. What are women coming to, that's what I want to know."

Nov 2, 2009

In the context of pressure put on young Chinese students by their parents at Gunn High School in Palo Alto, a teacher in another school, a small private school on the peninsula, told me these anecdotes from a teacher-parent conference. The teacher is not Chinese; the parents are.

The mother of a 7th grade boy was upset that the teacher had given students this weekend assignment: prepare for a quiz on Monday. "You need to give us two weeks notice for any kinds of test so we can prepare," said the mother. "We need to calculate the number of minutes required to study each day."

The parent of another 7th grade student said, "You want my son to learn how to read 'for fun?' We don't believe in that. Reading is not for fun."

In fact, there is no character in Mandarin that quite connotes, 'fun'.

The mother of a boy in this same class takes her child once a month to a psychiatrist, who charges $250/hr. The psychiatrist claims the child has issues and prescribes various medications.

The teacher disagrees. "There's nothing wrong with the boy. He's fine. He just likes to move around a lot. He has relentless energy. The problem is that he's told he's got a problem. His mother is always telling me, 'there is something wrong with him, you just can't see it.' It's heart breaking to see a child in effect brain-washed into thinking he's ill when he's not. And heart- breaking to see a child who is gifted and smart put under great pressure to appear in a certain way, to display the same kind of academic prowess as other children. This boy has great potential but he's not going to reach it in a conventional way. This is what drives me crazy: this mother, who is very smart, will not acknowledge any way that is not conventional."

And finally a revelation from the Chinese principal of still another school on the peninsula. She noted recently, "I see all these Chinese parents doing this to their children, putting them under so much pressure to succeed. I think it's stupid. I can't even talk to them. They don't understand anything about education... But I am doing the same thing to my daughter. I know it's wrong and hypocritical but I can't help myself."

Oct 26, 2009

On the Bryan Sussman radio show the other day a caller suggested the reason President Obama is closing down Gitmo and transferring some prisoners to the US mainland is because he wants the prisoners eventually released so they can commit crimes, which will enable the president to suspend more basic rights and erect a dictatorship. An Islamic dictatorship.

Good call, said The Suss.

Oct 18, 2009

I pay the gas cashier. She drops change in my palm, ever so careful not to touch me, even with her hand in a surgeon's glove. I get out the door, not wanting to touch the door handle. To my left a lady in a van spots me. "Like to make your marriage better?" she calls out and motions me over.

I keep walking, watching her as though she's a buffalo out the train window. Big dark glasses, tall face, red lipstick, chubby fingers, a bible with the worn-to-yellow leather cover, kids in the back seat.

"Would you like to make your marriage better?" She keeps asking. "Would you? Wouldn't you like it to make it better?"

Okay, I'm thinking: she's on her way to Fort Worth to catch the Get Motivated seminar with George Bush and Rudy Guiliani. I'll contribute to Route 66. I go over.

Five minutes later I know all about her deadbeat alcoholic husband, how he beat her, berated her, belittled her, befuddled her, bitched at her, bamboozled her, baited her, bombed her with abuse, and finally she said, 'that ain't me babe.'

Then she became a JW. And happy being single. 'Okay,' I say. 'That's all good and just listening to your story makes my marriage feel better.'

No, no, but that's not all, she says. She wants to read me something from 2 Timothy and opens her bible. I don't remember a Timothy. Later, I look him up in The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. Timothy was the son of heathen Greek and a Jewish mother named Eunice. His grandmother was named Lois. Tim became Paul's assistant. Here's a description of how they met.

"On this 2nd visit to Derbe and Lystra, Paul was strongly attracted to Timothy, and seeing his unfeigned faith, and that from a child he had known the sacred Scriptures of the Old Testament (2 Timothy 3:15), and seeing also his Christian character and deportment, and his entire suitability for the work of the ministry, he would have him "to go forth with him" (Acts 16:3). Timothy acquiesced in Paul's desire, and as preliminaries to his work as a Christian missionary, both to Jew and Gentile, two things were done. In order to conciliate the Jewish Christians, who would otherwise have caused trouble, which would have weakened Timothy's position and his work as a preacher of the gospel, Paul took Timothy and circumcised him."

Who writes this stuff, I'm thinking. And is the author suggesting that Tim and Paul were lovers?

"This know also," my van lady teacher begins, in a deep manly voice, "that in the last days perilous times shall come. For men shall be lovers of their own selves." She reaches out, takes my right forefinger and guides it along the line, following each word. "Covetous, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy. Without natural affection, trucebreakers, false accusers, incontinent, fierce, despisers of those that are good, traitors, heady, highminded, lovers of pleasures more than lovers of God...

She stops there and taps my finger on the word, pleasures. "That was my husband," she says. Then she taps my finger on Traitors. "That was my husband." Then, incontinent. "That was my husband."

"Really," I said. "All that and he was incontinent?"

"That was Tim," she says.

"You mean Timothy? Not Timothy..."

"No, no, my husband, Tim."

"Oh," I said. "Well that's terrible. No wonder you left."

She wants to go further, go through each word again and how that describes her husband exactly. Meanwhile, I'm flipping through the most recent Awake, which has stories about "Living With Albinism" and "What if my sibbling has committed suicide?"

"Don't you feel better now?" she asks, as though I've just been exposed to a transformation? "Do you see now how to make your marriage better?"

I walk away repeating to myself, I am not incontinent.

Oct 16, 2009

Balloon boy was in the attic all along. When asked by cops why he hadn't revealed himself earlier, he replied, "We did this for a show." Then the boy threw up.

But maybe the boy was misunderstood. It's not clear. Let's say, it was a show. The family from Wife Swap went to the Fame Shop. It was all a hoax to get publicity for an alien-watching, storm-chasing family with an fish eye for recognition. So what.

But this hasn't gone down well with a lot of people. I overheard this kind of comment more than once. "Yes, but after watching that story for nearly all afternoon what you wanted was that either the boy was found dead, or better, alive, of course. But not hiding in the attic."

