Boob Tube at the Gas Pump

I am so happy they have added TV screens to many service stations around town. Now I can enjoy a screen with a commercial playing on a loop while I pump my gas. I was finding it very difficult to pull up to a gas station, while checking my texts, get out of the car, checking my stocks, and then swipe my credit card and switch over to the little screen to enter my Zip, but then what? I had to reach for the pump itself with MY HAND, not my fingers, and lift it up with my remaining arm muscles and, using some sort of dwindling spatial intelligence, fit it into the tank in my car (it’s bad enough I have to remember with MY BRAIN which side that tank is on as I roll up).

The worst was, though, just standing there while it pumped gas. Sometimes two minutes would go by and I’d just be staring around, looking at people’s faces, the sky, noticing a bird in a nearby tree. Sometimes I even started to feel this painful pressure in my brain, like something was forming in it, like, whaddyacallit? a thought.

But I’m happy now because the loud voice on the clear screen is telling me over and over about gas or oil or something. I can’t really hear the message but it’s just keeps the thought demons at bay. I can’t really see the screen either, because it’s high up and at a weird angle, but it’s like a lullaby, telling me, it’s OK little one, it’s OK.

You’re still connected.

Drive Like Your Kids Live Here


I often pass this sign on my way to work and every time it gives me feelings. First off, what if I don’t have kids? What if I have been trying desperately to have kids for five of the longest years of my life and just that morning I found out it is never going to happen? Then I think I will probably drive into your %$&! sign and through it and into your front door and your living room and do donuts around your kitchen.

Or maybe I have no interest in kids. Maybe I enjoy going to movies and seeing friends and not picking up small, disgusting socks and underwear. What if I spend my time trying to find the cure for cancer and don’t have time or interest in kids? Or maybe I have just chosen another path because there are other paths and dang it not everyone has to have or aspire to have kids?! What if kids are just not for me? How do I drive then?

Am I supposed to imagine the kids I don’t want suddenly out on the street, playing, laughing their loud little heads off, while I’m inside trying to write the novel which I do want? Am I supposed to then go out and drive over them?


Perhaps the bigger problem is that the front yards where I often pass these signs are in Piedmont. Piedmont, you may not know, is a little city tucked away inside of Oakland. The median household income in Piedmont is nearly $200,000 (according to By comparison, in Oakland that number is $50,000.

So what am I to do with this instruction to drive as if my children lived in Piedmont? Presumably, I live there too, then, with them. My first thought, then, is how did this happen? How did I come to live in Piedmont, where the median house value is close to $900,000? I’m guessing Prop 13 got thrown out, to say the least, and we are finally paying teachers what we pay doctors and lawyers.

Next I am left to wonder why on earth I chose Piedmont? Did I suddenly feel the need to be with more white people? Piedmont is 72% white while Oakland is 25% white, 27% black and 24% latino. I love Oakland’s diversity! Know what the black population of Piedmont is? 1.3%.

So how do I drive as if I live there? Chin up, nose out? Social blinders on? Political analysis stored firmly in the glove compartment? Should I even be driving my own car? This is a bit awkward: me, driving myself to the bank to pick up a few more bags of gold coins for the playroom floor.








If my children lived here and I didn’t, I suppose I might drive more aggressively. How come they got the mansion? I zoom down the street now, blinded by greed and hatred. Didn’t I raise them better than this? First chance they get, they run off to this little enclave in a bubble, slapping 1% stickers over the 99% ones.

I shouldn’t let it all stress me out, really. I mean after all, these signs aren’t aimed at me. I am not the driver they are going after. I choose this route, in fact, because the mansion-lined street has less traffic and I can curve down its hill, wind in my face, zooming past those red signs without a care in the world, no bills, no car, no stress, just a man in the world, riding to a job he likes on a green bicycle.



