How to avoid a dining-room civil war at Thanksgiving

There is some evil genius lost in the mists of American history – evidence points to Abraham Lincoln – who first made the decision to put Election Day and Thanksgiving Day in the same month.

Coincidence? Please. Whoever made that call did so as a clever little piece of social engineering, as a way to get Americans to break bread in brotherhood – “sisterhood” hadn’t yet been invented – after an acrimonious election season. It’s like when two pre-schoolers get into a crying, screaming fight and their respective mothers make them hug and apologize.

The three weeks and change between the election and Thanksgiving gives us all a little time to get our more demonstrative emotions out of our system, be they smug triumphalism or bitter resentment, so we can be more mature adults and share pumpkin pie with relatives who deep down think we’re political cretins. Because nothing defines the American experience more than learning to live with people you believe are fools.

This year’s Thanksgiving is likely to be more super-charged than most, following an election season that long ago devolved into the world’s most expensive food fight. There are no ties in the American system, and, like a Catholic marriage, we Americans are stuck with each other. So, short of moving to Canada, we all have to learn to get along, and if you won’t do it for America, do it for Canada.

So, herewith we offer a bit of advice for surviving Thanksgiving without verbal or actual fisticuffs with your political opposites, because on Thanksgiving, a food fight isn’t just a metaphor. It took me two months to get the cranberry sauce out of my hair last year.

If you’re sick and tired of the election and its ugliness – can I see a show of hands? – and just want to keep the Rachel Maddows and the Rush Limbaughs in your family from ruining your holiday, you can always do the mature thing and have a private conversation with each a week before asking them to stuff the political talk. Of course, the mature thing will often only inflame the immature, so why do the mature thing?

Look, you’re perfectly free to take the floor once all your guests arrive and announce that the election is over, and we all need to find a way to reconcile and let’s all go around the room and say something nice about the other side. But only a masochist or an independent filmmaker would attempt such a thing.

But, if you’re of the mind to avoid confrontation and hope for the best, you’re going to have to work at it. You’re going to have massage the conversation constantly, like a moderator in an on-line chat room.

You’ll be able to judge soon enough if you’re going to have to break a sweat. Once you lay eyes on your know-it-all Obama-phile college-age daughter, you’ll be able to see the urge to gloat in her eyes. You can’t miss it. Ditto the brooding cauldron of venom in your sore-loser dittohead Republican brother-in-law.

Once you’ve assessed the situation, it’s time to stage-manage the conversation. Talk about the food – in depth. Chatter on about how hard it was to find a suitable turkey, and the step-by-step process of making the mashed potatoes, and your likes and dislikes of every supermarket in the county. Of course, that might lead to someone bringing up Prop. 37, the defeated food-labeling measure. Just remember, change the subject. Watch how it’s done:

“Speaking of 37, doesn’t Jen have a birthday coming up?”

“Speaking of Trump, who wants to play bridge?”

“Speaking of Benghazi, um … I love your new car, Bill!”

Awkward? Maybe, but would you rather be scraping stuffing off your wallpaper until March?

Once the food thing is exhausted, move to people’s personal lives. It’s perfectly reasonable to catch up with family members you haven’t seen in a year, and it allows you to get granular.

“OK, so that covers April and May. Now, let’s go into June. What did you do for Flag Day?”

Remember, you’re likely to find an ally or two in your efforts to squelch the political talk. Take them aside and discuss strategy. Assign any volunteers to stay close to a potentially troublesome guest, like a basketball coach putting his best defender on LeBron. Work as a team, people. You can’t keep the peace alone.

Sports will likely occupy the menfolk for a while, as Thanksgiving remains the only day of the year that women give thanks for the NFL. Remember there are three games broadcast back to back to back, and they are absolutely brilliant at serving as doze-inducing distractions. Remember it’s possible the only thing standing between you and domestic civil war is the Dallas Cowboys.

Also, keep in mind that people will see what you’re trying to do. Democrats dying to do a victory dance and Republicans bottling up their rage will note your resistance to them. That doesn’t mean they can resist over the course of a long afternoon. Be vigilant.

And, finally, realize that time is on your side. The day after Thanksgiving – Black Friday, the opening gun to the holiday shopping frenzy – is becoming ever more powerful by the year. Soon, the economic pressures to begin earlier and earlier will allow Black Friday to jump the calendar altogether and move into Thanksgiving Day itself. By 2016, the next election year, Black Friday will begin by 3 p.m. on Thursday and Thanksgiving dinner will be a pleasant hour-long affair after which you’ll be blissfully napping instead of sweating an outbreak of hostilities in your living room.

So, all you have to do is get through this year. Now don’t you feel a bit more thankful?


San Francisco 2012: Baseball Heaven

They say this used to be a football town.

They say that, at one time, nothing could elevate the heart rate of the San Francisco sports fan more than something called – and I hope I have this right – “Montana to Rice.” Hmm, sounds like some kind of cowboy diet plan.

That kind of talk has now been drowned in the roars coming from China Basin. San Francisco is now, fully and passionately, a baseball town.

From the press area in the nosebleeds in deep left field, the crowd at Thursday night’s World Series Game 2 at AT&T Park resembled a rippling orange carpet. Forty thousand tangerine-colored rally towels were handed out free to ticket holders streaming into Game 2 and, considering the San Francisco Giants are now playing in their second World Series in three years, you’ll have to excuse Bay Area baseball fans if they now consider orange to be the color of baseball royalty. These days, even in the bluest corners of Dodger myopia, it’s hard to argue otherwise.

