Saturday, December 31, 2005

Auld Lang Syne

Today is the day to think of auld acquaintances. I did some checking to make sure that I knew just exactly what "auld" was before I started. "Auld Lang Syne" is an extremely old Scottish song that was first written down in the 1700s. The folks at How stuff works (dot com) were kind enough to clue me in a little on those lyrics (attributed to Robert Burns - somebody bring me some haggis!). "Auld Lang Syne" translates roughly to "Old Long Ago" - we'll take a cup of kindness yet for old long ago.
That makes more sense than trying to imagine all the old acquaintances I can recall. The end of the year seems heavy with those, all the family gatherings and Christmas card list wrangling, it's difficult if not impossible to shake the notion that we should celebrate the end of every year by remembering everyone we've ever known. This week I found myself thinking of Troy, from my fourth grade class. Troy and I spent countless recesses at the second sand pit on the Columbine Elementary playground, playing with our Hot Wheels. We built amazing environments with plenty of parking space while other kids busied themselves with four-square, jump rope, and ridiculing the guys playing with their Hot Wheels. We didn't care. We couldn't wait to get back out to find what was left of the caves, bridges and tunnels at lunchtime.
Troy is gone now. By the time we were in junior high, we had drifted apart. The fact that there weren't recesses in junior high probably had something to do with it. I think he signed my yearbook in our sophomore year in high school, and then we were done. It wasn't out of any sort of spite or malice, on the contrary, we always had a nod and a smile for each other in the hallway. We had left each other behind in the Auld Lang Syne.
It's a question, after all: Should old acquaintances be forgotten, and never brought to mind? No, and I'll bring along one of my son's Hot Wheels to mark the occasion.

Friday, December 30, 2005

Top of the Pops

It's time for the year to be reviewed. It's what we do. I decided to take a look at popular music for the year, 2005. First off, I should point out that on those rare occasions that I purchase a "Rolling Stone" magazine, I am on my way through an airport, so I don't always give the attention I might to the journalism (and cologne ads) found within. What I do notice is the Top 100 albums of the week, and the various other charts - such as the top college albums or the top ten singles. This is what my research tells me: I am hopelessly out of step with popular culture.
Of the Top Fifty Albums of 2005, according to Rolling Stone, I own precisely two of them: Bruce Springsteen's "Devils and Dust" and The Foo Fighters' "In Your Honor." That would be a whopping four percent of the top fifty albums. I shudder to think what percentage that would be if we expanded the list to one hundred. I'm not guessing that would guarantee me an additional two albums. I read "Entertainment Weekly" - well - weekly and I do have some passing familiarity with the music and artists that are on the list, at least anecdotally. I find it is mildly important to be able to show up in a fourth grade classroom with some knowledge of Kanye West, or Black Eyed Peas. But Shakira? Kings of Leon? How can I possibly hope to appreciate all that pop music and still find time to grade papers?
The answer, it seems, has been given to me by my niece, a teenager with her own set of tastes and favorites. Download a song to try it. I discovered Franz Ferdinand this way, as well as The Killers' most recent CD. Rolling Stone's web site will sell you its top ten songs for just forty-nine cents apiece. We are returning to a pop-singles culture. Albums aren't as important, songs are becoming more so. I am familiar with one of the ten songs this week, primarily because the White Stripes played it on "The Daily Show." I resign myself to being sadly out of touch.
The alternative may be to take a page from my friend Darren's past. Many years ago, he and a buddy went to the library and began researching old issues of Rolling Stone. They compiled a list of every five star album that was reviewed from the mid-1970s on. They made it their mission to own every single one of them. Sometimes they were surprised at how much they liked what they heard - other times they got exactly what they expected. Still, this gave them a solid basis on which to judge everything that came after that.
As for me, I think I'll wait and see. I just got the thirtieth anniversary remastered "Born To Run" for Christmas. Back in 1975, that was five stars, wasn't it?

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Information Retrieval

Three years after its creation, an audit of the Department of Homeland Security finds that it is "poorly managed." I'm not sure an audit was completely necessary to discover this, considering the relative cost of the audit versus the obvious amount of evidence available for free. My guess is that the folks down in the Gulf Coast would be more than happy to deliver their opinions, without charge, on the job performance of Secretary Michael Chertoff.
"When one considers that FEMA's programs are largely administered through grants and contracts, the circumstances created by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita provides an unprecedented opportunity for fraud, waste, and abuse," the report said. You remember FEMA - run until recently by Michael "Brownie" Brown? The guy who was praise by his boss, George W. "Pinhead" Bush, for doing "a heckuva job?" Michael Brown is still pulling down a six figure salary from that agency - I suppose we can look at it as money paid to keep us safe from Michael "Brownie" Brown.
All of this comes hard on the heels of the newly redefined TSA (Transportation Safety Administration or Twits Standing Around) restrictions have allowed us all to regain the freedom of our nail clippers and pocket knives, while we still have to worry about erratic behavior of the sort that got Rigoberto Alpizar shot in Orlando for not carrying a bomb on board an airplane. Suffering from bipolar disorder, apparently Mr. Alpizar was shot for missing his meds.
Enjoy the holiday travel rush, and pray that the levees hold until the reorganization of the reorganization is complete at the Department of Homeland Security. Mazeltov!

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Who'll Stop the Rain?

Outside, the rain continues. Everything is wet and green, except the trees that are finally shedding their leaves in great clumps as the wind whips their branches in sweeping arcs. The year is ending much as it began, in a wave of "winter storms" that fill the gutters and make the driveway a muddy rut.
I have rain gear. I can go out and avoid becoming damp for minutes at a time. There are Goretex pants, jacket and gloves, and I have waterproofed my boots so that if I had the whim, I could go and stand in a puddle during a downpour just to show off. I don't want to.
Maybe it's because I'm old, but I just don't have the interest in challenging the elements like I used to. When I lived in Colorado, I would go out running in the wind and rain and snow. Not just a mile or two, but five and six mile treks through drifts that were up to my knees in some spots. I had a moustache then, and on several occasions the sub-zero temperatures caused a layer of ice to form on my upper lip. Ice would also form on my glasses as the moisture condensed on the inside of lenses. Lacking a defroster, I let the glasses slip down my nose and continued on in the blizzard peering over them.
I'm certain now that it is the extended period of wet weather that is causing this drain on my good cheer. I am missing the way that snow would pile up, while rain erodes. I feel a little silly sipping hot chocolate and gazing out the window as the mercury hovers right around room temperature. On those cold winter nights in Colorado, my father would gaze out on the snow-covered neighborhood and wax rhapsodic about how "everything looks so white and even." Outside my house the gutters are choked with leaves and a small lake has begun to form at the end of the driveway. Everything looks so wet and even.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Strike Ambivalence

