What It’s Made For

I got up early this morning to look online at radar and satellite images, in an attempt, a frustrated and fruitless attempt as it turns out, to see if my son’s baseball team could squeeze in its game before the storm now pelting our house blew across the city.

He was already dressed in his #44 uniform, sitting at the breakfast table, playing with his food. He wanted badly to play. He looked at my eyes as they scanned my computer screen – both of us searching for any possibility of a positive sign. I looked up and smiled at him but we both knew better.

It was raining heavily without a break in sight as we left the house but we drove to the field anyway. We sat in the car, looking skyward for any break in the heavy drumming on the roof of our car – a patch of blue, a let-up in the rain, to no avail. Before long, a man came out to the parking lot to tell us, with cold finality, that the field was closed; there would be no games today. My son’s lips tightened and his eyes moved down to his shoes.

Baseball breaks another heart, which, face it, is something it’s good at, something it’s designed for.

The best baseball players, the very best, only make it on base about half the time. Just a few teams make the playoffs, much less play in the World Series. Errors are made in plain sight, exposing the offender in an embarrassing way other sports might spare players. Baseball’s most famous plays are as likely to be moments of tragedy as triumph. Some of the sport’s most famous and beloved teams are also its biggest losers.

Baseball is a sport designed for tears and heartache, and it relishes that role.

Today it happened to be the rain. Tomorrow, it’ll be something else again.

The Reality of Fog, Considered


The fog comes

on little cat feet.

It sits looking

over harbor and city

on silent haunches

and then moves on.

– Carl Sandburg

Sweet metaphor, Mr. Sandburg, but you must not have been writing about fog around these parts.

Where I come from, fog isn’t any silent-footed kitty. Fog, here in San Francisco, comes off the wild Pacific Ocean and hits you like a cold, wet sock in the jaw. It leaves you shivering, your clothes and body wet, your bones stiff and sore.

And, just between you and me, it takes its damn time moving on.

I realize that might not make the kind of poem that generations of schoolkids will be forced to memorize but I believe in honesty, especially about something I love so dearly.

Goodbye to a Musician of Note and Gravity

Is it the overproduced crap so many perform these days? The overly-matchy cowboy suits and string ties? The corn-pone turns of phrase? Country musicians are sometimes underestimated musically.

There was no chance of that with Earl Scruggs.

His contributions to bluegrass music are clear, identifiable, lasting and, yes, revolutionary. Even as the junior member of Bill Monroe’s band, the Blue Grass Boys, people were aware of his gifts and the uniqueness of his playing, were aware that Scruggs brought a style to banjo playing that was radical and new. Hear the banjo being played, and understand; there is pre-Scruggs and there is post-Scruggs, there is Scruggs and there are people who want to sound like Scruggs.  His style, developed over years of mastering his instrument, has been imitated by generations of pickers; all are pale echoes of his virtuoso command.

Earl Scruggs died on Wednesday at the age of 88, following a relationship with music that lasted over 80 years. I never had the good fortune of meeting him, but I have met and interviewed some of his musical contemporaries. He was loved and respected and he will be sorely missed.

You can watch the amazing Earl Scruggs, from a 1965 television broadcast, picking on Flatt & Scruggs’ signature tune, Foggy Mountain Breakdown, which became an international hit when it was used throughout the film, Bonnie and Clyde (1967), here.

His New York Times obituary is here.

Top Five Things You Don’t Want to Hear Your Pilot Say

[Courtesy of Captain Clayton Osbon, JetBlue.]

5. ‘Let me in! Let me in!’ while pounding on the other side of the cockpit door.

4. ‘They’re going to take us down! They’re taking us down! They’re going to take us down!’

3. ‘Say the Lord’s prayer! Say the Lord’s prayer!’

2. ‘I’m not responsible for this plane crashing.’

1. Anything to do with al-Qaeda, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan or bombs.

Treyvon’s Real Killer

I grew up in a middle class neighborhood, the same one my dad did, went to its public schools, hung out on its corners and in its soda fountains and movie theaters. Almost all my friends did too.

More than a few of my old pals and classmates joined law enforcement – the police and sheriff’s department, mostly – just as my dad’s pals and classmates had, in the generation before.  Some of my cop classmates, I remember as smart, stable and together people. Others, less so. A few times, I’ve run into former goofballs, people who did the stupidest things you could possibly imagine, now wearing badges and guns, and all I could do was shake my head and laugh to myself.

But at least, I figured, in exchange for the burden of carrying deadly force, they have received intensive training on weapons and codes of conduct. They have clear responsibilities and consequences.