The day after Pablo Sandoval blasted three home runs to give the Giants a victory against Justin Verlander, the stud ace of the Detroit Tigers, in Game 1, a poignantly beautiful fall afternoon reflects shards of sunlight off the far Berkeley Hills. In a glass showcase in the club level, the 2010 World Series trophy gleams, and another is there for the taking. As the game begins, there is but one conclusion – San Francisco in late October 2012 is one Iowa cornfield away from being baseball heaven.

What’s most astonishing about this amazing set of circumstances is how far this franchise has come. You don’t hear much about it, but this year marks a significant anniversary of the Giants’ darkest moment. Twenty years ago this month, a dispirited team finished a bleak season at dreary Candlestick Park, shortly after it was announced that the team would be sold and moved to Tampa. Fans came out to the Stick that fall certain the team would never play in San Francisco again.

Of course, we all know the miracle that followed – the white-knight ownership group fronted by Peter Magowan, the signing of Barry Bonds, the construction of the glorious new ballpark by the bay and, eventually, a World Series title. And, as the nation looks on this fall, San Francisco is taking its place alongside New York and Boston as one of the greatest baseball cities in America.

The thing about the World Series that makes it fundamentally different from any other ballgame is the presence of baseball’s one-percent, the media figures and grand old faces of the game that use the Series as old home week.

With a media pass that gave me the run of the ballpark, I got up close and personal with many of the game’s most famous names, from media showboats such as ESPN’s bombastic Chris Berman, Fox’s glamour queen Erin Andrews and the demigod of all baseball writers Peter Gammons, to the many of the ex-ballplayers and Hall of Famers that make often turn grown men into quivering children.

Will “The Thrill” Clark, the sweetheart of the Humm-Baby Giants of the late 1980s, appeared during batting practice in full uniform. After a back-slapping TV appearance, Clark jogged to the outfield to shag flies with the current Giants. Sometimes the universe sings.

Later, with the game still scoreless going into the late innings, I found myself in a hallway with two African-American gentlemen of advanced years, the tall one admonishing the shorter one not to forget his glasses. The former was Frank Robinson, the latter Joe Morgan, two of the greatest to ever play the game. I not only didn’t speak, I’m pretty sure I didn’t breathe.

But I spent most of my time out with the orange-and-black hordes who lustily chanted “MVP!” whenever Buster Posey came to the plate, and roared with every pitch thrown to Sandoval. To anyone showing a little gray, I attempted to reminisce about the bad old Candlestick days when parkas regularly came out in July.

For all the famous VIPs crowding the luxury suites, and the grousing about the price of World Series tickets, there was still a lunch-bucket vibe to the evening, if you knew where to look. Out on the concourse behind right field, outside the ballpark, Giants fans without tickets lined up for a chance to peer at the field through the right field fence for free. A local man named Chet was making the case that the thousands of Giants fans clogging the concourse do not know how good they have it.

A bit later, leaning against the railing hovering over McCovey Cove, where the kayakers and pleasure boats famously wait for home run balls that will probably never come, an old-timer named Rex can’t stop talking about the old days at Candlestick. Rex is possessed of the kind of mountain-man beard that’s apparently fashionable in the Giants bullpen; picture Brian Wilson 40 years from now. Rex never had any intention of going inside the ballpark and seeing the game. As World Series Giants’ caps are being sold for $50 nearby, Rex is wearing an old construction helmet that he painted himself orange and black. I told him if we could mass-produce those babies, we might make a fortune.

Rex is here not to see a game, but to feed off the energy of the crowd and the team. “I’m here every night,” he says. “I ain’t going nowhere.”

Later as the night ripened, in the middle of eighth on the way to a 2-0 Giants victory – and a 2-0 lead in the Series – the ballpark rose for what has become one of the most intoxicating of game rituals at this ballpark.
On the loudspeaker came the old Journey song “Lights” and 60,000 voices, giddy with baseball magic, sang lustily, “When the lights do down in the City …”

Take your Dodger Dogs and your Green Monsters and your ivy-covered outfield walls. This is where baseball lives today. This is where baseball has come back from near death to reign as the City of Champions.

My life, or lack thereof, with dogs

I do not hate dogs. Let’s be clear on that – even if I do complain about dogs occasionally … or every hour of every day.

Dogs might hate me. There’s compelling to evidence to suggest that’s the case. But I’m not going to believe that either.

Dogs and I … well, we’re just in a tough place right now.

The last dog I owned, a beautiful border collie named Candy, died after getting hit by a garbage truck sometime in the Nixon administration. I cried my 10-year-old eyes out.

Since then, it’s been a rocky road between me and the canine species. I’ve had several great experiences with individual dogs, sure. Some of my best friends are dogs. And I look with envy at those who’ve developed lasting relationships with dogs.

But I’ve come to believe that I am doomed in re-establishing any meaningful diplomatic relations with Canine Nation. Like Republicans and Democrats, dogs and I just can’t come together without allowing something to divide us. I would offer my hand in friendship, but I’m afraid of getting bitten.

The neighborhood where I live is a sweet spot, no doubt about it. It’s gorgeous and mellow and quiet – except for the daily random outbursts of one or two (or 10,000, I can’t be sure) dogs barking their bloody heads off in someone else’s backyard.

Perhaps someone more Buddhist than I, perhaps someone with more tolerance and generosity of spirit, can put up with spasms of pointless barking throughout the day. But for me, it has the effect of applying a cheese grater to my cerebellum. Not to show my prejudice, but most of the dogs I hear are small dogs and – I’m pretty sure I read this somewhere – the barks of “yip dogs” as I call them are scientifically proven to be more deadly to peace of mind than the barks of larger dogs.

