Wednesday, May 27, 2009

If It's Not Broke...

“Yes, I’ll do the dishes,” I said to Verna moments before she got out of Dodge. OK, more like a few hours before she left for the weekend by herself.

In the when-it-rains-it-pours department: the normally reliable dishwasher, which is only one or two years old, flashed an error message and shut down completely while filled with foul smelling dishes. So Verna washed the bottom row before she left for her brother’s house in Arroyo Grande (four hours south) and instructed me, while I was at work, to tackle the first row.

“I’ll take care of it,” I assured her. And I did. Washing dishes isn’t that big of a deal. I did consider eating out every night with the kids in order to avoid the chore. But my economic sense ruled the day. So it was scrub, scrub, scrub.

Adding to our why-me-moment, the malfunction light on our minivan, which we bought at what was then a good price from our neighbor the used car dealer, started flickering and the car kept lurching backward whenever we drove uphill.

Verna and I thought transmission replacement, engine problems, or other assorted automobile repair nightmares that would be covered under the service warranty we purchased when we acquired the car this past January.

We only paid $6500 for the car, but since we got it we’ve had to replace all the fluids, which were all dirty, the brakes, which were 90% worn, and now we find out the car never had its 100,000 mile service. [Yes, in hindsight we should’ve done a diagnostic before we bought the car.]

So the $6500 car has cost us an additional $2000 since it joined us not quite six months ago. Our neighbors are quite friendly, but once a used car salesman…

None of this weighed too heavily on Verna’s mind as she embraced her first weekend without kids or husband in more than a dozen years. The reason for her escape was a family wedding in Newport Beach, just south of Los Angeles. She went down there with her brother and his wife.

And they had a great time. Verna slept past 8:30 on Sunday and Monday mornings, reconnected with a couple of first cousins, met some other family, and celebrated a joyous occasion without her usual daily worries and routines.

And I had the kids, which is always an adventure and a blessing. Saturday afternoon, one of our neighbors literally plopped on our couch while Maya napped so Miguel and I could join a few of his Little League buddies at the movies. We saw Night at the Museum: The Battle for the Smithsonian, which wasn’t as entertaining as the first one.

Miguel and I also watched two movies, Star Wars: The Phantom Menace and The Goonies. He really liked Star Wars and thought The Goonies was pretty good. Oy, my son the movie critic. He also finished the book he was reading and watched Maya two mornings while I worked out.

Sunday, Miguel joined two of our neighbors, Alyssa and Victoria, for a women’s soccer match featuring Marta, considered by many to be the best female soccer player in the world. He came home bubbling about the players, the match, and wanting to go again.

“Dad, dads get in free before Father’s Day,” he said, handing me a promotion for June 7. “Can we go?”

“Sounds like a good idea,” I said.

Maya and I spent a lot of time in the park. She was in her domestic mode, so she served me several delectable entrees with woodchips and sand.

“What are you making now?” I asked.

“Pasta,” she said.

“Is there anything else in it?”

“Chicken,” she said, which explained the larger and almost chunkier woodchips.

When Verna came home around dinnertime on Monday, Maya raced out to greet her with a yelp and laughter. She must’ve told her several times, “I love you, Mommy. I love you, Mommy.”

Even Gigi, our puppy that just turned one, accosted Verna with long-lost fervor. It was a welcome home Verna deserved. She later said of all of us, “Absence does make the heart grow fonder. Sometimes I just need to get away.”

In the Holy Crap Department: how can the supposedly bastion of liberalism and open-mindedness that is California deny people equal rights? Yes, I am talking about same-sex marriage. While I am glad the court preserved the same-sex marriages performed before Prop. 8, I am very saddened and angry that certain loving and consenting adults cannot join together in holy matrimony. It’s wrong and absurd and inhumane.

No, I don’t feel better by venting. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Friday, May 22, 2009

Randomly Yours

Random musings before a holiday weekend:

Bay to Breakers

I lined up with more than 50,000 other runners, walkers, drinkers, revelers, and assorted non-conformists last Sunday morning as temperatures soared near 90 at eight in the morning. I was with Verna’s brother, Marty, who’d trained for about three months for the 7.46 mile race, but is quite fit.

The Bay to Breakers is basically San Francisco’s version of Mardi Gras: you have costumed people clad in various stages of dress and un-dress and copious amounts of alcohol. Soul-pulsating music reverberates through speakers at different points along the course. No theme from Rocky, but plenty of foot-thumping music to make you shake your booty and run faster.

