Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Ask Not For Whom The Bell Tolls

I am not a huge fan of cellular telephones. I suppose to be completely honest, I am not a fan of telephones of any sort. Part of this may stem from the number of times the phone rings at my house and the voice on the other end is asking for me is less than thirty-three and a third percent of the time. This makes some sense, since I am not here very often, spending a great deal of my time on my way to work, at work, or on my way home from work. I expect that the bulk of calls coming into our land line are directed to my wife, who is at work at our home. Even when I come home from work and find that my wife has voice mail messages stacked up from the time that she has been away from work. At home. That's about the time the phone rings and when I answer, I hear my wife's voice informing me that she is not home, at which point I feel compelled to remind her of just how many calls she has received since she left.
My son gets a certain amount of calls, but anyone who really wants to connect with him will get there most readily by hooking up with him on his ineradicable Android texting machine. So much so that it seems as though most of his interactions take place via some keyboard or screen. Sometimes we don't see his friends for weeks, but we know they are out there because of the beeps and buzzes and not-so-casual glances made to see what or whom is up.
Me? I've got my own cellular telephone. It's the thing that's connecting me to those things related to school. When I hear that beep, I now something has changed. Or something is about to happen. Or something isn't going to happen after all. I am only recently becoming more comfortable with the notion that the sound that you hear could involve me. I am becoming conditioned. Almost Pavlovian. I know this because there is a malfunctioning PA speaker in the hallway across from one of our first grade classrooms. It beeps. Not loudly, just loud enough to give me the impression that somewhere in my pocket is a cellular telephone making that sound and it needs my abrupt attention. Only once in the last five weeks has that noise coincided with an actual call or text for yours truly. The other five or six hundred times it was the mistaken impression that someone was trying to get in touch with me.
I should know better. If the phone rings, it's probably for my wife. Any phone. Always.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Laugh? I Thought I'd Die

"Death is easy. Comedy is hard." These words were spoken to me by Peter O'Toole on his death bed. Well, okay. It wasn't his death bed. It was in a movie: "My Favorite Year." He wasn't dying then. Not in the sense that he died earlier this year. He was dying in a much more metaphorical sense. Dying in the realm of comedy is a death much worse than, well, death. I carry with me the times that I have stood in front of a group of faces with confused or angry stares: Was that supposed to be funny?
Like the time I was at a party in the warehouse of my former employer. Bookpeople from days gone by had come to revel in their collective past and to catch up on the way things turned out. At some point, our cook (yes we had our own cook and now figure out how the company eventually went out of business) brought out a tray of her very chocolate frosted brownies. At that moment, a little girl, who would have been a next-gen Bookperson if the company hadn't folded, tossed a beach ball that landed squarely in the middle of the pan, leaving a dull imprint of beach ballness on the entire dessert. "Well," I intoned in my best parental tones, "it looks like you're going to have to eat all those brownies."
A little jest. A bit of silliness. Then came the voice of the little girl's mother, shocked and dismayed. "She's diabetic."
And this is a moment which I am alternately extremely proud and periodically ashamed of: I turned to this woman, who I did not know, and said, "Actions have consequences. I guess she should have thought about that before she threw the ball."
The look of horror was not reserved for the mother's face. Several others gathered near had the same reaction. I had rendered them speechless. No one laughed, but inside, I was celebrating the scene which I had just created.
Was it funny? To me. Would I rather be dead? No, but it would have been a lot easier if someone would have laughed. So maybe Edmund Kean didn't have it exactly right. Maybe it was Steve Martin who had it pegged: Comedy is not pretty.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Raindrops

I heard the voice coming from behind. A familiar phrase: "Mister Caven!"
As is so often the case, when riding my bike to and from school, I put up a hand to acknowledge the recognition of this old guy on a bike. I waved.
"Mister Caven!" This time it was more insistent.
I stuck my arm up again, but turned around to see who was calling after me. It was early. It was raining. I didn't have my mind focused on anything but getting myself to school in one more or less dry piece.
"Mister Caven!"
This time, I stopped. When I got a foot down on the wet pavement and looked over my shoulder, I saw nothing but the street sign on the corner.
"Mister Caven!"
I squinted to see from whence this disembodied voice might be emanating. That's when I heard the immediately recognizable sound of the contents of a backpack being shaken and rattled by a young man who was in hot pursuit of Mister Caven. Then I saw Jesse round the corner.
"Mister Caven!" Still running hard, but now that I had a face to go with all the commotion, it made perfect sense. Jesse was now in middle school, having been promoted at the end of last year from our fifth grade. I remembered the hollering from across the playground. Usually Jesse needed me to confer on some injustice that had been perpetrated upon him on the soccer field. Or at four square. Or lining up. Jesse seemed to attract trouble. Now he was chasing me down. I stood in the rain and watched him race toward me.
"Mister Caven!"
"Jesse."
"Are you still in the computer lab?"
"Well, not right now. I'm standing in the rain. How are you doing?"
"I'm good." And then we had run out of initial pleasantries. "That's my bus," he said, hooking a thumb in the direction of the corner.
"Well," I said, ever the teacher, "Don't be late."
"Okay, Mister Caven. See you." Off he ran into the gloomy morning. I turned and stood on my pedals, still three blocks to school. Elementary.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Bimmer Bummer

