Friday, November 27, 2009

Gigi and the Dog Eat Dog World

I just started reading Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer, in part because I am once again a human ping pong ball. First, I was a vegetarian for 30 years, then I stopped for three weeks because Verna was worried about my health, then I jumped back on the meatless bandwagon three weeks later, then this summer I started eating sustainable chicken and fish. But about a month ago, I realized (yet again) that I am a vegetarian and that is how I want to live in this world, so…

Reading Safran Foer’s book will probably confirm my choice. Next up The Vegetarian Myth, once it becomes available from the library. This book says the real culprit is industrial agriculture and not eating animal flesh may actually be detrimental to one’s body.

So who knows where’ll I’ll be eating-wise in a few weeks, chomping on slabs on beef, wolfing down rotisserie barbecued chicken? Doubtful. But I close the door on nothing.

I see the parallels between Safran Foer and myself. Neither of us liked animals all that much even though we either rarely ate them or abandoned our omnivorous ways altogether. But Safran Foer, like me, became a dog lover later in life and that surprised him.

And me as well.

We had a pet for five days when I was a kid. A puppy my father brought home that barked through the night and peed everywhere and drove my mother crazy. She made us get rid of it, and I cried at having to lose the little fellow who slept in my room.

A former girlfriend and I bought a puppy on a total whim at a Farmer’s Market outside Vermont more than 30 years ago. We soon realized neither of us, both college students at the time, was equipped to care for it, so we gave it away.

So I grew up with very little contact with animals in my own home outside of the occasional run in with spiders, crickets, and ants. Maybe once we had a goldfish. But there were no hamsters, bunnies, kitties, or anything else. And I didn’t particularly like animals all that much anyway.

Now my sentimental or sense of justice side came out from time to time. The political action group I worked for in Hartford, CT, in the early 1980s always hosted a holiday fundraiser that featured a plethora of items on which people could bid and buy. Someone put up a sheep for auction and the buzz around the room was that Nick Nyhart and a few friends were going to buy it for slaughter and consumption.

I quickly ran up to my friend and housemate Georgette. “We can’t let them kill the sheep,” I said.

“No, we can’t,” she said.

“What if we were to get a group of people together to buy the sheep and save its life?”

So Georgette and I scoured the room for partners as the bidding began. We rounded up three more people and raised $120, enough to outbid Nick and his gang. Georgette made arrangements with farmer-homeowners in Eastern Connecticut, where our sheep presumably lived out its days in relative peace and tranquility.

But the sheep episode was easy. I never met the sheep, didn’t have to interact with it, bath it, or clean it after it got sick or soiled itself. Nothing. The fact is I didn’t like caring for animals. Poopy diapers, hysterical children? Yes, as long as they’re my own. Animals? No thanks.

I worked on a kibbutz for three weeks when I lived in Israel during my junior year in college in 1979-80. One of my jobs was to collect the eggs in the henhouse. I got so upset at the little buggers pecking at my fingers and hands that I sometimes threw their eggs back at them. I was cruel.

My attitude towards animals and animal care changed a little over a year ago when we got Gigi, a miniature poodle. Verna fell in love with her immediately after she wandered into a pet store in Pismo Beach with our sister-in-law and then 18-year old niece. Verna called me on my cell phone, for I was at an Arroyo Grande Park at the time with Miguel, Maya, another niece and nephew, and my mother-in-law.

“I can’t believe you’re asking me to make such a decision on a cell phone while I'm at the park,” I nearly shouted to Verna. “We have to agree right?”

“Yes,” she said.

“OK, then I don’t want a dog. I don’t want any pets. Too much work.”

Verna came home with pictures of the poodle on her cell phone. I said she was cute, but I didn’t want a dog. Verna returned to the store and snapped more photos with her digital camera. Yes, I agreed, she is very cute, but I still don’t want her. We had dinner plans that night with the kids (two of ours, four of my brother-in-law and sister-in-law’s) and the adults in San Luis Obispo, where we were to meet my brother-in-law after work and his eldest, Erik, and Erik’s very pregnant girlfriend. Verna made us stop, hungry, at the pet store to meet the puppy. Yes, I agreed again, she was very cute, but I don’t want a dog.

