Monthly Archives: July 2009

cathedral (revisited)

Meditations John Muir_cover_PMy friend Caroline gave me the book Meditations of John Muir: Nature’s Temple for my birthday. She said she saw it soon after reading my blog post cathedral about a visit I made to Muir Woods.

The book pairs writings of Muir’s with quotes or passages from other writers, thinkers and texts. The last chapter is called All the World Seems a Church, taken from Muir’s own words. It’s paired with this quote from Emerson:

– these are the music and pictures of the most ancient religion.

I’m going to enjoy this book.

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facebook birthday

I’m old. There’s no getting around it.fb_logo

I turned 47 today. As you can imagine, I’ve had many birthday experiences before, but I’ve never had the onslaught of a social network birthday. I received more birthday wishes through facebook from people around the country than I ever have in my life. Somehow, they all picked up on the fact that my profile says my birthday is July 23rd.

Interestingly, I’ve been on facebook longer than a year. So I had a facebook-era birthday last year. It’s a sign of the growing popularity of facebook, at least among people who are close to my age, that there would be such a huge difference in the number of nods to my birthday this year.

This is probably an indication that facebook is already in its decline, that it will soon be transplanted by some other social media site, founded by kids and used – at first – by kids. Until we forty-somethings co-opt it.


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Played pool right after work at Thalassa, a downtown Berkeley bar, with my friend Shelby Monday night.

I’ve done this a couple of times recently. There’s a very mixed age group of patrons at this pool hall. There are older men, most of whom have the tweedy air of Cal professors, alongside younger 20-somethings – mainly guys, but some women. The older men seem to take their time with their shots and have a smooth, almost loving stroke. While the younger players seem more to relish the power and violence of the cue’s kinetic energy released in a burst.

Shelby is an accomplished pool player, with her own two-piece cue. She kisses balls gently into the pockets while she herself is loud and boisterous. A wonderful contrast. I myself am a below-adequate amateur. I, for instance, can’t imagine what it takes to learn the angles when hitting balls off the rails. It must involve muscle memory, like shooting free throws in basketball. Once you do it enough, it isn’t about calculating, it’s about intuiting and doing.

When I was a kid, we used to frequent a pool hall on Kissena Boulevard in Flushing. It was on the top floor of a row of storefronts. There were lots of Asian kids there, since Flushing was evolving even then into a predominantly Asian neighborhood. I knew nothing of the intricacies of the game – like most things from my childhood, I did what seemed to work and picked up what I could as I went along.

My favorite aspect of the game? The oddities. Like using the bridge. That seemed like such a strangely acceptable crutch to me, as though a baseball player might be allowed to wield two bats if the occasion called for it. Pool seemed exotic because of these rules and much less straightforward then the sports I played every day, like basketball or baseball.

I’ve come to realize that one way to become a better pool player is to crouch low and see the table from the perspective of the balls. Very few games are like that. In most cases, it doesn’t matter at all whether you see things at ball level. You just do, react.

Maybe that’s why I’ve come to embrace pool again after all these years. It’s no longer a frenetic game of youth but rather the studied art of multiple perspectives.

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bullet in the brain

Re-read a much-heralded short story by Tobias Wolff, Bullet In the Brain, today. My book group for its next selection is having each member choose a short story and as a group we’ll read them all. I used Bullet in the Brain in a summer writing program with high-school age students years ago and thought it would be fun to talk about.

I won’t say a lot about the story other than it is an amazing piece of craftsmanship. Read it yourself. You can find a pdf of the story (with a few typos) here.

Or, if you have a subscription to the New Yorker, you can search for it at the New Yorker website.

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leverett MA

I was talking to my friend Erin the other day about the last place I lived before coming to the Bay Area. This is what I said …

Right before I moved out west, I lived in a small rural town in Western Massachusetts. The town is called Leverett. Population roughly 1,600. I lived in an early 19th century farmhouse. Very beautiful – painted white, with arched green shutters. Many people thought it was associated with the town’s congregational church, which was designed by the same architect and looked like a carbon copy, except bigger and with a steeple.leverett farmhouse

Leverett isn’t in the mountains, exactly, but it’s at a higher elevation than the valley floor (Amherst, Northampton). It was part of what was called the Hilltowns. So in winter, it was slightly colder, there would be a slightly larger snowdump, snow when the valley was only getting rain. That sort of thing. The house sat at the fork of a few roads, one of which was dirt. I would often walk my dog, Luna,  on the dirt road.

Winter nights in New England can be so still.

I love the luminosity of stars in a rural night sky, being able to see the band that is the edge of the Milky Way. There’s a children’s book, written by Jane Yolen (who lives in Northampton), called “Owl Moon” that captures winter stillness perfectly.

