Sunday, November 25, 2012


As far as entertainment goes, it’s tough to beat people watching. It’s free, easy, and you can do it just about anywhere. Sure, some places are more rewarding than others—the airport, Las Vegas, Black Friday sales—because you can always count on the fact that at any moment someone will do something completely devoid of common sense, self-consciousness, or even a rudimentary understanding of basic civil conduct. For my money, though, there's somewhere that tops them all.

The sidelines of any kids’ sporting event.

I’m not sure how many of my kids’ games I’ve attended or coached, but the number is pretty high. And in terms of parental behavior, the sports can differ quite a bit.

At one end of the spectrum is cross-country. The courses are often hilly, twisty, and extend way beyond the bounds of any field of play involving a ball. So, it’s incredibly difficult for parents to observe the entire thing; the best that the most ambitious of us can manage is to jog around to different points in the course so that we can get a quick look at our kids zipping by. This has two main advantages (from our kids' point of view, no doubt). First, parents like me are usually too winded from running from place to place to do much more than clap and offer a “Woo-hoo, [insert son or daughter’s name here]!” And second, there’s something about the sport that invites shouts of encouragement only. When your child is only doing one thing—in this case, running—you don’t really have much to offer in the way of detailed advice. Plus, they’re not listening anyway.

On the other side of things is baseball, where I’ve seen some of the worst parental behavior on display. One reason, no doubt, to the length of the games. After sitting out in the heat by a dusty field for a couple of hours, even the meekest of souls might be stirred to take someone’s life—or at the very least, to do some serious maiming. Also, baseball is a “narrative-rich” game. There are all kinds of little stories going on, and these stories provide way too many opportunities for parents to insert themselves. Consider an at-bat: all those pitches, and with every pitch, the story (and, of course, the shouts of advice) changes. Then there’s the story of a hit ball, the story of a fielded (or not fielded) ball, the story of a steal. For each of these stories, there are multiple characters and perspectives—the team at bat, the team in the field, the various players who become involved in any given play, and naturally, the parents of all these kids. Sometimes after coaching a game, I’d have no voice left because I’d spent most of the time trying to make myself heard over the shouts coming from the stands.

When you study something long enough, certain patterns emerge, so without further adieu, I’d like to present a few characters—all dads—that I’ve encountered over the years. There are more, but these are my favorite. And by “favorite,” I mean “least favorite.”

The Analyst

Anyone with a child on a sports team knows that parents are required to show up at least sixty minutes before game time. Sometimes more, depending on the sport. While the kids warm up, the parents look for something to do. For me, that usually means setting up my folding chair and grading papers. For others, it means chatting over the tops of Starbucks cups. For the Analyst, it means checking out the conditions of the field, listening in on the coach’s pre-game advice, and studying the other team as they run through their drills.

A couple of Saturday mornings ago before my younger son’s soccer game, I was trying to in vain to find something resembling a thesis in one of my students’ papers when one of these dads saw me. I was hunched over, pen in hand, brow furrowed in concentration. So of course he assumed that I wanted to talk. Or rather, to listen.

“This is gonna come down to our midfielders,” he said, nodding.


“Last time we played these guys, they killed us in time of possession. They got some big guys. Big, but not fast.”

“Oh yeah?”

“Field’s pretty sloppy in the center.” He paused here to point out some dark spots on the grass. “There, there, and there. If our guys are quick to the ball, they can use their guys’ size against them. Didn’t hear Coach mention that though.”

“You should say something,” I said. And let me get back to grading.

“Yeah…yeah, I think I will,” he said, nodding, as he trudged across the sub-par field, pausing to more closely study the spots that would figure in to his unbeatable strategy.

The Macho Man

For some odd reason, this dad has linked his own sense of self and masculinity to his son’s performance on the field. Sadly, this psychodrama usually plays itself out publicly and almost always involves tears. The son’s, of course.

I’d see it all the time in baseball, usually when a kid got plunked at the plate, or caught a grounder with his chin, or was hit in the back as a base runner by an errant throw. When you think about it, baseball with young kids is insanely dangerous; they’re unskilled, usually hopped up on some post-school sugary snack, and wielding aluminum clubs and rock-hard orbs.

Once, one of my players was at bat, turned toward a high, inside pitch, and took it square on his left cheek. Now I’ve been hit with a baseball before. It hurts. And this kid started howling. Another coach and I ran over to him with our league-issued ice pack, and before we got to him, his dad was at the backstop fence, fingers locked into the chain link. He had sunglasses on, and I assumed that behind them was a look of concern. I was wrong.