Then I turned down the aisle and found Maya on the floor with the dog rolling in her lap. That’s when I realized it wasn’t about me. The kids will love her, I knew, so I relented but not before exacting a few concessions from the peanut gallery:

1. I will not have to scoop her poop
2. Miguel will never ask us for another gift for at least a year
3. My eldest niece would quit smoking
4. Miguel will be the primary caretaker for the dog he named Gigi

So we brought Gigi home a couple of days later and I spent nearly a week stewing about the dog. “Why did we have to get her?” “How much money is this going to cost?” “Why did I let you talk me into this?”

Gigi was relatively quiet and passive, but I wasn’t used to the small mounds of poop or the tiny streams of piss she left as presents in the kitchen and living room. And I was taking her out at night.

Well, eventually I calmed down and grew to love Gigi. She is sweet and makes almost no demands on us. Yes, she wants to be fed and use the neighboring park to pee and poop, but she is pretty low maintenance. She is happiest when someone gently strokes her belly.

And what happened to me, the guy who never really liked animals even though I wouldn't eat them? I am the alpha male. Gigi will abandon just about everyone and everything to come over to me. I am her go-to guy and that has helped bond us together. She is a member of our family and I like having her around.

I guess I could say on this day after Thanksgiving that I am grateful she is in our lives. As for the “promises” made to me once I caved in about Gigi, not one has held up. I scoop poop all the time; Miguel helps but is certainly not the sole caretaker, and he still asks for presents, gifts, and assorted stuff all the time (hey, he's a kid). And my niece, well, we’re sort of, kind of working on that.

But it truly doesn’t matter. I love Gigi, she loves me, and we’re a happy family. Corny and true.

Friday, November 20, 2009

The Kids Wanna Rock...And Rap

Alice in Wonderland tumbling through the Looking Glass has nothing on me. Lately I’ve been riding the crest of a hip-hop wave thanks to our not-quite-twelve-year-old, Miguel, and I’m beginning to like the weird feelings I’m experiencing.

I am a rock and roll baby. I grew up listening to AOR, AM, FM, and everything in between. My mother brought me to a Dick Clark hosted rock and roll show at the Bushnell Memorial in Hartford, CT, when I was four. I’ve seen Chuck Berry in concert about seven times. I’ve see the Rolling Stones (twice), Springsteen (twice), Bryan Adams (twice), Simon and Garfunkel, Melissa Etheridge, the Talking Heads, Robert Palmer (four times), Stevie Wonder, Billy Joel, Journey (three times), Rick Derringer (twice), Peter Frampton (four times), and for this Sunday I snagged a six dollar ticket to see KISS for the first time.

So, yes, I love rock and roll. Yep, saw Joan Jett on a double bill with Cheap Trick at UCONN-Storrs in 1987.

Miguel likes rock and roll, too. He grooves to the Beatles and Chuck Berry and loves Green Day. But lately he has really been into hip-hop and rap, which coincides with his entrance to the larger social (and hormonal) milieu of middle school.

And now that Miguel has hijacked the radio whenever we are in the car together, as I did when I was his age, I’ve been ‘forced’ to listen to his music. At first, I rebelled. I’m earning the not-so-big bucks, so I’ll listen to whatever I want, you feisty whippersnapper.

I even flashed back in time to when I was traveling somewhere with my father. He always wanted to listen to WRCH, which featured elevator music and the soft sounds of Sinatra, Dean Martin, and the Big Band Era. Interestingly, I love that music now, but back then I thought it was awful. I am sure my father felt the same about rock and roll. I am also sure he detests rock and roll today. I wanted rock and roll on WDRC, WCCC, WHCN, and WAQY. So my father relented either out of a strong sense of paternal love or submission to his independent-minded teen.

Lately, though, I’ve actually been enjoying much of Miguel’s music. I even uploaded three songs to my iPod, and the other day I couldn’t stop singing Cascada’s Evacuate the Dance Floor.

