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.

In Flanders Fields

I ran into two old Marines yesterday, handing out red poppies for a donation to the Veterans of Foreign Wars. We talked for a few minutes, as I love to do with veterans, and they told me I was the first person in hours who’d known what the poppies represent.

It’s sad, really, but it’s the price we Americans pay for turning all our commemorative holidays into generic three-day weekends. More BBQ and beer, less appreciation.

In case you don’t know, there was a horrific series of battles on and around a Belgian plain during the First World War. Red poppies grow there naturally in abundance, creating the look of a field of blood where the fighting and death had taken place. This poem, which captures the spirit of the dead, was written soon after the first fighting there.

In Flanders Fields

by John McCrae, May 1915

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

And that is what Memorial Day and the red poppies handed out by aging veterans commemorate.

True Stories: Ella and Marilyn

Yes, they knew each other.

Here’s the story:

“I owe Marilyn Monroe a real debt…it was because of her that I played the Mocambo, a very popular nightclub in the ’50s. She personally called the owner of the Mocambo, and told him she wanted me booked immediately, and if he would do it, she promised she would take a front table every night. She told him – and it was true, due to Marilyn’s superstar status – that the press would go wild. The owner said yes, and Marilyn was there, front table, every night. The press went overboard. After that, I never had to play a small jazz club again. She was an unusual woman – and ahead of her time and she didn’t know it.” – Ella Fitzgerald

How wonderful these two met. How wonderful Marilyn helped Ella broaden her audience. And how wonderful Ella remembered Marilyn and her kindness so fondly.

Why Even Bother?

People often ask why writing for popular films can be so bad.

I have a hypothesis. But first, let me say I love movies and find the writing in many films to be of very high quality. That said, there are many very popular films that induce audience groans at the silliness, dumbness, flatness and woodenness of their writing.

Let’s start by asking who goes to movies. According to MPAA data, males make up over half of the moviegoing audience. About 50% are under the age of 25. Therefore, the movie audience is more male and a lot younger than the general American population.

So let’s add some unscientific but recent personal experience with that demographic group.

In preparation for taking my son and his classmates to see The Avengers a few weeks ago, I asked my son about the characters I’d likely see in the picture and about the films they’d been in previously. I asked him specifically about Thor because I hadn’t seen that movie when it was released last year. My son’s synopsis (in its entirety) of the 115 minute Thor movie went something like this:

So, Thor’s a god, right? And he comes to earth because of something his brother did. And he meets that girl from Star Wars, who married Anakin, and she’s a doctor. And Thor’s all, like, “Hey, I can’t stay here on earth.” And she’s all, like, “Whatever.” But he tries to go back but can’t because of something his brother did. So he decides to stay. And also, he likes her. So, yeah, that’s it. It was good.

Consider what my teenaged son took from that script. Hardly a reason to put in extra effort, huh?

And as long as Hollywood answers to the purchasing power of an audience that skews young and male, we’re likely to continue getting movies that are looks first and writing second.

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