Those were the words in the subject line of my younger brother's email. This was notable for several reasons: My little brother does not tend to send email, preferring instead to send personalized art cards to assert his opinions and feelings. I appreciate this since the cards are such warm and connected pieces, especially when compared to the cyber cool messages sent via Al Gore's Internet. When I do get email from my younger brother, it's of the one to six word variety that gets straight to the point, with verbosity left to me. When I read the subject line, I had an idea what I was in for.
He wrote to tell me that one of the kids we hung out with back on that dead end street in Boulder, Colorado had died. After that, he went on to say, "Unclear of the details, much like I was unclear of the details of his life. What I do remember is him cracking me up when we were kids." For my younger brother, this was practically a novel. 
It made me remember stories about Bimmer, not the least of which was that this was not his Christian name. Like so many kids on our block, he had been bestowed with a unique moniker by which he was known by all of us who played Capture the Flag, touch football, hide and seek, kick the can and every other outdoor game conceived by us youngsters. I remembered two stories that centered on Bimmer's garage.
The first was a time when Bimmer and his pal Doomsday (again, not her Christian name) were playing darts in that garage. Not that they had reached the appropriate age according to the warning on the packaged for the steel tipped weapons of pain and destruction, but this was back when there weren't warning labels on darts. Or anything else, for that matter. The circumstances that lead up to the denouement are largely shrouded in faded memory and mystery, but everyone who was hanging around outside on the street that day does have this one indelible image: Bimmer running out of the garage, screaming, with one of those poorly labeled darts sticking out of the back of his head. It is possible that he put it there himself. It is also possible that darts were being thrown at one another, and it was only a matter of time before one of the combatants was injured in this or a more severe way. We also tend to remember Doomsday chasing after him, trying to get the dart out of the back of Bimmer's head.
Again, the years have made recalling for certain whether it was before or after this that this same pair chose to play with matches in that same garage. A garage that had an open, very toxic and highly flammable bag of fertilizer in it. One of those matches, which could have been properly labeled as dangerous, but it didn't matter because it only took a few minuted for that part of the house to erupt into flames. It was an opportunity for most of us to see a fire truck up close and personal. It was probably only a coincidence that there was a fire hydrant on the corner adjacent to Bimmer's house. Perhaps his family was planning ahead. 
These youthful indiscretions later evolved into real trouble. The kind for which you sometimes end up in jail. Bimmer sometimes ended up in jail. The years after he left our little neighborhood were hard ones on him, and whatever the details of his passing turn out to be, it probably has something to do with cramming all that danger into such a short life. The neighborhood is just a little smaller now.  

Friday, September 26, 2014

Rhetoric

"the art of effective or persuasive speaking or writing, especially the use of figures of speech and other compositional techniques." That's what the dictionary says, anyway. This is how we persuade the peace-loving people of this great nation of ours that the best way to discourage bad behavior is by engaging in that same bad behavior, only on a massive scale. I am speaking, somewhat rhetorically, about airstrikes. 
What sends a better message to our enemies that killing our people, or any people for that matter, than by dropping hundreds of bombs and missiles on strategic targets? This is how we will teach the lesson that killing is wrong. If you behead journalists, if you slaughter defenseless women and children in an effort to further your cause or defeat our own, we will bomb you back to the stone age. We will fill you with shock and awe. We will bring death from above. Don't mess with the US. We've been doing this rhetoric thing now for a couple hundred years. Maybe you've heard of a little ditty we like to call "Live Free Or Die?" That was us. How about "There is nothing to fear but fear itself?" We did that. We liked it so much, we thought about putting it on a dime, but it wouldn't fit under the guy's face so we left it at that. 
The point is: We here in America ('merica) are always willing to set an example of how to behave by doing that exact thing that we have said that we want to discourage. Empire building? No. Not where we are trying to install a democracy. How about terrorism? We will scare the jihad out of you if you give us half a chance. We're that good. 
So what if we happen to take out a few civilians while we're on our way to proving the larger point by blowing up somebody's ammo dump. The ammo dump that was probably at least half-filled with weapons stamped "made in the USA." The ammo dump that happened to be located directly adjacent to the daycare center. That's not fighting fair, now is it?
Of course, fighting fair isn't always in the cards for freedom fighters which, if you were to hear it from the mouths of ISIL, they are. Back when the Revolutionary War was being fought over here, there was some loud debate back in England about how those colonists didn't seem to want to follow the conventions of war. Bad sportsmanship, wot? I guess we're just glad that the British Navy back then didn't have access to any Tomahawk missiles. 

