Thursday, February 28, 2013

Disconnected

Notes from today's WALK...


Ding.

That is the sound of a text message.

Ding.

There’s another one.

It is a high pitched bell, like the ones on reception desks that say, “Please ring for service.” The ones that make you feel like a jerk for ringing them.

Ding.

I try not to bring my phone on the WALK, but sometimes it cannot be avoided. When I’m not walking or writing, I have another job. One that actually pays. And the people with whom I work expect me to be available. They expect me to respond and communicate, often instantaneously. They expected me to be connected. Always connected.

Over the years, I’ve learned the rhythms of my paying job. I can anticipate when expectations will be highest, when I need to be on call. But there are times when no one will need me for a while. I can usually see them coming. An hour here, an afternoon there, when clients will be occupied elsewhere and colleagues won’t need a timely reply. I try to take the WALK during these times. But sometimes I need a WALK and everyone else simply will not cooperate. 

Ding.

Today I spent most of the walk looking down at a tiny screen. I thumbed one typo after another as I stumbled down the uneven path. Occasionally I looked up and saw a new green leaf or a white flower budding. Spring is springing along the path. It wants my attention, but I had none to give today. 

Worst…WALK…Ever…I mumbled as I bitterly read another graphical thought bubble in the palm of my hand. But it wasn’t. I’ve had worse. I’ve had quiet, solitary WALKs that were poisoned by my own thoughts; self-doubt, self-loathing, self-sabotage. I’ve had angry WALKs when I just needed to get out of the house after an argument. Today I didn’t have the time or space for any of that. I stayed connected to the world and disconnected from myself, which can sometimes be a saving grace.

Ding.

Staying connected isn’t as bad as we Luddite curmudgeons pretend it is. Those dings and bongs and tweets and rings are sonic signifiers that someone needs us. These sounds wrest us from an ego-centric world where our problems are the only ones that count. That little handheld connection can spare us the microscope view of ourselves. Hey, we’re reminded, there is someone else out there who wants my attention. That’s not the worst thing in the world.

So what’s the problem? Why do I still think that my life would be better without this damn phone? Why do a still shudder when my pocket vibrates or my earbud rings? Why do I still resent having to stay connected when an unconnected life can be so lonely?

I suppose it’s because the connection has become the thing. The medium is the message. I communicated before this phone. I corresponded before email. I chatted before texts. My life was no less rich or rewarding. In fact, it was more so. Because my attention was paid to the object of the connection. My focus was on the person or idea or event I was connecting with. But that’s changed. Now, the phone is the object of my attention. My connection is to the device. It is always in my hand, my fingers sliding across it, my eyes scanning it for updates. Without it, I feel disconnected. Disconnected from my friends, my clients, my colleagues and, most tragically, from myself. 

Until I don’t. 

Until I remember that I must disconnect to reconnect. With my work. With my writing. With my family. With my friends. With myself. There is no device that can bring me closer to these things. Only I can do that.

Ding. Ding. Ding.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Selected Shorts



