Dad’s Haircut

I cut this man's hair for the first time in my life and he's got nothing bad to say about it

I cut this man’s hair for the first time in my life and he’s got nothing bad to say about it

Like most children, my first haircuts were at the hand of my mother. I sat on a chair in front of the rococo mirror in the entryway of our apartment in New York, an old bed sheet around my neck, and asked my mother for Tom Selleck’s haircut. In the era of Magnum PI, and with my curly hair, it was my best guess at what could be done. Those were the best haircuts of my life, certainly.

Flash forward last week. Dr Mrs My Wife had decamped to Hawaii for a week, leaving me with my parents, who have been visiting ahead of … well, let’s just leave that news for a different post. Suffice to say, while it was nice to have the old folks around, I found myself looking for a project to occupy them. Fortunately, I was well overdue for a haircut, and so I asked my mother to oblige.

Nowadays, my haircuts are much simpler than in my Magnum PI days. Armed with a pair of clippers, Dr Mrs My Wife has been cutting my hair very short for the past few years.  So, I asked my mother to oblige. Predictably, my father decided he needed a haircut also. Somehow that involved “supervising” – which is to say, literally standing over my mother’s shoulder and pointing out individual hairs. The simplicity of the haircut worked in my favor, and we were done fairly quickly. Mom takes things very seriously, and does her best. She brings an artist’s fine touch, even with a pair of clippers in your adult son’s bathroom, even with your husband looking over your shoulder and commenting. She still managed to make it clean and sharp.

Then it was Dad’s turn, but he didn’t want my mother to cut his hair, so it fell to me. My father’s head is like a sculpture of my head sent from the future. Our hairlines receding to the same point, sparse on top with a tendency to go all Larry Fine on the sides, and peppered with gray; it’s a before and after picture with 30 years in between.  I approached it with some trepidation, partly because I didn’t want to make Dad look completely bad, but also because of his tendency to mock mercilessly. Starting with the biggest guard I had, I worked around the sides of his head, making sure to get the stray hairs. The dark cloth in the sink, which had been camouflaged my dark hair, was now lit up with salt and pepper tufts.

My father was strangely quiet. As I cut his hair, I got a rare opportunity to look at him up close, from angles I didn’t typically see from. He wasn’t focussed, and hence not busy making mischief. Instead, he was quiet, staring into the mirror (with fear?), clenching and unclenching his jaw (a habit I have found myself picking up).  His face was softer, more doughy than I remembered it, with more fine lines than I remembered. Hie eyes near hidden in drooping lids, with the same impish flicker I knew so well. I was overcome with a tender feeling towards this old bear who had shrewdly, clumsily, purposefully, accidentally helped raise me to the man I am today. I had a vision of shaving his face in 10 years with a grandchild or two waiting to play with jiddu Awad.

10 minutes later, the moment had passed. Dad’s hair was cut, and not too badly, he was smiling broadly, his missing bicuspid more present than when it was there. I cleaned up the salt a pepper fuzz in the sink and we all went back upstairs to the present.

12 Years a Slave

I’m late to this party, having gotten out of the habit of watching films in the theater, but I finally watched “12 Years a Slave” last night with my parents. It’s been a long while since a movie affected me like this, and left me so gob smacked. The entire time I could hear my mother sniffling next to me in the mostly empty theater, I could feel my heart pounding, alternating feelings of stomach churning tension and burning rage.

The film itself was technically amazing, the words, the silence, the direction; all of them served the story to an astonishing degree. I was immersed in the American South in the 19th century. The heat, the humidity, the closeness, the insects – I felt it all, and served to amplify the shameful, dehumanizing ordeal of slavery.  The physical aspect of it was the most obvious, but the slow erosion of Solomon Northup’s spirit is, in a sense, the worst aspect of it. The lowering of a proud, free man to a toadying, fearful husk was precipitous, and terrifying. All the bravado in the world can’t blind you to the fact that anyone can be broken. All it takes it time.

The reflection of the past in the present is depressing. The barely suppressed rage, the sadness, the shame. I have no idea why this country is alight from sea to shining sea.  I can’t fathom how anyone could deny what this was, or how terrible it was. I can’t write anymore about this.

Honors

Fantastic take on honors by the late, great Richard Feynmann. It captures the feeling I’ve had since adolescence. I later came to think that I was just an angsty teen, but this certainly made me rethink that conclusion.

24 Hours of Happy

I am at least 4 months behind, but after last weekend’s Oscars (and what seems like a lot of hearing it in the background), I became sort of obsessed with Pharrell’s “Happy”. It’s peppy and upbeat in a way that I typically don’t like at all, but something about it really crawled into my mind and sank its claws deep in my brain. So I went in search of it on the web and came across the 24 hour video for the song, at http://24hoursofhappy.com/.

To be honest, it was sort of a revelation. The idea, in a nutshell, is to play the song repeatedly and allow people to just show up and dance to it, and then leave at the end of the song. At the top of each hour, Pharrell sings the song and makes whatever moves he wants, followed by just random civilians dancing on the streets of Los Angeles. I assume it’s LA because where else would someone be dancing while a steadycam backed up in front of them while bystanders politely stepped out of the way, or walked around?