I was chatting with my mother yesterday (a nice holiday diversion, try it if you have a mother around). We were bouncing quickly from personal affairs to those of the world. I was discussing my ambivalence about being in a union, and all the challenges and benefits it provides. I said that I had a hard time feeling that a teachers' strike would have the impact that would be most socially beneficial. I appreciate that my union is working hard to maintain my job security and financial well-being, but I wonder if the goal of my job - teaching kids - doesn't sometimes get obscured by the machinations of the teacher's union. I do not want caps on my health care, and I would very much like to make a consistent living (if not comfortably living) wage. Here's the rub for me: I know that the families of the kids that I am teaching would like the same thing, but have little or no recourse in this matter. The hope is that a quality education will give these students the opportunity to change the world they live in, or give them choices about what part of the world they will grow into. The number of kids I deal with on a daily basis who have serious abandonment issues would be another reason to think long and hard before I were to walk out on my job for a day, or a week, or more.
Earlier this week, New York City's mayor (and billionaire) Michael Bloomberg admonished those transit workers who took part in the city's three day strike. The mayor complained that union leaders had "thuggishly turned their backs on New York City and disgraced the noble concept of public service." Bloomberg continued to assert that businesses in New York lost $1 billion in revenue during last week's three-day transit strike. Well, heck, isn't that the idea of a strike? To make apparent the connection between all forms of service and industry, disrupting it strategically to make the importance of every link in that chain? Still, the impact won't be felt in the boardrooms for some time. The people who had to get to work on time the week before Christmas to make sure they could make rent and put groceries on the table - they felt it. The gulf between them that gots and them that don't has widened to a frightening degree.
Back here in Oakland, I enjoy my two weeks of Winter Break, and I await the fact-finders' report with my fingers crossed and my hopes alive for the new year.

Monday, December 26, 2005

Boxing Day

It says, right there on my calendar, "Boxing Day - Canada." I just did a quick search of the Internet, and here's one of the results that came back: "There was a time in Canadian sports history when Jews were among the top boxers in the game. Sammy Luftspring, Maxie Berger, 'Baby' Yack and Albert Roher were among the more notable Jewish practitioners of the sweet science." Okay, so I did a search for "Canadian Boxers," but still - it got me thinking about my own experience in the squared circle.
The family across the street was big and Catholic. They had moved to our neighborhood from Kansas City, so for many years I had to endure stories about the greatness of Hank Stram and the venerable Kansas City Chiefs. Their other sports fixation was boxing. As we all started to bump heavily into puberty, there were a number of times that we were all summoned to their basement to sit and watch heavyweight championship fights. I knew precious little about the sport outside of the easy connections to Bugs Bunny and the Three Stooges. It turns out that most of the stuff Bugs did in the ring were not strictly legal. I confess that I might have been more interested had there been more horseshoes dropped into gloves, or glue poured into rosin boxes.
No matter - it was an activity that the neighborhood kids all piled in for, and so we all found a spot on the couch or the floor to await the main event. This was during the glory days of ABC Sports, when Howard Cosell was "telling it like it is." Listening to Howard's descriptions were almost always more interesting than the fight itself, but there was always a measure more excitement when Muhammad Ali climbed into the ring. There were some legendary fighters then: George Foreman, Joe Frazier - but Ali was obviously the true superstar. We all understood that we would get a better show if he was in the mix. I spent a good many Saturday afternoons and Friday evenings in that basement watching a sport that was reaching its height.
One night, we all headed over for a fight that was to be no real contest, Ali was defending his title against some up-and-comer, but it was still a chance to see the Greatest perform. We sat through the preliminary bout, and then it was time for the introductions. Aside from the kids, my neighbor's whole family helped fill the room to capacity. His mother sat on the couch, smack in the middle of the room. As the fighters were being introduced, his mom said, "You know, that Muhammad Ali is a pretty nice looking man - for a negro." It wasn't just silence that followed, but more like a noise vortex that emanated from my neighbor's father. A very slow burn had begun, and it is quite possible that it continues to this day. Ali won handily that night. He may have had several more fights, but we didn't see them over there. We weren't asked back. We still heard about it from time to time, but there was no mention of the Champ - the Greatest of All Time. That time had ended.
Enjoy your boxing day, and remember that once there were giants.

Sunday, December 25, 2005

After the Deluge

There will still probably be one more trip to the recycling bin tonight. The debris that has been created over the course of this day is substantial, but not wholly unexpected. My son feels very satisfied and comfortable with the new wave of toys, books and other amusements that have appeared in his house. He has officially pronounced this "The Best Christmas Ever." This is no faint praise, as he can remember most of the other nine for which he has been present.
It started at six thirty this morning - or to be more precise - 6:36 AM, as that was what he whispered to me when I asked him what time it was. I didn't have the courage to open my eyes to check for myself. I knew that my mother would have a chuckle at this, given the number of times my brothers and I had stormed into my parent's bedroom on Christmas morning, only to be shooed out to come back "at a more civilized hour." Civilization apparently views seven in the morning as the proper time to start opening stockings, followed by a quick break to take a shower and eat a Pop Tart. Then the real orgy of greed commences.
Each year, it becomes clear that if the emphasis was strictly on picking the one most appropriate and engaging gift, then the rest of them might fall by the wayside. Money, time and wrapping paper would be saved, and there would still be smiles all around. Still, there's no way to be certain, and being an only child allows a great deal more experimentation when it comes to getting things just right. This toy and that book are great, but that game looks like it would make him very happy.
But I know the truth. I'm buying all this stuff to make me happy. It makes me feel great every time he opens a present and grins, or says "Oh my gosh!" He stills says "thank you" and spends time poring over every gift as if it were the most important. He's a good kid. I got a lot of nice things too - books, a rugby shirt, a King Kong poster - but my favorite was the first one I got this morning: a hug from my son at six thirty in the morning, sorry, make that 6:36.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Christmas Wrangling

time once again
to put aside the things
we can't agree on
as the holiday sings
we gather together
to share a warm smile
or maybe a toast
that will last us a while
come right on inside
don't stand in the door
we'll pull up a chair
or we'll sit on the floor
we'll talk about stuff
that happened this year
we'll agree to disagree
as long as we're near
but I really must say
with all respect I fear
the intelligent design
of flying reindeer

Friday, December 23, 2005

Waiting For A Miracle

a man stands with his arms stretched wide
"Live Free Or Die" tattooed across his chest
the explosives wrapped around him await the trigger
the only thing he has to do is just let
there is a brilliant flash, without a sound
he feels a soft touch on his forehead
then from the light and the silence he hears
a quiet voice uttering a single word:
when he opens his eyes he is on his bed
back in the apartment he left hours ago
he forces himself up into the darkness
walking into the bathroom he turns on a light
most of the words on his chest are gone
now there is only one:

We wait around for miracles like they were public transportation. Miracles are found in rush hour traffic and coffee mugs. Peace is a miracle. Just like letting someone onto the freeway in front of you, you have to make Peace happen. The answer can be "No."

