Wednesday, January 28, 2015

It's How You Play The Game

To make an omelette, you have to break a few eggs. To win a Super Bowl, you might have to deflate a few footballs. Over the the past week or two, we have heard quite a lot about how the New England Patriots may or may not have taken air out of more than just their opponents' hopes to play in the championship game. At issue are a number of footballs that were manipulated so as to give the home team a distinct advantage in case of inclement weather. It's easier to catch a ball in the wind and rain when it's not quite so full of air.
That's the stuff we get to talk about for the two weeks between the semi-finals and the finals. That, and the lingering questions about the relative merits of French Onion dip versus Guacamole. Cooler in the kitchen, or ice bucket in the living room? Carrot sticks and celery, or just bag after bag of chips? Should we flip over to the Puppy Bowl at halftime, or record the whole thing? So many choices, so little time.
Well, actually, there's a lot of time. That's kind of the thing that is working against the whole Bill Belichick/Tom Brady legacy deal. What if it turns out that, aside from winning Super Bowls, the thing these guys are really good at is manipulating the football realities. We call these "rules." If you happen to be one of the red, white and blue clad Foxboro fans, you probably see things a little differently. "Everybody uses whatever advantages they can," or more simply, "Everybody cheats." Remember "The Tuck Rule?" The Patriots used a rule that barely existed to get themselves into position to win an AFC championship, and eventually a Super Bowl. They lost a bunch of money and draft picks for using communications and surveillance outside the generally accepted framework called "the rules." They called that one "Spygate." Since then, the Patriots have not won another Super Bowl.
Now we've got "Deflategate," and this one has all the earmarks of being a world class distraction before the world class spectacle of the most watched sporting event on our corner of the globe. When it's all over, win or lose, the New England Patriots will go back to the business they know best: attempting to win games. In the meantime, the Seattle Seahawks have a player who has been fined hundreds of thousands of dollars for his conduct on and off the field. He was most recently asked by the NFL to pay twenty thousand dollars for grabbing his crotch after scoring a touchdown in what was a furious come from behind victory that put his team into the Super Bowl. This is approximately twenty thousand dollars more than any Patriot player, coach or equipment manager has been fined by anyone for anything. Mister Lynch was celebrating his play on the field. It should also be pointed out that he was grabbing his own crotch, not anyone else's. All the people he hit were opposing players on the way to the end zone. What he did was deemed obscene by the powers that be. This was the decision made by the National Football League. What I'm pretty sure of is this: I don't think I want them deciding the snack menu for my Super Bowl party. They probably won't suggest sausages.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Tick, Tick, Tick

Remember the Doomsday clock? I do. When I was a kid, it was the stuff of nightmares for me. In my mind, it was a great big thing in a room full of scientists busily working day and night, looking up anxiously at regular intervals to see the hands moving steadily toward midnight. That was the big fear: midnight meant it was over. We were over. Civilization was finished. As a child of the sixties, the Cold War kept things pretty stressful, but the clock was actually set back in those days. When it was first put into operation back in 1947, the Atomic Scientists who made up this odd chronometer set it at seven minutes til midnight. Two years later, it moved closer when the Soviet Union (the bad guys in "Red Dawn") tested their first nuclear weapon. It got still closer when America (the good guys in "Red Dawn") decided to go ahead and build a hydrogen bomb.
And so it went. Back a few ticks. Forward a couple more. In 1991, when the Cold War was over and we had to start blaming those "breakaway republics" for the bad things that happened in the world, the Doomsday Clock was moved back to seventeen minutes to midnight. Russia began to dismantle their nuclear arsenal, and flowers began to grow in what used to be missile silos. Peace in our time. The sun shone down on us all and we sang "Kumbaya." Seventeen minutes? We were all going to live forever.
India and Pakistan started to blow up atoms in 1998, and suddenly we were back inside of ten minutes. Cue ominous music. Those flowers in the missile silo began to wilt. By 2002, we had a bigger concern than angry countries with nuclear weapons: radical factions within those angry countries with their own nuclear weapons. North Korea bumps it up still further with all their stiff-legged marching about and their willingness to blow things up underground. This was a dangerous place.
In 2010, Moscow and the United States started making noises like maybe they would just give up this whole mutually assured destruction business. That didn't last long. Two years later, tensions grew and these "Atomic Scientists" decided to extend their influence by adding in the specter of global warming. For some, this counts as science. Now, in 2015, the Doomsday Clock is as close to the end as it has been since it was set in motion nearly seventy years ago. "The clock ticks now at just three minutes to midnight because international leaders are failing to perform their most important duty—ensuring and preserving the health and vitality of human civilization." That's what the scientists say. The science fiction writer says: “The saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom.” Now if we could only close that wisdom gap. 