Dead or alive — you could feel horror or you could sigh a great sigh of relief. You could feel clear about what happened. But the boy curled up in a basket in the attic above the garage was a rude ending: a little too human. Too ambiguous.

It would be like giving a young president in his first term a Nobel Prize. It would be like letting Ken Lewis resign from Bank of America — instead of giving his head to Madame Lafarge. It would be like finding out that it wasn't the NFL players union that undid the deal with Rush Limbaugh, it was the powers-that-be at a New York Law firm, whose partners once included Rudy Guiliani and whose clients include many Republican candidates.

And then what if we never find out whether this was a hoax? What if that's the real ambiguity? What if we're left with our suspicions, which in turn are tied to how we view children in general and our own children and our own flights of ambition?


Oct 15, 2009

Originally uploaded by macnamband

Claire, of course

Oct 14, 2009

Capt. Chignell has reported these events in the Outer Sunset district in the last 24 hours:

300 block of Ashton — Missing, 39-year-old woman

1500 block of Brighton — Found, elderly icon walking on the beach

200 block of Chester — Unfounded suspicion, released on its own recognizance

First block of Granada — Apathy overdose, dragged downtown for questioning

Second block of Sevilla — 30-year-old hope, abandonned

200 block of Harold — Criminal assault on intelligence

First block of Lomita — Found in trash, 2004 promise

Second block Lomita — Unacceptably dark countenance reported

3100 block of San Jose — Fraudulent use of the word, love

700 block of Taraval — Graffiti, displayed on victim's remorse

2700 block of Taraval — Code violation of sincere apology policy

3700 block of Taraval — Blasphemer shouting at the moon

Ulloa and 27th — Kiss gone awry

First block of West Portal — Discovered, 20 pounds

300 block of West Portal — Remains of the day, cited & released

1800 block of 9th Avenue — Death/85-year-old woman (rebirth/her 50-year-old son)

1800 block of 19th Avenue — Fraud/vanity unknown

2500 block of 38th Avenue — Unleashed emotion (had to be put down)

1300 block of 43rd Avenue — Wife taken in, over husband's dead body

2400 block of 44th Avenue — Hate-radio, reported stolen

2200 block of 46th Avenue — Lost, desire (last seen under a country moon several years ago)

1500 block of 47th Avenue — Mediocre middle-aged male mind, vandalized

2200 block of 48th Avenue — Found, 13-year-old runaway ambition

Oct 12, 2009

Stone, I'm telling you: enough is enough.
"You want to sleep, is that it?"
I start telling him what that's like, how I imagine trying to shut down all the control levers — on a wall that extends as far as the eye can see — banks upon banks of levers, all classes of levers but particularly the large fork levers, the kind you use to throttle back a Pratt & Whitney F100, drop the landing gear, and cross into deep space; and then every specie of button and engine light, along with edge switchers, network switches, toggle switches — the kind you'd see on the mahogany dash of Uncle Ducky's 1960 Mark IV Jag — rounder switches, dials, rockers, everything clicking and whirring as the turbines wind and whine down, even as the fans go on zooming, cooling things off, subsidiary motors purring, the whole taxonomy of ever smaller devices in decline, the rackety-clack of valve lifters banging their heads ever more quietly, disks spinning down, and down, look at the spin I'm in, that old black magic, those old clocks trotting along on the grass, out the train window, screens blackening, old-fashioned flash bubs popping; the last crackles of a rotting fire.

Oct 11, 2009

Peet's Coffee, Opera Plaza. 8:06 a.m. ... Man in a gray flannel suit, double vents, silk tie, blue striped shirt — from the Custom Shop if that still exists — with white, French cuffs, small gold cufflinks. A three-inch silver pin across his French collar, underneath the tie knot, so the silhouette from belly to jowl is like a prow. Out the top of his shirt a bullish gray head, a prominent chin, thin lips, glistening cheeks, hair barbered not cut, and no attempt to out the gray; combed carefully but not effeminately; horn rim glasses; blue eyes; sandalwood cologne, the way Brooks Bros. used to make it, altogether, less distinguished or refined than blunt, worldly, supremely confident — even after all these years, even after all the betrayals he's seen. With The Times under his right arm, a mocha in his right hand, the alligator watch band, his left hand, the dreamer, pushing its way out the door.

A marketing man for the opera, we said. Maybe, I thought, but whatever he is now he was once a Mad Man.

Oct 7, 2009

And so you wish to book passage? asked Mr. C.
"I do."
But you're going in the wrong direction, said the boatman. Where were you before?
"I don't know. I have no idea."
You have no memory, said the boatman.
"Think of it as though I were on ship that sank. All hands lost."
Except you.
"Even me."
And what was she carrying, this ship of yours?
"Pure gold, exotic metals, some school boy blazers, old airplane tickets, headshots of starlets, one of a woman with her head thrown back; a Jack Kramer tennis racquet, the scent of Wainscott in summer, a Joseph Conrad novel, an Old Angler Italian leather briefcase filled with family lies and deception, and a few other odds and ends."
The boatman nodded and turned his attention to a manifest. I don't see your name, he said.
"I'm early."
Come again, said the boatman.
"A change in plans."
Well, said the boatman, looking out at the river, which was running high and black. You can do it. Sure. But you know you can't get back.
The passenger had moved away, but he did look back. That's worth noting. The problem was, he couldn't hear anything above the roar.

Oct 4, 2009

I've begun researching a piece about teenagers who kill themselves. It is partly a story of mental illness and partly a story of the pressure parents put on their children to get into the best schools.

For example, there is a hairdresser in Palo Alto who trained to be a breast cancer surgeon in China. But she and her husband decided that the most important thing was to get their child into a UC school. So they found relatives and moved to America, to a neighborhood where they could get their child into The Gunn School, a public school for the children of Silicon Valley executives and Stanford University faculty. Gunn feeds many kids to Berkeley and UCLA. As far as this woman was concerned any other UC school, with the possible exception of UC San Diego, was a sign of a failed education.

This is not a new story certainly, it's just that every few years people forget. Or if they are immigrants, particularly from China, they just never thought about it. The third edition of The Hurried Child came out in 2001. But who reads that anymore?

