Saturday, December 8, 2012

At The Crossroads: The Harlem Renaissance, Civil Rights, and the Fight for Black Dignity

The topic of this 11th grade American history lesson is the role the Harlem Renaissance played in the African-American fight for self-respect, civil rights, and artistic expression, and how certain artists used their media to combat segregation, racism, and overt racist violence.

Learners will demonstrate an understanding of the role the Harlem Renaissance played in Black activism against segregation and more overt forms of racism and violence directed at African-Americans.

By answering one essential question and several secondary questions through an exploration of sites dedicated to the Harlem Renaissance, students will not only learn about the music, art, and literature that exploded in the 1920s, but also connect the Harlem Renaissance to the larger fight for equality and as a precursor in many ways to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s.

Students will then compose answers either in essay form or develop a presentation with answers delivered by one historical Harlem Renaissance character.

Subject Matter Content Standard: 11.5 Students analyze the major political, social, economic, technological, and cultural developments of the 1920s.

[2] Analyze the international and domestic events, interests, and philosophies that prompted attacks on civil liberties, including the Palmer Raids, Marcus Garvey’s “back-to-Africa” movement, the Ku Klux Klan, and immigration quotas and the responses of organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and the Anti-Defamation League to those attacks.

[5] Describe the Harlem Renaissance and new trends in literature, music, and art, with special attention to the work of writers (e.g., Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes).

Essential Question:   How did African-Americans in the early part of the 20th century use music, art, and literature to deal with and resist the overt and covert segregation and racist violence they encountered in the South and North?

Subsidiary Questions: 
2. Who were some of the main players on the Harlem Renaissance scene?
3. What role did music play in the Harlem Renaissance?
4. How did artists use poetry as a vehicle for protest and social change?
5. How did Harlem Renaissance artists use their media to dispel the notion that Black people were unable to be creative voices?
6. What two major world events caused the power of the Harlem Renaissance to wane?
7. Which American music styles owe their origins literally to African-American communities?
8. How did the Harlem Renaissance affect the politics of the decades leading up to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s?

PBS Newshour--a special documentary of the Harlem Renaissance

Friday, October 12, 2012


Twenty minutes before the Oakland A’s and the Detroit Tigers tangled in last night’s American League Division Series finale, a bunch of yahoos seated behind us started hurling a torrent of verbal abuse at Justin Verlander, the Tigers’ starter, as he strolled to the bullpen to warm up.

“Pussy, pussy, pussy,” they screamed, fingers pointed as if he were a molester or other serious criminal.

I looked over at my co-worker and friend, Erik, who was seated next to another friend of his, Ed, who’d been a groomsman at Erik’s wedding. “I paid good money for these seats,” which were four rows from the field opposite first base. “OK, they were free,” I added, “but I am not going to listen to these guys talking crap all night.”

Erik had gotten four comp seats from another friend, a season ticket holder, but I told him if these guys yelled “Pussy” one more time, I was getting in their faces. “They’re offensive,” I muttered.

Another guy, three rows behind me to my left, stood in the aisle and shouted, thrusting his finger back and forth, back and forth, “Shut up, shut up, shut up,” as Verlander approached the bullpen mound.

And all night long, guys in sections near us felt compelled to yell obscenities and insults at any Tiger player within sight. Miguel Cabrera, the man who just won the Triple Crown for the first time since 1967? The boos and taunts rained down on him from the moment he stepped into the batter’s box, as they did for Prince Fielder, the Tigers’ five-foot eleven, 300 lb. power hitter.

“Twinkie, twinkie, run after your twinkies,” they yelled at the portly Fielder, or they said, “Cecil, Cecil, Cecil,” the first name of his estranged father, a former major leaguer.

Why do some people, often emboldened by alcohol, feel the compulsion and right to be so idiotic? First, do the players even hear them amid the din of 48,000 fans? But, even if they do, why do some fans seem to take an almost cruel joy in heckling?

Several years ago, after Malcolm Kerr, a leading academic on the Middle East, was killed by terrorists in 1984 while teaching in Lebanon, a group of Arizona State students chanted at his son , Steve Kerr, an Arizona shooting guard, in 1988, “PLO, PLO . . . “and “Your father's history,” and “Why don't you join the Marines and go back to Beirut?”

Kerr said at the time, “When I heard it, I just dropped the ball and started shaking. I sat down for a minute. I'll admit they got to me. I had tears in my eyes. For one thing, it brought back memories of my dad. But, for another thing, it was just sad that people would do something like that.”

Ushers and other stadium officials are instructed to remove anyone from major league ballparks and stadiums if they use inappropriate language. I am not a Puritan, but I do draw the line at offensive comments, obscenities, and other foul remarks. I am there to enjoy the game, socialize with friends, converse with strangers, and there is no excuse for real fans to act so stupidly, drunk or not.

Now that I am about to climb off my soapbox, I did have one way to sort of shield myself from the abuse going on around me. I started reading the book I’d brought. You can only imagine the comments I got.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Breast Cancer Awareness?!?

May I climb atop my soapbox yet again? God, I wish George Carlin were still alive. What would the master of identifying cultural and linguistic oxymorons (jumbo shrimp, military intelligence) do with Breast Cancer Awareness?

Breast Cancer Awareness? WTF? Who isn’t already aware of breast cancer? What we need is more money for research into a cure for metastatic breast cancer, the rates of which have not dipped at all. What we need is for people to stop pouring dollars into companies for pink products without asking if those companies and their products contribute to the increased rates of breast cancer.

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month and it makes me want to scream! When I see sites such as Fundraising for a Cure, with a portion of proceeds for pink trinkets donated to “breast cancer awareness and research” or how professional sports teams sell pink merchandise or cloth their players in pink, I want to scream even more.