My initial rejection of hip-hop and rap was that many of the lyrics denigrate women and use language that isn’t appropriate for Miguel. But as I listen to the songs, and hip-hop stations seem to play the same ones 2-3 times each day, I’ve learned they are no more or less harmful than any of the rock music that pours into my brain everyday on the radio and iPod. And I could use hip-hop as an opportunity to discuss values and other important issues with Miguel.

Take one of the songs Miguel really loves these days, Whatcha Say by Jason Derulo. It’s about how he got caught cheating on his girlfriend and is now begging for her forgiveness:

I was so wrong for so long. Only tryin' to please myself (myself). Girl, I was caught up in her lust. When I don't really want no one else. So, no I know I should of treated you better. But me and you were meant to last forever. So let me in (let me in) give me another chance (another chance). To really be your man. Cause when the roof cave in and the truth came out. I just didn't know what to do. But when I become a star we'll be living so large. I'll do anything for you. So tell me girl. Mmmm whatcha say, Mmm that you only meant well? Well of course you did. Mmmm whatcha say, (whatcha say). Mmmm that it's all for the best? Of course it is. Mmmm whatcha say, Mmm that you only meant well? Well of course you did. Mmmm whatcha say, (whatcha say). Wha- wha- wha- wha- what did she say?

I said to Miguel after we heard it for the third or fourth time that day, “Do you know what the song’s about?”

“He’s sorry about cheating on his girlfriend?”

“Yes,” I said. “But would he have been sorry if he hadn’t gotten caught?”

“Probably not,” he said.

I actually like the song a lot. The chorus is very sweet and I love to watch Miguel stick his hand out, close his eyes, and sing along. But I also want him to begin to understand a little bit about relationships and treating people right.

Another song he digs a lot is La, La, La by LMFAO:

I feel like I just seen the sun for the first time. You make my life bright cuz you shine. It's me and you baby, it's our time. I'm living my dream, girl cuz you mine. You got me skippin down the street. And singin love songs all out of key. I didn't smoke nothin but I feel so high. And I know why. It's a love thing, it's got to be. Your heart's all locked and I got the key. It feels like I just won the lottery. Cuz I got my girl and she got me. You my new obsession. All I want to do. You my new obsession, girl. I feel on top of the world wit you baby. I want to dance and party tonight. I feel on top of the world wit my lady. I'm gonna rock your body all night. She makes me wanna sing. La, la la la (8x)

I haven’t felt the need to talk about it, but the other day Miguel said, “Do you know what LMFAO stands for?”

“No,” I said. I still don’t know how to text from my cell phone.

“Laughing my effing ass off,” he said.


“Laughing my…”

“OK,” I interrupted, “I got it.”

Still, though, Miguel is impressed that I have been open to listening to hip-hop and, to a lesser degree, rap and that I am appreciating both genres.

“Aren’t you glad I got you into hip-hop music?” he asked me the other day.


Then he got wide-eyed when I told him I used to commandeer the radio from my father just as he’s done to me.

“Really?” he said. “Did Zadie (the Yiddish name for grandfather) get into your music?”

“No way.”

So it’s a generational thing. I know I am getting older when the rebellious and also corporate-driven rock and roll of my youth is no longer cool enough for my hip-hop adoring son, just as I once eschewed the un-cool sounds of Dinah Shore, Count Basie, and Mantovanni.

