Thursday, January 17, 2019

GIVEAWAY: Win a Free Registration to Dad 2.0 in San Antonio!


Four years ago, you probably weren't reading what I write. This is not because I wasn't writing. If you care look back all the way in the archives in that right hand sidebar, you'll see that I started this blog back in 2003. Back then I was lucky if I got 50 views on any post. If a post got 100 views I knew I'd written something really good. This was before social media, and even before search engines as we know them today. It was harder to find things back then. So shout out to social media, thanks for the assist. But the thing is, four years ago you may have already had a Facebook account for eight or nine years. You'd been on Twitter for five years or more. Four years ago you were IG, and I was not.

So what happened? Four years ago I was added to a group for Dad Bloggers on Facebook. Through that group I met other writers who helped advise each other on how to build an audience, how to improve as writers and how to be better men and better fathers. The group was also a place to share your writing. The feedback was invaluable. People also started sharing my writing more, and I shared theirs. There was no quid pro quo like you hear about in some blogging cabals. People share what moves them.

In 2016 the Dad 2.0 Summit came to Washington D.C. The Summit is an annual conference for Dad Bloggers and influencers. They host workshops and keynotes on everything from building a brand and SEO optimization, to parenting around issues of race and masculinity. I decided to attend, mostly so I could meet some of these guys I'd been interacting with online for the previous year. Then I was chosen as a Spotlight reader, which was an honor. I made a ton of great connections both personal and professional. Going to the first two conferences led to writing opportunities, and gave me friends in most of America's major cities. Two years later, I hosted on panel on raising children with special needs. Every year I attended, I left with new friends and new connections. And that's probably why you're reading this right now. Attending Dad 2.0 helped me learn how to build my audience. Sure, I'm not a huge blogger with a million readers. But I know you're out there. I know how you are. I see you reading what I write, and I appreciate you.

If you're a writer and a dad, I highly recommend attending.

Which brings us to the giveaway. I cannot attend the conference this year. Housing uncertainty and not yet having a job that affords vacation time have conspired to keep me home. I'm super bummed. The swag alone is worth the trip. I haven't had to buy soap or toothpaste in three years.

So I want you to go! I want you to have the experience. I am giving away my ticket, maybe to you. You'll need to cover your own flight, hotel and everything else, but hopefully this entices another writer to get out to Texas, see the Alamo, meet some great people and improve as both a blogger and as a dad. If you've been before, go again. If you've never gone, go.

Check out the conference web page here: Dad 2.0 Summit 2019

This giveaway is not being run by Dad 2.0. I just don't want my ticket to go to waste.


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Thursday, January 10, 2019

I Was a 20-Year-Old Republican (An Immigration Post)


OK, I wasn't really a 20-year-old Republican. I was conservative enough on some issues that my hippie, Berkeley mom used to sometimes call me a Republican, but by the standards of most of the country I was still pretty liberal. One issue where I converged somewhat with modern day Republicans was on US intervention around the world, and immigration.

To sum it up, I was an isolationist.

I leaned toward the idea that breaking the isolationist seal with US involvement in WWI was a mistake. I resented the Marshall Plan. I pretty much despised US military deployment around the globe. The main reason I didn't join the military out of high school was that I didn't like how they were used. I wanted NATO and the rest of our allies to do more to pitch in where intervention was deemed necessary. I was also strongly in favor of closing the borders, building a wall and a fence and a moat and anything else that would keep people from sneaking into the country. I was 100% in favor of legal immigration and asylum, but I didn't want people coming undocumented.

My reasons for these convictions would sound familiar to anyone who has heard Republican talking points on immigration over the last couple years. We had too many problems to address here at home. Where I diverged from Republicans is that I wanted stronger social programs to help poor people. I had just read Rachel and Her Children, Jonathan Kozol's excellent book on homelessness. I was inspired by the story of the WPA. I figured that we could divert the money spent on the military to jobs programs and public education.

To sum it up, I was naive.

Like many young, half-educated people, I did not hesitate to talk about these ideas. I'm sure I sounded like an idiot to folks on both sides of the aisle. Unlike many young people I had my beliefs put to the test.