The house was partially heated by a woodstove. And so late summer meant, besides corn, stacking wood and preparing for the coming cold. I wondered when I moved west whether I would miss winter. I thought for sure I would. And I should say that I do, but not with longing. If that makes sense. Because winter is hard in New England. Of course I cherish my memory of Luna who, after a huge 3-foot snowstorm, bounded down the front steps and then disappeared – literally, disappeared – into the whiteness. Or seeing winter ceremonies, like town candle lightings, that seem to have so much more meaning when you’re standing in sub-zero temperatures, huddled with others from the community.

One other thing about the house in Leverett. My neighbors across the way were a husband and wife, Phil and Kay. They had lived in their house since 1951. At a time when many of the homes in Leverett still didn’t have indoor plumbing. Can you believe it? No indoor plumbing. In 1951. Phil told me a story once about the water supply to the house. Apparently, at one time, there was a small pipe from the town reservoir that ran to the four houses in the area where ours were located. It dripped into a cistern in Phil’s basement (and I guess in mine). But one winter there was some kind of problem. The pipe stopped dripping. So Phil would drive his truck up this windy road, with a spring that runs down alongside it, into a town at a higher elevation and stop at an old horse-watering trough. He’d proceed to fill up cans of water. Then haul it all back down to his house. He did this for six months.

I’m definitely a city boy. But an Owl Moon has its appeal.


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teacher man

mccourtI was lucky enough to be one of Frank McCourt’s students at New York City’s Stuyvesant High School back in the late 70s.

We loved him. I think it was because he was a good teacher. But it might just as easily have been because of his Irish accent or the fact that we got to write what we wanted to in his class. Or because he spent class time telling us amusing stories.

According to his obit in the Times:

Mr. McCourt, who taught in the city’s school system for nearly 30 years, had always told his writing students that they were their own best material.

I don’t recall him saying that to us. But if he didn’t, he should have.

Who knew that Mr. McCourt had Angela’s Ashes within him? His last year at Stuyvesant, I was writing for an “underground” newspaper – not school sanctioned – started by my friend Mike, whose parents he maintained were blackballed as communists during the McCarthy era and who knew Mr. McCourt from the local pub, the Lion’s Head. Our paper was aptly titled “Apathy” – the perfect angsty name for an underground high school newspaper. Since we all loved Mr. McCourt, we decided to interview him. A farewell piece. I still have a copy, buried somewhere among my papers. In it Mr. McCourt tells us that he’s leaving teaching to pursue his dream of being a published author. He’s working on a novel, he says. Called Brownstone Blues.

I remember exactly where I was when Mr. McCourt reentered my consciousness. I was working as a teacher in my own classroom late one evening, probably getting ready for the next day’s onslaught, when I heard a familiar voice come from the radio. I was listening to Fresh Air and Terry Gross was interviewing someone about the publication of a memoir that detailed his wretched Irish childhood. The lilting voice was unmistakable. I couldn’t believe it. Angela’s Ashes? What was that? The questions I wanted Terry Gross to ask were: What had Mr. McCourt been doing all these years since I last saw him? What happened to Brownstone Blues? Did he ever think about Stuyvesant and his students there? Did he remember Apathy?

Needless to say, these questions were not in Terry Gross’ reporter’s notebook.

Over the next year, I watched in amazement as the book became a subsequent smash hit and spawned the McCourt Franchise. I meant always to attend a reading and speak with him, send Mr. McCourt a photocopy of the Apathy article to jog his memory, a reminder of how much we adored him. But I never got around to it. To my everlasting regret.


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lake merritt

Speaking of lakes …

Just found an apartment. Right off Lake Merritt, close to a newly thriving Oakland neighborhood, Uptown.

Checked out the the area last night. Saw the latest Harry Potter movie with friends at the Grand Lake Theater, a beautiful art deco-style cinema built in 1926, where an organist plays before shows on Fridays and Saturdays until the curtain goes up. Had drinks and small plates at Sidebar, a relatively new place on Grand Ave. The atmosphere was lively, the food so-so. They have a nice copper bar, which sure is shinypretty.

Here’s a few things I found out about Lake Merritt while digging on the InterWeb:

  • It’s a saltwater lake and was originally a tidal estuary, connected to the Bay until a dam was built (what is now the 12th Street bridge)
  • It was the nation’s first official wildlife refuge, designated in 1870
  • The “Necklace of Lights” that rings the lake consists of 126 lampposts strung together by strands of bulbs that number 3,400
  • The lake’s fountains aren’t just decorative – they help aerate the water preventing algae blooms

Oh, and runners like myself will be interested to know that it’s 3.1 miles around the lake if you take the footpaths, 2.7 if you’re feeling sluggish and stay on the sidewalk.

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