“Suck it up and get back in there!” he shouted to his son. “Be a man!”

We iced his face, calmed him down, and got him back at the plate. He was terrified of the ball (and who wouldn’t be?), but I think he was more scared of his dad.

Mr. Advice, aka “Captain Obvious” (this nickname courtesy of my son Tony)

This is the dad who knows exactly which kid should be doing what and how. He’s not the coach, mind you—No time with work and all, out of town a lot, you know how it is—but that doesn’t stop him from liberally dispensing pointers at the top of his lungs.

During an 8am basketball game one Saturday morning, in a gym that was so cold it might as well have not had a roof, I was sitting next to a Mr. Advice. While most of us were trying not to succumb to hypothermic shock, this guy was on his feet for nearly the entire game. I couldn’t really gauge the breadth of his basketball knowledge because he was concerned with only one thing: how often the kids would pick up their dribble, get swarmed by the defense, and turn over the ball.

Now, this was rec ball and these kids were pretty young, so the scene described above pretty much sums up every game. Most parents accepted this, but Mr. Advice was dead set on helping out.

“DON’T PICK UP YOUR DRIBBLE!” he’d yell from in front of me. Then he’d catch my eye.

“Why do they pick up their dribble?” he’d ask. I’d shrug. He’d turn back to the game.


In the spirit of full disclosure, I have to cop to being a Mr. Advice in my past. With soccer, no less, the sport about which I know the least. I had all kinds of tips for the kids, and I didn’t hesitate to share them during game time. Then one season, my son Nick’s coach had a fun idea for a practice: kids versus parents. I jogged out on the field, confident in my ability to carry out the very obvious instructions I’d been shouting every Saturday morning (Get there! Kick the ball! Stay with him!). Ten minutes and two handball calls against me later, I’d fallen to the ground twice (once while trying to Kick the ball!), been completely unable to keep up with kids a third my size, and suffered a simultaneous attack of vertigo and hyperventilation that I was convinced was a mild stroke.

From that point to precisely the present, my sideline comments have been nothing but enthusiastic support.

It should be noted, however, that people might not share your conception of “support.”   For example, I discovered the hard way that shouting “RELEASE THE KRAKKEN!” is not universally seen as a rallying cry.

One last comment. There are plenty of different types of moms on those sidelines, too, but they frighten me too much and I’m not about to tick any of them off.

Friday, November 16, 2012

FAQ Check, Part Deux: Godfather Time

Here's another question that I've been asked about my cross-country bike ride: "Did You Get Bored out There?"

And here's my answer:


Biking for six, seven, even eight or nine hours a day—often on seldom-traveled roads in wide-open landscapes—I had to invent ways to keep myself entertained and distracted.

For instance, I’d make up little stories about the things I saw on the side of the road.

A water bottle filled with cloudy yellow liquid became a trucker’s emergency bathroom, filled while driving and then tossed out the window. He’d been breaking the speed limit all night long ever since he’d checked his phone in Phoenix, saw that his daughter had left a message, and heard only part of a garbled sentence—You’d better get back here fast—then nothing else.

A plastic triceratops was a teenage boy’s revenge on his younger brother, who was getting all the attention on the family vacation and generally making the car trip miserable. I could almost see the younger brother napping, the older brother snatching the dinosaur and then dropping it out the window of the moving car.

A broken syringe was cast off from a young couple—rail-thin and heroin-addicted—on their way south, following the road by day and wrapping themselves in an old blanket at night.

During a five-mile stretch near Jacumba, California, I spotted a red onion or two about every hundred feet. The reality was that they had probably squirted loose from some truck’s cargo, but reality can be boring. I preferred this: a husband and wife are on their way home from the market, where they’ve stocked up on red onions for pickling. The basket sits between them in the front seat. The wife looks out her window while her husband divides his attention between the road and the back of her head. He’s losing her, he knows. In fact, he’s pretty sure she’s already gone, thinking of someone else. He reaches a dirt-caked hand into the basket and pulls out an onion, feeling its heft. He squeezes it and asks a question. When she answers with what he suspects is a lie, he tosses the onion out of the window and grabs another. Onion after onion out the window. I was just getting to the part when that basket is empty, but then the road dipped precipitously and I suddenly had other things to worry about.

