Monday, September 15, 2014


Way back in my first few years of teaching, my friend and colleague from down the hall went with me to classes after the school day was over to earn our clear credentials. On those evening rides, we used to chat about our days, recounting some of the unexpected moments and revelations we had dealing with the children of Oakland. We mused, at the time, about writing a sit-com which would be similar in tone to "MASH," with plenty of laughs, but always with that green fatigue undertone. We found ourselves wondering, after a few hours of combined reading and classroom management training, if anyone would believe it if we did actually sit down and write it.
Years passed. That good friend, like so many others, has moved on. He retired. Others just left. It's hard job, and even though sometimes I count myself lucky since I am not digging ditches or mucking out stalls, but teaching continues to amaze me. I know it consists, primarily, of standing around and talking, both skills at which I excel. Still, I come home most days exhausted. Maybe it has something to do with how close I am standing to the cracks in the firmament, and the holes in the safety net.
Like the other morning when I was standing next to the play structure watching kids swarm about, a woman approached.
"Excuse me," she entreated, "Could you watch my son?"
I looked down at the young man she offered up at the end of her arm. I recognized Eric from the first week of school during which I had become acquainted with him and his periodic tendency to bite and hit other children whom I had been assigned to watch. "I'll be happy to keep an eye on Eric," I assured her. This was, aside from standing around and talking, part of my job. That's when this mother stepped across the over-share line.
"I just got out of jail, and I have to get downtown to court," she let me know in a way that sounded a lot like a reminder for a haircut.
"Well, then," I assured her, "Don't be late."
Off she went. Eric looked up at me, dark circles under his eyes. There's probably not a lot of extra sleep in Eric's evenings. Eric's day had a bit of a dark circle under it as well. I just hoped that it wouldn't include any biting or hitting. Now that I think of it, I'm not sure this would make such great TV.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Everything Old Is New Again

My fellow Americans, it is that time of year again, when our thoughts turn to terror and how to summon our national courage to triumph over it. I thought it might be fun, in the spirit of the season, to try a little quiz. Some of the quotes below are from 2001, when George W. Bush spoke to us about the dangerous new world we found ourselves living in, even though we had been there all along. Some of them come from the guy who replaced him, Barack Obama. Can you guess which is which? Good luck!

"We have seen their kind before. They're the heirs of all the murderous ideologies of the 20th century. By sacrificing human life to serve their radical visions, by abandoning every value except the will to power, they follow in the path of fascism, Nazism and totalitarianism. And they will follow that path all the way to where it ends in history's unmarked grave of discarded lies."

"Still, we continue to face a terrorist threat. We cannot erase every trace of evil from the world, and small groups of killers have the capacity to do great harm. That was the case before 9/11, and that remains true today. That’s why we must remain vigilant as threats emerge. At this moment, the greatest threats come from the Middle East and North Africa, where radical groups exploit grievances for their own gain."

"We will direct every resource at our command--every means of diplomacy, every tool of intelligence, every instrument of law enforcement, every financial influence, and every necessary weapon of war--to the destruction and to the defeat of the global terror network."

"In a region that has known so much bloodshed, these terrorists are unique in their brutality. They execute captured prisoners. They kill children. They enslave, rape, and force women into marriage. They threatened a religious minority with genocide."

"And we will pursue nations that provide aid or safe haven to terrorism. Every nation in every region now has a decision to make: Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists."

"But this is not our fight alone. American power can make a decisive difference, but we cannot do for Iraqis what they must do for themselves, nor can we take the place of Arab partners in securing their region. That’s why I’ve insisted that additional U.S. action depended upon Iraqis forming an inclusive government, which they have now done in recent days. So tonight, with a new Iraqi government in place, and following consultations with allies abroad and Congress at home, I can announce that America will lead a broad coalition to roll back this terrorist threat."

Have you got your answers ready? Well, as you probably already guessed: It just doesn't matter. Sorry.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Hearts Of Darkness

