• Flashback

IMG_0587Every time a teenage student asks me whether I’ve seen “classic” films such as Scarface (1983) or Do the Right Thing (1989) I feel the flutter of an eye twitch like the one that afflicts the debonair Chief Inspector Dreyfus over the course of three genuinely classic Pink Panther movies–A Shot in the Dark (1964), The Return of the Pink Panther (1975), and The Pink Panther Strikes Again (1976). Dreyfus goes from mad to barking mad to full-on world-destroying bonkers, driven by the grandiose incompetence of his subordinate and nemesis, Inspector Clouseau. Clouseau’s pratfalls and misdirected karate lunges, his proclivity for smashing antique pianos and setting his own trench coat on fire, all vex Dreyfus, but what kills him is the way Clouseau always comes out unscathed–and even builds, upon his dubious talents, a reputation as a brilliant detective.

Thus, the lesson I take from Dreyfus is to give up futile efforts to set the record straight.

That’s why I don’t try share my hidebound views with the youngsters: a movie is not really a classic unless it’s in black and white, or in sticky, over-saturated color. It’s not a classic if it’s recorded, like Do the Right Thing, in Dolby sound. It’s not a classic if its actors are still starring in feature films.

In fact, let’s throw off labels like “classic” altogether. Instead of sorting movies into ever-narrower categories, we should experience cinema as a rich, swirling, chunky cultural soup. That’s what got served up to me during my own formative years. Like many sons and daughters of Western Pennsylvania, I used to frequent the Pittsburgh Playhouse repertory series (which showed movies in a building where a drama school also staged plays). Trips to the Playhouse gave me and my age-mates a little taste of everything — Fassbinder and Fellini, Groucho and Harpo, Harold and Maude, Lancelot and Guinevere. Just recently, several of us on Facebook have been celebrating a nostalgia-fest on this very topic.

The Playhouse film calendar came in the mail every month, printed in a single color: orange for October, for example, or brown for November. We would grab it as soon as we got it and circle all the movies that we wanted to see. The epitome of teen disappointment was to circle something and then realize you were looking at last month’s schedule. I was never sure whether the color was coordinated to the season or not.

Treading the lobby’s well-worn carpets, we piled into the movie line in packs, wearing army jackets, torn jeans, and hippie skirts — this was in the ’80s, but a lot of us had a ’60s thing going, partly fueled by Alice’s Restaurant (1969), Jesus Christ Superstar (1973), and Hair (1979). Whenever possible, we filed into the short rows in the balcony, where we could sit in the hard wooden seats and sway, singing along to the musicals and group-cry at the sad parts.

To our credit, we did all right during the comedies, resisting the adolescent urge to dissolve into giggle fits. If I remember right, we saved that for afternoon cereal snacks the next day, re-enacting scenes from Young Frankenstein (1974) or bits from Monty Python, trying to get one another to “snarf” milk through the nose.

On weekends the place was often crowded, and in those laxer, less liability-conscious, days we sat in the aisles or leaned against the wall at the back. For a showing of Camelot (1967), four or five of us, ninth-grade girls, managed to squeeze into the front row, which had less than six inches of leg room. We just hoisted our legs up onto the stage. I recall a zig-zag pattern of legs, sneaker to hip, hip to sneaker, under the benevolent gaze of Richard Harris’s giant face. Like Harris’s King Arthur, we little suspected that our own round table — more accurately, our rectangular breakfast nook — was about to be busted up by romantic rivalries. Only some of the wounds, after 30 years, have fully healed.

After Camelot fell, we went to the Playhouse on dates, or double or quadruple dates, or in pairs where same-sex friendships had survived the upheaval. It was perfectly cool, as well, to go with a parent. My dad took me to see Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1940), in a double-feature with Modern Times (1936). Later, a friend’s mom introduced us to Juzo Itami’s A Taxing Woman series (1987-1988). Even cooler was going with an older sibling. I’m pretty sure it was my stepbrother who took me to see Dr. Strangelove (1964).

At $2.50 or maybe a little more, admission cost about half the price of commercial cinemas, low enough to pay for with an allowance or the proceeds from an after-school minimum-wage job, low enough to bring your kids’ friends or your friends’ kids, or whatever. You could go see a movie just because you were curious, or there was nothing else to do that night, or someone else thought it was a good idea. Bergman’s version of Mozart’s The Magic Flute (1975), the film adaptation of Günther Grass’s novel The Tin Drum (1979), and the tragic artist biopic Camille Claudel (1988) all came into my life that way.