These were games, and I’ve always loved playing games—especially with my older brother, Vince. “Ker Plunk,” “Sure Shot Hockey," or "Life.” Home Run Derby with a wiffle ball and bat. Nerf football outside with some of the neighborhood kids. Vince, being several years older and wiser than the rest of us, was always head coach and quarterback. We’d invent games back then, too. Once we found an egg-shaped superball. It was as hard as a little rock and bounced in violent, unpredictable ways. So naturally, the game we came up with involved throwing it at each other. I stood at the top of the stairs, Vince stood at the bottom, and we whipped it back and forth for either a direct or ricocheted hit. We called the game “Acid Egg,” and if a guy got hit, he had to writhe around on the ground for a few seconds as if his flesh was burning.

There were no acid eggs on the trip, but there were awful winds, and during one brutal stretch in Kansas, I decided that the thing to do was sing every television theme song that I could remember as loudly as possible. The trick was not to swallow any bugs. I started in on the easy ones first, shows that Vince and I had spent hours watching together, sprawled across the gold shag carpeting of our living room. Gilligan’s Island, The Brady Bunch, The Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres. Next was a Norman Lear medley. All in the Family, The Jeffersons, Maude, Good Times. After that, random songs that I knew most of the words to. WKRP in Cincinnati, Welcome Back Kotter, Laverne and Shirley, The Love Boat. When the words escaped me, I’d make something up. My brother has always had a gift for getting all the words to a song the first time he heard it. Naturally, he hated when I improvised. Pedaling into the wind, cornfields on both sides of me, trying to remember exactly why Chico shouldn’t be so discouraged by the Man, I could hear Vince’s voice cut through the whistling in my ears.

If you can’t sing it right, then don’t sing it.

But my favorite game, which I invented on my fourth day out while riding from Glamis to Blythe through southeastern California, was called “Godfather Time.”

About seven miles into the ride that morning, I was already tired, fighting the strongest headwinds that I’d ever experienced. I had a long way to go that day, and as I stopped to catch my breath, I took note of the time: 7:00 on the head. Later that morning and still far from my destination, I stopped again at the ominously-named Three Slashes Road. I checked my clock again: 9:55. I’d gone a little over twenty miles in two hours and fifty-five minutes.

The exact running time, coincidentally, of my favorite movie, The Godfather.

I could have watched the entire Godfather in the time it took me to bike those twenty miles in that desert wind tunnel.

From then on, when I needed to distract myself from some pretty miserable biking, I’d measure out the ride in Godfather units.

Less than a week later I was headed to Tuba City, Arizona, through desert terrain in high-90 degree temperatures, approaching the end of my first eighty-mile day. I saw a billboard for a Tuba City McDonald’s proclaiming that it was JUST 15 MINUTES AWAY.

In a car, schmuck!

I looked down at my speedometer. On an uphill grade, as loaded down as I was, as tired as I was, my top speed would barely reach above four miles per hour. Just fast enough so that I wouldn’t tip over into the ditch. I was looking at about another hour, assuming the grade didn’t get any steeper—an assumption, I’d learned, that it was neither safe nor smart to make.

In Godfather time, an hour would stretch from the film’s opening line—I believe in America, delivered in blackness—to roughly when the crooked cop McCluskey breaks Michael Corleone’s jaw.

In other words, a long god(father)damn time.

In the time it took to climb to Wolf Creek Pass and reach the Continental Divide in Colorado, I could have watched from the opening line to just past Sonny’s brutal death on the causeway. One hour, fifty-seven minutes.

In the time it took a biker I’d met to explain his philosophy of nutrition to me one endless evening in Missouri, I could have watched up to the scene where movie producer Jack Woltz finds his beloved horse’s head in his bed. After thirty minutes of this guy prattling on about sugars this and breads that, I was picturing his head—and not the horse’s—lying on top of Woltz’s bloodied silk sheets.

In the time it took me to bike on the I-40 in Arizona from Ash Fork to Williams, on a grade so steep that I passed two semi-trucks catching their breath on the shoulder, I could have watched up to the scene where Don Corleone calls in his favor with the undertaker, Bonasera, showing him Sonny’s bullet-riddled corpse. Look at how they massacred my boy...

And in the time that I spent climbing on the Cherohala Skyway, a punishing ride through the Appalachian Mountains that twisted and turned through what seemed like eight hundred false peaks, I could have watched The Godfather twice. Twice. The whole time climbing.

