Inexcusable Behavior

“Excuse me, young man!”

The speaker was an older woman, well-dressed, with tidy silvered hair. She spoke with a crisp authoritative voice, slightly accented but entirely intelligible. She sat at the back of the bus, speaking generally into the chaotic mass of riders ahead of her. However, from the angle of her gaze and her choice of words, it seemed likely that she was addressing one of the two young men sitting directly across from me.

They wore distressed jeans and high-end t-shirts; they had carefully-maintained hair styles and one wore discreet ear-gauges. At first they ignored the woman shouting towards them as one ignores any background noise one hears on the bus. But she repeated herself with increasing urgency, and it became harder to relegate her to the background. The two young men began exchanging uncomfortable little glances with each other, hoping the importunations would end, hoping the other would succumb to them first. The old woman was persistent, though, and one of the young men had thinner skin than the other. He muttered her answer to her through reluctant lips: “‘Scuse me, what?”

Her somewhat vague gaze now focused specifically on him. “Do you know if unmarried mothers can use the computers?” Her interlocutee seemed nonplussed, as well he might. He repeated himself: “‘Scuse me?”

The query came back with renewed vigor: “The unmarried mothers – the women with a baby and no man. Are they allowed to use the public computer network? Or is it forbidden?”

The one young man looked to the other, unsure how he’d gotten here or how he’d get out. No help was forthcoming from his friend, or from anybody else for that matter. He fell back on the truth: “Um, I don’t know?”

The querulous tone of his response suggested that he knew his answer would not satisfy this woman. She was already well along on her unique tangent, though, and had not time to tarry on old business: “Yes, and the black and Mexicans, what about them? Or the disabled, in wheelchairs? Are they forbidden? Because – I don’t think that’s right! The computer network is for everyone, and no one should be excluded just because of skin or because she likes men too much. Right? That’s wrong, right?”

Her mistake was to have spoken for so long. It gave the young man a chance to shrink away from her, back into the compass of his own conversation with his own friend, talking to him about this crazy woman, leaving her speaking crisply to no one anymore. Though she repeated her final questions a few more times, by now we all knew better than to respond to her in any way. Eventually she stopped asking.

Shortly thereafter she left the bus, walking with impenetrable dignity without another word, without a glance to anyone. We were each relieved, but not all as a group. There was no group. There was just a bus full of people who preferred to be left alone.

Hidden in Plain Sight

It’s the official start of the end of summer. Let’s have a season-ending blowout with yet another post about the greenbelt:

Even at the height of vernal efflorescence, when every bush and half the trees were laden with blossoms, the boys knew which was the purple plum. They’d plucked from it before; with a claw on a pole they’d filled bags with feral fruits a few years ago. When the greenbelt was ablaze with flowers this past springtime, they were already thinking of the plums to come.

The purple plum stands out on the thin strip of park across the street, gaudy with leaves the same color as its small sweet fruits. It’s a tree that calls attention to itself, tall and full-canopied, standing apart from the other trees, seeming to revel in its runway-ready style. This spring its nascent blooms were fragrant and hung heavy on the boughs. It looked like a good year for feral plums.

The weeks passed and some months too, and we watched the petals fall, the leaves unfurl, the fruits outswelling on the twigs, growing and darkening into promising little ovaries of potential lusciousness. We ventured to try one It was hard and bitter. Weeks later, juicy but sour. The time was coming, though. The cusp of fructification was nigh.

Well I don’t know what happened – some damn thing or other. Whatever it was, a few weeks snuck past us, together with some sharp-eyed hobos and grannies and hipster jam-crafters and a bunch of other folks plus some squirrels and raccoons and assorted sketchy wildlife… and each of those scored a share of early purple plums. More than a share, even, because after they were done the only plums left for me and mine were much too high up to be reached.

The boys, realizing this inequity when it finally occurred to them to pick their plums, were deeply saddened. Since springs early flowers they’d been waiting, and now it was for naught. Their precious purple fruits were out of reach.

In their gloom they didn’t notice me strolling just a few dozen yards down the greenbelt away from that proud, stripped, purple plum tree, back toward the thick bank of green trees linking the bridle path. It didn’t take but seconds to find what I sought among the branches of a particularly green tree, undistinguished from its neighbors but for one thing – the dozens and dozens and dozens of cheerful green plums patiently waiting upon it for me to pluck them and eat them. I tossed a few to the boys. The plums were warm from the sun, full of cool nectar and tender flesh, enrobed in tart green skin none but us had ever touched. They boy were grateful for my having salvaged their summer plumming. And maybe next time they’ll remember that the thing they want might not come to them just as they expected it to.

All Good Things

In honor of the beginning of the new school year and a return to “normalcy”:

It’s no new thing, me getting the kids where they need to be each morning. I’ve had a year to get used to it and we’ve all institutionalized our respective roles for the daily exodus out the door. So the issue wasn’t me being in charge of getting the kids to camp, on time, on my own, without a car. The problem was that the new route was insufficiently convenient for me.

School days, we’d take the 38 west about 20 blocks and we’d wind up one block from our destination. One shot, a surgical transit strike. The bus usually runs every three minutes. Most gratifyingly convenient.