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Daytime TV

It's been a few years, but this morning I turned the television on to Teletubbies. I stood, oddly transfixed by the serenity of picture and sound. I've missed Dipsy, Laa-Laa, Po, and Tinky Winky. I could feel my jaw go slack as I moved to sit on the edge of my bed, not tempted in the slightest bit to change the channel.
"This series introduces young children - ages one to three - to the wonders and magic of high-tech in a safe and friendly way." - From the PBS Parent page on Teletubbies
For the Tubbies, technology has replaced "parental units". They are cared for by their Home Hill (Tubbytronic Superdome) technologies and advised by various unseen entities without family connection using "public address system" voice trumpets. Many adults have suggested that the Teletubbies live in some future dystopian society. They are cared for, but the conflicts that occur are suppressed.
"Each program features the Teletubbies in Teletubbyland, which hums with the play technology that supplies their every need - Tubby toast, Tubby custard and a conscientious comic vacuum cleaner, the Noo-noo." - From the PBS Parent page
It's the Noo-noo that gets me. The Teletubbies romp and play, dropping Tubby Toast as they will and spilling Tubby Custard across various and sundry surfaces. When these accidents occur, the "conscientious" Noo-noo appears from nowhere to clean up the mess. Here is the sand in the vaseline: the oppressed working class. In this way, Teletubbies represent the Eloi of H.G. Wells' "Time Machine" with the Noo-noo taking the place of the Morlocks. It makes one nervously curious about what might lie below the Tubbytronic Superdome.
At this point I had thought too much, so I grabbed the remote and switched to ESPN. Ah, sweet relief.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Queen of the Prom

Here's more amazing science to ponder: Researchers Find Barbie Is Often Mutilated. That was the headline on Yahoo news yesterday afternoon. My immediate reaction was an unqualified, "Duh." What sort of research would you have to conduct to discover that? Ask any prepubescent girl what idle thoughts fill her mind as she gets Barbie ready for her big date with Ken. You might be surprised how often the response will be "I wonder what Barbie would look like without any arms," or something along that line. Maybe they were surprised because they were British. Mutilation (while extremely popular in Britain) does not fall into the realm of "polite behavior."
"The girls we spoke to see Barbie torture as a legitimate play activity, and see the torture as a 'cool' activity," said Agnes Nairn, one of the University of Bath researchers. "The types of mutilation are varied and creative, and range from removing the hair to decapitation, burning, breaking and even microwaving." Again, be thankful that they choose to work out their frustrations on Barbie, on not younger siblings.
The researchers found it surprising that girls tended to view Barbie as an inanimate object - but isn't that the whole point? Girls get it. They don't want to become an object. Good for them. "Whilst for an adult the delight the child felt in breaking, mutilating and torturing their dolls is deeply disturbing, from the child's point of view they were simply being imaginative in disposing of an excessive commodity in the same way as one might crush cans for recycling," said Nairn.
As long as they don't start enjoying it.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

It Wasn't The Airplanes -

If you had been fretting for me these past two weeks - about when I would finally get myself and my loved ones out to the movie theater to see "King Kong" - fret no more. While it is neither the policy nor the practice of this blog to wax rhapsodic about popular culture, indulge me for a moment or to as I do just that.
"Nobody cry when Jaws die. When my Kong die, people gonna cry." This statement was attributed (and later lampooned by John Belushi on Saturday Night Live) to Dino DeLaurentis, producer of the 1976 version. I confess, I cried a little at the end of that one, mostly out of frustration. Almost thirty years later, Peter Jackson has made good on that assertion. At the end of Jackson's "King Kong," my wife wept openly into the extra napkins she had brought along from the snack bar for just such an emergency. She wasn't the only one, either. This big ape has gravitas, and a soul.
The chief knock on this version has been the three hour-plus running time. This would be a problem if there were great empty pieces of film, devoid of story or meaning. While one might quibble with the length of the opening, it provides exposition and grounding in a very real world that is about to be visited by something very surreal. This is a film that isn't as much a remake as an homage to the original. For fans such as myself, it is a three hour wallow in all things Kong, with chewy bits of trivia and tribute to savor along the way.
Still, why make another version of a film that has been made countless times - with sequels, prequels and shoddy ripoffs included along the way - over the years? I believe that it is the story that keeps us coming back. The Beauty and the Beast angle has been used as a label for so many years (and repeated endlessly in the original version), that it no longer seems pertinent. By examining the anima of Kong, we start to understand why the story of a twenty five foot gorilla might be so enduring. Anima literally means spirit, soul, or breath of life. It is from this root that we get such words as Animal and Animation. This inspiration can be felt in every step that Kong takes. According to Carl Jung, the anima is the feminine side of a man's personal unconsciousness. This would explain Ann Darrow's connection to a giant gorilla. In Peter Jackson's version, it is obvious that Jack Driscoll struggles with this side of his own character. Like so many men, he tries to connect with Ann by pushing her away. The most tender moment in the film is played out between Ann and Kong as they share a moment of beauty, watching a sunrise. We see the two of them become soulmates. It is Jack's struggle to look within himself and appreciate what is beautiful in his world. Jack isn't just saving Ann, he is saving part of himself. When Carl Denham says, "It wasn't the airplanes that got him; 'twas beauty killed the beast," he is talking about that instant that we all become whole. Jack can finally embrace Ann atop the Empire State Building because the beast - the one inside - has been defeated.
What's not to love?

Monday, December 19, 2005

I Spy

What can you give the person who has everything this year for Christmas? How about a little discreet electronic surveillance? All of us here in America are eligible for just that under George W. Bush's (our pinhead of state) regime. Over the past few days, George has been showing up on our television sets to remind us of just how legal all of this domestic spying really is.
Not only is it legal, according to our President, but it is a necessary and effective tool in disrupting terrorists. The problem is, somebody got it into their heads to tattle on the National Security Agency. Bush said it was "a shameful act" for someone to have leaked details to the media. Shame on you, free press (as provided in our constitution). Some have gone so far as to suggest that he is assuming powers not provided for in that same constitution. "To say `unchecked power' basically is ascribing some kind of dictatorial position to the president, which I strongly reject," he said angrily in a finger-pointing answer. "I am doing what you expect me to do, and at the same time, safeguarding the civil liberties of the country."
Okay, raise your hands if you are the ones who expect your president to promote a program involving electronic intercepts of telephone calls and e-mails. Bush said he had asked, "Do I have the legal authority to do this? And the answer is, absolutely." Who, exactly, did he ask? Pat Robertson?
Executive power is almost always exercised in conjunction with the legislature. Lately, George hasn't been getting the answers he wants from that group, so I suspect he's probably steering clear of them and appealing directly to the people. "I hope the American people understand — there is still an enemy that would like to strike the United States of America, and they're very dangerous." He continued, "I want to make sure the American people understand, however, that we have an obligation to protect you, and we're doing that, and at the same time, protecting your civil liberties."
Still have your hands up? Good. Here's what he said about any publicquestioningg of this policy: "An open debate would say to the enemy, `Here is what we're going to do.' And this is an enemy which adjusts." Hands still up? Okay, but here's what he told us about the failure of intelligence before the invasion of Iraq and the potential for emerging threats such as Iran: "Where it is going to be most difficult to make the case is in the public arena," Bush said. "People will say, if we're trying to make the case on Iran, `Well, if the intelligence failed in Iraq, therefore, how can we trust the intelligence on Iran?'"
Confused yet? Not to worry. So is he.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