I am marginally glad that Carolina Panthers’ quarterback Cam Newton plans to wear pink cleats this Sunday to stymie his opponents with a bright color. But it ain’t about pink awareness. It’s about a real cure and sharing accurate information about breast cancer treatments, pharmaceuticals, mammographies, and fighting all the pink washing that seeks to overwhelm us.

I am tired of groups like the Susan G. Komen Foundation focusing on she-roes, those heroic women who fit their singular narrative about all powerful Wonder Women slaying the cancer beast. And, as Gayle Sulik, author of the excellent book, Pink Ribbon Blues, says about all the misinformation, some of it pushed by Komen, “It is now widely known that the benefits of wholesale mammography screening were overpromised. Rates of over-diagnosis (i.e., when a diagnosed tumor lacks the potential to progress to a clinical stage, or is so slow-growing that the person would die from other causes) are higher than previously realized.”

Sulik continues: “Despite the efforts of millions who run, walk, hike, bike, and raise money for the cure the eradication of breast cancer has become a figment of our collective imagination…For those who continually worry about recurrence, face decisions about prophylactic treatments, lack adequate care and support, rely on inadequate screening technologies, suffer the ongoing side effects of treatments, do not have access to the most successful cancer centers, do not experience the transcendence that pink culture demands, are not represented in the culture, and who fear for the future of a cancer ridden society, I implore everyone to take a step back to look honestly at the system’s outcomes, and to recalibrate. After all, we want the same thing. We want to be healthy, free, and with the people we love.”

Awareness, to me, is a superficial response by corporations, companies, businesses, agencies, or institutions to make them feel good about doing something and then sell their participation in order to enhance their brand and make more money.

Awareness is meaningless. The time for a cure, more funding for research, with an emphasis on metastatic breast cancer, is now.

Verna Wefald, my late wife, would have turned 48 today. She died from metastatic breast cancer on August 30, 2010.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Happy Heavenly Birthday!

Verna didn't like me when we first met at a summer day camp in 1990. I thought she was frosty because she gave me an almost cross look when I cracked a joke. She'd just returned from a family reunion in Minnesota, and her muscled cyclist legs were dotted with purple welts from all the mosquito bites she'd endured during the humidity in the Land of 10,000 Lakes. She had on jeans shorts and a white t-shirt, her brown hair pulled back in a ponytail, and she wore red lipstick. Verna put on makeup maybe two or three times in the 20 years I knew her, but she always wore some shade of red or ochre lipstick, like her physical calling card for the world.

But we became friends by accident. She was forced by our boss to leave the quiet and comfortable confines of the administrative office and help me run the activity-adventure camp for 12 and 13 year olds. She asked me one day to drive her to her mechanic's. Then we started sharing lunches. I made the sandwiches, she brought the fruit. One time, she tired of my peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on wheat bread, so she made her first ever vegetarian quiche in order to accomodate me.

She later said that the drive to pick up her car convinced her I was a pretty nice guy.

She arranged our first "date" with another camp colleague, a woman I later learned had a crush on me, to fix up the colleague and me. I spent most of the afternoon talking to Verna and ignoring our friend. I invited Verna to see Wynton Marsalis with me for our first real date. She hadn't heard of him. I made dinner--swiss chard frittata--and when she showed up at the door clad in a black leather mini-skirt all I could blurt was, "You look awesome!" before I rushed into the kitchen to tend to dinner, which I feared might burn.

A month after we started dating that summer, she invited me home to meet her parents, an aunt and uncle, her two brothers, their wives, a nephew, who was almost four, and her five-week old niece. Verna made a vegetarian lasagna, and throughout the meal her two brothers kept shouting like announcers at a sporting event, "Verna, this dinner is awesome."

Verna would have turned 48 tomorrow--October 5--had she not died two years ago from the ravages of metastatic breast cancer.

I lost my best friend, the kids lost their mother. Verna and I complemented each other. We truly made up a whole or complete person. I was the gregarious and obnoxious half, she was the shy and relaxed (most of the time) part. I helped her to loosen up and she showed me how to relax, even if I generally ignored the examples she offered me daily.

While Verna was so reserved and had overcome painful shyness as a kid, she forced herself to grow when she decided in college to become a teacher and thrust herself in front of people everyday. Even though she hated, hated, hated public speaking of any kind, she agreed to do a presentation for a national group of educators, one of whom was Albert Shanker, the unpleasant head of the American Federation of Teachers. He questioned Verna about why she couldn't finish the entire textbook and several centuries of history in the 4th grade social studies curriculum. She responded that the quality of instruction and being able to go in depth about a shorter time frame trumped the quantity of material.

She'd stood up to one of the most powerful educator advocates in the nation. A few weeks later she received a commendation from the Superintendent of the San Francisco Unified School District for her outstanding presentation.

A few years later, after she'd been a paralegal for the city of San Francisco, we attended a 10 year anniversary celebration for the city's daycare program, a pioneering one begun by then SF City Attorney Louise Renne, who was the 2nd most powerful person in San Francisco behind the mayor. She was an affable grandmother who wielded her power behind the scenes but with firm convictions.

I approached Ms. Renne and thanked her for the daycare program that Miguel had enjoyed for several months before I left teaching to become an at-home father. I said to her, "I am Verna Wefald's husband and I just wanted to thank you..."

As soon as I mentioned Verna's name, Ms. Renne's face lit up and she said, "Verna, Verna, we just love Verna."

She may have been quiet, but she certainly had an impact on people. She worked as hard as anyone I've ever known. She took on tasks whenever anyone asked and never complained. She received a gazillion compliments from co-workers and attorneys about her amazing attitude and work ethic. She often bitched later at home about being dumped on, but at work she was the consummate professional.

She was my best friend, and I looked forward to life with her. It wasn't perfect, but it was our life. Even before she got sick with breast cancer, even before the cancer returned and metastasized and she was forced to take steroids, which made her face puffy and her behavior yo-yo like someone on steroids, we fought--as all healthy couples do. Verna worried incessantly about having enough money. I was usually, "Don't worry, it'll all work out", which often infuriated her and caused me to sulk when she didn't trust me.