Some other days, the boys needed to get to the Early Education Center in the Presidio. It’s right off one of the two shuttlebus lines that run around that 1500-acre park all day, so we’d walk four blocks up to the Presidio where a shuttle swung by every 30 minutes. From the pickup we’d get a lovely tour of the coastal bluffs and cypress woods on our way to a stop across the street from our ultimate destination. One bus, but a bit of a shlep and a decent chance at a long wait. Not optimal, but within acceptable levels of convenience.

But this summer we’ve had a new destination, way out in the Letterman Complex, and my transit options seemed very restricted. We needed to get to the far side of the Presidio, the side my local shuttle doesn’t reach. I checked maps, I checked the little planning app on the official transit site, I honestly did my homework, and this is what I figured out: From our home we’d need to travel north-east. The 28 would get us north to the GGB Plaza, where we could catch the Crissey Field Shuttle heading east. If we timed it right we’d only need to wait a few minutes at the bridge for the shuttle to come, and it would drop us right at camp. Two buses, a moderate chance at a moderate wait, but almost no walking and a nice set of views. Could be worse. Figured I’d find out how much worse soon enough.

It was our second day on this commute when we arrived at the stop with three minutes to spare for our scheduled ride on the 28, to find ourselves with an 18 minutes wait instead. Infamous, infuriating! The boys did well entertaining themselves for 30% of an hour, but I could see that, though this new commute worked fine when it worked, it wasn’t going to work as an everyday thing. There were just too many variables.

We stumbled along like this for a week or two, always arriving at the bus stop on time and finding the bus off schedule as often as not. When the 28 was late we’d stand and wait and watch the 28Ls roll past us mockingly. It was tempting to take those rides but I knew better. The L doesn’t roll north like the regular 28 – it hauls east on California and doesn’t course-correct till way out on Presidio Street, where it goes up and then down the big hill, right into the Presidio itself, right past the Letterman Complex, right out of the Presidio again and another five blocks or so into Cow Hollow – without a stop. That’s an overshot, son, and I don’t stand for that. We don’t ride past our destination. That 28L was a pig in a poke.

But under the right conditions, a pig in a poke can be surprisingly alluring. Thus it was when we arrived at our bus stop one morning, on time and under budget, to see that the 28 was a solid 28 minutes away. We’d miss our connection to the shuttle and would have to wait nearly an hour in total for two bus rides amounting to 15 minutes on the road. A black mood settled over me. I glanced to the boys. They looked up at me, eyes shining with innocent trust. I couldn’t make them spend all that time at bus stops. I had to be a dad and fix this. And in true Dad fashion, I acted impulsively but wound up doing the right thing anyway.

The L was coming right up. I just told the kids to get on it. We’d walk back those five insulting blocks. They would still get to camp earlier than if we’d waited. Our bus made its right turn onto CA and then started motoring past the quiet broad avenues of Jordan Park, out past Laurel Village’s boutiques, all the way to the JCC where we hung a louie and went up past some Presidio Heights mansions and then between the sandstone pillars and down into the forest past the long straight trail of Lover’s Lane and a Galsworthy serpent curled expansively amid the euke litter, the coach rocking into the banked corners under the forest canopy, down past some tidy mission revival residences with palms and oaks and emerald lawns, right to the front of the Letterman Complex, where there’s a bus stop, where our bus… stopped.

We disembarked and I looked around, blinking in the platinum light. The ride had taken ten minutes. There was no overshot. We’d been let off exactly where we wanted to be. We started to walk – to the first path between the big office barracks, where robins and goldfinches accompanied us past a convenient Starbucks and a bronze statue of Edward Muybridge, and then down a series of smooth swooping paths descending gently among hillocks to a clear stone pond where tiny ducklings were just learning to swim. Beyond all this, the dome of the PFA rose like a dreamer’s sigh; beyond that, the bay glinted and the islands and hills lounged like cats. The boys took off running and laughing and in moments we were at the gym where camp was held. Fifteen minutes prior I’d been stewing about a missed bus. And now all I could think about is how easy everything just got.

Then a couple of weeks later things got easier still. After I dropped the kids off I took a shuttle right to my building downtown. From camp I’d walk three blocks up the hill right across the street, to wait for the shuttle at the Lombard Gate – its last stop before heading directly downtown. But by then all the seats were usually taken and I was forced to stand and that’s all too difficult and irritating for a delicate freaking flower like myself. I like to sit on the bus. That’s my “me” time, dammit. And then I realized that I could take a slightly different path from camp, turning right instead of left, leading in a slightly shorter distance to an earlier and rather nicer stop for the downtown shuttle, where seats were plentiful and flocks of wild parrots circled overhead to entertain me. From that day forward I rode to work every day in the comfort of my own upholstered shuttle seat. And that’s when I realized my commute was spoiling me. I feel ruined for the school year, but that’s not going to stop it from starting. Like, now.

(Speaking of which, I did ride out Iselle in a black-out in Kapoho at the east tip of the Big Island, where most of the damage happened. Let me know if you’re interested in reading about any of that sort of thing.)

Kapoho: the sea wall should be 10 feet above the surf.  Clearly the surf did not get the memo.

Kapoho: the sea wall should be 10 feet above the surf. Clearly the surf did not get the memo.