In 2004 I was going through a divorce. I was 27 and in my last semester of graduate school. My wife had left me for another man. She had denied that she was seeing anyone during our "trial separation," but I had come back to the apartment one morning before work and found him there hiding behind the bedroom door. I was hurt and angry. I wanted to lash out. I wanted to hurt them. Not physically, I wanted to hurt them in a way that made them feel the way I was feeling. At the time the issue of her boyfriend's immigration status was a bit of an open question. I had strong reason to believe that he was here illegally. If I'm remembering correctly 15 years later, it was the overstayed visa variety, not the snuck-over-in-the-dark-of-night act that the president puts forth to scare red state voters. Some people were worried about an immigrant taking their job, this guy had taken my wife. I knew I could get another job, but I wasn't sure I was lovable enough to get another wife. I figured that reporting him would get him deported and then they wouldn't be together, just like she and I weren't going to be together. Even if he was here legally, an investigation would be a major disruption. If I couldn't be happy, no one would be happy. So I did what any angry young Republican would do in that situation, I called the newly formed Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency to report the location of a suspected illegal immigrant.

In fact, I called several times because I kept hanging up before completing the process. The first time I called, I hung up while it was ringing. The second time, I hung up during the phone tree. The third time was the charm. I told the woman who answered that I wanted to report an illegal immigrant. She asked me to hold while she transferred me to an agent who would take my report.

I hung up.

To sum it up, I grew up.

It's not easy to admit that it took me going to the brink of doing something so incredibly harmful to another person before I realized who I was. In those few moments of being on hold I was forced to face what I was doing and why I was doing it. I had to analyze everything I thought about immigration and about who I was as a partner to my wife. It was in that moment that I came to terms with being astoundingly wrong on both counts. Immigrants, legal or otherwise are running from and to things that are much deeper and more complicated than I could fathom. They weren't just looking for a better life, they were often looking to hold on to life itself. My ex-wife was unrepentantly liberal, yet she somehow stuck by me and all my political nonsense for four years. And that was just one of many areas where I had been a terrible husband. An immigrant hadn't stolen my wife, I had pushed her away by being a surprisingly bad partner to her. I realized all of that in the 30 to 90 seconds I was on hold. Before I spoke to anyone else, I hung up for the last time.

My views on immigration have continued to evolve in the 15 years since that day. I have slowly become more liberal in my beliefs. I started by looking to people like my ex-wife, whose views I respected and tried to craft my votes and my views to parallel theirs. I'm not all the way there. I would still prefer that we had a robust program for accepting and processing asylum seekers. I do strongly believe that once people are here, they're here and we should take care of them just like we'd take care of anyone born within our borders. I believe in DACA and Dreamers and in sheltering unaccompanied minors. I am against the idea of a wall.

I was a 20-year-old Republican, because I had ideas about the world without an understanding of it. I saw a problem, but didn't see the root cause. I was smart enough to be dangerous, but not smart enough to know how little I knew.

I was a 20-year-old Republican, but I'm getting better.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

When a Loss is a Gain (or Why I'm Relieved my Fundamentalist Family Disowned Me)



I started writing this post almost three years ago. At first it was about how my cousin had gone off the deep end of religious fundamentalism. The thing is, I couldn't figure out exactly why I was writing it. I wasn't sure I had a larger point beyond, "Hey look, isn't this weird?" Somehow, even though it was an important topic to me, I couldn't figure out how it said anything about the larger world.

My cousin used to be a partier. Addiction and recklessness run in our family so he seemed perfectly normal to me. At some point, he decided to make changes. He went into recovery. He tried to eat better. He moved way out of the city, beyond the suburbs to a small rural town. He moved away from his old haunts and his old influences. But he was still himself. He was still fun and engaging and loving. If anything, he was more fun because he didn't do the irrational things he used to do when he was drinking. He also started becoming more religious.

I'm not against religion. I've become more religious over the last decade as well. I was confirmed into the same faith as my wife. My children were baptized. I had a brief tenure helping teach Sunday School. I find a lot of wisdom in the sermons. They've helped me learn to forgive and how to come to terms with things that have happened in my life. I believe that religion, like youth sports, can be a really positive thing even though it's been warped and misused for a long time. We chose my cousin and his wife as God parents for my middle child, even though their brand of Christianity was a little more hard core than ours. We felt that might be a positive. They would present a different perspective, and maybe we'd learn something.

