Not Passing

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The fairly nondescript tan sedan was stuck in bad Sunday morning I-95 traffic in northern Virginia, on its way back to New York and the colder climes after a wedding in Williamsburg with college friends from William & Mary, now already three years past graduation.

Her left leg was curled up against the door – perfect as a balancing place for her iPhone, in constant use. Her hair was pulled back into a tight bun, the way she used to wear it when she did gymnastics in high school. Her dress, the one that makes her gym-toned legs look extra tanned, hung from the back door handle.

Other cars could hear the blaring music leaking out the doorjambs, her depression playlist of lost-love power ballads. She looked green, positively nauseous as she went back in her head over the weekend’s events.

It had been fun, one supposed, to party with old friends. Hard to get them all in one place these days. So many have left the east coast for grad school, or Europe, or ridiculously high-paying tech jobs in the Bay Area. But most came.

The food was surprisingly good, the bar serving tasty and refreshing drinks all night, the music fun.

But, God, why had she left and taken a drive with him? He was still the impossibly good-looking asshole she’d remembered from their college days together – the perpetually drunk frat boy from a well-connected family who’d kept putting his hand down her harem-girl costume at the ‘Lawrence of Sigma Nu’ party, showing off for his friends. He wanted to take her to his family’s boat, to the very place she’d fallen for his line of bullshit the first time, half a dozen years ago.

Once they’d finished, he supposed out loud that they ought to get back. He made sure to take her new Manhattan phone number, just to be polite, as if he’d ever call, which, intellectually, she knew he wouldn’t. He’d always had the good manners of the rich boy he was to his core. Minutes after they got back to the reception, he was back in his new BMW and gone without the slightest trace.

The only lasting thing she had was a painfully red rash around her mouth from his too-carefully groomed stubble that she somehow found completely irresistible after two or three too many fruity drinks at that damned open bar.

friends

Travel makes epiphanies

HoF

This summer, our family took its first pilgrimage to the Baseball Hall of Fame, in Cooperstown, New York. As anyone who’s made the trek can tell you, it takes determined intent. You don’t drive by Cooperstown on the way to somewhere else. It’s about 200 miles northwest of New York City, 250 miles west of Boston and, not to mention, about 2500 miles east of our hometown, San Francisco.

We went because (a) we’re all baseball fans, (b) since the focus of the trip was touring colleges for our daughter, we felt our son deserved a destination he’d more fully appreciate [He’s 14 and he sat through an intimate hour-long conversation with the admissions director of Bryn Mawr without complaint. Nothing less than heroic.], and (c) a visit to the shrine of baseball seemed an appropriately American thing to do.

The Hall itself didn’t disappoint us – we walked through beautiful and well-curated exhibits and saw artifacts from our favorite players and teams. Nor did Cooperstown, which was quaint and naturally beautiful. But it was a serendipitous and overheard conversation at dinner that made the greatest impression and will always stick with me.

We went to Cooperstown’s Alex & Ika, a wonderfully unique place to eat, and had to sit at the bar because it was so crowded. Happened to sit next to two women, one younger and Japanese, the other older and white, sharing some awesome-looking appetizers. They were having an intense conversation and, for once, my habitual eavesdropping paid off. The younger woman had a very good command of English, although it was heavily accented. She was a student at Williams College, itself a two-hour drive, or several-hour bus ride to the east [As I said, you don’t drive by Cooperstown on the way to anywhere.].

She’d come to Cooperstown right before the start of her fall semester specifically to see the Hall of Fame. Turns out she knew a lot about our ‘national passtime’ and very much wanted to better appreciate the quintessentially American game.  And she knew and wanted to see all the Japanese players who had exhibits or artifacts in the hall – Hideki Matsui, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Hideo Nomo and, of course, Ichiro Suzuki – and mentioned them reverently by name. For her, a visit to the Baseball Hall of Fame seemed a trip of devotion and respect, not just for baseball or the players who represented the Japanese game but also for America.

What a great testament, was that pilgrimage, not just to this woman’s spirit, and her dedication to her home country and its long baseball heritage, but to the beauty of this country as well, and its generation-after-generation attraction of people to its shores, for the fulfillment of whatever driving purpose.

IKA

So Long, Ernie

When you see the photo of an actor of a certain age on the front page of The New York Times, you come to know exactly what to expect.

I’d spent the weekend in the mountains with my family, sequestered from pretty much all news media, so I didn’t hear until we got back to San Francisco and I logged on. There was a publicity still from ‘Marty.’ So, in pretty short order, I knew that actor Ernest Borgnine had passed away.

Ernest Borgnine provides a sort of demographic litmus test. For most people my son’s age, he is best known as the voice of Mermaid Man to Tim Conway’s Barnacle Boy on the animated TV series SpongeBob Squarepants. For those my age, he was the fun-loving, wise-cracking, Navy commander Quinton McHale on TV’s ‘McHale’s Navy.’ To those of his own generation, Borgnine would always be the Oscar-winner who portrayed Marty the New York bachelor butcher.