Eating Crow

Mornings, this summer, as matters turned out, have actually been pretty good times. Despite the occasional angst about what’s in the lunchbox or who’s got whose jacket or which bus we’ll be riding to camp, the boys have embraced their share of responsibility for getting out the door in time, and our half-block stroll to the main street is typically a care-free affair. I hand out bus passes and we talk about our hopes and dreams and recently acquired MTG cards. Whether the dawn breaks bright or through a mist, it’s sunny times for our little band.

So was it just a few days ago as we set out, the sidewalk glinting with morning dew and the trees across the street garbed in heavy foliage. The trees rise from a bank of thick shrubs, which rest on beds of ivy and nasturtium. This 50-fooot-wide sliver of park runs eight long blocks, connecting – like its identical sister on the other side of Highway 1 – 1,100 acres of parkland to the south, with another 1,500 acres to the north. Much work has lately been done to keep that greenbelt manicured, but it’s still a serious wildlife highway. From carpet to canopy, wild things abound across that street.

And on this side of the street, on the sidewalk along the row of mostly-Edwardian flats, we three men stepped out, well-breakfasted and equipped for our day, heading up to the corner and our bus. A raven burst from the greenbelt across the street, with a frenzy of glossy black flapping. This is not unusual, we see plenty of ravens. I think some nested on our next neighbor’s roof this past spring, so it was no surprise to see this morning’s raven setting down atop the house we were just passing. This allowed me to watch it carefully, with observations I brought to the boys’ attention.

The raven flew hard, pushing down against the air, climbing laboriously. These are big birds and skilled aerialists, birds that plainly take joy in flight, so my attention was drawn to the obvious effort this bird was exerting. Why? It held something in its black talons. It was hard to tell what it was holding, as the bird wheeled through the air, crossing the street, climbing to a perch on the rooftop right over our collective shoulder.

Not till the exhausted animal plotzed down on the sill of the eave and set down its burden, did I notice how whatever he had had a long skinny hairless tail, and even then, this I noticed only because it had flopped over the edge of the roof where for a moment it hung limply against the grey morning sky. That’s when I mentioned it to the boys. We all watched as the raven, now hidden by the eaves, yanked his breakfast further back onto the roof. The rope-like tail disappeared, and the raven began to squawk and flap.

Within seconds, four or five more ravens came swooping smoothly out of the trees, homing in on fresh meat. The first cawed loudly a few times but soon was hopelessly outnumbered. Then, they all gorged silently.

The boys and I watched these events in silence too. Jesse looked thoughtful. “I’m sorry for that rat, daddy.”

I took his hand. “It’s what animals do. Some die so others can live. But if it helps at all, I think that rat was already dead. I don’t think the raven killed it. It just found it, and wanted to eat it.”

Jesse smiled. “Yes, daddy, that helps.” I was shocked, but that actually helped me a little. Now that I think on it, that’s probably why he said it.

Egg On My Face

Hating eggs wasn’t just something I did, it was part of who I was. I had always hated eggs, with implacable utterness. No matter how they were made, what they were served with, how you disguised them, so far as I was concerned every egg was just a retch waiting to crawl up my throat. If I realized mid-sandwich that there were diced hard-boileds in the chicken salad, I’d have to lie down, so ill it made me. I was convinced it was an authentic allergy if not something much worse. In so many ways I had no idea who I was as a person, but at least I knew with perfect clarity that I did not eat eggs.

Then I went to college and things got fluxxy. I deliberately picked a school where I’d have no carry-over from my former life; I was free to shed old masks and habits, to be myself, whomever that might be. I made new friends, tried new things, pushed my limits in a range of ways. Of course… eggs remained anathema. Some things aren’t subject to negotiation.

Ah, but negotiation is only one way agreements change. I had yet to absorb the intricacies of force majeure. That’s what you invoke when an event beyond the control of the parties changes the very landscape of agreed reality. Acts of God, rioting mobs, criminal acts by agents unknown… any of these can cancel a contract. And of course I am obliged to mention the Trojan example.
Not that Trojan you randy devil, I mean like Troy. But not that Troy, not the jewel of Asia Minor, destroyed in legend for hubris and by hubris. My Troy’s went dark only around 1990 or so. During my time in Philly it was still going strong enough to knock me out of my rut.

Troy’s was the quintessential greasy spoon. You could get a combo-plate of fat and starch there from dawn till after the bars closed, with a beer for every meal. Me and my cohorts visited Troy’s often, suckling at its life-shortening teat with singleminded enthusiasm. My friends would always order the house special, the eggel: a puffy white-bread bagel, grilled in grease, topped with an egg over easy, cheese, and your choice of meaty embellishments. They’d set it on a melmac plate with gravy fries – crinkle-cuts in hot brown gravy, perfect for dipping the end of your deeply-bitten bagel as the barely-congealed yolk begins to drip forward … The ingredients were simple but it was like no one ever truly understood what a fried egg on a bagel could aspire to be, until Troy built his first eggel and my people rejoiced.

Well, those people, anyway. Everybody ahead of me in line. Even visitors from far off-campus pilgramaged to eggle-town, and all seemed to think it worth the trip. Everybody was ordering and enjoying eggles. Everybody but me.

