Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Travels with The Herald

Our friend Marco has returned to work after watching his son play third base for the Mexicali team at the Little League World Series in Williamsport.

Readers might remember the column I wrote about my family's connection with Marco. The family gathered in El Centro for my mother's memorial service during the Labor Day weekend, and we dropped by Celia's Restaurant for lunch. Marco is one of the waiters at Celia's, and I was able to deliver a copy of the column to him.

He was still beaming from the experience in Williamsport, though returning from Pennsylvania proved a bit of an ordeal after Hurricane Irene closed the airports.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Our Man in Williamsport

The Mexicali Little League baseball team is on ESPN, slugging it out against Venezuela for a chance to advance to the finals. Little boys are mugging for the cameras and making amazing plays on the field. One of the happiest looking kids on the Mexicali team is my new favorite ballplayer, a shrimp named Vicente Bejarano. Number 3.

Vicente's father, Marco, was one of my mother's all-time favorite waiters. He works at a restaurant called Celia's, in El Centro, just across the border from Mexicali.

My mother wasn't herself the past several months, squeezed by the grip of Alzheimer's. But her companion, Darold, always made a point of "taking her out" every day to eat at restaurants where employees like Marco made her feel loved. Even on her worst days, Marco's brilliant smile cut through the fog of her fading consciousness.

Mom died last week. The family gathered in El Centro and, of course, we had lunch at Celia's.

Like the waiters and waitresses at all Mom's favorite spots, Marco teared up when he learned about our mother. Restaurant employees develop a special bond for their regulars and become part of the extended family. They take news like the death of Mom hard.

Later at lunch, Marco told us about his son, Vicente. The boy is in Williamsport, he said, representing Mexico at the Little League World Series.

Of course, Marco would have loved to be with him in Pennsylvania this week, but he couldn't afford the time off. His wife was there, though, and Marco got to watch his son play Mexicali's first game on ESPN against Chinese-Taipei. His excitement lifted our mourning spirits.

The next day, after the family spent the morning tending to Mom's final business, we checked in again with Marco at Celia's.

He was amped, his smile even more sublime. Regulars at the restaurant had collected enough money to send him to Williamsport. He'd get there in time to watch Mexicali's second game on Sunday.

He had no idea how he was going to get around once he arrived, how he'd pay the bills when he got back, but by God he was going to watch his son play. You never get a chance like that again.

My mother wasn't a born baseball fan, but she acquired the skill while raising six kids. She was a single mother, working a bunch of jobs but finding the time to root on her brood of little leaguers.

She showed up at all my games. She was there when my youngest brother, Tony, got shelled, in an all-star sectional final, by the first Mexicali team to earn a trip to Williamsport.

She never cared much for professional ballplayers. Her best baseball memories were scored at dusty little fields built for kids.

Near the end of her life, when Mom's children were scattered elsewhere and raising their own little leaguers, people like Marco were always there to smile for her. And now one of them was sacrificing a week's pay to watch his own boy play a game. Mom would've reached into her wallet to help, but she wasn't there, so we did.

On Sunday, we raced home to watch Mexicali's game against Japan, hoping to see Marco in the stands. In the fifth inning, an ESPN correspondent interviewed him, letting him share the story about the customers who got him to Williamsport.

There was that smile, that enthusiasm, that warmth, broadcast nationally and in HD.

It was like Mom and Marco had arrived in heaven at the same time.

Thursday, July 14, 2011


I've been slogging through my first Kindle novel, which means I'm getting adept at pushing buttons instead of turning pages.

Kindle is one of those hand-held electronic devices created to put bookstores out of business. With a Kindle, you can upload a book in the time it takes to back out of the driveway en route to the Border's.

Once your "book" is safely affixed to the memory chip on your electronic device, you may begin your reading experience. Reading a book on Kindle is like reading a book that took a more circuituous route — from pulp mill to printing press to bookstore — to produce. Except that it's different.

For my first Kindle experience, I selected Jonathan Franzen's latest, "Freedom."

Franzen follows the sad-sack Berglund family along its careening path to oblivion. The plot is rather trivial, along the lines of a routine romance novel, but Franzen's precise construction — and deconstruction — of the human dynamic is thrilling.

Whether read from a printed page or from a digital screen, the story doesn't change. I would have enjoyed "Freedom" equally had I purchased the book in poundage rather than in bytes.

On my Kindle, though, I can bookmark and highlight passages that are more easily retrievable, without dog-earring pages, without stickies or paper clips. My Kindle was a much more convenient travel companion, particularly on the plane, during my recent vacation.

