Saturday, December 20, 2014

Kids In The Hall

I was one of those skeptics who, upon hearing "Dookie" for the first time, thought: "Cute, but can you really make a career out of that?" It's been twenty years since that record was on everyone's turntable. Or CD player. Or one of those newfangled Mp3 players. It was a pop record, and it got Green Day, from the East Bay, kicked out of the gritty punk enclave known as Gilman Street. I suppose that now that they have their own promotional website, they might consider themselves sellouts, but this is the path we all walk, eventually.
Just like eventually I always succumb to peer pressure. I bought my first Santana album because my brother in law looked through my CD collection and asked, "What? No Santana?" That was pretty much the same experience I had with my friend Bill in junior high when he was flipping through my albums and asked where my copy of Fleetwood Mac's "Rumors" was. I went out the next day and bought it. Now, some thirty years after that fact, both Carlos Santana and the members of Fleetwood Mac are enshrined in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I suspect this is a direct result of my buying their records, which may explain why now, or come this April, the boys from Green Day will be joining all those other pop music relics like Lou Reed and Joan Jett at the party.
I bought "Dookie" under duress. That sounds funny now, but just about any sentence that includes the word "Dookie" would. I purchased my first Green Day album because I had just moved to Oakland and some of the guys I worked with at the book warehouse were surprised that a cool guy like myself would be without that essential recording. In order to fit in with my peer group of book schleppers, I raced out and picked up my very own copy. By then, I didn't really need to listen to it. "Longview," "Basket Case," and "Welcome To Paradise" had already been committed to memory by anyone who worked in the warehouse back in 1994. Someone had made a cassette that played in heavy rotation at the packing line, alternately with all the various permutations of the Grateful Dead and their offshoots. The Grateful Dead, by the way, are also members of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. You'll never guess why I bought my copy of "American Beauty."

Friday, December 19, 2014

Know Your Rights

It's been two years since twenty first-graders and six educators were killed in Newtown, Connecticut. One by one, or by the classroom, the victims continue to line up. I confess that I am a little surprised that no one has gone public with the assertion that if Michael Brown had been carrying a gun, he would be alive today. It is the thing that passes for logic in the gun "debate." The solution for so much of what is wrong in our country seems inexorably tied, for many, to our Second Amendment Rights. It is at this moment that I find myself confounded: Do they mean the right to bear arms, or a well-regulated militia?
My guess is that a well-regulated militia, if there is such a thing, would not be caught up in any of the mess currently found in Ferguson, New York, Cleveland and the list keeps growing. Just like the list of cities with mass shootings keeps growing: Portland, Philadelphia. As I have expressed here time and again, there are cities and departments across this great land of ours where law enforcement works with the community to protect and serve without pause or question. And there are plenty of in-betweens. I live in a city where each new crisis is a call to, well, not necessarily arms but a call to some level of confrontation. Squaring off in the street has become an almost nightly ritual here in Oakland. We want to exercise our freedom to assemble and speak. We want our rights. And then there are those in-betweeners. Like the tweets from Officer Phillip White from San Jose, just down the road:  "By the way if anyone feels they can't breathe or their lives matter I'll be at the movies tonight, off duty, carrying my gun." Or the chief of police in Richmond, who showed up at a protest in uniform, holding a sign that reasserted, "Black Lives Matter." I'll give you a moment to try and make some linear sense of those last two.
The sense I can make is this: I don't want either one of their jobs. I kvetch and moan enough about being a public school teacher. I know how hard being a peace officer is. I've listened to their stories, I have seen them in action. I am everlastingly grateful that if something is lobbed at me from a crowd, it doesn't tend to explode and more often than not it's a four-square ball. Nobody is shooting at me. That's my bottom line. I suspect that when Victoria Soto went to school two years ago, she didn't expect anyone would be shooting at her, either. 
Interestingly, education is not one of those things guaranteed by our Constitution. Guns? Check. Protests? Check. Education? We'll have to get back to you on that. 

