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College Wants U

August 5, 2013


My daughter is wanted in many states. Not for criminal activities. But apparently by more than 30 colleges and universities that have sent her brochures and postcards since she took the PSAT months ago. They want HER to consider THEM. At least that’s what their glossy, colorful material says.

Mind you, Sara was 15 and a high school sophomore when she took the PSAT—a practice exam for the SAT, which is required by many institutions of higher education to evaluate applicants.  Aren’t all these college brochures a bit premature? Sara is more concerned about getting her driver’s license than selecting a college right now.

And just what do these universities know about my daughter that makes them target her? Do they have access to her PSAT score? (I should have read the fine print before she took the test). Do they blanket all the high school kids in certain neighborhoods, sending out thousands of pieces of collateral? (If so, no wonder college costs are soaring). Or is the NSA helping them track my teen? (Shuddering thought).

Mysteries and conspiracies aside, college marketing materials are as varied as the schools themselves. They try to create an appealing, lasting image. They include a little and leave out a lot. In the end—though they don’t intend—they convey a singular message: Buyer Beware.

The University of Kansas apparently has so much faith in Sara’s future that its letter opens with “We know you’d make a great Jayhawk.” Great indeed! They’ve seen enough. College hunt done. Forget the rest of high school, Sara. Will KU will just send the paperwork, please? If for some reason Kansas doesn’t come through, Boston University writes that it’s selected Sara “as someone we think would excel” at BU. For $60k a year, we want more than excel. How about a scholarship and a job?

Seattle University knows our girl well enough to open its letter to her with an emphasis on the school’s “Jesuit intellectual tradition.” St. Mary’s College here in Moraga wrote of its spot as the only Catholic college on the list of Colleges That Change Lives. So why again did Sara have a Bat Mitzvah?

Word of Sara’s lack of interest in football apparently leaked out to national football powers. The University of Alabama’s oversized postcard emphasized academic rankings by U.S. News and World Report and Kiplinger’s magazines. No mention of football. Yep, Bama now apparently is all about the diploma. The University of Miami described itself to Sara as “one of the nation’s premier private research institutions.” No mention of its gridiron tradition, which includes many player arrests.

Purdue, Oregon and Arizona all sent her splashy brochures showcasing a blinding array of activities, majors, high rankings and future job opportunities. Not sure what Purdue’s Nearly Naked Mile or Vomit Comet are about, but they need some explaining before we write a check. Oregon has that cute Duck and apparently endless sunny weather if you look at the photos. Just ignore actual climate data.

Two schools seem to think alliteration will catch the ear of my literate daughter. The brochure from Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington, says it will make Sara world-ready, provide her a weighty experience and a welcoming environment. We say whoop-whoop-woo. Lafayette College in Easton, PA, (where?) encourages Sara to “Launch your Life at Lafayette.” Lotsa Luck.

Speaking of where, Sara asks not only that, but “who?” and “what?” are Eckerd College, Centre College and Soka University? So do I. Nice brochures. Nice try.

So what’s a girl to do? Does it all come down to Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, MA? The marketing folks went all out, sending my wife and I a giant postcard with an invite for a tour and Sara a large-format, 8-page, multicolor magazine with numerous reasons for attending the school. Their sales pitch: Mount Holyoke—an all-women’s liberal arts college—“has been taking women seriously for more than 175 years.” Unfortunately for Mount Holyoke, Sara has been taking boys seriously for about the past four.

Suburban Sex, Purple People

February 21, 2011

Cindy and Vic Baranco

 Part 1 of 2 parts

 Sometime last year my son Isaiah came home and told me there was a “Purple People” sex cult in neighboring Lafayette, CA. Yep, he said, a racy private community with a guard who chased away prying outsiders. That was the buzz at high school anyway.