Here is another anecdote. One day recently an 11-year-old boy comes to a local Montessori school to make a presentation to his class on the subject of the Terracotta Army soldiers of Qin Shi Huang. The boy arrives with elaborate maps showing just where the soldiers were found in Xi'an. He has photographs. He has a bullet point presentation on his computer and most amazing, he has a box filled with sand and small handmade replicas of the soldiers — so you could see just how archeologists found them....

The boy gives the presentation, which he prefaces by saying he got some help from his parents. He shows great poise. At the end there are questions and at one point he begins to cry. The teacher goes to him. What's the matter? The boy inconsolable. But this is a wonderful presentation says the teacher who has been struck by how extensive this presentation is.

The boy looks up, "I didn't do it. It's not my work." The teacher is able to calm the child but later, he falls down on the sidewalk and bangs his head on the cement.

Later, the teacher talks to the mother, who admits the role she played in putting together the presentation. She is an artist. And she agrees that she went to far, that she took away her son's expression, in part because of her own A personality desire for excellence. Nevertheless, she gets the point and promises she will pull back.

A week later the boy arrives in class with a history book. The margins of every page are filled with yellow stickies, each with several ideas and arrows pointing to the text.

What is this? asks the teacher.

"My father," says the boy. "He wanted to help me get ideas."

Oct 3, 2009

Mr. Sussman,

I am 61. I served in the Air Force for four years during the Vietnam war. I support an allied war against the Taliban. I am wary of both government, and corporate, intrusion into private lives. I have occasionally voted for conservatives.

Having said that I often ask my 15-year-old son, on his way back from football practice, to listen to your show. We listened the night you offered Orwell’s 1984 as a portrait of what you think America is becoming. Perhaps, you had only time for the Cliff Notes version and clearly you don’t know much about Orwell, who although difficult to categorize was committed to much that you repudiate. About 1984, he wrote:

"My recent novel is NOT intended as an attack on Socialism or on the British Labour Party (of which I am a supporter) but as a show-up of the perversions to which a centralized economy is liable and which have already been partly realized in communism and Fascism. I do not believe that the kind of society I describe necessarily will arrive, but I believe (allowing of course for the fact that the book is a satire) that something resembling it could arrive. I believe also that totalitarian ideas have taken root in the minds of intellectuals everywhere, and I have tried to draw these ideas out to their logical consequences." [CEJL vol. 4 p. 564]

But what was really stunning was that this was all the result of your time with a couple of Russian Arms dealers who are advertisers. And so a lengthy advertorial. Which without a disclaimer become the view of KSFO…. As an aside, one wonders who finances City Arms and where the arms come from. That you in effect endorse these people makes me all the more determined to fight for a fairness doctrine, which I never thought I would say, much less support.

Incidentally, City Arms urges customers to resist state legislation, AB962, which among other things would demand….

1. Registration and finger printing of handgun Ammo Purchasers
2. Mandatory storage / Display requirements for Ammo Dealers
3. Ban on the Sale of Handgun Ammo through the Internet or mail Order

This has nothing to do with hunting… animals. Or target shooting. Or the Second Amendment. By not supporting this legislation you are endorsing neighborhood gangs and the likes of the Zeta drug cartel. How on earth could one justify handgun ammunition through the mail?

That’s stupidity and that’s dangerous. And it’s dangerous that you endorse violence among your listeners, as you did the night a man called to say that in a post-abortion age women who get abortions should be executed. ‘Good call,’ was the essence of your response. And it’s dangerous — not the way you encourage opposition to Barack Obama, I have no argument — but the way you give credibility and intellectual succor to people who would do him harm.

I think the president will be harmed. I think it’s come to that. And if that happens you personally need to be held responsible, among others. And KSFO, which endoreses your behavior. You are the local Fr. Coughlin, and a man who makes a good living by trashing others for no good reason, by encouraging ignorance and hatred, who has no ideas of his own, who builds nothing, who has only false humility, and is becoming part of the undoing of this country. It’s nothing to do with Left or Right, it has to do with the need for simple human decency. Ironically, you are now the enemy of a free society. You are the one saying there’s a fire in the theater when you know perfectly well there is no fire…. The fire is your ignorance.

At the least my son now understands it. He gets it. Knowledge and moral will are everything. You are the best argument for an elite education I’ve heard.

Sep 17, 2009

We are sitting on an island in their kitchen, the classic California kitchen, which bleeds into all other rooms. The husband is in his late 60s, tall, hair dyed shoe-polish black; his wife just turning 50, her hair cut short. In the last 10 months she has begun to feel cute again. She was born in Beirut, and would have you believe she was a starlet. She appeared in a Fellini movie as a child, but you have to stop the movie to see her.

He was born down the peninsula, went to Harvard and Stanford and has underachieved ever since. He was once a well known architect, but then something happened, no one knows, but he left the profession. Then he began dabbling at being an "artist". He and his wife own rental properties, which is their real income. He had a stroke some time ago and has limited mobility, and limited stamina. And now he's in a downward spiral. He says he wants to get back to riding a motorcycle and a horse and playing tennis. It will never happen, but conceivably it could if he had the will to pull himself up and out of his chair and to start walking. He can walk but it's difficult. He could even walk to a nearby store but he says the grade is too steep. What about a cane? "No, it wouldn't be strong enough." You could take a walker. "No, that would never work, I couldn't lift it. What if it fell over?"

"You could try... "

No, you don't understand. I couldn't."

No, he would rather dream, he would rather jail himself. Frankly, the man is spoiled and his pessimism is contagious. I would never have agreed to go have dinner at all but my wife insisted. She is always trying to save people. And what about his wife? lately strange things have been happening. Three times in the last months he's called 911 to have police come over and "save" him.

The couple has three daughters; two are in college in New England. A third is 15 and lives at home. She's unusually bright and stars in Physics. She's also very direct. I have never seen her be devious. She is usually shy but lately she seems much more outspoken. She has a very pretty smile, and permanent. But as you look at her you realize the smile has different meanings.