Thursday, December 18, 2014

In His Shoes

I spend a good deal of time in the summer walking around barefoot. Not necessarily down the street or even outside of my own yard, but it doesn't occur to me to stop and put on shoes and socks when I am just traipsing around my own house. If I do find myself outside, I think of the time I spent in the mountains of Colorado, wandering to and from the outdoor facilities known as "The Outhouse." This made sense, since the place I spent summers was called "The Cabin," so that literalness was extended to the privy. There was a sense of pride in walking out the path, in the dark, across whatever rocks, pine needles or unidentified pointy objects laid in wait on one's way to do their business.
But this wasn't always the case. When I was very young, I marveled at my older brother's willingness to traipse about the woods without any shoes, even if it was just that short hop to and from the outhouse. I was initially much more timid than my reckless, devil-may-care sibling. I chose, instead, to look for my father's cowboy boots.
They were great, big things, almost always found near the back door. That was the way we went. It wasn't a long walk. Just long enough to be away from the odors associated with outhouses. My feet would swim about inside those boots, clumping along on the brief back porch and then shuffling along the path. If I was in a big hurry, from the immediacy of my needs or the chill in the air, I was kept from running by my borrowed footwear. If a bear showed up, as we often teased one another that it might, I would have been an easy snack. We didn't actually have to worry about predators, but we did have to worry about the threat of imaginary predators, making the trip to and from the outhouse a perilous adventure. In cowboy boots that were five sizes too big.
It didn't matter. I wasn't really wearing the boots to keep my feet dry or warm. I wasn't wearing them to be able to run in the face of hungry predators. I wore them to be closer to my father. That's why he left them at the back door. Just in case we needed him.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Stupid Or Stubborn?

Attempting to quote John Adams, Ronald Reagan once asserted that, "Facts are stupid things." What John Adams actually said was, "Facts are stubborn things." Stupid or stubborn, facts remain just that: facts. Interesting that both men were expressing their opinions about facts, but such is the slippery nature of public speaking. Such is the nature of semantics. What do the facts mean? Who decides?
We have all sat and watched science be debated as it pertains to global warming. Scientific fact, in this world we live in, is open for discussion. How many parts per million are healthy for humans and other living things to breathe? We don't all agree, but isn't that what facts are all about? Should we argue about details, or should we use those facts as a basis to form agreements?
Argue, of course.
There is such a fine line between right and wrong, after all. I spend a lot of time on the playground at school telling kids that hitting other people is bad. On a great many occasions, I have been told by five to eleven year olds that their parents have told them that if someone hits them, they should hit back, so hitting people turns out to be okay, with an asterisk. That isn't the reason Ray Rice gave. He said that hitting people is wrong, but since the NFL couldn't decide on how they wanted to handle the fact that hitting people is wrong, it turns out that maybe hitting people isn't so bad after all. Unless you happen to be Adrian Peterson, in which case it's still a bad thing, bad enough that you can't play football and hit people if you hit people. It's kind of a situational thing.
What is not as situational anymore is the use of bullhooks on elephants in Oakland. Starting in 2017. Okay. It's a little situational, but the fact remains that the Oakland City Council passed this ban by a vote of five to two, with one abstaining. Cruelty to animals is something that most people will agree is wrong, but using a standard of "would you use a bullhook on your own child" may not be a fact-enhanced discussion. I expect that the use of bullhooks on protesters in the streets of Oakland would also be banned. The use of rubber bullets, however, remains on the table. The result of the bullhook ban has been felt immediately, as the circus will no longer be coming to our town.
Meanwhile, Dick "Dick" Cheney continues to assert his vision of the facts surrounding torture: “We were very careful to stop short of tortureThe Senate has seen fit to label their report torture.  But we worked hard to stay short of that definition." And that's a fact. A big, stupid, fact.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The Strongest Force

At the end of "The Living," a play written by Anthony Clarvoe about the ravages of the Plague in 1665 London, a speech is made summing up the tragedy by referencing the work of Sir Isaac Newton: "What Newton found: the world would fly to pieces, but for a great force, a power in every single body in the world, which pulls it ceaselessly toward every other body." Gravity. I listened to this speech, given by a high school actor in a production that featured the backstage talents of my son and his friends. They were battling gravity at every turn: keeping sets and props from falling, rolling and lifting, pushing and pulling and making the most of the laws Mister Newton suggested. That was how I was viewing it, from the outside. Inside, I was full of other thoughts.
Gravity is a very strong force, but maybe not as strong as that of life. Or death. Then again, gravity is the thing that drags us down. It brings bodies back to earth. Like the plague. Like time. It's a physics problem, really. Time is a factor in those operations. Eventually, everything comes to rest back on the ground. Or under it. These thoughts were fueled by the memorial service I was going to the next morning. A memorial for a fallen father, who would not see his teenage daughter graduate from high school this spring. Mortality and gravity. Partners in crime. It was gravity that put my own father in the ground: plane crash. Sudden deceleration trauma. When all was said and done, we sprinkled his ashes, though Newton might not be able to fully describe the way they drifted on the breeze. My father, it seems had already done his part for gravity. 
I wondered how I might eventually find my own way back to earth. Riding my bike on city streets. Bending over to pick up those tiny bits of loose change. I strenuously avoid flying in small planes, preferring not to give the natural law of irony any help. I came back to the auditorium after those few moments of reverie, having never left my seat. This wasn't Newtonian physics, this was more like Einstein. Yet, there I was, stuck in my seat, slow to get up because of the gravity of the situation. 