Our other area of contention was that I took things way too personally (and still do). I never cut her the slack she deserved because I felt she was intentionally slighting me. But our love never wavered, even after cancer assaulted Verna's body and she knew she was going to die. Before she got really sick she would call me at work, two or three times a day, maybe for a minute or two, just to check in. I always liked coming home to her. We enjoyed each other's company, reading, hiking, vacations with and without kids.

The week we spent in Cabo in 2008 to celebrate our 17th wedding anniversary was legendary, seven sun splashed days along the beach, snorkeling, seeking out restaurants, absorbing the local culture, and imbibing a few, um, a few more margaritas as Verna went way beyond herself and danced on a table as part of a contest at a local pub.

Now that I have fallen in love again, some people have strangely said that I have moved on. As if Verna was merely a chapter in my life, turn the page, erase the past, fast forward. While I do want to scream at them, I also know that moving on is not possible. I think about Verna on my own every single day. And I think about Verna when Maya implores me two or three times a week to bring her Mommy down to her "right now. I want Mommy right now."

But because I was able to love Verna so fiercely and passionately and because I think I am a better person now for having loved and lived with Verna, I was able to find romance another time. A gift for which I am truly grateful and believe that Verna blesses, sanctions, and, maybe, helped direct.

Tonight, as Maya drifted off to sleep, I held her hand and said, "Mommy is looking down from Heaven and she loves you so much, is so proud of you."

Verna made me better and isn't around to reap the benefits. She would have been two years away from turning a half century tomorrow. Happy Birthday, Verna. We miss you.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

When Politics Become Personal

Normally I do not like to blog about politics, but lately I have been assaulted by such weirdness and absurdity via social media that I just had to comment:

When I was an at-home father I met a woman at the park. She and her husband and their twins lived just down the road, and she was the sister of a friend. As we got talking, she shared that she’d been a staff person on the Republican Senate National Committee. I shared my liberal political affiliations, the canvassing I’d done for consumer groups in Connecticut and Rhode Island, and the get-out-the-vote campaign in New York.

We didn’t actually argue, but discussed, much like two people in a bar or at a party, with fervor and mutual respect. She was bright, articulate, clearly a good mother, and I liked her brother a lot. Her grandfather, a general, had been part of Kennedy’s cabinet during the Cuban missile crisis. She thought I was wrong about most issues (and I felt the same about her), but our conversation never slipped into the realm where two people (or more) start hurling outrageous accusations at one another over political opinions.

After our initial meeting, I’d run into her at the park or Whole Food’s, and we’d talk about life, politics, whatever was on our minds. She inquired about Verna after Verna was originally diagnosed with cancer. She once said, “If you think I’m conservative, you should talk to my husband.”

I looked forward to talking with her because she was friendly and open about her views without denigrating mine. I believe I treated her with the same respect.

Fast forward to today and another acrimonious election season is upon us. Two weeks ago I saw on my Facebook homepage side-by-side pictures from a former student of mine comparing Michelle Obama and a lipstick-wearing pig. I sent her a private message complaining about such an ugly promotion, and she responded: “She’s such an anti-Semite. She deliberately avoided Jews when she was in college.”

Over the past few days several people have claimed, again on Facebook, that Obama wants to destroy America, is purposely emulating the Nazis and the Bolsheviks, and he controls the media in the same manner as Hitler. These are, I think, reasonably intelligent people.

One of them actually said, “If you were a smart man, you’d do all he could to learn about the man who could be shaping the future of your precious children on your Facebook wall photos. Some folks can't look beyond the now. Sad.”

One friend claims I am close-minded because I refuse to see Dinesh D’Souza’s “documentary” 2016. An avowed conservative, she plans to view Koch Brothers Exposed, a left-wing documentary. I avoid most political movies and have little time for 2016. This analogy might not work, but I don’t have to know much about root canals to know I don’t ever want one.

I fully understand that vitriol and absurdity goes both ways. Some people compared Dubya to Hitler and slung other allegations about him, Republicans, and right-wingers etc. And still do.

What also bothers me is that once I allow myself to be drawn into these posts not passing for civilized debate, I sometimes lower myself and make fun of someone or his or her beliefs. I hope I haven’t been mean, but in the heat of the moment I often get passionate about values, not politics, and when I hear someone say, “You are brainwashed. You are close-minded. You support someone who wants to destroy America. How can you support someone like that with your children’s future at stake,” well that’s when the veins bulge in my neck and I pop a gasket or two.

So, obviously, the best option is to avoid political discussions in such impersonal forums. They are fraught with the potential for us to feel way too emboldened by the lack of accountability inherent in social media. We can be caustic because we are not actually engaging with another person, just spewing words via cyberspace.

And it’s not like any of us are going to change anyone’s minds. So, in an effort to maintain my low pressure, I am going to shun Facebook political conversations.


Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The Many Moms of Maya.

Maya’s had many moms even before Verna died just a little over two years ago. Out of necessity, both Verna and I needed help because Maya was born six days after Verna’s first cancer diagnosis. Without assistance, Verna could not have survived chemotherapy and I my full-time job as an auto broker and support system for Verna.

First, there was Jane, an angel and our night nurse five evenings a week (I subbed in the other two nights) who taught Maya without using the cry-it-out method to sleep through the night within four months. She and Verna also hiked together and talked and talked.

The mantra of “It Takes A Village” has been overwhelmingly true for me for 7 years because family, friends, and strangers have been invaluable. From food delivered to our doorstep, to money, to babysitting, to shoulders to cry on, we cope[d] and thrive[d] because of people’s generosity.

No one has benefitted more than Maya. Miguel has had me, and the bond we forged when I was an at-home father for six years. Maya has me, but there are some things for which the learning curve has been inordinately steep.

