Saturday, June 29, 2013

Flying the Friendly Skies: My Rookie Flight

It's the little things in life that make us truly happy. Most of them seem silly and pedantic to others, yet they please us nonetheless. One such thrill occurs the third week of the month (more or less): I pull the mail out of the box and see that tantalizing glint of yellow gold, swathed in clear plastic, peeking out from the mass of mundane catalogs, bills and flyers. Yessss! My monthly National Geographic magazine has arrived.

I'm an addict, I relish my monthly "fix" of exotica. In days gone by, the magazine came in a brown paper wrapper like my uncle's Playboy, fueling the titillating anticipation of discovery. The excitement for me was and is strictly G-rated. Naked natives are the classic giggle line of late night comedians, but a true devotee sees these infrequent glimpses with cool, scientific detachment. I could always turn to Sports Illustrated's swim suit edition to scratch that itch, after all. For me, the allure of National Geographic lies in its ability to transport me to exotic locales and obscure destinations, far-flung lands of history and mystery. Just look at a sampling of this month's edition: Brazil, Transylvania and Mars. I would hunker down in my drab little room in our shabby, suburban tract home to travel the world, touching all seven continents, reaching the four corners of the Earth. Often, my cerebral globe-trekking would be rattled by the rumble of a jetliner on take-off from San Francisco International and I would wonder: Where is it going? When can I go? Where will I go?
My first time on an airplane occurred in 1958. My maternal grandfather was terminally ill. I was soon a two-and-a-half year-old lap baby on a prop plane to Missouri for Mom's last visit with her father. This is my earliest memory. I remember being in the front seat of a car driving up to an airport terminal, the wipers straining to brush snow off the windshield. My mother confirmed this memory with the fuller tale in later years.

As our somber assignment came to its close, an unseasonable snowstorm moved in on Springfield, Missouri. My father was home in California with my four older siblings, falling behind on his work at his one-man start-up glass business. Dad wanted mom home ASAP so that he could focus on his business instead of the fearsome foursome. Back in Missouri, the storm had stalled over Springfield, closing the airport. The staff in Springfield informed her that it could be days before a flight back to San Francisco could take off. However, Kansas City remained open and flights were taking off. If Mom cold make the 220 mile trip before dawn, she could be in San Francisco in time to make her husband the next evening's dinner. Now that was a goal.

A businessman in the same predicament stepped forward. "Lady, I need to get a flight out, too. Sounds like Kansas City is our exit plan. Would you like to share a rental car?" To my father's later distress, Mom was willing. This was a woman who moved to California on her own at 20,supporting herself through the war years as a "Winnie the Welder." Of course, she rounded up two more stranded businessmen for the safety of numbers and to share in the cost of gas. The drive was tense, she told me, which probably explains why I remember arrival scene at Kansas City's airport. But we made our flight.

When he heard about the car trip with strange men, Dad was as "outraged" as the police chief in Casablanca--yet he was relieved to unload those four screaming kids on his "chief cook and bottle-washer."  The bread-winner retreated to his shop after dinner, the home-maker was back in the kitchen "where she belonged." Their baby boy wouldn't see the inside of an airliner for nearly fifteen more years...

(to be continued)

Monday, June 17, 2013

Remembrance of a Father Passed

I am the fifth and last child in my family: Boy-girl-girl-girl-me. There was another pregnancy after my birth, resulting in the still birth of a boy with severe hydroencephalia (water on the brain) which lead to a vasectomy soon thereafter. We Morris kids are all Baby Boomers, from the first child born in 1947 (nine months after the wedding) to me, born slightly less than eight years later. My father was 25 when he married, a few weeks shy of 33 when I was born.

This context is important, because I don't have a warm and fuzzy remembrance of my late father. He did a lot of damage. Yet I know I could have been--and still could be--a better son; obviously, the conversation is rather one-sided now. I won't bore you with a litany of complaints about his sparse parenting skills. My divorced mother urged me to forgive, keep the door open and maintain a relationship with him. She cautioned me about the unintended consequences of burned bridges, encouraged me to find peace through patient communication.

When we become parents, we realize how difficult a job it is. When I became a dad my first time, I faced the irony that I was the same age my father was when I was born. His reality on that day included five kids, a nine-year-old marriage, a mortgage and he was only months away from launching his own business. A pretty hefty plate, that was. As I walked around GWU Hospital cradling my precious first-born, I felt a new connection with my wayward dad. I had, as yet, no other children, no mortgage, no self-employment responsibilities. My spouse of nearly four years had her own substantial career, leaving me as the secondary wage-earner. Less than 24 hours after becoming a member of the club, I had the beginnings of a new appreciation of my father's challenges.