The people that showed up must have signed up somewhere and gotten the word to show up at midnight or 1a or 3am or 3p or whenever, and made up an amazing cross section of humanity. Good dancers, bad dancers, children, old dandies – you saw people you felt you could have seen on your block, in your school, or on your commute. The fact that they were just regular folks, as opposed to professional dancers or models, singing and dancing joyously was like a thick, red underline for the song and what it represents. There were a few celebrities in there; Magic Johnson, for instance, grooving a little awkwardly through his mansion; the kids from Odd Future. But for the most part it was regular folks.

After watching the first two or three hours (I told you I was obsessing), I started to notice things. For instance, there are some amazing dancers out there. These are people who are either trained or just gifted with  moves from on high. These people almost never mouth the words to the song. That is left to either the terrible dancers, or the folks who don’t dance at all, but just walk towards the camera with shy smiles on their faces.  Lip syncing is also the purview of people who think they’re great dancers, but are average at best or horrendous at worst. There are small children (some of whom were out waaaaaay past their bedtimes), who just shook and stomped with the primal energy that only a kid can have, and were followed by indulgent moms, clapping and saying “go ahead, baby!”.  There were the ladies, who mostly dressed to impress (though not always tastefully), and had a tendency to “sexy dance”. This involves a lot of tossing of the hair and touching ones own face, along with some gyration. There were people dancing on their own, or with their pets, or with their friends/lovers. And all of them seemed just so happy to be in it! They were all beauitful because all of them were dancing or moving with joy. 

Which is an amazing thing to see in a music video, when you think about it. Real happiness. Real joy. Real beauty that seems to spring from within. I don’t know if Pharrell (and his team of minions) meant for this to happen, but they achieved something that you don’t get to see very often and certainly not in such large amounts. It’s sort of art, it’s very happy.

The Library

I read this over at Medium and thought it’d be interesting to folks. It’s a short memoir in libraries and library books. I have only recently been back in a public library after a hiatus of some 25 years. Well it’s not really a public library, it was  a the library at UC Berkeley. As you can imagine, it’s fairly bland, full of college age people, and it’s nothing like the libraries of my youth.

I am referring – as I’m sure you know – about the 67th St Branch of the New York Public Library. It was the closest branch to my elementary school, and we were taken there on a field trip. I fell in love with the place, with all the books (for free!), with the globes and the especially with the table. It was no ordinary table, mind you. It was glass topped and filled with something like the pink slime from Ghostbusters II. You could spin the table top and it would spin the viscous, heavy fluid inside. Mesmerizing…

I miss it, the smell, the quiet in the middle of the day, the warmth. I wonder what it looks like now.

Another Gap

I spent this afternoon sitting in a chaise at my dentist’s office. My dentist – Dr Wang, he’s really a very nice young fellow – had my lower front tooth in a pair of pliers and was working it side to side. His assistant kept referring to my tooth as #25, so for now I’ll also refer to it as #25. It’s much more personal that way … but back to the action. Dr Wang was working the tooth back and forth, but, because of the way it sits in front of the two teeth that are supposed to be on either side of it, he couldn’t rotate to get it to loosen further. I had my eyes closed and was trying to think of how humorous this must look from the outside, a comical procedure, dentist yanking with all this might, foot on the edge of the seat for leverage.  It took more than 20  minutes of work on #25, after which I had gauze in my mouth and thoughts of Bill Cosby in my head (“obi-KAYbe!”).

The reason my perfectly good #25 was being removed is because I am getting orthodontic work done. Yes, at this late hour, with my balding pate and my expanding waist, I am getting braces – well, Invisalign, but it all amounts to much the same thing. Lest you think my vanity got the better of me, please rest assured, the only reason I’m going to such great lengths is because I have been told that my long term dental integrity is at risk. So, is it ok to let one (or #25) die, to safeguard the many? I hope so. I hope it’s not ultimately the cost of my vanity that’s being paid by poor #25. For tonight, I am aware of the gap in my lower jaw, where #25 used to keep the other teeth company.

Boredom

Are you bored with the site so far? Yeah, so am I. I definitely feel like I’m going through the motions, but I thought that was to be expected. I mean it’s getting back into the swing of things isn’t it? Some of that is writing for the sake of writing, for exercise as it were. But it doesn’t feel that way, it still feels forced, which is a bit demoralizing. I was rather hoping for the old, familiar feeling to return. The inspiration, or outrage, to take over and leave me shivering in a pool of my own sweat wondering what had happened and finding a fully formed post in front of me. Sort of automatic writing meets lycanthropy, which is a little bit like it used to be. Alas, nothing yet. In the meantime, I’m bored with my writing, with myself, with reading. So I am sitting her trying to make something from nothing.