Still, I am nagged by the diminishing status of the printed page.

I acknowledge and accept that my newspaper will eventually become a digital product, once the last of my generation has read its final newsprint obituary. Like Franzen's Walter Berglund, I am grateful that I can do my part to save a forest, if not a job at the pulp mill.

In fact, I am uncomfortable with the anti-labor inclinations implicit in electronic books. Paper is produced by men paid to wield chainsaws, to mix the brew at the mill. Traditional books are published on presses operated by human beings with mortgages and car payments. Traditional books are moved from points of origin to sales sites by truckers. Traditional books are sold from shops with atmosphere and with clerks who can point customers in the right direction.

More than that, though, a traditional book is a thing, something to keep, to return to, to trade, to give away, to donate. A full bookshelf serves as a proud monument to the memories and the wisdom imparted in volumes. Just as the great family photo must be enshrined in an album or on the mantle, and not in the limbo of a computer, the artful construction of words deserves its own special place.

I'm not sure my Kindle is that place.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

An apple divided

From reporter Larry Parsons:

A few days ago, as I picked up some Gala apples at a grocery store in Salinas, I came upon one of those oddities of nature that tickle the fancy.

One of the four apples I bought appeared to be divided equally into near-perfect hemispheres of different color. One side was red, the other mostly golden. The line between them was straight, as if the creator used masking tape or a straight edge to apply the colors.

I showed the apple to a few friends and colleagues to see if my simple enjoyment in its split personality would produce similar reactions. Most of them agreed it was certainly a special apple. "Oh wow," they said.

I knew the veteran photographer wouldn't be impressed.

Photographers, you see, have encountered many pieces of fruit and vegetables tenderly carried by slightly wild-eyed people who claim a prosaic potato is the spitting image of the King of Prussia or a typically bumpy tomato has the horns of Satan right out of "Paradise Lost."

As the apple sat in the fruit bowl in my kitchen, it caused me to muse, speculate and cogitate. Not as much as the apple that bonked Newton in the dome, but more food for thought than your typical Gravenstein.

An odd ball in a natural world that favors curves, serrations, arcs and more complex geometric forms than a dull straight line, my apple seemed emblematic of the duality of existence — life-death, mind-body, male-female, comedy-tragedy, designated hitter-pitcher-must-hit.

Its hard-and-fast dividing line was a perfect metaphor for the country's polarized politics with its bitter divisions over government, taxes, war, budgets and Sarah Palin's new movie.

As I passed the fruit bowl one morning, with no apples now but Mr. Two-Face, I mentally wandered into the realm of Hegelian dialetics, vaguely recalled from a distant college lecture.

Let's see, history works like this. First there's a thesis. Then some folks don't like it, and they come up with an antithesis (especially effective when employing well-regulated and armed militias), and the upshot is synthesis — a blending, a compromise, a new thesis. And so on and so forth.

I know my apple's days are numbered, like everything.

I did, for a moment, consider preserving it in some clear plastic goop. But that would put me in the same league as the fellow with a summer squash that's a spitting image of Charlie Chaplin in "Modern Times."

Time marches on. History unfolds.

And apples, no matter how special, become applesauce, one way or another.

Crunch. Not bad, but not as good as the apples I remember as a kid.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Random Amgen Observations

There they are. There they went.

I've watched a lot of sporting events, but seeing the bikers at the Amgen Tour of California zoom past at 45 mph may have been the most exciting 30 seconds of sports I've ever seen. Or maybe not.

I spent a half-hour at Seaside City Hall this morning, wandering around the starting gate, absorbing the festive atmosphere. One of the sponsors gave away cowbells, which en masse is about the last thing anyone needs to hear at 8 in the morning.

So I headed up to Gen. Jim Moore Boulevard and South Boundary Road, which was on the biker's route. I didn't realize until I got there that the intersection was actually the start of the race. The start at Seaside City Hall was simply a formality.

About a dozen folks were hanging out at the intersection to cheer the riders along. And it was indeed fun to watch them zoom by.

The roads were closed, of course, and there was a bit of a traffic backup on Gen. Jim Moore, just as The Herald warned in today's publication. So of course some snotty woman shows up at the blockade and starts whining to the officers that she had to get to work, as though the race was some big surprise to her. Sheesh.

So that's pretty much the highlights, at least from my perspective: nice city hall event, cowbells, bikers zooming by at the real start of the race and the whiny woman trying to get to work.

And they say baseball is boring!

