Thursday, July 20, 2017

Java Jive

It would be a bit of a stretch to say that I don't like coffee. I have never had a cup. Not Short, Tall, Grande or Venti. I made the mistake once upon a million years ago of eating a piece of coffee flavored hard candy. That was enough. Want a cup of coffee? No thanks.
This doesn't mean that I don't have appreciation for some things coffee. I like the smell of a freshly brewed pot. For a while in my youth it was my job to start up the Mr. Coffee for my dad's caffeine needs each morning. It's the scent of the sun coming up, which is nice. And it's always fascinating to watch people perform their coffee ablutions.
A little cream. A whole lot of sugar. Black as midnight on a moonless night. Watching others dab and stir and sip and stir yet again is fascinating to me. And it seems to be fascinating to a whole world of coffee lovers.
There I was, not for the first time, standing in line with my wife while she ordered her macchio latte slow drip iced frappucino something or other. I don't know. It's a language I to which I have no real connection. It's a bit that comedians have been dancing around for years now. What if you wanted just a cup of coffee made from ground beans with hot water poured through them? What if you didn't want something fancy? I looked up at the menu board and tried to take in all the permutations of coffee. So much of what seems to happen across the counter is taking that black liquid and finding ways to lighten it up. Decorations and ice and lots of fancy machines that spray milk or cream or foam of some sort into the cup. It's quite a production.
Which is why it's such an industry. And people wait in line to be served those chemistry experiments that now provide that morning jolt that Mr. Coffee used to do for dad. And while we're in the midst of reminiscing, what happened to coffee cups? A cup of coffee used to be a pretty standard serving size. Not so much anymore. And they're not made of china. Maybe in China, but they're paper. In three sizes. Would  you like that fifty percent recycled or plain white bond? Hemp maybe?
The whole thing makes me tired.
Which is a problem, because I've got a big day in front of me. How am I going to stay awake and alert?

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Giving Thanks

There are a number of films that, when they appear on a screen before me, I sit rapt with attention until they are over. Even though I have seen them countless times. Films like Bride of Frankenstein, Animal House, Gross Pointe Blank. The list goes on: Animal Crackers, The Outlaw Josey Wales, Caddyshack. And on: Risky Business, Dr. Strangelove, Taxi Driver. There are more, but decorum forbids me from continuing the list here.
Needless to say, in a household with a TV located in the living room, this can cause a logjam when it comes time to determine just how the living will be done in that room. All this new-fangled technology that has been created to make watching any movie merely by clicking your remote three times and saying "There's no place like on-demand" doesn't make that visceral need to sit and watch. Maybe I lack the faith necessary to believe that I will get another opportunity to review all those antics and actions. Maybe I lack the imagination to switch the channel and try something new. Maybe it's just laziness. But there is good news: My wife has found some of these that she can enjoy right along with me. Our mutual vortex includes The Philadelphia Story, Batman Returns, and Fight Club. That last one, I'm proud to say, has played in the background on numerous winter evenings as we address our Christmas cards. Like my own list, there are plenty more mutual favorites. They're the ones that keep us laying in bed on a Sunday morning because we are hostage to the final credits. There's so much life out there. So many other things to do. But not until we have finished watching our favorite movie. One of them, anyway.
So imagine my amusement when I found myself walking out of the living room the other night while my wife immersed herself in one of her celluloid touchstones. The lady who has so often cajoled me out of watching Die Hard one more time gasped with glee when I flipped past Hair. It was just starting, and she sat transfixed. Happily, the couch did not burst into flames, and our son didn't call with an emergency of his own. She was able to sit and savor that little gem from her collection like it was the first time. Or the twenty-seventh. She knew the words. She sang along. I thought for a moment or two she might rise up and dance along.
She didn't. Which was fine. I didn't mention the DVD we had of that same film that she could watch whenever she wanted.
Because that's not the deal. It's the gift of cable TV.
Thank you, cable TV.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

