Friday, September 30, 2005

Sorry for my outburst - here comes another one

Normally, I don't tend to reflect back on comments posted to my blog. It tends to diminish the spur of the moment nature of what's on my mind. This one, however, stuck with me: "If you sweat this, then don't EVER whine or wax in a bitchy tone about the death penalty." As per this comment, "this" was my jury summons. I was relating (a day ago) the ambivalence I felt at what is considered almost universally as a Murphy's Law kind of moment. It was, admittedly, a little self-absorbed "why me" kind of sentiment that occurs when stuff like that comes out of the mailbox after a long day. The very nature of what I am writing, for the most part, is just that kind of rumination.
Now, as for the connection between jury duty and the death penalty, I can only imagine what the person that left the comment meant. The "whining or waxing' will be inherent in whatever I write, since I suppose that (at least from this person's point of view) I am prone to just exactly that kind of drivel. I guess that would include the "bitchy tone" as well. It might be a direct physical response to the pain that I get from sitting on top of my ACLU card. It might be that I am taking that whole freedom of speech thing way too literally. It might be better if malcontents such as myself would just shut up and get in line with the rest of the country and support our - well, whatever it is that I'm bad-mouthing at this particular moment.
As for the whole jury duty business, here is a link to an editorial from the Detroit Free Press (again, damn that whole free speech thing!) Out in Yuma, they're cracking down on those jury scofflaws. How about out in Allegheny? I've been taking some comfort in the assurance I get that I will receive my fifteen dollars a day to do my duty. I confess, all this talk about "duty" makes me snicker just a little, and still I'm trying to figure out the connection between jury duty and the death penalty. Unless it has something to do with that whiny part of me that would like to object to taking the life of another human being. That bitchy, whining waxing part of me that has never gotten past the notion that killing to avenge killing hasn't worked for recorded history. All that good old testament stuff about "an eye for an eye" is slapped up there on a scale with new testament ideals like "turn the other cheek." I'm still making my mind up about that, I confess. I'm also thinking that helping to decide something as profound as the life or death of a human being would be worth anybody's time and effort, but deciding the outcome of a civil dispute that could have been cleared up by Judge Wapner before the first commercial break isn't the stirring patriotic experience that I had been hoping for.
Or maybe the comment was simply to suggest that all people who whine about jury duty in a bitchy tone should be strapped to a table and given a lethal injection of Pancuronium bromide. That ought to shut us up.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Hello - What's This?

It never comes on a day that you feel good about it happening. It always comes when you can add the phrase, "and on top of all of that, I got a summons for jury duty." I spent the day doing community service - I'm a teacher in the public schools. When the day was over, I helped another teacher with the jammed copy machine. Then I made a plan to clear out the debris and detritus from the teacher's lounge - including two microwave ovens that have long since lost their sense of purpose. I rode my bike home, stopped at the mailbox, and there it was: the punctuation for my day.
I have horribly mixed feelings about being asked to be on a jury. I have the same initial reaction that most people do. I start to think of all the reasons why I should be excused. I have relatives in law enforcement. I am a fourth grade teacher who needs to keep a vigilant eye on his young charges. I have a low threshold for boredom. I don't like enclosed rooms or strangers. I have a violent aversion to the notion of justice.
It's a panic response, I confess, but it is the one that always surfaces first. Why Me? Then I start to consider the alternative. The concept of a jury of one's peers seems pretty unlikely if only the people dumb enough not to get out of jury duty are actually on jury duty. Remember the big splash Oprah made a while back by allowing herself to serve on a jury? Shouldn't that be the norm, rather than the exception? And if that is my expectation, shouldn't I be doing everything I can to be a participant myself?
There was a time when I didn't vote. Then a friend of mine pointed out that there were people all over the world who were willing to stand in line for days and brave death threats just for the opportunity to be a part of a democratic process. I have that same feeling about serving on a jury. How would I feel if I looked up from my attorney's table and looked into the jury box to see a group of people whose idea of intellectual stimulation is "Entertainment Tonight?" I would want the system working for me.
Still, when I make the phone call (I've got a month to sweat it) I hope the recorded voice will tell me that I won't be needed - this time.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Teach the Children Well

I spent about fourteen hours in Oakland public schools today. The first ten were at the school where I teach, so that wasn't particularly unusual. The next four were at my son's school, where it was "Back to School Night." Again, this wasn't peculiar, since I or my wife are frequent and regular volunteers of time and energy to our son's school. Still, the combination made for a solid wave of exhaustion that is fast overtaking me.
As I sat across from my wife in our son's third grade room, I kept having a vague sense of deja vu. I had been in that classroom before. I had put the screen up over the white board so that his teacher could use his overhead projector. I had stopped by to check the computer setup that he had in his classroom and noticed the raccoon puppet hanging over the closet door. Then I realized that the feeling I had wasn't so much connected to this particular classroom as it was to the experience of being in any classroom. I listened to talk about rubrics and assessments. I heard about making connections when children read. I looked at the overhead transparencies about paragraphs and verbs. I recognized my own work. This is the job I do every day, and I took some large and strange comfort in knowing that my son's teacher was doing things very much like I do them.
There was a behavior chart, for monitoring the student's progress through the day. He uses purple cards. I use clothespins. There was a listening center. He has bean bags - I do not. I took in all the sights and then took in the sounds: the fan on the overhead projector, the faint but constant sound of shifting in plastic chairs, and the periodic tapping of a pencil on a desktop. Through it all, his voice remained steady and just a little enthusiastic. I felt comfortable knowing that my son will be spending another eight months in that room.
My own Back To School Night is in two weeks - I'd better start practicing.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Confessions of a Vega Owner

"I got a sixty-nine Chevy with a 396,
Fuelie heads and a Hurst on the floor" - Bruce Springsteen
Wow. That sure sounds cool. I wonder what it means. Okay - I get the Chevy part (slang for "Chevrolet"). I know that his car was made in 1969, and that the "Hurst" is a kind of stick shift, mostly because I went and looked it up after I had been singing along with "Racing in the Street" for six or seven years. Loudly.
This would be part two of that whole shop class confession, by what is even more shocking (potentially) is the fact that I don't have any real shame about my lack of motor vehicle acumen. When it comes to woodworking and power tools, I have developed a certain amount of latent lust. Owning a cordless reciprocating saw is a real thrill for me as I meander through middle age. Cars? Not so much.
I live around people who can discuss the acceleration of this or that model and what year Mustang was the real thing. I suspect that fuel injection is probably a good thing, since it always gets a "cool" or "yeah" from the motorheads. I can tell you roughly how a carburetor works partly because I have encountered one in my lawnmower and partly because I have an amusing anecdote about my father's experience with his malfunctioning convertible VW bug and a broken accelerator cable.
Truth be told, most of my automotive expertise swirls about in the anecdotal realm. I learned that my own VW bug was oil cooled, not air cooled, when I drove it from Colorado to Oklahoma without checking the oil. That turned out to be important knowledge, but not before I threw a rod (sounds pretty cool, but I'm only certain that the mechanic told me that he could not fix it in Tulsa).
I've never owned a particularly cool car. I have attempted to add character to the vehicles that I have used in my life. I have installed stereos and speakers. I have found dipsticks and periodically checked other fluid levels, periodically remembering to add more or have them drained by highly trained professionals. When the highly trained professional invariably corners me and tells me that my Fuelie head needs to be replaced so that the timing rod won't dissipate the differential, I nod and smile knowingly. Then my mind goes wandering again to the lyrics of Bruce Springsteen:
"She's a hot stepping hemi with a four on the floor
She's a roadrunner engine in a '32 Ford
Late at night when I'm dead on the line
I swear I think of your pretty face when I let her unwind
Well look over yonder see them city lights
Come on little dolly 'n' go ramroddin' tonight"
I'm not sure what "ramroddin" is - but it sure sounds like one massive good time - slap on some of that hemi while you're at it.