But as time went on, my cousin abdicated more and more of his personal agency to the church. He'd long been a liberal, and claimed he still was. He made this claim even as he voted against same sex marriage and refused to discuss the topic. He began to see any disagreement as an attack on his faith. I admit, I did challenge his views on scripture at times. It wasn't typical internet atheist vs. believer head butting. My sect is liberal and teaches acceptance, forgiveness and love. My cousin's mega church teaches the things that fall more to the right of that. Still, I saw my conversations with him as exchanges between believers with slightly different approaches. My cousin lost the ability to have a conversation about these things. He followed the teachings of his pastor without question. When I asked him why he'd become so unwilling to entertain another view he'd answer with "What makes you think you know more than the pastor?" or "It's not for me to question, I am simply supposed to follow." It was astounding to see this man who saw himself as a leader in his family and his community become so blindly dogmatic. After a while I unfollowed him on social media, still connected but muted and didn't discuss scripture with him at all.

The final straw came early in the 2016 election season. He quickly became a hard core Bernie Bro, the kind who called Hillary Clinton a cunt, claimed that her and Trump were exactly the same and vowed not to vote at all if Bernie wasn't the candidate. The strained relationship between our family and his ruptured completely. He got involved in a Clinton-Sanders political spat with my wife that ended with one of them blocking the other. The final straw was when he posted a junk science link by a disgraced psychiatrist "proving" that trans people are mentally ill. He posted the link with a triumphant and emphatic "I knew it! I told you so!" and something about supporting conversion therapy. In the comments, I posted links to the many professionals and research refuting these ideas. He again railed at me for questioning his faith.

"Primo, I'm not questioning your faith," I replied. "I stopped trying that a long time ago. I promise I won't question your faith. I am questioning your science. If you had posted that God said this, I would have kept scrolling. You posted this claiming that science had proven something you had long hoped was true. You brought this into my realm. So I am definitely going to present the research that counters this so called study."

That was it. He disconnected from me on all platforms and I haven't heard from him since. It was sad. It was frustrating. I love my cousin and I remember the man he used to be. I was also a little relieved that he wouldn't have a chance to influence his God child anymore. If that were the end, this post would probably still be languishing as a draft.


I didn't know a lot of trans people growing up. Being from Berkeley I was pretty solid on LGBQ issues by the time I graduated from high school, but trans people still seemed peculiar to me. At the end of college I had at least learned that my attitudes towards trans people, while not outright discriminatory, were not what they should be. So I decided to fake it 'til made it. I decided to publicly support trans people on whatever they wanted regardless of how I felt about it. In 2015 the trans bathroom issue made me uneasy, but I found myself debating one of my students and taking the pro-trans people side. By the time we got to 2017 I felt like I had finally come around in mind and spirit.

I was just in time.


In January I wrote about my six-year-old "coming out as liking blue." At the time, I acknowledged that it was an odd way of looking at the kid's announcement.
"I know, maybe that's an extreme way of describing it, and yes, it's supposed to be funny. I'm sorry, I hope it's not offensive, but the way she talked about it, that's how it seemed to be for her. At the ripe old age of almost-seven, she talked about how she had always liked blue, but for some reason when she got to day care she just let everyone tell her to like pink. 'So I just went along with it. I don't know why, I wanted to tell them I really liked blue, but I felt like I couldn't. Then I started telling everyone that I liked pink. I don't know why. But now I tell people about what I really I like, and I don't care what they think."
I didn't know at the time that my child was practicing. Maybe they didn't know it either. About a month after I wrote that, Lou told us that they were no longer "she," they were "they." It was a surprise. I went through a lot of thoughts and emotions. My newfound acceptance of trans people was challenged. It's easy to support other people, it's different when it's your child. It probably shouldn't be, but it was for me. I had to fight against myself. I had to go through a similar process as I'd gone through the previous few years, but I had to do it a lot faster. I hoped it was phase though I never admitted that to anyone other than my wife. I wondered if this was the result of society making being trans seem cool. I realize how this sounds.

The calculus was simple. I've known too many gay and lesbian people and read too many stories of traumatic LGBTQ childhoods to not see what I had to do. The story is almost always, "I've known who I was since I was three-years-old." followed by whatever trials came with being able to finally come out and live as the person they always knew they were. As a parent, I often look at what my kids do and ask, "What's the risk?" In this case I had ask what would be the risk in accepting what Lou was telling us, or denying it. If it was a phase, the risk was that they would feel pigeonholed into having to keep this up as their identity within the family, like being "the smart one" or "the funny one" or "the loser." (In my family I somehow ended up being both "the smart one" and "the loser," and I've lived up to both at different times.) If I denied it the risk was raising a severely damaged trans person who told their friends, "My dad never accepted me and it was really hard on me." That risk was too great, I'm already sure to traumatize my kids in some other way, avoiding the obvious missteps is an easy choice. It was clear that I had to swallow hard, look to my wife for support and try to live my values.


