Thursday, July 30, 2009

I'll drink to that, Mr. President

Tonight is the much-anticipated "Beer Summit" involving President Barack Obama, Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Massachusetts police Sgt. James Crowley. The three men are apparently hoping that the male bonding ritual of adding alcohol to a conversation to make it interesting will help soothe the tension caused when Crowley arrested Gates after police suspected he was robbing a house following a neighbor's 911 call. Turns out the house is owned by Gates, who apparently was more than upset that he was being accused of being a criminal on his own property. Obama jumped into the fray at a press conference, calling the actions of Sgt. Crowley "stupid." Crowley and his superiors claim the officer was merely doing his duty in response to a civilian's call, which, contrary to initial reports, did not mention that Gates and the man he was with are African-American. Since then, cooler heads have prevailed and now a cooler of beer will be the substitute for an olive branch as the men meet to straighten out the situation. When men get together over a beer (or two, or three) the conversation is not what you'd normally expect at a White House summit. If it's anything like the Beer Summits in which I have been involved -- mostly at pizza parlors -- the men will start off talking about that day's sports news, transition into a recap of the most recent recreation softball game, then proceed to make fun of each other. After a few more beers, one guy in the group will sit silently with a goofy look on his face while another will get really loud and obnoxious, drawing stares from other tables (or in this case, the Secret Service). At one point, I expect Obama to regale his guests with exaggerated tales of his high school or youth sports accomplishments while Crowley pulls out his stun gun to show off how cool it is. Gates might drop in a Harvard reference or two to remind the others how smart he is, then all three of them will check their cell phones to make sure their wives aren't sending them a text about "how late it's getting" and "shouldn't you tuck in the kids?" I hope the Beer Summit works. If we get reports that of Obama, Gates and Crowley buzzing the Washington Monument in the presidential helicopter during a post-summit joyride, we will know it will have been a success. (image courtesy of Mike Licht,

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

I didn't even know he was sick

I've always said that I want my tombstone to actually say something, beyond the basic name, date of birth and date of death. "We didn't even know he was sick" is one idea. Or perhaps "If you can read this, you're standing too close. In fact, you're standing on top of me." I want people to smile when they pass the granite slab under which my remains will rest for perpetuity -- or at least I want them to not get too depressed. Hopefully, the dates on my headstone will show that I lived a long life and my survivors will rest assured knowing that I have moved on to a better place. The gravestone pictured here has intrigued me since I snapped the picture at Arlington National Cemetery a couple of years ago. Arlington is famous for its tomb of the unknowns, which is under constant guard as a reminder that many people have fought and died for our country without their remains being identified. So is this the tomb of the unknown journalist? I don't know. A quick Google search the other day didn't yield any answers, so if anyone knows, let me know. As a person who leads a double career as a high school journalism teacher and a weekly newspaper reporter and columnist, the journalist headstone picture reminds me of movies where the Grim Reaper is standing behind some dude who has no idea his time is up. It's foreshadowing; an image portending doom. As I wrote in this week's column in The Pinnacle, the noble profession of journalism isn't going away. Rather, our society's means of communication and preferences for acquiring news are changing. Any hack, present company included, can set up a blog and post his or her comments for the world to read or ignore. They don't need a journalism degree or an Associated Press Style Guide. They just need a computer, the Internet, and some fingers. And that's OK. Journalism is not a dying art, but rather an evolving one. Maybe my headstone will simply say "Breen," because my choice of dual careers will not leave my family with enough money to pay for any more engraving. I hope that when my time to pass comes many, many years from now that my wishes are respected. Put "loving father, devoted husband" somewhere on the stone if you must, as those would be reflective of a life lived well. But why not throwing in a zinger as well? Something like "Here lies Adam and all of his jokes that died as soon as he told them."