Anything five minutes or so—pedaling from one end of Dodge, Kansas, to the other on a quiet Sunday morning; getting from the Longbranch Coffeehouse to the Bicycle Surgeon in Carbondale, Illinois; taking a bathroom and sunblock-reapplication break near White House, Tennessee—was a “Baptism of Fire.” To the uninitiated, that’s the five-minute bravura sequence near the end of the movie that crosscuts between Michael in church, standing as godfather to his sister’s newborn son, and a series of violent gangland executions that he has ordered.

I saw this scene for the first time at some point in the 70s, when The Godfather made its network television premiere. The piece that struck me the hardest was when Moe Green, naked on a massage table, gets shot in the eye. One lens of his glasses spiderwebs, blood flows from beneath it, and his head slumps forward. I’d never seen anything like it, and for a second I kind of believed that they’d actually murdered a guy on camera.

“What happened?” I asked Vince, who was watching with me.

“Easy,” he said, shrugging. “Blood pellets.”

It wasn’t much of an explanation, but I felt lucky to get a verbal response at all. Most of our conversations at the time went like this: I’d ask a question and he’d make a face. College was on the horizon for him, and I was still in grade school, so while I’d be looking up to him, he was looking somewhere else—probably at a future that didn’t include an annoying little brother.

Despite its impact on me, the “Baptism of Fire” sequence is not my favorite part of The Godfather. Neither are any of the film’s other famous scenes. No, my favorite part is one that most people don’t notice, and the scene itself doesn’t even last long enough to serve as any kind of useful measure in my little game. It doesn’t, in fact, really mean anything the first time you watch the movie; it’s only when you watch it a second time do you become aware of the loss that it registers.

About halfway through the film, Sonny and Michael are going over the final details of their plan to kill Sollozzo, the drug dealer who put out a hit on their father. In a few minutes, Michael will be picked up by Sollozzo and his bodyguard for a sit-down where the two of them are supposed to negotiate a truce. But a gun has been hidden for Michael at the restaurant where the meeting takes place, and he’s going to use it to kill the two men. Right after, Michael will be whisked off to Sicily to hide out until everything blows over. Before Michael leaves for the meeting, he says goodbye to everyone, saving Sonny—his older brother—for last. Sonny agrees to “smooth things over” with both their mother and Michael’s girlfriend. The two brothers look at each other and then embrace.

As they hug, Sonny and Michael think that they have all the time in the world, that somewhere down the line, they’ll get together again.

But they don’t; a few scenes later, while Michael is in Sicily, Sonny is gunned down, and that embrace of theirs turns out to be the last time that they see each other. Whenever I watch that scene, I tighten up.

For me, it’s not as much about death as it is about drifting. When we’re young, the world sometimes seems like an endless series of games. Everything makes sense and problems can be solved by checking the rules on the inside of the box top. That security is a sham, of course, but it’s easy to fool our younger selves with tidy explanations. Easy. Blood pellets.

But things change when we get older. We have to work harder to explain the things that confound us. We gather obligations. Our lives become messier. Through all of this, brothers can drift apart. I think about this with me and Vince. I think about this with my sons, Nick and Tony. Like me, like Vince, the two of them have only one brother.

So is there any other way I can watch that scene in The Godfather? Sonny and Michael hug all too quickly, and I want to say to them, to those two brothers, “Pay attention, guys. It might not ever be like this again.”

Sorry…what was the original question?

Sunday, November 11, 2012

On a Positive Note...

I feel like I need to offer a little bit of balance to some earlier posts—including the last one—about the state of today’s college students. Yes, it’s fun to focus on problems (like not bringing books, paper, or even a pencil to class), and yes, it’s much easier to entertain with these little anecdotes than with the feel-good stuff, but it’s also important to give credit where it’s due, and the truth is that I have encountered some incredibly motivated and talented students over the last fifteen years.

Before I get to my woefully incomplete list of these students, though, I have to say a few words about teaching.

To put it bluntly, I love my job.

In fact, I’m so grateful doing what I do that I try not to talk about how great it is; at best, it would seem like gloating, and at worst, I might jinx it. But the truth is that I get to talk to students about ideas, enrich their lives through reading and writing, and help them define and reach their goals.

And I get to do this at a community college—the most truly democratic institution in our educational landscape in that it has a 100% acceptance rate, affordable tuition, and outstanding instruction. If one believes, as I do, that a broadly educated populace makes for a healthy society, then it’s the community college that will help get us there.