These were my thoughts as I crept through the line at Troy’s late one parched and peckish evening. My friends had all just ordered their eggle plates with tallboys, and I was about to get… what? A burger? Gyro? The Philly-afal Plate? My heart said no and my spirit rebelled. Be bigger! it told me. Get what you want right now, not matter what you hated this morning! Ride the wave of your desire! Answer the call of the eggle!

As I ordered my eggle plate with bacon, I was disappointed that the rafters and floorboards didn’t gasp out their incredulity. No one even seemed to notice. My culinary exploration didn’t raise a single eyebrow. Reality continued unabated. Even as I took the plate to our banquette, only my one original roomie inquired, “hey, isn’t that what you never eat?”

However, by the time he’d finished the question, I’d already had a big bite all on my own, and, already, things had begun to change. The opinions of those around me faded to meaninglessness. I was experiencing a complex of gustatory sensations so sublime as to render speech both inadequate and impossible. There was too much going on in my mouth for me to process it at the time, and I won’t sully the experience by trying to recapitulate it here. But the interplay of textures, together with the layering of flavors, in that efficient little package stacked steaming in my hand… It was all so good, and it was undeniably held together by that egg, its yolk bursting, whites just set and blending with the cheese melting from the bagel crown above it with its crisp fried crust…

That eggle had converted me in a single bite, not just to itself but to its foundational ingredient. I suddenly felt no connection to my previous 18 years of absolute rejection of all things egg. I had broken, as it were, out of my shell. From that point on I was happy to try anything with eggs in it, from benedicts to bi bim bap. Cholesterol counts notwithstanding, I had begun to embrace the egg.

That embrace continues to the present day, more or less – cholesterol is now fully withstanding, and I still think hardboiled eggs are generally not food. But one of my life’s purest pleasures these days is to be importuned by my whole family to grill up some eggels on holiday mornings. I can’t take the boys to try the original, that’s long gone and maybe best left behind. But I can honor the legend and make it live in the moment. When I bite into one of the eggles I make these days, I feel the grilled face of the bagel crunch between my teeth, my mouth floods as the yolk bursts, I see my boys with eyes closed and canary goatees dripping into their laps, and I know I’ve honored a proud tradition. I don’t just eat eggs, I proselytize. No aversions and no apologies. On days I make eggles they are good enough to be the first egg I’d ever eat, but they’re hardly that now. I’ve eaten countless eggs, so many that my old aversion is now something I have to stretch to remember. Yet To this day when I eat an omelet or ikura with raw quail yolk I feel like I’ve taken a step forward. Some days that’s enough.

The Soccer Bitch

There’s a lady – no, a woman, but hardly a lady – who has made a career out of selfish, xenophobic agitation. People read her columns and get upset, or worse, at her meanspirited insulting words. Her screeds get passed around in disgust and it all ends up giving her more readers and more publicity. She speaks with the certitude of the ignorant, and the vindictiveness of someone who might actually realize, deep down inside, that she is wrong about most of what she says.

I won’t pay her the compliment of a link or the use of her name, but if you don’t know who I’m talking about yet, maybe this will help:

This particular woman wrote a few weeks ago about Association Football, known worldwide by the latter of these words and in the States by an abbreviation of the first word – soccer. This woman threw every aspersion her fetid mind could generate at this game, this recreation that enlivens so many lives on this too-often-dreary planet. With the power and influence and reach she’s got, the best she could think to share with the reading public was something along the lines that Americans who watch soccer, and the World Cup in particular, are sapping our national jism and losing us the war on terror.

Well I watched my share of the Cup and enjoyed it too, and my boys are soccerers well and truly. I can absorb a few barbs my own self but there’s no way in hell I will sit by while a hateful bigot insults my kids, even through their sport of choice.

It benefits no one (but the antagonist of the essay we’re discussing) to answer a fool according to her folly, so I tried to channel my outrage in a more productive way. I tried to imagine – for she really offered no specifics – what she found so offensive about soccer, what about it was “unAmerican” any more than bike racing or boxing or whatever. And because I am a deeply clever person I was able to identify her most likely concerns, better than she herself did in her column. Naturally these concerns are all devoid of any rhetorical value, or even rational content, but my dander is up so I’ll break it down one piece at a time anyway, just so I can walk away from all this ugliness with a clear mind.

1. Soccer is a game without breaks. You get 45 minutes with the clock running, and then some, before you pause for a commercial. That attenuates corporate co-opting of the sport culture. In smaller words, businesses make less money during the games, and viewers watch games with fewer interruptions from businesses. Soccer has no Gatorade Gamebreaks or Aflac Updates. And maybe this woman thinks this is a bad thing, either because multinationals need more opportunities to rape our popular culture, or because this woman is incapable of 45 minutes of uninterrupted attentiveness. Either way it’s a weak plank.

2. Soccer players can have multiple allegiances. World Cup players all play on their own different club teams, as well as together on the national squads. This underscores the distinction between nation and corporation. For this woman, though, nation and corporation are conjoined. The USA is a brand, itself composed of trademarks owned by a few dozen corporate giants. If soccer casts that commonality into an unflatteringly lurid light, it must be antiAmerican. For the record, my view is pretty much exactly the opposite.

