Thursday, May 23, 2013

A New Course

"Man's purpose is to live, not exist" -- Jack London

This year I broke up my family. I didn't make this decision lightly nor with the slightest caprice. In this process, I've broken the hearts of three of the people that I love most in the world. But, I had to think it was worth it. As I push 50, I realized that if I didn't start to live, I would continue to exist.

Last night I took a kayak trip up the Oakland Estuary toward the Bay. At sunset, I was treated to a moonrise, rippling waves made by the speeding SF Ferry, an inquisitive glance from a seal, gentle, surprisingly warm winds, and the glistening lights of both Bay Bridge spans and the Golden Gate.

This month, I have felt more alive than at any time in my life that I can recall. I've quit 19 years of anti-depressants. I've fallen in love with an old friend. I can't tell you what's next, because I scarcely know myself. But, the amazing thing is I really do KNOW myself.

To my wife of nearly 21 years, I am grateful for our lives together, our glorious, gorgeous children, and our enduring friendship. To my children, I hope that you will see that a life seized is far better than a life endured. Forgive me the pain I've caused all of you.

I plan to share my reflections in this space of a wondrous place called Oakland. And, like the namesake of my neighborhood (for living, working, and playing) Jack London, I plan to embrace the natural as firmly as the man-made. For, while urban, Oakland harbors a wildness, a state of nature, that deserves embracing.

I hope you will forgive me (you readers) my selfishness, but accept my desire to live a life that's rich and full of meaning. If this is my mid-life crisis, so be it. It's not the first! L'Chaim.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Oakland Wildlife

Oakland Wildlife

February 18, 2013 -- Jack London Square -- One of my favorite things about working in Oakland is getting to come down to the waterfront every day for work. While redevelopment has reworked many of the old industrial buildings like the historic Oakland Ironworks (now Bed, Bath and Beyond as well as hipster galleries and shops), the grit, grime and muscularity of the produce district, meat packing warehouses, coffee roasters, and assorted tool makers, keeps the place humming.

But, I write today to share one of the peculiarities of Bay Area fauna: free roaming mentally ill people. I have rarely encountered so many walking wounded as on the streets of San Francisco, Berkeley and Oakland. Most harmlessly lay on the sidewalk or walk along, clearly haunted by their demons. Some are aggressive pan handlers, who will occasionally yell or insult you if you stiff them of change.

Some encounters are memorable. Disturbing. Funny? Last week I got off the 18 bus at my stop on 12th and Jackson. I stepped out of the bus with several young boys and their mother who walked them to school in Chinatown along with hundreds of other Asian families. As we started walking, I noticed a very large African American person squatting openly by the sidewalk in the shrubs of a public building. After she had finished her business she stood up and exposed the largest pair of buttocks I have ever seen. The girth of this full moon seemingly blocked the whole sidewalk, even though she was standing several feet off in the bushes. She then hiked up her sail-sized white briefs and pants and yelled out to the passing families, "Hi baby!" in a high-pitched, almost come-hither tone.

The Asian families walking along pretended not to notice this public display of urination, nudity, and unselfconscious celebration of the morning by this large person. Part of me felt bad that such young children had to see this spectacle on their way to school. But, another part of me recognized that in our land of the free, freedom is not always attractive. Truthfully, I've never seen a public restroom in downtown Oakland. I imagine that for a poor mentally-ill person, squatting in public is less humiliating than constantly being turned away from stores and restaurants when nature calls.

I also realized that in the last 20 years of car commuting, I have missed the wildlife one encounters during a normal working day.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Oakland: The Bay Area's Whipping Boy
Back in the 15th century, if you were a prince and you misbehaved, you were spared the punishment. The lucky lad who got to take your place was the whipping boy. When I read the San Francisco Chronicle, the region's only "reputable" paper, it is clear to me that Oakland is the whipping boy for the Bay Area.
Oakland has its problems. Crime is higher per capita than almost anywhere; the schools have been or still are under federal oversight, the feds are also coming after the police department. The mayor was elected in a bizarre voting system that allows people to vote for their first AND second choices. Occupy Oakland was the nation's second-largest protest site (after Wall Street) and was far more vile and violent. The Chronicle revels in bashing its little sister across the bay with columnist after columnist decrying the corruption, crime, and chaos of life in Oakland. Even I was a crime victim in my first couple of weeks here when my car was broken into.
But, I find that Oakland is one of the most beautiful, livable, and most affordable bay area destinations. Hipsters are flocking here for the sun, the cheaper rents, and the numerous art, music, food and drink venues. I am particularly taken with the Dimond District, named for Hugh Dimond, a gold rush migrant who bought the land around what is now Fruitvale Avenue. One can start at the Bay amid warehouses and docks, and literally travel through the social class hierarchy of Oakland. One encounters African American neighborhoods with BBQ joints, barbershops and Baptist churches, then the Latino neighborhoods with fresh produce stands, burrito shops and Catholic churches, and end up in the affluent hills.
When you get to Peet's Coffee on Fruitvale, you discover a wonderful quilt of diversity, the likes of which I have never experienced. People flock here because of easy freeway access, two major grocery stores, the library, and a lovely little park. The Dimond District represents the best of Oakland with its entrepreneurs, its down and out, its affluent Prius-drivers, and every race imaginable including many, many people of mixed races or mixed couples.
Oakland has a rough and tumble history. Oakland is a current microcosm of both America's best and worst sides. But, I wish it would stop being the Bay Area's whipping boy.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Dreaming of a More Equitable World

Sausal Creek Park, Glenview, Oakland 

I've started my new adventure in life. I've moved to Oakland ahead of my family and am working for a social-change-focused consulting firm. Already, in the short time I've lived here, I have moved to the Glenview neighborhood, visited friends not seen for over 20 years, started running again, and had my car broken into! The Oakland A's excited the city with a near-comeback in the baseball playoffs.

This is a very different world than San Diego. Working in Jack London Square, I've developed a new curiousity about the man and his region. His celebration of adventure, hard work, and the downtrodden feel familiar to me. I hope to read much of his writing in this new world I've entered.

Perhaps I'm most excited about the promise of living in Oakland. Here, people will easily talk politics and express a desire for social change. Here, people mix freely in patterns of all races, all classes, all creeds. Here, energy is focused on meaning and connection rather than surfaces and possessions.

It's not paradise. People seem less happy, less healthy, less fit, and less comfortable. But, there is a vibrancy of place. Contrary to Gertrude Stein, there is a There here that is palpable, that wafts on the breeze in the smell of coffee roasting and medicinal marijuana and tear gas and artisnal bread and beer. People care about food deserts here, and are starting farmer's markets to combat them. And, unlike Southern California, the hillsides are not completely denuded for development. In fact, a walk in the woods is rarely more than five minutes from everywhere in Oakland.

Tonight, I go to Jazzista, a long-time running jazz show in a garage. I'm thinking that I made the right choice.