In fact, we could rent any of these films today, but that means nothing. What we lost, when the Playhouse series finally ended in the 1990s, was the opportunity for shared adventure. Some of the young people I meet these days, especially in California, can talk more fluidly than I ever could about film genres, jump shots, montages, and camera angles, but we were in the movies, dancing with the hippies in Central Park, burlesquing the Nazis and outwitting the Yakuza, sculpting in marble, negotiating the perilous street life of post-World War II Germany, lassoing and riding a doomsday nuke toward the soon-to-be epicenter of World War III. Together, we were absorbing flashes from myriad facets of our culture, synthesizing what we learned, constructing images not just of one but of many possible worlds.

• Sick Day Love Song

I am sitting in bed with the world’s smallest cold. A sharp wedge of congestion has jammed itself at in at the root of my left nasal passage. If I had any work appointments this afternoon, I’d be out working them, but since I don’t I’ve declared a sick day for my self-employed self and put off all my chores.

Actual view today!

Actual view today!

I feel plenty sorry for myself. And yet I’m mired in contradiction, because if this were heaven — hubby and me ensconced in the amply-furnished studio apartment that we call the Micropalace, hubby at his computer, telecommuting from that patch of desk and floorspace that we have designated at his office, me cross-legged on the futon, typing away, occasionally scrambling for a hanky to wipe my runny nose — it would be enough.

Outside the window, finches are nibbling thistle seeds from two of the five bird feeders that my brother-in-law. our gentle landlord, has put up around the place, and a mourning dove has figured out how to get her fat body angled out of her own way so she can stick her face in the seed trough. Cloud and sun and even a splash or two of much-needed rain are playing on the foliage in the garden and beyond.


I can troll the internet for stories of the one percent and assure myself that I’m living a simple live inside a treasure trove of almost-top-of-the-line art supplies, electronics, fresh fruit, coffee, chocolate, and petrofuel. I’m still going to have a hard time pushing all this stuff through the eye of a needle, but others will have to shove even harder than I will.

This week, while driving between appointments, I’ve been listening an audiobook, The Lace Reader by Brunonia Barry, whose clairvoyant wise-women talk about the “still point” where “past, present, and future exist simultaneous.”

The novel also refers to the still point as “a time when your world shifts and heads in another direction.” A sick day is seldom so momentous, but it does feel passing a stretch outside of time. I experience a sort of mental blankness, a dimming of the impulse to organize memories into a timeline or future likelihoods into anything resembling a plan.

Actual Mom!

Actual Mom!

Then into this blankness floods a mostly electronic form of clairvoyance. My mother, on her road trip in the American South, is probably having dinner now after a long day of cycling, which included lunch at an Elvis Shrine in Euflora, Alabama. At least one friend is recovering from pneumonia, and I’m sure that many of them are sicker than or in more pain than me.

Quite a few are looking for work or enduring tough work situations. Two or three are currently at the beach. Some are raising kids, are studying, exercising, digging into projects, grading papers. Others, in distant time zones, are fast asleep. A young woman I don’t even know, who must have friended me by accident, is wondering in Spanish, “What is life?”

And me, I am sitting around wondering, at a low-boiling level of commitment, how I’m going to finish this essay. If you have read this far, I love you, and you are part of today’s little heaven. Maybe tomorrow I’ll have something better-thought-out or more societally relevant to say.

• The Urban Saints

This morning I received an apology, of sorts, from a machine. At the parking garage that runs between Center and Allston in downtown Berkeley, next to the YMCA, the ticket dispenser advises drivers, in an authoritative female voice, to press the button for a ticket. Then, as if she has told you a million times, in a mordant falling tone, she says, Take the ticket. Her ts are muffled, as if she is biting back on her temper.

Urban Saint 1

When we drive into the garage, my husband, Raymond, and I shake off the chill by imitating her voice. “Take the ticket,” I will intone, as we circle up toward the second floor, and on the next ramp Raymond will toss it back to me, sliding to an even lower pitch: “Take the ticket.” Today at the garage entrance, though, something different happened. After “Take the ticket,” in an ecstatic sigh, as if a flock of doves had fluttered skyward, the machine voice uttered, “Welcome!”

