Sunday, July 31, 2005

In the Bunker

I took it as a very pointed, personal comment on my lifestyle that my parents chose to wait until I moved out of the basement before they carpeted it. I suppose the thing that tempers this feeling somewhat is that they had to wait until my older brother had left as well, but the idea that my little brother got to wake up every morning and pad his way on nice shag carpet to the bathroom still chafes a little.
The tile was pretty scary - mostly white with little flecks of pink and grey and blue - and there were a couple of tiles that were cracked due to harsh treatment by a weight set. Again, maybe my parents were right not to waste carpeting on me and my high school buddies. The basement is where we headed after every football or basketball game. The basement is where the Atari was. Favorite games included Breakout, and endless battles with Space Invaders. A group of us band geek boys would head on back to my house to hang around on the well-worn furniture and make plans for the future and rehash the evening's events. The couch was a two-piece monster that was covered in brown and black faux fur. The very comfy easy chair was covered in the same material, but it was a royal blue - as if someone had skinned the cookie monster and laid its pelt on the chair to cure.
It was a monumental occasion when it was decided that for Halloween in my senior year there would be an actual party in the basement - girls were invited. Some of the guys brought dates. Everything changed. We still played Atari, but without the zeal and enthusiasm - sometimes we would let the girls play - if they wanted to.
My parents stayed upstairs. We were working on the whole "trust" thing. Some couples found their way over to my bedroom, with the lights out. I had a waterbed. The problem with this was that somebody (usually me) was constantly going back in to change the record or turn the tape over - how many times can you listen to side one of Billy Joel's "The Stranger" anyway?
There were some drinking parties at the end of my senior year in high school. My parent's basement was the place we all grew up, threw up, and moved on. The boys' club that had once met there had expanded to include girlfriends and underclassmen and hangers-on that we couldn't always explain - after all, why would anyone want to hang around with a bunch of band geeks?
Years later, my twenty-first birthday was celebrated in that same basement. The carpet was a nice rust color that complemented the furry couch. There was a VCR on the TV set - the Atari had been moved to a corner with the "old TV." It was a great party, I've got pictures to prove it, but I missed the tile.

Saturday, July 30, 2005

The Measure of Randomness

Here's an interesting notion: This morning I sat down to write a funny little bit about my deep-seated connection to the second law of thermodynamics. That's the one that states that a system tends to move from an ordered state to a less ordered state. It's all about entropy and the reason why the blog has the name it has. I've been fascinated with the idea since I was fifteen and saw "Annie Hall" the first time.
This is where it gets interesting: I did a quick Google search for Woody Allen quotes and found the one with his character, Alvy Singer, as a kid in the doctor's office. His mother is very concerned because he is very depressed and he has stopped doing his homework. The doctor asks why - and Alvy replies, "What's the point? The universe is expanding."
So, I wrote a few loving paragraphs about entropy, and felt very amused and smug about my very clever bit of humor. Then I went to save and publish my entry, and the universe just swallowed it up. The page could not be displayed, and when I went back, there was the empty form - taunting me. My initial response was to recreate the piece from memory, starting with the "Annie Hall" quote. This time I Googled for "Alvy Singer on homework." Turns out that there are hundreds (really) of blogs and forums and discussions that center on this particular bit of movie dialogue. It occurs to me that I may have unwittingly stumbled upon a grand unification theory. All of physics, it would seems, bends back to "Annie Hall." After years of feeling hopeless, I have come to appreciate this: Comedy trumps the second law of thermodynamics.

Friday, July 29, 2005

Funny Money

I live in a house that is valued at more than a half a million dollars. I almost fell of my chair laughing when I typed that. Why? Because so much about money is just plain made up. Here's why I believe this to be true. Eight years ago, we bought our house for the princely (to us) sum of $135,000 - one HUNDRED and thirty five THOUSAND dollars (best if you do your "Doctor Evil" impression there). It was suggested to us at the time that we were getting a pretty good deal. Our realtor said as much.
Okay - let's be honest - of course the realtor is going to tell us that we got a good deal or else he's not doing his job, right? Then there's the simple matter of the rest of the houses on our street are not as well maintained, nor do they support a front an a back yard. At the time of our purchase, we pushed all of our nickels and dimes into one big stack and made the best possible deal with the mortgage broker to make it possible for us to own our own home.
Did I mention that this house is on the East side of San Francisco Bay (Oakland)? Did I mention that most evenings we're pretty happy that all the street lights work? Did I mention that most of the rest of the homes on our block are rentals? Did I mention that this was Oakland?
Anyway, eight years have passed and it became important for us to do the thing that all homeowners do when they can't get on a TV game show: they refinance. In order to do this, we had to get an estimate as to the worth of our property in the current market. Apparently, if we had a yen to sell our house today, we could make approximately four times the amount that we had originally paid for it. Or that the bank paid for it - or the amount of our original loan. This is where it gets silly to me, because none of this money has actually existed anywhere for at least eight years. When we refinanced, they didn't want us to pay for this new half a million dollar house, they just wanted us to get a better deal on that house that was considerably less than that - that's why they could make that swell deal on the refinancing. Get it? I still don't. But I suppose if someone kidnapped my dog and asked for a half a million in small bills I could sell my house to get my dog back.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

9.8 meters per second per second

Thank God I remembered his name: Ortho. I wouldn't have been able to sleep tonight if I had lost that little bit. It only took a call to my mother and a quick rehash:
"No - it had something to do with bug spray."
"That's it!"
Ortho was a young man - probably in his early twenties - who decided to do a free climb up the face of the big pile of granite that stood at one side of our mountain property. Three of us kids (I was about nine at the time) watched him make slow progress, stretching for holds, straining to reach the next step. Then he fell. It was a very matter of fact thing - not a dramatic, clinging with one hand - clawing the air with the other kind of moment. Gravity just caught up with him all of a sudden.
He landed with a thud in a small grove of aspen trees. A couple of Ortho's friends came running as well as my dad. There was some brief discussion about what to do with him, but since we were miles from the nearest hospital or fire station, we rigged up a stretcher and dragged him over to the porch of our cabin. This is where the brain trust went into high gear, trying to determine the next steps. For his part, Ortho was quite lucid, but still not quite ready to move on his own. One of his friends claimed knowledge of spinal injuries (why wouldn't the hippie guy from across the road know about spinal cord injuries?) and we fashioned a combination sling/traction device out of cardboard boxes to transport him down the mountain to an emergency room.
It was some time before we heard back (we had no phone at the cabin) that Ortho had cracked a vertebra but was going to be all right - eventually.
I learned to respect gravity that day - though I still chose to flaunt it for some time after that (jumping from swings, etc.), but watching Ortho taught me just how quick up can be down.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Extra Innings

I just got back from the ball park. The home team won. That made me feel much better for the four boys we dragged out with us. It's not as if they wouldn't want to go - getting to see a professional baseball game is still a pretty cool ticket around our house - but it's always just a little less fun when our team loses.
I have the same visceral satisfaction to baseball that I have for Disneyland. When I go to Disneyland, there is a moment as I pass through the gates, and head up under the train station and look out on Main Street - with Tomorrow and Adventure on either side and Fantasy straight ahead - I've gotten my money's worth right there. I have the same kind of feeling as I walk up the stairs to our seats in the stadium. When you finally look out at the perfect green grass and the freshly manicured infield, the day's game is an empty scorecard of potential.
My son and his friends were able to stay put for about three innings, then the sugar from the the root beer floats (today's promotion) started to kick in and they needed to go check out what was for sale as well as how fast each one could throw a baseball. My wife sponsored this exodus, and I was left alone in the upper deck (okay, the other 40,000 other folks kept me company).
The home team was behind by two runs in the bottom of the ninth. Careful base running and timely hits got us back to even, but the rally stalled and the extra innings began. What a treat - the seats were two dollars apiece and then they made the game a little longer. In the tenth, with runners on second and third and two outs, a little bloop into left by the second baseman drove in the winning run. The kids had made it back to the seats by this time, and we all had a grand high-five celebration. After that, we picked up our souvenir cups and headed down the ramp to the parking lot. The only sad part was thinking of the kids who left after the eighth inning. Oh well, they can head back out to the park on Friday - I hear it's bucket hat day.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Free Beer Tonight!