A few weeks ago, before school started, I dragged Maya to my office for a photo shoot. The Home Office had authorized a picture taking session with residents, families, and cute kids for our new marketing brochures. I rushed into the office, with Maya, her hair uncombed, her choice of clothing more suited for day camp, which is where she was heading after the session.

“What is she, homeless?” asked one of my co-workers, who was helping to coordinate the day. She ordered me home to get a brush and a dress. By the time my co-worker was done Maya looked radiant.

So I’ve been thinking lately about all the moms Maya has even if she still implores me two or three times a week, “To just bring me Mommy, down from heaven. I want her here right now.”

There’s Michele, who has been caring for Maya since preschool with her husband and two children, one of whom, also Maya, is Maya’s best friend.

There are Fernanda and Liz, who live in our neighborhood, and watch Maya on Fridays and Mondays, respectively. Between them they have five kids. There is Torhalla and Renee, each with two kids, who host Maya for play dates and sleepovers. There was Reena and Rhea, two teenaged sisters, who volunteered after Verna died to play with Maya on a regular basis.

There are my three sisters-in-law, Liz, Donna, and Amy, who shop for clothes and toys with Maya, cuddle with her, take her on adventures. And there is Shauna, my neighbor, who may not have her own kids, but she paints Maya’s nails, invites her for the night, gives her bubble baths and braids her hair.

As I see the journey of my life stretched out like a ribbon of highway, I know Maya may actually get another Mommy, one with whom she already has a great relationship, baking muffins, cleaning house, and playing library.

But there are no guarantees, so Maya’s many moms will always be there to do what I cannot do and what Maya craves: braid her hair, support her fashion sense, and nurture her in a special female way. And for that I am very grateful.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Writing Your Life

I just wanted to get away from her. I quickened my pace in the hallway that snakes through the retirement community where I work.

Just don’t talk to me, I thought. Please, don’t talk to me.

She’d been a drain on our time, her family’s time, on the time of other residents. Sleeping past noon, skipping meals, answering the door without any clothing, wandering the hallways dazed and confused, misplacing her keys and cell phone, drinking copious amounts of alcohol, begging people to drive her to the market to buy more wine, growing agitated without provocation.

“So how long have you worked here?” she asked.

I was tempted to say, “Sorry, rushing off to a meeting.” But I couldn’t. So I answered.

“What did you do before?” she persisted.

“I worked at a funeral home,” I said.

“Really?” she asked.


“Why did you start working here?” she asked.

“It was right after my wife’s cancer had come back,” I said. “It was better to work so close to home. I live a mile away.”

“And how is your wife?”

“She died in 2010.”

“I’m so sorry,” she said, narrowing the gap between us. “You know, we don’t get to write the script of our life.”

Profound words from a woman, who did walk across the country twenty-eight years ago, but is now somewhat demented, her brain battered by years of alcohol abuse.

I inhaled and considered my words carefully before saying them. “You’re right,” I said, “we don’t. But we do get to choose how to respond to life.”

Not that I felt I had or wanted a choice after Verna died. I just put my head down and did what I had to do: cared for the kids and myself. I wasn’t a martyr and I didn’t do it alone (I had and still have a village of people supporting me). But I never saw my life going any other way; I certainly didn’t imagine myself curled into a fetal ball, helpless, agonized, unable to live or parent. I didn’t rise to any challenge or muster up some hidden reserves.

I kept on living.

And for me that included being the best parent possible, showing up for work each day, and finding moments to celebrate, be grateful, grieve.

Several days later I was sitting in the woman’s apartment, after she’d been found again in another hallway, undressed and unable to find her way, after she’d gone through a two-day treatment program for her dependency, and after her doctor said any more alcohol might kill her.

“I just want to let you know that we’re here for you,” I said.

“Thank you so much,” she said, stringy hair spilling across her face, a floppy beach hat atop her head. “I do have problems.”

“Do you remember when we spoke a couple of weeks ago?” I started. “You asked me about working here and I told you how my wife had died? And you said, ‘We don’t get to write the script of our lives.’ And I responded by saying that we do get to choose how to live that life, though?”

She nodded.

“Well, my response was for me and for you,” I said. “I was acknowledging to myself how I’d responded back then, but I was also sending you a message. How you can be in control of your life. And we are here for you.”

Part of me wanted to shake her and rail about wasting and destroying one’s life. How she’d ambled across the country, the entire country, with her only her dog and some serious fortitude. How life was for living, how I’d seized moments big and small over the past two years and chosen life. And I’ve been rewarded by those decisions with abundant blessings: travel with the kids, deeper friendships, falling in love again.

Not that I expected to jolt her into a sudden epiphany, some kind of magical made-for-TV moment where she rises and says, “You are right and I have been saved,” for I am fully aware that the success rate for conquering alcoholism among elders, even with a treatment program, is under 10%.

In the end, though, I chose not to lecture her (I’ll save my alleged wisdom for my teenager). I opted to repeat that we would support her, just let her know that she had her own team—village—caring for her.

Will my words sink in? Will she heed her doctors and her sons? Will she straighten up and fly right? I truly don’t know. We don’t get to completely script our lives. But we do get to choose our reactions to life and living.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Male Bonding

Miguel scooted past me the other night, holding a pair of his blue jeans. It was after nine, close to his bedtime.

“Miguel, what are you doing?” I asked.

“Nothing,” he said, the rumpled jeans stuffed close to his body.

A few minutes later I walked in to the kitchen, where he’d hidden himself, and found him cutting a small hole near the belt loops of the jeans.

“What are you doing?!” I shouted. It soon became quite clear that he was snipping circularly around a department store loss prevention tag that the clerk had forgotten to remove.

“I saw this in a movie once,” he said meekly as if scissoring a new pair of pants was an everyday occurrence.

I was livid. I imagine if I’d been a cartoon character steam would have shot out my ears and trailed above my head. Veins would have burst in my neck, and I would have turned from red to blue to purple to deep red again.