Monday, January 26, 2015

The Pushers

Keep track of the amount of time it takes you to read this post. It should count as part of your screen time for the day. It should count against your daily allowance of one hour. You read that right: one hour. That is what pundits in the business of deciding how much of everything is good for us have decided is the duration of combined peering at screens each day. Of any size. This comes to us via a "healthy kids" initiative, but who really pays attention to that kind of stuff?
In a word: Teachers. When we get fliers or assemblies that tell our kids to eat five servings of fruit each day, we go out and find a basket of oranges to drag back to our room and hand them out. When the NFL tells us that kids need sixty minutes of exercise every day, we take them out on the playground and run them until they drop. Or they need to go to the bathroom. Or get a drink of water because they are DIE-ing. When we are told that kids should limit their screen time to one hour a day, we look at them and say, "What century are you speaking from?" I ask this from the twenty-first century, not just as a teacher, but as the Computer Teacher.
Every week, I sit kids down in front of screens for fifty minutes at a time. When they're finished in my room, that leaves them with ten minutes left on their allotment for the day. Then some other clever teacher sticks a tablet or a laptop in front of them and suddenly they are over the limit. How do they expect us to find clever ways to insert learning junk into kids heads without screens?
Okay, maybe I'm hyperbolizing just a little bit. What the powers that be would like is for there to a limit on the bad things that get into our kids' heads. Video games, for example. Not the ones we play in the computer lab, where we try to match the vowel sounds with the correct letter for which we are rewarded with a song about "Backpack bear," Sometimes they get to go up to a new level, which sounds exciting until the kids begin to figure out this is just another way to trick them into learning. "When do we get to the real games?" Sorry, we won't be playing Black Ops in school.
The good news is that elementary school kids, for the most part, are still fascinated by the variety of educational software I have to offer them. This is more a credit to them than to the very patient and creative folks who are designing fresh new ways to teach kids math facts and the alphabet by pointing and clicking. They know that the really cool graphics and achievables aren't going to be found in the computer lab. They're at home in their PS4 and XBox1. They're waiting me out while we continue to encourage them to go outside and play and read books. I know the standard third grader is spending way more than one hour in front of a screen every day. So is your standard computer teacher. But every so often, I get a win: Like when that kid stops me on the way out of my room and asks, "Mister Caven, how do I get to that typing web site at home?" I write down the web address, and tell him to ask him mother before he goes online. And to eat plenty of vegetables and read a book first.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Home Away From Home

