Tuesday, January 28, 2020

By George

Dear George,
It was just about two weeks ago that you gave me one of my proudest teaching moments. I had introduced the reading quiz we were about to take in class by saying that it wasn't  the first students who finished who usually did the best. It was those students who took their time to try and figure out the answers to the questions that they read who got the best scores. Just before the end of the class, you were the last one in the room to finish. You got one hundred percent. I was happy for you. Not just because of your success, but because I know that reading is not your favorite thing. I know this because you have announced it. Several times this year. You got every answer correct on your quiz not because you love reading so much, but in spite of it. And I was happy for me, too. I considered this a success for me as a teacher too.
We have known each other since you were in kindergarten. I taught you then, and now six years later, I am winding up my time with you. During that time I have seen you struggle with reading and writing in computer class, but I have watched you blossom out on the playground. In PE, and as a Young Hero during recess, your skills are abundant. I applaud your efforts on the soccer field, but even more I appreciate your willingness to try something new: basketball. You are taking a chance on something you were never that good at, but you found yourself taking to it almost from the very first practice. I guess none of us should have been surprised.
But at the end of last week, you also broke my heart a little. I know how much you struggle when we have a substitute in your room. It takes you a long time to warm up to a new person, and getting used to a new grownup telling you what to do is one of your biggest challenges. Which may be why you tend to challenge them back. Complaints of "What did I do?" and "That's not fair" come out of you long before all of your great problem solving abilities. You run your teachers through an obstacle course of acceptance that is calculated to make them match your first teacher, your kindergarten teacher whom your still regard as the best you ever had.
She probably was. She got you to read and to learn and to accept responsibility for your actions. She put you on a path to being the leader that you have become at our school. I am grateful to have made a connection with you that has helped me help you. Finally, after all this time, I feel as though you will listen to me. That is what that reading quiz taught me.
But the next week, when you were struggling with that new authority while your teacher was out, you retreated to some of those old habits. You got stuck in a place that made you question authority. Even the voices that were trying to help you get to a safe place for learning. I lost my temper with you, and for that I apologize. I was upset because I felt that I could not go back down a path where I was begging you to do the right thing. I was not comfortable watching you exchange your true leadership skills for those of a class clown.
You are not that. You are far better than that. And I am a better teacher than that.
So I am very sad. It was a tough week for a lot of kids and teachers at our school. It was one of those weeks where we are all glad when the weekend shows up and we can push the do-over button for the next Monday morning. Bouncing back is never easy, but it gets harder when you're as old as I am. I hope you can help me with that. I hope that there is still another great moment of learning ahead for the two of us.
If there's not, I want to thank you for that one. And many others, over the years. Next year, you'll be off to middle school and I will be back at work, trying to solve the puzzle that is three hundred other kids. I hope you remember that time we have spent together, not for our last week, but for all those weeks before. And what lays in front of you.
Mister Caven