Minding the Gap

If you live in the SF Bay Area, you’ve no doubt seen the “Google Bus” or one of it’s clones serving a rival company. They coast up and down the major freeways, carting company employees from the main campuses of the tech giants to the neighborhoods in San Francisco, Oakland, etc, where those employees live.  At first glance it seems like a good idea, and a way to keep the already congested roads from getting more congested. However, you do start to notice that the buses and their drivers – somewhat ironically – muscle their way into carpool lanes and drive as they please.

The other, perhaps more pernicious thing, is the effect that this has had on real estate costs in the area. The well-paid tech company employees are no longer limited by considerations of proximity to work, and so they move to the desirable spots and live there, driving up the costs of rent, and mortgages. Look here to see how much that ends up being. This has lead to protests, blocking of the buses and a general backlash against the tech workers, and, to a lesser extent, their employers. This is the local face of the currently widening gap between the wealthy and everybody else. However, it’s a spurious face.

In the Bay Area, there are a good number of financial firms, banks, brokerages etc. However their employees are few, they choose to live where “rich” folks live (mainly in the N. Bay) and they are unobtrusive. They don’t have the easily identifiable features that the tech workers being disgorged from their buses do, but they have a similar effect on real estate prices.  There’s also the fact that the tech workers are pretty much doing what young people have done for the last 40 or 50 years: hear about how awesome SF is, decide to move there and do what they love. They only difference is that they’re employed in well paying jobs. So why should they get a bad rap? It seems to me that the real issue is that the gap just keeps getting wider, with less opportunity to move up. The City, County and State no longer depend on business to pay a fair share of property taxes (thanks Prop 13) and so it falls squarely on residents to shore up the tax base. You can guess who they’d rather have living here.

So what can we do as engaged residents (full disclosure: I work for a tech firm, but we don’t have a bus or any sort of awesome perks beyond getting paid more than the median)?

 

 

Poetry

1. Almost 20 years ago (my God, has it been that long?) I was sifting through a box of old papers that my mother had. We had a lot of boxes still sitting in a disused room, not from our most recent move, but from the move back from the UK when I was a toddler. I liked to look through them because I’d find all sorts of things: old pictures, books to read, that sort of thing. This time I found an envelope and in it were all sorts of notes on pieces of paper of various colors. I looked through them and found limericks and other short verse. When I took them to my mother she told me that my father had written them back when they were newlyweds. The verse was light, and the sentiments contained in them was evocative and sweet without being overpowering. Mom looked wistfully at the paper and then looked up at me silently. I couldn’t tell what she was thinking (which is nothing new), and for a moment wondered if she was mad at me for poking around. Then she smiled and said Dad had been more romantic then, but was just tricking her. She smiled some more, crinkled her nose at her own joke and went back to doing what she had been doing, keeping the papers next to her. I left the room and thought about my Dad. Jocular, sarcastic, gruff; these were all words I could associate with him, but romantic wasn’t one of those words. What else didn’t I know about Dad?

2. In the improbable cultural desert of Mesa, Arizona, I got into slam poetry. This wasn’t an overnight situation, a 24 hour fever of words and performance, but sort of like a slowly spreading cancer that went full blown before getting wrestled into submission. Graduate school was a time of words for me. I worked in a library and a bookstore before I started doing research full-time, spending most weeknights shuttling around fiction, shelving, re-shelving and surreptitiously perusing the back covers of books. It was one of the few pleasures of working there, in an affluent suburb of Phoenix, populated by former trophy wives, underachieving private school kids, and red faced sides of beef in bermuda shorts and polos. I’d always loved books and read somewhat compulsively, but time constraints and lack of opportunity had slowed down my appetite. Here I could graze, digesting synopses and occasionally borrowing a book to read on my break. I found myself writing more as well, behind the barricade of the Information Desk, jotting down story ideas, pithy phrases and snippets of verse on the scrap paper kept behind the desk for noting down which Oprah book was being requested by a customer. I started to write full fledged short stories, epic poems, notes – all on these 4 by 5 inch scraps of paper – and taking them home at night. I eventually bought a notebook and transcribed my work into it, editing as I went, throwing things out that were embarrassing in the bright light of day.

I don’t recall how I stumbled on the slam poetry scene, but it was an eye opener.  It was poetry that wasn’t lame, or ancient, or rhyming. It was raw and funny, awkward like a diary entry, and seemed familiar to me. This was doable. So I started scrawling behind the counter at work (and also at work), and throwing it away, and rewriting, and some of it wasn’t half bad. It wasn’t half good either, but I tried to make up for it with performance (which works in slam, totally works). It was so much fun playing with words, trying to squeeze some humor out of childhood slights, adolescent loneliness, and stress. I got to put my wonder on paper. I learned a lot about myself.

3. I’m approaching middle age and words escape me a lot of the time. I like to joke that I’m old, but honestly I’m still on this side of 40, so what gives? I’m out of practice I guess. You fall out of the habit of writing and suddenly it’s just difficult, doubly so for poetry. I haven’t written a line for a long time, and don’t feel like I could get back there easily. But remission is deceptive, the disease sits dormant in your bones, in your cells. It’s not that far away, right?

my glasses! I can't see without my glasses!