So here's what's happening to this man and his family. One afternoon the police arrive and this father says that his 15-year-old daughter refuses to open a bottle of wine for him, which he can't do himself because his left hand is so gnarled. The police are puzzled: the man is not drunk. He seems absolutely sincere. They call social services. A week later he calls again and says his daughter won't help him get downstairs, which everyone knows he can do himself, although with effort. He tells the police it's a case of elder abuse. Two weeks later he calls still again, this time because his daughter has left him alone for several hours. Why didn't he make the charge about his wife, you wonder. Eventually, a representative of social services arrives. A week after that his daughter overhears him making plans to hire a prostitute.

So here we are on an island in their kitchen. Here is the father sitting in his customary chair, his wife is slicing onions with a 14-inch cutting knife. She cuts slowly and carefully, even sensuously. Her husband is talking about his therapy.

"You like that one, don't you," his wife says, referring to one of the women who gives him a massage.

"Actually, there are two of them," he says.

His wife smiles. She never takes her eyes off the onions. "Two, even better."

Her husband is encouraged. "Yes," he says, "she reminds me of my first girl friend. Very beautiful. Maybe the most beautiful woman I've ever known. She was Brazilian." He went on to talk about how he met this woman, how she was a twin, how he used to go bike riding with her in Rio.

This marriage is over, but he doesn't see it. In that sense he is pitiful.

"I'll never have that again," he says and orders his daughter to get him the wine bottle at the other end of the counter. She does it.

"So what you are going to do," asks his wife.

"You'd like it if I killed myself, wouldn't you?"

"There's a gun upstairs," says the daughter, with her permanent smile.

His wife stops cutting and looks at her guests. Everyone is smiling, even the father.

Sep 16, 2009

What is one to make of all these suicides at France Telecom, a company of 100,000. 23 suicides in the last 18 months, 29 in 2001, 30 in 2000. The average per 100,000 in France, is 15. A woman, a manager, threw herself out of a fourth floor window. A man killed himself in his home. Another man stabbed himself in a meeting; whether he survived is not clear from the news report.

Sep 15, 2009

And you are telling me there is no God, no divine intelligence. You are insisting on that?

Sep 10, 2009

What has been a sideshow until now — boviators on parade and now the Host Wars — is serious business. Glenn Beck has two kills on his holster in the last three days. More scalps to come. And now this terrible scandal in the ACORN office in Baltimore, at which two conservatives, posing as pimp and prostitute showed up and got tax advice on how to start a prostitution ring, with under-aged girls. Can you imagine how Rush will play this?

Keith Obermann licked his lips at the thought of revenge then decided otherwise. Still, you can see how this is going to turn into American Sunni and Shia, and how this will transform old time McCarthyism to a new art form.

There are extremists on all sides but it's the Reaganissimos, above all. There's no getting around it. It's those folks still listening to the aw-shucks patter of a 20-mule team Borax commercial, to the ghost in the attic of Ronnie MacBeth watching 12 O'Clock High, imagining he and Robert Stack had flown their B-17s right off the back lot and were suddenly over Germany, and later they would be among the first to break open the concentration camps.

And now Ronnie's kids, hanging on for dear life, are having an identity crisis. 'Where's Pappi?' They want to know because they're feeling powerlessness and the scoreboard says, political defeat. Plus all the economic uncertainty and paranoia, and above all, there's a nigger who got uppity and smart and who the fuck is he to tell us what to do. Boy! And now Ronnie's runnions have tripped the wire. Now they've done it.

It's been happening for months. There's breadcrumbs going back for years, actually. "Obama is a racist." "Poison Nancy Pelosi." Just that stuff in the last 45 days. And now all these little acts of defiance — it's no longer a matter of being civil — and just now this new form of personal destruction. Not to mention, murder. John Von Unn's shooting the Holocaust museum guard is one of several incidents in which deranged minds found refuge in right wing monologues. It's all coming to a head.

And there will be more killings. And the killer, or killers, whether from the Right of the Left, will imagine themselves as martyrs. One act will lead to another. And it will spread. Less the violence than the recrimination. What seemed like small polarities will become large. Barack will be in ever greater danger, just as that woman in the Bay View told me nearly a year ago.

And how did this happen? We all know. People said, "You're A Great American". And they meant it. Otherwise, technology, mostly. The death of Walter Chonkites, the end of newspapers, the extreme nature of meritocracy in private schools, just the end of things, the lack of personal filters, the free-for-all quality of public discourse. The comfort of political camps. The delirious quality of carelessness, itself.

What's needed is a clunker program for egos.

And all the while we indulge ourselves in expression without intellectual representation.... Expression without imagining an effect. I have done it myself.

What's needed is a great sleep, laughing gas from the Le Petit Prince's asteroid, which puts everybody to sleep for 30 days. After that, lost ability to utter a sound for six months. Quiet things down. Communicate by other means.

Aug 27, 2009

It happened last Friday night, around ten minutes before 11. A 13-year-old girl left her home.

This was in Palo Alto, the home of the Stanford Cardinal. The Cambridge, Mass and the Cambridge, UK of California. If California has the 8th largest economy in the world, roughly speaking, Palo Alto is the cowling on the intellectual engine that drives it. It is the cradle of Internet startup civilization.

It is also the center of the known world for many kids looking not merely for higher education but the highest education. And for a moment we will put aside East Palo Alto, which is the dark side of the moon, which is the chaos next to the order.

And so this young girl leaves her home — the details are not clear still — and walks past or near her school, and then on to the tracks that hold the commuter trains that run up and down the peninsula, between San Jose and San Francisco, at 60-70 miles an hour....

Her school is Gunn High. A public school but for all intents and purposes and despite the good feeling liberal parents may derive, private.... This is one of those places where your daughter may be in 3 AP sections and be completely distraught because her friends are in 5. This is one of those schools where you get into NYU and your life is over. This is one of cookers where you are the best and the brightest by definition but if you are not the best and brightest you have failed, you have betrayed the trust, you have not climbed to the summit after all. That you may have EQ to match is no consolation. That your life will unfold like the yellow brick road in the Wizard of Oz does not matter.