 I figured the story was just typical adolescent boy blather blown out of proportion. Lafayette may not be the straightest suburb in America, but it probably gets votes for the Top 10. Sure it’s a bedroom suburb, but could it be that kind of bedroom suburb? We’re talking about million dollar homes, top public schools, a hardware store and a beautiful new public library. You’d expect to find Marcia Brady—not Lady Chatterley—in Lafayette.
 Turns out, Isaiah was right; I was wrong. Probing the Internet, I learned that since 1968, Lafayette has been home to Lafayette Morehouse, a commune—they bristle at the term “cult”—of purple homes whose residents drive around in old purple limos on about 20 acres off Purson (shouldn’t it be Purple?) Lane. Their stated philosophy is “Responsible Hedonism”—“the pursuit of pleasure as the highest goal,” but with a concern for the pleasure of others, not just oneself (hence “responsible”).
To earn greenbacks to support a purple lifestyle, Lafayette Morehouse offers courses to the public on topics its members purport to know well after boning up on them for many years: Communication, intimacy, sensuality, sexuality and group living. After all, this is the commune that lays claim to the first known public demonstration (1976) of a woman in a state of orgasm. For 3 hours! (“Honey, this is wonderful, but I’ve got to run some errands, go to the gym and play golf with the boys. Don’t stop. I’ll be back in plenty of time.”).
While all of this sounds like a stimulating ride toward nirvana, scattered news reports over the years paint Lafayette Morehouse—originally founded as More University—a  very different color purple.

More’s founder was the late Vic Baranco, an Oakland native whose black jazz pianist father and white Jewish mother “had the world’s most miserable marriage,” according to Baranco himself in a bylined article posted on the Lafayette Morehouse website, which portrays him as a benevolent leader and wise educator in the ways of sensual pleasure.

 Baranco is described rather less flatteringly in author David Felton’s 1972 book, Mindfuckers, which also profiles two other notorious cult leaders: Mel Lyman and Charles Manson (don’t you wish you shared a book cover with Chuck?). Felton called all three men “mindfuckers simply because they have made it their business to fuck men’s minds and to control them. They’ve succeeded by assuming godlike authority and using such mindfucking techniques as physical and verbal bullying and group humiliation.”

 Various other accounts and lawsuits reference More University’s tent-living homeless people, drug use, trash, vagrancy, filth and, of course, sex, including a 1978 county health officials’ report that a 3-year-old girl contracted gonorrhea while on the property. In an example of dubious marketing, reporters in 1992 found that More received generous donations of underwear from Jockey.

 Baranco eventually divorced his first wife, Suzanne, with whom he had two children and whose favorite color was purple.  He later married a considerably younger blonde, Cindy, with whom he spent 27 years before his death in Hawaii, home to yet another Morehouse location, in 2002. He was 68. Cindy is now the communal leader.

 I couldn’t find any recent reports about Lafayette Morehouse, which perhaps is tamer and a better neighbor since Baranco’s death. And I sure wasn’t going to try to penetrate the closely guarded community—I’d leave that to fearless, troublemaking local teens.

 However, I figured I could go undercover and attend one of Morehouse’s public classes. Choices include Basic Sensuality, Advanced Sensuality, Saying Yes to Pleasure and Mutual Pleasurable Stimulation of the Human Nervous System. But those cost between $225 and $475 each, well beyond this blog’s budget.

 Expansion of Sexual Potential sounded like a hands-on learning experience, but it runs a cool $12,500 and the course description says it has homework (sorry, I’m busy). If I’d had $35,000 burning a hole in my pants and had completed the prerequisites, I could have tried Qualification, which “will train you to experience and explore an intensity and duration of orgasm far beyond commonly held viewpoints in our society.”

 Instead, I enrolled in Intimacy Revealed: An Introduction. Why? It cost only $40, involved a group Q&A session and there was no touching or clothing removal (I know, boring!). The class was held at yet another Morehouse site—a purple Victorian house in Oakland adorned on the front with an inverted, modified peace sign, the community’s symbol.

 I got there a little late on a Friday night. Things started off kind of creepy.