Please don't get the wrong idea--there is no happy-sappy end to our story. Dad lived on for a dozen more years. I once again reached out, he accepted. We interacted. He gave what he could, especially as an eager handyman. He used his manual skills as a surrogate for affection. Perhaps he gave me much less than I craved, he gave it generously. But I wanted more. His relationship with his grandsons died for lack of attention. Ultimately, he chose to betray our relationship, fatally poisoning our slender bond a few years before his death. That is a tale for another time.

What cannot be denied is that, for good or ill, we sons are our fathers' legacy. Some traits are inherited, some habits are learned. I catch myself repeating some ill-considered action or comments that I gleaned from him, I should know better. I court the forgiveness of my children when I do. I also try to forgive myself. The sins of the father are real enough.

Certsinly there are good things I learned from my dad:
  • Connecting with and respecting my relatives, especially the elders. I treasure the aunts, uncles and cousins, nieces and nephews. I do my best to nurture those relationships over time and distance. My father was an only child, his mother was widowed when he was only an infant. Staying close to relations in Colorado, Wyoming, Oregon and California was important to him. 
  • Loving San Francisco. My father felt he was blessed to have been raised in the City by the Bay. He loved to show it off, and he loved to share his remembrances of  "How things were in the good old days." If you know me, you know that this in many ways defines me. I'm a native-born San Francisco kid to my dying breath.
  • An appreciation of architecture. This may surprise other family members, but it goes hat-in-hand with San Francisco and his glass business. Dad used to show off his work on a couple of impressive buildings, yes--but he also was a fan of Frank Lloyd Wright. Dad proudly showed off the Morris Building (now Xanadu Gallery) in San Francisco and the Marin County Courthouse in San Rafael. I most certainly am a fan of Wright's, and appreciate architecture much more than your average Joe.
  • Loving California--my father loved the Golden State. My love of all things Yosemite stem from our numerable summer trips to the "Incomparable Valley." That's just the beginning. 
  • Volunteerism. My father was a dedicated Lions Club member. He raised money for the blind and ran the Youth Exchange Program for Northern California, further exposing me to hundreds of students from the far corners of the globe--many of whom stayed in our home. In his later years, he chose to volunteer for the Second Harvest food bank. We never had much in the way of material things, but he was always willing to share his time and skills for a good cause. I've jumped in wherever I could.
  • The travel bug. Dragging our brood around the state and across the Rockies to visit family included seeing other sights all across the American West. I've taken traveling to a much higher level, but his example got me started. He even managed to see a Space Shuttle launch, an opportunity that has passed me by.
  • My very rudimentary fix-it skills. I was a poor student, but what I learned, I learned from him.
  • Being there. Overall, he flunks this test--yet the few exceptions are notable, and I appreciated them then and now. He came to a half dozen or so of my football (in which I rarely played), attended my graduations, my East Coast wedding, and made two more cross-country trips to visit me in later years. It may amount to mere crumbs, but they are no less precious.

That's about it. A pretty short list, indeed. Yet I appreciate what I gleaned from my father; I accept that he had  his limitations, though with regrets and no small measure of sadness. Growing up without his own father shaped him in innumerable ways beyond his control, compromising his own abilities to parent. It's not about fault, it is about our shared history. Most importantly, I have made it my life's mission to be the best father I can be. Fatherhood for me is about making the best of the skill set I was given, doing the best with what I have learned along the way, and loving the hell out of my sons every moment I breathe on this Earth.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Postcard from the (Eastern) Edge


June in Washington, DC means the beginning of hot summer and swarms of tourists, mainly hordes of eighth graders on field trips. Imagine lines of chartered buses disgorging dozens of pimply, noisy young teens in color-coded t-shirts announcing their identity with themes such as "Class of 2017 Rocks DC!" Now where did I put my bottle of Aleve?

I'm here to visit my eldest son who lives in Arlington, VA just across the Potomac from Washington. He's a UCLA grad working in a suburban ER until his post-baccalaureate RN nursing program begins at Georgetown University in August. My son was born here and lived in Northern Virginia until he was eight, with many return trips to visit old friends and relatives young and older. One such trip was his eighth grade trip to Washington from our California home; somewhere in a drawer rests an old yellow t-shirt that is emblazoned "Class of 2007 Rocks DC!" or words to that effect.

This is a solo visit, which means more flexibility for this old dad to get around the monuments and museums, indulging my inner history geek. My boy pulled the hospital's midnight shift, so he works while I sleep, sleeps while I tour, and we visit in the evenings. One might think I knew the National Capital Area pretty well, and I do--on a certain level. My first visit was a college seminar in '74, for work in '80 and '81, then a thirteen year stretch from '84 to '97.  I was married at the National Presbyterian Church on Nebraska Avenue in '85, graduated with my MBA from The George Washington University in '86. My first son was born at GWU in '89, the second in '92 at Fairfax Hospital in the Northern Virginia 'burbs. Yeah, I got this area nailed down pretty good--or so I thought. That was then, this is now.