In Florida, it seems, civilians, without this training and clearly outlined responsibility, can carry firearms and use them – not only if their homes are invaded, not only if their lives are threatened, but if they believe they are in peril. No training. No code of conduct. No responsibility. For a good explanation of Florida’s so-called “stand your ground” law, click here.

I don’t know George Zimmerman, the man who allegedly killed Treyvon Martin, but I must ask why a member of a civilian neighborhood watch carries a gun at all. I keep an eye out on my neighbors’ homes too – I’m looking at a few of them right this minute – but I don’t carry a gun and go on patrol. If I saw anything suspicious, I wouldn’t shoot anyone (or get myself into a situation where I might have to). I’d call 911.

We all know who pulled the trigger, but the insanity of “stand your ground” and other laws like it led to this situation in the first place. Civilians don’t need to carry firearms in public. Not doing neighborhood watch. Not ever.

If we don’t change that, we’ll have more Trayvons. Many more.

Lesson 1: Learn Your Lines

I listen as often as I can to Fresh Air, the superb radio program with host Terry Gross. On one program, she interviewed actor Charles Grodin, also a personal favorite. She asked if it was any different working with younger actors. Grodin said yes, they don’t learn their lines. As a consequence, he continued, it was not only more difficult working with them, it was also more difficult for them to find their character and the meaning in their words.

In a scene from Hearts of Darkness, the documentary about the making of Apocalypse Now, actor Dennis Hopper defends as his purposeful artistic process not learning his lines so he can keep greater degrees of artistic freedom in his portrayal. The film’s director, Francis Ford Coppola, reminds him that he needs to know his lines first for him to have even the barest glimmer of hope of exploring the character’s full intention and place in the story.

In my professional life, I’ve worked with many leaders to help them communicate more effectively. Many have been giving talks and presentations for years and express to me a sincere desire to branch out, get more creative, be more physically demonstrative. All well and good, I frequently respond, but first, know your material.

It’s only by having the confidence of being the complete master of content that a speaker can fully realize their potential connection to an audience.

5 Things to Do on This Rainy Saturday

You planned on baseball but the weather’s not cooperating. No big deal. There are plenty of things to do on a rainy San Francisco Saturday. Here are a few suggestions (I have no personal or commercial interest in any of these places, by the way.).

Musee Mechanique

One of the world’s largest privately owned collections of (over 300) mechanically operated musical instruments, antique arcade machines, orchestrions, coin operated pianos, antique slot machines, animations. Go in. Play some. Waiting for you at Pier 45.

Morning Due Cafe

On the corner of 17th Street and Church. Wonderful coffee and great food. An absolutely beautiful family owns and runs the place. Great music (I often swing to Sinatra when I’m there.). Diverse crowd. Great vibe.

Palace of the Legion of Honor

One of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. A glorious natural setting that’s a treat in any weather but especially compelling in the rain, I think. Beautiful whether or not you’re a francophile. I highly recommend a current exhibition, The Cult of Beauty: The Victorian Avant-Garde, 1860-1900.

Balboa Theater

Not everyone remembers neighborhood movie theaters, so let me educate you. Most comfortable theater you’ve ever been in? Nope. Greatest variety of offerings? Not even close. Latest mega-hit? Possibly. What do you get at the Balboa? It’s run by people who LOVE movies. They program with fans in mind. Today, as is typical, they’re showing a mix of current and quirky: Hunger Games, Lorax, Iron Lady and a film of the Bolshoi Ballet. And, really, what’s better than a movie on a rainy afternoon?

Gold Dust Lounge

A singular place to meet visitors and locals sitting cheek-by-jowl. Landlords have issued eviction papers to make room for yet another national-chain retail clothing store – just what Union Square needs. Go while you can.

To Church

I’ve thought long and hard about spirituality and faith. I grew up in a family that identified itself as part of a particular religious tradition, I studied religion under some amazing scholars and mentors, have tried practice in various traditions, have worked in professional capacities for a few religious institutions.

There is a particular way I conceive of the divine – its characteristics, its role in my life, the way in which I maintain a relationship, etc. There is a name I use when I think or speak about it. There is a set of rituals I observe, places I go or think about going particular to experiencing the divine. There are specific texts I believe tell stories and give guidance about the human relationship to the divine and about appropriate human behavior.

In those texts, in the rituals, in the place and amongst the people that make up my spiritual context, some things strike me as more meaningful, more important, more reasonable than others. With respect to all that, I believe a great many people are in the same or similar situation.

Other people have different traditions, different texts, different names for the divine. Some believe the divine is fiction. Their ‘sacred’ texts may be books of science, or theater, or fine art. There are many spiritual paths in our society; I believe that diversity of belief is a characteristic of a strong society and it gives me great personal joy to discover and learn to appreciate the philosophies and practices of other people.

