Monday, September 01, 2014

Insignificance

Why would the death of any one person matter more than that of any other? From where I'm sitting, which is somewhat comfortably on my couch, thank you very much, it depends a lot on where the TV cameras happen to be. There has been a lot of hue and cry about how the death of Michael Brown has been sensationalized by the liberal media. The immediate irony here is that the not-quite-so-liberal media has been very busy crying "foul," which has had the effect of ramping up the volume around the tragic events in Ferguson, Missouri. All the while men, women and children continue to die across the globe while we try and sort out just how much air time any of us deserve when it's our time to leave this mortal world.
I notice that here on this blog, I spent two days mourning the loss of Robin Williams. That's almost as much space as I gave our beloved dog Maddie when she went to that great big couch in the sky. Where are my priorities? For that matter, while I was busy reflecting on the world with and without Robin Williams, I completely bypassed the passing of Lauren Bacall. What was I thinking?
Quick answer: I wasn't. I was reacting. That's one of the things I am becoming more familiar with as I grow older. Death is always a wake-up call for those of us who remain. Trying to tease out the "why" is almost always a dead end, if you'll pardon the expression. Then again, why should you. As the poet Marilyn Manson once wrote: "The death on one is a tragedy. The death of millions is just a statistic." Strong stuff, especially coming from a guy who was periodically pointed to as the cause of death for many of our young Americans. Without ever picking up a gun. There's that media thing again.
That is why I paused to read an article about Mark David Chapman. He killed John Lennon nearly thirty-four years ago in a vain attempt to make himself famous. John Lennon is dead. Mark David Chapman is alive. What sense does that make? If matters at all, Mister Chapman told a parole board that he is sorry for what he did on that December night back in 1980. "I am sorry for causing that type of pain. I am sorry for being such an idiot and choosing the wrong way for glory." It makes me wonder if there is a right path to glory. CNN and Fox News? If that's glory, I'll take insignificance. 

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Sanrio's Cat

Cough. Dough. Coffin. You could probably take a few hours looking up rules and rationales for the pronunciations and spellings for these words. Or you could surrender to the notion that I am currently pleased with: These words exist in their peculiar configurations to confuse kids. Sure, you might be able to research the etymology of a these syllables from ancient civilizations, but just try and tell an eight year old that the English language is made up of the castoffs from hundreds of different tongues and translations that have been massaged and forgotten and remembered until they are all but unrecognizable. If you were ever a kid, you know that language isn't he only thing out there set up to confound you.
Take this for example: "Hello Kitty is not a cat. She's a cartoon character. She is a little girl. She is a friend. But she is not a cat. She's never depicted on all fours. She walks and sits like a two-legged creature. She does have a pet cat of her own, however, and it's called Charmmy Kitty." These were the words offered up to   University of Hawaii Anthropologist Christine R. Yano as she was preparing a Hello Kitty retrospective for the Japanese American National Museum Hello Kitty owners Sanrio. Schrödinger would be so impressed. Hello Kitty is and is not a cat. Tell this to a second grade girl and watch her head explode. Or not. It could be that the only humans ready to accept such a swirling conflict of reality is a child. When I was ten, it never bothered me that Mickey, who was a mouse, had a pet dog. On top of that mild twist, add the additional two or three turns that come with the acceptance of that same mouse having a best friend named Goofy, who walks around on two legs and wears clothes and speaks in a language understood by Mickey and the rest of us as English, who also happens to be a dog. This hole in the fabric of the universe could only exist in a world where that sort of thing was commonplace. The kind of world where Teenage Turtles can be both mutated and highly trained martial arts experts. As an adult, I would expect that the "mutant" part would be sufficient to explain any special talents or variations in size, shape or color. 
This is why we try to teach this stuff to kids. Applying an order to the world is our job as grownups. If we tell them that "shun" means to "push away," we don't have to explain the word "confusion." It simply is what it is. It doesn't mean to push away confusion. That would be ridiculous. That sort of thing makes sense to us. If you happen to be over twelve years of age. 