My goal was pretty simple: stay with Marty. We last ran together three years ago and he beat me by a few minutes. I have no problem losing, but Marty is a casual runner at best (although he is a better athlete by a long shot), so I hate getting whipped by similar runners when I’ve pounded the pavement for more than 30 years and finished four Boston Marathons.

“Oh, it’s going to be great,” said my father-in-law, Martin, as we walked to his car so he could drive us cross-town to the start. He lives two blocks from the Pacific Ocean, so the breezes there were misleading. “The temperature is going to be fine.”

However, the heat of the day made the initial miles of the race, when the course was clogged and we were chugging along at nothing more than a somnambulant trot, feel easily like the inside of a health club sauna. I was almost dizzy.

Marty and I ran together for about 100 yards. Then I had him in my sights for another mile, maybe, before relenting as an inner voice said, “Let him go. Preserve yourself and run slower. It’s hotter than hell.” Translation: OK, I am a wimp.

[Speaking of really hotter than hell: our neighbor Tony, 31 and nationally ranked at the club level in doubles tennis, ran a 50-mile race the day before Bay to Breakers in Bishop, CA, outside Sacramento, where the temps neared 100. He finished in under 12 hours. As his wife said, "The man's a freak."]

City officials and race organizers supposedly cracked down this year on alcohol and public nudity in an effort to curb highly inebriated people trashing the city and urinating in public. But I passed several people who were naked and several more who shouldn’t ever be sans clothing in public or private.

“There goes one who is uncircumcised,” I said at the end of the race as Marty and I watched finishers with Martin, my niece and nephew, and my other brother-in-law, Jim.

Marty pulled a calf muscle a half-mile from the finish but still managed to best me by ten minutes. He was limping badly, so I rationalized my performance by saying, inwardly, “I may be slower, but at least I’ll be able to run tomorrow.”

I wonder if I will ever push myself to the brink and embrace more than minor discomfort in order to succeed in a physical effort. I knew running under an hour, as I did seven years ago, was probably out of the question for me, but keeping pace with Marty should not have seemed impossible.

Oh well. But as someone once said, “The race does not always go to the swift, but to the ones who keep running.”


I subbed at Miguel’s school last Tuesday. And while I didn’t sub for his home room, I was the teacher for Ms. Naughton, who teaches Miguel’s class science on Tuesday afternoons.

“Miguel, you have to call me Mr. Friedman. Not Dad. Not Steve. But Mr. Friedman.”

He just nodded.

Sub Day started off quite easily. I walked into the classroom just before 7:50 and got myself organized, looking over the sub plan and breathing in the classroom. The students arrived at 8:05 and worked independently until 8:30. Then they went to PE until 9:20, which was followed by DARE (drug and alcohol education) and led by Deputy Hughes until 10:05. Then they had recess until 10:25, the first ten minutes of which I supervised. After recess, they finished up DARE until 10:45.

So I didn’t start teaching until 10:50, and that lesson was on narrative writing. After I did a five minute intro, they worked on their writing projects until 11:35, followed by group and self-directed math work until lunch at 12:05.

Miguel’s class was the first one I saw after lunch at 12:55. It was a science lesson, the differences between physical and chemical changes. Miguel raised his hand three times to ask thoughtful questions. Each time I waited to hear those magical words, “Mr. Friedman…”

But, alas, he did not address me as Mr. Friedman. Or Dad. Or Steve. Or anything. He merely posed his query, which I guess is better than some of the monikers kids have for their parents and teachers.

Last night at Open House, one of the 5th grade parents corralled me in Miguel’s classroom. “I heard there was some exciting news at Dixie.”

I figured another teacher was pregnant or getting married or there was some other gossip she was going to share. I waited. “Miguel’s dad was the substitute on Tuesday,” she said with a sly grin.

Ms. Naughton reported that the kids thought I was cool. “I only wish I’d asked you to sub in September,” she said.

As Verna and I trailed Maya (Miguel was already far ahead) last night on the way to the multi-purpose room and all the art projects, a fifth grader from Ms. Naughton’s class huddled against her mom greeted me: “Hi, Mr. Friedman,” she said, smiling.

At least one kid got it right!

Right On!

I won't go into the details of Miguel's Little League game tonight; OK, just a little: his team won, 11-4, he lofted a single into center-rightfield and also scored a run. But much more importantly was what happened after the game: the opposing team basically attacked our players with two coolers filled with water balloons. Fortunately, one of our team parents planned ahead so Miguel's squad was suitably armed.

As soon as the game ended, players rushed towards each other and started lobbing, tossing, firing, and pelting each other with water balloons.

It was awesome.

One kid said as soon as the fight ended: "That was the greatest water balloon fight I've ever been in."