Since then, Lou has identified as gender fluid. I use "they" in writing because it's the most true pronoun over time. In real life, Lou has three post it notes that are changed out each morning. Each has he/him, she/her or they/them printed on the face and we use that so we know which pronouns to use that day. It's been surprisingly easy. The anxiety I had during the first few weeks has faded. It's helped that Lou's teacher and classmates have been supportive. It's helped that Lou isn't the first trans kid at their school, or at our church. The new reality of Lou's identity has even produced some typical toddler moments for Yo who spent months saying things like, "Daddy, Lou said they/them won't share with me!" Now it's become normal for us.


I still think about my cousin. I still miss who he was. Maybe I hadn't been thinking of him for a while because it wasn't until yesterday that the real impact of his disowning me became clear. There's no way he'd have accepted Lou for who they are. Maybe there's some small chance that knowing a trans person, loving a trans person would have brought him around, but this isn't a Hallmark move of the week. I think it's far more likely that he would have made bad jokes, or worse, direct refutations of Lou's identity. The split we had over trans rights would have come at some point no matter what. Instead of losing him over "politics" I would have lost him over respecting and loving a child he swore before God to nurture and protect, not knowing that the protection the child would need is from people like him.

Friday, October 19, 2018

The Grinch Bay Area Movie Ticket Give Away, and How I Keep Trying to Forgive Seuss

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(If you'd like skip my socio-political commentary on the career path of Dr. Seuss and just enter the raffle, skip to the end.)

I have a complicated history with Theodor Geisel. More specifically, I have a complicated history with his work. It's not complicated in any real world way, it's complicated like a relationship status on social media. Which is to say, it's entirely one sided and all in my head and heart.

Like a great many North American children, I grew up loving Dr. Seuss. From The Birthday Book, which was read to me on my birthday every single year, to the adventures of young Bartholomew Cubbins, I read everything Seuss had written at least 20 times over by the time I was 10. Or at least that's what I thought. What I didn't know about were Geisel's early advertising works or his WWII era propaganda cartoons. They were problematic to say the least. Geisel supported the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII, an action on the part of the government that resulted in my family being sent to prison camp and losing their house to the military. It wasn't until I read, And to Think That I Saw it on Mulberry Street to my kids that I began to understand Seuss' transformation over the course of his career. If you don't remember Mulberry St. (the book, not the street) it's about a young boy who makes up a story about things he saw on his way home. He strives to come up with the most outlandish things he can possibly think of. The capper, the most outlandish, bizarre, inconceivable thing he can come up with is, "A Chinese boy Who eats with sticks."

What?

I was floored. I remembered everything else in his fanciful parade, but I had never registered the Chinese boy. It turns out that in the original 1937 printing it was a "Chinaman." Ouch.

I've had some long and involved debates about Mulberry St. (the book, not the street). The opposing view is that it's not racist because it's a product of its time. Well sure, but that was a time when it was OK to be racist. After all, it was just five years later that the government shipped 120,000 people off to prison based solely on their race. (Not to mention Jim Crow, segregated military units, and rampant anti-Semitism.) The fact is, through the 1940s, Dr. Seuss was kind of a racist.


Lucky for us, the story doesn't end there. Seuss' views changed over the years after WWII. He wrote, Horton Hears a Who as a commentary against the bombing of Hiroshima and dedicated it to a Japanese friend. In 1978, Seuss made a re-write to Mulberry St. changing "Chinaman" to "a Chinese man," and changing the color of the character from bright yellow, to something more neutral. This came after writing a 1966 book under his Theo LeSieg pen name called, Come Over to My House, which celebrated different cultures rather than mocking them. In the end, Seuss fully deserved the reputation he enjoys today, as a celebrated and beloved author whose books contain both humor and morality. Still, I don't read Mulberry St. to my kids because they are Asian and I'm not going to subject them to anti-Asian iconography. I refuse to normalize their ethnicity and culture as something peculiar. There's also at least one Dr. Seuss based movie I haven't shown them. (More on that below the picture)



Which brings us to, The Grinch.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas has to be one of Dr. Seuss' most well known an beloved works. It was another one that we read every single year at my house. It's one I can quote up and down, often using the quotes outside of Christmas or anything remotely related to Christmas. It's also one that has been controversial for completely different reasons, adaptations.