The Fat Man Cometh

The other day a friend of mine walked in the front door to this scene: His wife was on one side of the room, his daughter was sitting on the couch with a single tear rolling down her cheek. His wife looked up and said, "She was going to find out sooner or later..." And this is the moment that even the most courageous of us might turn right around and walk back out the door.
In the pitched battle for the hearts and minds of children everywhere, the existence of S. Claus stands as a kind of spiritual Waterloo. On Friday in my fourth grade class I doodled a quick but jolly bearded man on the board as I waited for them to finish their spelling test. From one corner of the room I heard a delighted squeal: "Santa!" The immediate responses ranged from "Yeah!" to "Duh," but soon turned to "You don't really believe in Santa, do you?" The line was drawn. You could have cut the tension with a Ginsu knife. "Santa Claus is so real." "He's your mom and dad." "I'll believe in Santa Claus if I wake up on Christmas morning and find a roomful of presents."
Then the other shoe dropped: "Mister Caven, is there such a thing as Santa Claus?" I tried desperately to remember the Kris Kringle defense from "Miracle on 34th Street" or the eloquence of the reply to Virginia's quandary. Nothing came. I considered my options carefully, since I make it a practice never to lie to my kids. I decided to steer wide of the growing imbroligio, "We still have a spelling test to check, don't we? And we sure don't want to have to come back from lunch and check a spelling test before the party, right?" Santa or no, all the kids could agree on an afternoon free of curriculum, and so I was saved the fate of ten year old imaginations for another year.
When I came home that night, I saw my son's carefully addressed envelope to "Santa's Castle, North Pole." He was careful to include additional postage to make certain that his letter got to its destination. This is a very clever eight year old (eight and a half, he will remind me). I wonder how long we will work to keep this balloon in the air. When will the reckoning come? Having an older brother was a blessing and a curse on this matter, since I was in on the secret a little earlier, but the magic was done as a result. My son is reading at a fifth grade level, doing multi-digit multiplication, and shows up as an all-around extremely clever kid. Should I be surprised or concerned by his lack of suspicion, this seeming perceptual void? Well, here what the doubting Susan Walker (little Natalie Wood) had to say at the end of "Miracle on 34th Street" - now that I have the luxury of researching such things: "I believe... I believe... Even though it's silly, I believe."

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Dinner Bell

A study in Britain suggested that the dining table, once a focal point of family life, is vanishing from British homes due to a lack of space, a preference to eat in front of the television and a rise in divorces. Another study found that more than one quarter of British homes did not have a dining room table, while the sales of office furniture continued to rise. TV dinners and the Internet are tearing families apart. In Britain, anyway.
Here in the good old US of A there the happy family around the dining room table has been disappearing ever since we saw it more on television than in our own homes. I have a solid recollection of how important sitting down for dinner as a family was for us. My mother had some rules that she insisted on enforcing, such as "No singing at the table." I can't imagine that would have been the case in the Von Trapp household, but no matter. Periodically we were allowed to play some of our "kid music" during dinner - this tended to coincide with the onset of puberty for each boy - an attempt to announce to the family his position in life upon entering manhood. What does it say about me that I picked Boston's first album to try out on my parents on one particular autumn evening?
I can remember the special occasions that we would roll our portable television into the kitchen to watch important cultural events like "Green Acres" and "Batman." When my grandmother came to babysit, we would watch "Hee-Haw" as we gnawed on our Salisbury steak and hoped that we would be excused before she turned over to watch Lawrence Welk. Having the TV on with grandma was a good thing, since it limited the potential for conversation with the woman we referred to lovingly as "the Great Stoneface of Kansas."
The dining room table for my family was the place to work out your new material. It wasn't much different from a comedy club on open mike night. My older brother and I would do our five minutes and get off, leaving room for our headliner, my father to put us over the top. My younger brother sat patiently for years - biding his time, not speaking during meal time just to avoid the hassle of trying to get a word in edgewise. My mother waited us all out. Just when it might have been time for her to speak her mind, our dog would start yapping at her to get his dinner. We had dinner together around the same table as a family, and then with our friends who wanted to come and check out the spectacle that was the Caven family dinner. Even after we each left for college, we would come back - often bringing friends - to sample the controlled anarchy that was suppertime.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Picture This

Oh to be young and in Amsterdam this time of year. Scientists at the University of Amsterdam have used all sorts of nifty and expensive new "emotion recognition" software (developed in collaboration with the University of Illinois) to determine the mood of Leonardo da Vinci's "Mona Lisa."
Their earth-shaking discovery? Apparently she was smiling "because she was happy." The specifics are this: She was eighty-three percent happy, nine percent disgusted, six percent fearful and two percent angry. She was less than one percent neutral, and not at all surprised. This last part is the most telling. She was not at all surprised. This might have something to do with the fact that she had to sit still for days at a time while the picture was painted. In 1503 there wasn't really such a thing as a "candid" portrait.
Harro Stokman, one of the Dutch researchers said, "Basically, it's like casting a spider web over the face to break it down into tiny segments. Then you look for minute differences in the flare of the nostril or depth of the wrinkles around the eyes." They were unable to detect the hint of sexual suggestion or disdain many have read into Mona Lisa's eyes. It doesn't do much to explain the rumor that the painting was actually a self-portrait of Leonardo himself as a woman. Perhaps they need to look more closely - I have always thought that she looked slightly dyspeptic.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Confection Confessions