I will be finishing my eighteenth year at the same school this June. The first time I visited the campus, I ran here with my infant son in the jogging stroller just so I could have a sense of how far away it was. By the time I had pushed that stroller, as advanced and aerodynamic as it was, up the hill back to my house, I was exhausted. I have felt that way, off and on, for nearly two decades, but that isn't the only constant. For the past eighteen years, this has been the place I go for the majority of my weekdays. And the occasional weekend. It is a place where I hang my hat.
As such, I have become quite comfortable with the architecture and the layout, to the point where I know where most everything can be found, even if I don't have a key to get to it. Quite often, I get requests like, "Do you know where there is an extra desk?" I understand that I am being asked if I have an awareness of our furniture inventory as well as my willingness to help secure said desk for the classroom in question. This is sometimes a more confounding question that it might seem from the outside, since we have such a very transient student body. Almost every teacher, over the course of the year so far, has lost and then gained a student or two. Just when we thought we were operating at a desk surplus, along comes a new family with three kids filling in for the two kids who just left. That's when we find out that the only spare desk we have is in a first grade classroom and it is far too tiny to keep a growing fourth grade girl comfortable for any period of time. That's when my experience with modular furniture comes in handy.
When that fourth grader needs a taller desk, I raise it. After a month or two, when suddenly the call goes out for more first grade furniture, I might find that recently adjusted fourth grade desk empty, which means I take my screwdriver to those same legs and put them right back where they were before. It's what is known in the furniture business as job security. It reminds me of the way I used to be dispatched with a crew to the IBM plant back in the day when office furniture was my living. We would go into the customer service center and raise a workstation for an employee who had decided they wanted to be able to stand as they took calls. When we were done rolling in the tall stool on which they would perch, we knew that we would be back in a few weeks when the staff was shuffled yet again to move the work station back to standard height. There was wild talk about keeping a couple of us on site a few days a week just to be sure the comfort of the customer service group was insured. That never happened, primarily because I moved out to California and became a married guy with a teaching credential. Happily, all those mad modular furniture skills were never allowed to atrophy. Sometimes I get the urge to switch out the drawers in my desk or move the pencil tray from one side to the other, but it doesn't last long. That's because somebody always needs a new desk.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Stand Up, Sit Down, Fight Fight Fight!

I keep watching the State of the Nation speeches, even though I know how they tend to turn out. There are a whole lot of platitudes. There are calls for bipartisan cooperation and unity. There are bold assertions for the direction of this ship of state over the next year. There is always a little saber-rattling to do too. Mostly it would be nice to get any kind of happy convivial, atmosphere going on under the Capitol Dome in mid-January. It didn't happen this year.
Instead, we got a perky Joe Biden, clapping at most utterances from his boss and the sour but incredibly tanned face of John Boehner. Who would have guessed that two men who share a common career goal of public service, not to mention identical initials, would have such different reactions to the speech given by their commander in chief? But that's the real game afoot here: Reactions. How does one choose to respond to ideas, good or bad, when they come from "the opposition?"
If you happen to play for the same team, your job is obvious. Bang your hands together at all the appropriate pauses, and stand as often as decorum will allow. It starts to feel a little like a Catholic mass with all that shuffling about, but without the kneeling. The drama comes from the moments when everyone stands and applauds. Those are the moments of true bipartisanship. Or maybe they are simply the sound bites for the nightly news. When you sit or stand can be a very strategic thing, especially with an election coming.
Mostly, we stand when it's a "moving ahead" kind of thing. If you think it's a bad move ahead. Stay seated. If you would be embarrassed later to be the one person sitting when everyone else is standing, probably best then to stretch your legs. When Barack Obama talks Cuba, Marco Rubio sits. When Barack Obama talks Trade Promotion Authority, Marco Rubio is on his feet. If you were a Republican, you didn't get in your full cardio workout.
Meanwhile, our president continues to work on his career after he leaves office. When he mentioned, offhand, that he had no more campaigns to run, a snarky bit of laughter and applause came out of the red seats. Waiting a beat, he smirked and replied, "I know. I won both of them." It wasn't as big a show as "Oh yeah, and we got bin Laden," but don't be surprised if he's doing a couple of shows at Zanies in a few years. He's used to working that big room.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Iraqi Sniper