No Such Thing As A Free Speech

"Knowledge Is Good." - Emil Faber
The words of "Pencil King" ring in my head as I read an article that suggests that a majority of Republicans believe colleges are bad for the United States. An interesting assertion, since there is a lot of debate about what the first university on these shores was, but they all came about just after the signing of the Declaration of Independence. So what's wrong with our institutes of higher learning? Free speech. Or, in this case, the lack thereof. A few years back, most Republicans had a favorable view of universities. The shift comes amid several high-profile controversies over freedom of speech on campuses across the country, including protests earlier this year at the University of California, Berkeley after scheduled appearances by conservative commentators Ann Coulter and Milo Yiannopoulos were canceled. Conservative critics have said these incidents are silencing opposing ideas, while some people who disagree with inviting polarizing figures to campus say the safety concerns in these cases outweigh the importance of free speech.
Lately, a lot has been made of how comics like Lenny Bruce and George Carlin wouldn't feel welcome on college campuses as they once were because of the over-arching cascade of political correctness. You can't say this and you shouldn't say that. The seven words you can't say on television would have to evolve into the catalog of terms that are no longer acceptable for use and could be considered Hate Speech.
When I think about the way my own speech has evolved, and the ways I have been corrected, it hasn't been political. It has been personal. I would never be confused with the boundary busting mouths of Bruce or Carlin, but I have always found it fascinating to see what words we choose to give power, and how those words can take power away. I don't expect that I would keep my job in the Oakland Unified School District if I didn't have a sense of just how to go about using my words. It is my job to help build minds, not tear them down. There are plenty of words that can do that. Explaining to five and six year olds why words they have heard their older brothers and sisters throw around aren't the ones they should be cavorting with on the playground. 
I really do wish that Milo Yiannopoulos could show up in any college auditorium and let fly with whatever was on his tiny mind. It would be a test of the learning that had gone on for all those years prior. Do any of those words apply to me? Do I want to take them along with me into my life after school? Maybe by making them secret and prohibited, we make them more exciting. There really isn't anything that mystical about Hate Speech. You can pretty much tell what it is just by looking at it on the page. Or listening to it as long as you have the stomach for it. 
But someone has to help young folks figure out how to recognize it.
That's where I come in. 
I'm a teacher.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Fly Away Home

I watched a movie called Ladybug, Ladybug. Made in 1963, it tells the story of a group of students and staff who receive a false alert of a nuclear attack. The school is located in a rural area, and while the principal attempts to verify the warning, students are assembled in a "drill" to be dismissed for the day. as time ticks by without a clear resolution, the decision is made to send the children home to their families. One of the teachers is charged with escorting a group of kids on their way, to make sure they get where they are going.
The discussion among the students about the potential for an actual attack and what that might mean is the bulk of the storytelling. A small group of them end up going to one girl's home that is equipped with a bomb shelter. Here, without parental supervision, they decide to close the door and prepare for life after the world they know has been turned to ash.
I won't spoil the ending, in case movies about the Cold War are your thing, but watching this film brought back a wave of creepy nostalgia for the days when the looming presence of nuclear war was background noise for most every interaction. Armageddon wasn't a comet heading for the earth or alien invasion. It was a daily reality called Defcon, short for Defense Condition. Years before we had color coded terror alerts, we lived in a nation that didn't spend a lot of time in the peaceful blue of Defcon 5. 
As years passed, and the capacity of the nuclear arsenals of the East and the West increased in number as well as destructive capability, plans for surviving a first strike diminished. Bunkers like the one in the movie I was watching would be part of the radioactive rubble upon which future evolution would build it societies. Bomb shelters became as quaint as the instructions to duck and cover. I grew up in an era that provided a couple of choices: be at ground zero calling for a fair catch, or await the gradual and torturous death by radiation sickness. Einstein's quote,  “I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.” seemed hopeful by contrast. 
And then the Berlin Wall came down, and everybody celebrated by purchasing their own pair of American blue jeans. No more Cold War. We fixed it!
Just like we fixed racism after we elected Barack Obama. 
Crazy people with nuclear weapons? 
Only in the movies. 