Coaches from the opposing dugout lobbed balloons across the field at players, coaches, and the few parents (including me) stupid, er, daring enough to get near the battle arena. I was helping Miguel and his teammates reload balloons when I'd hear another parent yell, "Incoming," and then it was whoosh and water splashed on my pants or shoes.

Whatever enmity or tension that had built up during the game (if at all) quickly dissipated as players from both teams instantly turned into giggling ten, eleven and twelve-year olds having a summer-like fun with water balloons and ice cream.

Sometimes it takes someone trying to peg you with water balloons, as you bolt across the outfield screaming, to remind you the sports are just games to be contested and enjoy. And afterwards, a good old fashioned free-for-all never hurt anyone.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Cult of Personality

Civilization isn’t yet being sucked into a massive black hole, but the world as we know has changed irreparably thanks in part to American Idol.

I don’t even watch the show (wink-wink), but last night saw parts of it that were, um, exciting and scary and may portend a further deterioration of American civic and cultural life.

Verna and I were set to view (on a rented DVD) the rest of part one of Empire Falls, an HBO miniseries starring Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Ed Harris, and others. But Verna is also hooked on Idol, so we had to switch back and forth between the two programs.

Last night’s Idol featured clips of the three remaining contestants’ rousing returns to their hometowns. As I was watching, I was dumbfounded at all the adoration lavished on three guys who are contestants on a cheeky reality show.

They haven’t even won anything yet and may never score big in the music world, but literally thousands of people (close to 20,000 for Kris Allen) showed up at venues in their hometowns to celebrate the returns of the not exactly Prodigal Sons.

And then it hit me as grown women cried when Adam Lambert shook their hands or autographed their t-shirts and little girls and pubescent females cried, actually cried, when one of the three touched them: Why are these guys so popular? What have they done to deserve any accolades outside a good swift pat on the back?

They haven’t stood up for any important causes or been role models for changing the world. They’re just competing in a rather shallow singing competition.

I am not trying to single out American Idol for all my reproach. But AI is another symptom of what I think is wrong in our cultural universe. I’ll call it (not originally) the Cult of Personality, whereby we elevate minor players on the cultural stage to the status of Very Important People.

We do it with athletes. We do it with actors and actresses. Remember Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers, in which two serial murderers attained celebrity status? How many jailed deviants receive wedding proposals or get married to female admirers? Far too many to count, I think.

Facebook and other online social networks (Twitter, MySpace) are also serious parts of the problem. And bloggers. We have created a sub-society where we actually think (or don’t care) that people want to know (or don’t) the minutiae of our days and our thoughts.

And we do not shy away from letting people know just about everything (and, believe me, I am just as guilty as anyone). Today’s Facebook, for example: someone notified us about watching the finale of a TV show; someone wrote about nature; several people mentioned the end of their college semesters.

Not all of it is inane, er, mundane. One woman shared the awesome news of her second pregnancy. So social networking as a medium to update people and keep us in contact with those we’d otherwise never phone is a good thing.

It’s just that…I don’t know…I feel we are getting carried away. Do I really need to know if someone is overwhelmed by housework or that another has a cold? On the other hand, there is something delightfully democratic about being able to commandeer such a large forum and grab people’s attention. Why should the world of communication be reserved for the professional talking heads, pundits, journalists, and has-been political hacks? Everyone has a right to express him- or herself, and social networking makes it so much easier.

Maybe, though, it would be better if people went back to holiday letters. Just kidding (though I send one every year). Cyberspace has altered the communication landscape for better and worse.

I realize that my rant is rather hypocritical given that I blog (and advertise my blog on Facebook and via email). But, hey, nobody’s perfect. But given that I am not, what kind of homecoming parade might I expect in Bloomfield, CT this summer?

Friday, May 8, 2009

Happy Mother's Day, Chela

This will be my wife’s first Mother’s Day without her mother, Maria Graciela “Chela” Wefald, who died last October after a brief and sudden illness. She was 84.

She and Verna were very close, so the past several months have been very hard for her; even more so as the holiday approaches. One woman told Verna, “My mother died ten years ago and I am still not over it.”

So Verna started informally planning about a week ago what we might do on this Mother’s Day. Boom! An idea bolted into her head almost instantaneously.

“I know what we’ll do for Mother’s Day,” she said. “We’ll have a picnic…at the cemetery and then play a game of P & M,” which was one of her favorite family card games.

Either Miguel or I joked that we would have to open the grave so we could retrieve the playing cards Maya threw in on the day of Chela’s funeral and burial.