3. On the stage of world soccer, the whole world is represented. Europeans, Africans, Arabs, Asians, and New World nations of Latin heritage all contribute players of the highest caliber. But when it comes to our nation of nearly 400 million souls, most of our best sports talent is diverted elsewhere. Consequently, our home-grown soccer stars are often of a lesser magnitude when compared to those from nations that more assertively emphasize soccer development. We play with heart, but that’s not the only muscle of significance in this game. As far as this woman is concerned, it seems that any game at which Murkins are not by definition the world’s best, is not worth playing. She seems to prefer a smaller stage of pre-annointed national champions, competing among themselves for a star-spangled prize. But that’s certainly not how this nation became great, or even good or whatever it is today. Picking only the battles you’re sure to win, is too limiting a proposition for a big-thinking people like us. If America is to justify its opinion of itself as a world power, it should try its strength against the world – and when it occasionally loses, it should learn and return stronger, not cut and run in an isolationist fug.

4. Soccer is a team sport, even more than our primary national pastimes. There are superstars in soccer but their moments of brilliance are fleeting – the game is played with passes, retrenchments, coordinated attacks, feints, and a group dynamic that verges on being organic. This is also true for some mainstream Murkin sports, but for this woman, USA is apparently inextricably tied up with NFL and MLB, and that’s not the way those teams operate. Those are teams of individuals who each occupy specific positions and play clearly-defined parts. These parts all fit together in a concatenation of individual efforts. We think of great sluggers, great receivers, great pitchers and quarterbacks… but not the team structure, the great outfielders or centers who make their achievements possible. Their contribution is too often washed out in the glorious radiance of the big stars. Soccer players, on the other hand, cover more ground over more minutes of continuous play than any of our big pro ballers, so they must rely on their teammates more. In soccer more than in many sports, individuals score but teams win. And I guess that’s not egocentric enough for some folk.

5. Soccer is often low-scoring, which offends the Murkin addiction to excess. Then, in case of a tie, you either resort to a shootout – which even devotees of the sport richly detest – or you walk away with a draw. Neither of these is satisfying to the Murkin ethic of forcing things until you get a winner and a loser, till you can distinguish the righteous from the fallen. God picks winners and a tie defeats his supernal purpose. That’s what I think this woman thinks. Now, some people know that this is ridiculous. They know that a soccer pitch is about the size of an NFL field, but you run it like a basketball court. Soccer players work their asses off and don’t get down-time. If after 90 (or 120) minutes of play they still haven’t been able to thrash out a winner, maybe it’s appropriate to call the teams evenly matched. If that’s not good enough, a tiebreaker is the only way to end the madness. Maybe in a tournament with different stages, a team can advance to the next round on points even if it loses a game. Things must be brought to a close when the contest cannot resolve itself on its own standard terms. The clock is part of the game. You don’t necessarily become a loser if you don’t beat the other team. What’s wrong with that?

6. In soccer, bigger isn’t always better. Top players can be short, and that diminutive size can be a real advantage in ball-handling and evading defenders. But this woman is used to giant athletes, to the point that anytime one is the normal size of a normal human it makes her confused. However, even big soccer players are not bulky and endomorphic. They need to be agile and to sustain a high level of exertion for a long period of time. They must be able to leap high and to take to the turf; they must not be so large as to make accidental contact with opposing players. A player who may be called the world’s best today, stands five foot six inches tall. Superstars on the pitch can be norm-core on the street. This might confuse my antagonist. She seems to be one who prefers her superheroes supersized, so she can tell at a glance who’s good and who’s bad. Because America has the biggest economy in the world and that makes it the best in the world (putting aside that we’re far from first in any number of other rankings). For those whose minds are too simple to navigate the nuances of variable sizes and variable skill levels, the “size matters” philosophy is comforting. Personally, I’d like to think I’ve moved beyond that.

7. Soccer players are not above taking it to the turf – sometimes for reasons more theatrical than otherwise. They will flop around like they’re getting an EKG if someone steps on their shoelace. It’s pretty ridiculous, especially when you can hit replay and zoom and see just how groundless their posturing on the ground sometimes is. Granted, some of those dudes actually break their backs or crack open their heads while playing, and real injuries are a real concern. But there’s too much play-acting and whining for my taste sometimes. Instead of just playing the game, they pervert the game by playing about other things like who ran into whom. It’s petty and childish and detracts from the true skills on display with the rest of the players. And actually, this is probably the best reason why this woman probably should enjoy soccer more than the average American – she’s so good at feigned outrage and falsified injuries, she could bite her own shoulder and blame you for it. So that’s a reason I don’t want her watching soccer, I guess – she’d only learn more about how to do what I find most irritating about her.

And with that, I will stop doing something that I find irritating about myself – complaining. I’m better than that. I am now that I’ve got this off my chest, anyway.

The Gift that Keeps On Giving

The chill called for it, and my fingers gladly found it on the shelf above my closet – its thickened nap waiting to kill that chill in an embrace of matted cotton that I’ve come to treat as a second skin these many years. Mossy green with ribbed cuffs and collar, it’s so much more than a sweatshirt. It’s the babcia sweatshirt. (It’s polish for “grannie.” Say “bobshee.” I do.) It is a state of mind in cotton-poly blend. It is family woven into fabric. But mostly, it’s the babcia sweatshirt.