Friday, May 6, 2011

Panetta: The Parochial View

Whether the local hero is throwing TD passes on the football field or coordinating the elimination of Public Enemy No. 1, people love to root for the person they think they might have seen once on the rec trail.

So the sweeping expressions of local pride for Leon Panetta are understandable.

After someone has helped engineer an impressive feat on behalf of the citizens of the United States, the immediate reaction is to pay homage with an edificial monument.

Panetta has certainly earned the honor. He is, at the moment, the hero of the free world. Or, as Arjun Jaikumar of the Daily Kos tweeted Monday, "Leon Panetta's approval rating is 600 percent right now."

But I'm not sure renaming Monterey Peninsula Airport is the right thing to do. Not because it's cliche, but because it would be confusing.

As proposed by Jim Lauderdale in a letter to the editor Tuesday, the local airport ought to be renamed the Panetta Monterey Airport. Every inspiring local hero seems to have an airport named in his/her honor. Lindbergh Field. Reagan National. Bush Intercontinental. Mineta San Jose International.

No disrespect to Norm Mineta, a solid citizen in his own right, even if he didn't have a hand in finding Osama bin Laden, but Mineta is the problem.

Honoring Leon Panetta with an airport name might seem like an obvious choice, considering all the flight time he logs between Monterey and D.C. Unfortunately, the Panetta-Mineta thing is simply too confusing. Especially because San Jose is the major airport nearest Monterey.

Too many travelers are already baffled by the Monterey-Monterrey connection. Mineta-Panetta might be too much.

That is not to say Panetta should not have a public facility named in his honor. As far as locals go, he's about as famous as John Steinbeck, the noted author, and Monterey Jack, the noted cheese. Around here, he's one of the few we can identify without surname. Like Clint. And Dina.


Whether balancing an out-of-control federal budget or rooting out the source of terrorism, Panetta kicks butt and takes names. He's the guy who brings order to a planet gone mad.

He is a man of accomplishment, I believe, because he used to be a Republican and he must have a bit of Republican in him still. Old-school Republican. The sort of Republican who ignores the rigmarole and gets things done with an efficiency that inspires pride in government.

Used to be, you needed a Republican in office to make sure the trains run on time.

These days, you're made to feel like an unpatriotic nincompoop — or a Democrat — if you point out that the trains are coming off the tracks.

It should serve as more than a footnote that Panetta was in charge of the Office of Management and Budget back when budgets were balanced. Balanced budgets weren't a big issue three years ago, but now, suddenly, it's the source of much righteous bloviation. If he's not too busy running the CIA and preparing to oversee the military, maybe we can give Panetta a crack at that budget situation again.

Panetta is the ultimate envoy. He's the fixer. Put him in charge of something and check it off your worry list.

So, yes, Panetta's name deserves to be preserved for posterity, affixed to a public facility.

The airport isn't one of them. Unless we simply want to call it The Leon.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Three guys at a table

Apropos Tuesday's posting, a friend sent this joke:

A Wall Street executive, a Tea Party member and a union rep were sitting around a table when someone brings them a dozen cookies. The Wall Street executive immediately takes 11 of them, turns to the Tea Party guy and says, "Hey, that union thug wants your cookie!"

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Remembering the Fraud

The crash, the lost jobs and the exposure of fraud and greed on Wall Street barely rate a mention anymore.

It's reached the point that Charles Ferguson, the filmmaker who won an Oscar for Best Documentary on Sunday, felt obligated to apologize when accepting his Oscar before pointing out that no executive has yet been imprisoned for the financial calamity caused by Wall Street's enormous greed.

Even as we limp along on unemployment, as our homes are in foreclosure and our dreams are dashed, we shrug it off. It's like watching Monta Ellis get hacked repeatedly, with no foul called, and chalk it up to the innate corruption of the NBA. The big guys always get the benefit of the doubt. Lots of harm, no foul. Oh well.

Our attention these days seems to be directed at Wisconsin, where greedy public employees want to hold on to what they've got.

That's not entirely true. The public servants in Wisconsin are willing to give up some of their pay, some of their benefits. They're just not willing to give up their right to collective bargaining.

There is no doubt that government entities everywhere must make painful choices about the services they provide. Every city, county and state is forced to reduce and I don't feel too sorry for them. The private sector — businesses big and small — is reeling in their lines; government shouldn't be immune.

On the other hand, the tea party makes a lot of untoward growling noises about the ingrates who feed at the public trough. They'd have a lot more credibility had they expressed similar outrage about the crooks on Wall Street who pulled the rest of us down with their greed.