Monday, September 26, 2005

Goodbye Blue Monday!

It was the summer after seventh grade. A friend of mine suggested a book to me. He suggested it because "it's kind of dirty, and it's pretty funny." I wondered if I would get up the guts to go out and buy a dirty book. As has been the case for my entire life, when I have a moral quandary, I have gone to my parents for advice. When I told them the title of the book, "Breakfast of Champions," they were suddenly relieved. Kurt Vonnegut Jr.? Why that's not a dirty book, that's literature.
Turns out they were all right. It was a funny book that was a little bit dirty and it was, in fact, literature. I purchased my copy at Eads' newsstand - a trade paperback with a vivid orange, blue and yellow cover. I started reading on the twenty-five minute car ride up Boulder Canyon and Magnolia Road on the way to our mountain cabin. I was immediately struck by the "juvenile illustrations" as the author himself describes them. They were stuck right in the middle of some of the most amusing and thought-provoking prose I had ever encountered. It is true that I was only twelve at the time, but I had read a good many novels, starting with Michael Chrichton's "The Andromeda Strain" when I was in the fourth grade. I had read a lot of science fiction, and this had all the ear-marks, but it also had the strangest point of view I had ever read. Was that the author appearing all of a sudden at the end of the story?
The affection that Vonnegut felt for his characters was touching. It was such a personal piece of writing, even with all the silly pictures of "wide open beavers," it was still moving to hear Kilgore Trout plead with his creator, "Make me young again!" I read passages aloud to my parents, who were amused and just a little chagrined at the reader - and later the writer - that they were creating.
Forty years later, I'm still reading the good parts of Kurt Vonnegut books aloud - to anyone who will listen.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Sour Grapes and Green Day

Last night I wandered around my house, avoiding the general goings-on: TV on in the living room, HO trains running on the living room floor, dessert in the kitchen, relatives milling about. I chose to stick close to the bedrooms, making wide loops around social interaction. I was tired from a long day of standing in front of a grill where I fried up seventy-two hamburgers and countless numbers of hot dogs. Being tired, however, wasn't the main reason for my limiting human contact. I was depressed at the thought of the Green Day concert taking place just across the Bay Bridge - without me.
I could have gone. I could have bought tickets months ago when they first went on sale. I could have bought tickets up to a few weeks ago. I could have gone over and bought a ticket from a scalper and gone in at the last minute. I could have gone. Now all I can do is start doing the "sour grapes" thing: It would have been too big a venue. Green Day sold out a long time ago. It wouldn't have been like seeing them at The Gilman when the were first coming up. The traffic would have been awful. I was tired from grilling all day.
Nah - I wanted to go.
I wanted to go because of an experience some years ago. Presented with a choice of seeing Pearl Jam or Bruce Cockburn, I picked the "safe" alternative of the folksy-Canadian over the grunge and mosh experience from Seattle. The night of the concert I sat in my seat with a thousand other flannel shirted fans of "The Other Bruce" and I reflected back still further. I remembered sitting in my living room watching clips of Nirvana, in one of their last shows, perform on MTV's New Year's Eve show. That show was taking place just two miles from my home. I felt safe and warm, but sad and lonely. I know that Bruce Cockburn played a great show that night, but I sat there feeling old and tired. Nobody left the relative comfort of their seat to dance or toss themselves from the stage. The music was moving and thought provoking, but it wasn't cathartic for me. It wasn't rock and roll.
This morning I have begun actively counting the days until I take my son to see DEVO. Laugh if you must, but I know that they rock.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Give Til It Hurts

Lately we have all been asked to do what we can to help alleviate the suffering and devastation being felt in the Gulf Coast. We have been generous as a nation, with cash donations to the Red Cross and other humanitarian relief efforts. A telethon held during last week's Monday Night Football double-header raised an estimated five million dollars. Jerry Lewis encouraged us to consider donating to the victims of Hurricane Katrina - his kids would understand. We continue to do what we can as a country to help our fellow Americans.
As a result of the destruction wreaked upon the southeast, especially the oil refineries, platforms, and pumping stations in the Gulf of Mexico, we are told that we can expect to be paying four dollars a gallon for gas soon. I have stopped being perplexed by the way the price of oil and gasoline moves steadily upward, it seems like some kind of naturally occurring phenomenon, not unlike gravity - only in reverse. But here's where I start to scratch my head: I can understand, from the standpoint of Bob and Ted's Oil company, why this kind of disaster could cause some kind of massive change in the way they do business. That one pumping station just off the coast of Louisiana was their lifeline. They will have to raise their prices to recover the losses that they will feel for repairs and lost revenue while they make those repairs.
But these aren't "Bob and Ted" operations. Shell Oil, now a global multi-national concern, had second quarter profits (released in July) that had moved up thirty-four percent. Shell maintained its profit and oil production outlook for the year, saying it expects between $3 billion and $5 billion in surplus cash. When was the last time you had "surplus cash" of any amount? And that's profit, kids. Not how much money they made - but how much money they are planning to KEEP. Shell is just one of the companies with concerns in the Gulf Coast region, and the truth is, many of the oil facilities that were potentially damaged or destroyed during the hurricane came through relatively unscathed. They're just about ready to get back to pumping oil back into our lives again. Fill up your HumVees!
Okay, I'm not expecting the price of gasoline to come back to anything resembling a rational price (we are paying about four dollars a gallon for bottled water these days anyway) - but wouldn't it be nice if Shell and a couple of their good pals in the oil business kicked a little extra cash into the hurricane relief pot? Maybe it's just me...

Friday, September 23, 2005

Fine Art 101

I never took an industrial arts class. I stayed in the fine arts side of the building. I was drawing, painting, making sculpture and slab pottery with raku glaze. I never learned to use a band saw. I saw my friend's finger after he nearly had it cut clean off by a band saw. There wasn't nearly as much potential danger swirling around the fine arts. Oh sure, every so often there was some wild talk about an explosion in the kiln, but it was nothing compared to the daily dance with death that was Shop Class.
Maybe it started when I was listening to Bill Cosby records at an impressionable age and started forming my perceptions of what Shop Class would be like. Tough guys took Shop Class. Guys who could spit with accuracy took Shop Class. Guys who had painted their own lunch box did not take Shop Class. I secretly harbored resentment for guys (and even some girls) who were taking Industrial Arts class and were walking out with these nifty lanyards, then polished plastic rings with three different colors, and eventually even a real working lamp. I was bringing home monstrosities made of yarn and chicken wire and several reams of drawing paper demonstrating my ability to shade effectively. I knew that drill all too well. The first week of any studio art class is all about becoming familiar with the media. I learned a lot about perspective, and how it can be used to create the illusion of depth, but it always stopped just short of real drafting. Drafting was a class you took on the other side.
When it came time to pick a major as a freshman in college, I checked the box for "Studio Art." For the first time, when I went to drawing class I didn't have to walk past the open bay doors where other guys were working with tools and getting their hands dirty just standing around. I attended a liberal arts school, up the road from the "vocational schools." I painted and drew and designed, and I took some literature classes. And I took a writing workshop.
As a sophomore, I transferred to the University of Colorado where there may have been industrial arts taking place on campus, but I never ran across them. I took one more "Basic Drawing" course, and after the first three meetings, I stopped going. I discovered some weeks later that there is a deadline for dropping classes to avoid being given a failing grade. I got my first and only "F" in Basic Drawing at the University of Colorado. Subsequently I was put on academic probation for two semesters. My learning curve for the fine arts had bottomed out. I started hanging out with guys who knew about tools - and could spit with accuracy.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Keepin' It Real