I envision a conversation where the garage manager tells the ticket dispenser to improve her attitude and work on her customer service skills. Then, more realistically, I imagine someone clicking a box on a computer screen to activate “Welcome” in the repertoire. It’s an improvement, but still poor recompense for the loss of the outdoor attendant, who disappeared earlier this year, after the owners automated the garage. Every day from 4 to 7, this man, with his compact build, trim beard and zippered jacket, mediated between the pedestrians passing by and the cars rolling out of the garage.

Expertly turning, waving, beckoning with his right hand while raising the left in another direction to signal a stop, he kept the flow of traffic moving, maximizing efficiency, minimizing uncertainty and danger. Raymond and I encountered him as drivers but more often as walkers. “Yes,” he lilted when we hesitated on the sidewalk before crossing the entrance. “Yes, you can come.” He seemed to recognized many of the drivers and greeted almost every pedestrian. No matter how many times I passed him on the same day, he always offered an acknowledging nod.


photo by Abbey Hendrickson

I carry the memory of this man in my book of urban saints, which goes right back to the crossing guard who faithfully stood at the corner of Maple Avenue and Linden Street, throughout my early elementary school years. When I started kindergarten, her straight back and substantial build, sheathed in a navy blue uniform and topped with a police cap, made me think of the undulating, armless lathed wood body of the adult female figure from my toy family of Fisher-Price people. This was by no means a disrespectful comparison: like that cheerful blond mini-doll — or any good toy, for that matter — the crossing guard possessed a magical degree of consistency. She radiated a bully-free circle that stretched as far as she could see. Though she herself withheld her smile and shouted gruffly if a child set a toe off the sidewalk, she devoted unwavering attention to the well-being of everyone within her zone.

More recently, there’s a trainer at the Y, a tall, long-limbed man, also of substantial build. Despite–or because of–his size, he’s the staff member there who seems to best understand the mechanics of my solid but length-challenged body. With his help, I have reconfigured many of my settings on the weight machines there, relieving some untoward ankle and elbow stretching.

Beyond that, I don’t interact much with him, but I observe how he is with other people, advising them with gentleness and grace that I don’t find within myself. As is common among intermediate practitioners of any discipline, I find myself mentally scolding other users of the machines: Stop flapping your arms like that. You’re going to hurt yourself. Quit slamming the plates! Work with a weight you can actually handle.

I marvel at how the tall trainer can set people straight without evoking any shame. Try it slower, he’ll suggest, without a trace of superiority. I promise you you’ll get a lot more out of it that way. He calls people “my friend” — a phrase that could come across as condescending — in a tone that sounds perfectly genuine — because it is. He conveys a sense of acceptance toward others that must arise out of self acceptance. “This machine makes you feel like a gazelle,” I heard him tell someone he was showing an elliptical trainer. “It makes me feel like a gazelle, and I can tell you that doesn’t happen very often.”

My urban saints, for their mindfulness, humility, and generosity, win more admiration from me than achievements that are by typical measures more important. These individuals have connected with a capacity that we all have to heal and protect within a personal radius, recognizing tone of voice and choice of words as powerful forces for stability in a trouble-swept world.

• Morning in Alameda

8:27 AM

Ordinarily, I don’t do mornings. Certainly not before the crack of nine. I’ve always slept in whenever possible, but now that my tutoring schedule sometimes runs to 10 pm, I have an excuse. Unfortunately, one of my other idiosyncrasies is that I have trouble managing my possessions. In other words, I lose stuff. At the gym, I pay for the quarter lockers. It’s cost effective when considered against the price of continually replacing my own padlocks.


So, yesterday I left my iPad in a classroom on the island of Alameda, where I was teaching an after school debate class. Doing debate with 4th- and 5th-graders is one of life’s great pleasures, something, I imagine, like riding a temperamental horse: exhilarating, perilous. As elementary school students, they still live in a world where principles can be relied on. Promises need to be kept, offenses require precise apologies: “It’s not that you bumped me and I fell. I’m mad because it really hurt and you laughed at me.” After elementary school, we continue to yearn for a morally coherent world, but middle school cures most of us of the hope for justice.