The political landscape of DC may fluctuate according to election results, but the social and cultural lives of the residents of our nation's capital evolve according to their own timetable, its citizens dancing to a different beat which does not emanate from Capitol Hill. Vibrant, exciting, alive with life force of youthful optimism--this is the core of today's Washington. In days gone by, one did not venture of the beaten track of touristy DC for fear of the wanton criminal element. No more--now it's gentrification on steroids.

U Street, Shaw, Chinatown, H Street Corridor, Capitol Hill Northeast--these were neighborhoods most often named on the Crime Watch segment of the evening news here when I lived in Washington in the Eighties and Nineties. Today, they're hip and trendy destinations. The classic downtown sidewalks along Connecticut and K Streets are no longer deserted after dark; young couples and small clusters of laughing young people circulate from restaurant to club or merely a merry stroll about the town. Politicians beware, your backyard has become a city of bursting with the promise of youthful optimism, energy and excitement.

There is a flip side to the gentrification of city neighborhoods to be sure; I choose to celebrate the promise of tomorrow happening in very shadow of our dysfunctional capitol.  Every year hundreds of hopeful young college graduates bring their talents to the center of their government, gambling that with their considerable talents, initiative, hard work, and modest compensation they can make a positive difference in this world.

I give you this image to ponder. Three dozen energized, healthy twenty-somethings gathered on the open grass that is the National Mall.  Their field of screams lies between the Museum of American History to the north, Smithsonian Castle to the south, flanked by the distant U.S. Capitol's dome to the east and the scaffolded spire  of the Washington Monument skewering the setting sun to the west. These kids are divided into two teams vying for the DC Kickball Championship. Do you remember kickball? It's the elementary school version of softball played with a squishy 18" diameter red rubber ball that you kick rather than hit. The rules of the game mimic its more prestigious cousin, yet the physics of the cumbersome ball levels the skill sets of these after-office athletes. The result is universal good times.

The players hail from congressional staffs, think tanks, government agencies, non-profit groups, media and healthcare. They come from hometowns in New England, California, the Deep South and the Midwest. They are former jocks and ham-fisted klutzes, male and female, straight and gay, multi-cultural and multi-ethnic; they scarcely care about labels, they're busy celebrating shared fun. Politics are never mentioned, laughter never withheld. Not even the dramatic black smoke of a distant fire that swirls around the Capitol's dome rattles this group; a quick cell phone check determines that the engines are headed for a retail fire, it is safe to play ball. Tomorrow's leaders resumed their game. Joy and the American Spirit are the true winners in Our Nation's Capital this day.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Dirty Laundry

People love it when you lose,
They love dirty laundry

~Don Henley


“You’re really going to do your laundry at Davyd’s house? He might see your dainties!”

I mean really. My friend K and her husband L were coming over for a small dinner party after the graduation. She and I once taught together, before my moves, so her fellow teachers knew me. Apparently the tongue-wagger with the dirty mind missed the part about coming over for dinner with her husband; my wife was likely to attend said dinner, you would think. But the questioner’s mind went down a different path. No good deed goes unpunished.

K  was running her laundry before heading off to the afternoon ceremony and the evening dinner at my house. When changing the first load out of the dryer, K felt the damp glop that meant only one thing: the dryer had crapped out. Faced with a tight timeframe and a second wet load in the washer, K gave me a quick call; she was relieved that my dryer was in good working condition, ready to serve her laundry needs later while we enjoyed tri tip, shrimp and grilled veggies. The clothes would be dry by the time I finished warmin up Gizdich Ranch’s signature Olalliberry pie.

This rather mundane tale is a vehicle to mention the fun of a small party. Add a little domestic trifle to a few glasses of wine and  see what happens. It helps that the other couple hadn’t seen use in forever, and the two sets of guests were only slightly if happily acquainted. A lively mix of shared experience, varied backgrounds, overlapping histories and more wine meant giggles and outright laughter faster than you could say “a little potbelly port with that dessert?"

The silliness of that laundry comment led to some more dirty laundry stories and some more "dirty laundry" got aired--mostly retread tales of of our children's run-ins with radar guns. Our moral

Oscar Wilde

“Scandal is gossip made tedious by morality.”

Oscar Wilde, Lady Windermere's Fan

outrage, tempered with time, becomes humourous. But when a recent speeding ticket is mentioned, we squirm. "Too soon?" Yes, if the fine is yet pending, it is not yet grist for the mill...did I just hear the timer on the dryer go off, or was it the pie? Food cures all.