Hey, dogs bark. That’s life. What do I expect them to do penned up all day behind a fence, play chess and scroll the Huffington Post?

So, I go for a walk along the lovely hilly streets near my house, in quest of that elusive alpha state of contemplation and relaxation. And, just when I’m hitting my stride, I’ll walk past a home and see two dogs sitting in the driveway. They both erupt in barking and run straight at me until they are snarling and baring their teeth behind the fence that is the only thing standing between me and an afternoon in the E.R.

What am I supposed to do? Hurl f-bombs at them? Try to give them dog biscuits to befriend them? I do utterly nothing to antagonize them. I keep my head down and increase the pace of my walk, my nerves in a frenzy of alarm. The barking echoes down the street several minutes after I’m out of their sight. And then it all begins again at the next house of dogs.

At most of these houses, by the way, there is a No Trespassing sign or two ostentatiously tacked onto the fence. Not to be a jerk or anything, but what is the point of No Trespassing signs? Are there people out there who see a private home surrounded by a fence and somehow interpret that as a signal to come on in and make themselves at home? And if there are such people, aren’t they either too stupid to read a sign, or too malicious to pay attention to it? Just wondering.

Sometimes, much more than merely occasionally, there’s a hole in the fence or an open gate and I’m face to face with an aggressive barking dog in the middle of the street. And I can’t just keep walking, because they’ll come after me. These encounters bring me to the very cliff edge of homocidal outrage. I’m in the middle of a public street here! Minding my own business!
And in how many of these encounters is there a human on the other side of the fence at least attempting to call off the dogs? I’d say, one in 10, maybe.

Hey, I get the appeal of wanting a guard dog on your property. And I understand dogs are not generally well read on the rights of public access versus private property. But, geez, to paraphrase Dustin Hoffman in “Midnight Cowboy,” I’m just walkin’ here. Can I just go my way in peace?

After years of these kinds of confrontations, I had begun to develop a private animosity not only to dogs but the dog-loving public. I had concocted a unified field theory, a metaphorical framework that allowed me to think of dogs as that most American of domestic animals – mindlessly aggressive, authoritarian, paranoid and prone to behaving on a strict us-vs.-them mentality.

I have owned several cats over the years, and I found myself retreating into that silly cat-person way of thinking.

But then, once in a while, I’ll come upon an unaccompanied dog who is not barking, who approaches me with a wagging tail. I scratch him behind the ears, rub him on the ribs and continue on my way. And he follows. And I take a break and sit and he plops down beside me on some picturesque hillside somewhere. And we commune together, and this nameless dog shows me something about enjoying the moment.

Somewhere in the distance, a yip dog barks. I tense up and look down at my new and temporary friend. He looks at me panting. He doesn’t hear a thing.

Time to take Lincoln away from the Republican Party

Yes, I’ll be there bright and early that November day to participate in one of the most exciting political moments of my lifetime.

Oh, no, I don’t mean Election Day, though that will fun too. Did you know Roseanne Barr’s on the ballot? For president? I’m not even kidding. What a country, huh?

But what I’m talking about is Nov. 16, 10 days later. That’s the day the mammoth biopic “Lincoln” descends from upon Mount Spielberg. Now, I approach “Lincoln” in the same frame of mind in which I voted for Barack Obama four years ago – genuinely excited by the hype, hopeful for something amazing and transcendent, but prepared for the inevitable letdown of dashed expectations. In fact, that’s how approach every day.

The best hope here is that the film will be the perfect articulation of why history nerds like me continue to find Lincoln fascinating, even though he is quite possibly the most overexposed individual in American history – at least, pre-Michael Jackson. But it’s possible Steven Spielberg bathes Lincoln in Rembrandt light for two hours in an attempt to Jesus-ify him, and we end up with the world’s most expensive museum tour film.

Either way, and regardless of which way the election turns out, the release of “Lincoln” gives us Americans a great opportunity to do the decent thing, the patriotic thing, the thing we should have done long before now – take Abraham Lincoln away from the Republican Party.

History records that Lincoln was, in fact, a Republican. He was only the second Republican to run for president and the first one to win. Before that, Lincoln was part of the Whigs, the only political party in American history to dissolve because of a silly name.

But a Republican in 1860 was a different animal than a Republican in 2012, kind of like a turtle is a different animal than a velociraptor.

So when Republicans claim Lincoln as one of their own for partisan ends, as I heard the 2010 joke Senate candidate Christine “I Am Not a Witch” O’Donnell do on television a couple of weeks ago, someone has to throw the flag. Old Abe is not walking through that door to say it himself, so someone has to say it for him: for Lincoln and the GOP, it’s time for a divorce.

It’s important to remember that in the years leading up to the Civil War, when Lincoln was an obscure one-term Congressman widely regarded as a frontier hayseed, the Republican party was the progressive party in the U.S., a coalition of anti-slavery activists and northern industrialists. And it was the Democratic Party that was the conservative party, bellowing about states rights from its base in the South, willing to fight to the death in defense of a society that held millions in bondage.

I am in no way saying or implying that the modern Republican Party is at all sympathetic to slavery. My mother raised me better than that.

But the parallels with today’s political fault lines are all too obvious. It’s as if the Dodgers and Giants traded uniforms sometime back in the ’70s, and it’s the Dodgers now building Willie Mays statues. It’s as if ice back in the 19th century was called “fire” and vice versa.