Maria Graciela Wefald, who was born in El Salvador and came to the United States in the 1950s, was one of the most unconditionally devoted parents and grandparents I’ve ever known. Her selfless embrace of her family reminded me of my maternal grandmother (who died in 1999) and my paternal grandfather (who died in 1992).

Shortly after Verna gave birth to Miguel in 1998, Chela took the bus from San Francisco to our home, 30 minutes north, with a pot of chicken soup. She then walked nearly a mile from the bus center, more than ¼-mile of it uphill, to our shaded duplex overlooking San Rafael High.

I have several memories of Chela I’d like to share. Even into her early 80s, she routinely hiked 2-3 miles. She chided her family to eat their “green things,” which were vegetables. She called root beer soda “ruse beer”.

She and my father-in-law trekked to our home everyday, five days a week, when Verna was first diagnosed with cancer. They came for 9 months, and then thanked us for giving them the gift of spending time with their grandchildren.

She had a reverence for the cycles of life. She truly believed in the power of the moon as a healing force. She felt one had to be near the ocean during a New Moon to fully experience lunar intensity. One time, while Verna, Miguel, she, and I drove up the coast to Portland, OR, we stopped just before lunch so Chela could dip her feet into the Pacific.

She doted on all her grandchildren, but I saw her mostly with our two kids, Miguel and Maya. She actually played with them. She was always on the floor with Maya, building something or getting swept up in other imaginative play. And she tossed baseballs outside with Miguel or played board games with him.

She occasionally gambled in Reno or Tahoe, but almost always played the nickel slot machines.

She was very devout in her faith, but it was a quiet devotion. She always felt humbled and awed in church, but never expected any kind of religious reciprocity from her family.

Verna, her two brothers, and her dad had a musical photographic video made a few days after Chela died, and we viewed it at her funeral and at the memorial gathering at our home later that day.

Maya asks to watch “Grandma’s movie” several times a week, and usually Verna complies. She and I still get teary-eyed and we’ve seen it more than a dozen times. Chela’s death left a gaping hole in our lives and hearts. She is terribly missed but her legacy of devotion and nurturing lives on in Verna and, I hope, Miguel and Maya and all her children and grandchildren, as well as the great grandchild she never met, Lola Chela.

Rest in peace, Chela, rest in peace.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Manly Men

Shortly after Verna announced she and Maya were spending the weekend at her brother’s, Miguel had sketched out a Guys’ Weekend Plan.

“First we’ll play nine holes of golf,” he said. “Then we’ll go to the batting cages. And then we can go to the movies.”

“Which movies do you want to see?” He is only allowed G or PG.

“17 Again, Observe and Report.”

“Observe and Report is rated R,” I said. Then I nixed 17 Again, which is PG-13.

Sandwiched in between all the father-son bonding would be Miguel’s Saturday afternoon Little League Game and a Sunday afternoon practice.

So last Friday night we kicked off our testosterone fest with a dinner I prepared (hotdogs for Miguel, veggie burger for me, homemade fries for both of us) followed by a parentally tame movie, Cool Runnings, a cute and inspirational based-on-a-true story (of the first Jamaican Olympic bobsled team) Disney flick I hadn’t seen in many years. Miguel thought it was just OK.

“Let’s stay up and party until midnight,” Miguel said.

“Uh, no,” I said. “What kind of partying do you want to do?”

“I don’t know,” he said. “It’s just that real men stay up late.”

Not real older men like his father, who just turned 50 and loves power naps nearly as much as breathing. Staying up late at my age just means getting up in the middle of the night to pee.

He was pretty tired, anyway, so he willingly went to bed around ten. It rained pretty hard at night so the coaches postponed his baseball game Saturday afternoon. Puddles had formed near each of the bases and the outfield was soggy and squishy, making the entire field unsafe for action.

However, one or two dads, undaunted by the inclement conditions, invited anyone to an informal practice at the local high school on the synthetic football field. It was drizzling slightly, but Miguel wanted to go. I had a book to read, so I reasoned to myself that an hour or so inside the car wouldn’t be such a bad idea.

When we got to the high school parking lot, I waved goodbye to Miguel, who joined up with one of the coaches and a few of his teammates, and then started reading. Three dads were on the field with six kids. I was relatively warm and dry inside the car.

Then I heard a voice. No, not some psychotic episode, but an inner one that said, “Real men don’t read in the car while the guys are frolicking on the bouncy turf at Terra Linda High.”

So I got out of the car and headed for the field, just in time to watch Andrew and Miguel, at different times, sliding and splashing across the field, laughing and screaming with giddy abandon.