But I am big enough to admit that a lot of the music on Movin’ 99.7 and Wild 94.9 is exciting and great to listen to. So excuse me, please, but I’ve got to evacuate the dance floor:

Turn up the music. Let's get out on the floor. I'll like to move it. Come and give me some more. Watch me getting physical, out of control. There's people watching me. I never miss a beat. Steal the night. Kill the lights. Feel it under your skin. Time is right .Keep it tight. Cuz it's pulling you in. Wrap it up. Can't stop cuz it feels like a overdose. Oh, oh, evacuate the dancefloor. Oh, oh, I'm infected by the sound. Oh, oh, stop, this beat is killing me. Hey Mister DJ let the music take me underground. My body's aching. System overload. Temperature's rising. I'm about to explode. Watch me I'm intoxicated. Taking the show. It's got me hypnotized. Everybody step aside. Steal the night. Kill the lights. Feel it under your skin. Time is right. Keep it tight. Cuz it's pulling you in. Wrap it up. Can't stop cuz it feels like a overdose. Oh, oh, evacuate the dancefloor. Oh, oh, I'm infected by the sound. Oh, oh, stop, this beat is killing me. Hey Mister DJ let the music take me underground. Come on and evacuate. Feel the club is heating up. Move on and accelerate. Push it to the top. Come on and evacuate. Feel the club is heating up. Move on and accelerate. You don't have to be afraid. Now guess who's back with a brand new track. That got everybody in the club going mad. So everybody in the back get your back up on the wall. And just shake that thang. Go crazy, yo lady, yo baby. Let me see you work that thing. Now drop it down low, low. Let me see you take it to the dancefloor, yo (Everybody in the club!). Evacuate the dancefloor (Everybody in the club!). I'm infected by the sound (Everybody in the club!). Stop, this beat is killing me. Hey Mister DJ let the music take me underground.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Mothers Days

I was in the bathroom last week with Maya as she went potty. She looked up at me and smiled as if we were playing in the park.

“Daddy, I want a baby in my tummy.”

Um, what?!? But all I said was, “You have to wait until you are older and get married.”

“But I want a baby in my tummy now,” she said.

My next impulse was to call for Verna, who was on the couch and feeling ill from the effects of her radiation treatments. But Maya abandoned her insistence on having a baby right at the moment I needed her to pee, and we settled into a less troubling conversation.

“Verna, guess what Maya just said to me in the bathroom,” I said as we emerged. Verna managed a smile as I told her.

We probed Maya further and found out she plans to name her baby Tullen, which is the name our friends Kylie and Steve chose for their second child who was born about a year ago.

“I’m going to hold my Baby Tullen, daddy, but who’s going to help me?” she asked.

“I can hold Baby Tullen with you,” I responded.

“No, I can do it by myself,” she said.

Then she started asking me if she could still come home after she was a Mommy to Baby Tullen? Would she still be welcome? I told her that her home now would always be her home and she could come over anytime after she was married and a mother.

She smiled. I guess she needed some reassurance.

Maya has mentioned wanting a baby several times in the past week or two, so Miguel has heard her desires as well.

“Who do you want to be your husband, Maya?” he asked her the other day.

Maya has a stable of neighborhood boyfriends, so she usually just runs down the list or chooses one or two of them. On this day she answered simply, “Luca.” He lives down the block, is also three, and had played with her earlier that day. Other times, she says Ryder, oldest son of Kylie and Steve, who used to live next door, or AJ, who lives diagonal to us.

Verna and I were talking about Maya’s maternal wishes with a few friends over the weekend.

“One time,” Verna said, “Maya woke up from her nap with one of her baby dolls stuffed under her shirt.”

So the Mommy Instinct is also quite powerful in an almost four-year-old. We live literally right next to a city park, so Maya has seen her share of mothers and babies, and a few of our friends have had kids in the past year. Maya’s best friend, Jira, has a sister who is also almost one, Kaya. Maya regularly sees mothers breastfeeding and caring for their infants. Maya has changed a few of her dolls’ diapers with real ones.

Both Verna and I know Maya’s instincts to have a baby in her tummy are normal and sweet. All this practice and play and imagination will serve her well in the DISTANT future. But I draw the line if she asks soon how to get a baby into her tummy. For now and for a very long time, Maya is going to have to be content just to cram a doll under her shirt on her own.

Monday, November 9, 2009

The Rhythm Is Gonna Get Ya

“Do you think we could use this on Miguel’s resume?”

“Uh, no,” Verna answered me.

“OK, maybe we can say he appeared with the Pete Escovedo Latin Jazz Orchestra.”