Walking through the University of Colorado campus in the early eighties, I used to see signs taped to light poles (and underclassmen who made the mistake of passing out on the sidewalk) advertising "Free Beer tonight at Tulagi's." Tulagi's, aside from being the nominally most frat-infested bar within stumbling distance from the campus, the bar where the apocryphal tale has it that REO Speedwagon wrote the song "Ridin' the Storm Out." I mention these two qualifiers to suggest that perhaps this place might periodically need to give away beer to get a more discerning clientele through the doors.
Amusingly enough, "Free Beer" was the name of a band. As it turns out, there have been and continue to be many different groups of arrested adolescents working on this same notion. It might have been the one that got its start in the San Francisco Bay Area, but was probably not the one that was rambling around Detroit back in the 90's. That being said, I confess that I never bothered to attend a show by either one of these bands - but I admired their marketing savvy. If they had wanted to get hungry drunk boys to their shows they might have only accomplished this feat better by smearing a trail of Dominoe's pizza grease leading up to the front door of the club.
I was a sucker for a thing called "Animal Drown Night." This was held at the local 3.2 beer establishments during the middle of the week when things were slow. You paid some mildly ridiculous cover (like five or six bucks) and then you were allowed to drink all the watery, salted beer you could hold down. A variation on this trick was to have "Ladies Night" when young women were allowed in for free, and then were encouraged to buy pitchers of beer for only a dollar. There wasn't a real concern about who drank the dollar pitchers, they just wanted to empty those taps. There never was any free beer.
I guess that 's why I still find "Barenaked Ladies" so damn amusing.

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Champagne Music Makers

I thought I detected the faint odor of Rose Milk hand cream in the air today. Saturday marked the passing of Lawrence Welk's accordianist, Myron Floren. Somewhere my piano teacher is weeping into her upturned palms - slathered in the aforementioned lotion. We mention the death of Mr. Floren here as a jumping off point - as is so often the case, it is only the beginning of the story, not the end.
For a few years, I went to piano lessons with my older brother in the basement of a rather tortured soul. Mr. H was a wonderful pianist, but not much of a teacher. He tended to let his very awkward personal life seep into his lesson time. There were a number of times toward the end when I just sat in the waiting room, expecting to be called in, and the call never came.
So, we changed teachers. Mary Kay was different from Mr. H in both her boundless enthusiasm and her willingness to come to our house to give us lessons (effectively eliminating that uncomfortable waiting problem). She had a lot of notions about how best to teach my younger brother and me (my older brother had moved on to junior high and was no longer required to take piano lessons). We learned to conduct (our mother was encouraged to buy a "real baton" for this exercise). She had us train our voices as well as our fingers to appreciate the tonal qualities of - oh, I don't know -something.
It was only after our first few months of lessons that we were introduced to her fascination with Lawrence Welk, and more specifically, Myron Floren. I can't fault her for her music tastes - my own are eclectic and disparate enough to erect my own glass house to not throw critical stones in - but it was the imposition of those tastes that became a concern. I was fortunate in the same way that my older brother aged out of piano lessons that I skated free from Mary Kay's suggestion that I take up the accordion. That fell to my younger brother - who has the self-effacing charm to get away with strapping an according to his chest. Then came the records. And the trips to go see Myron when he was on tour. This all culminated with a trip to Chicago with several of her other students (a number of whom were mentally challenged). I had reached the age when "No" meant "you've got to be kidding me, of course I wouldn't be caught dead going to Chicago with a bunch of according playing feebs." I stayed home. My brother went. At the hotel swimming pool, he was almost drowned by one of the larger accordianists who didn't have words to describe his jealousy when the attentions of another pretty little thing didn't return his affections. Then, later that evening, they all went to the big show. It might be hard to imagine with hindsight which was the more terrifying experience for a pre-teen.
He lived through it, and when he made it to junior high, our family bid adieu to Mary Kay. He kept his according. He had it with him well into his twenties - perhaps as a reminder of what being too nice can get you. He set it on fire and pushed it off a five-story building for a film he and his friend were making. A kind of Viking funeral. And now, Myron will join it in Valhalla.


My wife was lamenting the passing of summer last night. "Waitaminnit," I said, "isn't it my job to grieve for things that haven't even left the building yet?" As noted here many times before, I am the nihilist and my wife is the one who tends to "wrap things in white light." Just another example of what I have come to refer to as "the push-me pull-you nature of relationships."
For those of you unfamiliar with the two-headed llama first seen in Doctor Dolittle (alas, not in Eddie Murhpy's version), it is simply an animal with two heads and no behind. There is a constant challenge within this beast as to who gets to go forward and who needs to back up. It's a lot like dancing, trying to figure out who is going to lead. Men have traditionally had this role all to themselves - but as Faith Whittlesey said "Remember, Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, but she did it backwards and in high heels."
So who does wear the tap shoes in my family? Well, we all do - and now that our son is walking and talking and solving engineering problems on his own we sometimes have three heads all pulling in different directions. Ideally, we would happily take turns and be happy in the notion that soon we would have the opportunity to be in charge once again and impress our will onto the rest. Sadly, we forget our manners and we find ourselves periodically in the power vacuum that exists in all relationships on a Friday night: "Whaddyouwannado?" "Idunno, whaddayouwannado?" Now we're looking for the other side of the car - we don't want to drive anymore - we want to be passengers. Except for the eight year old - his life's mission is clear: own all the Legos. We must go to Toys 'R' Us. So once again, I guess it's important to be careful what you wish for, since you just might have to pay for it later.

Saturday, July 23, 2005

Working Out

I woke up early this morning and got to watch Lance Armstrong win the final time trial of his career. It was a stirring moment for me - and to see him surrounded by his kids at the finish line did my dad's heart good as well. It made me feel like getting on a bike and riding for miles - up hills and down narrow lanes. Then I remembered I live in Oakland, not Paris.
It wasn't the first time I have been moved to fits of athletic pursuit. The first time I saw "Rocky" I went straight home and started lifting my older brother's weights. I even talked my father into putting a speed bag up in our garage. After a month or two, it started to collect dust. I became obsessed with running after "Chariots of Fire" - hearing Vangelis' score in my head as I pounded through the surf in slow motion. I still run, but now it's on the mean streets of the East Bay, and the soundtrack is more often Green Day than Vangelis.
I saw another form of exercise on television this week. I was watching "Rescue Me" - a wonderful piece of adult drama on FX if you watch TV - and watched the main character, an alcoholic played by Denis Leary, stand outside a liquor store. Abruptly after that, he was buying two big bottles, taking them home, pouring and drinking out of large glass tumblers. Then he was in a bar, drinking still more and nuzzling up with a woman who he eventually coaxes into the men's room for a quick trip around the horn. More drinking, then the trouble starts and then, magically, he's back outside the liquor store - shaking his head and walking away.
That scene reminded me of how incredibly hard it was to drink - at least the way I used to. It was a form of exercise - just a debilitating and ultimately empty form of working out. I was glad when the show was over that I gave that up. I could wake up early this morning and see Lance take the yellow jersey one more time. And then I went for a run - I listened to Green Day.