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Special Orders

Having it your way. It's an American ideal. This was one of the reasons I was, for a time, shamed into considering a switch in my burger allegiance from McDonald's to Burger King. After all, for a time in my youth my family referred to me as "The Burger King." This had more to do with the fact that I would cry if I was subjected to anything but a hamburger and fries when my parents went out for dinner and bought us boys fast food than it mattered where that hamburger came from. It might also have had something to do with the incident that occurred in Disneyland, the one in which I fell asleep with my head on that nice warm bun after a long day in the Magic Kingdom. I grew up with the expectation that burgers came from the Golden Arches, but I was tolerant of other chains that might try to force my hand as long as that hand ended up with a cheeseburger in it.
Years pass. My palate changes. Well, not discernibly for those outside, but it changes. I no longer require a Quarter Pounder with Cheese for my routine. I was introduced to the wonders of the "flame broiled" technique favored by the Burger King franchises. I understood that in the Kingdom of Burgers, there can still be many heads of state. That's why I wasn't shaken to the core when my wife announced that, now we were done collecting Happy Meal toys, we could be done with McDonald's. It was a political decision that stretched beyond the whole ketchup and mustard versus special sauce issues that tended to cloud my own judgement. That's why when Burger King announced that they were going to be selling a "Proud Whopper" to commemorate San Francisco's annual Gay Pride celebration, it came as a revelation, not necessarily a revolution.
Shortly after that, however, came the news that the corporate offices of the King had made another decree: They would swallow up the Canadian doughnut chain, Tim Horton's, in order to become a non-U.S. corporation. This will allow them to dodge the "unfair" tax burden they experienced when they were based in the lower forty-eight. Now there are talks of boycotting the King. What could be more American? If you answered, "The God-fearing folks at In'n'Out," feel free to pull forward to the next window. Who would have thought that eating hamburgers required a conscience?

Friday, August 29, 2014

The Golden Ticket

I should be so lucky. Of course, it would help if we defined "luck" first. I think that winning almost always has a certain element of luck. This is why I stop to pick pennies up off the sidewalk even though at some point this particular habit will probably be the thing that snaps my spine or hit by a car. I have also learned not to mess with a streak. If something is successful, leave it alone. If it ain't broke, don't fix it. Sometimes I will even go so far as to wish for something by being so indiscreet as to close my eyes and say it out loud. This is often in conjunction with field goal attempts made by professional football kickers, but I do take it very seriously.
Then there's the matter of winning a prize. Last week, my son was convinced that he had won thirty-five thousand dollars. All he had to do was to head down to a nearby car dealership and pick up his prize. The fact that the certification for this award showed up with my name on it. Not his. That did not mean that he wasn't feeling lucky. A very brief and extremely casual perusal of the fine print had him convinced that he had won "at least" a three hundred and fifty dollar Wal-Mart gift card. Dreams really do come true. Even if that dream does include using your old man's name and login to access your prize package.
After several minutes of rational discussion, however, he was dissuaded from this bonanza, and he let it go with the tiniest whimper. It seemed like such a great deal. That's why I will be happy to let him know about Taco Bell's latest promotion: Food for Life. Sorry, since we're talking about Taco Bell here, I think it's important to refer to it as "Food" for Life, or what's left of it after clogged arteries and multiple heart procedures. All one has to do is find one of eleven dollar bills floating about the United States, the ones with special serial numbers that identify them as winners. And you could win quesaritos, gorditas, chalupas and any other permutation of ground beef, melted cheese and tortillas you might care to imagine for the rest of your life. Oh, to be so lucky.
Or perhaps it's best to keep this to myself. I'm only speculating here, but I would put the cash value of such a prize at about half a million dollars. Three meals a day for seventy-five years at about five bucks a meal? That's a lot of nachos. Of course, maybe if they scaled it back a bit and made it special pennies, I might have a chance. Just one really long week. With sour cream. Lucky me.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Miss The Myths

I have learned all kinds of things from watching "Mythbusters." You can't really shoot bad guys underwater, since the water will stop a bullet. Cell phones arranged in a circle won't pop popcorn. And perhaps most important of all: "When in doubt, C4." For those of you uninitiated, this is a reference to the plastic explosive, which has been used on countless episodes to explode any trace of myth that might linger.
Which makes me wonder why the guys didn't accidentally subject the "away team" to some sort of cataclysmic detonation, one from which no shards or tissue samples could be recovered. Instead of plastic explosive, the producers resorted to Twitter. "It's not only the end of this episode, it's not only the end of this season — it is also the end of an era," host Adam Savage announced. Co-host Jamie Hyneman added, "This season we're going back to our origins with just Adam and me." For their part, the "build team" was very gracious about their departure. Kari Byron tweeted, "The show is taking a new direction. It was an amazing run. I learned so much about myself and the world. I love you all." Grant and Tori were just as effusive in their sentiments for their decade of service on the show.
But the myth remains: Why did the folks at the Discovery Channel decide to let them go? Nobody was tuning in to see the youngsters anymore? Production costs had forced the hand of management to cut the cast to save money for liquid nitrogen? Or perhaps it was simple jealousy, where the spotlight for A-Type Nerds wasn't quite big enough for all five to peacefully coexist. Whatever the reason, I suspect that we will see Tori, Grant and Kari back on TV soon enough. Maybe even on the Discovery Channel. But it really won't be the same. How do I know? Well, I don't. That's why it will take a team of specially trained professionals to look into this new urban myth and eventually I will get my answers from the TV. The way God intended.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Shake, Rattle and Roll