It is raining and dark on the drive home from my father and stepmother’s house in Fairfax. The wind buffets my car as we travel cautiously on tree-shrouded Sir Francis Drake Boulevard. My headlights bounce off the wet road, obscuring the painted lane makers. It’s December 1st and we’ve just celebrated Christmas for the first of what will be four times this year; a product of divorces, remarriages, in laws, exes, and the fact that my wife and I chose to raise our children within an hour of all of these people. The children in my backseat – my children – are exhausted. My son changed into his pajamas before we left. He was asleep before the windshield was fully defrosted. My daughter is awake. She has always fought sleep like an unbroken horse fights a bridle. She sits silently back there, punishing me for having countermanded her mother’s promise that we’d have time to read stories when we get home. 
At last, she speaks.
“Dad?”
“Yes.”
“Never mind.”
“What is it?”
“You’re going to say, ‘No.’”
She was going to ask me to tune the radio to Rev FM, the DJ-less station that plays 20 identical-sounding pop songs in perpetual rotation. At another time on another day, she might’ve asked the question and I might’ve said, “Yes,” but somehow we both knew it wasn’t going to happen tonight.
As if providing an unspoken answer to her unasked question, I dial up KQED, our local NPR affiliate. There is a light groan from the backseat. It is 8:40pm. The third segment of Selected Shorts is beginning. The story is introduced and the guest reader begins. My daughter falls silent.
The story is uniquely adult. It is an essay by a woman about her shameful attachment to a toy pony collection. She fantasizes about her parents stumbling upon the ponies hidden under the kitchen sink in her Manhattan apartment after a horrible accident has brought about her premature death.  I am listening, first, to ascertain the appropriateness of this story for eight year-old ears. The reader goes on to explain that the ponies were gifts, extorted in the early stages of romantic relationships from a series of emotionally limited and fatally flawed ex-boyfriends. There is nothing about this story that a child needs to hear. At the same time, there is nothing about it that a child should be shielded from. No curse words or abuse. No stereotypes or racial profiling. It is entirely adult, yet utterly benign. And my daughter is riveted by it.
She sits in rapt silence. Her interest in the story, inexplicable though I find it, gives me license to turn my own attention more fully to it. It is an excellent story; humorous, insightful, well written and well told. It is filled with jokes about failed affairs and self-effacing jibes at the author’s own foibles.
When it ends, she asks, “Dad, can you turn it back?”
“I’m sorry, Love. It’s over. I can’t turn the radio back. We might find it on the computer.”
“Okay. Can we try?”
“Sure. Not when we get home. But maybe tomorrow.”
“Okay.”
 “Mom likes that show, too.”
“Has she heard that story?” she asks.
“I doubt it. But she’s heard others.”
“Oh.”
She falls silent again and I am left with my thoughts as we merge onto the newly paved and reflectorless freeway. On this rainy night, it feels especially perilous.
My thoughts turn, as they too often do, to my parenting skills, which I believe are poor, but most people tell me are above average, at worst. Among the many things I wrestle with is the amount of time and energy I spend explaining events and emotions to my young children. This, I’ve come to feel, is a unique flaw of my overeducated, left-leaning, co-sleeping, vaccine-questioning, quinoa-serving peer group. We had children later in life than any generation before us. And the regrettable result – likely the product of having too many years to think about how we would raise children before any of us had them – is a narrated childhood.
I am guilty, though less so than many parents I know, of over-explaining the world. Here’s why you’re feeling that way. Here’s how you could have said that differently. Your brother was wrong to take your MagnaTile, but it was how you handled it that was really the problem. Mommy is stressed at work, which is why she yelled and, yes, there was probably a better way to deal with that situation and she’s sorry, but mommy can’t always be the way you want her to be. That man pooped in the gutter because he doesn’t have a house of his own and sometimes people have bigger problems than we can understand. Which doesn’t make it okay to poop in the gutter, but we have to be careful when we say that something is “wrong” because sometimes people aren’t lucky enough to have the choices that we have. Uncle Steve acts that way because sometimes he has too many of a special kind of drink that only grownups can have, but even grownups shouldn’t have too many because too many can change the way your brain works, just for a while, and make you do or say things that you wouldn’t usually say. But Uncle Steve still loves us.
In the backseat, my daughter has passed the drive home making sense of a story that couldn’t possibly make sense to her. This is the forgotten essence – the wonderment – of childhood. We have romanticized the word “wonder” and imbued it with wide eyes and rainbows and astonishment. In truth, wondering is simply what we do when we experience something for the first time, and there’s no one there to explain it. Wonder is not revelation. It is the experience of inexperience. Emotions unnarrated and events unexplained. Too often we explain experiences to our children as they are having them in order to ensure their safe and proper understanding. In doing so, we rob them of wonderment, and of the joyous realizations that come years later when the meanings we made as children are re-viewed through the lens of adulthood. Stories eavesdropped around a late night card game. TV shows watched without permission. The strange neighbor with the one-eyed dog. Dad’s short fuse on Saturday mornings. Mom’s refusal to get a cat. The countless events and feelings that meant one thing as a child and will someday mean something so deliciously different.
Thinking these thoughts, I proudly resist the temptation to engage my daughter in a discussion of the story about the ponies. Talking about it, I am sure, would only ruin it. As we veer right off Highway 1 toward our house, Ira Glass’s bizarre mumbling comes across the speakers.
Today on This American Life…
“Oh, I love this show,” my daughter announces from the backseat.
I stop myself from asking, “What do you love about it?” and I turn off the car in driveway.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Playing with Himself



Notes from today's WALK...   

My son plays with himself. In the backyard. He goes out there alone, often in the morning, sometimes before any of the rest of us are out of bed. I can see him through the sliding glass door that leads from our bedroom to the yard. I’m not sure if he knows I’m watching. I am sure he would not care. When he plays with himself, it is as though he’s the only person in the entire world. And nothing could make me happier.

I hear the kitchen door open. He steps from the deck onto the grass, barefooted, still wearing his pajamas.  He wears his tiny leather glove on his left hand and holds a ball in his right. He stands at the edge of the grass in the morning mist, gathering himself. The narration begins.

Pablo Sandoval at bat. Cardinals pitcher winds up and pitches!

He throws the ball against the concrete retaining wall and it ricochets into play.

And Pablo crushes it. He’s rounding first. He’s going to second.

He chases after the ball as it rolls past the yucca tree and behind the dog house. 

He’s going to try to score. The Panda’s going home. Can they throw him out?

He grabs the ball off the turf and launches another frozen rope toward the wall. Pablo beat the throw!

And he’s safe! The Giants win the World Series!