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Oh baby, birthers are certifiable

This just in: Hawaii is part of the United States. Thank goodness, because if it weren't, we may have to go looking for a new president. If you haven't been following the latest resurgence of a wacko controversy about Barack Obama, the Hawaii State Department of Health (once again) confirmed that our president is indeed a natural-born citizen of the U.S. because he was born in Hawaii, which -- like Alaska -- still counts as one of the 50 states even though it's really far away. The Associated Press reported this week that people called "birthers" claim that Obama is ineligible to be president because he was born outside of the United States. They believe, citing pretty much no credible evidence, that Obama, whose dad was African, was actually born in Kenya. This charge ignores the fact that Hawaiian officials have confirmed that Obama's birth certificate is legit and presumably considers the fact that not one but two Honolulu newspapers ran the birth announcement in 1961 is actually a socialist plot hatched nearly 50 years ago to bring Obama to power in the 21st century. The logic of birthers isn't too far past the wacko scale of the people who said Obama's middle name -- Hussein -- means that he surely is a Muslim and a terrorist. I'm not really good at math, but Obama's parents gave him is name back in August of 1961, well before most people knew of or cared about the name Hussein. So birthers, relax. We agree, as our Consitution mandates, that our president must be a "natural-born citizen." Be proud that you live in a country that gave a U.S. citizen who happens to be a man of color and African heritage a chance to run the best country in the world. The best way to get Obama out of office is to follow another wonderful mandate of the Constitution -- vote. (photo courtesy of dno1967's photostream on Flickr)

Monday, July 27, 2009

No shirts, no shoes, no church service

My grandmother, Aileen, was as formal a woman as they came. Born in 1906, she wore a dress and nice shoes every day of her life -- I'm not sure she even owned tennis shoes. Why should she? She didn't play tennis. The first time I saw her wearing pants was during a visit my wife and I made to her in the nursing home late in life. I hardly recognized her.
Aileen was raised in a time when women wore dresses, men wore suits and kids did what they were told for fear of feeling the wrath, in whatever form that might take. Today's parents give our children time outs.
In Aileen's house, I doubt there was a time out chair. She was of the "fear God, fear your parents, fear sin, and everything would be OK" school of thought. A true woman of God, she and her sister, Bess, were the only two of 10 siblings NOT to join the clergy. Aileen did her part to keep the faith, however, by attending the daily 5 p.m. Mass at Sacred Heart Church in Hollister.
The Catholic Church was everything in her life, though being the opinionated woman she was, that didn't mean it's messengers were above reproach. On Jan. 3, 1981, Aileen wrote in her journal that it was "Fr. Sanz again -- oh my" who administered Mass on that day. She respected him, as was her role, but she told her journal that she would've liked a little more depth out of the father on this day. "If he could just serve the meat instead of desserts for homily," she lamented. Hey, she made her daily offering, so she could offer some criticism -- even if the only one reading it would be her grandson 28 years later.
My dad, Tom, was a target in Aileen's diary as well, as he attended Mass with his mother on this day. "Tom took up collection -- very casual dress." Moms notice such things.
At the end of the day's entry, Aileen noted how her friend, Mabel, called to note that her husband, Abe, had been at Southside," the nursing home that would become Aileen's home late in life, "for 7 years -- a long time." Jack, my grandfather, "was only 3 years" in Southside before he passed away. In light of Mabel's lament, Aileen seemed thankful. "I dream a lot about Jack -- the young Jack," she wrote, no doubt before shutting off her light and putting down her journal to fall asleep. She, of course, said her prayers first, as she was nothing if not dutiful. Then she shut her eyes in hopes of seeing young Jack once more. (photo courtesy of Mark Levin's photostream)

Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Bare Mayor

Any tourist's visit to New York City wouldn't be complete without at least a quick glimpse at Robert Burck, better known as The Naked Cowboy. Wearing little more than white books, Speedo-like tighty-whities and a white cowboy hat, Burck spends much of his time playing guitar and singing for the masses in busy Times Square. Word came out recently that he would be throwing his cowboy hat -- and very little else -- into the ring as a candidate for mayor of NYC. During my family's visit to The Big Apple last August, we spotted The Naked Cowboy in downtown Manhattan, drawing the type of attention you'd expect a muscled, near-nude guy would garner in the world's most happening city. My mom and wife chuckled at the spectacle, and my dad and I couldn't help but smile as Burck posed for pictures with half-embarrassed tourists. Like the rest of us who wanted to take back memories of our trip to New York, they pushed any reticence aside and clicked away as the cowboy politely obliged. He is popular and recognizable, which are two traits any politician would love; though who's to say if a guy who doesn't wear a tie fits the mode of 21st Century politician. Then again, you get the feeling he's not a guy who would hide much from his constituents. And yes, I took the picture at right. My wife made me do it.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Cheese and crackers, quick!

San Benito County vintners are working hard to market the region as a destination for wine lovers. From comedy shows at Leal Vineyards and summer concerts at Guerra Cellars to wine tasting in the picturesque hills south of Hollister (see a complete list), grape vines are dotting hills that once were the sole domain of cattle and hay. But as of this week, the county can honestly say that wine is so plentiful here that it flows in the creeks. As reported by the Free Lance a truck hauling 6,400 gallons of wine overturned south of Paicines this week and much of its precious red cargo flowed into a gutter and drained into a dry creek. The county's environmental health division was dispatched to the site, reportedly armed with a tray of cheese and crackers, but quickly determined that the best course of action was to let the wine dissipate. No need to cry over spilled wine, it seems, at least when it returns to the Earth from which it sprung. A second party foul occurred early Thursday when the Columbus Salame plant in San Francisco burned in a four-alarm blaze, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. Socialites are bracing for the inevitable completion of the triumvirate of stuffy party item disasters. A shortage of tuna tartare? A recall of pate? Some fondue miscue? I am so glad parties at my house are limited to beer, chips and salsa. (photo courtesy of Gunnar Grimnes)

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

A Hanging at Johnny's

Downtown Hollister has a bit of the feel of an Old West town -- particularly after 5 p.m. when most businesses close up and the tumbleweeds blow down San Benito Street. But on Wednesday, Aug. 5, Johnny's, the famous biker bar, will hold a hanging. No, it's not vigilante justice at work. Rather, it's a smart bit of advertising. A flyer that arrived at The Pinnacle offices this week giving notice of "A HANGING;" or more specifically, the hanging of the "Behind the Bar" sign of the law firm Lombardo & Gilles LLP. From 5-7 p.m., members of the law firm will be on hand for this modern-day hanging at the San Benito Street establishment. Very clever. No word on whether the law firm will try to plea bargain for a better sign location before the hanging. For more info on Johnny's, check out

Monday, July 20, 2009

Farewell to Frank McCourt

Author Frank McCourt described himself as a late bloomer, having not published his first novel -- The Pulitzer Prize-winning "Angela's Ashes" -- until he was in his 60s. I was late arriver to the McCourt bandwagon, having worked backward through his books within the past two years; first "Teacher Man," then "'Tis." I still haven't read "Ashes," though I finished watching the 1999 movie just this evening -- 15 hours after having read of McCourt's passing in the morning paper. McCourt's tale of growing up poor in Limerick, Ireland before gathering enough money to pursue his dreams in America, hit home with me as my family on my dad's side came to North America in the 19th Century, hoping for a better life. McCourt's tales of desperate times in the Irish slums are tinged with nostalgia; certainly not because of a desire to experience that life again, but because it helped form the man he became. In "Teacher Man," McCourt details his time as a high school English teacher -- one who experimented with lesson plans and did his best to encourage students to find their voice. The best way to find that voice, he said, was to speak about one's own experiences. McCourt travelled a rough path in life, growing up poor in a broken home and having three siblings die at an early age. But he pursued his dreams in America and though he got a late start as an author, his words -- his story -- now will live on because he found his voice and let it be heard. May he rest in peace.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Vino San Benito