This is not a sweatshirt that babcia herself actually gave to me. That would have been obvious, and out of character. My recollection is that Pat and I both got babcia sweaters that year, and maybe also Frankie and Dut. Most of these sweaters were, though unflattering, not without some basic color wheel harmony. Mine was just a train wreck. I think it was maroon and red with a shawl collar, something that managed to be both musty and garish at once.

It was a big thing for us to be around for Christmas that year and I was mindful of the honor of getting a gift directly from babcia herself. Pity was, I just didn’t care for it. It didn’t suit me. Wasn’t my thing. Then again, I was the out-of-town boyfriend, the Jew at Christmas. I felt rather self-conscious even thinking about returning it. I shouldn’t have worried. Once Kel saw it on me, she nearly begged me to trade it in.

The store whence came this post-Huxtable monstrosity stood on the city square of her small rustbelt city, a place that seemed to cater exclusively to Polish grandmothers. However, since that’s where babcia went shopping, I had no choice but to do my exchanging there as well. I had to find something to trade for my ugly sweater. I took it as a challenge.

That’s how I found the green sweatshirt. It was a mens’ product, in my size, said nothing about Jesus or hunting – in fact, said nothing at all, was not unsuitably colored, and had functional utility for my wardrobe. The store had offered up its one approximately appropriate exchange product. I brought it home looking for ways to feel excited about my spoils, but it wasn’t long before I realized that excitement wasn’t what this sweatshirt was all about.

Though the fabric got sort of matted after a few dozen washings, it became a regular if not frequent part of my rotation. As years trickled past, I started noticing other clothes of similar vintage were wearing out and getting thrown away, but the babcia sweatshirt just got a little – a little – shorter. It settled in at an unflattering lichen-y color, became exclusively at-home loungewear. In that role it has served admirably, and for long duration.

The sweatshirt persisted, through stains and dryer mishaps, weight gain and weight loss, always comfortable enough and plenty warm, slowly fading but never actually faded. The collar remains substantially unfrayed and unstretched. Kel has made no secret she’s seen enough of it, but I don’t replace things till they wear entirely out, and the babcia sweatshirt must be made out of kryptonite. I have to say it’s been about 25 years now, no fooling, and it shows no signs of giving up.

That puts me in mind of the green trench coat. By way of contrast, sadly.

I got the trencher when I first arrived in Philly for college. I wanted something warm, convenient, low-key, and cheap. The venerable I Goldberg’s surplus emporium set me right up. They were selling army surplus double-breasted wool trench coats with zip-out liners. The pockets had slits to let a hand pass through to a front pants pocket. Plus, it only cost $25. When I wore it I appeared a couple-three inches taller, up to 60 lbs heavier, and commanded the respect of West Philly street urchins.

I loved that coat but it was superfluous once I moved back to L.A., so I put it reluctantly away. The years revolved and I moved to Frisco, where I found myself occasionally out in a foggy windy chill, recalling that I actually owned outerwear appropriate to the weather. Maybe it might not be so fresh-looking anymore, but it was warm and convenient and my boon companion through so many years of outrageous living.

I retrieved it from a storage crate and found it again to be all that and more, and by ‘more’ I mean that it was also now a wool garment that had been bought as surplus 20 years prior, worn hard and typically put away none too carefully. I wore it again for a few new months, just long enough for my dormant love for this awesome garment to re-ignite in my bosom. Then I noticed that the cuffs were starting to fray. Soon, the hems were fraying too, and then all the edges and buttonholes and the belt. When the belt loops started separating I knew we had crossed the line. The awesome $25 army trench coat was now officially a shmata.

I hung it on a tree in the park and that was the end of the awesome green trenchcoat. It joined the ranks of other discarded classics like my grandfather’s college sweater, and the rainbow seersucker pants. I would now have to get used to experiencing the trench coat as part of my past. And by now, I think I mostly have done.

I recall all that as I pull down the babcia sweatshirt from the high shelf. I feel compelled to check it for frays and failures, but all I see is a somewhat leathery old sweatshirt, still a pale green, still ribbed with whole ribs and neither shrunken at the wrist nor indecent at the navel. It is long past being suitable for use in public, so I don’t much care that it’s not much to look at. All it needs to be is warm and cozy and convenient, and those things it continues to manage very well.

Babcia lasted 92 strong years; we still think of her very often. She may not have bought me that sweatshirt directly but in her heart she approved of bargain hunting and value and things that work effectively forever. She’d have approved of this sweatshirt. So even though sometimes Kel tries to persuade me to cycle it out of the rotation, I can’t bring myself to do it. I can hear babcia’s voice in my ear: “It’s fine. It keeps you warm. Why get rid of it?”

Why indeed, babcia. Maybe it’s a rhetorical question but I’m certainly not about to argue with you. I’ll just keep wearing that sweatshirt till you tell me otherwise. And, if I haven’t mentioned it lately, thanks again for the lovely gift.