“I can’t believe it,” I screamed. “A new pair of pants!?! Why didn’t you just tell me? I could’ve gone to the store, any store, and had the tag removed.”

“I don’t know,” he replied.

I grabbed the pants, threw them on the kitchen floor, and ordered him upstairs to brush his teeth and put in his headgear. Since he’d already ripped the jeans I continued cutting until there was a dime-sized hole and the tag was gone.

Then I marched upstairs and delivered a late night lecture. “Miguel, it’s not just about the pants. It’s that you went sneaking around. If I can’t trust you with little things, like some tag on your pants, how am I going to trust with you with big decisions? Like, what are you going to do at a party in high school when your friends offer you alcohol or pot?”

I am sure that Miguel appreciated my barrage as he tried to nod off to sleep. “I’m going to say no,” he answered, his head already resting on his pillow.

“Yeah, but what if they tell you how good it is and they urge you to just try it, and you like it?”

“I’m not going to do that,” he said.

I closed his lights and hustled downstairs to calm myself down. The next morning, after I’d dropped Maya off at the neighbors who drive her to school, I said to Miguel, en route to his school, “OK, I overreacted about the pants last night. But I don’t want you to sneak around. Just tell me. And I do want you to make good decisions.”

He listened to me, but really wanted to fiddle with the radio. “Do you understand what I’m saying, Miguel?”

“Yes, but the hole is not bad,” he said, and then showed me how his belt practically covered it up anyway.

Then I noticed how low his jeans were below his hips. “Miguel, please pull up your pants.”

He did.

Later that night he and I stood in his bedroom with six large garbage bags and started throwing out, recycling, or bagging to donate piles of clothing and toys and assorted detritus that has accumulated in his bedroom and closet for a few years.

At one point he fingered through clumps of Tech Deck skateboard dudes, a collection of miniature guys and skateboards, replete with beyond-weird identities and trading cards. “I used to really like these,” he said. “I don’t know if I should give them away.”

I felt as if we were having our own Toy Story 3 moment, reminiscent of when Andy was wistfully rummaging through boxes of childhood toy friends before departing for college.

“You don’t have to give them away,” I said.

“No, I want to. It’s OK.” He poured them into one of the plastic bags designated for the Salvation Army or Goodwill.

“I guess now that you’re going to high school, you are no longer a boy,” I said, but added, “But I am not trying to rush you into adulthood.”

I asked him again this morning how he felt about discarding the Tech Decks and he said he was fine. I don’t think Miguel feels thrust too soon into manhood, though he does have some typically quirky adolescent ideas about what being a teenaged man is, such as watching R rated movies that I consider inappropriate. He implores at least two or three times a month to see The Hangover. And I answer simply, “Nope, not going to happen yet.”

And, I told him, what I am really concerned about is not about holes in his jeans, but about taking responsibility for his actions. Before his bar mitzvah ceremony, the traditional Jewish rite of passage that heralds a young man’s entrance into adulthood, I asked several friends to share what it meant to become an adult or young man.

My good friends Ed and Denise’s son, Ben, who is now married and for whom I babysat in 1987, said, “Don’t take yourself too seriously, and when you make a mistake, you need to take responsibility for it. Being a man means having to do things you don't want to do, for no other reason than simply you are a man.” His father said, “When having a conversation, try to learn more about the other person than they learn about you, and make sure your handshake is firm and you look the person in the eye!”

My friend Mike, who has three sons, one who is in school with Miguel, offered quite honestly and humbly, “When I was in my twenties and having a tough go of adjusting to adulthood my father told me it was time to be a man. At the time I knew he was right, but was truly confused on what being a man meant, and certainly had no idea how to get there, wherever there was. Too embarrassed to tell him I didn’t know what being a man was really all about I just took the comment and suggested to him “I know”. This hung on me for years and over time I figured it out. Being a man is having the confidence and strength to make choices that are right and just for one’s self and the others around them. There are of course many other attributes of being a man, but many of them cross gender…setting appropriate boundaries, compassion and empathy for others.

“I learned this over time, and my oldest son grew up without my being able to convey this knowledge to him and work with him to develop these skills…something I labor over a lot. I think my younger ones will benefit as I often talk with them about standing up for who they are, (not what their friends want them to be) and help them make choices that support their personal growth.”

The final word about being a man goes to Ed, committed father, husband, and devout family guy to siblings, nieces, nephews, aunts, uncles, cousins, parents, and everyone in between:

“Wait ‘til your mother goes to book club and then we’ll wrestle in our underwear and piss off the back porch!”

Sometimes you just have to let go. In more ways than one.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Modern Love

Sunshine splashed around us as Maya leaned toward me, a wide smile stretched across her face. “Luca’s so nice,” she gushed, over a plate of macaroni and cheese and fruit salad.

“Yes, he is,” I agreed. He was sitting right next to her at the Little League Bonanza, a carnival-like party of games, jumpy tents, music, a silent auction and raffle, and food, which serves as a major fundraiser for the Dixie Terra Linda Little League, in which both Maya and Luca, our five year old neighbor, play t-ball.

Up until a few weeks ago, Maya and Luca, who are still boyfriend and girlfriend, had plans to marry. Maya explained to me that “Luca wants us to get married.” This was a radical departure from Maya’s usual insistence that she was never leaving home. “I’m going to live with you forever, OK, Daddy?”

“But maybe you will want to go to college?”

“Nope. I’m going to live with you when I get older.”

Maya didn’t have her whole life mapped, however, beyond wanting to stay home with me and not have breasts. She never explained why (nor did I ask) she wanted to remain stuck in pre-pubescence, but I am sure it is because of what happened to Verna. It doesn’t take an amateur Freud to figure that out.