Tyra Banks underwent a televised sonogram on her new talk show to prove that her breasts aren't fake. Well, thank God. Now I'll be able to sleep at night. See, here's the deal: It had not occurred to me to question the veracity of Tyra Banks' mammaries. It was a point that I was willing to concede if it came up at all. If the idea was to bring us reality via our televisions, then it was unnecessary.
Consider all the reality that has been pouring into our living rooms for the past few weeks: Hurricane Katrina, bombings in London, the continuing lingering remnants of insurgency in Iraq. And now Tyra Banks' boobs. I blame Phil Donahue. Back in the late 1960's, Phil hit the air with a new kind of talk show - not just celebrities sharing their fabulous lives and plugging their upcoming movie of the week. The first guest on The Phil Donahue Show was Madalyn O'Hair, an atheist who felt that religion "breeds dependence" and who was ready to mount a campaign to ban prayer in public schools. During that same week in November 1967 the show featured footage of a woman giving birth, a phone-in vote on the morality of an anatomically correct male doll, and a funeral director extolling the workings of his craft. It was from these seeds that Maury, Montel, and her royal highness, Oprah sprang forth.
Oprah made it safe for us to discuss all manner of personal concerns on daytime TV. That she once ate a package of hot-dog buns drenched in maple syrup, that she had smoked cocaine, even that she had been raped as a child has become part of her very public legend. In spite of her billions of dollars (or perhaps because of it) we feel compelled to open up to her. It was Oprah who finally got Tom Cruise to share his true feelings about - well - whatever it was that he was prattling on about. Now if only someone could get him to shut up again.
And now the circle is complete, when Tyra Banks premiered her talk show this Fall, after serving as a "correspondent" for Oprah for the past few years. Now we're ready for a "younger, hipper" version of Oprah. Are we really? Does this mean that Oprah will soon be revealing which body parts of hers are real? It makes me miss Merv Griffin.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Almost Cut My Hair

"God made a lot of good heads, and the ones he messed up, he covered with hair." These words from my father ring in my ears as I greet the changing of the seasons by shaving my head. As was the case with my father, I am follically challenged. I won't be revealing any secret dents or creases in my skull with this operation. What hair I continue to grow tends to hang politely just above my ears and the back of my head. There are a few hearty strands that insist on continuing to erupt on the top of my head, but the top of my head has been an effective hair void since my early twenties.
I learned early on to accept bald as a state of being early on. It was my father's insistence that comb-overs were verboten, and toupees were just another way to call attention to what was really going on underneath. I learned to embrace my hair loss as a college student, since a receding hairline left little doubt as to just who was and who was not over twenty-one - I haven't been asked for an I.D. since I was eighteen. Then there's all that other hooey about baldness and virility. I'm not sure I ever got the connection, unless it's simply that my hormones can be kept busy doing anything but growing hair.
So, why am I bothering to shear what little hair I do have off? It used to be only on the equinoxes: Summer and Winter. Living in California, I didn't see the need for extra fuzz on my head in either season. In between, I was able to let my freak flag fly - at least that which formed a ring around the top of my head. After about four months, I tended to take on a resemblance to Reverend Jim from "Taxi." With this in mind, it was determined by those who know and love me best (or at least those who end up looking at my head more than anyone else), that going to a quarterly grooming schedule. Beyond the aesthetics, there is always a profound catharsis for me in having a shaved head. I feel unfettered and free, and not just from the hair. I'm more aerodynamic. I am more time-efficient and cost-effective - my showers use less water and require no shampoo. So, welcome Fall, I say and welcome back to my bare scalp.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Saturday Mornings With Leonard

Today we mourn the passing of Leonard Kokesh. I cannot say that I was completely surprised to hear that he had died, since I don’t believe that I had ever truly considered his age or his health. I can remember that he smoked, but was always careful to do it out of sight and out of respect for his students he never did so in front of them. Sometimes his cough would have a little extra rattle to it, but it wasn’t something that raised any real concern. Leonard was the man who taught me to play tuba and trombone. He taught my brothers to play clarinet and saxophone as well. He was a short man who made up for a slightly crooked posture with a laugh that came directly from his belly.
In all the years that he taught the three of us, we were invariably his first lessons on a Saturday morning. We would arrive before the store opened, first at Music Showcase and later at two different locations of Swalley’s Music. Leonard was already there, nursing a cup of coffee, ready to go even when we weren’t. One of us would put their instrument together and head into the practice room. The others would sit quietly outside, listening and searching for a magazine that had been published in our lifetime from among the reading material scattered around the waiting room. When it was your turn, Leonard would accompany you on piano and give pointers on embouchure, wind, and periodically on the girls we were dating. He was the guy who taught me how to slip the clutch on my Vega. Leonard was not just a music teacher.
Sleep well, Leonard – you taught us all, and you taught us well.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Attention Shoppers!

I miss K-Mart. There was a whole school of humor devoted to K-Mart jokes back in the day. Now I just feel sorry for them. Sorry for the bankruptcy thing, and the Martha Stewart deal. I feel bad that the convenience of the K-Mart convenience store has been usurped by Wal-Mart and any number of Internet retail outlets. As a child, K-Mart was a revelation. There were aisles and aisles of items for sale at what seemed to be absurdly low prices. How did I know that the prices were ridiculously low? K-Mart told me.
Back in those days, if you wandered through the store long enough, a disembodied voice would alert you to savings throughout the store - and if you were patient and vigilant, there might be a blue light special. It was several years before I actually saw the blue light. I only heard of its coming, and I was never able to find it before the momentary flurry of cost-cutting came to an end. Then the blue light moved on. When I was finally fortunate enough to come across the actual blue light, I was surprised at how elemental it was: a box on wheels with a three foot pole rising up out of it. An K-Mart employee would push the box out onto the floor where the special was taking place. Then they would turn the flashing light on as the blue light special was announced overhead. The first time I saw the flashing blue light was in the lighting aisle. There was a special on desk lamps. I wondered if there might be blue lights for sale there.
Another appeal of K-Mart was the K-Mart Grill. The food was every bit as suspect as most of the merchandise, but the thing that made it enticing to us kids was the self-serve soda fountain. For twenty-five cents, you could buy a large cup with ice, and then you could fill it up with any soda (well, any of the four that they had). But filling your cup with just one flavor was wussy. One quarter Pepsi, one quarter Seven-Up, one quarter Dr. Pepper, and one quarter whatever nasty orange soda they happened to have - we called this drink a Suicide. We would sit in the back of the Grill, nursing our Suicides, gaining strength for the bike ride home and trying to get each other to laugh hard enough to snort soda through our noses. Sometimes we even bought things at K-Mart: a model kit, a Frisbee, and as I grew older even cheap (really cheap) car stereo speakers.
These days, Jaclyn Smith sells her line of designer post-Angels wear and Route 66 brand jeans fill a void that doesn't really exist in denim anymore. K-Mart is the sponsor of Martha Stewart's new daytime show, now that she's finished with her stay in prison, and I guess that's pretty solid K-Mart aesthetic after all - isn't it?