And then he begins again. He inhabits every role in his play. By the time he comes in for breakfast, every player on the Giants will have a highlight; all acted out by my son. He is pitcher, batter, fielder, fan, and play-by-play man. This is his favorite game. He plays alone, but there are many players. And he is all of them. 

This is why I say, he plays with himself. To me, that is different than playing by himself, which has a connotation of solitude or isolation. He is joined by all the figments of his imagination. They come to his aid, keeping him company. They are his friends, his teammates, his enemies. They are alive. They are with him. And they are him. And he doesn’t care who knows it.

Someday my son will stop playing with himself. Someday self-consciousness will get the better of his imagination. Someday, like the rest of us, he will be alone when he is alone. I only hope he can put that day off as long as possible. We would all be better off if we played with ourselves more often.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The Big D

Notes from today's WALK...


Until I was 35, the phrase, “Big D” was most immediately associated with Dallas, the city. I knew its other meaning, but that came second. Now, pushing 40, “D” is divorce. First and last. It’s possible that, as mental associations go, migrating from Dallas to Divorce could be considered an upgrade. But that is beside the point. Suddenly, marriages are ending left and right. The onset of divorce apparently coincides with a particular age or stage in life. Like dementia. 

Not mine, of course. I am blessed with a happy marriage. Not that I’m na├»ve, mind you. Both my wife and I come from broken homes. I know the myriad reasons marriages end. Most of them are good reasons, in the sense that the reasons for getting divorced often outweigh the reasons for staying married (and in more than a few cases, getting married). The part that’s so vexing is that most divorcees seem genuinely shocked that it’s over. Despite months or years of evidence to the contrary, they honestly believed they could make it work.

A few months ago, I sat in a booth at my favorite cop bar in the Mission, eating a burger, and listening to my oldest friend in the world tell me about the end of his marriage. He was truly devastated. He seemed genuinely surprised.

“I tried. I really tried,” he repeated, cinematically, through hidden tears. “In the end, I just couldn’t make her happy.”

“I guess I’d argue that she didn’t make you happy either,” I offered, trying to remind him how miserable he’d been for the past seven years or so.

But that’s the thing about misery. It’s surprisingly easy to adapt to.  At some point, your life isn’t horrible; it’s just your life. You recalibrate out of necessity. Because it is often easier to redefine our circumstances than it is to change them.

“I just got good at compartmentalizing things,” he said. “Even when we were at each other’s throats, I didn’t let it ruin everything else. Maybe that’s how I was able to keep going.”

“I know it’s hard to believe this,” I said, reassuringly, “but you’re going to be a lot happier now.”

“You know what the really hard part is?” he asked. “There are a lot of good memories. We were happy more than you’d think. There are places I’ll never be able to go without thinking about how happy we were.”

It occurs to me how fine the line is between a good marriage and a bad one. All marriages take work. All marriages have pain and joy, bitterness and romance. Written down like this, these facts seem trite. But how do you know if your marriage is a good one? How do you know you’re not just redefining what it means to be happy? Maybe you can’t know. And maybe that’s why the Big D catches us off guard. Maybe that’s why, of all the divorces you experience, the one that really surprises you is your own.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

No One Like Me



Notes from the WALK

Is mine a singular genius? Is this idea I have as miraculous as it seems? These thoughts course through my brain as my feet lead me home. 

It is a movie idea; one I’ve had for years. The opening scene has been scripted and plotted since day one. It was the seed; germinated but somehow not sprouted. It rests in outline form in one of three notebooks I keep for such things. God, I hope I can find it.

I birthed the climactic scene about six months ago. It is still in my head, fully realized, if not documented. I feel I could pour it onto a page at a moment’s notice, if need be. Need, in this case, is apparently a producer making such a demand? Perhaps it is time to redefine need

Until now, the rest of the movie hasn’t existed. Actually, it has existed in the sense that I’ve always known there was a whole movie there. It’s just that I had only two scenes in mind. Sometimes that’s all you need. A beginning and an end.

But today, on the WALK, the rest of the movie took shape. I now know what has to happen; how to get from beginning to end. I know what it’s about, what’s at stake. Scenes take shape. Characters emerge. This is the most exciting part of the creative process, as far as I know. 

Suddenly, I’m scouting locations in my mind. I’m contemplating shooting schedules. We could do the location work in the City in two weeks with maybe four days of second unit. Then we could do all the interiors on set in LA. Yeah. That’ll keep the budget down. By the time I emerge from under the bay tree canopy, this baby will be in the can.

Except it won’t. 

I’ve had this idea for three years. 36 months to work on it. 156 weeks to polish the script. 1095 days to raise money. All wasted. 26,280 hours have come and gone since the idea struck me and even after today’s breakthrough that is all it is. An idea. 

Is mine a unique brand of self-delusion? What if underachievement is my superpower? These thoughts weigh on my mind as I arrive home. 

Wow. That was quick.