Friday, July 22, 2005

My Two Cents Worth

I ride my bicycle to work. I don't want a medal for this. I don't need one. I'm picking up spare change on the way.
I picked up this habit (get it?) from my older brother - who is still the master in the art of spotting and retrieving dropped coinage. He has his own database to track how much money he's taken in on a weekly, monthly, and yearly basis. He's not ready to quit his day job just yet, but he does have to regularly lay in a supply of coin rolls of various denominations.
This obsession with picking up other people's money seems frugal to some, compulsive to others. What others think stopped being a primary concern of mine a long time ago, so the whole "picking up people's change thing" is hardly a ripple in my pond. Some people have expressed a reasonable concern for my health, considering that I sometimes stop my bike (on side streets, never busy thoroughfares) to bend over and pick up a few cents. "Somebody's going to run you over someday," they say. Quite possible, since I present an easier target when I'm standing still. I have a larger concern that someday I will be bending over to pick up somebody's nickel and damage my spine to the tune of several thousand dollars. Oh well - lift with your knees, I guess.
The other thing I find interesting about this little hobby of mine is the abundance of pennies I find on the streets of Oakland. I have puzzled for some time about how and why I might periodically find ten, twenty, even thirty pennies scattered in the middle of a street. I have wondered if they were the remnants of some robbery gone bad - dropped in the street out of frustration. Or could it be some youth/gang related tribute to fallen comrades - or a mark of some heinous act of retribution to come? I think it's more likely that they're just tossed out on the asphalt for cars to run over like we used to put a penny on the railroad tracks for trains to smash. With all the kids doing donuts in intersections here in Oakland, it might just be a fun little sideshow for the sideshow - to see if the car can spit the pennies out behind the car as it peels out.
Maybe - as you can see, I've spent some time pondering it. I generally don't pick up the pennies, nickels or dimes that have been mangled beyond use. Even the guys stopping to pick up loose change have some standards.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Moral Outrage

Hillary Clinton is looking into a new cause. Apparently universal health care just wasn't driving the grinding wheels of political stardom fast and furious enough. Now she's looking into how to get those filthy violent video games rated correctly. Don't get me wrong - I'm no fan of "Grand Theft Auto - Anywhere," but this one just kind of reeks of photo-op to me.
Wasn't it Al Gore's wife, Tipper (still sounds dirty after all these years) who spearheaded (still sounds dirty) the Parent's Music Resource Committee all those years ago? Thanks to that effort, families are free to spend hours peeling off that annoying "objectionable lyrics" sticker to see what R. Kelly is really wearing. It was another shot in a neverending war - Elvis Presley and his gyrations, the Beatles and their haircuts, and that David Bowie - what kind of freak is he anyway?
Probably my favorite bit of unnecessary fuss about rock and roll centers around the song "Louie Louie." I quote from "In the mid 1960s, many people considered this subject a very serious matter. Rock and roll was considered a subversive movement, and governor Matthew Welsh of Indiana actually used his powers to restrict airplay of this song. Of course, all of this controversy helped spur more record sales, as teenagers rushed to the record store to buy the record that shocked, or at least confused their parents. It was no accident that the extra notoriety contributed to the popularity of 'Louie Louie' as one of the greatest party songs of all time."
Just what is the upshot of the culture wars? Increased fascination and revenue, primarily. Now, finally "Grand Theft Auto" will get the rating it deserves: M. I can see the lines of outraged consumers waiting to return their smutty filth back to the smutty filth peddlers who peddled the smutty filth to them in the first place - but couldn't you show me how to get to the naughty bits one more time, first?
Here's one to ponder: Is society a mirror of culture, or does culture just follow in the wake of society? Are there things I don't what my son to see? You bet. Are there things I don't want to see? That list might be even longer. In the meantime, let's try and keep an eye out for some or the real bad guys.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

He's dead, Jim.

My friend Mike just e-mailed me the bad news: Scotty is dead, Jim. The passing of one of the great accents of our time bears a great burden for our society. How can we go on in his absence? I don't think I can hold 'er much longer, cap'n.
Star Trek conventions were already getting a little sparse. Bones is gone. Sarek/Romulan Commander has passed on. Even Captain Kirk has moved to VH-1. The United Federation of Planets is feeling it down deep, where no man has gone before.
Still, how many times did Montgomery Scott save the galactic bacon of the starship Enterprise and all those who served upon her carpeted decks? He was asked to do the impossible week after week, and later when he moved to the big screen, he had to design a transparent aluminum tank and transport two humpback whales into it - all the while dealing with faulty Klingon wiring. He wasn't simply an engineer - he was a magician.
If Engineer Scott were alive today (I know, just a little while ago he was - but...) he most certainly could have gotten the space shuttle off the pad and back into space where she belongs. He had a much deeper and abiding love for his ship than his captain. Kirk was always looking for ways to trade his machine in for the lives of his crew. He was a real "people person." Scotty never got himself blasted so that he had to be brought back to life by some miracle of imagined physics. He was at his post, waiting for the next ridiculous order. Scott was never happier than when things were at their worst - mechanically speaking. Kirk would make some hair-brained suggestion, and Spock would always back him up. Scotty just had to make do - "Warp 10? Aye sir, I'll do my best." Back to work, Scotty.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005


INSPECTOR CLOUSEAU: Does your dog bite?
CLOUSEAU leans down to pet the dog, who makes a snarling leap at him. CLOUSEAU pulls his tattered glove and sleeve back and retreats to the doorway.
CLOUSEAU: I thought you said your dog did not bite!
INNKEEPER: It's not my dog.
And so it goes. Strangers routinely approach me when I'm out with my dog, Maddie - asking me just that: Does your dog bite? I have a number of responses for that question. Most of the time I tell them, "No, she's a friendly one. She just sounds vicious." For the obnoxious teenagers who want to make our lives more difficult I say, "Only when I give the secret command." And still other times I tell them, "Not yet."
Part of owning a dog is never knowing for sure when they're going to go off. Maddie has an irrational hatred of anyone wearing the uniform of the U.S. Postal Service, but she's best friends with the UPS guy. She is one of the most patient dogs around children I have ever encountered, but the only two humans she has ever seriously tried to gnaw on are kids. Does that mean I shouldn't trust her around small people? I get a little nervous when she starts to get into her herding mode, but generally I presume safety.
When I'm out running with her, kids stop me and ask if they can pet my dog. I'm happy to do it, and so is Maddie. It makes me feel good to know our dog is the goodwill ambassador for canines - unless you're the mailman.

Monday, July 18, 2005

The Future's So Bright...