But back to my students. Below is just a fraction of recent students who are doing amazing things since passing through my classroom:

One is working on her teaching credential and is currently doing classroom observations at a local middle school. She’s one of many of my former students who have chosen to go into teaching.

Another just transferred to UC Riverside, where he’s already been accepted as one of a handful of fiction editors on their literary journal.

Another, also interested in writing, transferred to UC Berkeley to study creative writing. Next semester, he’ll be one of thirteen students who was accepted into a workshop that will be taught by Joyce Carol Oates.

UC Berkeley was the destination of another former student. While at Palomar, he started our English Majors Club. After graduating from Berkeley, he worked at Google for a while and is now heading to law school.

Yet another one of my former creative writing students (who was also an editor on our literary journal) is currently in a master’s program at Portland State University.

It’s not all about books and writing and literary stuff; one recent student, a navy veteran, is currently enrolled in business school at UC San Diego.

Another one just started a Ph.D. program in Socio-Cultural Anthropology at Cornell (after finishing a Master’s degree program at Columbia). She’s already published one article with a second one on the way. When she was at San Francisco State, she put together a collection of creative and personal writing by women that she had worked with in the community.

Okay, so we’re back to writing.  Here are two more:

One woman entered my creative writing class several years ago as a returning student. She’s been working as a tutor in our writing center for the last few years, but she’s also been working on her own projects. She recently published this book, and is hard at work on her second.

And another student took a couple of composition classes from me as a sixteen-year-old. She transferred into the USC film school (no easy feat), received her degree, and recently published her first novel with Simon & Schuster. Her second novel is coming out in the spring, and both are the first installments in two separate middle grade/young adult fantasy series.

My apologies to the many other former students of mine that I haven't listed here but who have nevertheless worked hard to achieve their goals. I’d love to hear stories from others about your positive experiences as either student or teacher and how your hard work (on either end) has paid off.

Monday, November 5, 2012


A few weeks ago in one of my classes, we were discussing what is perhaps the greatest piece of argumentation ever written, Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Our focus on appeals, structure, and imagery eventually gave way to a conversation about larger issues of inequalities in our society, the nature of protest, and empowerment.

Teaching at a community college, I see these issues—especially the last one—as central to my students’ lives. For the most part, my students find their way to my classroom for two obvious reasons: they can’t afford four-year school or they couldn’t get into a four-year school. There’s another reason, too; they believe, as I do, that education is empowering.

The problem is that a lot of students define “empowerment” in purely economic terms. That is, an education equals a job, and a job equals better pay and financial security.

There’s no denying that people with a college degree have greater earning power than those who don’t, but that’s not the only way that the educated are empowered. A well-rounded education fosters an attitude of active engagement with the ideas and issues that shape our world. Provided, of course, that students are willing to become engaged.

Some of my students are still working on this, as I found out last week.

As a rule, I avoid discussing election specifics, but this year there’s a ballot measure in California regarding educational funding that directly impacts my students. If Proposition 30 fails, the public K-12 and higher education school system is going to face massive, mission-altering cuts. The number of courses alone—coupled with the inevitable spikes in student tuition and fees—will derail most of my students’ educational plans. Some will be derailed permanently.

So when I asked who was eligible to vote, almost every hand went up. And then, when I asked who was actually registered to vote, about half came down.

For a few seconds I was speechless. Then I let them have it.

I told them that a big reason why education has dropped so far on the funding priority list is that people their age don’t vote, and lawmakers know it. As long as young people choose to remain uninformed about the political issues that affect them and refuse to make their voices heard at the ballot box, then there will be little incentive in the halls of power to change things. Public education—the “great equalizer,” in Horace Mann’s words—will continue to get strangled out of funds, test scores will continue to drop, teachers will continue to be blamed, and education will become more and more expensive until access will be limited to the wealthy.

Their responses were predictable. I don’t know who to vote for. They’re all crooks. My vote doesn’t matter.

These were just examples of lazy thinking, and I told them so.

If people try to silence your voice, that’s one thing. King and his fellow civil rights activists knew how to respond to that.

Silencing yourself, though, is something else entirely, and if today’s students hope to be truly empowered, then they need to realize that education is about more than a piece of paper, and it’s about more than collecting a bigger paycheck. It’s about finding out what’s going on and taking part.

One way to do that is to be an informed voter. It’s not just our right; it’s our obligation.