Choppers and TMI

We were still outside, surrounded by children, when the helicopters appeared. Kids were playing “Knock Out” on the basketball court, hurling that second basketball at the hoop, trying to beat the first through the net. A few kids on scooters described lazy loops on the deeper yard, curving from the track lines across the kickball outfield towards the giant floor map of the United States. A lone unicycler puffed along the kindergarten building, weaving in and out of the empty tether ball poles and then rolling past me. I stood talking in a small huddle of kids and parents.

There was a helicopter somewhere in the distance. I assumed it was over the nearby 580 freeway, covering the latest mash up (I had heard something on the radio about a truck and a horse trailer and I was still hoping the horses were OK). Another helicopter appeared now, cutting across the sky above us, away from the bay, pointed towards the hills, the Mormon Temple. It turned and followed the street down the next hill and looped back over Loard’s Ice Cream.

There was a voice on a loudspeaker now somewhere. It could be the school’s PA because I was standing right by the building, and this was somewhere farther away. I couldn’t hear what it was saying because of the helicopter and the kids shouting on the yard and the people talking near me. It was a little freckle faced girl who voiced the thought forming in my head: “Is that coming from the helicopter?”

More people began to listen. Something about “call 9-1-1″ something about a red SUV. I began to eye the exits to the yard, the metal gates, the street above the yard. Should we be on lockdown? Was a crazed shooter roaming the neighborhood?

Suddenly a strange alarm sounded and the freckle faced girl’s mom reached down, as if a sudden shooting pain had hit her. She pulled out her iPhone, looked at it and said, “Amber Alert. There’s been a kidnapping.”

The helicopter circled back now, chopped its way across our sky again. Now, because I knew to listen, I heard the words “Amber Alert.” Is announcing something from a helicopter really an effective way to communicate? Helicopters are loud and this sound system was not pumping. Talk about a choppy connection. Couldn’t they fly an amber flag? Wait, what color is amber again? One thing is for sure, helicopter announcements are a great way to freak out the neighbors. Something bad has happened, so let’s go distribute fear throughout the city. Obviously, the idea is to get information out there as quickly as possible to try to nab the red SUV, but I don’t helicopter announcements are quite the way to go.

The phone thing is interesting. My little museum-quality phone with slide-out texting keyboard did not so much as vibrate. I looked at it. It looked up at me, shrugged. So who got alerted? According to that stalwart of journalism, Yahoo News, it’s all about the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS). “Most smartphones and some tablets sold in the past two years — roughly 320 million currently active devices — can now receive the location-based alerts, which are transmitted on an exclusive frequency not subject to traffic delays.” (

The idea comes from a good place. What if every time there was a crime in your neighborhood, just the people in that neighborhood got a little heads-up and could help nab the criminal? “Look for a white Ford Bronco with these plates…” You see it, you send in the info. They catch the guy.

But then what if you were getting alerts like these every day? Wouldn’t your quality of life drop, living with that kind of fear or even just awareness? Personally, I can’t keep checking those neighborhood listservs for that reason. We all tell stories about our neighborhoods, our neighbors, our lives. What sort of stories do we want to tell the most?

The Amber Alert, by the way, turned out to be a bit of a fiasco. Early reports had a man with a knife running from a Safeway and leaping into a car with a man and a 13-year-old girl, ordering them to drive away. Later, it turned out they all knew each other and that the 13-year-old was actually a woman. The only thing that got abducted was some steak and lobster from Safeway. My favorite reader’s comment on the online report I read was, “Wait, they have lobster at Safeway?”

So, before the choppers fill the sky again, ask yourselves, good citizens, how alert do you want to be? What are you willing to give up to protect your local lobster? And, when all is said and done, what constitutes Too Much Information?