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Don't Click - It Just Encourages Them

Just in case you were under the impression that all the awful behavior directed at women and children was found in and around the National Football League, here's this: An Alabama woman accused of running her nine-year-old granddaughter to death as punishment for eating forbidden chocolates and lying about it was supposed to go on trial on Monday. 
Joyce Hardin Garrard, 49, stands accused of forcing Savannah Hardin to run non-stop for three hours in February 2012. Authorities say the girl collapsed, went into seizures and died days later at a Birmingham hospital.  Etowah County Sheriff's spokeswoman Natalie Barton said Savannah died from dehydration and low sodium, a condition common in marathon runners. Savannah was not a marathon runner. She was a naughty nine-year-old girl. A naughty nine-year-old girl with preexisting medical conditions. So, did grandma murder this little girl? Murder? With intent? How could it be so?
Not really that difficult to imagine, I suppose given the age in which we find ourselves living. Not in a world where little boys are kept in cages. Horrible stories of cruelty and abuse that make Stephen King cringe. It turns our collective stomachs and makes people like me click on the link to find out more. That's the worst part. Slowing down on the cyber highway to look at the pictures that have piled up next to the "news" median. How could we let this happen? How could one person be so horrible? How can I find out more?
Well, the good news is that the trial has been pushed back to February, which will give me and those like me the chance to find out even more of the grisly details. In another four months, Lifetime could have the movie version ready to go. Back in the town we call Reality, we recognize that this kind of thing has been happening forever. Everyone knew a story about some horrible thing that happened to a kid. The worst of those are the ones that end with a phrase like, "and it was her own grandmother that did it." Awful. Horrible. Terrible. And awfully horribly terribly fascinating. Tune in a little later to see how that lawsuit Savannah's dad is filing against the doctors who may or may not have misdiagnosed her condition after she had been tortured by grandma. Until your favorite NFL player gets suspended for running over the team's mascot with his Humvee. 

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Tramps Like Us

Once upon a long time ago, I heard Bruce Springsteen tell a story about how he once hopped the fence at Graceland in hopes of getting a chance to meet The King. He was telling this story as an older, wiser man. One who had risen to the lofty station of "Boss." Still, at the time of the fence-hopping, he had just recently been featured on the covers of both Time and Newsweek as the future of rock and roll. Before rock's future could ever meet its past, Elvis' security force descended upon him and his co-conspirator Little Steven before they could even ring the doorbell. Bruce tried to charm his way past the Memphis Mafia, but they would have none of it. Besides, they explained to this interloper that Mister Presley was out of town, and even if he was at home, breaking into Graceland was going to be tougher than breaking into show business in the first place.
That was back in 1976. A lot has changed since then. Elvis has left the building. Most of your Neighborhood Watch groups have more sophisticated security than what was guarding the Presley mansion on that April night so long ago. This is due in large part to the war on terror which began, in earnest, twenty-five years after Bruce and Steve made their mad dash at stardom. In 1976, you could walk right up to the fence at the White House. I know, because I have pictures of my brothers and I taken by my father doing just that. You couldn't see in the Lincoln bedroom windows or anything, but it still felt like "The People's House." When I returned to Washington D.C. with my own son a couple years back, we couldn't get anywhere near the place. My son prattled on about all the counter-terrorism measures in place: sharpshooters, missile batteries, lasers. We giggled nervously about all the ways we could get in trouble by even playing around the edge of this maximum security perimeter.
We never would have considered hopping that fence, even if our faces had been on the covers of Time, Newsweek and Rolling Stone. What made Omar Gonzalez think he was going to get away with it? Maybe because he could. He did. The forty-two-year-old from Texas made it all the way to just inside the North Portico before being subdued by Secret Service. Carrying a knife? Really. The Treasury agents didn't bother to explain to Mister Gonzalez that the Obamas were out of town. Back in 1976, Bruce Springsteen was able to walk away from the gates of Graceland and return to his band to play the next show. How long will it be before Omar Gonzalez gets back on the road. I'll be watching and waiting from behind the fence, thank you very much.