So this girl goes to the tracks and when she sees the train coming she steps over the rail — is she facing toward the train or away? I don't know. Is she sitting or standing? I don't know. All I know is that she is in the darkness, alone, recklessly, courageously, confidently, feeling the leading edge of smithereens, the engineer's horn, the roaring, the wind, and then the meteorite itself.

(to be continued)

Aug 19, 2009

The following is an edited excerpt from several letters, in effect a compression, explaining to a former dean at the school why we took our son out of the San Francisco Waldorf High School this year.....

...In essence, we are paying a great sum of money, by our standard, for what? If you look at the colleges that SFWS seniors went to this year, I would argue the tuition is too high. If you look at what our son learned this last year, the tuition is too high. If you look at what the school is offering against comparable schools, the tuition is too high.

Or this. It says much about this school that there was such prolonged discussion among parents, a small number of parents, about acquiring a temporary gym but not much about asking teachers to take less salary. Does anyone seriously think Rudolf Steiner would put a gym before teachers?

I realize that’s a little unfair because the monies for the gym are separate from the school's operating budget. Still, if you were trying to find $1 million to pay teachers more not less, and create new courses we would be with you. But don’t you see that’s the identity problem I’ve tried to express so many times. What is it we're staying with? Those who would like a traditional school want a gym. Those who want an alternative school prefer the best teachers money can buy. And this is always the issue, for me: Is this a traditional school or an alternative school, and what do these terms mean? And what really is the Waldorf High School-offering?

No one has even been able to explain that fully and coherently… For me, the offering will always be in the ideas of Henry Barnes who explained to me once the need to teach, to imbue young people with a moral instinct, which, along with the most refined ability to reason and think critically, could help them approach the most difficult problems of our time — scientific problems, political problems, economic issues that demand not just a 'solution' but a solution with a moral dimension.... To get there you need to be able to first imagine something, an approach that may not exist, which may have to be created. Hence the endless emphasis on imagination and creativity.....

But how do you do that? And how do you manage the requirement for the most basic skills?

For my wife the decision to reconsider Waldorf came when she gave our son an impromptu summer writing course and found that after 9th grade he could not spell very well, nor could he write a simple comparative essay. He didn’t have a clear sense of the difference between an inductive essay and a deductive essay. He didn’t know what a topic sentence was. In sum, he did not know how to begin with an idea and develop it. All things that Barbara felt he should have known. All things that I for one had learned in 8th grade.

Another related issue was the design of the block system, in which students read several significant works but with no time to get below the surface. Another issue was poor communication between teachers and parents. Another issue was that several good people were leaving the school. Another issue was the matter of having parents sign a series of protocols designed to protect children from parents who, it was feared, might not guard the liquor cabinet or bedrooms. This was a parent-generated idea. Other schools do it. But it was not thought through. It's fear based. There was no effort to address these issues with students,who are after all the one who need to accept moral resonsibility.

Moreover, I don't agree with the premise. Rather than relying on signatures, I would rather rely on knowing the parents hosting the evening. And more than that I would rather rely on my trust of my son.....

Having said all that, the school has many wonderful teachers. Dr. Carini and Ms. Alba are great teachers, the best. There are none better.

But here’s the abstraction I'm trying to establish. The curriculum, and indeed the whole tone of the school, is not about thinking critically. It’s not about deconstructing. It’s not about questioning. The Socratic dialogue is weak. It’s about going along, acquiescing, harmonizing with… Not such a bad thing, I suppose, and you may well disagree, maybe I’ve shaded this too much. But from my perspective the school is finally built on a hierarchical model that you either agree with or don’t agree with. As any good school is. But what is this model? It’s not clear, nothing is clear, but whatever the model it’s built around a 'college'. In effect, it’s committee rule with the weight given to long time members of the community. Not always but generally speaking they seem unwilling to incorporate ideas from other schools. And by doing that, whether true or not, they further the notion that the Waldorf education is finally the expression of a cult. I don't think that's necessarily true. It depends on the Waldorf school you're talking about. And there are good cults and bad. The problem here is that the school has not done much to market itself properly and so the notion of a 'cult' education lingers.

Recently, the school has tried to present itself in a more traditional light, but without establishing a clear and an agreed upon identity. Agreed upon by faculty, administrators and parents. You can say you're 'traditional' all you like, however you define the word, but then you have to do substantive things to be that. Having a temporary gym in the parking lot is not enough. And I would argue the mistake is try to compete with so-called 'traditional' schools in this city. Better to work from a core strength, which is finally alternative and make that work. But how do you do that? The answer begins with working out a clear identity, which is made difficult because the further you get away from primary education the harder it is to find direction from Rudolf Steiner.

Ironically, the Head, Hands, Heart mantra, which should be the motto of Waldorf has been taken by Lick-Wilmerding, which is, I would argue, the finest school in the city. For many reasons.

But even a committee directing the Waldorf high school wouldn't be so bad if there was a consensus. But there isn't and no one has risen up who can lead the school on its way. This problem of direction is partly in the nature of Waldorf schools. From my experience over the last nearly 20 years... There is something about the personality of Waldorf parents, some call it a passive-aggressive quality (in my own case it's simply aggressive), which may suggest things are being worked out on the ethereal plain, but not on the physical plain. I don't know how else to describe it. Passivity and utter calm at one end of the spectrum; repressed anger and neurosis on the other end. I don't exclude myself.

The real problem is that there is much pressure to go along, to be loyal to the school, to suppress criticism. And once you become an outsider, as I did, then you have no say. At the last parent meeting of the year I volunteered to serve this coming year but as I looked around the room I realized that beyond being the bull in the china shop, I was not the conciliator that was required. I was never going to be in a position to change things, even as I came to realize how many parents agreed with me. And there are many. Many more than the administration might imagine. I would never be trusted by the people on the inside….

And so where does that leave us? In a school — and you may be surprised to hear this, a school that I dearly love — which I am forever at odds with, am forever frustrated with because it is finally not the high energy, courageous experiment that it could be. It’s low energy, careful, conservative, quiet, highly controlled, and becoming more and more traditional. And how can that be? Because after all it is the legacy of a mind at war with, among other things, the most dramatic evil of the 20th Century.