Monday, January 27, 2020


"One year ago, I came to Davos and told you that our house is on fire. I said I wanted you to panic. I’ve been warned that telling people to panic about the climate crisis is a very dangerous thing to do. But don’t worry. It’s fine. Trust me. I’ve done this before. And I can assure you: It doesn’t lead to anything." These were the words that Greta Thunberg used to begin her address to the World Economic Forum. 
She continued: "The fact that the U.S.A. is leaving the Paris accord seemed to outrage and worry everyone. And it should. But the fact that we are all about to fail the commitments you signed up for in the Paris Agreement doesn’t seem to bother the people in power even the least. Any plan or policy of yours that doesn’t include radical emission cuts at the source starting today is completely insufficient for meeting the one point five - or well below two-degree commitments of the Paris Agreement."
The underlying sentiment of her full address can be summed up in her assertion that "Our house is still on fire." United States Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin replied in the only way he knows how, by sneering,  “After she goes and studies economics in college, she can come back and explain that to us.”
Which is probably why, two days later, the Doomsday Clock moved to its closest point ever to midnight. According to the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, we are currently one hundred seconds to midnight, or the metaphorical Doomsday. We are no longer talking about minutes, as we have in the past. We are now talking about the time it takes you to say Mississippi one hundred times. Back in 1947, the clock was originally set to seven minutes (seven hundred twenty Mississippis). This was just after a certain country used nuclear weapons during war, and suddenly everyone else needed to get themselves one of those nuclear weapons to make sure that nobody would ever use nuclear weapons in war again. For the record, it was a bunch of Atomic Scientists who came up with that idea for nuclear weapons in the first place, so it sort of makes sense that they are attempting to figure out a way to get that genie back in its bottle. Since 1947, the Doomsday Clock has been reset twenty-three times. It hasn't been a slow and steady march to midnight. In 1991, they pushed it back to seventeen minutes til midnight. 
Lately, the combination of climate change and the renewed specter of nuclear war leaves us with just a few moments to gather our loved ones to say "adjö." That would be "goodbye" in Swedish. A year from now it would be nice to think that we could come together again to celebrate the new administration with a few more seconds added to our potential. In the meantime, stop idling. Plant a tree. But most of all, tell everyone else that we want to live through these next one hundred seconds.

Sunday, January 26, 2020


That dull roar you hear in the distance is the Impeachment Trial of Donald J. Trump. The "J" in this particular instance stands for "justice." Whether or not it will be served is anyone's guess at this point, since as my mother points out, very little seems to have slowed him down up to this point. That roar, by the way, depends a little on how closely you are monitoring the situation in Washington D.C. My wife has the feed coming through her speakers all day long. I can't stand to listen to it, but I keep my eyes out for any alerts. Like: "President" resigns in disgrace.
How did it come to all this? Instead of doing the campaign for 2020 dance as we all will have to do anyway, we are going to sit through this exercise in the democratic (small "d") process. While the rules and general civility of the experience will be debated endlessly, we might all agree that it is infinitely preferable to the armed insurrection alternative. Not that we don't have to keep that potential in the back of our minds as the side with the guns make threats both general and specific. And just for a moment, can I ask where the proud Democratic (big "D") gun owners are? The ones that shout about how if the "president" isn't removed from office they'll come locked and loaded to our nation's capitol looking to do harm?
Nope. These are the op-ed folks, more likely to write a strongly worded letter than pick up a weapon. Because they truly believe the pen is mightier than the sword. Or the keyboard is mightier than the automatic weapon. Well, to paraphrase the poet, how did we get here?
Once upon a time, someone suggested that when we grow up, "anyone can be president." This would be a test of that theory. As my mother likes to point out, there are a lot of people who seem to think this is a good thing. This is "their guy." Keeping in mind that we continue to encourage every American to vote, even though there are efforts to disenfranchise certain portions of "the people," but we are still "we the people." Our ongoing mission is to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity. And where you stand on the current state or our union has everything to do with how you feel about the Impeachment Trial of Donald J. Trump. History is not on the side of those favoring removal, since only three American presidents have been impeached, and the two previous cases ended in acquittal. Was justice done? Depends a lot on where you stand, historically. But the historical perspective suggests that this too shall pass, much in the same way that the previous two did. It was not pretty, and those past trials helped create the situation in which we currently find ourselves. It may not be justice, but it is history. 