“I don’t think so,” she said.

In my never-ending quest to expand Miguel’s cultural horizons and expose him to music I enjoy, especially since he’s hijacked the radio and now plays rap or hip-hop every time we are in the car together, I took Miguel to a jazz show in San Francisco yesterday afternoon. Yoshi’s, a jazz club and Japanese restaurant, has a Sunday matinee where kids get in for only $5. When I saw that Pete Escovedo, well-known Latin percussionist, and his daughter, Sheila E, were playing with an orchestra that also features two of his sons, I bought two tickets for my saxophone-playing preteen and me.

“Do I have to go?” Miguel whined in typical preteen fashion a couple of weeks ago after I’d purchased the tickets. “I don’t want to see jazz.”

Even though I am not the adult in our household with the strongest sense of intuition, I knew if I could actually drag Miguel’s butt to the performance, he would enjoy himself.

And I was right. Very right. And all it took besides some scorching hot Latin jazz from a sizzling orchestra was a kid’s bento box with sushi and Japanese fried chicken and two fresh berry lemonades.

Once the music started and my feet were be-bopping under the table and the rest of my body was pulsating to the Latin rhythms, I looked over at Miguel.

“What do you think?” I asked.

“Pretty good,” he said, munching on the last of his chicken and motioning toward his empty juice glass. “Another one?”

Good thing he wasn’t driving home. I think the juice was carbonated.

After a few songs, one of Pete Escovedo’s sons, Peter Michael, invited any of the kids in the audience on stage to join the orchestra.

“Miguel, go on up,” I said in the dimly lit restaurant.


“C’mon, Miguel,” I said, but wanted to add: You’re in the school band, you read music, you’ll make me proud, so do it for me. Then I thought about bribing him again.

When we were in Portland as a family three years ago, we ate dinner one night at the Lucky Labrador, an excellent family-friendly brewpub we’d discovered on a trip there in 2002. Miguel was taking piano lessons at the time, so I said, “Miguel, I’ll give you $10 to play piano in front of the entire restaurant. Three songs.”

“No, not for ten bucks,” he said.

“OK, we’ll give you a $100,” said Verna, the usually more frugal one.

“Really?” he asked, wide-eyed.

“Yes,” she said.

“Really?” I asked.

Turns out Verna had promised Miguel that we would buy him a certain Star Wars Lego set that retailed for close to $100, so her incentive that night was really just a jump on a gift he’d nearly earned. He actually played four songs and inspired another kid to tap on the keys after him.

Back at Yoshi’s, Miguel wasn’t panicking about going on stage, but he wasn’t moving.

“I’ll walk you up there,” I said as several young people made their way to the front.

“No, I’ll go by myself,” he said as he jumped out of his seat.

And there he was, up onstage with Pete Escovedo, his three children, the rest of the orchestra, and about 25 other kids. Peter Michael stuck a microphone in each kid’s face and everyone introduced him or herself. Then the music began.

Miguel was in the back row, hidden behind the smaller kids, so I had to wait until he returned to our table to find out he played some kind of shaking instrument that may or may not have been in the tambourine family.

“How was that?”

“Okay,” he said in typical preteen fashion. But there seemed to be a gleam in his eye.

The Escovedo Family is from Oakland, and proudly called themselves ‘ghetto’, so they play a hip-hop tune that I hoped would compete with Miguel’s preteen fascination with LMFAO and Jason Derulo.

By the time the show was winding down, after more than 100 minutes of music, I looked over at Miguel again. He was pounding on his chair with his chopsticks as if he were the sixth percussionist in the orchestra. He was feeling the music. And he was on a mission.

“Dad, once the show ends can you buy me a pair of Sheila E’s drumsticks?”

“I guess so,” I said.

“They’re autographed,” he added. “And how about a drum head as well?”

It was also autographed by her.

How could I turn him down and splash cold water on his Latin jazz music-fueled enthusiasm?