I've lamented to many over my frustration about not having a flying car, or even a personal jet pack, but it's 2005. Two thousand and FIVE for crap's sake - where is the future we were all supposed to be living?
I remember watching Creature Features in my parents' basement when I was a mere slip of a lad (well, a roly-poly sort of slip) and watching "Frankenstein 1970." The film was made in 1958, with Boris Karloff assuming the role of Doctor Frankenstein this time. The big futuristic trick here is that the mad scientist is using an atomic reactor to bring his monster to life. The irony that was lost on me at the time was that this oh-so-futuristic notion was chronologically only about two years away from the time I was watching the movie, so there wasn't a lot of time to get that kind of technology up and running before I turned eight. So, if you're keeping score at home, thirty-five years later, there is still no way to use a nuclear reactor to bring a corpse back to life.
While we're on the subject of irresponsible use of atomic energy, how about "Space 1999?" The pilot episode synopsis: In the year 1999, the 311 inhabitants of Moonbase Alpha are stranded when the Moon is hurled from Earth's orbit when nuclear waste is ignited by magnetic radiation. Not only did our satellite stay boringly in orbit through the turn of the century, none of the really cool looking vehicles suggested in the show have come to exist, and we're still waiting for the next shuttle launch before we can get around to making a permanent base on the moon. That would make us 0 for 2 on possible futures, right?
So what's still coming up? How about "Soylent Green?" IMDB's plot summary: In the year 2022, the starving masses depend upon the government manufactured food item Soylent Green to exist. But in the midst of a murder investigation, a cop named Thorn (Charlton Heston) uncovers the chilling source of the product. Okay, now we're getting somewhere - we've still got seventeen years to reach this dystopian pinnacle. What kind of advances are we talking about here? Cops wear football helmets for riot gear - check. Pollution and population has run unchecked for too many years - check. All we need are those tasty green crackers!
Okey doke - the future clock's ticking!

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Fate Colliding

I bumped a car yesterday evening in a parking lot. I had a fleeting moment of panic, where I thought the most logical thing to do was to roar off into the night. Then the reality of driving the family car with my child strapped into the seat behind me came crashing back in. I wasn't getting away with anything. I got out and checked for damage and injuries. Happily, there seemed to be little of either to mention - save for the vast and spreading wound to my self-esteem. After all, I'm a grown up now - my son was safely strapped in his car seat and this kind of thing just doesn't happen when you're being careful. Oh yeah - "being careful."
I periodically take a good bit of ribbing for my careful nature - Captain Cautious. Moderation and control are my watch words - with occasional flurries of giddy excess to show what a fun guy I still am, but other than that I'm pretty tightly wound.
This wasn't always the case. I beat the three cars I owned from high school through college into the ground. The saddest example of this was the red Toyota pickup that I inherited from my older brother as he moved to his next vehicle. I was driving my younger brother down the twisty mountain road that lead to our family's cabin. We were headed back down to Boulder for some contact with city folk. My wallet was on the seat beside me and I asked my little brother to put the loose change that was sliding around the dashboard into the change pocket in my wallet. "Where's the change pocket?" he asked. I reached over to show him where to put the seventy eight odd cents that were my primary concern.
When I looked up, all I saw were trees. We had left Magnolia Road and were now headed down the side of the hill. We came to a very abrupt stop when our progress was halted by a young but very sturdy aspen tree. Another even smaller tree was propped up against the driver's side door - keeping us from rolling over. It was a nice bit of fate and nature colliding with the shiny new red Toyota pickup. Oh yeah - the new truck. It wasn't new anymore. The front end had been moved up a good six inches and the engine had been shoved back into the drive train. My new truck was totaled. The hardest part was telling my older brother what I had done to his pretty red pickup.
Twenty-seven years later, I feel that guilt again. The Saturn is just fine - it's made out of plastic, after all. The other car was fine - just a lot of shaken nerves. But gee - don't I feel like a dope.

Saturday, July 16, 2005

There's Got To Be A Morning After

Excuse me, but I'm still wiping the sleep from my eyes, having climbed into bed sometime on this side of one o'clock in the morning following our date with destiny. Or was that density? We stayed up late last night waiting to be the first, or some of the first, to own a copy of "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince." We spent the evening quietly enough, with a house full of my son's friends and their parents, each one reminding us that what we were heading to do was insane.
When we reached Borders Bookstore, a sprawling megastore that sells all manner of media and a nice latte' (or so I'm told), there were throngs of people already waiting. There were parents with kids, parents without kids, kids who should have been with their parents, disgruntled teens who didn't need their parents around thank you very much, and some adults who were probably there because their parents didn't love them enough when they were kids. All these folks were meandering through the stacks and shelves of books, CD's, DVD's, magazines and Cliff's Notes (no advance copies of the Cliff's Notes for Harry Potter 6 were available - I checked). There were some organized activities: a Hogwarts Trivia Contest, a table to make your own wizard hat (purple cone of paper with crayon), and the obligatory check-in table. We spent a few moments considering what we wanted to start with, and concluded that getting a book to sit and read while the time passed made the most sense.
As the hour grew later, we moved to the actual line for purchasing the book that snaked through the store. From our spot in the line we couldn't see the cash registers that would eventually be our salvation and our deliverance. We sat down on the very thin carpet and began the small talk with others that would while away the hours - minute by minute.
Then something happened: The lights went out. There was the expected "ooo's" and "ahhh's" from the assembled throng, with few squeals from children of all ages, then we all waited for the lights to come back on. And we waited. And waited. A Borders employee dressed unfortunately like some sort of valet/puritan settler walked through the store taking digital pictures assuring us all that we had nothing to fear, everything would be fine.
Everything wasn't fine. Pacific Gas and Electric finally returned a call to someone's cell phone to say that there was no way that they were going to be able to get the store back on line that night. Embarrassed Borders employees who had taken their festive garb off started to make the announcement to us all: There would be no Harry Potter (or any of the pile of impulse selections families had made while lingering for hours in the store) sold that night - but we were all invited back bright and early the following morning to buy as many copies (3) as we could carry.
The disappointment of an eight year boy (no matter how old he really is) is palpable. There was a hush that fell over us all as we made our way politely to the exit. A few folks wanted to discuss the issue, but when we got outside and realized that there was a power (or lack thereof) larger than ourselves at work. Bless my wife's cheerful enthusiasm for suggesting - with half an hour left to the deadline - that we drive back to our neighborhood bookstore to see if they were open and just maybe had a copy of Harry Potter to spare.
The interior of Laurel Bookstore is approximately the size of Borders' reference section, but it was packed and spilling out into the street when we got there - twenty minutes to spare. My son wriggeled up to the front of the crowd to take a peek at the magician who was performing at the back of the store (what a great idea, why didn't Borders think of that?). Mom and Dad pushed their way to the counter and insinuated ourselves a "reserved" copy of the most important book in the publishing world. Just after midnight, the magic show concluded, and they started passing out the books.
On the ride home, my son read the first sentence of "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" aloud to us. He was incredibly tired, but incredibly pleased. When we got home, he insisted on being read to sleep from his new book. We all climbed up into his bed and read the first five pages before the soft snoring began. He's still asleep, but he'll be up soon - reading.

Friday, July 15, 2005

It's 12:01, do you know where your muggles are?