At just past three in the morning, all those things that you have learned and know by heart about earthquakes don't mean a lot. Being shaken awake by your parents is one thing, but being shaken awake by your house is quite another. My son, who has been putting together a career year in sleep this past year, was sitting straight up in bed when my wife and I made it to the back room to check on him.
But first we endured an endless twenty seconds of tectonic shifting. The walls and floors of our one hundred twenty year old house moved, along with the rest of the neighborhood, on the wave that was sent down the coast to us from Napa. Thanks for sharing, Napa. When my brain cells had aligned effectively enough to reckon with what was happening around me, I considered my options: holding very still and waiting for the unpleasantness to simply pass, leap from the bed and stand in a doorway, or cling to my wife and hope that the ceiling would hold. I would like to tell you that I made some sort of rational decision about what I ended up doing, which was essentially a combination of those three alternatives, but I was in full-on react mode. Objects that I considered solid turned out to be negotiable on that fact.
We have a smoke detector. We have a CO2 sensor. We have lights on the side and back of our house that detect motion. None of these devices enhanced our safety a whit. On the way to the back room to check on my son, whom I expected to wake and explain this natural phenomenon to, I thought about all we had done to prepare for this eventuality. We have supplies and first aid kits and extra clothes and even a tent to camp out in the back yard if the homestead collapsed completely. And yet this caught us unawares. I was gratified not just by the sight of my son and his eyes bleary but open, but also with the news that he had actually made it off his bed and to the doorway to ride out the earth's wobbly moment.
We were joined a few moments later by his mother, and the three of us took stock, describing the event that took less than thirty seconds but would keep all of us awake for another half hour. We had the luxury of going back to sleep. Even as emergency crews scrambled to aid those in need north of us, we were able to put another geological event in our past. We could go back to sleep. We didn't have to put out any fires. We didn't have to rebuild. We could only wait for the next one.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Victory Lap

I am currently in the process of raising a high school senior. I understand that I share this distinction with millions of other parents, but has only dawned on me over the past week or so just how significant this experience is for me. My wife, by contrast, has been working feverishly on all matters related to this new phase for several months. She has been looking at college brochures and financial aid packages. She has attended meetings and engaged help and assistance in all manner of things that will help prepare our son for the future. His future.
It's not as if I was ignoring this particular growth spurt. Every day I struggle in from the mailbox with another dozen flyers from educational institutions that are clamoring to get their hands on the next four years of my son's life. And the next four years of our paid tuition for that privilege. Then there's the conversations I have with my son about girls and courses of study and insurance. These are not the conversations I had with him when he was in middle school. Or elementary school. They are even distinct from those we shared in his freshman year of high school. The future was something we acknowledged, but spoke of in the same manner that we might have chatted about unicorns or Big Foot. This is no longer a mythical or legendary beast. The future is now.
I suppose this lack of focus on the impending transition shouldn't surprise me. Before our son was born, I attended a great many birth classes and was instructed in great detail about what to fear when we were expecting. I have already apologized for not paying better attention at the time. That glazed-oversight was my way of dealing with the incipient life change that was headed my way like the freight train that I would spend the next six years staring at while my fresh-faced progeny looked on in awe. Inside I was the same person I was before, but the reality that surrounded me shifted dramatically. We went from a pair to a trio. I had to tie shoes other than my own. Food was spooned and just as often picked up off the floor.
These days I don't have to spend as much time looking for deals on tickets for Disney on Ice. I can delete episodes of "Transformers Prime" from our Tivo with impunity. I don't have to cut anyone's meat for them, but I do have to shame the enormous forkfuls that get shoveled in that ever-expanding mouth. He's a growing boy, and will be for some time to come, but I won't be watching it happen on a daily basis for very much longer. I'll still spend time in the aisles of Toys R Us, but the purpose has shifted once again.
When my son came out to my school last week to help me set up teachers' classroom computers, the first thing that I noticed was that he drove there. Then it was apparent that he had been paying attention all those years before, when he was able to go from room to room connecting this and that, without my constant supervision. When it was time for him to leave, he did just that. He drove away. It brought back the image of my year and a half old son who came to my second back to school night and tottered into the doorway of my computer lab and proceeded to do a face plant there on the unforgiving tile floor.
I know that eventually my son will be cutting up my meat for me and watching out for my periodic lapses of balance, but right now I'm focused on the moment: My son is a senior in high school.