But here’s one thing that living in a purposefully diverse society means: we must show respect for people who believe different things.

There are people who believe that marriage can only be a union between one man and one woman. There are people who believe contraception by artificial means is evil and believe the active termination of pregnancy is murder. There are people who believe priests must exclusively be celibate men.

Just because I may not believe any of that doesn’t mean I should compel or coerce those who do to comply with my vision of the good. Further, if I’m a member of an institution that follows principles or practice I find unacceptable and I want to continue being part of a spiritual or faith community, it is my personal responsibility to find myself a different institution.

Let’s get a little concrete.

Some people who work for Catholic-based organizations or attend Catholic-affiliated colleges are upset because the church doesn’t want to provide financial support for reproductive health services it feels goes against its core principles. In this case, I don’t believe the correct approach is either legal or legislative. I believe the appropriate approach is for employees to find another employer and students to find another school if they find church-imposed regulations to be both significant and onerous.

If you’re called to the priesthood and also called to be married, or if you’re called to the priesthood and are a woman, find a church that ordains people in relationships and/or women. If you wish to be married to someone of the same gender in the context of a religious ceremony, find a religious institution that exercises marriage equality in that particular way. It is not, to my mind, right to insist that a particular religious institution conform to a set of beliefs around those issues that goes against its core principles.

And it is incumbent on religious institutions to “practice what they preach” in this regard – state explicitly what they believe and follow through in practice. Too many religious institutions give lip service to high-minded doctrine, (e.g., marriage equality) then capitulate to pressure when push comes to shove. This serves the interests of no one.

All that said, there is another side of the equation, however, and it goes like this: for some students, having reproductive health coverage is really important; consequently, they may choose not go to Catholic-affiliated schools. As a result, the volume of applications and enrollments to Catholic-affiliated schools might fall. A lot of women who are called to be priests will take their ministries elsewhere, so the Catholic church may find itself without an adequate number of priests. Church membership may decline if too many disagree too strongly with too many matters of church doctrine.

For me, the bottom line is that strongly-held beliefs should be respected, which is, of course, not to say they are costless.

What Kinda Country Is This, Anyway?

The results from this week’s Illinois GOP primary tell a story. The one major candidate who has campaigned primarily on economic and policy issues, Mitt Romney, won majorities in areas of high and dense population. The other, Rick Santorum, who campaigns primarily on his Christian fundamentalism and social conservatism, won in areas of less dense and lower population.

In other words, Romney won cities and suburbs and Santorum won farms and exurbs. Here’s the map; it’s especially illuminating if you know Illinois but even if you don’t, the pattern is pretty obvious.

As much attention as so-called ‘values-voters’ are getting in the media these days, demographics and history indicate they will continue to recede in electoral importance. Over 80 percent of Americans live in urban areas now, and the percentage continues to grow.

The GOP’s Illinois primary is a story of the entire country, writ small.  All the campaign talk about self-reliance, and ‘taking our country back,’ and fighting socialism, and same-sex marriage, and banning abortion, and basing national policy on literal interpretations of the Bible are salient to a smaller and smaller proportion of our citizens.

Where the American people live in increasing proportion, how our neighbors choose to live their lives is something of very little relative electoral concern.

Lessons From the Rock

Alcatraz, an island sitting in San Francisco Bay, may be America’s most legendary prison.

The Federal prison on Alcatraz was closed on this date in 1963. It’s now part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, a national park. About 500 visitors a day take the short ferry ride from San Francisco to see it.

I’ve been myself a few times; visiting Alcatraz never fails to stir up very strong feelings, especially when I’ve taken the audio tour. The tour is not an overproduced marketing piece narrated by some generic announcer-voice. You hear real stories in the actual voices of former Alcatraz inmates.

The result is immediate, emotional, honest, raw and real. At times, the stories are downright heartbreaking.

I can’t forget the story one former inmate told. It was New Year’s Eve. The prisoners had been locked in for the night and the lights turned out. Because of the proximity of the prison to San Francisco itself (it really is quite close, as the seagull flies) and the particular acoustic properties of fog (it reflects sound), the inmates, sitting in the cold darkness of their cramped cells, could hear the music, laughter and noise of the city’s many parties.

By locking convicted offenders in a prison within earshot and sight of civilized society, we send them a potentially constructive message: you have done something that makes you unfit (perhaps temporarily, perhaps permanently) to be part of this society. We continue on with our lives but you do not. Behave according to our society’s laws, customs and mutual agreements and you may again join our society.

Until then, watch and listen from a distance to that which you have lost.

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