The English Teacher Gives Directions

Do you want to just google it? 
she asked
and I was already flipping open my screen
when she said,Well I'll just tell you
I had a feeling she would
I once saw her read "Invictus" to high school students
savoring each word like a foodie, munching on syllables,
"I thank whatever gods may be /
for my unconquerable soul"

There are two exits in town
she began
and I could feel her imagining it
You want the second exit
she told me the name
it curves down and at the bottom of the exit
turn left and go under the freeway
you'll be heading north 
past the old downtown of the small burg
I smiled and typed Exit M-, Left on P-
There's a creek below you 
she said
and the road follows it through one, two, three...
Wait, one,, two, yes three stoplights
She was flying the route, back and forth, looking down...
You turn right on M-
(she spelled it)
I typed right on M-
She said,
It will begin to seem suburbanish
She debated this in her mind...
Well, yes, you'll go alongside a country club
and wind up through old stone pillars and a sign
"Sleepy Hollow"
All the streets are named for it
she said, to explain

When she finally got me on her street
She didn't even mention her address
just described the "Berkeleyesque" wood shingles
and a light blue car in the driveway,

I typed this word for word.

Dial M for Miso

On the phone, the young waitress hesitated and said, “We’re really full, but wait. How many?”

“Five,” answered the man, sitting behind a desk piled high with bills and flyers and magazines. It was really an annex desk, perpendicular to the real desk. His mom was perpetually trying to get to the bottom of these papers. On some visits he had tried to help her sort the papers, but more always came the next day and the day after that.

He waited for the waitress to speak again.

“Oh, OK, Wait…” There was talking going on around the phone she was holding and all that sound traveled through the phone line and then sorted itself out on the other end, entering the man’s ear with depth and nuance. The audio data was attached to visual memory and he was able to create a brain video of the waitress (he posted the face of the most attractive one he could remember…not just for her beauty, but her kindness…In fact, he connected the image of her with an impression he had once from the corner booth, that she was the daughter of the couple running the Japanese restaurant, and that she worked there, in spite of many other options, out of love for her parents, who were also kind).

Now, on the phone, he heard her voice and the talking and plates and water glasses, and he saw her standing near the sushi bar. He saw the corner booths filled and the other tables too, and a few people standing near the front door. The waitress was craning her neck back towards the kitchen to ask her mom if a table would be free. Now she continued, “Oh, we have a table if we just move a chair next to the corner table.”

“Great,” he said. He pictured the corner booth with a chair dragged next to it, but that didn’t make sense as the booth easily fit the five of them. Maybe he should have told her that two of the five were children.

When they walked in, the man behind the sushi bar said, “Hello!” and the woman coming out of the kitchen said, “Hello!” and the waitress just looked like an older waitress, perhaps somewhat kind, but perhaps with fewer options than the celebrity waitress of his brain.

“Five?” she said, looking at his children, wife and mother.

“Five,” he said, following her and them to the corner booth.

Later, when she brought the miso soup, each bowl she set on the table danced a tiny jig before settling into its spot. He looked around at his family, but none of them had noticed. The waitress winked and walked away.


He pointed and carefully pulled the trigger. The blades began to turn and the toy helicopter lifted off the dust and gravel, rising into the darkening sky. Three little red lights shone from the tail. He laughed and leaned to the side. The tiny helicopter flew off to a side he did not expect. He laughed louder and leaned the other way. It dipped and raced towards a wall. He shouted and released the trigger. It crashed into the dirt and gravel and rolled over on its side. He ran to try it again.

Write Small

“To start a narrative, you need a batch of things. Not feelings, not opinions, not sentiments, not judgments, not arguments, but specific objects and events: a cat, a spider web, a mess of insect skeletons, a candle, a book about Rimbaud, a burning moth.” – Annie Dillard, “How I Wrote the Moth Essay–And Why”

I like this advice for I have nothing to say to the world, but the world has things to say about itself, about me and us and those guys over there. I scrunch up my brain and try to generate brilliant thoughts from a soggy sponge, but that is not how it works.