There's a cultural phenomenon taking place tonight. "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" goes on sale at midnight. Bookstores around the country will be staying open late to make sure that devotees of Harry and his exploits don't have to wait a minute more than necessary to find out what happens to their hero. This is book six. Books one through five have amassed a fortune for several generations of Rowlings to come, and this one will no doubt out sell all the previous installments - why else would one continue to write them?
I'll be there, with my son - waiting anxiously like the rest. The first five books came our way in lazy paperback form. We didn't stand in line. We borrowed the first one to see if we might like it. We did. We have now officially met up with the curve of expectation and are standing in line with the rest of the muggles (see how easily I slip into the lingo?). We are very much the Potter household. Legos still hold sway in most cases, and Star Wars has better vehicles, but Harry's adventures in and around Hogwarts are an endless source of fascination for us.
Well, at least they are for my son. I am determined that he not turn out like his father. Years ago, I sat in the middle of the back seat on long station wagon trips to anywhere, sandwiched between my older and younger brother. They shared their fascination about the collected works of J.R.R. Tolkein with each other for miles and hours and days. I stared straight ahead and tried not to absorb their mania. "Smaug - Shelob - Minas Tirith - Samwise" the names flooded over me as I strengthened my resolve to ignore all things hobbit-like. I lived in a world of geeks, yet I maintained a steadfast avoidance of the Grail of Geekdom, "The Lord of the Rings." I bought a copy of National Lampoon's parody, "Bored of the Rings" just to leave lying around - I didn't even read that.
But I wasn't completely immune. Purely by osmosis the plot and all those character names and places seeped into my cerebellum. I had lived with the Cliff's Notes long enough that I had become a vicarious expert myself. I went to see Ralph Bakshi's animated version (of the first half of the trilogy). I knew I wasn't truly of the clan, because I liked it. I loved Peter Jackson's films - the source material was inspiring enough to create three films - each one longer than the next - and each one better than the one before it. I secretly felt shame for not learning to write elvish in tenth grade along with all my nerd friends.
So, tonight we'll be there, wands in hand awaiting the next epistle from Hogwarts. I'll be reading this one right alongside my aspiring young wizard.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Rock and Roll Voids

How to fill a void? Well, if you're the members of INXS ("in excess," get it?) you get the Columbia Broadcasting System to help you audition a new lead singer for you - eight years after the unfortunate if not just a little tawdry passing of their former front man, Michael Hutchence. In a very precisely dedicated rip-off of "American Idol," rock star wannabes take turns flogging the Australian band's greatest hits. Here's what CBS's web site would like you to know about the show: Celebrated rock guitarist Dave Navarro and Brooke Burke are the hosts of ROCK STAR: INXS, a new reality show executive produced by SURVIVOR's Mark Burnett. The show combines the world of rock music with relationship-style unscripted drama, performance competition and a weekly contestant elimination. The last singer standing will become the lead singer of the internationally renowned band INXS, will embark on a worldwide concert tour with the band and will be part of the group's new album." I'm not sure about this, but I don't think Ms. Burke is a celebrated guitarist.
That's one way to go about it, I suppose. Another way might be to get Sir Bob Geldof to call you up and cajole you and your ex-bandmates into getting together for one more gig after twenty-four years apart (oh yeah - to end world poverty). That's what Pink Floyd did a few weeks ago for Live 8. Asked recently if he thought the band would mend fences and go back on tour again, Roger "I'm a bigger curmudgeon than you" Waters said that he couldn't imagine it, since there was still so much bad blood and litigation pending - but hey, thanks for asking.
So, what's more rock and roll? Whoring yourself out in the memory of your past glories, or keeping the hatchet deeply buried so no one will get hurt again? Tough to say, but I did notice an eerie coincidence: at the time of his death in a closet, Michael Hutchence was involved with Paula Yates. Paula Yates was the ex-wife of one Sir Bob Geldof. Paula made her own ugly exit from the planet in 2000 from a drug overdose. Both Yates and Michael Hutchence's father insisted that "Saint Bob" was to blame for Michael's accidental hanging from his own belt in a hotel closet. Maybe I just don't understand rock and roll, but if I were the members of Pink Floyd, I'd be careful about how I answered if Bob Geldof suggests they do a reunion concert on CBS.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Name Tag Jobs

First things first: When I think of name tags, my mind always goes back to a waitress my family encountered on one of our many station wagon treks across the desert southwest. When this young lady approached our table, my father - always one to chat up the help - said, "I couldn't help but notice - your name tag is upside down." Without missing a smack on her Doublemint, she replied, "I figure anybody really wants to know my name, they'll ask me."
I guess I've had fewer name tag jobs than most, only because for some unknown reason (stubbornness? fear?) I tend to stick with even the crappiest of jobs for years at a time. The one that stands out most prominently was my years (yes, you read that right) at Arby's. As is the case for most fast food restaurants, by the time you put on the scary polyester uniform, the notion of wearing a badge that identifies you by name is completely an afterthought. The best thing about the franchise that I worked at was this: They didn't care what your name tag said. They all but insisted that you have a funny comedy nickname. This helped take the edge off serving America's Roast Beef, Yes Sir! There was Rat, Waldo, Monkey, Buckwheat - and the whole thing was owned by a guy we knew only as "Cowboy." It only took about a week before the powers that be had determined the best possible name for my tag: Davo - to reflect my deep and abiding respect for the icons of New Wave, DEVO. If you got tired of your name, you could always make a new one on your break with the label maker. My moment of fast food ascension was when I received my cash register keys and engraved (on plastic) name tag - "DAVO Assistant Manager."
By working in the stock room unloading trailers I avoided wearing name tags during my stint at Target. The folks out on the floor were stuck in red polo shirts with their name tags prominently displayed. All the better to make it possible for customers to annoy you on a first-name basis. Later, when I moved on to the world of video rental, I felt assured that the specter of name tags was behind me. Little did I know that when I took the job in a hip, local video store that it would one day be bought and absorbed by a franchise. Uniforms and name tags had returned with a vengeance. As a manager, I had to field complaints from employees who were used to wearing their concert T-shirts and jeans to work that suddenly were asked to wear the royal blue colors of National Video - with a name tag that featured the visage of mascot Viddy O. Bear. Ironically, perhaps, that store was put out of business by mother of all chains, Blockbuster, where they don't issue name tags, but implant a chip in their employees' foreheads for easy identification.
It's been many years since my video days, and I find myself comforted in the notion that my students know me by the name I write on the board at the beginning of the year: Mr. Caven. Every so often, one of them asks me what my "real name" is. I just smile - and know that in my closet I keep my briefcase, upon which is lovingly embroidered "Davo."