It was three-on-three baseball modified to fit being played on the 50-yard line: it was a hit if you made it safely to first before the pitcher had the ball or any other base before being tagged out. Any ball hit past the goal posts was a homerun. It was so waterlogged they went through two balls, having ripped the leather off both.

I told Coach Ron and Coach Mike about our weekend.

“I guess I’m supposed to share with Miguel how to be a man,” I said. “How do I do that?”

My question was quasi-rhetorical. I know how to be a role model, but how does one explain those various insights to an 11-year-old who is not yet ready to be a man, just a preteen?

“Being a man just means accepting responsibilities and loving your family,” chimed in Mike Martino, assistant number two on Miguel’s team.

As Mike, Ron, and I talked (I was wearing Mike’s baseball glove and technically playing in the outfield for the kids’ game) a ball came soaring at me, but I missed it because I wasn’t really paying attention.

Real men can focus and multitask.

For the rest of the afternoon, Miguel talked about the practice. He absolutely loved pitching and hitting and diving on the fake grass and getting soaked so much that he couldn’t pull off his baseball socks without his father’s help.

After we came home and Miguel put on dry clothes, I walked the dog (because, as Mike rightly noted, real men do meet their responsibilities) before he and I went out to dinner. We went to Pinky’s, local pizza joint and sports bar, to watch the 7th game of the Celtics-Bulls playoff series and so Miguel could play video games. Then we rented two movies, The Express, based on the true story of Ernie Davis, a phenomenal college football player who died of leukemia when he was 23, and College Road Trip, probably one of the only G-rated movies Martin Lawrence will ever do unless there is a sequel. It’s about a father who has a hard time letting go of his graduating high school daughter.

Both movies were actually perfect for our guys’ weekend. The Express was not only about Davis’ life (he was the first African-American to win the Heisman Trophy, awarded annually to the nation’s top collegiate football player), but how he played with an unshakeable sense of pride and determination during racially tumultuous times. So Miguel and I got to talk about values.

In one scene, when Davis’ top ranked Syracuse Orangemen faced number two Texas in the Cotton Bowl in hostile Texas, fans showered him and his teammates with soda, beer, popcorn, and bottles. Miguel looked utterly shocked that people behaved so horribly toward Davis just because he was Black.

“And this wasn’t even fifty years ago,” I said, trying to halt a full-on lecture. “Look at all those people, young and old, being so bad. Can you believe it?”

He just shook his head and looked genuinely flabbergasted.

College Road Trip was goofy as Martin Lawrence, a police chief outside Chicago, plotted unsuccessfully to corral his lovely daughter, played by Raven-Symone (once a young star on The Cosby Show), into going to a local university.

As I realized that Miguel, now 11, would be off to college in seven years, meaning he’s been with us longer than it will be for him to leave, tears streamed down my cheeks. I completely empathized with Lawrence’s character, for I understood his anxiety and inner turmoil. And I also agreed when he yielded to his higher self and let his daughter make her own choices.

Sunday brought more intermittent rain and a cancellation of Miguel’s practice. We started off the day at the Farmer’s Market, where Miguel ate a chicken-apple sausage and a Hansen’s soda and a Bavarian pretzel. Then we played miniature golf.

In the afternoon, I took care of a few responsibilities, which involved walking the dog (Miguel helped throughout the weekend) and laundry. Then we went bowling. We stopped at Whole Food’s on the way home so Miguel could pick out some dinner for himself. After dinner, we played catch, for the sun was finally out, and I pitched to Miguel so he could practice (for the first time) batting left-handed.

Here’s what I learned or was reminded of about real men over the weekend:

1. Real men are responsible. Miguel had an offer to join a friend in San Francisco Sunday afternoon, but I said, “Miguel, real men meet their commitments. You have practice and they’re counting on you.”

2. Real men can have fun. OK, I kind of balked on this one. Although I yanked my sorry butt out of the car to play baseball at the high school, I did not hurl my body across the water-saturated field. Next time, though, I am diving head first into something.

3. Real men have to spend a lot of money. If you add up dinner on Saturday evening, eating and shopping for fruit at the Farmer’s Market, one game of miniature golf, and two games of bowling, we easily spent close to $150.

And it was worth every damn cent. For it was not about the money, which we don’t really have, but about the time Miguel and I spent together, time we could also spend (and have spent) without shelling out too much dough.

At one point during the second movie on Saturday night, as it neared 10:30, well past Miguel’s usual bedtime, he leaned against me and put his head on my chest. He wanted to cuddle as he struggled slightly to stay awake (either that or he was so tired that he needed me just to keep him from nodding off). Yes, real men can hug and hold each other for comfort, especially a father and son.