The Poet Among Us

There’s a funny person from around these parts named Zach Houston. I guess all poets are funny in a way, aren’t they? Yes, Houston is a poet. A real, working poet. And he is a jewel.

You may have seen him on the CBS News, or heard him recently on NPR.

He totes around a manual typewriter. (When was the last time you saw someone use one of those?) He sits somewhere with a fair amount of foot traffic. He sets up one of his signs, and he sits.

For a donation, he will write an original poem. Write it on the spot, banging it out clack-clackity-clack on his typewriter. And he will pull it off the roller, sign it and hand it over.

Remarkably, Houston is not just some ape with a gimmick. He is a talented and thoughtful poet. His words have sound and rhythm. His poems, at least the ones I’ve read and heard, are intriguing. They play on ideas in original ways.

Houston, in short, is as brilliant as he is ballsy.

I saw him the other day at San Francisco’s Ferry Building Farmer’s Market. He wrote something for my daughter and her school pals. I watched him as he chit-chatted with these pretty girls, joking, flirting more than a little. But he was writing all the while. And when I read it, I was more than a little surprised at the high quality of the finished piece.

It’s not every poet who would have the nerve to compete for attention at a place like this, where people come for farm-fresh produce and gourmet food. But probably not every poet feels up to that kind of challenge. Houston, however, is obviously more than equal to the task.


There are times, I believe, when a nation must take to arms for absolutely legitimate reasons. Invasion is certainly one of those reasons. Ego gratification is not.

What we now call World War One, what was once called The Great War, started because of happenstance and lunacy. It became the most horrific spectacle of the 20th century because a very few number of leaders (none democratically elected) thought virtually nothing of the lives of their subjects, and cared very much about their own personal standing in the world.

Unprepared for the demands of modern warfare, military commanders blithely sent wave after wave of young men against poison gas, artillery and machine guns, then the newest weapons of mass destruction, into the certain death of direct assaults against fortified positions. Before the carnage was over, there were 35 million casualties, of whom 7 million were civilians. Cities fell to constant bombardment. Death and destruction on an unimaginable scale.

The nations of Europe lost an entire generation of young men. Empires, that had sought to improve their standing in the world, collapsed. Maps were redrawn. That continent changed, more or less, permanently.

And there were the waves of war-scarred veterans returning home, changed, more or less, permanently as well. Sullen. Withdrawn. Drug-dependent. No longer able to fit within the societies they’d left.

As we Americans consider our next use of our armed forces, we would do well to ponder Europe’s ugly history of military adventure directed toward achieving uncertain aims. For unleashing weapons with illegitimate reasons, there is hell to pay.

A Son’s Giant Pride

The other day, my 13 year-old son and I happened into the San Francisco Giants’ store at a nearby mall. Okay, honestly, we’re both suckers for hometown team apparel and were looking at this season’s crop of warm jackets.

[As an aside, what you’ve heard is completely true. Unlike almost the entire rest of the country, it really is cold in San Francisco during baseball season.]

After taking complete stock of the store’s inventory of warm things, we stopped by the gift counter and noticed the rings that were created for fans to commemorate the Giants’ 2010 World Series Championship. And my son and I agreed that they’re pretty handsome.

As we talked about which model of ring we preferred (the one without the diamonds, as I recall), another man and his son came over to the case. My son Giggy noticed it first but I did soon after – the man was wearing what looked like a real World Series ring, the kind the players and team officials got. Giggy looked at me with questioning eyes, then whispered to me: “Is it?” It sure looked like it, I said. But I figured I’d remove any doubt, so I asked.

“Excuse me, is that a real World Series ring you’re wearing?”

“Yes, it is. I work in the clubhouse; I do laundry. The team gave me a ring. Isn’t that something?”

“It’s amazing. How great for you.”

“Think other teams would do that? No way.”

“It’s beautiful. Thanks for showing it to us.”

“My pleasure. Thanks for asking.”

Giggy couldn’t take his eyes off the man’s enormous ring but my eyes drifted over to the man’s son. He was looking up at his dad with a huge smile and, what seemed to me, boundless pride in his eyes.

What a lucky man, I thought. Not all of us get that kind of moment to shine in our kids’ eyes.

Waiting Room

Sitting in the beige waiting room of a doctor’s office.

Through the small sliding glass window, I see people with lab coats, doctors I suspect, pass people in operating room scrubs, nurses and technicians. They sometimes stop and speak, sometimes speak while moving, sometimes ignore each other completely.

The bing-bong chime of the phone answered in a near-whisper by the receptionist. The hum of the air conditioning. A businessman rustling the pages of an improbably upscale travel magazine. He hardly looks down at the pages, much less reads their content.  Trying to distract himself, I imagine, from what’s to come, or maybe, what’s already come.

A nurse sticks her head out of the plain, white door. “Miss Hunter. Laura.” The attractive young lady in yoga pants rises and walks over. They disappear inside and the door swings closed.

Sitting and waiting.

Someone has given conscious thought to the lights in this room. They aren’t the long, industrial fluorescent tubes that make everyone look sick or, worse, dead. Table lamps and recessed ceiling lights provide a living room ambience. But the furniture is all wrong. Clusters of hard-backed chairs line the walls and form inhospitable angles. And the books in the shelves. Medical texts and drug guides. Xeroxed paper signs. IMPORTANT INFORMATION FOR ALL PATIENTS. NOTICE TO CONSUMERS. PLEASE REFRAIN FROM USING YOUR CELL PHONE.

No. This is no one’s living room.

Waiting in this place for my mom. Just maybe a little measure of karmic payback for the many times she sat in doctors’ offices and emergency rooms, waiting for me. And, believe me, there were many.

Not an emergency for her today, but perhaps a rehearsal for one day, when it will be.

It’s Ohio

A caveat: a lot can happen between now and election day (November 6).

That said, I have done the math a few different ways, and if the presidential election goes the way I think it will, this will be fairly close, and hotly contested Ohio will be the deciding state.

Here’s how I think it happens: Obama carries the northeast, pretty much outright, and the west coast. With some of the upper midwest, he gets to 266 electoral votes, just shy of the 270 the winner will need. Romney carries the southeast, some of the midwest, the Plains and mountain states. That gets him to 254 electoral votes.

Ohio has a delegation of 18 electors. Whoever carries Ohio will win; I don’t believe either candidate can win without carrying Ohio.

So, if you want to know who will occupy the Oval Office starting in January 2013, keep your eyes on the Ohio polls.