So he brought home the drumsticks and the drum head for himself, and the chopsticks for Maya, and they banged and thumped before and after dinner. It was loud and it was entertaining and it was heavenly. Just as I knew it would be.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The Best Offense is a Good Defense

Verna met with her oncologist yesterday. One of the things the doctor said was she hopes that Verna will be able to tolerate her chemotherapy, due to start in mid-November, for several years. The oral medication, Xeloda, is designed to keep the cancer from spreading out of Verna’s bones and into major organs.

I figured I should share some of what we learned at the oncologist’s with Miguel. He is 11 and knows that Verna’s breast cancer has metastasized to her bones. A few questions rumbled through my mind as I pondered how to broach the subject with Miguel: do I tell him before school and risk ruining his day? Before bed and cause him nightmares? During the later afternoon while we are tossing a baseball or football or playing Nerf basketball in his bedroom?

We’ve told him all along, “The doctors and nurses are going to do whatever they can to help Mommy get better. If that situation changes, we will let you know.” So I didn’t see anything wrong with sharing some of the information we got from Dr. Greyz yesterday morning in her office.

“Miguel, what does the offensive line in football do?” I asked him this morning as we drove to school. His carpool buddy was home sick, so it was just father and son at 7:45 on a chilly Wednesday morning.

“They block,” he said, somewhat confused by my question.

“Right. They’re supposed to stop the defensive linemen and other defenders from breaking through and getting to the quarterback,” I explained.

He was still confused.

I continued, “That’s how the doctors hope that Mommy’s chemo pills will work. The chemo will prevent her cancer from leaving her bones and going to other parts of her body.”

He was quiet for a moment. When he spoke he said, “Can I play football?”

I am reading Real Boys by William Pollack, a noted Harvard psychologist, who advises not to answer “We’ll see” or “Maybe” when a child requests something and you are unsure if you can deliver. Pollack favors total honesty with some good old fashioned explanations. So, if one of your children asks for something beyond the family’s current financial means, don’t just put them off by offering a “We’ll see” or a “Maybe later.” Be honest and say something like, “Maybe we will be able to afford that in 6 months, but right now…” Or, “What are some ways you could earn extra money to help pay for it?”

Pollack’s advice ran through my mind as I formed an answer to Miguel. I was also close to laughing because after I’d explained about Verna’s chemo, Miguel’s first response was about playing football.

“Mommy and I are not that happy about you playing football,” I said. Miguel knows we are worried about potentially serious injuries he could incur.

“But I am going to need the practice if I’m going to play for the Oregon Ducks,” he said. Miguel has been a devout Oregon Ducks fan ever since we spent time in Oregon in 2002, en route to Vancouver, and later for a week in 2006.

“What about playing baseball or basketball for the Ducks?” I responded.

“What’s wrong with football?” he said. “And I’m so good at it.”

The conversation kind of ended right there. Even though Miguel is a skinny, built for non-contact kind of guy, he wants to race down the football field and catch the winning TD. Verna and I, on the other hand, have visions of paralysis and severe head trauma.

But he does love playing football. I’ve been throwing deep bombs and short distance almost precision passes to him for several years. He dons a football helmet, mouth guard, and gloves and we practice on the field in our park or the street near behind our home. Lately, we’ve been doing punt returns, where I loft the ball high above him, which he retrieves and then tries to barrel past me for a ‘touchdown’.

Until Sunday. That is when he swept past me again with ease and I fell to the ground and nearly tore ligaments in my knee or severely bruised the bone.

So I told Verna about our conversation, and she said, “Are there still youth games going on? Maybe we could take him to one.”

Miguel has a friend who is smaller than he is and plays Pop Warner football, so our ‘you’re going to get your less than sturdy gridiron butt knocked around way too much’ argument doesn’t wash with Miguel because of his buddy.

I know that Verna is hoping Miguel will see a game up close and personal and immediately shun any present and future connection to organized football because of its real and inherent dangers. We also know that is highly unlikely given that he is a preteen and sees the game as a thrilling adventure.

So the next time he asks to play football we may have to bribe him out of it or resort to the time-tested response of “Maybe. We’ll see.”