Sunday, September 18, 2005

My Life Is Good

There was discussion this evening about "screen time." A group of parents sat around after dinner and ruminated on the world that our children are being set up to inherit. In this rather close-knit affiliation of families, ours is the technology household. We have three computers connected to the Internet, another old laptop in my son's room for playing chess and periodic typing practice. The back room features the "old-school" Playstation console, while in the living room we have the Nintendo Gamecube. Tucked away in the same cabinet as the television is the box with our son's Gameboy (in case someone doesn't want to wait their turn to play on the big screen).
Many parents see us as harbingers of evil. There are kids who want to come to our house to check out what's happening in the video world. In spite of all the indications to the contrary, we have limits to the amount of time and energy we put into the virtual. There are bikes to ride, trees to climb, baseballs and footballs to toss, soccer balls to kick, and a world of fun before they ever enter the door. Then there's the amazing and impressive Lego collection that is in a constant state of reclamation - one thing is built from the parts of a project that was completed only the day before.
Still, the cry will always come, "Can we play video games?" It always feels like a defeat when we give in to the request. Somehow we have failed. Didn't we buy all this stuff in the first place? Isn't this what we should expect? We went out and bought the apple tree and stuck it right smack in the middle of our Garden of Eden, then we told the kids that temptation was bad - but a lot of fun too.
The kids are having fun. We listen to them and talk to them to make sure that their senses don't become permanently dulled. Then, at last we turn it off and send them back outside. It's a smiling bit of a high-wire act that we call "compromise."

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Changing Channels

I recently purchased and started watching the DVD set of "Undeclared," Judd Apatow's series about freshman dorm-life. It's really a wonderful set, with lots of clever (if not periodically inane) commentary, and a few very nice extras. It's a four disc set, but the whole series would have fit on three, since it's only seventeen episodes. It's pretty much exactly how I felt about the "Freaks and Geeks" set that I got last summer - at eighteen one-hour episodes ("Undeclared" is only a half-hour show), it's quite the bargain on the dollars per laugh scale.
Bargains notwithstanding, it set me to thinking about what amounts to quality television. I am finding that now after a few years of viewing "Seinfeld" in syndication, the things that made the show work are the known, stable elements. Most situation comedies survive on their predictability and the delivery of expectations. If we suddenly became ambivalent in our feelings in our feelings for Raymond, we might stop watching. Remaining likeable from season to season is, for some, an epic challenge.
Sometimes longevity gets confused with quality. "MASH" was on the air for eleven years, or approximately four times longer than the actual conflict. During it's run, Hawkeye and his fellow cut-ups (get it?) gave us a lot of memorable moments, but all two hundred and fifty-one episodes - including a three-hour marathon finale?
Fans of TV Land might think to point to "The Andy Griffith Show" as a show that exited on top of the heap (it was number one when it left the air), and ran for a healthy eight years. Ratings aside, can the antics of Goober and Howard Sprague really compare to the slow burn of Deputy Barney Fife? Then there was another three lackluster seasons of "Mayberry R.F.D." to live down. The black and white stuff? It's all good, after they went to color? Not so much.
How about Mary Tyler Moore? She had the amazing good fortune to be part of two TV institutions. As Mary Richards she made it on her own - with a little help from her friends. The newsroom at WJM was one of the most fertile breeding grounds for television and film comedy in the past thirty years, and it's hard to find a clunker in the seven years that they stayed together. If only Ted Knight could have been spun off into a Ted Baxter Show instead of "Too Close For Comfort." But even before that success, Mary was everybody's favorite wife in Capri pants on "The Dick Van Dyke Show." Rob, Laura, Buddy, Sally, Mel and everybody's favorite toupee wearer Alan Brady signed off after only five years, helping to distill the classic nature of their comedy into a finite space.
Eventually, it comes down to finances. These days, in order to be sold into syndication, a show needs to have at least fifty episodes to make any money. Sometimes a show just gets pushed past its natural life-span to make that pay day possible. By stark contrast, the show that is most often linked to classic TV comedy, "The Honeymooners," was only on the small screen for just one year - thirty-nine episodes. The waves of this comic tsunami are still being felt in 2005, with the release of the film version starring Cedric the Entertainer.
What does it all mean? Savor the shows that only appear for a moment in time. My personal belief is that all TV shows should be limited to just three seasons - one to introduce us, one to get settled, and one more to say your goodbyes. Remember, in season three of "Happy Days" it never would have occurred to Fonzie to wear shorts, let alone strap on water skis and jump a shark.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Exact Fare Only

Geoffrey stood at on the sidewalk waiting for the next bus. He had counted the steps in his mind as he left the house. He had a fairly accurate notion of how many feet or yards his steps had taken him, and he had followed his friend's directions carefully. The tip of his cane found the curb, and he folded his arms across his chest with his jacket draped over them. He knew he was facing south because he could feel the warmth of the sun on his right cheek. It was four thirty. If the bus was on time, he would stand there for another twelve minutes.
He listened as the flow of suburban traffic began to increase as another day came to a close. Parents bringing home vans full of kids, fathers alone in their cars, teenagers heading out for the evening, all with an impossible array of music, news and commercials streaming out of windows rolled down to share with the neighborhood. Geoffrey tried to imagine driving one of those cars. He remembered the driver's seat of his father's Chrysler New Yorker. He could barely see over the steering wheel, but in the driveway of his childhood home he had taken dozens of road trips to exotic locales - who knew you could drive all the way to the Taj Mahal? When he could see over the steering wheel. When he could see. Before the CVI. The damn Cortical Visual Impairment: temporary or permanent visual loss caused by disturbances of the posterior visual pathways and/or occipital lobes. Just his luck, Geoffrey's visual loss was permanent. Or maybe it was going to come popping back on after twenty-three years, like the lights coming back on after a blackout. "Ah, here's that pesky fuse," he murmured. He shifted his cane to his left hand and with his right he fished in his pants pocket for the bus fare. He felt the smooth edges of two nickels before picking out four rough edged quarters. Running the coins across his fingers, he concentrated on feeling the faces: heads, heads, tails, heads. He dropped the coins back in his pocket and thought about the next ten minutes, waiting.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Goodbye Yellow Brick Road