To insist otherwise is to believe the South, that region of the country with the longest cultural memory, has done a complete 180 in the last 150 years to embrace the man it once vilified as the devil. You can’t hear Texas Governor and GOP presidential candidate Rick Perry grumble about seceding from the Union, as he did earlier this year, and give that notion the least bit of credibility.

Lincoln, in fact, never really had any meaningful authority over the Southern states. About half of them seceded from the Union before Lincoln took office and none of them were re-admitted until long after Lincoln’s assassination. So, in many of the most hard-core Republican states today, such as South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama and Texas, in a very real sense, Abraham Lincoln, the original Republican was never technically their president.

For generations after his death, Lincoln was lionized all over the world for his steadfast leadership during the Civil War, except in the South where he was often viewed as a barbaric tyrant and where his assassin John Wilkes Booth was widely viewed as a martyr and hero, a sentiment that exists to this day in the scarier corners of Southern white pride.

It was Lincoln, in fact, who doomed the Republicans to decades of irrelevance in the South.

It wasn’t until a century later when Democratic President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, horrifying the South, that the political party re-alignment began. And thanks largely to Nixon’s Southern strategy and Reagan’s masterful embrace of Southern social conservatism, the red tide of Republican dominance took hold in old Dixie. The name of the party has changed, but Southern ideology has not.

Would Lincoln today be a Republican? It’s like asking would Babe Ruth be a superstar athlete today? Who knows? The eras are too difficult to compare, so all we have are speculations.

But the spirit that animates today’s Republican party is rooted in an anti-Federalism that itself is rooted in the South, a region that technically committed treason rather than to submit to the election of Abraham Lincoln.

If you were to tell an average politically aware American a hundred years ago that the South today would be uniformly Republican it would be no less of a shock to them than if you told an American today that 100 years in the future, the Southern right-wing would claim Barack Obama as one of their own.

The Lincoln of the history books was indeed a Republican. But the living, breathing example of Lincoln that continues to inspire us today is nothing of the kind. Sorry, GOP, Abraham Lincoln is not yours. He belongs to the rest of us.

Meet Dan Kimball, the ambassador from ‘Churchland’

Dan Kimball lives in the same world the rest of us live in. He sees the enormous gulf that has developed between the religious and the secular in this culture, just like we all do.

But Kimball isn’t content to stand on one side of that gulf and look disapprovingly at the other side, as many of us are. He still believes there is a middle ground where nobody draws distinctions between Christians and humanists.

Kimball is the pastor of Vintage Faith Church in Santa Cruz, though he doesn’t use the title. He is also the author of a new book titled “Adventures in Churchland” (Zordervan), a kind of memoir/manifesto of a Christian living in the modern world.

Vintage Faith, known by many unchurched coffee lovers as the owner/operator of The Abbey coffeehouse on Mission Street, is in many ways a ministry tailored to the unique environment of Santa Cruz. Kimball cited a study his church conducted last year that found that 36 percent of his congregation were college students. And he has developed credibility with that demographic with a stance at once devoted the message of Jesus Christ, yet frank about the failings of Christianity.

Early on in “Adventures,” Kimball writes, “I saw the church mainly as a mess of judgmentalism, dogma, contradiction and hypocrisy.” The book’s subtitle is, in fact, “Finding Jesus in the Mess of Organized Religion.”

In a discussion in his office at Vintage Faith, next door to The Abbey, Kimball cited a 2007 study that found for young people between the ages of 16 and 30, the top three impressions they had of Christians were “1) judgmental, 2) negative and 3) anti-gay. Even if you have genuine theological differences in belief, to be known like that is just not good.”
To say that Christians suffer from an image problem is, to Kimball, an understatement. One of his chapter titles, in fact, is “I Wouldn’t Like Christians If I Weren’t One.”

“There are a lot of us who don’t like being defined by the loudest voices out there. But the more I talk to younger people outside the church, the more I understand that all they’re hearing is the loudest voices and the most controversial voices, so their definition and understanding of the church becomes shaped by these things.”

Kimball himself did not grow up in a religious household. In fact, he came to his faith as a musician in a punk rock band. He had developed an intense curiosity about faith and Christianity as a college student, but didn’t act on it until he was living in the U.K., and happened upon a group of elderly Christians whose only vice was a love for Ovaltine. When he met them, he looked like the typical punk rocker of the period, as he described it, “a kind of Stray Cats, neo-rockabilly, post-Sex Pistols punk look.” (To underscore his musical street-cred, Kimball was able to get rockabilly legend Wanda Jackson to write the book’s foreword.)

The elderly Brits were not at all fazed by his clothes or hairdo, he said. “They never judged me for any of that. They were intelligent. They allowed me to ask questions and they never thought anything about my dress or looks, just, ‘Are you learning about Jesus’?”

When he returned to Santa Cruz, it was a different story. At the church that he joined, he began hearing complaints from parents about the way he dressed and his haircut. The pastor of the church gave him money to get his haircut.

“So, I got my hair cut,” he said. “I thought, well, I guess this is what it means to be a good Christian.” He said he went through a “season of conformity.” He tried to like contemporary Christian music, but after a while, his rebellious nature came through.

“I just thought, I don’t think God cares about my exterior appearance. These people don’t know my heart, or who I am as a person. They’re making judgments on my appearance. Forget this.”

It was at that point that Kimball began living as himself. He began his own youth ministry in which what mattered wasn’t the trappings of contemporary Christian culture or music or haircuts, but the message of the preachings of Jesus.

Kimball said that eventually he came to the church not because of American religious culture, but in spite of it.