But when Maya and her previous boyfriend Leo, who is also not quite six like Luca, decided to cool things off and remain good friends (apparently Leo hopes to wed his younger sister), Luca inadvertently swooped in and pledged his eternal love—at least until 1st grade. Generosity may have also played a role in Luca’s behavior. Maya constantly shares her bracelets with him, for which he is grateful and shows Maya how modern Luca truly is.

A few weeks ago, though, as Maya and I were headed to the park, Luca called to us from his bedroom window. “Hi, Luca,” Maya said. “I have something to tell you. Can you come outside?”

“I have to take a shower. What do you want to tell me?”

“I’ll tell you tomorrow,” Maya responded.

Maya walked over to me, smiling shyly, and whispered, “I can’t marry Luca.”

“Why not?”

“I’m going to live in Hawaii with Maya,” her best friend who is three days older. My Maya said, “Luca can visit us.”

“Maya, what did you want to tell me?” Luca shouted down as Maya and I huddled on the sidewalk outside his home.

Maya relented and shared with Luca that their future together did not involve nuptials but some vague visitations in what might very well be the two Mayas’ Hawaiian paradise.

After his shower, Luca went to his mother, Ericka, and said, “Mom, can I talk to you about something?”

“Yes, what’s up?”

Luca told her about the conversation with Maya and how they now could not get married, just enjoy each other’s friendship on a tropical island.

“What do you think about that?” Ericka asked.

“It’s OK,” Luca said. “We can change her mind.”

Sunday, May 6, 2012

To Every Thing There Is A Season

Death sucks.

And when she is not yet forty, with two sons, 6 and 2, and super nice husband who is a hands-on father, and Mother's Day is coming, well, then, death really sucks. And when news of her death, which you just received this morning while strolling at the Farmer's Market with your six-year old daughter after hauling her 13 miles on a Burley trailer, stirs up memories of your own loss and how your two kids have no mother, and your heart aches every time Maya swats at t-ball or twirls in ballet class and Miguel writes a beautiful essay for high school or grabs a touchdown at flag football, and you can't share any of it with your late wife, well, then, it sucks on a personal and visceral level.

I formally met L. about six weeks ago at Whole Foods. Maya pointed out her oldest son, who is in another kindergarten class at her school, because they are sometime playmates at recess. So I started talking to her husband, D. and Maya and the son acted goofy. I'd seen L. several times around school, a wide smile on her face, bright brown eyes, soulful and expressive, but we'd only nodded. Then a day after Whole Foods, she and her sons were at the city park where we live.

She said, "I'm glad we met. I've known about you and what you've gone through. I wanted to offer my help any time, with Maya, whatever."

We exchanged phone numbers. She also told me part of her story. She'd been diagnosed with cancer in her 20s, shortly after she'd met D. How she healed herself with conventional and non-traditional methods. How proud she'd been to take command of her illness.

"I did a lot of reading and research," she said.

And D. had been with her throughout the ordeal. His love and commitment had never wavered before the extra pull of kids bonded them even more deeply.

I shared with her that I was going on a special vacation in a week or so to Paris, and she was genuinely excited for how my life journey was progressing.

A couple of weeks ago she went to the hospital or doctor with severe flu-like symptoms and they discovered she had leukemia. She got an infection, her blood was seriously messed up, that's all I know right now. Did she lapse into a coma or steel herself for a brave assault on the disease attacking her body? The details will wend their way through the community in their own time.

But now she is gone. Forever. After I absorbed the ice cold blast of news this morning, the wave of sadness and shock rushing over me, I asked my friend if I could reach out to D. when it's appropriate.

"I don't know if I have any specific wisdom to share," I said. "But I can talk about what I went through and how I coped."

Just as my good friend David Lanes did for me after Verna died, which had only been a year since the death of his wife. But I know now is not yet the time for D., while his emotions are raw and painful and time seems so fucking unreal.

When D. and I do talk I will share how I told the kids their momma was a star in heaven and how we went out for so many nights after Verna's death and picked out the brightest star and exclaimed, "That's Mommy." And how I went to a support group at hospice and Maya had play therapy there for a year, and Miguel saw someone for a year-and-half. And how my neighbors and friends and family pitched in with meals and babysitting and money, and are still there for us, because without a village I'd have never survived. Or how sometimes just the smallest, seemingly insignificant thing brought (and still brings) me to tears. Or how you never move on, but cope better. And magic, from children or other relationships, still exists and awaits.

As the news settled over me during the day I just wanted to reach out to those people closest to me and tell them how much I love them and how blessed I feel to have them in my life. I hugged Maya several times after dinner, at the park, and before she drifted off to sleep. I also grabbed Miguel and said, "Have I told you I loved you?" as he climbed up the stairs to his room. He nodded. "And," I added, "I'm proud of you."

D. is part (as was L.) of a small but devout cluster within Christianity, so I imagine his faith will provide comfort over the succeeding days, weeks, months, years. And I don't need to remind him the truth of the words of Ecclesiastes (chapter 3), popularized by the Byrds in their song, 'Turn, Turn, Turn', "To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under Heaven."

Because right now, at this very moment in this household and at D.'s home, we know that life is often not fair and death really, really sucks.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Life and Death

We know days are rife with meaning. Some more than others. We remember birthdays, anniversaries, holidays, national events, some with an intensity that binds us together collectively. Kind of like in high school or college when groups of us couldn't wait to deconstruct the latest TV or movie, and being part of the discussion made you feel included in something bigger and cooler than yourself.

And certain days just transport you back to a moment in time, or moments in time, that have lingered above us for years and years and years.

April 20 is one such day. It is filled with enough personal, social and cultural history, life, death, and celebration, well, to fill several lifetimes and generations.

It is the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titantic as it plowed into an iceberg. But it is also the centennial of Boston's heralded Fenway Park, which has more personal significance to me than the tragedy of a luxury ocean liner.