I assume that Clint Eastwood will now turn, as he did with "Flags Of Our Fathers" and "Letters From Iwo Jima," to the other side. Or the other end of the barrel, if that would be more succinct. "American Sniper" tells the story of Chris Kyle, who is referred to often in the story as "the deadliest marksman in U.S.military history." He is credited with saving hundreds of American soldiers' lives. The flip side of that is that he is credited with one hundred sixty kills, officially. That number swells to more than two hundred fifty if they didn't need certification. That's a lot of dead people.
I don't suppose I should have expected much more from the title, but Mister Eastwood has, in the past, shown a much more even-handed way of dealing with life and death. This was no more in evidence than in "The Unforgiven," a move for which he was given an Oscar for directing. Clint starred himself as William Munny, a hired killer lured out of retirement for one last job. He plays Munny as a broken man, who has turned to farming, but allows himself to be dragged out for one more killing by a young tough and his old partner. As things get darker and darker, Munny becomes more alive on the outside, but more dead inside. He tells "The Schofield Kid" after the kid shoots his first cowboy, "It's a hell of a thing, killing a man." If that's true, then it's a hell of a thing, killing a mother and her young son.
I'm not giving anything away here. It's been part of the "American Sniper" trailer for months. The decision to kill a woman and her child is not taken lightly. We understand that Chris Kyle had his own wife and young son at home even as he was surveying the scene through the sight of his high powered rifle. He took those lives to save those of his comrades. He did this at least another one hundred and fifty-eight times. It must have been a hell of a thing. Maybe that's why we see Bradley Cooper, who plays Kyle in the film, flinching when doors slam or dogs bark once he returns home. This was a man who was consumed by his duty, and eventually when that duty changed to giving back to others who served, it killed him. It's a hell of a thing.
So why does it feel like the movie is a two hour video game? Why aren't we asked to question the circumstances that made this former rodeo cowboy the deadliest killer in our nation's history? Kyle's nickname among his fellow soldiers was "The Legend." We are a nation that loves a legend: Paul Bunyan, Casey Jones, Pecos Bill, Buffalo Bill and Annie Oakley. Ox wrestlers, train engineers, sharp shooters. But these are examples from long ago. Chirs Kyle was a legend for post 9/11 America. His only regrets, he said, were for the people he couldn't save. Well, not those two hundred or so folks that he wasn't exactly saving. That was war. That's what makes a legend, after all.
Jimmy Stewart didn't shoot Liberty Valance. The man who shot Liberty Valance was John Wayne. Nobody would dispute that Valance had it coming, but why did Jimmy Stewart, or rather his character, Ransom Stoddard, get the credit? When a newspaper reporter decides to dig into the matter, years later, it becomes clear that Stoddard and his eventual ascendancy from territory delegate to Governor of his new state to the Senate makes a better story. The truth is thrown into the flames along with the lives of those forever changed by that bullet. "This is the West," insists the reporter. "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." It's all just a little more complicated than Clint has laid out in his version. Or maybe I should just wait for the sequel.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Big Wheels

This great pause, the one that comes at the end of the professional football season, pains me. The week between the final playoff game and the Super Bowl sits there like it was an option. A respite from all the hubbub that will build to a frenzy over the coming days. It's a countdown to the Biggest Game Of The Year, and yet I really can't get that interested.
That probably has a lot to do with the lack of Denver Bronco involvement. Last year's buildup was a blur of anticipation and adrenaline. I listened to every report, read every article, and willingly stirred the pot by being a fan of one of the last two teams left in the tournament. All the hoopla was enhanced by every speculative conversation I had with a third grader. They hype grew every time I crossed paths with one of our Kindergarten teachers who just happened to be a Seattle Seahawks fan. At least she's still having fun.
She can endure the non-stop coverage from Phoenix, waiting anxiously to hear about Marshawn Lynch's cleats or Tom Brady's haircut. I'll be here, clicking on links to find out more about the new coaching staff the Broncos are hiring.
That's what third place teams do. Fourth place. And so on. There is a whole lot of business going on behind the scenes. The teams that are no longer playing are now putting their collective houses in order with the hopes of getting one of those two spots next year. In two weeks, everyone will start over. Who will be coaching? Who will be throwing the ball? Who will be catching the ball? Will it matter?
For the next week and a half, the only game in town is the Super Bowl. The town is in Arizona, and even their team will be at home watching. Or not. I could choose, as some of those disqualified teams and players will do, to ignore the spectacle in the desert, There are a lot of channels on my cable lineup that could help me in this avoidance. I could pretend that this "Super Bowl" had already come and gone.
Or, as I have so many years in the past, I could pick a rooting interest and get on with the spectacle. I have no serious doubts that February will begin with my living room being one of millions that will be locked in on the NFL finale. Meanwhile, in offices and boardrooms across this great land of ours, plans will be made for next year. And the big wheels keep on turning.