“I didn’t have a bottom-out experience in my life, like a lot of people do. My friends weren’t witnessing to me. I was just always wondering what this thing called Christianity was. So I never forgot what it was like to come into a subculture of Christianity, wanting only to learn about Jesus, and getting signals that are confusing.”

What’s important, he emphasized, is what’s carried in the hearts of Christians and non-Christians alike.

“What is this thing called ‘church’?” he said. “Is it something to go to? Well, when you say, ‘I’m going to church, it’s a theological impossibility. The Bible says ‘church’ is all around us. You are the church. But, it’s encoded in our language that church is a building and a place. But really, I’m a church all week. And if people would grasp that, how would that reflect in their lives when they’re in line at Safeway? That’s the question.”

California exports everything, it seems … except political leaders

In a few weeks, we California voters are going to have to choose for the country’s highest office between an incumbent from Chicago by way of Hawaii and a challenger born in Michigan who is the former governor of Massachusetts as well as the nation’s most high-profile adherent of a religion associated with Utah.

Last election cycle, you’ll remember, the Hawaiian/Chicagoan ran against a prominent senator from Arizona for the right to succeed the two-term incumbent from Texas – himself the son of a former president of New England stock – who back in 2000 won the most disputed election in American history against a guy from Tennessee who was the sitting vice president of an administration headed up by the Man from Hope – Arkansas, that is.

You see what’s missing here, don’t you?

It is a fact that California is the most populous state in the U.S. and it is a widely held belief, at least among those of us who live here, that it is also the most dynamic, diverse and innovative state as well. If all that’s true, then why isn’t it reflected in the country’s political leadership? I mean, shouldn’t California, of all states, be loaded with potential political superstars of both parties? Where the heck are all our star politicians?

We are a state chock full of business titans, technology innovators, entertainment superstars and sports heroes but we are so seemingly bereft of political talent that our two most recent governors are a 74-year-old retread who was a last an exciting political up-and-comer back during the age of the Betamax, and an Austrian-born bodybuilder, movie star and tabloid regular who – let’s be real here – is viewed the world over as something of a pop-culture clown.

Next year marks the 10th anniversary of one of the most surreal electoral events in American history, the California recall election that resulted in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s elevation to governor. The recall was brought on by a severe case of buyer’s remorse following the re-election of Gray Davis to the governor’s office. Yep, Gray Davis – talk about your 50 shades of gray.

The recall was essentially an open casting call for the highest political office in the most powerful state in the country, a paroxysm of desperation from an electorate seemingly ready to grab the first passerby on the sidewalk to become the state’s political leader.

I know it’s painful, but let me remind you of who exactly was on that ballot back in 2003 – the second- and third-place finisher to the Governator back then were Cruz Bustamante and Tom McClintock, fine men I’m sure but not exactly rock stars. Also receiving votes were the pornographer Larry Flynt, the on-line journalist exploiter Arianna Huffington, the TV child star Gary Coleman, the porn actress Mary Carey, the former baseball commissioner Peter Ueberroth, the watermelon-smashing comedian Gallagher and someone named Angelyne, a model well-known in Los Angeles solely for appearing on billboards, advertising herself.

Seriously. Larry Flynt, Gary Coleman and Gallagher. And we laugh at Texas?
It was not always thus. California famously produced the two most influential Republican presidents of the last half century – Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. And however much those two men are reviled by liberals, they were ambitious, serious, successful political figures who left behind meaningful legacies.

Democrats had their heroes too – the incumbent governor’s father Pat Brown, Supreme Court titan Earl Warren, the slain gay San Francisco supervisor Harvey Milk.

And who today from California is of that stature? Dianne Feinstein is admired, sure. But when you list the country’s most prominent political figures, how far down the list do you get before you get to DiFi? Nancy Pelosi was the country’s first female Speaker of the House, but now she’s useful mainly to Republicans for fund-raising purposes. Barbara Boxer fills in all the check boxes you would expect from a Bay Area liberal, but she’s widely unpopular on the right and her staying power in the Senate is largely a function of the GOP’s failure to find a half-decent candidate to beat her.

California’s most high-profile politician just may be our own former
Congressman Leon Panetta, now serving as Secretary of Defense. Panetta has had a magnificent career – I’ve interviewed him before – but he’s the same age as Jerry Brown.

And where are the Reagans and Warrens of the future? Nowhere in sight. The only Californians you’ll find on the presidential ballot this year are the Peace & Freedom Party candidates Roseanne Barr and Cindy Sheehan, and Roseanne’s claiming Hawaii as her home state.

Of the seemingly two dozen candidates that crowded the debate stages in the Republican primaries last winter, none were Californians. The names that graced the political conventions can be justly held up as a roster of present and future American leaders. The only Californian to speak at the conventions other than Condoleeza Rice was an old dude from Monterey who carried on a conversation with a chair.

Yeah, so a lot of states have less than stellar political talent these days. But this is California we’re talking about – the home of Hollywood and Silicon Valley, the eighth largest economy of the world, one of the most fertile cultural laboratories on earth. Can’t we do better than this? To quote Casey Stengel, can’t anyone here play this game?

Because unless somebody steps up, our political image to the rest of the country will remain a governor whose claim to hipness was that he once dated Linda Ronstadt, and a cranky old movie star talking to an empty chair. You can’t like the symbolism of that.

Wallace Baine will appear live with Sentinel photographer Shmuel Thaler for an evening of words and pictures Saturday, Oct. 13 at the Kuumbwa Jazz Center. For more information, go to

A serf in the surf

Every male who lives in Santa Cruz County between the ages of 5 and 75, it seems, has to, at one time or another, deal with the surfing question.