 To be continued…


Rose Colored Glasses

January 14, 2011

Image courtesy of

On a gloriously warm and sunny New Year’s Day in Pasadena, my 15-year-old son and I attended this year’s Rose Bowl. Our special father-son bonding event was occasioned by the participation of the University of Wisconsin, my undergrad alma mater.

My beloved Badgers, ranked 4th in the nation with only one loss going into the Grandaddy bowl game of them all, were set to stomp Texas Christian University, a small, private college in Fort Worth. TCU was undefeated and ranked 3rd in the country, but clearly didn’t deserve to be in the Rose Bowl because of the wimpy teams they played during the year. Or so most Wisconsin fans thought.

As hell and torture would have it, TCU won 21-19, thwarting Wisconsin’s two-point conversion attempt—after a late fourth quarter touchdown—that would have tied the game, sent it into overtime and culminated in the Badgers winning on a spectacular 93-yard-drive. Oops, I’m daydreaming again.

 Well, even if Wisconsin lost the game, we won the war, capturing all of the other awards tied to the Rose Bowl other than the game itself. TCU won none of them. Zip. Zero. A complete shutout. Total Badger domination. I should note that these are awards I made up. TCU wasn’t eligible to win any of them. Here they are:

 Budweiser Fan of the Game

With 91,000 to choose from, you’d think selecting my Budweiser Fan of the Game would have been a long, agonizing process. But it was easy. The obvious winner turned out to sit just one row behind my 15-year-old son and me, just over my son’s left shoulder.

When we first spotted him, he was seated on the bleachers, motionless, eyes closed and an empty beer cup in his hand. Picture The Thinker holding a beer cup. He appeared to be in his mid 20s. Did I mention that vomit dripped from his mouth, filled half his cup and spilled onto his hands, pants, shirt, shoes and the concrete beneath his feet? Mind you, this was 20 minutes BEFORE the game began.

After what seemed an eternity, but before the opening kickoff, an older man—perhaps The (non) Thinker’s father—came over and, following an incoherent verbal tussle, convinced Our Man Vomit to get up and leave with him. Never saw either of them again. Expensive tickets for just a pre-game party.

 The state of Wisconsin is tops in America at drinking, so maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised about what we saw. Repulsed, but not surprised. Anyway, The (non) Thinker’s proximity to our seats saved me from having to interact with thousands of fans throughout the stadium in order to find The One on which to bestow this prestigious honor.

 Mr. Congeniality

Not surprisingly, beer also played a role in a Wisconsin fan capturing my Mr. Congeniality game honors. Outside the Rose Bowl prior to the game, several groups of sign-carrying Jesus Freaks, for lack of a better term, stood outside the stadium. They spread messages of warmth such as “Why do you love the devil? Repent Sinner. Serve Jesus.”  

A tipsy but jovial Wisconsin fan, beer cup in hand, saddled up to one of the Jesus groups, apparently trying to find common ground. I couldn’t hear the conversation, but I gathered he’d discovered a path to brotherhood when he turned, pointed to one of the sign carriers and exclaimed happily to nobody in particular, “He likes cheese! He likes cheese!”  That’s music to the ears of Wisconsinites, who produce more cheese than any state in the nation.

 Cheese, the tie that binds. Maybe U.S. and Iranian officials can sit down soon over a wedge of cheddar and find a way to resolve their differences. I recommend both sides bring crackers and share.

 Best Dressed

Wisconsin fans donning Bucky Badger foamheads finished a close second, but first place for Dapper Duds goes to the many fellow Badgers who wore “Teach Me How to Bucky” t-shirts. Thanks to my son, I didn’t have to spend the entire day wondering what the heck “Teach Me How to Bucky” means. Turns out it’s a play on “Teach Me How to Dougie,” the 2010 hit debut single by the hip hop group Cali Swag District (Right, you already knew that!).