Saturday, January 25, 2020

And Now For Something Completely Sad

Herding cats. Chasing the wind with a net. Directing Monty Python.
Impossible feats, all.
Terry Jones may not have been much of a cat wrangler, but I can imagine him with that net and I know that he directed Monty Python. For those of you who are challenged by the notion of who is whom in that multi-faceted comic troupe, Terry Jones was the one who wasn't American. Terry Jones was the one who co-directed The Holy Grail. He was Sir Bedevere in that one. Terry Jones directed Life of Brian. He was Brian's mother in that one. Terry Jones directed Meaning of Life. He was many things in that one, but perhaps most notably Mister Creosote.
And if all of that resonates with you, then you will also miss Terry Jones' inspired lunacy here on this plane. It will please no one more than my good friend from high school to know that the Oxford English Dictionary includes the word "pythonesque" to describe a style of absurdist humor found in the television show Monty Python's Flying Circus. It was this group of Englishmen and one American ex-pat who forever altered the course of John Phillips Sousa's Liberty Bell March. And comedy.
It is absurdly tragic that Mister Jones suffered his last years with dementia, since he wasn't able to fully enjoy it. It was the dementia that he suffered on all of us for so many years for which we have him to thank. We can also be thankful that he thought himself amusing enough to join up with college chum Michael Paliln (the nice one) and begin a silly assault on the times in which they lived. And before that, too. Terry Jones was an author as well, penning children's books as well as scholarly works about Chaucer and other high-minded pursuits.
And now he goes to join that comedy revue in the heavens, joining fellow Python Graham Chapman with songs by Neil Innes. His brand of lunacy coupled with an inner calm that defied the chaos around him is a rare thing. He stomped on the Terra, and then pointed back at it to laugh. He will be missed.
Aloha, Mister Jones.

Friday, January 24, 2020

Super Collision

It should be noted that Martin Scorsese said that Marvel movies are like theme parks. For this Oscar-winning director, they are not cinema. He didn't mention DC movies. Perhaps because the latest entry into what was once the DC cinematic universe, Joker, would not be considered by most a theme park. The distinct lack of capes is also a tipoff. And unless you believe that sustaining repeated beatings a super power, then there isn't a lot of that on hand either.
But there is a lot of Scorsese.
Back in 1976, Martin Scorsese made a little film called Taxi Driver. It tells the story of a loner, searching for meaning in a troubled world with an equally troubled mind. Somewhere along the line, this loner, Travis Bickle, gets it into his head that he can affect change himself by becoming a vigilante. To say that the trouble starts there would be an understatement, but more on that later.
In 1981, Scorsese did a comedy remake of Travis' story. In King of Comedy, we watch a loner searching for meaning in a troubled world with an equally troubled mind. The kidnapping of a talk show host does take place with a toy gun, but the obsession in this one is no less intense, and the laughs don't come easily.
In the years between those films and Joker came John Hinckley Jr. and his own obsession with Taxi Driver star Jodie Foster that brought him to attempt to assassinate President Ronald Reagan. Fans of coincidence may note that this attempt occurred one month after King of Comedy was released. Then there was the mass shooting in Aurora, Colorado in a movie theater where the killer called himself "The Joker." That was in 2012. Four years after Heath Ledger received a posthumous Oscar for his portrayal of, well, you're probably way ahead of me by now. The Joker.
Into this timeline drops Joaquin Phoenix, who has already won both a Golden Globe and a Screen Actors Guild award, for playing The Joker. In his acceptance speech, Phoenix describing standing on Ledger's shoulders. I would like to believe that if Todd Phillips, who is nominated for directing this best picture nominee, will confess to using a little bit of Scorsese to sweeten his mix. This would include putting Robert DeNiro, the King of Comedy Taxi Drivers, in his film as talk show host Murray Franklin. Somewhere in this gritty bit of cinema is an origin story. An interview with the BBC suggests that Martin Scorsese was once asked to direct Joker. He turned it down, saying “For me, ultimately, I don’t know if I make the next step into this character developing into a comic book character. You follow? He develops into an abstraction. It doesn’t mean it’s bad art, it’s just not for me…The superhero films, as I’ve said, are another art form. They are not easy to make. There’s a lot of very talented people doing good work and a lot of young people really, really enjoy them.” 
The billion dollar box office would suggest it's more than just young people.
Scorsese's Irishman, starring Robert DeNiro is also up for Best Picture. Now that's a coincidence.