The 1966 animated version of the book is so far, the best. It's essentially the book, with animation and a great song. Little is changed in terms of the wording and it's read by Boris Karloff, so that's going to be hard to beat. It's also just 26 minutes long, which means it's easy to digest and of a length that it could be shown on television in a standard half hour block. I used to beg my mom to be able to watch it the ONE time it would be shown each year, usually along with the Peanuts Christmas special, and a one-off Cone Heads cartoon. It was something I looked forward to every winter almost as much as Christmas itself.

Then there's the Jim Carrey version. Yikes. I was excited about a live action Grinch movie and I thought Carrey was a good choice for the role, but how would they stretch it to 104 minutes? The answer was with a lot of back story, including neglectful adoptive parents and a key party. Ew. Critics gave it mixed reviews, I don't know anyone who liked it. And like that, The Grinch was put away for the next 18 years.

18 years?! It must be time to try again right?

Right.

Just like I kept looking for reasons to forgive Dr. Seuss and his early career, I'm really hopeful about this latest film. First of all, it's a return to animation, which I think is a good choice for Seuss adaptations. It has an all-star cast, including Benedict Cumberbatch and Rashida Jones. It clocks in a tidy 86 minutes so it won't be too long for the kids. I'm 100% certain it will stray from and embellish the original book, (the preview articles pretty much promise that) but it has to do that and I know it can be done well. I thought Peter Rabbit was pretty good for what it was. I'm also the guy who cried both times I watched The Peanuts Movie, so I know there can be adaptations that provide an updated experience while holding true to what we all loved about the source material.

So I'm excited to bring my kids to an advanced showing of The Grinch coming up on Wednesday, November 7th at 7:30pm at the AMC Bay St. 16 in Emeryville, and I want you to join us. I'm running a raffle right now, through Friday, October 26th. Check out the info below on how to enter. I have at least 6 sets of 4 tickets to give out. I may have Grinch swag for the winners as well. So if you want to hang out, meet the fam, or argue with me on my Dr. Seuss takes, enter below and I'll see you there!

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Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Get Involved: Toddler Storytime at Children's Fairyland



Last year I had the pleasure of attending Toddler Storytime at Children's Fairyland in Oakland. Moving back to the East bay has been great for so many reasons. One of the big ones has been being able to bring my kids to many of the places I loved as a child. Every school kid in Berkeley and Oakland makes trips to the Oakland Museum of California, and so does my family. We also became members of Children's Fairyland. Walking in, seeing that friendly dragon and the coffee stand shaped like a pumpkin brought back a flood of memories I didn't know I had. Like Tahiti, it's truly a magical place.
Robert Liu Trujillo

Fairyland however, is more than just story book themed attractions and rides for people under 5 feet tall. The park also puts on educational and community programming. I attended Toddler Storytime with my youngest child, where we saw a fantastic artist and author, Robert Liu Trujillo read his book Furqan's First Flat Top. The day also included local community and city sponsored literacy groups, who talked with parents, led fun activities and gave away books. It was very cool, Yo and I had a great time. 

"Great," your thinking, "why are you telling me this? Is this an #ad?" Well no, it's not. Sure, I think it would be great for you to bring your kid to Toddler Story Time, or to sign your older kid up for the Children's Fairyland summer theater camp. (Dude, I totally wish I had gone to summer theater camp here when I was  kid. It looks really cool.) But that's not why I'm writing this. I'm writing this to encourage you to get involved as a reader at Toddler Storytime.

Children's Fairyland is holding their next round of trainings for readers coming up on November 2nd and 3rd, 2018. Dads, they are specifically looking for you. In fact, the event I attended with my kid was specifically geared towards dads. But I'm sure they'd be happy to have you come read any week.

They are looking for adult volunteers (18 and older) who want to be trained to lead toddler-specific Storytimes on the outdoor Emerald City Stage. Volunteers will commit to two days of training and lead approximately two Storytimes per month. Readers should be comfortable engaging with and leading a group of children, parents, and caregivers. In the training, you will develop skills in reading aloud, song leading, and other fun literacy-focused activities. We strongly encourage men to apply!

Toddler Storytime takes place on Fridays at 10:30 a.m. and 3 p.m. with 20 minutes of interactive early literacy activities: reading aloud, singing, and movement. It encourages language development in a joyful environment. The training is led by Fairyland’s librarian, Angela Moffett, who is also a teen services librarian at the San Francisco Public Library.