The song revolves around the “Dougie” dance, which is similar to the jerkin’ movement (Ok, even I’m completely lost now!). Seems that a few months back some enterprising Wisconsin students wrote “Teach Me How to Bucky” and produced a music video for it that premiered on the Jumbotron at Wisconsin’s homecoming football game at Camp Randall in Madison.

The fans went crazy, the video went viral—1.3 million views on YouTube and counting—and the rest is t-shirt sales history.

 President’s Trophy

Apologies to floats similarly honored in this year’s Rose Parade, but my President’s Trophy goes to any of several cars parading outside the Rose Bowl. My favorite was a sports car painted red and white, adorned with painted-on roses and Bucky Badger, and the driver blaring the Wisconsin fight song over his radio. That’s a classy ride.

 Spirit Award

I have to hand this one to the entire Wisconsin Rose Bowl crowd. Whenever the Jumbotron showed anyone wearing a TCU jersey, Badger fans booed. When it showed someone wearing Wisconsin gear, Badger fans cheered. Jimmy Kimmel milked the concept, appearing on the Jumbotron wearing a TCU t-shirt to a loud chorus of boos, peeling the shirt off over his head to unveil a Wisconsin t-shirt (cheers), peeling that off to reveal a another TCU t-shirt (boos) and finally peeling that off to yet again reveal a Wisconsin t-shirt (cheers).

 Showcasing maturity as well as spirit, Wisconsin fans responded smartly whenever TCU fans completed a cheer that said something I couldn’t understand followed by T-C-U. As soon as they said “U,” thousands of Wisconsin fans pointed at them and shouted “suck.” And so it went all game: “Bla, bla, bla, TCU, suck!…Bla, bla, bla, TCU, suck!”

When I attended Wisconsin home football games as an undergrad, entire sections shouted at each other, too. Section P would point and scream “O sucks” at the neighboring section. There was no real purpose behind it; just Wisconsin fans badgering other Wisconsin fans. At least now, our section-to-section abuse is aimed at the opponent’s fans. Who says higher education isn’t improving?

 The Jewmongous Among Us

No contest for this special award. My winner is Gabe Carimi, Wisconsin’s 6’7”, 327-pound senior left tackle. Not since Samson and later Max Baer has there been a fellow Jew this large and powerful.

Carimi is widely recognized for his football skills, capturing the 2010 Outland Trophy that recognizes the nation’s best interior lineman. But it’s more than football that has me, and I’m sure his parents, kvelling. Gabe is graduating with a degree in civil and environmental engineering, having been named Academic All-Big Ten for four straight years.

In seventh grade—I’m not making this up—he helped build a house for Habitat for Humanity as his Bar Mitzvah project (“Here Gabe, hold these walls so we can nail them together.”). Carimi even fasts annually on Yom Kippur, undoubtedly freeing up enough food to feed 25 homeless families. This young man is a mensch. My only bone to pick with his family: Carimi? Since when is that a Jewish name?

 Gaffe of the Day

This dubious honor (a black rose?) goes to the Rose Bowl stadium announcer. Sometime in the first half, when Wisconsin had again made a sizable gain to move the chains, he announced to the crowd, “First down, Wolverines.” A huge chorus of boos erupted from the massive Wisconsin fan contingent.

We are Badgers, remember? The Wolverines are Michigan, a hated Big Ten rival. We wear red, they wear blue. Badgers are cute, Wolverines are not. Our costumed Badger mascot was on the sidelines; there wasn’t a Wolverine in sight.

Besides, as everybody knows—ok, everybody like me who looks up minutiae—though Badgers and Wolverines are both members of the weasel biological family, Mustelidae, Badgers grow to about 20 pounds and are extremely good at digging. Wolverines can reach 60 pounds and aren’t good at anything.

 Run of the Day

Late in the game during a timeout, a Wisconsin fan ran onto the field with his arms raised, racing about 85 yards before turning around and angling toward the Badgers’ sideline. He outran a security officer who gave chase. Finally he disappeared among Wisconsin players and coaches, obscured from those of us on the far end of the field. Security officers brought him down, and I can only assume pleasantries were exchanged.