Thursday, January 23, 2020


Congratulations to the San Francisco Forty-Niners. They completed their season by winning their division  rivals, assuring them the first seed in the National Football Conference playoffs, winning thirteen games while losing only four. Beating the Minnesota Vikings and the Green Bay Packers punched their ticket for Miami where the Super Bowl will be played in two weeks.
Over the course of the broadcast of the NFC Championship game, a lot was made of the history and legacy of the Bay Area's remaining professional football franchise. Past glory, Super Bowl wins and the plays that made it all possible were replayed coming back from commercials. We were reminded of the names that made the team what it is: Rice, Montana, Young, Walsh, Siefert. We were afforded the opportunity to recall all the former glory of the Red and Gold.
There  was no mention of Jim Harbaugh or Colin Kaepernick. In 2011, Harbaugh drafted Kaepernick, who sat on the bench for his first season, attempting just five passes, completing three. The following year, Kaepernick replaced an injured Alex Smith midway through the season, and the Forty-Niners didn't look back. That team won thirteen games, and lost three. Led by the play of their young quarterback, whose abilities to run and pass many suggested might revolutionize the position, the Niners were one win away from a sixth Lombardi Trophy.
In Super Bowl XLVII (forty-seven for you non-Romans), San Francisco fell behind the Baltimore Ravens early, and struggled to come back. Jim Harbaugh was coaching against his brother. There was a massive power outage in the middle of the game. And there was a moment when it looked like Colin Kaepernick might lead his team on one last desperate drive to win the game in the closing seconds.
That didn't happen. Shortly after that, Jim Harbaugh packed his bags to return to the college ranks. Colin never found his way back to the Super Bowl. Instead, he began to make a name for himself through social activism, leading a wave of NFL players who knelt during the Star Spangled Banner. Injuries were the reason the franchise eventually gave for turning him loose, but the rest of the planet knew the real reason. He was a troublemaker. He was using his position as a professional athlete to point to the oppression of people of color. As the starting quarterback of a Super Bowl team, the media took notice.
So did the new "president." He suggested Kaepernick should “find a country that works better for him." Even though it seems as though the United States had worked pretty well for him right up until he started spouting his opinions. Which may have been how the networks casually lost the Kaepernick highlight reel when it was time to pump up the Forty-Niner faithful. 
It's a huge challenge to make it to the Super Bowl. It's an even bigger one to try and make your voice heard amidst the din.  

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Going But Not Gone

Half my life ago, I used to run forever. I would go out the door of my one bedroom apartment, down the stairs and just go. And go. About thirty years and forty pounds ago, that was the way I exercised. Over hill and dale I roamed. At the time I was lugging a cassette Walkman, the Sportsman model, so I could keep going to the sound of the music from mix tapes sent to me by my buddy from New York. Ninety minute Maxell UD-XLIIs meant I could go for forty-five minutes without having to stop and turn them over. This was my way of knowing how long I had been away. Side B meant that I should probably turn around and head back home.
To that one bedroom apartment. Which is where this all began. It may have been some sort of inspiration. Flee the solitude of that cramped space for the solitude of the open air and the prospect of doing something for myself. Every day, one day at a time, I was getting better and better. This was shortly after I had retired from drinking and drugs, so I was most definitely substituting one addiction for another. This was the healthy thing to do. At this point, it was easy to reckon my diet of TV dinners and Tombstone pizza with the amount of energy I was pouring into the sidewalks and trails. I was a lean, mean running machine. My human interactions were limited to those I had with the guys at work. The ones with whom I installed modular steel office furniture. At one point, one of them asked about all this running around I did. "What's your best time?"
"For what?" I responded.
"You know," he laid it out, "Your pace per mile. Your best five K or ten K?"
At the time I was running one race a year, the Bolder Boulder, with my father primarily because it was a point of contact with him. I told my interrogator, "I dunno. Less than an hour for a ten K."
"How much less?"
I knew that I could probably care more about time, but I was more interested in the miles I covered. The amount of time was only interesting me in terms of how much time I spent away from that one bedroom apartment.
Once I moved to a home, with a wife and kid to whom I could return, that wandering spirit left. I still enjoy being away and feeling that purposeful stride, but I am also acutely aware of the forces pulling me back. And somehow that feels more healthy to me.