Training dates:
Friday, November 2, 9:30 a.m.–4 p.m.
Saturday, November 3, 9:30–3 p.m.
The training is highly interactive and both days are required!
 
If you or someone you know would like to become a Storytime volunteer, please email Vicky Chen at outreach@fairyland.org. You'll be asked to complete a short questionnaire to find out more about your experience and interests.


Please give them a look if you're in the East Bay.

Friday, August 31, 2018

The Stories We Tell About Our Family


Life happens. It happens and it ends, and other lives go on. Somewhere in that chain we tell each other stories of what was, who was, and how we came to be here. Sometimes those are big stories, like Ken Burns documentaries. Sometimes they are small stories, like how your family, and by extension, you came to be where you are right now. 

My family is lucky in that we have a lot of that history written down. On my mother’s side there is a scroll that traces our lineage back to the early 400s. One of my great uncles had it translated from Japanese, and then later wrote a book that updated the family tree up to about my brother. When I was in middle school I read that scroll translation over and over. It’s the official record of our family from the time our oldest traceable ancestor moved from China to Japan, to when our happy band of half-breeds extended our deep roots into my hometown. That’s the for-real story.

There’s another version though, probably more than one, possibly as many as there are living family members. The version I tell my kids is based more on what I remember my mother telling me than it is on that scroll. My mother’s version is based on what her mother and grandmother told her. The general story is the same, but the details are probably very different. The stories shift and change like folklore handed down within very small tribe. Each generation wraps it in a little more color, a little more romance. 

The version I tell, and that I believe to be true as much as I believe anything that doesn’t have scientific research to back it up, goes like this:

My great grandfather left Japan shortly after feudalism ended. He had been a Samurai, but since he was not the oldest son he didn’t stand to get an inheritance. With no lord to serve, he made off for America like so many other hopeful Asian men. While he was here, he worked in a bicycle shop, but refused to handle money as such things were beneath his station. He later helped to organize farm workers in California’s central valley. I imagine him like a Japanese Cesar Chavez whose work was lost to history, wiped away when white farmers seized Japanese land and businesses during WWII. In between, he was sent a wife in a marriage arranged by their families. My great-grandparents settled in San Diego. My grandmother told me a story about making jam sandwiches and loading them into her red wagon to take to the Okies camped next to the stream near her house. She said that when the men would knock on the door looking for work, or for food, it was the first time she knew there were poor white people. 

That house is gone now, the subject of a mystery that was never fully resolved. By the time WWII started my great grandfather had died. I’m told it was just as well, that the indignities of internment would have killed him. My great grandmother and her children were sent first to the racetrack at Santa Anita where they lived in horse stalls they were forced to clean out themselves, and then to Poston III in the Arizona desert. The house was left empty with neighbors agreeing to keep an eye on it. The house was fine. Then there were G.I.s living in it. Then one day, it was gone. Just gone. Lifted off the foundation and carried away. The government denied there had ever been a house there. When I graduated from college in LA (from a school that used to be an orange grove where boys took my grandmother on dates, she told me) we all took a trip down to where the house had been. The street corner is now on the naval base. The annexation of my family’s house, and now much of their neighborhood seems to be complete.

My grandmother and a few of her brothers were able to get out camp. One joined the 442nd all Japanese American regiment, another was already enlisted on that day that shall live in infamy. My grandmother moved to Utah to attend college and live with her brother in a converted mortuary. She bathed in the corpse tub and worked in a Chinese restaurant, as they were the only ones willing to hire Japanese. She took her degree in journalism to occupied Japan as the editor for the Stars and Stripes Army newspaper. While there she interviewed Tokyo Rose and Helen Keller. She also met an enlisted reporter named Kelly Roberts. She was his boss. They got married. After leaving Okinawa for Chicago and then spending a couple years in Pakistan while my grandfather was definitely not working for the CIA, they moved to Berkeley because they felt it was the best place in 1950s America to raise mixed race children. 

And that’s how it came to be that my kids’ school interviewed me for a family history project. They wanted to update some of the murals around the schoolyard with stories of how students’ families came to Berkeley. The kids in the class chose our family as one of the mural subjects. That’s when I realized that I wasn’t sure how much of what I told them was 100% accurate. I remember trying to verify some of the details years ago. “Is that what I told you? Gosh, I don’t remember.” was my grandmother’s response to most of my questions. Grandma is gone now. She never saw the mural her great grandchildren helped paint. I fretted over the details for a while, but in the end I decided that the story as I know it is true enough. It’s the one I think I was told and the one that I tell my kids. As family stories go, that’s close enough. 