The way we have all reflected on the crisis in Ray and Janay Rice's relationship has been played out for the world to see. It's not football fans who are caught up in the discussion. It's everywhere. I had a conversation with two fourth grade boys the morning after NFL commissioner Roger Goodell suspended Mister Rice from the NFL. These were ten-year-old FIFA fanatics, but the media attention brought the drama into their living rooms. At first, their opinions were that of disbelief: Could you believe that Ray Rice won't be allowed to play football anymore? And that makes sense, since taking away a kid's recess is about the harshest punishment we dole out here. Then I asked them if they knew why Ray Rice wasn't going to be allowed to play football anymore.
"He hit his wife," came the much quieter answer.
"Knocked her out," added the second. There was a twinkle of "ain't that cool" in it.
I asked them if it was okay to hit a girl.
"No," came the droning, conditioned response.
Is it okay to hit anyone?
"No," was the refrain once again.
What if it was your sister or your mother or your brother or your dad?
Now they started to engage. "I wouldn't let anyone hit my little sister."
Okay. Maybe it really wasn't okay to hit anyone. Maybe all the reasons in the world were just excuses. The saddest part of all of this is the way Ray and Janay's life was bared for all to see through a few grainy seconds of security camera video. Does that instant describe their relationship? I'm sure it doesn't. There are things about their lives that we will never know. It's none of our business.
What is our business, or mine anyway, is getting kids to make good choices. Hopefully by the time they become professional football players or plumbers or civil engineers, making good choices will be easy. Easier. Not impossible.
We would all like to make it through life without the worst of ourselves becoming an Internet meme. Unless that moment of infinitely looped footage showed us in the best possible light. Learn. Grow. Live. Peace.

Friday, September 12, 2014


Imagine a box. We will call this box "two thousand dollars," since that is what the average "good used car" was going for back when I was a teenager. Imagine how much money that felt like when I was a teenager. You don't have to imagine the reality of me spending every bit of eight hundred eighty dollars on the Chevrolet Vega that became my (asterisk) first car. The real first car was my brother's truck, which technically wasn't a car, and I got that for being such a good little brother and then I dropped it off a cliff. But that's another story.
Now, imagine another box. This one will be called "ten thousand dollars," since that is how much "good used cars" are going for in the circulars that show up attached to our weekly newspaper. Imagine, if you will, that my son would like his first car to be of the eight hundred fifty dollar variety. Thirty-five years later, my son would like to undercut his father's purchase price on his first car by thirty dollars.
Now imagine my chagrin. That takes up a pretty fair sized box. When my son further announced that the car he had in mind was "a bit of a gas guzzler," I flinched again.
"What does your mother think of this?" I queried, keeping in mind that his mother was the inventor of the "Homemade Hybrid." I understood my son's predilection toward high performance sports cars, but I hadn't imagined that his wish for wheels would take him to this place. Would my son, who owns dozens of Lamborghinis, Maseratis, and innumerable exotic foreign automobiles in the virtual world of video games, let his first car be a "beater?"
Then I remembered being seventeen, and the lure of the open road. Being able to drive to places where my friends would hang out, ready to give me grief about the Vega I was driving. But it didn't matter. What mattered was that it was mine and it had four decent tires and a stereo that worked. It was my car. I drove to my high school graduation in that car. Eventually, it met the same essential fate of my previous first car, when the aluminum engine block warped to the point where I could not put oil in it fast enough. I used to keep a couple quarts of oil in the back, just in case.
My son knows better, but his encyclopedic knowledge of motor vehicles will not let him rise above his absolute need for something for him to drive. Now. I'll keep trying to reason with him. Maybe we can talk him all the way up to the thousand dollar range. Maybe the sellers will even throw in a free case of oil.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Urban Assault Vehicles

What is in a name? Whether 'tis Desert Shield or Desert Storm, 'tis all but a tick of the hands of a clock. I think Shakespeare wrote that. Maybe it was me. It was probably me. I find this kind of government/corporate nomenclature to be highly amusing, but not in the "ha ha" way. That was a long time ago, but it still rings in my head, so much so that it set off alarms when I started hearing about "Urban Shield" here in Oakland. If you're not familiar with this yearly festival of militarization, it is "a  comprehensive, full-scale regional preparedness exercise assessing the overall Bay Area UASI Region's response capabilities related to multi-discipline planning, policies, procedures, organization, equipment and training." It also features a number of different vendors who are on hand to sell their wares to police departments interested in the latest in, well, Urban Shields. This includes companies like 3M, who we assume will be there to show off the latest in Post-It technology. Others, like Aircover Integrated Solutions, probably aren't there to sell office products. 
Nope. They are there - here - to sell hardware. The kind of hardware that makes people get all worked up about the militarization of the police. Police in the streets. The streets of Oakland. 
How did the streets of Oakland respond? As they often do: with a demonstration. Protesters blocked streets downtown in the area near the hotel where Urban Shield was holding forth. They probably weren't there to protest the presence of All Star Dips, the dry-mix sauce company there to promote their line of "Delicious gourmet snack food products." They were there to tell the guns and ammo crowd to pack up and leave. 
Again, this is ironic, considering the streets in which they made their protest. The streets of Oakland which continue to experience unprecedented numbers of homicides each year, not to mention the aforementioned demonstrations, which don't always remain as peaceful as organizers draw them up. Ask Jean Quan about that one. She's the mayor of Oakland who experienced a flurry of bad behavior on both sides of the barricade back in 2011, during the Occupy demonstrations. There was much discussion, at that time, about the use of police force to quell the disturbances. And lawsuits. It may be incredibly jaundiced of me to suggest that the pronouncement from the mayor stating that Urban Shield is no longer welcome here in Oakland has something to do with this being an election year. Or maybe it's just common sense. I can't say for sure, but in the meantime, Praise the Urban Shield and pass the Broccoli Cheese dip