He was, of course, so much more.

As an actor, Borgnine inhabited a dizzying array of roles in singular films like ‘From Here to Eternity,’ ‘The Wild Bunch’ and ‘Bad Day at Black Rock.’ He more than held his own with co-stars who were legends of film acting and entertainment, such as Frank Sinatra, Burt Lancaster, WIlliam Holden and Spencer Tracy. Even when he portrayed a tough guy or bad man, which was a lot of the time, he was often the person in the cast the audience most closely identified with. Some called him an everyman but he was really more like the man everyone wanted to either be or have around to watch your back.

Borgnine’s best and most beloved characters were, without exception, normal working stiffs. Sometimes they were put in situations over their heads and sometimes they put themselves there but they were always normal working stiffs. Marty Piletti, perhaps his all-time most beloved character was, after all, a simple butcher. Not, as populate so many films today, people of means (e.g., doctors, lawyers, architects, superstar athletes or entertainers, or just plain old rich guys) who can afford just about anything they want. Ernie played working stiffs.

They had to cut corners to make ends meet. They knew the price, by God, of a cut of beef and a quart of milk. Some were abused as kids. Some had been roughed up. In truth, all had, in one way or another. They took the bus and the subway. They lived in little apartments they felt lucky to have. They didn’t have professionally decorated summer homes in the Hamptons. They didn’t run the precious latest-thing bakery in Santa Barbara.

No, by God, Ernest Borgnine was playing quintessential hard-working Americans back when that concept didn’t seem like an anachronism on TV and in films.

What actor takes on that kind of role today? Exactly.

Ernest Borgnine was 95 when he died; he’d led a full and exciting life (He’d been married to Ethel Merman, which was the source of some hysterical stories I’d heard him tell one time.) and I bet we’re going to miss him a hell of a lot more than he’s going to miss us.

Ernest Borgnine was an actor who played the best of what we Americans used to value most in ourselves and each other.

Don’t You Dare Miss It

Great places to visit, things to see and events to attend and be a part of – as Americans, we should be proud of the great diversity. Music. Food. Celebration. Parties. You could never see all of them but here’s a list of place-particular (and mostly annual) events I think you might want to put on your list before they’re sold to the highest corporate bidder or completely gone.

10. SXSW – Austin, Texas

People who’ve been going since the very first South-by-Southwest (SXSW) Festival might tell you it’s a shadow of its former self, but this event still brings together music, technology and social thinkers in original and fun ways.

9. Oregon Shakespeare Festival – Ashland, Oregon

What’s the best part of this festival? The plays? The production values? The acting? The naturally beautiful setting? The theater itself? All of the above. The audience is an exciting mix too.

8. College Basketball Final Four – Location varies

A good friend went to a final four years ago and still talks about the insanity of an arena filled with high-volume and high-energy bands, fans squeezed into replica team jerseys, plastic pig-heads and other totems of the teams playing.

7. Taste of Chicago – Chicago 

Chicago is an uncommonly beautiful city, especially during summer. Everyone who can is outside for as often and as long as they can be. Imagine a gorgeous lakeside park literally filled with the city’s best food and bands ranging from native blues to nasty hip hop.

6. Fleet Week – New York and San Francisco

I find it hard to completely describe the feelings Fleet Week stirs in me. My grandfather and father both went to sea, following a long family tradition, and I do feel somewhat at home on the water. The sailors who visit port during fleet week are young, smart, engaged and knowledgable – a delight to meet, and a source of pride for our country. The vessels themselves are of singular scale, gliding grey behemoths. And then, there are the insane flyovers by the Blue Angels.

5. Pride Parade – San Francisco

This parade stirs pride of a different sort. Since its wild Gold Rush days, San Francisco has  tended to make people of all stripes feel welcome. As a result, the city has always attracted people who have felt less than accepted, appreciated or loved elsewhere. “Come here,” San Francisco says, “and be yourself, completely. We’ll celebrate that together.”

4. Mummers Parade – Philadelphia 

Philadelphia may be known for a sort of button-down personality, but this is anything but. Insane, is what it is. Troops of men, painted in silver, clothed in wild color, carrying banjos, playing old tunes like “Golden Slippers,” marching down ice-cold winter streets of downtown.

3. Presidential Inauguration – Washington, DC

The particular identity of the person being inaugurated doesn’t matter. The party doesn’t matter. A million citizens come to the mall in our capital every four years to bear witness to the orderly transfer of power, one citizen to another, the result of an open, fair and free election, without force or coercion.

2. Mardi Gras – New Orleans

Famous and infamous. Superb music, insanely inventive floats, free-flowing drinks, a city full of people who just want to have an amazing time. What is there left to say about this month-long party in America’s party, music and booze capital? Laissez les bontemps roulez (let the good times roll, for non-francophones).

1. 4th of July – Boston 

The Pops come out to bring the enormous outdoor crowd to a frenzy of patriotism, even before the real fireworks begin. There are July 4th celebrations everywhere, but Boston gets it. Wicked.