The windows of my kitchen were thick with the condensed steam that came from the pot on the stove. I was busy with the second batch of peanut brittle, and an eclectic mix of holiday music was streaming in from the living room - "Merry Christmas Baby, I Don' Wanna Fight" by Joey Ramone stuck in my mind. I continued to stir and stare as the sugar, water, and peanuts continued their slow journey from goo to brittle. I kept stirring, since I knew that the worst thing that could happen was that "it could scorch." I'm not completely sure what that is, but I had been told many times by my father and had it reiterated previously that night by my mother that "to scorch" is bad, so keep stirring.
It takes a good long time to cook raw spanish peanuts in a mixture of corn syrup, water, and many cups of sugar. I had time to reflect on my experiences with holiday treats. As a kid, my family was especially devoted to keeping the neighborhood and a great many friends and relatives well stocked in Christmas cookies and candy. When I was much younger, I remember that the entire block worked to outdo one another with sugary snacks. Every family had their own plate of delicacies hand-delivered by children in knit caps and mittens. There was a lot of variety, but I like to believe that our family had the "greatest hits package": Snickerdoodles, Chocolate Crinkles, Chocolate Chip Cookies, fudge, and the ubiquitous peanut brittle. As the years wore on, fewer families entered into the fray, and I believe this was due in large part to the dominance of the Caven Kitchen. By the time I was in junior high, our plates had refined to the most elemental: Fudge and Peanut Brittle.
For weeks leading up to Christmas, our laundry room was a vast storehouse with tubs of peanut brittle and rows of coffee cans filled with fudge. There was horrible temptation on every trip to the back yard. We were discouraged from gorging ourselves until the rest of the free world had a chance to eat their fill. There were many stealthy nips out to the back of the house to taste a bit of purloined fudge or crack off a piece of peanut brittle. Truth is, had all three boys been turned loose on all that sugar, we probably still wouldn't have made much of a dent.
Back in the present, the peanuts were finally ready, according to the hard-crack test. I poured in the vanilla, soda and a pinch of salt - careful not to splatter any as the mixture foamed up mightily. Onto the pans I poured the bubbling goo where the cooling began almost immediately. I could tell I had a good batch the second time. My dad had a "magic pot" that he used for years. He insisted that you needed to get one pot and stick with it. I've got one of those, and I've got a counter full of various sized tins and bags filled with my own peanut brittle.

Yes Virginia, there is a Wikipedia

Recently, a great deal of doubt has been cast upon the credibility of the online encyclopedia, Wikipedia. An anonymously written biography entry that linked former USA Today Editor John Seigenthaler Sr. with the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy and Senator Robert F. Kennedy. Turns out that wasn't exactly factual. Turns out it was just a little practical joke on the part of the author, Brian Chase, who has issued an apology for a prank he says went terribly awry.
Wikipedia lets users anonymously create new articles and edit existing entries -- which number more than 1 million in 10 languages. Wikipedia is how I found out about the Flying Spaghetti Monster. If I wanted to find out more about this Santa Claus fellow, I might go back and do a little research. Now all that belief in online sources has been torn asunder. On December 7, New York Times Business Editor Larry Ingrassia sent a memo urging his staff not to use the site to check information. Then on Dec. 12, a group based in Long Beach, N.Y., announced it would pursue a class action against the site to represent those "who believe that they have been defamed or who have been the subject of anonymous and malicious postings to the popular online encyclopedia Wikipedia."
Ouch. I guess you shouldn't believe everything you read on the Internet. Which is too bad, since this is just a bit of the entry on S. Claus: "Since most activities associated with Santa Claus are extraordinary, such as delivering presents to all of the believing children in one night, how he squeezes down chimneys, how he enters homes without chimneys, why he never dies, and how he makes reindeer fly, 'magic' is usually used to explain his actions." My whole world view is suddenly cast into doubt. Merry Christmas - sheesh.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Scientific Progress Goes Boink!

We live in amazing times. There are electric cars (or in some cases, mostly electric with gas engines just in case). There are food additives that allow us to avoid harmful side effects of the food additives that we used to get naturally. There are phones that can be carried from room to room and then left God-knows-where when the phone rings again. There are phones that can take pictures and video and play television signals and keep your appointment book and any one of a thousand other functions - if you're not picky about using them as a telephone. There are televisions that are so thin that you can have a sixty-inch wide one hanging on a wall in your one-bedroom apartment. Truly amazing times.
Scientists announced Monday that they had created mice with small amounts of human brain cells. Way to go, scientists! Most of the humans I know could spare a few brain cells anyway, so why not use them to sprout a race of super-intelligent rodents? "What're we gonna do today, Brain?" "The same thing we do every day: Try to take over the world."
The researchers created the mice by injecting about 100,000 human embryonic stem cells per mouse into the brains of 14-day-old rodent embryos. Researchers at the Salk Institute in San Diego said "This illustrate that injecting human stem cells into mouse brains doesn't restructure the brain." The mice were each born with about 0.1 percent of human cells in each of their heads, a trace amount that doesn't remotely come close to "humanizing" the rodents.
Well, that's just great. So much for the "Own your very own Stuart Little" marketing campaign. There is also a great deal of concern by some who envision nightmare scenarios in which a human mind might be trapped in an animal head. Where have these guys been? Didn't they watch "Manimal?"
Okay, so maybe that's not going to happen, but I just hope they ask the mice parents for consent first. We wouldn't want any nasty rodent/human lawsuits pending - and you can now feel free to insert your own rodent/lawyer joke here as appropriate.

Monday, December 12, 2005


"Well they're building a gallows outside my cell
I’ve got 25 minutes to go and the whole town's waitin' just to hear me yell"
Those are lyrics from a Shel Silverstein song (yes, that same guy) called "Mexico." It's the first thing I think about when I hear about a pending execution. I think about the time that a person has left, knowing that it is a completely finite experience. I think about the movies that I could watch in the time that is left, the songs I could listen to.
Stanley Williams will be executed by lethal injection at 12:01 a.m. on Tuesday for murdering four people in two 1979 petty robberies around Los Angeles. I would not entertain a long discussion about whether or not he deserves to die. That is not the decision I can render. I feel great sympathy for his victims' families, and I understand that their need for closure would most certainly be filled by the death of Stanley Williams. It closes the circle. The death penalty debate is almost too simple compared to the awesome physics of time running out. What would you do with your last hours if you knew with complete certainty that they would be just that: your last hours.
"Got 10 more minutes to go well I’m waitin' on the pardon that'll set me free
With 9 more minutes to go but this is for real so forget about me"
Knowing that your life would eventually wind down to the length of a network sit-com, what kind of resignation must occur?
"With 4 more minutes to go I can see the mountains I can see the skies
With 3 more minutes to go and it's to dern pretty for a man that don't wanna die"
The realization that we all have a limited time here on Earth is small consolation, since we can take solace in the tiny things we do to alter the flow of our lives: exercise, eat right, go to bed early. If you know that you are going to die and exactly when, all of that doesn't matter, does it? That's why the last meal is fried chicken and a pint of Ben and Jerry's Chunky Monkey. Executions are at a minute past midnight, you can stay up all night - and then retire rather abruptly after that.
In Shel Silverstein's song, the convict counts down to one, and then finds himself swinging "here I gooooooo." It stands in stark contrast to the last words of convicted murderer Perry Smith in the film "In Cold Blood" as he makes his way to his gallows:
Perry: When you hit the end of the rope... your muscles lose control. I'm afraid I'll mess myself. Prison Guard: It's nothing to be ashamed of. They all do it.
Stanley Williams has less than five hours to live.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Prison Cell