When I took piano lessons, I had one goal: to be able to play like Elton John. I knew that playing "Sonatina" and any number of classical preludes were the building blocks I needed to make my dreams a reality. I practiced with that intent, and only a trace of resignation. I knew that it might take years before I was kicking over my stool and playing on my back while lying on top of the piano. I hoped that it would come soon.
Over time, I started to notice a certain amount of diminished return: I wasn't getting a lot better, no matter how hard I practiced. I lied about how much I practiced. I told my mother I had practice when I hadn't. I started to let go of my dream. Then I went to my very first rock and roll show - little Reginald Dwight all grown up, Elton John.
My parents drove us down to Denver and dropped us off in front of the newly opened McNichols Sports Arena: my older brother and his girlfriend, my younger brother and myself. My father had acquired the tickets from some connection of his in the publishing biz, and so we were afforded box seats, just below the overhang of the upper level, two on one side of the arena, two on the other. My little brother and I (he really was smaller than I was back then) were shown to our seats, and my older brother went off into the haze with his girlfriend. I was twelve, my little brother was nine. The lights went down, and the show began.
Two and a half hours later, my ears were ringing, my eyes were watering, and I couldn't wipe the smile from my face. "Saturday Night's All Right For Fightin'" was as big and bad as anything I had ever imagined. This was right about the time that Elton played "Pinball Wizard" for the film version of "Tommy." I thought the roof of the newly-minted sports complex might come off.
My parents had spent the evening across the street, watching from the lounge of the hotel that rose up next to McNichols. There was no way for them to know what was happening to us - to me. When the concert ended, we waited at our seats for my older brother who led us back out through the throng to where my parents waited anxiously in the family station wagon. We all wanted to tell them about our favorite parts, but the persistent ringing in our ears made communication all but impossible.
The next morning, my ears were still ringing. I worried that it might be permanent damage. Still, I couldn't help but smile - and after school I sat down at the piano and practiced for a good half hour.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

The Only Game In Town

I don't remember when I first learned to play solitaire. I know that my mother taught me, and over time I have become quite good. I'm one of those guys who likes to stand over your shoulder while you play - mumbling things like "Uh-unh, red five on black six," or "Better move that king." I am always looking for an ace to move up. I believe this game perfectly suits my personality.
The time I spent at our cabin in the mountains honed my skills. Without a television, we played a lot of card games. I played cribbage, gin rummy, crazy eights, even a little bridge - but I would always come back to solitaire. I sat at the dining room table staring at the combinations for hours at a time, listening to AM radio.
I spent a good chunk of one summer hanging out in my parents' basement, waiting for my girlfriend to finish up her job, playing solitaire. I always used the same well-worn deck of United Airlines cards, working fast, knowing the odds for playing out game is about one in seven - so if things start to slowed down, pick 'em up, shuffle and lay out a new game. I can still see the cards on the background of brown velour, almost calling out to me "One more game; you were so close that time."
Friends have tried to teach me variations on the standard Klondike version: spider, clock, accordion, golf. I keep going back to the one that feels like home. A friend of mine once returned home from a trip to Vegas and told me that you can buy into a game out there for fifty-two dollars, and they pay five bucks a card played "upstairs" on the aces. Eleven cards upstairs is a winning game. I never tried it, but it sure helped fuel my fantasy solitaire tournaments.
Then I entered the computer age. No more dealing, just point and click and watch the cards fly around the screen. I'm especially fond of the way some versions will bounce the deck across the screen if you play all the way out. It's not exactly Doom, but it fills my obsessive compulsive void. These days I find myself playing more Free Cell than Klondike, and I play mostly in the virtual world. Still, when there's time to be filled, there's nothing more satisfying than laying out the piles, making the rows, and moving those kings. Last week I made $4,000 - in my mind.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

The Second Great Malaise

Today George Bush did something that I didn't think I would ever hear him do: he took responsibility for his administration's complete and total mishandling of the Katrina disaster. "And to the extent that the federal government didn't fully do its job right, I take responsibility. I want to know what went right and what went wrong," said Bush. Still just a hair shy of total accountability, but it sure gives one pause.
It put me in mind of another American president, some twenty-six years ago. Jimmy Carter was suffering through the death throes of his administration. The energy crisis, the economy, the Middle East, they were all heading south fast. On July 15, 1979 he addressed the country - giving what would become known as his "Great Malaise Speech." He had hoped to speak to the nation on the topic of the growing concerns about oil shortages and conservation. Instead he chose to talk more directly about the crisis of trust and faith the American people felt with their government: "The threat is nearly invisible in ordinary ways. It is a crisis of confidence. It is a crisis that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will. We can see this crisis in the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of a unity of purpose for our nation. The erosion of our confidence in the future is threatening to destroy the social and the political fabric of America. The confidence that we have always had as a people is not simply some romantic dream or a proverb in a dusty book that we read just on the Fourth of July."
Strong stuff. This was coming from a man who campaigned four years prior primarily on the strength of his winning smile. Jimmy wasn't smiling on this summer night. It wasn't all doom and gloom. He offered some hope as well: "First of all, we must face the truth, and then we can change our course. We simply must have faith in each other, faith in our ability to govern ourselves, and faith in the future of this nation. Restoring that faith and that confidence to America is now the most important task we face. It is a true challenge of this generation of Americans."
He went on to make several key points on the future of United State's oil consumption. He suggested that conservation wasn't a sacrifice, but an act of patriotism, generating freedom from imported oil. He wasn't making promises - he was asking for help. And so, tonight as George Bush looks out on a world that just might be his fault, I say take it home for us, Jimmy: "In closing, let me say this: I will do my best, but I will not do it alone. Let your voice be heard. Whenever you have a chance, say something good about our country. With God's help and for the sake of our nation, it is time for us to join hands in America. Let us commit ourselves together to a rebirth of the American spirit. Working together with our common faith we cannot fail.
Thank you and good night."

Monday, September 12, 2005

Live to Ride, Ride to Live

Watching my son move quickly away from his first bike - his first two-wheeler - makes me look back in fondness on the two-wheeled conveyances of my youth. I am a bicycle commuter five days a week, so sometimes I get a little blase about riding. I am remembering now a time when my friends used to call me up and ask if I wanted to "go ride bikes." That was an activity. We didn't need a destination, we were just going out to do just that: ride bikes.
We were pretty solidly Schwinn in my house. My first bike was a gold and the seat had a nice white "s" painted on the seat. I rode with the training wheels on for longer than I needed to - mostly to be certain that I really was ready to do all the balancing that was required. The other very intriguing part of having training wheels was that I found that on certain driveways if I straddled the gutter just right, I could sit and spin the back wheel without moving - and when there was water in the gutter, I could make a spray back behind me.
Later I graduated to a red Stingray. I had the white banana seat and the fat rear tire with nice tall handlebars. I rode that one to 7-11 to buy Odd Rod stickers and Wacky Packages. One day my dad brought home a steering wheel to put on in place of the handlebars. I was very excited to try this new (and very hip) modification, and after a few minutes of installation and adjustment with a crescent wrench, off I rode. The problem came when I got to the end of the street and went to turn around. Handlebars give you a pretty solid notion of how far you are turning - a steering wheel is a little more tricky. I got the front fork completely sideways and went straight over the front tire onto my face. I cursed my father and his bizarre notions of fun - for a couple of hours, and once the bleeding had stopped I was back out in the street, working it out.
When it came time to start pedaling up the big hill to junior high, I moved on to the Schwinn Collegiate five speed. The last twenty yard of that hill sometimes threatened to eat me alive, with my backpack on and my legs pumping even in first gear. I could only remind myself of the joy of flying back down the hill on the way home.
By the time I was a sophomore in high school, I began to take grief for my clunky old five speed. All my friends were getting bikes made of ultralight materials made in Japan or Italy. My American-made hunk of steel was a dinosaur, and after I saw "Breaking Away," there was no turning back. To this day I cannot remember the make or name of any of my subsequent bikes. I was on my way to motorized transportation, and I didn't look back (except for the nine month period in my senior year when I had my license suspended - but that's another story).
These days the kids in my class always want to know: "Mister Caven, don't you own a car?" Yes I do, but I prefer to ride my bike. It's a Raleigh C40 Cross - it's pretty trick, if you know what I mean.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Four Years Burnin' Down the Road