Fenway Park's inauguration conjures up memories of my first baseball game in 1967 on the last day of the regular season. I was eight, and my father scored two tickets from our family friend, David Schechner, whom we've always referred to as uncle, to the little bandbox in Boston that houses still our beloved baseball team. The white Boston Red Sox pennant, with red and blue lettering, my father bought me that day as the Sox clinched the American League pennant, hangs in my garage 45 years later.

April 20, 2012 is my mother and stepfather's 15th wedding anniversary. I remember meeting my stepfather Fred's family for the first time that day many years ago outside a synagogue in Windsor. Fred had been a widower for a few years before he met my mother at a dance club in Hartford, CT. My only regret from their wedding day is that I shared with Verna moments before the ceremony why April 20th was historically significant. Adolf Hitler was born on April 20th, 1889.

"I wish you hadn't told me that," Verna said. "It almost ruins the day for me."

"But we triumph over Hitler if April 20th becomes a day when we celebrate life," I said.

Verna wasn't buying it. She was quite happy for my mother and Fred but she always associated their wedding date with an ignominious day in history.

April 20th is also the official anniversary date of death for a dear, dear friend's husband, who collapsed in front of her and her two-year old daughter while my friend was 7 months pregnant. She triumphed over death as she held her family together following Erik's sudden demise and after she met and married another wonderful man, Evan, and twice added to her family with a son and a stepson. But this woman, whom Maya adores and lovingly calls Auntie La-La (her name is Hyla), lives now with the constant fear that her two daughters may have inherited the rare genetic condition that caused Erik's premature death.

April 20th is also National Pot Day, something I didn't know about until fairly recently. And it appears National Weed Day got its start right here in Northern California. Its roots go back to San Rafael High School, which is about 3 miles from where I live, in the 1970s, and the "holiday" may have been popularized in the early 1990s by some--surprise--Deadheads, followers of the Grateful Dead.

I'll be honest: I have no plans to honor 4-20 at 4:20 by lighting up a joint now or at anytime. But the marijuana celebration on April 20th just adds another layer to an already meaningful day.

And April 20th could very well be the last day that Stan W., a long-time resident at the retirement community where I work, remains on earth. A true renaissance man, who has been an actor, dancer, musician, lawyer, and true intellectual, Stan has had two strokes in the past 20 days. He is resting somewhat peacefully on hospice at a local Kaiser, surrounded by family and friends and lots and lots of the music he adored.

A proud Jew, Stan regularly performed in a local Irish Ceili band, drummed on North African instruments weekly at a local pub, and led a rhythm class at our community at which residents banged and banged on Stan's homemade instruments: plastic containers filled with beans or chair legs. Or he shared instruments he'd acquired--maracas, drumsticks, other shakers--while samples from his vast collection played on a boom box and Stan narrated a folkloric history of musical genres from the 17th, 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries.

I thought about Stan a lot today when his daughter told me his death was imminent, on a Northern California spring day when the temperatures neared 80 and the sky was cloudless and as you peered outside the colors seemed more vibrant. But death still hung and hangs in the air.

Monuments are built; monuments are destroyed. Life is fleeting. Stan, a man who loved to debate politics and art and history and music, a man who rehabilitated himself from the depths of a near paralyzing stroke a few years ago to become fit enough, as he slowly lifted himself out of his motorized cart, to lead exercise classes (strength training and Tai Chi), is about to die and leave us a legacy of someone who dared to speak up and out for what he believed in, who dared to have a vision of a better world and community and then put it into action.

Just a couple of months ago, he took a casual conversation he and I shared about possibly starting a chorus at Drake Terrace and forcibly recruited the right people and launched a weekly sing-a-long that attracts 20-30 residents. Last week he called our executive director, and in a garbled voice laid out his vision for a dedication party later this year when our back patio fountain sprays to life regularly for the first time in a few years.

April 20th is just one of those meaningful days that sticks with me and is filled with memories of sublime joy and gut-wrenching sadness. Life certainly goes on and on. Bless us all.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Drinking with Voltaire

I watched "The Artist" last night and thought it was just OK. I got it from a friend who is a member of the Screen Actor's Guild. While the movie was entertaining, I don't think it warranted being the best picture.

When I told Miguel I was getting it and wanted him to watch it with me, you'd have thought I'd asked him to boil his flesh.

"No, no, no," he said. "No way. It's a silent film."

"But it's supposed to be good," I countered. "If it's a good film it doesn't matter if it's silent."

"I'd rather watch "Leave it to Beaver," he said about the series we've been viewing of late.

But, surprisingly, he agreed to give it a try and lasted about three-quarters through the movie before I heard him snoring on the couch near me. As for me, as I said, it was just OK. I know it received rave reviews. Rotten Tomatoes scored it 97%. Best Actor. Best Director. Best Film. Frankly, I don't understand all the fuss.

Which got me thinking about the Academy Awards and my views. First, I know awards are often by their very nature quite subjective. One man's meat, as it were, is another man' poison, to quote Voltaire. And just because one small group of people award a film doesn't elevate it to the status of masterpiece.

For the record, I haven't liked many of Academy Award-winning films. Nearly walked out of "The Last Emperor'. Didn't like "The Unforgiven" or "Out of Africa". What does that all mean? Not very much other than that my tastes are--surprise--different from the voters at the academy.

Verna and I shared a love of Jerry Lewis movies, and even though he is a hero in France, many Americans just don't get why is so popular outside of his service to MDA, and even that has come under fire.

But there is a part of me that relishes in being different. Not for the sake of just being different, but in knowing that I hold to my views even if they are not popular. I also understand that being discerning about cinematic preferences is not the same as having varied political opinions, cultural views, or leading a particular lifestyle.

When I worked at a very liberal political comunity organization in Connecticut in the 1980s, my co-workers razzed me because I liked Journey. They were more into the Grateful Dead and other "progressive" rock.

When I was about 13 I shared with some middle school classmates that I planned at some point in my life to walk across America. One asked, "What would you eat?"