Jul 21, 2009

Fr. Floyd often spoke of himself in the third person. "Fr. Floyd knows his responsibility to the poor," he would say, "Fr. Floyd also knows the grace of God."

In the beginning, Floyd had an outrageous desire to be graced by the media as well, which is how I met him, more than 20 years ago. Then, he was a dashing Franciscan priest, in his brown robe and proud piety, or else his Giant's warm-up jacket and matching cap.

Next to God he loved celebrities. "Did I tell you I met Obama?" he said to me a few months ago. "A good man. I was impressed. And I was very direct. I asked him, 'what are you going to do about the poor.' He looked me right in the eye, I liked that, he looked me right in the eye and I think it caught him a little, but you know how Fr. Floyd is, and he said it was going to be a real priority.' No, I think he's going to be a great president. I was very impressed. He makes me think of Rooseveldt."

Fr. Floyd could never have worked with the poor had he not had equal access to the rich. For years he had a patron, a Nob Hill matron, a stocky, sexy blonde if I remember, who invited him to dinner and introduced him to the hoity-toity. And they would turn to him at dinner and as much as pat him on the head for his work with St. Anthony's diningroom and living down next to St. Boniface as he did, and then later out in the Mission District. "What is that like, working those people?" they would ask. "How do you do it?"

In fact, he did it very well, although I didn't accept that until the last time I saw him. I took him to a Thai restaurant over behind the Hall of Justice. A few months earlier we'd had dinner and he was off his game. He looked terrified. He had nothing to say.

Today, was his funeral and he would have been happy to see a full house and of course the archbishop, who was separated at birth from Dick Cheney, and a handful of friars, who looked as though they'd been separated at birth from reality, not to mention a comb or a wash cloth, they looked like a disheveled bunch of night afters, folks still on the Bataan death march, and ne'er do wells, not that you have to be a brill cream man to be a friar, but the look of kempt and some projection of hopefullness and well being would have helped, and there was also the Speaker of the House's husband, and various cops and people Floyd worked with at the foundation and people who just came in off the street to see what all the music was about. The whole service was like a musical, as the woman standing next to me said.

They wheeled in the casket and you'd thought he was being buried in Afghanistan; the coffin was that simple. A lot of people got up and said what they could, which wasn't much in most cases. Fr. Finian gave the eulogy and it would have made Floyd weep. No one knew him better than Finian who is the real lineage in the order. What's left of it. Looking at the friars you wondered whether the effort was about over. All of them over middle age, save a few who looked distinctly gay. Fr. Floyd said they were nearly all gay and he was worried about that.

As the incense was pitched to the four corners and sallow-skinned church bureaucrats presided over the mass and the parishonners got their transsubstantiation and people wept, because it was sad, no question, and while police horses pawed at the cement outside and two traffic cops gabbed in the middle of the street, and some kid came up to the side door with his boombox on high, and after Paul Pelosi got up and talked about how wonderful it was that Fr. Floyd had been able to work with 'those people', he actually said that, and you thought, 'Paul, you're not at the Gettys now, you're actually talking to 'those people,' ' but the speaker's husband didn't care, it's just never occurred to him — he had a mustard-colored kerchief in his breast pocket and stood stiffly like a mannikin in a store window — he was just here to say, on Nancy's behalf, what a great loss this is, and thank you to the foundation for all you've done, that was his real thrust, and then Dick Cheney's twin, the archbishop, got up and said he had the last word, and first he had a joke to tell about how Floyd wore a Dodger's shirt under his Giant's jacket, and then he rattled on about Matthew 24 and 34 and you wanted to yell out, "hike," and afterwards he ended with the fearsome promise that God has the last word and there was something in the way he said that left you with the impression that his God does not take personal phone calls and will be out of the office all this week.

"I think Fr. Floyd was well represented here, don't you think?" Floyd would have said to me after the service, and then he would have relished the details, the nuances, the back stories and he would have wondered how the TV stations would play it, because at least two stations were there, and he would have wanted to insure the press releases went out and he would have been miffed that his death was not better played the day after he died, and he would have wept to hear his sister's rememberances...

At that last dinner we had, he didn't speak in the third person. The affectation was gone. The fear in his eyes was gone. Resignation but not fear. Even his loneliness was over. He was face to face. He said, "I don't really believe in it anymore." What's that, I said. "The church, I don't believe in the institution. I love the people but I don't think..." He let the point go.

Later, I dropped him off and I had to help get him in the door, moving between sleeping homeless, and he seemed genuinely happy to be home.

If I'd given the eulogy I would have said how Floyd might have once thought of the poor as 'those people' but at the end he was saying to himself, and believing it for once that, "we are all 'the poor', we are all naked and strangers, we really are no different, and there is no duality and God will grant us His grace and that's all we can believe in but it's enough...."

Jul 12, 2009

I know what you saying: "but all these stories sound the same. It must be the same couple over and over. Why do you find such people interesting? Who cares?"

But it's not the same couple over and over. It's that the circumstance is so pervasive. If you ask me to tell a happy marriage story, I can't do it. Which is not to say there aren't any happy stories, it's just I haven't heard any. I don't know those people. What I hear is this: a woman talking about her marriage who says, "I am grieving, I am in a state of grief." Or the woman, at wit's end, who says to her husband, "as soon as she goes away to college (referring to their daughter) I am leaving you."

Or the woman at the next table in a Noe Street restaurant, a very sincere and dignified woman describing the moment last week when her husband, in the middle of the night, after a tumultuous dinner with a one time neighbor, in the middle of the night grabbed her hand, stuffed her fingers in his mouth and bit them. Not hard enough to cause great damage, but hard enough to hurt onr finger badly, bad enough to be struck dead at the shock and the bizarness of it, badenough to be shaking her head for days afterward and not a little fearful of her husband. "I don't know what we've come to," she told her friend.