Am I a surfer? Am I not a surfer? Do I pretend to be a surfer to outsiders who wouldn’t know the difference? Do I drape a damp wet suit over the backyard fence to show my neighbor that I spent the morning shredding out at the Hook when in fact I just walked the dog around the block? Do surfers even say “shredding”?

Spend more than a day in this town and you’ll begin to discern the various species of surfers common in Santa Cruz – the turf-conscious adrenaline junkies who all seem to know at least one guy in the Expendables; the Zen surfers who view surfing as some kind of worship service (until they meet an Expendables fan out in the water); the older guys who won’t stop talking about how much better it used to be; the bright-eyed newbies at Cowell’s who tend to carry around newly purchased pucks of Sex Wax in their pockets; the handful of “pro” surfers who got an endorsement deal or two in years past and often go by names such as “Weasel Boy.”

Me, I was born a land mammal and will almost certainly die one. There is no seal in my family tree – though I do have a couple of uncles who bear a striking resemblance to the sea lions that bark down at the end of the Wharf.

The few times I’ve been out in the water, Mother Ocean has assaulted me with cheery indifference, often pile-driving my face into the sand and blindsiding me with walls of water that could suit up in the NFL as pass rushers.

That freezing stripe that runs vertically along my spine where the zipper of the wet suit touches my skin is all too symbolic of where my head is at when I’m out in the surf. Like carnivorous jungle cats, the ocean can smell fear.
But next month, Santa Cruz will be even more deeply enshrined as the West Coast’s greatest surfing mecca with the release of “Chasing Mavericks,” the new film about the late surf icon Jay Moriarity. (How’s that taste, Huntington Beach?).

So, in that spirit, as a nod to the “Live Like Jay” ethic, last week, I decided I was going to get up on a moving surf board or die trying – well, “die” is a little much.

It helped that when struck by this decision, I happened to be spending the day in Waikiki after a week on Oahu’s North Shore, the only other place that rivals Santa Cruz in surfing awesomeness (Boo-yah, Huntington Beach!).

My wife clearly abdicated her responsibility as my primary caretaker by encouraging this madness, particularly in the face of my many failures on this front. So, I had no choice but to carry out the mission. I employed a young man to drag me out into the surf – which in Waikiki is quite mellow, and, unlike Santa Cruz, less cold than the seas of Neptune.

I’m not what anyone under 70 would call a young person, and my musculoskeletal system is increasingly balky – squatting, for instance, is on my list of Things I’ll Probably Never Do Again. So, I was quite concerned that the clean and jerk required to get to a standing position on a surfboard would be beyond me and that I would exposed as a pathetic spaz in front of the hordes on the beaches of Waikiki, which that day consisted of probably two-thirds of the native population of Japan.

It helped that I was given an aircraft carrier of a surfboard, a massive plank that in the water was so enormous and stable, you could have played a tennis match on the thing. The day before, I had literally seen a dude riding a wave while – no lie – standing on his head. As I paddled out, I kept thinking that guy was clearly mocking me. I had to take action.

And then, it happened. On my second wave, I yanked my reluctant bones into position and stood on the deck of the USS Honolulu. Mother Ocean, so wantonly cruel before, just stood back and grinned. I was riding a wave – not in a dream, or a video game, or a Photoshopped gif, but in real life.
Was it awesome, friends? Surely, it was. It was a feeling of grace and power that I could see getting used to. All I heard in my head was Dick Dale. For a while, I was convinced that with a little practice I could rip the gnarliest curl in the sea – if that even makes sense.

But, in all my athletic endeavors, humiliation follows triumph every time. On my next wave, I collided with another surfer, but the next one after that was even better than the first. I was getting the hang of this. It was only then, I was waylaid by something I clearly didn’t see coming.

Paddling out again, suddenly the world was swinging wildly in my line of vision. I have always been, we should note, notorious for motion-sickness. Here I was ready to ride another wave and yet I couldn’t get up anymore, not because of my bad technique or creaky legs or fear of falling, but because I was seasick on the surfboard. Who would have thought it?

I drifted onto the beach and laid in the sand like a sack of garbage, determined to hold down my expensive breakfast.

In the crashing of the waves, I could hear Mother Ocean cackling.

Love, trust and taxidermy: The secrets to a long marriage

Like most people, I have 20 fingers and toes – according to the most recent inventory, anyway.

I also have 20 back issues of National Geographic I’ve never read, 20 half-finished bottles of schnapps and other weird liqueurs that date back to the last millennium, 20 rock band T shirts from college I can’t seem to get rid of and 20 apps on my phone to remind me to do things, though none of them seem to work.

I also have 20 years in the bank on this marriage thing.

That last one I’m kinda proud of.

Go ahead and ask – How, in this indifferent and lonely world, can someone find a sturdy and fulfilling love that lasts? One that doesn’t involve regular cash transactions?

Last year, when I was looking at 19, I wouldn’t have chanced such a question. It would have been tempting the fates. But now, at 20, I can exhale a bit. Even if I’m exposed as the fraud that I am and my marriage collapses tomorrow, at least I got to the big 2-0. It’s like your beloved old Honda Civic; once it passes 100,000, it just feels a little better when the transmission falls out than if it had happened at 96K – and you know I just realized, that analogy isn’t going to be popular at home.

But you get my meaning, right? Twenty years of marriage is a milestone. It calls for a victory lap. By sheer dumb luck, it’s also my wife’s 20th anniversary and we’re going to take that victory lap soon around the island of Oahu.