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

The Comedy of Regurgitation

"...and I see people getting up at seven in the morning to go to work at the drugstore to sell Flair pens - but the most amazing thing to me is: I get paid for doing this." (insert banjo flourish)
Oh, there are vast regions of my brain that are crammed full with comedy bits for regurgitation. In the fall of 1977, I was one of the first in my high school to buy "Let's Get Small" by then up and coming comic Steve Martin. I memorized the whole thing. The happy part about this for me was that it cemented my reputation for being a funny (later "wild and crazy") guy. It took another three or four months for the rest of the planet to latch on to the record and make most - if not all - of it a series of catch phrases. But for those three months, I was the funniest guy in school. Thanks, Steve.
Later on I digested a series of National Lampoon records. The challenge with most of these bits is that they are generally dialogues and don't lend themselves to one-man shows. I didn't let that deter me. Probably the chief amusement gained from these records was the creative and very giddy use of profanity. Brian-Doyle and his brother Bill, better known as Bill Murray and that old guy, did an extraordinarily profane piece about confession. National Lampoon's "That's Not Funny, That's Sick" still plays in a loop somewhere in the back of my mind - I have to be careful not to turn on the external speakers.
Before that, in junior high it was all about Monty Python. I was "one of those guys" who knew (knows) every syllable of "Monty Python and the Holy Grail." Finding this just a bit mainstream, I devoured their other records as well as the TV show to give myself an excuse to go spouting off in a high-pitched cockney accent. The Dead Parrot, The Penguin on Top of the Telly, The Cheese Shop - these were all staples of my personal geek show. I tried at times to enlist the help of my friends to do skits in repertory, but I could never get the same kind of enthusiasm from them as I had - go figure.
Winding the clock back still further, we find the genius of Bill Cosby. It occurred to me that Bill comes by his Jello cred honestly. He was flogging Jello as a means to keep monsters away and a staple of suburban dessert long before he started getting a check from Kraft Foods. He was also the voice of my childhood. I would do the Chicken Heart for my parents' friends, but I was never sure if they were truly amused or just patronizing me and my poor parents. Long before Kelsey Grammer was warbling his own scat theme song, Bill was jamming with Quincy Jones before each episode of Chet Kincaid, Physical Education instructor: "Got some ragginz, and some rollz, and some reezenfryzen - ah ha ha ha."
The joy of all this? My brain is generally a pretty funny place to be - though it gets a little crowded sometimes, since I'm still storing all of this stuff in analog form.

Monday, July 11, 2005


I will always remember the date of my friend's father's birthday. "Get it? Seven Eleven - like the store!" That's what the dimmer of his buddies used to say when the day rolled around. Why won't I forget it? Because I was supposed to start summer school two days after that.
To back up just a bit, in the spring of 1986 I had been in college for about half a decade, and it was about time for me to move on - fiscally speaking. I went to see an academic advisor (who'd have thought that a university the size of CU would have such people on staff?). His advice to me was to stop taking so many damn writing courses and take just a couple of sciences so I could graduate with some sort of degree. Did you know that after a certain point, the credits you take in your major start counting to an additional major, and you can't graduate without finishing both? Well, I didn't. I figured that someone would eventually just call me up and tell me that I'd attended enough lectures, workshops and seminars and they'd send me a diploma in the mail. Not so - they wanted me to take an active role in that process. To that end, Mister Academic Advisor advised me to take a couple of courses over the summer and I could be on my merry matriculated way.
I signed up for the courses. I even bought the books. I just never made it to the classes. The weekend before the summer session, I decided to have one last little fling with some friends of mine. Some friends - and a swing set (strike ominous chord here).
Life is a series of choices. Everything would have been fine if I hadn't been so dramatically altered when I jumped out of the swing at Scott Carpenter park. I would have graduated on time (give or take) - and I would have avoided physical therapy to regrow my left quadriceps. I might have moved on to other greater and more grandiose things, but instead I chose to leap at the apex of my swing - hurtling into the night without a serious consideration of how and where I might land. When I came down, I came down on my left leg alone. My left leg is a sturdy enough limb for most ordinary tasks, but what I was asking it to do was beyond the laws of God and Physics. An overly simplified version of the injury I sustained would be to say that I broke my knee - five of the six parts that hold one's knee in place were obliterated in one giant leap for mankind.
I spent that summer learning how to walk again. With a brace. With a foot-long scar on the side of my left leg. When fall came, I registered for a couple more courses and walked to class every day - on crutches. I graduated in December. I make a stubborn point of going for a run on the eleventh of July. It reminds me of my strengths and my frailty. "Seven Eleven? Hey - it's like the store!" Right.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

Live At Red Rocks

Here's some more Colorado-flavored nostalgia:
There is a venue in Colorado that has been the site of many now legendary performances - Red Rocks Amphitheater. Each summer I would eagerly anticipate the list of shows that were coming to Red Rocks. The schedule would begin around Memorial Day, and the season would close before the snow began to fly in mid to late September. The magic of wandering into an acoustically perfect natural wonder and watching the lights of far away Denver come up as the stars came out was satisfying in itself, and then the shows would begin.
I saw Talking Heads play there twice. I saw John Belushi touring with the Blues Brothers not long before his date with destiny. I laughed along with a herd of other folks as Steve Martin recorded the second side of his album "Wild and Crazy Guy." It was a given that Jimmy Buffett would have a beach party (or two) there every summer. The first time I saw Bruce Springsteen was at Red Rocks - a transcendent moment for me.
A good portion of the experience of going to Red Rocks concerts was the pre-show entertainment. Sitting on the broad concrete and wood benches for hours before the music started, you could take the time to share in nature's wonders - and whatever you had brought along with you in your cooler or backpack. Probably this sense of community was felt most keenly in the marathon stand of dates that bands like the Grateful Dead and later Phish were able to block out during a long, hot summer.
But it wasn't always sunny. You could expect at least a brief afternoon shower, if not a full-on thunderstorm. Part of being in the middle of nature's wonders was this: "I wonder if I will be struck by lightning?" I never was. There are many stories of daring attempts to scale the rocks behind the amphitheater to get into a show for free - and just as many of not-so-coordinated folks who missed a show because they were being air-lifted to the nearest hospital.
The Beatles once played Red Rocks. U2 elevated it to a shrine. Acts as diverse as Indigo Girls and Incubus have played there, but the real attraction will always be the venue itself. I was part of a food fight with a few hundred of my closest friends at an otherwise forgettable Go-Gos show in the early eighties. There are other outdoor amphitheaters, most of them created with bulldozers and equipped with seats straight out of the local McDonald's - but there will only be one Red Rocks. Cheers.

Saturday, July 09, 2005

This is a test

This is a test of the internal liberal reaction department.
Are you sitting in front of a computer right now? If so, how many other windows are presently open? How many of them are affiliated with some liberal cause/affectation? If these windows include clicking once for peace or food, go ahead and close them right now. Instead, go out and buy a can of Campbell's Chunky Soup and then walk the three blocks it will take you to find a person who would be more than happy to have it for their only meal. Or you could write a letter - in your own words, no fair using a copied boiler plate - to your senator or representative telling them how you feel about the war in Iraq.
If you are planning a weekend activity, why not find some time to volunteer at your local library? Do you think all those books just walk themselves to the shelf - or all those overpaid civil servants (librarians) will probably get to it right after their cappucino break. The opportunities for volunteering don't stop there. You could give your time away for free to any number of worthwhile places or causes. Teach a kid to read. It takes a little time, but most kids seem to like it - even if they just look at the pictures.
If you have any disposable income laying around, you could hand it over to a person or group who really needs it. Some people don't have their own homes - they are homeless. They don't have to refinance their mortgages because they don't have one in the first place. The people that make art in your community probably need money too - even if they have their own homes. Paint isn't free.
In fact, very little in life is free. That's the problem. Free time and free money don't really exist - there's some cost connected to all of that, so just giving stuff away doesn't seem all that clever after all.
This has been a test of the internal liberal reaction department. If this had been an actual emergency, you would have been instructed by your conscience where in your area to turn for guilt and moral reflection. We now return to our regularly scheduled blog.