Still another woman, blonde, in her 60s but looking 40, confided to a friend, "I am not playing by the rules anymore. Enough is enough. I just won't. I've paid my dues."

And so it's as though this city had turned into a 19th Century French novel, as though all your friends, and their friends, had come down with mal-de-siecle. If only Chateaubriand were here. If only Flaubert could see this.

Go to dinner at anyone's home and at some point the conversation always turns to mal. Old and new mal at the same time — and on the surface rooted in lost jobs or the effect of lost jobs, lost properties, lost inheritances, lost social status, lost ambition, higher tuitions. The prospect of never being able to retire. For women, of a certain age, say between 45 and 60, the mal is about fading marriages and the urgency of finding a lover, of either sex, or keeping a lover in need of repair himself, or else finding someone to help them with their much older husband. What seemed to her so far off and possible is now suddenly here and impossible. It was supposed to be life in a DH Lawrence novel, life by a crackling hearth. That was the picture when the man was 55 and the woman was 40. But now he is 70 and she is 55. And he is not Robert Redford at 70, he is either obsessively introspective or ill, or dangerously unaware, or else a Republican, which is the same thing. Meanwhile, she is just coming into still another bloom, rich with sensuality and bravado.

But that's the surface. There is something else. Ennui is not the word for it. Rage is more the word and all its corollaries: resentment, denial, lethargy, mindlessness, lack of confidence, childish yearnings, outrageous sentimentality — along with strange illnesses, fantastic nightmares, sexual listlessness and yet spiritual hope, but with no real desire for enlightenment. As though you'd woken up in a burning house and were too drunk or drugged, or just too worn out to crawl out the door.

Jul 9, 2009

Would you come to dinner? the husband asks. It'll be boys night out.

The next day we arrive at the top of a hill, climb up Victorian stairs, the front door opens, the husband steps back. The livingroom is a wealth of glass and, above a small, carefully flowered backyard, there is all the city, at 7:30 on a summer evening, fog slopping over Twin Peaks, all of downtown in photoshop and craquelure.

Drinks, nuts, more drinks, dinner, 'will you have another?', 'I will,' and then more life stories, still more anecdotes about children, about schools and summer houses, names dropped and picked up, the whole IT of establishing a perspective by which to accept each other. And everything is fine. The animals in the wall paintings, the carefully picked jazz, the faces of young boys at the table, the food itself, everything is safe and sound.

Later and later his wife arrives. Pretty, sensuously European, dark hair, with the gray just arriving, in cashmere and soft wool, layers of browns and deep reds, and very quiet at first. Small, watching eyes. Altogether like a French garden, like her garden, everything at a sharp angle and carefully laid out. She's been out for the evening, a married woman out for the evening by herself, which in her case seemed immediately dangerous, not that she might be harmed physically but that she might become lost emotionally.

In passing, she leaves the word, Landmark.

You mean...

Yes, I think it was called EST. Yes?

Her husband knows very well: The old Werner, now in Indonesia, isn't he, and weren't there charges of financial impropriety and something else. A scandal. No one can remember.

Well how is Landmark? we ask.

It's actually very helpful. I have no baggage but it's interesting to hear others share.

Because, she goes on, I have no one to talk to. And not a coroner's trace of humor. He, she says, looking at her husband: he, doesn't like to communicate. He can't, it's beyond him. He smiles, responds. She, he says. And suddenly there's a triangulation, the guests have become unwitting therapists. He has a last word and did he say, 'well, all you can think about is sex.' Was that what he said? It could not have been. You wouldn't say such a thing in front of children, or in front of guests you hardly know. He could not have said that, it's what the guests heard, it's some problem, some association, they have.

People share things, she goes on, about themselves, it's often about their parents. But it's very brave. These people are really saying things....

The husband looks at us, rolling his eyes. She looks at us, rolling the wine in her glass. Everyone on quicksand, everyone about to be pulled under.

Jun 9, 2009

Originally uploaded by macnamband
Photo by Jacobovitz (

Jun 4, 2009

You haven't gone for a walk in a week but tonight you walk. The moon is imperfectly full and shrouded. You walk north along 47th Avenue to the park. At the corner of Kirkam Street you stop for a car. The car is black and blacked out. As it passes, at a creep, the passenger in the back seat and the passenger in the front seat both reach out and arms unraveling like Frog tongues they slowly give you the finger. These shadows make no sound. The car makes no sound. And still they keep holding out their fuck-yous.

The car passes and you cross the street. Two blocks further on you glance at the dancing school on Irving where the dark-haired Lithuanian woman dances, sometimes by herself, sometimes with clients. The building is dark. Across the street, the Pacific Catch Restaurant is closing. Customers are filing out, saying their good-nights.

What time is it? You cannot see your watch in the dark. You keep walking until finally you can see hands. They're joined at midnight.

You come to Lincoln. There is no traffic. To the left, you can see the blue and red 76 sign above the neighborhood gas station. You cross the street diagonally, to the park entrance. There are no street lights. Three men stand in the shadows by the entrance. They're not blocking the path but you need to pass close to them to go on. The men are in their 20s. One is wearing a hair net, the way gangstas do. Another hops up and down. The third keeps lighting his cigarette. They're talking about one of their friends, how he's gonna get fucked up if he keeps acting stupid.

You pass them by and disappear into the black. There is only enough light to imagine the path, as it winds up and around. Eventually, you see a street light far ahead. The light at the end of the tunnel comes to mind.

Meanwhile, you imagine the contents of the dark. You hear a stick snapping, a voice in the bushes. You tune yourself for flight or fight.

But nothing happens, and now you've come to the light at the end of the tunnel. You can see your surroundings. You are inside the park with the Polo fields a quarter mile to the east, to your right. In the other direction, toward the south windmill, the ocean. If you stop you can hear it. You cross a road and continue walking north toward the other side of the park. You pass the entrance to the soccer fields. Just before the north windmill you see the path that cuts down in behind Beach Chalet. You turn in. There is no light. The path is narrow, like a hiker's path. It runs over a bridge. Someone could set upon you but they don't. Then you round a corner and there's the bar in back of Beach Chalet. You watch the people for a moment, listen to the music, and go on.