If you live in any kind of urban or suburban area, you've seen it too. A group of young people, standing on a corner, talking away, but not to each other. Each one of them has a cell phone and none of them are talking to the person standing next to them. They are busy having conversations with people who are someplace else - because they can.
If you have driven anywhere in the country in the past six months, you've seen it too. Drivers who are too absorbed in the conversation they are having with someone on their cell phone to pay attention to the traffic, traffic signals, and laws that surround them. They're driving along with their phone pressed to their head with one hand while they steer, shift and gesture with the other, because they can.
If you have friends or relatives, you've received these calls too. People who have night or weekend minutes that are burning a hole in their cell phone bill, so they call you from their car or the line at the deli or the laundromat - because they can. They don't have much to say, they just want you to know that they can.
A recent study by University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee sociologist Noelle Chesley showed that cell phones and pagers were linked to increased psychological distress and reduced family satisfaction for both sexes. Here's the image that sticks in my mind: A young couple walking through a mall with their five year old in tow, both of them jawing away on their phones while the kid wanders aimlessly between them, herded along with a free hand every few moments, just to keep the family connection fresh.
"Women get kind of a double whammy," Chesley added. "For women, in addition to having a lot of this stuff from work spill over into home life, they get the opposite. There is also a lot of negative stuff from home spilling over into the workplace." We look at our cell phones and excuse ourselves politely, "I'm sorry, but I've really got to take this." Well, no. Not really. Every phone I've encountered so far has a unique feature: an on/off button. Turn them off. Leave them off. Be out of touch - for a while, at least.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

I Read The News Today, Oh Boy...

All right, I confess. If someone had put a gun to my head and asked me if Eugene McCarthy were still alive or not I would have had to guess. I would have guessed "No." Turns out today I would be correct.
Senator McCarthy (not that one, the nice one) was best known as a voice of conscience and peace during the turbulent years that our country found itself embroiled in a very unpopular war. Vietnam, remember? He's the guy who is generally considered the first politician in America to stir up the "youth vote." He also effectively ended Lyndon Johnson's run for re-election when he polled surprisingly well in the 1968 New Hampshire primary. Johnson won that contest, but showed himself vulnerable, causing Bobby Kennedy to change his decision not to run for president. Johnson dropped out, Kennedy came in. Kennedy's charisma picked up where McCarthy's momentum left off, and suddenly Bobby was the man to beat. McCarthy faded to the back of the pack. After Bobby was killed, it was Hubert Humphrey (who, like McCarthy, was from Minnesota) that ended up winning the Democratic nomination. Richard Nixon won the election that November.
How would things be different if McCarthy had been able to carry his success over to the national stage and win the nomination? Running an openly anti-war campaign against the decidedly hawkish Nixon would have given the voters a vivid contrast. Humphrey was stuck carrying the party banner and the stigma of Johnson's failure to create a focused plan for America's involvement in southeast Asia. McCarthy's bitterness showed through as the years passed. "Once Bobby came [into the race]," he said later, "we weren't able to run the kind of campaign we wanted to, which was to focus on the issue of the war."
There are already politicians lining up to stick their faces in the high speed fan that is the 2008 presidential election. Will there be a clear voice among the Democrats that offers a real choice from our current party line? As the "final throes" of the Iraqi insurgency enters its second year, I can only hope that there is someone with the courage and commitment to fill the void left by Eugene McCarthy.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Safe and Sound

Some years ago, when I was in therapy (before I had this blog - coincidence?) it was suggested to me by my therapist that I should try to spend more time in silence. As I sit here in front of my computer with The Killers' "All These Things That I've Done" blaring out of the speakers at me, I think she may have had a point. I'm not one for a quiet moment, in spite of the fact that I spend six hours a day trying to get a room full of ten year olds to get on board with the notion that silence is golden and we should all get rich quick.
I need my background music. My life screams out for a soundtrack - or at least I believe it does. When it's quiet, I get that feeling like in the old westerns where a bunch of ranch hands are huddled around the campfire, and one says "Sure is quiet." After a hefty pause, comes the response: "Yeah, a little too quiet." When it gets that quiet, I start tensing up. I start listening for what is coming next. I'm the one in our house who hears the house creak, settle and moan. I'm the one who regrets setting the washer on a timer because I know I'll hear it start up in the middle of the night.
Still, some of the most profound moments of calm have taken place in silence. To be more precise, when I have allowed myself to listen to the world. The sound of wind in the needles of a blue spruce tree. Thunder making its way across a mountain range. The gurgling breath of my newborn son. Silence is a treat, but I can't take it as a steady diet. I think the fourth graders know that. It's a little karma-leveler. I'll take the irony, but for now bring on the noise.

Thursday, December 08, 2005


I have no earthly idea what "mojo" really is, but whatever it is, I suspect that John Lennon must have had a lion's share of it. All day today I have been reminded of the spirit of the man, of his music. "All you need is love." "All we are saying is give peace a chance."
What was it that made this guy such a touchstone to a generation? Bruce Springsteen, another semi-major demi-god in my pantheon, just happened to be playing Philadelphia at the time of Lennon's murder - it was the first leg of the River tour - and a somber Springsteen acknowledged the event during the opening of his December 9 show. "If it wasn't for John Lennon, a lot of us would be some place much different tonight," the Boss told the faithful. "It's a hard world that asks you to live with a lot of things that are unlivable. And it's hard to come out here and play tonight, but there's nothing else to do."
He was definitely more complex than your average pop music star. He had a wealth of cynicism and self-loathing that I personally found quite appealing. The apocryphal tale of the Lennon-McCartney songwriting ethos had Paul writing the line "Got to admit it's getting better, getting better all the time," with John chiming in counterpoint, "Can't get much worse."
John Lennon is also the man who wrote the song that always makes me cry on my son's birthday ("Sean" just happens to rhyme with "Don") - the words that keep making more sense to me with each passing day: "Life is what happens while we're busy making other plans." Thank you John, for bringing a smile and a taste of wisdom to the world.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

1000 and counting...

There's a lot of talk these days about the death penalty and what it means. The thousandth execution in the United States since the death penalty was reinstated happened just last week. The 1000th person to be executed was Kenneth Boyd. The execution took place in North Carolina on December 2, 2005 at 2am. Here's some international perspective: When Amnesty International convened an International Conference on the Death Penalty in Stockholm, Sweden, in 1977, just 16 countries had abolished capital punishment for all crimes. Today the figure stands at 86. The United States, obviously, is not one of those countries.
Closer to home, Stanley "Tookie" Williams is scheduled to be executed December 13, 2005 by lethal injection. His attorneys have a clemency hearing scheduled with Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger on December 8, 2005. Williams was convicted for the murders of Albert Owens, Tsai-Shai Yang, Yen-I Yang, and Yee Chen Lin, which took place in 1979 during two separate robberies. During the robberies, Williams shot Owens in the back of the head, execution style, and shot the Yang family up close with a shotgun, at point-blank range. He was also the founder, along with Raymond Washington, of the Crips, one of the most widely-known and notorious street gangs.
I heard a discussion on the radio this morning that gave me pause. After much hew and cry from opponents and proponents of the death penalty, a gentleman called in and made this observation: There is a penalty for parking in a red zone. That penalty is a thirty dollar ticket. Not everyone agrees that it is a fair price to pay, but it is the penalty. Death is the penalty in 38 of 50 states. Alaska, Hawaii, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota, Rhode Island, Vermont, West Virginia, and Wisconsin and the District of Columbia do not have a death penalty. Committing a crime with premeditation or "special circumstances" is a requirement for death penalty sentencing.
Meanwhile, across the globe, Saddam Hussein is (intermittently) on trial for his life. He was quoted recently saying, "I do not fear execution." The irony of his statement speaks for itself, as he and his co-defendants continue their trial in the deaths of more than 140 Shiite Muslims following a 1982 assassination attempt against him. The irony continues as the witnesses described the harsh treatment in the notorious Abu Ghraib. Saddam and his henchmen were the first to use the prison for torture, sleep deprivation and beatings with water hoses.
Who deserves to die? I can't answer that question. I have periodically had my own beliefs assailed by those who support a death penalty by having excessive and exploitive scenarios tossed at me along with the question, "Wouldn't you want that person (the one who raped/killed/maimed your family) to die?" So here it is, my bottom line: I don't know. I suspect that my gut reaction would be revenge - old testament style. Then I think that I would like to live in a world where the government wouldn't operate on gut reactions. I want my government to provide justice, not revenge.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Pinheads We Have Heard On High