I last saw him hands cuffed behind his back, security officers leading him away from the field. I can only assume more pleasantries were exchanged in the bowels of the stadium. Like it or not, the Madtown Dasher’s open field jaunt was the longest of the day by either team, earning him my Run of the Day honors. Do you think beer played a part in his actions? Nah, I didn’t think so either.

In Search of Christmas Spirit

December 20, 2010

Image courtesy of lostinmiami

Customer and employee names were changed to honor their privacy.

 I went searching for Christmas spirit in Moraga the other day. I found it in a cramped trailer behind the local Wells Fargo bank.

I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to find Christmas spirit at all. The Santa at Macy’s Union Square in San Francisco for the past 20 years had just been fired for telling a naughty joke to an older couple that had paid him a visit at the department store. A 20-year-old Burger King employee in Detroit had just been accused of punching a combative 67-year-old customer who later died. Christmas spirit seemed in short supply.

Besides, what do I know about Christmas spirit? Though married to a Catholic, I was raised Jewish. I didn’t decorate a Christmas tree until I got invited to a tree trimming party in my 20s. As a cub reporter, I once went spent an afternoon as a mall Santa Claus for a story. Mostly I remember being uncomfortably hot in the red suit and beard. But I figured holiday spirit had to be lurking somewhere in Moraga, a Christian-heavy suburb where 55 percent identify themselves as Catholic and 80 percent report they adhere to some kind of church.

 A logical place to try and rustle up some holiday spirit seemed to be Bob’s Xmas Trees, a temporary tree lot behind the Wells Fargo in the Moraga Shopping Center. It popped up the day after Thanksgiving and will be there until 5 p.m. on Christmas Eve.

 Turns out owner Bob Holland has set up shop there each Christmas season for the past 35 years. He orchestrates the business from inside a modest trailer, greeting customers and handling every transaction while perched on a stool positioned alongside a small open window. Outside, his staff helps customers select trees, wreaths, garland and mistletoe. Periodically, they head off for tree deliveries to homes, offices and churches.

Bob doesn’t just make sales. He renews old relationships, creates new ones, trades stories, poses riddles, takes and delivers good-natured ribbing, listens with patience, dispenses wisdom and negotiates deals that typically benefit his customers. He told me business was down a bit because of all the rain, but on a recent Saturday a proposed 15-minute interview took more than two hours because customers just kept on coming—and Bob had little conversations with them all. Some snippets:

 “Merry Christmas, Mrs. Johnson.”

“What time would you like it delivered? We’ll have it there for you.”

“Let me check my records. You bought an 8-foot last year.”

“Sure, we’ll hold it here for you.”

 “What grade are you in now?”

“Here’s my cell phone number.”

“George will take your trees. If you want, you can tip him. He accepts tips. He only works here for food (hardy laugh).”

“Thank you very much. Merry Christmas to you.”

 Some customers stayed for a long time. Three young women buying trees for their nearby workplaces engaged in jolly banter with Bob, perhaps seeking a discount. “Give me some more riddles, but not too hard,” he said. “Wait, I’ve got one for you. Why do fat chance and slim chance mean the same thing?”

 A lengthy chat took place with a 96-year-old regular, who shared stories of meeting his wife of 66 years, serving in World War II and getting married at a courthouse for $5. Bob listened patiently and told his own stories: “I was a paratrooper in the 1960s. Pope Air Force Base in North Carolina. We were going to jump into Cuba. I was this close to going into Cuba.”

A few customers were upset that a new Xmas tree competitor has popped up across from the other local shopping center. Bob told them he didn’t mind competition, but customers reassured him. “We haven’t even stopped in there,” one woman told him. “We’re loyal.”