Ours was an against-all-odds marriage, too. didn’t even exist. I think we were the last couple west of the Mississippi to get married without having been friends on Facebook first.

I mean, the year we did the deed was 1992, when the predominant cultural model of marriage was Al and Peg Bundy on “Married … With Children.” And it was also an election year, you’ll recall, when the dominant issue of the campaign wasn’t war or unemployment, but the number of women that Bill Clinton had groped. If you weren’t there, you just don’t know – when Bill and Hillary Clinton sat down for that “60 Minutes” interview, it was the scariest anti-marriage advertisement I’d ever seen.

And yet we did it anyway. Together, we’ve endured Hootie & the Blowfish, freedom fries, and all those “Harold & Kumar” movies. What could sink us now?

Here is the point, of course, where I’ll dole out my advice on how to keep a long-term marriage going and, yes, some of these things are likely to impinge on your sense of free will. But it’s not called the “bonds of matrimony” for nothing. Get over it.

First, there’s a widespread misperception out there with men that once you get married, you won’t have to wear pants as much as when you were dating. Wrong-O, friend. Maybe for a few hours every other weekend you can get away with it, but for the most part, you’re going to have to wear pants even if her mother isn’t around. And voting Republican isn’t going to change that.

Also, that taxidermy hobby you’re dying to get going? Maybe you should buy those hide staplers and glass eyes before you spring for a wedding ring, because mounting deer heads is a single man’s game. That’s a hard and bitter truth, but trust me on that one.

If you can’t fix a toilet or install a deadbolt, she’s going to be disappointed. She may not say so, but inside she dies a little, and that disappointment could corrode into something more serious and before you know it, home is a Day’s Inn out by the freeway. Don’t take my word for it. Ask Tom Cruise. He learned the hard way.

She’s going to say she’s fine with you going to Burning Man with your friend who looks like Jeff Bridges. She’s not fine with it, really. Go anyway. But just remember later when she says she wants to hear all about it, she doesn’t mean that either. Complain about the weather and the dust. She won’t believe you, but she’ll still be grateful. Apply the same process to any “guy” weekend or activity, in which violence, drunkeness or other women might theoretically be involved. It sounds complicated, but you’ll get the hang of it. I’ve got a flow chart I can e-mail you if you need it. Also, don’t be surprised if she pulls the same thing on you.

She will never care about your fantasy football draft. Never. Never. When she says that the two of you should never keep secrets, she’s willing to make an exception in that case.

But mostly, be loyal. Be kind. Help each other make sense of the world. Forgive each other, especially in the gravest sin that people commit against each other, growing old.

Make sacrifices without being all drama-queeny about it. Yet, don’t play the martyr. Being comfortable and doing things you like to do is a gift to your partner.

And, for heaven’s sake, relax. Unless you’re waking up next to Tom Cruise, marriage isn’t a prison sentence. “Married … With Children” is not a documentary. Last I looked, Bill and Hillary were still together.

Hey, not everyone is going to make it to 20 years. Sometimes it can be a steep and rocky road.

In my case, however, it’s been a stroll in the high country, and the view is still as lovely as ever.

That joke isn’t funny anymore


As distasteful and enraging as this year’s presidential election season has been, the one I’m really dreading is the next one, especially if Chris Christie is the Republican nominee – and for entirely non-political reasons.

Those who know me can tell you that I’m more likely to vote for Christie Brinkley than for Chris Christie, the bellicose New Jersey governor who delivered the keynote address at this year’s GOP convention. But, if Christie were to be nominee in 2016, then what will be said about him will likely be as ugly as anything he himself might say, despite his reputation for tough-guy talk.

That’s because Mr. Christie is – to use blunt language that he himself would approve of – fat, and those who oppose him will not for a minute let us forget that fact.

We’ve already seen a bit of it this year when Christie first rose to national prominence during the primaries. Political comics such as Bill Maher and Jon Stewart didn’t hesitate to mock Christie’s weight for a cheap laugh in a way that they would never do with any other physical attribute. And Christie was never even a candidate. Imagine if he were.

So allow me to lay the first ground rules on the coming food fight for the 2016 election:

Enough with the fat jokes.

Particularly from liberals who pride themselves on looking beyond such attributes as race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation and able-bodiedness, indulging in fat phobia is more than mere bad taste. It’s rank moral hipocrisy.

Hey, I’m no schoolmarm here. I’m a repeat offender myself. I’ve occasionally judged fat people on a moral scale that rationally in no way applies to them. But ultimately, that’s my problem, not theirs.

So why then is weight the one physical attribute that still engenders ridicule? And why does that ridicule often come from people who would be horrified to be labeled racist or sexist?

The answer obviously lies in our perceptions of choice and free will. In the Santa Cruz moral universe, judging others is as egregious a sin as choking a baby seal with a plastic bag, but judging is something we all have to do to get by in the world – plus, it’s a lot of fun.

The story of the 20th century is the story of an idea finally sinking into the thick skulls of the human animal that it is not fair – indeed, it is a kind of moral wickedness – to judge people on the basis of something not of their choosing, whether it be height or skin color – though not everyone has yet seen the memo on that one.

On the other hand, it is fair, indeed necessary, to judge people on their free and conscious choices and decisions. That bedrock idea is what everything from elections to criminal justice is based on.