Saturday, July 7, 2018

Review: The Backyard Cafe


I don't do a lot of reviews. You can find a couple album reviews here, which I enjoyed but found I couldn't keep up with the volume of CDs being sent my way. But I felt compelled to write about a new spot in my neighborhood after I was presented with a coupon for a free brunch for three. There was no explicit quid pro quo in terms of trading the brunch for a review, but it was a unique dining experience and I believe it deserves a few inches of print. 

The coupon was delivered in person by the proprietor, a young man (well, not really) who had admittedly just recently learned how to cook enough dishes to be able to present an actual menu. As you can see in the photo the coupon was originally for four people but was amended after a new policy allowing children under six to eat for free. The run up to our reservation was a little out of the ordinary. Due to scheduling conflicts, we were not able to get to the cafe for a few weeks after the coupon was delivered. During this time the owner approached me several times to ask if I would be coming in that weekend. I got the impression he was holding off the soft open of the place for a time when I could attend, which is sweet but also a little unnerving.

I'll cut to the chase here. The owner, who is also the head chef is very green and I think in a bit over his head. I get the sense he's never worked in a restaurant, and neither has his one staff member who I found out is also his sister. When I first arrived at 8:00am, the waitress insisted that I sit down and order right away and I was shown to a table that had been set up for us. The table was out on a sunny deck and included a name placard, which was a nice touch. 



I took a look at the menu and placed my order. From the kitchen I could hear an argument between the waitress and the cook. They hadn't agreed on a shorthand for orders. He insisted that she write everything down completely, she said that would take too long since she wasn't really good at writing yet. Having worked in food service in both the front of the house and the back of the house I offered to help them settle on a system. That wasn't the end of the commotion in the back though as the cook saw my order included three items rather than two. "You can't order three things!" I heard him exclaim. Unable to help myself, I poked my head into the kitchen, "At a decent cafe I should be able to order what I want. Even if it's a little extra. But I don't think it should be too much to ask for eggs, meat and potatoes."


I didn't think I was being harsh so I didn't expect his anguished response of "Fine!" followed by a complete breakdown into tears. I felt bad so I tried to console him. We went back to his office, neatly appointed with bunk beds but no desk. (He's really all in on this venture.) "What's the matter?" I asked. "Does it all feel overwhelming having to cook so many different things?" He replied that if everyone ordered everything he'd have to do SO much cooking. I assured him that he could do it. "Besides," I added, "I'm patient. No one's rushing you through this." He returned to the kitchen where I noticed an older woman standing in a corner surveying the scene. When I say older, I don't mean old, just older than the children running the cafe. She seems to be some kind of consultant brought in to help with the soft launch. She noted the lack of food in the prep area. "I can't start before I have the orders. I won't know what to cook." said the young man. "OK, but you haven't done any prep at all. If you wait to start chopping potatoes until after the order is in it'll take you an hour to get anything out. That's why most restaurant staff show up hours before opening to prep. They're not sitting around watching cartoons waiting for orders." At this point I realized I wouldn't be eating for a while. Lucky for me I was able to take my coffee to a cozy lounge area that had wifi.


Sure enough, I wasn't served until around noon. When the food came out there was further confusion about plating, and the waitress didn't know who had ordered what. Her first plan was to have us all come to the kitchen to pick up our plates. After having intervened more than I'd wanted to already, I asked that my order be brought out to me. The food was good. Though the options were limited and I tried a bit of everything I have to say it all came out quite tasty. The general theme seems to be to use less seasoning and let the flavors of the fresh food speak for itself. The bacon, which came as either pork or turkey, was crisp. The the eggs were cooked perfectly; medium for the scrambled, over easy for the fried. I ended up dining with the consultant and found her company quite lovely. She provided French toast she had prepared herself as an opening day special. The cook, clearly a bit frazzled from his first day, sat at an a nearby table with the waitress and another young lady I didn't have a chance to meet but who I presume was another sibling of theirs. 

My visit to the Backyard Cafe was unlike any experience I've had dining out. Parts of it were downright bizarre. But the food was good, and I suspect the service will improve as they get more experience. I'm definitely going to go back.