 Unexpectedly his accountant’s wife dropped by with shrimp tacos she’d prepared for him as a gift. “Every time I make it, I think I have to take some to Bob,” she told him. Equally unplanned, a young local man with a truck came by looking for work delivering trees. He works for his dad, but had some days off during the holidays. Bob initially said he had all the staff he needed, but about five minutes later—after learning more about the enterprising lad—the young man was told to report for work the next day.

 “I hire all local kids,” he said. “I try to keep them straight—no drinking or cigarettes. And I teach them a business—how to react and deal with customers.”

 Bob is 75, but looks at least a decade younger. He’s a retired motorcycle cop for the Oakland Police Department, his career shortened by a series of crashes. One foot is fused. Several customers asked him about his health. “I’m getting a new knee in February,” he explained, thanking them for asking.

 He began selling Xmas trees as a moonlighting gig. “When I started doing this, I’d just do it for fun. My police buddies would come over.”

 Though it’s now more of a business, he hasn’t forgotten the Men in Blue—or anybody else, really. “I always give cops a free (tree),” he said. Then there are the free trees he gives to the local Rotary Club. And the 12 trees he loaned to the local church. And the deal on tax here, the bargain on a tree there, the free delivery here, the deal on a tree stand there, and the free mistletoe for anybody. And don’t forget the free formula he’ll hand you to keep your tree moist, healthy and ostensibly fireproof.

 When Bob isn’t selling Xmas trees, he spends time with his wife and dog at their home in nearby Walnut Creek. He also barnstorms the country as manager of a 70-and-over senior slow-pitch softball team. His damaged foot and knee prevent him from getting out on the field as a player, though you know he’d relish the opportunity. “I tried out with the New York Giants at the Polo Grounds in 1954. I could hit a curveball really well.”

At an age when most are long since retired, Bob isn’t ready to give up his Xmas tree venture. “Me, I’ll do this until I die,” he said. “I love this. I like people.”

And it’s safe to say his customers like him.

 Isn’t that what Christmas spirit is all about anyway?

 Bob’s Xmas Trees is located in Moraga at the corner of School St. and Moraga Way. Phone is 376-8274. Email is The tree lot is open 9 a.m.-8 p.m. weekdays; 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. weekends. Bob will even be open until 5 p.m. on Christmas Eve: “I’m always there on Christmas Eve.” Come on now, do you really think Bob wouldn’t be there for latecomers—or anybody else?

The Holiday Letter

December 15, 2010

Image courtesy of Vassil Tzvetanov

Holiday letters from friends can be nice—if they’re not five pages long! But some can be over the top. Ever get a letter like the one below?

Dear Friends,

What a year for our family! (Read: Better than yours!). It seems amazing that so much could happen in just 365 days (Unlike your pathetic little existence)!

 Let’s start with our kids (Smarter, nicer looking and more talented than your three!).

Our youngest continues to get straight A’s (How goes the remedial tutoring for your perennial underachiever?). She set age-group records in swimming this summer and now busies herself with cross country, ballet, student council presidency, a book club and volunteer work (Does yours still play Xbox all night?).

 Our eldest just finished his first semester at MIT, which began recruiting him for its chemical engineering honors program back in sophomore year of high school (What community college does yours attend again?).

Our middle one got married in April (No, you weren’t invited. Only close friends). The entire three-day affair was like a fairytale (I frankly recall little about your daughter’s B-List event). Her husband is a cardiologist (Did your son-in-law ever get his GED?). We helped them purchase their house as a wedding gift (I think you gave yours a casserole set).

 Work has been fantastic (Tough luck about your layoff). Both of our companies posted substantial growth, and we each received generous bonuses (Are they extending your federal unemployment benefits?).

This fall, we decided it was time to replace all of our furniture (Do your bean bag chairs still leak?). A designer helped us with the myriad decisions (I know you shop IKEA). We rewarded ourselves for completing that project—gorgeous results by the way—with two dream vacations (No need for details—you’ll never be able to visit those places anyway).