Here comes the big relief: The biggest pinhead of all may not be in the White House after all. Most likely that distinction belongs to the guy who has a show on Fox "News" (Motto: We Decide, You Tolerate). I'm talking about, of course, Bill "I Never Met A Man I Couldn't Belittle" O'Reilly. What's stuck in Bill's rather substantial craw this week? Christmas - or the lack of it in our great nation.
"Over Thanksgiving, I was down in the Bahamas, which is a Christian country. And lots of folks were asking me about the Christmas controversy here in the USA. They just couldn't understand it. Everybody says Merry Christmas in the Bahamas. Ten years ago, almost everybody said Merry Christmas in America, but now that's changed. It is happy holiday time. Christmas is a forbidden word to some." First of all, kudos for Bill for getting out to spread a little of his hard-earned cash in another Christian country. God knows I think Christianity when I think "Bahamas." Like, "Oh Christ, I wish I hadn't had so much to drink," or "Jesus, that's a lot to spend on a Mai Tai."
No matter - Bill wants us to know that the ACLU and the media have almost "succeeded in convincing some Americans that the words Merry Christmas are inappropriate while celebrating the national holiday of Christmas!" Shame on you, media and civil libertarians! "The defamation pipeline that has been cleverly devised will collapse. If Christmas in America can be marginalized, any tradition can be — including marriage and the way you raise your kids. This is what the culture war is all about."
Let's see - we're losing the war on terrorism, the war on drugs, and now the culture war is fast at hand. Gads - pardon me - Dear God in Heaven, what must we do to save our children? First of all, make sure they are Christians, that's a start. Next we better make darn sure that any greeting between right thinking Americans between the dates ofNovemberr 25 and January 2 had by Christ better include the words "Merry Christmas!" If we don't, then the terrorists win. And that will really mess up retail sales for the fiscal year, won't it?

Monday, December 05, 2005

Climbing the Empire State Building

Yes, I'm counting the days. I was anxious this spring to see how the Star Wars saga would rumble on into the station, but that was nothing compared to the anticipation for the opening of "King Kong." Here's a little background: When I was about eight years old, my mother came into my room and got me out of bed. She said she wanted to show me something on television. "I think you'll like this."
She was exactly right. Peter Jackson, director of this year's version, has said that seeing "King Kong" for the first time was "a black and white moment." There was all the time before he saw that film, and then all the time that he decided that he wanted to make movies himself. I have seen the 1933 version more times than I can count, but I still sit mesmerized each time. Is the dialogue corny? Is it possible for them to be any more explicit with their "Beauty and the Beast" allegory? The first time I saw "King Kong," a door opened in my world.
I have spent years studying various details and trivia about the creation of Kong. I have a stack of books and have let go of countless magazines with pictures and inside information. I got a little shiver when I read that the DVD release includes a restoration of the spider attack at the bottom of the cliff. I confess that the twenty minutes of exposition getting Carl Denham and crew to the island can seem a little lengthy, but all is forgiven and forgotten once they reach Skull Island.
As entrances go, there aren't many that compare with the first time we see Kong. I know he's only eighteen inches tall. I know that they had a full size mock-up of his head, one arm and one leg. Forty-three years later, Dino DeLaurentis thought that having a full-size mechanical Kong would be more impressive, but it only appears for about a minute in his version. The 1976 Kong was a really great gorilla suit created by great gorilla suit maker Rick Baker. Still, the 1933 version has all the pacing of a Steven Spielberg movie - it's a chase from the twenty minute mark straight on until the end. It is hard to imagine that pathos was generated by a wire armature covered with rabbit skins.
I stayed up past midnight with my mother so many years ago. I fell in love with the glorious beast that is King Kong. Now I sit and wait patiently for the gates on Skull Island to open again. In the words of that great showman, Carl Denham, "I'm going to show you the greatest thing your eyes have ever beheld. He was a king and a god in the world he knew, but now he comes to civilization merely a captive - a show to gratify your curiosity. Ladies and gentlemen, look at Kong, the Eighth Wonder of the World!"

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Agonizing over Torture

When I read a headline like "Bush Seeks Compromise On CIA Torture Ban," the first thing I do is check to see if I read it right. The words "compromise" and "torture" in one sentence sometimes does funny things to one's perception. The next thing I do is hope that maybe the pointy-headed one will finally be coming down on the side of the real world.
Nope. Sorry. No such luck. "We are working hard in good faith on both sides to come up with an approach that can be supported by the president and the Congress, to both find a way to be aggressive in the war on terror and still comply with U.S. law," national security adviser
Stephen Hadley said on "Fox News Sunday." By "aggressive" we mean still able to attach electrodes to genitals, you know, in good faith.
Amnesty International would beg to differ. Amnesty's position on torture: "Torture is never acceptable and evidence extracted under torture should never be admissible in any court, except in proceedings against the alleged torturer." They suggest that "coercive interrogation" (another polite way of saying that whole genital/electrode thing) "is cruel, inhuman; it degrades us all." Republican Sen. John McCain, whose proposal for a ban on "cruel, inhumane and degrading" treatment of detainees was passed by the Senate in October over White House objections, said he would not compromise on torture. This comes from a man who was himself tortured as a prisoner of war. Kind of takes away that moral leg George and Dick have to stand on, doesn't it?
"We're trying to find a way ... Where we can strike the balance between being aggressive to protect the country against the terrorists, and, at the same time, comply with the law," said Mr. Hadley. It's that "striking" thing we're trying to get past, right?
I leave you with the words of UN Secretary General (remember those guys?) Kofi Annan: "Human rights law makes ample provision for strong counter-terrorist action, even in the most exceptional circumstances. But compromising human rights cannot serve the struggle against terrorism. On the contrary, it facilitates achievement of the terrorists objective by ceding to him the moral high ground, and provoking tension, hatred and mistrust of government among precisely those parts of the population where he is most likely to find recruits. Upholding human rights is not merely compatible with a successful counter-terrorism strategy. It is an essential element in it."