Friday, July 08, 2005

Hunting and Gathering

I miss touching every record in the store. The record store of my youth was Rocky Mountain Records and Tapes. Their initial store was located on the pedestrian mall in Boulder, Colorado. There was an apocryphal tale of a scruffy-looking character who came into the store one morning and spent a good long time poring over each and every one of the bargain cassettes. At long last this fellow brought his purchases up to the counter and pointed to one tape in particular - "Greg Kihn does one of my songs on this one." The name on the gold American Express card: Bruce Springsteen.
That might have happened - it certainly seems within the realm of Rocky Mountain Record and Tapes reality. The records were all stored in vast wooden bins, and the new releases were displayed on a stack of railroad ties near the front of the store. This is where I headed one fall afternoon, the week after my friend Darren died. I went there for the comfort of the sounds and smells - always a whiff of patcouli oil and "incense" drifting from the back room. That October day on the new releases rack was an album by one of Darren's favorite bands, Oingo Boingo. The name of that record was "Dead Man's Party."
They had a ticket outlet downstairs, with the cassette tapes (and for a time, a selection of "smoking accessories"). Rocky Mountain was my one-stop music connection. But mostly I enjoyed flipping through the stacks of vinyl. The enormous variety they maintained in an age before superstores never ceased to amuse. It was very seldom when I didn't leave with at least two new records - sometimes more. When I was in college, I tried a few different places - "King of the Hill" had a nice selection and their sign featured King Kong hanging from the Empire State building, waving an LP. There was a used record store called - inspiringly enough - "Albums." It was there that I found my first bits of obscure vinyl - picture discs and 45s. But I always found my way back to Rocky Mountain.
I can remember when things started to change. There was a row at the back of the store in which the bins had been separated into two - providing storage for the newfangled compact discs. I bought my last Van Halen album on vinyl ("OU812") and my first CD (INXS "Listen Like Thieves") the same day. Soon the vinyl became the ghetto, and the CDs pushed their way to the front of the store. I still have dreams about trying to find records - 45s by DEVO, and being happily surprised when I find something on the Stiff label.
Now I buy a song or two at a time on the Internet. I order CDs from Amazon because it's cheaper than buying them in a record store (music store?). Tonight I'm going out to dinner with my family. While they're busy shopping for Power Bars and soy milk, I'm going to wander across the parking lot to Tower Records (I've seen all thirty pieces of vinyl they have to sell) - and I'm going to touch some music product. I may just buy something - if it's on sale.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

London Calling

I decided to start up a little fracas when I suggested to my co-workers the following conspiracy: The leaders of the G8 were all but backed into a corner to do something positive on some front - Africa, the environment, setting a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq - and now we pause for this horrific new development, a series of bombs go off in London. We condemn this barbaric act. We raise our level of fear to orange. We are outraged by this heinous crime - so outraged in fact that we can't get around to doing anything about that climate or African debt or much else right now because we're just so damn outraged.
Coincidence, or just really crappy timing on the part of the terrorists? Either way you slice it, there seems to be very little that we can do to avoid staying the course. I have nothing but sympathy and compassion in my heart for the victims of this latest attack. At the same time I feel compelled to point out the most significant difference between this bombing and the ones that have been taking place on almost a daily basis in Iraq is that of geography. In this case, the setting was London and the innocent victims were British and not Iraqi. There have already been plenty of experts willing to line up and point the finger of blame at al-Qaida. That same kind of certainty existed after the bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma.
Sadder still, Muslims across the planet are being asked to apologize and accept tacit responsibility for explosions that have nothing to do with the teachings of Islam. "We know that these people act in the name of Islam, but we also know that the vast and overwhelming majority of Muslims here and abroad are decent and law-abiding people who abhor this act of terrorism every bit as much as we do," Blair said. The vast majority, indeed.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Bachelor's Degree

I have a creative writing degree. I don't have it laminated or framed and stuck to the wall over my desk, but I have one. It's the thing that keeps me typing away - that and the voice of Billy Crystal in "Throw Mama From the Train." He said, "Remember, a writer writes!" Then he went home and stared at his typewriter. It's a funny movie about writer's block.
As a freshman in college I took the first in a seemingly endless series of creative writing workshops. My instructor was a TA - a cool guy with a moustache and didn't seem to have a particular agenda for us as blossoming writers - he admonished us at the end of the course to "keep the habit of a pen." I took this advice literally for many years - insisting that a Bic Rolling Writer was the only tool for my best and deepest thoughts and inspirations. This replaced my beast of a manual Underwood typewriter as my mechanical means of musing. I filled spiral notebook after spiral notebook with poems, short stories and endless bits of potential comedy. I took the advice to heart - I grew a callus on my thumb from the death grip I kept on my Bic.
But there weren't a great many professors interested in reading my pent-up scrawl. I got an electric typewriter. The best thing about an electric typewriter is that it hums. It sits there and waits with all that potential energy and when you start to write, it explodes in a pica space tab set shift lock flurry of which my eighth grade typing teacher would be proud.
Computers were confounding to me. I was a confirmed Luddite. When I worked at a video store, I begrudgingly did data entry and inventory control with these new fangled machines - but I dragged my typewriter into the back room when it was time to do the monthly newsletter. I did all the layout on a tagboard pasteup sheet - cutting and pasting in the most literal way imaginable. Then one day, the video store closed. I had graduated from college with degree in creative writing, run a video store and had no marketable skills. Happily, my mother was able to hook me up with a friend of hers who had helped ease her transition into the world of personal computers. I learned the ways of Wordstar. I learned to highlight and replace - to cut and paste with a click of the mouse. If you liked a paragraph, you could keep it and delete the rest. Magic!
Word processing is creative writing. I can use italics - if I want to (a later version of that creative writing instructor insisted that exclamation marks and italics were signs of weak writing. Your words should carry your meaning. Maybe she was right. Then again, maybe she didn't know what she was talking about!

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Forced Perspective

Feel free to try this at home or at your place of work: Go into a room with three or four other adults and make the following observation - "Lance Armstrong sure is one heck of an athlete." Then start the clock. See how long it takes before someone points out that Lance Armstrong left his wife and is hanging around with that Sheryl Crow.
Six time winner of the Tour de France, cancer survivor, founding director of the Livestrong Foundation inspiring and empowering people living with cancer, and philanderer. Having put together one of the most impressive teams and one of sports greatest strings of victories, one must certainly be captivated by Lothario Armstrong's romantic escapades. What a letch.
I shouldn't be surprised. Around the time that John Elway was finally reaching the top of his particular Everest, winning back to back Super Bowls after setting countless other NFL records on his way, he had the bad taste to end his marriage. Oh, how the mighty are fallen. Those Lombardi trophies are looking just a little skanky all of a sudden.
That fifty percent divorce rate will knock just about anybody out of the saddle - even our heroes, it seems. I remember having a nasty twinge when I heard about Lance divorcing - and John - and then I remembered that great pontificator Charles Barkley, who once suggested that he (and perhaps all athletes) shouldn't be role models. This is how he described the new shoes that Nike wanted him to endorse: "These are my new shoes. They're good shoes. They won't make you rich like me, they won't make you rebound like me, they definitely won't make you handsome like me. They'll only make you have shoes like me. That's it."
I guess that's kind of how I feel about the personal lives of athletes and other celebrities. Watching them and cheering them on in the field of their endeavor isn't condoning their accomplishments as husbands, wives, or fathers. We can still sit slack-jawed at the super-human feats that these very human individuals achieve. Well, except that pinhead Tom Cruise...