 Our new puppy is a beloved member of our family (Too bad your rental bans pets). This year we taught him to fetch slippers, play Frisbee and rescue people from fires (More accomplished than your kids).

 Just for fun, I’ve enrolled in an advanced degree program in Spanish literature (Still grappling with your dyslexia?). My Better Half is busy sculpting and running marathons (How is Weight Watchers going for you guys?).

 As 2010 draws to a close, our family has so much to be thankful for (Clearly a stretch for you). Enjoy the enclosed photos taken at our new winter ski cabin, and do let us know if you plan a visit (A safe annual gesture from us—you can’t afford it).

 Peace on Earth (Our Earth, which we share with lesser ones like you. Makes us feel good this time of year).

Psychic in Suburbia

November 10, 2010


Image courtesy of David Sifry

I missed the psychic who came to town the other day. That’s a pretty major story for a local blogger like me to pass up in the suburbs, where very few other-worldly events take place.

 The problem was that Irish psychic Sandra O’Hara, dubbed “Ireland’s most gifted and famous psychic medium,” wanted $75 from each (living) person to attend her chat with spirits at a theatre in Lafayette, Calif., a neighboring suburb to my ‘burb, Moraga.

 Since I’ve yet to figure out a way to monetize my blog, $75 is pretty steep for a night of frolic—even if some of the frolickers might have included my late parents or Grandma. The only voice I heard when I initially entertained paying for the event was that of my late Mom: “Nu, you’ve got $75 burning a hole in your pocket? Why don’t you put it toward something useful like the kids’education.” So much for psychic awakening.

 It’s probably best I didn’t go to O’Hara’s night of spirit-raising anyway since I’m not really a Believer. Mind you, I’ve had a few inexplicable things occur in my life that at least gave me pause to consider the possibility of connecting with The Other Side.

As a small child, I once sat on the floor rubbing two little toy cars between my hands in an effort to make them disappear. After several failed attempts, they did. I couldn’t find them anywhere. I actually became frightened. An hour later they showed up behind pillows on a couch about 10 feet away. I still can’t explain it in Earthly fashion.

 A few months after my Mom died, I had a vivid dream that she was in her hospital bed and that it flipped up into the wall like a hideaway bed. I took it as The Spirits saying I wouldn’t be seeing her or talking with her in my dreams anymore. That’s pretty much been the case.

When my favorite football team, the Green Bay Packers, needed a last-ditch field goal or touchdown to win a game, I believed as a kid that if I left the room and didn’t watch the play, a Greater Power would intervene and the Packers would win. The Packers were NFL champs three straight times in the late ‘60s. Coincidence? Perhaps.

 All the same, I’ve never had the kind of powerful or frequent occurrences that led me to believe in psychic phenomena. I’ve never seen a ghost. Or an outline of Jesus on a piece of toast. The only furniture I’ve seen move by itself was during the 1989 San Francisco earthquake. The closest I’ve come to spoon bending was watching Israeli paranormalist Uri Geller allegedly do it on TV. 

 Curious about the O’Hara event held appropriately on All Saints Day, I spoke with a friend who was there. She said the place was packed, mostly with middle-aged women. O’Hara, a big woman, sat behind a simple table. She tossed out names or descriptions of spirit presences she felt in the room. She told a widow that her husband’s spirit was in the theatre. He had committed suicide a month earlier and was saying his wife shouldn’t feel any guilt. She’d done nothing wrong. O’Hara also delivered other healing messages during the evening, according to my friend.

 If a psychic’s healing messages are comforting to people and they can afford to attend these events, I guess I see no harm. Who am I to say the spirits aren’t out there eager to communicate with us. Maybe I just wasn’t blessed with a gift like Sandra O’Hara, who claims to have seen spirits since she was age 3 or 4.

 I’ll tell you what would turn me into a believer in psychic phenomena real quickly, though: If you finish reading this blog post and feel compelled to send me $75. Go on. Cash or check. That’s the spirit.