I've seen a few flags out on front porches today. One had a yellow ribbon wrapped around it. I pondered the significance of this symbol for a few minutes. The flag is for the memory of 9/11 and the ribbon must have some connection to our troops. Without having a conversation with the homeowner, I assumed that this is a day of reflection for them, marking a moment in time that changed the course of world events. Four years ago we were struggling to find our place with a new president, a new century had just begun.
I can remember flying our flag in the days after 9/11. I can remember the sense of pride I felt as I saw patriotism become a kind of national catharsis. We watched, listened, and waited as one. I confess that when George Bush addressed the rescue workers at Ground Zero through that bullhorn, I felt a righteous sense of what must have been vengeance. I wanted justice. I wanted the bad guys taken care of, and I wanted it in very visceral way. I wanted terror, destruction and death to rain down on those who were responsible for such a cowardly act. Days pass as we await what we will eventually come to refer to as "the war on terror." In those days that there were no airplanes flying overhead, a hush fell over the world as it awaited the eventual consequence for waking the sleeping giant that was the United States.
We invaded Afghanistan. We invaded Iraq. We had bin Laden cornered near Tora Bora. We blew past Iraq's vaunted Republican Guard and laid waste to Baghdad with Shock and Awe. In Saudi Arabia, home to fifteen of the nineteen hijackers, the government has condemned the actions of these terrorists. Saudi Arabia continues to "mercilessly" pursue al Qaida members and other terrorists. The war in Iraq continues. Bin Laden continues to elude our troops, releasing periodic videos to keep the wounds fresh. After nine months on the run, Saddam Hussein is rounded up and eventually turned over to Iraqi custody where he continues to await his trial. 1,852 men and women have died since the United States began what we now refer to as " a global struggle against violent extremism. " George Bush was re-elected. The budget surplus is now a deficit. Spain and now London were the targets of terrorist bombings. The war is simultaneously winding down and four years away from being over, and we're still waiting for that justice - while the terror alert and gas prices remain high.
"We've got God on our side
We're just trying to survive
What if what you do to survive
Kills the things you love
Fear's a powerful thing
It'll turn your heart black you can trust
It'll take your God filled soul
Fill it with devils and dust"
- Bruce Springsteen

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Third and Long

The first time I played any kind of organized football was out on the street in front of my childhood home. We lived on a dead end street, so most of our games went on uninterrupted for hours at a time. The real cool guys in our neighborhood would call "all-time quarterback" which meant not only that they could create all manner of zany routes for us receivers to run, but also they could be sure that they would never have to play defense and have to cover anyone running all manner of zany routes. "You run down to the station wagon, button hook, and wait. You go past the streetlight and cut in to the crack over there in the sidewalk. You stay in and block." That was usually my job. There would be one guy on the other team who was the designated rusher, but you had to wait five seconds before you could rush the quarterback. I have heard "bananas" used for counting seconds - but we were a "Mississippis" league. After the rusher counted five Mississippis, I would hold my forearms up to ward off the oncoming defender, and every so often if I let them slip by, I would find myself standing wide open for a short dump-off pass. Then I would run, as fast as I could, until somebody from the other team would shove me from the side - "two hand touch". Two hand touch had some variants: two hand touch below the waist, two hand touch anywhere, and (if we were really feeling dangerous) one hand anywhere. Then we'd line up and do it again.
Sometimes we would play on the lawn of my friend's house. We didn't play at our house because our front lawn had a sidewalk running through the middle of it, and our back yard was a minefield of dog poop. On grass we played tackle. When we played tackle, our rules changed a little. Sometimes we played "immediate rush," and we didn't play "all pass." We had some running plays. That was when they called my number. I wasn't fast, but I was low to the ground and hard to take down. My friend's older brother gave me the nickname "Tank." I liked that. I liked the contact. Being fast wasn't the most important thing.
I played more football with helmets and pads later in my youth. I liked that fine, but it never quite compared to playing on the dead end.

Friday, September 09, 2005


I used to keep track of dead celebrities by their proximity to the pending death of George Burns. Knowing that George had a standing gig to play Vegas on his 100th birthday pained me. As talented and culturally significant figures from my own generation passed on, George continued to hold court regularly with anybody who would sit and listen to him. I bore no specific animosity toward Mr. Burns, who was always clever enough to explain that he owed his fame and livelihood to his wife Gracie, who was the funny one. My gripe was all about the relative time span of life on Earth by those who may, in my humble opinion, have deserved another trip or two around the sun before they shuffled off their mortal coil.
Then George passed away in March of 1996. I lost my perspective. If George could be taken from us, what justice was there? I ruminated for several minutes before settling on a new reference point for my feelings of justice and eternal rest: Bob Hope. Compared to George Burns, I felt no compunction for loudly announcing Bob's limited talents compared to his celebrity. His was a lifetime of insinuation. "Thanks for the memories," he crooned. I remember nothing. My mother will defend his ability to rally the country during the dark days of World War Two - but it seems to me that just about everybody was doing that, even Rin-Tin-Tin. He was Mister USO. Okay, thanks for the doughnuts, Bob - but where were his comedic gifts most evident? Maybe I just never got a chance to appreciate the deft comic touch that made him a legend. Or maybe he was just so damn obsequious that nobody wanted to admit that he was a hack. There was a steady list of clever, insightful, funny, musical, artistic and worthwhile people who wandered off to the pearly gates before Bob.
Well, in July 2003, all that angst went away. When Bob Hope died, I felt a certain relief. Now if Arthur Miller were to die (he did), at least he outlived Bob Hope. The problem is that I once again find myself without that yardstick for transience. I've considered Jerry Lewis, but that seems almost spiteful at this point, and Bob Denver is no longer available. I seek the comfort of that perspective - "How can there be a God in Heaven if (Person X) can be taken from us while (Person Y) is left to suck oxygen from our depleting atmosphere?" Does anybody know if Abe Vigoda is still alive?

