My amusing life, maybe

We got tickets to see Don Reed at the Berkeley Marsh. The name of the show is “East 14th,” and every Oakland citizen should know a little something about that street, which is an important highway through the part of Oakland where black lives matter less than they should. People grow up there; Don Reed, a hugely successful African-American writer and performer, grew up there.

His father was a pimp; his mother was an addict. And yet his show is filled with love and humor. He sees East 14th for what it is: Home.

Somewhere in Oakland

(East 14th is now officially called International Boulevard, one of those civic attempts to make flatlands streets seem more classy. I note that 6th Avenue in New York City officially became Avenue of the Americas in 1945, but that didn’t take either).

The show started at seven, and we were there in plenty of time. Left to my devices, I would (and occasionally have) showed up way early, even before the doors opened. Tracy hates that, but I have been known to pout if we leave late. Or “late,” as Tracy might say.

We got there at quarter of. The place was busier than usual for a Marsh Sunday show, which is a good thing. We had paid for our seats online. The person who was supposed to be at the ticket desk was somewhere else, but the Marsh often features one person doing the job of three, so I didn’t fret. We were paying customers; we were secure in our virtue.

It was festival seating, which is always such  a pain. I found some vacant seats and inched over the assembled knees to get to them. I sat down, and the woman next to me said, “those seats are taken.” She wasn’t particularly friendly; you might even say that her voice dripped with disdain. But I rise to these occasions. I thought, but did not say, that polite people use a sweater or a scarf to mark a  taken seat.

I stood up and looked around. “Trace, we could get those two seats.” I pointed. We scrunched our way back across the hazardous thighs. We entered the other row. “These seats are taken too,” said another woman. She was even less friendly than the first.

I rose to the occasion once again. I’m almost like a saint. “Oh,” I said cheerfully. I had a smile in my voice. I am not bothered by the trivial things in life. I am a spiritual being having a human experience. Unmarked chairs? I laugh at the rudeness of people.

“All the seats in this row are taken,” the less friendly woman said, although none of them were marked either. “You’ll have to go upstairs.” OK, fine. We found the stairs (behind a sign marked “Do Not Enter”) and went up. Every seat up there was taken —I mean, really taken, occupied by human bodies. Hey, I thought, we bought tickets; how can there not be seats for us? We walked around the balcony; no seats. I thought to myself: “Well, this blows.”

We were walking back down the stairs when a woman leaned over the rail. “You the people looking for seats?” We were. We went back up; she had found some folding chairs leaning against the wall. We took those and sat in the corner; the stage was an at extreme right angle to us. We were able to see a lot of Don Reed’s right ear.

We waited. We smiled to indicate that we did not mind being in the worst seats in the house even though we had bought tickets and gotten there early, dammit. Nothing was going to distract  us from our theatrical enjoyment. A voice came over the loudspeaker:

“Thank  you, and welcome back to the second act of East 14th!”

The second act? The second act? What?

Then it all clicked into place. We had gotten the time wrong. The ticket desk was unoccupied because it was the second act. The people downstairs had been unfriendly because we were apparently trying to move up and poach some worthy citizen’s seat. Maybe you can change seats halfway through a baseball game, but in a small, crowded theater, it’s just rude. And the woman who took pity on us was being extraordinarily kind despite our clear willful deviation from social norms.

I was grateful, however, that I had not given the unfriendly woman my lecture about the right way to save seats. I was even more grateful that I did not, at any time, say out loud: “Hey, we bought our damn tickets! A little respect here!”

I wanted to run downstairs and apologize to both unfriendly ladies, but the show had started. Don Reed was talking in an amusing manner. He was starting in the middle, it being the second act and all, but maybe we could pick it up. After a minute, I leaned over to Tracy and said:

“We’ve seen this.”


I showed Tracy a draft of the above. She read it, thought about it, and said, “you could include an amusing squabble.”  We did indeed have a squabble, less than amusing, in which I noted mildly that it was all her fault. She protested, so in the middle of all this (perceived) humiliation, we were hissing at each other all the way out of the theater.

That’s OK; we’re both single children raised by parents who believed that we were golden entities destined to achieve, well, something good — and decent and kind and earth-shattering. Two results of that: (1) We are used to getting our own way, and (2) we came to rely on our own judgment about what was smart or appropriate or important. So we bicker. People who know us understand. Out friend Rachel once said, “we just enjoy watching you guys.” So, right: Think of it as a comedy routine. Which, upon reflection, it often is.