Monday, December 15, 2014

Beware The Figgy Pudding

It's that time of yer again, with candy canes and silver lanes aglow. This is the time of year that drove Ebenezer Scrooge absolutely batty: Holiday Party Time. Whether you are Christian, Muslim or Jew, Hindu, Satanist or Pastafarian, there will be a gathering at your place of work in the next week or so. Maybe that blessed moment has already come and gone for you. The powers that be may have decided that in order to maximize what limited productivity there might be in the rank and file before the file cabinets are closed and the lunch room gets converted into a Karaoke palace, schedule that preemptive fest that has all the Egg and not so much Nog. These last few weeks of the calendar year are a time for reflection, tying up loose ends, and trying not to do or say something in front of your co-workers that will be remembered long enough to show up on somebody's Facebook page.
Aside from that particular ignominious fate, you might also try to avoid a trip to the emergency room. Most of us are clever enough to avoid the more frightening moments at these holiday revels, but navigating the buffet may be the trickiest part. Pot lucks are a good thing, since you can generally count on those meatballs that you brought being both edible and non-threatening. Jello? This could be a riskier proposition. Better to stick with those freshly opened relish trays and little buckets of Ranch Dressing. Unless they've been sitting out under the lights for the past four hours while everyone looks for a place to put their coats. Or maybe it's best if you have the whole thing catered so you don't have to worry about that.
Or maybe not.
Last Wednesday, dozens of people attending an office holiday party in central Florida fell violently ill from apparent food poisoning. Food samples were being tested to determine the cause of the outbreak at a catered event, when guests began complaining of illness within two hours of the party's start. Emergency responders evaluated two hundred people, treating fifty-five at the scene and sending twenty-five to hospitals. Other guests drove themselves to emergency rooms, and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security was called as a precaution. Last time I checked, bringing tainted salmon mousse wasn't a treasonable offense, but these are interesting times in which we live. Perhaps we're all better off skipping the appetizers and going straight to the bar. Happy Holidays!

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Not-So-Perfect Storm

I waited for the water to rise. I listened for the wind. I battened down the hatches and brought the livestock in from the north forty. This was Stormageddon, after all. A gully-washer of epic proportions. Eventually, we all assumed, George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg would be called upon to depict the true heroes of this disaster: TV reporters sent out into the mess to get video of the rain that was coming down across the Bay Area.
I was safe inside my home, looking out on the streets of Oakland, strewn with debris, not as a result of the storm but rather because of the fifth straight night of protests. The wind and the rain had more of a cleansing effect. It was a relief. So was the day off work. I have worked for the Oakland Unified School District for more than seventeen years, and have never once experienced a "snow day." I went to school on September 11, 2001. I rode my bike, just like most every other day since I started. I rode my bike on dark and cold and windy mornings for all those years, until this one. The powers that be in the administrative offices downtown took their cue from the National Weather Service and a number of other adjacent districts and decided to close the schools in anticipation of what was anticipated to be the worst storm in nearly a decade. Since I have been employed by the district for nearly two decades, I couldn't find it in me to get that worked up about it. Before the recent drought, we have all endured a number of days of steady rain and though street flooding and a number of umbrellas have been wrecked as a result, but since kids have been making it to classes before, during and after earthquakes, fires and yes, even rainstorms, who would have guessed that a week before Christmas break we would all get an extra day off?
I would not have guessed that. I grew up in Colorado, and spent a couple of hours after the initial announcement of the closure announcement crabbing like the old man that I am about how when I was a boy we used to walk to school through drifts of snow in minus twenty degree temperatures and still go outside for recess. That was the excruciating part: getting all bundled up in boots, hats, mittens and scarves in just about the time it takes to go outside and hear the bell, just to turn around and go back inside to hang it all up again in the cloak room. I do remember a few extreme cases when school was called on account of blizzards in those days. My brothers and I would crowd around the radio, listening to the listings of school districts that were closed, cursing all those who came before us until the cheer went up because at last we were told that Boulder Valley schools would be closed as well. Which meant that we ran to our boots, hats, mittens and scarves to get dressed to go outside to play in the snow.
And that was essentially what I did on the morning that Oakland schools were closed: I watched a little of the forecast on TV, caught up on a few episodes of "Parks and Recreation" with my wife, who complained bitterly that the rain was so loud that we had to turn the television up. When that was done, I put on my running shoes and my rain jacket and went outside. I got wet. I want to thank my bosses for that opportunity.