Thursday, September 08, 2005

The Waiting Game

"Experts" say that a California earthquake could be the "next Katrina." Well, thanks "Experts." I know that the most important thing to come out of this natural disaster and its attendant government ineptitude is the preview of coming attractions. I've seen "Earthquake" about seventeen times on American Movie Classics (who picks these "classics" anyway?) - I even saw it once when I was a kid in Sensurround. Now that Chuck Heston has started to mumble to the furniture I know that we have no real hope of surviving "the Big One."
Or do we? There is an enormous difference between hurricanes and earthquakes, and here it is: You can see hurricanes coming. Forecasting earthquakes is, at best, an arcane art. We can watch our pets for some kind of odd behavior - does licking yourself and chasing invisible rabbits count? We can read carefully the writings of Nostradamus - who correctly predicted the outcome of the 1987 World Series. We can pore over endless seismic studies and try to find some kind of pattern - California and Japan both have Disney parks and they both have earthquakes.
Okay, so maybe we're stuck waiting for the earth to open up and swallow us all. Maybe we'll get lucky and only part of the state will slip into the ocean. What is the alternative? We could just pack up and head for someplace in relative safety on the other side of the Sierra Nevadas. Evacuation seems unlikely, so we should probably prepare for the worst. We should have three days' food and water for each person, and we should have agreed upon alternatives for shelter in the event that ours should be ground into pulp. We should create alternative means of communication in case of land line or cellular telephone failure. We should have portable heating and cooking capacity. We should grow our own food, make our own clothes and live off the land the way our forefathers taught us.
I digress. We can get ready, but we don't have to panic. There will be plenty of time to panic.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

That's Your Dirt In the Boss's Hole

This afternoon I was asked how I felt about working at a school where almost all the teachers were new to the school. I was being asked by one of the teachers who is new to the school this year, so I felt that I should be a little careful in my reply. I want to be forthcoming, but I don't want to cause any kind of stress-inducing fuss. So, I said this:
"It's good to be at a school where change can happen. We've been through a lot in my nine years here. I have worked with nine different principals. The principal we had three years ago passed away suddenly at the beginning of the year from liver cancer. The main building has been slated for modernization for eight years now. Two years ago they started the demolition work on the top floor and moved everyone up there out to portables. Those of us who were downstairs worked below the hammering, pounding, and even a broken pipe that caused a brief rainstorm in my classroom. All through this phase we walked kids through a chain link fence down to what we quietly referred to as 'the dungeon.' During this time our staff stayed relatively steady, last year we only replaced one teacher. Then came the bad news about our test scores. By all the standard measuring sticks (API, AYP, MOUSE) we were failing. That is to say that we were not making 'adequate yearly progress' or at least we were not making the progress required by state and federal legislation. Among our staff, we all pretty much agreed that holding steady under our current condition was progress enough. But weren't the ones who made the decisions about what happens to a Program Improvement school. We were given the choice of becoming a charter school or having our staff reconstituted. The charter option we were offered was sketchy at best, and so we picked option number two. Most of our staff left or wasn't asked back - the punch line being that our API went up almost thirty points last year. Sometimes I wonder if I was fortunate to be one of the teachers who was asked to stay. I got what I asked for, that's for sure. Now we have ten new teachers and the same gargantuan task. How do I feel? A little like Sisyphus, I guess."

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Track Meet

I had met a lot of hippies. I grew up in Boulder. But I had never met one my own age. Ken was working on the shoulder-length hair way back in seventh grade, and started growing a beard by the end of eighth. It took us only a few months to get to know each other - we connected over Monty Python originally, then bonded firmly via a mutual adoration of "Jesus Christ Superstar." Ken liked the idea of playing Jesus, and he called me Herod. "So if you are the Christ, the Great Jesus Christ, prove to me that you're no fool - walk across my swimming pool." He drifted toward musical theater, I was in band. We needed each other for comic relief during our tormented early adolescence.
By ninth grade, I had made some effort to sublimate my band experience by going out for sports. I was on the middleweight football team, the wrestling team, and the track team. I tried hard to fit into the jock scene. I was surprised to see Ken show up for the first track practice of the year. A friend had talked him into running middle distance. We had apparently arrived, in ninth grade, at the same conclusion: girls might notice you if you went out for sports.
Near the end of the first practice, we were lined up in pairs to run 440 yards for time. Ken and I ended up near the end. We waited our turn, then stepped up to the line. I was in the A lane, he was in the B. Coach Straight (his real name) hollered at us to go. Off we went - once around the quarter mile track. Ken was lanky and had a longer stride from the start. I chugged along in my best tortoise fashion, and had pulled back even with him at the halfway mark. As I started to pull away, I could hear Ken exerting himself - a sound we were probably both unfamiliar with. On the straightaway, I increased my lead. There were a few hoots and shouts of encouragement. I was winning a race. I pushed myself still harder until I heard Ken calling from behind me, "Caven, don't beat me!" If he had been any closer, I would have lost the race by falling down laughing. When I crossed the finish line, I looked back and watched Ken labor through the last twenty yards.
Ken stayed on the team for the rest of the spring, though he never had a race. I was the backup shot put and discus thrower. I got to compete at two meets and was solidly trounced by all the other schools, including a guy who grew up to be an offensive lineman for the Indianapolis Colts.
When we got to high school, Ken and I stuck to theater and band. We didn't go out for sports because we knew that the winnowing process had begun in junior high. We weren't Jock Material. We kept our friendship - though he began to refer to himself as King of the Scots rather than the Jews. I wasn't sure what to make of that, since he still referred to me periodically as Herod. Maybe it was because of that race.

Monday, September 05, 2005

High Expectations

I am so very proud of my son. Yesterday he got together with a friend of his from across the street and they gathered up toys, videos and clothes that they could part with and arranged them on a tarp in front of our house. With a little help from Mom, they made some lemonade and got some cups. They set up a train track in the garage. Then they put up the signs: "Hurricane Sale," and "Train Runs $1.00." They stuck a big red construction paper cross on the front gate, and they settled in and waited. The Silly Six Pins game sold for two dollars - that was the big sale for the day. A few neighbors saw the signs and stopped by to drop a few dollars in the can (a Nestle's Quick container with a red cross taped to the front). They took turns watching the front and "checking on the train." They did this for two hours in the middle of their Sunday. No one ever did pay to run the train, and there was still a lot of extra stuff left to sell - no one bought the Teletubbies video, can you believe it? They counted up the money at the end. They had collected ten dollars and eighty-two cents. They put it in the mail to the Red Cross.
I have a friend who lives in Manhattan. He has very fresh memories of human suffering from 9/11. He was in Houston this past week on business. He had an afternoon to himself, so he hailed a cab and drove to the nearest grocery store. He filled the trunk and back seat with food, diapers, toys, and other things he could think of, then told the driver to take him to the Astrodome. When they got there, there was no one to tell them where to go, or what to do, so they got as close as they could. People lined up quickly and politely and when the contents of the cab were exhausted, he got back into the cab and returned to his hotel.
I want to be that proud of my government.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Running on Empty