Inside the Park Home Run

This one is in honor of international sports, and takes us back to the late ’70s when I was a lad of some 14 or 15 summers. I’d already been to England twice, where I’d met the family that had befriended my parents when they had first washed up on Blighty’s shores on a trip they’d completed before I was born. That family, like ours, had a son and a daughter. The son was Graham and he was wicked cool. When I had gotten to know him on a trip to the UK when I was 13 and he was 15 or so, he’d introduced me to Frank Zappa’s music, took me on a thrilling adventure under a bridge, implied a personal familiarity with certain fermented beverages, and generally impressed the hell out of me. So it was with a mixture of excitement and trepidation that I learned that he and his equally dashing friend intended to take my family up on our standing offer of hospitality. They’d be staying with us on holiday.

We put lots of ideas together to keep them entertained, but they were both such witty, good-humored fellows that it was easy to enjoy showing them around. Olvera Street was a big hit, as was Knott’s Berry Farm. But the thing that really seemed to impress them, was a visit to Chavez Ravine.

The ravine’s contentious history is a footnote today, and the families who once called it home have long since stopped doing so. Today it’s home only to the Dodgers. To be a kid in LA in the ’70s, meant being a Dodgers fan. We had that golden infield, a fistful of league pennants, and of course that sweet mid-cent field – the only modern baseball field with design integrity and a real sense of place. I’d see no fewer than half a dozen games each season. Dodger dogs were my favorite meal and Vin Sculley narrated my dreams. I may not have been personally athletic, but my boys in blue handled that for me just fine.

It was obvious we should take the Brits to a ball game. They approached the event as usual, dry and wry. After all, they’d seen plenty of American Baseball at the cinema, as they put it, so they reckoned they knew what they were in for. Plus, they were both mad Cricket fans, so they knew something of the hurling and whacking arts. Cricketeers threw a really hard ball, they repeatedly emphasized for me, and those cricket bats are much bigger than baseball bats. They were coming along for the spectacle, and to humor their hosts, but it was my sense that they didn’t expect to be shown anything much more than Cricket dumbed down for Yanks.

The drive in and the walk up to and through the gates was like every other trip to every other big tourist trap we dragged them to, just another parking lot (though this one had quite the view) and another palm promenade with steel turnstiles. Inside the turnstiles, the visiting Brits were amused by the depth of fan intensity on display and by the festive atmosphere in the walkways behind the scenes, with the tchochki hawkers and program floggers. Still at a cultural remove, they smirked through the milling crowds as we herded them to the gate through to our seats and their first real view of big league baseball.

I think I heard their jaws hit the cement underfoot as the vastness of the park yawned before them. Dodger Stadium seats 56,000 people, stacked five sections tall in a dramatic curve that hugs three corners of the diamond. In the waning dusk, the artificially lit and watered grass stood in vibrant contrast to the pink sfumato obscuring the hilly horizon.

And on the field below us, the men warmed up. Some tossed the ball, some pitched, some took batting practice. It was ordinary normal warm-up stuff.

The Englanders had never seen the like. One uttered, “this isn’t like Cricket so much.” The other, as I recall, said something about balls being thrown and hit so hard being dangerous. As pitchers honed their aim at 70 or 90 mph, and batters whipped with their shoulders to send hardballs into the outfield, and as fielders reacted before balls were hit and caught balls that gave every impression of being uncatchable, the visitors were uncharacteristically quiet.

When they did break back into conversation, it was peppered with questions about the speed of the pitchs, the distances between points on the field, the incidence of injury. Once the game started, they cheered lustily if somewhat indiscriminately, and though I can’t recall the opponent or the outcome I am pretty sure that both our visitors came home with us that night with tiny baseballs orbiting their heads. They borrowed gloves and a ball the next day and tried a toss-around; it didn’t take long for them to get the basic hang of it, though they learned even quicker that it’s both a science and an art to throw and catch a baseball well.

Once they got back to Oxford I think they wound up ordering some gear from Sears, which at the time was about as meta-national as folk got. Regardless whether it ever saw much use, that purchase itself was enough to satisfy me that, for all the cool things those cool dudes had shared with me over the years, we’d returned a little bit of the favor.

Getting Carded: How to Win $45

All school year long I rode the public bus with J and Z to their school. They boys each have a Clipper Card – as have I – that serves as a reloadable bus pass. When funds run low, I can refill them at a chain drugstore or any of hundreds of kiosks around town. Or, as I’ve recently learned, you can just have your kid lose one, and somehow it comes back full of money.

Having the cards has been a real boon. It’s much easier than digging around for change every morning, they’ve motivated the boys to get to the bus stop on time, and it’s taught them responsibility: they must not lose the card while they’re using it, and must return it to me for safekeeping as soon as we get off transit. They’re on lanyards so we can keep an eye on them and can’t lose them very easily. The system worked beautifully for months. Then we went off-script and experienced system failure. That should have been a bad thing but sometimes things don’t work out the way they should.

Not long ago the boys and I had a day off together. We ran errands and wound up a dozen or so blocks from home with a box of leftover ham-and-cheese crepes, a bag of prescription medications, and a floormop. None of us were prepared for a rainstorm but the sky suddenly occluded with cumuli and we found ourselves in a serious downpour. I bought an emergency umbrella for the boys and trotted beside them in my cotton shorts and a light hydrophilic jacket. Thankfully it wasn’t cold, but we were all crazy wet by the time we reached the bus stop.