For debate workshops, my iPad is crucial. That’s because I have a timer app that goes toc-toc-toc as you spin the second-hand to set the dial. Classes in the late afternoon, when kids have been studying all day, can easily fall into rambunctious turmoil. In this case, though, as owner of the iPad, I hold the reins. The desire to touch the timer, I assure you, runs as deep as the longing for a just world, and I have the power to grant fulfillment or take it away. The kids know that mishandling my tech would bring consequences that defy imagination–in computer-savvy Alameda it would be like mishandling a statue of the Virgin at a Catholic School–so I can trust them to follow my rules with the device.

With that control in place, the event pretty much runs itself. Once we have a resolution to argue, I choose the judges. Almost everyone wants to be a judge–even the most impish child has a sober judicial side just waiting to come out–so I assign the role through a random drawing. Then, by consensus if possible, we organize the teams. It’s a common pedagogical practice to start debaters off with fairy tales, replete as they are with ethical conundrums. The story I had planned to do, “Rumplestiltskin,” turned out to be one they had already hashed over in their regular class.

And so we moved on the Frog Prince: Undervalued Dreamboat? Innocent Victim? Slimy Interloper? Passionate arguments emerged. The Princess tried to break her word after the Frog Prince risked his life to rescue the princess’s golden ball. What is a grown man doing, even in frog form, asking a young girl to take him home to her bed? (She’s obviously a child: she’s playing with a ball.) And what do we really know about this prince and the “castle” that he’s promising to his would-be bride? What if the castle is really a dump?

During in the breaks between the four rounds, one of the three judges also took on a coaching role, smoothly incorporating the technical terms we had just learned: “I want to see more pathos. Really show me your emotions. As far as logos, make sure your arguments connect.” A second judge, a wag who likes to raise his hand just to get called on so he can announce that he has nothing to say, transformed himself into a gracious host. If the timer ran out on a speaker, he stretched out his arm, asking, “Would you like to complete your statement?”

Since this was an intramural event, I was happy to allow the students make these small adjustments to the usual proceedings, adjustments that encouraged full and satisfying participation. At some point one of the debaters respectfully pushed back against Judge One’s torrent of advice. “We appreciate what you’re saying, but we’re up here doing the best we can.” On the other hand, the debaters also took the initiative to ask for a bit of feedback from the third, hitherto silent judge.

After arguments closed, the judges went to the whiteboard and drew up a chart with the scores for the two teams (0-4 points for each of 5 categories). Then the kids discussed the results among themselves, staying on topic for a full 15 minutes, without any prompting. In my education as a teacher, I was taught that my role is to facilitate “negotiation of meaning,” so I find it gratifying when such negotiations catch fire.

With the quarter hour we had left in the session, we tried a form of debate devised by the students. One student stood at the back of the room and one at the front, trying to lure other students to their side. We settled on a simple topic: red vs. blue. (In many schools, where Norcal and Socal loyalties run red and blue respectively, this could be a volatile, even taboo subject, but in a well-to-do area like Alameda, the preferences are arbitrary.)


The red side, I have to say, suffered from too much reliance on logical argument: People say that water is blue or the sky is blue, but that’s just a trick of the light. Blue rode to success on a wave of pathos: The sky may not really be blue, but blue is what we see.

I lent my support for the red side, but the blues rejected my appeal to authority–A billion Chinese can’t be wrong–and shot back with an irrelevant yet devastating counter-assertion: “Your shirt is blue.” Despite blue’s intimidating numbers, the controversy raged on until it was time to go. Then the students, helpfully cleaning up the class materials, came at me with wadded piles of paper, which I stuffed into my bag. We locked up the classroom, and I was 15 miles away before I realized I’d left my iPad behind.

Today, therefore, I have hauled myself back to Alameda, getting to the school before instruction starts to retrieve my mysterious object of desire, which I will need for a 1 pm debate class with another group. And now here I am, negotiating the meaning of morning, that beautiful time I seldom see, where the people who aren’t rushing to their jobs walk around with their minds in loose focus, taking in whatever comes.

I’m at a coffee shop, and the barista is telling a red-headed customer with a flowered purse, a diamond-patterned shirt and a camouflaged jacket that he is hoping to get back to nature.

“That’s so good,” she replies, chewing up a few leisurely bites of pastry before adding, “It’s the most important thing.”

“Actually,” he says, “I’m growing a few things in my drainpipe.”

While he pours in the milk for her latte, she rips open two sugar packets and shakes them in at the same time. “I just love everyone here,” she announces to the staff, before she grabs her cup and heads off for work. For this moment only–do not expect any more out of me–I love mornings, as I have always loved the application of well-intended words.