The other day I was walking from my car to work alongside Oakland’s beautiful Lake Merritt. Everyone jogged by with their phones and ipods strapped to their veins and brains, blasting music as they hurtled through the morning glory. But they didn’t hear the scritch of the old man’s sandals as he shimied past me. They didn’t hear the nearby stoplight tell a pedestrian “Wait!” and then have the silence to hear their inner Beatles continue, “…Till I come back to your side / we’ll forget the tears we cried…” (I hear it every time I press that button now).

Worst of all, the Lady Gaga joggers couldn’t hear the ducks. There were about 37 of them out there in the lake, with the modest skyscrapers of downtown Oakland rising up behind them, and they were creating a symphony of rippling water, not by roaring in for landings or doing that crazy duck race across water top trick, but just a working class symphony created by a community of ducks, bobbing heads into water, pecking at a wing, shaking tail feathers, vanishing under water and reappearing. Here, there, and everywhere, just enough to keep the ripple going, so that with eyes closed it could have been the Falls of Iguazu or, no, a slow, wide creek, sliding shallowly over Sierra stone.

“What do you do with these things? You juggle them…You don’t need “something to say”–that will just lead you to reiterating clichés. You need bits of the world to toss around.” – Annie Dillard

Overheard in My Backyard

Squirrel frantically digging through crispy yellow leaves in the tall grass, pops up, looks left, looks right. Says,

“Where is that %&$*#&@$ acorn!”

On Listening

I am sitting with a stack of papers by my students. They wrote a summary and a analysis of…(spoiler alert…) the hurricane chapter of Their Eyes Were Watching God. As a teacher, I have many options as to how I receive and respond to these papers.

Option one, the rectangular prism. I can drop these babies in the recycle bin and head back to class tomorrow, demanding more work. This was a key part of my writing program, my first two years teaching a second and third grade bilingual class in Koreatown, Los Angeles. Funny thing is, recycling all their writing didn’t seem to improve it.

Option two, I can put a check mark on each paper, or a personalized stamp of a monkey giving them a thumbs up, and hand them back tomorrow. Or, the next level, I could do equivalent of putting a plus, check or minus, whether that’s an A-F grade or points or whatever. The points thing is actually my bread and butter right now, as I try to navigate the whole grading universe of higher education.

I can put a 6/10 and then tomorrow some of my feistier students will ask, hey, Mr. Peabody, how come I only got a 6 and I’ll squint at their paper and flip it around to read it and then say, well, your analysis here didn’t go far enough, or your summary went too far. I may even be specific.

There is a third option, however, that I have stumbled upon from time to time, when I have enough time, and it involves not just reading the student work, but taking the time to find what they have done well with the piece. Here I sit, with the stack of papers, already graded and scored, but now I take the extra step of jotting down notes on who nailed what and what I can spotlight tomorrow in class. I love how this student launched her analysis with “I was shocked by this chapter” and explored that shock. I love how this other student made me think, made me question whether Janie should have done this other thing. Or what a great ending in this one, about dying for love. I also want to bring in the controversial statements and put them up for discussion.

Listening, responding, highlighting and preparing to discuss. This feels a little more like teaching. I feel a bit lucky to have a job where I can create a space founded on the proposition that we all have the right to be heard and maybe even understood.

People Living in Portland

There are people living in Portland. That’s just what they do. They call it living in the same way that the Chinese don’t call it Chinese food. They head down steps, through gates, beneath towering elms, around mud and puddles, past sewer pipes and old brick buildings fenced up for new projects.

They walk into coffee shops (which are also wine tasting spots by night).

They lope into breakfast spots. They eat breakfast burritos, maybe adding on avocado or bacon.

The clouds are whitish so they call it a sunny day.

I’m telling you, there are people living in Portland, right now, biking to light rail, light railing to alternative industries or strolling to birthing classes, driving faster than you’d think through explosions of fall leaves, running stop signs with crumbs of morning greetings still in their beards, or sitting at make-shift desks, surrounded by wood and the light of leaves, click clacking in a room of books and art, steam rising from tea cups gripped by finger-free mittens.

There are people living, just living, in Portland.