I watched two guys pumping gas today. One was filling up the family mini-van, the other was gassing up the SUV. They leaned against their vehicles and didn't say a word to one another. A sign in front of the station listed two sets of prices: one for gas ($3 plus a gallon), and the other listed the price for a carton of Marlboros ($38.26). My guess is that in health-conscious Northern California, neither of these guys smoked, so they must have been saving money, right?
Some of the notions that have been swirling in my head for the past few hours suggest some kind of resiliency. The second phase of my grief (as well as most subsequent stages) involve some smart-ass response. It occurred to me that the National Guard should make good on the sketchy "commitment" that George W. Bush made back in the 70's and ask him to come on back for a month or two to help out in the Gulf Coast. He's shown how good he is at clearing brush on his extended stays in Crawford; why not put some of that talent to use clearing rubble in Biloxi or New Orleans? I understand that the government will help his employers cover his absence, and if he's gone for an extended period, maybe they could hire someone to replace him.
The other twisted notion was to have Disney buy the whole area, and have them turn it into one big entertainment complex. They could have a chance to rebuild New Orleans Square to scale, and the "cast members" could be hired directly from the pool of applicants waiting in line for food and shelter. At the very least, they could make standing in line a little more tolerable by having Mickey and his crew drop by to sign autographs and take some photos while they wait.
But really - here's what Tim Russert said on "Meet the Press" today:
"Joining us is the man in charge of the federal response to the disaster, the director of Homeland Security, Michael Chertoff.
Mr. Secretary, this is yesterday's Daily News: 'Shame Of A Nation.' And I want to read it to you and our viewers very carefully. It says, 'As for Chertoff, if this is the best his department can do, the homeland is not very secure at all. It is absolutely outrageous that the United States of America could not send help to tens of thousands of forlorn, frightened, sick and hungry human beings at least 24 hours before it did, arguably longer than that. Who is specifically at fault for what is nothing less than a national scandal... It will never be known exactly what a day could have meant to so many unfortunates whose lives came to an end in those hopelessly tortured hours--on scorching roadsides, for lack of a swallow of water, in sweltering hospital bads, for lack of insulin. But what is already more than clear is that the nation's disaster-preparedness mechanisms do not appear to be in the hands of officials who know how to run them.'
Mr. Secretary, are you or anyone who reports to you contemplating resignation?"
To which the Secretary of Homeland Security began to prattle on about his master's talking points. Then he was pressed more directly about the government's lack of preparedness. The wheels started to come off:
"And one last point I'd make is this, Tim. We had actually prestaged a tremendous number of supplies, meals, shelter, water. We had prestaged, even before the hurricane, dozens of Coast Guard helicopters, which were obviously nearby but not in the area. So the difficulty wasn't lack of supplies. The difficulty was that when the levee broke, it was very, very hard to get the supplies to the people. I-10 was submerged. There was only one significant road going all the way the way around. Much of the city was flooded. The only way to get to people and to get supplies was to have airdrops and helicopters. And frankly, it is very--and their first priority was rescuing people from rooftops. So we really had a tremendous strain on the capacity of--to be able to both rescue people and also to be able to get them supplies.
MR. RUSSERT: Mr. Secretary, you say prestaged. People were sent to the Convention Center. There was no water, no food, no beds, no authorities there. There was no planning."
Come to think of it, maybe I'm not feeling any better about this just yet.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

Lactose Recollection

I made a reference recently about someone being "the milkman's kid." I received blank stares as my response. Oh, that's a reference that has been made culturally irrelevant. I still remember the pre-dawn arrival of our milkman. The big Watts-Hardy Dairy truck came rumbling up the street, stopping first in front of the Cunning's house, then a faint tinkling of glass bottles in a wire rack. Sometimes I would lie in my bed and listen as he finished the delivery next door, then moved to our house. Sometimes I would stand up on my bed and stick my head up under the curtains to watch him work.
I have a sentimental notion of our milkman wearing a starched white shirt and clean, pressed pants - with a bow tie and a cap worn at just the right jaunty angle. It's more likely that he wore a grey jacket with the Watts-Hardy logo painted on the back. We had a milk box on our front porch where we put our empty bottles to be picked up and exchanged for fresh, full ones. I recall feeling that our personal space was somewhat violated when, on occasion, our milkman would use our hose to rinse out the empties.
There was a wonderful rite of passage in our house that involved the milkman. When you were old enough, one of the ways you could show your newfound responsibility was to be allowed to mark the milk card. It wasn't a difficult job, but you had to be very detail-oriented. We wanted one bottle of whole milk, two small cottage cheese, and one skim. At Christmastime we would get eggnog. If you were clever enough, you might just write a "2" instead of "1" in the eggnog column. The next morning, you could go out on the front porch, open up the box, and have them in the refrigerator before anyone was the wiser. I wonder what our milkman's name was - maybe I should ask my little brother...

Friday, September 02, 2005

Put Down The Camera And Give The Guy A Sandwich

Please remove this remote control from my hand and unplug my television. I do not want to watch anymore. I have stopped learning anything from watching the pain and suffering of my fellow Americans. The periodic refrain of that notion - these are Americans wading through waist high water; these are Americans waiting in line for buses that never come; these are Americans shooting at helicopters that are trying to bring supplies; these are Americans dying.
Reality TV my ass. "Too many cameras and not enough food," sang the Police once upon a time. There was a bit of smug solace in suffering taking place across the globe from us. I think of the T-shirt I got for donating to Live Aid. On the back it said "This Shirt Saved A Life." I've thought about that shirt a hundred times since then, always wishing that if that were really true if I could possibly be more discriminating about the life I chose to save.
But that's the real trick, isn't it? It doesn't matter in the end - a life is a life - in New Orleans or Niger. We watch and try to imagine what it must be like and then thank the deity of our choice that our lights are on and we're not sleeping in a domed sports stadium with no idea where our loved ones have gone. We're a privileged society with a short attention span. What happens when that society gets stripped away isn't pretty at all. Still, there's a lot of talk about where the Saints are going to play their home games. I consider this an amazing example of Ironic American Resiliency. It reminds me of the concerns after 9/11 about when it would be okay to play football again. Right now, I say - before I turn back to CNN.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Labor Day

Ah, here it comes - the Labor Day Weekend. I always get a little wistful this time of year, and not necessarily because it's time to put away the white bucks for the year. I return each Labor Day to the summers when my family would spend three months living in the mountains above Boulder. Tucked away in our little cabin, we had no running water, no telephone and perhaps most significantly, no electricity. No electricity meant no television. Each summer we lived in a world without reruns. When we stayed up late it was to read MAD magazine and comic books by kerosene lamplight, not to catch Creature Features on channel two.
On Memorial Day weekend each year, we knew that we wouldn't see the Indianapolis 500 because we would be moving in: two loads in mom's squareback VW, and Dad brought whatever didn't fit when he came up from work. Then we were set, sometimes for weeks at a time, until we headed "into town" for supplies.
Did I miss TV? Not in any active way, but there was a latent itch that I couldn't scratch. It was on these trips that we found ourselves, however briefly, around a television set. While the last load of laundry was in the dryer, my little brother and I would sit slack-jawed in front of whatever program we were fortunate enough to find in the late afternoon. I became quite fond of "The Match Game" as a result. Gene Rayburn held great significance in my world. Then it was time to turn off the tube and head for the hills again, wondering what came on later.
June and July flowed together, but August showed up as a warning. The days grew shorter, and we all knew that our lives as the Grizzly Family Caven were dwindling. No matter how I chose to prepare myself, Labor Day always came as a surprise. We talked a good game about getting home in time to see some of Jerry Lewis' MDA Telethon, but we all knew that was a sign of our summer's apocalypse. We wandered around the house, putting things away, watering plants, finding missing socks, taking baths to prepare for our reentry into society. And I can still hear Ed McMahon in the background, asking for a drum roll, as Jerry mugged shamelessly as the tote board revealed still more incredible amounts of pledges for his kids.
As a family we knew that the quiet time was over again for another year. The TV was on, and we were headed back to school.