But still: I was interested that she was mining our personal life for things that might sex up the story a little bit. Conflict! People like conflict! So let’s do some self-intrusion; let’s be our own paparazzi. Of course, that’s what I’ve been doing for 45 years, and I always thought it was a creepy way to make a living. I hadn’t realized that my wife had developed the same habit. We really are doing this blog together.

Adair Lara , another practitioner of my-life-is-fodder journalism, had a great take on this. She wrote about her father a lot, and she was often asked how he was doing. “That was fine; I appreciated the interest. But when they started talking about their fathers, I knew I’d done my job.”

Processing family data is universal; that’s why people write about it, because universal = good. On the other hand, I think maybe it’s gotten out of hand. I read the four new columnists currently rotating on the back page of the Datebook section of the San Francisco Chronicle — my former space — and I think: Could you maybe sometimes talk about something other than your families?

But here I am, writing about making mistakes and feeling shame and, potentially, about a little personal (you’d think) marriage dynamics. There’s nothing like internal contradictions to sex up a blog.


Elsewhere in Oakland


Photography by Tracy Johnston

General usefulness by Michelle Mizera


Pieces of my brain #2

My interesting problem

I’m only just writing a blog now, not a column, so I don’t have any outside pressure. No pressure! I’m free! And yet, I spent the last 50 years working to a deadline. It’s what I did for a living. Now, all of a sudden, only crickets.

Also, retirement is fun. You can read quality periodicals on the window seat and listen to the cat complain about his feeding schedule. Plus, you can get really involved in Euro Cup soccer. Iceland! Who knew?

(Soccer, I’ve belatedly discovered, is a lot like like baseball. Both feature long stretches in which nothing seems to happen, interspersed with moments of rising tension, with the athletes looking like athletes and lot of running and concentration on a single area — the goal mouth, home plate — and then, And Then…usually, nothing. Like baseball, soccer is a game of failure. Most plans go awry, most activities are fruitless. In this way it resembles life.)

So the question is: How do I replace the motivation of the deadline with some other kind of creative impulse? This post is late, even though I really don’t have a schedule. I fret. Shall I put on my cardigan and go sit in the park and watch pigeons convulse? Shall I play in the sand next to the five-year-olds? Shall I drool?

Or should I write a bunch of stuff? Writing is hard. Writers rarely enjoy writing, except when they’re really humming and the prose flows like melted butter. That’s fun, but it’s unpredictable. Seek it, and it will dart away.

So what I’m saying is: I’m sorry that this blog post is late, even though it isn’t.

Taking a break from the rigors of blogging


Tl; dr

Old people are perfectly splendid people. Really. My wife is old, and she is generally acknowledged to be an awesome human being. Even my “young friends” are in their fifties, which means in Biblical times they’d already be dead.

But have you noticed how old people own the English language? As a kid, I remember hearing that an infinitive should never be split, that “like” should never be used before a verb (“You look like you’re angry” is wrong wrong wrong; better, “you look in a way that’s similar to the way a person looks when he or she is angry”), that “because” should never be used to start a sentence.

Lately, old people have been complaining that texting is destroying the English language. The English language has been killed many times before, and yet it has a zombie-like ability to not die. Texting is bad because it makes up opaque acronyms, because it uses little punctuation, because it misspells words with abandon and glee.

Now old people are focused on emojis. They’re not words at all; they’re pictures.  They are imprecise. They lack grammar. They’re, well…what are they?

I’m going to contend that they’re a new language being born. We’re going back to pictographs, the oldest form of written communication known. It’s perfect for our globalized world; we may not know Chinese, but we know what an eggplant is. (It’s a penis). I don’t speak it and you don’t speak it, but I can see long strings of emojis that seem to convey a complex idea. I know they look like weird clip-art clutter, but I think they’re much more.

And the fact that you don’t speak it is part of the point. What kid hasn’t wanted a secret language for hide-in-plain-sight peer-to-peer communication? Old people don’t like it because it breaks all the definitions we learned so carefully, but you know, so what? I bet you still like landlines and newspapers. Well, me too, but we’re like Sumerians waving our copies of Gilgamesh.