I answered, "Cheerios," and like getting caught up in some weird Twilight Zone-Telephone game, my answer was morphed into a solo box of cheerios. So I was teased mercilessly, "I heard you were going to walk across the country," someone would guffaw, "and exist on a box of Cheerios."

As a teenager, especially, most of us want to fit in with crowd, and I certainly did, but I did draw the line. I never wanted to compromise my core beliefs, political or personal. I didn't drink until it was legal and my lawbreaking at that point involved some speeding and jaywalking.

But I was happiest when I was part of a group. I understand that many kids don't want to stand out. Miguel told me it's uncool to wear running shoes to school. Definitely no Converse. So he started wearing Vans. But then he began complaining about their lack of arch support, so now he dons some flashy black Reebok running shoes and his feet have never felt better.

Miguel was one of the people who lobbied me to abandon my fannypack, shop for more modern jeans and shirts, and untuck my shirts from my pants as long as I am not at work. I had no problem with any of those "changes" for they weren't really about my core self. As much as the fannypack was convenient to stuff so much into, it's not as if truly defined me. OK, not that much.

So if Miguel doesn't want to wear certain sneakers or prefers his hair shaggy, I can let it go. Of course if his pants start sagging, I do impose my parental authority. But I also want him to see that there are times when it's OK to be different and to stand up for your beliefs.

I was arrested once for protesting draft registration. I spent three lonely and cold hours in a Hartford, CT, cell. But I feel (and still do) that I did the right thing. I worked for the Connecticut State Legislature in the mid-80s and was basically a go-fer. But part of my responsibilities included assisting the Clerks to the State House of Representatives. Before each session the assembly members recited the Pleadge of Allegiance. As a small and almost silent protest against the pledge and the words "liberty and justice for all," which my 25 year-old self felt America didn't live up to, I refused to even mumble any of the words or even place my hand over my heart.

One day, the assistant to the State Speaker of the House, a squat man with huge forearms, who, it was rumored, had served in the CIA when they helped overthrow the democratically elected government of Iran in the early 1950s, came over to me shortly after the pledge.

"Why didn't you say the pledge of allegiance?" he barked.

"I don't believe in it," I said.

"Are you a Communist?" he squawked, red faced and inches away from me.

"I shouldn't have to answer that."

I wasn't a Communist, but I felt his question was beyond inappropriate.

"Are you a Communist?" he demanded again.

"That's not the point."

I started to fear for my safety. He was built tank like and appeared as if he could squash me like a bug or crack my bones with a simple snap and feast on my remains. He charged away in disgust. I later learned he'd barged into my boss's office and demanded I be escorted from the State Capitol by security.

A few weeks later, at the session ending party, where legislators and staff and lobbyists mingle as friends and the alcohol flows and flows, a conservatively and nattily attired representative approached me. We'd never spoken and he'd always come across as officious, serious, and to the right of center politically.

He sidled over to me and said, "You did the right thing with the whole pledge business. It's a matter of freedom of speech. Good for you."

I was stunned.

On the flip side, my personal protests, which seemed like good ideas at the time and I was too self-absorbed in being morally or ethically right to reflect, don't always hold up over the passage of time. I used to refuse to stand for the National Anthem even if I was at a sporting event with my patriotic father. Looking back, I am sorry (and have told my father so) that I neglected to honor his feelings in order to press an insignificant political point.

Or how I insisted on wearing tattered and patched jeans to synagogue even if I was called up to lead services or recite other prayers. And I never, ever stopped to ponder how embarrassed my parents had to have been when they and others witnessed such disrespectful behavior.

So this isn't really about liking or not liking movies. It's about being yourself and when and where to choose how best to express your individuality and stand up for your essential values and beliefs.

And maybe I did learn something from "The Artist". Sometimes it is far better to be silent. And when it's not, I hope I will be mindful enough to know.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Gift of Life

Maya asked me recently how she got into Verna's tummy. I hesitated before answering, "What do you think?"

"God put me there," she said.

Even though I still struggle with whether or not God exists, I didn't see any reason to deny's Maya's assertion. She's not quite six and doesn't engage in the world (obviously) with anything remotely resembling a deeper theological consciousness. Nor is there any point in exploring a detailed presentation of the birds and the bees at her age.

"That's right," I said.

She smiled and we returned to our nighttime routine before she goes to bed--brush teeth, read book, sing song.

But I thought about this conversation this past Friday, January 13, as a friend and I facilitated an intervention with an acquaintance. Her sister had asked for our help.

The sister spoke about years of abuse and how she was unable to help her sister anymore because the sister's own husband is seriously ill. My friend shared some thoughts. Then, without any forethought about what I might say, the words flowed out of me from a deeper place. Normally the words emerge from the murky depths of my brain and I hear them before they pop from my mouth. But on Friday the 13th I got lucky and unconsciously found a voice.

"Life is a gift," I said. "And what baffles me is why you would throw that away. Life is truly a gift and you have this amazing opportunity to live it well for many years. I just don't understand how you can keep throwing it away."

The acquaintance sat stoically as tears welled in my eyes. I understand how substance abuse and addiction are a disease, but at that moment I was completely befuddled. And said so.

The sister picked up on my comments and shared how her son's girlfriend had died when she was 24. My friend spoke of how his father is battling severe kidney problem in his 60s. Both of them emboldened me to speak again.

"Since everyone's getting personal," I said, "I do have more to say. Today is Friday the 13th, and six years ago exactly my late wife found out she had breast cancer. She'd done everything right: she exercised daily, ate well, drank in moderation, but she still got cancer. And then she died when she was 45. She'd have given anything to still be here to be with us, especially her two young children.

The sister was crying now and my friend looked downward. More tears welled in my eyes. I am not close to convinced that any of our words will make any impact on the acquaintance. And I am not sure what I will say to Maya the next time she asks me about where she came from. But I do know this: life is a gift.