Fossil Fuels Burn Me Up

October 21, 2010

Image courtesy of amuderick

My appliances have been haunting me lately. The dryer looks innocent enough, but I know it uses natural gas to dry our weekly mountain of clothes. The flat screen TV brings (too) many hours of enjoyment to my kids, but its dark side is that it needs electricity to air The Office. And our cars, while one is a Prius, don’t go very far without needing gas—gas refined from oil somewhere deep in the ground.

 Make no mistake, I’m always concerned about energy use. Call me selfish, but I’d like Mother Earth to be habitable for my kids, say with daily temperatures below 175 degrees. However, recent headlines make me even more concerned—ok, angry—about the main sources of energy in our country and much of the world. I think the news should be a MAJOR wake-up call for everyone, though sadly I’m pretty sure it’s not.

 I’m talking about these three headline-grabbing disasters: Trapped coal miners in Chile, exploding natural gas pipelines near San Francisco and the BP oil rig disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. Coal, natural gas and oil. The fossil fuels that provide more than 85 percent of our nation’s energy, nearly two-thirds of our electricity and virtually all of our transportation fuels. Hmmm, are we on a highway to hell?

 The three recent fossil fuel catastrophes killed 19 people. The Chilean coal mine collapse trapped 33 miners underground without daylight for 69 days. Like everyone, I can smile about the rescue of the coal miners. I can even smile about coal mining jokes: Man fell down a pit-shaft. Deputy: “Have you broken anything?” Man: “No, there’s not much to break down here.”

 But I can’t smile about the fact that 50 percent of the electricity in the U.S. comes from burning coal. Or that in April, 29 miners died in a Massey Energy coal mine explosion in West Virginia. Or that nine more men have died inside U.S. coal mines in the six months following the Massey Energy mine blast.

 Coal burning doesn’t just threaten miners, either. It’s a dirty energy source, releasing vast amounts of carbon dioxide, the leading cause of global warming. It also creates acid rain, lung problems and a toxic sludge that can pollute waterways. And don’t forget the environmental scars left by mountain top removal strip mining.

 Natural gas burns cleaner than coal and oil (though its extraction has become a dirty process), and I can smile at jokes about gas appliances: What did the first sock say to the second sock in the dryer? I’ll see you next time around.

 But I can only feel pain for the eight people who died when a natural gas pipeline exploded last month in San Bruno, CA, just south of San Francisco, destroying 38 homes and wiping out an entire neighborhood. Isolated incident? Federal officials have recorded 2,840 significant gas pipeline accidents since 1990, causing 291 deaths and almost a billion dollars in property damage.

 Many more of us may be sitting on natural gas pipeline powder kegs. Nearly 70 million U.S. households and businesses use natural gas; federal law requires inspection of only 7 percent of our natural gas pipelines. Jumpin’ jack flash, it’s a gas, gas gas!

 Oil causes so many problems that I can’t smile at jokes about it without feeling mad at the same time. Let me try David Letterman on you: “This oil spill in the Gulf is affecting everybody. In fact, when I went to lunch this weekend and ordered the sea bass, they asked if I wanted it regular or unleaded.” See what I mean?

 Don’t think the impact of the BP oil disaster in the Gulf is remotely over. University researchers reported Sept. 30 that levels of chemicals including cancer-causing toxins in an area of the Gulf affected by the spill remained 40 times higher than before the incident.

 Equally discomforting: The Gulf has 27,000 abandoned oil and gas wells and more than 1,200 idle rigs and platforms. Many of the wells have been ignored for decades. Nobody knows if they leak.

 I don’t know about you, but I’ve seen enough. The Big 3 fossil fuels have had their day. Shouldn’t we move on? Don’t we have to move on? It won’t be easy, but lots of smart people have workable ideas for a greener energy future.

 Well, it’s getting late and I should go. First I need to shut down my computer, turn off the front porch lights and make sure the kids turned off the TV. Damn. I’m feeling haunted again. Maybe I’ll sleep under the bed tonight.