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darlin'

I'm pretty sure I know the movie that spends most of the time in George Bush's DVD player: "High Noon." I sat watching it this morning, captivated not just by the timeless archetypes of it all, but by the way I am sure everything you need to imagine what goes on in George's pointy little head is in there too. Marshal Will Kane, personally compelled to face a returning deadly enemy, finds that his own town refuses to help him.
Will: Don't shove me Harv. I'm tired of being shoved.
Nobody shoves GW, either. He's the marshal 'round here, and he's not about to let Frank Miller come back to town and mess up the town he's worked so hard to make great again.
The cowards back in town don't want to back the man who once saved the town. They're all afraid of what might happen if Frank Miller (read 'al Qaida') gets mad at them. Even his own deputy (are you listening, John Murtha?) is ready to cut and run.
Martin: You risk your skin catching killers and the juries turn them loose so they can come back and shoot at you again. If you're honest you're poor your whole life and in the end you wind up dying all alone on some dirty street. For what? For nothing. For a tin star.
Will: I've got to, that's the whole thing.
The marshal goes to his mentor, a father figure (George the First) for advice. Even his own dad says he should think before facing down Frank Miller.
Martin: People gotta talk themselves into law and order before they do anything about it. Maybe because down deep they don't care. They just don't care.
Yup, I reckon so. The best part is trying to imagine Hilary Clinton as Amy (Grace Kelly - or should that be the other way around?)
Amy: I've heard guns. My father and my brother were killed by guns. They were on the right side but that didn't help them any when the shooting started. My brother was nineteen. I watched him die. That's when I became a Quaker. I don't care who's right or who's wrong. There's got to be some better way for people to live. Will knows how I feel about it.
Of course, in the end, Marshal Will Kane shoots Frank Miller dead, and he climbs into the wagon carrying him, his new wife and his legacy off into history. Still, when it was all over, I wasn't thinking about any of Will's tight lipped assurances. I remembered the words of the parson in the church:
Dr. Mahin, Minister: The commandments say 'Thou shalt not kill,' but we hire men to go out and do it for us. The right and the wrong seem pretty clear here. But if you're asking me to tell my people to go out and kill and maybe get themselves killed, I'm sorry. I don't know what to say. I'm sorry.

Friday, December 02, 2005


This one comes by special request from my wife, who spent the better part of the day being frustrated by the actions of a fictional character. Why should we care about what happens to those folks on TV? What have they done for us?
Given us vicarious lives to live through, for one. We enjoy watching other people experience the highs and lows that we might not ever know. True, sometimes we can identify mightily with a particular character, but more often than not we can sit placidly in front of the tube while someone else's life sails from triumph to disappointment and back again. When it comes to situation comedies, I have often reveled in the Wile E. Coyote nature of the people who live their lives filmed before a live audience. Sam Malone might seek happiness with Diane Chambers for twenty-one minutes, but that happiness will be squeezed before the credits roll. The Fonz might lose his cool for an episode - or even a "very special" two-parter - but he'll be back to his finger-snapping, "Aaay" ways by the last commercial break. Wile E. Coyote will keep chasing the roadrunner, even though he knows that he would be better off going vegan.
The last character I openly identified with on television was Doctor Mark Green (played by Anthony Edwards) on "E.R." Balding with glasses, this put-upon soul encountered his share of grief during his stint in Chicago's busiest emergency room. I watched him cope with the loss of both of his parents, the dissolution of his marriage, a brutal assault that left him scarred both inside and out, and the slow and painful distancing of his relationship with his daughter. Then he fell in love again, had a new baby girl, reconciled with his teenage daughter and died of a brain tumor. That's when I stopped watching "E.R." They had, in effect, killed me off with Dr. Green. I wasn't ready to make any more lasting commitments to someone on a one hour a week basis.
Today my wife was disappointed in Carrie when she left Aidan for Big. I listened patiently as she told me how frustrated she was with her decision. I thought about telling her that it was all just make believe, and she could make it all go away with the on/off button on the TV. Still, I know better. Happily for her, she can watch another show tonight in reruns - she won't have to wait a week, or even worse, for a new season to start. Maybe she can find some solace in tonight's episode. Tomorrow, as Scarlett O'Hara said, is another day.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

When the Grease Hit the Fan

The first time I bought a record because of peer pressure, I had to walk the two miles home from the record store to play it on my stereo for the first time. I was in junior high, walking past Rocky Mountain Records and Tapes (God Rest Their Corporate Souls). My friend nudged me in the door and there we stood in front of a large cardboard standup proclaiming the worldwide dominance of Fleetwood Mac's "Rumors." I was informed by my friend how cool that record was, and his sister played it all the time and it was cool how all the band members were dating each other or breaking up or something like that and his sister was really cool about the way she played music late at night - and a whole lot of other things that made it clear just how cool "Rumors" the album really was.
"So, do you have that record?"
At this point in my life, I owned a great many albums. I had acquired a great many soundtracks to movies that I was fond of, and I had begun to explore the works of Elton John from the beginning of his career. I was fortunate to have an older brother who was more than happy to share his musical tastes and opinions with me. My first Pink Floyd album, "Wish You Were Here" came from him, as did "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" (a double album of Elton!). I felt pretty comfortable in my preferences, and my fondness for art over pop was becoming more defined by the day.
Still, junior high is all about bowing to the whims of the crowd. I laid my $7.99 on the counter and then carried the record home. I was very conscious as we walked to switch hands and positions on the bag as I walked, not wanting it to be warped before I got to hear it all the way through. When we got back to my house, we went straight to my turntable and dropped the needle on side one. I confess that there was a lot to like on "Rumors." I could hear the effort to make a group of thoughtful pop songs. I could hear the remnants of a great blues band being hijacked by California/Arizona songwriters. I could hear my individuality slipping away.
Some years later, I received the soundtrack to "Grease" as a gift. It was the summer that everyone on the planet owned that album. I had an immediate reaction to its popularity and so I slipped to the back of the soundtrack collection and tried not to think about it. This was at the height of the disco/punk schism, and I found myself aligning with the folks with safety pins in their cheeks. Then one night during a high school party, someone made the mistake of putting that record on. I heard just three chords from the opening and I was around the corner, dragging the needle across the record as I then turned on the unsuspecting crowd in my room and told them in no uncertain terms was that ever to be played again in my presence. Several weeks later, someone decided to test my resolve. This time I didn't just take the vinyl off of the turntable, I folded it in half. Grease shrapnel went everywhere. There was a prolonged silence.
A quarter century later, I look at my CD collection and try to imagine a single one of them that I have remorse for buying. There are a number of guilty pleasures - maybe even an abundance of them - but they're all mine.