Monday, July 04, 2005

Light and Run Away

It has started. My son, now eight years old, has been asking me since dawn when we could shoot off some fireworks. It's a gene that hasn't been weeded out yet. Pyrotechicmania runs very deep in my family. I still get a little glazed look when I see a sign that says "Fireworks - 3 Miles."
Growing up in the foothills of Colorado, I understood the inherent danger of all fireworks. Smokey was pointing directly at me when he said "Only YOU can prevent forest fires." I have vivid memories of the film strips and glossy color photos the fire department showed us of mangled fingers and limbs - "a cherry bomb did that." What I was thinking, of course, was "Wow - if it could do that to a kid's hand, think what it could do to a model of the USS Enterprise."
I learned some of my initial demolition skills from my father: how to blow a peanut can out of a coffee can half-filled with water, how to twist fuses together to maximize your firepower. Still, most of the summers I spent growing up were in the middle of a national forest, so we tended to play down the rockets' red glare.
When my older brother got his driver's license, we would take periodic road trips to Cheyenne, Wyoming. There, just across the border from Colorado, you could buy all kinds of sordid and dangerous things. We'd throw around twenty or thirty dollars and come home with a couple of grocery bags full of sulfur and gunpowder. Once I got my own car, my friends and I took turns throughout high school making the run to Wyoming. There was an old guy who worked one of the bigger stands who described each item thus: "Shoots up in the air, emits a shower of sparks, report." The report was what we were after - the bang. The bigger the bang the better.
During college I was still making my occasional trips to reload. On one of these excursions we found something we couldn't live without: Festival Balls. These were miniature versions of the mortar shells used in professional fireworks displays. It came with a cardboard mortar and six shells. Only the most admirable restraint kept us from coming straight home and setting them all off.
Now a quick diversion: When I was in college, I believed that the damage deposit you paid on an apartment was the amount of damage you expected to do to the place you were living during the course of your lease. With that mindset, we occasionally shot pop bottle rockets indoors. We had cone sparklers on our enclosed patio. We lived a little close to the edge. That being said, it should come as no surprise that after the initial firing of the Festival Ball mortar, we set ourselves to thinking, "What would happen if we didn't use the tube?" The answer came as the flaming ball shot across the street under a car and made a very colorful display beneath it - without igniting the gas tank.
Last year I drove my family across the desert southwest. We were on our way out of Nevada when I saw the sign: "Last Chance for Fireworks." My jaw went slack as I glazed over and headed directly for the converted semi-truck trailer with its faded Black Cat signs. I knew we were headed to Colorado - my mother's house - so I disciplined myself to some very basic purchases. That Fourth of July, a new generation of Cavens learned to light and run away.

Sunday, July 03, 2005

Summer School

The guy at Office Depot looked at the stack of notebooks and pencils and asked me if we got reimbursed for buying all that stuff. By "we," he meant teachers, and the answer was "Not unless I'm willing to wait for months and probably get questioned about why I didn't go to this or that vendor instead or put in a request ahead of time - and so on. Then he asked me why kids didn't show up with pencils and paper - wasn't that expected?
In a word, no. Expectations for the kids I teach start a little simpler than that. We're all about butts in seats. We were given a district mandate of ninety-eight percent attendance - this year my school was well below that. Far enough below that for it to be a concern for the powers that be. It really is a pretty simple equation: kids in class have a better chance of learning than those who are not. All that reading, writing and arithmetic is pretty much lost on an empty chair. So that's where we're starting.
But I can remember when it was different. I remember the first day of school and a letter home that described the necessary items for every third or fourth or second or first grader. It used to be a cigar box - to hold the rest of the elements. A box of crayons (not the elaborate, built-in sharpener version - just a starter set). An eraser, just in case mistakes were made. Pencils to get the year started (I was lucky enough a couple years to have a dozen or more with my name printed on them). The scissors would depend a lot on the year, with round-tip being favored for the first couple of grades, but nice pointy ones by the fourth grade. A box of Kleenex and a small bottle of Elmer's glue to round it out. By fourth grade, binders and looseleaf paper became vital, and other items appeared on some teachers' lists while absent from others. Each student had a nominal survival kit for at least the first few weeks of school.
That time is over. I now buy a few dozen pencils each year that say "Stolen From Mr. Caven's Room" on them. I give them to my students. I tell the ones that ask that it's a joke. Just a quick note: the cost of the war in Iraq is now estimated to be approximately $5.8 billion each month. I'll take a quiet hand if you can tell me what that turns out to be per day.

Saturday, July 02, 2005

The Tide is Turning

There is bad propaganda, and there is good propaganda. I'm listening to the good kind right now. The Live 8 concert is roaring through the speakers over my computer - Madonna's "Ray of Light." Every song has an intentional weight today. They're saying it with music. Poverty sucks. People shouldn't starve to death. Is it ironic as hell that Madonna is telling us this? You bet. But what's the alternative?
Twenty odd years ago, I was sitting in my apartment with my roommate listening to the college radio station. It was very late at night, and the DJ was obviously a little stoned (and we probably were too). He was fishing for someone to call him on the studio line - he was insisting that "somebody's getting rich off of this 'We Are The World' crap." My roommate and I looked at each other and smiled; cynical as we could be about any and all things, we believed in ending famine in Africa - Bruce Springsteen sang on the record, for crap's sake. We waited for the rant to escalate. He took some wide swipes at Michael Jackson and Huey Lewis, but he stayed away for our boy Bruce. Later that summer we watched and taped (I still have all five VHS tapes in my basement) Live Aid. We pledged our money. Later that Fall I got my T-shirt. On the back it read: "This shirt saved a life." We amused ourselves with all the ways in which a shirt might save a life, but down inside we knew we had participated. We had gotten off the fence and done something instead of just sitting in the stands and jeering.
Today they're asking again. Save a life. Feed a child. Help the world fix itself. I am especially happy to see Roger Waters coming back to play with Pink Floyd today - it was his song from the "Radio KAOS" CD that helped me integrate this into my deeply doubting mind. From "The Tide is Turning" -
I used to think the world was flat
Rarely threw my hat into the crowd
I felt I had used up my quota of yearning
Used to look in on the children at night
In the glow of their Donald Duck light
And frighten myself with the thought of my little ones burning
But oh, oh, oh, the tide is turning
The tide is turning

Sign the list - get off the bench

Friday, July 01, 2005

Vaya con Dios

The family across the street is moving today. They were the ones who greeted us when we moved in eight years ago. We met them in waves - there are eleven of them. At times it was like their house was one of those clown cars - people just kept coming out of it. Nine kids. Well, there weren't nine kids when we moved in - two more have joined them since we got here. The oldest daughter has just welcomed her first son - the circle of life continues.
We quickly became the "cookie house" for the kids. In a house full of nine competing wants and needs, our house became an oasis of calm and focused attention. The little girls who brought over their Barbies to share tea parties with my wife have grown up and are looking for the next best thing. The boys who used to have to wait for their mother to cross the street are now crossing their little brothers to come over and play cars with our son.
We provided dictionaries and math tutoring. We loaned colored pencils and paper for craft projects and Mother's Day cards. We shared our leftover birthday cake. We gave them odd jobs to do to raise money for a Father's Day present. We loaned them a lawn mower to cut another neighbor's lawn for a few extra bucks. We were a safe place to play.
We had a friendly competition at Christmas for the neighborhood's best lights. They shared their inflatable snowman with us, since they only had room for an inflatable teddy bear in their yard. My wife snuck over late one night and hung a blue ribbon on their fence. We knew that they were really going to move when the three reindeer that had been on their roof for years finally came down. There are still some toys and car parts in the front yard, so we know they'll be back - but I miss them already.