On the brief ride home we just tried to keep from dripping excessively on our fellow travelers, and when we left the bus we hightailed it through the deluge to the arid safety of our abode just a block away. The boys were so soaked by the time we got there that they stripped their clothes off on the landing rather than bringing those sopping things indoors. It was there, in the pants on the landing, that I later found J’s Clipper Card. Z’s, however, never did turn up.

That was on me. I should have asked for the cards right when we got off the bus but with the bundles and brolly I plumb forgot. By predictable coincidence, this was also the day that Z finally managed to lose his Clipper Card. On the bus or along the dash home, he had somehow dropped it. This we had to accept, after a week exhaustively searching the house. The card was gone, along with the few dollars in fare Z had left on it. I set aside some weekend time to call the central bus pass scrutinizer and plead for dispensation.

The scrutinizer turned out to be a very nice lady who listened to my story sympathetically, looked up Z’s card, confirmed it was a child’s card (so fares are deducted at the discounted kids’ rate) and told me about some recent activity on the account: it hadn’t been used since Z had lost it but the day before my call someone had put $50 on the card.

I confirmed it hadn’t been me – it must have been whomever had found it. That person had decided not to turn in a bus pass he (or she) found on a lanyard, with initials on it in sharpie, and a colorful streetcar graphic on its protective luggage tag holder. Obviously a child’s pass. Free for the taking, and not turned in. A sad example of humanity, I mused.

True, agreed the gracious scrutinizer, but not the end of the story. Given that the child who actually owned the card was reporting it as lost, as of today, she had no choice but to cancel the existing card and issue a replacement, transferring the existing balance to the new card.

After a processing fee of $5, we’d turned a neat $45 profit. And some schmuck who, rather than turning in a lost clipper card, preferred to retain it for his or her own personal use, will find that she or he is $50 poorer come the first time that bus pass gets tapped and comes up “cancelled.” It may not be instant karma, but it’s basically skillet ready.

Add to this that the replacement card Z got has a cool limited edition new Bay Bridge logo, and how I’ve found a really nice embroidered Alcatraz luggage tag and a high-quality lanyard to keep his new bus pass save, this appears to be one of those rare experiences when things went wrong and then worked out significantly better than they started. Take heart from my shocking experience. Next time, it could be you!

Peanut Noodles Grow Up

Here’s a situation some of you parental units out there might recognize: you want something for supper that entices your palate, but the munchkins want spaghetti and red sauce. Hell, my kids eat all kinds of exotic crap but sometimes they want spaghetti and red sauce and god help us if we fail them. Well it’s not quite as bad as that, but the kids are fully capable of fixating on marinara spaghetti when I want interesting food. When that happens, if there’s any strategy designed to give everybody what they want, it is worth a shot.

In that spirit, here is my shot – my zesty shot. This shot isn’t just delicious, it’s no-cook easy. If you can make spaghetti, you can knock this out while the water boils. Mostly, anyway. Probably. Hey man, you signed a waiver.*

* Following this footnote implies irrebuttable presumption of having signed the damn waiver.

As to which: Spaghetti! I suggest water salty enough for you to taste the salt, so taste it before it gets too hot. Pull cooked pasta from the boilpot once a strand feels done when you eat it, and don’t bother with any other unsanitary tests. Cool it under the tap if you need to before you taste-test. I find it easier to pull a test strand with a fork. Oil the pasta once it gets out of the boilpot unless you sauce it immediately, or it’ll enlumpify into a congealed monstrosity. See, so EZY!

And for the red sauce, let your kids pick it. Sometimes mine want housemade veal shank reduction with heirloom base and shallots, and sometimes they want that one with Mario on the label. Whatever. It’s for them. And sometimes that Mario knows his shit.

But that’s just for the kids. Grown-ups can enjoy Philadelphia Peanut Noodles, so-called because I first tasted it there, my wife got the recipe there, and all we ever call it at home is “peanut sauce” which hardly distinguishes it from everybody else’s run of the mill. Which this is, in my opinion, definitely not.

Just salt and cover a pot of water and set it to boil, and while it’s heating up, put some red sauce on the next burner to heat up. That’s for the unadventurous. For you, combine the following in a bowl to make:

Philadelphia Peanut noodles

3 T crunchy peanut butter
2 T soy sauce
2 T peanut oil
1 T red wine vinegar
2 t hot chili oil (find it, accept no substitutes, it makes the dish)
2 t sugar
1/2 t salt
2 cloves garlic, pressed (or minced or whatEVER)
2 T scallions, chopped – I like it pretty fine but that can be tiresome
plus a MERE DASH of cinnamon

Mix it all up and then toss it with spaghetti, perhaps with the addition of peanut noodle meats or veggies – cauliflower, satay chicken, DO I HAVE TO DRAW YOU A FREAKING MAP I did not think so and thanks for keeping up. If people have hearty appetites, double the recipe.

Let the kids try your food, if they have any stomach for spice. Maybe they abandon their pot of Mario goo on the stovetop. No, it might happen. Someday. Till then, you know, more for you!