Relax, old people; it ain’t your world anymore. You’re free; think of all the good you can do.

Not an emoji


Encounters with art

The Aurora Theater has been hitting the ball out of the park, which is hard to do on a tiny stage where actors must often exit into the lobby, making an interesting spectacle for patrons. This time they have Fugard’s “Master Harold…and the Boys.” That play features the astonishing L. Peter Callender, who brings the electricity to a play that needs that sort of energy to work. The whole thing is yummy — and, of course, sobering and cruel.

The other Really Good thing I saw was Mahler’s Second Symphony as performed by the San Francisco Symphony; Michael Tilson Thomas conducting. Hearing Mahler live is a little like having a peak artistic experience and a little like standing in front of a moving freight train.

You know those symphonies where the percussionists basically play cards and eat a ham sandwich until the climax, when they get out their mallets and bang about for 30 seconds? This is not one of those. There are four kettledrum guys, and some snare drums, and chimes — and a choir. When they really get going, you feel you’re in danger of being lifted out of your seat and hurled against the back wall.

Which is a good thing.


This will one day turn into spinach

Wet work

Hello, California, you’re in a drought. I know it just rained and rained and rained all winter, and all the little plants in your garden or pots expressed gratitude by pushing out green shoots and flowers, and perhaps you cut back a little on your conservation efforts. Got a little careless. Took a long yummy shower and didn’t feel guilty about it. Planted tropical shrubs. Offered a nice glass of water to passing joggers.

But you’re not the only only one. California’s top water agencies have set conservation targets at zero. That is, they have no plans at all to cut back water usage. This policy will be in effect until 2017. Which is OK, legally, because the state government  currently has no restrictions on water use at all, except the usual stuff about not watering your driveway. None. Even though we’re in a drought.

And we will be in a drought forever. Climate change is real; rainfall estimates based on historic data will be wrong. Also, we’ve screwed up the groundwater badly, and aquifers take generations to resupply themselves. There are more people every year, and those people will want water to bathe in and cook with, and they will want eat food grown with water. Every organism on earth depends on water (even viruses — I checked), and we ain’t got enough. Period.

So why have the restrictions been lifted? Here’s a theory: Agricultural interests hate water restrictions. No water restrictions mean they can do the same stuff they have been doing all along. And agricultural interests spend a lot of money on lobbyists. Farm lobbies have good luck in Washington; they have no better friend than Dianne Feinstein. Correlation is not causation, of course. But it’s undeniably true that farm lobbies have muscle. Water conservationists only have moral authority, which is worth…well, try buying a sandwich with moral authority.

The next dry winter will be worse than the last one. You as an  individual can do little, but it might be nice to live in reality. Americans are not good at that, but it’s worth a shot.


For the sake of clarity…

My last blog post got a lot of reaction on social media and in the (always wonderful) comments section. (You can read it right here).  There were all sorts of criticisms; I tried to respond to them, but I also thought about them. My comments section is as yet unvisited by trolls, so it’s safe to go in and poke around.  How long that will last, God knows.

I don’t want to defend the post anymore, but I want to share one observation: I criticized Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy stance, and a lot of people heard Bernie Bernie Bernie. It was probably a mistake to mention him at all, but I only did so in passing. (I also speculated that he would have been a pretty lousy executive; I don’t think he really wants to run the country).

But the primary season was more troubling to Hillary supporters than I had realized. The inherent misogyny of too many of the Sanders supporters was troubling, even dangerous. So people took any criticism of her as a continuation of the Sanders campaign. One person called the post “Hillary-bashing.”

Hmmm. I didn’t mention the so-called scandal over her emails on a private server. I didn’t talk about Benghazi; I didn’t reference Monica Lewinsky or Vince Foster or the Rose Law Firm. I consider all of those matters to be bogus or irrelevant or both. But criticizing is not “bashing” — or it better not be, because then we couldn’t ever disagree with Clinton on policy issues.

I think people are afraid that any criticism of Hillary is a point for Donald Trump. But are we supposed to muzzle ourselves politely because she’s in a campaign? Gosh, I hope not.

untitledTests September 08, 2011-37
Bucket, a cat: Because cats are good


Photography by Tracy Johnston

Advice and counsel by Michelle Mizera