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Still Looking

Depending on who you listen to, Amelia Earhart has been found. Okay, not so much Amelia as clues to her whereabouts after she went missing in 1937. If you've ever complained about a flight of yours being late, imagine a delay of eighty years. I suppose her estate is due some free drink tokens and an upgrade to first class in perpetuity. The History Channel would like us to know that Ms. Earhart probably ended her days in Japanese custody on the island of Saipan. Which is a tragedy, and a relief. Probably more of a relief at this point, since all the possible fates she might have faced were mostly on a par with being held prisoner: crash and burn, eaten by sharks, and so on. The relief comes from knowing the end of the story.
If this really is the end. If she wasn't a spy. Or if she lived. Or whatever potential circumstances that have not as yet received their full History Channel treatment. If the Earhart file can now be closed, what and whom do we have left to settle with? Every so often, D.B. Cooper climbs to the top of the list of Persons Gone Missing. You remember D.B.? He wasn't flying a plane, but he was on a plane that he was hijacking back in 1971. Until he suddenly wasn't. He jumped out, with a parachute and two hundred thousand dollars ransom. And was never seen again. Eaten by bears? Swallowed up by the jet's engines? Inspiration for Twin Peaks' Agent Dale Cooper? A year ago, the FBI closed the active investigation of the case, but they will still take any physical evidence that might lead to a conclusion to this mystery.
So how about Jimmy Hoffa? The former head of the AFL-CIO disappeared a few weeks after millions of dollars from the Teamster's pension fund did the very same thing. The happiest version of this story has Jimmy taking his ill-gotten gains and heading off to some tropical destination where he opened a school for local children staffed by expats not unlike himself. Or he was killed in some very messy way and disposed of in some even messier way. Buried in some shallow grave? Or in the end zone of Giants Stadium? Or maybe he's still alive?
That would be something.
And working for The History Channel.  

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Too Much Of A Good Thing

How high were the expectations? Chrysler Building high.
A new Spider Man movie came out last week. I went on opening day, and even though I had seen all the trailers and teasers way in advance of the release, I made a point of staying away from articles about the story and characters. Spoilers.
Still, I could have told you that Spider Man was going to rescue some folks, and he was going to have to face a foe much older and intimidating. It is what super heroes do, after all. Underdog to Iron Man. But Spider Man. That's a toughie. He's going to have to do more than that. All those unbelievable odds and he's a kid. He's still figuring out how to be a man, let alone Spider Man. This journey is the thing that makes him different. That and the fact that he's been in my life for nearly fifty years. For a period of time, as a much younger me, I signed my name Dave "Spider Man" Caven. I bought comic books that had tangential connection to my friendly neighborhood - well, you know.
I lived through the heartbreak of Gwen Stacy's death, and how Peter Parker lived through loss before: his parents. His uncle Ben. Tragedy was never far away from Spider Man. But he kept giving himself back to his community. A hero. So when they started making movies with my favorite comic book character, I was in line. I bought a ticket. I bought a T-shirt. I bought some action figures. For my son.
A very good friend of mine went to see the Broadway musical starring Spider Man and brought be back a souvenir: a signed photo of Stan Lee underneath a picture of everyone's favorite web-head. It hangs on the wall just to the left of my desk, reminding me of my childhood fixation. I still have those T-shirts, and a completely vivid recollection of the origin and subsequent adventures of Spider Man. With the Avengers. With the Human Torch. With Iron Man. Against Electro. Against the Vulture. Against the Green Goblin. When the people around Peter Parker started dying, I felt it. And every time Spider Man felt like hanging up his blue and red tights for good, I understood. With great power comes great responsibility.
That was the message I took away from the comics. And the movies. There have been four actors who have spun a web. Yes, I count Nicholas Hammond among them. Just like I count Adam West in my litany of Batmen. The radioactive spider bit this high school kid and set this whole thing in motion. There have been three different iterations of this legend on the screen in the past fifteen years. I bought tickets to all of them. Each time I hoped to have that I would plug back into that magic. The magic of youth.
When I sat in my seat, watching this young turk leap about in his Underoos, I felt old. Maybe the lessons that Spider Man has to teach me are done. Maybe I have gone down this path one too many times. In this version, spoiler alert, nobody dies. Maybe I need more dire consequences in my Spider Lore. Maybe I am too old for this stuff.
At last.

Friday, July 14, 2017


"Hey buddy, howya doin'?"
"Fine. Just fine."
"Good to see you. At last."
"Yes. At last."
"Shall we sit down?"
"Crazy week, huh?"
"Yes. Especially for you."
"Whaddya mean?"
"Oh, you know. People talk."
"Who's been talking?"
"Oh you know."
"No. No I don't."
"Angela? What does she know?"
"Well, you know."
"No. I don't."
"She doesn't really, well -"
"Doesn't really what?"
"She doesn't like you."
"Oh, I don't know about that."
"Well, like I said, people talk."
"Not everybody likes you."
"Pardon me?"
"I'm just sayin'."
"Maybe you should be more worried about yourself."
"Maybe you should too."
"I'm just sayin'."
"Well. Should we shake hands or somethin'?"