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

In The Dark

What's the matter with kids these days? Since it's been nearly sixty years since that musical question was first offered up for our consideration and still longer since someone first uttered it without musical accompaniment, it probably bears attention. In this version, I am keeping in mind that all of us were kids at one time or another. Some of us more recently. Some of us with more frequency. Still, when we find someone acting like a ten-year-old, it's nice when the chronological age matches the behavior. 

And then there's this: fourteen-year-old Lily Marie Hartwell set fire to her family's home in Florida. She wasn't playing with matches, which would have skewed a little younger, behavior-wise. Instead, she was consorting with Slender Man. Her mother and nine-year-old brother escaped, thanks to a smoke alarm warning them of big sister's nastiness. What's that? You're not familiar with Slender Man? Who is this shadowy figure who commands allegiance and has recently been implicated in the attempted murder of a twelve-year-old girl who was stabbed by her "friends" in Waukesha,  Wisconsin. He is the embodiment of evil, or an Internet meme, depending on your point of view. Or age. 
It's also not the first, or surely not the last, time that kids have gotten hold of some snippet of pop culture evil and run with it. This time it's not Marilyn Manson or Judas Priest. Slender Man is more video game than rock and roll, but he reminds me most of Bloody Mary. You don't remember Bloody Mary? She was the spirit that was supposed to emerge from bathroom mirrors after elementary school bathrooms were crowded with terrified girls chanted her name. And she was supposed to kill them. Or show them the face of the man they were supposed to marry. It was messing around with the occult and things dark, in order to stir that pot of scary that exists in all of us. Especially when we're young.
It would be easy to blame Al Gore and his Internet for this one. It's really the best way to spread bad information, right up there with Fox News. It would be just as easy to put up big, blinking signs on sites frequented by pre-teen girls reminding them that Slender Man and his ilk are fun to play around with, but it's still play. It's not real. Burning down your house is very real. Stabbing your friend likewise. When you're twelve you don't always think of permanence, which is terribly sad, since these girls will all be dealing with the fallout of these incidents for the rest of their lives, now that their youth has been taken away. It's not the Internet. It's for real.

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Thanks, BC

I woke up this morning thinking of Oobleck. If you're not familiar with this particular substance, your study of the works of Dr. Seuss may need to go just a little deeper. Beyond the Green Eggs and Ham and Cats in Hats, there was Bartholomew Cubbins. He of the Five Hundred Hats. In addition to his seemingly endless collection of nearly identical red hats, Bartholomew encountered some pretty awful stuff falling from the sky, once upon a time. It seems that the king, the same one that was so mad for young Mister Cubbin's hat to come off, was bored with the traditional precipitation in his domain, so he ordered his court magicians to come up with something new. They did: Oobleck.
It was green, and sticky, and eventually it covered everything. Suddenly the kingdom is plunged into a devastating ecological crisis. The birds in the trees, the cows in the fields, the wagons in the street, all mired in a thick, green goo that keeps them from going anywhere. The stuff even begins to pour down through the chimneys and out of the faucets. There is no escape. No escape, that is, until Bartholomew Cubbins does what he does best: he brings conscience to the king. Spoiler Alert: The Oobleck goes away once the king says, "I'm sorry."
Why was I reflecting on this story at the start of my day? Was it a reaction to years of earthly abuse by multinational oil companies whose slime isn't green, but black as tar? Was it the metaphor the good Doctor came up with for global warming years before Al Gore? Or maybe it wasn't the ecological theme I was picking up on at all. I was impressed with the very visceral depiction of hubris. The king decides that his vision of the world is more important than that of anyone else under his rule, and he decides to spread his mess thickly across the land. It is not just his intimates who find themselves immersed in the muck, it eventually spreads to the innocent and the purely tangential.  We all spray Oobleck from time to time, and we don't notice it until someone bothers to point it out. We should all be so lucky to have a Bartholomew Cubbins in our midst. Otherwise we might all get mired in our own piles of sticky, green goo. Metaphorically speaking.