What we haven’t yet figured out, however, is whether being fat is a choice or not. Obviously, your weight has a lot to do with what you eat and how much, and what you eat is a reflection of your values and belief systems, and therefore a perfectly reasonable thing on which other people can judge you. But just as obviously, genetics plays an equally enormous role in what your body looks like, and that’s clearly out of bounds.

So, since medical science has never answered the question of why we are fat one way or the other, we too often are seduced by the temptation to draw parallels between a person’s weight and their attitude about living with others in the world. And thus are born these knee-jerk attitudes that fat people are lazy, gluttonous and selfish.

Before you go making the argument that weight is something that can be controlled and it’s perfectly legitimate to make assumptions about a person who refuses to assume that control, think about height for second. No rational person is going to equate how tall you are with your character, yet subconsciously that happens all the time. No one admits it, but tall people are regularly seen as stronger or better than shorter people.

Liberals often accuse conservatives of “blaming the victim” when it comes to poverty and are often outraged when confronted with the discredited notion that poor people are poor by choice or as a result of their behavior. Yet the same liberals will often apply that kind of thinking when it comes to body image.

The point is that the reptile mind wants to make instant judgments on other people, even on illegitimate information. In terms of race, gender and other attributes, we’ve been able to overrule those animal impulses with reason and fairness. But that’s not been the case for weight, where rationality and blind prejudice each have a claim on the truth.

Because of that uncertainty, fat phobia is the gray prejudice. Obviously, obesity is a huge health risk and growing to epidemic proportions. But, when you consider any one individual, that’s never the whole story.

So why not choose decency and respect over judgment? There are many reasons to oppose Chris Christie, but his pants size isn’t one of them.

It’s time for people who respect human diversity to kill the fat joke and demonstrate that we are – pun most definitely intended – bigger than that.


And now, suddenly, an empty nest

I don’t remember how it started, but it was something we always did as a family.

Whenever we traveled by plane, at the moment of take-off, we would instinctively reach out and grab each other by the hand for no more than a minute, until the plane was well off the ground. When it was time to land, just as the plane touched down, we held hands again, counting silently to five before letting go. Every time and always.

Even when the girls grew into sullen teenagers, they acquiesced to this little ritual, no matter who was watching or how awkward our seating arrangements made it. As they grew up and wanted to sit in a different row than their parents, it meant we had to reach behind us to grope for a hand we could not see, or across the aisle in the kind of conspicuous public gesture of parental love that teenagers generally hate. And, considering for a while there we were flying down to Southern California to see the girls’ grandparents twice a year, the ritual had become a habit that none of us wanted to break.

Last week, my youngest daughter at 17 boarded a plane alone, bound for South Korea where she will be for almost a year as an exchange student. Six months earlier, her older sister had flown away as well, to the East Coast. And in each case, I tortured myself thinking about that moment when each girl was strapped into her seat, flying thousands of miles away to a situation unknown to her, to people she had not yet met. And I wondered, at take-off and touch-down, whether her hands twitched a little bit, as an urge to reach for a sister or a mom or a dad who wasn’t there. Mine certainly did.

I have to admit that, as a parent, I never took Empty Nest Syndrome too seriously. It had always seemed the mildest and least dramatic of life’s self-conscious landmarks. It certainly never carried the air of tragedy, or even sadness for me. In fact, in the throes of the teen years, it seemed like something to be greatly desired, to hold in anticipation, like a Hawaiian vacation.

But I am surprised at the sense of suddenness of the feelings of disorientation. Like almost every loss – a death, a job loss, an injury or illness – the abruptness is jarring. Yet that’s not really the hard part.

The hard part is in recognizing that the day my daughter got on that plane was a bookend moment, bringing a pronounced close to the period in my life that began just as suddenly, when my first child was born on New Year’s Day of 1993. It seemed interminable while we were going through it. But the giddiness and stress of having children in the house is for me a part of the past never to return. It’s not just a new chapter. It’s an entirely new book.

Of course, we all accept the idea of our children as mature people intellectually long before we accept it emotionally. We are burdened by images of them in vulnerable moments and, while pets might be dependable in making us regularly feel heroic in attending to their needs, children are not so dependable. They are changed every time we help them to heal a skinned knee or a broken heart, until that moment when they can heal themselves. And we parents are left only to withdraw our attentions with grace.

That child you comforted when she was called names by a bully in the third grade is gone forever and exists now only as a ghost inside that young adult who now e-mails you twice a week. She has transformed; you’ve just gotten older.

There comes that time when the parent and the child can look at each other for the first time eye to eye, with the natural authority of parenthood changed or gone altogether. The best thing you can do for your child is to accept that new reality as soon as possible and not be playing out those old rituals while they approach their thirties. That means, essentially, building a new relationship on the scaffolding on the old one, and that’s not always easy.

As your period of hands-on parenting recedes into your shared past, you must accept the fact that your children will create their own narratives of that past that may or may not reflect you in the light you prefer to be reflected in. But you also have to accept that there will be entire areas of their lives in which you will now be merely a third-party audience, and others in which you won’t even be that.

When my daughter flew out of SFO to Seoul, we were not allowed past the security checkpoint. We had to say our goodbyes well before she took off. I had planned something, a few words to comfort her, to let her know how deeply proud I was of her. But when the time came, in that last embrace, the words got trapped in my throat. I could only express them with gestures, and tears.

We watched her snake her way through the long line until, like a boat on the horizon, we just lost sight of her.

Less than an hour later, we were back on the road heading south on that picturesque stretch of I-280. My wife was the first one to notice that the clock had reached the minute of her scheduled take-off.

She gestured to the clock, sighed and reached for my hand. I accepted it gratefully, counting silently to five.