The former San Andreas Brewing Company, which for years occupied the San Benito Street restaurant location that now houses AJ Sushi, is making a comeback of sorts in that owners Bill and Carole Millar are now doing business as Vino San Benito. Based at Bertuccio's, the business will market a variety of local wines through the Airline Highway produce stand that offers local, farm-fresh items throughout the year. Favorite Bertuccio's items in my household include the apricot and boysenberry syrups (great on waffles); and Baker's Busy Bees organic honey, which is reported to help moderate allergy symptoms -- and it's a great nautral sweetener for a cup a cup of tea. More to come on Vino San Benito as it gets rolling...

Friday, July 17, 2009

Grandmother's words of wisdom

I came across my grandmother's 1981 version of a blog a few months back when I discovered her 1981 diary -- or more specifically, her "Daily Reminder" book created by The Standard Diary Division of Wilson Jones Company -- in a box my mom gave to me. My grandmother, Aileen, passed away March 29, 1999 at age 92, a frail version of the still-spry 74-year-old whose flowing penmanship filled all 365 days of the Daily Reminder with her thoughts on life, her children, her grandchildren, her priest. She commented on how much her dog infuriated her with his child-like ways; and how much he meant to her as a companion since her husband had passed away years before. Aileen's diary entries have been my bedside reading on many recent nights. It's been my way to reconnect with her and reflect on a year when I was 12 and my sister was 10. Many of her entries are mundane and follow a distinct pattern: "Up at (fill in time); (comment on how she's feeling) "headache, my constant companion"; mention whether "the papers" (San Jose Mercury, San Francisco Chronicle) had arrived at her doorstep yet and whether Jake the dog had torn them up; recap her day, including what she at for lunch and dinner (shrimp salad was a favorite), how the priest "performed" (my word, not hers) at daily Mass at Sacred Heart Church; and who did -- or often didn't -- write or call her. On a day when she didn't give in to the temptation of having a cigarette, she proudly wrote "NO SMOKES" in all capital letters at the bottom of her daily entry. If she wanted to emphasize a thought, such as "The Holy Father was shot. Imagine!" (on May 13), she underlined her entry. Looking on the facing page, the day before, I learned that May 12 was the "first appearance of our Lady of Fatima" and that Aileen believed "Reagan's plan will probably take away (her late husband) Jack's pension -- what a shame." Shame, a word burned into the lexicon -- or at least the psyche -- of many a Catholic, is a word that makes a few visits to the pages of Aileen's ruminations. "Dinner: eggs, broccoli and carrots -- then ate 4 cookies -- Shame." Some days, like when her only daughter, Anne, was baptised as an adult, earned the joyous, "Anne's Baptism Day! Oh, Blessed Day!!" Others, like a Thursday in March in which she received "no mail, no phone calls" and finished her short, half-page entry with "no friends???" showed her loneliness. I felt a little better after reading this day's entry when she added "I do --" at the end of the "no friends" line, seemingly to remind herself that she was, indeed, loved; even if those in her life didn't always tell her. Enough for now about Aileen, who on this day in 1981 kept herself busy buying spray paint, visiting with her sister, and commenting on Jake, the dog: "a handful, but entertaining." She is missed, but her words live on, now for the first time in cyberspace.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

If teens are Superman, parents are their kryptonite

My weekly column in the July 17 issue of The Pinnacle newspaper discusses how my house now includes not one, but two, teenage boys. If you ask my wife, she'll say the number is actually three, if you factor me in. The story compares my boys to the dual personalities of Superman and Clark Kent. At home, I write, my 14-year-old is "in our own fortress of solitude; he is the mild-mannered Clark Kent. In public, my son is Superman, with his tough exterior (if not the Spandex tights and cape). Mom and Dad are kryptonite in certain situations; especially social situations like the movie theater" or local high school football game. Check out the latest installment of Breen Damage at