Now you walk south, toward home, but instead of going out to the lighted way that runs along the park edge, with the car lights and traffic lights if nothing else, you take the path that runs close by the soccer fields. There is no light, save the day-for-night light from a shorted moon. This used to be a wooded closet where gay men trysted, but the park service has cleared out the underbrush. In the day, no one comes here anymore, but at night, once again, it's a haunt for men who prefer the nuances of shadow to the bulb swinging slowly in a club bathroom.

As you walk along the path, wide enough for a narrow car, you see the tips of lighted cigarettes in among the bushes and trees. Figures move out of the shadows. Occasionally, out of nowhere a figure stands in the middle of the path. It moves aside as you pass. It says nothing. You are in someone's nightgiest, you are in a palace of extreme anonymity. And for that reason, you are more safe than you might imagine. But there's something else. Something else that is appealing about this place. It conveys, however theatrically, a vision of after life, as if you had suddenly passed over into deathtown. You might think of it as a practice area, to train your fear away.

But just when you have found a comfort, even a justification for being in such a place, you are nearly shot dead with fear — from a howling, a horribly piercing howling, so animal-like and so close that for a moment you think there is an animal right there in front of you. It bring you to a crouch.

But it's not an animal, it's another figure-spirit, standing in the middle of the path. Now suddenly he's coming toward you still howling. You brace yourself for destruction. You say something by way of shield, 'what do you want?' It wants nothing. It passes. It has a knapsack. It speaks Spanish under its breath. It's a jin, an angry, nutty jin, a creature from the inferno, but for that instant it had you, it drew you over, over and into a bardo where they work with live ammunition.

May 28, 2009

Francoise died yesterday, in the afternoon. At home, surrounded by two of her three children, along with grand children and her husband, of course.

He and Francoise had been together for half a century or more, and you should have seen them in their hay day. They were perfect complements to each other. Which is one reason it was so painful for him to watch her mind disappear and at the end listen to her say, referring to her husband, "who is that man?"

She was born in Paris, was instantly tall, black-haired with a stunning beautiful smile. She grew up during the occupation, with all of its horrors, but do I remember correctly she said once that occasionally during those years she played tennis in the Bois de Boulogne? Her family were well-to-do and royalists, and although she turned away from the Church in her 20s she never quite lost her affection for the trappings of old republics, and some 19th Century prejudices. For one, she was still convinced Alfred Dreyfus was a German spy.

Hardly out of school she met and married a Swiss doctor. Not welcomed by her parents but Francoise was adventurous and stubborn. They moved to America where she had hoped to get a PhD in English literature. Her husband was the love of her life but next to him was Thomas Wolfe.

And then all these years later, after all those fabulous dinners and lunches, after so much grace and creativity. I often wished she had been my mother.... After all that she was alone in that huge stone house with her husband. Who was still one cigarette after another, and one glass of thick red wine after another. So there was some question at the end how to undo that bond between them, so that she could move on.

Toward the end, a shaman was in attendance for several days and suggested that in order to let Francoise go, it might be best if there could be some physical break between she and her husband, if she could have space to leave. And finally she got it and left.

And what happened to him? He has managed along without her. Perhaps, he is relieved. Perhaps, his own mind is enough.


May 1, 2009

I have very strange news: I received a letter from Ruth Madoff. I had no idea we knew each other, but then I remembered a girl named Ruth at Mrs. DeRam's dancing school in about 1962. Dance instruction was in waltz, fox trot, rumba, chacha, and twist. Class was held every Thursday at 5 p.m. sharp at the Colony Club, on 64th and Park Avenue. I remember Ruth as a homely girl with glasses and feet that turned in, which made her a difficult dance partner. Her mother sat in the mezzanine and watched her daughter closely. She always had a scoldful-expression and sometimes after class ran Ruth down for not showing more enthusiasm.

Why would I think that that Ruth became Ruth Madoff, who is now offering me money? Here's why. I've come to believe that life really is like living in one of those summer reading classics, like Joseph Andrews, Tristram Shandy, or of course Tom Jones; with those plots that always end up at the beginning, those characters ignored as a child, or unknown, who turn out to be your mother, father or sister. I believe in irony, that's the reason I think it's the same Ruth. Also, I had a very promising tarot chart this week; money is on the way it said.

But there was one jarring thing about this letter. After reading it I was surprised and a little disappointed. I'd imagined Ruth to be somewhat better educated. So many grammatical errors. Not to mention the fact that she didn't capitalize her married name. That makes me think she doesn't think highly of Bernard anymore. But that's psychobabble; these are hurried and stressful times and actually her dancing was not precise.

Here's the email that came to me, exactly as it appeared.....

Dear Friend ,

I am Mrs.Ruth Madoff, wife of bernard madoff.

I am actually going through some kind of difficult time with my family right now, as my husband is at the Metropolitan Correctional Center, New York City.

My husband Sentencing is scheduled for June 16, 2009 and he is likely to face a maximum sentence of 150 years in prison and $170 billion in restitution, so there is need for me to move out alot of my personal funds and peronal belongings around the world , particularly from outside america, but i need somebody to trust now, because i cannot receive funds here in america right now.

I would need your help in acquiring some properties and keeping some large cash amount for me. but first i would prefer to chat with you either on yahoo chat or Skype. if you are not comfortable with yahoo then write me,so we can communicate via email.

This is very urgent, i would have to entrust a large amount of money into your hands and some personal valueables. But this would have to be very confidential, just between me and you, because the press are afetr me and my husband name all over the headlines, because of his Wall street business.

Anyway! don't be scared about the risk, it is a very safe deal i can assure you of your condidentiality.

Yours Sincerely
Mrs. Ruth Alpern Madoff
Email Contact:

I wrote back a very warm reply, pretended to know something of her life since dance class. I said I would do anything to help her and mentioned some friends of mine, from Nigeria, who are always willing to buy or sell hot properties. I added that I was married and as long as I didn't have to get involved with her romantically I hoped we could become friends and maybe business partners.